Cigarettes and Dandelions
posted Wednesday, 20 October 2004
He had not seen the town before. It lay off a rarely used motorway in rural Warwickshire. He wasn’t sure he was meant to be here at all. He took up his notebook to see if he had followed the directions properly - yes, this must be the correct place for the encounter.
He left his car in a side turning, wondering whether it would he safe there, especially as it seemed to be dustcart day in the area. He looked back wistfully at the white Cavalier car, as he turned the corner into the town square, heading for the church tower he had been instructed to find.
It was a really beautiful day in early May and all seemed right with the world, as if he had just come out of darkness. The graveyard was welcoming with its relative peace, the birdsong acting as backdrop along with the faint screech of brakes from the town area.
He sat down on a wooden bench. It had been set against a gravemarker, which was like a stone laundry basket. The person he was to meet here could not fail to find him: there were only a few other benches, none leaning against a tomb like this one.
He lit a cigarette, vaguely wondering whether it was sacrilegious to do so in this particular spot. He must be careful to clear up his leavings afterwards. The first few drags made him feel light-headed and, unaccountably, he thought he could hear scratching coming from within the grave behind him.
The church bell marked the quarter of an hour with two simple strokes. The tower, which he had to turn his head to see, had peculiar battlements around the top as if it had been transported here from a castle. The whole building seemed disused. But, being a Thursday morning, he put that down to the time of the week. Obviously, on Sundays , the place would come alive, as townspeople gathered for morning service. Christianity would not be dead hereabouts, he was sure. Superstition thrived in such places, unlike the tawdry area of South London from where he’d just driven that morning along the near empty motorway (left unhauntcd even by the disfigured ghosts of pile-ups). It was difficult to be mystical when overtaking a brewery lorry at a speed man was never meant to emulate.
Abruptly, he was disrupted from his musings by the approach of an old lady carrying an empty wicker basket like a see-through skull.
“You came then?” Her voice croaked, as if she’d been on the fag all night.
He was tempted to deny his presence there. “It was easy.” He said it without even trying.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” She coughed, removing something she seemed to be sucking mid-throat.
The birdsong had ceased, without him even noticing. He offered her a cigarette from his pack of ten Woodbines, but she declined with a brusque shake of the head.
“I wanted to see you”, she said, “though I know it’s not the done thing.”
“All mothers want to see their children. It’s only natural.” They seemed to be the only words to say. He felt it would be cruel to ask the obvious question, although its answer was the only reason he’d come: to discover why a mother would rid herself of her own body as it were (since what are one’s children but living extensions of oneself with sufficient integrity to appear Separate?). Perhaps it had been the war or the lack of a husband to share the burden or just sheer fright at the prospect of bringing up a kid in an unwanted world or a combination of all these reasons.
“Have you always known you were adopted?”
“They told me when I was twelve.”
He tried to look at her more closely, without making it too obvious, desperately searching for some hint of himself amongst the crows’ feet. Not that he expected his own signature to be writ large. But being more than just a phantom birth, he wanted to find his mark at least somewhere upon her.
She returned the gaze, as she looked for a dab hankie to deal with the disowned tears.
“You’ve got your father in you.”
“I’ve never seen....
‘‘Nor had you seen me until today.’
‘‘Is he alive?”
“I don’t know. He drank too much.”
He lit another cigarette, not that he wanted one, but the action served to paper over the travelling cracks in the conversation. The back scratching inside the tomb… He shook his head to clear it of unbidden noises.
“Was I your only child.”
“I think so.”
The strange answer somehow seemed less strange than if they’d met in South London.
“Do you want to know anything about me?”
He wondered what he had meant by that question, for one could know everything about a person by just looking.
“I’m only too pleased you’ve grown into a man.
“Do you live in this town.”
“Yes... but I’m moving on soon, before it’s too late.”
“I don’t know.”
The conversation seemed to continue, but the words meant next to nothing: two strangers talking in an empty churchyard.
She got up to go. “It was nice of you to come. At least we’ll recognize each other when we need to.” She picked a few dandelions from around the bench and put them in her basket, as if they were to be the only keepsakes of the occasion. He fumbled in his pocket for the snapshot. But it had gone without trace - left in the glove compartment of the Cavalier. In any event, it would only have served for a moment, since faces change quite rapidly. When looking in a mirror, one no longer sees the face that was reflected in that stickleback pond of youth.
He glimpsed a dark shape humping behind another tombstone. She saw it, too, he thought, but neither remarked on it: the dead only rise at night, not on glorious Thursday mornings. But imagination had a few tricks up its sleeve....
She was walking away towards the south of the town area, the basket swinging on her arm. She turned once and waved. He nodded, took the hipflask from his pocket. unscrewed the top slowly... but it fell to the ground unseen, where his feet had been.
Ghosts live within their own heads. He scratched at the insides of bone, but could only find many blocked exits.
The old lady suddenly remembered something and bustled back to the bench of old brown slats she likened to disused ribs. She picked up two cigarette ends and placed them in the basket along with the dandelions.
The Cavalier had faded into the sunlight before she turned the corner into the side turning where she lived.
A dustcart was trundling around another corner in the distance, as the church bell faintly marked the hour.
(published ‘Fantasy Macabre’ 1995)
1. Paul Dracon left...
Wednesday, 3 August 2005 3:46 pm
The journey doesn't matter. The destination doesn't matter.
What matters is how many cigarettes you smoke.
(This is the idea I glean from the story-- although perhaps that's not the intention of the story!)