On Saturdays I sell curried chicken wings at a car boot in Colchester, using a top-secret recipe I stole from a cookbook.
While grilling up a batch, I see her browsing from a van selling knock-off DVDs. I rub my eyes and feel the sting of the chilli. I tear my gloves off, wash my eyes, and she’s in front of me, a blank expression on her face and an A4 piece of paper in her hand. I say nothing. She looks fantastic; the Japanese lifestyle is agreeing with her.
Siobhan McArbor holds the piece of paper out. I don’t have my glasses on, but I can see the large font at the top of the page. The Last Will and Testament of Niamh McArbor. Siobhan’s mum. The life and soul of any room. The woman who helped me when my own mother was too busy. The woman who took me to the clinic after the incident with Archie Notley.
“Oh God,” I stutter, a lump in my throat.
She shrugs. It’s old news to her. “Cancer. We need to talk.”
I close the stand, ignoring the complaints of the queue. We relocate to two old plastic chairs outside The Cup, an ancient Citroen van converted into a mobile coffee shop. We don’t order.
“She wants us to scatter her ashes on the tallest mountain in Suffolk.” Siobhan says. She points at the last paragraph on the will. I squint. I can make out my name, something that looks like Siobhan, and nothing much else. I decide to take her word for it.
“There aren’t any mountains in Suffolk,” I say. “Are there?”
“It says,” Siobhan says, “that without evidence of both of us scattering her ashes from the tallest mountain in Suffolk, the solicitors are not to release any of my inheritance.”
“I’ve lost my glasses.” I say.
Siobhan shakes her head. “They have agreed that the tallest point in Suffolk will do.”
“Why me?” But I know. This is Niamh trying to force reconciliation, a final attempt at opening a dialogue. A final gift to me.
On the plastic table between us Siobhan drops another sheet of paper, this time with a Google map printed on it. I can just about make out of those red pin things dropped in the middle of green area.
“Great Wood Hill,” she says, “outside Bury St. Edmunds.”
A third piece of paper appears on the previous two. Big type, so I can read it. A reservation for two rooms in an expensive looking hotel in Suffolk. Paid in full. I don’t need to look at the date. I can do it.
“You can keep these copies,” she stands.
“How are you doing?” I say.
There’s no response. She doesn’t owe me one, and she knows it. She walks away, squelching, leaving with no other option than to stare after her. The other car-boot patrons turn to watch her go.
* * *
I’m used to eating breakfast alone in my one-bedroom flat, a bowl of cereal propped on my knees, half-listening to the BBC news on the radio.
Today I’m in Suffolk, shuffling down an ancient stairway, on my way to meet Siobhan for breakfast. By the time I arrived last night she’d gone to bed. A message left at reception was the closest we got to catching up.
The maître-de stops me as I enter the dining room. She raises an eyebrow, not deeming me worthy of conversation but still expecting a name.
“Grace.” I say, then, “Thomas.” She traces a forefinger down the list of guests on a clipboard. She nods, taps twice on the paper, and points to a table in an alcove in the far corner of the room. Siobhan is there already, chin resting on intertwined fingers, her lips moving in a silent conversation with herself.
“Your friend has already ordered her breakfast.”
I walk over. “Can I sit with you?” I ask.
“Now she asks permission.” she says to no one.
I pull the chair opposite her away from the table. Her black hair is pinned away from her face with bright pink hairclips, the only colour I can see her wearing. Everything else is black. A touch melodramatic, maybe, but that’s Siobhan.
I tilt my head back and admire the wooden beams across the ceiling. Hair falls over my eyes, still blonde, but faded with age. I brush it back and look down at her. She was watching, but now avoids my gaze.
“Remember when you dyed my hair pink?” I ask.
Siobhan nods to the memory, hiding a grin she doesn’t want me to see. I wonder how clearly she remembers the train to Manchester, the pink dye streaking down my face, my white jeans stained pink and red. How she let me borrow her coat to wrap around my waist.
I want to ask what new memories she’s made in Japan, what new friends she’s made over there, and whether she still enjoys it. Can we catch up like nothing happened, like our friendship didn’t end?
Siobhan’s breakfast, eggs benedict, arrives, alongside a fresh cafetière of coffee. I order a sausage sandwich. Siobhan doesn’t flinch. Good. Means she’s either given up on vegetarianism or has gotten less preachy.
My ex-friend doesn’t stand on ceremony. She dives into her breakfast with the enthusiasm of a starving barbarian. I lean back in my chair, impressed. She never used to eat like that. With a gulp of coffee, she finishes her meal.
“Thank you for coming,” she says, tapping the top of her hair to ensure it is still in place.
“I’m here for your Mum,” I say.
She stands. “I’ll meet you at the front door in fifteen minutes.” There is no room for negotiation. I nod, silently, feeling like I’m sixteen again and she’s telling me to go upstairs with Archie Notley. That everything will be fine.
She leaves me again.
* * *
We’re sat in Niamh’s car. Siobhan doesn’t have one in this country and I left mine at the hotel. It smells of her. If I close my eyes I can remember lifts home from ballet, from hockey, from clubs. The cars were different, the smell the same.
“What do we do now?” I ask.
Great Wood Hill is as unremarkable as you would expect. There’s a tall telephone mast about two hundred feet tall, dotted with satellite dishes and antenna, a row of trees – hardly a Great Wood – and not much else.
We get out the car, and Siobhan collects her mum from the boot. The urn Niamh McArbor is plain, practical, dull. A million miles away from the woman she was.
“Can I hold her?” I ask.
She holds the urn and I take it from her as if it was a new-born baby.
Poor choice of metaphor.
Poor choice of urn.
“I’m sorry,” I say to the urn. Siobhan pretends not to pay attention, but when I start to cry, she looks in my direction. I expect disgust, but when I look up from the urn all I see is sadness. I look at Siobhan. “I didn’t know.”
She bites her bottom lip.
“I didn’t know either,” she says when I regain my composure. “She didn’t tell anyone.”
Siobhan reaches for her mother’s ashes and I think about withholding them, keeping her to myself, but I don’t.
“I don’t understand, Mum.” Her voice cracks. She doesn’t want to let Niamh down. I don’t want to let Niamh down.
The phone mast rises from the top of the hill and I trace it from the ground to its peak.
I return to the car.
“I’m not giving up,” Siobhan shouts at me, her voice cracking. “That’s not something I do.”
It is, but now’s not the time. The boot is still open, and I rummage through until I find a pair of gardening secateurs. Niamh loved to garden. She found solace in it. I walk to the wire fence that protects the mast. The tool makes short work of the cheap metal, and I bend it back, creating a tunnel just big enough for Siobhan to fit through.
“Now,” I say, “the ladder.”
Siobhan nods. She crouches through the gap in the fence then, with the urn tucked under her chin, starts to climb the mast’s service ladder.
I start taking pictures. I hope the lawyers will understand. I hope it will be enough.
Siobhan reaches the top of the ladder. I see her take the lid off the urn and flick it in the direction the wind is blowing. Niamh’s ashes swirl, twisting and waving at two lost friends, before vanishing into the breeze
I don’t know if Niamh’s final gift to me will come true. I don’t know if what I did is forgivable. I don’t know if Siobhan will talk to me when she gets back to the ground.
It doesn’t matter.
We have created the mountain the old woman deserved.
Phil Hurst is a graduate of the Queen’s University Belfast Creative Writing MA. His work can be found on his personal website, writewithphil.com. He lives in Colchester, England with his wife and little girl.