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Feather's Miscellany: A Chestnutty Tale

...“Hey, mister,” he gasped, “I think I’ve just heard God and the devil sharing out souls!”

“Gerraway, lad” growled the old man. “Tha’rt pullin’ me leg.”...

John Waddington-Feather's choice tale reveals exactly what was going on in the cemetry.

Keighworth Cemetery lay on the outskirts of town at Utworth. Before the townsfolk began in-filling there, their mortal remains had been deposited in various parish church graveyards in the town and in the villages around the town. But as the population grew rapidly, the cemetery expanded greatly during the nineteenth century. Industrial diseases, tuberculosis, and frequent bouts of cholera and typhoid took their toll and the one original acre of ground soon swelled to two, then three and finally ten. By that time crematoria had been introduced and took the pressure off the cemetery which remained constant in size.

It was a well adorned cemetery where the townsfolk in good weather often strolled on the Sabbath; examining the interesting variety of sombre headstones and monuments which laced the land. Here and there were the great mausoleums of the rich mill masters; overseeing their workers lined in rows beneath them in death as in life. There was also a variety of trees planted here and there; mainly ancient yews but here and there other trees, and on the eastern boundary of the cemetery stood a large chestnut tree, the pick of the bunch.

It produced masses of fruit each autumn, rich brown cheggies or conkers which were prized by the lads living near. When the fruit was ripe they’d collect them eagerly to play their age-old game of conkers; and for my readers unfamiliar with the game I ought to explain.

Inside the spiky green cases was the chestnut whose size varied, but once it had been extracted it was placed on the end of a piece of string. Then the young – and the not so young – squared up like knights of old and in turn took swipes at their opponents’ conkers which they tried to smash. The riper and bigger the chestnut, the more likely it was to break in pieces its opposite number when wielded by its owner.

Now this large chestnut tree grew on the graves side of the high wall running round the cemetery and the bulk of its chestnuts fell inside that wall, but a few conkers dropped onto the public road the other side. It grew goodly sized conkers which were prized by Billy Walker and Jack Sutcliffe, two grave-diggers who, despite their years, still played conkers and had done from boyhood.

They’d grown up together down Garlic Lane and attended Eastwood Council School before leaving and becoming labourers for the town council. They’d done many jobs around the town – road-mending, digging ditches, emptying garbage bins but now, in late middle age, they’d been put out to grass digging graves.

After a lifetime outdoors they were gnarled and weather beaten, leathery skinned and rough, but they both had deep, strong, bass voices and sang in the church choir. They had loud speaking voices, too, and though they rarely spoke when working outdoors, when they did they bellowed. Now in their fifties they were still lads at heart and still played conkers each autumn as they’d done for years.

One autumn evening after they’d finished work and as dusk began to fall, they began collecting the cheggies the tree had shed and started sharing them out. Most of the fruit had dropped inside the cemetery wall but a sprinkling had fallen the other side onto the road and was noticed by a youngster cycling idly by. He stopped, propped his bike against the wall and was about to pick up the cheggies when he heard two deep voices from the other side of the wall. In the growing dusk they seemed unreal and he listened wide-eyed.

“One for me an’ one for thee; one for me an’ one for thee.”

Perplexed and not a little scared he rode off till he met an old man coming the other way on a walking stick.

“Hey, mister,” he gasped, “I think I’ve just heard God and the devil sharing out souls!”

“Gerraway, lad” growled the old man. “Tha’rt pullin’ me leg.”

“Honest,” pleaded the boy. “Come with me an’ listen for yourself.”

The old man hobbled after him till they reached the cemetery wall, and standing under the branches of the chestnut tree which hung over the wall, the pair listened intently. Sure enough, just as the lad had said they heard:

“One for me an’ one for thee; one for me an’ one for thee” come rolling through the gloom.

“Tha’rt right,” the old man whispered hoarsely. “They’re sharing out t’souls o’ t’ dead!”

They continued listening a while till they heard a deep voice say: “I think that’s all ‘ere. Just before we pack up, let’s get those on t’ other side o’ t’ cemetery wall then we’ll call it a day, eh?”

The pair listening waited to hear no more, and when Billy and Jack reached the road there was no one there; only an old man hobbling away as fast as he could into the dusk and a lad on a bike pedalling like mad for the town.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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