They stood amongst the vehicles parked in the crematorium car park and watched a robin. Its chest a dash of bright colour against the surrounding grey. Dry leaves were lodged around the tyres of an SUV and it hopped around amongst these, periodically pausing, head erect, checking the visitors out, before resuming its jerky activity. Every now and again a gust of chill wind would stir the rusty leaves, and the bird would fly off, only to return when the movement ceased. Caitlin took a deep drag of her cigarette enjoying the taste on her lips, the slight dizziness a few moments later, and then the satisfying expulsion of smoke as she exhaled. She’d ‘given up’ thirteen months earlier, but when her brother took the familiar red and white packet from his pocket, unwrapped the crisp cellophane, and offered the pack to her, she’d been unable to resist.
‘They say robins are dead souls come back to visit the earth’ she said.
‘If you’re thinking it’s her, why would she?...she disappeared nearly ten years ago.’
Jamie stood with his arms hanging at his sides, cupping the lit end of his cigarette in towards the palm of his hand. He was slight, almost dainty for a man, with fine, delicate features. Well dressed in a heavy overcoat, with a smartly tailored suit beneath. His sister’s features mirrored his, but the years of medication had given her an unnatural bloated look, her only remaining beauty was her long, dark hair.
‘Why’d you come?’ she asked.
‘She was still our Mam…and I didn’t think they’d be many here.’
‘You got that right.’
Despite their long separation, they’d recognised each other immediately. When Caitlin had arrived at the chapel a couple of minutes after Jamie, she’d hesitated in the entrance, unsure what to do. The room in front of her was somehow reminiscent of a school hall with its non-descript magnolia-painted walls, and windows high up towards the ceiling. The middle-aged woman beside her had nudged her, encouraging her to walk. Their footsteps echoed in the vast space, competing with the piped organ music. Past the empty lines of wooden chairs until they came to the only occupied row, the front one. They’d slid into this and Caitlin sat next to Jamie. He’d looked up from the hymn book he was holding and their eyes met. They’d hugged awkwardly, and he’d whispered,
‘Catch you after.’
When the service finished, the few mourners had filed out of a side door and shook the penguin-garbed preacher’s hand. The normal form on these occasions is for the funeral attendees to stop and look at the deceased’s floral tributes. This time, there was only one, an extravagant heart of red rose buds, with ‘Ever Mine’ spelt across its centre in white roses. The siblings stood looking at it, unable to find a card to identify who’d sent it. Jamie stooped, picked it up with both hands, and turned it over, but still, there was nothing to say who it was from. After a brief pause, he replaced it on the ground and led the way back to the car park. Caitlin’s companion walked beside her until she left the siblings standing together, saying,
‘Take your time, pet.’ Jamie watched as she slipped into the driver’s seat of a battered Ford Escort, nodded in her direction, and asked,
‘My foster mum…She’s been good…always stayed in touch…most don’t bother after you leave.’ Caitlin shivered in the thin, black jacket she’d purchased from a charity shop. It wasn’t an overly cold day, but still, she could have done with something slightly more substantial. She said,
‘Where’d you go?’
Jamie lifted his cigarette to his mouth and squinted as he took another brief puff and said,
‘I went into supported living…at seventeen they reckoned I was old enough to fend for myself.’
‘And was you?’
‘Nah…not really…I was lonely…got in with the wrong crowd and into a wee bit of bother.’
‘Doing alright…working as a used car salesman…got a girlfriend. You?’
‘It left its mark…I’ve had a few ‘problems.’ They both took another pull on their cigarettes, staring bleakly into the distance. And then Caitlin asked,
‘Do you think she knew...you know…what he did to us?’
‘Probably…but I don’t think she understood that it was wrong.’
‘Well…there was the age difference for a start…he was fifty-eight when she had me, and she was only twenty-six…and I think she was…you know…a bit simple.’
‘Yeah…everything fell apart when he disappeared.’
‘That’s the thing…before he left, we all went to school, there’s was enough money…outwardly we were a ‘normal family.’
‘And then when the net started closing in…he ran…and she couldn’t cope.’
‘She tried to carry on as she always had…doing the washing, cleaning the house…’
‘But she couldn’t manage the money…or drive…and I don’t think she could read very well, she used to ask me to read the letters that came.’
‘And the rumours started…people called her names when she went out…our windows were egged.’
‘It must have been awful for her.’
‘And us…don’t forget what it did to us.’
‘I think she really loved him…do you think, you know…when she left…that she went and found him?’
‘Definitely…do you know what happened to the others?’
‘Izzy came with me, to the same foster home…when she was old enough, she left and went to Australia…She still writes.’
‘He was only little…I was told that he was adopted.’
Simultaneously, they put their cigarettes to their lips, took a final puff, dropped the butts to the floor, and ground them out with the toes of their shoes. Caitlin looked directly at Jamie and said,
‘How could she do that...Just leave us?’
‘I don’t know…D’you remember how we tried to manage on our own.’
‘I remember how you tried to fry those eggs without any lard in the pan!’
‘All that black smoke…nearly set the house on fire.’ They both laughed.
‘How long before we were taken into care?’
‘Not sure…I really can’t remember…I guess your mind blanks out some of the most painful stuff.’
‘Not all of it.’ said Caitlin.
Again, Jamie slid the cigarette packet from his pocket, looked at it for a moment, changed his mind and slipped it back into his jacket. He asked,
‘How’d you think the authorities found out about him?’
‘Reckon it was our school that raised the alarm…they noticed Izzy was pregnant…and then a social worker came and spoke to us…she asked us if we had boyfriends and Izzy told her that she was ‘Daddy’s special little girl.’ Then suddenly, she said, ‘I’d best get going.’
‘Me too…give me your mobile number…we’ll keep in touch.’ With a final hug, they parted. Caitlin made her way to her foster carer’s Escort and Jamie to a well-polished black Audi.
Unnoticed by them, an elderly man sat on the other side of the car park, half hidden by the shade of a large yew tree. He’d silently watched their interaction, although he was unable to hear the conversation. The next funeral had just finished and its mourners were making their way back to their cars. The man watched as a family of four approached their saloon. His vision homed in on their daughter, she was about seven or eight years old. His eyes narrowed lasciviously as he focused on her colt-like legs, clad in burgundy tights.
When all the activity ceased and the cars had left the car park, the man got unsteadily to his feet and walked slowly with the aid of his stick to the last remaining vehicle. A casual passer-by would probably notice his deeply tanned, lined face. If they looked more closely, would they also notice that his fine features strongly resembled those of the earlier smokers in the car park? Eighty-five years old and still a danger to children.
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