Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah created the characters I've borrowed.
This one has been in the works for a very long time indeed, and I didn't want another Veterans Day to go by before I posted it.
The title comes from a line in Robert Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen."
As We That Are Left Grow Old
It had been only a month and a day since we had been there last, but a great deal had happened since - two devastating storms, for instance, the effects of which remained in evidence: fallen branches lying here and there in the grass, and one tree shattered outright, its pale sapwood jagged and exposed as any wound.
As we walked in silence amid the scattered leaves and limbs, Alex didn't cling to my hand, as she might have done once, though she stayed close by my side, almost matching me step for step, until we reached the place of our pilgrimage, and my penance.
Here lie Timothy Price
and his wife
who worked courageously
for justice and truth.
Loving parents of
For a moment we stood there, not uttering a word, and then I crouched down and set the little bag of tools onto the faintly moist grass.
Alex didn't flop down beside me as on other visits but stood there while I set about clearing away stray leaves and bits of debris. She'd been restless in the car - in fact it had been a job even to get her into it - but at least there had been no tears and slammed doors this time, as there had been on so many other occasions.
I smiled grimly to myself. Adults were often struck by her precocity and poise -"She's an old soul, that one," someone once told me, and I couldn't disagree - yet day-to-day life with Alex had kept me mindful that she was still a child, mercurial and impatient and easily distracted, the source of my joy, and my despair.
And while I knelt there in the grass and got on with my work, I could sense Alex standing sentinel behind me, imagine her expression, her stance, her grip on the bouquet of -
"Evan," she said suddenly. "Evan, can I go see the angel?"
"What? Oh. Of course." On the other side of the cemetery was a stone topped with a delicate, exquisitely made figure of an angel. We'd discovered it on one of our previous trips, and Alex always insisted upon visiting it, despite or perhaps because of the tragic history carved beneath.
"Only mind where you step. It's very nearly an obstacle course out there." I saw her roll her eyes at that, but her mood seemed to brighten, and in a trice she was headed off across the grass.
I ought to have been annoyed at her leaving me to do the work, but the silence between us had grown, if not exactly oppressive, less companionable than it might have been. Much better for Alex to be up and about, releasing some of that pent-up energy.
And for me to remain there on my knees, with only memories and thoughts for company - memories of Tim and especially of Caroline; thoughts of my own part in what happened, and how it had come to pass that I should be a penitent at her grave while her daughter, the person I loved most in this world, wandered the cemetery like some innocent yet restless spirit.
It was a beautiful place, though, and a pleasant enough day for November. For all that the sun had vanished behind the clouds again, the leaves were still such a luminous gold that they reminded me of the contentment I had once found in autumn. But all that was past, and the season had assumed its rightful role as the annual memento mori, redolent of mourning, and of guilt.
At least I'd had no grounds to conceal my grief, but my culpability was another matter. I imagined it might be years before I found the courage to tell Alex the sequences of events that led to her parents' unspeakable fate, and reveal my own unwitting role in it all.
But that could wait. Better to spare her such a burden, to let her simply be a child. Better to spend my energies staving off her loneliness as well as my own, in making her feel wholly loved and protected, in ensuring she should want for nothing. I owed her that security.
I owed her a good deal more.
Out of the corner of my eye I registered a man walking through the cemetery, and instinctively looked round for Alex. Ah, there she was, head down, walking between the gravestones.
I turned my eyes back to the visitor and realized he was an old gentleman, and likely harmless enough. Judging by his gait, and the stoop of his shoulders, and the medals carefully pinned to his tweed jacket, he was of an age to have been a soldier in the Great War, one of the fortunate ones who came back, to face guilty autumns of his own, perhaps, and pay tribute to comrades, or at least those not left behind in a foreign field.
I looked away from the old soldier and searched again for Alex. She was further off now, but as I watched I saw her spring into the air, leaping with coltish -
Shit. That was an open grave she was jumping across.
She turned round to look at me, then waved, but made no move to come back to me.
Fair enough. It had been more fun when I was just her godfather, all birthday presents and holidays. Then I became the law, and there was room enough for both of us to build up a bit of resentment. Of course I'd never tell her that.
And yet...and yet, for all the tense moments and awkward conversations and occasional standoffs, I knew Alex loved me, nearly as much as I loved her, and that whatever happened, we'd face it together, always. Always.
At least that is what I told myself at the time.
I noticed she was in a much better frame of mind, remarkably so, by the time she did come back to help with the flowers. This time she got to her knees right beside me, and I reckoned it could do no harm, given the state she was in after her rambles.
"So you've been going about the place assessing the damage, have you?" I said to her as we worked.
"It's not that bad - well, except for the tree," she replied.
"Yes, that is in a bad way. I expect they'll have to cut it down."
"Yes, that's what he told me."
"That's what who told you?"
"Boy?" Aside from that frail old soldier, I hadn't seen anyone about the place - not even a gravedigger.
"He looked like Edmund, or maybe Peter," Alex was saying.
"In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
One of her favorite books - or it had been, when her father had still been alive to read it to her.
"I mean his clothes," went on Alex. "The way his hair was cut."
I had to smile. The previous week Alex and I had seen a television program about the children who were evacuated from cities during the war, precisely as the young heroes of Narnia had been. Evidently it made quite an impression on her.
"...and he had a nasty bruise on his forehead, and a cut lip. He said he'd walked into a wall -"
"Into a wall? Who walked into a wall, Alex?"
"That boy," said Alex impatiently. "He said that's how he got hurt.
"He was lying, though. I can always tell when people are lying to me."
I can always tell when people are lying to me. I mentally filed that away for future reference and turned my attention back to what Alex was saying.
"...and he said he was going to have lots of adventures and asked me if I wanted to come along. But first I had to jump over that grave. Because I'm a girl. He bet me I couldn't do it."
Ah, so that's what this was about. Though I still couldn't recall seeing a boy.
"If I lost I'd have had to show him my - show him my -"
She blushed. A year or two earlier she'd have nonchalantly told me he'd wanted to see her knickers, or worse, and now she was growing up, talking to boys, feeling embarrassed at my even knowing about it. Dear God, had it already come to that? Suddenly I felt unequal to seeing her through adolescence.
All in its time, all in its time. Concentrate. She's still just a little girl.
"If you'd lost," I told her, "I'd have had to come pull you out!" She grinned at that, and I went on. "So, this boy - did he have a name?"
"Gary Cooper?" I said, amused. Clearly I'd let her watch one too many old films on the telly.
"But that's a made-up name," went on Alex.
I smiled. "Not made up at all, just borrowed. It's an alias."
"I know what an alias is," she said, rolling her eyes again.
"Yes, of course you do.
"So this Gary Cooper - he just rode off into the sunset, did he?"
"Not rode," said Alex. "Anyway, I didn't see him go.
"But he said he'd see me round."
By the time we'd finished with the flowers Alex had grown quiet again, and I put it down to her being tired after all the running about. I was feeling tired myself, and resolved to get us both out of there as quickly as possible.
But before we could leave, we stood once again in silence before the gravestone. It was part of our ritual.
Here lie Timothy Price
and his wife
"I wish Mummy was here," Alex said suddenly.
So do I. But I didn't speak the words, only reached for Alex's hand, held it tightly.
"You're very like her, you know."
"No, I'm not." And Alex wrenched her hand out of mine. "I'm not. Don't say that."
"Alex, I only meant - "
"Can we go home now? Please?" She wouldn't look at me, but if I couldn't see her eyes fill with tears, I could hear the telltale quaver in her voice.
"All right, then," I said softly. "Let's go."
She didn't say word on the way back to the car, but I knew it wasn't because she was exhausted, it was because her mind was working, as it so often did, with some particularly troubling thought. Fortunately she was still young enough not to want to build too many walls between us, and I knew I wouldn't have to wait long to find out what had set her off this time.
"- what if I don't grow up?"
I smiled. "Alex, I don't think you're going to be able to get out of growing up."
"No, I mean - I mean, what if I die soon?"
"What if I get cancer? Or I'm in a road accident?"
"Alex, I promise you, you're not going to -"
"I have dreams sometimes."
Oh, God, not the dreams again. I thought she'd got beyond all that in the first months.
"Alex," I said, suddenly struck by the exaggerated tone of patience in my own voice, "we've talked about this."
"Not about Mummy and Daddy. About me."
"What about you?"
"I dream sometimes I'm in hospital - I'm lying in hospital, and I can't move. Or I'm on the ground, or a dirty old mattress." She wouldn't look at me. "It's so cold," she said, wrapping her arms round herself. "So cold."
I was beginning to find the conversation beyond disturbing. "Alex, they're just dreams," I said, as gently as I could. "It's just your mind making up a story. Like a television show. Or a book." And it was normal, perfectly normal, I reminded myself, that Alex should still have these fears. It was part of the grieving process. It was -
"You don't understand." Her eyes were filling with tears. "I can't stop it. I can't, Evan."
"The dreams'll go away, I promise you." Perhaps it was time she spoke to a counselor again. "Maybe we should go back and see -"
"No!" Alex was crying in earnest. "I don't want to see anyone. And I can't stop it happening, Evan. I can't, I can't!"
Shit, she was almost hysterical - not like her at all.
Alex wriggled across the front seat, crept under my arm, and I held her against me, leaned my cheek on the top of her head, just like I used to do in those first months after Caroline and Tim had died. "Shh, shh. It'll be all right," I said, stroking her hair. "I promise. We'll be all right. You're not going anywhere, and neither am I."
She gave a big sniff. "You're going to die too."
I smiled, in spite of everything. She was so relentlessly logical, just like her mother.
"Not for a long time. In fact, for your information, I have every intention of staying around till everyone's sick of the very sight of me. A cantankerous, miserable, stubborn old git. With horrible false teeth and an ear trumpet. So ancient moss will grow on me."
She giggled weakly, and I felt her relax a bit.
"Hey, you're not getting rid of me so easily," I went on. "And I'm always going to be on your side. Always.
"And nothing's going to happen to you, nothing.'Not while I'm around.'" And as I held her, I half-sang, half-murmured a bit of Sondheim - I knew she liked it, even if she rolled her eyes again - and it did the trick, as it always had. After a few moments the sniffling stopped, then the tears. I felt Alex relax against me, and knew she was all right, at least for the moment.
"Now then," I said, patting her on the shoulder. "Ready to go?"
"Yeah." She rubbed at her nose with one fist, then got on with the business of settling into her seat, snapping the belt back into place. She was always determined to be tough, no matter what, and it tore at my heart.
"Now I don't know about you," I said, as casually as I could manage, "but I need to warm up. What would you say to some cocoa with cream on top?"
"All right, then." And I started the car, having made a promise I was never going to be able to keep.
A/N: "Not While I'm Around" comes from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which had its London premiere in 1980 and a revival in 1985.
The "foreign field" is a reference to Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier."