“That’s fantastic, Josh.”
Josh beams at me but it’s difficult to smile back. He’s been looking forward to polishing this plaque on the memorial tree; it’s the only thing he can do for his dad now.
Today is the second wedding anniversary his father and I have spent apart. Nothing has got easier in the months since David was killed on active service in Iraq. I’m stuck in a time warp, where life moves forward for everyone else but I’m forever the newly bereaved widow.
Stuart drove us here today. He’s been like a second father to Josh and a fantastic support to me. But he wants to be more than a family friend and surrogate uncle. That’s something I can’t cope with ever again –Stuart’s still in the army and a relationship with a serving soldier means that you constantly live on the edge.
It was Stuart’s idea to dedicate a tree to David’s memory.
“You need a special place for remembering David; a place that you can visit on important dates.”
In the aftermath of the funeral and still in a pit of grief I didn’t know what I wanted. Stuart had served with David and their friendship was incredibly deep so I trusted his judgment.
Everyone came to the dedication ceremony-- family, friends and David’s army colleagues. The weather was glorious and we had champagne in paper cups followed by lunch in a restaurant. Josh was the centre of attention and it felt like a party. David would have approved.
“Put your hood up, Josh. It’s starting to rain.”
It’s a different story today in the middle of November; the clouds are almost as black as my heart.
After the initial bustle around the funeral and the tree dedication, people left us alone. Not because they didn’t care but because life goes on for other people.
“Mum, is it time for the cake now?”
Josh is stuffing the damp duster back into my bag and lifting out the cake tin.
The cake was David’s idea. It was in the letter he’d left with his mum, to be opened if the worst happened. He wrote how much he loved us and lots of other things that make me cry every time I read them, which is often. But he also left instructions to celebrate all our significant dates with a chocolate cake filled with butter cream (his favourite) and lots of joy because our time together had brought him such happiness.
“Shall I cut that, Josh?”
Stuart loves chocolate cake too and he hands me a paper plate with a piece that’s much too generous. I find it hard to swallow the rich sponge and am glad that the increasing drizzle is camouflaging the tears on my cheeks.
“This would have made Dad laugh,” shouts Josh as he dances around the tree, scattering brown crumbs in the grass. “He liked picnics in the rain and catching raindrops on his tongue.”
I feel Stuart squeeze my shoulder.
“That’s great baking,” he whispers, “and a great son.”
I reach for his hand – his gesture of comfort means a lot to me. I’m careful not to let my fingers linger. Stuart shouldn’t be wasting his life on me; someone who can never commit to him. On his last home leave he proposed and I told him that I couldn’t risk giving my love, and more importantly Josh’s, to a serving soldier.
“Race you back to the café for hot chocolate!” Stuart calls to Josh.
I watch Stuart give my son the lead as they disappear down the grassy path.
“Thanks for suggesting the cake,” I say to David, stroking the thin trunk of the sapling, “and thanks for giving me Josh.”
A rainbow appears through the drizzle. I manage to smile at its beauty and then I follow the athletes towards the café.
Stuart’s bought three mugs of hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream.
“Stuart says we need the whipped cream because of the miserable weather,” Josh explains, grinning.
Stuart catches my eye and I look down into the mountain of cream in my mug. I dip my spoon in. I daren’t look up because I mustn’t let myself react to Stuart’s smile. There is more than a spark of attraction between us but acknowledging it would be as dangerous as playing with electricity.
“Can I look round the gift shop?”
“Take this and get something for your beautiful mum too.”
Josh almost snatches the £10 note and bounces off.
This time I can’t help staring at Stuart and I feel my cheeks beginning to burn. I can’t remember anyone calling me beautiful before, not even David. It feels nice but I mustn’t let it cloud my judgment, neither Josh nor I could live with the constant fear of bad news.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to pounce on you.”
His hand is strong as he takes mine.
“I’m coming out of the army. Please will you marry me?”
“You didn’t resign because of me?” A surge of guilt swamps my mind.
“No.” His voice is firm. “You would be the icing on the cake. I’m fed up of cooking for great hairy men and living rough. I’m going to start my own catering business – and I’ll need a regular supplier of chocolate cakes.”
This time I let the twinkle in his eye turn my tummy over.
“I don’t want to take David’s place but I’d love to be part of the next phase of your life. Are you ready for that?”
I think of the last part of David’s letter and his instruction to move on whenever I felt able to grasp the next chunk of happiness.
“I’m ready to leave my time warp,” I say slowly, clutching his hand. “But David will always be a huge part of our lives.”
As we collect Josh, together with a plastic dinosaur and a scented pin cushion from the gift shop, it’s not just the November sun warming my heart.
About the Author: I live in Birmingham, England and write short stories for women's magazines as well as the occasional feature. By day I am a computer programmer and also enjoy keeping fit and church bell- ringing.