It was only after the coffin was lowered into the ground that I began to laugh. I had managed to get through the whole ceremony in the church, fighting to maintain a quiet dignity, but now the glee spilled unchecked up through my shaking shoulders and out of my mouth. Some fellow mourners looked at me in disgust, although one young man sporting a foolish haircut put a consoling hand on my arm, mistaking my jubilance for grief.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the notice in the paper. Fifty-seven years of reading the back page hoping to see ‘Suddenly, in a freak accident …’. Alas, when it finally appeared, it said ‘Peacefully, at home …’, but was I going to let a minor detail like that ruin my day? Certainly not. I had a funeral to attend and arrangements to make.
The first thing I did was take the bus into town and pay a visit to the Credit Union. The busybody behind the counter said ‘You want to withdraw it all? Everything? Are you sure?’
‘As eggs are eggs’ I said. She sniffed, sighed and shook her head.
Money in hand, I went to buy myself a suit. Nothing tailored mind you, those days are long gone, but a suit from a proper gentlemen’s outfitters as opposed to one of those clothing supermarkets. I have lost an inch or two in height over the years. It happens.
‘Going to a wedding?’ said the boy, as he measured my inside leg. ‘Funeral!’ I said. Quick as lightning, he said ‘Not your own, I hope?’ The cheeky pup.
Next, I went to the barbers and got my hair cut for the first time in a year. I know there is not that much to cut, but the wisps above my ears had flourished into a kind of wild white fluff that needed taming. The barber did not ask me where I was going. I was disappointed.
I went to the hotel then and sat at a window table and had a lobster dinner. Just one glass of wine. I needed to be at my best next morning and it was seven o’clock by then and I’d already missed my afternoon nap. I left a large tip. The waiter grovelled. ‘Thank you very much sir’.
‘I’m going to a funeral tomorrow.’ I said. His thin face fell and his eyes turned faux-sad like a professional pall-bearer’s. Ha ha!
So this morning I got up especially early. Normally, I don’t rise until eleven or so, but I had been waiting for this day for almost my whole life and I was determined not to miss a second of it. I had set the alarm for six am, but I was annoyed with myself because I had forgotten to change the timer and there was no hot water for shaving. I had a week’s worth of growth on my face. I should have had the barber do it. These days I only shave for special occasions. Last week’s special occasion was a trip to the doctor to get my cholesterol checked – a waste of time, but it’s a day out.
I boiled two kettles full of hot water and sharpened my blade on the stone thing that one of the nieces gave me last Christmas. The hands aren’t as steady as they used to be, but by the time I was finished, there was only one nick under my chin. I blotted it with a piece of kitten soft toilet roll. And remembered to remove the blotting paper afterwards. Some days, I am sharper than others.
I ironed a shirt that was hanging in the wardrobe. It may have been ironed before by the woman who used to clean, but that would have been at least four years ago, or five maybe, because she probably stopped ironing a year before she died. Now, I wear polyester fleeces most of the time because they don’t need such attention. My ironing was a bit of a disaster because the iron and the ironing board gave up their dust in grey streaks across the collar of the shirt. I was glad I had planned an early start for reasons just such as this. Always allow contingency time.
I had to wipe down the iron and board and start again with a different shirt. This one was missing a button at the lower belly but I decided that if I kept the suit jacket closed, it wouldn’t be noticed.
The only mirror I have is the shaving mirror but when I was fully dressed in my new suit and well-polished shoes with my neat haircut, I just knew I looked well. The trousers fell over the laces of my shoes at just the right point. I must remember these measurements: 36 waist, 32 leg, jacket 46.
I walked to the train station, cheerfully hallooing and saluting people I had ignored for fifty-seven years en route. They mostly returned my greetings with warmth and surprise. At the station, the ticket seller asked if I wanted a single or return. Hmmmm. The return ticket was only an extra €2 so I bought it, just in case.
On the train, I read the paper but could hardly keep my mind on the headlines. I kept flicking to the back page and the Death Notices ‘Deeply regretted by her loving son, Declan’. I ordered a cup of tea from the trolley. It cost €1.85 and I had to make it myself. I got a paper cup of hot water with a tea bag in it, two skinny sachets of sugar that wouldn’t comprise a single spoonful and a miniscule carton of milk with a stubborn foil lid that spurted its contents all over the crossword. Under normal circumstances, I’d have been furious.
When I arrived in the city, I took a taxi to the church. The driver was a gruff fellow without any social skills and the taxi smelled, ironically, rank. I didn’t tip him, but thanked him for the journey.
Nobody was around and the tall wooden doors were locked. I was an hour early. The church loomed in front of me like a threat, but I was being silly. It was just a building. Bricks and mortar and all that.
After a short while, the sacristan arrived and opened the doors. He nodded at me and went about his business, watering plants and chipping away at candle wax on the votive altar in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The coffin was already in place in the centre aisle. I should have remembered that it would be sealed. I felt a twinge of disappointment. A few be-scarfed women came in then, in a flurry of self-blessing, kneeling and muttering. I strolled around for a while, looking at the statuary, awarding marks out of ten for colour, realism and most importantly, suffering.
Gradually, the mourners entered, while through the glass porch door, I saw a few others clotted in groups outside. Not many. Declan, the only surviving son, led them up the aisle. I waited near the back. I had not seen him in so long and yet bizarrely, he did not seem older to me despite the evidence of my own eyes. Yes, his hair was white, but still plentiful. A little more stooped than I expected perhaps, his movements slower. Beautiful now, as he was back in the day.
The ceremony went as they usually do, with mutters, drones and whiny hymns. I did not flinch, guffaw or fall down in hysterics when the deceased was described as ‘a devoted mother’ and the old reliable ‘pillar of the community’.
Outside, I kept my distance as Declan graciously received condolences until the very end. I raised my arm and waved. His face registered shock when he recognised me.
‘Nicholas! I…I can’t believe you’re here!’ He guided me towards the empty porch.
‘What age was she?’ We spoke quietly.
‘A hundred and four, cruel to the end.’ He looked down at his feet. ‘I’m sorry I could never … You know what she was like… I left it too late for—’
‘It’s not too late’.
Isn’t that what I’d been waiting all this time to say to him?
His slow, sweet smile came then, the one that I remembered from when we were mere boys messing about at the old baths in those slow sweet summers, his young skin freckled by sun and patched by sea salt. And the whip marks across his bare thin back.
‘You never married?’ I said ‘I was sure she would force you up this aisle at some stage’.
‘She tried.’ Pain flittered past the shine of his eyes. ‘Please don’t say anything …’ he whispered, ‘… Most of them, well … they wouldn’t understand what we …’
I grabbed his hand and held it. My words were soft, gentle.
‘The time for hiding is over. Today, out of respect, I will keep my distance, but tomorrow … you must decide.’
He threw his arms around me and the years fell away.
He nodded his head vigorously: ‘I have decided’.
The undertaker coughed meaningfully in our direction and Declan and I separated ourselves. ‘Tomorrow’ he said.
Later, in the hotel, I ordered champagne while Declan accepted condolences. We sent coded messages to each other – fluttering our fingers on our cheeks – a childhood game that meant nothing, and everything. A few of the mourners looked disapprovingly at my choice of drink. Eventually, they left me alone and moved to the other end of the bar. I shared my bottle with strangers and, together, we toasted bad health.
At closing time, I made my way back to the cemetery. Unusually, for that part of the world and for that time of year, it was clear, dry and mild. The stars shone their approval.
I had a fierce job clambering over the gate in my good suit, but against the odds, I landed on my feet.
Here I am. The fresh earth glistens on the new grave. I pause for just a moment, doubtful, as I realise I have no music, nor means of any. I listen hard, and hear my ancient bones singing from the strain of my exertions. I pick up the tune, and whistle a jig. I lift my wasted knees and dance.
RTE Guide – August 2014.