Aileth raised her face to the grey horizon, dragging her gaze from the freshly turned earth and bright floral displays and closing her ears to the voices wandering in search of hot tea and comfort.
If only I’d made more time to see her.
It’s her cousin I feel sorry for.
Do you think she knew? That we loved her anyway?
Squat, sullen clouds loomed in the sky. Full to bursting. Refusing to weep. Every so often a raindrop escaped, speeding its way to the faces below, hiding amongst the tears.
She sighed, her breath turning to soft mist in front of her, despite the chill of the morning having long given way to the afternoon blanket of clouds.
Funerals are the worst.
The celebrant had been dignified but impersonal, clothed in his dark navy suit that hinted at mourning but respectfully distanced him from those whose hearts rattled in shattered shards beneath their ribs. He breathed in sharply between each line of speech. Aileth caught herself listening for the exhale, air running through words to send them floating meaningless and lost above bowed heads.
She turned away from the grave as the first cloud began to cry.
Leaves, golden in death, crunched under the feet of the mourners. Little explosions. Aileth smiled as she walked through a pile of silent foliage, remembering when she was small and would be overcome with disappointment when the leaves didn’t smash like crisps. Drifts of copper covered the park benches lining the path. Ahead lay the small sensible brick building where the mourners gathered. The kind of building you knew would smell of weak tea and reheated pastry.
The wake was nearly as depressing as the funeral. She wandered through the crowd, avoiding shrivelled old ladies who mouthed platitudes she didn’t want to hear. Ubiquitous sausage rolls and asparagus sandwiches sat glumly on the tables. The stiff bread hardly moved as she poked at a folded triangle before turning away. She didn’t feel hungry.
Regret hung like a lead blanket, muffling voices that spoke of ‘potential’, ‘a second chance’ and a million ‘if onlys.’
One person’s eyes spoke more than any of the loud-voiced people smothering their sorrow in meaningless conversation. Marama stood in the corner, her grief radiating outwards like a physical force pushing well-wishers away. Her long black trench-coat hung from scrawny shoulders over a black sweater and slacks, the only colour she wore a defiantly pink scarf that had drawn more than one disapproving glance.
Aileth curled her fingers into her palm, hesitating. After a long moment, she shuffled closer to the other woman.
Marama’s voice escaped in a harsh whisper. “This is awful.”
Aileth glanced around the room, at the emotional discomfort concealed under saggy cardigans and salt-water pearls. “It sure is.”
“She would have hated this.”
Aileth heaved a sigh. The muffling blanket seemed to be deadening her emotions as well. “Yep. So many people who never really cared and now they feel bad.”
Marama’s face relaxed and Aileth looked past her at the imposing features of Aunt Sarah. Her battleship prow of a nose led her sharp face, hiding a heart like marshmallow.
“Oh Marama dear, please let me say how sorry I am. It is the hardest loss for you young ones of course. You cousins were all very close weren’t you?”
“Very close.” Marama said, her clipped voice keeping emotions at bay.
Aileth dug her hands in her pockets, Aunt Sarah’s condolences sparked too many memories.
“Of course. Are you sure you’re alright to do the tidy up? With her poor parents gone I wasn’t sure what to do.” Scrawny fingers bedecked in tawdry rings twisted around each other. Marama smiled tightly and jangled a key. Aileth reached out to touch the cheerful pink daisy keyring but curled her fingers back.
“I don’t mind. She deserves to have someone who loves her take care of her things.”
Sarah smiled, her mouth lemon-juice-tight in her powdered face and tears glistening in her eyes. “Thank you, dear. Such a shame Aaron is still overseas, I’m sure he would have helped out too.” She strode away to supervise the refreshment table, frowning gently at those daring to take more than one sausage roll at a time.
“Silly old thing,” Marama murmured.
Aileth grinned where no-one could see. “She always was.”
The gloom of the afternoon hit her eyes as she followed Marama out of the building. “I wish it had been a sunny day. Sunshine doesn’t suit funerals, but it would have been nicer.”
They walked to the carpark through a light breeze that lifted the leaves and tugged at Marama’s curls. Chilled air followed them into the small hatchback. Marama shivered and turned up the heater. Lorde’s “Perfect Places” echoed from the radio and Aileth smiled. Only a few bars played before Marama let out a small sob and turned off the radio. Silence filled the drive after that.
They sat in the car outside the small bungalow for some time, Marama’s hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel, her eyes fixed on the Nissan logo stamped into the dashboard. Aileth turned to stare at the house. Sparrows frolicked in the small birdbath in the front lawn. Circulars and local papers spilled out of the letterbox.
“No point in putting it off,” Marama said and shoved open the door.
Aileth sighed as she followed her. “True that. Putting things off never works out.”
A sprawl of late-season daisies fought through the weeds in the garden. Brave yellow and pink faces reached to the grey sky. Marama didn’t spare them a glance, but stood, staring at the lock of the front door, the key clenched in white-knuckled fingers.
A small smile twisted Aileth’s mouth as she bent down to stir the daisies with her hand. “The green thumb didn’t really run in the family. Poor daisies.”
Marama took a deep breath and turned the lock.
A loud miaow escaped from the hall and Aileth’s heart constricted. Marcel.
Black fur rose thick around his hackles and brushed tail. He fixed unblinking green eyes on her then wound around her feet, his yowling cutting through the muffling sensation in her ears.
Marama huffed and closed the door. “There you are! Silly cat! We’ve searched all over for you and here you are dancing in circles!”
Marcel mrrped up at Aileth and she bit her lip. “He needs food, his water bowl will need checking too. Poor cat. Who’s going to take him?”
Marama sighed and picked up the cat, pure black except for the white tuft that Aileth had always thought made him look like a parson. “I guess you’ll have to come with me until we find you a home.” She snuggled her face into his fur. Aileth watched the tears glisten on Marama’s cheek and turned away from Marcel’s unblinking gaze.
The mirror in the hall needed cleaning. Aileth gazed at the spots of fly dirt, the grime and dust on the frame. She had never been any good at remembering to dust. Life was too short to worry about dusting. When you were determined to squeeze excitement from every second, wringing it to a desiccated pulp, housework lurked far down the list of ‘must dos’. Funny. She always thought she’d be embarrassed if anyone saw the mess she left behind. But Marama’s eyes didn’t see the dirt, the mess, the fly spots. Tears flooded and blinded her. Each discarded note and plate received its own lamentation. Marama’s finger stroked down the flowered handle of a small cake fork, crumbs clinging to the prongs. Her shoulders caved in and she shattered into sobs, sinking to the ground.
Aileth stood over her, hand hovering above the tight ponytail, so close to touching.
The rich tang of the cake sat on her tongue still. Velvety chocolate, tart raspberry. A rare treat. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa afterwards. Snuggled under a blanket, tissues and medications close by, she hadn’t been able to face the walk back to bed.
Devils Cake, they called it.
Aileth crouched by Marama, wishing she could make it better as her cousin’s wailing intensified.
“I’m sorry Aileth. I’m so sorry I stopped coming around. I’m sorry I stopped texting. I never stopped loving you, it was just hard.” Marama grasped the fork so tightly Aileth worried it would pierce the soft hand that had always offered comfort. Always reached out. Until recently.
“It’s okay, you know. I was scared before but I don’t really feel much now. I wish I could let you know.”
She reached out, a chill settling between her hand and Marama’s. “I never minded. And I always knew you loved me.”
Slowly, Marama let go of the fork, placing it gently with the rest of the things. She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders rising, and raised her chin. “Right. Lots to do. Better keep on.”
Aileth supposed she should feel guilty but there wasn’t a lot of space for emotion in the chill numbness taking over her body.
At last the only place left to clear was the shed. It was strange, seeing your life sorted into piles of importance by someone else. What was discarded, what kept, what was wept over. All her precious books, tossed in a box, while the artsy vase she secretly hated was wrapped carefully in tissue paper. The shed, though. Aileth wasn’t sure she wanted Marama to see. No-one had ever seen.
Golden leaves sat in a heap in front of the rough-hewn oak doors, hanging slightly askew from faulty hinges. Marama eyed them and sighed.
“Oh Aileth. Why didn’t you tell us? Aaron would’ve come round in a shot to get it sorted.”
Her fingers passed over the wood like velvet but her mind still remembered the splintery texture. “Because I could pretend things were different, like in a storybook. This was my secret place. Secret places don’t have plain doors made of aluminium and hardboard.”
Fine silvery cobwebs clung to the doorframe and floated onto Marama’s hair as she entered. Aileth ducked her head from habit. The spiders never bothered her and she left them alone in return.
She nearly bumped into Marama when her cousin stopped abruptly but she sidestepped, not sure if she’d pass through her or not but unwilling to take the chance. And she wanted to see Marama’s face.
Tears spilled from her cousin’s wide eyes, a smile splitting her face for the first time in days. “Oh Aileth. You didn’t stop.”
The dim grey light filtering inside was beaten back by the deep oranges and reds of the paintings lining the small shed. Aileth breathed in, the cool mist surrounding her deadening the scent of turpentine, oil paint, and wood that had always settled her spirit. “I couldn’t stop.”
Every regret, every sadness, every obstacle, she had rendered through her fingers into the paint, transformed into joyous fiery swirls. This was the heart of her. Her spirit. Her illness tried but hadn’t tainted it, her difficult awkwardness never mattered in here. Only the paint and the process and the peace.
That same peace settled on Marama’s face. She leaned against the doorframe, cobwebs and all, and gazed.
Aileth stood in the middle of her paintings and smiled at her cousin. Her edges blurred, feathering into a wisp of air.
“You know it now, I think. That I never minded. Take care of Marcel. He’s greedy but sweet. Tell him I love him.”
She leaned closer to kiss her cousin’s forehead and all that was left of her scattered to the breeze, touching the paintings that shone with bright defiance before escaping the shed to play with the leaves.
Crunch, just like a potato crisp.
Originally written for and submitted to the Blank Page Challenge