She knelt silently.
Small clouds, some tinged sunset-red, jogged across the darkening sky. Her hands trembled as occasionally she pulled a bottle out of her coat and put it to her lips. Its warmth consoled her.
Later, she rose and touched Carl's headstone before stumbling slowly away.
They'll probably be watching tv, she thought, standing alone at the windswept bus stop.
Yes, the children will be watching tv, she reassured herself. And she said out loud, and to no one in particular because there was no one there to listen: they will be watching tv. They love watching tv.
Finally, she finished cutting and reluctantly lowered the scissors back into her handbag. Lifting the old stalks out of the pot, the names of her two children were revealed beneath the name of her husband, but she looked quickly away. Hastily, almost violently, she rammed the fresh flowers in place, seeing nothing but their container. Then she tidied and arranged them neatly so only the letters carving out her husband's name were visible.
She picked up two red petals that had fallen onto the grave and wrapped them gently together in her handkerchief. Tenderly, she put them in her pocket.
Flowers in one hand, scissors in the other, she looked around. Being close to Carl offered her comfort, but she was sure this place would feel forbidding to other people. The cold air, casting its freezing memories of Arctic waters; the ruined chapel, rising disfigured and threatening into the numb blue sky; the loneliness.
She fingered the scissors and looked around, as if ensuring she was truly alone. The twin blades glinted in the sunlight like the eyes of an old friend offering an answer to her unasked prayers.
She finished cutting the stalks, sighed softly and caressed the scissors.
Kneeling down at Carl's grave, she touched the vase of withering flowers with shaking fingertips and whispered "We all miss you so very much."
The cold wind gusted around her and her hair blew freely whipping her face, but always unnoticed, beyond the reach and feel of her thoughts. Silent tears fell, dripping from her cheeks onto the cold stone.
She took out her scissors, feeling along the sharp edge with her fingers. Leaning forward, she began cutting the long stems of her new bright flowers to size. She sniffed at the vase, smelling the water, putrid and yellow tinged.
When she got off the bus the strong wind whipped the heads of the roses. They jigged about as if they were being slapped, so she opened her coat and held them close to her breast to protect them. The wind buffeted her as she walked from the bus stop past rows of headstones, but she didn't care. Indeed, if it wasn't for the flowers, she wouldn't have noticed the wind, for Mrs Ely appreciated this tranquillity, felt it soft and welcoming. She always enjoyed the difference between this haven of tranquillity and rest and the heartless and noisy streets.
The cemetery lay alone on the mountainside looking down on the town, its only companions two derelict structures. One, the ruins of an old chapel whose graveyard had been expanded into the municipal cemetery; the other, on the opposite side of the road, a half-built secondary school, all boarded windows, unfinished brickwork and scrub, a victim of education cuts and lies about austerity, decaying even before it neared completion.
The lonely road that passed it linked two towns so there was occasional traffic passing through but rarely did anything stop here. Those that did stop, stopped only to mourn.
How was she to know she smelled? Whisky supposedly smelled nice didn't it? She'd learn her lesson, anyway: from now on she'd stick to gin.
There was laughter from the back of the bus and a voice: "Probably doesn't wash!"
That man's voice again: "Drunk tart. Sad, though."
Then "Shush! She'll hear!"
She swore at them under her breath, but it must have been a lot louder than she intended as the two old ladies in the seat opposite flung her dirty looks before pretending to search in their handbags or peer out of the window at something suddenly fascinating.
She rushed for the bus to the cemetery, just about catching it: it had to be that bus otherwise she wouldn't have time to collect the girls. Exhausted and panting, she fell into an empty seat, clutching her bouquet of roses.
Moments later the man in the seat in front moved to the back of the bus, saying something about "smell."
So what if she stank of whisky? She rarely drank it, so hadn't realised her breath smelled.
She ran her fingers through her hair and they caught in the knots. She tugged, dropping a small clump onto her lap.
She had trouble getting the right money out of her purse. "No. No credit, Madam," the off-licence owner said because she'd spent too much on a bouquet.
"Um... half b-bottle, then. Yes the whisky! ...pl-please."
Sweating, she fumbled in her purse. Finally, her trembling fingers surrendered and she emptied its contents onto the counter. The shopkeeper picked up the coins while she opened the small bottle and gulped noisily. Grimacing, she remembered she hated whisky.
Outside the shop, muttering to herself about prices, she stared in at the man. She watched him watching her, shaking his head.
Now why did I come upstairs? She shook herself. The girls are asleep, she mumbled, I won't disturb them now. I'll have a good clean tomorrow morning.
She tiptoed into their bedroom and found their dresses on the floor. They were dry but she'd put them in the drier for ten minutes to make sure, then- no wait, she'd do them tomorrow morning. She'd already decided that, hadn't she? Hadn't she? Yes.
She closed their door quietly behind her then gently patted the windowsill and walked back downstairs.
Yes, and flowers for tomorrow. For Carl. I must remember flowers tomorrow.
Outside the girl's bedroom she stared at the dust: a thick covering that turned the white of the windowsill and the brown of the bookcase grey. Betrayed by the amount of dust, she felt accused, disgusted with herself for not having cleaned sooner. It's terrible, she whispered. She slapped her hand down hard onto the windowsill, disturbing the serenity of the house and sending a billow of dust into the air. She winced. Damn that noise, she thought, her hands automatically flying up to protect her ears. I hate the jagged, searing noise, the collision of metal, the screaming, the -
Tomorrow is ten months. Ten months to the day. An anniversary, but not her and Carl's anniversary. A vast blackness rolled itself out in front of her as she thought of her future, empty of shared anniversaries. The anniversary of Carl's - of the accident - of Carl's accident. Of her Travesty.
She'd pick up some flowers and take them to the cemetery tomorrow afternoon when the girls were in school. It was exactly a month since she'd last been and the flowers would need replacing by now. In a way, she enjoyed the cemetery. Like home, it was peaceful and quiet.
The girls' dresses must be soaked, she thought. I'll put them in the drier for ten minutes later, make sure they're dried out properly.
The glass on the coffee table added yet another ring to the pattern of sticky circles when she reached to finish it off, but it was already empty. The DVD clock read 23:32, the clock on the mantelpiece still said two thirty. Plenty of time to get the girls' dresses dry. Actually, if I don't do them tonight, I can do them tomorrow before school. Won't take long.
She left the living room and walked upstairs.
They were home when she remembered about the bread and milk.
"I can't go out again, I'm soaked through," she mumbled.
She put the TV on for the girls. Back in the kitchen she took a plate out of the sink and rubbed it dry on her forearm, the digestives she put on it soaking up the excess moisture. She fancied a change, so gulped some gin out of the cup she'd just poured and then added some orange juice. Her blouse clung cold to her back. The kettle clicked off. She couldn't be bothered to pour herself a tea.
She no longer went into the schoolyard to collect them. It was too difficult facing the pitying looks, and people felt awkward because they didn't know what to say. So she waited across the road from the school. She still noticed the looks, of course: people still stared, obviously talking about the tragic young widow.
To make things worse, her girls always seemed to be last out, so she had to put up with this furtive compassion for ages. But she was strong. For them, she'd cope. And she'd treat herself to a big drink when they all got home.
When she left the supermarket she realised she'd forgotten to buy bread and milk, but it was on her way home so she could get them later with the girls. They'd moan of course, they'd probably say
"Oh Mummy, do we have to?"
"Mummy, it's raining and I'm cold, can't we go straight home?"
But she'd say "Sorry, no, we need bread and milk" and that would be that. They'd buy what they needed and go home, perhaps with a little treat for patient girls: chocolate or an ice cream - no, perhaps not ice cream today, too cold.
She opened them quickly when she realised she had been asleep and glanced at the silent clock with its stubborn time, then at the display on the DVD. It was time to pick up the girls. Outside was wet and a heavy drizzle pulsed rivulets down the window. She steeled herself and, finally, left the house. She didn't put on a coat.
It felt chilly after the recent hot days, and the rain on her skin felt cool and almost refreshing.
At the supermarket she picked up two bottles of gin - it was buy one, get the second half-price.
She thought, everyone needs time alone, and said aloud "Is that too much to ask?" She listened. The bell hadn’t rung for... how long?
She's gone. Good. Anyway, the place is too untidy.
She'd tidy later. An old jumper sporting a takeaway curry stain had lain on the cushion next to her for a good few weeks. A blouse and a pair of slacks had sprawled over the arm of a chair since forever. She swallowed two Valium with a slurp of coffee. Yes, she'd tidy before anyone else arrived. She leaned back in the chair and her eyes closed.
The social worker rang the doorbell later that day, just after lunch. Mrs Ely ignored it, ground her teeth and leaned forward in the chair, fists clenched tightly in front of her. She felt ungracious, muttering “Piss off, will you?” to herself, but she said it anyway.
Her social worker was a middle-aged lady who meant well, but her visits made Mrs Ely angry. After all, that woman was part of the outside world, part of the overwhelming web of circumstance that had killed her Carl. She really only served to remind her of tragic events. Of her travesty.
The breakfast dishes were done and put away, the girls would follow her out of the house. It was so much easier walking to school these days. So much time had passed since the accident that people no longer stopped to stare; they no longer stopped their conversations mid-sentence only to restart again in hushed tones once she had passed. A few still gave her sad, knowing glances, or stared with pity at the poor woman whose husband had been killed so tragically. But she made everyone feel very uncomfortable, so no one stopped to talk anymore. No one.