The wire mesh creaked. Instinctively I raised my hand and peered out through crooked fingers to see the mattress squeezing through diamond shaped gaps in the mesh as the man above shifted his weight. I pulled the duvet tight around my body, turned over and buried my face in the pillow silently begging for sleep. The mid-morning sun lit the small room and it felt as if I hadn’t slept all night.
Afraid to get up, for fear the man would wake and I’d have to talk to him, I sneaked yesterday’s Independent from under my pillow. The crosswords were great for occupying my mind and I hoped that now they would give me some comfort. The other two bunk beds in the room were empty – their occupants had left for breakfast. I was glad of that.
I doodled with my pencil on the bottom of the page as I read the clue for two down. Another word for “entrenched” beginning with “I?” Easy – Institutionalised. I never needed to use a dictionary when doing crosswords. The odd time a word wouldn’t come to me I had my biscuit tin. It was safely stored in my grey backpack in the farthest corner under the bunk bed. Years of crosswords lay there. That was all I had from my years in prison – an Afternoon Tea biscuit tin of pages with black and white squares. The white one’s full of carefully penned letters in black ink.
The probation officer had told me when she left me at the hostel that she would call in the next few days to go through my long term accommodation and employment options.
“It’s a good time to be released,” she had said.
“Of course it is. There’s no need to look so worried.”
“It’s not that bad, Bill, there’s jobs out there, if you’re not too fussy.”
“Fussy? Who’s going to employ a middle aged ex-prisoner? Would you want me cleaning your office or washing dishes in your restaurant?”
“We’ll get you something.”
I hoped she wouldn’t call to see me too soon. Her high-pitched voice was irritating and she talked too fast. I don’t know what type of perfume she wore but whatever it was, it was too strong. Something about her unnerved me. Maybe it was the warm handshake when we met or the feel of her youthful exuberance? Perhaps she reminded me of the daughter I never got to have or the woman I never got to marry?
“No woman will ever have you, if you keep drinking like that,” Ma had said to me on the night of my thirtieth birthday.
“…it will be the ruination of you.”
“Leave him alone, woman. He’s harmless,” said Da. “He’ll find someone in his own time.”
She was right of course. Aren’t Ma’s always right? It hadn’t taken much to turn the harmless drunk into a battering machine. A slagging and a shove that knocked a bag of chips out of my hands and then, three shots of Jameson’s and five pints of Heineken took away someone else’s son. I knew how cross Ma would be when she found out. As I punched I could hear her crying and telling me how I had let her down but I was powerless to stop the beating I gave the north-side punk.
It was hard to believe that it was eight years since Da had died and six since I got the call to say Ma had passed. I hadn’t requested permission from the governor to be allowed out to attend the funerals. It would have been too hard for the family to have me standing handcuffed to a guard by the grave. Well too hard for Ma anyway, at Da’s funeral. She was awful particular about how things looked. There would have been no mad rush by anyone to sympathise with me. I knew that I was as well off not to be at either of the funerals. That was my excuse anyway.
Crossword finished, I had the sudden urge to wash the dirty room from my greasy body. The communal showers had stopped pumping almost an hour ago so I knew it was safe. I wanted to stand anonymously, close my eyes and drown in a spray of warm water. I had always closed my eyes when showering in prison. Unlike some of the inmates I never worried about what might have come behind me. After the shower I threw on the clothes neatly placed on the only chair in the room the previous night.
It was too late for breakfast but I wasn’t hungry, though the smell of alcohol in the room had put a thirst on me. I left the hostel, my head bent and eyes looking at feet. Lidl was just across the road. I left it with a bottle of German wine and a small bunch of blue Irises. They were Ma’s favourite flowers.
I hadn’t drunk since the night of the fatal row. It was my last promise to her. The Lidl wine would be pure shite. Still the odd slug on the way to the cemetery would do no harm. There was no money left for the bus but I didn’t mind. Glasnevin wasn’t far from the hostel and I needed some exercise. There was no excuse now – not to visit them.
I was glad to see the gates of the graveyard. The walk has winded me and the straps of the backpack were burning the tops of my shoulders. The place was a lot bigger since the last time I was there, when Ma’s Da had died. I paused to look at the grey tower that stood near O’Connell’s grave and remembered playing marbles behind it with my brothers while granddad’s coffin was covered with earth. I was the youngest in the family and never won a game. Still no matter how often they beat me at home, my brothers always looked after me outside. Well they did, until they both immigrated to Australia leaving the family stain behind.
I remembered thinking, when a guard had given me my release date, that there would be no one on the outside to look out for me when I got out.
“I’m as well off to stay where I am.”
“Yah big eejit, Bill. Don’t worry there’s a pre-release programme. It’ll help.”
The guard’s words hadn’t eased my trepidation and neither had the pre-release programme.
Two grave diggers nodded as I wandered through the maze of plots. Although I knew my parents were buried in the same one as Ma’s family, I was in no rush to get there. The day was long enough. The noise from the city’s traffic faded as I went deeper into the graveyard. Soon the only audible sound was that of the autumn nudging the last of the leaves from the trees. I was breathing easier now. The city’s smog seemed to have stayed at the cemetery gates.
A Celtic stone cross guarded the family’s plot. Acned with moss, it was nonetheless imposing. It seemed to be as big as it was when I was a boy. Aren’t things supposed to look smaller as you get older? The row at home when Ma had it erected went on for days. Da thought it was a complete waste of money. A smaller one would have done.
I shivered in its shadow and unburdened my shoulders of the backpack. The bottle of wine was nearly empty but it didn’t seem to have lightened the load. My lips curled as I propped the Irises against the bottom of the cross. Ma wouldn’t have liked the look of the blue flowers against the green moss.
“Not a bad day for September.”
“Sep – tem – ber.”
I’m not deaf or foreign, I thought, looking at the owner of the September voice. Her silver hair was tied in a bun. She wore a black wool coat and as she stood at the end of the grave, I wondered if there was any colour underneath.
“My Jim’s buried here,” she said pointing to the grave on my left. “I’ve been coming here for five years and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone at this grave.”
“I live in Australia – just back for a holiday.”
I don’t know why I tried to explain. I could have pretended not to hear. That was my speciality. I had survived fifteen years in prison by keeping my ears and eyes closed when circumstances demanded. Maybe it was because I hadn’t spoken to anybody all morning.
“Isn’t it lovely and peaceful here? Away from the noise of the city. I’m from West Cork myself but I’ve lived in Dublin most of my life. I never really liked it, but this is where Jim wanted to live.”
She edged towards me along the strip of grass separating the two family plots. I watched her carefully for fear she might trip.
“For a place with so many people Dublin can be an awful lonely place to live,” she said.
“That’s for sure.”
“And it wouldn’t be so bad, if Jim and I had some children. I’d have some company, but that wasn’t to be.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It is and my only sister died last year, God rest her soul and my parents are long gone. So it’s just me now…And you?”
“Just me, too.” I said, looking into her face. It welcomed me so I rested my gaze on her cheekbones.
“Do you like it then?”
“Australia. I don’t think I could stand the heat, myself.”
“It’s not the worse place you could be.”
“I suppose not and ye wouldn’t have the same cold or damp, that we have here. The dampness is a killer.”
I nodded in agreement. She wasn’t the worse woman I ever met and we had something in common. We had nobody. Nobody to love, miss or grieve us.
It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Would it? I don’t know where the thought came from. Maybe it was the wine, but at that moment it seemed like the perfect solution. Then there’d be no loneliness – for either of us. As the plan began to take shape in my head, I could taste the sourness of the cheap wine on my tongue.
“Will we kneel and say a prayer together?” I said.
We settled quickly into a litany of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Half way through the rosary’s second decade, I stood up.
“Arthritis, my knees are killing me.”
The woman paused and looked up at me for a minute as if she was trying to decide whether she would stand up too. She didn’t. Three Hail Mary’s into the third decade, I stood behind her and blew an autumn leaf from her hair. She inclined her head towards me, as if welcoming a strange man’s breath. I inhaled deeply trying to figure out what the familiar smell was. Then it came back to me, it was Ma’s favourite perfume. She was wearing Ma’s perfume.
I rubbed the smell from my nose determined not to let it distract me from what had to be done. The sky started to cry as I lowered my hands. The vertebrae in her neck whimpered as they cracked. She slumped and I held her as she grew cold and stiff. I tidied the grey wisps of hair that had escaped from her bun when her neck twisted. Then I laid her out as reverently as any undertaker would, on the roof of her husband’s grave. I borrowed one of Ma’s blue Irises and put it between the woman’s hands as I laid them across her chest. Then I knelt and prayed for her, for Ma and for myself. And that’s where the grave diggers found me and it wasn’t long before I was back where I belonged. Inside.