“And Sorrow leans her drooping head, whilst we, the living, slink towards Paradise, when our faces should instead be turned to the Sun, to the brightness that beckons us as it has beckoned to them; if only we should see.”
“They’re gone from our sight,” a woman crooned against Dylan’s cheek, “but never from our hearts.”
He could tell from the high-pitched voice and the sweet floral scent of her cologne who it was: Kane’s stalker ex-girlfriend, January Bell. With a soft sigh, she wrapped her arms around him and pressed herself against his back, while Dylan stood awkwardly, his arms pinned to his sides. Her breath tickled his ear as she murmured, “I’m here for you, Dylan. And Kane. You’re not alone. I’m here for you. Both.”
He tried to twist around in the hope she would release him from her suffocating hug. She didn’t. In fact, her grip tightened, as if she were worried he might break away, throw himself to the ground and start digging at the graves like an excitable dog. Fortunately, the group around Kane broke apart, and after a wet kiss on his ear, January rushed away to claim him.
Rubbing his ear dry, Dylan watched her take his brother’s hands. She looked great, he had to admit. She’d chosen a knee-length midnight-blue taffeta dress that showed off every curve of her body. Her blonde hair was piled on her head and she was wearing the type of fascinator you might see at a horse race. Kane seemed genuinely pleased to see her, and Dylan wondered whether his brother was stupid enough to fall for her fake sympathy. Watching them – seeing her domineering presence and his brother’s little-boy response to her – made his stomach turn.
“An awful tragedy,” pronounced old Mr Waldron in his ear, startling him. “Just awful. And completely unexpected. But you boys are strong; you’ll get through it.” His bullfrog face was brown and serious. “Do you think you’ll be heading back with Bert and Elizabeth now? Bert – Elizabeth. What happened to them?” he asked, glancing around.
Dylan watched the loose skin under his jaw swing from side to side. The Waldrons lived across the road and he’d never had much to do with them, so he wondered how Mr Waldron knew his grandparents. “They left after the service. Bert wasn’t doing too well.”
Sighing, Mr Waldron placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear that, Dylan. I didn’t know your grandfather, but your dear mother told me all about his bravery and service. Just know you came from very good stock. Good genes. Strong.” He dragged his hand down Dylan’s arm. “Come and see Marge and me if you need anything, you hear? Nothing is too big or too small. You know where we live. All you have to do is ask.” When he saw Dylan’s attention drift to his brother, he shook his arm, adding, “Do you hear me, Dylan? I’m being serious here. Dead serious.”
“Dead,” laughed Dylan.
Mr Waldron removed his hand. Clearly mortified by Dylan’s reaction to his unfortunate choice of phrase, and too much of a dullard to reply, he made a quick excuse and went off to find his wife.
Alone again, Dylan turned away from the mourners and stared down at his mother’s nameplate. He tried to feel her spirit, or at least evoke some of the memories of her that lived on inside him. Strangely, the only memory that came was the night she accepted his gift, the night she told him that good things happen to good people. The last night of her life. The memory was so strong he could almost see her seated in front of him now, fingering the silver charm he’d given her, staring at him as if seeing him for the first time. Except she wasn’t here, not as flesh and blood. Kneeling on the grass, he wondered: Do her remains really fit under that slab of metal? Was any of what made her a human being there, or was it just a pit of ashes for the worms to feast on? Then he thought: Do worms eat ashes?
Before he could think much more on it, his attention was drawn by a voice calling out, “Come on, dear, here he is.” It was a large woman in a small black dress, tottering towards him on red stilettos, one hand pulling a fox terrier on a pink leash, the other waving at him. She had on too much rouge and lipstick for a funeral. The floppy black bow on her head bounced against her wavy red hair as she made her way across the grass.
Approaching him, she called breathlessly, “If you need anything – absolutely anything – you’ll let me know, won’t you, love?”
Dylan climbed to his feet. He tried to recall who she was. Friend of the family? A distant cousin? He looked down at her dog, which seemed a little bored and tired, having sat through the service without a single whimper or bark. It shivered, glanced up at him, then bent down to chew its foot.
“Won’t you, Alan?” the woman repeated, moving into his personal space, her face round and earnest.
Dylan backed away. He had no idea who the woman was and had no desire to find out. To get rid of her, he said, “I’ll ring. Soon. I promise.”
She pinched his cheek, hurting him. “Good boy,” she cooed. “You’re such a cutie. Your mother and father were very proud of you. And now they’re gazing down on you from a higher plane – a better place: the Garden of Eden; in the bosom of our Lord. And Sorrow leans her drooping head, whilst we, the living, slink towards Paradise, when our faces should instead be turned to the Sun, to the brightness that beckons us as it beckoned to them; if only we should see.” She joined him in staring down at the three plaques. “Youth and Beauty both are dust. Lauren, Michael, Oliver,” she read. “Lauren, Michael, Oliver. We remember them; we cherish what was; and we thank the Lord for taking Love to its eternal home, by His side. Love is all that matters, Alan. Higher love; love that soars outside of ourselves; love for others. Love eternal.”
Dylan started edging away. “I have to …” he began, nodding towards his brother.
She took his excuse in her stride. “I’m afraid, young sir, my good self and Louisa must take our leave and skedaddle. Home to beddy-byes. It’s not safe for single girls like us to be out after dark. Is it, darling?” she asked the dog, leaning towards it. “Not with all the goings-on around town lately. Murder,” she breathed, turning her face to Dylan. Her eyes narrowed. “Most wilful and foul of sins. Proof positive of Satan’s disregard for our Divine Father. We’ve all been touched by its savage hand: you and me, your brother, Kane, poor Louisa. Our measure is how we embrace it. Death begets Life. Life begets Death. We’re part of an endless cycle. Whether by God’s hand or the Other’s, we all return to Our Lord’s embrace in the end. Our paths may differ, our journeys be short or long, but only the destination matters.” She patted his cheek. “Choose your destination, well, Alan Gates. Remember: Life begets Death. Death begets Life. Choose wisely.”
With a last sympathetic smile, she tottered away, dragging her dog across the grass.
Dylan watched her as she zig-zagged between the graves, stopping every so often to read an inscription. He still had no idea who she was. She arrived late to the service, creating a minor commotion, and then sat at the back, cradling and petting her dog. He hadn’t seen her speak to anyone, apart from him (and, of course, Louisa). It struck him she might be a funeral crasher, a ghoul who drew life from other people’s tragedies. Despite the gospel fervour of her speech, he didn’t get the sense she was trying to convert him; it seemed more that she wanted to teach him something – something about life, death and grief. Whatever it was, the lesson had gone right over his head.
The woman disappeared behind a mausoleum. Now she was gone, he felt her absence like an ache. He had a sudden urge to run after her and learn more; imagined accompanying her back to her tiny flat, to her simple life in which the sadness and tragedy of death meant nothing. It occurred to him that, at some point in her life, she must have faced death, faced murder, and stared it down. Now, Dylan told himself, she was on the other side of sorrow, in a place of peace, where she was able to come out and help others get through their tragedy and loss.
Perhaps that was her lesson, he thought. Get over it. Move on.
Looking over his shoulder at the funeral party, he saw that Kane and January were now in the summer house, where they sat at the end of a line of mourners waiting to say their goodbyes. With the departure of the scary red-haired woman, the people near Dylan approached him too, uttering their prayers and platitudes. After saying their goodbyes, they trudged away with heads lowered, leaving Dylan alone amongst the graves. Alone except for a single worker who was collecting the collapsible chairs. He watched as the man stacked the chairs in the back of a buggy, doing his job noisily and efficiently like any good labourer, his energy dizzying after the slow pace and quiet tones of the service. The man was getting on with it, cleaning up, moving on.
A hand landed on his back.
“You okay, kid?” asked Kane. “You look green.”
Dylan stiffened. His mind screamed at him to shake off his brother’s hand, but he wasn’t in the mood to start another fight. He just hoped Kane would get the message and leave. At least January wasn’t with him. Another bear hug from her would have been the death of him.
“It’ll be okay,” persisted Kane.
Dylan stared at the writing on his dead brother’s plaque. Always loved, always remembered, it read.
The words were a lie. No trace remained of Oliver. Except for this stupid epitaph. Always remembered? By whom? The two people who’d kept his memory alive for the past five years were gone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust … What was the point of the stuff in-between?
“We should go,” Kane said, rubbing his back.
So what if all roads lead to heaven? Dylan was thinking. That’s what the scary woman hadn’t revealed to him: the point of the in-between. If there’s a God, and God wants us by His side, why does He put us through so much shit to get there? A vague memory from Sunday school tried to feed him the answer, but Dylan wasn’t here to get answers. He was here to feel bad. That’s what funerals are for, isn’t it? – to make the aftermath of death worse than the death itself? If you can survive the funeral, then getting over the death is a breeze. It made a crazy kind of sense (as much as anything over the past few days made sense).
“Come on, Dylan.”
“I’m not going.” The words came out before he was conscious of them. He just knew he wasn’t ready to go back to an empty house full of dead memories.
“I’m not going,” he said again, to make sure Kane knew he meant it.
“It’s getting late.”
“I like it here.”
Dropping to the grass, he pulled his feet up, crossed his legs, held onto his shoes. It was damp – he hadn’t thought of that – but he wasn’t about to give Kane the satisfaction of seeing him get up with a wet patch on his pants.
“Come on, Dylan.”
He shot his brother an angry glance. “I said I’m staying. Don’t you ever listen?”
“For how long?”
He hadn’t thought that far ahead. It didn’t seem to matter how long – an hour, a week; both seemed plausible. “Until I feel like leaving,” he said, shrugging.
“It’s getting dark. They’ll be closing the gates soon.”
Kane sighed in exasperation. “How will you get home?”
That was a good question. Last time he was here, he’d driven himself. This time, stupidly, he’d come in Kane’s truck.
“Hitchhike,” he said to get his brother off his back; though in truth he didn’t have any plans beyond the next three minutes.
“Get up, Dylan. Don’t be stupid. We can come back tomorrow.”
Dylan closed his eyes.
“You’re being crazy.”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“Then don’t. See if I care.”
There was a long silence. Dylan opened his eyes. His brother’s long shadow was still falling across his family’s plots.
Crouching next to him, Kane leant into his line of vision. “I gotta go,” he said. “One last chance. You coming or what?”
I hope he means it, thought Dylan.
Kane hesitated another moment, looked like he was about to say something, then shrugged and stood up.
Dylan braced himself for another explosion of frustration and anger.
There was the jangle of keys, the sound of January’s voice in the distance.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he heard Kane mutter under his breath. “I must be crazy as he is.” He crouched down again, this time with his keys in his hand. “Here,” he said, holding them by the ignition key. “Take these, drive yourself home. I’ll catch a ride with Janny.”
Dylan gaped at him. Had he heard Kane right? His new truck. His baby. Was this some kind of trick? – a bluff? Did Kane really think he was stupid or sad enough to fall for a con? He kept his hands on his shoes, worried Kane would snatch the keys away if he tried to take them.
“Please, please drive carefully, Dylan. There’s not a scratch on her. I don’t want to face that first scratch; not today. You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
Dylan nodded dumbly. Reaching out, he took the keys from his brother’s hand. They were warm; they felt slightly greasy.
Kane ruffled his hair. “Take it easy, man. I’ll see you later on.”
And then he was gone.
Dylan released his breath. Mouth still open, he picked out the ignition key and stared at it in wonder. The key to his brother’s treasured truck. It seemed like a talisman – or a sacrifice. The key ring had two ornaments: a silver BMX bike and a red firefighter’s helmet. They represented the sum total of Dylan’s knowledge of his brother: junior jock turned fireman. And now Kane had revealed something else about himself. As with the red-haired woman, Dylan didn’t quite understand what that was, but he knew something had changed, something warming on this cold, damp, depressing afternoon.
Getting to his feet, he felt the weight of grief slip from his shoulders. This was the best he’d felt since the morning he listened at the top of the stairs as a stranger destroyed his entire world with a few awful words. He shook the keys to hear them sing, smiled as January’s last words faded away, glanced around and found himself alone. He no longer wanted to stay here all night in the land of the dead. But what to do instead? A movie? A long drive in Kane’s precious truck? He realised the brotherly thing to do would be to go straight home and make sure Kane didn’t do anything stupid. He stroked the tiny firefighter’s helmet. No, that wouldn’t work. He couldn’t risk January taking him back to her place or whisking him away to some secluded place where they could be alone; he needed to head her off at the pass. He should race after them, give Kane back his keys and go home with him, as planned. It was the only way to be sure she didn’t worm herself back into his life – into both their lives.
Breaking into a run, he wondered whether these were the first steps of his journey to the other side of sorrow.