The Man in the Dark Suit

As I march along the rutted path, I look back over my shoulder and see the man in the dark suit still standing alone in the car park, at that crossroads where the little country lane from the hamlet of Woolstone crosses the Ridgeway. He has got his back towards me and is looking down at his feet, so I can’t see his face. Perhaps he is unhappy. Perhaps he is bored. He is certainly waiting. Yes, the man in the dark suit is waiting.

            He turns slowly around and looks along the bridleway again, but all he sees is my disappearing form, and I am pretending not to be curious about why he is standing all alone in a car park. I make a point of not returning his gaze, affecting a sudden fascination with the sprays of honeysuckle blooming in the briars and the blackthorn bushes, and so I do not notice how he shakes his head and sighs and mops at his brow with a clammy handkerchief.

            The man in the dark suit wonders when the rest of the mourners will turn up. He hopes he has got the right day—there’s always a tiny worry niggling away at the back of your mind if you don’t receive a proper invitation—but he reckons he owes it to Barry to turn out and pay his respects. Of course, he’s never been to this kind of thing before—and that, too, makes him a little apprehensive—but it can’t be that different from any other funeral—and he’s really not bothered, as he’s not religious himself—it’s all claptrap, as far as he’s concerned. And he’ll be buggered if he allows himself to be scared off by some ignorant bearded crusty in a stupid leather hat. Cheeky git! No, Barry was his friend, too, and so why should he stay away just because he didn’t buy into all the mumbo-jumbo that Barry apparently filled his head with.

            Not for the first time, it occurs to the man in the dark suit (his name is Jake) how little he and Barry used to talk about any of this kind of stuff. They’d sit on a park bench in the sun, eating their snap, tossing the odd crust to the ducks, and pass the time of day, chatting about this and that—or not chatting if none of them had anything much to say—and in winter, or if was cold or rainy, they might meet up at Sam’s and have a coffee or a tea and share a Chelsea bun.

            What did they talk about? Well, there’s a question: what does anyone talk about? Jake strains his mind to remember: they’d sometimes talk about football—not that either of them knew much about it—and carp fishing and caravans and allotments and the plans to redevelop the shopping precinct, and whether you could really trust Roger when he comes on all smiling and your best friend, like. And on a Monday, they’d ask one another what they’d done over the weekend, and he’d say he’d taken the kids to Chessington World of Adventures but they’d had to queue for ages and it’d got a bit boring and Barry would say he’d creosoted the shed and thinned out his broad beans, and then they’d talk about their plans for the next weekend, and it was only now and then that Barry would sigh—in his most long-suffering way—and admit, with a kind of coy reluctance, that he’d got One of His Things coming up. And suddenly there would be a brief, desultory conversation about Avebury or Stonehenge or Glastonbury Tor, before they returned to safer ground and discussed whether West Ham would go back to a flat back four against Chelsea or whether Rooney had gone off the boil since his ankle had taken that knock.

            This is what that condescending prick, Doug—with his dreads and his clogs and his crappy Aussie bush hat—would never get. Nobody at the office would have ever picked Barry as someone to be into this kind of hocus-pocus. He was just an ordinary fellow who turned up, did his job, ate his sandwiches in the park and went home to creosote his shed and thin out his broad beans. And he had been Jake’s friend. Not that he’d ever thought much about Barry until now—just taken him for granted, as you do when you work with the same chap for ten, eleven years or more. But he’d missed the old boy when he suddenly disappeared from his desk and there was nobody to chat with when he unfolded his sarnies and stared at the pond outside the council buildings.

            It’d never even occurred to him that Barry might be unwell—but he’d been upset to hear about the funeral—and then that patronising pillock in his Terry-Prachett-wizard hat and that ridiculous ring in his beard had got all arsey about him coming— and, well, that had been the final straw. The suddenness of the news—the guilt at having lost touch—the patronising assumption that someone like him wouldn’t fit in—it had all been too much. He remembers how he’d suddenly felt close to tears. He’d never realised till that moment how much he missed Barry and how much he valued those hours they’d spent together chatting quietly in Sam’s or sitting together eating their sandwiches by the duck pond. So, here he is on the Ridgeway, waiting for the other mourners to arrive and wishing Doug hadn’t been so cagey about telling him the funeral arrangements.

            The man in the dark suit is just beginning to get nervous when he at last catches the sound of distant music drifting over the downs. First, he hears the voices of the women and the rhythmic pit-a-pat of high-pitched drums. Then the drone of men’s voices joins the swelling sound and he’s just about able to make out the melody, though none of the words. And then, over the crest of the hill, the front of a column of white-robed figures finally appears. A few amongst the procession wear surplices of green and occasionally blue over their white vestments and many carry long rough-hewn staffs with which they mark their stride. Others tap out the rhythm of a solemn dirge on hand-drums, and there are fiddlers and fife players amongst the mourners, though they are currently abstaining from playing their instruments. Towards the front of the procession, just behind the drummers and the choir, there are four or five figures each wearing a kind of folded cloth headdress, the design of which occupies the middle ground between a nun’s veil and the kind of get-up favoured by Egyptian pharaohs. And there’s another chap who’s being led by two others. He seems to have a veil pulled over his face, like he’s a bride walking up the aisle. All these worshippers are dressed in white too.

            For a moment, Jake fears he will be the only one at the funeral not wearing white. But behind the phalanx of priests and singers, there follows a shambling rabble of laity and assorted hangers-on. There are longhaired biker-types with tribal tattoos and sub-Motörhead sideburns and moustaches. There are scary-looking fellows with shaved heads and topknots, with piercings in their eyebrows and their nostrils and their lips. There are clean-shaven men with neatly trimmed hair, who should be sponging down their Honda Civics outside pebble-dashed semis in Rayners Lane, and there are blousy overblown women, with their spectacles on chains, whom one might normally expect to find checking out plastic-covered bestsellers in local lending libraries. There are dreadlocked crusties in russet tabards and fay young women with flowers in their hair and the dreamy look of Pre-Raphaelite hippies. There are middle-aged mums with sensible haircuts and handy packs of Kleenex in their nylon rucksacks, and there are dumpy middle-aged Guardian readers with clipped grey beards and micro-polyester fleeces in Day-Glo primary colours.

            ‘Who’d have thought it?’ murmurs the man in the dark suit to himself. ‘Talk about a dark horse! There must be several hundred people turned out for the old boy. If I’d have known he was half so popular, maybe I wouldn’t have made the effort.’

            But the man in the dark suit is here now, so he gamely tags along with the rest as they process along the Ridgeway. He doesn’t know any of the hymns they are singing and he doesn’t seek to engage any of the other mourners in conversation: he just keeps up with the crowd, all the time marvelling at the spectacle this mass of people make, processing along the ancient footway in order to mark the passing of a local government officer in the housing department.

            They walk for twenty or thirty minutes, until they are in sight of the copse of trees that surrounds Wayland’s Smithy: a Neolithic long barrow that is one of the Ridgeway’s most famous landmarks. And it is only at this late stage that it occurs to the man in the dark suit to wonder why there is nobody bearing the coffin. So, he looks around for someone bearing an urn, as it occurs to him that one reason Doug might have been so secretive about the funeral arrangements was that Barry had requested for his ashes to be placed somewhere in the ancient burial chamber or to be sprinkled on the mound of earth. Such a load of old rubbish, the man in the dark suit thinks to himself, shaking his head in baffled exasperation.

            But just as he thinks he has puzzled out the mystery, the crowd gathers around a huge spade oak on the edge of the copse. The singing comes to an end and a hushed silence falls upon the congregation. The man in the dark suit fights an urge to ask his neighbour—a bushy-bearded johnny with beetling eyebrows and a floppy canvas hat—what is going to happen next. But he senses this is not the moment for asking questions, as all eyes are fixed on the white-robed priests standing with arms outstretched in ecstatic contemplation of the huge oak tree. Turning to face the worshippers, two of the priests produce two long gold knives—curved sickles— from beneath their green surplices and hand these to two more men with cowls drawn over their heads. The men bow as they receive the blades and then throw off their long white robes, leaving them naked apart from gold lamé loincloths and matching thonged sandals. One of them has thick black-rimmed glasses and looks like he should be presenting an Open University course on the history of post-war urban planning. The other is a tousle-haired New Ager with Polynesian tattoos running the length of one arm and a nose-ring glistening in one nostril like a jewelled bogey.

            The man in the dark suit wants to laugh, but the rest of the crowd sink to their knees, bowing their heads in reverence before the secret mystery that is about to be enacted. Peeping up whenever he thinks he can do so undetected, Jake watches as two naked men in golden thonged sandals and shining loincloths begin shinning up a tree in south Oxfordshire. As the first two clusters of mistletoe are tossed out of the branches and land more or less silently at their feet, the priests offer prayers to the spirit of the sacred oak and thank their Great Mother, the Earth, for providing them with her bounteous gifts. They pray that the darkness that has befallen our benighted age will soon be lifted. At this, all the worshippers get to their feet and join their voices to a solemn anthem, celebrating the soul’s journey into the Otherworld and its joyous union with the Spirits of the Ancestors. At the end of the hymn, all the member of the congregation—from dreadlocked neo-hippy to sensible-shoed mother of two—begin hugging one another and kissing each other on the cheeks. Most of the women, and many of the men, are weeping.

            Barry must have been like Prince or John Lennon to these grief-stricken people, thinks the man in the dark suit to himself, as a beefy bearded bloke with a strong Brummie accent urges him to ‘celebrate everything Barry’s life means to us today and to carry on living as Barry would want us to live’. But then, in case he might be accused of levity on so august an occasion, the Brummie fellow tells everyone around him that they’ll ‘never forget the supreme sacrifice Barry was willing to make for his brothers and sisters and for the health of our Great Mother, the Earth’. There is much fervent nodding of heads from all who are listening and another chap, with a pale earnest face and big brown eyes, confesses with all the moving simplicity of love that not a day will go past when he won’t give thanks for Barry.

            ‘Are they taking the piss?’ wonders the man in the dark suit. ‘He was a decent enough fellow, but all this is laying it on a bit strong.’ He has a wild fancy that he is the victim of some elaborate practical joke and he almost expects to see Jeremy Beadle or Harry Hill to step out of a disguise to tell him to smile as he’s on national TV. But none of this happens: instead three loud beats sound out from the drummers and the man with the veil drawn over his face comes to the front and kneels before one of the two high priests.

            The congregation looks on in rapt silence as the veiled man is crowned and garlanded with mistletoe. When this ritual is complete, the congregation performs the briefest of litanies—a series of verses and responses praising the Earth Mother and asking for guidance from the Spirits of the Ancestors—and then the other high priest begins to speak with warmth and affection about the life of Barry, recalling all he contributed over the years to the Sacred Order of the Mystic Oak and to the Swindon Society of Bards, Knights and Ovates— not forgetting that Barry was also a keen fisherman, gardener and member of the allotment association.

            As the mourners settle into reverent contemplation of all Barry’s brief sojourn on earth means to them, the high priest presses on to his stirring conclusion. ‘A family man and a loyal servant of the council’s housing department for more than two decades, Barry means as much to many outside our sacred fraternity as he means to us. These unenlightened souls may not share our beliefs or understand Barry’s sense of mission, but they must have still grasped, at some instinctive level, that Barry was a special one, a chosen one, one with a unique destiny to fulfil: for everything Barry did in his life, no matter how humble or how transcendent, proclaimed his burning faith that our lives are only one part of a greater whole—and that the same spirit that runs through every stone and stream, every deer in the woods and every fish in the sea also runs through all of us. For, the death of the body only releases the spirit to live again in another shape, another earthly receptacle, and sometimes only blood will renew the sacred wheel of creation and purify an earth made sick with the impious violence of arrogance of modern man.’

            With this, the garlanded man lifts up his veil and a smiling Barry begins to thank everyone for turning up for his funeral and invites them all to join him at the sacred stones to witness his ritual butchering and disembowelment followed by the internment of his human remains in the place that was the ancient tomb of their Ancestors. Barry explains, smiling broadly, that a short buffet reception will be available for anyone who would like to stay on after the service. A vegetarian option has been provided, he adds, glancing down at some notes he’s scribbled on to cue cards.

            ‘What an honour it is,’ Barry finishes, clearly humbled by the occasion, ‘to be able to renew old traditions and to become the first human sacrifice in these shores since the defeat of the Druids on the sacred Isle of Ynys Môn in 78 AD.’