Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Ghost Story by Keren David

I'm going to tell you a ghost story. 

Back in February, a letter arrived at our house. It was addressed to Emily Florence Oakley, and it came from a cemetery. I knew that's where it came from because the cemetery's name was stamped on the back of the envelope. 

I opened the letter. Our house had been rented out for a long time, ten years previously, and I assumed that Emily was a former tenant. It sounded like she was a young person. Why was a cemetery writing to her, I wondered. If I found out, then maybe I could track her down.

The letter was about a grave, owned by Emily. It soon became clear that Emily wasn't a young person at all. Emily must be dead. Because the grave she owned (Her parent? Her husband? Her child?) was dated 1899. The cemetery was seeking her permission to reuse this grave. It would be opened, and any remains would be reburied deeper in the ground. The stone would be taken down. This was necessary because the cemetery was all full up. It needed more land to bury more people.

This meant, I realised that someone was sitting in a cemetery, sending letters to dead people. This was his or her job.

My friend Valerie is an expert at family research. She soon discovered that Emily was not living in my house in 1901 (the date of the nearest census). She was living around the corner, a widow with two very small children. Valerie looked further. Emily's husband had been called Thomas, he'd died in 1899. Should she order his death certificate?

The death certificate took a few days to come through. I was convinced that our house had only been built in 1900. So, even if it were Thomas's grave, Emily must have come to live in our house later on, I reckoned. She must have kept in touch with the cemetery, given them her address. After all, Valerie had discovered, she'd lived into her nineties, and had never remarried. Her children, Helen and Claud didn't seem to have had any children of their own. Helen had never married.  Their little family, shattered so early (Claud was born after his father's death), had it seemed faded out of history. All except for this letter.

I was wrong -  of course. The house, the terrace, had been built in 1899. Emily and Thomas must have been the first people to ever live in it. And then, in December, Thomas became ill, first with influenza and then with bronchitis, and he died. In our bedroom, presumably.

Suddenly our house wasn't just ours. Suddenly it was a space where things had happened to many people through time, birth and death, tragedy and joy, and our lives felt closer than time would allow. 

Because, like Emily and Thomas, our time in the house had been dogged by bad luck. Terrible bad luck. We moved in, in 1995, aged in our early thirties -  like Emily and Thomas. We had a daughter, they must have moved in with their little girl. Emily became pregnant, with a boy. So did I. But then her husband died, and she had to leave her home and move out, to go and work as a housekeeper in a boarding house.
The house where Emily moved to

And me? My baby boy, Daniel was stillborn, and my husband was made redundant. And I too had to move out of the house, unexpectedly and traumatically, because the only job he could find was in Amsterdam. There, in November 1999, our third child was born. His due date was mid- December  -  one hundred years after the untimely death of Thomas Oakley. And the letter from the cemetery had arrived almost exactly 20 years after we lost Daniel.

Unlike Emily, we came back to our house. And I love it very much. But there's always been something about it that's made me wary, that makes me feel prone to bad luck. I was brought up in a culture that half believes in the evil eye, out to get you if you become boastful or complacent. I don't really believe in ghosts, but once I knew his story I did feel that Thomas needed to be honoured and remembered. That whatever remained of his life and energy was not quiet.

So, I went to the cemetery and met the splendidly named Vincent Cruikshank whose job it is to send letters to the dead. Vincent is young and tall, and wore striped black and grey trousers and a long black coat, which gave him a Dickensian air. He told me about how much he loves his job. He finds the history of the place fascinating. He especially likes it when people come who are researching family or other history.

 He's sent out hundreds of letters to the dead. And many come back, marked politely 'Not known at this address.'

We looked up Emily's name in the records, and we found the receipt for the stone she bought for her 30-year-old husband. Then we walked through the avenues of dead Londoners, to find the grave. The cemetery is open 24 hours a day, and people come to visit at all hours. Some graves are covered with flowers and pictures. It's as vibrant and lively as a cemetery can be.

Thomas's grave was in an overgrown corner, near the busy road. We pushed through brambles and stumbled over roots. And when we found the stone, it was completely covered with ivy. We scraped it back, looking for his name, but the stone was completely blank. A hundred and nineteen years had wiped it clean.

Thomas's grave
Wiped clean by the years

What would happen, I asked if Thomas's bones were found? Could I be there when they were reburied? Vincent explained that this was unlikely. If the ground is wet (and it was) then bones dissolve like flesh or clothes. Nothing of Thomas was left, except the records in the cemetery's big, leather books. 

In our little garden - Thomas and Emily's garden too -  I have planted an oak-leaved hydrangea in their memory -  oak-leaved, because their name was Oakley.  I like to think that Thomas will appreciate being remembered. The plant, despite the heatwave, has flourished. It's now twice the size than in this picture.

You should write about this, people tell me, put it in a book. But I can't. For the past six years I'd been writing a book. It's about doomed lovers, a mystery, a grave. It's about the pull that past has on the present, the ties that link us through years, through generations.

Stranger was published the month after I first visited Thomas's grave.

And the names of the main characters, names I'd pulled from my imagination?

They are Emmy and Tom.


Katherine Langrish said...

Such a wonderful poignant story, Karen!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

What a fascinating story about 'the pull the past has on the present'. Thank you for sharing.

Sue Purkiss said...

Wow! What an extraordinary story!

bookwitch said...

That's wonderful!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Wow! What an amazing story!

Hilary Mckay said...

That is a great story. Thank you.

To me it feels right, to leave no trace, to dissolve back into the friendly earth and leave no stain, nor words on stone. Very healing.

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing, Keren.

Penny Dolan said...

A strange and amazing story, Keren. Thank you.

Ann Marie Ackermann said...

A fascinating story! I live in Germany, where graves are routinely used after 30 years, but I've never heard of a letter coming in from the cemetery after 100-plus years! And I smile to think about how the new data protection laws would apply to this situation.

LuWrites said...

Such a great story, Keren. So lovely that you planted the oak leaf hydrangea in memory of someone who lived at the house when all other traces of his life were gone...although now you've written this blog post and probably more people know about him now than did in his own lifetime!

H.M. Castor said...

What a fascinating and poignant story. Thank you, Keren.

Lucy Van Smit said...

oooh - great, great story - and I identify with it - my son Luke was stillborn in our current house when we moved in 20 years ago - brought off a waring-divorcing couple with locks INSIDE the cellar door to keep each other out..... we had a priest come into bless the house and cast out any bad feelings lingering here - my son still died, BUT now our house is full of happy memories with our hilarious 17 year old son who seems to be doubly full of life - but Keren's story made me realise how much I look at our house through our own narrow lens ....and not as a repository for all those other lives - thanks Karen!