MRS Hopkins’s aunt died recently, aged 96. The funeral was at Tynemouth crematorium near Newcastle, which meant a 200-mile round trip from Otley where we live.
One of the first questions was what to wear? It used to be black suit, black tie, formality, gravity and sombre remembrance, followed, if we were lucky, by egg and cress sandwiches, tiny cocktail sausages on sticks and a watery concoction called ‘Harp lager’. What glorious days they were. I long for their return . . . well, perhaps not the Harp lager.
What to do now? I don’t possess a black suit. I haven’t worn any colour of suit for as long as I can remember, although I did recollect that in the dark recesses of the wardrobe there may survive such an item. Then panic gripped me. Would it be trousered by the flared variety? And if I had a dark tie (I knew I didn’t have a black one) would it be what used to be called a ‘kipper’? Ye Gods, I could just hear Auntie Margaret’s mourners muttering ‘Will you look at that bloke from darkest Yorkshire, he’s like an extra in Cagney and Lacey’. Salvation was at hand. My better half informed me that attire was much more relaxed now so not to worry about it.
The day of the funeral came and we drove up the A1 to Durham services. What pandemonium there was and how heartened I was to see it. Busloads of people going to and from I know not where mingled with multitudes of others wanting tea, coffee and burgers – and, to my immense pleasure, the vast majority were unmasked. Without a doubt, Durham services was witnessing an outbreak of what could only be described as normality.
We arrived at the crem with 20 minutes to spare. I’m a great believer in the saying ‘go when you can, not wait till you must’ so when I spied a solitary gent just inside the entrance looking very dapper in a black suit and tie (but no mask) I assumed he was from the undertakers acting as a sort of ‘greeter’. I politely asked him for the cloakroom facilities. ‘Just round the corner, Harry, you can’t miss them’. Harry? Harry? How did this complete stranger know my name? Did I know him? Should I know him? My eyes and memory clicked into gear and it dawned on me. In this balding, grey bearded, slightly stooped individual stood the 16-year-old Terry Smith with whom I had played football for a north-east team called New Hartley Juniors. It was a wonderful team: our talisman was a lad called Ray Kennedy who went on to play for Arsenal, Liverpool and England. Terry and I shook hands and back-slapped. It was so lovely to see him and such a positive start to the occasion that I knew this was going to be a much better day than I had anticipated.
The other mourners arrived, none wearing masks. There were 23 of us in total which wasn’t bad for a 96-year-old. We shook hands with everyone, and hugged and embraced where appropriate. There was a sign asking us to wear face coverings if we could and as we trooped into the chapel about half donned masks but undoubtedly this was done through form rather than fear. The service was a Humanist one with a young, unmasked lady celebrant who was brilliant. Wonderful words to celebrate a long and eventful life. We had songs by Perry Como and Doris Day.
Afterwards it was back to Auntie Margaret’s son Les’s house. He had laid on a super buffet, though I was bit disappointed that there were no tiny sausages on sticks, egg and cress sandwiches – or Harp lager. Terry caught up with me again and bent my ear about the good old football days. He said that if it wasn’t for his artificial hip, his collapsed back, his failing eyesight and his recent heart attack he would love to play again. I asked him if he was keeping his boots in good order in readiness for his return . . . we roared with laughter.
In all my conversations the dreaded Covid wasn’t mentioned once. Not once. It was to all intents and purposes a normal gathering of people linked together by a dear old lady. The youngest was about 15 years old and the oldest was 91.
When we got home, I felt weary but happy. Any anxiety I had over fielding questions about the jab, bubbles, isolation, tests, cases, variants, masks and the rest of the Covid nonsense was completely unfounded. All we encountered were normal, pleasant individuals who were fed up with it all whether they believed in the virus or not. And this is our strength, I feel – Covid fatigue. It’s real and spreading and I take great encouragement from it.
The last thing at the end of a long day was a bite of supper, and when Mrs Hopkins asked what I might fancy I thought long and hard before answering . . . any chance of an egg and cress sandwich?