‘I can’t make up my mind,’ my father was saying. ‘I definitely want to be buried.’
‘And here. Not in St.Albans?’ I checked.
My father looked surprised, as if he couldn’t imagine that anyone had ever been buried there.
‘No. Somewhere here. Definitely.’
There didn’t seem to be much space left. I remembered my childhood: my father serving communion. The smell of damp linen. Old men unable to kneel. Shrunken women in their best hats.
Philip Dixon, Mandy Tufnell, Roger Wilson.
Feare not the sentence of death, remember them that have been before thee, and that come after, for this is the sentence of the Lord over all flesh.
‘It seems smaller, don’t you think?’ My father was saying.
‘It’s positively cluttered.’
He had taken over sixty funerals in his nine years as parish priest in the village.
And now this.
‘I’m in the departure lounge,’ he would say when people asked. ‘Although the plane hasn’t taken off yet.... and it might even be delayed.... ‘
I had seen the pills.
Atenolol. Enalapril. Cardura.
‘It's not too bad,’ my father had said, ‘Johnny Watson takes fourteen pills a day. Although of course anyone who takes that many can't really be that ill.’
People would ask me: ‘How is your father really?’ but as soon as I began to reply, I noticed that no one wanted a full answer, lest they should somehow contract the disease simply by talking about it.
Yet my father didn’t seem shy or embarrassed at all.
‘I’d rather like another conversation about my impending death,’ he would boom on the telephone.
And so we had come here, back to Cuddesdon, with its own particular English graveyard, where green glass easy care grass and over-familiar dedications were banned.
‘What about the stone?’ I asked. What do you want it to say?’
My father thought for a moment.
‘I don’t suppose I could have: “He got away with it”.’
‘No. Of course you can’t.’
‘What did your father have?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Well. I think we just had my name and dates. We probably picked “rest in peace.” That’s always a safe bet.’
‘I think we have to do better than that.’
He looked at me, surprised by contradiction. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe how time had passed and how his son had ever become a man; it all seemed the strangest of accidents. I think he still thought of me as a small serious boy with awkward glasses and grubby hands. Always collecting things; coins, stamps, bits of string.
My mother had disapproved of the outing.
‘I want it planned,’ my father had said, ‘so when the moment comes you all know what to do...’
My mother stopped him over the apple crumble.
‘Don’t talk about it.’
‘I like talking about it,’ said my father, keen on the crumble, ‘in fact I’m looking forward to it.’
‘You won’t be there.’
‘Oh I think you’ll find that I will.’
The wind gathered in the trees.
Now the current Vicar stopped on his way into the church. ‘What are you doing here not looking for a spot?’ He laughed, enjoying his joke.
He looked at my father. ‘You’re a bit early aren’t you? Plenty of life left in you yet...’
The vicar attempted to steer the mood, as if he was negotiating an old Volvo round a difficult corner.
My father smiled sadly.
‘The readiness is all...’
‘True, true,’ said the Vicar.
My father tried to help his embarrassment.
‘I want to make sure I get a good place. Be buried near my friends...’
Now the Vicar saw his escape. ‘Well pick your spot.... and just give me a call….’
He walked off into the church with a wave. He had to check the flowers for Saturday. Another couple wanting a country wedding. The church as stage set. The vicar as unfortunate extra.
‘Give me a call?’ My father muttered. ‘I’ll be dead.’
We walked away, past the graves of people my father had known and loved and buried. Bill Thompson the farm labourer; Harry Waters, the head of the post office; and Richard Tyler, the free-lance gravedigger. Behind them lay Bridget Evans whose husband had taken to drink, ‘the gloomiest man in the village.’
My father stepped past by the remains of Robert Watson, the publican who liked a chilled sherry at eleven every morning.
Your remembrances are like unto ashes, your bodies to bodies of clay.
‘Look, here’s Gwen,’ he said.
I remembered her as the largest woman I had ever seen, mixing Yorkshire pudding in a hot kitchen.
‘She died in my arms. Heart attack. Such a long time ago.’
‘She never married?’
‘She had a brother.’
‘Did you have to tell him?’
‘What did you say?’
‘I asked him to sit down. He didn’t want to. “I prefer to stand Vicar.” He was very firm about it. I think he knew what was coming. Army training.’
‘What happened then?’
‘It’s bad news,’ I said.
‘All the same, I’ll stand if you don’t mind.’
'Its about Gwen.'
'I’m afraid she’s passed away. I’m very sorry.'
‘He looked back at me, as if he’d always been expecting it. “My old girl she lived in them ovens,” he said.’
Now rain was beginning to fall on her grave.
‘Thrombosis. She made the best trifle I ever tasted.’
All her life was full of love
Now she gives them joy above
My father turned away. ‘I’d rather not have anything that rhymes.’
‘Nothing too cheerful then? ‘I checked.
‘A grave is not a birthday card.’
We were back where we had started. I couldn't imagine returning to the car and driving back into the real world.
‘Do you really believe in the Resurrection of the Body?’ I asked.
My father paused, surprised by the directness of the question. ‘I believe in the promises of Christ.’
Jesus lives! Thy terrors now
Can, O Death, no more appal us....
It was almost dark. The air had changed. Wood smoke.
I remembered the smell of the log fires of my childhood, the nights building towards Fireworks Night, waiting for my father to set light to the Catherine Wheel he had nailed to the fence post.
Her martyrdom remembered by a firework.
My father believing that the promises were eternal.
The words seemed to come from another world.
Jesus lives, by this we know
Thou, O grave, canst not enthral us.
My father was standing under the tree and looked back up to meet my eye.
‘I think here, don’t you? Under the spreading yew…’
‘I’ll remember,’ I said
‘Might be a bit of a dig....’
‘It’s a good spot.’
He seemed strangely relieved.
I tried to anticipate the next time I would come here, as if I could somehow inoculate myself against the shock.
My father smiled back.
‘Happy? ‘ He asked.