The hallway radiator had a wooden cover, with heat passing through a latticed sheet of chipboard painted white by my father. Years on and bubbles of gloss broke the surface of the wood, yellowed and patterned with stray hairs from our tortoiseshell cat, Angel. The cover leant downward, and often we’d find our keys and wallets on the floor. The radiator became a shrine to my mother. On either side of the cover I propped framed photographs of her, one from the early ’70s in which she wears a ruby colored miniskirt and cradles her first cat; she looks genuinely happy. In the other her face is swollen with a rigid smile. Her arm is around my shoulders and my brothers lean in behind us. In the center of the shrine was a crystal vase of yellow chrysanthemums, with a magnolia candle and a wooden cat ornament on either side.  

Days and weeks after her death, I sat before the shrine entrenched in grief. My mind flickered through 22 years of memory. Flurries of contentment. Bright light. Her eyes, adoring me. Then those 18 months, enveloping me. Her body wilting inward and shrinking away. Her gargling last breath. Tunnel vision. Darkness. My insides knotting.

Hollowing.

One evening I stared at the wick of one of the candles on the radiator, tracking its irregular movement. The windows were closed to keep out the cold and the other flame remained still. But this flame waved wildly from side to side, elongated upwards, and retreated back. I edged in closer.

“Mum?” I whispered.

I called out to my father who was watching football in the living room. He came over with a familiar grimace, but now it was more pronounced. Grief poured from his face. White hair, skin flushed.

“It’s mum,” I said, hoping to ease some of his pain as well as my own; I needed him to believe it for it to be true.

“Don’t be daft. A draft must be coming in from somewhere.”

His cold, blue eyes looked at me with desperation, imploring me to find another way to accept that she was gone but his pursed lips didn’t know how to guide me. Broken, he turned back toward the living room and left the door ajar.

With the blare of football chants still audible, I stared at the flame, scared that my father was right and angry that there wasn’t more. But I couldn’t blow it out.

 

Sean James Mackenney is a writer from London. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the New School and is currently writing his first book.