Garrison Fields

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Chapter 29 - Mr Gregson brings the boys

That morning Grandma Burns having an inkling when they would all be arriving had already began breakfast before the first had arrived, she was dressed for the occasion in her mourning wear and was wearing a pinny so as not to mark her dress. The table was laid with a loaf that she had baked yesterday already cut into slices on the bread board. She had laid the table with butter and jam, which she had taken from the larger quantities which she kept in her cold larder. In the middle of the table stood a jug of fresh milk, she had been out early that morning to collect it, in fact if truth was known she had hardly slept.

Grandda’ Burns was sat in his chair in the kitchen as per usual dressed and waiting to be instructed of what his next duty would be. This morning he had none, other than to get the door when the knocks came. She knew that they would be here shortly and from the hooks above the kitchen sink picked off a large heavy metal frying pan she placed it on top of the range and with a knife cut a lump of beef lard from a bowl in which she had drained it from dinner on Sunday and proceeded to throw a handful of beef sausages into the frying pan.

‘I don’t think I could eat anything at the moment love,’ came the voice of her husband. There was no pause as her answer came back firm and sharp.

‘Now you listen to me Luke Burns -’ she gesticulated the knife at him as she said it, in the manner that meant this was a lecture and not a matter for debate.

‘- Albert’s gone, that’s all there is too it. The boys are coming round, and they’ve got to see their grandda’ and the man he is. The boys need a man to look up to now and you are going to be it, this isn’t about our son, whatever we feel, we’ll keep that till we’re alone.′ He looked up at her from his chair, she was right and moreover he knew it.

’Aye pet, you’re right, I ‘naw it - I’ll look after the boys today.’

‘That’s right now you go in the back yard for a moment and put some cold water on your face,’ as he passed, she gave him a peck on the cheek.

‘You’re a good man - we’ll sit down and talk properly after the boys are gone.’ He looked at her through his sad eyes and went into the yard.

She continued bustling around the kitchen, it appeared as if she was scared to stop as if stopping would make her think of thoughts that she wanted to restrain until she was alone, all too soon the knock came on the door. She shouted round the side of the open door into the back yard.

‘Luke, they’re here, get the door, my hands are full at the moment.’

He returned with a purpose and made straight to the door opening and stating in a voice loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.

‘Why, it’s Jane and our Little Ted!’ Anyone observing would have found the scene quite comical as it was obvious who they were, his loud comment of course was for their grandma, who would not know which party had turned up.

Their outdoor wear was removed in the hall, there would be at least an hour before they had to set off. It would be a good description to say that Jane and Ted had dressed in their Sunday best, however, their Sunday best was also their Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday best. For they now only possessed one good item of clothing each, but it was clean and pressed as well as could be and Ted had been scrubbed with carbolic soap until he had attained a complexion which was as much part of the pressure used as the soap’s natural properties.

They went through to the kitchen where Ted was well at home in his grandma’s kitchen. Jane and her mother-in-law greeted each other warmly which was usual, as they had always had a good friendship. A few minutes later the door knocker clattered against the door again.

‘That’ll be the boys Joe’, Grandma Burns stated, the inference was clear and Joe went and opened the door accompanied by Jane. The boys were accompanied by Mr Gregson who stood with his cap under his arm.

‘Please come in Mr Gregson’ both he and the boys stood there all resplendent in their new sailor uniforms from the orphanage. It was by far the most suitable attire that they possessed, the dark blue of the uniforms was most suitable for the day’s events.

‘Thank you, Mr Gregson, for bringing the boys’ stated Jane and Joe now remembering that it was his house continued ‘May I take your hat, and please come through to the kitchen, my wife would like to thank you for your consideration to us’.

Mr Gregson declined any attempts at hospitality asking Joe to thank his wife for her kind words, making the excuse that he had to return to his duties promptly and arranged with Jane that he would return for the boys at half past four, which would mean the boys would get their evening meal as usual. This was a most satisfactory arrangement and would give the boys a few hours after the funeral to discuss things with the family. He then left, asking Joe to give his respects to his wife.

The ceremony was over, it was now just the family that was left behind. The boys who had taken off their hats on entering, placed them on the hat rack. They shook hands with Joe ‘Hello Granda’ and kissed their mother on the cheek ‘hello ma’.

She grabbed each of them in turn and hugged them, ‘let’s go in the kitchen, your grandma will want to see you as well’, they moved into the kitchen Grandda’ with his hand on Luke’s shoulder, as soon as they came in she turned around to greet them Ted who had been told not to go into the hall could contain himself no more at the sight of his older brothers and leapt off of the chair and raced to them, there was now the general furore caused by Ted, who was reunited with the people he knew and loved in the world and tried to express himself as only small children do. His admiration for Matt and Luke in their new uniforms was obvious, he could not take his eyes off them, in the end Grandma Burns called the room to order.

‘I need to get you all sat down; this breakfast is going to burn!’ They sat down and were promptly decorated with towels and pillow slips which were draped around their shoulders and necks.

‘Before any of you say anything about how old you are, I’ll not have any of you leave this house this morning with grease stains down them.’

The boys could see today was not a day to take exception, and no words of resentment were offered. Mr Burns sat at the head of the table, he looked at his wife, he really didn’t have the stomach to eat, but as with all things a brave face was to be put on for the boys.

‘Boys, we’ve already had our breakfast earlier - so get started.’

None of them particularly had an appetite, but they all obliged, the mood was sombre and quiet, although deep down they had all expected it, no one would have admitted it. Albert’s parents particularly felt wretched, they had never expected to lose a son, and to lose him and to commit him to a pauper’s grave would plague them with guilt for the rest of their days.

Breakfast was soon finished and the woman folk bustled in the kitchen issuing orders and soon all was back to normal, plates washed up and dried and in the plate rack and the frying pan steeping in the sink, that could wait there till after they returned. Time was pressing and they wished to be early, they would rather stand for several hours in the cold than miss paying their respects. They duly set off Matthew and Luke with their grandfather striding out in front. He walked in the middle of them, Jane and her mother-in-law followed up with Ted being carried.

They walked the quickest route, not a lot was said, Ted was fascinated by Matt and Luke’s uniforms and mentioned them several times on the way, he had been transfixed by them since breakfast and now could hold himself no longer.

‘Mummy may I have a sailor suit? I want to be like Matt and Luke.’ He looked at her with his doleful eyes.

‘Maybe in a little while you might, when we’ve saved up for it.’ He smiled.

‘Thank you mummy, then we’ll all be the same.’ He was smiling and looking at his older brothers. In his mind, it appeared that if he had a uniform, then he could join this world they belonged to. Although he was young, he did miss them, they had always been there since he could remember. The conversation was sombre and sparse and duly they reached the cemetery.

There was a caretaker’s lodge at the entrance with a small office attached to it and a yard where the workman’s tools were kept. It was early and the workman had not started their daily tasks yet, there was no urgency with them, after all their customers would wait. Luke went into the office, there was a small hand bell on the counter to ring for attention; he did so and in due course the Cemetery Superintendent’s wife came through from the house.

‘Good Morning, may I be of assistance?’

Luke explained the reason that they were here, informing her of their son’s burial in the pauper’s section of the graveyard and that they had arrived early so as not to miss it. That they had been led to believe that there might be several interred that morning and they had arrived early to pay their respects. This wasn’t an uncommon event, and when a family turned up such as this they would always try and help, this type of burial had a stigma, she looked outside and saw the women standing with the children.

‘If you wish you can all wait inside, there’s a small stove in the corner that’s keeping no one warm at the moment. The vicar will turn up at nine and perform the service, he comes into the house before the service so I’ll let you know and you can follow him up.’

This was very hospitable, and he accepted her offer in the way it had been given. There were a couple of round back chairs for Jane and her mother-in-law to sit in and they all waited by the stove happy for the warmth it afforded them. Luke had explained to them that they would be able to walk up behind the vicar and the Cemetery Superintendent, this at last gave them some prestige, at least he would have a Christian burial. Jane’s mother-in-law commented to them all with pride.

‘He’ll be buried just like our dear Lord was.’ The Cemetery Superintendent’s wife quickly slipped out to the two grave diggers in the yard, who were just getting ready to go out to the plot to receive its new occupants.

’Arthur, Bert, we’ve got the family of one of ‘em that going in the communal grave this morning. Now when you get the boxes off, if there’s no names on them then chalk Albert Burns on the best-looking box and put it at the end as usual, I’ll tell the children it’s their dad at the end, so they’ll always be able to find him.’

The subterfuge was prepared shortly afterwards a nondescript covered cart pulled in to the cemetery, it had started early that morning and toured the mortuaries, all those unclaimed or unwanted or those unable to afford a burial were placed into cheap pine boxes, the boxes were of a uniform size and could be thought of as one size fits all. They were off loaded and lowered quickly into the mass grave, there were only eight today, an average crop for a weekend.

The cart left the horses pulled harder sensing that their cargo had been off loaded and the gravediggers informed the Superintendent that the usual business might proceed. The Superintendent was having tea with the vicar in his parlour, the vicar had a commission from the local authority which meant for a fixed fee he conducted these services twice a week. He informed the vicar that there was a family present and gave him a slip of paper with the name of Albert and the few details of the family that his wife had gleaned, he inserted it into his bible. At the appointed time and as he had been now informed that all was prepared, he made his way through to the office, The Superintendent introduced him briefly to the family, where he extended his sympathies, and with that they all followed him to the graveside. The gravediggers were waiting quite close with their caps in their hands after all this was usually the only mourners the deceased had.

The service was entered into promptly and after reading the names of the others committed to god, he was so kind to address the family “and especially Albert Burns...” at the end of the committal he signalled to one of the gravediggers who brought forward a spade of earth he took a handful of this and cast it amongst the deceased “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the hope of eternal life…” after this was finished he beckoned to the Burns family to follow suit if they wished and, they did and each said a final word of goodbye. It was for its simplicity a pure service the tears rolled down the ladies faces as they said their final farewell. The vicar and the superintendent began the walk back and the gravediggers waited for the family to leave before completing their task.

For the family there was now the long slow walk back for the vicar this was his first job of the day, he would have several paying services and graveside attendances that day as usual, it was just start of another day.

In the background a figure that no one saw, a figure that no one had told, and who had arrived at the cemetery too late to give his respects had watched it all from a distance. No one turned round and no one saw him, when he saw Jane scatter the earth over Albert’s mortal remains, he said amen my friend, and sat down on the sodden ground with his back to one of the gravestones. He sat for what appeared an eternity and could hear the gravediggers talking and getting about their job. He heard them scraping the heavy clay off of their shovels, he heard them walk away to their next appointment and still he sat seemingly transfixed with his knees bent and his arms resting over the top of them. He just stared in front of him, too him his best friend and the only link he had with a family had gone.

Just as he had slumped to the ground, he rose himself up in one sharp movement, steadying himself with his hand on the top of the gravestone, he inhaled and exhaled hard the sweet sickly smell of decay in the cemetery resonating in his nostrils, as he moved off pulling at his clothes which were now damp and shoved his cap in his jacket pocket.

He approached the newly filled in pauper’s grave and stood at the end of it. The fresh earth banked up higher than the surrounding area, he was self-conscious and looked around before he spoke to ensure that no one but the dead could hear him.

‘Albert its only me, I meant to be here, but only found out as I was casting off this morning. Old Arthur West shouted over to me what had happened, all your family were here, Jane and the boys, by... they’re growing fast. They’re as smart as mustard, you know I’ll try and help them if Jane will let me, I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but you were the best partner and friend a man ever had. I know you don’t approve, but just this once I’ll raise a glass to you tonight in the General. You know I don’t have your beliefs, but if everything you told me is true, then when it’s my turn we’ll be casting off again’. He now bent down and touched the wet earth of the grave.

‘Goodbye Albert old friend,’ he rose and left alone and only with his thoughts and memories.

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