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Uncle Jack and the Turkey Funeral

It had been one hell of a year. It was the worst of times, it was… well, that was about it really. ‘Unprecedented’, as someone said every five minutes.

One of the few benefits of this strange time of lockdowns and facemasks and queues for loo rolls was the weekly family quiz, which had begun as a short-term idea for a couple of households to keep in ­­­­­­­touch but had ended up becoming a bit of a lifeline for the whole clan.

My wife Val had the idea. She’d heard about someone starting a quiz on Zoom that had gone viral, and she thought it’d be nice to have one for the immediate family, cheer a few people up.

Now in my marriage, Val tends to have the good ideas and then I get to execute them. I like to moan about this, but it’s not a bad system really, and in the case of quizzes I can’t really complain. I’ve been running our local pub trivia night for over a decade, and I’ve completed every Times cryptic Saturday crossword since 1989, bar the odd funeral and broken leg.

So I looked about a bit online and put together a nice simple format in PowerPoint. Six trivia rounds on the night, plus a picture round circulated a couple of days in advance. I did a funny-stern slide of rules – always confer on mute, no looking things up on Google, the quizmaster’s decision is final etc – and then gave each of the rounds a sort of TV theme. There was Have I Got News For You; A Question of Sport; Would I Lie To You (a True or False round); Gogglebox; and so on. Then it was just a matter of sending out the invites and we were set.

Initially we asked my mum, who’s always up for a bit of company; Val’s folks, who always do whatever Val tells them; Val’s grandparents, Grammy and Grampa Baker; and Pat and Jim. Pat, my late Dad’s sister, is always grateful for anything to distract poor old Jim, who hasn’t left the house in years.

I invited our two kids as well, but with Ginny busy being a drama student and Rory out in Brooklyn doing something clever with private equity in what he likes to call ‘the mobile payments space’, I expected them both to have many better things to do.

Pat told us that Jim had been struggling with the lack of company. Now, as Jim is agoraphobic, I’d stupidly assumed that he’d be better at coping with all this than the rest of us. But of course, he actually relies on the company of other people coming to see him. And with Pat shielding because of her diabetes, all visits have been put on hold since the start of lockdown.

Zoom, PowerPoint, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Webex… Those of us in the family who still worked or studied (or pretended to, Ginny!) had been forced to get up to speed with all sorts of technical wizardry in recent weeks. But I’d forgotten that for those who are strangers to office life, such things can be quite baffling, even intimidating.

With my mum and with Val’s grandparents, for example, we had to do hours of Zoom tutorials to get them ready for the quiz. By week three or four, they’d just about got their head round it… only for Rory, the computing whizzkid, to announce that he wanted to try another platform – called WEbSizzle or something – that had some sort of ‘superior freemium functionality’ that no one else really understood or cared about.

We’re all much more polite on video than in real life, I’ve noticed. Or maybe it’s just too tricky to thrash out such issues when there’s 20 of you lined up in a little gallery of fuzzy squares on screen across three continents (Val’s niece Sally having now joined from Cape Town).

So instead, we went ahead with Rory’s new experiment, with predictable results: The background noise was like a hairdryer in a cement mixer, the connection kept failing, and half the oldies dropped out because they just couldn’t cope. Still, you live and learn, and back we went to Zoom the following week – with even more participants.

Soon, we were joined by my cousin Rosie up in Ayrshire and her two kids, Val’s cat-mad niece Kimona in Cornwall, and my old mate Greg and his latest wife Carole over in Brittany. At one point we even had long-lost nephew Neil joining from Colorado, where he’d lucked into yet another absurdly well-paid gig training newbie skiers, plus my second cousin Maria from Portugal, where she’d run off with her college tutor boyfriend (quite a scandal back in the day, but all seems to be forgiven now), and my nephew Antony in Boston (sitting with new baby on lap, and looking absolutely terrified).

And some weeks, we even had Ginny! She joined with a whole bunch of fellow students who were all in a bubble, she said, although I didn’t know bubbles could contain 15 drunken undergrads crammed onto two sofas, sniggering incessantly and using our quiz as the pretext for their own private drinking game.

I didn’t find this out till later, but apparently when I speak online I have a habit of saying ‘obviously’ all the time. Ginny had obviously told all her mates about this, so they cooked up a game where everyone had to take a big swig every time I said the word. I must have said it quite a lot, because this gaggle of giggling so-called future leaders of our nation scored very poorly each week, and had usually crashed out or staggered off before the end.

Another surprise addition: Adrian and Helena, Val’s sister. When the glamorous early retirees’ latest world cruise was cancelled, Helena let it be known via a series of subtly passive-aggressive texts and Whatsapp messages that she and Adrian were ‘a little surprised’ not to have been included in the invitations. Val hadn’t deliberately meant to exclude her sister; we’d just assumed it would have all been a bit low-rent for them, and that they’d be busy doing an online New World wine-tasting course or one-to-one Zen Pilates sessions instead, which is usually more their sort of thing.

But the most surprising participant of all – and completely out of the blue – was Uncle Jack. Jack is really my wife’s great uncle – brother to Grammy Baker. A great silent bear of a man, he lives out on a remote farmstead with his dogs and his guns somewhere in rural Lincolnshire, and is rarely seen from one year to the next. In fact, since he lost his wife Maisie to ‘the cancer’ about ten years ago, he’s been a virtual recluse.

All I really know about Jack is that he’s fiercely independent and continues to run his smallholding single-handed, even into his 80s. Oh and also, that he once fell off a tractor out in the middle of a field and was trapped under one of its giant wheels with a broken ankle and no water for nearly two days till a passing delivery van discovered him. He was rushed to hospital but discharged himself later the same day. ‘The pigs need me,’ is all he would say.

Even before Maisie died, Jack rarely left the farm, and it was quite an event for him to make an appearance at a family do. When he did emerge from his self-imposed exile, he was capable of spending whole evenings without uttering more than a few syllables. Yet there was a disarming gentleness about him, I remember now; he treated his dogs like wayward children, and he always had little goodies for all the actual children, who like animals instinctively gravitated to this enigmatic giant.

The quiz also – and I mean this in a nice way – attracted various strays and hangers-on. Rosie started tuning in each week with her two new Spanish lodgers, Jorge and Antonio. They are a couple, I think, and very twinkly and smiley with it too. They seemed to love the quiz, though all the references to Birds of a Feather, and leg before wicket, not to mention the heated debates about the difference between a cottage pie and a shepherd’s pie, can’t have made much sense to them.

Ginny’s ex Jezz started joining the calls too, from his houseboat on a canal in Wales somewhere. I think it was Ginny’s idea, bless her – she worried that he’s been going off the rails again in lockdown. And it was actually quite nice to see him, though -- whisper it -- still no less of a relief to her parents to remember that she is no longer shacked up with an under-employed ukulele player/juggler almost twice her age.

Jezz always was a character, even if he does look even more like a scraggly New Age prophet now, sort of a poor man’s Russell Brand. He was so distraught when they split up that Ginny gave him custody of their dog, so it was lovely to see Goldie again too. Sometimes on the calls Jezz would vanish in search of an ale (or a discreet smoke perhaps), and there’d just be this lovely bouncy golden retriever barking at the screen, looking like she was desperate to hear the next question. This always made me smile, especially as in the next window along you could often see some of Kimona’s seven cats ghosting across the frame – all black ones, they are, because Kimona says black cats are always the last to get picked at the rescue centre.

Every week a few more people joined, and pretty much all of them stayed. The amazing thing really was that many of the people we were getting together wouldn’t have met in person from one year to the next in normal times. Yet here they all were, sharing virtual drinks every week and heatedly rehearsing such classic trivia arguments as whether the Nile is really longer than the Amazon, whether Nixon was actually impeached, and whether Australia or Greenland is the world’s biggest island. (NB No, Nixon wasn’t. Obviously I have strong views on the other two questions as well, but I won’t bore you now.)

After I did the first couple of weeks, someone new took on the mantle of asking the questions each time after that. Most were grateful to have my PowerPoint deck as a template to repurpose, though some adopted a more analogue approach. Grammy and Grampa Baker even took a turn: she did questions on baking and the NHS, while Grampa chipped in with questions on DIY, football and – quite a tough round, this – World War 2 bombers. They sent their questions by hand to me, and I typed them up and read them out -- a service I was happy to perform for various bashful technophobes.

Most people took a turn at doing the questions, with varying degrees of success. Jez’s social justice quiz was a bit too political for some, while Ginny’s attempt to run an entire contest through the medium of mime will live long in the memory for Val’s Dad’s extraordinary impression of a flirtatious marmoset that’s had one too many and thinks the lampshade is up for it. I did not know he had those moves in him – and nor did Val’s mum, by the looks of it. It was very funny, if slightly disturbing.

We didn’t think to ask Uncle Jack to take a turn. He always went round to his neighbour’s farm to borrow an iPad to do the quiz on, but he hadn’t quite got the hang of the camera thing, and many weeks we just got an in-depth view of one of his nostrils, or a giant calloused thumb.

Jack rarely spoke much when people were chatting between rounds, never remembered to play his joker, and seemed to score exactly 5/10 every single time. But he always came back the following week, always in a chunky sweater and his battered waxy hat, and always raised a glass of stout and a sleeping dog’s paw in greeting. He seemed happy to be there, and we were happy to have him.

Over time the Fridays began to blur into each other, as regions and countries went in and out of lockdown, and the first wave turned into the second (unless it was the third, or unless the first one had never really finished). The quiz was a definite punctuation point in the week, and a good excuse for me and Val to uncork a nice bottle of the old Malbec. (I’m not sure what our excuse was for the other six days of the week, but never mind.)

We had quite a bit of drama on the calls too. One week Kimona and her partner Anya logged in from different rooms of their house because they were in the midst of a massive row. I think each assumed the other wouldn’t join the call, but they ended up being separate teams and making pointed remarks to each other all the way through. It was a bit tense, but quite entertaining in its way. The cats seemed pretty blasé about it all.

Another time, Grampa Baker nearly choked to death on a cashew nut, and we all looked on in fascinated horror as Grammy Baker, who’s as deaf as a post, tried to decipher our instructions for doing the Heimlich manoeuvre. We were all shouting at once, and she couldn’t hear anyway. Then Rory, who was hosting that week, had the bright idea of getting the subtitles going in PowerPoint, only the instructions kept coming out all garbled. ‘Why would I girdle his poodle?’ Grammy kept asking in despair.

In the end Grampa Baker coughed up the nut all by himself, and quickly brushed off his near-death experience as ‘a bit of acid. Nothing the Senokot won’t fix.’ (Grampa Baker believes Senokot can fix most things.) Then, while everyone else sat there shaking with relief, he calmly asked if Rory could repeat the answer to Number 7.

On another famous occasion, Helena was heard to stage-whisper to Adrian, ‘How much longer is this going on for? Don’t you get too pissed to shag me.’ Well. We all just acted like they’d been on mute the whole time. And of course, it just shows you that other people’s relationships are a complete mystery – it was hard to imagine the pair had ever shagged, really.

And yet. Nothing lasts forever, and as the nights began to draw in and the season turned cold and dark and soggy, it was noticeable that – despite everyone’s best efforts – the quiz was losing its appeal. We were all on screen half the day already, after all, for work meetings and college lectures and social calls and even GP appointments, and the dreaded ‘Zoom gloom’ had well and truly set in. Putting together a new quiz each week started to seem like too much of a faff; the questions had started to repeat themselves and the numbers on the call each week were in decline.

Someone suggested making the quiz fortnightly rather than weekly, and no one disagreed. There was even talk of making it monthly, and I secretly suspected that this might signal the end of it. But then everything got tightened up yet again, we all got put into tiers, and the word was we would all need to prepare for a digital Christmas.

I’m sure that, in normal times, the thought of not seeing half the relatives on Xmas Day would have had a certain appeal for many in the family – myself included. But these were not normal times, and it suddenly seemed a crying shame that this year there’d be no Grampa Baker quietly breaking wind in his sleep after lunch; or Jezz and Adrian rehashing their endless argument about the merits of socialism versus compassionate conservatism over the kitchen table; or Ginny delighting the little ones with her impressions of a variety of kitchen implements. (Her egg whisk is a personal favourite of mine; more performance art than parlour game in my view.)

Worse, the thought of all the oldies stuck alone with no real idea of when things might get better and when they could start mixing again made the winter months start to look very cold and dark indeed.

The best anyone could think of to do was schedule another Zoom quiz for Christmas morning. But the idea was greeted with muted enthusiasm and, as our prospects darkened, so too did the general mood. Normally, while the questioner totted up the scores at the end of the quiz, there would be some lively chat between the digital squares in our merry family gallery. But now the conversations were straying more and more into politics, and getting tenser every week.

Pat and Val argued that the lockdowns were necessary and, if anything, didn’t go far enough. Rory said the only way out was to keep the economy going; shield the vulnerable and let everyone else get on with it. Val said Corbyn would have done a much better job, and also wasn’t it interesting that the countries that had handled things best were all led by women, like Nicola Sturgeon and that Jacinda something?

Adrian said very quietly but very firmly that he thought Boris had been dealt a very tough hand and was doing about as well as anyone could, given the circumstances. Kimona said that no one had really thought about the effect of all on this on the animals. And Jezz said that face masks were muzzles and the government had a vested interest in keeping us in a state of extended panic. Also, it was well known to those who weren’t blind to such things that a group of world leaders had orchestrated the pandemic to take control of the global economy.

There was quite a lot of white sonic fuzz after this exchange, and there the future of the quiz might have languished, in gloomy virtual ambiguity, had Uncle Jack of all people not spoken up. He cleared his throat, put down the shotgun he’d been tinkering with, shouted at his dogs to shut up, and proceeded to utter more words than most of us had heard from him in a whole lifetime.

‘Family’s family,’ he said. ‘Oldens. Youngens. We got to stick together.’

This was not something anyone could really disagree with, and Jack’s great gnarled nostril commanded the attention of the whole Zoom room.

‘That’s why we need to bury him.’

‘Bury who, Uncle Jack?’ I asked. Even though he was in his 80s and I was in my late 40s, he was never just ‘Jack’.

‘The bird. I’ll kill it. You can say the prayers.’

The explanation took a while, and I will paraphrase. Uncle Jack had been reading in his local paper about ways to get round the limits on gatherings -- hiring your best mate as a cleaner or setting your folks up as estate agents and putting your house on the market, that sort of thing.

But the wheeze that had caught Jack’s eye related to funerals.

Groups of up to 30 people were permissible at a service for the dead, apparently, so the best way to make a Christmas do happen this year, the newspaper suggested, was to stage a turkey funeral. I wasn’t sure that this was an entirely serious suggestion -- and remember that Jack’s local rag served one of Britain’s biggest turkey-producing counties -- but it was hard to argue with a man who rarely spoke. It was even harder when he added: ‘Maisie would have been all up for it. All round to ours.’

We had all loved Maisie. Always laughing, always thinking about others, she had been Jack’s link with the outside world. But now, as if at her suggestion, he was proposing that a load of us pile over to his farm to perform a fake poultry funeral rite so that we could all have a festive knees-up without contravening the regulations.

It was an absolutely ridiculous idea. It was silly, it was unrealistic, it was irreverent. In short, it was exactly what we all needed and we all signed up to it at once.

On Christmas morning, Val, Ginny and I got up early and drove along quiet motorways, even quieter country A roads, and completely empty country lanes. As we entered Jack’s county, the scenery turned to ploughed fields, the richly turned soil an enviable chocolate brown. Bare trees framed a gently undulating landscape where you always felt the sea was just over the next little slope. The weather had been out of joint all year, and against a bright sky-blue sky we enjoyed several starling murmurations and V-shaped flocks of flying geese.

Driving down the long approach to Jack’s farm, the fields gave way to a series of ramshackle outbuildings, and we turned at last into a yard full of bits of disused machinery and sacks of feed. I saw giant bales in an open barn, an upended plough attachment, a couple of tractors, and the carcass of an old jeep. Dogs were running everywhere. Chickens crowed, cats slunk about, and pigs grunted inquisitively from their nearby sty. It was like a storybook come to life. I felt a sudden pang, and looked over at Val, who smiled in instant understanding; once upon a time, we’d have had great fun pointing this all out to our own kids. Still, it was lovely to have Ginny with us today. Shame Rory couldn’t make it, but New York is quite a way away.

We parked up round the back of an old caravan, and found that several other vehicles were there already, though we couldn’t see anyone else as yet.

Uncle Jack greeted us with a small dark contraption strapped over his mouth and nose that looked like an ancient gas mask. (We didn’t like to ask.) Before we could speak, he held up his hand and pointed a clunky plastic gadget that looked a bit like a price-gun at each of us. The light flickered over each forehead, the machine beeped, and Jack read out the big red digital number.

It was difficult to know quite what to make of these readings, especially as I got a 35, Ginny was a 17.3, and Val scored 167. But Jack grunted his satisfaction, and re-holstered his zapper in a pocket of his baggy tweed jacket. Nearby one of his grand-nieces, six-year-old Maya, sat on an old oil drum with a clipboard, solemnly copying the numbers down back to front with an orange crayon.

‘Come see the body,’ he said to me. ‘Hope you’ve got your words ready.’

While Ginny whispered sweet nothings to the pigs, a child again after all, Jack ushered Val and me through a small door and into the top part of a barn, where a giant bird was lying in par-cooked state on a long pine table. The area had been partitioned off from the rest of the barn with a thick, high curtain that looked to have been improvised from a load of old potato sacks sewn roughly together.

The fact that the creature before me was indeed a turkey had not been as straightforwardly arrived at as one might imagine. Once people had got on board with Jack’s idea, there had followed a heated debate about what the object of the ‘burial’ should be.

Helen and Adrian said it would be nice to have a goose dinner; they’d had one the year before at a new Michelin-starred place on the edge of the Cotswolds.

‘You mean a goose funeral,’ said Val’s mum, who’d read an article about how our computers are all listening in to us, and was terrified we’d be raided at any moment. In a cryptic and deeply paranoid handwritten note she’d photocopied and sent everyone via snail-mail (because digital means could not of course be trusted) -- she had warned us all to be vigilant for fear of government surveillance.

‘Sorry yes,’ said Adrian. ‘But it really was a really delicious goose… uh, funeral.’

‘Why not a funeral where you combine several birds?’ said Val’s dad, who liked his meat. ‘You know, a sort of crown funeral.’

‘Maybe it would be more practical just to, uh, bury several chickens?’ said Rosie, who was planning on driving down from Scotland with her two. ‘I know the kids would like that. Mind you, they’ll probably just want a pizza or nugget funeral anyway.’

‘Who said anything about burying food?’ said Grammy Baker, who hadn’t quite twigged on to the whole Alexa-spying-on-us thing.

‘We will be burying the animal... in our hearts and souls, won’t we, everyone?’ said Val’s mum in her best cloak-and-dagger voice. It was a voice so contrived and unnatural that it would have immediately made us an object of far greater suspicion to Dominic Cummings, had he been casually listening in (and still in a job, obviously).

I remarked that this might be the first time anyone had argued in advance of a funeral about who the deceased should be. ‘Usually,’ I said. ‘You already know who’s dead. And you don’t get to choose the species.’

‘Couldn’t we just bury some nut cutlets? Or a faux meat-loaf?’ said Kimona, who was of course a lifetime vegetarian and wouldn’t be partaking in any kind of poultry obsequies.

Jack settled the matter, once again. ‘Got bird already,’ said Jack, holding up a traffic cone with the top sliced off roughly. ‘Do the job Saturday. Then she can hang for the week.’

No one quite knew what this meant, though it certainly brought things to a conclusion. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and I later did a bit of googling.

It turned out that one way to despatch a turkey was to use a killing cone. You hold the bird upside down, which apparently has the effect of calming the animal as the blood rushes to its head. Then you pull the head through the exposed end of the cone, make a deep incision on either side of the neck, and start in on the hanging, plucking and dressing from there.

This googling made me feel two things. I realised how many of us who consume meat never think about where it comes from, and I felt a new respect for Jack and his unsentimental country ways. But I also felt quite disturbed about the fate of the poor bird, and I began to see Kimona’s heartfelt vegetarianism in a new light too.

Whatever Jack had had to do to bring an end to this bird’s life, I am sure that no turkey was ever treated with more respect post mortem.

The giant carcass -- ‘a good 45-pounder’, said Jack -- had been laid out on a large table set with a dark, velvet-like cloth. It lay in state, not in a baking tray or on a silver cook’s platter, but in a large wooden fruit crate lined with linen, in an attitude of respectful repose somehow quite different from the desperate sit-up-and-beg posture so familiar from the butcher’s counter. All around the bird Jack had placed tall white candles, wedged into a range of receptacles: egg cups, shotgun pellets, a mug advertising a brand of pesticide.

At the foot of the table, a large leather-bound notebook with thick creamy pages, doubtless purchased for the occasion, lay open for mourners to record their memories and messages of condolence. In a thick shaky hand, the first message had already been added:

‘Farewell, bird. You were a gooden. Jack’

In the background I became aware of some familiar and impressively atmospheric music, which Val later confirmed to me was Mozart’s Requiem.

My uncle looked at me gravely. ‘On you go, lad.’

With a deft flick of his wrists, Uncle Jack pulled back the sacking curtain to reveal the rest of the giant barn, open on one side. As I entered, I saw the various members of our extended quiz family rise from their fold-up chairs. I tried to wave at a few, but they eyed me with the deference of a devout congregation on the arrival of its cherished preacher.

I noted that several of the men wore dark suits, while Val’s mum appeared to be wearing one of those Victorian mourning veils. Several people had tissues in hand, and I could even hear some light sniffling from somewhere at the back. Three of Jack’s lurchers sat reverently by the first pew, silent and attentive.

I looked back uncertainly at Jack, who nodded pointedly at his watch. 11.01. He had said in his invitation that the ‘service’ would begin at 11.00am sharp, ‘in order to facilitate orderly cremation’. I’d thought this was all a joke, but apparently it was deathly serious. And, I remembered suddenly, I was supposed to officiate.

Ginny came and stood by my side. ‘You’ve got this dad,’ she whispered, and gave my arm a squeeze. It was all I needed. I can secretly be a bit of a ham, when the occasion demands.

‘Friends,’ I began, adopting the plummy, righteous tones of a country parson. ‘We are here today to give thanks for the life of this fine and upstanding… bird. In life, she-’

‘He,’ said Jack firmly.

I coughed apologetically. I had no idea how one sexed a turkey, but I had every confidence that Jack did. I also had no idea how one presided over the last rites of a bird that one intended to eat, but then it suddenly struck me that no one else did. The thought was oddly liberating.

‘In life, he was a faithful and loyal companion. He protected his, er, flock... and served his fellow turkeys with loyalty and distinction. He was, in so many ways, the very epitome of turkeyhood. For many, bird and human alike, he was… the turkey’s turkey.’

Jack shot me a look. I’m pretty sure it meant: ‘Get on with it.’

‘And so,’ I perorated, ‘May we who are about to… partake of his bounty... be filled with the same sense of family pride and joyous love of life which this great… barnyard personality was pleased to bestow on his fellow turkeys, day in, day out, all the days of his life. For ever and ever.’

‘Amen,’ said my flock, almost as one.

As I bluffed my way through these words, feeling like a poor imitation of a ‘Thought for the Day’ speaker, a strange parade of feelings had made their way through my mind and my heart.

Of course I was struck by the absurdity of improvising a homily to a turkey. But with so many familiar faces present I took to remembering other -- more conventional -- funerals, and all the people who had gone before us that we might never see again.

And then I saw Jack, out of the corner of my eye. He looked a little frailer than I remembered, and I caught myself wondering how many more times I might see him again. He stood proudly to attention, not the slightest hint of irony about him, and bowed his head reverently as I completed my remarks. He had made all this possible; God knows what he had in store next, but I would do right by him and his bird.

‘Now let us sing,’ said Jack.

The soft tones of the requiem shifted suddenly to the intro of a melody familiar to me from a long way back. To my right, a square of light appeared, and I saw that someone was projecting some words onto the barn’s far wall. I looked again at the masked IT pro... it was Rory! Somehow Jack had got my son over from the States, who’d we’d not seen for nearly two years, to attend this surreal ceremony.

People think of facemasks as obscuring communication. But I beamed at Rory over my so-called face-nappy, and Rory beamed back at me through his, and then Val and I shared a look of uncomplicated parental joy. Soon Ginny was joining in too, and if anything the fact that we all of us had only eyes to go on only added to the emotion of the moment. We went on beaming all the way through -- what else? -- ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small’.

By a long-held tradition that it would have been heresy even to question, the Christmas bird was always cooked by Val’s mum and Grammy Baker. The pair moved forward now, as if on a signal, and went to stand in front of the funeral bier. Adrian and Jezz now took up positions opposite one another, and under Jack’s watchful eye, they lifted the linen-lined crate, raised it on to a shoulder apiece, and bore its precious load in procession out of the barn behind the cooks. Jack followed close behind the cortege, his walking stick pointed upwards to guard against the possibility of the open coffin tipping backwards.

And then it was over. There was that immediate release of tension you get at the end of a church service, as people relaxed their positions and began to move among the chairs, air-hugs here and elbow-taps there. Soon the crisp indoor-outdoor air was abuzz with the chatter of family gossip, loud laughter and happy shrieks. The little ones present danced around us with Jack’s dogs in tow. Someone produced a tray of bubbly, someone else brought round platters of veggie devils on horseback, and soon the side tables were bulging with sausage rolls and mince pies and halloumi fries and mozzarella sticks and tempura prawns.

‘Ooh, someone’s been to Iceland,’ said Helena, and everyone was in such a good mood that this came out as a heart-warming witticism rather than, say, a snobbish little barb from someone who ought to know better.

Up on the barn wall, Rory was now somehow beaming Zoom calls with friends and family who couldn’t make it. Pat and Jim beamed down on us, Jim in an orange paper hat and Pat flaunting some large flashing Christmas tree earrings. Both had a champagne flute in hand, and Jim was already starting to look a bit shiny and red, as he always does when he’s had a few.

Grammy Baker appeared, wiping her hands on her apron and winding her trusty clockwork timer. The bird was back in the oven, and would be ready by 3.30, she said. In the meantime, she was ready for a boogie! Soon the old Christmas tunes were belting out, and the barn was rocking with swirling bodies. The children danced with the oldies, and the dogs circled and barked in a happy frenzy.

Val, Ginny and I had a lovely catch-up with Rory in the farmyard. The sky was darkening and a beautiful robin-red sky had risen over Jack’s gentle arable slopes. Rory showed us pictures of his new boyfriend on his phone, and tried once again to explain to us what he did for a living. But we didn’t get very far, because we all got sucked into the traditional festive debate between Adrian and Jezz.

Jezz was saying he wouldn’t take the vaccine because ‘you didn’t know what was in it’, and Ginny said that was funny because when they were living together she’d seen him cheerfully ingest a wide range of substances, almost all of them of far more dubious provenance than a medicine developed according to internationally recognised double-blind protocols and approved by all relevant regulatory bodies. She added that she’d always known he was a shape-shifting lizard, which she and Adrian both seemed to find very funny.

With great ceremony, the turkey was now brought into the barn, steaming freely in the cool evening air, and Jack led us all in a round of ‘For they are jolly good fellows’ in honour of the cooks, who sat on a bench, looking exhausted but elated.

After the turkey had been carved and distributed buffet-style, one of Rosie’s little girls blew a sharp toot on a whistle, and Jack stood up to speak. He was swaying a little, perhaps because he had decided to adopt creme de menthe as his festive tipple, which he’d been drinking from a tankard.

‘Thank you all for coming out here today,’ he said. ‘An I reckon Maisie would have loved to be here an all.’ At his wife’s name, there were cheers and cries of ‘hear hear’.

‘Ten years ago in April, I sat for three weeks in the hospital with her,’ he said. ‘Watching her lose her strength. But always happy to the end.’ He paused, and looked mournfully into his tankard. ‘Trying to be happy for the both of us, if she could.’ The barn was silent. Jack’s great bulk swayed but his voice did not falter.

‘Well, if all that had happened this year, I wouldn’t even have been allowed to sit with my Maisie. I wouldn’t even have been allowed to bury her. And even now, to get together, we have to pretend to bury a bird!’

‘Not pretend,’ Val’s mum whispered into a laptop.

‘We’re all very different people,’ said Jack. ‘We all believe different things.’

‘Jezz thinks 5G caused coronavirus,’ said Ginny bitchily.

‘But we’re a family, and we’re all in this together, though none of us knows how long. So Happy Christmas one and all, and I don’t care who knows it!’ And with that Jack downed his drink and strode off into the empty black night, a gun slung over his arm and three large dogs in his wake.

The clan was silent for a long moment. Couples held hands and the children hugged their mums and dads. Outside a cock crowed, and the pigs grunted.

‘Where did Jack go?’ said someone suddenly. ‘Oh my God, did he have a gun with him?’

We were about to mount a drunken search party, when we heard a series of clicks. Rushing outside, we saw Jack’s silhouette lit up in the yard, standing atop a henhouse in the stance of a sniper taking aim.

‘What’s Uncle Jack doing?’ said a little one.

I followed Jack’s aim out over the blackness, where I could see now several little pools of light in the dark, some way off, arranged in an approximate line. There was another click and a bang, and then a searing screech as the first rockets lit up the sky’s inky canvas.

Jack re-loaded and fired, again and again, and each shot set off a new array of bangers and rockets and fountains and stars. We stood at the edge of the barn as one, shaking our heads and laughing, the liquid gloss of every eye flaring with each glorious new explosion.

And even as Jack’s fireworks lit up the night sky and fell too soon to earth, I thought I caught a glimpse of another light, whose halo lay just over the horizon. Dawn follows night, and the world turns again.

Fancy reading more of Dan Brotzel's brilliant short stories? His debut collection, Hotel Du Jack, is available now from the Sandstone shop.

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel