by Maeve Bancroft
You open the silver gate leading into the graveyard. It scrapes the gravel as you shove it in. There is a gentle, downward slope towards the far wall, which is capped by an expanse of blue sea and grey sky. There are some blousy white clouds, which look like they have settled to rest on the wall, before continuing their slow journey across the sky. The headstones face the sea. Some have the surname inscribed along the back but most are blank on the side that faces you, and you have no idea where to go as you have never been inside the gate before. Every Saturday you go cycling with friends and this is where you meet, the central point for the three of you. But this morning you have come early. You walk down the centre path and pause every few seconds to look right and left. You are looking for a freshly dug grave with flowers, rather than an inscribed headstone; it’s too soon for that. There are graves that you know contain a child because white angels stand guard. But where were their guardian angels when they needed them? Some are mentioned on grandparents’ headstones and some have their own. For some reason you didn’t think babies died anymore, and you feel a ripple of shock. Maybe you thought death in the young had been eradicated. You keep walking, reading, until you see it. A fresh grave with wilting flowers and a temporary headstone—a timber cross with his name, Colin Brady. Fresh flowers only the announcement had said. You kneel down and read some cards. You find the big wreath sent from work, the one that you contributed five euro to. A wreath of what seems to have been white lilies and foliage, now brown and withered and barely hanging onto the green oasis. And a perfect, shiny, plastic white ribbon.
You hadn’t heard anyone approach, intent as you were on reading.
‘Hello, can I help you?’
You struggle to your feet and feel sick as you realise who is talking. You’ve had no time, no time.
‘I’m Mona, Colin’s wife,’ she says, and she puts out her hand. You know very well who she is. It’s the wife. Everyone feels sorry for the wife.
‘I’m Kate,’ you say, as you shake her hand.
She doesn’t recognise you, although you have met before.
You attended the removal at the funeral home with your colleagues. You queued up and moved forward a foot at a time until you looked down at his face, his pale beautiful face, which you wanted to reach out and touch, but the queue kept pushing you forwards and you were borne around as if on a tidal current until you were standing in front of his weeping wife and parents.
‘Sorry for your loss,’ you said, as you shook hands. And momentarily, you expected the same in return. Again you were pushed on, and down along a row of weeping people to a little table with a book of condolences. There was a wedding photograph and they were smiling as if it was the happiest day of their lives. It probably was. The same things were said over and over. It was a horrific crash. He was such a loving husband and son. He was young, so young.
When you went outside the funeral home you stood with the smokers but didn’t smoke. The smell reminded you of your grandfather’s funeral back home in Donegal years ago. A plate of Carroll cigarettes was passed around the room and your grandfather lay under a blanket of smoke, while a singsong went on—noble call after noble call. He was eighty when he died. That, at least, made sense.
‘I was just passing,’ you say.
She looks at the card you were reading. ‘Oh, did you work with Colin?’
‘Yes, for the past few years.’
‘He often talked about work; ye all seemed to get on so well.’
She looks different to what you remember. She is petite with short blond hair which is shimmering in the sunlight. Her eyes are blue and her face is pale. She looks fragile. You had always imagined someone less attractive than you. You are totally different. He didn’t want someone more attractive. He wanted someone different.
‘Yes, it’s a good company to work for,’ you say, as you notice her necklace.
She sees you looking and tells you that Colin brought it back from a work trip to Basel in Switzerland. You already know where he bought it because you were there too. He had picked it up in the jewellery shop and offered to buy it for you. It was silver and had a large blue stone in its centre; you declined and picked up a gorgeous glass beaded one instead. He bought it for you and put it on you in the shop. You still remember the warmth of his breath on the nape of your neck, as he concentrated on securing the clasp. He must have gone back and bought the blue necklace for his wife; the blue matches her eyes perfectly.
‘Well I just came to tidy up the grave a bit,’ she says, and tears gather in her eyes.
She is dismissing you and you feel the colour rise in your cheeks. You want to say ‘How dare you, how dare you come and interrupt me!’
‘Thanks for stopping,’ she says, as she stoops down. ‘It was nice to meet you.’
You walk back up the graveyard and feel her watching you. She must wonder why a work colleague is calling by. Unless she is stupid. But she is stupid, you know that. She didn’t even know her husband loved another woman.
The babies’ angels watch you, as you pass by.
As you shut the gate, your friends arrive.
‘Hi, Kate. Sorry we’re late. I had a puncture before I was even out the bloody gate.’
You say, ‘No problem,’ and Sara goes on to blame her son, who takes her Trek bike, instead of his own mountain bike, and then jumps kerbs with it which causes punctures. Maura joins in, complaining about kids, and how good it is to get away the odd Saturday for some ‘me’ time. You don’t add anything, because you don’t have children but you do appreciate that your friends are using up their ‘me’ time with you.
‘Right ladies, we’re off!’
The cycle ride out of the town is pleasant and you chat about your route. It’s May and the hedgerows are laden with blooming whitethorn and you see small birds flying to and fro, feeding their young. It’s a time of year for growth. The furze is bright yellow and every so often you get its coconutty smell which immediately brings memories of sunscreen and of a stolen weekend in Barcelona when you and Colin spent an afternoon lazing on the beach. You didn’t know where his wife was, or how he managed to get away, but it was glorious. During the morning you visited the Picasso Museum and wandered around for ages hand-in-hand. Picasso’s earlier work was very detailed and Colin liked that he ‘let himself go,’ as he became more experienced. The plan was to walk to La Sagrada Familia after lunch but Colin suggested you head to the beach instead. You loved the spontaneity. You were used to going away with friends where everything was planned out and never diverted from. You headed to the beach, stopping on the way to pick up sunscreen and picnic supplies. You both stripped to your underwear. Colin told you to lie on your stomach; he unclasped your bra strap and gently and methodically rubbed sunscreen on. You got the whiff of coconut as his big warm hands moved across your shoulder blades, up to your neck then down your back to your knickers. He moved them down a bit and rubbed over and back, his fingers lightly touching the top of your buttocks and the dimple he always commented on.
As the hills get steeper it becomes more difficult to talk and you fall to thinking. You think of these people who are there with you today. You started the same week at the new IT Company in the technology park, on the edge of town. The first training weeks were tough and you bonded over shared stress and a shared house. That was a few years ago, and now it’s like you had never worked anywhere else. Everyone is panting as you near the crest of the hill but when you reach it you can see down into the valley on the other side.
The others lay their bikes down and stretch out on a low wall proclaiming exhaustion. You can’t rest, you need to keep moving. You see what looks like a little oratory up a heather covered slope, and walk up. A metal gate bars the entrance but you can look in. It looks like it couldn’t hold more than twenty people and there is a stone altar. The top of it is covered in graffiti, you can make out JOE in black marker with a heart drawn around it, there is another name too, but it’s faded and you can’t make it out. You look up to the curved stone ceiling and see a red and white scapular tucked into a crevice, the only splash of colour in the otherwise dark grey building. You wonder who put it up there and why, and hope that their prayers were answered.
‘Kate! Come and get it, picnic is ready.’
You emerge from your stony cocoon and walk back down the hill to your friends.
There is bread and local cheese, sliced meat, grapes, walnuts, carrot sticks; chocolate for after. They talk of the tragic loss of a colleague. How awful it must be for his wife. What a loss to the company. You want to scream, ‘What about me? He loved me!’
‘Kate, you look so pale, are you ok?’ your friends ask. They know you and Colin worked well together. He was your team manager and they suspect you are upset by the loss of a friend. Even though you try to fill your head, death creeps in and finds a spot. He’s dead. He is so fucking dead that you want to scream and tear your hair out. You want to strip off your clothes and run through the scrubland. You want your feet to bleed, and your skin. You want to be excoriated. You want to bang your head against the low stone wall and moan. But instead, you comment on the picnic.
‘I’m fine, fine. Whoever brought this cheese – it’s delicious.’
You had waited for him, as you often did. And as the time wore on your anger made itself known as a knot in your stomach that could only be uncoiled by his presence or by alcohol. He usually brought bubbly and flowers and spelled out his relief at finally ‘getting away.’ There was a largesse about him and he made your small world seem bigger. But that night felt different. You sensed a stillness to the air, a flatness. Hours later a phone call telling of a crash. You opened a bottle of champagne that you had chilling in the fridge, but you felt nauseous and couldn’t swallow. The bubbles swirled and rose to the top of the glass, fast at first, then slower and slower until they petered out and you threw it down the sink.
The picnic items are tidied away and a hiker takes a photo of the group. You place your face into a smile and hear the camera click.
On the cycle down the hill you pedal as fast as you can. You don’t have your hands hovering over the brakes like you used to. You want to career out of control. He said the two of you would be together and now it was up to you to make it happen, even if it means steering the bike into the next car coming up the hill.
‘Bye, Kate. I’ll be in touch.’
You hug goodbyes. They are good friends and do their best.
You cycle slowly home, you feel so tired these past weeks. You never really knew what the word meant before but now you know. You are bereft. You go straight up the stairs to your bedroom to have a lie down but instead open the right hand drawer of your dressing table, and find nestled in amongst the lingerie that you wore for him, a soft grey pouch containing the glass beads on a silken grey thong that he used to pull slowly back and forth between your legs. You remove the necklace and go outside and lay it out on the wooden picnic table. You find an oval grey stone with wavery white lines that you picked up one evening when you walked the beach. You think of him returning to the shop to buy his wife’s necklace as you start on the left and smash each glass bead in turn, until they are little colourful mounds of dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
You manage to get through another week at work, but you have been thinking about the grave and need to go back.
This time it is you who startles her. She is standing by the grave but staring out to sea.
‘Hello, Mona,’ you say, as you come to a stop.
She turns, she looks wretched, worse than at the removal and even thinner than the previous week.
‘You win,’ she says.
You just look at her.
‘You win,’ she says. ‘You can have him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ you say.
‘You know exactly what I mean.’
She starts crying.
As you look at her anguished face you think of necklaces.
‘How long?’ she asks. ‘How long has it being going on? No, it doesn’t matter, it was long enough. He was gone from me before he died, I knew it. I could sense it, the work meetings, the late nights, and the absence.’
You try to think of something to say but she speaks again. ‘Did it bother you to fuck another woman’s husband? He was mine; you should have found your own man. You were a mistress. Nothing more.’ She tries to pull off her wedding ring but it won’t budge so she puts her finger to her mouth and wets it with spit then drags it over her knuckle and throws it onto the grave, it tumbles out of sight beneath dead flowers and foliage.
‘I would fight you for him but he’s not worth it. Neither of you are. You can have him.’ She turns and walks away
The angels watch her leave.
You scrabble around in the foliage and your fingers find the ring. Bits of earth and dead leaves cling to it, you brush them off. You hold it in the palm of your hand and look at it. You should have told her that he was going to leave her. He often said so, once the time was right. He even said it last week. He had called over on Friday with pale pink peonies—you had never been given peonies before. He was wearing a denim shirt and jeans and he reminded you of the man in the Marlboro ad. He was so handsome; you could hardly believe that he loved you! But he did, and when you were drowsy from lovemaking he told you again that he wanted to spend his life with you, and that, yes, it would happen, once the time was right. If this was a few years in the future you’d be his wife, you’d be wearing his ring. Your fingers close around it as you walk to the gate.
This time you drive up the steep hills to the lookout.
The rusty gate barring the entrance to the oratory is about hip height so you put a big stone on the ground, step on it and then climb over the gate. It is cool when you step inside. You approach the altar and look at the heart with JOE in black lettering. Who was the other person? You try to read the faded name, Sarah? Sally? Your voice sounds loud as you read out the names. They have faded to oblivion. The strap of your bag digs into your shoulder, as you poke around in it for your lipstick. You take out your favourite red, MAC Ruby Woo.
Giggles escape you, as you draw a heart and put the rightful names inside it—Colin and Kate. You draw it beside the one in marker. You feel a kinship with JOE for some reason. Or maybe it’s with the faded name. The scapular is still tucked into the ceiling above you. You climb onto the stone altar, taking care not to step on your Ruby Woo heart and try to reach the scapular. It’s just out of reach. You hear yourself saying, ‘Fuckit, fuckit,’ and begin to giggle again. You get back down and scan the wall behind the altar for a little crevice, and when you find one you take the ring out of your jeans pocket. You slip it on your finger, it resists at your knuckle but then slides further in. You hold out your hand, splay your fingers and admire it. And imagine the diamond engagement ring that he would have bought to go with it. The light is beginning to fade. You twist the ring off—you too need to spit. You bury it in the little crevice and grab a fistful of dried earth to put in front of it, to hide it from view. The crevice is directly behind the heart. Your heart. Yours and Colin’s.
It will be there for you next time. For all time.