The first call is OK. Hi Cathy it’s Bill McManus here, I’m at The George. Hi pet. Aye sorry to bother you, Sarah needs picked up ah hink. She’s a wee bitty upset, naw naw notae worry she’s nae bother, nae bother at all, it’s a hard time so it is. How’ve you been keepin? Oh aye, it’s no easy, hi. Our Moira was the same for a long time aifter her mither. It’s no the same but ken. Have you got the car? That’s grand. Ahdtuckur masel but for the polis, Jim Wilson’s git three points and that wis the day aifter. That’s grand see you shortly tahrah.
She curls in the passenger seat, face smashed in from crying and drink. Wine is the worst, it’s always the worst, like pressing on bruises. Caaaathyyyy she sobs, tearing my syllables apart. Wet arms flail for me. Come on now. I plug her in. Come on, nearly home, don’t cry, don’t cry. No point crying.
That’s a Dad phrase, no point crying. Autopilot response. I hear it before I know I’m speaking.
The next day she’s at the foot of my bed. Skinny ghost, eyes near closed over. She looks 10 again after a nightmare.
I’m sorry Cathy, I really am, I’m so so sorry genuinely sorry I only went for the one and then I, then it was all - Shh, it’s fine. Don’t worry, I say, shh it’s fine. Have you eaten anything.
Have you eaten anything. That’s a Mum response and it’s not even 8. We sit across from each other, stare into the muesli. The spoons do-si-do in the bowls clink clink. I’ve crushed one of Dad’s tramadol into the milk to make her easier today, though I tell her I’ve none in the house.
Should I go away she says.
I look up from my bowl. All her drowning sultanas are rescued, lined up on the rim. Where would you go, I say, then realise No was the right thing.
In future I will wish I said yes. I take a mouthful of sultanas.
I don’t know, she says. Anywhere.
There’s only here though, for her. There is only this house with none of her things in it, all the dead people’s stuff hidden away.
You think she’s with Mum, Cathy? This time I know the thing to say.
Of course she is.
It’s a lie, I don’t believe it. Mum’s buried in the plot on the hill, alone but for a clutch of wildflowers. Sarah’s eyes are swimming, staring off at the kitchen chalkboard that shouts BINBAGS BLEACH DIET COKE. I want to make a crack that she’s crying cause she wanted full fat, lighten the mood. I don’t. I’m still learning OK things and not OK things. It’s been 20 years. We knocked lumps out each other when she was last in this house. She gave me a black eye with a tennis racquet.
I run her a bath but make it shallow and leave the door open. Hard to tell how strong the cereal cocktail was or how hard it will hit her. I leave the radio on and make sure it’s a talky one because she cries at all the songs, doesn’t matter which ones. Even the happies remind her of car trips or musical statues or dressing up for school discos.
She burns all my good candles but tells me about the better ones she had in her old house and how she so adored them and maybe I should get one, the smell is so divine. I don’t want a candle for eighty pounds. I don’t want her divine familiar smells to fill the house and give her more reason to weep. I can smell the sea and the rain and the wind through the walls, it’s why I didn’t sell the house when Mum died. Sarah would prefer it too, if she lifted her head to notice. The city’s ruined her. I tell her to go a walk down the beach, watch the waves for a time, see if it helps. She shakes her head.
The second call is still OK. Hello, Cathy? It’s Paul, from The George. Yeah, sorry. Could you. That alright? Cheers. I go in and nod to everyone, Paul’s got a cloth hand inside a pint glass and nods towards the toilets.
She’s boo hoo hooing on the pan, door closed. Cartoon sad. Ahhh-haah-haaaaahhhh. It changes pitch. Sheila Sanderson’s putting lipstick on at the mirror, hanging around like a bad yeast infection. She alright? She says through fillers with fake sympathy.
Aye, I say, though she’s clearly not. All of Cairnstruan knows she’s not, or they will by the time Sheila’s finished. I was sorry to hear about it, Sheila starts, but all I say is Mon out Sarah. Home time.
The door creaks. She’s ashamed at her upset and ugliness. She cowers from Sheila Sanderson and the mirror. Sorry, sorry, sorry Cathy.
I nod at Paul on the way out, Thanks.
The next day she’s got the cafetiere on, scrolling through her phone. Didn’t want to wake you, she says, though the call woke me last night and this is just a different kind of waking. About last night, I’m sorry -- Don’t mention it, I say. It’s fine. Do you want a muesli? I think about doubling her dose, save her whingeing and knock her clean out.
Have you spoken to the counsellor? I ask, though I know she hasn’t. I’m just not up to it at the minute, she says, nursing the coffee. I take a slug of mine, it’s tar.
Why don’t you walk to the top of the hill then, I say. Look at the water, that’s as good as therapy. Nature’s therapy. And it’s free. She says Not up to that either, and crumples her lip. I think, just up for drinking, not up for fixing. Just like Dad. I don’t say it out loud.
She reads a book inside while I clean the gutters of rotting leaves. After an hour she’s at the foot of the ladder and I nearly spook off it in fright.
It’s normally just me and the cliffs here. The kites and buzzards are silent, the odd loud crow I chase off the fence in case it gets at the bins. Now she appears and evaporates everywhere like a sad shadow, humming or blaring something on speakerphone. Hey! she says which is the jump. Oh sorry, she says. I found this photo of Mum.
I don’t look down, keep scraping the gutters. Yeah? Yeah.
I know she’s been rooting around my drawers cause I hid everything the first night she came. Not just the expensive stuff. Anything would get her asking questions, spark her grietin again.
Nice photo of her, she says. It’s got writing on the back. Remember the shell. What does it mean? Nothing, I say. Just put it back.
Don’t believe you, she says.
Then it’s just the scrape of dirt and moss from the gutters between us, debris of dead leaves cascading towards her. I don’t look down. You can tell me, she says. I don’t.
Third time. Hi there, it’s Jill McMaster. Yes, sorry. She’s not great. She was telling me bout whit happened, it’s a damn sin. She’s been a bit sick, bless her. No wonder she’s upset. Is she on her own? No I know, of course. But the father? I see. God what a shame. How terribly sad. Lord.
She passes out in the passenger seat this time, slumps into the window with a glass clunk to the forehead. There’s beige vomit in her hair. Don’t piss yourself, I think, they’re my jeans. I Fireman Sam her onto the couch. She’s all bones these days, a tiny sparrow fallen limp on my shoulder. She wakes up in the recovery position, me holding her shoe.
CATHYYYY she says. I’m here I say. She’s gooooone, she’s goooonnne. I know, I say, I know. She’s GOOONNE. I know. Come on, have some water. Come on. She takes a big gulp and lies back. She mutters some other slevered nonsense. I go to stroke her hair to make an effort, then remember the sick and withdraw my hand. I’m sorry, I’m sorry Cathy
She nestles into the cushions, soothed for a few minutes. Tell me about the photo of Mum she gulps through a sheet of snot. It goes quiet again. I don’t want to tell her. Please, she says. How can’t I know. Is it a secret? Get some sleep, I say. It’s not fair, she says. None of it’s fair.
In the morning she’s out on the walkway overlooking the cliffs, grey layers of sea and sky stacked atop each other out into the distance. Gulls dive against the wind, rising and falling in the currents. She doesn’t see them. She says sorry, sorry, I’m sorry it’s like this Cathy. What am I gonnae do Cathy when will it stop? I don’t say anything because I don’t know. Spindly finger bones wrap round her head, Alkaseltzer fizzes in a glass.
I’m low on the other tablets, I should have rationed them. I wonder how long she will stay, when I can get the quiet back. She lights each new cigarette with the old, hand trembling, crumpling the fag dowts into the flagstones I paved for Mum’s chair.
I should have brought her back here, she says, to meet you, to meet Mum. I shouldn’t have stayed away so long, I just... Well you know what I was like and Cairnstruan is hardly the place. I’m sorry for the way I left it. I should have come back for the funerals. You know how it is. I just couldn’t be here anymore, you know?
I don’t say anything. I’ve always been here.
Fifth time she doesn’t make it to 9pm. There’s folk in the restaurant still eating, says Paul, and...well. No disrespect here, ken. But. She’s putting folk off their sticky toffee, talking about the wain. We’ve had a complaint. It’s not her fault but, well, ken. I order a pudding for both of us, to take away, as a gesture, though she’s stopped eating. She sees me walk into the pub and knows the game’s up. I nod at Paul, though I’m sick of the sight of him. In the car she stares out the window and tells me all the lovely people she spoke to, how everyone was so so lovely, there was a really lovely woman called Jan. Same folk that complained about you ruining their pudding, I think, but I don’t say it. She tells me Jan said Melissa sounded like a lovely wee lassie and we should have a local service for her, a memorial. Oh right, I say, but I hope she forgets, because it will be me that organises and it will only bring misery. You’ve still not told me about the photo of Mum, she says.
I got you a sticky toffee, I say.
In the days that follow she leaves the photo around the house for me to run into. More ghosts. Sometimes it faces out. On the beach smiling into the wind with a wild mane of hair, waving. Sometimes it’s the words facing. Wobbly, almost indecipherable CATHY, REMEMBER THE SHELL Xx
Sarah’s seething that I won’t tell her about it, she has to force herself into everything, she won’t let anything be. One afternoon I find the picture on my pillow. Piss off with the photo, I say. Tell me, she says. Why does it matter, I say. She was my mother too, she says. When it suited you, I think.
Seventh time, it’s Geoff who owns the pub. This is getting a habit Cathy. I know, I say, as if it’s my fault. As if she’s a dog I’ve been letting shit in his garden. I ken she’s been through a lot, he says. She has, I say. There’s a long silence. See you shortly, he says. Click. She’s outside when I get down there. The inside of her handbag’s all over the pavement, her perfume’s smashed glass everywhere. She cries as she stumbles into the car, pawing blindly for the handle. I’m sorry Cathy, she says. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m soorryyyyy. Chinese water torture, that word. Nothing changes.
Eleventh. She’s smoking in a huddle in the doorway when the car pulls up, staggering into the other folk, slevering shite. Loud spiky laughter in spurts like the caws of a crow. Come on, Sarah I say from the rolled down window. Get in the car. An old fella shouts TAXI’S HERE! thinks he’s hilarious. They hook her arms and wobble her towards me, she near goes over on her ankle cause she wore a heeled boot. She says I’m not finished yet! I’m not ready to go home! Where’s my fucking drink? They huckle her down to the passenger side. She’s been crying but she’s forgotten since, there are splats of mascara up her temples. Cathy why you here? You’re such a fucking spoil sport Time to come home, come on I say. WHIT! I’m huvin a good time! I need to let my hair down sometimes you know! No-one else is having a good time, I say. Ah come on, you’re my friends aren’t you? She burls round to strangers as they smoke their fags to the letters. I’m not annoying you, am I? No, no, say the strangers but the faces say different. Get in the fucking car, I say. Eventually Paul’s at the door saying We’re not serving any more Sarah, you’re sister’s waiting for you, go on. Boooooooo she says, and falls backwards onto the ground with a clatter. The drunkards cheer WAYHEYYYY and everyone laughs at her. A force lunges in my chest, a dog straining to fight. I get out and drag her off the ground. THINK THAT’S FUNNY DO YOU I say to the clowns, and they shit themselves, even though I sound like my old maths teacher and I’m still wearing my slippers.
Fuck you, she says in the car and I know this is vodka talking now. I was having a good time. You’re just jealous I’ve got friends. You’ve always been jealous of me. I swallow hard and steel my gaze onto the road ahead. Always deer and badger here and they make a right mess of the car. Aren’t you going to say anything? she says. I don’t say anything. Fine, fuck you. You never fucking say anything! You’re such a BITCH. Do you even know what I’ve been through?! Melissa DIED. I don’t say anything. I watched our parents die. I don’t say anything.
In the morning she sleeps in. I fantasise about bludgeoning her with the old tennis racquet. There’s no sorry or coffee waiting for me. I’m relieved for it. When she wakes she’s in a black mood. Defiant. She thinks she has license to behave any way she likes. She’s an adult, her child is dead. She should be able to have a drink when she wants to, she’s a grown woman. Who the fuck am I to question her. She bangs things up and down on the surfaces, drags storms behind her.
I walk to the shore and stand into the wind, let Nature batter me as it has the cliffs for thousands of years. Salt and sand sting my skin, spray smashes against the still of the rocks, the almighty force of the ocean lands SMACK BOOM against the crags, withdraws, repeats, withdraws, repeats.
When I get back she’s sitting at the kitchen table, phone blaring a video about cats or some other nonsense.
I’ll tell you about the shell, I say. Her head turns towards me, away from the video. She’s thinner and thinner, I see the skeleton trying to burst through her skin. Another relative it falls to me to bury.
I’m listening, she says as if she has granted me her time, as if she is the Queen. I sigh. Remember we used to go walks on the beach with Mum, I say. Yes, she says, to see the dolphins. For the sea, I correct her, we went because Mum loved the sea.
We never saw any dolphins, she says, huffing.
Nothing has changed in 30 years. The world exists to please her.
It was never about dolphins, I say. It was the sea. Mum just told you we would see dolphins so you’d leave the house. The water here’s no use for them. She made the dolphins up.
Oh. Sarah looks confused. Affronted.
Anyway, I say, after you left. We did the walk just the two of us. Then every day after Dad died. We’d walk along and watch the waves. And-
Telling her is a bad idea, but I’m too far into it.
And? And. When she was, when she. When she started getting unwell, when she couldn’t walk anymore, we couldn’t go together, so I’d just go myself, but I’d bring a wee shell back for her. We’d kid on they were phones. I know it’s daft. She said I could pick up a shell and talk through it, tell her how wild the wind was or what the sky was doing, if I’d found a starfish or funny lump of driftwood or a bit sea glass or something. Just silly things. She said I would hear her talk back. When she was getting worse she said...Well. She said when she was gone, when she was dead I mean, it would still work. That when I wanted to tell her how the sea was doing I could just pick up a shell and she’d be at the other end.
It is quiet but for the wind. My eyes flit up towards my sister. Uncharacteristically still.
And that’s the last thing she ever wrote down, and it’s the last thing she ever said out loud. So. That’s that. That’s why I keep it, I say.
Then I’m finished and it’s quiet. Sarah looks unnerved by my confession. The wind howls around the house, rattling windows, creaking timber. Did it work? She says. What? I say. The shell. Did you hear her. It’s made up Sarah, I say. It’s not real.
Outside the sky is slate. The wind is thundering the walls, full of hard water now which it hurls against the glass. Sarah sits staring out with the photo in her hand, tapping it on the side of her leg, reading it, turning it, reading it again, reading it, turning it, tapping.
Do you think this was how it was always going to end up? she says. I don’t say anything, I don’t know the right thing to say.
She puts on a jacket. I’m going out, she says.
Drinking? I say.
Mind your own business, she says, though it always ends up my business.
There is no twelfth call.