Gift: A Son's Story (The Night Before)
I returned at just before seven that evening, bringing my duvet. I went to the kitchen and got the tiny dog rose mum kept in a pot on the window sill and I placed it on a doily on the foot of the coffin. It was in full bloom now - a vivid pink and white swatch of colour and life. Then I put tealights in all of the holders and lit them. The glow filled the room with low shadows, making it seem less empty than it actually was. The candlelight sparkled in the glass doors of the cabinet, and on the varnished woodwork. The rose glowed like a beacon of hope. I also had mum's standard lamp, plus the vase of branches with tiny fairy lights strung through them. With those on, too, there was just enough to last through the evening.
"There we are, mum," I said. "We're set now."
The first visitor was Theresa, mum's principal personal carer. She seemed perplexed at first, and told me that the other carer, Lottie - who was going to be taking her to the funeral - had texted to say that she couldn't make it after all. This seemed odd to me, because Lottie had told me she would most definitely be there. I told Theresa that there was obviously a very good reason, and said I'd try to find another way of getting her there. I left her alone with mum and popped outside to ring Joanne, Russell's daughter, who said she would be happy to pick her up. So that was sorted. I was puzzled about Lottie, though. I could only guess that she'd decided it would be too much for her after all, given that she'd only lost her own mother the previous year.
After Theresa had left, a few other people came in at random over the next hour or so. Sue popped down for a few minutes. Jean next door came in. Sylvie, the the woman across the block, came over with a small bunch of wild flowers that she'd picked.
"It's not much," she said.
"Yes it is," I said, patting her arm as she placed the flowers on the coffin beside the rose. "Mum loved wild flowers. She'd have appreciated this more than a wreath or special bouquet. This is a special bouquet."
Finally, at just after eight, Cath - the Irish woman from the bungalow at the other end - came in and spent a while standing by the coffin, whispering the rosary as she fingered her beads. Then she kissed her crucifix and placed it briefly against the lid, by the plaque. When she'd finished, she turned to me with a smile.
"You've done a good thing here. It's right that she should be in her home again tonight. It's beautiful. And your mother's right here with you, you know. In spirit. Bless her sweet dear loving soul."
"Thanks, Cath," I said. "I'm glad of that reassurance."
"What are you planning to do? Are you staying here the night?"
"Yes," I said. "And I'm going to read to her, as I used to when I was a kid."
She smiled again and clutched my wrist.
"That's wonderful. What will you read to her?"
As a kid, it was usually a ghost or horror story, or something from Sherlock Holmes. I'd thought about something else for this occasion, though. I took the book from my bag and showed her.
"You'll know of this, I'm sure. Joyce's Dubliners. I thought I would read The Dead, which is a favourite story. It's a little long, though... and maybe not as fitting as it might seem."
She took the book and held it in front of her, like she was taking an oath on it. "I think you should just go through it and choose something at random. Whatever it is, she'll be listening. And I know she'll appreciate it. She's in a good place now. She'll love whatever you choose for her."
"I hope so," I said.
I waited until around nine, when I was sure that no one else would come. Then I locked the front door and settled myself in an armchair with the book and a mug of tea.
"Okay, mum," I said. "It's just us again now. What would you like me to read to you?"
I opened the book and flicked through it, as Cath had said. At the speed I read, The Dead might have taken a couple of hours. On top of that, I didn't want to think in those terms tonight. The dead. It was too cold and obvious a topic. It was a long time since I'd read the book, though, and that was the only story I could really remember. I looked at Grace and Araby. The Sisters, maybe - thinking about Phyllis. Or The Boarding House. And then my finger stopped at Eveline. It was the shortest story in the whole book, and even read slowly would not take more than twenty minutes. So, I chose that.
As I read it, I began to realise how appropriate it was in so many ways - both to mum's life, and to my own. It told of a young woman sitting at home in Ireland recalling her childhood, including the happy times - in spite of the disruption brought to it by her alcoholic father. She plans to leave Ireland to be with a sailor she has met, Frank. At the same time, she feels the imperative - promised to her father, who disapproves of Frank - to stay and "keep the home together as long as she could" before her mother died. Later, gripped by both fear of the unknown and by guilt, she stays behind. Frank leaves without her - taking with him the life that Eveline would never now know.
Mum had met dad and fallen in love with him, though her own mother didn't really approve of him. She had gone ahead and married him, anyway. And the rest was history as we now knew it. What would have happened had she not met him? Who might she have met instead? If she had met someone else, she might have been spared the life that she'd had with dad - a loving, but troubled man, whose legacy would always haunt her. But if that had happened, too, then Russell and I would never have existed. Someone else would have done, in our places. Or maybe not. Maybe she'd have met someone who could have given her an easier and better life. But maybe that life might have led her to a different sort of unhappiness - perhaps even an earlier grave. And Russell and I would never have had our lives, and grown up to be the people we'd become, making the choices we'd made. Which included the choices I'd had to leave, many times... and each time had turned down. The move away with my ex-wife. The emigration to Canada. None of these things would have been known about as choices. None of these things would have existed. Because I wouldn't have existed.
I stopped reading and closed the book. These thoughts were all in my head, but were swirling like leaves in a gale - too agitated to settle into a coherent mass. I knew, though, that I had chosen the right story for us. I knew that it was what both mum and I needed to hear.
The tealights were burning low now, and I was beginning to feel a little chilly. I didn't want to turn the heating on, though, for obvious reasons. I got up and switched off the electric lights. Then I settled back in the armchair, pulling the duvet up around me for warmth.
"Goodnight, mum," I said - as I'd said every night, those final months we were together. "Sleep well. Don't forget to call out if you need anything."
At the last flickering of the last tealight, I fell asleep.
I slept fitfully, but was wide awake at 4 am, when the birds began to sing - a beautiful sound to start this special day. I lay for a moment in the stillness of the room, just listening to that sound beyond the windows and watching as the shapes in the room began to take on definition. Then I threw back the duvet and got up out of the chair. It was time to return to the flat. I said goodbye to mum again and pressed my lips against the coffin lid. Then I collected my things together and stepped quietly out into the silvery twilight.
As I passed the tree at the end of the passageway, a single blackbird began to sing it's heart out - as if just for me. Mum's favourite bird making her favourite sound. I stopped for a moment and took out my phone to record it. But it seemed to break the spell, and the bird took flight over the fence and the rooftops. I continued on to the deserted, lamp-lit street and was about to cross when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye: a swift, dark shape which shot out into the road to my left. I turned quickly and saw a fox, no more than twenty yards down, dart to the opposite pavement and disappear through someone's garden hedge. Then, as I got to the other side, another one - even closer - slunk out from behind a car parked down a side street. It froze in its path as it saw me, and it's eyes fixed on me for a moment - two bright sparks in the gloom. Then it, too, darted away and disappeared. I stopped for a few seconds and looked around. But nothing else was moving. Just tree branches, stirring in the early morning breeze coming up from the sea. A blackbird and two foxes. Mum's favourite bird, then one of her favourite animals.
I carried on for the rest of the short walk home, and nothing else stirred. Dim lights appeared here and there behind back-bedroom curtains. Birdsong accompanied me all the way to my door, where Daisy was there waiting to greet me.
And I suddenly felt that incredible lightness I'd felt before over the days. It was of a different order, though. Something had shifted, almost imperceptibly. A change had taken place. A transition. I didn't really understand it, but thought I didn't really need to. I felt peace settling on me. Serenity, maybe.
Yes. That was it. Serenity.