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Burying Brian
the opening pages

'Be gone, foul bird,' said the Mother, thrashing in her dream.

The raven hopped in, as ravens may do, dark as the darkest of winter nights. The raven pecked at the Mother's bedpost, its eye midnight-cold, its head tilted to the side. It sang, with a voice cruel and harsh. It tossed an old, rotted apple core at the Father's feet poking out from the covers.

The Mother waved her arms in her finest bird-scaring fashion. 'Be gone, I've no need for Hell's creatures here. You'll find no carrion amongst mine. Father, your best slipper if you please.'

'A message,' cawed the raven, 'A message…'

Green, the sheen upon its wings, as the raven leapt skyward and the Father's carpet slipper whizzed by. The Mother sat upright and blinking in her bed.

A message?' she mumbled. 'A message from whom?'

But the raven, like the dream, was long since gone.

* * *

It was surgical corsets of the fittest.

It was support hose thuggery at its worst.

There was smoke and fear and muck and dentures, and veins so varicose as to be painfully purple to look at, like the dodgy ultra-violet lamps from Mr Todd's disco which had given everyone night blindness at Maureen and Brian's wedding.

The Mother called it Tuesday afternoon Bingo. The Father knew it as a blue-rinse nightmare, set under a pall of gossip and hearsay and tea-cosy hats, in the rear conservatory of the Pearly Gates Home for the Tired and Restless. This was at the quiet end of Done and Dusted Avenue where even the postman feared to tread. This was….

The Mother sat hunched over the gaming table, slashing numbers off her Bingo card in great murderous sweeps, much as a general might mark down dead regiments on the battlefield. To her side, firmly encamped in boredom's trenches, the Father toyed aimlessly with the numbers on old, spent cards. Behind them both, Maureen paced the care home's floor like a restless infantry.

The Mother frowned. There was no sense in trusting the Father with a live Bingo card. No sense in using Maureen except as a runner.

Kelly's eye, number one.

The Mother poked at the Father's ribs with her best poking finger. 'Do pay attention, Father,' she said. 'Stop fidgeting and sit up straight. It's no wonder I can't keep up with the game with you lolling about.'

'Are you not winning, Mother?' The Father drew himself upright in his seat. Boredom hung heavy upon him, brooding over him like his own dark rain cloud. 'We could go home-if you're not winning-I'll not mind. Or I'm sure I've jobs to do in Pearly Gates' gardens to keep me busy while you're, um, playing. The beds are looking tatty down by Mr Carlisle's potting shed for a start. It's getting so bad the tottering-old-man-with-the-nervous-tic-and-the-dog-with-the-awful-cough said he'd even seen the garden gnomes clearing up after themselves.'

'No,' said the Mother. 'I'm not winning. Things are not going well.'

She fluffed her perm, and the Father and Maureen looked on nervously. The Mother would often calm her perm before battle, as if numerical warfare with the neighbours needed a hairdo that behaved.

'I can feel the game slipping away, Father. Mrs Sullivan from number three is using the metal plate in Mr Sullivan's head to influence the balls, again. And Mrs Tippings is pulling reinforcement cards back and forth from her lap at will.'

'Isn't that cheating, Mother?'

'Don't be silly, Father. This is Bingo; there are no rules.'

In the corner, under the rubber plant and the light bulb that flickered permanently, Mr Carlisle dripped sweat as he fought with Old Bessie, the ancient Bingo machine. Old Bessie rumbled and shook and gurgled, and steam hissed from its corners. Where the balls tumbled inside, sparks leapt, and it seemed to the Mother, for an instant, as if runes formed in the swirling air within. Runes that became flapping ravens in patterns of smoke.

Two little ducks, twenty-two, ladies,' panted Mr Carlisle.

The Mother sat back in her seat. There was always a lot of quacking when twenty-two came up. Most of the elders in the Pearly Gates Retirement Home for the Tired and Restless were quite mad, and it wasn't hard to get them quacking. Often, the problem was in getting them to stop. But for the real Bingo combatants it was a release, a pressure valve, a brief metaphorical stroll in the no man's land between the numbers. It allowed time for Mrs Sullivan to discharge Mr Sullivan's head into the ether, and for Mrs Tippings to organise her extra cards. It let the room breathe.

In the lull, while Pearly Gates' mad inmates quacked and Mr Carlisle tended to Old Bessie's joints, the Mother waved for Maureen to come over.

'I have a mission for you, Maureen,' she said.

'Steady, Mother,' said the Father. 'It's only a game of Bingo, remember.'

The Father grinned, fearfully, as if he wanted that to be true but knew better. It was Bingo, and it was old women, which meant it was knitting-needle-sharp stares and sweat-drenched buttocks clenched tight in support stockings. It was the clash of Zimmer frame upon walking stick across the myopic fogs of war.

It's true, Mother,' said Maureen. 'Don't forget you're only playing for sixteen tins of baked beans.'

'Don't be silly, girl.' The Mother looked distant, thoughtful. 'There's much more than that going on and if you've any desire to become a real Mother you should know it by now. There's politics and brinkmanship-have you not noticed Mrs Smith slyly kicking Mrs Jones under the table? Have you not seen Mrs Tate wafting TCP fumes to put Mrs Donovan off?

And there's the music of the spheres and the numerology of the universe, the movement of Fates by the shadowy numbers they cast. Haven't you learned that the very fabric of existence may be put right, or wrong, with Bingo balls? Do you think the world runs itself, child?'

The Mother glared across the table at Mrs Sullivan. She glowered back, and the two stares fought each other like swords slicing at the air between them. Behind them, the Father and Mr Sullivan shared a moment's masculine misery. Maureen blinked, a rabbit caught between the terrible stares.

If nothing else,' the Mother continued, 'there's a pecking order amongst Womankind to be sorted.'

The Mother glanced up at Maureen's and the Father's gaping faces. She exhaled, as did all the ancient Bingo warriors as one; a quantum, aged shuffle back toward the more manageable energy levels at game's start. The Bingo machine groaned, and the balls rumbled ready to begin again. Mr Carlisle rubbed his brow with a greasy kerchief.

And besides,' said the Mother, 'sixteen tins of baked beans will feed the Father for a week.'

The Father nodded. 'There is that, I suppose, though I think I might enjoy things more if I was allowed to play properly, Mother. I feel a bit daft sitting here playing old, used game cards that don't mean anything.'

'Men are unable to play Bingo, Father,' said the Mother. 'You've not the hormones for it. You'd become over excited and someone would get hurt. And anyway, daftness is what you're particularly good at of late; I know what you're up to in your potting shed.'

The Mother sighed. No, that was a little unfair, perhaps. The Father was far from daft. She knew that like most men the Father hid behind stupidity when it suited, which was usually most of the time. But he could be astute, when he put his mind to it, when he was free of distraction. The Mother knew he was rather thoughtful when lost to the solitude of his potting shed, down at the back of the garden near the fence where the sun didn't quite manage to shine.

'Then, what's my mission, Mother?' said Maureen.

'I want you to sidle around and have a sneak look at Mrs Sullivan's card. If she needs three, six, and twenty-one we're in trouble.'

Maureen glanced at the Father and he shook his head slowly. It was a Mother thing, no doubt, and beyond most reasonable explanation. The room was full of ancient oestrogen, of dodgy hips and blood grinding against the most clogged of veins, so who was to say what was or was not trouble?

'Nearly there, ladies,' said Mr Carlisle. The Bingo machine groaned ready to restart. 'Old Bessie's getting a bit past it, these days.' He aimed a kick at the shuddering contraption. 'She needs a bit of coaxing to get going.'

The Mother frowned. She felt thunder clouds gathering beyond the windows of Pearly Gates. The air was changing, charging; it cast an eerie glow to Mr Sullivan's head and lifted errant strands of the Mother's perm. The air tasted of trouble. It smelled of worse things than Mrs Tate in the mornings.

'And do hurry up, child; the numbers conspire against us. I can feel the game slipping away.'

The Father scratched his balding head. 'Sometimes you can be very hard on her, Mother,' he said. 'She's still a young 'un, don't forget.'

'Aye, well, she's a long way to go if she's to become a Mother.' The Mother watched as Maureen edged her way around the Bingo hall. 'She's not ready for Motherhood, and I fear for Maureen. I feel my time is coming to an end.'

The Mother sighed. Maureen didn't have the bosoms for true Motherhood. It took a forty-two double D to impose oneself properly in a maternal way; took a figure that cleaved the world aside as one strode through it. So far, the best that could be said for Maureen was that she was pert. Ever since Maureen had signed up at the Thighs the Limit gymnasium on Lower Back-pain Lane, she'd been getting even perter. The Mother blamed Brian, not through any particular reason except blaming Brian always made her feel better, and if anyone seemed comfortable with blame it was Brian.

Beyond the conservatory windows, lightning flashed. The Father choked on his lemon juice. 'Your time is at an end, Mother?' he said. 'Surely you're not contemplating…?'

The Mother ignored him, straightening her Bingo cards in her lap. Ever since Agatha and Gertrude were born-the twins, Maureen's babies, the Mother's grandchildren-she'd felt as if her Earthly work was nearing completion, as if maybe her Mothering talents might now be needed on more Spiritual planes. She felt there was a whole undiscovered eternity out there she could shout at. And seeing as Uncle Norman was dead and so already a part of it, it probably needed tidying.

She hadn't seen the Grandmother for too long, and Aunt Maud, and Cousin Helsbereth, and, well, all of them. Uncle Norman was becoming nothing more than a fading memory, and fading memories were the worst sort; they nagged like a toothache and popped into her head at all the wrong times, like when she was buying sprouts and whatnot in Mrs Lump's greengrocery on the High Street, and she would cry out across the veil and all in the shop would give her an odd look. Perhaps it was her own mortality making her moribund, but somehow the Mother thought more about the ancestors as the time when she would likely be reintroduced to them edged ever nearer. It was as if they called to her across time and space, beckoning her to join them beyond. Spirits that beckon are the hardest to ignore.

The Mother shook her head briskly and returned to more pressing thoughts.

'I have a mission for you, too, Father,' she said. 'It's clear from the charge in the ether that this game simply can't be won at this time.' The Mother sniffed the air and tasted the tang of the far-off moor's rains upon her lips. 'It's not safe to do so when there's danger nearby. I want you to fix Mr Carlisle's Bingo machine good and proper.'

The Father stood slowly and rubbed his chin. Beyond him, Maureen waved her arms in frantic, unintelligible, semaphore-like messages of Mrs Sullivan's numbers. The Father paused. 'Um, when you say fix, Mother, am I right in thinking you mean fix so it doesn't work?'

'That's exactly so, Father.'

The Father grinned. 'I just thought I'd better check, Mother. Remember the time I fixed Aunt Hilda's iron lung, when at that time you really did mean fix?'

'I'm still haunted by Aunt Hilda's parting gurgles, Father.'

'And then there was Cousin Ronald's gas cooker.'

'Father…?' said the Mother.

'They're still peeling bits of him from the flat above, Mother, ten years' on. I fixed that one good and proper, I did. And what about Aunt Maud's broken foot spa…?'

'Yes, though I recall Aunt Maud's foot wasn't broken until after you'd fixed the spa, Father.'

'True, but…'

'Father, the Bingo machine, and quickly if you please.' The Mother glanced fearfully about Pearly Gates. 'I hear devil's song over the moors. I see dark events afoot, or my name's not Gwyneth Richards.'

* * *

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