Chapter 46 : Bob's Funeral
When I first met Bob Sherman, I happened to mention that I knew an actor called Jay Benedict.
‘Oh, you know Jay Benedict, do you?’ said Bob in his American drawl, familiar to me from the many films in which I’d seen him. ‘Well, his dad and my dad met in San Quentin...’
A host of Hollywood movies flashed through my mind.
‘You mean – San Quentin the prison? My God, what was he in for?’
‘Oh, Jesus! Jay Benedict’s dad was in for some misdeanour, and my dad was in for murder.’
The friendship was sealed.
We were sitting on Bob’s houseboat on Tagg’s Island in Hampton Court, near London, where I would later build my own boat, Cloud Nine, in which I lived for five years with my second wife, Lesley, and my two sons, Joe and Max. My mother-in-law had a mooring there at the time.
That opening conversation with Bob simply bowled me over. He was a fascinating man, full of amazingly vivid stories. Like the one about his mother...
His mother had been married four times and Bob was actually quite fond of the third husband, his first step-father. One day – when Bob was about ten – he was playing in the backyard after school. His step-father pulled up in the drive after work and, as he got out of the car, Bob ran towards him, shouting, ‘Hi, Dad!’ .
At that moment, another car screeched round the corner and careered into the drive behind his step-father’s car. A man got out. It was the second husband. Without a word, he walked towards Bob’s step-dad and shot him.
The step-dad fell down. Straight to the ground. Not like in the movies, with all that juddering and staggering. Bob’s step-dad just fell straight down to the ground.
The second husband was, of course, had up for murder and Bob was required to give evidence at the trial. It was the first time in his life, he said, that he had a real sense of The Power of the Theatre. Everyone fell silent when he spoke. And this was quite something for a ten-year old boy, who for years and years had been shouting over the top of all his sisters, just to be heard. Suddenly for the very first time, a court room full of people were glued to him, hanging on his every word.
Then there was the story of the Coors beer truck...
When Bob was fourteen, he had a crush on this girl who worked in a truck-stop café. It was an adolescent crush as she was nearly twice his age. Every couple of weeks, a guy who drove a Coors beer truck would come in for supper and make suggestive comments to the girl over his coffee. This wound up Bob, because he was so jealous. The guy never used to bring in his keys and chuck ’em on the table like most truckers did; he would leave them in his truck. On one of these occasions, Bob went out into the truck part, whipped the beer truck, and drove it up into the mountains, where he camouflaged it with leaves and branches.
The following Saturday, he said to his mates, ‘Hey, guys, you want a beer?’ And off they set to the hide-out in the mountains. They opened up the truck and, over the course of the ensuing months, they drank it dry. And after each drinking bout, they would fling the empty cans into the bottom of a nearby ravine.
A woman out walking with her dog noticed that the river was becoming more and more clogged up with Coors beer cans. So she complained to the local council, whose suspicion was immediately aroused and they went up into the mountains and they found the truck.
The next time Bob went out there, he happened to go by himself. As he walked towards the truck, the shout was heard, ‘Freeze! Drop it!’ And thus he was arrested and he ended up in borstal. The father in San Quentin, the son in borstal. In fact it was there that he got the idea that he could act, and the acting bug bit him.
When he came over to England, he made himself a lot of money in the West End, in Promises Promise and Are You Now or Ever Have Been in which he was also a Producer. So he decided to buy himself a yacht, which he sailed around the Mediterranean for two years. During those two years, he made a living running cigarettes from Italy to Greece, doing all sorts of nefarious deals, or just chartering the yacht with people.
‘Will you take me to Goa?’ a woman asked one day.
‘Sure,’ he said, thinking Goa was down from Rhodes. It was only when he looked on a map and saw where it was, that he realised he would have to go through the Suez Canal and into the Indian Ocean.
‘I can’t possibly do this,’ he told the woman, ‘I don’t have the equipment.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’ll sort it for you.’ And she equipped his entire boat with all the latest navigation gear so that they could make the voyage.
Two days into the journey, Bob went down into the cabin, only to find the woman lying prostrate on the floor. She’d been shooting up heroin and had overdosed. Out there, in the middle of the Mediterranean Ocean, Bob had to pump the woman’s body to keep her alive.
‘This is ridiculous,’ he thought and, without more ado, he dropped her off at some port in Turkey and sailed away.
After two years, he sold his boat, came back to England, and carried on acting.
From the moment I met Bob, I liked him. If anything happened, Bob would make sure you were okay. With his insouciant smile, he’d said, ‘Hey, man, shit happens. Sit down and have a drink. I got this great scotch in Dubai. I bought these great cigars in Havana.’ And although he was a hedonist, he kept himself fit by swimming stark naked in the River Thames – even in the winter. Bob was witty. Bob was suave. Bob was everything that every schoolboy ever wanted to be. He drove a fast car and he was always going places, always making money, making television, making voiceovers. He was a wonderful playwright and could have been a great actor, but he didn’t really push himself. He’d made his name playing CIA men, and he didn’t really seem to want much more. In fact, I don’t really know what Bob did want. Maybe just to be rich and famous. Though I’m not even sure that he wanted that.
He’d known that he was ill for a long time before he told me. Not that I was his closest buddy. We didn’t really see each other that often. Either I’d be away or he’d be away. And then for about eighteen months, I was building our boat nearby on Hampton Court, so I had many opportunities to catch up with him. He told me he was ill and that he was having various treatments for the cancer which had attached itself to his pancreas. Over the following weeks our conversations went in various directions and one day, talking about mortality, I said, ‘God Almighty, funerals! I know I’ll probably end up paying for my own fucking funeral!’ And we began to talk about funerals. His girlfriend, Robin, was there too.
‘Christ, they charge?’ asked Bob.
‘Yeah, of course they charge. And coffins are fucking expensive, too!’ I replied.
Bob looked uncharacteristically perplexed.
‘Well,’ said Robin, ‘you can always get a cardboard coffin.’
‘You can get cardboard coffins?’ asked Bob.
‘Sure, you can,’ said Robin.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you want to keep things cheap, you can always get a cardboard coffin and, if you like, I can take you to the crematorium in my truck.’ (For a long time, I’d had a dark blue, beat-up, Toyota Hilux truck.)
Bob looked at me, earnestly.
‘Would you do that?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely, I would. It would be my pleasure.’
Some months later, Bob was dead. In the last days, he deteriorated rapidly and he was stoic to the last. Three days before he died, he married Robin in a very private wedding. Now he was gone. And I had promised him my truck to carry him to his final resting place.
‘Will you also take care of running the funeral service?’ asked his widow. ‘I’ll get an Order of Service printed, but Bob was your friend and he’d have loved you to run the funeral.’
I was of course honoured, absolutely honoured.
The service was to be held at Mortlake Crematorium, after which everyone was to be invited back to Robin’s house in Chiswick. I had been instructed by Robin’s son that, on the day of the funeral, I was to go to Robin’s house to pick up the cardboard coffin, along with a signed release form to access the body. Then I was to drive to the mortuary in Charing Cross Hospital where I would collect Bob’s body and then take him to Mortlake. In every respect, I felt truly honoured to be able to help the family in so fundamental a task.
And now it’s the morning of the funeral. I get dressed in my black buckle shoes, a pair of black trousers, a black shirt with a mandarin collar and a black jacket. I’m Mr Black. I want to look ‘the business’ for Bob, because Bob always looked ‘the business’ for everyone else in his cashmere sweaters. (He wore nothing but cashmere.) I’d polished my truck, so that it’s really sparkling. I cleaned everything, inside and out. Someone had even stopped me and asked why I was cleaning my truck so meticulously.
‘Because it’s my friend’s funeral tomorrow and I want him to go in a brilliant truck.’
It’s 8am. The funeral is at 11am. So first of all, I’ve got to drive from Hampton Court to Chiswick to collect the cardboard coffin. (Eight miles. Should take me about forty minutes at this time in the morning). From Robin’s house in Chiswick, I will then have to go to Charing Cross Hospital. (Should be there by about 9.15am. Even if it’s 9.30, that will still give me over an hour to get from the hospital to the crematorium and have time to spare.)
Off I set. I pick up the cardboard coffin and signed release form from Robin without much problem, although the cardboard coffin is just a long box. 78 by 24 by 18 inches, taped at the seams. I’d expected something a little more substantial.
Now to Charing Cross Hospital. That’ll be the King’s Road. Traffic heavy. Might have known, given the rush hour. I’m feeling good though. I have my honoured task in hand, and I’ve got the Zimbabwean band, The Bhundu Boys, blasting on the stereo: ‘Chimanimani Inyanga’. The morning is bright and I’m in good cheer. As long as I get to the hospital mortuary by 9.20am, I’ll be on schedule.
Indeed, there’s the hospital in sight. The trouble is that I can’t find the road that I’ve been told to enter by. I turn down street after street, the hospital buildings changing before me. By now, the traffic is really building up. It’s London, for God’s sake. It’s that time in the morning. I stop a postman.
‘Where’s Wyman Road?’ I shout through the truck window.
‘Wyman?’ he repeats, shaking his head. ‘There’s no such road here.’
‘There’s got to be,’ I insist. ‘I’m looking for the mortuary. I’ve got to pick up a body.’
‘Wyman?’ he repeats, as if somehow saying the name will make the street appear. ‘Oh!’ he smiles, a moment of epiphany crossing his face. ‘Are you looking for Charing Cross Hospital?’
‘Yes!’ I snap, impatiently.
‘Wrong hospital, mate. This isn’t Charing Cross. This is Chelsea and Westminster.’
Yes, of course! How stupid of me! The hospital on the Kings Road isn’t the Charing Cross Hospital at all. It’s the Chelsea and Westminster. Charing Cross is on Fulham Palace Road, not far from Hammersmith. No wonder I can’t find the road. It’s not here! I’ve got completely the wrong hospital.
I U-turn the truck. Car horns beep. My phone rings. It’s my wife, Lesley.
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in Kings Road.’
‘What are you doing in Kings Road?’
‘I got the hospital wrong. I thought this was where Charing Cross Hospital was. I’ve now been told it’s in Hammersmith.’
‘Well, I could have told you that.’
‘Yeah, well, thanks!’
‘Well, you’ve better hurry. You’ve got to be there at quarter to eleven.’
‘Yeah, well if you get off the phone, maybe I will!’
‘Don’t you shout at me!’
‘Look, can you just phone Charing Cross mortuary, and tell them I’m on my way?’
‘What’s the number?’
‘I don’t know the fucking number! Just phone Directory Enquiries!’
The Bhundu Boys sing on and I’m steaming now. I head down to the start of the Hogarth Road, hang a left, whizz up over the flyover, down the other side into Fulham Palace Road, do a left, down the Fulham Palace Road, take a left, take another left. Screech into Wyman Road. Yes, of course, now I know exactly where I should have been all along. It’s twenty to ten and I was meant to be here at 9.20am.
I park the truck near a vegetable delivery van. Seems odd that food goes in and bodies come out of the very same door...
There’s a bell. ‘Ring for attention.’
I ring the bell. Moments pass. Wait…wait…wait…
The door opens. There’s a guy standing before me in a rather stained green National Health polo shirt and a pair of trousers.
‘Hello,’ I say, ‘I’m Miles, I’ve come to pick up a friend of mine, Bob Sherman – ’
‘Oh yeah, you’re late.’
‘I know, I’m sorry, my wife rang. I got the hospitals all mixed up. I ended up at Chelsea and Westminster.’
‘Oh. Right… Okay. Where are the others?’
‘Is it just you?’
‘Oh. Right. There should be two other people.’
‘Three of you. One of me. That’s four. Four people to lift the body. That’s Health and Safety, see. You normally come with two other people.’
‘Who normally comes?’
‘They do. The men from the funeral parlour. There are three of them. Three blokes that come here, and me. And we pick up the body. And that’s Health and Safety, see. Hello, I’m John.’
‘Hi, John. Look, John, Bob’s been ill for six months. He weighed very little when he died. I could lift him myself if I had to. It doesn’t need four of us.’
John looks at me askance.
‘Please...?’ I mouth.
‘So…have you got the casket?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’ve got a cardboard coffin in the truck.’
‘Oh. Right. Cardboard coffin. Yeah. I know them.’
‘But it just looks like a box.’
‘Yeah, but it’s a coffin.’
‘I know it’s a coffin, but it just looks like a box.’
‘Well. You’d better go and get it. D’you want a hand?’
‘No, I’m fine, it’s just a big box. I can carry it myself.’ And out I go to get this thing off the truck. When I picked it up from Chiswick, it looked exactly like the sort of box that might hold 72 big stryofoam cups. It’s so light, I can easily carry it on my shoulder. As if it’s full of plastic cups or mini footballs or lots of pairs of socks. That’s how little it weighs. A case of socks. Not even a case of shoes. Just socks. That’s the kind of weight. Light, you see.
I bring it in and put it on the ground.
‘There you are, John, there it is. There.’
John looks at it. Then he walks round and round it. Then he says, ‘That’s not a cardboard coffin. That’s a box.’
‘I told you it was a box!’
‘That is not a cardboard coffin,’ John repeats.
I cough. ‘I have been wisely informed that this is a cardboard coffin.’
‘Where the fuck did you get it from?’
‘I got it from the widow, who got it from cardboardcoffins.com.’
‘How much did it cost?’
‘I think it was eighty quid.’
‘Eight quid? Eighty quid! You’re having me on. I’ve heard of mean but this is fucking ridiculous. Where’s the top? How do you get into this?’
‘What?’ I say.
‘How do you get the body in? Where’s the top?’
‘There isn’t a top. It’s just taped up.’
‘So how do you get the body in?’
‘I don’t know.’ (I’m as bemused as John.) ‘You probably push it in through the end.’
John snorts. John chuckles.
‘I can’t push a body in.’ John splutters.
‘Honestly, John,’ I assure him, ‘Bob wouldn’t mind. You push him in from one end and I’ll put my hand through and grab him by the collar. Then I’ll pull him through to the other end.’
By now, John is on the floor. He is laughing so much, he can’t stand up.
‘Look, mate,’ he says, ‘I’ve seen cardboard coffins. They’ve got handles. They’ve got a lid. They look like coffins – but they’re cardboard. They do not look like fucking boxes! They look like coffins! That – ’ he says, ‘is a fucking cardboard box!’
‘Listen, John.’ (Now I’m laughing too. This is absurd). ‘What we do is we open it from the end. You probably slice the tape, open it from the end –’
‘Eighty-fucking-quid!’ (John erupts into paroxysms of laughter again.) ‘You was ripped off, mate! Eighty quid for a cardboard box! You could get a box from Covent Garden market. It’d cost you five quid!’ (John is back on the floor.)
Time is ticking. Despite the hilarity from both of us, I’m really getting quite anxious.
‘Look,’ says John, ‘we can’t put him in there. No one will allow you to put a body in a cardboard box.’
‘He’ll fall straight through! There’s no proper bottom to it. It’s just a cardboard box.’
‘John, look.’ (I try to suppress my own laughs which are now verging on hysteria.) ‘I’m sure it’s going to be okay. Bob was very, very light when he died.’
‘Well, you’re going to have to support it underneath the whole time you carry it to the bier because,’ says John, ‘if you let it go for one minute, he’s going to slip, slap-bang onto the floor. What time’s the funeral?’
‘Fuck! Okay,’ says John, ‘let’s open it up. You open your end first.’
I open my end of the box with a Stanley knife and, as I peer in, I see the contents. Inside is a complete cardboard coffin.
I look at John over the top of the box and smile.
‘John…I love you!’
I love John, I love everybody, I love the whole goddamn world! I am so absolutely relieved, now everything is okay.
John goes up to the rows of fridge drawers. On the side of the wall is a blackboard with a list of numbers up to 24 and next to each number is a name written in chalk.
‘What’s your mate’s name?’
‘Bob. Bob Sherman.’
‘Sherman. Right.’ Number 7. And John takes a rag and rubs Bob’s name out. Just like that. Without a moment’s hesitation.
(Gosh. That’s the end of Bob Sherman – just rubbed out with a rag.)
John opens the door and drags out the drawer. Suddenly – after all the hilarity – John becomes quite formal.
‘Would you…would you like to check the tag, see that’s it’s your friend?’
‘No, it’s okay. I’ll look at his face.’
I unzip the bag. There lies Bob, a broad, insouciant smile wreathed across his face. His eyes are closed, but he’s smiling, as if he’s saying, ‘This has been a crazy morning, Miles. That conversation with the box had me really going.’
‘So,’ says John, ‘do you want his head or tail?’
‘Shall we toss for it?’
‘No. You take his legs, I’ll take his head.’
Bob is in a plastic bag, like a Burton’s suit bag. ‘I’m going to do you a favour,’ says John, ‘I’m going to let you keep the bag.’
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘Well, Miles, normally you come with an empty bag and we give you a full one. That’s how it works, but I don’t suppose you have an empty bag, do you?’
‘No,’ I reply, pulling out my trouser pockets.
‘Then I tell you what I’ll do,’ says John, conspiratorially lowering his voice and glancing about the empty room. ‘I’ll give you a bag on the National Health.’ (He taps his nose: it’s our secret.) ‘My line manager would kill me, but you have a bag on the National Health.’
‘Well, we could take him out of the bag.’
‘No!’ John semi-shouts. ‘Have him in the bag! Believe me, it’s safer!’
So Bob’s in the bag. And, out of the cardboard box, we pull a fully shaped cardboard coffin with a special little rest for the head to lie on. John takes the head. I take the legs.
‘One. Two. Three.’ Bob’s in the coffin.
But then I see Bob’s legs. Bob was a tall man, and the back of his heels just rest on the end of the cardboard coffin. He’s a lot longer than the box.
I look at the heels.
I look over at John, who is resting Bob’s head on the cardboard cut-out head rest.
He looks up. ‘What?’
He sees the heels on top of the edge of the box. ‘Oh fuck!’
‘It’s alright,’ I say, and I lift Bob’s legs and bang him gently behind his knees, so that his legs are slightly bent. He just settles into the coffin.
And there’s Bob.
‘Goodnight, sweet prince.’ I don’t know if I say it out loud, but that’s what I’m thinking.
We put the top on. We carry the coffin out on the gurney (which is a little trolley worthy of serving your hors d’oeuvres on), and we slide Bob onto the truck.
‘Hey, John? Can I take the top off? I want to drive Bob through the streets of London so that he can see the sky for just one last time.’
‘No, please! Miles! You have to have the body covered. Please!’
So I bid farewell to John, thank him for all his help, and off I drive. By now time is really ticking away. A couple of times I try to race the traffic lights and each time I hear Bob’s coffin in the back of the truck slide forward and hit the cab, then slide back and hit the tailgate.
‘Sorry, Bob!’ I call out behind me.
Willie Nelson is now playing, belting out of my stereo, ‘Of All the Girls I’ve Loved Before’, and I’ve got ZVAKWANA emblazoned on the side of my truck. It’s the Shona word for ‘Enough!’ used in protest against what’s happening in Zimbabwe, it was the MDC war cry. I used to drive my truck to Zimbabwe House on the Strand on a Saturday morning and park it outside during the vigil, and all these black guys would burst out laughing at this white guy with ZVAKWANA all over his truck. Yes, indeed, this was a hearse of style.
The phone rings. It’s Lesley again.
‘Where the hell are you?’
‘I’m in the Fulham Palace Road.’
‘Well, you’d better hurry. It’s nearly half past ten.’
‘No, it’s not – it’s twenty past ten, and I am hurrying. I’m hurrying as fast as I fucking well can.’
‘Well, there’s no need to get abusive.’
‘Shit! Fuck, fuck! Shit!’
‘I said – ’
‘For Christ’s sake, Lesley, I just nearly rear-ended a Honda Civic!’
‘Have you got Bob?
‘Of course I’ve got Bob. What do you think I’ve been doing?’
The phone goes dead.
It’s about six miles from Fulham Palace Road to Mortlake. On the way, I stop at Chiswick to pick up one of Robin’s son in the truck. We arrive at the crematorium with about ten minutes to spare. I get out of the truck, which receives a few strange looks due to the unusualness of this hearse. Various people gather round, saying, ‘Hi, Miles, hi.’ Apparently Lesley is one of them, but I don’t notice: I’m so busy trying to organise something I’ve never done before. I turn to a few by-standers, actors mainly – including Jay Benedict of the San Quentin father fame.
‘Shall we get the body in?
We need to get Bob onto the bier at the back of the chapel.
‘Do you know how to do this?’ says Jay, turning towards me.
‘It’s very easy,’ I reply. ‘Those things are loops. Six loops, three on each side. We each grab a loop, pick up the coffin, get it over to the bier. That’s the objective, okay? Let’s do it.’
I pick up my loop, set off, and I’m immediately jerked back. I look round and the other five – all of them actors – are slow marching. They’ve suddenly gone into a slow march.
‘Come on, guys!’ I chivvy, cutting any pretence at atmosphere. ‘We’ve just arrived in a Toyota truck, we don’t need to go into slow march. Christ! Let’s get this thing in!’
In the midst of all this, I notice that there’s a black Baptist choir rehearsing in the carpark. I knew Bob was friendly with black people, but I had no idea he liked gospel choirs. As we walk into the little chapel, there’s a black man in a suit who looks like a Baptist preacher.
‘Excuse me?’ I ask. ‘Are you here for Bob’s funeral?’
‘It’s the next funeral.’
‘Bob? I thought it was Christopher?’
‘Christopher? No, Bob. Or maybe we’re in the wrong chapel.’
‘Or maybe we’re in the wrong chapel.’
‘Wait here. I’ll go and have a look at the notice board.’
I go over and look at the board with its little white plastic letters fixed into a black-holed background. No, it’s definitely Sherman at 11 o’clock.
‘Ah,’ says the West Indian ‘preacher’ man, ‘we are the next one. My name is Gabriel.’
‘What do you do?’
‘We have a choir. In fact, we could be the choir for you at a cut rate,’ says Gabriel, thrusting his card into my hand.
I look about for Robin. She’s sitting in a pew talking to a relative. Apparently Lesley taps my arm and shows me where she’s sitting, but I don’t notice: I’m so busy trying to stage-manage something so unpredictable. I head over to Robin.
‘Robin? Would you like a black Baptist choir?’
Robin looks at me penetratingly. Very slowly and deliberately, she says, ‘No Thank You, Miles!’
‘But I’ve got a guy who’ll do it for half price. Bob would have loved a black Baptist choir. He would have been out of his mind. He could be accelerated into Heaven with a black Baptist choir.’
I hear the words repeated in slow deliberation, ‘No Thank You, Miles!’
The starting time is drawing nearer and nearer, and people are wandering into the chapel which is becoming very full. Robin brings a kind of manager over to me and I’m introduced as the officiator of the funeral.
Robin is still talking very slowly and deliberately. I suspect she’s on whatever drug doctors put the bereaved on to help them get through the whole event. . She’s looking very gentle and calm.
‘Might I just show you a few things?’ asks the manager. ‘Your service will start at 11 o’clock, it’s now five to eleven. Do you have an Order of Service?’
‘Er…yes, I think we do.’ I head back to Robin in her haze of calmness. ‘Er, Robin, do we have an Order of Service?’
‘Yes, Miles…It’s Coming…’
I return to the manager. ‘Well…there is one, but it’s not arrived…I’m just hoping that it comes –’
There’s a light tap on my shoulder. I turn round to see a small woman.
‘Hello, I’m Margaret. I’m the organist.’ She has a rather sad face, probably the result of playing at too many funerals. ‘Mark the Great Dove of the West? Where would you like it played?’
‘Do we?’ I reply. ‘Do we want it played?’
‘Ah, well…I don’t know…Perhaps I can get back to you on that one…’
The manager addresses me, patiently but firmly. ‘Mr Anderson, you have to start this ceremony at 11 o’clock, because at half past eleven we’ve got an hour-long ceremony with the black Baptist choir. Young boy. Motorbike accident. Tragic. Local boy. Most of Mortlake will be here. It’s big. It’s...very big. We’re talking thousands, and they aren’t going to want to hang around.’
Clearly, we’re just small fry, a mere church-full. The next one was big. Very big. As in ‘mafia big’.
‘So,’ says the manager quietly, ‘I’m under a bit of pressure.’
‘You’re under pressure?’ I squeak, ‘I’m the one that’s under pressure. I’m the one that’s running the damn thing!’
I scurry back to Robin. It’s now three minutes to eleven.
‘Robin, where is the Order of Service?’
She smiles at me, slowly and beatifically. ‘It’s Coming… Apparently…’
My phone rings. It’s one of Robin’s sons.
‘Hi, Miles, I’ve got the Order of Service.’
‘Where the hell are you?’
‘We’re stuck behind a hearse.’
‘What sort of hearse?’
‘A horse-drawn hearse.’
(Big. Very big. Mafia Big...)
‘Christ! That’s the funeral after us! You need to overtake.’
‘Yes, you can! Just wind down the window and yell, “We’re first – move over!” Just fucking over-take, because we are starting in two minutes – Order of Service or no Order of Service!’
And that’s exactly what they do. One of the passengers leans out of the window and yells, ‘Move over! Our funeral’s before you! We’ve got to get there first!’
And the horses whinny and the coachmen whinge, but suffice it to say, they overtake the horse-drawn hearse of the young kid on the motorbike and press on towards the crem.
‘Mr Anderson, you really do have to start now,’ insists the manager.
‘I know, I know, but I don’t know what to say. The Orders of Service are almost here...but not yet.’
‘Please, Mr Anderson, I don’t care what you say – but you have to start this funeral now!’ And he starts pushing me towards the front of the chapel. ‘You have to be able to push that button and get the damn thing done. Get Margaret playing the psalms!’
I clear my throat and start speaking into the microphone.
The whole church is absolutely full. A hundred per cent actors. Lots of girls and women, all ages from 23 upwards, just hundreds of beautiful women, in varying degrees of glamour and guilt. Half of them are thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here’ or ‘I hope no one says, “You’re the one that ruined our relationship!”’
‘Hello,’ the microphone booms. ‘I’m Miles. I’m sort of…running this show. The problem is the Order of Service hasn’t arrived yet, so I don’t really know what the hell we’re doing. But we will… Ah…Hold on... Yes… The Order of Service has just arrived! Great! Wow…it’s five pages long and I’m afraid we’ve only got half an hour, so we’re going to have to get through this rather quickly. Let’s have the first hymn.’
Margaret bursts into music on the organ. The hymn is called something like Hark, Hark, the Heralds. I’ve never heard of it. Margaret is playing way too slow, so I’m singing faster. Anything to crack on with the show.
‘Okay, thanks, Margaret! And now it’s Jay Benedict, who’d just like to say a few words. Jay, I don’t suppose you’d like to say what you’re going to say from right where you are…would you?’
‘No, Miles, I want to come up to the front.’
‘Oh. Well, just be fast, okay?’
People are beginning to laugh. In fact, the whole event is becoming unexpectedly jolly.
One by one, Bob’s friends get up to speak. One by one they waffle on. (‘I remember this fantastic time with Bob in Corfu... And I’d flown out to be with Bob in Honduras…He was with Jennifer at the time… or was it Penelope?… And after that Bob treated me to a great bottle of...’) (Some of them are dead now, including the lovely American actor, Bill Hootkins, who died shortly after Bob.)
At the back of the church, the manager is winding his hand and tapping his watch. He desperately wants us to get a move on. I’m doing my best to control the situation, what with the waffling actors and the tapping of the manager’s watch.
‘Come on, guys,’ I’m thinking, ‘we’ve got to be done and dusted within half an hour. Most of Mortlake is beginning to queue up outside to see the Motorbike Kid go skywards.’
And then we get to Amazing Grace. And I’m singing, ‘AmazingGracehowsweetthesound’ and Margaret’s playing, ‘A...ma…zi-i-i-ing Gra-a-a-a-ace, h-o-o-w swe-e-e-e-et the so-o-o-o-o-und.’ And I’m getting faster and faster and I’m beginning to shout, ‘Margaret, faster! Faster!’ And we finish the first verse and I turn the page and there’s another five verses! At which point I shout to the organ and the congregation, ‘CUT TO THE LAST VERSE!!!’
And people are literally weeping with laughter, hooting.
And as I say, ‘Ashes to ashes…’ I know we’ve given Bob a very funny send-off. Everyone starts to mingle out, coming up to me, saying, ‘I thought you were marvellous…I hope your agent was in…Wonderful!’ Apparently my wife is one of them, but I don’t notice: I’m so relieved at having got through a performance of something for which I’ve never rehearsed.
We come out into the Garden of Remembrance, where we receive looks of murderous steel from some of the Motorbike Kid’s family and friends, whose funeral should have been at 11.30 and it’s now quarter to twelve. Those horses had huffed and puffed their way there.
I’m standing in the Garden when a man in a suit comes up
‘Hello. Don’t I know you from off the television? You’re...him, aren’t you?...’
‘Miles Anderson. Yes.’
‘We saw you do the service today and you were very, very good. Do you do this often?’
‘No! It’s my first time. I’ve never done a funeral before.’
‘Have you not? Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Roger Williams. Funeral director at Sanders in Richmond. We often get requests for non-denominational funerals. And I was wondering – would you be prepared to work for us? We can pay you £100 per funeral. And on a Saturday, you could do as many as four if you liked. That’s just two hours’ work.’
My brain whirrs. (‘What an amazing job! And I bet I could get £150 if I pushed for it! Especially if they know me off the telly. Six hundred quid on a Saturday. Not bad for a weekend’s work. It’s more than a leading actor gets at the Royal Shakespeare Company!’)
‘It’s a kind thought, Mr Williams, but I don’t really know a thing about it. I don’t even know what goes on back there.’
‘Do you not? Would you like a backstage tour?’
‘I’d love one!’
‘Come on then.’
Roger Williams, Funeral Director, Richmond, takes me into a beautiful place which is a bit like an Italian kitchen. And there’s Bob’s coffin. There’s a kind of pizza oven, which toasts a person to pizza. Then there’s a big bar across it with an electromagnet. Once the coffin has been burnt, the electromagnet goes across the top of it and takes out all the things like hip joints and fillings. I think they even recycle the titanium hip joints because they require huge amounts of heat to melt them. The major bones go into what looked like a big barrel with big steel balls in it which pulverise the bones to powder. You do actually get the ashes of your deceased but it takes something like twenty-six hours for the bucket of ashes to cool down.
‘The heat retention of human bones is amazing,’ says Roger Williams.
‘Oh, so you could actually build a really good thermalite block out of it.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ he chuckles, ‘an excellent thermalite block.’
‘I can see it now: really efficient houses built of bricks made from human ashes. Well, let’s see. There’s a whole bucket-load of ashes from each person, and there are a lot of people dying every day, so you could actually start an energy efficient campaign where you build your house out of people. A people house! You could have engravings on each brick. ‘This was Sam the Milkman. This was Auntie Betty.’ ‘Jock Anderson.’ ‘Daph Anderson.’ Names on every brick. What a wonderful testament that would be to life! ‘My life built your home.’”
We all head back to Robin’s for a knee’s up, and we all get reasonably drunk, and eventually Lesley and I slope off. The fact that she’d spoken to me three times at the funeral and I hadn’t noticed did not go unnoticed now.
I felt Bob’s presence that day, certainly in the lunacy of the events. And everybody was smiling and in a way everyone was very, very happy – and that was Bob essence. Death – in the words of Peter Pan – is an awfully big adventure. When it’s my turn to go, I really believe that I shall see all my family and friends. My Mum and Dad. Terry Cutter, with whom I rode bare-back across the African veldt. Cathy Yeo, with whom I watched the full moon rise. Joseph Mbulawa, who was devoted to the last. Diane Bull, who was so funny to be with, right until the end. Bob Peck, whom I only got to know when he was dying, yet whose friendship was profound.
As for me, I’m certainly not afraid of death. I’m a little bit afraid of the process, but not the result. I’m not afraid of that at all. Anyway, I’m not dying yet. But if I am, I’m feeling really nice about it...