A lone seagull swooped, gave its cry and rose to the sky again, wings flapping until it was no more than a dark speck against the clouds. Taking his place at the graveside with the other mourners, Superintendent Tom Harper removed his hat. Dress uniform today, and for once he'd put it on without complaint. Annabelle linked her arm through his and he glanced at her. She was in black, a simple, plain dress and a hat with a veil that almost hid the sorrow in her eyes.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
He'd barely noticed the church service, the hymns and the eulogies. Instead, his own memories of Billy Reed had come, jerky, never quite staying in focus, like a moving picture. The time they'd served together on the force, the rift and then the slow healing that solidified into something warm that was almost friendship again. That had arrived after Billy and his wife Elizabeth moved here to Whitby. How long had he known the man? Well over twenty years; so much slid away into the past, hazy and dimmed and heavy.
And all over in the time it took for a heart to stop beating. From one moment to the next. Billy had only been in his middle fifties. Years ahead of him yet; that was what people always said. But it was true.
The pallbearers lowered the coffin into the earth.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Elizabeth stood on the other side of the grave. Silent, hands clasped tight together, clutching a handkerchief. Her children stood around her, all of them grown now. The two youngest seemed stunned, as if they'd been transported into some strange dream they didn't understand.
The telephone call had come in the evening. Harper had just arrived home, trying to shake off the thoughts of work and let his mind slow down. Elizabeth's voice was faint and hesitant on the other end of the line.
'It's Billy.' A pause so long he believed he could hear her breathing, trying to gather strength. 'He's dead. A heart attack. It was instant. He wouldn't even have known, they said.'
'My God.' He could scarcely believe it. Billy Reed had seemed so alive the last time they met. Fitter than he'd looked in years. And happy. 'I'm so sorry. Is there anything we can do? He...when did it happen?'
'Yesterday. He was on his way home from the police station.'
Another hesitation, shorter this time. 'The funeral's on Thursday. I don't know if you can come. I'd have rung sooner, but...'
So much to do. He understood. And far more than that: overwhelmed, just trying to cope. To comprehend. To try and imagine a future.
'Of course we'll be there,' he said. How could he have refused?
'What is it?' Annabelle asked as she came through from the kitchen. 'You look like you've just seen a ghost.'
He realized he was standing with the receiver in his hand. 'You'd better sit down,' he told her.
He managed to learn a little more the next day; the police grapevine. Billy had keeled over as he was walking along the street at the end of an absolutely ordinary day. Dead before his body even hit the pavement, according to the report.
So sudden, so final. No chance for goodbyes. How could that be part of any great plan?
A sudden breeze rose, rippling the vicar's white surplice and whipping his words out over the North Sea before it stilled again.
In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
Harper stood, his back straight. He could taste the salt tang on his lips. His mind drifted and dived with the birds over the estuary. He watched without seeing as the family threw clods of dirt into the grave. The empty thud of soil on wood. A life over and folded into the earth.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all ever more. Amen.