'At Eleven' by Tom Kelly
I saw my first dead body. See me, a quiet altar boy keeping close to the priest. Streetlights reveal a veneer of frost on pavements but hid the door numbers in the search for the deceased’s home. Winter light disappeared as we headed-up the shadeless stair-head, making me feel uneasy, exposed.
When the priest entered the bedroom, murmuring conversation died. There was a silence you could taste. The sweat on the priest’s brow slowly fell into his eyes and I heard his stomach rumble because of the tea he had been forced to miss; he had whispered this to me as we bundled out of his car.
The priest must have been used to quiet rooms. He handed me his thick, dark and heavy overcoat; I was unsure what to do with the coat and left it folded over my arms, feeling like a soldier on guard duty. The unnerving silence continued for an eternity. The mourners were in an almond-shape and broke-up to allow the priest to stand at the apex as he pulled over his head a white embroidered halter he kissed and placed around his neck. Decade-after-decade of the rosary began, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace…’ The call and response was hypnotic and transcendental. I secretly examined each face, their eyes drawn to the coffin, to the dead man I knew.
I need to see and smell the room. I have not given the priest a clear image. His dark curly hair sprang over his brow like a broken cartwheel. I see him now as a man doing his job, no vocation, giving comfort to these people gathered together through grief and obligation.
To me all the mourners were ancient: death was for the very old. Yet I felt uncertain. I knew the man. He was a friend of my Dad. Did this mean Dad would be joining him soon? I tried not to look at him closely but his stillness drew me to him. He was clean-shaven and I could see a shadow running along his jaw to a broad, dimpled chin.
Going back to this home now, makes me realise it was his bedroom. Their children, praying all too aware of that. What must they have felt? The carpet was damp. The bedding ironed. He had slept here but now, ‘He’s on his last sleep’, my Granny would have said. His coffin levitated above metal supports, provided by the undertaker, who brought the body home while his wife prepared for this sad return.
Copyright. Tom Kelly.
Tom Kelly was born in Jarrow and now lives further up the Tyne at Blaydon. He has had a varied career from his first job in a Jarrow shipyard Time-Office; to a song writing contract and writing the BBCTV musical documentary Kelly, with Alan Price. He has had a great deal of work produced by the Customs House, South Shields, a venue he regards as home, with six full-length stage plays. In 2016 he was a runner-up in the Journal Culture Awards, in the Writer of the Year category, for Geordie-The Musical, produced by the Customs House in 2015 and reprised in October 2017 at the Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle. 2016 also saw his eighth poetry collection Spelk published and subsequently re-printed by Red Squirrel Press. Of late his poetry has appeared in a number of UK magazines and anthologies.