by Sarah Spence
—Just me Johnny with some messages. Thought I’d drop a few wee things off, see how you’re getting on.
He eyes the bags, no wanting to turn away a good thing too soon.
—Just thought I’d look in on you, I says, lugging past him straight through the kitchen. —No seen or heard much of you.
He tuts. —There’s no need for all this, he says.
—Wee treat. Folk are asking after you.
He smiles, politely, as if I’m folk and no his own sister. —Kind of them. I keep meaning to show my face, he says. But he shakes his head.
—Aye, well, the last few weeks will have taken it out of you, I says. The black’s slimming on him but slimming is no always what you want at our age. He takes out two mugs and a bit lemon, puts the kettle on the boil. He’s moving awfy slow these days. My wee Johnny, can you believe it, almost seventy himself. He’s poking around in the back of some cupboard. I’m no here to watch him mope about unpacking messages but. So I says to him —Don’t be worrying about the shopping, come and let’s have a sit.
—Hang on the now, he says. —Since you’re here. When he straightens up he’s holding a handsome blue bottle. Bombay Sapphire.
The taste of a hundred wee towns, a hundred wee bed and breakfasts, all up and down the coast, both sides of the country. Two old lassies made young again with their bus passes, chatting up the driver, cackling with strangers. Christ, there’s no one bit space left on that fridge, the way she went at it with that camera. One glass with dinner, that was our ritual, coupons beaming from too much sun, or from two fleeces and a blanket, depending on the season. And one before bed. The taste of home and away.
He gives it one of they looks and shrugs. —For your next wee getaway, it was. I’ve no use for it.
And I find I can’t speak.
The kettle’s rattling in the silence and we head through, him with the tea tray, me with this bottle in both hands. It has a heaviness, a lightness, a warmth and a cold, this bottle. Alice’s bottle. No even opened.
—She always was a laugh, that woman. Could take a joke, give them too.
Johnny shakes his head. —Couple of conspirators, youse pair, when it was me trying to keep the house in one piece Christmas day! Couple bairns!
It’s nice seeing him light up like this.
—And Mum would just encourage youse once she’d been at the sherry herself. Enough to drive you round the bend. Three women and their mischief! He’s shaking his head again, smiling though sure enough.
But the bottle’s had a funny effect on me. I don’t know. I lay it next to me on the settee and give it a wee pat.
—The first drink’ll be to you, hen.
There’s another wee silent moment between us. Then I catch sight of that bit urn.
—Christ, I goes, is that it?
I’d no thank you for that muckle ugly thing sitting on my mantle.
—Aye, that’s her.
That’s no Alice.
—Oh, right, I goes. —So what’s the plan?
—How’d you mean?
—You’ll be scattering the ashes.
—I will not.
Eh?, I’m thinking.
—You’ll no be scattering the ashes? How no?
—She’ll be staying where she is.
—Johnny, I says, but he’s sitting up straight like the Queen of England.
—She was a proud woman. That’s her on the mantelpiece, pride of place in the home, looking down on it all.
Aye, but what proud woman would want to finish up as clutter?
—Did she no have a love of the great outdoors and all that, though? Even having her in the garden. Nothing worse for Alice than to be stuck inside.
But he’s no having it. —That’s no dignified. The mantelpiece is dignified.
—Cooping her up in that tiny wee bit urn, that’s no fair…
—I lost her once, he snaps, I’m no losing her again.
—Johnny, I says
He looks at me then. But it’s a look to make me look away first.
—Maybe I’m no ready for having folk over yet, he goes, standing up. —You can pour yourself some tea, since it’s brewed. The shopping’s needing put away.
So that’s me had my marching orders, and that’s him clattering away in the kitchen, banging the cupboard doors shut.
What can you say. Don’t get me wrong, Alice, you were his wife. But we were mates too and it wouldn’t be right, Alice, no to me and no to you, no in my book. Funny ways, folk have, myself included.
If I’m seeing you off, Alice — if I’m having to see you off — I’m seeing you off right.
It’s a bonnie bottle right enough. The seal breaks easily. See, that’s it wanting to be open, I can hear you saying. Saving it for going away. Aye, well then.
Leave him be. My poor wee Johnny. He needs his time.
But here’s to you, Alice.
It’s a wee bit of a shock, the gin, and so early in the day. Call it dutch courage but I get up closer to the thing. Ugly as sin right enough. That’s no what life’s about. No Alice’s life.
I’ll no break his heart, I thinks, I’ll leave him plenty, folk have all got their ways. But I take a wee bit, for her, and a weer bit, for me, and I think, that’s me seeing you right Alice. It’s a funny feeling on the hands, a funny powder, no like soil, no like sand, no like dust. What’s it like, Alice?
It’s no her; but it is her; but the Alice I know wouldn’t think twice, wouldn’t go all cooped up in the front room if she could help it; that’s no the woman I’ve known these forty odd years; that’s no the woman my Johnny fell for; that’s no Alice. I find the last sun in the garden, and I laugh at how the wind just birls her away, a woman who could climb mountains without her face going so much as red; and I laugh wiping my hand on the grass, the tickle of it and it getting long, the quick way the seasons change; and I think of her finally doing something good for they flowers, and she’d be laughing.