Low life

Elegy in a country churchyard

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

‘I love this old watering can,’ said my sister, sprinkling the miniature rose. ‘Though I do worry about soaking Mum. How far down is she? Do you remember?’ I said I thought about five foot.

The country churchyard is sheltered by hedges and trees and the graves are decently spaced. On Mothering Sunday mown grass was scattered across the gravel path and graves and a chill sea mist billowed like smoke off the sea. Two months before Covid struck, I’d thrown my handful of soil in after her. This was my first visit since that day. The earth was still broken and heaped but now there was a grey headstone with her name and dates, her maiden name, and the phrase ‘Alive in Christ’.

She lay down at the far end, near an old apple tree, a stone wall and a wooden bench hoary with lichen. Hers is still the second newest grave. The graves go back through the centuries in roughly chronological rows. It’s a peaceful spot. You can’t see the sea but the light says you’re on the coast.

‘Why don’t you book a plot?’ said my sister. ‘It’s only £400 and it couldn’t be a nicer place to lie. You could even go in with Mum if she’s far enough down to make room.’ I said I thought it would be prohibitively expensive to fly my corpse back from the south of France. My sister wondered whether, to save money, I couldn’t somehow get myself on a flight back to Britain when I knew I was on my last legs.

While my sister attentively watered the rose, I went for a stroll along the row of headstones behind Mum’s. The usual familiar village surnames – Wills, Toll, Tucker – and I recognised individuals I knew when they lived. Here was Maurice Henry, for example, died in 2002. I am using Maurice’s metal ruler still. And here was Miss Freda Busby and her sister Olive. Freda died in 2003, aged 104. Towards the end of her life I used to sleep with her to help her on and off the commode if she needed to go in the night. She was thrilled about this sleeping arrangement because the only man she’d ever loved was killed at the battle of Arras and she’d not slept with a man before. Olive had also loved a soldier of the Great War who was also killed and the sisters had lived together in mourning for the rest of the century.

Then we sat down together on the old wooden bench and contemplated the earthly remains of the humble Christian woman who bore us. We didn’t get on, my sister and I. But our mother’s passing changed that and now we do. Two and a half years on and my sister is still crying. ‘I saw Roy and Joan in here the other day,’ she said. ‘I asked Joan how long before you’re a skeleton. Joan said, “I don’t know. Here, Roy, how long before you’re bones?” And Roy said he hadn’t the foggiest, even though he’s a farmer.’

As we sat together and looked, the sea mist disappeared and the sun shone on the headstones and the mown grass and a robin piped his thin, cheerful song.

Mum had four siblings. A much older sister died a long time ago in Australia. Her beloved younger brother Denis died last winter. Her other sister, Vera, had died three hours ago, aged 96. Her son called before lunch to tell us. My sister now called out to my mother, saying that if she hadn’t arrived already, to expect her sister Vera at any moment. Then she cried. Then she recovered herself, saying: ‘I can see them all up there now, welcoming her, and Mum saying, “Now who would like a nice cup of tea?”’

A young, slim figure approached. ‘It’s Rebecca!’ said my sister. Apparently Rebecca drives down from Somerset every Mothering Sunday to tend her mother’s grave. Last year they’d chatted and my sister had been impressed and strengthened, she said, by Rebecca’s serenity. She was hoping to see her here again today and now here she was.

‘Can I borrow the watering can?’ said Rebecca, who looked to me like a vegetarian. My sister flung her arms around her and passionately kissed her. Flustered, Rebecca said: ‘I’ve been sketching the graveyard all day. It’s wonderful how the church window frames are the same colour as the sea.’ She carried the watering can away and we watched her bending at the tap next to the church. ‘My breath doesn’t smell – does it?’ said my sister anxiously. ‘Look at her,’ I said. ‘She’s vomiting.’ Presently Rebecca returned lopsided with the weight of the water in the watering can. On the way past, she said to my sister: ‘I love this old watering can, don’t you?’

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