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The ShrineAlan Bennett
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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

The Shrine

A Monologue by Alan Bennett

2926 words

A middle-aged woman, Lorna, sits at a kitchen table. She talks to the camera. Very flat.

The policeman said​ , ‘Did I want to see where it happened?’

I said, ‘What good would that do?’

He said, ‘It might help towards closure.’

I said, ‘Closure? It was only last Sunday. They haven’t even had the inquest yet.’

Had his notebook out. Kept ticking stuff off. Said he knew it must be hard but did I want counselling? I said, ‘Who does that, the RAC?’

He said, ‘That’s a no, I take it?’

‘How long had he had the bike? Could I confirm what cc it was?’

She shakes her head.

He said that they generally put some flowers on the spot where it happened, courtesy of the police. I said they could save their money as he didn’t much care for flowers. Only the police apparently do it anyway, as the feeling is that it reminds the public where a tragedy happened, so it’s an investment as the flowers are a contribution to road safety and come off the council precept.

Only young. He said it was normally a policewoman only they’re shorthanded.

Oh Clifford.

You silly sod.

 

Same table.

Isaid,​ ‘Birdwatching? Clifford, you don’t need a motorbike to do birdwatching. What’s wrong with the car then we could both go?’

He said, ‘We could both go on the bike.’

I said, ‘Me on the bike? No fear. Flaming thing.’

I keep thinking about those scrutty police carnations tied to a fence somewhere. They’ll just have come from a garage and still be in their cellophane. I hate that. So, if only for the flowers, I thought I ought to put in an appearance. And at least it gets me out of the house.

Well, it’s way up the A65 on the other side of Skipton and it took a bit of locating. No flowers on any fence that I could see and I kept getting hooted at for slowing down looking. Only then I saw these skid marks on the verge and there were some flowers on the grass, white, whereas I’d been looking for red and not carnations, chrysanths. Only I was lucky because there’s a layby opposite and I could put the car in there.

Aught else and it could have been a nice spot. Patch of grass, little bank, some bushes and the odd tree, and in the next field there’s sheep and, in the distance, hills. Awful that it was there, but not a bad place. One sheep came over and looked at me. Maybe it came and looked at him.

I sat there on the verge for a bit, cars and lorries thundering past. And bikes of course. They love that road. It’s nowhere but still it’s a real place. Or him dying there has made it a place. I’d taken some proper flowers, lilies they were, and I leaned them up against the tree. Bark gone so maybe that was the tree.

Only I’ll not go again. It’s morbid. And I don’t want to make a career out of his grave. Not that it is his grave. It’s a copse almost. Except that’s what they call a place when there’s been a crime there. With it being wet, the bike had churned up the grass and you could follow where it must have skidded and thrown him off. I took a couple of pictures to send to our Eileen in Australia.

Policeman’s just called. Inquest been adjourned. Doesn’t know why. A backlog was all he said.

Earlier on when I was stood there watching all the cars and lorries, I kept wondering why nobody stopped. Somebody died after all. But of course they don’t stop. Why should they?

Policeman said, ‘Did I know what was in his pannier bag?’

I said, ‘Listen. The bike was his province. Why?’

He said, ‘Just filling in the gaps.’

I loved you, Clifford. So why don’t I feel anything?

Lonely, I feel that.

Ifound​ a board and a couple of bricks in the garage and I’ve made myself a little seat. It’s on the side furthest from the road, looking over the field. So in between sessions I go and sit there and watch the sheep … I do half an hour at a time, just standing there where the bike came off the road.

Don’t look at the traffic or anything passing, just straight ahead. Bearing witness, I suppose, except I wasn’t a witness. That was the problem at the inquest … no witness. Nobody saw it happen. That’s partly why it’s been adjourned, apparently. I come twice a week, weather permitting … except I’ll come in the rain sometimes. No umbrella. Folks do stare at that, standing in the rain.

Not counting my sentry duty, there’s lots to do besides. I keep it immaculate and just as it was, clear up any litter … because it’s shocking the stuff people just chuck on the verge. It is a grave after all.

Once upon a time an incident … they keep calling it an incident not an accident … once upon a time somebody dying would give a place a name, earn it a designation. Clifford’s Corner, Biker’s End. Not now. It happens too often for that. This road particularly would be a string of names. A death map. Only what erases it all is traffic, wipes out memory and remembrance. Nobody’s actually stopped to ask me but, say they did, that’s what I’d say: I’m standing here as a reminder.

I wonder if it was a bird or a badger made him swerve. Because I do see birds. There’s a kite comes sometimes, cruel-looking thing. He may have been looking at that.

He was in his leathers, only at the inquest the police said his trousers were open.

That doesn’t sound like Clifford.

Some strange flowers there today. Not mine. Nice, I suppose.

I’vegot myself an orange jacket. Hi-Vis, they call them. With luck folks will notice me a bit more, the last thing I want to do is blend in. The young policeman stopped today. Parked his Panda in the layby and walked across.

Said, ‘Did I have a moment?’

I said, ‘Well I’ve got my schedule to keep up, only don’t stand there.’

He said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘You’re right on the tyre tracks. I try to keep them crisp if I can. Out of respect.’ He stood on the grass and said, ‘Is this all right?’ I said, ‘I hope you’ve noticed I’ve got a safety jacket on.’ He said, ‘Yes, only …’

I said, ‘Only what?’ He said, ‘Well I can understand where you’re coming from, and I can appreciate your need to grieve, only … you’ve started kneeling now, haven’t you?’

I said, ‘Yes I do kneel. It makes more of a statement.’ He said, ‘Yes, only you must see that on your knees and in that jacket you’re a real hazard. Drivers notice you. They look.’

I said, ‘They’re meant to.’ He said, ‘Yes only you’re an accident waiting to happen.’

I said, ‘So do you not want me to wear the jacket, or do you not want me to kneel?’

He said, ‘Neither if it’s all the same to you. Can’t you just make up your mind to move on? People do.’

I said, ‘Move on? The inquest hasn’t even come out yet.’

He said, ‘That’s something I want to talk to you about.’

We went and sat on the seat. He said, ‘This is nice. Sheep.’

I said, ‘Yes. They’d come over if you weren’t here. They know me now.’

He took his hat off. ‘Did your hubby ever have a passenger? Somebody on the pillion?’ I said, ‘He didn’t know anybody. If anybody was ever going to go on the pillion it would be me. Why?’ He said, ‘Well, he was carrying a spare crash helmet in his pannier.’

I said, ‘I don’t know what he carried. He was birdwatching. There can’t have been anybody else.’

He said, ‘I’m not saying there was. Only’ … he was looking at the sheep all this time … ‘you don’t always need anybody else. The autopsy showed he’d just …’

I said, ‘Just what?’

He said, ‘Climaxed.’

I’d never heard it called that.

I said, ‘Clifford? No.’

He said, ‘It’s the speed. They get a kick out of it.’

I said, ‘Birdwatchers?’

He said ‘Bikers. He was a biker first and a birdwatcher second.’

I said, ‘How do you know?’

He said, ‘Don’t worry. It won’t come out. The coroner is very discreet.’ He sat for a minute or two.

I said, ‘You’ve got some of the mud on your trousers.’ I said, ‘I’m still going to kneel, only I won’t wear the jacket.’ He said, ‘That’s the stuff,’ and just pipped his horn as he went off.

The kite came later on, circling round.

More flowers today.

Anemones.

What​ I do now is I meet the police halfway. I either wear the jacket and stand, or don’t wear the jacket and kneel. I bring my garden kneelers now and they make it easier.

I’d just done a stint yesterday and was freshening up the tyre treads when somebody roars up on a bike. Doesn’t park in the layby but lugs his bike up onto the verge. Another foot and he’d have been right on the place. A cross on the front of his helmet but it’s only when he takes it off I realise he’s a vicar. Shakes hands. Says he’s a vicar first and a biker second. Only he can’t keep still, wanders about all over the grass by the tree, you’d think with him being a vicar he’d be more sensitive. Eventually I make him sit on the seat, where he asks if he can say a prayer. I say, ‘It’s a bit late for that.’ He says, ‘Not for him, for you.’ He said, ‘I bless bikes. I’m the rev who revs. I probably blessed your husband’s bike.’

I thought, well it didn’t do him much good, but I didn’t say so.

I said, ‘Did the police send you?’ He said, ‘Not specifically.’ I said, ‘They were trying to make out if there’d been somebody on the pillion.’ He said, ‘Lorna,’ (they must have told him that an’ all) ‘Lorna. There was someone on the pillion. Jesus was on the pillion. He always is … even if we’re not riding a bike.’

He asks me how I see it ending.

I say, ‘I don’t. I’m bearing witness.’

He said, ‘What to?’

I said, ‘Death.’ He said, ‘Well, I can’t quarrel with that, obviously, but isn’t there something more constructive you can do?’

I said, ‘Like what?’

‘Form a society, say. Get together with others bereaved in the same way. Move on. After all that’s what cemeteries are for, not places by the roadside.’ He got up. ‘Did he hit this tree?’

I said, ‘I imagine so. The sheep will have seen it.’

He said, ‘Do you want me to bless the tree?’

I said, ‘Not particularly. You could bless the sheep.’

He didn’t think it was a good idea, and after a bit more sniffing around he revs up and revs off.

I wasn’t very nice, I know, only he’s a vicar.

He should be able to see that it’s not a crime scene. It’s a shrine.

I knelt down for a bit then sat on the seat.

They forecast rain so I put some bubble wrap down to cover the tracks.

Iwas late​ this morning and there’s a bike parked in the layby and a woman standing there. I said, ‘Is it you that leaves the flowers?’ She said, ‘Now and again. I’ve seen you many a time when I’ve been coming by and I’ve felt I ought to offer my condolences only … shy, I suppose.’ She didn’t look shy. Dyed hair, big bust, tattoos on her fingers. Leather from head to foot.

She said, ‘You shouldn’t kneel. He wasn’t a saint.’

I said, ‘I’ll decide what he was.’ She said, ‘Can we sit down?’ I said, ‘You can. I’m all right.’ So she sat on my seat.

She said, ‘I didn’t know Cliff well.’

I said, ‘Is that what you called him?’

She said, ‘What did you call him?’

I said, ‘His name was Clifford.’

She said, ‘Well maybe that says it all. It was nothing to get worked up about. We just used to share a bacon sandwich.’

Well, I didn’t say but I know for a fact he didn’t like bacon. It didn’t do for him.

‘Strictly speaking,’ she said, ‘it was a bacon and egg sandwich. He had the egg. I had the bacon.’

I didn’t ask what happened to the sandwiches I made him, wenged in a hedge somewhere, else fed to the ducks. They were lovely sandwiches.

‘He gave his own sandwiches away’, she said, ‘to some of the young lads. Real gourmet sandwiches they were. They reckoned to fight over them. One of them said it was the one time in the week he tasted avocado.’

I sat down on the bench. ‘Avocado, tomato and mozzarella they were. I’d make some for him and one for me. I’d think of us both eating them, me at home, him birdwatching. What lads?’

‘He gave me one once,’ she said, ‘only I’m too much of a bacon fan. Birdwatching? Cliff? Really?’

‘Then again,’ she said, ‘don’t misunderstand me but to tell you the truth you were a bit unexpected. We all thought he liked lads.’

I said, ‘Clifford?’

‘Oh, nothing happened only he liked it when they took the piss. He was a lovely feller.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘he was shy.’

‘Get him in his leathers,’ she said, ‘and he wasn’t shy.’

I said, ‘Was he racing?’

She said, ‘Chasing more like.’

I said, ‘Do they do that? What for?’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘just devilment. Get them on a bike and they do all sorts. Men.’

In the finish I came round to her a bit. I could see why Clifford liked her. And maybe she liked him. Because when she got back on her bike I could see she was crying.

I don’t know what to think.

You don’t cry over a bacon sandwich.

Pause.

Cliff.

In a story​ or a film, say, you’d cut to Lorna, who’s turned over a new leaf and, got up in her dead husband’s leathers, is now presiding over a transport café. And as bikers crowd the hatch and lather their sausages with ketchup, she dishes up the full English and you’d see it was the scene of the accident, only now transformed and a sign over the van, Cliff’s Corner. And they’d come, because it’s not just bacon, it’s company. I say in a story or film but it was Betsy who suggested a caff, the blonde woman whom he palled on with. And we could have done it, the pair of us out of the insurance money.

Only I didn’t think so. Catering’s no game and they travel in packs, bikers, half a dozen cooked breakfasts every five minutes, no fun on a Sunday morning, and even if it’s just bacon and egg sandwiches it would soon choke you off.

Cliff would do it maybe. But not Clifford. He’d say, ‘Don’t go there, love.’ And anyway I don’t know Cliff.

I left it a while then I went up and cleared the site, dismantled my bench, sheep staring still. The tyre tracks were overgrown but I stamped them in anyway. Didn’t kneel. Didn’t even stand. So now it’s back to being nowhere. But it was briefly a place because Clifford … or Cliff … died there. And all along the roads of England for some people there are places now, spots where loved ones died. And for some, even the emptiness of the mid-Atlantic will be a place, or the Indian Ocean. Happiness does it sometimes, but it’s more often death that is the placemaker.

The police fetched round his helmet. Two of them like they said. I’ve made them into hanging baskets. Got tomatoes in one, nasturtiums the other. That apart, there’s nothing left much, except his computer … Cliff’s I suspect rather than Clifford’s. That’ll be another bag of tricks, but which I can’t open and shan’t try.

Though I gather there are people who can do it.

Somebody came round doing a survey on bereavement only I said mine wasn’t typical, though it was a sort of mourning, going up there, keeping a vigil, finding out stuff.

I wish I’d known. (She shakes her head.) Or I wish I hadn’t.

He was such a love.

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