An Uncluttered Day.      


“I’m blathered,” Tim sweated and puffed, and dropped his ample behind on a wide bench, rucksack dumped carelessly on the stone paving.  Damp patches appeared on his denim shirt.  “I could murder a pint.  How come its so hot all of a sudden?”

“Must have seen you coming Tim, and turned up the gas,” Dick replied.  “Joe’s getting them in.”

“Weird lot in there,”  said Joe, carrying the drinks out to the walled front terrace.  “Lunchtime and well scattered.”

They sat quietly, taking in the July dale scene.  Flat green fields were held by grey walls and barns and farmhouses, casting short shadows in the still sunshine.  A darkly wooded river bed separated the valley bottom from gradually sloping fells, capped by brown moorland. They listened to the near silence of humming insects.

Dick turned toward movement.  Two ornately plumed large black horses pawed the ground, climbing the gentle incline to a church.  Their burden was a laden antique wood and glass hearse complete with top-hatted driver.  An unsteady assortment of black suits and frocks and hats made their way across the carpark and turned into the churchyard.  A bell began to toll.

“You’ve just been to a wake, Joe,” said Dick.

“Oh, that’s what it was,” Joe nodded.

Dick’s mind wandered, back to another time, another pub, another tragedy, “Do you know, there was the strangest thing.  I knew a bloke once who died.”

“I’ve known several,” laughed Joe, “This isn’t another of your stories, is it?”

“No, seriously.  It was like this,” and Dick started the tale of Dr. Edwards.  “I  met him in the eighties, when I worked in Northallerton.  We played a bit of twenty overs evening cricket together, so I never knew him that well really.  I do remember he was one of these retired doctors who went round doing locums, picking and choosing.  He once went to the Isle of Wight.  When I went to the West Riding I forgot about him.  Well, you know I come up here fairly regularly now.”

“Yes, we’ve heard.” said Joe.

“Well, maybe three or four years after, I called at ‘The Drover’s’.  Its about five miles from here; we’ll pass it this afternoon.  It was a freezing cold autumn day, and I remember the roaring fire.  And there he was, pulling pints?”

“Who was?  Get on with it.”  said Joe.

Dick ignored him, “The good doctor.  We talked a bit, but we’d nothing in common and he did seem a bit distant.  I imagined him as a bit of a visionary; you know, a dropout.  Perhaps he’d chosen a country life over the hassle of hospitals.  I thought it was great, why don’t I do that?  Well it just goes to show.”

“What does?” Tim and Joe were interested at last.

“Well I called again, maybe twelve months after, and he wasn’t there.  A new bloke was serving on.  Apparently Dr. Edwards had died of a heart attack that spring.  And no, he hadn’t chosen to opt out of the rat race.  He’d retired and bought the pub, and a small holding on the fell side, to look after his wife.  And then he’d died; must have only been in his early fifties, poor beggar.”

Joe had thrown his boots off and was getting a cigar going.  “It doesn’t pay to flog yourself.”

“You certainly don’t.  I wonder what happened to his wife?”  asked Tim.

Dick didn’t know and his story was over.  Only unanswered questions remained in that fleeting melancholy moment, too soon distracted by the return of the mourners.  Not all, as some were walking up the road, behind the hearse.

“What happened to that job, Dick?”  Tim must have been mulling over his own problems at work.

“I’ve still to decide.  Its a step up and good money, and they made a big fuss of me when I went to look.  Paid the travel, put me up in a five star hotel.  But I don’t need more bother.  I’ve done that.  And I’m a bit worried about Johannesburg.  They say its like the wild west. ”  Dick felt the tension between himself and Jane.  He wanted the job, but she wasn’t leaving at any price.  And they weren’t close any more, especially since the boys had gone.

“What does Jane think?”  Dick looked at Tim and Tim looked at Dick.  How much did the other know?

Dick chose the safe way out, “Good question,” he said, and got the next round, easing the quiet discomfort.  “Landlord says they’re going to do the burial at High Moor.  Its a ruin, but they still do burials; nice spot.”

“Are they going to walk?” wondered Joe, “How far is it?”

“Five miles or so, we might catch them up.”

“We’re not doing another five miles.”

“We’ll take it steady, you might enjoy it.”  Joe did not look convinced.

“Oh, cobblers!”  A white wet patch had appeared on Tim’s outsize shirt.  “It could only happen to me.” He looked up to see a nesting box under the eave, and stonework stained with bird droppings.  A cat suddenly appeared and jumped up onto the terrace wall, its back arched, furr on end.

“Its found lunch,” observed Joe.  The cat then dropped to the floor and climbing Tim’s trousers, dug its claws in.  Tim shrieked and clouted it round the head.  As it fell from his knee, it did a somersault and shot off over the wall, seemingly no worse for the experience.

A stout woman in a black outfit and thick make-up gently tottered onto the terrace and propped herself up against the wall, under the nesting box.  “Anyone seen a cat?” she slurred.

“A black and ginger one just went over the wall.”

“That’ll be our Morticia.  She wasn’t being a nuisance, was she?”

“No, not at all.”  Tim’s voice was all innocence and irony.

As she turned back into the pub, Joe silently mouthed at Tim, unbelief etched into his face, “M-O-R-T-I-C-I-A.”  They both grinned.

Dick wanted to spend some time at High Moor, so he started to pack, “Shall we get going?”

“What for, we’ve only just got here?” Joe had settled in now.

“We can have another at ‘The Drover’s’.  Be nice to get round in the sun.”

“I haven’t finished this one yet.  Give us a minute.”

“Why not?” Dick’s uncertainty about the walk surfaced.  Would it be too much for Joe?

Once they’d set off, it wasn’t far, down the tarmac road, to the bridleway.  It took them over a small stream, a trickle that in the winter rains was a torrent.  They heard, faintly at first, whistling and shouting and the anxious bleet of sheep.

“Somebody’s working dogs,” said Dick, “Look, up there.”  Three or four fields up to the left, a pair of collies were chasing about, worrying a dozen sheep and a man was waving his arms and a stick, and yelling.

“Noisy beggar,” said Joe.  “What’s all that about?”

Dick wasn’t sure.  “Is he training them and they’re not doing so well?”

They rested against the wall, arms folded along the top stones.  Had the shepherd turned toward them he would have seen three curious faces peering back at him, but he had other things on his mind; his world just then was dogs and sheep.

The track went right, away from the racket, and began to climb steeply.  Underfoot were stones the size of cobbles, good for walking uphill.  The walls either side were mostly intact, off-white and mossy.  A couple of beers and a stiff climb brought them to a halt, near the top, where they looked down for the first time.  The patchwork of wall and barn was now in minature, stretching away.  The local fell summits no longer hemmed them in and they saw blue shimmering pennine hulks, one after the other going south and Morecambe Bay was there to the west.  A cooling breeze gently gusted.

Joe had his boots off again, “How much further is it?”

Dick worried again about the route, “Same as we’ve come.”

“What, this morning as well?”

“No, just since the pub.”  Nobody spoke and Dick continued feeling just a little uneasy.

Tim, who had suffered most on the ascent, was now more comfortable, “I’m not built for this.  Where are we going?”

Dick wondered if a minor revolt was simmering, “Back to the car eventually, On this corpse way.  They used to carry the wickerwork coffins to burial down the dale.”

Joe coughed, “That lot at the pub would never do it.  Morticia; she looked more like Morticia, not the cat.  Where do you get all that stuff from anyway?”

“I used to live here, remember, and I come back most years.  And I read a bit.”

“My dad said you hadn’t to believe all the things you read in a book.”  Dick didn’t reply, but dimly sensed being told off.

It was a cue to move on, through fields and gates now, the route obvious, rutted and sunken from years of use.  They made the top, and then paused, just on the brow.  A small cluster of buildings lay below, like a toy town.  The blind end of the dale was to the right, a lake to the left, and in between, disorderly hedges and trees and grazing cattle and sheep.  The heat haze prevented a clear view beyond; but enough for them to recognise petering hills and the wide north Yorkshire plain.

“Mm, nice,” said Tim.

“OK. for you Joe?” asked Dick.  Joe curled his face somehow and nodded.

“I’ll take that as a yes then.”

The way down was steep and awkward on the knees and the grass had the baked slipperiness of high summer.  Tim stumbled grumpily three or four times, “This is hard work.”

“Aye, it is.”  Joe wasn’t slow to agree.

They were happier walking through the hamlet thirty minutes later.  It was a backwater, little more than a big untidy farm, littered with discarded tractors and farm machinery.  An old red telephone box stood next to a home-made piece of hardboard on a wooden stick, advertising afternoon teas.  All the years Dick had been coming he’d never seen a person here, other than walkers and a distant glimpse of a shepherd or a ploughing tractor.  And it was so quiet – even the insects were quiet.  It seemed overlooked somehow, beyond its ‘sell-by’ date, and yet Dick knew it had always been like this.  It was stubbornly scruffy, old-fashioned and dignified, some would say bloody-minded.  And he was a pilgrim, regularly drawn to the place, and to High Moor.

As they followed a small stream towards the far side of the lake, along a ‘make-do’ track of uneven hard core, Joe started to complain, “How much further is it?”

“Two or three miles.”

“It were two or three miles two miles ago.”

“Oh, do you think so?”

“I know so.”

“And I thought you were enjoying yourself, Joe.”

“Dick, I’d enjoy myself a sight more with a pint.”

As if to order they came across High Moor.  Dick had never said where they were going, but his intention had always been to come here again.  He often thought if God existed, He lived at High Moor.  He recalled some of his previous visits: when his mother died; camping with the boys before they got interested in computer games, loud radio noise and girls; and that first time, back in 1980, walking with Jane.

High Moor no longer existed as a village.  All that was left was a single-storey church in ruins.  But it still looked like a church.  A sign, hung on rusty railings, informed visitors to be careful.  A man could just peep over the surrounding wall, on tip-toe if he was Tim.  The church sat at one end of an oval unkempt graveyard, sloping down to the lake.  Unkempt that is, except for three graves on the higher ground away from the church.  They had the best view.

Dick lead the three men into the churchyard through a narrow gap in the wall guarded by a squat wooden gate that swung viciously.

Joe just missed a bruising, “By, that’s a strong spring.”

They were faced by old weathered headstones, writing barely discernible, some lying on the ground, others in various precarious states of falling over.  The grass had not been cut, yet it was short, full of black crusty sheep dung.  The boundary wall, now throwing long shadows, must be breached somewhere.  A cackling suddenly came from the lake, where water fowl had been disturbed.  Twenty seconds of furious flapping and chaotic water fountains and they were airborne, flying once up and once back down the lake, before settling again to bobbing on the water.  The men turned away from the lake and followed a narrow trough of shorter grass, not quite a path.  It took them up to the newer arrivals, simple black marble slabs.  The most recent, with fresh flowers from the funeral that afternoon, was the furthest.

They stopped at the first.  ‘In Loving Memory of Dr. Morgan Edwards.  Rest in Peace.  Born 1.6.35.  Died 4th April 1985.  Aged 49.’

Something like understanding gradually crossed Tim’s face, “Your friend, the good doctor.”

Dick was already at the second headstone, only feet away.  ‘In Memory of a Much Loved Son, Dr. Rees Edwards, Missionary.   Born 23.10.60.  Died South Africa 4th April 1984.  Aged 23.’

There was no talking now, as they each reconstructed the tragedy.  Joe moved back down the slope, and wandered about, looking out over the lake.  Dick and Tim carried on up the slope, knowing what they would find.  The message was simple, ‘In Memory of Mair Edwards.  Born 6.1.36.  Died 30.6.2000. Aged 64.’

“You’ve been here before,” said Tim.

“Yes, a few times.”  Tim could see that Dick was in awe of the place, and went back to join Joe, granting that important brief moment of privacy.

It was a muted single file that then walked down the lake side path.  They needed pullovers, since the sun had dropped behind the fell.  As they got closer to the car, Joe strode out.  Tim tried to keep up, but after a while, slackened and ambled along behind.  Dick lagged back by several hundred yards, turning often to look again at the lake and the quiet untidy dale, reluctant to let go of the sights and sounds that so moved him.  He knew now what he must do.  He realised he’d known for a while, but he’d never had any serious weighing-up time.  It needed a day like today, a day uncluttered by crisis.

They arrived at the car, parked at the side of the village green.  “The Drover’s”, as Dick had promised, was just round the corner.  No open fire today.  But the bare oak beams were there, with wooden benches and tables, standing on smooth, worn, uneven stone flags.  Unplastered walls carried photographs of the “Silver Band” and the epic snowfall of 1947.

Dick set the beer down, “Well, what did you think, Joe?”

“Brilliant, Dick.  Brilliant.”

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