Tag Archives: death

THE SPARKLER’S REUNION

2 Jul

2. THE RUINED CASTLE

It’ll be just like the old times,” grinned Joanie as we rattled along in a camper-van that stretched the imagination when you thought there would soon be three mature adults sleeping in it.

That was one thing I wasn’t looking forward to: sleeping in a crowd, and I was pretty sure that three in this van would constitute one hell of a crowd. Especially when two of them were married and still, after too many decades for it to ring true, all lovey-dovey most of the time.

It was Joanie who helped me out.

We brought a tent for you,” she said, “in case three’s a crowd. A nice little tent, it is, one we’ve had for years. You’ll like it. You’ll be all cosy on your own, and who knows? You might pull if there are any unattached ladies anywhere near!”

At my age? I ask you! Though when you think about it, it doesn’t take much to switch the mental clock back and be young in the mind again. Them all things are possible!

It was time for me to lie again. “I thought of bringing a tent myself,” I said, “but kind of let the thought drift away to where thoughts sometimes go…”

You’ll be okay in this,” grinned Joanie, “the kids played in it when they were in their teens…”

Scabby and Joan had twins, one set, and that had been enough for them to shelve their original plan, of having enough kids to form a pop group when they were old enough. They had left it at a duo, and in their turn that duo had settled down with their respective wives (when they found them) and become sensible citizens. So that ended their dreams of a musical dynasty with them at the head. But then, all dreams must fade….

Me? I’d had no such highfaluting ideas. There had been Penny, I’d met her and married her not long after the Sparklers decided they were never going to have any hits and I got a job in the council offices instead of enjoying world-wide fame and riches, and then she’d gone into teaching after three years at college as a mature student, and subsequently fallen in love with someone else, divorced me and that had been that as far as my love-life was concerned, if you forget the odd brief encounter on my way to old age and decay.

Now I was going to live in a tent. I groaned.

It was Joanie who’d had the idea for a reunion. She’d been the main vocalist because, and I hate to remember this, but she’d had the voice of an angel and could twist a fellow’s heart with any syllable you cared to mention. We all wrote the odd song and the original idea was that I could play the a bit of lead guitar in between verses, and sing. But her voice was what it was and even I had to admit she made our little group. So she was singer-in-chief and I just plinked and plonked with my guitar.

We hadn’t been at all bad, but there were hundreds of similar groups who weren’t that bad either, and we had nothing special enough to raise our heads above the crowds. So we were never noticed.

Anyway, here we were on our way to a reunion and it promised to be quite an experience because I hadn’t played a note in years, and I doubt the others had either (Jed a wizard with a recorder, Crin on a variety of drums when he could get his hands on them and Scabby on rhythm with Joanie helping out rattling a tambourine).

It was a Tuesday. That made it an odd day in my mind, to start with, but it did give us time to remind ourselves of what we had done in our long-haired youth and try to regain some of what may or may not have been bordering on brilliance.

Had a text from Jed,” said Scabbie, “weather looks ace, sun shining, castle’s atmospheric. Not much, bit it sets the scene.”

I love you,” Joanie told him, and I groaned.

When are you going to grow up?” I asked, “we’re old timers now and you’re not supposed to be on cloud nine still, but throttling each other!”

If I decide to throttle him it won’t be his neck I’m squeezing…” grinned Joanie, and I groaned again.

We’ll be there soon,” put in Scabbie, changing the subject. “The other two reckon they’ve got a van just like this one. Two vans and a tent. Quite sixties!”

We were young then, and more flexible,” I told him, “and the van seemed bigger than this one.”

The same size exactly, mate,” said Scabbie, “same model and just about the same year! It took me an age to find this on Ebay. Then they wanted an arm and a leg for it.”

So how did we manage?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder at the cramped conditions behind us.

Goodness knows,” sighed Joanie, “and you had that lass with you, what was her name?”

Crikey, I’d forgotten her!” And I had. It was before Penny and hadn’t lasted for long. What had her name been? I couldn’t remember.

Scabbie could.

Josie,” he told me, “Josie Cartwright. Brunette, brown eyes, lovely face, very white teeth, quiet and shy!”

Ah, Josie,” I sighed, “I remember. I wonder what happened to her? I could have, you know…”

But you were too innocent back then?” laughed Scabbie. “I remember you, always the gentleman, that’s why your songs were the best. Because you were respectful to the ladies!”

She died,” said Joanie, frowning.

That put a downer on my heart, and the forest of Gloom’s breeze started blowing through my cerebellum again.

Cancer,” she added. “A couple of years ago now.”

I’m sorry,” I managed to sigh. And the sod of it was I was genuinely sorry. I hadn’t loved her, hell, I’d forgotten her name, but I hadn’t forgotten the her behind her name. And the honest truth is there had been moments over the years when she had somehow crawled into the vaults of my memory and teased me into thinking of this or that little thing about her.

Josie Cartwright. Deceased. So very, very sad. The last time I’d seen her she’d been twenty and alive. Very alive.

I might have loved her,” I sighed.

But you didn’t,” said Scabbie.

And he was right. Sadly. It takes time to love someone and I hadn’t given it enough of that.

The Castle, when we got there, was no more or no less ruined than it had been all those years ago when we’d been there and serenading a large group of Japanese tourists. There was an atmosphere about the place, the kind of atmosphere that was probably built up of layer upon layer of history. It was deep and sombre, melancholy even, evoking as it did mental images of a long time ago and savage battles on the very grass that Jed and Crin’s camper-van was parked on as we approached it.

I’d felt it before, and I felt it now.

It was as if something dire, something truly sickening, might happen any time. It even smelt that way. The air from a long history, whirling around, twisting one time with another, like a deadly fog.

Jed tried to run with his walking stick towards us, his face twisted.

It’s Crin!” he shouted, “he’s been killed, and he’s bloody dead!”

© Peter Rogerson 10.06.18

Advertisements

AN ALTERNATIVE TRUTH

18 Dec

I’m pregnant, Joseph, I’m sure I am,” wept Mary, “I feel sick every morning and I’ve not had my monthly bleed for ages…”

He stared at her open-eyed, and then:

That’s disgusting!” he almost shouted, “what were you thinking? What have you done? They’ll stone you, you know that, because a good stoning is what you deserve, going about like a foreign street girl and dong dirty things like that!”

What do you mean, Joseph?” she wept.

We all know what a girl has to do to get herself in the family way, and it’s disgusting!”

I … I don’t know … nobody ever told me…”

Going with foul men and their unwashed bodies, lying with them, damn you, and doing intimate things, wicked things, gasping and begging for more…”

I wouldn’t do that! You must know me better than that! I’ve never been with any man, not a single one, except…

Ha! Except! You acknowledge except! So there have been some.”

One, Joseph, only one…”

And who might that be, little innocent Mary with her gown off and her … I don’t like to think of it, what with us getting married like we’re supposed to be!”

There was nobody else…” Mary’s body was shaking with two kinds of grief, her condition and his accusation.

Then which of the old men with wrinkled whatsits have you been lying with, you harlot?”

ONLY YOU!” she shouted, “Only with you,” she added, in a grief-stricken whisper.

Only me?” He went pale as the significance of what she’d said hit him like a bolt from the big wide blue.

Yes, you.” This time there was a suggestion of defiance in her voice. “And I hate it when you don’t believe me even when you must know the truth,” she added, trying to hold him with her eyes, still moist from too much weeping.

You mustn’t tell anyone…” he gasped, thinking hurriedly. “This must be our secret, yours and mine. I can’t have father thinking that we’ve … that we’ve … that we’ve done it! He would thrash me, beat me until the bruises had bruises of their own, and then he would put his arms round me and say that he had to do it, he had to half kill me, out of love, he’d say, I’d understand one day… I can almost hear him now! So you mustn’t let on. Keep it to yourself.”

And grow fat with child? On my own? With the Priests looking on and knowing what I’ve done, and pointing their gnarled old fingers at me, and ordering that I make penance for my sin, ordering that I be stoned to death against the town wall, that my battered body have the infant ripped from it and… and … and….”

But it was a sin,” pointed out Joseph.

My sin alone? Nobody else’s?”

He didn’t understand. “Of course it was you alone!” he protested, “Who else could be to blame? Who else was there? Of course it was only you and therefore you are the one who deserves the punishment!”

And you weren’t with me, Joseph?”

Well, yes, but it’s what us men do. You can’t blame us because we’ve got instincts and urges! You could have said no!”

Didn’t you hear me, Joseph?”

Hear you? When?”

When you lay with me and touched me and I cried out ‘NO’ at the top of my voice when you were gasping and pushing and doing the things that you did… didn’t you hear me?”

I’m not deaf! Of course I heard you! But I knew that you didn’t mean it. The light in your eyes told me that much!”

It did?”

A woman can say no a million times and not mean it. It’s up to us men to understand, and I understood full well back then what you wanted, so we did it. That’s all there was to it. I might as well not been there. If it hadn’t been me you’d have caught another man in your web and done it with him! It’s what you women do.”

But I’m fourteen, Joseph, still quite young and I haven’t learned all these tricks. I always thought that ‘No’ meant ‘No’.”

Well it doesn’t. And you meant ‘yes’. I knew that you did.”

When I said ‘No’?”

Of course. Surely you can remember?”

My folks were away, the house was empty except for us, and you started fumbling with me. And I said ‘no’ more than once. I even tried to run away, Joseph, but you’re stronger than me and you grabbed hold of me really hard. You even bruised me! How didn’t that mean ‘no’?”

I knew what you were doing,” he sighed, struggling for another argument, “you were playing hard to get like all the pretty girls do. But I knew what you wanted.”

And now they’re going to stone me to death? Because you thought that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and that running away is my way of teasing you and playing hard to get? And when I’m dead and my cold body cast away into the desert for the carrion to feed on, you might, just might, get a sound beating if you mention to your dad that it was you who … who …”

Who what, Mary?”

RAPED ME!” she shouted.

Then so be it,” he sighed, “I’ll miss you if that happens. But it won’t, because I’ve got a plan and enough coin to pay for it.”

You’ve got a plan, Joseph?”

I know a wise woman. In a village less than half a day’s walk away, and she knows how to help a girl in trouble like you’re in trouble. She’ll help. She’s done it before.”

You know?”

He looked suddenly shy and like the little boy he hadn’t been for a good decade. “There was this other lass,” he murmured, “she got into trouble too, and I had enough coin … she was all right afterwards. It was easy-peasy, didn’t hurt her one bit and now she’s living a happy life with another man… Annie she is, you might know her?”

The sad woman who tries so hard to have babies for her husband to fuss over, but for whom it never happens, month after month?”

It can turn out like that,” nodded Jospeh, “but not always. That’s what the wise woman told me. Not always. So what do you say?”

I suppose it’s better than a stoning,” whispered Mary, “when can we go?”

Now,” he said, “we’ll be home by nightfall. Nobody need know.”

Right!” she said, determinedly, “We’ll go now!”

And they did. Right there and then they walked the long road to the other village and the wise woman.

It makes you think,” said Joseph as they went along, “how when you’ve done it and the baby’s no longer there, that everything he would have done with his life, the things he might have said, the words that folks might have listened to, will all go unsaid and unheard… it makes you think, doesn’t it?”

The trouble with you, Joseph, is you don’t think enough!” she snapped back at him, and they trudged on.

© Peter Rogerson 02.12.17

AT THE PEARLY GATES

3 Jul

See them gates out there, them pearly gates, them shiny pearly gates, that entrance to…. wherever.

That wherever over there. This place, call it what you will, call it Heaven, call it Hell, but it’s here that I’m waiting. See me waiting. See me in the shadows, see the urchins walking past, one and two and one and two, little kids drowned before their times, Mediterranean waters in their lungs as they fought for freedom from war and hatred, and lost. And others. See the old men past their times, pee-stained crotches, minds lost so long ago they’ll never find them again, eyes pale, like water can be pale… see them trooping through them pearly gates. See them go!

Through them shiny pearly gates.

And the lasses, breathing like lasses never did in life, breathing for death… pretty lasses, breasts held pert like breasts should be, legs long and skirts short… see them lasses, old crones, haggard, wrinkled, mindless, trooping ever on, through them pearly gates, all on a one-way walk to…

But not me. Short skirts and long legs notwithstanding, I’m here, waiting. Got to wait. Look and you’ll see me. No, not there but here, in these shadows, waiting for her…

Waiting for my Rosie to come to me.

We said we would, or I did. Whoever goes first, we said, whoever is the weakest and yields first and pegs it like all mortals must, then he or she’ll wait for the other however long it takes… and I went first.

It started with a cough. Not much of a cough to tell the truth, but all the time like coughs shouldn’t be. And sure enough it heralded my first step and these shadows. These bloody, unlit shadows in the shelter of them pearly gates. See them! See the way they shine!

Reflecting light, they are. Reflecting light from beyond the gates, the other side, but I ain’t going there, so sirree, not until my Rosie comes to me. That’s what we said. What we agreed. So the tide of folks go past.

See them go! People watching, that’s what I’m doing, people watching like I always did back when there was breath in my lungs and skin on my bones and bones on my soul… Sitting on a bench in the park and staring. Lasses with their short skirts. People watching like good folks do. Old men withered by years and stumbling on the turves.

And now here.

But so many people. Dead people.

Why do babies die? Who said they should? And who’s to carry them beyond the great pearly gates? There’s one there, too tiny to crawl, too tiny to know anything but death, and it just don’t seem fair somehow. Where’s the mite going, the tiny little scrap of … of what? Of meat that’s underdone, overcooked, boned? And there it goes, almost drifting, almost not moving, through the gates, those blasted pearly gates, and me waiting still for Rosie.

She can’t be long, can she? I went first, I said I always would, the cough carried me off, that bloody dreadful cough, the cough that wracked my body until it wracked the last puff of breath from my soul, and I came to these shadows to wait.

And watch.

The old woman, see her shuffle, fleshless, boneless, shuffling along on feet that haven’t seen a slipper since she died, and won’t ever again. See her nose dripping, her wretched dead nose drip, drip, dripping like noses do on little kids but not on ghosts…

And here I am in my shadows, watching and waiting.

Rosie was an angel all her life. I must have loved her, I damned well must have. I held her hand, didn’t I, when the night bogies scared her? She’d cry and I’d hush her, and maybe a bit fiercely but who can tell how hard he punches until he’s done it and the bruises swell? And who can sleep through the fear of bogies in the night, creatures who never were but still are? It’s a crying shame, but that’s the way things were. Who could help it? Rosie and her bogies, silly Rosie with her bruises…

I’ll wait for you… I hacked through my shattered lungs at her, and she smiled at me and said we’ll see…

I knew what she meant. That we’d see. What I wasn’t so sure of was what we’d see. Or when. I didn’t expect these pearly gates and the endless trooping of folks, endless, crowds, millions in a day…

If there are days, of course. Days are things we live through in life, but here in the shadow of the pearly gates there don’t seem to be days, nor nights, nor any portion of time that is measured. It’s just here. And folks, trooping by, into the place beyond the pearly gates, and I’m waiting for my Rosie to come and join me.

Then we’ll go through those gates together. I’ll hold her hand like in the teen days, I might even kiss her one last time, and then we’ll go through together like lovers should.

There’s light beyond, bright light, and I can’t wait to be bathed by it. With Rosie…

How long has it been?

That’s a question and a half, that is. How long has it been since I coughed my last with the pain racking my bones and body, and I said with my head if not with words my goodbyes to Rosie. I did, you know, I looked at her as the light faded, as the sounds drained out of creation, as I left her staring at me … she might have had contempt in those eyes, but I knew better. I knew we were meant to be together…

Whoever goes first must wait for the other, I said, and she nodded. Of course she nodded. I knew I’d be first but I stuck to my words anyway. I knew what it would be like. And, you’ll come and find me, won’t you? I insisted. I’m bound to go first, aren’t I? Paying the price for all the mischief of my life… I’ll be waiting…

Waiting in the shadows of the pearly gates.

Whatever you think… That’s the way she agreed, my Rosie, my angel, and to think we’ve walked through our lives together. Not always happy, but together. Like life ought to be. Like the preacher said when we stood before him … oh, half a century and more ago.

The troops of folk walked in, some slow, some faster, some barely moving, some almost running, old folks and young, yellow and brown and white, all manner of folks, all trooping through those pearly gates.

And Rosie!

Here she comes! Oh mighty me, here she comes!

Her face like it always was, her eyes, that hair…. I loved her hair always, burnished gold, it was, burnished gold like sunlight woven onto a precious head.

But…

That’s not my hand she’s holding… those aren’t my eyes she’s gazing into … that’s not me at her side…

Walking with her, through those pearly gates.

It isn’t me.

And through, not pausing, not glancing my way, not caring that I’m there like I promised, but through those gates with … who is she with? I don’t know him, but it is a him, and gone…

Wait till I catch her! I won’t half teach her a lesson, what with all this waiting!

Because I waited this eternity for her, here in the shadows, here in the painful dark, here where no light shines…

© Peter Rogerson 03.07.17

THE WINTER OF MY DISCONTENT

10 Jun

I was poking in the coal-hole looking for a lost tortoise that might have decided that it was time to hibernate when I stumbled on a crow-bar left as a gift by the burglar who tried to break in last September.

It was good finding it, but the tortoise was nowhere in sight and I began to feel guilty. It was a cold winter, and I was discontented.

So, I would imagine, was the tortoise.

But that crow-bar was going to come in handy.

The trap-door had been there for as long as I’d lived in the house. I remember pondering over what it might be when I’d been a lad of nine or ten looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain and sorely tempted to lift it and see what might be seen under the coal-house floor, but being a feeble squirt I lacked the strength to budge it as much as a millimetre with the only tool I had to hand, an old screwdriver, and I gave up trying when it came to be time for school.

Then there was the time when I was in my teens and as keen as mustard on the girl who lived next door and I got to fantasising that there might be a tunnel under that trap-door that led directly to her lily-white-sheeted bedroom where I might find myself in the middle of a teenage fantasy involving bodily fluids and heaving bosoms, but there was a great deal of coal-dust round the trap door and I realised how stupid I’d look if I appeared in her boudoir with a smudged face and spreading black dust everywhere, so I desisted before I started.

Now I’m getting on in my years and have crow-bar to hand.

Why would a coal-shed have a trap-door in its floor and what might it be hiding? What secret places might I find if I open the trap-door and where might the steps that I’d undoubtedly find lead me?

If my great-granddad was here he’d tell me not to be bothered, but they told me he died before I was born after many a swashbuckling adventure in dark places. It’s strange how easily the deceased can come to mind when you’re contemplating trap-doors.

Old trap doors can be the very devil, especially if they’ve been in place where they are for well over half a century. Years of debris, moistened no doubt by condensation every cold season, had formed a kind of concrete, black as Satan’s backside and just as disgusting. I had to use that crow-bar as a kind of blade to cut through it, and the taste of the dust in the air was like the taste of sin.

Have you ever tasted sin? I have….

So it was hard work easing that metal slab open with a crow-bar that was a gift from a burglar, but I moved it bit by bit. It creaked and at one stage I thought the metal was going to bend or snap, but it didn’t, and eventually I lifted it and gazed fully into the face of my aforementioned great-granddad, though I didn’t recognise him. Well, I wouldn’t, would I, never having met him in the flesh, and now he had no flesh for anyone to recognise anyway, just a grinning skull and a sign that said, in bold capitals, “WILLY DID IT”.

It’s hard knowing what to do with a skeleton that accidentally appears under a trap-door that really shouldn’t be there, so I did what every right-thinking person would do and notified the authorities.

The detective put, by a chief superintendent who didn’t like him, in charge of the case was the most objectionable man I’ve ever met. He asked me who I was and when I told him “Willy Arkwright” (which is my name) his first reaction was along the lines of me being the Willy on the sign being held aloft by my deceased relative, and when the pathologist said the body must have been put where it well nigh almost a century ago (or maybe twice my age ago) he pooh-poohed the facts and arrested me for murder.

Everything seemed to fit in with his theory, mostly because of that wretched sign. He even managed to find evidence that the trap door had been opened relatively recently (a cigarette stub that I dislodged along with tons of coal dust while I was hacking away with the crow-bar) and even when I complained that I’d never smoked, not ever, not once in my life, he managed to pooh-pooh that as well.

He put together quite a dossier. My great-grandfather (DNA evidence proved that’s who it was) had been born in 1898 and disappeared in 1929. And it seemed that the state of his bones suggested he might have been lowered into a hole under the coal-shed and a trap-door closed on him around that time.

“But I wasn’t anywhere near being born then!” I protested, and “neither was my dad,” I added.

Then there came a sparkling piece of brand new evidence, which most detectives would dismiss out-of-hand but he didn’t.

Willy was a family name. I had it, my dad, granddad and great-granddad all had it, and it went back through generations before that. Even William the Bastard had it, and he lived a long time ago, or so they say. But it didn’t make much of an impression on the Inspector who was determined to see me spend the rest of my natural behind bars.

He said that if I had someone known as a bastard in my family tree then it was evidence I was a wrong-un and it’s a pity they’d stopped hanging desperadoes like me because hanging’s just what I deserved.

In court, the jury agreed with him. They were all good honest Christians to a person, and consequently well used to looking the truth in the face, and calling it a lie.

Which is why this has been a particularly gruelling winter of discontent for me. It’s a good thing about the tortoise, though. He came and rescued me when it was clear I wasn’t coming home in time to feed him. Spring-time had come and I don’t know how he did it but he chewed through the bars of my cell with a will.

Never say that our pets aren’t useful, because I know full well that they are! Especially tortoises.

© Peter Rogerson 05.12.16

BLOOD AND A BLAST

7 Jun

The roar of the explosion sent a thumping ache through the man’s head as it reverberated in the summer air, and he crouched, shaking, under a table he thought might be there, but wasn’t.
“That was close,” gasped his friend.
“It bloody was, God help us,” he replied, and his own voice made the shaken ache in his head vibrate painfully.
“What have we done?” whispered his friend, not understanding.
“You mean, to bring this anger down on us?” he asked, ignoring the pain. “Who are our enemies? Who are those throwing bombs at us, blasting our homes to smithereens, killing our women and children so indiscriminately? Who are they?”
“I thought they were our brothers,” whispered his friend “Did not God make them like he made us? In the same image, in the same mould, out of the same clay?”
“They were our brothers once,” sighed the man. “I knew them and called them that.”
“Then why?” asked the other.
“No man knows,” was his mournful reply, and his words were punctuated by the sudden blast of another explosion, closer this time, shaking the ground where they knelt shivering, and shattering the few remaining pains of glass in the windows. Dust flew up, dust and a half brick, a half brick and a garden.
“That was close,” gasped the man.
“The smell…” gasped his friend, and he knew what he meant. The smell was vile, the scorching of fabrics mixed with the more sinister stench of burning flesh … was it his woman or his pet dog? Or both? Maybe both were burning in the other room, the one that probably wasn’t there any more. And there was gas. He could smell that, too, and half wished it would join the war and explode close enough to take him to his God before the sadness or the next bomb got him. But it didn’t. It drifted away through the vacant windows on a sultry summer breeze.
“All I wanted was a peaceful life,” he whispered, “all I wanted was to pray and sing and laugh and love … yes, love… and then the bombs started coming, and I don’t know why.”
“Nor me,” sighed his friend, “and, like you, I wanted a good life with harmony and a kindly woman to cuddle and kiss with, to love, to join with at God’s will, to spend my life like that, children at my feet, stories being told of the fine things on the world, ice cream under a summer sun. But…”
“…but the fine things are all gone,” he whispered. “And instead we are targets, you and me, something for our erstwhile brothers to aim at and destroy…”
Another explosion, further away this time but loud like the devil’s trumpet, split the air and both men shook. Maybe, they thought, maybe the next one would be for them. Maybe the next blast would grab them and tear their flesh and solve the problems of a painful life for them, by ending it.
“When I pray,” he whispered, “when I turn to my God and pray and tell Him he is good I expect to be able to smile in return, to feel his blessing on me, to kiss my lovely woman, to hold her by the hand, to take her walking where the sun shines and where the sounds of children playing are like a wonderful promise of tomorrow…”
“I know,” nodded his friend, and he scrabbled onto his knees and made for the door leading to the next room.
Which wasn’t there.
“My love!” his friend screamed, “My darling love!”
“What is it?” he called, and scrambled after him.
The room was gone. Practically all of it. The walls, the windows, the doors. Scraps of curtain and chair-cover clung to broken bricks and shattered glass, a family picture in a twisted picture frame. But that wasn’t what drew anguished tears from the two men.
Lying in their own blood and clinging together as if that was all they needed to do in order to be saved were two women. Their two women. Their loves. Their hopes for tomorrow. Their future. And one look told the two men they must be dead, to be twisted and smashed like that, to have their faces torn to shreds.
“Oh my God, why have you done this?” spluttered his friend,
“It wasn’t God,” grated the man, and he picked a fragment of torn steel from where the blast had forced it, and turned it over in his hands.
“This is part of the bomb,” he wept.
His friend wept also. “That killed my love,” his strangled voice managed to force out.
“That killed our loves,” he nodded, “and look,”
He held it up and pointed at some markings, still legible, on its scarred surface.
MADE IN ENGLAND, he read.
MADE IN ENGLAND…
“When the bombs stop falling,” he swore, “when all this death is over, I know where I’m going! And I’ll take death with me! For God! For my own sweet love! For everything their blasted weapons have stolen from me…”
“And I’ll be there by your side,” added his friend, grimly.

THE EULOGY

7 Oct

Susan Summers stood by the lectern in the church, trying to avoid eye-contact with the coffin that was so close to her she could have touched it by merely reaching out. It represented the best and the worst experiences of her tangled life, and she was here to lay both extremes to rest.

“I knew Bernard when I was young,” she said quietly to the congregation of half a dozen or so mourners. “We weren’t friends because for some reason I could never fathom his mother didn’t like me and he was scared of her. But that was not unusual back then. The young had very little say when it came to their own lives.”

She looked around. She only knew two of the tiny group, Bernard’s neighbour and the woman who spent a great deal of her time with him, in sin Bernard had said before Susan had moved in with him, and then sin miraculously had nothing to do with it and it became love.

It was that neighbour’s lady friend who had saved Bernard when he’d had that first heart attack, but there had been no way anyone was going to save him after the second one, and Susan should know because she’d been a medical doctor before she retired.

The others scattered in the nave were habitual mourners, all women and all consequently well known to the vicar, who for once was grateful that they had swollen his congregation of friends and acquaintances of the deceased. Further back, unobtrusive, were the undertaking officials, sombre in black and with impassive faces.

Susan drew in a deep breath, and continued.

“I have only one clear memory of those days and that was when I was sent to our local fish and chip shop, for lunch I think, it’s what often happened on a Saturday, and Bernard was going too. It wasn’t unusual for many families to have meals from the local chip shop and for the kids to fetch them in what seems a long lifetime ago. I was a teenager, proud of my looks and daring to wear skirts my parents thought were much too short, and he was the most handsome boy in the Universe.

“We got almost talking. I say almost, but not quite. He was bashful and troubled and I was perky, and It was me who started the conversation because I really liked him even though we hadn’t met properly, and nobody had introduced us to each other. People needed to get introduced to each other back then! But you know how it is ” a man and a woman or a boy and a girl … sometimes there’s a kind of attraction, like magnetism, which makes such formalities as introductions unnecessary, and I felt that way then. He was a nice lad with startling good looks, and I was a teenage girl…!”

“Let me tell you a bit about my life since then, because that fish and chips day was all we had together, and as you can tell it was the briefest moment of togetherness! He ran off when I spoke to him. I must have frightened him or something, though I hadn’t meant to. I found out when I got home that it was because his mother was a bit over-zealous, protecting a teenage lad from the temptations of the flesh, and his father wasn’t much better! I don’t know what they thought I’d do toy him! But it was their way and they’re both long gone and it’s not fair of me to cast a cloud on the characters or motives of two people I barely knew.

“When I left school I went to medical school and entered the nursing profession, and before too long enrolled in University in order to train as a doctor. It’s because of that training and the skills I picked up then and over a lifetime working in various hospitals that I knew that, when he collapsed, Bernard was beyond any help, though I did try. Oh, how I tried, needing to get a dead heart working, to spend one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more for-ever with him! But to no avail. My Bernard was dead. It struck me as one of the cruellest twists of fate.

“I like to think that he believed that the last few months of his life were the best of it. He told me that was the case often enough, when we lay in bed in the mornings and shared our memories, or went out together, maybe shopping, during the days. And then at night, when darkness had fallen and we were in bed together again and he would tell me of what he remembered from his first “death”, the few minutes between his heart stopping and the wonderful Amelia next door having the right skills and doing all the right things to bring him back. And it had worked, but it wasn’t the rescue of Bernard but the things he dreamed of when he was in that limbo between life and death that he concentrated on. You see, he really believed, weeks afterwards, that he met his Maker, and that he had really and truly visited Heaven and Hell.

“And he told me there was a giant mirror in which he saw his living self when he was dead. And in that mirror he actually saw me as a young girl, my eyes tempting him to goodness-knows what as he ran back home from our meeting on the way to the chip shop.

“You see, it was only after those dreams or nightmares or whatever they were that I met him again, and even though we were both seventy and ready for the knacker’s yard, as they say, that we fell in love, both of us, wildly, madly, passionately. Maybe it was that love that brought on his second heart attack ” who can tell? But he did tell me that I was his one and only lover in a celibate and friendless life and that he was going to make up for all that wasted time when he’d kept himself to himself. He said that he’d wasted his life and that would condemn him to an eternity is Hell with the devil and his servants when he died, rather than any sin of the flesh.

“It’s not up to me, in this place, to say whether I agreed with him or believed in his strange faith, but I must say that be believed that he would return to the wonderland that may have been dreams or may have really been part of the fabric of existence that none of us know anything about.

“As you know, we had less than a year together, but in those few months he packed in as much love, as much affection, as much real honesty as most people pack into a life-time. And I am proud to say that I knew Bernard. I am proud to say that I loved him. And I am proud to say that I was there at his ending, for without really knowing it he enriched my life for a little while.”

Then she sat down and stared at her own feet. A feeling, something she couldn’t recognise, was bubbling up inside her.

Who would have thought it? Who could possibly have predicted it? Two human beings had met after separate lives stripped of love and affection and had done their damnedest to make up for a hell of a lot of lost time.

She looked up and into the front of the church and its altar, and the vicar replaced her at the lectern, but although he spoke in a voice amplified beyond the need of so small a gathering she didn’t hear a single word that he said.

For it seemed to her that the moisture from her own eyes as she became aware of the depth of her grief had spread across her vision like a kind of mirror blotting out everything, and there, in the mirror, lost from life, she could almost make out the figure of Bernard staring back at her, and weeping with her, and beckoning.

Was it the heartache of grief that gripped her flesh and twisted it until she choked? Or was it something else?

She didn’t have time to wonder as she slumped in her ancient craggy pew, and Dr. Susan Summers knew no after a fragmentary moment wondering who the cowled figure approaching her might be, and why he was carrying a shiny scythe.…

THE END

© Peter Rogerson 07.10.16

CHAPTER SIXTEEN – THE BABY AND THE PRAM

3 Oct

There was an old woman with a pram at the bus stop.
Bernard didn’t think it looked to be the sort of pram that would contain a baby. For starters, it was old and tatty with a grey lacy sheet hanging loosely down one side. It looked, to him, as if it was the possessions of a bag lady, someone lost to the world, someone with no pride and no quality of life left to her and the need of a pram to trundle her world in.
And then the baby cried.
Bernard looked up at God who was already part way into becoming Satan. The deity was a distinctly odd amalgam of a holy master and an evil fiend, and he even had the long swishing tail that Satan dragged along behind him.
God/Satan paused and shook his head.
“Now what are you doing here, Martha?” he asked, “you know the bus is not for you.”
“I’m sorry, Master, but I can’t take it any more,” whimpered the old woman, “I just can’t! All them flowers and sweet songs are upsetting Baby. Can’t you hear him crying, the poor wee mite.”
“He wasn’t a poor wee mite once was he, Martha?” asked the Lord of the Afterlife in his intermediate guise.
“No Master, he wasn’t,” she snivelled.
“What was he, Martha?” asked the Lord, and as Bernard looked at him the satanic part of his appearance faded and he became bathed in light again, like he when he’d sat on his golden throne, and his eyes shone with intense wisdom.
“He was…” she stammered, and glanced at Bernard. “He was Baby Baby Bunting.”
“No, Martha, that isn’t it. You know what I’m asking. What was he?”
“Do I have to say, what with that fine gennelman watching and listening and all,” snivelled Martha.
“Of course you do, Martha.” This time there was authority and command in the regal voice of the Master of Heaven. This time there could be no suggestion of verbally slinking away, no hiding of whatever truth needed to be hidden.
“The gennelman will hear…” protested Martha. “He’ll know…”
“What will he know, Martha?”
“I can’t say…”
“But you know that you must, don’t you?” There was infinite patience in the suddenly majestic voice of the Lord, and there was also the strictness of command, a command that could never be ignored. Martha knew this, and Bernard watched her squirm.
“The baby, Martha, what was he?” asked God gently.
“Nobody told me about stuff,” moaned Martha, “I was a poor old woman in hard times, and nobody told me. The gennelman’ll know how hard it was for a poor old woman with wars raging and soldiers dying on battlefields. Oh, he’ll know all right! And that’s where my man went and died, to the battlefield in a foreign land. Right killed dead, he was, and now, forgive me, he’s here abouts and making daisy chains with the sweet ones and nowt to say to me as bore his child.”
“Martha!” The command was insistent and Bernard felt virtual sweat forming on his brow as the old woman fought against something deep inside her.
“Yes sir?” She was still avoiding the obvious pain of providing a reply.
“The baby, Martha, what was he?” commanded God in a voice that this time was a direct order, the sort that must, at all costs, be obeyed.
“He were dead,” whispered Martha.
“Say louder, Martha, so that all of Heaven can hear!” commanded God.
“He were dead, sir,” said Martha, a bit louder, “dead, dead, dead! Is that enough, sir, enough humiliation for an old woman who has been here for Eternity and has suffered humiliation day in and day out for all of that time.”
“Not Eternity, not yet, but never mind,” sighed God.
“He were dead,” repeated Martha, head hung low, straggly hair limp and penitent.
“Say how he died, Martha,” commanded the Maker.
“Now, sir?”
“Yes, now!”
“In front of the gennelman?”
“Just so.”
“I were … I were cold and hungry, Master, and the wars had swallowed all the young men. Mine were dead, thank you, Lord, and neither me nor Bunting here had a bite to eat or a coal for the hearth. Night were drawing on, cold, bitter night, with ice outside and not a spark to keep us warm, no flame and no food for our bellies.”
“We get the picture, Martha!”
Bernard looked up at the stern face of the Creator, and it could not be disobeyed. It held tremendous power and every breath it took seemed to be some kind of command.
“And I get to think as we’d both die, Baby Baby Bunting here and me. Yes! We was both going to die. There was not a morsel to keep us going, not a chunk of mouldy stale bread, not a drop of water that wasn’t frozen solid…”
“Say more, Martha. How did Bunting die?”
“It was all I could do,” whispered the old woman. I needed victuals to keep me alive and summat to burn on the fire, for warmth for my old bones. So I took the bread knife, the terrible rusty bread knife, and I carved Baby Bunting for meat and set his bones in the hearth for nice red flames to keep us warm and cook the meat on. But the fire wouldn’t burn. Not a flame went up that old chimbley and I weren’t going to eat my baby raw. I’m not a savage!”
“And when they found out, the men of the law, Martha…?”
“They came, they did. Some nosey parker had told them as they’d heard a baby howling, well he did, there’s no denying it. and they came and hauled me off. And I was put before a judge with his wig and great big hooked nose and he perched that black cloth on his head and said I was to be taken away and hanged! Me, as never did anything wrong in me life! Hanged until I was dead! But my baby needs me, I shouted, he can’t see after hisself, he needs his mother… but that mean old judge said as Bunting was dead and no longer needed anyone save a kindly Lord and a good place in Heaven.”
“Well, he’s got a good place in Heaven, in that pram of yours, and as he’s in no need of nourishment any more he couldn’t be better off,” commented God. “And your penalty, Martha, is to confess to your sins when asked, for you have sinned worse than most. And you must stay here, where you are now, at the bus stop, neither in Heaven, which is too good for you or Hell which is too bad for you, for you have been granted, by life and the law, with a grim and sorry life and it is not in me to cast blame at you, not now, not yesterday and not tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Master…” grovelled Martha, and slowly she pushed the tatty old pram away never going far from the bus stop, until she came to a shelter that was every bit like a cardboard box and in no way like anything else.
“The poor soul,” sighed Bernard, “though if I were starving and the cold bit like she said it did, what would I do?”
“You wouldn’t kill your child, Bernard, for that is not your sin, for you have no children to smother in love or starve with or freeze along side. And that, as you know, is your sin.”
Bernard nodded, and could have wept. But he didn’t. There are others in the world, he thought, more deserving of tears.
Like many a Martha.
©Peter Rogerson 03.10.16