No Place for the End of a Life

A work of short fiction as part of my time as Writer in Residence at Sage Gateshead
A work of short fiction as part of my time as Writer in Residence at Sage Gateshead

 

 

 

                          Moll said to throw her ashes off the Tyne Bridge because she’d often thought about jumping. When she’d not long moved here, when the place was still an escape, she’d travel over the Tyne Bridge to Newcastle to see the sights. Buzzing past the traffic next to the green bridge railings in her mobility buggy, she’d pause every time at the Samaritans Helpline sign to think: could I?

She said to throw her ashes off the Tyne Bridge, so I’m here on a Tuesday night – little hairpin figure under a black perm of clouds, walking up to the bridge’s centre with my Jumbo Vanilla Ice-cream tub. She didn’t want an urn; she thought they reeked of conceit.

With my back to the wind, facing the glass covered music centre where we learned to sing, that’s where I’ll tip it. ‘Be careful not to throw it against the breeze,’ she said at the clinic. And she laughed, her morphine-glazed picture of me, pasty faced old woman spattered with ash, blackish mess clinging to the hair she always said I was too vain about.

      *****************************************************

I met her in the singing group for over 50s. Stood outside having a smoke and she comes whirring up the concrete in her buggy, fuzzy auburn hair peeking out of the plastic flaps in wisps. She looked too young to drive it but I didn’t want to be nosy. Long purple skirt, flat shoes and a wide mouth without make-up. For some reason, I wanted to talk to her right away.

Some of the others didn’t like her, said she had airs. Smiling at nothing, like she knew something you didn’t.  Showing off, is what Audrey said one Wednesday, when Moll put her hand on her heart during the chorus of ‘Black is the Colour’. Right over her heart, flat palm like she was swearing an oath. But I don’t think it was showing off. She wasn’t the best singer in the world and she knew it. She didn’t come to the choir to hear her own voice, but to feel it – that’s the difference.

*****************************************************

At the centre of the bridge now, next to the tribute flowers for the jumpers – that’s where I’ll throw it. The flower heads have long been taken by the wind; just pink plastic wrapping left fastened with parcel tape to the railings.

‘Why the bridge?’ I said, on the plane we took.

‘I like it. There’s a spot you can stand on where you can look both ways, and the squash of buildings and chimneys looks all higgledy piggledy, like a kid’s drawn it.’

If you’re asking me, I’d always imagined a quiet send-off for myself. It seems wrong to tip her into the air with all the cars rattling past. This is what I want to say. This is what I want to say to her now.

‘Do it at night,’ she said. ‘I want to go into the dark. Wouldn’t that be more interesting? If you do it at night then I can just fade, disperse. There’ll be a sense of me disappearing, the way all things fall into everything else.’ She was always saying strange, grand things like that.

I pull the collar up on my coat and lower my chin, looking around. Thick green steel curving up towards the stars. The engine revs that smack the air. The angry headlights.  No place for the end of a life.

*****************************************************

Back when she first got diagnosed, before I knew her, Moll had tried to think herself better. She tried meditation, crystals and little white pills you get from hippy doctors. But it didn’t work and the time came when she couldn’t dance any more.

When they recommended the buggy, she was against it. Buggies were for geriatrics and defeatists. She thought if she got the buggy it would be “sending the Universe the wrong message”. She’d been meditating to send light to the bad part of her brain to fix things. If she got the buggy it was like admitting the good thoughts weren’t working. But then, she’d be stuck indoors, watching the light flicker and fade over dusty furniture. In the end, she got the buggy.

But she took care to decorate it with colourful pictures, words and stickers, to make it more interesting than the average “granny cart”. Still, whenever she mentioned the buggy, and before she got in it each morning, she had to close her eyes and picture herself dancing; pushing up some white light in circles around her, that light that would help her to dance again.

*****************************************************

Moll used to be knock-kneed afraid of death – more than the normal. She even told me once she’d been part of an anti-death group.

‘How can you be anti? It just happens.’

‘A cult, my daughter called it. They kicked me out when they realised I wasn’t getting better. Well, but that’s to say they stopped looking in my face. They thought I’d got ill because I’d missed something – not tried. They thought it was a failure to be optimistic.’

My mouth hung open. My mind was full of tut and swearing.

‘The third time nobody came to pick me up for a meeting, I cried for the rest of the day. And then I decided to come singing.’

*****************************************************

Red woollen hat pulled down and my collar up against the bridge wind now, I’m holding the ice-cream tub close. Somewhere I can hear laughing. My sigh makes a speech bubble in front of me. The rainbow arc of the Millennium Bridge flickers ahead.

I always wondered what Moll was doing around here.  Some kind of a beret for a hat. Big hand gestures like a conductor when she told a story. Travelling look in her eyes and that circular way of talking like she was trying to discover something. She never did fit.

I pull open the tub. The ashes are harder, heavier than you’d imagine. Like ground-up bones, which I suppose is what they are. Reaching my hand inside they’re cold and bumpy and strange. Perhaps I’m supposed to say something, but I feel stupid. ‘Bye, Moll.’ Little grating sound as the pieces slip from my fingers into the night. The wind gets louder.

I wait a moment and listen to the breathing traffic. I lift the tub and tip; the pieces swarm and disappear. There.

I reach into my pocket and pull out the two plane ticket stubs. Swiss Air. Two rips and they’re gone.

And the angry threat letters that I’ve been sent since, from her haven’t-heard-a-peep-in-years daughter. I pick them out of my pocket. Light them one by one. Letting go when the flames reach my fingers and sting the skin.

 

 

 
 

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