Not many people embrace death like Joan did. Andrew’s passing started her simultaneous love and fear affair with it.
Three months following Andrew’s burial, Joan made her first new friend; friends were not previously welcomed in the marital home. After forty-six years of solitude she was rusty at small talk, especially with other men. Fortunately Simon was patient. However, Joan was impatient with herself and surprised Simon after six months with a lingering kiss that ended in morning coffee.
Loving life Joan didn’t want to die, her children wouldn’t understand her need for a separate grave from their father.
Allen was scared. It was not the type of fear that resulted in an immediate desire to run for his life – although he had experienced that – this was an old, familiar fear that he thought he had left in his teenage years. This ancient, buried dread crawled up out of the ground and grasped his ankles without warning. All the fight had departed from him, so he just gave in and accepted it.
The message he received was the touch paper to this episode. That morning his own reaction surprised him. In fact for the past five years, he had believed that he’d stopped caring about other people’s opinions, then that name from the past appeared on his screen and had jolted him back in time, and he was newly confused and as nervous as a teenager about to go on a first date.
His sister had text him that she’d seen a friend of his in their home town. George.
George was not just any friend, George was his best friend. They were like two sides of a coin – always together. But it was obvious that they weren’t related because they looked so different, but they were still like twins with their behaviour, emerging teenage style and strong opinions about everything from what real music was, the best drugs and everything about sex. George’s unruly ginger hair was almost equal in size to Allen’s neatly trimmed afro, they also somehow managed to end up with similar clothes as well – probably due to the few shopping options in their small town, and the fact that their mothers often met in the High Street.
‘George,’ Allen said.
‘Yeah, mate.’ The reply was absentminded, easy and casual like everything between them.
‘D’you wanna go fishing tomorrow?’
‘Yeah. Why not? Got nothing else on.’
‘Cool. I’ll get the stuff ready tonight – we’ll have to go early like, alright?’
‘Sure. Whatever.’ George paused and looked up from the games console, ‘You’re so serious about fishing and I always get the best catch – every time! I don’t know why you keep trying so hard. I’m always gonna beat you.’
They laughed together, and Allen smiled because he knew George was right, as usual, he did get the biggest fish, but Allen didn’t care, he just like hanging out with George.
‘It’s funny!’ George observed, suddenly being unusually serious for his teenage self, ‘I’m better at things that you like doing, and you’re better at things that I like. We’re a right pair of wally’s!’ The statement was accompanied with his usual laughter aimed at Allen – but not spitefully. They messed around, but not to permanently hurt each other. They never fell out for more than a day. That’s not what they did, not who they were.
They had left school with duplicate Technical Certificates and went into similar apprenticeship jobs, so it was not unusual to see them together, at either parents’ house. They knew that they would have a meal saved for them every night whichever house they ended up in; both sets of parents had informally adopted the other boy. The boys themselves hadn’t questioned it or expected anything else. They just continued the friendship that they had started when they met in the first term of secondary school.
As close as they were, they did have time apart when puberty and girlfriends appeared on the scene, but never more than a few evenings without seeing each other. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
‘Oh! Morning George,’ said Mrs Mason bumping into him outside the bathroom.
‘Morning, Mrs Mason.’ His slow response reflected his desire to still be asleep but he knew he couldn’t miss any more days at work, his attendance record was not as good as Allen’s who never missed a day.
‘I didn’t know you stayed over last night. You two must have got back late. Did you ring your mother?’
‘Yes, of course. Allen made me!’
‘Good. Don’t be late to work – that’s both of you! Best you both get up and get out quickly, it’s nearly 8 o’clock. See you two later?’
‘’Spect so. Bye.’
The conversations were reversed when Allen stayed at George’s house, with the exception that he didn’t have to be asked if he called home – he always did. He was always conscientious of other people’s feelings. At George’s he used the spare sleeping bag on the floor and George would use the pull out bed when he was at the Mason’s house.
Initially when Allen moved away for work they called and met up at weekends or went on holidays together and with other friends. They remained tight for years until Allen’s 25th birthday party in Birmingham.
After that George started calling Allen ‘Jester’ whenever he went home for the weekend, and then they started slipping out of each other’s lives without fanfare.
It was at a surprise encounter after three years before George suddenly said, ‘So, what’s this Jester’s bar you’re always at?’ It was like he was jabbing a knife at Allen’s chest.
‘What you talking about?’ Allen was surprised and confused.
‘The Jester, you plonker! Don’t act thick’
Everything was strained between them. There was no friendly greeting, just the verbal assault. George knew why things had changed, he had seen something new and found out a secret, but he never said anything before that Sunday years later.
Allen flushed. It was difficult for most people to see when he was embarrassed because of his dark complexion, but George knew him. He knew he’d hit a nerve, so he jabbed again.
‘At your 25th. When you were first in Brum, The Jester.’
Allen felt like a boxer suddenly on the ropes. He floundered.
What did George think? What did he really know? What did this mean to them?
Immediately Allen fully understood the silence that had grown between them.
‘One of your mates, from your work you said, the one with the pink shirt and way too neat hair, him, he said he’d see you at the ‘Jester as usual’. You didn’t know that I’d heard? Obviously …’
‘George … mate,’ Allen faltered to find the words he needed. But they evaporated from his throat before he could form them, and George threw his final combination blows that further winded Allen.
‘You could have told me! I thought I was your best mate. How could you?!’
‘George, I wanted to … I mean, I tried to … you know, say something, but …’
‘But what, Allen?! You couldn’t find the right time? Is that the excuse you’re going with?’
‘Well, yeah. But it’s not an excu …’
‘Oh, shut up!’ George’s face had reddened to complement the colour of his hair. He was shouting now. Allen was both sad and happy that he was with George and they were talking, well shouting at that exact moment, but it was a connection and he’d missed the familiar feel of being around someone who knew him before he’d started to discover himself. Of course he’d made new friends since moving to Birmingham, but they weren’t the right shape to fit into the best friend gap he held carefully in his chest.
‘It’s the weakest shitting excuse ever,’ George fumed. He had held his sadness quietly for years, and now he released it like a tornado. He wanted to explain how he’d missed Allen, but he had no-one to tell. His new mates didn’t understand people like Allen. They didn’t know he was … just Allen. Nothing else. Just Allen. His mate.
‘You just pissed off and said nothing. Like fucking blue mist! What was I supposed to think? What was I supposed to do?’
Allen realised he had been too busy looking from his cloudy side of life’s mirror to notice that George had been on the other side trying to get to him. Allen felt the tears on his face but didn’t know when they had started. He didn’t care. He was shaking on the inside and was afraid his organs were going to react to the disturbance and relocate in his body. Everything hurt like he’d been in a vehicle collision. ‘So, this is sadness,’ he mused. ‘It sucks.’
He instinctively knew he had just encountered a different kind of heart break to the one he had imagined would destroy him or the kind he felt when he broke up his short relationships. This new type of pain was core deep and one that even welding did not seem able to address. All he wanted to do was get back on the train and go to his flat in Birmingham, and close the door. His friendship had cracked into hundreds of splinter sharp pieces of honeycomb because he’d been distracted by himself.
Then, like a sudden break in the clouds, George’s face reverted to the face of his seventeen year old self and Allen felt a serge of hope and wiping his face awkwardly, he offered, ‘I didn’t know what you’d think if I told you the …’
George unexpectedly hardened his face immediately and scowled at his one-time friend, then he turned smartly on his heel and walked off throwing a parting comment over his shoulder, ‘You didn’t know? You didn’t know?! Like I said. Fucking excuses. All that time we spent together – for fuck’s sake, Allen! You’re a wanker! I though … I thought we were friends. How wrong was I?’
Allen again looked at the text from his sister, ‘You never guess who I saw last week?! George. Your friend George from school. He’s back in town. He asked about you. I said you were fine, but said he should call you himself. He said he didn’t have your number (why???!), but gave me his for you to contact him. Here it is …’
So, Allen stared at his phone, and the words and numbers became hieroglyphics and cave paintings in his hand as he regressed to the nascent fear that pervaded his everyday decisions and routine self-presentation. He had finally chosen to be honest with himself in his third decade, but – like a teenager – he still cared what George thought of him. George who he had shared so many secrets with, George who was the brother he never had, the same George who had disappeared and taken a whole portion of Allen’s life with him. That George wanted to get in touch with him again.
Allen wondered if best friends remained best friends for life, and concluded that calling the number would answer that question for George, because Allen, the grown man with the sensitive teenager’s heart, had never removed the ‘best friend’ label from George’s name even when he was suffocating in fear.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2018
They look satisfied with themselves. They have every reason to. They have done this before and the results are always the same. They get what they want and how they want it. They all wear smugness before they have even begun.
She looks calm. But inside she is more scared that she’d ever admit. This is not something that they need to know. She has decided to be brave for as long as possible.
Nobody knows just how long this will last but each of them agrees that the outcome will be the same. Even she agrees with them, but they don’t know that. She just wants it all to be over and for things to go back to the way they were before. But she knows that won’t happen. Her immediate concern is how things will change now.
There is a long table that splits the room in two and she is the only one on one side. They all enter the room after her and choose seats away from her. Each of them puts a bag or briefcase on the table. Only one man, sat at the far end of the table, brings nothing with him apart from a pen that he presses off and on nervously. He was never any good at confrontation. She thinks that he is only there to make up the numbers.
Seven of them against just her.
Nobody speaks. They all know why they are there. One of the group looks up at her, she catches his eye and he quickly looks away. She is not sure if he gave a look of sympathy or just curiosity. Shaking away the possibility of more deception she looks down at her brief before her. She knows she cannot afford to be sidetracked from her focus by wondering if she has a silent ally in the group.
It has been months now and not one of them has spoken a word to her since they had arranged the meeting. They had taken the time to prepare their case against her. They are convinced that it is a tight case. There have been no more invites to dinner, no casual encounters in the shopping centre or the park. She feels as if she had been living on a different continent since they openly accused her. This was the first time she had seen them in months and she realises that she has missed them.
Thinking about them as adversaries does not diminish the fact that she has memories of happy times with many of them. They had grown up together. They were as close as family. They had been her only family since she had begun her studies at the university.
The tall man speaks first. He has opened his case and taken out two items that he places one on top of the other directly in front of him. His long fingers caress the black leather cover and the gold edges. She watched him press his curved thumb into the middle of the front cover then taking half of the pages in his hand he repeatedly flicks them downwards. It is now she realises that he is nervous.
“Shall we begin?” He looks at his watch, “I know we are all busy people, so I thank you all for taking the time to meet here to discuss a way forward.” He pauses and stares at her across the table. One by one they all look at her, with unblinking eyes.
“We were all disappointed to hear of this … deceit in our midst. But we are here today to follow the correct procedure to resolve this matter.”
“Let’s pray.” He bends his head expecting total compliance.
“I’d rather you didn’t pray for me,” her voice breaks the silence and heads snap back upwards. They all stare at her for a few seconds before looking curiously at their leader.
“It’s for all of us,” he replies and proceeds in his special intoning voice. She is the only one who does not bow her head. She takes the opportunity to listen to his deep smooth voice and looks at the other six heads bowed like a row of ants each side of him. He is sat slightly to one side of her position. She wonders why he didn’t sit opposite her.
The assault begins as soon as the seven of them chorus “Amen!”
“It has been brought to my attention …” he begins. They all nod, murmur and glare at her for the next hour. He leafs through his book and his notepad as he proceeds. She is silent all the way through. He appears more uncomfortable than he should be, everybody notices but nobody knows why.
It is her turn to speak and she does. She refutes every point he made. Some of them look to him for assurance. He says nothing. He didn’t think she’d do this. He thought he knew her better.
“How dare you think you can do this to me and expect I’d have nothing to say. Did you think I’d be the same as all the others you have successfully bulldozed into silent submission?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but ‘newsflash’, I am different because I have the truth.”
“Truth! Uh?! You disgust me!” One by one they begin to object to her.
“How dare you speak to us like that?”
“You have no idea what truth is, you live in perversion.”
The pastor raises his hand for silence as some of the elders also angrily motion their intention to leave. There is a noisy dragging of wood on wood as the chairs are returned to the table. They all lean on their closed briefcases and glare, with open hostility, across the table at her.
“I know that it’s the people you have been mixing with that have corrupted you in this way.” He shakes his head slowly as he speaks. He seems genuinely saddened by the words that have been shared in anger in the previous hours. “I will pray for you, Mags. You are still a child of God.”
“My name is Magdiel. Only my friends call me Mags.” Her eyes spark with anger. “I’ve told you before not to call me that. You’re not my friend. You’ve never been my friend.”
“I’m still your pastor.” He speaks calmly and the authority and assurance in his voice is soothing to those on the other side of the table. They nod and murmur in the right places. “I am trying to help you.” He looks to his left then to his right with an inclusive glance. “We are all trying to help you. You’d believe if you were also looking for the truth. There is no other way. You know that.”
Nobody spoke for a few seconds. One of the two women who were sat opposite Magdiel shot a look of pure hatred across to her; it hurt. They had been friends for a long time. Magdiel had often stayed at Sylvia’s home and her children had called her ‘Aunty Mags’, they had all loved each other. Then the rumours started and the friends slipped into enemy colours.
“We have no alternative but to inform you that as long as you continue to live a life of sin you are no longer welcome to meet with us.” He closed his bible and pushed his chair back.
“This meeting is now closed.” He stood up and walked around the chair.
“I will make your secrets known,” she speaks clearly, looking directly at him. None of them on the other side of the table needed any legal interpreter to explain her promise. Her law career had once been a source of pride for the church as they congratulated her on each milestone she achieved; she was one of them. She specialised in child law, protecting vulnerable children from abusive relationships. “You’re all living the same illusion, you think that detesting me is logical.”
Now they were faced off against the skill they once admired.
Unused to being defeated they started to shuffle away from the table wearing nervous mystified looks.
Magdiel also stood up, “I haven’t finished speaking yet,” she said loudly. “There is something else you should know as you consider the righteousness of your positions and the so-called truth that you think only you have access to.”
Reluctantly some of them turned back. No matter how they despised her they were enthralled by her knowledge and surprised that she had suddenly confounded them. They wondered, as with one mind, what else she had to say.
She didn’t keep them waiting long.
The internal shaking had begun again but Magdiel forced it into one corner of her heart. She remained standing as six of them resumed their seats. The pastor alone stood, opposite her. He didn’t want her to speak any more. He wanted his group to leave.
“Brethren,” he used his preaching voice to project around the room, “I think we have heard enough of this. No more can be gained here.” Again he had their attention, but not completely.
“While you can believe anything you want to about me – and I know you have already formed your opinions with the false information you have made up or heard – know this, I don’t care what you do any more. I am free from your lies and hold on my life. I know my own truth. I don’t need any of you to fulfil my dreams or my destiny. I have a separate purpose.”
She paused to look at each of them. They exuded impatience. What they wanted was to be out of the board room and back in their familiar lives. They knew she would remain misguided while they remained righteous.
“This man who leads you, the new shepherd to your flock, this … man of God,” she could no longer keep the sarcasm at bay as all eyes turned to their pastor. They were prepared to defend him at a moment’s notice. Righteous indignation was already being manufactured in their guts and they were primed to spew it all over her, if only they had permission.
Five of them had already decided that they didn’t need permission to say their piece. Each of them would take the first opportunity to speak to Magdiel without holding back on their true thoughts. It would be the truth, not this watered down politically correct way of speaking at this meeting. They were just biding their time. This meeting first, then their time.
“Several years ago when I was just a child really, I was feeling very low, I was at the beginning of my journey to the truth. I knew I was different so I sought help. I didn’t live around here then, as you know, but I came to the church and pastor, yes this same pastor you see standing before you …”
“We’re done here!” He thundered. “Come on brethren, we can do nothing else for this wicked child. God loves the sinner but not the sin. We must go before she corrupts our minds with her filth.”
Magdiel laughed for the first time that day. His fear had a shape. It was her.
Three people got up again and began to move towards the door. The others lingered, not quite knowing why their loyalty was being tested by her.
Before the pastor reached the door Magdiel continued to speak and several heads turned back to listen.
“Pastor Precious here, has been putting his persuasive skills to what he considers good use.”
“Let’s leave now!” He bellowed from the doorway.
They had many reasons to leave but they stayed. Even those who had stepped out of the room came back and hovered in the doorway. Their curiosity was awake now. He hoped she would stop. Reading their faces Magdiel saw the hope some of them carried was that she would crucify herself with her words. They did not expect the truth.
“Pastor William Johns, this highly educated leader of three churches in this area, used his psychological training to identify the weakness in a vulnerable questioning person and he forced her to have sex with him.”
The gasps were accompanied by cries of “Lies”, “Disgusting” and “Not true”, but when they looked at the pastor their protests fell silent.
“More than once as well.” She shudders and looks at his head because his eyes are downcast.
“His lie to me on those many occasions was ‘I’m doing you a favour’. I’m sure his wife will not look on it in quite the same way when she knows that I was just one of many young girls he’s ‘favoured’. Not one of you can judge me – I’m not perfect but I’m not corrupt. I live the truth, openly. I live for equality and justice, as you all know. Can any of you say the same thing? Can you, Pastor?”
His arrogance has been replaced by shock and shame.
She leaves the room and fluidly closes the door behind her.
She knows that now everything has changed for everyone that was in that room.
She does not see how they look now they have her truth.
Marjorie H Morgan © 2018
She heard the noise around her. It seemed to have always been like this as long as she could remember. Today was possibly the worse as the sounds felt like they had morphed into a personalised attack on her brain as she searched for a fragment of peace and stillness. A new string of thoughts appeared out of a wormhole somewhere in her left arm. It had been happening for … a period that had no start or end, so she could not put a structure or name to it. The first thought she recognised was persistent: this is madness. The others shape-shifting thoughts followed in rapid succession without leaving her breathing space. All these people. They were everywhere. No room that she wandered into was every empty of the mysterious blurred faces.What were they doing in their house? Who let them in? Where were her children? Where was her husband?
The lack of immediate answers to these questions created a deep fear that something inside of her was not working correctly and that there was going to be a messy explosion of all of her organs any minute. Her instinct was to grab hold of anything solid nearby – like the oak bed that dominated the middle of the room – but instead she sat perfectly still facing a mirror as her sister adjusted the large-brimmed hat that was crookedly perched on her head. Looking at what should have been her own reflection Patricia struggled to identify herself in the ashen image she saw. She could not even remember getting dressed that morning. Remembering anything was hard. Forgetting was easier. As she sat there like a tailor’s dummy she instinctively knew there was a day – that she could just about remember the edges of – when they were a whole family. Somewhere in that day lay the foundations of the foggy tunnel she was currently lost in.
She started to focus on the pinhead of its origins that she could still make out, and when it began to become clear in her mind she blinked rapidly and then stubbornly refused to allow the memory to be reborn. ‘If I don’t know it, then it can’t be true,’ she tried to persuade herself as she automatically raised her hand and wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes. ‘It’s not real. That’s right. It’s not real. Everything is normal.’ The fresh tears created dark rivulets of mascara down her sunken face ruining the make-up recently applied there by her sister.
Too tired to summon the effort to keep wiping her face she dropped her head to one side and closed her eyes. She hoped the dream world that she was in would disappear when she woke up. This endeavour to realign the planets needed a determined effort that created deep furrows in her forehead as she concentrated, and for a splinter of a moment she was where everything was boringly ordinary. As she settled comfortably into her memory the atmosphere she yearned for was broken on the turn of the isolated second she had just captured by a cold hand reaching into her calm seclusion and touching her gently, but firmly, on her left shoulder.
This had been recurring for an unending number of days – every time she grasped hold of a shattered memory someone would touch her, and break her dream spell so delicate threads of smoke from before now were blown into extinction. Whenever she opened her eyes she saw a multitude of faces, both strangely familiar and strangely strange, staring at her. They all told the same story: it was real. She tried to reject the truth in the downcast faces of all her watchers, but they would not stop shouting the dense permanence of her new reality. Patricia’s mind recoiled against her body and she shuddered.
Tiredly she opened her eyes again. She accidentally caught the sympathetic gaze of an unknown woman who stood by her bedroom door and spontaneously the tears fell again, but this time they felt unusually heavy – more like blood than water – as they continued dripping down her face and fell weightily into her lap.
‘It’s time,’ a floating voice said as it broke through into her maze of thoughts. It sounded like her sister Sandra had sounded when they were children. But she could not be sure of whose voice it was today. With assistance she stood and walked through the throngs of bodies lining her walls looking like strange black fruit. Time was still misbehaving when she finally reached downstairs and was led to the front door; after the comforting dimness of their bedroom the harsh brightness of the sky outside temporarily blinded her. Momentary panic set in followed by a wish that she would never see anything again. As her sight adjusted to the light she saw repeated long rows of blurred black and white images before her. She let herself be directed towards the centre of them. Her children trailed behind her. They were like a line of ants following spilt sugar. Every action was automatic.
As she stepped into the car her will finally collapsed.
In her last resolution she resolved never to resolve again. From that first moment in the glaring sunlight the day went according to somebody’s well prepared plan and she played her enforced part in it: the chess board Queen.
Patricia’s mind remained elsewhere.
The people started to arrive at the church early. The official start time was 2:00 p.m., but the deacons had opened the main doors from noon when there were half a dozen people already waiting outside the building. They had come early to ensure a good seat where they could hear and see every movement of the proceedings – they also wanted to be seen.
Brother and Sister Mackenzie were among the first people there, they were official funeral-goers. Their church attendance for weddings, christenings and especially funerals, had become a habit like depositing time in a high interest savings account from which they expected to make a withdrawal of respect in their too near future. They knew Tony from the day he was born, he called them Aunty and Uncle when he learnt how to speak. Tony’s parents, their friends and countrymen, said they fit together like a pot and its lid.
Joe Mackenzie was a ripe septuagenarian and still walked without a stick. He was the quieter one of the pair. His wife, of 51 years, mostly known as ‘Miss Ivy’ used her walking stick to enhance her self-appointed status as a wise and righteous older woman. Her supporting rod was a carved ebony structure that she had purchased on a special trip to the Holy Land in her younger, more sprightly years. She had bought it before she physically needed to use it, but as she always said ‘yu hab fi mek sure dat tum-morrow nuh ketch yu a nap, fi wen ‘im sneak up, ‘im will mek yu drop, sudden suh!’ Miss Ivy had been the most vocal since they met when she was 19, Joe knew he was lucky that she chose him and happily accepted that they grew into themselves and their increasingly lined faces at the same time they grew their own children.
In the church the moments between noon and 1 p.m. passed like time had been anaesthetised. So between naps Miss Ivy looked around the sanctuary, taking in the detail of things she liked and other things that she was not too keen on. She saw many familiar faces, but even more faces that were strange to her entered the church. Some were obviously from out of town. When there were about a hundred people present, the noise level started to rise where before it had been a reverently quiet whisper that crept around the beautifully arranged flowers. Now they were all laughing and calling to each other across the church.
‘Yu still ‘ere? Mi ‘ear seh yu dead lang time!’
‘No sah! Mi ‘till ah batta batta galang.’
The joking banter was as scripted as the behaviour of the older men who always found a corner, outside of whichever church they were at, to assemble on and reminisce about the old days while they awaited the arrival of the family. The grey haired, felt-hatted men dressed lavishly. Their jackets were unfashionably long, their starched shirts were pure cotton and whiter than imaginable by any detergent advertiser. Their trousers were always coal black with creases sharper than a chef’s paring knife. They dressed as smartly as they always had in their youth even though they were now living at the turn of the century; they were ready for their own time to come.
The younger men – of all ages from forties down to the teenagers – were in their own natty uniforms, the style of their trousers was the main dividing line as it reflected what was vogue at their own masculine peak. However, there was no uniformity to be found in the attire of the women mourners who wore a variety of dresses, skirts, blouses, and trousers topped off with a matching hat if they were over fifty. Before the day was over half of the assembled women would weep as if it was their own spouse being buried, the other half would behave like robots to make sure everything was organised and all the food was cooked and served to the crowds of people at the wake in the evening.
By 1:30 p.m. the church was full with friends, relatives and work colleagues. Some people had travelled for days from the other side of the world after hearing about the sudden accidental departure, and they sat pristine in their grief as they waited for the ceremony of thanks for Tony’s life to begin. There was no long illness, or time to acclimatise to this passing. Tony’s death was an unwelcome surprise – especially to him as he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the lorry approaching him at the roundabout at an unexpected speed.
Anyone who arrived less than half an hour before the allocated start time was deemed a late-comer. The they entered the church they started to look hopefully at seats sandwiched between people in the middle of rows. As they edged optimistically towards the seat they were invariably told that the seat was taken and that the owner had gone for a quick toilet break before the family arrived with the coffin. Some late arrivals, although disappointed that they would have to stand for the length of the service in the heat of the crowded church, nevertheless found themselves a space to lean on against the cold brick walls. Others, aware of their predicament, but prepared to take a risk, went to the front three rows of clearly marked reserved seats and guaranteed themselves the wrath of every other mourner for the entire day. They chose to be selectively deaf to the murmurs of, ‘Dem too bad-mind’ and ‘Dem kyan read?’
A short while after 2:25 p.m. a sudden hush came over the church as the young, old-looking Patricia entered followed by her small children. The silence moved across the heads of the seated congregation and settled in the darkened vestry portal and then, as the wife, now a widow, was led to her seat in the front row, a low murmuring spread through the congregation as they commented to each other on how ‘she look draw’ and ‘wat a burden fi bear at such a tender age.’ Tony’s parents – sat numbly in the front pew of the church – carried their own version of grief: the type used only by people who had to bury their children.
As Patricia took her seat the women in the congregation, simultaneously, as if their movements were directed by an invisible conductor, reached into their bags or pockets for stored handkerchiefs, which – depending on their age – were either well pressed cotton squares or small packets of tissues. They all came prepared for either their tears or someone else’s.
The organist started playing a sombre tune and an air of uncertainty and gloom pervaded the brightly decorated interior, and like a visiting spectre it lightly touched every person within hearing distance. While from outside the church the voice of the young pastor was heard speaking clearly as he read from the Bible. Douglas Reid was preceding the coffin into the church. His face was sombre and he looked older than his young 35 years as the responsibility of officiating over the funeral of his friend Anthony Barrett weighed heavily on his shoulders. The pall bearers were also struggling with a weight: the coffin itself. It was the heaviest, widest, and most expensive coffin to have entered that church in the last decade. Tony’s family only wanted to give the best display for his sudden farewell. So they had selected the immense black and silver American-styled casket that had ornate silver decorations evenly placed along the length of each side through which long ebony carrying poles were situated.
The six pallbearers, Tony’s family and closest friends, listened to the instructions of John Stephens, the funeral director, as they lowered the huge coffin from their shoulders in order to get it through the church door. They tried not to show that they were struggling with the task, but their fearful gasps and whispered comments to each other were audible above the low hum of chatter from the congregation that watched with curious anticipation. They wore immaculately sharp dark suits, highly polished shoes, and dark sunglasses which they wore throughout the service while they sat with heads mostly bowed, and they resembled the brothers of the Nation of Islam but without the bow ties.
The older men who followed the procession – some of whom had left their corner outside of the church – bowed their heads and held their hats in front of their chests like a guard of honour. The younger men chose to silently decorate the church foyer as they stood in their designer suits contemplating the weight of death. It seemed that everybody, including the smallest of children, who were already getting warm and restless in the overcrowded church, were aware of the awkward specialness of this occasion. They frequently looked upwards to their parents’ altered faces with questions that were met with a gentle pat on the back or a momentary rocking that signified that silence and quietness was necessary.
As the coffin was eventually laid on the trestles at the front of the church, the early-arrivers like Joe and Ivy Mackenzie could see the visible shaking of Patricia’s body – this is why they had strategically chosen their seats: to later discuss every detail of the service at the wake with those who did not have a good view or were only following the service via the PA system, it made them central to life for a short while.
Patricia, like the other people in the packed church, felt the presence and oppression of death after the coffin was raised on stilts in front of them. Pastor Douglas Reid, a family friend since he had graduated from Bible College, stood before the pulpit and closed his eyes while holding his left hand aloft.
‘Brethren,’ he started. En masse the gathered people shifted their focus from each other and looked towards him, all the while fanning themselves to disperse the heat. Their actions resembled the uniformed behaviour of meerkats on the lookout. ‘We are gathered here today together, united in grief …’
Yet only Patricia and Tony’s parents Renée and Benjamin felt entirely stripped naked by their grief. Patricia experienced the sensation of being exposed and vulnerable enough to break at even the slightest touch. The intense rawness of death’s reality hit her as she knew she would never physically be this close to Tony again for the rest of her life. Together they had had so many plans for the future. Now she was alone. Their joint designs, drawn together in private intimacy and hope, now seemed liked deflated balloons being blown into country hedgerows. Anger at Tony’s absence frightened her, then she felt hatred for those men who were still there – for their wives and children. ‘It’s not fair!’ She wailed silently to herself as she judged them and then discarded her handkerchief and left her tears to flow unstopped. The heat and humidity of the church did not affect the coldness in her bones. It was the same type of cold that came in bursts and had buffeted her from the moment that she had heard of his death, since then she had remained in a state of shock – suspended between belief and disbelief.
The church service itself was rousing. Pastor Reid spoke with the passion of familiarity and love about life and death. The songs were sung with extra gusto, and the prayers were greeted with loud ‘Ah-mens’. But, it was the eulogy that brought firstly silence, then more profuse tears from men and women alike, and then a low, almost constant murmuring of agreement at all that was said. Patricia stood, or rather leaned heavily against the pulpit. She was supported by her sister as she tried to speak about Tony. Her repeated attempts did not succeed. She broke down into a fresh burst of tears. Patricia had never been keen on public speaking but tradition had dictated that she set aside her grief and face the sea of eyes staring at her to talk about the only person she wanted to talk to. Sandra spoke in her place.
Patricia was helped back to her seat as family and friends lined up to share a memory about Tony. Comforting arms surrounded her as she sat in a daze listening to all the words, such beautiful past tense words that held no hope of a future for her and Tony. She tried not to think too hard about the content and the meaning of those letters that were being strung together. They only meant one thing to her. He was dead. She had lost the lid to her pot.
When the last prayer had been offered the pastor asked those who wanted to, to file past the open casket to say a final good-bye. The funeral director had propped the split lid of the casket open and Tony was there, in front of her, with his head unmoving and cushioned by the finest silk embroidery in the interior of the Royal Casket: her King.
The increasing heat of the church after the extended service aligned with the short tempers of the impatient people who started pushing and raising their voices to get in line to view the casket. ‘Brethren,’ Elder Bennett spoke gently into the PA system, ‘please remember Tony’s family is still here in the sanctuary. Please wait patiently to pay your last respects.’ Five minutes later the lead Elder returned to the microphone, ‘The funeral director has informed me that we will have to close the casket now as time is getting on. However, those of you who have not said a personal ‘goodbye’ here in the church may do so at the cemetery.’ Despite his words nobody left the long line of viewers, so he continued hopefully, ‘Thank you for your co-operation in this matter. If you could now make your way to the car park and prepare to attend the burial, the deacons situated on the doors will give you full directions. Thank you.’
It was after 4:30 p.m. before the main congregation started to leave the church. Most people wanted to catch up with friends they had not seen for months or years and in doing so they blocked the doors and exits as they greeted each other with a hug, a laugh or a friendly pinch or slap on the back.
As the people spilled into the street outside the church they surrounded the two black horses with long feathered plumes that were standing in front of the highly polished wooden and etched glass hearse; the horses were waiting patiently for their load. The hearse driver, in his sombre black hat and tails, stood next to the blinkered but increasingly restless horse nearest the kerb and tried to calm it down as the volume of the people finally released from the belly of the church increased. Both of the horses started to move around nervously in the car-lined street as old friends and relatives called out to each other across the crowds. Death connected them all, and there were no awkward silences that habitually arise when new strangers meet.
‘Ah yu dat?!’
‘Bwoy, ah lang time mi nuh see yu!’
‘Mek wi nock sum domino later, yu hear?’
‘Is Aunty here?’
‘How you doing, Smithy?’
‘Come here let me squeeze you …’
‘You look well!’
‘I’ve missed you.’
‘That’s never Junior, is it? He’s so big!’
‘I’ve been away for far too long.’
‘We must keep in touch more.’
‘Poor Patricia … and the children.’
‘It’s just so sad.’
‘Save me a place at the graveside.’
‘Mi soon come.’
‘Hey, Sully. You have room in your car me can kotch?’
‘Have you got a drink? I’m parched. Not water, the hard stuff.’
‘Come, come with me. I need to talk to you.’
‘How are you? I’ve missed you.’
‘I really can’t deal with this today …’
‘Do you have directions to the burying ground?’
‘Follow me, man. Follow me. That’s my whip there. Me and the boys’re gonna chip soon.’
‘D’yu have a light?’
‘That stuff will kill you … sorry. Bad timing. You know what I mean.’
‘Have you spoken to her yet?’
‘Gurrrrrl! You look fierce!’
‘I try. Even on days like this.’
‘You’re rocking black. Is that insensitive?’
‘Carol, I’ve run out of tissues. Is that shop still around the corner?’
‘Pat looks so mashed!’
‘Wait for me. I’ll be back in a minute. I’ve got to catch John before he disappears again.’
Just outside the church building was the starting block where old rifts were healed, but new ones had already replaced them by the end of the evening. Later in the hall where the wake was held, unwise love affairs were started in desperation to avoid the seeping grief. Although everyone tried to ignore it, the emotional balance of all of them was in turmoil for the whole day.
The children who had been allowed to attend the funeral, not Tony and Patricia’s children – they had no choice – the other children who were released to run free for a few minutes gravitated towards the large horses that stood out to them as an unusual sight for the grey urban street. The happiness of the children had not been stunted by either age or a sense of occasion. They wanted to touch and ride the horses. The hearse driver gently dissuaded them.
‘They’re working right now. Sorry. They’re not horses for riding, just for pulling the … carriage.’
‘Can I touch him?’
‘Can I feed him?’
‘He’s not hungry. He had his meal this morning. Thank you though. That’s a kind thought.’
John Stephens eventually had to ask the people to keep back from the horses when the coffin was exiting the church. For a moment they appeared to listen politely and then, turning their attention back to their previous focus point, they did whatever they wanted to. This was the way they always behaved at any funeral – for them it was a time to learn new facts about the deceased and a time to be self-centred because they were still alive in the midst of death.
It took nearly half an hour before the family wreaths were being replaced on top of the coffin in the hearse, the funeral director was looking nervously at his watch ever conscious that the booked time at the graveyard was rapidly passing. Years of practice had taught John Stephens that these Caribbean funerals had a regular habit of running over the allotted time as the grieving practices of the small island people seemed to differ from the short sharp service of some of the older indigenous British Isles folk. As he assessed the size of the crowd he thought ahead to the graveyard and envisaged that the hundreds of people in attendance at this funeral was going to be an absolute nightmare to control, but he said nothing and retained his mask of calm serenity that he had donned along with his black coat that morning.
Once the hearse was closed, without overt unseemly behaviour, John Stephens moved silently and unobtrusively through the crowd to Patricia Barrett’s side, he gently touched her elbow as he leaned slightly towards her and, in a well exercised manner and low tones, he informed her that the lead family car was ready for her and the immediate family to follow the hearse the few miles through the city. She looked dazed as she tried to focus on his face and words, but nevertheless she nodded and one of her guardians, who had overheard the information, steered her toward the opened car door. Once seated in the car Patricia saw only blurred human shapes as her eyes were focused on the middle distance of her life, yet she held her children to her with an uncomfortable tightness.
It still took another fifteen minutes of persuasion before the three family cars were fully occupied as people were busy sharing words of condolence with whoever they could. As the convoy of cars moved smoothly along the road Patricia thought of how Tony would have enjoyed the ride in the limousine: a heavy tear fell from her eye as she thought of the reality of the situation.
The Barrett mourners arrived at the cemetery at the same time as a later funeral party did. There was the expected confusion over the parking and, in their desperation to get to the graveside before the coffin was lowered, the Barrett family mourners left their cars on verges and along the side of the cemetery entry road; they stopped wherever they could find a space big enough to get even a wheel or a wing of their car into.
At the cemetery the colour purple was dotted, in a speckled-hen fashion, among the black and white landscape of the hundreds of mourners: some old traditionalists had chosen to grieve in the style of ancient kings and were bedecked from head to foot by matching shades of plum that bobbed and dived in the monochrome horizon. They headed towards the middle of the graveyard where a newly dug hole had appeared that morning. It looked like the ground had been sick and ejected its contents around the fresh gap in the earth.
A few of the older people slowly made their own zigzag path towards Tony’s plot instead of following the straight narrow concrete lanes; they passed and sometimes paused at the graves of other friends and family members who had their final resting place in what many of them still saw as a hostile land. Flowers were straightened and handfuls of over-running grass were removed and discarded from the personal monuments to the dead.
Patricia was lead to the head of Tony’s grave. Her sister, Sandra, who had not left her side for the past three days, was supporting her with her arm around her waist. Today she cried with her sister. Before the church service she had silently mourned with Patricia since the news came through. In the weeks since the news was delivered Sandra had only cried privately before she slept, because her love for Tony was more than that of a brother-in-law. She wished he had chosen her instead of her sister, she had tried – even after the wedding – to make him change his mind. Sandra was driven by the lifelong malice she held for her younger sister Patricia. However, today even though her sorrow was gorge deep she could only show the flattened sanitised version of her grief in public.
As the crowds get deeper around Patricia and her close family at the graveside the air becomes more solemn as it fills with people’s own personal sadness at their failed plans and frustrated dreams that they carry on their shoulders to every funeral. The fear-lined laughter fades away as the mourners forsake their attempts at hiding their own fragile mortality.
Joe and Ivy Mackenzie and others, who had arrived in England in the first half of the century with the intention of staying for a maximum of five years, were now there for their friends who were burying their only son, Tony. None of them had intended to stay in England long enough to have children, and especially not long enough to bury anyone. Yet they had all found themselves trapped by the poverty of their situation in Britain and handcuffed to the promise to those they had left in their Caribbean home who were relying on them. As the years went by their growing children put down roots that made them think seriously about moving back to the place they still romantically thought of as home after over 40 years apart. Now they were burying a man child who should have outlived them, but had died without even visiting their wrinkled memory of home.
The crowd took the song sheets handed to them and a momentary air of intense tiredness fell on every soul as the coffin juddered when it was lowered into the gaping hole. Eerily, to chase their individual terrors away, two stout motherly figures at different ends of the open grave, started singing the same hymn:
‘When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be . . .’
The hopeful words had no effect on Patricia who despite loving her children deeply only wanted to be left alone to go to sleep with her husband. She did not want to say a final good-bye. She knew in the cloud of her grief that to admit that this was really the end would be to accept that her future existence would be full of unmanageable and unimaginable sorrow. She felt dehydrated as she continued to cry, but she could not get the words past her parched throat to ask for a drink of water. So Patricia existed in a new suspended state as half an hour of loud and tuneless singing ensued. The self-appointed song leaders had hoarse voices from the shouting-singing that they were leading: they called out the words for those without papers. The response was strong and multi-layered with people around the grave starting each line as if they were part of a Mexican wave. It was jarring.
The official council grave-diggers stood redundantly by as the sunglassed young men shovelled spades full of dirt and clay on top of the box that was finally laid in the ground. Other people threw handfuls of soil into the hole as they contributed to burying their own. Each thud on the black and silver coffin renewed the pain in Patricia’s head. She felt a new layer of grief land inside her heart like she had been hit by a cannonball. A heavy loneliness engulfed her and left her further weakened.
The numerous floral tributes that had arrived in the past days were laid on and immediately around the rough protruding mound. It looked, to Patricia, as if he shouldn’t be in the ground because it wasn’t as flat and even as the other surrounding graves. She continued to watch from behind sheets of her semi-consciousness as the flowers were formed into attractive pyral pyramids. The colours were vibrant. He was dead. He was buried. These final thoughts travelled from her head to her battle-worn heart when she voluntarily and thankfully fainted.
When she awoke in their bedroom some hours later she saw the same looks on the faces peering at her as she had seen for days through her hazy existence. As reassuring voices told her everything was alright she uttered a guttural sound that would have been a sardonic laugh if it had escaped her body. Her aunts, who were now taking their turn to watch her, interpreted the sound as a query and responded that her children were all being looked after downstairs. She stared at them and they continued to nervously talk at her. They told her that everybody at the hall had had plenty to eat and drink and coach loads of people were now travelling back across country to their various destinations.
Patricia turned over on the bed so that she could no longer see them in the corners of her eyes. Suddenly startled by a clear thought she jumped up, and shakily hurried into the adjoining bathroom. Opening the laundry basket she pulled out the bed sheets that were on her bed when she had risen from her sleepless night to the sound of birds singing their usual happy dawn chorus the day Tony had gone.
‘Yes, they still have Tony’s smell on them,’ she thought as she inhaled deeply.
Clutching them to her breasts she stumbled back to the room and lay down heavily on his side of the bed.
‘Please,’ she whispered after a few minutes, ‘please . . . leave me alone now.’
‘But . . . Pat mi dear, yu nuh . . .’
Again she spoke quietly ‘Please . . . just leave me alone for a while.’
Hesitatingly they withdrew one by one, all shaking their heads in disagreement at her request but reluctantly respecting it nonetheless as it was the first time she had spoken for days beyond an empty weak ‘yes’ or ‘no’. As Aunty Sue left the room Patricia spoke again.
‘Aunt, . . . could you send my children to me in about half an hour, please? We need to be together . . . alone.’
The door closed quietly as they tip-toed away. Even though she was now awake and coherent they regarded her as more fragile than ever. An hour later the children edged the bedroom door open and jumped on to the bed in their usual manner, they hugged their mother in the midst of tears and nervous laughter. They were happy to be with her and she was looking a bit more like her old familiar self, but they were also sad because they could see that she was still crying. They quietly held each other trying not to focus on who was not there.
‘I miss Daddy,’ the youngest child eventually said. The others answered with tears. Reassuring squeezes were passed like warm handshakes and the burden of her love for her offspring caused Patricia to sigh deeply as she realised they each had their own needs and sorrows.
In a single minute she had become a lone parent, and her children were fatherless – they were all floundering.
She looked at her children on the marital oak bed with the crumpled sheets entwined around them all and remembered the joy that had created each new person. The uncertainty in their eyes told her that they did not know how to behave in the current circumstances; she felt like them – lost and unsure.
‘Somehow,’ she whispered, not believing herself, ‘somehow, we’ll . . . we’ll make it. I miss Daddy, too.’ She managed a weak unconvincing smile while thinking, ’Oh God! How the hell is this life going to work?’
Later she understood that Tony’s death had caused their rebirth, because they all had to become transformed people with new routines as their past life had gone. Patricia felt she had to at least try to live, even if it was from her precarious unfamiliar position on the knife edge of sanity.
Back at her own home that night, Sandra packed a bag and left. She never had a reason to return.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017
“Come on!” Her voice was on the edge of shouting. I could see a touch of anger building in her eyes as she stared at me. Exasperation was written all over her brow. “Really? Come on!” This time the statement was heavy with her frustration.
“You can’t be serious?” Again her insistence pushed me backwards as if she had placed her hands on my shoulders and shoved me.
I tried to speak but all that was coming out of me was a broken string of stuttering. My eyelids were weighed down with an unexpected sense of shame but somehow I managed to look at her as the words fought with my tongue to be free.
“I … I … what I mean is … I’m not sure what I want to do. I … I feel a bit lost, I guess…” I trailed off without really knowing what I was trying to say. My eyes fell from her face and found a spot just in front of my feet to focus on. I knew, without even looking at her, what she was going to say. I could feel the disappointment shining from eyes that were like searchlights across my body. I was totally exposed but there was nothing she could find. Her sigh was loud.
“I don’t understand what’s wrong with you,” she started to speak rapidly, “what you need is … I really don’t even know what to say to you right now. All I know is that you need something!” She paused and looked at me. I could still feel her eyes scanning my face and, like a magnet, she forced me to raise my own gaze to meet hers.
Immediately our eyes joined I felt sad. Sadder than when I was just carrying my own disappointment; now I had hers as well. Then I knew that I would agree with anything that she said next because it was going to be the truth. I wanted to be different – if only to make her happy again. What I couldn’t quite decide in that moment was whether her sadness was with me or for me.
“What you really need,” she spoke quickly following a pull on her roll up, “what you’ve got to get in your life, is some oomph.”
Anger coursed through me but I knew it was the truth. How dare she know me so well and I hadn’t begun to tell her anything about myself.
I flushed as I stared at her. She sat across the table from me and waited for my reaction. The cigarette was loosely held between her fingers and I watched as she brought it to her beautiful lips and pulled on it. The swirls of smoke leaving her mouth were mesmerising. They made my mind relax.
Then she stubbed out the rollup in the ashtray that she had brought out onto the terrace with us.
Shifting my focus I looked out across the garden wall and continued to follow an imaginary line all the way to the invisible sea that I could hear. I knew I’d have to speak soon.
“Um, well … I think you’re probably right,” I admitted. My voice was quiet as I accepted her assessment of my weak existence. “But I do do some things with fervour,” I countered my first statement with the hope of convincing us both. “I do! Really.” I stole a sideways glance at her. I was desperate to persuade her that I was not boring or useless.
Surely, I thought to myself, there is something exciting in my life that I can tell her about. The more I tried to think of something, the more I felt deflated and my heart developed a pain because I knew I didn’t have an answer for her and she wouldn’t stand for that for long. My opportunity was disappearing like a taper burning at both ends.
But she was right. I did need some oomph. How was I going to change it so that she would like me more? I needed to take this chance.
I stood up and took a few steps away from the table towards the balustrades. I noticed that the pain was peeling from them and made a mental note to talk about it later. Feeling physically drained I leant on the rail. My back was towards her and I was still not convinced that I had anything to offer her – or myself. I felt bad. It showed. My face dropped but she could not see it. Where could I go from here? I leaned forwards and took a deep breath.
While I was still searching for the right words to say, she got up and walked to stand near me.
I straightened up. She touched my arm.
“See,” she started gently, “I know you agree with me.” This time her eyes did not unravel me but there was serious intent behind her look. Encouraged, I opened my mouth to speak but no words or sounds came out.
“What are you going to do about it?” She prompted, her voice was still soft, as she caressed my arm.
“Give me a chance!” I exploded and shook her hand off my arm. I surprised us both. I was started to get annoyed with her. I didn’t want to but I also didn’t want to be told what to do or when to do anything.
Right then I experienced, for the first – but not the last time – a balance of perfect hatred and love for her. I was dumbfounded by her arrogance and my fear of us both. I wanted to be as strong as her and yet in that moment I hated her for my own desires.
Two days later I was still caught between love and hatred. This time it had nothing to do with her.
I had discovered fresh reasons to hate myself. I had thought that I had all the reasons possible before this trip, but now I knew there were more. My mind briefly visited my family at home. They had no idea where I really was. I couldn’t tell them. With the drink in hand I sat at the table and waited quietly as she ordered my meal for me. I had no idea why she was doing it, I was perfectly capable of speaking for myself but, like some deflated balloon, I sat there and sipped the cool liquid away. Although I never liked ice in my drinks I had the desire to have a freezing, numbing feeling spread throughout my body like a sudden frost.
I was afraid of what I was feeling because the last time it was that intense I lost a complete week of conscious thought.
Snapping back to alertness I realised that the waitress was still standing by the table, I weakly smile up at her.
“Thank you,” I murmured to them both, and then the order disappeared into the kitchen. I continued to absentmindedly play with the cutlery, and suddenly I was tempted to … be strong.
Instead, I realigned the beautifully shaped pieces into perfect symmetrical order. Taking the napkin from the table I smile across at her and placed it on my shaking lap.
“Bread?” I offered with the basket in hand. She took some and broke it carelessly. Several pieces of the fresh crust flew across the immaculately ironed white table cloth but she took no notice. We mirrored each other as we tore chunks of the bread and dipped it into the herb infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The strong exciting combination of flavours made us lick our lips to catch the falling crumbs and we laughed together as we both reached for the last piece of bread. With raised eyebrows and smiles our fingers tingled with anticipation of what would happen later.
The buzz of the other diners reached our ears when we were lost in each other. I knew that I would have to leave soon, but I didn’t know how to say goodbye. She knew when I was leaving; she never made a secret about how she felt. I envied her. I wanted to keep believing that she would miss me. I had to believe that she wanted to see me again.
That’s what I wanted. I was not sure that I had managed to let her know that yet. I silently swallowed the last mouthful of bread that seemed to stick in my rapidly drying throat on the way down.
“Take this with you,” she whispered as she reached across the table and pressed the champagne cork into my hand. “Remember me, won’t you?”
Did she doubt me? I though she knew that she was already sewn into my heart for life, but when her fingers lingered across mine I sensed uncertainty.
With the other hand she attracted the attention of the waitress and requested the bill.
“I’ll get it,” she said as I reached for my cards.
“No, let me.” I insisted, “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me whilst I’ve been here.”
“Don’t be silly,” she laughed. “I’m so glad you came. I waited for you, you know.” She paused and looked directly at me. Her eyes were changing colour again; they were going from blue to green. As they locked and held mine they pierced into me while they seemed to fill with water, but then she blinked quickly and raised her hand as if to brush a falling feather away from her cheek and everything was back to normal.
“Thank you,” I murmured, “you’ll probably never know how much this time with you means to me.”
Back in the car we drove along the coast wall and stopped to take pictures of the sun setting and local people relaxing on their boats along the jagged waterline.
Torn between what I wanted and what would happen, my sunset smiles were tinged with fresh lemon bitterness. Inside I was dying as I knew what I had to do. She had no idea of my sadness and I think she had started to trust me at last. In the car she sang along to our specially mixed CD, her feet placed on the dashboard, when she turned and smiled at me my heart melted all over again. It was just like the first time I knew she’d even liked me. I felt like a free flying balloon – that didn’t see the archer’s arrow approaching from the opposite direction. From my point of view it was perfect.
I couldn’t believe it then, I didn’t fully believe it now. But I believed enough to make my way there. Still, the question that furrowed my brow behind my redundant sunglasses was ‘What was I really going to do next?’
A business like exchange was taking place. I was part of it but I was so lost inside myself I didn’t notice the cold formality of it all. All I could hear was a level pitch of screaming – right there inside my head as I imagined myself slipping over a cliff, losing my grip; it was a perfect middle C – it had no end. I felt as if the previous five months were a dream. But that ache from my spine to my toes refuted those thoughts; it was too real. I silently wished I was sleeping and this was not happening. But we were both wide awake. We said goodbye amidst a crowd of people while the air conditioning whirled relaxation around everybody else.
“I know you’ll cry,” she said as she turned and started to walk away.
“No, I won’t.” I had shut down already so that wasn’t an option. But her voice made me waver. This was my parting gift to her, my strength. “We’ll be alright,” I added, “because we want to be.”
“I hope so,” were the last word we spoke as she left me standing there. I watched her back until she disappeared through the sliding airport doors into the heat and the everlasting sunshine.
I was numb.
I felt as if I had cut off my own arm.
I sat in the waiting area and allowed the loud chatter of my fellow passengers to envelop me.
But still I could think of nothing else but her. Towards the end I had ensured that some of the times we were together felt like a constant bullfight, and I knew there wouldn’t be any winners. So I lay down on my sword.
The final poison was in the letter that I wrote to her while I sat there waiting to leave, I knew it then, she had to wait three weeks for it to arrive at her heart.
We met too late.
© Marjorie H Morgan
‘Mummy, what did she mean when she said I was different? What’s wrong with my nose? Mummy? Mummy? Why are you crying?’
‘Mummy? Talk to me Mummy!
You’re walking too fast Mummy, I can’t keep up… Mummy?’
As the years passed me by in the village so the questions dried up. They were never answered anyway. I knew but didn’t know all of it. But I would. Oh yes, I would know. They wanted me to know. And the others didn’t want me to know. I wanted to know and at the same time I didn’t want to know. So this is how I found out with my clumsy discovery. Some people were happy and some were sadder than a farmer in a drought when they knew I really knew.
Rachel Stitch. That was the girl that first spoke out. We were playing Poo Sticks at the bridge near the barley field by Milk Lane Cottage. Rachel was older than me, she was seven and I was only six, but we were best friends. How long do best friends stay best friends? Why are best friends only best for a while? What comes after best? I found out that Sunday morning.
We were on our way home from church, it was a normal Sunday morning; a bright, but cold, spring day, we were wearing hand-knitted hats, scarves and gloves as we crunched through the lanes on the way home.
Rachel and I ran to the bridge, we always did this, it was our routine every week. We hurried ahead missing the puddles, while our mothers talked and walked at a slower pace. At the usual point we grabbed sticks from the hedges at the side of the lane and raced back to the middle of the small stone bridge.
‘Ready, steady, go!’ We shouted together as we dropped the sticks into the fast flowing water. It was fun. This was like the stories we had read together, but it was our special game. Me and Rachel together in our easy intimacy. We had a common past: this was our world. Suddenly a dark shadow made me turn to my right and I looked up; it was nothing more than an old bird, a big old bird. I laughed as a blackbird swooped across the path in front of us. That was when Rachel said it. That was when my world cracked and the fissure never healed. The San Andreas fault originated in my chest after the beautiful music from the church organ had not yet gone to sleep for another week. Songs of the world at one rang in my mind: la la la lah la la la lah. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…
‘You look like that bird,’ she skipped along at my side as we turned to run to the other side of the bridge to watch the sticks appear, ‘but your nose is different. Your nose is too big for a bird. You have the biggest nose I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Suddenly she stopped and looked directly at me. We had looked at each other hundreds of times before, all the days of all the years that were my short childhood, but today Rachel’s eyes were like dead fish eyes to me, they were flat and cold. There was a glaze of distance behind her lids as she blinked. She was somebody else, so was I. We stood two feet apart but thousands of miles away. I did not know what a mile was. It was further than I had ever been. But I felt far away without moving an inch. I was in my dream again. The dream I had before I was here. I was in that dream.
‘Why is your nose so big and why are you so black?’ those were her words. Were they a question or something bigger than a question can ever be? The sticks floating beneath us did not pause except to navigate a rock or clump of reeds.
I thought it was a game and I looked at her with a puzzled frown, I was trying to remember what I was supposed to say next. We always played games together. We read each other’s minds. I was surprised because suddenly all I felt was an ancient yearning for someone I did not know. I moved my eyes to look for the answer. There was nothing in my head. I was lost.
Since she was my best friend, and since that was the last day that she was going to be my best friend, Rachel just carried on talking. She must have been trying to help me out with the game. I smiled at her as I stood opposite her on the cold stone bridge. Our parents had been walking behind us and they were now within earshot of us.
‘You are as black as soot – that’s what my dad says and Mum tells him to be careful in case walls have ears, do wall have ears? And you have a nose like a monkey because you’re the monkey’s cousin…. Is that true that you came from a mud hut in the jungle?’ Paralysed by the absence of joy the gloom of the moment clung to me, it seeped into me like clothes that have taken on the smell of cooking or burning. Unbidden voices told me that I wouldn’t forget this moment in a long while.
‘Look! You won!’ Rachel turned and hugged me. She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure but I felt the change moving in on me and I couldn’t stop it. The tornado of difference lifted me up, flung me around into the star filled night on the other side of the world and then set me back down in the same place as if nothing had happened. The second inside the second that it took for my travels made my feet burn as if I was a Buddhist monk walking across hot coals. I reached a new age but I was harmed.
‘My turn to win next,’ Rachel bubbled as she ran to get more sticks.
I stood leaning on the cold stone bridge afraid to move. I knew I would break into a thousand pieces of dust if I breathed or flinched. My gloves offered me no protection and my coat was like a silk sheet against a blizzard. I stood on the bridge totally exposed: to myself and to Rachel.
My ears were hurting with the words. I didn’t understand. My world was now unstable. I missed what I didn’t know. I understood nothing.
I was startled when I thought I was safe; before I knew what unsafe was I felt it.
I remained fixed to the spot afraid the bridge would buckle if I moved and my mother had to grab me hard to dislocate me. I was torn from the bridge, separated from the skipping child that was me who had run on to it.
I was deaf to my mother’s voice, the only sound available to me was my blood as it exploded and collided inside of me as I experienced the aftershock of seeing myself from outside of myself for the first time. I was using Mr Stitch’s eyes. I was no longer as black as Rachel had said I had turned an ashen grey because I was confused and still only six. I looked up at Mummy and asked her the said questions. Adding ‘Is is true what Rachel says Mummy?’ she never answered me, but held my hand firmly and with a curt nod to Mrs Stitch she pulled me quickly along the lane mumbling something about eggs. That was all she said. Nothing about being black, or having a big nose, or living in the jungle with monkey cousins, all Mummy spoke about was eggs. Got to get to the shop to get eggs. All the way to the shop to get eggs that we didn’t need. We had eggs at home. I knew that, Mummy knew that, but eggs were the first thing she said so off we went, back the opposite way from Rachel and her Mum to get the unneeded eggs. My legs were tired when we got home because we had to walk too fast and Mummy would not let go of my hand. She held it so tight that it hurt a lot but I didn’t say anything else after we passed the church because Mummy was quiet and her eyes had changed to the colour of cold metal.
Mummy was scared, I saw it in her claret cheeks and felt it in her abnormally long strides as I flew along beside her.
Mummy and Mrs Stitch were good friends as well as me and Rachel. But after that day they didn’t like to talk for too long. A whole life of shared memories stopped for all of us after the blackbird. Mummy and Mrs Stitch had longer lives and memories than me and Rachel, but the big people grew as frosty as a winter’s day to each other. They usually only nodded and rushed in different directions. Time made people walk faster. Away, away, away from me. This happened a lot when Mummy and Mrs Stitch were in the High Street. There were only four shops in our village and everybody knew everything about everybody else. But after the Sunday when me and Rachel stopped being best friends, after that day, they, all the people in the village started looking different. They looked whiter and longer than they had before. I felt shorter and darker. I felt black. I was different and I didn’t know what different was. But once I felt it, once the words were out from the plaster on the walls with ears, once everybody knew that I knew, then the sheen of kindness vanished like vapour from an extinct volcano.
I was in a castle all alone. The walls were erected instinctively. I hadn’t been taught.
At six years old I had no insulation against raw hatred for just being me.
I was outside. I was marked from the outside. In my village I was out of place because I fitted better in another country that I didn’t know.
When was I old enough to know that I was not seen as the same and that the grey and blue eyes that saw me didn’t want to see me so close to them? It was on that Sunday when Rachel and I dropped the sticks into the water and after the blackbird eclipsed the light in front of me. I hate Sundays. I hate blackbirds.
‘Marilyn, it won’t work,’ I could hear the exasperation in his voice, ‘just think about it. It’s the same with the animals, they’ll isolate her.’
I remember when Jeff said that to me but Molly looked so cute that I couldn’t hear reason, I believed that love and understanding are stronger than bad reason so I went ahead. I brought her home. And I was right. And I was wrong.
And Jeff was right and Jeff was wrong.
The first four years were bliss. Nothing better on this earth than being in Flax Cottage with Jeff and Molly. I had friends then. I thought I had friends anyhow. When do you know if a friendship is real? Is there always a litmus test moment? I would have told Molly to look out for it if I had known what I know now. Hindsight is always clear vision. But I had lived in the village as long as I had life. It was my home and now it was Molly’s as well. My little darling, Molly. I called her Molly because she looked fragile like a small doll and she gurgled for hours, content in my arms. Her fat little fingers explored my face with gentleness. I had never had such a smooth innocent touch on my skin before. Molly my angel, my gift from God.
I prayed for a baby and Molly came. God gave me Molly but He didn’t warn me that the bliss could shake after a few years. She was in the paper. Somebody needed me to take care of her. I cried for a week after I first saw her. I didn’t think she would ever be mine. And she isn’t. But I thought she was mine and I sometimes tell myself she is mine even though I know the same as they know. And now, now, even Molly knows, but once she did love me as if she was mine and I was hers. We loved each other without explanation from our first meeting.
I told Jeff that Molly was special and nothing could break the love shield around us three. I was wrong, again. I believed in good. I was too young to know any better. I see that now but I still believe that it is wrong that I could be wrong. I should have been right, love said so. Maybe I didn’t love enough? Maybe it’s my fault … if I had more love then Molly would be safe, not alone, without me, without … anybody.
Molly told me that I lied to her. She said, ‘It’s not true you know, they hurt…’
‘What hurts, darling?’ I knew the answer but as I played for time with my useless question I was searching for another bigger truth to absolve her pain.
‘Sticks and stones do break bones… and names, yes, names always hurt you. I’m sorry Mum,’ she raced on not giving me a chance to speak. I had no words anyway so I was glad for her need to express her anger, ‘But they hurt too bad…’ Her tears and my tears were the same colour. As they flowed they prevented us from speaking or hearing any more. But I could never cry enough to wash away all her pain. She has been gone for fifteen years. Just a phone call at Christmas and on my birthday. She never let me call her on her birthday, but I always sent her cards, for the first years at least. The tradition stopped when the past swooped down and eclipsed the present.
‘It reminds me of what I haven’t got to get a card from you, Mum’. From 1979 I kept the unsent cards that I persisted in buying for her; maybe one day she will see them. My only way through is to look at the same moon and feel her absence. I know I am missing part of me – without Molly there is no point.
Existing in my current lack of her I know I love her more that I did when she was one and I could feel her warm breath on my cheeks. I knew that love got bigger. I was right about that. I grew my love to cover her, and me, and Jeff. But it was not enough.
Molly was nineteen when she first told me how much she loved me and hated me at the same time.
‘You are the first one in the family to ever go to university,’ I proudly stated as I sat at the bottom of her bed and watched her pack to leave home.
My smile fell like a parachutist without a chute.
‘Who do I belong to … really?’
The pause was longer than my life.
‘I feel… incomplete…’ she faded away with her words.
All the little questions were there. All the protection was blown away. I was exposed as a fraud. My love was ersatz.
I looked at her and remembered the lies that I had told her. They were to protect her not to harm her, but they took hold of our lives and it’s now impossible to go back to where we came from. The truth is back there, the truth is in the past that is a foreign place; it’s here too.
I told myself lies as well, lies to make the truth go away. The truth about myself and about Molly’s other mother. I didn’t want Molly to ever leave me so I made this new world the best place for her to be, with me, with me and not with them. I needed Molly as much as she needed me. We were right for each other, are right for each other. How do I tell her that they did want her back but I couldn’t let her go because I would cease to live without her?
It’s not true that if you love something enough you will let it go because I was afraid that Molly would not ever come back to me. For years I remembered the lies and watched for a word from her world. It only ever came in my dreams.
‘Nothing has ever reflected me here in the village… how do I reconstruct myself from nothing?’ What answers were possible to the unknown? My lips trembled as she lowered her head and allowed herself to sag onto the bed. The folded clothes spewed onto the floor as her leg dangled over the edge of the loaded bed.
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m not saying this to hurt you, I know you love me, and have done your best, but I don’t know who I am.’
I was silent. Not even tears helped me through that valley of solitude. I was between the question and the piercing look that was travelling over my face like a solitary searchlight for a lost child in a forest.
‘I’m glad I’ve had you, no, what I mean is that I’m glad you had me, but I have to wonder what was the rest of my past like. Do they think of me any more? Am I missed or loved?… you never told me why Grandma stopped coming. I’m old enough now, tell me today, please. Tell me now. I need to know if I should bother to look for them, if I should bother to expect them to come back again.’
Her call to me receives a sad response. I echo her grief. I know it is no longer hidden.
‘Molly,’ her name came easily to my lips, however, I stuttered on the next word for a long hot moment and eventually gave it up; it was not to be mine. I was grasping for solutions to fix her life. I knew this day was due but it is always too soon when you are not ready.
I had practised this moment for years and never wanted to have to act it out. I started again.
‘You are really special to me…’
‘You are my daughter, Molly…’
It all sounded lame. I couldn’t finish a sentence. Speech was heavy and as sharp as flames.
It was then that I knew there were no words, in any language, in any world, to explain. My memories have found me wanting. They were suddenly upon me like an overtaking car on a hairpin bend.
I felt the greatness of my gift from God was now pure bitter herbs.
We sat in the tense room. The bags remained unpacked.
‘They hated me too you know? That’s why your dad left because he couldn’t stand the ridicule any more. They said you were really mine, for that I couldn’t be angry, but they said that Jeff was a fool to keep us both under his roof and that hurt him more.’
‘Molly, I didn’t know. I can’t be blamed for not knowing people had flint words held in their hearts to throw at us, to throw at you. I did try to stop them, Molly. I tried to keep you safe, but the world is bigger than my heart can reach. I’m sorry I failed you, darling, I’m sorry. I only wanted to continue loving you. That’s what I did, that’s what I will always do, keep on loving you. I did my best and tried to make love grow here in the village; it did for a while then the storm of unpleasantness came and nothing was upright any more.’
‘Was that when we stopped going to church? When all this ‘unpleasantness’ started?’ I tried not to notice the sarcasm in her voice, the dam of her indignation was opened.
‘Yes. That was it. I wanted you to learn from me and not them. It was the best I could think of at the time. I’m sorry, darling.’ Even to me the words sounded empty. I looked towards her with empty hope. Molly rose from the bed and came towards me.
‘Oh, Mum!’ With her arms around my neck I felt able to move again. Thank God it was not all lost, I still had my gift.
‘Sorry is too small for this,’ her voice was low and I realised that she was in the past. I had hoped too soon. She sighed and shook then spoke slowly, ‘you’ll never know how I really feel, no matter how sad you are for me, it never happens to you, the look, the pressure on the word, the loose laugh, it’s not meant for you. Mum, you’ll never know.’
Another long life pause was placed between us.
‘Did you know that the look from a stranger, one who is strange for a multitude of reasons, often by choice like personal estrangement, that look, did you know that it lacks the kindness contained in the look from a friend?’ Her eyes did not meet mine. But her question was like a dagger in my heart: I could not ignore it.
Unknown to me her resolve was already set in stone. She was lost to me and that day Molly let me go to find the missing truths. I was abandoned with my lies and my lonely love as company. I was bereft but I saw that it was Molly who was shipwrecked.
I couldn’t reach her because it was then she turned away from me.
‘I still had to go to school on my own Mum, everyday. I was not OK all the time. There are some things you can’t keep away from me, some things you can never feel. You see, Mum, you are different to me too.’
She let go, and I let go too.
I had to wait from then on. I had to wait and watch for a change. Molly left me. I was alone, with my rock heart.
My name is… I don’t know the answer to that simple truth. I don’t know who I am. I have a name, in fact I have several names, but they don’t relate to anything I know or knew. I am ignorant of myself.
What is the shape of wisdom?
I knew everything when I was six, or so I thought, then I was emptied of light. I was on a bridge and although I wanted to fly into my dreams I couldn’t move. It was a crisp Sunday. I had started my journey to the underground city of refuge as a creature newly born and blind. It’s hard to find the answer when you never knew the question. Inches of discovery took years as I learned the language of warm stone. I folded up inside of myself on the bridge, like origami I kept folding.
Suspense had hung over me for years. I strained my neck trying to see what was there but it never revealed itself to me in any form and neither would it remove its claws from my back.
I remember standing on the bridge, I remember being ignorant and invalid; I had no capability to alter anything but I was in the last moment of my childhood and I clung on to it; I was unfit for the journey ahead. Are we all unprepared for the wall that slams into us? Suddenly I was in a different land, I had not blinked but I had travelled, there was no going back. In this land I was ignorant of any of the rules. Mum couldn’t help me. The blank times were the most frightening. I tried to map my own facts but had no honesty to work with. My memory was blank. It was that simple. My co-ordinates were lost.
A few times I saw strangers that looked as lost as me on the television, no one similar came to the village after I was nine. The old lady with the skin like wrinkled leather who used to come, she unsettled me with her truth, her tight squeezes and her long bright clothes.
She wanted me to go back with her, but I didn’t know where back was. Rachel could have been right. I was afraid. I had to stay where I was confined and visible. She was my family but still a stranger. I didn’t know what to do, I was a child. But I had to take each step alone.
School was the concentration of terror and loneliness. No more best friends. Even Rachel became distant. But most of all I became distant from myself. I didn’t trust myself to know them. I became a watcher and a seeker.
I grew up as resistant as mountains although I still responded to the yearning in my mother’s eyes because she wore her jagged fear there. When I was at school or in the garden the instant she next saw me she would quest my face to see if copies of Rachel’s words had built a way into my life. I hid the fences filled with poisonous darts away from her gaze.
I kept my face fitted out with clean and simple acts of deceit to salve her desire for normality. We never spoke of the heavy words on the bridge, or in the playground, or those words that hung in the air like slaughtered beasts in the barns. We never shared things she didn’t want to know.
The Jesus who we sang about was absent in our house. Mummy cried but didn’t go to visit Him.
Daddy scowled and repeated ‘I told you so, I warned you!’
Life was reborn each day in a clean and simple smock of innocence. I was six years old and Sunday had not yet come. Then I would open my eyes and the dream would vanish.
When I entered a room too quickly and surprised Mummy I would recognise the same old shadow slipping from her eyes as she remembered and tried to understand where I, the child, was buried.
Even her best will could not protect me from my life. My portion of it was due, due to me alone. She was not a filter to my safety.
I was not in a position to forget the clear Sunday adventure into my new world. The record was in my face, in my father’s face, in my mother’s face from then until I stopped looking. Even then, when my eyes closed to the brightness of spring’s cruel birth, even then after the sharp shock had stopped stinging my face, I had no luxury. I was not in a position to forget.
I am so tired, so tired of feeling the weight of every second. It’s time to disappear.
I hid myself within myself within myself within myself like a Russian doll. I am successful at hiding from myself. I don’t recognise my true self now; I have gone so deep within.
I am to be found in the centre of granite. I leave the map to me.
My birth certificate says Mariama Nwakwaluzo. Who is she? I know Molly. I see Molly everyday but I am told that Mariama means a gift from God – to who? I ask if I can be a gift to myself. Who do I belong to? Who owns me as theirs? Who do I claim as mine? Will I ever discover myself? Without me my past was invented. I can find my meaning there or make my own here in the centre of this granite.
I have missed the pleasure of belonging to someone. The advantage of ownership was stolen from me. The day will not be created that makes me understand this theft.
Childhood passed years ago but still I cannot decipher the elusive record of my past for I am still blind. Could any missing information have saved me from now?
It took five years of living as a shadow among shadows in the university to realise that I can’t just burn my past away I must salvage it and claim the finders fee to move forwards. My training as an archaeologist proves mysteries remain in stone for centuries. I search deeply to uncover time and remove ancient power from the stones. The silence of now helps to carry the true memory forward. The mystery of myself is less of a mystery now. I am a stoneshaper.
Gently brushing the dust away I sit back on my heels and reflect; the scars from the stones look like tribal signs. We have all been in a battle and are marked.
It’s not what was meant that matters, it’s what was done – that’s what matters. There is no greater truth than appearance; I wonder if Oscar Wilde knew this truth as he was set in his harbour of stones.
My whole existence is like a watermark, visible and distinguished. I feel right, not wrong.
I have sat at the desk and I watch the Sunday morning grow before me. In front of me lie the doodles of my black ink, they are instructions to myself, to be deciphered from within; they are directions from myself before I knew myself.
Rocks and branches populate the paper giving it a black edge.
It’s time to write a letter to my mother.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017