Good Grief

– Niecy O’Keeffe

The part of funerals I’d always hated the most was the lull between entering the house after the burial and the brewing of the first cup of tea. The banal normality of the act of boiling the kettle, the hushed whispers between the suited and booted about how the weather had held or deciding whether the priest had embarrassed himself or not. All these actions conspired to make me want to do something completely insane, like show my arse or tweak my Great-aunt’s wide bottom. It happened every time – not that I actually did the things I fantasised about doing but just that I’d bite the inside of my lip until it drew blood with the tension of stopping myself from doing them and so it was that I found myself staring at the phantom steam of the kettle twirling into the air, nonchalantly whilst tasting the familiar coppery twang against my tongue.

Everybody’s acting like everything’s okay, I said to myself, But it’s not! Everything’s not okay and probably never will be again! There’s Aunty Margot talking about the state of the road outside the church….There she is getting more incensed by the second about the potholes and the uneven, “Cowboy Job,” the council had done. I wish she’d shut up and show everyone her tits. My father’s dead and I want his sister to show her tits to even out the atmosphere. Just stop pretending that everything’s normal!

She catches my eye and I smile at her, sweetly. She dips her head, sympathetically and I have to turn around and face the window lest I yell, “Show us your tits, Aunty Margo!”

Yes, the full-force smack in the face of normality just after you’ve put someone you love in the ground is one of the only facets of life that I don’t trust myself around. I want to climb on the table and yell, “He’s in a box! He’s six feet under! His eyes will soon fall away to nothing and the sockets will fill with beasties! But enjoy your cuppa tea, yeah? Enjoy your bloody tea!!”

I have to catch myself, swallow the words until they pool in my stomach and disintegrate like so much rotting flesh.

Big Marty arrives with so much Mafioso swagger that he might keel over with the physical pressure of it at any moment. He’s got the big black coat on, it wearing him more so than him wearing it. He’s waving at people as he swerves around the kitchen, a cross between Don Carleone and the Pope. The women catch his hand as he condescends to speak with them for a few seconds.

“Och, how are you Moira. Tis a terrible business, in’t it? How’s the flower shop doing?”

Moira tells Big Marty that it’s slowed since a rival opened up a few doors down. He tells her it’s a “Bloody liberty,” and that he’ll sort it out and I know he will, too. Dad’s still in a box in the ground, though, even as all this is going on.

Someone hands Marty a cup of glorious, life- affirming, nae, life-giving tea. He spots me and I flush red. He’s always made me nervous and I’ve never really known why. Maybe, somewhere at the back of my mind, somewhere far off that I can’t really get to, I know that he thinks I’m a pleb. His handshake suggests otherwise, but he is a politician, after all.

“Ah wee Michael. Look at you there! The man of the house, now; a credit to your Mother! And your Father, God rest him. It’s a pity you two didn’t see eye to eye. Myself and my Father were very different too.”

I bite down on my tongue until it hurts. I imagine taking the tea from his hand and throwing it back in his face. It might be too milky to scald but that’s fair enough because I don’t want to hurt him, I just want him to look ridiculous for a few minutes. I want the whole room to stop and look and see something completely out of keeping with how these things are supposed to go happening in the corner. The sponge cake made by my sister, heaving with cream, would be another good one, I thought. I wanted to see him pull the globs of it out of his eyes and stand there in silence, trying to comprehend what I had just done. It would have been a stupendous moment.

“We’d sorted out our differences, Uncle Marty. Have you been offered cake?”

“I’m on a diet, lad.”

It’s just as well, I thought.

He asked me about my book, published at the start of the year and in a trance I told him all. I reamed off the names of all the places on the tour in chronological order: Copenhagen, Malmo, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Salzburg, London, Home. I gave him the monetary numbers, which was all that interested him anyway and rattled on until his eyes glazed over and the moment morphed into something deliciously awkward. I almost launched into a full-on PR tour de force but felt like I’d be torturing myself, more so than him. The conversation petered out until he put his hand on my shoulder in a soap-opera-meaningful way and I caught his eye, graciously; just long enough for it all to seem genuine. As he bounded over to some other poor bloody soul, I stuffed a too-large piece of cake into my mouth and felt it sting where I’d bitten myself.

The kitchen became like a conveyor belt of despair. Lots of very sorry people, being very sorry, caught my hand and felt my cheek, each one in quick succession of someone else who was even more sorry than the last – like it was a competition to see who could be the most sympathetic. I ranked them all from 1-10. Ten being the most sorry, one being just as emotionally retarded as myself and therefore, people I liked more than the ones ranked at eight, nine or ten.

Mrs Anderson was a definite ten.

“You look wrecked wee Michael. Will you take a chair? Have a cup of tea. It was peaceful in the end and he’d be very proud of you today. You’re so well turned out. You’ve done yourself proud. You’ll be a rock for the family. Have you had a bit of cake?”

I nodded where nodding was needed and shook my head where shaking was needed and took her hand when she took mine and smiled when she was smiling and looked solemn when she was solemn at me. It went pretty well. Although, I still wanted to pull my pants down in front of her and say, “I’m a big boy now!” I’d say it over and over again until someone had to carry me from the room, tie me to my bed and bolt my bedroom door shut.

When she was finished, “Say Something to Michael: Round One,” she squeezed my hand and joined the huddle of women around the kitchen table, half-camouflaged by sandwiches. Sandwiches, cake and tea, that was the cure; a conjurors potion to tame and heal the thumping, bludgeoned heart.

I looked out the window and the landscape looked peaceful, samey and oblivious. Everything outside just went on as before, without a care. The brook babbled on, just like Auld Moira about a world going to hell in a flower-basket. The long grass swayed in the breeze, like Big Marty after his third snifter. The mountains climbed over each other competitively, trying to touch the sky like Mrs Anderson in Round Two of, ‘I’m More Sympathetic Than You.’

But it was the birds that got me right in the pit of my stomach. The jealously I felt as I watched them soar, majestically into the gathering gloom of early evening almost outweighed my grief and far outweighed my resentment. I turned back to face the prison of the death-house and for an instant, thought I would end up doing something that would turn it all into a calamitous, long-remembered disaster of catastrophic proportions. I wanted to strip naked, cover myself in cake and shout out, “MY DAD’S DEAD! MY DAD’S DEAD! LET THEM EAT CAKE! MY DAD’S DEAD!

I smiled, coyly and went to unbutton my trousers but then my Mother walked in. She’d been out the back with her brother and sister-in-law for ages and I’d almost forgotten about her. The tumult of un-poured, screaming grief in my selfish head had made me forget about my own Mother. I took my fingers away from my fly and sat back against the sink.

She looked tall, elegant and strong. Her eyes were red but her smile belied the pain, as she handed round a platter of sandwiches and said, “Thank you for coming,” with the gentle sincerity that only a Mother can display in times of untold sadness.

“Would you a like a sandwich, Mikey love? There’s cheese, ham and pickle in there, your favourite.”

I took the sandwich and smiled at her with all the love I could pull out from within the wires of tangled grief knotted inside my chest.

“Thanks Mum,” I said, “Thanks.”

And I sunk into the crowd that painted the kitchen black in odd angles that just caught the dying light outside. I melted into the mono-chrome palette with quiet ease because the stark truth that gnawed at me, visceral and blunt, was that I was just the same as the rest of them, I was just as selfish and useless as them: a sorry man. So, I edged around Mafioso Marty and Maudlin Moira, walked towards my Mother, stepped up onto the conveyor belt of sympathy in the kitchen with the clamouring death throng and clung on for dear life before jumping off to make a break for it. I felt like Paul Newman, ferretting around in the dirt in, “The Great Escape,” but without the charm. Or the muscles.

Must.Get.To.The.Swiss.Border, I thought.

“Mum? Listen, I’m gonna head off, alright?”

She looked at me with huge, sad cerulean eyes and I felt like so much detritus that had streaked its way in on the end of Marty’s Italian loafers.

“Will you not stay for a while longer at least, no? Mike don’t just shoot off again, I never you see you as it is and –”

“- I’m sorry, Mum,” I said, already reaching for my jacket. “This is doing my head in.”

I went to kiss her and she turned away so that all I got was the cheek.

“Michael,” she said, the rarely heard word from those thin lips like some awful death bell that signalled the end of something, something I was afraid to dwell too much on then. “Can I at least speak to you outside for a minute, before you go? It’s important.”

“Course, Mum.”

I slipped between the mourners like a slithering snake, out into the empty courtyard and without saying goodbye, naturally. She hurried after me and took my hand. I looked at that hand curiously, it was something she never did and it made me feel like a very small boy. I looked at my motorbike, longingly, aching to get on the damn thing and get the hell away from that house, those people and that hand.

“Mikey, I’m going to sell the farm, the house too.”

I felt as if I’d been pelted with around one thousand phone books.

“Sell, “Hillview?!” Jesus Christ, Ma, don’t be silly. Sure what would you do? Where would you go? This is your home. You’re in shock and grieving. It’ll take time but you’ll get used to things.”

She wove her fingers between mine and locked her hand hard. It was a tight, uncomfortable squeeze.

“Not without your father, I can’t. He took care of all the paperwork, the hard chores, the dealings in the village. I just can’t, Mikey. I’m too old and too tired. I’ll give you half of whatever it makes.”

I scowled, genuinely angry with her and with the entire situation and with the whole fucking world.

“This isn’t about the bloody money and you know it! This is my home too, my childhood is here. I won’t let you give it away to a stranger! This is Daddy’s place!”

I cried then. I cried just like I did when I threw my first transistor radio into the lake in the village when I was ten because I couldn’t get a signal. I had cried the frustrated tears of someone who had lost something very precious and knew that that loss was their own fault. I’d killed my father, I knew then, as she clutched me to her and sshed me, just as she had when I’d chucked the stupid radio away. He’d died of a broken heart because I’d buggered off to London and left them all to it. I’d killed him with the knowledge that I didn’t want the farm. I didn’t want to be like him. But as I clung to Mum in the dying of the afternoon light, I realised that I was more like him than I thought. We had one thing in common at least: We both loved her.

I wiped my snotty nose on my dress suit sleeve.

“I’ll come home, Mum. We’ll run it together.”

She scoffed and threw her head back with a laugh that made her look terribly young, like the young woman Dad must have fallen for way back in the sixties.

“Mikey love, you’ve a life and a career to be getting back to in that great, big London of yours. There’s nothing here for you anymore. You’re a love for offering, though.”

I stood ramrod straight, straightened my spine until it hurt. That was me growing up, in that instance. That was me morphing into a new shape and it hurt to do so, like when Jekyll turns into Hyde, it looks like it hurts and when the American Werewolf’s fingers and face get long and snouty and hairy – that looks really bloody sore. Well, I’d morphed into a man, at last and it hurt and it’s a shame it took a death for it to happen at all.

“I’m coming home, Mum and that’s the end of it.”

We’d held each other on the courtyard for a stupidly uncomfortable amount of time, but our grief was not the run-of-the-mill, conveyor belt-grief I had so hated and resented inside that house of sandwiches, cake and tea. This was a good grief, it was ours and it was sacred and it was about Dad. It was all about Dad.

“Right,” she said, “Put your bike into the shed in case it rains. You’d be like a terror if it rusted.”

“Aye,” I replied, already lapsing into the old speak.

And as she returned to Mafioso Marty and his party swagger and auld Maudlin Moira’s village green solemnity, I decided to take a walk.

That’s where I am now, at the top of the hill overlooking the village full of ghost of my past. We see them all again, our ghosts. We vanquish them as adults.

The afternoon is drowning into night and the cars look small as they circle the round roads that cling to the hills and valleys beneath. The world looks very small indeed and I have shrunk with it. Even in my newfound manhood, I feel towered over by death and the enormity of the mountain yet unclimbed. I am in shadow on the hillside and we are all very small today.

I remember something Dad had told me when I threw away my transistor radio in the summer of 1989.

“Listen, son, we must never throw away our precious things. We must keep them very close, always. Precious things are few in our sort of life. We have to respect our people and our property because we don’t have anything else. Do you understand?”

Aye, Da, I understand.