Bex Barton


Bex is a writer and storyteller, focusing on weird stuff that makes her laugh. She originally trained as a playwright and had work produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and BBC Radio Drama.

During her BA with The Open University, she discovered a passion for prose and made the switch from stage to page. Bex received a departmental merit scholarship to study the MA at Goldsmiths, and has read her work at events such as LitLive! in partnership with Literary Kitchen. She is working on a collection of short stories, provisionally entitled, ‘Dead Girls.’ Bex is Chair of Goldfish 2015.


Twitter: @ohbex

View as PDF: Bex Barton - Human Remains

Human Remains 

In August, my mother died.

My friend Leah flew from London to Boston to be with me. I drove her back to my mom’s condo and she stood in the living room looking around at the overflowing ashtrays and piles of empty beer cans I hadn’t gotten around to clearing up. Mom’s threadbare blanket was folded over the back of the couch. Leah lifted it between her thumb and one finger, frowning.

‘Well,’ she said eventually, ‘I’m here now. Everything will be all right.’ ‘You want a coffee?’ ‘I want a tea,’ said Leah. ‘Obviously. You’ve been in America too long.’ ‘I was born here.’ ‘But you came to school in England.’I made her damn tea and we sat on the couch.

Leah reached out and touched my arm. ‘This is a new scar.’

I pulled my sleeve down. ‘Mom wasn’t herself. You know, towards the end.’ Leah pursed her lips. ‘What was her excuse when she gave you the old ones?’ ‘Don’t start.’‘Oh, fine. I suppose I can’t give you my lecture on the psychological damage done to children who are sent away across the ocean as soon as they can tie their own shoes, either.’

‘Your parents sent you to boarding school too, you know.’

‘Because they were military,’ Leah said. ‘Not because they hated me.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s the difference between you and me.’

Leah sipped her tea. She looked the same as always: puff of hair caught in a braid; neat seams; round glasses resting on round cheeks. I found myself touching the sharp point of my own chin. My nails were dirty. I folded my hands when I saw her looking.

Leah had some new boyfriend waiting for her at home, but she stuck around for the funeral. All I remember from that day is Leah bustling back and forth with sandwiches, and my Aunt Margaret wearing an awful yellow hat. Who the hell wears yellow to a funeral? Unless it’s for one of those hippy types who writes their own eulogy and demands that their heartbroken family and friends spend an afternoon celebrating their life. My mother never celebrated anything, except maybe that time there was a two-for-one sale at Kappy’s Liquor Store. Leah flew home again after the wake, and so did Aunt Margaret and her hat, and that left me in my dead mother’s condo, breathing in twenty years of cigarettes and holding an urn full of ashes in my hand. It turns out that when they cremate someone, not all of it necessarily gets burned up. There’s all kinds of shit that doesn’t break down properly: artificial hips, finger bones, teeth. When I picked the ashes up from the crematorium the guy told me not to worry if the urn went clank. ‘Clank?’ I said. ‘Clank,’ he said. He shook the urn a little to demonstrate. Clank, it went. Ugh.I took the urn home and looked at it. My mother hadn’t been a big woman; in fact she had looked like every small, mean thought she ever had, but it was still weird that she now fitted inside a cup holder.

It would have been easier to know what to do if she had liked anything. Seemed like every time I turned on the TV there was some asshole scattering his father somewhere scenic. The wind blew the ashes back in his face and they all went ho, ho, ho, Dad would have loved that, he was such a character. My mother wasn’t a character. She wouldn’t have loved it. If the ashes blew back in my face it would just be one last way for her to piss me off.


‘Stick some googly eyes on it,’ Leah said when I called her. ‘Put it on the mantelpiece and she can follow people around.’

‘Don’t you think that’s a little disrespectful?’

‘Disrespectful is you calling me when it’s two in the morning here. Time zones: learn them.’

‘My mother just died.’

‘You hated your mother,’ Leah said, ‘with good reason. Hey, now that she’s dead, are you going to come home?’

‘This is my home.’ ‘Lies. Come on, you can stay with me. I’ll look after you.’ ‘I can look after myself.’‘I know,’ said Leah. ‘But you don’t have to.’

We hung up then, but I felt better for the rest of the day.


I sold my mother’s condo, and considered using the money to buy someplace. But where? Should I stay in Boston, where everyone I knew was dead? I thought about what Leah had said, and opened up my computer. I typed average house price in London into Google.

‘LOL,’ came back the result, or might as well have done.

I put the money in the bank. I had another six months lease to run on my apartment anyway. I kept Mom’s car, though, and used it to take her medical equipment back to the hospital.

‘Wow,’ said the guy at the desk. ‘I didn’t even know metal could smell like smoke.’ ‘Yeah, she was a real artist.’ I handed over the bag of unopened medication I’d found under her bed. ‘You know, her insurance didn’t cover it.’ ‘The pills?’ ‘The iron lung.’ ‘We call them ambulatory oxygen concentrators now.’ ‘I call it my credit card bill,’ I said. ‘I don’t suppose…’ ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘No refunds, no returns.’Fair enough.


I went home and stood in my spare room, looking at the last few boxes I’d hauled over from my mother’s place: the ones that were left after the house clearance people did their plague of locusts thing. The urn was sitting in the window. I ran my thumb across the sill and felt damp; I went to the kitchen and came back with a Ziploc bag. I put the urn inside it, just in case.

My hands carried on moving without my say-so, and the next thing I knew the lid of the first box was off and the stink of cigarettes was in my nose. The box was crammed full of random things. I picked up the first one I saw. It was a notebook with a soft blue cover, like the kind little kids use in school.

I opened the book. It was mostly blank. There was a grocery list on the seventh page. Eggs, it said. Beer.

I flipped through quickly from back to front, and somewhere in the middle I found myself looking at two pages of my mother’s handwriting. It was the most I had ever seen in one place. December 1979. Paris. I’m in Paris! And it’s just exactly how I thought it would be. It’s a warm day in spite of the season, and we stood by the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and looked out over the whole city. A man with a harp played La Vie en Rose, and we held hands and laughed. What the hell. Every so often I remember that we never have to leave, and I just have to hug myself with glee. We can stay here forever, just Jack and I, and live on croissants and confit de canard. Who the hell was Jack? Not my dad. My dad’s name was Bernard. He didn’t die until 2005 and they were married for thirty years. I called up Aunt Margaret. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, when I told her what I’d found. ‘She really ought to have thrown that out.’ ‘So you knew about this Jack guy?’ ‘Well, not exactly. But there was a time…I mean, I do remember that she went on that trip.’ ‘It doesn’t sound like a trip,’ I said. ‘And it doesn’t sound like Mom. Mom never hugged anyone with glee.’ Aunt Margaret didn’t laugh. ‘Your mother wasn’t a very happy person, dear.’ ‘Except for in Paris, December 1979. Apparently.’ ‘It was such a long time ago,’ Aunt Margaret said. ‘She did love your father, in her own way.’ ‘Not enough to stop her going to Paris.’‘No,’ said Aunt Margaret. ‘But enough to come back.’


It was past midnight and I was back in the spare room again. The corner store only had Coors Light so I was drinking that and hating myself for it. I had Mom’s Mystery Box in front of me, and had already pulled out a bunch of crap:

• One cork from a champagne bottle

• A pair of ugly pink baby booties

• A ton of kids’ books

• Inexplicably, Aunt Margaret’s yellow hat.

There was also a photograph of a man I didn’t recognise. He was tall, and he was laughing. I thought this must be the mysterious Jack, but when I turned it over it said, Bernard, 1976. I looked at the picture closely, and the face resolved itself into one I knew. Dad. Apparently I’d never seen that expression on his face before.

I called Leah. ‘Man, I did not know my parents at all.’

‘Six a.m.,’ she said. I turned Aunt Margaret’s hat over in my hand. On the label was written, Sheryl, 1962. Sheryl was my mother’s name. ‘I can’t figure out why she never told me about it. Her favourite thing to do was rave about how great her life was before she had me. You would think her great Parisian adventure would have featured pretty strongly in that.’ Someone was talking in the background on Leah’s end. ‘Shh,’ she said. ‘Go back to sleep.’After I hung up, I found a picture of Mom and Aunt Margaret in the box. The date on the back said Mom was fourteen years old. They were both smiling, and wearing their yellow hats.


Leah wanted me to come to London for Christmas.

‘My parents are having a nervous breakdown over the thought of you all alone.’ ‘I’m not a charity case.’ ‘Of course you’re a charity case. You’re single, childless and orphaned. It’s just sad.’ ‘Is the boyfriend coming?’ ‘Yes,’ Leah said. ‘You’ll like him.’ ‘I won’t.’ She clicked her tongue. ‘Well, then, you’ll pretend.’ What could it hurt? Aunt Margaret wouldn’t want me hanging around in Gloucester reminding her of her awful dead sister, and I didn’t want to spend Christmas being told to get out of the dog’s chair. I hadn’t celebrated Christmas with anyone for a while. Not even with myself. Decorating just seemed depressing when I knew the big day would be spent breathing in my mother’s fumes while we ate Hungry-Man dinners and loathed each other. But with the prospect of a Christmas getting drunk with Leah’s parents on the horizon, it seemed appropriate to sprinkle the place with a little festive cheer. I went into the spare room to see what I had. Not much: a few sad strands of garland and a sinister light-up Santa holding a sign that said, I’m coming!

I checked the bottom of the box. Christmas 2005, it said in my own handwriting. The same year Dad died. Well, at least it was a purchase I could explain away through grief.

For some reason I started going through Mom’s Mystery Box again. Nothing seasonal in there, but a book called It’s Your Turn, Roger found its way into my hand. I called Leah and told her. ‘Forget the googly eyes,’ she said. ‘You should write that on the urn and leave it out for when people called Roger come round.’ ‘I don’t know anyone called Roger.’ ‘Well, then, take it around town. Leave it on park benches and film it from a bush.’ ‘Maybe it’ll go viral.’ Leah yawned. ‘You’ll become a millionaire and then you can pay someone to teach you how to tell the fucking time.’I took the book downstairs and opened it. It was about a pig who didn’t want to set the table, so he went around his apartment block and ate all kinds of gross dinners, which for some reason made him want to go home and do his chores.

I didn’t remember refusing to set the table. Not vehemently enough that I needed to be taught some manners by urbanised cartoon pigs, anyway. But as I turned the pages, I got a sense of déjà vu, which I eventually recognised as an actual memory. My mom, sitting under the blanket with me in her lap, both of us smelling like bath salts, and her reading me this book.

Aunt Margaret did say Mom used to read to me. I never remembered it before.


I packed the book when I was getting ready to fly to London. I packed the photographs and the booties too.

‘You do know Paris is in another country,’ Leah said, when I told her my plan.

‘It’s just two hours on the train,’ I said. ‘I drive longer than that to get good coffee.’

‘Americans,’ Leah said. ‘Fine. I’ll book us some seats.’

‘One more thing,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid the NSA will confiscate the urn, and I don’t want to put it in checked baggage in case they lose my bag, so I looked it up and it turns out it’s legal for me to mail human remains.’

Something crackled on the line. ‘Pardon?’ Leah said.

‘Her remains. I can mail them.’ It occurred to me then that maybe it was a weird request. ‘I mean, if you don’t mind. If you don’t mind me mailing you some of my dead, burned-up mom.’

There was no horrified silence. Leah said, ‘Sure.’

Later that day, I emailed Leah a picture of my mom and me: Mom in a Tupperware specially purchased for the occasion and me with a ladle and a padded envelope. At the post office I wrote, Family Heirloom in the description box, and sent my mother off to England.

Leah texted me when the package arrived. The eagle has landed, she wrote. Then, This is some Flat Stanley shit, my friend.


Paris was bleached out by the winter sun, and it stank.

‘Don’t these people use bathrooms?’ I said, clinging to Leah’s sleeve as she marched us out of the station. ‘Why does it smell like piss?’

‘Oh, because Boston is a fragrant paradise?’ Leah consulted her folded-up map. ‘What do you want to do first?’

I’d decided I didn’t just want to come to Paris for the first time and not do anything except dump out what was left of my mom. Besides, I didn’t know where would be a good place. I wanted to look around a little first and find somewhere that was nice enough I wouldn’t feel guilty, but shitty enough that she’d fit right in.

‘She mentioned something about the Basilica,’ I said.

‘Righto,’ said Leah, and off we went.

It was a billion steps to the top, but Mom had been right: the view was really something. A man with a harp started playing La Vie en Rose and I turned to Leah, amazed.

‘Don’t get all paranormal on me,’ she said. ‘They play it all the time.’

‘You English are so underwhelmed.’

‘It’s our innate sense of superiority,’ Leah said.

Whatever. This was my trip, so Leah took me to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph and the big glass pyramid from The Da Vinci Code.

‘Paris is wasted on you people,’ she said when I made her take a picture of me standing in front of it. ‘Dear God.’

The day slipped by. I caught Leah looking at her watch a couple of times. Eventually, we drifted to a stop by the river. We were next to that bridge where people hang padlocks and throw the keys away. It was a nice idea, but it was tearing the bridge apart.

‘This will do,’ I said.

Leah sat down next to me and opened up my bag. ‘I don’t think we can throw this stuff in too.’

‘I just wanted to bring it.’ I showed Leah the picture of my dad. ‘I don’t know why she kept it all together, but I didn’t want to split it up.’

‘Wow,’ said Leah, looking closely at the picture. ‘You guys have exactly the same nose.’

It was true. At least I didn’t have to deal with any paternity drama.

Leah picked up the baby booties. ‘ June 1980,’ she read from the label. ‘Yours?’

‘Unless there’s a sibling I don’t know about.’ Oh, God. ‘Do you think there’s a sibling I don’t know about?

Leah was still looking at the label. ‘What month did you say your mom ran away?’

‘December 1979.’

Leah’s eyes met mine briefly, then flickered away. ‘I guess we know why she came back.’

‘We do?’ I said, and then the penny dropped. ‘Oh.’

‘And you told me you’d never been to Paris.’ Leah stamped her feet a little. Her nose looked kind of blue.

It was starting to get dark. Paris wasn’t cold like Boston was cold, but at home people knew how to dress for the weather. In Paris nobody wore thermal gloves or a hat. I was freezing my ass off just looking at them.

I thought about Mom, on that warm day in Paris in December 1979, and I wondered if she felt cold when she realized I had stowed away with her; a secret passenger on her flight from the marital bed. I wondered if she sat on this bench, next to this bridge, with the love of her life next to her and me in her belly, putting a full stop at the end of her adventure with every beat of my heart.

‘You know, it’s funny,’ I said. ‘Here I always thought she ruined my life. Turns out it was the other way around.’

‘Oh, sweetheart,’ Leah said. I crumpled over sideways and she wrapped me in her soft, soft arms. I pressed my head into the plump curve of her neck. She rocked me back and forth. ‘Listen, listen. She was a terrible human being.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. I thought about the Hungry-Man dinners and the cigarette smoke. I thought about the marks on my arms. I thought about It’s Your Turn, Roger and Aunt Margaret in her yellow hat. I thought about how she ran away to Paris, and how she came home.

‘Sit up,’ Leah said, after a while. ‘Sit up, Kate.’

I did. Leah wiped my face with a handkerchief and shook me by the shoulders a little bit.

‘It’s time to let it go, my friend,’ she said. ‘It’s time to let her go.’

I took the Tupperware out of my bag. The ashes shifted oddly in my hand. I tipped them up and Mom went clouding down into the river, drifting slightly on the breeze. She didn’t blow back into my face.

Leah rubbed my knee. ‘Do you want to say something?’

I thought about it. We never said anything to each other while she was alive. It seemed inappropriate to start after her death.

Some ducks came paddling over to see what was what. One of them gave my Mom’s ashes a peck.

‘Gross,’ I said. Another one started pecking too, and then they were all at it. Carnivorous Parisian river ducks: who knew?

Leah laughed. She held my hand in her lap. Her palms around mine were like warm, sweet dough.

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘Any time,’ she said.

Our train wasn’t for another hour. We didn’t have anywhere else to be. So we sat, hand in hand, on the bank of the river, watching the ducks eat my mother as the sun went down.