BY PETER O’CONNOR
Copyright is held by the author.
“IT’S WHAT I want, so you cross your heart.” I didn’t want to, wasn’t going to. “You owe it to me.” No, it was an accident! She was squeezing my hand so hard, so tight. She wouldn’t let go till the blood came. I couldn’t say no. It was too late for no. I stood and made my promise. I crossed my heart and hoped to die. She slept then, content in winning.
She promised she’d be there. She wasn’t. I won everything, except the sack race. Kevin Heally beat me into second, he cheated. Eight, firsts, one, second, a new school record. She’d promised, promised. I won a cactus getting balls into buckets.
“She passed at 4.15pm.”
“How can you tell?”
He waves a silver thermometer in the air,
“Drop in body temperature, pretty precise science nowadays.”
He gives the glass stick a brisk shake, pushes it delicately into its soft suede pouch, places this in his creased leather bag and closes the sides together with the two brass clips. As simple as that, no thorough examination, no checking the eyes, no tapping the chest or probing the veins, just an ungracious intrusion and she was dead.
“The death certificate should be in the post tomorrow or you could pop into the surgery and pick it up later today.”
“Post will be fine.”
We walk to the front door in silence. He offers his soft white hand, tells me he’s sorry. I open the door to cold March air. I thank him and he recedes down the path with a polite wave.
“I’m back.” I pour myself a glass of milk and grab a biscuit. “Mum, I’m back.” Satchel left where it falls, milk finished, I run upstairs to change. ‘She’s just made herself sleepy, they say,’ and the blue ambulance light flickers off the thatch. I hide my face in her dress. Hand held by a next door neighbour, mine white and powdery hers criss-crossed with deeply rippled folds. “She’ll be alright dear. She’ll be alright.” She keeps saying it over and over. I stare at her blue striped slippers. The ambulance light flickers off the walls, off the windows, off their faces. ‘She’ll be alright,’ they all say. ‘You can see her tomorrow. She’s just sleepy, that’s all.’ I shut my eyes and stare at my eyelids.
My head busies my hands with their usual routine, halfway through making her mid-morning tea it finally realises she’s gone, it stops and listens. It feels she’s here. The house vibrates with her presence. The furniture holds her scent. The air moves with her breath. It expects her voice to worm through the scarred floorboards, or hear the tat-tatting of her stick on the cast iron headboard. Silence. My heart beat the only sound it hears. It swills the pot and places her two chocolate digestives back into their earthen-ware jar. It needs something physical to do, something to distract from what is to come. It goes to sharpen the axe.
“Your father would have liked him, they would have got on like a house on fire.” Those were her words, “like a house on fire.” She just kept talking. Talking fast, as fast as she pulled me through the dropping rain. “Be nice and try not to wet yourself. If you need to go just ask, try to call him dad, not sir. You’ll like him once you get to know him. Just try, please, for me. It’s not much to ask is it, to just call him dad.”
The sparks skate across the steel of the axe reminding me of a Guy-Faulks night.
Colin, bundled in layers of woollen blankets, face pink from the fire heat. Mum and dad arms crossing each other’s shoulders, body supporting body. The sparkler gripped in my hand splutters and starts. The miniature stars whirling into the night hypnotising Colin. I draw my name in the air, the imprint slowly cooling in my eyesight. ‘Look dad,’ I sign the darkened world. He laughs. Mum laughs. Colin laughs.
I rise from my workbench, axe gripped unconsciously in my hand. I’d promised. The last thing I’d have to do for her, my final act. I go outside and start. Though cold I soon work up a sweat, my palms wearing raw as the axe handle chafes and rubs. I settle into an automatic rhythm; place, step-back, lift, swing, place, step-back, lift, swing, in unison my mind splinters the memories.
I’d gone in with her usual tray of stewed breakfast tea and two lightly buttered toast. Her regular position was curled foetus-like, back to the door, this morning two pillows prop her expectantly. Glazed eyes glare towards the open curtains, death stole in over the window box. I hoped for his sake he hadn’t disturbed her daffodils. Dulled lipstick smears her mouth. She hadn’t taken her teeth out. The thought of the grim-reaper seeing her slack mouthed would have been too much. She hated anybody seeing her toothless. The lower set had slipped slightly, pushing her painted lips outwards. She was pouting, she always did when she thought she’d been unfairly treated. I sat the tray down and tried to remove them. Reluctant to be evicted from their dry, stale cave, only coming away after a good solid two-handed tug. I picked off the pink skin flap, ripped away with them, and placed them into their watery resting place. I rearranged the body and stand back to get a better impression of the scene. Yes, that’s good, mother would have hated to think she made an untidy corpse. Tidiness had been one of her manias.
“You tidy this room now you little bastard.”
“I’m not a bastard. My dad’s dead. You’re not my real dad. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“As long as you’re living under my roof you’ll do as you’re told. Your mother will kill me if she finds this mess.”
“It’s not your roof. Mum paid for this from the insurance. So you’re living under our roof actually.”
“You cheeky little sod, wait till she gets home. I’ll tell her everything you’ve said.”
“I don’t care, she loves me, not you. Tell her what you like. You won’t be here long, you’ll see. She loves me not you.”
Place, step-back, lift, swing. Place, step-back, lift, swing. The axe sinks deep into the heart of the wood devastating it.
She looked old in death, the glowing skin around her eyes and cheeks greying and drooping horribly, a melting wax bust from the Hammer Horror The Wax Museum. Gravity had finally won the battle. I pulled the bed clothes to her chin to keep the morning chill off, and sat patting her cold stiff hand. As promised I removed the smoothed golden wedding ring. I had been four when that ring had first stung the back of my legs.
“Don’t you dare play with matches. Do you hear me!” The ring left a small imprint that took days to fade. I remember staring at its slim goldenness from the side of father and Colin’s graves. My whole world spread outwards from that ring. I couldn’t look anywhere else, especially not into those light-less pits. Relatives stood around us rested their hands lightly on mum’s shoulder, speaking high above me in whispered snatches. “If you need anything . . . A terrible loss . . . Call me . . . A tragic accident . . . I’m so sorry . . . How’s he taking it?”
I looked at the growing pile of shattered wood. I’d need more. I thrust my hands into my pockets and went to fetch some old pallets from the garage.
Mother’s wasted hand fitted into mine easily now. That same hand had enclosed mine and led me to the toilet. The same hand dragged me to school. The same hand pushed me away. The same hand let go of my bike when she promised she wouldn’t. The same hand hid her eyes when she cried. The circle completed. It was over…almost.
Four long, painful years, I hated seeing the vitality drifting from her eyes, those years changed her into a person I didn’t like. I came to resent her. Her looks. Her anger. Her tears. Why? Why couldn’t it just be over? She didn’t want to be here, there were people she longed to see, why did she have to stay? The last months she just sat in bed waiting and waiting and waiting. Death was approaching, so she just sat grim and waiting.
One night, when sleep evaded us both, she called me into her room. Sitting on the bed edge she told me death didn’t bother her, but she might die of boredom before he got there. We both laughed. She’d never been one for waiting, collecting her Thursday pension the following Monday, to avoid the queues. God she’d hated those queues, she would rather go without than wait. Well, the waiting’s over now mum. I hope it was worth it. I placed the small golden band into my pocket and went to call the doctor.
“I’m sorry mum.”
She drew me into her warm, soft smelling, embrace.
“I know you can’t help it, but you must try, that’s three times this week.”
“It’s the dream. I can see myself doing it, but I can’t wake up. I’m so hot, but I can’t wake up and I just keep doing it, it’s flickering and I’m burning, so hot, but I can’t wake up.”
“We’ll go to the doctors. See if there’s anything he can do for you. Now come on, let’s change these sheets for you.”
Place, step-back, lift, swing. Place, step-back, lift, swing. The pallets disintegrate into shapes and sub-structures that hold no clue to their origin.
I pick up the sketch book and flick through the stiff card pages. Horses, landscapes, a still-life, a fading and creased photo of Colin and father. She’d been a good painter, prideful of going to a college with “Royal” before its name. My birth stopped her becoming “an artist.” She would only ever be a painter, said it didn’t give her the same pleasure.
“John, you promised me you’d sit still.”
My hand curled sweating around the angular coin. Ten black jacks, 10 fruit salads, 10 flying saucers, two huge gob-stoppers, a sherbet dab and three sugar mice. I’d been sitting for hours, the day already hot. Robin and Martin would be playing in the secret hideout.
“John! Please, you’ve only been there 20 minutes, 10 more, then you can go.” What if they didn’t have any sugar mice? I could have the plain white ones. I could afford 10 of those. What if Lynne was up at the camp? That would spoil everything. She got everywhere now.
“Christ John, go then.”
“I said you could go.”
“Don’t you want to see?”
I walk to the small easel set up on the kitchen table.
I went out to play.
The March air bit through my thin cotton shirt, drying sweat drawing goose bumps from my arms. I roll the damp sleeves down and button them. I think about getting my coat, no, once the fire is lit I’d be warm enough. I look at the constructed mound of seasoned oak, dead wood, old pallets and my old painted wardrobe.
Please mum, it was an accident. I didn’t mean it. Mum, let me out. I’m sorry. I’ll be good, you’ll see. I’ll be so good, cross my heart and hope to die. The key turned in the lock. I hugged her, she pushed me away. “No,” she said, “I can’t, not now.” It was an accident mum. “I can’t.”
On top of the wardrobe mother’s sagging mattress; her closest companion, now her final resting place, see-saws in the building breeze. “Cross your heart and hope to die.” I don’t know whether it will be enough. “Cross your heart and hope to die.” I’d have to order another load of logs tomorrow, if this wind kept up the house would be freezing. I stroll to the garage and fetch turps, petrol would be too fierce, it needs a slow steady heat. The fire would need a good heart.
The struck Swan Vesta, cupped in my hands, blooms, shudders, settles and glows, the heat stinging my blistered palms. I look into the struggling yellow flame and hear their screams. I flick it towards the stacked pile. It spins end over end, over end, over end and disappears into the darkened heart of the mound. Nothing. Nothing. Then the vapour catches, whooooooooooooooosh. I stand back. The flames spread, heat tightening the skin on my face.
My hand slowly turns and twists the small golden band in my pocket. “Tell them I’m sorry mum.” The flames flicker off the walls, off the trees, off the windows. I close my eyes and stare at my eyelids.
Pete lives by the coast in South Devon, U. K. He has been writing for many years, only now, getting enough of his life in order to be able to send his stories out into the world.