Sustenance – Katy Thornton

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Sustenance

Deirdre Murphy died on the 11th June, exactly three years after she should have died of a stroke. She was a despicable old bat, a snobby try hard, an utter sour puss, to name a few of her nicknames, and there really were very few people who actually gave a damn that she was now dead at the ripe age of ninety-four. She had only become more intolerable after her stroke, not that anyone could believe that was possible until it happened, and she spent almost any conversation with anyone talking about how nothing would ever kill her. Did they know she had made it through the Second World War even though her Daddy had died in the Belfast bombing, and she was still alive after The Troubles, and all that terrible business going on between the US and Russia – not that it mattered that she had merely been alive during these events and not at all affected by them. A silly stroke was nothing in comparison to three divorces, despite the fact she was a “devout” Catholic, or the death of her fourth and final husband, or that her youngest son had come out as gay. She was immortal, and anyone who knew Deirdre at all, though all intelligent and sensible people, feared that this just might be true, none more than her youngest son and his husband. 

It did take a considerably unusual incident to kill her and it involved a hairdryer, a full bathtub, and a non-adhesive bathmat which Deirdre’s many grandchildren thanked God for, though none of them were religious – much to Deirdre’s great but unfortunately not fatal disappointment.

The local paper described in more detail than it should have the events that led to Deirdre’s death, and that her funeral would be held on the 16th June in the church on the main street. Afterwards, there would be refreshments, tea and coffee for the mourners. The paper couldn’t be blamed for using the word “mourner” when there would, in fact, be only celebrating people in attendance – how were they to know there was hardly anyone in the world not thankful for the fact that Deirdre Murphy had been electrocuted to death after a long ninety-four years of tormenting anyone and everyone she came across.

Some of these thankful people were Patrick Reid, Helena Wilson and Christina Black, who came across the newspaper article while sitting in a café where they met to discuss “books” every Saturday.

“There’s a funeral on Wednesday,” Patrick announced, interrupting the two women discussing the different kinds of blow-dries they could get at the hairdressers.

The two women didn’t mind at all the intermission.

“A funeral? Are you sure Patrick?”

“Quite sure, I wouldn’t be one to make this up and my sight hasn’t gone the same way as my hearing just yet.”

The two women considered this, simultaneously nibbling at their croissants, flaky crumbs flying all over the table. Helena grimaced.

“These aren’t as good as the ones we had in the parish at the Campbell service,” she said, and Christina agreed.

“That’s because the Campbell service was all the way in the centre of town, opposite that lovely French bakery. These come out of a packet I bet,” Christina replied, purposefully eyeing up one of the baristas, who stuck her tongue out at the old woman, although only behind her back.

“Well this funeral is taking place in the church up the road, but there’s refreshments being served in the O’Reilly’s pub. She’s old enough this lady, could have loads of children, probably grown grandchildren too. Lots of food then?”

“And lots of people to not bother about a few more oldies,” Helena nodded, “What’s this lady’s name?”

“Deirdre Murphy.”

“Any relation to Annie Murphy, do you think? A sister perhaps?” Christina asked, sipping her tea that had been sitting so long the milk had begun to separate in the middle.

“No, I think I once knew one of her sons, he used to date Megan’s best friend in secondary school. Six months. Long time,” Helena mused.

“Still, it would have been better if he had dated your daughter and not her best friend. Do you even know the best friend’s name?” Patrick said.

“Well no, they fell out over something… I don’t really remember what now. And I’m sorry Patrick, if you have a better connection I’d like to hear it.”

The three sat in silence for a few moments, trying to locate Deirdre Murphy in their memories as someone of importance. They had lived here nearly all their lives, besides the five years Christina spent in Australia with her now late husband. Christina had made sure there was a feast at that funeral, almost more of a banquet than had been at their wedding, but the newspaper said that Deirdre’s husband had died a few years ago of a heart attack.

Eventually Christina spoke.

“No, the best friend will have to do. I’ll get my funeral coat dry cleaned.”

“Oh, good idea, we don’t want to look shabby.”

The trio agreed and set off on their separate ways to make the necessary preparations. Helena phoned Megan and asked what her best friend’s name had been. Her daughter, living in New York, and in the middle of her working day, begrudgingly told her that it had been Rebecca Rooney, and that St. Patrick mustn’t have banished all the snakes from Ireland because a snake is what she was. Helena was about to scold her daughter for saying such a thing, but Megan interrupted to say that next time she needed such useless information, to send her a WhatsApp instead, and curtly hung up.

That same evening, Christina looked fondly at pictures of her late husband as she pulled out the same black dress she wore to every funeral. She pressed the soft, loose material to her stomach, and thought of the last service she had attended – it hadn’t been very good, the chicken was dry, the gravy was lumpy and there had only been jelly and ice-cream for dessert, which Christina had thought was ridiculous. It was a funeral, not a child’s eighth birthday party. To celebrate someone’s life, after they were dead, there needed to at least be a black forest gateau or perhaps a Victoria Sponge.

While Christina pondered on the various food options, Patrick was ironing his trousers. He had fed Mabel, his cat but had forgotten to buy himself anything in Tesco. Mabel was standoffish with him most of the time, but this evening she pushed her squashed orange face into his leg and purred in such a way that Patrick felt it in his own chest. Unlike Helena and Christina, he had no pictures on the mantelpiece, no birthday cards that were weeks after the date itself. He had never married, never had so much as a girlfriend that lasted more than a year or two, and now he knew he was too old for one. Sometimes he tried to think of Christina in that way – her husband had been dead for four years now – but he had never been into blondes, even blondes who were now grey. As for Helena, she was large, full-bodied and beautiful, but her husband lived down the road, in a nursing home, and though David couldn’t remember her, she could remember David. More importantly perhaps, Patrick could remember David, remember them together, and he thought to himself it must be easier to have never had that kind of love, than watch it slip away, like a kite out of a child’s careless hands.

The three of them could not have pinpointed what brought them together – Christina swore it started when they were in school, although they were different ages, and Patrick would have gone to an all-boys’ school. Patrick said they met in the very café where they drank their tea every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon, and Helena thought it was at a funeral, a particularly dreary one where nobody knew anyone, and any slight interaction was leapt upon. It didn’t matter, they were close, although they couldn’t have pinpointed the reason for that either.

Helena drove, first collecting Christina, and then Patrick. Christina liked to have a drink and Patrick’s motor skills left a lot to be desired. Helena drove to visit her husband every second day, and was the youngest, a girlish eighty-one. The town they lived in was classically small, about two hours away from any major city. Patrick came from a farming family but was far too old to be working any land now, and it had been passed on to his brother’s children, whom he never saw. On the drive to the church they passed fields with countless sheep and cows, all staring with an unnerving amount of judgement. The odd horse or donkey duo could be seen, and it reminded Christina of her years as a rider, and how much she’d like to ride again before she kicked the bucket. She had a dodgy hip and terrible posture, but reckoned with a little assistance she could manage, even if it ended up being what eventually killed her. There were worse ways to go – Deirdre Murphy’s death being a prime example.

“There’s normally not a lot of parking here,” Christina said, her mind wandering back to the present. “Maybe we should have left a bit earlier?”

“And risk having to make small talk with the relatives?” Helena said, casting her eyes into the back seat at her old friend, “No, we are better to be late. We’ll park on the street if we need to. No one would clamp a car that’s been to a funeral.”

They needn’t have worried – they were five minutes late, but attending an average of eight funerals a year, they knew these gigs rarely started on time. The churchyard was nearly deserted, save for the long black hearse and four cars, parked sporadically, as though the drivers hadn’t even attempted to inch into an actual space.

Patrick looked concerned.

“Doesn’t seem like there are many here.”

“Well, we’re right in the middle of town, maybe people walked,” Helena mused, “It’s a nice day out.”

It was a nice day. Following the first rainy fortnight of summer, the sun had come out scorching, casting brilliant shadows. Helena had had to put on her sunglasses for the first time this year, making herself look like Anna Wintour, she thought, though she didn’t comment as it was highly unlikely Patrick or Christina would know who that was.

Christina actually did know who Anna Wintour was – when her grandchildren came to stay they were glued to E News – but she thought Anna, and therefore Helena, looked ridiculous, so she said nothing.

“Well, best get on with it,” Patrick said with false merriment, and the three of them got out of the car, quietly shutting the doors behind them, as to not draw any attention to themselves.

The church was grand and ethereal. The stained-glass windows lit up like Christmas tree lights, and shone sunlight upon the altar. Organ music, which Patrick always thought was ghastly, reverberated around the church, but none of the trio noticed these details today. There were about twenty rows on each side of the aisle, and they typically sat in row seventeen or eighteen, as close to the back as they could get, as if they were going to the cinema. Today, that wasn’t going to be possible.

“Where the bloody hell is everyone?” Christina hissed, as they blankly looked at the empty benches, all except the first two on each side. There was a man, maybe ten- or fifteen-years Helena’s junior, speaking to the priest. He had the kind of shoulders that were permanently slumped, although he was standing up straight, from years of being put down and lectured. There was a clump of people sitting together and talking, some in their sixties, some in their thirties, and a few kids who had to be the family. On the left side of the church, there were mostly women, and one man, all old enough that a heart attack was constantly hovering over their heads, waiting to strike. They wore flamboyant hats and furs, like something Violet Crawley would wear in Downton Abbey and they were positively giddy.

Christina began to back up first, then Patrick, but before Helena could follow, the man speaking to the priest turned and spotted them, bursting into a radiant smile.

“Ah, see, more people. I feel like we have more than enough to start, Father. Time is really getting away from us here,” he said, striding down, at a speed that seemed unreasonable for a man of his age, where he outstretched his hand to Helena to be shaken.

Christina and Patrick, now unable to escape, fell into step with Helena and each shook the man’s hand. He introduced himself as Gregory Murphy, Deirdre’s son.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recognise you,” he said, guiding them to the very front of the church, where the family were giggling wildly and one child was playing on a gaming contraption, although nothing that Megan or any of Christina’s children would have used.

“Oh, we’re old friends of Deirdre’s, unfortunately it’s been a few years…”

“A few decades even,” Christina cut into Patrick’s dialogue, “since we’ve seen your mother.”

“Yes must be at least two or three, ah, decades,” Helena finished, as they delicately sat down in the third row on the right. “We’re so sorry for your loss, Deirdre was a wonderful lady.”

Gregory looked at them all peculiarly, before breaking into peals of uncontrollable laughter. The three sat startled, not knowing what to do, before eventually deciding it would be best to join him.

“A wonderful lady, they say,” Gregory gasped through his fit, to his husband, and he too began to laugh, tears falling fast from his eyes. It wasn’t long before the whole family, even the two four-year-olds, who must have been great-grandchildren, were weeping with hysteria, and the louder they got the more Patrick tried to match their tempo. Christina stopped fake laughing first, then Helena, but Patrick was the very last to control himself, and only stopped because the priest was glaring at him the way the Brothers used to in the schools before they gave you a beating that made you want to forget your own name.

“Wonderful lady,” Gregory repeated again, softly this time, “Ah, that’s good.”

Organ music resumed, and the service began. It was one of the strangest funerals any of them had ever been to. There was no eulogy, no fond words of Deirdre’s life, and there was nothing but dry eyes and smiles all around. There were no hymns, only a few prayers, and the priest seemed a little bit lost when the service was over in a record-breaking fifteen minutes after it began. There had been no programs printed, which Patrick feared meant the funeral was going to be a long one but it was like no time had passed at all before Gregory stood at the pulpit and spoke into the microphone, with all the intensity of a football manager giving his team a pep talk before a big game, “Thanks for coming everyone, no need to go to the crematorium, refreshments will be held in the pub across the road, hope to see you all there.”

He practically hop-scotched off the stage, and the priest seemed pleased the whole ordeal was over, wiping his brow while still holding his crimson, dog-eared bible. The three friends were the last to leave, although there was a maximum of twenty people ahead of them, and they walked slowly and deliberately, panicked by what their next move should be.

“We can’t go, surely,” Helena said, her heart plummeting into her hungry stomach.

“I don’t see why not,” Christina said through gritted teeth. “We already sat through that shit show of a funeral, and I for one would like more than a communion flake for my lunch.”

“Well you were all for bailing when we arrived,” Helena replied, fixing her brooch; a glamorous tortoise her husband had brought back from a trip to South Africa, his last trip before the Alzheimer’s really took grip of his mind.

“Yes but now my stomach is eating itself and I didn’t do a food shop in preparation for the afters,” Christina said, and Patrick solemnly agreed. He’d made sure there was cat food for Mabel, and enough tea bags for when he got in, but there was only a sliver of cheese left and some stale crackers in terms of food. He didn’t like doing a food shop; the sales assistants and cashiers always made small talk with him but only politely nodded when he mentioned Mabel or anything specific to his life.

Helena reluctantly agreed, and they got the awkward introductions over with as they stood outside the church, unsure of what they were waiting for, as Deirdre was making her way to the crematorium solo apparently. The fancy women were fascinated by how the three of them knew Deirdre, and Helena lamely told them about the Rebecca Rooney connection, to which they scrunched their faces in puzzlement. When asked in return, they said in unison, “Church.” These women didn’t even know their Hail Marys. Deirdre’s ex-husband was there – he announced he had been her third husband, but not her last.

“Poor bastard is never going to see the back of her now,” he said to Helena, who graciously nodded even as the man wheezed and choked on his cigarette.

There were three sons, the one who had dated Rebecca, now with a wife and five children, and seven grandchildren, the middle child, a bachelor with two sons, and one grandchild and the youngest, Gregory, with the man who had indeed been his husband. Christina was introduced to all of them, and immediately forgot their names. Patrick shook their hands, and ran in circles after the great-grandchildren, who all spluttered with laughter. Patrick thought of all the children he nearly had, the hypothetical ones he spoke of with each partner, before they always ended up leaving him, and taking custody of the hypothetical children – and worse, having those children become real with different men. It was a shame, he thought, feeling like his lungs were going to burst. He would have been good at it.

An eternity later, they arrived at the pub, and everyone was lively, except for Christina, Helena and Patrick. Gregory asked each what they’d like from the bar – Helena had to decline anything alcoholic as the designated driver, though she would have loved a brandy to curb the awkwardness. Patrick took an Irish coffee and Christina asked for a G&T, because she was watching her figure. Gregory laughed at that, though Christina couldn’t figure out why.

People who had not even attended the funeral appeared at the afters, which Patrick thought was extremely rude. One man was an ex-husband of Deirdre’s, her first or second, another a niece. One lady, who looked about as shrivelled as a prune professed, blunt as a ruler, that she hadn’t known Deirdre personally but had had to listen to her friends, regrettably all dead now, bitch about the woman for the better part of a century, that she was entitled to enjoy a hot cooked meal. Patrick admired her honesty, but still stuck to the story that they had known each other “from around” for many years.

One of the boys, a young fella with sticky-out ears and an unfortunate amount of acne, announced food was ready to be served after Christina had downed her third G&T and Patrick had switched from Irish coffee to Guinness. Helena politely sipped glass after glass of coke, and her stomach gurgled with fizziness and hunger pains at the declaration of food.

The three friends tried to get to the front of the queue, but there were others who weren’t so polite. Although the direct family were up at the bar, draining pint after pint, getting more joyous by the minute, the rest of the party, which had grown to about fifty, bolted to be first in line. The smell of beef and gravy wafted in and out of their nostrils, and even though Helena was about the twentieth person to be served, she felt tears rise in her eyes when she was asked if she wanted chicken or beef, and they nearly fell when the same boy who had announced the meal said she could have a bit of both. Christina got the last good Yorkshire pudding – the others were soggy and falling apart, and Patrick returned to the queue several times for more helpings. He was not alone in this.

 
Tea and coffee were served in the drab off white mugs every pub has, and then a selection of puff pastries stuffed with cream and jam circulated. They lasted maybe twenty minutes, and Christina shared hers with Patrick, while Helena, otherwise always such an elegant lady, licked cream from her fingers.

The funeral service had stared at midday and yet it wasn’t until after 9pm that guests began to mill out, carpooling or walking – nearly everyone but Helena had been on the drink for hours and having gone through the rambunctious stage of inebriation, they were quite ready for bed.

Christina threw her arms around Gregory on their way out, in the way only elderly ladies of her age could get away with.

“Well, isn’t Dearbhla in a better place now?”

“Well, we certainly are,” he replied, hooting with laughter. He didn’t correct her name and by this stage he had realised with certainty that neither Christina, Helena, Patrick, or about thirty of the people who had shown up, had ever come into contact with his mother. His husband had been concerned at first, when the numbers had begun to build up, but Gregory hushed him.

“She never made anyone this happy when she was alive – at least in death she’s practically Santa Claus.”

The light was just fading as Helena dropped Patrick off at his small bungalow, only down the road from the pub. Mabel was pawing at the front door, her fur haggard. She mewled dramatically as Patrick made his way up the path, taking his time with each step, feeling full and wanted. He rubbed Mabel roughly on the head and after three attempts, inserted the key in the lock and disappeared inside, the cat curled around his ankle like a leg warmer.

Helena parked at Christina’s and sighed at the sight of it – it was a bit out of the way but large and modern, too modern for this kind of town, and it radiated wealth and luxury. Her shiny car sat in the driveway, unused for four years. Christina thanked her friend and got inside, resolving to fill another glass with gin, no tonic, and to tell Frank about her evening, never mind that he’d been dead years.

Helena, alone in the car, felt a little deflated as she drove the rest of the way home, slowly, in second gear, fearing the echo of the alarm as she entered her empty house again, knowing no one had been in or out all day, and she couldn’t expect to see anyone until it started to get colder, and Christmas called. She took out her phone and went to call Megan but remembered what she’d said about Whatsapping instead. Over a cup of tea and some Bourbon biscuits, she decided to try out the voice message feature – she accidentally binned four of her messages, which were all quite lengthy, but once she had gotten the hang of it, she had a brilliant conversation with her daughter for two hours, for once not noticing the time was passing at all.

 

Katy Thornton is a graduate from the Creative Writing MA in UCD. She has had 8 pieces of fiction published, the most recently with the literary magazine, The Honest Ulsterman. She worked for a year as the Fiction Editor of The HCE Review, and is currently working on her debut novel. She works as a concession manager in retail. You can find her on twitter @katy_thornton and on Instagram @katy_thornton. 

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