Outside, the heat crawls over us. Maeve is immediately engulfed by sympathizers, a wall of backs around her. Seeing me alone, Donal steps across and bends to bestow a kiss on my cheek. “So,” he says in that cod-sardonic tone he affects. “The prodigal returns.”
I have met Donal only a handful of times in the many years he has been married to my sister. When they were first engaged, Maeve brought him to meet me in London and that first encounter has always stayed with me: how he enfolded her as the two of them sat opposite me in the restaurant, her hand heavy with his ring.
“How is Maeve doing?” I ask, ignoring the jibe.
“Wearing herself to a frazzle. Your mother had very definite ideas about this funeral and Maeve, being Maeve, is carrying them out to the nth degree.” This time the scorn’s unmistakable. Maeve always claimed that Donal and Mrs D. were fond of each other, but when it comes to family relationships, my sister is prone to whitewash.
“Is she annoyed with me?”
“Your mother wanted to see you and Maeve promised her she’d track you down. When she wasn’t able to…Well…”
I can’t give him the response that leaps into my mind and find I can’t think of anything to say instead. Maeve is the single thing we have in common; communication is strained when she is not with us. Just as the silence is stretching towards awkwardness, we are rescued by a loud shriek.
“Ahhh,” says Donal, turning. “Our keening friends again.”
At the church door are four young women in costume, made up to look old, with black wrinkles painted across their foreheads and around their eyes and shawls drawn up over grey wigs. I resist the impulse to cover my ears. “Keeners? What the…?”
“Professional mourners, one of your mother’s many special requests. She left pages of instructions, practically a guidebook. How To Have A Good Old Irish Send-Off. We had a wake last night, complete with those four weeping and wailing and flinging themselves on the floor.”
I look across at my sister, explaining to everybody what the sideshow is about and wonder how she can bear it. While planning all this, Mrs D. would have been imagining her celestial self scrutinizing proceedings from above, watching and weighing who did what so she’d know how to treat them when they eventually caught up with her. She wouldn’t have been thinking about Maeve at all.
I feel a hand on my back and turn to see Eileen standing there with her husband, Séamus.
“Jo,” she says. “Jo, I’m so sorry.”
Eileen worked in our shop while we were growing up and lived with us until she married. I let her hold me. Her hug seems to give the others permission to approach and now people I haven’t seen for years are coming across to grab my hand.
Faces I remember, names I’ve forgotten. Names I remember, faces I’ve forgotten.
My mother was a great character, they tell me. She was gone to a better place. God would give me comfort.
Only one old woman tells me anything that sounds like the truth and she gets herself dragged away by the arm for it. “Who are you?” she says. “I never heard Máirín mention you at all.”
Then, out of the mass of well-wishers comes a particular hand and a particular voice, one I do know.
“Jo,” he says, and my heart skips in recognition as I take the proffered hand. A second one comes to encircle mine in warmth and then he is there in front of me. Rory. Rory O’Donovan. All of him, looking down on me, our hands conjoined.
I had thought about Rory on the journey back, of course I had, and had planned my opening lines and the airy way I would deliver them, but in my imaginings, we met on the beach. Or on the village street. Not here, at my mother’s funeral, the last place I would expect to find him, or any O’Donovan. Not here, in front of everybody. Not here.
“How are you, Dev?”
Dev. His old name for me. Extra weight has loosened his jawline. He is still the picture I have held in my head but blurred at the edges, like a photograph out of focus. His hair is gone, his long, black, beautiful hair. It used to flow down his back, soft and shiny as night-water. I used to sink my face in it, loop it through my fingers, knot it around my naked neck. All gone. Shorn and thinning and greying now: any man’s hair. And he wears a suit, any man’s clothes.
I look for what I used to know.
“I’m sorry for your trouble, Jo,” he says, the conventional phrase again but in his voice, low and concerned, it sounds different. “But oh, it’s good to see you.”
The keeners choose that moment to raise their wailing to a higher pitch and he waggles his eyes at them. It is a look to share: confident of my amusement. Just like the old days, us against our families.
A deep flush begins at the base of my neck and tracks slowly up my face. I panic, point across at the undertaker slamming the hearse door shut.
“I have to go!” I say and that’s what I do, almost running from him, decamping back to Donal who stands with Ria near the hearse. It’s the shock, I tell myself as I flee. The suddenness of this new Rory sprung upon me when my mind was on Mrs D. and Maeve and everything else.
But I know that’s not it. I know it’s Mucknamore. Not even back an hour and already I am regressing, the work of twenty years coming undone.
Donal explains that we are to stand behind the hearse and lead the cortège down to the old cemetery. Only when he says this do I look across and realise: my father’s grave lies flat and undisturbed.
“Let me guess: another special request?”
“Yep. She’s to be buried with her own family.”
Not with Daddy. I’m surprised she braved the scandal of that, dead or alive.
“And according to the grand plan, we all have to walk there.”
To the old cemetery? That’s down almost as far as Rathmeelin, the next village up the coast. In this heat? I doubt I’ll be able to make it. But now Maeve’s bustling across, aggravated-big-sister expression in place.
“Am I supposed to say, better late than never?” she asks me, her kiss failing to connect with my skin.
“I’m sorry, Maeve,” I say. “Really, I am. I didn’t get your messages until last night and…”
“Honestly, Jo, you’re impossible. Why do you have an answering machine if you don’t bother taking your messages?”
I say nothing. Usually, I do pick up my messages as soon as I come in the door of my apartment, but these past days have not been usual.
“And couldn’t you have let us know you were coming? Where were you when I rang, anyway?”
What do I mean, out? She had rung at all hours of the day and night, left four or five messages on my machine.
Her red-rimmed eyes are ringed with black, circles gouged deep by distress, so I let her scold me, always one of her favourite occupations, without argument or interruption. It’s a relief when the undertaker slides across and whispers in her ear and she moves away again to line us up in the order Mrs D. dictated. Father Doyle and two of the keeners are to go in front of the hearse, the other two priests and the other two keeners immediately behind, then us. Was I expected when Mrs D. made her plans, I wonder?
“Ria!” Maeve calls, with that voice that mothers use to address their children when they have an audience. “Just there, love, beside Daddy.”
The black car slips into gear and rolls out the gates. The keeners lift the pitch of their noise another notch, and start to hold their notes for longer. The only words I recognise are the lamentation of the refrain: Ochón agus ochón ó. They are a troupe of actors, Maeve explains in whispers as we begin our march. Mrs D. must have been planning the event for months. Years, maybe.
We trudge down the village main street, making slow progress past the two-roomed national school; past Lamberts’ little farm, still the same stench of dung mingled with sea salt; past the post office, green An Post stickers plastered all over its window. Rounding the curve in the road, I see our house. Mrs D.’s house. Bar and grocery in front, bedrooms above, living rooms and kitchen behind. When we reach it, the undertaker stops the hearse outside the front door, turning off the engine for two minutes’ silence. The keeners drop quiet and now we can hear the sea.
Mrs D.’s house. Just a front-room bar and shop, but in her world it made her someone. A home that was bigger than most others around and a business that was central to the life of the village. So central, in her mind, that when she talked about the shop, she gave it the name of the village itself.
“Mammy’s talking about selling Mucknamore,” Maeve had said on the phone a while back. “This time I think she really means it.”
And this time she really did. The ‘For Sale’ sign went up on the dwelling that had defined her for 76 years and quickly attracted an offer but before she had time to finalise the deal, she died.
Dead, Mrs D. that is what you are. But how can that be?
How can it be over?
After one hundred and twenty blessed seconds of silence, the keeners recommence their lament and we move off again, up the gently rising hill towards Rathmeelin. It’s fresher up here, with a small breeze blowing off the sea, and we can see the curve of the sandy causeway that joins Coolanagh Island to the mainland.
As a child, I used to see the island as a giant head. The Causeway was its neck, the jutting bit to the west its nose, the small inlet beneath its mouth, and the marram grass of the dunes its spiky hair. Around it, on the three sides visible from here, are treacherous, waterlogged sands, that have inspired a lot of folklore and legend. Quicksand. It gleams at us now, flat and apparently innocent, in the almost-midday sun.
We pass the old police barracks, once a burnt-out husk, now a holiday-apartment block with landscaped gardens and balconies facing the sea. We pass a higgledy-piggledy line of bungalows, each built without any awareness of its neighbour, like a row of crooked teeth. Then the buildings stop, the road narrows and we are in a country lane that hugs the coast.
The sun bleaches the hedgerows to grey and seeks out white skin to burn. My nausea now is a squirming mass, thick and threatening. I no longer respond to Maeve’s whispers. I must concentrate on my breathing and focus only on the way ahead. Slowly, slowly, on we tramp until, at last, we can see the cemetery, a patchwork of crosses and slabs of stone staring over a low wall at the sea, closed now to anybody who does not already have a plot inside.
Mrs D.’s open grave is there, waiting for us, and beside it a pile of earth, surface cracking as it dries in the sun. Three Celtic high crosses stand sentry over the hole in the ground. The smallest, newest one belongs to Auntie Norah: ‘Norah Anne Teresa O’Donovan. 1900 to 1987. Ar Dheis Dé Go Raibh A Anam.’ May Her Soul Be With God.
Granny Peg would have chosen this inscription for the woman who was not really our aunt at all but her closest friend. And Norah must have chosen to be buried here with Gran instead of with her own people, the O’Donovans.
The middle-sized gravestone, with the open hole gaping beneath, commemorates the Parle family – Granny Peg, Granddad, Gran’s parents. Soon, Mrs D.’s dates and details will be carved beneath theirs.
And the third, most ornate stone is dedicated to the man that made the Parles what we are. Uncle Barney, Gran’s brother. Uncle Barney who made what Gran used to call “the ultimate sacrifice”, meaning he died for Ireland. This tall Celtic cross was erected by his old IRA comrades, its inscription in the old Gaelic alphabet, illegible to me and anyone except a handful of scholars.
A terrible thought strikes me. I whisper to Maeve. “Mrs D. hasn’t asked for any IRA palaver for the burial, has she?”
Granny Peg, I knew, had had a full Irish Republican burial when she died: tricolour flag draped across the coffin, volleys from old IRA guns fired into the air as they lowered her down, report in the local paper…
“Oh no, nobody does that any more,” Maeve whispers back, eyes to the crowd. “Not since things got so bad in the north.”
The priest and the keeners have joined us by the graves and now the keening starts up again. We must stand straight and wait while the long string of people trudges in and gathers round. Father Doyle’s face makes his feelings clear: he has no choice but to indulge these eccentric requests – the deceased was one of his keenest patrons – but he does not have to approve. The noise strikes at my temples in time with my blood. Shut up, beats the pulse. Shut up. Shut up.
Finally, at the height of the lamentation, they do, stopping abruptly and stepping back into the crowd.
Silence reverberates. A lone pair of hands starts to applaud, the claps faltering as it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to join in. As Father Doyle begins to pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I spot Rory close by and, behind him, the entire O’Donovan clan. All of them: Paddy and Brendan and Martin and Joan and Mary and Kathleen and Benny and their assorted spouses and children. I’m so surprised to seem them all here, at a Parle funeral, that it takes me a moment to register the woman who must be his wife – a tall and elegant blonde – holding two little hands that belong to the boy and girl who must be his son and daughter.
I feel sick. It’s physical, nothing to do with seeing this perfect family portrait. I’ve had twenty years to accept that while Rory O’Donovan may have been the love of my life, the one who spoiled me for everyone else, I did not mean the same to him.
He long ago moved on, to marriage, fatherhood and children: my sister had told me all about that when it happened.
And good for him. Why not? Whatever I wanted to do with my life – and I will admit that at 38-years-old, I’m a little tardy with the answer to that question – I do know, I’ve always known, what I don’t want. It’s a list that seems to include lots that’s desirable to others: cars, careers, big houses in the suburbs, weekly trips to the mall, televisions, face-lifts…And tip-top, first and foremost, outright number one on the list of Things That Jo Devereux Does NOT Want is marriage and two kids in Mucknamore. With Rory O’Donovan, or anyone else.
Nausea twists again. And again. I try to beat it down, but this time pressure is swelling up into my nose and ears and I know it’s going to come. My middle constricts; my head fills with the sound of somebody wailing. Father Doyle looks up from his missal, annoyance all over his face now. This is not what was agreed, this is supposed to be his time. He should have recognised that this sound is different, rawer than the ritual cries of professional keeners. Me.
I try to stumble away, floundering in the only direction free of people, and find I’m walking towards Mrs D.’s open grave. I can see the questioning faces of the crowd but it is as if they are behind a gauze. The cool earth-hole beckons and as I pitch towards it, a male voice calls out my name, “Jo!” and two strong arms shoot out. My body recognises him, sways towards him, but as it does my stomach erupts and I find I’m spurting vomit over his shoes. I try to apologise but the next wave is surging up. “You’re all right, Jo,” he says. “You’re all right.”
Oh, but I’m not. Again and again it comes, sick pooling on the grass around our feet. He holds me throughout – what must his wife be making of that? – and when the heaving stops he places a handkerchief into my shaking hands. I wipe my mouth and try to speak but my lips won’t move and when I step away from him in an effort to stand on my own, the world comes rushing in through my ears, spinning me into a vortex of blackness.
Rory O’Donovan takes hold of me again and I sag, letting unconsciousness carry me off.
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