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Would It Kill You to Bury My Father? – A new short story by Lisa McInerney

‘There was a fierce whack of entitlement off it, the problem ... being that I didn’t belong to anyone’

I told the undertaker that I wanted to organise a funeral for my father. I said it felt right to let on that the man deserved a send-off, and these are the things good daughters do.

The undertaker gave me a look I was well able to read, having gone to school with his daughters, having eaten more than once at his dinner table, having slept the odd time in his house and once surprised him late and up to no good in his sitting room. He reminded me that my father wasn’t dead.

I said that he might as well be, after considering replying instead with ‘he’s dead to me’, and deciding it was too ridiculous, though it was true. I used the undertaker’s first name, an action which still felt brazen though I had children of my own now. I stopped myself from sniggering afterwards, just about. Robert, I said. Spread something heavy and stern over the giggle. Robert, now, you know me. That, too, felt brazen. To suggest myself as some sort of fixture of the locality, worthy of being known. There was a fierce whack of entitlement off it, and the problem in the first place being that I didn’t belong to anyone, which is why I wanted to slam and nail down the lid of my father’s coffin.

The undertaker stretched out at his desk and knotted his hands on his lap. He tucked his chin and frowned, putting me in mind of a porcelain clown. He was tall and delicate looking, hardly handy for the work, though he was good at making sense, good at keeping things level, and I suppose he didn’t dig the graves himself so he had no need to be stocky. Even so I could see that he wished that the task of talking sense into me had not fallen to him, but also that he wouldn’t dream of backing away from it, just wanted to indulge his regret, faff about in it for a while. He said that there were, believe it or not, rules and regulations about this kind of thing, an industry code, as it were. You couldn’t have the rigmarole without a corpse.


The undertaker’s desk was a cheap thing; it looked like he’d bought it from a catalogue. He had on top of it a bulky computer monitor and a yellowing keyboard and not much else, which might have been due to some inherent neatness but made me think of a crook’s setup, some fine lad running a scam out of a shipping container, ready to hop over any number of garden walls should the gardaí come looking for him.

I told the undertaker I had no objection to reclassifying this funeral as mere pomp, just so long as we followed the usual procedures. Like a Macnas thing, I suggested, community pageantry; it did not, I stressed, have to be weird if tackled in this spirit. The undertaker said that it would be weird regardless and that my being a fixture of the locality meant that people would know the bitter intent behind the thing, no matter how many little sandwiches and cups of tea and taoscáin I attached to it. There was more than my own reputation at stake, and enough people thought that we were awful lunatics here.

I admitted that this was true.

The undertaker would of course have been a man who understood loss anyway, in his line of work, but he had gone up close beside it in his personal life too. He walked me to the front door of the funeral parlour with a puss on him; I should not have used the word “pageantry”, because his wife of near 25 years had run off with a member of her am-dram group only the year before. Michelle was her name: the wife and the am-dram woman. There were many jokes told about this turn of events, not least because of the sex of the home wrecker. Gas to be such a poor excuse for a man that you could be replaced by a woman. And it wasn’t clever in the first place to allow one’s wife to get involved in am-dram groups, because it led to notions like flowing tunics and quinoa. In a sense the undertaker had brought it on himself. He spent too much time with the dead and couldn’t second guess the living, which was a vital skill for married men.

At the front door of the funeral parlour the undertaker asked about my sons, how the exams were looking, how training was going, and then what they thought of all of this, expecting, perhaps, that I would bow my head and say I hadn’t told the boys my plans, but I had discussed the matter with them and while I didn’t have their support I certainly had their attention. The undertaker said, dourly, that he knew where I was coming from. He did. But it wasn’t smart to feed this kind of whim, this self-indulgence, because I’d only end up having a breakdown, the kind where I’d be found wandering Aldi in pyjama bottoms, weeping, removing middle-aisle thingymabobs from their packaging and making proclamations about their design or use. This was a very specific prediction, so I wondered from which real catastrophe reported to him he’d pulled it.

One that annoyed me; you could say I was not in the mood for undemonstrative men

I didn’t get involved in the joke-telling about the two Michelles because I was a decent person. It was incumbent on me to be decent because I felt the need to prove myself worthy of love, because my father did not want to know me and had never wanted to know me.

As we stood there, myself and the undertaker, amicably at odds, a man in blue canvas trousers came along the street. I did not recognise him, but as the undertaker nodded at him I nodded too, and the man bowed his head slightly, opened his mouth slightly, made a noise that was more an exhalation than a sentence or even a word, not an unusual tic around here but still one that annoyed me; you could say I was not in the mood for undemonstrative men.

The undertaker waited ’till the man in the blue canvas trousers was out of earshot, watching him closely, then he told me that the man was Polish, that he had been in Ireland now for 18 years, had come only for the duration of one contracted project and found himself dug in with earth shovelled over his head. How such a thing happens, the undertaker did not know. Perhaps what seems like a practical solution, unloved, taken for granted, gets its revenge in quickly becoming habit. Perhaps being creatures of habit, we shouldn’t assume time to be a force that exerts no pressure on us worse than ageing. Perhaps this is how people end up addicted to terrible drugs, or morbidly fat.

The undertaker looked at me strangely. I murmured some agreement.

The undertaker said that the man had returned to Poland for Christmas a couple of years back. He had sat at his parents’ table and tried to explain to them a Dáil controversy about media leaks and pensions. His mother interrupted him: Son, you are speaking in English, we can’t understand you. The man from Poland realised two things: one, he ranted in English, and as ranting was such a personal mode of expression, so close to the bone; two, he was now more Irish than Polish and he could never go home again. This made him forlorn and bitter. He started drinking heavily. Do you see, the undertaker asked me, what damage it does to overthink things only allegedly lost? The man from Poland was convinced he wasn’t Polish anymore, and because he would never be Irish, he was therefore nothing and belonging to no one . . . Do you see? Drinks like a fish, said the undertaker, he’s intent on it killing him. And he’ll always be Polish, it’s on his passport, it’s there in the muscle of his tongue, English notwithstanding. Same as us, he said, they could never kill off our Gaeilge, not for want of trying, either. I did not ask who “they” were. I did not know, and yet I knew. There was always a mass of Them, against whom we were defined.

The undertaker began pointing at premises and passersby. The insurance broker’s; the old dear hadn’t been right in the head since a falling out, decades ago via telephone, with a sister in Bolton, about what neither could probably tell you anymore, having grown doddery and it didn’t matter anyway, did it? It had barely mattered at the time. The old dear had been writing angry letters to newspaper editors about anything and everything since, two or three a week, the undertaker had heard, she’d even been cautioned by the sergeant. And would I consider, in the Mazda at the pelican crossing, the man who had once played rugby for Ireland? Having never been the star of the team, he listened too readily to himself in darker moments. His prestige was gone, his accomplishments meant nothing, what sacrifices he had made were shrugged at. The crackawly poet, standing at her front window in the terrace across the way, had once been an academic. Having drink taken one night she confessed that it had all gone wrong when she’d mislaid a thesis, back when you’d have the one copy. Separated from her life’s work but somehow not keen on reassembling it, she could find only minor solace in the written word, which is why she stuck to short poems these days, she’d in fact deteriorated to dirty limericks as far as the undertaker knew.

He frowned desperately at me. People who wallowed in loss or were convinced of isolation were a danger unto themselves and others, he said. And he was in the business of making people let go, dragging open their clenched fists: would I not take his expertise when he was offering it to me?

It was because one crowd were Fianna Fáil and the other Fine Gael, meaning it went back to the Civil War

Take, for example (at this point he had gone a little green), the families of this town who did not get along and did not know why they didn’t get along. In some cases, he knew, it was because one crowd were Fianna Fáil and the other Fine Gael, meaning it went back to the Civil War. This fecking place, he said, and wiped his mouth. This fecking place was full of people who’d been separated from things they loved, and who wouldn’t accept it as the way of things, who kept on tossing crumbs to their trauma, keeping it alive.

I asked him how Michelle was getting on.

He was immediately and embarrassingly anguished.

I asked him if he thought I had never met my father, if he assumed I wanted to hold this ritual for a concept, for some ideal I felt had been denied to me.

He didn’t answer, but looked away, eyes watering.

I told him I had met my father. I said I had tracked him down recently. I said he was from the North, did the undertaker know that?

That’s more of it, the undertaker said.

My father was from the North, I told him. Or is from the North, but the tense really doesn’t matter. He has a common name, so there had to be a few prongs to the googling, but eventually I found him. I drove up through Monaghan and into Armagh. I had no expectations. It might have been mere nosiness that pulled me up there, or a pragmatic need to find out the medical peculiarities of my paternal heritage, or maybe to let him know he had grandsons, because I was so proud of my own two, and stunned that you could have children and not be proud, that you could have procreated and just not care.

I had had shame, up to that point. I was easy to embarrass and quick to hide my vulnerabilities. Visiting my father knocked it out of me, has made me brazen as a nun. I told him who I was. Well! he said (the spanner). He expected assurances immediately. That I wasn't there for retribution, or on behalf of my mother, that I didn't have debts I wanted his help with. "I just thought," I said, and then didn't finish, just sighed, and he didn't ask me to clarify, but sat there looking at me as if I just thought was something women naturally did, sat around just thinking and on the propulsion of that thinking driving hundreds of miles to regard their ugly, elbows-out, quarehawk fathers for the first, or I suppose second time. He muttered that he'd come to see me once, just after I'd been born. I don't know what happened that it was just the once, he would not tell me. Maybe I was an ugly baby, taking after him.

Times were different, he said. No Good Friday Agreement then, he couldn’t just head off into the Republic for a jaunt. I pointed out that this was interesting. What was he doing in the Republic at all, so? Oh, he could head over the Border for a jaunt when his balls were at him, all right. We were two countries when it was convenient to be. What do you want from me? he asked, more sullenly than he should have, and him pushing for the pension.

My father told me then that we were all mad in my mother’s county, full of notions, that we asked only as a precursor to taking.

I looked again at the undertaker, near juddering beside me. Beyond him were only bits of a town. Houses cut into segments by passing cars, the undertaker’s hunched shoulders, the angle at which I held my own body. Rooftops without logical demarcation. Even the footpaths were uneven, as if laid by three different county councils. I counted more passersby and they might all have been from different decades. I wondered whether there was a collective noun for undertakers and if not, what it should be. A bereavement. A bureaucracy. A procession, that would be the most apt, if not the most imaginative. Like the one I saw from my father’s front window.

A father is no longer the head of a household, said the undertaker, and so there is no need for you to act like your head’s been cut off. Long enough you did without him.

I remembered how I stood in my father's sitting room and looked out through the net curtains

Your Michelle, I said to him, or the other Michelle, I don’t mind who you update me on, Robert. If you won’t bury my father for me I’ll keep on asking you, till you remember you’re as cracked as the rest of us.

As I waited for him to reply, I remembered how I stood in my father’s sitting room and looked out through the net curtains on his window.

On the street outside had passed a funeral. The hearse, festooned with plastic flowers, the procession behind, the family in black, the friends and neighbours in navy trousers and long coats. I couldn’t hear them but I knew them to be murmuring and stamping. I knew them to be impatient for the end. I thought about how many such goodbyes were said daily all over the country, the one or two countries. How it was such a privilege to get even that much out of the supposed order of things, and also how it does no good to go around saying that, to tell the grieving that they should be damn glad of the grief.

  • Lisa McInerney is the author of the novels The Glorious Heresies, The Blood Miracles and The Rules of Revelation, and has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the RSL Encore Award.