I have not been laying beside her grave for long when I see him approaching. At first I believe that I am mistaken, that it is not him. I watch him turn a corner in the path, hugging a pot of daisies to his chest, heading in my direction. Why would he come here?
His stride is long, yet frail. Even with his head down, he looks so much older. The dull plaid shirt is tucked tightly into the cream trousers pulled above his hips, lending his legs a greater length, stretched almost to silliness. But there is no humour behind his dead expression when he sees me.
One of the roses upon the grave flutters close. It brushes against my arm, a lipstick kiss from its petals. The candle has once again been extinguished by the breeze.
His thin glare falters, finding the ground before he makes my eyes again, defeated by pathetic solemnity. I had not expected such a reaction, had I expected one at all. The rhythmic rise of his chest is as slow as a mortally wounded bull. He lowers the pot of daisies to his side and turns to leave.
Pivoting on ungainly limbs, the daisies brush against his cream trousers. A single flower falls. Each movement he makes is measured by a weary caution that borders on balletic. With my rucksack in hand, I stand.
‘You don’t have to leave. I will go.’
He stares at me through eyes that are chaste, empty. He peers at his feet, asking them to make the decision for him. They trudge a few steps towards me.
‘I came to leave these here,’ he says, his voice low. He indicates the pot of daisies, and then he studies the flowers planted upon Amelia’s grave. A twitch of confusion blooms around his squinting eyes. ‘Roses,’ he says, as if sounding out the word for the first time.
‘Amelia said to bring roses.’
He shakes his head, subtle fragility, barely perceptible. ‘I didn’t know.’
Her father’s eyes are not only inanimately solemn, they are hollow, set deep into the sockets, the vacuity perhaps accentuated by the brightness of the blue irises. A sharp pang strikes my centre, answered by a physical flinch, an involuntary lurch. I hadn’t noticed before how alike his eyes are to Amelia’s. Right until the end, mirrored now by her father, her eyes had lost none of their startling lustre as they faded. Nor her smile, even as it hid the grips of her agony.
I have become used to this sick feeling.
Something falls out of a nearby yew tree. It distracts his attention.
‘She liked daisies, too,’ I tell him. ‘May I?’
I motion to the pot of daisies hanging limply from his hand.
The lines throughout his thin top lip tighten: a snake prepared to strike, or an animal fearful of attack. A frown as he peers at the daisies, wondering how they came to be in his hand. With the delicacy of laying a wreath, he gently places the pot on the ground between us.
Stooping, on my knees I settle the pot among the roses. Even with my back turned to him, the disquiet of his presence is striking. They do not sit well in there, the daisies. They do not look right. The roses echo my discomfort of being here with him.
Suddenly, I picture her so clearly, looking out of the window in San Francisco. The yellow and white flowers in her hair, held in place by clips. The way that the sunshine had lit upon her, every freckle radiating. It had been raining, but still those rays had found her. The daisies she had picked, as bright as the daylight reflected within her eyes.
I tell this to him.
He does not respond.
The roses sway, weaving their purple shadows over the grass.
‘I didn’t just love Amelia for her beauty. She made me smile, every time I saw her. I know you don’t understand, but I loved everything about your daughter. I still do. I always will. I want you to know that.’
‘I should go.’ His fingers flicker, as if tempted to offer a handshake, or a threat. There follows another steep rise of his chest and shoulders. ‘Yes. I’ll go.’
This could be what it is to meet a vanquished enemy invader upon common ground. Yet there had never been a battle, only defeat.
Still he does not leave. He just stands there, a wooden board dressed in poorly fitted clothing. Those eyes so like Amelia’s size me up. I readjust the weight of the rucksack upon my shoulder.
‘Hilary didn’t want to come,’ he says. ‘She couldn’t. But I felt that I had to.’
‘That you had to?’
‘That I wanted to,’ he quickly replies. He might be blushing, but there is more chance that the sudden flare of colour beneath his eyes is anger. ‘I had to because I wanted to. I wanted to say goodbye.’
Peering at Amelia’s grave, a shudder runs through him. I take a step closer, compelled to catch him should he collapse. Would I, though, if he fell?
Slowly recapturing his composure, he faces me, with a posture of a rain-heavy branch. After hitching his trousers, he unfolds his long, slim legs outward and sits at the foot of Amelia’s grave. Hesitantly, he opens his fingers and touches the grass. A juddering exhalation, and then he carefully begins to stroke his hand over the ground.
Watching him, I am reminded of a memory in my youth. I was alone with my dog on the day that her legs gave out. Looking up at me, her expression told that she knew she would not get up again. Having made peace with what was to come, she licked the nearby grasses; slowly at first, then rhythmically, just as his hand is now.
I lower my rucksack and sit on the flattened turf near the head of the grave. Frowning, Amelia’s father watches me. Just like my dog, he returns his sorry attention to the grass.
A leaden climb of clouds is upon the horizon, far beyond the city. Ahead of it is the wind that will later bring the storm. His short, thick hair does not move within its advance. Occasionally his gaze dares to look upon her grave. Now the sun is slightly kinder upon his peaked features, which is not to say kind.
I notice a cortège proceeding slowly through the cemetery, a slick trail against the bright green of the grass and trees.
‘When she was growing up,’ he begins, distracting me from the procession, ‘Amelia used to play this infernal music. I don’t remember the name. She played it so damn loud.’
He pauses to watch a small bird fly past, towards a columnar cypress tree. Even that small gesture held disapproval.
It seems that is all he has to say. Or perhaps he stopped having sensed my irritation that he should speak in such negative recall, after I had shared with him my own memory of his daughter. With all that Amelia told me of her youth, it does not surprise me. The only time that we met, her father and I, this same, starched manner confronted me; just how Amelia described him before we went to their house that day. Not that she could have guessed what was to come.
Her father takes another moment to look at the roses. This time his top lip peels upward, showing his teeth. It is a ghastly expression, like that of an unearthed skull. He closes his eyes and exhales through his teeth. The air makes a whistling sound. It sounds like a final breath.
Making eye contact for the first time since speaking, his lips open and close, fishlike, or as if assessing distaste. For such a haughty individual, it lacks all grace. His latest inhalation brings with it a growled snort, like a snore. Once more I wonder about his physical condition.
‘It is only now that I realise how much I have become like my own parents,’ he finally says upon a sigh. ‘Hilary and I, we both have.’
I am not really listening to him. Simply nodding, I am attempting to imagine how Amelia would have responded if she had been granted this time with her father. She would have hugged him; of that I am certain. It is hard to think of anyone touching this man in an affectionate way, yet it was one of the few things that she wished for. There is nothing like one of her hugs. How I wish I could have just one more.
‘It was my faith that took my daughter from me,’ he says, interrupting my thoughts. ‘You might choose not to understand that.’
Peering past him, I run a hand through my hair. Why should I hear this? Amelia could not be consoled that this man had chosen to not respond to her offers of reconciliation. So many times, as she sought in vain for answers, I listened while she spoke of her confusion; the pain that hurt as much as her oh-so-brief sickness . . .
More than half of my mind is trying to convince me to leave this purposeless man here alone. I only stayed in the belief that doing so acceded to Amelia’s judgement. Of my own accord, I would have responded to him with nothing more than neutral indifference. I should have known to leave. Those daisies in the centre of Amelia’s roses might as well be wild weeds.
Rising to me, I taste the scent of the roses. As a bulb buried beneath the earth still knows its flower, Amelia would not want us to fight.
‘Amelia had faith, too.’ Our eyes meet in that moment and I almost waver, being greeted by such a hopeless expression. But I have no warm hug for this man. ‘Her faith was that you and Hilary might one day forgive her. That you would see she did not even need to ask for forgiveness, just that you might understand. You did not see when her hope became hopeless. You will never know how it added to her pain.’
By his tightened expression, again my first thought is that her father might attack me. Perhaps only verbally. Either way, I do not mind if he does. A piece of tissue paper, blown from one of the other graves, flutters along the path behind him. Picked up by the coming storm winds, it lifts into the air and then falls to the pathway, where it hides at the foot of a bench.
The hand that Amelia’s father is leaning on clasps at the grass, pulling him closer, as if sucked by the Earth’s gravity. A sudden single tear appears behind the lens of his glasses. When it is joined by another, the meniscus breaks and it spills over, finding a line within the creases of his blanched skin. I watch the glistening path of the tear, how it reflects the sunlight.
‘If this is a test of my faith,’ he says, ‘then I choose to forsake it.’
‘You chose to forsake her. That was your choice.’
‘I didn’t understand!’ The first time that his voice has been any level greater than passive, it would be impossible to doubt the truthfulness. I have not witnessed such sculpted sorrow since searching the mirror in the days after I lost Amelia. Gripping the grass ever tighter, his arm begins to shake. ‘I can no longer ask for forgiveness. I can’t. To be honest, such was my anger that it overwhelmed all other emotion. By trying to teach her a lesson, I could not have known how much I would learn. A love that I never realised I was capable of.’
‘You had chances to tell her that yourself. You and Hilary.’
‘I thought that I would have a lifetime to do so.’
‘But you have had a lifetime.’
Refreshed by a new stream, the trace of his tear does not have the chance to dry. He stares towards the cloud-shrouded sun and I see her eyes.
‘There is one thing I need to know,’ he says, ‘if you would tell me.’
I nod; he mimics.
He has lost all colour, as dried earth may appear grey in the day.
‘Was Amelia happy?’ he asks.
‘She was always happy,’ I tell the roses. ‘I have never met anyone who would smile every day as soon as they awoke. She had this special ability, Amelia, which so few people have, to make everyone around her happy. So yes, she was. But it was equally as important to her that other people were, too.’
I leave those words to blow away; to be carried to the sky.
‘And were you there with her?’ He stops, clears his throat, and picks at a small mark nestled in the crease in his trousers. ‘Were you there with Amelia, at the end?’
‘I didn’t leave her side.’
‘Good,’ he says, nodding, still picking at the crease. ‘That’s good. Amelia never did like to be alone. Not ever. She couldn’t bear it. For as long as I can remember, she always had a friend . . . or boyfriend, round to the house.’ He glances quickly through his eyebrows. ‘But she is alone now, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart.’
I can see that it does; that what he said was not just words. It has become harder for him to pass any more than a brief wash over the bed of roses. Holding him up is not the strength of his arm, but the length of the bones.
‘She is not alone,’ I tell him. ‘She promised that she would always be with me. I know that she is.’
‘That’s a nice way of thinking,’ he says.
‘It’s not only a nice way of thinking. She is with me, always. We got a tattoo for each other. A rose. If ever I cannot feel her close, if I am betrayed by loneliness, I only need to look at it.’
As is his way, Amelia’s father takes a long minute to process this as it filters through his judgement.
‘Might I see it?’ he asks. ‘The tattoo.’
‘No. Not really.’
He frowns and then he blushes. Or it might have only been a spell of the speckled light.
I smile. It falls away as quickly as it had arrived.
I try to relight the candle. This time it stays lit, sheltered beneath the pot of daisies.
‘There are second chances in life,’ he says, unblinking, staring at the candle’s flame. ‘There is always a chance. The pain that I will carry is that there are none after death.’
Barely peeking through his eyebrows, it seems that he is now unable to match my gaze.
My sympathy lies only with loyalty to Amelia; should I be a vessel for her, I will carry these words, that through me she might hear her father’s regret. Smoothing my hands over my dress, I do not answer him.
‘I feel that I should tell you this, Harriett. My anger was not solely founded upon my only daughter choosing to be with another woman, it was that she would be unable to ever give Hilary and I grandchildren. Yet we never allowed the room for Amelia’s own feelings. If only I had known. If only I had taken the chance to get to know you.’
I could choose not to tell him, and I do think about not saying it. On top of the restoration of his love it might bring him further pain. But it is right that he knows, as reward or punishment. So, with my hand on the tattoo, I do.
Soon afterwards, he leaves. I watch his stooped stride carry him back down the path through the cemetery. Like sap seeping from an old dry board, I do not know if he cries as he walks away. My hand is still against my naval, above the rose tattoo that mirrors hers, and the smaller one that I added next to it. She truly shall never be alone.
Original artwork, ‘Bring Me Roses (When I’m Dead)’, by Olivia Stapleton