G. W. Bollard, The Death and Burial of a Great-Grandmother (Part 3)

Part Three
The Brown Suit

“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.”
Ernest Hemingway

As I gripped the handle, it was as if time itself had stopped in this place. Slowing, slowing, slowing down to a crawl that would stagnate upon the hour of death, and then existence would pass on and stretch out once again before us, like the blue of the sky and of the sea as they meet on the impenetrable line of the horizon. I stepped inside and closed the door softly behind myself. The room still smelt of her perfume.

It was left pretty much as I had remembered. A few flowers sat in a vase in the corner of the room. The petals pale and faded but not yet rotten. Next to the vase was an antique wooden clock, I looked at the hands carefully and noticed they had stopped. The bed was bare and empty. Her special mattress, used to prevent and relieve bedsores was as deflated and creased as old weathered skin. An old cane sat resting between the bed and the bed side locker. A solid long black staff which reflected the light from deep within. Her wooden rocking chair sat motionless on the other side of the bed next to the window. There had been a mirror too, but now it was gone and room felt smaller. I moved around the bed towards the window sill and could see a framed photograph was resting face down on the ledge.

I picked it up and turned it over. It was a picture of Evelyn and I, our faces side by side and smiling. Now it had become faded and water damaged, the middle of the lamented photographic paper warped out under the frame. For whatever reason she had kept this photograph and this photograph alone. I was told she looked upon it lovingly from time to time and would call out my grandfathers name. She would even take it and open her bedroom window and place us on the outside window ledge, insisting that I had gone out to play. I set the photograph down carefully, fixing its leg so it stayed upright. I sighed and turned away. A sadness was beginning to penetrate up through my stomach and it was heavy and damp.

Next to her bed was a tall wardrobe that reached up to the ceiling. I had never looked inside, so after a little hesitation I walked over and opened the door to cure my curiosity.

A brown tweed suit hung from a railing. Deep, solid brown like the clay of the earth. The blazer style jacket had two round black buttons and a golden bird brooch pinned on the left lapel. Underneath I could see a vivid blood orange blouse with a high collar. The skirt was shin length and pleated. I reached out and felt the fabric, it was coarse and scratchy. I remember her wearing this at my first holy communion.

I stood there staring at it. My eyes welled up with tears as I held onto the emotion. Until finally my vision blurred into a brown red sea and the tears crept over and rolled down my cheeks. Her clothes seemed so useless now.

I closed the wardrobe door and stood in the center of the room, letting her loss spill out at me. I sat down on her rocking chair and cried for some time, and I don’t know why. It wasn’t just my loss for her. When I was finished the muscles in my forehead and jaw ached, but the relief felt good and complete. No one had seen my tears, they belonged to her and her alone.

I looked at the frozen clock and decided I should leave and head back, time had gotten away from me. I lingered looking at the photograph, something inside screamed for me to take it, that no one would mind and that no one would notice. But for some reason I didn’t, instead I turned and I left the room and everything in it and walked back through the television area.

The old man under the mountain of blankets was now gone. An empty spot where his sofa chair had been. The television playing the same black and white film, the credits now rolling but no one watching. I continued down and around the snaking corridors, retracing my steps back towards the chapel and the reception and the giant painting of Mother Mary.

Along the way I crossed a bathroom and went in to relieve myself. It was a small narrow toilet with two stalls side by side with a sink and a paper towel dispenser. I went into the stall on my right and bolted the door. A long red string hung down by my face as I peed. An emergency cord to be pulled when one of the residents became trapped or troubled inside. I flushed the toilet and turned to open the bolt. It didn’t budge. I pulled and squeezed and shook the lock. Laughing to myself at first, having just mused on the cord and its purpose. The situation seemed farcical.

My heart was beginning to beat fast now. No matter how much I pulled and pushed it wouldn’t give. I felt panicked, how much time had passed? Would the coffin already be in the hearse? Would people be looking for me? I leaned down and checked the gap around the bottom of the stall and then stood on the toilet seat to check gap around the top. It was useless as there must have only been two or three inches on either side.

I looked back up at the cord. I could see the scene play out now. An alarm would go off at the nurses’ station, and a nurse would come for me. Probably the nurse who had passed me outside her room. She would enter the toilet and unlock the stall door from the outside with a special key. Expecting to see some poor old person inside. Instead she would find me, a fat red faced twelve year old couldn’t open a simple bolt. The embarrassment would be too much. I couldn’t face it.

So I didn’t and I turned from the door and the cord, and the window stared at me from over the toilet cistern. A small square of double glazed fogged glass, maybe three foot by three foot. I might just be able to squeeze out, I thought. I could already feel the sweat gathering on my armpits and on the back of my neck and across my brow. There was no point in waiting any longer.

I threw down the toilet seat cover and stood on top, took hold of the handle and pushed the window open as far as it could go. Pushing myself up on my tippy-toes I leaned my head out and looked down. It was quite a drop down onto the ground, around twelve feet. I would need to lower myself down via the window ledge to avoid a twisted or broken ankle. I would have to find a way to climb out feet first.

So I did, with great difficulty. Holding onto the top of the stall with my hands I stood gingerly onto the cistern, my face towards the cubicle door. I placed one foot then the other out the window onto the window sill. The frame was narrower than I thought. I could already feel the squeeze on my outer thighs. Stupid little fat boy, I thought to myself. Pushing myself out backwards further and further I moved down onto my knees then my stomach until my legs dangled freely beneath me. The sweating hung onto the t-shirt under my jacket like a damp cloth.

Finally I managed to get my hands onto the window frame and I pushed my head and shoulders free of the cubical confines. Now I was holding myself up by my arms. I shimmied and shimmied some more and got down onto my elbows, pushing the tips of my feet against the wall for leverage. I felt exhausted, looking over my shoulder I could see my feet were an acceptable distance from the grass below. I let myself slide down the brick work. Tensing my hands on the ledge and scraping my feet on the wall to slow the decent until I dropped from the window and landed flat on my feet.

It was a bad landing. I flopped over onto my side as a shockwave reverberated up through my ankles. I lay there for a minute breathing deeply. The fresh air and the freedom felt sweet. A couple of cows and sheep were staring at me from a nearby field. Utterly confused. The heaviness in my ankles dissipated, they were fine. So I got up and brushed the grass from my pants and started to walk.

The outside of the retirement home was dull and unimpressive. One story high with the same orange and brown brick work for as far as the eye could see. I didn’t know which way to walk so I just decide to head in one direction and follow the perimeter of the building. It would eventually bring me around to the chapel.

So I walked and thought of the nurses and what would happen when they discovered the locked stall. Opening it and perhaps anticipating that something awful had happened inside. Only to find an empty cubicle and an open window. Maybe they would sound the alarms, shut the gates and turn on the spot lights. Assuming that someone had decided to escape. It was a lovely idea really. I couldn’t help but think of the photograph too.

When I did make it back to the chapel my relief was suddenly swamped by despair. The entire congregation had moved outside and were gathering around the main exit of the chapel. Above their heads I could see the coffin moving in wobbles and fits towards the open doors of a long black hearse. Everybody was watching her. I scanned the faces and caught my mother’s. Her brow bent and frowned at me. I had obviously been missed. I also spotted my great-aunt Alex for the first time. She looked distraught watching the coffin move. She had taken care of Evelyn when the illness first took hold. Finally placing her in the home when even she couldn’t cope any longer. I believe a guilt rested heavy on her shoulders because of it.

Then my grandmother materialised beside me. As if from thin air.

“Where were you?” she asked under her breath.

“I went to granny’s old room and got locked in the toilet on the way back,” I admitted.

“Why on earth would you do a stupid thing like that?” she exclaimed. I felt my skin go cold.

“I didn’t mean it. I got locked in and couldn’t open the door. I had to climb out the window and walk all the way back round through the field,” I told her. Pointing towards the direction I came from.

“Jesus Christ,” she said with an inhale and then a puff of air. “You missed them closing the coffin. Not to mention the rosary. You never got to say goodbye.” Her sharp, disappointed eyes looking down on me.

I dropped my eyes down to my feet and she didn’t speak again. I couldn’t bare to look at her. The sense of shame and guilt was too much. How very stupid of me. I only looked up again when they slid Evelyn into the back of the hearse and shut the doors.

Now everybody began to strip away one by one and head to their cars to join the funeral procession. I joined my mother and stepfather and we made our way with a long line of cars through the country roads. I had to explain the story to them again, and of course the feeling of guilt and regret grew. Then the car went quiet and nobody really spoke. I looked out the window, thinking.

The landscape was covered in sunshowers. Pools of sunlight flooded down from great ruptures in the clouds. Spotlights of gold that radiated on the wet grass, throwing back a sea of greens across the fields. From time to time we would pass a graveyard and I would ask if this was it and would be told no. So I returned to my thoughts and wondered what I would have said to her if I had made it back. I decided finally that it was okay. I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t have found her in that box. I had found her in that room and that I was meant to go there.

“Here we are,” my mother announced.

I looked up out of my thoughts to find the car parked in front of an old moss covered stone wall. We stepped outside and made our way towards the entrance of the graveyard. The hearse had driven as far up the stone pathway as it could.

The graveyard was tiny and old, even by Irish standards. Situated on the side of a steep hill, the ancient stone wall rippled around the bumpy uneven ground and enclosed faded lopsided headstones scattered indiscriminately around us. The grass beneath our feet was thick, fluffy and springy. Thin bendy trees littered the graveyard too. They looked almost tropical, a dark almost black bark which sprouted up from the grass into a tightly controlled bokay of dull green leaves.

The coffin was lifted out and placed on the shoulders of my grandfather, Gabriel, my uncle and three other men who were either cousins or close family friends. I followed close behind and watched on with awe. The men, each one with an arm wrapped under the coffin and over the shoulder of the man on the opposite side, took careful delicate steps through the slippery grass and over the lumpy soil. Other men, more cousins and family friends, flanked them as they went. In order to offer assistance if someone miss stepped or slipped or lost their strength.

As they came up over the crest of the hill in the far corner of the graveyard I saw the hollowed out grave plot and accompanying mound of dirt. The undertakers stepped in as they reached the edge and helped take the coffin down from the men’s shoulders and placed it across four evenly spaced wooden beams above the cassum in the dirt. It was only now that I noticed that four spades were stuck in the mountain of dirt. Pointing up at the sky at different angles.

The priest soon appeared in his long white robe and and purple stole, the long scarf like garment that draped down from across his shoulders. Embroidered along its edges with gold and at its ends with a large shining golden cross. As he stood at the head of the grave the mourners moved in closer to the coffin and to each other. He began to speak and then the sky opened and it began to rain softly. I watched as an umbrella popped open here and another there. Until there were several umbrellas hovering across the side of Evelyn’s grave, each a different colour.

I didn’t listen much to what the priest said. I just stared at the coffin. The bright shining metal plaque on the lid of the coffin shone brightly. Embossed with Evelyn’s name, her date of birth and her date of death. I looked to my grandfather and he was standing there with his head tilted down, his hands clasped in front of him. My grandmother’s hand holding the inside of his elbow. I could see tears in his eyes. I looked back to the priest and heard the words I knew I’d hear, but forgot were coming.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he said. The undertakers moved in again and ran thick canvas straps under the coffin and after the wooden beams were removed they lowered her down carefully into the ground. My uncle turned and began to weep.

Soon everybody began to que up in a line that filed past the mound of soil and as we past we took a handful of wet dirt and waited with it until we reached the edge of the grave. When we did reach the the graveside my mother threw her dirt in first.

“Goodbye, Granny,” was all she said.

I felt at a loss and just let the dirt fall through my fingers and I watched it gather with the other dirt across Evelyn’s name on the coffin in the ground. I walked away to side and allowed the line behind me to continue. I could see the mourners had now divided into three distinct groups. Those waiting to take dirt, those who were holding dirt and those off to the side like me, who now had a black stain across the palm of their hand.

A part of me felt foolish. There were people here who had lost a grandmother. There were people who had lost an old and very close friend. There people here who had lost their mother. I turned and looked across the grave and found my great-aunty Alex again. My grief felt insignificant when I tried to imagine hers.

After all the mourners had finished their duty and were now marked on their palm for doing so, I expected the undertakers to move in for the final time and fill in the grave. But instead something magical happened.

My grandfather, Gabriel, my uncle and one of the men who had helped to carry the coffin to the grave moved over to a tree by the mound of dirt and began to take off their suit jackets. One by one they hung their suit jackets on the branches of the tree and the jackets swayed back and forward in the breeze. They each took a shovel from the mound of dirt and began to fill in the grave with great vigor. Alternating in an organized and disciplined way one might imagine a group of builders would. Within no time at all the mound of dirt disappeared and the space between us and Evelyn was filled in by those who knew her best.

The men stood for a moment to catch their breath. Placing the spades against the trunk of the tree they picked their jackets back from the branches and we left the graveyard and drove away. I have no memory of returning to this place.

The family reconvened in a pub in a village not too far from the retirement home and the drinking began. Against Evelyn’s wishes. It went on for several hours and mostly people tried to talk of other things. There was laughter and banter, disagreements and heavy talk, people even got teary eyed and melancholy. It was an occasion to eat, drink and share memories. All in good measure. To give her a good send off.

At one point I was sitting with my grandfather and Gabriel as they played cards and they began to talk of their mother and how she would cycle the old laneways by the river in the summer. They said she loved to cycle everywhere when she was young and the war was on and the fuel was being rationed.

They never went into great detail that night, but for one reason or another I did build an image of Evelyn in my mind’s eye which I’ve maintained to this day. I can see her on that bike in the hot summer sun. Her youthful face and brown hair. A floral dress full of colour. The deep blue river by her side.

Many years have passed since we buried Evelyn and now news reaches me through my grandfather and grandmother that great-aunty Alex is losing her mind too. She now lives in the very same retirement home that her mother once did. My grandfather and grandmother visit her often but she does not know who they are anymore. Grandmother tells me that despite this she still sits in the corner of the room, as Evelyn did, with all of her grace and dignity intact.

The End.

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