I hadn’t been in Three Bridges for 51 years before yesterday.
But as soon as the train stopped, I remembered the last time as if it was yesterday. I had the day off from prep school to attend my grandmother’s funeral and, as a disorganised eight-year old, I had the challenge of changing trains at Three Bridges. Even the headmaster, who well disguised any respect and affection he had for me, took trouble to explain how the changeover worked.
‘And I want you to be very brave today,’ he added once he’d sorted out the travel arrangements. ‘No tears. We don’t want to let the school down, do we?’
Speaking for myself, I would have liked to let the school and its snobbish head down more than almost anything in the world, but the uncomfortable truth was I wasn’t that sad, and probably wouldn’t cry anyway. The granny I adored was safe in her highland cottage, placing bets on the horses and cursing the carrot fly in her rock garden. This granny and I had never really clicked. There was something aloof and other worldly about her, and a disturbing habit of writing prayers for me, that exhorted her God to make me a better person.
‘I’ll try, Sir,’ I said brightly.
Later on in my grandparents’ house, I was forbidden to see her in her coffin, laid out prior to the funeral in what she used to refer to as her ‘boudoir’, and I had to wait till no one was looking before stealing a glance. Disappointingly, it was the unchanged her, only pale and horizontal, covered in pieces of lace, hands primly clasped in front of her. I don’t know what I hoped to see, but the Cranleigh undertakers clearly didn’t go in for transfigurations.
An hour later, I saw my father cry silent tears as we stood to sing the final hymn.
Drop thy still dews of quietness
I’d never seen him do this before, and it made me uncomfortable. I bit my tongue till it bled to try to follow suit myself.
Let all thy strivings cease
Personally, all I could think about was the sandwiches and nibbles we had been promised at the wake.
Take from our souls the strain and stress
I loved this hymn, and it made crying even harder. I tried to think of how I might cry if my own mother died.
And let our ordered lives confess
It never occurred to me that this big, bearded God might not even exist, or that we all wouldn’t go to heaven anyway.
The beauty of thy peace.
Except, Mr. Salmon, of course. Heaven wouldn’t be right for him.
I saw her lowered into the ground from the safe distance of the churchyard’s lychgate, and only met her again thirty years later when I inherited her first husband’s war diaries (1914-18) and four years of the love letters between them.
Frank was killed in an apple orchard at Favreuil on August 26th1918, shot through the neck by a machine gunner hidden in the church tower. With his death, all the hope, faith, optimism and lightness of her twenty-six years died too, and it never came back.
She married again, eventually, but never forgave my lovely grandfather for not being Frank. She raised two boys she loved dearly, but she raised them in Frank’s shadow, not Bill’s, a will o’ the wisp that was out there somewhere on the moorland of their young lives. When my father came to marry, she told his fiancée of her one inspiration, and unforgivably asked her to make it her own, too.
By the time I was old enough to know her, she had been struck down by a stroke that left her speechless, and my main memory of the visits now was that we cashed in with a ten shilling note if we saw the visit through.
So only quite recently have I really understood what happened to her. About ten years ago, my penance, it turned out, was to try to write the war poem that Frank might have, possibly should have, written to her the night before he died. (It is in the section of the blog called ‘Poetry’; if you would like to read it, it is called Words from a Final Night in Hell)
All I remember now was that the cucumber sandwiches at the wake were watery.