The Stars Are Over
I get the bus from Placa Catalunya. Walking up from Carrer de Julià Portet, 5. The sweat pumping out of me. Down my back. My hair wet from it. I sit down. Alone. Alone on the bus. And I feel sad. I am an exile now. And I am returning to my exile land. The bus starts up. Makes its way towards Placa Espana. And I look out of the window. My mask stuck to my face. I look out over all of these places I have come to love. All of these memories. And I think of all of the stories I have written that are dedicated to these streets of hedonism and love and chaos. And we pass down towards Universitat. And past Bar La Principal. And I look out at the little table where me and Federica sat just yesterday as the bus passes by. Further down Sepulveda. And I try to see the street names as we travel further and further away, onwards towards Placa Espana. I turn to look at the names of the streets. Looking for Carrer Calabria. Searching for Carrer Calabria. But I cannot find it. I cannot find it. And I feel myself fading from this city. Slowly drifting from this city. Being dragged away and taken home. To a place that is no longer my home. But a memory. And I wonder is Grandma still alive. I have no phone. No idea. She could well be dead. And I would not know. I look out now. Over Tibidabo and Montjuic. As the bus makes its way past Espana and onto the motorway. And then past the Estrella brewery. And I wonder, would a bullet pierce those steel containers, and would beer flood the streets of Barcelona? In the airport I sit looking out over the runway. On those awful terminal cancerous chairs. I sit with a beer in a paper cup. Watching the people running late for their flights. They run. They sprint and run as fast as they can. And I smile, thinking of yesterday in Bar La Principal. When I could barely speak with the nerves of coming back. And the fear of being a changed person. Federica said I looked like a junkie. But that I was still cute. She said I was a cute junkie. And that she was scared I was going to look worse. Hadn’t seen me in a month. And what would my family think? It plagued me with fear. Vomited this morning out of fear. And what would Grandma look like? Ruari said it would be a shock. That she was so gaunt. So gaunt, he kept saying. I try to picture her now. As I sit here, waiting for the gate to open, looking at the man opposite me reading Ken Follett with his burger and coke. And the people there? They are no longer my people. I love my town, but it is not my town anymore. This is my town. And these are my people. Even the thieves in this city, I know too well. The gate opens and I walk towards W24. Hearing familiar accents again as the airport worker asks for my documents. As she asks the priority boarders to make their way for the front. And a man in front of me turns and says ‘Whats the point in priority? You get to sit on the plane for an extra twenty minutes’. And I laugh and he laughs and I laugh. And then we walk out. Across the runway. The sun of Barna burning over us as I look out over the distant hills of Catalunya as the sun begins to set. Eight o’clock.
On the plane, I open Colm Toibin and begin to read. My eyes drowsy. I think of Federica. Of how we fucked earlier in the day. Of how we lay naked in bed together. Of how my eyes were falling and she said I had to rest. That I should rest. That she would leave me to rest for half an hour. And after half an hour I asked her for more. And she gave it to me. Oh I fucked things up Federica. And you deserved so much more. Why was I so prolific at fucking things up. I laugh in a plastic sadness as I think these thoughts, as we taxi the runway. What was it that was in my inky soul? The plane departs. It soars higher and higher into the Catalan sky and I look out of the window. And I see the thin line of parallel and think of just four days ago when me and Doogan crossed parallel and walked into Poble Sec. Searching for Aine’s house at 4am. What were we thinking. I laugh. Searching an entire district for one house. One apartment. And we didn’t know the address. We had no idea. Such drunken optimism. Such drunken genius! We didn’t know. I laugh again. Looking out over the city. There had to be a party. And then. Shouting up when we heard music in a random flat. Begging them to buzz us in. Told them we had a bottle of vodka with us. Told them we had coke. We laughed and laughed and laughed. And I see La Rambla as the plane soars higher. And the lights. And I can almost see its trees. Littered alone along the mid section. And from there I can work out the entire structure of the city. Of Sant Pere, Eixample, Gotic, Raval. Of Barceloneta. Mark’s terrace in Barceloneta. Mark’s old terrace in Barceloneta. Of all those parties on the roof last summer. Watching the sunrise over the med. Myself, Mark, Hannah. Erin. JJ, Val. All talking shit. Reading poems badly. Watching the sunrise with lukewarm cans. What was it we used to drink? Argus. Yes, awful cans of Argus. Twenty cent a can. Had to be ice cold or mixed with freeway lemon to dilute the taste of piss. I picture it all. And as I look down over this city, I think of how all of the people I love are down there. Right now. They are there. They are drinking. Right there. As I look down over them from 10,000 feet, and 15,000 feet. I look down over Barcelona and over the water. As the container ships move silently across the Mediterranean. Towards the port. And I picture the sailors on board. And I wonder where were they from? And what do they do? And what do they carry? And then we ascend into the clouds. Just like Cindi Bello ascended through the lift shaft. And my eyes drop. And my head drops. And I feel so sad. And I think of it all. Of all the past two years. I will be back. As soon as I am able.
I fall in and out of sleep throughout the flight. I have the same dream I have almost every day or two. The dream where I am completely intoxicated. Too fucked to move. My body wont work. And I am in danger. And fear. And all that is bad is out there to get me. But I cannot move. I can’t move an inch. I’m stuck to the floor in kahoots. I’m completely baloobas. And then I wake in a sweat. And when I wake, I think again of Grandma. And of the emails I used to send her. Of how I would wake up from fever dreams with cold sweats and nosebleeds. Of how I’d be shaking all over. The sun burning down on my balcony. Thirty-five degrees. But me freezing in bed. And I’d write to Grandma. With all these romanticised and fictionalised accounts of my life in Barcelona. Just to make her smile. So that she thought I was the Joseph she wanted me to be. And not the truth. A Joseph who would walk down Barcelona beach in the morning to watch the sunrise. Who would eat tapas in seaside restaurants. Who had some money in his pocket. A Joseph who would go on beautiful dates with beautiful girls. And how I’d be in the mountains. Climbing up Montjuic. Or looking out from the bunkers. I told her such beautiful fiction. Just to make her smile. And if only she knew the truth. She would be so sad.
The pilot announces our descent. And I look out from the window again. Seeing Widnes in the distance. That town. Where I spent what felt like eternity. Of school. And hometime. Parents’ evenings. And quiche on the dinner table. I see the old power station. Like the Iron Giant, the tall tower stands, it’s red eyes light up the sky. And then we descend furthermore. Seeing Liverpool now. And the Irish Sea to my left. As we get closer and closer to the ground. And when we get off the plane the first thing that hits me is the cold. I put on my jacket and walk into security. And I fear they’re going to stop me. I’m terrified they’re going to stop me. I don’t know why. But I get through. And I light up a cigarette. Outside John Lennon airport in the September cold. Waiting for dad to pick me up.
I see a white car coming towards me and squint my eyes. Is that him? He was thinking the same. He said he didn’t recognise me. When we get home, the whole family is there. Mum says I should go into Grandma.
She lies in bed waiting for death. I had never seen anything like it. All of her weight had fallen. And she lay. Gasping for breath. Coughing up thick strings of mucus. And she looked at me. And I said Hello Grandma, it’s so good to see you. And she said Who is it? And I said it’s Joe Grandma, it’s Joseph Grandma. And she said Oh Joseph. And took my hand in hers. She said Oh Joseph. And she kissed my hand. And held it softly. As I held hers. And I kissed her lips and said It’s so good to see you Grandma. I told her about Barcelona. The same fiction as the emails I had sent her before. All of the beautiful fictional accounts of my travels. Of walking down the beaches. Of eating tapas in seafront restaurants. Of the sunset. Of my friends. Of the food, the fish, the mountains. I told her all the girls are beautiful. I told her I have better friends than ever before. I let her imagine it all. As she lay there waiting for death. She kept asking me questions, but her voice was too soft. I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Her voice was so frail. So distant and gone. Just little whispers now. Inbetween the gasps of death. And I look around the room. Trying to hold myself together. Looking at her face. So ghostly. So gaunt as Ruari had said. The skin so tight and skeletal. It reminded me of Scrooge. And of her son, Brian, too. Every bone pouring through her skin. Penetrating and perforating through the tight flesh. And I look at her as she lies there in wait. So aware that it is coming. That the unknown darkness is coming. Coming now. Faster and faster. This unstoppable nothing. And I look at the photographs. Of me, Ruari, and Sean when we were in primary school. And of Alex and John. I look at the photographs. Of her children too. And of her great-grandchildren. And then I see my mum and dad’s wedding photo. My grandma standing beside them. In the Widnes snow. December 1994. And I look out over her collection of films at the foot of her bed. All of those shitty films we used to watch together when I was a child. And I say to her, my voice breaking now, Do you remember watching Cactus Jack, Grandma? Cactus Jack, Grandma, do you remember? We used to laugh didn’t we? That’s what I said to her, We used to laugh. Small little tears now beginning to fall. But I didn’t want her to see me cry. And Leap Year, Grandma. Do you remember watching that together? Brilliant film Grandma, I said. I said to her, Grandma I’m looking at the photos. I’m looking at all of the photos Grandma. There’s me and Ruari and Sean when we were small. Great memories Grandma. I say, Do you remember in Ireland, Grandma, when you used to do the paintings? When we’d be fishing off the pier in Mulranny and you’d sit in the car doing the paintings? I look up at one of them now. By her bedside. Of a landscape. Of Mayo or maybe somewhere in Wales. I can’t be sure. And she begins to cry again. As she thinks back of her life. Of all she did and didn’t do. Of when she was able. And I feel for her. I touch her shoulder. I touch her frail shoulder. And I say, I love you so much Grandma. I love you to bits. And she says I love you too. She says I still love you Joseph, I still love you. And I hold her again. Softly. Not to hurt her. Ruari told me that they had been saying the rosary with her all day. That she had wanted to listen to the Mulloy Brothers. Her mind forever cast back to those days. And Dad said she was so close to God. He said he had never seen anything quite like it. They had watched mass all day. With her in the bed. Praying. Softly. Through the dry lips. And she begins to cough. And mum comes in and turns her over onto her side. She is too weak to get the spittle out of her mouth herself. Mum apologises and I say that it’s okay. I don’t mind. Grandma says it hurts, it hurts. And she groans with the pain. And I look up at another photograph. I look up at a photograph of her and Albert in the 70s. Thirty-six years he’s been gone now. Thirty-six years. And will they be united again? I hope there is a heaven just for her sake. Let her be reunited with him. Let her be young again. I look back at her again. And I think, I can’t die like this. We are all waiting for death. And one day, this will be all of us. Lying. Waiting. Lying in wait for the blackness. For the end. My mind is littered with thoughts. Thoughts of youth. And I look at the clock. 2am. And I think that right now. All of them. All of my friends in Barcelona are sitting at the cathedral steps. The same as every night. Waiting for the blue lights. Waiting for the Mossos. And then they will scatter. And yet it feels like a different world. It is a different world. Grandma begins to cough again. And I ask mum if I should leave the room while she helps her. She says that I should. So I go outside. Into the September cold of Widnes for a cigarette. And I look up at the moon and I smile when I think that this is the same moon that Mark and JJ and Hugh can see. Right now. Right this very second. This is the same moon that Federica and Cecilia, and Alicia in Geneve, can see. It’s the same moon that they can all see. Right now. It boggles the mind. And I think to myself, as the cigarette burns closer and closer towards its end that you can see more stars in Widnes than in Barcelona.
And here comes everybody. And here I am. In Widnes again. The past two years no more than a quick dream. Like the flick of a match. Nothing at all. I get myself a beer. And we talk for a while in the living room. I ask how long has she been this bad? She took a turn on the Thursday. And they talk about the funeral plans while she flutters through dreams with the morphine in the next room. And when I go upstairs. Back into my old room. My mind too is cast back in memory. I see my old bookshelf. Proust, Celine, Joyce, Burgess, Dostoevsky. My old copy of The Outsider. Genet, Bukowski, Bernhard, Saeterbakken. Thousands of memories drive themselves back to the forefront of my mind. And then I find my old report card from school. From ten years ago or more. The report card I had to get signed every day. Mr Hall waiting for me outside his office. His fat face full of misery. And it says Joseph didn’t do his homework, Joseph didn’t prepare for his assessment. And the card is plastered with these big x’s everywhere. And there’s my attempt at my mum’s signature at the bottom. I laugh. I never was much good at forgery. And as I get into bed, I think of life, and of death, and of what any of it means. And what will there be at the end of it all? And does any of it matter? And does Grandma now know more than the rest of us? Does she now have a greater understanding of life? And its worth? Or of death? I don’t know.
I went to bed that night. When I woke, I did not recognise where I was. For just a second and for a moment I was back in Barcelona. Until the realisation hit. That I was not on Carrer Capellans anymore. I had a shower. The rooms all so cold. The water so hot. I dried. Threw on an old t-shirt. Went downstairs to eat. Bacon and tea. I called into Grandma. But she did not recognise me. She was struggling. Her breaths, short and fast. Like the orgasm that brings us into life, her rapid breaths now bringing her closer and closer to death. And like the baby, that cries and screams out, she sought to speak, but the words would not come. Only tears. I watched her sadness, her veil of tears, as it draped itself too over me. And I thought of that morning in her bed when I was six or seven years old. And I wondered what we spoke about. I did not know. I did not remember the words. Or the topic of conversation. But I remember lying beside her. Warm and happy. I had brought up a letter for her to read. And she told me to get into bed with her. And we were happy. Perhaps now, she too was thinking of that moment. She was trying to turn over, but comfort would not come. She kept trying to move. To push the duvet away from her. Clutching at her stomach in agony. And there was nothing to be done but watch. I tried to help, but there was nothing I could do. I could only spectate the pain.
I went out with my father, Ruari, and Sean later that night. We had three pints of Guinness. When we got home, mum told us it was time. Told us all to go into the room. That she was dying now. That it wouldn’t be long. That her breathing had changed. So I went in and sat beside her. My grandma. Nana Pat as little Laura and Elizabeth called her. And I held her arm. Her eyes open. Staring up at the ceiling. And I wondered what she could see? Ged holding her hand. Her breathing fast and slow at the same time. Long breaths now. Longer than the ones before. And my mother began praying. Eternal rest. Grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen. Our Father, Who Art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil, amen. Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death, amen. It began again. Eternal rest. Grant unto them, oh lord. As her breaths began slowing. Mum do you want to sit here? I ask. Do you want to sit here mum, I said. But she said no. And so I sit, holding her arm, as she fades into death. Martin stood behind me. All of us. Watching her pass into the blackness. Watching her pass into the unknown. And at the hour of our death. Amen. Eternal peace. We repeat the prayers. All of us, humming them softly, as she takes her final breaths. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May she rest in peace. And she does. She passes. Into the night. Six minutes past twelve. September third. Rest in peace Pat, my father says. Rest in peace. And then I stand, and Martin takes my place. He takes his mum’s hand in his. And kisses it, and kisses her. And I kiss my mum and put my arm around her, as we look down over her body. I put my arm around my dad. And then Ruari and Sean. And then the people begin to leave the room as mum says we should say our goodbyes now. I watch Ruari sit beside Grandma’s body and talk to her. I can’t hear what he says. And then I go over to her. And I say I love you Grandma, please look after me, please look after me, I say, laughing, with tears falling onto my cheeks, and I kiss her. I walk into the living room and get a beer. But then mum tells me someone would have to wait up for the doctor to come to certify the death, and I say I’ll do it. We play music in the living room. Softly now. We play The Boys of the County Mayo. This Woman’s Work. We play Faithful Departed and My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland. We play The Stars Are Over Cloughanover. And we tell stories of Grandma. My dad begins to speak. And he speaks of how she always used to tell him that one of the happiest days of her life was when she was just a young girl. A teenager. Who was in love with another boy. And of how one day they took out a tandem and rode for miles and miles under the northern English sun. And I think of that girl. That girl who became my mother’s mother, and my grandmother, that girl who just passed into death. And I think too of that boy. And what had happened to him. He would be dead now too, I presume. And if not, how strange that he has no idea that his young love, his Patricia, has just departed this Earth. I wonder what he called her? Did he call her Patricia? Or Pat? Or something else. And did they kiss that day? Somewhere along the Mersey? Or by the Manchester Ship Canal? And how happy was she that day? And what did she think that night when she got into bed? How strange it all is. This precious life.
I sat with the body all night. Drinking coffee. At first with all the family. And then one by one they all left the room besides me. I sat looking over her. Talking to her. In little whispers. Not to disturb her. The doctor came at 6am. He came in with the mask on. He went over to the body. Checked the heart. Looked into her eyes. And said: “Yes, I can confirm she has passed away, is there anything else I can do?” I said no, and thanked him, and he was on his way. I opened a can of Guinness. Drank it. My hairs suddenly stood on end. It felt strange to leave her now. To leave her vulnerable body open to the world. Alone to the world. But alas, it is just a body. It isn’t Grandma anymore. I think this as I look at her. The soul, or the spirit, which makes the person who they are, which gives them their name, and their everything, is gone. Like the casing of a pistachio, the body is no more than a shell. This shell of flesh and blood that carries us from birth until death. It is no more. And as I finish my Guinness. I look at my Grandma’s body. At her hair. Her gaunt face. And I remember how she used to look. I look again to the photographs. Of us in Ireland together. And I think of us in Micklehead Green, her saying to me ‘Oh Joseph, are you going to get the mixed grill, my little treat’. And I think of her asking me to run down to the chippy on Derby Road to pick up a steak and kidney pudding for her, telling me to get whatever I wanted too. ‘My little treat’, she always said. ‘My little treat’. I too think of dad pushing her wheelchair along the promenade at New Brighton. Of her saying that we never needed to go abroad when we had such beauty so close to home. And of when we all went up to Inverness in the car at night. I even think of the little arguments we used to have. Of when I was a small child and she’d grab my cheeks so hard. And my hair. And how it used to drive me insane. I laugh, thinking of this now. Looking over her and the room. At the half-drank glass of water by the bed. At the hairbrush on the table. At the Women’s Magazine on the bookshelf. The unfinished book, the get well soon cards scattered along the window ledge. Her old cardigans. The photograph of Albert in a love-heart picture frame. And where is she now? Is she looking down over us, from some unknown world? A heaven? Or is she into the nothing. I don’t know. I hope there’s something. I hope. And so I look down over my grandmother. My Grandma, as she always insisted we called her. And I pour the last of the Guinness to my lips. And I say goodnight Grandma, I love you to bits, and I walk away.