I didn’t cry when I heard my mother died. The news came through my phone, loud and unreal in the way phone conversations are, as I stood inside a cubicle in my work bathroom and stared blankly at the ceiling. I didn’t cry then, even though I probably should have. Nor did I cry when I packed my suitcase and locked my apartment door behind me. The drive from Dublin to Ballymore, Co. Cork was an hours-long one, and a winding one once I got off the motorway, with ample empty thinking space. So, of course I turned my loudest Spotify playlist up as high as it would go. Like a DJ between two massive speakers, I surrounded myself with that playlist, engulfed myself in it, until the last sputterings of mobile signal vanished and told me what I’d left behind.
The morning after I’d arrived back in my mother’s – now my sister Margaret’s – house, I stared down at my plate and wished I still had the playlist to listen to. Work had a canteen that I ate in at least twice a day. Three different kinds of fruit juice, yogurt and granola, energy balls coated with almond flakes all lay behind me.
In front of me lay two rashers. The copious fat strips were burned black, and the slices of meat leisurely reclined in viscous pools of grease. Margaret never remembered to soak up the grease properly before serving anything. Then again, neither had my mother.
“…thank you so much,” Margaret was saying into the landline. “Yes, yes, the wake’s tonight. You’re very good. Thank you now. Thank you. Bye-bye.”
She hung up in the way I’d at last pushed the lid down on my bulging suitcase a few days before.
“Margaret,” I said, planning to ask her to pass me over the kitchen paper.
“What is it?” Then the phone rang again and she was off, jabbering away into it about RIP.ie and flower arrangements and infinite other bits of bullshit. It seemed I’d have to eat the full-fat option. I dug my knife sullenly into the rasher. I could already feel my arteries shriveling.
“Yes, Maureen, of course Danny can do the first reading. You know how fond she was of him.”
I chewed, loudly, keeping my eyes fixed on the wall and my mind anywhere but there.
“Did you hear now, that Laura of the Dohertys is after moving in with her boyfriend?”
Imagine, in the year of our Lord 2021, someone having the temerity to live in sin with their partner. Surely the sky would fall at such heathenry. I rolled my eyes when I was sure she wasn’t looking at me, and only the dignity of adulthood prevented me from sticking my tongue out at her back. Then I tuned in again at the sound of my name.
“Yes, Paul is here.” There was a burst of noise from the other end of the phone. “I will, I’ll tell him you said hello. Yes, he’s still working at that job. God only knows what he does all day long, but it seems to keep him occupied.”
The last comment was accompanied by a look in my direction. I stared right back at Margaret, and raised an eyebrow. That job was head of graphic design at Ireland’s biggest advertising agency. I’d taught myself technical graphics when the nuns couldn’t teach me and became the first person in our family to go to college for it. Margaret, meanwhile, had moldered among Sacred Heart pictures and hens.
She hung up again and sat down at the kitchen table, opposite me.
“Now I know those rashers aren’t what you’d get at that job of yours,” she began.
I swallowed a mouthful. “They’re fine.”
“They’re the last out of the packet,” she said.
“So get another packet.”
She glowered at me, clearly aching for something else to say. “Sure they’re only out of Dunnes. They’re probably put into the packet straight off the floor of the slaughterhouse – “
“I said they’re fine.”
“Maureen MacDermott says hello,” she said then.
“Who’s that again?” I said, just to see her squirm.
And true to form, it worked. “‘Who’s that again?’ he says. ‘Who’s that again?’ as if Maureen MacDermott wasn’t in and out from the time we were children. I swear to Christ you’ve forgotten everything since you left us for the Big Smoke.”
“I came back,” I said, annoyed.
“Only for Christmas.” I couldn’t tell if the shine was in Margaret’s eyes, or her glasses catching the sun. “But you had to run away, didn’t you, for your drawing and your coloring- ”
“Graphic design,” I said.
She brushed me off with one hand. “Anyway. Bygones are bygones. I only wish Mammy had gotten to see you one more time before she died.”
This, I thought as I headed for the car, was why I’d only ever come back for Christmas in the first place. I’d parked the car in front of the half-door that led into the old cottage, the original house I’d grown up in that Margaret had eventually extended. Now my mother wasn’t sitting there anymore, the fire was the room’s only illumination, sending flickering orange light up the bumpy white walls. Margaret had pushed back most of the furniture to make room for the coffin, due later today. The thatch spread over my head, a thousand golden threads coming together in a unified whole. Under the thatch roof, sounds seemed more muffled, the world more insulated. This little room and the two small bedrooms off it had been my home for all of my childhood. My mother’s chair still sat by the fire. Although it wasn’t her chair anymore. It never would be her chair again, and yet it still was, because it always had been.
I’d brought down the tablet I used for personal projects. It only needed an internet signal to sync to the cloud, not to work by itself, and it might make the time down here, and Margaret, more bearable. I just hoped I’d remembered to charge it; the last time I’d worked on a personal project was eight months ago.
When I pressed the button that automatically opened the boot, I leaned in to get the tablet. I’d put it behind a large cardboard box. I looked at the box for a long moment, remembering everything it had taken to get it here – the phone calls to the council, the application for the rural internet grant, paying for the surveyors and digging up the land to run the long underground internet cable to the house.
The last step had been this router, bought and then procrastinated on for months. I’d told my mother I’d been busy at work, when I hadn’t been so busy that I couldn’t spare a weekend to bring it to her. The cable ran under the rolling green grass, golden and gleaming and twisted together as a sheaf of straw to thatch the roof. But my mother hadn’t lived to see me connect it.
The conversations stopped at me. Everywhere else in the room, they swirled around each other and blended into each other, but I sat like a firewall in the midst of streams of data. My eyes stayed on the floor. Hastily polished brogues mingled with sensible wedge heels. I tucked my Chelsea boots further under my chair.
Between the press of bodies and the roaring hearth, the room was oppressively warm. The only body not contributing to the heat was the one I sat next to. My mother was in the coffin, right beside me. All around me, the denizens of Ballymore grinned, laughed, teased each other, while my mother’s bloodless face lay limp and her mouth stayed sewed shut.
I aimlessly sipped at my cheap wine. It was the closest thing to a good drink in, seemingly, a house filled with alcohol. I looked over at a knot of three old men I vaguely recognized and watched them clink their glasses of more water than beer together.
“Sure she had a long life.” The voice came from my left.
I turned towards it and jumped. Sitting there was an old woman I hadn’t seen before. Then again, I had been somewhat tuned out.
“She did,” I said. One little phrase was enough down here for the other person to carry the conversation.
Two small eyes looked at me out of a face crinkled like a walnut. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“No,” I wasn’t sure whether we had or not, but it was easier to go along with whatever she said. “I moved away from here years ago.”
Usually people around here, upon hearing that, either launched into the twenty questions (“But isn’t Dublin awful lonesome? And expensive? And you’re sure that’s a real job?”) or moved on to a more fertile field of local gossip.
This woman smiled. “That’s good, that’s good. Wakes and gatherings after someone dies are for everyone to hold on to everyone they already know. And I’m only another oul biddy to most of these.”
In my experience, oul biddies who no-one quite knew made up the bulk of these kinds of gatherings. I scooted my chair so I was fully turned towards her. “What do you mean?”
“I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a blow-in,” she said.
I looked out at the room again. Margaret was earnestly discussing animal feed with two women I didn’t recognize. The group of men I’d gone to primary school with appeared to be plotting out tactics for an upcoming hurling match.
“So am I,” I admitted.
A series of loud spitting noises from the fire interrupted either of us from saying anything next. The turf smell was thicker and more pungent when they eventually quietened down. That was when I said, “I don’t think I caught your name?”
“It’s Bridie.” She extended her hand. “Bridie McCafferty. And yourself?”
I shook her hand. It was surprisingly hard to get a grip on. “Paul Fahy.”
“You’re a relative of her’s, then?” she said, nodding towards the coffin.
“Her son,” I said. “Did you know her?”
Bridie folded two liver-spotted hands in her lap. “When we were children, we used have great times together. We only lived up the road from each other, you know.”
At that, impatience leaked back into me. “Up the road” around here could mean anything from “slept in the adjoining cow shed” to “twenty minutes drive over a cliff edge.”
But, she kept talking, the words tumbling out of her. “I remember one time, your mother and I were going off to school, and she had on her a green dress. Only, the dress had been washed so many times, that when she got up in the morning and put it on her it had a hole around the arse.”
Then Bridie had lived close to my mother and known her, beyond the generalized knowing of everyone else that made up a village. My mother had told this story so often I could practically tell it in sync with Bridie.
I put down my wine glass. “And then what happened?”
“I said to her,” said Bridie, “‘Stop now, before you make an absolute show of yourself.’ And when she saw the state of her dress, she said, ‘Bridie, I’ve only this and the dress I wear to Mass, and it’s too late in the morning for us to turn back.’ So do you know what we did?”
“What did you do?” Out of all the times I’d heard this story, it was the first time the other person in it had a face.
Bridie grinned. “We walked back to back. For the whole day, wherever your mother went, I stood up and walked with her.”
And I surprised myself by laughing with her. That lasted for a few minutes, until a particularly drunk old man swayed and knocked against me.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, straightening himself. Then he brandished his can. “Listen, lad. You wouldn’t know where I could find another one of these in this house, would you?”
Across the room, I could see Margaret looking over at us. She’d finally found a place to sit down, and even from here the varicose veins in her ankles were visibly throbbing.
I stood up. “‘Course I do. You stay here, and I’ll be right back.”
When I returned, refills in hand, my chair was still empty. But Bridie no longer occupied the seat beside it. I scanned the room for Bridie, but I couldn’t spot her. Instead, an even shorter old woman sat there. She had the squatness of someone who’d spent much of her life lifting and pulling heavy things. Then her face registered.
“Maggie O’Halloran, is that you?” I said, with a delight I hadn’t expected to feel.
The new woman looked up. “Paul Fahy, as I live and breathe!”
I handed the drink to the old man as fast as I could and sat down. “It’s been so long.”
“Indeed it has,” she said, “and you shot up like a tree!”
I frowned, something I couldn’t fully parse poking at my memory. “Didn’t you…move away?”
“You could say that. But ‘tis her that has me back,” she said, gesturing towards the coffin.
“Me too,” I said.
“Me more so than you.” Maggie’s posture pulled in on itself. “Couldn’t be here without her.”
“Well,” I said uncertainly, “what matters is that we’re both here.”
The fire blazed properly, bathing the room with heat, as Maggie smiled and said, “I suppose it does, doesn’t it?”
Briefly, I remembered how often I’d mocked the people who came in here and seemingly wasted their entire lives reminiscing. Then, I dismissed it. “The last time we were both sitting in here together must have been, what, twenty years ago?”
“More than that,” she said. “I started visiting your mother from the time we were first married, did you know that?”
I was surprised to find I didn’t. Maggie had been the kind of presence you take for granted as a child, one where you never think about their origins because they had, seemingly, been around since the beginning of the world.
“You used to pop out your false teeth to scare me,” I said.
“And you used beg me to do it! And then your mother used say, ‘Paul Fahy, that’s what happens when you don’t wash your teeth, now get to bed!’ And then when you were gone to sleep we’d talk pure ráiméis till all hours, and she would leave her own teeth to feck.”
We both laughed at that. But it felt like a heavier laugh than before. I would never again be seven and dismissed to bed, and my mother would never again get her gossip by the fire. Her mouth wrinkles were so much more visible now she lay in the coffin; her mouth had been too constantly in motion when she was alive for me to really have seen them. I thought of what it took to ensure a corpse could sit in the open air for days and not rot, and of just why an open-coffin funeral was only partially open-coffin.
Maggie followed my gaze. “She was a good friend.”
“I made her a promise,” I blurted out.
“And did you keep it?” Maggie said.
I looked at my shoes.
“Keep it now, then.”
I had to save face somehow. “…Because the priest says honor thy father and mother?”
“Feck the priest.” I blinked at the vehemence in her voice. “There’s things in this world no priest can find nor tell you.”
A mix of emotions I didn’t want to feel or untangle were rising in me. “Thanks. For the chat. I’ll be back in a sec.”
I made sure the bathroom door was firmly closed behind me before letting myself exhale. Out here, in the extension, the old thatch roof no longer swaddled me. The golden threads over my head had given way to flat slates. The night air coming through the open window was pleasantly cool on my face after the heat of the kitchen. Automatically, I took out my phone and flicked it open – but the grey ‘No internet’ screen stared at me again. I slid it back into my pocket, and looked out at the night.
My steps were slow as an old man’s when I went back. Margaret had insisted we keep the lights off in the halls to save on the bills, so the kitchen, bathroom and the old kitchen were the only pools of light in long and empty corridors. Behind me was the creaking of an old house telling itself its stories as it settled in for the night. Ahead of me was suppressed heat and muffled conversation. I turned the doorknob, and once again, there was a new old woman in the seat next to mine.
“Have you seen Bridie? Or Maggie?” I said, already half-knowing the answer.
“We were coming from the same direction,” said this old woman.
I sat down. “Out by Waterford, then? Or Tralee?”
“Further,” she said.
My wine glass was empty. I picked it up and twisted the stem back and forth between my finger and thumb. The light of the room shone through it, insistently bright and distorted like a screen in a dark room, and I wished I could keep seeing the room that way.
A hand gripped my shoulder, tight in the way of old people when they know they’ve only so many things left to grip. “You’re Paul, aren’t you? The son?”
“I am,” I said, turning back to her. “How did you know?”
“How do you think I know?” Withdrawing her hand, she continued, “Sure, aren’t I Mary Hegarty? Wasn’t I playing bingo with your mother every week for the past ten years?”
I peered closely at her face. I should recognize some part of it. I’d (involuntarily) met all of my mother’s bingo friends at one Christmas visit or another. But the hooked nose and red-rimmed eyes were only familiar in the way all aging is familiar; two images plucked from a neural network of decay. Besides, I wanted more conversation at that moment about as much as I wanted to permanently move back here.
“Have you talked to Margaret yet?” I said. “I can call her over.”
“Do not call over Margaret.” Her voice had sharpened.
Mary spoke quickly. “She has a lot to be doing. Leave her be.”
“I suppose…” It was hard to even spot Margaret now. With this many people crammed into a room with this few seats, the room was packed with people standing up. Sitting down, I felt as if I was surrounded by a cluster of electricity towers. “It is fairly busy.”
“The old wakes were much bigger,” said Mary. “There’d be the whole of Ballymore, and if the person had family elsewhere they’d make the trip, and even bring their friends or relations.”
Maybe my mother had been less popular than I thought. “So why do you think this one is smaller?”
“Less people born here. Less people dying here. Less people doing things the done way.”
“I guess so,” I said, thinking of crayons and pencils being taken away, of a flat cap descending like the headpiece on an electric chair.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last proper wake Ballymore had.” Her voice was quieter now.
Surely Mary’s own family would run her funeral how she would have wanted it when she passed on. But that didn’t seem like the best thought to voice aloud. Instead I said, “You never know. More of the old things stay around here than you’d think.”
Mary gave me a sidelong glance, and as she did so, the hearth guttered down to almost nothing. “But you were going to change that, weren’t you?”
Shock buzzed through me like phone vibrations through a wooden table. “How did you know that?”
She said nothing, instead looking at me, waiting for an answer.
“…I was,” I said. “She…my mother, she always wanted me to set up the internet here. And I…had almost done it.”
I pinched my nose, squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, Mary was gone. It was only then I realized that she’d shared no recollection of my mother with me. I had to find her and the other women I’d spoken to again. They were the only other people left alive who shared my mother’s interconnected web of stories.
I didn’t pay attention when I went to my mother’s funeral. All through the rest of the wake, all through the funeral service, even when I shouldered her coffin and laid her in the ground, I was scanning the crowds for those three faces. Margaret had booked out a pub for afterwards, and I circulated numbly and nibbled on sausage rolls and looked for them. But, they were nowhere. Around me, people discussed the weather and the upcoming mart, and I stood still, my feelings deleted. At last, I decided that there was one person to ask.
I tapped Margaret on the shoulder. “Have you seen Bridie McCafferty anywhere?”
“What do you mean?” she said, folding her arms.
“Or Maggie O’Halloran?”
“You’re an awful joker.” Her voice was flat.
Anger flashed in Margaret’s eyes; I could see that she’d have a lot more to say if we weren’t surrounded by people. “How could I have seen them?”
“They came to the wake,” I said blankly. “I was talking to them, and I thought they’d have come to the service as well.”
Margaret counted each name off on her fingers as she spoke. “Bridie’s dead the past fifteen years or more. The lung cancer got Maggie a good five years ago. And I saw Mary being put into the ground myself. So no, I haven’t seen them. And you’d want to watch that fine big gob of yours, before you walk around disrespecting the dead at our own mother’s funeral.”
I left early after that. The box I took from the boot was heavy in my arms. When I walked into the old kitchen, cans and glasses and dirty dishes from last night coated every available surface, and the room had the fresh emptiness you get right after a room was bursting with people.
I set the box carefully on the table.
“Are you there?” I said to the empty room.
And all three of them were standing around me.
“We’re here,” Bridie said.
“We came back for your mother,” Maggie said.
“We came back for the last of the old times,” Mary said.
I looked at the box again. My hands shook. “The last of the old times?”
“You’re gone from here,” said Mary.
“And we’re nearly gone,” said Maggie.
“And your mother was the last of us,” said Bridie.
When I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I could keep you here! I could keep – her here. I can take away the router, if you want me to.”
The three of them put their hands on my shoulders.
“No,” Bridie said.
“Keep your promise,” Maggie said.
“Do the last thing she asked of you,” Mary said.
So, I unfolded the cables. I put the plugs into the sockets, and I plugged the cables into the router. The golden metal wires wrapped tight in the plastic opened the gate to the world beyond the golden thatch. My phone glowed, vibrating again and again with everything rushing in at once. The weight of the women’s hands vanished from my shoulders. And as I started to cry, the fire in the hearth at last went out.