Tobey had expected to be late after his meeting in the woods, and dreaded the reactions of his family. If Tobey’s father could leave work early and Bee come down from Stirling to visit the cemetery on the anniversary of Anna’s death, surely Tobey could catch a bus across the town? He could just imagine his mother’s face, her sarcastic, barbed comments, so he ended up running to the cemetery. In fact, he was surprised to discover that when he did arrive, sweaty, red-faced, panting with exertion, it was empty.
He made his way between the rows of stones, crosses, angels, platitudes.
“Jesus called a little child unto him”.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Everywhere he looked, more stones, more words engraved, more flowers. The smell was overwhelming as the scents of a thousand different blooms competed with each other. Lilies, sweet and cloying, merged with carnations, forget-me-nots, roses, tulips and daisies in a tapestry of fragrance that brought tears to his eyes and seared the back of his throat. For every grave, there was a grieving family left behind, and the rows of memorials seemed to stretch out as far as the eye could see. So many families, all suffering the way he was… The sheer volume of human suffering overwhelmed him and he choked back tears of sadness and continued walking to Anna’s grave.
The inscription was little more meaningful than any of the others he had passed, although his parents had spent a long time in those awful days discussing it. At least, it had seemed that way to Tobey who had spent hours practising his violin and refusing to speak to anyone or participate in the arrangements for the funeral. The stone was made of white marble, with some engraving at the top, a carving of roses with the obligatory cross in the centre of the decoration, and the text below read
“Anna Louise Merritt, born 24th August 1992 died 15th September 2003, Beloved daughter of Jane and Tony, sister of Beatrice and Tobias. Drowned at play. She will be much missed. ‘Each breeze you feel and see, brings love and a kiss from me.’”
How could any Celtic type on a marble slab express all that his sister had been, or all the sadness she had left behind when her short life ended? How could these bald statements describe her room, left almost as a shrine, the new lines at the corner of her mother’s face, the silence of the house? How could anything be enough? There were no words to describe the hell his family had been through, when Anna had died.
Moreover, Anna would have hated it. It was all too fussy for the quiet girl who had, in life, hated the limelight. Just a simple inscription- her name and dates, would have sufficed. He smiled faintly at the recollection of his younger sister before the oppressive guilt pressed down harder.
He chewed his lip as he stood, waiting for his parents. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Had he got the time wrong? He checked his watch. No, it was definitely half-four. Puzzled at what could have kept his family so long, he sat down on the grass in front of the grave, gratefully shedding his rucksack and placing the violin case down next to a large arrangement of roses and carnations.
Another twenty minutes passed, and eventually he heard footsteps behind him. He stood up, hastily, straightening his school tie and pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose.
“Have you been waiting long?” asked his mother, clutching a wreath of white roses.
“I was here on time,” he replied, attempting to avoid seeming whiny but at the same time show that this family occasion was important to him, that he had made the effort to be punctual. ‘Where’s Dad?”
“He’s just parking the car, he’ll be here in a minute,”
The frown that followed answered his question more eloquently than any words could. Bee was not coming. She had perhaps had no intention of coming. Worst of all, she had not even told their parents that she wasn’t coming, so they had been waiting for her. His mother’s frustration, although it wasn’t directed at him, made him uncomfortable, and he bit his lip awkwardly.
“She’d have been thirteen now,” he said, to change the subject. “in year nine.”
His mother’s eyes filled with tears. Time and sadness had wrought a great change in her. Her once-tranquil face- she was always more laid-back than the other mothers- was lined prematurely with loss. Her pain was carved into her features. Gone were the long skirts and velvet blouses that had made her stand out; in their place, baggy tracksuit trousers and massive T-shirts. She no longer wore make-up, where before she had been so proud of her appearance. As Tobey hugged her in his clumsy teenage way, he realised that if Anna were there now, he probably wouldn’t recognise her.
“I miss her so much,” she sobbed
Tobey lamely patted her on the back, not knowing what to say. They all missed Anna. Although at home, nobody ever spoke of it, her absence was a much a part of the house as the walls or the roof. Like the bass-line, he thought. Nobody notices it until it’s gone.
Thankfully for him, his father soon appeared, harassed-looking. His thinning hair was greyer than it had been two years previously, and he walked with his shoulders hunched over in a way he never had before. It made him look much older and care-worn. Would she have recognised him? Would she have recognised any of them?
The three of them stood together and they laid the wreath, removing the old, dead flowers from their last visit. Tobey was only required to go to the cemetery twice a year, once on her birthday, and once on the anniversary of her death, but he sometimes came with his mother on her bi-monthly visits to the graveyard, his private penance. He picked up the dead flowers with their paper-thin brown leaves that crunched when he touched them. A shower of dried-up petals fell to the ground and he picked them up, an excuse to hide the tears that he could tell were brimming up. Tears of grief. Tears of guilt. Who knew? Who could tell the difference?
Suddenly, the tinny artificial ring of his father’s phone echoed around the stones. A technophobe, it was the same ringtone that had come with the phone, and it seemed too happy for this place, obscene against the grim white of the memorials. His father fumbled in the pocket of his smart navy suit to find the phone, and passed it over to his mother as soon as he had, muttering “It’s Bee.”
By pressing a button, she put the call on loudspeaker, so Tobey could hear the exchange between them, although he’d much rather not have done. Awkward, he stood and shuffled his feet, busying himself with the dead flowers.
“Hi, Mum,” said Bee, cheerily, as if she had not realised what day it was, which perhaps she hadn’t. Tobey’s lip curled in disgust. How could she forget? Guilty though he was, it was just as much her fault. “you two rang earlier?”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at Jake’s, of course, where else would I be?”
“At the graveyard with the rest of us?”
Tobey winced at the savage tone of her voice.
“How could you be out there having fun today? Did your sister really mean so little to you?”
“No excuses. I don’t want any excuses”
Bee hung up, plainly realising that there was no point in continuing the discussion. Both Tobey and his father stood in silence, stunned. Nobody dared to speak, in case they received the same ferocious treatment. Instead, they looked at each other, at their shoes, at the stone… anywhere other than at Tobey’s mother.
The rest of the visit passed fairly uneventfully, although beneath the surface, the tensions between them stretched out like huge chasms and the anger caused by Bee’s non-appearance never fully dissipated. As they left, Tobey took one last look at the stone.
He thought of the venom in their mother’s voice on the phone to Bee, who had always secretly been her favourite.