Celia stood alone in the shadows of the sweeping boughs of a willow tree. From her vantage point, she could clearly see the four people huddled together by the open grave, their heads bowed as they carried out the solemn ritual of bidding their last goodbyes. Despite it being no more than twenty yards from where she watched, the gathered mourners could not see her. She need take only a few steps forward to be visible to them, but Celia had no desire whatsoever to be seen.
Unlike the small party, she was not dressed in sombre clothing, nor was she weeping. For her, it was not a day to mourn; she had done that years earlier. Wept at the loss of the man she once believed had cared for her. He had, but not in the way she had hoped. Like everything in Henry Bryant-Smythe’s life, he had viewed her as an asset, an investment, and when she had deprived him of what he believed was his insurance with a healthy dividend, he had made her pay, The price had been high; very high.
Celia shuddered. Her reason for standing silently in the cover of the willow was to witness the end of his life on this earth. She had waited for more years than she could count to see this day. She had heard it said that only the good die young: well here was evidence indeed that the evil stay on this earth for a very long time. He had celebrated his thirtieth birthday not long before she was born and she was a grandmother twice over now. You did not need to be a mathematician to work out that he had lived for many more years than his allotted three score years and ten, she mused, her lips curving in a wry smile that as quickly disappeared.
‘Justice!’ Celia hissed, almost screaming out the word, until she remembered where she was. But there was no justice, she thought with bitterness. Nothing could bring back what he had stolen from her. Even when he knew he was dying he had not uttered her name, nor repented. In the end nothing had changed. Instead, in a voice thick with loathing, he had told her his reasons for what he had done, confirming for Celia that he had no regrets for the pain and suffering he had caused. She recalled he had smiled at her, a sardonic smile that changed his face from haughty to malicious. Even his eyes had sparkled with malevolence, boring into her like laser beams.
‘I just want you to know,’ he had snapped, his voice like the crack of a whip that had cut just as deep, ‘that because of your behaviour, I lost everything. You, with no sense of morality or filial duty, despite your lavish upbringing, were the catalyst for all that happened. You should be begging my forgiveness.’ Celia remembered that in the corners of his mouth spittle had foamed as his anger mounted, his lips tightening with his deep resentment. ‘But don’t ever bother to ask for it,’ he had added, ‘because I will never give it. Now get out of my sight.’
Despite her mature years, his presence and tone had sent a shiver of fear down her spine and she had felt like a child again. Now, standing in the shadows of the willow tree, even though she knew his life was over, Celia could still feel his presence. To her horror, she realised that despite all that had happened, even in death her father still had the ability to chill her blood. Even knowing he was gone, she could not remove the hatred she had in her heart for him. It had been there for so long it was like another organ. It was part of her. It had shaped her life and the lives of all of those around her.
Her father: Henry Bryant-Smythe, the Squire of Satchfield Hall, powerful and evil, had destroyed so many and so much and had ultimately destroyed himself. Only now, as the words he had spoken echoed through the passage of time, did Celia feel a kind of pity: pity that defied all logic; the fear, the pain and suffering. She knew the words he had snapped at her as he lay dying meant that to himself, he had rewritten the past and in his own deluded mind had seen himself as the victim.
Her mother, who had suffered at his hands, had gone to an early grave. Had she only had the fortitude to stand up to the man who had taken her as his bride when she was barely sixteen, then maybe all their lives might have been different and so much pain avoided. But somehow Celia did not think so: despite Muriel Bryant-Smythe’s great beauty, she had been powerless against the depredation of her iniquitous husband.
Now, wondering idly who the mourners were and having witnessed all that was necessary, Celia made to leave. Silently thanking God that it was over, she turned her back on the scene being enacted in the graveyard, but as she stepped away from her hiding place she felt a hand touch her arm. It took all of her will power not to cry out. Heart thumping, she swung round, joy and relief flooding her veins as she saw who it was.
‘Jack! You startled me,’ she gasped, smiling up at him and asking in a loud whisper, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘It looks to me, much the same as you, making sure he really has gone.’
Celia nodded, ‘I’m so pleased to see you,’ she said, linking her arm with his and wondering why she should be so startled when she’d had a feeling Jack would turn up today.
Arm in arm they walked through the concealed exit of the memorial gardens, the same one she had entered by earlier. Neither of them looked back. No doubt, thought Celia, her father was spinning somewhere between Hell and Heaven. She knew Heaven would have difficulty in taking him; there had never been an ounce of good in him. Even Hell might sniff at accepting him! Wherever he was, he would not be pleased with what in the end had been achieved. He had believed he was all powerful and had used his power to destroy and crush. It had taken the Second World War and a country desperate to rebuild and recover from its wounds, before the power he wielded was weakened and eventually removed. Yet despite being stripped of what he valued most: status, power, reputation and above all wealth, he continued to haunt those he had sought to destroy.
As Celia and Jack walked the few steps that took them to her car, she smiled, thinking that at last the chapter was closed. Her step was lighter: she was a woman who had come through it all; she had succeeded in the end, and looking up at the tall, handsome man at her side, Celia knew that despite everything, she had been blessed.
Her driver, Tony, was waiting for them in the lane. As they appeared through the thick hedge that concealed the little gate into the cemetery, he smiled and opened the rear passenger door. ‘Are you ok?’ he asked.
Unperturbed by his familiarity, Celia returned his smile, for whilst she was his employer and had been for more years than she cared to remember, he was also her friend. ‘Thank you, Tony. Never better,’ Celia stepped into the rear of the car and made herself comfortable.
Tony shook Jack’s hand, ‘Delighted to see you, Jack, and no doubt Celia is too. Today is a big day for her.’
Jack nodded, ‘For us both,’ he murmured, patting Tony’s shoulder before climbing into in the car.
Once Celia’s seat belt was locked into its snap, she rested her head on the headrest and closing her eyes, breathed a sigh of relief. At the same time, a tear trickled down her cheek. Even though it was over, the images sprang to life in her mind: the voices and even the smell of fear were about to consume her again. Feeling the tight squeeze of Jack’s hand she pushed the memories away and
looked up into his handsome face. No matter how many times she gazed at him, it would never be enough. She counted her blessings every single day. He was the image of his father; thank God there was not a trace of his grandfather in him.
As if reading her mind, Jack squeezed her hand again and smiled down at her.
‘No regrets?’ she asked him.
‘Millions, but none anyone can change.’
Celia knew what he was referring to and he was right. If they were to list their regrets then the list would be long enough to strangle them both. She smiled at him and then laughed out loud, the memories, which only moments ago had been about to consume her, evaporating in the warmth of his smile.
‘Everything ok in the back,’ called Tony, looking in the rear view mirror at the sound of Celia’s laughter.
She smiled at the face reflected in the mirror, ‘Nothing could be more ok, Tony. I’ve waited a long time for this day and I intend to savour it, even if it means spontaneously breaking into maniacal laughter for no apparent reason!’
He chuckled, ‘I’m glad to hear it. In your shoes I’d feel exactly the same. And if you don’t mind me saying so, you deserve to laugh after all you’ve been through because of him.’
Approaching the T-junction at the brow of the hill, Tony slowed the car at the give-way sign before turning off to the left. As he skilfully manoeuvred the big car into the lane, Celia remembered that the road sign had not been there all those years ago when she had been driven away from Satchfield Hall. Once again, despite her exuberance, the memory slipped unbidden into her mind. She saw herself as a young woman – not much more than a girl - hunched in the back of the car and felt again the despair and misery of that day.
‘Stop it,’ she told herself, ‘it’s over!’ But her mind continued to replay those dreadful scenes and tears again welled in her eyes. She had never stopped wondering how one person could create so much pain and suffering in so many people’s lives. She should be feeling some inner peace now, after all, in the end she’d had the last word, but she did not hear that. Instead, all she could hear was her father’s voice as it thundered through Satchfield Hall all those years before.