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Last minute addition to the stories on Vision Australia Radio

      Melinda Peat on Vision Australia Radio reads David Gardiner's story Picking Blackberries

Picking Blackberries by David Gardiner

Even though Emily is gone I still find myself doing a lot of the things I used to do with her, but on my own now of course. I still go down every year to see the Queen lay the wreath at the Cenotaph, and unless Iím not feeling well I try to get to the Chelsea Flower Show and one or two other places that we used to go to together as a matter of routine. Itís not as much fun on your own Ė if fun is the right word for the Cenotaph business Ė but old habits are hard to break.

Something that we always used to do around the end of August was take the late bus up to St. Pancras Cemetery in East Finchley, not to pay our respects to the dead but for the blackberrying. I suppose it was a little bit naughty really. Itís a very big cemetery and itís been in use since 1854 Ė it tells you that on the plaque Ė and although some bits of it are very neat and well looked-after, most of itÖ well, to put it politely, has returned to nature. The old part of the cemetery is covered in weeds and brambles so that you have to fight your way through it, and the vegetation is so high that you can get lost in it and not remember which way is back to the path. Most of the headstones are overturned and broken and so overgrown you can barely even see them any more, just feel them underfoot as you walk. And some of the old headstone carvings look fantastic. Almost life size, a lot of them: virgins and saints and angels and holy apostles and crucified saviours, all covered in moss and creepers, with missing heads and broken wings and things growing out of their mouths and eyes, leaning over at crazy angles or just lying in fragments in the bushes. And the blackberries are everywhere when itís the right time of year.

It seems a shame to waste the blackberries really. I mean, nobody visits those graves. Nobody sees them, you nearly need a machete to get anywhere near them. So why not? Of course if Emily was giving a jar of blackberry jam to a friend she wouldnít actually tell them where we got the berries, because it did seem just a little bit macabre Ė blackberries that might have been fertilised by decomposing human remains Ė but weíre all made of the same things, arenít we? All just chemicals and cells and minerals. Think how many human remains there must be in any patch of ground in a city like London. If I was the ghost of one of those forgotten Victorians I would be glad of the company, the little bit of attention when Emily or I glanced in their direction. Itís lonely enough being widowed, imagine what it must be like to be dead.

Emily and I always went in the late evening, when there werenít other people around. We wouldnít want anybody to think we were disrespecting the graves of their loved ones. The gates close at 5.00 but there are several places where you can get in just by squeezing through a gap in the railings if you know the layout of the place. And thereís no night watchman or security system. I mean, what is there to steal?

Thatís why I was a bit surprised that Sunday towards the end of August when I was in there filling my old biscuit tin as usual in the failing light, and realised that I wasnít alone.

It was a female figure wearing something white, a hundred yards or so from where I was with my tin. She wasnít making any sound and I wouldnít have noticed her, except that unlike the other dimly visible female figures of crumbling stone or stained marble, she was moving about beyond the patchy screen of vegetation.

There was no reason why other people shouldnít know about the unofficial ways into the cemetery, but in all the years that I had been going there this was the first time I had encountered anybody else. I wondered if I should greet her, make my presence known. She seemed quite young, and engrossed in some activity that I couldnít make out. If she suddenly noticed me it might give her a fright. On the other hand hearing an old manís reedy voice from inside the depths of an overgrown burial ground might scare her even more.

Unable to decide what I should do I crouched down so that I would be out of sight beneath the dark silhouette of the brambles. After a couple of minutes my legs began to ache and I started to feel ridiculous. What was I worried about? Why should anybody be scared of an old codger gathering blackberries in the dusk? I stood up and turned to where I had seen her, but she didnít seem to be there any more.

I moved a little further towards where she had been. Nothing. I made more of an effort, pushed my way through the undergrowth, found a viable route between the moss-covered mounds of masonry and the diseased trees, tried to avoid stepping on obvious graves, but however far I managed to push my way, the girl wasnít there.

Well, I told myself, if she wasnít there I wasnít going to frighten her. I didnít have a problem. And yet I couldnít help feeling uneasy. As though I had intruded on something that was very private and sacred and none of my business. Old burial grounds can give you that irrational feeling of awe, canít they?

But then, pushing through a particularly dense clump of neglected trees and shrubs, I decided that I had solved the mystery. Although the grave itself was barely discernable beneath the bindweed and the ivy, the ferns and the layers of leaf mold, there on top of it all, in the only remaining stone urn that had not been overturned or lost in the undergrowth, somebody had placed a fresh bouquet of perfect long-stemmed lilies whose whiteness was dazzling, even in the failing evening light and the shade of the vegetation.

The sight brought a lump to my throat. Somebody still cared for whoever lay in that grave. Cared enough to come here in the twilight when the graveyard was deserted and leave this beautiful and probably very expensive floral tribute. I stooped down and looked for a name on the bouquet. Nothing. No packaging or floristís label, no twine holding the flowers together, no sign of a senderís message. Just the flowers themselves.

I looked at what remained of the grave and the headstone. How could the girl with the flowers have let it get into such a state?

Without really knowing why I was doing it, I started to clear away the earth and vegetation with my bare hands. It took time, but with careful excavation through the leaf mold you could see the stone border that had once defined the graveís perimeter, and the headstone itself, which had partially fallen over but was otherwise intact. I could even make out some of the engraved lettering. I got out my handkerchief, licked it, and tried to clean the stone surface surrounding the words. Eventually I could read some of them.

Private Harold Cartwright M.M.

1st. Btn. London Reg. R. Fus.

1897 Ė 1916

There was more but the letters lower down were too eroded to make out. I looked at the dates. He was 19 when he died. Much the same age as the girl in white.

On impulse I tried to pull the headstone back into the vertical position. It wasnít as difficult as I had expected. When it was reasonably straight I carefully piled some earth and stones behind it so that it wouldnít fall over again too easily. When I had finished I looked at my work. It wasnít perfect but it wasnít bad. It looked a bit more like the brave manís grave that it was now. I hoped the young girl would be pleased if she ever came back.

The sun had set and if I didnít leave soon I would have real trouble finding my way back to the road. There was almost nothing in my blackberry tin, but that didnít matter, I felt that my time in the cemetery had been well spent. My hands were filthy and smelled of earth and decay, and I was embarrassed when I touched my Freedom Pass on the pad by the bus driverís seat, but my spirits were unaccountably high.

And now I have to own up to something that may make you think Iím losing my marbles. At least that was what I thought the night it happened. Because when I got to the kitchen and opened that biscuit tin there were more blackberries in there than I could have collected in three evenings at the cemetery, and there wasnít a small one or an under-ripe one amongst them. They were all magnificent.

I havenít been back since. I donít think a cemetery is the right place to go blackberrying. Do you?

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