My father’s dog and my mother die within three weeks of one another.
It’s the worst winter in fifty years, so the TV meteorologists say, with their scales and charts and artificial cheer. On the slender balcony of my fifth floor apartment in the financial district, there’s a granite birdbath with three granite sparrows stuck to the rim, and every morning I chisel around the circumference and turn the ice out onto the decking, and the frozen discs rise several storeys without melting, into a toytown of twinkling tower blocks. In the absence of scales or charts or cheer, I measure the winter in frozen birdbaths.
My mother dies first, on the second Sunday in Advent, although the dying had started way back in the summer, with a lance of strange pain above the left collarbone, like ‘the jab of a tin whistle’ is how she described it to the oncologist, as casually as though jabbing people is what tin whistles had been invented for. It jabbed her first beneath the fuchsia hedge on a blistering afternoon in July, and it doesn’t end its jabbing until the middle of a winter so cold that the leaves of the fuchsia turn to mush and the hedge is frost-damaged beyond repair.
My mother’s last breath is small and sharp, and it makes a sound like the squeak of a strangled tin whistle, as though she’d always known it would.
I’m standing on the cracked concrete slabs of the graveyard, between the polished granite and Celtic crosses, the plastic bouquets and green glass gravel, when I realise it will be just my father and me for Christmas this year, and the dog, of course, who is not dead yet.
All my life my parents have lived in a village on the south coast called Ballycotton. In summertime, tourists clog up the narrow main drag and queue along the pier to cast their feathers to the mackerel and slog the cliff trail in single file. But in winter, Ballycotton is restored to the locals. The ice-cream man disables his jingle, the windowsills of the Bay View Hotel fill up with dead bluebottles, and blackberry briars engorge the cliff trail.
The house where I was raised is crowded with bookshelves and worm-eaten furniture. The radiators are rusted, the wallpaper is dappled by mould, the sofas chuff clouds of dust whenever you sit on them and the books fall apart at their sellotaped spines as you pick them up. My father is tall and craggy-featured and has a particular affection for damaged things. He likes the stuff he owns to arrive second-hand and already possessed of personal history, the more tragic the better. Much of his stuff has its home in the garden, from sun dials and swan-shaped flowerpots to every fabric and shape of birdbath. On the front lawn facing the sea, there’s even a commemorative bench which bears the name of a man my father has never known.
His dog, adopted through some animal welfare society, is stumpy and coarse-coated. Even though I’ve always found him to be sweet natured, there’s something about my father’s dog which irks me, something disconcertingly human-like in the way he is forever raising himself up, resting his front paws on chairs and knees and cupboards to perch neatly upright atop his two back legs. Sometimes when he yawns he makes a noise which sounds like he is saying the words ‘I Am’, like he is beginning a sentence he never finishes. The dog is called ‘Fella’, and I’ve never yet remembered to ask whether the name came about because my father saw the disconcerting streak of human in him too.
It’s the worst winter in fifty years, so cold the back road to Ballycotton turns to a channel of black ice overnight and the potholes freeze into mouse skating rinks, solid as clear brick. By the time my mother dies, the tarmac has frozen and thawed so many times that great chunks of road split into rubble and tumble to the ditches. On the morning of her funeral, neighbours trudge over the broken ground to attend the service. They stop in the churchyard and prop themselves against the railings to clap snowflakes from their mittens, to peel socks and unshackle bicycle-chains from around their boots.
‘She was such a good woman,’ the priest says, having never laid eyes on my mother’s face until the night of her wake, until after the undertaker has done a job with his paints and balms and powders, and the face in the coffin looks nothing like my mother anyway.
My father locks Fella in the greenhouse for the reception. He gives him a squeak-toy but we know he will not play with it. Fella never wags his tail or plays. He takes fright at the slightest of sudden noises and cowers whenever he meets a new person, squinting his eyes as though they are about to slap him for no reason at all.
I drive the three hour trip back to Dublin the same night, to the wall-mounted microwave and the bubble-eye goldfish and the recycling bin overflowing with expended tram tickets. I lie on my leather sofa and look around at all the beige-coloured things that constitute the adult life I’ve built for myself. I say to my goldfish, ‘How is it that the gravediggers managed to reach down six feet through the frozen soil?’ But he doesn’t answer.
I don’t go into work the next morning, nor any of the other mornings, even though I know it’s the restaurant’s busiest time of year, and in the absence of anything meaningful to do, I scrape the black gunge from between the shower tiles, I throw out the dead plants on the balcony, I reunite all my loose socks and roll them into married balls. I phone my father every day to check how he’s doing and make half-hearted plans for December 25th. I try my best to make my voice sound higher than my spirits.
‘How are you doing?’ I say. But my father never really answers.
‘Fella misses her,’ he says instead, ‘he waits outside the bathroom door, he doesn‘t understand why she never comes out.’
On the last posting day before Christmas, I find my P45 in the downstairs letterbox. I carry it back upstairs and dangle it over the recycling bin, and then I feed it to the expended tram tickets.
It’s the coldest winter in fifty years, so cold snowmen everywhere live far beyond their expected life-spans, standing staunch against each fresh fall, their twig-arms only a little droopy, their coal-eyes only a little sunk. Without scales or charts or cheer, I measure the winter in snowmen.
On Christmas Eve, I pack the car and drive the ice and salt and grit road out of Dublin and down through the midlands, heading south. I try to kill the journey by counting fairy-lighted trees behind front-facing windows, a game I’d played as a child. But most of the road is motorway now and most of the houses that line it are too faraway to make out decorations. As I turn off onto the back road for Ballycotton, it’s smudgy dark and beginning to freeze again. For the last several miles, I drive unnecessarily slowly. Bit by bit, the countryside beyond my windscreen dissolves to a mass of rolling shadows beneath a sky full of white flecks, and I realise that in spite of the winter’s intense coldness, it hasn’t actually snowed in a couple of weeks, since the last time I was home, since the night of my mother’s wake. And I think how banal, how predictable it is that it should snow now, on Christmas Eve.
Sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table, my father and I eat supper together, and it’s only once I’ve mopped the last of the sauce from my plate that I notice Fella is missing, that I feel the vibration of my father’s leg twitching through the bockety floorboards. We’re talking aimlessly about rain and motorways and Christmas trees and sometimes his sentences trail off, but it isn’t exactly as though he has forgotten what he’s saying, but as if he’s trying very hard to listen for something very quiet without appearing to.
‘He just hasn’t been right lately,’ my father says, ‘and this afternoon, he looked to be let out, and so I let him out, and he hasn’t been home again since.’
‘He knocks,’ my father says, ‘when he wants to go out, then again when he wants to come back in.’ And low down on the back door, I can see where the paintwork has been worn clean by the knocking of Fella’s blunted claws.
At half past eleven my father rises from his chair and, in wordless announcement of bedtime, measures milk into a saucepan and spoons powdered chocolate into two mugs. As the surface of the milk is steadily thickening into skin, I look around at my mother’s collection of cook books and souvenir fridge magnets, at her mug still tea-stained and hanging from its branch on the mug tree, and the blue loops of her handwriting still scribbled across December on the kitchen calendar. Then I look at Fella’s sullied dish beside the pedal bin, his basket of gnawed wicker beneath the stairs. My father leans against the kitchen counter top and together we watch as a tumbleweed of moulted fur gusts past us over the weathered floorboards, caught by the breeze of a misaligned draught snake.
Upstairs, my childhood bedroom is a junk room now. There are neat piles of sealed boxes and then loose piles of things still waiting to be boxed. Interspersed with my chipped knick-knacks and scrolled posters, there are the unfamiliar objects my father has been free to accumulate in the almost-decade since I moved out: a mahogany whatnot, a conked out metronome, a whole assembly of unpainted gnomes.
Lying on the flock mattress of my old bed, wrapped up in the rainbows and Care Bears of a faded duvet, I stay awake all night watching the view from my window, just like I did as a child, every Christmas Eve. Sometimes I’d see an aeroplane and believe its tiny coloured lights were those of an approaching sleigh. But tonight, the sky is utterly empty. There is only the perfect view of the unbending bay, stretching from the roof tiles across the harbour to the anchored trawlers floating in the black gap, to the lighthouse and the open sea.
It’s the worst winter in fifty years, so cold fish die in the ponds and sheep lie down and blend into the fields, icicles like crystal stalactites swing from the branches of trees and clank tunelessly in the wind. And this is how I measure it, in dead carp and treeicles.
It’s the Christmas the phone rings early in the morning, and I follow my father into the hallway to answer it.
‘Yes?’ he says into the receiver, ‘yes…’
Then he just stands beside the coat rack and nods. My father nods without saying anything, as though the person on the other end of the line can see right down the wires and into the hallway and somehow know that he is nodding. He stands beside my mother’s tweed jacket still hanging where she left it on her hook. It even has her brown wool scarf tucked inside the collar, as if her left-behind clothes were sneakily trying to reconfigure themselves back into my mother.
‘Thanks for letting me know,’ he says after a few minutes, and hangs up.
Then he walks past me and back into the kitchen. He is stooping slightly, almost as though he is carrying a tree trunk slung across the points of his shoulder blades, a great invisible log that is softly forcing him closer and closer to the ground.
‘That was Malcolm Harty from the corner,’ he says, ‘Fella’s been found. He’s lying on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, along the trail beneath the place where there’s a sheer drop and no fence to close the path in. Malcolm saw him. He ran in a clear line towards the edge, and then straight off, fast, as though he knew exactly where he was going.’
I stand up and rest my hand on my father’s sleeve. There on the kitchen floorboards with the soles of our feet to the fissures and furrows and pocks inflicted by child and man and woman and beast across all of my lifetime, between the souvenir fridge magnets and the tumbleweeds of moulted fur, I realise I have not deliberately touched my father since childhood, and suddenly everything about the gesture feels somehow choreographed and strange. And so, I pull away.
Instead I just watch as he steps into his wellington boots and dons his shabby raincoat, as he rummages beneath the sink for a black bin-liner. I just watch as he starts towards the gate through the misting sleet. And there on the concrete steps of the front door, beneath the lintel and its sorry string of unlighted bulbs, I think about how in recent months he has held himself like a man pinned beneath a tree trunk, how it is only since my mother started to die that my father started to stoop.
It’s the worst winter in fifty years, so cold all of the rain solidifies to balls or flakes or slush, then smothers the streets and roofs and lawns, so cold that the earth sets like cement and gravediggers everywhere have to thaw the ground with a heated grave blanket before they can attempt to reach six feet deep. It’s the worst winter in fifty years, and between the cold hard walls of my soul, it’s the winter which feels fifty years long. It’s the winter my mother dies and the winter I lose my job and the winter my father comes back up the driveway on Christmas morning carrying a black bin-liner bulging full of dead dog.
And while we should rightly be basting the turkey and peeling the sprouts and listening for the knocking of Fella’s small paws against the back door, it’s the Christmas my father and I stand outside in a flowerbed in the sleet, chipping a shallow hole through the hard earth at the feet of the commemorative bench, and stopping every now and again to look off away over the unbending view of the bay, to where the lighthouse is pulsing its red beam: a soft flash through the gloom, and ten seconds later, a soft flash again.
Ten seconds and three shovels, without scales or charts or cheer, this is how I measure it.