On one of our walks, we met the man who was born in the cemetery. He showed us the exact room on the upper floor of one of the large, grand sandstone lodge houses where he had come into the world: a room that looked out onto the vast acres of graves, some higgledly-piggedly and overgrown or even collapsing as the trees took over, some laid out precisely like the white identical war graves, neat and ordered. He told us about the parties that his father, the cemetery keeper, used to have at the house in the 1960s. These parties raved on until the early hours and passers-by going along the main road up to Bath would see in fright, flashing lights emanating from what looked like a crypt and call the police in panic. ‘My dad would always send me to answer the door when the police came’, said the man with a sly smile. ‘My hair was like this even then’. ‘Like this’ meant very long, very tangled, the general demeanour assisted by a very long and even more dishevelled beard. ‘I’d open the door very slowly to them, poke my head out, say “Hello there” and invite them in’. The police never accepted the invitation to join the midnight revelry. The house was a ruin now, being restored as part of a project to renovate the whole of Arnos Vale Cemetery.
‘My mother bought ten bags of sugar every week’, the man told us. ‘People are upset when they come here.’ It wasn’t his mother’s job, but nonetheless, every day she made cup after cup of tea for the people who came to bury their dead. Warm sweet tea for the shock, paid for and provided with nothing other than goodness of heart, the tea of human kindness; a dose of order and succour amongst the undergrowth of grief. I thought then, and still think now, that if all she had ever done in life was to make tea for those streaming in the cemetery gates with sadness in their hearts, this was a life well lived. A life laid out in teaspoons of sugar.