Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau


Coming Home


Chrissie Ward

Email: chrissiew@actrix.co.nz

Derek checked himself and his mother out of the bed and breakfast in Inverness. He settled her comfortably on the back seat of his car and began the drive north on the final stage of their pilgrimage.

"Not long now, Mother," he said over his shoulder.

There was no reply, of course, but he could imagine what she would be saying if she could still speak.

"... That's a one-way street, Derek ... Careful on this roundabout... Let that red car go ahead of you, I never trust women in red cars ... Typical! People in Range Rovers always think they own the road ... Don't forget to indicate..."

Derek had always put up with her advice uncomplainingly, but he had to admit he was happier without it. That was one thing about Parkinson's Disease: undoubtedly distressing though it was for its sufferers to find their speech impaired, it did give their carers some peace and quiet.

The day was muggy - the bed and breakfast landlady had warned him that rain was expected later - but the sun was shining and he couldn't help a sympathetic lightne ss in his mood.

'"Isn't it rich?'" he found himself singing. '"Are we a pair? You -'"

He checked himself guiltily. He shouldn't be singing, not on this journey. And especially he shouldn't be singing one of those songs, knowing how much his mother disapproved of them. He had never forgotten that day when he was fourteen and a neighbour had asked him, "And what do you want to do when you grow up, Derek?"

"Write musicals like Sondheim," he blurted out.

His mother's face became a mask. "Boys get these romantic notions," she said stonily to the neighbour. "He'll grow out of it."

She marched him inside and lectured him about the insecurity of writing generally and the theatre in particular, and the importance of a solid career with a good salary and prospects of promotion. At the end of the lecture she placed her hands on his shoulders and gazed into his eyes.

"You're a good son, Derek. Don't let me down!"

"No, Mother," he replied dutifully.

And so he had gone to work in a bank, as she wished. He had scribbled lyrics in secret for several years, but gradually the ideas dried up. He still went to as many shows as he could, losing himself in the imaginary world on the stage and dreaming of what might have been. Oh, he probably never would have been a Sondheim, but now it was too late. He would never know.

He stopped for coffee at Lairg, choosing a place his mother would have liked if she had been able to come in. It was somebody's ‘buttery with frilly curtains along the bottom of the window and vases of dried flowers on the tables. On his own, he would have gone into the hotel for a stiff whisky.

It was rich, he mused over his coffee: they were still a pair. He was on his own, and yet he wasn't. His mother was there in the car, and he was making this journey for her. It was serious, it was solemn: a sacred duty. He tried to put himself into a suitable frame of mind, and this was easier after he left Lairg. The scenery became bleak and gloomy, and the sun disappeared behind a threatening cloud. Derek had always found this stretch depressing. He would have preferred to take the longer coastal road via Ullapool, but it was important to get to Askinish as fast as possible, for his mother's sake. Anyway, his cousin Alasdair was expecting them by lunchtime.

He was approaching Tongue now, and the last leg of the trip.

"Nearly there," he told his mother.

He could sense her looking around them, drinking in this place that had meant so much to her: Askinish, her childhood home, the house she had loved so passionately. How disappointed she had been when her father, a very traditional man, left the house and farm to her younger brother. Deprived of her birthright (as she saw it), she had allowed a young geologist, on holiday exploring Sutherland, to sweep her off her feet. He swept her all the way down to London, where they had lived ever since and where Derek had been bom. But men were always letting her down: first her father over Askinish and then her husband, who had inconsiderately got himself run over when Derek was two years old. She and her son had made annual visits to Askinish, until her poor health made travelling so far too difficult. But, while she could speak, she had never stopped talking about it. Now Derek was bringing her home to stay.

There at last was Askinish House, tucked into a small hollow that sheltered it from the Atlantic gales. It was very familiar to Derek, both from his childhood visits and from his mother's photographs, but he hadn't remembered it as being so dark and gloomy. But perhaps that was just the weather - the sky was completely clouded over, and grey waves surged up the beach.

Derek pulled up in front of the house and Alasdair appeared at once. He was bearded, tanned and muscular, and Derek felt soft and city-pale beside him.

"Hey, it's good to see you again," Alasdair greeted him. "Come away in."

He opened the car's rear door and reached for the overnight bag on the seat.

"I'll take that," Derek said quickly.

Alasdair drew back his hand and asked awkwardly, "Oh, is she ...?"

"Yes, she's in here," replied Derek. He picked up the bag and carried it and his mother into the house.

Alasdair's wife, Jane, gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

"You made good time. How was the journey?" she asked, and directed him and his bag to a room upstairs. "Don't be long, lunch is ready."

While they ate Alasdair and Jane chatted about the farm and their children, who were away at boarding school. Derek had little to tell them in exchange. Over the last twenty years all that had happened was that his mother's health had got steadily worse and he had spent more and more of his time caring for her.

"Your life will be very different now," Jane remarked. "Do you have any plans?"

"Not really," he admitted. "I haven't thought much beyond... beyond doing - this."

"When were you intending to, ah, do it?"

"Straight after lunch, I thought."

Jane and Alasdair exchanged a glance.

"It might be better to wait until tomorrow," Alasdair suggested. "It's getting pretty windy and the rain'll be here soon."

"No, I must do it now," Derek said, getting up from the table. "I can't do anything else until I've discharged my final obligation to her."

As he went upstairs he heard Jane mutter, "Pompous ass," and Alasdair give a warning "Sssh!" Jane's words smarted, but Derek tried to forget them and focus on the forthcoming rite.

He opened the overnight bag and took out the container holding his mother's ashes. How disconcerted he had been when the undertaker handed it to him! He'd been expecting something grand, a proper urn of shiny brass, not a plastic jar with a screwtop lid. It reminded him of the Tupperware his mother kept her kitchen stores in, and after the initial shock he had found something reassuring about its homeliness.

As soon as she was diagnosed with Parkinson's, she had given him detailed instructions.

"I want to be cremated, and then you must take my ashes to Askinish and scatter them from the top of the hill behind the house. Promise me you'll do it!"

He had promised, and now, holding the jar carefully in both hands, he went downstairs.

"Sure you want to do this today?" Alasdair asked. "It's not very nice out there."

"Yes, I'm sure," said Derek.

Alasdair shrugged and held the front door open.

Derek trudged up the hill through the dying bracken. As he went higher the wind got stronger and he wished he'd put on a jacket. A wet drop splashed on his face, then another, but he climbed steadily upwards through the shower flurry. It was fitting, he thought, that the sky should weep the tears he had not yet shed himself. By the time he reached the summit the rain had stopped. The wind whipped at his hair and clothes, and he shivered as he bowed his head over the jar. He closed his eyes, remembering.

On his last visit to her in hospital his mother had made a great effort to remind him of his promise.

''Ashes ..."

Derek pressed her jerking hand. "Don't worry, I won't let you down."

He opened his eyes. Ocean and cloud merged into a beckoning void, and he felt a lurch of vertigo. He looked down quickly at the house below.

"I've brought you home. Mother," he said aloud, and unscrewed the lid of the jar. The soft, pink-grey ashes inside stirred as if they wanted to escape.

"Goodbye, Mother," he said. "Ashes to ... Askinish."

He turned his back to the wind and upended the jar. The wind rushed gleefully round his body, seized the falling ashes and flung them back at him. Derek found himself standing in the midst of a swirling, ashy cloud. He gasped involuntarily, then shut his mouth when he felt the grittiness on his tongue. Mouth and eyes squeezed tightly shut, he stood on the hill, overwhelmed by the knowledge of his failure. He had let his mother down after all. Wet and miserable, he stumbled back down to the house.

Jane clapped both hands over her mouth and stared when he walked in. Her face worked in an odd way, as if she was trying not to laugh.

"I know," Derek said gloomily. "You did try to warn me."

Jane controlled her face. "Never mind, you've done what your mother wanted," she said kindly, and took the plastic jar from his hand. "Now you'd better go and have a bath, or you'll catch cold."

When Derek looked in the bathroom mirror he was appalled. His face, hair and jersey were covered in grey sludge. He pulled the jersey over his head, then he sat down on the lavatory and held the garment out at arm's length. There was his mother, all over his jersey. He poked a finger at the wool and sticky lumps fell on the floor. He thought of the next words of the Sondheim song and sang quietly, '"You here at last on the ground...'"

A giggle rose in his throat and he started to laugh hysterically, holding the sludgy jersey to his chest and rocking back and forth on the lavatory seat. When he calmed down he looked in the mirror again. Tears had made clean tracks through the muck on his face.

He stepped into the bath, and the warmth of the water gradually comforted him. Try to be philosophical, he told himself. You did your best and you have brought her home, which was what she wanted. In fact, you've scattered her in the house, and that would please her. He ducked his head under the water and the sludge floated off.

Then it finally struck him. She was gone. Really, truly gone, and he was free. He could do what he liked at last - sell the house, buy a flat, try writing lyrics again. He was only forty, it wasn't too late to start living. Exuberant as a child, he reached for the shampoo.

Jane and Alasdair raised their eyebrows at the cheerful carolling coming from the bathroom.

"I'm going to wash that mum right out of my hair," sang Derek, "and send her on her way!"

With a decisive gesture he pulled out the bathplug, and all that was left of his mother went to its final resting place in the Askinish septic tank.

The End

© 2000 Chrissie Ward

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