At the Chapel – Eluned Gramich

When we arrived, the sky had begun to darken over with grey clouds. I had driven us all here from the city: Mam, Mamgu and I. Mamgu sat next to me, and Mam sat in the back, watching the fields rush past, and the houses here and there. It was a long three hours we spent in silence. We were bringing Mamgu back to the farm after Christmas. On the way, Mam wanted to stop at the chapel to put flowers on Tadcu’s grave. It was his birthday today. I parked the car in the lay-by opposite the graveyard and we got out; my mother carrying the flowers we had bought on the journey. Two men in green raincoats were walking down the road past the chapel. Perhaps they were father and son. They smiled and greeted Mamgu and talked about the weather, before carrying on with their walk. My grandmother spent her whole life in the village; she knew everybody.

All three of us were dressed for winter. Mam wore a long black coat which brushed against her ankles as she walked and Mamgu had her red knitted cap pulled down over her ears. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep out the cold. Before us was the graveyard, curving alongside the chapel walls. Mam led the way to the metal gate. The grass was uncut and wet from the rain, and it chilled my legs as I walked through it. My mother told me over her shoulder that I should get water for the flowers. I went to the edge of the gate to the disused shed that stood there, nestled between the Chapel walls and the cemetery fence. The door stood slightly open. Inside, the floor was covered in bird droppings; I saw a swallow’s nest half-hidden in the corner. Cobwebs gathered across the ceiling. The empty water bottles were stored on a high shelf; I reached up and took one, carefully avoiding waking up the spiders and insects.

The tap was outside. I let the water run brown before I filled the bottle to its neck. As I did so, Mamgu and Mam slowly walked across the grass to the graves at the upper end of the cemetery. I looked up from the running tap, and I saw their figures standing still by the grave. My mother kneeled down to take out the old, dead flowers from last year. Mamgu stood next to her, leaning on her stick, supervising the arrangement of the flowers. “There,” said Mam. “Done.” Mamgu nodded, satisfied.

We weren’t alone in the graveyard as I wished we had been. There was a man standing further down, two mounds of freshly turned earth before him. As I came closer, I saw that he was a gravedigger. He was dressed warmly, in a grey coat, trousers, waterproof trousers and a black hat; a scarf muffled his mouth and nose so that only his eyes were visible. He had the radio on beside him as he worked, and an old-fashioned disco song lilted across the gravestones.

I gave the bottle to Mam and she watered the flowers. Standing next to Mamgu, I reread the words on the stone. I suppose they were remembering moments from the past, things he had said and done; only I couldn’t remember very much at all. What did I remember? Fragments of this and that – sugar on cornflakes, a felt cap, a smile over a meal, packet of crisps. Not enough for a whole lifetime. I came back to the words on the gravestone, mingling with the words from the song.

It didn’t take long before we began to make our way back to the car. Mamgu held my hand as we walked, hesitant on the uneven surface. Her skin was cold against mine and goosebumps appeared on my forearms. Mamgu stopped to greet the gravedigger, whom she knew. I let go of her hand. Mam and I went ahead as they talked, standing back from a conversation we were not involved in. Then we stopped and waited with the grass soaking our calves. The gravedigger switched the radio off; he was smiling, perhaps because it was lonely work and he was glad to have someone to talk to. The two graves, newly dug, cluttered the graveyard; a brown stain in the pure green. After a few sentences about the weather and the cold, Mamgu pointed at the grave nearest to her:

“Who is that for?” she said in Welsh. I felt as if we were intruding on someone else’s life. For a moment, I wished that my grandmother hadn’t asked such a question so openly. The gravedigger didn’t mind at all, and answered without hesitation:

“Dai Brynmawr”.

Brynmawr was a name of a place near where my grandmother lived. She nodded in recognition.

“I knew his brother,” she said.

I didn’t know what that meant, and I thought about a love affair, but then I was ashamed because it seemed a childish thing to think of, like that, in a graveyard. Then Mamgu stepped forward slightly and pointed at the next grave.

“And that one?” she asked.

The gravedigger said a name she didn’t recognise.

“I don’t know him,” she said, shaking her head.

“Someone out of town. He came from England, but he had family here.”

Mamgu shook her head and added, “I wouldn’t know him then.”

They said goodbye, and Mamgu said some things about death, about how we were all going there one day, and the gravedigger agreed. Mam was at the gate by now, and I followed the groove she made in the long grass. We waited together as Mamgu slowly came towards us; our gaze resting on her red outline moving against the grey sky.

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