More than her death, more than the cremation, his sister Amanda not being there upset Ross most. He’d sent emails, telephoned hotels and hostels, contacted her friends and ex-lovers. The image of her, clean limbed and tall, slicing through jungle creepers under a bright blue sky, oblivious to her bereavement, seemed to Ross to be the saddest thing there had ever been.
He’d encouraged her to leave. “You need to make sure you’re not left behind,” he’d said. “Your life’ll begin the moment you get on that plane.”
The car journey from Newcastle to Cumbria was not long, the ashes of his mother in a plastic urn held between his legs.
“Do you remember climbing that one?” said Jimmy, coughing to clear his throat, tight-lipped, hands at ten to two on the steering wheel. “That one up there shaped like a saddle. You, me, your Mam and Amanda climbed that.”
It could have been any of a hundred fells. Ross didn’t recognise any of them. He saw himself, a distant child, deep valley behind, a tiny rucksack upon his back and wind lifting his straw-coloured hair. Picking at a strip of skin beside his thumbnail and stifling a yawn he said, “I think I remember Dad.”
Jimmy carried on driving in silence. He thought of Janine, his now dead wife. Years before either of their children was born they’d made love in a tent on a fellside, slim and naked in the sticky heat, early morning sunshine through the cheap material dying her pale skin orange. “I’m glad you’re here son,” he said. “Me and your mother are always wishing we could see more of you.” In the final weeks, she’d asked for him over and over.
The last time Ross spoke to her on the phone, they had laughed about Amanda on the other side of the world away from the rain and the petty neighbours. “Ross, the Chemotherapy’s making me feel awful,” she’d said. “I tried on one of those bloody blonde wigs they gave me but I looked like a drag queen.”
“I keep having a dream,” she told him. “I wake up and turn over and you’re in the bed with me. I haven’t seen you for so long. Have you got yourself a girl yet?”
“How’s your housemate Andre?” asked Jimmy.
“Do you mind if I put the radio on?” said Ross.
The call came as he watched the ships sailing into the English Channel from Andre’s kitchen window. Jimmy said: ‘Your Mam’s dead’.
Ross looked out to sea for a long time.
Andre wanted to drive him up to Newcastle.
In bed in the dark, Andre would say, “Tell me about your family.” He never answered, laughing and rolling over to stroke the tight curls of hair on Andre’s chest. “I’ve got no family, I sprang fully formed from the pages of a porn mag.”
“When will I meet them?” Andre would ask. “I want to see the people who made you, so that I can understand the person you are.”
He always waited until Andre was out or asleep before ringing Amanda or his Mam. He imagined them sitting in the empty silence of the north east, stitched into place like the parts of a colourless dress. Ross felt embarrassed imagining Andre’s dark skin against the beige settee; watching himself bat away Andre’s hand as they sat at a table in the pub, slow hostile glances making him prickle. His insides burned at the thought of Jimmy trying to make conversation with the black man who was fucking his son; asking which route they travelled up by and whether he’d been in the country long.
Sitting in an empty train carriage, feet up on the seat opposite, he watched the UPVC conservatories and garden decking of a thousand houses pass his window.
At the Central Station, in the cold north wind, Jimmy held him for too long, tendons in his arms like wires.
The house already seemed empty. “I’ve been having a tidy,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy turned off the engine at the end of a private gravel road. The valley was immense, stern grey and green hills like the peaks of waves. Rough and jagged as the fells around it, the grey slate cottage backed up against a fist of crag. Neither of them moved. There was the sound of water and trees.
“Glaciers,” said Jimmy at last, nodding at the exposed stone face. “Like a great big plough.”
On their opposite sides of the car, both men stood still, overwhelmed by grass and ferns, by the smell of coal smoke and earth. The urn was warm; cheap plastic crushing inward as Ross picked it up.
“Did you get a key?”
Jimmy said nothing, bending to lift the doormat. “Always in the same place,” he said, dangling a single Yale key on a dirty string. “I’ll put the kettle on, you bring the stuff in.”
Ross stood still. Down the valley, hidden by drystone walls, the scar of a beck led to the lake, steep hills crowding the dark water like crumpled bedclothes. They’d been here so many times as a family. It was here, hidden by ferns and bracken, that he’d laid back under the hot sun and masturbated about his first crushes, spending lonely afternoons watching Amanda play in streams, dreaming of one day finding a man to love him.
Opening the boot, he was surprised at the amount of luggage Jimmy had packed. Two suitcases, a green nylon holdall and a brightly coloured rucksack. Carrying the suitcases, the rucksack over his shoulder, Ross walked through the open cottage door into the sitting room. Everything smelled of pine freshener and vacuumed carpets. The urn sat on the mantelshelf as if it had always been there. On the coffee table, a sheaf of leaflets and brochures. It looked like all of the cottages they had ever stayed in.
“Kettle’s on, son,” Jimmy called through from the kitchen.
His mother’s absence hugged him. There would be milk in the fridge, his mother would call through in surprise at how thoughtful people were, and he would share an indulging smile with his sister and father.
“There’s no milk, son,” said Jimmy, carrying through two cups.
Waiting for the dark, sharp liquid to cool, both men were silent.
Amanda would have known what to say.
Ross thought of the man that he fucked on the night of the funeral. He’d sneaked out when Jimmy was sleeping. The man was tall and thin. They fucked in an alleyway. The man said ‘I’m straight’ as he began to touch him. When he came Ross felt exposed, like a mole suddenly dug out.
The silence rubbed against Jimmy. Towards the end, Janine had been nothing but noises, fleshy sounds that meant that she was alive. Lying next to her in their double bed, he tried not to listen, still wanting to make love to her before it was too late.
“Your Mam loved it here,” said Jimmy after a few minutes. “We’ll have to decide where to scatter her, where she’ll be most happy. She said it was like being wiped clean, coming out here.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for Amanda?” said Ross, checking his mobile for texts. There was no signal. Coughing to clear his throat, he looked through the small leaded panes of the window at the green of the valley. “We should put Mam into the beck, so she can travel down the valley and into the lake. Like a final journey.”
Jimmy said nothing. He wanted to run his hands through the ashes or to place a fingertip full at the centre of his tongue, sure that there was some sort of magic he could do that would bring Janine back. He saw himself, younger, pubes a dark thatch as he swam naked into the cold lake. In the twilight, Janine had been like a marble statue, unmoving. No matter how he begged, she would not put more than a foot into the slimy water. “Your Mam was always scared of that lake,” he said finally.
Ross remembered hot summer days when they had all sat in deckchairs on the lake edge, eating egg sandwiches from Tupperware and splashing in the greeny shallows, his Mam smiling.
“We should scatter her somewhere up high where she can look down and watch us all, somewhere that we can visit,” said Jimmy with great effort, picturing himself climbing a steep scree, sliding on the sharp splinters of slate and granite, his grief an actual weight on his back like a well-packed rucksack. “We should do it today while the weather’s good.”
Ross was quiet, feeling like a bored teenager on holiday again. “Have you got a fell in mind?” he said, looking at the skin around his thumbnail. “Or should we wait for Amanda?”
Upstairs, in a tiny bathroom, he washed his face.
For the first three desperate years after leaving Newcastle he had only spoken to Amanda, ringing from bright telephone boxes covered in prostitute’s cards. Everything had been temporary. It had taken him a long time to make the transition to being gay.
The longer he was away, the more alien his family seemed to him. Where he bent and swayed, finding what he could where he could; they were solid and unchanging like trees or rock formations on an overcast, wind-whipped moor, braced for the final blow that would uproot them.
Feeling his chin, he realised that he’d forgotten his shaver.
Padding up the stairs like a guilty child, he went to the attic room where he’d put Jimmy’s luggage.
A soft musky smell from childhood rushed out as he unzipped the green holdall. It took him a moment to be surprised at the soft viscera of floral fabrics and tangle of straps and knickers as they tumbled out. Warm to the touch, shiny artificial blouses slithered around his hands, as his fingers traced the scar lines of underwiring in parchment coloured bras.
The rucksack and suitcases were the same, filled with clothes he remembered from parent’s evenings and christenings, from photographs of his mother looking like someone else entirely, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a glass, surrounded by smiling men and women he didn’t recognise.
Quietly zipping the holdall and closing the suitcase clasps, Ross pictured a Viking pyre, a longboat drifting into the blackness of the lake, flames illuminating the hills all around.
“Have you got a spare razor Dad?” he shouted down the narrow stairwell.
Deciding on the summit of a low fell that overlooked the lake, they set out. Walking side by side, they were uncertain, the uneven ground beneath them making them wrong footed like inexperienced sailors. The green space exposed them, two figures alone. Chunks of stone pushed at the soles of Ross’ trainers. Jimmy’s hiking boots squeaked as he set a brisk pace.
“It never changes, does it?” he said.
Ross thought of the unending holiday afternoons and sullen pub lunches of his adolescence, of playing board games in front of a coal fire, watching late night films on a black and white portable, subtitles obscured by snow.
Absence walked between them.
“Me and your Mam thought of this as a second home for you and Amanda.”
“Do you think Amanda’s on her way?” said Ross, smelling sheep shit and fertiliser.
“I don’t know son.”
Ross kicked a stone and watched it bounce down the steep hillside towards the beck. He thought of Jimmy, alone now, his children far away and his wife finished.
For a long time they walked in silence, following the path through ferns and bracken.
Ross saw the couple coming towards them from up the hillside before Jimmy did. Dressed in colourful hiking gear, the man and woman looked assured and certain.
“What’s the weather like up top?” said Jimmy, stopping, hands on hips.
“Oh, it’s a bit windy but the views are good today,” said the man.
“Have you been over long?” asked Jimmy, looking at the woman.
“We’ve been over since Monday. The weather’s been smashing most of the time.” Ross could feel them looking at his trainers and denim.
“That’s my son,” said Jimmy. “We’re over for a few days on family business.”
“Not done much walking then?” said the man to Ross.
Ross said nothing, looking at the mud on the uppers of his white Nike Airs.
“Don’t worry; I’ve brought him a spare waterproof. At least one of us is prepared,” said Jimmy, laughing in a way that made the man and woman join in.
Feeling sweat beading his brow, Ross put his hands into his pockets and wanted to smash the three of them in the face.
Reaching the small outcrop at the top of the fell, there was nothing but coarse grass and lichened slate, the hillside ready to tip them back into the valley. The sky was blank grey. The wind pushed up around them. Standing arms crossed, raindrops tapping at cagoule hoods, they surveyed the tiny village below; trees and walls and farms like model railway scenery. The lake was a great black kidney veined with waves that silvered and split like stretch marks.
Jimmy took his rucksack off his shoulders, pulling out the urn wrapped in a Tesco carrier bag.
Now they were here, Jimmy was trapped. The urn in his hand was too light. They sky was cold, the world hard and damp. He tried to think of Janine and his daughter and son, but all he could see was the last moments when she stopped breathing and left him alone and how it all seemed like a horrible joke. He wanted to ask Janine what he should say.
Squatting down, he turned the urn in his hands, the wind filling his ears.
Ross knew that he should do something. Moving to put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, he heard a bird trill. Touching his pocket, he realised his mobile was ringing. He expected to hear Amanda’s voice as he answered it.
“Ross, how are you? I was worried,” asked Andre, his voice wowing and fluttering in the wind like a broadcast from a far-off radio station.
Turning away from Jimmy, Ross shouted into the handset. “I’m fine mate. Just on some family business.”
“Is your dad there? Are you all right? Oh god I’m so worried about you.”
“I’ll be back in the office next week.”
“Ross, I love you, you know that don’t you?”
Ross turned back to Jimmy. “Yeah mate, yeah. Shocking. See you then.” Hanging up, he put the phone away. “Work stuff. Got reception. Must be because we’re up a height.”
Jimmy stood and readied himself, unscrewing the top of the urn.
“Janine, Ross and me have brought you here because it was one of your favourite places. You’ll be able to watch over the lake and see the sun come up like you always wanted to. Amanda can’t be here but she’ll come and see you. I know you’re here now and we want to say goodbye.”
Mumbling ‘goodbye old lass’ Jimmy began shaking the contents of the urn out. Like sand, it blew back across them.
Jimmy held the empty urn, feeling cold and tired. It was finished. He wanted a hug more than anything in the world.
Ross rubbed at his eyes and watched the wind carry away the last of his mother.
There was nothing to say, so they set off back down the hill.
In front of the pub that overlooked the village, Jimmy put his fist on his hip and looked at his watch.
“Drink?” he asked. They had been silent for most of the walk back down.
The pub was low ceilinged with a fireplace at one end of the bar. Yellowing photographs of fell runners and cricket teams sat between fake wood beams. A few families dressed in hiking gear munched crisps and sipped drinks; pints for the dads, halfs for the mums and orange squash for the kids.
Sitting on an upholstered bench, Ross watched Jimmy speaking to the barmaid like an eager child. “I’ll have two pints of beer. What’s the weather here been like? We’re just over from Newcastle.”
She didn’t look at him. “It’s not been bad so far.”
“Does Roy still work here?”
“Yes, Roy’s here. It’s his day off, he’s gone into Penrith.”
The barmaid still didn’t look at him. “Jacqueline’s here, she’s in the back.”
“Me and the wife always come here when we’re over. Tell Roy and Jacqueline I was asking after them. Are they well?”
“They’re grand,” said the barmaid turning from the till.
Jimmy handed over the money. “I usually come over here with the wife. Tell Roy and Jacqueline I’ll see them later on.”
“Did you used to live in the village?”
Ross watched Jimmy try to smile. “Oh no, but we come, came, over whenever we can. We just got friendly with Roy and Jacqueline years ago.”
Bringing over the drinks, Jimmy looked lost. “I don’t recognise her at all. She wasn’t here the last time me and your Mam were here. Probably someone just moved to the village.”
“There’s a lot of tourists around,” he said quietly, nodding at the families sitting around the other tables.
“It is the season,” said Ross. “Look at us.”
After getting most of his pint down, Jimmy felt great tiredness, like a spent wave withdrawing from a beach. “Son, I know you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye but I want you to know that me and your Mam have always loved you and your sister.”
Ross sipped his pint, irritated. “I know Dad. I love you both too.”
“When you went away, we wondered what we’d done wrong. When Amanda went too, we thought that you couldn’t wait to get away from us.”
“It’s not like that.”
Jimmy wanted to grab him by the neck and hold him. He sounded so like Janine. “We knew that you didn’t feel at home in Newcastle, but we thought that you’d grow out of it. We always thought you were a smashing lad. With some rough edges, mind. We thought you’d grow out of all of the stuff but you haven’t.”
“Dad. It’s not the time to talk about this," said Ross but Jimmy wasn’t listening.
“When your Amanda went too, we thought ‘what have we done to be left behind’. Your mother missed you so much. She knew you didn’t want to speak to her.”
“There’s always a home for you with us. You don’t want to be sharing with strangers all your life. Once you’re finished with this stuff you’re doing you should come home. We were waiting. Son, I want you to know that I’m proud of you. We both are. Both were. We’re not just leftovers you know.” Finishing his pint, he stood. “Another one son?” he asked, already weaving slightly as he walked toward the bar.
Ross felt cold and exposed. Amanda would have known the right thing to say.
Returning with two more pints, Jimmy looked around him. He'd been here with Janine so many times that it seemed more real than his empty home now. For the first time in years, he was alone and able to do whatever he wanted.
“Do you fancy some crisps?” he asked.
Jimmy kept talking about his dead wife until Ross suggested that he might want to try to find something for dinner, watching him through the pub window as he walked away. Finding a payphone next to the toilets, he picked up the handset and dialled Andre’s mobile. Listening to the voicemail message, he felt deep cold inside his stomach.
“Andre, it’s Ross. It’s terrible here. We scattered the ashes and Amanda’s not here. Dad’s been telling me I left him behind and he doesn’t know about you or me. I don’t want to be here. There’s lakes and trees but there’s nothing else here. Oh god, I wish you were here. I don’t know what to do. I miss my Mam. I’m coming back soon.”
Hearing the pips, he replaced the receiver in its cradle, surprised to find himself crying.
After a few minutes in the toilets, Ross sat down, aware that he was drunk despite the full pints still left for him on the table.
Looking across the room, a slim man wearing a leather jacket smiled at him, rolling a cigarette. He smiled back, eyes still puffy.
Watching him walk toward the door, Ross knew. Outside the window, the man smoked in front of the steep fells. Ross felt an emptiness like the first drop of a rollercoaster accelerating downward with nothing beneath it. He wanted someone close to him more than anything.
“All right mate,” said the man as he returned. “You look like you could do with some company.”
Ross smiled and offered a stool. “You could say that.”
The man’s name was Colin. He worked as a chef at one of the hotels in the village. He was Irish. When he laughed at things Ross said his eyes crinkled at the corners as if he were looking at the horizon for a lost ship.
“I’m from Newcastle, but I live in Dover. My family’s still in Newcastle. Well, not my sister. She’s travelling now. Seeing the world. Sometimes you just have move on, don’t you? You need to get away so you can find out who are you are, don’t you?”
Colin smiled. “Are you here on your own? I thought maybe you were camping near here.”
“Oh god no. Not camping. I’m staying at a cottage up the valley.”
The crinkle again. “I’m not too keen on camping myself, but you can’t beat a good cottage. Have you got it all to yourself then?”
Ross saw himself and this man embracing down by the dark water of the lake, hidden by dry bracken and ferns. He felt strong arms around him and heard the distant sound of trees and water like a constant shush. He wanted someone to take away the weight of effort and let him just be.
“No. I’m here with my Dad. We’ve come to scatter my mother ashes. She died. Last week.”
Colin was quiet then began to roll another cigarette. “That’s bad news.”
“She had cancer. I didn’t think she was going to die. She was ill but I didn’t think. My sister left, too. Not long ago. I hadn’t been back for years. Hadn’t seen her, or any of them. I just got a phone call from my Dad, saying ‘your Mam’s dead’. And she was. We scattered the ashes today, at the top of a hill. I just watched as he tipped them out and that was that. Her remains. When I left, I thought they’d be there forever, but they won’t. She didn’t know. He still doesn’t know. It’s like I’m on my own, like I left them behind, but I had to live my own life and now she’s dead. I don’t know what to say. Do you want another drink?”
“Nah, I’m all right mate. I’d best be getting off. If you’re around I’m sure I’ll run into you.”
The man left. The families in their hiking gear laughed and talked about weather and views. The barmaid polished glasses. All Ross could think was ‘I hope Amanda doesn’t blame me’.
Leaving the pub after what felt like no more than an hour, the darkness surprised Ross. Beyond the light of a single streetlamp outside, he could make out the v of the valley meeting the sky but nothing more.
Trying to visualise the journey back to the cottage, he could see his younger self walking it, the image flattened and blurred like an animated holiday snap. Climbing a stile, he stopped and turned to look back toward the pub and the village. There was nothing but the dark shape of the fells. The sound of the beck running toward the lake was like radio static. Standing on sloping grass, he could hear himself breathing.
He was alone.
Walking, he tried to think about his mother.
The part of him that lay with his family was an absence now. In the blackness, he could feel it aching like a phantom limb.
I can’t explain what I’ve escaped, he thought.
Stopping for a moment, Ross realised that he’d lost his bearings. Small and adrift, he could feel himself in the palm of a great dark hand.
He hadn’t gone to see the body. Jimmy had. It didn’t seem right. She was dead now. It was better to remember her as a telephone voice, something far off.
Above him, layer on layer of stars dusted the sky. He’d spoiled everything. The world was inside him and he needed to fix it.
Sober and ready, he pushed at the door of the cottage. Walking straight into the sitting room, it took him a moment to comprehend what he saw.
His mother, hair blonde, sat in a chair by the blazing coal fire surrounded by clothes and underwear spilling from bags and luggage.
Standing, remembering, he saw then that it was not his mother.
“Ross,” said Jimmy pushing the blond wig out of his eyes, the material of a dress stretched tight across his belly and shoulders. “I don’t know what to do.” He gestured across the room, his arm shaking. “I can’t let her go.”
Ross sat down facing him, bending to pick up a jumper. Putting it to his face, it was warm and perfumed. Both men looked at each other. He began to say something but stopped. In this tiny warm space surrounded by darkness and blackness, he saw what he had to do.
The bra was thick as he picked it up, the clasp a difficult puzzle as he closed it around his middle, turning it and slipping the straps over his shoulders. The jumper was like an animal fleece. The skirt pulled up over his jeans and held his legs together like a sleeve. The chemotherapy wig slipped and slid as he picked it up like a living thing and placed it onto his head.
The smell of his mother was everywhere, enveloping him.
As he began to speak, Jimmy put his finger to his lips. “I’m sorry son.”
With no sound, Ross mouthed ‘I’m sorry too’.
For minutes they sat, the hiss of running water and sound of hot coals settling the only thing they could hear.
As if by a secret signal, they both stood and embraced, feet sliding on the carpet of dead woman’s clothes, hands gripping at fabric. For that moment, nothing seemed strange, as if for a second the crack in the world had been closed and everything was as it was before it fell apart.
The door swinging open made both of them start. Standing, both drunk, they swayed slightly still clinging to each other.
Amanda, tall and blonde, skin tanned to a dusky brown, stood for a moment on the threshold open mouthed.
Neither said anything.
Surveying the scene, her furrowed brow a perfect copy of her mother’s, Amanda closed her tired eyes for a second, swallowed, and, looking at what remained of her family, threw back her head and laughed once then was silent.