Monday, 14 November 2011

The locket

My mother's ashes were in the locket when I lost it.  I had been sat down in the lobby of the bank, on one of their ugly green couches with burn marks from the days when smokers were still tolerated, and I think the locket must have fallen out of my pocket and down the back of the couch.  Naturally I went back to explain the situation to them and ask them to look down the back of the couch for me, and as with everything in my life that involves my mother, there were difficulties.
"How," said the bank manager with ponderous slowness, his stubby little fingers twitching, "could your mother's ashes be in a locket?  It would have to be a very large locket."
Under other circumstances he would have been right and I'd have applauded the man for overcoming his obvious natural inclination to grow a shell, eat lettuce and mate with other giant tortoises and make a useful contribution to society.  As it was, there ashes of my mother were pitifully few and fitted rather nicely inside the locket.
My mother had been born an agoraphobe, hating open spaces and always preferring to hide herself in corners, under couches and in closets.  For a while her parents, both desert engineers, thought that she had an unnatural affection for the letter C and refused to let her watch Sesame Street.  They found a new-age guru to teach her all about the joys of the other letters, and sacked him again after he reached the letter T and started doing things to himself that they felt were inappropriate for them to see, let alone their young daughter.  Mother claimed she never remembered any of those sessions, but she tended to drool whenever she saw garlic, so I think she may have been lying.
Her agoraphobia thus went undiscovered until her parents spent a summer driving around various deserts, constructing remote wells, planting hardy perennials and discovering mild addictions to over-the-counter cough medicines that they'd distill in a portable still they hid under the spare tyre of their car.  After two nights of hysterical screams she'd been allowed to sleep under the jeep while her parents slept beneath the stars, counting them, telling stories about them, and marvelling at how tiny individual humans are on the scale of the cosmos.  My mother, able to hear all these horrifying things, cowered next to a tyre and wished that the ground would swallow her up and let her live in caves beneath it for the rest of her life.
Then, one morning, her parents stumbled into wakefulness after a night on concentrated cough syrup, and drove off without her, leaving her to wake up in the middle of the biggest imaginable open space, with no-one around to scream for help to.  They came back five hours later when they realised why things seemed so quiet, but by then my mother had stopped crying and was just rocking backwards and forwards, her knees pulled up tight to her chin and her eyes tightly closed.  Her father said later on that she was just plain odd after that day.
I believe him.
She eventually went to work in the National Ignition facility, where very many high-powered lasers are fired at tiny fuel cells consisting of Deuterium and Tritium isotopes very many times in a very short space of time.  This causes the isotopes to collide and fusion to begin, a reaction that will be needed to power up a fusion reactor to power the planet.  Her work was serious but unimaginative, with her results mostly being long lists of temperatures and times.  Then, a year ago next Tuesday, she somehow became a target for the lasers, replacing the fuel cell in an apparatus that should have too small for her to squeeze into.  The lasers ablated most of her, leaving behind only a very small pile of ash that was nearly blown away by a grad student sneezing when she was discovered.
I had her ashes put into the locket because it was a small dark place, and I knew that that's all she'd ever really wanted from life.
"We sold the couch this morning," said the bank manager, his words sounding as though they were queuing for fifteen minutes just to be said.  "To a homeless shelter.  We made more on it than we paid for it three years ago!"
I cursed softly, but went to the address he gave me anyway.  This was too important to leave to random chance.

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