'Smoke signals are loud-mouthed compared with us'
'She choked to death on a feather you know.' The voice
was a hoarse flutter. Gripping the handle of her shopping
trolley as tight as her arthritis would allow, Eileen hacked
her throat clear. 'Terrible way to go.'
'Aye,' replied Marty.
For a moment they ruminated on the thought, gobs moving
abstractedly, two septuagenarians at cud.
The old cronies stood on the pavement, facing the traffic.
Behind them, half torn from its moorings, the wire grill
over the post office window rattled in a chilly lick of
wind. Every fortnight the pair queued inside to collect
their pension money; the meeting a tacit rendezvous to discuss
the weather and the afflictions of their declining peers.
Afterwards they’d re-emerge into the soggy light,
make a hesitant good-bye and depart on separate ways. But
that morning they had paused, shuffled into position and
waited respectfully for the funeral cortege to pass.
A workman holding a STOP sign had forced the lead car to
a halt in the middle of an oily puddle, a remnant of the
skiffle of snow that had coated the country overnight. Inside
the hearse, on top of the coffin, an arrangement of red
and white carnations spelled out the word ‘Mummy’.
'They’re late,' said Eileen, straining to read her
watch. 'With the roadworks it's a good ten minutes to the
top of the hill.'
'Aye,' agreed Marty.
'It’s the kids I feel sorry for. Who’s going
to look after them? I doubt that father of theirs will be
able to keep them out of care.'
Marty nodded. The shirt collar slopped around his wizened
neck. He wore a grey suit that was several sizes too large.
A few years ago his body had filled the suit. Now the cloth
hung in folds around him like undrawn curtains. His ma had
never told him that eventually he’d shrink into his
'It’s his fault she’s lying there in the first
place. He always was trouble. Even when he was little he
could charm the leg off a donkey. Oh, he was the cutest
of babies. Then, when he was old enough, always a girl on
each arm. Such a handsome man... but sly with it.'
A pram nudged out the doors of the post office, clattering
down the steps to the pavement – a woman pushing a
baby, dragging another elder child in her wake. Sensing
that rain was on the way, she stooped to yank the toddler’s
hood over his head. The pensioners turned back to the road.
The hearse, wintery breath pouring from its exhaust, had
half-shifted its elongated black body from the puddle. Marty
peered at the mourners’ car behind. He could barely
make out the shadowy figures in the back. The husband would
be in there, red-eyed and snotty as the children.
'She never seemed to mind when they were courting,' Eileen
began again. 'But once they were married it was a different
story. I’d never have thought it possible, but she
kept him in line all right. He stayed faithful to her throughout.
Clever woman to manage that.'
'Aye,' said Marty slowly.
'Do you know how she did it?' Eileen lowered her voice and
rummaged in her handbag. 'She spread a wicked rumour around
the town. You must have heard it, she told it to anyone
who would listen. ‘My husband is sleeping with Patricia
O’Neill,’ she’d wail, tears in her eyes.
‘That bitch Patricia O’Neill is in love with
my husband.’ What with Pat’s activities, nobody
would touch him. The girls wouldn’t even take a drink
off him. They didn’t fancy a hiding, or worse...'
At last Eileen pulled a half-smoked cigarette from her bag.
Marty sighed as she huddled up and lit the butt. No matter
how hard he tried to stay clear of things, the craic always
seemed to get back to him in the end. He had a reputation
as a polite man, a quiet man, a man who rarely opened his
mouth, a man who ‘never said nothing’. As a
result people told him everything.
'This went on for years,' Eileen crowed, clamping the fag
to her cat’s arse mouth. 'The husband couldn’t
figure out what was wrong with him. He thought he had bad
breath. Everyone else knew rightly... ' Eileen spluttered
on the smoke, half laugh, half cough. 'A wicked rumour isn’t
it? Pity Pat couldn’t see the funny side. I can understand
her being angry, but a lynch mob?...Tar and feathers, in
this day and age!'
A car horn sounded from down the street, hooting once, twice,
three times. From the top of the hill, in sonorous response,
the bell tower tolled back eleven long notes. The workman
turned the sign from STOP to GO and the traffic rolled ahead
slowly, tyres swishing through the snow-water.
'They didn’t know she was an asthmatic mind you,'
Eileen concluded, dropping the butt and fumbling shut the
clasp on her bag. 'You can hardly blame them for that. No,
in my book the husband is the guilty one.'
Marty counted past the cars in the funeral procession. One,
two, three...less than a dozen, much less than usual. And
the wreath had been removed from the lamppost overnight.
He wondered if half way up the hill the mourners would turn
their heads and gaze at the dark streaks of creosote on
the pole and pavement, or if they would keep their heads
bowed, eyes downcast. Marty watched the last of the line
of cars start the slow climb to the chapel.
'Pray God he doesn’t marry again,' he muttered.