THE COFFIN scraped the sides of the neatly carved hole as the undertakers in their morning suits and frozen faces lowered it down. Some dirt and stones dislodged and landed callously on the pure oak and brass lid. Michael’s mother, stoic to that point, let out a forlorn wail as her legs gave way. His father and sister Angela held on to her to prevent her from falling while Michael forced himself to stare straight ahead not trusting himself to look down. Instead, he focused on the gravedigger off at a respectable but impatient distance. He was leaning on his shovel, anxious to complete the task before the rain turned everything to heavy mud.
The chapel bell started on its 11 mournful dongs challenging the young priest to raise his voice as he proclaimed the prayers. Michael knew the sweet Latin rhythms by heart from his years as an altar boy. “Réquiem aeternam dona ei, Dómine. Et lux perpétua lúceat ei.” Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon him.
Beside the priest was Kieran Caffery the altar boy who inherited Michael’s surplice when he retired from the role. Michael recalled being excited to get called out to serve Mass for funerals during his own day. There was always a shilling or two to be made from grieving relatives. The priest nudged the boy to hand over the thurible so he could wave the incense over the coffin as he intoned the final prayer “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Inside the box was Collin, Michael’s twin. After 16 years as half of a set of twins, Michael felt gutted. The two identical blond boys with bright blue eyes and tall physiques had stood out in the town of 15,000 souls. And then Consumption, or tuberculosis as it was now known, came calling for Collin. The sight of his brother shrinking daily in the sanitarium had robbed Michael of appetite and sleep so at graveside he wore a deathly pallor of his own. He let his gaze float over the mourners and made eye contact with a few. They nodded self-consciously at him but he held their gazes cynically, but without expression. He looked at everyone in turn and wondered why they deserved to be healthy and alive while Collin was cramped up in that box. Why did he deserve it himself?
Crowded between the gravestones were dozens of relatives and friends, many in uniform. A few years back, for people in Northern Ireland the war was something to read about in The Irish News or hear about on BBC Radio. But 1941 had brought the German blitz to Belfast, killing hundreds and destroying over half of the houses in just two nights of bombing. People had to move out of the city and stay with relatives in towns like Bridgeport. Now in mid-1942, factories for parachutes, ships. and bullets were being built or expanded. British uniforms were everywhere, some with local accents but most from across the water. Now the Yanks were starting to arrive with their loud voices and strange smelling cigarettes. Out of the side of his eye Michael spied Sam Cohen, the Jewish refugee boy from Collin’s ward in the sanitarium. Standing off by himself he appeared frail as he coughed quietly into a handkerchief. He seemed nervous. Michael wondered if it was Sam’s own mortality that made him so, or did he sense how much of an outsider a Jew was in this town. He was 17, tall like Michael but with swarthy skin that stood out in an otherwise pale population.
“Sorry for your troubles, Mike,” everyone whispered the same thing in his ear. They sounded like they were at the end of a tunnel. He could hear them but their words couldn’t penetrate. Collin was in his other ear, like he always had been. Michael gave a tight smile, nodded, and continued to stare straight ahead.
After the priest finished the prayers and respects were paid, everyone traipsed back to the parochial hall. It rained the night before so muddy shoes needed to be scraped before entering. His mother’s friends at the Catholic Women’s League had prepared some modest refreshments. Mugs of hot tea were soon being clasped in cold hands and the ham and egg sandwiches were a welcome relief with the daily constraints of ration cards. Clusters of friends formed a protective cocoon around each of the family. Michael’s friends tried to distract him with jokes and gossip about mutual friends as well as teasing each other. Mostly he laughed mechanically, but a few times someone said something really funny or crazy and he forgot himself and laughed heartily before he could catch himself. Now and then he glanced out the window and saw the gravedigger labouring hard to fill in the grave. Michael wished it was over so he could be alone again.
When it was opening time for the pubs, the men started to drift away and there came more of the handshakes and sad expressions and the “Sorry for your troubles, son.” A few made personal remarks about Collin — how smart he was or how the hurling team would never be the same — but mostly they kept it generic, which was best for everyone. Michael didn’t need to be reminded of any of Collin’s traits; they were imprinted on his soul, or their shared soul. Brian, their best friend, tried to coax him to go to McKeevers, the local pub for a pint or a glass of whisky. Strictly speaking they were under age, but with a war going on and a death in the family, rules would be even more lax than normal. He shook off the invitation saying something about staying with his ma for a while.
As everyone headed home Michael fell behind and took the road out of town in the direction of the quarry. Neighbours he passed nodded and murmured some wordless sounds of sympathy. Even the Protestants, who wouldn’t normally wish you the time of day, gave him a sympathetic smile. More than once he heard, “Oh there’s that poor twin,” as they passed him. Would his nickname still be Twin, he wondered?
When the road narrowed at the outside of town, he glanced behind him, saw no one and then ducked off the main road under a thick tree branch where he found the path. With Collin fading, they had not been able to come here in weeks so it was already overgrown. It was also muddy from the rain and wet branches flicked against his face as he approached the rock. It had been his and Collin’s secret place for years. It was where they would come and talk or light a fire and roast potatoes smuggled from home until the skin was black and the inside deliciously soft. No one knew of their place and they had cut their fingers and sworn a blood oath like they saw in the films, never to tell anyone about it. Like everything else, it made no sense anymore without Collin.
Michael stepped onto the rock and surveyed the quarry stretching into the distance. They said it was over a hundred feet deep. Hearing voices below him, he grabbed hold of a branch and peered over the edge. He saw workmen with picks and shovels breaking up the rock into smaller pieces and shovelling it onto horse-drawn carts. With petrol scarce due to war rations many a horse had been pulled out of retirement or saved from a trip to the glue factory. Every day, people in town could hear the muffled explosions as the workers blasted deeper into the ground. Today it seemed they were processing all the dislodged rock.
Hanging onto the branch with only one hand, he leaned out farther so he could look straight down. Normally his stomach would drop when he did this. Collin knew about his fear of heights and would pretend to push him over the ledge. Today he was empty of feelings; he was numb, not scared at all. He still had not decided to jump, but the thought would not go away. Was it really a sin? Would it hurt more than living without his brother? What would Collin have done if the situation were reversed? He had wanted to ask Collin that, but he had gotten very sick so quickly, Michael never had an opportunity. Why had he given up like that? He just didn’t seem to care in the end. He seemed almost relieved in a way.
A sudden harsh wet coughing fit from the path startled him and he lost his footing and swung out over the quarry face, somehow managing to get his other hand on to the branch. Sam emerged from the brush wiping his mouth and saw Michael hanging petrified in midair. He bounded up on to the rock, grabbed Michael by the belt and hauled him to the safety of the rock.
“What the hell are you doing here, Cohen?” Michael snapped when he had recovered and was breathing normally. Sam was on his hands and knees breathing hard, each breath a grating wheeze. It took several seconds before he could raise his head to glare at Michael.
“You’re welcome, Nebbish,” Sam whispered.
“What did you say?” Michael was often unsure if Sam was mashing up English words or using an entirely different language. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Like I said, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back in hospital with the other invalids?” his sheepish tone was at odds with the meanness of the words.
Eventually Sam got to his feet. “Collin said you might come here. Said it’s a special place for the two of you.”
“Supposed to be a secret just between the two of us.”
There was a silence. Sam stepped onto the rock and stared down into the pit. “Think you can fly Michael?” he said without turning around, his German accent still strong after four years in the country. “I hear you Christians get wings when you go to heaven.” He paused and looked over again. “Hmm, might be too late. That’s a long way down there. I think you bounce off rocks before you hit bottom. Messy!” He rocked his head from side to side to mimic the bouncing object and ended with a revolted expression.
“What’s that rubbish you’re talking? I’m not jumping off anywhere.” Michael was back on his feet.
Sam shrugged. “That’s good to hear, Michael. Collin was not so sure. Thought you might. He asked me to check on you.”
Michael’s face contorted into an expression of surprise.
“Really? He asked you to check up on me?” Michael’s eyebrows revealed his disbelief at this claim. “You’re the invalid Cohen. I think you should get back to the hospital before you get any worse.”
“Ja, I go. I just have to give you this.” He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a beaten up notebook, the size of a pack of Woodbine cigarettes. He tossed it to Michael who had to react quickly to prevent it going over his head and into the quarry. He started flipping through the pages with writing on it.
“What the . . . ? What is this?”
“It’s dream book. I have one too. We started it months ago when first we meet. It was the nurse’s idea. She told us ‘Write down everything you are going to do when you are cured and get out of here.’ We know it is trick, but we play along. Who knows, we might get out.”
Michael flipped through pages and pages, each filled with dozens of lines of Collin’s neat script. Occasionally he stopped to read something aloud.
“Swim in the ocean. . . Get a racing bike and ride up to Belfast and back.”
He flipped a page and laughed. “Get a girl to let me touch her DOWN THERE.”
They both laughed.
“He tried to get Nurse Annette to help him with that one, but she smack his face instead.”
There were pages and pages of notes. It was alternately sad and hilarious, petty and profound.
He read on.
“Fly in an airplane. Visit America.” Michael turned to Sam, with his eyes bright and wet. “How did you get this?”
“He gave it to me last Friday. He realize he not going to make it, I think. He tell me, ‘Give to Mick when time right.’”
Only Collin called him Mick and that familiarity brought tears streaming down Michael’s cheeks.
“And you think the time is right? Now? Just after his funeral?”
Sam looked over toward the branch Michael had been hanging on to just a few minutes earlier. “Who know when time is right for anything? I think, better too early than too late, Ja? You decide. Maybe go to the last entry.” He pointed down at the book.
Michael flipped to the last page that had writing on it. He wiped the tears from his face with the sleeve of his overcoat. He looked up at Sam and read aloud: “Get Mick to take over and do the ones that I never got to do myself.”
Sam walked over and put his arm around him.
“I think you have some living to do first before you come back here, Micky boy. Kommen, we leave this place now.”
They went back to McKeevers pub and got two pints of black and creamy stout. It took a while but Michael eventually forced down the cool bitter drink. He wiped some foam off his lip and asked the bartender for a pencil. He pulled out the notebook then traced a thick mark through one line that said, “Drink a pint of Guinness.”
Sam raised his glass and smiled. “Might as well do the easy ones first, right?”
Michael did not hear him. He had circled one of the items and was staring off into the distance with a faint smile on his face.