A Fine and Private Place

It’s February and I’m still helping out at the Community Centre, only now I’m being paid. Not a lot, but enough to keep body and soul together until the daffodils bloom and people lucky enough to have gardens begin to think about having them tidied. Did I tell you I’m a jobbing gardener? No? Well, now you know, so talk me up, please. Word of mouth is everything.

Erica, the centre’s manager, put me on the payroll because she thinks I recruited several members for her Over Fifties Club. To be honest, all I did was give some thank-you sweets to a woman with a scraggy bun of hair and a strong will, and she bullied her neighbours into joining. You won’t tell Erica, will you? Scraggy Bun’s real name is Barbara, but everyone calls her Bub. Although she’s almost sixty, Bub’s dream is to go skydiving, flying through the air strapped to a nice young man. She’s had to shelve the idea, because it costs an arm and a leg, but she’s ever hopeful.

Last Monday, there was a walking football tournament down at the Leisure Centre. Our sportier over-fifties put a team together and Erica went along as their manager. While she was out of the way, Myrtle, who looks like a saint but has the soul of a pirate, broke into the Bingo cupboard and set up a cheeky session with high-roller £2 stakes. Not wanting to get involved in her blatant violation of club rules, I decided to weed the raised beds on the patio. Bub followed me outside because she’s sniffed out the secret stash of biscuits I keep in the tool-shed.

Once I’d shown Bub which end of the trowel to hold, we made a good team. She doesn’t know a primula from a boiled egg, but she’s strong, so I told her to dig while I salvaged the winter pansies she sent flying. An hour later, the beds were neat, if rather naked. Myrtle brought us out mugs of tea and I liberated some pink wafers from the shed. Bub and I sat together on a wooden bench Erica had begged from somewhere, enjoying our snack and congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

‘Them raised beds look real nice,’ said Bub. ‘Just like the best graves at the cemetery.’

It wasn’t quite the effect I’d been hoping for, so my tone was snappy when I asked her when she’d last visited the cemetery.

‘I went with Clive yesterday. We had birthday lunch in the tea-shop there.’

Bub lives in sin with Clive, a gentle widower who favours grey polyester slacks and beige anoraks. He’s recently retired after forty years in the same job and now spends most of his time fishing. He seems to enjoy Bub’s flamboyance, and she doesn’t mind him being boring. Nevertheless, lunch at the cemetery is not my idea of a birthday treat and I said so.

‘It wasn’t my birthday. It was Linda’s,’ said Bub. ‘Clive’s late wife. She would have been seventy last week, if she hadn’t dropped dead five years ago, in the middle of cleaning her front room windows. That’s why I don’t clean mine as often as I should. Well, that and laziness.’

Feeling guilty, I said, ‘I’m sorry. They must have been very close.’

‘Linda led Clive a dog’s life,’ said Bub, flicking biscuit crumbs to a patient robin. ‘But he’s always been one for the cemetery, if you know what I mean.’

I did know what she meant. Our burial ground is two centuries old and covers many acres. Most of the locals have relatives buried there, some going back several generations. On Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter and Christmas, traffic jams form around the gates. Families queue up to decorate graves, and warring siblings gather with their sulky offspring to celebrate the anniversaries of relatives they disliked when they were alive.

‘Linda’s buried in Clive’s family grave,’ Bub went on, ‘along with his parents and heaven only knows who else. Yesterday he took them fresh flowers, then we went to get something to eat. I was halfway through a sausage sandwich when Clive asked me to marry him.’

‘That’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘Congratulations. When’s the big day?’

Bub swallowed the dregs of her tea. ‘I told him I’d think about it.’

‘You’re crazy! He’s a catch.’ In spite of Clive’s terrible dress sense, I meant it. There isn’t exactly a surplus of house-trained men volunteering for matrimony in any age group, let alone Bub’s.

‘Yes,’ said Bub. ‘But the trouble is, Clive wants me to be buried with him and Linda when my time comes. They didn’t have kids, so he’s hoping my two will keep the grave tidy.’

‘Sounds like a plan,’ I said. ‘Why should you worry about what happens after you’ve gone?’

‘Because of the Final Judgement.’

I nearly choked on a biscuit. ‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘Haven’t you heard all them stories about the dead coming back to life on Resurrection Day? If it’s true, what’ll happen between Clive and Linda and me?’

A vision of Judgement Day at our local cemetery popped into my head. I imagined resurrected families bickering over who had helped themselves to the good china after aunty’s wake, or whether a legacy left to a cat when its adoring owner passed away had been spent on prawns as instructed, or why the cable that electrocuted Granddad wasn’t earthed. In the midst of all this, if my Sunday School teacher was right, angels would be trying to organise people into two groups, ‘goats’ and ‘sheep.’ One group will be headed for the Bad Place, I’m not sure which, but I’m guessing it’s the goats. I can’t imagine that going well, not even with Gabriel himself in charge.

I said, ‘If there really is a Judgement Day,’ but Bub was well into one of her monologues.

‘If Clive goes first, there’s no problem. I lay him down with Linda and his Mum and Dad and everyone’s happy. Once he’s gone I can leave my body to science or have my ashes launched into space or whatever. But I fall off my perch before he does, I’ll have to start without him, and I don’t fancy mingling my body parts with Linda’s. On the other hand, if he goes first and she wakes up when the last trumpet blows to find him and me on top of her, she’ll have a thing or two to say about it, and Linda had a wicked tongue in her head. I mean, Clive and I love each other, but he was hers first. Will I be married, or not?’

With all this laying down and mingling body parts and wicked tongues, Bub was making Clive’s burial plans sound like a sordid zombie threesome. For once I was relieved to see Erica when she erupted onto the patio, followed by a triumphant walking football team. Among them was Clive, looking very pleased with himself in spite of a pair of dangerously baggy shorts.

‘We won the tournament!’ Erica shouted. She made it sound as if her team was on their way to Wembley, and to judge by the smiles on the faces of the men and women around her, they might as well have been. She scampered away to make a celebratory cuppa, and we heard angry voices as she caught Myrtle trying to cram the Bingo gear back into the cupboard. It certainly sounded like Judgement Day for Myrtle.

Clive sat down beside Bub, hugged her and said, ‘Are you proud of me, love? I scored the winner.’

‘You always score with me, babe,’ said Bub. ‘Go and get changed out of them shorts for heaven’s sake, before the wind carries you off.’ After Clive and his team had high-fived themselves indoors, she turned to me and said, ‘What was you saying about Judgement Day? What do you think?’

‘If it happens,’ I said, ‘I think you’ll have worse things to worry about than your relationship status.’

Pastures New is the third story in our serial ‘Up the Community Centre’ written by Loarn. You can read the first instalment here and the second here.

Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2.

Twitter: @PatersonLoarn