BY JOSS RICHARDS
Copyright is held by the author.
FIVE YEARS ago, Charlotte found a sentence for her father’s headstone:
“RIP, much missed”.
It was her last published sentence.
She wonders why she settled on the phrase now set in stone. Not I miss you. Not you’ll be much missed. Not we’ll miss you. Subject clause-less. She wonders why the family cleared it. Maybe they also shunned ultimate responsibility for boxing off his life into a succinct epigram. Maybe the headstone engravers charged a premium for the second line of text. Maybe she didn’t comprehend he was really missing. And “Rest?” Dad made it clear he didn’t believe it was rest. Rather an eternal re-enactment with the Almighty.
Charlotte examines each blade, bush, ditch and clump as they pass the bus window. It’s the type of dewy spring afternoon that traditionally inspired words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, books; work which line by line leads to pats on the back. By the customary definition of “writer” Charlotte is a failure, and “failure” as a declared profession, isn’t a steady enough line of work to get a mortgage or even the basest credit cards or personal loans. She’s decided to start introducing herself as “Charlotte: The Librarian.” It barely breaks even, but it gets her away from mum for half a day. And she hasn’t failed at it; yet.
“What are you looking at Charlotte?”
“Nothing. Thought there was someone in those bushes.”
“Well there isn’t. You’re a nutter, aren’t you Charlotte? No friends to text? Look at everyone. Are they staring out of the window?”
Charlotte thought she saw a shadow, crouched and observing, behind an isolated bush from the bus window, but she’s more concerned as to whether her mouth moves when she’s talking to herself. After all, there’s always a shadow, crouched and observing, behind some bush, and she can only slap herself out of it in public so many times.
The bus curbs up at the war memorial, and Charlotte detours through the village to the cemetery. She touches the headstone. It’s a daily ceremony. There’s no need for it, and nobody loses out if she doesn’t, but it keeps her father as alive as imagination will allow. The post-mourning glow of compassion and generosity burnt out within months, and as Charlotte was stoic and smiling through the funeral, servicing guests with canapes and smiles, the emotional debt has accrued unserviceable interest. It’s a feeling she can’t get over: dropping handfuls of dust onto her childhood, then watching it irretrievably compacted by respectful, but detached PAYE employees. The headstone, in her judgement, sits a few degrees forward of vertical. She hasn’t noticed it before, but that’s the way her father would stand, confident in the foundations of his oversized feet.
“You’re next in line Charlotte . . . no shield . . . no male authority figure between you and death . . . what do you think?”
“Do I need one?”
“How do you think you’re doing? Things aren’t so innocent now are they! Where’s Daddy when you graze the knee?”
Say ‘yes’ to everything. Charlotte’s latest resolution. Everything reasonable. No PIN number to a stranger or jumping off cliffs, but in the absence of a subsequent booking, default to “yes.” So Charlotte said yes to Abby and Milly and Sophie G. A quiet one in the village. Yes.
Charlotte parades outfits and shades of foundation in her mother’s mirror, and wonders whether she really has to outdo them. When has she out dressed Sophie G? Can foundation and concealer sex-up a landfill site?
“You’re really quite disgusting to look at Charlotte.”
“. . . nothing more constructive Charlotte?”
“Honesty is constructive, Charlotte.”
“Think I need to hear that.”
“There are people your age starving. Orphans in warzones. Cancer patients. Get over yourself . . . self-indulgent cow!”
“I need to be positive. Positivity breeds positive vibes.”
“Friends tell the truth . . . and curb those love handles you unlovable lard-arse.”
Charlotte was in the mood for one-on-ones and heart-to-hearts, but as she sits before a chessboard of shots, wines and spritzes, there’s no time even for a tactical before they’re stumbling on to the final gastropub in the village. Sophie G scandalises the village from the karaoke-floor, and Milly scores before they’ve ordered, and so Abby and Charlotte flank a Claret at a corner table. Charlotte feels watched. Roger, the Parish Clerk. Inconspicuous side-eye. Charlotte makes for the bathroom, taking her wine with her. She bolts the fortress cubicle, and sips.
“Roger knows Charlotte?”
“Knows what Charlotte?”
“He’s been watching you.”
Charlotte vaccinates herself for the night with a regulated weep, and with an ear out for approaching steps, lets it run as long as it needs. But it hasn’t done the trick. Soon one of them, probably Sophie G, will burst through the door and she’ll be forced to drag her leaden soul onto the stage, or at least find some excuse for such a long bathroom break without evidence of productive purge.
“Have you even got any friends Charlotte?”
“Why do you ask Charlotte?”
“Sophie G. Abby. Milly. You always say you’ve no better friends — you’d die for your gang . . . the OGs.”
“Sophie G has uploaded an Instagram story. ‘Wildest night eva xxx.’ You’re tagged. Would you call this the wildest night ever?”
“If you’ve got a point, make it!”
“You’re hiding from them in a toilet.”
Charlotte often wonders as to the exalted epithets given to nights out, and assumes everyone is at it. Nobody is having fun. They’re just making sure they’re seen to be having fun. And ‘best night ever’ is clearly bluster. But without bluster, there’s a chance people will say what they really think about her.
“You’re not fun but you’re not that not fun. You’re not awesome but you’re not awful. You’re just a bit of a non-event Charlotte.”
“But I’ve been fun and funny in the past.”
“You’re not a celebrity. There’s no highlights reel. You have to keep being fun or funny, or else you’re just not fun but not that not fun… Charlotte.”
Charlotte nods, resolved. She places her forearms on the window ledge and her weight on her forearms, but there’s no angle between the steel bars. She re-thinks. She climbs the toilet spout, feeds a leg through, and allows the rest of herself to follow. She rolls as she lands on the gravel outside. Elegantly done.
“What kind of nut-bag thinks about doing what you’re thinking of doing Charlotte? Your writing may be going nowhere — the one thing you say you’re good at — but this is no solution.”
“Please . . . can you leave me . . .”
“Charlotte. You’re expelling a lot of carbon! If you aren’t happy, maybe think about making space for those who are. The environment will thank you.”
“That’s unfair . . .”
Charlotte tries to land on the same steps from five years ago, and match the emotions, though she’s a different woman. Walking behind the hearse was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Villagers removed their caps, with some instructing her to raise her chin. At the point where she put an arm around her mother, marked by a concrete-busting thistle, Charlotte puts her arm out to the air. For ceremony. Holding it out, she descends to the patch where she stood, despite the unsettling symmetry of fresh graves.
That day, the cortege fanned out around the pit as her father, in a solemn catwalk, edged out of the hearse and descended, on plastic straps, from Charlotte’s tear-hazed view. Her chin still kissed her navel, as each threw in an object: roses and whistling children’s toys, diaries, gig tickets and compact discs, military insignia and photo albums, stuffed bears and army issue chocolate, a cricket bat, private letters, and a jar of chutney and horseradish sauce. Charlotte wanted meaning and loss in her sacrifice: she felt a cheat knowing she had a computer backup, and that she’d re-written it so often she knew it by heart, but she none-the-less sealed up her book and threw it in. Eight years’ work. The latest iteration of what she hoped would be her debut novel.
Not long after, she lost her computer backup. And then the backup in her memory.
“This your first time Charlotte?”
“Maybe Roger thinks it’s just a rabbit or a badger… you certain there’s nobody watching Charlotte?”
“La, la, la, la . . .”
Charlotte scoops at the soft, cake-like soil, oddly pre-disturbed, between her legs. Her pressing objective is to right the headstone slant to acceptability, but without noting the effort, a two-foot pit and foot-high mound of its former contents surrounds her. Her mind switches. In just two more feet, she’ll be scratching her father’s coffin. Sacrilegious and strange when viewed as a single action, from the perspective of merely digging a little more, it seems quite logical. She switches from left hand to right, then to both, then to neither, and repeats. She repeats first in minute intervals, then half-minutes, then in single swipes at the soil. Then she breaks to neaten and stabilise.
The effortless first foot of digging, motivated her that the rest would be similar. Instead, the pit won’t sustain its depth, and she expends precious energy widening and clearing. By three feet, she could do with a snack. By three and a half feet, blood pools in her skull and wrist, as she concludes to plunge into the pit, her clothes no longer conducive to an inconspicuous getaway. Then she strikes something. Something that isn’t soil.
She pulls at the handle. Three springs. Double grip. Uncle Gordon’s contribution. She remembers wondering why he had a bat at the funeral. It no longer had sentimental value. Dad gave up cricket ten years earlier on the instructions of his cardiologist. But from the location of the bat, she remembers where her own bag landed. When the earth went on, it was about six inches away and propped up on a teddy and one of the photo albums. Charlotte attacks the side of the pit with more frenzied determination and there’s no need to remove the liberated soil, or waste time with piling and neatening. She knows how near it is.
A few dozen further frenzied prods, and clamped between her thumb and forefinger sits the corner of cellophane. She hacks it free. It slides more easily from the earth than anticipated, and on first inspection, and then when held up to the lights, but for paper shrapnel, the bag is empty. Has it slipped out? The bag is sealed. Has it biodegraded? Paper wouldn’t in a sealed bag. No worms or undesignated soil-dwellers appear to have burrowed in, and there’s no evidence of defecation. There would have been nothing for a mole or badger to sniff out but the fresh-ink odourlessness of her manuscript. Charlotte doesn’t pay any mind to a ghostly or supernatural hypothesis. She digs around to be certain there’s no mistake. There isn’t. Her first locked-room mystery. She wants to know the answer. She wants to know how it was done. She’d read on, whoever wrote it, to know.
She fills in the pit and stamps it down. She re-turfs the scalp. Not a bad job she thinks, as she stands back on a scene which appears passable as the petty luddite crimes of upstart rabbits and moles.
“First time Charlotte!”
“Hmmm . . . I wish you could tell what I did with it . . . and what I do now.”
“Nobody can Charlotte.”
The moon is out, and the pubs sound closed, and so she sets course under the canopy and between the hedgerows for home. Next time she’ll take a hammer and chisel to the library. “RIP, but not for too long” seems to her more profound as she pauses beneath the moon.
Joscelyn (Joss) Richards is a writer living in Manchester, U.K., with fiction published in the Manchester Anthology, RC Sheriff Prize and others. He completed a masters in English and Creative Writing from UoM and works as a freelance writer. He spends his weekends walking and cycling in the Pennines and Lake District with a notepad, putting the finishing touches on a short story collection and his debut novel.