2021 Doris Gooderson – Second Place

Biography

Maria is a science journalist who loves to write short stories in her spare time. After making it on to various competition shortlists over the past few years, such as the Wells Literary Festival, HISSAC and ChipLit, this year she was delighted to win the Bibliophone short story prize (https://www.bibliophone.com/) and come second in the Doris Gooderson competition. Perhaps one day she will take the leap and start that novel she’s always wanted to write.

Twitter: Maria Burke @MariaBstories

Mister Beaman’s Bible by Maria Burke

I was 16 when Ma volunteered me to help Mr Beaman. He must have been about 92 then.

Ma said to make sure to get some fresh air in, on account of old folks’ houses smelling pretty off sometimes. It’s just what happens when you get old, she said. Maybe my room smells that like that too now.

I was as nervous as a deer that first time. I’d never met him before though I’d seen him driving round town in a red truck, his little grey head peering over the steering wheel. Strange thing was I felt comfortable with him right from the get-go. I went twice a week to do the cooking and the cleaning. I didn’t mind – not that I had any choice in the matter – and anyway, I was used to it, being the youngest of ten. 

Sometimes he’d put the gramophone on and we’d sing along to a record. I’d tell him about my little job at the school, helping the teacher. Or there was always some family drama to relate, what with there being so many of us and the family growing all the time. 

Sometimes he’d tell me about his family. About what he got up to with his brothers on the farm. They’d all passed away by this time. He’d lost his wife a long time ago, too. Barbara her name was and she had red hair ‘like the leaves in the fall’. Their two little babies had red hair, too, but they never made it past their first birthdays. ‘Being the last one at the party is no fun, Violet,’ he said.

Then one day Mr Beaman sat me down. I must have been visiting for a year or so, I guess.

‘Now, Violet, I want you to do something for me. I want you to marry me.’

My mouth dropped open like a trapdoor. 

‘Times are tough. Jobs are hard to come by. I know your family are struggling. But I can help. If you married me, you see, you’d get my war pension when I die.’

‘Oh Mr Beaman,’ I said. ‘It wouldn’t be right!’

‘Now, Violet, that’s not so. I should say… ’ He cleared his throat. ‘There’d be no intimacy of the conjugal sort. You’d still live at home and come here just like now.’

I was as red as a beetroot, as you can imagine. 

‘Nothing would change but when I pass over I’d like to know that you’d be looked after.’

My eyes filled with tears. ‘But what would people say?’ 

‘We’d keep it secret and no-one would know.’ He sighed and took off his glasses then. His lovely blue eyes were all cloudy. He looked out the window but I knew he couldn’t see anything, what with his cataracts and all.

‘Violet, I was just about to give up when you came along and now I feel better than I’ve done in years. Marrying you would be my way of saying thank you.’ 

In my heart I felt it was wrong, but this was the Great Depression and he was right, times were hard. And that’s how it happened. We married in secret and things carried on as they always had, only now he would joke that I should call him Jack. But he was always Mr Beaman to me. We were married for three years before he died in his sleep. I truly believe it was our marriage that kept him going just that little bit longer. That’s why I agreed to it in the end, if I’m honest.

Nobody knew. Not till now. I knew there’d be a scandal. And I couldn’t bring myself to claim that pension. I made my own way in the world. 

I’m 101 now. People ask ‘what’s the secret to a long life, Vi?’ Just get on with it, I say. There’s too much complaining these days, not enough suffering in silence. My great-nieces are always weeping over this or that. They say I’m a tough cookie, not even shedding a tear at their parents’ funerals. Pastor Jonah says I’m stoic. I had to look it up. It means unflappable. I guess that’s about right.

There’s another secret to my long life, I might add. Having people around me. That’s why I like being here in the nursing home. And I understand now what Mr Beaman must have felt. You don’t want to be the only one left at the party.

When people ask me why I never married, I tell them to mind their own darned business. Never met a man I liked enough, and that’s the truth. But I don’t mention Mr Beaman. He’s always been a secret.  

Do you know Pastor Jonah? We have very good conversations. I’ve been a Methodist all my life but I’ve never met a pastor like Jonah. It must be this modern approach. Anyway, we were talking one day, like we do. And I thought – what the heck – I’m going to tell him about Mr Beaman. So I did, and he was pretty flabbergasted. But it was when I told him about some of Mr Beaman’s stories that he really sat up. 

Because of Mr Beaman being a veteran of the Civil War. I had no idea it was such a big deal. Mr Beaman didn’t like talking about it much, but sometimes he’d tell me bits and pieces like when I found his Union medal at the back of a cupboard.

Anyhow, Pastor Jonah got real excited. ‘That means you’re a widow of a Civil War veteran, Miss Stone. Gosh, there can’t be anyone left alive that can claim that!’

So one thing led to another and he got in touch with some group here in Missouri. And they checked my story, and found Mr Beaman’s Army records. There being no marriage certificate I could show them, I let them see the Bible. It was the one thing I saved from our time together. 

Handle it carefully now, the pages are so fragile. In the front is Mr Beaman’s family tree written in his own hand. There’s his grandparents, then his parents and his brothers. Then Barbara and the two babies. And here do you see? His writing is very shaky now. Can you read it? Violet Emily Stone, that’s me, married September 3rd 1936. 

Now I’m famous, apparently. How Mr Beaman would chuckle. I’ve done lots of recordings for these so-called heritage organisations and schools and such. I like it, talking to people. Not much else to do at my age.

But you’re the best visitors I’ve had, and that’s a fact. You could have knocked me over with a feather when you told me who you were. Fancy, Mr Beaman’s brother having a whole family I knew nothing about. 

And what’s this? You brought me a present. Why, thank you kindly, you didn’t need to do that. Oh my goodness me! Is this Mr Beaman? He looks so young, so handsome. Gosh, I don’t know where these tears are coming from. Forgive me snivelling, it’s just… he’s the only man who ever loved me.