‘Goodbye,’ she whispered.
The vicar, a strange vicar who was not the voice of her childhood’s Sundays, walked up to the pulpit and began to speak.
Leaning against the wall by the font, lost in memories of her mother, she hardly realised the service was over until the people in the front pew stood up and she saw her father. She watched, frozen, as he came out from the pew and began to walk up the central aisle towards her.
His hair was thinner and whiter. He wore glasses and a black suit and carried his overcoat over one arm. It was her father, after all these years, and the recognition nearly made her stumble backwards while at the same time she wanted to run forward into his familiar embrace.
She saw the exact moment he spotted her, because his expression changed from stoic calm to naked pain.
His footsteps quickened until he was almost running. God, he was thin – he’d always been slender but he was more than that, he was skinny, his features sharp and his suit too large. ‘Dad,’ she began, but at that same time he reached her and seized her elbow. He pulled her out of the church, around the side of the porch where they were alone.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded.
His eyes were hollowed, his cheekbones prominent. Something was missing in him, something she couldn’t pinpoint but this was her father.
She had never seen this anger on his face before. She’d seen shock, dismay, sadness: never anger.
‘I wanted to say good—’
‘You don’t get to say goodbye,’ he said. ‘You left your mother a very long time ago. Why did you come?’
‘You wrote me a letter.’
‘I wrote you a letter to be . . . to be polite. I thought it was my duty.’ He nearly spat out the word. Her father, this gentle man, a doctor, friend of everyone. The guiding hands of her childhood. She shrank back.
He glanced over his shoulder. ‘People are coming. You shouldn’t be here; you shouldn’t be seen. I don’t know what you think you’re doing but I don’t care. Get out. Go away.’
‘Don’t call me that! You gave up the right to call me that when you—’ He glanced over his shoulder again. ‘Go away, Emily. You don’t belong here any more. Go away. Now. I don’t want anyone to see you.’
She turned away from him. She couldn’t see clearly from the tears in her eyes, but she heard the shuffle and murmur of people coming, and she ran away, into the churchyard.
She had played here as a child, after services while her parents talked with the old vicar. Her feet led her by themselves between the graves, along a listing flint wall and through an archway in it to a newer part of the cemetery, the part where the graves didn’t lean and they were studded here and there with flowers, plastic and real. She leaned back against the wall, trying to gulp in air, holding her stomach in pain.
She thought of her father behind the camera and the photographs proudly displayed in their home, the photographs that documented her childhood, the person she had always thought she was. Birthdays, church fêtes, seaside holidays with her sister, her school photographs in pristine uniform, her graduation day outside the Senate House in her cap and gown. She was the good girl, the clever girl, the girl following in her father’s footsteps into medicine, the girl who was going to deliver babies and save the world, Head Girl at school, first-class degree at Cambridge, the girl everyone in the village knew. Your family must be so proud, they had all said to this girl, Emily Greaves, the doctor’s daughter.
I don’t want anyone to see you.
She stuffed her fist into her mouth to stop from crying aloud.
The graves surrounded her, a community of the dead. Generations all buried in the same churchyard, side by side under their names and their dates. Her mother . . . her mother was not from this village originally, but Emily knew where Charlotte Greaves would be buried, next to where Emily’s grandfather and grandmother Greaves were buried. A collection of grey stones under a far-reaching arm of the yew. She’d used to play there as a child, too. The Greaves Graves, she’d used to call them, laughing. She had traced their inscriptions with her finger, all the way from John Greaves, 1784 to his however-many-greats-grandson, Emily’s grandfather, Martin Greaves.
‘Will I be buried here one day?’ she had asked her father, aged eight or nine, and he had smiled and said, ‘Perhaps. But wouldn’t you rather get married and be buried with your husband?’
‘I’m not going to get married, ever. I’m going to be a doctor, just like you.’
Emily sank down on to the damp, cold grass. The wet soaked through her tights in seconds but she didn’t feel it. She listened hard for the sounds of her mother being interred in her grave, on the other side of the church, under the yew tree.
She heard footsteps instead: quick, hurrying footsteps, crunching on gravel. Approaching her. Emily stood, wiped her nose and eyes with the back of her hand, and was attempting to straighten her dress when the person appeared in the archway. She was tall and slender in a black coat buttoned up to her neck, a red scarf, curly hair pulled back into a clip and escaping in tendrils in the drizzle. The woman paused, dug in a black handbag and took out a packet of Marlboro Lights and a lighter. She lit her cigarette and sucked in the manner of a woman who needed nicotine in order to breathe.
‘Polly?’ said Emily.
The woman turned and spotted Emily, mid-drag. She started to cough.
‘Polly.’ Emily stepped toward her.
‘Bloody hell.’ Polly dropped her cigarette on the path. ‘Emily? What are you doing here?’
‘Same thing as you. Saying goodbye to Mum.’
‘Has Dad seen you?’
‘Did he say it was all right for you to be here? Did he invite you?’
‘No. I just came.’
Polly frowned. She was a pretty woman, stylish and poised, but to Emily’s eyes she had aged possibly more than their father had: she had lines on her forehead and around her mouth. Her hair was dyed a shade darker than her natural one, which made her face appear sallow, despite the make-up she wore.
‘You don’t have any right to be here, after what you did,’ Polly said.
‘I haven’t done anything that makes her any less my mother.’
‘You killed her.’
Emily stepped forward, feeling, for the first time, a stirring of anger at her own family. It was easier to be angry with a younger sister, a sibling who had always looked up to Emily and hero-worshipped her. It was easier to feel that this drama was all manufactured and ridiculous.
‘What? How can I have killed her? I haven’t seen her in nearly twenty years, since we were on holiday in Florida together.’
‘Do you even know how she died?’
‘It didn’t say in the letter.’
‘It was cancer,’ said Polly. ‘Long and slow cancer. The kind that you get better from for a little while, but you never really get better. She got weak after you stayed in America, and we thought it was because you’d hurt her. Because you’d broken her heart. But finally she became so weak that Daddy persuaded her to go in for tests, and that’s when they found it. She’s been struggling with that every day for the past fifteen years, and where have you been?’
‘I write every year,’ said Emily. ‘I’ve told Mum and Dad where I’ve been. Any of you could have reached me at any time. Any time you wanted to.’