The Graveyard Man
It is a misty November morning and Danny Brennan has already consumed two shots of Irish whiskey. He approaches four graves in the centre of the Kilcrohane Burial Ground to begin his day’s work and is attired in sturdy, knee-length mud boots and a hooded raincoat. His sole adornment is a large plastic bucket with assorted tools. The cap on his whiskey flask peeks out from one of his pockets.
His first grave of the morning bears the name ‘addy O’Mara’. On tender, aching knees and with arthritic hands, he begins by scraping and brushing the moss and dirt to allow the ‘P’ to gain its rightful place. Wilted flowers still bathe Paddy’s tomb in a carpet of muted reds, yellows, and blues. The small plot has only just begun to sprout grass. It was a brief illness. The few dozen family and friends who attended his recent internment spoke of a warm, vibrant, and loyal family man. His widow Mary chose the epitaph now etched on his freshly-restored tomb:
A loving father, husband, grandfather and farmer
Tender nurturer of both the Irish soil and our hearts
Danny turns and winces mildly.
‘Blasted choices,’ he declares irritably.
He drags his bucket to a second mud-covered grave adjacent to Paddy’s. The words continue their mild echo:
‘Father, husband, grandfather and farmer’.
As Danny’s brush makes contact with the tomb, he whispers:
‘And best friend.’
For Paddy and he were unofficial village twins and classmates some fifty years earlier at the Kilcrohane National School, only a scant kilometre or so up a lonely Irish lane from where he now toils on moist, ruined knees.
They sat next to each other in this intimate schoolhouse, a nondescript, one-story building that opens to the village church. They chuckled in unison and sometimes earned an angry rebuke or stern glare from the imperious schoolmaster. On Saturday, they took to the pitch with a stable of locals followed by a game of road bowling in the village center. And in the waning light of a Saturday evening, exhausted from the day’s sport, they would sink to the damp grass bordering the rocky edge of Dunmanus Bay, still laughing and panting while recounting a missed shot or friendly tussle.
Before returning home, they often shared a pint of Guinness carefully lifted from a forgotten crate behind one of the two village pubs. Bounty in hand, they would run with a wild, reckless abandon that only youth can inspire until they arrived breathless in the cover of a small patch of nearby woods.
‘That was a close one,’ Paddy said, exuding a youthful giddiness that saturated those carefree Saturdays.
‘Too close,’ Danny shot back.
He wore a mischievous smile and stood slightly bent, his hands resting on his long, nimble legs.
Those same long, yet aching, spiritless limbs now carry him to his third grave of the morning. Danny meditates on that brotherhood, that easy laughter, that youthful innocence. His meditation includes a third generous gulp of whiskey from his weathered flask.
‘Blasted choices,’ he spits out angrily.
At 18, Paddy’s eyes bent towards America. With farm jobs scarce in Kilcrohane, he turned to New York’s Hudson Valley for work. The peninsula, already a remote, windswept, forgotten place with Paddy on it, became more oppressive, more dark, more lonely in his absence.
A fourth sip of whiskey does little to erode the ache of that vacancy.
‘See you Danny,’ Paddy said solemnly on his final day in Kilcrohane as the two fiercely embraced outside the general store.
‘It’s your last chance to join me,’ Paddy said, his fair, curly hair whirling rebelliously in the gusty winds off Dunmanus Bay.
Leaves pranced across the empty street in the village center. A light, early autumn rain fell.
‘The Kilcrohane lads in America?’ Paddy added, smiling meekly.
‘I can’t…I just can’t,’ Danny said. ‘Good-bye Paddy…Slainte.’
Danny’s eyes moistened. Taller and thinner, he bent slightly in order to better meet Paddy’s embrace. His three-day growth of whiskers pinched Paddy’s smooth, crimson cheeks. There were hasty pledges to write, a few final best wishes, and then, the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’ were separated.
Now tending to his final grave of the morning, Danny still feels the raw, steady wind off Dunmanus Bay as it blew across the village street on Paddy’s final day in Kilcrohane.
‘Ah, blasted choices,’ he says forlornly.
He reaches for his flask, twists off the cap and takes another quick sip. It is barely mid-morning.
A steady flow of letters from Paddy trickled to a rare Christmas greeting. What Danny did learn before news became scarce was that Paddy had found a farm job in New York. He also met an Irish girl named Mary and after a brief courtship and marriage, a brood of five O’Mara’s swiftly followed.
Danny remained alone. He was bestowed by locals with the title of graveyard man. A friendless, isolated bachelor, his only companion on those long, solitary nights in his tiny flat was his cheap Irish whiskey and a frayed, tired copy of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.
After eight years without news, a brief letter arrived from Paddy. Danny retrieved it one early afternoon upon returning from the burial ground, his mud-splattered bucket in hand and flask of whiskey in his side pocket. Exiting the post office, he rushed up a nearby lane and sat down on a boulder under a small cover of woods. He ripped the seam impatiently, took a sip of whiskey, and read its contents with alacrity:
I hope this letter finds you well. I just recently returned to Ireland and have settled with my family outside the village of Clifden. The lads and Mary are all thriving. We’ve purchased a farm near Mary’s childhood home and are quite busy tending to all the daily tasks. We feel blessed.
Impatient for some news.
Danny rallied his stunned faculties. He never expected that Paddy would ever return to Ireland, yet now that he was securely on Irish soil again, he might just as well still be living in America. The distance to Clifden was nearly as unbridgeable. Danny didn’t have the resources or the time for that multi-day journey to the far west of Ireland. He earned only a Sunday reprieve from his daily work and his meager stipend gave him scarcely enough money to pay the rent on his dreary, one-room flat and to buy basic food supplies. What little remained he spent on cheap Irish whiskey.
Disconsolate, Danny tucked the letter back in his pocket, the sole unsullied corner of his muddy, damp clothing.
In the glow of a cozy fire later that evening, a heavy rain buffeting his window, he sat and lingered over the final line in Paddy’s letter:
‘Impatient for some news’.
He understood why. For Danny had never written to Paddy with any consistency. A few times he sent a missive with vague news touching on life in the village or a failed romance with a local girl. The few Kilcrohane girls that he did briefly court soon tired of his drinking and couldn’t foresee a future with the village graveyard man.
He still held the same job at the burial ground that he had secured shortly after Paddy left. It was a favor granted by the town postmaster, who, seeing the directionless youth, put in a good word with the village vicar. The few local lads who he did befriend soon married, started families and became heavily cloaked in all the variegated fibers of Irish domesticity.
His only surviving relative was an aunt who raised him from childhood after both of his parents were struck down by pneumonia within a year of each other. He rose each morning in the pre-dawn blackness and quaffed a shot of whiskey with breakfast. He then worked until early afternoon at the burial ground before stopping by the village church to tidy up the small yard and sweep the front steps. If he could spare a few coins, he would stop by the village pub to sulk over a whiskey by the fire. His evenings were passed in perfect solitude consuming a small dinner at a worn, uneven wooden table. He would linger over a whiskey, or perhaps drift through a few pages of The Last Man before falling into a fitful slumber in a corner cot.
Danny’s thinning, greying hair, advancing arthritis and a slight bending of his once tall, supple frame were the only evidence of time’s imperial march. The daily whiskey and the exposure to the winds of Dunmanus Bay had conspired to form deep lines across his red, hardened face. To dress in the morning became increasingly arduous. Decades of brushing and scraping on the damp burial ground grass had reduced his hands to a throbbing mass of misery. His fingernails wore a permanent inky black coating after a lifetime of labour in the mud and muck. His bucket also bore the stamp of time. A long, thin crack ran down one side and a thoroughly rusted handle flirted with annihilation.
Danny rises to his feet and turns for home. It’s a short walk up the gravel lane, across the village street and up another brief path to his flat. As he approaches the sparse lighting of the village, he sees the ‘Open’ sign affixed to the door of the general store. Paddy’s absence was always felt most acutely when passing that place. He very often turned to his whiskey here.
As he neared that same village road just a few months ago while returning home, he saw a bespectacled, grey-haired man. His hair was neatly cut and he was standing before the door of the general store. Unlike Danny’s filthy clothes, he wore clean slacks and a yellow sweater over a button-down shirt. Black shoes completed his casual, yet dignified outfit. Such a refined–almost regal–presence was a rare sight in these parts. His countenance gained clarity with each step Danny took until the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’, stripped of youth’s fair brush, were standing before each other.
‘So nice to see you,’ Danny said, as the two embraced warmly in the shadow of where they bid farewell 58 years earlier.
‘Likewise, my friend,’ Paddy responded, flinching slightly over Danny’s shoulder as the penetrating odour of liquor filled the space around their merged bodies.
Later, under the soft glow of Danny’s fire, each bearing a glass of Irish whiskey, they reminisced about Kilcrohane and their childhood. They also shared details of their lives since that bleak, windy autumn day in 1925.
‘You should have joined me,’ Paddy said softly, dredging up the open invitation he extended to Danny in 1925 as the two mulled their respective futures.
‘You know Paddy, I, uh, couldn’t leave my aunt on the peninsula,’ he responded solemnly. ‘She begged me to stay. It’s a choice I, uh,’ he said somberly while shaking his head slowly.
‘It’s a choice I,’ he repeated falteringly, his voice dwindling into a pained silence.
‘It would have been nice to have you nearby,’ Paddy said, his yellow sweater emitting an ethereal glow before the crackling flame. ‘The lads never got to properly know their Uncle Danny.’
That same flame cast a soft orange glow over Danny’s copy of The Last Man, which tilted precariously against a vase on the table.
‘It hasn’t been easy,’ Danny muttered. ‘The peninsula can drive even the strongest man to, well…’
Paddy offered an acquiescing nod.
Danny glanced forlornly down at his half-empty glass of Irish whiskey.
His crimson cheeks gained an added fervour before the dancing flames as he told Paddy of the unstirred monotony of the last half-century. It was a quotidian routine made more oppressive in the wake of his aunt’s death in 1935. His drinking intensified, leading to his permanent expulsion from one of the two pubs in the village after the owner found him lifting a pint of Guinness from a crate in the rear. It was an act he had pulled off many times with Paddy under more nimble legs, but his arthritic limbs betrayed him. He tripped, noisily tumbling into a collection of discarded beer bottles. Locals began to avoid the graveyard man–a development that only tightened his noose of isolation.
An extended silence hung over the flat. The greying, wrinkled, fragile pair sat opposite each other, whiskies in hand, as the final cracks and whistles of the fire expired. A few months later, Danny received a letter from Paddy’s wife Mary:
It is with great sadness that I must inform you of the death of our dear Paddy. He passed away last night surrounded by his loving children, grandchildren and me.
He spoke often of you in the most affectionate terms–both in America and here in Clifden. His interment at the Kilcrohane Burial Ground will take place next Thursday morning.
Danny crosses the village street, bucket in hand, and heads home. Later that evening after supper, his whiskey on a side table and the fire bathing the room in a gentle orange, Danny marks the two-month anniversary of Paddy’s death in the same fashion he’s spent nearly every night since 1925–alone with his whiskey.
A heavy squall erupts. Fierce winds rattle the windows. Danny settles in his chair, mulling the vestiges of Mary’s final letter announcing Paddy’s death:
‘He passed away last night surrounded by all his loving children, grandchildren and me’.
As he scans his vacant flat, the only object Danny’s heart can warmly bend towards is his volume of Shelley’s The Last Man. It was the sole item of any value bequeathed to him by his aunt after her death.
‘Blasted choices,’ he mutters testily.
Suddenly, a powerful urge wills him–almost lifts him–out of his chair. He heads to the old wooden table near the door. Never has he moved with such a singular purpose after a day’s work at the burial ground. He picks up the half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey and walks resolutely to the kitchen sink. Slowly, he unscrews the cap and empties the contents of the bottle down the drain. He watches with avidity as the last drops of that demonic liquid swirl into nothingness. He walks to the front door of the flat and opens it briskly. He braces himself against nature’s wild riot and places the empty bottle outside.
‘Free,’ he sighs wearily.
Face now aglow before his modest fire, the words return:
‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’
He crosses his legs and eases his head back against a small pillow.
The storm rages into the night. His breathing softens.
‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’
Then, with fading images of Paddy clinging to the narrowing corridors of his mind, the peninsula relaxes its grip on Danny, the fire withers, and darkness settles over the village of Kilcrohane.