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Feather's Miscellany: Ashes

In this tale by John Waddington-Feather we meet a man who will never forget the day he scattered his great-aunt’s ashes in the sea at Morecambe.

We’ve heard much of the Ashes this summer: the best series of cricket matches I’ve seen between England and Australia, between two evenly matched teams whose play brightened up an otherwise dull, rainy season. Only in cricket could you have such a gentlemanly sporting trophy as a tiny urn full of ashes which commemorated a defeat: the defeat of the English cricket team at the hands of the Australians.

For the uninitiated, the Ashes is a tiny urn containing the ashes of a stump used in the match between the two countries when Australia first beat England in 1882. It originated after “The Times” newspaper printed an obituary of English cricket following that first defeat on home soil; and every series of test matches ever since has been keenly fought to keep the Ashes at Lords Cricket ground, the home of English cricket. Having grandchildren to an Australian father living in Australia and wishing to keep the peace, I must add that though we beat Australia this year, overall the Aussies have beaten England more times than we’ve beaten them.

But the ashes in this tale are funereal: the ashes of cremated people which in their disposal led to some amusing situations. In death as in life the human condition is often humorous. I’ll begin with telling you about that mean grasping character, Ebenezer Phillips, and what happened to his ashes when he died. As you know from a previous tale, he left all his money and two farms to his one child, Seth, so that his widow, poor Edie Phillips, had to go cap in hand to her own son for her weekly allowance. At his funeral the vicar spoke glowingly of Ebenezer, who’d left the church a hundred quid – his passport to heaven he thought – and Edie could have spit.

The truth was her marriage had been arranged between her father and Ebenezer’s, two tight-fisted hill farmers, primarily to provide an heir and make life more comfortable for themselves in old age. Love didn’t come into it; nor did Edie. They might have been bartering cattle, and, as I said, Ebenezer left everything to Seth, his son, who in time ran both farms.

Now there was a small parcel of land belonging to Alfred Deighton adjoining Ebenezer’s farm, on the other side from the farm Edie had come from. It had been a bone of contention between Ebenezer and Alfred for years till they hated each other and had gone to court about it. After a prolonged legal battle Ebenezer won the case and gloated. It had cost him a pretty penny in lawyers’ fees so he gloated his fill; the more because Deighton was very put out when the case went against him.

Ebenezer lost no time in putting a new fence round the tiny bit of land to incorporate it into his own. It gave him great satisfaction to see old Deighton glare across the land every time he drove by on his tractor; so much so, he left instructions in his will that his ashes had to be buried in that plot of land and a headstone with his photograph on it facing Deighton’s land. Even in death Ebenezer wanted to gloat.

Edie detested her husband even more when she found out, yet she was to have sweet revenge in the years ahead, when she came up on the Lottery and overnight became a multi-millionaire. She played her cards well and kept her win well under wraps telling no one, except the London lawyer who became her agent.

Not long after her win, her son Seth went bust after a spate of foot-and-mouth disease which wiped out his herd of cows and when sheep prices plummeted. Unknown to him she bought the farms when they went on the market and through her lawyer made Seth the farm manager. For years he never knew he was working for his mother.

More than that, she revenged herself on her husband when an animal charity appealed for land for a pets’ cemetery. She gave the charity the parcel of land Ebenezer was in and before long his solitary headstone was surrounded by scores of others, underneath which were cats and dogs, budgerigars and parrots and even two pet donkeys; and Edie watched with pleasure the grin on old Deighton’s face when he’d got over his surprise and went by.

I hope the next tale forewarns my readers of the dangers of scattering ashes haphazardly. I’ve a very great lifelong friend, Ian, a quiet scholarly man, who was given the task of scattering his great-aunt’s ashes at Morecambe, a popular Lancastrian seaside resort for many Keighworthians. Ian’s great-aunt had gone to Morecambe for her holidays for years and spent many happy hours there. Today they still have day trips there from Keighworth and it was on one of those Ian decided to scatter his great-aunt’s ashes and so kill two birds with one stone.

Unlike brash Blackpool down the coast, Morecambe is a sedate, very middle-crustian place. You can sit quietly on the sea front and watch the tide come in and out all day with no blaring side shows or gambling casinos tinkling away behind you. There’s little noise apart from marauding gulls and the occasional snort from docile donkeys lined up on the sands to give gentle rides to old and young alike.

So, one fine summer’s day Ian left Keighworth on a coach trip with his great-aunt’s ashes safely stowed in a handgrip which he discreetly put on the rack above his seat. It was a jolly outing, a Friends of Crag Castle trip to the seaside for the day, when all were intent on enjoying themselves before returning home that night; a day of sunshine away from the grey Pennine weather; a day spent strolling along the front breathing in sea air before a lunch of fresh fish and chips, then perhaps a ride further up the coast to Grange before the rural journey home through the Dales.

While the rest of the group were sorting themselves out and deciding what to do first, Ian, who’d been thinking about the ashes all the way there, seized the opportunity to get to the sea and scatter his great-aunt’s ashes tucked inside his grip. When no one was looking, he took out the urn and quietly made his way to the edge of the promenade, leaving the others chatting away among themselves in a group by the coach.

“She’d be just in her element today,” Ian thought as the reached the edge of the prom. The weather was perfect, with a warm breeze coming off the sea and a clear sky overhead; a world away from grey, smoky Keighworth. There was only one drawback; the tide was out a mile or so from the shore, so Ian took off his shoes and socks, removed his coat, rolled up his trousers and paddled across the stretch of wet sand to the sea. He left his grip alongside his coat, shoes and socks by a fresh-water stand-pipe which was used by people to wash their feet after paddling. He’d need that stand-pipe when he returned!

All went well until he reached the sea into which he waded for a few yards till the water was half-way up his legs; then he took the top off the urn and gave it a good shake. That was his first mistake. The wind caught the ashes and blew them straight back in his face and over his clothes. Coughing, he wiped his face and brushed down his shirt, then started again. This time he didn’t throw into the wind, but leaned over the sea and scattered the rest of the ashes on the water in front of him, not realizing the tide had turned. The ashes washed back up his legs! He tried had to think of pious words as he committed the rest of his great-aunt to the waves, but his thoughts were far from holy so he said nothing and turned to walk back to the promenade to wash his great-aunt from his legs.

As he neared the promenade, he saw a group of people watching him closely, some pointing at him, and drawing up alongside them were an ambulance and a police car. “I wonder what’s going on,” Ian mused to himself as he pottered across the wet sand carrying the empty urn, and as he drew nearer the crowd began waving at him, shouting something he couldn’t quite hear as the wind was against him. He looked behind him, but there was no one there. Yes, it was himself they were shouting at. What on earth were they doing? Then they began clapping as he arrived, mystified and wet all up his shins with his great-aunt clinging to them.

All was explained by Mrs Townson when he reached the prom. “Eee, Ian! You were so quiet coming here on the coach, we thought summat had happened to you…that you were going to do summat daft when you left your coat and shoes on the prom, so we called the police and they brought the ambulance. Eee, we’re right relieved to see you’re all right, Ian.”

Ian daren’t laugh, they all looked so serious, especially the police and ambulance crew, who packed up and drove off when they’d interviewed him. For his part, once he’d washed off his great-aunt and packed her urn in his bag he re-joined the coach and had a pleasant day in Morecambe and Grange-over-Sands. When he returned home he used the urn as a flower vase, but never put flowers in it without remembering the day out at Morecambe scattering his great-aunt’s ashes.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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