Signposts: A True Story by Ann Churcher

November 30, 2013 | By | 10 Replies More

‘Look to the future,’ her husband said. ‘It will work out.’

Behind him, through the window, she could see men felling the tree she tried to save. The sound of the chainsaw was louder than his voice.

She’d been noticing signs for some time.  He didn’t like it.

‘You’re getting weird. Don’t let it get to you.’

She was used to it now: seeing more than others; seeing with a sharper perception. It had frightened her at first.

Her mother was near the end. She drove the motorway to share their annual bet on the Grand National, their little flutter on the races. She put her pound on the table next to her mother’s. Her mother had already written down her horse: a perfect grey. It trotted round the ring with arrogant beauty.

‘I’m really in love with this mare,’ the television announcer said. ‘I’ve never seen a more beautiful animal.’ She would have put her bet on the grey too, but chose the next most beautiful: a soft golden gelding, moving in a halo of light.

At the second fence the grey fell with a sickening thud. It lay, a still dead heap of white flesh. She felt the familiar pressure on her throat.

‘Stunned, probably,’ she said brightly. And switched the television off quickly.

She didn’t read the papers until she got home on Monday. The Grand National made headlines – the grey had broken its neck instantly. Her golden horse had fallen at the sixth fence, and they had to shoot it.  Forty-one horses ran, and they’d chosen the two dead – their names enshrined forever on the scraps of paper that had been her mother’s sweepstake.

The phone rang. It was her singing teacher’s wife. He was dying of cancer too. His was from smoky nightclubs; her mother’s from hot sun.

That was when she finally broke. She howled all evening in the dark sitting room, where the pale pampas grasses in her vase turned to horses heads.  When her husband came home, her hysterics disturbed him. He tried to comfort, but in the end he fell asleep on the sofa and left her to her sobbing.

The day her mother died of melanoma, the sun shone.  She went with her husband to the restaurant by the river.  It was too expensive, but it was her fortieth birthday. Her mother’s death date was her birth date. She sat watching the ducks skimming the evening river, the birds building nests in the spring trees.  An early bumblebee foraged in the pieris next to their balcony table, the noise louder than her husband’s voice.

Her father, up north, also went to a restaurant that night, taken by friends who’d hoped to see her mother’s last smile. He said he’d felt peaceful too, when they went next day the five hours to bring him home.

There was a festivity about the funeral, the cars speeding up the glittering motorways. All coming from different directions; all heading for that one pinpoint on the map: that tiny churchyard with the may in blossom.  Her mother’s tree was in blossom too.  She’d planted it in the northern snow, clearing a space, digging through the hard earth. Hoping it would bloom in time for her to see it.  Now its double pink buds had burst open for the occasion.

‘She always loved the sun,’ her father said.

During the sherry and the cake, the canapés and carefully quartered scotch eggs – her aunt came up to her.

‘When I last visited your mother, I left a red silk blouse – a summer one with a tie-front.  I expect she threw it out.’

‘Do you want me to look for it? I’m sure she would have kept it. She was careful with other people’s things.’

‘Well… if it’s not too much trouble…’

The clothes had been bundled into bags in the spare bedroom the night they collected her father to stay with them until the funeral.  Nine full plastic bin bags packed with the outer layers of a life. She’d separated out a few keepsakes before they’d left– a small bag of silk scarves that still lay spilling onto her bedroom floor at home in London.  Everything else was stuffed unseen, at two in the morning, into the great grey bags that now lay in heaps upstairs like great, beached whales.

She went into the bathroom first to gain time.  She washed her hands.  She’d been washing her hands a lot lately.  She decided to appeal directly:

‘Oh, Mummy, your sisters!  Now I have to go through all your clothes again. All your lost life. Please help me.’ She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, splashed her face with cold water and dried it with her mother’s pink towel.

When she came out of the bathroom, the aunt was standing looking gloomily into the upstairs room.

‘There are so many bags. Perhaps we’d better give up.’

‘We’ll give it a try,’ she said brightly. She moved purposefully round to one of the bags on the furthest side of the room.  She untied the top and reached in.  Something bright and red was showing on the surface.  She pulled it out.

‘Is this it?’ she asked.

The aunt said nothing, but they both stood there in silence for a minute. Then they went downstairs with the blouse.

Her husband didn’t seem surprised when she tried to explain it to him. ‘She was always good at finding things,’ was all he said.

As if he’d known all along; as if he was getting used to the signs.  She looked at him.  Perhaps he was changing too.  Perhaps people don’t stand fixed to one point.  Perhaps you can move with them – catch them on the wing.

When she prepared breakfast for her father next morning, she saw her mother’s tree outside the window.  Small green shoots were already pushing their way out of the bare trunk.  Giving it a soft green halo. Giving her another sign.

Ann Churcher is based in England and has written numerous articles and two books: Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second (Virgin Books) and A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD (Nick Hern Books) She writes, directs and teaches voice and acting. Follow her on Twitter @MelChurcher

Ann Churcher has been published previously with When Women Waken.

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Category: Grief, When Women Waken Literary Journal

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  1. Signposts: A True Story | Words, words, words... | June 20, 2015
  1. Jenn Richter says:

    This is beautiful! I watched my mother tend to her own mother at the end, and this story brings back memories of those final weeks, for her. I love the idea of “nine full plastic bins packed with the outer layers of a life.” What a great way to portray something that is over — and yet isn’t. This story made me smile and gave me shivers at the same time.

  2. Ann Churcher says:

    Thank you so much Jenn. I am so glad you read this. Very happy New Year.

  3. Ginny says:

    Wow, this is a seriously powerful piece. I was instantly drawn in. Your style is just connected enough to make a collection of otherwise seemingly disparate occurrences into a coherent story. Truly beautiful work.

  4. Ann Churcher says:

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my story – and for your lovely thoughts. Currently writing a memoir and positive vibes much welcomed!

  5. Gorgeous. “Perhaps you can move with them – catch them on the wing.” I love how this line eased my dread at what could happen to her relationship with her husband.

  6. Ann Churcher says:

    Thank you Denise for your lovely comment! Much appreciated!

  7. Kavanaugh says:

    The sub-text is so well done! Your words roll and roll and surprise on occasion. Surprise as in punched-in-the-chest surprised. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Thank you.

  8. Farheen Khan says:

    What a beautiful piece! I really enjoyed reading this and love the way you contrast the light with the dark.

    ‘The day her mother died of melanoma, the sun shone.’

    Your writing style is so easy and your words just fly off the page, I was drawn in immediately. Well done!

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