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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Children’

Under clear skies

Or, some unexpected astronomy

“Is it cloudy or clear?” said The Child Who Likes Animals yesterday evening after finishing his tea.

“I don’t know,” I said, knowing the weather forecast was showing a solid grey sky for the whole of the evening. “Let’s have a look,” knowing there was little risk of us being able to look at the stars.

I opened the back door, and was rather surprised to see clear skies and good visibility. “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!” screamed The Child Who Likes Animals Space. I had been planning to head straight to the sofa and the book I’m in the middle of reading,* but agreed that, if we could come up with a sensible plan for what we were actually going to look at, I would set it all up for him.

We fired up Stellarium and I tried to find things that would be interesting to see and straightforward to find. Outside, I had already seen the cross of Cygnus was fairly high in the sky, with Cassiopeia above it, so I make a risky suggestion. “Why don’t we try to see the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula?” I said, knowing that with our inner-city skies nebulas and other deep-sky objects do not put on a very good show. It does, though, have a very child-friendly name.

I set the telescope up on the table outside, and tried to get my eye in. It was immediately obvious that viewing conditions were on average far, far better than they had been on New Years Eve. The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula has the benefit that it’s close to an easy-to-find star, Alderamin (α Cephei). I quickly navigated ten degrees south to the location of the nebula, was confident I was there from the pattern of the stars. And was there anything? Well … maybe. Charitably, I could convince myself that the sky did indeed look slightly brighter than elsewhere in the sky; that I could see hints of structure that were not just inside my own eyeballs and brain. The Children, though, would have none of it.

Luckily, I’d noticed there was something interesting just by the nebula, and confirmed with the computer that I was looking at Herschel’s Garnet (μ Cephei). It’s a red supergiant star, a thousand times broader than our sun, and a distinctive pale peach colour to the eye—the astronomer William Herschel described it as “deep garnet”, hence the name. As its colour is so clear to see, The Children were reasonably impressed.

As it was so clear, we also pointed the telescope at the Pleiades, the view of which wowed The Child Who Likes Fairies (“There’s literally trillions of stars!”) then, the cluster NGC 7686 and the Andromeda Galaxy. The latter was, to my eyes, a slightly clearer fuzzy blob than it has been in the past, but still just a fuzzy blob. The Child Who Likes Animals said he could see it clearly; The Child Who Likes Fairies could not.

Thinking about what we should be able to see in the sky, I did a bit of maths. Say the pupil of one eye when it’s dilated is about 8mm wide—I’m just guessing this part really. We’re using a 150mm telescope: that’s 350 times as large as a pupil, so it gathers 350 times as much light. That’s a difference in astronomical magnitude of just under 6.4. Now, when I was aiming the telescope last night, once my eyes were adapted I could just about make out stars of magnitude 3.8 to 4.2; such as the stars λ Andromedae, κ Andromedae and ι Andromedae, which I used to find NGC 7686 and which I’ll have to write about again some other time.** I suspect that that’s as good as things are ever going to get in our hazy and light-polluted urban sky. But taking the telescope’s light-gathering power into account, if I’ve got the theory correct, I should be able to see things of magnitude 10 to 10.5 or so through it. Next time we have good seeing, I should test this out: look up at a few things and find out what the official magnitude of the stars I can just barely see is.

When I’ve done that, of course, I should probably think about getting some way to record what I can see, rather than just trying to describe it to you. The Child Who Likes Animals’s telescope is a Dobsonian with an altitude-azimuth mount, which means long-exposure photos are probably out, but I’d like to look at our options and see exactly what we could try to do instead.

* The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker.

** Because in looking up their names for this post, I’ve discovered they form part of the former constellation named after Friedrich the Great of Prussia, Honores Friderici.

End things as you mean to go on

Looking up at the sky again

Happy New Year!

Last night was the first clear night for a few weeks; and the only clear night at any point in the forthcoming weather forecast. Naturally, as soon as I mentioned the clear skies to The Children, they immediately jumped up and down and shouted “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!”

The decking was already slippery with frost, and there was a lot of light and noise from the surrounding houses, but we started out by pointing the telescope to Enif (ε Pegasi), a red supergiant with a very distinctive orange colour. From there we navigated to the nearby globular cluster Messier 15, which I could see in the telescope as a somewhat hazy blob, but which The Children weren’t sure they could actually see.

After they were in bed, I went outside again and looked up at the sky, but it was already filling up with haze and smoke from the fireworks sporadically going off all around the neighbourhood. I tried to find Messier 36, an open cluster in Auriga apparently also called the Pinwheel Cluster, but could not actually make out any of the stars in it. I looked at the Pleiades to calibrate myself, and realised there seemed to be far fewer of its stars visible than normal. As Orion was rising higher in the sky I pointed the telescope at the Orion Nebula, just about visible as a couple of fuzzy points; and the nearby Coal Car Cluster (NGC 1981). The latter’s stars are around magnitude 6.4 to 7.4, which normally would be clearly visible in the telescope even in our inner-city skies, but with last night’s firework haze I could just about make them out.

Ah well, there will be clear nights later in the winter I’m sure. I got up again about 3am to get myself a drink, and the garden was covered in a thick fog of smoke still from all the fireworks of midnight. Fireworks and astronomy do not mix. Hopefully later in the year, too, we’ll be able to take the telescope to somewhere with properly dark skies one night.

Yuletide toys

Some assembly required

One of the sad things about growing up, at least to my mind, is that when you’re a child the toys you get for Christmas are hopefully the sort of thing that you can open up on Christmas morning and start putting together on the front room carpet. A box of Lego, for example, or Meccano, or the sort of train set that’s amenable to running on the carpet. As you get older, that sort of present becomes rarer and rarer. They don’t necessarily disappear altogether—I remember one Christmas when I was small, when my dad received a sort of complex marble-machine clock that we spent all of Christmas morning and some of the afternoon putting together—but in general such things are relatively rare. Even if I do get some sort of model kit to open, it will no doubt need careful planning and purchasing of extra materials before I can start putting it together; I can’t just open the box and crack on whilst we’re still eating breakfast.

So, when I noticed there was a new Lego shop in town, I couldn’t resist going in with The Children and buying a seasonal “gingerbread house” to put together over the holiday as a Family Project, although really it was for my own fun. The Children were insistant it be a Family Project, though, so we ended up compromising by strictly taking turns to carry out each step in the instructions. I photographed each individual step, although because I didn’t put any effort into keeping each photo consistent they can’t really be compiled into the sort of engrossing stop-motion video that can be done with Lego. I did try but it wobbles crazily all over the place; please look away if you’re liable to travel-sickness.

Wobbly Lego

Yes, I know it has last year’s date on it. Maybe I should have asked for a discount.

To do such a video properly you’d also have to bear in mind that, given you start off with just a handful of pieces and end up with an entire building, you’re going to have to work out how you’ll zoom out smoothly at some point. And generally, you know, put some effort into proper setup and lighting and everything. Me, I just wanted to play with Lego.

Nearly done

I have to say, though, it does look quite nice sitting under the tree; it would look good on the mantelpiece too but that’s already stuffed with decorations. Maybe next year I’ll be allowed to build it on my own; or maybe I’ll just buy myself a set to open and put together all by myself.

Finished

Photo post of the week

Into the woods

If you have a day to spare at the tail end of autumn, and the weather is all damp and misty, what better to do than go for a walk in the woods? In this case, a Forestry England wood just outside Failand, Ashton Hill Plantation. At its centre is a stand of sequoias, looking suitably mysterious in the mist. For a moment you can start to imagine you’re in some sort of supernatural horror-mystery filmed in Washington State.

Grove of sequoias

In the shelter

However, brief glimpses of the rolling landscape outside the woods, showing off the traditional English fear of outsiders, soon remind you where you are.

Keep out

Near the edge of the wood is a fairy tree, naturally beloved by The Child Who Likes Fairies, decorated with several tiny doors and various garlands and trimmings round its base. Further up, I noticed at adult head height, something that seemed much deeper, speaking directly to the fairies themselves, not there to entertain children.

Corn dolly

A corn dolly pinned to the tree with a baby’s teething toy. Some sort of offering; some sort of old ritual; maybe some sort of prayer.

And another cemetery note

Or, something to read elsewhere

Coincidentally, following on from yesterday’s local cemetery post, I came across an interesting article elsewhere: a piece by author David Castleton on the 1970s Highgate vampire panic. I was vaguely aware that this story involved a classic supernatural panic of the Spring-Heel Jack variety combined with feuding paranormal investigators and self-styled vampire hunters; the article tells the full story in intriguing detail. Whether there really was a vampire striking terror into 1970s Hampstead, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

For a long time I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind, the character of a paranormal investigator who tries to stay rational even as everything around him isn’t. I haven’t actively written anything down for a long time, but every so often I come across a little bit of information about the Highgate vampire or something similar and a few more lines of notes go in the appropriate place. Maybe it will come to something one day.

As far as I’m aware, at least, there aren’t any vampires active in the Greenbank area; as a sensible rational person who has seen a dead body and has handled human bones, I tend to treat cemeteries as interesting cultural and archaeological spaces rather than as haunted nexuses of mystical power. Still, it makes me wonder slightly when I take The Children to wander round the cemetery, and when we leave they start waving goodbye to people “we’ve been playing with” who aren’t actually there.

One of our galaxies is missing!

Or, more astronomy for beginners

Yesterday afternoon, sitting at my desk as dusk was falling, the skies were clear and I could clearly see the moon and Mars rising in the sky. As soon as I logged off from work, I scampered downstairs and went outside, and saw Jupiter and Saturn just visible above the rooftops at the back of the house. “Let’s get the telescope!” I said to The Child Who Likes Animals Space. “Before they set!”

“Before what set?” said The Child, but I was already rushing off to get his telescope and set it up in the back garden.

By the time I’d hoicked it out of its box, Jupiter had already gone down below the roofline, but Saturn was still there. Sadly, I could only see it when I was stood up. The telescope, sitting on a camping table, was too low down to spot it. I briefly considered setting the smaller camping table on top of the larger camping table and making some sort of rickety makeshift telescope-tower, but it would probably have ended in some sort of injury to one or both of us. So, like we’d done before, we looked at the moon, we looked at Mars, and we looked at random bright stars. “Point it at that blue thing!” he shouted. “That’s a very hot star!” This time, at least, he was a lot calmer and could stand still looking through the eyepiece without having to break off every couple of seconds to run back and forth with excitement. I experimented with holding my phone camera in front of the eyepiece. Worst. Astrophotography. Ever.

Worst. Astrophotography. Ever.

After The Children decided they’d rather go inside and watch TV I left the telescope set up; and after they’d gone to bed, the skies were still clear. Time for some telescope practice for me, I decided. Using an app on my phone to show me roughly where things were, I tried focusing on key visible stars then swinging the telescope sideways to find a nearby Messier object. The results? Not very successful, other than a possible sighting of M29, the Cooling Tower Cluster.

Getting a rough fix and vaguely hoping to spot the thing clearly wasn’t working. So, I fetched my laptop, and fired up Stellarium in Night Mode. I picked a target—the Triangulum Galaxy—and went looking for it.

Although the skies were clear, the seeing wasn’t great. Even a newbie like me could tell that the seeing wasn’t good. Vega normally stands out to me like a sore thumb, but last night it didn’t really appear any brighter or more significant than the stars of the Northern Cross to its south, which normally are noticably fainter. Nevertheless, I could see Hamal and Sheratan, the brightest stars in Aries, and could spot the telescope nicely onto Hamal and swing it between the two. Zooming in on Hamal in Stellarium, and flicking my head back and forth from the telescope eyepiece to the dim red screen of the computer, I could slowly navigate my way upwards from star to star until I reached Mothallah, which I hadn’t managed to see with the naked eye.

Road map of the stars

From there, I could similarly hop south towards the spot where the Triangulum Galaxy should be, navigating from star to star and matching the scene in the sky to the screen of the computer. But when I reached it: nothing. Just a blank patch of sky. I found Mothallah again, then worked my way across by a different route. Still nothing. The Triangulum Galaxy has been stolen!

Let’s try the Andromeda Galaxy instead, I thought, given that it’s one of the brightest galaxies in the sky. I found Mirach by eye, spotted the telescope on to it, and walked over to where the galaxy should be. Another blank patch of sky, with a faint hazy blob in the middle of it. Hurrah! A faint hazy blob!

I’m almost glad I hadn’t found it the other day when The Child Who Likes Animals had asked me to find it, because I suspect if I had he’d have been awfully disappointed. I was a bit puzzled, though, because in theory the Andromeda Galaxy is of naked-eye magnitude. I should have seen much more than a fuzzy blob, surely?

A quick note about how astronomical “apparent magnitude”, or brightness to you and me, works. It’s a relative scale based loosely on the subjective scales used by ancient astronomers, and as it’s relative it’s written down as a number without units. The higher the number, the fainter the thing is; and a difference of five in the apparent magnitude number means “a hundred times brighter”. If you have a calculator to hand you can work out that a drop in magnitude of 1 therefore means “2.5119 times brighter”.* The star Vega, mentioned earlier, has magnitude 0, so a few things in the sky have negative magnitudes: Sirius is -1.47, Jupiter varies from -1.66 to -2.94, and Venus from -2.98 to -4.92, almost 100 times as bright as Vega.

On a good night, with a clear dark sky, the human eye should in theory be able to see things as faint as magnitude 6 or so. Last night was clearly nowhere near that: I could see Sheratan at 2.655 and Albeiro (in the Northern Cross of Cygnus) at 3, but couldn’t see Mothallah at 3.42. Through the telescope, though, I was happily stepping my way across the sky using stars of 8 to 8.4, roughly speaking, stars around 140 times less bright than the faintest I could see without it.

The Triangulum galaxy, though, is officially** of magnitude 5.72. Andromeda is considerably brighter still, around the same magnitude as Mothallah. So what was going on?

A galaxy isn’t a point of light, like nearly all stars are. Nearly every star in the sky, other than a handful of stars like Betelgeuse when seen through very high magnifications, appears to be just a single point of light to the viewer here on Earth. A galaxy, by comparison, covers a broad chunk of the sky. That small fuzzy blob I could make out in Andromeda was really just the very brightest core of the galaxy; and the rest of that 3.4 magnitude of light is spread out over an area wide enough to fill my entire eyepiece. Through the telescope, it just becomes a vaguely paler area of sky.

Hopefully at some point we will get the telescope out on a night with rather better viewing conditions, and be able to see all of these things properly. Until then, it seems strangely unintuitive to be able to see hundreds of dimmer stars but not a theoretically many-times-brighter galaxy. That, though, is just how the physics works.

* Apparently, the formal definition “five means a factor of 100” was set down by a Victorian astronomer with what I think is a great name, N R Pogson. The relationship 1:2.5119 is therefore known as Pogson’s Ratio.

** I say “officially”. I mean “according to what I’ve just read on Wikipedia”, of course.

The burial

What happens after you die

This is one of an occasional series of articles recounting the stories around my dad’s death from cancer in 2019, and what happened afterwards. More specifically, this post follows on directly from this one about his funeral service.

Personally speaking, I don’t have much experience of funeral services. At my dad’s I was steeling myself up to have to say thank you, afterwards, to all the people who had come along who I didn’t know at all. I remember as a child, being taken to church: the priest standing at the door as everyone filed out, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming. Somehow I had assumed we’d probably have to do the same thing, thank everyone for coming and for feeling suitably sad. Indeed, the undertakers asked if we wanted to stand outside the church and speak to the other mourners. The Mother, though, wasn’t ready for anything like that. She wanted us to get going as quickly as we could.

“As quickly as we could” is a bit of a misnomer for a funeral, of course. The Rector at The Mother’s church had already told us she liked to lead processions from the church to the cemetery on foot. At, it turned out, a fairly glacial pace, one step at a time. The cortege followed, and I tried to carefully drive at a matching pace without accidentally rear-ending the hearse. We crept through the village lanes linking the church and the cemetery, waiting at junctions for passing traffic, watching old men stop and remove their hats as we passed. The whole journey was well under half a mile, but it felt like an age.

Naturally, the rest of the extended family had all reached the cemetery well before us, and had all half-blocked the lane outside the cemetery with their cars to some distance either side of the cemetery gates. Not exactly knowing what to do, and with the limousine carrying my father’s frail sisters right behind us, I blindly followed the hearse through the cemetery gates and up the path. We just fitted through: but of course we did, you have to be able to get a hearse into a cemetery after all. We sailed slowly up the single path that runs up the middle of the field. The village cemetery is nearly full, with only a few spaces left available to people who lived within the bounds of the parish,*, so my dad’s grave was tucked away down at one corner at the far end, a mound of wet clay marking it out. Hand-dug by a professional artisan gravedigger, because the parish council has put a ban on mini-diggers. My mind naturally wondered if this would be a selling-point in Bishopston or St Werburghs.

We gathered around the muddy hole, its edged protected with fake turf. When all of us were in place, everyone decanted from their cars, the pallbearers carefully carried the wicker coffin over and solemnly lowered it into place. The Rector said her piece, and we scattered soil; then, one by one, flowers from a bunch of white roses. The undertaker had suggested this idea, “but don’t buy them from us,” she’d said. “Go to a supermarket before the funeral and pick some up, it’ll be a third of the price we charge.” So we had dutifully stopped off at Morrisons on the way there, for a bunch of white roses to be thrown into the grave. I took them round the mourners, offering them out to my various aunts and uncles and cousins in rough order of consanguinity downwards. Behind the hedge at the edge of the cemetery, a horse started neighing. The Child Who Likes Animals was trying to get away and look for bugs and minibeasts in the undergrowth.

I took out my phone, trying to be relatively discreet, and took a photo of the coffin lying in the grave with soil and roses scattered on top. The last one. Soft rain had started, and the relatives were all heading to their cars, ready to head off to the waiting buffet over on the other side of the village. The bespoke artisan gravediggers were, I assumed, hiding somewhere round the corner ready to start their hand-shovelling as soon as was tactful, as soon as we were all out of sight. Loading the family back into the car, I gingerly reversed back down the path and out to the lane, dead slow lest there be any elderly relatives directly behind me. It wouldn’t really do to drive over somebody at a funeral.

* If you already own a plot but want to open it up to add another body, then the village council charges you about fifteen times more if the new body comes from outside the parish. Can’t be doing with outsiders moving in for eternity, I assume.

Astronomy

The art of not seeing very much (as yet)

The other day I mentioned The Children have just turned seven. As The Child Who Likes Animals has spent quite a lot of time in recent months liking space instead, watching Brian Cox’s The Planets innumerable times, memorising lists of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, centaurs and so on, and learning the difference between a red dwarf, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. We decided, therefore, that it might be a nice idea for The Mother to get him a telescope, as a suitably grandmothery sort of present. Not trusting The Mother to judge what might be suitable, I reached out to a few astronomers I know for recommendations, and found something that both fell into The Mother’s budget and had a reasonable chance of imaging the rings of Saturn. The number of times I’ve looked down a telescope myself before can be counted on the fingers of one hand; but if I was age seven, was given a telescope, and found that it couldn’t show the rings of Saturn I’d be terribly disappointed.

Of course, I messed up to a certain extent. I’m sure I achieved my objectives, but there’s no way really that The Child Who Likes Animals would be able to actually point the telescope at something himself. So, this is going to be the sort of present that I set up in the garden on dark nights; find out what he wants to point it at; try to point it; and then he looks down the eyepiece. Naturally, it becomes a family event, with The Child Who Likes Fairies also wanting to get involved.

As I said, I’ve hardly ever been near a telescope before, despite having books and books on astronomy when I was that age myself. So, on the few nights we’ve had so far when the cloud has at least been broken rather than blanketing, it has gone something like this: I set up the telescope outside. A child asks to point it at something, in a brief pause for breath whilst running around with crazed excitement. If it is an easy thing—the moon, say—I contort myself to the right angle to try to see through the finder, point the telescope and roughly nudge it about until we can see what we’re looking for, all the time with said thing bouncing up and down in the eyepiece as children bounce up and down on the decking. A child then steps up, instinctively grabs the telescope and knocks it out of alignment, and we go back to square one.

Eventually everyone has seen what we’re looking at, and one of them will name something else. I try to work out how to find it, with my laptop and a copy of Stellarium. I fail to find it, and end up sawing the telescope back and forth across the sky desperately trying to find the thing they have asked for. I try again with the finder, drape myself over the telescope and twist it around until the red finder dot is in just the right place; then look through the eyepiece and see nothing but haze. I look up at the sky again, and my target patch of sky, clear a few moments before, is suddenly covered in thick cloud. This cycle repeats a few times, until we either look at the moon again instead, or The Children get bored and go back into the house.

So far, we’ve successfully looked at the moon, Mars, and some random patches of sky that have lots of stars in but nothing I can actually put a name to. Oh well. I’m sure at some point we will get the hang of it, even if I end up becoming the main telescope user myself. It certainly has shown me just how non-empty an empty-looking patch of sky actually is, even living in a hazy, foggy, light-polluted city like this one. I’ll let you know if I manage to find anything less easy to spot. Or, indeed, if we do ever see the rings of Saturn.

The changing mood and the changing season

Or, something of a lull, and the strange ways in which memory works

This blog has been relatively quiet this week. Clearly, finally completing that in-depth work-related post about inclusion and diversity on Monday must have taken it out of me. There are a number of things waiting in the to-be-written queue, but all of them are the sort of posts that deserve effort and energy and research putting into them, and this week has been too tiring a week for that sort of thing.

I like to think of myself as not a superstitious person, but the truth is that there are an awful lot of Dear Diary things I could have posted but didn’t because, frankly, if I do then it might jinx them and it might not happen. There are some things that have been lurking on my horizon for a few months now, but I don’t want to think about them too much in case one thing goes wrong and everything collapses. A couple of weeks ago it all looked to be going badly; this week it’s been going better, but I still don’t want to put too much effort into hoping everything will work out in the end in case that is all effort wasted.

The Children turned seven recently, which inevitably leads into thoughts of “this time seven years ago I was doing X” variety. At least, it does if you’re me: I think I picked the tendency up from my father, who would do it at the slightest potential reason. It’s strange to think that The Children were not always exactly as they are now. I don’t know how your memory works, but when I think back to my memories of people I knew long ago my brain tends to fill the image with them as they are now, not as they actually were then, which is very confusing when I think about things that happened, say, at school. It’s almost disconcerting to see things like school group photos and think “we all looked like children!” and similarly it’s strange to look at photos of The Children as babies and see that, yes, they actually looked like babies and not the children they are now. No doubt when they’re adults I will look back on how they were now and be surprised they looked like children.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the season changing. Enough leaves have dropped from the trees now that if I look carefully I can see trains passing the end of the street again, rather than just foliage. The skies are dark at night, and on clear nights filled and sparkling with autumn constellations. I go outside, look up at Vega, at Mars, at the cross of Cygnus, and wonder what will happen when we have turned around some more.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.