BEN J HENRY
The Stranger at my Funeral
If you walk under a bridge in the middle of the night and hear a scream overhead, don’t pause. Don’t look up, shield your eyes from the glare of streetlights and open your arms to whatever is hurtling towards you. Jump, dive, perform a teddy bear roll—just get out of the way.
In fairness, I was born with the athletic prowess of a pinecone; it was fitting that I should die attempting to catch something.
I spent my final Sunday watching a Netflix documentary on the sex lives of giant African snails. Had I known that when you die you can watch your own funeral, I might have done it sooner. Forget Anubis weighing your heart to judge the life you’ve led; one scan of the faces at your funeral and you’ll know the measure of your character. Everyone you laughed with, cried with, painfully loved and passionately loathed.
So these are the minds that will hold my memories?
The sense of incompleteness gnawing at me as I strolled along the pews was not due to a life cut short. Thirty-three would not have been my chosen age to die, but I could make my peace with it. It was the jigsaw puzzle on the table at home that troubled me. I had been working on that beast for more months than I dare to admit, and to boot me out of the physical realm with one piece left to place was nothing short of cruel.
My sister Elisa appeared to be using my funeral to soak up all the pity she never received when her first marriage fell apart. Managing not to wet her mascara, she hung from her husband’s arm, ushering people to their seats, so grief stricken that she might collapse at any moment. Elisa was blind to anything other than her own image, and was unaware that her husband was fiddling with something in his pocket.
William was never without his hipflask, and was likely unscrewing the cap, hoping to slip out of the door before the ceremony began. A little Dutch courage, he whispered at my cousin’s baptism. The most hypocritical phrase in the English language, I said, before taking a swig. Presently, he pulled his arm free of his wife and made his escape. The room was so warmed by whispers of condolences that condensation streaked the stained glass. Yet there he was, shaking like a leaf.
Dad looked bored. His waxen face reminded me of his sixty-fifth birthday. While Elisa performed an inexplicably sexual rendition of My Way, Dad looked like he was sixty-five years into a series he had long lost interest in. For me, it was William’s face that stole the show, cornered by Dad’s latest girlfriend. We had dubbed this blue-haired parasite the Cookie Monster, given her single-minded ambition to devour what remained of his fortune. While William nodded politely, the light leaving his eyes, she squeezed his bicep and agonised over whether she had spent her whole life pronouncing ‘fifth’ incorrectly.
The Cookie Monster was not in attendance this afternoon, and I did not recognise the woman on Dad’s left. Like his previous girlfriend, she had dyed her hair a garish hue, presumably to brighten an otherwise unremarkable face. The hair was a vivid red, her threadbare cardigan a canary yellow, and in loose-fitting jeans—yes, jeans—she evoked all the glamour of a Pot Noodle.
The stranger at my funeral strolled past my Dad, who made no motion to stop her. If he had not brought this woman along, then who was she? Elisa had moaned at length when William invited his Irish cousins to their wedding: Why should I pay for people I’ve never met? Well, I don’t care who’s paying, I don’t want strangers on my special day.
At least when you’re alive, you can ask them who they are.
She passed easily through the crowd, thin as it was, and made for my open casket. On the far side of the pews, I walked in step with her, our focus drawn to my body on the white satin. I approved of the suit, a slim fitting charcoal grey that I had worn to Elisa’s wedding the previous spring, but I felt a lurch where my stomach might have been when I remembered the condom wrapper I’d left in the jacket pocket. Odd as this may sound, I sincerely hope that my father found that wrapper. Had it been Elisa, she might have questioned why William was late to the reception.
Nobody was ushering this woman to a seat, in fact nobody seemed to care that this slovenly creature was loitering by my dead body, until William approached. He stepped up and she stepped back, giving him space. He glanced over his shoulder, removed the hand from his pocket and reached into my casket.
Was he so used to my sister looking right through him that he believed himself invisible? The move was deft: he might have been straightening my tie for all the assembled knew—but she had seen him place that puzzle piece into my pocket.
I felt the almost imperceptible weight of it against my leg, like the twitch of a phantom limb. One piece a week: that was the deal. Each Wednesday, on his way home from hockey, he would bring a single piece for me to set in place.
Oblivious now to the whereabouts of the stranger, I walked around my casket. Opposite William, I was about to open my mouth, to call out, just in case some sixth sense might pull his eyes in line with mine. But my spectral lips remained sealed. In a room filled with everyone I knew, I was perfectly alone. At that moment, nothing would make me feel more lonely than for him to look into my eyes and not see me. I shrunk into the shadows and watched him walk away with all the memories of me that he would never share.
We’ll tell her when we finish the puzzle.
My moral fibre might be thin as a coat of paint, but I had waited three Wednesdays for that final piece. Three excuses, and I could wait no longer. If he was unable to tell Elisa, then I would. I have never been a religious man, but if it’s not divine intervention to be struck down when you’re on the way to tell your sister that you’ve been sleeping with her husband, I don’t know what is.
Beside the font, the stranger watched William take his seat. Was she a friend of Elisa’s, here to ensure that our secret did not die with me? When she approached my casket and raised a hand I waited for her to reach into my pocket.
With a tremble on her lips and a self-deprecating smile, she looked right at me.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered in a voice that only we could hear. ‘For trying to catch me.’