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Smell of Insence

by Maura Barry

    The priest was telling the congregation what a wonderful person mother had been. It’s a pity mum couldn’t hear him, she was lying in the middle aisle. This was her funeral. The priest went on to say mother would be going on her long journey to God. It sounded as if he was sending her on one of those Apex holidays, to the sand and sun. You wouldn’t mind going yourself. He then came down off the altar and stood over the coffin and swung the thurible around it. The smell of incense wafted around the church.
    I closed my eyes, sniffed in the incense and was oblivious to the rest of the sermon. Didn’t open my eyes until I felt a sharp dig in my ribs and my aunt asking was I o.k. Shaking my head, I looked towards the coffin and there was mum sitting up holding on to the sides. She waved at me like the Queen Mother and the coffin took off down the aisle and out the door. I busted out laughing. The auld aunt put her arm around me, saying, “It’s alright. She has gone to God.”
    Turning my eyes towards the aisle again, the coffin was still there. I suppose it was all those sleepless nights, or maybe I was going insane.
    Mum hadn’t been an easy patient to mind. She had been senile for the past five years and you had to watch her like a hawk. I was an only child, so it was left to me to look after her. Sometimes she was impossible to mind. I asked the health authorities could she be put in a home.
    “No way,” they said.
    With all the health cuts, they wouldn’t even send me a home help. It ended up, I’d to leave my job as a nurse, to look after her. The house became a prison, had no social life and the years crept by.
    The congregation filed past the coffin and shook hands with me. Faceless faces. Where were they when I needed a mother-sit? Only Sheila, my best friend, would call. She was married with three kids, so it wasn’t easy for her to call regular. When Sheila came on a visit, she would have a bottle of vodka and the two of us would sit and get a bit tipsy. She was great with news from the outside world. Seamus Murray also called on the odd occasion. He owned the wee corner shop. If it wasn’t for Seamus Murray, I would really be in the soup. You seen, ma died Saturday night. All the shops were closed. Seamus came to the rescue with bread, ham, rolls and cake. He even went round to the off-licence and bought the booze.
    Don’t think now I didn’t love my mother, I did. It was just the last few years she became impossible. She would do the daftest of things, like fry her watch or throw coal into the fridge. At night, that’s when she really came alive. I’d just have got into bed when I would hear the front door slam. Rushing out in my dressing gown and slippers, I’d find her in the middle of the road with just her underwear on. A policeman picked up the two of us one night, for indecent exposure. After that, I had to lock all her clothes away and ended up sleeping in her room. Now you know why I’m glad she is lying in the middle aisle.
    I’m so, so, tired.
    A few neighbours came back to the house after the funeral. Seamus and Sheila buzzed around with drinks and sandwiches while I sat in a corner smoking. The three auld aunts came over to torture me.
    “Well, Deirdra, what will you do now?”
    “Isn’t that a lovely clock.”
    “You won’t be needing half this stuff.”
    Their eyes were taking in every article in the room, like vultures. I will surprise them all. All their questions annoyed me, so I excused myself and went to the loo. I sat down on the toilet and smoked. It was very peaceful up there. I was very relaxed and enjoying my pull on the cigarette, when ma appeared on the cistern.
    “Deirdra, that’s no way to behave, go down those stairs at once and look after those people.”
    “Ma, just go away. You’re dead, remember.”
    When I did go downstairs there was only Sheila and Sheamus left. They handed me a cup of tea and Sheila said I could stay in her house for a while. I went up and packed all I could into a case and I was glad to get out into the fresh air.
    A week after the funeral, I put the house and furniture up for sale and found myself a wee flat. Hadn’t much trouble in getting a job and Sheamus Murray started to call around on a regular basis. Sheamus was like myself, single with youth far behind, so we were both grasping for a bit of love. He was a bit shy at first and would only leave me to the door. A bit afraid of what the neighbours might think. One night, I asked him in for a wee hot whiskey. I was just turning the key, when ma appeared on the handle of the door.
    “Deirdra, I won’t have any of this nonsense.
    “Bugger off.”
    Sheamus looked at me. “It’s all right, Deirdra, I won’t come in, I’ll see you another night.”
    I tried to explain but he was gone.
    “Damn you, mother.”
    Sheamus rang the following day and asked would I like to go to a show on Saturday night. I was over the moon, thought he’d never again want to see me. The show was great and we went for a few drinks after. Arriving back at the flat, I chanced asking him in again. This time I kept my eyes on his face. We had a few more drinks and our confidence was high, so high we drifted towards the bedroom. Sheamus was taking off his clothes with speed, not believing his luck. I was just slipping out of my dress and there was mother sitting on the pillow.
    “No way, Deirdra, is he getting into this bed. Do you hear me?”
    I screamed, “Get out, get out, leave me alone.”
    Poor Sheamus looked bewildered, wondering what brought on the change.
    He pulled on his trousers, grabbed his shirt, coat and flew.
    “Oh, Ma! Look what you have done.”
    Jesus, what must Sheamus think. He’ll never come back. I’ll never be able to face him again.
    I walked the floor for the rest of the night. Smoked and cried until the dawn. Rang Sheila at a respectable hour and asked could I come over. Must have looked awful, as Sheila’s kids asked was I going to die as well. Sheila hurried the kids out the back and I sat down and cried over the coffee again. I told Sheila, everything that happened.
    “What am I going to do, I made a right ass of myself!”
    Sheila said to take a wee holiday and things would be different when I came back.
    The two of us went to the travel agent’s the next day and I booked a three-week tour of Australia. Not one for lying around on beaches, have to be on the move.
    It was the best break I had in my lifetime. Met up with a few people and I travelled around with them. The three weeks were over before I knew it and mother never paid me a visit. I was sorry to be going home, maybe some day I’d come back.
    Reliable Sheila met me at the airport and said I looked great, the greyness had gone from my face. We called to the supermarket on the way back to the flat. Sheila asked, would I go to dinner in her house that Friday evening. God, I would be lost without her.
    Bought myself a new outfit for the dinner. Went to the hairdresser that Friday evening and arrived at Sheila’s in great form. When I walked into the large living room I nearly died. Sheamus was sitting by the fire, nice and comfortable talking to Bill. I gave Sheila a terrified glance, but she just put her hand on my arm and led me to a chair.
    Myself and Sheamus made small talk, then Sheila started talking about my mother and all the things she would get up to. The tension left me and the evening turned out great. Sheamus left me home. It was the first time I could really talk to Sheamus about my mother. He laughed his leg off, when I told him about her on the pillow.
    I’m now living over Murray’s corner shop. Mother has finally left the scene. The memories I have of her are good.



Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 65-67.

Maura Barry

World Turned Upside Down