Tom stood at the college gate. The old Fosse behind him. The long drive in front, lined with trees. In the distance the main college building shimmered in the early morning mist. He remembered that he was told on his first day that Pugin was the architect. The same man who had designed the Palace of Westminster.
The Father had called him early to fix a fault in the boiler. It was always the same fault. He repaired it quickly. The boilers were old and needed replacing. That was a job for another day. He climbed the steps from the boiler house and walked into the main school building to find the priest. One of the oldest members of the Order had died during the night and the priest was attending an early morning Mass. Tom waited until he had finished.
As he waited he thought how quiet the college was when the pupils were on holiday. Only the priests and the brothers and a few staff stayed on during the summer months. This was his busiest time as he was responsible for maintaining the buildings and services. The best time to do that was when the building was empty. He always worked when others were on holiday.
The priest approached and told him more about the death. The burial would take place the next day in the little cemetery next to the college. For over a hundred years this had been used to bury the dead of the Order. The priests on one side and the brothers on the other. A hierarchy even in death. The priest said that there was a problem. John the gardener who would normally dig the grave was ill.
Tom listened to the priest in silence. He knew what was coming next. He was about to add another job to the many he had done since leaving school at 14. Before the priest could ask, he told him that he would dig the hole as long as he was well supplied with tea and the odd beer. The priest smiled. He knew that he could depend on the engineer and agreed to his request immediately. The priest thanked him and walked away back towards the main cloister.
Tom went to find his tools. He knew that the grave yard was overcrowded and that the graves were dug close together. He also knew that there was an underground spring running through it and the graves were dug to five foot instead of the usual six. He marked out the grave with a frame of wood and string and started to dig.
The earth was wet and the heavy clay was difficult to cut into. He toiled on and grew hot as the sun rose. He stripped to the waist. Even though he was now in his 40s he had maintained his slim muscular physique. His early years fighting on the streets of The Felling had honed his strength. During the war he had been a P.T.I. in the Royal Artillery, one of the fittest in his brigade. In his spare time he was still a boxing trainer with the East Midlands Catholic Boxing Club. He enjoyed physical activity and hard work. He was a strong man and he knew it.
As the hot day passed the hole became deeper. He kept its shape with regular checks against the wooden frame. Keeping the sides smooth and clean to avoid breaking into an adjoining grave. A shiver went down his spine as he thought of this. He was not afraid of death. He had witnessed it many times. It was the fear of disturbing someone’s final resting place that unnerved him. The sanctity of the grave was important to him.
The sound of approaching footsteps broke his reverie. A young brother was walking through the cemetery with a glass and a bottle of beer. He ignored the glass and drank straight from the bottle. He thanked the brother and carried on with his work. The hot sun and the alcohol allowed his mind to wander.
He thought of his early life, living in poverty on Tyneside. How his family had moved to Leicester in 1939 on an assisted travel scheme to find work. They had faced discrimination and persecution, though they had only moved 180 miles. His flaming red hair made him a specific target and there were many fights. Yet he made friends as well as enemies. The first person he met as he walked out of the London Road station was the beautiful blond young woman who would become his wife. He smiled as he thought of their wedding day in 1942. His new wife by his side in her pink wedding dress. He wore his army uniform. She was 18. He was only 20. A brief respite from the horrors and sometimes boredom of the long war years.
He thought of his first daughter, Pat, born the following year. She had inherited his red hair and his temper. She was the most like him. She was 3 when he was demobbed. He was almost a stranger to her. He wished he had shown her more affection. He had always found it difficult and still did. She was married now with children of her own. Her first child had been born when she was so young. His first grandchild, Frankie, who was almost like another daughter to him.
He looked up from the grave. He was standing waist deep. He was getting hungry after a morning of hard digging. The sun was now high in the sky. It was time for dinner. He climbed out of the hole and walked to the kitchen to eat. He ate alone, deep in his thoughts. The task had made him feel apart from the other workers who supported the Community. They were good people. Country folk at heart. He again felt like an outsider. He finished his dinner, drank his mug of tea and returned to the grave. There was still two more feet to dig to reach the required depth. It was not much but the wet soil and clay made it heavy going.
True to his promise the priest brought him another beer. He drank again from the bottle. Refreshing his thirst in a few swallows. He climbed back into the grave and continued his labours. The sun grew hotter as the afternoon wore on. His body glistened with sweat. His mind was elsewhere. Another grave, where his first-born son had been buried. It was known only to him. It was 1947. He had died at birth. The body had been placed in a stranger’s grave as was the tradition. He never told his wife where. He would take its secret to his own grave. He knew she would mourn for their lost son. He felt that knowledge of where he was buried would make it worse. He remembered the anger and the grief and how he had felt so powerless against fate and nature. His faith had almost left him then as it would many times in the future.
His next daughter had been born the following year. She had been christened Susan but was always known as Colleen. She too would be married soon. He liked her husband to be. A good man with a good trade. He thought of the wedding and how he would pay for it. They were not poor but the last few years had been difficult. He felt shame and embarrassment when he remembered the nine months that they had spent as a homeless family. He had almost begged the council to give them a new home. He vowed that it would never happen again.
He should not have taken his family to live in Derby. It had been a mistake. His wife was homesick and his children unsettled. Especially Colleen. She had once changed schools without telling them. Forging his signature in a note to the Head. He smiled now at the thought but he had been angry then. He could never stay angry at his second daughter for long.
In the haze of the late afternoon a familiar figure approached the grave side. It was the Bursar with another drink. They talked as Tom finished the bottle. He liked the Bursar who had employed him the previous year when he was between jobs. They were the same age but from very different backgrounds. Despite this they respected each other. Tom was a good employee and a hard worker. The Bursar knew this. He recognised that Tom was an intelligent man even though he had not had the benefit of his own privileged education. He knew that the grave would be finished before dusk.
The final cuts were the most difficult as the ground was saturated. Tom’s muscles were beginning to ache and his neck was stiff. He had injured it in an accident in a pub cellar some years earlier. He had worn a brace which made his job as a pub landlord difficult. He had enjoyed this time in his life. But he could not settle in any place for too long. The need to move on was always with him. He found it easy. His family did not. He knew he was very lucky to have a wife who loved him so much. He recognised that sometimes he was not an easy man to live with. He loved his wife and his family but he found it difficult to show it. His own father and mother had never shown him any affection. He was closer to his brothers and sisters.
His sons had been born in the 1950s. First Tommy and then Andrew. He was proud of them both. In a way he was glad that they took after his wife more than him. He knew they would both be there that evening when he returned from work. He also knew that Colleen would be out, gallivanting as he called it.
At 6pm he heard the church bell toll for evening Mass. He looked around and decided that the grave was finished. It was five feet deep and exactly the correct size to take a coffin. The sides were straight and clean. He climbed out slowly as the day’s work and the alcohol were beginning to take their toll. He covered the grave and went back to the boiler house to clean his tools and have a wash. He changed into fresh clothes and began his journey home. He looked at his watch. 13 hours had passed since he had arrived that morning.
The next day he arrived early at the college to make sure everything was ready for the funeral. He walked to the grave side and removed the covering. To his shock and horror he discovered that the grave had filled with water. He realised that the water table had risen overnight in the rain and the spring had broken through. He went to the boiler house to collect a pump and returned to the grave. He started the pump and the water began to subside. He knew that the Requiem Mass had begun and that the funeral cortege would soon be arriving.
In the distance he heard the sound of a tractor mowing the fields. He left the pump running and ran over to the groundsman who was driving the tractor. He asked him to bring some grass cuttings to the grave. They worked together spreading the cuttings around and into the grave. They finished as the procession left the church. Six priests were carrying the coffin followed by the community and staff.
He removed the pump and spread the final cuttings on the grave floor. The cortege moved slowly through the grounds. Tom looked into the hole again. The freshly mown grass cuttings were rising on the incoming water like the foam on a glass of beer. As the procession reach the graveside Tom crossed his fingers. Only the priest leading the ceremony and the pallbearers could get near the grave. The rest of the congregation looked on from a distance. The priest began the last funeral rites and the pall bearers lowered the coffin into the grave. As the coffin descended the water and grass cutting rose until the two met. The coffin began to float as the pall bearers and priest looked down in amazement. They looked at the bubbles rising to the surface as the coffin began to sink. The displacement caused the grave to fill up quickly to the brim. The water lapped at their feet as the final prayers were said.
As they walked away. Tom heard one of them say. “I knew the old priest had served in the navy during the war but I don’t think he was expecting a burial at sea”
Tom vowed that his first grave dig would also be his last