We have known the Reverend Colin Hall-Thompson for many’s a year, and on this day the man was on the form of his life. I suppose you could call it merciless, but the well-spoken ex-soldier with the grey beard was calling the bluff of one of his former parish members, rampaging down a list of charges the length of your arm. And it was impressive rap sheet, that’s for sure.
“Your first attempt at building a boat failed; it sank in five feet of water in Lough Neagh. But then again, you did try to chat to the Pope that one time in Rome a few years ago. This from a man of the Church of Ireland, too!”
The Reverend went on like this for some time, encouraged by peals of laughter from those who were in the know and drawing looks of astonishment from those who were not. To be fair, the ‘dressing down’, as my Ma and her pal would put it, was more than deserved. Colin and my Father had met way back in the day, their paths crossing frequently over the years, with the embarrassing occasion when Dad played a butler in a church pantomime best forgotten about… But not all the escapades and misadventures were of a religious nature, far from it. Most of the stories were strange occurrences in faraway places, and not one was predictable or in any way logical.
“…riding an elephant through a Nepalese jungle… while tracking tigers.”
“…being chased by a machete in the hills of Madeira.”
“…taking your infant son up Mount Etna.”
“…and searching for bison, or bison bison athabascae to be precise, in the forests of central Canada.”
And so it went for quite a while, different details each time, but consistently bizarre throughout. By lunchtime, some of those who had been listening to the Reverend earlier in the day found themselves elsewhere, namely at the business end of a bottle of whiskey, drinking like demons while lying sprawled under the hot June sunshine. But these wake-going socialites were not the entire deal. A group of “more savory”, individuals was also enjoying the blue skies of this corner of rural Ulster. In another corner of the garden, a collection of fancifully festooned post-church party-goers was feasting on a table-load of ham, chicken, pies and spuds placed under a parasol, while by the greenhouse lingered a group of awkward, post-university young professionals trying to fit in. A few particularly inspired folk had got their hands on some guitars, while yet others were gathered around a table on the patio debating rugby. Strange words, feigned derision and claps of laughter were exchanged; it all seemed rather jolly. But then again, aqua vitae was involved.
By the end of the night I found myself up in the pub beside the five-way crossroads, one of the last reeling members of an otherwise long-extinguished party. One more, I cried, one more, before rising to my feet and lurching in the direction of the Black Bush. Grinning at my latest acquisition, I ran from the bar and hopped the fence, clutching my glass of fire water all the while. But when my feet touched the ground on the other side, all the mindless giddiness suddenly stopped. The graveyard was silent, cold, dark. It was different somehow, hauntingly empty. It was not unfriendly. It had no discernible emotion, it was just there.
I walked down the hill to where we all had stood many hours earlier, gathered together in strength and fragility, watching as the man was finally laid to rest. The wicker coffin had been a nice touch, the inspiration of my pseudo-hippie Mother, while dressing him in his flat cap, gilet and cords was a family effort. As was the decision to fill the basket with essential treasures for Dad to take across the divide: dog biscuits for when his faithful Jack Russell eventually follows; keys without locks that might find their partners in the great unknown; a collection of old stones; and a whisk, just in case.
But the dark causes the brain to take a different look at things, and I was surprised to feel that the grave, and indeed the cancer that took him, meant nothing. The site where he lay was just another patch of dry earth in a field of short grass, the disease but an insignificant footnote to a life well lived. Thinking nothing else of it, I tossed the whiskey onto the pile of settling dirt, pushed the glass deep into mud beneath, and set-off down the hill.
I laughed, I smiled, I sang.
There were other stories to tell.