Storyline - 28: Cemetery Road... Locked In!
It was long past closing time, the last revellers trudged the cobbles heavily maybe half a mile away...
We hadn't seen each other since college, Sam and I. He rang me up at out of the blue one afternoon before the holiday period. "Fancy a drink with the lads? - We'll just have a few jars, talk over old timers, eh? What d'you think?"
I had nothing planned so I agreed. I don't know why. There was no real 'bond' between us. We'd been in the same rooms at Laurel House, that was it. Still, there was nothing on my agenda for the evening. The girlfriend was away with friends somewhere on the South Coast - Hove, Brighton or whatever - whom she hadn't met up with since Roedean. Well-connected pair, we were!
Last orders was called, although it took a while for us all to slurp down our drinks.
"Short?" Ted looked back at me over the head one of the girls who was with him.
"If you're offering", I glanced from him to the girl nearest to me, who seemed to have taken a shine to me. "Same old Alex" Ted grinned. "Never commits to a straight answer. You're Westminster material, boy!"
I had to grin and looked at the girl again. Ted turned again, handed me a stubby little glass and laughed, "Bottoms up!" The girl giggled and that was the last I remembered...
I woke in a pile of leaves near the base of an old, crumbling plastered wall that looked as if it had seen better days. It also seemed to cringe away from me. It wasn't the only thing around these parts that had seen better days. Where was I? I murmured to myself, as you do when you nurse a headache, and if I'd had an answer then I might have leapt unaided over the iron railings partly hidden by trees and thick foliage. But I didn't and I was stuck inside what looked like an old cemetery, wandering, looking for a way out. At least it was a light summer's evening, the sun having lowered behind high ground to my right. A tall building looked like a grand church. Curving away from me was this old, crumbling plastered wall. It wasn't all that was plastered... What was that Ted gave me? He passed me a small glass and that is as much as I remember. A Mickey Finn. Did what it said on the bottle anyway. It was a knockout and I still had a job to do - to get out of here, Wherever 'here' was.
I hadn't a clue.to my whereabouts and tracks led in all directions, down and uphill. Which was best? I felt a shiver down my spine. Why, I wouldn't know. I was on my own with an army of tombstones to keep me company. The downward spiral struck me as the best way forward, and my shadow stayed close behind me when the moon emerged from the clouds. Grey stones in every direction, angels, crosses, open books with names carved into the pages. No signposts. The dead didn't need them, did they. It wasn't them that needed to know which way was out.
Then I heard something. A dry twig on the ground nearby cracked. Even if the dead did walk - and I certainly wasn't aware of any - they wouldn't be heavy enough to crack twigs... Would they?
Something told me in my wandering to find a way out, that I was not alone. I was being watched from the shadows...
I froze. The night was mild, mid-summer after all. So why did I keep shivering? Was there someone else in this cemetery on the search for a way out. Maybe he... she... it wanted to be here no more than I did. I looked all around but saw no-one or nothing. My imagination was playing tricks on me, like Ted. Wait til I caught up with him! Just wait!
A large dog loomed, stretched out over a grave. A prize fighter whose funeral procession stretched all the way along wínding Victorian London streets, and the dog that wouldn't leave his master. The path wound on. In places it looked as though there might be somewhere I could climb over the iron railings, but each time I realised I wasn't tall enough by a foot. There was nothing to rest my feel on, and the raílings were too close together to get my feet in. Onward and downward. No buildings anywhere along the railings that I could climb onto. These Victorians didn't want grave robbers, did they.
An owl started on its long, silent flight. It had seen something that resembled a tasty morsel. I wanted to make sure nothing big enough took a fancy to me. That was my imagination playing tricks again, wasn't it. Another twig snapped. I looked down and saw a fragment of tree bark where I'd stepped on a broken branch. False alarm! This place really was getting to me. For all I knew it was a warren of rabbits' holes, badger setts and foxholes. That might have explained the snapped twig earlier. A creature on the hunt, trying to keep out of my way, on my hunt. Didn't these animals know people didn't live there? .
Then I saw him. Well it looked like a man. It could've been a tall grave stone but I'll swear it moved just then. I quickened my pace and stumbled on a tree root, swore at myself for being clumsy, not looking down at the uneven path. When I looked again whatever it was was no longer. That is, it wasn't a man, it was a tall gravestone after all. I breathed out, relieved in a way although anyone who could've told me how to get out of this dead hole would've been welcome... Even Dracula. What was I saying? Summer night or not, it was still too long for my liking. Thoughts entered my head that I didn't think I could have. But then, I've never been shut in a cemetery before. How did they get me in without being seen, and so far into the place?! They'd had this planned and I was their unwitting stooge.
Time to collect my thoughts. Think logically. Had I passed any maps? All cemeteries had maps for visitors to find their way around. A path led downhill in a wayward fashion.between grave plots and there it was, something that looked like a board, and boards had information... better still maps. Then disaster! Or rather a tree root. I stumbled again, the last thing I remember was the name Philip Harben... an early TV chef with a stomach that gave him the appearance of a round bread bun, so Dad said. I wasn't in a position to argue then, and on my knees in an old cemetery, passing out, I wasn't in a position to argue now either....
It seemed to me the cemetery was on the move with me...
"Who might you be?" I felt my forehead before I answered and looked up at a dapper looking fellow who was dressed for dinner. A dark cape was drawn loosely around his shoulders. He smiled down at me, although he didn't offer to help me up. I was a bit unsteady on my feet as he stepped back a pace to allow me room to stand.
A mite impatient at having been kept waiting for an answer, he was about to ask again when I nodded and answered, "I could ask you the same..."
The smile faded, as did he with it, and I was left feeling the lump on my brow as I walked toward the large notice board to find out if there was anything useful to me on it, such as a phone number to contact. As I peered up and around the black board with its map and "You are here" arrow I felt in my inside jacket pocket for my mobile. As I fished it out with one hand I tapped in an emergency contact number and waited... And waited. Finally, before I gave up on the idea of getting out before broad daylight, someone lifted the receiver at the other end.
"What... who is this?" A man's voice, elderly I guessed, and gruff from being roused from his slumbers at this ungodly hour.
"Hello, I'm Alex Young", I began.
"Well, Alex, much as I appreciate a social call..." He might've put the phone down on me there and then but there must've been something in the way I added, "And I'm stuck in your cemetery... "
"Eh? How do you mean exactly - stuck?"
"I mean I can't get out".
"How did you get in, d'you mind me asking?"
"Somebody got me drunk and I woke up in the dead of night on a pile of leaves somewhere near a grand-looking chapel or church. I've been wandering, looking for -"
"Looking for a way out... All right, stay where you are at the notice board... You're near the main gate, aren't you?"
I looked around, and before I had a chance to answer he hurried me for an answer,
"All right, you must be if you're where I think you are. Stay put. I'll be down there in a jiffy". The line went dead. He was probably fumbling for his clothes in the dark, trying not to wake the wife. How far away could he be? I waited, wondering if the gentleman in the classy outfit was still around. I didn't have to wait too long. A figure in a dark, unbuttoned overcoat - a council employee maybe - hastened along on the other side of the iron railings to the gate and fumbled with his keys, giving me time to cross the approach driveway, to be ready to flee this nightmare scenario. He huffed and puffed, a loud clank of loose chain as he freed that from around the age blackened, rusted railing and tackled the main lock.
"How in hell's name did they get you in here?" An elderly fellow with a black titfer, the gatekeeper's white shirt seemed to spill over his belt. He'd dressed in a hurry. "You didn't see anyone else in here, did you - like before it got light?"
"There was a dapper fellow in a cape -"
He crossed himself as he closed the gate after me. "You were lucky, mate. He could smell your breath".
"How's that?" I asked. Mouth open, I must have looked like a fish out of water.
"Alcohol, Sir. Old Draccy... Dracula... He'd have felt your breath and been gone like a ghost. Like I said, you were lucky... Damned lucky!" He called "Good night" as I headed for the nearest Underground station.
Wait til I catch up with Ted! Lucky, was I? And then I laughed out loud, scaring a pair of courting cats as I strode along the lane between the old and 'new' cemeteries. Enough to make old Karl Marx laugh in his grave! Did Ted believe in vampires? I doubted somehow. Might be a tale to earn myself a few free drinks.
Felix Barker - Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Valhalla
You can't get in at night, and the Old Cemetery is only open when the Friends open it to the public a select few times in the year. Look online.
And you need nerves of steel when you walk some parts. 'Goths' come here to take in the atmosphere. You sometimes see them, they seem to 'float'. It's when you don't see them and they suddenly appear from around a corner of the Egyptian catacombs. One of the 'Dracula' films was made here by the company, 'Hammer House of Horror', and it's very apt, so don't say you weren't warned!
An enjoyable book, if you're turned on by 'Victoriana'. Some of the smart set were interred here, including the muse of one Dante Gabriel Rossetti ,one of the leading Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers, who had a poem disinterred from the grave of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Siddell in the hope of cashing in on a new wave of sentiment.
*This is my response to Billy Buc's Writing Challenge, New Year 2020. You might remember, I did a few some years ago. Thought I'd sharpen my old quill pens...
© 2020 Alan R Lancaster