I was listening to the wonderful The Reunion on Radio 4 this morning, which gathered Alan Bennett and the living actors and producers who made his seminal series Talking Heads back in the 80s. Every one was a quiet triumph of democratic art: closely observed revelations of the profound moments that all of us experience, often unnoticed by ourselves and others in a noisy culture which tends to overlook people like his subjects: older women, northerners and the petit-bourgeoisie.
It reminded me of half an hour I spent in a café in Newcastle-under-Lyme in late 1996, a half-hour which was as close to a Talking Heads script – as funny and sad – as anything I've ever experienced. I was enduring one of my short periods of unemployment, between graduation and starting an MA. Living in the depths of the countryside, I had to walk a fair distance to catch the twice-daily bus into town to sign-on for the dole, a magnificent £24 per week. Having hours to wait for the return trip, I would spend hours in the library, then splurge £1.20 on tea and toast in a very chintzy café, accompanied by the old broadsheet Guardian. I liked the pots of tea and patterned china, proper tablecloths butter knives.
That day, the only other customers were two old ladies. They wore hats, sensible raincoats and floral dresses: prime Alan Bennett characters. They had tartan shopping trolleys and small dogs (also wearing tartan). One was recently widowed and struggling to cope with her new condition. She explained to her companion that the hardest part was meeting old friends. I can still hear the desolation as she said 'I've seen them spot me coming and cross the road because they don't know what to say to me'. I'd been to plenty of funerals by that point and lost enough relatives to appreciate the situation: even now I find it hard to say anything that isn't cliched, patronising or useless. But what really moved me was that she wasn't bitter or angry: despite her loss and grief, she understood and even empathised with what her friends felt.
I can't remember what her colleague said – I think it was supportively sympathetic. But then the conversation took another turn. They started discussing the deceased's funeral, which they agreed was a fine send-off for a decent man. Good turnout, nice hymns, decent spread afterwards. The only problem, the widow explained, was the argument she'd had with the undertakers the day before. Clearly snatched from life unexpectedly, her husband had been to Marks the week before, and they'd bought him some new pants. 'Nice white ones - best they had. He always got his pants from Marks'. Denied the chance to wear them in life, his widow told the undertakers that he would wear them in death. For some reason, they demurred, explaining that while the body would be dressed in a suit, they didn't see much point in putting on underwear too. 'But I told them flat. He'd wear his new pants and that's that. You can't be buried in no pants, I told them. It's not right'.
By this point, I was torn between tears and laughter, and the sound of my newspaper rustling in my shaking hands was becoming obvious, so I left in a state of both admiration and sympathy for her. I don't know whether all undertakers are that difficult when it comes to corpsewear, but it struck me as an unnecessary bit of cavilling in a moment of grief. I liked her for her insistence that certain standards apply beyond the requirements of practicality, and I'd learned something devastating about how we deal with loss. I don't know if I'm a particularly nice person, but I think that half-hour taught me that I wasn't the star in the drama of life, and that kindness and a little empathy is more important than any of the brasher passions.