Saturday, June 09, 2007

Marching with the Saints

Mags pulled at her breakfast gasper. 'I'd like a jazz band.'

That stopped me mid-way through a crunch of cornflakes. Mags hadn't shown any interest in music since our courting dances at the parish marquee. And the bands which had played us into eventual matrimony had been more Jim Reeves than jazz.

'D'you mean a record?' I asked when I'd managed to move the cornflakes on.

She sucked on the fag again, pinching her cheeks into shadows. Her dressing-gown was old and speckled with little balls, and she hadn't put on any make-up. But after nearly thirty years everyone's entitled to be comfortable, and besides, I was no Cary Grant to have to stay beautiful for.

She shook her head, tossing a curler into free-fall. 'No. Not a record, a real band,' she said.

'You want to buy a band?.'

'I don't want to buy one, dopus. I want one to play me down.'

She yawned and stretched and the dressing gown slipped a bit to reveal nothing much. God, I loved her.

'I want a jazz band to lead me like in that film last night.'

I understood then. It was the James Bond film where some New Orleans corpse was getting the local send-off and they had danced in front of the funeral, clapping hands and laughing and singing. There'd been trumpets and stuff, too.

'Oh yeah, sure.' I spooned more cornflakes. 'They don't do that here. It's probably sacrilegious or something.'

'It shows they're proud of their dead, though, doesn't it?'

She didn't mention it again.


A year later the gaspers finally got her, but thankfully it was a quick cancer. And I remembered the conversation the day I went to see the undertaker. Mags had stayed with me for thirty years, and I was proud of her.


'I've never, well, done that before.'

Curran the undertaker had whiskey veins spotting his cheeks like little burgundy birthmarks. His eyeballs wandered uneasily around my request, then came together for one short moment of brightness.

'I've hired a singer before. A good local girl. She's cheap, too-'

I shook my head. 'A jazz band, Mr Curran. That's what she said.'

He sighed, then took a blank In Memoriam card from a pile on his desk and scribbled a note. 'Leave it with me, Mr Hennessy. I'll ask around. Somebody will know one, I'm sure.'

His tone wasn't hopeful. I didn't know whether it was because he was afraid someone wouldn't know, or because they would.


'That is a monstrous and profane thought!'

I found that the Canon was negative about music. I heard afterwards that he had personally cleared the altar with an ashplant when one of his curates organised a Folk Mass without telling him. His jowls bounced when I told him what I wanted for Mags's funeral.

'A proper Catholic funeral is what she'll get from this church. There'll be no sinful music here.'

As a couple we hadn't been much into religion. We didn't really need this.

'You can stuff your Catholic funeral then, Canon,' I said pleasantly, rising from my chair and holding out my hand. 'I'm sorry I took up your time.'

He sat there as if I'd slapped him. I don't think he even saw my hand, so I dropped it and left.

Nobody would notice if Mags didn't have a church funeral. Neither of us had any family left, and nobody else really knew Mags. She wasn't a joiner of groups, and because we had no kids she'd not gotten involved in the usual social life of mothers. Girl friends from her early years had disappeared, and she'd retreated quite happily into interests fed mostly by romantic novels and the television. The town we lived in had been big enough for blow-ins like ourselves to maintain our anonymity.

It sounds as if we were dull and colourless and that was true. I still am. Working in the civil service at a level of no responsibility makes it very easy and very comfortable to be that way. But Mags had wished for one bit of colour, just one.


She was at peace, unlike sometimes during the last weeks when the pain-killers hadn't always worked. But the yellow pallor of liver failure was still there, now mixed with the greys and purples of a skin that no longer held the fluids of life. She looked like she really needed a last fag.

I touched her cheek, then turned and nodded to the undertaker waiting quietly by the door, the coffin lid propped against the wall beside him. 'You can close it now.'

He'd made no comment when I'd told him that there'd be no trip to the church, no service, just an overnight in his funeral parlour and then direct to the graveyard the following morning. But he'd managed to get a promise of music.

'A trumpeter from the army band. He'll be here at eleven. He said he'd try and get a couple of his friends to come.'

There were five other people in the room, four of them men hired by Curran to carry the coffin. I'd asked him not to use a hearse, because they hadn't in the film. The other person was a woman I didn't know, but her face was strained as if she'd been crying most of the night. Her lips spoke silently as a rosary shuffled through her fingers. Mags was getting some prayers anyway.

'She comes to every funeral, even people she doesn't know,' Curran said when I asked, in case she was one of Mags's disappeared friends. 'They're kind of an outing for her.'

The door opened and a little man came in quietly, carrying a small case. Going by his size, he must have sneaked in under the army recruiting officer's door, but he did have the bearing which everybody gets from a stint in the military. He snapped a half-salute when Curran brought him over.

'McAuley, sur. Joseph, Corporal. I'm sorry, sur. About your missus.'.

'Thanks. You do play jazz?'

'Yes, sur. I jam in a club at weekends. There's four of us, the Creole Three.'

'Are the others coming?'

'Don't know, sur. I left word for' em.' He fiddled with his case and took out the most polished brass trumpet I'd ever seen. 'Anyways, I can give it a good blast meself. Did you want anything special?'

I shrugged. 'I don't know anything special, McAuley. Whatever you think yourself But make it happy.'

He caressed the trumpet. 'The missus, sur - did she like jazz?'

'I don't know.'

He gave his half-salute. 'I'll wait outside, sur.'


Curran opened the double doors and nodded to the pall-bearers, all of them dressed in identical navy suits, all as shabby as his.

'OK lads,' one murmured. 'On 'three', lift. One, two, three - hup!' and Mags's coffin was hoisted on four strong shoulders. The undertaker took a last look around, then led the way out.

The four men found their pace fluidly and marched slowly after him. I followed, and the woman came out behind me.

I hadn't bothered with death notices and there was only McAuley outside. His friends hadn't turned up, but he was now garbed in a bright green jacket with matching bow-tie, and had put on a straw boater. Curran winced only once before he recovered his professional solemnity.

McAuley lifted his trumpet and raised an eyebrow at me. I nodded, and he moved ahead of the undertaker as we turned into the main street of the town.

It was a quiet Tuesday morning with hardly anyone around, but a couple of women turned from their conversation on the footpath. A coffin being carried throug.h the street was unusual - one being preceded by a funny little man in a green outfit was a gossip-stopper.

A child with them also looked at us, obviously bored with having to hang around grown-ups' chatter. She went back to playing with her doll.

McAuley put his instrument to his lips, filled his cheeks with air, and blew. The note was as clear as the sky into which it soared, shaking two blackbirds from their complacent perches on the roof of Hynes hardware shop. For about four paces he held the tone straight and beatless, then slipped into a melody that pattered along the shop-fronts.

The child let her doll dangle and smiled. Funerals might be fun. The two women gawped.

Shop doorways began to fill. Old Jack Hynes walked out through his, looked on for a few moments, then his teeth came smiling our from under his whiskers.

At Dowling's coffee-shop two teenaged lads and a waitress came out, their feet tapping. Up front, the little trumpeter was skipping to his own beat, and I wondered how long Curran and his men would hold their gravitas.

A car passed, then scrabbled to a stop up the street. Two men jumped out, one with a saxophone, the other carrying a banjo. Both wore similar outfits to McAuley's, and as they waited for our procession they donned straw hats of their own.

The trumpeter opened a new tune in greeting. The deep tones of the saxophone answered a counterpoint and the banjo plucked into a tonky harmony. The merging of the musicians finally broke the discipline of the pall-bearers and the coffin began to sway as their shoulders and feet took up the beat. My own fingers were quietly snapping.

I turned at a new sound behind me to see that the woman who liked mourning outings was clapping quietly and had a definite dance in her step. The little girl was skipping beside her. She smiled and I smiled back, and behind her old Jack Hynes led a rank of people who had left whatever business they'd been conducting as we passed the main street shops. Several heads nodded to the rhythm of the music. There were probably more people with us than Mags had met in the last thirty years.

We turned into Church Lane. Ten o'clock mass was just over and some of the worshippers were standing on the steps of the church, among them the Canon. McAuley and his lads had decent instincts, and eased the music to a simple and low melodic beat as we came abreast.

The Canon tapped a man on the shoulder and whispered something, and a few moments afterwards a bell began to toll funeral peals. Its rhythm was death, but by the time we got to the graveyard beyond the church our living band had well outdone the bellsound. When I looked back again I saw faces from the church steps. Everybody looked happy.

There was a young priest inside the graveyard gate, which surprised me. 'Joe Harris,' he said, smiling and holding out a hand. 'I'm the local curate. I heard about your problem with the Canon; I hope you don't mind my coming along?'

I shook my head and his hand. 'No, Father. You're very welcome. Everyone is. I hope you don't mind the music?'

'I love it,' he said, and he walked beside me as Curran's pallbearers shimmied along the narrow path to the graveside. There we found the fourth member of the Creole Three, his drums set up on a convenient plinth. He added a gentle contribution as McAuley and the others switched to a quieter number while the funeral party encircled the grave.

Curran directed the pall-bearers to lay the coffin on a green mat beside the opening, and when they'd done so all five stepped back discreetly.

'Shall I?' the young priest asked.

I shrugged and nodded, and as he stepped forward McAuley stopped the music.

He looked at the coffin, then at the crowd. 'It's an unusual occasion, my friends, so I won't say the usual prayers,' he said. 'I think we've all been praying for Mrs Hennessy in a special way for the last little while.' He smiled. 'I didn't know her at all, I have to say. And I kind of think many of you here didn't either. But I'm sure now that none of us will ever forget her.' Then he blessed the coffin.

'Amen,' came the response from half a hundred throats. The pall-bearers stepped forward, ran the webs under the box and began to lower it into the grave.

The drummer hammered a roll on his snare-drum and added a bass rhythm as Mags went down, and when the coffin reached the bottom he skillfully wove other tones into the pattern.

Curran and one of his men lifted a board to cover the opening. I stopped them. 'No. Fill it in now.' He was surprised but signalled to two gravediggers who had been standing outside the proceedings. On his instruction they began shovelling.

The first clatter of gravel on timber was outsounded by a long flourish of cymbals. Then McAuley's trumpet joined the poem of tones, leading the saxophone and the banjo to the heavens in a rendition of the first piece in their whole performance which I knew.

'Oh when the saints, go marching in ...' I whispered under the melody, and finally let my tears go when everybody in the graveyard took up the beat and clapped as Mags danced home.

[This story was published in 1993 under my pseudonym of William Trapman, as part of a collection 'Mariseo's House & Other Stories'. ©1993 Brian Byrne.]


Daragh said...

I remember this story well, and it's funny and sad to have a real life situation to compare it with...

Chet said...

Just found this, read it and have tears in my eyes from it. Beautiful, Brian. Love it.

Emer (fr writing group) said...

this is a beautiful story Brian, i wish you'd put up some more.

Chantal said...

Great work.