By Lee Rourke.
This story was specially commissioned for and read at the London Word Festival.
Having lived round there I’ve seen it getting squeezed with the gentrification. There are a lot of printers in that area and you’ve had a lot of people move in to loft conversions so you’ve got these new middle class residents in what was once a pretty much industrial area and then the council estates just off that. I know quite a few printers in the area…printing’s a little bit noisy and they’re having more and more restrictions imposed on the hours they can work because the new residents complain about the noise. So it’s completely changing the area.
Stewart Home, 3:AM Magazine
for Vic Day
To begin with transformations. We have decided to throw away our own rules. We have planned crimes against Shakespeare by immersing ourselves in the ruins of Shakespeare. Around Curtain Road. North, East, South and West. The area is changing. The original suburb of sin is no more. We’ve read our Stewart Home. Down & out in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Home has provided us with the evidence that common economics has plied its trade here for at least 400 years. Now things are changing. Communities have been marginalised. Warehouses converted into loft apartments. Kwik Save gone. Analogue has become digital. Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, will never be the same again. Somehow, in spite of modernity, things must continue.
The two gravediggers are in the secluded graveyard near Pitfield Street. Their digging apparatus is a new model; but they are confronted with a crisis: the digging apparatus has been experiencing some teething problems and refuses to operate. The problem needs to be identified. The apparatus is inspected by the gravediggers: imagine a rudimentary main frame, including two side frames spaced transversely. Two cross-bars, one at each end of the main frame, connect each side frame to the apparatus. Within this a carrier is fitted longitudinally in the main frame, between the two side frames. The carrier moves up along the main frame, carrying the unwanted top soil and clay away from the earth where, at the lower end of the apparatus, there is a mounted rotary digging element. This digger is driven by a multiple-speed electric motor. Both gravediggers eventually locate the motor. They conclude that here, somewhere within the motor, cocooned by the protective main frame, dwells the origin of their problem.
Something inside the mechanism of the electric motor is not working. The electric motor is stuck; there is no power to propel the rotary digging element and the grave cannot be dug out from the soft earth. Something will need to be done. Graves, after all, need to be made (especially this grave). The gravediggers stare at the mechanism. Both realise the brute materiality of the situation needs to be confronted.
“Well, what do we do?”
“We use the shovels . . . that’s what we do.”
“Yes, the shovels.”
“But this will take us ages.”
“I know it will take us ages, but remember, her grave is already down there, we’ve just got to remove the correct amount of earth in order to reveal it. Get the shovels . . .”
Solid socket 12” x 6” blade Clay Grafter shovels, with ash MYD handles, in hands, the gravediggers get to work. After marking out the width and length they begin to dig; one gravedigger at each end of the grave; working towards its centre.
“Is she to be buried this afternoon, then?”
“I guess so.”
“Is it a Christian burial?”
“I doubt it — this is a Catholic cemetery.”
“Oh, what happens, you know, for a suicide?”
“What do you mean? They get buried . . .”
“I mean, well, is it a special ceremony?”
“Why would it be?”
“Because she killed herself . . .”
The gravediggers continue to dig in unison. With the top soil now removed the clay begins to stick heavily to their shovels; a fusion of phyllosilicate materials formed over a long period of time; older than graveyards; older than the sewer from which Shoreditch took its name. A secondary sedimentary deposition process, accumulating thick deposits just under their feet. Cities, towns and villages; dwelling places inches from it: the sum and substance of our foundations. The gravediggers continue to dig in unison. The clay is exhibiting its elasticity on the shovel; the recent spell of rain altering its pliability. Each shovel cuts through it with ease. The clay intensifies in colour the deeper they dig: a deep orange, streaked with red. It is no coincidence that exactly this type of clay lies beneath the gravediggers’ squelching feet. Things have taken aeons to get where they are today.
They begin to dig with more effort; deeper and deeper; struggling to dump the heavy deposits of clay by the side of the grave.
“I don’t bother with all this religious stuff . . . Anyway, who cares if she ended it that way?”
“I don’t care either”
“She’s dead; just another name on a gravestone, you know.”
“Like all the rest.”
“There’s no one left here to care anymore. People are leaving. Moving on, selling up . . . Forced eastwards. It’s all changed.”
“This has . . . Hoxton, Shoreditch . . . These streets.”
“Aye, I suppose it has.”
“It’s not like it used to be.”
“Aye, I know. I know.”
“There used to be carpenters’ workshops, builders’ merchants, a bustling rag trade . . . All around here . . . People worked here, there were places for them to meet and drink, now their public houses have been converted into flats and galleries. They have been packed away, replaced by a digital economy that has sent them to the gallows, there’s nothing here for them anymore . . .”
“I’ve got an idea . . .”
“Beer . . . We need beer. I’ll get a take-out from The Beehive. All this shovelling is thirsty business.”
The gravedigger, smeared in clay and grime, scrambles out of the deepening grave and departs the graveyard, heading towards The Beehive public house, its own foundations embedded in clay once disrupted by incoming V2 rockets. The other gravedigger continues to dig the grave in his absence. He begins to sing, unaware that two men are now watching him. The two men, close companions, slowly walk towards the grave.
“Look at the gravedigger . . .”
“Yes, look at him, singing, not a care in the world, no respect or dignity for the dead.”
“The dead beneath our feet could sing like him once.”
The gravedigger looks up at the two men; he continues to sing, hitting something with his shovel. It feels hollow and brittle. He looks down into the grave, into the clay by his shovel: it’s a skull. He stops digging and bends down to free it from the clay.
“Look! Look! The gravedigger has unearthed something!”
“It’s the skull of a man.”
“Or a woman.”
The gravedigger flings it over his shoulder.
“He’s just flung back into the dirt! . . . Did you just see that?”
“Yes, I did. That skull once had eyes and ears . . . If only it could see and hear all this, everything that is happening to this wretched place . . . It could have been someone who made something of their life in these streets, a respected member of the community.”
“I suppose that’s a possibility.”
The gravedigger continues his work unperturbed; still singing, he unearths another skull, and tossing it aside with the other, raises his voice for the chorus.
“Look! Look! There’s another! This could be the skull of an old publican from Hoxton Street, and he just treats it like dirt. Why should this old community suffer such flagrant disrespect? This fellow might have been great, a pillar of the community, a landowner, a man of honour and tradition . . . One of the many varnish makers, upholsterers, timber merchants, gilders or drapers who plied their trade along Curtain Road. Only to be knocked about by this gravedigger’s shovel. I’ll make him lie in his grave, I will!”
It can be said with reasonable authority that both gravediggers, in spite of their gory profession, have never really given the symbolism of skulls much thought. The skull by the gravedigger’s feet is just that: a skull. But to others, the appealing features of the skull, juxtaposed with the fact that it is dead and cold — fixed in its faceless state of nothingness — are to hard to resist. It is no surprise that people find the primordial synergy of this coupling extraordinarily fascinating. The idea that this instantly recognisable thing was once living and breathing just like them compels those who need symbolism to look closer. With its large empty eye sockets and noseless face, its exposed chipped and shattered teeth sitting in twisted jawbone: skulls are their mirror, telling them that one day it’ll end, revealing to them that death is only skin-deep. The skull is the icon of their finite materiality; and their failing to accept this. The skull shuns form’s perfection. The skull, unbeknownst to them, is their friend. It is the reason why the gravedigger hardly flinches in the presence of human remains. The gravedigger already knows there is nothing to be afraid of. So, he casually unearths another skull, this time holding it up and inspecting it, before flinging it over to the two men.
“Here, gentlemen, you might recognise this fellow!”
The skull arcs towards the hands of the first man. He catches it, completing the judging of its trajectory towards him and working out the inner mathematics involved to move his hand towards it, in the blink of an eye. The skull is damaged and the orange-red clay has accumulated in each eye socket, filling the cranium. He holds the skull, feeling the weight of it in his hands.
“Gravedigger! Whose grave is this you’re digging?”
“Tell me the truth.”
“I am telling you the truth, Sir.”
“This grave is for the dead, not for you!”
“I’m not lying, Sir.”
“Which poor man is it for?”
“For no man, Sir.”
“Which poor woman then?”
“For no woman, Sir.”
“Who is to be buried here, a dog?”
“One that used to be a woman, Sir.”
“Are you taking the piss out of me?”
“A dead woman, Sir.”
“You are an absolute fool!”
“Aye, I’m absolute, alright.”
The man holds the skull in his hands, poking his fingers into each eye-socket, caressing the fractured cranium, the orange-red clay smearing across his palms. The man’s companion eyes the skull enviously, unable to resist its deathly charms, he tries to take it from his friend, but his friend turns away so he can’t reach it. The gravedigger turns to him, pointing at the skull in his hands.
“The skull in your hands . . .”
“Whose do you think it was?
“Was? Is? To whom did it belong? I have no idea . . . Do you?”
“Oh, yes, it belonged to Harry Cartwright . . .”
“Harry Cartwright, the butcher?”
“You’re correct . . .”
The man turns to his companion; then, holding the skull up to the light, begins inspecting it closely.
“Harry Cartwright, the butcher of Hoxton Street, I knew him well. I knew him. Leader of the Hoxton Rifles. The Hoxton battalion of brothers, friends and business associates he was given permission to hand pick, all from the same Hoxton and Shoreditch streets, young men who all fought together in World War II. Men of infinite jest, courage and honour. Men who stopped the V2 rockets falling from the sky. Harry led these men, took care of these men like they were his brothers. He fought beside them, and brought them home, back to Hoxton, back to their loved ones. I knew him. A man respected and now forgotten . . . Left to rot here in the dirt. Deep in the shit. Where we will all end up no doubt . . . Down there . . . Dear friend . . .”
“Do you think she’ll end up like this? Forgotten? Her rotting, stinking skull trampled into the earth?”
“We return to dust, that’s all I know . . . The dust is earth.”
As the two men stand there with the skull, above the gravedigger, three more people walk up to the grave. Two men (one old and one young) and a woman. They are dressed in black; their attire is clearly bespoke, fitting for any funeral.
The skull is dropped to the orange-red clay.
The two men back away. Whispering to each other:
“It’s them . . . It’s them . . .”
The gravedigger steps out of the grave and leans on his shovel. He looks at Harry Cartwright’s skull. He stares at it for some time, scrutinising it, as if he has just realised something. He looks back up at the man who dropped it to the ground.
“It’s the skull that matters . . .”
“The skull is the matter . . . The skull, down there, by your feet, skulls like that . . . They are what really matter . . . They are the matter, the sum and substance of all this.”
The man, wiping the hardening clay from his hands, turns away from the gravedigger to the eldest of the two men with the woman.
“It’s her grave, isn’t it? I knew that it was her grave . . .”
The young man steps towards him.
“Why are you here, this is her funeral, you have no right being here.”
“I have every right.”
The woman leans towards him.
“We have come to lay flowers, to pay our respects . . . You have no business being here.”
Finally, the young man rushes towards him.
“You do not belong here! Her grave is my grave. She never loved you.”
The young man jumps into the grave.
“Now pile your dust upon me! Give me your dead”
The man turns to his companion.
“Who is this man who grieves so violently?”
The young man continues:
“You were nothing to her; if she was here now she’d tell you to leave herself.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll make this grave yours!”
With this he jumps into the grave with the young man. He grabs the young man by the throat and throttles him, squeezing the breath out of him, dragging him through the thick, sticky orange-red clay. Legs and arms flail around, fingers dig into the clay, fumbling for purchase, but the substance is too malleable to take hold — to do something with — there is nothing except the separating secondary deposits to hold on to. But it’s not enough. The young man’s fingers cut through the clay into nothingness. There is no substance to it.
The older man, the companion and the woman step over the grave. The gravedigger remains where he is, leaning on his shovel.
“Someone separate them!”
“Someone get them out!”
“Get out of the grave!”
The two men eventually clamber out of the grave. They continue to fight, falling to the dirt by the gravedigger’s shovel. The woman screams towards him.
“This is madness! Do something about this, gravedigger!”
“They can fight it out amongst themselves . . . I’m just here to do my job.”
“Please, stop them!”
The two men roll around the floor, hitting, stamping, pulling and biting.
Suddenly, the gravedigger lifts up his shovel from the clay. He holds it up above his head, just long enough for the old man, the woman, the companion and the two men on the floor to look up and notice it. He brings it crashing back down to earth with considerable force; its impact with the ground sends the two men sprawling across the clay, splitting them asunder, the shovel’s 12” x 6” blade slicing past them with millimetres to spare.
“Gentlemen! This is a place of respect.”
The two men jump to their feet. Dazed, looking up at the gravedigger.
“I must finish this grave. There is a funeral today.”
The gravedigger jumps back into the grave and continues to sing the same song he had been singing. He shovels the last of the orange-red clay out from the grave, patting down and re-smoothing the damaged sides of her final resting place with the back of his shovel. He is looking forward to his colleague’s return from The Beehive with their beer. Even though he should be back by now and is probably enjoying a sneaky pint of Pride. He is thirsty too. As he watches the group walk away, the man’s companion suddenly turns around and walks back towards the gravedigger in the grave.
“I’d just like to thank you, gravedigger.”
“There’s no need for that, Sir.”
“Okay . . . Just one more thing, gravedigger.”
“How does one become one?”
“A gravedigger . . . How does one become a gravedigger?”
“That’s a pointless question . . .”
“Why is it a pointless question?”
“Because, Sir, you should know by now that we are all gravediggers already. Every single one of us. You’ve just got to learn how to sift through life’s detritus to realise this.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 13th, 2009.