Within the faux oak panelled walls of the funeral director’s inner sanctum, Adele could hear the faint sound of weeping. This place, she thought, was a terminus for grief; journey’s end. For many it was where they got off, having made the long trek from apprehending a loss to the enforced acceptance of that loss. For some, it signalled release; a cathartic moment, the realisation that life goes on and that broken hearts can mend. But her journey was not this journey.
Her journey had barely left the station. The shuffling and the stifled sobs of mourners adorned in black today were not from those grieving for her husband; those mourners had been and gone, that was yesterday; they had come out of respect or love or to be supportive or to be nosey but now they were back in their own lives grateful not to have to carry the burden of grief any longer.
‘Yes well, normally people choose one of our urns you see, something dignified, tasteful to … erm… store the remains in,’ said the undertaker.
‘Will this biscuit tin do, do you think?’ asked Adele innocently.
‘Well its a little unorthodox but yes – it will suffice in practicality where it lacks in erm …shall we say, elegance?’
‘I think it’s very elegant,’ said Adele stiffly, inwardly agreeing with the funeral director. She didn’t like his pompous manner and nor would John have. She had no intention of hanging onto the ashes any longer than need be and, therefor, saw no reason to spend money on a fancy container.
The official placed John’s remains, already in a plastic bag, in the biscuit tin with as much reverence as he could muster and closed the lid.
‘Once again I’d like to extend my condolences to you and your family and thank you for choosing Cuthbert, Cuthbert and Young.’
‘And which one are you?’ asked Adele clutching her biscuit tin to her breast.
‘Of course, well thank you for everything you’ve done … and I’ll be sure to recommend you.’
‘Thank you, we try to do our best and with the upmost discretion.’
Adele left the crematorium and drove, taking the back roads home, winding through country lanes, past cosy cottages where, she imagined, lovers were having the life now denied her. Eventually she stopped at a pub and pulled up outside. She had been here before with John an eternity ago.
Since John’s death ten days ago, every moment seemed like an eternity; a gaping hollow eternity. Like a dissipating dream, cherished moments of the past fluttered silently away and her future turned to dust, sifting through her fingers. She felt abandoned, numb, directionless.
The pub was quiet. Polished brasses and tankards hung from dark beams and an open fire was crackling and spitting out its welcome. Adele ordered a glass of red wine and placed it next to the biscuit tin on the table near the fire. She sat down and gazed blindly at the flames licking hungrily at the half eaten logs. Not the same flames but a relative, an older brother or fierce uncle had consumed her husband, had returned him to ash, and now left her with the problem of what to do with those ashes exactly?
John had grown up locally, but hated it here: too many bad memories, too much bad blood. So they had been making plans to move, to start a new life somewhere else but couldn’t decide where that new life should be. They were also planning to have a family but there was no hurry; they were young and had plenty of time. Best get all their ducks in a row first.
No, there was no justice, no such thing as fair.
John argued that life was exciting exactly because there was no ‘right time’ to die. You could die at any time; you simply didn’t know when that would be. He liked to live on the edge, enjoy every moment and do crazy, potentially dangerous things like racing motorbikes. She could, she thought, scatter some ashes at the racetrack if it weren’t for the fact that the idea of returning there filled her with dread and sorrow to deep to bear.
Adele sipped her wine, sensed its warmth first then its intoxication. She hadn’t eaten for days and so, she deduced, a single glass of Merlot would put her over the limit. ‘Fuck it’ she whispered to the fire and took a bigger sip, more of a swig this time.
No, she thought, there was only one place to scatter his ashes (save a pinch she intended to keep and have set in a ring), and that was Ink-pen Long Barrow. Certainly macabre enough in essence but in truth is was a startlingly beautiful place with majestic views over Berkshire, Wilshire and Hampshire. On top Long Barrow stood a gibbet; a replica of the original gibbet built to hang two lovers condemned of murdering the spouse of one and the children of another. It was on top of this hill, under the gibbet, in typical John style, that he knelt down and proposed marriage.
‘Yes,’ Adele murmured pensively to the fire, as if it was the fire to whom she owed the inspiration, ‘The perfect spot for a scattering.’
Once the wine was drained from its glass Adele gathered her husband’s remains and drove home. By the time she got home it was two in the afternoon. More letters of condolence lay on the doormat and the answer machine bleeped with unread massages from well wishers and worriers in equal measure. Then the phone began its ominous trill and Adele decided that she could not bear to stay here a moment longer. She rushed upstairs and found her wedding dress: a simple, cream coloured, cocktail dress with some decorative beading. She hadn’t seen the point of buying a dress that would never be worn again. She hadn’t anticipated this occasion.
Adele slipped into the dress, put on her Doc Martins, grabbed a banana and a bottle of unfinished wine from the kitchen and headed back out to the car. Curtains twitched nosily from across the street, which would, in turn, set the tongues of bored housewives wagging no doubt. Adele didn’t care. With her biscuit tin and her supplies she reversed out of the drive and headed for the long barrow.
It was autumn, mid October, and the leaves on the trees had turned to yellow and rust. Those that had fallen, those that had died, lay like a carpet on the road. A wind picked up as she drove: more leaves fell, floating weightlessly in the air, blown this way and that in an intricate dance before joining the others on the ground. The wind brought dark clouds, laden with rain that hovered, poised for attack like an invading Armada. Adele drove on absently. Her thoughts were mainly of the past, the present too unbearable to contemplate and the future inconceivable. In her mind, she revisited the haven of their love; that secluded, intimate cocoon only they had access to and, although she found comfort there, surrounded by their memories, his absence now was like a dagger in her heart. Her stomach knotted.
His absence felt like a betrayal: all those promises, sealed with kisses deep and warm, were gone, never to be realised, never to be given life and like the leaves on the trees they would fall away and eventually rot.
By the time Adele reached the small parking area near the gibbet the rain had begun to fall. She parked and watched the last of the hardy ramblers make their way home. Back to their warm homes and hot showers, back to friends and loved ones full of buoyant accounts of the day. Back to less painful futures than hers, or so she imagined, for there was not a more wretched soul alive.
Adele took a long swig from the bottle of wine. She was tired, exhausted, having slept fitfully and eaten next to nothing for days. Never had her life looked more bleak than this. Outside, the night came in early, the clouds blocked out the setting sun and driving rain came down hard and relentless. She fell asleep.
She was woken by the thunderous noise of rain on the roof of the car. Groggy from sleep and wine, Adele drained the bottle with a thirst that could never be quenched. Grabbing the tin containing John’s ashes, she stepped out into the night. The path leading to the gibbet was sodden and muddy under foot and made muddier with each step. By the time she had covered the short distance from the car to the ghoulish monument her boots were heavy with brown cloggy mud.
At the base of the gibbet Adele stopped and gazed up at the wooden construction through the bars of falling rain. Two lovers, two lovers that could never be together in life, were hung from these monstrous gallows in death. He was married and she widowed: together they plotted to kill his wife so that they could be together. Passion drove them to a murderous end, brought them to the edge of sanity. Adele too was at the limits of her sanity and would do literally anything to wind back the clock. To be back in her husbands arms, to continue on their journey with no knowledge of this living hell, was worth any price. Whatever or whoever plotted out our lives had made some grievous mistake, she thought. Fate had messed up somehow and just needed to unpick the weave and reset because obviously it wasn’t meant to go like this, there should be no loose ends, and that’s what Adele thought she was, a loose end.
Through the fog of rain and low cloud Adele could make out twinkling lights burning like beacons below, amber jewels in the night: isolated farm or cottage windows lit with congenial warmth. Inside, she imagined laughing children, a dog curled up by the fire, dad winking at mum, mum laughing gaily as she beheld her good fortune.
To Adele, this all seemed so foreign now – a country she could never visit. All these people, all these lives were outside her existence, beyond her grasp. A door had been closed: she would always be on the outside, isolated, staring in through the windows, with no hope of ever entering.
She was alone on a journey she had not planned for, not foreseen?
‘Why?’ she cried but her cry was swallowed up by the night.
‘Why?’ She screamed and still no answer came.
‘Come on, show yourself. Tell me why? Why?’ She fell to her knees, pulling at her hair in frustration, sobs rose up from deep in the earth, below the mud and dirt, below the burrow, from the core of the earth. Tears born from sorrow were cradled by the rain and washed away to join other sorrows spilt from long-dead, long-forgotten eyes. She clawed at the lid of the biscuit tin, ripped open the bag and tipped out her husband’s ashes, spreading them into the mud. Adele was angry now, white hot rage blinded her as she pounded the ground with her fist, pummelling the ash with the dirt until, finally, the rage burnt out and fatigue claimed her. With nothing left, her energies spent, her hopes and dreams reduced to clay she wallowed in her misery muttering, ‘Why?’ and, ‘Sorry!’ and, ‘I love you!’ Her face in the mud, her wedding dress sopping and spoiled Adele lay sobbing quietly until sleep arrived and calmly held her head in its lap, stroking, soothing, singing songs from the cradle.
She felt strong arms, trusting, loving arms scoop her up out of the mud and carry her through the night. Whenever she looked up she could only make out a glint of light, like a star shinning bright in the night sky. Whenever she reached out to touch the arms that bore her or the face that looked down upon her she felt only wet, viscous mud. Even so she felt herself being carried, she felt the determined steps of her porter as he manoeuvred the rocky, slippery slope of the barrow. Beneath them lay the buried corpses of long dead ancestors, quietly waiting for deliverance, to be granted access to a now forgotten afterlife. There they lay, undisturbed but not without their influence; she felt them reaching up from the depths, bony hands guiding her saviour’s every step until, at last he found solid ground.
‘John?’ she whispered. The rain had stopped, the wind dropped and the night was still.
Adele awoke. It was morning. She stretched and felt the clean cotton sheets on her skin. For a second, a waking moment, she knew nothing other than the pleasure of waking in her own bed. Her memories were bottlenecked, each one vying to be first through the gate.
The moment of blissful ignorance passed. She remembered John then recalled the night. She sat up, threw back the bedding and saw that she was clean: no mud, no dirt between her toes, or under her nails. Adele hurried out of bed and stood before the mirror, she’d been cleaned. She ran to the bathroom. Spotlessly clean! No dirty towels, clothes or boots. Through the window she saw her clean car sitting on the driveway. Had it all been a dream then? Had she never driven to the burrow after all? Maybe she got home from the pub, drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep?
She dressed, made coffee and felt hungry for the first time in ages. She searched the bare cupboards for food. Eating dry cereal from the box, and drinking black coffee she felt almost normal, and certainly better than she had since John had died. What the hell had happened?
She’d already searched the car for the tin of cremains, but it was gone. And she’d discovered her wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe upstairs: clean! Puzzled, she reached into the box for another handful of cereal and felt something in the bottom of the box, one of those toys maybe? She pulled out a silver ring! Set in a stone of blue she could see tiny fragments of ash.
‘John,’ she whispered.