What's in the box, Mum?
It's your Uncle Mark, Kieran. He's having a good long, rest now. He'll be alright, I promise. Hold my hand.
Is he tired then?
No. Not any more. He won't ever be tired again. He won't ever hurt again. He's in peace.
Why are all those people here, Mum?
Because they know what a good man he was and they're sad. Like we are.
How come he knew so many people?
Well he didn't actually know them. Not like that. No one can know that many people. Even if you're famous. He was special, though, remember that. Let's be quiet now for a bit, shall we?
The procession moved forward and Heather tried to quieten her own mind. She wished that the flags and bowed heads weren't so distracting. Kieran had a point. They hadn't known Mark. They hadn't made dens at Grandma's house with him, argued over the cake mixing bowl or vied for first place in the queue for pocket money handout by Dad on Sundays.
Heather surveyed the passing lines of mourners, ten or so deep in some places, wanting to confront them in the same way that Kieran had done to her a few minutes ago. Some dabbed away at their eyes. Some stared straight ahead at an infinitely distant horizon and saluted, mouths stiff. They hadn't had the call, the visit, the gut-wrenching sobs threatening to strangle their necks. They had been summoned by a news report. Another one. But what of those who hadn't come today? Those whose sense of emotional disaster could be contained by the dimensions of their television screens?
It seemed ironic, Heather thought, that as technology became more compact, its power became immense, blurting out messages to larger numbers of people spread over wider areas, like microscopic bacteria travelling first class to feed off the world's open wounds. Heather understood the onlookers' dilemma well. She, too, had watched catastrophes unfold before her eyes on the television and momentarily been desperate to be involved, briefly overcome by guilt at the distance dimming the pain felt by those victims depicted in harrowing images. Thinking about it, her role here was clear-cut. Her brother, a hero, was being buried and her memories of him were neatly sealed in by the lid of a coffin. He had been a good man. He had been a good man fighting for a lot of people he didn't know. He was special but she hardly felt lucky. Everyone was special, wasn't that what she was always telling Kieran?
For the onlookers, the coffin contained anonymous, slippery, collective symbols of grief, loss and pain. Confusion of what they ought to have been feeling and reproach for being thankful for what they were not. Remembrance of past losses and imaginary future ones. Sadness projected onto a box had to be a very individual thing. Some people threw flowers as a symbol of something. But universally, no amount of nailing down was ever going to stop their tears from escaping through the gaps or from seeping through the wood. On the grand scale of things, their responses to television news reports could shrink dramatically and neatly to microscopic proportions but only because they were too big to even think about.
Turning back to herself, Heather's only solace was that at least Mark was safe. It was small comfort, of course, but at least she wasn't alone. She sat in the car, naked in her emotion and sobbed, comforted only by the blanket of compassion. She shivered in its warmth.
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