The Shadows

And did not say.

I remember being scared, yes, but the honest truth is that I was also excited. The last couple of years had been very difficult for me. It’s important not to overplay that, of course, and on the few occasions I’ve thought about Gritten over the years—in those brief moments when I forgot to forget—it’s always been in these very specific terms: what happened, never what happened to me. Because I knew then, and know better now, that other people suffered far worse than I did, and the tragedy belongs more appropriately to them. And most of all, of course, to Jenny Chambers.

Nevertheless, like so many of us, I was part of that story, and I was haunted by the role I played, however unwittingly, in what happened. The knowledge of the things I had and had not done had overshadowed my life ever since. Waiting on the platform that day, I had no idea what lay in store for me in the future, only that I was leaving far more behind me than Gritten itself.

“It will be Christmas before you know it,” my mother said.

“I know.”

I had spent the last couple of years saving up. I worked at the bookshop, and took whatever odd jobs in the area I could fit in between my studies. My focus, barely acknowledged even to myself, had been laser-like. And while it would indeed be Christmas before I knew it, I also knew that I had no intention of coming home when it was.

Which I did not say.

I looked up to see the train arriving: two rickety train cars rolling slowly toward us, blue at the top, stained with black muck at the bottom, as though they had trudged here through muddy fields. Farther up the platform, people were already shouldering their bags. I moved forward, feeling as though I needed to get on immediately or else I might miss my chance and the train would leave without me. But then my mother put her hand on my arm. When I looked at her, I could tell from the expression on her face she already knew what I hadn’t said out loud. That she wasn’t going to see me again for a long time. And that she had reconciled herself to that.

“I love you, Paul,” she said quietly. “Look after yourself.”

“I will.”

“And for God’s sake, give your mom a hug.”

I shrugged my bag off and did. I don’t know how many years it had been since I had embraced my mother by that point, but I remember being surprised by how small and fragile she felt. When we separated again, she put both her hands on the sides of my arms and appraised me.

“You’ve got so tall.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything. Behind me, the train chuffed, and my mother patted my arms and then let go.

“Just promise me you’ll take care,” she said.

“I’ll be fine, Mom.”

She smiled.

“I know you will.”

Once on the train, I found my seat, and she waited on the platform to wave goodbye. I didn’t understand at the time what was going through her head, and obviously I still don’t know for certain, but at least now I have an idea.

She was thinking that I was going to be a writer.

Because there was a story of mine that I had never shown to her, but which she had found and read anyway. And while she was sad to see me leave, I think she was also happy that I was heading out into the world, escaping the past and moving forward into a different present without even glancing behind me. Because, however painful it might be, that’s what all good parents have to do in the end. I think it was just that what happened had raised a curtain of silence between us that made it impossible to say certain things out loud.

I like to think they didn’t need to be.

I’m proud of you, she didn’t say. And I understand.

Thank you, I didn’t reply. And I love you.

* * *

I paused and looked up from my notes.

With Sally’s help, I had managed to speak to many of my mother’s friends in the days since her death, and I had discovered that the casual religious belief she’d nurtured throughout her life had flourished in later years. So the decision had been made for me: it had to be a church funeral. The space before me now seemed cavernous, and yet every aisle was full. Rows and rows of people were crammed in shoulder to shoulder, as though everyone within miles of Gritten had been summoned here by some sense of duty to gather together and say goodbye.

When I had been sitting there earlier, waiting for the service to begin, every shuffle and cough behind me had echoed. The words I’d just spoken did the same now.

Thank you. And I love you.

I glanced around. It was dark in the church, the crowd before me illuminated by the sunlight streaming weakly in through the stained-glass windows above. But I caught sight of a few familiar faces among the strangers. Sally was sitting near the front, along with some of the friends I’d subsequently met. Carl was here. He was seated at the end of an aisle toward the front, and despite everything that had happened he was formally dressed, the pain he was feeling held back for the moment, his focus on the struggle that lay before him right now. Saying farewell to someone I knew he had loved.

Amanda was here, close to the back of the church.

My gaze moved from her and again to Carl as I thought about what she’d told me an hour earlier. Charlie had been found, and so that part of the story was over. Whether there would be questions still to answer on that score, I didn’t know yet. I would deal with them if it came to it. But after the fire I’d finally lit two days ago, I knew there was nothing now to connect my mother to what had happened. And in the meantime I thought I saw on Carl’s face the same conviction that I felt in my heart right now. There was no need to talk about such things unless we had to. Everyone had lost enough already.

And finally, I saw Marie.

She had found a seat at the end of one of the middle rows of the church, and she smiled when she saw me notice her. I had gone into the bookshop yesterday, taking an old book with me. The Nightmare People. It had taken its place on the shelves opposite the counter, but without a price written in pencil on the inside. I’d suggested to Marie that if someone found it and wanted it, they should just take it, and she had agreed with me.

Then I’d helped her with a delivery just like old times, and she had said something else, a little pointedly.

You know … I won’t be up to doing this much longer, Paul.

I was still thinking about that. When I’d spoken to Amanda earlier I’d said I was a lecturer for now, because even though I’d never have imagined it a week ago, a part of me was already picturing a different sign above that shop. JOHNSON & ROSS still, of course—it was important to remember where you came from—but it didn’t seem impossible that a new sign might add a different name as well. After all, it had always felt like home.

It was something to think about.

But for now, I looked back down.

“The story I wrote,” I said. “The one my mother read. It was a stupid one. It was about someone returning to his home for one last time. It stopped before he actually got there, because I didn’t know how to end it. I still don’t. All I know is what happened when I did.”

And then I spoke a little of what I’d learned about my mother since returning to Gritten. There wasn’t much, but there was at least a little. The friends I hadn’t known about until now. The love of reading she’d discovered later in life. The people she had cared about, and who had in turn cared about her.

When I was done, I looked at the coffin beside me, remembering all the photographs I’d seen. The ones where she was young, unguarded, and laughing with joy, the life ahead of her full of possibility. And even though I wasn’t a religious man, I found myself wondering if she might be dreaming anything now.

“Sleep well,” I said.