© Gemma Marren
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
A short story
She shook her head and sighed when she saw his corpse in the coffin. His hollowed cheeks and square jaw were smooth and pale, with that waxy hue of the deceased.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Jim.
‘Oh you know, the way they’ve shaved him,’ she hissed.
Without his neatly trimmed beard he was a stranger to her. Frank had always joked that he'd invented designer stubble, ‘Before George Michael was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye!’ Of course Jim hadn’t noticed; he never noticed things like that. It was Frank who'd always complimented her on a new hairstyle, or a subtle change in shade of lipstick. She felt parched; her throat, her eyes, dry. She couldn’t bear to look. Scanning the room for somewhere to sit she noticed the glow of a candle flickering on the wall and the refracted light through the stained glass window, and imagined bubbles floating in the air. Memories drifted before her, silent celluloid scenes played out upon the shiny reflected surfaces, drifting upwards, vying for her attention. She knew that they would eventually evaporate, until all she’d be left with were a few dusty photos and a fading recollection of his booming voice, and his ringing laughter.
He’d called her a fortnight before.
‘Fancy a daytrip?’
And so she found herself in Tunbridge Wells, on a bright October day, the leaves just turning to rich shades of autumn. They were sitting in deep green velvet armchairs, sipping Kir Royal in the Wells Inn, when she commented on the cheesy background music.
‘Reminds me of Acker Bilk,' she said.
‘Don’t give your age away darling.’
‘Jim took me to see him in Howth on our first date.’
‘To Acker Bilk! Jesus, I can’t believe he took you to Acker Bilk!’ He threw back his head, his resounding, throaty laughter turning heads in the sedate lounge bar.
‘I can’t believe I’ve known you for over thirty years and you’ve only just found out,’ she said.
‘So come on, how did he ask you?’
She had to ferret around for the memory of Jim in the hotel kitchen, sitting on the steel counter nonchalantly swinging his long legs. He looked tired and sweaty after a long shift, grubby chef whites and tousled dark hair. His green eyes followed her as she clipped around the kitchen in her stilettos, sending a tingle down her spine. She feigned surprise on seeing him and started to excuse herself when he drawled in his flat Leitrim accent,
‘Will you come to Acker Bilk with me on Saturday?’
She’d started behind reception only a week before, fresh out of secretarial college and brimming with romantic notions of city living, a far cry from the Atlantic surf of County Clare. They quickly fell into a courting routine, stepping out every Saturday night for a drink or to the pictures, where they’d sit in a double seat and progressed from holding hands to chaste kissing. Occasionally they’d splash out and drive up the Dublin Mountains to Johnny Fox’s for a sea food platter, but they were both careful with money and saving for nothing in particular. Sometimes they’d go dutch; Jim said it was his way of respecting women’s lib.
‘Acker Bilk, all is forgiven,’ said Frank, raising his glass for a toast.
After lunch they took a stroll through the Common, muddy paths strewn with conkers and fallen leaves, up along Mount Edgcombe, making a large loop and ending up at the bottom of the town.
‘Oh it’s good to be out of the Smoke,’ he said, stretching his arms out and embracing the crisp air.
‘I should have brought my wellies.’
‘I never did manage to get you into rambling, did I?’
‘No, thank goodness. Do you remember that hill walk in Glendalough?’
‘Of course I do, it was the first time we met.’
She’d been seeing Jim for about six months when he suggested a trip down to Glendalough, and told her to bring some walking shoes. At the station he introduced her to Frank, who pumped her hand in a solid grasp, laughing, ‘So this is the mysterious Jane!’ He was kitted out in country tweeds, hiking boots and walking pick, his mop of brown curly hair spilling out from under a flat cap. He led the way up through the woods, along a stream and on up the mountain. She’d never been hill walking before and the lace-ups she’d borrowed were tight and blistering. She struggled to keep up, stumbling over roots and stones and treading in sheep droppings. But every now and then she’d raise her head and breathe in the rich fragrance of bracken and cowslip, awed by the towering terrain before her. Occasionally Frank would proffer his hand, hauling her over a rocky outcrop, and announce breaks for her to catch her breath. Jim tramped on ahead and they caught up with him at the top, where she witnessed her first breathtaking view of the Wicklow Mountains. On the train heading back to the hotel she quizzed Jim about Frank.
‘He was nice. How did you meet?’
‘Oh. Did you work together?’
‘Yeah. The Great Southern. Used to go drinking together.’
‘Does he have a girlfriend?’ she asked, imagining cosy foursomes.
‘Doubt it,’ came the evasive reply.
As she stood stroking his icy hand, she tried to remember when she’d first realised. Definitely not while they were still in Dublin, he was quite cautious then. From time to time she and Jim had met up with Frank, always some excursion taking them out of their courting routine: a trip to the Hugh Lane, a play at the Abbey. Until one evening he announced he was going to England; ‘One kicking too many!’ he laughed and caught the boat the following week.
She felt the sparkle go with him, and tried to chivvy their relationship along suggesting a visit to the National, but Jim didn’t seem interested in cultural pursuits without Frank to cajole him. When he suggested they follow Frank across the water she needed no persuading, and they set sail as soon as she’d convinced her parents of the propriety of hotel staff quarters. They’d been in London a month when Frank appeared on the scene brandishing opera tickets, and once again he injected some glamour into their lives. He’d queued up outside the Coliseum from dawn to get the best standby seats in the Gods. She remembered feeling out of her depth, anxious she’d show her ignorance. As the orchestra tuned up, the clashing strains of strings and woodwind and the tinkle of a piano in the pit far below, Frank had squeezed her hand and said, ‘It’s in Italian, so we’re not supposed to understand a word of it.’ He took them drinking in Old Compton Street afterwards with one of the stagehands. The penny finally dropped when she saw them kissing outside the gents. Initially disconcerted she soon relished his flamboyance. After that their daytrips to Brighton took on a different aspect; a vibrant threesome eating ice cream on the pier and paddling in the icy channel by day, going their separate ways at dusk. Frank in his tight purple flares would head off to one of his ‘Men Only’ clubs as he called them, while she and Jim would enjoy a chaste basket of scampi, before reuniting for the late night drive back to the capital.
They had stopped off in a quaint teashop in the Pantiles, a table for two near the smouldering open fire, and as he’d poured Earl Grey into flowery china cups she’d rummaged in her handbag.
‘Look what I found the other day,’ she said, pulling out a faded colour photo.
‘Oh my God, Lichtenstein! Look at me with hair. And look at you, little leprechaun.’
She was pictured perched on top of an enormous snowball the two men had spent hours constructing with freezing hands. It was her first holiday abroad, Christmas of ’66. Foot and mouth restrictions meant they couldn’t get home to Ireland, so Frank proposed a road trip. 'Let's follow our noses and see where it takes us,' he said. They took the ferry to Ostend from where they freewheeled through Germany and had their first taste of sauerkraut. In Austria they dined on schnitzel and strudel, and savoured the milkiest praline chocolate in Switzerland, until they wound up in Liechtenstein.
'Where the hell are we?' cried Frank, rifling through the glove compartment in search of a map.
'Who cares?' said Jane.
'But we're supposed to be having dinner in Italy.'
'I thought we'd have a detour,' said Jim, a smile on his face. Jane leaned over the back of the driver's seat and wrapped her arms around him.
'See, Frank, you're not the only one who can be spontaneous,' and she kissed the back of Jim's neck.
As the snow fell and the roads grew treacherous they secured chains around the tyres of the Hillman Hunter and navigated freely, losing themselves in a countryside nestled under a soft white shawl. Jane marvelled at the scrupulous cleanliness of the guesthouses where they stayed three to a room on their meagre budget. As they drove through the night to catch the ferry back to England, Frank at the steering wheel and Jane snuggled under a blanket in the back with Jim, he whispered his proposal.
They married back home in Ireland, she in a fitted lacy full-length frock with an enormous veil that shrouded her fine features. Jim said it wouldn’t be proper for Frank to be best man, and invited his dour cousin to carry the rings. ‘Some friend you are,’ was Jane’s only comment. Bride and groom smooched to Procol Harum’s 'Whiter Shade of Pale' and grooved to Van Morrison’s 'Brown Eyed Girl' at the reception, and drove off in a Triumph Herald to the sound of rattling cans. They had saved themselves for their wedding night. Lying under the starched white sheets of the hotel four poster bed, she was a spasm of expectation, the burning desire she had for him quenched in a few furtive thrusts. They honeymooned in a seaside resort in Benamedina, their first taste of the sun-drenched Med, hot and exotic. She hoped the sangria would spice things up after dark, but by the end of two weeks was resigned to a staid missionary position. They moved back to England and Jim flitted from job to job, until he jacked in the cheffing, fed up with the nascent English demands for fancy continental cuisine, too much garlic and Elizabeth David. He got a job as a trainee supermarket manager, more suited to his skillset. Meanwhile Frank had packed in bartending and taken to the skies, first with Aer Lingus and then British Airways, as long haul satisfied his latent wanderlust.
He handed back the photo. ‘Feels like yesterday,' he said, 'Come on, let’s get shopping, I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.’
As they walked arm in arm along the cobbles of the Pantiles they chatted about Sally.
‘How is my gorgeous Goddaughter?' he asked, 'Has she started breaking hearts yet?’ Frank had proudly cradled Sally in his arms the day she was baptised.
‘The closest I’ll ever get to fatherhood,’ he’d say.
If it wasn’t for Frank, Sally might not have known her father. Jane had returned to Ireland for the birth of her only daughter and stayed with her mother for nearly six months. Sally's arrival kindled a dampened passion in Jane; and with it the frayed remnant of her love for Jim began to unravel. He deserved more, she saw this in her mother's quizzical frowns, but chose to look away. Then Frank appeared one day, his bottle green bell-bottoms and platform boots sending a ripple of censure through the village. He proffered a bouquet of red roses, some rousing advice and a single ticket to England, where he delivered her back to a bewildered Jim. She hadn’t intended to leave him, and in her guilt threw herself into family life. They moved out of digs and bought their first home, a maisonette just off the Elephant and Castle. They traded up to a newly built high-rise in Lewisham, and when Jim was promoted to area manager they bought a bow fronted Edwardian semi in Croydon. Frank moved along the Piccadilly Line, ensuring easy access to Heathrow and Leicester Square. He finally settled in a run down Victorian townhouse in Earls Court, which he renovated with a flourish, the walls adorned with Picasso and Matisse prints, the stripped wood floors scattered with bold patterned rugs, every corner furnished with tribal artefacts accrued on his travels.
Several times a year Frank would descend on Jane and Jim in suburbia and spend the weekend luxuriating in their domestic embrace. He’d bring his own airbed and pump it up on the fawn shagpile carpet in the sitting room, to the delight of Sally who was curious as to why Uncle Frank slept on a lilo. He adored this little girl, and every year a birthday card would belatedly arrive, from the Tate or the National, with a picture of a girl chasing butterflies or on a swing, his only concession to her youth. At Christmas he’d take her to the ballet, introducing her to the nuanced elegance of 'The Nutcracker' or 'Swan Lake', while all her friends were screaming ‘Oh No You Don’t’ at the local pantomime. She would clap enthusiastically as the curtain fell on a dying swan, and at home ask her mother why Uncle Frank always whistled and hollered such impassioned ‘Bravos’ as the dancers took their bows, didn’t he know they couldn’t hear him. He condescended to take her to see 'Annie' at the Victoria Palace, and put his fingers in his ears as the precocious child star belted out an encore of ‘Tomorrow’. ‘How dreadful,’ he concluded in the car on the way home, and took her to 'The Barber of Seville' the following week. He’d thrill her with tales of his travels; he was the only person she knew who’d stepped behind Brezhnev’s Iron Curtain, had carnivalled in Rio or had been to deepest darkest Peru, home of her much loved Paddington Bear.
When Sally was eleven she became wary of her Uncle Frank, with his frilly shirts and tight jeans, and no longer threw herself into his arms on arrival. Jane instinctively knew she had finally detected an inexplicable difference, but Frank was inconsolable at his perceived loss. So the next time Jane took Sally on one of their shopping trips up to town, she forsook her hot salt beef sandwich at the Brass Rail in Selfridges in favour of spaghetti alla vongole in an Italian cafe near Old Compton Street. There Sally watched wide eyed as two handsome males held hands over their antipasti, and were openly kissing by the time their espressos arrived. On the train home Jane asked Sally if she thought the two men were happy. ‘Very,’ she replied and Jane explained that Uncle Frank also liked to kiss other men, and that he too was very happy. As he tentatively crossed the threshold on his next visit, Sally took him by the hand and dragged him upstairs to show off the painting she’d entered in a competition that had won first prize. ‘You have talent my dear,’ he declared, and continued to foster a love of art in his surrogate niece.
Jim watched his wife, ashen, beside him, opening and closing the clasp of her patent clutch bag. Her hair was all salt and pepper now, regularly cut in a crop style, as she called it.
‘Well funky,’ Sally had declared when she returned home from college for the Christmas holidays, ‘Bet Uncle Frank was behind that?’
He noticed she was wearing Frank’s large Claddagh ring, on her right hand, the heart turned inwards. He caught her eye and nodded towards her hand. Her face creased into an irritated frown and she turned away and started twisting the ring round and round her slender finger. Jim shrugged; must be keeping it for Sally. As a child, Sally was fascinated by the ring; she wasn’t used to seeing men wearing jewellery. Jim stopped wearing his wedding band after a few years, it had got a bit tight and now he didn’t know where it was. Sally thought the Claddagh ring looked like a crab.
‘Is that because you’re a Cancerian, like me?’ she asked Frank.
‘It’s not a crab, sweetheart, it’s two hands clasping a heart, with a crown on top.’
‘Where did you get it?’
‘I was given it a long time ago when I lost my heart to a so-and-so who went and broke it.’
‘Broke your ring?’
‘No, my heart.’
‘I hope you fixed it. Can I have a ring like that when I’m older?’
‘When your heart has been broken I shall give you one to console you my darling.’
Jim had worried for a time that Frank wouldn’t be a good influence for Sally, that she’d know too much too young. But Frank was discreet. Sitting staring at the coffin, waiting for the service to start, he thought about the man who’d taken him under his wing when he started his first cheffing job in Galway, ‘Fresh off the bog,’ as Frank put it. Jim used to wince at Frank’s jokes and his laughter and gesticulating in public; but he enjoyed the hiking and boozing together, more than the trips to the theatre, where he always fell asleep before the first curtain. Jane was more into that sort of thing, so he left them to it. On their honeymoon he’d joked that he half expected Frank to appear shouting, ‘Cooee, only me!’ and polishing off their expensive sangria. Frank was always oblivious to the cost of things, not good with money; Jim had to bail him out several times. He couldn’t understand why he spent all that money on plush seats at the opera and ballet when you could put a record on the turntable and enjoy the warbling from the comfort of your own home. He always felt a bit bad not asking Frank to be best man though; even Jim had to admit his cousin’s speech was a trifle dull.
Jane was dressed in conventional funereal black. It was many years since Frank had persuaded her out of it. ‘Too sombre for your skin tone my dear, makes you look like a corpse.’ He looked so pale now. She couldn’t understand when people said the dead looked serene, at peace. There was nothing peaceful about his face; you could read the pain he’d suffered in his last fight for life. He lost a little bit of his sparkle ever since he’d been grounded. He blamed the nascent air rage phenomenon. During a particularly ugly contretemps when they’d run out of chicken, he suffered his first heart attack; spent a miserable year in departures along with the pregnant trolley dollies before taking early retirement. He’d take the occasional short-haul flight and lament the good old days when people used to dress to travel. ‘It’s all big bags and bling now,’ he’d decry. She’d dressed him today, in his cream linen suit with a red stripy shirt and silk cravat, but the colours seemed too garish on this lifeless corpse. She wanted to reflect his aura and instead made him look outlandish. With his shaved cheeks and red lips on alabaster skin he had the air of a wigless Vaudeville dame.
She’d come across a pair of his old platforms while rooting through his wardrobe trying to find suitable clothes for his shroud, and had a flashback to the time Jim tried them on and twisted his ankle. When she told Frank, expecting uproarious laughter, he simply said, ‘I thought it was only me wanting to be in his shoes.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘Oh you know. I’ve always envied him. The way he glides through life, nothing sticking. He always looks on the bright side, so it’s always bright in his world.’
‘I had no idea you felt like that.’
‘You should try being married to him.’
‘I know darling, but with depth comes darkness!’
‘I’d take the darkness,’ she said, with a resigned smile.
It was during the visits that punctuated her mundane existence that Jane would spill out her frustrations, late at night over a bottle of Chianti after Jim had taken himself off to bed, bored by their debates about the merits of Hockney and the state of the Troubles. Frank was sympathetic but always reconciled her to her marriage, numbering the virtues of a comfortable home, steady husband, beautiful daughter; family he would never have. On occasion he’d tell her to take a lover, and hoot with laughter. He kept his romances quite separate, treating her home as a respite from his frantic transatlantic life. Occasionally he'd disappear from her radar and she knew he would have taken up with some new lover, and would return when the dust settled. Once he didn’t appear for a year, and eventually she sought him out in Earls Court and gave him a right dressing down. ‘Are you a part of this family or what?’ she fumed, but softened when she saw the tears in his eyes.
‘Here we go,’ he’d said, lifting a beautifully ornate lacquered urn. As they left the cluttered antique shop he handed it to Jane; ‘After I’m cremated I want you to keep my ashes in this.’ She stopped in the doorway, her face crumpled with questions. ‘Shhsh, shhsh,’ he soothed and placed a finger to her lips. She couldn’t contemplate life without Frank, to paper over the cracks in her marriage and inject a bit of laughter and culture into their lives. He didn’t tell her he was booked in for a triple by-pass the following week, and she was busy painting the dining room when she got the call from the hospital, explaining that as next of kin she had better come at once. She arrived just after he’d been sewn up and an hour before he passed on.
Sally wasn’t at the funeral; she was in Florence touring the galleries as part of her art foundation at Brighton. There weren’t many mourners; he’d never returned to his native Sligo and had lost all contact with his family, whom Jane tried fruitlessly to trace. She knew some of the friends he’d mentioned had died of AIDS, but there was a smattering of well-wishers. She thought she recognised the stagehand they’d met many years before. Frank’s casket was shunted into the furnace to the powerful strains of Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’, and Jane wept, finally, uncontrollably. On the way home in the car, Jim at the wheel, she clutched the beautiful urn between her trembling hands, and knew that it contained not only the ashes of her soul mate but the embers of her marriage.