‘Cheers!’ Jack charges his glass into the air enthusiastically, spilling more than a little head over the side. ‘To old friends.’
‘To brothers,’ Paul retorts, with less enthusiasm, equal sincerity and a commanding gaze across the table.
‘Brothers,’ Jack agrees and clinks his glass gently against Paul’s, a wave of solemnity passing through their moods for a moment. They both drink a quarter of their schooners, realising their thirst simultaneously as the first droplets of amber liquid reach their tongues. Jack places his glass heavily on the table and lets out a loud ‘Ahhhhh’ in appreciation of the drink. Paul rests his drink carefully on the paper coaster and wipes his mouth, while staring into the glass with a toothless smile on his face, as if an answer to a troubling question lies within one of the effervescent bubbles.
‘So,’ Jack begins, snapping Paul’s attention from the drink. ‘Did the trip help?’
‘Yes, and no,’ Paul replies, letting his eyes wander away from his friend’s once more, presently to the sticky floor. ‘Where’s Candace?’
‘She’s with her Grandmother.’
‘That’s good,’ he half-lies, having never genuinely gotten on with his mother-in-law. They’d actually had a worse relationship since; possibly though hopefully not only because of her uncanny, even for a mother, resemblance to Stephanie. ‘How is she?’
‘Who, my mother?’ Jack firstly asks, incredulously, ‘Or Candace?’
Paul takes another swig of the beer with his eyes closed and shakes his head as he enjoys it. ‘Candace, of course,’ he says, returning his glass to its coaster.
‘Do you want to see her? I’ll drive.’
‘Yes, and no,’ Paul thinks, as the other man looks on: confusion and vexation written on his face.
Standing in front of the tombstone, wind whips the two mens’ coats and trousers, briefly biting their exposed calf-muscles like insects borne of the coldest winter. With tears, handshakes and sobbing hugs, the crowd drifts away in a pool of black coats and dresses draining into dark sedans and limousines. Once the cars disappear, their only company is each other, a deceased loved one and unforgiving wind.
‘I miss her already,’ Paul laments in a monotone voice, staring at the grey cross.
‘I miss her too, y’know,’ Jack contributes in a voice part anger, part grief. ‘You’re not the only one who has been affected by her death. She was not just a wife, but a sister, a daughter, a friend and mother.’
‘I can’t relate to her through any of those other connections, except maybe as a friend.’ Paul bends down and lays a bouquet of white roses onto the centre of the mound of dirt, creating a ray of reflected light amid indifferent earth. While raising back up, not before allowing a single tear to land on the grave, he continues: ‘But she was more than even that. She was my wife – that’s how I loved her and that’s how I will miss her, forever.’
‘And I’ll miss my sister forever,’ Jack puts his arm over Paul’s slumped shoulders, which straighten at his offering of support, and the latter returns the favour. ‘C’mon, let’s have a beer and speak of happier times and those to come.’
‘You’re right,’ Paul agrees, and they leave the grave, climb into the sole remaining car, and accelerate into the future.
‘Hello Paul,’ Stephanie’s mother says as she opens the front-door. ‘It’s good to see you again.’
‘Hi Maggie, good to see you too,’ he replies, sincere at least for sentimentality’s sake. ‘Candace?’
‘Of course. She’s in the nursery at the end of the hall.’
Maggie withdraws into the house in order to allow Paul to enter. He does so and immediately, though hesitantly, begins to head down the hallway. Jack and his mother’s voices become muffled as Paul wanders the carpet, perusing its intricate greens, browns and blacks; reminiscing on his short marriage as if the carpet is an increasingly macabre parchment dedicated to its memory. Appropriately, the story ends at the entrance to the nursery and an uncertain, cream-coloured weave begins, carrying an ornate, mahogany crib in the far corner.
‘I remember your smell, my beautiful Candace,’ Paul introspects and, for the last time, permits the terrible thought to manifest itself on his lips, as he moves toward the crib. ‘If it weren’t for you, my wife would still be alive.’
The thought is swept away finally, like a house which has seen too many evil years under the blows of a wrecking-ball, as Paul grips the rails and peers at the fragile form on the mattress below.
‘That pale skin, that lock of red-hair. You’re every bit your mother’s daughter, little Candace. You must be six months old by now. I’ll never forgive myself for abandoning you.’
Candace opens her eyes and begins to bawl, but Paul has never heard such a wondrous sound; like the singing of angels in the highest reaches of heaven.
‘Those green eyes.’
He raises her up gently in his arms, kisses her forehead and says, ‘You’ll never bear the cost of my pain again.’