***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Jeremy Massey
October 13, 2014,
The insomnia had become chronic. It was so bad that it had dragged me from delirium and hallucinations to sudden lucid periods of prolonged focus and back again. I didn't spend much time in bed those last few months, but when I did, in the hope of sleeping, my thoughts were always with Eva. Sometimes I'd even be able to conjure up her image. I'd cling to the moment
as I'd study her sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. The chestnut brown of her irises. The little twitching of her nose when she smiled. The sexy gap between her front teeth. The curves of her shoulders and breasts. I'd want to sigh deeply and never breathe again. Then, when I'd reach out to touch her, she'd disappear.
The only detail that remained was my feelings. And memories. But no such luck this morning. Nothing for me to fix on but my desperate longing.
Mondays had ceased to punctuate the beginning of the week for me, as I'd been working solidly for six months now. Even at night, I'd take the calls—death didn't keep banker's hours—and out I'd go into the darkness of Dublin, past the stinking Liffey, the drug dealers and prostitutes, the drinkers and poets, to the freshly bereaved. Sometimes there'd be a corpse for me to take away, other times not. But every time there'd be death. The tapestry of days and nights, and weeks and months, had blurred together into one gray grieving mess of funeral after funeral after funeral, each one a secret candle of remembrance for Eva.
I put on my overcoat in the hallway and checked myself in the mirror. Gray suit, blue shirt, navy tie. More and more, when I looked in the mirror now, I saw my father staring back at me. Shay Buckley had dropped the body at sixty-three—car crash: quick exit. I'd inherited his twinkling green eyes and his dimples, but it was the grayness in the hair that had me seeing his ghost in the mirror this morning. He'd had two streaks of light gray running
the length of either side of his otherwise black mop of hair since he was in his thirties, which won him the moniker of the Badger. On my fortieth birthday, I thought I'd escaped the same fate, but in the last couple of years, the little flecks of gray above my ears have grown into more pronounced lines continuing down to the back of my neck. But nobody calls me the Badger, probably in deference to my father.
I maneuvered slowly down through the traffic in my brown Toyota Camry past the redbrick houses on Crumlin Road, past the drifting pairings of strung-out junkies with their sunken eyes and Borstal marks, and the unemployed builders and plumbers outside the job center, dragging the last from their cigarettes. Further down, over the Grand Canal, past the rusted swings and graffitied walls of Dolphin House, I watched a three- legged mongrel hobbling after a bearded old man while I remembered my father and the little tricks he'd taught me. My mother died when I was only four, taken out by cancer, so it had just been ourselves, and we were extra close. Back when Gallagher's made their own boxes, Shay had been the chief coffin maker. He'd started out as a carpenter, but ended up finding his groove in Gallagher's loft and worked there until his death. He was the rock of calm in my life. The world could collapse around him and he wouldn't blow his cool, having a veritable tool kit for any situation he found himself in.
When I was seven, I broke my arm after falling out of a tree. I remember writhing in agony while gingerly cradling my crooked forearm and he sitting me down and looking me in the eye. "Patrick," he said, "I want you to focus while I tell you about something very important: Independent Channel 24." His calm was contagious. He had both my attention and curiosity.
"What is that?" I said.
"It's a place in your mind where the pain goes away."
"What do I do?"
"Listen to me. Your arm is broken, but you are not your arm, Patrick. Remove yourself from it. You have a sense of pain, but you are not your sense of pain."
Even back then, I figured my father was part druid. I held my arm, still feeling the pain, but my awareness was completely away from it now, centered instead on his words and where they were bringing me. "Now, remove yourself from your body and observe this situation between us from another perspective." Shay had helped me when I was even younger to create an imaginary sanctuary I could retreat to for relaxing and healing, and in there, he'd trained me to see myself objectively, to see the bigger picture that I was just a part of. For years after my mother had died, I'd lay in bed at night while my father guided me down twenty- one imaginary steps to the sanctuary we created together, a tranquil place, and I'd watch myself down there, removed from my body so I could see myself safe in fields of barley under the shelter of old sycamore trees. Independent Channel 24 was more radical, yet still an extension of what he'd already taught me, so I could quite easily project my imagined self to a place where I could watch myself beside him.
He must have noticed a shift in me. "Where are you now?"
My sharpened and hungry focus was informed by two things: my extreme pain diminishing and my believing in my father. I nodded to a spot beside the branch I'd fallen from. His eyes twinkled. "You've just accessed Independent Channel 24." There were other channels for other situations, I learned later, but it was number 24 that I had full understanding of at the age of seven.
I drove through the open cast-iron gates of the head office in Uriel Street, in the Liberties—the
oldest part of Dublin. The building itself was Victorian, a robust example of the period with its solid walls made from Dolphin's Barn bricks—the Irish wonder brick of the nineteenth century—and its grand doorways and window frames painted ivy green. The bricks were practically black, having collected countless decades of soot and sulfur. Frank Gallagher had considered having them cleaned but figured in the end they were a nice reminder of what Dublin used to look like, and he'd made sure the rest of the building was always immaculate, from the paint on the doors, window frames, and gates to the gold- leaf Gothic lettering of the Gallagher's sign. It was a sizable block, housing the two- story building that made up the offices and embalming room, a long row of stables that used to accommodate the horses the firm used back in the 1930s and '40s, a gravel car park, and the garage and loft, which housed the fleet and coffins, respectively.
Inside, Frank Gallagher was sitting behind the desk in the front office, writing. I sat down opposite him and checked the list of runners for the morning's work.
"Anything doing?" I asked. Frank pulled a sheet of paper off a notepad in front of him and handed it over.
"The artist, Michael Wright, dead in the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook. Cancer. His wife is waiting in their house on Pembroke Lane."
"Always plenty of cancer to go round," I said, noting the address.
Frank sat back in his seat and considered me. We were the only two in the room.
"How much sleep did you get last night?"
The question made me smile; its mirthless quality wasn't loston Frank.
"Would you try sleeping tablets?"
"I don't want to medicate. Besides, I don't mind not sleeping."
"You've got to get a balance back in your life, Paddy. Working around the clock is not the answer." Frank got up from his chair. "Have a cup of coffee with me before you go out to that family."
Apart from the engraving of nameplates for the coffins, there was little work done in the back office. It had only a wooden counter, some stools, a kettle and cups, and a door out to the yard, which was the main entrance for staff. Jack, a young driver who'd been working with the firm for eighteen months, stood at the counter, drinking tea while reading theDaily Star. He was about a strawberry short of a punnet, but lived in his heart and had access to everyone else's as a result.
I sat on a stool while Frank went about getting the coffee together. As he did with everything else in his life, Frank insisted on what he considered to be the best, and in the case of coffee, it was French Roast from Bewley's on Grafton Street, which Frank claimed had the best coffee in Dublin. He ground the beans prior to each serving in a little electric grinder, made the coffee extra strong, and served it black. As he focused on the coffee, I took a good look at him. Frank was in his sixties now and was to me the epitome of the perfect undertaker: always dressed somberly in beautifully tailored suits—three-piece in the winter months, two-piece in the summer—and always well groomed. He was the fairest man I'd ever met, and was known for it throughout the trade.
In all the time I knew him, he'd never once veered from what he knew was the righteous path, and he demonstrated this in all aspects of his life. In fact, Frank was my external moral compass.
If ever in a moral dilemma, I'd need only ask myself one question: What would Frank do?
"How does he do it?" said Jack, shaking his head at the newspaper.
"Who?" said Frank. "Vincent Cullen," said Jack, pointing to a picture of him outside the Four Courts. "He got off again." Frank smiled at me and got back to the coffee. It was no surprise that Vincent Cullen had got off. He was Dublin's most heavy-duty criminal and had a knack for avoiding prison, mostly due to very effective intimidation of witnesses and jury members. Jack, and a good portion of Ireland with him, loved to marvel at the antics of the Cullen brothers through the safe window of a newspaper.
Frank slid an espresso in front of me. I downed it in one and rose to my feet.
"See you in church," I said.