During the days and nights he breathed life Elijah had found it almost impossible to grow a beard. If he could have cloaked his face with soft, luxuriant copper lichen through will power alone, he might have worn the appearance of a guru. But he couldn’t. Instead the hair on his face looked at best, as though a child had scribbled in his features with clumsy crayons. It had been the same since adolescence, still baby soft through University. After even a few days of not shaving although a downy covering might sprout awkwardly here and there, his face itched until his chin flaked skin like the first snow of winter.
It was an Audi TT that removed Elijah from the beard-growing game; removed a beloved son, an admired sibling, an Uncle still carefully weighing out the responsibility on an old set of scales and a boyfriend tipped for wedding stardom. It was an Audi TT, in racing green that cut him immediately from the world like a deleted scene.
The driver had been arguing with his girlfriend who sat in the passenger seat. She had shielded herself with an expensive handbag at her chest as his angry words bounced off the leather. As his rage swamped the car, buckling the windscreen to shattering point, he had ground his foot against the accelerator. Turning his head away from the road in an attempt to hurl his venom at the passenger seat with pinpoint accuracy he hadn’t noticed the lights settle to strawberry red.
Elijah had been eating a sandwich as he sauntered over the crossing. The impact left the sandwich dropped like elevenses no one would ever finish. It was out of its wrapper for an hour before being sealed in a plastic evidence bag, two neat bites crimping the wholemeal triangle. A late summer breeze had caught a stray strand of rocket before anyone noticed, curling it into the opposite kerb.
Elijah had ended his life with his grandest cartwheel since junior school. Riding over the green bonnet he had passed through the air legs broken, hands clutching the air for his sandwich. It was the recently repaired road that broke his fall, snapping his neck like a wishbone. And with that there were no more wishes for Elijah to whisper to himself with a smile.
In his final second - one that had panned out to an eternal now - he had thought of his girlfriend Anna. Anna who had arrived in his life like a rainbow slipped under his door. She would be sat waiting for him at the café where they often met for lunch. She always waited patiently, smiling at people passing by; perfectly content. Each time he came around the corner, scanning the busy lunchtime crowd for her golden hair pouring magically over her shoulders, he would then take a moment to bask in her smile; like sun at first light.
It happened not long after the arrival of the headstone.
The floral tributes had long since wilted and seeped into the earth as weeping nitrates. A simple plant in a purple pot with a gold ribbon had long since died, the shining gold now faded to an ashen yellow. Like a stern father at the head of the table the black headstone cast an immovable shadow over the plot. The late summer breezes had been replaced with biting February winds and heavy snowfall had concealed the first signs of recovery.
Anna was the first to notice. Setting out on a Sunday afternoon it had been a day of chilly winter sunshine; a radio announcer having talked of a ‘promising spring’ only the day before. Recent snow had melted away in the last few days but the temperature had jammed below freezing, leaving the ground hard and unyielding. Anna hadn’t really thought things through, arriving at the cemetery with a trowel and a small rose bush she had hoped to encourage into the earth.
Clearing away a blanket of frozen leaves, yellowed grass and chocolate bar wrappers pinned in situ by an unbreakable frost, she had begun scraping at the soil with the trowel. An hour later, knees cold and damp, she had unearthed only a small patch. Sobbing she had run her fingers over the new soil in attempt to feel closer to Elijah. She had been surprised to find the ground felt…furry almost. She had moved her fingertips around the soil to discover that there was something growing there. Flooded with memories of her grandmother, the pair of them potting on seedlings in a chipped greenhouse, Anna was reminded of the delicate roots poking determinedly from the underside of many tiny pots; as a child she had been frightened by the urgent, hairy roots.
Returning a week later, the ground left softer by a spring rehearsal, she had found - to her murmured delight - that the patch she had exposed now thrived; unruly orange hair pushing up through the soil. Running her hand over the hair she found it was around a centimetre high, thickly spread; velvety to the touch. She had reached into her bag, fishing around aimlessly with her hand until she pulled out a small pair of nail scissors. Trimming the close orange hair became more difficult as her eyes collected tears like rainwater but by the time she stood up, she was able to leave the patch neat and tidy.
On the Sunday following Anna brought Elijah’s mother with her to the cemetery. Since losing her son Vivienne had found it difficult to spend time with Anna. Each time Anna called to see her Vivienne took a long time to answer the front door, opening it cautiously before offering a smile she no longer felt comfortable with; a mimeograph of her previous warmth. If they hugged it was done so carefully, as though the immediacy of an embrace might leave either of them like cracked china.
Kneeling slowly at the grave, Vivienne found she was unable to remember how words worked. She had not accepted Anna’s account of this unexpected renewal; these first tender shoots of spring. Yet, in front of her eyes a full beard grew from the ground, carpeting the soil and in the last week having begun to creep up the base of the headstone. Anna had settled beside Vivienne, taking her arm gently, silently. They were still crying when an elderly man in overalls explained gently that he needed to lock the cemetery gates.
Each Sunday, if you were to pass a late spring, early summer afternoon in this cemetery, you might catch sight of a family winding their way along narrow pathways that lead between neat rows of noiseless memories, raggle-taggle children wheeling their arms through the air chasing butterflies, bringing with them scissors; spending a little time clearing away rubbish from the grave, replacing the flowers, before settling in to trim the glorious, orange beard that now shrouds the entire headstone.