A few months after his retirement, Tom Kearney had slipped into an easy sleep in the good room when he got the call to tell him Cathal O’Rourke was dead.
He didn’t recognise the music which woke him. It was a carefree melody. Like someone walking their fingers along the keys of a piano. Like a tune you would play to teach the basic facts of music to a stubborn, oblivious child. He felt vibrations against his leg, heard the buzzing, and realised, bleary-eyed, that this was the sound his phone made since he handed back the company model and began paying for things himself. He dug the handset out of his pocket and answered the call.
Bridie O’Rourke told him she found Cathal unconscious in his study. She told him of the 999 call, the trip to the emergency room and the final bad news around 4am the previous morning. Tom listened, repeating affirmative responses in a smaller and smaller voice until he was simply whispering a barely enunciated “yeah” over and over. By then, Bridie herself was sobbing.
After he hung up, he went to the hall closet and took his navy overcoat down. He wondered if he needed his briefcase. Probably not. He went back into the good room to get his phone, then stopped underneath the chandelier. He scratched the top of his head. He walked to the mantelpiece and examined the ornaments. There were two small stone men that Helen’s brother had brought from Greece. They looked ridiculous surrounded by the other trinkets, a wooden elephant from Africa, a porcelain dolphin from who knew where. He picked one of the men up. It was lighter than you’d think. He turned it over in his hand.
He had always told people that Cathal O’Rourke made him, that he would be nothing without Cathal O’Rourke. Cathal was his first and only boss in property after he finished university. Cathal nominated him to join the golf club. Cathal brought him to Punchestown for his first race meeting. Cathal made him partner and the business they’d built together became O’Rourke and Kearney. Cathal was only what, 76? Tom put the statue back down. All of this junk was gathering dust. The lot of it was fit for the bin. He put his coat on and walked into the hall.
”Helen,” he called. There was no answer. He knew she would be in the living room at the other end of the house. He wondered what she did there that was so interesting. She always brought her laptop, sometimes a paperback. She was there all day, even late at night with a little electric heater. He knew she had joined an online writing group and that she drank a glass or two of red most afternoons, but her habits were mostly the stuff of mystery, as they had been during his working days. At best, he felt like a conscientious tourist in the land of her routines, with little right to question them.
He called for her again from the kitchen, standing by the fridge with the tattered photographs of the children stuck to it, Lorcan in his high chair with a birthday cake, Karen in her white communion dress, permanent fixtures for as long as he could remember. Helen didn’t answer. All he heard was the big clock in the hall ticking. Maybe she was doing something on the laptop. She always had it open when he went out. Once, over her shoulder, making small talk, he saw names and messages cascading down the screen, a man’s name, he thought, before she realised he was looking and clicked on something else.
“Helen,” he called again, walking out through the wash room.
The last light of the grey February skies was fading through the living room windows. Helen sat in an armchair typing. She had her spectacles on, the chain draped around her neck. There was a wine glass and a half-empty bottle on the small table beside her, next to a copy of The Poems Of Walt Whitman.
"Cathal O’Rourke is dead," Tom said. Helen closed the laptop.
"God,” she said. “Poor Bridie. What happened?”
"His heart," said Tom.
Helen took her glasses off. Tom looked out the window. Frost was settling, though it was only half four. Black and white finches came and went from the small metal feeder on the oak tree, pecking away at scraps of grain then flitting off into a makeshift nest they’d built in a hole in the wall.
“A heart attack?” Helen said.
"Yeah," Tom said. “Bridie called an ambulance but he died at Beaumont.”
Helen stood. There was a long silence. They looked at each other as if deciding who should speak first.
"He was a great pal for you," Helen said, at last.
"He was better than that," Tom said. He furrowed his brow. More than anything, he wanted to shrug, but somehow it seemed important to fight this impulse. This couldn’t be it in the end, a shock and then a shrug a minute later. There had to be more.
“I said I’d call over.”
“You should,” Helen said. “Bridie must be in shock.”
“I told her I’d help with arrangements, you know. Do what I can.”
“I mean, she’ll have Eamonn,” Helen said.
“I know, but Cathal deserves a proper send-off,” Tom said.
“Of course,” Helen said. She cleaned her glasses on her cardigan. “Poor Eamonn. It’s harder for an only child.”
Tom took a deep breath. The finches had gone. Helen walked over to him, on her way to the kitchen, and as she passed she touched his arm for a second with the fingertips of her right hand.
Tom drove his silver Mercedes down the coast road towards Howth. He stopped at a red light on Dollymount Strand. Powdery snow fell in the twilight of the winter afternoon. He looked out the window to his right, over the crumbling wall that separated land from shore and sea. Bull Island stood rugged and resilient, even in the gloom.
He flicked on the news. The Euro was falling. The Eurozone could enter recession again. Everything was losing value. His property investments, his shares, even his home. He was lucky he'd got out when he did, a few things squirreled away. The bulletin went on. Two were dead in a car crash on the M50. 87 in a Chinese mining disaster. He accelerated through a yellow light in Kilbarrack. They must have had no regard for safety in China, he thought. There were always mining disasters. But the financial news was even worse. The way things were going, O’Rourke and Kearney would hit the wall before the end of the year. Maybe it was better that Cathal hadn’t lived to see it.
Tom drove through Howth village then wound the car up the roads through the headlands. At last Cathal’s house revealed itself from behind the frail, bare trees that lined the hill. Even against grey skies, it was a stunning edifice, a pile of dark stone, quaint and stately, looking out across the Irish Sea. Some houses were just numbers on a bank statement, transient things to be bought or sold for profit or loss, but Cathal’s place was something more. When you sold somewhere like this to someone, you knew they’d never buy a home again.
Tom parked the car and got out. In the driveway there was no sign that anything was wrong. Cathal’s black BMW was in its usual spot by the fountain, the bonnet collecting fresh snow. The ride-on mower was stationed faithfully near the garage, with a few brown clumps of grass on the wheels. A spade stuck out of one of the flower beds. It was hard to believe Cathal was gone when the things he owned were all around, unmoved, just where they should have been.
Tom pulled his overcoat on and checked his wallet was in the inside pocket, touching the leather with his fingertips. He walked across the gravel. The wind whipped in from the sea. Maybe deaths weren’t so different from buildings, he thought. There were people you expected to be around forever, and others whose passing seemed as natural as morning becoming afternoon. He rang the doorbell. He heard footsteps from inside. It would be hard to see Bridie suffering. She’d been like a mother to him.
“Tom,” she said, when she answered the door. She began to shake.
“Bridie. I’m so sorry,” he said.
He held her and they stood like this on the doorstep for a second. Then they separated.
“Come in,” she said, regaining herself. “Come in out of the cold.”
Tom stepped inside and took off his overcoat, rubbing his hands together to warm them. Bridie showed him into the sitting room. An artificial fire was lighting. The red Axminster carpet was plush. This was their good room, like his own, reserved for special occasions. How silly that seemed now. He wondered how many times Cathal had used it in twenty years living here.
“I’ll take your coat, Tom,” Bridie said, disappearing into the hall.
Tom looked at the framed photos on the coffee table. He picked up one from their wedding day. Tipperary 1973, it said. He didn’t know Cathal then, but he recognised his shoes, a sturdy pair of black brogues he was sure he’d seen him wear years later. Buy well once, never buy again.
Bridie came back with a bottle of wine.
“Will you have a drink, Tom?”
“I will,” he said, taking a seat in the armchair adjacent to hers. He was driving but who would know. If the Gardai stopped him he’d tell them Cathal O’Rourke was dead and they could lock him up if they wanted. Bridie filled two glasses. Tom took a sip.
“Chablis Grand Cru,” he said. “Cathal’s favourite.”
“It's our last one,” Bridie said.
“What?” Tom said.
She put her glass down and took a tissue out of her handbag.
“We have no money, Tom,” she said.
Tom took a drink.
“Bridie, that can't be true.”
Bridie looked down into her glass.
“We've been in trouble for ages.”
There was no way, Tom thought. He’d sold Cathal six apartments from the Old London Hospital scheme a year ago. They hadn’t done well, quite badly in fact, but why would he have bought six if he was broke? Then there was the bottle of ‘78 Saint Emilion which Cathal sent for Christmas. How did he afford that? Wasn’t he the one who told Tom to always, always set one risk off against another? Anything else was just gambling.
“Let me take a look at his books, Bridie.”
“Of course. But I'm telling you, Tom. We didn't have secrets.”
Bridie fought back tears. Tom clasped her hand.
“I know, Bridie. I know.”
She led him down the hall to Cathal’s study. All couples had secrets, Tom thought. What mattered was that you trusted each other. He trusted Helen, he supposed, even if he didn’t know what she was doing all the time. Even if it wasn’t trust, it was at least some related instinct, a thing that came after, a place you both arrived at with age. It was close enough. You couldn’t spend your whole life like jealous teenagers.
“All yours, Tom,” said Bridie, pointing him into the study.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take a look and we’ll see how bad it is,” Tom said.
“Of course, Tom,” Bridie said. “Eamonn will be back from meeting Father Connolly. I’ll put the kettle on.”
Tom sat down at the antique desk in Cathal’s office and flicked the switch on the polished brass lamp. The surface was bare, apart from a few scraps of A4 and a wine glass stained red. Tom picked up the glass. There was a smudged fingerprint on the bowl. He thought of Cathal pouring wine at all those dinners and lunches in the city, at the bars on Leeson Street in the early hours, or in his kitchen, by the island, after he took your coat. The first of the night was always the best, knowing there were more to come. Tom put the glass down. He wondered if this was the last drop Cathal ever drank. He hoped it was something good.
He opened a drawer below the desk on the left. There was nothing in it except a tattered ledger. Its blank pages had turned from white to yellow. He tried the other drawer. This one overflowed with letters, some open, some still sealed. He flicked through them. There were warnings from a string of banks, three different credit card bills, mortgage repayment reminders, and a litany of ominous opening lines like we note, failed to reply, have no choice but to seize.
So it was true. This was all there was behind the curtain. Tom picked up a scrap of paper from the desk that had Cathal's writing on it. Ross, Best, Healy, O'Connell, Ryan, Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, Earls, D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Bowe, Kearney. The names were written out in their positions as if on a rugby pitch. Was this how Cathal had spent his last days? Sitting around, picking his Six Nations team while his financial affairs fell to ruin, not even the cash to pay for a decent funeral. Tom looked at the piece of paper again. It was a good team, but he’d have dropped Earls for Trimble on the wing. Trimble was a unit, of that there was no question. A physical specimen. He put the piece of paper down, left the office and went back to the sitting room.
Bridie was in the same armchair as before. Eamonn O’Rourke sat opposite her with a pen and pad on his knee, holding a cup of tea. Eamonn was in his late thirties, bald and bearded with small black spectacles. He always seemed to wear cardigans.
“Eamonn,” Tom said. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
They shook hands.
“How are you, Tom?” Eamonn said.
Tom sat on the couch. “I’m fine, Eamonn, grand. Just so sorry to hear the news.”
“It’s a real shock.”
“We’re just trying to organise ourselves,” Bridie said. “Eamonn is helping me with it all.”
“We’re going to keep it relatively simple,” Eamonn said, taking a sip of tea.
As far as Tom knew, Cathal had not been particularly close to his son. They were different men. Eamonn was an active member of the local Labour party. He worked as a science teacher at the community school. Perfectly nice by all accounts, though Cathal used to say his ideas were left of Chairman Mao. You wouldn’t have had him running a cake sale, let alone the funeral of Cathal O’Rourke.
“I saw the letters,” Tom said. “In the study.”
“We got ourselves into trouble,” Bridie said. “Real trouble, Tom.”
“Dad invested in things he shouldn’t have,” said Eamonn.
“We all did that,” said Tom. “The whole bloody country did that.”
“Were you in on that Old Hospital thing yourself?” Eamonn said.
“Of course I was,” said Tom. “I was in it deeper than anyone.”
“That was where the problems started,” Eamonn said.
“It didn’t go as we hoped,” said Tom.
Bridie looked at Eamonn.
“Cathal always trusted Tom,” she said. “He was so proud of you, Tom, taking over the business after he retired.”
Eamonn tapped his pen on the pad.
“I could help out,” said Tom. “It’d be nice to give him a proper send-off.”
“No,” said Eamonn.
“We couldn’t ask you to do that,” said Bridie.
“Mum is right,” Eamonn said. “Thanks, Tom, but there’s really no reason for you to do that.”
“Nonsense. I’d be nothing without Cathal,” Tom said. “What about the reception? I could contact Fergal Doyle at The Shelbourne. He’d know Cathal well.”
“Thanks, Tom, but we’ve arranged most of it already,” Eamonn said. “Removal will be Friday morning. Father Connolly will say mass at midday, and we’ll have drinks and sandwiches in Devlin’s after the burial.”
Devlin’s. It was fine for a cheese toastie and chips in front of the racing but you couldn’t imagine your funeral reception there. Not unless you wanted people slurping Guinness and licking crisps off their fingers, popping next door to the bookies to stick a bet on in between anecdotes about the deceased.
“Why not have part of it here?” Tom said. “He loved this place.”
He imagined the removal at the house. Cathal laid out in a dark mahogany coffin on the burnished hardwood floor of the vestibule. His lifeless body reposing opposite the rolling waves of the Irish Sea. Ships coming and going on the winter squall. A black hearse winding down Howth Head, followed by a mile of cars carrying mourners. That was more like it.
“We can’t,” Eamonn said.
“Why not?” said Tom.
“Tom, some people are coming to look at the house in the next few days,” Bridie said.
“What people? Why?”
“We have to sell the house,” Eamonn said. “Quickly. There’s measurements, surveying, it’s a different thing every day.”
“Jesus,” Tom said. He took another drink. So someone else would move in and soon it would be as if Cathal had never lived here at all. They may as well have let the white waves come foaming up the cliffs through the fields and take house and all back with them into the sea.
“What about a headstone?” he said, after a moment.
“What?” said Eamonn.
“Have you thought about a headstone yet?”
“No, not yet,” Bridie said.
“I could look into that for you,” said Tom. “I could call Cillian Cronin at the funeral director’s. He’s in the golf club.”
“You don’t normally get a headstone so soon,” Eamonn said. “I mean, I don’t think you can even erect it until a few months after the burial.”
“What? You can hardly just bury him with no headstone.”
Eamonn raised an eyebrow. Bridie looked from one man to the other.
“If you didn’t mind calling Cillian, we’d be very grateful, Tom,” she said.
Eamonn glanced at her and took another quick sip of tea.
“It’s the least I could do,” Tom said.
“That’s very good of you,” said Bridie.
“Maybe just an enquiry for now,” Eamonn said. He put his cup down. “But of course, Mum is right. That’s very good of you, Tom.”
“Certainly,” said Tom. “Just an enquiry. Leave it all to me.”
The next day at noon, Tom stood in the showroom of Cronin’s Funeral Directors, admiring the sample headstones.
There were small white ones, which he imagined must be for women and children. Clean and unblemished behind glass, they were certainly beautiful pieces of stone. Then there were the darker slabs. A man, he supposed, would want something more like this, grey or speckled with black. On the other hand, maybe the colour didn’t matter. Maybe it just had to be built to last. The whole thing was new to him. When his mother died, his father and brother took care of the arrangements, though he had obviously offered to help.
Cillian Cronin stepped into the room in his black suit and tie. Tom shook his hand. They’d played an occasional game of golf together. Cillian was a decent sort, though he was 20 years Tom's junior and his drives made Tom feel like a pensioner.
“Sad news, Tom,” Cillian said. His soft voice had an even-keeled sympathy that must have been essential to his trade. Even the lids of his calm blue eyes seemed to hold some weary remnant of his daily exposure to the grief of strangers.
“It’s a real shock,” Tom said.
“Terrible,” said Cillian, shaking his head. “Have you thought about what sort of stone might be appropriate? I assume you’ve talked to Bridie.”
“Of course,” Tom said. He paused. “How do you know which one will last after you’re gone?”
“Well, they’re all quality, Tom. It just depends what you want. Or what Cathal would have wanted. And of course price is a factor too.”
“Not for this sale,” Tom said. They took a walk around the room. Tom stopped at a case which contained a headstone of some rich, dark material. It looked like granite and stood two or three feet taller than the others.
“What about this?” said Tom.
“That’s top of the range, Tom. The Glengad in Mountain Obsidian.”
“I’d like to buy it.”
“That one is six thousand Euro.”
“Not a problem. You’ll take a credit card?” Tom said.
“Well, you don’t have to pay immediately,” Cillian said. “Obviously, we have to get it made and put the inscription on.”
“But the funeral is tomorrow,” Tom said.
“Right,” Cillian said, fixing his tie. “I mean, you know Tom we can’t erect a headstone until six months after the burial. Maybe longer.”
“Six months?” Tom said. “Cathal needs a headstone now. There’ll be a few hundred people at this funeral.”
He hadn’t calculated but it seemed about right. Cathal certainly knew enough people to fill a church.
Cillian scratched his head. “The thing is, Tom, the stone will sink if we put it in too early. And we’d only have a day or two to inscribe it. Father Connolly won’t allow it.”
“I’m willing to pay, Cillian. I don’t care how you do it. I mean what’s the point of a headstone if it’s going to disappear?”
“Well, I want to accommodate you, Tom, but this just isn’t how it works.”
“I know but, listen, look, I’m sorry Cillian. It’s just very important I get this right.”
“I know, Tom. And I want to do our best for you, really I do, but it’s… ”
“Ten thousand, Cillian. Cathal’s name and dates in gold and you get it at the head of the grave by tomorrow, one way or another.”
“Money can’t stop the ground from sinking, Tom. I can take the order but there’s no way, and I mean no way whatsoever you can have a headstone in a day’s time.”
Tom looked down at the Glengad. He imagined a damp, dark hole in the ground, a slim wooden cross, a man's limp body tossed in there to rot. He put his wallet back in his pocket.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I didn’t know that’s how it worked.”
Cillian patted him on the arm.
“Listen, we’ll look after you, Tom. You just need to give us more time.”
“Not to worry, Cillian,” he said. They shook hands and Cillian walked Tom out to the car park.
He asked Tom how his golf was going and Tom began telling him about a round he’d played at Portmarnock the week before. Cillian nodded, listening, until they reached Tom’s car. Tom was still talking about the prevailing winds on the 18th hole when Cillian put a gentle hand on his back and eased his way to saying goodbye.
It was the middle of the afternoon when Tom got home. He opened a bottle of white and went into the good room. He didn’t often drink during the day but who would judge in the circumstances? He knew that Helen was in the living room, but he still hadn't told her about Bridie and the house and the Glengad, and he didn’t know where to start.
Instead, he took his mobile out and began dialling, going from A to Z in the phonebook, contacting anyone who might ever have known Cathal. He took a gulp of wine and paced the room as he spoke.
“Alan, Tom Kearney. Some sad news… ”
“Martin, Tom Kearney here. It’s about Cathal O’Rourke… ”
“John? Tom Kearney. Oh, you heard. Very good… ”
After an hour, he’d finished a third glass of wine but he was only halfway down the list. He kept calling, pacing, reminiscing with those who answered. When it got dark, he turned on the antique lamp on the coffee table. His giant shadow gesticulated against the wall as he walked up and down, phone in one hand, wine glass in the other.
Some numbers no longer worked. Some people had left the country, for retirement or because they owed this or that. James McCann was in Portugal. Billy Sweeney lived in Sorrento. Terry Leahy’s wife answered, and that was the first time Tom heard Terry was dead. In the end, he couldn’t get through to half of his old contacts, and plenty more said they couldn’t make it. What short memories they all had, he thought. How casual they all were. Cathal O’Rourke was dead. There would only be one funeral. Why was that so hard for them to accept?
He tossed his phone onto the table and reached for the bottle of white, but it slipped from his hand and smashed on the wooden floor. Wine flowed towards the cream rug by the fireplace. He bent down and tried to pick up the pieces, but he only managed to slice open the palm of his right hand. He swore under his breath.
Helen appeared in the doorway. She looked at him, standing there bleeding into the pool of spilled drink.
“What on earth are you doing, Tom?”
“All under control,” he said, holding a bloody shard of glass between thumb and forefinger.
“I can hear you stomping up and down for the last hour shouting at every person you’ve ever met about Cathal’s funeral.”
The wound stung from the wine. Tom held his hand against his jumper.
“I’m just trying to get the word out,” he said.
“Bridie can get the word out,” Helen said. “And Eamonn. They put an ad in the Irish Times.”
Tom shook his head. He felt drunk now, as if mind and body were freewheeling towards somewhere, something. He pointed and spat his words.
“I’m just giving Cathal a proper send-off. And to be honest, Helen, I’m starting to think I’m the only one who gives a shit.”
Helen spoke softly.
“It’s Cathal’s funeral, Tom, not yours.”
He looked at her. His eyes narrowed. He wanted to reply, but no words came. He thought he would shout, but he didn’t know what to say.
“And they’re broke,” she said. “There’ll be no proper send-off. Everyone knows they’re completely broke.”
Tom felt like his body was sinking into the ground. When he spoke at last, his voice was very soft.
“What are you even doing when you’re out there on that computer?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I just wondered. You’re there typing away until all hours. All day. Late at night. Who are you talking to?”
“I told you. It’s my writing group.”
Tom stared into the pool of blood and wine. His shoulders shook, seemingly of their own accord. Something stung his eyes.
“Are you okay, Tom?”
“I’m fine, Helen. I’m absolutely fine.”
“Are you sure?”
She stepped into the room then stopped. If she had been closer, he might have reached out to her.
“I'm fine,” he said.
“I’m going to have a bath,” she said. “For god’s sake mop the floor and bandage your hand. There’s plasters in the medicine box.”
Tom watched her leave, and when she was gone, he realised he envied her. The peaceful air that surrounded her. The certain way she moved around their empty house. The quiet strength of what seemed like her acceptance. In these spare years they faced, she seemed to belong.
He went to the kitchen and got the mop and bucket. He filled it with water then threw in some white powder he found under the sink. He got a brush and swept up the big bits of glass. There was an ugly red stain on the rug. It looked like it would be there forever. He rolled it up and threw it in a corner then mopped the wine, back and forth until it was all gone. When he was finished, he collapsed into his big soft chair.
The church the following morning seemed too big. Maybe there just weren’t enough people. Father Connolly delivered his usual singsong musings on rewards for a life well lived or our brief time on earth. Tom wondered how heaven was supposed to help anyone.
When the mass was finished, Tom and Eamonn and a couple of cousins carried the simple coffin on their shoulders to the grave. Bridie led the rest of the mourners step by slow step through puddles formed from the melting ice.
The undertakers lowered the coffin down and everyone huddled around the hole where Cathal would be buried. Tom looked from face to face, but all he could think about was those who hadn’t come.
As Connolly led a mumbled Our Father, Tom knew the ceremony would be over soon, but he didn’t want it to end. It didn’t seem enough, though he didn’t know what would have been enough. Maybe he wanted someone to say that Cathal O'Rourke's life meant something, or that nobody would ever forget Cathal O'Rourke, or that the world would have to stop spinning without Cathal O’Rourke in it, but he knew now that none of those things were true.
He unclenched his fist and released the handful of soil he’d been holding. The pieces scattered in different directions on the wind, falling into the disturbed earth, dancing on the ailing patches of grass, finally settling on the narrow, pockmarked scraps of path which separated one grave from another. Connolly closed his bible with a practised flourish, and there was a staggered disharmony of amens.
After that, people peeled away. They left in ones and twos, slowly, carefully, as if they were in the presence of something which was not to be woken or disturbed by sudden sounds or movements, an invisible, terrible thing. Tom stood where he was, staring into the hole, unable to move.
At last, Helen reached for his bandaged hand, and he took hers. The sun came out. A cold breeze blew. For a moment, they were the final two standing over the grave, then they followed the rest.
Ronan Fitzgerald is a Dubliner living in London. A former BBC journalist, he has an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, and is studying for an MFA. His playwriting has been funded by Arts Council England and his poetry has appeared in Mechanics Institute Review. In July 2019, he attended the second Stinging Fly summer workshop in Dublin. @rmkf
Editors' note: This is Ronan Fitzgerald's first published short story.