|Picture courtesy of T Rand Collins: http://throughavintagelens.com/|
GRAVE IS THE NIGHT
The ancient bench smelled of rusting iron and she could feel the overhang of thin, damp Willow branches brushing against her shoulder, no doubt a base for spiders to weave their webs. Apart from a single street lamp illuminating the lych-gate the churchyard was in darkness, except that on the stroke of twelve the gravestones would adopt a ghostly radiance of their own, lighting up the scrolls, the cherubs and the angels. The later it got the more lifelike they became but none of it started until midnight. The witching hour! In the vague shadows Billy Jean thought she saw an angel’s wings move in the breeze. She shook her head as if to clear her mind. It was surely before its time.
She had no idea how long it had been since the church clock registered the half hour but even now she had no desire to test her legs and get off the scratchy bench. She felt secure wrapped in the cloak of eerie darkness.
The wine had worn off yet the sense of peace stayed with her, although she’d felt quite agitated when a big rat scuttled over a nearby rock. But that was precisely fifty-five minutes ago. She shuddered, thinking maybe the rodent would return and bring his family with him.
Billy Jean was there for a reason. She had visited this precise spot for five weeks, ever since her husband died. Earlier visits were in daylight; the night vigils were more recent. Since Ernest had always preferred night to day she knew his spirit would return in the dark hours.
It was the moving glass that convinced her he was ready to reappear in her life. She always placed a glass of water on the bedside cabinet in case she got thirsty in the night but four mornings in a row it was not where she left it. Last night she denied herself the luxury of sleep in order to wait for the sign that his spirit was ready. Sure enough, at three o’clock the glass began to slide. First right, then left, then round in a circle. Excitement built up inside her as she uttered the words she had been practicing for five weeks. Welcome home.
Billy Jean wondered what form his spirit would take, man or spectre. Here in this place she could picture a ghost materialising from nowhere but, knowing him, she knew he would want to be different. He had always been the odd one out in a crowd. If people wore black he would wear grey; if they wore hats, he would go bareheaded; if they acted foolishly, he would be the perfect gentleman. She had loved him from the first moment they met, at a dance, because he was the only man in the room who would venture onto the floor, and the only man to capture her heart.
Sixty-three years ago. She remembered it like it was yesterday though if you asked her to recall what she did a week ago she would be hard pressed to remember.
Everyone said they made a handsome couple, Ernest in his pinstripes and she in a white silk bridal gown with matching shoes, with six attendants dressed in green. Everyone said green was the wrong colour, that it brought bad luck and to this day Billy Jean wondered about that. So far as she could recall there hadn’t been an ounce of bad luck in their lives. Until now, with Ernest’s passing, which was the worst thing ever.
Even though they never had children, or perhaps because of it, they spent their entire married life like a courting couple. They laughed and cried together and if they argued they always made up before going to sleep. Not like modern couples who part at the drop of a hat, never stopping to think or question if their marriage could be saved by an apology or a hug. Billy Jean was thankful that she and Ernest were kindred spirits, near or far, alive or dead, they were as one. He vowed to love her until he died and now he was proving that he loved her afterwards.
Although she felt quite warm inside her shawl, the anticipation of seeing him and not knowing what he would look like caused her to shiver. Billy Jean pulled the shawl closer, suddenly feeling her age, wishing he would hurry.
Somewhere in nearby trees the inevitable owl made himself heard. A cemetery wouldn’t be right without an owl. Something brushed against her foot but disappeared before she could check it out. A tingling sensation in her spine caused her to hunch her shoulders. She felt so tired, physically and mentally, unable to think, as if her brain was shutting down. Closing her eyes, she relaxed and after a few moments drifted gently into oblivion.
The rains came while she slept; a light shower at first but when thunder echoed in the distance it got heavier. The owl hooted its disappointment before flying to another tree. And then miraculously, considering the time, it was as if dawn had arrived. Things stirred restlessly in the undergrowth, unusual sounds blended like off-key music, while graveyard statues grew bold, stretching out their arms as if in warning. Billy Jean stirred, but did not waken. Therefore she did not see the wraithlike figure in a black cloak walking towards her, slowly, and carefully. Had she stirred she might have thought him to be an undertaker.
Billy Jean dreamed they were dancing, amongst the trees, slow steps in time with mellow birdsong, the evening sun preparing to set. He felt so good. So close. ‘This will be our last waltz,’ he whispered, and she clung to him in her determination never to let him go. He took her hand, guiding her through weeds and autumn debris, his arm supporting her as they walked happily into the darkness.
The grave was frequently visited by family members but only now could they admire the recently carved epitaph.
Here lies Ernest and Billy Jean De’Ath
United in death as in life
(My thanks to T Rand Collins for allowing me to use his photograph, a night view of the churchyard of an historic Anglican church in Metchosin, B.C.)
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