I stood at the front of my local Spiritualist Church, an honoured guest. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you about my brother, Justin, and how he’s come back from the spirit world to give us all a message of hope.” There was a polite hush. “But before Justin speaks, I’d like to say a little bit about him.” Thirty pairs of eyes looked up at me with eager anticipation.
My brother Justin had spent his whole life leaving everything to the last minute, and causing much grief in the process. Me and John, my husband would do our best to chivvy him along, get him to interviews on time, try to get him looking presentable. But he’d lose jobs, friends, even a dog called Sam who Justin would ‘forget’ to feed and who ended up at an animal rescue centre with a straggly flea-ridden coat and prominent ribs.
Then one day, Justin astonished us all by announcing he’d got a job as a sales assistant at Burnett’s, in soft furnishings of all places. It seemed like he’d decided to pull himself together, or so he said, and he surprised us further by getting a fashionable haircut, and dressing in a smart grey suit with a cream shirt and silver tie. He was almost unrecognisable – in the best possible way – and we began to believe he really had changed.
Then he spoiled it all by getting into an argument with a customer, forgetting – or likely not knowing – the dictum ‘The customer is always right.’ Still annoyed at the confrontation, he’d gone to the pub after work, got drunk and walked out into the road, getting hit by a speeding motorcycle. It threw him across the street into the path of a truck which finished him off, if he wasn’t dead already.
Six months later, I’d just put yellow roses in a pot at Justin’s grave and stood back to look at his stone. Justin Smith, 1977–2020. Resting in Peace. What a waste, I was thinking, when I heard a voice in my ear. “Thanks for the flowers, sis, but you know I just didn’t dig yellow. White or red, but never yellow!”
I jumped. The voice sounded just like Justin’s. I scouted around the graveyard but there was no one, no prankster hiding behind the huge brown-ribbed yews, no hidden loudspeakers, that I could find anyway. I went back to the grave. “Justin, is that you?”
I rearranged the roses then turned to go, thinking I’d imagined it all, when, “It sure is, sis, and I didn’t mean to be mean about the flowers, I just don’t like yellow!”
Well, it was true he hadn’t liked yellow, but now he was dead, or sort of, I hadn’t really thought about it. Yellow was my favourite colour and that’s all that had been in my mind. I decided to play along. “Sorry bro’, so how’s Heaven?”
The voice came again, from somewhere close but outside me. “I ain’t in Heaven, sis, there’s this red guy with horns who keeps prodding me with a pitchfork, and it ain’t half hot!”
“You mean Hell? That’s awful!”
“Only kiddin’ sis! There’s just folks who’ve died here, Aunty Sal and Uncle Max, they send their best wishes, say to get your rear tyre on the right looked at, and there are some others, kinda haughty types, who get us to look back over our lives and see where we went wrong.”
“Guess that’s why they’re still at it six months later,” I quipped.
“… and so, Justin visits me at home and sometimes I even see him, as a kind of transparent outline, but he’s always smiling.”
“And now, I’d like to ask Justin to speak to you all.”
We waited in hushed anticipation for the disembodied voice.
I coughed. “Justin, are you there? Justin? … Justin? … Justin!”
After a couple of embarrassing minutes, the chairperson stood up. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Justin couldn’t come for good reason. It happens.” There was a murmur of sympathy. “And now, let us sing hymn number thirty-six …”
As I left, I could imagine Justin sitting on a cloud or wherever, chortling with laughter at making me look like a right idiot. My face began to grow red again, this time from anger. How dare he set me up in front of all those people, then pull the rug out from under my feet! I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Suddenly I was aware of something in my hand. I looked down at a perfectly-formed miniature red rose and knew Justin was sorry. I wiped away the tears and smiled. Death hadn’t changed the old rascal but he was still my brother and I still loved him.
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