HAPPENING to be in their direction, we call on the ancestors, I and the Australian nephews. There they lie, below the sodden cow-parsley; for it has rained most of the night. The Suffolk churchyard begins with the bright slabs of the newly cremated, and concludes with the correct wilds of the set-aside.
A month ago, it would have looked enchanting, Queen Anne’s lace and tottering marble, but now, owing to the blessed rain, it is a kind of stringy flower-porridge, which we rake aside with our hands in order to read the inscriptions.
Here is Uncle Frederick, who coughed his way back home from the Western Front. Gassed. Twenty-nine. Here is Great-uncle Henry Bean, very old. Here is Agnes, his wife, even older, who gave us bread and butter, not cake, and whose house smelled of “keepers” — apples on shelves.
Here are the faint humps of boys and girls who, unlike the day-old baby in Long Melford Church, are not recorded in stone. We trample over them, pollen sticking to our jeans. Human dust, botanical dust. “Dust on an old man’s sleeve.” But what a rain! I think of my runner-beans soaring up the cane wigwams, and of perpetual spinach breaking the surface, of the stream swooshing and the white cat not pleased.
Inside the church there is the fractured Saxon (possibly) font, and the Victorian font in which Mr Harper baptised me. And in the frame his photo, in profile. How alive he looks. And a long way off there is the famous brass of Sir Robert de Bures and his daughter Dame Alyse, cosy under rugs. I rubbed them on to kitchen paper with heelball from Mrs Diaper, who mended our boots. Sir Robert died in 1302. He lived when Marco Polo returned to Venice after staying with Kublai Khan, when paper money was invented, and when the popes were at their zenith.
I forget to tell my nephew Michael about the paper money. He is the chief investment manager of an Australian bank, and here he is, wet to the knees to study his forebears.
All around us, drowned in rainy plants, lie shepherds and ploughmen, parsons and gypsies, lovers and gossips, listening to showers and birds, sheep and history. I used to like to imagine that I could hear the click-clack of looms when I was a teenage historian; for this was deep wool-country. They said that I was fanciful — their very word. It was not a compliment.
I must now write a foreword to a book about Virginia Woolf’s holiday wanderings — sometimes in a Bloomsbury group, now and then on her own. And always rather uncomfortable. Too much luggage, too big bicycles, too studied an indifference to what most of us saw, though intensely readable, all the same.
She studied hard not to see a church of the Church of England. But she never missed seeing into the people she met. They were never surfaces to her. And, naturally, it rained. Those damply dragging long tweed skirts, those chilly bedrooms, those orders and complaints of the upper-middle-class away from home, those demanding diaries on the bedside table.
They would take you back if it wasn’t so long ago, further in some ways than Sir Robert de Bures. But travel it was. Looking it was. Commotion and stillness it was. Life and death it was. Just getting about in these islands.