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...from scholars to funeral sandwiches...

The Funeral Sandwich

by Jocelyn Doyle

The triangles pile across platters flanked with bowls of soup and endless cups of tea, tall black pints sweating softly amongst them. The funeral sandwich, never named but omnipresent, a stalwart accompaniment to sorrow.

Like death itself, the funeral sandwich is inevitable, the fillings predictable, soothing in their repetition. Ham and cheese, for the everyman, too-bright pink and orange pushed together in uncomfortable contrast. Egg mayo, chopped and stirred to a thick, off-yellow paste, a scattering of token chives, a half-hearted gesture towards sophistication. Chicken salad, slicked with butter and mayonnaise; pallid, mealy tomato slices press against lacklustre lollo rosso. Ham salad, almost identical. Plain salad, the same again, an afterthought for the vegetarians. Vegans will go hungry. We can’t think about the vegans right now.

This is no time for surprises, no place for creativity. We contend with enough already here, in this space. We are too tired to chew. Amongst aching guts and sleepless nights, the grieving need the softest white bread, the squarest, cheapest pan, bread that offers solace in its unspoken suggestion of childhood. Perhaps there will be wholemeal, its texture so similar to the white as to render any nutritional advantage dubious. But no matter, we can’t think about the fibre right now.

The small, soft quarters stand drunkenly across the platters, some sagging open indiscreetly before they even reach the tables. Crisps fill the spaces left between, carbs providing solidity, comfort. They may be crinkle cut. They will definitely be cheese and onion, familiar as old friends. They will disappear quickly. We can’t think about the waistlines right now.

The soup is vegetable, bereft of any other distinguishing characteristics. There are probably carrots involved. Nobody asks, it is no matter. The soup is warm and served in two-handled bowls the size of teacups. It slides down easily, filling the twisted, empty space inside, swaddling nauseated knots. Eating without having to eat; we remain on this side of the river. An excess of salt inspires a fierce thirst.

The flow of tea is rivalled only by the stout, analgesics honed through generations. Collective memory binds us through decades, centuries; another space, another time, another loss, a shared wound. Our grief is a patchwork of the smoke that rises from cigarettes, of whiskey, storytelling and too-loud, untethered late night laughter; of peat fires and lock-ins and keening around kitchen tables; of despair and relief and knowing deep in our hollow guts what it truly is to be human. Past and present plates of funeral sandwiches, portents of future plates to come; the snow-white standing stones that mark the end of a life.

Little Scholar

Mam’s envelope weighs down my shirt pocket.

Why does she write to the butcher every week instead of giving me money for meat?

Is she checking I remember to say thank you?

There are three streets between home and the butcher’s shop on the corner of Warwick Road and Wood Terrace. I make my first turn at the monkey puzzle tree - checking for monkeys hiding in its wide branches. The tree is so big I can hardly make out the house crouching behind it. My second turn is at the bungalow with the torn net curtain that flops like a slice of pizza. Not that I’ve ever eaten pizza, but I know what they look like. Mam says they’re too expensive. We did have fish ‘n’ chips last month, ̓cause it was my eighth birthday.

Mam always tells me to be polite to the butcher, but it’s hard not to laugh when I look at his nose hairs. They’re long and curl into his black moustache, which reminds me of my pet mouse. The butcher’s fat hands are red, and his fingers are like the pork sausages hanging from the rail in his shop window. Whenever he gives me the wrapped meat to take home, he smells of blood.

As I run, the corner of the envelope pokes me. I sit on the low brick wall in front of the ‘pizza slice’ house and hold the envelope up to the sun. The paper’s too thick for me to read the contents, so I slip my finger under the flap and wiggle it along.

The seal breaks.

Checking no one’s watching, I take out the letter.

same time this week

The words are in pencil. Mam hasn’t included her address, the date, her name, or used capital letters or punctuation. In class last week, Mrs Robinson taught me how to write a letter properly.

I’ll show Mam how to write one when I get home.

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