When Fiona walks in to take her seat at the front, the heat of a thousand gazes burns her skin. She used to know these people well. But she keeps her head low, careful to avoid anyone’s eyes. The guilt of the past hangs heavy on her shoulders. It was here, in this very room fifteen years ago, where the town gathered to say their final goodbyes to him. Keiran.
The church’s community hall itself hasn’t changed at all. Still the same hard, uncomfortable chairs. Still the same floorboards that echoed the collective horror of a life cut short. The same tattered blue runners down the two aisles. The picture of the Queen hangs above the piano, to the left of the stage. The curtains are missing Fiona notices. On top of the piano, there’s the same framed image of Jesus with five white sheep at his feet. One black sheep by the shepherd’s crook.
Keiran’s death divided the townsfolk. Those who believed it was an accident, and those who blamed Fiona. She sat towards the back that day. Not welcomed by his family. The pain of his funeral still scores her soul.
Alone with her memories, she waits in the front row. Pressing her manicured fingernails into the palm of her hand, she wonders what is keeping her brother, Will. They should’ve arrived together, should have planned this better. Fiona pulls back her nails and looks at the marks left in her palm, satisfied. Didn’t break the skin, but there’s a redness there. The half-moon indents hold her attention. She blocks out the low grumble of gossip-mongers and busy-bodies, here to pay their respects to her dad, Thomas.
Or to stoke her guilt.
The crowd’s low murmuring rises an octave. It’s Will. Even under solemn circumstances, Will can arouse interest and a nostalgic fondness. As he bustles in, he nods his greeting to his adoring fans. Everyone always likes Will better than Fi.
The funeral begins. Fiona cries as soon as the minister speaks. She sobs inconsolably when Will stands to give the eulogy on behalf of them both. Most of it she hears as if under water; his words muffled to her ears. She wipes her eyes and blows her nose, head still lowered. And then, Will says his name. Keiran. Fiona’s head snaps upright.
‘…like a son.’
Did Will just say Dad loved Keiran like a son? She glowers at him, willing him to look her way so she can mouth for him to shut up.
Will avoids his sister’s glare, and continues, ‘And I loved him like a brother. We were all devastated by his death. It took us many years to get over him. Some of us, I know, are still trying to move past the guilt.’
There’s that heat again, from everyone staring at Fiona. Her back is blazing.
Fiona is enraged, fury roils within. And the memory rushes back over her like a wave. She closes her eyes, as if to stop it playing out. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she floats out of the present, stops listening to Will.
It happened on the day they left for big city. On the road to Melbourne, Keiran driving, overtaking the grey nomads towing their caravan, didn’t see the dirty blue Commodore coming towards them. Keiran swerved to avoid it. Fiona only saw the horizon blur as their car spun out of control and crashed into a tree.
She was lucky. Airlifted to The Alfred for surgery, but released in time to return home for the funeral, a week later. She learned Keiran died instantly. The driver of the Commodore was critical; the grey nomads unscathed but in shock. The accident was never her fault, she knew that at some deep inner level, but half the town blamed her simply for taking him away. The remaining half pitied her.
Will takes his place beside her. He sniffs. Their father’s funeral draws to a close. Refreshments have been organised by the CWA, but Fiona feels the familiar tightness in her chest. The constrictive, shallow breaths, the glaring judgement of a small town.
‘Listen,’ she says to Will. ‘I’ll be at the house. I’ll start the packing or something. I just can’t be here.’ She takes hold of his hands. ‘You know…’ her voice cracks.
He stares, his mouth wide. She can see the fillings in his mouth. ‘You can’t go. This is for Dad.’
She turns her back on him. Leaves by the side door as the crowd mills outside.