Keepsake by Bill Tinley
I went to pay my respects to Collie Henderson. To make sure he was good and dead, Tess reckoned, though she might not have used those exact words. She has a sharp tongue at times, my wife. Not that she was far off the mark in this case. She politely declined the offer to accompany me.
There was no outside light at Collie’s, bar a patch lit up near the kitchen window. You could hardly see a thing. I stepped in something crossing the yard that he had never wasted time on washing down. There were low voices at the door and a cigarette end flared in the murk. Donal, Collie’s only son, was chatting with a neighbour, big fat fuckers the two of them, both in short sleeves even though it was the end of November.
‘Decent of you to come up, Jim,’ Donal said. We shook hands. ‘The ould bollix is inside in the back bedroom if you want to see him.’ I gave my shoes a perfunctory scrape on the bristle mat and went inside. The kitchen was jammed. I knew most of the people there, knew I’d have to make small talk with them and that I might be there for hours.
Donal’s wife made her way across the room when she saw me. God knows how she ended up hitched to that lug. I thought she was going to embrace me but she reached out with both hands and held mine.
‘Lovely to see you, Jim. You’re so good to make the effort. Is Tess not with you?’ I made some excuse. Sharon nodded and let go of my hands.
‘You’ll take a drink, will you? A drop of whiskey, maybe?’ I told her I was driving, that a cup of tea would do. She started up about sandwiches and cocktail sausages and teacake and sponge, pointing out plates of food on the table and the worktop. I told her I had just eaten.
I felt a hand at my elbow. It was Milly Cummins, smaller and frailer than ever.
‘I was wondering would we see you here at all, Jim,’ she said, manoeuvring herself between Sharon and me. ‘I hear you haven’t darkened the door here since God was a boy. It’s a sad day for you all the same. You were practically brothers, isn’t that so?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say that now, Milly.’
I saw Sharon giving her a look, and Milly picked it up straight away.
‘You didn’t know that?’ she said to Sharon. ‘Oh yes, brothers is what they were, or as good as. Well before your time, my dear.’
So I had to listen to her version of how I came to grow up with the Hendersons. If Sharon had heard any of it before, she didn’t let on. Maybe she wanted to hear it again, or hear it from someone outside of the family. Or maybe she was happy enough to let Milly have a few minutes in the spotlight.
I didn’t want to listen to it myself, not at first anyway, even though I knew before I went up to the wake that it would most likely get dredged up. But I was curious all the same to find out how it looked to someone else. An outsider, if you like. Not the facts, which didn’t change, although people play around with them if they’re let. How my mother and Collie’s mother were cousins; how my parents died within a year of each other before I was ten; how the five of us got parcelled out to family on both sides; how I ended up here, a city boy out in the sticks.
‘Weren’t they awfully good, when you think of it?’ Milly was saying. ‘Tom and Kathy, taking in someone else’s child like that, and the times as tough as they were. I suppose that’s how things were done then. It’s different now. I don’t know that you’d see it done nowadays.’
Listening to Milly, who had a good fifteen or maybe even twenty years on me, I was trying to work out why she remembered this story, what had it to do with her, why she would have paid any heed to an orphan taken in by farmers up the hills. I knew less than I thought I did about these people.
‘I can remember that first night here like it was only yesterday,’ I said. Milly stopped talking. ‘Tom lit the oil lamp and walked me across the yard to the hay loft where a bed had been made up for me. Collie stood right there’ – I pointed to the kitchen door – ‘watching as I was led away.’
I resisted the urge to take up another version of events, one that neither Sharon nor Milly would have heard before. How the holy Hendersons took me in but didn’t let me in, if I can put it that way. Collie, their own flesh and blood, got the best of everything, and got it first, and left little when he’d had his fill. I sat at their table, ate the same food, that’s true, and eventually accustomed myself to Kathy’s unwavering favouritism, the precision of her portion scale.
Every night for the first week Tom brought me out to the barn, and then that stopped, and I had to make my own way from then on, with no lamp, since I couldn’t be trusted not to set the place on fire. I was terrified out there on my own, and never sure if the rustlings and door banging and scratching on the rusty roof weren’t Collie’s doings.
I finished the tea that one of the women had put in my hand.
‘I should go in and see him,’ I said to Sharon. She took the cup and saucer from me.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she said.
In the bedroom the main light was off but the table lamps on either side of the double bed were on. A solitary candle was lit on the deep ledge of the small, low window. At the back of the room an elderly woman I took to be Sharon’s mother was sitting in the only chair, talking in a subdued voice to two other women, indifferent to the presence of a dead body.
Collie was laid out in the coffin and the coffin was set in the middle of the bed. I hadn’t seen that before, but there would not have been room for a bier unless the bed was removed. The women nodded at me by way of greeting and I returned the gesture.
Not once in all the years I lived with the Hendersons had I been in that room. I had kept my distance when Tom and then Kathy passed away, not just by choice but because Collie would not have wanted his moment of grief to be shared by anyone, least of all me. And here he was, fifty years on, still the king, at least for one more day. It felt strange to stand over him, to be able to look at him and not have his eyes stare back into mine with disdain.
‘Are you OK, Jim?’ I hadn’t noticed Sharon coming into the room. She placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘You must have been close once?’
I didn’t answer. Collie and I greeted each other if it was unavoidable, in the shop, outside the church after Mass, at funerals. Once, maybe thirty years ago, we’d spent half a night in each other’s company as part of a search party moving along the river bank after a child had fallen in during a storm. Even then we’d hardly exchanged a word.
‘I wouldn’t mind a few minutes on my own,’ I said to Sharon.
‘Sure, Jim. That would be fine.’
I heard Sharon whisper to the women and they made their way out. The door was closed.
I sat on the bed, worried my weight would shift the coffin and pitch the corpse out on top of me.
‘Collie,’ I said.
I put my right hand on his clasped hands. They were stiff and cold and the way the rosary beads were worked through them made them feel grotesque.
‘I won’t take up much of your time. Or mine. I’m ashamed of this, not just because it must be said but because I didn’t say it sooner, when you were alive, when I could have seen your response.
‘Of all the things you did over the years, and there were many things, the one I can’t forgive is how you treated me when I got married. Do you remember that? You must do. I came up to the barn to collect my things when Tess and myself got back from our honeymoon. And there you were, decked out in my suit, even though it didn’t fit you right. I hadn’t been away much more than a week and you were stealing the little I had. Bad enough that you’d robbed me, but you were wearing it for work, like you deliberately wanted to destroy it. I can still see it – cowshite all over the trousers and a rip down one of the sleeves. If Tess hadn’t been there with me I’d have planted you.
‘How long did you wear it after that? I saw it on you anytime I was up at the farm. It was a long, slow, calculated insult. I never understood why, Collie, but you were always one low, mean bastard.’
I was silent. With my hand on his waxy hands, my eyes fixed on a face that didn’t look at all like him, I had a notion that all the bitterness I’d never done one practical thing to get rid of in half a century would flow like a transfusion, hand to hand, from me to him, that I would fill him up with everything he’d asked me to bear since that first night he watched after me as I was cast out of the house.
‘I should leave you something to remember me by,’ I said.
I shook out a cotton handkerchief and from the sole of my right shoe wiped a greenish smear of muck and shite. I made a neat triangle fold, leaned over the coffin and tucked the handkerchief carefully into Collie’s breast pocket. I got to my feet and stood back from the body.
‘I knew there was something missing,’ I said, looking down at him. ‘You were fond of things that belonged to me. I think that finishes it off nicely. A keepsake until Doomsday.’
There was a quiet rap on the door and Sharon put her head in.
‘Are we alright, Jim?’ she asked. ‘There’s a few people here want to see Collie.’
‘I’ve left him a little something,’ I said, tapping the breast pocket in my jacket. ‘I know he’d appreciate the touch.’
I moved aside to let the new mourners approach the coffin. Without looking back at Collie I made my way out of the room, satisfied I would never have to look upon his face again.
Bill Tinley is a writer from Co Kildare, Ireland, who was an Irish Novel Fair 2018 finalist for his novel,
A Cry for Deliverance. He received an Arts Council of Ireland Literature Bursary in 2003 and won the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 1996 for a collection that was subsequently published under the title, Grace,
in 2001(New Island Books). The story ‘Keepsake’ is taken from a short-story collection manuscript,
Snow Waltzes, an early draft of which received the Cecil Day Lewis Award for Emerging Writers in 2014.