To mark the publication of Jay Griffiths’ new collection of essays, Nemesis my Friend, she invited writers and artists to respond to some of the themes of the book. This short story by Mike Parker is based on an encounter in a Shropshire church.
‘Ooh, look, that café’s gone too.’
I grunt in response, but don’t bother looking. The road is busy and unpredictable, and this is the first time in two years that I’ve been behind the wheel for so long. Besides, if I looked at every closed pub, café, and shop that she mentioned, or responded at all to the road signs that she reads out loud, she’d only take it as encouragement, and step it up a gear.
‘You remember, George? We stopped there once. Decent enough tea cake, but such a surly madam serving.’
Dad, shrunken into his overcoat in the seat next to him, sighed softly. It was all the reaction she was getting, but it was plenty enough.
‘Made such a song and dance about bringing an extra pot of hot water for the tea. And the face on her when I didn’t put my change in her little tip bowl. Well, you’ve got to earn a tip, haven’t you? It’s not a God-given right. Did you pack the Brasso, Terence?’
Yes, I assured her, for the fifth time at least. She’d quizzed me time and again about everything on the list, but in fairness to her – not a position I much like taking, if I’m honest – the two year hiatus had played havoc with all our memories. The first lockdown had erupted the week we were due to do the trip, but it was all going to be over in twelve weeks said Boris, and we’d believed him. God, we were idiots. As it was, a year later it was still off-limits, and another year on, though things were anything but sorted, the rules had relaxed enough to allow us to go. ‘It’ll be my last chance,’ she’d repeatedly said, putting on her best martyr face.
‘Cannock 4, Telford 23, dual carriageway ahead,’ said the voice in the back. ‘Slow down a bit, would you Terence? He’ll not be going anywhere.’
Elsie’s piped down a bit now. She’s soaking in the scenery, I suppose. It looks like it always did – green and powerful, makes you feel tiny, insignificant. At the beginning of the journey, and all the way across the Midlands, nothing seemed the same. New roads, new houses, big silver boxes, whole estates of them, full of lord knows what – and the traffic! So many lorries, cars, queues. So much bad driving and bad manners.
I couldn’t do this drive any more. Used to love it.
Used to love a day over in the hills, two days sometimes if we stayed in that B&B. Mrs Hughes. And Mott the sheepdog. Got sacked off the farm for being a bit dim, a bit clueless with the sheep, settled into his new life by the Rayburn. Not that dim, after all, eh?
Don’t suppose any of them are still alive. No-one is these days.
There’s smoke coming out of the Arkwrights’ chimney, I’m glad to see. Not that it’s the Arkwrights any more of course, even if the house looks much the same. Though there’s something weird in the garden, a fussy little house on wheels.
‘What’s that in the Arkwrights’ orchard?’ I ask Terence, pointing.
‘A shepherd’s hut, Mam,’ he says. ‘I saw it on AirBnB. A hundred and fifty quid a night. And they’ve put a hot tub in the farmyard.’
No shepherd I knew would be seen dead in such a daft little doll’s house. Jack, the shepherd at Upper Bryn, stopped in a tin shack on the Foel. He and Ted were great pals, used to go to the Lion together on a Friday evening. I’d hear them come back, singing and laughing. They’d carry on the party at Jack’s hut, and Ted’d doss down there the night.
Jack never really got over Ted. Well, none of us did, really.
‘Are you ready Mam?’, Terence asks, holding out his arm for me to take. George has gone on ahead, is waiting in the porch, leaning on his stick. I breathe as deep as I can, trying to pull the soft, sweet air into me, hold it there for however long I’ve got left. I miss this air, and this pale, uncertain light.
‘Yes, love, I’m ready.’ I feel softer already, as if my edges are dissolving. ‘It’s lovely to be here. Let’s go and say hello to your Uncle Ted.’
There’s the church, glowing like a white pebble down in the hollow. Twelfth century, says the guidebook, and eight miles from where I started this morning. Half-way for today. I’ll have my lunch there.
The old bridleway is lined with daffs in full flower and blackthorn bushes just coming into bud. At the top of the path, they’re tiny, fierce little snowballs poised to spring open, but the nearer I get to the valley floor, the more they’re flowering, all deceptively creamy and fluttery. At first glance, a bridesmaid’s tiara, but look closer and it’s a crown of thorns.
I try the church door, and much to my surprise, it creaks open. I can’t remember the last time I found one unlocked – some time BC, Before Covid, certainly. It gives me such an unexpected rush, of pleasure sure, but also a sorrow so hot and hungry that I almost stumble. I’m three steps into the church before I even realise that there are people inside. They all turn in my direction, and I feel like I’m interrupting something.
‘Oh, I’m sorry…’ I say, when I see that the old lady’s crying. She’s fussing over a vase of flowers on a windowsill. I’m not sure whether to stay, or leave them to it.
She turns to me, and smiles. ‘Don’t you worry, love’ she says. ‘It’s nice to see someone in here. I don’t think the old place gets many visitors.’ The tears have made her eyes glitter fiercely. ‘He loves visitors…’ she says quietly, leaving it hanging in the musty air. ‘Who does, sorry…?’ I reply, and then immediately regret overstepping the mark.
Anything but. She is delighted to be asked, and to tell me the tale of her long dead brother Ted, killed in a fierce wartime battle in Italy. ‘He’s buried in a military cemetery there,’ she tells me. ‘George and I went there once, and there’s thousands of them, all buried in those tidy rows. I much prefer to visit him here, where he’s the only one.’ She gestures to the plaque buried in the wall:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
KILLED IN ACTION 21st MARCH 1944
AGED 24 YEARS
MAY HE REST IN PEACE
It’s etched in a curiously amateur script, as is the first world war plaque opposite. There’s only one name on that too. What was it they call those places that lost no-one? Blessed Parishes, or Thankful Villages or some such. This is so nearly one of them, but then it’s such a speck of a place, a handful of farms, a couple of cottages, barely any population. And when the one name on the plaque is that of your idolised big brother, and you’ve spent your whole life trying to keep it fresh on the lips of the living, it’s still one far too many.
I sit down in the pew under his name, and after hesitating briefly, so does she. Light from a stained glass window, of a syrupy Victorian angel, is mottled on the pews in front of us. It catches the dust in the air, turning the twirling motes into a kaleidoscope. Though I’m no believer, I’m suddenly so glad to be in a church again. It’s been two years, and too long.
The younger man – her son, I see immediately – comes up to us. He looks tired. ‘Hi,’ he says to me, avoiding my eye, and then to her, ‘Mum, just going to go outside, get a bit of air.’ She smiles thinly in return, and he walks off, pulls open the massive door and vanishes. The older man is still sat quietly at the back of the church, by the font, in the gloom.
‘What was it like, growing up here?’ I ask her, and a great big door creaks open there too. Memories come pouring through it, simultaneously sharpened yet softened by time, by grief and the dislocation of over half a century away from here, living on the other side of the country. Decades of no-one knowing the name of her village, nor the name of her darling brother. Even her husband of fifty-three years, the ghost at the back of the church, only knows him second hand, through her words and some grey photos, fading more with every passing year.
‘I haven’t got long,’ she says. ‘And when I go, so does he.’ She looks at me, and the glitter in her eyes is now cold steel.
Her husband comes to join us, and after a few pleasantries, I leave them to it.
The churchyard is still, its graves sagging in all directions. Above them growls the great whaleback hill that I’ve just walked down. On a bench in the corner sits the son. He’s still too, but looks over and half-smiles, so I go and join him. Close up, in the blue spring light, he looks exhausted, tightly coiled, so very out of place.
‘You’ve had the full chapter and verse, then?’ he says. ‘Saint Dead Ted? The man who never put a foot wrong, unlike the rest of us?’
I nod, and frame a careful response. ‘She enjoyed telling me about him, I think’.
‘Yeah, I bet.’ He wants to say more, but I can see him hold it back, maybe even let it go. He sighs and looks down at the grass at our feet, studded with primroses. A buzzard circles overhead, squealing on the breeze. On the hillside, a farmer on a quad is zipping around a field of ewes and lambs.
‘Christ, this place is quiet,’ he says suddenly. ‘It’d do my head in, living here.’
‘But it’s part of you, isn’t it?’ I reply, more forcefully than I’d expected. ‘Generations of ancestors, buried all around you.’ He looks at me, as if he’s just properly seen me for the first time. ‘Yeah, I guess. Dead Ted and a whole lot of others. My gran and granddad, for that matter. Gone before I was even born.’
‘Do you think you’ll ever come back here in the future?’ I hear myself asking. ‘I mean, when your mum’s gone?’
He looks at me and sighs again, deeper this time. Behind him, half a dozen crows suddenly rise shrieking from an ash tree. A red post van appears down the lane, and somewhere a dog barks excitedly.
‘Yes, actually,’ he says, clearly surprising himself. ‘Yes I will.’ He’s trying the words for size, and is amazed to find that they fit. ‘Ted’s anniversary, every year. Maybe. No…definitely.’ A spasm of light flickers in his tired eyes.
The church door creaks, and he leaps up to go and open it. Framed by the old oak of the porch, the three of them pause and look out. The old lady points at something, and the hills hold their breath, poised between winter and summer, life and death.
Mike Parker is the author of a number of books, including Map Addict, a love letter to the Ordnance Survey, The Wild Rover, a celebration of the humble footpath, and On the Red Hill, an evocation of the queer rural that was highly commended for the Wainwright Prize and won the non-fiction Wales Book of the Year. His next book, All the Wide Border, an exploration of the land and attitudes between England and Wales, will be out in 2023. Website: www.mikeparker.org.uk
The illustration at the head of this piece is by Charlotte Rowley, who works mainly with papercut, lino print and watercolour. Click the image to see the full illustration. See her work on Instagram.
Photographs by Mike Parker.
Nemesis, My Friend by Jay Griffiths is out now.