Flashback alert. Talking of funerals. I wasn’t the only expat in Thailand who went home for one. Arthur did it too. It was a cremation in his case.
Arthur watched his mother’s coffin slide slowly through a curtain into the waiting furnace and felt nothing much at all. Outside the funeral home, in the windswept car park, Arthur confronted the handful of guests. The drizzle and the dripping rhododendrons helped him hit the right tone. None of the guests had lingered for long. Arthur couldn’t blame them. There wasn’t much reason to hang around. His mother’s empty house was depressing. He’d wasted no time listing it with a local estate agent and that was that.
Which left him with a couple of days before his flight back to Thailand. What to do with the time? He dialed Simon’s number and got him first time. ‘Bloody hell Arthur!’ said Simon. ‘I thought you were dead!’ ‘Not just yet,’ said Arthur, ‘but I did just get my mother cremated.’ Simon said he was sorry to hear that. His own mother had recently passed away. Arthur said he was sorry to hear that. They agreed to meet for lunch in London the next day.
Arthur managed to buy a one-way ticket to Victoria from the machine without too much trouble. A girl wearing a hijab directed him to the right platform. But the train which slid silently into Haywards Heath Station was unlike any Southern Railways conveyance Arthur had ever seen. It was certainly not the Brighton Belle. It had Dr. Who sliding doors and an Enid Blyton colour scheme. The style known as British Modern he supposed. Once inside he looked in vain for watercolours of Penzance, pictures of strange people in bathing costumes. Gone. Gone with the string net luggage racks and the leather straps that held the windows up. But there was a digital information screen which he soon got the hang of, and he had to admit the seats were comfortable. The view wasn’t bad either. Leafless oak trees, animals standing around in sodden fields, rows of brick houses, platforms appearing on cue, Three Bridges, Gatwick, Horley, people getting on and off, even the odd handcart loaded with mailbags, Redhill, Merstham, it was all pretty much as remembered. There were no steam engines or heaps of coal. And he didn’t see any children waving. Did they still do that he wondered?
Victoria Station itself hadn’t changed much but security was tight. Arthur got through the signs and announcements, past the policemen, policewomen, police-dogs and a maze of concrete blocks and traffic cones after which it wasn’t hard to find a hotel within walking distance. Fast food was obviously popular. Every other shop seemed to be a KFC franchise. Odd really. It was as if England was trying to be like America but without the space. Or the inclination. Most people seemed happy about the changes. Others were grinning and bearing it in a Churchillian sort of way.
Arthur didn’t feel quite up to venturing underground. Pedestrians were mostly all talking into cell-phones. After a couple of false starts he found somebody who spoke reasonable English and asked the way to Kensington. He got a heart-warming 'You’re standing in it mate.' Good to see amateur comedy still alive and well thought Arthur. Some things never change.
He found his way to the restaurant, Sticky Fingers. And there waiting outside, in tailored, slightly flared, grey flannel slacks and a Lakers jacket was Simon. Older, silver haired but still dapper and lively. So far so good.
“So this is where the in crowd eat.” said Arthur, looking round the crowded restaurant.
“Not really,” says Simon, switching seamlessly to the present tense, “these people are tourists, Yanks mostly, Stone’s fans. Bill gets to display his souvenirs. The food’s not bad and I thought you might be interested.”
They start with Grilled Portobello Mushroom & Goat's Cheese served on a Crostini with Basil Oil. £5.25.
“So how are things?” Simon asks.
“Things are fine,” says Arthur, “bit strange being back in England after so many years I must say.”
Yes, thinks Simon. I suppose you must. He watches Arthur tackling his mushroom. In his crumpled clothes, straight out of a backpack probably, he looks as though he might be happier sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut somewhere dipping into the communal rice-bowl or whatever they do in those places. Same sloppy old Arthur. Still no sense of style. Looks like he cuts his own hair by candlelight. He’s talking a mile a minute too. As if he’s just come out of solitary confinement.
Not that Simon is paying much attention anyway. He’s thinking about an article he has to finish for the Guardian some time in the next few days. Something about spirituality and pop music they said. Is there anything spiritual about pop music? Andrew Oldham seemed to think so in ‘2Stoned’. Simon wasn’t so sure but if ALO could make a case for it so could Simon. Why not? Progressive vicars will be playing U2 music in churches soon. And there’s something spiritual about everything if you think about it long enough.
Simon likes that last line so much he makes a note of it on one of Bill’s napkins. He loves the way lines like that come out of nowhere. They make perfect springboards for elaboration and clever bits of wordplay. And maybe it is time somebody took pop music seriously. To most people it’s just a bit of candy for the kiddies. But we’ve come a long way from the days of teenage girls screaming and creaming the seats. Even they were trying to get in touch with something bigger than themselves. If you think about it.
Maybe Bill would have some thoughts on the matter. Is there any point in asking Arthur, the newly returned wise man from the East? Simon thinks not. He orders the Roast Rump Of Lamb With Herb Crust, Potato gratin and basil jus. £14.45. Arthur thinks he’ll try the Sea Bass Fillet Wrapped In Banana Leaf with Sticky Rice and Thai Green Curry Sauce. £13.95. Simon orders a bottle of Spanish Rioja Crianza Vega. Savoury, spicy fruit with supple tannin, £5.75/glass £22/bottle. Arthur tries, not very hard, to convert it into Thai baht.
“No, no. I was just checking the prices.”
“Very reasonable here.”
‘This may sound pretentious,’ Simon scribbles between bites, ‘but a really good hit record can grab you by the balls and put you in tune with the cosmos. Seriously, I don’t care what it is, ‘Mandy’ say, or ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Dancing Queen’, you hear stuff like that under the right conditions and you know you’ve been touched by a few minutes of magic.’ Surprising really how few people can see it.
Arthur meanwhile has been droning on. Something about the Burmese border, mumble, mumble. Now he’s asking a question. About Samantha.
“Sam? She’s fine.” Says Simon. “Fine. We still live together...separately if you know what I mean. It’s an open-ended relationship. No sex.”
“How are the children?”
“Fine, fine. Sebastian is still developing property. Big deal in Dubai currently. Freya has her own clothing line now and the twins are in a band. Satan’s Anus.”
“Satan’s Anus. That’s the name of the group Giles and Barnaby are in. They have an album coming out and they just got busted for heroine so it should do well.”
Arthur says nothing so Simon continues. “Don’t look so worried Arthur. The drug bust is just a publicity stunt. My grand-children are typical teenagers really. It’s a phase they all go through these days.”
“The whole bloody world is going through a phase if you ask me,” says Arthur, “will it come out the other end is the question.”
“Yes, well, who knows? Good old Arthur. Same old pessimist I see.”
“It’s from his father’s side,” says Arthur’s mother’s ghost.
“I need a pee,” says Arthur.