During 2014, I entered a nationwide creative writing competition to win a one-day intensive creative writing course in London with best selling novellist Joanna Rees. She is the author of A Twist of Fate, The Key to it all and Come together.
The competition was run by the publisher Pan Macmillan. The winning ten entries would win an invitation to London for the workshop with Joanna and have their entries published on http://www.thewindowseat.co.uk – the book web site run by Joanna’s publishers, Pan Macmillan.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t travel to London for the workshop as I was still recovering from a stroke. Joanna was kind enough to send me a consolation prize of her latest novel and a very nice letter. My entry here was published on the Pan Macmillan web site.
The brief was to submit a 1500 word piece of original fiction ( prose, not poetry or a screenplay ) on the theme of SHINE.
Here is my winning entry; I hope you enjoy it.
Jessica is dead.
I cannot say these words out loud, because that would make it so, engrave her death into the indelible history of our family, just as the date will be goldly engraved forever into the black shiny granite of her waiting headstone. They circle around inside my head with no escape, polishing the inside of my skull to a head-aching shine. I can change where I live, change where I work, even change from being alive, but I cannot change the truth of those words. I would do anything that would allow me to.
‘Bring her back, Jack,’ Diane begs.
‘Bring her back, Dad,’ Amanda begs.
‘Bring her back, God,’ I beg. ‘Take me instead’. There is no answer.
We will bury her today but it doesn’t help; talk of closure is nonsense. It pushes Jessica further away from us. It is all too predictable. Family and friends come and talk, offer to help, ‘anything I can do, just ask’.
‘Bring her back,’ I reply. They look down and shuffle their newly-shined shoes in the dust like guilty children, refusing to meet my entreating eye, shiny with yet more, unshed tears.
‘Why didn’t you save her?’ accuses Diane. ‘You’re her father, it’s your job to protect her. You failed her.’
I think, but dare not say, ‘you are her mother, you failed her too.’ She knows this, I know this, we will both know this for our separate, eternal, purgatories.
We did the tumbler test. We raced her to hospital. We screamed at the doctors, ‘Help her, help her, please. Do something, anything, quickly, now.’
The heart has gone from our family. This will surely destroy us as we try to apportion the available blame. Without Jess we don’t have a family. We are now just individuals. Diane is Jessica’s ex mother, Amanda, her ex sister, I am her ex father. We are now just extras in the short story of her life. At night, I turn over and clasp Diane’s hand but she tugs it back, turns and shrivels away from me. There is no sleep or comfort here.
Diane blames me but blames herself more. A mother should not allow her child to die before her. We always thought that it would be Jess who would look after us in our old age, she
is was – why do we have to change the words? – the caring one. Amanda is the practical one, always looking to fix things. She has now found something that she cannot fix. Her sister is dead, she cannot allow it, we cannot allow it. What can we do?
We drive in a shiny black convoy through the South Downs, to Pyecombe, to the Church of the Transfiguration. We slowly climb the gentle dip slope of the chalk hills. We suddenly drop down the steep scarp at Dale Hill; like the story of Jessica’s life – a long slow learning and growth to near adulthood and then a sudden crash into death.
We don’t talk during the drive. Diane keeps her hands clamped around mine. They slowly whiten.
The car stops outside the church and I help Diane out. She moves slowly, like an old woman bent under an unbearable burden. We walk through the rows of ancient headstones that carry faded, forgotten names, to meet the waiting vicar. He is new, not the one who christened Jessica here nineteen years ago in August ’95. The polished silica surfaces of the knapped flints in the ancient walls glint the sunshine back at us, guarding against any entry of cheerfulness or warmth.
Diane refuses to enter the church. Everyone waits. I sit with her in the porch and clasp her to me.
‘Come on Di, we need to do this for Jess. She is waiting for us.’
‘I… I just can’t do it, Jack.’
Amanda kneels on the worn flags and strokes her mother’s hands. ‘We can do it Mum, just like we always do, the four of us, together.’ She wipes away her mother’s tears with her thumbs and helps her to her feet.
‘You’ve torn your tights Mandy.’
‘Doesn’t matter Mum, come on, hold on tight.’
We inch into the church, Amanda on her left, me to her right and take our places in the front pews where the sidesman silently indicates. We are helping Diane but who is going to help me? Why do men always have to pretend to be strong? ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’
We sit in the cold, shiny wooden pew in this old, cold church. We listen to cold comfort from the vicar. I try to pray, but God coldly turns his face from me. Is it guilt or is he just laughing at us all, with our tiny, pathetic, human emotions? If anyone knows how we feel, it should be him, so why does he turn away from us when we are in most need of his comfort? Does he care? Does he exist?
I gaze at the oaken coffin, polished to a shine that reflects the slow burning candles, on its oh-so-practical stands in the aisle. I insisted that it should have rounded ends so that there would be no corners; I know that evil lurks in corners. I had to do something for her. How can it be Jess in there? Will she suddenly pop the lid, jump out, skip over and tell us it was just one of her silly jokes and laugh with us?
I don’t think I will ever laugh again.
I swivel round on the oak bench, polished to a dull, smooth shine by a thousand backsides, to look at my lifelong friend, Bill. He returns my look, expressionless. He knows what I am thinking, just as I know what he is thinking. ‘Is it because of all the things we have done and left undone over the years of Jessica’s life?’ He slowly shakes his head at me, ‘No,’ he is saying, ‘it is nothing to do with that, there is no cause and effect.’ How does he know? He doesn’t even believe in God.
It has always been this way, we used to say that we were telepathetic. When we met a few minutes ago, he said nothing, just clasped me in an unmanly hug and looked me directly in the eye, which I know is difficult for him, he says that he cannot collimate. He is a typical architect, mildly autistic. No one else did that. Everyone else looked sheepish, didn’t know what to say, except to murmur, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and then quickly flock to the back of the church, just in case death is contagious and takes a shine to anyone who lingers.
The organ has been playing, but I only notice it when it stops. The vicar rises from his oaken chair, using the shiny armrests to lever himself upright, prepares to start the final rituals. I want to stand up and tell him to wait, perhaps Jessica isn’t dead after all; how foolish would he feel if he started too early and Jessica was to live for another seventy years? It’s too final. Please wait. Perhaps she is outside, she never liked being inside churches.
‘Why would God want to come in here, when all His creation, birds and flowers, are outside in the sunshine?’ she used to say to me.
I don’t stand of course, so the vicar starts. I don’t listen. Why would I want to hear any of this? There are meaningless phrases and platitudes that God must hear a thousand times each day, in different languages, with ethnic variations, and some that pass him by because they are addressed to one of the myriad other gods. The vicar winds down.
The undertaker’s men slowly file in to take up their places and lift the coffin onto their shoulders with a practised heft. One even remembers to fold away the oh-so-practical stands, so that no one trips over them. Heaven forfend that anyone should get hurt and die at a funeral; too convenient.
We file out and approach the waiting hole in the ground. Diane wanted cremation, but obviously I couldn’t even consider that, it would be too final and my thoughts would visualise too clearly what was happening in the hidden furnace. The grave is deep, deeper than I imagined, a black hole in the white chalk of the Sussex downland. I am having second thoughts about cremation, too late, my thoughts race around seeking scenes I refuse to visualise. How long will it take for the damp earth to remove the shine from the coffin, how long will it take the coffin to rot away, how long before…?
I realise that the shine has been taken from our life forever, no amount of regretful polishing will ever bring it back.
Why are the birds singing? Has no one told them that Jessica is dead?
There; I almost said the unsayable words.
© Richard Kefford Eorðdraca
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