The End of Summer
Vanessa J Horn
It had been six weeks now. Six whole weeks since Toby – her best friend in St. Peter´s High School – had died. Lucy was now more or less accustomed to the heavy sensation which materialised as she opened her eyes each morning; she accommodated it like she would an overloaded rucksack, adjusting to the weight as she gradually came to. Remembered. Essentially, she preferred this to the emptiness which took over throughout the day as the heaviness dwindled. Emptiness left too much room for thinking, and thinking wasn’t desired. At all.
“Forty-two days,” she murmured to herself now, as she left her bedroom. She didn’t know exactly why she needed to count the time away from Toby’s death but, somehow, it had become important to do so. Initially, she’d focussed on the hours – if I can get through the next two I’ll keep going until bedtime tonight
Then it was days – survive ‘til the weekend get through the next few days
It was like a sort of surreal game she was making herself participate in; a grotesque kind of Advent Calendar-type activity where she was marking off the time until Until.
She paused now, hand on the banister, ready to go downstairs. Until what? What exactly was
she counting away? After all, it wasn’t as if anything was going to get any better after a set amount of time. Not as if Toby would return, laughing, saying ha – fooled you!
as if it had all been an elaborate hoax. Hardly. So
She paused on the top stair, not quite ready to go down yet. Thought some more. Maybe she was just counting away the time until she felt normal
again – ‘til she was ready to do normal
things; return to school and resume studying for her tests, meet up with her friends, eat properly again – that sort of thing. Perhaps that
was it. If
it was going to happen, of course. At the moment it seemed as likely as Toby appearing at the back door, usual grin on his face, teasing and cajoling her, as he used to. Impossible.
Minutes later, as she pushed her cereal around the bowl in an attempt to give an impression of eating, Lucy listened to the low murmur of her parents talking to each other, over by the kitchen sink. Soft voices. Serious tones. She couldn’t make out what they were saying although she just knew
the conversation was about her. It was bound to be, after all. She pushed her cereal bowl away.
Looking across, her mum then came over to Lucy’s side. “We were just wondering,” she began, with a quick glance at her husband – for reassurance? - “whether you’d like to come out somewhere with us today? No pressure, just for a walk or car trip or something?”
Lucy thought about it. Thought about her parents; their anxious glances, their restrained voices, their keenness to divert and distract. It was because they loved her and were worried about her, she knew, but even with this knowledge, she just didn’t feel she could cope with the pressure of trying to reassure them. The burden of trying to dispel their fears so that they wouldn’t worry about her. The place the three of them were in felt like an endless oppression of worried looks and subdued concern. It was, basically, too much.
“No. Thanks,” she replied quietly, standing up. “I – I’ve got something to do today.”
A pause. When it was clear that Lucy was offering nothing more than this, the atmosphere in the kitchen stagnated, hovered, and then amalgamated into a cloud of anxiety, disappointment and frustration. A collective sigh. “Well okay, love,” her mother countered eventually, “Maybe tomorrow then.”
Lucy nodded and walked slowly from the room. Involuntarily scrunching her hands into fists, she told herself she did
have plans for today; she wasn’t just putting her parents off, though it felt like it, seeing the look in their eyes. No, today she would do what she’d wanted to do since well, ever since he had told her about it. Today she was going to find Toby’s place.
He had told her about it towards the end of his life, on one of the few occasions when his parents had gone off to get a coffee and a snack, and they were alone in his cubicle in the children’s ward. They’d been chatting about places where they felt most comfortable. Most at ease. His eyes had lit up a little when he’d – haltingly at first – mentioned the glade. “It’s somewhere I started going when I first found out about the leukaemia,” he’d begun. “When I didn’t want to talk about what was happening and just wanted to be alone. I wanted to do things. Wanted to be
. Anyhow. It’s not so far from here; right in the centre of the woodlands and fields at the back of my house, you know?”
She did know. They had played in the fields numerous times when they were young – maybe seven - making houses with the straw bales and collecting ladybirds in match boxes. But she hadn’t been up there since. As they’d both grown older, they’d moved on to parks and shopping centres, ‘hanging out’ with the rest of their friends from school. Except Toby had found this other place too. Lucy felt a little twinge of jealousy that she hadn’t known about this - that her best friend had kept a secret from her. She pushed this deep down inside her; this wasn’t the time for possessiveness or mean-spirited thoughts.
“So what’s so special about this glade?” she’d questioned, finding it hard to imagine what his answer would be. It wasn’t as if Toby was the type of boy who embraced nature – he’d always been more at home killing things on his X-box or booting a ball around a muddy field. Well, until he’d become ill, obviously.
Toby had paused for a moment, then frowned slightly. “Well, it sounds daft, I know, but I get a sort of calm feeling when I’m there – some kind of serenity, I suppose. It makes me feel at peace. I don’t feel scared. It’s hard to describe really.”
Lucy had taken his hand at this point, trying to blink back the tears at the thought of her best friend - her brave and out-going Toby - being scared. She hadn’t known what to say, so had just squeezed his hand tightly. She had thought he wanted to say more – it was there in his eyes, something further he’d wanted her to know – but he had drifted into sleep and the conversation had never been revisited. So that was where she wanted to go; to Toby’s place. Maybe she too could achieve some peace just by being there. She had nothing to lose, she reasoned.
Lucy walked slowly down the lane towards the direction of Toby’s house. Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the path in front of her, she hoped fervently that she wouldn’t spot – or be spotted – by his parents. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to talk to them, she did – eventually
– but just not now. Not when she wanted to go straight to the glade, to find Toby’s special place. Today she needed no procrastination or interruptions from anyone, well-meaning or otherwise.
She was in luck; the hour was early enough that she didn’t see a single person as she passed the house and began to make her way to the fields at the back. The only sign of life was a large ginger cat ambling along the pavement. He glanced at her curiously, blinked and then carried on his way, unperturbed. Head down, Lucy eventually reached the top field and then looked around for the small woodland area nearby. There! She strode over and peered around, eventually finding a small opening in the prickly bushes. Pushed her way inside until she was totally surrounded by the dense greenery. Darkening patches mysteriously dappled and shadowed around her, livened only by the tiny pinpricks of sunlight insisting their presence be felt wherever an opening was accessible, however small.
Lucy paused, finding a large tree stump and sinking down upon it. Now what? She didn’t feel any different; no wonderful calmness or serenity had come over her. Well, not yet, anyway. Maybe it would take time – maybe
it was just that she needed to give it a chance. She closed her eyes, using her other senses to help her attune to her surroundings. She sniffed. A rich leafy smell filled her nostrils; the morning dew, perhaps. And earth: wet, fruity earth. Keeping her eyes closed, she focused now on the sounds around her. She would’ve assumed it would just be silence until she started to listen - really
listen. Then it was apparent that a miniscule workforce was busy around her. The crackling of tiny twigs and sticks, the occasional muted call of a bird from within the depth of the thick, impervious trees. Oh, and faint buzzing of some sort – a distant bee possibly.
Now Lucy was able to feel the serenity of the area but, at the same time, was not at
peace; there was none of the understanding and acceptance that she thought she might experience being here, at Toby’s place. To feel what he felt, to be close to him once more here, in his favourite spot. Even, maybe, to have the reassurance, perhaps, that he remained close to her - was still nearby. She continued to wait; seconds, minutes but still nothing. Frowning slightly, she felt the inevitable and unwelcome tears begin to well. So that was it – death was just that: the end.
As one, then another tear rolled down her cheek, she was gradually aware of some sort of presence coming towards her. Opening her eyes once more, she waited, not frightened, not wary, but just waiting as other sounds joined the texture of noises in the glade; a rustling, maybe a small animal or ...
Lucy looked up as an old woman entered the clearing, pausing a metre or so away from her. Slightly stooped, the woman was dressed in autumnal layers of browns and oranges, yellows and even magentas: a patchwork effect that seemed to personify the season perfectly. Her face, although wrinkled, was animate – bright eyes, searching expression.
The woman spoke first, her voice low and earthy: “Toby’s friend.”
Lucy gazed into the stranger’s eyes. They were dark green – the shade of those old bottles which you sometimes find unexpectedly, when digging in the garden. Opaque. Imperfect. She nodded before replying. “Yes. H-how did you know?”
The older woman shrugged, an acquiescent rather than insensitive gesture. “We met here. We talked.”
Lucy nodded again. “Do you know that he’s ” she stopped, unsure which words to use. How to impart the information.
Now it was the woman’s turn to pause. She exhaled softly. It was like a welcome breeze interrupting a stiflingly hot and awkward scenario. “Yes, I know.” She sat down across the glade from Lucy. Close by but not in her space. “Toby talked about you, “she continued. “A great deal.”
Lucy looked down. Studied an ant scurrying across the dappled earth. “He is – was
- my friend. My best friend. Right from when I met him when we were in Infants.”
The woman smiled. “You first noticed him when he dropped the paint box on the floor and all the colours spilled out - you helped him pick them up before Miss Taylor saw.”
Lucy laughed – an unexpected, out of practice sound. “Wow – he told you that? Yeah, I did help him. Toby was always a bit clumsy ”
“All fingers and thumbs,” the woman agreed easily.
Lucy nodded. “So he told you stuff then; even about his illness and everything?” She was curious as to how much Toby had opened up to this stranger.
The woman nodded. “We talked a great deal about it, yes. I think it helped him to offload to someone who wasn’t one of his family or friends – someone who he could tell about his worries and fears without them growing upset or trying to reassure him gratuitously.” The woman spoke quietly, her voice softening the words she was speaking. “After all, he knew what was happening to him. He knew exactly what was going
to happen too.”
Lucy flinched. It was true – this was something she hadn’t wanted to think or talk about during Toby’s illness - he had been correct in that respect. So he had been offloading to this stranger rather than burden his family and friends. She expected to feel a pang of jealousy that he had chosen this old woman to speak to instead of herself, but instead only felt gratitude that Toby had had someone – anyone
- to talk to. Maybe this woman, whoever she was, had helped him make sense of what he’d been feeling. Hopefully. She turned back to the woman. “Do you live round here – did you just happen to be taking a walk when you came across Toby that first time?”
The old woman smiled. “I am always here. Autumn is my season. It’s what I am – who I am. Some say I should be unhappy, because I am deprived of the beauties; the beauties of Spring and Summer. But I have the consolation of my own Autumnal songs, which are no less individualistic than theirs. So, once they are gone, I remember them with joy at the same time as celebrating the life I still have.”
Lucy thought about this. It seemed to make sense, in more ways than one. “May I come here again – to talk about Toby? I can’t seem to talk to anyone else but it’s different with you.”
The woman nodded. “Coming here is just a step away, and yes, I will be here. Places are just that: places. Just remember, Toby will always be where you are - always in your heart. It’s true.” With that, she turned to leave.
Lucy watched as the old woman departed, seeming to merge into the dense trees and bushes around her, blending with the yellows and browns and oranges of the September countryside. She sighed, wondering. Thinking. As she did so, the old woman’s words flickered back into her consciousness once more: remember them with joy at the same time as celebrating the life I still have.
Lucy shook her head: she couldn’t remember any more of the sentence. But it didn’t matter. She had the important part, and that’s what she needed. Yes. She gazed around the glade, feeling cossetted – cushioned, even - amongst the dense foliage and low murmurings of birds and insects about her. Nearby but not intrusive. She took a deep breath. This was Toby’s place, yes, but it didn’t matter where she was; she could be anywhere and still he would be with her. Always in her heart. One day, she’d be able to heed the old woman’s words, to remember her friend with joy and, at the same time, celebrate her own life. She knew that now.