Amy’s room was cold; the heating had been turned off. Outside, snow was falling from a white-grey sky and the view from the window was blurred as a slight breeze caught the flakes and threw them silently against the glass. There was no rattle of raindrops or hammering of hail. This was as it should be, thought the woman who stood there looking out. The weather was showing proper respect. The whole world seemed quiet; it was holding its breath.
There was a distant hubbub from the people waiting downstairs but that served only to accentuate the silence in a room that had so often been alive with childish laughter. Ostensibly everything about the room itself was the same as it always had been. The pink wallpaper, the Disney curtains, the toys, the dolls, the picture of the boy-band on the wall. Amy’s pyjamas lay on the pillow, neatly folded in a little square parcel; her colouring books were stacked on a bedside table with a box of pencils on top; but none of them would be needed again.
There would be no more brightly coloured pictures of jungle animals for her father to admire before telling her bedtime stories, no improbable pink giraffes or mauve tigers. Red birds would no longer fly off into green sunsets and Jack would not be slaying the giant again to childish sighs of relief. Amy was dead. She lay in the little white coffin in the middle of the room.
The hospital had given special permission for this. It was unusual for the bodies of patients who had undergone postmortem examination to leave the premises. They were usually taken directly to the hospital mortuary to await collection by appointed undertakers on the day of the funeral. But Amy’s mother had dug her heels in and insisted that she be allowed home for the last time. She didn’t know why she’d done it and she suspected the authorities had only given in to avoid a prolonged scene with a grief-stricken woman. She only knew that, as she continued to look out of the window, it seemed right. Amy was going to start her last journey from her own room.
Jean Teasdale’s face was expressionless, her eyes distant. There were no tears; she had cried herself out. She barely acknowledged the fact that a hearse was drawing up outside the house, its wheels silenced by the snow. A few moments later the sound of the hubbub downstairs increased as the door behind her was opened and then faded as it was closed again.
‘It’s time, Jean,’ said her husband softly.
‘What was it all for? Tell me that,’ she asked without turning.
‘I wish I could,’ came the whispered reply.
‘Seven years of life and then nothing. Snuffed out. What a waste, what a stupid, pointless waste.’
Frank Teasdale put his hands gently on his wife’s shoulders and kissed the back of her head lightly. She didn’t turn round but she reached up her right hand to rest it on his.
‘It’s time to be brave,’ he said.
‘It’s stupid, I know, but I can’t help worrying about all that snow out there.’
‘What about it, love?’
‘I keep thinking… when they put Amy in the ground… she’ll be cold.’
Frank Teasdale lost the battle with his emotions; and he had been doing so well up till that moment. Tears flooded down his cheeks and his shoulders heaved with the effort of trying to maintain a masculine silence. Jean finally turned away from the window and they held each other tight as they sought solace; but in this situation none was possible.
Frank broke away, pulling out a handkerchief and blowing his nose as he fought to find composure again. ‘We’d best be getting downstairs,’ he said. ‘Get this over with. People have come from the hospital.’
Jean nodded. ‘That’s nice,’ she said.
They paused together by Amy’s coffin and rested a hand on the lid for a moment in a silent gesture of farewell. Frank looked at Jean; his eyes asked the question. She nodded in reply. They went down to join the mourners, passing between two of the undertaker’s men who were waiting at the foot of the stairs.
‘All right if we go up now?’ asked one.
‘Yes,’ replied Frank without looking at him.
Amy’s coffin was taken from the house and gently loaded into the hearse, to be surrounded by flowers from friends and family. They looked strangely incongruous against the snow, a splash of colour in a black-and-white world. Frank Teasdale found himself mesmerized by them; he kept staring at them through the windscreen of the car behind as he sat in the back with his arm round Jean. It was impossible not to draw analogies: beautiful, ephemeral things there for only a moment in the great scheme of things before withering and dying. He thought, it will soon be Christmas.
The next hour or so saw Frank and Jean Teasdale support each other through their daughter’s funeral service and subsequent interment in the churchyard of St Mungo’s, their local church, although neither had seen the inside of it since Amy’s christening. They clung to each other as if afraid to let go even for a moment. It was almost a relief when the first shovel of earth hit the coffin lid and Amy could now exist only in memory.
Frank had started to guide his wife back along the path to the car park when she suddenly stopped. He felt her arm become rigid and looked up to see what had caught her attention. A woman was standing in the trees off to the side. She was wearing a raincoat and headscarf but Jean had recognized her.
‘It’s that nurse,’ she said. ‘It’s that damned nurse. Why won’t she leave us alone? Why must she go on spreading her poison?’
Frank could sense his wife becoming distraught. He tried to calm her, before taking a step towards the woman in the trees. The woman made an apologetic gesture as if to indicate that he needn’t move; she had not meant to cause trouble. She moved back until she was out of sight.
‘She’s gone,’ said Frank, returning to his wife’s side.
‘Why does she persist?’ demanded Jean.
He looked sadly back to the trees. ‘I really don’t know,’ he said.
‘Who can tell us where we get bread from?’ asked Kate Chapman. There were eighteen children sitting in front of her. She smiled as a forest of eager young hands went up and enthusiasm filled their faces. She loved teaching, especially at primary school. For her there was something magical about introducing children to the voyage of discovery she firmly believed education should be. She took her early navigational responsibility seriously. Not for her the cynicism that said these would be the surly teenagers of tomorrow, the bus-shelter vandals, the lager louts, that each new generation was more spoilt than the last. Kate simply could not see beyond the innocent little faces that currently vied for her attention.
‘Please, Miss, a baker, Miss.’
‘Good, Kerry. Now, who’s going to tell us how the baker makes our bread?
No hands went up this time.
‘Come on, what does the baker use to make the bread?’ coaxed Kate.
A little boy, wearing glasses with one lens blanked off to encourage a lazy eye, put his hand up tentatively then withdrew it. He did this several times with furtive glances to the side as if afraid of making a fool of himself.
Kate sensed his dilemma. ‘Yes, Andrew,’ she said encouragingly. ‘Come on, have a try. What do you think the baker uses?’