Shishir 2018, Short Stories - Alison Grove



By Alison Grove

On the day of my Confirmation, Aunt Christine hangs The Coming Of The Holy Spirit on her living room wall, above the bookcase. When I protest, she seals up her mouth like an envelope, licking her top lip before tucking her bottom lip beneath it.


“You can’t just throw away a Holy picture,” she says at last, “whatever state it’s in. Would you have me put it out with the chicken bones and tea leaves?”
She doesn’t wait for my answer – which would be an emphatic yes.


“All the way from Lourdes,” she murmurs, giving the scorched glass a wipe with her hanky. “Your mum got that, and I got the letter rack.” She nods at the crowded mantelpiece.

“It’s been blessed – probably by the Pope. Which would make throwing it out A Sacrilege.” She adds this as though she suspects the Pope of trying to catch us out.


Then, perhaps to spare both our feelings, she positions her most imposing dried arrangement on top of the bookcase. I squint up through the forest of tinted stalks and fir cones. The glass has rippled and clouded, so that the painted figures of The Faithful seem to mill beneath it. They remain miraculously intact, standing around with arms raised and speaking in tongues, a fiery spark hovering above each blessed head.


“Soldiers of God,” mutters Aunt Christine, “the Holy Spirit filling them up with Knowledge, just waiting for you to join them.” As if butter wouldn’t melt.


A yellow cube, cool and solid, its hollowed back speckled with toast crumbs. And then bubbling and spitting, the dish warped and cracking in the heat. Images like this tear through my head all the time now – all soft focus and muted clamour. Mum, waiting too long at the window, her arms full of books and her head crowned with orange light.


Aunt Christine moves to the mantelpiece where her cigarettes and matches lift into a mini tower beside the letter rack from Lourdes. She slides them into her palm like a conjuror and seemingly blind to the work of her hands, she holds the flame steady until it begins to lick tendrils of smoke from the eye of her cigarette. Her gaze is fixed on The Faithful.


“What’s wrong with Bernadette or Catherine?” she pleads for the hundredth time. The words burst high on a bubble of emotion, and behind her glasses her eyes are slick with tears.


“I like Joan,” I say, enjoying The Faithful’s uneasy shuffle. “Father Peter says it’s a worthy name.”


Aunt Christine blinks and shudders, “How about Mary? Always best for intercessions. And it was your mother’s name…”


I shake my head. There was nothing cool and blue and Mary-like about Mum. Her hair sprang from her head like a lit torch and crackled when she brushed it. Fingers brown as kindling turned the pages as she breathed stories hot onto my cheek, the words rustling like leaves from an autumn bonfire. I stand silent and obstinate beneath Aunt Christine’s droopy wedding veil. Father Peter has given us each a laminated image of our chosen saint, and I turn Saint Joan over between my sweaty fingers, thrilled by the defiant lift of her chin and the glint of armour between gouts of flame.


“Tuck that into your bible, Tracy, there’s a good girl.”


A sheen of anxious sweat pastes Aunt Christine’s hair to her forehead and tears irrigate her cheeks. She sucks hard on her cigarette, so that it winks traffic-light orange then red, before burning itself into a trembling finger of ash. Flying at first, then falling too fast, curling through the crackling night. Mattress first, then me, flung out in the same strong arc. And then the books, edges scraping and gouging so that seeds of blood ooze from my arms and legs, and bruises spread beneath my skin like spilt ink.


Mum’s books, faded and flaking and inscribed with mysterious, poetic titles – Martin Chuzzlewit; Ivanhoe – they’re packed now into Aunt Christine’s bookcase as tightly as Christmas dates in a box. Sliding a hand along the top of the row, I can feel the pages pressed together as hard as wood. Every night, I push my nose up close and search for the scent of dusty afternoons in second-hand book shops, when Mum slipped between tattered covers and roamed for hours across yellow-edged pages. And I would wait, holding a corner of her coat, until she emerged, dreamy and mute, to scour her purse for the bus fare home


Last night, I scrambled with urgent fingers, trying to release St Joan of Arc: Maid of Orleans. But the binding ripped and hung like a flap of skin, exposing the volume’s innards. This morning, Aunt Christine folded her glistening lips together and made a rough repair without lifting the book from the shelf. The Sellotape caught the light and sent it sparking back into the room.


“You have your own books,” she whispered. “You mustn’t touch these. They’re not for reading.” She sounded incredulous, accusing.


Is this why she’s hung The Coming Of The Holy Spirit above the bookcase? Does she think The Faithful will stand guard? I don’t know how to explain what a mistake this is. I have retired my own books to my new bedroom, where the smell of paint has spoiled their smoky tang. Aunt Christine’s Marigolds flew through them, tearing out fire-crisped pages, sorting what could be kept, while tears drizzled around the frame of her glasses. Once I’d sniffed up the last acrid whiff and inspected any scorch marks she had missed, I abandoned them and began to work on the living room bookcase. No luck there so far, so just now I have to make do with The People’s Friend and the Parish Notes, which spill out of A Present From Lourdes – high up on the mantelpiece, beside the matches.


Aunt Christine presses her cigarette into the jam lid she uses for an ashtray, and circles me, trying to pinch some bounce into her wedding veil. Limp with age, it hangs like a fall of smoke against my neon-white Crimplene shoulders. I peer up through her dried arrangement, until I can distinguish The Faithful, cocooned in a multilingual clamour, the tops of their heads warmed by the Holy Spirit. If they wanted, they could release the books in the living room bookcase.


Why should we? they whine, all resentful. We can’t see a thing from up here.


At home, they hung in judgement over our fireplace, disapproving of Mum’s boyfriends and my lazy vacuuming. They tut-tutted whenever I was sent to eat my tea in front of the TV, and showered the carpet with embers, so that I had to scramble up and stamp them out. I only hope they’ve learnt their lesson. I remind them that they are topped with naked flame, and to be more careful now that they’re trapped behind Aunt Christine’s tinderbox of stalks and seed heads.


“It’s not too late to change your mind,” says Aunt Christine, moist fingers adjusting the circlet of wired nylon flowers clamping the veil to my hair. Tears continue to seep out of her eyes and funnelled by her glasses, dribble along her jawline to her chin. Scummy with face powder, they roll down her neck in two sticky rivulets and meet in the pit between her collarbones.


“How about Veronica, or Martha? Such gentle saints.”


I say nothing. In a couple of hours I’ll be confirmed Tracy Joan – Soldier Of God, angry and righteous, equipped to play The Faithful at their own game. Between sobs, Aunt Christine tells me to behave and to remember that Mum will be watching from Heaven.


When it’s over, we go outside for photos, and Aunt Christine keeps calling me Tracy Joan, as if rolling the name around on her tongue will mould it into a more pleasing shape. I didn’t expect God to be so literal. The warmth is lovely, but I can’t help worrying about my hair catching fire. Snatching off Aunt Christine’s veil, I stand clear of the splintery bike shed and consider the fumes rising from the Bishop’s Oil of Chrism thumbprint on my forehead.


A roaring wind like God’s hot breath. Flames skittering up the curtains and framing the window like fairy lights. The glass blows out, frosting the garden path and dusting the flowerbeds with spiteful diamonds. Smoke bulges like bubblegum from every window. And Mum moves across them haloed like a Christmas angel. By teatime, I have a crick in my neck.


“You’re in a State Of Grace right now, Tracy Joan,” explains Aunt Christine, “but the Holy Spirit won’t stick around if you don’t keep things topped up – with good works and so on.”


I lick my knife and drop crumbs on the floor, hoping the Holy Spirit will get the message.


“Some of the Saints remained in a State of Grace their whole lives,” sighs Aunt Christine, sipping her tea, “so a good girl like you might last for several weeks.”

She wipes condensation from her glasses so that her tear-scoured eyes shine pink and clear. She seems completely blind to the practical difficulties. In bed, I buttress myself with pillows, but wake suddenly with my head drooping, and the stink of smouldering feathers curling up my nose. I want to pray to my new patron saint, but find I hardly know her.

Instead, I drag my mattress downstairs, position it in front of the bookcase and begin to work away at St Joan of Arc: Maid of Orleans like a prisoner loosening a brick in a cell. The Faithful grumble their disapproval. I try to rock the book free, crumpling the spine and crackling the new layer of Sellotape. Its pages grow warm under the friction of my fingers.


The Faithful crane their necks, suddenly heedless of Aunt Christine’s dried arrangement, and St Joan of Arc: Maid of Orleans erupts from the shelf. Squeezed from both sides, she bursts out like pus from a pimple, her neighbours tipping out on either side – an explosion of Knowledge.


Like a dying breath, the pages fall from the broken spine and drift across the mattress. The air is flushed with a smoky perfume as charred scraps flutter and settle like smuts from a bonfire. Books lie open everywhere, water-stained pages staring blindly at the ceiling. Unreadable.


My mouth fills up with dust and my tongue is as dry as punk. Fury soon smashes a wide hole in my State Of Grace. But the top of my head is still burning as I drop back onto the mattress. It’s only as I tip exhausted towards the curtains that I notice the matches in my hand. There’s a familiar whoosh, and my next breath splinters and stabs inside my throat. Above the bookcase, Aunt Christine’s dried arrangement fizzes and sparks, and I watch with satisfaction as The Faithful shrink back behind their darkening glass. Their personal tongues of fire flicker and dip like guttering candles, dwarfed by the curtain-fed flames shooting up beside them. I want to ask them how they like the taste of their own medicine.


Aunt Christine opens the living room door and a strong wind blows. Scraps of burnt paper swirl in the draught, then float blackening to the floor. She advances, pulling the damp candlewick of her dressing gown up over her mouth and nose. For a brief steamy moment, the flames retreat to gnaw furiously at the skirting boards. My double image stares back at me from the lenses of Aunt Christine’s glasses. Twin Tracy Joans kneeling on identical mattresses, arms filled with books and heads crowned with orange light.


Alison lives and works in the remote North West Highlands of Scotland UK. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and small press journals as well as broadcast on BBC Radio.




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