“I thought I'd find you here.” Patrick Merrick opened the door of the old chapel to find his wife, Nicola, sitting in front of a single candle, staring at the flame. He came over, and put his arm around her shoulders. “Are you all right?”
Nicola, dry-eyed, buried her face in his shoulder for a moment, and then said, “I don't know how to grieve. She was my sister, and I never really knew her!”
Patrick, an only child, was at a loss as to how to respond. How well did siblings normally know one another, especially once they were grown up and no longer living together?
“Tell?” he said.
“Well, when we were little I never liked her much. She was always trying to do things for us – make our beds, or take our turn at doing the washing-up, or that sort of thing. Lawrie used to let her, but I never did. Almost never, anyway. It rather drove me mad. And yet at school, when Lawrie and I joined the Guides, everybody thought we would want to be in her patrol, and said what a brilliant patrol leader she was, and so on. Maybe if we had, it wouldn't have been such a disaster!”
“I didn't really know her, either. She always seemed to be on her own, not part of you.”
“I think she was. I know she was desperately upset that time we didn't tell her about taking Edward Oeschli home, and after that she began to change. And was it – yes, it was – the next term she asked Redmond what to do when Ginty had read a letter that wasn't addressed to her; I think she only meant, should she let it go, or should she tackle Ginty about it, but Redmond went straight to Keith, and Ginty got suspended.”
“And then the next term she went off after her when she ran away.”
“Yes, so she did, and she had to give up being a prefect and any chance of being Head Girl, which she would have been, but she always swore she didn't mind. She came back into our sisters' bedroom for the last four terms, but she rather ignored us. And once she went off to train as a nurse, she hardly ever came home again.”
“Well then,” said Patrick, comfortingly, “Maybe it's not too surprising you don't feel you really knew her. I suppose they'll tell us a bit about her at the memorial service tomorrow.”
“Will they? Or will it just be about how wonderful she was and nothing about the real Ann at all? They never do say how people really were at funerals and things.”
Giles Marlow re-read the e-mail from his mother, wondering whether he should make the effort to go down to Trennels for the memorial service. On the one hand, he was the eldest son, and ought to make the effort to go, but on the other, how well had he really known Ann? He hadn't seen her for twenty years, since their visits to Trennels so seldom coincided. He remembered her as a solemn, serious girl, always trying too hard to be helpful, always on the side of authority. Although there had been that time when she had run away from school to go after Ginty, who had run away to Ireland. But once she had gone to train as a nurse, she hardly ever went home, and as he seldom did, either, it was not too surprising. He ought to go, he supposed, but he hated going home now, he had so little in common with his siblings, and he had made a life of his own here in the North. And that, he decided, was the deal-breaker. He couldn't afford to take any more holiday this year, and it was not possible to get down to the South Coast and back in a day. Maybe he could ask someone to Skype the service to him? Whether any of his siblings knew about Skype was another story, but he assumed they probably did. Yes, honour would be satisfied if he asked for a Skype feed of the service.
“I'm sure your eye-rolling skills are wonderful, but I really don't want to see them!” exclaimed Rowan to her 14-year-old daughter. “We are going to Wade Minster tomorrow for Aunt Ann's memorial service, and you will be downstairs, clothed and in your right mind, by 9:30 am, or there will be TROUBLE.”
“But WHY do we have to go?” asked Francesca, sulkily. “It's not like we knew her or anything; did I ever even meet her?”
“We have to go because it's kind to Granny. I know you didn't know her very well – you did meet her,once, when she was home on leave, but you were too little to remember it – but Granny is very sad indeed. And it will help her if you are there, and as many of the family as possible.”
“We won't all be there, though. Aunt Ginty won't be there, I don't suppose, nor Aunt Lawrie. Nor Uncle Giles, probably. And anyway, Livia and Jade can't go, can they? Catholics aren't allowed in Protestant Churches, are they?”
“They can when it's hatches, matches and despatches – oh, honestly, Franny, baptisms, weddings and funerals. And yes, some of the aunts and uncles won't be able to get there. So it's all the more important that those of us who can get there easily, do. I don't want to hear any more argument, please.”
“Are you sad?” asked Francesca.
“In a way, yes, very. She was my baby sister, the sister next in age to me, and we were quite close when we were tiny. But we were very different people. She liked school and music and helping people, and I didn't, and she always knew she wanted to be a nurse. So she went off to do that, and then she went to Kundu as a missionary, and we didn't really meet after that. So I'm sad, yes, but I'm not sad like I would be if it was you, for instance, or your Aunt Nicola.”
“Well, what do I wear?” asked Francesca, and the two of them went off to inspect her wardrobe and see whether her black trousers would do.
Lawrie Marlow sat on her bed and tried to conjure up emotions appropriate to one had just learnt of her sister's death. She should feel devastated, she knew. She should mind quite dreadfully. But somehow she couldn't even bring herself to care. She hadn't seen Ann for twenty years, with Ann going off to Kundu, and she, Lawrie, moving to New Zealand to star in a soap opera there. Ann belonged to the past.
She wasn't sad, but the situation was sad. Ann's death was sad. That was an odd emotion. How do you portray that, she wondered.
A pity, really, she couldn't use it as an excuse to go back to England for awhile, but she was contracted to stay here for another six months, at least, and it was too expensive to go home often. And anyway, there was that rather promising new man, Charlie someone. Who wasn't, as far as Lawrie could tell, gay, and who did appear to be attracted to her. Perhaps that would work out....
Maybe they could Skype her for the service – that would be good, and to chat to Nick, if only briefly. And perhaps Nick would let Livia and Jade chat, too – Lawrie always enjoyed her nieces.
Difficult, thought Peter Marlow, whistling up his dogs and setting off on his rounds of the young stock. All very well hoping as many of the family could get there as possible, but this memorial service was being put on by the missionary society, and it was difficult to avoid the feeling that the family were only being invited on sufferance. Ginty and Lawrie obviously wouldn't be able to come on such short notice, and it was doubtful that Giles would, either. Not that he minded that, particularly, he'd seen quite enough of Giles when they were young, thank you very much. Talking of minding, what did he feel about Ann? It was awful that she'd been killed, of course, but on a personal level? It didn't really impinge, did it? There were too many more immediate calls on his attention. And where, he wondered, was his black tie?
“That's right, Edwin. I won't be able to come in tomorrow because I will be going to my sister Ann's memorial service. You remember Ann, don't you?”
The figure slumped in the armchair merely grunted.
“Shall I ask your children to come and see you on Sunday? They are here all weekend, with their families.”
Again, the figure grunted. “Want my tea!” he said.
Karen turned away, weeping quietly. That Edwin, the wonderful, brilliant, academic man she had married, should be reduced to this, a figure slumped in a chair, waiting for the end. It was so sad about Ann, but the immediate sadness was the merciless Alzheimer's disease that had stolen her beloved husband from her and replaced him with this stranger.
Ginty was really distressed. Ann, dead? How could she be dead? The only family member who she had been really in touch with. So kind and loving, especially once she'd outgrown her youthful tendency to officiousness. They had been in touch by e-mail nearly every week, and by Skyped if Ann had been able to find enough bandwidth, which wasn't often in the country hospital where she worked. It was Ann who understood how sad Ginty was that she and Philip had had no children. It was Ginty in whom Ann had confided her reasons for wanting to go to Kundu, and the joy and fulfilment she had found there. It was Ann who had kept Ginty up-to-date with the births of nieces and nephews that neither of them had seen. And now she was gone. Finished. She supposed she had better acknowledge her mother's e-mail, and maybe join in the proffered Skype transmission of the service. And then – who would keep her in touch with family news now?
And so the family gathered, virtually or in person, with the other mourners in the Minster. The three siblings who were not there had all linked in via Skype in good time, and a computer had been set up which would capture the best view of things. The service followed its predictable course, hymns and prayers and a Bible reading. Then the Director of the Missionary Society stood up to speak.
“I think,” he said, “that my own words can't tell Ann's story any better than those of the film I'm about to show you, taken at the hospital last week. I'll make sure a copy is uploaded to Dropbox so that those of you being part of this service on Skype can look at it properly; meanwhile I hope you will get something from it.”
The film turned out to be an interview with an elderly man who had been a patient in the hospital during its last few days. The man spoke his local language, but an English voice-over was provided.
“Sister Ann was wonderful,” he said. “We were all so afraid, but she showed no fear. The soldiers came, and we thought they would kill us all, but she stood there at the door and said 'You can't come in. If you have ill people, or wounded people, bring them here so we can help them, but this is a place of healing and you can't come in.' And the soldiers went away.”
A woman in nurse's uniform replaced the old man. “The soldiers did go away, and we were able to get most of the patients to safety. But then they came back, and said they wanted Ann to go with them to help someone who had been shot and couldn't be moved. Ann told me she was going, and went off with them so happily, as always, glad to be of service. They found her body two days later.”
The film ended, and there were several minutes of silence, and each member of the family tried to come to terms with the fact that the sister they had barely known, the one they had found so irritating, although she had meant to be kind, the one they had left out of their plans, the one who had defied their parents to go to Ginty when she needed help, the one who had barely been seen since she left to train as a nurse all those years ago – that sister had been a martyr and a heroine.