Tony Keith

Posted on August 16, 2011

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Ghosts

Prejudices and imaginings, these are our thoughts. They grow in the dark places in our psyches. When I was younger I swore off ghosts, but then as I aged I felt the effects of others on me, good and bad. I now know these to have been ghosts.

When are we born? Is it the moment of conception? Or before then, the moment our parents desire each other? Or is it the years following when we are formed psychologically by our experiences? The Jesuits allegedly say give me a child for five years and I will give you the man.

Later on I learned of the moment you die.

When a cancer has you in its maw.

Is it when your heart stops beating?

Or at your burial on going into the earth?

Or is it much later, when your name is spoken for the last time?

These thoughts were reinforced on a recent visit to my childhood village, a sunny day, the funeral of a friend. I felt alone amongst the mourners. Funerals are great for that; there is space between the bits of speech:

“We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”

The silence palpable, breeze clutches at our hair, occasional birdsong piercing the moment. The world pauses. The village was quiet; I knew the inside of homes where so many lived—our village life. I hung on after the funeral, meandering round the churchyard, curious over the recent graves. Shock and surprise at the latest additions—I knew him, and her, she was an attractive lass, now gone too early, and younger than me. Then looking around the village I realised that it, too, had moved on. It was no longer my village; incomers had made it theirs. I was the stranger in my childhood home. It had come to pass; I was now in a place I’d always feared, adrift.

It was a recurrent feeling, which has returned intermittently ever since Bambi’s mother was shot. In fact, that hunter has a lot to answer for.

But not quite, for it was here I’d met Ben. I often saw him on his allotment, slowly digging away. The rhythmic pace, the measured slice of the spade into the rich, black soil. All the old un’s managed to keep themselves in veg almost throughout the year. We often found a lettuce or cabbage on our doorstep, never knowing where it came from.

Ben had a farm, well a couple of rented fields and a cottage, some beast and a few cows and sheep. His brother had the family farm. It always went to the eldest then, and there were a few of them. Mum always said they reminded her of the seven brothers, but they didn’t all get brides.

It was Ben I turned to years later. I had a velocette motorcycle, and just before I went on a week’s tour of Devon, I decided the clutch needed adjusting. I took the cover off to look, and most of the corks fell out amongst the dust and grit in the gutter. I was distraught, but Ben helped me put them all back.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.; Back at the allotment, about when Ben was finishing up, I enjoyed his company. He often asked me to go to the pub for a couple of bottles of Ind Coope’s John Bull and some cheese and onion crisps. These were still a novelty, as the flavour had only just come in. We sat our backs against the wall and drank the beer and ate the crisps. Easy conversation between a man and boy in the dying evening sun. It was good.

I can still taste those crisps now.

When I got older I lived with Ben for a while. (Don’t ask.) I remember helping him with the lambing. We’d go out in the dark evening through thick snow, approaching the shelter made of straw bales. We’d find the sheep there already lambing but looking disturbed. He had a canny knack knowing how far they were ‘on’. Ben talked to her, his calming tone communicating kindness. It was my job to hold her head.

Quite unnecessary, the sheep seemed to tolerate us better than the other sheep. He knew she was having trouble and went in the back end. It made lugging the hot water and soap and margarine feel worthwhile. Muttering quietly to himself, “The little sod’s head’s back.” Concerned, but still calm.

“It’ll av to go back” he’d say. He’d already have the nooses ready, and they went round its feet. You didn’t want to lose them.

People don’t think of sheep as serious creatures. If you’d been with us on that raw winter night, staring into the letterbox slot of a pupil and being stared steadfastly back at by that sheep, then you would know different. Being under the unblinking gaze whilst Ben rooted around its uterus would have told you that they were capable of being very serious.

I can still see it today.

Ben, in short order, had the lamb out and wiped the snot off and shoved it round so’s mum could lick it dry.

“Talking to one another,” he said. “Part of the bonding process.” All this in the soft, yellow light of the hurricane lanterns. ‘Life’s work well done’.

A week or so later that same year, Ben still had the few cows to milk and the beast to feed in the bottom field. I volunteered for that, and he was pleased. The clatter of the diesel tractor started up, shattering the winter evening. I soon lugged a few bales onto the cart, then slewed across the cobbles into the lane. Quickly clearing the little row of cottages, I was on my way down the hill into the valley bottom between our village and the next. The fields grey, luminous with a thick layer of snow. Surprisingly over the sound of the engine you could feel the silence, the fresh fall effectively muffling all other sound.

I turned into a cart track and, cresting the canal bridge, saw the black shapes standing out in the white background. They knew, and rousing at the rattle of the tractor, they started toward the gate to meet me. Slowly at first, then the herd instinct took hold, and they were cantering.

They’d beaten me to the gate and stood around expectantly. I got off and opened the gate shooing them all back. I ran back to the tractor and drove through, jumping off to shut us in, in case they wanted out. Little chance of that, they’d smelt the hay.

No need, but I drove to the middle of the field, the herd following at a trot. I switched the engine off. Silence! The beast stirred about, breathing steam and gently butting one another.

In that silence I could enjoy the gentle thud of hooves, the rasp of horns against their furry, shit-scabbed flanks, the muted snort of cow breath, the expectant nodding and watching. I hauled myself up onto the trailer, retrieved my knife, and sliced through the twine, splitting the bales apart and casting the wads into their midst.

They set upon the feed with gusto, seizing the slices with relish and tossing them into the air. I was a guest at a tea party held in that vast snow-clad amphitheatre of the valley. The grizzled hedgerows black scars on the hillsides. The veined tracery of trees lending atmosphere to the moment, and I was glad to be alive.

Another image I would carry into old age.

****

It is a lifetime later and a remove across the shire. I’m growing tired. I try to remember the landmarks that separate then from now. The initial seismic shift was the sixties. Was this eruption of a generation uncowed by the memories of ‘the war’ and safe from the cold war but still a legacy of the angry young men?

We had a language, rock’n roll. Was this a rhetoric fuelled by the ‘ghost in the machine’? Or was it something virus-like, created spontaneously in the vacuum left by the absence of war? Or a rebellion by a generation against their parents who were still shell-shocked from their recent past and just wanted to enjoy some peace?

Whatever! It felt like a vibrant time of renewal, of hope, a social revolution—a permissive time when a bash from the hash would open the doors of perception. One could explore a mental landscape without getting off one’s arse. Chill man, it’s cool!

Maybe the ghost in the machine knew! Our society, now with the mirage of freedom would cast around like some wounded animal bemused. Like our ancestors round the fire in the night at the cave mouth. Where they would talk and invent their gods. This new free generation would open up new frontiers and release another beast from Pandora’s Box. We were seduced by the computer. I distinctly remember it was in the papers, from the government. The computers would work all the machines, and we were to prepare ourselves for the age of leisure. Yeah right!

****

Am I now in an old folk’s home? Often in pain, neglected, not able to see or make sense of the telly, frightened and confused by the behaviour and incoherence of the others. I’m often embarrassed by my own ‘little accidents’ and no access to the laundry or bath except when they’re ready, and yes. I’m waiting to die.

I hope I’ll become a ghost. Let me go.

***

Tony Keith is in his 60’s and sought refuge in writing short stories and poetry after arthritis restricted his love of being in the mountains. He was brought up on a small farm in England and enjoyed years of outdoor activities like caving, scuba, camping and motorcycling. He still enjoys wild swimming. He enjoys studying, the arts, psychology, and sciences. He lives with partner and worked mainly in engineering.

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