I like it here. It’s quiet and peaceful. No-one comes here. No-one to distract me with their questions and criticisms. Up here on the hill, among the young grass, the dandelions and the gravestones, there is only the sound of birdsong. The trees mask the hiss and hum from the by-pass.
It’s a long time since anyone was buried up here. There is a new cemetery now, on the other side of town. The grave stones there are regimented like ranks of soldiers guarding the entrance to Paradise. Shiny black or white marble slabs, ornate crosses, statues of angels. Up here the stones are all natural, hued from an equally abandoned old quarry. Crusted with lichen they lean at odd angles, like my grand father’s teeth. Here and there some are laid flat. As you pass near, you get glimpses of moss covered grey through the encroaching clover and ivy.
As usual, I enter by clambering over a pile of stones where the wall has collapsed. Later in the summer it will be buried beneath a tangle of brambles. At this time of year there is only ivy to contend with. I almost drop the bag as I jump from what remains of the wall to clear the patch of young nettles. I land awkwardly, falling to one knee, my hand out to break my fall. I miss the nettles but my right hand lands on one of those flat stones. I curse under my breath. I stand upright and inspect my injured hand. The fleshy part, between palm and wrist, is smeared with green algae veined with red as broken skin leaks blood. I feel it now, the stinging. There’s a handkerchief in the pocket of my jeans. The right hand pocket. I need it to dab at the mess on my hand but I can’t retrieve it with my right hand because of the mess it’s in. I carefully place the bag on the wall and reach across with my left hand in a difficult manoeuvre. I press the handkerchief against the injury, closing my right hand so that the fingers keep it in place.
I pick up the bag and pick my way through clumps of grass and weeds until I reach a stone tomb on the far side of the field. Some of the dandelions have formed seed heads. Delicate balls of fluff which break up as my legs brush against them, sending tiny parachutes drifting across the tumbled stones. The tomb stands knee high at its lowest edge. It’s top slopes from one corner to the other, the result of subsidence I suppose. That thought generates an image of dead bodies moving within the space inside this stone box.
The inscription is illegible. The stone is warm to my touch. The sun has been shining since early this morning. As I brush away some dried moss, I can see what looks like the number 7 and the letters F and W, well separated. I start to speculate about the name and the date these are a part of. Fred Williams? Florence Walters? And the date? Is the seven the second digit, the third or the last? Maybe the seventeen hundreds is too far back in time. Depends on the likely rate of erosion of this type of stone I suppose. The eighteen seventies are a possibility, but if it’s the final digit, which decade might be the one in which this stone structure was placed here?
I imagine the masons, carefully erecting the side and end stones then lifting the two top flagstones into place. All clean slabs of sandstone, the edges artfully bevelled, the inscription sharply incised by the senior mason’s chisel. How many times afterwards was the lid lifted in order to place another member of the family inside? Again the image comes to me of bodies, the bones becoming entangled. Closer in death than they ever would have been in life.
I sit on the soft grass, my back against the side of the tomb. The stone is hard against my shoulder blades even through the padding of my anorak. I wriggle until I find the least uncomfortable position. From the branch of an ancient pine a pigeon coos. A crow swoops down onto a grave stone and utters that strange gargling noise they make. His mate – I suppose it’s his mate, just another crow really – lands on a stone a metre away facing him and they start up a conversation.
“Who’s sitting on the eggs if you are here?”
“I need a break. It’s time you took a turn.”
I laugh inwardly at my foolishness. A cloud crosses the sun. I shiver at the sudden drop in temperature. The clapping of wings tells me the crows have departed. Whatever they are about to do, I know that, for me, it is time to open the bag. I hope it’s good stuff. Word on the street is that there’s some bad gear going the rounds. I trust Robbo. I don’t think he would try to palm me off with adulterated junk. Preparing the stuff and injecting won’t be easy with my injured hand.
“The last item on the agenda is the old graveyard.” The reverend Alice Evans paused and cleared her throat. “It has become very overgrown. I know we agreed to leave it for the pollinators, but Monty Don was saying on last week’s Gardener’s World that now is the time to cut wild flower meadows.”
Jim Bradshaw had been Sexton for more years than he cared to remember. He had reluctantly accepted the idea of a woman vicar when she had arrived two months ago. But he didn’t need to be told it was time to cut the grass in the old cemetery. Not by a woman – or anyone else, for that matter. After thirty years of bee-keeping he knew all he needed to know about pollinators.
As for the old cemetery, he always took one of his hives up there in June when the clover was at its best. And not just clover, of course. A veritable cocktail of nectar would flavour the honey from the old graveyard. He’d brought the hive back to the cottage just last week. The flowers had all gone to seed. Except for a few tall stems of yellow yarrow. He’d noticed that someone had mended the hole in the wall. That crowd from the rehab centre, probably. They were always on the look out for community projects and it would be just like Happy Clappy Alice to take them under her wing.
“Simon Thomas has always cut that grass third week in August.”
“The old man from Glebe Farm?”
Several heads nodded. Jim spoke in confirmation. “He’s the only one left around here with a scythe. You can’t get in there with a mower.”
“Takes a couple of days,” David Miles added.
“Won’t need reminding, either. No need to worry your head about it, Reverend.”
The swish of the scythe through the sward was still a source of pleasure after all these years. So was the singing of the sharpening stone on the blade. His nostrils filled with the dust laden tang of dying grasses. The annual cutting of the grass in the old cemetery was a job Simon looked forward to. He supposed that, now he was approaching eighty, he wouldn’t be doing it many more times. All the more reason to savour the pleasure. He wondered who would take on the task after he was gone. If they were going to get the council’s ride-on mower on the job they’d have to do something about the old grave stones first. Ought not be too controversial. There can’t be many people left with relatives up here. Relatives they still cared about, anyway.
A family of crows was perched on the old Watkins tomb. From the racket they were making they must have found something tasty nearby. A dead fox or rabbit perhaps. As he drew closer they dispersed, flapping and squawking before settling in the old pine.
What was that, slumped against the side of the tomb? Almost hidden in the rank grass and nettles?
Simon crossed himself. His heart beat faster. Pain stabbed at his chest and tore across his shoulder. As he sank on to the freshly cut grass he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat for the mobile phone his grand daughter had given him for his birthday.
Enjoyed this? Made you shiver? Check out the Box Under the Bed anthologies to which I have contributed in the past.