Julie Hamill: Voting in London via Manchester

Julie Hamill: Voting in London via Manchester

I barely sleep on the night of 1 May. Lightning is flashing directly above our house. It’s cracking down on London, so violent in its force. “YOU HAD BETTER VOTE” it shouts. I am! I will!

My schedule for 2 May was to get up at 06:30, shower, vote at 07:00, come home, eat breakfast, get ready 08:00, leave 09:00, catch train from Euston to Manchester at 10:13. Instead, after tossing and turning between lightning strikes and bad thoughts, I fall asleep late. I don’t hear the alarm, don’t get to vote, shower and rush to Euston. New plan: vote tonight when I get back, before 22:00.

I need to make this train as the wife of a dear friend has asked me to speak at his funeral. I cannot and will not let her down, but the truth is I’ve never spoken at a funeral before.

Penning a tribute to a life is unlike any other writing challenge. A wish to really do my friend justice and fully reflect his wonder in ten minutes overrides all emotions. The panic to get it down blocks a flurry of memories which paralyse the process. I question what’s appropriate, what’s not, how to order it. I’ve been working on it all week, it’s written, but does it capture him? And most importantly, will his wife feel it’s right?

I get off the Tube at Euston Square and feel tears push behind my eyes. I’m definitely in a fog, walking like I’m drunk or sick. I stagger along to Euston and get a coffee, which I don’t remember ordering until I’m on the platform, and now the cup is cold.

I get on the train and lean my head against the window but I don’t sleep. An old man beside me is eating a hot pastie. His hand shakes as he moves it to his mouth, dropping flaky bits on his trousers. He’s alive, and I’m alive, but my pal is not. The woman opposite me is wearing cool white wellies. She’s typing on her laptop. She’s alive, I’m alive, but my pal is not.

The journey is quick and I walk into Manchester’s Piccadilly, my footsteps slow and heavy. I want to walk faster but there’s lead in my feet. I text our mutual friends and they offer me a lift. I go over to meet them. “How are you?” they ask and all I can say is, “I’m not really here.”  They feel the same.

We park at the crematorium and it’s beautifully sunny and packed with mourners. I don’t know many people. I panic again, thinking what I’ve written is totally wrong. Other mutual friends arrive and we comfort each other. The coffin drives in slowly with “DADDY” in flowers at the side. This buckles me, and many others. His daughters, five and three, have rainbow coloured fabric sewn into their little dresses which float around them as they move.

Inside, we are sitting down and the celebrant, who is warm and gentle, is bringing people up to speak in tribute. My dear friend’s sister starts it off, the hardest gig, and she’s wonderful and moving. “Deep breath,” she says, bravely. His nephew goes next, and he’s just fantastic, capturing the influence of his uncle.

Then it’s me. I wobble at the start but get going. I make the mistake of lifting my head and then looking back down again and lose my place on the page. I feel the kind round eyes of his wife who’s right in front of me with the little girls. Humbled by her vision, I disappear from my head to read without consciousness and suddenly I’m sitting down again. I have spoken but I don’t remember it.

After me, his friend and his mother-in-law tell stories, doing a lovely job. Parts of me that I had no idea were tense, begin to untie themselves.

We go to the wake. Someone says “I’ve done my crying, time for laughing now.” Everybody agrees that he would definitely want us to be laughing. We speak of him with great fondness, how loved he was, how funny, such a beautiful life, so happy. None of us believe he’s really gone.

I leave to take the 18:35 back to London. A mother and son sit opposite me in the carriage. They’re alive, I’m alive, he’s not. Maybe I was struck by lightning. This all feels like a kind of aftershock. I stare at passing sheep for the remainder of the journey.

My train gets into London at 20:41. I take the Tube to my stop, exit in the dark and walk through the drizzle to the polling station and vote at 21:25. I put crosses in boxes and hope it was worth it. The thunderstorm is over but it’s still bad weather. I wonder when it will stop.

Julie Hamill is a novelist, a radio presenter and more. Follow her on X/Twitter. Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. London lightning image captured by Dylan Reynolds.

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