When I was eight, roller skates were things you stepped into while wearing your outdoor shoes. They had laced, red leather toe-pieces that you pushed your shoes into, and red straps to buckle round your ankles. Two chunky black wheels sat either side of your toes, and two either side of your ankles. The metal base could be shortened or lengthened as needed. The skates made a loud clacking noise and didn’t roll well on -carpets or bumpy -pavements. If my sister and I were to build up any momentum at all, there was only one place to go. Down the crem.
The crematory was cavernous. The clackclackroll of skates was loud on the tiled floor, which was cold and hard to fall on, but goodness, you could pick up some speed. On the other side of the immense wall was the chapel. We knew that during the day coffins came through one hatch and were rolled across to three steel ones on the opposite side: cremators 1, 2 and 3. But we only went down the crem – as we all called it – when the room was still and the furnaces empty and cold. Each cremator had a small, nautical-style wheel that, when spun, opened the doors on to the scorched bricks of the incinerators. These wheels were handy to grab hold of when we needed to slow down. Occasionally, we’d spin one to see inside. My sister climbed in once, and her trousers were never the same again.
Of course, everyone needs distance to appreciate the quirks and oddities of their particular childhood. My father was the superintendent of a Birmingham city council crematorium, and the job came with a small house set within the grounds. From our kitchen window we could see the wrought iron gates through which the funeral processions came every 20 minutes and rolled past our window. It was all I knew. It was normal. Nevertheless, I think I was slower than I could have been to realise just how unusual it was to have spent my formative years in such an environment and to consider how it shaped the person and writer I became.
In my memory, those years were divided into two seasons, not four. It was all about British summer time. As soon as the clocks went forward, we zipped up our windcheaters and headed outside until late October. Once the lofty iron gates were padlocked at 6pm, my sister and I, along with our dog, had free range of the grounds. They were beautiful: no wonky old gravestones, but banks of foliage and flowers, a lake, a small fountain, well-kept lawns and a copse of silver birch trees. There was also the giant pile of grass cuttings to jump into from spring to summer’s end in the gardeners’ yard, sit-on mowers with their exquisite petrol smell and secluded areas for an impressive, private bonfire each November. And if we came across a scattering of bluish grey powder? Well, we knew to jump over, never on, it.
There were indoor playgrounds, too: a well-equipped office, especially appreciated on those endless Sunday afternoons. I enjoyed the electric typewriter, shooting its letters like bullets at the lightest of touches; the adding machine that printed out sums with a satisfying grind; and the sniffable felt tip pens. Best by far, though, was the little telephone switchboard, with compact levers to snap up and down, illuminating tiny red and green lights.
We had no neighbours, no nearby friends to play with. It wasn’t until I started infant school, three miles away, quite unprepared and astounded at the vast number of children in one place, that I began to learn how to mix with others. It was an undeniably lonely and isolated early childhood. But I appreciate, now, how much solitude was a key nutrient in my compost. There was nothing to do except watch everyone and everything closely, and develop an imaginative inner world. This constant attentiveness not only saved me from death by boredom, but gave me a keen eye for detail and a certain self-sufficiency.
Once at school, the place where I lived continued to set me apart. The school I attended was built to serve a nearby leafy suburban estate. My sister and I were in a tiny minority travelling to school in a car, therefore unavailable for the easy coming and going after school and before teatime that happens naturally in close-knit neighbourhoods. Occasionally I would invite someone to play after school, but it had to be arranged in advance with their parents and I could see their amusement or irritation at such organisational rigmarole. Picking their child up once the gates were locked seemed to pose more of a problem than I thought it needed to. In retrospect, I wonder whether their reluctance was more about what was on the other side of the gates than the difficulty of getting through them. Once my older sister went to secondary school, she would have chosen hot coals underfoot rather than her friends knowing where she lived. Without a social life, from infancy to the age of 12, whatever needs I had seemed to be met, one way or another, by the crem. When, at 10, I wanted to learn the piano, it never occurred to me that my parents might buy one. There was a perfectly good organ in the chapel and waiting to teach me every Tuesday afternoon after school, the ancient chapel organist. Wheezy, with nicotine-yellow fingers resting on the keys, he was employed to play a couple of hymns during each service, and something reflective as the mourners entered and exited. He was also happy to be slipped a few bob every week to be my teacher.
It wasn’t a successful venture. Maybe it was Mr Fleming, his curved back hunching over the organ, as ill at ease next to a 10-year-old girl as she was with him. I wasn’t a good student, but neither was he a good teacher. I could already read music, thanks to the recorder club at school, but it was beyond me how all those notes stacked on top of each other related to my fingers. I was supposed to practise every day once the last funeral was done, but I spent most of the time flipping down the organ stops, playing with the volume, flicking the switch that closed the curtain around the catafalque, the platform on which the coffin rests during the funeral. Sometimes, in a frenzy of boredom, I’d stand up and simply run back and forth over the enormous foot pedals. If Dad appeared from the office to see how I was getting on, I would look serious and twiddle on the keys with intent. He wasn’t taking much notice and never talked to Mr Fleming about my progress. But, by some miracle, one tune from the beginner’s book landed. Not only did I find myself able to play it with both hands, but before long, I didn’t even need the music.
One half-term, I was sitting in the kitchen with Mum, laying low. This was what we did when a funeral procession was passing. Our garden was visible to the mourners, so every 20 minutes, when the glossy black cars rolled past, we had to become invisible. It was never spelled out to us, but we grew up understanding that it was somehow disrespectful for us to be seen running round the garden, having a good time, looking too … alive. By now my sister was old enough to get on the bus and meet her friends in town. So it was just Mum and me when Dad burst through the kitchen door and, unusually for him, ignored me.
“Put the girl in a black dress,” he said. “Mr Fleming’s gone home sick.”
Five minutes later, when Dad and I left the house, the hearse was already sitting under the porte-cochere with two lustrous Daimlers behind it. I bent forward to look at the people emerging from the cars, like dark flowers unfolding in the sunshine. Another unspoken message I had imbibed: grief was more disturbing to witness than death itself – the hearse was, after all, one big flowery window display for the coffin, whereas mourners were hidden behind car windows of jet glass – and undertakers were a dignified, distinguished elite, who weren’t afraid to be close to these people whose grief somehow set them apart from the rest of us. Undertakers stood sentinel alongside the otherwise isolated mourners, quietly directing, guiding, assuring.
Hitching my sister’s black dress back over my shoulders yet again, I needed to come clean.
“Dad,” I said, “I can only play one tune.”
“Then play that,” he replied, walking on, “over and over. And don’t smile.”
I did as I was told, making full use of my favourite organ stops: trumpet, swell, tremolo, mute, oboe. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus … Towards the end of the service, I even tried a ponderous syncopated version. A few weeks later I received a cheque from Birmingham city council in payment for my services and genuinely thought no more of it.
That same year, there was a shocking fusion of school and home. A girl in my class ran into a busy road from behind a parked car and was killed by oncoming traffic. I remember the teacher coming into the classroom red-eyed to tell us. As others started to cry and ask questions, my mind went straight to practicalities. Would she come to our crem, or go to the cemetery in the centre of town? Once we knew she was definitely coming to us, I felt a strange and fierce ownership of the tragedy. None of my classmates would attend the funeral. My inside knowledge felt heavy and significant, and spilled out of my mouth to tell mute, wide-eyed friends what would be happening to the body once the coffin had passed through the hatch. My familiarity with this sorry world separated me not only from their upset but also my own sense of loss. I remained emotionally detached from my friend’s death for months.
Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived their childhood has enough material to last a lifetime. In researching my book about the Aberfan disaster, when a coal waste tip slid down a mountain on to a small village primary school, I read about the embalmers arriving in the early hours to prepare the bodies for identification, then for presentation in their coffins before burial. It felt natural for me to find out more, to talk to embalmers, hear their stories, watch them at work. There was a palpable sense of homecoming in it. Their manner, their humour, their deep respect for the dead and their loved ones felt incredibly familiar.
As I write this, I have two friends in our local hospice. I’m assailed by childhood memories of black hearses and gleaming Daimlers, of mourners funnelling from the cars into the crem chapel. If I grew up watching the theatre of death, I’m now finally in the play myself. This is what all that performance was about: helping people deal with the shock of mortality knocking you sideways, the question of how on earth to say goodbye, to carry on with any sense of optimism. My early exposure to the never-ending procession of funerals means I haven’t struggled as much as others with the inevitability of death. But my upbringing has done nothing to prepare me for the sharp affront and protracted disbelief at having to say goodbye to someone too soon.
My father died nearly 40 years after we left the crematorium. Despite a lifelong career in the funeral industry, he refused to contemplate his own death and, even as a frail, elderly man, made no end-of-life plans. But there was never any question that he would be cremated, the means of disposal he had championed as the modern, clean, civilised option. For years I viewed burial as old-fashioned, unsophisticated, unsustainable. Today, the green burial movement offers a simpler, more environmentally friendly approach; many choose willow or cardboard coffins over the expensive treated wooden ones. My husband and I have already chosen the green burial ground we will be buried in – something my younger self would have been surprised at. But when it came to my father, cremation and a heavy, lacquered coffin seemed the only way to go, with his ashes being scattered in the crematorium grounds of which he had been so proud.
By then, my childhood home had been converted into the administration block. The bedroom my sister and I had shared was now the waiting room. A few days after our father’s funeral, it was into this room that the undertaker came, carrying the urn containing the man who was, in my mind, simultaneously putting his head round the door, telling us to be quiet and go to sleep. We left the building to go down the crem one last time. Our various selves – grown women, young girls – watched him scattered on consecrated ground, also our playground. The mysteries of time, place and memory are unfathomable.
I didn’t attend a funeral as a mourner until I was in my 20s, a long way from my childhood home. It was a time of life when the crem seemed more distant to me than it does today. I entered this chapel to solemn, dignified music. The organist played hymns that we sang along with, and soft, beautiful music to distract us as the curtain closed round the catafalque. I found myself thinking back to my one-off performance as a funeral organist, and wondered what those poor mourners must have thought as their loved one was seen off this Earth by a 10-year-old girl in a baggy black dress, playing a sluggish, incessant rendition of Home on the Range.