It was a Sunday morning, and a minister strode past me with a labrador. ‘That looks like a contented spot,’ he said, dog and dog-collar glistening. I sat in the middle of a little wood, just to the side of Kenilworth Chapel in East London, on 9 October 1994. The church looked closed and unattended. All around me, in tangles of ivy and nettles and scrub, lay hundreds of dilapidated grave-stones. They sloped every which way, and off into the distance, across a wide open ground beneath the Beckton flyover. The graveyards in English cities, especially in the east of those cities, are nearly always wasted and terrible. In Scotland, the tombstones are made to stand up; and the grass is most often cut and weeded. I was fairly shocked the first time I saw a London graveyard – in Walthamstow, I remember. It had nothing to do with the decorous, landscaped dead-parks of recent memory: it was a place where riot and decay ruled. It looked like a spot where time was having its way.
I sat on a stone, bent over a piece of paper. I was copying down the inscriptions on some of the gravestones. As I was doing so, two boys – around or about ten – nipped between the graves just a little off to the right. One of them wore a West Ham top; the other was a flash of yellow. Their missiles (clods of dirt and pebble-dash) would come from nowhere and bounce off the tombs still standing. You’d hear giggles, and see some yellow, then a stripe of claret; they’d peep for a second and disappear. The more I ignored them, the braver they got. They started letting out little hollers, rinky-dink battle-charges, but I sat still. I was laughing a bit by this time, and they obviously knew I knew about them. Eventually, they got within one or two tombstones, and I looked up from the page. ‘What is it?’ I said. ‘Cunt,’ they said, running away, tumbling through a wall of ivy as if the whole world was after them.
The stone to my right was Africa-shaped and fringed with damp moss. Most of the writing was gone now. ‘Also Rebecca Askham, mother of the above’, I could make out. And then: ‘who died October 1st 1903. Aged 50 years.’ The nettles around the bottom were at the top of their power. They stood for pain. The stone on my other side was in memory of ‘Frank Cyril Nicholson, who died January 13th 1897, aged 14 years’. It was a cool day, very quiet at times, then some horn or deep engine on the dual carriageway would break in. Frank Cyril died after 14 years; died, it seems, of natural causes. His death must have been very sad, but was probably not mysterious. His was a named loss. The cause was known, the end was marked, his spot was here, and was in a manner of speaking sacred. I sat thinking about all this, feeling the breeze well enough, and considering the script carved below Frank Cyril’s dates: ‘In the midst of life,’ it said, ‘we are in death.’
I had a stick, and with other people, later that day, I searched the long field of stones around the Chapel for traces of a missing boy. Daniel Handley, aged nine, had been missing from his home on the Windsor Park Estate since the previous Sunday. As I made my way down the field, losing sight of other people, I grew more and more uneasy. This was the largest patch of scrub near to Daniel’s home. I turned over in my head the various things that could have happened. I looked through the undergrowth, poking with the stick, and I reached a place almost under the flyover itself. The traffic noise was now thunderous, and the grass seemed longer than at any other point. My breath was quite short. It felt wrong to walk in this deep grass. Not just unsafe. Wrong. As I made my way through the field, looking into the grass and under bushes for signs of the boy – hoping there would be nothing – I found it hard to keep my footing. The light at the top of Canary Wharf blinked just over the other side of the carriageway and the sun was high up. The tower looked broad and massive, and its windows gleamed like the vicar’s collar. Daniel Handley was missing, and we were there trying to find him. We were there, walking on graves, trying to find the missing boy.