Monday, 9 December 2013

Graveside Manner

I think I have become nothing but a blur, as inconsequential as a puff of wind or a damp leaf. I am normally here day in and day out, kneeling or sitting cross legged like an infant or stood upright with my hands behind my back, that’s another one of my favourites. Those that spot me usually leave me alone and I think that’s because most of them are scared of me, the mad man of St Mary’s. But I’m never alone anymore and I have never had so many friends as I have now, it’s just that they are dead.
 They’ve all got used to me coming here and to be honest I think it’s a relief for them because they must get bored with nobody to talk to. Eternity, after all, is a very long time to spend on your tod. Of course not all of them are that welcoming and some of them like old William Hitchen are just miserable old gits and love nothing better than to wallow in their own self-pity. All I ever get out of him are grunts and sighs and the occasional tut tut. I’ve tried to cheer him up plenty of times but he just doesn’t seem to see the point seeing as he’s dead and all that and living in a wooden box six foot under. I do see where he’s coming from though and I guess there’s no point in getting him to try to see the positives, there aren’t that many really.
But that’s why I spend so much time here. Everybody needs somebody to talk to from time to time and I also enjoy their company. I think most of them appreciate my efforts and I also help to keep their gravestones clean, getting rid of dead heads and fast food cartons, that kind of thing.

 In fact I don’t think I’ve ever had so many friends, I was always a bit of a loner and always found it hard to make friends. Social anxiety I think they call it these days, it was a bloody nuisance. But in my day, especially under the circumstances, we didn’t have much choice. All brought together like herds of cattle. Sometimes locking horns and at other times scared witless.
I was telling Betty Scowcroft this morning about how it used to be and she’s a brilliant listener, although she doesn’t say much herself. All I know is she died in childbirth in 1889, in a two up two down affair just down the way. It wasn’t the kind of death anybody should have, lots of screaming, lots of shouting and then silence. A terrifying silence and few moments later the undulating cries of a baby that would never get to see its mother.
Nobody visits her anymore. That’s the saddest thing about being a long time dead, most of your nearest and dearest are also dead. You can’t even begin to imagine how painful it can be to lay there all alone, time fluttering by like a moth without even glancing back over its shoulder. I think Betty enjoys our little chats though and she is opening up to me slowly, even told me that I remind her of her Bertie. I think he was buried over in Harrogate sometime in the thirties. Met a girl after the war and moved down that way, had a little hardware shop until his own death. She doesn’t talk about him much, mainly because she doesn’t know all the ins and outs, just a selection of details whispered over her stone many years ago. And she’s always been a bit deaf, you really have to shout. Poor old bird. It can be very frustrating you know, listening to your loved ones talking over you and not being able to get a word in. After a time it gets so annoying you end up closing your ears but it takes practise to do that.
Thankfully most of them don’t do that to me, unless they are in revere. That’s when they’re not contactable. It happens to all of them from time to time and can last anything from a few days to a number of months. I’m not sure why it happens. I just chalk it off as one of those unexplained spiritual phenomenons. Whether they are off to meet their maker for a little while or having yearly appraisals, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of it.

John Catterall once spent an entire year in revere and the bugger came out of it one day and said he didn’t even realise he’d gone anywhere. He’s got a filthy mouth on him. I’ve lost count of the number of nights I’ve spent listening to his blue jokes. He must have been a right character when he was top-side and a bit of a ladies man as well by all accounts. It doesn’t go down well with all the residents as you can well imagine, especially when he tells the one about the nun, the prostitute and the errand boy from Tarleton.
Some nights he gets out of hand and I have to intervene and do my best to calm things down. When they all start shouting and bickering it can get ridiculous to say the least. I must admit though I like to egg him on a little bit and tell him my own dirty jokes from time to time, but they are about as funny as a dislocated shoulder. But I usually get the odd giggle and the occasional slow hand clap; I still haven’t worked out how the hell they do that.

Mr and Mrs Sheepshank, over in the far corner by the begonias told me once that things often get pretty tense because of religious and political differences. I like them and always know where to go whenever I feel like having a deep and meaningful conversation. Sometimes we can chunner on for hours all three us, going anywhere in any direction from Arthur Skargill to the conflict in Afghanistan to whether they really should bring out another series of Come Dine With Me. We nearly caused an uproar one day last September when we got on to the subject of sex before marriage. Even a few of the folk in the cremation section were banging on about it for weeks.

Sometimes though I just like to mingle. Perhaps just a simple ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ will suffice and then I’ll move on to the next one. I call it the St Mary’s shuffle. Although not all of them are keen on talking and a few prefer to keep themselves to themselves and I have to respect that. And you also have to be conscious of their individual moods and personalities. I couldn’t tell my dirty jokes, for instance, to Mr Evans in plot number 54 because he used to be a lay preacher and he gets rather tetchy. I think it’s because he feels as if he he’s been short changed by God. After all he was expecting to spend an eternity at the right hand side of Jesus but instead just gets to listen to Veronica Whittle, next door but one, going on about how cold it is and how it won’t stop raining. I must admit it would send me crazy as well. For all pretence and purposes it must be like listening to the constant drone of a dentist’s drill.

Then again there are walkers like me. There aren’t many of us around and most of the others prefer to spend time away from the churchyard but it suits me fine. I get more sense out of my friends here than anybody top-side. I can’t keep up with how fast things are changing anyway. People don’t seem to want to talk to each other these days, they’ve got their heads permanently glued to their mobile phones and most of them have more chance of knowing who has been knocked out of Britain’s Got Talent than actually knowing their next door neighbours name.
I blame the internet. There was none of that in my time. These days most people waste their entire lives playing Candy Crush and poking each other and the way they talk is all gibberish to me. It may as well be Welsh or Gaelic or Narnian for all I can understand.

No I prefer it here in the church yard where the age old tradition of conversation hasn’t been flushed down the bog. I don’t know what they all think of me and I’m not sure what they say behind my back but at least they know I’m here and usually answer me back when I speak to them. Unlike most of the up-top  visitors who stroll in here willy-nilly with handfuls of freesias and carnations, with their heads full of whatever delicacies they are going to have for their tea and the X Factor and Sex.

Yes it’s very true is that. They come in here with their puff pastry faces, walking around all ginger like as if they’re in a bloody library and nine out of ten times they’re thinking about getting their ends away. I think that’s what they call it these days but I could be wrong. They didn’t call it that in my day but there again, we had other things on our minds. The most important one was staying alive, didn’t do me much good in the end though.

I think that’s why I’m glad I’m not down there. I spent enough time in those piss stinking trenches and that would just be a reminder of those bastard days of webbed feet and my poor mates with half their brains hanging out of their heads.

                                   Ally Atherton 2013