The Translator’s Funeral, a new short story by Rónán Hession
Part of the New Irish Writing series
The postman walked from the town up the road to the crest of the hill, past the sign for eggs and on to the house of the writer and her wife, the translator. He needed her to sign for a package, a box it was. It was hay fever season and his scalp sweated under his hat. Finding them both lying in the garden, dead, he walked back down the hill towards town to the doctor’s house, anticipating confusion when he arrived with a package that was not for the doctor.
Walking back up the hill, the doctor seemed grumpy, which she was, as her young child had not slept well that night, hay fever making the boy congested. She had also recently discovered that she didn’t like her patients because they talked too much. The postman, who was often in the role of initiating small talk as part of his work, mentioned that the doctor must surely have been confused when he arrived with a package for someone else. The doctor ignored this and squinted in the sun. The postman said that wasn’t it funny how they both carried bags as part of their jobs.
At the house the postman said that he had pronounced them dead as soon as he saw them. The doctor said it was her job to pronounce them dead. She then pronounced them dead in a manner of speaking. One died of natural causes, the other of a broken heart she said, though more to herself than to the postman whom she must have known was keen to hear the details. The postman wondered which was which and also what exactly was meant by natural causes and death by a broken heart.
The priest woke at seven o’clock each morning and made himself coffee, and then sat up in bed and read books of all sorts until nine o’clock when he started his day’s work. This was so that, whatever happened, he would have some portion of the day to himself. As a rule he never answered the door or the phone or otherwise engaged with the world until he had had his coffee and reading time. But this day, for whatever reason, he did answer the phone and entered the details of the date and time for the funerals of the writer and her wife, the translator, in the funeral book. His bare feet were cold when he returned to his bed and his book.
The funeral book was a hardbound red diary with one page for each date. Trivia of note were printed in italics at the top of each page, for example the dates that certain wars had ended or useful seasonal reminders about clocks going forward and back, though not forwards and backwards, as the priest liked to joke twice a year. It was a quality volume though not protected from the human errors that might be entered in it. The priest, distracted by the coffee that was cooling upstairs and the chapter ending that had been interrupted, wrote in the book that the funerals of the writer and her wife, the translator, were to take place at the same time on the same day. This was unheard of.
Around town, people had begun to learn of the death of the writer and her wife, the translator. They heard that one had died of natural causes and the other of a broken heart. It says a lot that everyone who heard the news assumed that the writer had died of natural causes and the translator of a broken heart, so used were they to viewing one as the primary member of the relationship and the other as an adjunct.
The postman, on telling people the news, had used the phrase “natural causes” though added his own thought that this meant a heart attack. This led to the hairdresser, the tyre fitter, the man walking for exercise, and the lollipop lady all thinking that the information about the heart attack had come from the doctor, so they passed on the story as death by heart attack, without mentioning natural causes. It also sounded right that one person would die of a heart attack and the other of a broken heart. People generally believe in symmetry.
Later in the morning the postman began to wonder about whether his reporting was actually faithful to the facts, or whether he was at fault. It was his job to deliver letters and parcels without adding to or taking from them, and surely it was expected of him to do the same with the news he relayed. On ethical grounds he went back to saying that the death had been from natural causes without speculating about what that meant.
Of course, you can’t stop people speculating for themselves. The civil servant, the stenographer and the guide dog trainer all inferred, without prompting, that natural causes meant a heart attack. The teacher, the bricklayer, the teahouse owner and the joiner took a different interpretation: they understood natural causes as a sudden stroke. It’s worth mentioning that they all knew people who had died by stroke so they naturally brought this personal insight to the situation. Only the antique shop owner guessed an aneurism. The chemist and the unemployed man accepted the language of natural causes and didn’t speculate about what that meant, at least not out loud, though both remarked on the doctor’s unscientific choice of words.
While most people in the town had heard the phrase “dying of a broken heart” before, they thought it quite old fashioned and general. But having heard that the doctor had used it, pronounced it in fact, they supposed they had underestimated its scientific basis. That said, they still surmised that it meant a heart attack, a stroke or an aneurism. The postman had discovered over the years that you learned a lot about people if you asked everyone the same question and compared their answers.
The priest was mortified by his error, which he admitted, but also by the negligence he had shown by placing his morning comforts before his clerical duties. It surprised everyone that he could make such a mistake, and it pained him to be seen by others as incompetent. If only he could scratch out and re-enter the funeral details; but this would only compound the problem, as the funeral book lay open in the reception area beside the telephone – for obvious reasons – and was read by everyone, including those with no specific cause, who indulged their curiosity while on the phone. Scratching it out would simply draw attention to the error for all time. It would also invite precedential malice as parishioners would inevitably ask the priest to scratch out other arrangements in order to secure a better slot for their own families.
The only person delighted by all this was the young boy who turned the pages for the organist. He liked looking at her long fingers and turning the pages for her as she played. He felt shame about his love for her, though was excited to be able to turn her pages again at the forthcoming funerals where she would surely play the pieces he liked best at the small stand-up organ. He felt further shame that he was looking forward to the funerals, which would be sad occasions for so many. The shame also felt a little nice, which confused and interested him.
The priest’s error was without precedent, as was the situation of a double funeral. Some said it was uncharted waters, others said unchartered waters. The vacuum between problem and solution made gossips of the whole town as each person offered wild speculation about how the problem could, should or would be solved. Some suggested a double funeral, others two short funerals; one or two speculated whether, as artistic types, the writer and her wife, the translator, were church goers at all; someone asked about using a second church. One woman spoke sense and said they should consult The Doing of Acts and the Determination of Questions.
The town was a town in the sense that it had a charter and a coat of arms and a motto (“Nullius in Verba” – take nobody’s word for it) but it had no town council or decision-making authority of its own. Instead the denizens had come to rely on a thick volume of rules, ordinances and wisdoms known officially as The Doing of Acts and the Determination of Questions. It was kept at the library and consulted on all disputed matters of consequence. Its legal status was unclear but its thickness spoke for itself. The section on Civil Registration: Births, Deaths, Marriages and Related Life Events was especially detailed, given that it applied to everybody. Schedule VI, Part 9, Sections 2-4 dealt with double christenings (for twins), double weddings (for reasons of economy within families) and double divorces (out with the old in with the new) but was silent on the question of double funerals. Silence is neither opposition nor consent, said the librarian. Looks like we have a lacuna said the woman who had spoken sense.
The priest had entered a deep depression. His mistake made him feel like a figure of pity and damaged his sense of leadership. He could only restore his standing, he reasoned, by writing a moving and wise sermon for the funeral, or funerals. In it he would put something about how the saints were not models of perfection, but of redemption. Of course, it wouldn’t be about himself, but the wider message would surely resonate. To err is not only human but saintly. As a learned man he thought it wise to draw on the work of the deceased, books he had never read. The writer, being foreign, wrote in her mother tongue, so it was the work of her wife, the translator, that he read. He skipped over the descriptions and interior monologues, and found a nice paragraph that sounded good but which could have been about anything. He marked the page with a train ticket and carried on writing the rest of his sermon.
The boy who turned pages for the organist had been asked by the priest to deliver to her a note asking that she make herself available for one or possibly two funerals. When she answered the door it was clear that she had not heard the awful news about the writer and her wife, the translator, nor about the natural causes and the dying of a broken heart, nor about the lacuna. She became upset, which pained the heart of the boy. He passed her his clean tissue only to realise too late that it had marbles wrapped in it. It surprised her when they fell out and rolled down the driveway, making her smile. He thought she looked so beautiful when she switched from crying to smiling like that, and he admired her long fingers as she blew her noise fully.
The postman usually finished his shift early and, on days like these, enjoyed a tumbler of lemonade while sitting outside the tea shop. Though he sat alone he shared conversation with those around him; after all, everyone was talking about the same thing. If there were to be two funerals, he said, he wasn’t sure which one he should go to. The chemist said he would go to the writer’s as she was a great artist and in future people would come to the town because of her books. The guide dog trainer said yes, but it was the translator’s words they had all read. The tyre fitter said that translators just looked up words but the hairdresser said that no, there was more to it than that. The woman who spoke common sense said to ask the town drunk as he was the only one who spoke both languages.
Led by the postman, they finished their lemonades and went off to find the town drunk. They discovered him sleeping near the fountain. Some schoolchildren were taking turns aiming berries at his open mouth. His face was red and sunburned. They waited a while, unsure about whether to wake him or not. Then, having agreed that they should stop him getting heat stroke, they shook him by the shoulder and stood back. At first he was defensive, but when he heard their question about the writer and her wife, the translator, he became contemplative. His view was that the writer and translator could not be considered individually. It would be like hearing a piece of music and trying to listen to the piano player and the piano separately, he said. They began asking him whose funeral he would go to, but the town drunk had already fallen back asleep.
There was a town meeting that evening. The young boy who turned the organist’s pages waited outside hoping that they would decide to hold at least one funeral. At the meeting, the priest explained the facts and circumstances, pointing out that the issues arose because of a lacuna in The Doing of Acts and the Determination of Questions. Several suggestions had been made about how to proceed but so far the issue remained unresolved, he summarised, and so the purpose of the meeting was to consider the alternatives. The floor was opened. After an initial silence, various townspeople began putting forth their theories and preferences, and then the people who hadn’t spoken started feeling left out and stood up to say that they agreed with the general thrust of what was being said. There was a period where the priest conferred with the others on the dais – the doctor and the librarian – while the room murmured. The chatter was broken by the postman standing up. Given his early involvement in the situation people were keen to hear his perspective. He stepped from foot to foot and twisted his hat. Some people observed to their neighbours that he looked balder than they remembered. He said, in a roundabout way, that he had sometimes heard that it was not possible to consider a writer separately from their translator and that, if people could picture for a moment, it was like trying to listen to the pianist and piano separately in a piece of music.
Something expressed beautifully often seems true and so the town was persuaded. The image had unlocked something in the room. The antique dealer said that hadn’t the writer and her wife, the translator, shared a house together. The lollipop lady went further and said that wasn’t it a reasonable assumption that they also shared a bed together. (The boy who turned the organist’s pages was on his tiptoes outside, listening through the open window, excited by what might come next, and a little ashamed in that way he liked.) The priest, not wishing for the analogy to become ever more intimate, said that they had indeed shared their lives together, and were recognised in union by God.
And so it was decided. The next morning the writer and her wife, the translator, were placed in the same coffin, facing one another, their noses touching, their fingers entwined. At the funeral, the priest read from a translated volume, the words of which combined the inseparable arts of the writer and her wife, the translator. Organ music filled the silences, though the boy almost missed his cue several times as he watched the organist’s long fingers command the keys.
Hay fever season continued and the postman sweated under his cap. He seldom passed the sign for eggs as the house of the writer and her wife, the translator, lay empty. It troubled him that their package, a box, remained undelivered though he often sat in the sun with a tumbler of lemonade and speculated with his neighbours what the package might contain and what might be done with it.
Rónán Hession is the author of Leonard & Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books), which has been shortlisted for several major awards. His second novel, Panenka, is due out next year