“Look. There’s one.”
“C’mon then. What do you reckon?”
“It’s fluffy, eh…it might be a dog…a badger? I dunno.”
“Wayhey, good one.”
Genuine laughter, for the first time since it happened. We intently focus on it as we get closer, but travelling fast on a motorway in winter light makes it hard to distinguish a road kill of its size.
“Well, whatever it is, half of it’s gone.”
The silence allows the depraved irony to sink in; we were playing a game which mocked a half eviscerated animal, after what had happened to him. How macabre. That momentary silence turns into agonising minutes. I see the clouds grow darker and I wonder momentarily whether I’m projecting my mood onto the sky as the funeral gets gradually closer. Then it starts raining, heavily. The closer we get the more agitated Tommy becomes. He is now picking a bit of loose leather on the steering wheel. I want to tell him to stop it, but that would be an argument. The silence is only broken by unintentional split-second looks at each other, each one making me more uncomfortable. Tommy then, with a peculiarly deliberate gesture, announces that he is putting on the radio. I’m just glad he is as seemingly desperate as I am to kill this silence, the silence that allows us to think about how we subconsciously disrespected him with that game before. Tommy apparently didn’t realise that in turning on the radio on the half hour, that there would be a good chance of hearing a report of more military servicemen being killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Inevitably, the first news story is of more British casualties in Iraq. I watch him listen to the report. The structure of his face seems to melt downwards like runny cheese falling off a piece of toast. I calmly reach over, and with stern flick of the wrist I switch it over to one of those insignificant generic radio stations that plays shitty pop music. I look out the window, only half paying attention to the beat of the music. It starts to sound like gunfire from a toy gun. I imagine him in the most hellish scenario possible; a dustbowl, running, ducking, disoriented, bullets and bombs flying, screams, most of all imagining the fear he felt. My insides contort. My mouth feels caustically dry.
“Stop. I don’t feel well.”
“Yeah, alright. I need a piss anyway.”
“Did I ask your permission?”
We stop at the first service station. Despite it looking like it was recently built, it has that familiar, mildly tragic, impersonal spectral atmosphere that only something of its kind could provide. Tommy parks the car. We both get out and stare at each other awkwardly over the car roof. He turns around to look me fully in the face and starts tapping the roof of the car. It looks like another contrived expense of nervous energy.
“Here, give me some money.”
“Christ…thought you only needed the toilet.”
“I can’t use the toilet without buying something.”
“I fancy a can of coke anyway.”
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?
“You got any change or not?”
“Christ almighty, here.”
“You want anything?”
I lean on the side of car just as I hear my name being shouted out. I turn around to see who it is. I remember his face. I know who he is; a friend of my father’s from work. Shit, still no name and he’s getting closer. I hate when this kind of thing happens; it puts you in a position where you’re afraid to say anything in case of offending them. People are always demanding that you remember them. Nobody likes to be forgotten and forgetting the name of someone you feel you shouldn’t feels horrendous. Suddenly having funerals makes sense. He walks up to me and offers his hand.
I still have no idea what his name is as I shake his hand. A few agonising seconds pass. Thankfully, he realises that I don’t remember his name and earnestly tries but fails to not look too offended.
“It’s Paul. Paul McArthur, an old friend of your Dad’s.”
“That’s it. Sorry, couldn’t put a name to your face.”
“Ah, don’t worry, son. It happens to everyone.”
Tommy then comes out of toilet, walks calmly up to Mr. McArthur and shakes his hand.
“Hi, Mr. McArthur.”
“Alright Tommy? Please, call me Paul.”
We both nod our heads.
“You’re both looking sharp. Off to a wedding?”
“Nah, we’re…eh, we’re just off to see off our brother.”
“Yes. How’s he getting on over there then?”
The fact we are both wearing black ties and that our brother was in the forces didn’t seem to connect with him straight away. Perhaps it is wrong to assume he should get it, but even so this is testing my patience. I look at Tommy who has a flummoxed look, and has been completely wrong-footed by the question. Our silence makes Mr. McArthur study our faces. Then it hits him. It finally comes together. He looks so mortified that I even start to feel sorry for him.
“Sorry lads. I didn’t hear. Haven’t seen your old man since I retired.”
“Honestly, it’s okay.”
“That war’s a disgrace. Those bloody lying politicians want chasing. Bloody tragic, how old was he?”
“It’s his own fault for going.”
I want to believe I haven’t heard it, but the stunned silence from an increasingly ill at ease Mr. McArthur and a shell-shocked me confirms it. I stare at Tommy in a trance of sheer disbelief.
“We’d better be going, Mr. McArthur, we’ve got to be at the funeral by midday.”
“Yes, Tommy, right you are son. I’ll leave you lads to it. Give my condolences to your Mum and Dad.”
He shakes our hands hurriedly, and meanders off with his head down. Like a child who has just been castigated by a teacher in front of his classmates. I wait until he enters the petrol station before unleashing my pent-up anger on Tommy.
“What the fuck was that?”
“What do mean Whah?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Nah. We’re not poor. He didn’t need to join up. He put Mum and Dad through the wringer, and for what? Look at what’s it’s done.”
I’m still in shock, but it is now tinged with a feeling of disgust, which is starting to spread slowly from the pit of my stomach. My own brother is so selfish that he resents him for getting killed. Outwardly I appear calm, but it conceals a brewing visceral rage which could explode at any moment, and I want it to. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for his guard to drop. I rush at him and I pin him up against the wall, crushing the lapels of his suit as he tries to fight back, but my fury glues him to the wall.
“You think he wanted to go over there and die?”
“Why did you say that then? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
He offers no answer as he stops resisting me. I try to look him in the eye, but he just looks away in various directions, like a naughty toddler refusing to acknowledge a parent.
“You’d better keep that shit to yourself, forever. Never say that in front of Mum or Dad. Otherwise I’ll fucking kill you. Tell me you won’t say it again?”
“Yeah…yeah, alright, okay, okay. Let me go.”
I let him down. He stares into space with a bruised look on his face. He slowly re-straightens his tie, and readjusts his suit to make it look as if I haven’t manhandled him. It’s the kind of thing Mum, even with the pall of grief hanging over her, would notice straight away. We stand looking at each other for a moment before we both get back into the car.
It is now nearly midday; we haven’t said anything to each other since the service station stop. We are acting like strangers sitting next to each other on a bus, afraid to say anything out of turn, unable to predict what reaction we would get. After a fight we usually make up, sometimes it took days, usually only minutes. This feels different. We have been drifting apart, slowly, like two tectonic plates. Maybe this time the chasm has become too great. We finally arrive at the graveyard. Tommy parks the car in the allocated space right beside the hearse. We sit there, silent, staring at the coffin through the windscreen, before, almost telepathically, opening our respective doors and getting out at the same time. It was only now that I notice many more people than I expected have turned up. Though I’m not sure why I had such meagre expectations to begin with. Everyone is gathered outside the doors, huddled together stoically like emperor penguins in the Antarctic, waiting. They seem to be watching us intently; everyone has been waiting for us, as we are two of the six pallbearers. Those who aren’t deliberately avoiding making eye contact wear a look of barely disguised disapproval for the way we have held up proceedings. Had we not been close family members of the deceased the claustrophobic embarrassment I was suffering would be crippling. I sense that same look of disappointment on Mum’s face at our tardiness without even seeing it. We walk over, find Mum and Dad and then go and shake hands with the funeral director. We are given a reminder of the instructions: who stands where and so forth but most of it doesn’t register. My thoughts are focused on an opportunity that has suddenly presented itself.
We lift the coffin into the empty chapel. Slowly but surely we place it down on the catafalque. My head is swimming, perversely giddy in anticipation. I know I have to play this perfectly. As soon as we finish placing the coffin I ask the funeral director not to usher everyone in straight away. My plea has enough compassion and sincerity, and I purposely put a little extra hesitancy in my speech and hand gestures to make Tommy think it is genuine. In a way it is, my nerves help to create the effect. I engage Tommy’s attention with a coy smile. I nod my head toward the coffin. He seems ill at ease, hopefully he is guilty, but I’m not satisfied. Everything is in place. The other pallbearers agree to leave. I should be thinking about respecting my brother’s dignity but all I see is a chance to right a wrong. I have already seen his disfigured corpse and I know Tommy hasn’t. It is possibly the only chance I will get to change his repugnant opinion. I put my arm around his shoulder, and open the coffin with the other. The arm round the shoulder distracts him from his initial bewilderment and apprehension at what he thinks might be happening. He thinks I’m comforting him. It is working. I’m ready, in position, to stop him fleeing and to make him look. As quickly as possible I zip open the bag and flip back the flap to reveal his corpse; which is in five charcoaled lumps. Tommy jerks away in an instinctive movement of disbelieving revulsion. I clamp my right arm around his waist. My left arm is wrapped around his neck. The palm of my left hand is used to hold his chin in place, to stop him from turning his head away from the grotesque vision in front of him. The laminated floor screams with the friction caused by the soles of our shoes.
“Fucking let go of me.”
“Look. Look! At him. Say what you said earlier. Fuckin say it.”
He offers no response and stops struggling against me. I see him close his eyes and his jaw slacken with sheer horror. I let go of him gently. He hunches over, almost to the point where I think he is going to put his hands on the floor. It has finally sunk in. My self assurance evaporates with Tommy’s reaction. Only now do I start to see it from his point of view. I watch him as he gets up, head bowed and walks slowly, with defeated shoulders, towards the door.
“Tommy. Where are you going…the service is starting…look, don’t be long…okay?”
He says nothing. My nerves are now fraying my insides, leaving only a hollow frantic fear. I take one last look at his body, before zipping the bag and closing the coffin. My only concern is now with my other brother. Everyone starts to stream in from outside. Hurriedly, I look for Tommy among the back rooms. Opening the door to the Gents’ I feel relief as I hear him before I see him. Whimpering like a cold abandoned dog between heavy breaths. I knock on the cubicle door.
He sighs as soon as he realises it is me.
“I’m sorry. But after what you said earlier…”
“I just couldn’t handle him asking questions. I just wanted rid of him.”
“I didn’t know. I felt I had to put it right.”
“I jus…just can’t get it out of my head now.”
“I know…look Mum and Dad will notice if we’re not there. We’ve gotta go and give him the send off he deserves.”
I hear the relieving sound of the toilet flushing. He opens the door – his pulpy pink cheeks and chafed eyes tell me there is no need for an apology. We half smile at each other. I pat him on the shoulder then I mess up his hair. It is in our comfort zone of acceptable manly affection, my way of giving him a massive hug. But more importantly it is an indication of a potential reconciliation between us, and that’s has eased my mind. I know I haven’t done the right thing but that it also wasn’t a mistake. During the journey home we say nothing. There’s no need to. It isn’t the malignantly tense silence containing those spiteful split second looks of before. There was no fidgeting and no claustrophobic feeling of tension between us. It is a relaxed contemplative silence. We both know we feel the same way about him and each other. Tommy seeing his body and me seeing his reaction has purged that, it has allowed us both, in our own way, to accept we have lost one brother but today gained the other we felt we were losing.
© Niall Cullen (2013)