Advent in the Graveyard by Derek McMillan
Advent in the Graveyard by Derek McMillan
“What are we doing here?” asked Micah, “It doesn’t look like a crime scene, although there are bodies all over the place.”
“We are interested in one in particular,” I said mildly and gestured towards a gravestone.
“Thomas Shufflebottom, born 1852, fell asleep 1901,” Micah read. “Forty-nine was a reasonable age in the Victorian era, 41 was the average, well it was for the Shufflebottoms of this world. The rich lived longer but it’s a bit late for us to investigate that. We can’t get an exhumation order for a start. Why are we interested?”
“Well it is because of that queerest of all fish, a paying customer,” I said.
“Tell me more,” Micah seemed interested.
“Our Thomas has a direct descendant, Sylvia Thomas. The family changed the name to Thomas in the 1930s, possibly out of respect for old Tom and possibly because they found ‘Shufflebottom’ only provoked amusement rather than respect when they moved down south seeking work. Sylvia’s father and Tom’s grandson was a Thomas Thomas who was teased as ‘tomtom’ by his workmates at the dairy if that’s relevant.”
“It isn’t,” said Micah shortly.
“So the Shufflebottoms had severed their connection with sheep. The name means ‘sheep-well valley’…”
“Well Google does, which comes to the same thing,” she smiled sweetly.
I noticed Micah had her laptop on her knee.
“…access the local newspaper archives?”
“Still no. The reception is quite dead here most of the time. I have GPRS.”
In response to my frown, she said, “General Purpose Rubbish Signal. Now, does the Bluebell Inn have wifi?”
“Let’s go and find out.”
The Bluebell was decorated for Christmas. The barmaid confided that the tinsel, holly and ivy had appeared as the Halloween paraphernalia was coming down.
Micah would not conduct inquiries in a bar. She felt fairly safe from eavesdroppers in a graveyard but the live ears in a public place were a different matter. Our conversation over steak and kidney pie and a safe Merlot (I wouldn’t write home about either but needs must ) was about harmless topics.
After half an hour searching the local press and other available records from 1901 in our room. she started using her dark arts to look at the police records – it turned out there was nothing before the great reorganisation of 1959: nothing online at least.
“Thomas Shufflebottom did not ‘fall asleep’ in 1901,” she concluded. “Not a bit of it. Here is a newspaper account of what happened:
‘Violence came to the picturesque little village of Posset on Saturday night. A local man, Mr. Edward Sandbank, was involved in an altercation with Thomas Shufflebottom which left Mr. Sandbank with a serious knife injury. The local police acted with celerity and dispatch and Shufflebottom was arrested on the spot. The assailant, Shufflebottom, later died in police custody from injuries sustained in the fight.’
“What do you think of that?”
“At least one of ‘celerity’ or ‘dispatch’ is unnecessary.”
“I don’t mean the prose style of the local paper,” she said patiently, “I mean the death in custody.”
I sat and thought for a moment.
“He died from his injuries?”
“That means the police left him to die. Did he get any medical attention?”
“We don’t know. Of course, medical records go back further than police records. And some of them have been put online.”
“Surely they are anonymous.”
“Surely indeed,” Micah said, “there was a project initiated by Sheffield University to produce a collection of the medical records from Yorkshire for statistical analysis. All of the data were anonymised. And you needn’t look at me like that, data is a plural.”
She was typing furiously as she spoke. It was a habit of hers
“And there was one, only one, death in custody in the village of Posset. Let’s call him Mr. X.”
“And what do we know of the unfortunate Mr. X?” I asked.
“The official pathologist’s report indicated that he hanged himself in his cell but that information was withheld so Mr. X could have a burial in St Michael’s churchyard.”
“Mr. X had been seen by a local doctor with the unfortunate name of Blood. His wounds were adequately dressed according to the pathologist and he certainly did not die from his injuries as the newspaper report would suggest.”
We, all right, Micah, searched online for a decent restaurant in Posset. It turned out that the best, indeed the only, place to eat in Posset was the Bluebell. This was lucky as it happened.
The food was as lacklustre as it had been at lunch and the Cabernet Sauvignon which I ventured a glass of was distinctly off. We retreated to the safety of the Merlot.
The good luck came when I let slip the name of Shufflebottom in the presence of the bar staff. A muttered “Lancastrian scum.” from the landlord was hastily shushed by the landlady who produced her most winning smile and confided, “You mustn’t mind old grumpypants,” in an undertone.
I had once worked with a colleague from Lancaster and I recalled that any amount of ribbing or downright abuse from customers would leave him unmoved. If someone erroneously suggested he was from Yorkshire, however, he went a funny colour and let out a noise similar to a steam engine under pressure.
Micah’s father, the erstwhile Reverend Backhouse, had lost his faith in his fifties. He left the church. He left Micah’s mother and went to live with his boyfriend in Brighton. Micah always maintained that this gave her the right to access parish records anywhere in the UK and every vicar we had met in our long career had agreed with her.
The vicar of St Michael’s in Posset agreed so much that he barred me from seeing the records while Micah perused the dusty volumes in the sacristy. He engaged me in an hour of charming conversation about church architecture. Afterwards, I wished I had taken notes because he seemed to know his stuff.
After this, Micah came out of the sacristy, showered profuse thanks on the reverend and then turned to me.
“I want to tell you a story,” she said in a passable imitation of Max Bygraves’ brother, “In 1901 our Mr. X (who I can now definitely identify as the ‘Lancastrian scum’ Tom Shufflebottom) published the banns for his proposed marriage to one Amelia Cousins, spinster of this parish. What is interesting about that is that two months later, said Amelia was married to one Edward Sandbank.”
“Sandbank had obviously shown enough contrition to win Amelia round in those eight short weeks,” I suggested.
She held up her hand for silence.
“And just one more thing. A witness at the wedding was the brother of the groom, Sergeant Sandbank of the Posset fire and police force. We can of course only speculate but it would seem that the wars of the Roses were not over for the little village of Posset and Sergeant Sandbank finished off the job his brother had begun.”
“You have earned your money for Miss Sylvia Thomas.” Micah beamed.
“Well,” I said, “one of us has.”
Copyright Derek McMillan 2019