HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Green Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some shortlisted writers and artists the chance to be published here on the website. Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run-up to the release of The Green Issue…
You have the option of listening along to this PCT Short Story Hour (Penryn Community Theatre) audio performance of Ella’s story, recorded by Adrian Watts of Source FM:
They say the last stage of grief is acceptance – and I should be there by now. But as I stare down at my son Davy’s grave on this cold February afternoon, I’m not feeling it. Pain shoots through me as I notice that someone’s left a bunch of daffs sprawled there. Ten green stalks, deftly bound with elastic bands. Yellow petals peep through a paper-thin scale.
Remember that cold February when I had to take on extra work, picking daffs? I left you with your mum and trekked up the hill, my jacket tightened against the driving rain. In the fields I bent to the muddy dirt, crouched in a wet sea of daffodils, missing your childhood. I had to cut through the stalks before the yellow showed: that’s how the farmer had to sell them. I snapped the bands onto each bundle of ten bulging buds on the end of long stalks, as they dripped sap onto my cold white fingers. Ready to flower on some happy families’ table, right on time for spring.
I look at your grave and shiver with regret. That’s how you went, Davy, my boy. Full of life, and poised to flower. Forty is nothing for a man to get to. I should know.
There’s no damn headstone. I had to wander around, through the damp grass, check the whole cemetery. I found the more recent end of the sloping field, under the arch of the old oak tree, with mounds of earth piled high like fresh scar tissue. When I looked closely I saw David James Richards scrawled in enamel paint on a rounded stone. Your mum’s handwriting, I reckon.
And there’s another stone, plucked off the beach, small and white. Letters printed on it: Davy – taken before his time. Lastly, a little pot of geraniums, obstinately flowering despite the chill in the air. I reckon these gifts mean something. Were you loved, son? Did I love you enough?
I come back again, later in the year, in June. I stand empty-handed and with a lump in my throat, regretting that I didn’t tell you enough that I loved you. If I’d been there when you were growing up, perhaps you’d have coped better with life. The warm air smells of grass cuttings and soil, and rotting flower petals. I need to apologise, and so I’ve come back.
I whisper out loud. “Sorry isn’t worth much, Davy, and it’s too late to say it now. I’m sorry.” It isn’t enough, and I lean against the back of the tree, looking up at the dark green oak leaves and wishing for a gentle breeze. I’m tired, but can’t settle. Perhaps I’ll be here as long as this tree, standing guard over your resting place.
I see her, then. Jane. Your mum. My ex-wife. Her hair’s gone longer, greyer. She looks great.
She marches in, with one of your kids clamped in each hand, straight down the footpath. Probably she never knew where to find you when you were alive – none of us did – and now, stuck in your bed of earth, it’s easy. My heart lurches with happiness that Jane has come to remember you, and I close my eyes to fade away.
When I risk a peek, I see the little ones have bunches of dandelions and wilting daisy chains to put next to the marker stones. They can’t have planned to be here, on this hot summer’s afternoon. I reckon they’ve walked up from the beach on a whim; their blue and pink fishing nets are tucked under Jane’s arm. Sand-grains scatter from their sandals.
Then, as Jane stands in the dappled shade of the tree, the kids walk towards me. I’m lurking behind the glossy laurel hedging, next to another set of graves. They haven’t seen me, and I quietly watch them. Your boy looks the spit of you, Davy, with your wild curls and your blue eyes.
“Ooh look. A baby’s grave, this is.” The lad points at a yellow teddy, cable tied to a headstone.
“A unicorn!” His sister reaches down to a fluffy pink toy, picks it up and strokes it, smiles a gap-toothed grin.
“Don’t do that.” Her brother tugs it away and plonks it down.
She wails. “I want it. No-one else does.”
And that’s when I spin the plastic windmill, stuck in the ground next to a child’s grave. Both children look up, but there’s nothing to see, save the shiny foil blades spinning. And spinning.
Their eyes widen.
I love kids. And they love me, usually. Do you remember the treasure hunts for your birthday, Davy? All your friends went nuts for them. Kids love magic, and mystery.
I admit, I might be enjoying myself a bit too much.
The kids lose interest in the frantically turning windmill.
“Aw, look at this.” The girl crouches on the raw earth and dirt marks her white leather sandals. She fingers a smooth round photo of a toddler, atop a polished granite cross. “Read what it says.”
“Madeleine Rowe, taken from us too young. Geroff my grave, before I come and get you…” Her brother howls in her face, and she pushes back with both palms.
Then – just to distract them, mind – I shove a set of dangling metal wind chimes. Their heads turn to the noise. Then, I poke another. And another, so the whole windless cemetery is awash with sound, like waves staggering and crashing on the beach. Never stopping.
Both kids run straight back to Jane, with fear in their eyes. I went too far, didn’t I? I didn’t mean to scare them. But it’s too late.
It was too late to come back to you and Jane, after the affair. I should’ve focused on you, and begged her for forgiveness. Jane would’ve let me back in, and then I could’ve spent the next thirty years being a good dad. Instead, I ran away. I was there for you, and then suddenly I wasn’t.
I am so sorry I left, Davy my boy, and now it’s too late.
I stay until it gets dark, here in the graveyard. The electric lights flick on in the houses over the hillside, lighting up each happy household in turn. The stars come out, one by one, in a blue grey sky. I’m tinged with regret, and I wonder how many times I have to say I’m sorry.
“I ran away, Davy.” I whisper, trying to explain my past actions to your stack of bones under the earth. “I ran away, and found myself a quiet cottage in the countryside. And missed you all. I was too proud to come back. Jane brought you up, on her own. She put in the hours, and I sent money when I could.” I kick at a dandelion clock and the seeds flop uselessly onto the grass. “I should’ve been there. You got wilder, didn’t you? Dropped out of school, got into drugs. You never loved yourself, did you Davy boy?”
Jane came and found me, that last winter before you died. I didn’t even know she had my address. She heard from a friend of a friend that I was ill and she drove straight over, walked up my garden path and found me huddled under a blanket watching daytime telly and drinking whisky. The painkillers were wicked strong, so I told her I was pleased to see her. “Bring the grandkids over next time,” I said.
Next time she came, I was in the hospice. She’d brought both your kids. I was pinned under crisp linen sheets, with the lemon smell of disinfectant from the floors, and the sickly high of a morphine gun direct into my stomach. I smiled, stick-thin and happy. I played cards on the wobbly hospice table, listened to music on the radio, and let everyone eat my chocolates. I made my peace with Jane. I made my peace with your kids.
You never came, Davy. For a start Jane didn’t know where you were. And – you were in a state – weren’t you? Hooked on heroin and owing money to that bunch of crooks you called mates.
I missed you. I lay in a lurid green gown, going in for a last-ditch operation that wouldn’t work. Felt sick to my stomach with guilt. I should’ve spent my healthy years of life being there for you, rather than running away.
I run my thin fingers over the ragged bark of the oak tree, wishing I could feel it again.
I come back one last time, hoping for forgiveness. If I go to Jane’s, she might help. It’s October, and the apple tree in her garden is full of lime green apples ripening to a soft pale yellow. It’s the anniversary of your death. I slide in through the bushy laurel hedge and it rustles as if whispering to me. I make a mental note to remind her to get someone in to cut it, then I give myself a nudge. This is a flying visit. I’ve come to see her about you, not to give gardening tips.
Sobs, loud and regular, hit my ears as I glide through the hardwood door and inside the porch. I haven’t been here in years. The place smells of joss sticks, apple shampoo, and freshly baked bread. I pad upstairs, avoiding the creaky step. The beige wool carpet’s wearing thin.
“Pat?” She pauses, her voice wavering. “Is that you?”
Jane always was uncannily aware of the supernatural. A tissue rustles in the living-room, downstairs. She sniffs and I stop, with my hand resting on the wooden handrail, unsure whether to go to her.
“Pat. That’s you, isn’t it. I don’t need you here. You can just bugger off. I told you that when you were alive and I’ll sure as hell tell you now.” She was much nicer to me on my deathbed; I start to wish I hadn’t come.
Her voice softens. “He’s gone, Pat. Davy’s gone. You did your bit. Remember when he was little, when you took him fishing? And taught him to ride a bike? He didn’t think he could do it, but you spent hours down the park, and he got the hang of it. You were there for him.”
What about when I left? The guilt hits me hard, like a sickening blow to the stomach.
She guesses, and answers my question. “He knew you loved him. He just…didn’t cope well with life. You ran away, when you messed up. He…got stuck on damn heroin. And it went wrong, from then on.” She sobs. “Think I’m talking to a brick wall. Must be mad. Anyway, Pat, if it’s you…Davy’s gone. So don’t come looking here for him.” The television blares out sound and light, and I close my eyes.
I think back, more carefully, to your childhood. Is Jane right? Was I there? I remember the days spent fishing, and the hours pushing that bike. The sound of your laughter, and the softness of your curls as I tousled your head and told you I loved you. Yes, I was there for you.
The noise of the telly fades, and I’m back in the cold darkness of the cemetery, standing by your grave. To my surprise, it’s grassed over. I suppose, a year on, it would have done.
I lie horizontal on the soft blades of grass. A brown leaf falls from the oak tree and I watch it, black against the stars. In spring, green buds will form on every branch and bright fresh leaves will unfurl. Life goes on. Jane is grieving and will accept your death, as she accepted mine. I lie still, in the dark green of the grass. I think of your bones, below me. I’ve said my apologies. I close my eyes and fade. I’m proud to have been your dad, when you were small. So proud.
Ella Walsworth-Bell works part-time as a speech therapist in Cornwall, and lives aboard a yacht every summer with her husband and two children. She is very thankful for an evening course in Creative Writing, which changed her life. Ella writes short stories and her recurring themes include acceptance of disability and the impact of mental health disorders within small communities, with a heady dose of myth and legend thrown in. She is currently editing her first novel and is dabbling in poetry.