Monday, July 25
On the morning of my third funeral in as many weeks, a crowd gathers outside our small stone church, filling the forecourt and spilling out through the lych-gate and into the street. The mood is quiet and respectful, but underneath is an air of worry. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Dr. Spencer—there was nothing to dislike about him—and ordinarily, almost everyone in Eyam would turn out to pay their respects. But this flu thing has people in a flap, and almost half have stayed away.
Dad has no such qualms. He immediately steps through the gate and circulates among our neighbors, shaking hands and offering supportive words. I hold back, staying out of his way. Since I handed him my notice last week, he’s been more distant than ever. “Why in God’s name would you want to move there?” was his first response, before he remembered he was supposed to put his foot down and forbid me. Mum didn’t seem surprised by my news or Dad’s response when I rang to tell her. “He’ll live,” she said, confirming my fear that he had hung all his hopes on my staying, not just to keep me close to home, but to set me on a track that follows in his footsteps. His plans couldn’t have been any further from mine if he’d decided to send me on a homemade rocket ship to Mars.
I have not mentioned Ro’s part to either of them. Why rock an already unstable boat?
Finally, I spot Deb trailing alongside her family. As usual, she’s dressed head to toe in black. For once, she blends in with everyone else. Except for one small detail. “Hiya, Salty,” she says, her voice muffled inside the blue surgical mask covering her face.
“What’s the disguise in aid of?” I ask.
Deb indicates with a twitch of her head that we should move out of earshot to talk. For a horrible moment I think she’s going to tell me she’s got the flu, and I hurry after her to hear her news.
“Helena’s freaking out,” Deb says, referring to her stepmother by first name, as she always does.
“About what? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Deb sighs, as if the explanation is too wearisome. “We went to this exhibition of medieval medicine in Manchester yesterday. Really fascinating. But now she’s all wigged out about epidemics.”
Deb reaches into her pocket and hands me a small plastic bottle. I glance down at the label. Hand sanitizer. If we weren’t at a funeral, I’d laugh from relief.
“I certainly appreciate modern medicine and the importance of basic sanitation,” she says, squeezing a blob of clear gel into my hands, “but Helena has gone seriously off the deep end. She’s talking about sending Tom and me to our grandparents.”
“What?” I say. “She can’t do that.”
“I know. I’d rather die from the flu than boredom. And Mum’s off in Russia again, building pipelines to China, so we can’t stay with her. But don’t worry, I’ll work my magic and talk Helena out of it. That said, I wouldn’t shake too many hands if I were you. Don’t want you spending your last days here in bed.”
“I wish,” I say, my mind flitting to Ro. Since I gave Dad my notice, I swear he’s tried to wring every last minute of work out of me before I leave. I’ve barely had chance to be with Ro.
Deb is about to say more when a line of black cars pulls up in front of the church. We sober instantly, pressing against the chilly stone wall and bowing our heads as Louise is helped out of the car by her family. I wait for a team of pallbearers to lift Dr. Spencer’s coffin from the hearse, but instead a lone man in a frock coat and top hat carries a small wooden chest through the lych-gate, up the stone path, and into the church.
“Bloody Nora. Is that him?” I whisper to Deb.
She nods. “They cremated him. Coroner’s orders.”
“Why?” I hiss as the congregation funnels into the church in silence.
“The post-mortem was inconclusive,” she says.
“So they don’t even know if it was the flu?”
“Right,” she says.
“So why the mask?”
“Well,” Deb lowers her voice to a whisper, “something killed him, and until we know what, Helena thinks it’s wise to be cautious.”
At the door of the church, I hesitate, glancing around at all the bodies in this enclosed space. Deb and her family aren’t the only ones being cautious. In the back rows and around the edges of the congregation, small pods of masked people huddle away from the others, leaving gaps like missing teeth in the normally orderly rows of pews. Beneath the subdued murmur of voices, the tension is palpable, causing the hairs on the backs of my hands to prickle. Perhaps Helena isn’t overreacting at all. I fumble for a tissue in my pocket and press it over my mouth and nose, pretending to stifle my grief.
Taking a quick glance around the congregation, I’m surprised to see Ro sitting with his parents and older brothers, six black-haired Torres in a pew by themselves. That they came all the way into Eyam from their farm says a lot about the impact of Dr. Spencer’s death. I’m not surprised to see that none of them wears a mask. Like me, Ro comes from a long line of locals, and people around here are made of tough stuff. Among the masked people, I recognize Mrs. Glover, the world’s biggest hypochondriac, and Millie Talbot’s family, who never mingle because they think they’re better than the rest of us. And Deb will be the first to admit that Helena tends to err on the overprotective side with her stepchildren. None of these people are good judges of danger, and if our bug were anything more serious than the flu, we’d have heard about it by now. I wish I could sit by Ro, feel the comfort of his arm around me and his body pressed close. Soon, I think. I shoot him a quick, seductive look from behind my tissue, checking to make sure no one else has seen, and hurry to the front of the church where Dad has secured a pew for us, right behind Louise. He clearly isn’t worried about a bout of summer flu.
The Reverend Mompesson gives what the old folks will later refer to as “a nice service.” He talks about Dr. Spencer’s place in the community, his service to its residents, and how he always had a kind word and a smile for everyone. He reminds us all, as if we could forget, that life is short. He acknowledges Louise and their families and asks them to find strength now that the doctor has been “called back to God’s side.” It’s an odd phrase, and I drift away for a moment, visualizing God looking down on his flock and realizing he hasn’t had a good chat with Dr. Spencer for a while. I think I’ll call him back, thinks God, and the next minute the doctor is struck down with the flu and transported up to God’s couch, all because the Almighty was lonely? I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but I hate the randomness of death. I hate that a person who wasn’t even that old could suddenly be gone. I try to imagine not being here anymore. I can’t picture what it would feel like to be dead. That’s stupid, it wouldn’t feel like anything, of course, but when I try to imagine me, Emmott, suddenly no longer existing, I just can’t get my head around it.
From nowhere, a knot of emotion forms in my chest, making it hard to breathe. I don’t know what this is. I’ve been sad about Dr. Spencer’s death, of course, but this fresh grief is unexpected. It’s like the sadness over losing Dr. Spencer has magnetized every bit of sadness and fear I’ve ever felt, drawing them close until they’ve collected inside me as an enormous clump of loss. I had no idea I’d be so affected.
Dad glares at me sideways, and I blink away my tears before he can see them. I wait for him to put his arm around me, like Mum would, or give my shoulder a squeeze, or pass me his hanky. I can almost feel him deciding which to do, and I will him to do something. But when I look up at him again, his eyes are focused squarely on the altar. I suck back my tears, pulling my sadness back inside, where I know it will be safe.
The vicar keeps the service short and everyone seems grateful, but as he wraps up his eulogy to Dr. Spencer, he asks that we keep those not present in our thoughts. I think he’s talking about our own dearly departed, but then he mentions Andy Hawksworth, with whom Dad sometimes plays darts, and who was most definitely alive and well a week ago. Only now he isn’t well enough to pay his respects today. And the Wainwrights, who’ve stayed at home with their two sick boys. Then he breaks the news that Karen Cooper passed away this morning after a short illness. A ripple of shock makes its way around the congregation. I pivot to find Deb and gauge her reaction, but she’s not there anymore.
As we file out of the church, Dad’s face is grim.
“Dad,” I whisper. “This isn’t good.”
He looks at me as if I’ve just said the most moronic thing ever. “No,” he says. “In fact I’d say that, for the Coopers, it’s absolutely tragic.”
“Deb’s parents are really worried,” I say, telling him about their plans to send Deb away. “Do you think we should leave?”
“Leave?” Dad stops so abruptly that we almost cause a pile-up with the people behind us. “And go where, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Auntie Margie’s with Mum and Alice?”
Dad shakes his head and I think he’s going to say something sarcastic about me leaving soon anyway, but instead he fixes me with a look that makes me feel about an inch tall. “If ever there was a time for us all to stick together, it’s now. Yes, we need to try our best not to catch this flu, but you can’t just run away whenever things get difficult, Emmott. Especially when people need you.”
And with that, he strides away, leaving me at the exact moment I need him most.
Slowly, the mourners disperse, heading to Louise’s for strong tea and slices of pork pie. Deb and her family have already gone home, hopefully not to pack their suitcases. Standing in the church forecourt, I have no idea what to do next. I don’t want to go to Louise’s and be around all this sadness and worry anymore, especially now I know this flu is going around fast, and I definitely don’t want to be around my dad and his pathetic lectures. But I don’t want to be alone either.
I step off the path into the freshly mown grass and scuff my way toward the part of the churchyard where the newer granite and marble headstones sit. My great-grandparents are buried here, along with Dad’s dad, who died before I was born, and Grandma Syddall, who we lost a couple of years ago. Next to my grandparents is a small, white stone—a memorial, not a grave. The grass is trimmed neatly all around it and the stone washed clean so the inscription can be clearly read.
“Sandra Ellen Syddall” is part of the reason Dad is so opposed to my leaving. Years ago, before I was born, even before my parents met, Dad’s younger sister—my wild Auntie Sandra—went off backpacking around Europe and never came back. He doesn’t talk about it much, doesn’t talk about it at all, actually, but Mum told me once, after I pressed her for the story, that a fellow backpacker, part of a group Auntie Sandra had met up with, had been charged with her disappearance. Nothing was ever proven, he was later released, and the mystery was forgotten. But not by Dad. The short leash on which he tries to keep me is thanks to a woman I never even met. It’s another reminder that death isn’t selective, that neither youth, innocence, nor good behavior will buy you a free pass. The thought gives me little comfort.
Just then, I spot Ro breaking away from the crowd and making his way to the bottom end of the churchyard. He waves, inviting me to follow. His long, lean figure ambles over the crest of the hill and drops out of sight. I know what I’m supposed to do; I should go to Louise’s, offer my condolences, share my sadness with my friends and neighbors. But the tug of my other life pulls at me again. “Life is short” is no longer just an expression for Dr. Spencer, and I’m painfully aware that I can no longer fritter my short life away on other people’s expectations. I need to go where I am wanted, and I need to get the hell out of this village before I become generation number eleven of the Dead Syddalls.
Turning away from the village, no longer caring who sees me go, I brush through the damp grass and pick my way through the headstones to where Ro, and my future, are waiting.