The Season for Love
You never get over a broken heart. You just paper over the cracks and try to keep going.
Goodnight Richie. I miss you.
Pressing a kiss to the picture she kept on her bedside table, she placed her diary down and turned off the light. Staring into the darkness, Chrissie could do nothing but wait for the tears to start. It had been the same routine each and every night since that terrible day eighteen months ago and tonight would be no different. So, drawing the duvet tighter, she succumbed to reliving the day that her husband had been killed. Drawing her knees towards her chest, she let the guilt and tears flood out until exhausted, she collapsed into the usual haunted slumber.
The next day dawned way too early and through bloodshot brown eyes. Swinging her feet out of bed, Chrissie shuffled into the tatty pair of her husband's slippers, tugged on her old fluffy white dressing gown and reluctantly made her way to the bathroom. She shrugged her shoulders and slid the mirror on the bathroom cabinet sideways. Looking at her reflection was not something that she wanted to deal with that morning. Ten minutes later, she'd tied her shoulder length auburn hair back into a pony-tail and pulled on a pair of black jeans, matching pullover and a pair of yellow Doc Martens that clashed horribly with the rest of her outfit. Everyone at school had been nagging her to add a bit of color to the predominantly black she'd taken to wearing and she'd found that Richie's old boots fitted her perfectly; so long as she wore a thick pair of socks.
Working in the school's IT Department had been her first job after she'd left university and it was where she'd met Physical Education teacher Richard Stewart. It so happened that they'd been starting on the same day and consequently, they'd spent the whole day trawling through the usual endless orientation and paperwork and found they'd gotten on like the proverbial house on fire. When they'd been introduced and he'd said, ‘call me Mr. Fit Guy or MFG for short,' and she hadn't either laughed out loud or slapped his face, an unspoken understanding had flashed between them and, as they left the premises later that afternoon, they'd wandered off to the nearest pub and spent until closing time talking about everything and nothing and loving every minute.
Grabbing her bag, Chrissie locked the car and trudged up the steps of Parkway Grange Primary School, through the still empty atrium and down the corridor towards her shared office. If she was lucky, she'd be able to settle at her desk before her boss got in. She loved Annie Suso, but though they were best friends, she was getting a little tired of starting each day by being asked how she was doing? Annie wasn't saying the actual words these days, but Chrissie was finding it very annoying at how much you could put into a raised eyebrow!
As the door opened, she knew her luck was out, so she plastered on her most convincing smile and looked up into her friend's emerald green eyes. The daily routine followed its expected course. Annie didn't need to know that she'd rushed out of her cottage that morning because the stupid radio DJ had insisted upon playing "their song".
Picking up the To-Do list, she scanned down it for the most mind-numbing job, quickly locating a teacher who'd been using his DVD tray as a cup holder. Grabbing her diary from her bag, she told Annie where she was going and that she'd see her later. One of the benefits of working with her best friend was that she had the freedom to do pretty much what she wanted, it being just the pair of them in the whole department. The children were just starting to arrive so hurrying along the corridor she nipped into the staff toilets, opened a cubicle door, sat down on the seat and took out her diary.
‘Hi Richie. Well, things are still the same as yesterday, and the day before and the day before that. You know, I visualize you watching over me, it's the only comfort I have. Oh, I could sit here all day and talk to you, just like we used to in the common room. Do you remember how many times we were called in to see the Headmistress because I'd made you late for your classes? Felt very much like a kid, but I miss those times so much.
Right, sorry, got to go and see some idiot about a computer now. Love you babe. I miss you.'
Driving home that night, Chrissie wondered for the thousandth time why she didn't change jobs and move away. Truth was she didn't want to be too far from Richard's grave. He'd grown up in Parkway Grange, been educated in the same Primary school, then the neighboring village's Secondary and finally the College in the nearest town five miles away. He'd only been away to University to get his Physical Education Degree and then hot-footed it back when he'd lucked out with the offer of Physical Education teacher at the Village's Primary school. Then, he had died in the village.
Automatically, she took a left turn before her cottage and parked up outside the cemetery. It was a typical late November evening so sighing resignedly she put up her umbrella as she got out of the car and, shielding her face as best she could from the rain, pushed open the gate and strolled down the pathway to the shade of an ancient beech tree. Sitting down on the bench, she leant forward, ignoring the dripping of the rainwater down her neck and brushing some leaves off the small granite headstone, focused on the most important words in the world:
See you in my dreams Richie. Forever, Your beloved Chrissie
She'd been coming to visit her husband each day since the funeral, what the weather was, mattered not. Taking out an apple from her bag, she settled back onto the bench, took a big bite and looked around. Nothing much had changed since the service; a few more graves, a lot more flowers and the same man tidying up the plot on the opposite side of the path to Richard's. Chrissie frowned as she finished the apple. Though she saw him nearly every day, she never saw his face. Hats were an unusual piece of attire these days, but this particular man had a flat cap pulled down over his eyes and he always wore the same full length black raincoat no matter the weather, so she had no other clues to his identity. She shook her umbrella. Maybe he needed someone to talk to as well? The thought brought her up short. Since when did she need someone to talk to? Annie would agree with this revelation, perhaps she'd even be right.
Glancing down at her watch, she noticed it was nearly half six. There wasn't really any reason to hurry as she'd never known the cemetery to close its gates. Parkway Grange was one of those fortunate places crime seemed to have bypassed. When she looked up, the man tending the grave had gone. How did he do that? Since she'd first noticed him, she'd never seen him arrive or leave.
Shrugging her shoulders, Chrissie broke the apple core up into tiny pieces and arranged them at intervals around the base of the tree she was sitting beneath, touched her hand to the grave again, "See you tomorrow love," and stepped back onto the path to wait. She didn't have long, as no sooner had her feet touched the gravel, then down from the branches of the tree scurried a bright red squirrel. Reaching the ground, it sat up on its haunches and cocked its head to one side, clearly deciding if the food it could see and smell was about to disappear. Chrissie saw the little chap (chapess?) go through the same routine every day. It was one of the few things that brought a small smile to her face. As soon as the squirrel picked up the first piece and darted back up the tree, she took one more lingering look at her husband's grave and made her way back to her car. If she didn't hurry, she'd be late for dinner at her in-laws.
Pulling into their drive, Chrissie turned off the engine of Richard's Fiat 500 and sat a few minutes, gathering her courage. The monthly dinners with Laurel and Vincent Stewart had become a cherished tradition. She needed to keep these good people in her life, just as much as they needed her. Yes there were painful memories around every corner, but she put up with them as much for the Stewart's sake as her own. She'd got on extremely well since they'd first met and had slipped into the role of daughter, bypassing daughter-in-law, within a few days of meeting them. She'd felt like she had her parents back and remembered their pleasure when she'd told them so. It was nice to call someone ‘mum' and ‘dad' again.
Barely had her knock finished echoing than the front door was opened and she was pulled into the usual back-wrenching hug by Richard's mother, Laurel. Endeavoring to breathe through the mass of bushy graying hair, Chrissie mumbled a hello through clenched teeth, trying to avoid the taste of hairspray.
"And hello to you too, my little girl," Laurel said grabbing her by the hand and towing her towards the kitchen, "I managed to talk Vinnie out of putting up any ‘Happy Twenty-Ninth Birthday' banners. I didn't think you'd be in the mood."
Chrissie smiled her appreciation as the smell of some kind of pasta dish being burnt wafted through the open door telling her that Vincent was cooking again. Resolving herself to creatively pushing her meal around the plate and avoiding eating too much, she meekly followed and allowed herself to be kissed on the cheek by an aproned Vincent before he turned back to where he was trying to rescue some Tagliatelle that had been welded to the bottom of the saucepan.
Laurel pulled out a chair at the oak table and Chrissie sat down opposite her, as far upwind from the burnt offerings as she could. Surveying the table, there was garlic bread and what looked like meat-balls in some kind of tomato sauce mix, both of which were rapidly cooling down as Vincent battled to get the pasta to the table so everything stood a chance of being eaten at roughly the same temperature. At least some things never changed. Vincent wasn't a bad cook, just not terribly good, but he was a trier and his wife was happy to let him try as much as he wanted to, particularly since their only son had died. It brought a smile to his face.
She must have been staring into space, as she became aware of Laurel waving her hand in front of her eyes and asking, "Are you still with us Chrissie?"
"Yes. Sorry. Was miles away," she apologized, even though she knew that it wasn't necessary. "Shall I be mother?" she indicated the bottle of red wine breathing in front of her. He may not have been the best cook the world would ever know, but Vincent knew his wine with the best of them.
"Please," agreed Laurel, waving a couple of empty glasses under Chrissie's nose. "But truth be told, this'll be the second bottle. You know how Vinny enjoys his wine when he's slaving away over a hot stove."
Chrissie filled both glasses to the brim. "I won't tell if you don't." She took a sip it was every bit as good as she expected, then recalled that tomorrow was Saturday and she didn't have to be in work. "Mind if I sleep over tonight Laurel?"
"You know you don't need to ask honey," came the immediate reply.
"I know," she shrugged.
Laurel's eyes took on the haunted look Chrissie was sure Vincent never missed, as he reached behind him to squeeze his wife's shoulder supportively. She knew that he missed his son. Of course he did. He was just better at hiding it than his wife. But Laurel still had moments where Chrissie could quite clearly see the tears bubbling just under the surface. As Chrissie's were on virtually permanent flood alert, she thought that the two of them bursting into tears when she'd only been in the house for a few minutes would not be the best way to start the evening. That decided, she knocked back her glass in one long, noisy gulp.
"In that case, perhaps we'd better see how much of a dent we can make on Vincent's wine cellar."
Hearing his name, Vincent turned around to face the two women and waved a big wooden spoon in their direction. "Come now, Chrissie. How many times do we have to tell you? You can still call us mum and dad. You should know by now how happy that makes us."
This was the one reason Chrissie felt awkward about these dinners. She had been comfortable with calling these kind people mum and dad, but since they'd all lost Richard, it had been hard for her to stay in that habit. It wasn't something she could easily explain to them. Apart from her younger sister Deborah (safely ensconced in university as far as she knew), they were the only family she had, but it was still difficult. She was trying, but every time she said either word, the only face she saw was Richard's. His bright blue smiling eyes, thinning off-brown hair which he hated but that Chrissie couldn't give a fig about and the way his smile seemed to brighten up her mood whenever she needed, it would swim into her vision and she always had to take a deep breath to steady her nerves.
"Perhaps a few more times," deep breath, "Mum."
It was just as hard to say as she knew it would be, but it was worth the effort it cost her to see the pain wash out of Laurel's eyes, at least for a moment.
Vincent nodded approvingly and turned back to scraping the last of the pasta out of the pan and placing the serving plate in the space he'd left in the middle of the table. "There," he stood up straight beaming, "everything's right that ends right. Tuck in."
Chrissie and Laurel exchanged nervous glances whilst Vincent made himself comfortable. Clinking glasses in the usual toast to Richard, both women offered up a silent prayer to whichever deity looked after stomachs and started to gingerly, as they'd been invited, tuck in.
Around midnight, Chrissie had finally managed to convince her hosts that she had to go to bed. Suffice to say, it hadn't been that evening that Vincent's latent cooking skills had kicked in. Lying awake in Richard's old bed, she leant up on an elbow, took another long sip of cold water and laid back down with one arm over her eyes and another over her stomach, and let out a long, low groan; too much wine. Sighing, Chrissie took up her bag, fished out what she was looking for, turned off the main light and switched on the bedside one.
Hi Richie. I've just had dinner with your mum and dad and as usual, you know me so well, I've stayed over. I'm in our bed, in a pair of your pajamas, which your parents think are mine. Darling, I love your parents as much as I used to love mine and I wish I could tell them how much they mean to me, but I can't. How am I supposed to tell them how much I love them, when I killed their only son?