Maeve Mulrennan is 30 years old and based in the West of Ireland. She is currently the curator for Galway Arts Centre. She has studied in Limerick School of Art & Design, NUIG Galway and IADT Dun Laoghaire. She has been published in Wordlegs and has featured in the 2012 Cuirt international Festival of Literature in Galway. She was long listed for the Doire Press Chapbook competition in 2011 also.
by Maeve Mulrennan
There is always a suspension of time and space during a funeral. A nuclear warhead could be launched and you wouldn’t know it. A funeral is immersed only in itself, it is a complete entity. When you accidently stumble across a funeral, or one progresses down your street, it is like watching a film. You can tell the age and how tragic the death from the faces of the mourners. When you see young people not wearing black because this is their first funeral, surrounding a shell shocked and aged mother you feel like you are flaunting your youth in their faces. When you see the small white coffin followed by grey ghosts being propped up by the neighbours you feel guilty for never knowing that pain. They have experienced something that permanently sets them apart.
When you are in a funeral, working in one I mean, it feels like a performance. People respect you, they see you as the framework around their wild sadness, holding it all together. Its hard to not feel sad every day but its better than not feeling sad. To not feel sad as you look at the living left behind would mean you have gone too far down this road.
I looked at the patterns the damp made on the ceiling. It was ok in here, not as comfortable as one would expect but I suppose the dead don’t need much comfort. I traced my ring finger along the lace that Daisy has recently stitched onto the side. Daisy was the favourite, my lace was only ever put in places where the bodies covered them up.
The shop door opened. My father thought it vulgar to have a bell on the door so he deliberately rusted one of the hinges to make it squeak. The Catholic undertakers at the other end of the town had automatic doors which my father thought very presumptuous.
“He’s out Simon,” I replied. Simon appeared over me, nervous.
“Hello, em…Sally isn’t it? What are you doing in there? You shouldn’t mock the dead.”
“Oh Simon, come ON. My back was at me again and there’s nowhere else to lie flat.”
Simon cleared his throat. “Em well I might come back when your father in here Sally, I prefer to conduct my business with him you know.” He nervously touched his Adams apple and cleared his throat again.
“Oh for Fuck’s sake Simon everyone KNOWS your paying off your mother’s funeral in installments, everyone’s doing it these days, it’s GRAND, really Simon.”
I took a small receipt book out of a side pocket in the lace, a pen from another. I had a packet of Chewits in another but I wasn’t going to show Simon Furlong that or he’d want one. He made these awful sucking noises when he chewed.
“The usual is it?” I wrote down one hundred Euro. “You know your mother would kill you if she knew you were paying off her funeral before she died. She’s not even sick like”
Simon cleared his throat, rubbing his Adam’s apple and glancing behind him. His face grew the kind of red only farmers sons were capable of.
“This is why I prefer to deal with Mr. Grimes” He growled, voice cracking on my father’s name. I handed him the receipt and tucked his hundred euro in beside the Chewits.
The rusty hinge creaked. I did my favourite thing, stretching each muscle from my toes right up into my back. My favourite thing since I messed my back up anyway.
A familiar thumping noise, my mother walking across the floor upstairs, above me, above the shop with the damp on the ceiling. A smaller noise, our cat Arthur jumping up on the coffin, looking for head rubs. He purred and showed me his backside in appreciation. He walked along the middle of the coffin, to the end, above my feet and then came back, peering over the half lid and into my eyes. He settled on the lid, ignoring the lacy bedding. He had jumped out of coffins a few too many times for my Father’s and the customer’s liking and knew not to even try it with me.
The hinge squeaked, immediately bringing in loud excitable voices that bellowed over it.
“He’s definitely going to ask you out Daisy, I FEEL it in my waters, a woman’s instinct is never wrong! He’s from such a good family”
“Stop I know! He’s such a ride though, SUCH a ride!”
Jesus they sounded like a cross between Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters and the fecking Kardashians.
“Hello Sisters!” I sang, raising my upper half out of the coffin. Arthur sprang up, hissing.
“Lord in heaven Sally!’ Lily shrieked and fall back on top of Daisy, who at the same time screeched ‘ Fucks SAKE Sally”
They walked past me and upstairs mumbling under their voices for a few steps before resuming their inane gushing. Before I settled back down into my spot the subject of their gushing caught my eye through the window. Between the letters e and s in “Gore & Grimes Undertakers” was Richard Stone. I nodded in that backwards country way that means ‘Come here til I want ye’.
In he came.
He leaned against the coffin and offered me a fag.
The cat settled down, keeping one eye on the young lad.
“You look like you’re in a Jacuzzi Sal” He nodded at my arms, lazily draped over the edges. I blew smoke up to the damp patch on the ceiling and then tipped the ash into the lacy pocket. (Removing my Chewy sweets first, of course.)
“How’s your Mother Richard?” I asked quietly. His posture changed, he looked his age again. We were in the same class in school the whole way through. It was assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps into veterinary. It was a complete surprise that I also wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. Apparently it wasn’t lady like. Well I’m sorry men have taken enough without laying a claim on death, too.
He looked at me, the way a small child looks at a grown up when things don’t make sense.
“She’s not really my Mam anymore Sal, you know?”
“I know Rich.”
People think that you get used to death. You can’t. We haven’t evolved that much. You either let it put its arm around you and whisper in your year or you try and beat it down. You see it in hospitals, the vets, on TV. People put death in a box and bury it. It’ll rise up and get into your head though. Like the drizzle every Autumn is swirls around you. You think you are fine, you can keep it away from you. Then you go inside and realise you are drenched. The inside of your sleeve, between your shoulder blades, the backs of your knees. Soaked. And then you become colder than you ever thought was possible.
“Thanks for being around Sal. Its much better having you around than that miserable Marcus Gore. Jenny always liked you, you know. She loved those horses too.” He gestured to his cigarette. I nodded to the lacy pocket. We were the only undertakers in Leinster still using horses. Some people said it was even more miserable looking than a hearse but I didn’t think so.
“She preferred the black ones to the white though. I’m sorry I couldn’t convince Dad to use them instead. He has a rule of using the white boys for children.”
I was sorry. It’s not that she didn’t like the white ones, they were just a bit wilder from not being used so much. I tried to tell her that was a good thing. I think she understood.
“It’s ok.” He sighed. “I used to be afraid of the grey ones when I was little too. They look so cold, Sal.”
“Don’t call me that, makes me sound like a big old sow.” I stubbed my cigarette out on the underside of the coffin and put the butt into the pocket. No one ever looks on the underside of a coffin. I shuffled back down into the coffin. Rich leaned over.
“Sorry. If you were a sow I’d have to put you down, you’d kill any piglet that came near you.”
“Only ones called Daisy and Lily.” They really annoyed the shit out of me.
“Ah they love you really.”
“I mortify them”
“They’re jealous that you look hotter at a funeral than they do after a whole day getting ready to go down the Rugby Club.”
“That sounded really lame Richard. Fuck off would you? My back is killing me and unless you got me some more of those tablets you’re no good to me.”
I closed my eyes. I felt a kiss on my head. Light and warm.
“Thanks Sally. You stopped me from going mad.”
“The trick is to let it embrace you Richard. Death’s not going to let you feel nothing you know.”
The hinge squeaked.
Richard’s little sister’s funeral was my first one in my new professional capacity. I was the order in a town of madness. The knot that tied everything together so they wouldn’t slip away. I am on the inside of a funeral. People looking in don’t know how to act. They are embarrassed by the family’s loss of inhibitions. I am their dignity. I hold death at a civilized distance so they can accept it more readily.
When Richard couldn’t sleep the night after the funeral I was waiting for him. We walked though the town together and stopped at my father’s paddock. The horses dosed, twitching under their rugs. Soon they would be in for the Winter.
I hopped the fence and walked towards C’est Bon, the oldest grey gelding. I nodded over my shoulder to Richard. He followed.
“C’est Bon” I whispered. The horse flicked his ears and grunted. Richard stood beside me. I took his left hand and put it under the horse’s blanket, on his shoulder.
I didn’t laugh at him or call him a thick eejit for saying it. I backed away as Richard leaned into C’est Bon and cried.