NWR Issue 106

The Return of Spring

Winner of the seventh Allen Raine Short Story Competition (English category), 2014

The hearse threads its way between the gravestones. I’m perched on the plush leather seat of the following Bentley feeling out of place. We’re late. I told the undertaker that the junction on Bury New Road would be a bugbear.

‘Miss Bush, just leave everything to us,’ Mr Sedgewick had simpered; hands folded as if in silent prayer. ‘We know what we’re doing.’

He may well know what he’s doing when it comes to formaldehyde and the right type of handles for burials, but he certainly isn’t au fait with the workings of the number forty-seven bus route. Mother would have been incandescent.

By the wrought iron gates, beneath high walls and horse chestnuts, tall sandstone tablets and lopsided tombs have been worn smooth by Manchester rain. Then pink granite and plastic flowers compete with weather-beaten angels with bowed heads and prayer books. Still further into this haphazard maze of masonic tributes, polished hearts of black marble bear the legend ‘Gone to sleep.’ In gold lettering. I know exactly what Mother would have said about them.

‘They’re common, Rosemary. Just like crocheted toilet roll covers and Pyrex crockery.’

An elderly gentleman tends a grave by the path. He stands as the hearse approaches, and removes his cap. She would have liked that.

There are only half a dozen people at the graveside. Somehow Pauline, my older (and expensively well-preserved) sister, has managed to find the time to grace us with her presence. She’s dressed in stylish black from head to stiletto-clad foot and is clutching a white lace-trimmed hankie. Mother would have approved; she always approved of Pauline. I’m wearing my good wool coat from Marks. It’s not black exactly, more of a dark charcoal grey, but it will do. Mother would have thought it frivolous to buy a new one. She wasn’t a great one for frivolity.

The sun shines shyly through just-leafless branches, and there are daffodils beginning to peep yellow through fresh green stems. Why does it feel so wrong to bury someone in the spring? I watch a robin tugging at a worm in the newly turned earth and it seems comforting in a sad little way.

It’s obvious the new vicar doesn’t know anything about her. I say new, he’s been here fourteen years now, but he still doesn’t carry the same sort of clout as Reverend Hislop. He was a gentleman; this one’s far too happy-clappy for my liking. Mother refused to attend after the incident with the New English Bible and the kneelers. I suppose it’s good of him to take the service at all in the circumstances. He hands me a little pile of sandy soil. It smells of windfall apples and moorland bracken and I’m back on Kinder Scout, riding Freddie, the little bay cob whose mane would never stay flat. I watch the earth as it blots out the brass nameplate ‘Ethel Lavinia Bush 1915–2010’. She was always more Ethel than Lavinia. Would she have been different if her names had been reversed?

Pauline weeps loudly as she lets her handful drop; then she rubs her soft leather gloves. I turn to ask Mother’s opinion of the lilies, and in that second it finally registers that she’s gone, for ever and ever. Amen.

The vicar closes his bible and turns to shake my hand. Pauline barges through as quickly as her funeral shoes will allow, and thanks him obsequiously for his kind words. So that’s it. It’s over. The wake is at The Royal Oak just across the road. I haven’t organised any special catering, I wasn’t sure how many people would be able to stay; but I’m told they do a very passable bar snack in The Royal Oak.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve found the will yet?’ Pauline looks at me reproachfully from under wispy black net.

‘I’ll have a good look when I get back from holiday.’

‘You’re still going then?’

‘Well, yes. Why wouldn’t I?’

‘I would have thought you’d want to stay and make sure everything’s been finalised.’

‘You don’t get much more final than a funeral, Pauline.’

‘You know what I mean.’

I know exactly what she means. She wants her share of Mother’s little house with its stair lift and pull-chord alarms. It’s my own fault. I should have got a toehold on the property ladder years ago. I did look at a little terraced house in Prestwich once, after an argument about tinned salmon, but it never came to anything. Besides, father’s last words to me were ‘look after your mother, Rosemary. She’ll need looking after.’ I sometimes wish he’d said them to Pauline, but I don’t suppose it would have made any difference.

Howard looks at the toes of his highly polished shoes during our little exchange. He doesn’t interfere; he’s been married to Pauline for nearly thirty years. He’s very successful, Howard; he has his own company. It was left to him by his father, but to be fair he has managed to keep it afloat despite recent plummeting demand for chunky knitwear. They live in a mock Tudor mansion in Lytham St Anne’s. It’s a bit Lancashire Flash for me, all vertical blinds and floral fanlights, but Mother approved. She always liked Lytham; she said it was a better class of seaside resort, despite the untimely demise of the floral clock.

‘We’d better make tracks, Howard. You know how the traffic gets on the East Lancs at rush hour.’

Howard hugs me and tells me to keep my chin up, or something along those lines. Pauline asks if I’d like her to search the house to save me a job when I get back. I tell her not to worry; I know how busy she is. She flounces off down the cracked tarmac, with Howard in her wake, as he rushes to open the passenger door of the Mercedes.

Mrs Ballard says she won’t stay if I don’t mind; she’s far too upset to eat in any case, and Mr Hudson offers to take her home in his Morris Traveller.

So, it’s me and Mr and Mrs Butterworth celebrating the life of ‘our sister here departed’ with two small scampis and a Lancashire hotpot.

* * *
[PAGE 2]

The holiday cottage is just like it looks in the brochure, and Eva at the farm is very jolly. It’s her brother’s farm; she helps him with the holiday lets. She says Morgan’s a lovely man, but he’s not very good around people since his wife’s accident. I don’t ask. She says I’m welcome to walk through the field next door, and onto the footpath, if I don’t mind the pony. I tell her I’m fond of ponies. I don’t tell her it’s been thirty five years since I even patted one, if you don’t count that poor donkey on the front at Blackpool.

It’s so quiet; even with the ewes calling to their lambs and the blackbirds singing again. I had quite forgotten the overpowering, overwhelming peacefulness of high, curlew countryside. These days I’m more used to National Trust car parks with level access and adjacent tea rooms.

Eva’s given me directions through the fields to the village and I’m trying out my new walking shoes and anorak. They don’t call them anoraks any more: apparently that went out with kipper ties and cheesecloth, but it’s a nice change, and I’ve gone a bit daring on the colour.
The pony’s a beautiful black cob. He likes an audience; he gives a little buck and a squeal for effect, then he follows me across the field. He has that lovely horsey smell which used to upset Mother so much when it transferred to soft furnishings. He’s watching carefully as I reacquaint myself with the art of stile-negotiation. It’s a relief that nobody else can see me. I don’t like to think how long it is since I did this, and all things considered, it’s probably best not to.

The village consists of a pub and three stone houses snuggled round the squat, square church. I push open the gate to the neat little churchyard. Over the fence, a herd of black cattle cuds in the spring sunshine; finally freed from the shed. I tell them I know how they feel, though where that thought came from I wouldn’t like to hazard.

It’s chilly now I’ve stopped walking. I put my hands in the pockets of my new jacket and feel the stiff vellum envelope containing Mother’s will.

‘You’re procrastinating, Rosemary,’ I can hear her say. ‘Procrastination is the thief of time.’ I’ll read it tonight; after tea maybe.

I’m making for a little sit down on a handy wooden bench, when I see someone bent over one of the gravestones. He looks like a farmer. The collie’s a bit of a giveaway, but I like to think I’d have placed him without the canine clue. He’s short and oblong, in tweed jacket and flat cap, and it’s obvious that he’s not altogether well versed in the art of flower arranging. Fortunately he’s only got daffodils, so it’s impossible for him to make a complete pig’s ear.

I wait until his Land Rover’s clattered off up the road before I go over and have a peruse. Maybe I should have stayed and tidied up Mother’s grave: but she’ll still be there when I get back. There’ll be plenty of time for floral shenanigans next week. The wording on the gravestone is Welsh, but I manage to decipher that Elin Pritchard was just thirty-two when she died, fifteen years ago. And there I was, inventing a recent tragedy for the chap with the daffodils. Mother always says I’ve far too much imagination for my own good.

There’s nobody at the farm when I get back, just the cob standing by the far gate as I heave myself over the stile and plummet into his field. He’s quieter now. Maybe he’s having a little snooze. They can do that while they’re standing up apparently, which would be an absolute boon at WI meetings.

* * *

[PAGE 3]

I’ve just finished my beans on toast and I’m debating the choice between a raspberry trifle and a banana, which probably won’t last until tomorrow, when there’s a commotion in the field next door. It’s the pony. I don’t even stop to put the trifle in the fridge. As soon as I set foot over the threshold it dawns on me what’s ensuing.

He lies down then stands, pawing the ground. His breathing’s shallow, and his coat is sticky with sweat. It’s colic and if I don’t keep him moving he’ll get down and roll and he might never get up. It’s forty-two years since we lost Michaela, Dad’s gentle Irish mare. I was eleven years old but it’s still seared into my mind; the pain, and panic like static crackling round the yard: then the dreadful, slow-motion stillness after the single shot. I stop only to pick up the new jacket, reflecting fleetingly that possibly I’d have done better with a more forgiving colour than dusky pink.

Thank God he’s wearing a head-collar. I can’t see a rope, but there’s a short piece of plaited baler twine dangling under his chin. As I close the heavy gate behind me he turns to look at me, and I have to force myself not to rush: to keep calm. He looks bigger than he did this afternoon, bucking cockily in the spring sunshine. He pulls his head back, so I feign indifference and walk away from him. He starts towards me and as I reach out to pat his sticky neck he doesn’t seem to notice that I’ve caught hold of the makeshift rope.

It’s beginning to get dark. We’ll be safer in the yard. He’ll feel less like rolling on concrete and there’s a tiny patch of yellow light spilling across the yard from the window of the cottage. The gate is difficult to open with one hand, and as I try to drag it across the rutted entrance to the field, he pulls back, cutting my fingers on his plaited rope. His knees begin to buckle and I shriek like a banshee. ‘Good boy,’ I yell, ‘that’s a good lad.’ I’d feel much happier if I knew his name. Bless him, he follows me and we begin our unsteady circuits of the yard. Every so often he pulls back and his knees go. I scream at him and flap my free arm like a lopsided windmill, wishing I could remember the Pony Club Handbook’s advice on colic. No doubt a warm bran mash would be involved at some stage.

It’s completely dark now; blind, silent darkness. No glimmer from distant street lights, no house lights; nothing. The pony’s breathing is still ragged, his unshod hooves thud unsteady rhythms on the concrete. We walk on and on in the thick darkness. I keep talking to him; he knows all about Freddie, Mother and Pauline and my imminent dilemma on the accommodation front. Then, somewhere in the distance there is a flash of headlights and almost immediately we are blinded as a Land Rover turns into the yard. The driver brakes hard, then cuts the engine but leaves the headlights on and he’s running from the truck, already on his mobile phone as he reaches us.

‘Yes… colic, I know what he’s done… Right. See you now in a minute.’

He pats the pony’s neck, and takes the rope from me.

‘Griff, you silly old sod,’ he mumbles to the cob. Then he asks how long we’ve been here.

‘I’m not sure,’ I reply. ‘It was just going dark when…’

‘That’s nearly two hours ago,’ he says, and looks over his shoulder at me as he walks on. ‘Vet’s on his way now.’

It’s my daffodil man from the graveyard.

* * *

[PAGE 4]

The next morning I’m just pegging my anorak on the line when I hear the little gate go. Morgan’s standing by the front door with another bunch of daffodils and a rather nice bottle of wine.

‘Thank you’, he says, and holds out his gifts. He’s looking at a point somewhere just past my left shoulder, which is a bit disconcerting, but I ask him if he’d like to come in for a cup of tea, as I’m just about the put the kettle on. He hesitates and he reminds me of a small boy about to be kissed by his jet-clad grandmother, but he follows me inside anyway.

‘How’s Griff?’ I ask as I fill the kettle.

‘Better this morning. Vet says he’ll be alright.’

‘You said you knew what he’d done?’

‘Sheep nuts. I left them in his field. Forgot to put them in the barn. The greedy b*** he had nearly a bag of sheep nuts. Vet reckons he’d have twisted his gut if he’d been on his own.’

As I turn to put two cups and saucers and a small plate of custard creams on the table I notice that Morgan is staring at the envelope which is propped against the cruet. It’s a bit crumpled, but ‘Last Will and Testament’ is still clearly visible.

‘Oh goodness, don’t think… it’s not mine. Well, when I say it’s not mine, it is in a way. It’s Mother’s. I don’t want you to think….’

Morgan bursts into unexpected peals of deep and fruity laughter. ‘I’m sorry,’ he grins as the outburst finally subsides, ‘you just looked so worried.’

‘I thought you’d think I’d er… or might…’

The whistle of the kettle spares us, and I pour the water noisily into the teapot.

‘I know I should open it,’ I say as we finish the tea. ‘My sister’s beside herself to know what it says.’

Morgan considers the envelope carefully. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

‘If she’s left the house to both of us Pauline will insist on unseemly haste in the settlement department.’

‘Hard up is she?’

‘She was one of those children who checked you hadn’t been given more pop or a larger slice of cake. She had to have a present on my birthday. I don’t think your Eva’s like our Pauline.’

Morgan looks at the lino between his feet. ‘I don’t know what I’d have done but for Eva,’ he says. ‘She looked after Mam and me and took on the holiday cottage.’

‘Does she live here with you?’

‘In the village. She’s got a family; three lads and a little girl.’

‘She’s a busy lady.’ I put the crockery on the draining board. ‘Do you have children?’ I realise as soon as I’ve said it that it’s a tactless question. ‘I mean…’

‘No,’ Morgan says. ‘It’s alright. I know what you mean. Saw you in the churchyard on Saturday. Should’ve spoken, but I’m a miserable bugger these days. Did Eva tell you?’

Quiet, she said, no mention of your being miserable.’

Morgan smiles and his face looks quite different. ‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘thanks for what you did for Griff. I’d have lost him if you hadn’t been here.’ He shakes my hand in his huge calloused paw. ‘He got me through bad times. Would’ve been unforgivable to lose him like that.’ He makes his way to the door, but then he stops and turns back.

‘I hope things work out how you want them to,’ he says as he lifts the latch.

* * *

[PAGE 5]

I’ve gone to have a little chat with Griff, who’s on box rest and restricted rations in the barn, when Eva comes across the yard with a cake tin. She hands me a substantial Dundee cake she’s just baked.

‘For when you get home,’ she says. ‘You’ll have nothing in.’ Griff twitters quietly at her, but she’s firm. ‘You, my lad, are on hay and water for a day or two.’ She strokes his soft whiskery nose. ‘I don’t know what Morgan would do if anything happened to him. He was Elin’s horse, just a foal when she died. He’s the last proper link he has with her.’

‘I saw Morgan in the graveyard on Saturday, putting daffodils on the grave.’

‘He was supposed to be here waiting for you to arrive, but he did his usual and sloped off. And he took the daffs I’d picked for the cottage.’ Eva grinned. ‘He’s terrible. This morning was the first time he’s spoken to a visitor, as he calls them, for God knows how long.’

‘What happened to Elin?’

‘Morgan was away at a sheepdog trial in Dublin. Rhys had qualified with his dog so the lads went to cheer him on. Elin was checking the ewes up on the hill when she turned the quad bike over. She was killed outright; hit her head on a rock. There was nothing he could have done even if he’d been here, but he still blames himself.’

‘Oh God, that’s awful: the poor man.’

‘I just wish he’d stop crucifying himself and start living again, before it’s too late.’

Griff stretches over the gate and reaches for the tin with his nose, and Eva shakes her head and tuts at him. ‘I’ve not heard Morgan laugh for such a long time.’ Then a thought occurs. ‘How on earth did you manage to get hold of Griff?’

‘Someone had very thoughtfully left his halter on.’

Eva laughs, and she looks exactly like Morgan did earlier. ‘That’s only because he’s an absolute bugger to catch.’

* * *

[PAGE 6]

It’s Friday teatime and I’m just thinking about putting my Catherine Cookson away and going in to do some packing when Morgan’s collie appears in the front garden.

‘You are lovely,’ I say to her, as she plonks herself on my foot.

‘She’ll do,’ comes the reply, and as I look round, Morgan’s leaning on the wall.

I’m blushing like some silly schoolgirl, but he seems not to have noticed. ‘Is she good with the sheep?’ I ask, and then cringe at the gormlessness of yet another question.

‘Aye,’ replies Morgan with a lopsided smile. ‘She’s pretty sharp.’

‘She’s like a collie I had once, when we lived on the farm.’

Morgan is reappraising his visitor. ‘Did you have horses?’

‘Yes. My cob wasn’t as big as Griff, but he was just as sure of himself, and just as handsome… and he was a bugger to catch.’

Morgan laughs. ‘He just knows his own mind that’s all. You still got horses?’

The collie puts her head on my lap and does that look that collies do. I reach down automatically to stroke her head.

‘No. Mother decided we had to move when my father died. She despised the countryside. She only moved to Edale because that’s where Dad’s family was. After he died we went to live in Manchester.’

‘What happened to the stock and the horses?’

‘I never found out. I got home one day and everything had gone: horses, dogs, cattle, everything. She refused to talk about it. Said it was for the best. I never got the hang of arguing with Mother so that was that. I wish I’d put up a fight, just once, for my dog and my pony: I owed them that much.’ I can hear myself beginning to ramble.

Morgan sucks air in through his teeth and shakes his head. ‘And you stayed with her?’

‘What else could I have done? Father asked me to look after her.’

He shoves his cap to the back of his head and squints into the spring sunshine. ‘I’m sorry. What’ll you do now?’

‘That depends on Mother. I don’t think she realised…’

‘You’ve still not opened it have you?’ Morgan looks at me sideways, and I shake my head.

‘You have to move on,’ he says gently.

‘I will if you will,’ I bat back, like a kid in the playground, but I open the cover of my book, say a short, silent prayer and turn the envelope over. Morgan looks away, down the valley as I slowly open the flap. To be honest, it’s a bit of an anti-climax after all the dithering I’ve done.

‘She’s left her silver teapot and the dinner-waggon to Mrs Ballard, and there are a couple of little bequests to old friends.’ I read to the bottom of the single page. ‘She’s left the house to us both. We have to sell it. Well, Pauline has to sell it and pay any costs; then we must split the proceeds.’

The hankies are inside on the window ledge. As I stand to make my way blurrily towards the kitchen door, a small envelope flutters to the ground. Morgan stoops to pick it up, and as he hands it to me the sight of Mother’s scrawly, looping handwriting in royal blue ink catches me unawares. It says: ‘Only to be opened personally by Rosemary Enid Bush in the event of my death’.

I blow my nose, and Morgan pretends he’s not noticed although I don’t weep like Audrey Hepburn. I know I’ve already got puffy eyes and a blotchy face. Goodness knows what I shall look like in the morning. Morgan clears his throat and looks rather pointedly at the envelope. I feel giddy as I rip it open. It’s a long handwritten letter; it must have been painful for her to even hold the pen. Morgan listens as I read.

Dear Rosemary,
Please forgive me for the business with the house. I hope you understand that I had no alternative. I know you would have had nothing but trouble from Pauline if I had left the house just to you (she was always a selfish madam). Besides, you shouldn’t stay here. You need to find your own little place and start again before it’s too late.
I know the proceeds from the house will be insufficient. I began putting money aside for you when you left work to care for me. I didn’t think I would be here for so many years, so it’s not an inconsiderable sum. There’s an account with the building society in Middleton Street in your name; under no circumstances must you tell Pauline.
You don’t know how many times I thought I ought to let you go to live your own life. But I never did; I was so terrified of losing you. Perhaps Pauline takes after me in being self-centred. I’m so very sorry.
Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Rosemary; you’ve always been too kind for your own good. Be happy now, you deserve it. Perhaps you could move back to the countryside?
Love, Mother

Morgan studies my face as I flit between laughing and weeping.

‘I thought she didn’t understand.’

‘She just couldn’t let you go. Makes you do daft things.’ Morgan draws a pattern in the dust with the toe of his boot. ‘What will you do now?’

Griff twitters softly from the barn.

‘I don’t suppose the cottage is free next week?’

Morgan looks up. ‘It is,’ he says. ‘There are no visitors now for a fortnight.’

There’s a wonderful lilt to his voice which I could listen to for ever.

‘Then I think Pauline can wait a bit longer. I’ve some catching up to do.’

Jan Newton was born in Manchester, spent her formative years on a farm in Derbyshire, then lived in Buckinghamshire for twenty years before settling in Llanafan Fawr, near Builth Wells, in 2005. She has just completed a Creative Writing MA at Swansea University. Jan won the English category of the Allen Raine Short Story Competition, 2014, and her immediate ambition is to finish editing her first novel.

The author wishes to thank the Allen Raine Celebration Society. The Allen Raine Short Story Competition, 2014, was awarded in November and judged by Sally Roberts Jones and Jane Aaron. The English runner-up was Jo Mazelis, the Welsh category winner was Mari Gwilym and Welsh runner-up was Sian Teifi. The competition was launched in 2008 to mark the centenary of the death of Allen Raine, Newcastle Emlyn’s internationally bestselling author who is buried in St Michael’s Church, Penbryn, near Cardigan.


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