Autumn: Michaelmas Daisies and Fallen Leaves

As they drew up to the crematorium they passed the men with the yellow digger, scooping up yesterday’s flowers. It was a familiar sight to Godfrey Snaith. As Vicar of Birchmarsh his attendance had been required here more and more frequently as time went by. Birchmartians, as he tended privately to think of them, preferred to be cremated nowadays, and that was that. They liked this fake, white-walled Texas-cattle-ranch–cum-Grecian temple better than the ancient gloom of St Swithin And All Angels, and untidy graveyard behind and to the side of it. There were burial plots enough for several more generations of  but it seemed these would never be filled.

He had always loved the graveyard with its drunken, weather-smoothed memorial stones, its tufty, unmanageable grass, the monster compost heap against the wall and the surly gravedigger, Ronald Potts. He liked the sense of peace there, the way butterflies crash-landed on the headstones and slow-worms lived under Ronald’s tool-shed next to the church’s flint wall. He liked the way trees overhung the perimeter wall and nobody bothered to cut them back. As now, in Autumn, red and orange leaves fell from these trees, burying the graves nearest the edge, as if to provide an the dead with an extra blanket through winter. On occasion, when he had felt in particular need of a quiet commune with The Boss, he had even gone into the graveyard at night. Leaning unafraid against one side of the mossy family tomb of a sixteenth century local bigwig and his family – Sir Horace Kingsford, Bart, His Lady Wyfe Margaretta Mary and their Vssue Horace Matthew, Chas. Montagve, and Jennet Elyza – and relishing a discreet pipe of St Bruno Flake, Godfrey had loved the way church mice stole out from wherever they secreted themselves during the day – in all those tapestry hassocks, maybe, or behind the wainscoting in the vestry, scurrying about in the search for food. Until he moved here from Bermondsey – could it really have been twenty-nine years ago? – he had taken it for granted that there was a distinct breed of mouse called a church mouse, just as there were field mice and dormice. But it seemed that a church mouse was just any mouse that decided to make its home in a church, braving loneliness and poor pickings. As he leaned, and smoked, and talked to The Boss, the fox would come sniffing round the graves, and owls would glide over.

  • …nearer God’s heart in a garden
  • Than anywhere else on earth…

He murmured to himself.

What was that?

Nothing. Talking to myself. Old man’s habit.

At this point, New Lady Vicar was supposed to say something along the lines of, Oh Godfrey, you’re hardly an old man. Plenty of life in the old dog yet, but she didn’t. His replacement was not much of an empathiser, he suspected; worse, she had no sense of humour. Why had she chosen this particular career, he wondered, when she might have been a lawyer, a doctor or the CEO of some multinational company. Women could do anything nowadays. Inability to see the funny side of life was going to be a problem if she intended to stay in Birchmarsh for any length of time. But perhaps she was ambitious and wouldn’t stay. Might have her eyes on the Archbishopric, for all he knew. Everything seemed to have changed in Birchmarsh – it began so slowly he hardly noticed it, but of recent years everything seemed to be accelerating. Peter was the last of the old ones. He had lived into his ninety-eighth year, unexpectedly outliving Rose, his wife, by a whole ten years. “I shall be glad to go,” he had told Godfrey recently. Glad to go. Godfrey felt the same – except that in his case ‘going’ only involved a return to Bermondsey.

He was unfamiliar with Lady Vicars and had only met this one the day before yesterday when she arrived with a big removal van, to take over the Vicarage. He was being put up in a hotel for the next few days – the ‘debrief and handover period’ as the Archbishop was pleased to call it. Then he would be off, returning to his city roots. He was going to live with his sister, Doris, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. She needed him and he needed a home so it made sense. He had decided to write detective stories. And furthermore, though it sounded conceited, he knew he would be good at it. How could he not be, when he had spent a lifetime devouring them? Detective stories and St Bruno Flake: his twin guilty pleasures.

It was a plan that still surprised him. It also made him happy. Godfrey had never really stopped thinking of London as home. He pictured himself back there, comfortably installed in the downstairs front bedroom of his sister’s terraced house, with his shelves of books (he would put them up himself), his new yellow portable typewriter and his wicker waste-paper basket full to the brim of screwed up pages (in illustrations, writers always seemed to be surrounded by screwed up pages). His beloved sister would be pottering round, able to call him if she needed him. He imagined himself sat in the bay window – he would need to get a second-hand desk – looking straight out onto the street, watching people going backwards and forwards about their daily lives, and perhaps taking inspiration from them.

A few streets away there was a little park, not one of those enclosed ones for rich residents, but an open square place, with horse chestnut trees, and benches built round the trunks. I shall go for a stroll every day, he thought. I shall take my pipe, and my notebook. Maybe in the summer I will even write a paragraph or two out there. Maybe Doris would like to come with me.

But there was this cremation to get through first. He wished it did not have to be the cremation of his old friend and parishioner Peter Browning, and he wished it could be him taking the service rather than the New Lady Vicar he was now ‘mentoring’. She didn’t seem all that interested being mentored. Knew it all. You’ve prepared some notes on the life of the deceased? Just let me have the paperwork if you will, and I’ll peruse it this evening.

Peruse. It was the wrong word. Solicitors perused, Doctors, politicians and company chairmen probably perused. Vicars – surely there should be another term – studied, absorbed, meditated upon. Perused was so cold; nothing to do with flesh and blood people. And this was Peter’s funeral. It was for his sake and for that his deaf grand-daughter Sophie, who would be at the service. Godfrey had so wanted the thing to be done right. He had hoped to take care of this one last thing himself.

New Lady Vicar parked the mini neatly in the car park and leant across to open the passenger-side door for him. Does she think I’m senile? Godfrey wondered. Can’t remember how to work the door-handle? He caught a glimpse of the woman’s face in the rear-view mirror. It was pale and irritable-looking.

*

Sophie folded Maria’s push-chair and left it in a corner of the ante-room reserved for close family. It should be safe enough. She would walk in with her daughter in her arms. Granda would have liked that. He had never been a fan of what he called “contraptions”, preferring simplicity, and the old ways. Her husband hadn’t been able to make it, today. He was being interviewed for the headship of an inner-city school and the two dates had clashed. He did so want that job. She would be keeping her fingers crossed for him, but for the next few hours must concentrate all her energies on saying goodbye to Granda. She wished it could have been in the parish church, but her parents had favoured on cremation. She also wished it could have been Reverend Snaith taking the service. He looked lost, perched at the end of the front view. The new lady was already standing up at the lectern, flapping a sheaf of notes about and fidgeting. Panicking – Sophie could see it instantly – but pretending not to be; putting on a front. Deaf from birth, Sophie compensated with other senses. Unable to hear the things people said, she sensed the things they didn’t.

The first hymn went without a hitch. Sophie didn’t sing, of course, and she could not feel the music through the floor as well as she might have done in church. She knew what they were singing, of course, since it was she who had had planned the service. It was The Old Rugged Cross: an old- fashioned hymn, ill-suited to the surroundings, but suited to Granda. Granda had been a carpenter and, in his spare time, a whittler and carver of wood. He would have understood the cross, would have related to it, possibly more than to the man crucified upon it.

*

New Lady Vicar launched into the body of her sermon, and that was when things started to go badly wrong.

We meet here today to honour and pay tribute to the life of our brother Paul, and to express our love and admiration for him. Also to try to bring some comfort to those of Paul’s family and friends who are here and have been deeply hurt by his death.

Oh God, how am I going to stop her? thought Godfrey Snaith. She’s got the wrong name.

Paul was not a particularly religious person, so it’s befitting that his funeral ceremony should reflect what he was, a gentle, kind, loving person; devoted to his wife and family…

I can even see how she did it, he thought. She forgot the name – for all her blasted ‘perusing’ she must have forgotten poor Peter’s name. Instead of stopping and asking, which would have been the sensible thing, knowing it began with a ‘P’ she through the Apostles – ah, Paul. It must be Paul. Let’s go with Paul.

Paul wasn’t a particularly religious person but it was thought that his funeral service should include some form of religious content and prayers.

I’ve got to stop her – but how? Godfrey Snaith stayed rooted to his seat. He was not a brave man. He was not a man designed for emergencies.

Sophie passed her sleeping daughter to the woman next to her and stood up, her eyes fixed on New Lady Vicar. She was signing something, repeatedly.

New Lady Vicar saw and was confused, but unfortunately not enough to stop talking.

It’s only natural that we should be sad today, because in a practical sense, our brother Paul is no longer a part of our lives…

Sophie signed the sign again, and again. New Lady Vicar fell silent, looking backwards and forwards in disbelief from the young woman who had until recently been Sophie Browning, to the old man who had until recently been The Reverend Godfrey Snaith. Godfrey Snaith came to his senses.

Peter, he said in a low voice. She’s signing Peter.

New Lady Vicar simply looked confused. She was as frozen to the lectern as Godfrey had been to his seat.

Godfrey took a deep breath and stood up.

Might I say a few words, my dear? You see, Peter Browning was a good friend of mine.

Lady Vicar sat down, cross, embarrassed, still confused but relieved to be out of the limelight.

Godfrey turned to the congregation with a smile.

A good friend of many years’ standing – he, his late wife Rose and his Granddaughter Sophie – all friends. You might say the four of us have grown up and grown old together. Peter was a difficult chap, in some ways – grumpy, not what you might call the life and soul of the party. Not much of a churchgoer, either. He might turn up at Christmas, under duress, and very occasionally at Easter; Rose never did him to a Harvest Festival, though it was her favourite service. But if you should decide to pay a visit to our beautiful parish church, St Swithin and All Angels – where, by the way, funeral services can also be conducted – you will notice a carved altar rail – Peter did that. He bought the wood, he designed and carved the rail and he gave it to the church. It took him six months to complete. And the lattice screen – the one with the birds and flowers? Peter Browning made that too…

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