Ghosts by Susan Rossney

Gabriel died in the most unlikely of circumstances. But he wasn’t too unhappy about it.

It had just been so unexpected. Not at all what he would have imagined. Romantic at heart, he had envisaged a more dramatic death. Dragging a child from a burning building, that sort of thing. Croaking with caché. A pass with class.

But how he’d actually died? Well, no caché there. And not much class at all.

Sitting on a tombstone, swinging his legs, he brooded about the arbitrariness of it all. He felt curiously detached from the mourners. Well, perhaps that wasn’t so curious — he was dead after all — but he would have like to have felt more emotion watching his own funeral taking place.

He was surprised to see so many people from work. There was that guy from Accounts, Mark. And there was that girl who had joined the company last month who…hang on! Was she crying? Jesus, they’d barely spoken to each other! He knew the guy standing beside Mark quite well, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. He had always, annoyingly, said “Gabriel” at the end of every sentence: “Howyra, Gabriel”, “Desperate match last Saturday, wasn’t it Gabriel?”, “Congratulations on your engagement, Gabriel”. It had acted like a grating reminder that Gabriel didn’t know who he was. Oh well, he sighed — too late to ask now.

Gladys was there. Well, she’d have to be, being his supervisor and all. Sitting in the same room as him for four years. She would hardly have been able to stay away. A grin spread across Gabriel’s face as he watched her standing, tight-lipped, at the graveside, clutching her purse and glancing suspiciously at the other mourners as if expecting one of them to make a lunge for it. Jesus, get a life, woman! he thought, shaking his head. Nobody’s out to get you.

Although he couldn’t really blame her, in one way. The state of some of his friends! To look at them you’d think they’d been dressed by the Salvation Army. Jack looked as though he had found his suit a skip. Gabriel had seen better dressed mummies in the Thriller video. Jack’s perennially pale face looked green this morning, suggesting a couple of pints in the pub before facing the funeral. It must have been a shock to his system to be up at that hour — Jack was rarely seen out of doors before noon. He stood now, shivering in the damp April air, clutching the hand of a girlfriend Gabriel had not seen before. She looked kind... Good thing, too. She’d need the patience of a saint to be with Jack. The dirt of that shirt! And you’d think he’d have combed his hair. It stuck straight up from his bony face as if it had been shocked upright. He must have been fighting with his toaster again that morning, Gabriel thought. Jack often charged across his kitchen to prise a jammed piece of toast from the smoking toaster, shaking the appliance to dislodge the charcoaled bread. He usually stuck a knife into it and rummaged around in its innards for good measure. Why Jack never plugged out the toaster in advance was anybody’s guess. Gabriel’s other friend, Boris, maintained that Jack secretly craved the shock that followed his toaster wrestling, hinting darkly that he liked the way it thrust his hair up into a Mohican. It allowed him to flirt with alternative styles without commitment, Boris would say, nodding sagely over his pint and eyeing Jack with mistrust. Boris was highly sceptical of his friends adopting new images.

Boris didn’t have much of a leg to stand on this morning, though. At least Jack had worn a suit! Well, Gabriel suppressed a snigger — pointlessly, as it turned out, noone could hear him — Boris was low on clothes. That woolly jumper his ex-girlfriend had given him last Christmas was straining across his round chest. Even from where Gabriel was sitting yards way he could see it was unravelling at the seams. And — wait a minute — weren’t those his trousers. Gabriel craned his neck to see. Yes! They were! Gabriel had forgotten he’d lent them to Boris after his ex had cut holes in all his clothes. Jesus what a temper that woman had! Gabriel thought, recollecting Boris’s recent stormy relationship. A strop is strop, but cutting the crotch out of all your boyfriend’s pants and the arms off his shirts in a rage? Psycho... He had to admit that his jeans looked all right on Boris. Well, he could hang on to them now. Gabriel idly wondered about who would get the rest of them. Marlyn would probably see to all that.

And with that detachment, Gabriel let his eyes wander back over the heads of the other mourners to rest on that of his fiancé. Marlyn never did look good in black, he thought. She was a knockout in red, and a head-turner in that blue thing she had worn the last time they had been together, but black wasn’t her at all. She was standing by Gabriel’s aunt and uncle — his only living relatives — holding a pair of red roses in her arms. As the mourners settled themselves in for the prayers, Marlyn suddenly broke ranks and stepped closer to the grave. As she did so, there was a ripple of sympathy from the crowd.

“Poor girl.”

“So sudden.”

“Must be broken-hearted!”

She raised the hand holding the roses, paused for a moment, and then threw them down onto the coffin — Gabriel heard a soft thwack as they hit the wood — biting her gloved fist as she stepped back into the circle of his uncle arm.

Oh please, Gabriel groaned. Talk about laying it on with a trowel! Still he had to hand it to her. He’d been observing her behaviour since she’d arrived at the cemetery and so far he’d been grudgingly impressed. No widow had ever accepted condolences so graciously, no orphan had looked so brave yet so forlorn, no actress could hope to pull off such a convincing “hauntingly beautiful”, right down to the wet luscious eyelashes. Head bowed and tilted to one side, Marlyn had moved sedately through the headstones on the arm of Gabriel’s uncle. An air of quiet dignity, broken by the odd sniff or tear wiped hurriedly away with a lace hanky. Marlyn could cry with panache. Fat Demi-Moore style tears rolled down her cheeks, no puffiness or wobbly lips. Just perfect neat pathos. She had demonstrated it the last time they were together. But by then her spell on him was broken and it hadn’t worked.

He automatically scanned the crowd for her new boyfriend. He had to put in appearance, but probably agonised over how he would do it. Gabriel could imagine him mulling over the “seen-to-be-supportive” versus the “his-mates-will-kill-me conundrum”. He probably weighed up the likelihood of the affair not being common knowledge. Marlyn had, after all, only informed Gabriel of her impending departure just minutes before he had died. The boyfriend must have in the end decided to show up, be seen, and then stand so close to the door as to allow a speedy departure once the show got going — the funeral of his new chick’s dead fiancé not being much of a draw after curtain-up.

OK, thought Gabriel, he probably wasn’t as much of an asshole as that, but so far so true to form. Gabriel had seen him at the church and had immediately guessed who he was. Huge, lantern-jawed and awkward-looking, he blended in like a hippo at a tea party. He was standing now six feet behind all the other mourners in a light grey suit. There hadn’t been much contact between himself and the woman he apparently “drove wild with passion”, which Gabriel clearly couldn’t. There had only been a panicked, wide-eyed look from Marlyn and a furious, barely perceptible shake of her head when the giant had attempted to approach her. Gabriel wondered everyone else’s was making of this huge, hairy creature that had crashed his funeral. Noone seemed to be giving him a second glance. Probably took him for Gabriel’s squash partner.

Of course they could be mistaking him for a member of the press. God knows they’d been like flies at a cowpat at his house over the past couple of days. Marlyn must have been exhausted by the pressure to look so beautiful day-in, day-out. Reporters and cameramen went to town on the image of the lovely young woman whose dreams of marrying her childhood sweetheart had been cruelly crushed. Although they’d probably avoid the word “crushed”... bit insensitive, even for the tabloids. The irony of it must have tortured them, though. Gabriel could bet that subeditors’ fingers itched to type the words “Suicide Crushes Young Girl’s Hopes”, “Stars Descending” or “Beware of Falling Rocks”. But even seasoned readers would have tutted at humour that black.

Gabriel wouldn’t have minded. In fact he would have loved such a punchy bye line to his demise. They could have put it on his tombstone. He didn’t really mind about anything now. He was surprisingly comfortable sitting on a wet tombstone in a cemetery on a chilly day in April watching his own funeral taking place. He was content to examine former friends and distant family mumbling through prayers, wiping away tears and surreptitiously glancing around them to see what everyone else was doing. He felt a pang at Jack’s pinched face and Boris’s solemn, haggard one, but he could not feel any grief at his departure. He guessed it was there somewhere, an emotion he could sense but from which he was nonetheless happily disconnected. Pity he couldn’t have had that detachment when he was alive. It would have made the last Lions tour so much easier to watch.

The priest cleared his throat and there came the sound of shuffling feet and muted coughs. “Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to bid goodbye to our dear departed friend and loved one, Gabriel.” At a whimper from Marlyn Gabriel cast his eyes upwards and slid off the tombstone. Some sunlight was breaking through the clouds at last. It warmed his face. Turning away from the mourners he walked off through the cemetery, pausing at intervals to read the engravings on the headstones.

“Must missed”, “Fondly remembered”, “Faithful departed”. Noone ever says what they’ve died of, he noticed. Probably just as well, really. Wonder what they’d put on mine if they did, he mused, kicking some gravel as he sauntered towards the cemetery gates.

“Gabriel Jones, 1975-2005, died tragically one night emerging from a screaming match in a downtown restaurant when he unwitting ran into the downward flight path of a suicidal rock star. Mourned by a few oddball friends, a clutch of colleagues, a departing fiancé and two distant relatives whom he rarely saw. Survived by a lot of people whom he wished very well”.

Gabriel smiled happily to himself as he walked out of the cemetery and down the road. Funny how things work out, he thought, slowly fading into the morning sunlight.

ENDS © Susan Rossney 2006

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