The room felt cold, the curtains around each bed swaying slightly in a draft that seemed to come from nowhere. Dennis walked down the centre aisle, the soles of his work boots sucking at the floor. He stopped at his mother’s bed, stood at the end of it, waiting.
His mother eventually opened her eyes, the act seeming to take some effort. The skin of her face was slack and grey, seeming to have shrunk since the last time he visited. ‘Dennis…’
He moved nearer to the bed, pulled up a grey, plastic chair. ‘Okay, Mam?’
‘Ah, you know, as well as can be expected.’ She pushed herself further up the bed. ‘I’m glad you came.’
Dennis placed a pile of magazines on the knitted bed-cover. ‘Bev sent you something to read.’
Dennis looked around the ward. At the far end, by the window, an elderly man was sitting up in his bed, staring into space. For as long as Dennis looked, a minute or so, he hardly appeared to move. He turned back to his mam. ‘You need anything else?’
His mother sat for a minute, looking at him. Then she lifted a stringy forefinger. ‘Dennis, I want you to do something for me.’
Dennis swallowed. ‘Sure, Mam, just name it.’ Whatever it was, clean underwear, a new nightdress, a pack of Tena-Lady, he was sure Bev would take care of it.
His mother continued to point, the rest of her fingers bunched around a crumpled tissue. ‘Dennis, I know I haven’t got very long left. The doctors say a few weeks at most.’
Dennis looked at the floor. He’d never been very good with death. Not even in films.
When Bev had made him sit through Les Miserables a few weeks before, Dennis had had to leave the room before the final scene. When Charlie’s hamster had died, he’d gone into town while the boy was at school and bought him a new one. Charlie hadn’t been able to tell the difference. He looked back at his mam, waited.
‘Now, Dennis, I’m not asking for much, you know I wouldn’t. But what I want you to do is…’ Fighting a phlegmy cough, she held the tissue in front of her mouth. ‘I want you to go down to St. Peter’s and say a prayer for me. Light a candle and say a prayer.’
Dennis looked around to see if anyone was listening. He cleared his throat. ‘Okay, Mam. If that’s er, if that’s what you want. Course I will.’ He immediately wondered if this was a task he could pass on to Bev. He didn’t think so.
The old woman settled her head back against the pillow, the blue hospital logo forming a halo around her thin hair. ‘Good boy.’
The spire of St Peter’s loomed out of the darkness, its spiky head silhouetted against the night sky. Hands in pockets, Dennis stood on the pavement for a while, thinking about the time when, as a schoolboy, he had been picked to do a reading at mass. He remembered how his voice had quivered as he stood at the lectern: God bless all the children and the animals, the grown-ups who look after us, the teachers, the policemen. God bless the firemen, the hospital workers who help us every day. So many people to bless. It had seemed to go on and on, forever. He turned away from the church and crossed the road, pushed open the door of The Crown.
‘Evening, Dennis. Usual?’
Lou’s stubby hand was pulling the pump before Dennis even reached the bar.
‘How’s your mam?’
‘Ah, you know, still goin’.’ Dennis perched one buttock on a stool. ‘Don’t know for how much longer though.’
Lou nodded. ‘Good woman, your mother, Den. We’ll all miss ‘er.’
Dennis sipped his pint, wiped the froth from his lip. ‘You know, Lou, she asked me something today.’
He took another sip. ‘Asked me to nip into St Peter’s and say a prayer for ‘er. Light a candle, like.’
Lou leant against the bar, lifting one elbow as his barmaid, Sarah, wiped down the wood in front of him. ‘Poor woman. She must know the end is comin’. You done it yet?’
Dennis shook his head. ‘Not yet.’
‘Well, you know me, Lou. Never been much of a believer. Seems a bit hypocritical, dunnit?’
A draft hit his neck as the door opened and Gaz came in. ‘Pint when you’re ready, Lou. Spitting feathers. Alright, Den? How’s your mam?’
Dennis nodded. ‘Still goin’.’
Lou pointed his thumb over the bar. ‘Wants him to say a prayer for ‘er. Light a candle, like. Over at the church.’
Gaz took his pint, handed over a handful of change. ‘Ah, must be sensing it’s nearly the end, eh?’
Lou nodded. ‘Won’t do it though, will he? Not a believer, he says.’
Gaz looked at Dennis. ‘Won’t do it?’
Dennis shook his head, feeling his cheeks colour. ‘You know me, Gaz. Never been much of a one for church. Had it rammed down my throat too much as a kid.’
‘But you got married there, didn’t you? In the church. You and Bev?’
‘Yeah, course I did. But that was all Bev’s doin’, wannit? Just put me suit on and turned up, me.’
Gaz and Lou stood across from each other for a few minutes, Gaz supping his pint whilst Lou whistled quietly under his breath. Behind him, Sarah piled empty glasses into the washer before moving through the gap in the bar to collect more.
Lou pointed his chin at Sarah’s back. ‘You remember when she lost that kiddy? Few years back?’
Dennis nodded. He remembered when Bev had popped round to see Sarah one day, taking her some flowers. Lou had been run off his feet for three weeks or more.
‘Had it christened, she did,’ Lou said. ‘Before it was even born.’
Dennis drained the dregs of his pint. ‘Before?’
Lou nodded. ‘In vitro something or other they called it. Can’t remember exactly but that’s what they did. Christened it in the womb. Already knew it was gonna die, see. When it came out.’
‘I remember that,’ Gaz said. ‘Brought her great comfort, I was told.’
‘That it did.’
Dennis watched Lou move to the other side of the bar to serve another customer, the tail of his shirt overflowing his belt at the back. He clapped Gaz on the shoulder, climbed off the stool. ‘Better get off.’
Gaz nodded. ‘Right you are. Say hello to your mam for me.’
Outside the sky had darkened, a chill wind picking up the leaves and sending them scurrying down the street. Dennis stood for a minute and looked at the church opposite, thinking how much easier it would be just to turn the opposite way, go home. Reheat the tea that Bev would have waiting for him, spend some time with Charlie, watch the telly. There was nothing better than heading home on a late autumn evening, knowing the heating would be on when he got there.
He crossed the road, the foyer of the church lit by warm orange lights, welcoming the Thursday night mass-goers. As Dennis stepped inside, the dusty smell that filled his nostrils immediately took him back to his childhood: Sundays with Mam and Gran, a day off school on holy days, his first confession when he’d had to make up what he’d done wrong. The holy water was cold on his skin as he made the sign of the cross.
Inside the nave, a sprinkling of parishioners lined the pews, Father O’Donaghue, at the altar, reading from what Dennis thought was the Gospel of St Matthew. Dennis stood at the back for a minute, arms folded, the near-silence of the building, the only sound the priest’s sombre voice, settling over his body like a blanket. He thought about Bev, sitting at home, probably watching EastEnders or some such, checking the clock and tutting at the idea of him stalling in the pub again. Moving forward, he settled himself into one of the back pews, the cloth of his work trousers sliding against the polished wood.
Dennis waited for a moment before, feeling self-conscious, he moved onto his knees, the kneeling-cushion on the floor seeming unsteady as it wobbled back and to beneath his weight. Bowing his head, he rested it against his joined hands and closed his eyes, trying to focus on the reddy blackness swimming in front of him. He thought about his mam, conjuring up an image of her in his mind’s eye as she used to be, at the old house when Da was still alive. Pottering around the kitchen in the thinning Colman’s Mustard apron she’d had since he was a kid. Backwards and forwards between the sink and the stove. Keeping the picture in his head, he tried to recall the words of the prayers he’d learnt at school, the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers. The God of Mercy and Compassions. A hymn, that one, he thought, frowning. A hymn, not a prayer.
The touch of a hand against his back startled him. As he turned, Dennis saw Sarah, from the pub, sitting on the pew next to him, one leg crossed over the other, an unlit cigarette and a lighter in one hand. ‘On a break,’ she whispered. ‘Saw you come in ‘ere.’
Dennis pulled himself up into a sitting position, his back creaking. The priest, at the front of the church, appeared to have finished his mass and was preparing to leave, black-and-white altar boys trailing after him like sheep.
‘How’s your mam, Den?’
Dennis looked at Sarah. ‘Ah, you know,’ he said quietly. ‘Not so great.’
‘Wants me to say a prayer for her, she does,’ Dennis said.
Sarah raised one eyebrow. ‘Wondered what you were doin’ in ‘ere. Haven’t see you at mass for a long time.’
Dennis looked around the church. The few parishioners were now starting to leave, each one genuflecting at the end of the pew and crossing themselves before heading towards the doors. ‘Maybe I should just ask Bev to do it. She’s better at this sort of thing than me.’
Sarah pursed her bottom lip. ‘Didn’t ask Bev though, did she?’ She fiddled with her cigarette, twirling it between her fingers.
Dennis shook his head. ‘I guess not.’
‘Look, Den. We all know that religion is a very personal thing. For some, it brings great comfort. For others, well, at the end of the day, if you’re not feelin’ it, you’re not feelin’ it.’
Dennis looked at her, waited.
‘I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is…’ Sarah looked around her as if they were both involved in some kind of conspiracy. ‘Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.’
Dennis sat for a moment, his brain working overtime. Then his mouth fell open. ‘You mean?’
Sarah nodded. ‘Nobody knew any different, Den. It was really just a way to make my ma and da feel better, wannit? And my husband. At the end of the day, nothing was going to save my baby. And nothing was goin’ to bring him back now, was it?’
Dennis let out a breath, shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Sarah. I just feel bad, you know?’
Sarah lifted her chin. ‘Come on. Come and ‘ave a fag wi’ me and then you can get off home.’
Dennis followed her out of the pew, curtseying clumsily at the end of it before heading back out into the night. Outside, he took one of Sarah’s cigarettes and they smoked together quietly before it was time for her to go back to work. ‘Don’t forget, Den,’ she said, putting a finger to her lips as she crossed the road. ‘Mum’s the word.’
Den watched her go into the pub, standing for a minute outside the church, looking up as he stretched the muscles of his back. Above his head, the sky was clear, hundreds, no, thousands, hundreds of thousands, of stars decorating the black. Light upon light upon light filling the space as far as the eye could see.
Dennis swallowed. He looked at the sky. ‘Look after ‘er, won’t you?’ he said quietly. And he was done.