Funeral, a new short story by Robert Sheehan

In this story from the actor’s debut collection, Disappearing Act, a man acts up at a funeral

Robert Sheehan. Photograph: DWGH

Robert Sheehan. Photograph: DWGH

 

Written in Barnes, London

My hair is done to perfection. It took an age to get right down in Kay Flood’s salon, but it was worth it. Because at a funeral you want to look your best when you’re paying your respects, keep it together at least until the graveyard, and there the wind and the rain can batter you and ruin your hair, and then you can let out the emotions and start crying and all that stuff there too. I remember Granda Pat’s funeral, and Uncle Peadar, who could find no place to belong to other than the farm, turned and goes shtalking away across graves, no respect for the plots or the dead lying in ’em. Just made a beeline, kicking gravel across the graveyard and the wind gusting.

And we all looked and we all looked at each other, a few rolls of the eyes, few nods and eyes down, one or two smirks. He shtalks away and gets as far as the edge of the graveyard that’s lined with them big, tall bright- green hedges that was made in a lab, and he unzips himself and starts taking a piss. Then there was a few sniggers. Few tuts. The priest’s voice was wobbling – but it had been before, to be honest. My jaw was on the coffin let alone the ground, and my hair was all over the place.

It’s disrespectful to wear hats at funerals, unless you’re a lady. Or have cancer.

And as well, as soon as you hear about a friend, a dear friend’s passing, it’s disrespectful to not make that promise to yourself. But here I am in the church at the man’s funeral wondering have I really made the promise to myself at all, even though I have a clear memory of making it when I’d heard he died.

And now I’m second-guessing making the promise because I can see the back of her neck. It’s behind the two locks of hair, with a ferocious shine off it, on the back of her head, falling down, framing the back of her pale neck, long like a swan’s, and me thinking I’m not sure that promise is worth anything now that I’m face to face with the back of her neck. And her short-haired sister holding her round the shoulder in her dark blue.

The promise made inside my head three times in a row was that now that Patrick was dead, I’d never in a million years even think about doing anything with his wife (or widow, now), let alone pursuing her. And, I suppose, thinking the thoughts of the Low Fella that are swimming through my head at the moment is breaking that sacred promise. Damn. Sorry, God, and sorry God for swearing. I’m trying my best.

A promise that had to be made because, in our heart of hearts, everyone here knows that there was always a little glimmer of something between myself and Sinéad. She’s such a vibrant woman and I know Patrick was a droll chap – always taking the piss – but you might even go as far as to say sullen on a bad day, with a puss on him like something’s just after happening. And they say opposites attract and all that, but sometimes I know she yearned for a bit more energy. Something more than someone hating everything all the time. Taking and never giving anything back, being sarcastic about things and getting his kick that way. I mean, she’s a liver! Oh, Christ … What am I thinking at the man’s funeral – for Christ’s sake, Liam! Well, I suppose it’s not a terrible sin to say a man is a dier shortly after he’s passed … But it is a sin, Liam, because you were thinking it about him while he was very much alive. No, she was great for him. And I always thought that. Without her drumming a bit of life into him he might have gone more withdrawn. And fellas with that seed who stay alone go that way, especially in a small town.

When she’s not cutting hair, she’s always raising money for charity and organising things to happen on a weekend on the green. She’d go around with far less airs and graces than she’s due.

And that promise can’t be unmade so I’m going to help her out what way I can and continue to admire her from afar, and thank God that I’m lucky enough to get that gift.

We do have great goss down in Kay’s. Some days I put my hands up on the counter and she plays the backs of my fingers like a piano, before doing our traditional ‘cheers’ing with our mugs of tea.

We crossed paths a couple days ago coming down the main street, and in my best serious voice I asked Sinéad who was to do the honours of saying Patrick’s Mass, and she said she’d sooner put him in the Protestant church across the road if it wasn’t Looney, ‘cos the other, newer parish fella has a bit of a reputation. Word followed him from his last place. But there was none of that carry-on in mine and Patrick’s time, mind, when we were altar boys. And if there was, I was never told.

Well … if I’m being totally honest, not all of me made the promise. I made it, but not all of me made it. The bit of me that makes all the right decisions, that fella made it. You know this, God. You know the fella who at the end of the night when someone says, ‘We’ll walk up the road to Doheny’s, sure they’re open till half two,’ and the other fella is telling you, ‘Go, go, go on, there’ll be craic!’ That fella who’s in the front seat is shouting, being barely heard, ‘You’ve been up to Doheny’s a thou- sand times and it’s always the exact same craic – don’t bother.’ But the booze tends to quieten him down no matter how high-pitched he screams. The booze puts him on mute. But he’s the fella I should be listening to, because he’s looking out for not only you and me but everyone else around as well. He’s got everyone covered.

‘Cos no woman wants you smelly and hungover on a Sunday morning. They want the whole family to go out on a horse ride or a drive to the beach and be able to dive into the sea and be all full of energy and not sipping Lucozade and panting, even though you’re not moving anywhere, and stinking. No one wants that on a Sunday.

So he’s the fella to listen to, the Big Fella. The fella who has your voice, God. He’s the one who made the promise. He made it as defence against the other fella. He’s the one who wants everything now now now. Next week won’t do. He wants to taste the forbidden fruit – he’s the Low Fella. He’s the snake. He’s the Devil. And he tempts and he tempts and he tempts. And God knows he likes the drink as well. Because the drink turns up his volume. And down the other fella’s.

Anyway, I’m of an age now where I don’t listen to that Low Fella as much any more – ah, he’s getting to be less tempting these days. So it’s going to be easier to believe in the Big Fella up in the front seat, as long as I keep fairly clear of Sinéad – apart from the bimonthly cut and blow dry – and not be thinking about inviting her round all the time. Well, apart from the odd few times after the funeral and she alone in the house. I can invite her all I want around that time, because what kind of devil would I be if I made a problem for her having some company? Poor thing. Must be shocking to lose a partner like that.

Although the amount of energy your man expended, I doubt she’s even noticed – haha!

Ah, for God’s sake stop it, Liam, bless us and save us you’re at the man’s funeral.

We were altar boys up there when we were lads. We’d be sniggering away behind Father Looney Tunes. Little boy racers running around, tripping each other up the aisle. Soon as Mam had the car pulled in next to Looney’s orangey-brown Capri, the doors would fly open and it was first to the altar, first to the vestry, first to get the albs tied on, first position for Mass. First first first first first. Everything was competition for Patrick. He’d endless energy back in those days but I was never that far behind, always a close second. And he wasn’t unkind, but if he ever said a kind thing, he’d a knack for making it sound like a judgement on someone else. Still though, to this day, when I walk into church every Sunday I get a mad time warp back to when I was a little fella with Patrick and me and a few of the other lads and one or two from the choir. The old frankincense drenched into the walls for years, centuries. Smell of Old Belief. Was like it was yesterday. And I’m up there lighting candles and ringing bells and trying not to laugh. And so’s he.

But he’s gone now. He’s gone and he’d like her to be happy, wouldn’t he?

Now that’s arrogance, Liam. God, who am I to say that I could be the one to make her happy? Christ, oh sorry, crikey. Imagine the town goss! Ha. Jesus forgive me and he barely cold. Leaving his children half-orphans, they’d say. Walking across town and into the bed of another man. You can nearly see her house from his. The cheek of it. Would he be as quick to rob his grave?

Uproar. It’s almost funny to think about. Ha, the shock on these poor auld bored God-botherers’ faces. ‘Yeah but, Liam,’ says the front seat fella, ‘it’d stop being funny after about three days, and then God only knows how long they’d punish us for.’ Or if they’d ever forgive us.

And I know she would come too. The two of us doing the eejit up in Doheny’s at all hours. I said, ‘Sinéad, you’ll have another one, sure – you’re a liver!’ She says, ‘I won’t have a liver in the morning if I don’t go now.’ And the two of us would laugh. I remember one night I got a fair laugh out of her. We were talking about Patrick and, now, Patrick would be stocky, solid. There was talk of the county-level team there for a while. And she was rolling her eyes about him being cranky and this and that and whatever and, what was the line I said? ‘Well, Sinéad, it doesn’t help to be short with people, but then again, some of us can’t help it!’

Well. It was the proudest I’d say I’ve ever felt. It didn’t matter that she spat half her pint over me. I got a laugh out of her I’d say I hadn’t heard before or since. I wonder did Patrick ever get that class of laugh out of her? Now stop that, Liam. God, you’re at the man’s funeral.

But the way me and her’s eyes have lingered at all hours of the night out in the smoking area after Doheny closed his doors. A man knows. I saw the willingness in her eyes, with them gorgeous dark lashes lingering two, three, four seconds sometimes without breaking contact? That’s a clear and steady signal.

Beautiful eyes she has too. Sort of piercing grey-blue, like an Arctic wolf.

The bells ring anyway and Patrick gets lugged up on six lads’ shoulders – some family, some Patrick used to play football with – and he begins making his way out of the church. The shine off his coffin would make you think it’s unnatural, unfit for going into the ground – the gleam of gold on the handles. I wonder how long it will take the worms to eat through the varnish. When I go, I’ll be buried in something way less boasty. I’ve little attachment to the body, the auld cement mixer having to be lugged around. Once I go, the sooner the worms get in at me the better.

As Patrick shnakes down the aisle step by step, Sinéad’s head turns with him and the skin on her neck twists then hides behind her deep-brown-coloured hair, and I see those eyes and they’re all glassy with tears, and her nose is red and her lips are pursed and sealed and she looks tired, God bless her.

I want to get up and go over and put my arms around her. I want to catch her; and she’d fall into my warmth. I want her to soak my collar in tears. I just want to walk her home after this and gently undress her while she cries and cries and let her curl up in a ball against me just wearing a slip and cry Patrick out and go to sleep. And as she dozes off I’d hug her close and make my breath close-sounding by her ear and make it sound to her like the coming and going of the sea.

Patrick draws closer, slowly making his way down the aisle for the last time, like a twelve-legged caterpillar in his Sunday shoes. Trip the caterpillar for the craic! I am in as much disbelief as everyone else in the church when the Low Fella sticks the left foot out and trips the first GAA fella on the left carrying the coffin.

The whole lot of them go down like dominoes. Hard.

The coffin bounces off the back of the pew in front of me and falls back into the aisle. Patrick’s corpse comes flying out and rolls like a crash dummy, landing face up, eyes wide open, staring up at the Heaven he was scheduled to be arriving at in about half an hour.

Shrieks and cries and screams ring out and echo through the church now like hysterical prayer. I can’t move in the pew. I’m frozen to the spot. I look up and Sinéad’s crystal eyes are ablaze and burning a hole in mine. She points and screeches, ‘He tripped him! I saw him! Liam?!’

Everyone looks at me in complete amazement. And suddenly I realise I’m smiling. I’m wrinkling my mouth. I’m trying not to laugh. I get up and try to encourage the lads to help me put Patrick back in his coffin but the football lads all ward me away with thick welty hands on long arms connected to fair shoulders.

This one, a blond curly lad who’s rumoured to be a bit AC/DC, probably only trying to cop a cheeky feel here in God’s house where no one would suspect, force-whispers at me, ‘Go – now,’ and gives me a look like he’s going to knock my teeth out. I’ve seen that look in his eye before but only from the sidelines of a match. I turn around, having finally managed to stop smirking. I can’t look at anyone in the face and most of them can’t look at me. But a few of them can as I’m walking down the aisle, and that fella in the front seat is roaring in my head, saying that Patrick was a well-liked man, and there are a few lads in this church whose lips are curling, sizing me up, and are going to bide their time until they get a chance at taking a crack at me. A few there slobbering at the thought of giving me a justified hammering.

Oh, jaysus, what have I done …

I’ll never live this down. Maybe some people will think it’s funny and they’ll become my new friends and it’ll split the town in two. People who found it a bit comical in hindsight and there was no harm done really and we can all move on and laugh about it, and then the begrudgers who think it’s an offence against God, spoiling another man’s burial because you were jealous of him and the fact that he got to be with her and everyone knows it, and they all know that’s why you did it – for God’s sake, will you be quiet? – and would never forgive me. Who knows what’s going to happen? Young Willy Boland near the back has a big grin on him. He’s had that big pink scar running down from his left eye since before he was eighteen. He’s been in the wars well enough. He knows what I’m in for.

Then I’m in tears and I can taste the salt, and I’m heading out the front doors of the church into the light, blinking. I hope to God no one saw me crying on top of everything else.

I’m stood in the car park, unsure whether I should get in my car and drive up to the graveyard, or get in my car and drive home, or wait until she comes out and fall at her feet, like Mary Magdalene at Jesus’s feet but in reverse, and beg for forgiveness.

I choose the third option. I stand in the car park making funny noises at the back of my throat and wiping my eyes until the procession have gotten them- selves back together and are coming out of the church. The sun is glaring and the wind is up, just my luck.

As the wind gusts them going down the steps, I kneel at the bottom and pray in a forced whisper, ‘May Patrick go to Heaven. May Patrick Cleere go to Heaven. Please God, may Patrick Cleere go to Heaven. May Patrick …’ My hair has been turned upside down and I look like a complete fucking eejit. And people are hollering and roaring, ‘Fuck off, Liam!’ ‘Go home, Liam!’ ‘No respect!’ All I want to do is tell her but I can’t be heard over the congregation of screaming mourners, so I jump up and down and wave. ‘Sinéad! Sinéad!’ But she’s turned away, her head’s buried in her lesbian sister’s navy-blue blazer, and she’s quickly being helped in the passenger door of her car. Volkswagen Golf GTI, sporty little motor. I love seeing her drive through town in that car.

Or see her pull up outside Kay Flood’s for our appointment for a blow dry and fizz, and I’d say, ‘Well, Sinéad, sink still broke?’ And she’d give me the eyes and say, ‘Now, Liam, the thing about being married to a builder is he knows he can fix it, that’s why nothing ever gets fixed!’ And I’d roll my eyes and try and keep from letting it out, the knowing that she’s going to be giving me the shivers, through my whole body from the top down, when she’s giving me the shampoo-conditioner under the hot jets, and beaming, smiling at me and asking is there anything in the magazine.

No sooner does her sister get her sat into her car than she pops back out and comes marching over. I crawl to her high-heeled feet like Mary Magdalene, and she grabs a firm hold of me under my sodden, pathetic chin. ‘You are in my prayers, Liam. But you do not have me. You never, ever will. Please do not come to the salon again.’

And she’s gone. I try pushing my way through the legs of all the blocking throng to follow her black suede stilettos, but a teenage-Patrick-lookalike pallbearer jumps at his chance. He grabs hold of me by the scruff of the collar. He gets me by my tie knot and is doing that thing where a lad tries to choke you to death with your own tie.

And I can’t get the words out, and all I want to tell her is that I love her and that she has a place to stay and someone to talk to if she’s feeling lonely, but this little bastard is choking my air passages, so I knock him off and connect fair well with his ear, but he’s only sixteen or seventeen and that doesn’t go down at all well.

And now the GAA lads have Patrick put into the hearse and three of them are coming for me. I turn to run but I slip on my shoelaces that teenage Patrick must’ve stood on, and I half trip over but just about manage to regain my footing before the blondy curly footballer fella, I think his name is Cronin – his father was a footballer as well – turns me around and smacks me so hard in the mouth my vision goes completely black. And I feel the contact but not the pain of the massive thud on the back right of my head as I hit the cold gravelly ground. Hard. Grinning Willy Boland, who’s wearing them New Rock boots that go all the way up to the knee, wades in with a fair kick to my ribs before getting pulled away.

And then they’re hoisting me up by the scruff and they look alarmed. There must be a load of blood. Their eyes are bulging and their talk is drifting in and out of my ears. I can’t hear properly. God forgive me, I don’t want to die, but on the upside … If you die in a churchyard, you’re guaranteed entry into Heaven, I’d say. Is that right, God? It’s not written down anywhere but why else would all the priests and Protestant vicars bury themselves on the church grounds? It’s hallowed, sacred ground, and I think that means I’d get a pass.

The lads have me upright now and are dragging me towards one of their cars – an Audi A3 hatchback, nice motor, one of them hybrids that uses hardly any petrol – so I flop out of their rough grip onto the ground and fake a seizure. I mean … Forecast is pretty grim. Outlook not very bright, really. Becoming the town pariah or, worse, the town joke. Even worse than life now, and that’s a rung below I didn’t think was down there. And even worse than that, seeing her driving through town or walking little doggy Daisy in those tight jogging pants that highlight how impressively back in shape she got after having three children, and her walking on with the head down and having no wave or smile for me? Her averting her eyes from the low freak, pretending I don’t exist? That’s an agony worse than an eternity in hell, God. Or a loony bin. No, thank you. Churchyard fix, please.

The second time I go down I go down for the seizure, and this time I feel the full contact and the full pain. I can feel hot blood drenching the back of my head. My hair is in such an absolute mess I don’t want to even think about it.

They’re all getting the phones out.

You know, I was only thinking earlier on that as you get older the outside world shrinks and shrinks. And things right in front of you get kind of big.

As they hoist me up on the gurney, I can’t move a muscle to turn my head away from the spot where Mammy used to drop the two of us off for rehearsals. Next to Looney’s Capri, an old motor, with the ‘r’ and the ‘i’ prised off the back of it so it just said ‘Cap’. Patrick eyeing me with divilment. The seatbelt strap going tight over my chest, making my breathing shallow, like it went having to race him all the time. I hated the feeling of it. It was always first this, first that. And this was before Sinéad knew either of us. First one to reach the altar. Soon as the handbrake was on we were out of the car, elbowing and pulling. Into the church and up the aisle, slapping all the pews and making them echo. Well, I suppose you won this round too, Patrick.

Well done, again. But I was never very far behind.

This story is from Disappearing Act by Robert Sheehan, published by Gill Books

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