The Man in the Parallel Universe
by Dolores Walshe
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The man in the parallel universe loves me. He’s tall and grey-haired and handsome still and looks just like Murtagh, but he’s not like him at all. He makes different decisions and chooses different things. And he doesn’t have Murtagh’s dilated eyes.
Though he too went to Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange and came back different, he came back different to Murt and did something new with his life, became a scientist.
He hurt all right but he healed his hurt, he let me heal him too. He’s not fond of staying inside himself, he comes out constantly, visits with me the way it’s normal to do with someone you love, then goes back inside himself, as I do me, I don’t spend all my time outside either, which of us can? He once drank like Murt but in time he saw the error of his ways. He came to me the night Seannie left, he came that night and saved me from myself.
Whatever Murtagh said to Seannie out there in the woods, when he shot the young stag, drove my son away. He didn’t even come home that night, he waited till the morning when he knew Murtagh would be across in the long field injecting the lame heifer.
Then, into the kitchen, eyes on fire, the knuckles on both his hands burst, covered in rusted blood. Whose blood, I wondered?
“My son,” I managed, like always, though he isn’t.
But he wouldn’t tell me what transpired, he just kept saying, “Grandma, I have to go, all right? I have to get out of here for a while or I’ll do something more terrible!”
His words made me tremble. “More?” I said. “More terrible than what?”
But he couldn’t answer. Crying all through packing his stuff, me crying too, hard-set able to see him through my tears. Then, my beautiful boy, barely finished his schooling, striding towards the hall door; like he needed the official way out.
I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the tea caddy from the mantel, scrabbling at the notes stuffed inside for the young bull sold to Reilly on the next farm, Murtagh hadn’t banked it yet.
Out in the yard, Seannie fought me not to take the money, putting me from him with strong brown hands, hands that were once so dependent on mine. I stared at him, breath rasping in my chest.
“Look into my eyes,” I begged him. “Do you want to put me into an early grave from worry as well as despair?”
That made him drop his hands. He took it then, promising he’d call me soon as he got to London.
He didn’t. Instead I got sporadic postcards, all with English stamps, always with a sombre light coming through the darkness of trees: he must’ve bought a pack of them to save his pocket, I worry about what’s in his pocket, his belly, what’s in his heart looking out at the world.
He must love me still or he wouldn’t send the cards, would he? This thought comes on the best of days, eases the ache in me.
I didn’t tell Murtagh about the money. On market day he rummaged in the tin, then turned, searching my face, a big sharp question forming on lips I no longer wanted to recognise.
“Don’t say anything!” I shouted. “You wanted him gone, he’s gone, it was cheap for you at the price!”
He cradled the tin, testing its lightness on the air, but he said nothing, staring at me from the two black holes of his eyes. When he’s more a mask than usual, even the thin blue rim of the irises get sucked back into him.
Where the man lives is not a utopia, oh no. It’s a dark divided place he tells me, with catastrophe and collision just like our own. And there’s that in the man too and in all who people the earth there.
I found him in my kitchen standing beside the range, but how I get to see him now is that sometimes I cross over. I picture myself as a little worm, a little string blowing undaunted and safe in a fierce wind. I stand near the range and when the heat grows intense I find I’m not where I am. I’m in his kitchen. It’s a quiet place, warm and peaceful, a clock tocking on the wall, each tock with its own beautiful echo.
I’m never afraid there. It’s the house of no shouts. There’s birdsong outside in the garden and the hazel and rowan trees whisper and there’s the heavy musk of honeysuckle making love in my veins and somehow I know I live there too. With him, the man. There’s an apron hanging on the back of the kitchen door. Make love not war it says and I know he means it, that he’s bought it for me. In this other kitchen I feel ease and relief, it’s a place without a past, a place of possible sleep, dreamless sleep.
In a mirror over the fireplace in the man’s library there are tall elegant windows, leafy branches waltzing flirtatiously beyond them, wearing their sunshine joy-filled as lovers.
I close my eyes, half asleep, lulled by the quiet, the mystery of what I can and can’t see. The man comes up behind me. He’s been working in his laboratory; wearing his spectacles, an open book in his hand, the pages splayed with mathematical symbols. He doesn’t touch me. I don’t know if he can, or if I can. I don’t want to test the unknowing, for fear the change that’ll come will not be one that I like.
I tell the man about my lovely daughter. It never mattered to Kate her right leg being shorter than her left, I tell him. And a little twisted. She had so much life in her, so much laughter. Having to wear a shoe with a hidden wooden block to help her walk in a balanced way was something she considered a blessing rather than a disguise.
She asked us when she was dying – that one time Murtagh came with me to see her in the hospital – to scatter her ashes in the lower field under the fairy thorn. I go there often and sit under it, but I don’t know where Murtagh strew them, if he strew them there, if he buried them or hoards them, I don’t know where they are.
I ask the man to take me to her parallel grave but he shakes his head sadly, so I stop, ashamed. I’ve put pain in his eyes.
“Far be it from me,” I mutter. Then: “Sorry,” I say.
I look away, giving him a little while to come back from bleakness to himself. Then I ask him to tell me again about neutrinos, how they pass through the earth, even though they have mass like a stone. He smiles, pleased I remember, and says do I remember most such subatomic particles emanate from the sun? I picture them as he talks, billions per second passing through the brick wall of Murtagh, moving through his mind, then into me tidying the sheets around him on the bed, bringing to me the knowledge of where she lies.
Murtagh’s sister Olive likes to manage things. Murt. Their mother, when she was alive. Her numerous cats, all dead now. Me, if I let her. When she came this morning, they conferred in his room. I call it the sick room now, though once it was our bedroom.
He’s made her executor of his will, Olive, she’ll have control of everything. Though she can’t deny me my share nor throw me out of this house, I know that, I hope for my rights.
When I think a reasonable enough time has passed for whatever they want to talk about, I bring in the tray with Murtagh’s beef tea, buttered scones for Olive. The two of them turn to look at me-the-intruder, Olive’s head snapping round like a cracked whip, the movement of Murtagh’s on the propped pillow small, snail-slow, iris rims faintly visible, refusing to meet my gaze. This is the sum of what passes for our lives now, a wilted withered thing.
The daylight startles me: for once the curtains are back a bit, the sun beaming a crack of Neolithic light across the faded carpet to strike my patchwork quilt on the bed; yellow and red and duck-egg blue hill and seascapes preserved in a past that was ours, that was once bright. I blink rapidly, hoping they won’t notice how easily the tears sting, that they’ll assume it’s the light.
Olive’s doing, I suppose, ensuring Murtagh can see clearly enough to sign what he has to while he still has the power in his hand.
She stays sitting, a conspiratorial tilt in her body towards him, her elbow on the bed, on a patch of meadow lush with cornflowers I once told Murtagh were the colour of his eyes.
The will is in her hand. She folds it, paper cracking like small bones, and pushes those bones into her bag.
“Juliet,” she says, low, artificial-friendly, pursing scarlet lips. The roots of her grey hair’s been bleached since yesterday’s visit.
“Olive,” I say. “I know you like the buttered scones.”
We’ve never liked each other, she’s never approved of her brother’s choice, nor of me insisting on keeping Seannie when Kate died in childbirth: bringing that beautiful bastard of a baby home with a dark secret for a father God help us in front of the neighbours and sundry.
She lifts a beautifully manicured eyebrow like an archer’s bow above a faint hint of blusher on her cheek. I wait for the arrow and it comes, oh it comes.
“Give us another minute, would you?”
And I’m dismissed.
I ask him again and again before he dies.
“Where did you put her? Is she where she wanted, under the fairy thorn? Don’t go to your grave without telling me,” I plead one morning, the room gloomy with lack of light. There’s a brittle look about him, the stick of his body under the quilt almost inert now. Outside the sun’s splitting the trees and I long to throw the curtains back.
He looks at me from those black orbs, his mouth softening, and for one exhilarating moment I think he’ll relent, there’ll be this storybook death-bed reclamation of all that he was, all that we were to each other those first months in America after we emigrated, when the world seemed to turn for us alone. In that moment remorse swamps me. I want to apologise to him too, for all my harshnesses, my turning away from loving what couldn’t love, just because it couldn’t love me.
“I want to be cremated,” he says, a semblance of voice scraping the air, so altered it’s hard to give it any credence.
“No grave. I’ve told Olive.”
Silence follows like a stopped clock. The air is cooped up, stale, the room smelling of a sickly, fishy sweetness, the scent of his body shutting down. The little nightstand is cluttered with water jug, pen and redundant spectacles, the pills he’s barely able to swallow now. No bible, of course. Outside, the cattle are lowing, deep and mournful like they’re in grief. Thankfully, they’re Reilly’s problem now.
“Where do you want to be scattered?” I ask it at last, raw with last-ditch hope.
Again, our eyes meet, and he laughs, seeing through the baldness of my need instantly, a tinkling, breakable sound, which takes him into a fit of coughing. I raise him a little on the pillows. It’s an ordeal for both of us, with the limp scrap of pain he has become. He struggles on for breath, coughing as if he’s housing two animals, each with a grip on his throat, determined to win the battle.
I give him the kidney bowl in case he needs to spit. For a moment I’m lost. I stand, looking down at him, his words beating in my head; no grave no grave.
He and Olive will deny me at the very end, even this. I shouldn’t feel shock, but I do. Anger, even, at my own stupidity. Why hadn’t I known this?
“Once I loved you,” I blurt between his gasps.
“Seannie would’ve loved you too, if only he’d been let. But at least you’ll never live to hide his ashes from me, thank God for that!”
Suddenly I see Seannie on his third birthday, kneeling up at the table on his high stool, eyes shining at the candles on his cake, Murtagh telling him it’s a lovely job but the icing should be black. Seannie looking at him, half-smiling, unsure, then turning to me, reaching out a small hand to pat the cake as I lift the knife.
Suddenly he’s airborne, Murtagh lifting him by the scruff of the neck, the small felt slippers I’ve sewn him barely clearing the lighted candles before he lands across the room in the laundry basket stuffed with sheets fresh from the line. He lies there, stunned, staring up into the air, a puppet with its strings cut.
“Grandma?” He says experimentally, as if I might have disappeared, as if he is blind.
I stab the knife into the table beside the cake.
“Get out,” I say. “Get out, or so help me god I’ll – ”
Seannie starts to whimper. There is fear in the sound.
The knife thrums and shivers like a live thing in the wood under the pressure of my grip. Murtagh stares from it to me, then gets up slowly and walks out. Seannie turns his face away into the sheets as his boots pass by him.
Now I too turn and walk unsteadily away from this man who has been dying for so long, walk out across the landing into Seannie’s room and close the door, full of despair at how deeply I’m plunging to be out of his grip; a man I once loved more than my breath.
Is this all it has come to be?
For a while I sit rigid on the box seat at the dormer window staring out at the fields, beyond them the distant hills Seannie lifted his round shining eyes to every morning when I woke him here as a child. But it doesn’t sustain me.
After a while my fists uncurl in my lap, white-knuckled, as if they belong to someone else; tiny livid crescents clustered in the palms from where the nails have dug deep. I reach for the parallel book, taking up where I left off. But even its words of wonder float out of reach.
Seannie’s name is scratched with his first fountain pen inside the front cover; my paltry Christmas present when he turned thirteen and decided he wanted to be a physicist. I hold this echo of him tight, my heart thundering at what isn’t possible in life.
Death. When Kate slipped into unconsciousness it stood like an insult at the end of her bed, waiting to claim her, no quarter given, beginning its slow arctic ooze up from her uneven, cold little feet. And now it stands at the end of Murtagh’s. I want more time for him in case he changes his mind!
He keeps his eyes closed. Even when the summer rain hammers down harder than hailstones, plays its death rattle on the roof, he doesn’t open them. In fact, it seems to me he squeezes them more tightly closed. I don’t know if this is against me, against death, or if he’s at last letting himself walk in Vietnam, trying to find McGann’s grave. Or if he’s wondering will McGann come at the moment of death to meet him, to accuse him maybe, or chide him for the poor thing he’s made of spending a life that was saved? This presupposes Murtagh would think like me, that he’d allow himself to imagine. He used to, but that was before being drafted, run through a boot camp and dropped into the jungle in tiger fatigues, gripping his rifle, his joke of a survival kit.
Is he afraid? He gives no sign, fighting his own rattling breath on and on but it’s hard to tell which side he’s on, whether he wants to go or stay. Like this is the only way he can do it, still at war in himself.
When he was in the hospice, he told me he wanted to be at home, not in the sense of what that means, but physically.
Eloise, the nurse who visits from the hospice to tend his bedsores, has noticed how silent we are. Plying ointment to his tissue-paper skin she says, “Keep talking to him, Juliet, he’s conscious, the hearing is the last to go.” She doesn’t know about his swathes of silence, that he mostly hasn’t spoken to me since Kate died in childbirth, since I insisted on taking Seannie home from the hospital, rearing him myself.
Little man, I called him oh so happily, till Murtagh laughed and said Little Manure.
Something smashed in me then, smithereened, something ruptured, the organ of us sundered, jagged-edged where we’d once fitted each other.
Every act of war is a human one.
I left then, with Seannie, for several days.
A grandma in a women’s shelter, the other young women hadn’t expected that. But in the end, Reilly came and got me: Murtagh was drinking himself to death.
Of course, washing his thin limbs with Eloise – his eyes tightly closed against our moving hands – I tell her none of this.
He opens his eyes when she’s gone, dark gaze emptied out, reflecting nothing, annihilating all in its path. Stepping quickly out of its range, I pick up towel and basin, slopping water in my hurry to leave.
Concepta visits again. Coming up from Dublin on the train, bringing an apple and rhubarb pie made by the sisters in the convent, still almost-warm, glazed with sugar, redolent of cloves. Almost, she tells me, as good as my scones, nodding at the cooling tray where I’ve laid them out in her honour. The nods loosen her white hair, and she re-clips it into a thick snowdrift on her head.
I take the pie and set it down. My mouth waters but I taste bile. I thank her with a long drawn-out lifeline of a hug, telling her for the umpteenth time I’m so glad they’ve sent her home from the missions.
“Everywhere’s the missions, Julie, no rest for the wicked,” she tells me gently and smiles. But it’s there, what has happened her in those far-off places, cut viciously in the grooves of her face.
We beat around bushes, talking of childhood, the old beehive haystacks we played in out in the fields, nostalgic for them, even more so for our young strong limbs again. To keep her from asking me too many questions I ask if she’s managed to see Bonnie since she’s got back. Her eyes cloud and she shakes her head.
I take a breath.
“Cons,” I say, “I don’t know if you know that, well, Dermot is …” I hesitate, flailing a bit, skirting the truth, trying to find the words to prepare her for the news.
"Well … he’s … he was in St Luke’s and – ”
“He’s dead,” Concepta says simply and I nod, relieved she knows.
“Who told you? Hardly Bonnie? I couldn’t even get to the funeral myself.”
“Eamonn rang me last week. Poor boy. He’s always been the glue that held them together, from his childhood up.” She stirs her tea slowly, staring into space. It’s hard to read her eyes.
“I … went to see him, just after I got back.”
“That’s nice,” I say.
Her breathing is rapid. “I’m not so sure.”
It’s then I realise she’s not talking about Eamonn. I’m shocked, mouth dropping like a trapdoor. I haul it up, embarrassed. “You mean … on his deathbed?” I almost ask if she wore her nun’s habit.
“And how did that go? I mean, maybe you could give me lessons in it?”
She winces at the sudden bitterness in my tone.
My cheeks flame. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. And I didn’t mean to probe.”
But I did. At my most sane moments the better part of me is desperate to know how to do death for Murtagh with some degree of humanity or grace.
She waves my apology aside.
“He asked to see me,” she says, rubbing her thumb hard against the lip of her cup, as if to erase what, the imprint of her mouth, the memory of when they had sex?
My eyes widen but I’m not really surprised. It was always Concepta Dermot was in love with, he only married her sister on the rebound. Would it have made a difference if I’d told Bonnie that? Because I lost her anyway, and so did Concepta; after her marriage she retreated to the politeness of a card at Christmas, and for Connie, there wasn’t even that.
“Did he … did Bonnie…?” I trail off, and swallow, tongue-tied. The question hangs in the air like a pall of smoke.
Concepta grimaces as we look at each other, silent, acknowledging the same thing: this was done behind Bonnie’s back.
I want to tell her I know that must have cut her up, she was always so scrupulous, but there’s a sudden clamour in my chest. Who will ever ask to see me on his deathbed? Even the parallel man with all his uncertainty principles can’t do this.
And I’m guilty myself. She doesn’t know Dermot came to see me behind her back, doesn’t know I know they made love here once, unbeknownst to Bonnie, out in the haggard, up in the hayloft while we were all away with Reilly at the Puck Fair; that, for her and Dermot’s sake, I practically facilitated it.
“Well …” I say, when I can manage it. “It seems Dermot and I had something in common, seems we’ve both been missing you all of our lives.”
It comes out of nowhere I know I am, fast, before I can stop myself, and instantly she suffuses, gazing round the kitchen with a hemmed-in look.
I’m oddly bereft. We’re a long way, I suddenly realise, from sharing girlhood secrets: two continents and half a century of wars in her foreign-lived life, though the letters count, surely the letters we sent each other count?
A memory surfaces of her thirteenth birthday, of her falling face-first into a bed of nettles, stung to an extremity of pain, too shocked to cry out, her face suddenly blowing up. Later, in hospital, when the rash and swelling lessened, Bonnie and I counted the stings: nine for every year of Concepta’s life. We all cried together at how unhuman she looked, and somehow I knew this was the closest we would ever be in our lives. Because Cons went on to cry for others. Bonnie cried for Dermot. And me, I just went on crying for myself.
“Sorry,” I say, rushing it, hugging her. “Sorry I brought it up. What you did was the right thing, of course.”
“That’s what I’ve said so often to others.” She tries to laugh, her tone ironic.
“About time I had it slapped at myself. But something good did come of it.”
“Cons, I’m sorry – ”
“Don’t be daft, child!”
“It’s just with Murtagh – !”
“You’re drained. A blind man can see that.” She smiles sympathetically and it nearly undoes me.
“Now you shouldn’t have made me scones,” she chides, wagging a finger, “I don’t know how you managed the time.” Reaching across, she lifts a streal of faded hair from my forehead, smooths it gently back onto my crown, then rises, making a fuss of clearing dishes and crumbs from the table. Avoiding the possibility I’ll ask her what transpired when she went to see Dermot. Watching her move about, I realise something: whether she’d wanted to see Dermot or not, she’d probably caved under pressure from Eamonn to do it.
Later, she changes Murtagh, both the pad on him and the sheets. He protests with his eyes as she orders me to go outside, but she insists.
“Didn’t I once run a home for the elderly and indigent in the Congo,” she says, eyes flickering. “Now Murt, what more qualifications could you want?” She laughs.
I look at her, aghast. How can she bear to mention that place and laugh in the same breath?
Murtagh rolls his head on the pillow and looks in my direction but I avoid the black holes.
“Besides, Juliet needs a break,” she says then, the iron in her gaze nothing to that in her voice.
Flinging open the window on the landing I breathe in the hay and meadowsweet in the ditches, face lifted to the sun while she deals with the stench in his room. It’s so nice to have her here, the murmur of her voice a kindness on the walls. For the first time since Seannie’s left I feel it: the house become home.
Something settles in my chest, huge, a sadness. We have shifted, the word friendship no longer fits. Since when has she started calling me child? Is that what I am? Truly at this late stage in my life, is this all that I am?
Over supper in the kitchen, she invites me to The Airport one night, can’t I come down to Dublin for a weekend, get Olive to sit with Murtagh?
“Olive,” I tell her, “doesn’t do weekends, she doesn’t do days or nights. Olive does wills.”
Concepta takes a look at my face, tells me not to worry, that I have rights, that she’ll help me with those when the time comes. She’s well into her seventies and although I’m only a few years behind her, she calls me child again when she speaks. I stare at the washing machine churning with the sheets, groaning softly under the weight, the door closed tight. I’m locked in too, into this cycle of love-hate.
“Think about it,” Concepta urges. “You’re worn out.”
“I can’t,” I say, close to breaking, rushing on out of panic in case she presses me further, asking after those who come to her centre; the poor, the homeless, the asylum seekers. And shouldn’t she be retiring at her age? And why call the old run-down hall she’s managed to get her hands on an airport?
She laughs and says I sound like I went to rap music school.
But her laughter dies.
“A good enough name for where everyone meets who’s passing through from one place to another,” she says. Don’t I think? Something about the way she searches my face when she says it makes me tempted to tell her about the man in the parallel universe but instead I tell her about a dream I had a few nights back, about walking into Murtagh’s room and finding a bar code stamped on his forehead, the bar code for death.
How in my hand I held one of those supermarket zappers, but when I pointed it at his head, the code wouldn’t scan. How again and again I zapped him as he lay there staring up at me, telling me there was no date for his death.
Something breaks in me, again and again Murtagh’s boot coming down hard on a kindling stick, snapping it clean in two. I start to cry then, big blustery half-choked tears, I don’t seem able to stop myself. Concepta pushes herself up and hobbles around the table in her stout brogues to put her arms around me. Warm and soft and pliant and flabby-skinned, good as any mother’s. I cling to her in desperation and cry like a lost child till I’m weak and shuddering and all cried out. And even without her habit she smells of nun.
Murtagh is settled after his medication but sleep goes astray on me again tonight. Leaving his door wide open, I decide to go on a picnic with the man from the parallel universe, but first I’ll make us some scones, I’ve never made him scones before, in fact I’ve never cooked for him.
Sometimes I’ve asked him why it is I’ve never had a glimpse of myself when in his kitchen, my other parallel self. But he shakes his head saying it beats him, nor does he know why, when he stands by his range, he cannot cross over to me like he did that first time, the law of uncertainties and one-way traffic, he says and laughs tenderly, his eyes full of gratitude at my presence. It’s then I want to tell him how much I love him, but I resist. I’m afraid to change any of the rules that might exist, for fear it changes all. One warm sunny evening when I arrived, the door of his laboratory was closed. He was inside, muttering about manifolds, and I pictured him at his drawing board with his lines and circles, his horizontal planes and spheres and something called a torus, not unlike Seannie’s childhood swimming ring. Manifolds, he once told me, have souls, there is actually a soul theorem in mathematics. There’s a soul theorem in my religion too, it starts with the supposition there’s a god. But when your eyes have been skinned by war, maybe a manifold is the only place all the souls you once believed existed can go, because mathematics supposes things to be true too, and then lays out all these beautiful proofs that they are.
I wandered the house that evening, waiting for him. I’ve always been curious about the tall double doors on the first landing beside his bathroom, maybe because they are always closed and because sometimes I think I hear noises inside, muted, soft, whispery. Once I even thought I heard a low cry. They are painted eggshell blue. At that moment the slanting sun through the window scored a path right up to them, slipping in easily under the narrow gap beneath.
I wished I could slip in with it and gawk around and the wishing became fervent as an often-prayed prayer, till it overwhelmed me. Quickly I turned one of the brass knobs. The left door wouldn’t budge. I turned the knob on the right. The door opened a crack and a sudden movement inside frightened me so much I closed it swiftly and ran back downstairs into the safety of the kitchen, crossing back fast without seeing the man at all.
I never told him what I did, but I’ve often wondered if he knows, if it changed what might’ve been possible between us.
Leaving the kitchen door pulled back wide now like the bedroom’s upstairs, I set to work, weighing flour and buttermilk, the radio on low, keeping me company with people texting in their late night bits of chat and requests. The talk show host, whose name is Alf, plays a request for a woman who texts in asking for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for her son, who’s sick. I force-fed that song from the Wizard of Oz to Seannie when he was a child, till he offered to give me back his pocket-money if I stopped singing it. But a man starts singing now, his voice so strangely tender and peace-filled and magnificent I stand, rivited at the table, unable to do anything but be filled up by his beauty. He runs the song on into “What A Wonderful World” and his gentleness makes you believe it is. When he finishes there are polka dots of damp patterning the flour on the backs of my hands knuckled in the bowl. Alf says the man’s name is Israel Kama-something, that he was Hawaiian, that he died at 38, and that 10,000 people went to his funeral. Imagine.
I start to cry again. The ceiling blurs. Up beyond it is the room where Murtagh lies. Imagine. I whisper up at it so intensely the word makes me jump. By now I have to wash my hands off, dry my face and start again, I do not want to make sad scones.
I plug Murtagh’s phone into the charger and switch it on. There’s still some credit left on it. I text in a request for the man in the parallel universe who loves Juliet and I say I don’t care what Alf plays me.
Alf never lets me down, in fact he never lets anyone down, reading out the texts from the sick and injured, the happy, the lonely, the down-at-heart. He even reads out texts from those who insult him and then he laughs and says goodnight-to-you-sir-or-madam, but you can tell he’s a little hurt, it’s in his jovial tone.
He makes a joke saying do I not want to tell him the name of my Romeo and he’ll forward the request to the parallel Alf. This makes me laugh out loud and I clap a hand over my mouth for fear I’ll wake Murtagh. But I laugh till I weep, getting flour in my eyes when he plays me “Horse With No Name”, it just doesn’t go with parallel worlds.
At some point, probably somewhere in the midst of my chest-jigging, breath-squeezing laughter, upstairs, in the room we used to make love in with wrenching sweetness, Murtagh dies.
I find him, his black eyes washed-out at last, half-hooded from life, mouth slightly open, bottom lip a little sunken without the support of the lower denture, a lip I once knew the texture of as well as my own, so long ago nibbled, licked and kissed.
I stare hard now at its caved-in-ness. It seems such a sad little worm. Did it make a sound? Did he?
No way of knowing. The little brass bell is still beside his hand lying on the sheet. Cold to the touch now, and clammy, though his chest is warm, warm and silent but a stranger to me without its fragile drum-beat.
His peacefulness shocks, all-serene, the kind of expression on his face when holding Kate as a baby, walking the floor, humming a lullaby to get her to sleep.
Like any normal father. Except coming back after the war with his blacked-out eyes he was never right, at least till Kate arrived, all seven all-consuming pounds of her, giving some semblance of him back to himself. Though he never quite came back to me, some part of him always aloof.
He’s with her now though, wherever death is, wherever it takes you.
The thought knifes.
Born in Brooklyn, in the little apartment we had beside Piskorska’s Funeral Home in Greenpoint, nine months almost to the day the army discharged him: born to the scream of the ambulance siren down on the street, till one of the paramedics gestured out the window for the driver below to cut it.
Kicking so much and squealing when they laid her against me that we never noticed her crooked shape.
But the doctors did, running tests, talking about dioxin in Murtagh’s blood, how Kate would need surgery to straighten her foot and even then it’d never grow right. More doctors nodding, exchanging knowing looks. Agent Orange, one of them said, chilling me.
Murtagh’s heart bursting his chest, trying to convince them they were wrong, he’d only ever done a single spray run of herbicides using his backpack.
Trying to feed Kate then, looking through her wizened newborn face at the men who’d protested when they got out of the Vets’ Hospital, the names of the big chemical companies on their placards. Even still I deface those names, the word shamrock on one of them.
Downstairs, I don’t use the land line. It seems fitting to use up Murtagh’s credit. I pick up his phone from the flour-dusted boards of the table to call Doctor Bon.
“Murtagh isn’t breathing,” I say slowly, as if talking to Seannie as a child. And I’m nodding, to convince myself.
There’s a pause the other end of the line. I inhale deeply and gag on the air, warm and thick with the first picnic scones crusting in the oven, the burnt scent of sugared raisins pulping sweetly. I wonder if Murtagh smelled them before he died and if his stomach clutched at the smell, or hove.
It’s the second night this week I’ve called Doctor Bon.
“I used the mirror like you showed me,” I tell him. “Just now I used it. But Murtagh has no fog, I mean no breath I mean –”
Silence. Six seconds counted, shimmering heat rising from the range, the air sealing itself around me. Then I hear him, breathing the rhythm of lethargy, half-groaning. I picture him, eyes heavy-lidded, encrusted with sleep, silver hair all mussed, desperately trying to wake.
Finally he registers what I’m repeating ad nauseum, butts in to ask me several questions in a thickened, guttural tone.
“Ja now, Jooliet,” he mutters, “I thought it wouldn’t be for more days.”
I’m not sure if he’s said for or four. He pronounces ja and Juliet as though they both begin with a y. But he sounds shocked too, and says in a concerned voice he’ll come right away.
Inside, even my bones seem to soften with relief. But in Murtagh’s shaving mirror on the wall beside the sink, my mouth moves, all-chirrupy, telling him not to hurry, I’ll have tea and scones ready whenever he gets here, that I might as well go on and bake through the night. He says some words but they’re swallowed by his tiredness and I only catch the last one. Soon, is what he says before he hangs up.
The face in the mirror grimaces, not looking like my own.
“Lookit,” I tell it. “I don’t want to pray, I don’t want to look at Murtagh, you go up if you want to have a look, but I’m telling you now he’s stranger than ever.”
The face looks back at me for a moment, startled, then nods its agreement, and I’m relieved.
So I text Alf and tell him my husband has died. Fifty years we were married. This time of course I don’t say Juliet, I tell him Deirdre instead. Alf offers his sympathies, and several other people text in offering theirs. I’m touched. Surprised. A man from Laois, a widower who knows what Deirdre must be going through, suggests Alf plays her Bach’s Magnificat, which always comforts him, there’s nothing more sublime. A woman in Cork says she’s been feeling really down when it’s counting her blessings she should’ve been, she can’t imagine what Deirdre must be feeling, that she’s praying for her right now. I’m cheered, uplifted, it’s as if I have a real life with all these friends. The late-date community Alf calls us, and I think with a rush of warmth humankind; how good we are, kind and humane when we’re left to our own devices, when we don’t have to fight wars and take sides, maybe too when we don’t have to see each other or use the right names, when we each just picture the other and what must be going through each of our minds.
A woman texts in then, asking Alf if he’s heard from Robert on the hill lately and if he’s all right. So Alf asks Robert if he’s listening, to get in touch.
I don’t want to call Olive, I want to call Concepta instead. But she works so hard for the people who’ve become her community I don’t want to drag her from her bed.
The person I don’t want to call most is Seannie. Not till whatever Olive will have planned for the funeral is over. I think he’ll thank me, he’ll even come home to me then.
Suddenly I’m sure and clear about this in my head. It lights the way forward like a beacon.
Because the possibility of our picnic is over. Now that Murtagh’s gone, deep down in the guts of me some law of what’s possible has changed; no matter how much I want to, I’ll never ever be able to cross over, to see the parallel man again.
Early in the morning, Doctor Bon comes back with the death certificate, his second trip out here in under five hours, the runaway silver of his hair slicked back. He sits heavily before the tea and scones I’ve buttered and dolloped with jam for him, a sigh bursting through despite his best efforts at clamping his lips. I pat his shoulder guiltily but I’m glad of his presence to avoid having to pat Olive’s.
He asks if I’ve slept since he last left and I lie and say I have. He’s even called Bessie Campion, to save me the trouble, he says.
“Thank you,” I mumble, shooting a look at Olive to see how she’s taking this. I lay the envelope carefully on the dresser without looking at it.
Sitting red-eyed despite her make-up, crumbling a scone to fine powder, unable for once to eat, she slams on her diamante glasses and peers across at it, as if she’s spotted a lifeline. Rising, she walks over and picks up the envelope, quickly opening it, eyes rifling its contents. A scone halfway to his mouth, Doctor Bon looks across at her, slightly askance. Olive raises her head and clocks his look. She pinks, waving the piece of paper.
“It’s, it’s, thank you,” she says, graciously as she can. “As executor I’ll be needing this.”
Doctor Bon brings the scone on up to his lips and takes a bite. He turns to me and smiles with bulged cheeks.
“Delicious.” The word comes thickly through his stuffed mouth. Pleased, I urge him to have some more as Bessie arrives, hair still wet, stepping in through the open back door, freshly scrubbed and shiny as a seal, carrying her folder, black, with gold stripes. I want to offer her a towel, but she hugs me with a fierce pressure that hurts my ribs and tells me how sorry she is, then turns to shake Olive’s hand.
“You’re a funeral director now, are you?” Olive’s eyes widen and Bessie looks at her as she replies.
“That’s most people’s reaction, they never expect a woman. But since Dad died I …” She swallows, on a bright little smile.
“No, I meant … weren’t you training to be a … a cook or something?” Olive’s tone is casual, almost dismissive, and Bessie stiffens.
“You’ll take tea, Bessie, and one of my scones?” I hurry saying it, to lessen her discomfort. She shoots me a grateful look as I press her onto a chair, then go to lift the pot off the range.
In the silence, tea pours heavily as a deluge down a drainpipe.
“Well now,” Bessie says, recovering. She clears her throat, adding some milk to her cup as she looks at me. “Maybe you’d tell me about, well, any preferences, what you’d like to do?”
I stand, stupidly holding the pot, gazing at her hands, small and capable (nails cut short, no rings), clipping a blank sheet to the front of her file.
Client’s instructions it says. I stare at its efficiency, lost.
“Cremation,” Olive ventures, her tone distant and bleak.
Bessie looks from her to me, eyebrows raised.
“Ja now, she was talking to his wife. Zo, Jooliet?” Doctor Bon, mouth less stuffed, pipes up suddenly, alert, nailing me with lively brown eyes. I look at him in all his forcefulness, seeing him for the first time.
“Oh,” Olive says, as if ambushed, and I’m thinking oh too, dropping the teapot back down far too rapidly.
“Love?” Bessie rises. “Did you burn yourself with the splashes?” Concerned, she squeezes my shoulder as I wipe my hands in my apron to hide the way I’m shaking.
And I don’t know if it’s the word wife, or the hint of steel in Bon’s gaze, or if it’s knowing suddenly that Murtagh wants to be strewn where Kate is, or if it’s a mix of all three, but suddenly I’m someplace dark I never thought I’d be.
“Burial,” I say, lips flyaway with a life of their own, the word bursting out strong and alien. A small cold flood rises through my chest, follows it out on the air, eager to set it in aspic.
“That’s what he wanted,” I say more boldly. “He told me so himself last night. Before he died.” I raise my eyes to Olive’s, hoping hard there’s been no last wishes written down to thwart me. She’s staring at me, bug-eyed, too shocked yet for suspicion to creep into her face.
“But,” she says then. “But …”
“No buts!” Doctor Bon slaps his hands down as he levers himself up.
And my heart. Beating wild tribal rhythms, like runaway hands on a drum. Yes, I think, run, beat on. No buts. No buts for the wife. I look Olive squarely in the face, barely able to keep my mouth closed. You look after the money, I tell her silently, I’ll do the bones.
“Will you be wanting a viewing here in the house, love?” Bessie is asking, and I’m hearing her clear as the shot carrying across the winter fields when Murtagh killed the stag caught in Seannie’s hammock. I should tell Olive right now, that this was despite the lad’s pleadings to save the unfortunate beast.
“Yes,” I say, turning to Bessie, warming to it. “Yes yes yes. It’s what he would’ve wanted, let all the neighbours come!” My legs buckle at the lie and I collapse sitting.
She nods, opening her folder, spreading a fan of brochures on the table before me. Behind us, Olive’s stifled sobs amplify to incredulity as she leaves the kitchen. There’s an artificial note in Bessie’s sympathetic tuts, as if she guesses something is up.
But leafing now through a generous selection of shiny lacquered coffins, I’m all-powerful, merciless, wondering if there’s enough flour for another batch of scones.
“Red,” I say then. “Let’s have that red shiny one.” I point to the brochure. It’s darkly red and garish, speaking of blown aortas. Doctor Bon glances over my shoulder. I half-catch the look which passes between him and Bessie.
She hesitates. “It’s pricey, Juliet.”
“Ah talk to Olive about that. She’s the executor!”
“A good choice, Jooliet,” Bon says carefully, his tone Concepta’s, like he’s talking to a child.
I beam up at him. “Thank you, Doctor Bon.” I don’t tell him I’ve chosen the red for the stopped blood in Murtagh’s veins, to remind me how from the moment Kate told us she was pregnant, from the moment he banished her, that’s how he lived his life.
Thank God for people with kindness, for Bessie, for Doctor Bon.
We’re the only two left, at the tail-end of the day. Reilly’s a little tipsy, sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying Murtagh’s twelve-year-old malt. I’m enjoying giving him shots of it, generous shots. He’s the leavings of a big rough man, and has aged more than I’d realised in the last year, a faint trembling in his blocky hands that makes me wonder how he’s managing everything alone. I’m sorry I’ve lumped him with Murtagh’s cattle on top of his own.
“Begod Juliet, you’d’ve made a popular barmaid the size of them shots,” he says, rheumy eyes smiling.
All the neighbours have gone. I’m filled with a sense of dread, doom, even. Murtagh lies like a siren in his grey herring-bone suit in the red coffin in the living room and despite myself I keep stepping into the hall every so often, ear lifted towards the stairs, listening foolishly for his bell, stepping back into the kitchen carrying only the sound of his mother’s clock that doesn’t even cuckoo now, on the countdown to his burial tomorrow.
This doesn’t phase Reilly. He nods sympathetically when I’ve done it for the umpteenth time, but at this stage I’m past blushing over it.
He’s waxing eloquent about himself and Murtagh and McGann when they were young, the pranks they got up to, but I haven’t the heart to turf him out, nor the stamina to be on my own.
“I suppose I told you the one about the ghost of the lady in white, how we had half the county believing in her?”
“You did, Reilly.”
“And the one about the pig with rings of fire around its eyes running the road before our bicycles at Samhain?”
“And what about the one about – ?”
My ire pierces the glaze in his eyes. He takes in my face, reaches for the bottle of malt and sloshes some into my teacup.
“Do you no harm,” he says, all soft-voiced. I nod and pretend to take a sip. After a while he asks it; what none of the rest of the neighbours had asked, though the question was in their eyes, too.
“Is Seannie coming home for it?”
I’m ready with my answer. “He drove him away when he killed that stag, so why would he come home for it?”
He nods, as if at the logic, but I don’t tell him Seannie doesn’t know yet.
“That stag …” he says. He straightens his shoulders as if gearing up to defend Murtagh.
“Poor fucker went in under Seannie’s hammock for the sweet grasses. Must’ve been trapped there thrashing about, forced to stand among the trees all night. Exhausted, he was, lathered in sweat when we got there.”
I lean towards him, spreading my hands on the table. “Seannie said he didn’t have to kill it, only its antlers were caught, he could’ve cut – ”
“Murtagh didn’t kill him because of Seannie, Juliet.” He says it quiet and slow, like he knows.
“Then for God’s sake why?” I look at him, beseeching, wanting to believe it; that Murtagh didn’t harbour murder in his heart towards his own grandson.
Reilly pours himself another shot and downs it, lips clamping as it hits his stomach.
“Think,” he says, “of what was in the beast’s eyes, the, the fear, the – ” Reaching across the table, he puts his warm square hands awkwardly over mine.
“Bejaysus Juliet …” He quickly withdraws them as if embarrassed. “I even found it hard to look at him myself.”
We fix our eyes on each other. I don’t know if he’s talking about Murtagh or the stag. But there’s no guile in him.
“And another thing,” he says then.
“What?” I pour him another drink.
“Them VC had hammocks.” He hesitates. “Clung onto them even when they were shot. Only way I suppose they could keep off the floor of the jungle at night.”
In the pause the clock sounds insistent. I don’t know if he knows something more than I do, if he knows something about the girl, if Murtagh ever mentioned her to him. It’s worth a shot. I wait till he lifts his glass before I speak.
“So tell me, then,” I say, jerking my head hard at that other unknowable side of the world. “What happened out there?”
My question catches him unawares.
“What?” He stops, glass in mid-air, combing my face with red-veined eyes.
“Where?” He says then, warily.
I look at him hard.
He tries to laugh. “And what the fuck am I going to do with his cows?”
“You know where. Out there. The Unmentionable.” I resist drumming the table with my fingers. “What happened after he and McGann got captured by the Viet Cong?”
He lowers the glass swiftly onto the wood. The whiskey swirls a little, sparking like sunrise in the overhead light. There’s a long pause as he stares into it. I steel myself to wait.
Finally he shifts in his chair and clears his throat. “Took him years to say anything at all. You probably know more than I do.”
But he’s sheepish, looking away the moment I bend my head, trying to look into his eyes.
“He’d kill me for telling you anyhow,” he says then, finally looking at me. We both pretend to laugh a little. But his eyes are harrowed.
“I’d be breaking a promise,” he mutters.
“To the dead?” I throw my hands up. “You don’t believe, no more than I do myself.”
He sighs, breath ratcheting, and finally he caves, so slowly, cautiously, I resist tapping my foot.
“I was supposed to head off to America with yiz, remember? But something in dam dar hills held me back.” He makes a swipe with his arm towards the dusky window.
“And I always thought I was the unlucky one, till you and Murtagh came back.”
I lean towards him, reluctant to drop in a word that might lead him in a certain direction, give me old embellishments rather than a new nugget.
“So what’d he tell you?” My hands open like a beggar’s in the silence. Reilly opens and closes his mouth, opens it again, then clamps his lips. I stare hard, suddenly detesting him.
“No matter how small the bit he told you, man-dear, at least tell me who I ended up living with!” I grab the bottle and slam it down on the table, wanting to smash it.
He looks at me, anguished, then rubs his eyes roughly, as if he needs to hurt them. They’re rheumy again, the veins less visible.
“Aw Juliet. What’m I going to do without him?”
“The same as I did with him, be lost! Lost!” I yell it into his face, not meaning to. Chest heaving, I turn away quickly to hide what’s in me, threatening to unleash itself. Beyond the window the last of the sun fingers the hills. I cling to it, willing it not to vanish, the room rasping with our breaths. But the light deserts me, seeping into the earth almost completely, before he speaks again.
“What he told me see, well, everything and nothing.”
The same as me so! I want to snap.
He rubs his eyes again, knuckles them even harder. Sensing the fracture in him, I pour another shot, slide it close to his big fist. He downs it, grimacing when it hits his stomach. Gradually his lips slacken. And it’s then the words come, blandly, out of his dusky face. He might be reading cattle prices from the Farmers’ Journal.
“They tossed a silver dollar Murtagh was carrying.” He pours more whiskey, lifts it. “Heads for death. It came up heads.” He takes a slug quickly before continuing, the grimace back.
“They told McGann to shoot Murtagh. When he wouldn’t, they shot McGann. They made Murtagh bury him, right where he fell. That’s the everything, everything, Juliet.” He stops, gazing at me earnestly. From the look of it, he knows nothing about the girl Murtagh carried in his sleep.
Everything? I stare back through him, into an abyss. Could it be they told Murtagh to shoot McGann? The thought makes me so cold. Suddenly I’m wrenching open the eggshell door again to that room. What I see is the girl in her black pajama muck-streaked uniform, frightened, hounded, moving through leaves.
I didn’t know about the coin, but somehow now I know I always carried the worst of it, that even when I didn’t recognize it, I went for truth more than love, to the parallel man.
Reilly sucks in a breath, then bursts out again, despite himself.
“But they had him for two years before that prisoner exchange. And really, what it tells you is the fucking nothing that’s a lot more than the fucking everything. Because when he came back –” He pauses. “I don’t know how to say this, Juliet, but…”
“There was two of him.”
He peers at me in the gloom, confounded. “That’s right.”
“And you never knew which of him you were going to get. Except around little Kate, around Kate he was almost himself, until she got preg …” I shake my head, unable to continue. He stares into my face with slow realisation. “Ah now,” he says, “ah now… ”
I’m glad he’s had so much to drink, and won’t remember how I grilled him.
And he doesn’t. After a night snoring in Murtagh’s chair by the range, he manages somehow, without any appearance of a hangover, to get up at the lectern in the church and give a hoarse, rambling eulogy that has everyone but Olive and me in stitches. Finding we’re oddly on the same side for a moment, we surprise ourselves, exchanging a look. Outside, in the crush of people at the graveside, she even thanks me for honouring Murtagh’s wishes, says she’s glad he talked to me before he died.
I nod, frowning down at the scatter of clay on Murtagh’s red coffin, and it’s as if it moves, crawling through my stomach.
A deliberate ploy? Is she suspicious? My innards fire, molten with guilt and doubt. Is she genuine or twisting the knife?
And I wonder if he’s told her where Kate’s ashes are, what he wanted her to do with his own. When my pride lessens, I’ll ask, I’ll beg, even. But for now, our almost-conversation is more than I can handle.
I look up as another small shower of clay is cast down from the far side. Reilly, gazing in at the red coffin with a grievous look. He lifts his head and our eyes meet. And in that instant I know he’s withheld something, some small epiphany he had when I mentioned Kate last night, something he’ll go to his grave welded to, that even with a shovel I’ll never dig out.
Concepta stays with me that night. We sit up late talking and she tries to persuade me to come to Dublin with her for a few days. I tell her I can’t, that Seannie will surely be coming home. But when I use the landline to call him it’s the same as ever: no answer. Connie tackles the last of the dishes in a sudden rush of suds, pretending not to notice as I try again and again.
When she’s gone to bed I use her phone, but still there’s no reply. This surprises me. I’m sure she and Seannie must be keeping in touch, I have my suspicions from the way she not-talks about him. Her lips have always been unopenable when it comes to secrets.
When she was home on trips, Seannie went off to stay with her sometimes when he was aching. I’m sure he must’ve talked to her about the way I was with Murtagh, the way Murtagh was with me. She was always like a second grandmother to him, if she hadn’t been Concepta I’d’ve been jealous.
I get through to his voicemail this time but I’m afraid to leave a message, how can I leave him a message to say Murtagh has died? I ring again, twice. He still doesn’t answer, even though I’m using Concepta’s phone. This alarms me.
In the morning I tell her baldly that I used her phone, I say maybe I should call the police in case something’s happened him, since at least he should’ve answered a call from Concepta? Does she not think? I try to sound casual, like it’s fine with me for him and her to be in touch, even though he’s not in touch with me. But she stops me, saying he’s most likely perfectly fine, that I should wait a few days, then ring him from the landline again, that I should give him more time. This gives me hope. She wouldn’t say this unless she thought he might get in touch, or answer me, would she?
She takes the phone out of my hand and tells me she’ll brook no arguments, that I’m coming back with her to the city for a few days.
She hardly notices I’m not arguing: in the void of Seannie’s silence, I don’t want to be alone.
On the train, the fields and hills pacing us like old friends, I tell her she missed out by being in Africa, especially when Seannie was born, how he was born running, he ran everywhere, full of the joys of spring, how for him it was spring all year, except when Murtagh’s step sounded on the step outside. Then, for the child, it was winter, round eyes clouding as he inched closer to me. Hiding behind my skirts, Murtagh couldn’t resist saying.
But no little lad was ever more brave. It wasn’t leaning in my direction Seannie was, but leaning away from his words.
When we were alone, making dough together, or creeping into the hen house to find his speckled breakfast egg, we’d look at each other, Seannie and I, and our hearts would fill. We didn’t have to speak. It wasn’t necessary where love resided. It wasn’t necessary in the early days with Murtagh either: a smile, a hand laid lightly on an arm, and the heart soared.
Concepta rubs my back in sympathy and hands me a tissue and it’s then I blurt it; how I buried Murtagh deep in the earth out of badness and spite. In red, no less, his least favorite colour. Luckily, the few other passengers are up the far end of the carriage, I say it all so loud.
“I don’t believe in God,” I say then, “so don’t try to comfort me with that malarkey.”
Concepta squeezes my arm. “That’s all right. I don’t believe in him myself.”
I stare hard at her smiling face, her snow head, the map of her wrinkles and grooves, and suddenly, what I don’t know about her is labyrinthine.
“But you’re a nun,” I say, “since when did this happen?”
“Nun?” She parrots, laughing, patting me harder. “Child,” she says yet again, “there’s no immunity in that.”
The Airport is a small warehouse converted to a community hall with minimum fuss. Concrete floor, doors and walls, all painted blue. An assortment of plastic molded chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a fat white half-burnt candle on an old metal desk, a box of matches lying beside it.
Late sunlight trickles through the windows, stretching chairs, desk and candle into elongated shadows across the floor as people file in in dribs and drabs – joined at the foot by their own Siamese shadows – taking their seats silently. I watch them from the little kitchen where Concepta and the bobbity dark-skinned girl she’s introduced as Mission are filling the boiler with water for the tea that will later be consumed. Gradually, as the number of people increase, there’s the low murmur of conversations striking up.
Including Mission, so far I’ve counted fifteen women and two men, all skin colours and nationalities, as well as our own scalded Irishness. Mission starts to hop about lightly on sandaled feet, pulling cups and saucers out of cupboards as Concepta says it’s time.
“Leave them, dear,” I whisper. “I’ll put them all out.”
Mission stops, bright-eyed, questioning, Afro-hair bobbing as she smiles from me to Concepta. Her youth and liveliness tug hard, reminding me of Seannie; she can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen.
“Aren’t you coming to sit with us?” Concepta asks me quietly.
“I don’t want to pray, or meditate or whatever it is you do,” I tell her miserably as Mission flits away to take her seat with the others.
“Whatever it is …? Well now, that’s it, you’ve hit the nail,” Concepta says, nodding, almost chuckling under her breath. She grabs my arm, her grip surprisingly penal, drawing me firmly with her through the open door into the hall, talking under her breath. “You’re the newest, so you can light the candle.”
“For what?” I mutter.
“For whatever you want.” She puts a finger to her lips and points at the group, all seated now, statue-like, eyes on the unlit candle.
“Whatever you want,” she says again, in a whistled whisper that echoes back from the walls.
“Whatever it is. Imagine. Imagine it. A different kind of funeral, child,” she murmurs, searching my face intently.
“Different?” I shake my head, confused. Different, I want to tell her, is what I’ve given Murtagh. She gestures again towards the group, and I have to strain to hear her as she gives me a little push forward.
“Look at them. They’ve lost everyone, entire families, in the cruelest, most violent of ways. Imagine, Julie, the deaths of their lost ones being normal, so at last they can grieve. The candle helps that. Even on the darkest days it’s what we can light.” She nods, as if she’s answered a question I never thought to ask. And pressing the matches into my hand, she scurries off as best she can to sit down.
I stand for a moment, unsure, watching the sun's rays fade, the shadows melting into the blue, turning the hall into a vast, underwater cave. My hands move slowly, wavering a little, as if they belong to someone else; someone old and tired and stuck as I am. The silence seems to hold its breath as the match fizzes into flame, making me squint. Once the candle is lit, the shadows return, ebbing and flowing, dancing at our feet. My gaze ranges along the curved line of bodies. All eyes are closed. I take the only vacant seat among them, lowering myself down beside Mission, and close my own.
When we moved to Wisconsin I worked for a man whose parents were born in Ireland, a quiet, gentle old fellow. Mr Moore of Hoogvliet’s Wooden Homes – Home of the best deal! – was how he advertised them. When he built his own, he built it to face Ireland. I told him about Murtagh and the nightmares he was having. Mr Moore had gone in with the Allies during World War Two. He took my hand and squeezed it lightly. Even though we came from Ireland, he said, Murtagh would always be facing Vietnam.
I turn my head to face her grave. It’s beautiful, decked with flowers that bloom all year round. There’s a plant called hot lips. That would make her laugh, my daughter. I take her little son to meet her there and tell him stories about when she was his age. He cries and says he misses her. I hold his small, limp body close and rock and kiss him gently as we both sing him to sleep.
Dolores Walshe was born and raised in Dublin near the Grand Canal and currently lives and writes in Leitrim. Her novel and short story collection were published by Wolfhound Press and she was awarded a second Arts Council Bursary in Literature 2014. Fiction awards include Writers’ Week Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award 2012; James Joyce Jerusalem Bloomsday Award; 2nd in Francis MacManus Award (twice). Playwriting awards include: Bank of Ireland/Listowel Writers’ Week Play Award; Irish Stage and Screen Award; O.Z.Whitehead/SIP/ PEN Play Award (twice). Plays staged by The Royal Exchange, Manchester, Andrew’s Lane Theatre Dublin and published by Carysfort Press, UCD, and Syracuse University, New York, 2014.