Disturbing Words: a short story by Evelyn Conlon
A son back for his parents’ funerals becomes entrenched in life on the Border
Evelyn Conlon, author of “Disturbing Words”.
I know you’re wondering what I’m doing up here, not just up here, but here at all. The last you’d heard I was away out foreign someplace. So foreign that you don’t even know the name of it, and that’s a hard enough thing to achieve these days, when there is always some lurker beside you with infinite information on his telephone, as well as his entire life. Infinite does mean that there’s no end to it, which is never a good thing.
You mention a place, the strangeness of it lovingly on your tongue, its faraway mysteries tucked into the silence that you’re trying to leave around it, and your man has whipped out his gadget: “How do you spell that?” he bellows. Perhaps not bellows, but it feels like it, the roaring cult of the amateur know-all. Your youth was gloriously lived with the photographs kept in an album and only taken out if there was a reason to do so, something to check, or an emigrant visiting, something to do with them when the talk of their grown children and their new fridge had run out of steam.
Actually, in all honesty, it’s so long since you last heard of me I could have been dead. And you’re right, I have been away in a peculiar place, almost desert really, a place with red earth, spindly bits of mangy grass and heat that is laughable. And a neighbour whose job is building underground car parks in mosques.
But I had come home for my parents’ funeral, naturally. And I say home when I’m here because it’s easier. Demanding that anyone call my air-conditioned desert pad home would be a bit much. My parents had died within a day of each other and luckily enough the first funeral hadn’t taken place, so the two wakes were held together.
In the passing around of the word it got mixed up which of them had gone first but it didn’t really matter. Not to outsiders anyway. It did to me. But over the few days, the more I accepted condolences, even I got confused as to which of them had died of the broken heart. But I could have worked it out by trying to remember who was named when my phone went in Abu Dhabi. Because I was on my way home after hearing about the first when they rang me to tell me about the second. I had thought that they were just checking to see how my flights were going so far, no delays, that sort of thing.
He wasn’t too well himself at the minute. Mrs Clancy jumped in with sandwiches and the talk took up again
On the first evening after the coffins were got and all the other essentials seen to, the neighbours came in with their manners and their good thoughts and after some sadness they proceeded to garden the memories so that there could be a shape put on the next few days. And a discrete map made for themselves, one to move on with next week. Before the day was up, between us we’d have looked at a lot of things about the lives of my parents, how they had met, and although we wouldn’t say it, how love had changed them.
“They’re pulling from our pen now,” my father’s oldest friend, John Moloney, said.
He had meant it to be heard only over in the corner, where the slagging men had gathered. But there had been a bit of quiet and it travelled further into the room. Brian Gallagher bristled. He wasn’t too well himself at the minute. Mrs Clancy jumped in with sandwiches and the talk took up again.
For as long as they could remember, my father was a pernickety sort of man, particularly around language, and my mother seemed to follow suit. Although some of the women weren’t sure if the following suit was a sleight of hand, they thought that it might have been her who started it. She was known as a reader. Serious reading hid in her very nerves. She got terribly annoyed about the man who had come walking here and lied in a book about things she had told him. When she brought it up with the women, they could see that it mattered more to her than it did to them. “Imagine pretending to have been places that you weren’t,” she said indignantly. “As if we wouldn’t find out, as if we didn’t read on the Border.”
They nodded their heads towards her. She spoke the truth.
And now they were gathered, talking their way through the shock of them both gone. “Remember the time he dressed you down for saying UK?” someone called to Gerry Moore.
And Gerry, who was a perfect mimic, brought my father’s voice straight into the room.
“Let’s not get lazy, it’s England, or Britain if you want. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Not around here. And as for an Ulster Scot, that’s a Monaghan woman in Edinburgh. Scotch Irish, that’s how it goes. If we mind our language, the rest will follow.”
And we all stayed quiet in honour of the man who had thought that language mattered and the woman who liked the sound of the truth.
My father had been hurt young by the Border; the line ran on the top of their ditch. His mother had mourned the loss of her friends, from both sides of the house.
“That’s making them from a different country. How could that be?”
She stopped to think about it some more.
“So if you were born in the six counties before now, where will they say you were from? You can’t have been from somewhere that never was.”
She looked some more out over the imaginary divide, as people have always done, that is, people who have lived on borders, who have heard the river running from one place to the other, not hesitating as it crosses the line.
“But you haven’t lost them,” my grandfather said. “You’ll just have to go through a checkpoint to see them.”
“You’d soon get tired of that,” she said, looking out to the field, third from the window, that would now be in a different country.
Now that it had been mentioned, I remembered the day that Gerry had got dressed down. They were moving cattle from the field that had all the grass eaten. This always caused a problem because they had to manoeuvre the cows over territory that had been disputed. In other places moving cattle caused problems because of cars coming around a bend too fast and landing on top of you, or a cow throwing back her head with the freedom of the road and making a run for it.
They had all had a great weekend over at the Forkhill Singers’ weekend. The pub had been lit up with sound. Singers had come from all over the country as well as England and Scotland. Funny enough, there were none from Wales. The songs had happened, tied in with each other, ebbing and flowing all night. It could have been thought to be a funny thing, grown men and women hanging on to the words of songs. But if you were there you could see the sense of it. It would appear that at some stage Gerry had gone outside and found a soldier with his ear up to the back wall, lost in an air from his own place. Those of us who know that can never forget it.
Somehow or another things got out of hand and descended into a shouting match and the evening became known as that time of the big row, a singular description, out on its own, the big row
After the cattle had been successfully got into the new field and had disappeared in a cloud of joy to its far corners of shining abundant grass, the conversation slid into Border things. It must have been the songs that did it, or Gerry seeing the soldier and feeling sad for him, because they were usually careful to leave that sort of talk for behind their own closed doors. And somehow or another things got out of hand and descended into a shouting match and the evening became known as that time of the big row, a singular description, out on its own, the big row. Some of it carried across the fields, so we know about bits of it, but other things were said that passers-by couldn’t hear. My father came home quiet.
That shouting had been the end of something or the beginning of something else. My father left the modern world, stopped listening to the news. Funny enough, my mother didn’t, but then women can be like that, just in case there’s the equivalent of a washing machine being developed, and they’d need to know. And in her case, something being written that might make sense of things. In time, though, she too said that there wasn’t much of use going on and she retreated from the radio, back to her books. She did get a mobile phone, but she didn’t charge it up that often. They ate their dinner quietly, making happy little remarks about the taste of things.
And I began to know that I would go away.
Around here they were all good at going away. The town down the road was so dead it didn’t even know it. Gerry said that even country and western singers wouldn’t darken the door of what passed for the pub although, mind you, things were cheerful enough in the one on the actual Border, the one where the singing had been. They had lots to laugh at there: the Traynor boys being caught smuggling a load of drink in an ambulance that they’d bought and converted; the Murtagh boys having their load taken off them by customs men who turned out not to be customs men at all, but maybe the Traynor boys dressed up. They concentrated on those bits, not serious things, only matters of money.
Yes, I had gone away. First to Dublin, where they couldn’t stop hearing the headlines in my accent, and then to further away, where it didn’t matter. And as soon as the next plate of sandwiches was handed around, maybe I’d go away again, slip out the door and up the lane. Or at least start packing my bag to the murmur of them in the kitchen.
You could see them happening in the look they were giving each other. A split second of light between the trees, their futures hovering together. This was now where they wanted to be
Before I left for the faraway place, my mother had said, always live away from the Border.
On the second morning of the wakes, I took a breath and opened the desk in the back bedroom; I would take a very quick look. I had no notion of going through things. All that could wait. But the tidy bundle, strung together with a loose hessian bow, on the very top of all else, was clearly meant to be looked at. I was so glad that my brother hadn’t come yet, not until this afternoon. My mother would have hated his suburban wife going through her things, not understanding what they meant, trying to put a value on them.
I undid the twine and spread out the papers. There were pages and pages of meticulous notes on all things Border. All things to do with partition. Who had mentioned it first. How it had come about that it was six and not four. And which six. There were notes on the Border Commission and chapters of books photocopied. There was a fortnights’ reading in it, even for the first skim. One page had a large printing of the word “Gerrymander”. It was my mother’s handwriting below it. It stated that “Gerrymander” was first used in the 19th century in the Boston Weekly Messenger, referring to the new voting district, which Governor Elbridge Gerry had carved out to favour his own party, the map of which resembled a salamander.
Behind that was a picture of my parents at the filling in of the cratered roads, those blown up by the British Army. You could see them happening in the look they were giving each other. A split second of light between the trees, their futures hovering together. This was now where they wanted to be. They’d met, apparently, on the third day of the filling in. My grandmother must have loved that. At least something good would come out of it. As they worked, some of the photographers caught shadows of soldiers passing along the hedges. They didn’t hate them yet, but they would if needs be. And in time, they learned how to look out the car window, straight ahead, silent, as the camouflaged men with blackened faces examined their driving licences.
And then there was my first letter to them from the desert. On the back of the envelope was a tiny map, which I couldn’t make out, the writing was so small, but there was our barn door, and all sorts of lines drawn down from it. It took me some time to find the larger version, which turned out to be a perfectly precise architectural flourish.
My father and mother had drawn a plan to build a basement that would cross the Border and thus they would live in two places. I wanted to believe that telling them about the underground car park in the mosque had helped. I really wanted to believe it. But in the meantime there was the tree. There was a picture of it, pinned to pages and more pages of horticultural notes. Clearly they had cultivated the tree to make sure that its roots, and now its branches, would spread across the line. I was struck still by the amusement of it all, who would ever have thought of it.
I heard movements begin as the morning started and I was needed downstairs, but first I had to check the barn. I would slip out before the serious day began. I pushed open the door, multi-coloured in layers of new paints gone old. I fumbled my way to the far corner and there it was, a velvet curtain hanging as if in front of a stage, covering a large opening. Just for one second I heard a tapping sound, a small noise as the job was begun, and then a bigger one as the larger pick was used. I stared down into the darkness and wanted to see how far they’d got, but heard my name being called, again. Later would do.
During the actual funeral, the parts that are said to remind us of the end, I thought of their beginning together and could dimly hear their laughs in chorus, as they drew to their hearts’ content. So that’s what they’d done when they left the news behind.
It’s amazing what you can see from up here, how the people organise their days, how they move about, where they hide their scraps, how people sometimes break into dance in their kitchens
We were saying goodbye to some of the mourners when we saw the big yellow machine negotiate its way in the gap of the field on the other side, over the bog, up the hill. We watched as it stationed itself, belching out bad fumes. A cutting device unfolded and edged towards the tree. I don’t quite know what got into me, but I ran for it and made up through the branches as if I did this sort of thing every day. There was no thinking about how to get up a tree, no thinking about why, and what after. I had never known that I had such speed, nor that I could climb so high.
The men roared at the machine and soon the driver saw me, perched up on the top, and he withdrew the blades. So here I am. With no plan.
I have plenty of time to think, although you’d be surprised how much there is to do. I have to organise the food and other things that they send up to me on a pulley that Gerry made in jig time. Eating takes a bit of work; it’s not like I’m sitting in a kitchen. It’s amazing what you can see from up here, how the people organise their days, how they move about, where they hide their scraps, how people sometimes break into dance in their kitchens. Although in the first few days, it would be hard to know if perhaps they didn’t change their routine, open their curtains earlier than normal. But that could have been to look at me. I’m also sure that George Wiggins never put out a flag every day before this.
Between myself and the people below, we’ve decided that if I can manage to stay long enough the point will be made and they’ll leave the tree alone. That’s the general idea.
The big question now is, what is long enough, when do I come down? I do have a life waiting for me, with friends in it, and I will eventually need to be in a place where I am not known as the person who went up the tree that went over the Border.
I did come down. And went back to the desert where we had a party and discussed borders we had crossed. And Famagusta, the sound of the name, and the ghosts whistling through the deserted city. Cancer, the Equator, Capricorn. One of us had stood with women shouting to their relatives across in Jordan. The remark was made that the proximity of the border had a serious effect on Anselm Kiefer. What about Alsace Lorraine, back and forth, back and forth? Korea, we said. Another of us, a tent maker, had more truck than most with borders. He had seen a lot of people looking over lines. He told us that while the rest of us forget, get distracted by newer tragedies, the people forced to move often take excursions to look back. When the sun dropped down and the barbecue was over no one could remember how the conversation had got started. I get occasional cards from home, and apparently the tree has not been touched, and Gerry spends a lot of time in our barn.
This story was first published in The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson (New Island Books, 2016). Evelyn Conlon’s works include Not the Same Sky, Skin of Dreams, Cutting the Night in Two, Telling and A Glassful of Letters.