I was supposed to meet my family a couple of hours before the funeral, but I arrived late because of work. Everyone smiled when they saw me and I soon found out why: in my absence they’d decided I would be doing the eulogy.
I pointed out that I barely knew Uncle Eric. “Don’t worry about that,” said my mother. “It’s already written. You simply have to read the thing.”
I protested but even Mum and Dad didn’t help — they didn’t want to read it either. I’d have argued more if I’d known the reason why everyone was so reluctant.
You see, my Uncle Eric used to be a ventriloquist. Which meant it wasn’t going to be me reading the eulogy, not quite. Instead, I would be operating the person who’d known him best, his stage partner of forty years, Mr. Featherdrop, a tatty puppet of a dog wearing a bowler hat. My father passed me the puppet and the notes, written by Uncle Eric before he died. “You should go to the church and practise,” said my mother.
The building was empty when I arrived, and small enough that I wasn’t too intimidated. I walked to the lectern passing the front row, which was all reserved: little cards reading ‘Mr. Smith and guest’, ‘Mr. Arrowright and guest’, a line of men and their companions.
Ventriloquism takes years to master. I didn’t want to dishonour Uncle Eric’s memory by ‘gottle-of-geer’ing my way through the service. No, I would let my lips move. As long as I kept Mr. Featherdrop’s lips moving too, people would understand. Nobody could expect him to be at his best under the circumstances.
I was in the middle of my second read-through when a man entered with a giraffe on his arm. He walked over to clap me on the shoulder, introducing himself as Mr. Arrowright. He said he was pleased they’d found a speaker. “We’ll set up a glass of water for you,” he said. “It’s a trick glass,” said the giraffe. I didn’t bother explaining I had no intention of trying to be something I wasn’t.
I will never forget Uncle Eric’s service. I’m a nervous reader at the best of times, but the horror of that day is unsurpassed. I sat to one side waiting for things to get going, greeting relatives, most of whom smirked when they spoke to me. Among the faces I knew and those I’d seen at the pub were others I didn’t recognise, including a series of men with a guest each, tattered old puppets on their right arms.
The wait for my big moment was too short, as I knew it would be. Standing at the lectern, Mr. Featherdrop on my right arm, I was terrified. I kept looking at the front row with the line of old men, their puppets staring back with little beady eyes. The puppet’s expressions reminded me of an ex-girlfriend who, after two months of what I considered passionate sex, described me as ‘adequate’ in bed. I read the piece, pausing in all the right places for Mr. Featherdrop to lap up laughter. Featherdrop seemed to take on his own personality, enjoying performing, and I found by the end I wasn’t nervous. It was more comfortable than I had expected.
Afterwards I didn’t linger in church but went to the graveyard for a cigarette, which was where Mr. Arrowright found me — fag in one hand, puppet on the other.
“You did well,” said the man. But it was the giraffe’s mouth that moved.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Shut up,” said the man, this time moving his own lips. “Sebastian was talking to Mr. Featherdrop, not to you.”
I crushed the cigarette under my heel, even though it was only half smoked, and excused myself. I’d had enough of old men with puppets, and told everyone I had to get home and couldn’t attend the wake.
I tried to return the puppet to Uncle Chas, but everyone insisted I keep him, promising to send Mr. Featherdrop’s possessions once the will was settled. I carried the puppet in a bag, telling myself not to be stupid when this gave me a twinge of guilt.
I unpacked Mr Featherdrop onto the bed when I got home and he lay there, flaccid and empty. I considered putting him on, but didn’t, housing him on top of the wardrobe instead. Sometimes, at night, even when it was dead dark, I could feel him looking at me, and my arm would itch. I don’t know why I left him alone. What could be wrong about trying on my uncle’s puppet?
The first night a new girlfriend stayed over, she saw Mr. Featherdrop watching from the wardrobe. She blushed: “Can you, um, ‘perform’ with him?” she asked. And I knew I was doomed.
James Burt is a Brighton-based writer who also likes to read his work at spoken word nights. Concerned that other writer’s biographies were more exciting than his own, James has quit his job and plans to freewheel and freeload until his biography is more impressive. He keeps a website at www.orbific.com.