Hamburger and Grandwitch
There are a group of older boys sitting on their bikes in a semicircle at the end of the street. I swing my arms slightly, hands secured in my coat pockets. The clouds spittle cold raindrops down and the boys roll back and forth on their bikes, their wheels like fat upturned beetles. They grasp the handlebars or hold a bottle of Irn Bru as they joke in the foggy pre-dinner weather. I kick a stone across the ground so it warbles along the pavement and plunks over the rim of concrete onto the road.
My cousin Benji was supposed to be here seven minutes ago. We agreed on meeting at the corner of Muckley Pleasance, opposite the old row of cottages with their dark green doors and flowerbed windows, outlined with the curving claw hands of ivy that grow up their brick walls.
The wind brings the sound of Benji’s bike with it’s clicking chain, rumbling over the tarmac. He sends me a smile, adjusting his glasses with their rectangular black frames. Benji is fifteen, two days my elder, and my cousin on my Mother’s side.
“Artie,” he calls as he cycles towards me, his grey hoodie zipped up to his neck so that the material crumples at the bottom where it meets his jeans. Benji calls me Artie, as do the rest of my extended family. My full name is Arthuretta Ambrosia McAlister, but I am otherwise known as Artie, though, as my art teacher points out, my name does little for my drawing abilities.
I give Benji a strained smile.
“That funeral was a bit of a drag,” he says, rolling his forefinger over the tip of his nose turned slightly red from the cold. It’s early Autumn, the leaves just beginning to snap from the trees to be left in their crumpled piles and stages of soggy brown decomposition.
“My dad thought it was a real nuisance. He didn’t even stay for the after-service with the mini sandwiches.”
It was our Grandma’s funeral earlier today. Benji’s dad—who’s my mum’s brother—hated Grandma. He called her an old hag, a crow, a wicked wretch. She had long nails that my mother always wanted her to cut (and attempted to one evening after dinner when Grandma’d had a glass of whiskey, but she scratched her daughter away, screaming the long nails kept the “wee beasties” in her closet at bay). Benji liked to call her ‘Grandwitch’ and used to mess with her superstitions by opening umbrellas in the house (she’d scream and say he’d brought in bad luck) or by crossing two knives on the kitchen table (the knives that she’d be tempted to throw at his head as he ducked behind the door). However, Benji still liked her even more than he liked his father, who’d drop Benji off for the weekends at Grandma’s house to go on business trips or visit his girlfriend in London. Benji’s mum is a travel writer who sends him postcards every month from odd places and weird trinkets on his birthday, so staying with Grandma became a comfortable necessity.
Grandma used to say she had Bad Luck because when she first married at nineteen she saw a funeral procession on the way to the wedding. This, of course, caused her marriage and children to be cursed. Her husband did die reasonably young, before even I was born, but she’d been fruitful enough with three children, my mother the oldest, Benji’s dad the dreaded middle child, and the youngest, my Auntie, who lives in New Zealand and works at the Whakapapa skifield.
Benji gets off of his bike. “Sweeties?” he asks, gesturing to the corner shop just near where the boys on their bikes are.
“I don’t have any money. Mum wouldn’t give me any after the funeral. Said it was disrespectful of Grandma’s memory.”
“It’s okay, I’ll cover you. We need something good after those crappy sausage rolls and sloppy tarts. Even Grandwitch wouldn’t’ve liked them.”
Benji rolls his bike alongside me to the shop. It’s owned by Mr. Kazemi, who, when we open the door and the bell rings, greets us with the usual, “Ahhh, what brings you young ones here?”
Mr. Kazemi is Pakistani by birth, but he sounds as Scottish as my Grandpa with his Glaswegian accent and silly sayings about the weather, whether it’s “dreich”, “boggin”, or “pure baltic”. He’s been a staple of Muckley since I was born, with his long white beard and blue turban that Benji says he wears because he’s Sikh.
“Just some sweeties, sir,” I say, and toss my bag of pick-n-mix sweeties up onto the counter. Benji drops his down next to mine, the multicoloured sweeties slinking in the clear plastic baggie. He counts out the coins, change jingling on the counter.
There are racks of sweets and junk foods, all presented in blue-wire baskets on the end of aisles shelved with the necessities; breads, cereals, jars of Nutella and jams, canned and tinned foods with small-print labeling, and boxes of biscuits in cardboard and cellophane boasting two-for-one offers. The fridges and freezers at the end of the store let out a low grinding moan from their illuminated scenes of ice creams, microwave meals and breaded fish.
“Where are you two headed?” Mr. Kazemi asks, dropping pennies into the cash machine so they clink in with the others.
“The abandoned tracks,” Benji says, playing with the stack of gum by the counter and the packets of gummy bears and bags of Walkers crisps hooked up beneath. Their contents shuffle like disturbed creatures from a winter sleep.
“Ah, you know I heard old Mr. Lauriston’s dog haunts those tracks.” He hands Benji a ten pence piece of change.
“Really?” asks Benji. He’s a sucker for ghost stories. “The mutt Hamburger?”
Mr. Kazemi nods, rubbing at his beard with his index finger and thumb.
“Nice.” Benji grins. “We’ll let you know if we find old Hamburger’s ghostly remains.”
Mr. Kazemi shouts from behind the counter to remember to brush our teeth as we leave.
“You don’t really think Hamburger’s ghost haunts the tracks?” I ask Benji once we’re outside. The boys on their bikes point at us.
“Who knows,” says Benji, ripping a hole in his plastic sweetie bag and digging out some gummy bears.
“That your girlfriend?” shouts one of the boys. The others snicker.
“It’s my cousin!” Benji screams back.
There’s a pause. “Sorry, pal,” says one of them. Then adds, perhaps sheepishly, “Toss the pretty girl this way?”
I roll my eyes. Benji shakes his head, muttering, “They see a girl and can’t deal with it.”
Benji chains his bike to the lamppost, and we head off down the street to the cottages. There’s a small entrance split along the muddied ground between number 24 and 26. The path is a winding, narrow lane behind the houses’ back gardens and a clump of trees. It’s cold, and there isn’t much light on the pathway. The sun is only an hour away from setting, but it can’t be seen behind the thick clouds. The semi-bare trees spread their limbs across our path, and the prickled bramble bushes leave pointed spikes along the edge, crawling beside our feet.
Once we pass the trees we reach the old railway bridge, which we climb up, taking the dipped steps two at a time, and then start down the other side. Three steps from the bottom Benji leaps over the side railing onto the track. He wobbles slightly when he lands. I follow suit, grabbing at his raincoat sleeve for support on the ground bestrewn with stones. The train tracks are rusted and covered in mushy leaves and mud. Some sections are broken and push shapes into the soles of my shoes as we walk along the middle.
“I hope we find Hamburger’s ghost,” he says, looking back at me. I offer a nervous, closed-lip smile.
Hamburger died along these tracks. He had a heartattack. He was an old dog, the same age as Mr. Lauriston in dog years, an old man whose wife had died of cancer many years ago and whose only son lived in Iceland, working as a tour guide or something. Hamburger was a true mongrel, something of a Labrador, Border Collie, and German Shepherd mix. He was only loveable because he was old and slow, so his moodiness and lack of joyful dog-energy seemed acceptable.
Benji scrapes a stick over the railway track and I jolt slightly at the sound.
“I think we should look by that old tree,” he says, pointing with the stick at a big oak tree from the railway track in a field further down.
We continue along the rusting track, both quiet. I think about the funeral, about the small group who trooped in out of pity and obligation, wrapped in black coats and their empty condolences. I remember the pastor talking about how Grandma liked gardening or some other crap. I remember biting my tongue.
Then I try to forget about the funeral, which is easy enough as Benji is tugging at my arm. “Artie, betcha we find Hamburger’s ghost in there.”
I furrow my brows, and try to laugh but it comes out forced and nervous. Benji grins at me. “Scared?”
“No,” I say, firmly, but my ears feel hot and I know they must be red.
We walk towards the tree, Benji just slightly in front, moving through the field which has already been harvested for all it’s barley, leaving spiky stalks that snap underfoot on the muddied ground. The air is wet and thick. I swear I feel Hamburger’s wet nose sniffing over my fingers, but I shake my hands; it must just be the fine mist that hangs over the fields, leaving sweaty fingerprints along my forehead so that my eyebrows drip with moisture. I don’t believe in ghosts, but in the fog it feels like anything may appear.
Benji’s closer to the oak tree now, and I’m just behind. It’s trunk is mossy; crispy bark skin that flips pieces along the ground. Some of the branches reach the ground, as if to trip someone or mop the muddied floor.
Benji barks like a dog, prompting a shocked “oh!” from my mouth. He laughs.
“Come on, Artie,” he says, grinning, the straggled ends of his curly brown hair painting his face with colour in the mist.
I follow him under the branches of the oak tree, my nerves tight, leg hairs prickly and frozen, bristling at the slightest sound.
Up above there's a web of branches, boughs swaying with leafy, dirty life; spiders whispering and clinging to silky threads reflecting silvery waterdrops; a squirrel or perhaps a bird shuffles in the crowded canopy of close-knit foliage. The limbs shake as a breeze passes through them, sending a shiver of scattering breathy sounds, leaves trembling and shifting like loose cards in a pack that makes me wonder, momentarily, if there are ghosts playing a game of Rummy or Blackjack like Grandma would. I feel my skin shudder with goosebumps, hairs on end, brushing on the inside of my burgundy knit jumper.
I find I’m closer to Benji now, behind him so that I can see the moisture on the fibres of his hoodie. He’s paused, looking up, blue eyes rolling over the umbrella of dark greenery and branches creating veins in the foliage-flesh. I’m keeping close to Benji.
A dog barks. I grab Benji’s arm and look him dead in the eyes. He’s wide-eyed, perhaps a little jittery.
“Probably just a dog,” I say. I lick my lips. “Right?”
“Yeah,” says Benji. He clears his throat. “Yeah, definitely.”
“I’m cold,” I say.
We stand very still. Benji is quieter, swallowing so I can see his Adam's apple bob up and then down in his throat. He’s growing into himself, at least that’s what my mother likes to say. She’s a strange woman, my mother, who says she named me Arthuretta because such a name “deserves the tongues attention”. She’s still bitter that I ask everyone to call me Artie and scrunches up her nose when I introduce myself as such. We live like roommates in the house; me doing laundry on Sundays, her on Wednesdays, both eating dinner at different times—I buy vegetables and rice from Mr. Kazemi most days when she forgets grocery shopping is a necessary chore—and work an unspoken timetable for using the bathroom, both dividing the space in half; my three bottles colour-coordinated, her cluttered herbal shampoos dripping liquid between mini vials of coconut oil and apple cider vinegar.
At the funeral this morning my mother sat very still, hair carefully pinned half-up and dark circles poking through concealer under her eyes. She kept her legs crossed, hands tightly holding the program for the order of service. She sat with her sister and brother while I sat with Benji nearer the back on the end of an empty wooden pew. I wonder if my mother loved her mother; my Grandma, Benji’s Grandwitch. Grandma used to say you can only hate those you’ve loved. My mother argued that that theory didn’t apply to all the people she hates at her work. When my mother turned away, shaking her head, my Grandma leaned over the table clutching a cup of tea with leaves and speckled spices in a puddle at the bottom, quietly saying, “Your mother has never truly loved so she can never truly hate.”
Grandma was “such a strange bird” because of all the tragedy in her life, at least that’s what my older cousin Laurel told me one Christmas when she was forced to sit with me and Benji and my two younger boy cousins at the kids table, decked out with pink napkins and a plastic checkered tablecloth. Laurel had started university that year, studying a degree my mother calls pointless, something to do with Sociology or Psychology. Laurel told me that Grandma was so “funky in the head” because of all the deaths.
“Death really fucks with you,” Laurel said, holding the orange plastic kiddie cup topped up with some Brandy I’d seen her nick from the liquor cabinet in the hallway. “Shit, I didn’t mean to swear,” she said, shaking her head before continuing. “No, but see, Grandma’s had more than just Grampy die. She had a proper newspaper tragedy.”
Benji was bored by this point and rolled his eyes at Laurel. He started to kick the two boy cousins under the table who were both playing on their Nintendos.
I lowered my voice, asking her what happened.
“Gran had a disaster accident,” Laurel said, her body curled a little closer to the table, her shirt dipped low, red lips excited with gossip. “You know how she used to work at a kids camp?”
“Well there was this one night, at a February camp, and the lake was frozen over—I can’t remember where, somewhere up north—and these two boys snuck out to go midnight skating, and the ice broke and they fell through.”
“Were they okay?”
“Well, no one knew what had happened. They thought they were just lost and then the lake melted and they found them, dead and blue. Granny’s still all guilty about it.”
Benji prods me, rushed-whispering, “Did you see that? Did you see that? I swear that was Hamburger.”
My heart starts beating faster and my throat is dry. “Benji, I don’t like this,” I say.
He laughs. “It’s fine, Artie, it’s just a game.”
“No,” I say, grabbing his arm. “No it’s not. I want to go back.”
Benji looks a bit more nervous, my fears causing him doubt. “Hamburger’s ghost won’t be dangerous,” he says, but it sounds like he’s asking me.
“Benji, let’s go. Let’s go back. I don’t want to see his ghost.”
The leaves shake further, faster, every sound becoming a scream; the wind a howl, branches shattering. What if Grandma is here too? What if she’s a silvery, floating version of herself, pinching at my cheeks with hollowed eyes? What if she’s angry that Benji called her funeral a drag?
“Benji, I want to go.”
Hamburger leaps towards me, a fluffy, pearly mass. His spirit howls past on the tail of the wind, whimpering up above in the leafage and casting strange shadows onto my body and Benji’s. I clutch the air behind me, searching for a branch as I trip over stones on the ground. My arm hairs feel like spikes, tingling nerves at every touch.
Benji yells something but I’m shaking and I can’t see him with my eyes closed and breath shallow and racing. Hamburger is somewhere below me, sniffing at my feet, his body opalescent, hair an ivory glow. But I can’t tell if I’m dreaming, if he’s just a figure printed on my eyelids by my wild imagination.
I clutch the bough of the tree. I can feel my Grandmother; she’s a leaf, my knitted sweater, the spindly threads of the spider web. She sits in the tree branches, breathes on my ear, secretly holding a mountain of guilt. I can hear the ice cracking under those boys’ feet. When Grandma used to sit looking into her mug of lukewarm tea, I wonder if she imagined the sound of their shoes slipping, if they fell onto their bums before the ice broke. Did they scream? Or did the frozen water shock them before they could cry for help?
When we talked about death, Grandma never said much. I saw her as a superstitious old-woman, slightly annoying and a little silly, but at least she made shortbread with just the right amount of crystal sugar on top. I never knew about the boys. It was something Grandma’d only let slip once, just a brief mention of the anniversary of their deaths. She’d told Laurel’s mother about it, been checking the days in her diary for the next dentist appointment. It became a quiet secret in the family, something never mentioned in front of Grandma’s sharp ears. Grandma was nosy, at least that’s what mum said.
Whenever I’d go over to Grandma’s, if I’d even been around a smoker, she’d be on to me. “Is that smoke? Have you been smoking?” Her slightly bent nose would sniff me as soon as I’d kicked off my shoes, shaken my head, told her it must be the smell of some smoker at the bus stop. She’d wrinkle her nose, slightly suspicious, then move her blue eyes from me to the kitchen, where I’d follow her in and she’d make a cup of tea and offer me one of her homemade sugary shortbreads from the old French Crepes dentelles Les Gavottes metal biscuit tin on the shelf above the oven. The tin had that perfect metal snap, with shiny internal bends and the slight whine of the hinges as it opened. Grandma’s kitchen held a number of unique items like that biscuit tin; boxes filled with buttons she’d collected over her forty-plus years of motherhood; garlic hanging from old ropes hooked over nails hammered into cupboard doors; a rocking chair in the corner with a crocheted blanket over the shoulder and a small embroidered pillow reading Not So Quietly.
She’d hand me a cup of tea, made with fresh tea leaves she’d bought at the small Hua Xing Chinese Supermarket where she’d talk to the older cashier on Wednesdays who liked to read palms over the oak-wood counter that smelled like green tea and oyster sauce. Once I went with Benji to the Chinese Supermarket, stood in front of green shelves racked with jars of sauces in glass bottles—pad thai, sweet and sour, hot chili—and colourful packets of noodles and ready-made meals in round plastic containers. Benji wasn’t as interested in the microwave meals; he wanted the strange sweeties wrapped in cartoon character packaging, the rolls of crumbly pink wafers and packets of chocolates or plastic containers with multi-coloured coconut cookies. Grandma bought him them, sometimes, when she was feeling generous--usually after a positive bit of fortune telling.
I grab onto Benji, but he is looking up at the shaking leaves with a slack jaw. I tremble under the murmur of leaves, closing my eyes until the sound is magnified tenfold and my breath becomes a distant, disconnected sound. I think of Granny. I think of her long, bony hands; her streaky grey hair; her golden wedding ring, looser on her shrunken, older fingers. I remember her tea, its winding peppermint scent; smell the strange aroma of dried rosemary branches in her kitchen and dusty cupboards of old spices. I think that losing her hurts, that it builds a lump in my throat that I didn’t even know was there until I’m standing here with my hairs sticking up and skin mottled cold. I wonder if Granny felt this lump in her throat. Did she feel the boys, whispering in her ear, leaving her with trembling hands?
I think that, somehow, this pain, this lump, is also pressing in my chest; heavy and forcing my heart to beat louder and livelier. It sends blood rushing through my ears and causes my tongue to dry to the roof of my mouth. It sends my eyes spinning, trying to find the spiraling silver spirit of Granma amongst the shaking Autumn leaves. Instead, all I feel is the steady pumping of blood, the sweeping arms of the wind, and the hand of Benji tugging on my sleeve.
BETH MORROW is a senior creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy from Edinburgh, Scotland. She has received two Gold Keys and one Silver Key from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her work is often inspired by the idea of place, and she enjoys finding inspiration amongst cups of herbal tea, silly dances, and long conversations over dinner with friends.