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Authors: Tracy Chevalier

Falling Angels (9 page)

BOOK: Falling Angels
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"She was lying. He wasn't bothering us."
Ivy May often chooses to speak just when I don't want her to. I felt like pinching her.
Mr. Jackson raised his eyebrows. "What was he doing?"
I couldn't think what to say, and looked at Ivy May.
"He was showing us where to go," Ivy May said.
I nodded. "We were lost, you see."
Mr. Jackson sighed. His jaw moved about as if he were chewing something. "Why don't I escort you two young ladies to your mother. Do you know where she is?"
"At our grave," I said.
"And what is your name?"
"Lavinia Ermyntrude Waterhouse."
"Ah, in the meadow, with an angel on it."
"Yes. I chose that angel, you know."
"Come with me, then."
As we turned to follow him I did give Ivy May a great pinch, but it was not very satisfying because she did not cry out--I suppose she thought she had used her mouth enough for one day.
Edith Coleman
I cut short my visit. I had planned to stay to supper and to see Richard, but found the trip to the cemetery so trying that when we returned to my son's house I asked the maid to fetch me a cab. The girl was standing in the hallway with a dose of Beecham's on a tray--the only time she has ever had the sense to anticipate anyone's needs. She had flavored it with lime water, which was entirely unnecessary, and I told her so, at which point she giggled. Insolent girl. I would have shown her the door in an instant, but Kitty didn't seem to notice.
It was most annoying that Kitty didn't tell me who the Waterhouses were--then I would have avoided an unfortunate moment. (I can't help but wonder if she did it deliberately.) When we visited our grave I remarked on the angel on the next grave. Richard has indicated for some time that he intends to ask the grave owners to replace the angel with an urn to match ours. I merely asked Gertrude Waterhouse her opinion--neglecting as I did so to note the name on the grave. I was as surprised to discover it is their angel as she was to find we do not like it. In the interest of getting the truth out into the open--someone must, after all, and these things always seem to come down to me--I set aside any social embarrassment I felt and explained that everyone would prefer the graves to have matching urns. But then Kitty undermined my argument by saying she rather liked the angel now, while at the same time Gertrude Waterhouse confessed they did not at all like our urn. (Fancy that!)
Then that tiresome Waterhouse girl piped up, saying that if the graves had matching urns people would think the two families were related. That remark gave me pause, I must say. I don't think such an association with the Waterhouses would be beneficial to the Colemans in the least.
And I don't think much of the Waterhouse girl's influence over my granddaughter--she has no sense of proportion, and she may well ruin Maude's. Maude could do much better for a friend.
I wash my hands of the affair of the angel and the urn. I have tried, but it is for the men to sort out, while we women bear the consequences. It is unlikely that Richard will do anything now, as it has been over three years since the angel was erected, and apparently he and Albert Waterhouse are quite friendly on the cricket team.
It was all very awkward, and I was furious with Kitty for making it so. It is just like her to embarrass me. She has never been easy, but I was more inclined to be tolerant of her when she and Richard were first married, as I knew she made him happy. These past few years, however, they have clearly been at odds. I could never speak to Richard of it, of course, but frankly I am sure she does not welcome him into her bed--otherwise they would have more children and Richard would not look so grim. I can do nothing but hint to Kitty that things ought to be otherwise, but it has no effect--she no longer makes Richard happy, and she seems unlikely to make me a grandmother again.
Now, to smooth things over with Gertrude Waterhouse, I changed the subject to the upkeep of the cemetery, about which I was sure we would all be in agreement. When my husband and I were married he brought me to the cemetery to show me the Coleman family grave, and I was all the more certain that I had chosen well in a husband. It looked to be a solid, safe, and orderly place: the boundary walls were high, the flower beds and paths well tended, the staff unobtrusive and professional. The much praised landscape design did not interest me, and I didn't care for the excesses of the Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon, but I recognized them as features that have established the reputation of the cemetery as the preferred burial place of our class. Far be it from me to complain.
Now, however, standards are slipping. Today I saw dead tulips in the flower beds. That would never have happened thirty years ago--then a flower was replaced the moment it passed its prime. And it is not just the management. Some grave owners are even choosing to plant wildflowers around their graves! Next they'll bring in a cow to munch the buttercups.
As an example of lowered standards I pointed out some ivy from an adjacent grave (not the Waterhouses') that was creeping up the side of ours. If nothing is done it will soon cover the urn and topple it. Kitty made to pull it off, but I stopped her, saying it was for the cemetery management to make sure other people's ivy doesn't grow onto our property. I insisted that she leave the ivy as evidence, and that the superintendent himself be alerted to the situation.
To my surprise Kitty went off then and there to find the superintendent, leaving Gertrude Waterhouse and me to make awkward conversation until she reappeared--which was a very long time indeed. She must have taken a turn around the entire cemetery.
To be fair, Gertrude Waterhouse is pleasant enough. What she needs is more backbone. She should take some from my daughter-in-law, who has far more than is good for her.
Simon Field
I like it up the tree. You can see all over the cemetery, and down to town. You can sit up there all peaceful and no one else sees you. One of them big black crows comes and sits on the branch near me. I don't throw nothing or yell at it. I let it sit with me.
I don't stay long, though. When the girls are gone a few minutes I climb down to find'em. I'm running down the main path when I see Mr. Jackson coming the other way and I have to dive behind a grave.
He's talking to one of the gardeners. "Who is that woman with the girls?" he says. "The one wearing the apple-green dress?"
"Tha's Mrs. Coleman, guv. Kitty Coleman. You know that grave down by the paupers with the big urn? Tha's theirs."
"Yes, of course. The urn and the angel, too close together."
"Tha's it. She's a looker, ain't she?"
"Watch yourself, man."
The gardener chuckled. "Sure, guv. Sure I'll watch myself."
When they've passed I go down to the graves. I have to hide from the gardeners working in the meadow. It's tidy here, all the grass clipped and the weeds pulled and the paths raked. Some places in the cemetery they don't bother with so much now, but in the meadow there's always someone doing something. Mr. Jackson says it has to look good for the visitors, else they won't buy plots and there'll be no money to pay us. Our pa says that's rubbish--people die every day and need a place to be buried, and they'll pay whether the grass is cut or no. He says all that matters is a grave well dug.
I crouch down behind the grave with the angel on it. Livy's grave. There still ain't no skull 'n' crossbones marked on it, though it makes my fingers itch to see it blank like that. I kept my word.
The ladies are standing in front of the two graves talking, and Livy and Maude are sitting in the grass, making chains out of little daisies. I peek out now and then but they don't see me. Only Ivy May does. She stares straight at me with big greeny-brown eyes like a cat that freezes when it sees you and waits to see what you're going to do--kick it or pat it. She don't say nothing and I put my finger on my mouth to go
shhh.
I owe her for saving our pa's job.
Then I hear the lady in the green dress say, "I'll go and find the superintendent, Mr. Jackson. He may be able to get someone to look after things here."
"It won't make any difference," the old lady says. "It's the attitude that's changed. The attitude of this new age which doesn't respect the dead."
"Nevertheless, he can at least have someone remove the ivy, since you won't allow me to," the lady in green says. She kicks at her skirts. I like it when she does that. It's like she's trying to kick 'em off. "I'll just go and find him. Won't be a minute." She goes up the path and I slip from grave to grave, following her.
I'd like to tell her where Mr. Jackson is now, but I don't know myself. There's three graves being dug today, and four funerals. There's a column being put up near the monkey puzzle tree, and there's some new graves sunk and need more dirt on'em. Mr. Jackson could be any of them places, overseeing the men. Or he could be having a cuppa down the lodge, or selling someone a grave. She don't know that, though.
On the main path she almost gets run down by a team of horses pulling a slab of granite. She jumps back, but she don't shriek like lots of ladies would. She just stands there, all white, and I have to hide behind a yew tree while she takes out a handkerchief and presses it to her forehead and neck.
Near the Egyptian Avenue another lot of diggers comes down toward her with spades over their shoulders. They're hard men--our pa and me stay away from 'em. But when she stops 'em and says something they look at the ground, both of 'em, like they're under a spell. One points up the path and over to the right and she thanks 'em and walks the way he pointed. When she's past they look at each other and one says something I can't hear and they both laugh.
They don't see me following her. I jump from grave to grave, ducking behind the tombstones. The granite slabs on the graves are warm under my feet where they've been in the sun. Sometimes I just stand still for a minute to feel that warmth. Then I run to catch up with her. Her back from behind looks like an hourglass. We got hourglasses on graves here with wings on 'em. Time flies, our pa says they mean. You think you got long in this world but you don't.
She turns down the path by the horse statue into the Dissenters, and then I remember they're trimming branches off the horse chestnuts back there. We go round a corner and there's Mr. Jackson with four gardeners--two on the ground and two who have climbed a big chestnut tree. One of 'em straddles a branch and shinnies out along it, holding tight with his legs. A gardener on the ground makes a joke about the branch being a woman, and everybody laughs 'cept Mr. Jackson and the lady, who nobody knows is there yet. She smiles, though.
They've tied ropes round the branch and the two men up the tree are pulling back and forth on a two-man saw. They stop to wipe the sweat off their faces, and to unstick the saw when it gets caught.
Some of the men see the lady in the green dress. They nudge each other but nobody tells Mr. Jackson. She looks happier watching the men in the tree than when she was with the other ladies. Her eyes are dark, like there's coal smudged round them, and little bits of her hair are coming out of their pins.
Suddenly there's a crack, and the branch breaks where they're sawing it. The lady cries out, and Mr. Jackson turns round and sees her. The men let the branch down with the ropes and when it's on the ground they start sawing it to pieces.
Mr. Jackson comes over to the lady. He's red in the face like it's him been sawing the branch all this time instead of telling others what to do.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Coleman, I didn't see you. Have you been here long?"
"Long enough to hear a tree branch compared to a woman."
Mr. Jackson sputters like his beer's gone down the wrong way.
Mrs. Coleman laughs. "That's all right," she says. "It was quite refreshing, actually."
Mr. Jackson don't seem to know what to say. Lucky for him one of the men in the tree shouts down, "Any other branches to cut here, guv?"
"No, just take this one down to the bonfire area. Then we're finished here."
"Do you have fires here?" Mrs. C. asks.
"At night, yes, to burn wood and leaves and other refuse. Now, madam, how may I be of service?"
"I wanted to thank you for speaking to my mother-in-law about cremation," she says. "It was very instructive, though I expect she was rather taken aback to be answered so forthrightly."
"Those with firm opinions must be dealt with firmly."
"Whom are you quoting?"
"Myself."
"Oh."
They don't say nothing for a minute. Then she says, "I think I should like to be cremated, now that I know it will be no more of a challenge to God than interment."
"It is something you must consider carefully and decide for yourself, madam. It is not a decision to be taken lightly."
"I don't know about that," she says. "Sometimes I think it matters not a jot what I do or don't do, or what is done to me."
He looks at her shocked, like she's just cursed. Then one of the gatekeepers comes running up the path and says, "Guv, the Anderson procession's at the bottom of Swain's Lane."
"Already?" Mr. Jackson says. He pulls his watch from his pocket. "Blast, they're early. Send a boy over to the grave to tell the diggers to stand by. I'll be down in a moment."
"Right, guv." The man runs back down the path.
"Is it always this busy?" Mrs. C. says. "So much activity doesn't encourage quiet contemplation. Though I suppose it is a little quieter here in the Dissenters."
"A cemetery is a business, like any other," Mr. Jackson says. "People tend to forget that. Today in fact is relatively quiet for burials. But I'm afraid we can't guarantee peace and quiet, except on Sundays. It's the nature of the work--it's impossible to predict when people will pass on. We must be prepared to act swiftly--nothing can be planned in advance. We have had twenty funerals in one day. Other days we've had none. Now, madam, was there something else you wanted? I'm afraid I must be getting on."
BOOK: Falling Angels
9.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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