Maeve looked around the room. Her dad sat next to her, trying to keep himself together. Sat next to him was her younger sister Rachel, barely three years old, her legs moving back and forth as she sat. Maeve wondered if Rachel knew the full extent of what was going on here today – she barely had come to terms with it herself. Next to Rachel sat their grandmother, her mother’s mother, like dad just about managing to keep her face neutral as she gripped Rachel’s paw. In the last three chairs in the aisle sat her aunt and uncle – her mum’s sister and her husband – and their daughter Claire, five years older than Maeve, plastered with the bored teenage look that she always had, yet somehow looking appropriately sombre at the same time.
In the row behind them sat her dad’s family; his parents and brother and sister, and a rather stern-looking squirrel with white hair that she’d never seen before but had been told was her granddad’s brother-in-law, or something. Other extended family members filled the crematorium’s chapel, as did a number of other people – well-wishers from the community who probably attended every funeral going; the family of badgers from a few streets away with the girl-badger that Rachel was starting to be inseparable from and the boy-badger that growled whenever he saw Maeve; the families of a couple of the few friends she’d managed to make in her new school who were obviously trying to make an effort. She was glad to see some faces she recognised from their old home on Brownsea Island – none of her friends though, although that was to be expected really as it was a weekday afternoon.
She wasn’t really paying attention to what was being said from the front. The Labrador priest, or vicar, or whatever they were called, was speaking as if he knew her mum but of course he didn’t. They’d only been in Hazelford for a few months, nobody here really knew her. Something was said, and her dad shifted in his seat next to her. She looked up to see him sniff back some tears, and almost automatically she held out the box of tissues she’d been entrusted with. Andrew took one of them, smiled sadly at his daughter, and dabbed his eyes with the tissue as he put his arm around Maeve and gave her a squeeze.
She couldn’t work out why she wasn’t able to cry herself. She was sad, distraught even, at the sudden loss of her mother as the cancer nobody knew she had taken hold without warning, but there were no tears for some reason. She considered trying to force it, but didn’t want to. As her gran said, she should grieve in her own way.
Another shift in the seat next to her as her dad took a deep breath and stood up. Maeve turned in her seat to allow her dad to exit the aisle and approach the podium at the front. She knew he had been dreading this, but he had wanted to do this – for his wife Alison, and for their two daughters. Maeve slid over a seat so she was sat next to Rachel, and put her arm around her sister’s shoulder.
“I was seventeen when I first met Alison,” Andrew said slowly to keep his voice from breaking. “I remember falling in love with her hair first, of all things, and I remember thinking that she’d never give me a second glance.” He smiled wistfully at the memory. “Turned out that when she first saw me, she thought the same, though not about the hair!” He ran his hand over his thinning hair line which resulted in a polite ripple of laughter around the room.
As he went on, Maeve noticed that Rachel’s legs had stopped swinging back and forth, and although she wasn’t really aware that her little sister had been humming softly to herself, she noticed that she had stopped as she listened to their dad up on the stage behind the podium. Again, Maeve wondered if Rachel really knew what was going on. Was she understanding what Dad was saying? Did she know why all these people were gathered together? Was she wondering where Mum was, not aware that her lifeless body was in the wooden box in front of them?
She started to feel those tears well up inside of her, but knew that these weren’t really tears of sadness but of… anger? Was she angry? In a way, she probably was. Was she angry at her mother for leaving them? Well, maybe but no. She couldn’t be angry at Mum, it wasn’t her fault. Was she angry at whatever entity it was that took her Mum away? Probably; it was unfair that such a loving and caring person would be here one day and suddenly not the next.
“I think of the times we spent together as a family,” continued Andrew from the stage, looking towards his daughters, “and I know Rachel is probably too young to understand what’s going on, but I do know that Alison loved them both dearly and I hope that my… our girls don’t think she abandoned them.”
Maeve looked directly at her father who looked back at her. She instinctively squeezed Rachel’s shoulder, vaguely aware that the toddler had stopped swinging her legs and was also intently looking at the squirrel on the stage. Andrew, for his part, looked directly at his daughters instead of just in their direction, and addressed them personally. The rest of the congregation were irrelevant; it was almost as if there were only the three of them in the room.
“Your mother loved you very much, girls – I love you very much. We’ll be okay, just the three of us. Dad’s gonna take care of you.” Andrew swallowed a sob and turned to the coffin behind him. “And now, my love, it’s time to say goodbye.” He made no attempt to stop his voice breaking now. “I love you, Alison – I always have, I always will, and I’m really gonna miss you. I’ll take care of our girls, and I’ll make sure they know what their mother was like.” It was difficult for Maeve to hear what her father was saying now – not just because he had moved away from the microphone on the podium, but also his voice was quieter, more intimate, as he spoke directly to his wife of eleven years. “I guess I’ll see you on the other side.”
From behind her, Maeve heard somebody stand up – her dad’s dad gently approached the stage and led the sobbing squirrel back to his seat. As the two walked away, she heard her dad say something; she couldn’t really hear it but she guessed – correctly – that it was the two words that he had been saying over and over again for the past three months: “Cancer sucks.”
And there were the tears of sadness.