Storyglossia Issue 21, July 2007.

Funeral Games

by Kay Sexton

 

The meals on wheels lady clucked like an exasperated hen. "What's that awful racket?"

Cecil ignored her.

"How can you put up with it? I said, HOW CAN YOU PUT UP WITH IT? It's terrible. You can complain to the council you know, it's anti-social behaviour, playing music that loudly."

I'm not deaf you silly cow, thought Cecil, smiling at her. It was easier to ignore her than explain. And it was true that the cutlery beside his plate was jumping to the backbeat coming through the wall.

She put his dinner on the card table by his chair and said she'd be back tomorrow. He nodded gently and thanked her.

As soon as the little van pulled away from his front door he lifted the lids on his dinner and pudding. The main course was no good, but pudding could be utilised: some kind of hot cake with a brown gooey sauce on it. He moved to the stereo with long fast steps, then paused, rubbing his hip and grimacing; he was too old for leaping around, that was sure. Still, Darius had thrown down a challenge that must be met. He listened again. Queen's Fat Bottomed Girls and Snoop Dogg's Lay Low, was that right? He was getting too old for this; his ears weren't what they used to be. Still . . . he could match Darius and raise him. Fat Bottomed Girls was the meals on wheels woman; it was a miracle she ever got through the door she was so big, and Lay Low was a question: why hadn't he been out for a couple of days? He picked Duke Ellington's Warm Valley and took down Bix Biederbecke's 78 rpm to play Sugar, but then put them back on the shelf. It was too clever for Darius; he'd never get the Beiderbecke allusion to the big dinner lady and even the Ellington might slide past him. Cecil sighed. It was hard to use musical code with somebody sixty-something years younger.

He looked at the shelves again. Basie's Shake Rattle and Roll would tell the kid why he hadn't been out and Ellington's Ko Ko would test him to the limit. His hands shook as he took the records from their sleeves and set them on the twin decks. He tried to hold up his wrist to time thirty seconds on his watch, but the shaking made it impossible so he counted under his breath instead. When the first half-minute of the Basie track was over, he switched to the Ellington. Then he turned off the record player—he still couldn't think of it as a deck—and waited for Darius to appear. While he waited he spooned up the pudding: chocolate sauce—let's see if the boy could put that together.

 

 

Darius shrugged into his hoodie. The old man must be really down. Shake Rattle and Roll meant he was too shaky to get out the door and Ko Ko? Who knew what was going on in that ancient head? At least the old man had got the message; it had been an easy one because he was fading away for sure. Darius gave him easier tracks every day now. Time to get round there anyway.

Cecil heard Darius's door slam. Then the key in his own door. He'd given the lad a key a few months ago, "just in case."

"So, old guy, what's with . . . ?" Darius paused, sniffing the air. "Cocoa? Ko ko, right! You're eatin' cocoa! You sly old mon, you nearly got me there!"

Cecil held up the gelatinous mound on his spoon, "And you shouldn't call good ladies Fat Bottomed Girls. Have some respect for your elders."

Darius grinned. "The old hands playing up, are they? Want me to sleeve your babies for you?"

Cecil sighed with contentment. Darius was the only person who understood what the records meant to him, and even that understanding seemed imperfect, hollow. The boy didn't even play an instrument, hadn't the insider's knowledge of what it took to make music.

"Please Darius; that would be helpful." He looked at the unappetising mess of lunch and pushed the card table away. He didn't eat much anymore. At his age you didn't want to waste time chewing. Every second was precious, too precious to waste on grub. "So how did it go?"

Darius shrugged but the pent elasticity of his body told a story that his laid-back gestures couldn't hide.

"You got it! You got the gig!" Cecil clapped his hands together and then stopped, feeling his thin old bones protest the savage treatment.

"Yeah, I got it. Dunno how long for. They just tryin' me out, you know?" Darius shrugged again, but this time the grin came too, a wide acceptance of a good thing happening in a mainly bad life. Cecil grinned back, but not too widely in case his dentures slipped.

"I'll have to come along and listen, see what you can do," he suggested slyly, but Darius was unprovoked.

"Yeah, that'd be cool. We could fix a taxi, come pick you up and drop you home again. Thursday night right? Say eleven?"

Cecil pondered. "I'd like to, you know that, but . . . suppose I fell over?"

Darius shrugged again. "It's cool, mon. It's not compulsory you come along, you know?"

Cecil couldn't tell if he was upset or not. The boy was opaque so much of the time now. It was impossible to tell what really moved him. Except for the music.

"Got anything new?" he asked. Darius forgot to shrug. He spilled CDs from the pocket of his hoodie, slammed them into the ghetto blaster by Cecil's chair, told the histories of the featured rappers and DJs. Eventually he got up and made coffee and they drank companionably. Cecil pointed to the Ellington and Beiderbecke records he'd picked out earlier, "I wasn't sure if you'd get them?"

Darius scowled. "You dissin' me? You sayin' I can't do this t'ing?"

Cecil shook his head tiredly. The boy was so easy to offend now. Since the marijuana and his time in the unit, Darius had become a magnetised needle, swinging to face any real or imagined insult.

"Well, I did the same to you, old mon! I thought you'd never get the first tracks I picked, so I jus' let you have it easy, okay?"

Darius slammed out of the door, spilling his coffee over the card table. Next door slammed, then slammed again as he flew out, shrugging into a jacket, and tore down the street as though being chased.

Cecil stood wearily and cleared the debris from the table. He bent to pick up the CDs before running water for the dishes, and checked the temperature of the suds, before lowering his hands into them. A few months ago he'd scalded himself badly on water straight from the tap. When you got old, things confused you. He piled the dishes on the drainer and dried his own hands carefully before putting the Beiderbecke record on the turntable. Dead. Bix was dead at twenty-eight, before the Second World War. And yet he came out of the speakers like a live thing, twisting and turning the music to a shape only he could hear, and then making the rest of the world hear it too.

When he woke up, he was cold. Cold and shaking again. He turned on the electric heater, even though it wasn't yet dark. He should have been born in a warmer land for certain. Old men and thin bones needed warmth. Bix wasn't enough. The Count and the Duke couldn't warm him. It was a disgrace, but there was only one way to get the pale blood moving in his skinny veins: he pulled Glenn Miller from the shelf and let the infectious happiness of In the Mood take him away. It wasn't real jazz; but when you were over eighty you could break the rules—as long as nobody else found out.

 

 

When Darius woke up, he was cold. Cold and shaking again. When it got like this, he was supposed to count his blessings. First: he was alive. Was that a blessing? He was supposed to think so. Second: he was clean. Was that a blessing? Yes it was. What had happened in his head with the drugs was so bad he didn't ever want it back again. The things that chased him through his nightmares were just too bad to tolerate. Better dead than that. Third . . . third . . . there was no third. Life was going to be like this from now on. Every time he woke up he'd count his blessings, get to two, and clamber out of his sleep to face a cold world. Nobody cared. If you were black and skinny you were a drug addict, black and fat you were a layabout. Black and ugly? A mugger. Black and fine looking? A pimp.

He was psychotic. That was the label they hung on him. Black, skinny, crazy. He'd spent a month in a treatment centre and then they'd kicked him out. He should be grateful he still had the house, his momma's house. The council could have evicted him but they didn't.

And there was Cecil. Was Cecil a blessing? Skinny old white man, head in the clouds? Yeah he counted. He was blessed. And the jazz? That was a blessing, Cecil had a whole heap of music that could take down the fuckery in a man's head and get him righted. Funny thing, they'd lived next doors for all his life and Darius never knew the old man till his mother died. It was like she'd stood between them. Respectable Jamaican women and old white men didn't mix or something. Now look at them, old white crock getting to the end of his days, black youth with nothing to peg him down but terror of the holes in his head. Testing each other with musical jokes and stuff.

Holes in his head that were still full of psychosis. If he let his guard down at all, it crept back into him, all that weird stuff the skunk had liberated.

Darius shoved his hands hard into his pockets and looked round the tube station. He found it easy to drowse in public places. The little hard slatted seats on underground stations just pulled him into sleepiness. His bed at home pushed him the other way—queasy wakefulness getting him to count all the minutes in the all hours he wasn't in dreamland. He rolled himself off the bench and stumbled back home.

When he got to the house he stood in the dark, letting the coolness of the small rooms close round him. Saturday night. When his mother had been alive she'd have cleaned the house from top to bottom and cooked too. Sunday she'd have spent at church, carrying covered dishes to share with the rest of the congregation. This place would have smelled of fish and rice, beeswax polish and the sheeny heat of pressed cotton. He could hear the quiet hiss of Cecil's deck next door, playing the innermost groove of some old vinyl. The man had fallen asleep in his chair again.

Darius sighed, picked up the key and turned to go back out. Before he reached the door he heard something that made him turn back, peering towards the party wall with incredulous eyes. Over the top of the hissing groove, Clipse was running the words to The Funeral.

 

 

"Mon, course I din't go round there. What you take me for?" Darius glared at the social worker. "Bad enough I got a name for skunk, I don' wan' people sayin' I took the man's life too."

The social worker nodded.

"So what's your problem?" Darius didn't want to be there in the little brick box of the social services building. It was like a starter office, made of neat plastic and little cubes of clay. The kind of thing you could wash down or throw away if it didn't really work out the way you wanted. He preferred the old offices in the big Victorian building on Tooting High Road, but they were closed now and all the social workers had these little shiny offices in Wandsworth instead. A rough rage against the system made his blood thicken until he could hear it thumping in his ears like backbeat.

"You called an ambulance?" The social worker fiddled with her desk tidy.

"Mon, you know it. Why you askin'?"

"We're a little concerned for your emotional wellbeing, Darius. It can't have been easy for you . ."

Darius let his foot begin to dance on the polished office floor—he wasn't going to tell this winji white girl anything. It hadn't been easy. He'd stood outside the house waiting for the ambulance, scared to use his key in case Cecil really was dead and he was accused of something; murder, theft—he didn't know what it might be that they'd hang on him but he had enough labels. He didn't need any more. Cecil had been dead. And the decks, which he'd turned to as soon as he saw the old man was cold gone, something he hadn't even known Cecil owned. Swing music by Glenn Miller—the big band equivalent of skunk; a cheap rip, an easy hit. That had upset him more than anything. And the CD with Clipse still in its jewel case by Cecil's chair had broken him down too.

"Mr Wilson must have been very fond of you . . " She let it hang in the air, not quite a question.

"You what? We was neighbours is all! Don't be puttin' su-su around about me and him. It's respeck is all, to help out the neighbour." Darius knew he couldn't bear much more of this—smoking skunk had left him with simmering paranoia, uncontrolled fear that came out as aggression. He couldn't take the risk of losing control with this woman; if she took against him, she could probably cancel his tenancy and then he'd have to share a flat. He couldn't hold out against the drugs if others were using, and he'd never find a clean flat. Never.

"The point is Darius, Mr Wilson has left you his house."

It didn't sink in for a second, two seconds, three . . . He played the words back through his mind like lyrics—what did it mean, where was the catch? "You telling truth, so?"

"Yes, yes, of course. I'm sure it's something of a surprise. He's left you the house, which he owned outright, his record collection, and a small sum of money; about five hundred pounds we think, although there might be more—we still have to establish if he has any savings accounts. In his will he asks that you organise a proper funeral for him. The exact wording is 'In return I trust Darius will organise the right funeral for me. He knows what to do and how to show proper respect.'" She paused again.

Darius grinned. "Oh mon! Crazy old mas—I overstan you jus' fine, Cecil. I show you respeck so!"

The woman shuffled her papers, "There are two local Funeral Directors that we can recommend. Although Mr Wilson seems to have feared that he wouldn't have a proper funeral, I can assure you that the social services department has a great deal of experience in this and we are able to help you . . . "

Darius was out of his chair now, tapping his thighs with impatience. "Miss, I t'ank you, but I know what the mon wanted and—trust me here—you no can help. I will do his wishes for him."

At the door he turned, "How come you talkin' to me? Shouldn't a lawyer be tellin' this to me?" He saw the truth in her face—whoever Cecil trusted with his will had feared Darius might become violent or crazy. This had been an unwelcome task, delegated to the only person who couldn't dodge it. He walked back to her, "Miss, I t'ank you again, for dealin' wit' me. I know people fears me, but I's not so bad."

All the way home on the bus he remembered her face. She'd offered her hand for him to shake. The old man, the one person left in the world who'd trusted him completely had just died, but maybe he could find a way to get small trust from people, build it up maybe.

Then he remembered how he'd been with skunk in his brain and he knew it was useless. He'd screamed in the street and torn at his own face, thumped the cars that sped past him on Tooting Broadway, danced into the burger bar and beaten his head bloody against the window until they restrained him. It had taken six weeks in the unit for the skunk to let go of his mind and three months more for him to think that he could spend more than a minute outside the unit door without running to buy weed. It had broken his mother. Within a month of his return to the house, she'd had a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. He still thought, sometimes, that he'd killed her.

Enough of that—he had a task. A proper funeral, one for a jazzman.

He began by humbling himself. He got off the bus at Amen Corner and walked to the pastor's house. The pastor wouldn't let him inside, but Darius didn't take offence. "I need your help," he said. The pastor sighed deeply and then shut the door behind him, leading Darius over to the church that was only a hundred yards away.

"Stand before God and tell me that you are free from drugs," he demanded.

Darius walked up the church, touching the pew where, as a child, he'd sat with his mother. He looked up at the tortured Christ on the cross and confirmed he was clean. The pastor sighed again.

"I need to organise a funeral," Darius said. "For a white man."

Next, the band; that was going to be hard. He found the telephone directory under the stairs, still in its plastic wrapper, and started making calls. After half an hour he had to stop, he was too shaky to hold the phone. It was going to cost too much—he could never find the money. A thousand pounds for a band! Then he remembered what Cecil had left him.

He walked next door, wondering what it was going to feel like to live there, to have somebody else live in the house where he'd been born. It was weird, a house that smelled of Cecil, was full of his things, but didn't have him in it any more. He turned on the lights in all the rooms before going back to run his hands over the spines of the records. 78, 33 1/3, 45 rpm—a whole history of jazz in his hands.

The funeral was going to take while to arrange. That was okay by Darius. Cecil was being kept sweet in whatever way the pastor's recommended funeral home did these things—he didn't choose to know, didn't need that information in his head, mixing with the stuff skunk had already liberated. The pastor was going to cover the bills until Darius could free up the money to pay him back. It was this leap of faith that had left Darius shaky-scared. He had to manage this, get it sorted, stay straight in his head until it was over. And then he'd be a householder.

He put some of the records on Ebay, sitting in the rose-brick beauty of Tooting Library, watched suspiciously by the Sikh librarian as he tooled through the process of setting up an account, listing thirty of the 33 1/3s and 45s and two of the 78s. They sold. It was money, but not enough.

He went back to the house and skimmed the covers again. He couldn't let anything else go. He looked at the Beiderbecke 78. No way. That was his legacy. For no reason at all in C, with the original Parlophone plum and apricot label. He knew how much it had meant to Cecil, and when he heard Bix blowing the cornet down the years, he knew how much it meant to him too. Sugar was there of course, but the Parlophone was the thing—it had never been played. It was like new. He didn't know why—Cecil would never say—but that record was some kind of memorial. Cecil had the same recording on CD and tape but the 78 was there, like an icon. Like Christ on the cross. What the fuck. What did it matter? Cecil was dead. What mattered was getting the money for his last wish—the jazzman's funeral.

Finally he found a band. They called themselves a combo and they would have to come up from Eastbourne. But before they'd do the gig, he had to go and convince them that Cecil deserved a proper send off. That was right. That was the way it should be. He packed up all the records that featured Cecil playing bass, and took them down to Eastbourne. He'd never been anywhere so damn windy in his life.

The combo were old. Damn old. But he sat with them in a dark pub with an evil-smelling big dog sliming up his jeans with dribble. When the pub closed and the landlord locked the doors, he played them the records on an old set of decks in the corner of the lounge bar. The landlord turned out to be a cornet player. Darius eyed him, wondering if he'd bid for a pristine Beiderbecke 78, but he said he wasn't a Bix man. They agreed to walk for Cecil though. His playing had earned him a proper funeral.

Back home, he looked at the Beiderbecke record, tilting it until the low light from Cecil's fussy table lamp caught the grooves. He felt if he stared at it long enough he could will himself into the music, into the black surface. He knew Cecil had thought Bix died young at twenty-eight, but to him, that seemed a ripe age. He feared to make twenty; he dreaded all the long years ahead with the holes in his head that spilled anger whenever he relaxed his guard. "Mon," he whispered to Beiderbecke, "Mon, you did it right. Die young and keep the music."

 

 

"You no can go down there," the pastor was furious. "You can't hold down your demons if you go back to Brixton—too much drug on the street."

"I got to go." Darius was finding the constant negotiations over the funeral exhausting. He wanted to cut free from it—find a warm place and a solid beat and let his head settle into the dark. But the funeral loomed and now he'd seen the combo he doubted they could walk, let alone walk and play. Cecil had trusted him. He had to give Cecil a jazzman's funeral.

"You no can go. I'm no letting you!" The pastor's accent grew more Island by the second as he tried to keep Darius safe.

"Mon, trus' me! I need the float and the only way to get it is go down there and ne-go-ti-ate," Darius gave the four syllables their whole length—a Babylon word, if ever he'd heard one, and he'd heard many: dysfunctional, psychotic, maladjusted, vulnerable, underclass—those kind of words that were easy to earn but hard to get rid of. And the others: stakeholder, community, grassroots—the words that promised much and brought nothing but more words. Whore words. Skunk words. "I got to ketch me a float in case those old guys can't walk an' play for Cecil. It's fo' me to make it righted fo' him. I'm askin' you to drive me for my good sake. The brothers there are downpressed, but mon, I don' wan' end up smoking just to earn their reespeck. They not going to trus' me without you. You be there, you can help me stay clean."

The pastor sniffed mightily—the organ note of disapproval that Darius remembered from his childhood, then shook his head. "If I do this, you must come before the Lord on Sundays Darius Malcolm?"

Darius nodded.

"Then we go, right now."

It was easier than he'd expected. The float hadn't been entered for the Brixton Carnival, some complicated territorial battle about who'd contributed money and who'd given time that left it stranded like a no-man's land on wheels. Hiring it for the day wasn't a problem—the community centre for which it had been built was happy to take Cecil's money. The problem was finding out who had the keys to the garage in which it was locked. The brother who arrived some hours later and unlocked the metal door, wispy dreads slopped under a tam, was wasted.

"Wha' you wan' for?" Darius strained to understand his words, mumbled on an underbreath. The Rasta's yellowed eyes gave no clues as they stared incuriously at the ground.

"A mas dead. Him a good man. Good musician." Darius eased the CD he'd burnt that morning out of his pocket and slid it into his mobile player. He crouched in the corner of the lock-up, looking at the float with desperate eyes, before plugging in the speakers, and setting them as wide apart on the floor as their leads would allow. The jazz began to ease from the little machine, ringing back off the cement walls. He'd picked These Foolish Things as the opening track because Cecil's cello came right out to meet the listener and mellow the ears. Cecil had been no Babasin but he could play, sure enough.

"So, he was a mas. Why you wan' float?"

"In the jazz, when a big man dies, dey show reespeck by sendin' out a band to play jazz ahead of the coffin." It made sense to any Jamaican—a nine-day wake was commonplace and a band was nothing unusual.

"So . . . I hire me a band who play this kind of t'ing." Darius indicated the music still flowing from the speakers. "But mon, they old guys, you know? Like in New Orleans maybe I could'a found me a young band, but these guys is ancient-old. I want to make sure he get what he deserve."

"Why you wan' float?"

Darius sighed deeply. Had he been this hard to deal with when he was smoking? "I's going to ride the float wit' my decks and mix for him in case the old guys can't play him to his final place prop'ly."

"You gon' mix fo' him?"

Hadn't he just said so? "I's going to mix for him till he's in the ground prop'ly."

"On de float?"

"Yes,"

"Jah know," the Rasta tossed him the keys and left the lock-up in a shambling stupor.

"Hey! Hey! Who do I give these keys back to . . . ?" But he was gone, rolling round the corner of the garages and vanishing into Brixton's back alleys. Darius thought about chasing him but there was no point. In five paces the Rasta would probably have forgotten the whole conversation.

"You really worried the combo won't be able to march?" The pastor queried as he pulled his big old Cortina into the traffic.

"I's pretty nervous. This is Tooting, not America, these guys don't exactly spend a lot a time walkin' streets with their horns and axes, you know?"

"Trust the Lord." The pastor ran the words out over the Cortina's ripe old four-valve engine. "Trust the Lord." Darius scowled. Two of the combo he'd met in the pub had been wearing cardigans with leather buttons—that only happened when you were really old; even Cecil hadn't sunk that far. They'd tested Cecil's claims to a jazz funeral, but he hadn't heard them play at all. Maybe they were some crap wedding-gig band, despite their good reviews. Maybe they wouldn't even turn up. If they did, there were still only seven of them to walk: two trumpets, two saxes, trombone, cornet, fiddle and bass guitar. How much of a send-off could seven old strangers give a man?

Behind all the worry was the house. The house was his, whatever happened. He'd be a householder. He'd have his own gates. A house without his mother's reproachful ghost whisking dust into the air under his hands and setting creases into the clothes he'd never learned to press. But if he could make the funeral good, he'd have earned the house, not just charity from an old white man, but a reward for a job done properly.

"Trust Jah, trust the Lord, whatever. I aim to be there with the decks for Cecil, so's the angels can hear a jazzman's coming up. I trust my own self." He was surprised at his vehemence and shot a glance at the pastor to see if he'd been too rude. But the man was smiling.

"That's good Darius. If you put your trust in yourself again—maybe you can stop expecting others to do the first trusting. I'll ask one of the congregation to drive the float for you."

Darius grunted.

 

 

He had advertised the Beiderbecke on a specialist site for record collectors. He wanted £200. The first offer he received was £75, the second £90. He wanted to cry, for Cecil, for Beiderbecke, for himself and what went on in his head at night. Instead he ransacked his mother's house and took all the CDs and records he could spare from his Thursday night gig. He went to Camden Market and sold them on the street, on a blanket that his mother had brought with her from Kingston, Jamaica when she was seventeen years old. He made the money he needed.

The funeral was on a Friday—a jazzman's day. But it rained. The funeral people brought Cecil to the house at nine in the morning, so he could set off from his front gate. The combo arrived at eleven, in raincoats and kagools and strange old men's hats and scarves. Darius had planned to give them coffee with biscuits from the big tin he'd bought at the market, but one of his mother's friends arrived at daybreak and cleaned Cecil's front room before producing chicken patties and rum. "It's no nine-night," she said disapprovingly, "but I couldn't let the man go without a proper meal."

They set off in the rain, the combo walking ahead, playing jazz that sounded like it was drowning. He'd given them a play-list, but from the turn of the street he could tell they were ignoring it. They were too far ahead for him to do anything about what he could hear. Little Brown Jug was okay, though he hadn't put it on his list, but he just knew that before ten minutes had passed they'd have slid into Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree. He could only hope they'd stay away from In the Mood—he was sure the track had killed Cecil. The hearse slipped in behind them. Darius followed on the float.

From his high vantage point he could see the front gates where Jamaicans had turned out to their steps to mark Cecil's passing. From a couple of houses came old men carrying beat up saxophones or banjos, joining the walking wake. Many of them were people from his mother's church. Darius knew them and they raised their chins to him, to tell him that he had a debt to pay now: if they honoured the old man, he should come and honour them, Sundays in church. But some were just people that must have known Cecil when he was a jazzman, a middle-rank player in the old, old days.

They were an ugly collection—fat men and skinny, all elderly or outright old, red noses and purple lips, grizzled grey hair on the black men, pale shining scalps on the white combo members. It wouldn't have been like this in New Orleans, for sure.

A few watchers were from the club, Thursday night patrons of his own mixes, come to see what Darius would do. And he did it.

High on the float made for Brixton carnival, hired for the day with the money from his CD collection, he mixed it for Cecil. Louder than the wall of rain he brought down the sounds for the old man. On one deck he played Natas, Life After Death and on the other he spun the Beiderbecke 78, For no reason at all in C, never played before, never to be played again, mixing it until the smooth black surface arced with flying spray from the rain and his tears.

Copyright©2005, 2007 Kay Sexton

"Funeral Games" was previously published in the Spring 2005 issue of Bonfire.