Eight in the morning and she was still the only one there. She wasn’t surprised. It had been three weeks now. Still Evie felt she had to come. She hunched down against the concrete pillar, protecting her from the unceasing wind. At least it wasn’t raining today. The surface of the river was choppy as the water passed beneath the bridge. The flowers tied and taped to the railings fluttered and flapped. Dead leaves and petals blew off and landed in the river, floating away on the current. A rain-smudged poster clung on to the lamppost, refusing to give up hope even though the body had been found. Commuters bustled passed on their way to work. At the start they had paused and looked. They had read the dedications that accompanied the flowers. They had given a respectful moment, a nod, a look of sympathy, and then moved on. Now they hurried passed. There was no malice in this. They had their own lives to get on with.
Why had she done it? That was Evie’s initial reaction when the body had been found. Not anger or sadness, but confusion. Then guilt. Had she missed something in Sam’s behaviour? Had she been depressed? Lost weight? Withdrawn? She had thought back to the weeks leading up to Sam’s disappearance and she couldn’t remember any signs or changes. What sort of a friend did that make her? Suicide, they said. They weren’t looking for anyone else in connection with Sam’s death, there were no suspicious circumstances. Evie wanted there to be suspicious circumstances. That would help explain it to her. Someone evil out there had taken away her sister. She would have someone to blame. Someone to hate. Instead she hated herself and blamed her sister. How could Samantha do this to her family? To her children? To Evie? How could she be so selfish to leave them all? These thoughts mingled with the sadness and pain that followed.
When Sam had disappeared it had made the national news. The police appealed for witnesses. Had anyone seen her on the night she disappeared? Evie organised family and friends to help with the search. They put up posters around the city with Sam’s picture on them. They used the internet and social media to publicise the search. Any information that could help trace her whereabouts, please get in touch. Some people came forward. Closed circuit security cameras were scanned. They traced her movements. They ended up by the river. By the fifth day hope began to fade. Evie knew. When the police focused their attention on the river and the divers were brought in, Evie knew. Friends told her not to give up hope and she pushed them away. She knew. Tony had been in touch from America, but Evie and her parents had been left with Michelle and Tom, sharing the duties of looking after them, trying to stay positive for them. How do you explain to a seven and five-year-old that their mother has chosen to leave them for good? That she would rather be dead than see them grow up? Their father had already abandoned them in one way. Their mother abandoned them with permanence. The local and national papers kept Samantha on their front pages, the television news kept her in their headlines.
On the seventh day they found the body. Washed up on the river bank a couple of miles downstream. No one was surprised. That was the last day the newspapers and the television news mentioned Sam on their front pages and in their headlines. The funeral a few days later was a footnote. Evie had to go and identify the body at the morgue. There lay her big sister. Drained of all life, blue-ish white, limp and bloated. The official verdict was given as suicide by drowning. Case closed. No one had been witness to Sam actually jumping from the bridge, but the investigators seemed certain it was what she had done. Evie got home after identifying the body and turned on the news. A reporter stood on the bridge, wrapping up the tragic tale for the viewers. Behind him, Evie saw a couple of bouquets of flowers attached to the railings. It felt strange that someone had started a shrine to her sister. They didn’t have her permission to do that. It was her sister that had died, her best friend. Tom and Michelle’s mother. How dare these strangers choose to mark her death in this way? Her impulse was to go there and reclaim Sam’s death for herself. That night she drove into the city and went to the bridge. By the time she arrived there were ten, twenty bunches of flowers. Someone had left a heart-shaped balloon tied to the railing. It bobbed around merrily in the wind oblivious to its sad purpose. Evie read the notes that accompanied the offerings. A couple of names she vaguely recognised, but the rest had been left by complete strangers. Some were anonymous. All expressed the usual platitudes that became meaningless through repetition. Rest in peace. A couple of candles had been left on the ground but the relentless wind that ran down the river had blown them out already. They lay there, inert lumps of wax as pointless as Sam’s act of suicide.
There was a seat in the middle of the bridge. Evie sat on it and stared at the shrine. Had Sam sat on the same seat and contemplated her life that night before deciding to throw herself over the railings? What had she thought of that had made her decide death was the best, the only, way out? Evie would never know. While she sat there that evening a handful of people came along and added to the memorial. She didn’t speak to them or acknowledge their offering. She waited until they left and then wandered over and read their notes. When one bouquet of flowers fell off, she picked it up and reattached it. Then she started to rearrange the various flowers to keep them tidy. She relit the candles. It was midnight before she returned home.
The next morning she had to go back. It became a vigil. When her friends had found out where she was they started coming along to keep her company. She didn’t mind them, so long as they didn’t talk too much. They began helping to keep the shrine tidy as it grew beyond any of their expectations. Evie was sure her friends came along partly to make sure she didn’t follow Sam’s example. Evie still felt ambiguity towards the improvised memorial. How dare these people claim to feel anything for her sister? This was her loss, not theirs. But these strangers were thinking about Sam, and about Michelle and Tom and taking time out of their lives to mark her passing. Would Evie have done this for a stranger in the same way? She knew she would not have done so. After a couple of days her mother and father had brought Michelle and Tom to see the display. They had cried and hugged and explained to the children. Evie had sat on her bench and watched them. If that was the only purpose this memorial had, to ease the pain for Tom and Michelle, then it was worth protecting.
After a couple of days the growth of the shrine slowed. Now only the occasional person came along to offer anything. Still Evie maintained her vigil. By keeping the flowers there she was keeping Sam’s memory alive. Gradually her friends and family stopped coming to keep her company. There was little to do when there was no new flowers to arrange or tidy so Evie sat on her seat and watched the water flow by and people walk on.
This would be her last moment here, Evie thought as it reached early evening and she sat hunched and alone on the seat. The commuters passed in the opposite direction from the morning. She knew that once she left this space today she would never return to this spot. There was nothing for her here. Like the media and the police and the strangers that had paused for a moment initially, life goes on, and so it would for Evie. There was no life here for her. No one had left anything yesterday, and no one had even stopped to read the dedications today. The odd glance in her direction from the people who had seen her sitting in the same place every morning was the only acknowledgement the decaying shrine had gathered. Evie sighed, gave a last thought to Sam and stood up to leave.
As she took one last look across the bridge she saw a man appear carrying a bouquet of flowers. He stopped at the start of the shrine by the railings and started reading. Evie watched as he slowly made his way along the line. Occasionally he glanced up and saw Evie staring at him. He spent five minutes there, more than anyone that week. When he reached the end he glanced at his watch. He almost hit Evie as he turned away from the railings. He looked at her sheepishly. They didn’t exchange a word. Flustered, he put the bouquet of flowers on the ground next to the collection of extinguished candles sitting uselessly in a line. He nodded to Evie and hurried off. Evie stared after him. She picked up the flowers and read the note that had been left with them. It read: ‘To my darling wife. Happy Anniversary. Your loving Rick.’ It ended with a row of x’s. Evie laughed. The first time she had laughed since Samantha had disappeared that night. The man had had time to spare before heading to meet his wife and so passed it taking an interest in something he previously knew nothing about. He felt obliged to leave the flowers intended for his wife because of Evie’s presence.
Evie picked up the flowers meant for someone else. She threw them over the railings into the river. Then she dismantled the shrine one dead bouquet at a time, each one tossed into the water below. She hurled the candles away. She untied the heart-shaped balloon and it drifted off on the wind, finally free. In two minutes there was nothing left of the shrine to Sam. Evie smiled as she did it. Passers-by only watched. No one stopped.
Evie turned and walked away from the bridge for the last time. Life goes on, she thought. Below her a bed of dead flowers drifted away on the surface of the river.