A pint of mild
Godfrey was the grave digger for St. Luke’s. He was a big man; well that’s how he seemed to us children in 1957. Our gang, Carol, Alan, his younger brother Eric, Raymond and I, spent many a happy hour sitting on the wall, or one of the head-stoned sepulchres, listening to his stories.
No matter what the weather, Godfrey would be wearing old, brown, corduroy trousers, tucked into his Wellington boots, the top two inches of which would be turned over, the inside stamped with ‘Size 11’. Above the waist, it was always a check shirt, the top three buttons of which would be undone, even if there was a thick layer of snow covering the ground. His sartorial appearance would be completed with a sleeveless pullover, usually grey, and at his throat, a knotted kerchief.
Of course, he didn’t spend all his time digging graves. When there was no interment due, he would occupy the daylight hours tidying the paths and trimming back the trees and bushes, of which there were plenty dotted around the one and a half acre site. My mother told me that Godfrey was paid a guinea to dig a grave, and he was expected to put a shilling of that on the collection plate on a Sunday evening. Godfrey, and his sister Alice, with whom he resided, never missed a service, morning or evening.
‘I have to keep in with my potential customers,’ he would explain to the occupants of the bar in the Chainmakers Arms, on a Friday night. He was not a great drinker, but he enjoyed playing dominoes, and the landlord took a dim view of anyone who sat all evening with one half pint.
Raymond’s dad told us that Godfrey was the most skilled digger of graves in the area, and several times in the past he had been offered an increase in pay to tempt him to another church, but for whatever reason, he remained where he was.
The members of our gang each had a favourite grave, Carol’s had a trio of white angels, and Eric’s had an aeroplane carved on the headstone, as the last person to have been interred therein had been a pilot, during the war. Mine was a prominent vault just inside the entrance furthest from the church. It had a holly tree alongside, which until twentieth of December each year, used to be laden with shiny red berries. I cannot remember the name of the family who owned the tomb, but it had a large black headstone with several names engraved thereon in gold, as well as a blue brick wall surrounding its raised base which was covered with black chippings.
One year, two weeks prior to Christmas day, I went alone to the churchyard, just as it was getting dark. Whilst I had been at school, there had been heavy rain which had passed over, but as the temperature was unseasonably high, there were patches of mist around.
I had taken my penknife and cut only three or four sprigs of holly, when the mist thickened and in no time I could not see the entrance through which I had passed. I knew the area like the back of my hand so was unconcerned and continued my cutting until having snapped off one thick branch, I heard a sound.
I was standing on the wall in order to reach the branches and looked around, but there was no sign of anyone. I knew cats often visited, but if it was one of them, it would be more afraid of me than I of it. I snipped off a further twig and heard a high pitched ‘ouch’. Again I cast my eyes around, but saw nothing. After two more cuts there were shouts of apparent anguish, and as I knew that trees were silent, I concluded that someone was having a joke at my expense.
‘Alright,’ I called out, ‘which one of you is it?’ I was certain it was one of the gang, who, probably having had the same idea as me, had arrived a little later, and determined to have a joke and frighten me.
No-one materialized so I continued with my task. As soon as I touched the tree however, I heard more sounds.
‘Oh no, please, not any more, leave me alone.’
I was getting fed up and jumped down from the vault.
‘Right,’ I shouted into the now more like fog, ‘I’m going to find you and stick this holly up you bum.’
I moved around the graves, along the paths and although I covered an area of many square yards, I disturbed nothing and found no-one. I took a deep breath and stared back towards the tree but it had disappeared. The fog became thicker, so I made my way home.
I was embarrassed by the meagre bunch of holly which I offered to my mother on my return.
‘Don’t worry Rob, I’m pleased you’re back; it’s a real pea souper out there.’
The day after we broke up for Christmas, a cold and frosty morning, the gang, minus Alan who’s mother would not let him come as he had a cold, met up as usual by the main gate to the church yard.
‘What are we going to do then?’ asked Carol.
‘We could go carol singing,’ Raymond volunteered.
‘Not at ten o’clock in the morning you twerp,’ she replied.
Eric said, ‘Godfrey’s working down the bottom, a rush job apparently; old Mrs Tonks. They don’t want to spoil their Christmas, so they thought they’d get her buried right away.’
‘He won’t want us disturbing him if he’s busy,’ I chipped in.
‘He will if he’s well on, he’ll be in need of a break.’ Carol concluded, so we made our way to where we expected him to be.
The excavation turned out to be close to my favourite spot, and as we neared, I stopped. The holly tree had not a single berry left on its branches. I was astounded, just a few days before it had been laden. I stared, my mouth wide open, the branches were untouched, but the berries, all gone.
‘How do you lot, come to lend a hand?’ Godfrey greeted us. He was obviously ready for a breather, resting on his large spade which any one of us could hardly lift.
‘W-what’s happened t-to the b-berries?’ I stammered.
‘Ah,’ he said, sitting on a box which he used to store anything interesting or valuable, which appeared on his shovel while he was digging. ‘Let me tell you about the holly.’
We gathered around him.
‘The holly tree is very old and from biblical times, it was well known and respected. The prickly leaves relate to the crown of thorns which was set upon Christ’s head when he was crucified, and the red berries represent the droplets of his blood. But you see the holly was known to have had special powers well before that time, and people used to cut off branches and take them into their homes, to protect them from malevolent faeries, or as we know them today, witches.’
‘There’s no such thing as witches,’ Carol chipped in. ‘They’re made up by grown-ups to frighten children, like talk of the bogey man.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that young lady.’
‘Well I’ve never seen one.’
‘Just because you haven’t seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Anyway, I reckon that tree has been stripped of its berries by a coven of witches. You see, the branches have to be covered in berries in order to obstruct those unpleasant faeries and keep them from our houses.’
‘I reckon he’s right,’ Raymond added. ‘The night before last, while we were all asleep, my mother’s favourite vase was knocked over and broken. It had stood on the sideboard for years. I bet a witch had got in; we don’t have any holly in the house.’
Godfrey beamed at each of us in turn, but resisted the impulse to add ‘I told you so.’
‘Anyway, I must get on,’ he said, and after spitting on each of his palms, he picked up his shovel.
As we moved away, my eyes were glued to the tree and I remembered the sounds that I had heard a few evenings previously. It must have been witches, I reasoned, that had driven me away so they could take the berries, although I did not tell any of the others about the incident.
My family and I enjoyed a jolly Christmas. With my share of the carol singing money, I bought holly and mistletoe from the market, as well as some talcum powder for my mother and a new penknife for my dad. The holiday passed quickly and we suffered no ill will, in fact concentrating on the Meccano set which I found in my pillow case on Christmas morning, I forgot all about Godfrey’s malevolent faeries.
Having spent the best part of thirty-five years writing reports on such subjects as ‘Provision of Caravan Sites for Travellers’ and ’Aspects of Pest Control in the Urban Environment’, Roger Noons began even more creative writing in 2006, when he completed a screenplay for a friend who is an amateur film maker. After the film was made, he wrote further scripts and having become addicted, began to pen short stories and poems. He occasionally produces memoirs and other non fiction. He has begun to perform his poems, and has just published ’An A to Z by RLN’, an anthology of 26 short stories. He intends by the end of the year to have followed that up with a novella.
He is a member of two Writers Groups and tries his hardest to write something every day. As well as CafeLit, he has had credits in West Midlands newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, Paragraph Planet, Raw Edge and a number of Anthologies.