Walking along the Grand Canal in the warmth of the September morning, there was a moment to pause at the memorial to Paul Smith, and to remember the sadness of his book The Countrywoman.
I had read it in the first summer after ordination; it was not happy holiday reading. Smith’s character Mrs Baines, finishes her days in an institution and is given a pauper’s funeral. A week later, her son goes in search of her grave. Smith captures the poignancy of ending your days in such manner:
His eyes lit on the blue-veined face under a bowler hat and hardy gray eyes that surveyed him with a hazy concern.
The man’s jaws closed on something that flooded his mouth with saliva. “Aye, an’ where was it?” he asked, after he had swallowed.
“Here. Just here.” The gesture was frantic. He looked away and back. “She was buried Wednesday,” His eyes, large in his thin face, implored remembrance.
“Wednesday.” A squelched spit hit the ground. “A Wednesday’s a busy day. Always very busy on a Wednesday:
“But on’y last Wednesday. After ten Mass.” Tucker Tommy’s hands touched the navy blue serge suit in front of him.
The man gave a glance to either side of him, and hope, wild and ready, swept through Tucker Tommy. “What was her name?”
He told him, hardly conscious of the words, as he watched the impassive face for some sign of enlightenment. But all the man did was chew, and the hardy eyes in their shifting wide scan remained untouched, thoughtless.
“She was buried here.” Tucker Tommy fought back the thing that was withering his throat, and the man said, “Somewhere here, yes, a Wednesday after … ” A new alertness made him hunch his shoulders as he dug his hands into his trousers pockets. “I mind now,” he said, and stopped to stare at Tucker Tommy, who gazed back with his mind and mouth overflowing with prayer until the man went on: “I mind it well now, but that wasn’t a bought grave.”
He said nothing, then plaintively, “Me mother.”
“Your mother,” echoed the man.
“Her grave was here:’ His voice rasped fear.
The man threw back his head. “Somewheres,” was all he said, but the gesture said, God alone knows, could be anywheres! “If it wasn’t a bought grave, you haven’t a hope of finding it.” He stared curiously. “If it was bought outright and paid for, you’d have the receipt, and the number of the grave on it, and then it’d be as easy as tying a shoelace to find it.” Tucker Tommy never took his gaze from the man’s face. “When you don’t buy the plot, anyone who likes can be buried in it. And youse didn’t. Did you?”
His father had not bought it. There was no receipt. No number.
Only a knowledge of where they had laid her, and the knowing was no use when you couldn’t find the exact spot. He moved, to look round him. He had to find her. There were things to say. Questions and answers to be asked and told. A leavetaking. He hadn’t taken his leave of her, because she had gone before he knew rightly she was going. She had gone without a word to him, quietly, and without as much as a by-your-Ieave.
“You’re wearing out good leather.” The man’s voice halted him finally, and he came to rest before him.
“I can’t find her,” he said, and the man bit down on the thing in his mouth.
“No, son,” he said. “An’ what’d be the use if you could?” He braced himself heartily. ”I’m afraid she’s given you the slip this time, all right,” he said. And even after he had walked away, Tucker Tommy could still hear his voice.
She had gone and was gone and there had been so much he had wanted to say, none of which he would say now because she wouldn’t be there to hear. She had given him the slip, given them all the slip. He fought back the tears that sprang into his throat and flooded up to his eyes until a great sob tore through him, shattering his taut body in a burst of young despair. And when he finally cried, his eyes were dry, but his thin shoulders twitched as though he were being held in the grip of a black fit.
He came through grief to loneliness and the chiming of the cemetery’s bell, which he was hearing now for the last time, the solemn, slow, lonesome peal matching the slow turnings of his body as he moved to go. His eyes swept the graves in this new plot without fixing their attention upon anyone, for there was nothing to remember now, no need to know how it looked because she wasn’t here any more and he wouldn’t be coming back. She was gone.
Smith’s account of the burial of the character of the title was to find resonance in personal experience two years later.
Odd things remain from being the Established Church; one of which is a canon law that states that clergy may not refuse to bury. Perhaps it was canon law that prompted the call from the undertaker, though more likely a desperate search for someone to handle the occasion. Being the curate, I was dispatched.
The borough council had what the undertaker described as a ‘common plot’; it was what the local people called ‘paupers’ graves’. If there was no money to buy a grave, then you were interred in the common plot and your grave would be unmarked.
No-one in the parish had heard of the lady. She lived with her elderly brother who seemed to have drunk her pension as well as his own. He stood unsteadily at the graveside. There was to be no church service, simply burial prayers. The coffin was plain, without any decoration or inscription.
The gravediggers lowered the coffin and, sensing, that decency required their presence as mourners, stood in a line opposite the lady’s brother. The whole matter took no more than a few minutes. The brother ambled away without a word. I tried to call the following week, but even the gateway to the ground floor maisonette was heavily barred and barricaded.
It would be encouraging to imagine that Paul Smith’s memorial is a reminder of days long gone, that there are no more Mrs Baines, or ladies like the one laid to rest in an Ards cemetery in 1988, but that would assume a world that had changed.