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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton





By Phil Mellows

She tilted back her face under a low grey woollen sky. Cold pins pricked her cheeks, her lips. She closed her eyes to feel the little lively needles on their lids. She liked the rain. She knew the sky was just as dirty as the street but the rain felt like it was clean and new. Then, startled by guilt, she snapped down her head. She was at the back, a little way apart from the small crowd loosely gathered at the end of the pier, as if she were no more than a curious passer-by. Yet she had found the body. She had watched it being carried into the ambulance and she had gone back to where it had lain. A dark stain on the pavement was all that was left.

The old woman, she supposed, was his mother, and the young man with his arm wrapped round her shoulders his brother, perhaps. They would be the only family. The half-dozen others she knew from the street. This was all there was. Some people to watch the grey ashes of his burned body blown to invisibility across the grey sea that heaved monstrously under their feet.

She tried to remember how she had met him. It was months ago, maybe years. You have to get on with the other people on the street but you don’t always like them. She had liked him though, right from the start. She had been able to talk to him, not just about living on the street but about other things outside of that world. “You make me feel more real,” he said to her once, and kissed her on the cheek.

A gust of wind took away the rain. A priest was speaking some words in that singing way they have. She couldn’t hear properly but they would be the usual words. You were meant to remember people who had died as a way of keeping them alive. But it never really works. She tried to remember how he was but his face, his voice, his ways were already hard to imagine in her head. He was fading from her life.

They had lost touch at some point. He had managed to get a job in the summer at one of the hotels and he could afford to stay at a hostel. Then they accidentally met on the street and they chatted like before. He said he was hoping to get a permanent place to live but it was so expensive and he wasn’t sure how long the work would last.

I’ve got enough here,” he patted the pocket of his new second-hand trousers. “Enough for something to eat and a room for the night.” She didn’t know what he meant. “Well,” he said, nervously. “Don’t keep me in suspense.” She couldn’t think what to say. It was against her habit to move once she had settled in a spot for the night. It would only mean another piece of pavement to heat up with her thin body.

We don’t have to do anything. It’ll be warm. Nice. A treat.” He smiled down and she smiled back at him. “Thank you,” she said, which didn’t sound right at all but he helped her to her feet, picked up her things and they walked towards the sea together.

She shivered as the air chilled on her damp clothes and hugged herself, trying to shut out the whinings of the priest. She was eating pizza in a restaurant. The first time she had done that since she was a child. And she was laughing. The waitress asked whether everything was okay and she said yes, thank you. They had ice cream after. Then he said “shall we go then?”

It wasn’t one of the best hotels, of course, but it was a real hotel. They went up to the reception and he paid in advance, to avoid any embarrassment. She wiggled her shoes into the thick carpet.

She was staring down at the wooden boards that made the floor of the pier. There was a hand on her shoulder. It was one of the blokes from the street. That was another way to comfort people and she gave him a small smile and stepped away to look out over the sea.

They switched on the telly and he made a cup of tea with the kettle that came with the room. They ate two of the biscuits and saved the rest for the morning. She took first turn to have a bath in the en suite and laid naked and warm between the cool white sheets, flipping channels as she waited for him to finish in the bathroom.

The seagulls yelped and tumbled in the wind. The ceremony was coming to an end. His mother held the urn with his ashes and leaned out over the rail. Her arms shook and then, for a moment, something like a dark smoke was swept up on the air to hover against the sky before being blown to nothing.

She thought of the stain on the pavement and the mark left on the sheet the morning after they had made love.

She felt the drying dampness. La petit mort, the French called it. The little death.

The people on the pier were leaving. They nodded to her politely as they walked past, sharing what was left of him. She looked up at the sky. It started to rain again, this time with wet, heavy drops so she could hardly tell them from her tears.


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