Al was seven when he realised – properly realised – that he was living in the house his grandparents had died in. The nightmares lasted a week, and he’d creep in bed with Mum and Dad and clutch at their warm hands, listen to their breathing and their heartbeats. By day he’d peer into Dad’s photo album, watching them laugh up at him, wave; in one picture Granma Lily was blowing kisses at the camera, Dad as a baby on her hip.
And now they were gone, and it had happened here – or here – by the front door, in the lounge, on the stairs. What did dead bodies look like? James said like skeletons with red all over and stuff hanging off – like bacon gone bad.
Finally Dad took him to the churchyard. It was sunny and warm and there were birds singing in the trees. Al put the flowers Dad had given him down in front of the weathered old headstone and then stood back very quickly and gripped Dad’s fingers tight.
“Nothing here can hurt you, Al,” said Dad gently.
“They died to keep me safe. They died, Al, so that one day – one day there would be you. And James. And Lily.”
Al licked his lips. “He...”
“He,” said Dad, hard and ferocious and cold, a voice of Dad’s that Al had never heard before, no matter how tired he was or how angry or much the people at the Ministry were ruining things, “is dead. So, Al, if you’re going to imagine them dead, imagine them sitting on the stairs watching you and James build forts in the hall. Imagine them tucking Lily back in when she throws her quilt off in the night, or stopping James from falling out a window –“
Al giggled. Dad squeezed his hand.
“Did we come here so that you could imagine them doing all that?” Al asked.
Dad was quiet for a bit. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes, at the heart of it, I suppose we did.”
Al was quiet for a bit then as well. He’d brought them roses; someone had told Dad once that Granma Lily had loved the roses under the study window at the house. Al liked them; they were pretty and they smelled nice, and sometimes when Dad or Mum was in the study working he’d open the window and sit in the seat in front of it with his own book, smelling them and feeling the wind in his hair.
Finally, he scuffed his shoe in the grass. “Yeah,” he said. “OK, Dad.”
If Dad could remember them like that, then Al thought he could too.