Opening chapter of ‘Fred’s Gospel’ 

THE LAST WORD....

Book published 2009


Tim, a thirty something salesman, and stranger to the north with nowhere to go on a Sunday, strolled in through the municipal park gates, past the small piddling fountain and the curved plots of bare soil confined by hoops of low wire edging, and on towards a bench that faced the duck pond. There were a few remaining leaves on the trees, reminding him of the last remnants at a ‘bring-and-buy’ sale. The ducks, waddling disconsolately, were not up to strutting before soggy crust throwers; and, anyway, nobody was throwing them today. Neither was the day throwing a celebration. The clouds glowered, the trees scrunched their bark into a wrinkled scowl, and the scruffy lawns cowered back from human contact. 
Tim brushed his sleek dark hair out of his eyes and let his gaze travel over the scene in a brooding way. The day had dumped itself on the world, making children keep quiet without being asked. He thought what a gift it was to grave-diggers. His gaze eventually rested on two old veterans sitting on the bench further down on the opposite side of the path. One splayed his legs before him with his eyes closed as if sprawled in front of a party political broadcast on the telly after a Sunday lunch of potatoes, stew and dumplings. His head was propped up by the wooden headrest with a plaque dedicated to some deceased notable that someone thought should be remembered as long as his mouldering remains. His companion was spouting into his ear twenty to the dozen. It was too far for Tim to make out what he said, but, from the frequent expressive movements of his arms and hands, he guessed it was heart-felt and personal. What held Tim’s attention was the fact that the receiver of all this unrestrained flow gave no hint of his own feelings. Either he was as bored as he would be in front of a political address in the parlour, or was tacitly resisting his companion’s observations. Whichever it was, it had the air of a ‘put-off’. 

The picture by Hilary Perona-Wright used to create the book cover.

Turning away from his unresponsive friend, the voluble old chap faced out front, slapped his thighs and gave a final assertive nod of the head. Apparently, having suffered enough lack of response, he got up, and with a final glance at his companion, shuffled off towards the gate. 

If a twig full of leaves had not chosen that fateful moment to drop full on the nose of the deserted old chap, Tim would have left, feeling he had squeezed the last ounce of questionable appeal from the day. Yet, there it lay, this autumnal offering on a gloomy altar, draped on the nose and cheek, eliciting no response whatever. 
Tim crossed over to the old fellow, and, after a diplomatic cough, bent and gently tugged his sleeve. The old man did not twitch, and Tim bent down to see that his eyes were half open. The likelihood of an emergency impressed itself on him, and he looked after his companion, who by this time had gone some distance down the path. Tim hurried to catch him up. As he neared the old fellow, Tim was aware that, since he could not be taller than five foot five, his own six feet one could scare him if he suddenly accosted him. With this in mind he gave a wide berth to the old man before stopping in front of him and saying in a calm, rational tone, 
“I say, look, I don’t want to alarm you,..
“Wot’s up, then? Interrupted the old man. 
….but I think your friend may have passed away”
“No ‘may’ abowt it”, was the reply. “’E’d snuffed it afore I got ‘ere.”
He started to circle round Tim, to continue on his way to the gate. 
Thrown for a second by the old chap’s cool acceptance, he hesitated before saying,
“Right. So I take it you’re just off to tell the police?”
“Take it ‘ow you like. I’ll not be goin’ there.”
“You’re not just leaving him there on the bench?”
“I’m not leaving ‘im anywhere. E’s gone. Passed away, passed on”.
“Well, yes...of course. But, nevertheless, well, I mean, his remains are there.”
“Aye, ‘is remains remain. They’ll remind those as come upon ‘im ‘e were once ‘ere, an’ now ‘e’s gone.”
The realisation suddenly impressed itself on Tim that it would be down to him to inform the authorities It could only have been curiosity that prompted the next question, and a need to put the incident into some acceptable perspective. He bent down to the old man.
“I expect you were taking your last farewell of your friend on the bench.”
“Nay, lad, not at all.” 
“Well, I couldn’t help noticing you were talking to,...um. .” He bent even lower. … his remains on the bench.”
“Oh, aye?. Well, ‘appen you noticed wrong. I’m not in the ‘abit of talking to them’s as gone. I were chattin’ up our good mate, Jesus, who were sittin’ t’other side o’ Tom.”
Oh, right.”Tim swallowed and straightened up, nodding as he tried to assimilate this last piece of information. “Yes... Jesus.” 
“If you must sniff your way into other folk’s business, I were remindin’ our best friend, Jesus, ‘ow Tom had always checked in every day to get an update, so, seein’ as ‘ow e didn’t need to any more, it were time for Jesus to check ‘im in fer good.”
Tim nodded slightly, as if having some difficulty in ticking this off a list. “Right.”
“An’ what’s more, I said, seein’ as ‘ow Tom went so peaceful, I’d look on it as a great favour if he could do t’ same fer me when t’ time comes.”
He looked at Tim with an unanswerable challenge, but with a moist glaze over his eyes. He gave a sniff. 
Tim, decidedly wrong-footed, managed another respectful, “Right.” 
“So, I’ll be comin’ back regular ter see if Jesus ‘as a mind t’ oblige me,.. oh, aye, an’ termorrer, special, ter see if anyone’s noticed Tom’s remains.”
Tim thought it would sound indecent to say he was about to go to the nearest police station. A shaft of sunlight pierced the blanket of grey just then, and the old fellow looked up and said, affirmatively,
“There you go, then.”
And, with that, he took a handkerchief from his coat pocket, wiped his eye, blew his nose and shuffled out of the park. Unaccountably, the day seemed to have provided a very real purpose for itself and for Tim. He turned on his heel, and after a last look at the peacefully departed, left to sort things out with the authorities.
© Trevor Danby 2008