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The Graves Of Tomorrow

In the light of a summer's day, the world seemed beautiful and tranquil, and even in the cool shade of the church the graveyard took on an air of hope and gladness.

It was, reflected Isobel, a real church graveyard. The weathered and faltering gravestones showed every sign of being able to look spooky given the right conditions, but the heat of a summer's day was certainly not the right conditions. Even here, in the cool shade of the church, the day robbed the rough stonework of its gloominess and instead imparted a respectable cheeriness on the scene.

Isobel walked on slowly, pushing her way through the grass that tickled her ankles and shins. She was a stranger to the church, having found it by accident while out walking. And this in itself was a cause for some reflection.

It wasn't, thought Isobel, that she did not want to have found the church. More, it was that she had not expected to find the church. The fact sat in her thoughts as something of a life theme - she was never sure where she was going, or how she was going, or what she was going to do when she got there. And whereas churches were easily found with a map, she could neither find nor make such a map for her own life.

She tried to push the thoughts out of her head as directionless jobs and misguided relationships threatened to cast clouds into a beautiful day. But still, even as she rounded the corner of the church into the full light of the sun, she felt a hint of darkness spread out at the back of her mind.

She stopped for a moment and surveyed the churchyard, wiping sweat and shadow from her brow. The grass extended away to the low wall that surrounded the church, and as before grave stones formed orderly lines up to the old stone perimeter. But as she looked harder, she noticed that these headstones were different. These were not the weathered stones of before, but were instead new and unblemished, with ornate carvings of flowers and cherubs and lions. And they were all, without exception, blank.

Isobel walked down the lines of the stones slowly. The old stones on the other side of the church had been inscribed with names and dates, and promises of love and remembrance. But these new stones bore no text at all. She followed the lines to the edge of the church and turned the corner, stopping when she saw the next edge of the church.

This side of the churchyard opened out into a field, with row upon row of gravestones stretching off into the distance. Isobel could not see the detail on the furthest stones, but considered that they probably resembled the stones nearest to her - which is to say, they were new and ornate, and devoid of any text.

Isobel's thoughts were interrupted by motion. A short distance away a woman was taking flowers from a bunch she held and laying them in front of a gravestone. Then, as Isobel watched, the woman moved on to the next grave and started counting out flowers again.

Puzzled, Isobel walked over to the woman, noticing that the grass was shorter here and did not play about her ankles any more. As she approached, Isobel coughed loudly and said, "Hello."

The woman looked up from the grave she was tending, put down two more flowers and then stood up slowly. Isobel noticed the woman winced slightly, before her face settled into a cheerful smile.

"Hello, dear," said the woman. "Lovely day, isn't it?" She coughed gently, then added, "Brings the flowers into bloom a treat, this weather does."

Isobel nodded her acknowledgement, studying the woman. The woman was not tall, but still managed to be taller than Isobel, while at the same time having the broad build of someone who tends gardens on a daily basis. Her looks concealed her age without trying, and it was only a slight awkwardness of movement and the strands of grey woven into her plait of dark hair that gave her any indication of being in her later years.

Isobel looked around at the gravestones that ran off into the distance, and asked, "Do you tend all these graves yourself?"

"Yes, dear," beamed the woman, "every one of them. Someone's got to keep them looking tidy, and truth be told it gets me out of the house." She started counting flowers again as she spoke.

"Whose graves are they?" asked Isobel.

"Who knows?"

"But shouldn't they have writing on them? People who've died?"

The woman stopped her counting and looked at Isobel sympathetically. "Oh, no, dear. These aren't graves for the dead. They're graves for the living. The dead don't appreciate good flowers anyway."

"But... Surely graves are for dead people?"

"Oh, no. That would be such a terrible waste. All that love and all those flowers, far better to give that to the living." The woman struggled to bend down again, dropped a small bunch of flowers in yellows and blues at the foot of a grave, and then laboured her way upright once more. She massaged her back with her free hand and looked at Isobel, who was still wearing an expression of mild dubiousness. The woman laughed.

"Oh, I know what you're thinking, dear. I was dubious too. But I'm not just an old crackpot - at least, not about that." The woman laughed quietly again, an act which started with a happy smile but ended with a sad cough. She held her hand to her mouth, and when the coughing stopped, she quickly counted out some flowers and handed them to Isobel. "Be a sweetie and place those by that headstone, will you?"

Isobel took the flowers and laid them in front of a prowling stone lion. It passed through her mind that perhaps she was doing something very strange, and maybe the woman was mad, but the flowers did seem to brighten the place up. Even Isobel couldn't help but feel more cheerful as she looked at the radiant colours of the blooms.

They ambled on further, making small talk about the plants and discussing the weather in more detail. At each grave the woman made a small bouquet and Isobel placed it by the carved stonework. The sun was still shining and as they went, the churchyard seemed alive with colour.

After a while, Isobel stopped and asked, "If the graves have no names, how do you know who to give the flowers to?"

The woman formed her remaining handful of flowers into a neatly arranged bunch and handed them to Isobel. "That's the point, my dear. It doesn't matter who gets the flowers, as long as everyone gets some. I would have thought a nice girl like you could understand that." Isobel nodded and the woman continued, "We'll be needing more flowers. Let's get afternoon tea and then we can finish the job."

They walked back through the lines of white and grey rock, threading their way through a trail of vibrant flowers as they did. As they reached the edge of the churchyard, Isobel noticed a single grave that was different from the rest. The headstone was still pristine and white, with no signs of lettering at all, but the grass there threatened to overgrow it. There were no flowers to be anywhere near it. Isobel pointed at the grave and asked the woman why the flowers were missing.

"Oh," said the woman, "that's my grave. No point wasting flowers on that. I'm happy enough already, and I've not much longer left in this world anyway. No, I refuse to allow my flowers to be wasted on such things."

Isobel thought for a minute, then said, "If it's unmarked, how do you know it's your grave?"

The woman smiled conspiratorially, then whispered, "Trust me, you can tell when you put flowers on your own grave."

Behind the church was the woman's cottage, and the two women went inside for tea and home-made biscuits. Over biscuit crumbs they discussed the finer points of the world, and exchanged names. Soon Isobel was addressing the woman as Joanna and telling tales of everyday life and its incredible everdayness. It was with some consideration that Joanna declared that perhaps Isobel had lost her way in life.

"Oh, no, that's not it at all," said Isobel.

"Then, if you haven't lost your way, perhaps you've forgotten where you're going?"

"Well..." Isobel decided to confess. "It's not so much forgotten where I'm going as I never knew. This job, this life, it's so hard to know what I'm doing it for."

Joanna looked sympathetic. "I know it's hard dear, but sometimes it takes a while to find our purpose in life. For me, it's the flowers, but I didn't realise that for a long time. Now how about another biscuit?"

After they cleared away the tea things, they went outside and followed a neat little path around the cottage. As they reached the back, Isobel couldn't help but say, "Wow!" The garden shone with reds and yellows and blues. Flowers of all shapes and sizes lined flowerbeds and hanging baskets and small pots. The effect was as if a rainbow had landed in the garden.

"This is my life," said Joanna, and she started picking flowers. Then they took the blooms back to the graveyard, and started laying flowers and talking where they'd left off. It was only with much reluctance that Isobel eventually said her farewells and left, clouds gathering above her as she went.

Several days passed before Isobel could make time to go walking again, but she returned to the churchyard on another sunny afternoon as before. She noticed as she walked that none of the graves had flowers yet, and so she made her way to Joanna's cottage. She knocked on the door, and after some time Joanna opened it. She beamed at Isobel and stepped aside to let her in.

As Isobel sat at the kitchen table, Joanna shut the door and shuffled back to the table. She was moving slower today, thought Isobel, and she could see the pain and effort on the old woman's face as she sat down.

"Hello dear," said the woman, "How are you today?"

"I'm good. But you look..." Isobel's voice tailed off as she failed to find a nice way to describe the old woman's discomfort.

"Oh, don't you worry about me. I'm just getting to the end. This old body can't go on much longer." Joanna pushed against the table and struggled to her feet again, then shuffled slowly and awkwardly across the kitchen. A large bunch of flowers rested on a windowsill, and Joanna picked them up and brought them back just as slowly as she went. She lowered herself to her chair carefully, wincing as she went.

"Can you do something for me? Be a dear and take these outside now and set them out nice like before."

"Sure," said Isobel, picking up the flowers. She looked at Joanna, then back at the flowers. A sudden image of the overgrown grave came into her head, but as if sensing the idea forming, Joanna said sternly, "And don't you get any silly ideas about putting any of those flowers on the wrong grave. I've already poured all my love into those flowers, and I'll not be needing it back."

Outside, Isobel walked the lines of gravestones, giving each one a small arrangement of flowers of its own. She thought about leaving a few on Joanna's grave, but then decided better of it. Instead she contented herself with the sun and the blooms, and wondered just why the day seemed so much brighter when she finished with a certain grave.

Back at home, Isobel went into her own garden in search of flowers of her own. It wasn't a big search, with most of the garden consisting of grass or weeds, but she did find a few daisies. And while she couldn't say she had poured her love into them, she did realise they were the best she was going to find in her garden.

She returned then to the churchyard, clutching a handful of daisies in the midday sun. She walked between the graves, noting there were no flowers again, and reached the overgrown gravestone. She pulled up some of the biggest clumps of grass, and threaded all but two of the daisies into a chain which she placed atop the headstone. Then she left for the cottage.

When she got there, the wooden door was shut, and her repeated knocking had no response. She paused for a moment, unsure, and then tried the doorknob.

The door opened.

There was no-one waiting in the kitchen beyond, and as she slowly made her way through the house calling Joanna's name, she heard no sound at all.

Eventually she reached the bedroom upstairs, and there in the bed lay Joanna. At first Isobel thought Joanna must be dead, for she was motionless and pale, with eyes closed. But as she drew near, Joanna opened her eyes and managed a weak smile at Isobel.

"Are you..." began Isobel, and then stopped.

Joanna nodded slowly, her breathing coming shallow and erratic. "I've not much time left in this world," she whispered, "but I'm glad we could say our goodbyes."

Isobel's eyes filled with tears, but Joanna shook her head slowly. "Don't," she whispered again, "Don't cry for me. We all die. And the pain is not so bad for me now."

"I brought you some flowers from my garden," said Isobel, sniffing away the tears and placing the two remaining daisies in Joanna's hand. Joanna moved the flowers close to her face with a shaky hand, then smiled and rested her hand on her chest.

"They're lovely," said Joanna, her voice fading slightly. And then: "Will you carry on with my flowers?"

"Yes. I will," said Isobel, and suddenly she knew she would, for it was where she was always going. She took Joanna's free hand and squeezed it.

Joanna closed her eyes and her breathing slowed. She whispered, "Such lovely daisies."

"It's not much," said Isobel, "But daisies was all I had to give you."

Joanna looked briefly at Isobel and said, "Love is all we ever have to give." Then she closed her eyes and sank back, limp, her breathing stopped, but one hand still holding two daisies.

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