Caught [part 2]
Next morning a stiff breeze has sprung up as I stroll up to the village store on the Copseway to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk. On the way I search for the old butcher’s shop that was Ernie Brabrook’s, but almost all the buildings that housed businesses have been converted to dwellings, either having been demolished and rebuilt or their big front windows bricked in and I no longer recall the exact location of Ernie’s place. All I remember is standing inside while my father waited for his order to be prepared, the sawdust floor dusty beneath my feet and the cold, raw carcasses dangling, white on their metal hooks, an odour of chill sweetness and the resonant thwack of the butcher’s cleaver as he prepared chops or steaks.
The store assistant is solicitous. My father will be missed by the community, she says, and how am I getting on with clearing up the house? Feeling heartened by her concern I ask if she knows anything about Imberton Dance Band and the various members. She nods as she packs my purchases into a bag.
“My parents used to go dancing every Saturday. A girl called Mavis used to come and babysit us.”
I take the photo from my pocket and place it on to the counter. She looks closely before shaking her head.
“I can see that’s your Dad, in his young days, and that was his brother. But I don’t know the others I’m afraid. I’d have been too young, I suppose.”
When I mention Dick Abbott a look of recognition springs to her face.
“I was in the same class as June at school. We were a fair bit older than you and your brother I think, so we’d have left to go to the secondary by the time you two were in the juniors’ class. She was sweet, but she was a bit soft, if you know what I mean; not the brightest, but always kind and smiling. It was awful, what happened to her.”
“I heard she died. What was it, illness?”
She purses her lips, looking grave.
“No, nothing like that; she drowned in the brook that runs along the bottom of the field behind the house. ‘Accidental death’ they said it was, although no one knew how she came to be there. She was in her night clothes when they found her; all a long time ago now.”
I take a diversion back to the bungalow, down an old, overgrown footpath that leads to the narrow rivulet behind what was Abbott’s shop, with a dwelling at the rear. We’d dangled jam jars on strings into the stream to catch tiny stickleback, bearing them home triumphantly then being made to return them by our stern parents. The brook is no longer the rushing torrent of my memory, rather a thin trickle, banks overgrown with tall, bushy nettles. I wonder how she could have drowned, here in the shallows where the water is inches deep and the gravel of the stream bed ruffles the flow. Further up the sloping field the back of the house is just visible, changed now; refurbished. A new wire fence provides a barrier before the brook, where none was before. Perhaps she sleepwalked down to the stream and fell, found herself tangled in the undergrowth or mired in some mud. I’ve an image now of her night clad body lying cold in the water under the moonlight, her dark hair loose and mingling with the eddying current, but surely she’d have called for help?
My father’s modest house, the pride and joy of his later life seems diminished now that his furniture and effects are packed up to be distributed or disposed of. The rooms are strewn with cartons of bric-a-brac, books or bin bags full of clothing ready to be taken to charity shops. The walls bear the ghostly shapes of the pictures and mirrors that hung against them. His upright piano awaits collection. This is all that remains of his life. We humans spend a lifetime accumulating objects only to leave them all behind us for another to discard.
I make tea in the ancient ceramic teapot my parents always used. It is lined with a crust of brown stain but to succumb to dunking tea bags into cups feels a betrayal here in their kitchen. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew I ring my wife to tell her I’m almost done with the clearance and I’ll be returning home tomorrow.
I’m about to pour the tea when I catch sight of Arnold Goodridge unlatching the front gate and labouring up the path towards the front door and I think he must have smelt the tea to have timed his arrival like this. He settles into the worn settee with the ease of one who has sat there, in that same spot on many occasions, leaning his walking stick against the arm and placing a bulging manila envelope on the seat beside him. He glances around the room at the bare walls and loaded cartons as he sips the tea, nodding in sage acknowledgement, his chest still heaving with the exertion of his walk.
“Going up for sale, is it?”
“I’m afraid it is, Arnold. The family is too far flung to keep it. I’m hoping to drop the keys with the agent tomorrow, on my way home.”
He puts his cup and saucer on the coffee table and opens the envelope to pass me a few photos. I move to sit next him while he describes each scene. There are more pictures of the band, of course, but also snaps depicting charabanc outings to the seaside, village fetes and family parties, many showing my parents and their friends, the most striking aspect their smiles as they face the camera. It would be easy to assume that their lives were one long holiday on which the sun never failed to shine.
I pore over one shot of the beach, where my parents and another couple, all dressed in their Sunday best, are installed in deck chairs on the sand behind a number of children of varying ages playing with buckets and spades. Amongst the offspring is a young girl of about eleven, with soft, dark eyes, clad in a typically substantial swimming costume of the era, her arm around a sturdy child who I recognise as my brother. He is looking into her face with an adoring smile.
“There’s June,” Arnold offers. “She always did love the littl’uns. She’d have made a good mum if she’d had the chance.”
“Arnold, how did it happen? How come she drowned in the brook? There’s so little water. And why was she wearing night clothes?”
He gazes at the photo as he begins to talk.
“It was like I said. When Dick started stepping out with Mae they was only young, so it weren’t really serious, if you see what I mean. Then she fell pregnant with June and it was all Hell let loose. In them days it was like the end of the world. It weren’t long before that a young couple had drowned themselves in the lake from the shame of it and the fear of being found out. There weren’t any choice for them. Dick had to marry her quick, so when the baby came they could just say it was a bit early, like.
They lived with Mae’s parents to start with. It must have been hard for Dick. He was always a bit of a one for partying, had an eye for the girls. He could of taken his pick of ‘em, too if he’d wanted. But he was stuck with Mae then, and didn’t he know it! She never forgive him for landing her with a baby so young and I don’t think she ever thought he was good enough for her neither.”
“But she must have loved the baby when she came along. June was so pretty and so sweet!”
“She were. She were a cracker! But she were never the brightest, if you get my meaning. She weren’t going to get to college or anything like that.”
“Is that why she ended up helping in the shop when she left school?”
“Mae hated the shop, like everything else. She thought it was beneath her to work behind a counter; didn’t think she should work at all. ‘Course the shop folded in the sixties and Dick retired then. It had never made much money. Customers preferred the stores up on the Copseway and you could see why. Mae drove them all off, with her spiteful tongue and her nasty ways.”
“So what did June do, when the shop closed down?”
“She took up hairdressing, somewhere down Hardwick way I believe it was. Of course she favoured her Dad for looks, so she weren’t short of a few admirers. I think she did do a bit of courting, while her Dad was still alive but nothing serious. Then Dick passed away, a bit sudden. After his funeral no one hardly saw Mae. She stayed indoors, kept herself to herself, and June stayed looking after her. There weren’t no more gentlemen callers because Mae wasn’t having it. She were too scared June would up and get married and leave her. Thing was, with Dick gone she only had her daughter and they used to say in the village that were when June changed, stopped smiling, like. Some said it were because of losing her Dad, but I reckon there were more to it than that. That bitter old witch made her life Hell, that’s the sum of it. She tormented her and bullied her until her life weren’t worth living. And June, she were caught, like in a trap. She’d nowhere to go and couldn’t leave her mother. It got so she couldn’t stand no more. So she took the only way out she could. There were more to the stream in them days, but most folks don’t need a lot of water if they’re determined to drown their selves. You know the rest.”
He puts the photo on the coffee table before looking up. When he catches my expression he puts his hand on my arm, his face softening.
“I shouldn’t of probably told you all that, what with your Dad and all. Not exactly a cheerful story, is it? But you got to remember it were all a long time ago.”
“No, I’m glad you did. And I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and hearing all the other stories.”
On his way out Arnold stops on the path to button up his jacket.
“Know what I reckon?” There is a mischievous gleam in his eye as he adjusts the stick in his grip. I shake my head.
“Them lot in the band, they’ve been up there waiting for your Dad to join them. Now he’s got there they’ll be making heaven jump to the beat with all their tunes!”
Though I don’t share his conviction, the image is so pleasing I have to smile as I thank him again.
I wake to an overcast sky, feeling moved to make haste with loading my car and starting on the long drive home. There is little of any monetary value amongst the house contents and nothing of use or ornament to us, the next generation, for whom tastes have changed. I have wrapped and packed the few items my brother and I decided upon as keepsakes; one or two first editions, leather bound, a hand painted tea set, a couple of prints and the box of photographs, which I have volunteered to sort and annotate. Everything else will be removed by a clearance company, leaving the empty shell of the house ready for viewing by prospective buyers. Once I have locked up and pulled the front door shut behind me I know I will not be returning. I pocket the house keys in readiness for the estate agent.
Before leaving the village I pull into the lay by outside the churchyard. I want to spend a few minutes alone by my parents’ grave, an action I doubt my busy life will allow in future. The new plot, freshly piled with earth stands out like a brown scar among the neat, green mounds surrounding it. Soon the simple headstone will bear the addition of my father’s name informing the reader he is ‘reunited at last’ with my mother. There are, as he requested, no bouquets wilting on the soil, donations having been made, instead, to the hospice that cared for my mother. He’d been pragmatic to the last, made all his wishes clear; his only desire to be laid to rest here in the rustic setting of the village churchyard next to his deceased wife.
I have no faith in an afterlife. I believe that our allotted span above the earth is what we get. I know that my parents are not here, under the soil in this country graveyard, nor do they exist anywhere except, for a short passage of time, in my memory. But the shady, green space with its gentle hummocks, vases of chrysanthemums and trailing ivy is a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance. I wind my way through the graves, stopping here and there to read a name and a date where they are visible, not obliterated by algae and age. As I round the corner by the low stone wall I halt as my attention is caught by a simple, marble, upright slab with the inscription, ‘June Elisabeth Abbott, 1945-1978, ‘Resting where no shadows fall’.
I perch nearby on a neighbouring slab. Her plot is overgrown, a joyous carpet of daisies and dusky pink autumn crocuses. A light mist of drizzle has begun to drift down, lifting a rich, earthy aroma from the vegetation. Somewhere close by a robin begins to trill a jaunty song. Then, at last I feel the tears well up and course down my face in hot, salty tracks until I drop my face into my hands and I’m howling, there in the secluded churchyard with the ghosts of my past for company.
After a while, when the tears have drained away I stand and brush the moss from my clothing before walking back through the grassy mounds and ancient stones to the gate. In the car I pick up my phone and call my wife. She asks if I’m alright. I tell her I’ve missed them all; that I love them and I’m ready to come home now. I start the car. When I get home I want to hold them, my wife and children; catch them in my heart and never let them go.