by Edith Tarbescu
Ted told his brother he would fly over for the wake. He paid his landlady the next month’s rent on his flat in Queens, New York and flew to Dublin. After renting a car, he drove to Belfast. He reminded himself that Northern Ireland wasn’t home anymore. He would return to the States after the wake and the funeral.
It was nearly dark by the time he arrived at his parents’ house. When he hugged his eldest brother Peter, he caught a whiff of Guinness. Ted’s brother, Dennis, slapped Ted on the back. “You’re looking good, especially for a McCullough.” Ted bent down and kissed his sisters-in-law. But only Peter’s wife, Elaine, kissed him easily on both cheeks. “Good to have you back,” she whispered.
He didn’t respond to her comment, but said instead, “Can we open a window? It’s hot in here.”
“Is it fresh air you’re needing?” asked Sally. “You’ll get plenty of it. We’re expecting colder weather.”
“I bet you’re tired,” said Ryan, eighteen months older than Ted and referred to by their mum as Ted’s Irish twin. “I fixed you something for jet-lag,” Ryan added, ” same as I fix for hangovers.” He laughed as he poked his brother in the side. Ryan’s wife Sally served him cheese and biscuits . “That’s quite a zinger,” said Ted, said, holding up his glass. Irish whiskey was never his first choice, except when he wanted to get drunk. “Puts hair on your chest, even if you’re a woman,” said Ryan, winking at his brother.
“I’ve enough hair,” said Ted. “It’s sleep I need. But first…” He didn’t have a chance to finish. His brother Peter interrupted. .”Would you like to see them laid out?”
“I would,” said Ted, following his brother into the living room.
“Take as long as you want.” Peter silently crossed the room, closing the door behind him.
Ted knelt and crossed himself as he looked at the two caskets side by side. The curtains were closed. Only a little daylight shone through. Both of them at the same time. How could that happen? “Truly a nightmare,” he whispered.
He touched his father’s hand. “It’s me, Dad. Sorry I didn’t come back sooner.” As he leaned over his mother’s casket he noticed how waxen her skin looked. But her hair felt as soft as if she were alive. “Mum,” he whispered, “It’s me, Teddy. I’ve come from America.” He continued stroking her curls. She was completely gray now, not dull, but silver. When he was a child, she let him brush her long auburn hair. She’d tell him afterward, “You did a fine job brushing my hair. Come along, help me with my errands, then I’ll be buying you a treat.”
Ted lifted a strand of hair off her forehead. “I love you, Mum. Rest in peace.”
Standing between the two caskets, he shook his head again in disbelief. His father looked as if he were taking a nap. No, not a nap, thought Ted. Not in a satin-lined
coffin. He lingered awhile before taking one last look at his parents then began wrestling with a strange thought: he was an orphan, didn’t matter that he was thirty-five. He left the room and closed the door behind him as if his parents were sleeping and he didn’t want to disturb them.
“Are you okay?” asked Dennis.
“No,” said Ted. “I’m exhausted, emotionally and physically.” One by one, his sisters-in-law stood and hugged him again. “We’ll be leaving soon,” said Elaine. “Will you be needing anything?”
“No. Thank you, anyway.”
“If you’re not comfortable sleeping here, with the bodies, I mean,” said Ryan,
“We’ve plenty of room at our house.”
Ted smiled at his brother, all the while remembering their wrestling matches when they were teenagers. “I appreciate your offer, but I’ll be up during the night, I’m sure and don’t want to wake you with my pacing.”
His brothers gathered the children from the second floor and carried the youngest ones down. After saying goodnight, Ted walked his family to the front door. He wasn’t afraid of ghosts, but he left all the lights on as he trudged upstairs. He didn’t unpack, just fell into bed, naked.
* * * *
The wake lasted three days with two viewings a day, afternoon and evening. Ted circulated around the room and thanked everybody for coming. “So, you’re Teddy,” said a shop-keeper. “We’ve heard all about you, only good things, mind you.” The neighborhood butcher told Ted, “Your mum missed you, but she was proud of you for going to America.” She never told me that, thought Ted, just made me feel guilty for leaving. “You’ll have the rest of the family,” he had told her. “But you’re my favorite,” she whispered.
His brothers chatted up the guests during the wake and stayed busy refilling empty glasses. The room smelled of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. Their wives kept the food coming almost as if on a conveyer belt. They were so quiet going about their business, Ted only realized they were in the room when he got a whiff of perfume.
The days were exhausting, especially since Ted never had a proper night’s rest. The funeral on the fourth day disturbed him even more. As they lowered the bodies into the ground, he had no hand to reach for. Each of his brothers had a wife by his side. Ted stood next to his sister-in-law Elaine and brother, Peter. Elaine, in the middle holding Peter’s hand, brushed her shoulder against Ted, reminding him he wasn’t alone.
The morning after the funeral, the house was quiet and the McCullough family gathered round the dining room table over a pot of tea. The atmosphere was so subdued even the children played quietly, the oldest playing a board game; the younger ones playing with toy trains or dolls. The whiskey smell was gone. The odor of smoke still lingered, along with the smell of dozens of roses.
As Peter rubbed his forehead, Ted noticed that his eldest brother’s hair was still black, but the sides were showing signs of gray. Peter looked across the table and caught Ted’s eye. “I hate to bring this up now, but you’ll be flying back to the States and there’s the matter of the Will.” He pulled a manila envelope out of his briefcase and placed it on the table. “You’ll have to read it or I can read it to you since I’m the Executor.”
“You’re going to be surprised,” said Ryan. “Oh,” yes,” said Dennis. “Very surprised.” Ted looked around the room. As they all watched him, he realized that he was the only single one in his large Catholic family, still their “Teddy.” Between Ted’s three siblings and their wives, there were eight children, ranging in age from still-on-the-nipple to eight years. He had to remind them that he started calling himself Ted after his move to New York.
“Yes soor, you’re going to be surprised,” said Dennis, affecting a County Cork accent.
“How’s New York?” asked Peter. “Met a nice lady to marry? We haven’t had a baby in the family for six months.” He set his cup of tea on the table and winked at his youngest brother.
Ted smiled and pretended to accept the teasing. His life in New York was so different from theirs in South Belfast–occupied as they were with family, church and work. Ted thought of his father who had worked at a distillery, up North in Antrim County, and his mother, saving bits of bread. After his father retired, his parents took their life savings and–to Ted’s surprise–bought a Bed and Breakfast. That was his mum’s idea. She was the more enterprising of the two. The B&B, where the family had gathered for the wake, was on fashionable Lisburn Road. It was filled with boutiques, pubs, and purveyors of beauty, even leg waxing salons–not exactly a necessity in a cool, rainy climate, thought Ted, but a pleasure for private viewings.
By the time his parents bought the B&B, Ted’s brothers were all busy with their families so Ted, a librarian at nearby Queens University, had been enlisted to help scrape and paint the walls of All Seasons Bed and Breakfast.
After weekdays at the library and weekends fixing up the B&B, Ted was convinced he needed a vacation–in America. A visiting professor of English Literature, with whom he had become acquainted at Queens University, invited him to stay with him and his wife in Queens, New York. How appropriate, thought Teddy.
After his two week holiday, he called his parents to say he wasn’t coming back. His mum sounded distraught, but finally wished him well. “And when will you be visiting us?” she asked.
“Soon,” Ted said, but he didn’t keep that promise. After telling his mum the news, Ted sent an e-mail to his boss. “I’ve secured a job managing a book store in New York. I’ll not be returning to Belfast. Sorry to give you such short notice.” He signed the e-mail, “Ted.” He wasn’t going to be Teddy anymore or “Teddy Boy,” which is what his mum called him after a few pints of Guinness. When he was a lad and accompanied her to the greengrocer’s and the fishmonger’s, he pretended he was an only child. But that fantasy faded when his three older brothers arrived home from school every afternoon.
The book store Ted managed was in Greenwich Village. He secured a flat near his colleague, David McGonigle, in Elmhurst. After trading Queens University for Queens, New York, he wanted to meet a lady. He didn’t care what religion she was, preferred she not be religious at all. He was still a believer, but he had grown tired of the rituals and dogma of the Catholic Church, not to mention the recent scandals.
The first thing he did after settling into his one-bedroom flat was buy a computer. He didn’t ship the one from Belfast, didn’t have his books shipped, either. Too expensive.
His flat was in a building next to a pub. It soon became a favorite for dinner. There was even Celtic music for entertainment every Thursday night. He couldn’t get used to calling them bars. After getting settled, he spent time at his computer looking at the Personals. But he never met anybody special. He met Ginny on a blind date set up by a new author-friend from the book store. He had been dating Ginny for six months when he received the call from his brother Peter saying there had been an accident. A fire. All Seasons Bed & Breakfast escaped with minor damage, but their parents died in their sleep. Smoke inhalation.
“Ironic,” said Peter. “An old battery in the fire alarm needed replacing. Can you imagine?” Ted listened to the details of the fire and realized he had to leave for Ireland.. “I’ll book a flight for the funeral.” he said, numbly.
“And the wake?” asked Peter. “They’ll be laid out together. You’ll be here for that, won’t you?”
“That’s a problem,” he answered. “Don’t know if I take that much time off from work.”
“They were your mum and dad. Tell your bloody boss it was your parents who died.” His brother ended the call. Ted immediately rang his brother up. “Of course I’ll be there for the wake.”
Ted had a date with Ginny that weekend. An English teacher at a private school in Manhattan, they shared a love of books, music and theatre. She was four inches shorter than Ted, and he was over 6 feet two inches. He was big-boned and broad shouldered. Ginny was as thin as a birch tree. When he was falling asleep at night. he often thought about her body, so like a ballerina. No tits, but a beautiful arse. Most of all, he loved thinking about their Sunday morning ritual: showers in her flat and him rubbing her back with lavender soap.
She loved showing him different parts of New York, said the only grass she needed was in Central Park. She had grown up in the city. Her full name was Virginia Anne, but he loved calling her “Gin.” He hated hearing American men call women “Babe” which he heard on the telly or at the movies.
.After a while, she began expressing an interest in visiting Ireland –with him as her guide, of course. “I love to travel,” she told him. Her only trait that bothered him was she was reserved. When he told her one night, “I’m happy we met,” she just smiled and nodded. She was part Scottish and part Swedish. Maybe that was the reason, he thought.
“Teddy, are you still with us, or are you orbiting the moon?” Ryan asked, as he passed his brother a plate of biscuits.
“Sorry,” said, Ted. “I can’t seem to shake the jet lag.”
The ringing of the land-line gave him a jolt and he thought it might be Ginny. Can’t be, he realized, she doesn’t have the number. He went back to thinking about her, how much he enjoyed reading to her: Yeats, Joyce, Beckett. She loved Irish literature and loved imitating what she called an “Oirish” accent.
I’ve a bloody headache, thought Ted, from the lingering smell of smoke in the B&B. The odor of cooked sausages didn’t help either. He also felt groggy, unable to concentrate. Each night since he’d been back, he had fallen into bed dead tired. And in the morning, he thought about Ginny. After his second sleep-over at her flat, he ruffled her hair in bed the next morning and recited two lines from a Yeats poem: “Love you for yourself alone. And not your yellow hair.” She nestled into his chest and they made love again.
“You’re quiet,” said Elaine. “Would you like to go upstairs and lie down?”
“No, I’ll just sit here a while,” said Ted, “and listen to the banter.” He was enjoying the rare quiet when a line of fire trucks drove past with sirens blaring.
“We’ll be in the sitting-room if you care to join us,” said Peter. Ted was nursing his third cup of tea while the women continued setting out platters of home-made scones and jam. Were there more guests coming? He never knew that his parents had so many friends.
* * * *
The family was in the sitting-room when Peter handed Ted an envelope. “It’s Dad’s Last Will and Testament. It’s time,” he added.
“Oh, Teddy, wait till you see what they left you,” said Ryan.
He was still adjusting to his parents’ deaths but asked jokingly, “Did they leave me a million pounds so I can buy a castle?”
“Almost as good,” said Peter’s wife, Elaine. She was Ted’s favorite sister-in-law. “By the way, you need a haircut,” she added, staring at him. “Do they wear their hair so long in New York?”
“We do.” Before long, the sitting-room was filled with Ted’s nieces and nephews. “We’re hungry,” they announced. Ted recognized the older children but the younger ones were unfamiliar. A red haired boy in blue trousers and white shirt rushed over to Ted. “Who are you?” he demanded. “
“I’m your uncle Teddy.”
“You can’t be my uncle.”
“But I am. Ask your dad.” Ted looked at his brother. Dennis nodded.
“I don’t think you’re my real uncle,” said Dennis Junior.
Ryan laughed and told the boy. “He’s your real uncle. He was in America for a few years and he’s back now.”
But not for good, thought Ted. Just a visit, mind you.
”Come, children,” said Ryan. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll read you a story.” Ryan started up the steps to the bedrooms. The children followed, like ducklings. Ted thought of making quacking sounds. That amused him and he smiled for the first time since arriving in Belfast.
When it was quiet again, Elaine turned to him and asked, “So, tell us, what are your plans?”
Ted put his cup of tea on the saucer. “I’m going to drive the bloody rental car back to Dublin on Monday then I’ll fly Aer Lingus back to Kennedy Airport unless we run out of gas and land in the Atlantic Ocean. In that case, I’ll swim to America and my lady.”
The rest of his family leaned forward. “A lady?” Dennis repeated. “When’s the date? We hope you’ll get married here in Belfast.”
“Of course, he’ll get married here,” said Sally.
“And start making babies,” added Peter.
Teddy surveyed his family as if they were a bunch of vultures.
“What’s her name?” asked Elaine.
“Virginia,” said Ted.
“You have photos of her?” Peter asked.
“Not with me.” He thought of Ginny, lying naked in bed and her blonde pubic hair. He had that photo on his Smartphone so had to be careful not to leave his mobile lying around.
“Does she want lots of children?” asked Dennis.
“The answer’s no,” said Ted. “She doesn’t want lots of children.” And thank God, he thought. Of course, they hadn’t progressed that far. Marriage and babies were not part of their conversations. As far as Ted knew, she loved her job and probably wouldn’t want to get on the “mommy track,” as they called it in America. The term reminded him of an escalator with a sign reading, “No Exit.”
“Told you, I’ve still got jet-lag and even before I could recover, I had to stand around shaking hands with a bloody bunch of strangers.”
“They weren’t strangers to us,” said Peter. “Mum and Dad had a lot of friends. But you wouldn’t have met them.”
Sure, make me feel guilty, thought Ted. “I knew quite a few,” he said at last.
Ted felt as if he was seeing his family for the first time and couldn’t help noticing how his eldest brother had gone to seed. Peter had a pot-belly. Hs body, like his face, lost all its angles. What happened to the rugby player? His brother traded in the sport of playing rugby for a job selling cars. Sure, he owned the shop–sold Jaguars to rich people, in villages like Hillsborough, but was he happy? Peter didn’t drink much, an occasional Guinness. The weight gain was due to lack of exercise, unless you called making babies a vigorous sport.
His sister-in-law Elaine was still young looking with auburn hair and muscular legs. But the others were beginning to look middle-aged. Ted wasn’t as rich as his brothers but he had something more valuable. He was an American, with a green card, and his own flat. He had a job he liked. And he was saving towards his own book shop one day.
Peter pulled his chair closer to the table and faced Ted. “As awful as we feel about Mum and Dad’s death, I have to ask you to read the Will.”
“You read it aloud,” said Ted. “I’ve a headache from the smoke I’ve been breathing day and night.”
Peter put on a pair of reading glasses, cleared his throat and began:, I, Peter McCullough, Senior, being of sound mind and body, leave my three sons, Peter, Dennis and Ryan ten-thousand pounds each. And to my youngest son, Teddy, I leave…”
Peter tapped his chest and had to stop reading. His wife passed him a glass of water. “I can take over the reading for you,” said Dennis.
“I’m okay,” said Peter, finishing the water. He coughed loudly then picked up the Will again.. “I’ll start where I left off: To my youngest son, Teddy, I leave… ” He had another coughing fit before saying for the third time, I leave to my son Teddy…
“Get on with it,” said Ted. “Stop fuckin’ with me.”
Peter laughed. “Watch your language. You’re in Ireland now.” He took a deep breath. ‘I leave my son Teddy All Seasons Bed and Breakfast.”
Teddy’s mouth fell open. “Stop making jokes.”
“He’s not joking,” said Elaine, placing a hand on Ted’s forearm.
There was more pouring of tea while Peter continued reading. “I want All Seasons Inn to be my legacy. And I want Teddy to run it. God bless you, Teddy. God bless All Seasons Bed and Breakfast.”
Ted covered his eyes with his large hands.
“What’s the matter, love?” Elaine asked. “Aren’t you happy? We kept it as a surprise. We thought you’d be thrilled.”
“I’m not thrilled. I’m going to sell the B&B. Dad probably wrote that Will before I moved to America. Things have changed.”
“Sell it?” They sounded like a Greek chorus. “You can’t do that. Dad wanted you to have it. After you left for America, he told us he hadn’t been much of a dad to you. You were the youngest.” And probably a mistake, thought Ted. Peter continued in a gravelly voice. “Dad was an old man by the time you were born.” Dennis leaned forward. “He’s making it up to you. Can’t you see that?”
Ted looked at the faces at the table. They all looked pale in their black suits or black dresses. As he continued looking around, he noticed that the roses and white calla lilies were also drooping, reflecting the way he felt. The smell of smoke had also gotten worse. He wanted to open a window, but it was too cold. Just then, it started raining and large drops pelted the windows.
Elaine leaned forward in her chair. “I know how you must feel, Teddy, but your dad worked all his life so he’d leave something behind.”
“You’re bloody right,” said Ted. “Dad was like God in our family, so I guess that makes me the chosen son.”
Elaine tsk-tsked before facing Ted again. “You’ve gotten overly dramatic. Was it the move to America that changed you?”
“Jaysus,” said Ted, running his fingers through his hair. “Do you realize I left my belongings in New York and I left my lady there, too. I have a round-trip ticket back to New York. What is Dad doing? Controlling my life from the other side like I’m a feckin’ puppet?”
His brothers pretended to be taken aback by his language. “You have gotten dramatic, haven’t you?” asked Dennis.
“I’d be daft to move back here.”
Elaine rubbed Ted’s forearm again. “We know you’ve had a shock. But Belfast will always be home to you.”
Will it?” thought Ted. How can you speak for me?
Dennis stood up, picked an apple from a bowl at the end of the table and rubbed it on his sleeve. “What if your lady decides against you? What will you do then? It’s a lonely life being a bachelor.”
“You won’t be lonely here–not with family all around,” added Peter.
You can bet on that, thought Ted. Not with all the nieces and nephews and more on the way. But he let them continue. He was curious to hear what other ways they had of teasing out his guilt. “I want all of you to stop pressuring me!” said Ted. “It’s my decision.”
“You were impulsive moving to New York,” said Peter. “Now, you need to mull things over.”
I need time alone, thought Ted. That’s what I need.
“Look,” said Elaine, “if it’s your lady you’re worrying about, I’m sure you’ll meet a nice woman here in Belfast. There’s still Queens University,” she added. “I’m sure they’ll take you back in case the B&B doesn’t make enough money.”
“What do you say, Teddy?” asked Dennis. “Call your lady, ask her to collect your belongings and ship them here. Ask her if she’d like to come, too. Tell her there’s room at the inn.” He laughed and his belly shook beneath his gray and white rugby shirt dotted with crumbs.
“Be realistic,” said Ted. “Do you think she’s going to give up a cushy job to cook bacon and eggs every morning?”
“If she loved you, she would,” said Peter. Ted grimaced. He didn’t know if she loved him, and he didn’t want to be pushing her. It had been too soon to talk about living together, much less moving to Belfast now.
Sally, who had been quiet during most of the conversation leaned forward. “You could hire help,” He looked at the bloody lot of them, nodding like a bunch of crows perched on a wire. Or ravens–black ravens repeating the same refrain: Nevermore. Never to walk down the streets of New York, collect Ginny after work, go for a stroll in Central Park or for an early dinner at their favorite Thai restaurant.
Ted stood up and walked to the window. “This wasn’t what I was expecting, you know.”
“We know that,” said Dennis. “And as far as cooking and cleaning is concerned, Sally’s right. You could hire somebody.”
The B&B doesn’t make enough money, thought Ted.. He knew that from phone calls with his dad. He walked back to the table, chose a biscuit and paced back and forth, trying not to think about how his parents died in this house. His Mum and Dad had been laid out in black, too. His world was black now, all color drained out.
“When were you planning to leave?” asked Peter.
“I have a ticket scheduled for Monday. I leave from Dublin.”
After the children came running downstairs, the solemn mood of the wake and funeral were gone. “Can we have ice cream now, please? cried Ryan, Junior. Before his mother answered, the others joined in, “We want ice cream.” Another Greek chorus, thought Ted. One on either side and me stuck in a vise.
“You promised,” they said. “You said after the funeral,” said Ted’s nephew Bobby.
“Yes, we promised,” said Sally. All of his brothers’ wives looked alike in their black dresses. Ginny was different. She was long, lean and blonde. But what if his brother was right? What if he ended up alone in New York without any family?.
. Elaine and Sally helped the children on with their jumpers while the men poured Guinness Ale into tall glasses. “We’re going for ice cream. We’ll be back soon,” said Elaine as she headed toward the door. Sally and the children followed behind.
Ted’s brother Peter suggested they move to the kitchen to fix snacks. “Want to join us?” asked Dennis.
“No thanks, “I’d rather be alone,” said Ted. “I’m not feeling well. It’s my stomach. I’ve still not digested the news.”
“You know where we’ll be if you’re wanting anything,” said Peter. Ted got up and walked to the window again. I won’t let them make me feel trapped, he thought, as he watched his sisters-in-law lead the children along the driveway. Elaine turned and waved to him. The others did, too.
He took a deep breath as he stood near the window. Lisburn Road was bustling with shoppers going in and out of boutiques, restaurants, pubs. As he leaned against the window frame, he realized it needed scraping and painting. And the shrubbery out front needed replacing; it had been torn up by the fire trucks. He’d also replace the lace curtains with blinds. He might even buy shutters and paint them white.
What was he thinking? He was selling this place. With the proceeds of All Seasons B&B, he would rent a nice flat in Manhattan, maybe close to his job in Greenwich Village. He nearly laughed out loud at the idea. He wouldn’t end up making that much money.
He suddenly remembered when he was in hospital. His dad told him, “I’m proud of you for beating the bloody Brits. You’re going to be the greatest rugby player in the history of Northern Ireland.” After the doctor told Ted he would never be able to play again, his dad sat beside Ted’s hospital bed sobbing.
“I’m not happy with the news either, Dad.” Ted told him. “But I’ve always loved books. Collecting rare books was always my second love. I’ll be a dealer of antique books.” That dream died, too, for lack of money. Running the B&B could resurrect that idea. He would change the sign: All Seasons Bed & Breakfast and Antiquarian Books.
He looked around. There was enough room enough to house a collection of first editions by Joyce, Becket, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Virginia Woolf, too. Why not a Brit? This is Northern Ireland.
He could give it a year. If it didn’t work out, he’d sell the B&B and fly back to America. But it would be nearly impossible to maintain a relationship flanked by New York and Belfast. After checking his mobile, he decided to ring Ginny up. When she didn’t answer, he whispered, “Come on, come on, pick up.” It finally went to voice mail and he said, “Call me.” Then, he continued looking out of the window until it got dark.
About the Author:
Edith Tarbescu is the author of four books for young people, published by Houghton Mifflin, Barefoot Books (of the U.S. and the U.K.), and Scholastic (2) as well as a produced playwright. Her latest play, “Suffer Queen,” was performed twice in New York. She studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. She’s also had personal essays published in The Hartford Courant, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, etc. She recently completed a mystery titled “ONE WILL: THREE WIVES” and is working on a memoir titled “BEYOND BROOKLYN.”