by Ned Carter Miles
Though she died on the winter solstice, every year we gathered in the summer, my sister, half-brother and I. There were also friends from the old days—some of whom would ascend from lesser planes of death for the occasion—a handful of her devoted lovers and hangers-on, and the occasional casual admirer. She was imperfect, our mother, but uncommonly loved, and we came here each year to see her again. There was never my father, though. He knew that to come within 10 miles of the beach in high summer would invoke a curse that’d see him live out his days in a fly-ridden ex-council flat in East Barnet. As it happened, he ended up there anyway, and many years passed before any of us realised that our mother’s curse, though unfulfilled, had been a kindness—he would have been happier with an excuse for where he ended up.
Like every year, my sister brought one of many pairs of shoes our mother had left her: low heels, black and velvety, and our half-brother brought one of the postcards our mother had sent him when he was a child. She abandoned him then to travel with his father, who was quickly becoming, like his own dad, an aggressive drunk. I brought a baby tooth, one of seven our mother had kept in a velvet-lined wooden box shaped like a rabbit. She kept the box even after I tricked myself into thinking my need for her was just another half-loose tooth to be tongued from the mouth, left town and didn’t call for three years.
When my sister wrote to say our mother had cancer, and Death kept leaving her snarky answerphone messages, I went home and our mother promised me the box along with her car and a third of the money from the sale of her small house. I used the money to buy advanced train tickets to places I never intended to visit. My sister and half-brother spent their shares on homeopathic medicines and lager respectively.
This year was my turn to light the fire, and I chose to do it on top of a rough black stone that looked unmistakably like Ernest Borgnine—the same roundness and folds. No one else knew, but earlier that day I’d come to the beach in our mother’s car and caught a mackerel—which I hadn’t done since I was a child—gutted it with a pocket-knife, wrapped it in foil, and buried it under a layer of flat stones before resting Borgnine on top.
“Huh, I feel like I recognise that pebble.” one of my mother’s hangers-on said. This one was slow but good natured. We weren’t sure whether they’d ever been lovers, but when she died he gave us a ring and asked us to cremate it with her. We saw no harm in it, and after the cremation they separated the ring from her ashes with a magnet and buried it.
When the fire was hot, we threw in our totems in the order of our ages: my half-brother first, then my sister, then me. We waited for our mother, but nothing happened. One of the lovers—a married barrister who nobody liked—sighed impatiently, some of the hangers-on became anxious. The friends got listless.
“You know, that’s the last of my teeth,” I said.
“You don’t have any left?” My sister said.
“No, that’s the last of my teeth.” I said.
“Well if that’s the case I don’t think it’s fair that you come next year.” she turned to my brother, whose head was red, swollen and swaying, “What do you think?”
“Yeah, okay.” He said.
We waited. After a while the fire went out and everyone walked back in silence to where the pebbles gave way to grass, all except for the hanger-on who’d given our mother a ring. He just walked into the sea.
I lay on the roof of my mother’s old car and counted stars while the others drove away. My sister wound down her window and I heard her tutting fade into the distance. My brother revved his engine and cracked a beer while his wife and son sat stiffly in their seats.
I thought about a story our mother told me once, that on the first anniversary of T.E. Lawrence’s death, a large bunch of red roses appeared in the middle of the country road where he’d crashed his motorcycle. This was near my grandmother’s house, where my half-brother grew up waiting for postcards on a smoke-saturated futon. Every year after the accident a new bunch of roses appeared on the road with one flower fewer, and though the initial number was far more than the years left to any of Lawrence’s contemporaries, in time it nonetheless fell to zero. I wondered if, after that, the shades of those blooms started piling up in the imaginary world of ghost-roses, severed from negative roots; and I imagined that, when our mother died, Death finally put down the phone, poured a glass of lemonade, and took his scythelike pruning sheers to the garden of human delight. Everyone needs a hobby, and somewhere in his garden, in that same world of ghost-roses, my capacity for joy was growing soft among the mulch.
After all the cars had disappeared into the dark, I slid down the windscreen and returned to the beach. The tide had come in and Borgnine’s rotund face now expressed mild concern. I threw him out of danger and dug up the mackerel. I had to take off my shirt and wrap it around my hands to lift it from its hole. The foil was black with soot, and it steamed silver in the moonlight.
The spine peeled easily from the flesh and I threw it in the sea where it hissed and lingered for a moment before sinking. The fish was good, and with each oily strip of muscle I felt a little life shiver into me where none had been for a long time. Like whispers from my siblings I felt the velvet of a low-heeled shoe across my cheek, the gratifying thickness of a postcard between the pads of my fingers, and a brand new baby tooth grew between my two molars, prising them apart and filling my mouth with blood.
From the spine of the fish, my mother’s ghost bubbled to the surface of the black water. The tide lapped at her apparition like a cat’s tongue at spilled milk, and we spoke a while. She told me I was her favourite child, and I told her that I’d always known this but disliked myself. She said not to tell the others, though they already knew, and then I was alone.
Ned Carter Miles is a writer and radio producer based in the UK. He is UK Desk Editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine and regularly creates radio programmes for the BBC, the Guardian, and Audible. His stories have appeared in Litro, the New York State Writing Institute’s Journal ‘Trolley,’ Ox Magazine, the Wrong Quarterly, and the Pinched, as well as anthologies by Sampson and Low Press and Reflex Fiction. He has won the Creative Writing NZ Flash Prize, come third in the Writers’ HQ Quarterly Flash competition, and been shortlisted for prizes by Flash500 and Reflex. He is currently studying on the UEA Prose Fiction MA Programme.