All Souls Day
Tony, one of the security guards, talked to me most days. I wasn't special, he talked to everyone, and he had a lot to say; he'd been a security officer for the company that owned the building for 47 years. There was a man stuck in the elevator shaft, he told me. He'd been there 85 years. Apparently, he'd died in an accident during construction in the 1920's, and to this day, he haunted the elevator. It was a popular legend, lent weight by the undeniable fact that no matter how many times the elevator was repaired, it constantly went haywire. Often the temperature inside was unaccountably at odds with the rest of the building. It frequently went up and down of its own accord, stopping at floors that no one had requested. I didn't believe in ghosts. Few people with Harvard law degrees do.
One November 2nd, a day that then had little meaning to me - beyond the fun that my wife and I had had the previous weekend, dressing our 6 month old son as a pumpkin, to the delight of his adoring grandparents - I rode the elevator as usual to the 87th floor. What was almost unheard of, is that the other three young associates in there with me got out at the 40th floor, and no one else got in. It's rare, in a firm of 800 lawyers, to find yourself alone in the elevator. Somewhere around the 53rd floor, the elevator abruptly shuddered. Here we go, I thought, as I sensed a tingling sensation in my stomach in spite of myself.
Briefly, the lights went out. You won't believe me, but I swear the temperature plummeted. I wasn't sure if we were still moving, but suddenly I was cold. Not freezing, but it was as if the expensive heat and air control system had packed up weeks ago. The lift somehow smelt musty. The lights flickered and came on and I leapt at least 3 feet in the air. Lying on the floor in a broken heap was a man. He was face down, groaning, and he was clearly badly hurt. I wanted to talk or scream but my throat was as dry as sand and my vocal chords were tied in knots that produced little more than a strangled squeak. I watched in horror as he writhed and realised he was speaking. It was a funny accent, I thought at first it was British. His clothes were straight out of that poster, the famous one of all the workers on the sky scraper at the Rockefeller. I wanted to go closer but my muscles were about as much use as my vocal chords. Even as I stood frozen in the corner though, I began to understand his words. My family, he kept saying, my family need the money. I need my money. My family needs my money. He twisted his neck, although the move cost him and when I saw it, his face was contorted with agony. I stared him in the eyes and saw his anguish as I remained locked to the spot. And suddenly he was gone. The lights were back on, the air was normal, the elevator was moving. I stumbled out at my floor. Murphy, my boss was barking, you're late. Get in my office now.
That night, despite finishing work at 11 and knowing I'd have to be back by 6am the next day, I began trawling records, applying my lawyer's passion for research in a desperate bid to make sense of what the hell had happened to me. Maybe I had snapped. It happened, not infrequently, to us young, overworked and overstressed associates. I wasn't sure what was worse, realising I was mad - and was that even something one could realise? - or accepting what had happened in that elevator as fact. I finally dug out the employment records of the building company that had been contracted by the building owner to do the majority of the final construction work, which included installing the original elevator. It had gone bust decades ago, but with a bit more digging, I discovered a shady history of illegal immigrant workers, and a case that had gone on for almost a decade involving a handful of Irish labourers, who were attempting to sue the company for withholding pay and unsafe working conditions. The case had finally been settled and hushed up by the company, but not until after the death of one of the workers who had fallen down the elevator shaft. Trawling through newspaper and death records, I finally found him. His name was John William Murphy. His face, I recognised immediately recognised.
Every nerve prickling along the back of my spine, I went up to our attic, something I hadn't done since we bought the house and dumped a load of boxes up there. There it was, the old family album from my father's father - a man whom I'd never met, who'd died a hero in WW2. The old family narrative was rattling round my head like a set of false teeth. The Irish roots, the immigration, the great grandfather who'd died in a work accident. The brilliance of my own father, who won a scholarship and been the first person to go to college and pull his family out of poverty. And then I found him, my great great grandfather, a small, blurry picture in his hometown in Ireland, John William Murphy, surrounded by his long gone family in their strange clothes, expressions grim.
I stared at his picture and I told him, crazy as it sounds now - and believe me, it's taken me a long time to repeat this story, even to myself - I told him we're ok. His family are ok. We survived. We don't need the money. He can be peaceful now. I went back to work but something had changed. I half expected to see him again, but I didn't. The elevator didn't break down again though. Six months later, I left Rothberg and Kline. I just couldn't find it in me to keep writing those contracts. I started with one client, Juan Fillipe, a Mexican factory worker who lost a finger after working 12 days straight. Five years later I'm not making what I used to, but I'm getting by. Maybe John William Murphy didn't just find peace for his own soul. Maybe he saved mine.
All soul’s day. The first one I can remember. The church bells ringing like hell.
All day we pray.
“What’s purgatory?” I ask.
The place between heaven and hell,” says Jack, my brother.
I thought that was earth. “I thought that was here, Jack,” I say “I thought heaven was above and hell below and us in the middle?”
“No, Nelly…” says Jack, “Stop asking questions.”
“Who do I know that’s died? Whose soul do I pray for?” I ask my sister Rosa.
“You don’t just pray for the souls you know of, Nell.” She says softly “We pray for them all. All good Christian souls.”
“Goodwife Parsons!” I say
“That’s someone I know what’s died!”
“And grandfa...and little Tom Eliot’s brother…what was his name?”
“Yes! Samuel who drowned!”
“Aye. Well, pray for them then, Nell. But pray for the others too.”
I prayed for them all. All the souls.
I was too small to go souling really. That’s what they had all said.
“But I know the song! Please Ma’am!” I cried.
“You’re too little, Nelly. Next year maybe,” said my mother, “Stay here and help me give out the cakes instead."
It wasn’t like Mother to change her mind. Whinging usually lead to a slap and an early bed. But for some reason, on this day she gave in. And so, as darkness fell we wrapped ourselves up warm: Rosa and Jack and me.
"Don’t be long. Look after Nelly, ya here me, Jack? Rosa?"
"Aye, Ma’am, aye. We’ll look after her. Worry not ma’am."
"And stay with the others!" She shouts "Don’t join that older group of lads, ye hear do ye?"
"We won’t ma’am! Aye we won’t!"
And out we went into the village. Tracks we knew so well, different by night. Different this night. Everything was different. We couldn’t see the woods in the dark. But we could feel them more than ever, breathing on our backs where the light from our lanterns ended. There were a crowd of us all together. Lots of littleuns. But I the littlest of them all!
My heart sings in my chest and everything thrills, everything tingles! I can feel my own soul like I’ve never felt it before. I’ve never been so grown up!
Rosa holds my hand tugging me along and we slither our feet across the damp grass, scrambling, tumbling, leaping the corners. A slight mist, a slight moon. Can’t see who is who, just shadows and laughters, curses and songs, and that autumn night smell everywhere.
Rosa says, “What’s wrong Nelly, you’re almost shivering? Are you too tired, shall I take you home? Are you scared?"
"No! Don’t take me home!" I cry.
All I'm scared of is this night ending.
The darkness everywhere and the cold. But we are not cold, we are warm from the inside out, there are fires within us.
The lights from the houses and the smells of smoke and something bubbling, something baking on someone else's fireplace.
The first house.
We sing with force:
"Hey ho, nobody home
Meat nor drink
Nor money have I none
Fill the pot Edie!"
Cakes passed around. Laughter. Prayers. Souls freed.
Now onto the second house.
An old woman at the door. Small height (even I can see that), wild face (like she came from the woods). I know her, I recognise her from market, but I don’t know her name. She gives us strips of apple that's been dried over the fire. Not soul cakes but good all the same. Smokey and sweet at once.
She listens to us sing and then she speaks. Her voice is wild. She’s looking beyond us into the mist, into the mass of the forest at our backs.
"Pray for Margaret!" She says. Her voice like a scratch on wood. "Pray for Margaret will ye? It’s not meant to be the children," She says, "It’s meant to be the poor. But giving is giving I suppose. It was always the poor when I was growing up, not childer like you whose mothers have made their own cakes safe at home. But giving is giving..."
"And soul cakes is soul cakes!" Shouts someone. Probably Robin. It was always Robin shouting in those days.
"And prayers is prayers!" Says this old woman defiantly, "Pray for Margaret will ye? More and more of you each year. But pray for Margaret."
She gives out the apple slices
“Aye Mistress, we’ll pray, sure.” Says Rosa, touching her arm.
We sing. I can’t hear my own voice over everyone else's but I’m singing my loudest ever.
"A soul! A soul! A soul cake,
Please good missus a soul cake,
One for Peter two for Paul
Three for him that made us all. "
Then we hear a whoop and a crash and we cross the group of boys, the older ones. Jack’s age and even older. I wouldn’t call them boys at all. Lads maybe. Men. But Harry Alesford is there with his flute. The shortest of the lot.
"Oi Rosa!" He says to my sister, "Oi Rosa, Jack… join us why don’t ye?"
I know why he says it. He’s looking at Rosa, he’s always looking at her. And once I asked if she wanted to marry him and she called me mighty impertinent. And I didn't know what that meant but I thought it meant love.
"We’re with the littleun!" She says apologetically holding up my hand in hers.
"Bring ‘er along bring ‘er along!"
And suddenly we are with them. With the lads Jack’s age and older. And Rosa's the only girl. And I’m the only littleun.
"Rosa!" I hiss, "Mother told us to stay away from the lads, Rosa!?"
She pats my head. "It’s alright Nell. Jack’s a lad he’ll look after us. Besides, they’re doing a play. Dontcha want to see the play, Nelly?"
I did want to see the play more than anything.
Last year they had come to our house. This riotous group with their masks and mummings, makeshift tambourines and wild, swerving flute music. All lads from the village but looking different in the light of the lanterns. Sounding different with their shouts and whoops, their songs. I hadn’t understood their jokes but I’d laughed all the same. Even Mother had laughed. And clapped at the end and given them all two soul cakes each with a shout of "Alright alright, there ye’are. Off wi’ye now! Godbless. Pray for our father….God bless, boys!"
But now it's different. It's not us within and them without. We stand with them. Almost a part of their wild antics before the doorways. I can’t even laugh I'm so in awe. Just in awe of the magic of it really.
At the end, out of breath, laughing, Harry says “Oi Rosa, where’s your sister? Get the littlun to sing!”
“Do you want to sing it, Nelly? You know all the words ‘eh?”
“By my own, Rosa? Sing it by myself you mean?”
“Aye, if you want.”
“Aye. I’d like to. Aye.”
And they push me forward and stop their hubbub and I sing, softly, my voice so small, so clear in the dark, the family on the doorstep smiling from one side to the other.
“God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store ;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more."
They cheer and clap and I smile and smile and the couple on the doorstep smile too and say "Nicely done! Well how can we refuse! Help yourselves! You first, Nell. God bless!”
The cake is warm and sweet and falls apart in my hand. A cross on top of currants
At the next house there’s only ale. So they sing a different song and swig from a flask that's passed around.
"None for you Nelly."
But Rosa takes some. Harry hands her the flask and she drinks with a smile and passes it on. The others all do the same.
On we go!
Then all of a sudden I realise that in my hands are soul cakes but not the hand of Rosa. I turn around suddenly. Swinging lantern light. Shadows. Everyone is too tall.
Rosa? I wail, but I can't even hear my own voice over the people laughing. Over the tambourines.
Rosa? My stomach shudders. Tears tremble from my eyes. I spin round and round,
Then I see that the face of one of the laughing shadows is the face of my brother, Jack. I run to him. Clasp my arms around his legs.
'Where's Rosa? Jack? Jack? Where's Rosa?"
He prises me off, embarrassed.
"Calm down, Nell. Hell's blood Nell, calm down."
"She'll be wi'Harry won't she?" leers the one who wears the strange green mask. But in honesty his real face is even worse. Long like a horse with these grinning yellow teeth. Lurching and leering from so far above.
"We'll find her, Nell." says Jack vaguely, patting my hair. But he's not really looking. I can tell he's not really looking.
The soul cakes fall from my hands into the mud. Into the darkness. I try to breathe like normal but I don't know how.
And then out of nowhere, like a good angel, swoops my sister, grabs my hand (hers is hot).
Says (her voice all different somehow) "Come on Nell we're going home. It's late. Coming, Jack?"
"Nah... It's...nah I might.."
"Suit yerself. Anon. Let's go Nelly"
She won't answer my questions on the walk home and her face is too far away in the dark to see what expression she's wearing. All I know is not to mention the lads to Mother. I wouldn't have done that anyway.
My fear was gone as swiftly as it had come. I sang myself to sleep that night, that little souling song over and over. I was so alive as I lay in the mess of sheets and straw, next to Rosa with her hair undone and her mouth open in sleep (like if you looked down her throat you might see her dreams being played out there). So full with the night and the songs was I that I almost forgot to pray for the dead.
All who died, this is the hour,
we remember you, like wind recalls rain.
We light candles to see your faces again,
so we never forget like cat knows
where a mouse hides. We have rituals
from the moment we set a clock
to the end of day when we lower curtains
and stars fall into our pillows.
We have been sanctifying this day
like a choir repeating the minutes
as if time was rain upon our faces.
Even the mouse knows the habits
of the cat, waits for it to curl in sunlight,
before moving about, quiet as curtains.
Even the stars are votive candles
sizzling in rain, know the prayers of clouds.
Even pillows hide rituals of dreams.
We speak the names of the dead.
During Matins, Chopin began his nocturnes,
the dreamy ethereal names, ritualistic
and slowed movement like the dead
shuffling on our faces when we call upon them.
We stalk the edges of the room like a cat
tracing the footsteps of a mouse. Our words
as we name our dead parents or friends
disappear quickly as candles snuffed out.
Rain curls in moonlight singing litanies,
now, at the moment of striking hours,
the dead feeling remembered, their names
curtain as nighttime when a mouse knows silence.