“I’m sorry for your loss.”
The words ring out around the graveyard, yet Lizzy can’t bring herself to say them. She knew she should. She should be sorry. But of all the myriad emotions that she had been feeling over the last two weeks, sorry had rarely been one of them.
Guilt, now guilt she’d had in abundance. That had been the central theme of her last break down, when she had collapsed in tears in the local supermarket, all because she’d caught sight of the flavoured milks. Embarrassment had followed when she got home, but there on the floor at Tesco all she could think about was the number of times she had taken him to the shop, and the contented grin whenever he’d drunk his milk. She hated herself for still remembering that, though not as much as she hated how she still let it get to her.
Lizzy took a deep breath and tilted her head to the sky. It was an overcast day, just the right weather for a funeral. No rain so it wasn’t overly melodramatic, but at the same time it wasn’t the sort of day you’d feel bad for wasting on something like this. It’s not supposed to be wasting. You’re supposed to be grieving.
And she was, in a way. The problem was there were still too many emotions tied up with Malcolm, even with him six feet under.
She had met Malcolm in the first year of university, lived with him in the second, and briefly dated in the third, before Lizzy had decided that men weren’t her thing. After uni people broke off into couples or move away for jobs. Lizzy and Malcolm had moved back in together with another single friend, Jason, and the three of them had been thick as thieves. Those were happy days, the happiest of Lizzy’s early life, and she had honestly pictured them living together until they were old and grey.
And then the perfect little world shattered, one ordinary Friday afternoon, when she had come home from work, and found Malcolm over the kitchen sink with his wrists slit. Even to this day she could remember the scene; the smells, the calmness that overtook her as she worked through the steps of calling an ambulance and stemming the bleeding.
Malcolm was ill, he explained when he was released from hospital, a serious condition that was now relapsing. He hadn’t told them because he was scared of their reactions, but now he was asking for help.
“Of course,” Lizzy had said. “We’re family.”
Between her and Jason they organised shifts to watch Malcolm while they waited for a full mental health assessment. Malcolm had to quit his job straight away, and Lizzy could work from home, so she cashed that in as much as she could. She’d been nervous about having to explain it to the boss, but he’d been perfectly understanding and had given her two days a week from home. Between that, Jason’s odd shift patten and using up their annual leave, they managed to have someone at home all the time.
The mental health assessment came, but nothing changed. Malcolm still needed supervision, and he was still waking Lizzy up during the night when he wanted someone to talk to stop him self-harming. But they were family, so Lizzy buckled under and carried on.
She’d had plenty of warnings from her boss, who had been as generous as he could. When she was constantly falling asleep on her desk, getting things wrong or having to work from home spontaneously because Malcolm was having a bad day, there was nothing he could do to save her job though. She was fired, and at twenty-three it didn’t look good to any future employers.
So Lizzy hadn’t bothered to get another job. She threw herself into caring for Malcolm full time, taking him to appointments, cooking for him, making sure he kept himself clean. Day by day the pair of them became closer.
Neither of them noticed any issues with Jason, so when he turned round and said he was moving out it came as a shock to both of them. Malcolm had recovered quickly and been supportive, but Lizzy had not taken it half so well. She had screamed at Jason, accused him of abandoning Malcolm. ‘Selfish, heartless, shallow’ were only some of the words she used. Jason had just taken it, but the atmosphere in the flat was poisonous until he moved out.
When Jason left, she thought it would be the last she’d see of him. Every so often Malcolm would give her updates- he still talked to Jason on social media- but Lizzy would just snap. “Why should I care?” Then she would sulk for the rest of the evening, until the topic was changed and she’d forgotten that it had come up at all.
Without the outside influence of anyone else, and no other company, the two of them settled down into a pattern of panic attacks and computer games. They’d go out as little as possible, to minimise Malcolm’s agoraphobia, and spent their days eating comfort foods to cheer themselves up.
This went on for years. Literally years, and as Lizzy thought back to it now she could see it for what it was. Malcolm wasn’t getting any better- all her attentions were doing were allowing him to survive in an extremely sick state. And to compound things, she was getting ill as well. It started with her struggling to talk to people, and the rare occasions she went out she felt there was this great barrier between her and everyone else. Malcolm had asked her not to mention his illness to people, and she found herself just sat there, worrying about him. Isolation and loneliness were now her constant companions. At the time, she thought that being with Malcolm made those feelings go away. They were close, best friends, as close as anyone could be.
Then that delusion started to crumble, and it was the hardest thing she’d ever had to deal with. It started with the argument with her parents. A phone call about her sister’s wedding, which escalated into ‘when is yours going to be?”. She had snapped, and finally told her devoutly religious parents she was gay. After more screaming- from both parties- she hung up the phone and ran to the living room in tears. For about five minutes Malcolm had been there for support, before he said that he had a prior engagement, a phone call with his mum. She let him go, only to hear him playing games online with someone else not ten minutes after.
Even after sitting alone to bawl her eyes out, Lizzy had carried on with everything as normal. Two weeks later she got the news that a friend had died, someone she hadn’t spoken to in years, but who’d been close during childhood. She was devastated, and desperate to go.
“If you go to that funeral you’ll come back to another one,” had been the extent of Malcolm’s response and sympathy. Leave me for a day and I’ll kill myself.
That should’ve been warning enough, but if anything it made Lizzy try harder. She did even more for him, mothered him until she was sick from exhaustion. His ultimatum was another cry for help, his admission that he was still very ill, she assumed. Besides, the times that he said ‘I’d be dead without you’ gave her life meaning like nothing else that she’d ever done had.
Slowly the nights playing games together died out. Now, as she sat desperately lonely, she could hear him laughing with his online friends. Bitterness, anger and resentment built up. She started going over their life together- almost ten years at this stage- and spotted all the toxic signs that had been scattered across it.
Everything, even before his illness, had been about Malcolm. He’d been in the centre of the universe, and Lizzy had been caught up and swallowed by him, put her entire life on hold for him. And what had he ever done for her? Forced her to miss a funeral, only to abandon her. Now she could see the danger signs. The words that he used, the way that he had always guilt tripped her, as though every time she left was actively causing him pain, and she was to blame. How he’d cut her off from her friends, criticizing them, saying they made him uncomfortable and couldn’t come round any more. The way he was condescending, belittling, and even- of all things- mocking of her anxieties.
Slowly, but very surely, she came to realise that he wasn’t a nice person. He was a complete arsehole in fact, and she couldn’t actually remember what it was that she’d liked about him. She had just gotten caught up in his ego, and fell for his spiel that he was the greatest person alive. Now, with hindsight, she could see that he was pathetic, rude and not half as clever as he thought he was.
The realisation did little to help though. If anything it made the whole thing worse. Now she was trapped, the sole carer for a man she was growing to despise, who seemed to think less of her every day. No, it wasn’t that he thought less of her. It was that he was finally starting to show his true colours. He had never cared about her, despite all she’d done for his sake. All her wasted years, and he couldn’t even give her the time of day.
For a couple of painful months her torment had been unbearable. If she had ever felt lonely before, it was nothing compared to this. He had connections- somehow- and was always talking to someone, while she was left with no-one.
It was easy to see what she had to do, but harder to do it. She needed to leave, but she had next to no money, only a part time job and no-one to ask for help. Not only that, but a small manipulated part of her still felt that she couldn’t leave. She was his carer, he was her responsibility. If she left and something happened, what then?
In the end, it was Malcolm’s actions that made up her mind. He started bringing his friends over, strangers that Lizzy didn’t know, didn’t even know where they came from. This, after years of not letting her bring people back because it made him uncomfortable. After a weekend spent trapped in her room she tried to talk about it.
“It’s my flat too,” he’d said. “That’s not fair.”
That was when she exploded. Everything that had built up over the past nine years came flying out. The pain. The neglect. The manipulation. He tried to respond, repeating ‘It’s not fair’ whenever she paused to breathe, but that only kept her anger alive.
It ended when she threw a glass across the room. The crash of it against the wall cut through her anger, and she knew that soon she would hit him, and he was just the sort to call the police and get her charged with assault. Storming out, leaving him to mutter his half-excuses, she grabbed some essentials.
When she had her hand on the front door, he said something that chilled her to the bone.
“I was only nice to you when I needed you.”
Heat of the moment or not, that sealed the end of their friendship. She left, with tears on her cheeks from nine years of her life gone to waste.
Lizzy had managed to take refuge with Jason, who had been an angel and let her rant, despite everything. Jason still kept in touch with Malcolm, but only just. Malcolm only cared about his new friends, by all accounts, and the pair of them wondered how long before this lot wore out their usefulness to him.
Jason helped her co-ordinate moving out without having to see Malcolm. Even the sight of his stuff made her furious. Her things went to storage, and she sofa surfed while she saved. She scrimped wherever she could, living off beans and toast while she made up for years of earning pittance. When she finally got out of her overdraft she actually cried. The day she moved into her own bedsit she splashed out on a tiny bottle of wine.
Step by step she recovered, more or less. She still had trust issues, and her social skills had taken a nasty knock. There was some progress there though, because three years after she slammed the door on Malcolm’s face she had herself a girlfriend.
Life had been going so well. She was happier than she’d ever thought she could be, the idyllic happiness of fairy tales, where everything is smiles and dreams.
So of course, that was when she’d heard about the funeral.
In one text everything came rushing back. The anger, the betrayal, the guilt, and she broke down. It took an evening and a bottle of wine to explain everything to her girlfriend, who had repeatedly told him where to get off. Both her and Jason were complete supportive of Lizzy, especially when she finally plucked up the courage to ask how he’d died. Suicide. Not that she had needed to ask. She knew, as soon as the text came in.
“He was an adult. You couldn’t live his life for him.”
“You can’t be responsible for someone else.”
“You tried to help and he turned you away. You can’t force your help on someone.”
“He didn’t deserve you.”
Yet in the core of her heart Lizzy still felt that she had failed.
Now here she was, facing Malcolm’s mother. Malcolm had mentioned Lizzy to his mother several times, but they had never actually met before now, and Lizzy wondered if she should go and introduce herself. The poor woman would probably blame her for son’s death though.
That’s only fair. I blame myself.
Cowardice won out, and she ducked away, slipping back through the crowd. The sound of condolences stalked after her, not letting her get away from her shame. When the voices had faded out, she finally stopped, using all her self control to not cry.
“Excuse me?” The voice made her jump and Lizzy let out a shocked, gurgling gasp as a sob escaped at the same time. Her blood ran cold. It was Malcolm’s mother. “You’re Lizzy, aren’t you?”
Lizzy opened her mouth to answer, didn’t trust her voice not break, so instead just nodded.
The woman gave a smile, although her eyes were so sad. “I’m Karen. Malcolm’s mother.” Her voice choked on her son’s name.
I’m sorry. I failed him. I failed you. I should’ve tried harder. I-
“I just wanted to say thank you,” Karen said, as she put her hand out to Lizzy. “You’re a far stronger person than I am. A far better person, as well. I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for him.”
Lizzy could only stare at the hand. Her mind was reeling, the list of her failures on the tip of her tongue.
“I failed,” she said at last, little more than a whisper.
Pity crossed Karen’s face. “No. You gave him a couple more years. You gave me a couple more years. It’s the greatest gift any mother could have. You’re the most selfless person I’ve ever met.” She gestured her hand once more, and Lizzy took it. After a quick shake Karen gave her a hug, and Lizzy couldn’t resist.
They stood they, away from everyone else, sharing their grief. In that instant Lizzy felt a connection to Karen. Here was another woman who had done her best for Malcolm, only to be pushed away as well. It was just who he was. Who he had been. They had both tried, but Malcolm’s death wasn’t a failure on their part.
Lizzy hugged Karen back and let her tears out. They sobbed on each other’s shoulders, until Karen pulled away with a snuffly breath.
“Urg, glad I didn’t wear make-up,” Karen said. That made Lizzy smile, and Karen smiled back. “Thank you for being here today.”
“That’s okay.” And it was, Lizzy finally realised. The pain was still there, and it would be years before it faded. She could finally accept her actions though. It wasn’t her fault he was dead.
They shared another moment of silence among the gravestones, Lizzy giving Karen a tissue to dry her eyes.
“Thank you. You’d have thought I’d remember to bring enough.”
Lizzy shrugged. “You had other things on your mind.”
Someone walked up and Lizzy pointed them out. “Yes, of course,” Karen said. “I should be going. Are you coming to the meal?”
Lizzy paused. “No. I think I’d better not.” It felt rude, given how she’d left things with Malcolm.
“Very well. And say, thank you for coming. It means a lot to me-” Karen started choking up again, so Lizzy just nodded.
“Of course. I-” Lizzy swallowed. It felt awkward, but she couldn’t leave without saying something. “Take care of yourself.”
“And you Lizzy.”
With a last wave Karen turned and headed back to the funeral.
Lizzy stood, alone but not lonely. Her guilt had faded, as though his mother had given her permission for her actions. Taxis turned up to ferry everyone away, and Lizzy waited until they’d all gone.
“Goodbye,” she said at last, so far from the grave. “I’m sorry it didn’t work, but I’m not sorry for my actions. I had to try, and I know that I gave it my best. In the end...” She looked up at the sky. A ray of sunlight was breaking through the clouds. The light at the end of the tunnel. “In the end, we both needed saving from you.”
Lizzy turned and walked away, the weight of her past finally banished.