Jessie has just finished pointing out another person to me, and explaining who they were to Millie, and how they screwed her over.
“So anyway, she can fuck off.” she says, and I’m suddenly aware of how muted and low everyone else here is talking, and how few other people I know at the service.
“That over there, that’s Dave. You know, her old boss at Gamez Market? Surprised he’s here.”
“She was there for nearly ten years, Jess.” I offer.
“Yes, yes she was. And they treated her brilliantly. Do you remember why she left?”
“Another… she started at the school?”
“Yup. Took a pay cut, did you know that?”
“I didn’t, but didn’t she want to work with kids?”
“She’s… she was allergic to kids. They did her head in. No, that prick bullied her out of the job. Had a mate on the staff who went for the supervisor job that she managed to get, and the two of them made her life a misery after as punishment.”
I didn’t know any of these stories. It’s a worry. I thought I was Millie’s best friend when most of this happened.
I mention that.
“She always seemed so cheerful, and so on top of things?”
“Yes, well. At school she was desperate for you to like her; everyone, really, not just you. And then afterwards, well…”
“Well, you were a needy fucker, weren’t you? Always ending the world over some girl or other. Would you have noticed, if she’d said anything?”
I remember that Millie was always a good listener.
“Her mum looks devastated.” I say weakly a few minutes later. Jessie grunts. “Oh come on, you can’t begrudge her mum, today of all days.”
“Okay, she’s probably gutted.” Jessie concedes. “But she should be ashamed of herself.”
I look at her, an awkward grin on my face, amazed at her nerve.
“She should.” she says. “She was bloody horrible to Millie when we were kids, and she hasn’t improved. Why do you think Millie was such a pleaser?”
“I just thought she was nice.”
Eyes rolling hard away from me, Jessie says “You’re a damn fool. She wasn’t nice, she was fucking terrified. She was terrified you’d leave like her dad did. Like she was terrified of saying anything to set her mum off.”
Jessie has tears in her eyes, and pushes a snort away with her sleeve. A few people are pretending not to notice us.
“Millie could be a dick, you know. When we shared that flat, remember? She’d always, always be playing her music too loud, and wouldn’t stop. She had… god, awful taste in everything. All of that shitty… some bloke, sounds like folk music, like it’s about something, but actually he’s just whining about a girl. There’s a line in one of them, though. It’s been stuck in my head for days. He says: We should learn to regret all the things we ignored.”
She goes quiet for a second. Then she says “You know when she left Mark – every time she left Mark – she had to come and stay with me? Her mum wouldn’t let her in, told her she had to go home to her husband, sort it out.”
“There… was more than one time?”
“Three. Three times. Did she not put that on Facebook?” she sneers at me. Very specifically, it feels like, at me.
“Come on, how was I supposed to know?” I say. Some of the people who’d been pretending not to notice us tut and shush me.
Men are louder. Women can say a lot, they can describe or dismantle whole worlds, and you’ll barely hear them. They can attack you, make you stand up for yourself, and your voice is all the people around will hear. Like you’re angry. The big bad man. It isn’t very fair.
We sit in silence for a bit. My ears feel hot, and I know that under my beard, my cheeks are pink.
The vicar thanks us all for being here, asks us to stand for the first hymn. We stand, but neither Jessie or I are singing.
“Did you visit her?” Jessie whispers.
“You told me she didn’t want visitors.” I try to whisper back. This feels all wrong, disrespectful. It all feels disrespectful.
“Not at the hospital, you prick. Did you visit her, after the wedding, at all?”
I try to remember, fake singing as I try.
“No. I don’t think I did. We… we’re just all so busy these days, you know?”
“That’s bullshit, though, isn’t it? You didn’t visit because you were angry with her for getting married.”
“You told me on the day, you idiot. Just after you did your reading. How you’d always believed the two of you would end up together. How much it hurt you being there.”
“That’s not fair.” I blurt, the instant after the hymn abruptly ends. Everyone nearby shifts uncomfortably on their feet and a murmur of disapproval goes around the church, like the wind in autumn leaves.
The vicar doesn’t hear and continues with the service, introducing the first reading, gearing up for the eulogy.
I try to lower my voice. “It hurt, losing her to him, Jessie. I loved her.”
“She loved you too. But what did she ever do to make you think she fancied you?”
“Look at this cunt.” she murmurs, as Millie’s brother, shoulders dropped, walks toward the vicar shuffling paper. “Everything she told him and he’s still out drinking every other night with Mark.”
She watches the man like a hawk for a few seconds, preemptively angry about what he might say. She relaxes a little when he starts to stumble through a classic poem, rather than a speech.
She looks at me. Leans in and speaks, low and sure, into my ear.
“She told you, Nick. She tried to tell you over and over how unhappy she was, how small she felt. How sick to her stomach. I saw the messages. She didn’t put on a show, and most of the time you either took it as an opportunity to message back whining about your own shit, or didn’t reply at all.”
I’m staring straight ahead and have sudden terrible clarity. I don’t care if anybody can hear us now, but they’re all stuck in their own funeral.
“Not just you. A few of us. A few of the people here. Everyone down there on the front row. She did what she was supposed to, in the last few years; when it got too much, she asked people for help. But because she didn’t scream and wail, or because we were petulant pricks like you, we didn’t help her.”
The reading finishes, and the vicar asks us all to find a prayer in the photocopied booklet we were handed as we walked in. There’s a shuffle of noise as everyone sorts themselves out.
“So she helped herself. We didn’t hear her, so she helped herself. And then a few months of freedom later it turned out that the poorly stomach she’d had for years, that everyone told her was just her being weak and nervy and stressy and she needed to be more resilient… Well, it turned out we shouldn’t have ignored that, either.”
She’s silent throughout the prayer. I try not to look at her, not to steal glances at her face, but I fail. I’m braced for what she’ll say next.
Instead, the prayer finishes, and everyone is shifting position again, and the vicar starts talking. As he does, Jessie speaks quickly and quietly to me.
“We let her down. We spoke over her, told her she was wrong, everything was fine, and she needed us and we were worse than shit. And now they’re acting like her dying was something that was done to them, not something they did. It isn’t right.”
Now someone is saying Jessie’s name, and I realise that the vicar is calling her forward, saying she’s going to say a few words to the assembled mourners. She puts herself together, gets up from the pew, rearranges her clothes, turns to me.
“I’m going to tell them so.” she says, and walks away from me, toward the pulpit.
I watch her go, but I don’t want to hear what she says next. I’m desperate not to hear it. My body tenses up, muscles telling me they’re ready for me to get up, get out of here. How can it hurt, now, to stay a little ignorant?
If I’m here when she starts talking, I’ll have to stay here forever.