Where Does Kissing End?
An extract from the novel by Kate Pullinger
Harry’s mother Hilda died in the hospital where Mina was born. She died of old age, ailing suddenly and completely. To Hilda aging meant a general falling apart which she did not like; as her hearing got worse she prepared herself to die.
Hilda had warned Harry years before that when she was ready she would simply go. “There are worse things than living a long life and dying happily,” she said. “And when I’m gone you will be all alone in the world, Harry. There is nothing wrong with being alone in the world. I have you and you, well, I suppose you have got the girl Mina,” - Harry moved to interrupt, he had never said, not even to Hilda, that he thought Mina was his child - “although she does not really belong to you, I know. I’d watch out for her though,” she said stopping Harry from speaking yet again. “There is something to worry about her, I’m sure.” Harry shook his head but as far as Hilda was concerned the subject was closed and she began to complain about the Government.
When Hilda became ill Harry felt angry with her; when she entered the hospital he was enraged by the doctors and nurses whom he accused of not helping her. Hilda was soon past telling him to calm down and shut up and he would not listen to anyone else. Late one evening breathing became difficult and Hilda died in her sleep. As Harry watched his mother’s life drain from her body a huge fury filled him. He terrorized the nursing staff on night duty and reproached them for treating his mother like an unimportant old woman; he threatened to take Hilda’s body away from the hospital. He threw a bedpan belonging to another patient on the ward against the wall. Several of the elderly ladies applauded. When Mina suddenly appeared he took hold of her shoulders and shook her, shouting “What are you doing here?”
Mina did not know why she had decided to come to the hospital so late that night. She knew Hilda was there although she had not been to visit the old woman for years. Unable to sleep she got dressed and took a bus to the hospital.
Harry stopped shaking Mina and began to cry. Behind him Hilda lay still on the bed. Mina knew without going any nearer that she was dead. Harry stood with his face buried in his hands. Mina had never seen a man cry before except on television; it made her feel big and him seem small. She did not attempt to touch Harry or to speak. She just stood there and stared. Several feet away a harassed nurse watched them both.
Mina looked at Hilda again. She wondered how it felt to die. Hilda looked composed, as if she had simply left her body without violence, without attempting to linger. Mina wondered at what point she had ceased to be human.
Harry stopped crying abruptly and straightened his back. “Don’t look at her,” he hissed. “She’s gone.”
Over the next few days Harry spent all his time making arrangements for Hilda’s funeral. He had her body laid out for viewing in a room full of flowers at the funeral parlour and hired a limousine for the trip to the cemetery. For the roof of the hearse he ordered a wreath of orange tiger lilies, Hilda’s favourite, spelling “Mother”. He went to a fitting for a morning suit and gave both Mina and Lucy money to buy new dresses, “the blackest black you can find,” he specified. Lucy wondered if Harry would let her stand next to him in the cemetery. With shame, she found herself looking forward to the event. Mina was happiest about the new dress; Lucy had never allowed her to wear black before. It was a colour to which she aspired.
Harry had arranged with the owner of the funeral parlour, a business acquaintance, to be allowed to spend his nights watching over his mother. For three nights after her death he sat beside her and gazed at her face, grey beneath the beige make-up. Then on the fourth night, the night before the funeral, Harry succumbed to sleep. He had been at Lucy’s to survey the new dresses. Lucy cooked him dinner and even Mina was solicitous toward him. They both urged him to go home and spend a night in his own bed in order to prepare for the next day.
Hilda’s body disappeared that night. At the funeral parlour there was no sign of breaking and entering, nor even breaking and exiting. The coffin was empty, the flowers only slightly disturbed.
Harry’s wrath was incomparable. He virtually destroyed the room where Hilda had been and he very nearly beat up the undertaker who saved himself by displaying an outrage almost as great as Harry’s. Both men calmed down over a bottle of brandy which was kept handy for overwrought mourners. Once drunk, Harry began to find the situation funny. It was just like his mother to confound all expectations.
Lucy, arriving at the funeral parlour with Mina an hour before the ceremony was due to begin, was appalled by what she saw. Harry was lying in the coffin with a rose in his mouth while the undertaker pronounced solemn vows over him. Mina began to laugh.
“Have you called the police?” asked Lucy, her voice shrill.
“What good would that do?” replied Harry, his eyes still closed. “Put up a missing corpse poster - ‘Have you seen this woman, 5’9”, grey hair, decaying’?”
“She hasn’t just walked out of here,” Lucy said, nearly shouting. “For all you know her body could have been stolen by a pervert. I think you should do something about it.” Harry, however, was not convinced. As far as he was concerned his mother was dead and that was all that really mattered.
The funeral went ahead with a closed empty coffin. Harry sobered up and everyone behaved with dignity. Mina was pleased by the splendour of the occasion, impressed by the graveyard and the words of the vicar. The other mourners included all of Hilda’s aging, now widowed, female friends and the retired butcher George Varney. Harry stood next to the undertaker and nowhere near Lucy who shed a few tears behind her black lace veil. Mina stood leaning into the cutting wind. She decided she felt perfectly at ease with death. Hilda’s missing body was not mentioned again.
Novel, Serpent’s Tail/Phoenix, 1992