ASHES TO ASHES

 

ripAfter a lifetime of selfishness, drunken excess and venality – which he had embraced with more enthusiasm than he ever showed for his work – Benny-the-Shepherd died at home, in his sleep, at the age of 84. He was  mourned by virtually no-one except – mysteriously – his wife Betty who had been sobbing inconsolably ever since she was woken in the middle of the night by an unaccustomed sound: silence.

Benny had snored liked a warthog on heat all of their married lives, and Betty had complained vociferously about it ever since their wedding night to anyone who would stand still long enough to  listen. When he finally stopped snoring sixty-three years later, the sudden and unaccustomed quiet had startled Betty into wakefulness – only to discover that he’d stopped snoring because he’d stopped breathing.

Her screams had awakened her neighbours on Cottage Row for three doors in both directions and, Maggie was whispering in my ear, she’d barely stopped wailing since.

We were sitting together at the front of St Saviour’s Church, waiting for the guest of honour – Benny – to arrive. Most of the village had apparently turned out to cheer him on his way and I commented to the elderly gentleman to my left, who was known to me by sight only, that it was a good turnout.

‘Oh aye,’ he’d replied lugubriously, chewing a wad of tobacco. ‘We’ve come to make sure he’s really dead.’

So that sort of ended that conversation.

Maggie was much more forthcoming.

‘I don’t think I know a single person in the village who could stand him.’

‘Except Betty?’

‘Except Betty. There’s no accounting for it. He was such a nasty piece of work, and a lousy shepherd into the bargain. Most of us are only here for Betty’s sake, really.’

‘Well I am for sure. The only time I met Benny, he tried to grope me … I suppose the wheelchair gave him a natural advantage in that respect: it was certainly an unusual angle of attack. But him being such an odious little creep is going to make the eulogy a little tricky, isn’t it?’

‘I’m sure Norman will rise to the occasion. He usually does. All that expensive Oxbridge education you know … comes in useful from time to time.’ She looked down at the order of service that we’d been handed at the church door. ‘I only know one of these hymns. Why can’t people choose hymns I know? When I die, I don’t want a funeral. They can just cremate me, mix my ashes up with some guano and fertilize the kitchen garden with me. How about you?’

‘I’m donating my body to medical research.’

‘Really? I’d never thought of that ….’

I was about to expand on the subject when a small elderly man clutching a sheaf of music shuffled slowly past us and over to the organ. This gentleman, Maggie told me as he settled himself on the stool and sorted his music out, was Eric Sidebotham, who’d been the organist at St Saviour’s ever since he’d moved to the village when he retired from work, 25 years ago.

‘By the way – how are things going with Professor Pilchard?’

‘Fine. He’s a bit of a grumpy sod, but he’s okay. He wasn’t too impressed when I said I was going to a funeral this morning, though. Particularly wanted to crack on with the chapter on mucus I gather …’

‘Mucus.’ She pulled a face. ‘Slime. Snail slime. Don’t know that I’d buy a book about snail slime.’

‘I’m assured that it’s fascinating ….. Oh good Lord! … What on earth? ….’

Right beside us, Eric Sidebotham had launched himself at the keyboard and was unexpectedly pounding out a spirited, if slightly inaccurate, version of ‘Lady of Spain’. Not exactly the sort of musical rhubarb you’d normally expect at a funeral I thought, and said so to Maggie. She grinned.

‘Before he retired, he worked at a holiday camp on the east coast. His repertoire’s a bit limited. You wait until he gets to ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep-Cheep.’

And he did. It was next up. By the time the coffin – accompanied by a sobbing Betty – arrived, he’d galloped through ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’, ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Y Viva Espana’. In fact, so immersed was he in what he was doing that he failed to notice either the arrival of the funeral party or Norman Ruskin wildly gesticulated from the church door, with the result that Benny was actually trundled down the aisle to the strains of ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’, which was nothing if not appropriate.

It was only when Jazz swooped on him from the transept and hissed ‘LEAD KINDLY LIGHT!’ into his ear that he lurched to a stop, fumbled with his music and hit the first notes of the hymn, just as the coffin came to a rest before the altar.

After that, things stabilized a little and the Reverend Ruskin embarked upon the funeral service, somehow managing not to sound like a man who’d done it hundreds of times before.

Maggie was right about the hymns though. With the exception of ‘Abide with Me’ (which was in the wrong key for human beings, but any passing bats would have loved it), I didn’t know any of them either and nor –  judging by the execrable singing – did most of the congregation. We were all using that time-honoured technique of listening to what everyone else is singing and then trying to approximate the same note, meaning that we were mostly half a beat behind the rhythm and flat – except for those closest to Norman Ruskin. He knew all the hymns of course, and belted them out with gusto, so the people at the front, although still half a beat behind, were at least more or less in tune.

The best you could say for the result was that it drowned out the efforts of Eric at the organ.

The eulogy was a masterclass in waffle and circumlocution.

Benny, Norman solemnly told us, could be a difficult man to live and work with and of very definite opinions. (He was an argumentative, loud-mouthed oaf.) A plain-spoken man, he never minced his words and always said what he meant – a refreshing characteristic in a world of mealy-mouthed politicians. (Every other word that passed his lips was an expletive.) The local farmers all agreed that they thought themselves lucky if he did any work for them. (You had to be VERY lucky to catch him working at all.) His skill with animals was evidenced by the number of awards he won at the local agricultural show. (Two in fifty years.) The highlight of his career was winning a First in the Best Cross Bred Terrier (Any Other Colour) Class in 1983. (It wasn’t even his dog.) And so it went on … all delivered with a commendably straight face.

Several tuneless dirges and a few prayers later, we were on the final straight and galloping for home. We processed out behind the coffin and followed it  into the windswept November churchyard where the grave was waiting, all neatly surrounded by artificial grass of a particularly putrid shade of green. Most of the attempts to sprinkle dirt on the coffin were carried away by the wind, and a length of  artificial grass escaped from the bricks that were pinning it down and was only prevented from hurtling straight into the faces of the family mourners by a superb piece of fielding from Howard Benson, the milkman. It was generally agree to be the most impressive left-handed catch anyone had seen since the butcher’s match-winning effort in the annual cricket match with Nether Camber in 1996.

Throughout, poor Betty wept inconsolably, her face buried in a huge and grubby hankie and her little tasselled pot hat bobbing up and down with every sob.

At last, in the teeth of the rapidly rising wind, we left the gravediggers to their job and filed from the churchyard past Betty and her family, all murmuring our clichéd condolences and silently praying that we  wouldn’t be struck by lightning because really, you know, we were lying through our teeth in a good cause.

It was several days later that Maggie appeared at my back door, plainly the bearer of extraordinary tidings.

‘You’ll never guess what I just heard about Benny-the-Shepherd.’

‘Go on then …’

‘Betty was going to leave him.’

‘Never!’

‘She’d got it all arranged. She was going to live with her sister in Lincoln. Her bags were all packed and everything. She’d even got it all scripted out … the big ‘stuff you, you selfish bastard’ farewell scene followed by a dramatic exit to a waiting taxi … never to be seen again. She’d been stashing money away for years, biding her time, waiting for the right moment to exact her revenge on him …’

‘And the selfish sod went and died peacefully in his sleep.’

‘Exactly. She wasn’t grieving at all. She was absolutely bloody furious.’

 

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