|Hugh is a member of Abraxas Writers|
It was a cold morning and the pale light of the equinoctial sun, low in the faded blue sky, offered no warmth other than the pledge of summer to come. Liam Manley was wearing his wool topcoat and his wool scarf and his cap and his gloves, and still the March wind made him shiver. He turned left at the graveyard and walked smartly towards the church. ‘Jesus, that’s really cold. Must be old age,’ he said aloud although there was no one to hear. It was a recent departure for him, this talking to himself, but there was comfort in it, a bit like whistling in the dark or making the sign of the cross at the sound of church bells. Old me arse, he thought, It’s just this stinking weather. Liam was a firm believer in the “you are as old as you feel’ approach to ageing. He was not young, he would never see seventy again, and yet, his present circumstances excepted, he usually felt pretty good.
Liam was on his way to the funeral mass for Tony Coyle. He disliked attending funerals and he avoided such occasions whenever possible. Of course he turned up for a relative or for a close friend and there had been an increasing number of those in his recent past. It was not that he had any problem with death or with the process of honouring and burying the departed. It was that he felt inadequate in the face of raw grief. He never knew what to say. Invariably, he fell back on the old formula of “Sorry for your trouble’and a fumbled handshake, and a quick getaway. That was probably what he would do when he got to commiserate with Tony’s widow, Maureen.
He arrived early and was fortunate to find a seat in the already packed church. The crowd kept coming until it seemed as if the whole town had squeezed in. He knew most of the faces. Quite a turn out for Tony, he thought. Certainly more than he would ever have expected but then Tony had died so suddenly, a brain haemorrhage, that the town was in shock. Tony had been a quiet, good humoured man, a friend the same age as himself, and he had, as they say, “dropped dead”. Liam glanced at the front pews where the mourning family was clustered. Maureen caught his eye and nodded in his direction and then looked away. Looks a bit shook, he thought, and yet she seemed to be quite composed. Where others of the family were weeping or clutching to each other for mutual solace, Maureen, now looking forward, sat with straight backed dignity. Funny how grief works, he thought and that idea made him morose and led him to dwell on Tony’s death. Snatched away, and some had said, “wasn’t it a blessing’and “wasn’t it a great way to die”. He didn’t think so. He remembered Tony, a man he had known all his life, a happy man with lots to look forward to and suddenly, gone. That realisation made him shiver again but not with cold. What a horrible thing, he thought. He must have spoken with Tony every day of his life and now they would never speak again. It was a morbid thought that he tried to shake off. But, Jesus, he screamed inside, almost a prayer, it’s so unfair. He wasn’t sure if he was nearly praying for himself or for Tony and before he could settle that, his mind wandered again. He didn’t think he could have spoken to Tony every day, maybe five days a week or so. How many times would that be, he wondered and tried to do the sum but it was beyond him. He realised that his whole being was clenched, his eyes, teeth, hands, toes, his breath, even his brain, all clenched, all gripped by the brutal fact of his mortality. He might have broken then, might have started to scream and never stop, but the service was over and people were on the move, carrying him with them.
Later, in the graveyard after Tony was buried, Liam waited skirting the dwindling crowd until he got his chance to talk to the widow.
‘I’m sorry for your trouble,’ he muttered, grasping her hand and already turning away. But she held on and caught his elbow with her other hand.
‘Liam!’ I thought I saw you. It was good of you to come.’ He noticed a touch of red about her eyes but otherwise she looked okay and she spoke with just the same matter of fact tone as usual. He was trapped and knew he had to say more. Inside he felt like railing at the injustice of life, at the sudden awful ending of things, but what he said was,
‘I was so sad to hear about Tony. You must be devastated. How are you coping? Is there anything I can do?’ It was like he suddenly had a dose of the verbal runs.
‘It’s terrible,’ she said, ‘but sure … I’m fine … really.’
He stared at her not sure how to respond but she still held him with her hands.
‘I’m glad,’ he said, for something to say.
‘Sure wasn’t it the mercy of God,’ she went on, ‘for him to go like that.’
‘But… but,’ Liam stammered, ‘but he was fine, wasn’t he? He had years to go yet.’
She gave him a quiet sort of a smile that softened her face and she began to walk slowly towards the gate. They were at the tail end of the crowd. She still held his elbow so he was obliged to stroll along.
‘He was fine, Liam. Fine indeed … but sure he was an old man.’
‘Not so old.’
‘Sure you know yourself, Liam. When men get old they have nothing. They are no good for themselves or for anyone else.’ She had stopped again to look directly at him. ‘They lose their spark, Liam. Not like women, who keep on giving, nurturing, who always have a purpose to them. Men are like leaves. They shrivel up in the autumn and wait to fall.’
Liam could not believe that they were having this conversation. Jesus Christ, he thought, she sounds like she believes all this. When he expected her to be broken in grief, here she was rationalising her husband’s death as if it was a natural thing. Which he had to accept it was. But she made it sound like … Holy God … putting out the trash. And then it dawned on him, Of course! It was her way of dealing with her grief. He felt a rush of pity and he squeezed her hand and nodded at her. She smiled at him and released his elbow.
‘You’ll come back to the house for something to eat? Or indeed a drop of something to keep the cold at bay on this bitter day.’
He refused. Jesus he couldn’t do that. He garbled out some fashion of an excuse that she seemed to accept. They walked on in silence and at the cars he shook her hand again and took his leave. As he walked home, huddled against the cold and watching the steam come off his breath he felt utterly wasted in himself as if he had not slept for a week. His mind was blank and her words came wandering through “shrivel up in the autumn and wait to fall”. In a funny way they picked up his spirits, made him laugh to himself and he discarded the words as he hurried on home. But the notion took root and flourished. Very quickly there was a change in Liam. Where he had been sprightly and outgoing and careful of his appearance he grew fearful and moody and dowdy looking. In fact for the first time he began to look his age.
‘Hey, Mossie,’ he asked one evening, ‘what’s it all about? Can you tell me that? What the hell are we all doing? Are we just waiting to die?’
‘For fuck’s sake!’ Mossie said.
‘No. I’m serious. What is it all about?’
Mossie took a couple of pulls from his pint and squinted at him out of a face that was mostly double chin.
‘I’m not sure what’s eatin’ you Liam but I can tell you this. It’s about pints.’ He moved towards the toilets and then added over his shoulder. ‘Aye, and about pissin’.’
‘And eatin’, ‘ said Jimmy.
‘an’ backin’ the gee gees,’ chimed in Joe.
‘And the match,’ said Tommy.
They were all laughing by then and they kept on listing their pleasures until Mossie came back.
‘You’re not still on about that shite, are ye.’ Mossie had a way of murdering a topic.
They went back to their dart game and Liam returned to work on his pint and to brood some more. But before he could even get rightly started he had a sudden hint of an answer, not a “Eureka’moment and yet a definite spark that might light his darkness. The lads were right, he thought, and didn’t even know it. Thought they were being smart but they were right all the same. Life is for living. He knew that. How had he forgotten? He had always known that and here he had been hung up on thoughts of death. He laughed, sufficiently off key to silence the buzz of the place for a moment. He ordered another pint and later on more. Then, abruptly, he realised that the light in his darkness was no more than a false dawn. “Life is for living’was just old cant like his used to be favourite maxim; “You’re as young as you feel”. It did not address the enormity of what he now believed to be true, that men of a certain age were essentially dead and did not know it, all shrivelled up like old leaves and just waiting to fall. The image haunted him.
‘Well Liam. It’s not too often I see you in here.’
‘I’m in trouble, doctor.’
‘I can see that.’
‘I’m not sleeping. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep for a week.’
‘Oh dear,’ the doctor said as he studied him. ‘Right, let’s get you sitting on the examination table and I’ll give you a quick look over and then we can talk.’
The doctor checked his pulse and his temperature and listened to his chest and to his back and looked at his eyes and his tongue and took his blood pressure.
‘I’ll take some bloods,’ he said, ‘just to be sure but for my money you seem fine, apart of course from the red eyes and likely a sore head.’ Doctor Cassidy was a straight talker. ‘It’s not like you to be in here with drink problems so tell me what’s troubling you. Why do you think you’re not sleeping?’
‘I’ve a fierce lot on my mind, doctor.’
Liam was not quite sure what to say. He did not want to get more smart answers like he got from the lads in the pub.
‘Are old men dead, do you think, wizened up and waiting to fall.’
‘It’s something I heard. That after a certain age men are nothing.’
When the doctor stopped laughing and settled himself he said,
‘Jesus Liam, that’s a good one. You’re fit as a fiddle, man. I’m not sure what the hell you’re on about but if you want my opinion, you should get out more … go back to playing golf why don’t you.’ He caught a look in Liam’s eyes that stopped him. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you.’ Liam only nodded. ‘Well,’ the doctor went on, ‘I can prescribe you some sleeping pills that should help with the sleep but I’m no good to you on the old metaphysics. That would be more Father Paddy’s patch. Maybe you should talk to him.’
Liam did not say anything. But he felt the doctor had a point. Father Paddy wasn’t that young himself and if anyone might know wouldn’t it likely be a priest.
Doctor Cassidy gave him the prescription and advised him to take the pills for a week or maybe ten days to see if that would restore his sleeping pattern. In the meantime the doctor would arrange for a spectrum of blood tests and would call him when the results came back.
‘Thanks doctor,’ he said as he was leaving. It was an automatic response because his mind was stuck in gear.
‘Right Liam,’ the doctor replied as they shook hands. ‘Be careful with those pills,’ he said. ‘Just one at night, right? And not with alcohol, okay.’ He watched Liam shambling off and he thought to himself that once the bloods were clear he would consider an anti depressant. Something mild because if Liam was not physically sick he was certainly a study in depression.
Liam tried the sleeping pills for a couple of nights and they worked fine. They helped him to rest but they did nothing for the darkness in his mind. He discarded the almost full carton of pills on to his dressing table and instead brought a full tumbler of whiskey to bed. The whiskey had much the same affect as the sleeping pills and also gave him a nice, if very temporary, feel good buzz.
One Sunday morning after the eleven o’clock mass he made his way to the sacristy.
‘Liam!’ The priest seemed surprised to see him there, perhaps because of his somewhat scattered appearance or more likely because Liam had never been a stalwart of the parish. ‘What can I do for you man,’ he asked as he lifted his surplice over his head and passed it to a waiting altar boy.
‘I need to talk.’
Father Paddy stopped fiddling with his vestments and studied his face.
‘Aye,’ he said after a moment. ‘Why don’t you take a seat there while I disrobe and then we can have a chat.’ He took the vestments from the altar boy and sent him on his way with a, ‘Thanks Cormac. You can cut along now, sure I’m well able to put these away myself today.’ Cormac was gone before he finished speaking. The priest grinned at the good of it as he took off the rest of his robes. ‘It’s great to be young,’ he said to Liam. He closed the outer door of the sacristy and then came and sat by Liam on the small bench. ‘What is it, Liam,’ he asked softly. Liam took a while to respond but Father Paddy had been at his job long enough to sit and wait
‘I can’t know where I’m at.’ Liam spoke in a surge. ‘I can’t think it out. My mind is conflicted.’ He raised whiskey red eyes to the priest. ‘Am I dead. Am I wizened up and waiting?’
‘What happens when men get old? Do they die, father?’
The priest felt a little surge of annoyance but he let it go. The man was not drunk and he was obviously astray in himself.
‘Everybody dies, Liam,’ he said in soft tones. ‘You know that.’
‘But not the women.’
‘Only the old men fall like leaves.’
‘God knows Liam, something’s got a hold of you and I’m not sure I understand,’ the priest replied evenly enough. ‘I can only tell you that we all die, man and woman alike, and God calls us, young or old, in his own time. Does that help?’
‘I know. I know,’ Liam said, as if to reassure himself. ‘But old men, what about old men?’
Liam looked at him hopelessly.
‘Listen Liam, I have to go off now. I’m calling on the widow Coyle. It’s Tony’s month’s mind tomorrow.’ He looked in to Liam’s eyes. ‘You were friendly with Tony as I recall.’ He got no response. ‘I won’t be long. Would you like to come in and rest in the presbytery until I come back? We can talk some more.’
Tony’s month’s mind, Liam thought. Of course! Maureen Coyle was the one. She would know. It was as if a hand relaxed somewhere inside in his guts.
‘No. It’s fine father. Thanks very much. You’ve been a great help.’ He said all this as he moved to the door and departed the sacristy, leaving a very puzzled priest behind.
The next day was beautiful and full of promise as only an April day can be. The harsh winds of March were a memory. The sun shone with pleasant warmth and all the new growth responded in a wash of green. The sky was clear and blue and marked with some little white puffs of cloud, looking for all the world like new born lambs and mirroring their real life counterparts dotted about the fields below. Again Liam was hurrying to the church. He was spruced up and not just out of respect for Tony. He was feeling more himself, almost hopeful. He wore his topcoat and scarf because he was so cold.
After the service there were tea and biscuits to be had in the church hall. He found Maureen there and she seemed pleased that he had attended.
‘God bless you Liam. You came out for Tony.’
Liam got straight to the point.
‘What you said about old men being no good. You know about the leaves on the branch and that. It’s true, isn’t it?’
She pulled her hand from his where he had forgotten to release it and she stepped back from him.
‘Are you alright, Liam,’ she asked. She was not fearful of Liam but maybe a little nervous she thought. Perhaps he was going the same way as her poor Tony. He seemed to have the same fixed look about him.
‘No. Yes. Listen.’ Liam said. ‘Do you remember what you said about the old men dying and the women not.’ He looked at her with the eyes of a haunted innocent. ‘Is it true?’
She found it difficult to follow him and it took some moments to figure out what he was on about. Was he asking her if women lived longer?
‘Of course it’s true,’ she said and she smiled at him and spun around on her heel with her hands out. ‘Sure look around you Liam.’
He looked and he saw. There were few men lost in a crowd of women, most of the women he marked as widows and many much older than he was. Oh, he thought aloud and, after gaping for a while, he left.
Ina Bergin was waiting when she turned through the churchyard gates, waiting with that barely suppressed first-with-the-news look.
‘Did you hear about poor Liam Manley,’ she asked as they walked.
‘Oh no,’ said Maureen. ‘When?’
‘Last night.’ Ina could hardly control her excitement as her voice rose to a squeak. ‘Sure it was the priest himself who found him this morning.’
‘May God rest him,’ said Maureen, ‘poor Liam.’ She was silent for a moment and then she added, ‘I spoke to him at the month’s mind and I thought he looked odd. He was going on about old men and trees or something. I couldn’t follow him. Well, well. You never know, do you?’
At the church doorway, Maureen had to stop and shake her head to get rid of the strangest image that had suddenly skimmed the surface of her mind. She had imagined Liam Manley, a tired and worn Liam, falling from a branch and dropping gently, leaflike, to the ground.
He sat alone in the dark, inside the box, within the hushed emptiness of the building. He tried to pray but he could not. His thoughts strayed and even with his eyes tight shut he could find no focus or any conscious means of stilling the fears that crowded him with almost physical mass, making him feel nauseous, sour bellied like the time he had gorged on crab apples. He could smell smoke now, bitter and waxy, and in his mind’s eye he could picture flames guttering in the half light. And he could smell dust and old wood and the mingled scents of people come and gone. How long had he been here? Time dragged but it did pass by. Perhaps an hour, perhaps less, he couldn’t tell. Years ago time had flown by. Years ago he had been busy, time only to do, not to think. But now? Now he had no idea, no certainty, and he felt no centre to his life.
He heard footsteps, sharp and fast. Someone stopped close by and he heard the rustle of clothes and the creak of the wooden bench. Aggie Connolly. He would have known it was her even without the waft of her lavender scent. Prim and proper and soft spoken Aggie Connolly, who carried a bitterness born of loneliness that she spent in unkind words and mean spirited actions. I was spiteful, Father, she would say, I was backbiting …like she always said and he would forgive her as he always did on her promise of amendment. And she would be back next week. And the others would come in their usual order … Biddy Flynn, jealousy … Matty Farrell, impure thoughts … and the rest of them, until his regulars had washed their souls clean. They would not make a decent sinner between them, he thought.
And what about him? A man who could sit for two hours every Saturday and channel divine forgiveness and at the same time not be sure that he believed. A man who preached so eloquently from the altar and yet had qualms himself about the truth. What sort of sinner did he make? A sad one, he thought.
It had not always been like this. He had set out on his ministry full of faith and unafraid, ready to carry the good news to all, wanting only to serve and save his fellows. And it had been hard but also wonderful and even in the bleakest times he had the warmth of his belief. For years he had toiled happily but then the world had turned and everything had changed utterly. His relevance to people, his role in society, the very structures that he had thought immutable had passed away. It was as if he had somehow arrived in a strange land where he was patently needed but no longer wanted. He still had a faithful congregation to serve but its numbers had declined over time, even the staunchest members reeled and wilted as the awful record of scandal and corruption in their diocese came to light. He had felt each disclosure as a body blow that had weakened and cheapened his role. Yet somehow, he had clung to the essential goodness and rightness of his calling and he continued to care for the welfare of his depleted flock. But on Saturdays in the dark box when his control slipped and his thoughts ran rampant, he was prey to doubts.
The door on the left side opened and Aggie entered. Bless me father … I was spiteful. And when she finished the others in their turn came and went.
It must be nearly time, he thought. He checked his watch and the luminous hands said he had half an hour to go. He wanted to leave, to get away from the dark, but he would not. He squirmed in his chair to ease his cramped posture and again his thoughts began to wander but he was disturbed by the loud tread of footsteps on the marble floor. A person, a man, strode directly to the box and stepped in on the right. He looked through the mesh screen but he could not quite make out who it was.
‘Bless me father,’ the man started.
I know that voice, he thought, but no face came to mind.
‘It’s five years since my last confession.’
It’s Edmund Burke. He was fairly sure although he had not spoken to him for a while.
‘I coveted my brother’s wife.’
Not Edmund, he thought. No. Too soft. It’s the brother … what d’ye call him? Louis? Yes Louis Burke, by no means a regular, a drop out you might call him, yet here he was. He could feel the quickening of his spirit as he responded.
‘What precisely do you mean by ‘covet’?
‘You know, father, ‘the ninth commandment. I … I want her. I wish she were mine. I want to have her as a woman. Oh, God help me father, she’s all I can think about.’ The man was plainly upset and he spoke rapidly blurting out his pain in harsh whispers.
‘Tell me,’ he asked gently, ‘does the lady reciprocate your feelings?’
‘What? God! No.’ Louis said loudly and his voice dropped to a whisper again as he continued. ‘Never. She would never do something like that.’
‘And do you think she loves your brother?’
‘And your brother. Does he love her? Is he kind to her?’
‘Yes,’ he whispered fiercely. ‘Yes, yes, yes. That’s why it’s so awful. Oh, God what will I do? I’ll have to leave the house.’
‘Do they know how you feel?’
‘No! I wouldn’t hurt them like that. Not for anything.’
‘But you do hurt them, in your mind, don’t you? When you feed your desire, when you covet her, you demean her in your mind and in your mind you sin against your brother.’
‘Oh!’ Louis said, very quietly. The priest let the silence stretch between them until Louis continued. ‘I never thought of it like that.’
‘Yes.’ There was pain in the soft voice and the catch of suppressed emotion. ‘Yes, father, I do.’
They talked on for a time about loneliness and temptation. Then with penance and absolution he released a happier Louis from the box; a Louis easier in his mind and lighter in his spirit.
He sat on. Louis should get married, he thought. It’s not good for the man to be alone. He permitted himself a wry smile. I should know.
His watch said he was five minutes over time so he closed his eyes and finished with a prayer. He realised that he felt much restored as he made his prayer with a simple faith in the goodness of God. It was always like this on the occasions when he could reach out and help a soul in trouble and it sustained him through the bad times.
He left the darkness of the box for another week.