First few pages of a novel I've written
Recently joined Wruters Beat and this is my first posting. It's the first few pages from a novel I've recently finished and am now editing. I've had some feed back from friends who love reading and a published author - I'd be interested to hear any comments you guys have.
Prologue - Lizzie
“Everyone is put on this earth to carry out a special mission. They never know what that is to be, or how well they are doing, but rest assured that you, like everyone else, is here for a purpose and once you’ve completed it you’ll pass away and leave this earth, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be given another mission to do.”
That’s what my Auntie Piapi had told me one day while we were drinking cold lemonade outside on her lawn in Doundle. I remember the day well. It was September, late afternoon, and the Sun was making its descent. There was a yellow orange quality to the sky and I could still feel the humid air of the day settling on my skin and making it tingle.
I remember that she had looked at me with such intensity and vigour and told me not to worry about the passing away of my Uncle. She said his mission was done, complete, and done well, and now it was time for him to move on and start another mission, if he was lucky and it was destined.
I asked whether I would see him again when he came back to start his new mission, and whether he would remember me and Auntie, and come and visit.
“No dear,” started her reply. “No-one remembers what their last mission was when they come back. They start all over again from scratch. That way the journey’s more exciting. But Uncle will still remember us in his heart and no matter what he’s doing a part of him will always be up there in the sky watching down on us and protecting us.”
Her words were so comforting and made so much sense. I believed every one of them. It wasn’t until a couple of year’s later that I would understand the full meaning of what she had said and realise that every word, had in fact, been true.
It was a miserable day. The sky was grey and the gathering clouds were threatening heavy rain.
“Are you alright there princess?” Dad asked.
I squeezed his hand tighter and I muttered a reply, indicating that I was fine. I knew at my tender age of 13 I had to be strong for Mum and Dad - my real Dad that is, not my step Dad. My step Dad, Martin, never really knew Auntie all that well, not like my real Dad, Joe.
I had to take care of them. Mum was saying goodbye to her sister today, a sister that she loved and who loved her, and I had to be strong for Dad because he loved Auntie Piapi and he had no-one to comfort him at home being all alone in a flat he was renting in the next village, Molton.
Dad looked down at me and smiled. His brave smile. One I had seen so many times when he lived with us before the break-up, and one I’d seen many times since in the evenings and at weekends when I would see him. He was still very much part of my life. He stilled played the full-father role, and even though he was a lot more fun since he’d moved out, he could still be stern with me. A perfect father, a real father in every sense, here for the good times and for the bad – like today.
“Dad, will Mum be ok?” I asked, looking to my left where Mum was staring at the funeral men removing the coffin from the black hearse.
“She’ll be fine sweetheart. It’s just a difficult day for her.” He went all-quiet for a second, then he said “it’s a difficult day for us all.”
I remember when I was 10 and we all went away on a camping holiday to Brighton. Me, Mum, Dad, and Auntie Piapi.
It wasn’t long after my Uncle Harold had died, not that you’d know with my Auntie Piapi in high spirits and spending time playing with me and telling me all about the times she had visited this seaside town in the past. She told me so many stories over the week we were on that campsite, and even when Mum and Dad were relaxing by the sea, Auntie Piapi would take me for walks in the narrow hilly streets and tell me about her and Uncle Harold and where they’d been and what they’d gotten up to when they used to visit Brighton in their younger days.
I remember one evening at the campsite clearly. I was in my own tent; it was a two-man tent, when I heard my parents talking. They were saying how they’d have to take me to the sea life centre tomorrow to give my Auntie Piapi some time alone to grieve. I didn’t understand what they were talking about at the time, I was too young to understand big words, especially when I’d never grieved for anyone before. They said that my Auntie needed some time alone to be with her thoughts and remember Uncle Harold, and I was being a pest and getting in the way of her having some time alone.
The next day over breakfast my parents were making all these plans to take me out and let my Auntie have some time alone. In the middle of all this talk my Auntie piped up and said ‘there’s no need for that. It’s you Joe, and you Rose, who need the rest and relaxation what with working all week and bringing up a child. I’m thrilled to have the chance to play with Lizzie.’ I remember looking at my parents as they looked at each other and shrugged an ‘ok’.
Later that day Auntie Piapi and I were queuing at the sea life centre. I looked up at my Auntie, all 5’8” of her, slim and bold, confidently standing there with the slight breeze from the sea blowing her short curly black hair and the Sun kissing her tanned features. She was smiling away even though we hadn’t said anything to smile about. I remember her teeth, the first time I think I noticed how they stuck out a little. If she were a little girl now she’d be the first in the queue for braces.
“Are you alright Auntie?” I said, craning my neck to see her face.
“I’m fine petal, just perfect.”
“Mum and Dad were talking last night about you having some time by yourself to grieve for Uncle Harold and how I was being a pest.”
She stooped down so her face was at the same level as mine and that big smile came out again. “I don’t need time to grieve my petal. I only have time to thank God for the time I shared with your Uncle Harold, the special times we had together and the memories I’ll always have. It’s my duty to now to give others time and help create memories that they will be able to remember with a smile on their face in year’s to come.”
I squeezed Dad’s hand a little tighter, letting him know that I was here for him in my own little way to help make this difficult time a little easier for him. I reached out for Mum’s hand as well and as our fingers touched she turned from watching the coffin being carried towards the hole in the ground and she looked at me.
Her eyes were wet and puffy, but she still managed to muster the strength to give me a smile, and not any smile but a proper one, a smile with the eyes as well as the mouth.
I forget who told me, but they said that you can always tell when people are really smiling as the eyes smile with the mouth and light up. That’s what my Mum’s eyes looked like, big brown smiles sparkling at me and lighting up this grey drizzly day.
Auntie had told me when I last saw her in bed at the nursing home in the hills that I would have to be strong for Mum and look after her like she had looked after me for so many years. So that was what I was going to do. I was going to be the strong one and be the rock my Mum needed. So, I flashed back a smile right at her, making sure my eyes were smiling, which wasn’t hard as I was thinking about Auntie Piapi, and no memory of her would ever make me do anything but smile.
Even so, I was sad, very sad. I would miss Auntie Piapi. I would miss her a lot. She had always been the special person in my life. Even for such a young girl, I had so many happy memories. She was right when she said that she wanted to leave people with happy memories to look on back on. I was doing that right now.
We started to walk behind the coffin that was being carried past graves of people who had died before, some old, some recent. Here I was in the middle of my Mum and Dad, our family reunited as one in memory of the most fantastic woman ever. Rudi, my stepbrother, was around somewhere as well. He was going through what I’d heard my Mom and step-dad Martin call ‘that awkward stage’. I’m guessing it had something to do with him being a teenager. He’s 16 and kind of keeps his distance from me, always talking about his ‘independence’. He’d be a couple of people back in line following the coffin no doubt. He may be independent, but he also loved Auntie Piapi as well, even though he hadn’t known her all that long.
We came to a stop, all gathered around the open hole in the ground. I watched as my Auntie Piapi’s coffin was lowered into it. On it’s way down the vicar started to sing a song and I heard the rustling of paper all around as I noticed people opening up the song sheet that was handed out as we all left the church and made our way here.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my copy and opened it up. There on the inside page was a picture of my Auntie with her curly black hair and her big smile with those front teeth sticking out. I could almost feel her sweet breath on me as I concentrated on the picture. The more I looked at it the more she seemed to come alive in front of me. I swear that I saw her wink at me.
I started to join in the singing, singing the loudest I ever had. Jerusalem was the song. My Mum had told me it was one of my Auntie’s favourites. Funny, I never knew she was religious. I don’t ever remember her going to church or talking about God all that much, but I guess all people have their little secrets.
The sound was amazing. There were about a hundred people crowded around the hole in the ground. I counted them while standing there singing. I looked around while proudly singing at the mass of people who were here to say goodbye to Auntie Piapi.
I recognised some of them. Some were family, some friends who I’d met, some who I hadn’t but heard my Auntie talking about. They all looked sad. Some, mostly the women, were holding a hanky in their hands and dabbing at their eyes. Some were crying a lot, tears rolling down their flushed cheeks and dropping onto the ground. I watched as the tears left their eyes, collected in a neat ball of wetness in the corner of their eye and then start to make their way down towards the top of the cheek bone, then pause slightly and then start the slow decent over the plumpness in the cheek to hang, just above where the mouth is, before dropping. I watched as those tears travelled down and my eyes followed them as they started to fall towards the earth.
I watched as the tears hit the ground and disappear into the grass and then the soil. It seemed strange, all this grief letting itself out through the eyes and then becoming one with the earth where my Auntie would soon be.
I hadn’t even realised but tears were coming out my eyes as well and taking the same path as I had watched them take on other people’s faces. I focused on my tears and the path they were making, thinking about what they would do when they reached the ground. Would they cushion my Auntie in a blanket and keep her warm. Would all the tears from everyone here surround her as a lasting expression of the love that the people here, and probably many more, some of whom had left the earth before my Auntie, felt for her? I hoped so.
I was still singing when I suddenly realised that the song had finished. An amazing silence descended on the crowed. So many people but no noise. I’d never experienced anything like it before.
I watched as the funeral people started to lower the coffin into the ground. I’d once watched a TV programme about people who worked in funeral parlours. Parlours; I’d always thought that was a strange name for them. The programme was called Six Feet Under. I shouldn’t have been watching it as it was on so late, but I couldn’t sleep so sneaked downstairs to get a glass of water and ended up turning the TV on.
Were coffins really lowered six feet into the ground? I was about to ask my Mum, but as I turned round and looked up at her I saw her crying. I saw tears rolling down her face, so I decided my question could wait till later.
It’s a good job they bury people laying down if it’s only six feet deep. Otherwise, really tall people would have their head sticking out of the ground and I’m sure that wouldn’t be nice for anyone.
I avert my gaze back towards the coffin that was slowly disappearing into the hole. As it reached the bottom and settled there I felt a slight vibration under my feet. I didn’t know whether I’d imagined it or not. My thoughts wondered as I pictured Auntie’s face in my mind. I looked upwards at the grey sky and it seemed to clear, making space for the Sun to shine down. There was a long bright beam of clear yellow light breaking up the clouds. It stretched from the sky in perfect straightness and illuminated the grave before me.
I looked at where the light ended, watching my Auntie’s relatives and friends taking it in turns to throw handfuls of soil on top of the coffin resting deep in the ground. I let my eyes follow the beam of light from the grave back up towards the sky. There, magnified a million times, was Auntie Piapi’s face, her crooked teeth white, smiling down, and her eyes bright, smiling at me. I smiled back as I felt a tear leave my eye and run its course down my cheek.
“Lizzie darling, do you want some?” My Mum asked, holding out a wooden box half full of soil.
I took a handful and my Mum and Dad gently patted me as I moved towards the grave. I stood at the edge of the hole and looked down. So deep. This is where my Auntie rests. She’s actually in that box; well her body is, her soul isn’t. She’d told me that when people are buried it’s only their bodies that are covered in earth; their soul lives on all around us.
I gently opened my fist holding the soil and let it slip out of my hand and fall on top the box cradling my Auntie’s body
“Goodbye Auntie,” I whispered as the last remaining grains of earth left my hand, and I winked, like she had winked at me so many times before. I swear, at that very moment I heard my Auntie say ‘Goodbye Lizzie darling’, and I swear through the clouds that I could see her winking at me.
2 Auntie Piapi
I’d never wanted to die this young. Then again, 62 isn’t a bad innings and my life had been full of fun and frolics. I’d been blessed from the very first day I took a breath on this earth. I may not have been born to a wealthy family, or parents who could provide all I ever wanted or even needed, but I was loved, unconditionally, and most importantly I was always the centre of my parents life. There was none of this working all hours so the family could afford two-week’s away in the Caribbean. No, my parents sacrificed their careers, their life, for me.
My very first memory is of when I sneaked into their room. I must have been about six. I looked through the gap in the door, the landing light on as always as I was afraid of the dark, like most children my age at the time. They were sleeping under a single sheet. It was the middle of January, snowing outside, minus five during the early hours of the morning. They were close to each other, their bodies entangled, huddling close to stay warm. You see, we could only afford one duvet. They were expensive in those days, back in the 1940’s, and they’d given the duvet to me. They were the perfect parents and made so many sacrifices to ensure I had the best life I possibly could.
I saw the same morals and life rules that I had held so dear and adhered to all my life in Rose and Joe, Lizzie’s parents. I even saw the same in Martin, Lizzie’s stepfather. I was of course upset when I heard about Rose and Joe divorcing, it was a reminder of the terrible way the World had changed in such a short period of time. So very different to the way life was when I growing up and got married. When you married in my day you meant it when you said your vows. Till death do us part was something you didn’t say lightly. You thought about your vows and when you made them you meant every word. Things are a little different today. People seem to fall at the first hurdle and give up and opt for an easy life, rather than work at and with what they have. It was different for Rose and Joe, they just weren’t compatible, but I still believe that they didn’t try hard enough. With a little more hard work and compromise they could have sorted out their differences and ensured that Lizzie had a stable home environment to grow up in. Saying that, Martin, Rose’s new husband, has stepped up to the challenge and gets along very well with Lizzie. His understanding and even friendliness with Joe is refreshing. No jealously, just total acceptance and consideration when it comes to Joe being a major part of the family life and staying involved in Lizzie's upbringing. Even Rudi, Martin’s 16-year-old son from his previous marriage, has integrated well into the new family set-up and is benefiting from his ever-warming relationship with Joe. Rudi is lucky; he’s got his own Dad Martin, yet benefits from the kindness of Joe as well.
It must have been hard on Rudi when his Dad remarried. His Mother died in a car accident four years earlier and no matter how much time passes it’s still hard when your Dad marries a new woman. I think Rudi has come to terms with it all though and is happy with the new set-up.
It’s strange looking down on my own funeral. It’s even stranger being able to see everything occur beneath me. You hear stories on talk shows like Oprah about people’s near death experiences and their ability to view exactly what is happening to them from a third person viewpoint. Well, that’s what’s happening to me now.
I can clearly see my family and friends walking behind my coffin. I can see them, and even hear them, as they follow the pallbearers carefully carrying my body from the hearse towards the grave where my body will be put to rest.
I hear them talk about what a wonderful person I was. I hear them say how much they will miss me and how their life will be bleaker without me in it. I want to speak to them, reassure them that life carries on no matter what happens. We all eventually find a way to adapt to new situations and missing persons. That life is a more powerful force that continues to exist no matter who or what happens. But I can’t speak to them. There is no way that they can hear me. No matter how loud I shout from my vantage point taking all the activity and conversations in, they still can’t hear me. But I can hear them, hear them clearly, and see them as if I were standing right there next to each and every one of them.
The grief, the emotions, the kind mutterings, I want each and every one of them to know that I can hear them, that I am there with them also. But it’s just not possible, and I can’t understand.
I heard once, I think it was in the film Ghost that Lizzie made me watch with her one evening while I was looking after her, her Mum and step-dad out celebrating their first anniversary of marriage, that people who have unfinished business remain, able to see the world they have left behind. Was this true? Did I have unfinished business? Was that why I was able to see the world beneath me, hear people as they went about their business?
It hit me. Right there and then as I was watching the coffin with my skin and bones in being lowered into the ground and the voices start to sing. I did have unfinished business. In the confusion and shock at the experience of not being alive yet able to see and hear as if I were still on the earth, I had forgotten how I had come to be here, how it was that my body was lifeless and being lowered into a six-foot hole in the ground.
I was ill. I remembered that well. A reoccurring spout of cancer that I thought I’d beat three years earlier had raised its ugly head and took hold of my lungs. But this time there was little fight in my fail body and the cancer was slowly winning, my immune system and even my mental strength, which was the most sturdy part of my being, were being eaten by the disease, slowly crushed and destroyed, little by little, and I knew that this was it. This was to be the end.
My mind and emotions were the things that gave me the strength to beat the cancer the first time around. No matter how much pain I suffered I was always able to focus my mind on what was really important, my love and affection for those around me. That got me through the terrible persistent pain that was never ending. My will power and mind over matter ethos of living kept me sane as my body weakened, and finally I won. My strength of mind won the physical battle. But the second time I wasn’t so lucky. I knew the cancer would beat me and my moving into a nursing home was testament to my acceptance that death was near. I could no longer manage by myself in my home that I had lived in for over 40 years. I needed help this time around, and took the decision that a nursing home was the best place for me. It was the right decision as the cancer was ten times worse than three years ago and I had finally accepted that I was fighting a battle that ultimately I wouldn’t win.
The strange thing was that I knew I had at least nine months to a year left. As painful as each day was, I knew I still had time. So why was I here, dead, looking down on what was once my earth and life. It was because I didn’t die naturally. My mind and body didn’t give up. I didn’t give up. I didn’t make the decision not to hang on and fight with whatever remaining strength I had. Someone else took the decision to end it for me. Someone viscously took my life, but looking down right now at my own funeral, I can’t remember who it was.
Lizzie is sprinkling earth on my coffin. I look down at her, all 4’7” of her, a tall girl with beautiful flowing dark blonde hair touching her shoulder blades. A slim figure of a girl standing tall, those beautiful big blue expressive eyes perfectly sitting on that slightly pale rounded freckled face. I hear her say ‘Goodbye Auntie’ and she winks at me. I say ‘Goodbye Lizzie darling’ and I wink back. It breaks my heart that she can’t hear or see me. Then, she suddenly freezes and stares upwards from where she is standing with a startled look on her face. Did she hear me? Did she see me?