Today is the day of the dead. Time to make a festive altar in my home. Or not

Hilary Fannin: I think about buying flowers and leaving out bread and wine for all my thirsty old ghosts

On the day of the dead, candles are burnt in colourful glass globes next to vases of yellow marigolds, to light the journeys of the deceased to the next world. Photograph:  Agustin Paullier/AFP/Getty Images

On the day of the dead, candles are burnt in colourful glass globes next to vases of yellow marigolds, to light the journeys of the deceased to the next world. Photograph: Agustin Paullier/AFP/Getty Images

 

November 1st: the day of the dead, día de muertos. In Mexico it’s a holiday, a day of celebration, when living family members treat the dead as honoured guests in their homes. It’s a day to leave the deceased’s favourite foods and other offerings on altars strung with pink and yellow flags, adorned with photographs and trinkets, with memories of a life. 

On the day of the dead, candles are burnt in colourful glass globes next to vases of yellow marigolds, to light the journeys of the deceased to the next world. Salt and food and water are left out to sustain them on their travels to that unknowable destination. 

Every year I promise myself that I too will make a festive altar for the dead in my suburban home. I think about setting out tea lights and buying flowers and leaving out bread and wine for all my thirsty old ghosts, but every year the day passes and my home remains unilluminated.  

The morning was sharp and cold; the thin room where we waited, under dim bulbs, felt bleak

I had cause to take a mid-morning train to Belfast recently. I stood with my fellow passengers in an area off a platform in Connolly Station, waiting to board. The morning was sharp and cold; the thin room where we waited, under dim bulbs, felt bleak. Men and women, mainly older, bundled up in their winter coats, hunched together by the barrier in a rough knot, waiting for permission to board.

 I’d booked a seat, but by the time I found it the carriage was full and there was a group of animated older people all sitting together where I should’ve been, and sandwiches were already being unpacked and flasks unscrewed, and it didn’t matter anyway, it didn’t matter at all, and so I moved on down the carriage and asked an elderly gentleman if I could sit at his otherwise empty table.  

The train moved out of Connolly and beyond the labyrinthine streets of East Wall where I once lived, decades ago, before the high-rises, before young professionals in skinny suits ascended the glass giants, in silent elevators, to buy and sell and insure and actuate.

 We – the boy I lived with and I – were young, renting in a crescent of solid family houses. Without curtains, or money to buy any, we pinned an Indian scarf across the windows, and the neighbouring children knocked on our door to ask us if we were in a band. 

The clouds that hung over the northern suburbs lifted, and as the train travelled along the coast beyond Rush and Lusk, my travelling companion across the table began to tell me about his life. 

He told me about his years doing engineering work in tobacco factories in Drogheda and Bristol. He told me about missing his young family when he was on the road and how he’d work 12-hour shifts to make the time go faster. He told me about the kindness of the two sisters who ran his digs in Bristol, how they’d left sandwiches and a bottle of beer for him when he’d come back from his shift. He told me about leaving that work as his family grew and finding a job locally to support them. 

They had stood at an airport in America and decided, there and then, to circumnavigate the globe, to take the long road home

He talked about his children, now adult; how one of his sons had lived in China, another in America; how, in more recent years, he and his wife would travel to see them. He told me about a 12,000km train journey he and his wife did together across China to visit their son, and all the sights they saw. And they loved to be on the move together, he told me; free, happy. 

Once, he confided, they had stood at an airport in America and decided, there and then, to circumnavigate the globe, to take the long road home. 

He’d met her on a dancefloor, he said, in the Boom Boom Rooms in Belfast, or maybe it was the Orpheus. She could jive, and so could he; great jivers, the pair of them. They’d loved to dance, he told me. 

“Just an ordinary factory girl,” he said, looking out the window at the winter sun on the water.  “A wonderful dancer.” 

The train slowed as we came into Drogheda. 

“It hasn’t been much longer than a year now,” he said.

He stood, and we shook hands. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” I said. 

“I visit her grave once a fortnight,” he told me. “It gets me out of the house anyway. And I like to travel, and I love the train. I’ve always loved the train.”

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