Joe was in the graveyard. Again. He couldn’t keep away although he knew it was doing him no good. ‘You can’t mourn forever,’ the sensible part of him told himself, but the other part – the biggest part – the bit that felt as if there was a cankerous ball of guilt and misery wrapped around his guts – said that this was rubbish. The only thing that had changed over time was Joe’s ability to mask his feelings. To his mates at school he was once again Joker Joe.
The graveyard was neglected. Wisps of long grass had been allowed to obscure the writing on many of the older memorials, and the ancient stone porch, with its low stone bench on which the coffins of the newly dead were laid before being carried inside, was choked with fallen leaves. But Allie’s grave was immaculate, and the simplicity of the smooth marble stone and its wording ‘Alistair James Tringham, The Perfect Son – 27th May 1995 – 3rd June 1998’ - seemed to reflect his personality effortlessly. He’d been too young to be corrupted by the world. The morning when Joe’d been jolted out of sleep by the shrill screams of Meg, his step-mother, had been the worst day in his life. And he was still living it.
He’d pelted out of bed and into his brother’s room, to find Allie curled on one side in his little bed – stone-cold and perfect – and Meg crouched in a keening heap on the toy-strewn floor. The moment seemed to play in an endless loop inside Joe’s head.
Now he hunched his shoulders and bent down to brush away a few brown leaves from the neat little area in front of the grave. It was enclosed by low marble bars and it always reminded Joe of a little field. Allie would have filled it with the small plastic animals he so loved – cows and sheep and chickens – making a miniature farm of it.
Now it was Joe who treasured these little creatures. He carried a couple of them around with him always, swapping them regularly. Today it was a little black Labrador and – one of Allie’s favourites - a row of ducks with their beaks open in mid-quack. For many months they’d retained the stickiness of Allie’s warm fingers, but constant handling had removed this last vestige of the little boy’s personality. Today Joe removed the little figures from his jeans pocket and balanced them on the short grass in front of the stone. “There you go, buddy. Happy birthday,” he murmured.
A faint movement flickered in the corner of his eye. Joe whipped his head around towards the wall of the old church. He thought he’d seen the shadow of an elongated hand. It wasn’t black but a dry, dusty grey. If it had been there at all. It pulled sharply back into the deeper shadows that were thrown onto the wall by a group of towering Victorian tombstones. He’d nearly seen this many times before. Always here. And always when he was straining to feel some connection with Allie.