Broken Shells by Bruce Costello

Monday, November 16, 2020
A woman attends her cousin's funeral and sees the kind of person he really was; by Bruce Costello.

Surrounded by daffodils and stillness, my cousin Billy lies in an eco-friendly willow coffin, serene as a wax doll. I run a hand across his once flaxen hair.

How strange. It's not him. Just a shell. Where's he gone? I bend down and kiss the shell's forehead.

We were playmates as kids. We didn't like each other much but played well together. Our families stayed the summer holidays in Long-Drop Cottage at Kai River Mouth. Billy was nearly a year older, and he was a boy, but that didn't matter to me. Neither of us had brothers or sisters. It was just the two of us, running around the sand hills, playing on the beach, looking for lizards, searching for pretty shells, mucking about, as kids do.

It came to an end when his mother and father caught us playing doctors and nurses.

"My own son... a sexual abuser!" Billy's mother shrieked.

"Hold on! They're only kids. It's just curiosity, what kids do," his father protested. But she pushed him aside, picked up a piece of driftwood and turned into a monster.

As an adult, I can understand that her rage was a reaction to some trauma from her own past. But knowing this now does not lessen the impact the incident had on us when we were only seven or eight years old.

Time passed. I grew up, went to university, became a radio journalist and hung out with the smart people. We met after work in fashionable bars, used the f word a lot, and were very loud. Our clothes followed the fashions of the day, as did our views, though we each tried to be unique and in this we were all alike.

Billy didn't do too well. He had scraps with the law and was usually out of work, apart from the occasional laboring job.

He never married, steered away from women, went from flat to flat, and ended up living by himself in Long-Drop Cottage.

Over the years, Kai River Mouth had lost its status as a holiday spot for city people and degenerated into a cheap place for alternative types. Dropouts lived there. Druggies, artists, poets, hippies, dreamers, writers and the like.

The last time I spoke to Billy was a few years ago when I rang on his birthday. He told me he'd taken up painting.

"Are you painting the cottage?"

"No. Real painting. Artwork."



"Oh, really?"

A motley mob of mourners arrives at the church late for Billy's funeral, as if they've all caught the same bus or come in a convoy of jalopies. Most look like they wouldn't have two sticks to start a fire. They shuffle about finding seats.

Billy's mother is in a wheelchair in the front row. A crocheted blanket is draped across her shoulders. There is a nurse sitting beside her. I've not seen Billy's mother for forty years and now can see only the back of her head. But I can imagine her face.

A minister wearing a dog collar leads the formal part of the service. Afterwards, leaning forward across the lectern and gazing over his spectacles, he asks:

'Does anybody have personal memories of Billy they wish to share to further celebrate his life?"

An elderly man with a long pointed beard stands up. If he had a pointed hat, his name might be Gandalf. He introduces himself as a neighbor and friend of Billy.

"Let's get to the point, my dear Sir," the man says, turning to the minister. "You spoke about the 'unfortunate circumstances' of Billy's demise, but omitted to mention what they were. Well, Billy topped himself. Swallowed pills, went to bed and died without a fuss, same way he lived. Why? We don't know. He never talked about himself, but let me say, he was always there for other people. Never claimed to understand them, reckoned that no person could accurately understand another person. He just listened, said little and accepted people as they were."

A woman calls out: "He made us feel loved!"

"Indeed he did, Madam," says Gandalf, and sits down, wiping his cheeks.

A thin man in a poncho gets up, blows his nose, and says in an odd sing song:

"Billy was an awesome artist. If you lived at Kai River, he'd paint your portrait for free. He saw the emotions in your head, gave them life on your face, gently, gently, and with kindness. It made you feel free, and no longer alone."

A shrivelled woman, with a meek expression on a childlike face, pulls herself to her feet, gripping the shoulder next to her.

"He showed me what love is," she cries out in a voice cracked with age. She crosses herself and subsides back down.

Gandalf stands again.

"The week before he died, Billy told me there was a torment from his past he wanted to talk about, but had never been able to. Said he'd managed to rise above his own sadness by listening to other people's pain, but this wasn't working for him anymore. I hoped he would open up to me." He looks around the room with his keen blue eyes. Red patches show on his face. "But he didn't. Now we'll never know."

"So sad," somebody cries out, setting off a chorus of voices.

"Such a kind man."

"So selfless."

"A real Christian."

"To think what he suffered."

"God rest his soul."

"And we never knew what he was going through."

"He wanted to tell us but couldn't."

"Sometimes we are not granted knowledge of the circumstances that shape our loved ones on their journey through life," the minister says. "Does anybody else wish to speak?

I close my eyes, but cannot escape the flashback inside my head. Billy's mother is beating Billy with driftwood. Her face is scarlet and twisted. The scene is as vivid as it was on the day, a reenactment rather than a memory. I hear Billy's screams. I see his blood and feel my terror.

With racing heart, scarcely able to breath, I struggle to my feet, eyes fixed on the old woman in the wheelchair.

Somebody takes my hand and I begin to speak.


  1. Poignant and insightful about what we can and can’t know about other people.

  2. A touching character study via eulogy, but I cannot forgive Costello for not letting us hear her words at the end. I'd like to know whether she continues in same vein as repeatedly expressed or opens up that long closed can of worms.

  3. Ah, Chris, I leave that to your imagination.

  4. Ah, Bruce, you said it all as you you described it,you didnt have to say any more. Well done,brilliant!

  5. This story packs and an emotional wallop that stayed with me long after I’d read it. With an economy of words, Costello convincingly portrays the lifelong, crippling effects of severe childhood trauma and shows us the cousin’s heart-rending attempt to cope with his broken shell of a self by nurturing others. The ending with the woman about to share what she and her cousin were never able to reveal was particularly moving.

  6. Excellent tale. I can hear the MC telling the truth to the crowd and imagine Billy's mother's painful reaction. The story serves as an excellent reminder of how little we know about the people we are around each day and how important it is to communicate.

  7. This story takes my breath away. Some things can never be resolved in this lifetime. So sad. Excellent writing.

  8. Short and powerful. Love how the ending reinforces the story's theme.

  9. Great read, Bruce. Congrats.

  10. This is a poignant reflection on how childhood experiences and trauma can shape or warp the lives of adults. I appreciate the courage on the part of the narrator, choosing to speak up at the very end, despite the blowback she may experience from Billy's mother when the narrator exposes that woman's savage barbarity to her own son.