I was at the funeral when we met again. I don’t think I’d seen her since high school, and she wasn’t at the five-year reunion, but we both showed up to the funeral. It’s funny, the things that bring you together in the end.
She’d changed a lot; dyed her hair blue, an oceanic colour that made me think of home. Little purple opals glinted in her ears and nose, the kind that are made, not mined. We’d never been allowed outlandish hair or piercings at school, so I shouldn’t have been surprised she’d take advantage of our newfound freedom when we graduated.
I don’t think I changed that much; not outwardly, anyway. My hair was still blonde, though shorter and with highlights. I’d always thought about dyeing it, maybe giving myself purple ends, but chickened out at the last minute every time.
The invitation had said not to wear black, but she showed up in it anyway. “Nothing else in my wardrobe,” she grinned. To her credit, her skirt had a nice floral pattern, pink and yellow roses. Her nails were the same colour as her hair, that deep shade between green and blue, like teal, but brighter.
They looked chewed. She looked tired.
I didn’t approach her until after the service; it didn’t seem appropriate. I was standing with a couple of friends who’d agreed to come with me, and she stood alone behind the rows of chairs occupied by other mourners.
The service was nice. A slideshow of photos through the years, yellow flowers, tearful tributes from family members and friends who’d all been so much closer than me. There was a box for letters to be buried with the casket, which was six feet long and painted in rainbow colours. The outdoor ceremony meant the Enya soundtrack was punctuated with magpie warbling.
I’d tried not to cry.
It didn’t seem fair to cry, since I wasn’t close, but I was glad I hadn’t worn makeup all the same.
We approached each other after the service, bumping shoulders at the buffet table while reaching for the same block of cheese.
“Sorry,” I gasped, and she caught my eye and squealed.
“Ashley!” she exclaimed. “It’s me, Ruby, from school! We had History together, remember?”
I remember struggling for a moment to reconcile the colour of her hair with her name. Then I gathered myself and managed a smile. “Ruby, that’s right! How have you been?”
We paused to fill our paper plates with cheese, crackers and cocktail sausages, then Ruby led me across the grass to a cast-iron garden bench. A pair of magpies flew out of the nearby tree.
She’d gone to music school after we graduated, Ruby explained. I knew this much; we all made it our business in that last year of school to find out everyone else’s business; what universities they got into, if they got into one at all, what their post-school plans were. There was gossip of all natures, like the rumours that a classmate wouldn’t get the marks to get into medicine, or that another was forgoing uni completely to join the army. More gossip that others were taking gap years in Europe or South America, or spending their gap year working at McDonalds.
Ruby wasn’t academic, but she knew music. She was virtually born with a fiddle in her hands, she joked. I always thought it was a violin, but Ruby said to play violin you had to have a stick up your ass the length of the Eiffel Tower. To this day, I don’t know the difference.
She would play in the school music clubs, for fetes and fairs and Eisteddfods. She’d play for the Christmas carols at the end of the year, and for the graduation ceremonies. The last time I heard her play was at our graduation, and everyone cried.
Then she’d disappeared, off to a music college in the city, and I’d started a teaching course. I decided I wanted to teach high school History, because I loved the subject but could never see myself as a historian or archaeologist. I didn’t like the remnants of the dead. I preferred the books and discussions with classmates to any practical field work.
We’d kept up on Facebook, of course; all our classmates made sure to add one another. Though, slowly, as happens with people you never really cared about outside of their contributions to group projects and class rivalry, I started to pay less and less attention.
By the time reunion rolled around, I’d realised I was much closer with my friends at uni than I’d ever been with any school classmates, and realised I didn’t care what they’d been up to since graduation. I didn’t want to hear about babies, or marriages, or course dropouts or humble-brags. I knew I hadn’t done as well as everyone else expected, and I didn’t want to hear “Oh! So you’re still in that course? You didn’t travel to Egypt to dig up the pyramids, then?”
I’d have to explain that I found archaeological digs boring and miserable and too reminiscent of death. I didn’t want to explain that.
Ruby didn’t make me explain. “Egypt’s in all kinds of political strife anyway,” was all she said when I admitted I’d dropped out of the archaeology trip my university had organised – which I’d posted excitedly about on Facebook before dropping out, and which my classmates took great care to bring up at reunion when they noticed I posted no more after the trip began.
“Besides, you always helped me with my essays, so I’m not surprised you’d do well in teaching. Do you enjoy it?”
I admitted that, yeah, actually, I loved teaching. I’d done a few pracs and while it was unnerving to realise I’d truly outgrown the teenagers I’d once identified with, I actually loved the class time and watching students’ eyes light up when seemingly-boring topics revealed exciting historical details. Even marking essays wasn’t too bad.
“That’s awesome,” Ruby said, her eyes lighting up. “I mean, not everyone finds paths which suit them so well, which they can get excited about and feel like it’s the right thing for them. I’m glad you found your path.”
I asked if she’d found her path.
She shrugged. “I always knew music was my path,” she said. “I even play violin now. Not all the time, but I mean, I have to for the student orchestra. But I’ve gotten a few gigs playing fiddle in pubs, and it’s ridiculously good fun. I’d do it forever if there was any money in it, but I don’t think I can do that for a living.”
I brought up famous musicians discovered playing in bars, and she laughed. “I don’t think it usually works like that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
We finished the finger food on our plates, and she asked if I wanted a drink.
While she returned to the buffet for glasses of champagne – who served champagne at a funeral? – I looked around the garden where the service had been held.
There was a white canvas marquee with a projection screen set up for the photos. Around it, blossoming trees and flowering garden beds framed a small house with a patio, where drunk family members milled around.
Towards the bottom of the garden was where our garden chair sat, nestled between a couple of cherry blossoms and backed against a fence separating the garden from a vineyard being pecked at by birds.
It looked like it could have been a wedding venue, but for the painted coffin. I shuddered, thinking of gold-painted sarcophagi, and tried not to think about the Tutankhamen trapped inside.
Ruby returned with two glasses of champagne. “Do you think you’ll come to the burial?”
I shook my head. I tried not to think of underground tombs.
“I don’t blame you,” Ruby said. “It always… feels so final. Watching the dirt get dug over the coffin. I’m not looking forward to it.”
She looked at me. “Do you know how it happened?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Car accident,” I said faintly. “After an argument. Drove off in a rage, speeding, and then hit a tree. Quick death, they said.”
Ruby nodded grimly; her eyes were shiny, and I noticed the dark bags under them. She looked pale.
“They found pills in the car,” I continued. “Medication for some mental illness?”
“Schizophrenia,” Ruby said. “Not a nice illness. Maybe death was the best thing, in the end.”
“You really think so?” I asked. “You don’t think someone can live a good life with schizophrenia? Learn to cope with it, learn to live happily and manage it?”
“I don’t know,” she said in a small voice. “I guess it’s too late to find out.”
We sat in silence, our glasses empty. People were starting to leave. A hearse arrived; several men milled around to heft the coffin into the back.
Ruby sighed, and stood up. She’d always been so much taller than me, and even now she towered over as I stood up next to her.
“You never truly told me,” I said as the coffin was loaded into the hearse. “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?”
Ruby smiled. “The difference is the music you play on it,” she said. “You play Chopin and Mozart on a violin. You play fine music in a fine orchestra in a concert hall with a violin. But you play reels and folk tunes on a fiddle. You don’t play a violin in a pub; you play a fiddle.”
I nodded silently. We watched the hearse leave, and the immediate family pile into a car. People solemnly gathered themselves, picking up bags, tissues, leftover finger food and bottles of grog.
“Let’s not go to the burial,” I said. “I hate burials. Let’s go for a walk.”
Ruby nodded, shutting her eyes. “I don’t want to go,” she said.
I took her hand. She sniffed, wiping her nose. Tall as she was, all six feet of her, she seemed tiny now.
“It’s a shame you never came to reunion,” I said. We began walking, through the fence into the paddock. Magpies wheeled over us.
She shrugged. “I didn’t really want to sit through a night of people I haven’t spoken to in five years humble-bragging about achievements I don’t care about,” she admitted. “It’s not even I have anything to compete with, anyway. I feel like a failure, sometimes.”
“How can you say that?” I asked. “You followed your path, went into music. You don’t even just play student performances – you played at the Opera House once, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t feel right,” Ruby explained. “The big performances. I prefer the small pubs – but you can’t live on doing that, and that frustrates me. Nothing I want to do in music I can actually earn a living on, so I have to do things I don’t want to do.”
She shrugged. “And I failed my exams last semester,” she said. “I bombed them all. Mum and Dad were so disappointed. I felt horrible.”
“Exams aren’t everything.”
“No, but… then I had an argument with Mum over the phone, the pub called and said they didn’t want me to come in that night, and… I just feel like nothing’s going right. I’m trying so hard, but nothing is working.”
“Is that why you did it?” I asked.
Ruby chewed her lip. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said timidly. “It was truly an accident. I hope… I really hope you all don’t think I did it deliberately. Especially my parents.”
Her eyes glistened. “Can you tell Mum, at least? That it was just an accident? I’m scared she thinks it was deliberate.”
I shake my head, and she sniffs, a couple of tears falling. “Damn. I guess you’d look pretty weird. ‘Hi, you don’t remember me, but I went to school with your dead daughter and spoke to her ghost at her funeral and she promises she didn’t drive her car into a tree on purpose’. That might upset her even more.” She laughed, her voice sounding thick and muffled.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Sorry.”
We walked in silence for a moment, the only sound the crunch of our feet on the grass and occasional bird call. The sun was just slipping behind the trees in the late afternoon, still bright and soaking us and the vines in light and heat. Ahead, a rabbit dashed under the rows of trellises, appearing for a moment in front of us before disappearing between two vines along a trellis.
“So, are you a grim reaper?” Ruby asked. “Do you do this on the regular? Every time someone dies?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, actually,” I said. “I’ve never done this before. I just… saw you at the funeral, and I knew. I knew I had to take you.”
“Maybe it’s different every time,” Ruby said. “Every time someone dies, a random person gets picked to be their grim reaper. I wonder if it has to be someone at your funeral.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just know I need to stay with you.”
“Good,” Ruby said. “I don’t want to be alone. I was alone in the car; I don’t want that again.”
We reached the other side of the field, and I said goodbye.
I don’t remember what happened afterwards; it seems to have been wiped from my memory. Maybe she disappeared, growing fainter and more transparent until I couldn’t see her anymore. Maybe she dissolved into a hundred magpies. Maybe she sank into the ground, or rose into the air.
I don’t remember.
I do remember I cried, more than if I’d just gone to the burial and never seen her leave at all.
I don’t know why I saw her, or felt compelled to walk with her before she disappeared. I hope it never happens again. Maybe, like death, being a grim reaper is something that only ever happens once to you.
When I left to go home, I stopped by a hair salon.
I left with the ends of my hair dyed purple.