|Carol Caffrey is an Irish writer and actor who has been living in Shropshire since the early 90s. Her work has been published in The Fish Anthology, Bare Fiction magazine and Ink, Sweat & Tears and she is a member of the 2015 – 2016 cohort of Writing West Midlands’ developing writer programme, Room 204. She also tours the one-woman play, “Music for Dogs”, by Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan|
By Carol Caffrey
I had two brothers and knew myself richer for the having of them. I had two sisters and know myself poorer for the loss of them. They’re all gone now, and it ain’t right, it ain’t fittin’.
Piling into the car with cats, dogs, buckets and spades, tennis racquets, swimming togs, pocket money counted up, planning midnight feasts and pillow fights and dar-dar in the burrows – our parents’ greatest gift to us, the annual seaside holiday north of Dublin. Are we nearly there yet? Semi-feral children for four glorious weeks. Must have been hell for Mam – no hot water, an outdoor jacks and Dad back at work in Dublin during the week – but we were oblivious. Come in, the sea’s just like soup … Last one down’s a dirty big gobaloon… I’ll get my big brother after you … Wring yourself out and put your knickers in the bucket … He said I could play with the boxing gloves … It’ll end in a crying match… The arms of us and legs of us entangled all together.
Teenage years and the boys very dashing as they cycled to Percy’s and the Three Patrons, the girls graduating from Wednesday to Saturday night hops at the rugby club, to the tennis club, to Sloopy’s night club .
Normal years with suitable and unsuitable boyfriends and girlfriends, the gang around for dinner, weddings and children, moving away to live in Manchester, Paris, London, Shrewsbury, the odd divorce, careers in banking, teaching, the theatre … I could write a book.
Instead, a few snapshots, in the order of their going:
The toilet works! One of Dave’s postcards. He and his wife, Trish, driving their camper van out of Paris each term holiday, wondering which way to head. One year they found themselves in the small village of Allihies in the south-west of Ireland, fell in love with the old schoolhouse there. Bought it on a wing and a prayer, started a summer school for foreign students. Legendary meals cooked for the poets, artists and musicians (he was very French about food.) A contrarian to his fingertips, he thought singing, like sport, was “fascist” and stuck to playing drums in his blues band, Chicago style.
He loved his books
and wrote the pages of his life
with the poets and the artists, writers of the song.
Peter, coming out of Sheehan’s or Mulligan’s, brown paper carry-out under each arm: Where’s the party? Back at your place, Pete, most likely. Huge personality and a brain to go with it, enough charm for ten men. He flirted with teaching and writing – had a talent for both – but his passion was acting. We were dragged to see all sorts of weird stuff at the old Project and the Focus, then burst with pride as he began to make a name for himself on RTE, BBC, the stage. Every Christmas, The Miner (his party piece, stolen from a Peter Cook routine) in our Aunt Terry’s’s house: You don’t want to hear this again? You know it off by heart yourselves. We do, Peter, go on. And he would, “uninhibitedly”.
His life was riotous; he lived it with tenacious grip
on joy and geniality, his demons hidden, conquered,
in a struggle without words but eloquent with grace.
Exterior. Night. A petrol forecourt, Dublin. Sheila, in her early twenties, filling up the tank. A guy tries to grab her handbag. She turns the nozzle on him. Has anybody got a match? Her wicked, throwaway wit, would tell you off if you needed it but have your back after that. She knew what she wanted – took one look at Joe when he moved in across the road from us when they were both thirteen and they were together pretty much forever after that. Cooked fabulous meals for all of us which she never ate herself, put us all up in Dublin so many times. You’ll always have a bed here. Sheila’s aside to me when an eminent poet gave me a generous build-up at Dave’s memorial concert in Allihies: Enjoy this moment. You’ll never get an introduction like that again. I’ve no shortage of people to put me in my place, but no-one does it with your style, Sheila.
I wondered how you found the courage to dive into each day,
to leave the pain behind you like a discarded towel.
So many things beneath the surface, content to be unspoken;
the water bore the weight and left the silence unbroken.
Ah, poetry. There’s no excuse for it, as David would say, quoting Myles when the poets came to the Schoolhouse. But I digress.
Linda at the centre of her gang, harmonising as we sang for our supper in the pub in Brittas Bay, tolerating a younger sister hanging onto her coat tails. The two of us trying to hynoptise Sheila in her sleep to give up the combination of her money box. That photo of you with wine bottle (the message) in one hand and glass in the other, huge grin on your face. You and husband Mike with an open house (in Manchester, in Allihies, your home from home) for all. You sorted everyone out, sometimes too much. Remember the time you reorganised Sheila’s kitchen cupboards? Jesus, there was skin and hair flying that day.
There is a centre of things,
a maypole round which all the ribbons swirl and wind…
You watched as we unfurled our colours…
in a dance you loved to share.
The hearts of us and lives of us entangled all together.
And me. Being a Caffrey, from Dad with his love of words and Mam’s gregarious but stubborn nature (the local newsagent didn’t call her Win-the-War for nothing) to the rest of them – it’s a hard act to live up to. They all had huge funerals, I mean HUGE. I wouldn’t have anything like that number at mine. The quiet one. Stop shouting, Carol. The silly things you think about. I knew myself blessed to be part of them and wondered if we were cursed in equal measure when things went to hell completely.
What did they die of? They died of a Tuesday. (Dad’s favourite joke.)
You couldn’t make it up. You can’t re-write any of it. The chronology went something like this:
1990 Peter diagnosed with and successfully treated for mouth cancer while working at the National Theatre in London. When he hears he can be treated with radiation rather than having part of his tongue removed, he dances around for joy backstage. Yes! I’m going to have radiation!
2000 Peter has a devastating stroke after surgery to unblock his arteries. His acting career, life as he knew it, is over. After a year in hospital and rehab he learns to walk, read and write again, though his right arm is useless and he is severely aphasic. He can only manage a couple of words at a time, and more often than not has to give up in frustration. He gets a flat in Manchester, close to Linda, and with a lot of support from her and her large family and circle of friends he is able to lead a semi-independent life. How are you, Pete? Smashing. Sl…ow..ly im…prov…ing.
2004 July. Mam dies suddenly. Though not ready for her to go, we are grateful she did not live to see what followed. It would have broken her heart entirely.
2006 May. Sheila is diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Has a lumpectomy and lymph glands removed on same day that David, in Paris, has an operation to remove part of his lung, due to scar tissue from teenage TB. For Sheila, a year of radiation and chemo therapy follows. The outlook seems good after treatment; we are hopeful. Dave doesn’t recover well from his operation and loses weight at an alarming rate.
June. Trish, Dave’s wife, suffers a near-fatal brain aneurism while touring a play in southern France. Still weak from his own operation, he commutes between Paris and Toulouse for the next few months. It takes its toll on him; he continues to lose weight and muscle tone while having some kind of breakdown. He’s put on anti-depressants but they seem to do more harm than good.
2007 May. Dave suffers a psychotic break while in Allihies and is admitted to hospital. I’ve wondered since if he actually had cancer in his lungs and brain (he’d had prostate cancer some years before and certainly looked like someone with the disease). On the same day, Peter collapses and is admitted to hospital in Manchester with what seems at first to be a chest infection.
June/July. Dave comes back with me to Shrewsbury after being discharged. He is very frail We try to celebrate his 60th birthday on 2nd July. He cannot be persuaded to cancel the forthcoming course with French students in Allihies (where Trish has arrived, still not fully recovered herself) so Mike and Linda bring him over with them when they go for the annual holiday. I meet Mike in a pub car park on the A49 and hand Dave over. At least he and Peter get to meet up while he’s in Manchester. A week later, on the 14th July, David is showing signs of another psychotic break. Sheila rings that evening to say they are trying to get him back into hospital. A few hours later she rings to say he has collapsed and died. Dave is buried in the village churchyard, his coffin, as tradition had it, carried there in turn from the church by the men of the village.
December. Peter, who’d been too unwell to come to Dave’s funeral, has been declining in the months since. Though we are assured it isn’t cancer, Sheila and I aren’t convinced. I eventually get him into a nursing home in Shrewsbury – one that offers hospice-style care. We learn that he has metastatic cancer in his lungs and brain. There is nothing to be done except make sure he is comfortable and has an easeful death.
Sheila comes over to see him, knowing it will be for the last time. Her husband Joe has to stay in Dublin for some tests.
Joe’s father, who has been ill, dies suddenly while she is with us.
On her return to Dublin, they learn that Joe has very serious oesophageal cancer. I remember Linda in our conservatory (she’d come down to see Pete) shaking her fist to the heavens in anger and disbelief. A huge operation and brutal treatment would follow.
On New Year’s Eve, Peter starts to slip away in the arms of Morpheus. It is just the two of us (I’ve sent my husband home with our children after they’d made their farewells. Sheila has steeled herself to do the same over the phone. He smiles through his deepening sleep when he hears her voice.) There is an Elvis concert on the tele – how apt, I had a bop to it for both of us – and I read some poetry to him, tell him what a great brother and actor he is. I hope that he will go before midnight, to put an end to a bloody awful year, but the bugger lingers past midnight, till two o’clock the next morning. He is 58. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
2008 January. Peter’s funeral in his beloved Dublin. It seems the natural thing to do to bring his ashes to Allihies and inter them in Dave’s grave. A tradition is begun that will be repeated too many times over the next few years.
2008 October. We celebrate Sheila’s 50th with a massive hooley in the Schoolhouse in Allihies. All seems well.
2009 September. We have a memorial concert for Peter in Dublin in aid of the Hospice. Lots of his old acting and musician buddies do their bit. It is a great night and we raise a shitload of money.
2010 February. Sheila is told that her cancer has returned. Joe has not long finished his treatment when hers has to resume. I’m not going anywhere yet. In the next eighteen months or so she packs in a huge amount with Joe and her beloved daughter.
2011 June/July. Sheila is finding it harder to manage. I go over to Dublin. She has to go into Luke’s hospital the day I arrive. The same day, Linda is admitted to hospital in Manchester with what we think is pleurisy. We are wrong.
She has end-stage terminal lung cancer.
I sit at the foot of Sheila’s hospital bed as she speaks on the phone to Linda in her hospital bed in Manchester. It is unreal, surreal. I think, even now, I have still to take it in.
Sheila comes home from Luke’s after being told there is nothing more that treatment can do for her. Too unwell to be at home, she moves a few days later to the hospice where Dad had died in 1984. She dies on 24th July with Joe and their daughter by her bedside, ten minutes before we arrive. She is only 52. Of course, her ashes come to Allihies.
November. Linda has had some chemo to no avail. In hospital for Sheila’s funeral, she’d made it to Allihies when we’d brought Sheila’s ashes there and makes it again now for one last time. She seems quite well.
December. Linda’s second grandchild is born, to her great joy, but she develops pneumonia suddenly and is admitted to hospital. She dies on the 10th, two months short of her 60th birthday. We bring her ashes to Allihies, where they lie in the grave next to the boys, a few graves along from Sheila’s.
2013 January. Joe, who nursed Sheila so devotedly and whose cancer returned the previous year, dies on the 31st January. He is only 53. His daughter carries his ashes to the graveyard, where they are interred with Sheila’s.
2016 January. And so it goes, so it goes. Even now, as I write this, Joe’s brother is seriously ill with the same filthy disease.
Please don’t tell me there is a rhyme or reason to this. I am liable to hit you.
It’s a precious commodity, that thing with feathers, hope. I learned from the Hospice all those years ago when Dad was there that you must never take it away from anyone, but there’s an awful lot of rot talked about fighting cancer. Is there any other disease where the onus is on the patient to win? Do you have to fight a broken leg? A heart attack, the measles? When I hear people say that they have fought cancer and won, I want to shout you’ve won because you’re lucky, not because you fought. I hate the implication that those who die do so because they didn’t fight. My sisters and brothers fought like tigers yet they still died. “Losers” have the sheer bloody misfortune to have been given the wrong end of the genetic stick. Science is beginning to realise that it’s probably pure dumb luck if you get it and the same whether you survive it or not. By all means do the right things and give yourself every chance, but I’m afraid it’s not down to you in the end. I address this to myself as much as anyone, as chances are it will come for me, too. I’m ready for you, you bastard. (See? All this darn fightin’ talk is dangerously contagious.)
Rome 2011, for Ireland’s Six Nations match against Italy. The three sisters, family and friends have been on an excursion. On the way back we stop at a viewing point to take in the city at night. Linda takes her handbag out and puts it on the roof of a parked car in the layby, starts rooting through it. We all get the cameras out. Suddenly, she realises there’s a couple in the car, having it away. They’re at a point where there’s no stopping them. Our poor guide was mortified, we’re in stitches. What did the couple make of us? Did they think we were a posse of private investigators – disguised as Irish tourists – come to photograph them in flagrante delicto?
Dave parking his van outside the pub in Allihies after the smoking ban has been introduced. Sliding door pulled back, smokers welcomed aboard the mobile shebeen. Him, his pipe and pint of Guinness.
Sheila, affecting a verbal tick one bored day while working in the bank, having to keep it up when a customer approaches her cashier’s desk with the same – real – verbal tick. Her colleague in the neighbouring cash desk ducking down behind the glass to stifle her laughter. Sheila keeps it going, straightest face you can imagine.
Peter, in training for the role of his life in “Children of a lesser God” in Dublin, calling in to the local for a pint, in his tracksuit, on the way home after his daily run. Hitching a ride to America after his cancer treatment with the cast from The Commitments, dancing with Tina Turner at a night club. You dance ok for a white boy.
Please let it be alright please God please don’t let it be that
not again I promise I’ll be good I’ll make amends
please let it be alright
let it be grade one or two we’d take two no not grade four
please God please anyone don’t let it be in the bones anything but the bones
hear our prayer please make it not the organs
just listen will you
give it to me not a lot just a bit please just share it out a little
isn’t it great the way you look after each other no he’s my brother he’s my brother
wouldn’t anybody do the same
she’s my sister she’s my sister
so that’s your answer down to this I’m begging you now please help
help them with the pain just give them something for the pain
now and at the hour.
Everything is relative.
Dave, frail as a bird, checking himself out of his Paris hospital when he hears I’m coming over to see how he’s doing, trying to cook a meal for me. Apologising to Mike in that car park on the A49 for being a “nuisance”.
Peter to Sheila during her treatment, Posit…ive… mental… att..i…tude. Letting off an obnoxious fart, then looking like an innocent puppy falsely accused. I …can’t… smell (he’d lost the ability after the stroke.) We can, Peter, we can! A gleam in his eye for an attractive woman in the doctor’s surgery. Still… inter…es…ted, he says in his loud, disinhibited voice, us not knowing where to look..
Sheila, on the morning she is due to hear if there will be more treatment, already showered before I arrive to help with that, putting on the eyeliner in spite of hands that shake uncontrollably, readying herself for the verdict – such courage, such grace under pressure. A list of questions written down for the doctor. The first one: Can I go to Allihies? No. When she’s settled into the hospice a few days later: I’m very sad, but I’m peaceful.
Linda, pulling off her oxygen mask when I get to the hospital, not long before she slips into unconsciousness, “Did you get the birthday card I sent you?” I did, that very day, and the wildly generous cheque inside it. A week early. Did she have a premonition?
Sheila’s daughter, an only child, losing both her adored parents, only in her twenties. Linda’s daughter, only girl among four grieving boys, having her first child a year after Linda’s death – how she must have yearned for her mum. Trish, alone, bereft, battling to keep the Schoolhouse going. Mike, devoted dad and grandfather, filling a huge gap.
There isn’t a word to describe the loss of a brother or a sister. You are not a widow, an orphan. You have not lost a child. Most siblings say it’s like losing a limb, and it is, it is. I know I felt more orphaned when they all went than when Mam died all those years after Dad. The props are gone, the shared memories, the private language. You miss the phone calls on Christmas Day and your birthday, the news about their children and what is going on in their lives – Facebook posts are no substitute – the home base in Dublin, someone to remind you of the recipe for that thing they used to make; you miss all that. You miss their encouragement and someone to give a bit of a hurrah when you have accomplished something. You miss the laughs. You miss them.
I remember a friend almost apologising to me for expressing her sorrow on the loss of her sibling, given that I had lost four. But I don’t think there is a hierarchy of grief. Each person’s loss is experienced uniquely. I know what that first loss felt like, feels like. It draws sorrow like water from a well, and each subsequent loss comes from the same source, getting wider and deeper, yes, but the water tastes the same. Grief is grief.
There is a certain peace among the stones
that stand above you now. I’m grateful for
the quiet air, the distant rolling of the tide.
Here’s some monbretia, feileastram dearg,
gathered from the roadside for your graves.
There’s some in our back garden, too, stowaways
across the sea that fell in Shropshire soil.
They are keepsakes of that place of high sorrow,
the precious ground of home that holds you all.
I’ll scatter them for you here and there
until my bones lie down along with yours.
How do you go on after such profound loss? I don’t know, just that you do, you have to. You put one foot in front of the other, a step – a day – at a time.
There were children to get through exams, meals to be cooked, jobs to be done.
Not to do so would be to betray the others who wanted to be alive so much.
The alternative is not going on.
You withdraw from what doesn’t help you, from people who hurt you, stressful situations. Sorry, can’t be doing with it. The water’s come to the top and any more will flood the defences.
I’ll tell you what does help. It helps when people acknowledge your loss, even after a few years, when they ask you how you’re doing, when they keep in touch. Little things -profound things – like that.
I’ve found huge consolation in writing and in a slight return to the stage.
And of course there’s my own nuclear family, my biggest blessing. Without them, and a few good friends and cousins who have been there through thick and thin, I would have been long gone. It all helps.
Ultimately, I feel a responsibility, almost a compulsion, to bear witness to them, to the fact that they were here and now are gone. It’s why I celebrated my 60th last year for all of them who didn’t make it or beyond (in the Schoolhouse, where else?) and it’s probably why I’m writing this.
To the absent ones, who still walk beside me: Here’s tae’ us. Wha’s like us? Damn few. And they’re a’ deid.