Jan Carson is a writer and community arts development officer currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears was published by Liberties Press, Dublin in June 2014. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Storm Cellar, Banshee and The Honest Ulsterman. In 2014 she was a recipient of the Arts Council NI Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary. Jan’s short story collection, Children’s Children was published by Liberties Press in February 2016.
How to Be Selfish
My wife wants to haunt me. She is not yet dead but she isn’t getting any younger either. I shouldn’t be surprised. All older people can apply for a haunting. The process is simple. There is a form to fill in and a minimal amount of paper work. I’m not sure if there’s a similar process for younger people. I have been old for so long now my youth is like something which happened to another person in a book or on a television programme.
Alma’s application form arrives on the morning of her seventieth birthday. The envelope is conspicuously white amidst a sea of coloured cards: pale, ice cream pinks and postbox reds, yellows, greens and an enormous envelope from my sister in the States, the black ink of our address barely legible against its dark blue paper. I make a pot of coffee. We go through the post together, sitting at the kitchen table. We do this every morning. Today it is all for Alma.
“What’s that?” I ask pointing to the white envelope.
“Oh nothing. Just junk,” she replies.
I know exactly what it is. Everyone gets their application form the day they turn seventy. I’m four years older than Alma. I’ve already received mine and threw it in the bin. I expect most people do. It’s a scam after all, and even if it isn’t, you’d have to wonder about anyone who went in for that sort of thing: religious types, hystericals, people who talk to their pets as if they are small children. I didn’t even discuss the decision with Alma. We’ve always been of a mind on such matters and I knew what she’d say without asking.
I watch my wife reading her application form. Her eyes move from side to side like a typewriter tracing the progression of each sentence. Every so often she pauses to reach for her coffee mug. It has long since stopped steaming. Alma is a slow and deliberate reader, the kind of reader who cannot bear to skip a single extraneous ‘and’ or ‘the.’ When she reads she often runs her finger along the page, like a child learning how to figure words. I have learnt how to hold my impatience still when my wife is reading but, if I am honest, I see this slowness as a fault in her. I am always resisting the urge to say, “hurry up.” The same goes for eating and dressing and extricating herself from the homes of friends and family members after our social visits.
Alma slips the first page of her letter behind the second and shuffles the corners neatly together. She takes a small, neat sip of her coffee and clears her throat. I do not look up. I am pretending to read a flier, outlining special offers available at our local Super-Valu. We don’t even shop there but the flier is something to do with my hands while I wait for Alma to finish reading. I can picture the letterhead and the formal turn of phrase. “Dear Mrs. Anderson, congratulations on the occasion of your seventieth birthday. Let us take the opportunity to wish you many more happy and peaceful years ahead.” Then a paragraph about the Church, its vision and genesis, and another paragraph about planning for the future: “no man knoweth the hour or the day etc. etc.” Finally, the hard sell: a brief outline of how the Church will arrange your own, personal haunting, a form to fill in, a price for the service, an opportunity to pay this fee by Direct Debit or with a cheque if a cheque is more convenient. After she’s finished reading Alma folds the letter in two and slips it back inside the envelope.
“We should put these birthday cards up on the mantelpiece,” she says, as if she has already forgotten about the application form.
I’m glad of this. I was afraid the whole day might have been ruined.
In the afternoon we have a little party with the grandchildren. They bring presents and homemade cake, the icing puckered with tiny fingermarks from where they’ve pressed the chocolate buttons in and tried to get as much buttercream on their fingers as possible. We play Pass the Parcel and drink fizzy orange from paper cups. There is Prosecco for the grown ups. When the cake comes out we sing, “Happy birthday to you dear Alma/Mummy/Gramma,” our voices peeling away from each other as each of us claims her for our own. I imagine how we must look to a stranger, peering through the living room window: happy and blessed, sickeningly happy, as families look in television adverts for upmarket grocery stores.
Our daughter has brought a balloon shaped like the number seventy. It hangs behind Alma’s armchair like a speech bubble, bobbling every time someone enters or leaves the room. The youngest of our grandchildren gives her a homemade card: a wild squiggle of red and orange crayon. “It’s Gramma with fireworks,” she explains. “Of course,” says Alma, gravely and kisses the child on top of her squirrely head. She is our favourite grandchild simply because she is the smallest and probably the last we’ll have, at least until the great grandchildren start coming. After the party I pin her fireworks to the fridge door with magnets. They will stay there for months, illuminating the shopping lists and menus for local takeaways, until all the colours fade pale peach in the kitchen sunlight. Every time we go into the fridge for margarine or milk we will see her picture and think about this afternoon and the bright spot it has been. We will smile and occasionally adjust the magnet. The magnet will not require adjusting but our fingers, touching cold metal and paper, will feel as if they have deferred blessing.
At the weekend there will be a larger, more formal gathering with friends and neighbours. We will dress for this: I, in a suit, Alma, in a long, green gown, the colour of stagnant ponds. She is not looking forward to this party. She does not like to be the centre of anything. But, she will still go, and smile for the sake of our friends and children who need to say into a microphone, with gifts and champagne, that they are thankful for Alma. This is what you do when you love someone and there is an occasion. Alma does not understand their need for show. A card would suffice, or flowers if they are feeling extravagant. She prefers to be home with our children and their children, spilling drinks and laughing, filling the house with warmly noise. She’ll still go to their big party though. She’ll smile and drink wine in her duck pond dress, and say, “what a wonderful night,” over and over again until she almost believes it for herself. She will even pose for photographs.
My wife does not know how to be selfish. Everything she does is for the good of others: our children, their children, neighbours and friends, the sad-faced refugees she comes across in magazines and television appeals. Alma has arms for everyone she meets. Alma does not know how to hold herself in. Sometimes, I watch her turning slowly in front of the wardrobe mirror as she considers a particular dress or sweater. There is a look off her like a recently returned library book. I know my wife is not seeing herself through her own eyes. She is seeing how she must look to everyone who needs her: competent, secure, open-handed, only a little tired round the eyes. Alma is a kind of saint. People often tell me this in the line at Tesco, or outside the butchers with their arms full of raw meat. “You don’t know the half of it,” I always reply. This is a way of saying my wife is also an iceberg, with most of her goodness, hidden just below the surface. It is also a way of inferring that it isn’t easy being married to a saint. Alma usually makes me look bad.
After the little party is over and the grandchildren have gone home, the house falls creaking quiet. Alma goes upstairs for a lie down. She takes her number seventy balloon with her, dragging it behind her like a personal satellite. I spend a few minutes arranging her cards along the mantelpiece, making sure mine is the most prominent. It’s the largest because I am supposed to love her best. We always display cards. Sometimes when it is a special occasion or Christmas we even string them across the walls to stretch our celebrations out.
I come across Alma’s application form tucked between a card from our daughter and another from Jim and Margaret in Liverpool. I carefully re-open the envelope and read the contents. I know my wife won’t mind. We’ve never had secrets and, now in old age, haven’t the energy necessary to keep one quiet. Still, I feel uneasy reading her post, like the time I found her keys in the fridge and returned them to the sideboard without mentioning the mistake. Not a lie exactly, nor even an evasion, more an act of kindness. “I’m just looking out for her,” I tell myself and sit down to read.
It is exactly the same letter I received four years ago but the fee has risen slightly to £420. “My, my,” I think, “the Church is getting greedy”. Then, I wonder if it might be desperation rather than greed which costs an extra twenty pounds. There aren’t as many people interested in religion these days. Yet, the Church still has all the same overheads: salaries for the clergy, international missions and crumbly, old buildings to maintain. Just last week Alma and I listened to a radio documentary on this very subject. It didn’t look good for the Church. Some clergy even said they were taking second jobs just to make ends meet. The programme featured a young chap from the city who worked mornings as a postman and afternoons as a prison chaplain. “We have to adapt,” he said, “people aren’t as religious as they used to be.”
After the programme ended Alma said how sad it was to hear that people were no longer going to church, and I asked her why it was sad, seeing as we’ve never been religious ourselves.
“I’m sad for the people who are,” she replied. “It must be terribly discouraging for them. It must make them question everything.” She looked as if she might cry then. She didn’t. She knew not to, in front of me. My wife is awfully sentimental sometimes. It’s not something I encourage in her.
The next programme on the radio was about recycling and we fell to talking about compost heaps. We forgot all about the Church, but the afternoon comes back to me, in glances and half-remembered snippets, as I read Alma’s application form. The Church must be desperate, I think, if they’re persisting with this scam. I’m just wondering what else they might be capable of when the number seventy balloon appears at the door, followed by my wife in her dressing gown.
“I’ll just put the kettle on,” she says.
“Sit down. I’ll make the tea,” I snap, partially because I should be making the tea on her birthday, and partially because she’s caught me red-handed. I am in the early stages of guilt, the part where I’m still keen to believe my own excuses. Alma sits down in her armchair and I notice that the balloon is tied around her wrist. She is staring at me, not angrily, but with great concentration as a person will stare when they require reading glasses but don’t have them to hand.
“What are you doing, Norman?”
“Just sorting the post and putting your cards out. I take it you don’t want this application form?”
She does not flinch visibly but I can tell she’s moved as the balloon gives a little shudder two feet above her. There is a silence of some ten to fifteen seconds. It feels much longer. When Alma speaks I can hear that she is trying to make her voice sound like the voice of someone who doesn’t particularly care: like a person ordering a glass of tap water in a restaurant or asking if a certain type of item is back in stock.
“Don’t be throwing it out just yet, Love,” she says.
“What on Earth are you keeping it for? It’s not as if you’re going to fill it in.”
“You might actually apply to become a ghost?”
“Yes,” she says, driving her back into the armchair so she is sitting straight as a telegraph pole, “I rather think I might.”
“But it’s a scam, Alma. It’s just another way for the Church to take advantage of vulnerable people.”
“Maybe it is, Norman. Maybe it isn’t.”
“Of course it is. Don’t tell me you actually believe they can arrange for you to come back from the dead.”
“I don’t know. It seems very unlikely, but there was a man on the radio last week – a nice old man from Armagh – his wife applied as soon as she turned seventy. She died suddenly, less than six months later; a stroke, I think. The man on the radio said it was the best four hundred pounds they’d ever spent. It’s like his wife never left him. She’s there every morning when he comes downstairs, sitting beside the fire. He talks to her and she talks back. It’s a real comfort to him, he said, the next best thing to having his real wife back.”
“It’s a scam, Alma. You and I both know there’s no such thing as ghosts. People don’t haunt each other after they die. They just die and that’s it.”
“There was another lady on the radio. Her husband died …”
I interrupt her. I am, perhaps, a little sharp, but it is for her own good. Alma isn’t herself. She is sounding quite unhinged. My wife is a thoroughly rational person. She is impossibly kind but not without logic. She has been to university and studied Physics at a time when women were not particularly drawn to the reasonable subjects. She has never before expressed any belief in religion or ghosts or even a God capable of brokering deals between the two.
“I’m putting this in the bin,” I say firmly, standing as I speak to register intent.
“Don’t,” Alma says, the balloon above her armchair fluttering wildly now, keeping pace with her chest as it rises and, sharply falls. She is the colour of uncooked sausage, a most unhealthy shade. “I decided, while I was upstairs. I want to apply.”
“It’s my decision.”
“It’s not just your money. It’s mine too.”
“And when have I ever asked you for any of it, Norman?”
Another silence: fifteen to twenty seconds long. I have nothing to say to this. Alma is entirely right.
“I want to come back as a ghost. I want to haunt the house. Not just you, the children and grandchildren too, whenever they come to visit. I won’t scare them. I’ll just sit here in my armchair and watch. You can talk to me if you like or, if you’re still angry, you can ignore me completely. I don’t care. I just can’t bear the thought of not being here. This is what I want for my birthday. All I want.”
“But it’s nonsense, Alma,” I say. “I don’t believe any of it.”
“I’m not asking you to believe, Norman. Just let me believe … or at least try to.”
“It’s such a waste of money.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Love. Even if it’s all bunkum, and I don’t get to haunt you and I’m just dead after I die, the Church will still get our money.”
“Is that meant to convince me, Alma?”
“Think about all those poor, religious people, watching their churches getting smaller and smaller every year. They need a little bit of encouragement. Think about it, Love. I’ll be making people happy after I’m gone, even if it’s nonsense.”
There is another silence, the longest one of all.
“Indulge me, Norman. We can easily afford it.”
We can. Of course, we can. But I still can’t settle with it. This is the only thing my wife has ever asked of me but I cannot bear the idea of being duped. In the end I say, “yes, my Love. If this is what you want then let me give you the money for it,” and Alma is happy as a heat drunk kitten.
“Let’s fill the form in together,” she says. “Let’s do it now.”
I open a bottle of good wine. I help her with the bits which require medical and national insurance numbers. I smile like I cannot keep my mouth still and when it comes to posting the damn thing I say, “I’ll drop it into the Post Office on the way to the bank tomorrow morning.” I know I’m not going to do this because I do not love my wife enough to be made a fool.
“It’s a win, win situation,” I think to myself. “Alma will never know. I’m happy. She’s happy. What harm have I done?”
“It’s a win win situation,” Alma says as she licks the envelope shut, “I leave something behind for you, or I leave something behind for the Church, or if we’re really lucky and it turns out true, everyone wins.”
(My idea of winning is a kind of podium, while Alma’s has always been perfectly level like a football pitch or a bowling green.)
“But you’ll still be dead,” I say.
“So I will,” she says, and smiles gently, as if dying is just another form of kindness.
As I said, my wife does not know how to be selfish.
©2016 Jan Carson
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Irish Times review of Jan Carson's Children's Children
'Location, Location: On Staying Put': article by Jan Carson at Writing.ie