Turlough’s Dream, a short story by Louise Hall
12 Tales for Christmas – Day 7: an unusual take on an Irish wake
There isn’t an ounce of truth in it, is there Mairead? And you noddin’ your head in agreement with them. It’s no wonder she won’t come in.
‘Sure doesn’t he look well, God rest him,’ they’re rabbiting on. And there’s me all waxy an’ sunken an’ swallowed beneath my best pinstripe blue shirt, the one with the pocket on the left breast which for years housed nothing but Half Coronas and fine blue Bic pens.
And God love you, you’re meetin’ an’ greetin’ an’ sobbin’ an’ smilin’, and if I’d had a slither of power in my weightless limbs, I’d stretch out my bony fingers, just enough to stem the current that powers the shaking in your shoulders.
‘He would have loved this,’ you’re saying to Myles McNulty. ‘I keep expecting him to sit up in the coffin and join in.’
And you’re inhaling deeply and graspin’ at that miraculous medal that dangles close to your chest.
I don’t know what in God’s name you’ve let them do to my eyebrows. They’re all arched and startled, just like the way the young ones do wear them. And I swear there’s been a bit of pluckin’ or tweezin’ in other places as well. I just don’t look myself. But then again, they did the best they could with a savaged body.
I swear that Myles McNulty fella was a cat in his former life. Nine lives, he must have, and him with a good 10 years on me, if not more. I’ll give him another five minutes, Mairead, until he starts with the story about him drivin’ home three sheets to the wind, and gettin’ caught in the glare of the lights from the artic rigid. And him swerving off the road and into the lake. And oh, how he sat there for a bit while he gathered his thoughts as the water rose higher and the car sank lower.
Hang on now, here it is.
‘I tell you Mairead, the worst thing you can do in a situation like that, is panic. So, I said a quick Our Father, lit up a cigarette, rolled down the window, and waited until the car filled with water. Then I took a deep breath, climbed out and swam to the bank before meeting some drunken fool who asked what in God’s name was I doing skinny dipping on a bitter night like this.’
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Myles,’ you’re saying and blessing yourself, ‘weren’t you lucky you came out of it alive all the same. God protect us.’
I’d make a run for it now Mairead, before he starts on about the time in the Seventies when he was stopped at the Belfast border and they found two hunting rifles and a load of cash in the boot of his car. You’ll be there all night if he does, and they’re coming in through the house hard an’ heavy now, fair play to them. You’ve your work cut out for you tonight.
I didn’t know so many people cared.
Were there as many here for Rebecca’s wake, Mairead?
Can you believe it’s 10 years?
How did we ever get through that?
Who broke the rules and said your child has to die before you?
In your arms.
With all the help in the world around her but nothin’ able to bring her back.
Medics an’ nurses an’ machines an’ such.
And not one of them capable of kick startin’ her heart after it sounded its final beat.
But we got through it Mairead.
You go on out there to the kitchen and get yourself a brandy. There’s enough people in here to keep me company for a while. Sure half of them, I haven’t seen in donkeys. Then there’s the few that owe me a few bob. They needn’t think they’re getting off lightly now. By God if they do, I’ll haunt them. I didn’t build up that business from scratch so some smart arses who have grander notions of themselves could feign amnesia when it comes to overdue debts. If it’s one thing I made sure of before this day came, it was that I didn’t owe a cent to no one. The bad times were there for too long Mairead, but by God I traded through them, cuttin’ the cloth to fit the measure. Pity the same couldn’t be said for others. But then again, their conscience is none of my business. It’s only mine I have to worry about.
Dear God woman, you’re back in again. Do you ever sit easy? Didn’t I tell you to grab yourself a drink? You’ll be worn out before the day has even begun tomorrow.
Ah but Mairead, there’s no talkin’ to you sometimes. A woman with her own mind if ever I met one. And I won’t get into an argument now about it, but I told you it would be too much for you in the end. I never wanted to be a bother to anyone. You’re a terrible woman for insisting on things. By God there were days when I didn’t know if I was awake or if I was dreaming. Yet, you were always there.
An ethereal presence; lithe but strong.
Is it still a dream Mairead?
‘I wanted to bring him home to care for him,’ you’re saying to Jim Flaherty. And him towering over you like the BFG. He still has his work gear on him but it looks like he’s managed to wash the dirt out from beneath his nails for once. He’s looking well for his 78 years, and him up before the birds every morning in the mountains of Wicklow, tinkering away at machinery that has seen better days. Sure, it keeps him young, he told me.
Oh to be kept young.
‘But he was just so sick at the end, Jim, so very, very sick….’
I don’t want you to say it, Mairead.
Please. Just remember it how it was. How it always was.
‘The cancer just ate him away, His body was ravaged. And he hadn’t an ounce of fat on him. He was always so strong. It’s so hard to see someone you love waste away like that…’
Don’t cry, my love.
I’m right here.
‘If I could have taken his illness on Jim, I would have done so…’
I wouldn’t have wanted that in a million years Mairead.
‘And he had been through so much. From the first diagnosis, to losing Rebecca, to all his operations and chemo and radiation. And he never once complained, Jim. He was in work only four weeks ago. He never once let anyone know he was in pain. Not ever.’
‘He was a great man,’ Jim Flaherty is saying through a croaked voice, ‘A gentleman.’
‘I did the best I could for him at home.’
‘I’ve no doubt you did, Mairead.’
‘It’s just…it’s just...it’s just towards the end, he was so sick…’
You won’t tell him.
I know you won’t.
It’s too hard to explain to people unless they’re the one lying there dying themselves.
And I knew I was dying, Mairead.
Long before I admitted it to you.
‘It’s just he always bounced back when he was sick, Jim. He always got back to his old self and his routine. I guess I was just waiting for that to happen this time.’
It’s amazing the things you hear and the things you choose not to hear from doctors. They always told me it was my ‘attitude’ that got me so far. But there comes a time when the punches reign in, and they just come down too hard an’ heavy.
‘But there was nothing more they could do for him, Jim. He was riddled with it.’
Then you touch his arm lightly and thank him for coming.
And so it stays between us and us only.
I didn’t ever want to upset you Mairead, but I had had enough. And hand on my heart, it was the truth when I said that if they had an injection they could give me there and then, I would have taken it.
I was ready to die.
I just needed you to accept it.
Would you look who it is now, Mairead? Well he’s a sight for sore eyes. Looks like he hasn’t had a wink of sleep, let alone a shave in days. Seems like yesterday when he was only a 16-year-old whipper-snapper who the teachers said was more street wise than academic. But he’d be good with his hands, and he’s not afraid of a bit of hard work, they said. Sure that was good enough for me. Thirty years later and he’s the still the best grafter I have.
‘Will you do a prayer of the faithful, Cathal?’
And poor Cathal is rootin’ in his pockets as if the answer is buried deep inside them and he’s tryin’ to pull it out.
‘I can’t Mairead, I’m sorry,’ he is saying, ‘I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.’
I could have told you that. Ask him to do something else. Something that doesn’t involve readin’ or talkin’. Can you not see the poor fella is shook enough as it is.
‘Would you bring up the gifts?’
Cathal is diggin’ deeper into those pockets and shakin’ his head.
‘I’d be afraid I’d let them fall.’
Come on Mairead, something else, and quick before the poor fella turns and runs.
‘What about the coffin, Cathal?’
‘What about the coffin, Mairead?’
For the love of God…
‘Would you like to carry the coffin, Cathal?
And all of a sudden the hands come out of the pockets and he’s puttin’ them out to hold yours.
‘I’d be honoured to, Mairead.’
Right, we’re sorted then.
Have we enough drink in, Mairead?
There’s awful draught coming in from somewhere.
‘Close that door, Sinead,’ you’re saying to our eldest, ‘the smokers are all out in the back garden. It’s blowing in towards your dad and there’s an awful bite in the air tonight.’
I’ll pretend I didn’t see that Sinead. If you rolled your eyes any further they’d get stuck in the back of your head. And by God, it was a soft day today, with a mist hanging over Howth Head like a halo that has lost its lustre.
‘Will you run down and get more tins of Heineken. I thought they’d all be on the Guinness but no one’s touched the trays I got in.’
‘I will mam,’ Sinead is saying, ‘Are you doing ok yourself?’
‘Ah…you know,’ and you’re shruggin’ your shoulders, ‘doesn’t he look well, Sinead?’
‘He does mam. He does.’
Ya pair of big liars.
Have you seen young Laura yet, Mairead? I think everyone’s been in bar her.
‘Where are the kids, Sinead?’
‘They’re around mam. Somewhere. Laura’s a bit out of sorts. She said she doesn’t want to come in just yet.’
‘Give her time, love. It’s an awful lot to take in. Sure they were so close.’
And I know that if she just came in and bent down and touched my forehead with a kiss, then she’d never have a bad dream again in her life. Isn’t that what my mother taught us as kids.
I don’t know about you Mairead, but I’m exhausted. I’ve filtered through more familiar faces tonight than I’d have ever imagined possible. Isn’t it grand that so many people took the time. And did it ease the burden at all for you, Mairead? Cause all I ever want is for you to be happy. If you’re happy, I’m happy.
‘Are they all starting to leave, Sinead?’
‘One by one mam. We’ve a long day tomorrow.’
‘I still can’t believe this is happening.’
And you’re holding on to that miraculous medal as though it possesses some magical strength.
‘I know mam. I know.’
There’s a candle burning and it’s casting dancing shadows up the wall. In the corner, someone starts to chant a hymn I’ve never heard before. But it’s grand Mairead. Isn’t it just grand.
Will you stay here for a bit, when they’ve all gone home to rest their weary minds? Sure it can’t be easy to see a dead man eaten and torn and unrecognisable but for his pinstripe blue shirt, the one with the pocket on the left breast which for years housed nothing but Half Coronas an’ fine blue Bic pens. And we’ll sit and we’ll talk and we’ll tell tales of old. About a life of hope, a life of loss, a life of unconditional love. Sure haven’t I had a grand life, Mairead? Both of us have. And don’t you always say, that its part of life. Dying, that is.
‘Goodnight Mairead,’ Eithne Roche is saying, ‘He looks well, God rest him.’
‘He does, doesn’t he,’ you reply.
So go on now, and get Sinead to pour yourself a brandy.
We’ll sit and talk a bit more, when they’ve all gone. Then we’ll blow out the candles and head up to bed. Sure, we’ve a long day ahead of us tomorrow Mairead. A long day indeed.
Has the young one come in yet, Mairead?
‘Laura. You’re here. Come on over and see your grandad.’
And my heart is breaking.
Tell her I’m still here, Mairead. That I’m really not gone.
‘Go on, Laura love. Don’t be afraid. Touch his forehead. Kiss it if you will.’
And I swear I can hear the sound of her own young soul splintering.
‘Goodnight grandad,’ she manages to say. And then she’s gone, just like a fleeting Irish summer.
Out you go to turn on the lights that illuminate the back garden.
‘Isn’t it fine, Turlough,’ you’re saying to me.
It is Mairead.
‘You don’t look anything like yourself, I have to say.’
Sure I’ve been tellin’ you that all night.
You’re kicking off your little patent high heels and throwing your legs up on the sofa that stretches the length of the oak coffin.
Stay with me Mairead.
‘I’ll stay with you for the night.’
Stay with me all day tomorrow too.
‘We’ll give you a good send-off tomorrow.’
Stay with me forever Mairead.
‘Stay with me forever Turlough.’
The silence is tender. Fulfilling.
‘I’ll get your navy Gillet out and ask the undertakers to put it on you tomorrow. Then you might look a bit more like yourself.’
I’d like that Mairead.
That would be fine.
And the air is sweet like cinnamon.
Tepid like a rock pool in summer.
Calming like an untouched lake.
Laura appears at the door with a bundle of navy wool held up to her face, and her eyes are raw and brimming.
‘I found Grandad’s Gillet upstairs. I can still smell him on it.’
And you both shake it out and place it over my chest just as Sinead walks in.
A blue Gillet, two shades darker than the stripe in my shirt, and my loves, my world all gathered around me.
‘Doesn’t he look well, Laura,’ you’re asking her.
‘He does,’ she smiles, her eyes now glistening.
And I look well.
I feel well.