Flash Fiction Friday 019: ‘The Visit’ by Ralph Murray

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday and the nineteenth piece of flash fiction in this series. This week’s piece is a 998-worder entitled ‘The Visit’ by Ralph Murray.

The Visit

Rats! It’s starting to rain.

With brolly and collar up, I pass through the gates of the cemetery and along the path to the huge expanse marked off for East London’s fallen.

To the left, sitting in an old wooden shed is my friend the florist. As usual, I put on a bright smile as I approach him because he’s always so cheerful. After all these years of meeting him every Friday, I still can’t make out if he’s naturally an upbeat character or if it’s a professional front he feels he has to portray for his mourning customers.

He looks up as he hears me approaching. “Morning Mary, how are we today? Looks like the rain’s gonna save me the job of washing the old car this afternoon. Bunch of the usual?”

My mouth stretches wider in a facsimile of a smile. “Hello Simon, yes the usual please.”

I watch his bowed and balding head as he sets to work. How strange it is to be working 10 hours a day, six days a week and all the people you meet in all that time are all the same, a continuous conveyor belt of pain passing your shed on their way to a loved one who has moved on. In a way it could be seen as sadder for him because at least after the visit, folks can get back to living their lives but he’s stuck with the dead.

I give him another bright, frozen smile and we exchange flowers for cash.

Coming up to the children’s cemetery, I see a man in his mid-30s sitting on a bench silently bawling. I can’t make out whether it’s his tears or the rain that makes his face wet. He must be aware of me approaching but he makes no attempt to conceal his grief as he stares at the tiny headstone gaily decorated with toys and flowers. Much as I want to look away from the stricken figure, I just can’t. I draw up to him and open my mouth to utter some useless words of comfort but my feet continue their journey.

The moment is gone. I stop and half-turn towards him. My tongue refuses to work, which is just as well. What can I say: “Sorry about the loss of your child but the pain will ease in the passing of time.”

Yep sure! It hasn’t passed for me in 18 years so why should it pass for him?

I watch the back of the heaving broad shoulders for several seconds, then I carry on my solemn journey towards my tombstone.

I pass rows of graves with headstones garlanded with flowers and eulogies for the dearly departed.

The next row is mine and, as always, I slow down and then do a right turn into the unending sense of loss.

Eight graves float by then I stop at the ninth. Without warning my vision becomes blurred. I blink rapidly and it clears.

Stepping from the path and onto the grass, I move toward the marble headstone, then reach behind it for the little folded camping stool. It’s wet of course, but who cares? I retrace my steps, open out the stool and sit before the headstone of Chris Simmonds, son of Joseph and Mary Simmonds.

I must look pretty silly sitting on a stool in a graveyard, but I’ve been doing it for so long I really don’t care. Anyway I just couldn’t stand in one spot for an hour or so, my bunions would kill me. Oh well, at least the rain’s stopped.

I look around. Yep, almost deserted as usual.

It’s funny, I can never remember what I think about when I’m here. It’s like my mind goes into neutral, but when my old back starts to stiffen up and I look at my watch, I’m always amazed at how long I’ve been sitting here.
As I stare at the mound of earth before me, as always at this time, I develop the power to see though the earth and into the coffin. But of course there is no skeleton, instead there’s my son, asleep. He’s about seven years old today and in his bedroom. I gaze down at a face so beautiful it could belong to a girl. My hand, the hand of an old woman, reaches out and smooths the blond curly hair. He stirs but does not wake. I stroke his head again half-hoping he would wake up so I can gather him in my arms and kiss him. Words cannot even come close to expressing the yearning of my heart so I’m not going to try. Loss can only be felt, not conveyed.
As if from another world, someone walks past me. I rouse myself, pick up the flowers at my feet and slowly walk back to the headstone. I go through the weekly ritual of removing the fading lilies, roses and chrysanthemums. I lay them to one side, remove the latest ones from the wrapping paper and carefully arrange them in the pot. When I’m satisfied with the display I wrap the old ones in the paper and place them in the nearby bin.

With the main chore done, I take out a tea-towel from my handbag and wipe the headstone clean. Don’t laugh, I know I must look as mad as a March hare but I guess losing a child must screw you up in one way or another, so you have to me excuse for acting like a crazy old woman.

I return to my seat and fall back into my semi-stupor. It’s as if for six-and-a-half days a week I function normally, but Friday mornings I’m another person in another world, a world of the past, a world where I feel totally complete with the two people I love more than life itself: my husband Joe and my son Chris.

The only difference between them is that one is alive and the other is dead!

I asked Ralph what prompted this piece and he said…

The inspiration for ‘The Visit’ short story is Mary Simmonds, one of the lead characters of my unpublished debut novel ‘From Out Of The Blue’.

The book blurb reads thus: From out of the blue, Mary finds herself with child, and Joe’s world explodes! Joe, a flamboyant and ambitious musician, meets and falls in love with the virginal Mary. After their engagement she mysteriously becomes pregnant. After much anger and angst, Joe decides to stand by her.  ‘From Out Of The Blue’ is Joe’s journey of self-discovery through his relationships with Mary, music and her extraordinary son.

The story started out with Mary as a single young woman and ended as her as a married middle-aged person. I am now writing the sequel with Mary and Joe now in their 70s. I was struggling to get to grips with my heroine as a pensioner, so I wrote ‘The Visit’ in the first person present tense perspective so I can really get a feel for the character in this new phase of her life.

And I have to say it worked. After writing ‘The Visit’ I now feel I know her and that I can proceed with the sequel in the confidence of really knowing her character.

Thank you Ralph, I loved it.

Ralph is a London-based graphic designer / sub editor, married with two sons. He finished his debut novel in November 2010 and has been trying to get it published (unsuccessfully) since then. I know that feeling. Ralph says he knows that self-publishing is very much the way to go, but he’s determined to hold out for a traditional publisher (well, that’s the plan anyway). He gets up at 5.00am most mornings to write for an hour before getting ready for work, and is 12,000 words into the sequel of ‘From Out Of The Blue’. ‘The Visit’ first appeared on his blog (http://ralphmurray.wordpress.com) in November. I’ll also be Podcasting it this Monday. 🙂

If you’d like to submit your 1,000-word max. stories for consideration for Flash Fiction Friday take a look here.

The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with Sherry Gloag – the two hundred and sixty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers, editors and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.

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