The Month’s Mind

I have reworked a previous blog post about shaving into a short story. The title refers to  requiem mass celebrated about one month after a person’s death, in memory of the deceased. The tradition is of great antiquity and some believe the word is derived from the Norse word ‘Minne’  describing a ceremonial drinking to the dead. The tradition survives in Ireland where the family and close friends attend. The story is reworked into a rites of passage narrative. 

shaving brush

I walk down the lane to the neat little farmhouse half consciously counting the cars parked in the farm yard and driveway. It is four weeks since he died and since then the dahlias in the front garden have come out rejoicing I n full bloom. My granduncle is standing sentry-like at the back door, smoking his cigarette and fumbling in an effort to put his matches back into the inside pocket of his well-worn suit. My Aunt says she swears it is the same suit he wore twenty seven years previous to my parents wedding. ‘It’s hard to believe, it sure is, hmm’ he mutters cigarette smoke bellowing from his mouth and nostrils like an old train, ‘imagine hah….. Where does the time go to?’ I’m sure he can barely make my shape out through his glossy, brandy dulled eyes.

The second I open the door I am almost overcome with the unnatural heat and noise coming from inside the house. ‘It’s nice that they laid him out in the home place’ said Mrs Noone to my mother, ‘even of the house is showing its age and all that, it’s what he would have wanted.’ Mrs. Heeran interjects ‘I’m not gone on these funeral homes at all; they’re pure pagan so they are’ to which Mrs Noone replies ‘It’s hard to beat a good wake at home amongst your own and then the chapel’. I am stranded here between them like a net on a tennis court when my aunt rescues me, ‘There he is, won’t be long before he’s off to University, isn’t that right Liam, now come up here to your Grandmother for  a minute, Grainne will you get Mrs Noone a fresh brew?’

In a few short minutes I find myself sitting in the room where he once sat, in the chair that he would have sat in. I settle down and look around the room at the people gathered for his Months Mind. Trays of sandwiches are passed around followed by plates laden with slices of fruit flan and apple tart, the latter flavoured with cloves of course, my Grandmother’s way. My Aunts and Cousins fly about with pots of steaming tea topping up delicate china cups, in a room where an epic turf fire blazes. On a shelf above the radio, a small statue of St. Martin de Porres acts as a paperweight for numerous Mass Cards, the little figurine itself surrounded by various miraculous medals and bottles of holy water from Knock, Fatima and Lourdes. There too are his reading glasses, the ones he detested and fumed about constantly. On the inside sits a shiny box red and black containing his electric razor.

Shaving had never seemed routine to me as a boy. I believe that shaving is something ceremonial, almost ritual and more than mere necessity; it can be a performance, the theatre of the everyday, the essence of life, a mark of manhood and flash of vigour. I remembered my father used a wooden handled foam brush to mix the cool shaving cream that he then daubed over his prickly face to soften the stubble. He then began by slowly dragging the sharp Wilkinson blade across his jaw, like mowing a meadow in straight swathes, before cleaning the blade under the cold tap after every second or third stroke, repeating the motion, cleansing, shearing and renewing. He would finish with the more difficult movements around the mouth and lips, which he pinched, in deep concentration, before finally washing the residual foam away with a wet cloth. A quick dab of cold water marked the end of the ceremony; all the time unaware that I was standing there watching, learning, in awe.

No doubt he too would have looked at his father, my Grandfather, shaving, or perhaps his uncles when they came home from England in the summer. Once I had tried to mimic the act of shaving with my father’s razor, a foolish act borne out of my impatience to become a man, and testified by the cross-like scar on my upper lip. The scar is hidden now by my own stubble only to appear anew when I shave. My Grandfather had berated me for my stupidity, a silly boy trying to be a man.   ‘Have you the bags packed Liam? You won’t find it now. He would have been so proud of you’  It is my cousin Aileen smiling, her words breaking my trance-like reminiscing and I become aware of her heady perfume. ‘Yes just two weeks away, won’t find it’ I reply, ‘Have you digs organised?’ she asks, ‘yes, I was lucky to get a room in a house on Quay Road. Only got word yesterday so I’m taking it blind but it should be fine’ She puts her hand on my knee and squeezes it ‘It’ll be the making of you young man, the world is your oyster, he’d be so proud, he’ll be with you Liam, he’ll be by your side’.

It was I who used hang at my Grandfather’s side watching him, learning from him, like in McKee’s Bar on the nights of the big sales in the local Mart, the pub full of jobbers, tanglers, dealers, Northern buyers, tobacco smoke and thick ash plants for beating cattle up trailer ramps. I would sit on a high stool beside him, aping his gestures and movements, my legs dangling, swinging in time to the beat and blare of the mixed accents of men from Cavan, Longford, Roscommon and Fermanagh. The air was thick with the sounds of laughter, merriment, rows, insults and the vigorous shaking of hands, the entire drama that went on such nights as I pretended my frothy Cavan Cola was a glass of Guinness.

Later I would link my Grandfather home from town, standing well in on the grassy verge when car lights approached, until finally we came as far as our lane.  On the way home he would denounce what ‘They’ had done to men like Blessed Oliver Plunkett; He would tell me how Parnell was let down badly but had let himself down too. He would get most animated when he spoke of about his own Great-Grandfather, ‘don’t ever forget’ he said that ‘we were burnt out of  our house, put to the road and they after hanging him from the shafts of a cart.’ Unbeknownst I was being passed on invisible torches, whether I wanted to hold them or not. Then as we approached the house he would straighten up, puff out his chest, fortified for meeting my Grandmother. ‘Liam you’ll have this’ it was my Uncle Martin, ’put hairs on your chest’. In his hands are two small glasses with two large pours of whiskey, one of which he is pointing towards me. I don’t usually drink whiskey yet instinctively I take one. I lift the glass to my nose and savour its woody pungency before slowly sipping the burning malt.

In summer time my Grandfather had often shaved outside on the back street of the house. A red basin with warm water set on a chair brought out from the kitchen, a fresh towel laid across the high back, a small mirror propped up on the wall with a red brick. I am back there again; the brown faced Collie lying stretched out, but watching him, panting in the heat of the mid-morning sun. I am sitting there watching him too. With his braces now hanging down by his sides, he looks like a character from a Western; standing there he could’ve been out on the high plains. We are both engrossed in his labour. When finished he bends down scooping up the water in his cupped hands, washing away the last of the foam from his now shiny skin. He then pats his face dry with the towel, which is then thrown over his shoulder, before he picks up the basin with a flourish, flinging its contents down the yard, scattering cats and hens in all directions. He is gone then into the house, his ablutions over. When he emerges he is wearing his bright sports coat and a gaudy wide tie, the latter clearly from another decade, another continent even. He pinches my cheek first and then pats the dog and mutters something about looking like a ‘broken down gentleman’ then he is gone away for the day to some meeting.

Martin has now come back with the bottle of Jameson and topped up my glass again. I feel my cheeks aglow and the whiskey now tastes far sweeter than that initial sip just minutes before. ‘SsH! SSh! began to pass through the house and as the various conversations subside the reprise of the Rosary can be heard from the living room. The people sitting next to me begin the reply ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ Our neighbour Patrick Joseph gets down tentatively on his knees and manoeuvres himself so that he is facing into the armchair he’d just been sitting on. I couldn’t help but notice the well-worn shiny seat of his pants. For all his piety he is more accustomed to sitting than kneeling. I thought of the line from the reading I had read at the funeral mass, ‘To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven’. The whiskey was making me dreamy as was the murmuring uniformity of the prayers. ‘A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted’. Ecclesiastes, egg cheesy elastic, heck cheesy plastic. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’

My grandfather had become a frail man, his body shaking with uncontrollable tremors that mocked him and broke his spirit. His daughters took turns in shaving him. His shaking hand would only have done himself harm. Instead of a sharp razor blade they preferred to use the Remington electric Razor. It was a present they had bought for him one recent Christmas. It was very sleek and modern with a tilting head to match the contours of his rugged, well lined country face. I remember thinking that one day I would like to own a smart looking Remington too. ‘Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Erin’. An hour later as we are all leaving I ask my Grandmother if I can have his razor. ‘Of course’ she says, ‘of course, why wouldn’t you, …… sure we’ve no use for it now’. I reach up to the shelf for the box and say my good nights. As I approach the  door my Aunt walks into the back kitchen, she sees the box in my hand and I can see her eyes well up. She takes a tissue and wipes her eyes ‘Good night Liam’ her hand touches my shoulder as I leave.

I awake with a dry mouth. I lie there for several minutes until the the thirst is too much. In the bathroom I greedily drink a gulps of cold water straight from the tap. Looking in the mirror I rub my chin and cheeks. My stubble feels rough and bristly. Need to look presentable the first day. I open the cabinet door and take down the box. Inside are various brushes, the razor and the power lead.  I plug the razor into the two pronged socket. The shaver buzzes loudly until I place against my skin so that it hums softly. I trace a path across my face down the the jawbone and then faxk il again. The razor starts to struggle and choke.  Flipping open the lid I see it us full and I tap it firmly against the side of the wash hand basin tipping the contents out. The slow running water from the cold tap gathers up the discarded stubble. The colour of the water, turns first grey, then dark and mottled, making ever increasing concentric circles. Suddenly I am startled by sight of my own fresh stubble now mixed with the last my grandfather ever grew. I remembered now, I remembered the women below in the corpse room preparing his body for the wake, and our cousin coming up the hall with the Remington box in her hand. She placed the box on the shelf.  I gaze in the mirror at my half shaven face looking deep at and through my now glossy eyes, overcome with the significance of the stubble, slowly emptying down the plughole of eternity.

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