Cold Shoulder

Author’s Note: This is a little unfinished piece I did for a Creative Writing Seminar in University, the aim of which was to have two characters interact and talk their way around the ‘elephant in the room’. With any luck I satisfy that while keeping it interesting to read. 

The crunch of snow beneath feet punctuated the low toll of the bells as Mark closed the door on his parents’ cab, watching as they pulled away into the white haze of the midmorning frost. He turned up his collar and glanced back towards the church and the black-clad army marching out from it. He’d put on a brave face for his mother and father, but the grief was still hitting home, making his eyes red and he clenched his teeth at the effort of resisting the tears. He lit a cigarette as he waited on the frosted pavement and watched as his breath and smoke mingled in the air before him, like white smoke from a chimney. His jaw trembled a little as he breathed out, but he ignored it and took another drag.

It’d been a long time since he’d last been home, but this village still seemed the same as years ago, frozen in time like the rows of bare oaks on the common-land between the church and the high street. A little haven away from time and space.

Matty had been the good son. Always making the extra effort to visit this leafy little hamlet from London every other weekend. He’d taken the time to make sure that Mum was ok with putting the dog down, and helping dad build that log store for the winter. Mr Cousens had told a beautiful little anecdote about the time Matty had helped with the lambing season. And Mrs Edmonds had caught up with Mark to tell him how sorely Matthew would be missed at the little primary school down the road where he had volunteered with the Nativity play during his Christmas break from university. People always seemed to remember the good things at funerals. All of a sudden, for between a week and a month, people became saints and no-one could say a bad thing about them.

He crushed the cigarette butt beneath the heel of his boot and set another between his lips, clicking his zippo open and shut as he lit it. Then again, Mark himself wasn’t going to deface the memory of his brother. Not today. He noticed some crows mobbing a pigeon in the oak across the road, shrill calls cutting across the hypnotic sound of the bells.

“Have you got a spare cig?”

The question burst his bubble of privacy, and Mark frowned, reaching inside his coat for the packet, handing a little stick of white to Nicky as she stood next to him.

“Thanks.” She brought her lighter to her face and started sparking, hands shaking a little in the cold breeze. Mark gave her three attempts before he sparked his and held it to the end of the unlit cigarette. She breathed her thanks after inhaling and he nodded in response, looking up and down the road for his taxi.

“You didn’t speak in the end then.”
It was a fact, he didn’t need to answer it, but did anyway, grunting his answer with an air of finality.
“Nope.”
“You should have.”
Fantastic. Life advice from his brother’s girlfriend. What was the term for that anyway? Not a widow… partner-of-the-deceased maybe? Something like that.
“Really? What should I have said?”
She seemed taken aback by that, the answer obviously clearer in her mind than his.
“I dunno, that you’ll miss him? That you loved him? Maybe tell a story about that-time-when..?”
Mark frowned, eyebrows cutting down across his face, splitting his passive expression in two.
“I’ve got no right to say a eulogy, because I’ve got nothing nice to say.”
He gestured to the small groups of mourners still hanging around outside the church.
“You think any of these old dears want to hear what I think of Matty? Maybe I should get them up to date on his life.”

Nicky turned away, wiping her hand across her face and sniffing before taking another drag and turning back to him. He thawed slightly, seeing her reaction, and looked for the taxi again before speaking in a softer voice. “I just couldn’t do it. I’m sorry.”

She was silent for a beat, just as an old man Mark half-recognised from some long-forgotten memory approached them both. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Mark.” The old man said, self-importance fooling him into thinking he needed no introduction. “Matthew was a good man and will be missed. There’s one more angel watching over you all.” Mark shook the offered hand and managed half a smile.
“Sure. Another angel.”
The stranger squeezed his shoulder with a solemn look, before continuing. “You tell your mum and dad to call me, now, if they need anything.”
Mark nodded. “I’ll do that.”

The man walked off and Mark watched him go. Did he even know Matty? Or was he just there to support their parents? Deciding that he didn’t care, Mark returned to smoking, and staring at his feet.

“He was your brother, you should have something to say.”
Wow, she was really going to pursue this.

“So you want me,” he began, “to talk about my dearly departed brother. The man who carries fondly on in the memories of these old bastards as a gracious do-gooder. You want me to talk about my memories of him. Sweet kid, grew up good and then got lost along the way. Took a decision that was yours to make out of your hands.”

Mark stopped at the look on her face. It was too much to bring up her abortion when her boyfriend had just passed. He allowed it to rest there as he saw the cab appear like a spectre out of the mist.

“But you get what I’m saying.”

Nicky looked away and nodded. “Sure.”

The cab slowed down and Mark unbuttoned his coat, tossing the stub onto the ground and scuffing his foot over it. “You need this?” He asked taking a step forward to grasp the cold handle and open the door.

Nicky shook her head, breath misting before her eyes. Through it, he could just about pick up her eyes, matte and faded without that sparkle of life she used to have.

“No. It’s all yours.”

Nodding silently, Mark bent down and ducked into the cab, not feeling the warm air which billowed out of it.

He closed the door and buckled up as the driver turned back to him. “Where to, mate?”

“Just to the station. Winch-“

“Got it mate, it’ll run you about fifteen; that ok?”

“Sure. Whatever.” Mark looked back to Nicky’s silhouette as she disappeared into the mist behind him, wiping at her eye. His mouth became a thin slit and he kept looking even after she disappeared from view, unsure what he was watching for. When she was well and truly out of sight, he turned around to realise that the driver had been talking to him.

“Sure.”

With no idea what he was replying to, Mark kneaded his brow with his fingers. It had been a long day. His eyes felt hot and prickly, and his throat was scratchy from too many cigarettes. Or was it something else. For all his harsh words about Matty, Mark had felt the tug as the coffin dropped into the earth and part of himself went with it. He’d felt the lump in his throat as his father read a faltering, choked eulogy. Seeing his parents this morning had been trauma enough. The cab with them to the church had been thick with the sound of silence. Unsaid words now sprung to his mind.

He looked out at the countryside passing them by as the road passed into the trees. Dark and bare as pitiless frost clung to the branches. Light glinted off the web-like patterns of ice on the bark. He leant his head on the glass, feeling the cool relief of the glass against his forehead. Mist was beginning to clear now, and despite the cold grey sky, the sun had finished rising. He knew it would feel like no time at all before the sunset, but somehow that little acknowledgement of the weather encouraged him. He sat up, and wiped moisture from his cheek, clearing his throat as the cab slowed down. “Cheers for that, mate what do I owe you?”

The driver replied with the price and Mark reached into his breast pocket for his wallet. He flipped it open and gave the driver a twenty, before realising that the picture of Matty was staring out at him, a flippant smile on the idiot’s lips. His eyes were fixed until he realised that the driver was offering his change. He pocketed the wallet and stepped out of the cab.

“Keep it mate. I don’t need it.”