I have been in the Cotswolds for nearly two weeks, helping a friend who is recovering from surgery. The scenery is green and spectacular. I borrow some local dogs to keep me company on my morning walk. The weather is a crapshoot. Some bright and brilliant days and others grim and gloomy. Yesterday, we are caught in a fierce downpour with wild wind as I help my friend, who relies on crutches, navigate a busy street. Today the sky is brilliant blue and we visit a lavender farm and an lovely, albeit “new agey,” eccentric organic garden, cafe and gallery with proceeds dedicated to the nation of Nepal and under the aegis of a jocular Frenchman. Two European women interrogate the gift shop manager about cleansing rituals and Nepalese singing bowls. The groovy karma is compromised a bit as the aroma from the neighboring pig farm wafts in the breeze.
While the countryside is picturesque, after being marooned in Charlbury I realize I am not cut out for small town life. I prefer the brisk anonymity and commercial options of a big city. The only, and very crummy, market in town closes at 9. Although if you've got a yen for a“bun burger” that's been under a heat lamp for a couple days, I can make a referral. The three pubs all have one star ratings on Trip Advisor. The coffee house is closed indefinitely. People seem to loiter in the street ceaselessly talking to their neighbors. Clerks and customers chat away and either no one in the queue has anything better to do or it's just that dogged British politeness. At home, on the rare occasion when you do bump into someone you know there is no expectation of protracted conversation. I am, I suppose, too citified to endure the obligatory cheerful friendliness that a small town requires. The smallness induces, in fact, profound loneliness and hopelessness. I long to return to the brusk unfriendly bustle of the city where people talk to me because they want to and not out of small town convention or propriety.
There are many footpaths along rivers and rolling green hills surrounding the city but I find that even being here for just two weeks I am unable to walk through town without meeting some acquaintance. These are decent friendly people but I'm awkward now and rusty at chitchat. I wander one morning into the Charlbury Cemetery. It is very quiet indeed although probably not a great idea given my own morass. The inscriptions have worn away and moss and lichens cover rows of ancient tombstones. There is not a lot of history of the town available on-line and the museum is hardly ever open but I presume that some of the graves are from the 17th century, or perhaps earlier.
Newer sections of stones date from the World War One and up to a freshly dug grave that is yet to bear a headstone. Many of the graves are elaborately decorated. Some have carefully cultivated, perfectly groomed flowers. Others are graced with sentimental objects. Figurines. Garden gnomes. Football memorabilia, Stuffed animals. Plaques with platitudes and inspirational messages. A photo of a little terrier in a sweater. A number of the more recent places of repose are overgrown with weeds or bear withered bouquets. However, there are graves of those who died before my own birth that remain manicured and fastidiously attended to.
Many couples are buried side-by-side with tombstones that note “reunited” or “together again.” “Went to sleep” frequently replaces “date of death.” I imagine there is comfort in tending these graves and believing that death is mere sleep and that happy couples beam down from on high. The sky is threatening, as it often is. I stand in the middle of Charlbury's dead citizenry, sorrowful and jealous. I hate the certainty with which I know that there is no heaven. My ashes will likely be tossed somewhere that my children will think is meaningful to me despite the meaninglessness of ashes. When the sun shines, the widows and widowers and orphans of Charlbury come sit over the bones of departed loved ones and plant new flowers. They believe in souls and an idyllic hereafter. I believe that there is nothing. Nothing but those who will choose to remember me.
Myself, in a sea of the Charlbury dead. No one will tend a grave for me. I will not go to sleep or be reunited with Himself in heaven to watch and protect from a little cloud those loved ones who still walk the earth. It is this life and this body and that is all there is. There is so little fucking time and despite having tried, I do not believe that my soul is eternal. Life's brevity is right up in my face as I stand above this rotting flesh and bone. Knowing this I still can't help myself from wishing days pass quickly. I long so to be with the ones who make this one, and only, and infinitesimally short life count and matter.