:: Article

Mentioned in Passing

They met up in the morning in the hotel. In the afternoon, as they lay together, she awoke and stiffened in his arms.

He looked into her eyes. After a few seconds, she spoke, “I still miss her.”

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

Toby watched from over the church wall as the coffin went into the ground. As the lid disappeared he saw Joanne, a toddler gripping her black skirt with one hand, standing by the edge of the grave. Billy, her brother, stood two yards to her right in his grey suit and black tie, dry-eyed and bored. A stud glinted in his ear. Murmured prayers, carried on a light breeze, crept over the graveyard.

Toby took the Marlboros from his pocket, went to light one, remembered what had happened and threw it into the soft mud around his feet. He looked at it lying there on the ground for a few seconds, debating whether or not to stand on it and push it into the soil. After thinking about it, he decided to just leave it where it was.

The funeral began to come apart. Joanne stood with the toddler by the grave. Billy was walking away, hunched over, trying to light a cigarette inside his suit jacket.

Toby reached into his pocket and took out the picture of Mary taken nine years ago. She was happy in the photograph, blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Her hair was longer in the picture than the last time he’d seen her and she was smiling which, looking back now, was something he couldn’t remember her ever doing.

It was only Joanne and the toddler now at the grave. She was saying something low under her breath that Toby wanted to hear. Joanne glanced and saw him. Her face froze momentarily and then softened. Toby watched as she came over.

She stopped in front of him. “Hi.”
“I thought I’d come.”
“I was wondering.”
“How was it – the service?”
“How I thought would be. How come… why weren’t you there?”
“I didn’t think it was my place.”
“Right.”
The toddler looked up. “Who’s that man?”
“He was a friend of Nana’s.”
They stood and looked at each other over the wall before Toby broke the silence. “I’d better be going.”
“Thanks for coming.”
“It’s okay. I’d have liked to have been there but you know…”
“I know.” She reached in her coat pocket, took out some paper and wrote on it. “This is my number. Call me.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know. Just call me.”
“Okay.”

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

It had been some hours since the end and the muscles in the face had relaxed and, at last, she looked peaceful. There was no smile on the lips and the head, with the stubbly hair brushing against the cotton, rested on the pillows.

Joanne went from looking at the floor to looking at the body to looking back at the floor. Occasionally she reached through the metal railing on the side of the bed and gripped the hand that lay exposed on the sheet. Not wanting to cry yet, she stemmed her tears.

What was now left was not what she wanted to remember. The body to the side of her looked starved and pale, battered with radio- and chemo-therapy. Mother and daughter were both, in some sense, at peace now.

Joanne thought of Ryan who was at home with her father. He’d be sitting on his knee, playing games, eating sweets, falling asleep. One day he’d be where she was, sat next to a dead mother. The image began to choke her.

She thought of Dad with Ryan, and of Billy who’d chosen not to come. Dad and Mum had been closer at the end, probably closer than when they’d been married. One night, coming onto the ward, she’d watched them for a few seconds before they saw her and had seen them for the first time as Alan and Mary.
 
There was a phone in her purse and she wondered if Billy knew. Maybe he did because maybe Dad would call him. But maybe Dad would have let Ryan play in front of him for a little longer before making the calls.

Maybe.

She thought Billy could wait a little longer as punishment for not being here. It felt like the time to cry was coming so she let herself weep a little. She bent her neck forwards and interlocked her hands, making a fist in her lap. She blinked once or twice to force out some tears and when they came, she dabbed her eyelids with her sleeve. There didn’t seem to be much left to do but she decided to stay even if she didn’t know why.

After the nurses and a porter had taken the body away, she stayed to pack things into a variety of plastic bags. There were a few books and magazines that she left for the other patients but she took the cards along with pictures of Billy, Ryan and herself. Mary had left jewellery in the drawers. Joanne packed these as well.

Finally, she went to the door and looked at the bed one last time before turning off the light and leaving.

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

Toby looked at Joanne. They were sat in the bar of the hotel. Behind them the family restaurant buzzed with Sunday activity as a gaggle of children ran around with their parents trying to control them.

Joanne looked tired and lost. She stared straight ahead across the bar. Her handbag and Toby’s sports bag were on the floor between their two stools.

Toby leaned in. “I miss her too.”
Joanne didn’t say anything. “Jo, I –”
“I heard you. It doesn’t matter; you should have been there.”
“I know.”
“You should have seen her.”
“I’m sorry, I -”
“She wanted to see you.”
“I know.”

The key for Room 13 lay on the bar. Toby picked it up and weighed it in his hands. The key looked smudged and greasy and there were streaked marks across the tag’s embossed “1” and “3”.
“Not yet”
“Alright.”
 
He’d used the number from the funeral and rung her. He wanted to make a connection. They’d spoken for a few minutes and they spoke more each time he rang. Eventually, she began to ring him as well and they’d exchanged e-mail addresses and, then, e-mails.

Mostly they talked about stuff: nothing in particular apart from what was going on in their lives. They tended to stay on the safe subjects of school and people they both knew. Occasionally one would prompt the other into talking about Mary. It depended on who was thinking most about her at the time. Talking about Mary was hard, too hard and tiring to do every time so for the majority of those calls they tried hard to talk about nothing in particular.

When they decided to meet, they chose a hotel in Leicester . They chose it because it was safe, removed from their lives and, most importantly, it was neutral.
 
The children ran into the bar and were quickly shooed out again by their parents.

“How’s Ryan?”
“He’s fine.” Joanne looked down at the key.
“That’s good.”

Joanne dragged the key across the bar with her finger, picked it up and weighed it in both hands.

“I don’t suppose I ever really knew her. Not really. Not at the end of the day. She was a mystery to me. She’s a mystery still – even now.”
 “I loved her. I thought that I knew her for a while but now I think, like you, that I didn’t know her at all. Not like I thought I did back then.”
“I loved her too. Maybe we’re just not meant to know anybody. I know you loved her. I always knew but I guess I just blamed her for not knowing better. I always thought that she should’ve known better.”

She slid off the seat and picked up her bag. Outside, as the birds sang, they made their way to the room. When they got there, they closed the curtains, turned off the light and lay down on the bed.

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

Mary parked the car, placing it in neutral and applied the handbrake. She got out, taking her bag with her and unlocked the front door. Joanne’s schoolbag was in the living room, open and leant against a wall. From the back of the house she could hear Joanne’s voice and the voice of a young man coming from the conservatory. She put her bag on the sofa and took off her coat.

Joanne was sat at a table with a boy. He and Joanne looked the same age – sixteen – and his head was bobbing in agreement to whatever Joanne was saying to him. His hair was black, combed forward and he wore his blue school shirt with no tie.

Joanne looked up as Mary came in. Her blonde hair was coming loose from her ponytail, and Mary saw that she’d taken off her tie and blazer as well.
 
“Oh hi, Mum. How was work? This is Toby – we’re doing a project together.”
“Hi, Toby.” She saw him in more detail now as he lifted his head and looked towards her. His eyes were green, offset by the colour of his hair and his face, though not pretty, was still touched with youthful fragility.
“Hi, Mrs Joyce. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Thank you. You too. What’s your project about?”
“Soil erosion,” Joanne said, rolling her eyes.
“Soil erosion. Well, that sounds… interesting. Well, you get on. Don’t let me disturb you.”

She went in the kitchen and switched the kettle on. Then she took a mug from the cup-tree and put it on the side. She put in milk and sugar then added a teabag to the pot.

When the tea was made, she took it to the kitchen window and looked out to the side of the house. She could see, through the panes of glass and across the garden, Joanne and Toby studying together, protective of one other and shut away from the outside world. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Pete Carvill is currently a co-editor for 3:AM. He’s also the lead European writer for FightBeat, and was previously a staff writer for The Sweet Science and Seconds Out. ‘Mentioned In Passing’ is the third story of a trilogy – the first two, ‘In The Here and Now’ and ‘Late On In The Day’, were published in Aesthetica and are blogged on his MySpace page

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.