“Don’t forget, the red ribbon goes on your left wrist!” I heard in the ether.
With a half-smile on my face I noticed, “Am I not too old for this kind of parental attention? See you soon.” I aborted the call, I had to focus on the road, with a red ribbon on my left wrist.
Since I lived near Paris, I preferred the train for a journey to London and being not a gifted driver; the ribbon served as a life-saving reminder on the road over the channel. Last time I drove across, some five years ago, it was for another funeral. Uncle George’s, a true role model who had taught me to enjoy the petty pleasures. I applied a healthy amount of moderation though, as he paved his way through life by ale and bacon. Everyone has missed him. Everyone except for his mother. My late grandmother, since last Wednesday.
Grandmother, this is how I used to think about her, if ever. I just couldn’t associate her with the world ’granny’ and the atmosphere of mutual adoration this world meant to express. Not that we met often, I have had most of my calf-teeth when mom and I visited her and she packed us off. Mom accepted that.
“You are the lucky one.” George marked sometimes during the -grandmotherless- family gatherings in his bachelor flat. “I can’t but visit her. She’s my mother, and she’s alone.” there was a bitterness in his sigh, reserved for this special pain, but he covered it with humour, as always. I remember this because it happened every so often. All these memories of my grandmother came from George. He, like an intermediate, had interpreted her monotone, increasingly introvert life. For instance, my late grandfather had haunted her, allegedly. He messaged via noises here and there in the old cottage. “I offered to mend the gutter” George laughed “but she rejected me.” He made a face, then he turned the surging sadness into a mockery, mimicking his mother’s voice and her dramatic gestures. “Your father was a hero. So was your brother. I lost them and you, you brought shame on this family.”
She’d never wasted a mere thought on me. At least George had not mentioned it. I’m not a hero, like my father and grandfather were. Not that I lack the average masculine appearance, my fault is that I didn’t join an armed force. However, this wasn’t obvious twenty-one years ago when my grandmother chased us off her doorstep. “You killed my son!” she shouted at mom. “You destroyed him!”
It wasn’t fair; I guessed that as a child, and I am sure now. We all faced hardship back those days, but she could only see her male relatives either in uniform or of no worth. Grandfather took part in the suppression of the Mau-Mau uprising. My dad was an electrical engineer in the army, while I am an English teacher in France. Let alone George, who was a successful wallpaper designer. His works are still used by posh stylists, not bad, is it?
I was so frustrated pondering about the meaning of family bonds; I forgot to watch the ribbon. Once out of the roundabout, after a lap of honour around the flower bed in the middle, I found my way to the village in Devon.
I hoped she was there before me. I have never visited the thatched cottage without parental support, and I’ve never been in the small cemetery beside the church. I felt the spirit of my grandfather, dead long before I was born, lurking in the heavy air. The creepy feeling of being caught for something I didn’t know I have committed sat on my chest like when I was at my grandmother’s house.
My car parked outside, I walked into the church garden. The robust norman walls, darkened under the dust and smoke of centuries, cast a shadow on the graveyard. I knew my grandfather rested on the edge, under a yew, far from the common departed. It was meant to be the cemetery of veterans, with George and my dad and myself to join and share the patch of heroes when our times would come. Grandmother had fed her sons on this project for years.
I found the yew. Knee-height undergrowth sheltered a selection of native weeds and insects. Nothing else. I paddled around, bent like someone looking for a lost key, ruffling the grass with no end. An engine’s noise saved me of wasting more time.
Dear, it was an Aston Martin DB6. Hired, but what a choice! I rushed toward her. I have expected her entry to be theatrical, and so it was. I imagined her in high heels and a hat with a piece of lacy veil, an embodiment of classy elegance. Instead, she wore comfy shoes and perfectly fitting suit trousers with a matching black blouse. Only the silver dots of her satin scarf and a matt silver handbag counterbalanced the perfect mourn.
“I’m so glad you are here, Mrs…” the vicar was quicker than me, she was already there when I have shown up.
“Lorna.” she said, reaching her hand out.
“Call me Sally.” the vicar replied. She was genuinely cordial, I knew that after the few emails we exchanged recently. “Robin?” she turned to me. “When did you arrive?”
“I can’t find the grave.” I answered, albeit not the question.
She sighed. “The world is changing. When Mrs. Parker asked me, I saw no reason to decline her request to bury the late Mr. Parker into the hallowed ground.”
“I don’t understand.” she mumbled.
“I assume you are not familiar with canon law.” she released a brief smile. “Those who killed themselves while of sound mind were not entitled to a full Christian funeral. They are now.”
Poor Sally found herself in the cross-fire of bewildered stares. It took a few moments to realise what she’s involved herself in. “My apologies, I thought at least you were aware.” she muttered, stepping forward, looking not at us. “Please follow me. We all need a cup of tea, then I explain.” We obeyed, still in shock. The kettle whistled, and we were speechless, sitting in the small office beside the chapel. We exchanged puzzled looks while the answer was with Sally, who slowly poured hot water into our cups before she started pouring the truth.
The military operation in Kenya was my grandfather’s last mission. Melancholy captured him. Sally said so, echoing the previous vicar however we have more accurate definitions these days, my thought was. He’d rarely left the house, and one day he shot himself. The old vicar agreed to bury him literally next to the churchyard, yet outside.
“My grandmother wasn’t particularly religious, as far as I heard.” I said.
“I can confirm.” said Sally. “I’ve been serving for years when she has came to me. I saw her every week, visiting the grave, and then one day she approached me.” Sally hesitated, her glance wandered between the rose-window and our demanding looks. “She thought her husband haunted her. So she sought for help from the Church.”
“What happened after?” she asked as Sally paused. “What have you done to… help?”
Sally endured her gaze. “I visited Mrs Parker a few of times then…” she rubbed her head, measuring us from the edge of her eyes. She pulled a smile. “I suggested repairing the guttering, and I organised it with the neighbourhood help service.” she confessed, if this is the term.
“Noises solved, Captain Parker rested in sacred soil, yet Mrs Parker felt haunted. I’m afraid” she raised her palms towards us “and I am not judging here, she couldn’t acknowledge the suicide herself.” Sally played with the biscuit tin. “If you ask anyone in the village, older than fifty, they will remember Mr. Parker the hero, or his son, who died as a hero too.”
“How about me?” I asked dunno why. “Am I dead too?” Unintended emotions burst out my chest, for mom and dad and for myself too. For George. “Did I exist at all in her world of heroes?”
“You didn’t.” whispered Sally.
Steps echoed in the nave. Sally startled up with relief, I bet.
She produced a soft silk tissue out of her posh handbag. She handed it to me, wiping a drop of tear off her face with her index finger. “I’m proud of you.” She ran her touch over my arm, rolling up the loose sleeve of my garbo shirt by accident. She cast a glance at the red ribbon. We laughed. Embarrassing, I know, but it happened.
The funeral was brief. The vicar introduced us to Lisbeth, the volunteer carer to my grandmother. She was a fitt lady in her sixties, offering her overflowing vital power and communication skills to the community. Frank popped in too. He took over the financial guardianship, a task both George and his mother were unwilling to assign to my uncle. Sally performed the service, Lisbeth delivered a speech –a bouquet of carefully selected common places– and the song of praise came from a CD player.
“All done.” I thought. Now she rested beside her husband and we can carry on.
My grandparents would have let me go, but Lisbeth wouldn’t. She invited us in the house I have just inherited, although it was the first time the thought emerged. For the bizarre nature of the situation, I couldn’t resist. The three of us walked down the road into the house to enjoy the cupcakes and finger-snacks already piled on the dining table.
I remembered this house in black and white, like an edited footage in a horror movie. The small windows opened to north-east and the walls and carpets faded into an undefinable dark shade, with some less dark rose-pattern in the dining room. Discoloured copper pans hang above the never used fireplace. The whole timeless house was a wet dream for an antique trader and a nightmare for a young boy like I was the last time I’ve been here. So must have been for dad and George.
The whiteness of the damask tablecloth with the pastel cakes was as much out of place as Lisbeth’s insider chat was. “I knew Mrs. Parker’s son.” she said. “Not George, I mean Robert, the army officer. We were schoolmates.” We shot a synchronised beam of piqued glance, but Lisbeth went on.” He was a smart boy and good looking, I remember. Sad story, that accident….”
She held on my upper arm, staring at a framed photo of a family of four. She had enough for today; I concluded. Accompanied with grateful compliments, I nudged Lisbeth out.
She was where I have left her, looking at the photo with a fresh eye, like I did. The man in the middle, in uniform, wasn’t strict or determined. If anyone in this story, he was the haunted soul. He was a stranger in the world he had to live in. The resemblance to the slightly obese toddler and a smaller boy, dressed in hussar costume, laid in this alienation. If I wasn’t aware of the story, I would still say the woman ordered the photographer. Despite the mannered look, a common feature of staged photos, she seemed to be proud. Happy. Like an ostrich, George would say.
“Time to go.” I touched her shoulder.
“Crazy. I miss her.” she breathed, trying to suppress her tears. “I miss them.” she added, weeping.
I pulled her in a hug. “I know.” I whispered. “It’s OK, Dad.”