‘It’s me, Daniel … Daniel Murphy. Your Daniel. Don’t you remember?’ But still the old man’s eyes didn’t even blink, shoved deep into his head like two snowman’s lumps of coal. And his face looked melting to match, wrinkles dripping downwards. Come tomorrow, only a puddle would remain.
Daniel stood beside the bed, shoulders knotted forward, feeling far too bloody large for that tiny room. It was an exact clone of all the others he’d passed along the corridor: little allotments of remaining life, each made ‘unique’ by the half-hearted decorations which looked about as knackered as the residents themselves. But there were no dog-eared posters or grow-your-own-bonsai trees in here, only books. Hundreds of them. Piled high on every shelf and in each spare corner – even the window ledge – blocking the Wicklow view with words instead.
But not one was spoken.
‘Well if you’ve nothing to say, never mind, so.’
The door slammed behind Daniel louder than he’d meant. The gust of air sent the pages all whispering farewell. The old eyes watched him go, feeling the books’ breath upon them, and then, at last, they blinked.
Daniel strode away, past the common room, where shrivelled bodies hunched towards muted TVs, kippot covering the men’s bald patches like dodgy toupées. The air smelled of mushroom soup. Cream of. He stayed focused on the door, which led to the foyer beyond, where the receptionist had welcomed him only minutes before.
Now it was stuck. He peered through the glass to catch the receptionist’s eye. She was gone. Shit. Daniel cracked his knuckles, one at a time – a ten-step arpeggio – before trying again. But nothing. He was trapped. Twenty-one years old today and yet here he would remain, caged in with the dying, reading books and pruning bonsai trees and eating nothing but condensed bloody soup.
Then again, a tiny voice mused, it could be good research.
But he wouldn’t let the joke stick. He didn’t like his job; didn’t like being an obiturist; didn’t even like old people – yet another reason why he knew he shouldn’t have come here in the first place. In fact, as soon as he’d opened that 21st Birthday card and read the half-familiar scrawls and the return address: ‘Jewish Home of Ireland’, he should have just chucked it away and made sure his father, and stepmother and halfbrother never saw. Headed off to mass like any other Sunday. The silence had been working fine all these years, why change it now?
But instead, he said nothing, and came. Only to be met with more nothing.
Daniel coughed. He wished he could click his throat like the rest of him – click the guilt away. Because he hated keeping secrets from his father. They’d stayed strong together since his mother’s death; since the day he was born. ‘A real team, eh, Danny boy?’ He supposed that was the reason he’d stopped seeing his Zayde … his grandfather in the first place. The old man had always been so cold towards his former son-inlaw. So bitter.
Daniel clicked his neck, left and then right.
And then Gráinne had come along, and so new grandparents (or stepat least), and then baby Donal – a stranger to Zayde entirely – and suddenly Daniel felt embarrassed of this quirky old man with his cartoon nickname and his skullcap and that strange mezuzah thing beside the door to his house – ‘the house where your mother grew up’ – but she’s dead now, Daniel wanted to scream – I killed her!
These days, dead people were Daniel’s living; examining their pasts, composing their narratives, start, middle and end. Because other people’s lives he could do. Of course, there was always some pressure to it – these were the words by which people were remembered – all a life was reduced to, in the end. Although he wrote most of them while they were still alive. It felt almost ominous. Like the Jewish superstition of not making a will in case it tempts fate. Well, his mother certainly hadn’t been tempted. His mother – his first paragraph – maybe even his opening sentence. But he should have just left it there, and ignored the urge to open it all up again just because of some stupid card. There was nothing more to say – his grandfather had proven that once and for all now – so why was he still standing here? Why wasn’t he gone?
Daniel shut his eyes, tasting the frustration on his lips. Mushroom soup. Cream of. And then, slowly, he began to click.
First his fingers, then his toes, there in his oversized shoes. And then his wrists, his neck, his back, his hips and anywhere else he could possibly find, exhaling with each release. Pleasure-pain.
And then the latch clicked too.
Daniel opened his eyes. The receptionist smiled. The door swung back like a half-spread wing. Just watching it, breath held, Daniel felt freer already.
Until suddenly, he felt something else.
He looked down at the fingers around his wrist. He traced where the wrinkles led. He reached the eyes, overflowing with words that didn’t need to be spoken.
The old man gave a gentle nod, never blinking once. And then, just like that, he melted.
‘It’s me, Daniel … Daniel Murphy. Your Daniel. Don’t you remember?’ he says.
Ah sure, of course I remember you, you gobshite! my mind replies.
Gobshite – my very favourite curse. Mamzer comes in a close second, though because it’s Hebrew it should probably win on aggregate – playing away from home and all that. But a gob full of shite, sure, you can’t beat that.
Maybe that’s why I’ve gone quiet these days – just too full of shite to speak. Though I’d spit it all out if I could. ‘Elective Mutism’ the doctor calls it, the smug little mamzer, but I didn’t ‘elect’ for things to turn out this way – democracy my arse! It was just … with the missus gone (may her name be blessed), and then my daughter (may hers too), and then my grandson (and I suppose his as well), and then my independence … well, I suppose my voice just followed suit.
And yet suddenly here he is, looming before me, about twice the bloody size as when I last saw him. Certainly twice the size of me now anyway. Us Jews aren’t exactly the tallest lot, so I suppose his height only proves which side he ended up on.
Haven’t seen him in years – since he was … thirteen? He used to come round once a month. I’d read him stories. Sometimes I’d give him a few to take home with him, but he’d go all tense and start all his knuckleclicking malarkey – like jigsaw pieces slotting into place – so I didn’t push it. Other times we’d go strolling along Sandymount Strand, where the tide always looks as if it’s sucking its stomach in, and I’d tell him more tales of a faraway land, a Promised one; one that belonged to him too, if only he knew. And I watched as every word traced its way down his spine, slotting its pieces somewhere else entirely.
But by thirteen, I suppose, he just grew out of all that. Or at least, grew out of me. Maybe that’s what’s after happening to my voice now too.
‘Well if you’ve nothing to say, never mind, so.’
The door slams. The books shiver. The one at the top of Pile 14 billows open and a scrap of paper bursts free, riding the gust to the ground.
Because I’ll have to clamber out of bed now and put it back in its place. Because everything must be ‘just so’. ‘OCD’ Doctor Mamzer calls it – load of shite you ask me – O.bsessive C.ompulsive D.iarrhoea would be more like it! He claims it’s linked to the ‘disappearance’ of my speech. Disappearance – do you hear him – as if I could just take out a missing person’s ad: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS VOICE?
I shake my head and uncurl my legs. An audible creak. I hope that doesn’t count? Usually the nurses help me, but it’s too early yet – they know I like to stay in bed ’til noon. Though God knows why I bother getting up at all.
I hang my legs over the side of the bed as if over a boat, the lino floor my sea. My desk lamp the feeble lighthouse. It winks. And now I am back there again, at the edge of the Strand, staring out at the swell.
‘We came from beyond there, you know?’
He cracks his wrist. Morse code for confusion.
‘We’re a wandering people, Daniel. But we’ll go Home eventually. Next year in Jerusalem, as they say.’
‘But … but this is my home, Zayde.’
His tears are like diamonds. My most prized possession.
But no, enough of that, you old fart – that’s in the past now – and this scrap has to be tidied up immediately. Focus! I heave myself upwards without a sound. Lot harder than you think. Sneezing’s the worst – that sound that just bursts out of you as if it’s been captive for eternity. Or at least, for thousands of years. And even when somebody else does it, I always used to bless them – in Hebrew or English or even sometimes in Irish – Dia linn – ‘God be with us’. Though I’ve always found it greedy counting yourself in on someone else’s sneeze.
I lower my feet to the floor – watch out for those bloody cracks – jellyfish that sting. I reach down for the paper.
John O’Reilly (may his name be blessed).
Never heard of him, poor mamzer. Never heard of any of these people whose lives I’ve cut out of the newspaper, pored over line by line, and placed inside every last book I own like flowers in a flower press, keeping them fresh. Paperback burials. But it’s not them I care about – it’s him.
Because above all, these are his words.
Daniel Murphy (may his name be …)
My eyes leap to the door. Hold on a second – did he just … was that really …
You MAMZER! You eejit! You absolute schmuck! That was him – that wasn’t a memory – that was really him! So why didn’t you say something? Do something? Anything? You giant bloody gobshite!
My favourite curse finally shuts me up; my mind as still as my tongue. Everything clicking.
The lino’s bloody freezing as I go. My body stiff. I imagine I either look constipated or like I’m about to drop an entire hurling team of kids off at the pool as I waddle forth. Full of shite – I told you! But no one pays attention. Since they cannot hear me, I swear sometimes they don’t even bother to see.
In the rec room they’re watching Antiques Roadshow. Just pile us all into a van, sure, and we’d be ready to go! But no time for jokes, no, only jittering along the too-shiny floor – skidding atop the sea.
Until my grandson comes into sight.
I move to shuffle forwards – to catch the attention I only just rejected. But suddenly he is moving himself, violently. I stop where I smile.
First his fingers crack, bone out of socket, and then his toes and his ankles and all the rest, breaking free. He stretches out with each sound, as if it is the noise of him growing – a fast-forwarded replay of the eight years I missed – evolution apace. It is beautiful.
But then he seems to snap out of it, reaching for the door, and suddenly time is imminent again. So I waddle, quickly, but somehow he doesn’t hear my toes, or my breath, or the thud of my heart. I want to call out. If he’s come back then maybe I can – maybe the silence is finished at last – O.ver in C.ompany of D.aniel!
But at last, my fingertips find him. The wrist bone is surprisingly warm. And by the time he gives them to me, the eyes are filled with diamonds. It is beautiful.