Trinidadian Hindus contend that a direct correlation exists between the combustion rate of a body on a funeral pyre and that soul’s karma. A good soul burns rapidly. My father Henry’s pyre instantly engulfed the body in flames. Next door’s pyre didn’t do so well. Perhaps his karma was less evolved, or maybe the wind conspired against him. Whatever the reason, his poor relations suffered through the gruesome sight of a slow-burning body. My Presbyterian family were convinced that our pyre’s efficiency stemmed from a different type of causality. Forget Karma. We reckoned it was the rum flowing through Henry’s veins that accelerated his combustion.
Given Henry’s laid-back disposition we regretted having to hold his funeral on time. But the Dass Funeral Home had a business to run. At 10 a.m. sharp his coffin was wheeled into Marabella Presbyterian Church by his brothers and two teenaged grandsons. At least we honoured his spirit by completing the final arrangements against the clock. In the immediate aftermath of his death, my uncle Steve and I agreed on burial in the family plot, only for a close friend to later reveal that this was not Henry’s wish. They had discussed the matter and Henry, being claustrophobic, wanted to be cremated on the shores of the Gulf of Paria. No family plot burial. No anonymous crematorium. And, in hindsight, no corroboration of this hearsay. But in the moment, anxious to honour the dead, we agreed.
With only one working day left before the funeral we scrambled to fulfil this wish. The death certificate had to be whisked off first to the public health office, then to the police station for a fire permit. Both offices are in Siparia, a bumpy forty-minute drive away from our home in San Fernando, south Trinidad. Only then could Henry be legally reduced to ash. For two separate public authorities to produce certificates within a day, in any country, is challenging. In Trinidad, it’s almost impossible.
The cremation site’s last space was reserved for us by a friend in public health. Her instructions were clear. “I telling people that it don’t have no more cremation spots for tomorrow but all you better come here fast.” We stumbled around Siparia searching for the correct office and yes, they had kept the space, but no, they could not accept the permit fee. That money had to be paid into a bank and banks had already shut. I cried then lied that I had just arrived from London (rather than Barbados, a mere 206 miles away). Eventually compassion overcame one clerk and she asked the accounts department, as a special favour, to accept the fee.
More bumbling from building to building ensued, led by directions such as, “You see the big tree up by the hill? It over so.” After charging into several incorrect offices we made it to accounts. A surly woman, thumbs furiously navigating her smartphone screen, admitted she had agreed to take the fee. In the intervening twenty minutes she had changed her mind. Is Friday, the place making real hot, and she ready to go home and cool off, please God. My tears and pleas flowed afresh. After making me wait a respectable ten minutes, she scornfully accepted the fee. It took her a further fifteen minutes to write the receipt, pausing after each word or number. No matter – Henry was now halfway to the send-off he apparently wanted.
From there we sped off in search of Siparia Police CID. The low building in desperate need of a lick of paint did not suggest an institution capable of protecting and serving the nation. Two officers bade me take a seat. When one eventually deigned to speak, it was to acquire additional, key information, deemed necessary before proceeding. The senior officer, his half-buttoned shirt revealing a curly expanse of salt and pepper hair, set aside his newspaper. Why I living away? We related to the people with the tyre shop in Penal? We family have any lawyer? What book I write? That sound like a Mills & Boon.
Satisfied we lacked economic, social or political importance, he gave the nod to begin. The younger, uniformed officer rummaged around for a notebook, stapler, ruler and two ball point pens – red and blue. Once they had been neatly laid out, he opened his notebook. Pages were carefully divided with ruler and red ball point into a suitable number of columns of varying widths. Slowly he began writing, looking up after each line, often flicking the pages to check previous entries. The boss man stood over him.
‘You know Chief go have to sign this certificate and I don’t think he here.’
‘Boss, it hard to find Chief, yes. He does be up and down. But, hear what. I did make him sign ‘bout four certificate last time and leave for me.’
He looked up.
‘People does come for certificate and I can’t give them none. And Friday afternoon? Worse yet.’
The one page application had taken a full thirty minutes to complete. At long last Henry was set to go up in flames.
At the family home that night about a hundred people gathered – a decent turnout for a pre-funeral wake. Under a tarpaulin-covered area dozens sat, hymn books on laps, listening to a sermon. I took an empty seat towards the back. A gentleman, whose face I vaguely recognised, was leading the proceedings. Was Henry going to heaven? (Yes, he had only to seek forgiveness for his varied and abundant sins). In heaven, would he meet his brother, uncles, aunts and parents? (Yes, everyone was waiting on him. As usual). But then the preacher asked us to contemplate something I must admit I’d never contemplated before. Overcrowding. In heaven. After all, he speculated, people have been dying for thousands of years. Assuming the pearly gates opened for Henry, could he become homeless in heaven? And what of us on earth hoping to ascend at an unknown future date? Is there a race for space in the hereafter? From my vantage point I saw backs straighten. A man behind me muttered.
‘Jees-an-ages, I done catch my ass to buy a piece of land and build a little house in Vistabella. Now when I dead is more hustle?’
I swallowed a giggle. The preacher continued and quickly offered reassurance. Anticipating these challenges, Revelations 21 made it manifestly clear that heaven is 1400 miles’ square. For those lacking imagination, the preacher reiterated.
‘When they say square, they mean 1400 miles so.’
He drew a horizontal line in the air.
‘And 1400 miles so.’
His finger continued upwards to form a vertical line of roughly the same length.
‘All you know how big that is? Every man Jack go have place to stay.’
An audible hum of relief rose from the assembled. But there was more. Mindful that our island’s high crime rate made safety a priority, he again sought the counsel of Revelations. Besides being square, heaven is a gated community enclosed by jasper stone walls soaring 200 feet into the sky. The man behind squeezed my shoulder. I half turned.
‘You think that go keep out all the bad-John them?’
He leaned closer.
‘But Trini people smart you hear. Them murderers and rapists and drug dealers go dig through that wall.’
I whispered back,
‘What about the politicians? You think they’ll get through the wall?’
‘You really Henry daughter for true. That’s exactly the kind of thing he would say.’
As the service ended and the chairs were being rearranged, someone spoke softly in the preacher’s ear and gestured in my direction. He looked up, the pupils of his eyes fully dilated, puffed out his cheeks and stretched his arms apart while staring me in the eye.
‘Girl, I eh go lie. I would’ve passed you straight in the road. You get real big. You remember me? Uncle Popo. From up the road. I know you from the time you born. You used to be real pretty.’
‘Thank you for the service. It was very kind of you. You’re a reverend now?’
‘No girl. I still fighting up with Caribbean Airlines.’
Elsewhere food was sharing and rum was flowing. Several poker games had started. I went to the makeshift bar desperate for a drink. One son rushed over and insisted on fixing it.
‘Grandpa Henry showed us how to mix the perfect rum and coke.’
‘You’re sixteen. When did he teach you to mix drinks?’
‘When I was thirteen.’
I knocked back the drink (damn it was good) and dived into greeting Henry’s friends and extended family. They confirmed what I have always known. A fete was not a fete until Henry had arrived. It was his devotion to the next party, cricket match or golf game that left little time or inclination for emotional labour. Once his short marriage was over he gave up on having a partner. Too much work. I defined him by absence: no partner, no strong ties to his only child, no mortgage (he lived under his mother’s roof), and no career ambitions (although he became vice principal of a primary school by sheer attrition). Henry gave Peter Pan a run for his money.
Gradually the crowd dwindled and I got into a proper conversation with a hard core of his buddies. Their recollections gave me a chance to swot up on Henry 101. I learnt that he feared open water, played the mouth organ beautifully and carried a torch for his ex-wife to the end. These were Henry’s people. They drank, laughed, played cards and golfed with him. They shared his sense of humour, his joys and heard his fears. Maybe it was the booze or maybe I was simply exhausted but his absence began to feel real.
In the past three years, father and daughter, never close, had pitched tents on opposite banks of a river of silence, each of us waiting for the other to attempt the risky crossing. We had argued over his refusal to care for my grandmother in her final months. Now, any chance to swim across bearing an olive branch was gone.
More than once I was pulled aside and reminded of Henry’s heartbreak. One lady was particularly insistent that I had been a she-devil.
‘People here mightn’t tell you the truth. But you see me? I does give it like I get it.’
She bit into a slice of iced vanilla sponge and, with her mouth half full, launched her attack.
‘You know that after you quarrel with Henry he was crying?’
‘We were both upset.’
‘Well I was shocked. Henry was a man that never let nothing bother him. Nothing. He could sleep through a hurricane. If you know how it hurt me to see the man bawling like a baby.’
She paused for another mouthful of cake. Sensing I might make a dash for freedom she quickly grabbed my hand.
‘Watch me, you does say your prayers?’
Tiny pellets of cake landed on my bare arm. It didn’t seem polite to wipe them off. Instead I made a guttural sound that I hoped was vaguely agreeable.
‘The Lord done know what your sinning. And he see you sorry for treating the man bad.’
She paused to consume the last of the cake.
‘Anyhow girl you lucky. Scripture say that Henry spirit all about we still. He spirit go be roaming the earth for forty days and forty nights. Is time to pray for forgiveness. He will hear. I promise you.’
Cake Lady’s words left a queasy feeling in my stomach. How would praying for forgiveness fix the unresolvable? My position was unchanged. Did I have regrets? Absolutely. But did Henry’s death change my views? Nah.
Lying in my hotel bed that night, rum killing off my brain cells, I was restless. Time to review the arguments presented. I should pray for forgiveness since Henry and I were no longer in direct contact. The big man on high (why is it always a man?) would act as an emissary. But this window of opportunity was limited. That put Henry in some sort of departure lounge for the dead, waiting for wings to heaven. Knowing my dad, he’d be at the bar, beer in hand, entertaining everyone within earshot. Then what? God comes over the tannoy asking Henry to come to the Information Desk. If Henry is the same up there as he was down here, he’s not going to gulp down his beer. There is a decent chance he might even order another before gently strolling over for the message. When asked if he had forgiven his daughter, Henry would do what he always did when confronted with tough decisions. I can hear him now,
‘Oh gosh man. Why all you hurting my head with that? A man dead and all you still troubling me?’
As Henry’s body proceeded up the central aisle an arch of golf clubs formed in his honour. I read a poem which fittingly began, “My father handed me his smile”. Presbyterians are notorious for making almost any hymn a dour affair. Not for Henry’s funeral. His close buddies included a trio of vocalist and a husband and wife duo on guitar and organ. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” was belted out with gusto. His friend Kamal ended his tribute with one of Henry’s favourites – Moon River – on the mouth organ. I almost said my prayer then and there.
I only made my mind up as we moved to the open cremation site. Everyone was rushing to snatch a final glimpse of their brother, uncle, friend. My fingers skimmed his frozen forehead. These were our last seconds together. I knew it then. This was as much of a prayer as he was going to get. I thought of Henry at the bar in Heaven’s departure lounge. He gets another message, his daughter down there whispered a prayer, asking his forgiveness. He says nothing, but a tiny smile forms at the edges of his mouth. Back at his stool he gestures to the bartender.
‘One for the road.’
Ingrid Persaud is a writer and visual artist. Her creative work has been widely exhibited, including at the Venice Biennale and her writing featured in magazines including Granta, Prospect, Runner’s World, Caribbean Beat and Maco. You can follow her blog Notes From A Small Rock. She is the 2017 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and of the BBC Short Story Award 2018 for her piece The Sweet Sop.