A cold autumn Edinburgh wind blows through the cemetery and crows caw above in the tall trees beneath an overcast sky, A man and a woman stand silently in front of a polished black granite headstone with their heads bowed. She drops to her knees and lays down a bouquet of flowers on the grave while he looks on. She starts to stand up with some difficulty and he reaches over to steady her.
‘Be careful, Agnes.’ He holds her right arm until she is back up onto her feet. He is taller than her and has a very straight back, and is wearing a blue padded jacket. His longish grey blonde hair is combed back.
‘Thanks, Donald. I almost toppled over there.’ A gust blows strands of grey hair into her eyes and she brushes them away. ‘It’s still hard to believe that our Steve died twenty-five years ago today. He should be here being a father to the children he never had, our grandchildren.’ She pulls a white handkerchief from the sleeve of her grey tweed overcoat and gently dabs her grey blue eyes which stare out from a deeply lined face.
‘Aye, I’m sure he would have been a good father,’ Donald remarks. ‘He was a kindly boy and I’ve no doubt he would have grown up to be a caring adult who would have been loved and respected by all in the community.’ He gazes at the headstone.
‘I’m so envious of my friends when they talk about their children and what they have done with their lives. I feel robbed. A mother should be able to see their offspring grow up and be there to help them when they need it.’ She purses her lips and fiddles with strap on her black leather handbag.‘I remember now that I had a dream about Steve last night.’ Her brow furrows as she speaks. ‘He was in his pram and wearing a white sun hat, and I was pushing him down Lothian Road. You were walking alongside wearing those flared checked trousers you had back then. I think we were taking him to Princes Street gardens.’
‘Happy days. I must have looked a right clown in those pants,” he snorts. ‘The kipper ties I used to wear were also awful.’
‘Dreams like that are cruel though. I feel happy when I’m in them and wake up feeling elated but then immediately feel very sad and bereaved all over again.’ Agnes gives a deep sigh.
The couple hear footsteps on the path behind them and turn around.
‘Good morning, Agnes. Good morning, Donald. I see it’s that time of year again. How are you both?’ The speaker is a stout white haired woman supporting herself with a walking stick.
‘Well hello, Audrey. At least we’re still alive, unlike those lying down below.’ Agnes’ face crumples. ‘There are still days when I expect Steve to walk through the front door. He would have been almost forty now. A child leaves an imprint which never goes away.’
‘I know how you feel, Agnes. My late husband, Gordon, left a presence in our house. The shelves he put up, his favourite armchair, and so many other things that remind me of him. I tell him that when I make my daily visit here.’ Audrey turns her head to look towards a white headstone nearby.
‘Gordon was a fine man, Audrey. He never had a bad word for anyone.’ Donald smiles at her.
‘Very true. I’m sorry but I must be off. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at eleven. See you both this time next year. Take care.’ She turns and slowly starts to make her way down the path.
‘Cheerio,’ Agnes says in a whisper.
‘You take care too, Audrey.’ Donald adds.
The couple stand quietly, alone with their thoughts, for a few minutes. They then hear sound of a groundsman starting up a lawn mower.
‘The Council look after the cemetery well. The grass is always neat and tidy.’ Donald looks around the graveyard.
‘As usual, you want to avoid talking about what happened.’ Agnes’ voice rises. ‘We should never have gone to the West Highlands that year. We had an offer to go away with my Mum and Dad to Torquay but you insisted that we head for the middle of nowhere and look what happened; we lost our lad. You always had to have your way.’ She glares at him with her sharp black eyes.
‘That’s unfair, Agnes.’ Donald’s voice falters and his shoulders slump. ‘No one could have predicted what happened.’ He looks up to the sky. ‘Steve was a good swimmer for his age but nobody told us about the whirlpool. There should have been warning signs on the coast. There isn’t a day when I don’t shudder at the memory of my boy disappearing under the water.’ He puts his right hand over his mouth to suppress a sob.
The wind whips up as they stand studiously ignoring each other, a kaleidoscope of bright yellow, vivid orange and soft red leaves blowing across the grass, creating garlands around some of headstones.
After a while, Agnes clears her throat and turns to him.
‘I’m sorry, Donald, to have brought that up again. I know in my heart of hearts it wasn’t your fault. It's easier to blame somebody or something than to accept that it was the hand of fate that took Steve away from us. It could easily have been some other unfortunate individual who went for a swim.’ She briefly squeezes his left arm.
‘It’s alright, Agnes. We both suffered and it has left scars which will never fully heal. Let’s sit down over there.’ He points to a wooden bench a few feet away.
They walk over and make themselves comfortable. An angel sculpture sits astride a burial monument behind them.
Donald perks up. ‘I meant to tell you; I bumped into Derek Ross the other day. I didn’t recognise him at first – he’s quite bald and red faced now - but he came up to me outside the supermarket and addressed me as Mr Milroy. The sight of his bright blue eyes suddenly took me back to the days when he and Steve used to kick a ball together round the garden. Those two thought they were the football stars of tomorrow, so they did.’
‘He was a nice boy with a cheeky grin as I remember.’ She knits her eyebrows. ‘I’m sure there is a photo of the two of them together in an album grinning and eating ice cream. I’ll look it out.’
‘Aye, he was a right little monkey though. He led Steve astray a few times, like the day when they climbed over Mrs Thomson’s garden wall and stole some of her apples. It took a lot for me to stop her reporting them to the police.’ He chuckles.
‘They were naughty sometimes like all boys are but they never meant any harm. Do you know, a few days ago I found the football strip which we bought Steve for his fifteenth birthday in the attic. It’s still in the original cellophane wrapping, the green top with white sleeves looking absolutely pristine. He would have looked the part in it.’
‘I remember buying that strip for him in the St James’ Centre. I was so pleased that I got it as they were selling like hot cakes ahead of the new season.’ A twinkle appears in his dark brown eyes.
A few moments of quiet follow. She sits hunched, studying their son’s headstone. He remains upright, his gloved hands gripping the bench.
Suddenly, her face brightens. ‘Shall we go for a cup of tea and a scone in that cafe across from the main gate, like we usually do?’
He looks at his watch and frowns.
‘I’m sorry, Agnes, but I have to make tracks. Anne is picking me up at the gate in a few minutes. We have a lunch engagement.’
‘Oh, I see.’ She leans back. ‘How is she?’
‘Much better now. She had an operation on her left leg and it took a lot out of her but she is getting back to her old self. We’re going on a trip to Rome next week on our own to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. The boys are old enough now to look after themselves.’
‘I suppose congratulations are in order then.’ She avoids his eye as she speaks.
‘Thanks. Will you be alright?’ He leans over to her.
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll go the shop up the road and get something nice for my lunch, and catch the bus home from there.’ She reaches up and tightens the silk scarf around her neck.
‘See you next year then.’ He gets up and begins to walk to the gate.
Just as he departs, the sun breaks through the clouds and the shadow of an angel appears on the ground in front of Agnes.
About the author
Rob started writing short stories during lockdown. To date, he's had a few published in anthologies produced by small publishers. He likes to experiment with different genres and styles of writing.
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