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…

Mint, Nettles, Damsons

Rose Browning skewered her church-going hat with her two amber hatpins. It was Harvest Festival and hot, for a hat, but you daren’t be seen in church without one – not if you hoped to avoid being quoted at by Mildred Weekes:

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. One-Corinthians-eleven-five.

She just had to stick that last bit in, every single time, self-righteous old bat. Ought to have married – that’d have cooked her goose for her. She’d have been far too busy with sprout-peeling, floor-mopping and kiddies to go round quoting things at people. But then who in his right mind would have taken Mildred, with her shrewish ways and her superiority? Rose had gone to school with Mildred Weekes. Woeful, they’d called her behind her back. Woeful Weekes.

Rose glanced out of the back window. Peter was down the garden lifting the spuds for their Sunday lunch, and whatever else he spent all those hours down the garden doing. Talking to robins, like in The Secret Garden, perhaps; lost in his memories, or just enjoying being out in the autumn sunshine and under a blue sky. Although they’d celebrated their ruby wedding last Christmas Eve, Rose knew she had never understood Peter. It hadn’t stopped them being happy, more or less. He was a private man – thin, with sticky-out ears and a knobbly, misshapen nose. That had happened when he was a child. Some child jumped in on him when they were river-bathing; broke his nose in two places and it didn’t heal right. And then there were the other injuries, that he’d got in the Great War: the shrapnel peppering his right leg – shards of it still in there, she believed – and the ragged scar on his right side. These she had discovered on their wedding night. She had not thought to ask him about them – she had been too frightened to think, to be honest, considering the mysterious thing that was probably just about to happen – and he had said nothing. And other injuries, invisible ones, like the loss of their son Kenneth. He had not mentioned Kenneth from that day to this.

But he was happy enough in the garden. He never said so, but she knew by the way he chewed on his pipe and puffed smoke at the sky and hummed a bit under his breath. Down the garden or out in his carpentry Lodge – those were his happy places. And grand-daughter Sophie was with him today, being it was Sunday. Blue dress today. Purple hair ribbons. My little mouse, thought Rose, tears of pity and affection springing into her eyes. My little deaf mousie.

But this wouldn’t do. Mustn’t be late for church, especially on Harvest Festival.

Remember the Five Foolish Virgins, Mrs Browning…

Silly old bee.

*

Peter plunged the fork into the ground and lifted it, heavy with potatoes for their dinner. He shook some of the earth off and held it out to Sophie for inspection. She stretched out a pudgy, eight-year old’s hand to touch a woodlouse scuttling away between the fibrous white roots. Because of her deafness they never spoke, but rarely bothered with signs either. There didn’t seem to be much of a need. It was peaceful, being together in silence; both treasured it though neither could have put it into words.

When she had looked enough he turned and dropped the potatoes, earth and all, into a pail. He cut a short length of string and handed it to her, along with the garden scissors, pointing in the direction of an apple tree in a sea of mint. This was her job. Gathering mint for mint sauce. When they got back to the house he would chop it for her and drop it into a bowl; she would spoon in vinegar, caster sugar and a pinch of salt, and she would stir. Making the mint sauce was her job. So was shelling the peas. Grandad would peel the potatoes and Nanny Rose, when she came back, would look after the roast, the tray of Yorkshire Puddings, the cabbage and the gravy. Nanny Rose made great gravy. She poured some of the cabbage juice into it, and then back onto the hob for another stir and a thicken, like they’d taught her In Service.

She wandered around what remained of Grandad’s latest bonfire, and poked around in the ashes with a stick, looking for left-over stuff. You could never tell what you might find, looking down. Sophie had discovered all sorts of things people had dropped or left behind – bits of broken teacup in Nanny Rose’s flower beds; a stone with a fossil on it, like a little octopus – she had found that over the field – even once a tin hat, a sort of flat one, gone all rusty under a bush in the front garden. Nan said it was what the air-raid wardens used to wear. Not being able to hear, Sophie looked, and had a knack for finding things. This time it was a big, brassy medal, with an angel on it, and a fallen soldier. The medal had been hanging on some thick, rainbow-striped ribbon but it had got burnt in the fire and as she lifted it, what was left fell away. She brought it to Grandad for inspection. He inspected it for a long time, stroking away the soot and dirt with his thumb. She didn’t need to look at his face to know that he was crying.

*

It was Godfrey Snaith’s first service as vicar. Until a few days ago he had been plain Curate Snaith. Towards the end of his four year curacy he had of course applied for a parish of his own. He had assumed he would be assigned away, to some distant island or city centre upon his ordination, as was the usual practice, but Reverend StAubyn’s demise, though long and sadly expected by his colleagues and congregation, had taken place at an inconvenient time – just a week before Harvest Festival. Godfrey Snaith found himself thrust into the limelight, amongst those who had known him in a junior role, and in an invidious position. He had been appointed Reverend StAubyn’s successor, but since ordination ceremonies are complex and take time to organise and he was having to make his big entrance, as it were, without quite the full credentials. Geoffrey Snaith was not a confident man – somewhat timid, in fact. He was frightened of his new responsibilities. He was frightened of making a mess of the popular Harvest Festival service. Most of all he was frightened of Miss Mildred Weekes, who was out to get him.

He had always known, although he had attempted not to, that Miss Mildred Weekes was in love with the Reverend StAubyn. The Reverend StAubyn had known this too and, in some unspecific, incomprehensible, unimaginable, unforgiveable way, had been taking advantage of it. Now Mildred Weekes was grieving, but she could not let it show. In the past week swallowed grief had transformed Mildred Weekes from a self-righteous but mostly harmless middle-aged spinster into a vengeful termagant. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose hero has been replaced by a white-faced curate, thought Godfrey Snaith, poetically. Mildred was plotting something.

It started well enough. Children from the local school, rehearsed by one of their teachers, processed up the aisle in a wobbly crocodile bearing pumpkins, cabbages, corn-dollies and whatnot (Godfrey had grown up in Bermondsey and was a bit vague about that sort of stuff) whilst the congregation bellowed Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home. Always a favourite, that one. He took as his text, the obvious – Ecclesiastes 3

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted… etcetera.

Keep It Simple, Stupid, he reminded himself. Keep It simple, Snaithy. He seemed to be getting more nervous rather than less. Mildred Weekes was sitting in the front pew, looking straight at him. Nothing unusual about this. She always sat at the front and she always stared but this time – this time her face was twisted, twisted into a veritable grimace, part pain, part rage. part malice.

And what is in season, right now, Curate Snaith? she interrupted suddenly.

That’s it, he thought. Here she blows. She’s going to heckle. And Curate, not Reverend. Technically correct but, but… His mind had gone blank.

Umm, sorry?

You speak with assurance of the seasons, Curate Snaith. Pray tell us, which fruits and vegetables are in season at this moment in time? This is a country parish, Curate Snaith, and you have resided here for the past four years, have you not? (She was sounding more and more like Atticus Finch). Surely you must have learned that much, by now?

Umm…

Rose Browning was incensed. How dare Woeful Weekes interrupt both a church service and the new vicar? How dare she spoil things? I’m going to fix her once and for all, Rose thought.

Ca-harrots! She coughed, behind her hand.

Well, er, there are carrots… said Godfrey Snaith, wondering what was coming next.

Ach-elery!

Oh…and celery. Yes, celery.

Ah-ah-auliflower!

Rose had run out of coughs and sneezes and run out of patience.

Speak up, Reverend Snaith. I do believe I am becoming a little hard of hearing in my old age. I believe I heard Bramleys? Blueberries? Plums? Now Rose was well and truly up on her high horse. She walked up and stood between Woeful Weeks and this poor nervous almost-Vicar: Did I hear damsons, Miss Weekes? Do you think I heard damsons? Did you hear damsons? I believe I DID, Miss Weekes…

Altogether it was a very satisfactory occasion, and Rose Browning floated home towards her back kitchen and the making of Sunday Lunch for her beloved Sophie and her… good old Peter, veritably trailing those clouds of glory.

*

Peter polished the medal on his sleeve, and fetched the garden twine. He cut a long length of it this time, looped it around his grubby forefinger and handed the ends to Sophie. She had done this before and knew what to do. She held the ends of the string together and began to twist. After a while, the string doubled up of its own accord. She handed the two ends to Grandad and he threaded the cord through the slot where the ribbon had been, tying the two ends together. She bent her head and he lifted the cord over it, adjusting the medal so that the medal hung straight against her blue dress, angel-side outwards.

Then, and with dignity, they saluted.

Oak, Apple, Walnut

‘OH, VICAR, I’m so pleased to see you.’ The Reverend Snaith was taken aback by the fervent relief in Rose Browning’s voice. His parishioners tended to react to his unscheduled pastoral visits with a mixture of anxiety and suppressed irritation. Rose was actually dragging him in through the front door by the sleeve of his black winter coat, down the narrow hallway and into the living room where, beside a roaring fire, an elderly man was slumped in an armchair. His leg, propped on a stool with a cushion underneath, was encased from hip to foot in plaster. He was staring into space.

‘How are we today?’ the Vicar asked. The man continued to stare, showing no sign of replying, or even of having heard.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Vicar, I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Rose, and a few minutes later he was sitting on a hard kitchen chair beside a Formica-topped table with a mug of hot, weak tea in his hand.

Peter was an uncommunicative man at the best of times. He had never actually been to church but had volunteered (through Rose, of course) to make that beautiful new altar rail when it was needed. He had worked all his life as a carpenter – or was it joiner? The Reverend Snaith was a bit woolly on distinctions between trades. Joiner, maybe. He remembered Rose telling him once that during the last war, when Peter had been too old to fight, he’d worked in a factory making crates for aircraft parts.

‘I think we need marriage guidance,’ Rose whispered. Reverend Snaith’s heart sank. He himself had never been married, whereas Peter and Rose had been together nigh on fifty years. ‘He’s like a bear with a sore head since he broke his leg. Well, you saw the expression on his face.’ Reverend Snaith tried in vain to recall the expression – any expression – that Peter might have been wearing, but could recall none.

‘Maybe your husband’s still in some sort of pain,’ he whispered. He didn’t like this whispering game but there didn’t seem much choice as Peter was only a few yards away behind a thin partition wall.

‘It’s not that, it’s because he’s indoors!’ A tiny piece of information, and the situation suddenly became clear to Reverend Snaith. The couple had remained successful, if not exactly joyfully married for all these years, because they each had their own territory. On every one of his previous pastorals, he remembered now, Rose had been in the house and Peter had been either ‘down the garden’ or ‘out in the Lodge’. The Lodge in this case was the breeze-block equivalent of a big shed. Peter had built it himself, had even made the blocks. He had everything out there, saws of various sizes, and nails in old tobacco tins labelled in biro on sticking plaster, stacks of wood, a lathe and a lethal-looking home-made circular saw. He remembered watching Peter at work once, while he was making the altar rail. Those hands! Like tree-bark, they were, covered in half-healed cuts. Long, sensitive fingers, the nails black and broken and scabbed with glue.

He did his best to reassure Rose. More to be seen doing something than anything else, he fished around in his briefcase for one of those little booklets Relate were so keen to foist on him, though he doubted it would be of any use in this situation.

‘Goodbye for now, Mr Browning. Chin up, and all that!’

‘Do us a favour, Vicar, said Peter Browning with a heavy sigh and still without bothering to turn his head. ‘If you’re going out the back way, would you check the Lodge door is bolted? I’m likely to be stuck in this chair for a long time. Don’t want burglars getting in there.’

‘And that’s the most he’s said all day,’ said Rose Browning at the back door. ‘I don’t know what to do for him, honest I don’t. He’s got the TV and his newspaper, and every issue of Carpenter and Joiner for the past ten years – he’s never thrown a one of them out, keeps them in a drawer beside his chair. He could be doing the crossword or something. He’s a stubborn old man. I don’t know what he wants, and he just won’t say.’

The door to the Lodge was ajar. Worse, Reverend Snaith caught a glimpse of light from a naked light bulb through the dust-smeared window-glass. ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ breathed Reverend Snaith, ‘please don’t let me get hit over the head.’ Always, in Midsomer Murders, pushing a half-open door resulted in being felled by a blunt instrument and waking up in hospital with a headache, swathed in white bandages, surrounded by policemen.

But it was only a girl in a brown coat; a shortish, mousy sort of girl. She had her back to him and seemed engrossed in examining oddments of wood and sorting them into a wicker creel. He knocked, she did not turn. Then he remembered – the granddaughter, Sophie – profoundly deaf. She’d be about eighteen now; used to come to church with Rose, when she was a little tot. Not singing, of course, but smiling occasionally, as if she was listening to her own music, inside her head.

She turned. Taken by surprise she signed ‘Hello’ before reverting to speech for his benefit. ‘Zo-fi,’ she said, carefully. ‘Come visi’ Gran-da.’ She gestured to the basked of wood offcuts she had been collecting.

The Vicar knew even less about wood than about marriage guidance, but Sophie did. It felt as if she had spent most of her childhood in the Lodge, watching Granda working. He had never been much good at signing but he would show her a piece of wood, let her examine it, even taught her to sniff and memorise the perfume of it, and then write the name in sawdust for her. And she had signed each word back to him. Oak, apple, walnut. She picked up a packet of fine sandpaper and added it to the top of the basket, along with a mysterious brown package.

The Reverend Snaith was a curious man, and he dearly wanted to know what was in the package. Sensing this, the girl unwrapped it and showed it to him. It contained two things. The first was a roll of some canvas-like material. As she unrolled it he saw that it was full of tiny hand-carving tools; miniature chisels, knives and gouges, each in its individual pocket. He was fascinated. They even went up in size, from the smallest to the largest.

The other thing was a book. She opened it and flicked through the pages so that he could see. It was full of colour photographs, instructions and diagrams. A little wooden dog caught his eye – very simple, just an arc of wood, with a cube for a head and two pyramids for ears. Later on in the book things got more complicated. There was a bird sitting on a bough, a lion, even a chain carved out of a single piece of wood. He gazed at it for some time, trying to work out how it had been achieved.

Sophie grinned and picked up the basket. ‘Do’ worry ’bout lock,’ she said, pulling a spare key out of her pocket and showing it to him.

That evening the Reverend Snaith sat down in his study with a mug of cocoa and began to rough out his sermon for the following Sunday. His visit to the Brownings had given him the gist of an idea. ‘Some people pray,’ he scribbled, ‘some people write hymns, some people sing and others make things out of wood. We all worship in our own particular way.’ And, he thought, taking a sip of his cocoa, we all listen in our own particular way. Most of us listen to the things people say, but a few of us – like Sophie – listen to the things they don’t say.