Ketchup clouds, p.19
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.19

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  ‘When’s the funeral going to be and do I get to go?’ I shut my eyes so I didn’t have to watch her words. She peeled back my lids with her chubby fingers. ‘I said, when’s the funeral going to be and do I get to go and also do the important people walk behind the coffin and am I one of them or do I just have to wait in the church?’

  Dad knocked softly on my door.

  ‘Dot, tea’s ready,’ he signed.

  ‘I’m not hungry.’

  ‘It’s waiting for you on the table.’

  ‘I’m too upset about the boy to eat. My teacher said I’ve got grief.’

  ‘If you’re grieving, perhaps I should tell your mum it’s time for you to go to bed.’

  Dot’s eyes widened and she sprinted out of my room at top speed. Dad sighed.

  ‘She’s a funny one.’ The mattress squeaked as he sat down. ‘I just got off the phone, pet. Sandra called again. She wanted me to tell you they’re burying him on Friday.’

  I turned away and stared at the wall. Dad put his hand into my hair and we stayed like that for ages, and I wish he were here right now to rub my head and tell me it will be fine and to be strong because the feelings will pass. I want them to go now, Stu. I’m ready for them to disappear and I know you’re the same, tired of the pain and the fear and the sadness and the guilt and the hundred other feelings that don’t even have a name in all of the English language.

  There’s one more letter to write before we both can stop. One more about the funeral and the wake and finding out from Sandra that Aaron had set off on a last-minute trip to South America without bothering to say goodbye to me. Because it will be the last, maybe we should do something special to celebrate. Perhaps we should have a final meal, which for me would be steak and chips, and we could eat together, you on one side of the ocean and me on the other, a sparkling blue tablecloth spanning the distance between us. Candles would flicker in the sky and once and for all I’d finish my tale. You would be satisfied and I would be content so we’d both blow out the flames. You, me, the shed, the cell, our stories, our secrets – all of it would disappear, hovering in the darkness like smoke before fading to nothing.

  Love always,

  Zoe xxx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  May 6th

  My dearest Stu,

  I came back when I promised. I don’t want you to think I didn’t return like we’d discussed. Honest truth I told you everything, just as we’d planned. I described how Aaron’s face had fallen in on itself as he’d lifted the coffin at the start of the procession. I told you how his hands had shaken underneath the weight of his brother and how that Morning really had felt Broken into a million little pieces that could never be fixed. I said how I’d been introduced to every single relative as Max’s girlfriend, and how Aaron hadn’t looked at me once during the wake, and how Soph had made a lame joke about how inappropriate it is for a wake to be called a wake when the guest of honour can’t even be bothered to open his eyes.

  I explained how Lauren had visited me later that day, giving me the red stilettos to cheer me up, and how she’d flicked through all the sympathy cards in a pile by my bed. I described how she’d sniggered at one that said Taken by God because he was too good for this earth, telling you how she’d muttered ‘Too good for this earth? If Max is in heaven, I bet he’s trying to F an angel.’

  So yeah I told you pretty much everything and then I put that letter in an envelope, sealing it up to take to the post office the following morning to reach you before May 1st, just like I’d always planned.

  Next day I shoved it in my pocket and went to tell Mum I was going for a walk. She was sitting in the lounge, sipping a cup of tea, taking a break from the chores as rain splattered the windows.

  ‘You want to go out in this?’

  ‘Need some air,’ I muttered, very aware of the envelope in my jeans. I yawned because I’d been up late writing in the shed.

  ‘Are you okay, Zoe?’ she asked suddenly, and Stu the way she said it made my stomach drop.

  ‘Fine,’ I replied, trying to smile as the letter in my pocket seemed to double in weight.

  Dot sprinted into the lounge waving the American flag because she’s grown out of her Queen phase. Now she’s decided to be the first female, first English American President, making laws like no more war and free banana ice cream for everyone. Climbing onto the piano stool, she stood with her hand on her heart as if she were listening to the American national anthem.

  Watching her, Mum opened her mouth, closed it again, hesitated for a while and then started to speak.

  ‘I want to tell you something, Zoe.’

  ‘But I’m about to go out . . .’

  ‘It’s my fault.’

  ‘What is?’

  Mum gestured at Dot who was waving the flag from side to side. ‘Her hearing.’

  ‘It’s your fault she’s deaf? But . . . I thought . . . Wasn’t she born that way? That’s what you and Dad have always said.’

  Mum shook her head, gazing at her knees. ‘When I got pregnant with her, it was an accident.’

  ‘Mum. Spare me the details.’

  ‘I didn’t want to have her,’ Mum continued without looking at me or pausing for breath. ‘I was happy with two daughters, but your dad convinced me. Grandpa too for that matter.’ I sat down on the floor next to her feet. ‘Dad confided in him, saying I was thinking of getting rid of it.’

  ‘An abortion?’ Mum put her finger over her lips and flushed even though Dot couldn’t hear a thing.

  ‘It didn’t go down too well, what with Grandpa being religious. They ganged up on me, I suppose you could say. We’d just lost Gran, and they told me how nice it would be to have a new life in the family. A baby. They really pressured me into it.’

  ‘Is that why . . . I mean, in your jewellery box you’ve got all my baby stuff, and Soph’s too, but nothing from Dot.’

  Mum shrugged sadly, her fingers clasped around her mug. ‘I struggled to bond with her. Resented her a little bit, if I’m being completely honest. I couldn’t wait to go back to work.’ Dot leapt off the piano stool, the flag flying behind her like a cape. ‘One day when she was only a few months old, she woke up with a temperature. I was annoyed because I had a big meeting at work and I was supposed to be delivering a presentation to a new client. I convinced myself it was nothing to worry about. Nothing serious.’ Her voice was barely more than a whisper now. I grabbed her hand as she swallowed. ‘I left her with your nanny and, when I got into the office, I turned off my phone so that I could focus. My secretary had to tell me she’d been taken into hospital. Do you remember?’

  I nodded slowly. ‘Just little bits. A tiny bed. Lots of tubes. I didn’t really know what was wrong with her. You never said.’

  Mum brought her cup to her mouth but didn’t sip her tea. ‘Meningitis. The doctors managed to save her but they couldn’t do anything about the damage to her hearing.’

  Dot ran out of the room, the flag wafting at her side. We both watched her go.

  ‘I blamed myself for a long time. A very long time. Grandpa did too. That’s what he said to me in the heat of the moment. Accused me of being a bad mother. Not wanting Dot in the first place then abandoning her when she was ill. I couldn’t forgive him, though it wasn’t really him I hated, of course.’ She looked straight at me then, and Stu I blushed under the intensity of her gaze. ‘Guilt like that – it destroys a person. You have to find a way to let it go.’ She widened her eyes, glancing meaningfully out of the back window towards the shed, and I thought suddenly of the woolly hat and scarf and the deckchair and the blanket. ‘Whatever it is, you have to let it go. It’s hard, Zoe. But you have to forgive yourself.’

  Mum went back to her tea as I stood up, but when I reached the hall, I didn’t turn towards the front door. I wandered into the kitchen. Slowly, I took the last letter out of my pocket, the end of my story, and threw it in the bin.

  This one’s a little different, Stu. For one
thing, I’m not writing it in the shed. I’m at my desk in my bedroom and it’s the middle of the day not the middle of the night. I know you’ll never read it – I know you can’t now – but I wanted to share something with you anyway. Who knows, maybe if there are such things as spirits, you’re wafting there all transparent, peering over my shoulder, keen to find out what happened at the memorial service on May 1st.

  I finally got a reading together, finding something perfect at the very last second. I paced up and down my room all day, practising my words, wondering if Aaron would be at the service or if he was still in South America, sitting on the beach thinking about his mum and his brother and the trees and the rain and the disappearing hand. Sandra had told me that he’d try to make it but she wasn’t hopeful and neither was I.

  ‘It’s a long way to come,’ she’d said a couple of days before. ‘Very expensive.’

  Of course Aaron wasn’t the only thing on my mind that day. You were there too, Stu, sitting in your cell. Waiting. Wanting it to be over. Ready. Accepting. Brave. I knew the execution was going to happen at 6pm in Texas, midnight in England. York, in case you’re wondering. Fulstone Avenue not Fiction Road. I guess there’s no reason to keep that a secret any more.

  The memorial service was due to start at 6pm. I killed time by inventing American laws with Dot and Stu you’ll be pleased to know we abolished capital punishment and improved prisons by giving them decorations at Christmas and guards who share pizza and nice big windows that you can see the whole sun right out of.

  ‘You okay, pet?’ Dad asked when I finally came downstairs in my black dress.

  ‘Of course she’s not,’ Mum said. ‘But she will be.’ Her eyes were fierce and they gave me strength as Dot hurtled out of the coat cupboard. I could barely see her face underneath a black hat.

  ‘You don’t have to wear every item of black clothing that you possess,’ Dad signed, opening the door.

  ‘But I didn’t get to go to the funeral last year,’ Dot replied, smoothing down her black skirt in a pair of black gloves. ‘I’m making up for it.’

  ‘At least take off the scarf,’ Mum signed.

  ‘And the eye patch,’ Soph added, reaching over to pull it off Dot’s face.

  When we reached the school, the reception area was crowded. Coat stands were bending under the weight of so many black jackets. Faces looked pale above so many black tops. The notice board was crammed full of pictures of Max and in the centre of it all was the photo of the three of us at the Spring Fair. If you looked closely, you could tell. I may have been standing in the middle of the brothers, but my body was turned slightly towards Aaron and his knuckles were white as his fingers gripped my hip.

  Lauren burst onto the scene with bright pink lips, a sudden speck of colour in all the gloom.

  ‘How’re you doing?’ she asked.

  ‘Not good.’

  ‘Me neither,’ she muttered. ‘Fifteen quid for this. The funeral was free.’

  A lady in a long black cardigan swooped on us like a crow, her hand clutching a tissue even though her eyes were dry.

  ‘You’re Max’s girlfriend, aren’t you?’ she asked in a shaky voice.

  I started to nod, but Lauren butted in. ‘No. Max is dead. Her name’s Alice. Alice Jones,’ she said, because that’s what I’m really called.

  The lady looked shocked then flew off to find her place at one of the tables. There were loads of them, spilling out of the school hall, and one larger table on a stage at the front next to a microphone stand. My heart lurched when I saw it, and I felt for the reading in my pocket with clammy fingers.

  It was almost time. Mouth dry, I walked towards the hall, and that’s when I saw him.

  You know who, Stu.

  He was standing there in the middle of the room like he’d never been away and I drank drank drank in the sight of him as if my eyes had been dying of thirst for months. His hair was longer and his skin was tanned but his smile was the same. Despite everything it flickered on his lips as I lifted my hand to wave.

  ‘He came after all,’ Sandra said in my ear, making me jump. ‘Turned up this morning as a surprise.’

  Walking on air – maybe even flying – I made my way into the hall, right to the very front, sinking onto a chair at the end of the main table. Aaron climbed onto the stage too and found his seat at the opposite end, rearranging his knife and fork so they were perfectly straight.

  The microphone screeched with feedback. Sandra backed away from it, her notes trembling in her hand. She waited an instant. Approached it once more. She said how wonderful it was that we were all together to celebrate Max’s life. Aaron stared at his spoon. She said what a difficult year it had been for all of us. I stared at my spoon. She said that Max was gone but not forgotten and that he’d been such a wonderful son, a fantastic brother, a lovely boyfriend – and that’s when I looked at Aaron and he looked at me and Stu the sadness I felt in the most secret part of me was written all over his face.

  ‘And now I’d like to ask Max’s girlfriend to speak,’ Sandra said. Members of the audience exchanged sympathetic looks. Every single pair of eyes in the room was fixed on me, apart from the pair I actually cared about.

  Aaron was gazing at his napkin.

  I didn’t move from my seat.

  Fiona nudged me in the ribs.

  I still didn’t budge.

  ‘It’s your turn,’ Sandra mouthed.

  My chair scraped backwards. My heels echoed on the floor. Slowly, slowly, I pulled the poem out of my pocket. Your poem actually, Stu. The one you wrote in the last week of your life.

  Release.

  My stomach was in a knot and somewhere in Texas, I knew yours was too. I reached the microphone and unfolded the words. Your words. The knot in my stomach tightened and Stu the connection between us felt taut and painful but something to hold on to, thick as rope.

  Ready.

  Accepting.

  Brave.

  When I started to read, my voice was surprisingly calm. The words were clear. I stood up a little taller, spoke even louder, saying the poem not for Max or Sandra or anyone else in that room. Not even for Aaron. I said it for you and I said it for me – for our stories and our mistakes and your end and maybe even my beginning.

  The memorial was a success even if the spotted dick was cold. As I tried to leave the school, everyone swarmed round me, telling me how wonderful the reading had been.

  ‘I felt Max,’ someone said, pressing their chest, ‘in here.’

  ‘Did you see the lights flicker when she finished the poem? That was him.’

  ‘I heard the radiator groan in the first verse. I reckon that was him too.’

  Mum gave me my coat and led me outside, away from the crowd where I could breathe more easily. Before I could reach the car where Dad and my sisters were waiting, I felt a hand on mine. I didn’t have to turn around to know whose it was.

  ‘Do you want to get out of here, Bird Girl?’

  I told Mum I was going to Lauren’s. I don’t know if she believed me, but she didn’t ask any questions, just gave me a quick hug and shouted at Dot for waving the American flag so hard she almost blinded a pensioner.

  DOR1S seemed to purr when Aaron started the engine as if she was pleased we were back. We didn’t speak, just drove out of the city into the countryside on our way to absolutely nowhere, and when we found that perfect spot among some trees, we stopped and looked at each other. We knew without a word that nothing could happen but Aaron spread his coat on the grass and we sat next to each other to watch the sun go down. Swallows swooped through the red sky, back from their adventure, and we held each other underneath the ketchup clouds, willing time to stop and the world to forget us for a while.

  There’s nothing much more to say. Aaron dropped me off next to the Chinese takeaway and our tears glowed green as the emerald dragon roared in silent protest.

  ‘So long, Bird Girl,’ he whispered, changing the emphasis to stress the first word.
r />   ‘So long,’ I agreed, because a life without him would be.

  I didn’t go straight home. I went to the river for the first time since Max died. The moon glistened on the water as I fingered the initials scratched into the wood.

  MM + AJ

  FEB 14

  Grabbing a stone, I knelt by the bench, as somewhere on the other side of the world, you lay down for the last time. A clock struck midnight as I began to scrape my initials off the wood. It wasn’t done hard or furiously or through tears. It was quite calm. Gentle almost. But Stu it was good to see them fade.

  Yours truly,

  ALICE JONES

  A bar in South America

  February 11th

  Bird Girl.

  Blame the parrot for this letter. At least I think it’s a parrot. Being a bird non-expert, it’s difficult to tell. If you were here, you’d laugh in that way of yours and say, ‘Parrot?! Aaron, it’s a . . .’

  Wow.

  My ornithological knowledge is so poor I can’t even think of another bird with multi-coloured wings that might be kept in a cage for the amusement of the customers. Not this customer, though. Oh no. This customer can no longer look at a bird behind bars without thinking of a certain girl with a certain love of the sound of freedom.

  I’m in a town called Rurrenabaque in Bolivia, having a drink. Perhaps you’re imagining me sipping beer from a gnarled keg in a makeshift bar on a long stretch of gold beach, surrounded by locals. Well, let me set you straight: I’m sitting on an ordinary plastic chair behind an ordinary plastic table by an ordinary busy road, and two drunk English guys are having a competition to see who can burp the alphabet. It’s quite the spectator sport. Mr Stubble just got to the letter F before Mr Bald reached the dizzy heights of N. N! In one belch!! No wonder they’re cheering.

  Watching them, I swear to God I could be back in York. It was the same in Ecuador, no matter where I went. Even during a trek in the remotest part of the Andes, stuff felt familiar. Take this family who agreed to let me stay for a couple of days. Walking into their hut in the middle of the mountains, at first I thought they were different. The people wore a style of clothes I had never seen before and spoke this strange language, not even Spanish. There was no Internet, no electricity even, so no way of knowing what was going on in the world, and that was fine by me.

 
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