The morning had started with the skies being clouded over and grey, but now, standing beside the open grave watching the coffin slowly lower into the ground, the rain fell in torrents. The drops were large and warm and made soft thudding noises on the wooden lid of the shiny coffin. Rae stood watching as it lowered and then stopped. She looked up at the solitary figure of the non-denominational minister standing with his hands clasped in front of him and his head lowered. There was no one else at the graveside and Rae felt horribly alone.
She took the white roses she had selected that morning and dropped them into the gaping hole and felt sad that such beauty was about to be covered by soil never to be seen again. Her mind drifted as she wondered about the whole idea of picking beautiful, bright, and colorful flowers to place on graves, in vases, in arrangements only to have them wither and die. She didn’t want that for her departure from this world and made the decision to get her personal papers drawn up and make the stipulation of no flowers by request of the deceased. Odd,the things one thinks of standing beside a grave, she thought miserably. It brings to light mortality. She sighed heavily.
Hearing someone clearing their throat brought her back and she lifted her eyes and saw the minister looking at her. “I wasn’t listening. What did you say?” She said with a blank expression and stood watching him beneath his umbrella as the rain soaked through her coat and clothing. It was not cold at all, but the rain was simply not letting up and clearly, the poor chap wanted to head into his dry car.
“I was saying that should you require my services, even if it is just to chat, I am here for you.” He smiled kindly and Rae nodded her head and suggested they leave the cemetery workers, who were huddled beneath the large birch tree with their spades, to do their work. She did not want to watch them closing the grave over an empty coffin.
Rae’s dark auburn hair was pulled up into a French braid from the top of her head, resembling a sort of mohawk, and the end fell to just below the collar of her now soaked jacket. Before getting into her car she reached back and wrung it out. Sitting in her car she watched the minister leave with his cash in an envelope which he had surreptitiously counted in front of her, as though she would cheat him. She even added a little extra for his promise of confidentiality and secrecy as the burial of her father had been done in haste and without any body.
She remembered the call she had received from an old family friend, Morgan, while she was out trawling her local farmers market. She had been standing in front of an array of fresh fruit trying to make up her mind what to buy when her phone had tinkled its catchy tune. She had not recognized the number, but her father had always used different numbers when he had called, which had not been that often in the last few years.
“Raene, it’s Morgan.” He was the only person, apart from her mother, who ever called her by her given name. Everyone else just knew her as Rae. She never understood the reason behind the spelling of her name which sounded like the water pounding on the roof of her car, rain, and she had never asked.
“Hey Morgan, what’s up?” Rae kept her voice steady but had already felt the constriction of her throat muscles and her stomach roiled as everything in front of her started to blur and go out of focus.
“I don’t like to be the one to do this over the phone kid, but your dad has been listed as KIA.” Rae had stood dead still as the crowds around her in the farmers market continued going through the motions and concentrating on their own business. Laughter and chattering from customers and vendors continued around her as her brain chose not to react. Rae had simply stood with the phone against her ear feeling her limbs grow heavy. She took a deep shaky breath and tried to move like normal but her legs felt heavy and her brain shuddered and stalled for a few moments.
“What happened?” she asked softly as she finally found her feet and moved away from the crowds and began walking down the sidewalk with no particular direction in mind.
“I am not sure, honey, but as soon as I find out more information I will fill you in.” He sounded incredibly sad and spoke as though he did not want to be talking to her at all about her father being killed in action.
She had found herself on the promenade and she walked to a bench and sat down looking out at the ocean and wondering what she was going to do. Her dad, Martin Porter, had been in and out of her life for as long as she could remember. He had done his best to always be there for her while she was growing up and had made efforts at being there for birthdays and at Christmas time and other school vacation times. It had not always been possible, but if he was not there himself he would video call her. They had gone from being father and daughter to be good friends as she matured and graduated.
He had arrived for her graduation late, but he had arrived. He’d had bruising and cuts and scrapes on his face and hands which he had tried to hide, but he had been there. When she had moved into her first apartment he had been there to help her move in and had bought her several pieces of furniture and appliances which he had felt were a definite requirement.
“No self-respecting human being should be without a coffee maker.” He had said when he pulled out a state-of-the-art appliance and she had laughed at him as they had gone about working out how the machine worked and shared the first cup of coffee.
She still had the day bed that he had bought for her those years ago as well as the massive poufy red velvet sofa. Her dad had even slept on that sofa on the odd occasion. Rae smiled when she remembered a time when he had taken her out and they had got hopelessly hammered. She had been heartbroken at breaking up with a long-time boyfriend that her father admitted to thinking was a bit of a knobhead.
Sniffing and looking at him with blurry vision and slurring her words, “You thought he was a knobhead and you didn’t tell me?” Her squeaky whimpering voice sounded sad even to her ears. The alcohol-induced self-pity had made her cry even more. It was one of those pity-party moments all women have but she was one of the lucky ones who had their dad to lean on.
Being just as drunk, and just as emotional as his daughter he had nodded, sniffed, wiped his tears away, and said sadly, “Yep. I thought he was a total asshole, but he made my baby girl happy and your happiness is a shit load more important than what I think of your boyfriend.”
At first, she had felt angry but then thought of how selfless he was at only wanting her to be happy. She had leaned on his shoulder and sniffled and cried a little more and he had made idle threats about ripping out his testicles through his throat should he ever see him again. The image had made her drunken mind conjure hysterical images and the two of them had left the bar holding onto one another while they laughed until they were breathless.
Rae loved her father so very much and now, sitting in the car, at the cemetery after burying an empty coffin she began to feel the loss like a lead weight across her shoulders. She leaned her arms over the steering wheel and put her head down and cried. Soul-crushing, heart-stopping cries that would make even the angels shudder.
Rae had no idea how long she had cried for her father and the hurt and pain at not even having his body to bury. It left so many selfish emotions slipping through her veins. She wanted to touch him again and hug him and hear his voice. She wanted to hear his laugh and listen to his lame ass jokes when he tried to cheer her up. The feel of his thick soft salt and pepper hair as she trimmed it for him and then tied it up in a ponytail. Using the clippers to neaten his mustache and beard. The smell of his cologne which he only ever wore when he was home. The biggest problem was that Rae did not feel as though he was gone. She did not feel that severing of an invisible chord and she knew they were close enough for her to have felt that. “Why didn’t I feel you leave me, daddy?” She cried out softly inside the dry cocoon of the car.
Lifting her head and wiping her reddened nose and swollen and puffy eyes Rae decided to take two weeks and go to his cabin on the lake. Her father had lived there all her life and she knew the place like the back of her hand. She would go back to her apartment and pack and then lock up. Once there she would know for sure whether he was gone or not and that burying an empty coffin was simply a way for her dad to catch a space and have a breather. “Ghosts can go anywhere and do anything.” He had said this often.
Rae could come and go as she pleased as she was an independent photographer with lucrative contracts which had, and still do, makes her a lot of money. Her studio was across the road from her apartment, so it was so very convenient. She had two assistants and her business had flourished and her work had gained recognition. Her father had found the studio apartment for her when she had said she was ready to move out of the smaller one. She said that she would then look for a place to get her photographic studio up and running. She couldn’t believe her luck when he had shown her the apartment and the vacant studio for rent directly across the road.
“Oh my god! This is perfect, dad!” she had hugged him tight and gave him a kiss on his cheek feeling so blessed to have him in her life. He had helped her with her logo for the front of her studio which had been a fancy ‘R’ above three interwoven ‘P’s’ painted in black on a white window, Rae Porter Professional Photography. He had said it looked very lad-de-dah, but she thought it looked great. Once again he had helped her move, but couldn’t stay as he had a mission and had to head out as soon as the truck delivered her goods. Rae was used to his work, but she wasn’t entirely sure of what it was that he did. She knew it had something to do with some sanctioned agency and it was all very secret and what-not, so she never bothered with the questions. She simply appreciated having him around when he was around.
The longest they had gone without seeing each other was eight months when he had gone dark and she had worried herself sick about him, even though she knew in her heart, her soul, he was still alive. She had received word from Morgan that he was okay, but was unable to contact her. That was all she needed to hear to be able to relax a little until she saw him again. He had lost a lot of weight and his grey eyes, which she had inherited from him, were dull and lifeless. Rae had made it her mission to put the life back in him and they had spent an entire week in the Bahamas simply soaking up the sun, eating and drinking, and enjoying their companionable father-daughter company. She had made him laugh every day and they had begun running together on the beach. By the end of the week, she had seen a remarkable improvement and invited him to stay with her for a while longer and he had.
They had gone to the gym together and had sparred in the ring, shared their kickboxing routine, and generally kept each other fit and did it together. Martin Porter had instilled in his daughter the importance of being fit and self-preservation by learning self-defense and survival skills. They had gone scuba diving and did their diving masters together and qualified together with both of them reaching scores in the upper nineties. He had watched from the side-lines as she took driving courses and encouraged and uplifted her during her training. Her skills were like that of the instructor who had trained her. Her firearm skills were top of the class and Martin had beamed with pride when she walked away with gold certificates for various firearm competencies.
Rae leaned forward and started the car and looked back at the men closing the grave of her father and pulled away. Moving slowly out of the graveyard she edged her way slowly through the gates when a figure dressed in a long black coat stepped forward. She couldn’t see who it was because of a rather large hat covering the features, but he held up a hand and she recognized the ring on his little finger and she stopped and unlocked the doors.
Morgan leaned forward and opened the door and got in the car. “Sorry about dragging all the wet in with me.” He apologized and took his hat off carefully and put it between his feet in the foot well. “I am so sorry you had to do this alone kiddo. I only arrived as you handed the minister his envelope.” His brown weather-beaten face with its many beauty spots looked older and so very tired, but his chocolate brown eyes missed nothing. He took in the swollen eyes and red nose and he couldn’t miss the sadness exuding from his best friend’s daughter.
“It’s okay Morgan. I get it and understand. I don’t quite know what dad was about or what he did and I never asked, but I have to know, where is the proof of death? If you don’t have any then I know the chance of him still being alive is there.” Rae knew she sounded rather insensitive and it was an odd question, but the thought of her dad suffering caused such pain in her chest that it took her breath away.
Morgan took a deep breath and took out a handkerchief and wiped the rain drops from his face and mustache. “I truly don’t know kid. I wish I had answers for you, but I don’t. He went on a mission with six other secret soldiers and it was a black op and I know I don’t have to tell you what that means.” He wiped his face again and Rae noticed he took time to wipe his eyes.
“Where are the other secret six?” Rae asked quietly and gazed out of the windscreen and noticed the rain had let up a little.
“No idea. Nothing has come my way and each time I try to enquire I hear only silence.” He sounded as frustrated as she felt and she knew she could sit and stew wondering about the unknown or she could simply go through the motions of feeling the loss of her dad and learn to live with the pain. Or, she thought, I can try to find out for myself. He was my dad after all.
“What are you going to do now?” Morgan asked her and glanced out of the window keeping his eyes moving around the area outside the gates of the cemetery.
“I am going to take a couple of weeks off and go to the cabin,” Rae said and looked over at him and he glanced at her and nodded his head.
“Going to pack his things up and sort the place out?” he asked hesitantly.
“No. Going to get closer to him. I am going to keep the place, Morgan. My dad loves it out there and it is his safe haven. Nobody, apart from you and I, knows where it is.” Rae made up her mind as she said it and was determined to go up to the mountains and spend two weeks healing and coming to grips with the loss of her dad if in fact he was truly lost to her. Then, she decided, she would return to her life and business and do what she knew her father would want and that would definitely have been to get on with life.
Morgan wiped his hat and put it back on his head and moved to get out of the car, but stopped and put his hand on her shoulder. “You know where I am and how I can be reached.” He nodded at her and opened the car door just as her phone rang.
Looking down she saw the name on the screen. “Oh jesus! It’s my mom!” Rae closed her eyes tightly and reached for the phone. Morgan stepped out of the car and walked off without a backward glance and headed up the road to a dark blue panel van parked on the opposite side of the street.
Rae watched him as she touched the green circle on her phone. “Hello, mom.”
“Darling! I haven’t heard from you in an age. Where have you been baby?” Vanessa Palova, Rae’s mother, lived and worked in London. She was a fashion designer who had just scored a major contract with a massive well-known store and was able to employ other designers. Her life had always been about herself and she had not really had much time for a child. Raene had been placed in boarding school from the age of ten and had barely seen Vanessa except on vacations when Martin didn’t take her. Rae felt no animosity or anger towards her mother because Vanessa was still like a child herself. She could do nothing for herself so being filthy rich allowed her the freedom to come and go as she pleased and employ others to do what she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.
“I have been right here, mother,” Rae said tiredly rubbing her hand across her eyes and feeling the start of a nasty headache coming on.
“You need to come and visit me, sweetheart. I miss you.” Rae frowned and shook her head hearing this and thought that it was bullshit her mother missed her.
“I have been rather preoccupied these last few days mom.” She couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice and Vanessa picked up on it.
“Man troubles, sweetie?” Rae’s shoulders slumped and she wanted to end the call and head home instead she sucked it up and faced the condescending voice of her mother.
“So to speak. Listen, Mom, can I call later? I am sitting in my car at the moment …” before she could finish Vanessa interrupted her.
“Please tell me you swapped that awful vehicle Martin bought for you. That is not a car for a lady.” She sounded so judgy and snobbish Rae had to bite down on her teeth and lock her jaw not to shout at her mom.
“There is nothing wrong with the truck dad bought for me, mom. I like it and it is useful for when I go into the mountains.” Rae defended her dad and her truck and did not hold back on the angry tone in her voice. She had simply mentioned to her dad that she wanted to replace the little car that she’d had. They had gone window shopping and Rae had seen the massive truck and fallen in love with it, but it had been a bit more than she had budgeted for, but Martin had offered to and made up the difference. He had delivered the car to her on her twenty-eighth birthday. Rae loved her massive black truck with its spaciousness and big tires, high and low-range drive diff, and knew she could go off-road when she wanted. She could reach places to take photographs that would otherwise be out of her reach or she would end up having to hike for hours to simply get one hour’s worth of photography in. No, this truck was ideal for her, and nothing Vanessa did or said would change that.
Rae had been the result of a hot and passionate affair between Vanessa and Martin twenty-nine years ago. When Vanessa had found out she was pregnant she had been utterly devastated and had not been shy in telling Rae this. They never married because Martin refused to change his profession for Vanessa. She had walked out on him when she was eight months pregnant. Martin had been devastated because he had wanted the relationship to work. He had loved Vanessa all of his life and Rae could not remember ever meeting a woman who Martin had dated if he was ever seeing anyone, but Vanessa had a slew of lovers and quite a few of them had been much younger than herself. Her latest beau was a wealthy retired yachtsman who had written a few books, but Vanessa said she could never go out to sea with him as she got horribly sea sick, but Rae knew that was not true, and the last time she had spoken about her beau she had told Rae she was thinking of ending it because he always made everything about himself and his successes.
Rae had found that a bit hypocritical as Vanessa always spoke about herself and her successes and got bored when others spoke about themselves. Perhaps they suited each other, Rae thought.
She was brought back to the present when her mother said something about Martin and Rae blinked, “Sorry, what did you say? I drifted off a little.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake Raene! What did you hear me say?” Vanessa sounded irritated and exasperated.
“To be quite honest I heard nothing.” Rae frowned and considered making awful sounds to make it appear as though the signal was failing.
“I was saying that I found an old photograph album that belongs to Martin and I want to send it to him, but I only have your address. May I send it to you?” Rae held her breath because Vanessa did not know that she had just buried her father, or an empty coffin, which Rae still struggled with.
“Listen, Mom, I have something to tell you. Just make sure you are sitting down.” Rae knew her mother and how dramatic she could be and then manage to make everything about her.
“Raene, don’t tell me you’re pregnant! I am not ready to be a grandmother.” Rae rolled her eyes and thought, here we go.
“This is not about me or you, for that matter, mother. I am sitting outside the gates of the cemetery where I just buried dad.” Rae said it quickly as she felt her voice would crack again and she would start crying and this time she would not be able to stop. She was met with dead silence from the other end of the line. She waited for a long while and actually thought that the line had gone dead until she heard her mother crying.
“Raene, I am so sorry.” She hiccupped and sniffed and then got angry. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me? I could have flown over and been there for you.” Rae heard how angry she sounded and her anger grew out of defense against her father and the way Vanessa had treated him.
“Tell you? Why would I tell you anything to do with my father, mom? Whenever I did speak of him you would shut me down and remind me of how he had made your life a misery and then impregnated you and then how you suffered through labor and childbirth all on your own. Which, mother dearest, was by your own choice. You knew he wanted to be there when I was born, but you selfishly denied him that as well. You never gave him a chance, mom.” Raene could not stop. “You chose your career and he accepted it and he chose his profession, but you didn’t respect him or your relationship enough to allow him to freely be himself. He didn’t need your approval, mother, he needed your love, but you were too self-absorbed and self-indulgent to think of anyone else but yourself. Not even me! You right smartly dumped me in a boarding school as soon as I was eligible.” Rae was gasping and breathing fast when she finished her tirade. She felt so frustrated and tired of hashing out the same bullshit over and over again and being met with her mothers’ bullshit justifications for her behavior. “I just don’t want to go over this crap again, mom. Can we please just leave it?”
“You are wrong Rae, but I am not getting into this with you over the phone. I will fly out on the next flight to come and see you.” Vanessa was crying loudly and she yelled at someone in the background to fuck off and leave her alone. Rae closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Don’t bother, mom. I am going up to a cabin on the lake tomorrow for a couple of weeks.” Rae knew she sounded mean, but she was tired of this back-and-forth with her mother and wanted it to end. Martin was gone and Rae felt terribly alone and she knew her mother’s presence would only irritate her. She wanted to heal and come to terms with her loss.
“Raene, don’t lock me out. Please. There is a lot you don’t know about Martin and my relationship. It is not really your place to know, but if I have to, I will tell you.” Vanessa was sniffing loudly and Rae began to feel bad for making her mother feel so shit, but she just wanted to be alone.
Rae sighed and said softly, “Mom, I want to go home. I really don’t have the energy for this right now. I will call you after I have come back from the cabin.” She made her voice a little harder than she felt, but she simply wanted the conversation with Vanessa to end.
“Can you at least tell me what happened to Martin?” Vanessa enquired softly and Rae heard her blow her nose.
“All I was told is he was killed in action.” Her heart constricted tightly when she said those words.
“So, in other words, you have just buried an empty coffin?” Vanessa whispered sadly and Rae sat up straighter feeling a little shocked and wondered how her mother would know this.
“How do you know that?” Rae demanded.
“As I said, there’s a lot you don’t know Raene.” Vanessa had composed herself somewhat and her voice sounded a little clearer.
Rae took a deep breath and looked around her and noticed the blue van still parked up the road. “I’ve got to go, mom. I will call you sometime after I return. Goodbye, Mother.”
She heard her mother say goodbye, but her finger pressed the red circle before she heard any more and she tossed her phone back into the center consul. She started the truck and put it into drive, and pulled away.
The trip home was long and she took the time to remember some memories of her childhood and how Vanessa and Martin had interacted, but nothing gave her the impression that her mother had known what it was that her father did for a living. There was absolutely nothing that stood out in her memories.
By the time she reached the parking near her apartment, she was exhausted from thinking and made a promise to herself to contact her mother when she got back from the cabin. She needed to make things right with Vanessa and try and get their relationship on a modicum of even footing.
Walking into her apartment she dropped her purse on the floor near the door and kicked off her soggy shoes and hung her jacket up on the coat rack. Looking at the coat rack she remembered when she had found it in an antique store and when her dad had seen it he had shown her how it had been made and assembled using no nails or screws but only wooden pegs called dowels. He had systematically pulled the rack apart, much to her horror, and when he had pulled the bottom of the stand apart a rolled-up piece of parchment had fallen out with the name, date, and address of the maker on it. Rae had laughed as he had been just as surprised by the paper, but they had made a note of the information and researched the maker. It had been their little project and now she looked at the coat rack and felt her heart breaking all over again.
Walking through to her bedroom she pulled down her large canvas tog bag and began to pack for the mountains while making calls to her staff to fill them in and organize things for the studio. She had completed work that her assistant was developing and she only had to have prints ready in another six weeks so she had plenty of time for that. She also gave them both permission to do a few shoots that would be added to their portfolios.