Kevin Doyle’s short stories can be found in publications such as The Cúirt Journal, Stinging Fly, Penduline, Burning Bush, Cork Literary Review, Lib Lit, Sunday Tribune, Burning Bush and Duality. A short collection, Do You Like Oranges?, about Garda brutality in Ireland in the 1980s was recently published in eBook format.
We Should Be Beyond This
There was a field with a small stream beside the cemetery. ‘Look Molly,’ I said to my eldest holding her hand, ‘there are frogs. It’s their time of year. Near the reeds. Take Liam for a look but don’t torment them. But don’t come back for a while either.’
Molly stared at me. She was eight, her brother six and they were as alike as twins; a late blessing for my wife and I. She looked unsure, my tone sterner than she was used to. ‘Go on, scram,’ I said raising my voice just a little. I watched them run off hand-in-hand.
My mother was getting herself upright, a laborious affair. She groaned and I watched as clay fell from her shoulders and arms. She picked at a lump lodged in her eye socket and then felt her skull as if to check that it was still there.
‘Are they gone?’
‘For a while,’ I said.
She looked around. Headstones peeled away in long lines in both directions. There were rows and rows, perfectly distanced from each other like terracing on a sloping hill. This morning St Oliver’s was quiet and I had come with that expectation. Near a solitary oak in the middle of the cemetery I saw just one other visitor.
‘It’s been very wet,’ complained my mother. ‘But the drainage was never any good here anyway. I told him, you know.’ She looked down at the space beside her. ‘But he never listened.’
I took my mother’s free hand and picked at the earth on her fingers. I had forgotten how cold the dead become and her bony hand was like ice. I set it down again.
She cocked her head at me. ‘You look worn out.’
‘I am,’ I said.
‘There is something I’ve come to tell you.’
There was sudden movement in the grave next to my parents. Mrs Sullivan jerked upwards unsuccessfully. She tried again and managed to lever herself onto one arm. Mrs Sullivan was a country woman and it was a mystery to us as to why she had been buried near the city away from her people; it meant that she received very few visitors. Whenever I arrived she almost always got involved too.
‘Is it your boy?’ we heard her ask.
‘It is,’ Ma replied.
‘Well, did you ask him?’
‘I’m only risen woman,’ snapped my mother.
‘Ask him then,’ said Mrs Sullivan urgently.
I looked quizzically at my mother. She shrugged and the bones in her neck made a disconcerting, clicking noise. But I could see she was annoyed too. Mrs Sullivan always butted in. It was difficult to get a private moment and a private moment was what I needed on this difficult occasion. I wondered should I come right out with it.
‘Everyone’s talking about it,’ said Mrs Sullivan finally straightening upright. She was a petite, slight woman with an anvil-shaped skull. Death had done her appearance no favours.
‘No they’re not,’ said my mother. To me she said, ‘Don’t listen to her.’
Mrs Sullivan called to my father who was still, apparently, unaware of my arrival. But you could never tell with my father. He didn’t like Mrs Sullivan and sometimes he just liked to lay still and listen.
‘Aren’t they Tim?’ called out Mrs Sullivan again. ‘Tim, Tim?’
‘What this all about?’ I whispered.
‘Bloody gossip, that’s all.’
I heard a weary groan from the position beside my mother’s. I waited but my father didn’t emerge. My mother’s cold finger touched my arm.
‘Now that you’re here, take a look at this.’
She handed me a folded sheet of paper. As she did, she poked down into the earth beside her violently and I heard my father yelp.
I unfolded the page. It was a letter from the Council, from The Cemeteries Department, on officially headed notepaper. ‘Dear Esteemed Occupant ...’ it began ominously.
‘What are things coming to?’ said my mother. She drew nearer and I got the smell of the earth. I gardened a little so I was familiar with soil. But the cemetery earth was more intense and sometimes unpleasant, from the surfeit of nutrients I supposed.
Drawing away I read the letter. It was a directive and it declared that the City Council was rescinding all previous arrangements between the Cemeteries Department and its occupants. Effective immediately. Further to this, it stated bluntly, it was cutting the plot size available to all occupants by 25% unilaterally. Everyone would be required to move immediately; specific instructions would be given shortly to each plot on which direction to take; headstone re-alignment would be at the occupant’s own expense. In sum the letter concluded that the cemetery was being downsized to facilitate savings for the Council. These would accrue naturally from the reduction in the Council’s liabilities in terms of cemetery square acreage, which in turn would allow for a reduction in staff numbers, which would in turn allow for budgetary targets to be met. The final section of the letter noted that the Council was now acting on the instructions of central government who were in turn acting under the direction of the Troika.
‘What is a Troika?’ asked my mother.
I explained quickly about the financial crash, Anglo-Irish Bank and the demise of the State’s finances. The deluge of information silenced my mother.
Bad timing, I thought, looking at the directive again. What should I do? I needed to tell my own news. But the bloody council had got in ahead of me.
‘We have to make a stand,’ said my mother. ‘We’re interred here with certain rights. Agreements have been entered into. Isn’t that so Donal?’
I nodded my head like a zombie. I felt beleaguered—with my plight, with what was happening around, with my own worries for the future. What future did we have now?
‘We should march on City Hall,’ announced my mother. ‘That’s what I’ve been saying. Let’s make a stand.’ She raised her voice even higher. ‘Could City Hall hold out against us? Against all of us, I mean, the interred? Together, united, marching down Patrick Street? I don’t think so. All it takes...’
She suddenly stopped mid-sentence and, with venom, poked down into the earth beside her once more.
‘It’s Donal,’ she hissed. ‘He’s here. Get up man.’
Suddenly my father began to emerge. A knee stuck up through the earth and was followed by his two hands. I watched him wrestle into a sitting position but it was a real struggle. Eventually I lunged over and took hold of him by his rib cage to stop him falling backwards. Precariously balanced, he looked at me and for a moment I wondered if he recognised his son. Apparently memory lapse was common in the cemetery.
‘The entire situation is a bloody disgrace,’ he said in a low muffled growl.
‘Timmy, Timmy,’ chimed Mrs Sullivan, suddenly alert once more. ‘Isn’t it true? Isn’t everyone talking about that man?’
My mother shook her head bitterly and spat, ‘That woman.’ My father reached out and took my hand.
‘I want you to see about getting me and your mother into a new abode. This place is cramped but with this new arrangement that the Council are proposing... I mean it’s not good enough.’ He nodded towards Mrs Sullivan. ‘And she’s a pest.’
I heard a distant shout and looked up. The children, I realised. I looked over at the field afraid that they were already on their way back. But Molly and Liam were still far away, playing at being planes, running in circles with their arms outstretched. It sobered me though. Children play one minute and come running the next. I didn’t have much time.
‘Mother?’ I said.
I thought about how I should phrase my news. I had practiced saying it at home to Eve first and then to the mirror, but the exact words deserted me now.
Suddenly Mrs Sullivan interrupted. ‘Ask him or I will?’
I glared at her. ‘Ask me what?’
‘They said that a fella took out his whistle on a plane and did the business with it, in broad daylight. Is it true or false?’
I was startled but I wondered also how she had heard. The apparently true rumour had only just made the local news: a celebrity had exposed himself on a flight from Manchester. A woman, a total stranger, had been sitting in the seat beside him and made a complaint.
‘Well?’ persisted Mrs Sullivan. ‘Is it true?’
I felt suddenly embattled and looked at my mother for direction. But I realised that she was also interested in my reply. I nodded. ‘It’s true.’
Murmurs immediately passed around and through the cemetery. It was like a sudden gust of wind it was so intense.
My mother moaned, ‘That’s all they’re interested in. Gossip and gossiping. Their homes are being slashed under them and what do they do about it. Gossip, gossip, gossip. About some bloody pervert too.’
Mrs Sullivan was repeatedly blessing herself; quite a performance and one I would’ve enjoyed but for the occasion. She declared triumphantly, ‘I said it was true.’
‘It’s very hard to believe though, isn’t it,’ observed my father.
‘Men are capable of anything,’ said my mother glaring at him.
‘No they’re not,’ I protested.
Another row ensued. However, in the next line of graves up, almost directly behind my parents, a family friend waved to me. He had died in a work accident at forty-one but was still spright despite being in the ground the best part of thirteen years now. It was a coincidence that he was buried so close and I saw that he wanted me to come over. Normally I would’ve but I felt specks of rain and knew that the children would come now soon.
I looked at my parents together in their grave. They had never got on and death had not improved the situation a bit. The problem was I was the only one nearby. One of my sisters was married in London, while the other lived in Australia. I, their youngest, had seen them through their final years of life—illness, hospitalisation and a hospice for my father; thankfully my mother died in her sleep.
Now they were going to lose me too—that was what I had come to tell them. I felt very sad about it all suddenly. It was so dispiriting about what had happened in our lovely country. Once it seemed fine, it held out a future for us, but now everything was falling apart. The economy was in freefall and it was getting harder and harder to make ends meet. My own job was long gone.
‘And was there a reason?’ asked Mrs Sullivan.
‘What?’ I asked, suddenly returning with a start from my gloomy deliberations.
‘Why he exposed himself. Was there a reason?’
‘What sort of reason could there be?’ snapped my mother. ‘God blesses us, get some sense woman.’
Mrs Sullivan sulked but would not withdraw. ‘There has to be some reason,’ she said. ‘A man just doesn’t take out his whistle and do that now, does he?’
Mrs Sullivan was looking at me for an answer but my thoughts were elsewhere.
‘Not in public,’ she continued, ‘not on an aeroplane.’
‘The fact that it was on an aeroplane has nothing to do with it,’ interjected my mother sharply.
‘Well I think it does,’ maintained Mrs Sullivan. She sat more upright now and folded her arms—a position of confrontation with her, I knew from old. I noted how thin her fibula and tibia were. Like straws. She must have been tiny when she was alive. Tiny but deadly, I decided.
‘Doesn’t it, Timmy?’ asked Mrs Sullivan. ‘Doesn’t it matter? A better class of person travels on an aeroplane. Isn’t that so? You were on one yourself, weren’t you Timmy?’
‘She sucks up to him unmercifully,’ said my mother. Wickedly she added, ‘Maybe she has her eye on you Timmy.’
My father actually looked dejected. His skull was turned down and he was holding his forehead. He hated trouble, even more so since he had died.
‘You can have him for all I care,’ said my mother loudly for all our benefits. ‘He’s no bargain, that’s all I’ll say.’
‘The cheek,’ replied Mrs Sullivan, plucking a long fat worm from near her hip and throwing it over onto the next grave without thinking. That was a mistake and I knew it. Immediately my mother shook her head urgently and Mrs Sullivan realised. The grave on the other side from hers was occupied by two children. They had been killed in a car crash and unlike the other residents of the cemetery, they hardly ever appeared. I had seen them only once and once was enough. There was a lot of unhappiness about them because their father was driving the car and he had had too much to drink. The strange thing was, almost everyone else in this part of the graveyard was old or an adult at least; they had had some sort of life in other words. But these interred children had had none and everyone was very careful with them. Throwing a worm on their grave was an unintended slight.
‘Which reminds me,’ said my mother, pointedly. ‘These matters about that fella and his whistle should not be discussed in front of ...’ She nodded over at the children’s grave.
Mrs Sullivan withdrew. I saw her whisper to a man in the grave behind and to another nearby about the celebrity and what he had got up to. We were left in peace finally. My mother looked at the letter from the Council again. ‘What am I to do?’ she asked.
But just then I heard my name being called. I recognised the voice too: Molly’s. I stood and looked. She was on the ditch between the graveyard and the field. She wanted me to come down and lift her off. I waved to her and squatted again.
‘I have news to tell,’ I said.
‘It better be good news,’ quipped my father.
As soon as they heard this a silence settled between us. It seemed as if there was nothing else other than a void and we were all somewhere near it. I knew this about the dead, of course: they have no tenacity. The slightest upset is a huge with them.
‘Don’t say anyone is sick,’ said my mother. ‘Not one of the children please. We love you visiting but we don’t want any permanent company. Amn’t I right Tim?’
‘Let him speak,’ said my father sadly.
I hesitated. ‘Eve and I have had some problems. Things haven’t gone well. She might lose her job now too.’ I waited a moment. ‘The thing is we may have to emigrate.’
‘Emigrate,’ repeated my father like he had been shot.
‘All of you?’ asked my mother.
It was a strange question but I answered it anyway. ‘Yes, all of us. Maybe to Australia. With Connie there it wouldn’t be difficult. There’s a family re-unification program...’ I stopped mid-sentence.
‘But ...’ said my father.
I steeled myself. ‘We’re trying to think ahead Da. The way things are now, the children may well have to emigrate one day anyway. And if they were to go, would they ever come back to this country? Eve and I would remain here on our own.’
A beetle wandered along my father’s femur. I scooped it up and threw it away. ‘So we’re thinking it’s better for us all to go now.’ I said ‘thinking’ even thought the decision was actually fully made.
‘But...?’ asked my mother. ‘Who will come here?’ She jerked her head at the neighbouring grave. ‘We’ll be like her, like Mrs Sullivan. She has no one, no one ever comes to her.’
‘We’re stuck here,’ said my father forlornly.
Suddenly he let himself fall back into his grave with a suddenness that sent shockwaves through his skeleton. I had hurt him, I knew. But what was I to do? I had to tell them. Was there any good way to tell this sort of news?
I heard Molly calling me. They were just nearby. Looking between the headstones I saw them marching up the gravel path; Liam was behind Molly, singing to himself.
‘I’ll be back for one more visit,’ I said as I watched my mother retreat too. I noticed her crumpling the Council letter as she went.
I stood the moment the children came into view. Molly was all gab about the adventure but I told her gently to be quiet, putting a finger to my lips to remind her of where we were.
‘Remember this is where Nan and Granddad sleep.’
And the three of us stood there for a moment, looking down on their tidy plot as I held them in close to me.
©2013 Kevin Doyle
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