Dead Man’s Lane by Georgina Gardner

The Posy tree had stood just past Mapperton House, at a fork in the track. I reached the spot with the greyhounds on a warm summer afternoon, just as a pheasant burst from a nearby hedge, feathers scattering into the air. The hedge is as tall as I am and mostly thick with branches, enclosing the track in cool shadow. But the leaves thin out here, leaving the low bank of grass in sunlight. There are no remains of the Posy tree.

Yet, people stood here once, posies with herbs and rose petals in hand. A remembrance. Perhaps they hung them from their necks, around their wrists or up among the branches of the oak. Its canopy would have been full and reaching, sunlight glowing so the leaves turned a pale green.

At some point, it lost its branches leaving a gnarled, twisted trunk. And now, nothing.

It was felled in 2011. A hazard, they said. To who? I wonder –empty, open fields stretching out before me.

I kicked the mud from my boots, unclipping the dogs from their leads. Covid had started in 2019. They thought it wasn’t a big deal at first; thought it wasn’t anything to worry about. They’re all ‘essentially over 80’ anyway. But she’s a mother, my grandmother. And she is dying.

When I glanced back at the patch of grass, I could see them standing there in my mind, a huddle of villagers from Mapperton, carrying the dead on carts. They didn’t have a graveyard in their own village – the ground was full of rocks. They had to bury them elsewhere. They had no choice.

I’m sure they cried, maybe not. They were used to it after all, more familiar with death than us. But would that really make it any easier? Any easier as the route to Netherbury’s graveyard, where they would usually go, was blocked off by the neighbouring villagers, people with staves and hay forks, desperate to protect their own. It hadn’t reached them, not yet. So, the people of Mapperton took the other track, making their way up South Warren hill.

Dead Man’s Lane, it was called from then on. This was the Corpse Way they’d used. Nowadays, it’s overgrown, as if cut into a bramble bush.

I trailed behind as the dogs bounded ahead, looking over at the field of sheep between the trees, and where it then slopes down into a valley. I passed a dead pheasant first, its feathers torn and strewn over the undergrowth. The lane was living up to its name, even before I arrived at the dead sheep. It was nothing but bones, completely clean. Its skull lay away from the ribs, the rest half visible among the ferns. I took a step back, sleeve over my mouth. There was barely anything left of it. How did it happen? How long ago did it die?

Pausing, I glanced back out at the field of sheep. They shuffled about lazily, taking no notice. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know it could just as easily have been them? And yet, why should they care? Why ruin life worrying about death? Why think about the end at the beginning? Besides, how does one prevent the inevitable?

The path here was wider, wide enough to easily step around the bones. Perhaps it had been wide enough for a cart once. I could almost see them, dragging the cart onwards, upwards, perhaps led by a horse or bull. A few would’ve dared to trail behind, muttering payers, heads hanging low, cautious about their breathing. Maybe a girl walked beside the cart. She would be alone beside the bodies – a young girl at her father’s side. Surely she would cry.

They trudge on. They’ll be home tomorrow, trying to live as they usually do, trying not to remember. So will I.

No, I told myself. She’s not dead yet.

They’d never forget. It would never be the same. 80 dead, just from their village. And for our pandemic? Over 4.5 million. How was I supposed to comprehend a number like that?

The girl couldn’t understand it either. Walking beside the cart, perhaps she would have stared fiercely at the ground before her, or out between the trees to the fields behind, fist clenched, and yet she would cry, footsteps uneasy. She wouldn’t be allowed to hold onto the cart. One thing would have echoed loudest in her head – ‘why me?’

Death has never been fair.

Perhaps she would have felt as I do, reaching the end of that awkward, narrow lane, the low trees and bramble hedges opening up onto the grassy top of that hill, nothing in sight but the vast scenes of fields and woods. Perhaps the sky would’ve been like it is today: a pale blue broken up by enormous billowing clouds, casting huge shadows, rolling over the land below, shafts of sunlight spilling through.

I’d caught up with my dogs by now, neither as restless as before, both exploring the small grove of trees. The girl wouldn’t have seen these, they weren’t there yet. Were they planted as a memorial to the bones beneath? I picture the girl stood where the saplings would have been, pale green leaves and spindly branches curled beside her fingers, the ground beneath her closed once again, the cart empty.

Even from here, beyond the daisies scattered along the hillside, and hidden in amongst the trees of the valley, I could see Netherbury. I could see the church tower and the graveyard. She would have seen it too. And so would the dead. They may not be buried there, but they could watch it now – the resting place of their ancestors before them.

The sun hit me, basking the world in a pale light. Perhaps the girl didn’t imagine her father only a few feet below her, perhaps she didn’t think about the future. I hope she remembered the past. Memories. So often, they are like the sun, drifting in and out of sight, only to appear with such blazing clarity you must squint your eyes to see. They are something we both have in common.

I remember those warm days paddling by the rock pools. I remember the sun as it cut through the window into the kitchen and across the checkered tablecloth, even when it rained. The warmth beginning to steam up the windows. Breakfast between us, the tea growing cold as my grandmother chatted quickly, and us two children sat listening, still half asleep. It didn’t take much to make her laugh.

I’ll make those memories, a hundred times over. Unlike that girl, I still have time. ‘She’s not dead yet.’ I hugged my knees as the sun reappeared, a weight lifting from my shoulders. I smiled to myself. The sheep had made their way onto the hillside below, still pulling at the low bushes, only glancing up every now and then, as they always do.

My phone goes, the screen flashing on. A text. I scanned the message. My sister has never been good with words. It was my grandmother. She had just died.

I stared blankly at the hills, sunlight streaking over me once again. You feel sick first. It takes your breath, and the mind slows as it tries to understand. Then it realises it can’t. That’s when the tears begin.

Why me? Why her?

There was no one around me for miles.

The young girl would have looked out at that landscape just as I did. You freeze at moments like this, set in place, not caring for the world around you.

Perhaps they would have called the girl to join them, go back down the path with the rest. An older woman, large and homely, beckoning her on. No matter how loud, or how sharp her tone, the girl would have stayed, stood her ground where a tree now stands, eyes hazy, a posy on her wrist.

If only I could tell her – we go to every corner of the world, even to the moon and back, and yet nothing has really changed. I’m still where you are, on this hillside, alone.

And when she asks, ‘Why me?’ I’d stay quiet and take her hand.  ‘Hodie, mihi, cras, tibi’, Gregorius Lenti etched in his 1657 wax model of a plague scene.  ‘It is my lot today, yours tomorrow’.

The wind catches my hair. Slowly I stand, wiping my eyes, taking the dog leads in hand. They too had begun to settle, ears pricking up as I began to head back down the path. They stayed close. The girl would’ve walked away too, moved on, leaving the hilltop behind, knowing that no matter what changes, the same sun will bath this place in light.

 

 

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GEORGINA GARDNER is a 17-year-old who lives in West Dorset and is studying for her A-levels in languages and art. After doing a stint of work experience with Little Toller, she wrote this piece having felt the impacts of Covid-19.

1 Comment

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Penny Joycereply
October 23, 2021 at 8:40 pm

Georgina’s link with the past pandemic and current one was masterful. A wonderful linking of images that really spoke into our current situation. Excellent use of language and the ‘picture’ that she painted of the area and her knowledge of the history, gave we readers a real taste of the environment that she was referring to. Her ability to empathise with the ‘other girl’ and later her granny, was excellent.
Well done Georgina…keep going!

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