When my father died my mother worried that there would not be enough time to make the preparations for ”˜bringing him home.’ The significance of death is an impalpable thing at first – its gravity subsides temporarily when the necessity for funeral arrangements raises its head – and in my mother’s case this provided a respite before the festering trauma of bereavement set in. This is a passing thing of course, but I know she believed the requirements of the ritual to be so important she was thoroughly distracted from considering the implications of what had just happened. Even the most trivial of details occupied her attention. Moving a few bits and pieces out of the sitting room, so that we could wake my father, was foremost in her mind. The old escritoire and canterbury would certainly have to be moved she said. They were both ornate pieces of furniture and I suppose she thought such lavishness might be at odds with the doleful atmosphere of the wake. She was fully supported by Betty Sheridan in this and the two of them quickly fixed on the scullery as the most suitable place for storage. Betty was our nearest neighbour – a widow herself – whose husband had died some fifteen years before, and she was keen to recall the exact details of his funeral maintaining this would be useful under the circumstances. Never one to believe in half-measures, she was of the opinion that some of the things we were moving were old anyway; some, in fact, might be better not seeing the light of day again she suggested. My grandfather, however, was adamant that everything should be returned to its proper place afterwards.
”˜Nothing should be left in the scullery,’ he said to her bluntly. He’d often told me how he did not like Betty; he firmly believed she was little more than a loudmouth who’d sent her husband Cathal to an early grave.
”˜A bumptious old biddy, full of grandiose airs,’ he declared and, although I was young, I knew there was not much love lost between them.
The scullery was a small kitchen at the back of our house with a large straight-line sink for washing dishes. When my mother had first come to live in the house she’d provoked a fair deal of resentment in my grandfather because of her insistence on the need for redecoration. He protested this to my father on the quiet, but did not get anywhere with his objections. The scullery was the only room in the house which was not made over. My mother attached no importance to it whatsoever. To her it was bereft of function and purpose, and merited none of the alterations bestowed on the other rooms of the house – the olivaceous-coloured walls were passed over without the slightest thought of a fresh shade; likewise, the florid cornice along the ceiling which was not considered; she did not even entertain the notion of ripping out the tegular-patterned floor covering and replacing it with something more tasteful. The scullery could be used as a storeroom she said, as if her intention was to fill it with old gimcracks and discarded materials.
We spent the morning moving as many things as we could from the sitting room to the narrow space of the scullery. The china and glassware were the first things to go and, in spite of my age, I was entrusted with the task of shifting many delicate items, passing them over to the adults only when it became necessary to arrange them on the cream-coloured shelves behind the door. The old American yellowbacks on the other hand were less fragile and I was allowed to stack these haphazardly on the floor. Straightforward, with no-frills, they were the sort of novels whose titles virtually spilt the entire narrative before page one: Vengeance Trail, Circuits of Glory, Southpaw Slugger and The Silent Hero. I thought of my father. He’d died the night before in hospital and I still hadn’t seen him in death (the adults having ushered me from the room close to the end). Betty had brought me home and spent the journey talking about a doctrine called meliorism which she subscribed to fervently – something about making the world a better place through human effort which she was now apparently doing as she pushed the escritoire talking about her long-departed Cathal and the sickness that had taken him. I wondered if Cathal had been a silent hero too. Or if he’d just been silent.
My father had worked in the local meat factory, as well as on our farm, which meant that he spent a good deal of time out of our house. Some days passed with me barely seeing him at all. I remember I liked his face. It was kind and comforting. Careworn though too. My grandfather said he was foolish to be working himself to the bone like that, and in his absence I gravitated towards the older man. I first began to pay visits to the scullery when I discovered he went there regularly to smoke his Dunhill pipe. My mother objected to this ”˜filthy habit’ of his and the room served as a place for him to avoid her admonishments. On more than one occasion she told him she disapproved of me going there, claiming he encouraged it.
”˜He should be out with his school friends, or spending more time with his father,’ she said.
My grandfather would have none of this.
”˜For God sake Susie sure how can he when the man is out working so much?’ he said. ”˜When does he have a chance anyway? The early morning? The end of the day?’
He believed my father had taken on the job at the factory in order to pay for the considerable expenses brought about by the renovations to the house. He said the scullery was the only room that made sense anymore in spite of its cramped state. I took this to mean he attached some significance to the room; the location of an occurrence pertinent to his own life perhaps. Whether it was or not he never said, though he did tell me it was the only familiar thing left to him in the house, which I found hard to understand seeing as how my father was included in this solemn assertion of his.
Neither of my parents could understand why I went there so much. They thought it strange that I persisted when there were surely so many other things I could be doing. But I was a scrawny fellow with no real aptitude for games or sports and I much preferred to listen to my grandfather.
My mother assumed the old man was responsible for my apparent lethargy.
”˜Is it those silly stories he tells you?’ she enquired one time. ”˜Is that what’s taking you in there?’
She warned me my grandfather had become introspective in his old age.
”˜He doesn’t even talk properly to your father anymore,’ she said. I didn’t take any notice of this. Instead, I took it to be further evidence of my distinguished status in his eyes.
I couldn’t tell her I was worried about the old man; worried that he was going to die soon. She wouldn’t have understood me, wouldn’t have understood my concern over the way he talked about death, about all the people he’d known who were now passed on.
”˜It comes to us all lad,’ he said on an especially somber afternoon. The billowing cloud of smoke from his Dunhill pipe was heavier than usual and I reached for the casement window in order to open it wider. Sensing my anxiety he chuckled indolently, did his best to relieve it.
”˜I’m not going to expire on you here lad,’ he said, ”˜tis not the place for that. But it’s good to be honest about these things. Children should know the same as adults.’
He said he detested the ”˜double-talk’ people often employed when it came to this subject. Death was simply a fact of life, despite how harsh it might seem. I’d never been to a wake or a funeral, so he took it upon himself to tell me about it, sparing no detail. But he warned me we could only talk about such things in the scullery.
”˜Tell no one, not even your father or mother,’ he commanded and when we visited my grandmother’s grave in St. Colm’s cemetery I noticed him more forlorn in himself.
”˜When you know more of the dead than the living, you sometimes feel that bit sadder,’ he explained. ”˜Living long enough gets you that way lad.’
I asked him then how it felt to be his age. His reply was typically blither.
”˜The old grey mare,’ he said, ”˜he ain’t what he used to be.’
When my father became ill, however, he was less talkative about this and other matters. There were silences in the scullery then. He looked dispirited as if sensing we were all teetering on the edge of a steep drop. He told me my father would be home soon, but didn’t appear to believe this himself. When I asked him how sure of this he was, he didn’t answer. The subject was put aside like one of the discarded objects. We sat in the quiet of the scullery hoping that, like all other things there, it would gather dust and move out of sight. But there wasn’t enough time for this. There was scarcely any time at all.
We finished our work just after midday clearing a space for the coffin and chairs. My grandfather was in a fractious mood the whole time finding fault with everything, questioning every little detail. Betty Sheridan tried to humour him as best she could, but this did more harm than good especially when she told him to take it easy.
”˜I’m not going to sit down,’ he said, ”˜if I have to sit down, I have to think. And there’s too much of that to come yet. I’ll keep going as I am.’
The hearse arrived at our house after two by which time a number of people had come. The undertaker Eddie Clarke – Ned of the Dead as he was known – brought us into the room after a few minutes and we said the first rosary. Many of the neighbours said how well my father looked in death. My mother agreed with them but sobbed fitfully. My grandfather said nothing. He rubbed his hands and nodded vacantly as Eddie Clarke whispered to him.
”˜It comes to us all Peter…no one is exempt,’ I heard him say, but my grandfather did not reply. Instead, he just stared ahead. Directed his gaze to something else. Put his mind in another place.
After another rosary I wandered around the house. I was confused by all the strange talk I was hearing. The semantics of a wake are like a foreign language to a child. The condolatory platitudes and pallid euphemisms made no sense to me. How could he be in a better place? Why was this other place so good? Did it have tea and buns as well?
The conversations became that bit more circumspect when I entered rooms. Some of the more friendly ones patted me on the head and told me what a good boy I was. The more demure ones cast furtive glances in my direction. They seemed relieved when I moved on through.
In the kitchen the women were commending the efforts evident in the copious amounts of sandwiches and cakes. It was a fine spread I heard someone say. Another voice said something about the beautiful tablecloths.
”˜You helped Susie greatly in her hour of need,’ a woman said to Betty. They all listened attentively as Betty told them about her experience of loss and how it seemed never-ending.
”˜Susie isn’t even at the first stage yet,’ she said, trying to sound authoritative about it. ”˜Tis a long journey ahead from this day.’
A portly woman sitting in a corner chair nodded in agreement.
”˜Our modern age, hah,’ she said, ”˜every sort of pill and calorie-controlled diets and still it comes to this.’
”˜But God has his way I suppose.’
”˜God is good.’
I decided to look for my grandfather.
He was no longer in the sitting room with my mother. Father Johnson met me at the door, an uneasy look on his face, and suggested I might return to the kitchen for a short while.
”˜Get another sandwich or a slice of cake for yourself,’ he said, ”˜your mother is just a bit upset at the moment.’
I was tired of being asked to do things, but I obeyed anyway.
There were angry voices coming from the kitchen as I made my way back. One of them was my grandfather’s. The other was Betty’s.
”˜You’re entirely wrong about this Peter,’ she said loudly, ”˜you’re wrong about a great many things. You’re a bitter old man and this is a demonstration of that.’
The kitchen door opened all at once and my grandfather emerged with an irate look on his face.
Betty’s voice followed after him.
”˜This is poor form on your part Peter,’ she said, ”˜the woman has just lost her husband. You should understand that. It’s no time for blame.’
The door swung shut gradually, and I heard her final remark to the others.
”˜He’s blaming Susie for it,’ she said.
I looked for him afterwards, but could not see where he’d gone. The rooms of the house were jam-packed – more nameless faces with cloying smiles – so I decided to try his own room. I wanted to ask him what Betty meant. Why was he blaming my mother? What did he hold her responsible for?
He wasn’t there.
Eddie Clarke was leaving as I came back downstairs. He told me he’d last seen him in the sitting room.
”˜He’s a little sad like your mother,’ he said, ”˜best maybe to leave him alone for the moment. You’re a good lad and he thinks the world of you, but sometimes people need their bit of space.’
I went then to the scullery.
He was there. He’d managed somehow to make a passageway to the old escritoire, and there he sat, smoking his Dunhill pipe.
”˜You’re a good lad,’ he said also when he saw me come in, ”˜I’ll be alright in a few minutes.’
He began tracing the ornate outlines of the intagliated wood.
”˜Is there something wrong between you and Mammy?’ I asked.
His eyes avoided mine.
”˜I’ll be alright in a few minutes,’ he repeated, this time more tersely, and I knew then it was pointless to ask. He wouldn’t tell me the truth. He wouldn’t speak of it.
Outside, the rain that had been falling had stopped. The sun was coming out in a sporadic autumnal-like burst. The china and glassware and other knick-knacks in the scullery shimmered in the light. My grandfather’s tears glistened as well. They appeared like jagged fragments of glass on his face. He wiped them away quickly. They were done with. He didn’t want me to see them again.
His pipe went out, so I opened the window to fan the last vestiges of smoke away. He told me again what a good lad I was. I was the very best lad he said. He was glad we still had the scullery to ourselves.
That’s really lovely, I admire your honesty!