Ronald Hope stood outside the crematorium on the fringes of the gathered family. It was a cold, bitter day, the sky matt grey, the chill wind blowing from the north-east. His breath came out like so much smoke from a chimney. Just like Ted’s breath had always been, Ron recalled. All those cigarettes got you in the end, didn’t they.
He stamped his feet, rubbed his hands against his arms. The problem with funerals were they expected a certain level of decorum. His good black shoes couldn’t take his thick, warm socks, his good black coat did nothing against the wind. But it was dry at least, and surely it wouldn’t be too long now before the car arrived.
“Ron? Ron Hope?” A gentle voice with an American twang sounded at his shoulder. Ron turned to face a large, smiling man who’d had the presence of mind to wear a woolly hat and thick jacket, protocol or no. “I thought it was you. Gus Morley. Remember me?”
“Gus, how are you doing?” He went to shake Gus’s hand, but the big man enveloped him in a big, warm bear-hug. Ron eventually pulled away. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d have come. I thought you lived in the States now.”
“I do, but my daughter lives here, and my wife and I have been over visiting for Christmas. Thought I’d look up a few old faces when I heard about Teddy.”
“Did you get to see him before, you know…”
“Yes, once. Kept going on about Costigan Hill. Remember those days when we were boys?”
Ron noticed others were moving. The funeral car had arrived at last, and any further conversation would have to wait until afterwards.
The service was pleasant enough as funeral services go, describing Ted in glowing terms, a hard worker, a family man. An ordinary life on the whole, much like Ron’s. Much like most people, thought Ron. He thought about the old days when they’d been boys, of the things they’d do together, the things they never did. Only Gus had left their small town, flown to new horizons.
After the funeral, they hung about together outside for time, chatting about this and that, holding back from the others but speaking if they were spoken too. Ron stamped his feet against the cold, wondering how long he should remain there to be polite, not because he wanted to get away particularly, but because he was so damned cold in his good black coat and good black shoes.
A woman walked up to them with a sad smile. Mary. “Gus. And Ron. So good of you both to come. Ted used to talk a lot about your times together when you were boys towards the end.”
“Mary, so sorry that I didn’t visit earlier. It’s been so many years since I’ve been back. Should have made a bit more of an effort before now.”
“That’s okay. You had your own life to lead, and we all know how quickly the years pass. At least you got to see Ted again before the end. And at least he used to see Ron occasionally, didn’t he Ron?”
“Yes,” replied Ron, “but not often enough.”
“You two were always special to him though. Gus, when is it you fly home again?”
“Another couple of weeks Mary. Why?”
“I’ve got a favour to ask the two of you. Could you drop by a week tomorrow? I’ve a favour to ask.”
“Anything,” said Gus.
“Careful,” replied Mary. “You haven’t heard what it is yet. Shall we say about eleven? I’ll have cake.”
“Eleven it is,” said Ron.
“Good,” said Mary. “And this is just between you two and me, and we won’t say more until then. Now, you look perished Ron. Why don’t you both come back to the King’s Head for a drink and bite to eat?”
“Now I know I’m back in England,” Gus said as they watched her retreating figure. “Perished. Now, there’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time. But she’s right, you do look perished. Come on, others are starting to move now.
It was the following week when they turned up together on Mary’s doorstep, still wondering why she wanted to see them. They were a little late; there’d been heavy snow the night before, making the walk more difficult, but at least Ron was appropriately dressed for the weather today. They could see Mary looking out for them, and she answered the door as soon as they’d negotiated the garden path and got to the front door.
“Come in, both of you.” They went in, took off their coats, hats, scarves, glove, boots before going into the kitchen where Mary was already making coffee.
“Such awful weather,” she said as she served them coffee and put a piece of cake in front of each of them. “I didn’t expect it to be as bad as this.”
“Hell,” said Gus. “This is nothing compared to what we get in the U.S. And it was always like this when we were kids, remember Ron?”
“Sure, snow for days on end, weeks sometimes. We loved it, didn’t we. Can you remember Costigan Hill?”
Gus laughed at the memory. “Sure. Highlight of the year that was, sledging down there.”
Mary looked uncomfortable. “Yes, well that’s why I called you here. But now, with the weather as it is, I’m not sure.”
“Why, what’s the problem Mary?” Gus for such a big blustering man could speak in a very gentle way when he wanted.
Mary paused before replying. “It’s just that Ted wanted to go up Costigan Hill one last time. Just for a walk, like, with you two.” She nodded towards the dresser where they noticed an urn sat. “For the sake of the old days. But now, with this weather, it’ll be too slippery. And you’re flying back to America in a few days, aren’t you Gus. And I promised I’d try and make it happen before his ashes were scattered.
They were silent for a while before Ron said hesitantly. “Mary, has he still got that old sledge in the shed? I’m sure I’ve seen it over the years when we’ve been out there.”
“Well, yes, I think so. There’s so much stuff to sort out, but I’m afraid the shed will have to wait until it’s warmer.”
“Well then,” announced Gus, “that settles it. We’ll strap him to the sledge and take a nice walk up there after we’ve finished this coffee and delicious cake. Talk to him about the old days, right Ron?”
“Right,” replied Ron.
They finished up their cake, put their coats and boots back on and followed Mary out the back door. She opened up the shed. So many memories of the man whose realm this had been rendered Ron speechless for a while.
“There it is,” said Gus, pointing to the back of the shed. “Come on Ron, help me get it out.”
Between them they got it out and Gus checked it over. “This was always a fine sledge. Did your boys use it Mary?”
“Oh yes,” said Mary, a light in her eyes as she remembered. “And the grandchildren. Any excuse to get that old thing out.”
Gus examined it again. “Well, Mary, I think this thing is going to take the old boy on one last journey, what do you reckon Ron?”
“Don’t see why not. Do you want to come as well Mary?”
“No I don’t think so. This is something he wanted to do with the two of you.”
The urn containing Ted’s ashes was brought to the back door. Mary had taped it shut, “Just in case,” she said, and they found some string to tie it to the sledge.
“So Teddy, are you ready my friend?” asked Gus, turning to address the urn. “Okay, let’s go.”
“You’re just taking him for a walk, aren’t you?” asked Mary, suddenly anxious.
“Oh sure. Just a walk round the park, talk over old times, you know.”
Ron thought Gus had been a little too effusive in his insistence on the idea of ‘only a walk’, and wondered what his old friend was planning.
The snow had brought a lot of people out to the park, some building snowmen, some playing snowballs, some lying on the ground and making snow angels. And of course, there were a group of youngsters making their way down Costigan Hill.
“Don’t think too much of their sledges, do you,” asked Gus, nodding at the blue plastic contractions some of them had. “Not like this old beauty. So Ron, what do you think? Are you up for it?”
Ron didn’t need to ask ‘up for what’, and Gus didn’t wait for a reply before turning and making his way up the hill.
“Wotcha got there, mister?” asked a youth, indicating the urn.
“Well, this is a very old friend of mine. We used to sledge down this slope when we were boys, and my friend here,” and here he indicated the urn, “he just wanted to sledge down this here hill one last time before I go back home to America.”
“Awesome,” the young man said, though Ron wondered if he understood the significance of the urn. “Do you need any help?”
“Well, we’re a bit old now, so maybe a little help getting on at the top, and more importantly off at the other end would be welcome.”
The kid tagged along, dragging his cheap blue plastic tray behind him. When they reached the top, Gus untied the urn and passed it to Ron. “I’ll go on the front. You keep tight hold of Teddy.” Ron looked down the hill, the hill that had seemed so easy back when they were young, and was suddenly afraid. He thought of his own wife’s anger if he fell and ended up with a broken hip. He looked back down the path he’d just climbed and saw a young girl fall as her feet went from under her. That wasn’t an easy route either.
“You coming Ron.” Gus’s large frame was already astride the sledge, the youth hanging onto the back and grinning up at him.
He looked back down the hill, thought back to the days of his youth. “What the hell.” With the help of the youth, he straddled the sledge and slowly lowered himself onto the back seat. He stuffed the urn down his jacket, with just the top poking out.
“You got tight hold of Teddy back there?” Gus’s large bulk was somewhat comforting. “’Cos if you have, tap my shoulder when you’re ready.”
Ron lifted his feet and tapped Gus on the shoulder. He felt the youth give them a push off. Oh bugger, I hope I don’t fall off and smash this thing, he thought. As they gathered speed, he could hear Gus whoop with joy, and then he felt as if Teddy was really there, he could feel the joy Teddy would have felt. And suddenly he was laughing too, ready to roll when the bottom came, protecting the precious cargo he was holding.
He lay there, clutching the urn, laughing like he’d never stop. Gus lay sprawled in the snow, looking up to the heavens and laughing. The young man had come skidding to a halt next to them. “That was awesome. I got some of it on my phone, see? And he squatted down and showed them the video he’d managed to take while sliding down himself. It showed the two of them laughing as they descended the slope, though there was one bit, surely where the boy had gone over a bump, where it looked like there were three of them, not two.