Monday morning, and the weekend tourists have abandoned the beach to the gulls. The wind tugs at my hood. Even the brick-red Devon sand seems workaday grey. I hold a hand over the camera lens to keep it from the drizzle. The tide’s on its way out, and the gulls stand ankle-deep in the shallows preening as the sea rolls and snatches just short of their haven. I watch the waves rise and curl. Fall and spread their lace of foam. Retreat and fade. The pattern repeats yet nothing’s ever quite the same. The sea’s timeless and constantly changing. It was here before me. It will be here long after I’m gone.
There’s a time for everything, and I’m in another time now. The room’s twilit and two faces look down at me. They’re telling me something I already know. I’m so sorry. The pain in their eyes is not even a pale shadow of the grief I’ve carried these past nine months. I want to tell them I knew all along, but I don’t think they can hear me. I stare at the ceiling and rack my brains for comfort. A lifetime of Bible-reading and I can’t remember a single word. Not one. It all becomes patchwork. I’m in the late afternoon sun now. They bring her to me and lay her in my arms. Her lips are faintly blue, otherwise she’s picture perfect. I’ve never held a newborn who didn’t nuzzle for my breast. Never seen a dead body before. Why have they dressed her in someone else’s clothes? Her forehead’s cool as I kiss her goodbye. My soul hurts. I ache to go with her. It’s then the words I’ve been searching for come back to me: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of humankind, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. People come. People go. They cry. They take my temperature and my blood pressure. They give me painkillers. Is what I’m feeling some kind of peace, or am I simply numb? Maybe I’ll never know.
The woman’s blonde, she’s angry and she’s in my face. Jools snarls across the counter in the Community Café. She’s not a happy bunny, and my back’s well and truly up by the time she’s done, so I’m none too thrilled just moments later when a customer comes to complain that she’s upset someone in the garden. Some people are born to trouble. I balance a tray of cups on the counter, smooth down my apron and step outside.
She’s at the end of the garden, and a few feet away a woman’s in tears, a puzzled-looking baby on her knee. To cut a long story very short, Jools has delivered a lecture on parenting and it didn’t go well. It seems a bit rich that a woman with no social graces should pass judgement on others, but I’m a peacemaker, it’s been a hectic shift and the last thing I need is a mouthful of invective. Jools stabs her cake with a fork and glares at me.
She was letting that baby eat dirt.
That’s her business, isn’t it?
I can’t just sit and watch.
The last time I saw that look was a year ago. The look in Jools’ eyes now, I mean. We’d reopened from the summer break and Jenny was at the counter. She’d been heavily pregnant when last I saw her. Now she wasn’t, and there was no sign of a baby.
Do you want to see the photos?
She pulled out her phone and showed me her newborn baby girl. She told me how beautiful she was, and how proud she was to be her mum. Then I met her eyes. If I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget what I saw. Of course, we both knew the truth. No social worker anywhere on earth would have let Jenny keep her baby.
When Sarah died, I met nothing but sympathy. People I barely knew crossed the street to tell me how sorry they were. At a school cake sale someone thrust a pot of Body Shop lotion into my hand. Two friends cleaned my house every Monday while I recovered from a messy caesarian. I don’t imagine any of that happened for Jools or Jenny. And now I can’t help but remember a mother in the same town who lost her baby a year or so before me. I remember the looks, the rumours and half-whispered hints. She’d ignored the doctor’s advice. It was her own fault. Maybe they murmured the same things behind my back too. Who knows?
Back from the sea to the warmth of breakfast in an old-fashioned seaside hotel. I’m talking to a friend, and she begins to tell me her story. I’ve known for some time that her children have disabilities. I hadn’t known till now that she adopted them. I see her grief for the children she never bore all these years on, and I know it’s the pain of every parent who’s ever lost a child, even if that child was never so much as conceived.
It rained heavens hard the afternoon of Sarah’s funeral. The undertaker was a friend and refused to take a penny for the tiny, white coffin they carried down the aisle of the chapel. I trace the rainbow through the rain, we sang. At her graveside the rain ran down our faces as if we didn’t have enough tears of our own. I stood alongside that gaping wound in the earth and read the committal myself. I recited the blessing I’d heard at every infant christening of my Methodist childhood.
“The Lord bless us and keep us,
the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us peace …
because no-one else will.”
It felt like the defiance I needed.
Home sweet home, and I’m trawling through my photos of the sea. I’ve taken so many, and barely a dozen worth keeping from the perspective of an artist. I decide to take out my pictures of Sarah. They’re pink-faded Polaroids. They have no artistic merit, yet I’d delete every photo I’ve ever taken from my laptop rather than lose one of them. I’ve cried so long over those photos, and here I am again. The sound of rain on the window brings me back into the room and I glance over my shoulder. Arched high and defiant over the streets and houses is the most glorious rainbow, and I know I’m going to tell the story at last.