A life changing stumble…
The sun was not shining on Saturday morning, but it wasn’t actually raining, so Laura allowed plenty of time and set off on foot for the cemetery. She walked through the woods towards Highgate, and as always on a Saturday there were more people out and about than she saw during the week. An endless procession of joggers huffed and puffed past, with an equally endless variety of accessories. Complicated watches weighed down almost every wrist, and most ears were sprouting the ubiquitous headphones – was nobody interested in hearing the birds sing any more? The latest models of off-road baby buggy seemed to be bigger than ever, and Laura jumped out of the way as a twin version thundered towards her. Its occupants gazed up as they passed with expressions of bored resignation on their tiny faces, while their running mother looked lean, healthy and utterly miserable.
It had long since dawned on Laura that there was a direct inverse correlation between fanciness of outfit and fitness of runner, with possibly additional statistical links to be made to amount of make up for ladies, and technical equipment for men. She was following a classic plump pair this morning, taking things at a very stately pace in their coordinated kit. The woman had scarlet lipstick and not a hair out of place, while her companion sported an extremely complicated looking arrangement of water bottle, carry strap and drinking pipe which he was loudly referring to as his “hydration unit”. Laura tactfully cut through the trees to make it less obvious that she was overtaking them at a brisk walk.
It was just starting to drizzle when she arrived in front of the caretaker’s hut at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery where she joined the half dozen other people already waiting. After a quick glance round Laura decided she was probably the only one with all her own teeth – this clearly wasn’t the in place to be on a Saturday morning in north London.
The small group was soon being organised by an extremely officious lady of about 95 who was brandishing hand drawn maps and gesticulating with a scythe that appeared to be both potentially lethal and at least as old as she was.
Distracted by visions of accidents past, Laura was surreptitiously trying to count the woman’s fingers when she realised the scythe was now pointing at her.
“You! You with the hair”
Laura looked up guiltily. This was suddenly less Saturday morning fun and more Wednesday morning Year 8 hockey.
“You look nice and strong.” (Laura took this to mean under 60). “Take this plan and head north from Lord Kilmarnock – we need to clear a way through from Emily Harding to Arthur Spencer.”
A map, a small chopper and some shears were thrust into her hands and that was it, she was off. Laura soon found herself away from the well-trodden tourist pathways and into the wild, untended area that she’d always longed to explore. Ivy clung to abandoned gravestones and entwined itself through the branches of the trees whose long shadows made the atmosphere cool and slightly forbidding. She pressed on past memorials green with moss and lichen, limbless stone cherubs gazing heavenwards, and even a marble dog, forever guarding his master. According to the plan she’d been given the dog was the clue she needed, and after some scrabbling about and rubbing years of grime from faded inscriptions she found Emily Harding’s final resting place and set to work.
An hour later and it was raining nicely, as Mrs P would say. Laura meanwhile was slashing her way through the undergrowth in what she hoped was the right direction. Emily Harding was definitely behind her, the headstone was now cleared of ivy and she had uncovered a worn but rather beautiful carving of an angel. The question remained whether she was still going the right way however. A path did seem to be revealing itself, but as she headed under some trees and it became really quite dark she began to wonder. She pressed on, pushing back brambles and tendrils of other weeds that clung to her with great persistence. The rain was running down the back of her neck now, and getting into her eyes so that she was peering into the gloom ahead without seeing much at all. The shears had been left propped up against Samuel Foxton and His Beloved Wife some way back, so she was just hacking away with the chopper and pulling at plants with her gloved hands.
“This was supposed to be fun.” Laura was muttering curses under her breath and then spat out a much louder “Get OFF!” as a long branch caught her in the face.
“Right, that’s it.”
She swung her arms up and back as far as she could, and brought the chopper down onto the offending branch with all her might. She lurched forward with a stagger, then suddenly the grass and mud gave way beneath her feet and she was over, body weight and momentum carrying her down far beyond where the ground should have been. She was in total darkness, half sliding and half falling now, still downwards, down a big dark hole in fact. Her brain finally caught up with what was happening to her body just as it stopped happening and she landed in a heap.