Clack, clack, clack… Pause… clack, clack, clack, clack… stop.
Claudia sat with perfect bearing on the pew, right side, front row. Her sister Annette was next to her, slightly hunched over, anxious but not yet in full ‘meltdown’. Annette wanted the world to bend to her will, she wanted things to go her way, not just for her sake but for the sake of everyone else within her sphere of influence. But, despite her best efforts things went wrong; outside influences from beyond the sphere entered, without permission, and messed with her plans.
‘Clack, clack,’ until identified was a potential mess she could perhaps quash before it exploded and brought the whole structure of her day – and everyone else’s – down.
‘What the hell IS that noise?’
Claudia looked at her wreck of a sister and thought to herself that anyone could be mistaken for imagining that it was Annette’s husband that had died. Then, with a little more charity she realised that Annette was always like this and there’s nothing anyone can do but accept that life for Annette is stressful.
‘It’s Margot,’ said Claudia.
‘Margot?’ whispered Annette clutching her purse.
Claudia paused for the full effect. She enjoyed these moments with fiendish delight, always had done. Watching her neurotic sister splash about in the deep end of human understanding was Claudia’s guilty pleasure.
‘She’s wearing snow shoes.’
‘Snow shoes?’ Annette looked around her taking in the stained glass images of crucifixion, ascension, and suffering, the pews, the statuary, the font and the relics. Below the altar on an easel, stood a photograph taken several years earlier of her brother-in-law.
‘In a church?’
‘I don’t think its a cardinal sin Annette. Jesus did not say upon the mount, ‘Behold the fool who walks into the house of My Father wearing unseasonal footwear, for he/she will feel the full force of His wrath.’
‘But why? Why is your daughter wearing snow shoes to her father’s funeral Claudia?’
Claudia lifted her veil, took a lipstick out of her handbag and applied a generous smear of red to her lips.
‘Actually Annette, I am not completely insensitive to protocol. The snow shoes are a compromise: she wanted to wear skis.’
‘Skis? For Heaven’s sake why? Does she even ski? I don’t think she has ever skied, you would have mentioned it.’
‘No, she just doesn’t want to fall down any holes. Skis, she has decided in her nine-year old wisdom, will bridge most unsuspected holes. There’s a graveyard out there don’t forget!’
Annette nodded as if she understood, then realised that she did actually understand and said so.
‘I get it. Because of Bobby right?’
‘Yes because of Bobby.’
‘Is he still wearing that crash helmet?’
‘Yes and a full-length leg cast. You will hear him hobbling about too – they make a fine pair.’
‘OK. I will have them both seated here at the front, plenty of legroom, before the others arrive. Then what with the din the organist will make after the ceremony no one will notice the … err … clacking. Then it’s quickly, and as quietly as possible, outside onto softer ground. Right I can cope with this.’
‘Good for you,’ said Claudia, trying her best but failing to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. She did not want to upset her sister or get into a fight with her today.
‘What does that mean?’
‘What?’ said Claudia stalling for time. And then the universe sent a saviour.
‘Oh here comes the vicar. He will want to know about Emile. A few details. I’ll go and round up the children,’ said Annette standing up briskly, flattening out the creases in her black dress. She glanced at the vicar and tried to look grief stricken. It wasn’t an easy look to convey because, truth be told, she was not in the least bit upset. Annette wasn’t exactly glad that Emile was dead but then again she wasn’t going to miss the bastard.
As Annette took her leave, head down, body trembling, the vicar sat in her place next to Claudia.
‘My condolences Claudia. God rest his soul.’
‘Thank you Michael.’
Michael, relatively new to the job, full of empathy but lacking in confidence wanted to start with a topic outside of the grief, something that would allow the griever to open up,
‘So tell me. How did Bobby break his leg?’
‘Well…’ said Claudia lifting her veil, ‘You’ve heard of the butterfly effect?’
‘Yes,’ said Michael, rather pleased with himself and thinking, ‘That was easy.’
‘Well… this is the tortoise effect.’
The vicar looked puzzled.
‘My husband, Emile…’ Claudia began, as they both glanced toward the photo on the easel, ‘was standing in the garden of our holiday home in Crete. He had what I dubbed the ‘Socratic Syndrome’. Socrates was Emile’s hero and, like Socrates, Emile would just stop and stand still for hours on end apparently contemplating some great metaphysical question. It could happen any time, anywhere.
It happened frequently enough at Paddington Station for me to consider putting a label on him, like the bear, so someone might get him onto the train and home before supper. But it also happened in supermarkets, petrol stations, university hallways, restaurants or just in the middle of the street. I wouldn’t mind so much if he actually had an original thought but as far as I know he never once experienced an eureka moment! He’d just come to his senses eventually and say, ‘Well never mind,’ or, ‘That’s that then.’
Getting him to Crete was a major logistical operation; the children were easy to organise in comparison. I just really though that if I got him away from his work, his habits and his environment he might reconnect with us. Or, if it was too late for Emile and me, then maybe with his children. It wasn’t too much to expect was it? A family holiday, time to relax and connect with the immediate rather than the abstract?’
‘Sounds reasonable,’ said Michael, his confidence waning.
‘Yes, well I thought so but… Sorry for asking… Are you married Michael?’
Michael shifted in his seat, not having realised that questions might go both ways and blushing slightly, he said, ‘No I’m afraid not. I just haven’t been able to find the right person, much to my mother’s annoyance.’
‘How do you go about finding a partner anyway? I mean if you are a vicar?’
Michael thought for a moment, thought about his gaucheness around women, his previous tongue tied attempts to date and decided to transcend the painful truth with a stab at humour.
’The right woman would have to give up quite a lot you see, she would have to toe the line,’
He wagged his finger comically. ‘Do what is expected of her by the church and the community and not embarrass either. I put an advert in the local paper saying, ‘Virgin wanted for human sacrifice’ but I haven’t had any takers yet.’
‘What a surprise,’ laughed Claudia warming to the man next to her.
They sat quietly together on the pew facing the altar. Michael liked the silent spaces and never felt uncomfortable. God was, after all, always with him. Behind them they could both hear Annette whispering instructions loudly and firmly to the children. The children, despite their handicaps (one wearing snow shoes and the other a plaster cast and motorcycle helmet), were like photon particles, never where you thought they should be.
‘Where was I?’ asked Claudia eventually.
‘The Tortoise Effect, I believe.’
‘Oh, yes. Well, there we were in Crete and Emile was standing in the garden with a full tray of watermelon slices that I’d given him to take to the children who were playing in the pool. He’d made it halfway across the garden, halfway to the pool, when he did what he always does and stopped midway for a think. I watched him from the kitchen window wondering how long I should let him stand there before intervening. I decided to finish my iced tea and then maybe bang on the window. Do you play golf Michael?’
‘Err no. I can’t say I do. Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, no reason. I just remembered an occasion several years earlier when I received a phone call from the chairman of the Whitley golf course. He called to inform me that my husband, who had apparently just wandered onto the ninth hole and stopped there to contemplate the ineffable, had been struck, not by an irate golfer but by lightning from a freak storm. An irate God, perhaps? God maybe got tired of all Emile’s poking around and dealt out a lightning bolt? Anyway Emile’s heart stopped briefly but coming up from the eighth hole was a retired doctor and his wife who wasted no time resuscitating the interloper on the green. They got him off to hospital and the doctor made par apparently. The thing is, Emile barely registered the whole affair! His own safety, his very existence was of no real concern to him. Maybe because to Emile that very existence was highly debatable. He wasn’t convinced and never would be that any of this…’ Claudia made a sweeping gesture with her gloved hand to illustrate that ‘this’ was everything, ‘… was even real. So if he had serious doubts about whether or not he was just a thought generated by a brain in jar, then how could I expect him to give us any real consideration?’
‘Well…’ hesitated Michael, ‘I’m more of a faith man myself.’
‘Yes, sorry it wasn’t really a question, more of a statement.’
‘I see,’ said Michael feeling that he’d missed an opportunity to elaborate on God’s good grace.
‘I remember sipping my iced tea, listening to the cicadas and the laughter drifting over from the swimming pool and thinking that he was letting life pass him by. And then he just dropped like a sack of potatoes. A rather overweight, pasty white, lumpy, sack of potatoes. I looked first for the storm cloud suspecting another of God’s whimsical lightning bolts but saw only an eagle circling high above. I ran outside and Bobby was screaming, he’d seen it all. I’ll spare you the gory details, the difficulty discerning head from watermelon will stay with me forever. Bobby had also seen the eagle passing overhead but not perhaps the disgruntled tortoise gripped in the birds talons. The tortoise must have negotiated his release right above Emile’s bald head. It was a breezeless day so it fell like a plumb-line and crack went Emile’s skull.’
‘Oh my God that’s awful!’ said Michael knowing that he’d just stated the obvious but not knowing what else to say.
‘Yes, well it was rather stressful but the good news is that the tortoise, having spent millennia evolving a hard shell, just wandered off into the garden with bits of my husband’s brain on his back. The last thing that went through Emile’s mind was a tortoise before it disappeared under a rhododendron. It isn’t often that the murder weapon makes its own get away!’
Michael lit upon another potentially obvious statement but found himself saying it anyway, on, if he were to be honest with himself, the off-chance he impressed Claudia with his knowledge. ‘I
suppose you know, not that it is of any comfort to you, that the great Greek tragedian ‘Aeschylus’ died in the same manner? The eagle apparently mistook Aeschylus’s shinny bald head for a rock and tried to open the shell of the tortoise but err…’ He trailed off glad of an interruption from the back of the church.
New voices had joined old voices and the whispers had been raised to curt, sharp utterances of discontent.
Michael looked over his shoulder, past the empty seats to the entrance of the church. Claudia’s red lips whispered, clipped and precise, close to his ear.
‘It’s Emile’s mother; she will want to take charge of everything. Annette won’t want to relinquish control. She can’t bear to be ruled. There might well be another funeral before the day’s out. I specifically told her not to come early because I needed time, uninterrupted time, to talk with you Michael.’
Claudia took off her gloves, put a finger from each hand in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle, momentarily startling everyone. Michael’s ears rang like a tuning fork for some time after.
The two squabbling women returned immediately to earnest whispering and finger wagging, and the children looked at their mother in awe.
‘Outside, all of you! We have plenty of time before anyone else is due. Go!’
Under normal circumstances Claudia would have expected some belligerence, certainly hands upon hips, a little huffing and puffing but this time both women turned obediently, with the children clacking and thumping over flag stones in loud pursuit.
‘There. Peace at last,’ said Claudia triumphantly pulling on her gloves.
‘I’m impressed. A little deaf, but impressed nevertheless.’
‘Oh I do beg your pardon.’
‘Not at all, please continue. You were saying that Bobby saw everything.’
‘Yes well he saw too much. He saw the eagle drop the tortoise and he saw it hit his father’s head. He did not, thank God, see the aftermath. I told them to run for help. There’s a villa farther along owned by a reclusive Spanish poet called Etza who practices the spoken word. She drops poetry bombs on people in public places but never writes it down. It exists only for a finite moment in time, touches a few hearts then evaporates but leaves a sense of comfort or strength where before there was none. She’s very good. She’s loaded; her father is some wealthy banker and Etza never had to work a day in her life… Anyway, the children ran to her for help. While they were gone I covered Emile’s body with a towel or three. It was all rather surreal; I mean here was a man who barely had a presence when he was alive and nothing had really changed once he was dead! Sounds like an awful thing to say but I don’t miss him; there is nothing to miss, he wasn’t here, ever. I mean for the sake of his children, his awful mother and a few colleagues who perhaps knew him better than me, I have to play the grieving widow. It’s an act. I’m devastated that the children have had to go through this experience, obviously, and they are my main concern but as for how I feel, nothing much has changed.’
‘These things take time, grief is not always predictable,’ offered Michael with a degree of hesitation.
‘That’s what everyone keeps saying but I honestly think I did my grieving years ago, while he was still alive in body but not in spirit.’
Michael decided to change direction. ‘And how are the children coping?’
‘Emile’s body was taken to the morgue. The bits they couldn’t take were hosed down and I had to deal with the repatriation of the corpse. For the next few days the children stayed with Etza while I dealt with all the red tape. But on the day I had to speak with the coroner Etza was due to fly to Milan where she had planned to drop a poetry bomb outside La Scala. So I had no choice but to take the children with me. I tried to make the whole experience less about the death of their father and more about the bond we three have and the importance of keeping that bond alive. I took them to the park, we had ice cream and it became quite apparent to me that Bobby was nervous, he kept looking up, expecting something to drop from the sky! I told him that the chances of an accident of that nature happening again were billions to one and not to worry. To hammer home the implausibility of such an event I decided to ask the coroner, who spoke perfect English, to verify my rationalisation.
The Coroner seemed very understanding and agreed to speak to the children, once he’d been over his report with me, alone. He told them that other than Aeschylus and Emile he had heard of no one else who had met with such an untimely demise. Death by tortoise was almost unique and that it might take another fifteen hundred years before another poor soul met with the same fate. Bobby, in particular, became visibly less tense. The fear he’d been harbouring over the past few days began to pack its bags to leave. Why the Coroner did not leave it there I will never know.’
Michael raised an eyebrow of inquisition.
Claudia exhaled dramatically and gazed at her past though a window the vicar did not see.
‘The coroner, in his dotage, and in his inexplicable wisdom then said, “On the other hand…” and went full speed into a story from his time as a medic in a Bangalore hospital. A rickshaw pedaller had been rushed into the hospital with a snake bite on his ankle. How an adder got into his rickshaw we do not know. The team worked quickly extracting the poison from the leg before it could reach the man’s heart and kill him. The pedaller was a likeable chap and everyone rooted for his recovery, which happened, and all gave thanks to their gods. The day he was released from hospital this hapless rickshaw pedaller was back in the saddle earning his keep when an eagle dropped an adder from above. This time the adder landed on his neck, bit him and the pedaller died almost instantly! What are the chances? Bitten twice by an adder in almost as many days.
I could have throttled the coroner there and then! Bobby’s fear stopped packing to leave and decided to move in permanently. That very afternoon, to appease my terrified and increasingly impossible son, I bought him a crash helmet. Which by the way has only been removed once when, obsessed with the sky and all manner of falling reptiles, he tripped and fell into a hole in the ground. He broke his leg! Consequently his sister has decided to wear skis everywhere she goes to avoid the holes she cannot see due to her own keen observations of the sky. She refuses Bobby’s advise to wear a helmet because she doesn’t want to mess up her hair.’
‘I see,’ said Michael as his mind raced off in a thousands directions searching for something, if not profound, then useful, to say. Something soothing at least, but all he came back with was, ‘What a muddle,’ and then went to work metaphorically kicking himself. Claudia laughed,
‘So you now have the undesirable job of getting up there and saying something profound about a man who, in the end, barely lived. He, in some way or other, made himself become his greatest fear. He actually no longer existed. In truth, even to me he feels more like an idea than a reality. He thought himself out of the realm of actuality and into the realm of ideas. You can say that if you like?’
‘Michael straightened his posture, trying to assert his own presence as a capable conduit of God.
‘Actually, I have something that might work, might pull all these fragments together and offer a degree of hope, of understanding.’
‘Pray tell?’ smiled Claudia.
‘Well it’s an extract from a poem by Aeschylus. It goes like this:
‘Even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’The