Growing up in the McAdam clan had been strange—there were no traditional celebrations of Christmas or birthdays, but there was the yearly gathering at the family manse for Victoria Day.
All the McAdams would attend and there would be a garden party, weather permitting, or a formal sit down dinner in the huge dining hall. Later at dusk, fireworks would be set off on a barge moored out on the lake.
Afterwards, everyone would reconvene in the dining hall and drink a toast to the Queen.
Strange as it was, in one of those odd twists of fate, the Victoria Day celebrations had been one of the last topics of conversation between her and her mother. She flashed back to the day:
“I read in one of the family histories that several of the McAdams were implicated in The Gunpowder Plot. Wouldn’t it seem more appropriate to celebrate Guy Fawkes?”
Her mother fairly bristled. “Don’t believe everything your read in those chronicles. That’s the Ripley influence. They were definitely part of that business and should never have been allowed into the family at all.”
It was the first time Hailey realized some rift or schism had blighted the family tree. Her mother’s countenance had darkened and she was in a foul mood for the remainder of the visit. It was the last time she saw her.
“Hailey, Child,” Alicia’s voice was syrupy, “When we return to the manse for the reception, I’d like you to stay close to me.”
“Of course, Auntie.” She shot a questioning look at Nan, who subtly shrugged her shoulders.
They drove past a silver sign with dark Gothic lettering that read, St. Hilda On the Lake. The limo followed a winding road, crossed a small bridge and came to a stop.
About thirty feet back from the road, a blue tarp covered a pile of recently excavated earth. They waited for what seemed an eternity as the occupants of the cars behind them emerged and made their way to the graveside.
Finally, the door swung open followed by a hiss of air and a funeral attendant leaned in offering his hand to assist Alicia from the vehicle.
The young, blonde-haired girl was standing back a few paces, hugging a black leather portfolio. She looked crisp and efficient in her tight grey skirt and polished black heels, but her legs were slightly akimbo as she balanced on the uneven lawn.
She was presiding over some arcane ritual the significance of it lost to Hailey, but obviously of great importance to her—perhaps, it concerned decorous disembarking from the limos.
Regardless, as soon as they all emerged and were standing on the roadway, she turned and picked her way up the slight grade toward the grave.
The Vicar was waiting for them, surplice fluttering in the breeze, his previously neat silvery hair now windblown. Annoyed, he swept back several stray strands, while wielding the aspergillum to sprinkle holy water over coffin and grave.
Behind the mourners, the tarp-covered pile was now covered with myriad flower arrangements brought from the funeral home and church.
Alicia, Ev and Lil stood together to the right of the Vicar, leaving Nan, Hailey and Trish, who had just now joined them, standing on the left.
A red-tailed hawk was circling overhead and Hailey’s gaze was drawn upwards, away from the casket and the earthen shaft beneath it.
The Vicar was well into the liturgy now, his voice rising and falling on the gusts of wind.
“Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.” The verse pulled Hailey back down to earth. The secrets of our hearts—the phrase seemed a key to a conundrum.
She stared at her aunts, concealed behind their veils and tried to understand why she was always the one on the periphery searching for a place in the family.
“We commend unto thy hands of mercy, most merciful Father, the soul of this sister departed…”
Alicia’s knees buckled and Ev and Lil each grabbed an arm and held her up.
“We commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Leo, Lil’s husband stepped forward to help, but Alicia seemed to pull herself together and wave him off.
The Vicar stopped as if transfixed and stared at Alicia.
No one moved, until Hailey broke the spell—she stepped forward, withdrew a red rose from one of the arrangements, placed it on the casket, turned and walked away.
The gesture had taken the aunts totally by surprise.
Lil watched Hailey’s back in fascination as she resolutely made her way down the grassy hill toward the cars.
She hesitated then seemed to come to a decision.
She reached over and plucked a rose from the pile and laid it on the coffin beside Hailey’s.
Ev followed suit, leaving Alicia to reluctantly finish the gesture. They all then followed Hailey back down the grade to the limo and waited while Alicia was helped inside.
Ev came up behind Hailey and took her by the elbow, “Will you be coming back to the manse?”
“Of course, Auntie. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Of course,” Ev murmured, flashing an uncertain smile, and then turned to rejoin Lil and Leo waiting by the other limousine.
Trish grabbed Hailey’s hand. “I’ll see you at the house too.” She smiled warmly as if hugging her with her gaze. Hailey nodded back, trying hard to swallow the lump in her throat.
“C’mon, the limo’s waiting.” Nan smiled in encouragement and guided her toward the idling Cadillac.
Once inside the limo, the heavy burden weighing on her heart seemed to ease, helped no doubt by Nan tightly gripping her hand, but also in part by Alicia’s decision to remain silent and veiled.
Thankfully, the driver drove back at the posted speed limits and ten minutes later dropped them at the funeral home where they had parked.
“The worst is over,” Nan sighed as they walked back toward the car.
“I don’t think so. For some reason Aunt Alicia wants me to stay by her side at the reception. I’m not sure what that’s all about.”
“Maybe it’s a thaw in her attitude toward you.”
“I strongly doubt that. There’s something else going on and I’ve got a bad vibe about it.”
“Don’t worry, if Aunt Alicia wants you close, she’ll have to put up with me too.”
Hailey stared up at the dark clouds racing overhead.
A storm was building in the west and already she could hear its distant rumble.
If it were a harbinger of what was to come, it would be a long afternoon.
© 2017, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.