The night before I left Tipperary, just before the light faded, I left our by-now nearly empty house and walked along our road to Whitechurch, the long-derelict church – since before the dissolution of the monasteries – near the big tree. You can just make out the shape of the church under its covering of dense ivy, three high windows piercing the narrow eastern wall. The ivy is so thick that, unless you are looking, you might not see the church itself.
A battered iron gate, tied shut with a fraying blue nylon cord, slumps at the entrance to the churchyard. Just beyond the gate stands a tall iron crucifix peeling black paint, the corpus painted white. The ground rises and falls sharply, cluttered with abundant growth and tottering monuments, slabs falling forward and back at acute angles. Some of the oldest that can be read date from the 18th century; undoubtedly there are far older ones, their inscriptions now illegible. Others are recent, including one memorialising our dear friend Fr Tommy O’Connell, who died in 1999 and is buried in California, where he had been a parish priest for over 50 years. He grew up next to my father-in-law’s home place and had known both my husband’s parents for a lifetime.
There is one grave, though, that captures my imagination more than the others. Off in a corner, near the boundary with Murphy’s field and at the foot of a huge tree, is a tiny grave site, about a metre long and half metre wide, edged with kerbstones filled in with pebbles. The carved silhouette of an infant angel with praying hands sits above the inscription:
Brian Anthony Williams
sadly missed by
Mam Dad and Family
The grave was there when I first visited Whitechurch in 1988, the initial capitals of the inscription gaudily painted, the tiny grave covered with faded plastic flowers, a holy-water vial shaped like the Virgin, and a plastic globe containing an angel. When I visited it last week, it was still covered with offerings, many new, including a straw reindeer-shaped planter holding a small shrub, still green, apparently put there at Christmas.
Twenty-two years on – and how long before my first visit? – and Baby Brian Anthony Williams is still remembered in the tiny churchyard, surrounded by ancient graves and towering trees in the deep, quiet peace of Whitechurch.
I walked back along the quiet road, passed by only one or two cars, between hedges not yet showing the green of spring. They had recently been cut back hard, and broken spears of white ash branches littered the ground. Ash, even freshly cut, burns well, and I gathered an armload, carrying as much as I could manage, for one last fire in the house.
It had been a day even more chaotic and unpredictable than it might have been. The removal men – Michael, Pat, John and Paul – four gentle Cork men, with accents as impenetrable as the men themselves were charming, funny and sweet, had packed most of our belongings the day before, leaving out only those items as necessary for the final carton, specifically the teapot, five mugs and the kettle. Late that day, with most of the rooms dismantled, came word that the container would arrive around 11 am. It would take a couple of hours to load it, so I had planned to have the afternoon to run errands, including a trip to Clonmel, about 30 km. away, to drop off the recyclables and rubbish and, I hoped, to for a quick farewell to a friend, if we could arrange that.
But on the day itself, the container didn’t arrive at 11. It was delayed at the port. The three Cork men – the fourth having been sent on another assignment – began moving cartons outside, so they lined the yard inside our entrance on each side, two walls of cartons lining a non-existent drive. We stopped for lunch, and after lunch we waited still. I let my friend in Clonmel know I wouldn’t be able to give a definite time I could get away.
From the tiny station I’d established in the kitchen, I continued to try to organise what was left to be done – insurance to be cancelled, another policy to be put into place, banking, holding the mail, arranging to have it forwarded, looking for potential buyers of the car, all the while keeping the paperwork organised and sequestered from the movers. At last, rumbling outside let us know the container had arrived. But it was the wrong size. The foreman of the packing crew made phone calls; another one would have to be sent. That meant more waiting, putting into doubt when I could get away to Clonmel. After texting back and forth, my friend and I gave up the idea of meeting. The men, having moved as many cartons as could be moved, sat in the sun, reading their papers. We all agreed that with the cartons stacked in the yard and them having to wait with little to do, we were lucky in the fine, sunny day.
Then an email arrived from Agnes, the relocation specialist in Salzburg. If I wanted the flats painted in colours of my choosing, I would have to select the colours by midmorning the next day.
‘I told you about this before’, she wrote, impatience creeping through. Yes, I thought, but you only told us yesterday we had secured the flat. Can’t it wait until I get there in three days? I had colours in mind, but how was I to communicate them by email in the next 24 hours? Pale greenish taupe, not-quite-olive, not too yellow, not too bright? Creamy yellow, soft and warm?
Or we could leave it white, said Agnes.
White? With all those lovely crown mouldings and carved walnut panels? With our off-white couch? Leave it white?
Confusion mounted as visitors arrived to say goodbye. My mother-in-law’s dog ran in and out of the house. Young grandnieces and a grandnephew explored the empty house, full of wonder. My own anxiety about meeting the schedule, seeing things loaded, getting to Clonmel and back, expanded. Frustration at the thought of white walls, the compression of the day, everything that remained to be done, the interrupting phone calls and texts, squeezed like too-tight bandages round my gut.
At last, having loaded the bags of recycling and rubbish into the back of the car, I made a quick run into Clonmel, getting the most important things done. Stopping at a DIY centre for bird seed to leave with my mother-in-law, I snatched some paint chips for reference. Back home in just over an hour, I found the container had arrived and was nearly loaded. Even the kettle, teapot and five mugs had been packed and loaded. And now, having had soup and a sandwich fixed for me by my sister-in-law, and the light not entirely gone, I was able to relax in the walk, the last one for a while, up our quiet, familiar road.
Back at home, the sitting room empty save for borrowed pillows and my notebook computer, I build the last fire and poured a glass of wine into a borrowed glass. My few scraps of foraged ash burned soft and sweetly, adding to the calm. The sky deepened; late I watched the burnished deep blue-black rise above the blacker silhouette of the hedge.