The day of the funeral was dry but dull. It seemed appropriate that there should be no sun, as if the grey sky reflected Jane’s mood. Christopher was safely installed with a neighbour, and she drove alone to the large Anglican church near the school. She abandoned her car with a long line of others, which were parked in the narrow lane.
A gaggle of playgroup mothers hovered near the church entrance, wearing somber colours and careful lipstick. They huddled against the cold and the occasion, wanting to be together but studiously avoiding each other’s eyes.
One mother had taken upon herself the role of host, and was speaking too loudly. She hugged Jane when she arrived and meaningfully asked how she was. Hardly knowing her, and therefore somewhat nonplussed, Jane muttered noncommittally and sidled over to Suzie.
“Shall we go in?” she whispered.
Suzie nodded. “The playgroup teachers are already inside,” she said, “we were just waiting for you and Lynne.”
The last mother could be seen hurrying towards the church in unfamiliar heels. Her white petticoat was slightly longer than the black skirt, making her appear oddly indecent. She smiled an embarrassed apology for arriving last.
“Ah Lynne,” the loud mother enthused, “We were wondering if you were coming. How are you dear? Isn’t this just awful? To think, it could be any one of us you know. One can’t judge poor Tricia.”
Suzie made a low growl and grimaced at Jane. “Let’s go in,” she said, and led the mismatched group through the arched doorway.
The interior of the church was cool. The religious familiarity of high roof, stained-glass windows and stone floor was oddly comforting. There was something solid about the building, it had seen it all before, even such as this.
The line of women processed up the aisle towards an empty pew, heels clicking on the ancient floor. The church was full. People sat, either staring rigidly ahead or with head bowed, in prayer or distress.
Their pew was near the back and they shuffled crab-like along its length, then sat slightly squashed, with shoulders almost touching. The loud mother, now subdued, was observing which people were not in attendance. Jane could feel Suzie bristling beside her and wondered if she would intervene. They both sat, silent and uncomfortable beneath the span of the high beamed ceiling.
Jane’s knees brushed against a garishly embroidered kneeling pad, hung for convenience on a small metal hook. She wondered who had decided orange was a good colour for a dove. Red prayer books were stacked in pairs on the narrow shelf in front of her. She crossed her legs carefully, wishing her black skirt was longer and cautiously raised her eyes, not sure if she really wanted to see what lay at the front of the church.
At first glance it was filled only with flowers. White lilies and chrysanthemums, tight pink rose buds, fronds of delicate greenery. Wreaths, and complicated arrangements full of bows and ribbons. Then, with a heart-stilling jerk, she realised the coffin also rested there. Tiny, white, almost doll like in its petiteness.
“It’s Christopher sized,” she thought and her eyes pooled with unbidden tears. “Don’t look,” she told herself. “Don’t look. Don’t think.”
The service was short and Jane heard very little. She watched Tricia’s back for a while, sagging towards the man Jane assumed was her husband. A lady in a hat kept careful vigil and constantly passed her tissues. How was this bearable? Each time that Jane felt the emotion rising, started to imagine how it would feel to lose a child, she rammed those feelings back inside, down somewhere deep.
“Don’t look. Don’t think.”
The vicar swooshed around in his pristine gown, speaking in deep tones about things that Jane shut her ears to. God felt so far away from that female jammed pew, and she did not want to let him in. She was in a dark place, and she wanted to wallow there alone. Anything else was too dangerous.
“Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t listen. . .”
The congregation rose awkwardly to sing childhood hymns, the familiar tune blasting brightly from the organ. Only the vicar could muster any volume, most of the congregation following the words mutely. Jane stared rigidly at her hymnal throughout, not trusting her voice.
The age-old scent of the church mingled with the heavy perfume of lilies and she felt faintly sick. She concentrated hard on her queasiness, forcing physical worries to overcome emotional ones.
“Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t throw up.”
People sat, easing carefully back onto the hard wooden seats. The vicar began to talk about Sophia and the child’s face, happy, alive, flooded Jane’s brain. The warmth of her little body, her bright eyes, the way she ran, still chubby where she was only just growing from a baby’s body, her enthusiasm.
“Don’t think. Don’t look. Don’t listen.”
People bowed with shoulders hunched as the vicar prayed. There were murmurings and stifled sniffs as people fought to control their grief. There was no abandon here, no distraught wailing or heart-rending sobs. The great body of the church was still, quiet, subdued; dignified even in the face of such tragedy.
“I wonder what everyone’s thinking,” thought Jane, “the ones who don’t believe in God. What are they thinking when they bow their heads?”
She said an automated “Amen” and relaxed her shoulders. She could not pray, not here, not yet. To pray would be to open her mind and emotions, to be starkly honest. She felt too fragile. Even to pray for Tricia would be too dangerous, opening herself to too much light. Safer to huddle inside herself for a while longer, to hide until she could cope.
“Don’t look. Don’t think.”
The service ended. The people rose and two young men walked forwards to claim the coffin. Red rimmed eyes showed they had an attachment to the child, and Jane wondered if they were uncles. They were very young, not much more than teenagers. Too young for such a heavy burden.
They lifted their weightless load with care and walked, one careful step after another, to the church door.
“Don’t look. Don’t think.”
Gradually gaunt-faced family followed them; a stream of bewilderment clad in black. There was a pause, almost a holding of breath, as though the congregation was testing the reality of the afternoon, trying to find a way to assimilate what had been experienced. Then slowly, as though given a cue, people began to move, to shuffle from their places and to filter out of the church, returning to their lives.
The women followed.
“Lovely service!” Jane heard, “I did think Tricia did well, don’t you? And such a good number here. Though I am surprised Emma Smith didn’t make it, I wonder if…”
Jane turned away, following the other women. They all wanted to leave, fleeing to the safety of their private lives. A few wanted to talk, to verbalise what they had experienced, but most wanted simply to escape. Jane felt like she’d been through a mangle.
Suzie touched her arm, “You okay?”
Tears welled, mirroring those of her friend’s. She paused.
“How is this bearable?” she began, then stopped. She took a breath, and nodded. “I’ll call you.”
She walked down the uneven path, her hand searching her pocket for car keys, intent on leaving, trying to make her thoughts follow some kind of order again.
Towards the back of the graveyard, huddled near the wall, she could see the forlorn group of mourners. Their grief was freer now—more tears, more arms flung in support around trembling shoulders.
“How can anyone bear this?” she repeated to herself. “How can you survive losing a child?” She averted her gaze and hurried to the sanctuary of her car.
“Don’t look. Don’t think.”
For a moment she simply sat, trying to calm her emotions. Then she glanced at the time. Three o’clock. Matthew would still be working. The desire to see him was almost overwhelming. Still close to tears, she turned the key and started the engine.
She drove home blindly. No one honked her, or screeched to a halt, so she assumed she must have stopped at junctions and driven safely, but she was aware of nothing until she turned into her road. Several cars were parked nearby—but not Matthew’s.
She slowed to a halt outside her house. The building work was nearly complete and the new room sat smugly against the existing house. From outside it looked too clean, but finished. Inside, pipes were laid, wires in place and plaster smoothed across the bricks. Matthew came less often now but he had been there when she left, and he had planned to work all day. All day. That meant at least four o’clock. Not before three o’clock.
An irrational rage surged through her. She had wanted to see him. She had needed to see him. He would have been kind, sympathetic, supportive. She had been on the brink of tears. Maybe she would have cried as she told him about her horrible afternoon. Perhaps he would have comforted her. Put an arm around her, held her close. How dare he just leave? He had said “all day,” did she not have the right to expect him there? Could she rely on no one?
She flung herself from the car and slammed shut the door. Then she realised her house key was in the glove box so she had to clamber back inside. She banged her head against the rear-view mirror and cried out with pain and frustration.
She banged shut the glove box and it fell open again in protest. She glowered at it darkly. Leaving it hanging open, she heaved herself out of the car and glared up the road, reciting swear words in her head.
Her neighbour’s door opened and a concerned face appeared.
She thought about saying the swear words aloud.
“Oh Jane, I heard a car, and wondered if it was you. Did it go alright? I’ll call Christopher for you; he’s been ever so good.”
Jane showed her teeth in an effort to smile and forced herself to breathe. Her anger dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, leaving her drained of energy and close to tears. Christopher arrived, pink faced from watching too much television. He put his hand in hers, confident she was pleased to see him. She thanked her neighbour, and took him home.
It was not until later that day, as they were driving Abigail home from school, that Christopher mentioned the funeral.
“Did you see Sophia go to heaven?” he said.
Jane glanced at him in her rear-view mirror. He seemed relaxed, just interested.
“Well, not really—” she began.
“You don’t see people going to heaven,” Abigail interrupted, “You put them in a coffin and bury them.”
“Under the ground?”
Jane saw fear begin to cloud his eyes. “Abigail,” she said, “It’s not like that at all. Sophia is in heaven, Chris, but she didn’t need her body anymore so her mummy put it in a special box to keep it safe.”
There was a pause as he considered this. “Where?” he asked.
“In the churchyard,” said Jane quietly.
“Can I see?”
Jane didn’t know. “Be open and honest” had been the advice, but how open? She knew that the children had been close friends, unusually so for their age. Plus, Christopher was a thoughtful child who liked direct answers to his questions and worried if he thought he was being evaded.
She decided she would take him. Today, now. He could see the grave while the flowers were still fresh, he would like that.
“Get it over with,” she decided, “help him to understand.”
She turned the car towards the church, driving in silence until they were parked. She twisted in her seat and faced Abigail.
“Do you want to wait in the car or come too?” she asked.
“I’ll come,” said Abigail, “I want to see too.”
They walked past crumbling gravestones, along the moss-patched pathways towards the section reserved for more recent deaths next to the wall. Jane held Christopher’s hand lest he should run across the grassy mounds. Abigail followed.
The sun was beginning to shine, and afternoon shadows reached across the graveyard. A bird fluttered from the old stone wall, indignant at the disturbance, and a warm breeze moved the leaves on the ancient chestnut tree. Somewhere a wood-pigeon hooted.
Jane had been concerned that mourners may still linger at the graveside, but they were alone, free to approach the fresh heap of soil strewn with flowers. There were fresh graves on either side, slightly older, but still littered with bouquets and messages. The mounds of earth were bigger than Sophia’s grave, but the flowers were fewer. A small wooden cross named the plot and they stood close together, smelling the earth and watching a bee as it collected pollen from the bouquets.
“Can she still come and play?”
“No Chris, I told you, she’s in heaven now.”
“In the clouds?”
“Did she take her bike?”
“No. Maybe God has bikes though.”
“Oh.” He thought carefully. “Can she catch all the balloons that blow away?”
“I don’t know Chris, maybe..”
“Come on Chris,” said Abigail, suddenly restless. “She’s in heaven, and she’ll be fine. Let’s just go home.”
She turned and walked away. Jane began to follow, when Christopher jerked his hand away from her.
“Wait,” he said. “I need to do something.”
Jane watched. He marched straight to another grave, his short legs determined, a frown on his face. Then he knelt, his sturdy arms reached for a yellow rose, which he tugged free from a wreath, crushing bows and flowers as he did so. He marched back to Sophia’s grave and stopped. He again knelt, and very gently laid his prize next to a display of lilies.
As he knelt on the damp soil, his chubby fingers splayed on the mud, he peered intently downwards.
“Bye, bye, Sophia,” he whispered. “Save a place for me.”
Abigail began to giggle—halting abruptly as she turned to her mother’s face.
Jane was completely still, warm fat tears falling to her chin and dripping onto her scarf. Something inside was breaking, and she didn’t know how to stop it.
Abigail took her brother’s grubby hand and led the way silently back to the car.
Peter arrived home late. Jane was yet again wiping surfaces, trying to remove still more plaster dust. It seemed to settle everywhere, a constant stream emerging magically in the air. Even now, weeks after they had applied the plaster, a fine veil of white had settled on the window ledge.
She heard Peter’s key in the lock, the slam of the door and the bump of his briefcase landing in the corner. She poured herself a glass of water as he hung his coat in the cupboard, before pushing open the kitchen door. Side-stepping the cat, he moved to kiss her head.
“Ugh, what a day,” he groaned, pulling cheese from the fridge and reaching for a knife.
Max’s tail began a rhythmic thump on the floor and he scratched the dog’s ears absently. “I had back to back meetings all morning, and spent the afternoon playing catch up. Then the trains were up the creek due to a jumper at Waterloo. Honestly Jane, you don’t know how much I envy you, here at home all day.”
He trimmed a slice of cheese, perfectly even, and laid it across his bread. Jane wished he would use a plate. She offered him coffee and rose to fill the kettle. He noticed her face.
“It was the funeral today, Christopher’s friend.”
“Oh yes,” he said, remembering. He frowned. “You didn’t take him did you? Bit tough on a child, don’t think that was a good idea. . .”
“No, no,” said Jane quickly. “I went on my own. I did take him to the grave afterwards. He asked to go. I thought it might help him,” she finished defensively.
“Can’t say I agree,” Peter muttered, cutting another slice of cheese and admiring how perfectly symmetrical it was. “Best forgotten I’d have thought. He’s only little, you could say she’s moved away or something if he asked.” His tone was disapproving.
Jane dumped his drink on the table in front of him, splashing some over the edge. It formed a milky rim, sealing the cup loosely to the table. Peter sighed and reached for the roll of paper towel.
“After all,” he said to her departing back, “It’s not as if she’s a relative or anything.”
To be continued on Thursday. Sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss the next chapter: anneethompson.com
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