Will was alone, his ear to the door, the pain beyond it near splitting the wood. He heard the doctor issue orders and pushed himself away from the door as the Nurse, whose face and hands were covered in blood, dashed out of the bedroom to call for hot water. The sight of the blood made him shudder. Through the door he could see his wife lying pale and exhausted on the bed. The doctor was by her side talking, though she was barely able to listen. The whites of her eyes showed, her face contorted and then her whole body buckled in agony. Her scream wrenched the nurse back.
Will snatched the large black kettle from the hearth, dashed down the two flights of stairs to the pump which stood in the courtyard behind the tenement, thrashed it until he had filled the kettle with water, ran back up.
There was no wood or coal with which to build a fire to heat the water – nothing but two chairs and their table, at which they had imagined themselves to be King and Queen. Her screams were coming quicker. He put the kettle down, seized his small axe, and began to hack at the furniture in an unsentimental frenzy that reduced it to a dismembered heap.
Other than her bible, there was no paper with which to set the kindling he had split from the table. The book had survived three generations and contained the names of her father, mother, grandfather, grandmother and her great grandfather. He ripped pages from the middle, crushed them into balls, placed them in the grate, built up the fire with the kindling he had split from the furniture and topped it with the thick mutilated legs of the table.
Reaching from the hearth to the sideboard he retrieved a box of matches from a drawer, fumbled it and the entire contents scattered across the floor, forcing him to scramble on his hands and knees. He snatched up a match, struck it too hard. It exploded uselessly in an arc to the floor. He picked a second and forcing himself to be more gentle it flared alight. He put the match to the paper in the fireplace. The flame caught. It flicked and fought as though it would drown if it could not keep its hold. He began to blow to help it on. His first breath was too strong and he nearly put it out. With the second and then the third breath the wood began to crackle and spit as the flame grew. He grabbed the kettle and hung it on its hook above the fire, reached for another piece of wood, but stopped. For a moment he listened. Beyond the sound of his breathing and that of the fire there was nothing. Not one sound.
Into the silence the child cried.
He stood and turned to face the door. There was a flicker of movement in his hand. His chest rose and fell and he waited. After a while the child’s crying subsided. He heard whispering and the shuffling of feet before the door opened slowly to reveal the Nurse standing there, blood smearing the edge of her hairline. In her arms she held his babe, wrapped in the swaddling that his wife had so lovingly prepared.
It’s a boy, the Nurse said quietly, he’s a beauty.
He crossed over to her, his feet creaking on the floorboards. She held the bundle out and he reached awkwardly to take his son.
The boy felt fragile in his arms, his limbs soft and weak. His hands were out of proportion to the rest of him, the palms etched with delicately sugared lines. He watched in wonder as the little body began to move, flickering recitations of labour, his legs winding and weaving muscle together, his face and eyes in shuddery action.
Will lifted him to his lips and kissed his face, careful not to rub the boy’s new skin with the coarseness of his unshaven jaw. He felt the child’s hand run along his cheek, his long thin fingers hooking into his bottom lip, the tips touching his tongue before searching up, poking into his nose and then journeying to his eyes. The boy’s face was wrinkled and wise, and what the father saw was the mirror of himself and her, not at the beginning of life, but at the end, when all that is to be learnt is past and done.
Finally, he looked up, turned his head and saw his wife, lying still on their bed. Her face was ashen. The edges of her eyes were red and her lips were a pale bisque yellow with pink rims, deflated by the exhaustion of the end.
I don’t want no pauper’s grave for her, Will said. His voice was gravelled in the back of his throat.
It’ll be no pauper’s grave, Will, said the Priest. He had comfortable furrows in his forehead.
I don’t want her lying on someone else, said Will, or someone pressing down on her, cause there’s no where else, because I can’t pay premium.
What else are you going to do with her man?
Will looked from the Priest, to the boy’s cot by the fireplace. He shook his head. His body trembled.
She needs a proper burial, lad, said the Priest. It’s what she would have wanted.
To live, that’s what she would have wanted.
I can understand your anger, Will-
I’m not angry, he said, looking directly at the Priest. I am broken hearted. His jaw was clenched. His short cropped hair was spiked. His eyes were wide and streaked red with grief. His big hands were fists by his side.
The Priest looked Will directly in the eyes. I don’t want to fight with you, Will, he said.
Will sniffed and shuffled on his feet. Then let me be.
There are no words of comfort that I can offer you, Will, said the Priest softly. I can only imagine your pain and that is enough to make it unbearable to me. I would be angry. I would be distraught if I were in your shoes. We are but men and we feel as men do. Sometimes I just want to scream at the sky. At him. God. My God. And I do. I walk out into the hills and I scream and shout. It might get it off my chest but does it do any good in the wider scheme of things? No. Does it rest my soul? No. We are small and insignificant to his will. And he tests us. When that test comes, we must rise to it, even if we know not why. There is more at stake than the everyday trials that we endure. There is more to life. There is reason even if that hidden will of God remains a mystery to us until the hour of hour of our death, it is there and we cannot run from it.
Will looked at the Priest. His gaze fell to the floor. She won’t be coming back, he said. That I know. What you speak of, I don’t know. The sun rises in the morning, that I know. It sets at night too. And here is something else that I know. She is lost to me. She is lost to the son that she suffered to create.
Will sat in the bare room in the cold half dark, with the boy in his arms. The apartment was pungent with the mildew of decay. Getting onto his knees he placed the boy in his cot, moved to the fire, reached for the cloth that sat on the mantelpiece, put it under the hot handle of the kettle and poured the hot water into the bucket. He crossed to the sideboard and rummaged in a drawer until he found a sharp knife which he took, with the bucket, into the bedroom.
His hand hesitated before pulling back the sheet that covered her body. Her night gown was stained with blood. Using the knife to cut her out of her night clothes he revealed her body, naked, her arms coyly over her breasts, like a virgin, her body frigid in the shame of death.
From the bucket, he scooped up some water and began to wash her tenderly, his hands stroking her, tracing the contours of her features, passing down to her thighs, her legs, reclaiming her body for himself. Kneeling he rested his head on her belly and closed his eyes. For a few seconds.
He stood, brushed his hand through her hair, bent, kissed her softly on the lips and put his arms around her; not so much in an embrace but so that he could remove the soiled linen from the bed, which he did as gently as he could.
Stored in an old chest at the foot of the bed he found a clean and embroidered sheet, the one that had greeted them on their wedding night. This he unfolded and passed under her body before cocooning her in the cloth.
Once her chrysalis was complete he stood over her breathing quietly before he walked out of the bedroom to the cot, knelt and picked the boy up. The child was light and seemed to float in his arms. He carried his son out of the room across the hall to the door of his neighbour and knocked.
He carried her body into the street, laying her on the bedroom door that he had already placed there and then wrapping the rope in a lattice pattern to secure her. The tenement families were watching him from their windows as he reached for the tools, the pick axe and spade that he had borrowed from a neighbour and tied them to the side of the door, mindful that they should not touch her. He took a piece of rope and threaded it through two holes that he had gouged in the top of the door, tied it into a circle, slung it over his shoulder and took up the slack.
He heaved his way by the figures who appeared in doorways, men removed their caps and bowed their heads; the Autumn wind ran like banshees though the windows and alleys in gusts that swirled around them stinging their ears. Will’s pace was heavy and slow. The tenements gave way to terraces which stood hunched up together, their inhabitants lining the streets, some with candles in their hands, others with flowers which they silently placed in the rope work as he passed.
The night was mizzled and curtained in damp. The weight that he dragged dug into his shoulders. The wood of the door chafed the road, bouncing on the uneven surface, snapping the rope like reins and a whip. The boscage, the bosket and the brier cracked under the black mass of the night, the stars hidden behind a thick moss canopy of sweating clouds. His breath, which was frosted and sharp, vanished into the gloom that enclosed him. The tools clunked on the side of the door, their vibration jolting him.
Half a mile out of the town he turned left off the road to mount the hill, his feet slipping under the grass, the door tugging. The firm ground became soft steeped mud and sucked his feet down, forcing him to fight for each step. His thighs were aching, his hands numb, his damp hair flat to his scalp, the sweat under his coat cold and making for his bones. He struggled on in stubborn concentration, his head rolling from one side to the other. He fell, his hands sinking into the freezing clay. His trousers were soaked, the course serge a cold skin against his legs. He stumbled, dropped, stood, fell, fought, gasping, his lungs filling with the clag of the land. He stopped for breath resting his hands on his knees. And then on again, up into the hill where the sludge transformed to rock, sodded by bristled tufts of bracken. Thorns snagged and tore into his flesh, caught on her corpse, the devil’s claws trying to claim her for his own.
His feet struggled for grip with the elevation of the climb; his hands grabbing clumps of grass which came away. Feet scrambling and then his hands grasping, this time the grass holding. He lifted himself onwards, foot after foot.
The ground became earthen once more, firmer under his feet and more even. The clouds began to pull aside like curtains revealing veiled head dress of the moon. The walking was easier now and the sheer struggle gave way to relief and collapse as he arrived at their retreat. There, he had smiled and they had kissed and passed many a day there.
He unhitched himself from his load, removed his coat, took the pickaxe and began to hack at the ground. The earth loosened. He swapped the axe for the shovel, cleared the mud and gravelled rock, then once more took up the pick. He worked through the depth of the night. Dawn came and went, the sun rose. By the early afternoon he was finished and for a moment he rested.
Hoisting himself out exhausted and caked in mud, he crawled over to her, dragged her to the edge of the pit and loosened the ropes which held her to the door.
He unravelled the cloth from her face and looked upon her for the very last time. He lent forward, kissed her forehead, then her lips and pressed his cheek to hers. He was still for a long while. With a final kiss he closed up her shroud.
He eased himself back into the grave, took her into his arms, held her and then lowered her gently down so that she lay at his feet. He uttered no words.
He reached up for the pile of earth to the side of the pit and began to bury her slowly, never letting the rock or sediment fall heavily upon her. He buried her as if he was burying his most precious treasure.
When he felt his work could not damage her, he climbed out, shovelled the remaining earth to close up her grave.
Turning to look at their view stretching into the distance, he sat on the damp grass as a breeze blew through his hair and billowed beneath his shirt, chilling the sweat on his skin. Below the rocks, the land was shaded musty lemon, lime, harrowed greens, the slow animation of autumnal browns, sun shot reds, dry hay yellows, amber, cinnamon, deep mahogany, blushing auburn as wild moor blurred to dark ploughed land.
He thought about her in the landscape, her smile, her nose, her hair, her eyebrows – her intelligent eyebrows, which were pointed instead of curved when she listened or spoke.
He thought about the last times he had spent with her.
He thought about her pregnant, her full belly that never seemed to weigh her down or distemper her in any fashion, her smile as she stroked the bump, the distant look in her eyes as she felt their child move.
He remembered too her temper, that once she had thrown her wedding ring at him. He couldn’t recall why, or how the argument had finished, just remembered that she had.
Mostly, though, he remembered how she felt at night with her head on his chest, the conversation petered out. As her breathing became heavy, her body would twitch with the last flickerings of the day and always before him, she settled still to sleep.