Untidy weeds mar the lawn, and I tug them, adding them to the small heap of ragged and withered stems I’ve already pulled.
“Ah, Mrs. Kent, ‘tis a pity the gardener has disregarded his responsibilities and allowed the churchyard to fall into disarray.”
There’s no response from Mrs. Kent, but I do not expect one, as she’s been dead nigh on thirty years, and it is from around her mossy headstone that I pull the tangled greenery.
My memory of her is as fresh as this morning’s sunrise, a tiny widow of indeterminate age, able to embroider jewel-like designs, though her fingers were cramped and gnarled. Not that I, as a man, should care for such frivolousness and trivialities. She’d resided with her maiden daughter until she was laid to rest beneath the nearby grass, God rest her.
“Ho, Reverend Hedgewick,” Johnno hales me from the verge of the rutted road where he maneuvers a wheelbarrow loaded high with turnips and potatoes. A bit of a simpleton is Johnno Dole, but he grows magnificent vegetables.
“Good day, Johnno,” I call out, to which Johnno nods, pointing to his bounty. “Taties and neeps for your tea, Reverend?” I hasten to the gate and slip the proffered vegetables into my frock-coat, hoping I’ve hid my grasping eagerness from Johnno’s eyes.
Johnno trundles away, and I continue to pluck thistles from the graves, occasionally resting a hand fondly on a headstone. Annie Nolan, wife and mother. Mary Beck, infant daughter. Thomas Pringle, aged 18. I remember them, their laughter and laments and laying them in the ground.
The turnip and potato thump against my leg, and my belly grinds painfully, anticipating a plate of buttered mash. I bid farewell to my erstwhile companions reposing in the churchyard. It’s a short walk to the cottage where I’ve lived since being ousted from the manse to make way for a more vigorous man. Indignation rises sourly, as I contemplate, not for the first time, the injustice of my situation.
“Frail in body” was the bishop’s verdict, and I was sentenced to retirement and an annual pension of three pounds, barely enough to bind body to soul. A fall from grace, certainly. I should die in the harness, like the plough-man, not put out to pasture like a useless workhorse. The Lord’s calling does not expire. There remain hands to unite, babies to christen, and the spirits of the truly retired to commend into God’s hand.
My gouty leg throbs as I limp along the hedgerow, but I endure, spurred on by peevishness and hunger.
The cottage is bleak, as expected, and I scrabble in the scuttle for a bit of coal, enough to boil supper and chase off the damp. Soon, I am dining on Johnno’s unexpected gift, savouring every tender morsel. A small chop would have pleased me, but I cast away tempting thoughts of succulent drippings and sizzling fat.
A man of the faded cloth, I am. Exiled, relegated to uprooting weeds. What of my promise to carry on with God’s work until I no longer breathe?
A knock on the door interrupts my querulous reverie.
“Walter!” I invite the hunched man into my parlour-cum-dining room and bid him to take his ease in my own chair. “Tea?” I offer, reluctantly, as the tea is weak for only dust remains in the caddy.
“Thank ‘e.” Walter sips loudly, gratifyingly. “”Tis lovely.”
I drink and feel somewhat cheered by its warmth. “How are you, Walter?” It had been some weeks since I’d seen the old man.
“T’ arthritics been painin’ me, but still.” His grizzled grin brightened the room. “T’ missus had the palsy but she’s hearty now, thank t’ Lord.”
Thank the Lord, he says, of an ill wife and gamey legs.
“Yer lookin’ vexed, Rev’ren’. Ye troubled?”
I sigh, remembering Walter’s piercing discernment from his days as my parishioner, his bluntness and pointed observations. I don’t answer, not wishing to foist my bitter discontent on him.
“Whate’er ‘tis, Rev’ren’, it’ll pass. Yer above t’ sod, so’s it’s a grand day.”
Walter hoists himself up. “I ‘most forgot.” He rummages in his coat, removing a parcel. “A fresh chicken, Rev’ren’. Thanks for t’ tea and fine fellowship.”
He disappears into the dusk, leaving me with the dampish package and a renewed heart. The bishop might consider me feeble, but my eyes and wit are sharp.
I’m above ground. The Lord’s calling continues.
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