An Underwater Fairy

Thinking about it, it was not a beep, exactly. It sounded more like Fairy Tinkerbell drowning in Peter Pan’s water glass. Not that she actually drowned. It was poisoned and she drank it to the last drop to save him, but…

The thing was I’d been hearing this noise in my house whenever it fell quiet, and I couldn’t decide where it was coming from. It wasn’t all the time, and it wasn’t at regular intervals, it was… random. I would find myself listening for the next one. And it wouldn’t come. I would go downstairs, open a book, forget about the beep and then – there it was again. I’m slightly deaf in one ear and have tinnitus in both. I can hear many sounds loudly – sometimes jarringly loudly – but I can rarely be sure what direction they are coming from.

I thought maybe it was the smoke alarms. I have – had – two set of smoke alarms. When the second set was fitted, free  – by our Stay At Home However Old You Get local charity – I was assured that this set did not rely on batteries. These alarms were plumbed into the mains and would last ten years or more. And yet, here was the beep. I’m not having this, I thought so I got up on a stepladder and removed anything white, circular and plastic that looked as if it might be a smoke alarm. I consigned them to a Tupperware box in the garage. Every now and then I go in there and… one of them gives a defiant little squeak.

But inside my house the beeps – or rather the despairing two-tone Drowning Tinkerbell – continued. And then I began to get really worried. You see, my Mum had a psychosis. She also had dementia, but that wasn’t diagnosed till later. She was almost completely deaf but she started asking me if I could hear this – or that. Did the telephone just ring? Could I hear people arguing outside in the street? Couldn’t I hear the owners of the café where we were having lunch talking about us? Saying such awful things (and about me, apparently).

For quite a while she seemed to accept that it was just a trick of her hearing. I found a book about the strange things deaf people sometimes ‘hear’ – music, singing, conversations – just a more elaborate form of tinnitus. She seemed so relieved, clutching the book to her chest. Bless you, she said. But despite the book, after a while she tipped over some edge. She informed me the voices were real. She got quite patronising about it. My hearing must be worse than hers if I really couldn’t hear it. Listen, they were out in the garden, they were talking through the walls!

One day her carers came and found her stretched out on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard, the better to hear the voices, which were clearer inside the cupboard. ‘They’ were discussing their plans. They were going to dig up her house and move it several feet to one side. And underneath the foundations they said there were giant slugs, eating away at the floorboards… She had to listen, every minute, or she wouldn’t know what was going on.

Of the whole five years or so of Mum’s ‘going away’, mentally, I found this the worst. I had seen someone with clinical depression but I had never seen psychosis. I tried to follow Mum into her imaginary world. I needed her, so wherever she was going, I needed to go there too. It wasn’t so hard to begin with. It was a bit like reading a slightly creepy kind book, entering into the spooky world the writer had created, trying to predict the next horror, trying to reassure her… But eventually, she shut me out. That was it – like a door closing between one room and the next.

So, that was what I was afraid of.

In a moment of late night inspiration I decided to Google intermittent beep. Various chatrooms informed me it was my landline. No, it was my ISP router. No, it was my smoke alarm – I’d already eliminated that one. No, it was my keyboard. The more I read, the more computer-orientated the suggestions became. One site suggested it was an alarm signifying  problems with one of two types of memory inside the computer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway, so from midnight till somewhere around two in the morning I engaged in a titanic struggle with my desktop computer – this desktop computer – writing down sheets of totally incomprehensible instructions offered by the chatroom nerds, trying, failing, trying again. All the commands they suggested turned out to be hidden in different places on my version of windows. I came up with forbidding-looking panes, like something out of The Matrix, containing important-looking files that I was supposed to say yes or no to, or possibly delete. With one mistaken keystroke I might cripple/kill my entire computer, but I just had to keep risking it. I had no idea what I was doing.

So, in the small hours of the morning there I still was. Outside the window the streetlight went out. I touched my face and realised it was covered in a sheen of cold sweat from the stress. I did a memory diagnostic test. I did another one. Long, long tests. Waiting, waiting, waiting for some little blue bar to creep along. And at the end of it all, still the beep.

It was then that I had my second inspiration. I went down to that little megaphone thing on the right-hand side and I turned off the sound. I listened. I listened some more. I listened some more… and the beep had gone. I mean, it’s probably still beeping, theoretically, in some alternative universe, but the important thing is:

I can’t hear it.

The meaning of life passes me by – again

So, I was sat there at the bus stop opposite the station having, as nearly always, just missed the bus home. There is a gap, after lunch, of one and a half hours. I had hit that gap.

I had been waiting there for over an hour already. Other buses came and went, and various other people came and waited – and went, on all the buses that arrived that were sadly not my bus. There was just me and this very, very old man. I was sat in the shelter, such as it is, with the narrow hard seats that slope forwards (on purpose, to discourage sleeping tramps, according to Bertie). He was sat behind me and to the side, on a low bench. The low bench is much more comfortable, though difficult to arise out of if you have been sitting in it for any length of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the very, very old man wished to talk to me. He was doing that fidgety, glancing in my direction and then glancing away thing that people do. So I went over and sat down next to him. He told me his sight was really bad and he couldn’t make out the numbers of the buses.

Was I by any chance waiting for the same bus that he was waiting for?

I was.

Would I be so kind as to tell him when that bus arrived?

I would.

He had a very soft voice, and unfortunately in the range that I find most difficult to hear. I tried to disregard the noise from a constant stream of traffic, and watched his lips. He told me that he was ninety… something. And now, strangely, that is nearly almost all I can remember of our conversation. I realised he was an educated man. We seemed to be talking about philosophy, and the meaning of life… and all that. I remember struggling to answer him in a way that would make it appear that I had heard… clearly. I wanted to hear. I could tell that what he was saying was really interesting. It came to me that we were kindred spirits of some kind, and that he was meant to be here today, sitting on this bench, and that he had an important message for me.

Finally our bus arrived. He sat next to me and carried on talking, softly. At one point I realised he was reciting Desiderata to me in that soft, kind voice. He knew it, and other poems, by heart. He said when he understood his sight was failing he had begun to memorise poems that were important to him. He said he worked to keep his memory sharp by reciting as many as possible of these poems daily. We discussed the origin of Desiderata, agreeing that it had not been found been nailed to the door of Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692 as was claimed in the 1970s, but that this didn’t matter in the least.

And then, whether by reason of my own physical weariness and anxiety to be home (it had been a long and stressful day) or because the bus was negotiating a series of hills and narrow, twisty roads, causing an increase in background noise, I could not hear him at all. Out of politeness, desperately, I continued to watch his old lips, still reciting and philosophising, still asking questions which I could not hear to answer, and could not lip read either.

As we reached his stop, he suddenly became audible again.  “Well,” he said, “here my journey ends. And yours continues.”

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.

I have been vaguely considering the idea of a ‘feature’ day – like Wordless Wednesday when people just post a photo of something or other. So it occurred to me to trial a Totally Random Thursday.

It’s either that or another of Mum’s Old Recipes.

I was feeding the five thousand (cats) just now – impossible to settle down write anything until their insistent twice-daily needs have been met – and it occurred to me how many black or black and white cats I am now surrounded by. It occurs to me that I will soon have reached the scary stage – particularly scary for someone whose mother has dementia – of not being able to recall which name goes with which cat. And then if one of them needs to go to the vet? Will it need to be – ‘Hello, this is Rosie, or possibly Shadow, or then again Arthur, although of course it might be Hector… And he or she needs his or her claws clipping’.

I have a two page Cat List taped to the fridge, neatly typed with each cat’s name, origin/source, probable age, physical description and microchip number if applicable. Not a former legal secretary for nothing. The ostensible purpose of this list is – if I am some day spotted through the window collapsed on the carpet, dead and half-eaten by mice and the RSPCA break in to rescue my horde of cats, they may stand an outside chance of identifying and re-homing some of them.

I constantly rehearse their names and descriptions in my head, making a kind of game of it. At the moment, if it’s quite frail and bony and doesn’t weigh very much it’s Rosie; if it’s got a tiny brown patch under its chin, a tiny white bit on one paw, snapped-off looking front teeth and weighs a ton it’s Little Arf; if it’s plump and soft and barges its way to the food first and in no nonsense fashion it’s Winnie; if it’s tiny and affectionate, with a long face like the Sphynx and slightly scary teeth like a bat or mini-Dracula when she yawns it’s Shadow. And if it has long legs, a pointy nose and hates me it’s probably Pandy from the cat sanctuary.

It occurs to me to wonder why I frighten some people, including most children. Looking at myself in the mirror I look just normal – a bit lumpy, like any oldish person. Harmless. But babies scream at the sight of me in supermarkets. Probably a good thing I wasn’t able to have any, thereby dooming some innocent infant to a life of perpetual apprehension.

Bertie-on-the-bus seems afraid of me too, though that doesn’t stop him talking to me (relentlessly). I’d be quite happy to follow the British on-the-train formula of staring out of the window for as long as possibly, until your neck actually begins to hurt from the effort of not meeting anyone else’s eyes, even accidentally, and appearing very interested in cows, fields and suchlike, but this rule does not apply to rural buses. You have to talk.

Bertie and I have a kind of communication disjunction. I know people like me tend to have this anyway, but Bertie is an especially tricky one. First, he tells you something, but not very much. He is going to his meeting at the Council, he confides. He has mentioned this meeting at the Council several times before and I have not followed it up. I wonder now if he is hoping I’ll ask him about it.

‘Do you work at the Council then, Bertie?’ I venture.

He looks sideways at me, suspiciously. I may be a secret agent.

‘No’, he says, after a very long pause.

‘Did you get to your dentist appointment the other day?’ he asks after a while.

‘Oh well, it was the hygienist actually. She was new – Swedish or something – and just brutal. It was so painful. And since April they’ve put their prices up…’

Now he is staring out of the window, examining the cows.

‘So you did get to the dentist.’

We spot one of his friends at an upcoming bus stop. Bertie has friends all round the route. He knows all their names and their routines, and what days to expect them. He does not know my name, however, and refers to me to other passengers as ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I thought of telling him my name – what harm could come of it? – but decided not to in case he mistakenly concluded I was Making Advances. Bertie, I think, is terrified of women for just that reason: they might Make Advances.

The upcoming friend is the big man with the metal crutches – giant tripping hazards that seem to take up the whole bus – and the endless collection of eccentric tee shirts.

‘He doesn’t really need to put his hand out for the bus,’ I murmur. ‘You could hardly miss him.’ Today he is wearing an acid yellow shirt with broad, grass green horizontal stripes. He looks like the Wasp from Outer Space.

‘No, he does like his tee shirts,’ says Bertie. And then, surprisingly: ‘I knitted a jumper that colour once.’

‘Do you knit, Bertie?’ For once my interest is genuinely piqued. I want to tell him that I knit too and what a relaxing hobby it is, especially on long winter evenings…

He gives me that secret agent look again.

‘I knitted it with my mother.’ Of course he did. I want to ask him more, scenting an actual story here, and one which I will enjoy, but he has turned his attention to the friend with the monster crutches in the yellow and green.

‘I was just telling her…’

I sit in a living room with my elderly Visitee and she goes through her diary with me, reading out her appointments for several weeks to come, with the cleaner, the man who comes to clean out her pond, various specialists etc. I remember these same appointments from last week. My coffee is going cold but I continue to nod and smile in the right places. She tells me again about all the different shops there used to be in Town and we compare our systems for filing household documents. I eat a chocolate biscuit, quickly as it melts in my hand. This one is quite soft. Usually she keeps them in the fridge. In the background, the carriage clock ticks. I quite like this kind of conversation. It reminds me of Mum.

On the bus going back the only empty seat is next to Woman With No Teeth. Now this is a real problem, because I am slightly deaf. Normally it isn’t a problem and I am not conscious of the extent to which I am I am actually lip-reading. But Woman With No Teeth – she just doesn’t make the right mouth-shapes, or rather she makes a whole series of puckery, wrinkly mouth-shapes but these refuse to tie up with any known word. I wonder if it is just the teeth or whether she also has a cleft palate. Either way, I can’t understand her. Today it sounded a bit like this:

‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.’

I try a smile and a sage nod, surmising that as we have just passed two horses being ridden along the side of a narrow road she may be talking about some traffic incident involving horses.

‘Horses are so strong,’ I venture. ‘You have to drive past them really slowly.’

She gives me the secret agent look and begins again:

‘Orem ipsum dolor sit amet. Caravan. Rain.’

Ah, only another twenty minutes.

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.


Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.


I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

Time to stand and stare

Dad used to like quoting poetry. Not whole poems, just snippets, mostly of army doggerel or surreal little verses recalled from the music hall. But he did know one of two better quality pieces, one of which was William Henry Davies’ Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

I believe he learned it from his own father. It meant something special to him at any rate, and he repeated if often.

When he got old he got depressed. It was lonely for him living with Mum in those latter years; she’d never exactly been a listener and now wouldn’t wear her hearing aids so he couldn’t have a proper conversation with her. He didn’t really want to go anywhere or do anything. If you did take him somewhere – and you had to take him everywhere – he wanted to sit down rather than walk about, so Mum used to “park” him for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. She seemed to be terrified all the while she was away from him that somehow he wouldn’t still be there when she got back.

For twenty frenetic minutes she would zoom about the shopping centre hunting down the items on her shopping list fretting about having left Dad unattended, while Dad sat on a bench and watched ladies rushing by in strange outfits, the toddlers attached to the women, young men in bellowing groups, the multi-coloured shopping bags, the wheels of push-chairs and shopping-trolleys, the walking-sticks and the worn-down shoes. Mum left the newspaper with him but didn’t read it. After a while we realised he couldn’t read it, and hadn’t been able to for some time.

Sometimes we went to Leeds Castle. Mum always wanted to go inside just to check that nothing had changed – no new oak staircase, moved portrait or missing suit of armour – but Dad didn’t; once was enough for him so he sat on the wall outside, not-reading but quietly watching.

Is there  a gene for ‘standing and staring’, I wonder? Why do some people seem to feel the need to contemplate at length while others cannot bear to? If there is such a gene, two of us inherited it and the other one, like Mum, did not. On the whole, the one who did not is more successful. Standing and staring doesn’t tend to get you anywhere in life, it just makes life vaguely tolerable for those who, at intervals, find it intolerable.

I have no time to stand and stare at the moment, which doesn’t mean I don’t need to. I yearn for summer lunch hours in the Memorial Gardens many moons ago, eating my sandwiches, watching the teenagers escaped from the Technical College, prim office types with their plastic lunchboxes; the tramps, those experts in being invisible.

I remember the too-hot sunshine and the too-cool shadow, but not wanting to move. I remember the sparrows, hoping for crumbs. Sometimes the sparrows got most of my lunch, to tell the truth. How many poems got started – or finished – on one or other of those park benches? How I lingered on there, into September, October, while the leaves began to clatter and swirl around me, not wanting to give up my thinking-place. How I searched for other places to tide me over the icy months of winter – the corner table in the reference library; a straight-backed pew in an almost empty church.

Never underestimate the power of standing and staring. Never let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to, or that there are so many other things you might be doing. Think of the squirrel, the blackbird, the tramp and the falling leaf. They need their witnesses.

Autumn: Michaelmas Daisies and Fallen Leaves

As they drew up to the crematorium they passed the men with the yellow digger, scooping up yesterday’s flowers. It was a familiar sight to Godfrey Snaith. As Vicar of Birchmarsh his attendance had been required here more and more frequently as time went by. Birchmartians, as he tended privately to think of them, preferred to be cremated nowadays, and that was that. They liked this fake, white-walled Texas-cattle-ranch–cum-Grecian temple better than the ancient gloom of St Swithin And All Angels, and untidy graveyard behind and to the side of it. There were burial plots enough for several more generations of  but it seemed these would never be filled.

He had always loved the graveyard with its drunken, weather-smoothed memorial stones, its tufty, unmanageable grass, the monster compost heap against the wall and the surly gravedigger, Ronald Potts. He liked the sense of peace there, the way butterflies crash-landed on the headstones and slow-worms lived under Ronald’s tool-shed next to the church’s flint wall. He liked the way trees overhung the perimeter wall and nobody bothered to cut them back. As now, in Autumn, red and orange leaves fell from these trees, burying the graves nearest the edge, as if to provide an the dead with an extra blanket through winter. On occasion, when he had felt in particular need of a quiet commune with The Boss, he had even gone into the graveyard at night. Leaning unafraid against one side of the mossy family tomb of a sixteenth century local bigwig and his family – Sir Horace Kingsford, Bart, His Lady Wyfe Margaretta Mary and their Vssue Horace Matthew, Chas. Montagve, and Jennet Elyza – and relishing a discreet pipe of St Bruno Flake, Godfrey had loved the way church mice stole out from wherever they secreted themselves during the day – in all those tapestry hassocks, maybe, or behind the wainscoting in the vestry, scurrying about in the search for food. Until he moved here from Bermondsey – could it really have been twenty-nine years ago? – he had taken it for granted that there was a distinct breed of mouse called a church mouse, just as there were field mice and dormice. But it seemed that a church mouse was just any mouse that decided to make its home in a church, braving loneliness and poor pickings. As he leaned, and smoked, and talked to The Boss, the fox would come sniffing round the graves, and owls would glide over.

  • …nearer God’s heart in a garden
  • Than anywhere else on earth…

He murmured to himself.

What was that?

Nothing. Talking to myself. Old man’s habit.

At this point, New Lady Vicar was supposed to say something along the lines of, Oh Godfrey, you’re hardly an old man. Plenty of life in the old dog yet, but she didn’t. His replacement was not much of an empathiser, he suspected; worse, she had no sense of humour. Why had she chosen this particular career, he wondered, when she might have been a lawyer, a doctor or the CEO of some multinational company. Women could do anything nowadays. Inability to see the funny side of life was going to be a problem if she intended to stay in Birchmarsh for any length of time. But perhaps she was ambitious and wouldn’t stay. Might have her eyes on the Archbishopric, for all he knew. Everything seemed to have changed in Birchmarsh – it began so slowly he hardly noticed it, but of recent years everything seemed to be accelerating. Peter was the last of the old ones. He had lived into his ninety-eighth year, unexpectedly outliving Rose, his wife, by a whole ten years. “I shall be glad to go,” he had told Godfrey recently. Glad to go. Godfrey felt the same – except that in his case ‘going’ only involved a return to Bermondsey.

He was unfamiliar with Lady Vicars and had only met this one the day before yesterday when she arrived with a big removal van, to take over the Vicarage. He was being put up in a hotel for the next few days – the ‘debrief and handover period’ as the Archbishop was pleased to call it. Then he would be off, returning to his city roots. He was going to live with his sister, Doris, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. She needed him and he needed a home so it made sense. He had decided to write detective stories. And furthermore, though it sounded conceited, he knew he would be good at it. How could he not be, when he had spent a lifetime devouring them? Detective stories and St Bruno Flake: his twin guilty pleasures.

It was a plan that still surprised him. It also made him happy. Godfrey had never really stopped thinking of London as home. He pictured himself back there, comfortably installed in the downstairs front bedroom of his sister’s terraced house, with his shelves of books (he would put them up himself), his new yellow portable typewriter and his wicker waste-paper basket full to the brim of screwed up pages (in illustrations, writers always seemed to be surrounded by screwed up pages). His beloved sister would be pottering round, able to call him if she needed him. He imagined himself sat in the bay window – he would need to get a second-hand desk – looking straight out onto the street, watching people going backwards and forwards about their daily lives, and perhaps taking inspiration from them.

A few streets away there was a little park, not one of those enclosed ones for rich residents, but an open square place, with horse chestnut trees, and benches built round the trunks. I shall go for a stroll every day, he thought. I shall take my pipe, and my notebook. Maybe in the summer I will even write a paragraph or two out there. Maybe Doris would like to come with me.

But there was this cremation to get through first. He wished it did not have to be the cremation of his old friend and parishioner Peter Browning, and he wished it could be him taking the service rather than the New Lady Vicar he was now ‘mentoring’. She didn’t seem all that interested being mentored. Knew it all. You’ve prepared some notes on the life of the deceased? Just let me have the paperwork if you will, and I’ll peruse it this evening.

Peruse. It was the wrong word. Solicitors perused, Doctors, politicians and company chairmen probably perused. Vicars – surely there should be another term – studied, absorbed, meditated upon. Perused was so cold; nothing to do with flesh and blood people. And this was Peter’s funeral. It was for his sake and for that his deaf grand-daughter Sophie, who would be at the service. Godfrey had so wanted the thing to be done right. He had hoped to take care of this one last thing himself.

New Lady Vicar parked the mini neatly in the car park and leant across to open the passenger-side door for him. Does she think I’m senile? Godfrey wondered. Can’t remember how to work the door-handle? He caught a glimpse of the woman’s face in the rear-view mirror. It was pale and irritable-looking.


Sophie folded Maria’s push-chair and left it in a corner of the ante-room reserved for close family. It should be safe enough. She would walk in with her daughter in her arms. Granda would have liked that. He had never been a fan of what he called “contraptions”, preferring simplicity, and the old ways. Her husband hadn’t been able to make it, today. He was being interviewed for the headship of an inner-city school and the two dates had clashed. He did so want that job. She would be keeping her fingers crossed for him, but for the next few hours must concentrate all her energies on saying goodbye to Granda. She wished it could have been in the parish church, but her parents had favoured on cremation. She also wished it could have been Reverend Snaith taking the service. He looked lost, perched at the end of the front view. The new lady was already standing up at the lectern, flapping a sheaf of notes about and fidgeting. Panicking – Sophie could see it instantly – but pretending not to be; putting on a front. Deaf from birth, Sophie compensated with other senses. Unable to hear the things people said, she sensed the things they didn’t.

The first hymn went without a hitch. Sophie didn’t sing, of course, and she could not feel the music through the floor as well as she might have done in church. She knew what they were singing, of course, since it was she who had had planned the service. It was The Old Rugged Cross: an old- fashioned hymn, ill-suited to the surroundings, but suited to Granda. Granda had been a carpenter and, in his spare time, a whittler and carver of wood. He would have understood the cross, would have related to it, possibly more than to the man crucified upon it.


New Lady Vicar launched into the body of her sermon, and that was when things started to go badly wrong.

We meet here today to honour and pay tribute to the life of our brother Paul, and to express our love and admiration for him. Also to try to bring some comfort to those of Paul’s family and friends who are here and have been deeply hurt by his death.

Oh God, how am I going to stop her? thought Godfrey Snaith. She’s got the wrong name.

Paul was not a particularly religious person, so it’s befitting that his funeral ceremony should reflect what he was, a gentle, kind, loving person; devoted to his wife and family…

I can even see how she did it, he thought. She forgot the name – for all her blasted ‘perusing’ she must have forgotten poor Peter’s name. Instead of stopping and asking, which would have been the sensible thing, knowing it began with a ‘P’ she through the Apostles – ah, Paul. It must be Paul. Let’s go with Paul.

Paul wasn’t a particularly religious person but it was thought that his funeral service should include some form of religious content and prayers.

I’ve got to stop her – but how? Godfrey Snaith stayed rooted to his seat. He was not a brave man. He was not a man designed for emergencies.

Sophie passed her sleeping daughter to the woman next to her and stood up, her eyes fixed on New Lady Vicar. She was signing something, repeatedly.

New Lady Vicar saw and was confused, but unfortunately not enough to stop talking.

It’s only natural that we should be sad today, because in a practical sense, our brother Paul is no longer a part of our lives…

Sophie signed the sign again, and again. New Lady Vicar fell silent, looking backwards and forwards in disbelief from the young woman who had until recently been Sophie Browning, to the old man who had until recently been The Reverend Godfrey Snaith. Godfrey Snaith came to his senses.

Peter, he said in a low voice. She’s signing Peter.

New Lady Vicar simply looked confused. She was as frozen to the lectern as Godfrey had been to his seat.

Godfrey took a deep breath and stood up.

Might I say a few words, my dear? You see, Peter Browning was a good friend of mine.

Lady Vicar sat down, cross, embarrassed, still confused but relieved to be out of the limelight.

Godfrey turned to the congregation with a smile.

A good friend of many years’ standing – he, his late wife Rose and his Granddaughter Sophie – all friends. You might say the four of us have grown up and grown old together. Peter was a difficult chap, in some ways – grumpy, not what you might call the life and soul of the party. Not much of a churchgoer, either. He might turn up at Christmas, under duress, and very occasionally at Easter; Rose never did him to a Harvest Festival, though it was her favourite service. But if you should decide to pay a visit to our beautiful parish church, St Swithin and All Angels – where, by the way, funeral services can also be conducted – you will notice a carved altar rail – Peter did that. He bought the wood, he designed and carved the rail and he gave it to the church. It took him six months to complete. And the lattice screen – the one with the birds and flowers? Peter Browning made that too…

Oak, Apple, Walnut

‘OH, VICAR, I’m so pleased to see you.’ The Reverend Snaith was taken aback by the fervent relief in Rose Browning’s voice. His parishioners tended to react to his unscheduled pastoral visits with a mixture of anxiety and suppressed irritation. Rose was actually dragging him in through the front door by the sleeve of his black winter coat, down the narrow hallway and into the living room where, beside a roaring fire, an elderly man was slumped in an armchair. His leg, propped on a stool with a cushion underneath, was encased from hip to foot in plaster. He was staring into space.

‘How are we today?’ the Vicar asked. The man continued to stare, showing no sign of replying, or even of having heard.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Vicar, I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Rose, and a few minutes later he was sitting on a hard kitchen chair beside a Formica-topped table with a mug of hot, weak tea in his hand.

Peter was an uncommunicative man at the best of times. He had never actually been to church but had volunteered (through Rose, of course) to make that beautiful new altar rail when it was needed. He had worked all his life as a carpenter – or was it joiner? The Reverend Snaith was a bit woolly on distinctions between trades. Joiner, maybe. He remembered Rose telling him once that during the last war, when Peter had been too old to fight, he’d worked in a factory making crates for aircraft parts.

‘I think we need marriage guidance,’ Rose whispered. Reverend Snaith’s heart sank. He himself had never been married, whereas Peter and Rose had been together nigh on fifty years. ‘He’s like a bear with a sore head since he broke his leg. Well, you saw the expression on his face.’ Reverend Snaith tried in vain to recall the expression – any expression – that Peter might have been wearing, but could recall none.

‘Maybe your husband’s still in some sort of pain,’ he whispered. He didn’t like this whispering game but there didn’t seem much choice as Peter was only a few yards away behind a thin partition wall.

‘It’s not that, it’s because he’s indoors!’ A tiny piece of information, and the situation suddenly became clear to Reverend Snaith. The couple had remained successful, if not exactly joyfully married for all these years, because they each had their own territory. On every one of his previous pastorals, he remembered now, Rose had been in the house and Peter had been either ‘down the garden’ or ‘out in the Lodge’. The Lodge in this case was the breeze-block equivalent of a big shed. Peter had built it himself, had even made the blocks. He had everything out there, saws of various sizes, and nails in old tobacco tins labelled in biro on sticking plaster, stacks of wood, a lathe and a lethal-looking home-made circular saw. He remembered watching Peter at work once, while he was making the altar rail. Those hands! Like tree-bark, they were, covered in half-healed cuts. Long, sensitive fingers, the nails black and broken and scabbed with glue.

He did his best to reassure Rose. More to be seen doing something than anything else, he fished around in his briefcase for one of those little booklets Relate were so keen to foist on him, though he doubted it would be of any use in this situation.

‘Goodbye for now, Mr Browning. Chin up, and all that!’

‘Do us a favour, Vicar, said Peter Browning with a heavy sigh and still without bothering to turn his head. ‘If you’re going out the back way, would you check the Lodge door is bolted? I’m likely to be stuck in this chair for a long time. Don’t want burglars getting in there.’

‘And that’s the most he’s said all day,’ said Rose Browning at the back door. ‘I don’t know what to do for him, honest I don’t. He’s got the TV and his newspaper, and every issue of Carpenter and Joiner for the past ten years – he’s never thrown a one of them out, keeps them in a drawer beside his chair. He could be doing the crossword or something. He’s a stubborn old man. I don’t know what he wants, and he just won’t say.’

The door to the Lodge was ajar. Worse, Reverend Snaith caught a glimpse of light from a naked light bulb through the dust-smeared window-glass. ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ breathed Reverend Snaith, ‘please don’t let me get hit over the head.’ Always, in Midsomer Murders, pushing a half-open door resulted in being felled by a blunt instrument and waking up in hospital with a headache, swathed in white bandages, surrounded by policemen.

But it was only a girl in a brown coat; a shortish, mousy sort of girl. She had her back to him and seemed engrossed in examining oddments of wood and sorting them into a wicker creel. He knocked, she did not turn. Then he remembered – the granddaughter, Sophie – profoundly deaf. She’d be about eighteen now; used to come to church with Rose, when she was a little tot. Not singing, of course, but smiling occasionally, as if she was listening to her own music, inside her head.

She turned. Taken by surprise she signed ‘Hello’ before reverting to speech for his benefit. ‘Zo-fi,’ she said, carefully. ‘Come visi’ Gran-da.’ She gestured to the basked of wood offcuts she had been collecting.

The Vicar knew even less about wood than about marriage guidance, but Sophie did. It felt as if she had spent most of her childhood in the Lodge, watching Granda working. He had never been much good at signing but he would show her a piece of wood, let her examine it, even taught her to sniff and memorise the perfume of it, and then write the name in sawdust for her. And she had signed each word back to him. Oak, apple, walnut. She picked up a packet of fine sandpaper and added it to the top of the basket, along with a mysterious brown package.

The Reverend Snaith was a curious man, and he dearly wanted to know what was in the package. Sensing this, the girl unwrapped it and showed it to him. It contained two things. The first was a roll of some canvas-like material. As she unrolled it he saw that it was full of tiny hand-carving tools; miniature chisels, knives and gouges, each in its individual pocket. He was fascinated. They even went up in size, from the smallest to the largest.

The other thing was a book. She opened it and flicked through the pages so that he could see. It was full of colour photographs, instructions and diagrams. A little wooden dog caught his eye – very simple, just an arc of wood, with a cube for a head and two pyramids for ears. Later on in the book things got more complicated. There was a bird sitting on a bough, a lion, even a chain carved out of a single piece of wood. He gazed at it for some time, trying to work out how it had been achieved.

Sophie grinned and picked up the basket. ‘Do’ worry ’bout lock,’ she said, pulling a spare key out of her pocket and showing it to him.

That evening the Reverend Snaith sat down in his study with a mug of cocoa and began to rough out his sermon for the following Sunday. His visit to the Brownings had given him the gist of an idea. ‘Some people pray,’ he scribbled, ‘some people write hymns, some people sing and others make things out of wood. We all worship in our own particular way.’ And, he thought, taking a sip of his cocoa, we all listen in our own particular way. Most of us listen to the things people say, but a few of us – like Sophie – listen to the things they don’t say.