Kate Fenton

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

JOURNALISM

FLOWERS IN THE SNOW

She was so beautiful - head bowed under pearly marble shawl, barely visible through the frosty mist. I blew on the bedroom window and rubbed. My breath froze to the glass.

'Gorgeous statue,' I remarked over breakfast, pushing away a breezeblock of wholemeal toast.

'Eat, my little sparrow,' commanded Vanessa. 'Get some fuel inside that disgustingly skinny bod, or I'll find you dead in bed with hypothermia.'

'Promise?' I caught her eye. 'Joke.'

'You know, those builders swore blind I'd be in the new place by Christmas, and where are we now?' She dug into the marmalade. 'What statue?'

'Far corner of the churchyard - where they've demolished the wall.'

'For my new oil tank - think of it, central heating.' She sighed. 'Probably a builder. I often mistake them for statues.'

'No, it's female. Madonna, I guess.'

'You guess wrong. Low as they come, my flock. No popish Virgins, no statuary, period.'

'I see,' I said. Except I didn't, because I saw.

 

Winter is a cruel time for mistresses, we shadowy souls outside the bright Christmas circle of hearth, home and Holy Family. Crueller still for a recently ex-mistress, ex on account of falling accidentally pregnant. Honestly, it was an accident. No, he didn't believe me, either. A blue ring in a test tube, a snarling fight and - pouf! - he was gone, like the pantomime demon. Only for the cause of all the trouble to erupt into the world in blood as bright as the holly berries still wilting round the walls of the casualty ward.

'My poor sausage,' had clucked Vanessa after I washed up on her snowy doorstep, fresh from hospital with a pocket full of drugs and a name-tag round my wrist. 'God's ways are mysterious.'

'Start on God and I'm going.'

'I'm a vicar, what do you expect?'

'It was my own fault. I knocked back enough brandy to abort a rhinoceros.'

'I'm not surprised, after that pig gave you the boot.'

'He didn't, he gave me the choice. Him or - or it.'

'But you didn't mean to lose the baby.'

'Nine weeks isn't a baby. Just - just...'

'Sweetheart, have you grieved?'

'Don't be ridiculous, it was a puddle of blood, washed down the plughole. I've forgotten the whole sordid business already.'

'I'll bet you haven't even had a good blub. Look, shall we commit the little soul together? Don't squawk, believers or not, we all need ritual - symbols. You've got to recognise your feelings before you can let them go.'

'You're worse than that bloody nurse.' I knew I was shouting, but I couldn't help it. 'Hell, I'd sooner have God-speak than half-baked psycho-babble.'

'Don't worry,' said Vanessa calmly - and to think, this woman was once a perfectly sensible merchant banker - 'I'm praying my socks off for you.'

 

Which was why I didn't argue about the statue because, sure enough, when I sneaked out into the frozen churchyard after breakfast there was no marble Madonna by the gap in the wall, just a mucky, tarpaulin-shrouded pile of builders' rubble. The last thing I needed was Vanessa thinking I'd had a holy vision. I put it down to the tranquillisers - and took another. Only, the next morning, she was there again.

And this was no stone effigy, because I was seeing clean through her to the rubble heap beyond. I blinked, but for all she was frail as an etching on glass, she wouldn't budge. And when she turned towards me, it was as if a great black wave of misery came flooding up, anguish so bitter I could feel it long after she'd melted away.

'I have seen - a ghost.' My voice was tight with fear - not of a supposed ghost, but precisely because I don't believe in such supernatural claptrap.

 

'Spirits of the past?' chuckled Vanessa when I stuttered rehearsed enquiries about her plans to swap this history-steeped ruin for a soulless modern box. 'Give me double-glazing over Gothic charm. Besides, I can do without old Brimstone breathing down my neck when I gulp the post-sermon sherry.'

'Brimstone?'

'Victorian predecessor, the Reverend George Brimley.'

'A - man?'

'Even a heathen like you can't suppose they had lady priests at the turn of the century. The guy was anti-booze, anti-sex, anti-...'

'He's the only ghost?'

'...anti-blooming everything, which any shrink will tell you suggests a closet raver. Don't talk rot, he's no ghost. The parishioners might cherish tales of the old bigot, but even they don't claim he's still about. Why this sudden interest in - ? Heavens, child, you're shaking like a leaf. What's up?'

If no ghost - then what?

Then I was seeing things. Going stark, staring, hallucinating mad. Was this what the nurse meant about making allowances for myself? Not bloody likely. I'd lost enough without losing my mind. 'Cold. I'm fine.'

'And I'm Dolly Parton.' Her hand locked over mine. 'Darling, forget the stiff upper. I know you're at rock bottom.'

'Aren't you, um, late for your meeting?'

She shot me an unnervingly searching look before releasing my hand, and prescribed fresh air. 'Do you good to give Sam his walkies - oh, and drop that bucket of daffs off in the church porch, will you?'

And that - because resisting Vanessa is like shoving back a bulldozer- is how I put a name to my ghost. As I tottered across the churchyard, dripping pail clutched to my bosom, Sam, her fat black Labrador, blundered into my legs. 'Idiot,' I yelled. 'You've made me drop some.'
But these full-throated blooms hadn't fallen from my bucket. A daintily-ribboned posy wilted in the snow, before a gravestone so mossy and age-pocked, I could barely make out the inscription.

He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.

I leaned closer. Here lies the body of Sarah Mary Harrup, I read, who passed away aged 17 years in this churchyard - in this churchyard? - on the I8th of January 1897.

'Sarah?' I breathed.

 

'Usual story.' Vanessa was collating service sheets. 'Seduced servant girl, chucked out for getting up the duff...' She cleared her throat. 'Anyhow, seems the flowers are an annual custom - sweet, really. Chap from the local history society sent me an article he'd written t'other week - as if I'd time to read more bumph.'

'Have you still got it?'

'Six foot down my pending tray, if it hasn't gone for fire lighting.' Her gaze fell on my hand and sharpened. 'What's that on your wrist?'

'Nothing.' I whisked down my sleeve with the speed of a junkie hiding needle tracks. 'Hospital tag. Must find some scissors.'

'Top drawer of the desk - shall I…?'

'Don't worry, I'll find them.'

I waited until her ancient Fiat had rattled away before I ransacked her desk - and not for scissors. Look, if you were me, which would you sooner believe? That you'd seen a ghost, or were going bonkers with post-non-natal depression?

Exactly. So the next dawn found me out in the churchyard, shivering on a bench which commanded a grandstand view of Sarah's grave. It had to be her. Vanessa's historian had supplied the facts - and more, because Mr Spooner did not confine himself to mere fact. On the grounds that communal remorse alone could explain the annual flowers, he drew a tear-jerking picture of this pregnant girl being turned away from every door in the village, after her employer had booted her out into the night. What was more, he pondered whether that flintily moral employer, in the best tradition of Victorian hypocrisy, might not himself have fathered the child. What had made my heart skip a beat, though, was reading the name of the putative villain.

'The Reverend George Brimley.' I shifted from one cold-numbed buttock to the other. 'Recorded fact. Sarah worked for Hellfire Brimstone. She's my ghost.'

No wonder she had gazed so bitterly up at the vicarage. I knew how she felt - only I wouldn't drift tamely across churchyards, I'd scream round the house, smashing pots. As I would tell her when... Here, I caught myself up. Talking to ghosts? If that busybody nurse were here she'd be summoning straitjackets. I fiddled with the tag on my wrist - fastened with a simple press-stud, so why had I lied to Vanessa about scissors? It wasn't just cold making me shiver, and when I felt the soft, clammy touch to the back of my neck I catapulted up, shrieking - only for my frozen limbs to plummet me headfirst into a choking drift of snow.

Sam, tail flailing, ambled round to shove his slobbery nose into my ear. As I hauled myself up on one elbow to curse the brainless beast, I saw to my surprise that his inane grin was stretching into a snarl. Tail flattened, he backed away, growling.

'Sam?" He ignored me, gaze fixed on the far corner of the churchyard, the jagged gash in the wall… 'My God,' I gasped, 'can you see her?'

He'd bolted for home before I could scramble to my feet. Shaking off snow, I skidded and stumbled across the graves. 'Sarah!' I blundered to a halt at the wall. 'Sarah?'

She wasn't there. Of course. Nothing stirred in the still, white churchyard, even the mist seemed to hang frozen in the air. And suddenly I saw myself, blue-faced and hoarse-voiced, dripping with snow, calling to a girl who'd been dead for a hundred years - I mean, pathetic or what? If I could, I would have wept - but I hadn't shed a tear since the last furious sob when lover boy slammed out, and the cramps kicked in. Anyway, Vanessa was talking rubbish. I didn't need to cry, I just needed to forget the whole disgusting mess - and I knew where to start.

Ripping off the hospital bracelet to hurl it away, I realised, in the nick of time, that this humiliating token was stamped with my name. So I kicked up the tarpaulin covering the builders' heap to stamp it into the rubble. And that's when I saw the tin. Amid the lumps of granite, the muddy clods of wilting plants, there nestled a rusty box, barely bigger than a biscuit tin. Tight bound with filthy twine, it bore the crudely scratched outline of a cross, and the letters RIP. And then, at last, I understood.

 

Winter is a cruel time for a mistress As icy twilight closes in on the churchyard, windows glow around the village, where happy families cluster round their firesides, and a few cheery souls jostle up the path to choir practice, unaware of me in the shadows. Is Sarah here too? Waiting with me for the church doors to shut?

'Rescue operation,' I'd chirruped to Vanessa earlier, gesturing to my brimming wheelbarrow. 'Masses of snowdrops rotting in the builders' rubbish. OK to replant them by the church?'

The shoots were weedy as bean sprouts after weeks under tarpaulin, but Vanessa, with a visible effort, refrained from saying I was wasting my time. Handling me with kid gloves, obviously. Not surprising:I was gabbling like a madwoman. But I'm not mad. I don't care whether Sarah exists or not - that is, whether she exists for anyone but me. I know why I saw her, and I know what I must do. I owe her this. She's shown me Vanessa was right: ritual - symbols - matter. Matter enough to die for, in Sarah's case.

God knows, it nearly killed me digging the trench for my snowdrop-laden clods of mud, and I was blessed with a spade and daylight. I can't imagine how she scraped up the frozen earth with her bare hands, in her state. I'm still weak from the loss of my nine-week scrap of life. She must have delivered six or seven months'-worth, alone on that bleak night - small wonder the infant perished. And all Sarah wanted was to entrust the tiny body to holy ground - never dreaming a gang of navvies with a JCB would roll along a century later.
I wait for some singing before I pick up my spade.

...now lettest thou thy servant...

The tin box fits snugly into the earth. Beside it, I tuck something else, the grubby plastic name tag I've kept, even if I wouldn't admit it, as a symbol, the only memento I have of - of my baby. There. I've said it. My baby.

...depart in peace...

'Yes, go in peace,' I whisper. To lost children, to Sarah - to myself? Whatever, there are tears choking me as I pat the soil back.

And one frail snowdrop smiles palely up.

 

©Kate Fenton 2000