Short Straw by Louisa Owen

We stared at the gravestone.

Tess Jones

A bad wife, but an adequate mother and grandmother

Grandad chuckled.

“That’s not even her name,” I said.

“It’s a common nickname for Theresa.”

“Yeah, but she hated it.”

“True,” Grandad smiled. “C’mon, you wanted to be here for the ashes.”

I headed for the car. But grandad strode right past it.

“I thought we were going to the beach.”

“I had a better idea,” he said.

The town had been dead for years. Granny took one path in and out. To the Jenkins and back again with a box of iced buns. I wondered if Grandad had struck a deal – maybe they’d put her on the shelf next to the list of today’s baked goods and prices. A small glass container in the shape of an iced bun? No, a Belgian bun seemed more appropriate, urn-wise. We walked past Jenkins and into the market. Right at the back where it stank: the public toilets.

He stalked into the men’s room, appearing again at the entrance to beckon me in. A small shit was laid out neatly on a windowsill. Otherwise it was empty. Grandad pulled the brown plastic container from his big jacket pocket. It looked like something to hold fertiliser. She was a small woman. Delicately swivelling Toby jugs to shield their bumpy faces from the light. Everything around her was colourful, clashing. Never brown. I was too distracted by the container and the shit to anticipate Grandad’s plan.

The white grains cascaded down. I ran to the stall and watched them hit the water. It stayed a dry mound as if I could just scoop it back out, but slowly the wetness crept through, mixing the delicate bone fragments of my grandmother with the unflushed detritus of the men of this town.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t be so sentimental,” he laughed again, and flushed the toilet. “You want this?” He shook the plastic bottle in my face. My grandmother was a fine dust on its rim.

When I didn’t answer he chucked it in the bin and left, whistling a Christmas tune, even though it was only September. He’d lost it. The death of his wife had pushed him over the edge. Next time I see him, he’ll be staring into space in a worn armchair, Jack Lemmon on the TV and an old woman sobbing over a Bingo board in the corner. I’ll be one of those nervous visitors, scared of disappearing into the wrinkles of the place and hating myself for my disgust at his drool.

 

Grandad’s back garden looked like a gateway to hell. In the centre of granny’s once pristine lawn was a mound of black, twisted shapes. I edged closer to see the melted face of a Toby jug. It was probably Catherine of Aragon. She always got the short straw.

I phoned mum, kneading ash into the yellowing lawn. I told her what had happened, that she needed to come, post-haste.

“No,” she replied. “And I told you to leave him alone.”

“I had to come by.”

“I am not speaking to him until he explains himself.”

“For what? What actually happened at the funeral?”

She sighed.

“Mum?”

“I didn’t want to say anything. I know you love him, but,” she paused, “He brought three,” and then, in a whisper, “Prostitutes.”

“What?”

“To my mother’s funeral. Three prostitutes—I can’t.” I could hear her sucking in a lip. “And what he wore was offensive enough – a bright green suit. He looked like a bell pepper. I won’t speak to him again. No.”

I tried to imagine the old women of this town watching that walk down the aisle. “Is this how dementia starts?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand. I always thought they had the best relationship, you know? Thought that’s what I should base my marriage on.”

“Maybe you did?”

“Oi, don’t be flippant. Your father and I are still friends.” She sniffed. “I just—I keep thinking, they married when they were teenagers, you know? They probably didn’t know each other that well. And, divorce wasn’t so easy and they had so many kids. Maybe they were stuck together, trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“That’s so depressing.”

“It’s childish. She was still my mother. I won’t speak to him again.”

When I returned inside, Grandad was dancing around the kitchen in Granny’s apron, melting her cooking implements on the hob.

“Everyone hates you.”

“I know,” he grinned.

Dinner was curry from the Indian down the road. Granny would have never let that in the house.

I could feel the tears welling as Grandad talked about how he wanted to knock through all the walls and make everything glass.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Less dust?”

“Did you really bring prostitutes to the funeral?”

He snorted, “Yeah, if I’d known that was how to keep your mother quiet, I would have—”

“Grandad.”

“I didn’t do anything with them, if that’s what you’re wondering—”

“Ew, no.”

“On my pension, you’re lucky I could get three to just sit and be quiet.”

Later, I lay down in the upstairs bedroom and thought about the summers spent here jumping on beds. It was give and take. She let me eat Nutella sandwiches and taught me to swear in Welsh. I watched Home and Away omnibuses and taught her that you couldn’t talk to cash machines.

It was well past midnight when I heard movement downstairs. Had he started a satanic cult using her best china now too? If it wasn’t already on the pyre out the back.

I tiptoed down the stairs, stretching over the squeaky one. Grandad was sat in a chair in the front room. The curtains were open so the streetlights cast a dim, anaemic glow over everything. Maybe a satanic cult wasn’t too far off. I walked in and he jumped up.

“Oh, I—oh, damn you.” He sat back down and tried to flatten out the photo he’d been clutching.

Granny’s favourite chair was on its side and his armchair, next to it, was facing the clock on the mantelpiece rather than the TV. Otherwise, it was all as I’d left it my last visit. Months ago.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

I came closer and looked at the photo in his trembling hands. It was their wedding photo. Big smiles. Tears shone on his cheeks. “I’m waiting.”

“For?”

He smoothed the photo down. “She always did have a temper.”

 

Louisa Owen

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

 

 

4 thoughts on “Short Straw by Louisa Owen

  1. Hi Louisa,
    There are a few stories that will never leave you. This is one.
    I laughed all the way through. His actions were brilliantly cringe worthy. The image of him whistling a Christmas tune is an absolute cracker.
    What I loved about this was I considered this as a total absurd humour type story. I then considered him losing it but I never once considered the story to be so unbelievably touching.
    Not many writers can totally do a u-turn and not leave the reader with some form of resentment.
    Your reveal enhanced what was already a brilliant story!!!!!
    Not much makes me smile, but this sure as hell did!!
    Hugh

    Like

    • I did not know where this interesting story was headed from the offset, and I found the disposal of the ashes rather bizarre but as well intriguing – this act alone compelled me to swim further in. Glad I did because I found within this pool, humor, drama, and sorrow. People grieve in diverse manners.

      Like

  2. I loved this, right from the first line. It was totally unsentimental, and yet heartbreaking. I liked the clipped, unfussy style. Funny and moving.

    Like

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