Digging up Donald
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Digging up Donald
'You have been married for five months,' the Mother began once more.
'Yes, Mother, but Brian is….'
'That's five months and not a sign of anything marital happening.' The Mother reached for the big guns, the Marks and Spencer Bourbon deluxe. She fingered the dark biscuit, inspecting it as if priming it to go off. 'There's no one else in the family who's slow in that manner.'
The Mother and Maureen often lapsed into euphemisms during the now regular biscuit-waging, Sunday morning family discussions. The Mother had warned that such a delicate subject as reproduction was best breached euphemistically, with or without biscuits.
'Have you had your others?' said the Mother. She sipped her tea and settled back into Maureen's guest's armchair. Brian's grin was forced and twisted in a photograph over the fireplace, as if even photographically he didn't belong at such Mother and daughter inquests.
Maureen nodded. 'Thursday gone.'
'And you've been feeding Brian red meat to keep him active in that department?' The Mother pointed vaguely downward with a finger. She barely breathed the word that until it was little more than the parting of her lips.
'He's had nothing but red meat, Mother. He's complaining that he'd like a piece of chicken or fish now and then for a change.'
'Aye.' The Mother sipped again. 'They all want a bit of chicken when you tell them they can't have it. It's a man's nature to want what he can't have. But you must stand firm, my girl. You should tell him what he needs to keep his interest up is iron and plenty of it.'
The Mother drained her cup and settled it back upon its saucer, pushing it away across the occasional table as if what she was about to say might be a danger to its delicate china. 'He has been keeping his interest up, hasn't he?'
Maureen toyed with her hair and studied the curtains. 'Oh yes, Mother,' she began, carefully. 'In fact, sometimes he seems a bit too interested. There was one night last month when he kept me awake for a whole half an hour. The following morning, Mrs Fortleroy at the bank said I was looking a bit peaky, as if she knew what we'd been up to. She said I should get an early night and then she sniggered to Mrs Bold from Counter Credits.'
Maureen hesitated. She sat back into the folds of the settee and placed a cushion upon her lap. Her words came slowly as if she measured each one. 'I was thinking perhaps I'm overdoing the red meat, Mother. Maybe I should try Brian on a bit of turkey, or pork, just to curb his interest a little? It's all a bit frantic at times. He seems a bit too… excitable. Can a frantic, excitable to do actually make me a Mother?'
The Mother sighed. 'Does the train arrive at Nuneaton before Brian becomes excitable?' she said.
Maureen winced. 'Sometimes it doesn't even leave the platform at Waterloo, Mother.'
The Mother nodded. 'It's an all too common problem, Maureen. Whenever the Father was excitable I had him think of other things, just to take his mind off the business at hand.'
'What sort of things, Mother?'
The Mother grew distant, taken by thoughts of days gone by. She shivered to a flapping of her jowls; not all those thoughts were good ones. 'When you were wanted he was thinking of the repairs he would be doing to the outside lavatory roof. And with Robert it was the late Doctor Proctor's account of Mrs Wiggins's burst boil.' The Mother returned abruptly to the present. She pointed the half-eaten Bourbon accusingly at her daughter. 'You should have Brian think of no nonsense, earthy things just like that.'
'I don't know if he'll do that, Mother.'
Maureen stood and paced to the window. She glanced beyond the pane, up and down the winding way as if to make sure no one was out and about.
The Mother looked beyond her daughter. The morning outside seemed delicate, virginal, and pure.
Maureen drew the curtains a fraction and turned to face the Mother once more. 'I think part of the problem is that Brian wants to have his mind on the business at hand. He wants to fiddle with my… bits. And he's been suggesting that we're familiar with the lights on. I tell him that such things probably won't help, but he's full of funny ideas.'
'Yes, well, nineteen is a funny age for a man, Maureen.' The Mother sighed. 'Just because they've glanced at the road map they think they know the entire neighbourhood of Womanhood by then. And they're in their prime, so they've a full tank of petrol - point them at the road and they're off in any direction before you've even got yourself seated. They have yet to learn that the trick to completing the journey from London to Birmingham is to make sure the car doesn't burst a gasket by Watford Gap. You must get Brian to slow down. Get him to attend to the scenery on the way, that'll take his mind off things and stop him wondering what to do with his hands.'
'I'll try, Mother.'
'Good. And tell him from me, there's no rushing about when getting in the family way. It needs hard work and a concentrated effort on his part not to be concentrating too much. Tell him he'll find it far easier with the lights out. The Father had the lights on once and it put him off his food for a week.'
'And if all that fails you should tell Brian he can't play in the darts team come Thursdays until he's performing properly and you're expecting.'
The Mother stood up and stooped to retrieve her coat from the arm of the chair. She was not a large woman, but those who opposed her often complained that she seemed to occupy more than mere space alone, as if presence might take upon physical proportion. She stood ancient before her time, solid and erect like a castle, its ramparts chipped by the passing ages, but its walls firm and dependable, unmoving. Folk who laid siege to her door got bored and went home.
She sniffed at the air, and aimed a final, parting point at Maureen with a spent Jammy Dodger that had lodged in her lapel. 'You are sure you're telling me everything, Maureen?'
Maureen stared toward the floor. 'What more can there be, Mother?' she mumbled.
'There's something's amiss; I can feel it.' The Mother frowned. 'Lift your jumper, girl.'
Maureen lifted her cardigan and the Mother placed a palm over her stomach. The Mother's brow furrowed in concentration and her blue-rinse perm ruffled and fell upon her head.
'It's as I thought,' she murmured. 'There's no rumour of babies. And I'm sure there was some there the last time I felt for them. Perhaps I was wrong - perhaps Brian doesn't have a low soldier count after all. Though how anyone who looks like Brian can be fully functioning is beyond me.'
Maureen steadied herself against the fireplace. The Mother felt her daughter's rapid breath beneath her palm. She saw a tear trickle down Maureen's cheek.
The Mother's tone softened. 'Tell me, dear. Tell me what's happened; there's nothing that between us we can't sort out.'
'I had a dream, Mother,' whispered Maureen. She looked out to the lane as if sure something was lurking beyond the bushes. 'It was a terrible, terrible dream. There was thunder, and burning, and a wind streaked with the howling of wolves. I lay upon an altar at the brow of the hill, surrounded by dead folk all jeering and jostling. And the clouds parted, and demons reached down into me with cold, bony hands. They drew out my babies and held them for me to see. Then they took them away from me. I thrashed my fists and yelled my rage, helpless as the devils led my unborn away into darkness. How the demons laughed cruel and hard, as I sobbed and sobbed.
'When I woke in a panic, and wanted to call you, Brian said it was nothing more than a nightmare, and I shouldn't worry. But since then, I've felt no rumour of babies either. I think they've been stolen, Mother, stolen by demons in the night and no matter what Brian says.'
'Demons?' said the Mother, her tone one of fear, not of mocking. She growled and pressed once more at Maureen's stomach. What she felt for now she did not say. She brushed a palm against Maureen's brow, and gazed into her daughter's eyes. 'Yes, well, I'd not rely on Brian's opinion, if I were you. It's not good for the men folk to have things like opinions; it gives them ideas above themselves. The Father had an opinion once and it took me a week to shake it from his head. You should have told me right away, child.'
'Then you believe me?' said Maureen.
The Mother nodded. 'There's truth that strangers are about, Maureen. I've felt for some time now that things are amiss. The Father's been in his potting shed for weeks muttering to unseen folk, and I've heard Robert talking to Uncle Norman in the night. These are strange things that don't bode well.'
'But surely Uncle Norman can't talk, Mother, him being dead?'
'Quite,' said the Mother. 'Tell that to Norman. But there's more than missing babies afoot, or my name's not Gwyneth Richards. I've seen the signs.'
She moved to the front door and paused to sniff at the morning air. The springtime breeze was heady with the scent of apple blossom and the musk of earlier rains. The tang of things newly sprung filled the air. But beyond, lurking at the very edge of the Mother's senses, was the hint of other smells - bad smells, rotten smells.
'What shall I do, Mother?' said Maureen.
'There's nothing for it,' said the Mother. 'I'll have the Father dig up Donald when I get home. Then we shall begin to learn of what's going on. Then we shall find out why you're not in the family way and what is the business of devils and demons.'
'How will Donald know all that, Mother? Surely Donald's nothing more than….'
The Mother's smile was grim. 'Don't you be worrying yourself of the how and the why, Maureen. Donald knows much more than meets the eye. Once we get Donald up and out of the ground, things will as likely fall into place. Donald has The Book of Family Business, for a start, and I daresay we'll need that if I'm correct in my thoughts. In the meantime, you keep on top of Brian; keep up with the red meat and out with his calls for chicken. He'll thank you for it in the end.'
Robert liked to see Donald dug up. The Mother brought Donald up on special occasions; the Queen's birthday and Maureen's wedding; the day Aunt Maude blew up, when she had stumbled upon one of Hitler's finest that had been lodged up her chimney breast since the war and her picture had been in the Herald. The Mother had made the Father dig Donald up for Uncle Norman's funeral. It had seemed fitting and proper, the right thing to do.
We can't leave Donald buried on a Happening-day, she would say of such a day. Donald has simply got to come up.
'Father,' said the Mother, 'I want to see Donald within the half hour.' She folded her arms and aimed her bottom lip at the Father in threat, daring him to question her decision.
'Now, Mother?' moaned the Father. 'But, I'm sitting….'
The Mother glared. 'I'm wanting The Book of Family Business, Father, and I'm wanting it now.'
Spade in hand, the Father headed toward the garden, muttering into his upturned collar. But they were quiet mutterings, behind closed palms and beyond the Mother's hearing.
No grass grew where Donald was buried. The grass didn't bother after the Father had dug Donald up several times. It was a quiet spot, at the back of the garden, near the fence, where the sun didn't quite manage to shine. Some flowers sulked and a discarded gnome fished hopelessly in the soil, but that was all. Atop the small mound of oft-turned earth, a single stone stood against the passage of time. Robert had painted words upon it, black and telling, almost as if the stone was a tombstone.
Here Lies Donald; Donald Lies Here.
The Father mopped at his brow, though he had not begun to dig. The mid morning was fair, bright and breezy, with not a hint of rain. It was a fine day for Donald to be unearthed once more.
'One day, digging up Donald will be your responsibility, Robert,' the Father said, applying a Wellington boot purposefully to the blade of his shovel and turning over the soft earth.
The Mother grunted. 'Aye, the boy knows his responsibility, Father.' She glanced about nervously. Word of the Father despatched to the garden with spade in hand did not take long to spread. Everybody liked to see Donald dug up. 'But I'm thinking there should be less talking and more digging. There'll be a crowd gathered, soon.'
And so there was.
'Morning, Mr Richards.' Mr Cripps peered over the garden fence, and paused as if pretending to tender his rhododendrons, yet not a hint of topsoil did sully his palms. 'Digging up Donald?'
'Aye,' said the Father. 'The Mother says it's a Happening-day. No doubt someone's died or been born, or whatever. So, it's up for our Donald and no argument from me.'
'Well, it's a nice day to be a Happening-day, Mr Richards. Not too hot and not too cold. Donald will not suffer to be dug up on a day like today. Not suffer at all.'
The Father snorted in his labours. And, as if that was an invitation, Mr Cripps went quickly around to the other side of the fence and peered over Robert's head. He seemed eager to see how Donald was doing.
The Father continued digging. A neat hole opened at his feet and a small mound of earth sat upon his Wellingtons. Worms wriggled, disturbed. Robert knew that soon he would hear the familiar clunk as the spade found the lid of Donald's wooden box. And then, well….
'Happening-day is it, Mr Richards?' The other neighbour, Mrs Almond ,paused at her back door and fumbled with keys, her ankles lost to a flurry of shopping bags. Festooned, she was, in a bulging tent dress of flowery linen.
Robert disliked Mrs Almond. She had chins to spare, and they would waggle at him whenever she complained about him kicking his ball into her garden.
'It surely is,' answered the Father, an honest perspiration forming upon his brow. 'That's what the Mother has called it, so that's just what it must be.'
And he went back to his digging, as was his must.
'Well, I'll just pop inside with my shopping and I'll be right back out again. No bringing Donald out until I get back. You know I haven't seen Donald in, oh, how long?'
The Mother glanced toward Mr Cripps. 'Since the last time we dug Donald up,' she whispered. 'I've never known Mrs Almond to miss a single time. She has a radar, you know, a Donald detector.'
Mr Cripps nodded, and danced upon his toes as if cold, poking Robert with his knees, presumably in the hope that the boy would scatter before him. But Robert had a front row view and he intended to keep it.
'Aye,' said Mr Cripps with a final, defeated prod at Robert's rear, 'there's not much gets past Mrs Almond. Not where digging up Donald is concerned. The woman has a nose for the buried.'
Soon, Mr Cripps and Mrs Almond were joined by Mr Grim, the undertaker, from number twenty-three. And then by Constable Bates, who stopped off on his way to a crime that sounded like it could wait. There was old Mrs Wiggins, who Robert had thought was dead, and the-man-with-the-limp-and-the-dog-that-went-up-and-down-a-lot-when-it-walked, though from whence he came, or to where he went, no one dared guess.
There came Mr Lumpkin, the mayor, and Mrs Calamine in her hat, the one with the fruit turned nasty and the slushy brim. The Reverend Likewise came, tall and lanky as if striving to be near God, and his curate, Mr Dodds, short and squat, and shifty eyed as if he had God in his pocket. Mr Fipps came with his guide dog, Deaf Ben.
All peered beyond the Father as he dug, and dug, and….
Thunk! The sound of metal upon wood. All gasped, and Mrs Wiggins, being older, sang 'Ooh!' in musical tones. The-dog-that-went-up-and-down-a-lot-when-it-walked snarled as was his way.
'Careful, Mr Richards,' warned Mr Cripps, as the Father made motions towards Donald's earthy home. 'Donald might be all decayed by now. There's been plenty of rain since Donald was last dug up.'
'An unseasonable amount,' agreed Mrs Wiggins.
No one argued. Old folk know a lot about weather.
But Robert knew Donald would be fine. Donald was in a wooden box, sealed from the damp with a dab of wax that snapped as the Father lifted it from the hole and slipped back the lid to their gaze.
All peered inside.
It was all there, untouched by time.
There was Aunt Maude's picture, a seared vision, all soot and rubble; Maureen's wedding keepsakes and the Mother's souvenir Queen's coronation mug. Mr Fipps's bullet from the war - the one that dented his helmet and gave him his Tuesday morning migraines down at the welfare office - nestled in with Mrs Wiggins's Bing Crosby record and her late husband's artificial leg. There was the collar from the-dog-that-veered-to-the-side-and-back-when-it-ran, which belonged to the-man-with-the-dog-that-went-up-and-down-a-lot-when-it-walked, before the dog that went up and down a lot was born (and thus was owned by the man with the limp). And there was Constable Bates's missing evidence, which Robert knew was about his cousin Susan's speeding offence, and that Constable Bates had slipped into Donald's keeping when he thought no one was looking.
Before anyone could lurch toward Donald, the Mother reached inward and claimed The Book of Family Business. The cover flashed in the late afternoon sunshine; its gold leaf lettering burned like white fire.
'There,' said the Mother. 'That's all I'm needing, Father. You can put Donald back as soon as you've a mind to.'
Robert watched her leave. She stooped as if the book was a great weight in her arms. The sunlight deepened the lines upon her brow as she shuffled away, and for an instant she looked older than Robert had ever seen her. Old and careworn.
'One day,' began the Father, addressing the gathering reverently, 'future generations will marvel at this record of our lives. These memories will tell them exactly what sort of people we were.'
Everyone agreed, except Robert. 'Donald is a funny name for a time capsule,' he said, and all looked upon him with horror.
'Now, lad,' the Father wagged a digit most stern, 'Everybody's planting memories for the future, and you know it was Uncle Norman's dying wish that our time capsule be called Donald.' He turned, leaned on his spade and made exaggerated mimes to Mrs Wiggins, mouthing silent words that Robert wasn't supposed to know: 'He was a bit confused at the end was Uncle Norman. Called everything Donald, bless him.'
Mrs Wiggins nodded and smiled, but it was obvious that, without her reading spectacles, she couldn't hear silent, mimed words too well.
Robert sighed. He liked Uncle Norman. He had played football with Robert, and had always deliberately kicked the ball into Mrs Almond's garden so Robert could watch her chins for free.
Robert missed Uncle Norman.
He hadn't dug him up in weeks.
That evening, with Donald safely reburied and The Book of Family Business resting unopened upon the sideboard, the family sat before the fire, eating a supper of crumpets and drinking tea. The Mother was in the Mother's armchair, knitting something pulloverish in wool, staring into the flames that flicked between the nuggets of coal in the hearth. The Father sat opposite her, basking in his own world of rustling paper, divining truth and wisdom from the late edition of The Herald. Robert kneeled upon the floor, lost to his own thoughts.
The old grandmother clock in the corner dealt out the seconds, regular like a metronome, orchestrating the clacking of the knitting needles, the hissing and snapping of the coal, and the rustle of the Father's paper, into a percussive, hypnotic ambience, broken only when the Father declared flatly: 'I see they're planting a tree tomorrow, upon the brow of the hill, for the millennium.'
The Mother paused, as did the clock. Robert looked up sharply from his crumpets. The Mother didn't like it when the Town Council did things without telling her. Like when the men had come to lay the new road around the town and no one had told her it was going to run right by the front window of the house. She had sent them packing, armed with a yard brush and a sharp stare, had them trundling down the lane in their steamroller, muttering earthy, council-workmanlike things, never to return.
The Father tugged nervously at his ear. 'I suppose it would be all right for the council to plant a tree... if it's for the millennium.'
'I expect they'll be planting it to test my resolve,' said the Mother, returning to her knitting and allowing the clock to catch up. 'I suppose they'll be thinking I'll be on my way to the brow to stop them, what with the Grandmother at rest up there. Besides, the millennium's been and gone. Even the council can't be daft enough go marking millenniums once they've happened.'
The Father coaxed smoke from his pipe, tapping its stem thoughtfully against his lip. 'Then perhaps the Grandmother can go and rest somewhere else,' he said, but with, Robert felt, an experimental conviction to his tone. 'They've fixed the wheel on her bath chair now, Mother, so she's no excuse. They've even offered to put up the money to buy her one of those new-fangled motorised ones. Anything so they can have their brow back.'
The council hated the brow of the hill being taken over by an irascible old woman, who appeared to live in an old, rusted bath chair. The man-with-the-limp-and-the-dog-that-went-up-and-down-a-lot-when-it-walked mentioned this to Robert one day when he was buying onions in Mrs Lump's greengrocers on the High Street. He said the council felt it didn't project the right image of the town. They didn't like her singing in the evenings, nor her swearing in the mornings. They didn't like her washing her underwear in the town well, nor her festooning it to dry upon the sundial that was always slow.
The Mother caught Robert's grin and it fled. He curled his lips into his crumpet, feigning disinterest in the conversation and trying to appear lost once more in the flickering of the flames.
'Perhaps young Robert should go up there in the morning and bring the Grandmother down,' suggested the Mother. It was her turn to grin; only inwardly, Robert felt, so he didn't know if she was maddened or otherwise at catching his eavesdropping.
'Are you sure that's wise, Mother?' said the Father, dropping The Herald to his lap and staring. 'He had nightmares the last time he pushed Gwladys's bath chair. And there were teeth marks in his shirt collar. And there's the rumour that she sends her teeth off on errands of their own, to forage for food or effect terrible revenge upon the neighbours' ankles. One night, Constable Bates reported them chasing the Duchess of Luton's cat down Lonely Lane. It was lucky it was the night of the Policeman's Ball, so no one took him seriously. Is Robert ready for that?'
'Nonsense, Father. The boy's growing up. It's time he learned that the Grandmother is not just some toothy crone of a witch who cackles insanely and has a tendency to bite people who come too close.'
The Father spluttered and buried himself behind the hastily uplifted Herald. There was nothing inward about the grin on his face.
'Besides,' continued the Mother, 'the Grandmother is one hundred and four years old. She'll as likely be dead soon, and then it'll be harder for Robert to get to know her.'
'Aye, there is that, Mother,' said the Father. 'Though I don't know what the Grandmother will think of it all, have you thought of that?'
The Mother slowed in her knitting. She grew pensive. 'I know exactly what the Grandmother will think, Father - I'll be a grandmother myself, soon, so I've been practising thinking like one.'
The Father's jaw dropped open and his tongue lolled out. Robert imagined the words bouncing about inside his Father's head, all jumbled up with errant thoughts; grasping, flailing, and lost. 'You are... we are?' he stuttered.
'I went to see Maureen yesterday,' said the Mother.
'Oh, Lord, no,' said the Mother. 'Not yet. She hasn't given up being prodded by doctors at the hospital, yet. And she has books, she says, though how anyone may get in the family way by reading a book is beyond me. When you're done, I said, come to me. The Father and I will see you in the family way. Though I'm worried that her unborn babies may have been stolen in the night, and that's another reason why the Grandmother must be consulted.'
The Mother paused in her knitting. 'And Norman's been calling to the boy.'
The Father folded his paper once more to his lap, sensing perhaps that this was the evening's real business.
'I had a feeling Norman wouldn't rest in peace,' the Mother continued. 'Not in a grave. He never liked graves when he was alive, Norman, so I don't see why they'd think he should settle in one now. Cold, damp places, he'd said, and cramped, so very cramped. I told the Reverend Likewise. Bury him in concrete, I said, make him set in his ways. And put one of those big, heavy headstones on top just to seal the lid. But the Reverend complained he had no overalls. I mean, a man of God should have overalls. But they put him in soil, and I said it would never hold him. And I was right.
'Careful, Mother,' whispered the Father, nodding in Robert's direction. 'The boy is not in bed yet.'
'Perhaps it's time he learned something of the way of things, Father.'
The Father seemed nervous. 'Do you think he's ready to know such things? Remember how the knowledge of Donald, the real Donald, mind, sent Aunt Mildred quite mad.'
The Mother paused again in her knitting, a look of consideration upon her face. 'Aunt Mildred had a head start, when her mind went wrong, and her gammy leg took over most of her thinking,' she said. 'But, aye, you might be right that it's a little early, Father. Though I'm wondering how long it will be before Norman calls to him again. And what will he tell him if Robert answers his call?'
'Then we should make sure the boy can't get to Norman.'
'Confine him to his room, Father?'
'No, Mother, better than that. We should hide the shovel.'
The Mother frowned. 'If only it were that simple, Father. I fancy Norman won't let that stop him.'
'No, but it might hold him up a little.'
The Mother stood, stooping to place her knitting carefully upon the chair behind her. She shook her head and wagged a finger as if arriving at a decision. 'No, Father,' she said. 'I think it's time you took Robert upstairs for the talk. When the Grandmother was his age, she knew all there was to know, and it didn't do her any harm now, did it?'
'She does now live in a bath chair at the top of the brow, Mother.'
'Exactly my point, Father.' The Mother stood and reached for The Book of Family Business. It seemed to Robert as if she hesitated to take it from the mantelpiece. When she did, she handed it to the Father as one might pass across a dead pigeon. Its cover was yellowed and caked in dusts, though no dust dared fleck from it onto the Mother's sideboard. 'Here, Father, The Book of Family Business. There's no better place to start the teaching of a future than with the remembering of a past.'
'Does he need to know everything, Mother?' stuttered the Father.
'How Aunt Gertrude wrestled the seven headed devil of Cleethorpes and spent her twilight years believing herself to be a small collection of farmyard animals in Little Hampton?
'The very same, Father.'
'And what of Cousin Edward, he who upset the Pope by claiming God played darts with him down at the Dog and Duck in Ambletops every Thursday evening? How he was ultimately proved right when he won his immortality in a game of three-oh-one?'
'Tell him everything, Father.' The Mother patted Robert maternally upon the head. 'Then he might know just what Uncle Norman wants of him. And only then may he decide if he will answer Norman's calling. And he will know just what Donald is about and of the threat of demons.'
The Father shivered visibly, and Robert duly noted the pleading tone to his voice. 'Should the Grandmother not be doing the telling, Mother? I mean, she knows much more about family history, because she was in most of it the first time around.'
The Mother folded her arms and looked down her nose. 'Aye, well, there may be something in that, Father.' She turned to address Robert. 'Very well, after school tomorrow, Robert, you should go visit the Grandmother at the brow of the hill. It will be a visit to learn of things. It will be the first meeting toward your inheritance.'
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