When the World’s Echoes Stopped
by Elena Croitoru
Why would there be so many funeral parlours in a small town like Falconmire, I wondered as I strolled along the High Street, searching for a cafe. But even questions like these felt unimportant after what had happened. Besides, I had a house viewing in two hours.
It was a warm June evening. The sky shed rays of orange light through the citron flowers hanging from laburnum trees. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much Stephen used to like sailing at sunset.
The shops were turning their lights on. One of the funeral parlours in front of me had French dining tables and chairs painted in antique white. Rows of red velvet cake, cream cakes decorated with raspberries, éclairs and chocolate gâteaux lay on side tables.
I smelled a delicate rose petal fragrance coming through the opened door. Inside, people were chatting, sipping tea or indulging in delicacies.
I went in, thinking this was one of those hip Gothic cafes where coffins were turned into centrepieces. I ordered a Darjeeling and turned on my laptop to finish grading some papers for the next day. At the time, I was a teacher at Putney High.
Everyone in the cafe stared at me. I was used to London, where nobody noticed you. But the people at the next table had a deep bliss about them, as if they had it all figured out.
As I stirred my tea, careful not to spill it on the snow-silk tablecloth, I remembered how meticulous Stephen used to be when adjusting the sails or mooring his Brock boat. It was the same attention to detail that had got him straight A’s at Imperial College, where we met as postgraduate students. It was a rainy day; he had offered me his umbrella after our joint class in differential equations. We got married three years after that.
Glasses clinked. The people in the café held a toast and, as some of them rose from their seats to dance to folk music, I could see the back of the room decorated with wreaths of peach carnations.
Among bouquets, a man in his forties lay in a glossy white coffin. I winced. The gathering didn’t look like a funeral, yet it was one. I packed my tote bag and left in a hurry, feeling remorseful that I hadn’t noticed it sooner. Stephen would have noticed. My cheeks were burning.
* * *
I got to the viewing five minutes late. John, a saffron-haired estate agent with forearms as thin as leek stalks, was waiting for me. He was dressed in cricket whites.
The house was spacious enough for me to open a youth centre in the annex, something I had wanted to do since I was seventeen, when my father died. The walls were painted in a melancholic white. Water seeped from a bronze tap into the small pot-shaped fountain in the front garden. It was the first time in three years that the sound of a stream didn’t make my heart jitter. This seemed the sort of place where nothing ever died. Even the smell of rot that I used to feel in my nostrils gave way to a new jasmine scent.
John said the price was below my budget. I was surprised, especially since he had told me earlier to either give up or get a partner, because single people on my salary couldn’t afford to buy a house with a garden. There were no direct trains to London, though, so I said I would think about it.
I was walking back to the station when somebody tapped my shoulder.
“Mary?” It was Chris, Stephen’s friend from grammar school. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he said. His mojito-green eyes gazed at me with pity. “I can’t even remember if I said goodbye to you.”
“I know; three years is not nearly enough to forget.” My forehead felt heavy. I tried not to frown, as I usually do.
“So what are you doing around here?” he asked.
I bit my lip. “I was thinking of buying a house. Do you live in Falconmire?”
“My sister does. I don’t think you’d like it here.” The furrows on his forehead were glistening under his sweat.
“It’s just this gut feeling. I’ve been telling my sister the same thing. But she’s like you, in no mood to listen.”
All I could think about was how I wished I was far away from any friend of Stephen’s. My legs quivered. I thought about the time when Stephen had invited me to a music festival and I accidentally strayed from his group and got lost. When I had found them again, Chris and the rest of their female friends smirked. “I like other areas better anyway,” I said.
I thought it was rude of him to let out a sigh of relief. I almost cried but held back because he might have interpreted it as an admission of my guilt. In Stephen’s own words, “Guilt acts like a sinkhole.” And besides, I did not ask Stephen to do what he did.
“Thanks for telling Stephen to lend me money,” Chris said. ” I was almost broke after my divorce.”
How did he know I did that?
He continued, “I knew him to be tight with money. But he became more generous since... you.”
“It didn’t take many words to convince him.”
It started to rain, and we said our goodbyes. The air was aromatic and smelled like fresh leaves. The rain drops that fell on my forehead felt like a baptism of my skin and memories. For a few moments, I forgot Stephen and I told myself this was where I had to live.
* * *
The next day I called John, the estate agent, and said I had decided to buy the house.
“There is one last minor detail. You will be a freeholder, but in the event of your death, the property will be given back to the village council, bypassing any will in place,” he said.
“Even if I wanted to pass the house on to somebody else?”
“Think of it as a retirement community, only with no age restriction. This shouldn’t be a problem since you don’t have any children, right?”
“How did you know that?”
“I could tell, but please correct me if I’m wrong.”
He wasn’t. I wished he was wrong. “It doesn’t matter. I would like to make an offer on the house.”
“That’s the right thing to do. Your life does not get inherited along with your belongings. People think their children own a part of their lives, but they don’t,” John said.
I felt consoled by his statement in a way that Stephen’s apologetic eyes never made me feel. How many nights had I spent researching genetic flaws like his? The rarest of them all, that was him. That was what I thought when I had seen him last, while hanging onto the rope with blood trickling out of my palms. I looked at my hand after I hung up the phone. Vertical scars crossed my arms. A part of my soul had escaped through those openings of my skin.
* * *
The local committee greeted me soon after I moved in. John insinuated himself into my life by offering to fix things such as the broken front gutter, the felt on the roof or the chipped window sills. Not a day would pass by without being invited to tea or barbecues by the people in the committee. Their company made me forget the past.
They had all recently lost somebody dear to them. Mr Thomson had lost his eighteen-year old son to leukaemia; Miss Saunder’s brother had died in a car accident; and John had lost his wife to breast cancer. They used the money from the house sales on everything the villagers indulged on.
The group was very particular about caring for my favourite foods, wines and hobbies. and they asked me many questions about myself. I didn’t think much about their curiosity until the first Sunday in the village.
Miss Saunder, the diabetic baker with a myriad of criss-cross cuts on her wrists, died of stroke while tasting her chocolate torte; her body couldn’t cope with sugar anymore. Her funeral was held at the corner parlour which also sold gifts. Nobody cried. They celebrated with dozens of plates of hors d’oeuvres and ten crates of wine.
I didn’t use to like drinking back when Stephen and I were together, but lately I had been indulging in fragrant spirits and whole trays of baked cherry pies or iced doughnuts. I put on some weight. Maybe five kilos? It helped though. I would forget about Stephen, about the sea and about that nefarious moment, that crooked choice I made.
But still, sometimes my heart felt like a fish struggling to live inside my chest, a fish I had swallowed while I myself struggled to live. And my mouth would open to let it out, to let it all out and, at that moment, Stephen’s image would be clearer than it had been when he was alive. And he would disapprove of me and just as before, he would please everybody except me.
After two weeks, another funeral took place. Mr Thomson, a geologist with a moustache that looked like a cluster of feathers, died of a coronary while he was undertaking frivolous activities, as John had put it with a smile. I had gained puffy, dark circles under my eyes and my skin looked like undyed linen. By this time, it had become more difficult for acquaintances to recognise me. I hardly went out in London anyway.
At the beginning of September, John was hit in the chest by a cricket ball and died within seconds. He used to find a new team every day and play cricket for hours. I had warned him about his odds of getting hit, but he didn’t care. That day, I stood at his grave and I understood that subconsciously the way one dies is often their choice, just as life is. Glitches and hiccups in our way turn out to be nothing if we wait long enough and if we look backwards enough but not for too long.
Funerals had become regular events in Falconmire. After about a year, Mrs Langley died. She was in her forties and fell off a horse. She would pass by my window every day at 8:00 a.m., practicing jumps over the high fences, close to the riverbed. One Sunday, the horse tripped because of a landslide.
On the Tuesday of her funeral, I was quite tired and nauseous, and I had abdominal pain. My liver was giving up. I had become a lover of alcohol, just like my mother in her fifties.
I was sitting at a table surrounded by the new members of the committee until I saw Chris in the doorway of the parlour. As soon as he headed my way, I realised that Stephen was still alive inside me and that wine could not make him vanish.
“Did you know Mrs Langley well?” I asked, hoping Chris wouldn’t mention how much I had changed.
“She was my sister.” He sat down and his broad shoulders blocked my view of the other tables. His eyes were filling up and he tried not to blink.
“Your gut feeling was right. This place encourages people to die,” I said.
“She loved horseback riding. It made her forget about her abortion.” He reached out from across the table, took my hand and said, “Did you forget?”
He had changed. There was no trace of sarcasm about him. He looked at me with his large eyes and I understood that my life after Stephen should have begun with a confession.
“I need to tell you what happened.”
“You don’t have to -”
“I stood on the edge of the boat and when it shook, I fell in the water. Stephen jumped in to help me. I was grabbing at the streaks of foam until I felt his warm body near me. I dragged him under in my struggle for air.” I stopped to catch my breath.
Chris placed his other hand on my wrist.
“His body convulsed. After the current took him, he flailed and then he disappeared. It was a miracle that I somehow found an end of rope that was tied to the boat and climbed back in. At that moment, the echoes of the world stopped and I could hear nothing.”
He shook his head. “You weren’t you when you dragged Stephen under. Besides, the current killed him.”
His words felt warm.
“Mary, leave this town. Maybe you could open that youth centre you were always talking about.”
I agreed with him, I owed the world something. I poured my wine glass into the flower pot next to me.
Copyright © 2015 by Elena Croitoru