We're delighted to present an extract from Listening Still (published by Sceptre), the new novel by Anne Griffin, author of When All is Said.
Jeanie Masterson has a gift: she can hear the recently dead and give voice to their final wishes and revelations. Inherited from her father, this gift has enabled the family undertakers to flourish in their small Irish town. Yet she has always been uneasy about censoring some of the dead's last messages to the living. Unsure, too, about the choice she made when she left school seventeen years ago: to stay or leave for a new life in London with her charismatic teenage sweetheart. So when Jeanie's parents unexpectedly announce their plan to retire, she is jolted out of her limbo...
It was my aunt Harry who first realised I had Dad's gift, she who missed that gene, she often delighted in telling anyone who’d listen. When I was a toddler, I loved to trail after her in the embalming room, following her every move. Sitting under the one embalming table we had back then while she washed the dead, giggling as I pulled up my legs away from the drips that breached the sides. I should say, to be around the dead, naked or clothed, from birth meant I never realised the outside world might think it horrifying. To me they were as natural as the two wood pigeons who lived in our oak tree in the yard. I liked it when Harry massaged their limbs so that the embalming fluid could reach every nook and cranny. They liked it too. I could hear them sigh. I joined in their laughter when the ticklish ones couldn’t hold it in any more.
'Is that funny, Jeanie?’ Harry’d ask, finally won over by my giggles to stop what she was doing and play the game I wanted her to play.
‘Yeah,’ I’d laugh in reply, waiting, knowing full well what was coming next.
‘Well, if that’s so funny, wait until I get you.’ Already she’d begun to tiptoe after me in her white lab coat and red Doc Martens. And I’d run or totter as fast as I could, but not too fast, as the bit I loved was when she caught me and swung me high in the air and sat me in the chair to tickle me. Under the arms was worst, her fingers didn’t even need to make contact and I’d be wriggling and loving every second. And then she’d blow on my tummy. And all the while the person would wait patiently, sometimes laughing along, sometimes crying, perhaps thinking of their own little ones that they’d never touch again. Not that at two years old I was that in tune with the whys and wherefores of human emotion. It was simply what they did, laughed or cried or talked. It was my world.
Mum never wanted me to be in the embalming room and would often bring me to her hair salon next door. But I’d howl and say: ‘Dat, dat’ pointing in the direction of the funeral director’s. And she, or one of her apprentices, would carry me back as I screamed all the way, trying to escape their grasp until I was back to Dad and Harry and the dead.
As the story goes, it wasn’t until I was able to fully speak that Harry finally clicked that I could hear them like her brother. Harry listened to music as she worked – David Bowie, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen, although sometimes she said he brought the mood down far too much even for the dead. Once she went through a Clash phase. That, apparently, caused all sorts of problems when the families of clients called in and Dad rushed in from the reception where he liked to meet with them to discuss the arrangements, to tell her to ‘turn that blasted racket down’.
‘Sorry, Dave,’ she called then smiled to herself. Harry was the only person who called Dad ‘Dave’.
‘She wants to hear the other one,’ I shouted to Harry this one day when she’d nipped into Dad’s office before beginning her morning’s embalming. I suspect I was about four by then. I was sitting at a little desk Dad had set up for me in the embalming room in the hopes I’d stop running around causing his sister to chase me, and simply colour instead. He’d even bought me new colouring books.
‘What you’d really like is ones with dead people in coffins, isn’t that right? Then you’d do colouring all day,’ he’d said, the blue eyes that I’d inherited flitting down to me as I held his large smooth hand, while he perused the different colouring books in Frayne’s Newsagent’s and Toy Shop.
‘What, my love?’ Harry said, coming back in, exaggeratedly cocking her ear as she turned on the Porti-boy, the embalming machine that looked like an enormous white juicer, sitting on the counter pumping fluid into the lady lying on the table.
‘She wants the other song,’ I shouted.
Harry turned off the noise to be sure she’d heard me right.
‘Who wants the other song?’
‘The lady.’ I pointed with my colouring pencil at the woman with white hair so long that it flowed over the end of the embalming table.
‘Did Agnes tell you that?’
Agnes Grace, the first dead person I heard, or the first dead person I admitted to hearing. Can’t remember what she’d died of now.
Harry hadn’t moved from beside the Porti-boy. She was always good at that, not overdramatising things.
‘I see. Don’t know what’s wrong with "Starman".’
‘She likes the TV one better.’
‘"TVC 15"? Well, it’s a good one, I’ll give her that. But not his best.’ Harry went over to her stereo to change it back. ‘So do they talk to you a bit, Jeanie, the dead?’
‘All of them?’
Listening Still by Anne Griffin (published by Sceptre) is out now.