‘And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad’
The fence which bordered Chris’ drive was laced with honeysuckle. After a morning spent creek jumping on Freiston Shore, I would linger in its heady perfume and, if I was on my own, lean sideways from my bike to press my nose into the pink and yellow petals. It was always best after a summer shower. With my cheeks tingling from the beads of rain which clung to the leaves, I breathed in deeply, my reward a sweet and delicious scent, both warm and sharp.
In my Young Naturalist’s phase at primary school, I had likened the smell to my dad’s Brylcreme: ‘Honey suckle. Lovely smell like Brylcreme’, words neatly printed in my Nature Notes, next to the drawing of a flower which resembled a mangled hand. Finding myself unequal to the task of recapturing the beauties of an English hedgerow on paper, however, Nature Notes was quickly abandoned. Yet my appreciation of wild flowers, honeysuckle in particular, remained undimmed.
It wasn’t just the sensuous experience; it was more than that. Whenever I inhaled the perfume of honeysuckle, time stood still for a brief second and I soared on the promise of eternal happiness. Just like the fair youth on Keats’ Grecian Urn, I could sing forever and the trees would never be bare.
But Death was already lying in wait, eager to puncture my callow visions of Immortality as I nuzzled my nose into the protruding stamens of my favourite flower.
‘Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying’
The Splendour Falls: Tennyson
Before Graham’s tragic accident, death happened elsewhere and to somebody I didn’t know. Actually, that’s not entirely true. But, then, Mrs. Lynch doesn’t really count. She died when I was four. I didn’t even register her absence until the day I caught my mum coming out of the front room. I had just slapped onto the lino in the hall, having completed my descent of the stairs in two knee-jarring leaps.
‘Keith, what have I told you? You’ll do yourself an injury one of these days.’
‘What you doing, mummy?’
‘I’ve just been in to shut the curtains. Mrs. Lynch from down the Avenue has just died. God bless her; she was such a lovely lady.’
‘Why did you draw the curtains?’
‘It’s a sign of respect. That’s what you do when somebody dies.’
‘Can I look?’
‘There’s nothing to see.’
‘Please, can I?’
‘It’s just dark.’
‘Oh, please, mummy.’
‘Well, all right, then, but just you be careful. And make sure you keep your hands off the furniture.’
It wasn’t just dark, it was cold as well. The front room was kept for best which meant that it was only ever used on Christmas day or when my mum wanted to impress the Insurance Man with a cup of afternoon tea. Not that he was a regular visitor. My mum liked to be prepared, that was all. I held my breath as I skirted the settee with its crisply ironed antimacassars. The room was as quiet as a museum. Tiptoeing over to the curtains, I parted them wide enough to sneak a glimpse of the front lawn and the road beyond. Leaning forward, the window sill digging into my Adam’s apple, I looked across at Liz’s house. Yes, their curtains were drawn as well.
‘That’s enough. Come on.’
My mum beckoned me back into the hall.
‘Can you remember Mrs. Lynch? Mind you, she’s been laid up badly these last six months.’
She shut the door slowly, careful not to disturb the silence within.
‘Chris sez she’s Old Biddy Lynch.’
‘Keith, that’s not a very nice thing to say. I don’t want to hear you talk like that.’
‘And he sez she’s a tortoise ‘cos she...’
‘Are you listening to me? I don’t want to hear any more.’
‘It wa’n’t me that said it. It was Chris.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Well, I hope you’re right.’
She didn’t blink or smile when she looked down at me.
‘Now, come on, you can play in the back. I don’t want you under my feet all morning. I’ve got the washing to do and daddy’s dinner to get on.’
Chris was right though. Mrs. Lynch was a tortoise. We had watched her one morning on her way to the shop. We were sitting on our front step. Mrs. Lynch didn’t walk, she shuffled. I don’t think either of her feet left the pavement. You could only see her head and shoulders above the hedge. The rest of her bent form remained hidden until it was revealed briefly through the bars of the front gate. As she inched forward, you could hear a rhythm of scuffing sounds, slow, yet insistent. We reckoned that you could have sucked your way through an aniseed ball by the time she was buying her bread loaf and Steradent.
‘Not a bad innings...that’ll do for me.’
‘Oh, Wally, don’t talk like that.’
My dad had just come home for his dinner. He was taking off his cycle clips in the passage.
‘Seventy-four? There’s a lot of folks who never get anywhere near it.’
He kissed my mum and threw his cap across the room at me.
‘And she died in her sleep, yer say? Yeh, that’ll do for me.’
I passed him his slippers as he sat down in the armchair next to the big radio with the goldfish bowl on top.
(‘It’ll be ready in two minutes.’)
He blew out his cheeks, then winked at me.
‘No rest for the wicked, eh, Keith? Right, better give me a hand to get up.’
He led me to the sink in the steam-filled kitchen.
‘Now dunt that smell good? Worth coming home for, that is.’
Mondays was shepherd’s pie, made with the leftovers from the Sunday roast. I had helped my mum turn the handle on the cast-iron mincer earlier that morning, peering into the top as she fed in the scraps of meat from a cracked plate on the table. As my dad held my hands under the cold water tap and rubbed the soap bar over them, I looked up at his stubbly chin.
‘Daddy, why did Mrs. Lynch die?’
‘Well, she was everso old. And when you get that old, yer body can’t take it any more. It’s a bit like that pedal car of yours – it gets rusty and then it stops working.’
‘Will she see Jesus?’
‘I expect she’s with him now.’
He rinsed my hands and turned off the tap. Grabbing the towel, he started to dry between my fingers.
‘Are Nana and Grandad going to die?’
‘Ooh, not for a long time. You don’t have to start worrying about that...Eh, look, your mum’s ready with the dinner. Come on, I’ll beat you to the table.’
To be continued.