CAP IN HAND
You ever knowed someone who’s mam died and they was all broken like glass inside and they was your best friend ever? I din’t know what to say or what to do and so I just looked at Carl, looking sad as wet sunsets or dead kittens, and being just as silent, and one hand on his shoulder and not sure that was ok to do.
She wasn’t sick, his mam, leastways not so far as anyone knowed. She just died. Sudden as thunderclaps and no grey sky warning before it and no sparking flash-bulb light. Doctors said her heart just stopped and they said it can do that sometimes and not ever start again. And Carl swore hard as any man, all his words like thrown stones and all of ‘em thrown ‘gainst God and doctors and even his da. And ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and ‘bastard’, he said. Over and over again. And I told him to just let it out, like a poison released, and it wasn’t never no sin to be doing like Carl was doing, I thought, not even though he was doing it in front of the church.
The minister came out to see what all the commotion was and his face was red as wasp stings and he was holding his fist up to hammer the blaspheming air. When he saw it was Carl, well, I think he understood, and he let fall his slack fist and he said ‘There now,’ and ‘It’s you is it?’ and he asked us if we wanted to come gentle inside.
Carl shook his head and turned away and I turned away with him. The minister called to our backs, saying as how the door to God’s house was always open. When we was ready, he said, anytime, day or night, and he blessed us in God’s holy name. And Carl said all his best swear words again, saying ‘em under his breath this time so only God and me could hear ‘em.
We din’t plan it or nothing. Not nohow. We just decided there and then to go, not knowing the place we’d go to or for how long, but knowing we had to get away and be by ourselves for a while.
We stopped off at my house and I picked up a bedroll and some apples and a leg of pork that’d been cooked and was cold and mam’d said was for tea and then for sandwiches for the rest of the week. She’d be mad as a shook bag of ferrets when she found out, but it din’t matter none to me, not with Carl the way he was and his mam waiting to be laid in the ground.
Then with the pork and the apples and the bedroll we just left, me and Carl. There wasn’t hardly no words ‘tween us and there din’t need to be. We just walked up out of the town, the pull of the hill like something holding us back but not holding tight enough, and we kept on walking and not ever looking to the town we’d left behind.
The day was still and warm, and Carl beside me so close I could hear his breath catching; and my own heart drumming in my ears, I could hear that, too, and birds getting it all wrong and thinking this was a day like any other day and a day to be singing in.
We stepped off the road as soon as we could and headed into the trees, walking through deep ferns and wild garlic, and sticks breaking sharp like gunfire under our feet. It was cool in there, as cool as church stone, and the sky was in bits ‘tween the trees and we walked till we was nowhere and till we was out of breath and out of the will to walk more. And we just sat down beside each other, sitting on a old fallen log with the sound of running water playing like music somewhere over our shoulder and the smell of Sweet Flag hanging all about, and Carl sucked air and blowed it out again, and I did, too, and it was like the weight of everything was in that moment we’d been brought to.
I wanted to say something then. I wanted it to be like in a movie and I’d have something important to say, something simple and clever both at the same time, something that’d make sense of where we was and what we was about. I wanted to make a small speech that’d stay with us forever after and we’d always be friends no matter what the world threw at us – cos the world could not throw anything worse than this, I thought, not anything worse than Carl’s mam’s heart stopping and never starting again. I wanted to say something.
But all I had was sorry, sorry for Carl’s mam, but sorriest for Carl. So I said just that, said I was sorry and real sorry and sorry right down to my boots. And Carl started crying – which the occasion told me was alright and sometimes crying ain’t just for girls like people say it is. I put my arm round Carl and I held him tight as not letting go and he just cried hisself down to quiet and to sob and I din’t have more to say to him.
Sitting like that, all still and near to silent, well it was like we slowly became invisible and a nat’ral part of the forest. It was like time stopped, or slowed at least, and nothing mattered ‘cept me holding onto Carl and Carl holding onto me. And we might have stayed like that forever and it would have been enough – like the last frame in a movie and the music playing quiet and dwindling, and the picture fades slow to black and the credits come up in silence.
Then suddenly this glassy eyed red-flame squirrel just ran under our feet, skittering through last year’s fallen leaves, and it stopped to look at us and to get a sense of everything, sitting up straight and it’s tail curled into a question mark at its back. And Carl and me just looked at the squirrel what was looking right back at us, and bits of sunlight making rare gold on the forest floor, and me and Carl still holding to each other. And like that I reckon as it was better than any church and I could hear the voice of the minister saying soft as whispers that the door was always open, anytime, day or night. And I felt something then, and I think Carl felt it too, and God was there, I swear it, in that moment, sure as eggs, there with His cap in hand and saying He was sorry, too.