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He sat in the passenger seat of the Nissan Micra as if he was collapsing into the comfort of a warm bed and greeted his brother with an exhausted smile.
“Said I’d collect you in this auld thing.”
He couldn’t believe the auld thing was still running. Before he left it had been in and out of the garage for more hassle than she was worth. When he had been dropped off to the airport in it six years ago he was sure that was the last he would ever see of it.
“You’re not still driving around in this thing are you?” he asked.
“God no. Not in years but she was worth fuck all so since I couldn’t sell it I decided to hang onto it. Take it up the fields now and then when I’m pissed off and do some destruction you know. Did you get much sleep on the plane?” his brother asked.
His brother was the eldest and had been the favourite not necessarily because of the former. Just because he was a good man who did good things with himself.
“No” he replied. “The noise of them tis near impossible.”
They drove with the radio on to avoid talking about the inevitable. They had a big day ahead of them for all of that. There would be plenty of friends and strangers to listen to about that. The city traffic was light and he could see the mountains getting closer to him in no time. It was early morning and the sky was bulging with remorse and hurt. He had remembered when he was a small child imagining that the person who had died got to choose the weather for the day of their burial and if he was to believe this now he was surprised at his mother’s choice. The rain was on its way. She had never liked to have her children standing out in the rain to catch pneumonia. He tilted his head back towards the window. The seatbelt rubbed against his unshaven throat. He gazed out tiredly at the green countryside and neatly trimmed ditches. He realised the beauty the Irish countryside possessed compared to the rest of the world. The untouched youth that seemed to spring from the winding boreens where clumps of grass indicated what side of the road to drive on. They passed Mr Hobbs picking wild berries at the turn by the Protestant cross. His black and white collie dog stood excitedly sniffing sheep shit and swinging his tail like a Junior B hurler on an invisible sliotar in the long, untamed grass. He thought about the airport and its coldness. He had spied on the other passengers with envious eyes. Not for reasons of their travel but because they weren’t alone. He imagined the viciousness of the Irish weather and her freshly dug grave and him standing over her coffin as it slides down the mucky corridors of earth to rest for eternity with him only cradling a handkerchief. There was no wife or girlfriend to rub his back or clench his hands when tears would begin to roll toward his lips. He had left home to get away from all that; to get away from his commitments and responsibilities, to get away from heartbreak and Em. However the coldness of city life only brought with it cold beds and one night stands with faceless women who all seemed to bare her mask of resemblance. His youthful mistake to run away from life and her had haunted him into adulthood. He had spent six years in a metropolis wilderness of civilisation; full of walking suits with blank faces. The only sounds of life were the marching clicks of footsteps on the cold pavements and the angry cry of horns from big yellow taxis ferrying these clones of human beings across the vast concrete jungle. He had found New York the darkest of theatres.
“You can shower at my house” said his brother. “But you’ll have to be quick. The priest wants to close the coffin soon and get the ball rolling. I picked you up a suit yesterday. I figured it would be too much hassle to be carrying one on the plane.”
His brother always had a nice way of putting things. He had looked for a suit before he left New York but his last paycheque couldn’t cover it. His brother had to pay for his flights as well.
“She would always hate when I’d leave the house in mucky track pants usent she” he muttered.
“People will think I’m raising tinkers she used to shout at you!” his brother laughed.
His brother’s house was empty. He dropped his bag in the spare room and found the new suit hanging on the handle of the chestnut wardrobe. A towel, fresh underpants and socks lay neatly folded on the edge of the double bed. He picked them up and headed off to locate the shower room. Children’s toys littered the dining and kitchen area. His brother, now seeming tired and old looking for the first time, leaned back against the counter top and waited for the kettle to boil.
“The shower is just through there on the right” he says motioning with his head towards the open door by the sink. “I’ll have a drop of tea ready for you when you get out but we’ll have to make shapes then.”
“I’ll be quick” he promises.
“Take your time in there shur. You must be wrecked from all the travelling?”
He makes towards the door but his brother calls him again.
“Hey” he says.
His brother smiles revealing more wrinkles furrowed across his face and reaches out his hand.
“It’s good to have you back. I’m sorry we couldn’t have gotten you home sooner.”
He shakes his brother’s hand and smiles awkwardly feeling guilt for his ignorant freelancing. Then he heads for the shower.
“Maybe you’ll stick around for good now?” his brother shouts after him as the kettle shoots out steam.
He doesn’t reply. His brother hears the bathroom door lock.
His brother had built his house only half a mile down the road from where they were reared but now it felt like another world away. They opted to walk over seeing as parking was scarce at their mother’s house with people arriving from all over to pay their respects.
“Easily a thousand people in the last few days have been in and out of the house” informed his brother. “They’ve all been asking for you too. They’ll be glad to have you back.”
He instinctively felt this was a lie. He had always been the oddball of the family, the misfit; known by name around the parish but not by sight. The suit felt a little tight against his body. It seemed to hug his shoulders making him even more uncomfortable. It had always annoyed his mother how he would never dress up and want to look respectable.
“Has she been in?” he finally asked.
“Has who been in?”
“Who’d you think?”
He focuses on the gravelly road and the loose chippings and the drops of rain slipping off the leaves in the trees above and the squawks of the birds mourning respectably from the branches. The birds would miss the stale pieces of bread she would throw out the back door to them in winter.
“No. She hasn’t been in. Unless she came this morning when I was collecting you. You going to call her or something?”
“No. Should I call her? Tell her she’s dead.”
“Shur she knows that. The whole parish knows our mothers dead.”
“But shur you know, maybe I should tell her I’m back.”
“Shur what good will that do?”
“She might want to see me?”
“You’ve been gone six years.”
“Well, is she seeing someone?”
“Look. That ship has sailed. That ship hit an iceberg. That ship sunk with a massive loss of life. And the wreck is unsalvageable.”
The conversation collapses and fades into thin air. They reach the house. Unfamiliar cars line the roadside like championship match day and fill the front yard. Their shoes clank on the wet concrete. Around the back the sheepdog wags his tail and barks remembering his old friend. It prepares to jump and embrace the boy who once brought in the cows from the fields for milking in the early mornings with him but a sharp yell tells him to keep his paws on the ground. They reach the door. He waits for his brother to open it and lead the way. He can hear the hustle and bustle from inside the house. He can smell the tea and sandwiches. He can smell the grief.
“You finally made it!” greets his Uncle Mike. “You still look as ugly as the day you left” he jokes. “C’mon, time to say goodbye. Your mother is waiting for you.”
He is led through a crowded room of fellow mourners with stranger’s faces whom he doesn’t recognise nor do they recognise him. Quite polite whispers inform them he is the youngest child, just off the plane from America. Rows of old people sit on chairs in the living room taking refuge from their tired bones, throbbing from the cold weather that must be harsh on their lungs. They fidget with watches and pockets and shake his hand as he walks by them. He thought how frightening events like these must be for the elderly. Guided by his uncle’s hand he is led into the parlour room where everything was prepared. Candles lit the room although it was daylight outside. Death seems to order an unnecessary aura for gloomy darkness. The candles flicker, their life almost extinguished from the draught that enters the room with him.
“There she is “states his uncle. “Isn’t she lovely looking?”
But she wasn’t. She wasn’t lovely looking. There lay no signs of a peaceful eternity resting on her face, only loneliness and loss.
“I’ll give you some privacy” interrupts his uncles and leaves the parlour, shutting the door closed as he goes.
He observes the room; the most unused room in the house. He reckoned he must have been in it no more than nine or ten times in his lifetime. Photos of family members past and present surround the four walls. He stands in the centre of the room beside his mother’s coffin. The satin cloth hangs outside. Her two hands that she’d held him in lovingly as a child or picked him up so caringly as a boy are joined in peace and rested on her belly. He stares down at her withered face; deep lines of sorrow plough all through it. He could tell she had been strangled by cancer. It had been a long, slow, painful death. He could tell it was; an unconditional surrender. He felt glad he had missed his mother’s demise and then he felt sick to the core for allowing such selfish cowardly thoughts to develop in his mind. He looks back up at the photos on the wall and his eyes catch one of him and his father. In it his father, gone so long now into the earth, hoists him up over his shoulders and there he sits proudly smiling at the camera, like a champion of the world. How wrong things had gone. He remembered what his father would always say to him: “Some people are just put on this earth to make up the numbers. Are you one of them?” He had found the answer the hard way. He looks back down at the face of the woman he abandoned and he thinks of the only other woman he loved as much and more and abandoned too. “What you reckon Ma? I should give her a shout shouldn’t I?”
Outside the parlour room all is silent except for feint rustlings of moving feet. The priest has arrived. His mother had always mentioned her the few times a year he rang home.
“A great girl to stop and chat” she would chime down the phone. “She always says hello to me in the shops.”
He remembered why he left. He was an outsider in the countryside. He didn’t fit in in a small parish where GAA and farming played God. What he did he care about playing football or rearing animals for profit and slaughter? He thought he was something bigger than where God had placed him in the world. He saw thousands of mirror reflections of himself in New York City. A thousand losers, a thousand lost souls wandering through the streets in a purgatory state of mind, looking for something they couldn’t word, couldn’t describe; something that didn’t exist. He thought about Em every day after he landed there.
The funeral went as any funeral goes. The priest was kind with his words. Strangers shook the hands of his brother and sister and himself and offered condolences. The mist veiled graveyard, row after row of limestone names, awoken his senses and liberated his tears. The predicted rain forced umbrellas to be erected and the wind drowned out the priests final prayers of the faithful as the coffin was descended to the earth. By the time the pub came around he had already cast away his jacket and tie and despite the rain stood outside the front door of the pub, slowly dragging away on a cigarette, watching cars drive by idly as people made their way home from work along the nearby main road. The wet leaves stuck to the gutter creating puddles of murky rainfall and the tall semi naked trees listened to the wind pelt off the galvanised roof to his left where the empty kegs were stored. He looked towards the sky and realised the day was almost gone. He had still not called her. He went back inside and sat in the busy pub almost alone taking company with a tray of sandwiches and his nieces and nephews who he had only met for the first time in person today. He was awkward with children.
“I read on the plane over in some magazine that when Johnny Depp was dating Winona Ryder he got her name tattooed on him and so after they broke up he got it reduced down to Wino Forever.”
“What’s a wino?” asked his nephew disinterested.
He ignored the question. He felt frustrated.
“Here. Go get another bag of Tayto and a fizzy mineral for yourself” he said sliding a two euro coin across the table.
His nephew’s eyes opened wide with delight and he shot off to the bar with excitement. He sat in silence as his two young nieces remained quiet on the benches beside him almost afraid to talk in his presence. He imagined had he never left would he now have kids of his own and would he be as shit a father as he was uncle. His sister and brother stood at the bar with friends he used to know once upon a time. Friends he used to know like he knew Em. Too much time had passed to repair things he thought. He didn’t have the courage. He asked himself why she hadn’t come to the funeral and feared it was because of him. His sister had earlier broached the subject of her but he cowardly changed the topic immediately for fear of news of new lovers and romance; everything a woman like her deserved. After he left home and her everything had been an anti-climax. He finished the arse of his pint and walked to the pool table placing a euro down on it and then he lost to some fat ginger kid in a game. Then he got another pint and produced a fag to his lips and made his way toward the exit for a smoke. Men bantered outside the toilets and saluted him not knowing his name, holding artificial conversation with him such as “shitty weather isn’t it” and he nodded back politely. He stepped outside and sparked up his cigarette. He dialled her number into a spare phone his brother had given him earlier. He still remembered it off by heart even after all the time that had passed. He hesitated looking out onto the rain soaked car park. He put the phone back in his pocket and produced a coin, a fifty-cent.
“Heads I call her. Tails I don’t” he declared to himself. He flicked the coin with his thumbnail. The coin landed in his palm and he turned it onto the skin drenched sleeve of his white shirt. Tails. He took a drag of his cigarette and then a sip of his pint.
“Best out of three” he muttered.
His heart sank. Tails again. He thought of the movies and knew real life wasn’t like that but fuck it he thought what if it was just once? What if just once against all reasonable meanings of common sense the prick won? He had wandered out into the middle of the car park and was soaked to the bone by the downpour.
“Fuck it. I’m calling her” he said to himself as the raindrops ran down his face into his ears and eyes. Love was blind and deaf but not dumb. He took the phone back out of his pocket and mouthing the numbers on the screen back to himself he pressed dial. It rang and it rang and it rang. Then she answered.