The three rules to an Irish wake are;
All the mirrors must be covered; to stop the soul from being trapped in a reflection.
All the clocks must be stopped at the time of death, just like the heart.
The body must never be left all alone including at night. This is why it is called a wake.
The rules were hard to follow for Mairéad Murphy’s death, because she had lived alone. As far as anyone knew, her only companion had been her shadow. And as she died in the dark, even that hadn’t been there to keep her company.
Her neighbours had done the needful. When the ambulance finally took her body away, they hung the bedsheets over windows, mirrors, and picture frames. This gave the pensioner’s house the appearance of a strange butcher shop, where blankets were stripped, ripped, and hanged. The pipes whined, ba-boom, ba-boom, until someone thought to switch them off. There was only one clock in the whole house to stop hanging in the Good Room. However, the awkward nature of Mairéad’s death meant no one was sure what time to stop the clock. The neighbour set it back an hour, as it was as good a guess as any.
Once word got out and the body got home, the people began to arrive. The windows at the front of the house were dark with the sheets that covered them, like heavy lidded eyes and a lolling mouth. Only a small slit of light escaped every time the door was left agape, the sheets billowed, the house on the verge of waking up. The visitors moved among the sheets, always glancing out of the corner of their eyes at white movement they could never catch. Modern doctrine had extended the rule of reflections to the TVs and tablets. One athletic elderly man wore a sock over his Fitbit.
“Just take it off.” His wife hissed at him.
“But, my steps!” He protested quietly.
There were so many people in the wee end-terrace house that the hallway groaned. Though the talk was quiet, the space was loud. Wood gasping, doors slamming. Smokers’ lungs choking. No one went near the stairs. No one acknowledged the dark stain at the bottom.
The crowd was middling and politely upset. The guests shared the kindest stories they could think of, the general consensus was that she’d been ‘a good soul’. No one could think of anything more personal to say, and the mourners were dry-eyed. Only one old woman was inconsolable. Bridget Banahan could not be talked down from tears. The other women wrapped their arms around her, rocking back and forth, shushing her gently.
“Now, now love, I know. But now she’s up’in Heaven with Patrick and the boys,” they’d say to her, but she could not be comforted.
“Alone! She died all alone,” was all she’d say.
Mystified by the depths of her sadness, people avoided her. The neighbours excused themselves into the kitchen, tutting and shaking their heads once safely out of view.
One poured the other a cup of grey tea, “She needs to stop her wailin’.”
“Awk, now, don’t. Her and Mairéad were right close when they were wee girls. And it’s terrible how she went.”
“Well, I told her a hundred times to get a stair-chair. An’ it’s not like she was left out in the woods for a week! They reckon she’d only been there about an hour.”
“Still.” They both took sips of their tepid brew, “Wouldn’t like it to happen to me.”
“Hmm. Suppose so.”
The pipes of the house clanked, ba-boom, ba-boom. Neither of them could remember turning them back on.
The Good Room was the nicest room in the house; at the very front, with bay windows, and plenty of light to sun-bleach pastoral prints on the walls. Now, it was a morgue of one, with the coffin at the windows.
The statement piece had always been the family mirror, with the crest etched in frosted glass over it. It hung on the same iron chain that had been made for it over a hundred years ago, passing from eldest son to eldest son. Now it was covered with a sheet, and it would be until someone came to take it. God knows who.
This mini morgue had a steady flow of visitors over the three day wake. Her neighbours had come in briefly. They tried not to picture Mairéad’s face when they’d found her; eyes half-lidded, mouth gaping, chin smashed across the ground, neck impossibly bent. They prayed the world’s quickest Hail Mary and scuttled out.
Bridget would not go in. When she worked up the nerve to stick her head into the room, she saw the person sitting with the body was the gentleman with the sock over his hand.
“Oh, hello Bridget.” He smiled, eager to be relieved, “Do ya want to come in for a wee while?” The armchair he was on was under the covered mirror, and he was gently caressed on each side by the huge sheets hanging above. The stopped clock on the wall made the quiet in the room seem louder. When she didn’t answer, he stood and guided her in gently,
“There, there. Ya take yer time, love, take yer time. Just sit here a wee while… There ya go,” He said as he eased her into the chair. She went to say something to him but he had already left the room. Probably to do a lap of the garden.
The coffin was tasteful, plain, and dark. It was open, surrounded by bunches of flowers, and dozens of mass cards. Enough to make the May Queen envious. Mairéad, who had lived and died alone, suddenly seemed to have many friends.
A memory came back from years ago. The wedding dress, the honeymoon, the moving van.
They’d fought the morning of Bridget’s wedding. Mairéad just began to cry, This is the end of everything. We’ll never be friends no more.
Distressed, and then again distressed at her own distressedness, Bridget threw on some anger, as it was easier to manage, Why’d ya have to do this now? Why’d ya have to ruin it right now?!
Back then, the priest wouldn’t have you wed if you had make-up on. So there was nothing to hide the red spots on her cheeks and behind her eyes, You’ll have yer own husband soon, and you’ll put all this silliness behind ya!
I won’t! I won’t! I’ll be alone forever. Oh, Bridie don’t go! Don’t leave me on my lonesome!
Yer bein’ ridiculous! Stop it! Stop!
She couldn’t remember now how it had ended. Just remembered Mairéad behind her, brushing her hair in silence, sliding the lace veil over her face. They’d hugged, tight and tense. When Bridget walked up the aisle, Mairéad was in the front pew. She’d waved her fingers, an olive branch, and Bridget had smiled back, already burying the moment deep in her memory. Where it would stay for the next 60 years. The world spun on, and it became easier than ever to contact someone, and yet the gap between the two women only grew.
She looked around the room. This was the house Mairéad had been born in, was supposed to be married in. A house for a family that never came.
How many times had she walked down the stairs without even bothering to turn the lights on?
The thought of her friend of 80 years, now dead, was almost too much. Eyes closed forever. Never to smile again. When had they last spoken? When had they last laughed? She lay there and she had laid at the bottom of the stairs, for who knows how long. Maybe all night. Alone. No one to stop the clock. No one to cover the mirror. Alone.
In the coffin was her friend, maybe. Or maybe just something that looked like her.
She felt herself sink back without moving, like she was on conveyor belt. The sheets moved around her, like two arms pulling her in. Though she knew she was in the chair, her back felt it was against something flat, cold, and smooth. The mirror.
The sheet hung over her head like a swan with its wings tucked in. She’d gone mad in five minutes. She couldn’t move, but she could hear something. Faint footsteps. They were coming from behind her. But behind her was only the wall. The wall and the mirror. Muffled footsteps, not shoes, but slippers, on carpet.
Underneath the floorboards, the pipes banged, ba-boom ba-boom, timing up perfectly with Bridget’s heartbeat. She could feel a coldness at the nape of her neck. And then, a light scratching at the glass. Polite, almost. Tap, tap, tap. A long nail. Tap, tap, tap.
Bridget could not turn around, she could barely breathe. A lump had formed in her throat like she’d swallowed a tennis ball. She could hear someone trying to speak to her as if through a thick window, too muffled to make out any words.
She shut her eyes tight and felt a few tears slip out. Another series of taps, a little more insistent this time. The sheets rippled around her. The whole world was white.
Behind her, she felt the mirror slightly give outwards. Like it was being pressed from the other side, ballooning convex into her spine. Someone was pushing against it towards her. The tapping turned into a creaking, glass straining against a wooden frame.
“Oh Mairéad, Mairéad…” She croaked out, “I’m sorry, so so sorry. Please.”
The movement stopped. The pause sounded almost curious, maybe a little mocking.
“Sorry I moved on. Sorry I wasn’t here.” She pushed her fist into her mouth and bit down on her knuckles.
“God I missed ya. Every day. Every day. I didn’t think ya’d want to see me no more. I kept thinkin’ we’d make plans, but things just… I had a husband, and then tha kids-”.
The mirror suddenly banged into her, like the two hands on the other side slapped it as hard as they could, BANG! It gave Bridget the shock she needed; with a yelp, she scuttered forward, batting the sheets out of the way with flapping hands.
Under the sheets, the mirror, unseen, went BANG! BANG! BANG!, interspersed with the sound of glass beginning to chip. It shook so hard that the stopped clock fell from the wall and smashed into bits.
Bridget braced herself against the coffin, hands gripping the edge, “Please, Mairéad! Please! Just leave! Ya’ve been haunting me my whole life! Don’t do it now, too!”
The house wailed around her, the room shaking and swaying, the pipes under floorboards impossibly warm. The coffin trembled under Bridget’s hands. Instinctively, she turned on her heels to grip it better and keep it from falling. She found herself face to face with Mairéad’s corpse.
The undertakers did what they could, but it was impossible to fully scrub the jaundiced yellow from her skin. Her body had surely been badly broken because they’d draped a black satin shawl over her; one that surrounded her whole body. Her face floated like a stag’s head mounted on a wall. Her arthritic bones must’ve been powdered to dust, broken in so many places her body would’ve felt like a sock full of marbles. Bridget didn’t have it in her to think Mairéad looked peaceful there. She just looked old.
“Oh, sweetie,” She whispered hoarsely, and reached her hand down, as if to stroke the corpse’s cheek, but couldn’t make contact, “Oh, my love.”
She felt a tingly numbness all over. Past the dull rumbling of her pulse in her ears, Bridget could make out louder and louder slams coming from the far wall. But she paid it no mind.
She turned her head away. Behind her, glass broke.
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