Living in Shadow – Extract Three

Narrow field of vision, March 2014

If I recant my beliefs will that end my pain? The twenty milligrams of Temazepan has done its job; Carole’s pain has left for a few hours as the weight of Matthew’s death slips from her shoulders. The duvet moves up and down slowly.

How will the pain end?  If God doesn’t exist, or if I don’t believe in God, how can the pain ever end? Matthew has no pain. A car spins out of control and demolishes a wall. He’s in the back, laughing. He doesn’t know he’s dead. If there is no after-life how do we conclude his earthly life or is death the only conclusion?

The black Zippo lighter, in his pocket that night is now in my hand. I want to touch something that he has touched. I need to feel comfort in the smoothness of the undamaged casing. In the darkness, the flame that never blows out even in the wind, kills my night vision as I snap the lid closed again. The light, his sight, my sight, extinguished. Does death snap the lid closed, does fate type the final full stop or is death simply a temporary intermission? If God does exist, hallelujah, I will recant and an unseen bright new chapter is started, and the dearly departed enters the next life. But the living will never know. We are left in perpetual pain, cry each day with the guilt, guilt of breathing, eating, seeing the sun shine, and anger, and helplessness, and loss, and live the rest of our lives with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Perhaps death is the answer.

My chin unshaven on the sheet sounds like the legion of mourners slowly shuffling down the church aisle. Her breath goes in and out. If I exhaled and stopped, it would all be over. If I didn’t breathe in again, the gap, where my heart used to be, would also no longer exist. If I just stopped breathing, the random re- run of his life without sound, the re-run of a spinning car, would end. It would be easy, one way CO2, just like letting the air out of an inner tube. It wouldn’t bring him back but already the images, constantly bursting like anti-aircraft gun fire over a London sky, are fading.

The void seems to be filling, but not with oxygen. I can hear a vacuum cleaner in another room, also fading. The distant Dyson seemed to be sucking the air from my lungs, slowly, almost pleasantly. I see myself in a different vacuum, floating above the bed. In thirty seconds I will know how the philosophical argument concludes, I will know if Matthew is waiting somewhere for me to join him; vicarious atonement? A field of reeds? Re-born with no memory of a previous life, or simply no electrical activity in a cold cortex?

But if I stop breathing, who will bring in the logs in the rain and snow? Who will split the kindling? Who will cook the beef bourguignon properly? Who will do all the driving and the school runs? Who will they make fun of? They can cope without me I know that really. They are all stronger than me and have already developed their accessible face; they smile in public and grieve in private, in their own space. Will they miss me or call me a coward?

My mind like the dark room is briefly lit again by half an inch of open blind that is his voice…

‘Don’t be a bloody idiot’

Carole breathes in, and out. Slowly, with regret, I too inhale. Matthew will wait a little longer, the feeling of helplessness returns.

*****

‘Have you got a loved one buried here?’

The woman was holding the hand of a Down syndrome young man. He swished a broken tree branch like it was a lightsabor.

‘No. Not yet. Perhaps next week’

‘You must be from the cottage?’ The woman delayed another arc of Tom’s wooden lightsabor. ‘Tom, please’ she soothed. ‘War should be the only reason a parent buries their child’

‘Hello Tom’ the man from the cottage touches the boys arm. ‘Do you like your walks down to the church?’

Tom swished again and the man from the cottage let him. ‘There are some very old people down here, Tom, not many your age’

‘I still speak to them, tho’ Tom stroked the man from the cottages arm. ‘Died in the war you know’ His head sunk back as his slant eyes looked up towards the church twin bell tower. The excess skin on the back of his neck became thicker.

‘Do they talk back to you, Tom?’

‘Yeah. Soldiers’. His tree branch hummed as it became a lightsabor once more.

*****

The bench made of cast iron was lipstick red. I didn’t have a jacket, the station didn’t have a roof, I didn’t feel the cold. A yellow line ran the length of the platform.

On the other side of the station, the green camouflage gear looked surreal in the poor lighting, the young squaddie, almost super imposed on the backdrop of the ticket office, was packed for a very long journey.

‘The next train arriving on platform two is the 8.30 to Glasgow.’ Pause. ‘The 8.20 Virgin Pendalino to Edinburgh will not be stopping, please stand well back from the platform.’ Open mic feedback, then click. The announcer, also the station master, appears on platform one directly below the meter wide digital clock. It read 20.19.25.

The yellow line is only two feet from the track. A solid object will be travelling at 100 miles per hour two feet from the yellow line in thirty seconds. There are many natural dualities, light and dark, hot and cold, fire and water, life and death, all physical manifestations of yin-yang. 10,000 tons of steel, including the buffet car, and 85kilos of human flesh, are opposing forces and not complimentary, but it may end the pain. A shadow cannot exist without light, can I exist without him?

I stand as the train is obvious in the distance; the soldier also turns to face the track. The digital clock above his head reads 20.19. 45. I take a step towards the yellow line. 20.19.50. The soldier senses my movement and faces me fully dropping his ruck sack. The shoulder strap caught something red on his chest and it flutters to the ground. He is still looking at me, I point to the fallen object, he picks it up and shows me a thumb, he holds out a poppy with the other hand. He disappears with the flash, flash, flash of the train.

The clock reads 20.20.10. as the disappearing Edinburgh Pendalino reveals the smiling soldier again across the other side of the track.

*****

The physical presence, the shell, wrapped in oak, padded in satin and lace, looks asleep. There’s a smell of burning candle wax, but no music, I always imagined there would be music. I wrote a letter yesterday and now slip it into his shirt pocket. Carole chose his favourite shirt, one with buttoned down breast pockets. There are two other letters, both folded neatly, one on lined paper one on plain paper, there are some coins and a £5 note.

‘It’s a bugger’ the funeral director said.

*****

In pictures around the house, the physical body grows from room to room; from a few minutes old covered in after birth, the one year old with food on his face, the boy in school tie, blazer and missing teeth, youth in base-ball cap, to the man, taller than his parents with a beer in his hand. I don’t need the pictures to see or feel the virtual beauty; the unfailing smile, the ungainly gait, the blue eyes, the mole on the forehead, and the way he held his left arm when he was thinking or talking. I don’t need the pictures to remember the uncontrollable desire to please, the loyalty to friends and family, the inner beauty; innocence, gentleness, thoughtfulness, and honesty, in his heart and his intentions. What has happened to that individual, the bespoke entity and the emotional bundle that made him, who he is? His energy, his consciousness, just can’t die with the shell. In my heart I want to believe in an angel sat on a fluffy cloud playing a harp, but my head is telling me something else. Is this entity, which I can no longer touch or hear or smell, the principle of life, the feeling, the thought, and the action of him, still regarded as a distinct entity, is it separable in existence from his body? Or, is it a story made up before Socrates time by a fallen soldiers wife to comfort their child?

*****

I walk the ten paces to a new normality, the reality of five hundred people sat in silence, now knowing it’s true, it’s not a bad dream. I pass the coffin vertical to the lectern, brush it slightly with my hand, mount the few stairs to the platform, turn, and face the legion of mourners. But I see no one. I unfold the sheet of typed paper and take a deep breath.

‘If we don’t change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going, a Chinese proverb. I shall let you ponder the philosophical arguments of that over the next couple of minutes, even the weeks, months and years as we try come to terms with his death’

I can’t raise my eyes above the wooden lectern. If I do I might recognize another grieving face. I promised him yesterday amongst the candle wax and satin, I wouldn’t cry today. Like many parents before me, I asked him for his strength and vowed not today.

The walk to a new normality? The first walk wearing the mask, the public face. My twenty two year old son is dead, and as I speak, his death can be seen only if you search deep into my eyes. They too are dead, and I take in another blind deep breath.

‘There is a dichotomy, a ‘yin and yang’ to his persona. On one side, he was what they call in the corporate world ‘an impact player’ and ‘a safe pair of hands’. He made things happen and understood what needed to happen to get things done. People gravitated to him for help and advice. His phone never stopped ringing or buzzing as texts came in. They knew he was capable, and just as important, they knew he would make himself available to help them. He grew in strength, stature and intellect so much over the last four years, the pupil became the master. In contrast, he just didn’t seem to be aware of his abilities, capabilities, his personal qualities or even his good looks in an almost naive way. I think that was part of his charm, and I love him for that. I spoke with him many times over the last two years, encouraging him to emigrate to Canada. He knew it was my dream and not his. He listened and accepted my argument of a ‘better’ life, I knew deep down that he wasn’t interested, he was happy with his existing life. He loved his friends and family too much to leave them behind’

I can only hear silence as I still see no faces. ‘I’ve looked everywhere for guidance and inspiration to try to make sense of it all. I read Carol Anne Duffy’s book ‘Love Poems’, a slim volume of fifty five pages. As confessional poets do, it’s all about me…. it’s all about hand ringing, and unrequited or lost love. But in it I saw a glimpse of someone else in pain’.

‘I met Stephen McClintock, an author who was selling his book in Waterstones. He lost his brother in a car crash when he was twenty five, and has since lived his life and wrote books in his brother’s memory. Twenty years later, he speaks with much pride about him, and says his brother’s memory was instrumental to his success. And then to the other extreme, a bottle of Merlot, several, it dulled the pain, but there was no guidance or inspiration from them.

One of the many difficult things in coming to terms with the death of someone you love is the fact; the earth continues to spin, the birds continue to sing, and the kettle still boils, despite that person not being here’

Someone sniffs near the front. I stop; I put my hand in my pocket and feel the undamaged smoothness. The black polished metal is warm from the constant contact. It was in his pocket two weeks ago. My eyes don’t leave the words that I have to finish.

‘I know you won’t have had time to think about the Chinese proverb yet. I have.

We can’t know which direction his life was heading and if at twenty two he got to where he was destined to be? What I do know, is that he touched the lives and hearts of everyone he met on his way, many of them in this room today. And now in his death, I hope he may have changed the direction that some of us are heading in, for the better. I hope the younger people will drive their cars slower, I hope even us older people will be more reflective and perhaps in some small way follow his example of just enjoying the simple things, and enjoying life for what it is’

I refold the paper and retrace the ten paces from our new normality passing the coffin vertical to the lectern; brush it slightly with my hand, turn to face the coffin, silence at my back.  I’m saying ‘goodbye’ to my son without having really said ‘hello’

*****

Even with the driving wind the water of Bowscale Tarn is flat, it’s protected by Carrock Fell on my right and Combe Height and Knott to the front. There is inescapable evidence on Facebook that he made this walk many times with Lucy his Border collie. I hear him call her to heel despite the howling easterly storm. His voice, a thousand times sharper than the cutting wind, slices to my heart, my chest, gossamer thin, is no protection.

The water is black but bottomless, as the local myth goes. The myth also tells of two immortal fish, one given the power of speech. I stand at the water’s edge being drawn to its limitlessness. In my insanity I call the fish to heel, again and again. I step out onto the first exposed stone in the water. Against the wind I call the fish again. I scan the water for a sign and step to the next visible stone. Now a foot on each one, the water still calm and now inviting, I try to fathom its depths. A few lines from a Wordsworth’s poem bounce and echo around the fell, or is it my head? The Cumbrian accent slices to my heart.

‘And both the undying fish that swim,

through Bowscale-Tarn did wait on him,

the pair were servants of his eye in their immortality,

they moved about in open sight,

to and fro, for his delight’.

One more step, there are no more stones. The wind has dropped, Wordsworth has stopped. I could just dive into the warm blankness, and hold onto the tail of the immortal fish, swimming to eternity, to the bottom that doesn’t exist. I won’t hear his voice again, only the talking fish.

*****

‘Hello Tom, good to see you again’ the boys slant eyes bare of colour, look to a space beyond the church yard. The man from the cottage points to a fresh grave in the direction that they are walking, ‘Can you see where the flowers are Tom? There’s a young man there, he’s about your age’

Toms gaze shifts slightly to the light brown wooden cross. ‘Soldier?’

‘No Tom. He loved to play ‘Call of Duty’ on his Xbox though, but he never did read Sun Tzu’.

Colourless eyes re-focus on something a thousand yards away.

‘When your take your walks will you say hello to him for me?’. The man from the cottage touches the wooden cross. ‘I don’t think I’ll be back again,’

‘Poppy. Can I put with other flowers?’ Tom shows a gap between his two front teeth as he smiles. He spins the plastic stalk between his fingers, the red flower drops on the grass as he holds it out to show the man.

‘Very pretty Tom, he never went to Flanders, but I’m sure he would like that’

The man from the cottage takes a pen and small pad from his wax jacket. He writes quickly, tears out a sheet of paper, folds it and gives it to the young man.

‘Can you put this next to your poppy Tom? Perhaps you and your Mum can write it out every year for him?

Tom’s Mum takes the folded sheet. She holds the man’s elbow and smiles. Tom’s neck thickens again as he looks east up the steep church lane.

‘What say Mum?’

Her eyes never leave the man walking across the grass, as she unfolds the paper the man closes the church gate behind him. The morning winter sun casts a long shadow west across the pasture, High Pike, Carrock, Mosedale, Mungrisdale, and the church to his back. The shadow moves slowly across the grave, the flowers, the wooden cross, and falls at the gate. The man from the cottage walks up the narrow tree lined lane not looking back, his shadow in sync with the low October morning light, his hand in his pocket.

‘It’s a poem Tom, a poem about soldiers, and flowers just like yours. Listen’

‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

J.M.’

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