ART’S LAST LAUGH • by Andy Charman

Wimborne Minster, Dorset, Autumn of 1868.

It were a wager, see. For my part it were more to see Art laugh again, but George were the type to take a wager on most anything. Wooden fences out on Netherwood Mead had rotted away so I told Squire Guthrie how I’d take George and Art out to help me fix them. We was just coming up on Art’s place when we made that wager.

“He’s had a right rare time over the years,” I says, “Lost five daughters to the pox. Never hears from his sons. ‘Course Jane passed on last winter. He gets bits o’work here and there, but there’s no life to be had in the country no more. I ain’t seen Art laugh in years.”

George don’t seem to think much of that, so I says, “Reckon not even  you could make him laugh.”

“Oh ar?” he says. Full of hisself, is Georgie. Next thing you know, we’ve a tanner on it. First to make Art laugh.

So we gets to Art’s place, he comes out and George — begging your pardon — lets rip this banging girt fart. No doubt it were rude, but George’s laugh is catching and it were that loud so you had to remark on it. Him and me are near crying.

Art — poor man — he’s looking at us through them thick old eyebrows, scowling and serious, that old poppy of his stood beside him, looking up, not knowing whether to bark or howl. Art takes his handcart by the handles. “We a-fence-mending or not?”

Us heading up the road in the thin Autumn sun. George and me still giggling. Art and his dog grave as a tomb.

I offers Art a chunk o’ bread. “Bit o’ mammet,” I says. I were a-thinking how skinny he’s looking and from the way he tears into that bread it seems he’s not had much to eat of late. Course, I didn’t know how sick he was already. We’re walking out into Netherwood Mead I hands him an apple and he devours that pretty sharpish too.

You could see the change in him. Different face. And I thinks to myself, “Don’t lark with a hungry farm-hand.”

“You remember The Stickman, Art?” George asks. Art grumbles back at him. He remembers — Henry Stickland. Pastor who taught us all our letters—Sundays in the hall. Spindly little gawk-hammer Art calls him.

“Gawk-hammer was he? George reminds us how funny he looked that time his pony took lame and he saddled up his dongy. “Remember him riding round town in that gown-coat and hat of his, feet scruffing the ground?”

I laugh at the memory and George is chuckling to think-tell of it, but Art stays grim. “Man were a ninny,” he grumbles.

So George remembers the time old Healey got stuck up a tree. He thinks it good enough for a laugh, but Art thinks Healey were a fool for getting hisself up there. “Only had one leg. Should ha’ stayed stood on it.”

George don’t give up though. He brings back so many old stories; some folks I’d forgotten and all the daft things they’d done. But Art — he don’t think much of any on ‘em.

So we gets to the meadow and all the way across, of course we’re dancing around avoiding these cow pats, ‘til we gets the other side and starts work on the fence.

George starts up with telling  gags. One after the other. The wife that never farts in her husband’s lap, all that sort of stuff. Molly and Jim, this and that. Gag after gag. Not a single one o’ them raises so much as a smile from Art. He just looks like George is talking to someone else. Hours this goes on. The fence is fixed and we’re packing up, still dancing around avoiding them cow pats.

We’re piling the bits o’ lumber back in the cart and George says how he could ha’ been in the army on account of how strong he was. He lifts one of them poles with one hand — I couldn’t ha’ done it — but Art rolls his eyes like George was making his brags.

So I waves George back a step axing if he could lift it over his head — and he takes two steps back and raises the pole. Can he do another? He steps back again and — sure enough — he trips backwards and ends up on his arse in a couple of cow pats.

George gets up swearing and cursing and for a moment I was a-feared it had all gone sour. Then the stench reaches us.

“Aw!” cries Art, “Aw my! You don’t half pong!”

That’s when he starts laughing. George is ruddy in the face, he’s that angry. “That weren’t funny!” he says, but Art disagrees. He’s laughing so much he can barely speak. “Oh it were!” he says. George is chucking them poles in the barrow, covered in muck and a tanner down and Art’s laugh gets louder and louder. More he laughs, the more George looks ruddy and the more Art laughs.

Carried on all the way home. George would cheer up a moment, Art would chuckle, George would come over mad again. Quite a day.

Sad though. Weren’t more than a week after that Art took to his sick bed. We buried him on a Monday in the rain. Sad day. Sad as they come.

There were only one thing I were glad of. I was stood there watching the rain a-pattering on the canvas he was bagged in and I happened to recall that look on his face — the glint in his eye — when George landed in the muck. It were Art’s last laugh, and I were glad of it.

Andy Charman grew up near Wimborne Minster in Dorset, England, and is writing a series of short stories based in the region and set in the 19th Century. The stories draw on dialogue and and dialect records created by the Dorset Poet, William Barnes.

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