David Butler is a runner-up in the 2012 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition.
It’s crazy to be cold, here. Winters in Quebec, the wind down the Lawrence would skin a mink. But here I’m cold to the bone. I dig both fists deep into my pockets and hunch my shoulders, willing the hearse on in its glacial crawl. It wouldn’t do for them to see me shiver.
It’s years since I’ve stood in Glasnevin cemetery. Dead centre of Dublin, the old joke goes. Maybe it was already a cold spot, and that’s why they began to bury their dead here. Or maybe it’s the sullen yews that make it cold, and infect the gravestones with lichen. All around are leprous Christs and crumbling angels. Stone too has its diseases.
Inside the church, I hadn’t felt so cold. I was too busy trying not to look at Ludmilla, and my sister Kate, to have noticed. And Stevie, twisted in his wheelchair like a perpetual question mark. Or I was too busy tallying up how many of the party faithful had braved the paparazzi to pay their last respects. No former Taoiseach, of course. A wreath in his name took pride of place on the coffin. But the man was no fool. To be fair, there were three pews filled with apparatchiks.
A smattering has even made it to Glasnevin. They stand about in Louis Copeland coats with their aura of brandy and ruthless camaraderie. Strange as it sounds, I’m grateful to see them here.
Ciarán gave the pulpit talk. Kate’s husband. By rights that task should’ve devolved to me. I am, after all, the eldest. But no-one had asked me, and I was hardly likely to make the suggestion myself. In fact, until the moment I mounted the rickety stairs to the airplane, it was touch and go whether I’d even make the old man’s funeral.
‘It’ll smack of hypocrisy,’ I’d reasoned. ‘We’d nothing to say to one another while he was alive.’
‘Il était ton père, Jacques.’
‘He was one walking bastard, is what he was.’
‘Il était bien ton père quand même.’
Maddy won out. I knew she would. We both did. No question of bringing the twins, though. They’re too young to remember an Irish grandfather. So that meant Maddy staying behind, too. All told, the arrangement suited everybody.
My shoulder is bumped by a trench-coat and homburg, and a hand seeks out mine. ‘Cold enough for ye?’ Finn, Ciarán’s older brother. It takes me a second to place him. He’s aged. ‘I tell you Finn, I wish that bloody undertaker would find the accelerator before we all freeze to death.’
‘Not as cold as Toronto, says you.’
He mouths a comic ‘O’. I’ve always liked Finn. ‘Tell us,’ I say, stepping in to him, ‘how’ve the papers treated all this…?’
He shuts one eye to find the word. ‘Surprisingly restrained.’ Over his shoulder I notice Kate is watching us. Her eyes flick away as soon as mine catch her at it. ‘Give it a few days Jack, then the gloves’ll be off.’
‘I won’t be hanging around. I’m away first thing tomorrow.’
‘Half the bloomin’ country’s away tomorrow.’
‘So I believe. Will the last one out please turn off the lights.’
‘I take it you won’t be waiting around to hear the will?’
‘The will, is it? The man was a bloody bankrupt!’
‘Officially he was, says you! C’mere to me, what made you let that brother of mine do his speechifying in the chapel? By rights Jack that should’ve been your gig.’
‘But how would the script have read then, huh? “My father spent his whole life riding the dodgems. He dodged the taxman, he dodged the financial regulator, and he dodged the party whip. He dodged the tribunals by getting cancer of the bowel. And now he’s after dodging cancer by crashing the bloody limo. He’ll dodge the devil yet. I’ll lay even money there’s nothing but stones in that coffin. Ladies and gentlemen, my father.”’ Of course, I don’t say a word about the years he played dodgems with my mother. But he’s cute, Finn. He notices things.
‘C’mere to me, your ma’s not…?’ He makes an open gesture towards the open grave.
‘No.’ A shiver runs through me. ‘She’s buried with her people, thank God.’
He claps his hands and rubs them as though to generate a spark. ‘All the same Jacko, maybe you’d a right to say your bit about dodging the tribunals. Sure half the bloody party would’ve had to stand up and applaud!’
‘Your brother made a fine job of the speech, Finn. I all but believed him myself!’
‘Hand it to Ciarán. He’d talk for Ireland so he would.’
I look over to where Ciarán is hovering behind my sister. Tall, balding, grimly jovial. One hand is on Stevie’s electric chair. ‘He’s a decent old skin,’ I say. And as I say it, I mean it.
At last the hearse crunches to a halt and the pallbearers begin their manoeuvre. The coffin’s weight seems disproportionate. When last I saw him, at Kate’s wedding, my politician father was scarcely more than a scarecrow under a ridiculous wig. But in any case, everyone is watching the elegant woman dressed in black who leads her young daughter to the graveside. How grief becomes Ludmilla! The little girl’s eyes are on mine, big mahogany eyes with a child’s unabashed curiosity. Sophie, my half-sister. She can’t have been more than three when last I saw her. I’m ‘Uncle Jack’, apparently, the black sheep who’s too stubborn or too bloody awkward to stand with the rest of the flock. I smile at her. She doesn’t smile, but she doesn’t look away either.
It’s far too cold for hanging about. Mercifully, even the priest thinks so. A bit of hocus-pocus, a splash of water, in saecula saeculorum. The cameras clack like beaks as Ludmilla lets a handful of clay dribble into the grave. Kate follows suit. Little Sophie’s eyes still haven’t left mine. I wink at her, shuffle forward, take up a fistful of the damp earth, crumble it and let it dance over the coffin lid. Quand même Jacques. He was still my father.
Kate floats over to me during the reception. Yesterday at the removal, when I’d mentioned I was only staying on a couple of days, she’d given me the frozen treatment. Now, over the effigy of a smile, she’s playing reconciliatory Kate. ‘How’s Madeleine?’
Now, Kate had never warmed to Maddy. ‘Couldn’t be better. She says ‘hello’. To Ciarán, too. And Stevie of course.’’
‘Great. Maddy didn’t think….’ My hand vaguely takes in the lobby.
‘Oh no. It would’ve been….’ She shakes her hairdo to and fro. Her eyes are fluttering like butterflies from guest to guest. But her smile would sink the Titanic.
‘Ludmilla looks fab.’ I say this quite innocently. But as soon as the words are out I’m aware of how disreputable they sound.
‘It’s not been easy on her.’
‘No, I don’t suppose it has.’
‘Listen Jack.’ As she cuts to the chase, Kate’s eyes semaphore to some couple or other behind my back her ‘you’re my particular friends’. Her spoken words are for my ears only. ‘We could really do with you staying on a few weeks this time.’
This time? Jesus! ‘But what’s left to do?’
‘What’s left to do?’ Her smile blossoms. I have to hand it to her, anyone watching would think I’d cracked the most delicious joke. ‘His papers are a mess Jack! A right bloody mess! And, and…how can you expect Ludmilla to cope with the…gutter press here?’
‘They don’t have gutter press on the continent?’
‘So you’re just going to skulk away back to Madeleine, is that it? Ok Jack. You run back to Canada. You’ve medals for it.’
‘What would you have me do Kate?’ I can feel a strain about my mouth now. False smiles are infectious. ‘It’s no secret what I thought of the old bastard.’
Her eyes suddenly flash at mine. ‘Mum’s a long time dead Jack. Get over it!’ It’s not at all what I was expecting. ‘She is that!’ I say, winded, and staring hard at her to figure where this sudden venom‘s come from. She shakes her mane magnificently as she pushes past me, and somehow it’s as if the headshake sums up the collective indignation of all the assembled mourners. I’m left standing on my own. Stevie, swaying in his wheelchair, begins a low moan.
Then I spot Finn, hovering near the punchbowl, his homburg pushed comically back to entertain Sophie. So I go over.
‘Here’s Jack now, you can ask him yourself.’
She’s giggling up at him and shaking her head ‘nao!’
‘Go on, ask him yourself you don’t believe me!’
‘Nao! You’re stupid!’ she giggles, slapping his thigh.
‘Ask me what?’ I try.
‘He says I’m a auntie,’ she grins, her milk teeth missing.
‘You are too!’ he cries. ‘You’re Auntie Sophie!’
‘I’m not Auntie Sophie!’
I hunker down. ‘I’ve two little boys,’ I say. ‘So maybe, does that make you Uncle Sophie?’
She considers this for a second. She frowns up at Finn, and then grins. She shakes her ponytail, then she pushes her hot palms into my face. ‘You’re stew-pid!’
There’s not much of a queue at check-in. That’s one thing to be said for red-eye flights. The fluorescent strip overhead is wincing on and off, and it seems to mock my insomnia.
‘Aisle or window?
‘What? Oh! Whatever.’
I’m fidgety. I check my watch and consult the television screen for the umpteenth time. Proceed to Gate. Eyes closed, I pinch the bridge of my nose.
‘Have a nice flight sir.’
‘What?’ Boarding card. ‘Oh, thanks.’
I’d barely drifted into sleep before the four-thirty alarm call had erupted. The taxi had sped through a sleeping city. Now, everything in the great vestibule has an unreal quality to it.
I look at the haggard face that looks back from the mirror. Insomnia has pushed a deep thumbprint under each eye. The reflected man splashes tap-water over tired jowls, my jowls, where ‘you’re stew-pid!’ her sticky hands had pressed.
The ape yawning at security barely glances at the monitor as my tray judders through. Hand-luggage and suit. Three days stay, what else are you going to need? There’s a monitor high on the far wall. As I tug back on my shoes I scan it. Boarding. I look at my watch. Twenty minutes to take-off.
Everything in duty-free is shuttered up. A cleaner passes by with a machine that moans like a milk float. It’ll be past two in the morning in Quebec. Will I manage to sleep on the flight? God I hope so!
An automated walkway trundles towards the departure gates. But I haven’t stepped onto it. Instead, I’m held by a window. It’s dark outside, with tiny chains of rain beading the glass. A ghost is standing at the far side, deep thumbprints of insomnia pressed beneath each eye. The ghost is watching me slip away, back to Madeleine and the twins.
A minute goes by. His papers are a right bloody mess. This is not my problem. The man was a gangster, pure and simple. But still the walkway trundles mechanically, loud in the building’s waking vacancy. I haven’t stepped onto it. Instead, I’m looking down at my hand. There’s a mobile phone squatting in its palm. What the hell is it doing there? It’ll be gone two in the morning in Quebec.
‘Maddy, c’est toi? T’ai réveillée chérie?’
A yawn, bed-warm. What the hell am I doing?
‘Sorry love.’ I breathe out, exasperated. ‘No, nothing’s up. Listen. I’m going to have to stay on here a while longer. What? I don’t know. A few more days. Is that ok love?’
What the hell am I doing? I exhale, shake my head at the character in the glass, grimace, about turn.
‘You’re stew-pid!’ the hot palms had pressed into my cheeks.
By David Butler