Roger's dad died.
Roger's dad was a lovely bloke, but smoked like a chimney, and alas, this was to be the end of him. A charitable type, he helped out at our Air Cadets squadron, teaching the lads the ins-and-outs of engineering, the meaning of hard work and the definition of a choice few words into the bargain.
One day, his heart decided that he'd had one fag too many and he keeled over and died, roll-up still sticking out of the corner of his mouth, the poor old bugger. The only consolation was that he didn't die at work. He was a bus driver.
Still we were invited to his funeral, which was a nice gesture, and seeing as he was an instructor at the space cadets (a name given to the ATC by regular Air Force crew, as "they do nothing except take up space"), it was an all-uniform job. Black armbands, the works.
We got time off college, got changed in the back seat of a Renault 4 (a major achievement in contortionism that hinted at a future as a circus act) and headed off to Bracknell Crematorium, officially the most depressing place on Earth. It's like regular Bracknell - which is depressing enough as it is - only with the addition of gravestones and a wrist-slashing Garden of Remembrance. There is a shooting range just behind the ovens. Once in, you're unlikely to leave.
We arrived there in good time, joined up with a few of the other lads and a sombre officer corps, black arm bands making us look like the Hitler Youth on a social call. As casually as you could among the fake plastic flowers of a municipal crematorium, we mixed in the waiting room with tearful friends and relatives, making small talk about "such a wonderful person" while we waited for Roger and his mum to arrive.
And boy, they were taking their time, probably taking the bus driver's prerogative of turning up when they felt like it. Following the hearse, we surmised. In retrospect, the funny looks we got from the assembled friends and relatives should have told us something.
With the polite cough of a man used to working with the recently deceased and the near-dead, some bloke in a black suit ushered everybody from the waiting room into the chapel, and the coffin was carried in and placed on the dais. Still no sign of Roger. Maybe he's at the back. Maybe he couldn't face it. The vicar started the service, and it was only when he referred to the deceased as "she" that the alarm bells started ringing. We thought we knew him pretty well, but we would have noticed if Roger's old man had been a woman.
The eulogy was a clincher. "Call her mum, gran, or just plain Shirley..."
"Oh bollocks!" cried the Commanding Officer just as the opening bars of "The Lord is my Shepherd" rang out on a Bontempi organ. Bollocks indeed, the entire congregation turned and stared as one, the impostors unmasked.
We legged it. I'd like to say we crept out like stealthy ninjas into the night, were it not for some thoughtless bastard scattering the pews with heavily embroidered prayer cushions exhorting us to "Praise Him!" and reminding anyone who noticed that "He is Risen!" Shed, tall and gangling, was the first to go down, like a big ginger tree in a gale; and with the rest of us in a blind panic, bundling over the top of him like a horde of mad Belgians on It's a Knockout, there was no way he was going to be risen for quite some time.
As the singing started, all dignity was lost.
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want - "Get your foot out of my face"
He makes me down to lie - "You bastard, that hurts!"
In pastures green; He leadeth me - "Get your hand off my arse"
The quiet waters by. - "Christ on a bike, who's farted?"
We hid in the Garden of Remembrance, cremating a few cigarettes and swearing too much in the presence of the recently scattered, until an hour later, Roger arrived for his old man's funeral.
"I did tell you they changed it to THREE o'clock, didn't I?"
"Oh yeah, yeah. We went to the dress rehearsal an' all."
Shirley, wherever you are - we're really, really sorry.
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