© Lee Williams
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RESTLESS APPLE JACKSON
I had not been parson for very long when the business with Apple Jackson began. Apple was a well-liked old fellow who used to live out near Dalton Farm with his wife, their son having left for London some time before. He was the sort of chap who would always go to the window to fart, that is to say he was a proper gentleman. Anyway, I’d known him all my life and it was sad for me that one of the first things I did as parson was to see him buried. I was as surprised as anyone when he came back the next Sunday.
I was in the parsonage about to take a bit of bread and cheese for my lunch, and thinking of sending for a drop of something to go with it, when Mrs Jessop showed in one of the Chessel twins (the tall one, not the one with the ears).
‘Apple Jackson is back,’ says he, plain as that.
‘Apple Jackson is dead,’ I told him.
‘He is very lively for a dead man,’ said the boy. ‘He’s at the ford. He says he can’t cross the stream unless someone carries him, but no-one wants to. He smells a bit’.
That was the first part of the conversation. I remember it very clearly. I didn’t believe him, of course, but I could see he wasn’t larking about, so I just sent him off. Then I got my hat and my coat and I went down to the ford, with Mrs Jessop following on behind me.
Sure enough, there was old Apple on the other side, with one or two of the villagers on this side gawking at him. He still had dirt on his suit where he’d come straight from the churchyard. I should say now that there was no doubt in my mind that he was dead. I’d seen the old fellow die, and I’d seen him planted too.
‘What’s on then, Apple?’ I asked him. I tried to sound as hearty as I could, to put him at his ease.
‘I wants to get across the stream, parson,’ he said. ‘I wants to get home’.
‘Why can’t you walk across?’ I asked.
He never answered but he did that thing with his head that he was always wont to do when somebody asked him a daft question.
‘Where have you come from, Apple?’
‘Up the road. I wants to get home, parson.’
‘Come along then,’ I said, and I crossed the stream to get him. One or two of the others got a bit fidgety at this, and I wasn’t too sure about it myself, but I thought that if I got him indoors away from folk I could deal with him a bit more handily. I suppose I felt some way responsible. After all, it was me that had buried him.
I crouched down and up he got on my back, and I must say that the Chessel boy was right, he did smell a touch ripe.
‘You smell a touch ripe, Apple,’ I told him.
He didn’t answer but he gripped me round the neck, pretty tight for a dead man, and I trotted off across the stream. When we got across I set him down.
‘Thank’ee parson’, he said, and reached up to tug his forelock. Blow me if it didn’t come right off in his hand. Mrs Jessop give a little shriek, right in my earhole, and Apple just stood there looking at it.
‘Never mind,’ says I, and took it off him, very gentle. ‘It’s only a bit of hair, see.'
Well then, I helped him up the road towards his old cottage, and I was keeping a careful eye on him. He didn’t seem to be quite right in his own self, and he kept singing bits of that song ‘Seventeen next Sunday’, which he would never have done when he was alive, not in front of ladies, so I had to keep hushing him.
When we came into the cottage, old Mrs Jackson was at the kettle boiling up a drop of water for tea. I tried to slide in first through the door, so as to prepare her for seeing Apple, but the old rogue pushes past me and goes directly to his chair and sits down.
‘Put me up a bit of something for supper, will ye Molly,’ he says.
Poor old Mrs Apple (for that’s what the most of us called her) scarce knew what to say. She looked at him, in his dirty old suit, then she looked at me, then she looked back at him again.
‘Is he right, parson?’ she asked.
‘I shouldn’t get your hopes up, Mrs Jackson,’ says I. ’He’s still dead, after all.’
‘I should certainly like a slice of that old three-day pudding,’ says Apple.
So she put a plate up for him and he started to push his bit of pudding about, staring ahead of himself all the time like an old gallybagger.
We had a bit of a natter outside, Mrs Jackson and I and one or two from the village who were still hanging about, and we settled on leaving him as he was for now, to see how he got on. As I recall, they seemed to be looking to me to offer a spot of reassurance. I was a very green sort of churchman in those days, of course, but I rose to the occasion as best I could.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I have heard that the dearly departed do sometimes come back for a space, in particular when they has a little bit of business left undone.’
Mrs Apple give me one of her looks.
‘Might he have any business like that?’ I enquired, gently.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘He was halfway through a leg of cold lamb when he took funny, but I threw that out the next day. He needn’t think it will have kept for a whole week.’
‘No no,’ I said. ‘Not in this weather.’
So it went for the next few days. I’d have a stroll round past the cottage each morning to see how they were faring. Mrs Apple had her doubts, to be frank, about whether she preferred him here or in the churchyard. He hadn’t changed his clothes since coming back, although she kept on at him to do it (‘He don’t seem to hear me, parson’, she said), and he never slept at night, just sat at the table looking at the wall.
Well, come next Sunday he turned up in chapel and all the village got a good look at him (and a fair whiff of him too, for he was riper than ever). On top of that, he sang a good sight too loud during the hymns, and often the wrong words, and he was holding his book upside down. Poor old Mrs Jackson had the devil of a time getting him to stand and kneel at the right times. Anyway, I gave the sermon on ‘Lazarus Risen’, hoping to reassure the congregation as much as I could.
Afterwards, once she’d taken him off home, we all had a bit of a meeting. Most villagers were none too happy about having him in the church, and it was generally agreed that he shouldn’t really be up and about at all. I think Mrs Jessop put things quite neatly when she said that it didn’t seem right, his poor old wife looking after him when he wasn’t working. ‘He may as well go back and lie down properly,’ she said.
Of course he had tried to work a little, or at least he had taken to turning up in the fields each morning, with his sickle but still in his old suit. He was no use to anyone, though, and to be honest he put the other chaps off their nammit, what with the way he was starting to look.
On top of this, some of the youngsters were taking advantage of the poor old soul a bit too much for my liking. I was a nipper once myself, and can well imagine the fun to be had from a fellow who does nothing when you poke him with a stick, but that doesn’t make it right. Still, lectures on respecting the dead go in one ear and out the other when you’re that age.
The upshot of all our talk was that I agreed to try and get him back to the churchyard on the hill, where we all thought he’d be much better off, so the next day I stopped by the cottage again. I had with me old man Squibb and both of the Chessel boys. Apple was sat at the table with a bowl of soup in front of him.
‘He asked for it and then he just sits there with it, Parson,’ said Mrs Apple. ‘I tell him it’ll go cold but he won’t listen. I’m at my wits’ end, I truly am.’
‘Well now Apple,’ I said. ‘There’s a good chap, you mustn’t let your soup go cold.’
He didn’t seem to hear me but I pressed on anyway.
‘I don’t suppose you could give a fellow a hand for an hour or so? There’s a terrible lot of work to be done in the churchyard. I must get things in order before harvest time.’
I looked across at him out of the side of my eye but he was hardly stirring.
‘Oh, just take him with you, Parson,’ says his missus. ‘He’ll only be under my feet here’. And up she gets and helps him on with his coat, and she turns him towards the door.
Just as we were leaving she comes up and looks straight at me. In all my born days I shall never forget that look.
‘Will he be back again?’ she says in a low voice.
I shook my head.
‘Don’t put him down so far this time, will ye Parson? I should think he’d like to hear the birds now and then.’
I nodded, and later we did just that for her.
Then she went up to Apple, straightened his collar and give him a little peck on the cheek, and she whispered in his ear. Then she turned away and we left.
Well, it was easy going most of the way, but when we got to the stream Apple kept traipsing off to the left or right, and I had to lead him back and steady him a bit. Then the Chessel boys got him up between them and carted him across the stream, and we went on up the hill to the churchyard.
When we got to his place it was still open and we stood there a bit looking down at it. I must say that I hadn’t really given much thought to what we should do when we got there. I’d half expected Apple to clamber back in of his own accord, but he just stood there, working his mouth like Betty Moorman’s calf, the one that couldn’t take its cud properly.
‘Perhaps you should say a few words, Parson?’ said Old Squibb, taking off his hat just like a regular church-going sort of chap might do. ‘Apple was proper moved by a talk you gave last month on how Jesus wouldn’t give the time of day to an idle man.’
I had some difficulty at first in recalling that particular sermon.
‘You told us about some old chap who was so lazy he used to carry his bed around with him,’ said one of the Chessels.
‘That’s the one,’ said Old Squibb. ‘And Our Lord couldn’t abide that. Get up and walk, he said, and he put the holy toe in pretty smartish.’
‘Get up and walk!’ said the other Chessel, giving a little kick.
Well, of course they had the wrong end of the stick somewhat, and I was quick to tell them as much, but I must say they had a point. It was one of my better sermons, and I did feel I could make it fit the occasion. So I gathered myself for a moment, and then I laid on just as if I were in the pulpit.
‘We are gathered here today,’ I began, ‘to say farewell to a dearly beloved member of the congregation for the second time this month, and I’m put in mind of a few words from the gospel according to John…’
I got a little further, when I was interrupted rather brusquely by Old Squibb.
‘That’s the job, Parson,’ he said, picking up his shovel. I looked around and couldn’t see Apple anywhere. Blow me if he hadn’t climbed straight back into his spot. I must say I had mixed feelings about the effect of my sermon, but it had done the trick alright.
We wandered over and looked in on him, lying there with his hands folded, meek as a lamb. Would that we all could give such a dignified account of ourselves, when our times come.
‘So long, Parson,’ he said.
‘Sleep well, Apple,’ I said.
‘So long, mate,’ says old Squibb, and when he closed his eyes we nailed him up. Proper iron nails this time.
Well, that was what happened with old Apple Jackson, which some folks here besides me still remember. I used to go back to the churchyard each year to open him up and check on him, and sometimes he’d wake up for a bit and have a natter, but he rarely made much sense and by the third year you could see how his body wasn’t up to it any longer and he never stirred again after that. I used to go there the day after we celebrated harvest homecoming, and sometimes I’d slip a little drop of the good stuff in with him, but I never told Mrs Apple that, for I knew she wouldn’t approve.