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Graveside

Author: Jenny Beech

I was ten when Judi died. Her family’s grief was an immeasurable, unapproachable thing. Our sadness was rightly peripheral in its shadow but my ten-year-old mind was saturated with it, left silent and undeciphered. She was a missing limb; the wound might heal over but the vacant air still seemed to take her shape. An empty chair waited at a table set for eight.
We made the day-long journey from the south of England every summer to see my parent’s old friends and their six children. The first thing I can remember from the long drives is the change in landscape past the border, when the green became a deeper shade of green. Hills swelled outside the car windows and narrow streams tumbled down the slopes. For reasons I still can’t name, Scotland felt like a secret. All the stories I had read of children finding wonder-filled worlds through wardrobes and station platforms and fairy rings became real as we skimmed the curve of Loch Lomond and followed the coastline to the Mull of Kintyre.
Salt and sea grass still smell like holiday to me. We would spend a week with the family at their home in Campbeltown, running down sand dunes, playing video games and buying copious amounts of sweets. Last year, I went back. The family moved further east several years ago so I knew it would most likely be the last time I saw the town. We drove past the field on which we had played our annual football game. I bought sweets I had forgotten existed. Particular trees and curves in the roads stirred lost memories. It’s only a quiet port town, incongruous within the breathtaking landscape but it was my favourite place in the world when I was ten years old. It held some of my favourite people and the palpable memory of the one we had lost.
On the way out of Campbeltown, we turned into the cemetery. I didn’t know where Judi’s grave lay but I carried a vague memory of high ground and open space. I remembered a simple, grey stone with a dove carved into its front.
I found her in a high, far corner. I cleared the weeds away and brushed the foot of her headstone clean. A small part of the sorrow and love she left in her wake is carved into that gravestone. I thought the memories of her would have lightened with age. Her unforgettable smile, her kindness- of the variety that is exclusive to older sisters- which I can still remember despite being so young when she died, surprised me with their vividness and with how tangled they still are in an old grief. I found myself crying by her grave. The sadness of her sudden absence reared from what is nearly two decades of intervening years. I carried my ten-year-old self with me, her inexplicable, solemn loyalty to a seaside town far from home and her sadness that one of the chairs at the old kitchen table remains empty.
When I was a child, my own grief embarrassed me. She wasn’t my sister after all. It was infinitely worse for the family who lost her. But to my ten-year-old self, the whole universe had shifted. The world was brutally torn and more sadnesses would follow the first, in the lives where she was so tangibly absent. My children now play with Judi’s nieces and nephews, who only know her by name.
Life barrelled onwards unmercifully. I moved to Scotland three years ago. I now live in the landscape I drove through to our holidays as a child and I can’t seem to grow tired of it. The places that make up my life here are many but it became apparent last summer, that in a high corner of a peaceful graveyard in Campbeltown, a piece of me remains. Silly as it may seem for someone who I only saw once a year, I am still loving and grieving and cherishing the recollections of kindness I have of a seventeen year old girl who died twenty years ago. I thought the memories and the heartache had faded but they were still there, waiting at her graveside. She was, and is, unforgettable.