Thursday, December 14, 2023
I have slowly but steadily become this town’s undertaker. I am firmly stitched into the fabric of this community as surely as a corpse is sewn into its shroud. I live on my own now, in a first-floor flat above an ice cream parlour in an ancient house on its ancient high street, just above the former town gates and within the palisade of the original Norman fortification. Within the pale, not beyond it. The ground behind my house is higher at the back than it is at the front; a good twenty feet higher. My front windows look down on the tourists struggling up the picturesque hill of the high street and my bedroom windows look out onto the graveyard of the town’s fifteenth-century church.
I am poised, like all undertakers, between the bone orchard and the shopfront, decay and commerce, the showroom and the furnace, trade and dissolution, but in my case, with a sort of comic literalness, like some kind of an overdrawn archetype; the Undertaker as a tarot card. The ground level comes halfway up the back of the house, so my bed lies a few feet underneath the sod of the graveyard outside, facing the same direction as the graves. I sometimes lie in bed and knock on the wall as if to rouse my long-dead neighbours to my presence; still here, my friends, still breathing, still above ground, brothers and sisters.
The whole back of the house is shored up, or rather, persistently leaned on by the ancient churchyard, and a deep plague pit rests against its basement, a pit that once memorably intruded in an avalanche of crumbled bones and powdery jawbones. The odd fragment still works its way up through the soil, like shrapnel to the surface of skin, to lie among the long grasses and the yarrow; the chunky knuckle of a femur, a broad, flat piece of stained rib. Once the pointing tip of an index finger - a phalange, accusatory and insistent in the direction I must go, as if I or anyone else has any choice in the matter.
Just under two hundred years ago, the occupant of the house was one John Shute and his wife, Elizabeth. He was a Radical Dissenter, a lay preacher, part of the English tradition that the Diggers and the Ranters and the Quakers come from, splitting from the authority of the established church to follow what they believed was the true message of Christ: liberation through social justice, dignity, morality and fairness over doctrine and corruption. He was an outspoken moral voice in this town, much to the irritation of the incumbent vicar of the church at the time, the bilious and unpopular Reverend Burroughs, who kept pace with John Shute for fifty years, finally out-living him to preside over his funeral, proving sadly that often-smouldering spite is better fuel for the body than open-hearted compassion.
I am not sure what John Shute would make of my psychedelically tinged, occult surroundings that was his former drawing room, now filled with trinkets from funerals I have done; paper origami cranes, dried boutonnières of gorse worn by mourners, dead bees, figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses, a brass Pan playing his pipe with his lusty cock standing upright against his shaggy stomach. There are photos of my long-dead ancestors, and my strange altar with its plastic skull and its corn dollies, napped Aint knives, thimbles full of grave dirt, my father’s medals, my mother’s hospice brooch, glass vials of the ground bones of my dead dog - brightly coloured fragments that look more like coral or rare minerals than the bones of an old hound. Everywhere in my flat, weird objects throbbing with meaning. A porcupine quill impales a crocheted devil to the wall and keeping him in place is a silver Tibetan knot of eternity. The door frames are lined with photos of my parents and my grandparents, and of strangers bought in market stalls in Marrakesh or table top sales in village halls: a man smoking a cigarette in a Moroccan house in the fifties, cross legged and beautiful but long dead, as is the young Irish lad in a tweed suit, proudly cradling the nose of his horse like a rural teddy boy with his best girl. They both look into the camera into the future eyes of someone they could never have conceived of.