The children and I stop at the church to visit my little boy, who died when he was just five weeks old. My surviving son is his twin, and we have regular conversations about why this happened, how far in the ground his brother is buried, whether he is allowed Haribo in heaven (I vote yes), and why some poorly people live and some die. That one’s a tricky one to answer. We went through a phase when J would ask anyone who so much as sneezed whether they were about to shuffle off their mortal coil, but I think he now accepts that most of us tend to get better.
We walk up the cobbled path to the churchyard entrance, and as always I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for this beautiful church. I went to school here, running through the churchyard to the tiny village school at the rear, my satchel banging against my legs in time with the chiming church bell. Twenty years later I was married in the church, picking my satin-heeled way across the cobbles on my darling father’s arm to marry a man who would later give me my beautiful children. And three years ago we stood before the same vicar, bearing our son in a tiny white coffin.
I watch my son holding hands with his sisters as they walk in front of me; the girls in little smocked dresses looking almost Victorian as they clutch the roses chosen with care by J, who always picks yellow flowers for his brother. It is a sentimental image, but I feel reassured by their dedication to something they can’t possibly understand. They have taken on my grief as their own.
My son is buried in the children’s area, where far too many tiny graves jostle for position under a huge oak tree. Each headstone bears an achingly short life-span. I have come to know these ghosts and I smile to them as I pick my way across the well-worn path to my baby’s grave. It is simple and discreet; a single plant in the ground and a waiting vase for our yellow roses. It carries none of the baubles, cuddly toys and fairy lights which scatter the other resting places; I have no need of such trinkets although I smile to see them elsewhere.
In the practice which has become tradition, J makes to take the roses from his sister to slot them into the vase. She resists, new-found independence making her challenge sibling hieararchy without really knowing why. Either side of the grave they jostle, making a tug-o-war of the roses which begin to shed golden petals on the grass below. G begins to scream, a piercing, relentless cry which echoes round the graveyard and bounces off the ancient stonework of the church. J is becoming angry, stamping his feet on an memorial plaque and ranting over the injustice of his sister’s behaviour.
“But he’s MY dead twin” he shouts, “I need to put the flowers in because he’s MY dead twin, not YOUR dead twin. He’s MY dead twin, isn’t he Mummy?”
“Yes, darling, he’s your dead twin, but we have to share, don’t we?” Oh Jesus, what on earth am I doing? It’s not Lego.
“I don’t want to share him, he’s MY dead baby”.
Oh God, this is awful. A woman in a hat is walking purposely through the churchyard staring pointedly in our direction. I hiss under my breath at J and G, who are glaring at each other, still clutching the wilting roses. I make threats I won’t keep and promises I can’t, but it works and they fall passively to the side of the headstone, agreeing to split the bunch of roses between them.
I watch them slot the flowers into position peaceably, chatting to each other, as the woman approaches us. She is clearly something Churchy. A warden perhaps, or a Religious Type.
“Excuse me, there seemed to be rather a lot of noise – is everything alright?”
“Mmm, oh yes, fine. Sorry about that. My children were fighting over their… well, they were just fighting really. But they’re fine now”
Just then I felt a small child nudge my leg. I looked down to find E standing there, the skirt of her dress held up to accomodate a veritable treasure trove of trinkets and treats. China fairies, teddy bears, silver bells, tiny lanterns, hand-written cards and more besides spilled out from her smock onto my feet.
We were asked to leave. Politely but firmly. I did offer to try to match the treasures to their owners, but it was agreed that was probably a job best left to someone without the hindrance of three delinquent toddlers. Apparently grave-robbing is still an offence in some churches.