My heart stopped. Or at the very least it skipped a beat. “You mean…”
“They are real, Jack,” the father nodded. He placed what was probably supposed to be a comforting hand on my shoulder, but I couldn’t feel it. I had gone numb. “And I am sorry for you to have been burdened with this.”
“Who… what… I don’t…” I stuttered, my chest tightening, breathing becoming difficult.
“Relax, my son,” he tried to calm me. He placed a hand on each shoulder, bringing his own face down to my level. “There is much that I must tell you, but today is about Patrick.” He guided me to a pew and sat me down. “Here,” he said, offering a small hip flask.
I unscrewed the cap and took a sip. The liquid inside burnt my lips and tongue, but had a pleasant flavour. I coughed as it hit the back of my throat, burning some more.
“The finest Scottish whiskey, that,” he smiled. “Distilled by some very good friends of mine. You will meet them, I expect.”
Slowly my breathing returned to normal. I looked at my watch. Nearly eleven o’clock. I heard voices behind; people were arriving now.
“We will talk later, Jack.” Father Michael rose to his feet and marched off up the aisle to greet the congregation as they entered.
The service came and went. Extended family, church-goers and old acquaintances of granddad’s came to pay their respects. His favourite hymns were sung, a bible passage was read and I performed the eulogy. A stumbled over the words a few times which was put down to grief, though in truth it was because my thoughts remained fully focused on that morning’s revelation.
At the end granddad remained before the altar, and people were invited to the church hall next door for the buffet nan had laid organised. And either she had grossly over estimated just how many people would turn up, or she had just been desperately keeping herself busy. The volume of food was staggering.; three long buffet tables, all piled high. There were savoury snacks, sandwiches, pots of various stews and hotpots kept warm on burners, rice, pastas, an array of vegetarian and vegan options (which would have left granddad turning in his coffin) and more desserts you could imagine.
Everybody dug in, feasting on the food whilst sharing their memories of granddad. Every so often one or two would head back through to the church to give him a more private, personal farewell. I stood away from the crowd, picking at a mix of sweet and savoury items on my plate. Occasionally one of granddad’s old school friends or a bowls club member would come over and offer their condolences, calling me John or James but never Jack. One even called me Harry. I couldn’t be bothered correcting them; it didn’t seem worth it given their ages.
I was just waiting for the opportunity to speak once more to Father Michael but, aside from my nan and my mother, his company was in the highest demand. The chance never came, however, as the time arrived for granddad to be taken to the crematorium and turned to ash. It was a private affair, for close family only. I chose not to go, preferring not to watch the person I was closest to get cast into a fire.
Just before leaving for the small, private ceremony, the father spoke to me. “Drop by the rectory later, Jack. We can talk over a cup of tea.”
“Thank you, Father.” I shook his hand and waited for the hearse and cars to leave. Gradually the guests filtered out, leaving myself and a few of the WI members and nan’s friends. Amazingly most of the food has been eaten, but there was still a fair amount left. I began to help clear up, but the old ladies soon sent me packing. Instead I went for a walk in the summer sun, climbing the hill further to where a bench overlooked the town, West Scarwell. I’d not been up there since before I stopped going to church, but knew it was granddad’s favourite place.
I sat down on the bench, arms folded across my chest, eyes closed to the sun. I felt its warmth on my face and a soft breeze in my hair. It was quiet and peaceful, and before long I nodded off. Memories of times shared with granddad passed before my eyes. There was our fishing trip, our ill-fated DIY attempts, the week we spent fixing up his old car, the day we nearly blew up the house. Then a scene not from memory; a wish perhaps, or a vision. A young me, five or so years old, sat on that very bench. Granddad beside me.
“Be strong, Jack,” he said to the young me. “You must be strong.”
“But I’m scared, Granddad,” young me replied.
“I know, buddy. You can trust Father Michael, he will look out for you.” There came the distant sound of thunder and the sky clouded over. “There’s a storm coming, Jack.”
Young me looked frightened, moving closer to granddad and holding him for comfort and safety. “I don’t like storms. Can we go home now?” he pleaded.
“There’s a storm coming, Jack,” Granddad repeated, his voice harsher.
“Please, granddad, I want to go home…”
“There’s a storm coming, Jack.” More an angry hiss now.
Rain began to fall. A strong wind picked up. A flash of lightning, thunder overhead.”
“There’s a storm coming, Jack.” It was the Whispers. One after another, stabbing my brain.