Eloise - An Extract
by Judy Finnigan
On Sunday, Chris and I went to church. The children stayed in bed, but, wordlessly, we knew we wanted to visit St Tallanus, our beautiful Celtic chapel. The church was the spiritual centre of our tiny hamlet. The very name Talland meant, in Cornish, the Holy Place on the Hill. It was built, as were all Celtic sites of worship, by running water, a tiny stream trickling down the slope beside the graveyard wall. The entire edifice had a powerful aura of mystery; it was said that the altar was built on a place where two ancient ley lines intersected. And it is true that to kneel and worship there was to experience a profound sense of awe and belonging.We had had our wedding blessed there ten years ago. We originally married in a Register Office, and neither of us had thought we were particularly religious, but the absolute calm we felt in Talland Church moved us to seek a blessing on our marriage four years after we moved into the cottage. This ancient place proffered a secure and holy roof, protecting the commitment we had made to each other, transforming it into a sacrament: we shall love each other, in sickness and in health, ‘til death us do part.
We walked through the graveyard, past yearning, tragic headstones bearing witness to infants and young mothers who had succumbed to the carnage of death in childbirth. Past the more romantic and adventurous tributes to smugglers cut down by the Preventive Men as they brought their booty ashore on Talland Beach. And, inevitably, past the still-rounded mound that marked the passing of Eloise less than five months ago. Eloise had worshipped here, too, when they stayed over, and loved the peace and tranquillity, so it had been her choice to be buried here, with the endless sea before her and the gentle sound of the stream only feet away. It was too early yet for a gravestone to be erected – the earth had to settle first – but on my friend’s still-fresh resting place lay a forest of flowers: tumbling towers of faded roses, garlands of pink clematis. I stared at it, seeing the sweetness of the flowers, thinking of the body of my dead friend in the casket below. Oh Eloise, why couldn’t you rest in peace? Why, in this beautiful country churchyard, couldn’t you give yourself up to eternal quiet, your tasks complete, your work done? And, after all your pain, sorrow and fear, sleep softly in this gentle bower, knowing that you had done your best, and your trials at last were over?
But there could be no repose for you, my Ellie. Not yet. Maybe not ever, unless I could fulfil your wishes. And I was not prepared to do that. You had frightened me too much, overplayed your hand.
I looked up. From Eloise’s grave you could see a vast expanse of glittering sea, green hills swooping down to sand and rock, astonishing colours of blue, gold, purple and silver. It was a place of rest to be desired, to be devoutly wished. Paradise. But for the lonely spirit trapped below, Paradise was truly lost.
The service was calming. We took Communion, and when I settled back into the pew I felt a genuine sense of peace. If Eloise really was wandering about at night along the clifftop, scaring me to death with her dire predictions of doom, then I felt here, in this holy place, I might find the strength to resist her.
Afterwards the congregation, such as it was, gathered in the porch. We said goodbye to the vicar, a lovely woman with a marvellously confident pulpit voice, and various neighbours milled around exchanging gossip and invitations to Sunday drinks. An old lady I had not seen for nearly a year approached and eagerly embraced me.
‘Winnie,’ I said, happily returning her kiss. ‘How are you? Have you got over that terrible flu?’
Winnie Wharton had been confined to bed for weeks with not just flu but a frightening lung infection at the time of Ellie’s death. One of her neighbours had said darkly, at Ellie’s funeral, that she might have to go into the hospital in Plymouth, and we all knew what that implied at her great age. She was well into her eighties and pneumonia was not a welcome diagnosis. But Winnie, always doughty and courageous, had clearly recovered from her illness.
‘Oh goodness, yes,’ she said. ‘Fit as a fiddle I am now, though it took until May, and it’s so grand to get back to church. First time I’ve been since January.’
‘That’s brilliant, Winnie. If you come next Sunday, maybe you and Wilf can come back to our house and have a sherry with us and a few friends?’
‘Ooh, we’d love that. I must say it’s been a bit quiet for us while I was poorly – hardly seen a soul in months. I’d like to have a bit of a knees-up again.’
I laughed. ‘I’m not sure a few sherries on a Sunday lunchtime qualifies as a knees-up, but I’ll do my best.’
‘That will be lovely. Will Eloise be there?’
I was staggered. Surely she knew Eloise was dead and buried. Maybe I had misheard.
‘Eloise? No, of course not.’ Not exactly tactful, but I felt stunned.
‘Oh, that’s a pity. I’d like to talk to her again. Such a lovely young woman.’
I breathed again. Winnie, for weeks marooned in her sickbed, was clearly unaware that Eloise had died. And since Ellie had kept her illness secret from all but her closest family and friends, why should an elderly lady of the parish know that the lovely, glamorous, vivacious star of south Cornwall now lay buried just a few feet in front of her?
Winnie burbled happily on. ‘I tried to speak to her this morning when I saw her outside church, but I don’t think she heard me. And then I thought I’d see her at Communion, but she didn’t come. She looked lovely in her red swishy skirt.’
I stared at Winnie. ‘You . . . you must be mistaken. Eloise isn’t here. Hasn’t been for months.’
I couldn’t bear to say the words: Eloise is dead.
‘Well, I don’t know about that.’ Winnie was beginning to bristle, in the way old people do when they think their memory is being questioned. ‘All I know is that Eloise was here this morning when I arrived at church. She was standing right there.’ And Winnie pointed to Ellie’s unmarked grave.
‘She had someone with her as well. A young boy, about sixteen or so. Lovely-looking young man he was. They were both looking at those gorgeous flowers on that poor soul’s grave. Don’t know whose it is, but someone’s been taking good care of it.’
I was dumbfounded. I stared at the grave, saw nothing but heaped earth and tumbled blossoms. I really didn’t have the heart to remonstrate with Winnie, but before I could say anything, she let out a cry.
‘There he is. That’s the lad. He’s on his own now, but before she was with him. And the way she looked at him, you’d have thought the sun shone out of his eyes.’
And wandering slowly among the graves, reading headstones avidly as he meandered from tomb to tomb, was the young man Chris and I had seen coming out of the Talland Bay Hotel. Evie’s beautiful boy, pale and unearthly, haunting the sacred ground where so many Cornish lay dead.