I have asked two guests for supper. I have not seen them for over a year but tonight I have them to myself. The table is polished, the silver gleams in the candle-light throwing shadows over portraits from the past who would want to join the evening. On my right I place my mother and my uncle faces me. They are settled in small English oak caskets, staying here just long enough before being taken tomorrow to a parish in Sussex into a clay earth that will cradle them for ever. I am but an observer of their past, will listen to their voices, honour their memory and let them rest gently tonight.
My mother was never one for food and the fuss that would take her away from the conversation, so we will have an easy dish. I think of her always asking for chicken, that was seen as safe. She will then look around the room with a keen eye, ensuring that past gifts are on show and woe betide if pictures of her are not in pride of place. I can make her laugh with stories of how the dogs want to sit on her bed and dig in the blankets. Then we will recall the episode of when Louis, her grandson, asked to make an important call to his mother, as if she might intervene when his bed-time was called. We will giggle over much loved but departed relations such as Uncle Biff, Uncle Punkle and Great Aunt Evie. By now her eyes will no longer be dull, wrinkled hands will stroke much loved dogs of yesterday and she will pick at the piano keys. She plays ‘On a green hill far away’ and I can see tears are bursting so I will bring her back to the sofa. The Queen is on the news. Mum says ‘that horrible old woman’ and I know that she has not really gone but is sharing a moment that we remember.
My Uncle has been quiet tonight. He does not want to impose himself into the chatter and stares through rheumy eyes to the family ghosts that only he can see. He is with them as he has always been, hoarding their trinkets as memories of their past that define him. I wonder what he remembers? Is it the cold dreary 1950s working in bookshops off Bond Street, never getting past the Modern Novel section to English History that he so craved. He then bought that dream with his own shop, which like a tableau from Dickens sold only what he wanted. A gentle soul he is and as I offer more wine he will awake and share stories of his father and Sussex poets. I ask him to tell me again the story of him being mistaken for a hunt servant and being commanded to drag off Lord Forrestier’s boots, as the noble lord supped mulled wine by a blazing fire at the big house. We laugh till our tears come, and they come easily.
But ghosts don’t stay and as the night draws to its end on a last special evening I must bid them once again farewell and wish them a peaceful sleep in quiet places. They have left us now, each day the distance grows as they stay the same and age, but not to us.