You came to the funeral. Packed church but I still saw you. People shuffled over in the pew to let you sit. Half way up the church. Not at the back for people who didn’t really know him. Nor up the front for family, close relatives. But in the middle. Like maybe you could be someone.
The priest droned on, one monotoned sentence after another. If I turned my head slightly to the left, you were sitting where I could see you. I pretended to smile at my grandchildren behind me. But I was looking past them. Past their bored pre-teen faces. I was looking at you.
I saw you dab your eyes with a white tissue when the priest spoke about Brendan. The priest said what a great husband and father he was. What a hardworking and honest man he had been all his life. I wondered if you felt left out. Brendan was also a great friend and lover to the man he’d been having sex with for the last two years. I should have asked the priest to mention you.
Brendan never knew I found out. But you did, didn’t you?
Because that night I called to your house and asked you, begged you, in fact, to leave us alone. Thirty six years married, I said to you.
I’m ashamed now. How I must have looked that night. Rain pouring down on me. My thinning blonde hair plastered to my head. Mascara clumped under my eyes, red raw from crying.
In fairness to you, you didn’t laugh at me. You didn’t sneer the round old woman in front of you. You didn’t tell me how happy he was with you, how your full head of hair was a delight to him, how your younger, male body was something he wanted to see.
No. You were decent that way, I suppose. Instead you said, go home, Margaret, and gently, silently closed the front door as I stood sobbing, doubled over. As if my body couldn’t take the agony anymore.
Somehow I made it home that night. Crept in past the sitting room where Brendan snored, the TV still on.
In the shower I let steam and too-hot water scald me into silence until the pain of burning skin overrode. In bed I wondered what now? Would you tell him I was there? Humiliated myself. Would you laugh together about the stupid old woman who didn’t know when to walk away, not from your door, not from my marriage.
For days my heart pounded in my chest. He carried on going to his meetings, the pints in the pub, those trips to the gym. All those things you were known as. This sudden drive he had in life, the whistling in the mornings again. That was you.
As the weeks went by I knew you would never tell him. Maybe that was for your own sake, not to involve me in your relationship with my husband. Or maybe fear that he would never leave this life he’d built. His sons and daughter, our grandchildren, his reputation, his friends and lifestyle. Me. Forty years of a life together, built from the ground up. Maybe you were worried you were nothing but a subplot.
I wondered were people in this church who knew. Prying, interfering people. They loved any drama that wasn’t their own. Did they know?
Had his heart not shuddered, thundered and stopped, would you have done something together today? This morning would he have told me he had a late meeting? Would I have said ok, and cried when he left?
Did today’s spectators see you come into the church? Did their eyes widen at the sight of the man, the living breathing shame of you and what you were, while the wife, the widow sat up front with his grieving family. Did they feel sorry for me? A pitiful old woman whose neck had thickened and rolled, hair gone so thin her scalp showed everywhere. Did they hope I’d see you, cause a scene, give them something to talk about after the burial?
The priest led the way down the church, four altar boys smirking and nudging each other behind him. I followed after the dark wood of my husband’s coffin. My daughter held my hand as we had held hands thirty years ago when I walked her to school.
The priest waved incense that made my empty stomach heave. The sickly thick smoke swam up my nostrils and into my eyes. Was it to keep away evil spirits? The hands of the devil that wanted his soul. The only hand of the devil here was you. The priest should stand in front of you and blow that smoke in your face until your skin melted and your flesh fell from your bones.
I stared at you as we walked down the aisle. You and your lowered eyes. Not caring who saw me now, I was the righteous one, the suffering widow behind the coffin.
At the graveside, the priest splashed holy water on the coffin. The rain cleared and the clouds pulled apart to let the sun shine through. Hoods were pulled down, umbrellas closed, people looked up at the sun, squinting. Down into the ground they lowered him. I couldn’t see you, but I knew you were there. Leering nearby, edging your way into my family, my grief.
I knew you’d never go to the pub with the rest of them when the grave diggers started shovel the earth back over him. Murmuring voices withdrew slowly, shadow like, their work was done, a grey black fluid mass that moved towards the pub. That’s why I went to your house. I wanted to see you broken, undone, alone.
This time when you opened the door it was you who stood there crying. I wondered how many times had Brendan stood here on this same step, smiling at you, bottle of wine and bunch of flowers in hand. And you’d have laughed every time and let him in. I almost felt sorry for you, no one to share your grief with. Lonelier than the widow now, the whole community feels for me. You stepped back, held the door open, not trying to hide your tears nor the shame of who and what you were.
I stepped in as the rain started again. You didn’t speak but followed me to your kitchen, as if this were my house and I was the one crying at the door. An open bottle of wine and one half empty wine glass on the table. One dirty cup and one dirty plate beside the sink. One chair pulled out. One person to sit there. Our kitchens had become the same. Empty, waiting for him. Full, when he was there. Empty, no more waiting for him.
I stood in the middle of your tiny kitchen. Your dining table for two beside me. you stood at the door, the dark hallway stretching like an open mouth behind you. If we stretched out our arms, our fingers would touch. Touching you would be like touching the blade of the axe that hacked through my marriage, spread blood like it spread weeds and disease.
You stood there, openly crying, your hands limp by your side, your back hunched. You looked pathetic. You disgusted me. Brendan disgusted me.
I ran forward. You were tall. At least a foot and a half above me. But I pushed you, hard, out of the way, I ran down the gaping black mouth. I did not stop.
Teresa Sweeney is from Galway, Ireland and has an MA in Writing from NUI Galway, Ireland. She has been published in journals including Dangerous Women Project, Roadside Fiction, Number Eleven Magazine, Outburst Magazine, and was a runner-up in WOW! Awards 2011. Teresa was shortlisted in Over the Edge New Writer of the Year, 2014, 2017, and 2018. She was a featured emerging writer reading at Over the Edge in November 2014, and read at Cuirt Literary Festival in April 2015. In January 2018, Teresa self-published a collection of short stories, Stars in the Ground.