Kane stood at the back with the rest of the foster kids. He wore a faded black sweatshirt over his darkest jeans, but it was too cold and wet to manage without a jacket and its pale grey stood out against the funereal black of the people at the front. The family looked very proper, all in black with the men in tailored suits and the women wearing hats. He shifted a little in the cold of the church as he listened to the people at the front.
It didn’t seem like the funeral of the woman he knew. They talked about her hard work taking on troubled youngsters that had been rejected by everyone else. They talked about her retiring to the flat and her membership of the local lawn bowls association. They talked about how sad it was that she had never met the right man but devoting her time to the rejected souls had filled the void when she wasn’t working as a very respectable accountant. Kane exchanged glances with the other foster kids. They were equally bewildered. This was not the woman they knew. The woman they knew had been warm and spontaneous and could out-swear as sailor, with a different girlfriend every month. She had fought for these kids, yelled at them, cried with them and celebrated every success. Not all those who came into her home were successes. Not all had survived the legacy of the care system. Some had fallen by the wayside and lost touch, but most had kept contact over the years. The older ones had done their best to contact everyone who had passed through Auntie Brenda’s welcoming door, and though some couldn’t be reached and some couldn’t make it, forty three of her foster kids were there, with ages from over forty to eighteen. They huddled together in their best clothes, silently mourning as they fumbled with unfamiliar service books and old fashioned hymns.
The priest pronounced the blessing and her elder sister followed the coffin in its stately procession out of the church, avoiding the accusing eyes of the foster children. Everyone knew Auntie Brenda wanted to be cremated. Everyone knew that she had wanted loud colours and louder music at the crematorium. She had wanted to be played out to ‘Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire!’ And she would have thrown a fit at seeing the kids she loved pushed to the back.
The kids followed the family, leaving a discreet gap. Kane had been one of the last ones she had taken in, before she became too sick to look after others. He glanced around him. The foster kids, the ones she had sheltered, were all pale and tense. Many were quietly crying or fighting back emotion. It had been safe to cry at Auntie Brenda’s home. It had been safe to get a kind word and a reassuring squeeze of the hand. He had known her for such a brief time and her overflowing love had wrapped around him like the best kind of blanket, warm and soft and the perfect size. When he had left, others had called in to help her out, to make sure she had food and warmth and a listening ear, just as she had done for them.
In the sadness, Kane felt anger. Auntie Brenda’s relations hadn’t been there when she was going through chemo, when the shakes hit her, when the nights got cold and dark. They didn’t sit and read to her or share the soaps with her. It had been the kids that her sister had dismissed as broken that had paid back the unstinting love that had been such a lifeline to them. Now they had taken Auntie Brenda’s funeral and made it into something alien and distant.
Kane discreetly hefted his backpack. The kids had not been invited to the small reception afterwards, but that was okay. They would not have gone anyway. Instead they had muddled together a room in a pub owned by one of Auntie Brenda’s less reputable friends and organised some food between them. They had made sure they had a loud copy of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ cued up on their iPad, along with all of the rest of Auntie Brenda’s favourite music. After some discussion, they gave Kane instructions and the contents of the backpack, and he would linger after and pay the final respects on behalf of them. They had worked it out.
After the final blessing and Auntie Brenda’s sister had thrown a small, sanitised shovel of earth onto the coffin, shielding it from the kids, the family slowly dispersed along the gravel paths of the churchyard. The kids nodded to each other. The younger ones headed towards the car park, knowing that they would be watched like hawks ‘because you never know what that sort could get up to’. One of the older ones started asking the vicar questions while another two or three started lingering around the older headstones, catching the eye of the churchwarden. Kane was unobserved.
He crouched down next to the grave. “I miss you, Auntie Brenda,” he said. He swallowed and opened the backpack. “We’re all sorry about the funeral, but we’re doing our best.” He pulled out a few bottles. “It’s okay, Ellis bought the drinks, so it’s legal. We didn’t do anything to get into trouble.” He glanced quickly around and tipped a bottle of the best supermarket rum into the grave. “We all know you like a rum and pep when it’s cold.” He tipped a bottle of peppermint cordial after the rum, quickly hiding the bottles in his backpack. “And it’s November. We remembered. Rum and pep between September and March, and gin and elderflower between March and September. And I promise to take the bottles to the recycling.” He glances around again. “We talked about this a lot,” he said quietly. “But we worked it out together in the end.” He pulled out a plastic bag and emptied the cheap selection into the grave. “We got you the chocolates you always asked us to buy you for Christmas, the ones you liked, but we didn’t want to put plastic in the grave, so we left the box at home. We even left you the coffee creams.” His voice cracked a little at the end.
The shade of Auntie Brenda patted his shoulder. “You did okay, you and the rest. I appreciate it.” She grinned her familiar, careless grin as she popped the echo of a coffee cream into her mouth. The ghost had regained her hair and it was back to her favourite bright pink, spiked defiantly high. “And did you ever hear such rubbish?” She watched Kane stand up and nod to the other kids who drifted away from their targets towards their cars. “She called me an accountant! I worked in a betting shop all my life and I was bloody good at it.” She threw back her head and laughed the throaty, rich laugh that Kane loved. “She would have looked like she had a lemon stuck in her dentures if anyone had said that. Come on, I know you lot. You’ll have got a party sorted out. Let’s get going.”