The room is dark. I enter slowly, my eyes unaccustomed to the lack of light. I pull back the curtain, memories flood the room. It seems such a short time since last I stood here. I made a promise to myself that day. I would never stand here again – a promise I have kept until now, until my need to revisit this house waxed stronger still than my earlier decision to stay away from it.
‘I must tell you, then I’ll go’, I gasped. ‘There’s nobody else I can tell’.
Auntie Gin had shown me through, most reluctantly I need hardly say – the interfering old bat!(Miss Havisham without the fripperies, fly-blown or no.)
I had hurried there, breathing hard in the fog-hung November air, direct from tending family graves in the cemetery on that same morning I lodged related remembrances with the sacristan of the local church. Though why I should chance upon the other grave that day – that grave about which all knowledge had been lost to our family for three generations or more, I have never been able to say with any degree of certainty.
‘Not that Jim Harney’s admitted inability in the matter will necessarily bring the conversation to a close at this point,’ says Pearson Marlfield, manning the beer pumps at the North Parade. ‘For given access to a sympathetic ear, more whisky than is good for him, and ensconced in what I call “the Val Doonican position”, by which I mean his nibs astride a bar stool, facing the optics in the corner of the lounge bar below the print of Manet’s The Gleaners, it is by no means unknown for him to suggest he was led to the grave – and under military escort at that.’ Pearson will laugh then.
My first ports of call (Jim Harney again) are in the old part of the cemetery behind the register office and chapel. From there I normally retrace my steps, then cut across diagonally to a third plot that lies close to the main road. But on the morning in question I struck out directly from where I stood, intending to keep in as straight a line as possible until the main road came into sight. This undertaking soon proved to be impracticable due to fluctuating patterns that emerged in the alignment of the graves. Thus it was that after going no more than a few yards on my chosen trod I was obliged to make a detour on to a grassy track lined with headstones of a Dickensian size and style. These headstones, their shapes looming in the fog like inverted Norman shields, mark the position of the public graves or, as the unkind call them, paupers’ graves. They evoke painful memories of the city’s none too distant past.
There are literally hundreds of public graves in the cemetery, and five hundred of them are to be found in the section into which I had strayed that day. Those five hundred graves hold upwards of ten thousand souls who passed away from this life in poverty so austere that the family purse did not run to luxuries such as life assurance sufficient to finance a private interment. The city’s poor, the pre-war poor – the dead poor are buried communally as so many of them had lived. Heel to heel, head to head, close-packed, stacked, buried, shriven – this last-mentioned charitable benefit apart, they lie at rest like so many slaves in transit in the hold of a slave ship out at sea.
The headstones themselves are inscribed on both sides, an economy that has permitted the allocation of graves to headstones in a ratio of two to one and, similarly, a ratio of forty to one in the allocation of names to headstones. Even so, as far as space permits each name is recorded in full together with a date of demise.
How ever did I latch on to a particular name amongst so many? This is a question I’ve often asked myself in the past. What is more I know I shall often ask myself the same question in the future – particularly since the plain fact of the matter is that there is absolutely no way I was looking for a name that day. To speak truly, then, it is only by retracing in my mind the actual steps I took that morning that I am able to make any sense of it at all, if sense I may properly term it.
To begin with, I do recall noticing that someone had placed a spray of flowers by one of the headstones. At this point, too, I started to register a name here and there as I walked along. On another headstone I saw how someone had scrubbed clean a single name together with its accompanying date. There were only half dozen graves to go now before I seen, saw . . . Well, it’d stop anyone in their tracks, wouldn’t it?
‘Harney will point away from the bar at this juncture,’ according to Pearson Marlfield’s critique. ‘Towards some unspecified location, inside or outside the pub. I dunno which.’
‘“Well, wouldn’t it?” he’ll ask you again. “Stop anyone in their tracks?”’
‘“Steady on, Jim,” you’ll tell him.’
‘JAMES HARNEY,’James Harney blurts the words out like a child now, as if revisiting the original moment of unmitigated horror. ‘Died 11 Nov., 1918.’
‘The baby!’ she said sibilantly, her voice no more than a whisper. ‘Baby James.’
I was standing in Auntie Gin’s living-room still, cap in hand so to speak, the story I’d been so desperate to tell her now told.
Auntie Gin, it would seem, was just two years of age when baby James died, one of three infants in the family at that time. She supplied me with other details, too – as did an enterprising workmate of mine, who accessed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website on my behalf
James Harney (the deceased infant, that is) was named after his father’s younger brother, who had fallen at Amiens earlier that year. This was Corporal James Harney, 25th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusilers, of whom I now speak – the very man who constitutes the military escort I believe led me to the child’s grave earlier that day. What follows is the reasoning behind this speculation. Because amongst the remembrances I left at the church were two included as an afterthought. For “All occupants of the public graves”; and “All war dead who were men of goodwill”.
‘Your uncle James . . .’ I said to Auntie Gin, the shadow of a smile on my face consequent upon hearing that eldritch screech, so long disremembered, which signalled the grandfather clock’s perennial reluctance to mark the hour. ‘Your uncle James perhaps appreciated the mention in despatches.’
The old bat never so much as blinked an eyelid. ‘We have no way of knowing,’ she retorted. ‘All I can tell you is I am positively gasping for a cuppa. You, James?’
My response in the affirmative failed to surface above the noise of the chimes, eleven of them in all. The nod which accompanied my words proved more effective.
‘You do well to remain silent,’ Auntie Gin insisted. ‘The day – and the time it is, too. I shall observe my own two minutes silence beside the kitchen stove.’ Whereupon she passed through to the kitchen, pausing by the fire screen to trill: ‘Perhaps a slice of Battenburg, James?’ She emphasised the first syllable of the word quite distinctly..
Still, as Pops oft opined when he was still with us: ‘That’s my big sister Ginnie all over. She invariably gives as good as she gets.’
(9 January 2013)
Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.