Danny Finnegan is about to bury his mother.
A PLACE AT THE TABLE.
It was the tradition in his home parish of Whitechurch to shoulder the coffin the three hundred yards from the little church to the graveyard where the generations before him were buried. He had followed many friends and neighbours down this winding country road however, this morning was different for Danny Finnegan in the sense that it was he who was bearing the weight of the pine box along with three of his cousins. Being an only child with no children of his own, it seemed natural that they should step in to share the burden. Ahead of them walked the parish priest Father Wall, while behind them the relatives, friends and neighbours walked in silence out of respect for his mother who had passed three days before. The graveyard was situated on the junction of two little byroads. It was surrounded by ash and sycamore trees which had recently come into bloom with the beginning of spring. The silence was broken only by the population of crows that frequented the trees. They made their presence felt by the persistent cawing that comes natural to crows. The entrance to the graveyard was constructed of old stone and finished on top with a wrought iron railing that had seen better days. Though painted black, the rust had made its way through to reveal its age. The procession made their way down the gravel path between the celtic crosses and the granite and marble headstones of the local families. Families such as the Sullivan's and Burkes and Conway's and McNamara's, and the hundreds of other families that had lived and died in the parish through the generations. Families from ancient Irish townlands such as Lisduff and Culin and Slugera and Dromgarrif, the place where the Finnegan's hailed from.
The Finnegan family plot was at the far northern end of the graveyard. When they arrived at the freshly dug grave Danny noticed that the man who had dug the grave was standing at a respectable distance. He was leaning on his shovel waiting for the ceremony to be over. It was only then he could finish the job that he had started at midnight two nights before. The man in question was known locally as Mickey Midnight because it was his habit to drink copious pints of Guinness to the point of inebriation. It was only after closing time he would carry out his job of digging a grave. No one knew his reasons for this but the end result was always the same. A perfect rectangle six foot long, four foot wide and six foot deep. The local joke was that Mickey never left anyone down and today was no exception. Another local funeral tradition was that the men who carried the coffin would also lower the coffin into its final resting place. After the main prayers were said, Danny and his three cousins with the aid of a rope at either end followed this tradition to lay his mother to rest. As they were lowering the coffin Danny noticed a small white stain on the lid. Those crows, Danny thought, I could murder them and as he thought it he remembered that the name for a group of crows was called a murder. Murder the murder he thought and then he thought it doesn't matter, we are all worm fodder at the end of the day. Danny himself was not a religious man. He found it hard to swallow the dogma that was forced down his throat in school and church when he was younger. However, he respected the fact that his mother and most of the people at her funeral believed it. The ebb and flow of the hail Mary and the holy Mary brought him back to the reality of what was happening around him. May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of god rest in peace amen. In Ireland the final amen at the end of a funeral is code for pub and that's where most of the mourners adjourned to.
At the local pub the crowd gathered to celebrate Cathleen Finnegan's life. Tea and sandwiches were laid on for friends and relatives, pints and shorts were drunk. Lots of story's were told and a few sad songs were sung. Mrs Finnegan was a popular woman in her community and the people respected her. Her husband, Danny's father had died of a heart attack only nine months after Danny was born. Danny knew that the death of his mother would leave a big hole in his life. His own marriage had broken down five years previous. The fact that they couldn't have children had a big bearing on it. He was now in his forties and completely alone in the world. By the end of the evening the main crowd had drifted off home, only the diehards were left. Danny appreciated the support from his friends and neighbours but he was weary after the day of shaking people's hands and accepting condolences. It was a relief to him to finally arrive home. It was only there that he could cry for his mother.
In the year 2020 you would expect a solicitor's office to be a modern workspace with state-of-the-art computers and a bright spacious waiting area to relax in. This was not the case in John Fitzgerald's office. In fact, the only person who worked there was the man whose name was over the door and that was John Fitzgerald himself. No computer was in sight but the shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling were stacked with carboard files of various colours and not just the shelves, files were stacked in every available space. When Danny Finnegan arrived for the reading of his mother's will it wasn't the files that bothered him, it was the dust. The light streaming through the little office window accentuated the dust particles that drifted around the room. Even John Fitzgerald himself looked a little Dickensian. He wore a pair of half glasses on his nose for the purpose of reading but when he looked at you, one eye looked east and the other west. He had the worst squint Danny had ever seen. After he had commiserated with Danny on the death of his mother, he stood up from his desk and headed to a stack of files at the corner of the room. Within seconds he had pulled out a file titled Cathleen Finnegan. He obviously knew exactly where it should be, Danny thought. There was nothing in the file that Danny hadn't expected. His mother had left him the cottage and what little money she had possessed. Danny thanked the solicitor and headed back to his work as a quantity surveyor. He planned to go over to the cottage the following weekend to make a start on clearing it out with the view of putting it up for sale.
The following weekend Danny arrived to the cottage as planned. He pulled into the narrow driveway. As he exited the car, a feeling of nostalgia came over him. The cottage had changed little since he lived there as a child. Though he had visited his mother from the nearby Cork City on a regular basis. This time he seemed to see it in a different light. The pergola of wild roses tinted with woodbine was still growing in a half circle around the wicket gate that led up the garden path. The summer smell of the flowers brought childhood memories flooding back to him. He associated the aroma with home. He had experienced a happy almost blissful childhood in this house and although his mother had to work long hours as a secretary to the local doctor, she never complained. She was a calm and serene lady. As Danny turned the key in the yale lock, that was the feeling that came over him, a feeling of serenity. A serenity he had never experienced before. The front door led directly into the living room. He went through the Living room and into the new kitchen. His mother always called it the new kitchen although it had been built over thirty years before. As he opened the door the sight that unfolded before him would have frightened the hardest of men but for some reason Danny didn't feel frightened or uneasy in any way. The first thing that struck him was the smells, a symphony of smells along with a strange blue opaque mist but it was the smells that intrigued him. Smells such as lavender and rosewater mixed with tobacco smoke and engine oil and whiskey. There were other smells that he didn't recognise but still evoked something in him. Then slowly the blue mist seemed to dissipate before him until the scene was revealed, like a forgotten painting. Around the dining table were sitting about eight or nine people and immediately he knew he had stepped into something strange, something otherworldly. In the centre of the table was a plate of ham sandwiches. Some people around the table were in deep conversation, others were laughing and joking. Some were drinking tea and a few of the men were drinking beer or stout. Danny could see all this, he felt like an eavesdropper on a conversation that he could not hear. After a little while it dawned on him that he knew some of the people around the table. The old man sitting straight across from Danny had a pipe in his mouth and was smiling over at Danny. It was a kindly smile. Danny could see the crumbs of bread that had fallen on his jacket which he presumed was from eating one of the ham sandwiches. He was wearing a style of jacket that Danny didn't recognise along with a watch and chain. He felt it might be a railway man's jacket. He thought he knew him but he wasn't sure from where he knew him but he was drawn to him. Then he remembered that his mother's father was a railway man and although he had never met him, he felt an affinity with him. The old man was sitting next to a younger man of about thirty and Danny felt he also knew this man and then it came to him. He looked across the room at the sideboard and it was still there, the picture of his parents wedding. He turned back to face the younger man who was staring directly at him, almost through him and at that moment Danny experienced the most overwhelming profound feeling of love. Though he had only known his father as a child he felt that this was the love of a father for a son. He found it difficult to pull his gaze from this man who looked younger than himself but when he eventually did shift his gaze, it was back to the older man who was staring intently at the time on his pocket watch. It was at that moment that he noticed Mrs Casey, his mother's best friend. She was drinking tea from one of his mother's china cups. His mother only ever brought the set out on special occasions. She smiled up at Danny and reached for a sandwich from the plate at the centre of the table. At the far end of the table was a boy of about ten, he was sitting next to an older scholarly man. He recognised the man as Mister O'Connor, his teacher from primary school. He had a short fuse and was quick to use a stick or a ruler to put you in your place but now he looked happy and relaxed. Then Danny realised that the boy was Tommy Walsh who was in his class at school and had died of a diabetic coma. He was playing with a catapult, he looked up and smiled and waved at Danny. Danny waved back and Tommy went back to playing with his homemade catapult and then Danny remembered that Tommy was always getting into trouble at school for playing with a catapult but Mister O' Connor didn't seem to mind now. Four other people were also sitting at the table. Two women and two men. They looked as if they were from another century. The women wore black dresses and black shawls. The men wore suits that Danny had only ever seen in books and movies. One of the men smoked a clay pipe and the other had a scar on his cheek and smoked a cigarette. Both the men had strong physiques and all four were below average height. Danny thought they may have been from the nineteenth century. They were deep in conversation and seemed not to notice Danny at all but he felt that they were there for the same reason as everybody else, to welcome his mother home. He did not know where home was going to be for her but he hoped that it would be somewhere beautiful where she would be with her family and friends, somewhere tranquil, somewhere beyond his understanding. It was only at that point he noticed the empty chair and he felt that this place at the table was for his mother. It was at that moment the atmosphere changed. Behind the group at the table more and more people started to appear but in the form of shadows. Shadows behind shadows behind shadows. Shadows from the generations of the past. Eventually the blue opaque mist drifted back into the room. It filled the area around the table and slowly erased the scene that Danny had witnessed. Then it hung in the air for a few minutes and vanished in an instant. Danny was left alone in the kitchen, mystified at what had just occured.
Over the next two weekends as Danny was clearing out the cottage, he would experience flashes of the scene at the table along with some of the sweet aromas of that first day but they lasted only seconds. He had no fear of these occurances, in fact he welcomed them. They gave him a blissful feeling that his mother was at peace and that made him happy. He did wonder why he had, had the experience. He found himself questioning his beliefs. He felt that he had gone through an awakening of sorts. He didn't believe that it was related to religion but he felt he had gained a spirituality and a new outlook on life and death in general. He would probably spend the rest of his life trying to understand it he thought.
Meanwhile Danny had to finish clearing the house. He gave most of his mother's furniture to a house clearance company, the rest he gave to local charities. He kept all of her personal paperwork to go through later. The following weekend he put the house up for sale. He hoped that whoever would live there in the future would be as happy as his mother had been. His last day in the cottage was spent cleaning up the garden to make it as presentable as possible for the potential owners. His final job was to lock all the windows and doors. It was when he was locking the front door for the final time that he felt the pain. A pain that gripped his chest like a vice. He knew instinctively that he was having a heart attack. The pain travelled down his arm and up his jaw. He tried to get to his phone which was in his car but halfway to his car he collapsed. As the breath left his body he could see the shadows and the blue opaque mist drift towards him. It was at that moment that he understood who the place at the table was for.