by Ben Ellis
Tom allowed the platitudes and reminiscences to recede on the brewing wind as he left behind the press of condolent hands and teary cheeks from half-forgotten faces. Standing alone at the top of a run of stone steps he watched a falling leaf dip and glide weightlessly on the breeze, glinting briefly golden in a stray ray of sunlight before disappearing between the rows of monolithic silhouettes.
Tom’s shadow blurred then faded behind him as the clouds regained control of the errant ray and dulled the afternoon once more. He listened to his sister’s familiar footsteps approaching behind him on the gravel and felt her hand rest on his shoulder. “All I wanted was a tear,” said Tom, “just one. But all I had was an empty feeling, a void inside me where my emotion should be.” He scuffed his foot on the path scattering stones and startling a quarrel of sparrows from their nearby perch. “I’m as dried up and stale inside as he was. Do you know the last thing he said to me? His enduring legacy to his only son? That tired, weakened voice called me back in to his bedroom, in that house of memories to whisper what? His love? His pride? Pah! Christ, even his contempt would have been something of substance, of depth, some level to connect on. But what did I get? ‘Be a help to your Mother and take the bins out as you leave’!”
“He loved you, Tom.” Josie released her hand as Tom turned to face her, “You must believe…” her voice trailed off as his gaze met her reddened and puffy eyes.
Tom flinched. “Spare me another eulogy.” A gust of wind whipped the collar of Josie’s black coat up against her neck exposing a flash of bright pattern on the underside. “I loved him. I’ve spent my life trying to live up to his example, to do what I thought he wanted me to do, what would make him proud. And for what? The odd afternoon of rarefied silence in some exclusive restaurant. A handshake at the doorway. A perfunctory greeting before the phone was hurriedly passed on.” Tom was shaking. He buried his hands in his pockets as he looked back up at Josie. “I know it was different for you, he adored you. Always did.”
Josie straightened her collar and fumbled with her handbag. “This was his,” she said, hesitantly producing a faded leather wallet and offering it to Tom. The stitching had started to unpick in one corner allowing the smoky brown leather to curl apart, leaving the guilty thread protruding from the gap. “Take it.” Tom took the wallet, turning it over in his hand before bringing it up to his nose to inhale the sweet, woody scent. “Look inside,” Josie gently urged.
Tom opened the wallet, inside were two bank cards. Pulling out the front card he murmured, “Dr E P Cartwright,” tracing his father’s familiar signature with his finger. “Just like him. No store cards, no old receipts, nothing unnecessary.”
“Not quite,” replied Josie, carefully slipping her index finger behind the second card.
The gloomy afternoon light under the massing clouds made Tom lean in and squint to see the small photo that Josie slid from his father’s wallet. The folded print was roughly cut, and the aging picture a little blurred. A smile played at the corner of Tom’s mouth. “Mum had had a glass of champagne when she took that.” The smile quivered, teetering on the edge, as overhead the rolling sky turned from steel to slate to pitch. The first drops of rain to fall were small, infinitesimal beads that speckled the granite of the headstones and sent the sparrows fluttering for cover. As Tom gazed down at his yellowing younger self in mortar board and gown the raindrops became heavier, delicate beads turned to dense weighty globules splattering brother and sister alike while dark cloud and white smoke danced above their heads.
Ben Ellis lives in Birmingham and works for the NHS; he has been meaning to start writing for ages.