A Season for Every Activity
The thing about Colm’s mother was that she could see inside people’s living rooms. Even if she had never been in the person’s house.
All she’d have to do is hold someone’s hand and it would come to her. All of the colours and all at once. All at once the picture frames and the ornaments and the television. All at once the carpet and the sofa and the curtains.
She called it her ‘gawp’.
I did my gawp on that woman who just moved to the estate, you should see the dust on her sideboard…
an inch thick at least…
it does nobody any good to live in filth.
Colm’s mother had always been matter of fact about her gawp, as well as about the gawp’s occasional limitations. About the ways it worked and the ways it sometimes failed her.
you know it doesn’t work if they hug me, it only works with hands…
and it has to be palm to palm as well…
if you only pat the back of my hand then I’m as blind as the rest of you…
There was a particular issue with her gawp as it related to animals. Something which had been especially disappointing to Colm when he went through his childhood stage of being desperate for a pet.
Over the years he had slowly downgraded his ask from a dog to a rabbit before eventually getting his way via a goldfish that hadn’t managed to see out a month. He’d hoped his mother could at least tell him about the neighbour’s pets as compensation. But it was not to be.
I’ve told you a hundred times, Colm, it doesn’t work with animals…
I can see people and photos of people and paintings of people and even ornaments that are shaped like people…
but there is nothing bloody doing when it comes to animals.
Colm thinks of this, of her, as the train begins to slow. He turns her over like a dry leaf. With every twist and every inspection, he risks a break, a crack in the margins, in his outline of her. She is three weeks gone and things are getting brittle already.
Colm lets the window of the train vibrate against his skull. If he gets the distance right it hurts just enough to distract him from the day ahead. His plan for the day is to be useful. When he doesn’t know what to do, he will have a look around and ask himself what might be useful. That’s his plan. Stack a chair, clear a plate. Be useful.
He’s been doing it for weeks, keeping busy to block her out. If he keeps busy it quiets her. Stops her breaking in. He has found that if he is still for too long, he starts to hear her. She is always almost laughing. Too much, that. Too much for now.
ah, and you might ask Colm, what if I see a picture of a person WITH an animal…?
well, you can use your brain on this one. In that case, I just see an empty space where the animal is supposed to be and then take my best guess…
I’ve got pretty good at it, if the person is floating then it’s usually a horse, and if there is a lead or a collar then things get simpler still.
Colm steps off the train and into the flow of the city, into the shuffling and the sighing and the speed. Past stops for buses he will never catch again, past a remembrance garden for a war he knows nothing about. There are three old lads on the bench near its entrance, relaying a bottle between them, all of them in hats but only two of them in shoes.
Colm wonders if they fought in the war he knows nothing about. One of them nods to Colm as he passes. Colm thinks it must have been his mourning suit that drew his eye. Old lads know how to mourn.
Colm has a few hours to kill before the funeral officially starts, but wants to make sure the church is still where he remembers it. He can’t risk being late. He has got less confident with the city over the years, fewer reasons to return, and more changes every time.
Not yet forty but already starting to feel like things are moving too fast for him to keep up. The buildings in the centre all seem to be made of that blue-green glass now, like those expensive bottles of coke that people always say taste better. Colm had never been able to tell the difference. And he preferred cans anyway, they always seemed colder.
Colm thinks he never used to be nervous like this. As though his factory settings were wrong, as though he is always a beat behind. He is sure he used to move through this city quick and light and easy. The way insects move through rain, all instinct, never letting a drop hit their wings or slow them down.
that’s the thing about the rain, Colm, it’s just the clouds giving up and falling apart for a few minutes…
no need to let it get you down, son, clouds need their rest too.
The church is right where Colm remembers it, looking smaller now against the office blocks, but otherwise just like the picture he had been holding in his head all these years. There are a few foil balloons floating half-heartedly against the brick. Colm wonders whether birthday parties are allowed in churches but then he remembers that christenings and weddings sometimes have balloons too.
He notices there is scaffold jutting out from underneath the church roof. Hanging in the air like a bone that has finally broken through the skin. Colm thinks he must be imagining things, getting things mixed up, but he could swear that there was always scaffolding. He tries, and then tries again, but he can’t summon an image of the church without it.
don’t moan about brushing your teeth, Colm, teeth are basically bones…
imagine if I made you take out every one of your bones before school and clean them with a little brush…
then you’d really have something to moan about.
Colm wonders what is wrong with the church, why the scaffold never leaves. Or maybe it’s more than just the church, he thinks. Maybe we have all just given up on finishing things. Maybe things don’t end any more. Maybe that’s why the sky is always full of cranes, and buildings are always being restored and then renovated, back and forth on an endless loop.
He wonders how old the church is. Three or four hundred years at least. It makes him dizzy to imagine all the people who must have spent their entire life building it, shaving the stone and painting the glass. All those people who must have thought it was worth it, that it was a reasonable way to spend a life, making somewhere for people to sing and sit, somewhere for people to think about what they want and what they have lost.
There is a statue too, in the church courtyard, watching over the whole thing. Colm doesn’t remember it being there. It isn’t part of his mental picture in the way the scaffold is. He thinks the statue looks tired. Maybe it might just give up the ghost and start breathing, stretch out its stone arms. Colm thinks it must take a lot of effort to stay still for three hundred years.
this is the only piece of life advice I will ever give you Colm…
pick the thing you hate most and spend your life hitting it with a hammer…
you can’t make good things happen, they just appear in the space where the bad things were.
The nearest pub is just across the road from the church. The Trident. Colm takes a seat on a stool near the window, thinking that he can kill a couple of hours in here and watch people as they go into the service. He feels the anxiety of knowing he is likely to see familiar faces that are somehow no longer familiar.
Colm takes a big gulp of his cheap, cold, fizzy lager. He thinks that if people could be honest for more than ten seconds at a time, they would accept cold, cheap, fizzy lager as the best type of lager. He thinks expensive lager tastes like licking dirty wood. The first goes down easily. And the second goes down easier still.
this too shall pass, that’s what they say, and it’s true enough Colm… but what they don’t tell you is that it applies to everything…
the good things pass too.
Third. Fourth. Colm takes out his phone and dials Sarah’s number. Normally he is sure she won’t pick up, it has been years since she owed him anything other than anger. But she knows today is the funeral, so Colm hopes she will grant him the company. And when she does, when she picks up, Colm talks.
Colm talks about how even before things got bad, they were always the type of family who kept the dead close. He tells her that everyone believed in ghosts, not just his mother. He tells her that people were always spending Saturday nights seeing mediums and psychics in the back room of pubs and that people were always telling you that if you didn’t put your coat on that you’d catch a death.
Colm if you can smell the drink, then the drink isn’t the problem…
when the drink is really bad it doesn’t have a smell, it comes off people like gas, pushing through their skin…
like an animal that’s eaten something its stomach can’t take.
Colm watches from his window seat as people gradually make their way into the church. There are only a handful so far, but already he feels like everyone he has ever known is there, on the other side of the glass.
And maybe more than that. He starts to get the sense that every face he has ever seen is there too, every face that has ever passed him in the street. More. Every face that has ever lived has been captured in the faces of the twenty people that are milling around the church half an hour ahead of time.
It is only a few minutes before the service is due to start and Colm can feel that he is focusing on all the wrong things. He orders another. He watches through the window and thinks that people’s funeral clothes all seem either too big or too small. A sea of top buttons that won’t quite fasten, jackets billowing around the stomach, and some with no jackets at all, making do with dark winter coats over their shirt and tie.
if I’m not there and you can’t sleep, just think about all that blood you have
and how it swims around your body, keeping you alive…
your blood loves you, son. You’ll never have a better friend than your own blood.
Colm thinks that it would be unforgivable to be late to his own mother’s funeral. So he reasons that it is too late for him to go bursting in now. And that it isn’t his fault anyway. He was here in good time, but the day just ran away from him. That’s what days do.
He wonders how long the service will last. Whether there will be singing, and if so, whether he will be able to hear any of it from where he is sitting. He’d like that.
Colm thinks it will be just as good to watch things from here. There’s no other option now, so he might as well make the best of it. He will spend the time looking at the church. At the bricks and the windows and the doors. That all look just the way he remembers them.
and if you still can’t sleep, play the colour game I taught you…
if you think about it for long enough, your brain can make whole new colours…
imagine that Colm, a blue or a red that nobody else in the world has ever seen.
Keiran Goddard grew up in Shard End, Birmingham and was educated at the University of Oxford. He is the author of one poetry pamphlet, Strings, and two full-length poetry collections, For The Chorus and Votive. His debut collection was shortlisted for the Melita Hulme Prize and he was the runner-up in the William Blake Prize. He speaks internationally on issues related to social change and currently develops research on workers’ rights, the future of work, automation and trade unionism. Hourglass, published by Little Brown, is his debut novel and has recently been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.
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