Extract from the diary of Robert Sullivan, Bishop of the Diocese of Sandburg:
“When I first found religion I hoped my life could be fulfilled. When I met the woman who was to become my wife I knew that a sacrifice by me was necessary. She did not quite see God as I did, but she too sacrificed enough in those early days to overcome any doubts she may have held. Time came when I was called upon to do my duty and my wife threw herself into meeting her calling and life was good. A child came and went and I was free to answer higher callings but this time my wife decided to follow a calling of her own.
Far too soon the child from our marriage was taken from us in his prime and my wife and I came together once more in grief, knowing that the only bond between us was broken, a bond that perhaps only the greatest of sacrifices could mend. Heaven help us.”
THE PRE WAKE
It was dusk by the time the limousine that had collected us from the airport dropped us off by the front steps of my son John and his wife’s isolated mansion. Actually, the mansion had been in our daughter-in-law’s family since they built it 150 years ago. To think Pauline and I were worried about gold diggers when our workaholic self-made son sold off his businesses for billions six years ago! He was 39, the successful business he built bored him and he told us his aim was, “to search for a bride”. Then we discovered that the one woman who stole his heart was not only a lovely, adorable person inside and out, but she was rolling in so much “old money” that she could regard our son’s billions as “chump change”.
I asked her once what her family invested in and, with that tinkly crystal chandelier chuckle that would invigorate a dead man, Adrienne Eldrake-Sullivan said, “every business that has ever been, Robert, then we reinvest the dividends in everything that is to come. Our investments are so deep and spread, that if every major industry or top 100 global business collapsed without a trace overnight, we would hardly suffer a scratch.”
The driver carried our overnight bags to the door. At the steps, Pauline stumbled but I held onto her arm to prevent her falling. She buried her face in my chest, her grief still too much to bear. It is a terrible thing to see a mother’s only child taken from her while she still lives but is way past her own prime to have another.
If the limo driver didn’t know the family he might have regarded us as an odd couple. I was a big man, six foot four tall and built completely in proportion, Pauline was five foot two and still cute as a button, even though we were both only a year or two shy of our mid-sixties. The driver wouldn’t know that she had been a church minister for five years and for four years before that served our Lord Jesus Christ as a parish curate, while I had been a bishop now for almost a decade. Pauline hadn’t worn a dog collar today, but with mine worn on top of a purple shirt and my large contemporary design pectoral cross in solid silver, I looked every inch the bishop I was.
Even before the driver could yank the antique bell to signify our arrival, a tiny but attentive young housemaid opened the door and ushered us in. The driver dropped the bags in the hall, saluted us and left, pulling the front door shut behind him, leaving us in the dim, guttering candlelight, while the infiltrating wind swept to every corner of the hall until sighing, finally starved of momentum by the closing door.
The quick staccato click-click of stiletto heels heralded John’s widow Adrienne’s arrival across the highly polished tiled floor. It was six months since we last visited and I had always quietly appreciated her beauty, conveying both undeniable class and devastating animal sensuality. This time she literally took my breath away with the glow of her utter other-worldly beauty. Stunning and surprising was the least of her look, especially at such a time of great loss.
“Pauline, honey, look,” I cooed to my wife, as I gently prised her away from the desperate comfort of my chest.
She turned her tear-stained face away from its temporary haven and was struck dumb for what seemed like hours, as Adrienne’s welcoming smile grew wider until she could hold back her infectious giggles no longer.
Breaking the spell of silence, Pauline asked in a breaking voice, “How far along, Addy dear?”
“Five months,” our gorgeous daughter-in-law smiled, “but I’ve really only been showing for a couple of weeks or so.”
Pauline broke off from me and embraced our daughter-in-law. Now they were both weeping, yet wreathed in smiles, with Pauline full of questions that came in such a torrent that Adrienne allowed them to wash over her unanswered.
“There’s more,” Adrienne added when Pauline ran out of steam, “in the main hall there are 25 members of my family, then you, my dear Bishop and Polly, make 27 and,” she ‘framed’ the extremities of her ‘lump’ with an elegant thumb and long slim forefinger of each hand, “this brings our family up to 29.”
“Twins?!” Pauline and I exclaimed at the same time.
She nodded with the broadest of smiles, rubbing her stomach.
“Did John know?” Pauline asked
“Yes, Polly, Mother, he knew and had known for months.”
Pauline’s spread hand tentatively joined Adrienne’s rub, her face a picture of wonderment. Adrienne grabbed her hand and forced her to rub her tummy harder. While Adrienne’s eyes glowed with an inner light, Pauline’s tears continued to flow at both the despairing pain of her loss and the joyful promise of new lives to come.
Adrienne glanced at the watchful maid and almost imperceptibly tossed her head. The diminutive maid instantly set off out of the hall as if on a pre-arranged errand.
“Come, both of you, into the library,” Adrienne insisted gently, “neither of you are emotionally ready to be greeted by my grossly over the top family yet. We will refresh you with hot tea and some sandwiches. You need to keep your strength up before the Pre Wake reaches its most emotional point,” she glanced at the delicate gold watch on her wrist, it had to be solid gold, thinly plated gold overlaying a silver core simply wouldn’t do for her at all, “in about five hours.”
The library was just across the entrance hall, to the left of the grand staircase. Adrienne, an inch and a quarter short of six foot without her heels, led the way, pulling my wife, a full eight inches shorter, to the library doorway.
Adrienne looked a vision, as if she was going to a high class restaurant or chic charity ball, in her black stiletto high heels, her ankle-length black silk evening dress slit up the side all the way to the top of her impossibly long and impressively shaped thighs. The dress was sleeveless and the vee-neck back plunged almost down to the base of her spine, the front neckline leaving little to even the dullest imagination. Even with her baby bump showing, she looked ready to party ... and I really couldn’t get my head around this ‘pre wake’ thing of theirs at all.
OK, I do get a part of it. I can trace my Irish roots on both sides of my family since we came to this country during and after The Irish Famine. I get the idea of funeral wakes, really I do, and can accept that the heavy drinking makes you forget the maudlin, eventually, and by the time the corks start popping, the funeral is over, the spirit has departed, the husk consigned to the deep, dark earth, the first sods tossed onto the pine or oak planking. There is a sense of finality, of leaving the dead world behind us and facing the rest of our lives ahead to continue living. Never forgetting, of course, but remembering too the hope that the departed have a better future ahead of them, while normal everyday life for those left behind is to be enjoyed not endured.
And Adrienne was dressed apparently to party the night away, even though her loving husband, our only son, was probably lying in state in an open coffin somewhere in this magnificent mansion, awaiting the finality of his burial tomorrow. I had officiated at hundreds of burials, including both my parents and Pauline’s mother, but this would be the most emotional interment of all of them.
When she rang me the day before yesterday with the sad and unpleasant news of John’s sudden passing, Adrienne explained that her family had a long history of celebrating a much loved deceased family member with a Wake during the last evening three days after the death and on the eve of the final ceremony, signalling the change in state from life to “whatever you believe comes after life”.
Adrienne has long protested that she is an agnostic and often pulls my leg about being the alter boy who intended going all the way to the top. I had asked if I could officiate at the interment tomorrow, but she said no, her family had that covered, but if I wanted to help take some small part at the time she was sure that I would not be denied.
I noticed that all the mirrors in the entrance hall were covered over with black cloth, rather like they do in Jewish families when there is a death in the household. So perhaps their family traditions were not that far removed from what other religions would consider the norm.
Inside the well appointed library, full of rare and ancient tomes, here were a couple of serving plates of sandwiches on a side table, covered from drying out and curling by antique glass domes, plus a pair of bone China cups and saucers by the side. The door reopened behind us and the same short maid we saw earlier brought in a tea tray containing a teapot, pot of sugar cubes and jug of milk. She left the tray on one end of the side table next to the cups and disappeared just as quietly as she arrived.
“Are you not joining us for tea?” I asked Adrienne, noticing there were only two cups.
“No, during the Pre Wake we fast completely,” she smiled mischievously at me, “you could even say ... religiously.” She never could resist a small dig at me, I suppose. She may well have bantered similarly with John during their near six years of courtship and blissful matrimony. “Your room has been prepared. We are so pleased you could both come on the night before the ... ceremony, and attend our traditional pre wake.”
Adrienne was treating us, John’s parents, as a couple. She wasn’t to know that when Pauline and I met up at the previous to last airport, Pauline had announced to me that she was both resigning her ministry and filing for divorce from our marriage on grounds of my abandonment of her.
Since I had been appointed Bishop of Sandburg, we had lived apart, me in my bishop’s palace in downtown Sandburg, and Pauline in her curacy in our small home town of Tanglewood, for a period before the appointment to her own ministry in Otterborne City.
I had been mortified by her announcement of the ending of our long marriage and found I couldn’t find a single word to comment. How could she spring this announcement on me between hearing of our son’s death and still en route to his funeral? Thus, the final leg of our journey here had been a quiet one, each partner in our broken partnership enveloped in a whirlwind of thoughts and considerations.
“You fast is part of the tradition?” I asked, referring to Adrienne’s fast imposed during this Pre Wake period.
“Yes, tradition is everything in my family,” she nodded, “by following a known and practiced procedure or a ritual exactly to the letter, makes dealing with what had happened and later how we adjust to carry on ... somehow easier to face.”
I nodded. I understood ritual. Why we do things a certain way, why religious services are carried out now as they have evolved over a thousand years and beyond, such as why ambitious bishops move on hoping a lowly curate would change her mind and follow him in her own good time. Ritual is all part of coping with what curve balls life throws at us.
“So, tell me more about the tradition?” I asked, genuinely interested.
“Yes, of course. My guests did not have as far as you to come and are already here in their glad rags and getting into party mood, and they do this because they love John, not because they do not know him very well. They are intoxicated by the occasion, as I said before, we do not eat or drink during the Pre Wake. John was the best of men and he has touched all our lives. Everyone in my family agrees that losing him to the insidious cancer that was eating him up from within was not the end that we would wish for the man I love more than I do my own self. But I owe you an explanation, because I know our Pre Wake tradition appears strange to those who have not experienced it before.”
“So, have you had to go through many Pre Wakes?” Pauline asked, pouring milk into both tea cups. Almost out of habit my wife is taking care of my tea, even though she has determined that we are completely broken as a married couple and she is taking steps to render our separation irrevocably permanent.
“No, very rarely. As you know, my parents are still very much alive, as are all my aunts and uncles, but those that have attended Pre Wakes have always insisted that outsiders make our tradition to party the night before interment ... well, awkward.”
“So you considered not telling us about it,” I said bluntly, “and holding it among yourselves?”
“No, never, absolutely never!” Adrienne insisted, “you have every right to be here and, in fact, we needed you both—”
“But you could have just invited us to the funeral tomorrow?” Pauline said, her voice falling away to a whisper, “you could have ... spared us this ... ritual.”
Adrienne embraced Pauline again, “Polly, Bishop, you are both of you a second Mother and Father to me. And how would John have felt if you had been deflected from taking full part in his last ceremony of passage in his mortal existence? He is a part of my family too and he wouldn’t have wanted to feel left out of it at say, my uncle’s Pre Wake for example, because he loves my Uncle Toby almost as much as I do.”
“Loved,” I said.
“You said John loves your Uncle, only it should be ‘loved’.”
“Yes, of course,” she forced back a tiny tear, then put one hand on her heart and the other on her new bump, “but in here, and here, John is very much alive and as long as he is loved, he will always remain alive to me.”
She slumped back into one of the library’s easy chairs, and Pauline followed her, taking her hand and holding it in her lap as she perched on the arm of her chair.
“Come, Addy, tells us what this tradition is and we will see if we can join in this ... party.” Pauline spoke cheerfully, but glared at me, and I took the hint.
“Yes, Adrienne, please tell all. I want to understand it. And, if we understand the thoughts and motives behind the ritual, it would be better to be a part of it than skulking away from your ceremony here in the library.”
Adrienne sat up. “First of all the body must remain in the house where he died, or brought back to his loving home as soon as possible if it had been removed, say to a morgue or hospital. Only in extremis would the lying in state take place anywhere else but here at home. There are to be no harsh lights during the three days before the eve of the funeral. As you see, we have turned the electric power off from most of the house except the kitchens, and that is only for the safety of the staff who are presently preparing the post mid-night feast. As I said before, we have fasted today from dawn and that will end at the middle of the night. As for the lighting, that is why it is candles only for the whole of the three days and nights. The ... body ... is first stripped, washed and anointed with aromatic oils, then redressed in the clothes he or she liked best, much in the same way as mankind has done for millennia. It is all about our respect for them as they were when they were ... mortal.”
“And our love for them,” suggested Pauline. She had that faraway look in her eyes and I could imagine her mind full of images of John growing up as a child and young man and being cute at every stage. Oh, yes, he was always the cutest and the handsomest boy around, in whatever company he found himself.
“Of course, love, lots of love. Nobody loved John like I do...” Adrienne glanced up at me, “ ... did.” She held up a hand as Pauline opened her mouth to say something, continuing, “While a mother loves her children unreservedly, and I am starting to understand that motherly love growing more and more with every passing day, the love between John and I was at such a physical and emotional level that it transcends every other feeling I have ever experienced or even imagined experiencing in my wildest dreams. Think back to the first five years of your marriage, when you made your baby John so soon into your own relationship.”
Pauline and I quickly exchanged glances, but I was unable to read her response, while I hoped that she couldn’t read mine.
With no further comment from us, Adrienne continued, “The undertaker makes the ... box ... and John is carefully, reverently, placed within it. He is then put in a quiet place, with the lid open if possible ... and sometimes that isn’t possible, of course, but is in John’s case. He is so beautiful, my dear John, even in death.” She paused, continuing, looking at Pauline, “Polly, sweetheart, you have to see him, see him as he is, and you will see him as he was.”
Pauline sniffed, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. “It was all so sudden, only a week ago he told us that he had cancer, and that it was virulent, a terrible terminal illness, and just a few days later he was ... gone.”
“He had known for months, Polly, and had spent time finding out about the treatments, the likely outcomes, the pain and lingering at the end, before he admitted he had a serious problem, not just to you, but he held back for a month or two in the early days to me too, the one person he should never keep secrets from.”
“Is that why?...” I pointed at her bump. She colored crimson prettily, nodded slightly, enough for us to know Pauline had assumed correctly.
“The prognosis gave us an incentive in bringing forward most of our life plan, so this essential part of our bucket list just got bumped up the priority list.”
“So what you are saying is that John had virtually used up his life expectancy before getting around to telling us, his mother and father?” I asked as neutrally as I could force myself to make it sound. Now was not the time for rows or recriminations. They could come later if there was any residue of resentment.
“You could say that,” Adrienne admitted, continuing, “so we now gather our little clan together. All of us in my side of our family know him well and love him for who he is, a person special to us all. And, rather like his Irish cousins who celebrate with a Wake after having said goodbye at the graveside, we have a party while he is still with us and we can celebrate his existence rather than mourn his passing. It is a subtle difference but for many generations we in my family have found this to be the best way for us to handle such a rite of passage of a particularly well loved one.”
“Yes, Addy, I-I would like to see him one more time ... one last time.” Pauline was hesitant, but resolved, “Is he in the ballroom?”
“No, he’s in an ante chamber beside the ballroom, somewhere quiet so he can be at rest, yet near at hand for all to pay their respects as privately as they may wish. I’ll come with you if you want. Then perhaps you could go to your room to freshen up. Maybe even join us in the ballroom when you feel able.”
I picked up that Adrienne had assumed we would be sharing a bed tonight. I suppose up until three hours ago I had also assumed the very same thing. Sure, we had not formerly lived permanently under the same roof since I moved to the Bishop’s Palace at Sandburg, but we had got together for annual holidays, the public holidays, birthdays and anniversaries as well as regular Fridays and Saturdays at every other weekend. It may only be 45 to 50 nights a year, but for those nights I was expected to perform as a husband should and I made sure that I always rose to the occasion.
This last year, now that I came to think of it, Pauline had cried off on her birthday, for some reason now long forgotten, and John had cancelled two invitations in the last four months for reasons of ill health that were now proved to be the case in the worst possible way.
“I think we should freshen up first,” I suggested. “To come to the party in our travel clothes and then disappear to get into the glad rags that you insisted we bring with us, sends the wrong message about us and our feelings towards our son to everyone here.”
I moved from where I stood by the side table to where Adrienne sat and took her free hand in mine. “Six years ago, when our John introduced you to us as the woman he wanted to marry, I was certain then, and even more certain now, that it was a bond made in heaven. In a way, he moved away from our family a little and threw himself headlong into yours. Here, with you, who I am proud to regard as my dearest daughter, he committed himself wholeheartedly. Here he lived enwrapped in love, a love that I believe will be eternal, through into the glorious afterlife in Paradise to come. Through our grandchildren...” I rested my left hand gently on her bump, touching those lives that were to come, “we will be coming closer to you and your family. We are passing the baton of our futures into your hands, Adrienne, so your traditions must therefore take precedence over ours.”
Adrienne squeezed my hand in response. She had a strong grip and made me wince. I recalled the night that John was born and Pauline held my hand so tightly during her throes of labor, that I had to dictate my sermon that Sunday onto cassette tape and laboriously type it up using one-finger of one hand.
The same little housemaid was waiting outside the library door and we were led up the grand staircase to a large airy bedroom that we had shared a couple of times before. We showered separately, each of us full of our thoughts and anxieties.
I paced the room while waiting my turn in the bathroom, with two subjects occupying my mind. Our son was gone, I had had just three days to get used to that fact. How did I feel? Quite neutral, actually, as we had never really bonded through his childhood, as he won scholarships and was away at private schools much of the time. When he was home he always had his nose into the earliest computers and games consoles, writing new programs and designing platforms that eventually launched his successful business career. No, while I loved and admired him, we avoided ever being physically close, not like the multilayered bonds he had with first his mother and then the love of his life, the beautiful Adrienne.
Pauline’s declaration a few short hours ago, that she was instructing her lawyer to produce the forms that would lead us to being divorced after 46 years of marriage, was a shock that I simply hadn’t expected, and I felt more grief over the loss of our relationship than I had any real reason to. We had lived apart for a long time, and those little resentments, like her unwillingness to follow me to Sandburg, which had noticeably damaged my diocesan life, had fueled my dislike of her stubborn refusal to support my career over the years; the divorce would almost certainly affect any slim chance of an archbishopric in the time remaining to me, and I discovered that the regret pained me more than the guilt associated with my ambition in clerical orders.
I looked at the king size bed looming large in the room, regarding it as mere furniture and no longer an instrument through which tonight the reality of our marriage could have been reaffirmed and sustained until our next future meeting.
No, after tonight our exchanges will be through our respective lawyers, our conversations no longer candid, our worlds apart, with no more birthdays or anniversaries to celebrate together, until Adrienne’s twins forged new ones for us to attend, not together but as separate individuals. There would never again be a togetherness between us, once this final ritual, the farewell to the son bearing my name, was consigned to the consuming earth from which all life springs.
Pauline shimmered in the candlelight on the landing above the staircase, encased as she was in a bottle-green evening dress covered in sequins that seemed to come alive as she moved. In the candlelight, her look was so much more romantic than the stark light that the garish incandescent lamps of modern life has imposed upon us. John had received all his beauty, in quite masculine form, from Pauline’s genes, he fortunately suffered little noticeable at all by way of mine.
Pauline, even in the first third of her seventh decade, had a timeless quality about her looks. She had kept her firm, trim shape, while I was softened by too many banquets, too much time preparing speeches and sitting through too many interminable meetings and synods. I determined that, now I was soon to be single again and no longer had to play the role of a father, that I would embark on a regimen that would restore my body to health and vigor. I owed that much to John, God rest his beautiful soul, that I become a loving and doting grandfather to his offspring. I had no doubt that they would be beautiful, so loving them, while tempered by my natural reserve, it would never be a role taken on with any reluctance on my part.
I held out the crook of my arm by way of invitation to the woman who was once my lady, who once held my heart in thrall until she decided to throw me away with so little apparent regret. My arm was offered with a wan smile, all I was able to raise with so much weight depressing my heart and soul.
Pauline returned mine with her smile, which played on her lips, where I looked for an answer to my question. I didn’t trust myself to consider if her smile reached those sad eyes. I know mine were sad, not so much that things between us had changed, I accepted that, but that the changes in my life were so sprung on me that I was struggling to cope with the enormity of it all. So far I felt unable to sift through the bustle of the last few hours and balance the pain of separation from both wife and son with the joy of new life to come. Pauline tucked one of her slim, elegant arms, with barely a hint of bat wing about them, into mine, and we stepped gracefully down that glorious staircase to the first floor.
I had traveled here as a bishop and had intended to be a bishop at the funeral, but tonight I dressed in a formal black dinner jacket, with a bright purple cummerbund and a slim white dog collar instead of a bow tie above an extravagantly frilly shirt, to appear formal but in party mode, even if the party mood eluded us in our grief. We looked an elegant couple, beauty and the beast maybe, but we were each doing our level best to keep up appearances in the circumstances.
We both knew our way to the ballroom in this huge, rambling house, but even if we hadn’t, the sound of music would have led us to it straight away. A pair of smart liveried servants opened the double doors for us and together we swept into the room, one that would comfortably accommodate a couple of hundred dancers, but was littered with only about a dozen pairs dancing like planets in the huge expanse of space, with just a few tables and chairs for resting between dances at one end close to where the band played.
The dancers turned towards us as one and the band stopped playing, as if a switch had been turned. The dancers descended upon us with greetings and words of condolence that washed over us like a tidal wave. Of course we’re acquainted with them all, if in various degrees of familiarity, but we were all part of the larger Eldrake family. Adrienne, stayed to one side regarding the scene, allowing all her family to have their part in the greetings, but all the guests moved away as Adrienne’s parents took centre stage and embraced us one by one and took us off arm in arm to a small doorway at the side of the ballroom, followed by our daughter-in-law some half a dozen paces behind us. As Adrienne closed the door behind us, I heard the band restart where they left off and, presumably, the energetic dancing continued behind and without us.
I never really knew Adrienne’s age. When John first introduced his then new girlfriend to us six years ago, I would have guessed she was a sweet-faced freshman half his age, but in private he told me she was an established businesswoman running a group of companies which dwarfed his own, even without including the family’s investment portfolio that looked like the financials of a medium sized first world country, so I guessed from that information that she was in her early thirties then, and now would be at the perfect age to be a mother for the first time.
If it was difficult to gauge the daughter’s age, her parents proved absolutely impossible. I could only guess that they were a decade younger than us. Adrienne’s father, Gareth Eldrake, was probably half an inch shorter than his daughter, stockily built, with broad powerful shoulders, but with the narrow waist of one who exercised regularly and was extremely careful about what he ate. He had a full head of dark black hair, highlighted by distinguished-looking greying at the temples. But his face in repose was almost devoid of those usual signs of the ageing process, wrinkles. Only when he spoke animatedly, and laughed or smiled, lifting one or other eyebrow independently as he was wont to do in lively conversation, it was clear that there was no plastic surgery or injections of Botox involved here, he was simply an attractive man who took care of himself. I imagined that he probably moisturized, slept long and well and didn’t allow the pressures of business to wear him down. Adrienne’s explanation of the spread of their investments clearly took away the stresses that might otherwise affect lesser resourced men. Of course, sharing a life with Sylvia, the raven-haired beauty who was always by his side, the incentive to keep up his strength, vitality and vigor was obvious.
If Adrienne was blessed with the looks of a girl, her mother was the glamorous epitome of the smoldering MILF of legend. She was six foot tall, I know because dancing with her in four-inch heels our eyes were in perfect alignment, and we had often enjoyed dancing together at family holidays in this very ballroom over the past six years. I was in no doubt that she must dye those raven tresses, the depth of color, the absence of any grey and the way her hair shone as if her maids had brushed it a thousand times a day, framed her beautiful face perfectly. Her eyes were as dark as coal, her skin white and translucent as pure silk and, when we touched cheek to cheek in greeting, dancing or farewell, her skin felt as soft as a newborn baby. When she looked at you, looking down to most people, but level with me, she poured all her concentration on you, as if you were the only person in the world that mattered to her in that instance.
Yes, Sylvia smouldered with an intense sexuality that could excite even a jaded and sexually frustrated old bishop, who even in that heightened sexual tension knew, that you could enjoy her attention, revel in her oozing desire, but she only shared with you a hint of possible nirvana, she was unavailable to all but her one man. Her husband Gareth would observe all men reduced to quivering jelly, except for the one part that would never pass between an ordinary man and an extraordinary woman. Her fidelity was assured, and was apparent the instant she moved her eyes to the one object she openly desired, her husband. Immediately after appearing to seduce you to succumb to her eternal devotion, she would seek Gareth out, drape her arm around his powerful shoulders and almost dry hump him, leaving her latest quivering suitor bewitched but bereft.
Sylvia led me arm in arm, tucked in so close to me that we appeared born together joined at the hip, into the room and up to the open coffin. Gareth held Pauline in similar vein. Their love and empathy towards us in our moment of confrontation with the facts of life and death was touching and we were grateful. With Sylvia on my right and Gareth on Pauline’s left, we were guided to a pre-determined spot by the coffin side, so that Pauline and I were side by side. I sought her hand and she gripped mine tightly. Behind us, Adrienne squeezed our outside shoulders and moulded her body against our backs in a mutuality of empathetic touching, resting her right cheek on my left shoulder, Pauline’s being too low for comfort.
We turned to look at our dear departed boy. Beautiful didn’t begin to describe him. He always had been, yet now even in death, he looked more beautiful than ever. Asleep, not dead, that is how he looked. It was with a jolt that I felt at one with the Ancient Egyptians, they loved their kings so much that seeing them perfect in their death masks, why would they not pour the effort of an entire kingdom into preserving that instance of utter beauty forever?
Pauline sniffed, l saw a tear escape and run down her nose, hovering for an instance before making a bid for freedom to the floor below. At the same time, though, she smiled. She turned to look at me with those soft and moist green eyes and it was like turning the pages back to the day she brought John into the world, her face emerging from pain and fatigue to that of an invigorated angel. And she said exactly the same words she uttered forty-five years ago when he was first placed on her engorged breasts, “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”
“Yes, my dear,” I choked, “he is, he always was.”
“And in our hearts,” Adrienne breathed, her lips inches from our ears, “he always will be.”
We danced in pairs, rows, circles, we chatted in small groups about our memories of John, like all of those rites of passage that parents remember, however imperfectly, as Pauline reminded me on a couple of occasions. We menfolk congregated and offered up our most risqué jokes. In mixed company we lightly flirted outrageously, after all every one of the Eldrakes was attractive beyond belief. But, throughout that evening none of us ate or drank. I was soon thirsty and found I was hanging on until midnight and the promised refreshments. But it was already gone midnight and, when I checked the dining hall nearby, although the tables were laid up with glassware and cutlery, it was still empty of food and drink.
I sought out Adrienne, and saw her enjoying herself dancing a jitterbug with one of her younger and enviously energetic cousins. I waited until the tune ended and grabbed her for the next dance, fortunately a waltz, where we could converse.
“I thought the Pre Wake fast ended at midnight.” I said to her.
“Oh, I am sorry, Robert,” she always called me ‘Bishop’ when I dressed as such, but when I was in mufti, as now, I was ‘Robert’ or sometimes ‘Father’. “That might have been a slip of the tongue on my part, Robert, but I actually meant the middle of the night, the exact middle of the night. The clock times register only a vague human recording of time, as the seasons change the length of day and night change on a day-by-day basis.”
“I see, so how have you determined when the meal is to be served?”
“Well, dusk was at fourteen minutes past eight o’clock this evening, Dawn will come at two minutes before six, so I calculate, and have already agreed with the chef, to serve the banquet at six minutes after one in the morning, which is exactly four hours and fifty-two minutes from dusk and exactly the same amount of time away from the coming dawn. Using another version of the word, ‘mid-hyphen-night’.” She smiled, “if you cannot hold on for another hour, I am sure I could arrange something to be delivered from the kitchen to the library, provided you can be discrete about it.”
“No, my dear Adrienne, I am sure I can manage, now that I know how long it will be.”
I looked for Pauline. I owed her our last dance as a married couple, made even more symbolic as we were about to bury the light of our lives, our lovely son.
I could not find her shimmering green dress on the dance floor nor sat at the few tables around the periphery. I headed for the ante chamber and closed the door quietly behind us. Pauline knelt in prayer on the cold, hard floor by the head of the coffin, her eyes closed and lips moving in silent invocation, her mascara leaving etched lines down both cheeks.
A cold thought ran through me about my own feelings. Was I so heartless that I was incapable of the same level of grief? Was she in some way compensating in this quiet demonstration of her broken heart for my lack of empathy for her loss? Was my silent and apparent indifference to the emotion of our dissolving relationship a symptom that led us to this point and, in His turn, God was punishing me for my parental indifference by taking my wife away from me too, in the cruelest of ways: to live her life fully engaged in the world about us, yet no longer be mine to hold from this day forward as we had promised in front of God 46 years before?
I knelt beside her, rubbing shoulders as lightly as I could to advise her of my presence. I too, clasped both my hands together, closed my eyes and silently recited a number of short prayers in my head, that I felt were appropriate to the occasion. As I neared the end of this devotion, I felt Pauline place her hands on mine. I completed the text of the litany I had started and opened my eyes. I turned and looked at the lovely woman who was still, for the time being, my wife.
“You do care?” she asked, softly, the smallest tremulous smile on her lips.
“Yes, of course I care,” I said, “I loved him at least as much as you.”
Despite myself, I did. I had always loved John Sullivan. I couldn’t help it, but my natural reserve had always prevented me from physically expressing my love for the lovely child who filled my daily prayers and thoughts and grew into a beautiful grown man in front of my eyes during two-thirds of my entire life.
Still on our knees, we embraced and kissed. There was a hungry desperation in her kiss, in that room that had become a chapel of rest for the boy we once raised together to adulthood in the best ways that we could. I was instantly reminded of our fumbling courting days when she so desperately wanted my physical love. We did everything short of violating her virginity, both our virginities, during our long courtship, which was the norm in those days.