Sometimes you don’t want the sun to shine, but shine it seems to insist on doing anyway. When you want it to rain until September, the one year you’d rather have no summer at all, just like every other year, it doesn’t happen. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s blue up there and the birds of early June are singing away somewhere under the hot, mid-morning sun that is blazing down through it.
I don’t care that the sun is shining. I have a short story to complete. Come September my writing is going to be playing second fiddle for a while, cut down to a few hours a week at most. Priority is going to have to be the bigger stuff, the novels. So, ideally, I want a few stories which I can release every now and again in order to keep things going. This one, involving a ghostly highwayman and a place that has only ever existed as a joke (a joke so old that the Romans were using it), will give me enough to keep things up until the end of the year.
Unfortunately the noise coming from the pillocks next door is at a record high. Oh sure, the little brat has stopped bouncing that stupid basketball for hours on end (but only after I hurled abuse at him through an open window, and even then the cessation might only be temporary) and there may now be a big for sale sign in their front yard (which is a case of Sod’s Law… They happen to move away just as I finally get out of this shite-hole!) but they seem now to be making as much noise as they possibly can, more than usual, on purpose I think. I try and put some music on, to block out the noise, but even through headphones I can still hear them. I’m going to flip my lid if this carries on. I can’t work under these conditions.
Looking out of the window at the sun, the sun which I don’t want, I decide (since I can’t work) that I might as well take advantage of it. I’ll get some fresh air and clear my head. I try and think of somewhere silent, with few people around, and the only nearby place I can think of is the cemetery.
‘How many ancestors do I have buried here?’ I wonder as I pass through the pair of sandstone pillars that form the entrance. I hate this town with an almighty passion, for a great many reasons, but the sad fact is that my ancestors built most of it. Some of them have been hovering around this pigsty for nearly a thousand years. A later check will reveal the answer to be at least twenty, but that is only direct ancestors. That doesn’t include great aunts and uncles and fourth cousins twice removed. Add those in and the number would, without a doubt, start to become stupid.
There is a little shade beyond the entrance, a canopy of trees cascading dappled light down onto tumbled, crooked, cracked and mildewed tombstones. This ought to be a classic, old cemetery, all spooky and haunted and overgrown, and in some ways it is. The grass around the graves is high, the tombstones are crooked as I say, but of late there has been a group of busybodies trying to tidy this place up. They call themselves the ‘friends of the cemetery’ but they are no such thing. They’re destroying it and everything that makes it special. They are no more than sad losers who get their kicks by taking all the joy and romance out of the world. Instead of letting the cemetery be all spooky and overgrown, they’ve clipped the paths so they’re all neat and tidy and straight. They’ve trimmed back the trees and, letting in far too much light. Some of the tombstones look as if they’ve been righted as well. They’ve taken the spook out of the place and instead of deliciously Gothic the cemetery is left looking a bit pathetic.
This is an old, disused cemetery. You won’t find many graves from beyond the fifties in here. It shouldn’t look all pretty and tidy and neat. It should look what it is- old, spent, a little bit creepy. The tall grass around the graves shouldn’t end abruptly at the path like it does. It shouldn’t look as though it has been touched by human hands. Leave the place alone, let it fade back to earth, let it die. An old, spooky cemetery has charm and character. An old cemetery that is all neat and tidy does not. It looks wrong. Save the neat and pretty for the cemeteries still in use, where people still are being buried and where people still come to lay flowers. Don’t do it here, of all places.
I start to look for the grave of one ancestor who is buried here, Thomas. He’s with his wife, Sarah, under a big, old, faded stone, cracked down the middle and repaired long ago with garish looking concrete. It’s somewhere close to the entrance and it oughtn’t be too difficult to spot, but upon reaching the place I find that it isn’t there. There is no trace of the tombstone with the concrete gash. All there is is a gap between the graves, a huge patch of some untrimmed grass at the edge of the path. Somebody, I suspect the busybodies, has removed it. They’ll probably tell you that it looked unsightly. Maybe it was a bit ugly, but therein lay the charm. It was distinctive, the sort of rotten gravestone you expect to find in a cemetery like this.
I stand at the spot for a while, briefly stepping into the grass to take a look at a broken stone to see if that is it. The top lies where it has fallen, against the back of the grave, but it belongs to somebody called Emily and nobody who is any ancestor of mine. A part of me is enraged, enraged because the tomb of my ancestors has been desecrated, enraged because those busybodies had the nerve to just take away one of the gravestones. How many others have they taken because they didn’t like the look of them? More to the point, what the hell did they do with the gravestone? I don’t mind the stone being repaired, I think that was done when the cemetery was still in use anyway, but to just take it away like they have done is an act of vandalism.
I walk on, coming to the edge of the trees, where the cemetery path splits in two and the tombstones, being slightly more modern, take on a little bit of neatness. It might also help that these graves are in full sunlight, not covered by a canopy of trees. The graves here are also more concentrated, now becoming a sea of endless stones of various shapes and sizes. Before, under the trees, the graves were a little more spread out but down here everybody is packed in an orderly fashion. It has a charm of its own. It could never be a Gothic delight, but it could still be spooky and creepy in its own way if left alone.
I take the right hand path, going towards the end, past Davids and Williams and Eileens, all at their eternal rest beneath the earth. Nobody comes to see them. Nobody comes to lay flowers beside them. Instead the grass grows around them and their names gradually fade and erode into obscurity. Some of their tombstones are big, black edifices still clean and shiny and looking as though they might have been put up yesterday. Look closer and the writing on the stones reveals the truth. The stone may look shiny but the writing is starting to be washed away by the winds and the rains. It is still legible, but give it another twenty or thirty years and those stones will be more like the others that are around them, so worn and eroded that you have to get in close to read them, in some cases tracing the faint etchings with your finger just to work out the letters. I suspect that the bigger stones, the ones that still look clean and are still legible, were the wealthier of this district. They were the ones who could afford a better class of tombstone, those who could afford to have their names preserved for longer.
The most mournful grave in the cemetery is right at the end of this path. It is not an ordinary stone like all the others, but a white teddy bear reading a book. As neglected as the others, and almost lost in the tall grass, this is the grave of a child. It is a terrible, lonely tomb, forgotten amongst a myriad of other neglected souls.
I turn back around and scan the rows behind me. I’m looking for another ancestor, buried beneath a small black tombstone in the middle of a row, etched on the top with a pair of compass symbols. This one is easy to spot and I am soon making my way carefully through the grass towards it. A few more weeds have grown through the cracked slab of the grave since I was last down this way and one of them is in flower. They are sparse and they add a natural charisma to the grave. I mostly leave them alone, apart from pulling out one which I don’t like the look of.
Here is buried my great grandfather, Walter. Dying in his mid fifties, he was not an old man by modern standards, but in his brief half century on earth he served in the First World War, in both Italy and France, and later went on to become a founding member of the local freemasons. I know little else about him, other than that he lies only a few yards from where he was born, baptised and lived for his entire life. I doubt that this place was so hellish in those days, however. It had yet to join the throngs of suburbia and the rise of a more selfish, disrespectful society was not yet come. There was also likely to be less chemical and hormonal crud in the local water supply, driving people to the brain capacity of slack jawed yokels.
In the same grave, for the sake of convenience I am led to believe, is his Mother-In-Law, Sarah Jane. What chain of circumstance brought her here, from Lincolnshire by way of the Isle of Man, I only know a little of. I know she was a teacher in Man, married there, was widowed, and then eloped back to the mainland with a much older man who had also, very recently, been widowed.
By circumstance, one of my other twice great grandmothers, Amelia, is in the next grave but one (with her husband). She died less than a month after Sarah Jane. I wonder, given their proximity in death, if they knew each other in life? Eighty five years ago, when they died, this was a small collection of villages and I’m certain that even if they weren’t sharing cups of tea and gossip they each knew of the other at least. They would have passed in the street or in the grocers shop for sure.
I stand between the graves, before a spot that is only marked by a flower urn, and reflect on the coincidence, wondering on the strangeness of the world. Then I’m struck by another thought- Beyond the fence at my back is where I went to school, where I spent some of my darkest days. I am so tied up with this town I hate so much. My ancestors practically built the place, they are buried in the parish church and in this should be neglected cemetery. They lived here, they died here. I, as much as I hate to admit it, have lived here too. This is where I grew up, where I first roamed and first adventured. The majority of my books were written here and without this town my work would not be the same, for this town is Worton, rolling around in its own corpse for all eternity. Just as my ancestors cannot escape it, and I don’t know if they have ever wanted to, I cannot escape it either. It will always be a part of me, of who I am, no matter how much I complain.
I make my way back down to the cemetery entrance by the other path, looking for a grave I discovered long ago. This time it is not an ancestor, but of a lady with the spectacular name of Doris Norris. I know it is a low grave with no tombstone, only a slab etched with the name, and I know it is at the very edge of the cemetery. Try as I might, however, Doris has disappeared into the tall grass.
Coming back to the path, I spy a magpie on the ground and am reminded of that old rhyme- One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, Three For a Girl, Four for a Boy… What do you get if it’s dead like this one is? That is a morbid thought, but my brain cannot help but jump to it. I leave it alone and start keeping my eye out for one final ancestor, James the Postmaster, who like so many others lived and died here. I have a rough idea of where he is but, like with Doris, I cannot find him. I have a feeling he was somewhere near to the entrance, where the graves are tiny and humble. Those busybodies have dumped a huge metal container right by the hedge, for some reason, and I really hope he isn’t under there. I swear to God, if they have dumped a container on any of my ancestors I’ll be showing them the consequences of disturbing the dead.
My head is at least clearer now and I can, I hope, carry on with writing my story. When I get back the pesky nuisance neighbours have stopped the interminable noise, for the moment, but it won’t last. It is but a brief respite in the grand scheme of things. In a way I envy the dead I have just walked among. At least for them there is always silence.
The next day the busybodies returned and cut down all the tall grass between the graves, stripping away what lingering bit of Gothic romance that cemetery had left. Bastards!
‘One day lad, all this will be yours!’- Image courtesy nhm.ac.uk