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EEL PIE DHARMA - a memoir / haibun -  © 1990 Chris Faiers

Chapter 14 - Twickenham Cemetery

I got a letter in the early winter of 1970 from my parents informing me that 'for my own best interests' they were no longer going to send me any money.  I held out for as long as I could, and then when starvation became a real likelihood, I began working for temporary manpower agencies.  A day or two's work would supply enough money to last me for several weeks, and then I'd head out in the early morning dark for another menial job, usually with another Eel Pier also on the verge of starvation.

The winter and the spring passed in this manner.  My temporary assignments included work in a book depository, cleaning a filthy flooded basement on a downtown office building, organizing office files and a stint sweeping floors in a textile factory.

It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but it didn't bother me too much, because at least I was alive and not dropping napalm on civilians in Vietnam.  One of the L'Aubergers commented to me one day that I should get a job, as I seemed to be becoming more and more spaced out by the hippie lifestyle.  Roy had been talking about applying at the Twickenham Cenetery, and so I decided to accompany him.  Somehow I managed to get up early for the visit to the cemetery, but Roy didn't.  I decided to go ahead with my plans, as I'd already ruined a good morning's sleep, and I might as well go for a walk on this beautiful June morning.

The Twickenham Cemetery was several miles away, and I enjoyed the early summer walk.  To my great surprise, I was hired on the spot, and a pair of garden shears were handed to me and I was told to clip the grass around the graves in the plot by the entrance.  I realized that this was a test, and I bent my back and went to work..  It was peaceful in the cemetery, and very relaxing stooping among the trees and gravestones, many of which were a hundred years old or more.

The morning passed pleasantly, although I was beginning to feel faint, as I didn't have any money for food, and I hadn't eaten.  I hummed Rolling Stones' songs to keep my mind off hunger, and by the end of the day I'd clipped my way through half the plot.  Just as I was finishing, two of the local schoolgirls appeared - Lesley, of Eve of St Agnes memories, and her pretty girlfriend, Carol.  They had gone to visit me at the Hotel, where someone had told them that I had gone to the cemetery to find work.  The two nubile girls must have made quite an impression on the other workmen, and I sailed off at five o'clock weak with hunger but accompanied by my two sexy friends.

And so began my induction into the working class.  To be at work by 8am required that I get up by seven, and that meant getting to bed before midnight.  No more all night dope sessions.  I bought a second-hand bicycle, and the three mile ride each morning was just about enough to wake me up before I reached the cemetery.

The days fell into a pleasant routine.  A couple of hours clipping the dewy grass, and then into our shed for ten o'clock tea.  A quick flip through the daily tabloids, and then back to the grass and birds and flowers until lunch.  For lunch I'd bike into the nearby hamlet and have bacon and eggs at a workers' cafe.  Some days I'd bring a bag of nuts and raisins and a juice, and spend a relaxing hour lounging in the sun in the park-like setting of the cemetery:

    coal smoke, thermos tea
         tabloid ink

The fifty or so acres of the cemetery were surrounded by a low fence completely overgrown by a privet hedge.  There were five of us working full time, so the grounds were immaculately gardened.

George was the foreman.  He took his job seriously, but he was an open-minded and tolerant boss, and so long as we did our jobs, he didn't interfere.

Fred was a rough-looking character - he had a ferocious look about him, like a living caricature of an axe murderer.  His thick black brows almost covered his sunken eyes, and his body was ill-shaped but extremely strong looking.  Fred was a gravedigger, and he looked as if he didn't wash off the dirt from his labours for weeks at a time.  I soon learned that under his coarse exterior beat the proverbial heart of gold, and Fred wouldn't hurt a fly.

His mate was Tom, a sly character with whom I never established any rapport.  Lanny was our other mate.  He was simple minded and lazy, and the story was that he had never been the same since his father had been blasted to bits right in front of him during the blitz in World War Two.  Lanny was amiable enough if you left him alone, and very quiet.

As the days fell into a comfortable pattern, so the year itself took on its seasonal changes.  After a few months I was promoted from full time headstone clipper to part time grass mower.  As a teenager I had earned pocket money mowing neighbours' lawns, and I had always enjoyed a Zen sense of fulfillment in the work.

The long London fall was spent raking and burning piles of leaves.  We'd load up the hand-pulled cart, surely a relic from another century, and then the lucky assigned person would pitch the leaves and wreathes and dead flowers onto the bonfire.  It was pleasant to work in front of the roaring fire and keep warm while enjoying the aromatic smoke:

Fall bonfire
    crackling leaves
         and dead flowers      

In winter we had fewer chores.  The grass stopped growing, the leaves were all raked, and our main chore was the planting of trees for the spring:

In the dead of winter
    planting trees
         in the graveyard        

Spring comes early in London.  By late January the first bulbs, snowdrops, are pushing through.  Quickly they are followed by the many coloured crocuses.  By mid-March the daffodils and tulips are up, and spring is in full bloom.

A grammar school was across the road from the cemetery.  One of my spring highlights was the day two of the young mini-skirted beauties wandered over on their lunch break to look for rabbits.  One girl was a gorgeous brunette, and her girlfriend was a blonde.  They were all of fourteen years old, and they were as interested in meeting the cemetery "hairy" as I was in flirting with these beautiful distractions.  It became a custom for the three of us to meet on our lunches and talk.

Spring was also the signal for the neighbourhood gardeners to begin work.  The area was a poor, working-class district.  Most of the local houses were council row houses without gardens, but a plot had been set aside behind the cemetery for allotment gardens:

Behind the graveyard
    senior citizens digging     
         allotment gardens

Summer brought a couple of summer student workers.  They were looked upon as a necessary nuisance by the older workers, and so George assigned me to be their "ganger".  We had a great time.  Tony was Anglo-Indian, and an accomplished folk singer who had performed gigs at the Hanging Lantern Cafe in Richmond.  We would trade lines from Bob Dylan songs while we worked, and the days went by more quickly than ever:

Summer students
    shouting Dylan
         across graves            

Working in the cemetery was almost vacation enough, although I did take a month off that spring and fly to the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain.  These adventures are told later.

Eel Pie was also entering its final days.  The junkyard landlord had repeatedly tried to get us out, but to no avail.  However, natural processes were destroying the "commune" both physically and spiritually.  Floor boards had been ripped up for two winters, and the very foundations of the hotel had been weakened.  Lead had been stripped off the roof and sold to metal dealers.  While Eel Piers were slowly demolishing the building bit by bit, more and more wandering hippies, musicians, runaways and finally junkies and bikers moved in.

Most of the original Eel Piers moved on to more secure squats in the heart of London, but I stayed on.  The bikers took to throwing stones through all the windows, and syringes could now be found littering the dirt-packed floors.

Finally I packed it in too, and my final months at the cemetery were spent boarding in a crowded rooming-house for Irish navvies.  I had spent the full cycle of a year working in Twickenham Cemetery.  It was time to take to the road, to find the romance and excitement that had sustained me in other places, with other people:

Green garden hose
         a rainbow

    in spiderweb
         on graveyard gate      

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revised 8 March 2017