Part One – Friday 13 July
“What’s the matter? You’re not scared are you?”
Lauren didn’t answer.
She stood gazing out of her bedroom window at the street below, twirling a loose strand of hair between finger and thumb.
Five o’clock on a hot Friday in mid July: the evening rush hour; drivers with their shirt sleeves rolled up and their car windows wound down inching their way up and down Highgate Hill. Snatches of Capital FM and the rhythmic thump of car subwoofers. The throb of engines. Motorbikes weaving their way in between the cars; the Finchley bus, a red double-decker advertising The London Dungeon, pulled into the bus stop on the other side of the road. The end of the week. The start of the summer holidays. Time to relax. Be happy.
And then in amongst the cars, bikes and buses transporting the living home to their Friday dinners and fun-filled weekends, a sealed black hearse appeared, like a skeleton at the feast.
Black and shiny, the hearse looked like an overdressed gentleman, suited and buttoned up to the neck, at a party where the dress code was “casual.” It bore a wooden coffin with shiny brass handles that glinted in the sun. On top of the coffin lay a bouquet of white lilies.
Lauren leaned her forehead against the glass, unable to look away. She felt she ought to do something, show her respects in some way, but she didn’t know how.
Should I say a prayer? Make the sign of the cross?
In the end she just watched the hearse as it climbed up Highgate Hill in first gear, maintaining a stately five miles an hour and creating an even bigger traffic jam than usual in its wake.
Following the coffin was a cortège of two black limos, their darkened windows shut tight against the glare of the evening sun.
A strange time of day for a funeral, thought Lauren, the middle of rush hour.
“Well then?” The voice more insistent this time.
Lauren turned away from the window. “Sorry. There was a coffin. I…” She trailed off. The blank look on her friends’ faces told her that neither of them was the least bit interested in a funeral procession. “What did you say?”
“I said, you’re not scared are you?”
“No. Should I be?” It came out sharper than she’d intended. Maybe she was scared. She was certainly uncomfortable about the idea.
Megan and Chloe were sitting on Lauren’s bedroom floor, Megan lounging on her side propped up on one elbow, Chloe sitting cross-legged. Between them lay a wooden board.
When school had broken up for the summer earlier that afternoon they’d hung out in Waterlow Park eating ice-creams and then Megan said she had something she absolutely had to show them, but they needed to be somewhere quiet, not in the middle of the park. So they went to Lauren’s house because that was the nearest and that was when Megan produced the wooden board from her bag.
Typical of Megan to suggest something like this. Brave, confident Megan who would dare to do anything.
Megan was always compelling them to do things, always wanting to push the boundaries. Like that time last summer when they’d dolled themselves up to the eyeballs and sweet-talked their way into a nightclub for over-twenty-ones even though they were only fifteen. Megan had done all the talking, assisted by a top that plunged so low Lauren wouldn’t have dared wear it.
And now this.
Megan and Chloe were both looking up at her, waiting for an answer. It was Megan, of course, who had asked the question.
Lauren wondered what Chloe thought of Megan’s latest hare-brained idea but Chloe was too pliable and always willing to go along with whatever Megan suggested. Chloe looked down and started fiddling with a piece of loose skin on the edge of her fingernail.
Lauren cleared her throat and tried to sound relaxed. “No, of course I’m not scared, I just think these things can be a bit…” she searched for the right word to use. Dangerous sounded melodramatic. Spooky made her sound like a frightened six-year old on Halloween. In the end she plumped for, “…weird.”
“Oh, that’s all right then,” said Chloe looking up from her fingernail with a nervous giggle. “I thought you were going to say you thought it was dangerous or spooky.”
Lauren felt herself reddening. I didn’t speak those words out loud, did I? She put a hand to her cheek, feeling its warmth. She didn’t believe in telepathy. It was all a load of nonsense.
“You OK?” asked Chloe.
Calm down. Chloe just happened to be thinking what I was thinking but she’s given the game away by saying the words out loud. She’s just as nervous as I am.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then,” said Megan. “Come on, let’s get on with it. We haven’t got all day.” She sat up, shaking out her hair which today was dyed black with a single peroxide streak down one side.
Still not entirely convinced but feeling less of a fool now she knew Chloe was also jittery, Lauren sat down on the floor. The opening line of Macbeth, which they had been studying in school, drifted into her mind – When shall we three meet again – but she pushed the thought away. They weren’t witches after all. This wasn’t magic.
They were sitting around a battered old Ouija board. Megan proudly told them how she spied it at Portobello market and bought it for a couple of quid after haggling with the stallholder to reduce his price by fifty percent. Wicked, she called it when she pulled it out of her school bag, holding it up proudly like a work of art.
Lauren had immediately felt uncomfortable. She distrusted anything to do with the occult and wished that Megan hadn’t brought it round. But here they were preparing to contact the other side as Megan laughingly put it. Megan had got her way, as usual.
The rectangular wooden board measured about eighteen inches by twelve, its surface worn smooth through years of use. The letters A to M were engraved in an old fashioned script in an arc in the top half of the board and the letters N to Z in an arc in the bottom half. In a row between the two arcs of letters were the ten digits 0 to 9. The words Yes, No, Hello and Goodbye were engraved in the four corners of the board. Intertwining vines decorated the border and the words Magical Talking Board were carved along the bottom. In the centre of the board lay the planchette; a flat heart-shaped piece of wood with a small star engraved on the top. Neither Lauren nor Chloe had yet dared touch it.
“Will this work in daylight?” asked Chloe. “I thought séances were normally done in the dark.”
“Not this sort of séance,” said Megan. “It only needs to be dark if you’re trying to make a spirit materialize.” Lauren couldn’t tell if Megan was being serious or sarcastic.
“Besides,” continued Megan, “if we wait ‘til it’s dark we won’t be able to see the letters on the board.”
“Fair enough,” conceded Chloe. “But should we hold hands? Or sing a song? You know, like a hymn?”
Megan frowned. “That’s just mumbo-jumbo. Look, it’s simple. Put your right index finger on the planchette and see what happens.” Megan thrust her finger forward and rested it on the planchette as if to demonstrate. She looked up at the others. “Go on then.” First Chloe and then Lauren placed the tips of their right index fingers on the planchette. They waited.
“We need to ask a question,” said Megan. She turned to Lauren. “Since we’re doing this in your house, you can ask the first question.”
Being a passive participant was one thing, but being responsible for asking the first question made Lauren feel like she was being picked on in class. She tried to think of something original and witty to ask. Something that would make them laugh. This was all too serious. But her mind was a blank. She closed her eyes and tried to think.
She was about to tell Megan to think of a question herself since it had been her idea, when a question popped into her head.
That’s a total cliché, you can’t ask that. Think of something else for goodness’ sake.
But she couldn’t think of anything else and the question wouldn’t go away. It was the only question they could ask.
She wanted to say she thought the whole idea was beyond stupid and she wasn’t going to participate any more but instead she heard herself saying, “Is there anybody there?”
Then, a frisson of movement in her right index finger.
Lauren opened her eyes in astonishment as the planchette started to glide across the board.
Tom was struggling to breathe.
He told himself it was the heat but knew it was more to do with the lump in his throat and the pain in his heart. He ran a finger under his too-tight shirt collar, prising it away from his neck which prickled with sweat, and tried to focus his attention on the Vicar of St. Michael’s.
He must be melting under that full-length cassock.
Tom imagined the Reverend Martin Andrews reduced to nothing but a black puddle. The vicar’s bald head glistened with perspiration and his silver-rimmed reading glasses had slipped down his nose and appeared to be in danger of falling off. He was intoning the words of the Anglican funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer.
Tom tried to tune in to the rise and fall of his voice, but the words coming from the vicar’s mouth might as well have been Mandarin Chinese for all Tom was able to make sense of them.
“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in the twinkling of an eye…”
What on earth did that mean?
There was only one thing that Tom understood.
His dad was dead and was lying, this very minute, in an oak coffin with shiny brass handles, resting on wooden slats above an open grave in Highgate Cemetery.
Tom stared at the coffin, half expecting the lid to spring open any minute and for his dad to sit up and say, “Fooled you.” He remembered his dad telling him about Victorians who were so terrified of being buried alive they had bells placed in their coffins so they could summon assistance if they “woke up.” Tom had laughed at their fears and their foolishness. But now, at the sight of his dad’s coffin and the thought of the black, airless space inside it, his chest heaved and he gasped for air.
Just hold it together a bit longer, he told himself. He clenched his fists, the nails digging into his palms. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to distract himself by replaying the events of the day in his mind’s eye.
The thud as a pile of sympathy cards hit the doormat; putting on the dark grey polyester suit and black tie his mother had bought from Marks and Spencer two days ago; the arrival sometime in the afternoon of Uncle Bill and his wife Brenda with their five year old twins Patsy and Daisy all the way from Newcastle (was that why the funeral had been arranged so late in the day?); the usual platitudes – how was the journey? Was the traffic bad on the M1? I’ll put the kettle on – from his mother. Tom couldn’t remember if he’d eaten anything for lunch or not. He wasn’t hungry now, just thirsty. It was too hot to be wearing a polyester suit.
Then, at five o’clock, the hearse had pulled up outside the house in Cromwell Avenue, the coffin lying in the back adorned with a huge bouquet of lilies. The hearse was accompanied by two black limousines. As they walked down the path to the waiting cars Tom was aware of the neighbours’ curtains twitching. A funeral, it seemed, was as entertaining as a wedding. Tom and his mother climbed into the first limo, Uncle Bill and his family into the second.
Tom had always wanted to travel in one of those white stretch limos like a movie star on the way to the Oscars. He had pictured himself stretched out in the back with a glass of champagne in one hand and a remote control for the DVD player in the other. But his first ride in a limousine had been in a black one on the way to his dad’s funeral and the idea of a white limo and champagne now seemed shamefully trivial, almost obscene.
The drive up Highgate Hill had been excruciatingly slow and Tom was all too aware of the huge traffic jam they had caused, at rush hour of all times, the hearse bearing his dad’s coffin keeping to an unflinching five miles an hour. They might as well have opted for a horse drawn carriage like the Victorians did. Dad would have liked that. The thought almost made Tom smile.
During the funeral service in the church, Tom had wondered on more than one occasion if the vicar had muddled his dad up with some other deceased person. Tom simply didn’t recognise the man the vicar talked about as his dad. The scholarly academic the vicar described sounded dull and pedantic and wasn’t the dad Tom remembered – the fun-loving, outdoorsy person who liked to go mountain biking with his son or boating on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Where had the vicar got this description from? His mother?
The church service had finished with endless hand-shaking and condolences from people Tom had never met before and then the undertaker, an unobtrusive man who looked like he wore black every day of his life, had ushered them back into the limousines for the short drive down Swain’s Lane to the cemetery gates.
The cars glided through the Victorian gothic entrance and came to rest in front of a semi-circular colonnade of arches. The undertakers slid the coffin out of the hearse and the funeral party proceeded on foot up a flight of stone steps into a world of twisted, old trees, dappled sunlight and stone angels. Either side of the path, ivy-clad gravestones vied for space with one another and top-heavy urns threatened to topple from crumbling pedestals. A real Victorian Valhalla. It was easy to believe that ghosts roamed here at night.
Tom opened his eyes and scanned the faces of the mourners gathered around the graveside. Uncle Bill, his father’s younger brother, stood at the foot of the grave, shoulders back and chin thrust out, staring straight ahead. There were other members of the extended family that Tom barely recognised, a great aunt, a second cousin, whatever – it made Tom’s head hurt to try and remember who they all were. His dad’s best mates from the local Highgate cricket club, John and Mike, looked stricken. One of them, Tom could never remember which, had been best man at his parents’ wedding.
Then there were his dad’s work colleagues. Alan Nesbit, Professor of History at University College London where his dad worked (had worked, Tom reminded himself) was a pale, gaunt-faced man in his late fifties. He stood slightly apart from the main group, gazing down on the open grave with deep-set, hooded eyes as if he was an impartial observer of the scene being enacted in front of him, and not one of the chief mourners. Tom had met Alan Nesbit on a couple of occasions when his dad had taken him into the department but he wasn’t someone you warmed to. His dad had hoped to become Professor when Nesbit retired but of course that wouldn’t happen now.
Richard Newgate, the college principal, was a much jollier looking chap and, judging from his stout figure and florid complexion, enjoyed a pint or two. Then there was a younger woman, probably in her mid-thirties, with a ginger bob who had introduced herself as Nancy Letts, the department secretary. For a moment, at the entrance to the church, it seemed as if Nancy was about to throw her arms around Tom in an outburst of sympathy but then suddenly, without warning, she burst into tears causing her mascara to smudge. Much to Tom’s relief Richard Newgate had escorted her away to the pews without another word.
To Tom’s right his mother stood bolt upright, dressed in a tailored black suit, her face partially obscured by the black lace veil which hung like a spider’s web from the brim of her hat. She clasped a black Chanel bag in both hands. Tom supposed she was putting a brave face on things, but, to be honest, he didn’t really know.
The fact was, he had been much closer to his dad than he was to his mother. It was Dad who really mattered in his life, Dad who had taught him how to do all the important things like ride a bike, swim a length, make a successful rugby tackle. It was Dad who had helped him with his homework, explained algebra to him, chemistry formulae, Newton’s laws of motion and the history of the Second World War. His mother was a somewhat distant figure, always busy with the fashion boutique she ran on Highgate High Street. They had a succession of au pairs to do the housework but the current one had returned to Poland for her sister’s wedding and was not due back until the end of the summer. Tom glanced across at his mother’s immobile face and tried to imagine how they were going to get along without his dad. He couldn’t do it. He and his mother were too much like strangers who happened to live in the same house.
The vicar stopped speaking and lowered the prayer book. The silence startled Tom and made him look up. What now? Beside him his mother clutched her handbag even closer to her body, the knuckles of her hands turning white. Richard Newgate adjusted his stance, cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back as if bracing himself for the next part of the ceremony. Nancy Letts made discreet sniffing noises and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Only Alan Nesbit stood as rigid as one of the stone angels that adorned the cemetery.
Tom wished the vicar would resume his reading or say a prayer, anything to fill the uncomfortable silence that had descended on the party of mourners. But instead he inclined his head towards the undertaker who had been waiting, forgotten, in the background.
With practised ease, the pallbearers, looking strangely old-fashioned in their black frock coats and top hats, stepped forward and took their places around the coffin, two on either side. They stood precariously close to the open ground, the tips of their black, polished shoes jutting over the edge. Then they lifted the coffin by the straps that were slotted through the handles and held it aloft whilst the undertaker and his assistant removed the wooden slats that had lain across the hole in the ground. Then the pallbearers started to lower the coffin, inch by inch, into the grave.
For a moment Tom was mesmerised by this well-practised performance that proceeded wordlessly, but then, as the top of the coffin started to disappear from view he felt his heart start to thump as if it were trying to break out of his ribcage and he realised he’d never expected things to go this far.
He looked around the group of mourners, desperate to catch someone’s eye. But everyone was staring at the ground. No one had noticed the panic in his face.
Tom wanted to shout, Stop, we can’t bury him yet. This is all wrong. We still don’t know how he died. We think we do but we don’t. The police were wrong. I’ll prove it.
But his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and his throat was so constricted he could hardly breathe. He tried to raise a hand but his limbs felt heavy and lifeless, like in a dream when you want to run or shout but can’t move. Yet this wasn’t a dream. It was all too real. A living nightmare.
The pallbearers continued lowering the coffin, gliding the straps through their hands.
How deep is it, for crying out loud? Surely they’ve reached the bottom by now?
The vicar resumed his reading. “We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It was too late now for Tom to say or do anything. The coffin had vanished from view. The pallbearers stepped away, melting back into the cemetery landscape.
His mother unclasped her handbag and took out a single white rose. She kissed it once then threw it into the grave. Tom hadn’t known she was going to do that.
Uncle Bill took the spade that the undertaker held out to him and, with a shake of his head, threw the first clod of earth onto the coffin. He handed the spade back and turned away, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
This is it then, thought Tom. Goodbye Dad.
As tears started to blur his vision Tom turned away.
A movement in the distance caught his eye. He thought he saw a figure in black, flitting between the trees, but he couldn’t be sure. He wiped his eyes, but when he looked again whatever it was had gone.
A blue butterfly fluttered into his line of vision. He watched its beating wings as it circled over the grave, then came to rest on the edge, like a tiny guardian angel.
Reflections of Will Bucket, Gravedigger, In the Year of Our Lord 1870.
It’s dirty work and backbreaking. But as I always says at least it’s what you’d call regular. Couldn’t fault it on that score. We might get a dozen burials a day and when the weather’s real bad that can go up to twenty, even thirty, or more. A winter cold enough to freeze the balls off a donkey and they’re dropping like flies. Then me and Big Bert has to work extra hard digging fresh graves or lifting the stone slabs on family tombs so as the next dead relative can go in on top. We’ll never be out of work here at Highgate Cemetery, you mark my word.
But it ain’t all mud and digging and dead bodies. Oh, no. It ain’t just dead’uns what come here. There’s plenty of living folk too and working here gives me chance to have a good gawp at all sorts of people. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, like. I just think people are interesting. As me old man says, Will, he says, there’s nowt so queer as folk.
So when me and Big Bert have dug our share of graves for the day I likes to stand by one of them trees close to the path that leads from the Dissenters down to the main courtyard. From there you don’t half get a splendid view of the funeral cortèges as they come in through the cemetery gates from Swain’s Lane. And there ain’t nuffink like a funeral cortège for a bit of pomp and ceremony – plumes of black ostrich feathers on the horses’ heads; them deaf mutes with their wands; the coffin on display in its glass-sided carriage; the mourning carriages with the next-o’-kin and then, more mourners on foot. Some cortèges are so huge it’s a right palaver getting all them horses and carriages in and turned around. The mourners are all togged up in black silk trimmed with crêpe and they gather under the arches of the colonnade at the back of the courtyard before they follow the coffin up the steps into the cemetery proper.
When you get a Lord So-And-So or a Lady This-Or-That being buried then there’s a right old crush of horses, carriages and whatnot and the mourners, especially the women, are dressed to the nines in enough silk and crêpe to clothe a family of twelve.
But we do get more modest funerals of course. Families who cling to each other for support. Young widows. Young widowers come to that. I always gets the feeling their sorrow is more genuine than the fancy displays put on for the benefit of some dead big-wig whose relatives are likely as not going to start arguing over the contents of the will before the day is out.
But it’s the kiddies what gets me.
I wouldn’t say I was a softie – can’t afford to be doing this job – but still the sight of them tiny coffins is enough to break a lad’s heart.
And then there was that lady.
Not much younger than me I reckon, about nineteen.
She weren’t dead, of course. Though she were none too perky, come to that.
There I am watching the funeral cortège of a gentleman who’s made his fortune importing tea from China and is off to spend the rest of his days in a catacomb in the Egyptian Avenue when I sees this young lady hovering nearby on the path.
I doffs me cap to her, thinking she must be one of the mourners at the funeral of the rich gentleman but then she takes a step towards me and looks at me with such sad eyes that I looks at her and says as politely as I can, “May I be of assistance, Miss?”
“I think you can,” was all she says.
Well, I waits for her to speak, thinking now that she ain’t with the funeral party after all and maybe she wants directions to a particular grave or catacomb. I knows this place like the back of me hand and I would’ve been delighted to escort such a pretty young lady anywhere she wanted to go – the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon, the Dissenters’ section (some people are a bit funny about that but I ain’t got nuffink against them) – but she don’t ask me for directions.
Instead she takes a step closer and whispers so as I hardly hears her.
“Can you meet me here this evening? At dusk?”
Well, I don’t know what to say to that. She don’t look like no strumpet. It’s obvious from her plain but nice clothes and well-spoken voice that she’s well bred – not like them lassies up at the penitentiary what used to flog their wares down the West End, if you get me meaning.
“Bring your spade, please,” she adds softly before turning away and walking down the hill towards the main gate.
I wants to call after her to ask what she means, but she’s gone and I don’t want to disturb the mourners climbing down from their carriages in the courtyard.
Me spade? What does she want I asks myself? Some digging by the sound of it.
Well, that was a week ago now and I still ain’t sure if I done right or wrong. I lies awake at night sometimes thinking about it.
She didn’t want me to dig nuffink up, thank goodness, ’cause if she had I’d’ve had to say No and I don’t like saying No to a lady. No, turned out she had sumfink she wanted buried. A tiny bundle, no bigger than a bunch of rags. And I thinks to myself, this ain’t right, this ain’t proper and I starts to protest but she lays a hand on me arm, and there is such a look of sadness in them eyes of hers that me heart goes out to her and I says, “Follow me, Miss.”
I takes her down to a real quiet spot on the edge of the cemetery, a long way from the main gate. It’s one of me favourite spots, by the statue of the sleeping angel. I gets to work and I digs a hole real quick, right next to the angel. Then she lays this bundle of rags in the hole, says a quick prayer, and she tells me to fill it in, which I do.
Then I escorts her back to the gate ’cause you wouldn’t want to get locked in the cemetery after dark. We gets there just in time before the gates are locked for the night. She turns to me and presses a sovereign into me palm. I tries to say I don’t want no money ’cause I gets paid for the work I do by the London Cemetery Company but she turns and runs down Swain’s Lane and I can’t run after her without Mr Hills, the superintendent, asking awkward questions ’cause he’s standing by the gate talking to a gentleman.
I haven’t spent the money. It don’t seem right. I’ll look out for her and if I see her I’ll give it back or tell her to give it to charity.
Now, when I gets a minute I go over to the sleeping angel and makes sure the spot is kept nice’n tidy. There ain’t no cross or nuffink to mark whatever’s buried down there but the sleeping angel will keep it safe.
I think the lady must’ve been back to visit though ’cause the other day I found a small bunch of primroses laid there.
If anyone asks, I’ll have to say I don’t know nuffink.
“Who the hell is Isabelle Hart?” asked Lauren, snatching her finger away from the planchette as if it was burning her. Her heart was thumping like crazy and she felt seriously freaked out. She hadn’t expected the planchette to move at all, had rather hoped the séance would fail so they could put the Ouija board away and do something normal instead like listen to some music and gossip about their classmates.
But the planchette had glided effortlessly across the Ouija board spelling out the name of someone called Isabelle Hart and then, on reaching the final “t” had stopped abruptly, its energy spent.
Megan was grinning insanely. “That was amazing. This thing really works. Did you see how it moved so definitely, spelling out every letter? Cool.”
Lauren stared at her. How could Megan be so unfazed by this eerie event? Unless…
“Oh, OK,” said Lauren. “I get it. You’ve set us up haven’t you Megan? You had me fooled for a while there.” She tried to laugh, but it sounded forced.
Megan glared at her. “What are you saying? That I cheated? That I moved the planchette deliberately?” Megan looked really angry.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” said Lauren, backing down. “I didn’t mean to say you were cheating.” She sighed. “Look, this has freaked me out, that’s all, and I’m just trying to find an explanation for what happened.” She glanced at Chloe who looked pale and wide-eyed.
“OK,” said Lauren, taking a deep breath. “Let’s think about this logically. Maybe one of us has read about or heard of someone called Isabelle Hart? Maybe one of us was sub-consciously guiding the planchette? Like, we made it work because we wanted it to work, if you see what I mean.”
“Bollocks,” said Megan.
Lauren ignored her and turned to Chloe. “What do you think?”
Chloe shook her head. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of her. That was well weird though.”
Understatement of the year.
Lauren stood up and went back to the window.
The funeral cortège was long gone but the traffic was still crawling slower than a tortoise rally. A blue butterfly landed on the window sill. Lauren watched it, noticing the pale ivory dots on its wings, and tried to think. Had she heard the name Isabelle Hart before? She didn’t think so, and yet already the name was sounding familiar, like a case of delayed déjà vu.
“Are you OK Lauren?” The concern in Chloe’s voice made Lauren pull herself together.
Megan looked at her watch. “Let’s ask one more question. I’ve got ten minutes before I start work at the café.”
“Go on then,” said Chloe, who seemed to have recovered from her initial state of shock. “Just one more.”
With a heavy heart Lauren took her place beside the others. It was obvious what the next question should be and Chloe asked it as soon as they had all laid their fingers on the planchette.
“What do you want?”
The answer was quick and clear. The planchette moved across the board spelling out a single word.