There are a few things that Domenic would like to be known about him. One, his name is spelled with an e, not with an i. Two, he despises beetroot. Three, he never stopped writing.
Even now, standing in the dark at the back of an half empty church, the stone walls grey and cold, his face buried in the collar of his coat, all Domenic could think was: I never stopped writing.
He remembered the day he left Canterbury, twenty-three years ago. He remembered sticking his arm out of the window of the car and waving, looking back and seeing William standing there on the pavement, soaked in the November rain, hand raised but not quite moving. He remembered the unspilled tears in his eyes, the way his lower lip trembled, but most of all, he remembered his own words: “I will never stop writing to you.” And he never had. At least, not until long after.
He was fourteen when he’d written his last letter. Sitting in his room, warm sunlight shining on his face, he had picked up his fountain pen and his yellow letter paper and he had said his goodbyes. It wasn’t his fault, after all; he wasn’t the one who had given up on their friendship, he wasn’t the one who had suddenly stopped writing back. He had shredded all of William’s letters afterwards. Torn them to pieces and tossed them in the fireplace, watched them catch fire and turn to ashes. And when, sitting at the dinner table, his father had asked him why his eyes were so red and puffy, he had mumbled something about pollens and grass and cherry trees.
I never stopped writing, Domenic kept telling himself, fiddling with the booklet in his hands, I never stopped writing. Except that he had. And except that the lady standing in the light at the very front of the church front kept sobbing and sniffing, and the wooden coffin was, in fact, a coffin and coffins contain dead things, dead bodies, dead people, and the booklet in his hands had William’s name on it and the picture of a complete stranger.
The day he got the telegram was a beautiful Sunday. The kids were playing in the back garden and his wife was on the phone with her cousin Anna, who was a stupid hen and only talked about dresses and shoes and handbags. His first thought was that no one uses telegrams anymore. His second thought was that it must be something important. There was never a third, or fourth, or fifth thought. There were interminable minutes in which his mind was completely blank, and in which the words “William Keithley died last night. Funeral eleven a.m., Tuesday, Saint Alphege Church, Whitstable” were floating on the paper without forming a sensible sentence. Then it hit him. William Keithley was a name from his childhood, a name he’d never thought he’d hear again. And yet here he was, being invited to his funeral by a mysterious Rebecca Benton, and here he was, letting his wife and kids know that he would catch a plane to London the very next day, and here he was, standing in the dark at the back of a half empty church attending the funeral of the man who used to be his best friend.
The service was short and impersonal. Clearly the pastor didn’t know William very well, or rather, he didn’t know him at all. Domenic didn’t know him either, he realised, when the pastor started going on about how God was gracious and forgave even the worst of sins. Even suicide. Domenic thought of Will, blonde hair blowing wild in the wind while cycling; his laughter resounding in the narrow alleys; his eyes sparkling with excitement while queuing for the cinema. Then he thought of the man staring at him from the booklet, face hard and unsmiling, and of the word suicide. No, he concluded. He didn’t know him at all.
It was after the burial that crying woman approached him. She walked over to Domenic clutching her purse to her chest and looked at him with wet eyes, but with the hint of a kind smile on her face.
“You must be Domenic,” she said.
“I am.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m Rebecca,” she said. “Rebecca Benton. I was a… friend of William’s.”
Domenic nodded. He still couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“You’ve probably been wondering how I found you,” she continued.
Domenic hadn’t really, but he nodded anyway.
“William was always telling me about you. How close you used to be. I figured he’d want you at his–” Domenic gripped the packet of tissues in his pocket. “At his funeral. So I did some research, and you weren’t so hard to find after all. You seem to be very important.”
“Well,” Domenic said. “Well. I really wouldn’t say so. I’m just rather well known in my field.” She nodded. Her eyes were still wet. Domenic let go of the packet of tissues, then grabbed it again.
“Have you got a place to stay for the night?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m not really planning on staying overnight. I have work tomorrow. Actually, my flight is in three hours.”
“You can’t leave like this,” she said. “William would have liked you to stay for a while. I haven’t even told you anything about him.”
William stopped writing back, Domenic thought.
But all he said was, “Tell me about him, then.”
Domenic’s wife wasn’t happy when he called her to let her know he wouldn’t be back for a couple of days. You can’t just disappear like this, she said. Who even was this person? What Domenic found strange was that while he had never mentioned William to anyone, William had told Rebecca all about him.
“The story of when you went to Dreamland always made me laugh,” she said, while she was driving him to her house. “Especially when you had too much candyfloss and threw up on the Scenic Railway.”
So you told her about that too, Domenic thought. He smiled politely and nodded at her.
Rebecca offered him the only spare bedroom in her house. The bed was already made, which Domenic thought was a bit suspicious, but he thanked her and promised he would join her shortly for lunch.
They were at their second slice of fish pie when Rebecca stopped asking him how he liked it and started telling him about William.
“I first met him ten years ago,” she said. “He came into my store – a hardware store, that is, on the main street – he came to buy a few screws, and I told him I’d never seen him around before, and he told me he lived just outside of town, and wasn’t much of a people person. Which wasn’t a surprise. You could tell by the way he looked, really. Beard, beanie, flannel shirt, and all that. Anyway, turns out he needed the screws for the boat he was building. It was his very first boat, that one. He still has it… had it, that is, somewhere in his workshop. I started seeing him more and more often after that. He started building boats as a hobby, but it ended up being his business. He was good. Very good. Some of the boats he made were incredibly beautiful, and earned him some decent money, too. He used to sail them in his free time. Once he sailed us so far away from the shore that I thought we’d never be able to get back. But of course we were. He was good at sailing too, and he loved it. He said it relaxed him, emptied his mind completely. Some days he would set off in the morning and come back late in the evening. Had me worried sick. I’d try and ring him, but he’d always leave his phone behind, so I’d wait at the harbour until he got back. He’d always bring back a few fish, too. I used to mock him, tell him I was still waiting for the day when he’d give me flowers instead of fish.”
“But he committed suicide.”
That took her by surprise. It was as if she was so caught up with her memories she had forgotten the very reason Domenic was there.
“He did,” she admitted. “William wasn’t a happy man. I was always telling him to go see a doctor, get some professional help, medication, but he never listened. He was stubborn, he was. But he had a kind, gentle soul.”
“How did he die?” He’d been meaning to ask that for a while.
“He hung himself. In his living room. I opened the door on Saturday, and there he was. I knew it was coming, but that doesn’t mean it hurt any less. Doesn’t mean it hurts any less now.”
Domenic thought of Will, with his easy smile and his fair hair and his crystal blue eyes, hanging from a ceiling. Dead. He rested the fork on the plate and brought his hand to his mouth.
“I think I’m full,” he said.
“I think I am, too.”
That afternoon, Rebecca took him to see William’s workshop. It was a mess. Screws and nails were scattered everywhere, glue was spilt on the floor, dozens of wooden planks were piled up in a corner, and seemed about to fall over. A half finished boat lay in the middle of all this.
It somehow reminded Domenic of Will’s attic in his old house in Canterbury. Barely anyone ever used it, except for storage, so Domenic and Will had decided it would become their secret hideout. Some days they would pretend to be pirates looking for a buried treasure, and they would rummage through the boxes full of books and old pictures until they found something interesting, like a pocket watch or a silver frame. They would then declare the quest completed. Other days they would pretend to be knights and they would make swords out of wooden sticks, and they would fight imaginary dragons and ogres and giants until they got tired. And other days they would just lie on the floor for hours, staring at the dust floating in the air. But one day, a few weeks after Helen’s wedding, they ran up the spiral staircase into the attic to find it completely transformed. The old boxes were gone, as was the bookcase and the red armchair and the newspapers in the corner and the jar with their collection of shells. What filled the room was art. That is, an easel and art supplies and a blank canvas. It turned out William’s stepfather had decided to turn the attic into his personal art laboratory, and to get rid of “all the useless stuff you’ve been hoarding here for years, with no purpose, really”. That was the last time Domenic set foot into Will’s attic, and, as far as he knew, the last time Will did, too.
Domenic had never liked Will’s stepfather. His mum thought he was a “likable man” and his dad said he seemed respectable, but he had despised him since the first time he’d met him. Everything about Andrew Adams was too perfect: name sounded too good, shirts were too smoothly ironed, shoes too shiny, teeth too white, even his art lab was too tidy. Domenic had told Will about this, but he hadn’t replied, so he’d dropped it, and never mentioned it again. It was his dad, after all.
“They weren’t there,” Domenic said. Something had clicked in his brain.
“What?” Rebecca said. Her hands were stroking the wooden surface of the half finished boat.
“William’s parents. They weren’t at the funeral. Has something happened to them?”
Rebecca’s mouth tightened. She dropped her hands to her sides.
“His mum died, when he was about nineteen.”
“She had cancer. I don’t know much more. William didn’t like talking about it.”
“Okay.” Domenic pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay. What about his dad?”
Rebecca frowned, her forehead creasing.
“He died when he was a baby. I thought you knew that.”
“No, no. Of course I know about Ed. I meant his stepfather.”
Rebecca said, “Oh.”
Rebecca said, “It’s a bit complicated.”
Rebecca said, “It’d be easier if William were here.”
Domenic clenched his hands and scrunched his eyes shut.
“I think I deserve to know.”
“I think I deserve to know. After all these years, after everything, I think I at least deserve to know what happened to his father.”
“Look, Domenic. As I said, it’s complicated. And I’m not the… best suited person… to explain it.”
Domenic stared, and stared, and stared. He clenched and unclenched his fists. Rebecca took a step back.
“How is it complicated?” he said. “Is he alive, or is he dead? Everyone seems to be dead anyway.”
“He’s alive. But it’s–”
“If you say complicated one more time, I swear to god…”
Rebecca was looking at him with large eyes.
“I know how you must feel,” she said. Holding his gaze, she took a small step forward and placed a white, slender hand on his arm.
“Do you?” Domenic said. “Do you really? Do you really know how it feels to have to move away from home at just eleven, to leave everything you ever knew behind and follow your family around the world, changing city, house, friends every couple of months? Do you know how it feels when your best friend, the person you thought would never leave you, the person you thought would forever be at your side, no matter the hundreds of miles in between you, suddenly stops writing back?”
Rebecca dropped her hand from Domenic’s arm.
“William never what? Never stopped writing back? Oh, but he did. We had an agreement, you know. A letter a week. Will loved writing, he wanted to become a writer, and he dreaded phone calls. So I would write him from all these weird places I was constantly moving to and he would write back. It went on for years. Then the letters stopped. I kept writing, of course. I kept writing and writing, but he never replied. Eventually I tried calling him, but the phone number was non-existent. He’d changed his number, possibly moved away, and he hadn’t told me anything. He’d simply stopped writing back. Do you know how that feels? It feels like shit, let me tell you. It feels like the entire world is collapsing around you, and it lasts for weeks, for months, for years. Then you learn to live with it. You understand that it wasn’t your fault, you did everything you could, because I never stopped writing. I wasn’t the one who gave up on our friendship – he was. And just when I thought I was over it, just when I thought Will and his stupid letters weren’t bothering me anymore, you invite me to his damn funeral. Do you know how that feels?”
Rebecca was silent for a long time. Her eyes were large and shiny. Her lips were slightly parted. Her arms were limp at her sides.
“I have your letters.”
“Your letters. I have them. All of them.”
“William kept them in a drawer in his bedroom. I figured he’d want you to have them, so I took them. I was gonna give them to you later.”
Domenic inhaled. Exhaled.
“I also have another letter,” Rebecca said. “A letter William wrote for you. He tried sending it to your address in Berlin years ago, but you’d already moved away, so it came back to him. But he always kept it.”
Domenic closed his eyes. Pinched the bridge of his nose with his right hand.
“Where is it?”
Will was late that day. Domenic remembers it clearly because, as he was sitting in the grass, picking individual blades and tearing them to pieces, Peggy walked by. She was beautiful as always, brown curls bouncing on her shoulders, the folds of her red flowery dress flapping in the wind. Domenic waved at her and she waved back. Her smile was the best thing he had ever seen.
Domenic was glad Will wasn’t there. He ruined things for him sometimes, following him everywhere he went, never getting the hint to walk away when a girl was around. It’s not that Domenic didn’t care for him; he did. It’s only that he could get a bit clingy sometimes. Domenic pulled out a chunk of grass and threw it as far as he could.
When Will finally showed up, he was limping slightly. He was wearing long trousers and a long sleeve shirt, and sweat was trickling down his forehead.
“What happened?” Domenic asked, getting up.
“I fell down the stairs,” Will said.
Domenic shook his head, smiling.
“You idiot,” he said.
Will smiled back, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“You ready to go?”
Domenic held his hand out and Will took it. It was small and warm and soft, and Peggy and her flowery dress floated out of his mind as easily as a summer cloud.
Domenic stopped writing. He stopped writing just like he’d stopped looking and he’d stopped caring and he’d stopped seeing. He should have seen it, really. It was everywhere. It was hidden behind long sleeves and long trousers, concealed by walking into doors and tripping down the stairs, it was in the occasional crack of William’s voice and the wetness in his eyes, in between the lines of his letters, in every single one of his ink words. And yet he hadn’t seen it.
Holding the piece of paper with trembling hands, Domenic closed his eyes. He pictured Will and Helen running away in the middle of the night like thieves in their own house, praying the stairs wouldn’t creak under their feet. He pictured them sitting in a police station, Helen clutching Will to her chest like she used to do when he scraped his knees. He pictured them frightened and he pictured them alone. And then he pictured himself, tossing torn paper in the fireplace, kicking a football against the brick wall, throwing punches at his pillow because Will stopped writing Will stopped writing Will stopped writing.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Rebecca said. She was standing in the doorway, her hand on the jamb. “There’s no way you could have known.”
“I should have.”
“It’s too late now, anyway.”
Domenic nodded. He smoothed out the paper with his hands.
“I never actually threw up on the Scenic Railway, you know. Will couldn’t have any candyfloss because of his diabetes, and he kept staring at mine. I knew he wanted it, I knew he felt like he was somehow missing out, but that didn’t keep me from having five cones. I felt pretty bad afterwards. So as soon as we got off the ride I rushed into the bathroom, started making noises and all. I told him the candyfloss had made me sick, and that horrible sugary taste wasn’t worth it, honestly. You should have seen his face. He laughed so hard he almost fell over. He never really looked at candyfloss again, after that.”
Rebecca laughed a wet laugh. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Here,” Domenic said. He reached into his pocket, fumbled with the packet of tissues before handing her one.
Rebecca took it and dabbed her eyes.
“William never loved me as much as he loved you,” she said. “Now I understand why. You’re a good man, Domenic. He would be proud of you.”
Domenic smiled. As he stood up, a ray of sunshine hit his face. Standing in the light, he felt the warmest he’d been in twenty-three years.
Benedetta P. Fabris was born in Rome in 1996. She completed the IB programme at the International School of Düsseldorf and is currently studying English and American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent, Canterbury. She writes poetry and fiction in her free time and dreams of becoming a published author.
LinkedIn profile: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/benedetta-picarone-fabris-715735100
Twitter handle: @benedetta149
Feature photo by Sally Mankus