I’ve often tried (and, to my mind, just as frequently failed) to set down to my personal satisfaction the circumstances surrounding my chance discovery in November, 1998, of a child’s grave in a north Manchester cemetery – St Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston.
The child in question (infant, rather), a younger brother of my father, died in 1920 and the location of his grave (a pauper’s or public grave, as it would turn out to be) had been lost to my family for the better part of eighty years. (My personal conjecture is that my grandfather probably attended the funeral alone, my grandmother being either unwell or constrained to look after their other progeny at home – and, come 1998, my grandfather had himself been deceased for 40 years.)
The facts of the matter are mundane: I was tending family graves in the cemetery on that November day. But certain circumstances attendant upon that chance discovery of the child’s grave have always seemed to me to be nothing short of magic, miraculous even. For a start, I wasn’t even looking for the grave at that time, and there must be 10,000 souls buried in the public graves in that cemetery. So how, in any case, did I succeed in finding one name amongst so many?
It is at this point I tend to get carried away with myself somewhat.
By way of example, in Chapter 10 of my debut novel Every Street in Manchester and, again, in the short story entitled ‘Sky’ in Manchester Kiss I fictionalise aspects of the story, though in neither instance (as I say) do I set the story down to my personal satisfaction. So much so in fact that when, recently, I resurrected the short story element of Manchester Kiss as a Kindle book, entitled Manchester 9, I deliberately omitted ‘Sky’ from the contents, substituting in its place two stories I’ve previously published in my WISP column – Nos. 33, 34 and 35: ‘The Feel-Good Factor’ and No. 41: ‘Armistice’, which itself touches briefly upon similar subject matter.
So, you may well imagine my surprise amounting to amazement that my granddaughter should almost immediately approach me for information for a school project about the war story I had omitted from the contents of my Kindle book. Because I have long harboured a suspicion (call it superstition if you will) that innocents cruelly done to death will make a point of voicing their legitimate protests until such time as they may eventually be heard. (It is more than coincidental, I would suggest by way of example, that there was a chapel adjacent to Fred West’s house of horrors on Cromwell Street.)
The child in question in the instance to which I refer was baptised James Sydney in remembrance of two members of the family (uncles of his) who died in France during WWI – Rifleman Joseph Sydney Farrell, who fell at the Battle of Amiens, 1918, and Acting-Sergeant James Francis Kelly, who died on 10 November, 1918, the penultimate day of the conflict. Significant, too, I like to think, is the fact that I came upon the child’s grave on 11 November, 1998 (the 80th anniversary of the Armistice), and around about the 11th hour.
Accordingly, it has not been unknown for me to speak of “being led to the child’s grave, and under military escort at that” – and, subsequent to visiting the family war graves in northern France to recall “raising a blister” on my right hand on a perfectly functional gate latch within sight of James Kelly’s grave. He, that is to say, whose story, my granddaughter now tells me subsequent to completing her school project, has been selected for display, come April 2014, at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester.
What an unexpected honour! Certainly, I had never anticipated that this insistent family hero would be so famously remembered.
My story ends on a sour note, I’m afraid. I have only photocopies of the soldier’s portrait to hand and IWM North requires the originals. Sadly, these are in the possession of a crow-rolling navel-defluffer of Armchair Oirish extraction who, for reasons best known to himself, has flatly refused permission for the photographs to be used.
Ooh! I don’t think I’d be brave enough to go against the wishes of a war hero who seems intent upon his story being heard. Would you?
Watch this space. Readers of this column will be amongst the first to be advised of developments resulting from the soldier’s next campaign.
(11 December 2013)
See Amazon Kindle books recently published by Bill Keeth: Every Street in Manchester, Manchester 9, Write It Self-Publish It Sell It, Boost Your Pocket Money and Pension