The Grandfather clock in the hallway began to chime, as usual, just as he entered the sitting room with the tray. On the ninth bong he placed it carefully down on to the crochet doily which covered the nest of tables. He lifted the pot and poured the liquid in to her cup. The bone china rattled as he put the saucer in her hands. Mother liked her tea weak.
‘Are you comfortable enough Mother? … Should I turn the radio off now?… It’s mild out but they predict a drop in temperature tomorrow… Are the lilies too strong? They’re nearly over.’
He would get some more tomorrow.
Mother stared up at him, she didn’t say it but she was grateful. Her hand fumbled for his arm, she was trying to pat him.
He switched the radio voices off before leaving the room and the sudden silence was cut sharp by the tick….tick….tick of the old clock, each tick becoming quieter as he made his way to the back of the house.
Mother had always been right, the conservatory was the best place to polish the shoes if he mustdo it so often. She took no notice these days of course.
The brogues sat dutifully on the opened newspaper, their form held by shoe trees. A rush of pleasure rippled through him as he levered the lid of the wooden box which stood guard by the cordovan leather shoes.
Three tins of wax, one opened, two spare. A wire brush, hardly used, a piece of shammy leather and a polishing bone.
He applied the wax and set about rubbing. The natural oils of the bone achieved, as always, a superior shine on the horse hide. He breathed in the gamey scent of deer twisted with wax and let James briefly enter his thoughts.
The old clock clanged again and he placed his brother’s shoes back down on the obituaries.
He never went to the wakes. Too risky of course and he didn’t care for buffets. He liked to sit at the back and slip away after the service. He wasn’t there to be seen although occasionally the priest would acknowledge his presence with a nod too subtle for an unsuspecting mourner.
Father William Walters had spoken to him once, in the early days. It was perhaps his fourth or fifth funeral and the Priest had caught up with him as he tried to make his way through the crowds of people choking in despair around the baby pink carnations.
‘Martin, isn’t it? Do you mind if we have a little chat before you leave?’
This one was a mistake. He could explain. A misprint in the paper – he would never have come otherwise, not today, not for a child.
‘I understand your brother’s death has been hard for you to accept Martin.’
Martin looked passed Father William’s ear to the mid-distance.
‘Death is a simple act but it can make living very complicated. If you ever want to talk things through..’
He liked that chat and being close to Father William. Martin was enchanted by the smell of soap that wafted from his powdery hands as he gesticulated. He felt sleepy in his presence, the way he’d felt as a boy when his mother would have him and his brother lay with their heads on her lap so that she could caress both their cheeks. Sometimes she’d sing.
He counted the chimes as they struck from the hallway and on the tenth, he stepped out of the conservatory and headed upstairs.
First he opened his bedside drawer and took out the photograph. He propped it up in its place between the lamp and his alarm clock and then he opened his wardrobe.
He took a moment to enjoy the feel of the cold silk as he fed his long limbs through the sleeves and trousers of the suit. A perfect fit. After he had positioned the tie to match the photograph, he combed his hair back off his face, securing it at the sides with a small amount of cream from a red pot on his window sill. The grey roots of his brown hair would need tending to again soon.
He held the photograph up to his face before slipping it in his inside pocket along with three handkerchiefs from his drawer. He stood before his reflection in the mirror on his wardrobe door.
The radio got louder as he descended the stairs and he quickened his pace. She was up again. It was most unsettling when she had one of these turns. He composed himself in the doorway, watching her through the crack as he did so. She was flailing around the room, her nightie ballooning out around her as she spun. And she was singing along. ‘Crazy..’ Mother couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast most days yet any song prior to 1965 she could sing word for word.
His heart raced and he battled the intrusive thoughts by taking some deep breaths just as he’d learned to do.
‘That’s enough of that Mother!’ he said over the music. He moved across to the radio on the shelf beside her chair to silence Patsy Cline and his mother’s warbling but as he reached up to switch it off, his mother’s centre of gravity finally failed her and she crashed in to him, landing at his feet. Patsy would have to wait. He manoeuvred himself so that he could insert an arm underneath each of her shoulders and lift her back in to her chair. Damn it now he was sweating in the suit. He switched the radio off at last.
Mother quietly sobbed as he knelt beside her pressing a bag of peas to the egg rising on her temple. The clock told him he was now running late. He hated to be late.
Suddenly she was looking directly at him, smiling. A shot of something bitter hit the back of his tongue.
‘James! James, you’ve come back to me my boy!’
He felt sick.
‘My James! My boy!’
She reached out her quivering hands to caress his face but before they could reach him he ran from the room.
In his haste to leave the house he had forgotten his coat and although he was still sweating, the cold February air bit him hard as he waited for the number 16. Winter had stripped the trees of their flesh and the grey skeletons waved their gnarly arms at him. The episode with his mother had left him out of sorts.
Fifteen minutes later than he would have preferred, he slid in through the doors at the back of the crematorium. If Father William had noticed him he didn’t show it but as he took a seat towards the back of the room, the wooden pew let out a moan so loud, a few heads turned to look at him. He fumbled for his handkerchiefs and the photograph, and lowered his head.
‘We are here today to pay tribute to the life of James Porter, a much loved son and brother.
James and his twin Martin were born on September 5 1966 in the small village of Whittling and the boys attended the village school there…’
‘..In 1940 Janice and her 4 sisters were evacuated to Wales where they were lucky enough to be placed in the loving protection of Mr and Mrs Davies whom the sisters kept in touch with for many years after their return home..’
‘James enjoyed his voluntary work at the library with his brother, with whom he shared his keen interests in books..’
‘..Janice and Jim later married and had three children, all of whom are here today. Patricia, Susan and Marcus..’
‘..The boys, according to their mother, have always been inseparable..’
‘..Her teaching career spanned forty years and she was dearly loved by her pupils. Many of whom are also here today to pay their respects..’
‘..he was a quiet and gentle soul..’
‘..blessed with no less than nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren from whom she got so much joy and pleasure, even in the last few months of her life..’
‘James’ sudden and tragic passing has been a shock to the family and it is in these times of grief that we can take great comfort from the words of God..’
Martin let the tears quietly come. Along with Janice’s family he allowed himself to grieve, he allowed the pain, the anger and the tears. Letting go felt good.
He wiped his face and straightened himself out before Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’ saw
the congregation out.
He slipped the photograph back in his jacket and shuffled with the rest of the mourners towards the doors. As he emerged in to the courtyard, a hand settled on his shoulder.
‘Martin?’ A woman’s voice.
‘I had no idea you knew my Mother.’
Susan, from the library.
‘Did she teach you?’
Words caught in his throat and mingled with the bile that had also arrived there. He didn’t know why he nodded.
‘Ah, that’s lovely. Thank you so much for coming, it would have meant a lot to her to see all of the people whose lives she has touched over the years. You’re coming to the wake?’
‘I, I have to get the bus.’
He set his focus on a small mole above her right eyebrow.
‘No its ok, you can ride with Marcus’s son, Lewis. He’s got a spare seat I think.’
He was rooted to the floor. His heart was tripping and stumbling inside his chest and thoughts were no longer coming in any kind of order. Marcus’s son was brought over and introduced.
‘Lewis, this is Martin, one of Grandma’s pupils. We work together at the library but I had no idea he knew her until today. Wasn’t it lovely of him to come?’
Before he could stop himself he was rubbing the sweat from his palms down the sides of his suit jacket.
Martin couldn’t be sure but it seemed like Susan was leaning in and whispering something to Lewis.
‘C’mon Martin’ Lewis said as Susan moved away. ‘Let’s go and get in the car.’
Lewis took Martin’s arm and before he knew it he was strapped into the back of a white Volvo between Great Aunt Nina and an inquisitive looking baby in a car seat.
The family members made polite conversation and Martin clenched the fabric of his trousers in his balled fists and tried not to vomit. A few minutes in to the journey, the baby started to coo and snuffle and he was surprised to feel himself relax a little as his attention turned to these innocent sounds. A tiny hand grasped at the air and Martin, despite never being in close proximity to a baby before, intuitively lifted his own hand and placed his finger in its palm. The baby grasped his finger with surprising strength and Martin caressed the back of the child’s hand gently with his thumb. He thought of Father William’s talcy hands and of his mother’s touch lulling him and his brother to sleep. He thought of the deer bone and the shoe wax and the grandfather clock. He felt a warmth ooze through him.
Photographs of Janice and her family were set out on a table in the entrance hall to the working men’s club and people were smiling and pointing at them. People were happy. Janice was gone but her family laughed, shared happy memories, hugged each other, took photographs, talked about their holiday plans, drank and laughed some more.
He stood awkwardly in the door way, savouring the atmosphere and holding on to the feeling he’d experienced in the car.
‘Have you had some of the buffet Martin?’
‘No, thank you I’m not…’
‘Don’t be silly, come on, let’s find you a plate. You look like you could do with a good feed up.’
He wasn’t sure what Susan meant but she was smiling so he smiled back and followed her to the food table.
She talked him through the various sandwich fillings, pointing at each foil tray as she named them.
‘Egg and cress, ham, cheese, ham and cheese, cheese and pickle, coronation chicken, do you like curry?’
An elderly lady in a green pillbox hat grabbed Susan’s attention and she patted his arm and disappeared.
He suddenly realised how hungry he was, he looked at his watch, he’d missed lunch, it was 1.30. The juices in his stomach awoke and he filled his plate.
He sat in an empty corner booth out of the way but was quickly surrounded by several others, each of their paper plates collapsing under the weight of prawn vol-au-vents and scotch eggs.
Next to Martin, a spherical man in a brown suit was tucking in to a meringue nest filled with fresh raspberries and cream. Martin became mesmerised by a single raspberry which had tumbled from the nest and was teetering on the edge of the man’s plate. It was past its best and a layer of grey fuzz covered the top side of it where it had started to decay. Martin thought how much it resembled his mother’s head. And he suddenly knew then, he had to go home.
He made his excuses and sidled out of the booth, crossed the sticky floor of the club and headed out into the daylight.
On the way home he stopped at the florist and bought a fresh bunch of lillies for Mother. It was a day earlier than usual but it would be a nice surprise and a sorry for the morning’s events. If he hurried he would make it back in time for her afternoon tea.
Knowing she would be dozing in her chair he carefully removed the shoes and headed straight for the kitchen. He flicked the kettle on, found a vase in the cupboard, placed the lillies in it and added water.
He put two bags in the pot, poured on the boiling water and set out the tray with two cups and saucers.
The Grandfather clock in the hallway began to chime, as usual, just as he entered the sitting room with the tray. On the third bong he had placed the tray carefully down on to the crochet doily which covered the nest of tables. He lifted the pot and poured the pale liquid into her cup. Mother liked her tea weak.
‘Mother. Mother its Martin, I’ve bought you some fresh lillies and there’s tea in the pot.’
He turned the radio on and Acker Bilk’s clarinet floated out of the small speakers.
About the Contributor
Louise lives by the seaside in Kent with her husband and two daughters. She has always written for pleasure but has recently started to take writing more seriously having attended two creative writing courses with Write Like A Grrrl and performed some of her sketches and short stories at various spoken word events. Louise squeezes writing in between working as a Communications and Media Officer for a local government organisation and looking after her family. Twitter @LouiseJBurgess
A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman
Grief and loss are woven through this tender story about a 'grumpy old man' who grieves for his wife Sonja, his father, his job and a world of long ago. Modern life exasperates him and after his wife dies Ove loses his sense of purpose. A chain of events involving his 'annoying neighbours’ gradually rescue Ove from his grief and he finds happiness in unexpected places. The more I learned about Ove’s past, the more I adored him and his ways. The story is a bittersweet, black comedy that warmed me up and stayed with me for some time.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals