Picking up flowers and life hacks among the bones of the dead.
About five months into full-time unemployment and oftentimes utter despair the inspiration occurs: the antidote to not doing anything might in fact be actually doing something. This had been gently suggested several different times in varying tones by an assortment of well-meaning loved ones. Nonetheless, the proposition reveals itself to me as if from nowhere, from the heavens themselves if not from my own genius: I will do some good old fashioned Giving Back.
‘Good idea,’ I say to myself.
So, I sign up to volunteer for the local wildlife preservation body with no less than absolute spiritual fulfilment in mind, but also willing to settle for a nice farmer’s tan to go with my newfound stoicism.
In the Borough of Tower Hamlets there is a cemetery park named Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. My bedroom overlooks this urban nature reserve, along with the other late nineteenth-century terraces that sit uniformly either side. Our house is ruggedly obscured by overgrown ivy and a tall, rather brutalised palm, irreconcilable to its surroundings despite many efforts to prune it.
I like this view. I like the sleepy fox who scales our fence to curl up for an undisturbed nap in the dense greenery. I like cemeteries, generally. My housemates joke nervously about how the location means we’re liable to be haunted. Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes, yet people are always shocked by both. For my own part, I don’t find graveyards sinister. Morbid, maybe; a little ostentatious, absolutely – but no more macabre than other stomping ground.
Arriving at the site, I’m greeted by a cluster of six women aged between 35 and 80. Standing slightly apart from them with an assured, wide-legged stance is Ruth, a cemetery ‘friend’ charged with directing the volunteers, who wastes no time favouring social niceties before divulging her own keener interests in the park, such as incidents of grave-robbing and what’s cheerfully known as baby-farming (there is a Wikipedia page – enjoy).
‘But now, on to the task at hand, I suppose. You are familiar with goose grass?’
‘Excuse me?’ After so much baby death I’m slightly jolted by the gear shift.
Ruth turns a slow one-eighty degrees to reveal a smattering of green stems clinging to the back of her fleece gilet. ‘Sticky willy’, she explains,
The POA–’ She continues.
‘The plan of attack is to remove as much of this insidious, albeit hilarious, pest as possible from the northern stretch of fence-line.’
I feel an urge to salute, but resist. Armed with rakes and wheelbarrows, and not without a lengthy demonstration of how not to lay down said rake (lesson already learned from Sideshow Bob), we set to work, due north, to take on our foe.
Without quite realising it, I inwardly start competing with the other novice volunteer, Mel. Partly due to our comparable inexperience, but also because I fall visibly short on the Most Likely to Survive in the Wild scale.
Mel gardens in her spare time. She displays an intimate knowledge of local flora and is prepared for anything in cargo pants and sturdy brown boots. And she has come prepared.
‘No need, got’em’, she says, rebuffing Ruth’s offer from the glove bucket, whipping out her personal, weathered pair from one of her many, many pockets and giving them a little wave.
‘Oh, and didn’t Mile End used to be a mass-grave during the plague? As it was outside of the city’s limits, so they would dump the diseased bodies in at the end of the mile stretch? Or something…?’
Or something. She had clearly been reading up.
‘No. I don’t believe so’, comes resident expert Ruth’s reply, her words slick with authority. I suddenly love Ruth.
Attempts at friend-making can’t be avoided, and Doris, the chirpy septuagenarian in wonky transition lenses and what appears to be a homemade scrunchy, sings me the Small Talk Greatest Hits for the better part of an hour (while neglecting her allotted patch, I note).
The weeds she does pull invariably end up on her body instead of her barrow. I wonder if it would be more efficient to simply roll her like a log and let the grass attach itself, willy-nilly.
Doris gestures to the green tufts clinging to her gloves and arms, laughing.
‘Oh, I’m hopeless!’
After a rare pause, I look up and see Doris’ (empty) wheelbarrow heading off in the other direction, Doris in tow. Friendship over then.
The cemetery plots themselves are packed in, rows of ramshackle slabs sitting comically close together. Entire families are crammed into a single headstone. The effect is more jaunty than sad: everyone piled in together. Some tilt absurdly, the stone laid too soon after the burial, before the ground could settle properly.
Crouched behind a given tomb, I eavesdrop the passing conversations of a pair of outraged teenagers marching arm-in-arm, fags-in-fingers:
‘She said I stole money.’
‘I can’t believe she fucking said that.’
‘I know, seriously.’
‘The fact that it’s true is irrelevant.’
I find more than one condom wrapper on litter-picking duty. It’s reassuring to know people are still sensible, even having a hasty fuck against a headstone.
At one o’clock, we perch atop various final resting places laid conveniently in the sun, and everyone produces containers full of last night’s leftovers. I realise I only have a stale satsuma at the bottom of my bag.
The topic of public urination crops up. Ruth explains that the volunteers haven been forced to deal with ‘human excrement’ in the grounds, due to the lack of available alternatives nearby. Everyone agrees that this is a shame and another disgraceful example of accessibility failures in city planning.
I quietly fondle my fruit, sifting through relevant anecdotes to try and crowbar my way in.
‘I pissed myself last week,’ I say.
It’s true: lockdown rendered a city already lacking in public facilities even worse. You’re left wandering streets lined with closed pubs and cafes, picturing the rows of icy cold porcelain within. In any case, I weed myself outside the East India Docks Waitrose just this March, before dipping inside to buy an Easter lamb joint. When in Rome!
This rounds up the matter nicely, as thereafter the discussion draws to an abrupt close.
Maybe the leeriness of cemeteries afflicts those who haven’t experienced loss, and – yes OK, justifiably – don’t want to look that particular tiger in the eye. We can be disinclined to accept that things are finite.
But these are spaces dedicated with uncommon frankness to love, something we forget to mention when we’re too busy living and working and texting. We normally feel too awkward to tell someone how great they are in case we come on a bit strong – or, worse, in case they take it to heart and consequently become more successful than us.
I think death might finally put me in a good mood. And I’ve yet to be told outright that ‘I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight’. Maybe that’s the kind of line you really do have to chisel. We probably hope to be remembered more lovingly than Suzanne Cooke, 1812—1879, ‘Who died’. Either they charged by the letter, or the Cookes kept to the ‘can’t-say-something-nice-don’t-say-nothing-at-all’ rubric when she clocked it.
This pretty tucked-away park isn’t what death looks like. Not really. I’ve known something of death lately. My father died last May, and the period that followed looked and felt nothing like this place: summer in its garish peak, about to burst with too much life. The images of that time flicker in technicolour flashes. A migraine of memory. They’re not so solid as these gothic stones. Not so peaceful. I think his ashes might be sitting in a cupboard – not so reverential either.
As the afternoon draws on, I keep spying the same pair of uncanny middle-aged ladies, who to my mind can only be sisters. One makes jabs at the other between authoritative observations of each new wildflower in bloom. They amble the outer circuit several times, dressed sharply in snug wool coats, one green and one brown.
‘You let people criticise you too much,’ says one.
‘I know, you’re right. It’s terrible,’ the other concedes.
The day officially closes at the compost heap, where we dump the loads of our respective labours. I can’t help but notice that my barrow is heaped far higher than Mel’s. I guess people work at different levels. Anyway, I’m satisfied. You can put ‘She was proficient at some things, and at least definitely better than Mel’ on my tomb.