It didn’t take long. Air France is comfortingly familiar and the mid-flight sandwich fresh. Paris was soggy and overcast and Birmingham crisply, optimistically cold. A rental car that was so new that the interior still smelt strongly of the showroom, with unfamiliar buttons and switches and voice recognition. I just floored the accelerator and drove on the rev counter, trying to remember not to change gear with the door handle.
Many years ago, the hotel where I stayed in Rugby used to host Rotary dinners and Conservative Club meetings, a leisurely watering hole for the well-heeled, waistcoated, golf-clubby types who used to bray discreetly behind their Gs and T. The bedroom was a cupboard with a TV the size of a handkerchief and contained, of all things, a vintage trouser press.
The town seemed changed, but subtly – the twin bifurcations of Sheep Street and High Street were still there, but the shop fronts were tedious 70s, gloomier and uninteresting, lacking the optimistic ebullience of Windsor, the great rival. Some were abandoned altogether, all being presided over with pomp and order by the majestic oaken presence of the Oriel gateway to the School, four hundred and fifty years old this year. Girls – we had none of that when I was there – clad as if for a dressage competition, were a novelty as they swished their long skirts at lesson change, passing in and out with the easy familiarity of extreme privilege. A notice pointedly reminded the hoi-polloi that their malodorous presences were not permitted inside the hallowed Georgian portals.
A long, grey, sleek Mercedes-Benz hearse, containing four gentlemen of similar height dressed in morning clothes and a tiny, cheap-looking coffin plus a few flowers, majestically eased its way out on to the highway, traffic respectfully stopped by the massive dignity of a top-hatted funeral director. A short ride to the crematorium. However tastefully such places are tricked out, there’s always a whisper of Auschwitz or Dachau about them. A minister with lugubrious, spaniel eyes, a soft, infrequent smile and a slight speech impediment got things under way. His slight glossal elision was made worse by a badly mixed sound system operated by a cheerful moppet at the back. “All creatures great and small…”were both occupying the pews and trying to sing it. Family – five step family plus me – to the left, everyone else, the curious, the half-blind and the not-quite-familiar to the right. I forgot to count; fifteen perhaps, some looking at me with guppy eyes as if wondering what had happened to me. Who were these strangers? Eulogies, prepared by those who knew and mercifully left more or less unedited, were read by the minister. The usual exaggerations and half-truths.
Somebody had the stellar notion that the proceedings could most conveniently be concluded with a chirpy little Rodgers and Hammerstein number from the wildly successful postwar musical ‘South Pacific’, racial overtones notwithstanding. They did things differently in 1949. The juxtaposition of the curtains closing with dignified slowness and the strains of ‘Happy Talk’ will stay with me…
I didn’t hang around. What for? But, I was the last to leave – there seemed no rush. There was a sad sort of clanging in the back of my mind as I said ‘so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye’ overlooking the fields in the crisply silent afternoon, finally exhaling.