An unexpected meeting leads to the resolution of a family feud
MEETING IN A CEMETERY
Tom Braithwaite stood after tidying his father's grave site during his annual pilgrimage. Tom missed his journalist father; they had been very close until his father had been killed in one of the world's hot spots five years previously. These pilgrimages were important to Tom who maintained a conversation with his now departed father.
Straightening up, Tom caught sight of a young woman standing close by presenting a picture of sadness and misery. Moving closer, Tom could see tears on her face and an expression of pain in her eyes. Somewhat to his surprise, Tom recognised the young woman as Nikki, his cousin Jerry's fiancée who had been with him shortly before he died in a car crash.
Tom introduced himself, commenting on a previous meeting at a family party, but Nikki turned away, seeming to want nothing to do with him. She turned back, her face a mask of bitterness and pain. “I suppose you’re here to abuse me as well,” she asked.
"Hey, Nikki, I'm not going to give you a hard time. I know some members of the family blame you, but I'm not part of the mob who want to insult you. I knew Jerry pretty well, and if you'd like to talk, I'm a good listener."
Her face remained contorted with grief. "Your family hates me, especially Jerry's mother, Jean. She's telling everyone I was the cause of Jerry's accident; she wouldn't let me go to his funeral, and has threatened to harm me for what she claims I did.
"The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death, noting the possibility of suicide but there wasn't enough evidence to support it. His mother objected loudly and with a hysterical outpouring, publicly blaming me because I had broken up with Jerry just before he drove off and died. Now I feel sort of guilty - if I hadn't dumped him, he'd be alive now." And a fresh stream of tears flowed down her face.
Tom moved towards her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Nikki, please trust me. I know you had nothing to do with Jerry’s death; I knew him well, and I knew his problems, particularly with his mother.”
Nikki looked back at him with a first glimmer of trust showing in her eyes. “His lack of assertiveness towards his mother was what caused our breakup,” she started. “He couldn’t seem to make his own decisions and was far too controlled by what his mother said and thought.”
“It’s always been the way. As an only child, his mother heaped all her expectations onto him, and those expectations soon became demands. His father has always been completely intimidated by his wife; all he ever wants is a quiet life.”
Nikki took her time to digest this, which gave Tom his opportunity. “It’s getting a bit chilly, Nikki, how about a coffee—there’s a halfway decent coffee shop just down the road?”
“Really, Tom, you don’t need to do this. Besides, I’ve got to catch my bus very soon.”
“Oh well, you’ve settled it, then,” Tom grinned, “you have coffee with me and I drive you home. Deal?”
Her watery smile encouraged him. “Okay, Tom, thank you. I think I could use a sympathetic ear just about now.”
Tom drove them the short distance to the coffee shop, and encouraged Nikki to talk. At first, he felt as if he was pulling teeth, but she gradually loosened up, and her pain gushed out in a torrent.
“Jerry was so sweet. He was kind and gentle and we seemed to be completely on the same wavelength. I was the receptionist at the medical centre in the High Street, and he had passed the first stage of his accountancy exams, but we found time to be together. He made me laugh. We enjoyed the same movies, liked the same music and watched the same TV shows, and he had plans for his future as an accountant. I introduced him to my parents and they liked him, although he seemed unwilling to introduce me to his family, which I found rather strange.
"And then he asked me to marry him. I said ‘Yes’ straight away because I could just imagine us living ‘happily ever after’. Then I met his parents, which was a real eye-opener for me. His father was okay, but a bit dull. His mother clearly didn’t approve of her son getting engaged although she tried to hide it. I talked to Jerry about this later and he told me to forget it—it was just his mum thinking first about her ‘baby boy’.”
Tom listened without interruption, but he knew his aunt and his cousin and he could guess Jerry had been interrogated and given the third degree about the announcement of his engagement.
Nikki continued, “Jerry seemed to change after I met his parents. He had lost his confidence and seemed unwilling to make quite simple decisions. I wasn’t asked back to his parents’ place, and this triggered an argument between us. Jerry defended his mother in what I felt were extreme terms, and I started to recognise the degree of influence she had over him. Tom, please understand—I loved Jerry and I wanted to be with him. But it became increasingly obvious I had to take on his mother at the same time, which eventually became too much of a burden.
"The day of his death, we’d been out for coffee and were sitting in the park just off the High Street. I told him he was going to have to choose between me and his mother. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to say. He became toweringly angry and told me to mind my own business. I can still remember my parting words, ‘Fine, if you’re going to put your mother before your fiancée, we’re finished. I don’t want to see you any more’. He dashed off and ... well, I never did see him again.”
Tom could see Nikki’s tears starting, and he put a gently hand over hers. “Maybe I should get you home, Nikki. But if it doesn’t involve too much stress, I’d really like to see you again.”
“Are you sure, Tom? What would your aunt say about it?”
“To hell with my aunt. I don’t give a rat’s hat about her opinions—all I know is I’d like us to meet again so I can show you not all my family thinks the same way.”
“Okay, Tom,” and she scribbled her phone number on a paper serviette.
Tom drove Nikki home, then went back home himself to be greeted by the not unfamiliar chatter of his mother and twin sisters coming from the kitchen. As he passed by he heard the name “Nikki Heath” and was immediately interested.
“What were you saying about Nikki?” he asked.
“Oh, hi, Tom. The girls just mentioned they’d seen her on the bus looking very down and despondent and saying she had got off at the stop next to the cemetery.”
“Well, yeah—I’d been to the cemetery for my annual chat with Dad ...”
“You’re weird”, Amanda interjected but without any malice. Tom was quite used to his sister’s ideas about his relationship with his late father.
“As I was saying, I was at the cemetery myself and I ran into Nikki. She’d been to visit Jerry’s gravesite after Aunt Jean had forbidden her to be at the funeral ... “
“Bitch,” Millie whispered, drawing a warning glance from their mother.
“I’ll get this story out if it kills me,” Tom continued. “Nikki was quite upset, so I persuaded her to come for a coffee with me and then drove her home.”
“Yes, and you’ve had the hots for her ever since Jerry first introduced you.” Amanda was again stirring her brother.
“Not so, although things might have changed now. She’s agreed to see me again and gave me her phone number.”
“Hmm, why don’t you invite her round for tea on Sunday, Tom? She’s always got on well with the girls, and I think she could use a friend or two right now.”
“Yeah, but she’s much too good for you, Tom,” Millie joined in the favourite sport of baiting their brother, but he was much too experienced at this game to fall for such an obvious trap.
“Great idea, mum. She might feel more at ease with these two, although I can’t, for the life of me, think why.”
This only achieved a joint raspberry from his twin sisters.
Tom rang Nikki and after some hesitation and uncertainty, she agreed to visit the following Sunday, emphasising her need to be independent and find her own way there. ‘Doesn’t want to be in anybody’s debt,’ he thought.
Nikki arrived late on the Sunday afternoon, and Tom was immediately impressed. Dressed casually in jeans and a brightly patterned blouse, her long brown hair fell past her shoulders and she looked more relaxed than when he last saw her. Tom admitted his enchantment to himself, but he had little time to enjoy this vision before his sisters descended and carried her off babbling about clothes, pop stars and girlie movies.
His mother noticed Tom’s slightly despondent look and laughed. “Don’t worry about the girls—they’re exactly what she needs. A lot of teenage chatter and a fair amount of giggling will do her the world of good. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you are the centre of some of their conversations.”
Tom groaned. “That’s all I need. Knowing those two, Nikki will never want to set eyes on me again.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure, Tom. For all their banter and carrying on, they’re really fond of you, and neither of them would try to put Nikki off. Mind you, they might put some unexpected ideas into her head.” She laughed again and retired to the kitchen.
The meal was a great success, although Tom noticed Nikki blushing slightly whenever she looked at him. He wondered just exactly what his sisters had been saying to her.
They were relaxing in the lounge enjoying some light conversation when there was a loud banging on the front door. Tom and his mother both went to answer it when Aunt Jean forced her way in, her face suffused with rage and righteous indignation.
She turned to Tom, and with a harsh, judgemental voice, demanded, “Have you been seeing the Heath woman?”
“I’m not at all sure what business it is of yours, Aunt Jean.”
“You know damned well she was responsible for Jerry’s death, regardless of the stupid coroner’s remarks.”
“I know nothing of the sort, Mrs Burton.” Tom’s voice had become cold and hard, turning to the formality of his Aunt’s married name. He had decided he’d be prepared to fire both barrels if his aunt continued in the same vein.
“Tom, I ...”
“No, mum, it’s about time this garbage was put to rest, once and for all. Mrs Burton, you need to understand your words and your attitude are taking you very close to a charge of criminal defamation, which, when I last looked, attracted a gaol sentence of up to three years. Do you really fancy three years in the slammer?”
His aunt’s mouth opened and shut like a disgruntled goldfish, but, like the goldfish, no sound came out.
“I thought not. Let’s be very clear about this, Mrs Burton. You have not one scintilla of evidence which would stand up in any court of law. I’m not a fully fledged lawyer yet, but I know enough to be able to tell you this.” So saying, Tom pulled a piece of paper from his wallet, and read:
“Section 237(1) of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act (1935) as amended states that, a person who, without lawful excuse, publishes defamatory matter concerning another living person—
(a) knowing the matter to be false or being recklessly indifferent as to whether the matter is true or false; and
(b) intending to cause serious harm, or being recklessly indifferent as to whether the publication of the defamatory matter will cause serious harm, to a person (whether the person defamed or not),
is guilty of an offence."
Aunt Jean’s voice caught in her throat before she stammered out, “It was the truth, the way I saw it.”
“Maybe, but there appears to be a strong streak of reckless indifference in everything you have been saying about Nikki.” Tom wasn’t about to let her off the hook.
“But Jerry was family,” Aunt Jean’s voice trembled on the verge of tears.
“Certainly, but no family relationship gives you the right to slander someone who had no direct bearing on Jerry’s death. Nikki had decided she could no longer continue with the relationship and told him so. End of story.”
“But why? Why did she feel the need to break up? Jerry was a decent boy and he loved her, or so he said. Why did she have to walk away from such a good relationship?”
“Aunt Jean,” Tom continued. “There are two things you need to know. Nikki told me Jerry couldn’t make decisions for himself and she thought he was tied to your apron strings. You wouldn’t or couldn’t let him go. Secondly, Nikki is here now and has heard all this conversation.”
Tom heard Jean collapse with a distressing groan before she started to slide to the floor. He reached out and held her, guiding her to a nearby chair. As she came to, Tom could see her eyes had lost the hostility marking them earlier, replaced now with anguish and hopelessness.
“Your Uncle Harold has always said I held onto Jerry too tightly but I never believed him. So now I suppose if I had let him go earlier, he would still be with us.” And so saying, she collapsed into floods of tears.
Tom’s mother stepped into the breach. “Tom, I think you can leave your Aunt Jean to me ...”
Just then, he saw Nikki emerge from the lounge with a set look of determination on her face. “Mrs Braithwaite, do you think I might have a talk with Jerry’s mum? I think the dam has burst, and if I can show her I no longer feel any bitterness towards her, and I don’t, we might be able to patch something up.”
Tom’s uncertainty was evident. “Are you sure, Nikki? She’s pretty upset at the moment and your presence might cause even more distress.”
“I don’t know, Tom, but I think it’s worth a try. We both loved Jerry, and if we can focus on our love for him we might find some common ground. Concentrating on responsibility for his death will get us nowhere except to continue this roundabout of blame.”
Jean and Nikki looked at each other and, as if by unspoken consent, moved into the lounge as the twins moved out to join Tom and their mother in the kitchen. The next hour dragged like none Tom could ever remember, but at least there was no shouting or screaming from the lounge.
Eventually, Jean and Nikki emerged into the kitchen, Jean looking resigned and Nikki drawn and tired.
“I don’t think we will ever be best friends,” Jean started. “There’s just too much pain and loss, but we’ve both accepted it as shared pain and loss. If we’re lucky, the intense grief will gradually die down, and we can get back to something like a normal life—whatever a normal life might be. Now, I need to go. I apologise for breaking in and carrying on like I did. It won’t happen again—I’ve learned my lesson, even if it is several years too late.” And with those words, Jean Burton left the house.
“I’ll give her a call in a few days time,” Tom’s mother said, “and let her know I’ll be here for her if she needs a shoulder to cry on.”
Tom turned to Nikki. “How are you coping after all the stress, Nikki? Is there anything we can do for you?”
“No, thanks, Tom. I’m really exhausted and I need to get home myself. Do you know what time the buses run on a Sunday evening?”
“You are most certainly not catching the bus. I’ll drive you home as soon as you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Tom, I won’t fight you about it. Thank you everyone; it’s been a very ... well, a very interesting afternoon.”
“Come back and see us again soon,” the twins chorused and Nikki smiled in reply, nodding her agreement.
They drove in silence to Nikki’s house, but as Tom pulled up he turned to Nikki. “I know I’m not Jerry, but I would like to see you again.”
“Okay, Tom, but please, PLEASE don’t push. I’m still really fragile after everything I’ve been through, although you’ve been such a big help and a real support. Thank you,” and she gave him a light kiss on the cheek before getting out of the car.
‘I guess that’s about as good as I could expect—but it might have been a whole lot worse,’ Tom smiled to himself as he headed for home.