Traybakes, shoe polish and a high-viz vest: there's no wake like a Tyrone wake

Everyone in Tyrone loves cars. Rich, poor, male, female, young, old, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. It’s the great leveller. They love jeeps, estates, sports cars, pick-ups, vans, lorries, tractors and there is one man I met who adores, and collects, bulldozers.

And they’re not snobby. They will often comment on “an ‘oul heap of dung” they own and have a good laugh. Or mention their reclusive neighbour with a weapon of an Evo in the shed. Whether your car is fast, slow, expensive or cheap, it’s thought of, in Tyrone, as almost part of the family.

Fionnuala pretends not to care but she’s see-through on that one. I don’t give a hoot about them though. Driving holds a mild terror for me, heading into the wilds of the roads, in bad weather at night, with my poor eyesight.

So, when we set off for a wake for a friend of Fionnuala’s da, driving was the last thing I was contemplating.

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He drove a lorry for a nearby quarry, played for the football team back in the day, and was a club member who did umpire and linesman and anything else required. He had a modest house and modest family; an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand.

The only thing memorable about him as far as I could see was that he dyed his hair badly.

“Oh, no,” said Fionnuala, behind the wheel. “His family all had that dark-haired gene. It’s not dyed.”

“Pull the other one.” I chortled. “A blind man on a galloping horse can see it’s a DIY disaster.”

“Just you keep that opinion to yourself when we get here. And I’ll be going into the kitchen to help with the teas and sandwiches.”

“Well, I’ll go with you. Considering I won’t know anybody here.”

“No, you coming into that kitchen filled with women would be mortifying. Just mingle and offer to do jobs.”

As soon as we arrived and shook hands at the door, we were sent upstairs to see the body. It was all alarmingly unusual. The man was in his bed with a three-piece suit (his wishes) and the family all sitting round small-talking and weeping, with this river of humans offering condolences. Hundreds of people.

It was the funeral of an ancient chieftain, not a lorry driver. There was a marquee for God’s sake. I wondered was he involved in the Troubles? A secret war hero? There was no fear of finding out; even if you queried, their faces wouldn’t change, just soft blinks and glacial silence.

As I stared at his dead face, Phillip Larkin’s ghost appeared, just on the edge of vision: Being brave lets no-one off the grave. Death is no different whined at than withstood... Of course, I stared at his dark maroon barnet too. Oxblood shoe polish was my guess.

Fionnuala was right about the kitchen. I would have been eaten alive. There were about 25 women at it hammer and tongs. A giggling mass of sandwich making and tea pouring, trays filled with traybakes to be ferried out to mourners. And how many! We had to park about a mile away and were taken in by mini-bus.

The men outside had a one-way system in place – the thing was organised better than Croke Park.

And then I ended up driving. I had been given a high-viz and was helping direct cars in and out of the field when one of the lads shouted, “Hey Fabien, will you jump in and do the bus for a while? I’ve to go get the spuds into me.” And he was gone.

I stepped into this huge machine and with all the expectant faces peering at me in the blackness, I started it up and drove a load to the wake house, then brought another load back, and again, and again...

But the thing was, it was actually easy to drive the mini-bus. People were saying thank you Fabien, and more thank you Fabians, and I began to get it. A neighbour had died so everyone came. Helped out, ate buns, consoled the sorrowful.

And drove the mini-bus.