The Marrakesh Express

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My book of short stories THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES is free from 9 -14 October.  Here’s one of them, if you like it, why not d.load them all to your kindle free from tomorrow here?

This is a spooky one:

I pushed a bit. Nothing. Then a bit more. Until finally, with just one more nudge, the huge sheet of lead dropped off the low parapet wall and out of sight. It landed a hundred feet below me in the graveyard with a distant thump-wumping sound.

Leaning out over the parapet wall of the roof of the church tower I stared down to see where it had landed. Oh no! I’d carefully positioned it so that it ought to have landed on the gravel path beside the church, but the strong wind must have altered its direction mid-flight, and now I could see it had spread itself across one of the graves. Spread itself like a piece of icing on a cake.

When I had offered my help to fix the roof of the church’s tower, I never envisaged shivering in an icy January wind while specks of snow glazed my face, wondering just how badly rotted the timber beneath the corroded lead had become, or how much work I was letting myself in for. Robin Gargle, our local vicar, is a good friend, and he’d appealed for help to fix the ancient church tower’s roof, which was leaking so badly that soon he’d have to close the church to visitors. I have no spare money, but I’d volunteered to strip off the split and corroded panel, and repair the timber roof beneath, so that another friend, John, who was a professional roofer, could fix a new lead cover in place.

As I climbed down the scaffolding, erected gratis by Jock Sloan Scaffolding of Canterbury, another mate of Robin’s, I panicked about what kind of damage I’d caused in the graveyard.
Lead is a very soft, fluid, ductile, hugging sort of metal, it’s rather like a liquid in that it can wrap itself around something, rather like the way a mould is made. It had done that very thing, and now I was looking at the crinkled grey sheet, with an eruption at one end, where the point of the tomb’s headstone had pushed it outwards into an ugly bulge. As I stepped closer, my heart sank to see beautiful flowers that had been carefully planted in the soil, many of them smashed and destroyed by what I’d done. Trying to do as little more damage as I could, I managed to lever the end of the metal upwards, and dragged it back and away, aware that the tombstone was slightly crooked in the ground as a result of the assault.

There, exposed, was an almost sparkling new white marble stone, and on its front was a small photograph behind a glass panel, of a smiling middle-aged woman wearing spectacles. Okay, it made no sense, but I apologised to her, hoping against hope that whoever she was would realise that I meant no disrespect, and I was deeply sorry for what I’d done. Then I hauled the heavy sheet away from the grave and onto the gravel path beside the church.

Going back to the grave, I saw the name, Nancy Parker, and her date of death was May last year. Cringing inside, I noticed the scored earth beside the beautiful colourful flowers that had been planted on the grave, a mishmash of torn leaves and ripped petals interspersed with gashes of brown mud.

“What’s happened?”

The man was beside me, tears in the corners of his eyes, as he touched the damaged area of ground, then lovingly caressed the photo of the woman on the gravestone. He turned towards me. “Who’s done this to my Nancy?”

“I’m very sorry, it was me. I’m not a professional builder and I was trying to repair the roof to help out the vicar.” I explained what had happened, and I hope he understood the sincerity in my words. “The thing is with lead, it’s so heavy that the only way to get it down from a height is to let it drop. You can’t really lean over to guide it, because if you’re not careful it’s so heavy that it takes you with it. I misjudged things. It’s my fault entirely. It should have landed over there.” I pointed to the path.

“But it didn’t, did it?” He glared at me. “How dare you do this!”

“Look, if I’ve damaged the stone I’ll pay for a repair. And I’ll replace the torn-up plants.”

“I don’t want your money.”

“Well I’ll do anything I can.”

He said nothing, just remained squatting there, his lower lip trembling as if he was on the point of tears. The wind was stronger now, I was shivering, wishing I’d never got involved in this bloody awful fiasco of a job. I never know what to do when people cry, I just get embarrassed. So I began to move away, realising nothing I could say or do would alleviate his pain.

“Do you want to know how she died?” he said as I was almost out of earshot.

I walked back to him.

“If you want to tell me.”

“She was on a ladder at home, in front of the house, trying to clear something out of the gutter and she reached too far, the ladder slid away, and she banged her head on the concrete path. And that was it. A stupid crazy accident.”

I shook my head, words unnecessary, ‘sorry’ being an absurd thing to say, though of course I wanted to say the word.

“I come here whenever I can. Spend a bit of time with her. Talk to her in my head. She was kind, my Nancy, always had time for everyone, gave money to people who came to the door, always thought the best of people. And if she could ever do anyone a good turn, she’d always do it, help anyone out if she could. Not like me, she was a much nicer person than I am.”

“She looks kind from her photo.”

“She was. Never hurt a fly. Used to say to me ‘Michael, have patience with people, don’t be so quick to make judgements’. Do you know, we were both going to take early retirement and go off round the world. That was why it happened, she was doing the house up. We hadn’t got many friends, no other family to speak of, we never needed to socialise, there was always just the two of us. We were trying to sell the house so we’d have a bit of something behind us, buy a camper van and just take off around Europe, maybe further afield, even perhaps Marrakesh. Do you know ‘The Marrakesh Express’, or are you too young to remember that song? That was one of our favourites when we were young. Nancy wanted the house to look just-so before the agent came to value it. The builder was supposed to have cleared the gutters, but he never finished, and Nancy wasn’t one to make a fuss and call him back. She just wanted to get it done and then, then…Well, you know…”

I gazed at his face, the neat short grey hair, the wizened features, the bags beneath his eyes. A conventional man in every way. The kind of person who wouldn’t raise his voice if he could avoid it. A lonely man.

A man who’d lost his way.

“Did you think of going on your world trip alone?” I asked.

“No.” He looked down, picking up a torn-off petal of one of the flowers and holding it against the stem, as if he could stick it back in place. “What fun would that have been? The whole point was to be together, to explore things, just the two of us. It was Nancy’s dream really, her idea all along, I only really wanted to go because she did. I just wanted to spend time alone with her, not just the evenings and weekends. Do you know, when it rains and snows I think of poor Nancy, out here all alone.”

“Did you take early retirement?”

“No. You hear of people doing these things, changing everything in their lives, making a clean break, a fresh start. But you know what? When something awful happens, like losing my Nancy, you don’t go doing anything adventurous. You don’t want to change your life. You just cling on to how things were before, you just go back to your rut. I told them at the council offices I didn’t want to leave work, they said fine, Michael, no problem, you just do whatever you want. So I just settled back into the routine of things on my own.”

“Look, I’m really sorry. There’s nothing I can say or do. But can I buy you a meal? Then maybe tomorrow I can help you put things right here.”

“No, no thanks.” He turned to me and smiled for the first time. “Sorry I yelled at you. I know it wasn’t your fault. Before I realised it was an accident, I was furious, thought of someone deliberately desecrating my Nancy’s grave, that’s what really hurt. But do you know something? Nancy wouldn’t have minded, she’d have laughed at this, she was like that, always looked on the bright side, never took offence. And she’d have approved of some bloke giving up his free time to repair the church roof. She’d have just been glad that no one was hurt.”

“Someone was hurt. You.”

He shook his head. “Forget about it, mate. I can replace the flowers. I’ll enjoy it. Give me something to talk to her about.”

Much later, after I’d managed to fix a tarpaulin over the rotten timber roof in an attempt to protect the inside of the tower from the weather, I was at home, preparing to go to bed. Then I heard the wind pick up even more. And I pictured my tarpaulin blowing away entirely, allowing water straight through so that the ceiling below the roof would be destroyed. With a sinking feeling, I drove back to the church to check.

And sure enough, to my dismay there was the tarpaulin, whipping like a ship’s mainsail in the high wind, the weights I’d used to fasten it down nowhere in sight. There wasn’t much chance of being able to fix it back now, but I had to at least try.

As I climbed up the scaffolding it shook alarmingly, but I was used to the slight pitch and sway you always get with scaffolding at high altitudes, especially with a wind like this. Jock Sloan was an experienced scaffolder, and I knew that it’s the kind of profession where safety is paramount. And I knew I could trust Jock’s abilities.

On top of the scaffolding, looking across at the tower it was much worse than I’d expected. The tarpaulin was virtually flying free, none of it was covering the roof’s expanse, and there was already a layer of snow on the roof’s timber.

I heard an ominous cracking noise, then a snap from below. A branch from the graveyard’s huge plane tree had blown off and guess what? It had landed dead on top of poor Nancy’s grave, the second time in twenty-four hours that she had been assaulted!

At ground level again, I pulled as much of the foliage away from the grave as I could, but it was too heavy to shift all of it on my own. I was heartbroken to see that the falling branch had smashed Nancy’s gravestone in two, and, as I pulled foliage aside, in the darkness I could just make out the photo of Nancy, smiling back at me, as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Of course, I thought, she hadn’t!

What a mess. Poor old Michael. All I could do was drop round and see him in the morning, after I’d come back with a chainsaw to chop away the branches and remove as much of the tree as I could, so that he didn’t have to see the carnage at its worst.

But first things first. I had to at least attempt to get the tarpaulin into position, because it had begun to snow hard now, it was almost a blizzard, and if too much water came through the roof, the ceiling below would be destroyed. I reckoned that I could possibly haul the tarpaulin back, while standing on the scaffolding, then maybe tie it down somewhere, tie it to the scaffolding itself, maybe?

I got a coil of rope from the back of the car, then, just as I was about to climb the scaffolding, for some weird reason I looked back at Nancy’s grave. I went closer, and, again, I saw Nancy’s smiling face in the photo, and felt a warmth inside, and for some unaccountable reason stayed there for a few moments, just looking at her. She looked like one of those people you meet and it gives you a lift just to look in their eyes, a sort of kindness you can pick up on, I suppose.
That’s when I heard the screech and roar as the wind’s force picked up again. And the scaffolding shivered even more. Then, it happened. Within a fraction of a second the entire metal edifice leaned over sideways and collapsed.

Diving downwards, I covered my head with my hands, but, thankfully after the crash and screeching and clattering, the tons of metal and disassembled scaffold poles had fallen all around me, but only one had come anywhere near me, a single pole that was stuck into the earth at an angle, like a spear.

I looked back at Nancy’s grave, wondering just what impulse had made me turn back and look at her, rather than climb the unsafe scaffolding to my certain death.

“Always gave a helping hand whenever she could, did Nancy,” I heard Michael say in my mind. “Always kind.”

download THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES, with 21 more stories, free from 9 October here

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