First published in Gutter 09 (Freight). Long listed for the Bristol Short Story Prize, 2013
Up in the graveyard, up on the hill, there’s a wee minding buried in the grass if only you can see. The wind blows and creatures watch me from beyond the broken wall. The scrub is gone all grey in the moonlight, but I know where to find her. I know she’s here.
I list them – all the things that connect me still to her. Jam, wool, petticoats, Mrs Sheppie’s tablecloth, Mr Sheppie’s rag. Also the million rivers running through my veins.
Up here I listen to the beach, to the sea sucking at the cliffs far below. Up here the wind tugs at the buttons on my frock, fingering my breastbone. Up here I’m a mermaid ploughing the grass, dipping beneath the waterline then rising again to take a gasp of air. Up here I listen for the schroosh, schroosh, schroosh of the pebbles as they walk her along the beach once more, coffin hoisted on Mr Sheppie’s shoulder, Mrs Sheppie carrying me behind.
My mother lies where she has always been these fourteen years – laid out beneath the ground, head pointing back towards the village, feet pointing out towards the sea. I curl next to her and stretch my arm across her stone. My wrist is pale in the moonlight. A slender thing, nothing but the newest branch of a tree. Easy to slice off if you know where to hold the blade.
Beneath my skin I feel it. The beat beat inside, like the beat beat that flowed out of her. My fingertips carve out all she left behind.
They never bothered to put anything else. Not even her name.
‘Fell out of her like water from a jug.’ Mrs Sheppie sits in her armchair, wool the colour of a cardinal’s cap spooling from a basket at her feet. She is making hats for the babies of Chernobyl, even though Chernobyl is much older than me. ‘Stood up, so she did. Went, Oh. Went, That’s not right, is it. Touched her hand to the edge of my tablecloth. Then she fell down.’
My mother is one of the stories of this place now. The girl who lived and died without ever leaving these ochre cliffs. She belonged to our congregation, with Mr and Mrs Sheppie and Mr and Mrs Kennoway and Old James Ross and his niece Evelyn May. When she sang her voice rose like a skylark surfing the air. The congregation was seven then. Now it is only three. Mr and Mrs Sheppie. And me.
I sit on the sofa, bare legs rubbing against draylon, and imagine my mother lying on Mrs Sheppie’s kitchen lino in the midst of a dark, spreading pool. ‘I held the tea-towel to it, so I did. I held the dishcloth to it. I held my slip to it – no bloody good, ‘scuse my language. Rubbish man-made stuff.’ Mrs Sheppie swears sometimes when Mr Sheppie isn’t in to hear. ‘I even held my tablecloth to it. Never did get that clean again.’
Mrs Sheppie still wears a slip though her waist is wider now than it must have been then. It dips beneath her skirt as she stands at the cooker getting Mr Sheppie’s dinner ready. I lay the table like I’ve always done. One fork on the left. One knife on the right. Salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Eiffel tower.
‘White she was.’ Mrs Sheppie mashes potato in a pan. ‘Like a dead thing dragged up in one of Mr Sheppie’s nets.’ Mr Sheppie goes to work at night when everyone else goes to bed. Out in the darkness he rides over the waves, trawling for things that will never see the light of morning. When the sky turns, he comes home.
‘I said to her, Don’t you worry, stay where you are. Then I ran to the airing cupboard. Or maybe the scullery.’ Mrs Sheppie has a way with stories. She works at them, like those little baby hats – the same pattern, but different details year after year. ‘I held a towel to it. I held a sheet to it. Didn’t make no difference. She still bled out all over my linoleum floor.’
Just like my mother I am a story in this village now too. I slithered out into a dark pool and was wrapped in Mrs Sheppie’s petticoat because there wasn’t anything else that would do. ‘Such a wee thing. Crumpled.’ That’s what Mrs Sheppie says. ‘Came too soon.’ She dribbles thick mince over a pale mound of potato and I wonder who I might have been if my mother had kept her legs together for just a bit more time. ‘Said to leave you, so they did.’ Mrs Sheppie hands me the plates to lay on the table. ‘But we’re all God’s creatures, aren’t we. Every one.’
We live in a small place, but it might as well be the whole world as far as everyone who lives here is concerned. There is oil for the lucky ones in the big houses on the hill. B&B and fishing for the rest. There’s a bakery with a trail of flour that runs across the high street from the oven to the shop. Also fourteen different congregations one way or another, all of them singing on a Sunday, all of them competing for anyone they can lure in.
Just like them we sing every Sunday too, to the memory of those that have gone before – Mr and Mrs Kennoway, Old James Ross, his niece Evelyn May. Also the hope that soon we will be seven again, or maybe fifteen. It is our duty, Mr Sheppie says, to strengthen our congregation whatever way we can. So once a week we call up the glory and more members for our church, standing in the front room because we can’t afford the chapel hall any more. Mr Sheppie beats out the tempo on the arm of the best chair, like the beat beat inside me. Then he lifts his voice. And Mrs Sheppie lifts her voice. And I lift my voice too – a small lark surfing the air. When we get to the end, we start over. ‘Repetition,’ Mrs Sheppie says. ‘Helps get it into the brain.’
After dinner when Mr Sheppie has gone out to plough the waves, Mrs Sheppie crouches before a bird cage, tiny seed pinched between her lips. She holds her mouth up close to the bars and makes a chirruping sound in her throat. In the furthest corner a bird huddles, feathers cloudy green like the Bitter Lemon Mrs Sheppie takes every evening instead of something hard. ‘Got to keep the spirits up,’ she says putting away her latest baby hat and opening one of her small bottles with a fizz. ‘Or who knows what might happen.’
Sometimes, when Mr Sheppie is out of an evening and Mrs Sheppie has taken her drink, she opens the cage door and lets the bird fly free. It flutters up towards the ceiling where neither of us can follow and perches on the curtain. There are small white messes along the whole of the rail. ‘Dirty,’ Mr Sheppie calls them. ‘God’s creature,’ Mrs Sheppie replies.
Before bedtime I sit at the kitchen table and eat a piece of thick bread spread with jam made from berries scavenged in the graveyard. Big black things, saturated with salty air. I make sure my feet don’t touch the floor. It is late, but Mrs Sheppie is down on her knees scrubbing at an invisible pool. ‘I’ve wanted to change this linoleum these fourteen years.’ She wipes at her forehead with the back of a yellow rubber glove. ‘But he always says no.’
Mrs Sheppie cleans the linoleum every night before she goes to bed. Takes her bucket and fills it with water steaming from the kitchen tap, frothed up with bubbles. Then she scrubs, from one end of the kitchen to the other, to mark the end of her day. Scrush, scrush, scrush over and over, while I chew on my piece. ‘Waste of money, that’s what he calls it.’ Mrs Sheppie leans in with her yellow gloves towards her glimmering floor. ‘Dirty, that’s what I say.’
Mr Sheppie likes his linoleum dirty. I’ve seen him when the light in the sky is just rising and Mrs Sheppie is still in bed. Upstairs she lies on her back, little puff puff puffs escaping one by one from the side of her mouth. Downstairs a girl stands on the back doorstep before an ocean of polished lino, school bag in her hand.
The girl’s skin is as pale as a creature that lives in the deep. Her wrists are still slender. Her dress is still buttoned to her chin. I stand on the landing and watch Mr Sheppie bring the bird cage through from the parlour. He is still wearing his fisherman’s clothes.
In the kitchen the girl’s chest flutters, just like the bird’s. She makes a noise like a laugh in her throat. Mr Sheppie unhooks the metal door of the cage and loops his hand inside. His wrist is thick, like the bread I eat for my suppers. He is making a cooing sound in his throat too. The bird huddles in the corner, but Mr Sheppie has long arms.
All that I can see in Mr Sheppie’s fist is a tiny, green head. The girl touches the head with the tip of her finger. The bird is silent. The girl makes that sound again. Mr Sheppie smiles and makes his sound again too. He lowers his fist towards where the girl’s dress spreads out from her knees. Then he opens his fingers wide.
Round and round the bird flies, round and round again, caught beneath billowing cotton. The girl dances and beats with her hands. She is making a different sound now. Mr Sheppie laughs. Behind the door I press a hand to my mouth. The bird beats the same path once more. The girl is crying. ‘Get it out! Get it out!’ Mrs Sheppie will wake up soon.
Mr Sheppie puts his hand on the girl’s shoulder as though to hold her down. ‘All right, hen,’ he says. ‘I’ll sort you.’ And puts his fist beneath the girl’s skirt again. The bird flies out and perches on Mrs Sheppie’s saucepans. The girl makes another kind of noise before Mr Sheppie takes his hand away.
Afterwards, Mr Sheppie wipes his fingers on a rag taken from his pocket. The rag used to be the colour of Mrs Sheppie’s wool, but it is covered in stains now. There was a stain on the girl’s thigh too before she left, like a smear from the ochre cliffs. But she hasn’t been anywhere near the cliffs today. Mr Sheppie watches me through the crack in the kitchen door as he wipes at his palms. Neither of us says anything. Then he beckons me in.
‘Like two peas in a pod.’ That’s what Mrs Sheppie calls us as she makes breakfast. Mr Sheppie and I sit on either side of the kitchen table and wait to be served. ‘My wee mindin’.’ That’s what Mrs Sheppie calls me as she leans back of an evening to survey the gleam of her red linoleum floor. I grin at her through a mouthful of bread and mashed up berries. I’ve always had two mothers. But I’ve only ever had one father, as far as I can tell.
Up in the graveyard, up on the hill, the bird lies silent in my fist now. The wind blows and the grass is grey. I stroke the bird’s little belly and sing to it. ‘Rise up, rise up and Praise Him.’ The only song I’ve ever known. The bird trembles in my hand, the beat beat beneath its feathers as swift as the beat beat under my wrist. I won’t let it go. Releasing it into the night would be cruel. A seagull might have it. A mink, all gleaming and brown. Instead I touch the bird to my cheek. Then I stick the scissors in.
Up on the cliff in the moonlight I can hear it. The schroosh, schroosh, schroosh of the pebbles. The chip, chip, chip of the stone. The scrush, scrush, scrush of Mrs Sheppie’s brush. The sound of my mother as she falls. I list all the things that connect me still to her. Jam from the berries. Wool the colour of a cardinal’s cap. Mrs Sheppie’s tablecloth held between her legs. And in my mouth, Mr Sheppie’s rag too. All doing our bit for the future of the congregation until the Lord comes down.
Up in the graveyard, up on the hill there’s a wee minding buried in the grass if only you can see. The wind blows and creatures watch me from beyond the broken wall. The scrub is gone all grey in the moonlight. And so have the million tiny rivers spilling over the grass now. I dip my fingers in one of those rivers. It is warm, like a home ought to be. Then I write.
My wee minding to her.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis