Sometimes I catch myself thinking about seagulls. I’m convinced the skeevy bastards have ethnically cleansed the pigeons from the city. When they squawk, I imagine it’s about lebensraum. Maybe they call it flugsraum. I watch a flock dominate the city skyline and fury consumes me. They screech in victory from the roof of my apartment and no one cares because who in God’s name ever pitied a pigeon? I spend hours stewing in this rage bath until the phone rings and my brother tells me that our father is dead.
I want to picture the generous bulk of him but all I can conjure up is the seagull. Wings flapping and yellow beak clacking, he dares an oncoming car to come at him. This immoveable object, powered by self-esteem, is finally flattened by an unstoppable force.
I don’t know how he actually died because Paul is not one for details. It might have been cancer. A stroke. Suicide. He won’t give me anything except to say, in no uncertain terms, that I shouldn’t come to the funeral. It would only upset Mam. Purely a courtesy call then.
I’m not sad my father’s gone but I miss what our relationship might have been if it hadn’t been for Mary. For years, I kept going back to that day on the pier. We talked about college. She wanted me to go with her to Oxford and tried to convince me that it would be an adventure. I made a bad joke about selling my body to pay the fees. This made her cry. Then she told me everything he had done to her. I knew the way he was, how the house was only calm when he was feeling good. Like a conductor of negative emotions, he could create a symphony of shame until we did whatever he wanted just to make the pain stop. I believed her and yet it felt like a betrayal. This wasn’t a normal level of family dysfunction.
‘Call the police if you’re so convinced of what he did to you. Otherwise, I don’t know what you expect me to do,’ was the last thing I said to her.
The truth put a canyon between us. My parents and brother are on one side, performing a tableau of familial harmony, and I am on the other, sweating out reality in the dark. I don’t know where Mary is, but I wonder if anyone has told her that Dad’s gone.
He never did anything wrong and yet he did everything wrong. Whatever he said was both true and not true. What I knew to be real was a misunderstanding and, therefore, my fault. He was Schrodinger’s douchebag.
Still, I lived in hope. In daydreams, I gave him a tasting menu of everything I wanted to hear.
Yes, I abused your friend.
Yes, she was only a child.
Yes, I am sorry.
No, it doesn’t mean I love you any less.
I grieve alone in my living room.
The death of a parent is a good enough excuse for a mid-week cocktail, so I fix myself an old fashioned. I sit on the couch with my laptop on my knees and google his obituary.
Kilbride, Vincent. 13th May 2019. Late of Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Peacefully in St. Vincent’s Hospital surrounded by family. Very sadly missed by his loving wife Nora and son Paul, daughter-in-law Ines, grandchildren, brother Stephen, relatives and friends.
May he rest in peace
Reposing at Fanagan’s Funeral Home, Thursday, from 5pm to 7pm. Removal on Friday morning from funeral home to St. Michael of the Angels, Co. Dublin for 10am Requiem Mass. Thereafter to Deansgrange Cemetery.
I haven’t made the shortlist of mourners and it hurts more than I expect it to. It’s not a surprise but there is something primordial in the pain that comes from exclusion.
I suck on the word like a cough drop, ruminating on why I was so easily removed. I want to believe my omission from the announcement was a reflex and try not to take it personally. Maybe it’s been so long since I was part of the family that they forgot I was ever part of it at all? I don’t blame Paul for choosing them over me but now that our father is dead, I think we might bury the past with him. It was kind of him to phone me at all.
I look for Mary in the comments but find only the standard collection of impersonal sympathies. I wonder if any of them know that Dad believed she was his lover? The day I was kicked out of the house was the only time he’d ever talk about it. We’d been fighting about something inconsequential. We’d screamed at each other, all through the house and at the top of our lungs, and the truth came pouring out of me. I’d stunned them into silence, and, for a moment, it felt like I had won.
Later, I heard him whispering behind the kitchen door. He spun my mother a more tolerable narrative than the reality. Mary was a seductress. A homewrecker. A heartbreaker. He was the victim and I the problem. Why did I always insist on upsetting everyone?
By the time I drain my glass I’m resolved to ignore my brother’s request. I can tell that he wants us to heal and I’m willing to give it a try. I take off my hoodie and look for something respectable to wear, settling on the leatherette pants I keep for date nights and a jacket that I usually wear at interviews.
I take the bike to the funeral home, arriving sweatier than I’d like. They are huddled together in a room that smells of lilies and sounds like gentle sobbing. Mam’s face is streaked with performative sadness and when she catches my eye she wails and turns her head towards Paul.
‘I can’t handle this,’ she mutters and then he is beside me. His hand is on my elbow, guiding me towards the door.
‘I asked you not to come. You’re upsetting her.’
‘I’m not trying to upset her,’ I move my arm away from him. ‘I liked hearing from you and thought we might talk some more.’
He looks at me, pleading. ‘I only called you as a courtesy. She didn’t even want me to. I didn’t think you’d show up.’
I peer inside the room behind him, seeing two little girls take hold of Mam’s hand but he steps in front to block my view.
‘Can I meet them?’
‘I’m their aunt. Let me say hi and then I’ll go, I promise.’
I move past him, but he grabs my arm before I can get anywhere.
‘Look, would you just leave? I’m starting to regret telling you at all.’
My cheeks go red. He makes me feel like a predator.
‘I’m entitled to pay my last respects to my own father. And you can let go of my arm, please.’
He releases his grip. It doesn’t hurt but I rub at it anyway because I want him to feel guilty about it.
‘And leaving me off the obituary was a nice touch. Was that her decision?’
He pulls at his face. His skin is looser than I’d remembered. I count the flecks of grey in his hair, something my therapist said I should do when I can’t control my feelings.
‘It didn’t make any sense to include you. You haven’t been around in years.’
‘And you’re such a joke. Pretending you’re a happy family, with Mam and your kids and your dumb bitch wife. Does she even know what he did?’
I am poking around now, looking for the nerve. It feels good to bully him. He stares at the ground, on the verge of tears.
‘Why must you always make a scene?’
‘I’m not making a scene. I’m saying goodbye to dear old Dad.’
‘No one wants you here. You don’t even want you here.’
‘You don’t know what I want.’
One of the little girls skips up to him. She pulls at his trouser leg and he picks her up. She looks too old to be carried. She takes Paul’s face in her hands and kisses him on the nose.
‘All better,’ she says.
‘Yes, my love,’ he smiles at her.
‘Hi there,’ I wave at her. She gives me a fierce look and buries her head into Paul’s neck.
‘I’m going back in,’ he says. ‘If you follow us, I’m calling security.’
He walks away from me and I hear him say to his daughter, ‘She’s no one, love. Don’t worry about her.’
When I was young, I watched cartoon seagulls on TV. Robin and Rosie of Cockleshell Bay. The show had a seaside flavor of ninety nines, vinegary chips and sand. The seagulls were sweet and brightened up the sky like kites. They mingle with my memories of a day I went to the beach with my family. I was thirteen and I remember bracing against the cold sea air because complaining meant going home and our mother had agreed to take Mary with us, which made it a special day. I had always wanted a sister and when she moved in next door it was the next best thing. I can still see her running along the sandbanks and dipping her toes in the water. Except she was never there.
She had been with my father that day. He’d promised to follow us down in the second car because there wasn’t enough room with the picnic baskets, umbrellas, buckets and spades. Mary had gone home when he was finished with her, and the rest of us played volleyball on the beach.
When I get back to the apartment, I’m feeling sorry about the things I’d said to Paul. I could have handled it better and not barged in, expecting attention. I ache to talk with him like a normal brother and sister. I’m so sick of knowing what my father did and I want to remember the things that made him Dad. The frisbee in the garden. The shut up and read Wednesdays. The bike trips through the park. I need to share this with him. He’s the only other person who was there.
I dial his number and wait but it goes to voicemail. I hang up and try again. I try ten times. I fix an old fashioned and text that I miss him.
By my third drink, I search for the cartoon seagulls on YouTube. The premise is so different as an adult. The children come to live at Cockleshell Bay because their father is sick of working in a factory and their mother hates the city. Robin and Rosie make new friends easily and they don’t punish each other for having feelings. I hate this vision of unconditional familial love and bawl until my face is tenderised meat.
I wish I didn’t know. All of my memories are punctured with it. Was it happening then? permeates every corner of my past. And darker still is a question I don’t want to know the answer to. Did it happen to me too?
Cocktail number four and I am calling Mary. I hope she hasn’t changed her number. I want to tell her about the seagulls and how they take food out of the hands of people who aren’t paying attention. I want to tell her that I understand how my father was the same way, snatching love away from me when I wasn’t looking. I want to tell her how much I hate him, but she doesn’t answer her phone. I leave a voicemail telling her where the funeral is on.
On Friday I get a taxi to the St Michael of the Angels. I am desperately hungover and my eyes are red rimmed. One could mistake me for a grieving daughter. In the back seat, I think about booking a holiday to Malaga. I ask the driver if I can stay in the car until the mourners have gone in first.
‘Someone close, was it?’ he asks.
He launches into a rant about funerals and about how Ireland does a great one. ‘The first part is always sad,’ he says. ‘But pints and craic are part of the grieving process too.’
The coffin goes inside, and I get out of the car. A woman who’s face I know but who’s name I can’t remember, catches me in the doorway and shakes my hand. She’s dressed for the Galway races.
‘Heart attack,’ she says, pumping my arm up and down. ‘My God, poor, poor thing. So young too.’ I can’t tell whether she is talking about me or him but at least now I know how he died.
‘My condolences,’ she says. I don’t reply and she goes to find a seat, possibly relieved to get out of an awkward conversation.
I stand at the back of the church. I don’t want to come on too strong. I just want to speak to Paul before they go to the cemetery and then I’ll be on my way. No scenes. No drama. Yes, it’s been hard but we’re siblings. We need each other. We should have some form of relationship. How about a coffee next week? It’s not much. I rehearse the speech in my head. My palms sweat and my nerve endings prickle. I stop myself from mouthing the words because it makes me look like a headcase.
The church fills with organ music. A heaving squeeze box moan. In the front pew, Paul rubs Mam’s back. Her head is weighed down by grief. He turns to the crowd and I swear that I can see him do a head count. How many mourners would prove to him that our father was loved? He spots me and scowls. I nod my head towards the door, motioning for him to come and join me. His eyes go wide. He mouths the word ‘leave’ and turns away from me.
I move to the back corner of the church where it’s less likely that I’ll be seen. I press against a shelf of mass leaflets, willing my skin to blend into the wood. A priest talks about death, kindness and love. He tells the story of man I don’t recognise at all. Paul reads out the passage from the bible that talks about walking through the valley of death and fearing no evil. The congregation stands up and sits down again. The rules of mass are a mystery to me.
Simon says kneel before God.
Simon says peace be with you.
Love thy mother and thy father.
Ha! I didn’t say Simon says.
The mass ends and I stand in the doorway to wait for him. He walks up the aisle with his arm hooked around our mother’s. His new family bring up the rear. ‘Paul,’ I call to him, but he ignores me.
‘Paul,’ I say it louder.
I know he hears me but they all walk past and through the church doors. The mourners ignore me too because they are embarrassed by the scene. No one will connect with me.
I wait until everyone is gone before leaving the church. Standing on the concrete steps, I google map directions home when I see Mary sitting alone on the wheelchair access ramp. She’s put on some weight and her hair is short but otherwise she’s the same. She is eating the last of a deli roll. I suppress the urge to tell her I’m sorry. My sorrys are worthless.
‘I got your message,’ she says, waving me over.
‘Checking to make sure he’s in the ground?’
She nods her head, taking a heel of bread from the wrapper and laying it beside her. I sit on the steps and we wade in the silence of the years that lie between us. So much needs to be said and I have no idea how to start. She crumples up the wrapper and rolls it around in her hands.
‘Do you remember Robin and Rosie,’ I ask.
‘Sure. The matching stripey jumpers. And your sandpit. God, I loved that thing.’
‘Jesus, I’d forgotten. It was like a plastic turtle wasn’t it?’
‘That’s the one.’
She lights a cigarette and offers me one. I decline.
‘When did that start?’
She exhales grey smoke and taps the ash away with a finger.
‘College. I picked up a lot of bad habits back then. Made a lot of poor decisions. I’m getting better but some things are harder to quit than others, you know?’
‘Like family,’ I say.
‘I suppose, although my folks got divorced not long after…’ she gestures with her hands.
‘So, do you live here now?’
‘On and off. Can’t seem to settle down. Mam wants me to stay with her for a bit, but she lives in the old house and…I can’t.’
She aims the deli roll wrapper towards a nearby bin. She tosses it in with the flair of a basketball player. She tries to do the same thing with the heel of bread but misses. As it hits the ground, the pigeons fly out of the trees. They bop around the bread. Each one takes a turn to pluck the crumbs. It’s chaos and comradeship.
‘Do you want to get a coffee,’ I say, bracing for rejection.
‘That’d be nice. Do you know a good place?’
Anywhere and everywhere, I think. So long as it feels like home.