THE MAN AT THE FUNERAL (a short story)
She has just joined the funeral party and is standing at the fringe watching as the priest prays over the coffin and the family look on grave faced. Mr.Mills had been one of the founders of the small company in which she worked as an admin assistant and she had decided to attend the funeral out of respect, not because she was required to. She had met him a couple of times at company meets and he had seemed kindly though astute. Once, when she had had car trouble in a thunderstorm and no taxis could be found, he had given her a lift home and had waited till she had safely entered her apartment before driving away.
She finds herself standing next to a young man who when she glances at him seems to be staring at the coffin bright-eyed, as though he was fighting back tears.
‘That’s unusual’, she thinks. She had never seen him at the office and he was standing too far back to be family.
“Did you know him?” She asks softly, half turning her face towards him.
“He was my father,” he says simply and just as softly.
Her shocked, full-faced gaze at him is involuntary. Yes, he did have Mr.Wells eyes, clear blue and kindly, almost vulnerable.
“Then why are you here and not with the family?”
“He didn’t know I was his son.”
“Oh!” She is stunned out of speech. The priest’s intonations weave in and out of the silence.
“And you knew all along? And chose to keep quiet?” Her curiosity finally forces her to speak.
“No, I found out only this morning.” He pauses for a deep breath. “When my mother called and told me to look at the obituaries page for a Mr.Mills. Then she said ‘he was your father’.”
He takes two more deep breaths, the second coming out in a long sigh.
“That seemed strange because all these years I was told that my father had died in the Gulf War when I was still unborn. She said ‘No, I lied. I met Mr.Mills when I had worked as a call girl for a brief period.”
“But you could be the son of any one of her clients.”
“Yes, I did ask. She said she had done it for a very brief time during her final year of college when she had run out of money. And she had had only one client who had taken a liking for her and had helped put her through college. After she graduated she got an office job and they didn’t meet again, but meanwhile she had become pregnant with me.”
“Couldn’t she have married him, they probably liked each other?”
“He was already married.”
“Oh!” She is thinking how life’s a bitch sometimes.
“He could have at least supported your upkeep.”
“Yes, but she didn’t tell him about me because she was a call girl not his girlfriend and it was her mistake not his. If she had asked him, he would have probably given her money but he had just started a business and she didn’t want to burden him with the consequence of her mistake.”
She was quiet for a while, chewing upon this.
“Why didn’t she tell you all this earlier?”
“She felt it would be better for my self-esteem to have a soldier for a father who died in a war than be an outcome of a mistake.”
She nods to herself, thinking about the soundness of the logic. Sometimes a lie is certainly better than the brutal truth.
“Then why tell you now?”
“She somehow heard a few weeks ago that Mr.Mills …. my father’s health was deteriorating, so she decides it’s time to tell me, just in case I wanted to meet him. She was summoning the courage to tell me, waiting for the right time. She hadn’t expected him to go so quickly.”
He lets out a deep sigh, bumpy and broken.
“That must have been one power conversation you had this morning.” She says trying to sound light.
“Yes, life changing it was.”
The casket is now being lowered into the grave and it gives her a chilling thought.
“Did you get the chance to say goodbye?” She looks wildly from the casket to him and back and forth. “Maybe your should throw some earth into the grave, just to give you a sense of connection.”
“I was at the church service. Even though no one knew me, I went up and kissed him on the forehead.” His voice begins to crack. She moves closer and places a hand on his arm. “I wanted to hug him badly, this father I had but never had. I wanted him to fill up all the empty spaces in my life where a father should have been.”
She glances at him and again his eyes are bright with held-back tears.
They stand like that, quietly, till the grave is filled up and people begin to move away. Two strangers held together by something greater, more profound than either of them have experienced in their short lives.
She wonders why he had bared his heart to her, a total stranger. The secret must have been too overwhelming for him to bear alone. They continue to stand there till everyone’s gone. She pats him on his arm as if to say goodbye. There is now peace on his face as he continues to gaze at the mound of freshly moved earth.
“Your father may not have known you in flesh but his spirit will always be with you. In a way, his death has brought him closer to you than his life would have.”
He turns slowly to look at her and as though the thought has turned on a light switch within him, a smile slowly spreads across his face. It spreads and spreads until his entire being is filled with radiance.
As she walks towards her car, she is glad she followed her impulse to attend Mr.Mills’ funeral.
Written for the Dailypost prompt ‘groupthink’ which said ‘Write a post that includes dialogue between two people — other than you.’