*

FARMER GILES’ “HOME REMIDIES”

A pity the war was so short. The best part of Giles’ life. His wife Emily now dead, last heard singing folk songs along with her favourite long-play of Kathleen Ferrier. The place still echoing in fact with her murmurs of housework. Even the old wireless, still sitting in the corner of the parlour, its taut tuning-wire long since bereft of any power to differentiate between stations, and then seeming to break out into fitful life, re-broadcasting old-fashioned Home Service and Light Programme programmes. Funny, though, it being unplugged for all this time. You would think it would know better.

Giles plumped down in the armchair. Soon, this very house, to which he had been wedded, child, chap and chairbound, for so long, would become more a burden than a home. His eyes shone in the late afternoon, its sunlight studiously maintaining the integrity of its shafting beams with the complicity of the net curtains.

Time turned too quickly from day to night with Giles conveniently forgetting to switch on the flashing strip-light, giving himself ample opportunity to ferment the memories. His ‘home remedies’, the second word of which he always misspelt.

The people he had once known passed by his inner gaze like the bowed strangers who would one day follow his funeral cortège, but most were long dead themselves, moved by busy-body worms into more than a corpse’s area, buried deeper than the dungeons he had forgotten to dust: the hoover seemed to clog up on bones, anyway.

For years, Giles came out into the garden, a garden too big for him, and he boasted to others that it was his smallholding, nay, an actual farm!

He was always expecting the sunshine to jolly him up with its contrast to the gloomy parlour—the birdsong airiness, the once perfect green lawn, now growing tufts, with many garden gnomes still standing…

Emily’s clean-living sheets gently sailed upon the washing-line of memory, the near unbroken ceiling of blue sparsely sown with tiny clouds of angel’s breath. Then, the sudden spluttering into life of a lawn-mower … curse it, this country could not boast of many such peaceful days. And some clown of a neighbour whom fate chose to live nearby had decided to noisily crop his massed and marshalled weeds. Giles mentally threatened to go round and give that clown a few of Giles’ own choice home remedies by paring down the clown’s own green fingers for him.

Another day, perhaps in the past, perhaps not, Farmer Giles, as he liked to think of himself, had escaped outside for there was a decided atmosphere within the house. Congregated in the various rooms were all the relations who had arrived for next day’s funeral. Ensconced in the kitchen were the culinary busy-bodies, the various aunts who had taken upon themselves the catering. The whole place teetered with stacked plates interleaved with serviettes.

Darting from bedroom to bedroom were the hide-and-seek gang, some too old to be imprisoned in prams and others too young to sit quietly whilst practising the novelty act of balancing a cup-and-saucer on the knee and nibbling a manicured cucumber sandwich. In the dining-room, were the loud faced uncles launching jokes in various shades of blue upon the surface of their beers. In the parlour, were Emily and some other woman hatching plots – plots with heroines but no heroes.

There goes that lawn mower again. Giles had not noticed that it had stopped momentarily, so the resumption was a double blow. Funerals were usually sad affairs at the best of times, but burying one’s own child (who had just been old enough to call Giles “Daddy”) was so sad, it actually ceased to be a real emotion. It was grief multiplied by no known human factor. He could not allow himself the normal outlet of crying because, if he started, he knew he would never be able to stop till he died himself.

He even willed the gnomes to stop crying, unless the morning dew betrayed more than just a natural wetness. He’d teach them a few home remedies given their inscrutable looks.

Returning to the present day of old age, the sun had just given up its ghost to the moon. The ghost of Emily appeared to sit in the corner, where the wireless had once glowed. She spoke with static in her throat and mis-tuning in her luminous eyes: bearing old news to her widowed husband who thought he was hearing it for the first time.

“Churchill says the war will end in two weeks…”, Emily sitting by the wireless crackled. Many old people usually do hold conversations with the media, complaining volubly at the newspapers, answering back the soap operas, debating turns of phrase with the politicians who would one day know better how to stutter. But Giles was about to talk to his dead wife. Then she to him again. Belief is everything, if nothing else.

“It’ll go on till you think it’ll never end,” was his studied response, “and then it’ll surely end.”

Memories of that day in the garden seeped back. He was much younger then, of course. He tried to concentrate on the birdsong rather than the backfiring of the neighbour’s underhauled lawn mower engine. What a clown! He looked at the gnomes expecting sympathy or perhaps even a home remedy of their own. This time spelled correctly.

It was then like trying to remember only the good things in life: the love he once felt for his mother, the arrival of the Beano comic every Thursday when he was endlessly five years old and his eventual success at riding a two-wheeler. Such things were to expunge his last memory of his own daughter. Holding her tiny feet as he playfully cart-wheeled her around in this very garden. She liked nothing better than mucking about in the tool shed, so none of it was perhaps surprising…

Giles grabbed the old shears from the shed (the garden fork having now been removed from where it had been carelessly left standing on its handle in the shed’s darkest corner) and walked into the street and towards the sound of the mower. The massed and marshalled weeds would drink the clown’s blood, he vowed, and flourish. Giles’ own expanse of grass blades bore areas as tall as a toddler’s knees. He was no farmer, not even a gardener.

More recently, with all that in the past, and soon after being widowed, Giles had fallen in love with his great niece. He looked at her sitting in the kitchen, making tea. Emily’s sister’s girl’s girl. The girl had only come to absolve her guilt of not coming. She had brought her best friend with her to blunt the blades of the cold atmosphere of her great uncle’s home remedies. Tentative glances. Angles of blame. Misgiven glitter from the pots and pans. Talk that meant very little … to him. About a person whose name sounded like Rachel Mildeyes. But surely that wasn’t right.

And someone whose brother went under the name Odgod. Was one of the two girls going to marry Odgod? It seemed so. If it were to be his niece’s friend who was to marry him, he would not mind. She might as well marry somebody as anybody. But as to his niece (whose face spoke of nun’s weeds), he could not bear the thought of her marrying someone called Odgod. She was too innocent, reminded him of his daughter who had not lasted beyond a half decade. He wanted to take his niece’s hand and kiss it, tell her not to marry. Especially not to someone called Odgod.

The girls giggled. Made the gas stove turn itself on. He did not notice anyone turning the knobs. All four burners, like spirits, spirted. The only way to heat the kitchen. How many times had his niece urged him to have central heating fitted to this old house, and how many times had he refused, knowing the open fire made the parlour snugger than any damn radiators? The snow splattered the window, as if someone had had a cold time of it crying. No sun today: one day less without God’s naked light.

Rachel Mildeyes was apparently known to both girls from her relationship with one of their teachers. A scandal had brought things to light. The Head had said Mr Van Chrome was leaving on a personal matter. The girls, in their straw hats, had nodded rhythmically to the hymn that ensued, as the day wore its course towards first lesson: embroidery with Miss Esther: then Preparation For Adult Life with Mr Urgle-Wett: biology was always just before lunch, for a reason too obvious to fathom. And why they always studied weeds in Botany, rather than beautiful flowers, was quite beyond them. Until scripture and scruples made it clear. The girls’ nonsense almost made sense.

Giles’ kitchen was emptier following their gabbled departure. He’d never understand what they were going on about. Tears filled his head. He heard the distant self-tuning of the wireless as a picture ghosted across the screen of its wickerwork speaker. He began to believe that he was Odgod, not Farmer Giles. But then he wished he had told his niece to marry Odgod…instead of someone else marrying Odgod.

The ancient memories now flooded back, having broken the gates of misery: the senseless clatter from the kitchen, the secret voices in the unlit hall, the unrecognisable faces on the landing, the acrimonious whispers at the back of the parlour’s darkness, the jolly screams in the top attic … it was too nice a day to be indoors. He’d go out and stand with the gnomes. The only one left of his home remedies now available to him. He was never to learn the correct spelling of ‘remedies’. In his mind it always had an i as part of its me before dies.

Giles spoke to the gnomes, but whether they spoke back, depends on many things such as ghosts and magic. Giles spoke of once discovering his tiny daughter in the tool shed leaning quite peacefully upon the spokes of the upside-down garden fork. It would be an odd God who allowed such accidents to happen.

That clown’s mower noisily started up again. As the garden gnomes stood to attention. Being so small made the garden at least seem like a farm…

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