The gravedigger Henry Bale lives with his ailing dog in the village of Chalk, England. Painfully shy, he is resigned to growing old alone. Then Caroline Ford, an impulsive schoolteacher from Brighton, arrives in Chalk. Caroline awakens Henry to life, and to a fear of death. Their relationship becomes a startling investigation of love, faith, and the search for meaning.
|Publisher:||University of New Orleans Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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By Rob Magnuson Smith
UNO PressCopyright © 2010 Rob Magnuson Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHenry Bale stepped back from the open grave. He was tall, strong, and broad-shouldered. His overalls and boots were splattered with mud. Though forty-one, his appearance hadn't changed much since late adolescence. Dark hair covered his head and ears. His beard was poorly trimmed. His lumpish nose looked as if it had been punched and left to settle on its own. Women called him handsome, and he didn't know why.
Across the churchyard, Hetherington the undertaker inched his procession toward the grave. Water had started seeping into the bottom, but it wasn't bad. Henry dropped a bucket down. He dragged it by a rope down the length of the grave, catching what he could. There was no rush. Hetherington always took his time. Henry pulled the bucket clear and dumped it over a rosemary bush. Then, taking his wheelbarrow, he retreated to the boundary hedge.
Wind blew across the neighbouring sheep pasture. It was two in the afternoon, and the February frost sat fat and undaunted on the ground. Henry pointed his chin across the churchyard, still feeling in his bones the first turn of his spade. The frozen soil had wobbled his wrists like cement. His hands remained ungloved from the heat of the work.
The hearse finally came to a stop beside the path. The bearers opened their doors cautiously, shuddering in the wind. There were four of them. They wore black suits stained with bits of breakfast, and their cheeks were already colouring in the cold. Opening the back, they hoisted the coffin onto their shoulders and over to Henry's webbings—seatbelts from his father's old Vauxhall. The coffin was small, he noticed, glad for it. Though he always added his clearances, he dreaded the ornate caskets with great gold handles that locked in place, and made a mess of his grave walls.
"A nice young willow," Henry said under his breath, admiring the curving branches of the tree beside him. He spoke more often when he was alone.
"The Lord is full of compassion ... slow to anger and of great goodness ..."
Wind scattered the vicar's committal. Stray phrases whipped around monuments, as if searching for open ears. There wasn't anything for Henry to do at this point except keep out of the way. Yesterday he'd left a bit of his lunch in his pocket, a corner of a cheese sandwich that had kept him occupied. Above the grave, the bearers played out the webbings. They tracked mud across his mats, Henry noticed. It would mean some scrubbing this weekend, if the weather allowed.
The coffin sank evenly into the ground. The vicar blessed Hetherington's brass pot—a sign of the cross, a moment with his eyes closed.
"The days of man are but as grass ..."
Hetherington knew his part well. He extracted a pinch of mole dirt and sprinkled it over the grave with an artful turn of the wrist. The wind blew most of it away. The vicar drifted past the mourners toward the church, his white robe flapping like a sail. He stopped to adjust his belt and the mourners caught up to him, milling and vulnerable. They snatched glances at the cross hanging from his neck, and the Bible in his hairy hand.
Hetherington raised his trousers above his ankles and made his way between the grave rows, grinning. "Hello, Henry!" he shouted. He took little mincing steps the closer he came, making a production out of his journey. At last he came to a stop at the handles of Henry's wheelbarrow.
"Hello, John," Henry said, rubbing his nose. Hetherington always smelled of cologne. His grin seldom left his face, even during a service.
Hetherington made a show of searching the ground. He squatted and peered around Henry's boots. "No Jack today?"
Henry glanced to his right where his dog would have been. "Something's the matter with him. I'm taking him round to Tracy's tomorrow afternoon."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
Henry pictured his Jack Russell terrier, wheezing in the wicker cot. "I'm not sure."
Hetherington was still grinning. "Well. He is old, Henry."
The sound of an engine rumbled over the headstones. Hetherington whirled. "They'll be leaving me behind yet!" The vicar and the mourners had gone. The hearse pointed at the gate, and the driver smoked a cigarette from the open window.
"See you tomorrow at Burgess Green, then? Two o'clock?"
Hetherington held out a cheque, folded at the centre, tucked between his index and middle fingers. He always offered the payment like this—as if a gift from a godfather, or a bribe.
Henry pried the cheque from Hetherington's fingers and put it in the pocket of his overalls. The undertaker traipsed across the burial mounds toward the hearse. "Say John, can you ask your bearers not to track mud across—"
"Blast it!" Hetherington cried, turning round. "I just remembered it's a Catholic service tomorrow. Mary McGinty. Only a reopening, her husband Patrick's already in. Sorry, Henry—it'll have to be a noon burial. The Catholics like getting in the ground early." Grinning, he knocked on the passenger door to the hearse. "Think about it this way—you'll be home in time for lunch!"
* * *
Henry turned north off the motorway and into the fields surrounding Chalk. The sky was grey but didn't threaten rain.
Near the turn to the village, a sign above an iron gate read Wembles Manor. Behind the gate, a road lined with towering silver firs led to a manor house that tilted toward a nearby duck pond. It was a difficult time for royalty. Chalk had become a tax burden, and Samuel Wembles was starting to sell pieces of it off. Henry had heard the rumours—in the post office and at the shop, or walking past The Black Ram, where Chalk's parishioners hunched grumbling over their pints. The land grant to the first Lord Wembles would have been a poorly disguised insult, even in the sixteenth century. No river ran through Chalk. No hills surrounded it. It was a flat, degenerate parcel of grass, menaced by slate and deep deposits of chalk. The village was hidden. When found, it was forgettable. The nearest train station was a six-mile walk. An old bus passed through once a day, mostly out of charity.
As a young man Henry had been embarrassed, coming from Chalk. In East Sussex, a tourist county known for its seaside resorts and fertile downs, the village was a fossil. People thirty miles away didn't know it existed. He'd been tempted to flee to nearby Peacehaven, or even Brighton—places with names that inspired hope. But over time he realised, as his father and mother had, and their fathers and mothers before them, that Chalk suited him because of its shortcomings. His father Frank, now almost eighty and living out his days in a pensioners' home in Brighton, had been a gravedigger as well. Embarrassment slowly evolved into a sort of martyr's pride, a sense of doom that kept Henry's eyes lowered each afternoon as he returned home to his brick and mortar tenant cottage, wooden gate, and tiny front garden. Past the church, his house was the third on the left, its entryway so small it seemed built for a child. When Henry came inside, he had to duck.
In his wicker cot across the sitting room, Jack shivered under his blanket. His white bearded chin pointed at the fire, his eyes squeezed shut in a fight with pain. Henry had been studying Jack's chin for days now, as if to divine the dog's problem in it.
"Jack? Hello, Jack!"
The sitting room was brown. Along the ceiling, brown wood beams loomed just above Henry's head, causing him to stoop. There was a shaggy brown carpet, a brown leather armchair beside the front window, and a brown wooden coffee table. The yellow sofa against the wall practically glowed. Henry never sat on it. The sofa reminded him of his mother, and cancer had taken her when he was just a boy. His favourite memory—sitting beside her as she read from a book on trees—endowed the sofa with unreasonable significance, and he wanted it to remain a relic, frozen in time. He preferred the armchair by the window anyway, within arm's reach of the television.
"I wonder what you need, Jack," Henry said, leaning over the cot. As if for guidance he peered up at his parents' wedding photo on the mantle. They stared back at him mutely, clutching each other in the rain outside Chalk's church. The framed photo stood beside an antique clock and a pewter flask, never used—a Christmas gift from Mrs. Tilson, his neighbour. The phone rang.
It was Hetherington, wanting to make sure about tomorrow. He always gave his instructions twice. "Yes, John. A reopening at Burgess Green." At the telephone table by the staircase, Henry watched the fire throw shadows on the walls. Others in the village had begun using mobiles, but he hadn't seen the need. People spoke too often as it was. "Yes, John, the grave will be ready by noon."
Jack might eat some chicken, Henry thought, hanging up. In the kitchen he tore a chunk of meat from the breastbone—leftovers from last night's supper. Back at the cot, Jack twitched his nostrils at the food. With effort he raised his head, then sunk his chin on the wicker. Henry drifted back to the kitchen. He made himself a plate of chicken and roast potatoes and ate standing up. He always ate his meals in the kitchen. A dining room held his father's dinner table and six oak chairs, but as long as he'd lived in the cottage—after moving from next door in a swap with Mrs. Tilson—he'd never sat in the dining room, not even once.
After eating he made a cup of tea and brought it to the armchair. It was five past six by the clock. "I almost forgot about the weather report!" Henry said, turning on the TV with excitement. "Early day tomorrow, Jack. Mustn't stay up late."
The black-and-white television took time to find its picture. Henry waited for the screen to settle, leaning forward in his chair. Slowly an image formed of a newscaster behind a desk, and the rest was static. Henry adjusted the aerial though he knew it was useless. The weather was for morning frost, the newscaster said, and cold temperatures throughout the day. No rain was expected.
Henry nodded as he listened. At one point in his life he might have cursed the draughty walls, along with whatever unseen forces had led him to this day, this year, this existence. Gradually he'd become a man in his father's chair, sipping tea and thumbing through a program guide. "John Wayne film tonight," he said, tapping the page. "Eight o'clock it starts." He glanced nervously at Jack in the cot.
* * *
Trevor Nelson couldn't get the bats out of his head. They flew at him from all directions, wings flapping. He pounded the kitchen table but it only made matters worse. Drunk, he'd thought it sensible to smash things, and as a result his great-grandmother's china lay in pieces on the linoleum. Dirty dishes sat piled in the sink. Sheets of plaster curled from the wall.
Trevor had mournful blue eyes, a delicate nose, and wispy blonde hair cut like a monk's. A troubled man, some said—an allegation Trevor cultivated as much as denied. Earlier tonight, the divorced brunette who'd followed him home from his favourite pub in Lewes had called him a playboy. It was just a jab, but it struck him as insulting, coming so quickly after they'd had sex. They'd been quietly having drinks in the kitchen, like a married couple.
"Playboy?" he'd yelled, slamming his glass of whiskey on the table. "You know me quite well, I suppose?"
The woman had thought his offense a joke. Then she wasn't so sure. She laughed nervously, and she closed her blouse to cover her bra. She noticed Trevor's lips quivering, and she took the comment back. But the damage had been done. Trevor had been wanting to let loose for some time, and he started smashing things. After she'd run from the house, he sat down and finished the whiskey. Then he found some gin—a full bottle under the sink, set aside for a night like this. It was a night that kept feeling early, a night of extremes.
Now the bats kept screeching, baring their teeth. Slumped over the table, he reached for the gin bottle, no longer bothering with the glass. The kitchen felt small and hot. He took a long drink, opened his mouth to get a little air, and kept going until the bottle was half gone.
When the gin took hold there was a roaring in his ears. Trevor loved this moment and dreaded the inevitability of its ending. He had a sudden impulse to run. He flung himself out the door and into the courtyard in his socks.
Trevor lived in the Caretaker's Residence on the edge of the Wembles Estate. His father had been Caretaker for over thirty years, and when he'd passed away the house had reverted to his son for as long as he occupied it, along with some grazing land overgrown with weeds. It didn't give Trevor any income, but he also didn't have the burden of rent. He ran out to the road and stood panting with his hands on his trousers. Here under the sky he could breathe easier.
Headlights swung around the bend. He waited for them with his arms outstretched. When the horn came he lost his nerve and jumped to the side of the road. When the driver berated him and drove off, leaving Trevor alone once more with nothing to do but return to the house.
The kitchen was still infested with imaginary bats. Trevor kicked over the table to get rid of them, and the bottle of gin smashed on the floor.
Trevor pulled out the cutlery drawer and heaved it across the room. Teaspoons scattered everywhere, jingling like bells. He wobbled on his feet as the sound died, his sobriety inching toward him from a distant smudge of darkness. He could see some gin slopping inside a broken saucer, like milk for a cat. He'd have to be careful approaching that saucer of gin. Any misstep, and it would tip over. He raised his arms in an arc above his head and rose on his tiptoes.
He placed his right foot on a section of linoleum and shifted his weight forward. The next two steps were clear—a space between a fork and spoon, and beside that, a clearing surrounded by broken glass. He moved expertly, as if he'd practised. Holding his breath, he reached the saucer and opened his mouth.
* * *
It didn't seem possible to Henry that the entire evening had disappeared. Had he watched any of that John Wayne film? The bedside clock said it was five in the morning. He must have been half-asleep when he'd come upstairs and changed into his pyjamas. He lay blinking at the dark, uneasily notching the passage of another night.
The bed ended at Henry's ankles and wasn't much wider than his shoulders. Against the wall, the radiator sputtered. Clothes lay in various piles on the carpet. A nightstand held a collection of magazines—The Sussex Botanist, Geographic Society Monthly, Waterfowl. Getting up, Henry drifted back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom, muttering and blowing his nose. Finally, his thoughts more or less clear, he went downstairs.
"Come on, Jack! Time to go to work!" Under the blanket, the dog was motionless.
Henry placed a fresh log on the fire and blew on the embers until the wood caught. Jack's eyes stayed shut, encircled with crust.
"Let's go, Jack!"
Whimpering, the dog tried to stand. The sound of his paws scrabbling in the cot made Henry wince. Just last month, Jack was chasing rabbits down The Beacon.
In the kitchen, Henry switched on the kettle for tea. "Jack needs his rest," he said. While waiting for the water he buttered two pieces of brown bread and put some chicken inside. He drank a cup of tea between bites of his sandwich, washed his face in the sink, and dried his beard on a tea towel. Then he poured some tea into a thermos and made a second sandwich for his coat pocket.
Jack had rested his chin on the edge of the cot again. His eyes were squeezed shut. "That's it, boy," Henry said, convincing himself the dog had followed his instructions. "Get some sleep." He turned out the lights and left.
The morning was quiet, the village black as coal. The neighbouring cottages sat dark and silent and shuttered against the cold. Henry paused in the road, gauging the sky. The only weather was the frigid wind, shifting the clouds to the north. He got in the van and warmed the engine, revving it as gently as he dared. He dreaded disturbing people with his odd hours. "Here we go, then," he whispered, putting the van in gear. His breath steamed up the windshield.
He brought the van between the hedgerows. As the road turned, his headlights picked up the pub sign—a faded black ram's head, swinging in the wind, followed by the post office and the shop. Just like that, he'd left Chalk. He continued west toward Springmer. Soon, lights glowed in distant barns. The road swelled under the beginnings of hills. Patches of grey appeared to the east.
Excerpted from The Gravedigger by Rob Magnuson Smith Copyright © 2010 by Rob Magnuson Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNO Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Rob Magnuson Smith, in his deeply moving and beautifully written novel The Gravedigger, gives us passage to the isolated English village of Chalk. There, his characters¿the gravedigger, the vicar, the local madman, the schoolteacher¿face complicated questions about betrayal, hope, death, and love. By the end of this page-turning psychological drama, Chalk¿s residents are changed¿they¿re richer and wiser for the experience. Smith¿s readers will be too." ¿ Ellen Slezak "The Gravedigger is a wry, soulful glimpse of how one good but lonely man's quiet existence is turned upside down by a late and unexpected love. Rob Magnuson Smith paints a funny, sad, gentle yet ferocious portrait of village life." ¿ Stewart O¿Nan