Play the Man – a story


Martin never liked the smell of lilies. Too fresh, too light, too alive for funerals. Love doesn’t smell like lilies, comfort doesn’t either, neither did home usually. He didn’t complain; he wouldn’t. He left the room of lilies where his mother lay to take a moment of respite, something little and far between these past few days.

He stepped out into the early morning air and closed the patio door gentle behind him. Martin looked up at the warm artificial dawn spilling into the pale night from the room where she lay. Solstice tomorrow the newspaper had said. Thirty-two degrees Celsius. Just perfect weather to be in a black suit. Further into the garden you could smell the sweat of a half-burnt rosebush too run down from the summer weather to bloom. The night air was thick and strong with the smell of the tarmac and the dew growing on the grass. It was uncomfortable on the skin, like an awkward hug held too long. It held all the potential of an unstruck match. Cows lay like droplets of burnt caramel among the dew in the field behind his mother’s house. Wood pigeons and crows were waking up too soon and their conversations were loud enough to stir the dead…well, almost. Martin laughed a little at that thought but knew better than to hope.

The only lady in the house, she would have been scandalised. What would the neighbours think? A house full of men at this hour! Vigil was a man’s job, this he understood, it wasn’t his first rodeo. It was filling the silence that put him on edge. In the kitchen old and practiced men laughed together and young, untested men tensed with the thoughts of the graveyard shift, of what tomorrow would bring. A card game was going but no money swapped hands. It was a feeble attempt to distract one another from the lady lying upstairs. They took shifts to sit with her until dawn. It shouldn’t be long now.

There were more bumblebees in the pale sky than Martin had seen in ages. He’d tell them that she had plenty of pall bearers, but he hadn’t the heart. Through the window he could see his brother’s ashen face. The boy two years his junior was standing at the sink, washing saucers and teacups that had already been cleaned. A vein of teacups ran through grief. There was a Saint Brigid’s cross on the wall above the sink that he’d made as a child. His father used to bring them in to buy their mother flowers on their birthdays. A small penance for life. Martin wondered if he’d carry on this tradition, if he’d teach his children to lay flowers by a stone, tributes for a woman they’d never met. But never lilies. His brother’s sunken eyes were staring at the reeds in pain, the cross that was long since dead.

After a long moment Martin breathed deep and his chest shook as it left him, struggled out into the new summer air. He found then he was crying. Only a matter of time he supposed. It was alright, he’d be alright in a little while. Deep breath. A bee neared the dandelion that poked through the tarmac by his foot. He regarded it like any other mourner. It’ll be ok, I’ll be ok, give me a minute. It came closer, landed on the step beside him. I’m fine. For a moment he was. For a moment he had been master of himself. Just breathe Martin. He broke at last. Great, violent, inconsiderate tears. He tried his best to sob silently, hunkered down to hide his shaking shoulders from the window’s reach. He didn’t want anyone to see him cry. He couldn’t weaker than the broken boy scrubbing ceramics on autopilot. Through a crack in the window, he could hear his father’s whisper, he could see his father’s form by the sink, by his brother.

“Just play the man son…He never said be one he only said play one”

Martin closed his eyes to the new morning, to the last day he would see his mother’s face and began to put himself back together again, one breath at a time. The bee stirred, flew higher, landed on his shoulder as though to pat him with its six little legs. Play the man. He did not politely thank it for its well-wishes as he had done with so many others over the last few days. It didn’t mind. He wiped the snot from his nose with his sleeve and took his time to stand again He could play the man. He could too. He knew he could. Just smell the lilies and play the man.

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