Mad Dogs and Englishwomen…

I was sitting in a little park today, around about 1 o’clock. This in itself was brave and/or disobedient of me as the Government has warned us all to stay indoors between 11 and 3 because The Sun Is Too Hot. Particularly if we are elderly, dehydration and heat stroke may just push us over the edge into Not Being Able To Cope. We may become Confused.

Thing was, I had just had my hair done. Well, that’s irrelevant. And I had just had my Free Eye Test. That’s irrelevant too. Thing was, I had to sit somewhere and eat my Boots packaged sandwiches and my car – but a few yards away – had been sitting in the sun all morning and would now be likely to Fry me if I attempted to sit in it without the engine running and the air-conditioning on full blast.

Yesterday morning I was delivering hundreds and hundreds of shiny little magazines round one of the less edifying sections of town. By mid-day I was tottering, despite my giant water bottle. Yes, I know I was out in the sun after 11, but I had to be. I only have ten days to deliver a whole garage-full (well, six boxes) and I can only manage one and a half hours at a time of trudging up and down people’s driveways, dragging my shopping trolley along behind me. You know, dog pee and garbage smell even worse when it’s hot? Most people’s front gardens seem to smell of that. Also, metal letter box flaps – when you can reach them for the discarded children’s tricycles, rusty old washing-machines and mountains of black bin sacks – burn your fingers. Wore foolish sun-hat. Didn’t think to wear gloves.

England is red hot. So, I gather, is most of Europe. Even Scandinavia is red hot and Scandinavia is such a cool place, usually. And in Japan it’s like, 40-something degrees. Here its somewhere between 30 and 35 depending on which newspaper you believe (Fake Weather!). And it doesn’t get any cooler at night. And then the next day it’s just the same. And the next night. How I long for snow, for a prolonged and arctic winter.

Anyway, in this little park there are gravestones, crowded into a narrow strip down the left hand side. They are very old gravestones, with names weather-faded in strange curly scripts, with ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s. They are long-gone people, with nobody to visit them and somebody on the Council, at some point, must have thought it a good idea to repurpose their graveyard as a little park. So they crammed all the gravestones, and those big box tombs, the sort you can sit upon to eat your sandwiches, into the strip down the left. Over the years they have developed a sort of earnest forward slant, as if desperate to escape.

I hate this. I have always hated this little park and seeing again what they did to those dead people. And funnily enough, it is unpopular. Only me in it today, and the Council gardening truck, the door flung open and a man’s booted foot just visible, poking out the passenger side and resting on the dashboard. He too is eating his sandwiches.

It’s not as if they’ve even done much to it. There were all these tall trees, but now they’ve cut them down, all but the stumps, from which leaves are still trying to grown. There’s a kind of dead-looking large shrub thing in the middle, and they’ve cut out a few random rectangular flower beds. This year every flower bed is planted with red geraniums. What is the point of red geraniums?

But you know how you can be looking at something for a while and then, suddenly, something strikes you as significant. I was eating my (interminable) sandwich in the heat of the midday sun, and staring at the yellow-brown grass of the Nasty Little Park, and comparing it to pictures I had seen on the news of Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, where the grass is also dying from lack of rain. And suddenly I saw it – the pattern of the graves of all those poor dead people, whose memorial stones were penned in on the left hand side. There they were, quite clearly – squares and rectangles, even and uneven, resurfaced from long ago.

I could have cried, actually, but it was too hot. Normally covered by lush green grass, now here they all were. I have seen aerial photos of similar things. With the earth being all scorched, this year it has become possible for archaeologists to see the outlines of unknown Roman Villas, or extra circles of wall beyond the known walls of castles. And with the reservoirs drying up, it has become possible once again to see the villages that were drowned in their making, outlines of cottages people once lived in, little stone bridges they once walked over.

And for the first time it occurred to me to ask, what did they do with all the people? Did they dig up all the bones and toss them into some unmarked pit? Did they consecrate them, hold some sort of service? Or are the people all still there, exactly where they were, arranged in this slightly eccentric grid pattern?

They’re all still here, I thought. One way or another, in bone or in spirit. And they’re accusing us.

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.

I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.

Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.

Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.

I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

Visiting Granny Harrison: a ghost story

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.

carmen miranda 2.png

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
  • Resting

‘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.’

‘What 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…