It was a Sunday afternoon in the second week of December, and I was visiting the grave of my parents. This is something I do only rarely, once every few months, on birthdays or other special occasions. This was the Christmas Visit. I was bringing them chrysanthemums.
In truth, these are trips that are made more out of duty than anything else. I've never been keen on flowers or plants, so the gardening aspect of grave attendance doesn't appeal to me. Also, I've never believed in an afterlife. I've always held to the view that when you're dead, you're dead. But still, I go. As I say, duty.
On this particular Sunday, there was no match worth watching on TV, there was little in the papers or the supplements, there were no pressing domestic chores, and being divorced (from my wife and seemingly from the rest of the female population), there was no one to claim my time. I'd run out of excuses.
Not possessing any spiritual beliefs, then, there could be no sense in which I felt the graveyard to be 'eerie.' I hadn't felt like that even when I was a child. But there was certainly an atmosphere about the place: one of peace and calm which was, for a brief time at least, a welcome antidote to the outside excesses of the pre-Christmas period.
And it was damp. Everywhere it was damp, causing the bark of the trees and the grass underfoot to be several shades darker than usual. And it was cold. Not as bad as it might have been at this time of the year but, for a person whose dislike of winter increases with age, still quite cold enough.
While I was indulging in the ritual hand blowing that characterised my Christmas travels around the graveyard, I noticed a man who was by a grave which was two rows forward and three plots along from where I was. At first, the sight of him gave me something of a start - I hadn't realised that there was anyone else about. Then it occurred to me that he had probably been crouching down to dig and therefore been hidden from view. This was confirmed when I moved and saw his battered, muddy outdoor clothes and the assortment of garden tools at his feet.
The man wasn't aware of my presence - in fact, he didn't seem to be aware of anything other than the grave in front of him. He was of medium height, had very closely cropped fair hair, and was, I judged, just a little younger than myself - probably in his mid-forties. The most striking thing about him, though, was his broadness. He was built like a bull.
I finished putting the chrysanthemums in the pot. I looked at my parents' grave, thought a few obvious thoughts, and then it was time to leave. I'd done all I could do. On this occasion, though, unlike when I'd come in, I decided to use the front gate rather than the side one. The path to the side gate was a quagmire, and, as I'd forgotten to bring my wellington boots, I didn't want to have to walk through it again.
To leave by the front, I had to pass the man. As I approached him, he turned around and, prompted by the fact that we were the only two people in the graveyard, I smiled a non-committal half-smile. He didn't smile back but, instead, seemed to look right through me. I thought him rude, but it didn't bother me unduly - I've learned to expect little from my fellow man.
It was with great surprise, then, that I heard him speak. I was unable to make out what he said and assumed that he was talking to himself, but when I looked again at him and saw him glancing towards me, I realised that his words were intended for me. Rather than ask him to repeat himself, I stopped and commented on the neatness of the grave that he'd been working on. Staring at the headstone (which he did throughout the rest of our conversation), he said quietly and haltingly, 'I have to keep Caroline warm.'
This remark meant nothing to me until I followed the line of his eyes and looked at the stone. I saw from it that it was the grave of someone called Caroline who had died eight months before, aged forty-three. I asked him, as gently as I could, whether Caroline had been his partner. He gave the briefest of nods, and then, several seconds later, when I'd given up hope of him speaking, he said, 'My wife.' Then he added, 'Always my wife.'
I'm a fairly nosy person, and I was keen to know the circumstances of his wife's early death - whether she'd had an accident or whether she'd had something wrong with her. But, of course, I couldn't ask. It was one of the few occasions in my life when I've been able to keep a rein on my questioning tongue, but I just couldn't ask. Instead, I hoped that the facts would emerge in conversation.
As my mind went off on this tangent, the man suddenly spoke. 'Caroline was life.' I saw him clench his hand as he said this. I didn't attempt to make any reply. I simply listened to what came out. 'She was my life. Until then …' He didn't finish this part. I kept listening. 'She was kind, Caroline.' He laughed a sort of bitter, non-laugh. 'Kind. No one could be like her. She was soft. Warm.' As he said this, a particularly quick-eyed sparrow perched on the headstone, but the man didn't seem to notice it. Then, some while after it had flown away, he spoke again. 'She had a lightness. She smiled - even on that day. It never went.'
Listening to him was painful and demanding. He spoke cryptically, but with what was, once you'd got used to it, an undeniable beauty. It was intense, poetic, and mesmerising. So mesmerising that I can't remember whether he was well-spoken or not or whether he had a regional accent. All that seemed unimportant.
He went on intermittently. 'Caroline used to say she wasn't beautiful. But she was better than beautiful. There was something. She had it. I was so lucky.' He paused. I decided that it must be time for me to say something, but before I could do so, he began again, still staring fiercely ahead. 'She loved me. She truly loved me. What she gave me in my life … I never deserved. What she had from life … she never deserved.'
His speech then began to flow, though it never lost its intrinsic strangeness. His massive body looked set to burst. 'In the day. Every night. All night - particularly at night. It's worse when it's windy or when it rains. I think of Caroline down the road, here, down there. Under the earth. Caroline.' The emphasis he put on the name was almost unbearable to hear. 'I want to scratch the earth away. I want to open …' He stopped briefly before adding, 'She's there. She is. I know it's not over.' With these words, his body shuddered.
I felt helpless. So many feelings, so many images, had been created. I thought of Heathcliff and Hamlet and jumping into graves and life and death … It was all too much to take in. I was drained.
As he stood there, I tried to evaluate him and what he'd told me. His passion was extreme, but I knew that it wasn't a pose. It was genuine. So genuine that I could almost touch it in the air. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I couldn't resist it. I had to find out more. I said tentatively, 'Do you have any children?'
There was a lengthy pause before he said calmly, 'A son.' Then he added, 'Aged 23.'
I dared to ask another question. 'Are you close?'
'When Caroline was … dying … and when she died, we were close. Closer than before. Than we'd ever been. We needed each other.' He narrowed his eyes, absorbed in thought. 'But now … he lives away. We'll never get it back. He's living with a girl. Got a good job. He deserves to live in the future, not the past.'
There was a long silence while he thought about something, and I struggled for something else to say. Eventually, I came up with a weak remark about it being especially difficult for him at Christmas, what with it being the first one without his wife, and so on. But he didn't answer. I didn't blame him. He merely stared ahead with the look of one who is in possession of a terrible knowledge.
Afterwards, when I'd left him, I couldn't forget this man. He'd affected me to the extent that, initially, I too was troubled by the thought of his wife being under the earth. My mind dwelt involuntarily on the idea of her in her grave as the seasons changed. I imagined her being warm during spring and hot during summer, and then I imagined how cold she would be, under frozen ground, now that it was winter. It took me days to shake off these disturbing thoughts.
When I did, I began to think some more about the nature of the man himself. I thought about how exceptional this seemingly unexceptional man was. He was not a character in a book or film, he wasn't a celebrity, nobody would ever know his name, his face, or his story. And yet his was a love, and an ability to love, which touched the heights of human experience. I knew that he had more passion for his wife when she was dead than I'd had for my ex-wife, even during the best days of our relationship. This said a lot about us both.
When I went back to the graveyard in April, he was there. I had to walk past him, but this time we didn't speak. He didn't seem to remember me - which, as he had scarcely looked at me during our conversation, was only to be expected. Again his wife's grave was immaculate - as well-kept as any in the graveyard.
In the summer I went again. Once more, he was there but, as I entered from a different side, I didn't have to pass him. As usual, the grave was beautiful, and as usual, the man was preoccupied with looking at the headstone. On this occasion, I could hear him talking, not in a whisper but quite loudly. I couldn't exactly make out what he was saying - and nor did I want to - but I could hear the name Caroline being sounded, and I could recognise the characteristic broken speech patterns. He was still there when I left.
When I went to the graveyard at Christmas, I had a surprise. The man wasn't there. Just why this should be so surprising, I don't really know. There must have been times when he had to do other things. Times, like everyone else, when he would have to eat, drink, sleep, work, relax - whatever. He couldn't be at the graveside all day, every day.
But although I was a little disappointed not to see the man again, I wasn't strictly sure whether it was right to want to do so. I certainly wanted to believe that he was still grieving for his wife - indeed, I couldn't imagine it being otherwise - but I hoped that the intervening time would have helped to make this grief less consuming and less destructive. In this respect, his absence seemed to me to be no bad thing. Perhaps it was a signal that he was coming to terms with his loss.
When I'd put the last of this year's chrysanthemums in the pot and had a meaningful look at my parents' grave, I started to make my way out. This time I'd remembered to bring my wellingtons and so was able to leave by the side gate. For some reason, though, as I took my first steps, I felt compelled to double back and have a look at Caroline's grave. As I approached it, I was shocked to see that it was untidy. Not overgrown, but definitely untidy. It didn't seem right.
It was with a slight feeling of trepidation, then, that I walked to the grave. I didn't know what I was going to find. When I did get there, though, I saw what I should have expected to see. For there were now two names on the stone.