The White Rose
The Norman church clock tower chimed six o’clock on a cold and windy April day in Stanibridge, a small village on the Yorkshire coast, a few miles north of Scarborough. Sandra Carnforth was standing in front of the old fashioned tiled fireplace in her living room, carefully lifting, dusting and replacing each ornament on the mantelpiece. The doorbell rang. She turned and motioned Toby, a border collie, into the kitchen. She closed the door behind him and walked slowly across the room past the front window, noticing a police car outside. Her pulse began to race as she opened the front door and was faced by two police officers.
‘Mrs Carnforth? May we come in?’
The policewoman’s voice was calm – too calm. Sandra anxiously led them inside. Toby barked.
‘What’s happened? It’s Harry isn’t it, tell me, what’s happened, is he alright?’
The sergeant sat her down on the sofa, said something about making them all a cup of tea and hurriedly headed for the kitchen. He stared at Toby who stayed on his rug in the corner. The policewoman began to explain to Sandra. Harry, it seems, had been walking a dog along the cliffs. They didn’t know exactly what had happened but they thought that he must have slipped and fallen. He’d been found dead at the foot of the cliffs just over an hour ago. Details were still sketchy. They were interviewing walkers and passers-by, and knocking on doors nearby – it would take some time. Sandra sat there in complete silence. Tears began to flow. The sergeant came through with a tray and handed Sandra a mug of tea. She held the mug in both hands and sipped slowly, hearing none of his consoling words. Toby was sat at her feet, every now and then looking up, slowly wagging his tail, wanting the people to leave. He was hungry.
About half an hour went by. Sandra’s sister arrived with the local doctor who gave Sandra a sedative before leaving with the police, everyone mumbling self-conscious condolences. The two sisters sat staring at different walls, with barely a word spoken. They’d never been close. Jean was six years younger and she knew that not even this tragedy would bring them any closer. The birth of her twin girls had seen to that. Sandra was forty-two now and couldn’t have children. Nowadays, even though Jean lived only ten miles away, they didn’t see much of each other, except at family weddings and funerals. Funerals – Jean sighed. With Sandra childless, with nothing said, the twins had become an impenetrable barrier between them. Jean had even tried to avoid talking about her ‘gorgeous girls’ but that only seemed to emphasise the rift between them. Finally, Sandra said, quietly:
‘You’d better get off home, Jean. The kids’ll be getting worried.’
Her sister’s words echoed inside Jean’s head as she left the house, Toby standing in the doorway, like a sentry on guard. She composed herself and walked off down the street. Kate and Sue would be wanting food by now. She had her own world to go back to.
Days passed, with the police making fewer and fewer appearances in the village. They found out very little but it all seemed straightforward. And then there was the inquest of course, with only a few witnesses of that fateful morning. Charlie Evans had seen Harry Carnforth climb over the five-bar gate on the path leading to the cliffs. He’d watched as Toby raced ahead, sniffing here and searching there, on the look-out for imaginary rabbits. Tommy Stevens had passed Harry as he biked home from school, stopping further on to pat Toby on the head and give him a sweet. It was Ted Harris and his girlfriend, Sheila, who’d found Harry, around five o’clock, lying spread-eagled on the beach, staring up to heaven ‘as if he knew where he was going’, as Sheila said. His imprint was so deep in the sand that Ted said it was as if he’d dug his own grave and fallen in. The verdict was death by misadventure. The coroner stated that it was not only a tragedy for Harry’s wife and family but also for the whole of Stanibridge. Harry was well liked in the community and everyone had nothing but praise for their local postman. Throughout the hearing Sandra Carnforth sat in silence, bearing her grief with dignity. Three days later the funeral took place. The whole village turned out in force to give Harry the send-off he deserved.
‘My God that woman has coped well with it all,’ Charlie Evans whispered to his sobbing wife as they left the graveyard, following Sandra and Jean. For the first time in years, the two sisters were arm in arm.
By the following week, Stanibridge was returning to its bustling normality. The tourist season, seemingly postponed for the funeral, sprang into life. Anoraks and walking boots, ready to tackle the North York moors, and buckets and spades, easily capable of tunnelling under the North Sea, at least in any child’s imagination, descended on this insular hamlet. Sandra wasn’t seen out much. When she was, it was usually with Toby trailing behind.
‘That dog’s looking poor’, said Tommy Stevens’ dad to his son. ‘Must be missing his master.’
Weeks passed and various people attempted to coax the grief stricken widow out of her depression. Members of the W.I. turned up at her door, ostensibly to collect for charity, or to get help with organising the summer fete, vainly trying to lift her spirits. The vicar called round every week – it did him more good than Sandra! Even young Tommy Stevens did his bit, taking Toby for a good long walk every day. Only once had they ventured out onto the cliff tops. Toby had turned tail and run.
Since the day of the funeral no-one could remember ever having seen Sandra visit her husband’s grave, and yet there was often a freshly cut white rose lying against his headstone. Nobody noticed except Tommy. It so puzzled him that he decided to keep an eye on the graveyard, visiting it often with the border collie. But, he never saw the lips that kissed the flower, nor the hands that gently laid it down in memory of a lost love.
It was early one bright August morning when Tommy knocked at Sandra Carnforth’s door and, as usual, walked straight in. She was lying on the living room floor, motionless, eyes wide open. Tommy knew instantly that she was dead. He fled from the house pursued by Toby who had no intention of losing his new master. Instead of casting a shadow over Stanibridge, the suicide, perversely, cleared the air. The overdose was understandable – depression after Harry’s death. Now, only the border collie remained to remind them all of the Carnforth tragedy, and he was happy enough.
‘Although what Sandra did is against God’s law, He understands and forgives.’
The vicar’s words at the funeral brought closure to most, but not all.
Some weeks later, one evening in October, Charlie Evans’ wife returned to the graveyard one final time and placed a single white rose on Harry Carnforth’s grave. Tommy Stevens stood watching with Toby at the cemetry gate as she left carrying the three-week old baby in her arms. The boy, with the only witness at his side, walked slowly to the graveside. The border collie had seen it all but was a silent witness to what had happened on that fateful day in April.
Harry Carnforth had climbed over the five-bar gate and ambled along the cliff top. He stood staring out to sea, thoughts churning in his head, while Toby ran around.
‘Harry, don’t leave me,’ Sandra said quietly, suddenly appearing behind him.
Harry turned quickly to face his sobbing wife.
‘I have to – we love each other’, he said all too calmly.
‘But she’ll never leave Charlie!’ she shouted at him, suddenly angry now.
‘She’s carrying my baby! My baby!’
Harry spat out the words, words that bit into Sandra’s very being.
Her right fist clenched and hurtled into her husband’s chest. Harry fell backwards into oblivion.
Sandra stared over the cliff edge, down at her dead husband embedded in the sand below. She turned and quietly walked home, the border collie at her heel every step of the way.