Four messages and a funeral

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The Independent Culture
With Every technological advance, bad news travels faster. I have a pager now; it plays a pretty beep, and puts up the message on its tiny screen. The messages are mostly from people who don't get the point. They ramble. They drivel. They waste valuable communications time on courtesies. My messages say HELLO, MICHAEL, IT'S ME, I WAS JUST CALLING TO SEE IF YOU FANCIED COMING DOWN ON SUNDAY FOR A (TOO LONG). They say HI, HOW ARE YOU? I THOUGHT YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW THAT SOME CHAP - I DIDN'T CATCH HIS NAME - RANG UP FROM THE (TOO LONG). They say GOD, I HATE THIS PAGER, IT'S REALLY REALLY ANNOYING, ANYWAY THE POINT IS I'M RINGING TO SEE IF YOU FELT LIKE A REALLY GOOD (TOO LONG).

Bad news is different. Bad news gets through, though the preface is the same. Beep: GUY DIED LAST NIGHT. PLEASE RING.

Guy died last night. So I rang, but his niece Theo - his ward, and the mother of my poised and glamorous goddaughter - was asleep in his old house. "Oooh no, she's very tired," said the woman who now owns it. "I would wake her, but..."

No. Let her sleep. Time enough when she wakes up for the condolences, the cheery matter-of-factness, he had a good life, would have been 90 next month, got the all-clear from the hospital only three days beforehand: "He could go on for years. The next couple of days will be difficult, but ..." Plenty of time to cheer ourselves up with his easy death, sliding gently beneath the surface, drifting away in his sleep. Plenty of time for her to ask me to do the music at his funeral: "He'd have loved it if you could. Really."

So it goes. Friends marry, friends die, and me up in the organ-loft or baring my teeth at some recalcitrant choir, busy being busy, busy being on, while everyone else celebrates or mourns. (Half and half, usually, whether it's a wedding or a funeral, though weddings are usually worse. So... final.)

It would be a luxury to sit in a pew, just once, hankie at the ready, head in hands, primed like a grenade to weep at the right moment. Or possibly to laugh. If you had known Guy, you'd have laughed too. He was a bugger, really. Wilful, cantankerous, given to wild fits of egomania and yellow socks. Published magazines: published magazines you'd have heard of, then flogged them off and started publishing other magazines you'd never have heard of unless you were an aspirant provincial snob, or a crooked businessman East of Suez, in which case you'd have heard of them all right; you'd have wanted your picture in them. You'd have got your picture in them.

He always had ideas, Guy, right up to the end. Ideas for get-rich-quick schemes, ideas for skinning the opposition, ideas for avenging himself on his enemies, ideas for avenging himself on his friends. In fallow periods he would come up with ideas for avenging himself on Theo, his last living relation. I would go down to see them, in the days when Theo and her family were living on the top floor of his great crypto-Palladian country house. "Oh God," she would wail, "Guy has gone completely mad this time." It would be a vengeance scheme. He had disinherited her, re- inherited her, was trying to make her fall guy for some scheme to rook some publishing multinational, had sold the house over her head, had sold the house twice over her head, was requiring her to forge documents, change her identity, marry her lover, divorce her husband, ring up Asian entrepreneurs pretending to be someone else, sign something incriminating, defy the courts... whatever. Usually involving dodgy faxes. (He loved the fax machine, realising that, hiding behind that squit of thermal paper, you could be anyone you wanted to be. Sometimes he even sent faxes pretending to be himself. He'd have loved my pager; nobody knows if the message has got through. "Never got it, old chap." Beep.)

"Go and sound him out," Theo would say. "See if you don't agree with me: this time he really is crazy." So I'd go downstairs. Guy would be in his sitting-room, fire roaring, dressed for the feature-film cameras. Whatever happened he was never less than immaculate. Fondness for houndstooth, the mark of the cad. Savile Row, Jermyn Street, shoes from Lobb, yellow socks. ("Crease in your trousers and well-shone shoes," he told me once. "You'll feel fine and the other chap'll feel shabby. You'll be needing to do the other chap down, in your line of work.")

"Theo's gone completely mad," he'd announce, before going on to describe his latest scheme. When Theo had explained it, it was clearly insane and would end in bankruptcy and probably prison. When he described the same scheme, it sounded wise, imaginative, foolproof. But the fools were always one step ahead.

Guy's world wasn't nice, bourgeois, cosy, decent; it was a vanishing combination: stylish and atavistic. Everyone had a role. Mine was to be a metropolitan boulevardier, a clubman, a denizen of a world which had ceased to exist long before Guy sold his shady little Mayfair flat in Hay Hill. "Got any good yarns from Town?" he'd say, picturing me strolling from the mahogany sophistication of the Punch table to the careful leather- bound calumnies of Pall Mall, in my yellow socks. He liked my wearing yellow socks; having no son, he was glad to think that yellow socks were being carried on. I shall buy some for his grand-nephew in a few years' time.

He thrashed me at tennis when he was 87. He used hair-oil from Truefitt and Hill. He always came back to his fat, bewildered, affectionate, perennially tipsy old wife. He never realised she drank. He outlived his mistress. He had four huge wardrobes of exquisite clothes, and a room devoted to his shoes. He smoked Gold Block because Royal Yacht was hard to get hold of in the country. He knew everyone. He gave good parties. His luck ran out in the end. He had to sell the house but kept a tenancy-for-life; which has now expired. Guy died last night: at home, in his own bed. Beep. No more messages.

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