The predicament arrived like a rook landing on a tombstone. It all started in the class where Ms. Skermann said, “Tell me what you all want to be when you grow up.” She pointed at Paul Strettle and slowly worked her way around the room. We were mostly around 7 years old, so the answers must have been foreseeable on the whole. Paul Strettle said he wanted to be a sea captain, Glyn Adams, a policeman, Patrick Burfield, a professional footballer, and so forth.
It was a delightful ten minutes before we headed off to lunch, at least until Ms. Skermann pointed her crimson fingernail at me.
“I want to be a grave digger,” I said.
Ms. Skermann would have paused for a moment as if she was about to say something, and then forgotten what it was. It must have been one of those moments where you hear an ice cream truck’s jingle and turn around to see a hearse.
But the hearse moves on and you see that there really is an ice cream truck hidden behind it, and Ms. Skermann’s fingernail swiveled around to Giles Vicat who reassuringly wasn’t sure what he wanted to be.
This wasn’t the end of the matter, because a day or so later my mother took a long drag of her cigarette, blew smoke in my direction, and said, “So are you still planning to join the Foreign Legion when you grow up?”
“No. I want to be a grave digger now.”
I really had wanted to join the Foreign Legion––and the US 7th Cavarly, and even become a Roman Legionary until I realized I didn’t like the idea of going into battle in a mini-skirt.
“What a terrible thing to say!” said my mother, and sent me to my room.
It was fine. I had all my toy soldiers in my room, not just the Foreign Legion and the US 7th Cavalry, but also the US Marines, the British 8th Army, and even the Afrika Korps.
My mother usually wanted me to aspire to the profession of what ever gentleman she was being charmed by at that particular moment––and at that moment she wanted me to aspire to be a dentist.
If I’d been a year or two older I probably could have argued that you could study dentistry in the foreign legion. But then again I might still not have bothered to argue the point.
This still wasn’t the end of the predicament. I was in the car with my father, driving down Hollingdean Road. I remember the exact moment. We were driving under the railway bridge when he said, “What do you plan to be when you grow up?”
“A grave digger.”
We stopped at the traffic lights by the Vogue Cinema, where Dr. Zhivago was being held over for yet another week. My father looked at me as if I was advancing on his position from about 3/4 of a mile away. He waited for me to come within range. “Why a grave digger?”
This was a fair question, but even so I pushed myself back into the car seat in exasperation. The answer was just so obvious. “Because grave diggers don’t die.”
We headed up Bear Road past the Municipal Crematorium. “Grave diggers die just like everyone else,” said my father.
I was in the car seat, but at the same time I was on the rim of an extinct Icelandic volcano. The darkness of the long dead caldera beckoned me.
My father continued very gently, “There comes a time when even the strongest grave digger digs his last grave, lays down his shovel, and climbs into the grave himself.”
My father could be very poetic, but I often felt that he became poetic when he wasn’t being entirely honest. “But who shovels the dirt onto the grave digger when he’s in his grave?” I said.
This was a sound argument. I felt I had him, but my father said, “a younger grave digger. Old grave diggers die, and young grave diggers take over.”
I made my way into the volcano’s twilight. It made sense. If grave diggers didn’t die, then almost everyone would become a grave digger. The world would be full of graves and there wouldn’t be any dead people to put in them.
“What job can you get where you don’t die?” I said.
My father shook his head. “I’m sorry. Everyone dies eventually.”
The twilight deepened to a sepulchral darkness, and I stayed there for some time.
Obviously I abandoned my plans of becoming a grave digger, but the predicament still wasn’t completely over.
A few days later I was in the car with my mother, and again I remember the exact moment. “Are you still planning to become a grave digger?” she said.
“Thank god for that,” she said. “I was going to suggest you go and live somewhere else if you did. It was a disgraceful idea. I can’t think who put it into your head.” She swerved to avoid a moped rider. “You have to have a respectable career, that provides you with a good income, and reflects well on your family.”
I braced myself against the dashboard as she lit a fresh cigarette and veered around a bus. “I do,” I said. “I want to be an artist.”