Here is a short story I wrote in my third year at Deakin. It’s a bit quirky and longer than my usual blog posts but stick with it if it’s holding your interest. I’m really passionate about fiction so I hope you enjoy this.
The little decisions were always the hardest for Tom. The most important, heartbreaking things could be going on in his life and the thing that he was wrestling with was which flavour ice cream to get at the school canteen or which friend to sit next to at lunch. Was there a way to pick one without offending the other?
The shop was bustling, like death was somehow electrifying, and not quiet, like it should have been. “Glasgow’s Most Exciting Headstones” the sign outside boasted. If the sign was boastful, the inside of the shop was positively up itself. The hodgepodge of items crowded around shoppers, pressing in from every side like mourners at an open grave. It looked more like a Poundland tribute to Halloween, with black crepe paper and badly cut cardboard crosses strung limply around the room to strike a certain ‘mood’. Were those cobwebs real or manufactured? Tom wondered as he pulled back his hoodie to get a better look. Why had Sarah left him in here to make this choice by himself? She was the adult, after all, and from what he’d seen the last fifteen years, capable of making a decision. Tom always manipulated people’s view of his age, depending on what suited him, and right now he felt seven and about three feet tall.
The girl behind the counter beamed out at the room like she was about to give them all a prize. Maybe it was a smug smile because she felt like she was further away from death than the rest of the room—except for Tom. It was hard to tell. Tom would have guessed her to be about the same age as him, but why was she working here? Tom checked his watch. School wasn’t out yet. Over leggings she wore a fluffy purple skirt that reminded Tom of a tutu, and a festive looking cat winked at him from the girl’s t-shirt. Tom thought she belonged in a store selling tiaras or frosted dream cakes, not working here as some kind of fairy of death. He wondered what her name was.
“Ashley with three e’s?” whispered Tom to himself, a grin wrapping its fingers around the corners of his lips, hanging on, before falling backwards, arms flailing, into a deep abyss.
“What was that?” the girl asked, leaning low over the counter to catch the words that had already vanished. The ends of her braided strawberry blonde hair brushed the newspaper at her fingertips. She pulled her lips further back to reveal more slightly crooked teeth. She wasn’t altogether unattractive and Tom might have felt flattered if this were a normal situation, but it wasn’t. Her smile reminded him of a happy meerkat baring its teeth.
“Uh, nothing,” he mumbled, and looked away.
“Can I help you, sir?” she persisted.
“No, thanks. Just browsing,” Tom replied as a reflex before realising how idiotic he sounded.
She gave him a knowing look and turned away.
A family of four came side-shuffling down the row of gravestones toward him, the two young children shrinking back into their parents, making it hard for the parents to walk. Tom tried to shift politely out of the way, but his bulky school backpack knocked an urn on a shelf behind him. His foot shot out as a reflex to break the urn’s fall and the girl behind the counter lunged forward. Most of the other people in the shop glanced up, but only as a reflex, and then carried on with their browsing.
Tom muttered a general apology as he replaced the lid on the unbroken urn and returned it to its shelf, gingerly. It had a black and white sticker that said ‘test urn’, whatever that meant.
“No bother, son,” the father of the family said brusquely, patting Tom on the shoulder with a clumsy hand.
That damn backpack. His mum had always said—
But which headstone to get? He wished Sarah would come back. About ten minutes after walking into the shop, she’d remembered how she’d forgotten her dry cleaning “just up the street”. She’d been gone half an hour and Tom was feeling more awkward by the minute, especially with the girl behind the counter staring him down. He would have gone out to find Sarah by now, but he’d only been to Glasgow a handful of times, and never to this section. The times he hadn’t come with school, he and his parents hadn’t strayed far from Sarah’s university. Tom had one awful, sudden thought that maybe she hadn’t really needed to go to the drycleaners. That maybe she wasn’t coming back. His tongue felt swollen, like it might choke him any second, and he forced himself to look around—really look—while he talked himself down.
The walls of the shop were a staid grey, the paint peeling off at the top corners, like it was tired of being there and wanted to crawl away. A few people around Tom were crying as they perused the headstones, noses wrinkling as they sniffed, and dragged crumpled, expired tissues of their pockets again and again, trying not to drop their umbrellas in the process. He felt a numbness filling him from head to toe, and the emotion of the other customers made him uncomfortable, rather than sympathetic. That’s what death was, above all things: uncomfortable. And there was nothing weirder than a group of strangers wandering around a graveyard-themed store, trying to find that one particularly exciting headstone that the wet sign outside promised in cursive letters and no uncertain terms. The blonde fifty-something lady to Tom’s left—a widow, most likely—stepped deep into his personal space to peer down at a white marble headstone. She smelled like his grandmother’s perfume and public transport. Her hair was pinned back in sedate curls and her expression was appropriately demure, as if only missing a black fascinator. Tom wondered what his expression was like, and decided it had to be less impressive than hers. She sniffed almost violently and blew her nose into an already full hankie, tucking it back into her black sleeve. Tom glanced down at his blue jeans and maroon hoodie almost guiltily.
She turned to him, gesturing to the headstone. “What do you think?”
Tom panicked. “How should I know?” he said somewhat roughly, and immediately regretted it when the lady’s eyebrows pulled together and another tear slipped out. She didn’t wipe this one away and it hung off the edge of her downy chin, accusing him.
The girl sprang out from behind the counter and said, “I think this one’s just gorgeous, love. And for the low price of £900.99, well, you can’t really go wrong.” She snuck a glance at Tom in her peripherals and smiled brightly at the lady. “Tissue?”
When he was thirteen, Tom had come home from school with a black eye and a busted lip. His face was grubby with streaked dirt and dried, crusty tears; his fists were aching from clenching them for hours on end. His dad had come home early and found him at the kitchen table digging his HB pencil hard into the pages of his maths homework. There were no lights on, and through the window the light was fading out of the sky.
“Hey, Dad.” He had spoken first, trying to sound casual, but keeping his eyes down. The Trigonometry sum under his pencil swam out of focus and back in again.
His father greeted him while hanging up his coat and switching on a lamp suspended above the table. Picking up a pencil like usual, his dad took a seat opposite him and finally noticed the way Tom was clawing at his pages, head bowed.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
“It’s this maths problem. I just can’t—” As he said this, Tom finally looked up, the events of the day stamped on his face. He ground his teeth, mouth closed.
“Son, what happened to you?” His dad leaned forward. His eyes were wide, waiting in tense concern for Tom’s answer. Instead of speaking, Tom watched his dad absently bend the pencil he’d picked up, pressing the top end down with his thumb until Tom thought it would snap. Suddenly he dropped it and it clattered to the table in the silent room, rolling a little toward Tom.
“I just don’t get Pythagoras theorem,” Tom sniffed, stifling his dad’s suspense and driving his own pencil further into the paper until the lead finally snapped. “And sine, cos and tan sound like types of vegetables.” e He tried to laugh but it was squeakier than he intended; he cleared his throat lustily, shoving his shame down deep. “My teacher says I’ll pick it up in no time, but I find it hard to believe her. And I can never choose which one to use for which problem,” he huffed.
“Tom,” his father said firmly, his brown eyes kind. “Forget your maths. We need to talk about what’s really going on.”
What’s really going on.
Tom wandered around the shop for a while, looking for more signs of peeling paint, while the girl retreated behind the counter; one eye on him, one on the lady with the big flashing dollar sign over her head, and apparently one strange, third eye to look down at the newspaper. She was the kind of person he could imagine saying, “I’ve got my eye on you” to a customer and winking, without getting fired. He inched closer to the signs above head height behind the cash register—promoting ways to R.I.P eternally, memorably, fashionably—and didn’t look her way until he felt obligated to by her stabbing glances every couple of seconds. What was she so fascinated by?
“What’s the time, please?” he asked, self-consciously running his tongue over his top teeth to check for food, and then felt stupid. Ice cream didn’t stick.
She beamed. “Half four.”
His mum had always believed that telling you when you had something in your teeth was the hallmark of a true blue friend. She had quoted Dr Seuss in her gentle Northern Isle lilt: “Be yourself, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Never be ashamed of who you are.
At thirteen, when his dad had finally got it out of him, the most embarrassing thing for Tom was not that he’d been beaten up in the school yard. No. The most shameful thing was that his sister had come to stand in front of him and fight back. He appreciated her efforts, but even at thirteen he’d been sure that men had to fight their own battles. It didn’t escape him that the whole thing seemed kind of topsy-turvy. Sarah had unintentionally made his situation worse because, of course, they wouldn’t hit a girl, and she couldn’t be around every time they came for Tom, which he learnt the following afternoon in the locker room. That night he’d struggled to find the right way to tell her not to interfere again. That that was the best way to help him. To not help him. Surprisingly, she had tried to prolong that conversation, drawing Tom gently from his masculine cave with words like “safe space” and “trust circle”, even though it had only been the two of them. She was the fix-it, stiff upper lip kind of person when it came to these things. It was the first time Tom had not given in, had kept it together, and it felt good. At least for a while.
The girl rested an elbow on the counter, reading the day’s obituaries and twirling the end of her braid around her fingers. Occasionally she paused to errantly chew her left thumbnail. Reading the daily death column could have been misconstrued as morbid, but Tom saw it as how passionate she was about her job—or even keeping abreast of the current industry trends. He didn’t take the time to wonder how a girl this young had ended up in a job selling headstones in the first place. He tensed as the name MacDonald caught his eye, yet couldn’t stop himself from leaning over to get another look at what his sister had drafted the night before.
Tom and Eilidh MacDonald
passed away in a road accident
5 miles outside of Ullapool
Sunday 22nd November 2008
Aged 49 and 46 years
leaving behind two children
Sarah and Tom Jr.
Funeral Friday 10am
St. Bridget’s Cathedral
Tom caught a glimpse of his face in the mounted wall mirror below the ridiculous signs. His brown hair hung limp on his neck and forehead, a mixture of grease and the afternoon’s rain. His dark brown-black eyes stood pronounced by the bags comfortably encircling them. His mouth was twisted into some kind of unintentional snarl, which was surprisingly hard to get rid of. He knew why the girl looked at him now with a renewed, but different, kind of interest. Tom didn’t like being observed in this way, like he couldn’t be trusted not to throw his backpack at one of the headstones or start juggling the urns. He turned away. Where was Sarah?
People always thought they could help when you were grieving. Two days after the accident, an old friend of the family had run into Tom in Ullapool, outside a shop along the bay. Under low clouds the storefronts followed the curve of the shoreline, huddling in close to each other like old gossips, most likely in conversation about him.
“Tom!” Tears had sprung into her eyes as soon as she spotted him and moved in for a bosomy hug. “Oh, you must be just devastated. The whole community is rocked. What a horrible way to die! All strewn across the wet road like that. I always say, these roads are so dangerous . . .”
Sarah had stepped out of the shop behind him a moment later and moved in front of him to take over the conversation with Mrs MacAvill, although Tom could still see over her head. At that moment she hadn’t seemed twenty.
Tom remembered going home and kneeling by the toilet, vomiting until his stomach was empty; the way his dry retching had bounced off the bathroom tiles after there was nothing left to throw up. He slumped back against the cold, hard wall, trying to catch his breath. People always thought they could help, but they couldn’t.
“You look a bit lost, dear,” the blonde lady wearing black observed with another sniff. “Do you have someone here to help you? Who are you finding a headstone for, anyway?”
The girl behind the counter looked over at him, waiting to see what he would say. The young family from his clumsy moment before turned their bodies to stare at him too, seeming relieved rather than irritated at the distraction.
Tom stared back at them, his vision blurring at the edges. His throat closed over, and he felt like he would choke. He swallowed convulsively, trying to arrange his face into a smile.
The motorbike crashed again and again and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The tires screeched. Tom willed the brakes to work. He screamed. He screamed. The blood flowed out on to the road, pooling, and then was absorbed by the frozen bitumen. The wind nipped at the edges of the strap holding a backpack to the back of the bike, and whipped his mother’s chin length hair against her face.
What was it the neighbours and relatives had all said? “Thank God the kids weren’t there to see it.”
The bell on the door jingled cheerily and Sarah’s voice came from behind Tom. “Sorry I took so . . . long.”
Tom turned and saw her assessing the situation, everyone’s gaze now encompassing both of them.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
. . . Those who matter don’t mind.
“Are you . . . sure I can’t help you, sir?” the girl working there ventured tentatively, now that the room was finally quiet. “You’ve been here a long time.”