Nan is always doing things behind Mum’s back. She’s frightened of Mum because she’s naughty. Mum’s never naughty; she doesn’t smoke Players cigarettes from a silver case and doesn’t drink Emva Cream sherry in the mornings, and she doesn’t sing though sometimes she whistles Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag because Dad taught it to her and In A Monastery Garden which is on her Ronnie Ronalde whistling record, which I do not like the sound of at all and will not walk with her when she’s doing. Nan likes to sing, especially after her Emva Cream sherry. She sings I Like You Very Much which is by Carmen Miranda, a lady who wears a lot of fruit on her head; and Chase Me, Charlie which is about a lady who loses the leg of her drawers. Nan says drawers is the old word for knickers. She says knickers used to be pink and have legs right down to your knees, and you drew them up around your waist with a tape, which is why they were called drawers. I asked her once how the lady managed to lose a leg of them, and she said it was all Charlie’s fault.
So it does not surprise me when Nan takes me up to have a chat with Granny Harrison in Saint Margaret’s graveyard instead of popping in at the Co-op to get Cream of Tartar and a couple of ounces of tea like she told Mum. Granny Harrison is Nan’s Mum, who died before I was born. I think it was when one of the Wars was on. I don’t know which one.
It is the middle of August and the sun beats down hard on the top of my head. It’s a long, uphill walk from Gallipoli Street to Saint Margaret’s. Grit has got inside my sandals, and it’s like walking on broken bits of eggshell. I want to empty them out and brush off the soles of my feet but once glance at Nan’s hurrying back makes me think again. She doesn’t want to stop. So I hobble along behind her and look forward to the overgrown churchyard grass and a chance to sit down and sort myself out.
The gate is old, wrought-iron and rusty. Luckily someone has fastened it back with hairy string. Saint Margaret’s is scary, its flint-made walls rise up in front of me, like Kevan the bully on the way home from school. I have to lean right back to see even a little bit of blue sky. Four uneven stone steps, a few paving stones spotted with confetti from last Saturday’s wedding, and then that big, chilly porch, so dark you can hardly see the side-benches and the black, studded door hidden inside. We tiptoe round the outside wall and into the graveyard, past the cupboard-in-the-wall where the vicar, according to Nan, keeps his watering can and spades. What she probably means is the gravedigger. Hard to imagine hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed Reverend Aldrich personally mowing, watering flowers or digging great holes in the ground.
I sit on a gravestone to sort out my sandals while Nan meanders around the gravestones, peering through mossy coverings, her lips moving as she reads one weather-worn inscription after another. I thought she would have known straight away where Granny Harrison was buried, that she would have been coming up here once a week, or once a month like the other village women to change the yellow water in the special vase and arrange fresh flowers through the metal holey bits. Like the old lady with the crooked back I now see over the way, pulling up fire-weeds and throwing them onto the heap by the stone wall. Gently, almost apologetically, she tugs at them, but they give way to her easily. Fire-weed, of course, doesn’t have much of a root. Nan tells me it’s called fire-weed because it flourishes in bomb craters, and the cooks-and-grannys in walls, between the pavement-stones. Nan hasn’t thought to bring new flowers for Granny Harrison, although there is a vase on the grave; Carmen Miranda seems to have deserted her today, as she sometimes does.
Mum says Nan suffers from very-sadness every once in a while. That’s why she goes away on the bus and we can’t go and see her. She goes to a big house called Sighlong, a long way away in the middle of a park with statues. It’s where the very-sad people go, and the people who believe they might be Jesus or Napoleon and march about wearing three-cornered hats, Mum says. And then she comes back and nobody talks to her about how she got on at Sighlong. She carries on as if she’s never been away and after a while Carmen Miranda comes back, and so do the Players Navy Cut and the Emva Cream, and Nan dances around the cherry tree in the garden with cherries draped over her ears singing eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-like-you-very-much- eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-think-you’re-grand and has no more screamy-nightmares for a while.
‘Here she is’. Nan beckons me over. We both kneel down in front of Granny Harrison’s grave, which is very overgrown and has stinging-nettles. It’s only a little gravestone, almost like the ones children have. Nan and I read the inscription together. It’s short.
- MARY MAUDE HARRISON
- Wife of Henry James Marten Harrison
- 1841 – 1916
‘What does resting mean?’ I ask. ‘Isn’t she dead?’
‘It means she’s resting in the ground till the Last Trump,’ says Nan. ‘When the Last Trump sounds they all rise up, brush the earth and leaves and… worms and what-not off their Sunday clothes and walk towards the light.’
‘There’s supposed to be a light. There’s supposed to be one, but I don’t know…’
I know not to ask any more because Nan is crying.
The old lady from over the way straightens up. It looks a bit painful, she has been bending for so long. I notice she has a veil, and black gloves. A wilting fire-weed dangles from one of them. She lets it fall, watching Nan carefully.
I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.
‘Shall I go and fetch a trowel, Nan? I expect the Vicar keeps one in his cupboard. We could do some weeding together.’
Nan doesn’t answer. Her head is bowed and her shoulders are shaking. I retreat to a safe distance, perch on a gravestone and wait, and it’s then that the old lady comes over. In fact I don’t see her come over. She’s just here. She puts one hand on Nan’s shoulder, and then rests the other one gently on the top of her head, just for a minute. Nan doesn’t seem to feel it.
And then the lady turns and walks away and I notice something quite funny. Under the lady’s stiff black jacket, with its buttons and black embroidery, her blouse is hanging out at the back, just a little, as if as if she left home in a hurry and forgot to tuck it into her the waistband of her long black skirt. It looks kind of silly, but I know I mustn’t laugh. It’s a very serious occasion.
Nan dries her tears and when we get back to my house Nan goes in for a cuppa with Mum. And Mum asks here where she has put the two ounces of tea and, come to that, the Cream of Tartar.
Nan looks at me, panic-stricken.
‘We went to the Rec and played on the swings,’ I say. The lie slides out of my mouth without my even needing to invent it.
‘It was so nice and sunny that we didn’t feel much like buying Cream of Tartar after all…’
Mum gives me one of her Looks.
‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I could swear you two are twins.’
‘How could we be…?’
Mum gives me another one of her Looks.
Mum and Nan make a pot of tea and carry it out on a tray, with two cups and two saucers and a glass of Barley Water for me; and they sit telling stories of olden times on two of the kitchen table chairs in the sunshine on the lawnwhile I sit at their feet making daisy-chains. I tend not to listen when they’re doing stuff like that. Or rather I do, but I’m listening to other things as well, like the bees buzzing, and the clouds whooshing by overhead. Clouds make a sound, you see, but nobody much seems to hear them. And I look at things like red ants mountaineering in the grass. And I wonder if I could get to Australia if I dug for a hundred years, and whether I would meet a Bunyip there so we could sit side by side on a log, biting our nails, and the grown-ups’ stories just wind in and out of my ears, like music. And Nan is telling Mum a story she already knows about Granny Harrison in the olden days. This is the story after the one about the favourite chicken that Granny Harrison killed by accident in the kitchen with her besom-broom and criedandcriedandcried. This is the one about the Sunday they all went to church, Granny Harrison, Nan and all her thirteen brothers and sisters, and they were walking down the aisle behind her to their own particular Harrison pew, and Auntie May noticed Granny’s shirt was hanging out at the back, and they all tried not to giggle but couldn’t help it, and Granny Harrison turned round with a face like thunder and…