Alys felt her feet bounce on the bleached planks as she walked towards the end of the pier to meet Mark. Why had he asked to meet? Why now? Why here - on Penarth Pier? Gareth must have told Mark how much he loved it. He always wanted to walk down from the house as soon as he was home from London. Loved the freedom after his flat, almost like being on a boat, leaving dry land. She remembered his face full of enthusiasm and laughing, while she dragged along behind. It was just the Pier to her. Now, it had other memories attached. The place where they’d scattered his ashes, letting the wind and the water absorb his remains.
A wave of emotion rose from her stomach and caught in her throat. Some things are too awful to be true. But they are. She slowed down, pretending to look out over the water so she could gulp back her tears.
The wind whipped her hair into her eyes and mouth, gusting, almost taking her breath away. She smelt the tang of salt in the February air. Tasted it. Weird sensations. She’d found grief did that. Made you ultra-aware, as though everything was on high alert. Made everything exhausting as well. It had taken all her energy to get herself out of the house.
She could see Mark as she got closer. She’d only met him a few times when she went to stay with Gareth. He’d seemed very arrogant with his high-powered job in the city; always on his phone arranging things, deals or meetings. No time for a little parochial Welsh girl, interested in art. She hadn’t liked him then and only agreed to this meeting because of his connection to Gareth.
She swallowed and took a deep breath to get her voice under control as Mark approached.
But she was shocked. She almost didn’t recognise him, he looked so unlike the debonair friend of her big brother’s. Still blond, tall and athletic but the main impression he gave was of neglect. He hadn’t shaved, his eyes were red-rimmed, his clothes crumpled. He looked a wreck. It seemed as though things had badly gone downhill since she saw him at the funeral, when he was well-groomed, though ashen. Was that only a month ago?
‘You’ve your brother’s eyes.’
He staggered back against the rail as though he couldn’t stand.
‘Oh God, I…Gareth. I still don’t want to believe he’s gone.’
Alys led him, like a child, ‘Let’s just sit down over here in one of the shelters for a minute’ and he collapsed onto the bench.
‘Sorry, sorry.’ He took out a tissue and blew his nose. ‘It got to me again, seeing you. You know. Such a shock. He was playing football just before…’
‘Well, yes.’ Alys sat down next to him and waited. His reaction to her brother’s accident seemed over the top and she didn’t have any reserves of energy left for meaningless talk with Gareth’s snooty London friends. ‘You said it was important? I have to get back to check on Dad. He doesn’t show his feelings much, but he’s in a bad way.’
Mark did look terrible. Perhaps he was ill? He coughed and they both stared out to sea, at the choppy waves and a small boat chugging slowly out from the marina.
‘Thanks for agreeing to meet me. I appreciate it’s a really difficult time.’
He sprang up, striding across to the other side of the pier as an elderly couple approached, arm in arm, taking a stout dog for a walk.
‘Bit of a windy one today,’ the husband said.
Alys nodded and looked across at Mark. He held his body rigid, although she noticed his hands were trembling. She saw him take a small parcel out of a plastic bag. Another mystery.
She guessed her suspicion was right: that Gareth and Mark had been an item. She didn’t know how serious the relationship had been, but by the look of Mark today he was completely devastated. Perhaps this parcel was to do with that.
When Mark sat down, he seemed calmer, although his hands were still shaking.
‘I wanted to see you because Gareth would have wanted me to give you this in person. It was in his desk drawer in work. He kept forgetting to take it home.’
He passed over the parcel. Alys unwrapped it, fighting with the wind which threatened to snatch it from her hands. It was a small framed certificate that read, ‘Career accountant of the year 2020, Gareth Williams, awarded by Ramsey and Cromer.’
Alys clutched it to her and felt tears streaming down her face, making her shiver as they cooled in the sharp Spring wind. ‘Gareth was so much older than me and we’d never had a proper chance to spend time together as adults. He was my only sibling. And now it’s all too late.’
She didn’t know what she was saying. The words poured out, but she felt this stranger understood. At last, exhausted, she stopped talking and they sat in silence. Mark took a deep breath then, running his hands through his hair.
‘I knew your brother well.’
She saw the pain in his grey eyes, felt his restlessness.
‘Really? I mean… I always thought… but… Gareth never said anything when he came back on visits.’
‘He…he was my best friend. He understood, you know. When I broke up with my girlfriend before Christmas, he was a rock. But… I let him down. It’s my fault he’s dead and… I… I can’t live with the guilt.’
Alys half shook her head. She wasn’t expecting this.
‘It was an accident. Not your fault. You weren’t even there. I don’t understand.’
‘Gareth was under a lot of stress at work and… I think that contributed to the accident. He wasn’t concentrating, coming out of that junction.’ Mark shuddered.
Alys closed her eyes. She’d never realised the statistics of road traffic accidents were so vividly linked to complete destruction in people’s lives. Never really understood before.
‘I should have been there that evening. I said I’d drive him over to football, but then I was so tired … and he said not to worry about it. I don’t know… maybe if I’d gone over as I promised… he… he might still be alive.’
He put his head in his hands. Alys put an arm around his heaving shoulders.
‘We miss him. Terribly. But it wasn’t your fault that he had the accident. It just happened, not anyone’s fault. That woman he collided with. The police said he’d swerved to avoid her but ploughed into the other car. She survived and her baby too. So, Gareth saved her even though…’ Her voice cracked then as she tried to understand through her own suffering. ‘It wasn’t your fault. Just a freak accident.’
‘I...needed to tell you. The guilt. The horror of it all. I’ll never forgive myself for not being there.’
‘Gareth wouldn’t want that. The best thing you can do to honour his memory is to live your life to the full – like he did. Like I’m going to try to do. Please, Mark. Tell me you’ll do that. Remember the good times.’
It was odd, Alys thought, that she was the one giving solace and strength to someone else.
She’d been lost in her own grief. It was a strange but comforting moment to see her sorrow reflected in Mark’s face, in his words.
Mark gave her a brief smile and an even briefer hug. ‘Thank you.’
‘Ring me when you get home.’ Her words were tossed in the wind. Alys watched as he walked off, pulling his grey overcoat around him. He became a shadow that disappeared into the fine mist that had come out of nowhere, shrouding the pier. Something clicked in her mind, seeing him like that, vulnerable, not like the super-confident businessman he’d appeared to be when she’d met him in London. Would he ring? Was he all right? She hoped that their meeting had eased his guilt. It had helped her to understand her brother better and that had provided a strange comfort. Perhaps it had been the same for Mark. Sometimes, she thought, people
weren’t at all what they seemed, and first impressions could be so wrong.
(c) J.L. Harland