7 Oct

Susan Summers stood by the lectern in the church, trying to avoid eye-contact with the coffin that was so close to her she could have touched it by merely reaching out. It represented the best and the worst experiences of her tangled life, and she was here to lay both extremes to rest.

“I knew Bernard when I was young,” she said quietly to the congregation of half a dozen or so mourners. “We weren’t friends because for some reason I could never fathom his mother didn’t like me and he was scared of her. But that was not unusual back then. The young had very little say when it came to their own lives.”

She looked around. She only knew two of the tiny group, Bernard’s neighbour and the woman who spent a great deal of her time with him, in sin Bernard had said before Susan had moved in with him, and then sin miraculously had nothing to do with it and it became love.

It was that neighbour’s lady friend who had saved Bernard when he’d had that first heart attack, but there had been no way anyone was going to save him after the second one, and Susan should know because she’d been a medical doctor before she retired.

The others scattered in the nave were habitual mourners, all women and all consequently well known to the vicar, who for once was grateful that they had swollen his congregation of friends and acquaintances of the deceased. Further back, unobtrusive, were the undertaking officials, sombre in black and with impassive faces.

Susan drew in a deep breath, and continued.

“I have only one clear memory of those days and that was when I was sent to our local fish and chip shop, for lunch I think, it’s what often happened on a Saturday, and Bernard was going too. It wasn’t unusual for many families to have meals from the local chip shop and for the kids to fetch them in what seems a long lifetime ago. I was a teenager, proud of my looks and daring to wear skirts my parents thought were much too short, and he was the most handsome boy in the Universe.

“We got almost talking. I say almost, but not quite. He was bashful and troubled and I was perky, and It was me who started the conversation because I really liked him even though we hadn’t met properly, and nobody had introduced us to each other. People needed to get introduced to each other back then! But you know how it is ” a man and a woman or a boy and a girl … sometimes there’s a kind of attraction, like magnetism, which makes such formalities as introductions unnecessary, and I felt that way then. He was a nice lad with startling good looks, and I was a teenage girl…!”

“Let me tell you a bit about my life since then, because that fish and chips day was all we had together, and as you can tell it was the briefest moment of togetherness! He ran off when I spoke to him. I must have frightened him or something, though I hadn’t meant to. I found out when I got home that it was because his mother was a bit over-zealous, protecting a teenage lad from the temptations of the flesh, and his father wasn’t much better! I don’t know what they thought I’d do toy him! But it was their way and they’re both long gone and it’s not fair of me to cast a cloud on the characters or motives of two people I barely knew.

“When I left school I went to medical school and entered the nursing profession, and before too long enrolled in University in order to train as a doctor. It’s because of that training and the skills I picked up then and over a lifetime working in various hospitals that I knew that, when he collapsed, Bernard was beyond any help, though I did try. Oh, how I tried, needing to get a dead heart working, to spend one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more for-ever with him! But to no avail. My Bernard was dead. It struck me as one of the cruellest twists of fate.

“I like to think that he believed that the last few months of his life were the best of it. He told me that was the case often enough, when we lay in bed in the mornings and shared our memories, or went out together, maybe shopping, during the days. And then at night, when darkness had fallen and we were in bed together again and he would tell me of what he remembered from his first “death”, the few minutes between his heart stopping and the wonderful Amelia next door having the right skills and doing all the right things to bring him back. And it had worked, but it wasn’t the rescue of Bernard but the things he dreamed of when he was in that limbo between life and death that he concentrated on. You see, he really believed, weeks afterwards, that he met his Maker, and that he had really and truly visited Heaven and Hell.

“And he told me there was a giant mirror in which he saw his living self when he was dead. And in that mirror he actually saw me as a young girl, my eyes tempting him to goodness-knows what as he ran back home from our meeting on the way to the chip shop.

“You see, it was only after those dreams or nightmares or whatever they were that I met him again, and even though we were both seventy and ready for the knacker’s yard, as they say, that we fell in love, both of us, wildly, madly, passionately. Maybe it was that love that brought on his second heart attack ” who can tell? But he did tell me that I was his one and only lover in a celibate and friendless life and that he was going to make up for all that wasted time when he’d kept himself to himself. He said that he’d wasted his life and that would condemn him to an eternity is Hell with the devil and his servants when he died, rather than any sin of the flesh.

“It’s not up to me, in this place, to say whether I agreed with him or believed in his strange faith, but I must say that be believed that he would return to the wonderland that may have been dreams or may have really been part of the fabric of existence that none of us know anything about.

“As you know, we had less than a year together, but in those few months he packed in as much love, as much affection, as much real honesty as most people pack into a life-time. And I am proud to say that I knew Bernard. I am proud to say that I loved him. And I am proud to say that I was there at his ending, for without really knowing it he enriched my life for a little while.”

Then she sat down and stared at her own feet. A feeling, something she couldn’t recognise, was bubbling up inside her.

Who would have thought it? Who could possibly have predicted it? Two human beings had met after separate lives stripped of love and affection and had done their damnedest to make up for a hell of a lot of lost time.

She looked up and into the front of the church and its altar, and the vicar replaced her at the lectern, but although he spoke in a voice amplified beyond the need of so small a gathering she didn’t hear a single word that he said.

For it seemed to her that the moisture from her own eyes as she became aware of the depth of her grief had spread across her vision like a kind of mirror blotting out everything, and there, in the mirror, lost from life, she could almost make out the figure of Bernard staring back at her, and weeping with her, and beckoning.

Was it the heartache of grief that gripped her flesh and twisted it until she choked? Or was it something else?

She didn’t have time to wonder as she slumped in her ancient craggy pew, and Dr. Susan Summers knew no after a fragmentary moment wondering who the cowled figure approaching her might be, and why he was carrying a shiny scythe.…


© Peter Rogerson 07.10.16


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