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Bad Service

by Anthony Coleman
edited by Kayla Sosa

I was on a train feeling many kinds of exhausted.

An old man doddered on and I stood to give him the seat nearest the door. A lightsome greyhound followed him, her ears perfectly upright, as if raised by invisible wires. I felt a shimmer of affection for the man: he was the kind I remembered from the pubs of my childhood, one who would nurse a pint of some forbidding-looking liquid and ask me about school.

Once seated, he lifted the left hem of his shiny, royal blue, polyester pants and slid a senior railcard inside his bright white sock. I wondered why, given that the pants had pockets. He then titled up his face and gave me the look of the stranger who wants to chat—lips parted, eyes pricked up—but I turned down the wordless invitation by smiling and walking away. Earlier that day, my mother had been cremated, so suffice it to say I wasn’t exactly in the mood.

I walked down the mostly empty car, the spring night making mirrors of the windows and reflecting my stoner-on-graduation-day mien on both sides of me, like I was flanking myself. Like I was providing myself with the world’s least effective security detail.

That morning, I’d taken off the grungy cargo shorts and faded Sublime t-shirt I spend most of my life wearing and put on the newly bought suit, complete with a white lily buttonhole. I noticed a metal tin of wax on my desk with a layer of dust on top of it and decided I needed to style my hair. I did so in front of the mirror, then looked myself over. I was a stranger.

‘Have you been to a wedding?’ asked a slurred yet gentle voice, bringing me back to the present.

I had approached two girls who were sat in a booth with a six-pack of cider cans on the table between them. The one who had surprised me with a question met my eyes from under the brim of her yellow snapback.

‘Yep’, I said. ‘My cousin’s.’

‘Aw’, said the other girl. Her broad, pale face was framed with ginger curls, plus one flagrant grey streak, confidently unhidden. ‘How was it?’

‘Delightful. I’m a bit too drunk now though.’

‘Us too!’ said the ginger girl. ‘I’m Kelly by the way, this is Jen.’

‘Robbie.’

‘We’re coming back from a footy match.’

The girls looked at each other.

‘It was eventful’, Jen said, and they both laughed conspiratorially. ‘Are you a red or blue?’

‘Red’, I said. In Liverpool, this question can be asked to anyone without further explanation.

‘We’re blues. It was an away, so we were in London. Our coach left at bloody six this morning and then didn’t stop for three hours and I was dyyying for a wee.’

‘I don’t think he wants to know about your bladder issues, love’, said Kelly.

‘It’s important to the story though!’ Jen insisted, taking off her hat and stroking back her brown hair. This movement made her jacket’s sleeve slip down, suddenly revealing a sleeve tattoo of a skull entwined with puffy, orange flowers.

‘Wasn’t there a toilet on the coach?’ I asked.

‘See? Good question mate. Yes, there was, but only one, and it was getting used by all the fellas, so there was no way I was going near it.’

I remembered needing a piss while I was riding in the funeral car and not knowing if there would be a toilet in the church. Did churches have toilets? I had only been in one for any kind of event maybe three or four times before in my life. How strange it was to have been in one that day.

Before we had even set off, the funeral cars almost caused a fight between me and the usher—if that’s what they’re called. He read out a list of names and informed us that these people were in Car Two, but when said people all got into the car behind the hearse, the usher said, ‘No, that isn’t Car Two, it’s Car One. Car Two is behind Car One.’ So, a carful of mourners, some old beyond spryness, all had to climb back out again and suffer their demotion to the actual Car Two.

I wanted to say to him: Really? Is this necessary? In fact, is numbering these cars even necessary? Do you think that, if not otherwise instructed, the bereaved would open the back doors of the hearse and hop aboard? Ride the coffin like it’s a banana boat? But I chose not to yell any of this, partly because I actually felt sorry for the guy. There seemed to be little room for error in his line of work. Really, his was the mother of all customer service jobs.

‘Anyway,’ said Jen, ‘after the game—we lost—I talked Kel into getting a train home instead of putting up with that coach again. And I paid for the tickets coz I won my bet!’

‘What was it?’ I asked.

‘For us to lose.’

‘She always bets on Everton to lose’, Kelly explained, ‘so that she’ll be happy after the game either way.’

‘You must have made a few quid this season,’ I said.

‘Careful,’ warned Kelly.

‘So, then we went for a drink’, Jen continued, ‘seeing as we didn’t have to get right back on the coach, and we went to this posh little bar and Kel went on the rob.’

‘Errr, I think that would be taking it a bit far,’ said Kelly. ‘They had some dead nice wine glasses, so I just wanted to keep one.’

‘They were defo thinking we were typical Scouse thieves.’

‘Well, it’s not like we’ll ever go back there.’

Kelly took the glass out of her handbag, the thick stem of which was textured in a pleasing wave pattern. There was a dribble of red wine stained onto the outside of the bowl. I thought of my dad, who didn’t usually drink, but had allowed himself a few glasses of red at the wake. He had gone home early, and I wanted to see him before he fell asleep.

Up until two weeks previously, I hadn’t been home in two years. I had been living abroad, in Mexico, teaching English to the country’s fresas—a Mexican term for “yuppy” or “preppy,” which literally, and amusingly, means “strawberry.” I had settled into a weird work schedule (early mornings and evenings), made close friends and become a face in the Guadalajara expat bubble.

I remembered a drunken, fucked-up conversation some friends and I had one Friday night not too long after my arrival, sat in our local cantina, where the walls were adorned with La Catrina art. We joked about which relatives would merit a transatlantic plane trip home for their funeral: Parent? Yeah, obviously. Second cousin? Nah. Grandparent? Which one? Favourite or racist?

For a few months before she died, I had known my mum was sick; however, the extent of it had been studiously downplayed by my dad. But I should have read between the lines. On arriving home from the airport, going into my parents’ bedroom and first seeing her emaciated head lolling against the wooden headboard, continuing to look past me as I walked gingerly, deliriously towards her, I realised that I had long been filled to the brim with the truth of the situation, but was only now being brought to the boil. I heard mental sounds like a kettle’s whistle and its simmering, murmuring water, half-saying words like naïve, selfish, too late, guilty, guilty.

‘Do you know how many more stops to Moreton?’ I asked the girls.

‘Did you say Moreton?’ asked Jen. ‘This train doesn’t stop there, surely?’

I got Google Maps up on my phone and found the blue location dot nosing along in completely the wrong direction. I had got the wrong train. It turned out there was only one stop left and no other trains would be running from there. The stop was an hour away from my parents’ house—dad’s house—by car.

“Let’s see if there’s a late-night bus you could get,’ said Jen, unlocking her phone with a rapid wiggle of her finger.

‘If worse comes to worst, we can just take him home,’ Kelly said to her.

When we finally alighted, Jen told me to just sit on a bench for a moment and let her handle things. By that point, I don’t think either she or Kelly believed I had been to a wedding that day. I saw them walk over to the train driver and start talking to him, pointing at me as they did so.

I found the night pleasantly warm. For the duration of the journey—for the whole of the day, maybe—I hadn’t been conscious of the time of year. I looked up at the sky, which was clear, presumably because I was in the middle of nowhere.

After a minute or two, the train driver approached me. He was lanky and wearing a teal, fleece jacket that was short on him in the arms. Straightaway, I felt reassured by how unfashionable and pragmatic this made him seem. 

‘You need to get to Moreton?’ he asked.

‘I do’, I said.

‘I live in Thingwall, so probably about ten minutes away. I’ll give you a lift. It’ll be my good deed for the week. Just give me a minute to get my stuff.’

‘Cheers’, I said, and he walked off, the sound of his plastic clogs against the concrete filling the deserted station with a gentle rhythm. Jen and Kelly waved at me, then disappeared through an exit. I heard one more of their shared giggles, echoing through the underground passage, before their benign presence wandered back out of my life.

The bench had wooden slats angled so as to cause pain to the average arse, prompting me to remember another thing, which was sitting on a pew in the church, in the front row, and listening to the minister—I guess that was her job title. When she read the eulogy, she did so with an intonation in her voice that, at least to me, sounded crazily affected and over-the-top. She was like Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons, except if he had been sentimental rather than droll.

At one point, I really thought I was going to start laughing. It didn’t seem like anyone else in the congregation felt the same way, however. I remember quickly glancing at my dad, who was sat by my side. Looking at his prognathous profile, I didn’t notice a smirk, my eye instead being drawn to an uneven patch in his short, grey beard, then down to the excessive shine on the shoulder pad of his old suit jacket. He was simply staring ahead, lost in thought.

I, on the other hand, had to bite the inside of my cheeks until the urge to laugh had passed, closing my eyes to focus. I was so scared of making a sound that I eventually milked a few gouts of blood from my mouth’s inner lining and felt them jangle on my tastebuds.

Sat on that bench on the station platform, after a few healing hours had already gone by, I ran my tongue over the lining and felt a row of deep indentations. With the pain gone, doing so felt sickly sweet.

The train driver took me home in silence, for which I was grateful, having already talked more than I had expected to on my journey home. During the drive, I found myself wondering what would happen to my mum’s remains. Would we scatter them? Would they be put in an urn? If so, where would it be kept? Would the ashes be halved and put into two urns so that my dad and I could each have one? Would anyone else want a piece of her?

My instinct was that I in fact wanted nothing to do with these remains. Not because I didn’t care, of course, but because I couldn’t imagine how keeping them would make someone feel closer to a dead loved one. In Mexico, on Día de los Muertos, I had been to house parties and seen the colourful altars families make in their homes, ornamented with photos of their ancestors, as well as thick white candles, Aztec marigolds, Catrina skulls, and the ancestors’ favourite foods and drinks. I liked this. Urns, on the other hand, forgo personal details for the sake of propriety, and, as a result, only remind you of death.

On arriving home and opening the front door, I thought my dad might be asleep, so I harrowed my fingertips trying to unknot the tough little laces of what I straightforwardly thought of as my funeral shoes. Inevitably I gave up fast and just started clonking down the laminate flooring to the living room. The first thing I saw through the doorframe was the iconic, bemused face of a dead comedian, shapelessly pixelated, as if blurred by the passage of time itself. My dad and I have been rewatching this show since before I can remember.

‘Hello Son.’

‘You alright Dad?’

Despite having eaten more than his share of buffet food earlier in the evening, he had followed it up with a whole roast dinner, the remnants of which were on a side table next to his armchair. Good for him, I thought. When was the time to indulge, if not now? I took the fork off his plate, gave it a wipe with my shirt, sat down ankle-on-knee and pierced an outermost tine into my shoelace’s knot.

‘They been doing your feet in all day?’

‘I’m telling you.’

I managed to untie the laces of the left shoe, wrench apart the eyestays, jerk it off my foot and toss it over the arm of the sofa. Dad laughed at how mannered this all seemed.

‘Not your style eh kidda?’

‘Guess not.’

‘No harm in that. Put your goth clothes back on.’

‘Since when am I a goth?!’

‘Oh whatever, I can’t keep up.’

The comedy show served to fill the silences in our conversation, to the extent that its volume seemed to increase every time we weren’t speaking. I began to realise that I knew pretty much every line of dialogue in this episode. Not just word for word, but pause for pause and note for note.

‘My God, did you see me having me ear chewed off by your auntie Kathleen?’

‘Was she, yeah?’

‘Jesus wept. She was singing me an aria about your mother’s whole bloody life! I said listen Kath, the day’s gone perfect, my lad’s been great, and I’m about to go home and have a Sunday roast even though it’s Thursday. Don’t ruin it by making me blubber in front of every bastard I know!’

We watched the rest of the episode without talking, and largely without laughing, the footage having long since shown us its hand. Sitting there I had a concentrated form of emotion—a thick, tart feeling. What was it? As he started to snore a snore I could have picked out of a lineup, I realised I too felt hungry and walked, now with quiet steps, into the kitchen. In the fridge, I found what I expected to find, which was a plate of leftover roast chicken and spuds that he had wrapped in foil for me. It wasn’t in Dad’s nature to only cook for himself; indeed, he had probably cooked for three.

Putting the plate into the microwave, after closing over the kitchen door to muffle its disapproving whir, the nature of what I was feeling became clear: Normality. Or, at least, one of the kinds of normality I have had the pleasure of knowing in my life. This kind, the normality of my family, was clinging on, soon to follow my mum out of existence. But I needed it now, just for a little longer. It was the only place where I could start to grieve.

Check out other works by Anthony Coleman:

The Full Price

Kinktopia: Parts 1 & 2


Anthony Coleman is an English language teacher and freelance writer from Liverpool, England. He graduated from Oxford Brookes University and has lived and worked in Kanagawa, Japan and Guadalajara, Mexico. In his spare time, he enjoys playing football, reading novels and visiting cities of cultural interest. For inquiries, please email.

Kayla Sosa, managing editor of Strangers & Karma, is also a professional writer, copywriter, and editor. View her biography here. For inquiries or collaboration, please email.