Authors: Graham Swift
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, JANUARY 1997
Copyright © 1996 by Graham Swift
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Picador, Ltd., and subsequently in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
New York, in 1996.
Permissions acknowledgements appear on
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Last orders/Graham Swift.—1st Vintage International ed.
1. Aged men—England—Psychology—Fiction. 2. Working class—England—Fiction. 3. Friendship—England—Fiction. 4. Death—England—Fiction. I.
Author photograph © Mark Douet
Random House Web address:
But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.
Sir Thomas Browne:
I do like to be beside the seaside.
John A. Glover-Kind
It aint like your regular sort of day.
Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but he can tell I don’t want no chit-chat. That’s why I’m here, five minutes after opening, for a little silent pow-wow with a pint glass. He can see the black tie, though it’s four days since the funeral. I hand him a fiver and he takes it to the till and brings back my change. He puts the coins, extra gently, eyeing me, on the bar beside my pint.
‘Won’t be the same, will it?’ he says, shaking his head and looking a little way along the bar, like at unoccupied space. ‘Won’t be the same.’
I say, ‘You aint seen the last of him yet.’
He says, ‘You what?’
I sip the froth off my beer. ‘I said you aint seen the last of him yet.’
He frowns, scratching his cheek, looking at me. ‘Course, Ray,’ he says and moves off down the bar.
I never meant to make no joke of it.
I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There’s maybe three or four other early-birds apart from me, and the place don’t look its best. Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There’s a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church.
I sit there, watching the old clock, up behind the bar.
Thos. Slattery, Clockmaker, Southwark.
The bottles racked up like organ pipes.
Lenny’s next to arrive. He’s not wearing a black tie, he’s not wearing a tie at all. He takes a quick shufty at what I’m wearing and we both feel we gauged it wrong.
‘Let me, Lenny,’ I say. ‘Pint?’
He says, ‘This is a turn-up.’
Bernie comes over. He says, ‘New timetable, is it?’
‘Morning,’ Lenny says.
‘Pint for Lenny,’ I say.
‘Retired now, have we, Lenny?’ Bernie says.
‘Past the age for it, aint I, Bern? I aint like Raysy here, man of leisure. Fruit and veg trade needs me.’
‘But not today, eh?’ Bernie says.
Bernie draws the pint and moves off to the till.
‘You haven’t told him?’ Lenny says, looking at Bernie.
‘No,’ I say, looking at my beer, then at Lenny.
Lenny lifts his eyebrows. His face looks raw and flushed. It always does, like it’s going to come out in a bruise. He tugs at his collar where his tie isn’t.
‘It’s a turn-up,’ he says. ‘And Amy aint coming? I mean, she aint changed her mind?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Down to us, I reckon. The inner circle.’
‘Her own husband,’ he says.
He takes hold of his pint but he’s slow to start drinking, as if there’s different rules today even for drinking a pint of beer.
‘We going to Vic’s?’ he says.
‘No, Vic’s coming here,’ I say.
He nods, lifts his glass, then checks it, sudden, half-way to his mouth. His eyebrows go even higher.
I say, ‘Vic’s coming here. With Jack. Drink up, Lenny.’
Vic arrives about five minutes later. He’s wearing a black tie but you’d expect that, seeing as he’s an undertaker, seeing as he’s just come from his premises. But he’s not wearing
his full rig. He’s wearing a fawn raincoat, with a flat cap poking out of one of the pockets, as if he’s aimed to pitch it right: he’s just one of us, it aint official business, it’s different.
‘Morning,’ he says.
I’ve been wondering what he’ll have with him. So’s Lenny, I dare say. Like I’ve had this picture of Vic opening the pub door and marching in, all solemn, with a little oak casket with brass fittings. But all he’s carrying, under one arm, is a plain brown cardboard box, about a foot high and six inches square. He looks like a man who’s been down the shops and bought a set of bathroom tiles.
He parks himself on the stool next to Lenny, putting the box on the bar, unbuttoning his raincoat.
‘Fresh out,’ he says.
‘Is that it then?’ Lenny says, looking. ‘Is that him?’
‘Yes,’ Vic says. ‘What are we drinking?’
‘What’s inside?’ Lenny says.
‘What do you think?’ Vic says.
He twists the box round so we can see there’s a white card sellotaped to one side. There’s a date and a number and a name: J
Lenny says, ‘I mean, he aint just in a box, is he?’
By way of answering Vic picks up the box and flips open the flaps at the top with his thumb. ‘Mine’s a whisky,’ he says, ‘I think it’s a whisky day.’
He feels inside the box and slowly pulls out a plastic container. It looks like a large instant-coffee jar, it’s got the same kind of screw-on cap. But it’s not glass, it’s a bronzy-coloured, faintly shiny plastic. There’s another label on the cap.
‘Here,’ Vic says and hands the jar to Lenny.
Lenny takes it, uncertain, as if he’s not ready to take it
but he can’t not take it, as if he ought to have washed his hands first. He don’t seem prepared for the weight. He sits on his bar-stool, holding it, not knowing what to say, but I reckon he’s thinking the same things I’m thinking. Whether it’s all Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the ones who were done after. So Lenny could be holding some of Jack and some of some other feller’s wife, for example. And if it
Jack, whether it’s really all of him or only what they could fit in the jar, him being a big bloke.
He says, ‘Don’t seem possible, does it?’ Then he hands me the jar, all sort of getting-in-the-mood, like it’s a party game. Guess the weight.
‘Heavy,’ I say.
‘Packed solid,’ Vic says.
I reckon I wouldn’t fill it, being on the small side. I suppose it wouldn’t do to unscrew the cap.
I pass it back to Lenny. Lenny passes it back to Vic.
Vic says, ‘Where’s Bern got to?’
Vic’s a square-set, ready-and-steady sort of a bloke, the sort of bloke who rubs his hands together at the start of something. His hands are always clean. He looks at me holding the jar like he’s just given me a present. It’s a comfort to know your undertaker’s your mate. It must have been a comfort to Jack. It’s a comfort to know your own mate will lay you out and box you up and do the necessary. So Vic better last out.
It must have been a comfort to Jack that there was his shop,
Dodds & Son, Family Butcher
, and there was Vic’s just across the street, with the wax flowers and the marble slabs and the angel with its head bowed in the window:
Tucker & Sons, Funeral Services.
A comfort and an incentive, and a
sort of fittingness too, seeing as there was dead animals in the one and stiffs in the other.
Maybe that’s why Jack never wanted to budge.
I’d said to Jack, ‘It aint never gone nowhere,’ and Jack’d said, ‘What’s that, Raysy? Can’t hear you.’ He was leaning over towards Vince.
It was coming up to last orders.
I said, ‘They calls it the Coach and Horses but it aint never gone nowhere.’
He said, ‘What?’
We were perched by the bar, usual spot. Me, Lenny, Jack and Vince. It was young Vince’s birthday, so we were all well oiled, Vince’s fortieth. And it was the Coach’s hundredth, if you could go by the clock. I was staring at it – C
in brass letters round the top.
First time I’d thought of it. And Vince was staring at Bernie Skinner’s new barmaid, Brenda, or was it Glenda? Or rather at the skirt she was squeezed into, like she was sitting down when she was standing up.
I wasn’t just staring at the clock, either.