Friends and family offered Jack their condolences. He and Martha had been together for forty-one years and her passing wrenched Jack from the life of comfort and security that had developed over their time together. More than half of him had died along with his wife, when he had always assumed he would be the first to go. He was the older by two years and statistically, he knew, the life expectancy of the male was lower. Maybe, he thought, living with him had taken its toll on Martha, carrying her off earlier than either of them expected. 57 wasn’t old these days.
He stood at the back of the crematorium in a daze, which was how he had been for the last week, shaking hands with all the well-intentioned relatives and acquaintances. They meant well, but their platitudes rang hollow, not because they weren’t sincere but because that was how Jack felt: hollow. Their words and gestures rattled around the empty space inside him without touching the sides, and then faded away into nothingness. ‘Good of you to come,’ he responded, the same to everyone; automatic pilot. ‘Yes, thank you. Good of you to come,’ until Alice, his sister-in-law, reached the front of the line. Where had she been when Martha had been in the hospice? he found himself thinking. Maybe she wasn’t his sister-in-law, he thought, giving her the benefit of the doubt – she’d been married to Martha’s brother George – but all the same, she was family. She should’ve put in an appearance.
‘God bless you,’ said Alice.
‘Thank you. Good of …’ He stopped, looking down at the little woman in black whose hand he held. She looked awkwardly over her shoulder to those in the line behind her who looked down at their shoes or out of the window.
‘God bless you?’ said Jack. ‘For Pete’s sake, Alice, it was a humanist service. God wasn’t invited. Martha was quite specific about that.’ And suddenly there was something there inside him after all, an echo of the past, another abandonment.
‘I thought…’ began Alice, ‘I only meant…’
‘Yes, I know what you meant,’ said Jack, ‘and I thank you for it, but not in the way you think.’ He finally let go of her hand and she moved off quickly, coughing nervously.
‘My condolences,’ said the next embarrassed mourner, shuffling forward and offering his hand. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be,’ said Jack, his inner strength growing by the second. ‘Martha and I had a good life together. Well, I know I did. But you know something? This isn’t just the aftermath of something that happened once. I am not a footnote to… some previous life.
The man – a distant uncle perhaps – looked aghast.
‘And neither are you,’ said Jack. ‘Neither is anybody.’ His voice rose uncomfortably as he took to addressing all of those who milled around or waited in line. ‘So don’t come and join me for the funeral tea at Greystones, because I won’t be there. I’ll be out discovering what comes next. And that’s what you should be doing too. So get out there… and live!’
There were tuts and gasps all round and Alice spluttered, ‘Well, really!’ but Jack didn’t hear any it. He was already on his way out, jumping into his nephew’s SAAB and giving him directions for the Outrageous night club.