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Charred Monks & Flaming Photos

by Rob Payne 5 months ago in grief
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No mask should be worn home

Artwork by Ciara Doyle

In a singular beat of my heart a cacophony of monstrous nightmares scream to be heard above the drone of monotony that is my daily grind. The toothbrush looks at me; bristles dripping, disappointed to have been inside of a mouth that never speaks the truth. The bald patch upon my head begs the question of why I never stepped into the light of serenity that better men have grasped by forgoing their worldly possessions in the sanctity of monkhood. If only it was as easy as to shave my cranium clean to pursue a life of wisdom. Of peace. The tap is still running. I watch the water disappear into an unknown blackness where pipes carry the torrent onwards to a place I know not where. Rushing into oblivion? Or a place of purification, I suppose. I wash my hands in its stream and shut it off. I should talk to my sister. It was her birthday yesterday. Or possibly the day before that. Sometime this month. I'll call her.

I shake the creases out of my trousers as the iron hides in the cupboard. I burn the toast. I smoke from the window. I leave for work unknowingly sporting two brown stained spots of coffee on my crinkled white shirt. The bus is late and the bus is crowded. Three teenage boys snigger at me as their hormones battle within them. They're barely boys. Almost wolves to me. I watch them watching me until they snarl out of fear. I smile and look away. First smile of the day.

I smile again for the lady on reception. I don't know her name. I can't quite ever make it out on her name tag and I let my eyes linger there too long. Her smile falters. She assumes I'm staring at her breasts. I still can't work out her name. Then I'm inside the lift and its familiar warmth of bodies not wanting to touch, but forced to do so. One man still has his bicycle helmet on. A lycra skin barely contains the gluttonous past he is now so desperately trying to escape. I lean in and smell the hope on his sweaty brow as the smell of his self hatred rises from inside of the bag by his side.

"Sausage roll?" I murmur. Bicycle man doesn't respond.

You should never really speak in a lift. Especially one that is fit to burst. Speaking shifts the tone. The lift is a place of forced peace, where peace is a lie, and the lie is like a breath held underwater. There's a shuffling of unsure feet as the lift ascends. Slowly. A lady adjusts her spectacles although there is nothing more to see than the raincoated shoulders of the man in front of her. The lift dings and we all pour out with a rush of determination, with importance, with purpose. We have jobs to do. We have lives to live. I turn back towards the lift for one last look. The doors close slowly. I tilt my head and see it wink at me.

My desk has a nodding dog, but it will never nod. Superglue is a marvelous thing. It was used to fix up wounds in a war once upon a time. War is a marvelous thing. Not at the time of course, but after all the bloodshed there are all sorts of benefits. People have a sense of what peace actually is again. People see to the horizon. Change is in the air. A better tomorrow is born from the ashes. My nodding dog always has his eye on the horizon. He just won't nod along.

"Colin?"

I hear my name from up above me. An irritable deity with whom I've missed my morning prayer to.

"Colin can you grant access rights into the network for the new starters? They've been stuck on their log-on screens since yesterday afternoon."

Rights and privileges for a new beginning until we send them down for the bloodbath.

"Keep the illusion alive." I hear myself say.

"Sorry Colin? What was that?"

He's worried. I've thrown him a banana skin instead of feeding him the banana.

"Nothing." I give him. "They already have access. It's just a case of them changing their passwords."

"Oh right. That's fine then. Good work Colin. Well done. Let me know if there's anything else that I should pass on to them. Drop me an email if so." He looks at my shirt and we both notice the two small stains at the same time. "Just got to soldier on okay Colin." he adds before striding towards his lair. I salute him as he walks away and, with a hiss of a lever, I allow my chair to descend. And me with it.

****

"Well what do you want me to say mother? I mean Christ alive! I can't think for the life of me whether Colin's ever mentioned wanting to go to the zoo, let alone whether he's looking for a wife?"

"Language." Dad mutters at me. That's the first thing he's said since - 'Tea, dear?'

I'm still drinking the tea. It's weak and it has no milk. I only drink coconut milk, almond at a push, but Mum and Dad only have straight from the udder, so here I am drinking - well not black - pale brownish? Mum's tutting again, ramping up her engine as she does so, almost ready to re-engage. I decide to get in first:

"If you are so interested in what Colin's dreams are then why don't you just ask him?"

"Ask him?" She looks as if she's been winded. Dad gets up - a doddering man looking for an escape as he feels the first tremors beneath his feet. "Sit down Trevor." she barks without taking her eyes off me. He slouches back into his armchair beside her. He and I both know the tunnel walls have collapsed now. The only way out now is to heave our way through the debris until we breathe air - see the light. My Mum, or 'mother' as I call her, likes to bring the roof down. Not in that fun 90's DJ way, but in that crushing defeat of a child playing chess for the first time against an adult kind of way; like how it feels to be suffocated by the crushing weight of a walrus. A walrus who drinks tea on a saucer with a biscuit balanced on it, one she'll never eat, or at least not in front of anybody. Just like the family portrait in the hallway, jazz on the radio, church on Sundays, and cake sales at the village hall - it's all for show.

"Cassy!?"

"Yes mother."

"You've got the glazed look of a goldfish. What are you thinking about?"

"Biscuits."

"Biscuits? Well go get her a biscuit Trevor. Go on!"

My Dad doesn't catch my eye, but he knows I've just handed him a flash light and a pick axe. He tunnels his way out the door. Mum clears her throat.

"So what is happening with Colin? she asks, "Is he coming?" and I look at her like a goldfish and say:

"I don't really know." And that was the first honest thing I'd said since I'd arrived. The truth was that Colin's love life was not a complete mystery to me. I'd been at his wedding after all. In fact, come to think of it, I think I once saw a photo of them all at the zoo. Wow. Sometimes I lie to mother just by accident.

****

Ah, the biscuit tin. Lovely little sweet things sealed neatly in the plastic underlay just begging to be sampled... And unwrapped. I've got a bit of a sweet tooth in all honesty. To be frank I think we all do deep down. Nothing like something naughty to make us feel alright. Gets us through the day, some might say. And if I do say so myself, today is one of those days to get through. Linda can be quite... Well what is the word? I suppose she can be a tad boisterous on family occasions; a little monstrous maybe? No that's too far of course. She's a concerned mother is all. She's just trying to get a grasp of the situation, get two hands on the wheel and steer them kids in the right direction. She means well. She keeps us on track. Kept us together alright.

"Trevor!"

"Yes dear?" I say.

"Send Colin a text and find out where he is!"

"Have you seen my phone dear?" I ask. Then there's a moment of silence. Just a cold sliver of emptiness, like finding no biscuits left in the tin.

"Trevor, I find that due to it being your phone the question is quite redundant."

I hear her mutter to Cassy: 'Your father...' and I can picture her shaking her head in the next room. I know that shake of the head. It haunts me. She shook her head that way for the first time twenty five years ago. Ten years of marriage we'd gone and had before I saw her shake her head like that -and it took ten minutes of naughtiness to make it happen. I find my phone on top of the microwave. Probably not the best place to leave it, but then again I'm known to drop the ball on occasion, so to speak. Though I really went and dropped it good and proper the day I slept with the lady from the fish and chip shop. Bloody hell, I can't even remember her face. Cracking body though. Or so I recall. Was it worth it? Not at all. When I got caught I said I'd pack my bags there and then, but she took one long stern look at me and shook that head of hers and said: 'If you think you're going anywhere you are woefully mistaken Trevor. If you even try to leave or ever think of doing anything at all that would bring any shame on this family - any shame on to me, then I'll take you to the cleaners! That's right Trevor. If you don't think it's beyond me to shack up with some slick fancy lawyer and crush every penny out of your good for nothing behind then think again. Mark my words, if you fuck up again the kids will be calling somebody else Daddy before you can say 'battered cod'!

So I stayed of course. Blimey, I was scared to tell you the truth. Suppose I still am, a little. The only sweet things I sample now is a biscuit or two. Anyway, at my age who'd pay any interest to me. I'm an old fart. Although I did once read that those old people's homes are full of horny buggers. Depends which one of us goes first...

"Trevor!"

"Yes dear?"

"The door Trevor. Someone's at the door!"

"I'm in the middle of texting Colin."

"Get the door first Trevor!"

I never hear the doorbell. I accidentally hit send on my phone and it sends a blank message to my son. I crack my back and walk to the front door, the same door that could have changed my life if I'd walked out of it so many years ago. I open the door and I hardly recognise him.

"It's Colin." I blurt. " Linda it's Colin. He's here!"

"Well bring him in then!"

"Dad." Is all he says. I haven't seen him in the flesh for a good part of a decade. From the looks of him I'd swear he'd had the living shit kicked out of him, only there's not a mark on him. None I can see.

"I just sent you a text son." I tell him. I'm not sure what else I'm meant to say.

****

Family. It's like a collage in your head. All those torn edges around the sides of each picture inside your mind. Haphazardly glued together. Some of those images have a shiny gloss - the one's we really wanted to stick down solid. We keep tearing out the best bits. The one's that fit together with magazine perfect smiles. The one's we all believed would always be.

"How's the fam-alam, Colin?" asks a face from sales, all cocked eyebrows and smooth cheeks, he doesn't know. He wouldn't care. He's gone before I bother with a reply.

'They're well.' I say inside my head - practicing. 'They're very well, thank you.' Practice makes perfect. And yet, as I force myself to glue down the pictures of that happy, healthy, smiling family, my sticky fingers tear those images apart. Putting in the effort Colin is only half the battle, but there's nothing you can do to cover up your mistakes... That's something my Mother told me. I try to remember the first time she said it and then suddenly the day is over. Shut down computer. Non comital wave to nobody in particular. The room does not wave back. Farewells complete. Descend in lift and begin journey home. The lift doors open like jaws and the white shirts inside are like teeth. Americans. They talk loudly about mergers on the top floor. I try to study their faces in the confines of this plummeting prison. Their faces gleam. Golden masks cover their features - it's a wonder they can talk in those things! One of them has his hands in the air, gesticulating wildly like a flustered duck. And had his hand been made of feathers it wouldn't have hurt.

"Oh my, I didn't see ya there. I apologise."

He did apologize. I said it was fine. I lied though. My teeth grind. They stare at me through the eye holes of their masks. Unblinking. I realise there are no eyes beneath the mask, just hollows of blackness.

"You know," says one of the gleaming masked heads turning back to his kinsman, his tie in a perfect double windsor, "I was thinking of taking Sherrie and the kids for a little trip to the Asia."

"Sri Lanka is a dream." another adds.

There are murmurs of approval. Their heads go up and down. Nodding along. In an instant my hands are around his throat. The roar of a Boeing engine is all I hear, punctuated by little dings as we stop at each floor. I won't turn to see if anyone gets in. There's a war in here and I will soldier on. Rage becomes me. I rip the masks from off their faces and to my horror I see... The features are indistinguishable. It's worse than the masks. It's a memory. I coil away in terror - press myself up into the corner. I steal a look back over my shoulder and their heads are there. The flesh burnt beyond recognition. The skin charred and cracked. The mouths toothless. Eyes lost forever. Just as they were. Just as they will always be because of me. The doors fall open and I fall through them. I hit the ground floor and the people pour out around me like water swirling down the sink. I blink and there are no masks, no burnt flesh, no cries of anguish from my mouth - just the memory of my lost wife and child - unburied again. The lift doors close behind me. I readjust my own mask and go home.

One toothbrush stares at me and drips disappointedly. The other two are dry as bone. The iron hides in the cupboard along with almost everything she ever touched. I burn the toast every morning just to remind me of him - make it feel like he's still here. If I listen hard I still can hear him: 'Dad! I fucked it - sorry! I'm off!'. He was always running late. Teenagers... 'Language.' I'd yell, but it was too late, he'd be out the door. Out living his life. We made him that way, didn't we? Together - you and I - my love. I should have been a monk. How peaceful would I be. Maybe I should shave my head? You'd look ridiculous! I can hear her now, laughter forming between her lips. Oh and don't forget your sister's birthday. You know how your 'mother' gets. She's right - my love - she's always right and she never even met my mother. On the fridge an invitation. Today. I sling on a jacket. I head out and the happy, healthy, smiling family photo falls off the fridge and slips onto the upswept floor as I run out the door.

Artwork by Ciara Doyle

****

Enough with lies. Enough with deceitfulness. Why on earth I put up with it I will never know. And then there he is. My Colin. The son that never comes home. Never calls. 'How's your Colin?', they ask me, and I don't have the foggiest. Now really, how can that be? How can his own Mother not know how her son is getting on. It's frankly embarrassing is what it is. Of course I say he's doing well - never been better - but it hurts. Children never know how much they hurt their mothers. Well, come to think of it, husbands never know how much they hurt their wives. And now, there they stand, side by side - father and son. Trevor the old fool has no idea what to say as usual. And Colin... He looks on death's door.

"Your punctuality will never cease to amaze me." I tell him.

"Give yer mother a kiss, why don't ya."

"Oh do be quiet Trevor."

Colin says nothing. He just waivers there in the doorway. More glazed over than his sister, who by the way, is without a doubt smoking marijuana in her spare time. I had hoped her older sibling would have more sense. Yet there he is just staring at the family collection of nodding dogs. You see I have fondness for dogs, but on the account of Trevor's allergies I could never keep one. My little nodding dogs that line the fireplace are reminder that one can always make the best of it. My dogs always agree. Cassy, ever impulsive, is on her feet in a flash, arms around her brother in a display of affection uncommon in our family - I'll never understand where she gets it from.

"Colin! I haven't heard from you in weeks!"

Well I haven't seen him in years!

"How was the holiday?" I hear her say under her breath.

"And what holiday would that be?" I ask. Nothing gets past a good mother in her own home. "Colin? Colin I asked you a question."

Silence.

Cassy holds his face between her hands. Brings his eyes to meet hers.

"Hey. You in there?"

Trevor pats him on the back.

"Come on son. Pull yer self together."

"Has something happened?" Cassy asks, humor switching to concern. "Is the..." under her breath again - "The family alright?"

Family?!

"Enough!" I'm on my feet now with the rest of them. "That's quite enough now Colin. I won't have it. I will not! What are you talking about Cassy? Family? Colin's family is right here! What an earth are you two on? I brought you up better than to lose your bloody minds on drugs. Lord above!"

I got up too quickly and as luck would have it my knees go. Trevor's slippers come rushing into view as the floor rises up to meet me.

"I've got you Linda. Take it slow."

"Oh get off me Trevor." I say batting his arm away. "Just put the fire on, it's too bloody cold in this house - it's a wonder I can move at all."

"I'll get right on it dear. Cassy help yer mother up whilst I light the -"

"No!" The word comes out like twisted metal, crushed and scraping along the contours of that single syllable. I look up at him and see how old he has grown. How much I missed. How much I miss him.

"Colin." I snap. "If you are to behave in such an appalling manner you can walk straight back out the way you came. You may think that by avoiding this home you no longer have anything to do with this family, but mark my words, when you do step foot in this house I expect you to..."

I watch the tears descend his unshaven cheeks.

"Please." he says, "no fire." He turns to his father: "Please, just don't light it."

Trevor in his orange dressing gown, the damn undressed fool, his head as bald as a monk puts the bag of kindling down, pats him on the shoulder and nods.

"It's okay son. Whatever it is. Yer here now. You'll be okay. Won't he Lins?"

I have to bite my tongue to stop myself as I watch my son place a finger on each of my nodding dogs in turn until the momentum is drained from their heads. When the mantel above the fireplace is motionless the room is suddenly a vacuum - empty in some indescribable way. Like the village hall after a cake sale and I'm left to sweep the crumbs. When the radio suddenly dies. The church after a funeral.

"They're gone." he says to no one in particular.

"Gone?" Cassy repeats. "Gone where?"

"Who's gone?" Trevor asks, more confused than ever. "What's he talking about Linda"

More tears fall. He tries wiping them away, but the tap is running now and in its stream I notice the ring on his finger. How much did I miss? As he starts to speak and the horrors are unleashed into my living room I turn away and watch the blank TV set. Despite it being black and dead I recall watching the news that day...

"This is the ten o'clock news. These are the headlines: A terrorist attack in Sri Lanka has led to the death of approximately 300 civilians, including tourists from Switzerland, Australia, and the UK. Our correspondent on the ground has more.... Yes, this is truly a devastating day for Sri Lanka and all those who lost their lives here today. The explosions in and around the capital targeted churches during Easter celebrations as well as luxury hotels. The scene here is like something from a war zone. It has been confirmed that three hundred people have been killed and many more injured. The Prime Minister has said his thoughts and prayers are with the families and their loved ones."

I turn away from the TV. My son is on the ground now.

"There was nothing I could do. It was too late. Their faces. I saw -" He looks at me and he shakes his head. "I let them down Mum. My own son. My son. He was only 13! He had his whole life ah..."

I hold him as his chest heaves up and down on my lap. I can't see into his mind. You always want to believe you know what's happening in your child's life, but sometimes having held them too fiercely means they disappear altogether. Suddenly I feel Cassy's arm around my shoulder, her hand in her brother's hair. Trevor struggles to get down on the floor in his dressing gown, but he manages eventually and puts his hand in mine. I hold it. "My son" is all he says. The cake I baked for my daughter sits on a table beside us all. Through bloodshot eyes Colin sees it: "Happy Birthday sis." he murmurs. Perhaps later, together, we'll blow out the flames before we say our goodbyes.

grief

About the author

Rob Payne

UK based writer waiting for a flight out, or until then, the next bottle of wine. I have no problem wearing somebody else's socks. My partner Ciara creates illustrations. Together we do words and pictures.

www.rob-payne.co.uk

ciarajdoyle_art

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