When I was going through the photos from the recent RNA Conference I found some taken in Penrith churchyard. Victoria Connelly wanted to show us the giant's grave which she mentions in her excellent book Molly's Millions (Vicky is the one in the pink dress, by the way).
This reminded me of a graveyard scene in Moonshadows, where Jessica has just found the grave of her ancestor, Sarah Methven, and meets one of my favourite characters in the book…..
Jez went back to the little bench and sat down, staring at the headstone and thinking hard. 'Beloved mother' – did that mean she had been reunited with her children before her death? Or had they merely been informed that that she was dead and had done their duty by her. How could she find out?
'Yer, what’re you doin’? That ivy’s protection for that there ‘eadstone!'
She swung around to see who was shouting: an old man was approaching, shuffling towards her. He wore a pair of faded moleskin trousers tucked into his thick woollen socks, a pair of very muddy brown boots and an old tweed jacket tied at the waist with string. As he drew closer she became aware of a pair of bloodshot eyes set beneath grey, bushy brows and a red, shiny nose – all that was visible between the peak of his flat cap and the muffler that covered his chin.
'I’m sorry, I meant no harm –'
'Harm? No, that’s what they all say, coming in ‘ere with their cameras and note books, pulling aside the plants that’s protected these ‘ere stones since time long gone by. Records, pshaw! We don’t need no records. It’s all ‘ere, in the stones.'
'No, no, I’m not recording anything. I was looking for Sarah Methven.'
'Lady Sarah?' he stepped up to peer short-sightedly at her. 'Oh, so you’m back then!'
'No, I’ve never been here before.'
The old man stared at her.
'You ain’t wantin’ to wreck the grave?'
'No of course not. I think she might be a relative of mine. Who are you? Do you look after the graves?'
'In a manner of speakin’ you might say that.' The old man came to sit beside her and Jez shifted along the bench, leaving a clear gap between them. Even so there was a strong smell of tobacco emanating from his person.
'Then why don’t you keep the weeds cut in this corner? It’s rather a mess, isn’t it?'
He tapped his nose with one grimy finger, 'Protection.'
'Protection from ‘er.'
It was becoming apparent to Jez that her companion was not quite sane. She edged away to the end of the bench.
'She might come back, see, at any time and I’s got to be ready. I musn’t let her harm Lady Sarah. That’s my job.'
'And who gave you this job?'
He sniffed loudly.
'Me old man. Passed down, y’see, from father to son. It was ‘is father’s job before and ‘is granfers.' He took out a pipe and battered tobacco pouch and cast a bleary eye at her. 'Have you time for a story, miss?'
Fascinated, Jez nodded.
'Long time ago it was, see, ‘underds of yers. Lady Sarah lived in the village then and my old relative knew ‘er. They say that everyone knew ‘er. Lovely lady, kind and gentle, visiting the sick and comin’ to church every Sunday – never missed, they say. Then when she died there was some argument about where she was to be burried. Her son wanted to take her back to the family vault but the lady’s own wishes was to be burried ‘ere, where she lived so long. Any road, my relative, he was grave-digger then, see? Dicked in the nob, they said he was, but he was never so daft that ‘e couldn’t find hisself a good woman to be ‘is wife and provide for his family – and the proof is that we is still here, after all these years.' He lit his pipe and drew on it steadily, silently contemplating his impressive lineage.
'So – so your relative buried Sarah?'
'Aye, that’s it. Well, ‘e dug the ‘ole, anyway. Parson did the burying, o' course. Whole village turned out, so they said, but then, just as the earth is being filled in and the mourners is about to go, a coach rolls up – great gilded thing with a crest on the side and a mad woman gets out and runs to the grave where she starts cursing poor Sarah’s name and swearing she’ll have no rest. Well Parson and Sarah’s son 'as to restrain the poor woman for she looks set to pull Sarah from her very coffin, crying all the time that our poor departed lady had stolen her husband, that she should not be buried with decent folk being as how she was a –' he coughed. 'My relative did pass on the words she used, miss, but I’ll not use ‘em in front of a young lady. Anyhow, a servant comes and carries the poor distraught lady away, she screaming all the while that she’ll be avenged on Sarah. Well, you can imagine that Parson and Sarah’s family was real cut-up about all this, the ladies was crying and Parson shakin’ his head. The upshot is that poor Sarah’s son comes up to my relative and slips him a purse. Asks him very gentleman-like if he would be kind enough to watch over his mama’s grave, since he would not be able to do so hisself. Just in case the lady came back, see? Now my relative, being a god-fearing Christian who knows his duty, would willingly have looked after the poor soul’s last resting place and not asked a penny for doing so, but the gentleman insisted. "Keep the purse, my good man." he says, very civil-like, "and put it to some good use." So when my relative goes ‘ome and looks in the purse he finds it full of gold pieces! Well, ‘is wife – who is by way of blood and nature also my relative, of course - his wife she was in a bad way at that time, on her third confinement, so he uses the gold to pay the doctor to attend ‘er, rather than the gin-sodden old midwife, and praise be if she wasn’t delivered of a bouncing baby boy that my distant relative promptly christens Thomas, in honour of poor Sarah’s son!' The old man drew on his pipe again, then continued proudly, 'And ‘is father give the task of watching over Sarah’s grave to that Thomas, a solemn duty that ‘e carried out faithfully all his days and passed on to ‘is own son Thomas, and so on down the line of my relatives until it comes to me, the present Thomas!'
He ended proudly, beaming at Jessica over his muffler. She felt that some response was required.
'That - that’s a wonderful story, Thomas. And have you ever had to protect the grave?'
'No, never.' He shook his head sadly, 'They say the old mad woman died soon after, bless her poor soul. We’ve continued our vigil, man and boy, like we promised, but no-one comes to this corner, save yourself, and the dook, of course.'
'The – the Duke?'
'Well, some sort of lord, he is. He comes every so often, to sit over the grave for a few hours. Always wears his blue velvet coat he does, and ‘is sword. Was me great-granfer which named him dook, course we don’t know who he is really –'
'Hang on! Your great-grandfather saw him?'
'Yes, he did that, miss. Many a time.'
The hair on the back of Jessica’s neck began to tingle.
'But – your great-grandfather must have been dead for….'
'Nigh on seventy year now. He passed on when I was a babe.'
Jez dug her hands into the pockets of her coat to stop them shaking.
'Then this, this duke that you see –'
'Oh he’s a spirit, miss. What you might call a ghost. We’ve seen ‘im off and on for over a hunderd yers.' The old man chuckled, 'Surely miss you don’t think I’m mad enough to believe a man can live for all that time? That would be crazy! No, he’s a ghost, right enough, it’d be plain daft to think anything else.'
'Yes,' she agreed faintly, 'Yes, I suppose it would.'