The Shrine Hunter
The idea came fully formed. Sue got straight down to business with a trip to the library and an Internet search. She packed light: a few warm clothes, toiletries, nightwear, pair of scissors, plastic bag, note book to catalogue the when and where of every stop-over, and some ordnance survey maps.
Sue stared at the empty roadside. She’d walked for miles, had she miscalculated her route?
A cheery dog walker stopped. ‘Are you lost?’
‘I’m looking for a shrine, it should be right here.’
‘What’s it got to do with you?’ His friendly tone had disappeared.
‘I knew the young man and wish to leave my condolences.’ The trick, she knew from watching murder mysteries, was to lie with conviction.
The dog walker seemed to weigh her up, making her glad she’d worn her best macintosh.
‘Sorry if I sounded aggressive,’ he said, ‘people forget these shrines are sacred. A few things went missing so the family had to move it to the other side of the road, behind the hedge.’
Within minutes, Sue had appraised the items scattered around a wooden cross: a blue and white scarf, a framed photograph of the deceased (a young man of about nineteen), a few bunches of wilted flowers and a stack of letters fading inside plastic wallets. Out of everything, the scarf would have been the easiest to conceal but was frayed at the edges and grubby – not at all fit for purpose. The bleached letters were useless too. But the photograph of the young man astride his motorbike – his dark hair like her own in its heyday, his eyes the same shade of brown – would suffice. She slotted the photograph into her plastic bag. An hour later, she was inside her hotel nursing the prospect of a hot bath and a pile of shortbread biscuits. It had been a good day.
Next morning, Sue moved on.
She was pleased to note that, unlike the previous one, this shrine had not been removed from
the side of the road. The pickings were of a lesser quality though. Worms had feasted on the six Terry Pratchett books and she didn’t care for the plastic bunch of daffodils. A red silk tie dangled from a nearby branch. Although it didn’t necessarily belong to the shrine, Sue counted it as a major triumph and slotted it into her bag.
By the end of the week she’d visited seven roadside shrines. Her finds included: the photograph, the red neck tie, a teddy bear in a mortarboard, a replica miniature surfboard, a full sized chef’s hat, three bronze swimming medals (she wished they’d been gold) and last but not least, a gilded baby’s shoe. She was ready to go home.
Sue chose her location carefully – a lane with a pretty grass verge adjacent to a hairpin bend. Risking life and limb, she erected her home-made wooden cross and arranged the items in the order she’d found them. She stood back to witness the person she’d created. A handsome young man who rode a motorbike, a smart dresser who took pride in wearing a red silk tie, a scholar with a degree, a surfer (with happy memories of family holidays by the sea), a gifted baker (every good son should know how to cook his mother a birthday cake), a strong swimmer and the bonniest baby in the world.
My son, she thought. The one I had for a little while then lost. I’ve so often imagined what he would have turned out like. And now I know. This is my place to come and mourn him. After all, it’s a mother’s role to keep the memory of her son alive.
She felt that something of what she was doing was keeping the others alive too, the other lost boys. She wanted to say sorry to their families. She could see the sharp sting of their sorrow in her collection. Even if you closed your heart, even if you thought you were getting better, the pain got in.
Belinda is a poet and short story writer. Her poems and stories are widely published. She is a joint winner of the Indigo-First Pamphlet Competition, 2018, with her pamphlet, Touching Sharks in Monaco. One of her flashes made it into bestmicrofiction 2019, and the TSS Publishing list for Best British and Irish Flash Fiction 2018-2019.