And men myrtles, part one

Click for the full illustration

Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
And men myrtles, ere the night
Slays day with her dark sword

Ezra Pound - And Thus In Nineveh

Even through the folded newspapers William could feel the cold seeping into his bones. His legs hurt from kneeling on the damp grass. His back ached dully. Without passion he berated himself for his foolishness. At your age.

In his large hand the tiny trowel looked ridiculous: a toy, a woman's thing. The indoor gardening set had been a present from his wife Joan; their first and last Christmas in Oxford. He found he was staring at the trowel intently. He turned it a little back and forth as though trying to understand what it was doing in his hand. Pale sunlight danced along the edge of the steel blade. With one finger he tried to brush away the clots of earth that clung to it but only succeeded in smearing the polished surface.

He looked up at the line of trees that bounded the cemetery. Against the mute greyness of a September sky they had the appearance of a high hedge or wall. The kind of wall that might mark the boundary between the real world and another realm entirely. A wall the other side of which wondrous things might be happening. The fancy surprised him in its fleet passage across his consciousness - and was summarily dismissed. Reality was about all he had to hold on to.

Beyond the cemetery lay no realm of wonder but the mundanity of the modern world. The trees marked the line of Five Mile Drive, a busy main road that siphoned its share of traffic between the village of Wolvercote and the A4165. Beyond Five Mile Drive a sea of mediocre housing rose southward in a ragged tide against Oxford's knees.

William arched his back and began to move his head from side to side in a grotesque attempt at relieving the soreness in his neck. It made little difference but caught the attention of a group of children who began mocking him from beyond the railings.

William glanced across at them instinctively, then cursed himself for doing so. It would only encourage them. Two of the boys - eight or nine years old by appearance - lounged astride bicycles. From a distance it was difficult to tell but the machines looked new. The scruffiest kids always seemed to have the newest wheels. Where'd you steal that, you little shit?

The third boy had climbed part way up the cast iron railings that surrounded the graveyard and was haranguing William with casual savagery. He looked to be no more than four years old. William did not recognise them but he knew their kind, scum from the council estate around St Peter's more than likely.

'Bugger off!'

William hadn't intended his voice to carry but the shout coincided with a lull in the traffic and it was immediately obvious his tormentors had heard him. The taunts ceased abruptly.

He turned away, as shocked as the boys at the desperate anger in his voice. They had taken him, no doubt, an old man kneeling in the dirt, for an easy target. He braced himself for the inevitable retaliation but none came and when he looked up again the boys had disappeared.

He found his heart was beating wildly. He felt faint; light-headed. Scrapping with kids.

At your age.

He still had hold of the trowel in his right hand. He planted it in the ground and leant heavily on it. The scene before him - grass, earth, stone, flowers - smeared away out of focus. Suspecting it might not be the wisest thing to do in the circumstances he closed his eyes.

For a long time he did nothing but fight to remain conscious. Pale lights swirled behind his eyes which gave him the disturbing sensation of spinning through space; either that or the universe, every last atom of it, was turning slowly, with him at its centre. Blood pulsed in his ears: through the throbbing external noises came to him as if from a great distance and yet precisely, individually distinct. Shouts of football practice from the field away to his right, beyond the high cemetery hedge. Feet on a gravel path somewhere nearby. Bird song high in the trees behind him.

William grasped at the sounds with a quiet, almost noble, desperation. He was in the cemetery. It was Sunday morning. He was not going to faint across his wife's grave.

Gradually his breathing began to calm. His hearing normalised and the spinning sensation stilled to a gentle motion that nauseated him and yet which brought in its way a measure of comfort. So Joan would rock him in the latter years, holding him close against the pain that would so soon take her from him. Then a tide of emotion broke overwhelmingly upon him and for a time he wept there on his knees, silently and inconsolable.

The taste of salt on his lips brought William back to the present. For a moment he savoured the bitterness of his tears then blinked his eyes open against the pale sunshine. The simple headstone swam blearily into focus.

Joan Mary Stokes
Beloved wife

He struggled to his feet. He wanted to say something; to speak to her, share his pain and emptiness with her but the words were not in him. Instead he bowed his grey head and stood there in mute memorial, gaunt and shabby in his shapeless overcoat. The struggle to be strong for her had used all the energy he owned long before the end; when death came for Joan there was little left for himself.

William was fifty-three years old, perhaps a dozen fewer than he appeared to casual observance. Those boys would never have jeered him in his prime, or gotten off so lightly if they had dared to do so. Bastard. He had taught lads their age for thirty years. He knew - or had known - how to handle them. Now look at you.

He gazed down at his shoes. The mud had begun to dry out, caking the leather with a thin grey crust. He took a short step forward and made a half-hearted attempt to wipe one shoe against the low kerb that edged the grave.

Through the summer William had hedged the plot with lines of dwarf lavender and planted a lawn of creeping thymes and chamomile. In the spring the lawn would burst with snowdrop and narcissus. The latest addition to the garden, a tiny pink rose bush, struggled to assert itself in the shade of the black marble headstone. He wondered it was in the wrong place. He chuckled grimly. Something of his old self reasserted itself.

Like you, you daft bugger.

William took a small plastic watering can from the holdall at his feet and made his way across to the standpipe. It stood a little way off beneath a tree where two of the gravel paths crossed. For some reason it always made him think of gallows: didn't they used to hang people at crossroads?

Despite the sunshine the brass tap was icy cold in his hand. It was stiff and he gripped it tightly, straining to turn it on. His exertions were rewarded with the usual trickle of water. He held the can, another of his home gardening accessories, beneath the uncertain stream. From past experience William stood back from the spout as far as he could, leaning on it with one hand as he held the watering can in place with the other. The awkwardness of the stance made his neck ache to look about him and so it was that he heard their approach before he saw them.

They were orderly, respectful as they went in their twos and threes along the avenue which swept in a wide arc from the cemetery's east gate to the chapel at its centre. But there was an eagerness too and here or there a voice raised in greeting or sudden laughter. The sounds rippled across the cemetery grounds as though someone had tossed a pebble into the still pool of the morning.

William craned his neck; watched their progress with mingled interest and unease. So large a party - he counted at least thirty as they passed beneath the trees - was unusual for a Sunday. To his surprise he did not find their intrusion inappropriate; indeed they seemed somehow to belong here. Despite visiting Joan's grave almost every weekend William had the feeling that he, rather than this motley band, was the outsider.

Water splashed across his hand. He reached to turn off the tap but as he did so the breeze caught the last guttering stream and spattered it across his legs. He stared down at his trousers, watching as the material darkened in irregular patches. Clumsy sod.

The sound of feet on gravel brought William back from his reverie. The group had turned left at the end of the drive and were heading directly towards him along the path. They did not appear to have noticed him. Stood beside the tap in his decrepit overcoat and stained trousers, the ridiculous toy watering can still clutched in his hand, William felt vulnerable and alone. Joan's grave was nearby but to reach it he would have to cross the path in front of them. At the last moment he roused himself and moved back beneath the tree. From what scant cover it afforded he waited for them to pass.

At the head of what was now an ordered column one figure strode taller than the rest dressed, William noted in alarm, in a velvet cloak that fell almost to the ground. The dark blue fabric contrasted with the man's curly, flax-blond hair, cropped close about a face that was simultaneously youthful and austere. The man stared straight ahead as he came, glancing neither to left nor right as if unconscious of his surroundings and the band that followed him between the grave plots and close-mown lawns. He appeared solid enough yet there was something so strange, so totally other about his demeanour that William was gripped with fear that what he watched was no man at all but an apparition conjured from another world.

He shook his head but the spectre continued its progress towards him. He had missed breakfast. He had worked an hour or more tending Joan's grave. His body ached and he had probably caught a chill. Some brats had called him names - and now a party of mourners had appeared to disturb his morning. All these things were perfectly commonplace, if rather less than pleasant, happenings. He had no business imagining anything weird or untoward. So what if one of them was wearing a cloak? In any event, they were upon him.

A few in the party turned towards William as they passed by, nodding briefly in greeting. The nicety embarrassed him and he scowled back without meaning to. They seemed normal enough.

Many were in their mid to late thirties and had disdained their leader's medieval attire for coats and jackets, trousers and sensible shoes. A few, well into old age, held themselves erect in suits and Sunday best. But the greater number lounged along in jeans and sweaters, scarves and untidy hair. Bloody students, William spat under his breath as if the invective might make him feel better about himself.

Then out of the blur of passing faces William found himself staring into the face of a young girl. It was difficult to tell these days but she looked fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. Her long black hair was drawn tightly behind her head framing a face whose pale beauty seared him in the moment that her eyes held his. Then her gaze flicked away and she was gone with the rest along the narrow path.

William watched them go. He could still distinguish their flaxen-haired leader, tall above his motley band. They were a dozen yards from the end of the path. For a moment William had the strange sensation that he was not going to stop but would lead them, Pied Piper like, through the high hedge that bounded the cemetery and on across the recreation field to whatever lay beyond. Linkside Avenue. The lake, railway, then on to the A road and the bypass. But those were all modern. What was there before? Before what?

At the last moment the Piper veered to the right along one of the grassy lanes that led between the plots of the Roman Catholic quarter. Beside the third or fourth in the line he stopped. The remainder of the party arranged themselves in a loose circle about the grave, joining a dozen or so others whose arrival William had failed to notice. He was more or less certain they had not been there when he went for the water.

He realized with alarm that he was gasping for breath. He leant heavily against the tree for support. What was wrong with him? The sensation passed quickly this time but he was left feeling weak and uncertain. There was a bench along the path and he made his way towards it with shuffling steps. It was close - too close - to this strange party but he needed to sit down. And there was something else, something that might be curiosity but felt to William rather more like need. The arrival of these people into his world, the tall man and the girl with the raven hair, was a more than incidental event. He did not know what it meant but, good or bad, he needed to find out.

William reached the bench without being noticed and eased himself down. He was still holding the plastic watering can. A little of the water had spilled out onto the path but it was still nearly full. It might look ridiculous but in the uncertainty of this morning it was something concrete, something known. He clasped it in his lap with both hands.

He looked for the girl but couldn't see her amongst the folk, now gathered two and three deep around the grave. The Piper was standing in the front rank, head bowed with the rest in quiet prayer or contemplation. A few minutes passed then a middle-aged woman in a faded leather jacket stood forward and began to address the gathering. Here or there a quiet word or two was exchanged but most of the group seemed to be listening attentively. William strained to hear for himself but could catch little of what was being said. No doubt it was some sort of eulogy.

At last the woman finished speaking and stepped back into line. For a moment no one moved and William wondered what was coming next. There was an air about them he struggled to identify. Respect, certainly; reverence perhaps but something more: something deeper, closer bound them together. What had brought them to this ordinary cemetery on the outskirts of Oxford?

The Piper drew a thick book from beneath his cloak. He stepped forward a pace or two from the line with the volume held in front of him on his outstretched palms as though offering it to the others, or perhaps to the interred. William took it to be a bible until the man opened it and began to read aloud. His voice rose and fell on the breeze. The words came to William clear and cold, distant yet distinct, as though from another time and place.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Then William caught sight of her again. She was standing no more than half a dozen feet from the speaker. How had he not noticed her until now? He looked away, anxious in case she noticed him watching her. Then, risking another glance, he realised that like many of those around the grave her eyes were closed.

Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?

Her pale complexion contrasted strongly with the jet black hair and darkly pencilled eye line. Her lips, painted a deep carmine red, were slightly parted and moved a little as he watched her. Whatever the text she knew it well and was reciting it silently to herself.

William drank her in. For the first time he became aware of what she was wearing. A black fur coat fell almost to the ground over dark trousers and a short purple t-shirt that revealed an inch or more of flesh at her midriff. A heavy metal crucifix hung on a thong at her chest. The weight of the cross pulled the shirt tight between her breasts.

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow.

William felt hot in the pale sunshine. He was too old - and this girl was far too young - for him to be examining her so closely. It wasn't like him. He had never ... And here, in a cemetery, in the midst of this party's elaborately staged remembrancing, no more than fifty yards from Joan's grave ... It was more than perverse, it was disrespectful, sacrilegious. His heavy coat was a burden, dragging him down into the seat. Beads of sweat broke out across his forehead. Afraid he might pass out he dipped his fingers into the watering can and smeared his face with the icy water. It helped a little and he became aware again of the words. He closed his eyes.

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

The heroic voice stilled at last into silence. Dark shapes shifted in William's mind. They flowed like shadows or smoke, like heavy waves upon the ocean. He felt himself being swept up into the darkness but he was afraid to open his eyes in case the crowd had noticed him sat there. In case she had noticed him sat there: an old man on a cemetery bench. Decrepit. Pathetic. All at once the voices of those gathered at the graveside rose together in a great tide of confirmation and closing.

So men still sing in the evening!

Tears welled behind William's eyes and ran streaming down his face. The watering can slipped from his fingers to the ground. Water splashed his ankles, soaking the gravel between his feet. He took his head in his hands and rocked himself against the pain.

Ages - or perhaps minutes - passed during which he became aware that a new voice had arisen. The timbre of the chanting moved him. He concentrated on the words but they were in a tongue he did not know, could not even recognise. As a former teacher of modern languages this was unusual enough to focus his attention. In confusion he stopped trying to translate the words. And almost drowned in understanding.

Clouds towered about and before him, rising with thunder over the foaming waves of an ocean so wide that it could admit no crossing and so deep as to drown any misery. No path lay before his feet that was not hidden in shadow. He looked towards the mountains and found them wreathed in mist. Fully and for the first time since Joan's death he knew the absolute nature of his loss and isolation.

But through the plainsong hope wound like a slender filament of gold. William caught at it as a man will clutch straws in a gale. The great voice climbed higher challenging the dark and the thread grew in his hands to a pulsing ribbon of fire.

Nai hiruvalyë Valimar,
Nai elyë hiruva!

Hope rose within William then. At first it was a frail and fragile thing like a butterfly in a storm or the flower that first awakens in the throat of Winter. Like snowdrop and narcissus on a grave. But greater and higher it grew and the light of it cast back the mist from the mountains and the shadows from his road and the clouds that rolled like wings of thunder over the ocean.

Perhaps the song and the music ceased but for a long time William remained there, lost in its gift until at last he awoke to himself again. He sat up stiffly, wiped away the half-dried tears with the back of his sleeve. The material felt rough against his skin.

'What the fuck was all that about?'

He spoke gruffly to himself, out loud as if he needed to hear the sound of his own voice. The sun had shifted. The bench was in shadow and he felt cold, chilled. He clutched the coat tight about him. Bloody fell asleep, you old sod.

He moved his feet and the plastic watering can span away across the gravel. He stared at it suspiciously as though trying to work out what it was doing there; what he was doing on this bench. As far as he could remember he had never been down this end of the cemetery before. He had no reason to. The can failed to provide any illumination: he bent down and picked the thing up. He looked across at the rows of headstones in front of him. Nothing special about them. There was nobody there. The strange party had gone. Unless it had all been a dream. A hallucination. You're going mad, Bill Stokes my lad. Bloody hell.

At that moment she stood from kneeling at the graveside and he saw her again. It wasn't a dream, then. It had all been real. The girl. The group with their Pied Piper leader. The words, the singing. The visions. Everything. The conclusion was only slightly less terrifying than believing he was losing his mind. Bloody hell.

She stood there for several minutes. Her head was down, her hands buried deeply in the pockets of her coat. Then she removed one hand and held it in front of her. There was something on her palm. William could not see what it was. A small stone, perhaps. With head still bowed she glanced nervously to either side as though afraid or embarrassed lest someone might be watching. She didn't seem to see him. Then she tipped her hand and the thing - whatever it was - fell to the ground.

William froze in his seat. His heart had jumped at seeing her again but he had no desire for her to notice him sitting there. Beyond his own discomfiture he knew that whatever he had just witnessed was personal, some private act of devotion she had wanted to keep private. A moment later she turned and walked quickly down the path in the direction of the chapel.

The long black coat swung to and fro about her hips as she walked. Nice arse. The crudity was deliberate, earthy, raw - real after all the phantoms he had been experiencing.

William lost her at last behind the larger monuments that occupied the central area of the cemetery. He sighed deeply. She was gone, then. He felt his body relax. Her presence - her very existence - demanded too much from him. He stood up, stretching his aching limbs. The empty watering can dangled at his side as he made his way back to the tap to refill it.

Water gurgled and gushed as before. How much time had passed? One hour? Two? He was not wearing a watch but from the hunger that gnawed at his belly it had to be well past midday.

He turned the tap off and made his way back to Joan's grave. The holdall lay open on the grass, his tools on top of the pad of folded newspapers. Just where you left them. He watered the little rose bush with a tenderness that would have surprised anyone witness to his earlier sturdy expletives. With the last of the water he cleaned the trowel and secateurs. In a few moments he had packed everything away. As he straightened his shadow fell diagonally across the stone.

Beloved wife

He took leave of her at last without a word and walked the short distance to the path. He had intended to head for the main gate and his bus home but instead turned right, back towards where he had been sitting earlier. As he approached he noticed for the first time a low wooden white-on-green pointer beside the path. JRR Tolkien, author.

He followed along the aisle of graves to where the group had been standing. If he still doubted what he had witnessed the wide circle of scuffed turf was evidence enough to convince him. A number of floral tributes had been laid out on the grass and William bent down to examine the cards. One read simply Thank you. Another, To the Professor. The largest wreath had been left by 'The Tolkien Society'.

William snorted. Nobody was ever going to form a society for him. No crowd of misfits would gather around his grave on a chilly September morning. The William Stokes Society. No bloody chance! Who was this Tolkien, anyway? The name was vaguely familiar to him but he couldn't recall the context. Joan had been a great reader and he had read stories and poetry to her in the later days. Perhaps that was where he had heard it.

It was a simple enough grave to have attracted so much attention. A low arched stone of rough granite stood sturdily at the head between square pillars. A heavy kerb of the same material surrounded the plot which had been planted, profusely but inexpertly, with a variety of species. Trails of ivy almost obscured the inscription.

1889 - 1971
1892 - 1973

Continued here ...