I never understood why bereaved people visited their loved one's grave frequently. Never, that is, until Christine was knocked down by a hit-and-run. They got the driver, of course; he was drunk, of course, and will spend some time 'at Her Majesty's pleasure' ... of course, but that didn't bring back the woman who was truly my 'other half'. In fact, I had frequently and sincerely referred to her as my 'better half'.
Christine was a gardener; not the formal, manicured lawn, exotic flower, sort of gardener. She liked native plants and plants that encouraged wildlife. If our garden seemed a bit unkempt ... well, by some standards it was. But it was a haven for wild birds ... titmice of three sorts, finches of at least three sorts, sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, thrushes – three sorts of thrush, too – robins, nuthatch and the occasional woodpecker. From time to time there would be panic stations among the smaller birds, who would take refuge in the shrubbery and a flash of blue would be a Sparrowhawk trying for a meal. Then there were the butterflies visiting the Buddleia and other fragrant plants. There were other less welcome but equally necessary visitors to our little ecosystem, like wasps. So, when it came to laying her to rest, I asked that the grave not be turfed over, and I planted meadow plants and seeded it; annuals, bi-annuals and perennials. Each week I'd visit and sit for a while on a little folding stool and hold a conversation – imaginary, but somehow real – with my dead love. I would keep an eye on the little meadow and pull out the occasional dandelion, thistle or willowherb, then, twice a year, mow it down and rake off the 'hay'. I had to explain to the cemetery gardener why I didn't want it trimmed every week; the flowers had to mature and seed, or do whatever they were supposed to do in order to return the following year, but he understood and was happy to leave that one grave to me to tend.
Time passed, erratically, for me on my own. Our children were married and living elsewhere – one in Cornwall, another in Cumbria. Convenient for holidays, to be sure, but even with frequent phone calls, another reason to be lonely. At least Chris got to see them marry and held our first grandchildren in her arms before her life was cut short and mine was devastated. It would be five years after her death; the little meadow was becoming established (though it would be many years before it was really as it should be). October, and I was cutting down the straggly remains of the flowers preparatory for the winter. I was later than usual and dusk was falling as I stood and turned to see a young woman watching me.
I was surprised. I hadn't heard her steps on the gravel of the path and I thought I knew all the regular visitors.
"Hello," she said, smiling. "You're usually earlier than this."
"Yes," I answered. "I don't think I've seen you before."
"No, you've always been focussed on your wife's grave."
"I suppose that's right. Er ... you visit someone, yourself?"
She just nodded, serious. "I like what you've done there," she said, "it's different. Natural. Pretty. Not like that one..." she nodded at a grave next but one to Christine's. It was neat enough, but ... nothing there except grass. "What's your name?"
"Geoff," I said. "Geoff Trenton. Yours?"
"Mary," she smiled, "Mary Stewart."
"Pleased to meet you, Mary," I hesitated, but added, "I don't suppose you'd like a cup of tea, or something."
She looked sad. "I'd love to," she said, "but not now. It's not time."
"What do you mean?"
But she just shook her head. I turned away to pick up my things. When I turned back, she was gone. I was puzzled, but shrugged, turned and left.
I made a point of being a little later each week after that, but didn't see her. I did buy and plant some bulbs on that sad-looking grave, though; crocuses, snowdrops, hardy cyclamen, daffodils. They'd make a show next year. Perhaps I'd plant some violets in the spring.
When spring came, and the days grew longer, I was pleased to see the bulbs doing what they were supposed to, and I planted some violets, too, as I'd thought ... I started thinking of other flowers that wouldn't need too much attention. It might seem strange, but it was July before I actually looked at the headstone to read the inscription. When I did, a shiver ran down my spine.
"Mary Brianna Stewart. Born October 12th 1911, died October 12th 1938.
Gone, but not forgotten, lost, but loved forever."
I'm not a sceptic who only believes in what I can see or touch, but I've always been dubious about those who claim to communicate with the dead. I told myself the name was a coincidence, though I was not entirely convinced. Just out of interest, I checked my diary for the previous year to see that, yes, that Saturday was, indeed, the 12th. Coincidence. Huh.
I went on, tending both graves, as the summer wore on, wondering at my odd – incomprehensible – feelings.
Came October, I broke with my usual routine, left work early and went to the cemetery on Thursday the 12th October. I was working on the grave as dusk was falling.