© Carola Hughes-Hartmann
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THIS IS A SHORT STORY
PUSHING UP THE DAISIES
I picked up the note from under the metal bed frame. Written in a shaky hand, it ended in smear of blue biro ink.
Even in her last few moments, Mum hadn’t lost her sense of comedy.
Mum had the temerity to be ill in August. Just when her GP was on holiday - as were most of the specialists she needed. Most of the available staff were newly qualified. After days of watching her suffer, a tired looking doctor appeared with the results of the tests they had run.
‘She have small two-stroke and bad heart. She also a very very big clot. We remove leg next day if you sign form,’ he announced.
Mum must’ve heard him. She died during the night when I left her bedside to go to the loo and grab a sandwich in the hospital canteen.
In those last moments she must’ve woken from her Morphine induced slumber, and somehow found the strength to scrawl those last few words.
It was dawn before I drove up the hill to the cottage she loved so much.
There was a spectacular sunrise over the sea. Mum’s soul was going where it belonged.
The garden was her handiwork. Roses intertwined with honeysuckle and the scent of herbs pervaded. The passion flower she’d tried so hard to cultivate, was at last thriving. Its tendrils clung to the patio trellis, its buds ready to burst open for the first time.
A border of her favourite plant of all was in full flower, the heads opening their petals to welcome the new day and their stems waving in the gentle summer breeze.
I lingered outside until the sun hid behind the clouds and the day faded into a grey morning gloom.
Going into the empty house, I made the necessary calls to family and friends. Then I picked up the yellow pages and searched for an undertaker. I chose one at random. The gentleman’s tone was suitably muted.
‘My condolences. Cremation?’
‘My father was shot down by the Luftwaffe. He survived but they both had a hatred of flames.’
I thought of crooked tombstones vandalised by lager-swilling thugs, and shuddered.
‘She was an atheist.’
‘Might I suggest a woodland burial? There are two local sites. I’ve got the name of a humanist celebrant. Come and see me.’
His droopy brown eyes, bearded jowls and reddish hair were reminiscent of a lugubrious but kindly St Bernard.
Mum loved dogs. She would’ve liked this man. Anybody who did something unusual for a living appealed to her. She’d have been flirting with him and asking for details of funny funeral fiascos.
We shook hands.
Armed with details, I set off to look at the woodland burial sites.
The first was just a field surrounded by evergreen trees. Flimsy wooden sticks marked the final resting places of people’s loved ones. When they decayed there would be nothing left. It was peaceful, but it was lonely. Just a flat, silent, green space.
The second was different. A sign at the entrance read:
“Apart from funeral tributes, no vases or cut flowers please. Families are welcome to landscape plots with plants of their choice.”
A path wound through the site. The trees were a deciduous mix. There were little areas with seating made from rough sawn planks. In the middle there was a pond. Water lilies adorned with delicate pink blooms floated on the surface and golden carp twisted and turned as they snatched at flies. The graves themselves were full of colour and perfume.
A woman looked up from attending a plot full of fuchsias.
‘Hello,’ she smiled, ‘Just dead-heading. Dad would never forgive me if they weren’t kept at show-winning standard.’
The whole place was higgledy-piggledy. It was a community alive with stories past and present.
Even the older graves that no longer had relatives to care for them were looked after. I watched as people pulled up weeds and pruned shrubs. They were keeping them tidy for those they had never known.
This was the right place for Mum.
Back at the cottage, I phoned the celebrant the undertaker had recommended.
‘Call me Stephanie,’ she said. ‘I’ll come and see you. I like to talk to relatives in the homes of deceased whenever I can. It helps to get a sense of their spirit.’
She arrived the following morning. She was much younger than I'd expected. She had long black hair, was sporting a diamond nose stud, and she was carrying a trendy wicker basket. Whilst I made fresh coffee, she walked through the house looking at Mum’s lively sculptures and drawings.
She followed me out to the patio and sat down at the table.
‘What a fantastic view and such an eccentric garden. I get the sense that your mum was a very unusual person.’
‘She was.’ I said.
Stephanie took a notebook out of her basket, and opened it.
‘Tell me as much as you can about her.’
I found myself relating some of Mum’s more outrageous behaviour.
‘She was a telephonist during the war. A bomb fell on the exchange. It didn’t explode. They were still expected to work, and were issued with helmets as a precaution. The bomb was underneath them. Mum used my grandfather’s tools to make hers into a pair of tin knickers. I’ve no idea what additions she made, but it caused a riot.’
‘Go on,’ she encouraged, as she scribbled away, ‘tell me more.’
‘After the war she became a teacher.
She lost an entire class of children when she was teaching PE on the local playing field. The pea in her whistle got stuck during a running away game she'd invented. That’s how she met my father. He retrieved them for her.'
'Hmm, I'm beginning to get the picture!'
'After Dad died, she decided to set up a marriage bureau with an equally naughty headteacher friend. I wouldn’t have minded the dating agency, all-in-all it was one of her milder exploits, but I was only twenty at the time, and the pair of them bullied me into meeting all the younger geeks nobody else would date. Then she handed a file marked ‘Older Ladies’ to an elderly chief education officer by mistake.
He wasn’t amused, and gave her school a sarcastic report.’
Stephanie put down her pencil and began to laugh.
In the end I ran out of anecdotes and made a feeble attempt to sum up.
‘She was gregarious. She just had a penchant for attracting bizarre people, and amazing co-incidences. Everything she did took on a funny twist. She had a wicked sense of humour. After she retired, she moved here and put her whole heart into this garden. However she still managed to grow old with absolute disgrace!’
Realising that I couldn’t say anymore, Stephanie stood. Giving me time, she wandered around the lawn admiring the borders. The last one made her smile.
Returning, she plucked a newly opened passion flower and tucked it behind her ear. She fingered it as she sat down again.
‘Very appropriate. Did she have any last wishes?’
I surrendered the crumpled note I’d found on the hospital floor, and burst into tears.
After she had gone, and my equilibrium was restored, the reality of what I was about to do hit me.
What were my Welsh relatives, used to sombre funerals, processions of cars and rousing Wesley hymns followed by wakes fuelled by sandwiches of tinned ham and gallons of tea going to make of Mum’s goodbye?
My next encounter was with the only local florist.
‘I’d like to order a full coffin arrangement.’
A female voice purred down the phone line.
‘Of course madam. Prices start at two hundred pounds depending on the blooms you choose.’
‘Could you use things from Mum’s garden please? I don’t know how to arrange them, but her flowers meant a lot to her.’
‘We couldn’t possibly do that. We couldn’t risk our reputation being tarnished by using inferior flowers.' she spat.
I put the receiver down and phoned a friend of mine who had attended classes in floristry.
Later that afternoon I visited the flower shop - I had no other choice - and made some purchases. Blocks of oasis, a long tray, florist’s wire, and some tape.
‘Taking up flower arranging dear? Can I interest you in anything for your first creation?’ She indicated the array of forced hothouse offerings.
She was purring again.
‘No thank you. I have the real thing.’ I hissed.
The bill left me change from a five pound note.
Mum had an allergy to cats.
My next visit was to the party shop.
Everything was nearly ready.
I’d one last job to do. Armed with secateurs, I set off looking for suitable flowers and foliage. When the barrow was almost full, I went to harvest her favourites. Then with the phone on loudspeaker, I followed step by step instructions from my phone-a-friend. With her painstaking help I managed to create a fragrant floral tribute. Red roses, lilac tinted buddleia, strands of ivy, and sweet-smelling rosemary and thyme. The last two additions were sprigs of purple passion flower and the all-important daisies.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was quirky and ridiculous.
I was touched by the number of people who came to “Woodland Glades” for her last party.
Even her GP attended.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘I shall miss fixing her television so she could watch the rugby! She requested house calls just for that, and I always went – she never ever took any notice of the medical advice I gave her though. She was an extraordinary woman, she always made me laugh.’
‘Me too.’ I said, trying not to cry.
We held most of the service by the pond. A fat frog croaked as it leapt from lily pad to lily pad and butterflies fluttered down to feast on the last traces of nectar from the arrangement that topped the sea-grass casket.
Stephanie invited everybody to share their own memories of my mum with each other on the way to the graveside, and then to write something on the tiny ticket provided in their order of service
Leading the way behind the coffin, I heard snippets of conversation from behind me. They were followed by stifled giggles.
Everybody wrote their own private message on their scrap of card and attached them to the helium balloons I distributed.
My cousin, Roger – Mum’s Welsh godson, who was about to make a speech, collected them and tied a knot in the strings.
Stephanie pressed the button on the portable CD machine. Strains of “Cym Rhonnda” sung by Mum’s favourite Welsh male voice choir filled the air.
Roger stepped forward to release the bunch of balloons. They set off, then a sudden change in the wind direction caused them to veer off course and they snagged in a nearby oak tree. At the same moment a grating mechanical racket from a nearby shed drowned out the rousing chorus of “Bread of Heaven”.
The undertaker, putting on a remarkable turn of speed for a St Bernard look-alike, loped off to track down the source of the noise.
The GP winked at me. He was thinking of Cardiff Arms Park, not John Hughes’s lyrics.
Roger shed his heavy funeral coat and shinned up the branches of the oak to rescue the balloons.
Order and peace restored, Roger re-released them. This time they sailed into the sky. We all watched until they were a tiny speck in the distance and then disappeared.
‘I did have a speech written,’ Roger said as he stuffed his notes into his trouser pocket, ‘I’ve abandoned it. That was a true “Marguerite moment." Says it all.'
Then we all looked at the grave. Nobody wanted to throw the first handful of soil and commit her body to the ground.
I reached behind the mystical silver birch that was growing at the head of Mum’s final resting place. I brought out the largest metallic balloon the party shop had been able to order.
Stephanie smiled encouragement.
I read out Mum’s final message.
“Can you bring me a bottle of whisky and a packet of cigars? Did Wales win? Look after my garden when I’m pushing up the daisies.”
I attached the paper to the bottom of the balloon, together with a miniature bottle of Bells, a cigarello, and two key rings, one with a red dragon dangling from it, the other a tiny plastic rugby ball. Then I showed all Mum’s mourners a packet of seeds and tied that on too.
The burdened sphere rose slowly into the atmosphere, but rise it did.
It was willed on its way with gales of laughter.
I hope Marguerite’s grow on clouds.
Just in case they don’t, I found two lots of seeds in the garden shed.
I’ll sow the rest tomorrow, here in the freshly dug earth.
Thank you for reading my work.