(Earth, Early 21st Century)
The young woman walked quickly along the narrow street as if the demons of hell were after her. Her legs ate up the cobblestones and her hair streamed out behind her as she leaned in against the wind, which funnelled down the narrow seaside street as if it was coming straight from the Arctic to cut right through her. Black clouds scuttered by, over-ready to drop their load of snow on the unwary. It was unseasonably cold for March.
When she reached the gleaming navy door, she stabbed at the brass lock with her key, her hands were shaking with the cold. If she had stopped to look back for a second, she would have seen a tall man in black motorcycle leathers and a gleaming black helmet with mirrored visor watching her from the end of the road. He was leaning on a Harley Davidson, just by the gate to the graveyard of St Mary De Haura Church.
Once inside, Brianne stood with her back against the door, breathing deeply. She stared unseeingly through the house as if it were a foreign landscape rather than a welcome haven. Everything seemed familiar but today it looked like it belonged to someone else.
She walked through to the kitchen and threw her bag onto the kitchen table, hardly noticing that her purse and a palm-sized shell fell out. She turned to flick the switch on the kettle then opened the cupboard to get out a mug. She reached for a wine glass instead. Turning to the fridge she hesitated, as if trying to talk herself out of something, then took out the bottle of sauvignon blanc. She poured a large glass of the wine and, still standing by the fridge, lifting it to her mouth and half drained it.
Brianne sat down at the kitchen table and looked out on the pocket-sized back garden that had once been her pride and joy. It was very bare, cut back ready for spring. A lone robin hopped about on the bird table, looking for crumbs and tilting his head at her but there were no other signs of life. You would never know you were in the middle of the town.
‘Such a wonderful send off, who would have known he was so loved?’ his mother obviously didn’t know Alec at all, confining her limited interest to his infrequent visits to her modern, impersonally decorated bungalow thirty miles away. Beige ruled, according to Alec. He never took Brianne there, only visiting out of duty and guilt. While his mother had undoubtedly loved him in her own way, that love had petrified at the very moment when he left home, when he was no longer an accessory to or reflection of her own life.
Choosing to play Georgio Moroder’s ‘Electric Dreams’ in the middle of the funeral as one of Alec’s favourite songs just proved that. Brianne smiled as she remembered the baffled looks and hastily smothered grins of Alec’s friends as the incongruous guitar solo blared endlessly around the crematorium. She had provided a list of tunes Alex had always said he wanted played at his funeral, but that had largely been ignored.
The one song he’d really loved had been played right at the beginning when everyone was filing in and still chatting. Nobody had heard it and Brianne was still angry about that.
She jumped as the phone rang in her bag and tipped out the rest of the contents in order to get to it before it stopped ringing.
‘You all right? That was a bit of a hasty exit!’ her sister Megan’s voice echoed in the quiet kitchen. ‘Sure you don’t want me to come over?’
‘No, I’ve got to face the place on my own at some point and I just had enough of all that fake chit-chat and everyone smiling with relief it’s all over. For them.’
‘OK, well let me know if you change your mind. See you soon!’
Brianne ended the call and sat in the quiet kitchen still watching the robin, all the more aware of the silence now the kettle had stopped boiling.
I’ll do it when the robin flies away.
She took another mouthful of wine, barely tasting it. Her gaze dropped to the table and she noticed the shall that the stranger had given her at the funeral.
It was flat, chalky white on one side and pearlescent on the other, like the inside of an oyster shell. It was faintly warm to the touch. On the shiny side, a double spiral was engraved and her thumb slowly followed the line around as she held it. It seemed to get even warmer as she held it.
‘Alec would have wanted you to have it’ he had said, shaking her hand after the service and introducing himself as Jockie. Apparently, he had mentored Alec in a kitchen back in his apprentice days. She knew the name, she had heard Alec talk of him many times but had just assumed he was dead, long ago. Alec never kept in touch with people and had everyone tightly compartmentalised.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ he used to say, ‘And out of sight is the best place for most people.’
Jockie held onto her hand with both of his, for a bit longer than was comfortable. He was tiny and she had to lean in to hear what he was saying.
‘He found it on the beach after one of our epic nights out in the early days and he always loved it. I found it when I was clearing out a box of stuff he left behind when he moved out of our flat. Funny how it always feels so warm. Anyway, you should have it now.’
Jockie hadn’t been at the reception line in the hotel local to Alec’s mother’s house. Typical, Brianne had thought, keep it convenient for you and all his other friends, now I won’t be able to have a drink till I get home. Possibly just as well. She had wanted to ask Jockie some more about their early days chef’ing together but he’d vanished in the melee to get out of the crematorium car park.
She stood poured another large glass of wine, gazing out at the garden again. The olive tree shivered in the wind and Brianne was glad she hadn’t put any pansies in yet. The frost would have killed them by now. It was still so cold, as cold outside as she felt inside.
The robin had disappeared now, gone off hunting over the rest of its territory for something to eat.
Brianne took her glass and walked upstairs slowly, leaving her phone on the kitchen table but still holding the shell. Its warmth was strangely comforting in the cold house. The heating had not yet kicked in and there was no point in putting it on now.
She went to the chest of drawers and put the glass down, heedless of the wet ring it made immediately,. She smiled, thinking how mad Alec would have got, seeing that ring. He was always more house-proud than she was.
She stood at the window for a minute, looking out with unseeing eyes, then took the white boxes out of the top drawer, held neatly together with an elastic hairband. Boxes carefully accumulated over the last month or so, since that terrible morning.
The morning when her world came to an end.
The morning when she came downstairs and found Alec curled up on the living room floor, for all the world like he was asleep. The soft mocha blanket they pulled over their knees on particularly cold evenings, was bundled under his head and a corner was pulled over his eyes. She was glad for that, the quiet horror of it all was too much to take in as it was.
He lay on his side, one hand tucked under the blanket, one hand flat on the floor, long artistic fingers spread out as if to brace himself there. One knee and socked foot was pulled up in a parody of the life-saving position and her heart melted a bit. She knew the shape of that foot so well, she had even drawn it on occasion.
She had called the ambulance but she knew he was dead, she knew by the terrible mottled colour of his hand and arm, where the blood had settled overnight. She didn’t have to touch him, couldn’t make herself touch him, when they wanted her to feel his pulse.
‘He’s gone, he’s gone.’ she had said, the words echoing in her mind ever since.
Brianne pulled the curtains, not noticing that the man in the motorcycle leathers now leaned against the wall just beside her front door, patiently waiting as if to come in.
She sat on the side of her bed and putting the shell down on the bed beside her, systematically took all the pills out of the boxes and made a neat pile on the bed inside the curve of the shell.
Then she swallowed them in batches of ten or so, until all the pills and all the wine was gone. She poured another glass and downed it quickly, to make sure.
She lay down on the bed, pulled the other side of the duvet over her, Alec’s side, and closed her eyes to wait.