This week’s words were:
sandwich :: country house :: atheist :: slate :: second hand
(Apologies if the layout of this post is slightly messed up! I give up trying to fix it. Address your strongly worded letters of complaint to WordPress!)
He’d brought her old jacket, bought second hand in a flea market on her first holiday abroad, and one of her CDs, one she’d loved. Something meaningful, he’d been told. Something that was important to her. His mother had brought a ratty yellow candle – apparently her Christening candle – and a set of rosary beads he’d never seen his sister use. He wondered if she’d even listened to the instructions she’d been given.
‘But she was an atheist!’ he shouted. ‘She’d hate all this!’ He waved his hand around, taking in the candles, and the flower sprays, and the weeping icons on the walls. This whole place – this ridiculously named parlour – was an affront. His whole body was tensed like a guitar string. He realised he was clenching his fists, and did his best to relax them. It hurt to breathe.
‘Look! I don’t have a choice, alright? What would people think if we…’ She stopped short, unable to say the word ‘buried’ – unable even to think it. Her words stumbled on the unfamiliar edge, scrambling for purchase. Slowly, she felt her mind lose its grip, rocks and pebbles and shale turning and slipping underfoot. Then, finally, she fell, the descent sheer and smooth and fast, down a cliff face as black and smooth and featureless as slate. On she went, into the dark.
‘What would people think if we gave her the funeral she’d have wanted? Is that what you were going to say?’ He was ready for a fight, but his mother didn’t reply. He searched her face for any sign of recognition, but her eyes were wide and distant. He watched as she reached out to clutch the back of a chair, trying to hold herself upright.
‘Mum?’ he said, hearing the sharp, hard tone in his own voice, and hating it. ‘Mum, what is it?’ He helped her to sit. She gripped his arm, and he felt her limbs trembling. Her lips moved without a sound. As he gazed at her, anger and resentment and sorrow layered themselves up inside him, like a sandwich he knew he would be forced to eat, crumb by bitter crumb. He concentrated on breathing, hot and sour and foul, in and out. He closed his eyes, afraid to look around this overstuffed room, for fear he’d start smashing whatever he could lay his hands on.
‘She’s gone, isn’t she?’ his mother finally said. He opened his eyes to find her gaze buried somewhere near his knee. ‘That stupid disease… it won, didn’t it?’
He couldn’t find his voice. He just placed his hand on his mother’s shoulder, and she leaned her feverish cheek on top of it. His mind was on a loop, remembering his sister’s pain in her last hours, the suffering she’d already put herself through. How hard she’d fought. He clenched his eyes against the memory of her final minutes, and what she’d asked him to do. If you love me, she’d said, in desperation. If you love me, you’ll help me. His tears scorched his face, pooling in a bath of acid near his chin. I love you, he’d told her. She’d smiled, as best she could.
‘I’m going to see the funeral director, Mum,’ he said, with a cough. ‘Back in a minute.’ He pillowed his sister’s jacket – so old, and so long unworn, that it had lost all trace of her pre-illness scent – and laid the CD on top as he strode for the office door. The Great Escape was the album, the first CD she’d ever bought with her own money. Track 2, he told himself, looking down at the bright blue cover image. They had to be reminded to play track 2, ‘Country House,’ as they were laying her in her coffin. He could just imagine her laughter at the black, ironic humour of it, the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Her smile shimmered in the air before him.
I’ll help you, he’d said. He intended to keep his word.