“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
So spoke the minister as he tossed a handful of damp soil onto the coffin in the gaping grave. Daniel had felt as if he was in a movie during the theatrical procedure of the burial.
"Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,” he muttered to himself and then whimsically, “Rain to rain, drizzle to drizzle” in the moment of ghastly silence at the end of the Anglican ritual on this rainy day in Cardiff, South Wales. Yet, this drama was real, all too real.
The ceremony was what John’s devout mother had wanted, and so had the godless John at the very end, perhaps in a pathetic attempt to redeem a wasted life.
Daniel’s old friend John had died of liver failure at the age of fifty-four after years of alcohol abuse. On the other side of the grave, in both senses, his eighty-something mother, flanked by her middle-aged daughter and son-in-law, stared down from under her umbrella at the casket that held the corpse of her prodigal son.
Behind her stood Mary, John’s ex-wife who had turned up to pay her respects to this ruin of a man.
Ah, Mary! Poor Mary!
“I thought we were soul mates and had pledged ourselves to each other forever. So much for your love, you bastard.”
Looking at Mary’s haggard face those words, written over thirty years ago - not to her deceased ex-husband but to him - echoed in Daniel’s mind as if they had been screamed. She had given no sign that she had seen him. Could this wraith be the woman who had been his high school lover so many years ago? She had not aged well.
Yet, back in 1980 she had been an attractive eighteen-year-old high school student. They had been dating for three years, extending puppy love to the prospect of engagement and marriage vows once university had finished.
However, the words “Till death us do part” had never been ministered to the couple because before the end of their first year at university the relationship had ended. Badly.
He had been the Heathcliff to her Cathy, but the break-up had been no accident and was all his doing. Looking at the faded beauty before him he recalled the golden days when they had studied Advanced Level English together. Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” curriculum set book was like a fortuitous Holy Bible for their relationship, not in its catastrophes, conveniently ignored, but in its affirmation of the elemental power of passion and romantic love.
“I am Heathcliff!”
Oh, those words! Catherine Earnshaw’s almost savage assertion was their shared favorite sentence in all literature, so simple yet so profound! They felt their hearts melting into one entity as they read lines from the novel to each other like repeated tracks from a record they couldn’t stop playing.
“In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day—I am surrounded with her image!”
These words were like a mantra to him and he would change the final “her” to “your” when addressing Mary in bursts of adolescent passion.
In fact, there had been a record they couldn’t stop playing which was the youthful Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”, a tribute to Brontë’s doomed lovers that was also, providentially it seemed, the “Number One” pop song when they had started senior high school. Mary even had her long hair styled and dyed the same reddish brown color as the singer. It seemed ridiculous now in hindsight that she could have appeared like a goddess to him then. So different from the gaunt, sexless figure he saw on this bleak morning, with her short prematurely grey hair.
He had spoiled it all. A brilliant student, he had won a scholarship to Oxford University where, for career reasons, he opted to study Law rather than English Literature. Mary, less gifted intellectually but more creative, decided to stay in Cardiff to study English Literature and Art History at the University of Wales, while living at her parents’ house. Perhaps, in retrospect, his going with his head and her going with her heart in their higher educational subject choices was a portent of what was to come.
“Remember, my love, though we will be apart for a time, we are always together. Our souls are one.”
were the words in his parting card to her before he went to Oxford.
Their love survived through the Christmas holiday when he returned to Cardiff but by the Easter break Daniel had met Julia, a Law student at St. Hilda’s women’s college, and a sexual relationship replaced the more spiritual union he had had with Mary. He stayed at Oxford during the vacation citing “studying for the summer exams” as his excuse.
He had broken the news of his new girlfriend to Mary by phone just before the summer and when she slammed down the receiver he had sighed with relief. They could both now move on.
But she could not. First, there had been that bitter letter with the “So much for your love, you bastard” peroration that had embedded itself into his head to this very day as firmly as any “Wuthering Heights” quote ever had. Then he heard about the nervous breakdown which caused her to take a year off her university course.
Later, he found out that she had begun to date his high school friend John, the recently departed, who at that time was a student at the University of Wales. From then, he lost contact with John as it would have been too awkward to continue the friendship, given what he had done to Mary.
After university Daniel and Julia got married, establishing lucrative careers as lawyers in London. They had two kids and their marriage had evolved into the present mere distant friendship. Daniel was having an affair with a young lawyer, and didn’t know – or care – whether Julia knew about it or not. Nor did he enquire or have any interest about any extra-marital activity on her part. But they were both contented in their prosperity, lifestyle and children.
Mary’s marriage had been disastrous. John was a practical man who did not share his wife’s love of the arts. After graduating they both got jobs working for the local council. She had begun to write poetry, fiction and also paint. Daniel had heard about various poems and short stories of hers being published in local magazines, and she had exhibited her paintings from time to time in Cardiff with moderate success. One he was told was called “The Death of Cathy” showing Brontë’s heroine dead in Heathcliff’s arms.
However, John had started to drink heavily and was having affairs. At thirty-five his alcoholism had forced him give up his job and they divorced soon after. He had gone back to live with his mother and Daniel had visited him a few times over a decade now that his marriage with Mary was over. The visits would always entail a trip to the local pub where after a few pints John would become incoherent and start ordering whiskies to go with his beers. Often, Daniel found that John would not even remember his previous visit so he had stopped visiting over the last few years.
Nevertheless, he decided to attend the funeral as he had come down to Cardiff to visit his own mother who had just had a fall. He wanted to determine whether he should put her in an old people’s home and sell the family house in Cardiff. She was also beginning to show signs of dementia and as a lawyer he knew he could take custody of her finances if this were so.
This was the first time he had seen Mary in thirty five years. And he was shocked.
“A living ruin looking down at the dead ruin in the grave,” Daniel thought, unable to resist the cruel analogy. But he felt some sympathy for the woman he had deserted long ago and decided to approach her. As the mourners trailed off to their cars he followed Mary to hers, an old Toyota which looked in need of some attention.
“Bright red! Her color!” he thought. Comparing the vehicle to the brand-new black BMW in the driveway of his house, he could not help making their cars symbols of their respective fates. He had walked down to the cemetery which was only ten minutes from his mother’s house close to the top of the hill in the estate which overlooked it.
But what to say?
“Mary. It’s me, Daniel.”
She turned to face him.
The one word left him speechless and brought back the memories of their love. Her voice had become gravelly and deeper but was still recognizably that of the eighteen year old he had once known. His experience of thousands of stressed clients over the years indicated that the voice quality was the result of heavy smoking as well as aging. He thought he could smell alcohol too, possibly whiskey or sherry.
For a moment he reflected on what he had lost by rejecting this woman. He had never experienced such passion or spirituality in the “love” with his wife or his young mistress. His life briefly seemed empty and unfulfilled.
But this was no Cathy-Heathcliff reunion after years of separation. Like Heathcliff he had become wealthy and successful, and he was physically robust too with his body honed in exclusive London gyms. He knew he still looked great in his pin-stripe lawyer’s suit and in the dark suit he wore today. But unlike the fictional character he had let go of the past.
Mary, however, had deteriorated physically, and with his lawyer’s acumen he could sense the chronic depression she was suffering from.
“How are you?” she said. The question was like a torpedo.
He had to say something. At a London party he would immediately respond with small talk about his job, house or children, both of whom were now themselves lawyers in the City. But he couldn’t mention the children. He thought that she would have liked children and that if they had stayed together they would have had grown-up children too.
Then, it clicked. He had something meaningful to say.
“Oh, I’m OK. I’m sure you’ve heard that Kate Bush is giving her first concert for over thirty years.”
“Yes. I already have my ticket,” Mary said.
There was ice in the words and John could feel the rebuke, the subtle reminder of what might have been, what they had once shared, and what she had lost.
“I must leave now. Goodbye,” she said and got into her car and drove off.
Daniel felt the same sense of relief as she shut the car door as he had long ago when she had slammed down the phone. It started to rain more heavily as he walked home but he felt lighter now that the funeral was over and he had once again escaped from Mary.
He walked up the hill towards his mother’s house, and his lawyer’s mind started to calculate the value of the house and the inheritance he would receive when his mother died. He was already planning a purchase of a country property with the proceeds. Life was good, he decided. Indeed, pondering the deceased John and the broken death-in-life existence of Mary he thought, “Life is for the living and the sound of mind.”
As Daniel began to cross the road over to the house and the driveway where his gleaming black BMW was parked, he heard the revving noise of an accelerating engine.
The last thing he saw was an old red Toyota coming down the hill and coming at him fast….very fast.
“Rest in peace. You bastard.”
Bio: I am originally from South Wales. I studied English Literature at Oxford University many years ago. I live in Taiwan with my family and am a high school teacher here. I have also been a freelance writer for over 10 years and write articles for Taiwanese educational textbooks. I have recently had a horror short story published by Short-Story.me.