The Ashes Can Wait by Chris Pleasance

Photo by Tony Lee on Unsplash

Nancy and Sean were sat outside Coco’s Cafe, at a cast iron table that was warming in the sun. Leftover foam was drying in their coffee cups and imprinting itself on the china. Pigeons waddled close by, eyeing up scraps of baguette that had fallen to the concrete, unsure whether to approach. Sean was cleaning the lenses of his tortoise-shell sunglasses on the corner of his blue linen shirt. Nancy was chewing the hard skin beside the nail of her left middle finger, while her right hand was reaching into the canvas Daunt Books bag that was slung over the back of her chair.

She released her nibbled digit and with a studied calmness reached for the glass ashtray in the middle of the table. With her eyes on Sean she turned it right-side up, then twisted away from him and delved with both hands into her bag.

‘Don’t give me that look,’ she said.

Sean was not looking, but brought his eyes down on the back of her head so that when she turned to check, she seemed to catch him.

‘I said don’t.’

‘You started again?’

‘I didn’t start again.’ A fist – ornamented with large, cheap silver rings that clacked as her fingers moved – withdrew from the bag clutching an olive-green packet with a picture of a diseased lung on it. ‘This isn’t starting.’

Sean put his sunglasses back on.

‘I know what you’re thinking, Sean,’ she said, pulling a cigarette from the pack like a long, dead finger. ‘But give me some credit. I’m smoking straights, I’m lighting up with matches. That doesn’t show a whole lot of planning, does it? I’ll have you know I didn’t touch them the whole time we were in lockdown.’

‘You’re right, I didn’t know that.’

‘Yes, well…’ she struck the match, sucked the flame backward, sucked the smoke into her lungs, ‘this is just a… I don’t know. Like hooking up with an ex. We’re not back together or anything.’

Coco’s Café was on a street corner opposite the park. A line of plane trees blocked them from seeing inside, but they could hear balls being kicked, children running around, snippets of songs being played on Bluetooth speakers. When the wind moved in their direction it brought with it the ashen-sweet smell of barbecuing meat.

The park entrance opened on to a junction where the lights had just changed. People crossed, walking close to each other, almost brushing shoulders. Cars were backing up down the high street. A red double-decker bus stopped across from their table. There was a face at every window.

Nancy’s eyes flitted over the scene, moving from one thing to the next like a sparrow, never quite still. One hand rolled the cigarette filter between thumb and forefinger, the other twisted a lock of straw-blonde hair – bundling it up into a little nest, then combing it back out again. Sean watched her from behind darkened lenses.

‘I remember coming down here on my bike, early on,’ she said. ‘You remember how things were at the start? Maybe not. I guess it was different outside London. Around here there was just nothing. Like an apocalypse film. 28 Days Later. You could ride right down the middle of the road and there would be nothing to stop you. I remember being able to see for miles. You know you can see Big Ben at the end of this road?’

Sean looked but the lights have changed back and the bus had inched forward, blocking his view. His eyes met those of an elderly woman on the top deck. Her mouth was covered by a mask but for a split second something about her eyes – their mottled blue colour, the thinning brows, the lattice of fine wrinkles at the corners – reminded him of their mother. He sat back in the chair, pressed the soft skin of his forearm into the hot metal of the armrests, gripped them until his knuckles turned white.

‘You won’t see it now,’ Nancy scoffed. ‘Not since all this came back. With all the air pollution I doubt we’ll ever be able to see it from here again.’

She had intended to goad a reaction from him, but he showed no sign of having heard. He shifted forward so his arms came to rest on his knees, hands dangling. Nancy’s eyes stopped their saccade and alighted on his face. He felt them resting. She reached out and dropped the cigarette filter into the ashtray without stubbing it.

The lights changed. The traffic moved. The pigeons, which had edged close enough to peck at some outlying crumbs, fluttered back to a safe distance.

‘You sound like you miss it,’ he said. ‘The lockdown.’

When Sean had suggested taking a train down to see her, he said he just wanted to catch up, one to one, now everything was over. But she had known this conversation was coming. Now it seemed there was no avoiding it.

Nancy’s turned inwards. They moved over a mental landscape, examining possibilities, finding that each one led back to the same place. They became still.

‘I do.’

‘Why?’

‘Because…’ she waved her arm over the scene, as if that might explain it. Her knitted shawl billowed out like a wing. ‘Because look at it.’

‘At what?’

‘Life.’

Sean looked at the traffic.

‘It’s bloody difficult, Sean.’

‘Right.’

She let out an angry sigh. ‘I know what you’re thinking, even if you’re not going to say it. You blame me for what happened. I can’t say that’s unfair. But one hurt doesn’t invalidate another. Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean I can’t struggle too.’

‘Struggling with what?’

‘With everything, Sean.’ She pointed again at the street, beyond the street, at something hiding just out of sight. ‘I mean, look at it. It’s just so… relentless. Do you get what I mean? Do you see it?’

Sean took off his glasses, as if he might catch a glimpse.

‘I feel like I’m stuck on a track, like a conveyor belt. And it takes me from one place to the next, from one person to the next, and I’ve got no control over where I go or how fast I move. Sometimes, when I’m having a good day, it goes slow. But since the lockdown ended it feels like I’ve barely got time to recognise where I am, who I am, what I’m doing, and then I’m off again. I’m just a passenger. It feels like my life is flashing in front of my eyes, except it isn’t, because it’s real and I’m living it. And the whole time I’m asking myself: “Is this what I want? Am I happy like this?”

‘Lockdown is the closest I’ve come to actually being in control. Because it stopped everything, because it slowed it right down. For the first time in years I felt like I was back in control. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. There was no pressure to do anything, because there was nothing to do. Nobody was judging me, because what was there to judge? I didn’t have to worry, except about one thing: Am I sick, or am I not?

‘Every day I wasn’t sick was a day I was doing good. Every day I wasn’t sick I didn’t have to worry. I just kept saying to myself: “As long as I get through this, then nothing else matters. Just get through it and we’ll deal with all that later.” Now look.’

Sean kept looking.

‘The whole time I was stuck at home I kept trying to imagine the world afterwards, and I was so sure that we couldn’t go back, that it would be different to how it was. But it isn’t. And now everything that didn’t matter suddenly matters again.’

Nancy pulled another cigarette from the pack and struck a match. She huddled up in her chair, knees bent up to her chest, alternately sucking at the filter and chewing at her finger. Her eyes were still, staring into the material of her shawl, staring through it.

‘Why didn’t you come? When Mum died.’

Nancy didn’t say anything for a long time. She finished the cigarette and watched the pigeons, now underneath her chair, fighting over a chunk of bread, ripping it apart with their beaks. Sean said nothing: gave no sign that he was waiting for an answer, but asked no other questions.

‘I know you wanted me there, Sean. And I know I should have done more. I’m sorry I stopped answering your calls and your messages, but it was one more thing than I could deal with. I did what I did because I had to. Be honest with me: Would it have made a difference?’

Sean thought of the Skype call from the nursing home, the argument with the hospital porter as he tried to get on to her ward, the long nights sat awake watching her via iPad. Watching the machines breathe for her. Then a call in the small hours of the morning with the news. No wake, no funeral, just a box of ashes that appeared on his doorstep one morning next to the Amazon delivery.

No. Not to her. But to me… He didn’t say it. Thought it only quietly.

The traffic stopped, the lights changed, the crowd moved. Sean looked. He saw the way people spilled over the edge of the pedestrian crossing as they cut a wide berth from each-other; he saw how nobody was standing on the bus and when it stopped people who couldn’t find a seat got off to wait for the next one; he saw a child cough and how a passing woman pulled her mask up around her mouth.

‘I think you’re wrong,’ he said at last. ‘I don’t think we did go back. I think things are different now. I think everyone’s carrying it with them, in their own way.’

He looked over at Nancy. She had put out the cigarette and was resting her head on her knees, the caps pushing into her eye sockets. Her shawl rose and fell with her breathing. He could tell she was crying. He waited for her to look at him, but she kept her head down. He went to reach across the table, but drew his hand back. He looked at her, and saw her differently. His shoulders softened away from his ears. He bowed his head.

‘You should come to visit,’ he said after a moment.

Nancy breathed in deep, breathed out slow.

‘We have a spare room. Sarah’s been asking after you, and the kids would love to see you. You wouldn’t believe how big they are now.’

She laughed at that – a sharp burst of air, like a diver surfacing.

‘And the ashes…’ she looked up now and he saw her, eyes red-rimmed and raw. ‘The ashes can wait.’

She tried to smile but the emotion contorted her face, pulled the corners of her mouth down. She let out another burst of laughter, and wiped at her eyes with the shawl. ‘I’m sorry, Sean. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I just…’

‘Nancy.’

She shook her head, choked on the words she wanted to say but wouldn’t come. She took another deep breath and it shuddered on the way out.

‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘It’s OK.’

Nancy lit another cigarette as the waitress caught Sean’s eye to signal their time was up. There was a queue backing up down the pavement, everyone stood spaced out. Sean nodded and the woman put on a mask and gloves and came over with the card reader. She placed it on the table and stepped back. Nancy twisted around in her chair and delved back into the bag, and while she wasn’t looking he took out his wallet and paid. The waitress took the reader away again. Nancy turned around in time to see her go. She smiled at Sean.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For everything.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t expensive.’

‘Not that.’

‘I know.’

They stood up. He offered her an elbow to bump, but she brushed it aside and leaned in for a hug. Sean could see people in line looking over at them. He leaned in, and squeezed her neck.

‘I will come up, I promise. I just… don’t want to rush it. Give Sarah my love, and Nathan and Ellie. Tell them I’ll see them soon.’

‘I will. Look after yourself.’

‘I’m trying.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Me too.’

About The Author

Chris Pleasance is a journalist and writer living in south London, where he spends his time responsibly socially distancing and tending his veg garden. He has previously been published by Storgy Magazine.

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