Queue of cars waiting at traffic lights in the dusk.

Picture by Jonathan Formento at Unsplash

Kate sneaks a look at her phone screen – tells herself it’s not a driving offence if she has the handbrake on, stopped in thick traffic hundreds of metres away from the lights – and there are five missed calls from her mother. The car behind her honks to make her move into the few feet of space that have opened up, and she rolls forward, then stops again. The phone yelps with text messages, but she can’t drive and deal with her. It won’t be an emergency – it never is – and her mother will just have to wait. Kate will not let it take her over: she has promised this to herself – and her therapist.

Kate  goes to her Happy Place, pictures a church, vaulted and dim, with a chill to the air, a dampness not related to the weather. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. She sneaks a look along the pew: John, handsome in a dark suit; Ella, teen-tall in a short skirt that Kate had decided not to argue about; Josh, squirmy and bored. She herself is elegant in a black dress, and somehow, a hat. That she doesn’t own a black hat other than that floppy beach one, is something she skims over. She will not get caught up in the logistics of buying a formal hat in the short timeframe of planning a funeral; she will not. Focus, she thinks, as the cars creep forward another few feet. She ignores honking from those further back in the queue. Not her problem to fix. Back to the church. The black dress, the hat. Is she wearing heels? She’s definitely taller. Focus. Three wide, shallow steps up to the altar, where she bobs a genuflection to the tabernacle, blesses herself, places her notes on the lectern.

‘We are gathered here today to celebrate Carmel’s life,’ she starts, ‘my mother’s life.’ Two lies and a truth, she thinks – we are certainly gathered here.

‘Many of you will remember my mother here in this church, as one of the lay servers, giving out communion,’ Kate continues. ‘What you won’t remember is how she judged each and every one of you. Your hair, Deirdre, and how ridiculous you look with it long at your age. I know you thought she was a friend, Irene, but she always thought you looked like a tart in those short skirts – her words, not mine. I don’t have time now to detail all her judgments, but when you shake hands afterwards with me, just lean in for a hug, and I’ll tell you what she thought of you.’

‘Our mother was always known as a wonderful homemaker, and she certainly made ours – uncomfortable. She had a way with eggs, and we learned early to walk on the shells.’ Kate waits for a ripple of laughter, a smile, anything.

‘Our father isn’t here to celebrate with us, sadly. Mum always said she’d outlast him, and in truth, she hounded him into the grave. He was glad to get away, but of course she has to follow him there too. No sense of privacy, ever.’

There is more to say; so much more. Kate will say it; of course she will. She will set everyone straight. She will let her siblings see that they’re not against each other and never were – they were always fighting a common enemy, they just didn’t realise it

A long, loud car horn startles her.  Kate. A gap has opened in the traffic and she darts forward, faster than she intends. The crunch of her bumper biting into the car in front can’t be real, must be part of her daydream, but the driver is getting out, and Kate must get out too, take photos of the damage even as the phone rings again. Her mother, again. All around, cars honk their anger at this delay – these stopped cars, these drivers exchanging details. Kate can’t blame her mother for this. But the phone rings again as she drives off shakily – what will John say about the damages, the cost – and somewhere in her Happy Place a feather from her tall black hat swishes past as it flies free.

Fiona McKay is a SmokeLong Quarterly Emerging Writer Fellow for 2023. Writes with Writers’HQ. Words in Bath Flash, Reflex Fiction, Lumiere Review, Janus Literary, Pithead Chapel, The Forge and others. The Top Road, AdHoc Fiction (2023). Drawn and Quartered, Alien Buddha Press (2023). Arts Council Ireland Agility Award. Lives in Dublin, Ireland.