It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase, In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Since the Panama Papers, taxes are no longer a sure fire thing. So that leaves us with death, as fascinating to the young, as it is the terror of age.
I remember the first time I saw and felt a dead body. I remember the cold, hard, waxy feel of my neighbour’s body as he lay stretched out in his best suit on a bed in the house. It was a cold night but the entire neighbourhood turned out to pay their last respects. A half moon hung in the sky over the house like a discarded communion host.
There may have been singing and waking in the traditional sense but I have no memories of that. Instead, I remember how we hid in the garden watching people file up the steps to the front door. It continued all the way up the stairs, as another line returned.
The neighbour’s house was one of two big houses at the gable ends of a block of council houses, uniformly pebble dashed and slate roofed. Each had a front garden of about 15 sq metres and a short, narrow pathway to its door, a wooden country house door with a wooden skirt flap. Three peep windows were lined along the top. Each had a standard Yale lock and a key that was always in when the family was home.
Each house was distinguished by its garden and ornamentation. Corner houses had particularly big gardens, more than twice the size of the adjoining houses and a pathway that ran up its middle to the front door. This neighbour’s house was the last on a slight incline. It had three steps to its front entrance.
Myself and three friends sat in the shadow of the garden’s thick hedge and spoke with hushed awe of the presence of death.
When I got dared to go and see, I went. It became an adventure and we didn’t know whether it fell within the rules of other schoolboy trespasses. Would I get caught and a clip on the ear for my impertinence? Would I be chased the length of the garden and further? Would some terrible and unspeakable vengeance be wrought on me by the dead?
My companions sat in awed silence as they followed my progress. I was shitting my trousers. As I joined the line of people entering the house from the garden, people noticed me and despite their muffled prayers, ushered me, gently, through the crowd and up the stairs.
The layout was the same as my own house which was almost directly opposite my neighbour’s in the square where we lived. People who knew me were pushing me along.
As I reached the top of the stairs and rounded the landing I could see the body was laid out in the biggest room in the house, right at the front. Domestic smells of boiled cabbage and fried mackerel lingered acridly alongside church candle grease, sweat and holy incence.
Father McMenamin began the rosary. He was kneeling in the bedroom beside the corpse. The room was full of mourners who were the relatives and neighbours of the deceased. Although I knew them all they were unfamiliar. I couldn’t think whether it was their unusual dark clothing or whether death had made them all strangers to me, as though they knew the cold touch of death and I had yet to make its acquaintance.
The click and clack of snap purses opening and rosaries unfurled roused me from this morbid reverie. From the bedroom ahead, across the landing and back down the stairs I had just ascended, the announcement of the Sorrowful Mysteries triggered a wave of kneeling.
The priest recited the first half of the Lord’s prayer and the entire house took a breath, as though it, and all within it, had become a single entity. Not just each individual and at once, but the entire house in its own being, as though it were part of the sorrow unfolding.
The response came like an exhalation, a chorus of rumbles, whispers and whistles. I joined the household on their knees and prayed in the same sonorous rumble as the rest.
Some liked to finish before others. Some started the next response before the priest finished his. A few people, kneeling on just one leg, beat their chest with the arm resting on their knee while holding their rosary and counting off the beads.
I could distinguish individual voices and styles as I got used to the sound. I couldn’t tell who they were but it was what I imagined listening to an orchestra must be like. First, there is just one sound to be heard and that is the sum and sound of all the parts. But then you can hear the individual instruments, how some are off tune, overplaying and out of time.
When the praying ceased, some of the gentlemen removed the neatly folded, crisply cornered hankies they had placed under their knees while they prayed. The stairs creaked under the strain of the crowds as they shuffled themselves to their feet, clearing throats and coughing. Isolated pious whistles indicated some had not finished praying and the noise level dipped in deference.
A pair of big, bony hands settled on my shoulders and propelled me gently towards the room where the body had been laid out, the big room.
‘Let the wain through, there…the wee boy wants te say his own wee prayer,’ I could hear his voice say and the mourners parted before me into a room with repeating wallpaper patterns of flower bouquets in blue and yellow.
The body lay stretched on the bed. He was dressed in a dark suit and a light blue shirt with a navy tie. The hands were entwined with a rosary. Overhead, the Sacred Heart looked down. An eternal light glowed in a candlestick of red glass beside three framed portraits of Pope Pius X, Eamon DeValera and President John F. Kennedy.
I felt cold and wondered why, in a room so full of people. Caught in the shuffle of mourners, I found myself beside the coffin, at eye level with the dead man’s right ear. Cries, sniffles and murmured prayers full of anguish and sorrow filled the air around me. I noticed how people reached out to touch the body as they prayed in murmurs and then blessed themselves.
Lowering my eyes from the bush of hair bursting from his nostrils and ears like an old, discarded mattress, I wondered awhile whether the body before me had ever contained any animation. Apart from its ghostly, parchment pallor, the facial muscles were no longer holding anything in place and, were it not for the undertaker’s formaldehyde, would look like a Halloween skeleton.
Instead the body’s former features strained to hold their shape, drawn by gravity, inertia and morbidity. So although it looked like my neighbour, something was missing. Perhaps it was his soul, I thought. Or else this must be what a ghost looks like.
Pale could not describe his pallor with any justice. His skin was the whitest of white or else it was a whiteness that exists only when the life force in white was gone. Blue and red veins stood out in a body washed of colour. I struggled to describe this ‘white’ to myself as I knew I would have to recount my entire adventure to my companions squatting under the hedge in the front garden.
It was the white of the church, the marble white of statues, shiny and worn by the touches of the faithful. I reached my hand across to touch the statue before me. Because of the height of the bed, I lost sight of the corpse while attempting this manoeuvre. My head dipped below while I strained my hand across to the point where I believed his nose was.
But instead of the icy death sensation I expected, what I touched was warm and living.
In retrospect, I remain proud of my reaction despite the derision it inspired for weeks to follow. I didn’t scream. My bladder did squirt a leak of terror that I suppressed.
Few, under the circumstance, should have been surprised at my evasive action which was both swift and, well frankly, evasive. I got the fuck out of there.
As my unsighted hand probed the air tentatively and millimetres from the nose of the neighbour’s prone body, it brushed the hand of another mourner, making a similar stab from the other side of the bed.
They must have felt the same illogical moment of fear as I could feel them jerk their hand away too. Mine had been aimed at the tip of the nose which was pointier, sharper than it had been in real life.
I shut my eyes, as though to share all the senses of touch, sight and smell at once with a corpse might have some hidden, secret danger of which I was singularly unaware. When my neighbour, and fellow mourner, touched my hand I thought I’d been touched by the dead.
I jerked my finger away but got caught in a nostril. When I heard the scream I knew it was every man for himself. I had no intention of waiting around to find out what happened or to have myself blamed for something I was myself at a loss to explain.
The audible gasp by mourners in the room was the last sound we shared as I shot out the door like a rat from a drainpipe and along the landing then down the stairs, three steps at a time and out the door with a leap. I hit the garden running and the chill night air and fading light snapped me back to where I was.
My heaving lungs filled, I gasped just long enough to emit a scream to wake the dead.
Whatever touched or possessed me would be driven out. I touched death and stuck my finger up its nose.
I didn’t stop running for five minutes and my friends never caught me. And when I met them the next day as we walked to school I told them nothing of what happened. Of what I knew.