These Three Remain
Alice sees the church door, and as with every door for such a long time, she imagines someone standing behind it, ready to pounce. She walks on, and with an effort avoids turning to check.
Alice stands at the back, surprised how many people have fit into the small church. The heat of the afternoon gives way to an uncanny chill inside the ancient building. Somewhere under this vaulted ceiling stands her sister. At the front, probably, or the first row back. She will have planned everything to the last detail, as is her way. She will have thrown herself into organising in order to distract herself from yet another tragedy.
Alice takes a few tentative steps forward, eyes adjusting to the light inside and now able to see down the aisle. At the front lies a coffin, closed, on wooden supports. Two small bunches of flowers sit on top, one from her, one from her sister. She sent the roses, originally intending not to come in person. She didn’t expect to see them on the coffin. She wouldn’t have blamed her sister if she’d left them behind.
She wonders how far she should walk. There are two seats free at the back-right corner, but something propels her a few more steps forward. A couple to her right murmur something, below the level she can hear. Her legs continue to function, although her brain has stopped. Her sight is drawn toward the dark brown wooden box with the earthly remains of her mother. A mother whose final days were not filled with reminiscing about a life, but—if Jemma’s middle-of-the-night email was to be believed—filled with regret.
Please come, it had said. Mum wants to make peace. She needs this. Please. She does not have long. Days, at most. Shrewsbury Ward, Wexham. Please come.
It wasn’t clear which direction the forgiveness was to travel, but did that really matter, this late in the day? But that final sentence. Days. Forgiveness, reconciliation—Alice had always taken for granted that someday things would change between them, but when it was set out like that it hit home. Jemma had said just enough, and Alice had set out, just as that storm had hit.
The flight couldn’t take off until the next morning, and instead of reaching home on Saturday, Alice found herself getting a taxi to the hospital directly from the airport Sunday afternoon, rushing through the hospital to the ward as instructed, looking up at the whiteboard with a list of names, not seeing her surname there.
She ran to the desk, but she knew, somewhere, somehow, that she was too late. There was an empty room just to the side of the desk. Its bed had been stripped. A hospital mask lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. One chair was pushed up against the window. As Alice stared, she imagined Jemma, head bowed, saying a farewell that Alice could now never make.
Jemma, beloved Jemma, so beautiful inside. Always loved, always loving, always forgiving.
I’m sorry. Alice had looked up and seen a nurse, mouth opening and shutting, speaking. She nodded. There was confirmation of being too late. Alice cursed the airline, cursed the storm, cursed the taxi, although that hadn’t made any difference. She began to curse Jemma too, but even now that wasn’t possible. She had done so much harm already. Could she even curse her mother, now? It didn’t come to her.
There was no one to curse but herself.
As back then. As when the screaming had started.
Alice is halfway down the aisle now, and the murmurs have continued. At the front stands Jemma, one row back on the right. Unaware somehow that there has been singing, Alice notices when it abruptly stops, and the congregation sits.
Alice is left standing, halfway down the aisle, still shuffling forward. From her position now she can see a small boy to Jemma’s left, and a space where her husband would have been had he not already added to Jemma’s list of tragedies. The boy, hearing the murmurs, turns.
He has tears in his eyes, but those eyes are unmistakably those of his grandmother. Alice’s legs forget to take another step, and she stands, staring into her nephew’s crying face. She feels tears herself, but her face remains a mask. So much water under the bridge. So much left unsaid. So much that cannot be forgiven.
Jemma now turns, and sees Alice. Her eyes are red and puffy. Below that her skin is rough, all along the right-hand side, as it has been since that day. She takes a deep breath and leans down to whisper something into the boy’s ear before standing, waving a hand briefly at the vicar to pause proceedings.
Jemma shuffles past her son and takes a step out into the aisle.
Alice sees her—properly sees her—for the first time in forever. Her face. Her kind eyes, her sad puffy kind eyes, but surrounding them Alice can’t bear it. She sees the saucepan. She remembers standing behind the door. She remembers being that stupid, stupid girl who thought she was being so funny.
She can’t help herself. She turns and commands her legs to run. She has no place here. She does not deserve to be here. She does not deserve to say goodbye.
Her legs do not obey her. Instead they buckle. She turns away, only to be grabbed by the strong arms of her sister, keeping her upright, preventing her from running.
She has no strength. In so long she has had no strength. It has been hidden, thousands of miles away and behind a competent façade, behind the functional career and the long nights alone, but it has never gone away.
She is turned round, and led slowly to the front, where the boy shuffles sideways. She is sat down, her body squeezed between wooden upright and her sister’s trembling body. A hand is raised, and the vicar begins to speak, reciting Corinthians.
And now these three remain.
Alice looks to her right, into the face of her sister, properly seeing it. Properly seeing the wrinkled skin, destroyed before its time. She remembers. The images flood back, of the bandages, of the screaming, of the creams. Of the door. Of standing behind that stupid door with her stupid idea to scare her sister. Any other day could it have been funny, or simply cruel? She would never know because that one day had been the day when Jemma had been helping their mother and had opened the parlour door for her, holding it and turning back, not letting the door fall back closed as it would normally, delaying the shout for a second, but not long enough for Alice to realise what their mother was carrying.
Alice reaches out and places a hand on Jemma’s cheek. She can’t help herself. She feels the rough skin. It condemns her, just as it did at home, just as it did when Jemma didn’t blame her. When Jemma told her it had been an accident. When their mother told her it had been an accident. When Jemma became the better person, but their mother hadn’t. Alice had seen in her eyes the blame she carried with her, all the way to her dying day. Alice could never atone, not for that. Not for that one stupid moment so long ago.
Faith, hope, and love.
Jemma places her hand on Alice’s and turns to look into her eyes. Alice can see the other side of her face now, the beauty she should have been, and she can’t help but cry out at the injustice of it all. So many times she blamed her mother for holding the pan wrong, although she had it in both hands. She had tried to blame Jemma, without justification. In the end she could only blame herself, and now, at the end, seeing Jemma’s beautiful half-face, remembering the gradual improvements to the other half, over years of skin grafts, bandage after bandage, cream after cream, days and weeks spent in hospitals. But before that, the screams. Screams like she imagines hearing again now, but ten times worse than those coming from her own mouth.
Jemma pulls Alice’s hand down from her cheek and pulls her forward, putting the scarred side of her face against hers as she draws the two of them together. Alice feels its gentle roughness against hers.
Alice pulls away. She is not deserving of this. She shouldn’t have come. It isn’t fair on anyone. The vicar has stopped reading. The church is waiting. She has ruined everything. Again.
Why remind your sister that you destroyed her face? Why introduce her son to the sister who disfigured his mother? Why sit metres away from a body you never had a chance to reconcile with. Why?
Alice slumps, only for Jemma to place a gentle hand under her chin and look into her face.
She wanted you to know she never blamed you. Not once. Not ever. She hoped to hold on long enough to tell you herself. But I told her about the storm. She understood. I think it was the last thing she heard. She squeezed my hand one last time after that, and then she was gone. She’d hoped to ask for your forgiveness.
She always regretted how after—well, this happened—Jemma put a hand to her cheek—she spent so much of her energy on me. She hoped some day she could make it up to you.
But I was the one…
It was an accident, Alice. Don’t you see, for all these years, I’d much rather have had a sister, for all the looks. And besides, it’s not done me any harm. Not in the end. Look, will you come back with me to the house? We can talk properly. Please say you will. Please say you won’t disappear again.
Alice couldn’t reply. She couldn’t speak. She quivered. The vicar spoke again.
But the greatest of these is love.
Robert has been published in Writers’ Forum magazine, Transmundane Press, Three Drops Poetry, Exeter Writers’ Flash Fiction anthology, among others. You can find more of his burblings at www.philosophicalleopard.com wherein you could also discover his unhealthy love of zeppelins.
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Artwork: “Faith Hope Charity” by Burne Jones. Public Domain.