‘Crikey-oh!’ Beside her, Betty grabs Gemma’s hand, her own dry, and trembling slightly.
The first tractor – Nick’s tractor – draws level. Unlike the rest of the procession, it’s towing a trailer. In that trailer, tightly bungee-corded and bestowed with all the orange and yellow flowers they could find, is a coffin. And inside the coffin is Nick.
Nick; her best friend’s husband. Nick, who’d been at school with her and Becky since they were eleven, had been devoted to Becky since they were fifteen, who was now, inexplicably, inside that box in his wedding suit rather than in the cab in his overalls.
There’s Becky. Sitting rigid in the cab, in Gemma’s black coat and underneath it (presumably) one of the six black dresses they’d ordered this week from the internet. She’s looking straight ahead, lips pressed together, but her arms as she passes are loose, not tense.
They’d tried to talk her out of driving the tractor. ‘They’ being almost everyone Becky had talked to in the last week. Her parents. Well-meaning friends, afraid she couldn’t drive and grieve. The vicar, as if he gets any say in how the coffin arrives. Johnny, Nick’s best friend, who’d said he’d do it instead.
‘Not a chance!’ Becky had told him. ‘You’ll be in a worse state than me. You just need to get yourself there.’ And – Gemma scrunches up her eyes, stares – there Johnny is, in the tractor behind, and Becky was right. Tears streaming down his face. Johnny blames himself, has walked the fields, the woods behind the house day after day, trying to make sense of things. ‘But it won’t make sense,’ Becky had told Gemma. ‘Nick’s gone. It’s not ever going to make sense.’
Becky hadn’t tried to convince anyone. She’d merely maintained that she was going to do it. She could drive a tractor as well as Nick. She’d bring him to the church, and then their best farm hand, Ben, would move the tractor and put it with the others in the field beside the river. Every farmer from here to the county boundary is here today, in that procession.
Gemma knows, when she gets back to the city, her friends won’t believe her. Will want to know: Does this happen for every farmer? What about the chaos it causes? Is it ethical/sanitary/safe to transport a man’s corpse through the streets of his homeland? The undercurrent will ebb and flow from incomprehension to a confirmation of values: The countryside’s a bit odd. We’re right to keep it at arm’s length. Thank goodness we live here, amongst civilised people.
The crowd’s dispersing now, the tractors turning away towards the church. Gemma waves goodbye to Betty, who’s off to see if the butcher can do her a bit of mince for her dinner. Gemma falls in with the thinner trickle of people heading to the service. She’s got a church to get to, a friend to grieve, another friend to comfort. The vertigo’s gone, replaced by a dull ache. Now come the hard miles.
Sarah Franklin is the author of two novels: Shelter (2017) and How To Belong (2020). She was a judge for the Costa Short Story Prize from 2015-2022, and is the founder/host of literary night Short Stories Aloud. She has written for publications including The Guardian, The Irish Times, the Seattle Times and Psychologies magazine, as well as short fiction for a variety of formats.
Sarah grew up in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, and after stints all over the place, including Ireland and the Pacific Northwest, currently lives in a village halfway between Oxford and London with her family.