The chapel had gradually emptied around Harry but he’d barely noticed the others leaving. He’d barely noticed anything much since Anna died eight days ago. He’d kept off the Prozac like he’d promised himself he would, every time he felt himself slipping back into his depression he’d tried to imagine himself in Anna’s place, tried to imagine her fear, her pain and remembered how strong she’d been for those around her until the end. It reminded him how fortunate he really was. He had his health, his children, and a good job that provided him with all the material things he needed too. Anna wouldn’t approve of his wallowing in self-pity whilst so much was happening to others - nor would Beth.
He hadn’t wanted to come today; he couldn’t be sure how he’d cope with it. Jack’s funeral had been tough, it’d brought back far too many memories, but he hadn’t been close to Jack particularly and he’d had his little blister pack of emotional crutches to hold him up. This was so much harder, but there was no question of not turning up. It was his duty as head of the department, and he’d already shirked that duty once by asking Charlie to break the bad news to the rest of the staff. He knew no one had noticed; everyone, including Charlie himself had been too wrapped up in their own thoughts to worry much about his absence, but it was cowardly, he knew it. He didn’t want to cry in front of them, didn’t want to show how hard it’d hit him so he’d hidden away and missed out on the moment of bonding with the others.
So he’d arrived at the crematorium’s chapel at the last possible minute, slipped in quietly to sit at the back and tried to hold himself together. He kept his eyes transfixed on the small stained glass window at the end of the room, not so much looking at it, or even through it but just staring, letting the bright colours transfix him and stop him from thinking about the brass-fitted wooden box just below.
He tried not to pay too much attention to the others in the room, the crowd of black garments, all those allowed to show their emotions. Anna’s mum, Lynne, one side of the aisle, Merlin on the other, the tension between them palpable throughout the room. Nikki and Roxy - strange to see just two of the three amigos. Charlie, caught looking teary a few times but not ashamed of it like Harry was. He’d wanted to ask Charlie about that, but you don’t - do you? Besides what if he’d not known his grief was obvious and it’d all just got embarrassing?
The eulogy was read by Anna’s uncle, Harry barely heard it but what he did hear of it was wrong. He spoke of Anna as though she was some helpless little girl; he didn’t know her strength, the woman she’d become since he’d last spent any real time with her. His voice had cracked at one point, talking about little Annie, and Harry had noticed that and felt angry on Anna’s behalf. She deserved proper remembrance, someone who knew her, cared about her - he should have offered to do it himself. He shouldn’t have been so frightened of what people would think.
It was all too late now though, they’d all left, walked straight past with barely a glance in his direction. He knew that there was going to be a wake at the girls’ house share but he didn’t much feel like going to that, he knew Tally would be waiting for him to come home but he needed a breather before facing her and the little ones too.
Every way he turned people seemed to expect so much from him, but he couldn't deliver on it. Even work, which had been a constant for twenty five years now, was an unendurable round of other people's expectations of him these days. In the midst of it all he felt lost.
The heavy door opened of a sudden and he looked round to see Lynne returning. Unaware of his presence, she shuffled down the central aisle to the coffin, touched it so lightly that he wondered if she thought she would damage it, or maybe hurt her daughter if she applied more pressure. Then she stepped back, and fell to her knees sobbing. Suddenly he felt uncomfortable, his own sanctuary breached and he edged along the polished wood towards the door; but under his weight the seating creaked and she looked around, struggling to her feet startled.
“I didn’t think there was anyone still here,” she said, her soft Birmingham accent wavering noticeably.
“I was just leaving,” He stood, straightened his jacket and nodded at nothing in particular, “Sorry to bother you Mrs Paul”.
“It’s no bother. Erm, thank you for coming… I’m not really sure what to say to people… It’s Mr Harper, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but please, it’s Harry”
“Lynne. She spoke very fondly of you, did Anna, well, all of you at the hospital. But I know she had a great deal of respect for you in particular”.
“Thank you,” he said softly, embarrassed, “I’m so terribly sorry for your loss, she was a lovely young woman”.
He saw her face crease up, tears springing readily to her eyes. She pulled a crumpled tissue from her sleeve, dabbed her face with it, and he wanted to leave, to be away from her grief so he could contend with his own. But clearly she did not want him to go.
“You knew her well?”
He tried not to recall that brief kiss they’d had, it was so foolish after all, but the memory refused to be set aside. It wasn’t love he felt for her, or even lust, but there was something about her spirit that had captivated him from the beginning and had given them a bond that he couldn’t explain.
“We were friends”.
“You know about Merlin? That they were…” she couldn’t say it, he could understand that. Didn’t stop the rest of the hospital from discussing it though.
He nodded solemnly. What was there to say?
The grief built up again and she sniffed forcefully and wiped her nose. “I told her not to see him… It was my fault, all my fault… we haven’t, hadn’t spoken in months. I didn’t even know she was in the accident! I never said goodbye”. Tears sped down her distorted face, the disintegrating tissue useless to stop them.
He didn’t know what to do, what to say to make her stop. His limbs seemed heavy and uncoordinated as he stumbled forward, out from the seating and down the short carpeted walkway to her side. He paused next to her, mindful of the decorum of the situation.
“I wish I’d got to tell her I love her. No matter what, I’ll always love her”.
“She thought I hated her because of Merlin. I was just trying to protect her, and now I’ll never get to say goodbye”
Her sobs became more violent, her body convulsing with their strength, and he reached for her, holding her to him, holding her up. She let him steady her until she could compose herself enough to stand straight.
“I should get going, say hello to Nikki and Roxanne. Are you coming to the wake?”
“I wasn’t planning to”
“Please come”. There was no begging in her voice, just a solemn request. “I’m sure she’d want you to be there” As she spoke her brow furrowed, consciously aware of her presumption but not in the least apologetic for it. “We need to pull together, however hard that might feel”.
He knew, he could see in her face, that she was thinking about Merlin. He’d heard some of the staff speculating on the probable fireworks between estranged mother and son but nothing had so far happened, and he doubted that it would. Anna’s funeral was not the time to air their grievances, they loved Anna too much to turn her day into a three ring circus.
She'd turned back to the coffin whilst he'd been pondering her words the palm of her hand now resting flat against the smooth mahogany, dragging out that last goodbye before she was taken off to the furnace. He done similar before Beth's burial, going through the 'what if's and the 'if only's until there was so much noise in his head he'd thought it would explode. Now, though the room was silent, for him at least. He had left nothing unsaid to Anna, and curiously the quiet grief he felt for her was going some way to blocking out the screaming agony of Beth's death. The peace soothed him in a curious way, like pouring cold water over a scald, the relief didn't stop the pain, and it wouldn't be permanent but he needed it.
The shrill ring of his mobile phone broke the moment, startling both mourners. "I'm so sorry. So sorry, I thought I'd turned it off, I was sure. Forgive me". He fumbled the tiny phone out of his jacket pocket, the persistent ringing louder now it was in the open, the rumble of is vibrations pulsing through his finger tips and setting him on edge. He retreated from the chapel, mortified by his faux pas and burst through the heavy double doors into the sunshine, only then could he compose himself enough to look at the caller display and notice that one word that seemed to fill him with dread just lately: home.
"What is it?" he barked, shielding his eyes from the inappropriately cheery sun, "I told you I was going to busy today!"
There was a pause, the caller shocked by his abrupt manner, then a young boy spoke. "Kizzy's been sick Dad, Tally's with her in the bathroom but we don't know what to do. Can you come home, we need you?"
Harry paced, three brisk steps left, turn, then three right, pushing his free hand through his hair in frustration as he did so. His eyes adjusting to the daylight now he could see the others, his friends and colleagues just off to the side of the building loitering about the car park, casting him strange glances as he fidgeted, caught between two duties and not wanting to attend to either.
The doors to the crematorium opened again, more slowly and more reluctantly than when he'd burst through them seconds before. Lynne seemed almost to shuffle outdoors, she too caught off guard by the beautiful day and squinting as she gently pushed the door closed behind her. When she noticed Harry staring at her she smiled weakly.
"Jordan, I'm busy son, I'll get there when I can"
He clicked the button on his phone that ended the call, cutting off Jordan midway through "But Dad -"
He caught Lynne's eye, "I'm sorry about that," he waved his mobile phone before returning it to his pocket, "I hate it when other people's go off at the best of times but that really was inexcusable"
"It's ok. Was it important?"
"One of my children is sick"
"Oh poor thing. Well, you must go to them. How many children do you have?"
"Five. Three girls, two boys. My eldest daughter is looking after them; they'll be alright".
"I'm sure she's very capable, but it's not the same as having a parent there. You can't afford to turn away from them"
There was no way she knew, or could even have guessed the problems he was having coping with his children since their mother's death, but still her words seemed designed to spear him straight through his heart.
"It's not always easy being a parent" he murmured.
Lynne stared towards the staff group, and locating Merlin amongst them, nodded slowly. She didn't break her gaze at her son as she spoke to Harry, "The alternative's worse".
She moved then, walking slowly but purposefully towards the group, no, towards one person in particular. Merlin didn't seem pleased that she'd singled him out, even from Harry's distance he could see the young man stiffen uncomfortably. He couldn't hear the words of their confrontation but what came after was clear enough to interpret. Mother and son embraced, awkwardly perhaps but it didn't lessen the impact of the scene on Harry. A lump formed in his throat, his vision blurred through tears, he took a few swift breaths to compose himself lest anyone should see his emotions and reached for his mobile phone again when he was sure his voice wouldn't wobble.
It rang twice before a young woman answered with a simple, "Hello?"
"Tally, how's Kizzy?"
"She's stopped throwing up I think, but she's really upset. She wants you Dad… we all do"
"I'm on my way, I won't be long".
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I haven't been there for you. I do love you"
"I love you too Dad. See you soon, yeah? Bye"
Harry hung up and strode forward, feeling better already. It might only be the first step to repairing some damage, and bonding with his children again, but it was something he was unaccountably proud of.
He smiled at Lynne and Merlin as he passed them, though they were too deep in conversation to notice. They had each other now, a bond, fragile though it might be, that would help them through their grief.
Unlocking his car, he noticed for the first time evidence of his children in his life, the CD's, the books and toys strewn across the back haphazardly and he couldn't wait to be back with them.
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