Old Bones and New Friends

Tuesday, 17 February

Before I begin writing about recent events and the pleasant trivialities of my daily life, I need to explain about Leonard. He is, after all, the inspiration behind all of this. 

Leonard and I met at a particularly difficult funeral service. It was the morning of Tuesday 2nd December 2003 and the festive season always adds a bitter poignancy to proceedings that can unnerve even the most seasoned funeral organist. Although I like to pretend that I am hardened to oversentimentality, I must confess that Christmas-time is fourth on my list of reasons for why I occasionally dislike my job, just below the sight of heartbroken elderly widows, funerals with empty pews and small white coffins. The family on this occasion were inconsolable as they were seemingly unprepared for the death and it had been a sudden shock, but it was difficult to determine whether it was an accident or suicide since the vicar wrapped up the particulars of the death in his usual nice-and-fluffy New Testament terminology; copious lashings of salvation and thanksgiving but nothing too remotely medical.

The service was brief since the family were clearly distressed and before I knew it the vicar had announced the final hymn and the reverential air was shattered as I squeezed the button on the organ console and the huge, lumbering instrument whined into life. All Things Bright and Beautiful. That odd hymn which, like Amazing Grace, is requested somewhat perversely at both funerals and weddings and invariably sung with an equal measure of gusto on both occasions. There’s nothing quite like a cheery school-assembly melody and an infantile catalogue of ‘all things wise and wonderful’ to bring a little sobering reality back to the bereaved. Once the hymn had run its ponderous course, the congregation folded their service sheets and the vicar gave the final dismissal as the pallbearers made their way up the aisle. I pulled the eight-foot diapason on the Swell and began a quiet improvisation as the family filed out behind the coffin, resting my foot on the swell box and leaning back on the organ bench to watch as the procession of dark figures left the building and the rattle of coins on the brass plate by the door slowly died away.

I like to provide covering music for a short while after a funeral service because, aside from the fact that members of the congregation have a tendency to wander back into the church or hang around in the porch, the silence in a church building after a funeral is a very strange affair. Clergy tiptoe cautiously in the vestry, sides-persons quietly collect the hymn books from the pews and the funeral director tidies the coffin trolley away with minimal fuss. It is as though the spirit of the deceased is waiting at the back of church to punish the first person to dare speak or make a noise.

As I drew the final chords of the recessional voluntary to a close I became aware of a presence close behind me. No creak from the loft stairs had caught my attention and stealing a glance into the mirror above the organ console I could not see anyone loitering in the stalls. Closing the swell box under my right foot with a thump, I took my hands off the keyboard and swivelled on the organ bench to confront my intruder. 

“No, please don’t stop on my account.” 

The protest came from an elderly man who was leaning against the rail of the organ loft. He was in his late seventies at a guess and, although slightly stooped, he stood about the same height as my height seated on the organ bench. His head was completely hairless except for a clump of white hair on his chin that made his bottom jaw appear to jut outwards slightly, his skin was remarkably smooth for a man of his age and he had small gold-rimmed glasses through which peered two piercing blue eyes. He was dressed rather informally for a funeral in a dark green cable knit jumper and baggy brown corduroy trousers and beneath his arm he carried a beige jacket, an umbrella and a large leather briefcase which looked very heavy and about to crash to the floor at any moment. I was surprised that he had climbed the steps into the organ loft while carrying this weight, but there was something sprightly about him that caused me to doubt the apparent feebleness of his frame.

He held out his hand and introduced himself as Leonard, then explained that he was a friend of the deceased and he had hoped to compliment me on my organ playing. I was flattered. Compliments on the music played at funerals are exceedingly uncommon because the bereaved families are understandably far too distressed to show their appreciation and friends of the family would consider it most insensitive to appear merely concerned with the quality of the music that is provided throughout the service. He asked about my interest in the organ and I told him that I play for weddings and funerals in order to fund my studies at the university, but I was deliberately vague with details because I am always cautious when revealing information about my personal life to strangers; cold-callers get the third degree about their credentials and I am careful to tick boxes on forms that prevent my details from being passed to other companies. And face-to-face situations have the potential to be even riskier - either this elderly man was genuinely interested to discover what motivates a young woman to take up playing the church organ or he was a pervert with a penchant for stalking young women at funerals.

Feeling mildly uncomfortable in the face of his inquisitive questioning, I hastily changed out of my pedalling shoes and collected my music books together to give the impression that I was late for another appointment, but the awkward pause that followed and the fixed grin on the old man’s face suggested that our introduction was not over and I could tell from the anxious look in his eyes that he was nervously formulating another question to justify his reluctance to end our conversation.

He asked about the subject that I was studying at the university and I answered ‘theology’. This revelation usually suffices to repel most inquirers and it is precisely for this reason why I pack weighty theological discourses on long train journeys so that I can engross myself in them whenever I want to look unapproachable. But Leonard was not deterred. We spoke briefly about his associations with the University of Birmingham and he explained that he was a local artist specialising in portraiture (mainly painted portraits but he also dabbled in bronze sculpture) and a few years ago he had been commissioned by the university to paint a thirteen-foot mural for an exhibition in the Main Library. He was familiar with the Department of Theology and Religion and several humorous comments that he made about the campus buildings, the secretarial staff and one or two professors assured me of this. He claimed to have a personal interest in theology himself and, if I was interested, he had some books on theology-related subjects that I was most welcome to take off his hands. It was a kind offer, to which I smiled and thanked him graciously but explained that I was unsure when I would be playing at this particular church again and so I could not guarantee when I would be able to collect them (a blatant lie).

Mercifully the lights went out in the chancel as I spoke - an impatient sides-person was telling us, in less than polite terms, that it was time to leave the church. Desperation crept into the tone of his voice at that point and he offered his phone number so that I could alert him to my next visit to St. Bartholomew’s and he could arrange to deliver the books to me. On any other occasion I would have declined the offer and continued making my excuses, but then I thought - this is not a drunken proposition in a seedy night club on a Saturday night; I am in church talking to a kindly, inoffensive old man. And, if I am entirely honest, I am always grateful for the generous donation of study aids because my finances are notoriously strained during university term times. 

I agreed to his proposal and so he rifled through his pockets for a pencil and retrieved the funeral service booklet from his briefcase. Leaning against the organ bench, he wrote his name and phone number on the inside back cover of the booklet and passed it to me. His name was somewhat illegible as it had been written against the deep wood grain of the organ bench but the numbers were large enough to read.

“At least you won’t forget where you met me,” he said. 

I looked down at the service booklet and smiled uncomfortably, unsure how to respond to his dark humour given the fact that he had been in the funeral congregation only a few minutes earlier, then he smiled a twinkly-eyed, grand-fatherly smile and all my doubts and fears were instantly dispelled. We said our goodbyes and he gathered his jacket, briefcase and umbrella together and shuffled away slowly down the loft steps. I watched him walk down the central aisle below, turning every so often to acknowledge me and to wave goodbye.