Talking Gal 3: Churchyard Melancholia

Dear –,

Since my last dispatch, spring and desperation have continued apace, the former with a relentless beauty cruelly indifferent to the latter. The canal towpath makes a farce of social distancing, a walk along it now a stressful exercise in avoiding families three abreast walking their dog, joggers heavily panting in the claustrophobic underpasses, and impatient bikers who feel entitled to the right of way. The tantrums of cooped-up children carry out of windows open to the delicious air they cannot enjoy. My own tiny friend a few doors down who summons me to play by calling through the mail slot in the middle of my door has not done so for the past two weeks, when she started coughing. Around the corner from our building a car with a freshly smashed window is parked beside a fragrant lilac bush fading from full bloom.

In the evening, as people head home and dusk yields to the stars visible with a new clarity, and bat silhouettes replace birds overhead, the canal’s stillness feels vaguely sinister. Alcohol bottles are everywhere. They are abandoned on ledges, crammed into bins, smashed against the pavement. There’s more dog crap left behind than usual. Cars and motorcycles race unencumbered. Twice, at intersections, I have looked further down the street to see distancing bystanders cautiously approach a prostrate man on the pavement. In parks, unmasked police officers hover over unmasked teenagers huddled on benches, demanding explanations. 

For these reasons, I have re-routed my walk to the St. Pancras Church yard, which for the past 1,600 years has served as a place of Christian worship and burial historically prone to body-snatching, and as barracks once for Cromwell’s troops. Masonry dating back to the Normans is visible in one wall of the small, spartan church when it’s open. The yard is adjacent to St. Pancras Hospital, outside which hangs a banner:

Fighting for our lives
despite 10 years of drastic underfunding

Across the street stands a large housing estate young Muslim mothers and old women come and go from in non-quarantined times. Passing under the gold and wrought-iron gate and ascending the small slope that obscures most of the churchyard from the road, the walker is enveloped in an expansive sylvan retreat of relative urban silence. The wind dies down, and bird song emanates from the towering canopy of London planes whose branches edge towards each other but never touch, their mid-spring citrine leaves not yet dense enough to block out the low sun, which illuminates the cemetery in gold mottled wedges as it sinks behind the foreboding brick hospital buildings that were once workhouses.

I like roaming off the paths and across the grass amongst dispersed monuments to Brits whose fleeting earthly prominence prevents neither the acid-rain erosion of their stone angels nor the slow, mossy erasure of their epitaphs. The edges of the churchyard furthest from the street are enclosed by a tall brick wall, on the other side of which trains lumber in and out of Kings Cross. The yard used to extend beyond this until the tracks’ construction displaced 12,000 living and several hundred dead. Along this back wall are unceremoniously crowded headstones of unlucky Londoners who died aged two or 32, the carelessness of their exhumations scandalised in the 1860s. 

A result of that outrage is the Hardy Tree, named after the novelist who as an architect’s apprentice was delegated the unenviable task of reconfiguring dug-up graves. Headstones tightly slotted around a sturdy ash with a forked trunk form a bewitching, scalloped skirt, the tree’s roots raising them off the flat ground and pushing the grey slabs together like a crush of worshippers surrounding their idol. Today’s rail construction in the vicinity, High Speed 2, has forced thousands from their homes. The mountains of rubble people once lived in are hidden behind corporate-branded hoardings cheerily pointing the way to a temporary “community garden,” which is always empty.

A relocated grave granted preferential handling stands alone in a circular patch of grass not to be tread upon  by the living, its perimeter encircled by a tall iron fence. Protected in its centre stands a marble monument. Before dying at 83 in 1837, Sir John Soane designed the Bank of England and other buildings conveying Britain’s imperial might, as well as this scaled-down tribute to himself.

I spotted a man on an intense trip directly behind the church. A guy in his early thirties and ordinary clothing whistled a convincing bird call. He would wait a short interval, posing in a shallow lunge, arm outstretched towards the treetops, cueing like a maestro. This initially gave off a quirky, Jacob Collier-esque eccentricity, but after several minutes he abruptly stopped and bellowed an unceasing rant. He sounded like a disenchanted Labour voter who, inspired by the first three episodes of The Midnight Gospel, was compelled to take psychedelics, subsequently tripping into a despair exacerbated by the current state of locked-down affairs. “Can’t you see?” he kept screaming, a refrain in his far-ranging existential stream that touched on austerity, DMT, capitalist oppression, and shrooms. 

Last Thursday, I was walking home under a long stretch of Georgian terraced houses at 8pm, the appointed time to clap for carers. Neighbours craned out of their first floors, and they looked down at me, whooping and banging on pots, and I looked up at them, hands in my pockets. I could not suppress the absurd, happy-embarrassed sensation of being applauded, a silent, one-woman procession undeservedly showered with cheers. With a suddenness that made my eyes water, I recalled the ecstatic giddiness shared with a group of friends three Decembers ago with whom I made a disco-themed float for the Ocean Beach holiday parade. I never registered an official float name, and so as we rolled past judges’ stand overlooking the Pacific Ocean were introduced as “Christine Hannigan Presents Disco Christmas.” We dressed for Studio 54 and learned the hustle, dancing it every few songs on the 16-foot tinseled truck bed, in the centre of which balanced a secondhand fake Christmas tree, its top drooping under a too-heavy disco ball. 

This Thursday, the clapping had subsided as I headed home seven minutes past eight. Further up the road, drum beats volleyed between the buildings, neighbours leaning out of their windows and playing to each other. I miss my friends, and I miss you.