There is a lot to be said for urban living. You can walk to the shops, stumble home from pubs, access public transport, be around other humans or just take a walk after dark without reenacting The Evil Dead, thanks to the miracle of streetlighting. Since I left home two decades ago, I have always lived in urban spaces, first in Cork city, then the scorched hellscapes of Dublin, then back in the heart of the bustling market town of Midleton. But things changed, and now my family and I live in the house I grew up in, three miles outside of Midleton, on the back Dungourney road (not to be confused with the main Dungourney autobahn). The house is a money pit. We should really have known this, as the house is two days older than dirt – or, to put it another way, 41, the same age as myself. And, also like myself, it needed a lot of cosmetic and structural work. So we set to it, knocking a wall or two and blocking up doorways, which has led to the amusing scene of me almost walking into walls, expecting a door to be there.
The biggest job, however, is the windows. Just like the accursed OS that bears their name, installing windows is an expensive, tedious and generally awful experience that nobody willfully goes through. But we live in a house with floor to ceiling bay windows – a single-paned, teak-framed latticework that allows heat out with the same enthusiasm that it lets the rain in. Large houses are always cold, or expensive to heat, but we are up on a hill, with rubbish windows, and now some nights I go to bed in two hoodies, gloves and a scarf. And none of those are euphemisms. We got a quote from the ever illusive Munster Joinery for a complete refit – 22k. Also, the roofs of the aforementioned bay windows need to be redone at the same time, so that will bring the total cost into the region of 30k. So as a classic #dadhack (ie, cheap, impractical solution), I bought us all parkas, which we now wear around the house, like scientists at an Arctic research base, conducting important research into the effects of sub-zero temperatures on chaise longues and cornicing. I just hope no-one calls only to witness the sight of six parka-clad townies struggling to survive one of the mildest winters on record.
Living in the country makes you aware of how much the state actually does for you. For all urban dwellers they provide clean water and sewerage systems, as well as offering public transport, roads, paths, streetlights – the list goes on. You move to the sticks and all that ends. Suddenly we are worrying about wells, pumps, septic tanks, sluggish broadband and darkness. And money; we are also worrying about money.
Most people assumed we would sell this place, and there have been times in the last few months when we wished we had. But those weren’t dad’s wishes. He loved this house – the views, the fresh air, the silence. However, a large part of the reason he would never leave is that my sister died here. She had a heart attack in the shower at the age of 22. She had grand mal epilepsy and was sick for more than half her life. Her bedroom was never changed after her death, and it was only when we started to renovate that her belongings were removed. Behind a radiator we found a Noddy book, with her name on the inside cover, the L in Lucy written backwards in her child’s writing. Dad used to say he could never leave my mum and Lucy as he saw them still in the house. I woke a few times in the night and thought about it, the idea of my sister or my mother drifting from room to room, watching us sleep. It brings little comfort. I prefer my version of reality to my dad’s – the dead are dead and that is that. But I sometimes feel like I am living in a poorly insulated mausoleum. Not helping the Daphne du Maurier vibe is the fact that my youngest son keeps pointing at random corners and shouting ‘ghost’. Either he is watching too much Scooby Doo or the caul he was born with is finally starting to work.
Not far from where I live there is a massive, gothic, grand old pile, once part of a massive, grand estate, and it is known locally as bringing ill fortune on all who live there. I was only in it once, when my mum brought me to visit a woman who was dying of cancer. She was in a huge upstairs bedroom, with her young daughter playing a piano in the corner. I don’t remember much about it other than that, apart from the dormant fountain outside being full of frogspawn. The (very Catholic) story I was told about the house was that a previous owner had hung himself off one of the trees along the driveway and that the property was doomed after that. It’s not hard to see how people cling to this belief – the various families who have lived there have suffered an uncanny amount of tragedy; decrepitude, immolation, drowning, and a series of young deaths. Also, the house looks like something out of a Hammer Horror film – you can see for yourself, as it is on AirBnB. But the reality is that the house isn’t all that different, it’s just the comforts of superstition, a sort of diluted, organic version of religion that tells you the same thing – there is Something Else. Every home has suffered tragedies and losses; at least, that’s what I try to tell myself this as I struggle to cope with being the last member of my family, wandering around a house looking for doorways and faces that aren’t here anymore.
I started writing this post six months ago after we moved in. Now it’s June and the days are longer, the nights are warmer and things generally are improving, both for us as a family and inside my head. The grief of it all is starting to subside a little, and I am coming to terms with dad’s passing. I still have bad days, but not like over the first few months, when at times I thought I was losing my mind. I randomly broke down so many times I lost count – I met one of the palliative care nurses who looked after dad, and I broke down; my wife told me how proud dad would have been of me, and I broke down. Even things seemingly unconnected to dad made me crumble – one day a Down Syndrome child in the hospital walked over and hugged me, and I broke down. It’s basically been a few months of me either A) cracking wise like a dickhead, as is my wont, or B) sobbing openly. But the pain is easing, though I am still haunted by the sense of my own looming demise. I never really thought about death all that much, not like this, with a very real sense of the absolute finality. It still pops into my head from time to time; I just stop for a moment and realise that one day I will be completely and utterly dead, and the shock of it makes me sick. But then you busy yourself with other things and forget for another while, until the next moment of existential despair.
Working in a hospital has, oddly enough, been a great help. All day I deal with people who have real problems – not ‘my giant house has old windows, boo fucking hoo’ – but actual life-challenging problems. Sometimes when I book follow-up appointments for patients for next year, I know they won’t be coming as they will be gone. Sometimes they know it too, and joke about it. ‘That’s a long while off isn’t it, well sher I might still be here’. Most of the time the patients are elderly, sometimes they are just kids. Perspective is a wonderful gift.
The good news is that, according to local superstitions, we are due yet another death in the family. I was excitedly telling a neighbour about a robin that keeps coming into the house, and he duly informed me that according to local lore, a robin coming into the house is a sign that someone who lives there will pass away. He was telling me this as we had just cut down a tree in my garden that, unbeknownst to us, contained a magpie’s nest – with two young magpies in it. So the signs are clear – we are fucked, either by the robin, the magpies, or hypothermia if the winter gets bad enough.
But even superstitions have their limits. I told my neighbour – who is now my shaman in these matters – about when we brought dad home after his diagnosis last summer, and were greeted with the sight of a crow in the living room, perched atop dad’s favourite chair. I asked if he thought that might have been a warning from the fates, some sort of sign; what did it mean. He said it probably meant there was a nest in the chimney.