Tales from the Morning Room
Et in Arcadia Ego
In time the cemetery became full and it was at this point that it attained its highest perfection. The trees had matured, time had given a patina of age to the monuments, the paths were well-kept. Most of all, those who were buried there still had families living. These would come - to lay flowers on the graves, to be silent, to pay their respects. In its melancholy beauty it gave hope that there was peace in death.
Sadly, this was not to continue. With no income from further burials yet with an obligation to maintain the grounds, the cemetery company found itself in serious difficulty. By 1910 most of the staff had been paid off and the little money remaining was barely sufficient to retain a small number of workers. When the War came, even these workers went away and the cemetery was formally closed.
By the 1930s the Great Northern was in such a state that the local council took it over but they too had little money and the neglect and decay continued. In those years the cemetery was not entirely lost; people still visited the tombs, lamented perhaps the growth of vegetation and the lack of care but were still secure in knowing that it was a place set apart for the dead.
In the late 50s and throughout the 60s a more sinister development took place. The cemetery, now a wilderness, began to attract grave-robbers, magicians and vandals.
For the most part the vandals were just children, teenagers on the rampage. Yet the damage they did was irreparable. Graffiti were scrawled on the tombs, gravestones were pushed over, monuments defaced. The grave-robbers were worse. Drawn by the lure of the jewellery the Victorians had buried with their dead they hacked open doors, disturbed the coffins, fled in the night leaving the dead exposed to view. Worse still were the magicians, the necromancers, who with deliberation and intent carried out dark rituals of desecration.
At the end of this time the cemetery presented a dark and sinister appearance; half the tombs had been broken into, magical signs were scrawled on doors, graves were lost under a tangle of weeds. In the afternoon silence it was a lonely and eerie place; in the evening and at night it was a place of dread and horror.
It could not continue. Local people campaigned the authorities, demanded a stop be put to the desecrations, demanded the cemetery be maintained. As a result the council decided to appoint a caretaker, a labourer who would live on the grounds and be responsible for its security and maintenance. A 23 year old unemployed graduate in Social Psychology called Michael Edge was forced by circumstances to take the job.
Unhappy and apprehensive he waits at the cemetery gates .
I was standing at the gates of the Great Northern Cemetery waiting to be met by a bloke from the council who was to see me settled in. He was half an hour late already but with the S.S. on my back I just had to wait. It seemed typical; I had to be up at six to travel halfway across London to be on time but he could come whenever he wanted.
The interviewer had said the place was derelict but Id had no idea just how derelict. It looked terrible, an absolute wilderness of trees and bushes run riot. The dull white of gravestones and monuments could be seen, half-hidden by the tangled foliage. The monumental gates were badly rusted and dead leaves and twigs had gathered at their base. Everything was dead or decaying - even the flowers seemed dead. Flies were everywhere.
There was a wood
opposite, thickly planted, so that I couldnt see through to the
far side but further up the road it thinned out and gave onto some waste
ground beyond which were a few houses, though they were at least a mile
away. Back down the road there was nothing but the wood on the far side
and the high cemetery wall on this. It was very isolated. What worried
me more than anything was that I couldnt see the lodge; the thought
of being stuck right in the middle of the place was quite upsetting.
Alcott. Area Supervisor of Parks. Follow me.
As I followed I felt
unease grow in me at the sight of the cemetery. Every few yards minor
paths took off, their outlines lost within feet under tangled bindweed
and brambles that grew across them to entwine in the centre. Shafts of
sunlight broke through the tree cover here and there, puddling on the
ground, causing a tomb to loom brighter in the dimness, illuminating the
swarms of midges and individual insects that were responsible for an ever-present
humming. It was suffocatingly hot.
I glared at his back
and, not for the first time, cursed having ever taken that stupid degree
in Social Psychology. Three years at University with sociology all the
rage and then the great sociology bubble had burst and I was one of thousands
competing for a handful of posts. Social Psychology was worst because
the only posts were in universities and clinics and my degree wasnt
good enough. Friends of mine were lecturers or doing PhDs and here
was I stuck behind this character.
There was a clearing
about fifty yards ahead which Alcott seemed to recognise for he grunted
and walked slightly quicker. My heart sank as an evil looking building
came into view. I stared with apprehension at the boarded up windows and
door, the grotesque chimneys and gothic arches and gables, the patches
of ivy growing on the walls. Alcott forced his way through thick tangles
of bramble and rosebay willow herb to the porch.
He scowled at me.Youll just have to. Comes with the job. Now get those planks off the door.
With your bloody hands, you fool, he barked.
I struggled with the two inch planking, aware of his contemptuous scrutiny.
Its no use, I said, Ill have to get a crowbar.
Well, hurry up. I havent got all day.
I found a piece of
metal which speeded things up although he made a great show of impatience
which irritated me. When the planks were down he produced a key which,
to my surprise, worked, although the door needed a good shove to get it
open. I peered apprehensively into the darkness but could make nothing
out. The place stank of dampness.
Its not working, I complained.
Thats your problem, sonny. Youre the one thats got to live here. Nobody asked you to take the job.
I looked dubiously at the gas light then shrugged: Ill manage.
He snorted. You wont last a week, sonny. I can tell. Your type - lazy, no good.
I bridled but kept quiet. He was just stupid.
Right then, he said, giving a glance at his watch, you know what to do; the gates and the path at the entrance. Ill be back on Thursday to inspect your work and it had better be good; understand? Im having no layabouts working for me.
I frowned. At my interview they said you were just to meet me and then make sure I got all my supplies. There was nothing about working for you.
His face went red. Oh no, son. This is my cemetery. You work for me. Understand!
After a long glare at me he stomped off. I stared after him. I was sure he wasnt in charge; the interviewer had made that clear. Another thing was that he was to have got the lodge ready for me to move in and yet he clearly expected me to start work right away.
The only thing to do was check it out with my interviewer but when, after a long walk I phoned, I found that he was on holiday till Wednesday and then hed be tied up all day; the speaker couldnt help as it wasnt his section.
I was worried for
if Alcott really was in charge hed sack me for not working on the
gates and yet I just had to work on the lodge otherwise Id have
nowhere to sleep. Telling myself not to be ridiculous, that it was perfectly
reasonable to get the lodge into order I went back to the cemetery.
Intrigued to see what the other rooms contained I worked hard through the afternoon but the only things of interest were a living room, cluttered with Victorian furniture and heavy drapes, and piles of musty smelling books and registers.
Upstairs I got the boards off one window after a great deal of trouble that involved climbing onto the porch above the door and leaning over a gap of four feet with nothing to hold onto except crumbling brickwork. The room was sparsely furnished with curtains, a carpet and a heavy tallboy.
It was five oclock
and I was starving. Also it had got cooler and the clouds that had formed
were making the lodge look gloomy and sinister again. In the early evening
silence the old house was eerie and very dark inside with the reduced
light. I walked around a bit, half wondering whether to get some candles
and spend the evening in the kitchen or the living room, but then my imagination
got the better of me; the thought of staring out the window at the lengthening
shadows, at the darkened sepulchres, of being alone in the gloomy old
house was repellent. Id get out, have a meal, buy some candles and
a bottle of wine and pass the evening as best I could.
I phoned a few friends but they were either out or tied up but even if theyd been free it would have cost a fortune to get down to Earls Court. That was another thing; I was almost marooned up here and they were such a boozy crowd that there wasnt much hope of them leaving the pubs in that part of London to come up and see me.
As I left the phone to search for a cafe I felt lonely for the first time Id been in London. It wasnt just this evening but how Id fill in every other evening. I couldnt imagine going to a pub on my own and I couldnt go to the pictures every night.
The cinema: I grasped at the thought. Thatd be ideal; something to eat and then a film.
There were no shops
in sight but a bus was coming and I took it up past the cemetery until
half a mile beyond it some shops appeared. There was a cafe open and I
had a reasonable meal for five shillings and sixpence. At a nearby off-licence
I bought a bottle of Redvin as it was cheaper than Rich Ruby and, in a
stationers next door, a box of candles and some matches. They told me
there was a cinema about a mile up the road.
I hadnt a clue where I was. Muswell Hill, Archway, Highgate, Golders Green; I could have been anywhere. The extent of my knowledge of north London was of parties in Kilburn and Maida Vale and even then I was usually too drunk to notice anything. A slight drizzle started and there was the heavy rumble of far-off thunder. The coolness of the evening air was a delight after the oppressive heat earlier.
I reached a main
street where there were plenty of people. My spirits lifted at the sight
of brightly lit shop fronts, the people going into the pubs and restaurants,
the queues at the bus stops, the steady stream of passing cars. Maybe
I was just over-reacting about the cemetery, letting the hot day get on
my nerves. So it was a bit gloomy but it was only a cemetery. Once I got
the lodge cleaned up and into a routine things would be ok.
I saw the cinema up ahead and immediately cheered up. With luck itd be a thriller or a war film.
I could have wept when I saw what was on. It was unbelievable: Dracula Rises Again and Night Horrors. The posters were dreadful, particularly the Night Horrors: - an army of fiendish looking ghouls seen against the background of a cemetery.
I walked away quickly,
annoyed and certain that the images would come back at me, especially
when I reached the cemetery later that night. After a fruitless attempt
to find another cinema I gave up and went into a library and sat till
eight oclock when it closed. Back outside it was still drizzling
and quite cold. The obvious solution was to go into a pub but I was so
used to drinking in company that I couldnt do it. Eventually I went
from cafe to cafe drinking tea and remaining in each as long as I could.
By ten oclock Id spent as much on teas as I would have at
the cinema and was feeling very depressed.
There were fewer people about now and by the time I reached the shops to the north of the cemetery the streets were deserted. At length that hateful wall came into view. The trees swayed ominously in the light wind. I opened the bottle of wine and had a quick drink.
By the time I reached
the gates I was a bit calmer and the bottle was still comfortably full
but the sight of the dark tunnel of the path and the silvery patches on
the trees made me have another drink before entering.
It was deathly still:
the moonlight was weak and often obscured by cloud so that everything
was in shadow yet sufficient to see the graves on either side of the path.
My feet crunched on the gravel save where moss had overgrown the pebbles.
First one tomb loomed
up, then another. I kept my eyes straight ahead, refusing to look through
their gaping doors. All the while I was intensely alert, probing ahead,
interpreting every shadow, every dark mass that looked like a figure.
At a more open part
of the path the clouds moved away from the moon. In its soft light the
white monuments stood eerily amidst the silent bushes. I felt sick, forced
myself ahead, tried to think of anything other than what I saw.
I had known all along what would happen and it did. Those stupid posters; weird landscapes, desolate and moonlit, the monuments like the spires of an underground city breaking through the soil, and everywhere the gaping openings through which the dead could emerge. A nameless dread took hold of me. In seconds I was running, a trot at first, then faster, then a full sprint, my mind blank with terror.
In a panic I scrabbled
to get the key into the door, my chest heaving, sweat running off me.
It opened and I stumbled through.
I leant back on the
door, catching my breath and expecting at any moment to hear scratching
on the other side. When nothing happened I grew calmer, forcing myself
to accept it was just my imagination.
With the door locked
I felt more secure and was thankful to have the candles. Even so I was
still scared: the cemetery outside looked decidedly creepy in the moonlight
and the old house was full of shadows and unnervingly still.
Without enthusiasm I climbed upstairs to the room with the shutters off. It would have to do. I lit another candle and rolled the threadbare carpet into a couch, laying my sleeping bag on top. The window was so dirty that very little light came through but I was taking no chances with my imagination and pulled the tattered curtains across as best I could. With a curse at everything I climbed into the sleeping bag, struggled to get comfortable, and presently, with the help of the wine, fell asleep.
The next morning I
awoke at six to a cold light filtering through the dusty window. Reluctantly
I got up and looked outside. The cemetery was still and quiet. Dew gleamed
on the weeds and glistened on the tombs. A crow croaked high up in one
of the trees. The sun was well up and breaking through the haze.
It promised to be a warm day.
I didnt feel
too bad considering the night Id had. It was the posters that had
done it; ridiculous to be creeping around in the moonlight thinking that
a ghoul was going to fly in the window. Id have to get a grip on
As Id been sleeping
in my clothes I decided to go up to the shops where there was a public
lavatory and have a wash. A down and out was in there already and his
eyes lit up when he saw my razor but his stubble was so thick that the
blade was ruined when I got it back. The cafe was open and I basked in
the steamy warmth as I planned the day ahead.
It was just eight
when I got back and already warm. With the light from the upstairs windows
and the candles it was relatively simple to get the rest of the hoardings
down including those on three small rooms on the third floor. Most of
these rooms were sparsely furnished; the house had. been too large for
the previous incumbent but there was a fully furnished bedroom with bed.
It was a bit sombre for my taste, a wardrobe and chest of drawers in dark
mahogany, a washstand with earthenware jug and bowl, heavy green curtains
and an ample fireplace topped with a magnificent portrait of King Edward
the Seventh; but sombre or not, it would be better than sleeping on the
floor. Rather hopefully I tested the mattress but it was rotted and I
had to throw it out the window. One curious thing was a uniform hung up
in the wardrobe: black, of heavy cloth and with a cap like a railwaymans
on which was a metal badge saying Superintendent. There was also a top
hat and tails: his dress suit for funerals, I supposed.
The next thing was
to see if there was water. There were no valves downstairs so I went up
to the attic to look at the water tank.
As I clambered over
the edge there was a panicked fluttering of pigeons and starlings trying
to get out into the open air. The floor was thick with droppings and twigs
from old nests, even a dead pigeon. I picked this up on the end of a stick
and tossed it through the skylight. Great: pigeons and starlings for company
although at least Id know where any scrabbling noises during the
night were coming from.
The water tank was
empty, although thankfully clean.
I pulled a likely
lever and, in moments, was rewarded by a deep gurgling and rumbling from
within the pipe as the water rushed upwards and flowed into the tank.
I waited to make sure the ball-cock was working and then back downstairs
ran all the taps till the water cleared. It was fantastic really that
it hadnt been shut off at the main pipe outside the cemetery but
it must just have been forgotten about. I spent the rest of the morning
cleaning the windows and the floors and was well pleased with the results
especially the difference it made to the light.
I was having my lunch,
milk and rolls from the cafe, when I was struck with an exciting idea.
If the water was still on, maybe the gas was too.
Within ten minutes
I had found the main supply in what, must have been a boilerhouse, though
the boiler had long since rusted away. I pulled the lever down and back
inside struck a match close to the mantle of a hail light. With a hiss
and a plop it came on and in seconds was casting a soft radiance into
the hall. I was delighted. for it would make all the difference to being
here at night.
The cooker was now
working which meant Id be able to eat here. I decided to go to the
shops and get some food and various odds and ends and work into the evening.
The sooner I got the place into order, the better; and the work helped
to keep my mind off the graves.
I went north this
time hoping to find a shortcut for I was getting fed up with having to
double back. It was hillier than the southern end and the graves were
set on terraces cut out of the hillside, with flights of steps joining
them. It reminded me of a classical town clinging to the slopes of a Mediterranean
On the other side
of the path it was less hilly though sufficiently so for the designer
to have created quiet backwaters out of sight of the main path. I found
this out because I detoured up a path which gave onto strange vistas of
little hollows with only a few graves and of tombs joined together by
a heavy pediment and receding round the curve of a hill.
A little way ahead
the path widened and I wondered what it meant. It proved to be twin colonnades
set opposite each other and running parallel for maybe forty feet. Both
were arc-shaped and set into the slopes of what was a little valley.
I entered the right
hand colonnade by a wrought iron gate which was rusty but intact, an intricate
complex of curves and involuted spirals, and found myself in a dismal
and damp demi-monde of light and shade. On my right was a solid wall of
heavy stone blocks into which were set memorial tablets from the 1860s,
all middle class families. On my left were pillars of Portland stone,
eight feet high, grand in original conception but now partly obscured
by creeping ivy which wound its way strand by strand spirally, eating
into the stone, till at the base of each pillar was a mound of humus and
mould. I tugged at a long strand that had found a foothold in the ceiling
and was showered in pieces of flaking stone. The damn stuff was holding
the place together.
The columns were set
on a base wall at regular intervals but so thick was the ivy, bindweed
and other creeping plants that one seemed to be inside a long curving
chamber lit irregularly through choked-up windows from which glimpses
could be caught of the sister colonnade and the weirdly sculpted tombs
on the avenue outside.
A dim counter-illumination
came from an opening on the right which was barred by another gate. Someone,
sometime, had broken this open, destroying as they did some delicate ironworking.
I peered through into a fusty passageway which gave onto an open area
which yet seemed cluttered with stonework as if there was another colonnade
in there. The gate opened with a screech of rusted metal and I walked
through into the quiet enclosed area.
I dont quite
know how to put across the feelings it aroused; it was so far from my
normal experience, it was like being in a pit out of which one could look
only helplessly at the branches of trees high above. What the architect
had intended I dont know; it was a pit and therefore below ground,
circular, some forty feet, with a colonnade of square heavy columns capped
with rectangular stones in the centre, so that one seemed to be in a pagan
temple sunk deep into the ground. Or rather, outside it; for beyond those
stones and in the centre of the circle was a mysterious pool, long empty,
surrounded by paving in a pattern obscured by the weeds and the leaf mould
drifting from the trees above. I looked away from the central area to
the outer, to tenebrous vaults open beyond railings, their occupants at
rest yet in view of the spectator. It was troubling, this arrangement;
as if they had been buried twice, as if to have their tomb in this enclosure
was to make it the threshold of a tomb. It made me feel as if I were inside
There was a strange
feature on the other side; niches cut into the stone, hundreds of them
looking rather like a dovecot, and in these tiny spaces, an urn or vase
containing the ashes of the dead. Many, sadly, of the shelves were empty,
and on the floor were shards of broken containers and a soft dust that
may have been soil blown from the ground above, yet was surely in part
the remains of the long dead.
From the dates it
seemed that funeral fashions had changed about the 1860s to allow
cremation and I supposed that this strange structure had been built to
receive the ashes and wondered if it had been the first of its kind in
I stepped through
the colonnade into the sombre central area thinking that there might be
some chance of cleaning the pool and getting it operational again. It
was chockfull of twigs and debris but the mould clung together so that
I was able to pick up large handfuls and toss them onto the paving. There
was a grill at the centre of the pool where the water had drained away
but after a brief attempt to clean it which got me filthy right up my
arm, I had to give it up. It was probably blocked all along its length.
The inlet I supposed would be at the side and after a brief search I found
a carved stone gargoyle with open mouth from which water would have spouted.
Sometime Id see if I could work out the water supply.
Once outside I climbed
up by the side of the colonnade to see what it looked like from above.
It was surprisingly small and being surrounded by dense shrubbery and
tall trees was half invisible even from a dozen yards away. I looked into
the quiet enclave, so like an excavation of a classical ruin, and wondered.
There was a gap in
the wall just a few hundred yards from the shops. Being short of money
I had to be careful: bread, butter, jam, eggs, beans, tea, sugar, milk,
sausages and a little bit of bacon. I had some condiments from my bedsit.
I also bought four packets of dates at sixpence each in case of emergency,
and in case I couldnt sleep, a bottle of wine, draught amontillado
as it was cheaper. The cleaning things were the most expensive, coming
to over a pound but they were essential to get the place in order. These
included a plastic basin for one and six at a second-hand shop and some
rags which cost two shillings as I had to buy them as items of clothing.
Most important of all was a fair mattress with a pillow and blankets for
ten bob and a transistor complete with 9 volt battery tied to the outside
of it for five bob.
It was about quarter
to five and not being particularly hungry I first collected wood scattered
around and lit fires in every room and then continued with the cleaning.
The sinks proved very difficult being caked with hardened dirt, and the
taps being black with verdigris. The windows also were black with over
half a century of dust and smog filtered through the boards but the liquid
soap defeated the dirt. Part of the window frames had rotted but that
was something for the council to look after.
I must admit Id
got rather lazy in the fifteen months since leaving university except
for some stupid temporary jobs where you were expected to work like a
slave for seven or eight pounds a week. This paid little more and I was
working just as hard but the difference was that I was enjoying it; mainly
because I was deciding what to do although part of it was to keep my mind
off the cemetery.
I ate at seven to
the sound of the transistor. The kitchen, now fairly clean, looked cheerful
and I ate the bacon and eggs with gusto. There was a bit of life in the
place now: light, for the gas lamps were on; sound because the Light Programme
was blaring out; and warmth, because there were fires blazing in all the
rooms. I washed the plates in hot water and went to check the fires. There
was still a musty smell in the living rooms but Id pulled the divan
and chairs over to the fire and with luck theyd be dry by morning.
The office fire also was blazing away nicely, casting flickering shadows
against the walls and curtains even though the sun hadnt set. The
desks looked as if they were waiting for the clerks and clerkesses to
come in in the morning and carry on business as usual,
I pottered around
for the rest of the evening, cleaning and tidying and by ten oclock
was exhausted. The gas lamps made a great difference - the darkness had
been half the trouble last night.
Upstairs the room looked almost normal and the bed was warm and inviting. I locked the door, reassured by the large lock and, fairly relaxed, settled down to the sound of the crackling fire and the radio, and soon fell asleep.
Two days later, Thursday,
I was expecting a visit from Alcott. As usual I lit the fires and was
happy to see the improvement the heat was making though it tended to make
the wallpaper billow out from the wall. I had breakfast and then looked
out a scythe for I intended to have a go at the clearing outside. In fact
Id see if Alcott could come up with some paint and other odds and
ends I needed.
By ten Id made
good headway having got into a fair rhythm with the scythe and could look
with satisfaction at the swathe cut through the willow herb and dandelion
though Id avoided a few shrubs which would have dented the blade.
At least Alcott couldnt say I hadnt been working.
I raked all the cuttings
into a huge pile and put a match to it but the stuff was wet so I continued
with the scything trying to make a neater job of it. I was attacking one
of the uneven clumps that remained when Alcott arrived.
I called. He didnt answer and when he got closer I could see he
What the devil
is this? he shouted, waving his hand at the lodge. I told
you to work on the gates and the entrance.
It was what Id
half expected. But I needed somewhere to sleep, I explained.
I had to work on the lodge.
And who told
you to light those fires?
The rooms were
right, no right at all.
Come off it,
I laughed. You cant ,...,
Come off it?
Come off it? Who the hell do you think youre talking to, Edge?
I hadnt meant
to sound aggressive but must have for he went near purple in the face.
s it, he snapped. You can pick up your things and go.
You mean Im
what I mean.
But thats absurd. I havent done anything.
He shook his head.
No argument. Get your things.
What about my
Pick it up next
Thursday at the council offices.
But I dont have any money.
your business, sonny. Go to the Social Security. Theyll soon take
care of you.
I shook my head, argued
with him, finally lost my temper and stormed off to check it out with
my interviewer. He shouted something after me but I didnt listen.
Id sort him out. Talk about class inequality, social controls, misuse
of power; ever since Id left that bloody sociology course Id
been a living example of the underprivileged having to face up to people
like Alcott all the time. And what if he were right about not getting
the money today. I had just under a pound and the Social Security wouldnt
pay me until I had a room and I couldnt get a room until they paid
It took five minutes
to find the interviewer and when he came on he didnt quite seem
to know who I was. I told him what had happened and kept my voice as calm
as possible as I didnt want to antagonise him. To my delight he
took my side although he put it over as a mix-up in communications, that
Mr. Alcott must have misunderstood what the position was, that he was
only the liaison for supplies. He promised to see Alcott and said that
a squad of men would be sent over to look at the lodge.
I was elated; that
pig had tried to put one over me and had lost. Probably annoyed that his
head office had appointed someone without coming to him. He was still
at the lodge.
Where the devil
do you think youre going? he snapped.
I told him in no uncertain
terms, then slammed the door in his face. It had turned purplish-red.
I wondered later if
Id overdone it but then Alcott was the type whod still be
out to get control even if Id been polite to him. I shrugged it
off as best I could.
Late afternoon on
returning from the shops I got caught in a downpour and had to take shelter
in the doorway of a tomb. With the rain the place took on a different
appearance; where it had crawled with malignant life in the harsh sunlight
now this was dampened down, drenched in the cold rain. I swear that I
cheered up as the cemetery settled under the grey sky to the more familiar
sight of gravestones dripping with rain, the open vista of trees swaying
in the wind, the melancholy of cemeteries on wet afternoons.
It had a grandeur:
majestic tombs, weeds growing on their bases, chains rusting, puddles
formed on the paths, desolation and sadness. An angel opposite now seemed
the very symbol of what it was to be dead here; alone, withdrawn, empty
yet somehow showing by its presence that someone had lived.
There was the sound
of footsteps on gravel: it was a man hurrying along in search of shelter.
He spotted my tomb and ran over to it not seeing me till the last moment.
He apologised for his intrusion.
OK, I said. He was a distinguished looking man of middle age, dressed
in an expensive grey woollen coat.
he remarked. I nodded.
He brushed the rain
off his coat and then turned his head to look at the tomb. There was graffiti
on the door.
He shook his head.
Its very sad. A lot of these children have their great grandparents
buried here. He turned away from the graffiti and sighed. What
a magnificent cemetery this must have been, one of the finest in Europe,
certainly the largest. And all forgotten. Its too bad. He
turned to me. May I ask what brought you here?
I gave a short laugh.
I work here. He looked interested.
appointed me on Monday, I explained. Im just getting
the lodge into shape then Ill start on the maintenance.
Ah, so youre
living here. Well the old place is certainly taking on a new lease of
life. He hesitated. But its such a huge place. How will
I shrugged. So
long as it looks as if somethings being done, the council will be
happy. Its just a cover-up job for the papers. Ill do what
I can, of course.
; he didnt know my name so I introduced myself and
found his name was Andrew Gray. Very good, he continued. Its
a position of great trust and responsibility. These cemeteries should
be cared for, not forgotten or neglected. Restored they would be quiet
havens of peace where we could honour the dead and reflect on our own
mortality. He looked sadly at the ground.
There was a strange
sadness about the man. It showed in his face, in his gestures, in his
slow and pensive speech.
We talked on for a
while and then the rain stopped. Gray made an anxious examination of the
I think theres
still rain there, so Id best head back while I can, he stated.
I nodded. Yes.
On the way back I
was wondering who he was when the rain caught me in the open, and I lost
the train of thought as I dashed for the lodge.
Later that evening
what he had said about the dead came back to me. This was their memorial
place, thousands upon thousands of people, and nothing remained of their
memory except the entries in the ledgers. It was sad to think that was
the only record of their existence.
I went through into
the room where the records were kept and flicked through the pages of
one of the books. It was a register of burials for 1872 with a page for
each day and as many as ten entries on one day. Somehow it suited my mood
and I sat down to study it.
Id had no idea
just how important a cemetery it was. There were entries from all over
North London: Archway, Muswell Hill, Camden Town, Kensal Rise and everybody,
from the lowest members of society to dukes and duchesses of the realm
were buried here. The entries were in copperplate writing, sure and bold,
the spacing and punctuation meticulous.
I could just imagine
a clerk scratching away and fearfully holding open a page for inspection.
I wondered how old he was, how much he was paid, what he did in the evenings,
whether he was happy in his work. It was sad to think of a complete life
with its hopes, joys and fears gone for ever, remembered only by handwriting
in a register of burials.
The register gave
personal details of the deceased, the lair number and the fee payable:
Thomas Jackson, apothecary, age 53, 10 Temple Road, Islington, lair 1063,
£6.6.0; Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Anderson, City of London Regiment,
aged 60, died of natural causes, lair 161, £l57.l0.0. I read entries
like these for ten minutes before closing the dolorous book. On impulse
I checked the handwriting in earlier books to see when the clerk took
his position. I found it in 1856 and traced it through to 1876 and there,
on 5th July, was his name in anothers hand, Alfred James Hogan,
Clerk of the Great Northern Metropolitan Cemetery Company, aged 49, died
cancer of the bowel, £21.0.0. I wondered if hed saved for
that or if employees of the Company were expected to go out with as much
dignity as the higher reaches of the Victorian Middle Class.
There were still dozens
of books and files on the floor and these I surmised would contain records
of employment, work schedules, accounts from local businesses and the
like. I was right enough but would never have dreamed of the number of
things required in the operation of a large cemetery that would have a
record kept of them. Almost unconsciously I had begun to think of the
work as what I had to do, security and maintenance; I had a picture of
the cemetery filled up, the vegetation well established and only the minimum
of inspection of ironwork and masonry and of gardening necessary, but
here from these records I could see that that was only a part of the work
and that there was a time when there was just an open landscape with a
few monuments standing beside newly planted trees and laid out paths.
The Minutes for the
very first meeting of the new company, January 21st, 1838 detailed the
appointment of a General Manager and the means of funding. The second
meeting reported sufficient funds for the purchase of land and a discussion
of suitable sites. Three months later, out of four potential locations,
the present was selected on account of its natural beauty, the proximity
to highly-populated districts and the excellence of its drainage.
It was fascinating
stuff but tiring to read. With a sigh I closed the book: all that complex
life a hundred years ago and nothing remained. It was all forgotten, the
people who worked here, who were buried here.
Later that evening with the setting of the sun I felt troubled again. The posters were hovering at the back of my mind, threatening to erupt into full consciousness. I reminded myself not to be ridiculous, that this was London in 1969 with a million people living within five miles, and to affirm this went outside. The sun was setting and the shadows lengthening. A great stillness had fallen on the place: no wind, no birds, just uneasy calm. I looked down the dark avenue at the silent shapes that stood on either side, the gothic sepulchres, the broken columns, the sorrowing angels with their wings, the urns draped with ivy. And above, I looked at the trees, menacing shapes that towered darkly against a red and violet sky. There was no use denying it: I was afraid.
Next day I found I was running out of food and money. I had to have a bottle of wine, that was a priority. But it would last only to the Saturday night. There was still a week to payday.
I had a bright idea. Why not get a sub. It would cost threepence for the call but Id be able to get a good meal and then clear off to Earls Court for the weekend.
It proved an illusory hope. I phoned at nine but no one was in, and then when I did get through, couldnt find anyone with the authority to give me the sub.
At the shops that evening I bought pounds of rolled oats to make into porridge and more dates though I hated the things. I had to keep money back for another phone call on Monday and enough for the bus fare if they did authorise the sub. Beyond that I was broke.
Rolled oats boiled in water makes a very messy dish and very hot. I ate it as the Scots do, with salt. With no milk I had to let it cool and sat there at the plain table spooning the stuff without enthusiasm. This was seven oclock on Saturday morning and Id a days work to do; there was no point in me going to Earls Court without any money as I already owed my friends stacks. Id heard of hardy Scottish students a century ago coming in from their highland homes to the universities with a big sack of oatmeal on which they lived during the term but didnt feel any kinship with them.
I stopped at eleven and reheated the porridge pan. Without sugar and milk it was vile. It was raining and impossible for me to continue outside. There was plenty to do in the house, however, and that would keep me occupied to the next bowl of porridge. The kitchen shelves caught my eye for they were filled with dirty bottles, dozens of them, some still full of their shadowy contents. I picked one up but was unable to read the label beneath the grime of half a century. Under soap and water it emerged in its pristine state - Grants Pickled Plums it said on its gaudy label of red and yellow with testimonials in small print. For interest I washed some more: Daddies Sauce, Braggs Gooseberry Jam, names I had never heard of and yet some like Daddies Sauce surprisingly familiar. I thought Id be as well keeping them for cleaned up theyd add agreeable colour to the dull shelves. In all I kept about forty and threw the others, mostly ugly thick jars onto the tip outside. I cleaned the shelves and lined the jars and bottles up in impressive rows. Inspired by the slight but subtle change this made to the appearance of the kitchen I set to on the huge pots and pans long passed from fashion so that when I sat down to eat later on I could look upon the sheen of copper.
The jars kept niggling at me: I felt there was something I could do about them but couldnt get my hands on it. It certainly wasnt to eat: there was no mould growing inside but they all looked a deadly uniform grey, the contents bleached as if toadstools in a deadly toxic liquor. It was only when I went outside to the tip with more rubbish that it twigged. I was sitting on a fortune. There was a boom in collecting old bottles and here was I throwing them away.
An hour later found me stepping off the bus at Westbourne Grove near to Portobello Road with two bags full of the precious bottles. There were dozens of antique shops and I was sure Id have no problem in finding one that sold bottles. The first few shops were full of Chinese vases and junk like that but no bottles. I kept looking for I was sure Id seen bottles or old cake tins on display somewhere. And then, just a bit along, my heart jumped into my mouth: a Daddies Sauce Bottle complete with label. It was mixed up with some non-descript bottles and cake tins. Maybe this was the place Id seen.
I went in and stood around feeling a bit shabby because the three people in the shop were engaged in an esoteric conversation about Lalique, whatever that was. At length when I saw that I was being ignored I went forward and as two of the people pointedly turned the other way asked the third, the owner, how much was that bottle in the window. And which bottle is that, he said grandly, making the sort of gesture to his audience that he had to go, some fool was demanding his attention. Hmm? he said into the air as he perambulated towards the window. That one there he questioned as I pointed it out. Oh thats twelve pounds. He stalked back to his audience leaving me standing there. They continued their discussion, ignoring me.
I wasnt sure. Should I produce my bottles, call his bluff? No, he had his audience. Produce one, see what he said? Look around a bit more, gauge the prices and then come back here? I must have stood for too long for he came striding over. Yes? Are you going to buy the bottle? Well no? Well then, he said, taking me by the arm and opening the door, good afternoon, pushing me through.
I was furious, a bloody stuck-up twit poncing around with his Lalique and stupid Chinese vases. I searched furiously through the bags for the bottles of Daddies Sauce, found one and stood in front of the window until they couldnt ignore me. Having caught their attention I pointed to the label and then to the bottle in the window. The owner started forward as if he thought I had stolen his bottle. Sure of my audience I prised the cork loose and upturning the bottle let the sauce plop down bit by bit onto the pavement. A rather grand lady passing by with a poodle was nearly pulled off her feet as it spotted the mess. I could feel her looking at me, more to the point hear what she was saying about me to the poodle but my eyes were on the trio in the shop. I pulled out the intact bottle of sauce, inverted it to show it hadnt been opened, pulled out the Vines Tomato Vinegar, the Oates Celery Sauce, a dozen others and then furious flung the open bottle of Daddies Sauce down on the pavement where it smashed.
I walked away. Damn them. Twelve quid, eh. And Id just thrown away a full bottle of the original. Well, how much would that have cost? Twenty quid, thirty? How far would they go for a bottle of the original.
By the time Id cooled down Id found my way round to Portobello Road. It was now a matter of finding another shop that sold this kind of thing. Portobello Road was packed with people: trendies, tourists, hippies and the stall owners. The encounter had of course confirmed my fears about antique shop owners, fears that had stemmed from when as a ten year old I had received five shillings for a stamp collection that had a catalogue value of thirty five pounds. Would it be the same now? Offered two quid for a hundred pounds worth of bottles.
I was up at the Notting Hill end where there was a slightly higher class of shop: none of them sold bottles and the owners were the same stuck-up types as the one I had already encountered. Further down seemed more hopeful: there was an emporium consisting of individual stalls where jewellery, glassware, silver and generally smaller articles were for sale. In the upstairs part of this emporium there was a stall I thought might do; for one thing the bloke looked OK and there were a number of old bottles on display. He was interested, especially at the still unopened sauce bottles and spent a long time examining them. My hopes rose as he went from one to the other calculating how much he could offer me.
1 can give you twelve pounds ten shillings, he said finally, and thats two pounds for the Daddies sauce. He held it up to the light amazed that it should look so fresh.
Come off it, I said, Ive just been in a shop up the road where they were selling a bottle like that for twelve pounds and thats just the empty bottle.
Id give you more if I could, he replied, and anyway I couldnt sell that bottle for more than four or five pounds. He can afford to keep things lying around for months until he gets his price while I have to turn things over very quickly.
I thought hard. Twelve pounds ten would see me in clover till I got paid but I couldnt stomach parting with them at such a low price. I said Id like to think about it and would come back if I decided to sell.
Out on the street again I wasnt so sure Id find another buyer. It was now mid-afternoon and the market was at its busiest. Hippies were everywhere, very colourful with beads and bright clothes and there was the sound of pop music from every doorway. Little shops had been turned into boutiques where cloaks and capes and Afghan sheepskin coats were sold along with long cotton dresses, incense and jewellery. But no bottles. Annoyed, I decided Id just have to take the twelve pounds and walked back up the road.
It was unbelievable but the man had cleared up for the day. Now there wasnt a hope in hell of selling them. As a last chance I asked the next stall if they were interested. The man looked with assumed uninterest at the bottles.
Not much use to me, son. Give you six quid for them.
But you heard him offer me twelve. That gives you six pounds clear profit.
The man shrugged.
If youre not happy you might get a better price elsewhere, his bejewelled wife said this in an earnest tone, were only trying to help you sort of thing. I didnt bother arguing. Id be better with six quid than with nothing. I took the money with ill grace and went out.
A little later I was more cheerful. It was after all enough to keep me going for a week especially for the drink and that had been the whole point of coming down here. I had just got caught up in the illusory hope that I could get the sort of price these antiques people would sell them for.
After a much-needed meal I caught a bus down to Earls Court but to my annoyance my friends werent at their flats or the usual pubs. There must have been a party somewhere away from Earls Court to which theyd gone early. I was sickened. Why the hell hadnt they got in touch with me or even left a note, they must have known Id be down.
It was seven o clock and raining. I stood hesitant in the shelter of the station wishing I knew where theyd gone and almost taking a gamble in going to one or two flats where the party might be held but there was no guarantee and anyway I didnt know the people in the flats very well.
I felt quite lonely and didnt like it. Curiously, being in that state of mind it was impossible to miss the large number of lonely alienated people who drifted along the street outside. Bedsit land, great, a gas ring, a bed and a chair. But that wasnt my problem. Mine was to get through this evening.
The rain had turned to drizzle. I shrugged. Id be as well walking around as anything, but it proved to be too cold and dismal and in a curious way I felt cut off from the city. In the end I made my way back, feeling tired and apprehensive. I made it just as dusk was falling, glad at not having to make the walk in darkness but unhappy at being back.
I didnt wake till ten next morning having had great difficulty in going to sleep. It had been a bad night, full of noises and shadows and a sick strung-up feeling that verged on horror. It was the moonlight and the graves and the quiet old house; Id kept imagining the scraps of ivy at the windows was the scratching of the dead trying to get in, every noise because unidentifiable became the slither of a ghoul or the walk of a demon and every time I checked the quiet moonlit rooms or the darkness outside I would see fresh shapes to feed my imagination.
Id hoped to keep my mind off these things but Id been kidding myself; the dread was still there even in the brightness of morning whereas it hadnt really been there yesterday or the day before. My defences were starting to crumble.
In an effort to overcome this depression I went out to get an idea of the work that had to be done to the cemetery; the lodge was liveable now and Id have to start working outside from tomorrow.
I had already decided against restoring the main gates because that was the sort of official thinking I didnt like; deliberately misleading the public. No. Security of the graves was the first priority but there were so many, both desecrated and untouched that it was near impossible. For a while I tussled with the idea that it was the neglected state of the cemetery that made it possible for the vandals and magicians to get away with it; if the place were well kept then they might be scared off but then that would require an even greater effort from me to tidy the place which when you were talking about several hundred acres didnt bear thinking about. In the end I decided just to go ahead with the graves as they contributed most to the feeling of neglect.
On examining these it gradually struck home what an enormous job it was. On just quarter of a mile of path there were fifty tombs needing attention, mostly to the doors which were so large that it would take a day to do a good repair on them. I measured one door: eight feet by five, mahogany, the lock broken and two of the panels smashed. To remove the wood and bevel down the new, getting it exact, would be a complicated job and even then Id mess it up. Then there were whole doors smashed in where Id have to fit new surrounds and rebuild the panels from scratch before fitting them up on new hinges. Even the weight would be a strain. On the basis of two weeks work, say fifteen tombs, I reckoned over four hundred feet of wood would be needed. Alcott would do his nut.
There wasnt much point in continuing the survey as just this little section would keep me going for the foreseeable future. Still slightly depressed I found my way back to the main path, and coming out by the hillside of tombs, climbed to the top by a zig-zag path. It was a pleasant view, a sun dappled world of tree tops stretching to the south. I tried to identify those places I already knew but could only guess at the location of the lodge and of the main pathways. Then I frowned. Three, four hundred yards away, at the western edge of the cemetery was a low black shape, much too large to be an individual tomb and of a design and form that even from this distance looked sinister. With some reluctance I decided to investigate.
Ten minutes later I stood at the start of an avenue thirty yards wide, a processional way lined with stone mausolea, an avenue along which countless coaches drawn by black horses must have gone, a ceremonial avenue leading to a temple of death.
Vast, brooding and alien it lay, a monstrous symbol of death, a squat mindless black form that crouched at the end of lifes procession ready to devour man in its darkness.
It was over one hundred feet wide and some thirty high, built of black stone and with sloping walls. There were two stages, a heavy plinth, twenty feet high, on which rested the upper part, exactly the same shape but smaller, rising another ten feet to end in a flat roof. In the centre of the upper stage were set two bronze doors and at the outer edges of the platform formed by the plinth, pylons of twisted metal representing torches. The platform was reached by a set of great steps. It was not unlike those underground reservoirs you see sometimes in the country but there were no grassy slopes here, no blue sky; just blackness.
I drew closer, aware of the darkness that clung like an aura to this structure. This if anywhere was the heart of the cemetery. I climbed the great steps to the top of the plinth. It was a strange world up there; silent, brooding and a pervasive feeling of damp. I walked the thirty or forty feet to the doors, my steps loud or muted depending on whether I walked on moss or damp stone. The doors were set in a low porch which had sloping sides and a vaguely Egyptian look. The bronze was dulled, and dented near a massive keyhole, but still in good condition. I shivered. It was oppressive.
It was another forty feet or so to the edge of the plinth where one of the iron pillars stood, still in fair condition and, as I had thought, in the form of a torch. I walked round the side but there was nothing more to see except the steeply sloping rear wall and a tangle of shrubbery at the back. I went back round to the front.
From so high up the layout of the cemetery near this building was clear. Somehow the grid of pathways, the desolate patches of grass, the forlorn tombs reminded me of a city, a city deserted and overgrown but that from its form had once been immeasurably grand.
Involuntarily I shivered and cast a glance at the doors. There was a feeling of something being in there, something malevolent and wilful, conscious of me. I tried to shake it off but it persisted.
I ran down the steps and walked quickly away, still conscious of the presence. Only when I got out of sight of the building did it die down.
I shook myself: this was one area of the cemetery Id avoid in future.
A little later I came across a few groups of people. I was puzzled at first but then it twigged: Sunday excursions by Hampstead aesthetes, all gawking at the tombs and making comments like: season of mist and mellow fruitfulness; veiled melancholy in her sovran shrine and; I say, is that majolica. I gritted my teeth and walked past the silk scarves and long dresses. What the hell did they know.
A group of two men and a woman caught my attention. They seemed to be looking into a grave. I hurried along and reached them just as the woman withdrew her head.
Unthinking I asked them what they were doing. They were startled and then annoyed.
Whats it to do with you? asked the first man.
Theres a law against this. It was the first thing that came into my mind and I felt stupid as soon as Id said it.
Well, what are you doing here? asked the other man.
I work here.
They looked uncertainly at each other. The man who had spoken first seemed slightly apologetic.
Were just looking, really. He looked to the others for support.
The woman, rather flustered, confirmed this. They said nothing further, looking a bit guilty so that I felt obliged to explain.
Im the caretaker, you see. Just started work. I gestured at the tomb. Theres been a lot of vandalism and black magic.
The woman came forward and caught my arm.
Have you seen the skull too? Do come and see. So macabre. She was very beautiful and like an idiot I let myself be led forward, pulling up only at the last moment.
No, its all right thanks, I said. I have enough trouble with my imagination as it is. She looked concerned and gave me an embarrassed smile.
A silence fell. Oh well, said one at last, must be off. He waved his hand at me. Good luck, old chap.
When they had gone I felt such a fool I had to walk angrily along the path for five minutes before I cooled down. This brought up the whole problem with the place: OK, it was a cemetery and ideally it should be open to the public, a place where they could come and reflect on life, maybe on their own mortality and for that reason I just couldnt chase everyone away. But of course they didnt come to this place for that, they came for the gloomy atmosphere and all the open graves. The sooner I got them boarded up the better.
Another party stopped me and asked the way to the necropolis. I assumed it was the building Id just seen and directed them there. I didnt feel like exploring any longer and went down to Archway where I saw a mediocre film. The slight feeling of dread Id had earlier was stronger now.
It was still light when I came out and I hurried to catch a bus. Back at the cemetery it still wasnt dark and in fact was quite pleasant for the tombs tended to withdraw in the uncertain light and ones eyes focussed rather on the foliage which was quite pretty. I wasnt sure how many of the trees were original and therefore planned, or how many had merely grown by accident but overall the effect of the different types, tall limes and poplars, rows of beech and chestnut and high spiky firs with their variation in outline and colour made a pleasing sight, not unlike a public park run wild. The lesser vegetation however, was a different matter for it overgrew the paths and graves and just made for an effect of decay despite its profuse tangle. Id have to cut it back sometime soon.
I came to a clearing
and could see the sun was nearly setting. Everything was sharply focussed
so that the colours of the trees were vibrant and tending to a reddish
tone. Long shadows were cast but mostly into the dim tunnels under the
trees. A line of Keats came to my mind:
It wouldnt be like that for long. I hurried along the path thinking of the sherry and glancing to my left at the distant sun, where there was a gap in the trees and its light had fallen across the path. A bird called out but that was the only sound apart from the faint rumble of the far-off city.
The necropolis came into view some four hundred yards away. It was a strange and sombre sight; totally black for the sun was setting at its rear yet with the avenue still alive with the colours of sunset. Long shadows lay across the avenue, cast by the spiky tombs. A strange magnificent sight, desolate yet alive. I gave one last look for the sun had hit the horizon and it would be dark in minutes. The sun caught the metal of the black torch on the northern side of the plinth and it gleamed redly as if it really were a flame.
And then with alarm I noticed a solitary figure on the plinth, motionless, appearing as if he were looking at me. How had I not seen him? But was it a figure? I focussed at the silhouette, uncertain if it was. It didnt move. 1 wondered if I should go over to look but it would be easy enough to make a mistake in this light and I would just find myself standing beside the necropolis in the dark. I decided to forget it; it could be a telegraph pole or a tree and even if it was someone it was probably a late hanger on from the Sunday crowds who was enjoying the sunset.
When I got in I went through to the toilet. For a moment I stood petrified by the open door at what I saw, unable for a moment to recognise what I was looking at.
The ceiling had collapsed, littering the floor, the closet and the washbasin with slats of wood and chunks of plaster. Water was everywhere, streaming down the walls, out the window, puddling on the floor. For a few seconds I raged impotently at this disaster and then calmer found the valve that turned the water off. God, it was a mess; a great black hole in the ceiling and a litter of rubbish on the floor. It looked distinctly malevolent, chaotic, as if some wild animal had got loose and wrecked everything to no set purpose. There was no plan in the way the wooden slats stuck out of the lavatory bowl, no plan in the way the plaster rested by the bottom of the bowl. It was chaotic, impersonal; yet most definitely something which could break up my ordered world. I thought immediately of that monstrosity of a necropolis, certain that this had happened because of what was in there.
Apprehensively I cleaned the toilet out, holding the lantern high every time I went outside, afraid of vandals, of that figure Id seen earlier. It amazed me just how thin a line it was between feeling alright and. being open to forces of chaos.
I sat in the kitchen for half an hour eating little and thinking of the state I was in. I kept looking inside myself, gauging my feelings, trying to find some way to buck myself up but it was useless; this was a physical thing. At length I just had to move or Id have sat there all night getting worse and worse. I wandered through the house for ten minutes but it hardly helped. It was too early to go to bed and I didnt want to break into the drink or Id end up drunk and wide awake rather than drunk and half asleep. Then I cheered up as I thought of the radio; that should help. I switched on and let the music blare out, calming me; switching from station to station with the news on one, political commentary on another, plays, comedies, foreign stations; a whole other world.
In a while I was able to eat and indeed for a time was oblivious to my surroundings, almost as if I were back in my bedsit. But then the reality crept in: the darkness outside; the moon seen behind scudding clouds, for a wind had sprung up; and a patch of moonlight blanching the pathway just before the lodge. Irritated, I took the radio through to the living room not wanting to allow anything to work on my imagination.
I settled into the vast armchair and relaxed. It was quite dreamy with the subdued colours and the warm glow of the fire and the gas. Indeed the soft light gave to the faded fabrics of the carpet and curtains and the seats the illusion that they were new. The clock ticked quietly on the wall and occasionally the logs on the fire would crackle and splutter.
There was a play which was quite interesting and I followed it through to the end. Then came the ten oclock news and my mind drifted away. I thought about the Superintendent; about his death, in France or Belgium, in Flanders or Alsace or Lorraine. They say the mud stank, that you could find a hand or foot inches deep in the mud, that men drowned in its foul putrescence. How had he faced death when he had been master of it for so long? Muddled by the wine I had opened, I had an image of a man in his thirties, a medical orderly, shouting at his men as a great battle raged and then surprise on his face changing to pain as he looked down and saw he had been hit by shrapnel.
I wondered then about the ease with which the place had run into decay. Id have thought the company would have appointed another Superintendent after the war but then, as my interviewer had said, theyd run out of money. Had any of the other workers survived the war I wondered. Had they come round here when demobbed, felt alarm that the place was closed up, gone down to the main office of the cemetery company to find new occupiers or be told that the Cemetery was closed? It was sad and strange to think of all those lives so long ago, how in a sense they were still here.
I was drinking too fast and felt headachy rather than drunk. This was the stage where I usually found myself thinking about the lodge itself, about what was upstairs, underneath. I didnt want to collapse back into that physical unease so I forced myself to be cheerful and it seemed to work. At length the drink took hold, sherry was like that, sober one minute, flaked out the next. I basked in the drowsy warmth, relaxed in the soft glow, felt my eyes close
I woke up with a start. It was cold and the fire was dead. The gas light seemed harsh. With a sickening feeling I realised I had fallen asleep. I looked hopefully at the clock. It was only two. I hadnt slept through the night as Id hoped. Worse still the bottle was empty. I looked slack-jawed at the glowing embers of the fire wishing it had been morning, even four or five oclock and failing that, that there was half a bottle left. I felt bad; empty and vile. I went upstairs, aware that I was beyond the euphoria of drunkenness and well into a sick stupor. I prayed Id get to sleep again, if I could just get that, God Id be thankful. But sleep didnt come, not for an hour, not for two hours; only when dawn was showing in the sky did I drift into uneasy sleep.
After Id forced down a breakfast, a lorry came with materials: wood, boxes of nails, sheets of corrugated iron. I talked to the men about Alcott; they didnt like him; and also about my job which they said theyd never have taken under any circumstances.
With the materials there, I had to start on the graves. The next few days were grim, for I had to enter the graves to repair them properly. The vandalism was shocking: coffins torn open, skeletons exposed, worst of all signs of black magic. It was a horrible feeling to step over the threshold of a mausoleum and climb down eight or ten feet into the vault, to stand on the earthen floor and see rising above one, tier upon tier of coffin, some undisturbed, others broken and askew as if the occupants had burst them open. And in the dim light I would stoop to the floor and see candles, black stubby ones, set above strange demonic markings, and in the centre of the signs, a skull.
I tried at first to tidy up the interiors but it was too much. The skeletons, the skulls seemed tainted by the evil practices and I couldnt touch them, merely knocking over the candles and erasing the magical signs. Then I restricted myself to straightening the coffins but in this shadowed half world even that was too much. By the Wednesday I couldnt bring myself to enter the vaults and merely nailed over the doors, sometimes with wood, more often with a sheet of iron.
I dreaded sleep for while conscious I at least had control. I would stare at the patchy wallpaper a foot away, dry now but dusty with green powdery stains of fungus, stare at their deadly colour behind the brass railings of the bedstead, at the reflections in the burnished metal, the long deep green of the curtains, the heavy oak wardrobe, the soft glow of the gaslight burning above the fire, and then tiring, focus on the black and white stripes of the pillows and the heavy cotton sheets till falling into uneasy troubled sleep. And always waking an hour or two later.
With all this struggle going on in my imagination Id forgotten that I was supposed to do something about the vandals in the cemetery. It was when I heard voices and laughter on the Saturday evening coining from up near the gap in the wall that I realised Id have to check it out. Reluctantly I headed for the voices, not because I was frightened but because it didnt seem important anymore.
I forced my way through the undergrowth and came into the open area where they were sitting. There were five of them, three blokes and two girls, all aged about seventeen. They looked at me in surprise. Eventually one of them, the leader spoke. What do you want, mate? He was heftily built.
Yeah, what do you want, shrilled one of the girls, disentangling herself from an embrace.
This is a private party. Sod off. She this provocatively, setting me up for a fight with the blokes, depending on how I answered.
OK, I said. Look, I work here. Security.
Yeah. Well look. I dont mind you messing about here but keep away from those graves.
Or else? jeered one of the blokes.
Hey, look, I snapped. I dont give a shit. You dont go near those graves.
The girls laughed. Hark at him. The leader lazily tossed an empty beer can at me. Piss off, mate.
Yeah, well youd better remember what I said. Any more trouble .
I left to their jeers aware that I hadnt handled that very well but on reflection it was as well Id left as theyd been getting me angry. Despite the provocation I couldnt get worked up about it and the blackness soon descended on me again. I went to bed about eleven, drunk, exhausted yet without hope of sleep. I tossed, turned, half dozed, started at every sound, my imagination a riot of dark shapes prowling among the graves.
A sharp crack at the window nearly killed me with fright. Instinctively I huddled up against the railings at the top of the bed, petrified with fear, panicked, unable to place the sound as anything other than a skeleton tapping at the window.
I sat there for a full minute, heart pounding, not taking a breath, my whole being the expanse of green curtain that veiled I knew not what horror.
Two minutes and nothing had happened, enough time to realise Id have to look. I put my jeans on and crept across to the window. I pulled one back from the side, inch by inch, seeing the ivy, then the grey-white wall, then the moonlit clearing below. I shuddered in relief when nothing suspicious could be seen.
Then I whirled round in terror. There was a noise, a deep thudding that grew closer and sounded like some wild beast on the prowl. I listened frantically, trying to assess where it was coming from then leapt back in horror as a low evil growling came from the fireplace.
I dashed for the door and ran like mad down to the kitchen, struggled to get the latch open and then realised I could see it when it should have been in darkness. I spun round. A skull glared at me, its open eye sockets filled with fire. I tore the door open and ran into a jeering circle of kids.
Yay, got you there.
"Dont go near those graves."
I punched the nearest
kid in the mouth, swung at another and then
There had been confused shouting and a lot of milling around when Id ran at them: now they fell silent and stood staring at the figure on the ground.
In dismay I saw it was a girl, the same one that had given me cheek earlier.
I glanced at them. Hey, look; Im sorry. It was a mistake. Id never have touched her.
You shouldnt have done that, mate. This was the leader, speaking reflectively, and walking slowly towards me.
I eyed them desperately. There were more of them now, two on the ground. The girls friend had gone to her side. The girl moaned.
You bastard, shrieked her friend and flung herself at me. Before I knew what was happening she had raked her hand down my face leaving deep cuts and was flailing and kicking like a demon. I scrabbled backwards, desperate to keep her off, frightened to hit her because of what had happened to the other girl.
Within seconds I was running and the whole pack of them were at my heels. It was incredibly dark on the path except where the tree cover was thin and it was more by instinct than by what I could see that kept me right.
I felt sick at hitting the girl even though it was an accident, and it had confused me so much that Id ran rather than stay and fight it out, as if it were they who were in the right and I was the guilty one.
Once or twice they came near to catching me but I knew the cemetery better than they did and before long their shouts grew more distant. The chase now took on an edge of suspense for I could no longer hear them and had no way of knowing where they were.
I crouched in the bushes for a full five minutes then laughed as I heard ghost-like cries a couple of hundred yards away: that wasnt going to work again. I made my way over to the sounds meaning to spot them and keep them in sight: that way Id know when theyd left the cemetery.
Ten minutes later I still hadnt found them and was getting worried as Id strayed into an area I couldnt recognise. It was just impossible to see more than a few yards and everything looked so alike. There came some shouting: they were calling it off but to my alarm the voices came from behind me when 1 thought I was walking towards them. A while later the relief at them going was being replaced by an awareness that I was lost and what that meant. I was stuck out here in the darkness.
Strange noises came across the night: owls, small animals, and occasionally a far-off train or car. Tombs loomed out of the darkness, trees were twisted into grotesque shapes, bushes seemed like vile creatures hunched to spring.
I began to panic. It was a maze. In and out, paths going in circles, no landmarks. Morbid fears arose. 1 was being followed. No. It was in front of me, to my side, claws reaching to tear.
A sepulchral image of the necropolis flashed into my mind and unreasoning terror broke in me. There was something there, my mind told me, something Id felt last Sunday, something aware of me.
Then in horror I saw the black bulk tower above me. I had strayed right on to it. It looked nightmarish - lit by the moon, black against the sky, a sullen temple in the land of the night.
And yet it was a landmark. I had to get past it onto the avenue.
I tried twice but both times was defeated by the thick bushes and the mausoleums that sprouted around here. Then I found a path that led along the back. I hurried along this and found a way out.
As I crept past that bulk onto the avenue I had the odd feeling that I wasnt there: not in the cemetery but rather in some dream landscape where everything was black or etched in moonlight, a landscape of hell where all things were possible.
The doors were the worst. They gleamed yellow in the moons light, sulpherous, brassy, made to be opened: gateway to a nether world real as our own. As I walked along that path it seemed the whole avenue was floodlit, a setting for some cosmic play where I walked alone and was alone. A world sustained by myself, my own hell. The tombs were in sharp relief, the grass was almost green. I couldnt believe it, almost accepted it. It was so real. Where was I - here or there?
For a moment I was there and it happened like this.
There was a scream; a girl. I spun round and for a second was lifted into another world. The whole avenue was lit, every detail apparent in the unholy light - the tombs, the gravel, the central strip, the girl and the necropolis.
I watched as she ran. From the tiniest of figures, an animal caught in a sphere of horrible awareness, a fly caught in a horrendous trap, she grew in size to a human being in terror and behind her the squat monster of the necropolis crouched like a spider, intent on and aware of us.
For one nightmarish moment that ghastly light illuminated the scene and then died so that there was only the girl running towards me.
She shrieked as I stood in front of her.
No, no. Its all right. Its only me. youre safe now. Safe. She collapsed on her knees sobbing and I went over and comforted her. She was in a state of shock and exhaustion; her body kept shaking and she looked wildly all around.
Come on, I urged. Lets get out of here. Lean on me. Ill take you to your friends.
I was half-supporting her, half-dragging her when she twisted her head around to look back at the necropolis.
She screamed and pulled away from me.
No, she screamed as I grabbed at her, Hes coming. Hes following us.
I looked back. Theres nothing there. Nothing. She looked uncertainly at me then to my surprise clung desperately to me. Dont let him get me, she wailed.
I reassured her, stroking her hair and patting her back. Very different contact from the last time when shed raked my cheek with her nails, though there was nothing sensual in it - simply two human beings seeking comfort from each other.
Come on, I whispered. Lets get out of here.
She nodded and at a brisk pace we went up past the lodge towards the wall. Once we were well away from the necropolis I asked what she had seen.
She shuddered. It was horrible. A big evil-looking man, dressed in black. He just stared at me.
Maybe it was a man, I suggested.
That was no man. He looked right through me, staring at me. It was the Devil. At that she broke into a run and I had to sprint to catch her up.
It was probably just a prowler. You get odd types up here, including your friends, I chided gently.
Yeah, sorry about that. it was just a joke. Bloody sods ran off and left me." She started to cry.
Were bound to meet them up here. Theyll have discovered youre missing and come back for you.
Bloody sods. Alf kept joking he was going to throw me into a grave and lock the door. Then no one told me they were going and I got lost.
So did I. Not pleasant, eh?
Anyway, - she hadnt heard me - it wasnt a man. He was . she struggled for the words. . . . black. And he had funny clothes, old fashioned, top hat and all.
I chilled as she described him, remembering what was in my wardrobe.
We met the rest of the gang just inside the walls. She broke free and ran to them, half angry at them having left her, delighted she was safe again.
The leader stepped forward. Now then, mate. what are we going to do about you? He was slapping a short length of chain onto his open palm.
Leave him alone, Kenny, the girl shrilled. If it hadnt been for him Id never have got out of there.
He walked up to me. My sense of shame at hitting the first girl had gone now; getting the other out had restored the balance. I looked him levelly in the eye; if it came to it Id fight.
Leave him alone, Kenny the girl insisted, tugging at his arm. I tell you I saw something down there, chasing me. He got me out.
The bulky youth continued slapping his palm with the chain. Yeah, well, thats as maybe .. He broke off, stared down the path. The others felt it too, an evil radiation, a dreadful sense of some wild dark power unchained and roaming loose in the cemetery.
Its him, shrieked the girl clutching at the blokes arm. He backed off, uncertain. See what youve done with your stupid break-ins, she shouted; youve disturbed something and its coming to get us.
They were backing out, afraid and then as one, stampeded for the wall and the opening.
For a moment, I too almost ran, so terrifying was that sense of evil; a man in a top hat, a dark aura. I chilled suddenly.
There was something else. It was very faint but even at so remote a distance I could feel its power; ancient, primordial, absolute - and destructive. I could feel that: a hunger for destruction so fierce that it consumed itself in search for a final annihilation and yet inexplicably unable to do so, so that as fast as it consumed itself it was reborn. With sudden insight I knew that the figure of the man was only a sign of this deeper power.
Without warning both presences faded; and with them my fears. I stood for a while, hesitant about going back; what if they returned? But the cemetery felt normal again; maybe it was my imagination, the girls. Exhaustion and weakness gripped me; if I could just rest... Wearied I returned to the lodge, stared blankly at the burning skull the gang had placed in the kitchen and fell asleep in the living room after only a minute.
When I awoke I reburied the skull and burned the shelf. The events of the night came back to me; the dreamlike scene at the necropolis, the girl clutching me, the kids running away. I thought of the presence - I still thought of it as one - it was very definite yet it might have been imagination, the daytime made a lot of difference.
I was in a bad state, not really aware of what was happening to me. It would have been wise to have gone out, cleared my head, visited friends but my mind was dulled, my body lethargic. Before I knew where I was it was evening again and I was slumped in a chair, nauseous, sick at heart, inert, just waiting for that presence to come again and unable to fight it anymore. I drank a full bottle of wine but to no avail for I couldnt sleep and lay on the bed in a squalor of fear and of pain.
About four I woke up in a state of alarm, totally consumed by anxiety. It was back. I tried to shut my mind to it but inexorably it grew nearer, more conscious of where I was. And then it was behind me, an evil, malevolent presence calling on me to turn, reaching out with filthy psychic tendrils to form an unholy union with my nervous system so that I would turn into a juddering screaming mass of fear in the centre of a leering shining face.
I knew this was the other: the thing Id felt behind the man and I knew of a certainty that it was a face of white, leer-like, shining, three feet wide, the centre of a forest of tentacles reaching up to my head to turn my gaze into its so that the face would light up with a glaring terrible joy before it tore me to pieces.
Somehow I made it to the kitchen. I stood clutching the table, my eyes closed and heart hammering violently as I fought with the thing. Gradually I felt it lessen and apprehensively opened my eyes. The whole thing was horrible, I couldnt face up to this. And then in horror I realised that I was looking at my reflection in the window. I shut my eyes and swung around to avoid seeing it in the glass, realising too late that I had turned to face it.
For one searing instant I saw something bad beyond imagining, even beyond what I had imagined. I tell you, it came out of nothingness with frightening speed, a pin point of light that grew and grew into a sepulchrous glare, the green of puke and the red of blood, indefinite in form at first then like a spider, a squid, a monster, a shape of living psychic energy that became the surface of my mind which I watched in mounting horror struggling to make it out, what it was, what it was like. And then it was there, that vast head, its glaring satanic eyes taking me for a moment out of this world into a time and place known only to the magicians, the elemental world of magic, of uncontrolled demonic force. For an age it stared at me with a dreadful attention. It knew me personally and was going to give me complete, absolute eternal attention. I was about to become insane, not with insanity of the mind; with insanity of the soul, the Night of the Magician.
It began to smile.
What happened then was frightful, so bad that even now I shudder to think of it.
Yet I broke away.
For a moment only, I stood clutching the table then in utmost terror started to run. I ran and ran, retaining only a memory of trees, bushes, graves white in the moonlight, of the great hill of sepulchres stepping into the sky and a fell light following me. The wall came up and I staggered through the gap and across the grass onto the road, feeling my legs buckle under me. I skidded on my thigh and hands across the surface of the road conscious briefly of its coldness and of the line of the kerb a few feet away.
I struggled to rise but my arm wouldnt support me and I fell over on my face. I was near the kerb now and followed its curve up the road with my eyes, saw how vast the surface looked from this level, became somehow a lonely sphere of gray shadow that shivered at the edges in painful breathing.
The fact that I wasnt in terror any more should have told me it had gone but I wasnt capable of thinking. I just lay there, mouth open, heart hammering, staring along the road. Slowly I got up. I coughed and found my throat was raw. That was the fastest and furthest Id ever ran and I never wanted to repeat the experience.
I staggered off down the road. conscious now that it must have dropped back at the wall. Well, I was safe; away from that horrible place. I was alive. I was sane. Id never go back.
I was absolutely alone although there was a faint hum of traffic from the city. It wasnt dawn and the moon was setting but there was a fair amount of illumination from street lights. As I neared a railway bridge my steps came echoing back to me. Somewhere a bird called out shortly.
It wasnt fair, I thought. I had been trying. Why should it be me? What had I done to the dead? That bloody cemetery. I cursed the dead and those who had thought of these places. All very well for them in the light of day to talk about memorials and peaceful gardens; not so if you were stuck in the middle of a horror land at night. The damn places should be closed down - never mind the extensive grounds, all the landscapes, the necropolis - bury them deep, in the sea, anywhere away from the living, destroy all memory, all knowledge of death.
I walked for half an hour, first across a semi-industrial wasteland, then a typical housing area. The sunrise wasnt far off for the sky had lightened and one or two birds gave short calls. I walked on and on, not caring where I was, just glad to be out and without that presence behind me. Dawn came and as I watched the sun a milk float passed by. That was real life; milk floats, a woman in dressing gown collecting the milk, a man leaving early for work.
The relief I felt faded as the hours passed. I was tired, dirty and sick. I tried to eat breakfast but was so strung-up my stomach couldnt face it. By half eleven I was somewhere up north and in quite a bad state. I had to sleep and didnt care what people thought of me. There were some quiet places on a semi-rural road and I stretched out beside a wall where I wouldnt be disturbed. I did sleep; for two hours and it made some difference, physically not mentally for I regained some of my consciousness, enough to make me wonder what the hell had happened to me.
I continued walking, east I think, and finally around two oclock had a meal in a cafe by a canal. I was really tired and sipped greedily at the tea.
It had started to rain and I was by the window looking out at the dismal wasteland beyond the canal. God, an awful emptiness that went on it seemed for miles until it lost itself in the indistinct blur of the city. What it had been like in a state of nature this place, I couldnt conceive. Just empty marshland, water and mud and seagulls crying overhead. Even now a herring gull had landed on top of a post on the far bank.
The rain was pitting the canal and the wind pushing it into choppy little waves that beat against the steel piles along the bank. Hypnotic rhythms, the way one took the place of another, the eye unable to fix on any point at all on the blue black surface of the water.
There was a boat tied downstream, a cruiser of some kind, shut up against the weather with tarpaulins. I was reminded of a book I had read as a kid about four children sailing down the Thames in a cabin cruiser and across to Holland where they chugged along canalised rivers like this one. Perhaps this was Holland, and that was the boat and I was one of the kids and could step into that boat and move off down the river to be lost forever in the mists and the rain.
I felt my heart go out to that little boat, the freedom it meant. To be tied to no place in particular, a wharf here, a wharf there, Flushing or Harwich or pushing up to the Zuider Zee, open to the sky, the rain in ones face, the rain beating on the deck and the steady glide between grey banks of mud.
I had to get out.
Standing under the verandah of the cafe I breathed deeply, enjoying the freshness of the wind. There was the boat, a little beauty. Yes, I could imagine myself in that. Sleeping away a dull afternoon, eating a hearty tea, wandering into a pub at night for a few pints. Oh, I felt sick. Sick with longing, sick knowing I wasnt free.
There was a bridge over to the wasteland which I took. I wanted to be alone, away from it all, to be desolate in a desolate place. It was a wilderness. The path wound its way through waist high grass, lost here and there under weeds or deep puddles, making generally to the east. I left it after a while, making for some minor feature or other, a broken pram, a pile of rubble, a burnt out car and these took me far out into the centre of the waste, a prickly sea of nettle and willow herb and scabrous patches of some forgotten activity. A railway viaduct marched out over the plain.
Why had it all happened I asked. I could be anywhere, free of all this. What madness to be there - that was to be thought of never, just glimpses of trees seen over high walls. What would the woman in the cafe think about it all. Ignore them: nothing to do with life. This was the city, vibrant and open, not hemmed in. Oh, I wanted to be free.
In a clumsy mockery of that freedom I blundered about for an hour, this way and that, here and there, nowhere in particular. Once I came across a small brick building which smelt evilly and once I came across a pile of rusted machinery, a crane perhaps. I walked under the viaduct while a train rumbled overhead and I looked at the faces at the windows. And once I came across a huge reservoir which was dry and I stood on its floor, on the flat mud of its floor and looked a hundred, two hundred yards to its rim and saw nothing but the dull sky and the wet boiling clouds.
I went back to the river feeling quite cold and a little miserable. Freedom had its limitations. I cursed. The cafe was closed, and there was that long haul up the hill. I hardly gave a glance at the boat. That had just been stupid.
An hour later I reached Dalston alter a dreary walk down major and minor roads, the first with the sighing cars whirring past in a spray, the other with the unrelieved facades of terrace housing. Overhead it had been dark and thundery and the glimpses I got, here and there, of the townscape were full of luminous menace. Lightning did indeed flash over to the east and there was the heavy rumble of thunder.
I sat in a cafe waiting for my meal, staring down, feeling empty and tired, looking I suppose not very different from two or three down and outs at other tables. They too had faces roughened by the rain, their hair untidy, seeming only to sit breathing over their cups of tea. And nobody gave a damn about them, about me. What did anybody care about me, or know what I was doing? Did it mean anything? Michael Edge, 23 years old, unskilled labourer, dossed down in a metropolitan cemetery, frightened to work there anymore and walking around London all day, nowhere to go, nowhere to stay, enough money for a kip at the doss-house and then nothing. I mean suppose I was an Irish labourer, like the three loud characters whod just come in from a building site. Supposing it was Mick OConnor from County Cork, thrown out of the house and told never to come back, drifting from job to job, sometimes in the money, sometimes not; no security, drinking hard, hustled by the social security, sacked from jobs more and more frequently, trying for something more steady - the cemetery a godsend with the house and then like me wandering frightened and confused through London to end up in a cafe in Dalston. Would he go over to the men and cadge accommodation, hear tell of any squads being formed. Hope? Because Michael OFlaherty, Big Mick was doing just that and hed be in Kilburn the next morning picking his men. And then a try to get back to the Great Northern but too frightened, so a doss house and in the morning Big Nick tells you to get lost. And too late to go back to the cemetery because Alcotts found youre not there and reports it.
The fate of Mick OConnor didnt cheer me up nor, God help me, the sight of someone the same age as me, stopping outside the window and looking at the prices, and then swearing in an aside before moving off on his slow way, his drink swollen face turned to the ground.
I felt sick, anxious. I was in a dangerous position. If I did leave the cemetery, Id have nowhere to stay for my friends landlords would spot me and home was out. As for the social security: theyd just laugh. I couldnt believe the situation I was in. I would just have to go back otherwise there was a couple of pounds separating me from being a down and out.
The meal was unpleasant because of the nausea I had but it did refresh me enough to finally accept Id have to go back. Now there was the other worry that Alcott might have been up and reported me. Still I could say I had been sick in bed and didnt hear the door or was working on some far corner of the cemetery. I convinced myself there was nothing to worry about on that score. But that still left the evening. The pictures? Yes, I thought; and Id get something to drink. Cheap sherry was vile stuff but it was the only thing to keep me sane.
As I didnt want to be too far away when the picture finished I made my way back north, ending up in Islington or Holloway I think, from where I could catch a bus.
I bought the drink not wanting to find the off-licences shut later on and hunted round for a cinema. There was one with a war film of Oliver Reed which was just up my street.
The supporting film had been on for half an hour, Sarah Miles and Julian Glover out in the west of Ireland but I wasnt in the mood for it and spent most of the time enjoying the sensations of drying out and getting some warmth back.
At last the main film came on. It was about a P.O.W. taking an elephant over the Alps as the zoo in Germany had been bombed. I became engrossed in the film, imagining what a delight it must have been to make that journey in wartime, a nice quiet walk through gentle countryside that would take a month or two, although the brutish German guard always getting drunk and trying to hurry them on would have been a bind. Everyone in the cinema relaxed when he was killed.
I laughed inwardly when Oliver Reed, discovered in a mountain hotel, mimed drunkenness. Thats the spirit I thought, thinking of the bottle I had. There were groans when Willy, the other milder guard whod deserted when the other one had been killed was captured. Then there was the Colonel, chillingly ruthless, who started up the cable car to knock off a soldier who was climbing up the wire. And the final grand scene when Lucy the Elephant pulled away the supports for the frontier post so that it fell into the gorge.
On the journey back I went over the scenes from the film caught up in their glamour. And then cutting through the illusion of film and image, of the crowded streets of north London, the lights, the pubs, the traffic, there was only a lonely road leading to the cemetery.
The bus turned off some way before and I got off in a quiet residential area. The bus went on downhill towards the lights of east London, a few miles away. I reminded myself I had to get back, that I had to keep this job. And I did have the bottle. Despite this reminder the nausea returned when 1 saw the cemetery ahead. I looked back to the houses but they were out of sight. So it was still there and I was well and truly alone.
I reached the gates, very scared but forcing myself to go in.
Horrible. It was on me immediately I stepped into the cemetery. I scrabbled back, clung to the gate, hardly able to breathe and aware of my heart beating violently. I caught my breath: I just had to get in.
For perhaps ten yards I was OK; I just forced everything out of my mind, willed myself to remain blank, but then out of the darkness came the light which was the terror of the demon, the Lord of Cemeteries, the death god. With a chill fear I looked at what advanced towards me within that light.
It was a man, tall and handsome yet somehow coarse and brutal in his face. He was wearing the uniform of the Superintendent, the black uniform and the top hat resting easily upon his figure. I stared into his face, into his eyes, awed by the dark energy that flowed from him, energy I had felt before by the Western Necropolis.
Powerless to move I was devoid of fear but of all else too. I was in a kind of limbo, a threshold that was neither life nor death, that was alien and yet was not.
I found my lips form a question.
Who are you?
Je suis Monsieur le Superintendent des Tombes. And he smiled.
I turned and ran from that smile for it was the same smile as the monster, the same face; the face too of other gods from Greece and the cold north and the darkness of the jungle for the face of death is the same to all men. And as I turned, a foot from my face was the enormous visage of the thing Id seen earlier, a green surface of crawling light, eyes of livid red the size of oranges tearing into my brain.
I screamed, fought, tore away, crashed through the opening and fell flat on the ground. In my ears rang the words, Regardez Bython.
I scrabbled onto my knees, looked fearfully into the cemetery. It was empty. They or it were gone.
My heart was stuttering away and I felt violently sick, bad enough to know that I couldnt get past those two guardians of the cemetery without dying. I glanced at the gates again to reassure myself they werent there. No. I couldnt go in there again. My heart would give out. I was finished. Twenty three years old and I was finished, a down and out. I had; I counted it, one pound seventeen and eleven; enough for the doss house. And then what? Scrounging off people - sixpence for a cup of tea? Busking in the underground? Going to live in some hippy doss-house? No. I was for the derelict house, the waste land. I wanted to die, get it all over with, team up with the meths drinkers, drink myself to death.
In token of this I drank half the bottle at one gulp. There I thought. To hell with them, with that bloody thing, or things, in there, with my mind which had allowed them to manifest. I took another drink. The Great Northern Metropolitan Cemetery, that was a laugh. Typical Victorian pretension, the greatest and grandest cemetery in the world and now it was completely and utterly derelict, not even a labourer to look after the dead - frightened away, destroyed. Because of that bloody thing in there, that monster.
In a rage of self loathing and hatred I drank more of the sherry. I raised the bottle in mock salute to the stinking place.
A car was coming up
from the south, its headlights on. I stood by the edge of the road, smiling.
Let them pass, I thought, theyd join me soon enough. I raised the
bottle as they passed and then realised rather stupidly and belatedly
that it was a police car.
It braked violently and then reversed. One was a girl of my own age; the man was older.
Enjoying yourself, son? He looked at my bottle.
Yeah, sure, I replied.
You were going in there, son? he asked, looking at the cemetery.
No. I did try to but I couldnt.
Yeah. Something in there, some kind of presence.
Oh yes, and whats your name?
Edge, Michael Edge.
Just come over here Michael, to where its more light. I complied. I didnt like the way the girl was looking at me.
Look, its OK, I said. I work here. I was just going up to the lodge but I got frightened.
We dont know that you work here, the girl said archly. She looked suspiciously at the bottle.
What do you work at, Michael? the man asked.
Ive just told you. The cemetery. Not any more though. Its a hellish place.
Whys that, Michael?
Because of whats in there.
And whats that?
I dunno; something. It scared the hell out of me.
leaving? Where will you go
He sighed. Well, whats it called this cemetery?
The Great Northern Metropolitan. Closed in 1915. Taken over in 1935 by the council who I now work for. Look. Heres the key to the lodge.
Why are you out so late? the girl asked suspiciously.
Its not late. Since when do you go around stopping people at half past eleven, I said, my voice rising.
Her face hardened and she pointed her finger at me. You just watch it, smart guy. Answer my question. Why are you out so late?
Because I wanted to.
Yeah? Thats what they all say.
The older man stepped in before we both lost our heads and explained why they had to question me. It was fair enough, after all Id have sent a dosser packing if Id found one in the cemetery. He said hed have to check out my story and went to the car leaving me with the girl.
We eyed each other with hostility. Back home a couple of my mates had run into trouble with a policewoman, same sort as this, argumentative, pushy. Banter at first, then more serious, then unbelievingly being told they were under arrest and then, when they quite rightly tried to resist, half a dozen coppers came and stomped them for hitting their poor defenceless female colleague.
I didnt like the look of contempt still on her face.
Whats with you, officer? Still think Im a dosser, or maybe a graverobber?
She looked at the car where the man was on the radio.
been cleared yet, smart guy, so just watch it."
Oh yes? I must say you look it.
Yeah, well, it s hard work, thats why I have to dress like this. I pointed into the grounds. You should try living there, see how you like it.
She shrugged and then thought of a new line of attack.
You say youve decided not to work there anymore.? So where are you going? Do you have an address. No? How much money do you have?
Thats none of your business.
Oh yes it is. Come on, how much?
Just under two pounds.
That wont get you very far.
Far enough. Anyway I can stay with friends.
Oh yeah? She nodded towards the cemetery. What started all this: scared of the dark are you? Couldnt stand being all alone in the dark? Is that why youve got the bottle?
I fumbled with the bottle, embarrassed at the jeer in her voice.
Well, wouldnt you be? 1 asked aggressively. She looked at the cemetery and shrugged.
Why? Youre there to protect the dead. Why should they harm you?
I had been about to say something else but this stopped me. What shed just said was right. Why should I be frightened. 1 was there to protect the dead. For the first time in days I smiled, for 1 felt hope, hope that I could control the fear.
What are you smiling at?
Oh nothing. It was amazing: all the tension and fear seemed to have gone. I was almost impatient to get into the cemetery and try it out, see if that thing was still there.
Whats up with you? she asked again. I had gone over to the gates and was humming a tune. I turned.
Youre right. Why should I be frightened? Theyre not going to harm me if Im there to look after them. She didnt reply. For the first time I noticed she was quite pretty.
Whats your name? I asked. She was taken aback.
Janice Weston, she said eventually. Why? she added sharply.
It must be because I fancy you, I said sarcastically.
She flushed and looked hurt.
Its okay, I said hurriedly. I was only joking. Youre quite attractive actually." She must have had a thing about rejection, something about her uniform turning men off. There was a silence and I felt I had to say something.
You enjoy your work?
She shrugged. Sure.
Dont you find it a bit strange. I mean, arresting people?
Its got to be done.
Yeah, but why by a woman? It just complicates things. I mean, its a joke, you arresting anyone.
She bridled. Id arrest you anytime. Just shut up.
I gave an exasperated laugh. There you go again. Pushing like that. I mean; what are you trying to prove. You should be helping old ladies cross the road or sitting at a desk in some police station not going out creating aggro with some yobs.
She looked at me with contempt.
"Youre just the same as everyone else. You think a woman cant do a mans job.
But why do you want to do it, thats the thing? Why not teaching or nursing?
She glared at me. Oh get lost. You make me sick.
I walked away a few paces. We both looked at the man in the car. Just a couple more minutes, he called, theyre checking now.
I wandered over to the girl. She looked coldly at me.
I held out my arms in appeasement. Forget it," I said, backing off.
Forget what? she demanded.
Nothing. I was just going to ask you out, thats all, She laughed and looked me up and down. No way.
I was annoyed. Yeah? Well thats OK. I was only joking. I wouldnt be seen dead with you.
Her eyes glittered with fury then glazed over in that hurt look again. She really was sensitive under all that official manner. I went over to her.
Hey, I didnt mean that. It was just the way you said you wouldnt go out with me.
She gave me a sort of pained look but didnt say anything. She really was pretty; and there was something about her I liked.
Tell you what, I said jovially, I really will take you out; if you want to go, that is.
To my surprise, she nodded. Where?
Thursday about six, up at the cinema?
No. Make it seven. I have to change first. She fell silent. The man was getting out of the car.
Seems your story checks out. Sorry to hold you up but youll realise the cemetery attracts all types.
I nodded. Fair enough. Ive decided Ill go back in. It was just my imagination getting the better of me.
He nodded sympathetically. I can understand that. He turned to the girl. Well, wed better be off.
As he walked to the car I signalled the girl about our date. She nodded and then turned away. Obviously she didnt want him to know.
I watched with mixed feelings as they drove off, still slightly angry at having been stopped but having to admit they were right, and wondering what the hell Id done asking the girl out; that had just been stupid. And yet it had happened so why not make a go of it. I could always tell her to get lost if it didnt work.
I was alone again and still with the problem of the cemetery. But as I thought about it I was amazed to find that I wasnt frightened anymore. As she had said why should I be frightened when I was there to protect them.
I went through the gates and was soon lost in the darkness. I was on edge, waiting; but so far nothing. It was fantastic. The thing wasnt there.
Minutes later there was still nothing and I knew I was safe. It had gone for ever.
As I walked I willed the occupants of the graves to believe that I was there to help them, to keep away the grave robbers, the necromancers, the vandals. I pledged myself to do what I could to help them, to keep their memory sacred. An ominous shape loomed ahead at a junction of pathways, but I already knew it was an angel standing on a plinth. On either side there were similar ominous shapes, a pillar at the side of a tomb, a bush, a patch of darkness half-hidden in the trees, but they all had their explanations.
It was my imagination which had been at fault, seizing on the darkness, the noises, the shapes and building them into a continuous sense of horror. And there was nothing there at all. The girl was right. They couldnt harm me. And yet there was no denying the fear that had been there, the fear that had threatened to send me mad and had almost ruined my life. Somehow the images of death and decay had triggered off emotions of horror and fear until they grew into an unstoppable force, until I had finally hallucinated. Well, somehow I had passed that stage, the images had gone and in their place was the mundane fact that I was walking in a cemetery; nothing else, nothing more.
The following morning I awoke with a real excitement. It was very strange. There was the drab old room with its heavy furnishings but it no longer struck me as heavy with menace but rather with noble purpose. I caught what it must have been like for that Victorian superintendent waking in this same room: wide awake, alert, looking forward to the day ahead, really pleased to be alive.
I was happy. Incredible after that night before but for the first time I felt really sure of myself. I was in charge of this place. OK, they didnt give a damn what I did; I was just another labourer but Id pledged myself to the dead. It was a strange thing to have done but I had made that decision. And all because of the girl; if she hadnt said what she had in such a matter of fact way. I wondered if Id done the right thing in asking her out.
Down in the kitchen I opened the door. A lovely fresh morning. I could smell the earth in the garden. Birds sang, seven oclock and the sun was rising above the trees. As I made breakfast I knew I could never fear the cemetery again, it had entirely lost its hideous aspect.
This change of attitude was confirmed when I went out to work. Already in my minds eye I was cutting back the rampant growth of weeds, was seeing beyond the hidden gravel of the paths, was seeing sepulchres secure and restored, impossible ideal certainly but an ideal. That seemed important; as if it made the present shortcomings merely obstacles to the achievement of a goal. They served no longer as instruments of fear when it seemed that decay and desolation were the natural order of things.
I had no trouble now with working on the tombs. I still didnt like to enter a vault but I knew I had a right to do so and did what had to be done with detachment and additionally took a certain pleasure in erasing magical signs and sigils where before they had been deeply disturbing. What the magicians would think of that I didnt know but didnt care either.
For the first time that night I stopped drinking and had no trouble in sleeping with the bonus of a clear head in the morning.
I saw Andrew Gray again. We chatted about the weather and my work but I said nothing about my fears of the past weeks and how theyd vanished.
As he seemed all right and the rain was a bit heavy I invited him back to the lodge for a cup of tea. We sat in the kitchen while the rain beat on the rickety old door and drummed on the windows and chatted about odds and ends. He was amused at my story of the bottles and remarked that the copper pots were even more valuable.
It struck me hed be interested in the old house and I led him on a tour of the rooms. He was delighted with the old furniture and how the appearance of the place hadnt altered since the First World War.
It was the records which interested him most. I pointed out the bits and pieces I had found, including a map of the cemetery and a plan of the Necropolis or, as it said on the plan, the Western Necropolis, and then as I had to get back to work left him to it. Near five he sought me out and thanked me, and I invited him to examine them any time.
I took Gray's advice about the copper pots and sold a couple for a good sum in a local antique shop. Thursday came when I was to meet Janice, and as my clothes were shabby I went out and bought a pair of trousers and a shirt, though kept the combat jacket. On the way up I was torn between thinking that it had been a mistake and thinking that maybe something would come out of it; after all, she was pretty and she might be alright once I got through the official manner.
She looked quite different in civvies and her hair wasnt done up in a bun.
You look great, I said spontaneously, Much better than the other night.
Oh, thats a compliment is it? She half-smiled. Wed better go in, the pictures about to start.
The cinema was packed and noisy. I pressed her hand. All right? Again the half-smile. Maybe she had her doubts about me too, embarrassed even.
The film came on. It wasnt bad as it was a spy film with Richard Burton in it but a bit involved and difficult to follow. At the interval it was only too clear that Janice was bored out of her mind. I assured her the next one would be good and went off to get some ice cream. The supporting film was an Edgar Lustgarten case and the only thing I liked about it was the Shadows music.
What did you think about it? I asked as we came out.
Yes, it wasnt bad. Had some trouble with the first one though."
I quite liked the way Richard Burton established a cover for himself.
But I didnt understand that bit at the end. Did you?
This was great. Id seen her three hours and this was the sum total of our conversation. Shed be catching the bus next.
What about a coffee? I asked.
Do you know where theres a cafe?
Well, well walk up here. Bound to be one. I wasnt sure whether I should take her arm.
Ten minutes later we still hadnt found one and she was getting ratty. Wed also started arguing due to me making a comment about the semi-detached houses we were passing, quite a heated argument. I was beginning to think it was all a mistake. A brightly lit restaurant appeared ahead.
Oh look, a Wimpy, she exclaimed.
Im not going into a Wimpy, I blurted. God, plastic seats, plastic food.
She looked at me with some anger. Oh so its not just semi-detached houses you dont like, its Wimpy Bars; stupid conventional morons thinking theyre living it up in the big time Wimpy Bars. I suppose you and your friends go on about mindless people living in little surburban boxes polishing their cars every Sunday. Well Ive got news for you, mate. Im going to catch that bus. Thanks for the lovely evening.
A bus was approaching
and she walked briskly over the road to a bus stop. A surge of fury rose
in me. Sod her. Going into a Wimpy Bar. Stupid stuck-up bitch. She joined
the queue and didnt even look back at me.
I was really confused. What an evening. Rotten picture, hardly a word spoken and now shed just walked out on me. And the thing was; I liked her.
The bus was nearly at the stop and in seconds it would be all over. I ran across and grabbed her by the arm.
She glared at me and tried to pull away.
Leave me alone. Get lost.
Oh come on, Janice. I didnt mean it. Honest. I panicked. The queue was moving forward.
Look, please. Just for me. I do like you. She half turned on the step as I said that. Come on. Ill go into the Wimpy Bar.
Move on, mate, someone snarled behind me. I pulled at her arm. Come on. She stepped off with some reluctance but she did come with me, awkwardly trying to slip free of my hand on her arm.
I opened the Wimpy door for her and she went in as if she were quite used to places like this. 1 followed her, feeling stupid. 1 scowled at the place and at the waitress as I ordered cheeseburgers and coffee.
We sat in silence and I felt relief when I hit on something to say.
You know when you said I had nothing to fear from the cemetery?
She looked cross at this interruption of her thoughts. Yes.
You were quite right, you really hit on the right way to look at things there. I explained what had been happening, all my fears, the loneliness, that wearying trek through the city and then being stopped by her.
Gradually I got her interest and over the next half hour gave her the whole story. It was when I got back to what Id been doing before that she got ratty again.
You mean you havent worked for fifteen months? This was said in an incredulous tone while setting the cup down on the saucer.
Yeah, well why should I?
Why should you? Youve got a duty to work, not to scrounge from the state. You could have got a job at anytime.
As an EO in the Civil Service, I exclaimed. You must be joking.
As an EO? You should count yourself lucky to be able to get an EOs job.
I snorted. Big deal. Anyway Ive got a job now and its one that I like.
You cant call that a job. Youre just a labourer.
I was fuming. First Im a layabout and now Im just a labourer. I suppose Im wasting all that taxpayers money by not using my degree to good advantage. Maybe it would please you if I joined the police force.
She laughed. You wouldnt last five minutes in the police.
Well, thats the last thing Id do, I replied heatedly. Anyway Ive told you Ive got a good job and Im keeping it so whats the problem?
But will you? Arent you likely to just up and go back on the dole? Back down to London and waste another couple of years?
I shook my head angrily. No. Ive told you. Its a job that means a lot to me. I dont care if it is just a labouring job. The point is, they dont care and somebodys got to care; somethings got to be done about that cemetery.
She looked only half convinced but that didnt bother me. I knew what the facts of the matter were. Another silence fell. She looked at her watch.
Listen. Ill have to go.
Ill walk you home.
No. Ill catch the bus. My parents will be wondering where I am.
I bit back the jibe that came to mind.
OK. Can I see you again, maybe Friday? I asked this more out of convention than any great feeling for her.
She looked doubtful. I have to wash my hair.
Well, Ill see you at eight, I said when we were outside. We can have a drink. You can even come back to the cemetery, see how you like that.
Youre so romantic, she said sarcastically. Theres my bus.
We half ran to the stop and had no more time for talking. As the bus approached I wasnt sure whether I should give her a kiss. It hadnt really been that sort of evening but maybe shed expect it.
She didnt because she just jumped straight on the bus. Eight oclock. Same place I shouted. She gave a sort of non- commital wave then the bus was away. I stared after it but she didnt look round. It was all so stupid, her hardly saying a word and then jumping down my throat with the stupidest cliches imaginable and Id gone and asked her out again. It was obvious it wasnt going to work. Well Id give it another try and if it didnt work she could go to hell.
I saw Gray again a few days later. It was drizzling and the grounds had a melancholy look to them. I was just boarding up another grave when I saw him approach, protected by a black umbrella.
Some day, I said.
He nodded, shaking the umbrella and coming to stand on the porch beside me. It is indeed. Still it gives the cemetery an agreeable face. I am as a king of a land of rain, as Baudelaire says. He breathed happily, slapping the cold stone. Yes, stone and ruins and dripping trees, and sheltering from the rain, what more could one ask for?
Well, it has atmosphere, I remarked, and once you get used to the idea that these are graves its just like working in a park.
Thats the spirit. Excellent. He looked at me. Youve had no trouble with your imagination?
At the start but Im over that now. After all Im here to protect them. They cant harm me.
He looked impressed. As you say, why should they harm you, their guardian. Monsieur Le Superintendent des Tombes. He gave a half bow.
I started as I heard the self-same words the black coated apparition had uttered that dreadful night. Gray noticed and asked if I was all right.
Yes, yes. It was just
Superintendent des Tombes? The French title for a cemetery superintendent.
Also the name of a Voodoo god. He laughed.
I was frowning, more at the unwelcome memory of that appearance than at Gray but he thought I was annoyed at him and apologised.
I assured him I was all right, that I was just a bit nervy. I changed the subject and asked him about the style of the architecture. He was very much at home in this and explained the various influences dominant in the last century: the classical style of Greece and Rome, the Egyptian, even the Indian and the ever-present Gothic.
When pointing to a tomb he kept using technical terms and I had to ask him to explain these. Using as example a temple-like mausoleum opposite he pointed out the portico, which was the projecting front and explained that this was divided into columns, entablature and pediment. I noticed that the entablature, this was the part resting on the columns and surmounted by the triangular pediment, was made up of a large number of parts. It was odd how you would never give these things a glance but as soon as you looked saw all sorts of bits and pieces.
The entablature, I was informed, consisted of the architrave, frieze and cornice. The latter was made up of the cymatium and corona, the frieze of alternating triglyphs and metopes, and the architrave of recessed fascias, which were merely blank stone facings.
There were further divisions too many for me to retain though I found it pleasing to hear of dentils, teniae, cyma recta, reversa, astragals and I dont know what else. I noticed from other examples that the frieze and architrave were mostly in the same vertical line, one or other being the more ornamented and both severely recessed under the cornice, the layers of which were projecting over the lower, each linked by the smooth curves of the cyma recta or reversa or the flourish of a modillions so that each level ran easily into the next.
I broke into his discourse with questions about funerary symbolism.
Some of the symbols I could guess at but others were obscure to me. The broken columns set on high plinths symbolised the life of a man that had. been cut short. Then there were the more straightforward angels whose desolate figures pervaded the cemetery with sadness, and there were the urns. Gray, pointed to several tombs where inverted torches were to be seen, sometimes held by a child on the breast of a dying figure: this was Mors the brother of Amor; and to a sarcophagous in the antique style with the figures of a man and a woman, explaining that the one was a god, the other a mortal and that to the Greeks and Romans, death was the love the gods had for mortals.
He then spoke of Lessing, whom Id vaguely heard of, and his work on the representation of death by the ancients, telling me of his controversy with somebody called Winkelman on the figures of skeletons which Lessing had rightly interpreted as larvae, or shades, and not as real skeletons. And on through wreaths and hour glasses and figures of Saturn to the more Christian symbol of the Cross.
It was fascinating to hear him talk. A whole world opened to me, a world that had its roots in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome, a tradition that throughout the centuries had recurred as men sought ways of expressing what was most important to them. I saw how it pervaded this cemetery and how Gray continued it in his person. A way of life, of interpretation, of meaning that continued alongside more modern styles of thought. Under his tutelage the cemetery seemed to embody so much of this classicism that it seemed something primitive, a world on its own with its own laws, a sylvan desmesne of grove and grotto and silent temples. In a way Gray was giving substance and meaning to this place I had made my own.
Eventually he had to go. I watched him walk down the path. A strange melancholy filled me; to do with the rain and the sighing wind of course, but more at the sight of his lonely, sad figure.
I went out with Janice on the Friday and although it wasnt great it wasnt bad enough for either of us to call it off. There were moments when I quite liked her but most of the time she went on about my being unemployed after university.
Work was going well; some thirty tombs repaired and the paths a lot tidier. At this rate Id soon be in sight of the lodge.
Then one day I had a shock.
It was Alcott, bustling up the path. The old fear of authority rose again as I forced myself to look at the odious little rat. What was he doing here?
What do you want, Alcott? I demanded, conscious of a tight rage. He was just like the clerk in the social security office who had refused one afternoon to give me travelling expenses for a job I had gone after on the other side of London and had threatened to call the police when Id argued with him. He was like a moronic foreman who had given me the sack for being 15 minutes late. I felt like hitting him. All the resentment that had come from meeting people like Alcott came flooding back.
He thrust a sheet of typewritten paper at me. Read that.
It was an official memo addressed to Alcott stating that the cemetery was to become his responsibility and that he was to supervise the manual worker who had been appointed there.
Who the hell wrote this? I hissed, I was told it was my responsibility. You put them up to this, didnt you?
He sneered. It doesnt matter what I did. Im in charge now.
I had to turn away. This was a disaster. All my plans, the work I liked, the freedom to decide, gone because of his manoeuverings. Hed be on my back all the time. He was looking around at what Id been doing. Its quite obvious to me you dont know the meaning of work. I mean, he pointed to a mausoleum I had boarded up, what the hell is this, you havent a clue.
At least its secure, I said heatedly. More than you ever bothered about.
He turned on me. You just watch it son, or youll be out of here so fast you wont know whats hit you.
I bit back the retort that I was going to make. I couldnt afford to be dismissed. Knowing he had won, he ordered me to pick up the tools and follow him.
We walked down to the entrance. I knew what was coming. You still havent done these gates, he snapped. Well, I want them done. Cleaned, oiled, painted and youd better make a good job of them. Theres going to be an inspection in a couple of weeks by the Director and the Committee and everything had better be perfect. Youre a layabout, Edge, and from now on Im going to supervise your work very closely. Youve had a nice little holiday ever since you started this job. Well, thats finished. From now on youre going to work, and I mean work. Understand? He glared at me for a long moment and then left.
For a week I was kept incredibly busy. First it was the gates, then it was the paths near the gates and then it was the tombs themselves. At last Alcott declared himself satisfied and I was too, to an extent, for the entrance looked good. I asked what I should do next. He looked at me maliciously and said that from tomorrow I was no longer needed in the cemetery and that I should report to Dawes Park where I would be working in future.
The next day I had to be up early for the long walk to the park. I reported to a shed set beside some greenhouses where a cheerful character, brown from the sun and outdoor work greeted me. The men were already out and he took me down a path to meet the gardener I would be working with, a doleful character called Tommy who said nothing but merely pointed when he wanted something done. We were planting primroses in elliptical beds and I found it relaxing work though I fretted being away from the cemetery.
There was a teabreak at ten and we walked up to the shed where tea was being brewed on an open fire. The other gardeners were all right, but very set in a dull routine for they asked only a few questions about my work before going back to their newspapers,
Lunchtime was a bit better for they seemed by common consent to put down their papers and talk. It turned out that Alcott was a favourite topic and that even my treatment was nothing special. He had plagued one mentally retarded fifteen year old, keeping him back after five planting and replanting bulbs, rearranging stones in a rockery until the boy had gone mad and attacked him with a spade. The boy got six months. All of the men had had trouble at his hands.
It was an easy enough routine and I soon got into the way of it. Evenings were worst because there was nothing to do now that I had lost control of the cemetery. I saw Janice only at weekends and we were arguing less frequently though she wasnt all that sympathetic to my depression.
I grew more irritable, the men, decent enough were dull, and the work had nothing of the challenge of the cemetery, everything so neat and bordered and somehow sterile as if nature had been subordinated to the asphalt paths, the bowling greens and the tennis courts. I longed for the tangle of the graves, for there each element of landscaping had grown out of the contours of the ground, each tree and shrub determined by the drainage and the soil and not by a hundredweight of fertiliser, where everything was natural.
I gradually came to detest the work, seeking every excuse for a visit to the shed, stopping often to stare at what I was doing, till even Tommy who was no great hand at working started grumbling.
One day I was pleased to see dark clouds fill up the sky for that would force us into the bothy while the rain lasted. The rain threatened all morning and once a shower sent us running for shelter but it was over in five minutes and we had to resume work.
All lunch we looked at the sky and discussed the rigours of open air work, hard enough without Alcott, who I learned had made a ruling years back that work must continue in the rain, and who had backed down only after the union had threatened action. Ever since, he called in at his parks whenever the weather was bad for his defeat rankled and he tried to recover his lost face by bullying the men out into the rain saying that he decided when it was raining and that this wasnt a downpour, it was a shower. And usually the men submitted for they knew Alcott fretted to be off to another park and they would just go back to the shed when he left.
We were still at lunch when it started raining in earnest. A sardonic discussion took place on whether Alcott would call this rain and decided it was so wet this time that even he wouldnt come round. The time passed pleasantly enough, I sat by the fire throwing logs in now and then, watching the others play cards, the steam rise from the damp clothes, the rain running down the tiny window and every forty minutes or so putting the kettle on the fire for tea.
It was still raining at five and after a meal I had a long mournful walk through sodden little streets back to the cemetery. It worried me that I should be so apprehensive about him: Id spent the latter part of the afternoon when the rain had slackened off worrying he was going to come in. If only I could be free of him everything would be fine as it had been. Now I was wasting away, spending two hours getting to and from work, bored out of my mind and all the time dependent on Alcott for my tenure of the lodge.
I spent a gloomy evening in the lodge, unable to do anything because it had become a place apart from me, a mere hulk of a building where like a mouse I had a precarious tenure. Another month of this would be impossible; I would be reduced to slinking into the building like a trespasser, reduced to sitting by the kitchen stove and to using the bedroom. All the other rooms would be alien to me, for it would no longer be my home.
After hours of weary self-argument about whether I should leave I finally counted my money. Id have enough with my next pay. I decided. Id go down town as soon as I could and try to find a room and if necessary stay on another week or two. I wished Janice was around but she was on nightshift all weekend; there was no reason why we couldnt continue seeing each other even if I was in London. At least Id be less depressed. Feeling sick and unsure that my decision had resolved anything I went off to bed where after an hour or so I fell asleep.
Three hours later 1 was startled out of my sleep by something. I looked towards the curtains trying to sort out what I had heard. For a while all I could hear was the sound of clashing trees and the rain beating in gusts against the windows. And then I heard it: a regular thudding from somewhere outside.
I sat on the edge of the bed knowing full well what was afoot but not wanting to recognise it for what it was. It would be easy enough to ignore it, just go back to sleep. So theyd get away with a few bits of jewellery, damage another grave. Who cared? And why bother when it was no longer my responsibility.
But I did care; Id made myself responsible.
The axe blows sounded again. I cursed. I had to do something. I hurriedly dressed, and downstairs looked out the torch but the batteries were weak so I decided against taking it. Anyway it would tell them I was coming.
Outside it was totally black. The trees on the far side of the avenue were hardly visible and it was more by the strong gusts of wind than by sight that I could tell they were swaying into each other. I ran towards the sound of the axe knowing it was so dark they would never see me. As far as I could guess it came from the avenue that ran at right angles to the necropolis approach.
As I ran I continually revised my estimate of where they were from the occasional thuds and guessed they were slightly to the north of the main avenue where there were some untouched graves. The sounds stopped but I now had a good idea of where they were coming from.
I halted at the avenue and listened. The rain stung my face and more than once I had to sweep lank hair back from my forehead. I could see nothing for it was even darker here with the trees cutting off the faint light of the metropolis. 1 cut off to the north keeping to the rear of the tombs and becoming more cautious as I drew nearer.
There was still no sound but then the wind was so high that voices wouldnt carry far. I sidled along the edge of a tomb and risked a look. Nothing. But there was; an axe resting against the lintel of a grave some thirty yards away. I crept out onto the avenue. At least, surprise was on my side. It would be no joke to be in their position with a figure looming out of the dark, challenging. I wondered if theyd fight and if I wanted to capture them if they did. I decided Id rather scare them off.
It was too late for any more thinking, I was nearly on the tomb and could see the black space beyond the gaping doors. There were two voices, one cursing; and the sound of a coffin being moved. There was a faint illumination: a hand torch.
I strained to hear voices over the sound of the wind and the rain hissing on the path and totally failed to hear one of them climbing back out to get the axe, it was too late. Hed pulled himself up to chest level when he saw me. 1 stared at him and he stared at me. Neither of us moved. His mouth was open in fear.
A voice came from the tomb. Pass the axe, for Gods sake.
The man looked downward. Theres someone here. He turned back to look at me and seemed to have got over his initial fright. There was a scrambling noise and the other man emerged to light. He glared at me.
Who the hell are you? His face twisted into a warning scowl. On your way, mate, now.
I didnt react to his threat; I wasnt frightened, just blank, and slightly stupefied at the whole thing of these two, their heads showing over the lintels of a hundred year old tomb on a dreadful night in a derelict cemetery.
The larger of the two, the one who had spoken, climbed over the edge. The other followed.
I stared at him. He was about six foot three and a hard looking character. His side kick was my own height and had a worried weak face but with a streak of viciousness that I caught in a look directed at me; a hyena attendant upon the meal of a lion.
The taller man jabbed his finger into my chest.
I smiled. This brought back memories of the tough streets Id lived in back home.
He jabbed me again, harder. I smiled, though more tightly.
When he saw I wasnt moving he swore and threw a punch at me.
I was ready - not for him but for his sidekick who had drawn a blade and now attacked. 1 caught his arm before he knew what was happening and slammed his head into the side of the tomb.
It wasnt enough. He was strong and wiry and tore himself free. I faced up to the blade and something about it made me tighten inside. It wasnt a knife: it was a razor. I looked at the larger man: he was standing, watching. He knew.
The razor whizzed, sliced, chopped; advanced. I leapt backward as it caught the edge of my hand, felt only a blow that passed too quickly.
I lunged forward and butted the man in the face.
He fell on his knees, hands to his face. His partner knelt beside him. It was too good a chance to miss. 1 took a run at the bigger bloke and booted him in the face for all I was worth. He drew back as he heard me run but I still caught him a glancing blow which sent him flying.
He lay still for a few moments then was up and turning ominously towards me. I didnt like it; he was a brute, this character, whod kill me with a punch. Half panicked I started to dodge him, frightened of his fists. He rushed me a few times but always I kept out of his reach and once hit him on the back of the head though it jarred my hand.
I was edging backward when I felt myself go over. It was the other bloke, now conscious whod managed to trip me. In alarm I looked at them both moving toward me in a deliberate fashion. It wasnt good. I could end up in the grave behind me and no one the wiser.
What saved me was the axe. My hand closed on the shaft as I was scrabbling to get up. For a moment I didnt realise what it was then instinctively I had it in my hands and was raising it above my head. In all probability they could have got me if theyd tried but not many people will stand up to someone with an axe. The little one tried a move but I launched a blow at him which he avoided just in time. It was enough: they fled.
Once they had gone I staggered over to a nearby sepulchre and rested against it. Blood was flowing from the deep slash in my hand and I fumbled to find the artery that fed the arm. I crouched there till I got my breath back. My hand hurt badly and my throat was raw. The wind rose in violence and trees clashed together. Rain blurred my vision, stinging my eyes.
Eventually I made my way back to the lodge, utterly oblivious to the wild romantic scene of my surroundings. I lurched through the door and stood swaying in the hall, a puddle gathering round my feet. I was wondering what to do about my hand. This was hellish; Id have to get to a hospital and have it stitched. Out at the doorway there was just enough light to see by. The razor had cut the outer edge of the palm, just nicking the bone and slicing through to the palm itself. It looked almost an inch deep.
Still digging my fingers into the artery I walked, half ran up to the gap in the wall, keeping a careful eye out for the two men. I was feeling annoyed, to be actually attacked on the job as if the job itself wasnt bad enough. It seemed to be so unreal to be walking out of the cemetery, crossing the waste ground to the road with its lamp standards casting a poor orange light on the ground, hearing the sounds of the high wailing of the wind gusting through the cemetery trees. It was what? Two oclock, three? And here I was, injured in the prosecution of my duty as the Victorian Superintendent might have said. A sense of purpose could grow out of this, 1 thought, where things happen to you because of your position.nd. I should have gone for the bigger one first: the runt had just got the razor out to move in when the big one had flattened me. No. I should have been quicker, rushed them when they were still climbing out of the grave, booted them in the face, slammed the doors shut and held them at bay with the axe. I grimaced with pain, the hand was hurting and bleeding freely whenever I released the pressure on my arm.
At the shops I wondered what to do next for I didnt have a clue where the nearest hospital was. Then I remembered the police station where Janice worked, which was a mile up the road. Id have to go there anyway to report the attack and if they could get a police surgeon out in the middle of the night to look at a drunk driver surely they could get one to see to me.
Twenty minutes later I saw the blue sign up ahead. It was a long time since Id been in a police station and I scowled on entering the old fashioned doors. The young constable on desk duty looked at me quizzically.
I jerked my head the way I had come. You know the cemetery down there?
The man, he was about twenty six, nodded his head.
Yeah, the Great Northern. What about it?
Im in charge of it. Caretaker.
Oh yeah. He looked interested but suspicious.
I didnt continue for the pain grew unbearable. I lurched against the counter and concentrated on keeping the pain down.
The copper had to come out to see what was up and approached me warily. He saw the blood on the floor and his manner changed.
Lets see, mate, he said, turning my arm so that the razor cut could be seen. He looked at it professionally, nodding his head.
Right. Well get someone to look at that. He picked up the phone and asked for the Sergeant. There was a delay and he asked me what had happened. When the Sergeant came on he relayed my story and asked for a Dr. Jenkins to come and see me.
Twenty minutes later I had as many stitches in my hand and was sitting in the office with a welcome cup of tea. The sergeant and two constables were listening to my story and once or twice looked significantly at each other as I described the appearance of the men and the way they spoke. On finishing I drank the rest of the tea and then slumped back in the chair. I felt terrible.
The Sergeant went off to get the Inspector and the two men talked quietly between themselves. The Inspector, an efficient looking man in his thirties, came in.
Do you feel well enough to go back?
Right. Ill get a car for you and the men can look at the spot.
He nodded to the Sergeant who went out to call a patrol. Youll be glad to know that weve a good idea who these two are: Billie Baillie and Ricky Smeddon. Billies not so bad but Smeddons a bad un; you did well to sort him out before Billie.
Who are they, I asked. Are they local?
Notting Hill. Family. Billies one of the Baillies. Cars, scrap yards, aggro, mostly wages. Billies old mum has a jewellery stall on Portobello Road market; thats why they were up raiding the cemetery. Well pull her in and have an expert examine her stock.
We carried on talking for a while. I found it interesting to hear about local criminals and vandals and the police were glad to pass an hour in a boring night.
The patrol car came and I took my leave after signing a statement. The Inspector explained to the patrol what had happened,
I settled back into the comfortable seat of the car. The men looked at me with curiosity but I stared out of the window not wanting to go through the story again. It was still raining hard.
Hey, wake up, mate. One of the men was shaking my shoulder. We had reached the gates. I struggled out of the car, careful of my hand, and helped push the gates open enough to get the car through. I directed them along the avenues and. felt some amusement at their muted comments on the appearance of the place. We were driving without lights and only the faint crunch of the gravel under the tyres and vague glimmers of white stone among the trees and bushes told us we were moving.
I told them to look to the left where the Western Necropolis lay but it was so dark that they caught only the suggestion of its monstrous bulk. When we were about fifty yards from the grave we stopped the car and got out. The tomb was empty but we walked a little way up the path to make sure they werent about. I went through my story again, pointing to the signs of the struggle. There was a smear of blood on the side of the doors where I had stood while recovering and more blood where Id smashed Rickies head into the stone. It was probably a graze but it would help to identify him.
One of the patrolmen spotted the axe lying on the grass and picked it up carefully.
Pity you didnt use this on Rickie, he remarked sadly as he admired the heavy head which had been partly blunted by its attack on the doors. Self-defence, we wouldnt have minded at all. I felt a strange camaraderie with these policemen though I put it down as quickly as it rose.
They decided to have a look through the grounds just in case anyone was still here. We went up to the north where the avenue gave out and then doubled back along a narrower path which came out level with the necropolis. They looked in awe at the black bulk as we cruised slowly past the monumental stairways.
Watch out for Billie if he spots those doors, remarked the driver. Hell have the family up with cutting equipment and a crane to cart them away. We all laughed. The other told a joke and then to my amazement they started talking about Janice though of course she was on the cars as well. I squirmed when they started talking about the bloke she was supposed to be going out with and how she seemed a lot happier.
We were now touring the lesser, more overgrown paths at this point and it was getting more difficult to see. Branches were sweeping low over the paths and had hit the windscreen a few times. Eventually the driver had to switch the lights on.
We sat silently, watching the ghostly apparition of vaults and tombs white in the beam of the headlights. The dank rain lying so heavily on the leaves gave them a sullen gleam and in places puddles had grown by the sides of the paths. Abstractedly, I noted that there was a camber to the paths and that there was actually a drainage system which was still working in places.
We all saw the figure at the same time, his arm raised to shield his eyes from the glare of the headlights. He was about forty yards away and stood frozen to the ground.
Get him, shouted the drivers mate. Get your foot down. He leant out of the window and shouted at the man to stand where he was.
The man came to and darted into the trees. We slowed enough for the drivers mate to jump out in pursuit and then went off at speed to head the man off. I racked my brains trying to guess where the man would go. We turned left and then to the left again, our wheels spinning on the gravel and sending up a great spray of stones and moss, and just catching a sight of the man running across the path thirty yards ahead.
An entrance to a narrower path came up and I shouted to the driver to turn into it. We sped along the narrow tunnel to the avenue that wed come along earlier, slowing just before the end and dimming the lights, long enough for the pursuit to reach the path, and then, gunning the engine, tearing round with full beam for twenty yards or so to slam on the brakes so that the fugitive fell sprawling over the bonnet.
Nice work, Tom, gasped the drivers partner as he got the man in a grip. They were both exhausted from their run through the trees.
We stood around him, menacing.
Right then, mate. What are you up to, eh? As he said this the driver shone a hand torch on him and I saw that he was in his twenties, was wearing jeans and an Afghan coat and had his long hair held in place by a headband.
A hippy, said the driver disgustedly.
The bloke yelled at them and I got the impression he was high.
Hey. Whats the hassle, man? Get off my arm."
In answer the policeman tightened his grip.
Love and peace, brother.
Pig. Ive got nothing on me, man. Im clean,
Like hell you are, sonny, snarled the driver shoving the lamplight right into his face. I felt uneasy watching this. I didnt really like the hippies but I didnt wish them any harm either. The policeman asked him what he had been doing.
Just walking, man. He jerked his head up the path. Just walking.
Like hell you were. No one walks in a cemetery at night unless theyre up to something.
Grave-robbing perhaps. 1 felt foolish and aghast at saying this. What was I doing acting like a policeman. They both turned and looked at me curiously but as I said nothing further went on with their questions.
You heard him, sonny, were you robbing a grave? Bit of black magic, eh? The other cop held his hand up and then pointed to a heavy ring the man was wearing.
Thats a nice ring, Bonny, the driver continued. Looks Victorian to me. Gold is it?
Yeah, its gold, the hippy said defiantly.
Whered you get it?
My chick, man.
And where do you live?
The Gate, man.
Yeah? Long way. Four in the morning.
So I was at a pad.
Hey man, how do I know? I was seeing my chick and this real cool guy had us back to his pad.
Well, where does your chick live?
Hey man, how do I know?
So how come youre here?
Man, I was walking.
And you just happened to be passing the cemetery and thought it looked a groovy place.
Yeah man. Far out.
Wont your girl be waiting for you? Nice bit of stuff?
Yeah sure, man. Ive got to get back, shell be freaked out.
But she lives up here, couple of miles maybe and yet you say shes waiting back at Notting Hill Gate.
Hey, I never said that, man. Youre pushing me. Why cant you fuzz leave people to do their own thing.
Graveyards in the middle of the night? No way, old son. The policeman paused. Now look, pal. Youre a hippy? OK. I dont like you, he doesnt like you, and he, this was the other cop, hed break your arm cause hes a fascist. In fact, were all fascists. Its a fascist police state and were going to stamp all you sodding hippies into the ground. But were going to give you a break.
Break his bleeding arm. The other policeman looked distractedly into the rain. The other continued.
As I was saying, were going to give you a break. You just tell us that you came in here and went to some old grave and took that ring. You save us a lot of trouble, and were grateful. Yeah, were grateful; even hes grateful. He said this pointing back to me.
The hippy glared at me. Hey, man? Who are you? Are you fuzz? Hey man, youre just uncool. Recognition dawned in his face though Id never seen him before. I seen you before, man. Mikes pad up at the Gate. Youre a stoolie, man. Shit, youve blown your cover.
The other policeman, sickened. by this drivel, grabbed the hippy and slammed him against the nearest tree.
The ring, damn you.
I jumped: I hadnt expected this violent sudden action. I peered through the rain at the hippie, still jammed up against the tree, but couldnt see his face.
The ring, you sod. The Victorian ring. Where did you get it. Eh? He grabbed the mans soaking hair and slammed his face against the bark. The other cop looked uneasily at me but I was feeling only the unreality of the scene, trembling with cold, hardly able to think, conscious only of the sharp pain in my arm.
The hippy, not really hurt for the bark was matted in soaking moss, was now showing apprehension, fearful probably of the police beating him up and throwing him into one of the graves. The driver bent down to pick something off the gravel.
Hey Bert. Take a look at this. You think he dropped it?
The other took it and gave it a studied examination then held it up for the hippy to see.
Hey, thats grass, man. What kind of hassle is this?
So you admit its grass?
Course its grass, you stupid The policeman slammed him against the tree again, cutting him short. Respect, sonny, course its grass officer and I admit to being in unlawful possession of grass. Say it.
Ive never seen it before. Hey, thats just grass, real grass.
Real grass, crowed the officer, now let me see . He consulted the other cop. Could that be Moroccan or maybe Pakistani?
The other was restless; it was too wet and cold.
Come on. Lets just book him. He opened the back door of the car. Youre charged with illegal possession of marijuahana, now get in. The other grabbed him by the deep fleecy collar and pushed him towards the car.
The hippy squirmed round to face his tormentor.
Hey man, youre joking.
The other cop laughed. We just hold you on a loitering charge, phone the drugs boys, they come up with an ounce or two and thats you.
Look what we found, sarge, said the other in a sanctimonious voice.
Hey, Ok, Ok. So 1 found the ring. It was lying on the ground. so I picked it up and was going to hand it to you guys. yeah? He appealed to me.
I couldnt take it. He was a predator on the dead. I turned my face away.
Ill get you, man. Stoolie.
The police bundled him into the car, and then turned to face me.
Right, which way?
I directed them to the entrance: it wasnt far.
See you, mate, shouted the driver as he revved the engine. Well get Billie and Smeddon, dont you worry; and Charlie boy here , he jerked his thumb at the hippy in the back seat. The car sped off, sending a spurt of gravel to its rear.
The cIatter of the stones subsided and the sounds of the night re-entered: darkness and the trees swaying, the steady ululation in the tops of cedar and pine, the drum of rain on my clothes and beneath it all the fierce pain in my hand. Somewhere there was a gurgle of water where a drain was working.
As I made my way back to the lodge all I could think of was the fact that Id just helped to arrest someone. Me! Working with the police; identifying with them, with authority. I felt sick, part of me anyway; but there was another part which didnt give a damn. I had changed.
So much had the excitement of the previous night been that Id forgotten about the inspection. As I came down the path, more than two hours late for work, I bumped into a little group of councillors and officials who were gathered on a viewpoint Id spent a lot of time preparing. They stared at me and I could hear the Director ask Alcott who I was. Fortunately there was a path on the left so that I didnt have to walk through them but I could feel them staring after me.
There had been a photographer and some journalists in the party. No wonder they didnt welcome my appearance; everything was to be so slick, pretty flowers and painted gates and fine speeches about the sanctity of the dead. And when the papers had printed their story they would forget about the place.
In the afternoon Alcott came to the park in search of me. I let him shout - he smelt of whisky and had on his best blue suit. So the Director agrees with Alcotts assessment of my character, so even a manual worker is expected to dress with some decency, and was I just starting work at that time. I said nothing about the attack of the previous evening.
Back at the cemetery I was surprised to see one of the reporters from the morning.
Been admiring your work. He meant the improvements near the entrance.
I shrugged. You know what councils are like. Clean up the entrance, forget the rest.
I noticed some work up at the far end. Yours?
Take you away from it, put on a nice show for us? He was a sharp intelligent looking man in his late thirties, with a mean predatory look. Maybe I was saying too much.
I had a sudden intuition. Say, are you the one that reported the cemetery in the first place?
So Ive got you to thank for my job. I said it as a joke.
Then he noticed my bandaged hand. and asked what had happened. Well, well, he remarked drily when 1 told him, quite a hero, arent you.
His cynicism annoyed me: I hardly had that in mind.
He stopped and. turned to me, challenging. Yeah, but whats in it for you? I mean, why do you stick it? It spooks me even in daylight yet you live here.
But I have to. I explained my circumstances.
Yes, but you like it, he insisted. Why?
But someone has to care. Someone has to look after them.
He laughed shortly. Theyre dead. Who cares about them?
I was annoyed. Come off it. youre the one who started all the fuss in the first place.
We were nearly at the lodge. Are you going to do an article? I asked. He shrugged Maybe. Shadowed by overhanging trees, he studied me for a moment then nodded. Yes. I will. He checked the time. Got to go. Take care, old son.
I watched him leave. He was as bad as them. It was just a good story. He didnt care about it. I put it out of mind, too tired to think anymore except of bed and sleep.
I was just set to go up when Janice called. Shed heard that morning and had fretted to see me. Now she actually fussed over me.
This was so unlike her that I tried to draw her into her usual insults but she ignored my sallies. It wasnt till afterwards that I realised things between us had progressed and I resolved in future to behave less brusquely towards her.
I made a special point of going up to the shops on the day the paper was printed. There it was on the front page, and another paper also had the story.
Cemetery Scandal said the one; Vandals Hit Cemetery, said the other. I read the stories over a cup of tea in the cafe. Basically there were two stories: the attack made on me and the attempt by the authorities to cover up the fact they intended to do nothing. I was made to look a hero, single-handedly fighting off two vicious grave robbers. I noted they had been arrested and were being held in custody. As I read I became alarmed. They really were attacking the council; I wasnt going to be popular. The Chairman of the Parks and Cemeteries Committee had issued a statement which was a muddle of his own good intentions and the machinations of the officials trying to play down their mistake.
I thought that would be the end of it: that the council would just lie low until the fuss blew down. Next week, however, a phone call came through to the park-keepers office. It was for me. I was to come down to head office immediately. Surely they wouldnt send for me if they were just going to sack me and if they were going to reprimand me they would do that through Alcott. My mind full of speculations I went up to the lodge to change into some reasonable clothes and clean myself up. The voice had said immediately but what did they expect.
Two hours later I presented myself at the enquiries window and was told to go along to the Directors office. His secretary looked at her diary, and told me the meeting wasnt till three thirty. An hour early. I excused myself and went out to a cafe where I had a snack, and speculated uselessly on the purpose of the meeting.
I was back in the ante-office in good time and chatted to the secretary, but she knew nothing of what had happened. Probably trying to keep it quiet. At twenty five past the Deputy came in with the Chairman and another man. They nodded, not too unkindly, and went into the office.
A few minutes later the phone buzzed and I was told to come in. They were seated in a row stretching on either side of the Directors desk. Significantly a chair had been placed in front and the Director motioned me into it. I took in the office and the men while they referred among themselves. The Director was a big heavy boned man with thin fair hair and bright red cheeks while his deputy was a gaunt rakish sort who looked steadily at me from cold logical eyes. The Councillors surprisingly looked like prosperous business men.
The Director spoke first. He had a trace of a West Country accent. Mr. Edge, Id like first to thank you for your very brave action last week in trying to stop those two criminals. It went beyond what you could reasonably be expected to do. The others murmured their agreement.
We had no idea of course, the Director apologised, that this had happened. It would have been quite in order for you to take a few days sick leave. He paused, then continued, choosing his words carefully.
Its a difficult problem. As you must know the council is not responsible for operating cemeteries; that is a function of borough councils. The metropolitan cemeteries, of which there are four, were in fact once under boroughs who felt it in the interest of the public that they should be purchased from cemetery companies that for one reason or another were unable to maintain them. Indeed, the Great Northern had, I understand, been lying derelict for many years.
You will appreciate that the maintenance of these places was a heavy responsibility for borough councils to bear because of their size. They did of course serve the needs of areas much larger than present day boroughs, and in fairness should have been a common responsibility and not just of the particular borough in which they were located. The ideal solution would have been for the government to take them over, but the circumstances of the time went against this and in the event we were required to take them over, primarily because they were interpreted as a common function for the metropolis.
He smiled at me. Of course, this would have been fine if we had received money from the government; as it is we do not and have to find the money for restoration from the banks and I am afraid that this is just impossible at the present time. Even to use our powers under the Compulsory Purchase Act so that we could turn them into parks would prove impossibly expensive.
The Chairman broke in. Its a question of priorities, lad. If we put money into this itd be taking away from people whore in desperate need of it." They nodded in agreement.
Nevertheless, continued the Director, we must honour the memory of the dead. These Victorian cemeteries are grand places, and should be restored. As they will be when money becomes available. In the meantime, Mr. Edge, this is what we propose to do. He looked down at a file on his desk. You have a degree, I understand.
Yes, thats good. He looked at me appraisingly. And you have shown yourself able to work unsupervised and with considerable application and initiative. You were originally appointed as a caretaker, primarily for security purposes. I think, and the Chairman and Vice Chairman agree with me, that the post carries a great deal of responsibility and if it is to be done properly must be filled by the right person. You are young but you do have sufficient formal qualification and have shown yourself well able to carry out the duties. What we propose to do is appoint you as Superintendent of Cemeteries with responsibility for security, maintenance and restoration of the Great Northern. Unfortunately there is a very real shortage of money but we have by trimming back our budget in various places been able to allocate you three thousand pounds, not a great deal but with intelligent use enough to make a real start on the cemetery. Now we would have liked to give you responsibility for all the cemeteries but with money being so short there would be no real point and anyway most of the problems have been occurring at the Great Northern. It is a possibility for the future, however, and if you are able to improve the grounds sufficiently to impress the media then they may bring pressure to bear on central government for funding. He paused, the meeting was coming to an end.
The Chairman leant over and muttered staff to him. Ah yes, Mr. Edge, normally you would be allocated a large number of workers but unfortunately our present staff is fully committed and as you know central government is forcing local authorities to cut back on staffing levels. He rose and came round to shake my hand. Once again my thanks for acting so courageously and Im sure we can expect great results from you.
I left in a daze feeling at once elated and uncertain. Alcott was out of the way now and I was in sole charge with a substantial budget and yet I was being used, bribed almost; theyd been frightened into doing something and theyd only given me a high position first because they couldnt get rid of me and second because it made them look serious about the task - Superintendent would quieten the papers down. In different circumstances they wouldnt have given a damn about me.
And yet the Director had impressed me, he seemed sincere enough. I mean, what could they do when theyd been landed with a cemetery no one else wanted, and for which no money or staff was available without taking it from something else. I decided Id continue and only if it became blatant that I was being used would I leave. But then it was stupid to think that, for what else had been happening ever since Id started. The truth was I loved the cemetery and their motives didnt matter.
For the best part of a week I was over the moon about the job. There I was a week before, absolutely nothing, insecure, being victimised by Alcott, not able to do anything with the cemetery and now with complete control and a budget to work with.
It was in fact very strange coming back to the cemetery after the interview. I had gone for a meal in town, wandered around a bit amongst all the people. In a very real way I was part of the main stream again. That in itself was odd for up till then I had been totally cut off, inward looking, living from day to day. It was, I suppose, the insecurity, the fear and then the threat of losing my job. Now that my position was stable I could put the cemetery in more perspective, that it was, after all, in the middle of a city, that all I need concern myself with was doing a job.
I saw Gray again and he was concerned about the attack but delighted about the promotion, going on about it being a great honour to be placed in such a position of trust. One thing I noticed was that his manner, always polite, became almost fawning.
I also saw Janice and she was surprised and pleased at my news. I remembered her attentions after the attack and the resolve I had then to treat her better. We went to a Trattoria entirely at her prompting but after a while I got used to the Hampstead. types and found it quite good though I'd had better food at a quarter of the price.
She looked really amazing in the soft light and for the first time I forgot she was a policewoman. She got me to recount the whole story and I could tell that she was pleased with the way I had handled myself. She was interested in the promotion too and quizzed me on what it meant though I didnt really know myself. Rather uncertainly I said that I felt uneasy about having sided with the policemen but she didnt leap down my throat - I think she was trying too - and I accepted her measured argument that there was right and wrong and that someone had to stand up against the wrongdoers. It was rather flattering to have her think of me as a hero, or at least someone who stood up for something they believed in.
As we walked to her house about two miles away she took my arm and leant against me chatting inconsequentially about things. The closeness of her body excited me and I kept imagining she was making innuendos, that there was a meaning in every movement, every glance and encouraged began plotting ahead. I had just got her into bed when we reached her house and I had to be content with a slightly strained kiss. Still, I felt elated as I walked back. It was the first time wed got on really well and I knew I was fascinated by her.
Some time later I reported for my first meeting at the council offices, and was shown to the Deputy Directors office.
Anderson looked at me quizzically then remembered who I was.
Come in, Edge. Take a seat. He had the dry rasping tones of someone north of Edinburgh and, someone south of Aberdeen, at least his accent sounded in between two people from those cities I had known from University.
I sat down, slightly self-conscious in the new suit I had bought as it was a bit too large. Anderson of course was immaculate and had that well-scrubbed look I associated with success.
He talked in general terms about what I was to do, very much leaving it to me though that was the way I wanted it. He then went into the structure of the department and it was here that I learnt there was a regular meeting of Area Supervisors of Parks and that I was to be slotted into this along with Alcott and others of his ilk, and in fact that there was a meeting on today. It appeared that the parks were grouped in eight areas and Alcott was in charge of the northern group. Whatever else, the meeting was going to be interesting just to see Alcotts reaction to my promotion.
We went along to the room where the meeting was being held. Anderson nodded to the supervisors and then indicated a place for me at the far end of the table. I was ignored apart from a brief nod from two and a glare from Alcott that had replaced an initial look of surprise. The men, there were nine, were all much older than me, in their fifties. Two looked like Alcott, short and bad tempered, another red cheeked and suntanned with an amiable face a little like a gardener. The others looked ordinary though a little sullen.
Anderson coughed. We may as well begin, gentlemen. I take it the minutes of the last meeting are acceptable? There were nods and Anderson then introduced me. They looked my way and one or two may have smiled but I was taken up with staring Alcott in the eye.
The Deputy passed into the business of the meeting which consisted of long discussions on items such as the use of a new type of grass seed for playing fields and the purchase of grass-cutting equipment. I found parts interesting because of my experience but generally I was out of my depth. Eventually under any other business the Great Northern was raised.
The man from the south spoke. If I might say, Mr. Chairman, we are a little concerned at the appointment of Mr. Edge to the Great Northern. We have always felt the Metropolitan Cemeteries to be our responsibility. We hope that this can be confirmed.
Anderson was annoyed. Mr. Edge has been appointed Superintendent. It was decided at the last committee meeting and I can see no useful purpose in discussing it here.
The man from the east spoke. With respect, Mr. Chairman, it goes deeper than that. These cemeteries are our responsibility and Mr. Edges appointment takes that away from us.
Alcott spoke. And another thing. Edge was a manual labourer. since when does a manual labourer come to be a higher grade than an Area Supervisor? There were mutters of agreement round the table.
Anderson glared briefly at Alcott. The decision to appoint Mr. Edge was taken by Committee and I am not in a position to comment on it.
As to whether responsibility for the cemeteries was yours, I doubt this very much, for no money has been made available since, he consulted his notes, 1935, the date the cemetery was taken over, when it was intended to do some work on it.
I fail to see how that is relevant, said the man from the south. The cemeteries were made the responsibility of the department and since we are the Area Supervisors they must come under our jurisdiction or at least under those of us where they are located.
Anderson spoke: If they were not made your responsibility, and nowhere can I find anything to suggest they were, then responsibility lay with the Director and the Committee. They have now chosen to allocate that responsibility.
Yes, but they could have given it to us, insisted the man from the west.
And not to a young layabout, Alcott interrupted forcibly, his face red with contained rage.
I hardly think layabout is an apt description of Mr. Edge. I do hope, Mr. Alcott, you will liaise with your colleague, as the cemetery lies in your area.
Exactly, exploded Alcott. My area.
If we could just return to the point I was making, said the man from the west, making signs at Alcott to keep quiet, there was no need to create this post when there were existing administrative arrangements for dealing with the cemetery.
Then perhaps youd tell me just when Area Supervisors took this on, said Anderson. For as you are aware there were no supervisors in 1935, and none until 1951. Before that time each park was autonomous with overall charge lying with the Surveyor. The budget I mentioned was used up by the park-keeper at Dawes who sent some men over to board up the lodge and secure the grounds. I have examined the files after 1951, including job descriptions and nowhere is there a mention of the cemeteries. I'm afraid nothing supports your claim.
It went on like this for a while: what about the other Metropolitan cemeteries, how much was the budget, where was it coming from and the like. At the end, Anderson just cut it short and closed the meeting. There was a lot of tension in the air as they left.
When they were gone Anderson asked what I thought about it.
Ive obviously created a lot of resentment, I replied.
Yes. Its a tricky situation. Theyll create hell about this. And the thing is they did damn all when they had them but now youre doing something they want them back.
You mean they actually had responsibility for them? I asked anxiously.
In a manner of speaking, yes. It all depends on whether the absence of a clear decision means responsibility passed to them by default as it were.
Didnt any of them do anything?
Never. If they had it would have been difficult to appoint you. Well, liaise with Alcott for supplies and if you have any trouble let me know. And another thing. Make a report on the state of the cemetery and what you intend to do. Well discuss it before the next meeting.
I took my leave of Anderson and being in town went to see my friends to tell them all my news. As I was in the money it cost me a fortune in drinks but was worth it.
A week after the meeting the minutes were brought to me by a disgruntled postman whod had to make a special journey all the way to the cemetery. As it was all one to me I agreed that my mail should be left in the post office where I could collect it when up at the shops.
The Great Northern was placed under any other business and from the formal style of the minutes no one would have realised the undercurrents involved.
The Chairman stated that in an effort to contain vandalism in the Great Northern Metropolitan Cemetery, a Mr. Edge had been appointed to the post of Superintendent. Clarification was sought on where responsibility for the maintenance and security of the Metropolitan cemeteries lay, it being submitted that the appointment would result in a duplication of existing effort. The Chairman replied that due to financial restrictions in the past it had not proved possible to allocate staff or resources to this work until now and it was therefore a new appointment and as such did not entail any duplication of effort. It had not been considered feasible to designate Area supervisors in view of their existing duties.
The minutes went on: Concern was expressed that funds allocated to the Great Northern would result in a reduction of the leisure and recreation facilities normally available to the public. The Chairman agreed that this was regrettable but in view of the important responsibility the Department had for these cemeteries it had been decided that this was unavoidable. He requested Mr. Alcott to afford Mr. Edge all necessary facilities in the way of materials and equipment subject to costs being met from the Great Northerns budget.
This was the first time I had seen an example of bureaucratic doubletalk: due to financial restrictions in the past - due to total lack of concern; in view of the responsibility the department had - due to adverse press reports. I wondered how the comments I was going to make at the next meeting about Alcotts total uncooperativeness would be reported - after comprehensive consideration of the requirements of the cemetery it was decided that every effort should be made to meet these from existing sources. They could hardly let the councillors see anything else. Alcott had refused me point blank and I had no more luck with two other supervisors who proved evasive saying they were short on materials at present and that their equipment was in use and referring me back to Alcott as per Andersons decision. Eventually I had realised I could wait months before prising anything from them and so had gone to various local suppliers and ordered what I needed.
I saw Andrew again and we had a long talk about the history of the cemetery. He expressed an interest to see the records again and for an hour we poured over them before he had to go. He advised me to be careful about the Area Supervisors and said that I should show my face frequently in the main office as that was where theyd do their best to undermine me and always to give the impression that I knew what I was doing.
The first of my orders arrived, a motorised grass-cutter which had only cost about £100. It was a gleaming green monster of a thing with ferocious blades and a large engine.
Stupidly I had no petrol but the lorry driver dropped me at a garage half a mile beyond the shops where I bought two gallons. As I struggled back with them it struck me that I wasnt very well organised. I couldnt keep running up to this garage every time I needed petrol. It needed a tank at the lodge.
It was Anderson wanting a report that had made me start to notice things like this, for when I had sat down to write it I had very quickly found myself out of my depth, not knowing what to order, how much to order, where to start and in fact had had to put off writing it. What I was doing, I think, was letting my imagination do the work; I was going out to cut the grass and in my minds eye seeing it done after a days hard work, the same with the drainage, the tombs. In truth I was only playing at it, dabbling; filled with energy certainly but undirected to any one task. The cemetery was a hotch potch of schemes Id started and then left to go on to other things. The grass cut here and there, the bushes clipped back in another spot, a tomb carefully repaired while others lay open and unprotected. That just wasnt the way to go about things.
I had reached the gap in the wall and could see how true it was that I had done nothing; bits here and there, that was all. I sat down by the first grave Id boarded up. It looked terrible, a botched job of ugly planks that were warping already. And the weeding of the paths was, I could see, intermittent, a patch cleared here and there but no different in principle from the untouched parts, for the weeds and moss were still there.
I felt a bit upset about all these musings. Id really have to start again and think things out. For example, should I concentrate on one area of the grounds at a time and do everything; weeding, clearing, grass-cutting, restoring the drainage or should I do just one of these throughout the whole cemetery. The more I thought about it the more my feelings of inadequacy were reinforced. There, for example, I had been cutting back all the vegetation and was all set to carry on doing this. But why do it in late summer when everything was in full bloom. Surely it would be easier to do this in winter with only the branches to contend with, not a choking tangle of heavy foliage. Id be able to get into the centre of bramble patches and shrubs. I should, however, do the weeding in summer when theyd be still visible. Theyd die down in winter all right but I wouldnt be able to find them. As for the grass, it would stop growing after the autumn so all I need do would be to cut it sometime in October and I could forget about it for six months.
Then the ironwork. What was the point of doing that in the winter when the frosts and rain would quickly undo my work.
So that left me with what? Repair work in summer, weeding the paths, grass cutting in late autumn and the vegetation in winter. It was governed by the seasons. There would be other things too, like flower planting in early spring.
What this meant of course was that Id have to work on the cemetery as a whole at the appropriate time of year, doing all the weeding, all the repair work, otherwise Id find myself in one area in the middle of winter painting ironwork which would show rust again within a month or blunting picks on iron-hard ground. It all depended on time, really. I needed an estimate for each task.
I kept looking at the tombs Id repaired just weeks before. This was another thing, the deterioration already showing. Id have to do the thing properly, seal the wood, use primer and outdoor paint. The same with the paths where the weeds were growing back in; gallons of weedkiller, not just a little sprinkled here and there thinking to get everything done as quickly as possible.
Despite my more orderly thinking, according to which I should now put the grass-cutter aside for a couple of months and finish off the stone and ironwork before winter set in, I still wanted to try it out and employed the excuse of getting an estimate for the time needed for the whole cemetery.
Once started the machine behaved beautifully. I charged up and down between the graves for the thing had quite a pull to it, scattering grass everywhere. After half an hour I switched off and surveyed its work. It wasnt bad at all, some thirty yards by twenty, still untidy near the graves for I hadnt been able to get too close but on the whole a great improvement and done in a fraction of the time Id taken with the scythe.
I did a quick estimate. The cemetery was just under a square mile which was 1760 yards by ....my heart sank ..... three million square yards divided by six hundred. Five thousand half-hours. It didnt sound too bad I thought hopefully as I did the final calculations. I was aghast at the final figure: three hundred days.
I thought about it a bit more, making allowances for the trees and sepulchres and of course, the paths but still came up with something between three and five months. This led me on to the weeding of the paths. No wonder I hadnt made an impression, for there were twenty eight miles or more averaging out at three yards width which made one hundred and fifty thousand square yards. I checked a drum of weedkiller to see how many square yards it would cover. Id need fifteen hundred gallons and it still had to be diluted.
I spent the rest of the day estimating for various jobs and in the evening sat down and drafted the report with the new information. At the end it was rough but much clearer. I had now made a distinction between all the aspects of the work; the paths, drainage, entrance, vegetation, graves and had worked out a chronological sequence.
Over the next few evenings I refined this still further by splitting the cemetery into distinct areas and by subdividing the work on paths, drainage and the like into stages, for example clearing the paths of weeds, filling in holes, straightening the edges, covering with gravel. When it was finished I posted it to Anderson, glad to get it off my mind.
I saw Janice again. We had a great time and I was amazed at how different she was from the stroppy policewoman Id taken her to be. It was over the next few days that I realised Id fallen for her. I couldnt get her out of my mind and felt rotten when she wasnt around. She went on back shift for a week and it proved an agony for me, even leading to me haunting the streets near her home one day when she was supposed to come home from work but with no success. At last I saw her again and invited her to the lodge on Saturday with a promise to cook for her.
It was her first proper visit and I derived great pleasure from seeing her move around the kitchen. Everything about her fascinated me: I no longer thought of her as a policewoman, just as Janice. I thought it was time to tell her what I thought of her.
It was a disaster. She just stared at me. What are you talking about, Mike .... youre in love with me? We hardly know each other.
I looked at her stupidly. What do you mean?
I mean that we hardly know each other. How can you love me after a few weeks? It's just infatuation.
No it's not. I know what the difference is.
Youre just a friend, Mike. Im not obliged to love you. You cant just snap your fingers and expect me to fall into your arms. She became distant. Now lets drop it.
I continued arguing but it all went from bad to worse. Next thing I knew she was grabbing her coat and getting ready to go.
This was a disaster, it wasn't meant to be like this. I pleaded with her, followed her down to the gates but it just made things worse. She turned at the gates. "How many times do I have to tell you, Mike. You're pushing too hard, you don't give a damn about me, this is all about how you feel, not about what I feel. Well I'm going and don't bother getting in touch."
I called out after her, but she was gone.
Over the next few days I was in a black mood. I ate little, did no work and took to wandering through the cemetery for hours on end. How it suited me to be lost in that wilderness, to brood and grieve over my loss. Morbidly I began to imagine that she was buried here, that I would never see her again and the long lists of names on each gravestone became all the more poignant; they too must have known the grief that I knew.
And yet in that desolation was also hatred; I let scenes build up in my mind where I could see her face, hard and indifferent, and I too would be cold, would shout at her, ignore her, dismiss her. What did I care? But I did and always the hard-faced Janice would change into the light and gentle face of the person I loved. And reconciled in my mind I would move on, grieving that she had gone, till half an hour, an hour later these mental scenes would return, often with a fresh and painful change.
I was wearied by all this thinking, all this imagining: it was getting me nowhere. Whatever she was, shed gone, whether through my fault or hers, leaving me with a sadness that seemed inconsolable.
Now quieter, I gave myself over to the emptiness she had caused. I sat down on the steps of a mausoleum and looked at the sombre beauty of the backwater I was in. The trees were thickly planted here and the clear blue sky could be seen framed by their upper branches yet incompletely, with patches now large, now small showing further away, with all the time a shifting play of light and darkness where the branches and leaves were thinner. I noticed how one mass of leaves darker in tone would move across a lighter mass yet itself be hidden by lower branches of a deeper tone, and all the time those glimpses of sky between the limbs of trees planted further away.
I gazed into the clarity and emptiness of that sky for a long time, soothed by its gently waving outline, its frame of golden leaves and sunlit branches, its flooding of the world beneath the dappled tree-tops, with its lightness picking out the heavy branches of the trees in their varied shades, shining full upon the trunk of a beech, less intensely on an elm, scattering on the path where the first leaves had fallen and throwing the tombs into relief of light and shade.
I threw pebbles idly along the path thinking that Janice could have been with me now. She could have been sitting on the steps beside me, her head framed by the pillar of the portico and the front of the tomb, her face lively against the russet and gold of the shrubs beyond. She had flowers in her hands, wildflowers of red and yellow and lilac, a bouquet lovely against her cotton dress and as she laid them by her side I gazed at her strong brown legs, at the shape of her thighs shown by the dress, at her arms and shoulders and the way the cotton hinted at the shape of her breasts, and then at her face with its ideal beauty. She held out her hand to me and pulled me onto my feet and for half an hour or more we walked along the paths, silent yet hearts filled with yearning.
I heard the crunching of gravel. It was Gray.
Id have much preferred to be alone but since it was Andrew made an effort to snap out of my reverie.
He was in a talkative mood and I listened silently as he went on about the landscaping of the cemetery and its roots in the Baroque ideal of the Arcadian landscape. I listened as he painted a picture of sunlit glades peopled by nymphs, satyrs and shepherds; of shaded groves and springs and deep clear pools where a goddess might dwell. Temples glimpsed through trees and the sun shining high in a clear blue sky.
Think of Poussins painting of the Arcadian Shepherds, he said, only a moment before, festive and sporting; now sombre and pensive before a sepulchral monument. Reluctant they read the words ET IN ARCADIA EGO. What do these mean: I too am in Arcadia.
Death also is in Arcadia, Andrew told me, even here in the land of eternal happiness. And this is what can be taken from this painting, he continued, that the cemetery is Arcadia where we may come across sepulchral stones and ponder for a moment that in the midst of life there is still death. Even here in the cemetery is death to be found.
You mean, I asked, this is not a cemetery but Arcadia.
He nodded, saying that it was a symbol of both life and death and not of death alone. He went on in this fashion to speak of the god of the old greeks, of death, with his rage and terrible beauty, his horns of fruit and flowers, a cornucopia and a wreath, and his eyes, one which looked to heaven, the other into hell.
In a brief silence I caught him give me a strange look, deferential yet speculative, and for a moment felt uneasy - he did have a fawning air about him - but my train of thought was lost when he started speaking again.
I was puzzled how there could be more than one god of death: I had never spoken to Andrew about what Id seen, referring only to troubles with my imagination but I now told him and asked why there were a number of gods like this.
He gave me an answer of sorts and then questioned me deeply about what had happened at the gate, telling me that I had seen Baron Samedi, Lord of the Cemeteries whose clothing was a sign of the universality of death, a kind of cosmopolitan detachment. He puzzled about the other figure, Bython, which he told me meant Abyss but could say nothing other than that it was a deep mystery.
I told him about Janice and the other cop. His eyes widened in surprise.
A policewoman. Thats remarkable, Michael.
As a matter of fact Im going out with her, or supposed to be anyway. Her names Janice.
He looked startled. Janice?
I stared at him in alarm. Why? Whats the matter?
He waved his hand. Oh nothing, nothing at all.
It was clear that something was wrong; he was frightened though why was beyond me. Then I remembered Janus, the Roman god. Did he think she was Janus. I scowled, wondering what he was getting at.
We continued in uneasy silence but when we reached the necropolis he got back into his stride with a discourse about French neo-classicism and its great creative spirits, men like Boule and Ledoux; how this was an age of contradiction, with on the one hand, the flowering of the scientific intellect in the Enlightenment, and on the other, intense revolutionary feelings. It was, therefore, an age of creation, old forms overthrown, new ones emerging. And whence did these emerge, he asked. The unconscious. Hence the immense and powerful substructures to the buildings, a complete contrast to modern architecture with its curtain wall still hiding the steel girders, the unconscious still there but hidden.
He remarked that these monumental works were often surmounted by a dome and explained that architecture modelled the creative processes of the architect, that in this time of revolution, of deep convulsions in the unconscious mind, of confused yet lofty aspirations it was inevitable that these should be expressed in an explicit substructure and a lofty dome, signs of the source of creativity and its goal. The buildings as such were merely means to its attainment.
He then directed me to the necropolis. I saw at once that the heavy base was a sign of the unconscious, the underworld. And why did it lack a dome, he questioned. And in an instant I saw that the superstructure mimicked the form of the plinth because there was no goal to this building beyond that of death.
We were out at one edge examining one of the torches when he suddenly turned to me.
Michael he said. Id very much like to see the necropolis. Would it be possible?
I was about to say yes when something stopped me. There was something strange going on. He was excited for some reason and trying very hard to conceal it.
Im not sure, I said, slightly flustered.
Surely you as Superintendent dont mind. It would only take a minute.
Something strange going on. He was totally out of character.
Maybe another day, I said, Im not really allowed to open it up to anyone.
But why not now? I really would appreciate it.
I was embarrassed by this pleading. It was obvious he wanted to enter for some reason other than mere curiosity. Suddenly I had to get away.
Listen Andrew. Im sorry but Ill have to go. I must meet a friend. I ran down the steps and turned, waving once, but he had averted his face and, I thought, looked desolate.
All that night and throughout the next day a suspicion was forming in my mind. Who was Gray? The more I thought about it the more I became convinced my suspicion was right. For a start there was the fact that he was always hanging around the cemetery. Certainly I liked him: he was charming and urbane in a way I admired but could never hope to be myself. But who was he? What did he do? What would allow him to visit the cemetery in the middle of the week? He looked like any of a number of things: a don, a senior civil servant, a poet; but why would any of these be so interested in me.
I think in fact I had always suspected him and that it was only his insistence that he be allowed to enter the western necropolis that had caused it to flare up. He kept going on about me being the Superintendent. And he wanted to enter the necropolis. As if I were the key to something he wanted.
Access to the realm of Death and me as its keeper.
Gray was one of the magicians and he wanted me to give him leave to enter the Underworld, a symbolic act that would give him great power, permission from the god of death himself.
I saw now why he had been so interested in Janice for she fitted in with the symbolism, confirmed my status. And yet he had been frightened of her involvement with me. What did that mean? I resolved to speak to him about all this, annoyed at being used yet still unable to see him as responsible for the desecrations that had taken place in the cemetery. One thing I meant to do the following day was visit the necropolis: hed made me curious about it and I felt deep down that if I entered it then this would play an essential part in what was to come.
Over the next few days one thing or another prevented me from visiting the necropolis but at last I had the time and looked out the key and a lantern and set off.
Halfway there it started to rain and I ran the rest of the way. I stood by the doors watching the rain slant in from the west, scudding off the great flagstones that constituted the wide steps and adding further to the puddles of the pathways. The place looked more desolate than ever in the rain, as if muffled and withdrawn into shelter behind its grey walls, as if people caught here would stand motionless under trees, enduring the drips and trickles of rain like the crumbling angels and pillars and plinths that stood all around.
The entrance was recessed and I was able to lean against the bronze doors out of the rain. I wondered if it was a good idea to explore underground when I had got so wet; it was bound to be chill and dank, but decided that a half hour or so wouldnt kill me. What was perhaps more to the point was whether I should forget the whole idea when I might see Bython again. Despite the calmness of recent weeks I couldnt forget that this was where he was centred. I looked down at my sodden shoes and damp trousers, at the puddle created where the rain had dripped off me then shrugged off the bleak feeling.
I inserted the great foot long key in the gaping keyhole but it wouldnt turn and I had to look for a stout branch to give me leverage. At last the lock thudded back, the bronze amplifying the sound. From my experience with other doors and gates I knew the hardest part would be persuading the doors to move, a century of accumulated rubbish, not to mention the sheer weight, would see to that. In fact they opened easily because the bronze hinges were not rusted, although I still had to put my whole weight into the effort.
I stood hesitant on the threshold. The darkness was overwhelming. By contrast with that stygian realm the dismal cemetery was full of life: trees, flowers, small animals and birds. I looked up past the heavy lintel, carved with Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the dark clouds, drawing courage from the light; it was day after all, and I had a lantern with me. Even a preliminary investigation would do; and if necessary I could rig up electric lighting with a generator.
In this manner I persuaded myself to enter the necropolis, tentatively at first, keeping close to the door and the light, and then as my eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, on brief forays into the darkness. I turned the wick in the lantern as high as it would go but though it was fine for the kitchen its light looked wan and feeble in this vast space and barely showed what lay ten feet beyond.
Towards the back of the necropolis there was a raised platform edged with a rail but I couldnt fathom what the thing was. There were steps leading to the platform which was a few feet wide and then at the far end, another platform, three feet higher, and in the centre of all this, a deep pit, at the foot of which was a floor of metal scaled with rust.
Leaving it to later, I used the height of the platform to light up a larger area. The back of the chamber was visible but not the walls. It struck me that there was probably only this platform in the whole place.
So it proved. It was completely empty, merely an upper storey to the catacombs. By now I could see that it wasnt really dark after all. The light from the doors was enough to see the platform, even from the far corners, a dim and dusty shape softly moulded in the shaft of gray light that stretched across the floor. I walked round and round the floor, familiarising myself so that it would be less difficult to come here again.
The next stage was to get down below and eventually, halfway along the right hand wall, I found a flight of steps leading down. It brought me to a large chamber filled with an assortment of junk, rotted wood, rope, rusted metal bars and a number of extremely heavy candelabra which must have been used in the reception hall upstairs. I wondered if they had used gas but so far had seen nothing to suggest this.
The next chamber was much larger and here I saw what the platform above was intended for, for there was a gigantic machine that could only have been a lift. Immediately under and supporting the iron tray were four strong metal telescopic columns that emerged out of an enclosed tank of some kind which was connected to a boiler. There were even some pieces of coal lying by the wall. I marvelled at the inventiveness of the Victorians, a steam coffin loader, and perfectly apt too with the simulacrum of the grave above, mourners gathered round the coffin placed to rest, the clergyman standing above them reading the funeral service, and then with a hiss of steam the coffin lowering out of sight and, my eye caught a hinged plate underneath the roof, a false floor swinging up to hide the coffin from view. Efficient and slightly macabre. It was too easy, looking at the rusty machinery, to imagine it going wrong and causing upset to mourners.
I wondered what the people who had worked here had been like, handling the coffins as they came in. Rough types if the cemetery records were anything to go by, rotten with drink but they would have to be to work in this darkness. I imagined the place, red from the flame of the boiler, weird flickering shadows on the soot encrusted walls, misshapen shadows, grotesque, gigantic as the attendants stooped over the coffin, the foul curses and mumblings as they hauled it away to the catacombs, the distant clank of a metal grill and then the shufflings and grunts echoing up the stairwell.
I stepped over some rusted metal, having spotted a wide flight of steps leading downward. At the bottom I raised the lantern and peered uncertainly around. Three corridors receded from the flickering light into echoing blackness for there was water dripping with insistent hollowness as if in an empty space. The sounds made were magnified, the breathing, the rustle of the damp clothing, the scrape of my feet, which were sore from the swollen wool socks sticking to the leather and rubbing against them, the squeak of the lantern as it swung on the handle, they were localised, contained in the tiny splatter of light on brick walls, slimed floor; the other sounds beyond this, separate from me, menacing, alien.
I walked along the passage hardly wanting to look at the cells where the bodies were laid. They were tall, barrel vaulted and guarded by iron bars. I could see they were fifteen feet deep, enough for two coffins on each bench.
The place stank of dampness and was very cold. I knew from the plan in the lodge that it was laid out on a grid, the same size as the necropolis above, some ten passages aligned east and west and some five aligned north and south. I was on the one running along the back of the necropolis and every few yards a passage went off to the left.
I followed the outer passage right round and then cut through the centre. These central passages were narrower and more oppressive: I kept thinking of Bython but for all that my imagination was well under control. There was no Bython, nor any slobbering shapes or skeletal hands reaching out for me, just little brick lined cells behind rusting ironwork, which with the coffins looked not much different from a cellar storeroom. That didnt mean it wasnt a dark and forbidding place but I could at least see it as an architectural structure of paving stones and brick and iron work. I mean, the place had once been built, a great pit dug out of the earth with the paths marked out and the walls rising and. joining up to form a roof, looking at first like an ancient temple unearthed from the soil and then like what - not much more than cellars for a country house I suppose. Empty yet, it would have been a strange structure but hardly frightening and even when many of the cells were filled what of those that were still empty?
The shadows of the bars fled into the remoteness of each cell as I passed with the lantern. I turned at the stairs: whatever it was, it was a dull cheerless place. This was the reality behind all the pomp and majesty of death, behind the great symbols like the necropolis; a damp storeroom below the earth, not an end to be aimed at or feared, for it meant nothing when one reached it at death. These symbols were for the living, to fear or contemplate, there was no fear in death. Those who were dead were not here, nor was this the realm of death. Here there was nothing. It was just stone and iron and dust deep in the earth.
I made my way outside, glad to see daylight again. So used had my eyes got to the darkness that the top level seemed quite bright and more akin to the outside world than the darkness below. I stood at the doorway breathing in the fresh air, glad to be alive, aware of the harmony in things, the rain and wind, the swaying trees, the puddles on the paths, things that were vibrant with life, that were real.
And as I stood there I thought about Janice and how like our relationship was to this visit. The necropolis, image of death, a symbol like the cemetery and nothing behind the image remotely like the image that men feared. Janice was an image of light and love, an impossible ideal. Janice was in my mind, not out there; an image that was nothing like the real Janice. Janice was moody, independent, sure of herself, dismissive; but she was also vulnerable, caring, witty and charming. That was the real Janice. Id been a fool to be caught up in this image.
She was coming down the path.
I wanted to see you again, she said.
I nodded. Things will be better. She sensed that I meant this and after a moment smiled contentedly.
Come on, she said. Ill make you dinner.
I saw Gray two days later. We exchanged greetings and then I fell silent. He looked at me. Is there something wrong Michael? I hope I didnt offend you by asking to enter the Western Necropolis.
No, no, its not that. I flushed. This wasnt easy. Suppose I were wrong; hed be offended. Its not every day youre called a black magician.
You must forgive me, Andrew I said with a forced laugh, this cemetery is making me paranoid. Id almost convinced myself you were a black magician. I hastened to explain why Id formed this suspicion and then laughed it off.
He looked at me gravely. But I am a magician, Michael.
You dont deny it, I gasped.
No, he replied, not a black magician, of course. A magician.
Then I was right that you wanted my permission to enter the necropolis, a symbolic entry into the underworld with me as its guardian.
He smiled. Thats right, Michael.
We walked along in silence. Too much silence. I asked him to explain a little more about his purpose, his designs. I wanted to be convinced he did not practice black magic.
I nodded as he explained how his religion was much older than Christianity, than Buddhism or any of the other long established creeds, how these religions depended so much on faith when he knew. He believed in God but not in a Christian God separate from His creation but in a God immanent and. incarnate in the world. A god who was One and more than One.
He looked gravely at me. There are forces, Michael, subordinate to the one God but so far removed from him in the chain of being that they are autonomous. A hierarchy of beings where the totality of all being is God. Not in the sense that the highest spirit in the hierarchy is God but that the whole hierarchy is God.
He had talked to
me once about Rilke. I assumed he was referring to the Angelic.
Ah Michael. If only you would join with me and my friends. How much there is you could learn.
I dont want to get involved in black magic.
He shook his head. But if you could only see with our eyes. To the world we appear vile; desecrators of the grave. But no. Let me explain. We work in symbols and signs. What is there, he waved his hand over the grounds, is nothing but a sign of spiritual and magical forces. Which must be conquered if we are to command ourselves. For they are forces within us.
You know of the unconscious, Michael? Then in our visitations the cemetery is a sign of the unconscious. Our unconscious. When we slip in at night we come into the underworld of our own unconscious, a conscious deliberate act whereby we evoke forces uncontrolled by the mass of mankind. See here, Michael, we were at a point high over the cemetery, you see only paths and sepulchres. On the contrary I see in this a map of the unconscious, a place of forces and correspondences that if awakened are paralleled in our mind.
But the black magic, I insisted, the skulls, the magic circles?
Tokens of death, and the circles to protect us.
But you still break into graves ?
He shook his head. No. We too in our everyday lives respect the dead. We are not vandals for whom these things have no meaning. We enter the vaults, true; but it is without malice. The dead are merely instruments of our progress to power.
Over ourselves, not over others.
But Andrew, I dont see the point. Why are you looking for this power, this self control?
He was surprised at this question, tried to explain and was puzzled when I didnt respond. We walked on in silence.
These forces, I asked. What do they feel like? I thought they were demonic.
Uncontrolled they are demonic. Brought to consciousness and understood, they are benefic. As to what they feel like; why your fears of the past weeks will tell you that. He wheeled on me enthusiastically. There you were, an ordinary person with age old fears, fears suppressed normally but in your case erupting into consciousness, threatening to send you mad as they can do. Demons in a sense. And you, Michael, have vanquished these fears, you have controlled them. This in itself sets you apart. He looked benignly at me. You yourself are unaware of this, but over the past weeks you have grown in moral strength, in presence. And it is solely because those once malefic forces have come into your consciousness and been transformed into forces of light. This is the way of these things. He paused. Thats why we involve ourselves in this work. To transform what is evil in ourselves into what is good.
I reacted strongly at this. How can you tell me its something good when you worship the Devil?
Oh, Michael: me worship Satan? Of course not. We seek to control these forces. I detest evil as much as any decent minded person. Were serious people, Michael, seeking to understand our own nature and eliminate what is evil.
But I still cant understand why you have to use a cemetery. Why not some other sign of the unconscious?
Because its the best that there is. It provides the quickest way to initiation since the forces are so powerful. Of course ordinary people dont understand; they think were evil, devil-worshippers, necromancers. But we hardly flaunt ourselves in public. We do our best to keep our work secret and its hardly our fault if they seek us out. No, its a hard and dangerous path and that is why we must work in secret. It is not for the many but for the few.
He became enthusiastic again.
And you are one of the few. Already you have gone far on the path of controlling these forces, forces which many, including some of my own people could not have withstood. Join us and with the aid of techniques we have discovered you will progress far on the paths to knowledge. Think of it, Michael, this vast landscape which is your unconscious awaiting exploration. You will know things you never imagined, become sensitive to subtle and noble thoughts, you will walk between heaven and hell as a master of destiny, assured of esteem and a high place in our order. Come, join us and finish what you have begun so well.
We walked on in silence, then he spoke again.
Michael, Three days ago I asked if you would allow me to enter the necropolis. The reason is I think clear to you. You are for me a symbol of a god. That god is Death. Allow me to enter the realm of the underworld that is the necropolis, permit me this.
I gave no reaction so he continued.
For many years I have been a student of magic, have taken many initiations. I am ready now for the final initiation, that into the realm of death itself. That is why I need your permission. Give it to me, Michael.
He stopped. That was all he was going to say.
I felt again the approach of that presence. It came and went. I gave my judgement in an abstracted way. I felt nothing.
I have understood what you have said, Andrew. I make no moral judgement. Yet I forbid you entry to the necropolis.
But why, Michael? There was an anguish in his voice. Ive served you faithfully, worshipped you; made sacrifice to you. Why do you now reject me? Give me leave to enter your realms and I shall be your servant.
It was strange to hear him talk in this way.
I cannot do that.
No reason; there is no reason. Not that its bad or good. I have just decided.
But Michael, surely you of all people know what it is like to be denied by authority: Alcott, the councillors. Surely you wont stop me going in?
Ive come to terms with authority, Andrew. I dont like it but I accept it, even Alcott. Well, since you put it in those terms, all right, as Superintendent I could give you the go ahead but in no sense would I approve and its my approval youre looking for.
He seemed to be searching within himself for something to say. At last he smiled ruefully.
You draw a clear line between life and death.
I felt helpless. Im sorry Andrew. You understand these things better than I do. I cant help myself. Theres a kind of wall there, a kind of stance that just says no and its nothing to do with what you say or ordinary people say.
He was looking at me strangely.
You dont know it Michael but what you have just done is something very profound. I see now that it is this stance which I myself have been seeking and would seek in the Necropolis .. He broke off.
You transcend me Michael. I do not know what to do. He wearily brushed his hair back. I must think.
At length he came to a decision. Im sorry, Michael. I should have liked your permission. It would have made my passage into the underworld much easier. But I cannot, and here his face twisted with anguish, allow myself to wait any longer. The stars are propitious, as much as they can ever be. I shall enter by myself sometime in the future. Please do not oppose me.
I frowned. As you wish.
He looked at me again, pleading. I shook my head and he left, saddened.
As he went it occurred to me that he had behaved exactly as I had behaved with Janice. He was trapped by an ideal, one grim and dark certainly but still an ideal. His was a kind of love; he loved death and rejected by it could not leave it alone, actively courted it when it was indifferent to him. What image did he have of his ideal I wondered - a dark angel enthroned in a vast gloomy hall, the wild Greek god of death, certainly something dark and stirring. Poor Gray. He should never know death as it was, as I had seen it, an emptiness that was the limit to life, that defined life. He was consumed by an image, as I had been, which would have to be destroyed if he were to see death as it really was. This he would never do and I could only await his downfall.
It was daytime and I was busy in the kitchen when Gray arrived. I spun round in fright. He stood in the doorway, two acolytes on either side, a malevolent smile on his face.
In alarm I noticed that they were dressed as Victorian undertakers: tails, billowing shirts, black shoes polished brilliantly. They held their top hats in front of them.
What is it you want? I squeaked. I felt powerless to move.
Grays smile didnt alter. Why nothing, dear boy. Weve simply come for you. He gestured outside where I could see people waiting.
Alarmed I tried to move away but my limbs were powerless. Panic rose in me and I felt as if I were choking.
They moved closer, their faces gleaming and malevolent. Two men came in, carrying a coffin which they laid beside me.
One bowed to me. For you sir, he said while the other gave me a little push which made me fall back. I lay staring up at Gray and then his face moved to the side as the coffin was lifted off the floor and carried outside.
The people I had seen through the door crowded around, laughing and pointing at me. They were all in mourning dress. To the side was a vast, glass-sided hearse in front of which four black horses pawed the ground impatiently.
Gray loomed over me. Well Michael, I hope your coffin is a nice fit. Dont try to struggle, it will do you no good. Because youre dead. And he laughed, his head back and looking at the sky. His followers howled with glee and crowded closer.
Grays head swept down to gaze at me. Were sorry that youre dead, Michael. We had such respect for you. He turned to the group. A fine young man. So efficient, so dedicated. What more fitting resting place for such a person than the grandest cemetery in the world. Nowhere else would do, Michael. Why, think of it. You will join the previous superintendents. Think of what they must have said in memory of them, such noble sentiments, that they who had. worked so hard to make of this place a spot sacred and holy to the memory of the dead. should themselves lie there. You have made this your own monument, Michael, and no man could have any grander. And as you see we have come to give you a fitting farewell. You shall have a funeral, such as the Victorians had. Your cemetery shall come to life for a little while.
He leant over again, having previously addressed his mocking valediction to the grinning audience. Fear not that we shall be disturbed. The gates are locked, guarded. No one shall come. No one shall hear your cries, except us perhaps as we go about our abominable business. Why we might even bring you back from the dead once in a while so that you can tell us how you are getting along on the other side. Yes, I look forward to that. And he straightened up, roaring with laughter.
They then loaded the coffin onto the hearse, thankfully without putting on the lid. Gray set them off on singing psalms suited to the occasion and the hearse lurched forward, swaying uncomfortably on the rough pathway. I stared up at the roof of the hearse. How long would it take? Simple satin covered form set into the roof by regularly spaced buttons. I feasted my eyes on its colour, on its texture. How beautiful that purple cloth looked. And the windows of clear glass, thick deep glass with a tint of green. Oh God, give me life. To even lie for ever in this carriage, to see never again anything of life but the sky through glass, a purple cloth, would be enough. Ten minutes, fifteen, before I am in darkness. I shall not see again.
I could tell that our route was to the western necropolis. Damp and evil. How could I ever have admired it. Its gargantuan bulk would form my memorial for ever. I was going to die; it hit me with horror. To die. I wouldnt exist. I was going to die.
I stared unseeing at the trees and the tops of the higher monuments until finally I knew from the drumming of the wheels that we were approaching the necropolis. They opened the door of the hearse, we ascended the steps, the great doors were open, they towered above me, portals to a realm of Stygian darkness. In horror I saw two attendants stoop down to take up the lid of my coffin, they grasped its ends, they raised it level, they moved it over my body, it cut out the sky, wings of darkness descending. The Angel of Death approached and I screamed in silence as the light faded.
Just as I thought
I was about to die of panic I woke up. I lay back against the pillow,
my heart hammering, soaked in sweat. Only a dream. God, if it was only
a dream what would the reality be like if Gray tried something like that.
As I tried to get back to sleep I wondered if it was just my imagination
or if Gray had been able to
Days passed and I saw nothing of Gray. This saddened me for Id enjoyed his company and conversations but my responsibilities came first. The very idea of letting him loose in the necropolis was quite out of the question.
I felt uneasy about having the necropolis key on the premises, it was quite possible hed try to steal it, and I went to some trouble to hide it in a safe place. I buried my fears in work and apart from seeing Janice once or twice didnt go out.
Two weeks later there was a break-in; nothing much - the door prised open, muddy footprints on the floor, not Grays, and a little pile of soot in the office fireplace dislodged as theyd reached up the chimney to get the key.
Although there was no proof, I was sure it was Gray; he knew there was a key and the hiding place could only have been found by using dowsing or some magical means.
I wasnt sure
what to do. I could go to the police but I felt this was something personal
between Gray and myself and anyway there wasnt a shred of evidence
that he was involved. That night I kept a watch on the necropolis for
over three hours but that was no real solution for he could come anytime
over the next few weeks. I
The autumn equinox was nearly on me before I realised that was a possibility. Day and night equal, the nights getting darker, more powerful. The more I thought about it the surer I became: that was the sort of symbolism hed use. And if I was wrong I could then be sure itd be Halloween.
As the equinox approached I grew anxious. What was I going to do - jump out from behind a tombstone and tell them to get lost. That was all I could do and it all hinged on Gray seeing me as the God of Death. I was going to refuse him entry, quite seriously, and leave it all to him.
On the day of the equinox I was startled to see Janice. Id forgotten that wed a date. I was flustered, not wanting to tell her yet knowing Id have to if I was going to cancel the date. It didnt take her long to work out that something was wrong. Lamely I explained.
She was furious that I hadnt gone to the police even saying that I could be charged with negligence. I tried to make her understand what Gray and I represented and that this was a spiritual struggle between two forces with nothing to do with the police, but she didnt understand my argument. As she was insistent the police be brought in I could only agree with ill grace; this was the bad old Janice again.
Two hours later she came back with the Inspector and Sergeant Id met before and a more senior officer. I ignored Janice as I showed them into the living room which they looked at with some distaste.
I might have known: why hadnt I called them in when Gray had made his intention clear, hadnt I any suspicions about him right from the start, why did I encourage this man who any fool could have seen was responsible for the desecrations. I was even asked about Janice and the Chief Superintendent made it plain that he didnt like our relationship.
After ten minutes of intensive questioning which left me thinking it was all my fault when of course if Id gone to them earlier Id have been met with weary indifference, they got round to Grays plans for that evening.
What time is Gray going to be here?
How many with him?
I shrugged. A dozen, I suppose. Thirteen in a coven. Again the look as if I knew more than was innocent.
I explained about the equinox.
You mean this is supposition? He glared at Janice. Youd better be right about this.
He turned back to me. Have you met any of them?
Where is this western necropolis?
Half a mile from here, to the west. He sees it as a symbol of the underworld, the realm of death. This was why he cultivated my friendship. He hoped that I, as Superintendent, would give him permission to enter. It would have made things easier for him. I explained Grays reasoning about seeing me as god of death but they didnt understand any more than Janice had.
The Chief Superintendent ordered the Inspector to call up a squad of men. He turned back to me. Youd have saved us a great deal of trouble if youd reported this earlier.
I said nothing. Id already explained what had happened.
The Inspector came back in. Arrangements are being made, sir. The men should be here within the hour.
Shall I make a cup of tea, I offered.
Unthinkingly, Janice went towards the kitchen. Ill do it.
The Chief Superintendent was furious. What the hell do you think you are doing, Weston? This is a police operation, not a little evening with your lover. Get outside and wait by the car. She was white as she scurried out.
I should take a tip from you on how to handle her. I said coldly. He glared at me and ranted on about watching my step and then went out with a final warning.
I looked at the time. In four hours Andrew would be here. I wasnt frightened, perhaps stupidly, but I felt that that night had cleared out all the fear in my system or, if not that, that I was being protected in some way. Whatever, I was going to interfere. The police would be all right. Any forces would be directed at me.
A little later the sergeant came in. Thats the men arrived, sir. The Chief asks if you would join him. I hadnt heard a thing and was surprised to see about thirty officers, including some women whom Janice had joined, being briefed by the Chief Superintendent. The vans that had brought them were already pulling out. It was half past eight and getting dark. He stopped speaking and came over to me.
Will you lead the way, please?
I nodded. The police officers looked at me curiously as I made my way through the middle of the group to get on to the path. It gave me an odd sense of power to have them all follow me but it ended as soon as the necropolis came in sight.
There was plenty of cover and the officers were directed to their positions all along the avenue. I followed Janice who was with the Inspector and two policemen to some good cover on the left hand side of the path.
I went up to her. Are you all right?
She nodded. She was clearly embarrassed with the others being there and to save her I struck up a conversation with the Inspector. It turned out that the Chief Super had been there when Janice had come in and it had only been her insistence that something was going to happen that had made him take any notice. Thered be trouble for her if nothing happened.
Stop talking down there, the Chief Superintendent bellowed and we fell silent for a while. We watched two vans being manoeuvered into cover and the Inspector told. me they would be used to light up the avenue when the time came.
It was now dark with only the palest band of sky showing above the necropolis. It was a clear night and the sky was alive with stars. The time passed slowly. I stood beside Janice, happy just to be with her. We were all getting restless now. It was cold and there was still no sign of them. It was half past eleven.
We all felt the atmosphere change at the same moment. Cold, clammy, evil.
They came into view about fifty yards away. A procession, each holding a lit torch. I strained to see but nothing was visible yet. They were chanting in low voices and I could hear Gray distinctly. As they got nearer I could see there were thirteen, ten of them holding candles in ornate holders, following after a man swinging a censer and one an open book. Gray led the procession.
It was strangely impressive to see them make their solemn way up the avenue. By the light of the candles I could now see they were wearing robes, each a slightly different colour. Grays was red and black. They passed by, unaware they were being watched and as they did the evil seemed to intensify and then lessen slightly, as if they carried it with them. On reaching the steps they divided into two groups, Gray and the thurifer leading on the left hand side, the man carrying the book leading on the right.
Unaccountably, fear arose in me as Andrew mounted those steps but it was fear for him, not for me. They reached the entrance, Andrew standing with his back to the doors, the lector standing before him, the others on either side of the thurifer. Andrew leant forward and holding his arms up began to read.
What was he saying? I couldnt hear but it was a declamatory voice, almost a chant. Janice retched uncontrollably and the faces of the others were white. I couldnt stand it any longer and broke out of cover.
Wait Andrew, I called. I ran up the steps. His followers growled and moved towards me but he stayed them.
For Gods sake, Andrew, I pleaded. What youre doing is incredibly dangerous. I mean, you yourself said it. I am the god of death and my permission is needed for you to enter that place. Well, I do not give this permission. You understand. I cannot. Do not enter.
He shrugged his shoulders and said gravely, I must do what I have set out to do.
He produced the key and glanced at the doors. Now go, Michael. When I open these Gates, awesome forces will be released which may harm you.
I stood back. There was nothing I could do.
Uttering some dark incantation, Gray entered the key and turned the lock. His voice grew stronger, declamatory. I could feel the tension in the people around me. His voice rose in power, in strength until finally with a great shout he threw the doors open to reveal the darkness beyond.
Utter silence fell. All eyes watched as Gray stood for a moment, and then crossed the threshold.
He turned in the doorway, arms outstretched. His followers flung themselves on the ground before him.
And then I saw him staring behind me.
I turned. Janice was coming up the steps.
The coven shrank back as she came up to me. She took my hand and something exploded in my brain.
It is day and the sky is blue over the city. People go in and out of their houses, tend their gardens, talk, laugh, play. It is a beautiful city; peaceful, contented. My Consort, beloved of all, is beside me. Together we rule this city. My beloved frowns. There is noise and shouting, people screaming, the sound of breaking glass, of axe blows against wood. The people run towards the palace, fleeing. I see what had happened. A band of robbers has entered the city. They approach our thrones. A man leads them; bold and arrogant. He bows mockingly. Your servant, lord.
His followers titter in the background.
What do you wish? I say.
To enter your palace, lord. He smiles ruthlessly. To take your place, lord. The people of the city cry out in fear. My Lady rises, speaks. You shall not enter.
The man laughs, goes forward to the doors and flings them open. Who shall not enter.
From within my Domain I can see puzzlement on the mans face. Where have they gone? he whispers.
He peers cautiously into my Domain then steps within.
My lord, my lady, are you there?
Only I am here.
He sees me and screams but it is too late. I have already begun my Dance.
I walk towards the entrance. We emerge into the day. The people cheer.
My lady points at the renegades. Take them away. She looks back into the palace. The other remains.
In a minute it was over. Each was pinned down by one or more policemen. Except Gray.
Gray was dead.
I couldnt believe it. Andrew dead. Something Id never expected.
As I looked at his huddled, broken body I could only think what a tragedy that it should end this way. And Janice and I were responsible.
It was with a deep sense of sadness that I watched them carry his body away. Insofar as it was in my power, I prayed that he would be forgiven.
The coven members were taken away. Janice came over and said she would see me as soon as she was free. I nodded.
The vans drove off, one by one, each diminishing the light. Soon I was left in darkness.
The necropolis was still open.
I walked up the steps; remembered the vision. At the top I looked at the star-studded sky, at the cemetery.
A blue sky, a contented city.
And a Thing that danced, a terrible cthonic god that underlay the world.
It was clear to me now that this god had two aspects: Baron Samedi and his Consort. Janice and I had played these roles.
When I had gone into the necropolis I had identified with this power, and on coming out, it had manifested as two halves, Janice and myself. Id given Gray permission to enter the necropolis in my capacity as Superintendent, as Baron Samedi, but deep down Id refused him and this resulted in Janice as the other half working against him.
I closed the doors with a sigh. Andrew would have appreciated the symbolism. But it was too late. He had turned to face the god and was with the god. Curiously, I even felt that Gray had not been evil, that he wasnt turning his back on God or worshipping the Devil; simply that he had broken a fundamental law of our nature, a law impersonal like gravity but of a terrible consequence.
I stood in the darkness under the stars. Orion had risen, Cassiopeia, Andromeda. Had Gray mapped these onto the cemetery, seen in this place the marks of the old gods?
No doubt. But that was not for me. I firmly set my mind against it.
A grave sadness fell upon me; the darkness perhaps, the events of the night, the thought of those who were dead but more than that it was the emptiness of the place. Were they really gone?
Then I remembered the laughing faces, the contentment. No. In some sense they were still here. And as I walked down the steps of the necropolis onto the avenue it seemed that I was accompanied by the souls of the dead.