Sandra Coffey

Kept Earth

Sandra Coffey

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Elsie Barker was the queen of the crossroad. For 35 years in all kinds of weather, she got on the bus to work at the same crossroad. The factory made drip bags for hospitals. She died suddenly at the age of 90.I got the call and wrote the arrangements in my diary. I knew the plot well, having put her husband down 10 years ago. I checked the weather forecast and calculated the best times to get the lads together to start the dig. Rain is the killer. It could have the hole filled up while you’d be walking out of the cemetery. Elsie was going in on top of her husband Aloysius. We had only a few feet to dig. She was the last to go down there. It was a right cunt of a plot, boggy and wet. I was damn glad we’d never have to dig it again.

‘Is there enough room?’ That’s all they want to know. Mourners expect the hole to be dug when they get there. They don’t want to hear about how it got there.

‘Don’t let anything get in the way; he has to go down there,’ said Margaret Potts, the time she was burying her brother.  Plots are expensive. At least 5K.

You wouldn’t want to know what we come across during a dig. I’ll tell you about one time to give you an idea. It was one of those summer days when all you wanted was to sit on a wall with a Choc Ice in your hand. But, there we were digging, and the sweat running off our sun blocked skin. We dug down as far as we could with the mini digger. Then we got the shovels and after that it’s a case of judging where the coffins are.

‘Patsy must be there and sure that is his daughter there, who died of pneumonia.’

This one time, the whole side of a coffin spilled out at our feet. The skull had detached from the rest and looked right at us. You’d think I’d be used to it. You see by the time the dead get to us, they are packed away nicely in a box. We place the box down safely. Job done. Wait for the next call. Wait for the next death. The next dig. The next grave. We said nothing, only to place the pieces back in and repair the side of the coffin. I grabbed his arm and Tippy held his leg. Pushed, pushed again. Secured it. Closed it in. Country people don’t mind us doing a bit of tidying up while we’re down there.

We were mostly in the new cemetery these past few years. Burying young people. Cancer, suicide, farm accidents and drowning are taking the young from our town. The old are living on.

Penelope Mattisa was as beautiful as I’d always imagined an Italian woman to be. She must have a fascination with grave digging or else she has her eye on one of us. She can have me. I’d turn her on a penny. On the day of a dig, Penelope brought us herbal tea and ham sandwiches. She was off the milk as it didn’t agree with her. Tippy threw some whisky into the blackberry tea, said it made it warmer. Took the nasty taste off it more like. She giggled as she watched us.

‘It’s lovely to have something warm in my hands on a day like this,’ Tippy would be flirting with Penelope. There aren’t many of her sorts around these parts so I don’t blame him. She had shoulder length black hair that kicked out at the ends and bobbed as she walked along.

‘I like to help. It is a job not easy to do,’ she said.

Sometimes she’d bring fig rolls. If only she knew half the stories we’d heard at wakes. You’d wonder why people would be grieving at all. It’s all for show. Happy the person is dead, some of them.

‘Do you know what the person died from?’

This particular dig was for a young man, who caught some disease in India and came home to recover. He was no sooner recovered when his father stabbed him in the back with the tractor grab. He didn’t know he was there, out getting fresh air.  

Penelope held her hand over her mouth and gagged.

‘That’s the worst I heard,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ I said. ‘It’s a sad day for his family. His father will never be right again.’

She had yet to bury any of her own. We didn’t know much about them. Penelope had settled into the Irish way of things after a bit of a shaky start. I’d heard her husband was a right prick to her, controlling, and made her feel fierce small in company. She left him in Milan; or was it Genoa.

‘If you ever die, we’ll dig your grave real good. A nice tidy job,’ said Tippy.

 ‘You’ll have to wait. I’m not dying.’

Penelope’s laugh had a cheekiness to it, almost teenage like. Tippy joined in.  It’s good to laugh in a graveyard. They looked a right good pair seeing the two of them side by side, bent over laughing at an open grave.

Funerals haven’t changed much. The schedule is the same. House. Funeral Home. Pub. Church. Cemetery. Hotel. Pub. Then, there’s us. There aren’t many around who don’t mind getting dirty in the clay that people are rotting in. I don’t know what’s going to happen to this younger generation. Cremation, I suppose. My father did this before me. He never got paid to do it. It was expected you’d dig for your neighbour or relative and one of theirs will dig for you when your day came. Now, it’s different, it’s a job that pays. I was already doing the job but had to go for interview. A fella who worked in a bigger graveyard up the North came down for the interview. He had an advanced certificate in grave care. Said he had experience in digging for celebrities and even royalty. I’d tell him where to stick his fucking royalty. Full of shite, he was.

By the time the second interview came round, I had to sit across from suited council men in a hotel room, the John B Keane suite. I felt like telling them to stick it. They knew I had the chops for the job.

‘We were only making sure Frank,’ I was told when I got the call and I accepted their offer.

Graveyards can be the most beautiful of places if people gave them a chance. It is okay to kneel at an altar and talk to someone you’ve never met. But you’re pure daft if you come to a graveyard and talk at the grave of your mother. An empty graveyard is a damn sad sight.

Kiltrasnack Cemetery is no Glasnevin but we have our notables. The first jockey to win the Aintree Grand National is here. A Nobel Prize winner was brought back to be buried in his family plot. Plots closest to him are the most expensive. I’m no salesman so I wouldn’t be encouraging it. If I’m being honest, as far away from him as possible is where I’d go. All he did was dis the place.

On the day of a dig, we get on with things. Getting on is key to working in a place like this. I don’t stop to think much about the graves of stillborns or children who died from neglect or the teenager who died after a horrific rape ordeal. He used a bottle on her, the court was told. I stop by and say hello to certain ones. I like to stop at the ones I know don’t have much family coming to them. You can always tell by the rusted flower pots and the green filth on the angel statues; as thick as seaweed some of it.

The motorbike day, we called it. Well, it was some day. The motorbike headstone was craned in on a watery morning in March. We skipped from side to side, half laughing, half trying to keep warm. It was a work of beauty that headstone. Photos of Jimmy Hoban from different periods in his life were placed across the trunk of the bike. A day in the bog with a turf dusted sandwich; on to his confirmation day (can tell by the way his arms were crossed) fast forward to his wedding photo and a more recent one where he is sitting beside a Stanley range.

‘Who’d give Jimmy’s bike a good ride? Tippy said as he held on to it by its handlebars. Relatives of Jimmy didn’t mind at all. Instead of kneel and pray; they had the words kneel and laugh.

‘Eva Gardiner would look lovely up there,’ said Troy. He was Jimmy’s adopted son. He and the family weren’t in agreement on the headstone.

‘A motorbike for a headstone, the dead man’s wishes,’ said Troy. ‘He would have enjoyed the fuss, no doubt.’

‘Marilyn Monroe for me,’ said Tippy.

A local photographer looking to make a few handy quid sent a photo of it to the nationals. It made the cover.

It was a Sunday afternoon when Tippy phoned me in an awful panic.

‘Its Penelope, she’s dead.’ He said it fast like he didn’t want to dwell on the words. They had been on a few dates and Tippy stayed over in Penelope’s at weekends. It was getting to the start of the serious phase, that phase where your face and eyes glow at the thought of the person. I’d felt it in myself once before so I know it does happen.  

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m on my way to Penelope’s house. She was stabbed.’

‘Is she dead?’

Tippy’s voice was breaking.

‘Meet me.’

I didn’t have far to go to get to the cemetery carpark so I knew I’d be there before Tippy. We parked across the road. Men head to toe in white jumpsuits were walking in and out of her house. Special investigation unit was who they were. There was a guard at the entrance to her house, keeping watch. It wasn’t long before a crowd trickled down from the town.   

‘A statement will be issued once all of the deceased’s family have been notified.’ That was all the guards would say.

Tippy only found out after one of the lads in the local told him he’d better get up to Penelope’s ‘swarming with cops up there, bees to honey’.

Penelope had just had a shower. She was still wet when the killer entered the house. Her body was scraped with a bottle across her legs, abdomen, hands and face. One clean stab to her chest finished the torture.

Tippy wanted to see her.

‘Wait, Tippy. Jesus man, wait. You could be a suspect. They always look at the lover first.’

‘I’m not waiting. I want to see her.’ I pulled him back as he was about to start into the guard at her gate.

‘Now isn’t the time.’ I pressed down hard on his shoulders and dragged him away towards town. We couldn’t say anything to each other. For the next two days, savage rumours went around about her. Running a brothel and harbouring sickos were two that had me thinking this town would take the legs off the parish priest.

Tippy didn’t know that Francesca, Penelope’s sister was going to be taking her back to Milan. Tippy didn’t know that Penelope hadn’t divorced Julio her husband or that she had twin boys, Marco and Lucia. We sat drinking in Darcy’s Bar the night of the wake.

‘I barely knew her.’

‘You knew the new Penelope, the one who left Italy.’

‘I didn’t know she had children.’

‘They were grown up.’

‘She never talked about Italy.’

Sandra Coffey

Sandra Coffey is a writer from Galway. She is inspired by her upbringing on a farm as well as from her time working as a journalist in regional and national media. She has taken classes with Claire Keegan and Claire Hennessy of the Big Smoke Writing Factory. She founded the Oscar Wilde Festival Galway, which is run voluntarily every year. Follow her on @SandraCoffey