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Fifteen years

He is hurrying along the wet street to get to her place. Duty bound, he has responded to her tearful phone call and left work early.  He wants to get this over and done with and out into the street again. She buzzes him in and he starts up the stairs, head bowed, bracing himself to hear everything he never wants to hear. Everything he works hard to avoid.

         In the flat, he leans back on the sofa in her sitting room, keeping his coat on, hands deep in pockets, eyes fixed on the window but not seeing through the glass.

         “Why are you crying?” he says, not changing his line of vision. But he knows, every time it is the same, over and over again. In the open plan kitchen, with her back to him, her frail shoulders hunched as she chops some carrots on a wooden board.

         “Because everything is so awful!” she cries, her words watery and bubbling, full of tears, “I can’t handle it any more. The pain never lets up, it’s always this bad. I just want my mum….” her voice collapses into heaving sobs. Terrible, heart-rending sobs, which eventually resolve themselves.

         “Did you see Uncle James at the funeral?” she asks. “His face. It was awful in that yellow light”.

         The room is growing dark, the lights from passing cars moving up one wall, across the ceiling and down the wall behind him.

         “Look, I know the funeral was bad, but we’ve all got to move on”. His eyes and mouth drooping – long hours at work, not enough sleep, alcohol. Tearing his gaze away from the window he sees the painting over the fireplace. The one that came from their parents’ house. He studies it, the strange composition, the perspective all wrong, the cows bigger than the trees. It is not a good picture. He wonders why his mother liked it, maybe because it was a real painting and not a reproduction. Kate keeps it out of a sense of loyalty, he thinks. He can see that it is a sham, a failure as a painting. These days it makes him laugh.

         “Don’t tell me to move on!” Kate turns on him, her face red and wet. “When are YOU going to move on? Where are your tears? You fucking piece of wood!” Kate is yelling now, “Nothing! Drunk at your father’s funeral, drunk at your mother’s! And me, I’m just alone. Alone at 17.....!  It’s different for you!” 

         His eyes are now open wide, staring and glassy - at bay. His fists are clenching and unclenching inside the silk-lined pockets.  Striving to maintain his balance, he looks at her as she edges along the precipice, distraught and reckless. Her words hover between them, then sink and settle on the low table near his knees, amongst the unopened mail, kitsch plastic trinkets and a full ash tray. She starts to lay plates on the dinner table, her thin fingers brittle against the china, clearing a space between the bags of food shopping not yet stored away.

         He stretches, straightening the top half of his body to make more room for his heart and lungs. Hands still in pockets. He looks at her and says “I know you’re upset but, look at it this way, all three of us have survived without them. You’ve got a successful career, doing what you want to do. That’s an achievement”. He softens and adds, “Nothing will bring her back. But you will be fine”.

         “I’m NEVER fine! I have to cry all the fucking tears for this family”.

         He looks properly around the room then, and the thing that holds his attention, really interests him, is the guitars. Three of them – good quality acoustics. Maybe he should start playing acoustic more, rather than electric all the time. He wonders where Kate gets her guitars fixed these days and almost asks. He starts to think about his own collection, whether he should get rid of some of them.

Kate looks across the room at her brother, a single tear hanging from her lower lash. She presses the heels of her hands into her eye sockets making two full stops, “Do you want to eat?”.

         “OK”
        
         “It’s just all this sorrow” she says at the table, quieter now, “I don’t know where to put it. I try to sing it away but more comes up”. She looks up at the ceiling, trying to keep new tears back, trying to keep him engaged. He never cries. She always cries. Two sides of the same coin, he’s been told.

         “I feel it too, you know” he says.

         She stops what she is doing. Stops sniffing and wiping her nose with the back of her hand, and becomes alert like a bird. She looks into his face and, after a pause, says “Is that true?”.

         “Of course”.

         “I can never tell, you seem so self-contained” she says “And I am finding it so hard to come to terms with all the death”.

         “I know. I know it’s hard but, Kate, it was……" he pauses, "It was fifteen years ago”.

         “Oh yes. Fifteen years”

         They eat the roast chicken in silence, looking down at the food, looking up again, avoiding each others eyes. Not comfortable, not consoled, but united in their shared losses.

 

Alice Smith

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