On the train up to the double funeral of my dead grandparents, who died five days apart after 60-odd years of marriage, I turned 29. In the clichéd, melodramatic way of people in their late twenties, I had already been thinking about death and dying – living in what I thought was my own haggard and practically liquified corpse of a 28-year-old body – when everybody went and spoiled my self-obsessed wallow by actually dying.
Here’s something I learned about those heartwarming stories about the old couples married for a million years who then die within days of each other: It’s not a broken heart, it’s pneumonia. If The Notebook had some pneumonia in it, maybe I’d retract my earlier opinion that it was a shitty film and Jim Rockford deserved better.
The family dog died in January. The cat died in February. Somewhere in there a five-year relationship finally died, although it had been fading for a year, probably two. A month later my grandma and grandpa died in hospital beds, in separate wards, having passed out on their bedroom floor wearing scarves to keep them warm inside their already overheated house.
I lived in a world where no one died very often. Two friends in high school died (one drowned trying to save her dog, one had untreatable blood cancer; both had white, virginal coffins) but on the graph of family deaths, this was a sharp incline. It gave me the bends. It landed me in an overly warm room, monologuing to a professionally concerned woman in a Mark Rothko print scarf.
Like, is that OK? To have the art of a man who slashed his wrists in his own kitchen wrapped around your neck? You notice these things when you’re new to therapy. Like how the plant isn’t real because no life could thrive in a room with so little natural light, and how the many boxes of tissues dotted throughout the building are Sainsbury's Basics. Bought in bulk to stem a sea of cheap tears.
This is what else I learned about therapy: Explaining your family history in 20 minutes to a complete stranger makes your family sound batshit insane, no matter what your family is like.
“No no, it’s funny,” I said, explaining the time my dad and 7-year-old brother got arrested over an incident involving incorrect burger sauce (blue cheese vs cordon bleu, you see the issue) and an unpaid restaurant bill, which my brain had barfed up as pertinent information.
“My 7-year-old brother only thought the policeman was going to do an anal search.”
My new therapist remained mostly unreadable, like a balloon with a face drawn on, as I compressed familial events that I assured her probably had nothing to do with the current state of me, then changed my mind as I heard them come out of my mouth: the decades of imagined slights, year-long silent treatments, dead wives and the motherless babies, the divorces and dead dogs and dead cats that everyone has, and the dead grandparents and the double funeral on a 29th birthday that no one else has but me. Probably. I threw in a one-eyed uncle and his failed job interview at the local crematorium because it got heavy and I needed to lighten the mood.
It was a half hour burst of words that she didn’t even make notes on while I was there, because there was too much. She was just getting an idea of who I am and why I was there, in therapy, being assessed for my own personal genre of insanity. I tried to sum it up through the medium of Britney Spears. I told her: I always feel like I’m two days away from the day Britney shaved her head. Two days away from that time people of the internet put bets on when Britney would die.
She stopped me every 20 minutes to ask how I was feeling. “Like a bald Britney brandishing an umbrella” meant nothing to her. I tried again. She adjusted her Rothko suicide scarf and told me, “Vomit is not an emotion.”
She concluded I have a “loss thing”. That I am afraid of everyone going away and dying, which, I pointed out, can probably be put down to everyone either going away or dying.
The funeral was in spring, five weeks after grandpa went first.
We learned a bunch of things when the two oldest birds fell off our family tree, namely that things take longer when a coroner is involved, and that coroners get involved when someone has to shoulder the front door down in a quiet English village after neighbours reported that the milk wasn't being brought in from the front step. The blue tops piled up.
We learned that you can wait five weeks for a funeral, so that by the time it comes round you’re already mentally detached, like this is a thing you’ve already dealt with and are now digging up again.
We learned that you can save a fair amount of cash if you have an ageing memory that lets you forget you even had that bank account, let alone several.
We learned, from the hoarded tins beneath the stairs, that it is possible to subsist wholly on Campbell’s Soup, and have a life that revolves around the heating, dishing-out, and eating of Campbell’s Soup. It’s a weird thing for a married couple to die at the same time, but if there’s such a thing as a good death, this might be it – just boil down the practicalities of two lives into a single can of metaphorical soup. When my uncle drew the short straw and had to tell my barely compos mentis grandma that my grandpa had just died, in a room across the hall, the first thing she said was to ask who was going to make her soup now.
We never had to figure it out.
At my grandparents’ house there was mayhem in the place where my grandparents used to be. The scene viewed from the door was like the view of the pizza guy in Home Alone: chaos. An explosion of people, biscuits, and bank statements, with the posh teacups lumped in the sink with the regular ones – the brown and orange ones that had been our main guys since the '70s – because there were more people here than the regular set could cater for.
The house hadn’t changed in decades, except for the installation of a non-slip shower instead of the iconic retro blue bathtub, and the addition of a widescreen TV. All TV, regardless of aspect ratio, would be stretched sideways to get their money’s worth. My grandma would turn purple from laughing when Countdown was on, because when Carol turned to the side to do the numbers round her arse would elongate horizontally and become obscene, like a Robert Crumb butt-shelf in a funhouse mirror.
In the corner beyond the pot plant stood all three feet of the rolled-up newspaper poker my grandma had fashioned herself. Its sole purpose was poking my grandpa when he fell asleep in front of the TV, to check he hadn’t died first.
There were bags of old photographs from a war and a honeymoon scattered on the floor. Whoever was assigned to find pictures of the two of them for the back of the (singular) funeral booklet had panicked and exploded photo albums all over the carpet. No one thinks about these things until there’s a man in a funeral home waiting for a JPG.
The chaos of the house whirled around the old Polaroids and young faces in sepia: half-dressed people running down stairs, swapping pyjamas for black suits, and asking how to tie a tie. Someone said we should be thankful for the mere fact that grandma wasn’t here having to deal with the logistics regarding the amount of toilet paper required for this many butts in the same house at once.
My dad lost his wallet in the mess but pretended to be fine for long enough to hand me a bottle of single malt and a Happy Birthday Double Funeral card signed, apologetically, by everyone in the house. He was wearing a suit he got for £13 in a charity shop — it made him look like two kids in a coat. He proudly said it was a suit that said nothing, an unplannable quirk, a complete personality void in the shape of a man. A perfect £13 accident. His girlfriend argued that all clothes say something, even if that something is deliberately nothing. What are you saying with a suit that says nothing?
I barely recognised my extended family, all perched on armchairs and leaning in corners against the dated wallpaper that would later put off potential buyers. Everyone had got old, divorced, gone bald, and got new boyfriends who looked like their old boyfriends. Everyone was closer to death than the last time I saw them.
No family gathers as completely as they do when someone dies, but by then they’re no longer complete.
When the therapist asked how I’d been dealing with everything I said I’d been self-medicating with exercise and whisky, sometimes at the same time, mostly without injury. I said I’d been fucking my friends to get over a heartbreak until I ran out of friends. But really, I said, I’d been dealing with it by watching Michael Mann movies.
She broke her unreadable balloon face to offer one stone-cold opinion.
“Why are you watching trash films?”
Did she think I meant Michael Bay? Do I look like someone who watches Michael Bay movies?
This is how you derail a therapy session: In the middle of a carpeted room with calming pot plants stooped weakly in softly lit corners, you tell a 65-year-old qualified mental health practitioner, beneath her framed medical degrees and her various accomplishments, that she doesn’t understand the American film director Michael Mann, who is not Michael Bay.
There’s a thing that happens in Michael Mann movies where too much stuff gets on top of a person and that person just burns their life to the ground and moves on. It happened in Thief — James Caan drops his bulletproof vest on the street and walks off. It happened in Heat — de Niro leaves his girlfriend in the car and disappears in the crowd. They shed the material, the personal, the emotional, their car, their girl, and they walk away.
I explained that Michael Mann film colours are a whole palette on their own, that they’re blue and orange and saturated but washed out at the same time, and that it’s weird how the colours are so strong because Michael Mann films are about men who feel nothing. The men in Michael Mann movies are obsessive and dead inside; saturated and washed-out at the same time. They don’t even feel the emotion of vomit. As a mode of dealing with a white noise of emotion in your own personal world, a Michael Mann movie is like taking an emotional sleeping pill.
She stared at me like a balloon with a face drawn on it.
The hearses and limos arrived. Two hearses. Two coffins. Through the lace curtained window we could see them both, but no one made a move to get out. A young woman with black ribbons in her blonde hair waited in the street, flanked by cartoon henchmen with thick necks and broad coffin-bearing shoulders. We shuffled out. The uncles and nephews divided themselves by height between the coffins. Later, I’d pat coffin dust off their shoulders.
The milk lady and her husband were waiting at the church, where the coffins went side-by-side, feet towards the crucifix. This was the church they were too ill to go to in their final months, but nobody knew. I hadn’t come this far north in years. If there’s ever a time to feel like the biggest cunt on earth, it’s when you’re sitting in front of the two coffins of two people you loved and didn’t visit because you were too busy doing shit that doesn’t matter.
Despite the fact that Grandpa’s coffin was topped with purple flowers and Grandma’s with pink roses, we lost track of who was in which box no fewer than three times before we left them at the crematorium, along with a mix CD of songs I wouldn’t have chosen that looped twice before they kicked us out. The priest, somewhere in his seventies, had never done a double funeral before. On the board outside, the services were scheduled for 3:00pm and 3:01pm, because there was nothing in this small Lancashire crematorium’s computer to denote two dead people at the same time.
Someone else was at 3:15pm.
At the wake, beside the fish goujons and the congealing tartare sauce, my family sang Danny Boy and then, just for me, Happy Birthday.
In terms of memorable birthday parties, the double funeral of 2015 beat the Pizza Hut one in 1992, where my 2-year-old sister went to the hospital instead of Pizza Hut because her arm had fallen out of its socket. It even beat the McDonald's one a year later where I got to go to the walk-in freezer to get my own ice cream cake.
This double funeral party included everyone who would otherwise be too busy, or too much in another country, or too estranged, to come. To plan a birthday party like this would never work. You would never get this kind of crowd, not even if you promised them a visit to a walk-in freezer or an ice cream cake.
All it took was two people dying.