by Simon Ciappara
“I was Sexton here for sixty years, seen eleven vicars out. It don’t tell that on the tablet they put over my bones. Just ‘Jeremiah Rust aged 80’. Nothing poetic or sentimental not even ‘Sexton of this Parish’. They don’t rightly know if I was 80 when they planted me. Don’t even know myself. Never knew my Father and Ma died bringing me into the world. “
“Called Lotty Giddney ‘Ma’, she raised me in that Cobb Cottage yonder, on the edge of the common. Lived there all my life, never left, never had no schooling. Lotty taught me me letters, reckoning and all her herb lore; where to find ‘em; what time of the moon to cut and dry ‘em; how to prepare tinctures, teas, rubs and salves for every ailment known to man and some special to women and their ‘ebb and flow’ as she called it”.
“Started here in the bone yard when I was ‘bout a foot taller than the long spade and two foot taller than the mattock. Worked under Sexton Thurtall for the next seventeen years till he passed. I’ve been Sexton ever since, worn sixteen spades down to a whisper of steel, broken mattocks on frozen ground cutting slots in this church yard. Blisters! Don’t talk to me about blisters. In the first year or so hands raw as Pork on the hook, but Lotty looked about them and toughened them up so as you could strop a razor on ‘em. Couldn’t exactly say it left a scar but never had a palm print after that, no life line , no heart line , no head line just smooth and shiny and tough as a boot sole.”
Lots said, “that ever after my life was my own, to shape as I pleased, all my past and future erased and to forge my path for my self beholden to no-one.”
“Sitting here on this bench, just out of the sun, has been my place of solace since they put it here in 1938 ‘In Loving Memory of Percival Dorcy Esquire’. Never seen any one else sit here in all those years. That was the year before war broke out. Seems like there was just women and children to dig slots for then, all the men sent off to fight. We was never bombed here, but we did see them coming over in waves heading for Birmingham, Coventry and the like. The rationing never really touched me and Lotty, as we grew and foraged most of what we needed and Lotty never liked to take money for her healing, just a pot of jam, honey, bacon or something of the like, so we never went hungry”.
“I was lost when she passed, just fetched the Vicar. When the spirit left her she seemed to shrink so small and bird like, light as dry bread. I Guess it must seem odd to you, but I never saw a body just the boxes as I filled in the slots. Her’s was the best and most careful hole I ever dug. You could put a rule down the side, clean and level to one fathom exact. Vicar said I could chose the spot, marked out mine at the same time”.
“She lies there next to me. Never could afford a tablet. So now I’m gone nothing marks the place except Crocuses in the spring. Lotty loved Crocuses. Used to tell about Saffron and how precious it was. Once a year Lady Dorcy sent her a pinch just before Easter and Lotty would make Simnell cake. We’d eat it slowly, still warm, savouring every crumb. Lotty would tell about the Saffron and far off Spain and how ordinary folk all over the world, just like she and me, would harvest spices in wild and forgotten places so as to scratch a living. I never tired of her herb lore and can hear her still in the last of the light talking to her self as much as me”.
“In all my years as Sexton I never once saw a ghost, spirit or phantom. So finding myself sitting watching time pass over my own stone has been a shock. I’ve not met anyone here and don’t even know if you can hear me now. I’ve looked all over for company, I know the fox that passes through can see me, but the birds fly straight through me ‘cos for them I’m not there”.
“There is one Wren. She used to sit on my spade handle taking crumbs of sandwich from my palm. She’ll sit on the arm of this bench and cock her head to one side looking straight at me. I’m sure I hear her say, ‘Don’t tarry be on your way. Lotty’s waiting. Just follow the shadows into night’. One of these nights perhaps I will. Till then I’ll sit and watch till the Crocuses come”.