Plumstead Cemetery

FICTION: Plumstead Cemetery

A short story by Alexander Matthews

The reverend squints up at the blue. It’s just the three of us – Mom said she wanted to keep it small, a private affair. My father is still in Angola; he said he couldn’t get off his rig shift but I don’t know if he even tried to. Sent Cornelius an email but I’m not sure how things stood between them in the end; he didn’t reply. Ed wasn’t a fan of Facebook and hadn’t kept in touch with his high school mates (we’d had separate groups of friends which wasn’t so strange once you knew how different we were). I wish I could hold Claire’s hand while we wait. I need something solid, certain – though what is certain even of hands held? We are all destined for dust.

A roadside bomb. Helmand province. An early patrol, fifty miles from Camp Bastion. They hadn’t said much more than that. Three weeks ago my mom had got the telephone call. I had been out biking on the mountain. When I got back, there she was, sitting against the fridge, knees drawn up to her chest. She looked up, gazing past me at the Table, framed by the window.

“Your brother’s dead.”

Dead. It always had been a possibility – right from the beginning. I was at home with flu the day the Royal Marines came to school with their glossy posters, camo-wrapped muscles and easy smiles. There were three of them, Ed had told me later – a Zimbabwean, a South African, and their Commanding Officer, a Brit.

When he told me he was going to apply, that’s when I blurted “But what if you get killed.” I don’t know why I said that – why I even thought that. Maybe it was yet another piece in the paper about the deaths over there, maybe it was a photo online of coffins shat out of the back of a Hercules transporter at RAF Lyneham, or their stately parade through nearby Wootton Bassett.

He shrugged. “Shit happens,” he said – the kind of thing I would say. I couldn’t really argue. I was proud of him. And by the time he’d finished training, the war in Afghanistan might already be over. Yes. Death was a possibility but it felt even remoter than the country itself.

“I probably won’t get in anyway,” he had added.

I remember nodding at this. He didn’t stand a chance, did he? Over the past three weeks I’ve kept on thinking – it should’ve been me. And perhaps if I had sat in the War Memorial Hall that day and listened to the soldiers and watched the video that made the Marines look like Swallows and Amazons with sub-machine guns – well, perhaps then it would’ve been me going up to ask the Commando more questions, Ed hanging back, holding onto his Anna fucking Karenina and waiting for me to finish.

You didn’t have to, I want to shout at him in the night when I wake up to unthinking dread and then remember. You didn’t have to prove so much. You were the swimmer, the runner – running away from the others who couldn’t understand that you were different. You were the boy reading in the library, the boy handing ice, strapping wrists, fixing slings while I charged round on the rugby field or smashed up the haters in the ring.

I hear the reverend clearing his throat. The hearse is now coming through the gates; it crawls like a dung beetle round the headstones towards us. This is the end; this is the end. I want to shout, but no Eddie, it’s not the end because you’ve fucking left us here to go on living without you. I cough, tears push at the edges of my eyeballs but I won’t cry. Aside from Mom and the reverend, there is no one to see it, no one to care, but I won’t give him the satisfaction. I will not break.

I step over to my mom who is watching the hearse’s progress (it is almost with us). I take her hand. Behind the veil her mouth is quivering. She squeezes my hand.

“I should never have let him sign up. He was still just a boy.”

The reverend turns away slightly. He can hear us, perhaps, above the roar of the gums.

“He would’ve gone anyway, Mom. He would’ve found a way. Remember how much he wanted to go.” I squeeze her hand back.

The hearse stops; the undertaker climbs out, followed by his assistant, a guy about my age, from the passenger side.

The undertaker comes up to me, shakes my hand, nods curtly at my mother. He asks me to help carry the coffin.

The back door is yanked up. The coffin emerges slowly as they pull it out. It’s draped in the Union Jack. I hate that flag; I want to rip it off, burn it, destroy its folly and futile grandeur.

The undertaker cocks his head at me; I go round to the back and take hold of the two handles at the coffin’s base. We move slowly; it is surprisingly light. I try not to think of its contents but it is unavoidable. Broken bone, charred flesh – that is all that is left.

It was a bomb – an IED they call it – so it must have been instant, surely? Did he know – what did he feel? I shudder, try to keep my hands still. I see, I can’t hide it, a jeep on gravel, Edward in the back, hugging his rifle, fingers playing with straps, glancing up at ochre hills, chin chafing, his helmet sweaty, heavy and ultimately useless.

We stop in front of the grave. The cemetery’s caretaker, unseen, had dug it up neatly before we had arrived.

We lower it slowly; the front sinks faster as their knees bend and their arms extend. I crouch down and then my hands are suddenly free of the metal – they are holding just air.

The reverend coughs. “I won’t be long,” he says. “We are gathered here to remember Edward Michael Willis, to mark not just his premature passing, but to celebrate his life, the life God Almighty gave him.”

The life this reverend – my mother’s reverend since she started going to church again three years ago – had never actually been a part of. I look away. I don’t want to listen to this man – it’s nothing personal; he’s just doing his job. But what can words do? They cannot change things; they cannot bring him back.

Clouds, thin and dirty, curl over the mountain. You can see its length here – the way it stretches from the conical Devil’s Peak and the densely packed Table, slackening, lengthening, falling gently towards the sea. Less than a kilometre away is the hospital – then newly built – where we were born just over 22 years ago.

“Amen,” says the reverend.

“Amen,” I say, blinking.

The undertaker hands me a shovel. I scoop sand up and throw it on the coffin. It lands, scattering over the centre of the cross, blotting the red. I hand the shovel to my mom who slowly pulls up a small mound. She twists the shovel over the grave and the sand falls.

This is a private funeral, just as we’d asked – no military headstone, no Last Post, no gun salute, or whatever they do. “They had him in life; they will not have him in death,” my mom had said to me. So it is just us and the body (or bits of it, I think cruelly). And in my ears, Sureshini from the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre with a sugary soft voice telling us gently what we were entitled to, what would happen, the flight, British Airways, that Edward would be on, the recommended undertakers, the timing of the money transfer to cover the funeral’s costs.

“Is he the first South African killed?”

There was a pause when I’d asked her this.

“I’m not sure, sir.”

I shovel four more mounds and stop, sweating. Mom is crying; the reverend is holding her hands. I lay the shovel down. Later, when we are gone, the caretaker (or caretakers – who knows how many people look after this place) will come and fill the rest in.

I take out the photograph I brought with me from my blazer pocket. My eyes are burning, blurry; all I can hear is the imagined swipe of the shovel. I see it lying down next to me, but I hear it, slowly filling the grave, pushing my brother further and further away from me.

This is forever. But here he is, in my hands. I thought I was going to throw the picture into the grave but something is stopping me now. I can’t. Instead I hold onto it so tightly that the borders crease where my fingers touch them.

We were such fools, I think. Grinning like this would never happen, like life was eternal. My mom took the photo – after our Valedictory service. Matric exams were the only things between us and freedom. You can’t see it but my eyes are slightly wet – like most of the others, I had cried a little as we flowed out of the hall for the last time, past the decaying wreath and the bronze lettering marking the names of fallen Old Boys from the two world wars.

A chapter had ended; things would never be the same. Ed hadn’t cried – instead he beamed on his way out, just like in the picture – relieved to be leaving.

It was only four years ago but we look so young there, like babes. I’ve got a chummy arm around his shoulder. He’s a bit taller; I’m wider, shadowing him, ears standing out boldly. There’s a cut above my eye, just thicker than a slit, crusted with blood. Ed leans into me, lean and nervy and alive.

His body changed shape in the months that followed, of course, as he prepped for his application. He still ran and swam but he convinced me to take him down to the gym. Initially he was bokkie-eyed, itching to leave, annoyed by the senseless change room banter, alarmed (it seemed) by the yells and grunts as weights were lifted and unsteadily lowered.

“I look like such a fag,” he said once, picking up his pair of – much smaller – dumbbells. But he persisted. His confidence and muscles grew in the summer.

I took him to boxing a couple of times too. We exchanged punches with gloves or slammed them against bags, did chin lifts and push-ups.

“Just don’t fuck me up too much,” he said as I pummelled him. “I’ve got to be pristine for April.”

Back then we never spoke about boys. A part of me wanted to – after all, I was forever updating him about my love life, and the lack of reciprocity seemed impolite. But he didn’t want to bring it up, and I didn’t push him to – a part of me was relieved. I didn’t mind what he was. It was just something I couldn’t share or understand.

I once wondered if he had made it up, if it was just a phase. He had been drunk when he’d told me, after all.

But then I’d catch the way he looked at a good-looking waiter and I would know.

“Why don’t you go for it?” I asked him when Mom had gone to the toilet.

He had twiddled a spoon in Parmesan.

“Because I’m scared.”

There is a car entering the cemetery. I look away, assuming it must be someone visiting another grave but when I glance back to the road, it’s still approaching us. The car, a white hatchback, stops 100 metres away. A man steps out, looking pale, defeated in the harsh sun like he’s the one that’s returned from war.

When he’s a bit closer I realise it’s Cornelius. He decided to come after all.

My mother has stopped talking to the reverend; she steps carefully over to me.

“I recognise that man,” she says. “He’s a registrar at the hospital. What’s he doing here?”

“He was a good friend of Edward’s. I invited him. I didn’t know he was coming; he didn’t RSVP.”

She nods, straightens her black suit.

“Hello,” says Cornelius softly when he reaches us. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I’ve been on call; I came straight through from the hospital.”

I introduce my mother and Cornelius to each other. “Hello sister,” he says smiling weakly.

“Doctor,” she says with a half-grimace, half-smile.

“Stanley says you were a good friend of Edward’s,” my mother says.

“Yes. We were.”

“I don’t think he ever mentioned you. How did you get to know each other? Not through school, surely?”

I wished he hadn’t come. Why hadn’t he at least replied to my invitation? Why hadn’t I briefed him?

“We had mutual acquaintances,” he says.

If she is dissatisfied with this answer, she doesn’t show it. Instead she holds his elbow gently and says, “Thank you for coming.” She coughs a little. “We hadn’t given any thought to a wake as it was just us that I thought were attending.” She looks across at me, biting her lip. I think she is trying not to cry.

“Stanley, if you’d like to catch up with Cornelius, the reverend can lift me home. Buy him a drink, seen as he’s come all this way.”

I step forward. She is weeping now.

“Mom.”

“Just…” She sucks in air and the words slurp out haphazardly. “I… just… need… some… time… alone.”

I nod.

The reverend who has been standing back with his hands clasped comes up now and says quietly, “It’s all right, Jennifer. We’ll be home shortly.”

She nods, scrunches up her handkerchief and sniffs. I am not used to this. Mom is strength and grace and wisdom. Mom is the sound of Abide With Me hummed into my ear as I sobbed into my pillow as a child. Mom was there when Dad was, and she remained after he’d gone.

I look at her and it’s as if someone similar her has taken her place – but this figure is smaller, shrunken, spirit-trampled. I should be holding her but I can’t. And I don’t even know if she wants or expects this. There are no rules, no markers charting the way through grief’s blank calamity.

After shaking my hand, the reverend shepherds my mom towards his station wagon. She climbs in, waves limply at us, looks over at the grave. There is a slight shake of her head. I pull a box of cigarettes out of my pocket.

Mom doesn’t know I smoke (I only do sometimes anyway – a packet a week, normally). I don’t really care if she can see me taking a cigarette out as the car jolts away.

I struggle with the lighter’s catch; the flame flowers, sputters, almost disappearing into the wind. The cigarette’s in my mouth. I look down to the flame and realise my hands, yes, they’re my hands, I think – they’re shaking. Finally the flame catches; a wisp of smoke is caught and scattered.

I blow, blow, and suck inwards. My mind has zeroed into the rush of smoke entering my mouth, flooding my throat – for a moment that is all, and the emptiness and jagged silence is gone.

“Mind if I have one?” asks Cornelius. I silently pull out a cigarette, hold it to the tip of my own until it catches.

“Thanks.”

I nod. I don’t want to be here; I don’t want him to be here. I don’t know where I want to go. Is there any escape to this?

“How you feeling?” he asks, exhaling.

He says this gently, knowing as I know that any words, all words are inadequate.

“Shit.”

He nods.

“Let’s get that drink,” I say, flicking the half-finished cigarette down, grinding it into the sand with my boot.

He looks at me, inhales.

“You don’t have to. Your mother was just being kind.”

I shrug. “Where shall we go? Forres?”

He smiles. “Ja, OK. Why not.”

I walk over to my car, parked under the gums. I pick up a dead leaf, crack it, smell the sharp minty sweetness. It reminds me of prep school, the old tree hanging over the pool, the summer afternoons when Ed and me did training with Mrs Brits, a leathery Zimbabwean. He raced ahead, always thrashing me. “Are you sure you’re twins?” she once asked.

It is hot in the car; old stale fabric and baking plastic tinges the air. Cornelius follows me as I drive out of the cemetery and into a quiet, curving road. In ten minutes the single storeys and short trees have melted away and I’m on the high way. The mountain looms as the road skims the edge of Wynberg Hill. Between the trees to my right, I catch glimpses of the city folding out like a map, all the way to the ruffed-up blue of the Hottentots Holland.

I try not to think about Ed but he refuses to be banished; his slight grin hovers just beyond my vision, teasing. The Forrester’s Arms’ parking lot is only half-full when I pull in. I wonder if I should’ve just parked at home and walked – it is only a few blocks away after all. But I am here now.

Cornelius is already standing next to his car, stretching. He comes over slowly. I wonder what it is about him that my brother fell for. Tall, blonde, a biggish nose – he doesn’t occur to me as conventionally good looking. But then how am I supposed to know? We go inside. The bar is quiet; a few tables have been taken – middle-aged couples are eating pizzas, glasses of wine or beer at their elbows. Cricket is showing on the television in the corner.

“What do you want?” Cornelius asks, taking his wallet out.

“Double Bell’s. With ice, please.”

He asks the barman for two. We take them out of the gloom and into the shady courtyard.

“There’s a spot,” he says, pointing to a smaller table and bench, slightly hidden from the other patrons by a trellised creeper.

“Cheers,” he says, raising his glass and drinking.

I echo him.

This is where I met Cornelius. When? Two years ago, three? Time feels compressed, ground up so that there are just flashes of memory, some closer than others, left.

Edward was here on leave. It was Friday night; I had come along with Claire; I think we had just started going out and she wanted to introduce me to some of her friends.

Ed was near the bar, his arm slung over Cornelius’ shoulder. He lent over and kissed him on the cheek and laughed.

If I hadn’t known him, I would’ve thought he was just a drunken rugby Old Boy – relaxed, maybe being a little daring, but just being affectionate. They were all like that, those straight jocks, after a couple of drinks. Heck, maybe I was too – although I don’t think I’ve ever kissed Joel or Simon on the cheek; the prospect, even after a few pints, seems a little gross.

Ed turned round. Spotted me.

“Stan!” he called.

“Who’s that?” said Claire.

“My twin,” I smiled wryly. “Can’t you see?”

Ed hugged me. We never normally hugged. He smiled sloppily at Claire.

“You Claire?”

She nodded pertly.

“I’m Eddie. Stan’s brother. He’s told me about you.”

His arm went around Cornelius again. “This is my boyfriend. Cornelius.”

He put his lager down.

I shook hands with Cornelius. Strong grip. His eyes held mine lightly, before drifting up to the rugby showing on the screen.

We split up, Claire taking me to her friends – uptight private school girls like her, with neighing laughs and icy voices. I kept watching Ed out of the corner of my eyes, marvelling at how different he was – the taciturn ghost of the library no more. He seemed happy – maybe the happiest I’d seen him and I felt something strange – a wrenching of sorts. He was across the room but in another world I wasn’t a part of.

“How did you guys actually meet?” I ask Cornelius.

Our glasses are almost empty – all that remains is amber-tinted ice.

“My cousin’s also a marine. He was in Ed’s unit. I visited him when I was in the UK; Ed came along. And I guess we just hit it off.”

I get us another round. The whisky has crept up to my head, sweeping across like fine gauze, softening everything.

“Thanks, bru,” he says as I hand him the glass.

“What school did you go to?”

“You fucking Capetonians. That’s all you’re ever interested in,” he says mildly. “Pretoria Boys’ High. I came down here when I started med school.”

“Do your folks know?”

He looks at me. “That I’m…? What do you think? No. I’ve left them in sweet ignorance. My father’s a dominee.”

“Why is every Afrikaner moffie’s dad a dominee?”

He chuckles.

“They’ve stopped asking when I’m getting married. I know my mom would love grandkids. But I’ve told her paediatrics has been enough to put me off. Sometimes I do wish I had introduced them to Eddie, though.”

“Why?”

“He was the first guy who meant that much to me. The only guy, in fact.”

He closes his eyes. He’s clenching the glass. He lets go, a finger blindly tracing a clear line through the condensation. He opens his eyes. “I loved him. Sounds so silly to say that now, but I did.” He stands up quickly. “I need to piss.”

A waiter comes past. I call him over. I don’t feel like going up to the bar.

“Another two please.”

I lean back. I’m floating slightly. The whisky is still sweet and heavy in my mouth.

Cornelius comes back. The waiter returns a few minutes after. We drink. Silently. The courtyard is filling up. Voices babble. I hate them. I stand up, suddenly. Swaying. I haven’t eaten breakfast. I’m drunk.

“Let’s get out of here. This place is driving me crazy.”

Cornelius hands the waiter R100 on our way out.

“Where to?” he says. “I don’t think either of us should drive.”

“Home. Let’s go home. Come on.”

We are walking straight. The leaves press down over us, the pavement in front of me is puddles of black shadow, islands of bright light.

I see the mountain, briefly, between the trees – rock guardian, immutable and impassive. Indifferent, I think, to us.

We turn right, left; the cars fade, the silence thickens. I ram the key in the front door. Home. It looks alien now – forlorn. The curtains are drawn up against the sash windows. Mom is not here.

I go through to the dining room, yank a bottle of Jack out of the gloom. Where are the glasses? Fuck it. In the kitchen I pull down two teacups from the shelf. They almost fall.

Cornelius is sitting on a stool.

“Tea?” There is the sound of the liquid splashing the porcelain. I hand a cup to him.

“Shit. It’s not even 2pm yet,” he mumbles. “Thanks.”

I sit down next to him.

I wish I was with Claire. I wonder if she knows that Edward is dead. The names of him and his fellow dead soldiers were released. There was a story on BBC; they asked Mom for comment and she told them to sod off. But surely if Claire had known – would she have phoned me? Or is she still too angry?

Six months ago, or thereabouts. I was drunk. I had won a fight. It was my last fight before I broke my clavicle, before I really did throw in the towel.

But then boxing was still life, the gym my home. And Surita, the new girl, was at the club, flirty, cheeky little bitch with tits not big but so present – jutting pointedly like a provocation.

Claire was going to come later; she hadn’t seen my fight. She hadn’t watched – she was at some Ernst & Young do – an accountancy slave having her servitude sweetened by a five-course dinner. It meant a lot to her, fitting in. And maybe me not being able to accompany her was convenient – was she really proud of having a boyfriend who was a personal trainer and three years younger than her?

Yes, all that shit meant a lot to her. More than my fucking fight. But she was coming later, she said. “I’ll be there to celebrate your victory.”

But by 11 I was pissed – those Jägers had caught up. We were on the dance floor. Some of the others from the gym were there – lights flashing, scattering, skin and eyes and teeth disappearing, reassembling. Surita slipped up against me, her smile lingering, glowing like a promise even in the dark. “Well done,” she said – I couldn’t hear her but I think those were her words. One hand brushed past my jeans, felt me for a knowing moment, another found my hand and started pulling me through the crowd. We were at the toilets; she pulled me into the disabled one and kissed me. She tasted like cherry smoke and lemon, a tangy danger, sweet mother her hands were unbuttoning my jeans. She was tugging my boxers down, she was crouching down.

“What happened to you guys?” I ask.

My tongue’s going mushy.

The whiskey is holding me now, carrying me to oblivion. But I am not there yet and I want to know why, why when we’d finished and stumbled out and Claire had seen us as she bought cigarettes from the vending machine in the corridor, after she’d slapped me and I had staggered out of the club into a cold night bleeding with taillights and found a taxi to take me home, why when I’d finally managed to unlock the front door and stagger to Ed’s bedroom so I could confess, why when I opened the door there he was with a blonde boy in his bed. Giggling. The boy, a skinny coiled-up thing fizzing in the yellow light, was licking my brother’s neck.

I ran, fell towards the bathroom, vomiting over the toilet bowl.

There was no sign of the guy the next day. I had wanted to say but what about that nice doctor oke you were dating? But I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell me and he flew back to England the next day.

Cornelius is shaking his head. “He dumped me.”

“Why, though?”

Cornelius looks into his teacup. He seems both very close and incredibly far away.

“He said it was unfair on me. That we were too far apart. That one of his best mates had died. That the same thing could easily happen to him.”

He stands up slowly. “I think I need to lie down. Fuck.”

We walk down the passage to my bedroom and he collapses down onto my bed. “Move up,” I say, elbowing him and climbing on. We’re looking at each other. I am spinning; his eyes are two dark planets, an orbital gleam in front of me.

He leans forward and kisses me on the forehead, softly.

“Dude,” I say hoarsely. “I’m not.”

He smiles. “Yes. I know.”

He gently turns over to face the wall. I lie on my back, hands on my lap, eyelids sinking over me like a blanket.

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