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'Tom, can we do something about that bed now?'
It was six months since his father had died and Jean felt she had waited long enough before reminding Tom about the overgrown bed at the end of their garden. Five years ago, when his mother passed away, Jean had readily agreed to moving in with his father, as she had loved the house and its grounds since her first visit a year before she and Tom were married.
Jean's father-in-law, John, always had a soft spot for her and had been quite amenable to the changes she made in the house during their first months there.
'He appreciates my efforts more than you do!' she complained at the time to Tom who had failed to notice new covers on the suite in the living room. 'He is a dear, but he can be stubborn at times.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, he refuses to say why he doesn't want anyone to touch the bed by the greenhouse. When I mention it he just says, "Let it be Jean, let it be". He was quite testy the last time. It's so out of character. Will you have a word with him?'
'Mum always looked after that bed. I remember that when we were children she wouldn't let us dig it, except to bury a bird or one of our pets. Even then it had to be where she said, and we had to wrap the animal in cellophane or plastic. Dad used to get mad with her because she would bring home animals she found at the roadside to give them a "proper" burial. There are hedgehogs, rabbits, pheasants, magpies, pigeons and even a young fox buried in there that I know about, and heaven knows what else! I'll walk down to "The Crown" with Dad this evening and broach the topic.'
Finding that it was Quiz Night in the bar, Tom and John sat at a table in the Beer Garden.
'Have you something on your mind, Tom? It's not often you join me here.'
'It's Jean. She's worried that she may have upset you by mentioning that overgrown bed again.'
'I was a little short with her,' admitted John as he swatted a wasp which was trying to share his drink. 'The truth is I'm torn between the past and present. Let me explain.'
Tom couldn't remember his dad ever being uncertain about anything, so was curious to learn what had brought this about.
'I don't know if you and Jean will understand it, but I would feel disloyal if we disturbed your mum's "garden" which she alone tended all our married life. As you know we were married in August 1939. By the end of that year I was in the army in France and your mother was living here with the grandparents you never knew. I didn't see her again until 1945 having spent over five years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. In 1941 she wrote tell me that while her parents were on a visit to London they had both been killed in an air-raid, and no trace of them was ever found. Although she tried to hide it, the loneliness of living in this big house on her own coloured everything she wrote.'
Tom's empty glass went unnoticed as he voiced his thoughts, 'You know Dad, it's only when children grow up that they begin to understand why their parents are "as they are". When you are little they just "are". Does that make sense?'
'Yes Son, it does. Let me finish telling you about those years. Your mum took a post in the accounts office at the Royal Air Force fighter station at Woxon. She worked there, full-time, until the end of the war and so found it difficult to maintain this large garden. When I came home I noticed however that one of the beds was better tended than the others. Mum explained that her parents' two red-setter dogs had literally pined away when they died and she had buried them there.'
'Do you think it was her way of coping with being unable to lay her parents to rest?' asked Tom.
'I doubt that she thought of it in that way. At that time we were both finding it difficult to bridge the chasm which five years apart had opened between us. Your mum had been leading a very active and independent life, whereas five years of normal existence had been passing me by. Thank God we both wanted to regenerate our feelings for each other and we avoided unnecessary differences. It was certainly not something to argue about when she insisted on maintaining that plot herself.' John added with a smile, 'With the rest of the garden to see to I was happy to agree! Our loving relationship was gradually rekindled and when you arrived on the scene in November '46 we were as close as we had ever been.'
'Thanks for filling me in, Dad. I'm sure Jean will understand your feelings when I tell her.'
John nodded saying, 'You made a good choice there, Son,' and with a chuckle added, 'Tell Jean I won't haunt her if she digs them all up when I've gone!'
Jean regretted having harassed Dad when Tom reported the conversation in bed that night, but John's little joke about the future reduced her guilty feeling. 'What do a few years matter?' she thought, not anticipating that within twelve months Dad would have joined his Ann.
It was some months after John died that Jean raised the subject again.
'Perhaps we should just have it cleared and landscaped,' said Tom, at which Jean shook her head.
'I think I have a better idea which would in a way perpetuate your mum's commemoration of her parents'.
'Why haven't you mentioned it before?'
'We needed time to grieve for your dad. Woxon Council is creating a country park from the late Earl of Woxon's estate. I have been invited to join a committee to examine the feasibility of including a wild life centre.'
'What's that got to do with our problem?' Tom asked a little impatiently.
'Give me a chance to explain! I could propose that we establish a display of photographs and skeletons of animals, including birds, which inhabit Woxon Country Park. Your mum's collection could form its basis.'
'I think Dad would have liked that,' responded Tom. 'We'll dig them up and see what's there.' He felt a shudder pass through him as he added, 'I'm not looking forward to it.'
Early one Saturday morning some weeks later they carried down the garden an old zinc bath which was full of water liberally dosed with disinfectant. Jean wore strong rubber gloves as she had been advised that it would be safer and less revolting to remove the animals' shrouds in such a solution.
Tom carefully probed the ground and dug out his finds while Jean extracted the bones.
By mid-afternoon Tom had cleared the bed and told Jean, 'That is the last one. While you're seeing to it I'll get some drinks.'
Tom returned whistling cheerfully until he saw Jean kneeling by the bath, ashen faced. She was holding a soiled piece of ribbon to which was pinned a celluloid holder with a small card inside.
She pointed into the bath. 'It was a premature baby,' she whispered and held out the card, 'Look at this.'
Tom knelt down beside her and read, "Rest in Peace. June 1944."
Jean, seeing the implications of their find register on Tom's face, reached for his hand as he murmured, 'Mum wrote this.'
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