On a night when London fog was surrounding the Thames, Johnny Watkins was returning to his ship, destined to sail on the next morning. We are in the nineteenth century at the time when cargo ships still sailed into the London docks for discharge of their cargo. Johnny was still a boy, had run away from a stepfather who knew only the rule of the cane. There is a certain innocence that a young lad of sixteen years has. He believes that doing what the others did was the makings of a man. For this reason he had spent the evening in the tavern drinking with the other seamen. It was perhaps his need for belonging somewhere that gave him the encouragement to drink as much as the others. The others were hardened sailors, used to the roughness of a life on a ship, but alas Johnny was still a novice in such things. His steps were not so sure along the quayside on the slippery ground when he left the tavern, and sight was at a minimum. Fate took its reward and Johnny slipped into the murky waters of the River Thames. Perhaps it was due to the alcohol consume, perhaps his swimming talents were not so good, or it may just have been the foolishness of youth, but Johnny never again saw the light of the morning breaking over the murky waters.
He was fished out of the Thames by the police; a sorry end to a young hopeful life. There was no identification on the body, no-one seemed to miss Johnny; his life and death just an episode in London history. His remains were laid to rest in a small cemetery in East London; no grave with flowers and no angel’s statue guarding his bones. The grave diggers just made a hole in the ground, his body unceremoniously thrown in and covered with earth. Thanks to the merciful sisters, a stone was placed on top of his burial place, just a few words “Unknown male death by drowning in the River Thames 1862” and that was the unceremonious end of Johnny Watkins.
Pat never really forgot her childhood in the East End of London. Although now living in another country, married with her own family, she often reflected on the past. There were memories and even dreams, but one memory was always there; a visit to the family grave in one of the older cemeteries in London; a cemetery existing for more than one hundred years.
Some of the older stones were weathered by the elements, and the words hardly readable. The older graves still had wax flowers covered by a more or less transparent glass dome for protection, which made them seem as if the inhabitants were still in the thoughts of their relations, although there were no longer any relations who could remember. It seemed to be a cemetery of the forgotten. Pat entered the cemetery, her mother walking ahead. Memories of the past came flooding back, it was her mother’s side of the family that were lying here in their last resting place. There was a large white stone, with names and dates of people Pat had never known, but it was family. The most recent and last to be buried was the grandfather and now it was finished. The grave was full, no room for more, seven were enough. To arrive at the family grave was not easy. There was no path, unless a path could be called stepping over graves and squeezing behind stones.
One evening Pat awoke in a cold sweat, she had revisited the graveyard in a dream. She wanted to reach the family grave, but had to stop and could not walk any further. It was as if an invisible barrier was stopping her. She looked down and saw it again: it was there. A flat brown stone, showing letters which had once been deeply engraved and were now hardly legible. She knew what the letters were saying, this was not a dream this was real; a reminder from the past of an unknown person, death by drowning. This time it was different; in the dream she saw the letters much clearer and there stood a name on the stone. “John Watkins” followed by the words “death by drowning in the River Thames 1862” and this was what awoke her. The grave stone was in her memory as showing “unknown” and now it had a name. It was many years ago, but she had never forgot this stone that she often walked over to reach the family grave.
“Mum, have you seen that stone” she would ask on the visits she made with her mother.
“Oh yes, just walk over it, it is in a strange place. It has always been there. Probably just some unidentified person they fished out of the Thames” and that was the explanation Pat got from her mother.
Pat never forgot this dream, at last the grave in the path had a name, she thought. Later that year she paid a visit to London and revisited many places where she had grown up. It was then that she made a decision; she must go to the graveyard again.
She arrived at the gates, but everything seemed much smaller than it was when she was a child. She thought probably the dimensions of time, then I was smaller and everything seemed bigger. She remembered there was a quaint old chapel covered with trailing ivy at the entrance, where the services were held before the burials. The chapel was no longer there. At the entrance there was a line of old gravestones with statues of angels gracing them. The statues were no longer as clean and white as Pat remembered them. They had a green cover of the mould which had grown over the years. She tried to remember where the family grave was, and searched for the path that was the way to the grave, but it was an impossible task. Many of the graves were no longer there, a housing estate had taken over part of the cemetery.
It was then that she noticed part of the cemetery looked comparatively new, although the gravestones were not covered with letters as she knew them, but in Arabic writing. There were visitors dressed accordingly in their dark cloaks and hats belonging to the ethnic minorities of this part of the town. It seemed that the dream and the memories had probably confused things over the years and she decided it was better to leave, when she saw a small office at the entrance to the cemetery.
“Hello, is anyone there” she called
“Yes madam, can I help you?”
“Perhaps you could explain what happened to this cemetery. I remember it as being completely different. We have a family grave here which I could no longer find. There was a chapel at the entrance and there were so many graves that you had to walk over some to arrive at your own grave.”
“Well that was many years ago. The graveyard was sold and part of it was demolished. Houses have now been built on that part. The remaining part of the cemetery was converted into a Muslim cemetery.”
“Yes, but there were graves where the Muslim graves now are. What happened to them?”
“Well to be quite honest, they are still there, but somewhere below. Most of the graves were no longer visited, so new graves were just built on top.”
“Where is my family grave? The land was bought and I have a photo of the grave.”
“I can give you a telephone number to call, and if you can give them the plot number, they will find out the details for you.”
“I have one last question. Where is the chapel?”
“Oh, yes, now that was unfortunate. Some kids were playing in the cemetery one evening and they lit a fire. It spread and before it could be stopped it engulfed the complete chapel in flames. It was no longer being used in any case, and the part that was still standing had to be removed for safety reasons.”
Pat thanked the porter, who had been very helpful and prepared to leave. She took one last glance back at the cemetery. She was sad that the past could be so destroyed without any respect to those concerned. It was then she saw a shadow move behind one of the gravestones with the angel on top. A shudder went down her spine, she did not know why, but a figure stepped forward from behind the stone; a young man, dressed in clothes that looked as if they originated in a history book. He looked at Pat and laughed. Pat did not know why, but two words left her lips
The figure nodded and said “Thank you for remembering” and disappeared.