I lived in Scotland, and trips to Ireland to see my widowed mother were infrequent. Somehow, Joe Hynes always knew when I was back. We had shared six years in the same class at secondary school, and had hung around with the same people at university. Hardly a friend but more than an acquaintance, not that Hynes cared about such distinctions.
As usual, he came calling on my third day home. I recognized his three sharp knocks, and pictured his hulking mass and supercilious grin before I opened the door.
“The returned scholar,” he greeted me, and lumbered into the front room, bunching the rug under his clumsy boots.
He took off his greasy anorak, and slumped onto the couch, spilling cushions on the floor, and twisting the needlepoint covers on the arm rest. He placed a brown folder on the coffee table.
“I’ll have tea, thanks. Milk and two sugars.” Hynes never waited to be asked. “Do you have any chocolate biscuits?”
I went into the kitchen to make the tea. My mother arranged biscuits on a plate and returned with me to the front room.
“You’re looking well,” said Hynes, big grin on his beefy face.
“And how’s everything with you, Joe?” she asked.
“Can’t complain. If I did, who’d listen?”
He crunched the biscuits, slurped the tea, and discussed the deaths of various local people with my mother.
“You’ll remember Micky Moynihan,” he said to me. “Cast in his eye. You’d see him out walking his dog, a Jack Russell. Always drank in The Stroll Inn. They found him hanging in his pantry. What do you make of that?”
I muttered something non-committal. Hynes took no notice.
“Huge turnout at the funeral. A who’s who of boozers from The Stroll Inn.”
“The things you come out with, Joe.” My mother shook her head and smiled.
“That’s grand tea.” Hynes held his cup aloft. “As I always say, the world can go to hell so long as I have a cup of tea.”
Once my mother left the room, Hynes ran through his menu of topics. First up, politics; conservative and reactionary, he criticized the policies of foreign governments and bemoaned the denigration of patriotism. Then, his love life, as he called it; women he watched from afar, and desired. He moved on to his medication, and listed different drugs and dosages. Finally, he updated me on the misfortunes of people we had known at university.
“You know,” he said, “I should have studied English or Languages. I’m more artistic than practical. But I’m good at numbers.”
Good at everything, in fact, if he put his mind to it. His main failing, as he saw it, was that he spread himself too thin.
Hynes had never worked a day in his life. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, he was offered a job in a communications company twenty miles away. On his first day, he suffered a severe panic attack. The prospect of the commute, answering to a boss and the nine-to-five grind was too much for him. He applied for disability, convinced the medical assessors, and got by on a weekly cheque from the government.
Returning to his love life, he mentioned a young librarian he had his eye on.
“If that doesn’t work out,” he said, “I’ll try the older ones, the bored housewives in The Central Hotel. Get them well jarred so they’re on for anything.” Hynes didn’t drink, careful not to mix alcohol with his medication. “There’s better riding with older mares.”
I nodded and said nothing.
He reached for the folder. “Let me show you the latest thing I’ve written.” He took out a sheaf of loose pages. “Here, have a read of that.”
Hynes sat back on the couch, and waited for my praise. I skimmed the pages, picking out words and phrases. It was the usual self-pitying depiction of an unappreciated genius. Boring, stilted dialogue, bland aphorisms and risible descriptions of failed approaches to women.
“What do you think?”
“Very good,” I said. “Well written.”
That wasn’t enough for Hynes. “What do you like about it?”
“The tone. I like the tone.”
“How does it compare with my last story?”
“Which one was that?”
“Eva,” he said as though the title was known to a wide readership. “You know, the girl who’s too provincial to emigrate with the brilliant mathematician. My take on Joyce’s Eveline.”
“Ah, yes,” I replied. “I like both of them.”
“Right so, I’ll send that off to the agents and a couple of literary magazines.”
As far as I knew, his stories weren’t accepted by any journal or magazine. Some of his essays appeared on pseudo-political websites. Thankfully, he never forced these on me. He turned his hand to cartoons, rough pencil drawings that showed skill but little humour. On one of his visits, he handed me a drawing of a bird on crutches with the heading: Lame Duck.
“Hang on to that,” he said. “It might be worth millions someday.”
He started writing plays, and had a one-act piece performed by an amateur group. I attended the premiere. A two-hander with no set or props. The main protagonist was a corrupt politician who bestowed his wisdom on a politics student, representing his idealistic younger self. The play was ham-fisted and turgid, poor plagiarism of second-rate material. Whatever my opinion, having it staged meant recognition. I expected Hynes would be pleased, even big-headed.
“It must be gratifying to have others learn your words, and perform your work,” I said.
“I suppose so,” he responded flatly. “But they don’t get what it means, and the lead keeps forgetting his lines.”
“I thought he was good.” Though irked by Hynes’ lack of gratitude, I was impressed by his unwillingness to accept this small success.
“I have another play in the works,” he said. “I’ll show it to you when you’re back again.”
A year passed before my next trip home. I kept myself busy with repairs around the house, and errands for my mother. On the third day, I waited for Hynes’ knock. Sure enough, late in the afternoon his rap-tap-tap sounded on the front door.
Sitting on the couch, tea and biscuits untouched, he seemed somewhat subdued.
“Are you a collector?” he asked.
That caught me off guard, as Hynes didn’t ask questions. He only ever spoke about himself, and had never shown any interest in what I did, my life or work. In return, I didn’t tell him about my short stories, or the many rejections, or the paltry list of publications in obscure magazines.
“I collected stamps and football cards when I was a kid,” he continued. “Now, I’m onto something bigger.” He reached into his folder. No sheaf of pages this time, but a fistful of shiny squares. “Memorial cards.”
I recognized the laminated cards, distributed at funerals or sent to well-wishers, with a photograph of the deceased, dates of birth and death, and an inspirational message.
“You can collect anything but a proper collection shouldn’t be aimless.” He examined one of the cards, turning it over to look at the back. “That’s always been my problem, a scattergun approach. Too many things on the go. With collectibles you need to be focused. What’s more, you have to be imaginative.”
Normally, I would have laughed to myself, hearing Hynes refer to imagination. But this was a different Hynes, more measured.
“If you’re aimless in your collecting,” he explained, “you’ll get nowhere. Memorial cards have no apparent monetary value. They’re a keepsake, part of the bereavement industry. You couldn’t call them artistic, but they do have elements of creativity. Poetry of a sort, photography, and the overall design.”
Hynes handed me a card. In Loving memory of Paddy Marshall, who looked surprised in a stiff collar and tightly knotted tie. Dead at seventy-six, and commemorated in a verse about memories and heaven and how God wanted Paddy to join him in everlasting peace.
“They’re going out of fashion,” Hynes said. “What with cremation, funerals aren’t what they used to be. Fewer people observe the old traditions. Memorial cards are becoming relics, and will soon be part of the collectors’ market.” He took a sip of tea. “I’m getting in on the ground floor, ahead of the rush.”
Hynes told me he started his collection from family members, then went door to door, asking neighbours if they had any to spare. Applying his characteristic doggedness, he wouldn’t accept no for an answer, riffled through dressers and stood over grannies as they searched the pages of prayer books for forgotten cards. He widened his search, telephoned and texted, and got onto the internet. It had become a full-time occupation.
“I’ve got the bug now. The thrill of the chase. Stopped all my meds, no need for any of that.”
“That’s good to hear.” I handed back the card.
“Not just collecting, I’ve started writing about them. A proper study, the first systemization of memorial cards. There are only so many stories and plays, and they’ve all been written. What’s the point of rehashing the same old spiel? I’ve latched onto something different. I’ll be the pre-eminent expert in the field. People are already contacting me for my opinion. Right now, I’m busy organising my collection, getting ready for an exhibition.”
“I don’t know what to say.” I stumbled over my words. “It sounds interesting.”
“Have to leave you now.” He stood up. “I’ve got an urgent appointment. Meeting a woman, curator at the museum, to discuss the exhibition.”
He banged the door on his way out.
On my next two trips home, Hynes didn’t call. The first time, I felt relief. The second time, it bothered me but I was preoccupied, seeing to my mother’s needs. She had begun to show signs of decline, uncertain in her movements and vague in her manner.
On the evening before I left, we sat together in the front room.
“Strange that Joe Hynes hasn’t come around,” I remarked.
“He was here some time ago,” she said, “looking for funeral cards.” She couldn’t remember when. “He had me going through every drawer.”
“Hynes is a bloody nuisance.”
“He hasn’t had it easy.” My mother dabbed her nose with a handkerchief. “Joe makes the best of things.”
Six months later, I returned to bury her.
Standing at the graveside, I shook hands with people I didn’t know, and accepted their expressions of sympathy.
“I’m sorry for your trouble.”
“Thank you,” I said, again and again.
“I knew your mother well,” one stooped old man with a walking stick told me. “She was a shrewd judge of character.”
I stayed on for a week to deal with the bureaucracy that accompanies death. One morning, leafing through the newspaper over breakfast, I noticed an announcement; Launch of new book by local writer—A History of Memorial Cards.
I went along, expecting a low-key affair, and was surprised by the crowd that had gathered. A waitress offered me a glass of wine. I picked up the book from one of the displays. A weighty tome, over four hundred pages. Nicely put together, text interspersed with black and white images of memorial cards, maps, letters and photographs of priests and cemeteries. Judging from the number of people at the launch, Hynes had tapped into a public appetite for nostalgia and death.
I read the biography of the author on the fly-leaf: Joseph Hynes is the epitome of the Renaissance Man. Qualified as an engineer, he is the author of numerous short stories and plays, and is an accomplished essayist and cartoonist.
It was easy to spot Hynes, standing taller than everyone else. I caught his eye, and he beckoned me over. As I made my way across the room, I took in the transformation—Joe Hynes in a tweed jacket, linen shirt, hair combed back and fashionably stubbled chin.
“The returned scholar.” He shook my hand, and introduced me to the young woman beside him. “Clare, this is an old schoolmate.”
She afforded me an indifferent smile, before turning to Hynes, hand placed lightly on his arm. “Joseph, I have to see about the press coverage.”
“Clare’s my agent,” he said. “She’s very efficient.”
I drank some wine, and Hynes smiled at greetings and compliments from passers-by.
“I was sorry to hear about your mother. My condolences.” He spoke with a formal politeness I would never have associated with him.
“Good turn-out here,” I said, dismayed at how banal it sounded.
“I suppose so.” He scanned the room. “If you’re looking for ideas for a memorial card, you’ve come to the right place.”
A line of people had formed, each with a copy of Hynes’ book.
“Duty calls, time to do some book signing. I better get it over with.” He patted my shoulder. “It was good to see you.”
He pushed his way through the crowd. I stood aside as more people joined the line. Hynes sat at a table, stacked with copies of his book. His agent poured a glass of water, and handed him a pen.
I watched him as he looked up to acknowledge the first in the queue of his admirers.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Shooter, Black Moon Magazine, untethered, Liennek Journal, Granfalloon, Samjoko, upstreet, Liquid Imagination, Into the Void, Night Picnic, Firewords, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Bards and Sages Best Indie Speculative Fiction. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).