Thursday 18 March 2021

Funeral Blues - Short Story by David Butler

 




FUNERAL BLUES

David Butler

 

She lay athwart the chair, one leg gangling over the arm, thumb-stroking her i-phone. Wayne cantered through the room, trailing an intonation: ‘I wuzlike and he wuzlike and I wuzlike and he wuzlike and I wuzlike…

Not looking up from the screen, she exhaled: ‘fuck-off-wayne.’

‘Charming.’ He stuck his head inside the kitchen – no sign. ‘That’s charming.’ He tried the bathroom, empty. He glanced into the main bedroom. It was as untidy as before. He retraced his steps, examined her sprawl from the doorway. ‘Siof? Ahm Where’s your mum?’

The girl shrugged. For a while he stared, his forearm pressed against the door-jamb. ‘Yeah it was great, Siof, thanks for asking. Beaut of a day for a run, hey? I managed to shave a minute off my personal best. Not bad, eh? What’s that, Wayne, a whole minute you say? That’s pretty damned impressive. I’m…impressed.’ His monologue not raising a sigh or groan, he leaned toward her. ‘Siofra? Your mother? Where?’

A single vertical furrow marked her brow and her braids flicked, his persistence a gadfly to be swatted away. ‘Shopping?’ she tried, eyes wide.

‘Ah! Shopping. I see. Thanks, Siof. Hey I’d love to stick around to chat, but hey!’ he slapped the jamb twice and made for the shower.  Her eyes narrowed after him and she thrust up a middle finger. ‘Oy,’ he called, ‘I saw that, mate!’

He was towelling his hair, examining in the mirror the evidence it was thinning, when he heard the key grind the lock. A muffled exchange from the living-room followed, then the rattle of keys on the kitchen counter. Barely five seconds passed before he heard Siofra yell ‘Laters!’ and a judder reverberated through the entire flat as the door slammed after her.

Wayne stood out into the hallway, a towel about his waist. ‘You’re back, hey?’

‘How was your run?’

‘Good.’ He approached the kitchen. ‘Shaved about a minute off.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Jessica was on her hunkers, rearranging the fridge, examining sell-by dates. ‘I, uhm…,’she peered at a jar, grimaced, replaced it. ‘I ran into Bríd O’Ceallaigh.’

‘Not again?’

‘She cornered me by frozen foods. I swear that woman’s stalking me.’

‘What she want this time?’

‘Same old.’ For the first time she looked up at him. ‘She says Bronagh’s been getting texts.’

‘Hunh! Kinda texts?’

‘Texts. You know.’ Concern darkened her. ‘Abusive. Nasty.’

‘Yeah?’ An image of Brid O’Ceallaigh’s dour mouth and tweed overcoat came to him. She must’ve been well into her forties when they’d had Bronagh. An only child, gawky, awkward as all hell. ‘Did she say from Siofra?’

‘God no! Siof can be a royal pain in the arse when she wants to be. But one thing Siofra doesn’t have is a vicious streak.’

‘Ok. So what’d she want then?’

‘Just,’ she stood, shut the fridge, blew out. ‘Could Siofra not be a bit more friendly? In school, like.’

‘Friendly. Right.’

‘She won’t let it go. She keeps asking me.’

‘I don’t get it. Why Siofra? It’s not like…’ He shook his head. ‘Look, Jess, I know she’s your daughter and all…’

‘When they were young, they used to get on.’

‘For real? Somehow I don’t see it.’

‘Honest to God! They used do sleepovers all the time.’

‘You never let on.’ He thought back to the last parent-teacher meeting, Siofra throwing a sulk that Jess asked him to attend with her. ‘First time I saw the O’Ceallaighs I thought they were Bronagh’s grandparents. So what did Ms Siofra Kavanagh have to say about sleeping over at the O’Ceallaigh place?’

‘I’m talking when she was four or five, Wayne. I’ll say one thing. You’re grateful for any help you get when you’re a single mum...’

‘Ah.’ Wayne pulled a singlet, boxers and trackies from the clothes-horse. ‘Before my time, my dear.’ He sniffed each item before pulling them on. ‘So? You gonna talk to her?’

‘I have talked to her.’

‘Yeah? And?’

But mum, she’s such a dork.’

‘She has a point.’

‘Where does she get that? Dork. That sounds like something you’d say.’

‘She doesn’t get it from me, babes. Hey, she’s on the phone, anytime I’m within earshot she switches to that gobbledygook they teach’em in school.’

‘All the same, “dork”?’

‘Probs Home and Away. Didn’t she once say I was a Home and Away wannabe? Didn’t you tell me that?’

Jessica Kavanagh didn’t rise to the bait. ‘It’s Bronagh I feel sorry for.’

‘Well, yeah. Can’t be easy having the Widow O’Ceallaigh for a mum, hey?’

‘Look, Wayne.’

He stopped, the singlet stretched halfway over his head. Something in her tone had him on his guard. ‘Maybe you’d have a word with her.’

He whistled. ‘You want me to have a word with Siofra.’ He finished dressing and walked out of the room leaving the towel puddled on the floor. ‘That’s gonna happen.’

*

Three weeks later, the thunderbolt fell. All the Transition Years were asked to attend the service. They stood in groups of two or three outside the church, awaiting the arrival of the hearse. There was a subdued uneasiness about them, the unease solemnity brings out in those unaccustomed to it. All wore the maroon and grey uniform of Coláiste Mhantáin, but with none of the customary marks of rebellion – the untucked shirt, the missing tie. Occasionally, they shot furtive glances toward the TV crew keeping a respectful distance across the road, and at the cluster of photographers hovering about the gate.

Far fewer were the parents – after all it was a weekday, and not many would have known Bríd O’Ceallaigh personally. Of course it was tough on her, first the husband, now the child, tsst terrible, can you imagine finding her like that? Awful. Course she was always a bit of a loner, our Niamh says. All the same. You don’t expect. And then those cameras, would you look, could they not keep their distance this once? Oh I’m sure they will. I saw the Principal having a quiet word with them earlier on.

Siofra stood apart, as far as possible from the man in the sports jacket and chinos. Why the hell did he have to come? He wasn’t even her step-dad. There he stood, flexing his biceps next to Miss Breathnach the PE instructor and trying to look all serious. It was mortifying. He was literally such a douchebag, how could her mum not see it? And now it was November and the landscape gardening was slack, so he was always hanging around the flat, or showing off his body beautiful jogging the promenade. Gráine ní Dhuibne had actually seen him.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the black cortege gliding glacially through the gates. There was a flutter of activity amongst the paparazzi, a purr of shutters. Yesterday, TG4 had interviewed Eimear ní Bhroin, whose Irish could be relied on. Cailín ciúin, nach raibh i dtrioblóid riamh. Well, that much was true. Still it was a bit rich to see all the pious pusses on the bitches who’d given Bronagh such a relentless hard time. As if butter wouldn’t melt…

Wayne Bradley looked on as the door of the stretched limo was held open, and the figure in black veil and dress was unfolded out by two men in black armbands. The plumage of mourning. He’d lost sight of Siofra, who seemed determined to disown him. Couldn’t blame the kid, really. At that age. He watched the O’Ceallaigh woman hesitate then shuck off a guiding hand as though its presence insulted her. But no. It was something else. She was reluctant to enter the arched doorway from which piped organ music was emanating. Too final a step, probably.

He saw her look through the clusters of schoolkids, who watched their feet or nodded gravely. An odd intuition had him already in motion as, finding what she’d been looking for, she made toward the lone girl by the birch. He was too distant to intervene, near enough to see all colour drain from Siofra’s face. The woman – she was frail but animated by the energy of dignity – stood a bare six inches from the schoolgirl. ‘You’ve a nerve, coming here.’

All was still. Absolute silence. What happened next was that Siofra guffawed, a nervous spasm. ‘You dare laugh at me?’ A laced hand was drawn back, terribly, magnificently, and would have struck her cheek had Wayne’s hand not restrained it. ‘Siofra, go to the car,’ he said.

A sound distracted. The purr of rapid photography. ‘Miss Breathnach,’ he was already taking a step in the direction of the purr, ‘would you take Siofra around to the carpark, please?’ and assuming rather than seeing that his request had been complied with, he stretched out a palm toward the photographer, ‘Mate, you gotta stop that.’

‘What’s your problem?’

‘I want you to wipe those pics, mate.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Give me the camera, hey.’

The man shrugged, smirked toward an accomplice and, turning, was felled by a shot to the jaw that nobody saw coming, least of all Wayne Bradley. But now that the man was down he pulled the camera from him and with fingers that were mutinous with adrenaline he began to scroll back through the pictures, erasing them. He was so intent on the task that he failed to twig the flurry of activity amongst the remaining paparazzi.

*

‘I just saw red is all, Jess. Before I knew it, my left hand struck out, whump, like it had a mind of its own.’

‘You do know it’ll be all over the tabloids in the morning.’

‘That’s the least of our worries, mate. He could slap a suit on me for common assault.’

‘You think he will?’

‘That’s where my money is. I know these lowlifes. He gets so much as a loose tooth out of it, could turn out to be the most expensive punch I’ve ever thrown.’

‘I’m not saying you did right,’ she squeezed his forearm, ‘but thanks.’

‘Yeah?’

‘For looking out for Siof.’

‘Jesus, Jess, did you think I wouldn’t look out for the kid?’ Wayne poured himself a third glass of shiraz – Jess had scarcely touched hers. But he didn’t raise it. ‘I ever tell you about my time in the boarding-school at Ballarat? Nah, didn’t think so. We had a whole string of suicides in that school. Three of ’em. See at that age, death has a sort of glamour. You take the dorkiest kid, and suddenly everyone’s all respectful. Admiring, almost. The padre tried to talk to us about it. Long story short, the last one to go was my cousin.’ He drew a breath, sharp. ‘The press were supposed to be respectful. To keep their distance, yeah? But this one lowlife kept pestering my aunt and uncle. Tried to get details, right there at the graveside. Where was he found? Who found him? Had they any old pictures? Wouldn’t stop. There was a bit of a blue at that funeral and all.’ He paused. ‘Guess maybe that’s why I flipped this time round.’

‘Will you say that to her?’

‘To Siofra?’

‘Sure.’

‘Say what?’

‘About your cousin.’

He snorted, considered, and swirling the glass dismissively, took a deep swig of wine.

‘Please, Wayne. I don’t want her to….’ Jessica looked hard at his hairline as though searching for the word. ‘You saw how quiet she was all evening.’

‘She’d a pretty rough day.’

‘I’ve seen it before, Wayne. She goes into herself.’

‘You’re worried, hey?’ He laid his hand on hers, but she drew it away. ‘You seriously think she’ll listen to me?’

Jessica nodded, slowly.

‘Doubt that, babes.’

‘Her Prince Charming?’

‘Yeah, right. Next thing, you’ll tell me you’re jealous.’ All the same he rose, warmed by more than the wine, and made for Siofra’s room. He hesitated to knock, instead placed his ear to the door. There was no sound.

‘Siofra?’ he tried. ‘Siofra, ok to come in?’

Quietly, the door clicked open.




David Butler's novel City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish novel of the Year, 2015. Arlen House is to publish his second short story collection, Fugitive, and Doire Press his third poetry collection, Liffey Sequence, later this year.

'Funeral Blues' (2000 words), is David Butler's short story in which a teenager comes to reassess her mother's Australian boyfriend after an ugly incident at a school funeral. The story came 3rd for the Colm Toibin award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Writer & Artist Yearbook prize in 2020, but remains unpublished until now.



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