Margaret screamed at me to get help. I didn't know which was closest; home or the men, so I headed home. It took for ever to run. It was like a dream, where you never get any closer to the goal.
'I reached my mother, yelled at her. She hitched her skirt and bolted. I had no idea she could move like that; mind you, she was only in her twenties. I followed along, my little heart bursting. By the time I got there she had Sam on the bank, trying to pump the water out of him, but it was too late. When she realised it was no good, she just folded up around him, shaking and wailing.'
Alice's voice cracked and tears raced down her cheeks. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose. 'I can still see it all as clear as day. Mum with mud all up her legs, the light flicking off her wet dress, Sam's limp body, slime coming out his mouth. Margaret was hysterical. She had found a branch for Sam to grab, but it was rotten. It broke, he disappeared; she was helpless. It turned out that one of the machines had cracked the bridge rail that morning, but you couldn't tell.
'We were a different family after that. It was a long time before there was much joy, and we had to get through the birthdays, and anniversaries, and Christmas. Margaret and I never talked about it in front of our parents, and they didn't with us. I don't think our parents understood how it affected us, nor we them. That's the thing. It might be a good idea to walk in someone else's moccasins, but it's hard to do. You to have a very good imagination, and the strength to take on another layer of pain, when you have plenty to cope with yourself. We moved to new places where nobody knew and none of us said anything. Until now.' Alice wiped her eyes again, tried a smile, but gave it up for now as a falsehood.
Alice had articulated her story so simply, Beth knew she must have rehearsed this speech for years. Beth took Alice's hands in her own, feeling the thinning skin and emerging bones. She could not respond beyond the superficial, it was too dangerous, carried too much risk. She would have to guess what an ignorant person might say. At last she said 'That's awful, Alice. I don't know what to say. I can't imagine what it's been like for you.'
'Thank you, Beth, dear. It's done me the world of good being able to talk about it. I kind of wish I had done it years ago.'
'Even so, I admire your courage. It isn't ... it can't be easy.'
'No, it's not. The one thing my mother did say, years later, was that burying a child is the longest, hardest work you can do. It takes a lifetime. It hasn't been much different for me. There're all those mile stones we missed out on. First day of school, girlfriends, a new family, everything.' Alice stopped, sagged a little, seemed to have said all she had to say.
A single tear threatened to spill from Beth's eye. She wiped it way, knowing its survival would threaten a flood.
'Can you keep this between us, Beth? There are only certain people I would be happy knowing about it.'
Beth agreed, happy to have a shift in focus. Randomly she asked, 'Have you seen Mary lately?'
'Yes, Mary has been along. She suggested we should do a wee road trip, just for a day, visit a few fabric places. Actually, a lot of fabric places. She was thinking the whole group could go.'
'Well, it might do us good to get out of town for a change. Any idea of when?'
'About three weeks tomorrow would work for us.'
AS BETH drove home she considered the challenge Alice's story had placed before her. She was not alone. This spoke to her heart, that here was another with a life event of similar magnitude to her own. Each event was unique; each had to be lived out in the way that worked for the individual. Alice had sat on this for sixty plus years, and was now finding transformation in communicating her loss. If Alice could do it, where did that leave Beth? Alice must have had that monologue endlessly looping in the back of her mind for years. Beth knew she herself had one. Several versions, in fact. How often in a tight corner had she been tempted to pull out the emotional double barrel shot gun and let fly? But she had always held back, kept it all hidden behind the black door. Was she saving it for some day of extreme need, or was she too damaged to even begin to tell those stories? Or too scared?