The Coast of Wales, a short story by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
A holiday read – 12 Days of Stories, Day 1: A beautiful and moving meditation on grief
Opposite the flowerbed, which dazzles the eye with crimson primroses and tulips the precise pink of dentures, a woman in a yellow anorak is bent over a tap. As she fills her blue watering can, her small dog waits – he’s a Yorkie or a Scottie, one of those shaggy little ‘ie’ dogs. He is silent, which is good because dogs aren’t allowed in here. Patiently, he stares at the tap.
It’s attached to a slim concrete post and is almost invisible against the background of stone and milky misty sky. That’s why I never noticed it before. Now this woman with the black dog illuminates it with that yellow anorak of hers.. There’s something new to learn every time I come here. For instance, I’ve found out that the potted plants I place carefully on the clay dry up very quickly, even when it rains. You need to come and water them every few days. Some people know this and they’ve rigged up clever permanent contraptions: containers like stone window boxes, which they place on the concrete plinth, and fill with plants in season. It would be easier if you could sow something directly into the soil, but that’s against the regulations.
The reason is that this is a lawn cemetery. That’s another thing I’ve learnt: the term ‘lawn cemetery’, and what it means, which is that grass grows on the graves. And that men from the County Council cut this grass. They’ve been mowing regularly ever since spring got going, six weeks ago. These grass cutters also remove any unpermitted decorations – for example, teddy bears and plastic angels, Santa Clauses – from the graves, and throw them into the big skip by the gate. They also throw away withered flowers. You have to keep a close watch on your plants to make sure they don’t decide to consign them to the skip before they’re dead. All this cutting and throwing away, however, means the place is well kept. On sunny days it can look almost nice, at least after you get used to it.
I brought water in a bottle in my rucksack. And now I find out there’s no need to carry water all the way from home. Water is heavier than it looks when it comes dancing out of the tap, light as stars.
This is what the graveyard looks like: an enormous housing estate, bisected by a thoroughfare. You can drive on this, and some people do, but I think that’s inappropriate, like driving on a beach. Off this central artery are the cul-de-sacs, about twenty on each side. Hundreds of straight lines of graves, arranged symmetrically like boxy houses, with pocket handkerchief lawns in front of each one. True, there is a certain amount of variation in the headstones, as there is in houses on estates, but, as with them, diversity is limited by planning restrictions. The headstones must not be higher than four feet and so they all measure exactly four feet - naturally everyone goes for as much height as they can get. Apart from this, some choice is permitted, although all headstone designs and inscriptions have to be vetted by the authorities. They’re obviously tolerant; there are some pretty unusual headstones around. You hesitate to use the words ‘bad taste’ in connection with death – another thing I’ve learnt. Don’t be judgmental about trivial things (and everything is trivial, by comparison with what’s going on in this place). But I can’t warm to the shiny slabs with gold inscriptions and smug angels on top. The white marble is nicer, even when it comes with expressions of profound sentiments in lines apparently plagiarized from country and western songs, or the ‘Funny Stories’ page of ‘Our Boys’.
His Life a Beautiful Memory, His Absence a Silent Grief.
Take care of Tom, Lord, as he Did Us, With Lots of Love and Little Fuss.
My favourites are the simple stones, plain grey, which have become more common, I’m pleased to report, over the past four or five years. (It’s easy to date fashions in a graveyard.)
That’s what I ordered for you. The style called ‘boulder’, the natural look that suits a man who wore tweed and spoke correct Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic. I thought it was a personal choice but I’ve discovered that most of the poets and writers, teachers and academics, are buried under similar stones. There’s only one unique monument in the entire place: a wide slab of pinkish granite, thin as a butterfly’s wing. Only a name and a date inscribed on it in tiny Times New Roman.
The architect who designed Belfield.
To tell the truth, I wouldn’t mind one of those. A high modernist headstone that looks as if it were imported, at great expense, from Finland or some other crucible of understated good taste. But you could copy it and the next thing IKEA would be supplying the same thing in a flat-pack at a fraction of the cost. They’d be all over the place.
I guess I’ll stick with the country life look.
Unlike you, I know precisely how and where I will be buried (unless I am destroyed in a plane crash or murdered and chopped up into little bits and my body never found). I’ll be under a homespun boulder on Row C, in the section called St Mark’s, down near the wall and the old Church of Ireland. I thought when I was shown the spot that it was pretty, because it was in the shelter of the old church, with its bell tower and stone walls. The newer section of the graveyard, St Elizabeth’s, didn’t appeal to me one bit. It’s a huge flat field that stretches despondently to the Irish Sea. The undertaker, who encouraged me to think very carefully before I made a decision, pointed out that as time went on St Elizabeth’s would look ‘less bleak’. The trees will grow, he said, in his mild, and mildly ironic tone. He takes death in his stride, and thinks in the longer term.
But how much time have I got?
From St Mark’s there is a fine view of the Dublin Mountains, today a rich eggy yellow, even in the milky haze. Easter egg time, almost everything in nature is yellow. Not only has it a fine view, always desirable in houses or graves, St Mark’s also has the virtue of age, being in the oldest part of the graveyard, where unburnt corpses can no longer be buried – there’s not enough room. For them, poor skeletons, no choice. It’s St Elizabeth’s; they’ll have to grin and bear it, and wait for the trees to grow. But there’s still space for little urns of ashes in the old section, just because not that many Dubliners choose cremation, and of those that do, many don’t get a grave – their ashes are scattered in some scenic spot where they used to go on their holidays, or kept at home on the mantelpiece. Some of yours are at home too. I’m planning to scatter them on a nice headland near the place where we went on holiday on Anglesey where almost everyone speaks Welsh. But I rather like having them in the house so I’ll probably hold on to some. That means your ashes will be in three different places. There’s no rule against it; that’s the beauty of ashes. You could never dismember a body and bury bits in various places – except in very exceptional circumstances, such as Daniel O’Connell’s.
I’d have thought such ideas unhealthy, even disgusting. And terrifying. Before. Life is for the living was my motto, not that I expressed it one way or the other. But now the dead are always on my mind and I’m quite an expert on graves and graveyards. I could set up an online advice centre and may do that when I get over your death. I have quite a lot of plans for that time, for the time when I get over it, when my energy returns and I start out on a new life as a person who has lost her husband but has survived. A widow, to use that word all widows I have met - they’re all over the place - can’t stand. People tell me that you’d want me to start a new life, to be happy. I suppose it is a safe bet that you wouldn’t want me to be actively miserable. You didn’t get a chance to express any preferences one way or the other, but others step into the breach. You should get a dog. Aren’t you lucky it all happened so quickly? A massage would make you feel so much better. The sort of things we’d have a good laugh at, between ourselves, over dinner. I reckon we ate about 14,000 dinners together and so had at least 14,000 good laughs. 28,000? More. It would be so great to have just one more dinner so I could tell you about all that’s been happening, relay all the comments: the sublime, the absurd, the in-between.
Quite a long dinner, we’d need, to tell the whole story.
They mean well.
St Mark’s is not really as nice as I first thought. The church and the ivy-covered wall block the sun in the afternoon, so our grave is often in cold shade. Today, for once, I came in the morning, and the sun is shining on you. I take my plastic water bottle out of my rucksack and pour water on the purple flower, a senettia, and the white, a chrysanthemum. It’s not the kind of flower you liked, or I like, but it was the only thing in the flower shop that looked healthy enough to survive in this graveyard for any length of time. And it has lasted and looks quite good here on the grave, which needs all the flowers it can get. The boulder hasn’t come yet – they’re waiting for a good block of granite. As if blocks of granite come rolling down the hill when they feel like it. You’d think they’d have a regular supplier. In the meantime all you have is a little wooden marker with your name on it, and dates. It has been a great help to me, especially at the beginning when I couldn’t remember where the grave was. It took me a while to remember to turn left at Mary Byrne’s grave, which is next to that of Enrico Cafolla, Professor of Music – easier to remember than Mary Byrne, beloved wife, Mom and Nana. (The word ‘granny’ never appears on headstones. ) I never go astray now.
There isn’t enough water in the bottle. The flowers are alive, but thirsty. The white petals of the chrysanthemum are turning to straw. The senettia is such a strong regal purple, a deep dyed purple, that its thin blade like petals could never turn brown, but they’re getting limp. I decide to walk back to the tap and get more water. It’ll take about ten minutes, to go there and back, but I have plenty of time now. That is another thing. Before I had no time for anything. Now times seems to stretch endlessly in front of me, like the sea out there in front of the railway. But the sense of a wide expanse of ocean is an illusion. There is a coast that you can’t see over the horizon. Wales. The land I love because it brought us such luck. After four years’ waiting we conceived a child there, on the first night of a holiday at Beaumaris. It’s a mere sixty-six (nautical) miles away. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And it’s closer than, say, Ballinasloe.
As I go back towards the tap I notice the woman I saw earlier. The woman in the yellow anorak. She’s busy at a grave. No doubt she’s a widow, like me, like most of the graveyard visitors, who spent their lives taking care of husbands and have no intention of stopping now, just because they’re dead. So they keep coming to the graves to pull up the weeds, to water the flowers, to plant new things. The woman in the yellow anorak is touching her headstone with both hands, and talking to it. As I pass, I hear what she’s saying. ‘Sandra came to dinner yesterday and we watched Fair City. I miss you so much, my dearest darling.’
The dog is nowhere to be seen.
That’s where the dog is, tied to the concrete post by his leash. He’s a Scottie, I can see it now, I remember the difference. Black, with that long, sceptical, Scottish head.
‘Hi, little dog,’ I say. ‘Excuse me while I fill this empty ginger ale bottle with water.’
I turn on the tap and squeeze the mouth of the bottle so it fits over the lip of the tap. This is not a good idea.
Just then, a hearse comes through the gate, followed by two black limousines; after them the straggle of ordinary cars. A few people stand at the corner, paying their respects as the hearse passes and swings quietly around the corner, making for St Elizabeth’s.
I used to hate the sight of a hearse. My heart would sink if I met one on the road. But I no longer fear them now that I’ve met death face to face, tried to shoo it away, and lost the battle. Now I can cast a cold eye on every hearse that passes by, because I’ve driven behind yours.
Just as the hearse turns around the corner this thing happens. The plastic bottle dislodges from the tap and a strong gush of water splashes onto the dog. Startled by the sudden cold shower, he breaks free. He can’t have been tied very tightly. Off he dashes, in the direction of the woman in the yellow anorak.
And he runs right under the second big limousine, the one which probably contains the more distant relatives who are nevertheless too important to come in their own cars. I see him, all the funeral followers on the side-lines see him. The only person who does not see him is the driver of the limousine. He is such a tiny dog, the size of a well-fed rat. Dogs aren’t allowed in the graveyard. The driver isn’t expecting one to run out in front of him.
How ghastly. First your husband, then your dog.
This had occurred to me, in connection with dogs. And cats. Their mortality. If I get a dog, as so many people advise, it will die sometime. And by the time it dies, I will have grown to love it, even though a dog is no substitute for a husband. I’d be bereaved all over again in a different way. An easier way. But bereavement is never easy.
The hearse glides slowly along the road to Saint Elizabeth’s. The first limousine turns the corner and follows it, and the second limousine turns too.
The driver still doesn’t realise he has just run over a widow’s dog.
No. It’s OK. The dog is OK.
The car passed over him and just left him behind like a jellyfish on the beach when the tide goes out. Alive, with no more than an expression of mild surprise on his narrow face. He scampers off over the graves towards the spot where the woman he loves, who has seen none of this, is busily engaged in a conversation with someone she loves but who doesn’t exist.
Animals don’t know what we humans know.
All the people standing by the side of the road, including me, laugh, some more heartily than others.
His lucky day, someone says.
A short pause. We savour the exquisite taste of profound relief and consider the observation.
Trite but true like most of the clichés. There’s quite a bit of luck involved, when it comes to the crunch, in matters of life and death.
I turn off the tap.
Then I kick the bottle and let the water spill over into the bed of crimson primroses, tulips the exact colour of dentures. I decide not to return to our grave. It’s pointless. Unless the brash senettia, the weary chrysanthemum, get some rain and manage to soak it up, nothing I can do will keep them alive.
The mourners shake themselves, remember why they’re here, and start to process sedately along the track that leads to St Elizabeth’s, the railway line, and the Irish Sea. The haze has burnt off now and the water sparkles, blue as silk close to land, and a deep dark indigo, like a firm line of ink, on the horizon.
You still can’t see Wales. But it is there, all right.
This story was first published in The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers (New Island), edited by Sinéad Gleeson.
Eílís Ní Dhuibhne writes in both Irish and English. Her short story collections include Blood and Water, Eating Women is Not Recommended, Midwife to the Fairies, The Inland Ice, The Pale Gold of Alaska and The Shelter of Neighbours. She received the Irish Pen Award for an Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2015.The novel The Dancers Dancing (Blackstaff Press, 2000) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her novel for young people, Aisling, was published in autumn 2015. Eílís worked for many years as an assistant keeper in the National Library of Ireland. She is now Writer Fellow in UCD (University College, Dublin) where she teaches on the MA in Creative Writing. She is a member of Aosdána and reviews books regularly for The Irish Times.