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  1. obsidian_cicatrix

    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

    Jul 15, 2013
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    Belfast, Northern Ireland

    Life, Death, and the Big White Bull. (Word Count - 3, 446)

    Discussion in '10th Anniversary Contest' started by obsidian_cicatrix, Jun 24, 2016.

    Life, Death and the Big White Bull.

    It was the Guinness that did the damage.

    I was already well on the way to getting drunk, I’ll admit. I know because Maeve Quinn, looked almost sexy in her little black dress. Y’know the one… the multi purpose, formal occasions frock, as fitting for a job interview, or court appearance, as a funeral? It’s true what they say about beer googles, and you can triple that for whiskey ones. Don’t take me for an alcoholic, or a lech: I’m a mostly sober, happily married man. The fact of the matter is that grief stricken people pour huge measures. Drink makes almost any situation tolerable, since trying to walk without stumbling, and speak without slurring become the most immediate considerations. Worse case scenario is a fall, a spew and a gurn, but keep drinking and you’ll black out at any rate. As I squinted hard enough to bring my hazy vision into focus, a ladder appeared in Maeve’s black nylons. Not a good look for a woman with milk bottle legs. The least of her concerns, she leaned over the coffin, her hair falling about her face as she kissed Uncle Brendy on the lips.

    Never understood why people do that — It’s a corpse, for crying out loud! Any remaining essence of Brendy had evaporated into the ether like some uncorked bottle of single malt, only a damn sight quicker. It might have been my imagination, or overall disgust, but she lingered a little longer than seemed decent, given the circumstances.

    “Gerard, dear?”

    Aunt Mary, who’d been prowling the perimeter of the coffin, turned on me like a heat-seeking missile. “Would you like to come closer and pay your last respects to Uncle Brendy?” she said, forcibly budging Maeve to the side.

    Honestly? Fuck, no! At least, not like that. But it was too late; I’d been cornered. My resignation morphed into an uncomfortable babble of commiseration. I forced a smile for her benefit and dutifully marched on jellied legs toward the coffin, the pollinated kick of Calla lilies clawing at my nose and throat — Still wasn’t enough to oust the unpleasant aroma of chemicals. Panda-eyed Maeve reluctantly yielded her spot, and squeezed my shoulder. It was that obvious I didn’t want to be there. Car crash fashion, I quickly glanced down, only to end up glaring as the full horror manifested in front of me.

    His face, jaundiced and waxy, looked like some grotesque Madame Tussauds exhibit, circa the 1950s. Or even worse, one of those horrid, old ventriloquist’s dummies, minus the mouth grooves. Why on earth would anyone want to kiss him? I was reminded of the time my vet asked me, did I want to bring my recently euthanised wolfhound home? She was lost to me the moment her heart stopped beating; what would have been the point? The only unresolved matter between the dead man and myself was the princely sum of fifty Euro he owed me over the O’Neill fight, and I wasn't getting that back in a hurry.

    “Didn’t the funeral director do a lovely job on him?” Mary’s voice crackled as she stroked his forehead and dabbed at her eyes with a starched, white handkerchief.

    “Look likes he’s been taking the sun,” I lied through my teeth. What was I supposed to say? He had a healthy glow about him? Let’s be real for a moment: Death becomes no one. And I’m sure as I can be that the cattle breeder didn’t wear make-up behind closed doors, or have particular attraction for the baby-blue crushed velvet lining his glorified box. And what was with the suit? It wasn’t unlike the man to show up to see his bank manager, still wearing jeans plastered in dried blood and amniotic fluid. For the first time in my life, I wished the priest would hurry up and arrive.

    Just as my platitude meter was about to sound an alarm, my glowing, waddling wife Jackie did a fair impression of a cavalry charge. “Hello Mary,” she’d said, running interference. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Her compassion still had a way to go before flat-lining. She’s always been good that way.

    The stoic reply came, “It was his time.”

    “You must miss him terribly,” Jackie said, and gave her sympathetic smile an airing.

    Mary deflected. “You’re looking lovely, as always my dear. Keeping well?” Without waiting for the answer, she turned and stared into the coffin. “Would you like to say your goodbyes now?”

    And that’s where the wife and I differ. The way Jackie explains it, a final, physical demonstration of affection acts as closure of sorts. It’s not all about the spirit, according to her. Maybe with a telescope I could see her point, but whatever you gotta do. Right?

    I left them to it and mingled for while. I knew most the faces and some of the voices. They were from far flung ends of the country, related somehow, many times removed, but most of the names eluded me. I chatted for a while with John Strahan, the vet who had begged Brendy to have his blood pressure tested, even offered to do it himself. Brendy’s pronouncement was that, “All doctors are quacks!” an opinion that probably cost him his life. I honestly thought it would be the drink that did him in, but no… a sudden onset heart attack when he and John were putting a calf in the crush. He simply fell down in the muck, dead, still clutching his chest. A rather anti-climatic end for a man who, in the pub just an hour before, appeared to be full of life.

    I made my excuses and sought out another conversation, something a little jollier to take my mind off how rough I was feeling. The crowd was expelling carbon dioxide in toxic amounts and the heat was becoming stifling. Even in summer, Mary kept the thermostat firmly planted in the red. My stomach gurgled, so I abandoned my plan and did that jig you do when wading through crowds, vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. Getting a breath of fresh air and something to line my stomach seemed as good a plan as any any. Better late than never.

    I was branded a sandwich bandit, for taking an egg and onion bap, while simultaneously being handed a pint. In retrospect, it was a mistake to accept it. Mourners had spilled out of the kitchen and into the back yard. Most of Brendy’s employees and colleagues sat around on hay bales outside the back door, drawing on Park Drive and drinking luke-warm Guinness, the morbid equivalent of the expectant father’s cigars and balloons. They were a decent bunch of lads and the sporting talk was a welcome diversion as I chowed down.

    Now I consider it, funerals are a bit like labour. There’s a certain amount of time when nothing much happens and then suddenly it’s all go. At the slam of a car door, I spied the hipster priest Declan locking up his vintage Beetle. He’d been employed by the parish after Father Boyle did his disappearing act, a younger man to appeal to the younger generation. He went down well with the older women too who patently wanted to mother him. (Or at the very least trim his beard.) It probably wasn’t the most auspicious time for Uncle Dessie to break out his extensive repertoire of Pope jokes. Father Declan told me I was going to burn in hell for sniggering, although I honestly don’t think he meant it. Made me wonder if he’d even read the Good Book. All that smiting…

    Soon after, my cousin Mick arrived with his whole family in tow, straight off a red eye from New York. His kids were griping and whining, and their cries were carried on a plume of tobacco smoke, through the back door and into the parlour where Father Decky was saying an elaborate, Latin prayer. He crossed himself. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. Just as I’d been taught as a child. Old biddies in shawls scowled in our direction, doing first rate impersonations of the witches from Macbeth. The noise was hardly going to bother Brendy, was it? And if God is so all powerful, couldn’t he simply have used his universal remote and dialed it down a notch out of respect?

    I’m not much into this Christianity lark, strikes me as being a tad delusional, but on watching Jackie and Mary comfort each other I became a little envious. Where they foresaw a glorious afterlife, I saw maggots. Where they envisaged a beginning, I saw an end. What did I have to look forward to? Becoming fertiliser? Burned and crushed to dust? If I get lucky I might end up in an urn on the mantel, or in a hardwood box with an inscribed, brass plaque on it. Maybe even scattered on the wind. Jackie might funnel some ashes into a silken pouch and place me under her pillow…

    …Okay… maybe that’s a stretch.

    According to her and Mary, Brendy was up there looking down on us. If heaven exists, and there’s music and booze in it, frankly, he was more likely to be breaking out his bagpipes and strong-arming the angelic harpists into having a drunken session. With the whole celestial choir at his disposal, I sincerely doubted he’d be thinking about us at all.

    By that stage Jackie was tired, thirsty and eye-balling the remains of my pint. I grabbed her a glass of squash and took advantage of the clear out as the funeral cars arrived to down another tot. Ten minutes and another two tots later, we were informed as to the delay. Oisin was flatly refusing to leave his box.

    If you’ve ever bought meat from the butchers on Main Street in Donakilty, you’ll be aware of Oisin. That stamp on the carrier bags… that’s him, Brendy’s prize-winning Charolais. He’s sired more t-bones, sirloins, and silverside roasts than a town could consume in a life-time, even if the people chose to become full-on carnivores. A big brute, white as milk with a block for a head, the faintest whisps of curls on his otherwise smooth coat and, problematically, the weight of a brick shit house. Brendy’s only funereal stipulation wasn’t fierce, but stubborn as an ox with an inadvertent head butt that could knock a person into the following week.

    We had to see for ourselves.

    Poor Mary stood wringing her wrinkled hands and glared at her watch, her resolve not to cry showing the appearance of cracks. Several men were hauling on halters stretched so tight they looked fit to break, but it appeared nothing short of a JCB would shift the big bull.

    “Heave!” shouted Mike and all the boyos pulled. Oisin stood his ground, chewed the cud and swished his tail. They may as well have been gnats for all he cared.

    “We’ll have to tranq him.” said John Strahan, who ran to his Jeep to fetch his bag. Lucky bull. I felt envious of him too. John returned and administered a sringeful of Ketamine, but nothing much happened save that Oisin developed pupils like saucers. He still wasn’t for shifting.

    “Can you give him some more,” I’d asked.

    “Not if you want him capable of walking.”

    In the end, a solution presented itself. Brendy’d always been a man of excess. Wine, woman, song. Too much red meat and bacon. But they weren’t his only guilty pleasures.

    “Mary, do you have any of those little cakes Brendy liked, the orange and lovage ones?” I’d said.

    She shook her head. “Not now Gerard!”

    “Trust me. I know how to get him moving.”

    She made a tutting sound, and headed to the kitchen where she removed some large tupperware containers from a cupboard. “These are his mothers recipe. He grows… grew,” she corrected, “the lovage himself.”

    I had to laugh, knowing all about Brendy’s horticultural habits. He’d once told me that, for as long as he had a cake in his pocket, Oisin would comply with just about any command. Not suprising, they tasted damn good to me too despite the marijuana Brendy substituted for the lovage. Mary, naive soul that she was, was none the wiser. It was just as well I’d remembered before they’d been passed around the mourners’ kids, and turned them into into space cadets.

    Back at the box, I waved one in front of Oisin’s face. He sniffed the air, snorting, and took a few faltering steps down the metal ramp, his hooves making a loud clacking sound.

    “Fuck me!” said Mike. He’s moving!"

    Although we weren’t far from Our Lady of Perpetual Bullshit, it was obvious the cake-in-the-pocket trick had a shelf life. Nothing else for it but to lay a trail. By my estimations, one cake every twenty metres would get him to the chapel, then the burial plot. I kept one for emergencies. How we were going to get him back into the box again was anyone’s guess but we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

    We must have looked quite the sight as we moved down Main Street, a melancholy procession of hearse, black limousines and flowers, with Oisin at the head. Traffic had been banned from the town centre for the duration. Every so often we paused so Oisin could take a another mouthful of the fuel that propelled him forward. The blackout blinds were drawn on the Horse and Farrier, the patrons of the pub standing kerbside giving the Guinness salute and wearing black armbands. The butcher’s shutters were down and a black flag hung limply from the signage. The bookies and newsagents were closed. Well wishers came from the side streets and followed along behind us. It appeared the whole town was feeling the loss.

    On arrival at the chapel, John Strahan agreed to hang back and keep an eye on Oisin, who was tethered to the rail of the wheelchair ramp near the front door.

    The funeral service went without a hitch. There were the usual eulogies, and a quick recounting of the Tain Bó Cualigne, (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) that, as a child, spawned Brendy’s interest in bovines in the first place. His and Mary’s grandchildren sang two verses (and more choruses than I could count) of, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ and the widow teared up again. Talking of tears, Maeve looked beside herself as Brendy’s musician friends played a haunting rendition of his favourite song, ‘She Moved Through the Fair.’ Wifey put her arm around my waist and leant against me.

    “You okay,?” I’d said.

    “My back’s killing me.”

    Not one to whinge, she had to have been in pain. I asked if she wanted to go home. She shook her head.

    “Closure… remember?”

    Fair play to her; it couldn’t have been easy carrying during the summer months. Our little parasite, as we’d come to call it, had given us an upset or two already but being into the third trimester, the end was finally in sight. The sun uncharacteristically blazed down as Jackie attempted to get into the back of the hire car and she admitted to feeling a little faint.

    I’ve always been a martyr to early onset hangovers and by this stage my head was banging. I didn’t feel drunk per se, just sick to my stomach. They say not to mix hops with grains. If only I’d listened. At least coffin bearer was more my speed than pawing over a preserved body, or making speeches — waste disposal of sorts. I forced down a mouthful of bile and got on with getting the coffin back into the hearse.

    By the time I hitched a ride to the plot in another car, the assembled were already at the graveside. Oisin stood alongside nibbling the little tufts of grass at his feet. The grave looked huge, a mistake on the part of the digger, who first dug down to Brendy’s mum, not his dad. We wheeled the coffin on a portable bier and left it opposite Oisin. Nothing quite like staring into a deep hole in the ground for that feeling of finality. Jackie was right.

    It occurred to me I couldn’t see her, nor Mike and his wife, but by that point Father Declan was standing, bible in hand, clearing his throat. The sermon didn’t hold much interest for me; I was too busy thinking about Jackie’s whereabouts, watching the bull and trying to stand to attention without locking my knees. Oisin looked even more pie-eyed and, having plucked out all the grass beneath him, was looking for more. It was only then I remembered the cake in my pocket.

    He was looking at me funny, almost amorously.

    I’m still, not to this day, quite sure which happened first; Oisin trying to jump the large gap between him and me, or Mike running like a stag down the rise where the cars were parked, yelling for me and the vet. As I turned to run, the last thing I saw was Oisin stumbling back into the grave, his handlers eyes agog at four hooves in the air.

    The sound of Aunt Mary’s anguished squeals receded as I sped up the rise. I frantically looked up and down the row of identical black limos. Mike caught up, the vet not far behind. Mary’s squeal was replaced by Jackie’s and it became all too evident which limo was hers.

    “Her waters… broke on the way,” Mike said, sounding like he was about to heave up a lung. “Michelle says she can see the head."

    You’d think a limo would have more room. Jackie had latched onto Chelle’s hand and wasn’t for letting go. I squeezed in the other side, while the vet positioned himself at the business end and fashioned makeshift stirrups from seat belts. Birth, like death, isn’t something I want to witness but I could hardly have left her to it, could I? My good intentions were scuppered as my expectant fatherhood took on a visceral feel. Between the fluids all over the floor, the heat, my hangover, the urge to spew became inevitable. (Where’s a porcelain god when you need one?) I lunged for the door and fell to my knees on the grass outside, my mouth filling with saliva, my consciousness spinning like a top. Images of the days events flashed before my eyes; Maeve kissing Brendy, Mary stroking his head, Jackie saying her fond farewell.

    I surrendered my liquid lunch and egg bap to the grass, my gagging accompanied by the not-so dulcet strains of Jackie’s vocalisations.

    “Get your friggin’ arse in here!”

    Eyes tearing, and still dry heaving, I tried to stand up. Beneath me, down at the the plot, all hell was breaking loose. The priest appeared to be urging calm while Aunt Mary was yelling at Maeve, who was sprawled across the coffin. Oisin, constrained and upside down, snorted and tried to right himself but it would take nothing short of machinery to pull him out. The kids stood laughing and pointing and I couldn’t help but wonder what Brendy would have made of it all. So solemn an occasion? Hell yeah! He’d have been taking the mick.

    Another tormented, primal yell was cut short and gave way to silence. A moment of calm so absolute as to be deafening. The palaver at the graveside skewed out of focus. Time stretched, the birds oddly silent. And you’ll never believe what I did…

    …I prayed.

    There was no trumpet, no fanfare… no cry. I held my head in my hands, the acidic tang of fresh vomit wafting on the summer breeze.

    I clambered back into the limo, fearing the worst. A tiny babe swaddled in a mourning shawl was pressed tight to my wife’s chest. I looked from her face, to John’s, to Chelle’s. The fear that something was wrong, that our baby had died, overpowered every other thought I’d had that day. Even overpowered the whiskey. I should have felt numb, but I didn’t. All I wanted to do was hold my son or daughter.

    Jackie held out her arms to pass me the bundle, and my fear overcame any potential for disgust. I moved closer and cupped the tiny head.

    “Look Gerard,” Jackie said, “isn’t he perfect? Ten little fingers. Ten toes.” She let out a contented sigh. “Suppose we’ll have to think of a name for him.”

    Far in the distance, Oisin bellowed.
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