Lead us heavenly father, lead us. It’s Sunday and as I skirt the perimeter of the Church of St Nicholas at Studland, the musical praise of the hopeful seeps through the Norman walls like a poetic cliché. In the churchyard, the children of a local rabbit family play between two gravestones; parents presumably watching from the pitch edge like familial spectators at a Sunday morning football match, only hidden and not as vocal. Late Spring has taken hold when no-one was looking and many of the graves, including the most recent, have given up waiting for Abna to mow them and sit quietly like a row of barbers’ customers who’ve left it until the last minute to get a hair-cut. Someone’s been here, though, as the spare vases and jam-jars are missing. I lay my flowers on the grave and retrace my steps, tip-toeing past the bunnies, in search of a water-bearing vessel.
The service has finished and the vicar, with five disorderly choirboys trailing to the rear, is processing towards the church hall. Quickly nipping in before them, I plead my case to the ladies organising congregational coffee and they kindly furnish me with a bright blue plastic beaker in which to display my temporarily abandoned carnations. Graveside once more, I arrange the now shortened stems. Through sunshine-lit trees the sparkling sea is sporting its brightest blue Sunday best and I look up just as the Cherbourg ferry is passing out of Poole Bay. All of these folk that I have known, who now grace this field, desired to be left here for the view.
‘Got someone up here’, asks an old soldier balancing on two walking sticks? And because the sun is shining, and neither of we two are in a hurry, he tells me his life story and that of his wife who lies beneath the earth three plots down from Derek. As with all older people, it begins with his age. Eighty-something. At what point in time, I wonder, do we find it essential to state our age at the commencement of a narrative? Sometimes, it seems to necessitate congratulations at such a temporal achievement but he doesn’t seem very happy about his advanced years. Perhaps it’s because his wife has left without him and because he can’t stand with much confidence. Yesterday, he recalls, he walked to Knoll Beach to visit a special WW2 exhibition but found himself too exhausted to walk home. Not in possession of a phone, and with no-one to call anyway, he hitched a lift back to the village in a mini-bus full of schoolchildren on a day-trip. I promise to visit the exhibition, and I will.
Returning to the church hall to deposit the plastic wrapping from the flowers, I am accosted by a woman of indeterminable age, in an even more indeterminable type of dress, who claims to be from over the hill; provenance which I accept without question. She wishes to draw my attention to the new concrete rubbish bin: ‘nice and sturdy, isn’t it’, she asks? Although it’s really an affirmation rather than a question. She reports that the committee has removed the top of the outside tap. ‘It’s to stop campers using the water’, she explains. Good job they didn’t want any bread and fishes I think but don’t say and feel the whole episode to be in stark contrast with the beaker-giving ladies within. My new friend whispers that she will show me where the tap top is hidden as if initiating me into some sort of secret watery society. The thing is, the hiding place is inside the church hall which is generally shut. ‘Oh’, she says, ‘you’d need to know where the key is’, but clearly I can’t progress two stages in one day as the conversation ends there.