Kate stared into the mound of earth as if to draw out some memories it held. Michael was silenced by her intensity. The graveyard covered the side of a hill, the deceased laid out in terraced layers sprayed with a winter sunlight barely scaling the boundary wall. A bustle of headstones, a myriad of shapes and sizes, undermined any possibility of order. A clutter of Virgin Mary’s, potted plants, and plastic toys made for disarray. A fresh stretch of terraces, at one end, marked the demands of the pandemic.
‘We should have been here, he had no one else’, Kate pronounced.
‘They had the GAA men out on the street for him, he’d have been thrilled with the send-off.’ Michael saw her purse her lips in disapproval, whether at his flippancy or at the GAA men, he could not be sure. The source became clear, however, when he saw the priest striding towards them, exuding the air of determined landowner come to challenge trespassers.
‘Kate. Michael’, he had a solemn nod for each of them. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble. Your uncle Bill was a man of great faith’. The priest clasped his hands, as if in prayer. ‘He’s in heaven now, enjoying his reward’.
Michael and Kate watched in silence, caught up in the performance, not sure of their part in it.
‘You didn’t make the funeral’.
‘No…no…not with the pandemic’, Michael assumed guilt, a shame strangely free of any feeling of wrongdoing.
‘Well you’re here now. We’ll do ten o’clock mass in the morning for Bill, a belated months-mind’.
‘That would be nice, father’, Michael mustered an appropriate enthusiasm.
‘It’s kind of you Father O’Sullivan, but there’s no need.’ Kate glared at Michael. ‘We aren’t believers, and we only came up to pay our respects to Uncle Bill’.
Polite pinpricks don’t burst pompous authority, but the priest bristled. ‘Your parents would be very disappointed to hear you say that.’
‘Our parents are well beyond feeling any disappointment by now, Father O’Sullivan. It’s good to see you looking so well, the years have treated you kindly’, Kate turned back to scrutiny of the grave.
The priest paused, strangely awkward for a moment, before marshalling the conceit that came with standing. He leaned in towards Michael, invading his space with an antiseptic odour. Michael recoiled at the proximity, but nonetheless felt bound to grasp the proffered hands, accepting the ritual sympathy.
‘Now Father O’Sullivan, this is no time for shaking hands’, Kate chided.
They watched him leave, an air of disgruntlement in place of the brusque arrogance of his arrival.
‘What are you shaking hands with him for?’, Kate laughed at her brother, ‘Holy Orders has yet to confer any viral immunity that I know of.’
‘Let’s go, over twenty years out of here and that man still gives me the creeps, as if I need reminding why we left.’ Michael was unnerved at the subservience called up by the priest, and with his younger sister watching on.
They walked up by the Republican Plot to avoid any further engagement. A tall Celtic cross with its crucified Christ, etched dark in surrounding glare. It saluted those seeking independence some hundred years past, ambushed by the Essex Regiment in their endeavours. It stood high over the village, marking out its entry point. They looked out along Main Street, stretched out to its other extremity, marked by a more modern death. The chalk white bones of a fin whale had been reassembled for display in an open-sided bunker. It served as the village’s calling card for the passing tourist, washed up in a nearby cove only a decade ago and quickly claimed by the locals.
‘Death is big in this place, be it warrior or whale’, Michael sought poise in determined sarcasm.
‘To say nothing of that commemorative garden they’ve done with its seven standing stones for seven dead founders of the republic’, Kate laughed loyal affirmation.
‘Uncle Bill told me about that, the munificence of a committee of the notables, he said, blessed with the holy water by our good friend Father O’Sullivan.’
‘Ah, at least they were trying to improve the place.’
‘A bid for Tidy Towns glory, if uncle Bill is to be believed. They were offering extra points that year for gardens to mark the 1916 centenary. It got them into bronze medal territory. Very helpful with them tourists I’m sure.’
‘There’s a pair of you in it, nothing done that’s not worth knocking’, Kate started down the steps towards the village.
Once beyond St. Patrick’s church in hulking shadow, they passed the imposing cut stone residence of the Parish Priest, basking in extensive grounds. A sawtooth of more earthly residences lined up along the far side. The street was eerie in burnished emptiness. Up ahead, though, they could see the doctor with his small bag, watching them from the doorway of the health centre. This was modest in scale, decked out in Marian blue, a popular choice among the houses below. The doctor looked drawn and pale as they got nearer, almost propped up by the doorpost.
‘Down from Dublin then are ye?’
‘We are, Doctor Walsh’, Michael paused to acknowledge.
‘Being careful I hope, Dublin’s a hot spot for the virus.’
‘It is, Doctor Walsh, and for sure we are’ Michael grimaced to show his concern.
‘I hear you’ve had your share of difficulties here too, with some super spreader stuff come in from Bandon’, Kate’s challenge was softened with a look of sympathy.
‘Young people today won’t accept authority, that’s what you get’, the doctor opined somberly.
‘You might need to try something other than authority’, Kate admonished, ‘that’ll be a new challenge then from my times.’
The doctor baulked, then he laughed, appreciating her aplomb and acknowledging his own miscue.
‘We’ve to close up Uncle Bill’s place.’ Michael broke in, by way of apology.
‘That’s a pity. The shop needs sprucing up, could be a bit more modern, but there’s a living to be made from it. God knows, this place needs the business, or they’ll all be gone to Bandon, for the shopping as well as the raves.’
‘You think it’s viable?’, Kate was suddenly intrigued.
She nodded to him, a thanks almost rather than just a goodbye. They strolled on towards the shop, just beyond the squat stone bridge at the end of the village. Michael stopped to lean on the parapet, gazing into the water as it swept under him, the sun gently resting its winter warmth along his back.
‘We used to fish down here with Uncle Bill, a barbecue afterwards for our ‘catch’, as he called it, in the yard over there, do you remember?’ Michael was caught childlike in the memory. ‘Though I can’t remember any ‘catch’ worth the eating, it all came out of the freezer I guess.’
‘I remember’ Kate stopped beside him. ‘That’s the problem of this place though. Anything consumed comes from outside, even the tourists, yet look at the rivers and fields around and what they have to offer.’
‘The problem of this place is decay, decay coupled with pretensions of grandeur. Two pubs down to one now, and it rebrands as a gourmet pub. Two shops heading for one with Uncle Bill’s going bust, and what opens up but a hair salon.’
They stared their thoughts into the stream flowing under them. The splash of the water caught particles of sunlight in a wild dance. The slap of wavelets on stones provided the beat of an accompaniment. Dark green strands of sedge grass along the banks framed the display. It held them entranced, easing the strains of this return to their past.
‘We need to clear out the place, check the farm, and get out of here’, Michael snapped back to business.
‘We do’, Kate hesitated, ‘but maybe…maybe Mikey, we could make a go of it, even stop renting dad’s fields, get something different going on here, something…?’
‘Day dreams, K, day dreams. What’s an accountant or a teacher or even both going to make of twenty hectares and a general goods store? We were bred to leave here, nurtured on discontent with the place, and trained in skills for another setting.’
‘The future is local, so they say. Cities don’t do pandemics very well, and after that there’s all that climate stuff coming down the tracks. We could be the green pioneers, leading the retreat. This place just needs to dump its fixation with the past, burst that bubble of those deemed to be in authority. It’s happening already, Mikey, this pandemic is changing it all, I’m sure of it.’
‘The pioneers have been and done with this place a long time ago. It’s dying K, and the pandemic is only giving it a helping hand on its way. You’ll not change that, there is no future in this place. Come on, we’ve work to do.’ Michael pushed back off the wall and strode on into the shop.
She could see him through the big window dragging at the cardboard crates they had been given for the packing. A great big hall of a place, a grand paved yard alongside, and good living quarters up above. She looked up at the dead whale, just beyond the shop, more imposing now in close-up.
‘We could be neighbours, you and I.’
Niall Crowley is an independent consultant and believer in equality and human rights, working in Ireland and places across Europe. He is part of a prose collective in West Cork, a space that stimulates a passion long forgotten but returning to life. He is author of ‘Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel’, published by A&A Farmar in 2010, a story of public policy sabotage.