Sometimes the planets are aligned in a book's favour the minute it arrives chez dovegrey...
- It is delivered with the rest of the post, a cup of tea and breakfast to the bedside on my day off.
- I don't have to be anywhere else.
- It is raining and blowing a hoolie outside so I can't think of a good and sane reason to get up.
- I don't need scissors or talons to get into the package.
- I have momentarily put down the very good book I was reading in order to have a rest, stare out of the window and see if I can spot a fox in the front field and have a think about the very good book before I pick it up again.
- That very good book I set aside happens to be Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and what is in this package which I have opened with ease but a book about an undertaker....it's meant.
- The first sentence of Chapter One of this book about an undertaker is as follows...
'You knock first before you go in. You don't wait of course.
Good morning,Mr Gillespie. Lee here. Nice day.
Everyone is known by their formal name: Mr, Mrs, Miss. We have not yet had a Lord or a Lady, but we had a Doctor and a Major. Babies and kiddies are thir first name. Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead. Derek said that. It's true, you're somebody when you're dead. you get respect.'
And the rain it kept on raining, Bookhound kindly brought me another cup of tea and I just kept on reading Kitty Aldridge's wonderful new novel A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, and I loved every word. I am trying to think of any other novels that take the lid off (sorry) the funeral business and can only come up with The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.
Lee Hart is twenty-five next birthday, an apprentice undertaker at Shakespeare & Sons, and it is in his first person voice that the story is told.
Lee lives with his step-father Lester and his brother Ned who is deaf, and Kitty Aldridge floats in enough early clues for the reader also to know that Lee's mother has died recently and that his step-father is sufficiently grief-stricken to have taken root in front of daytime TV and not moved a muscle since. And all does not seem quite normal with Ned either...
'As I raise my door key, I catch sight of my brother Ned stepping out of his bedroom window on the first floor. Ned is not everyone's cup of tea. I hear the twang of springs. Ned appears over the hedge in mid-air, frog legs then drops out of sight again. Twang...'
The 'twang' soon explained...
'We got the trampoline second-hand:an Emperor twelve footer (no safety net) thirty-nine pounds off eBay...'
By page ten I am completely convinced by Lee and drawn along with his narrative voice which Kitty Aldridge has pitched to perfection. It is a voice that will make your heart weep but not in a slushy, sentimental way because a great deal of the book, and Lee's outlook on life, is not only deadly (sorry) serious, but also wry and funny as he recounts the day to day events at funeral director Shakespeare & Son and at home. Lee is ever the long-suffering and cheerful optimist in the face of many a depressing situation...but that doesn't include his work which he loves, and his colleagues for whom he has much respect...
' I for one would rather be dead with Derek than alive with some people...'
And Lee Hart has ever so very slightly restored my rather shaky confidence in the whole 'undertaking' thing...
'I don't blame the medical profession, they have a job to do, same as, but. As far as they are concerned life is everything, end of. The difference is they don't rate you once you're dead and we do. I'm just saying. It all boils down to this: they believe life is sacred, we believe death is too.'
Actually I think us nurses probably do see death as sacred, and some of the most memorable and moving moments I have experienced in my nursing career have involved dealing with the aftermath of death whilst on night duty ... in that strange hour before the rattle of the early morning tea trolley starts its progress down the ward, the night hush still prevails and the dawn light would be creeping up over the London skyline. But it was good to hear Lee say that all the same.
I suspect for many professionals who deal with death on a daily basis some well-placed cheeriness and humour is essential for survival, and thankfully I felt Kitty Aldridge, who seems to have spent some time with undertakers researching this book, treads on the right side of that fine line...witness Mrs Whitmarsh...
'What d'you call that? Derek is referring to Mrs Whitmarsh. I have finished Mrs Whitmarsh and reckoned her to look good for someone who is dead.
She looks grey, says Derek. She looks ill son. Get some colour on her before the resus team arrive.
Despite Derek's superiority I do not take this lying down.
I was going for a natural look I say....'
and I am laughing my socks off respectfully as Derek continues...
Well, you've overdone it. She looks terrible, he says. Dear God. No one wants to see their relative looking dead Lee. They want to see the face they loved back when, OK? An approximation of the good old days. Christmas morning after a nip of sherry. That's the look you're after...'
There will be trauma and tragedy and more sadness for Lee but from somewhere he seems to summon up endless resilience, and Lorelle the florist from 'Fleurtations' doesn't know what a little treasure of a loving and caring young man she is... well I won't spoil it.
I am now taking a summer sabbatical from my Loss and Bereavement online day job but more books have arrived, which I suspect may not be to everyone's taste, but which seem certain to offer me more new and non-fictional perspectives on all this... a boxed set entitled The Natural Death Handbook. I'll be re-visiting this one when I am back in harness in September but my thanks to the NDC for asking if I would like a copy and for sending it when I said yes please.
Meanwhile I would really love to see A Trick I Learned From Dead Men do well for Kitty Aldridge. Kitty has taken a taboo subject and achieved that fine balance, writing engagingly and openly, and with great sensitivity and humour about something most of us just don't like to think or talk about.
I'll end on a smile and leave you with old hand Derek's immortal words of advice to Lee...
'No good them going out looking worse than when they came in here...'