Paper and Ashes, a short story by William Wall
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 10: A bereaved woman with an urn encounters a tramp after she is mugged
William Wall, author of Hearing Voices, Seeing Things
I got the death certs for the crows. I call them the crows. When someone dies they all come pecking. I got five. I came out of the office and it was still daylight, like when you come out of the pictures. I’m there blinking and looking around me and everyone is wearing T-shirts. I’m thinking there was a reason why people used to wear black, like you’re obviously a widow and people show respect. I probably look like just a thirty-five-year-old woman with a handbag full of death certs. Except they don’t know about the death certs, that’s the whole point.
So I went down to the river. The sun was shining. My late husband liked water. I thought about his ashes, standing there. I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice?
Would anybody notice? There was just this old tramp asleep on a bench with a bottle in a brown paper bag. Even if he saw. I looked down over the wall, and the tide was out, and I could just see a shopping trolley in the mud. That gave me a laugh. Then I started to think wouldn’t it be even better if I left the urn in a supermarket trolley. Someone would find it and report it. Would the person who lost the human ashes please come to the information desk. Better again if I put him on a shelf. In the pickles section. Or in the fridge with the soups. If I could get one of those stickers. ‘Reduced to Clear’. I remember my late mother saying once, That man of yours knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Everybody says that about accountants.
So that’s what I was thinking when someone hit me right between the shoulder blades. I don’t remember falling out onto the road, but I remember the sound of a car passing right near me. I remember thinking, That one missed me. Then someone was helping me up. It was the tramp.
My death certs, I said.
No fear of that missus, the tramp said.
No, I said, they were in my handbag.
The tramp pointed up the street, and I saw the boy who hit me. He was running and throwing things. The things were from my handbag. Bits of paper. Keys. My mobile went over the wall into the river. Some of the death certs were going up on the wind. I could see one drifting over the wall. I started to run but my back and shoulders hurt. I had to stop. All of a sudden I had a bad headache. The tramp started to run too, and he got about three feet ahead of me. Now he was leaning on his knees wheezing.
We walked. We did not say anything to each other. I was thinking, Why is this tramp walking with me? We’re like an old couple. When we reached the place where my bits started, I found my car keys.
I saw the certs going upriver. The tide was coming in. They were just floating. Now how am I going to prove he’s dead?
The tramp looked at me.
It’s just paper isn’t it? he said.
My late husband, I said.
I liked saying late.
I’m sorry for your trouble missus, the tramp said. I found myself shaking his hand. I never touched a tramp before. I let go as soon as he let me.
My credit cards, I said.
My late husband would have thought about the cards first, then the phone. He wouldn’t have bothered about the certs. All I had to do was go back into the registry and queue again and they’d give me out a hundred if I wanted them. It was stupid.
Suddenly I thought, I have only this old man. Even at the funeral they were all laughing behind my back. Those that aren’t owed money.
I had the ashes in the boot of the car. It was in the car park. I could be back in five minutes. If we tipped him into the river he’d go upstream with the certs and end up in a bog somewhere. He’d have his papers anyway. Or stuck in the bank. He might even drift up some disused sewer and spend the rest of his days hoping nobody would flush. From what the solicitor told me, that’s the way he’d lived for the past two years anyway.
At that moment I felt on top of things. It was the end of a stressed-out week. Waking up in the morning and finding your husband dead in the en-suite is no joke. He had his pyjamas down around his ankles.
What’s your name?
I stared at him.
My mum called me after my old dad, didn’t she? he said. That was before he was famous.
Is that true?
No. I don’t give out names. I got issues, see.
Can I call you Saddam?
He grinned. His upper false teeth fell down, and he closed his mouth quickly. After a bit of chewing, he said, Lost them before that way.
He moved away from the river wall.
I’m going to be gone for a bit. If I come back will you still be here?
That’s my bench, he said, pointing. Unless it’s raining I’ll be over there under that stairs.
I went to the police station first. I told the duty officer about my bag. He wrote it all down. He let me use the station phone to cancel the credit cards. He asked me if I had a witness. I told him about the tramp. He sighed. That’s not a witness, he said. Name? Saddam Hussein. It did not go well.
I went to the car park. The ashes were under the passenger seat not in the boot. I remember putting them on the floor. They must have rolled.
So what do we say?
The tramp looked at me. Then he composed his face in sorrow and joined his hands in prayer.
For what we are about to receive we thank thee Lord, he said. No that’s not right, he said. Hang on.
I could see he was thinking because he was chewing. I suspected he was moving his upper false teeth around. After a bit he coughed and then coughed again and said, Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death.
I stared at him. I was crying. Where did that come from?
C. of E., he said, my old dad was a vicar, wasn’t he?
Your old dad was a vicar?
Why I don’t go in houses see, I got issues.
Because your dad was a vicar?
My husband left me penniless, I said.
The tramp nodded at me. I like a nice chat, he said. Get things off my chest. It’s good that.
But he looked worried. He took a step backwards. He held his hand out low and flat like he was patting a child’s head.
Idle hands, he said, get on with it.
I was still holding the urn. It was surprisingly light. Is that all we come down to? I was thinking this was better than he deserved. My late husband, accountant, investor extraordinaire, hopeless case. Maybe it was better than I deserved myself. I remembered a time when we were courting. Down here at the river. We had a cardboard box of Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. I could identify the actual spot a few hundred yards along the quay. A crow and a seagull were arguing over something. We ate the chicken facing each other, sitting on the wall like people sitting on horses. I met him at a disco. He was a smooth talker. The tide was in that time. And it was the night. I confess I was happy to have hooked a fast talker, a man with ambition. I remember he explained the stock market to me. Greasy kisses too.
Chuck it in missus, the tramp said. Get on with it.
He pointed at the urn. He was agitated, I could see that. He didn’t like me changing my mind.
I don’t want to.
Now he was shifting from foot to foot as if he was running on the spot, but he wasn’t lifting his feet. He was looking around him. There was a thread of spit on his chin. Then he said, Discipline discipline, discipline, that’s what makes a man, self-discipline yes. We had a nice house. We had a disused tennis court.
We had a flush WC, didn’t we? He used to come in my room very late very late and examine the sheets. ‘Forgive, O Lord, for Thy dear Son, The ill that I this day have done.’ What if I fell asleep? Where was my mum you ask?
He walked away. I watched him going along the street. He was still talking. He was waving his hands. I could see he was arguing. He didn’t sit on his bench. He turned a corner. I felt I had let him down.
The sun was sinking behind buildings.
I opened the urn. It was a screw-cap. I tipped the ashes out, and the wind took them up. The ashes were a pale yellow colour. There was a man on the other bank watching me. He blessed himself. The ashes blew out along the river and the tide carried them upstream. They were headed for the country. Paper and ashes. Like someone had thrown a fire away.
This story is from Hearing Voices, Seeing Things by William Wall (Doire Press, €12)