had creased when he smiled, almost covering his eyes.

He stood at the fence and stared through the trees. People were moving around in there, climbing out of their cars, milling around like geese in a field before the service began. He could see some of them shaking hands or speaking softly to one another, and others lit up cigarettes to smoke away the minutes before they were allowed to enter the small redbrick crematorium building. The weight of the dead was heavy here. Marc could feel it everywhere, even on the oft-trodden footpath outside the fence.

Marc wasn’t sure what he was doing here. He had not known Harry Rose for long, and he had not known him too well. Yes, the two men had forged a bond of sorts over the past few months, but it was based on Marc’s desire for information and the old man’s need for company in the long, dim days before he died. They had been convenient companions, nothing more.

Yes, Harry had once known Marc’s Uncle Mike well, many years ago, but Marc had known neither of the men beyond the superficial.

He reached inside his pocket and took out his mobile phone, checked it for messages, and then switched it off. He rarely received calls or texts. He led a deliberately friendless lifestyle, preferring to spend time on his own. He didn’t know why he chose to ostracise himself from others, but isolation agreed with him. That was all he needed to know, the only justification he required.

He started towards the main gates, reluctant to enter, yet knowing that it was the least he could do — to pay the man his respects, say a final goodbye before the flames took him. He didn’t need to hang around afterwards, and the strangers here would not press him to do so.

Loose stones crunched under his feet as he walked along the path, between grubby monuments and grave markers. The air was chill, the sky bright and open. Traffic noise dimmed behind him, as if he were in the process of entering a sealed environment.

Marc stood at the edge of the small group of mourners, trying not to be noticed. He wished he hadn’t given up smoking; that would have given him something to do with his hands as he waited.

“Excuse me.”

Marc looked up, resisting the urge to sigh. He had been staring at his feet, so failed to notice the man’s approach. “Hello,” he said, holding out his hand in an instinctive gesture that he didn’t really mean.

The man shook his hand and smiled. “You must be Marc.” His face was lined, his hair was thin and grey; he looked as if he was in his early sixties. “I’m Vic. Victor Rose… Harry’s brother.”

Marc nodded. Of course; Harry had told him about his brother, and the falling out the two men had experienced several years ago — some family thing, a silly argument that had stretched and changed into a longstanding estrangement. “Ah, yes. I’m pleased to meet you.” When the man let go of his hand he didn’t know what to do with it, so he just let it hang at his side, the fingers clasping an imaginary cigarette.

“I suppose Harry told you about me. About what happened between us?”

“A little bit, yes. Not in any great detail, though.” He felt awkward, not really knowing what to say to this man. He hated small talk. It was meaningless.

“I wish we hadn’t been so stupid. If I knew what was going to happen… how ill he was… well, you know.” He smiled, sadly. His pale blue eyes were moist. His face was like parchment paper stamped with the signs of loss.

“I know. And I’m sure Harry felt the same.” He had no idea what Harry had thought about the matter. Even if he’d been told, he had not retained the information.

An awkward silence descended between the two men, pushing them apart. Again, Marc wished that he could smoke. He hadn’t felt the craving this strongly in a long time, perhaps for a couple of years.

“If he’d have told me how ill he was, I would’ve gone round, made up with him. He was my only brother… I loved the old bastard, even though I don’t think I ever told him how I felt.”

Marc was just about to say something — he didn’t know what; just anything to break the uncomfortable, candid moment — when people started to shuffle inside the building.

“Looks like we’re on now,” he said, smiling at Victor Rose. “Please, after you.”

Rose nodded and began to walk towards the entrance, hanging back enough that he didn’t get too far ahead of Marc. He doesn’t want to go in alone, thought Marc. He increased his speed and drew level with the older man. “Okay if I sit with you?” He was unsure why he’d made the offer, but once he did he felt better. Perhaps in this situation, a companion would help ease the tension.

Rose looked relieved. “Yes… yes, that would be fine.”

Marc placed a hand on Rose’s shoulder and guided him inside. He hoped that he would never get so lonely that he needed the company of a stranger at a family funeral — then he realised that he was already there. If he was called to the interment of some distant family member tomorrow, he’d have nobody to take with him.

Perhaps he’d ask Victor Rose.

They followed the other mourners inside and took their seats near the front of the narrow room. Marc looked around and concluded that there must be no other family members present. Not one person acknowledged Victor; no-one even looked in his direction. Either the trouble between the brothers had been worse than he imagined, or Victor had become so detached from his older sibling’s life that he did not know these people.

Whichever reason were true, it was a sad state of affairs.

They stood when the service began, sang half-heartedly along with the hymns, and listened to the vicar as he described someone Marc barely even recognised. After what felt like a very short time, the velvet-draped coffin began to move on its roller towards the furnace door.

Marc felt unmoved by the brief ceremony. He was unable to connect with anything that had happened, any of the words the man at the front of the room had said. It all seemed too generic, so homogenised, that it might have come out of a can. Instant funeral service: just add water.

Before long, the mourners started to file outside. Their faces were unchanged; nothing had penetrated the facade.

“Can I offer you a lift?” he asked Victor Rose, as they were standing outside, waiting for something that had already happened.

Rose nodded. “Thank you. I came here on the bus… it would be a rather depressing ride back to Harry’s patch on my own.”

Marc said nothing. He just led the way to the car, walking slowly to enable to other man to keep up.

Once the car was moving, he switched on the radio, keeping the volume low. The local news was reporting more job lay-offs and a story about yet another company going into liquidation. Times were hard; people were struggling. It was the same old story told in a different way, or a sequel in which every move could be predicted on the evidence of what had gone before.

“Back there in the crematorium.” He glanced to the side, at his passenger’s profile. “It didn’t seem like anyone knew you. I mean… not one of those people spoke to you.”

Rose sighed. “My brother and I led very different lives. To be honest, I very much doubt those other mourners even knew who I was. Even before we fell out, Harry and I were distant. We always have been — ever since we were children.”

Marc didn’t respond.

“I suppose you think that’s strange?”

Marc shook his head. “I really wouldn’t know. My own lifestyle isn’t exactly what you’d call conventional.” He thought of his ex-wife, who was now living with a female tattoo artist in Singapore, and his nomadic existence as a freelance reporter for a variety of newspapers and magazines; his self-imposed exile from the human race. He’d never settled down, never made a mark of any kind in the world. Even the stories he reported faded a day or two after they were told, impermanent, not mattering to anyone for longer than the minutes it took to read them.

“We were very different people, my brother and I. My friends don’t know he exists, and I daresay his friends never knew much about me. It’s how we worked. We didn’t need to be close in order to feel close. That probably doesn’t make much sense — I know it doesn’t to me — but it’s just how we were. Who we were…” He fell silent, as if tired of the sound of his own voice.

Marc followed the route from Near Grove to the Concrete Grove, feeling as if he were chasing a long, dark thread through the corridors of a familiar maze. He always became downbeat when he approached the area. It made him feel so low that sometimes he wished he’d never heard of the place. The closer he got to the heart of the area, the more dilapidated the buildings became, the more potholes appeared in the road, and the shabbier the

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