October 1st – Belmont Road
After Eddie died the house still felt full of him: his reading glasses on the kitchen bench, his good coat in the hall, his shoes, his books, his toothbrush by the sink, head inclined towards mine, as if to say, “so what are you going to do about all the stuff I left behind?”
“Pack Daddy’s clothes up,” said our children and the older of our grandchildren, “we’ll get rid of everything for you. It’ll be easier when you’re not reminded of him every time you turn round.”
But, losing a husband, like acquiring a husband, was something I had to do myself. I packed Eddie into dozens of carrier bags, making a mix up of his shorts and jackets, his paperback novels and flat caps. I left little bits of him all over Belfast with Age Concern and Marie Curie, Save the Children and several of those nameless church shops with cardboard signs in the window.
“I’d like to make a wee donation,” I said and gave all those smiling volunteers a manageable portion of my loss.
I could have taken everything to the charity shop across the street and been done with it. But I have seen those glum-faced creatures dragging their three bin liners full over the threshold. And I have occasionally seen them cry. And I have also seen the way the volunteers look at them- all damp sympathy and “sorry for your loss,” and I could not have carried something that heavy, all at once, on my own. Better to let go one carrier bag at a time.
October 2nd – Botanic Gardens
That winter it rained even more than usual and I often accepted a lift home from the town undertaker whose funeral parlour sat directly opposite my office. He was an elderly man; fifty years or more in the trade, and greatly respected round town.
“It’s no bother,” he’d say. “Sure, I’m going that direction anyway,” and occasionally remind me that the flat above the embalming room was still available for rent. “It’s lovely and cool in the summer,” he’d say, and we’d both sit there in silence, trying to recall the last time a local summer had been hot enough to require cooling.
Out of hours the undertaker did not drive a hearse. Instead, he drove a stately BMW at ten miles an hour, never once breaking the funereal speed limit so the half mile home took almost fifteen minutes. This was long enough to suck a Werther’s Original all the way down to the nib of itself and narrate the obituary column in its entirety, with anecdotes, (where appropriate). To wonder what was different about the undertaker when he drove me home in his BMW and, only afterwards, realise it was his lack of tie and top hat tucked respectfully under arm, the way he’d laughed once or twice at small jokes, his sad, soft face not knowing what to do with such joy.
October 3rd – Shankill Road
This morning you are making a Faberge egg in the back room of a community centre, situated at the bottom of the Shankill Road. You are very carefully lifting the shell of a goose egg from the table, holding it in the cup of your liver spotted hands, turning it this way and that for a perfect beginning point. You are consulting magazines, looking at pictures on your neighbour’s phone, scrolling through the soft bank of your memory for a single inspiring thought, until something clicks and you are off with the PVA glue and the opalescent paint, the thin strips of sequined ribbon and individual diamante stars, attached with UHU glue.
“What’s it going to be?” I ask, and you look at me like I just came up the Lagan in a thin-shelled bubble.
“An egg,” you say, knowing full well that a thing cannot be anything but itself, no matter how many colours it is painted. “But inside the egg,” you continue, “I’ll put something really fancy and beautiful.”
You hold the shell of it like it is made of sheet ice or hope or something equally fragile. “They’re wild easy broke,” you say; this being a lesson hard learnt and not particular to Faberge eggs.
October 4th – Belfast City Hall
Anne Weinhold and Chloe Thwaites
No one has thought to ask her if she ever came to fancy dances at the City Hall. But she has still come across the rotunda -her left ear hearing-aid, tinning like a struck chandelier- to tell us that she once came to fancy dances at the City Hall, with her sister, (who was a foreign language student), and a host of shiny buttoned naval officers, and other young ladies of similar standing and persuasion, though none so well turned out in lemon, yellow tulle, (a bridesmaid’s dress altered by the lady across the street, who was deft as anything with needle and thread). None so tickled pink to be asked.
No one has thought to ask her about the white coats of the naval officers or the starched, white, civic tablecloths, or the white, linen handkerchief squared and tucked inside her matching clutch like a clean, white secret. But, here she is, standing in front of us, telling it all anyway, twirling her imaginary skirts while she speaks, as if the whole pale, yellow dream of it is coming back to her like winter sunshine whispering through the clouds.
October 5th – Dublin
My late grandmother worked all her days in a linen mill and, in her retirement, kept brown chickens in the back yard and never ventured any further South than Belfast, (though once she chanced a day trip to Ayr, Scotland, returning on the early evening ferry, for there were chickens to be got in, and church the following morning). Twice she dined in hotels -my father’s wedding, and latterly, my brother’s- pronouncing the word hotel to rhyme with bottle, or perhaps throttle. No need had she for foreign climes though there were close kin in Canada and other parts of North American who would have had her if she’d asked. The Free State she dismissed with a blunt frown, “sure, you’d not be safe down there with the Northern plates on.” And, when I moved for a number of years, to Oregon in the Pacific North West I might as well have pitched my tent on Pluto for all the notion she had of it. My grandmother’s world was five miles square and orange by default, but she still liked to receive postcards from abroad: thimbles and other such trinkets from Continental holidays she’d never take. She kept them on the mantelpiece next to my grandfather’s retirement clock which we inherited after she died.
October 6th – Clayton Hotel, Belfast
You have arrived at the disco in a suit and tie. You are eighty seven years old. Your eyes are like dark, little raisins. They smile independently of your mouth. You say the word ‘disco’ hesitantly in the same way my mother says ‘chorizo’, ‘hummus’, ‘Americano’, trying the new words out for fit and flex. You dance with your wife/alone/in your seat, fingers drumming on the table top so the wine in your wine glass ripples and shrinks away from itself as if warning of some imminent earthquake. You really let loose on ‘Build Me Up Buttercup.’
You stop to thank everyone on the way home. “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Thank you all for a wonderful evening.”
Your tie is balled up in your blazer pocket, shirt collar open to let your neck breathe, and I ask, “what happened to your tie? Were you dancing too hard?”
You reply, “no I was the only man here in a tie, so I took it off.”
And I say, “that’s a shame. I wish men still wore ties to dances.” I use the word dance because disco is not the kind of thing you say lightly to an eighty seven year old man with a silk hankie triangling out of his breast pocket.
October 7th – Sally Gardens
Visiting Senior Citizens’ Clubs in Belfast:-
They are quick to point out that things are not what they used to be. People aren’t half as friendly. Nobody goes to tea dances any more. The buses don’t run as often as they once did. Everything is getting worse. They offer tea and occasionally Rich Tea biscuits, fanned out round a saucer. They assume you take sugar. They are called Betty/Maureen/Joan/Jean/Margaret. They play bingo at least twice a week and sometimes win a pound or two, though never enough to cover the taxi home. They used to knit but now they can’t on account of arthritis/hip replacements/diabetes/not being arsed to do anything but watch TV. They watch ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ on a tiny TV set wedged between the fireplace and the glass cabinet where they keep their Royal Doulton ladies. They say, “ha, ha, ha, could you get me a man at the tea dance?” and quickly follow it up with, “I had a man once and now he’s gone. I wouldn’t be bothered with breaking another one in. Not at my age.” Sometimes they sound like chickens enclosed in a small space. They offer more tea, maybe a wee sandwich from a tinfoil wrapped bundle. They leave before it gets dark. They have no confidence in the buses.