No gentle smile or comforting words telling me everything was going to be alright. Mum’s final breath rose and fell, leaving me holding a few scribbled verses of Ave Maria and wondering if she’d heard me mumbling through the sobs.
A quiet tap on the bedroom door stirred me out of character as the grieving son. I wiped away the snot and opened the door to find Auntie Susie wearing her ‘I’ll be there for you, son’ face. I recognised it from a photograph mum showed me years ago.
I knew fine well she’d be delighted at being the first to know and dying to tell everyone she was by mum’s side right to the end. “That’s her gone, Susie.”
Before I could protest her arms and bosom were engulfing and squeezing the life out me. “Oh son, she’s in a better place now. You let it all out.”
Her sixty a day Kensitas Club habit mixed with the Chanel No.5 from The Barras in a valiant but failed attempt to overpower the smell of pish from her pants. And with her Harmony-hardened hair and false eyelashes scraping my face like a Brillo I pulled away before her insincerity scarred me for life. “It’s awful warm in here, Susie. I’ll open another window.”
She pressed her cherry lips together and stretched her mouth wide, trying to mimic Mother Teresa’s saintly smile, but looking more like The Joker. Then, caressing my right hand with both of hers, she started counting my fingers as if she had a claim to them. “Do you need any help with the arrangements?”
This put me in a tight spot. During her last few lucid periods mum had a constant message. “I’m telling you, son. Don’t let Susie touch anything when I’m gone. She’ll have the shirt off your back.”
I always nodded, but spent most of the time wondering if mum knew more of her fate than she let on. The official family line was she’d pull through; because I thought she might have…not so much thrown in the towel if she knew the truth…but washed, dried and folded it neatly before storing it away and closing her eyes for a final Hail Mary.
When the consultant broke the grim news she sat fixing her hair and squinting at posters on the wall. Leaving the hospital she lit a fag and looked up from her wheelchair. “What was he on about in there? I couldn’t understand all those fancy words.”
Most of his fancy words went over my head too, but others like metastatic tumours, lymphatic system and palliative treatment were ones I’d heard before and ones you don’t forget. I half-bottled it. “He says the cancer’s back…but you’re going to beat it…just like last time.”
Her face dropped. “Does that mean they’re going to cut off my other breast?”
“Not at all. They’re going to try radiotherapy.”
She turned around in her chair and blew a perfect smoke ring in the midday sun. “Well, I’m not going back in that bloody doughnut thing; scares the life out me. I’d rather take my chances with St. Peter.”
“Don’t worry about that. Anyway, the doctor says you’ll outlive the rest of us…and he knows a tough wee cookie when he sees one. He deals with this sort of thing every day.”
“Aye, well, we’ll see; as long as I outlive that Susie. I don’t want that black widow putting the grief-stricken face on and trying to trap another man at my funeral. Remember Davie’s?”
Davie was mum’s brother and Susie’s man. During a lads’ night out he fell after taking a blow to the head, cracked his skull on the kerb and never got back up. Knowing Susie’s Presbyterian background, mum phoned the local priest right away to arrange the Requiem Mass. Susie tried to complain about her nose being put out of joint but mum was having none of it. As far as she was concerned Davie would be mourned in the same chapel as the rest of his family. His body and mind might have been seduced by Susie’s sultry charms in the shape of her peroxide Purdey, 38DD’s and orange tan, but when it came to his soul mum was leaving nothing to chance.
Whether out of spite or, as she claimed, the best available price at short notice, Susie organised Davie’s wake for the local Masonic. A place he'd always refused to set foot in even for a charity event.
Davie might have married a Protestant but his biggest claim to notoriety saw him standing in the centre circle of Hampden Park after the 1980 Scottish Cup Final. The BBC cameras panned from the Celtic end to the Rangers end as both sets of supporters took the field to settle old scores and start new ones. One camera zoomed-in on a long-haired thirty-something wearing flares and an Irish tricolour over his back like a Superman cape. With a green and white scarf tied to one hand, and an Eldorado bottle in the other, he stood triumphant, goading the opposition like he owned them, as Rangers fans retreated to the safety of their own end to prepare a counter attack.
But Davie’s fifteen seconds of fame weren’t all glorious. Strathclyde’s finest boys in blue – the police, not the Rangers fans – regrouped with mounted reinforcements. With truncheons held aloft like swords they charged across Hampden’s hallowed turf as if re-enacting the Battle of Balaclava or rehearsing for the Battle of Janefield Street. Scattering bodies in all directions, they swung with joyful abandon at both sets of fans, although many would tell you they only started really swinging once they reached the Celtic half.
As the cavalry roared towards him Davie threw his empty bottle skywards more in fear than aggression. Relieved of his weaponry he turned to run but tripped over the scarf hanging from his wrist just in time to escape a wallop from a well-aimed truncheon. Once the horses had raced past the cameras panned away and his time in the limelight was over.
Over the years his version of events would have listeners in the pub believe he defeated the forces of darkness single-handedly, but according to more reliable sources he sprint-staggered to the nearest break in the fencing around the terracing and climbed to relative safety.
When mum told Davie’s version during the eulogy at his Requiem Mass loud grumbles came from Susie’s side of the chapel. But Father O’Reilly’s measured chuckling provided mum the spiritual support needed for the occasion, as did the quarter bottle of Gordon’s Gin.
Relations never improved at Davie’s wake. Mum’s introduction to the prawn sandwich brigade came at a time when prawn cocktails hadn’t yet crept onto the Christmas Dinner menus of Glasgow’s East End.
“Prawns…on a piece?” She screwed her nose up at the lunacy of it. “Who puts effin’ prawns on a piece? Who does she think…? I remember watching her eat chewing gum off the pavement. Bloody prawns. Smell them. Davie worked all the hours under the sun so her weans could have shoes on their feet for school. And here she is blowing his Life Insurance money on trying to pick herself up a new man, a protestant man no doubt, at her own man’s wake. Bloody Jezebel.”
Mum wet her pants the next day when she heard of mourners having the runs all night, and how the prawns, being way past their sell-by date, had been acquired on the cheap from the local Chinese Take-Away. From that day she called her Salmonella Susie Wong, but never to her face. Open conflict was best avoided in a world where everyone had at least two faces.
I realised Susie was still caressing my hand, waiting for an answer to how she could help. Not having the heart to tell her mum didn’t want her anywhere near, and with no experience of organising these things, I thought it best to keep her onside, even if just as a sort of consultant.
“I’m sure there’s a lot you can do, Susie. Many people will want to know that’s her finally away. You could give them a phone. I’ll deal with the funeral arrangements.”
Her face tried to hide the disappointment of being offered a minor role but her shoulders drooped like her tits and her mouth couldn’t stay shut. “Well, I hope you’re not getting that priest from St. Andrew’s. Have you not heard?”
“Come on now, Susie. There’s no need for that. You know that’s where mum got married and dad got buried.”
“I’m sorry, son. I don’t mean to upset you. I was just saying. Everybody knows he’s been at it for years.”
She was always just saying, never just keeping her opinions to herself, just for a change. “Look, this isn’t the time. Mum wouldn’t have wanted us falling out, and neither would Davie.”
“Aye, you’re right, son. Come here and give us another hug.”
With Chanel and Tena Lady losing the battle against Susie’s pressured bladder I ensured it was a quick pretzel hug with a fair bit of space between us.
“We’ll be alright, Susie. Stick the kettle on…and get a hold of your Stevie…I’m going to need my shoes back.”
“My dad’s black shoes.”
“My Stevie hasn’t got them anymore.”
“He better have them. I’m going to need them for the funeral.”
She huffed and started searching her pockets for a change of topic. “Have you seen my fags, son?”
“It’s my shoes I’m looking for.”
“Oh, son. I loaned them to Jimmy McNaughton for his brother’s funeral. I felt sorry for him. I’ve known his mum Angie for years. He didn’t have any decent shoes of his own. He was on the drugs. Smack, I think.
“I don’t give a monkey’s what he was on. You better get them back, pronto.”
She reached out to caress my arm while tilting her head like a bemused puppy. “Poor Jimmy hung himself last month.”
I stepped back. “So what? Unless he used my fucking laces I don't want to hear it."
“Did your mum not tell you?”
Trying to shift the blame was typical Susie.
“Don’t start that shite.”
Unimpressed with my growing rage she settled into character and continued to lay it on thick as her foundation. “Angie was distraught. Two sons gone in a matter of months. And that man of hers was never much use either.”
“I couldn't give a fuck. What’s that got to do with anything anyway?”
“Well, Angie came to see me...” She ran a finger through the dust on top of the sideboard, high riled me further. She knew mum kept her house spotless until she couldn't physically do so anymore. “and...well...I couldn’t say no.”
“Jimmy got buried wearing your shoes.”
“He fucking what?”
She found her fags in the same pocket she always kept them. “The Reverend Smythe gave a lovely service; done the wee soul and his mum proud so he did. As did a few of the boys from the Shettleston Loyal with their penny whistles at the cemetery. Right smart they were too.”
Dad’s eyes burned me from the photo of us taken at Bellahouston Park, as it hung on the wall next to the one of Pope John Paul II waving from the helicopter. “What the fuck were you thinking? We’d kept those shoes in the family for over twenty years; never needed re-soled once.”
“I know, son. I remember your mum getting a Provvy to buy your dad those shoes for his own mum’s funeral.”
“They were only for funerals. None of us even wore them to court.”
“I know, son. I know.” Clocking the lighter mum kept by her bedside she made a move towards it.
I thought of punching her but saw mum’s cloudy eyes still staring piously at the two-foot wooden crucifix nailed to the ceiling, so I just grabbed her by the collar. “Mum said you’d have the shirt off my back, but you’ve stole the shoes off my feet instead, and now you’re trying to steal a lighter off the dead.”
“It’s not what you think, son. Honest.”
“You’re a lying…”
“I'm not lying, son. Look, is there nothing I can do…?”
Her scent ultimately proved too powerful for my eyes that were already red and stinging from grieving. I pushed her away pointed at the dark patch on her pink jogging bottoms and grimaced.
“Aye, you can..."
I wanted to tell her to take her fusty fanny and piss off but when it came to it I couldn't do it.
Instead I looked back at the photo of me and dad waiting on the Holy Father arriving and remembered something he said that day.
We fuck you up, me and your mum
We may not mean to, but we do
We give you all the faults we have
And add some extra just for you
Many years after my dad's death I discovered the words were paraphrased from Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse. But it was only as I watched my own son grow I realised the truth in the poem.
I turned my attention back to Susie whose crumpled face and childlike eyes looked like they saw me as a man for the first time.
I reached out and took her in my arms.
"It's alright, Susie. You know I don't mean any of it. It's just the grief talking. You and I? We're family. We've always been family and, as far as I'm concerned, we'll always be family."
She hugged me tight and let herself go. I could feel it warm against my legs but I held on. What's a bit of pish between family when we've endured generations of sectarian shite handed down like a pair of shoes?
Besides, somebody would need to help me out with the funeral expenses.