As the hearse sped along the driver did not look at the child sitting next to him in the front seat, did not seem aware that she was even there. He seemed anxious to get where he was going and concentrated hard on the traffic. There was no point scratching the vehicle even though he was in hurry. Cars wove in and out from lane to lane through the cool air of the morning. It had been raining earlier and there were still wet patches glistening on the road underneath the gliding hearse as it travelled on. It was a long, sleek black animal. It must be the black one today, the driver had been told. None of this euphemistic white or silver for this job. The child gazed out of the car, taking in all she could, though her face could only just be seen over the rim of the window. Passers by wondered what tragedy had happened to the little girl or her family, but she did not seem distressed. She sat quite still, enjoying the ride, clasping (I'm not telling, it's a secret) something in her small hand. The driver stared fixedly at the road and she seemed unconcerned at his lack of attention.
Presently the driver pulled the vehicle around into a driveway to their left, through a pair of gothic iron gates into a place full of grass and trees and silence. They drove slowly down the long paved drive and eventually came to a halt. Straight away the little girl jumped out, after wrestling a bit with the door handle (it's hard to open a car door with only one small hand), and went off to explore. The first thing she noticed was that it was not quiet, as it had seemed to be when they drove in so solemnly, but there was a sound of distant people talking and even, here and there, birds exchanging a friendly hello. The sun periodically floated out from behind clouds now spent of their rain, and the child walked along the path wondering if more rain would come or if it would stay sunny. People began to appear along the path, sitting on benches or discussing the latest news report. Two ladies were talking, with indignant faces and scandalized tones, of a soap opera. The child did not stop to listen in to any of the conversations but kept walking, the voices fading and becoming part of the aural scenery again. She kept her hand closed tightly on her secret. Looking further afield now she saw a figure ahead dressed in black and decided to go and investigate.
The figure was a girl in her late teens, or perhaps twenty, and she was speaking aloud, though it was not certain to whom her speech was addressed to. Her eyes were closed as if she were praying.
'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing...' Her hair was long and harshly black, waving like gossamer on her shoulders and blending into the black garments she wore. Her feet were encased in black suede boots with large buckles and beside her on the grass lay a bag stitched of velvet. The child wondered what was in it. Looking up, she noticed a little girl sitting by a tree a few metres away. This girl was watching the young woman intently, with a faintly worried expression. She had pink leather shoes on and a matching ribbon in her dark hair. The wandering child approached her.
'Hullo.' she said.
'Hullo,' said the girl sitting by the tree, 'what have you got?'
'I can't show you, it's a secret.'
'Please? I'll be your friend if you do.'
'No, I can't. Oh, maybe one day, then.'
'Oh. Well then, what are you doing?'
'Exploring,' replied the wandering child, 'wanna come?'
'No, I can't.' her face was still looking faintly worried. The wandering child wondered if she always looked like that. It musn't be very healthy. It would do her good to come and play. 'Oh, why not?'
'I have to stay with her.' nodding at the young woman, still talking to no-one in particular. Except now she was kneeling, her shadow stretching out in a long shape before her on the grass. Her palms were pressed together like a carved saint. The first child looked down, disappointed, wondering what to say next. 'I don't see why,' she began, not meaning to be unpleasant, but just wanting some company, 'She's big, she'll be alright.'
'I have to stay here. She might need me.' emphatically.
'Oh, come on, that's not fair.' her voice pleaded a little.
'Look, I just do, alright?' the girl's eyes were pale brown but they seemed darker in the shade. Her face was lightly freckled in a winsome way and her hair curled. She desperately wanted to play but she tried to make the other child understand that it wasn't possible. She stood up, to underline the point.
They were of an age and of a height and the first girl's hair was dark and curly too. Brown eyes looked into brown trying to understand. Neither could resolve her own position with the other's but they had had a conversation now, they had met now, they couldn't just part never to meet again.
The young woman got up from the grass and picked up her bag, slinging it over one shoulder as she turned reluctantly to go.
'Look,' said the child in the pink shoes, 'She's going.' and she moved forward to follow. The wandering child gasped. From the back her new friend looked quite different. She was disfigured, a large lump was on her back like a package. Her pretty dress was cut to fit over it as neatly as possible but it was still there. Pity and compassion washed over her in a wave and she found tears coming to her eyes threatening to betray her. Maybe she would show her friend what she held in her hand after all. But not now, for she was calling,
'Oh, come on!' annoyed, waiting. Snapped out of the overwhelming feelings for a second the wandering girl replied without thinking,
'What do you want?'
'Come ON!' the other girl said again. 'We have to go with her. She might need us.' She grasped for the hand that was not in use and took it in her own small one. They fitted like perfect partners. Us, she had said. They began to run a bit to catch up with the older girl in black. She was not going fast but had had a head start. As she went she picked flowers from the occasional bush, playing with them for a minute and then dropping them on the path like Hansel dropping bread so that his father would find him. The two small girls, puffing a bit, caught up after a minute or two, a pair of dark heads bobbing along the path together. The older girl had picked a rose and was rolling it between her palms, inducing pinpricks of blood to smear along her faintly freckled skin.
'We have to stay with her,' said the girl with the strange growth on her back, 'she might need us.'