Virgil stepped forward, Scott and John close beside him, and looked across at the coffin on its stand. His knees buckled. He felt his brothers' powerful grip on his arms, keeping him from landing in an undignified heap on the floor, and for a moment, he let them hold him up, took a deep breath and steadied himself, then he straightened, took his own weight, and turned to face the assembled friends and family of the deceased.
His fiancée. If she had not been killed, she would have been his wife now. Two days, that was all. Two days before their wedding she had been cruelly stolen from him.
Her parents had distanced themselves from him since their daughter was killed in a hit and run incident. They had always been very pleasant to him before, but almost from the beginning he had sensed something there with them. Something that was preventing them from accepting him completely into their lives.
It was not that they disliked him, he was certain of that. Their manner did not feel like dislike or disdain in any way. If Virgil did not know better, it seemed to him more like…well, guilt than anything else.
What would her parents have to feel guilty about? And why had they not insisted upon taking the care of their daughter's funeral into their own hands? Why had they not at least insisted upon being consulted?
Mrs. Hayes was weeping into her husband's shoulder, her shoulders heaving. Mr. Hayes was red faced and red eyed, but in control of himself, his arms wrapped around his wife.
Mr. Hayes was looking at the stone plinth in front of Virgil's feet. He simply would not or could not look Virgil in the eye.
Virgil's eyes ranged around the rest of the crowd gathered beside the grave. His brothers were all there, all of them manfully concealing their red eyes behind sunglasses, standing now in a rigid row. Virgil knew them well enough to know the pain in each of their hearts. They had all grown idiotically fond of their sister-in-law to be. They were all of them devastated at her death. Grandma was openly crying, burying her face in Kayo's shoulder, who was almost succeeding in controlling her own tears. Connie had become like a sister to her. The rest of the crowd had been schoolfriends and former work colleagues of Connie's. They all fell silent and waited for Virgil to start speaking.
His own personal eulogy. His final farewell. He fixed his eyes on his brothers, without whom he might never have made it this far at all. He breathed deeply, then began, in slightly shaky, halting tones;
"I was dining with my big brother John in a large, posh restaurant in New York, when a waitress tripped over my big feet and sent an entire tray of red wine all over me!" he said, water pooling in his eyes. "I had red wine all over my best dress shirt, all over my trousers and even in my hair. I don't know which of us was more embarrassed, but she was so shocked and apologetic, I instantly forgave her. How could I be angry with someone who tried so hard to dry my wine-covered hair with her frilly apron? The restaurant manager was incensed at her clumsiness, even though I told him it was partially my fault. I pleaded with him to give her another chance, but he fired her on the spot. I felt so sorry for her that I left John to pay our bill and insisted on driving her home. She agreed to let me buy her a drink and gave me her phone number. That was my first encounter with Connie Hayes."
Virgil wiped something from his eyes and cleared his throat before continuing.
"Connie was playful, brilliant fun, so quick and intelligent that I couldn't get enough of her. She was so down to earth in ordinary things. A year to the day after our first meeting, I wanted to take her somewhere really special to mark the occasion. I couldn't think of anywhere special enough. So, I asked her where in the whole world she would like to go. The sky was the limit. She smiled and told me of a little beach close to where she had grown up. Just a tiny stretch of sand and pebbles at the end of a long meandering cart track."
Virgil sniffed again, a fat tear rolling down his face.
"We visited a fish and chip shop and bought a large bag of chips between us, then we took them down to that beach to just sit on the sand together and watch the sun going down. That was Connie."
He took a deep, shaky breath and focused on the coffin, about to be lowered into the hole, and ignoring the assembled mourners, he started to speak.
"Connie, I grew up with two big brothers, Scott and John. They taught me so much. Scott taught me the importance of always taking care of those smaller or younger than me. Girls, my younger brothers Gordon and Alan, he taught me how to know when to fight back and when to turn and walk away. He taught me how to be a man. John taught me how to do up my bow tie so that it is nearly, but not quite perfect. He taught me how to always find my way at night, using the stars for navigation. He taught me how to think things through carefully before I act. But you Connie, you showed me why I am alive."
His voice broke, and he could tell from the sound of the rustling leaves, that the crowd were all silently with him, listening hard, almost holding their breaths. His voice dropped slightly.
"Connie, when I met you, you filled a hole in my heart that I had never even realized was there. You were tender and caring. You accepted everything about me without questioning me, without judging me and without ever demanding more of me than I was able to give. You made me want to give you the moon. You made me realize was life is really all about, and I just could not wait to make you mine forever.
Connie, please forgive me for not being able to protect you. No one will ever be able to replace you. Goodbye my special lady. Sleep well. I love you forever."
Virgil's knees finally gave way, and he landed on the damp grass, sobbing, as he watched the coffin being slowly lowered into the grave.
He felt rather than saw his four brothers crouched on the ground around him, infusing him with their support, until the crowd slowly started to disperse. Scott helped him to stand, and he found grandma waiting for him with damp, red eyes and open arms.
"My boy." She whispered. Virgil allowed her to hug him, then looked around to say his farewells to Connie's parents. They were standing together on the other side of the grave, staring sadly down at the coffin with its nameplate and photograph. They looked up and finally met his eyes.
"We're going abroad now Virgil." Mrs. Hayes told him through her sniffs. "Have a good life. Find someone else to love. You're a good man."
Virgil frowned slightly, as they turned and walked slowly away down the slope, then turned back to his family.
"We're here for you Virg." John told him gently. "Take as long as you want."
Virgil plucked a red rose from the pile left by the graveside and sniffed its rich aroma. He shook his head and dropped the rose into the grave. It landed right beside the photo of Connie.
"I will have a good life for both of us, Con." He said softly, "but I won't ever love anyone else. You are one of a kind."
With his family's arms around him, Virgil turned from the grave and walked slowly back down the hill.