It has often been said that children are more perceptive than adults. They notice the little things that grown ups are too busy and preoccupied to see: a missed page during their bed-time story; or knowing where your resident family of spiders live. For children, adults are strange creatures who live way up there, almost touching the sky and talking to the birds as they fly by. They have a strange language that children cannot possibly hope to understand, and this works the other way round as well, because adults have no chance of understanding children.
When a child says to his mother, “Mummy, what do all those people in the graveyard do all day?” She is bound to respond: “People go there to remember their friends who’ve gone to live with God.”
“No Mummy, I know that, but what about the ones who live in the graveyard and can’t ever leave?”
“Don’t be silly, darling,” said Mummy. “You can always leave a graveyard!”
Mummies and grown ups in general are like this. I think it’s because they are so high in the sky that they can’t see what we can see here lower down.
I asked my Mummy this because she knows everything, but her answer didn’t please me this time, because I’ve seen the Graveyard People. There are millions of them! (Well, I’m not sure if there are actually millions because I’ve never been able to count that high! But there certainly are a lot!). “The Graveyard People”. That makes them sound scary and horrible, but they’re people just like me – even some are my age! There are others like Mummy and Daddy, and Granny and Grandad, and others who wear the oddest clothes I’ve ever seen! I see them on the way to school and on the way back passing through the cemetery behind the church we go to on Sundays.
They never seem to change in looks, or their clothes, so they must be quite smelly, because Mummy says you should wash at least once a day and change your clothes. There are the four men that sit together around a gravestone playing cards and smoking; there are ladies strolling around together wearing long dresses and huge hats; there’s a lady who looks like Granny sitting against a tomb knitting; and the children my age are running around playing catch, and hide and seek – it looks like play time at school. The others sit on their graves watching, talking with their neighbour or just staring into space. I remember one man was reading a tombstone crying like I do when I fall off my bike. Everyone seemed to be laughing at him or just staring at him, but no one did anything to comfort him, or put a plaster on the place where it hurts. Seeing this, I left Mummy talking to Mrs Coates and approached him.
“Have you hurt yourself? Shall I get Mummy to help you?”
“I don’t think she’ll be able to do anything for me, kid,” and turned away crying so hard that he managed to dissolve himself with his tears. He just wasn’t there anymore!
“Where did he go?” I said, not to anyone in particular, but one of the card-players answered. He was an old man, with a huge tummy, no hair and a pipe in his mouth. “You get his type occasionally. The new ones don’t know how lucky they are. He’s gone now, son, off to a better place, after being here for about two seconds.” There must have been a joke somewhere in there because the four of them started laughing, but it must have been in adult language because I didn’t get the joke.
“But why was he sad to be going to a better place and why can’t you go with him?”
“Nobody knows anything when they get here. It’s always the same – they arrive, see the stone, burst into tears and then POOF, gone in a puff of smoke.”
“But if everyone does this, why are there so many people here? Shouldn’t you have gone too?”
“You can’t choose to go, son. It’s up to the others as to whether you go or not.”
He interrupted my next question by continuing, “Take me, I’ve been here for nigh on eighty seven years, waiting, but there’s no chance for me now. “Because,” he said, interrupting me again, “no one alive knows I’m here. That’s the way it works you see. Your family and friends say a little prayer for you and you’re a step closer to going. The bulk of the prayers come just after you arrive so you have enough time to read your stone, cry a bit and you’re off. But then slowly people forget that you’re gone, or they join you here – that’s my wife, there, with her knitting – always knitting! Eventually, you all end up here and there’s no one left there to pray for you. So here we are and here we stay.” And with that he turned with a sigh to continue his card game, and the others drifted back to playing, sitting, knitting and staring. I was left alone in the crowd.
As I walked back to Mummy and Mrs Coates I knew this was one of those things that grown ups wouldn’t understand, and didn’t say anything to Mummy. I could feel millions of eyes watching me and as I passed through the rusty gates I said a prayer for all the Graveyard People, and continued to do so each time I went through the cemetery. As the school year finished there were less and less of them there, and each time I walked past the ‘card table’ I felt the emptiness coming from the tomb, and felt very proud that it was me who sent them to that better place. Mummy was right as always – no one stays in a graveyard forever.