Monday, 26 July 2010

The Hammer House of Horror

‘It’s beautiful,’ he insists. ‘A really, old fashioned, overgrown wilderness. You’ll love it.’ And so we sit on a bendy bus and go North, something that I don’t usually do without a car and a dinner party as incentive, to a place they call Stoke Newington.

It looks fairly normal, even – and though I’m loathe to say that estate agent word – it’s true, villagey. But not beautiful and not, by any stretch of the imagination, an overgrown wilderness. More of a suburb with too many young people with too much disposable income. But then gloom descents, mist falls someone presses the switch on the dry ice machine and we turn off the high street into a tangled, gothic, Vincent Price, high-Victorian railing-ed, honest to god neither of us believe in, graveyard.

We have arrived at our destination.

As Luke’s daughter told him wryly as he set off to meet me. ‘You really know how to show a girl a good time.’

I pick my way through the concrete path, crazed as old earthenware pottery, with weeds growing through the cracks and nettles and brambles spilling forth from what once would have been, I imagine, a neatly shaved lawn, planted with tombstones, but for now, if I were to use my imagination (which I’m trying hard not to) is just like being in a stadium of the dead, choked with ivy. There are ancient graves everywhere, leaning to the right, to the left, to the front, slumped to the side, collapsed in the undergrowth, covered in vines and creepers, lines and lines of them, like tired spectators, and we’re the show, picking our way silently through the tiny paths that feed off from the wide, main one. We walk in single file and pass a young chap in a three piece suit wearing a trilby. Weird and weirder. It’s in the high eighties and he’s wearing tweed. He gives us a conspiratorial smile. We smile back, not sure why we’re in collusion. Maybe there’s a satanic cult holding a ceremony outside the deserted church with blank , hollowed out windows that lurks in the centre of the cemetery and we're the sacrifice?

I flip flop through fingers of thorns that scratch at my feet. Something stings my elbow.

‘Look at that. It’s amazing,’ says Luke of a huddled angel, tied with thick ropes of ivy to a cross that commemorates Ruth Anne Hope who went to sleep in 1866.

‘Amazing, I agree,’ but I’m a morbid sod, and all these tributes to the dead. to me. say sorrow that the sun fighting through the thick trunks of the trees strung up like a Japanese S&M enthusiast with tiny violet flowers on the vines of deadly nightshade, cannot quite dispel. I see a century of people burying their loved ones, and now all that’s left of them are psoriatic tombs, itchy with overgrowth - each a tragedy.

There’s a picket fence of tiny urns alongside the path that I immediately assume are for tiny people, lost babies who perished in some black bombazine winter put in the icy ground by veiled, consumptive mothers who are doped on laudanum (Sarah Waters has a lot to answer for) but on closer inspection, at which Luke excels (of insects, graves and wrinkles) they are just more modest funerary tributes for those who can’t afford the family mausoleum.

We pass an old guy reading a newspaper on a bench. Further on there are two blokes with a bottle of wine having a picnic. Funny place to have lunch, but hey – I’m on a date, I’m in no position to scoff while they quaff.

A woman with a baby in a stroller crosses the path.

Luke is not pleased. He wants isolation, neglect and atmosphere.

‘Let’s go deeper in,’ he says and goes through a track thinner than my waist, which isn’t that thin, but still involves a sharp intake of breath as I lift my legs like a prancing pony to try and avoid the nettles.

I’m reminded of Scotland when we ran into a very English man of a certain age in socks and sandals who wanted to show us some orchids and who we followed politely through the undergrowth. ‘You know he’s going to kill us and eat us,’ I told him. ‘Well he’ll start with you first.’ Luke replied. The orchid, when we finally found it was tiny, inconspicuous and underwhelming. ‘Creeping, lady’s carpet-slipper,’ or something, the man announced in a hushed voice as though a loud noise might scare it away. ‘Wow, lovely,’ I said kindly while thinking – ten minutes through bog for this? Last time I follow a man into bushes, I thought.

And yet, here I am again. Unaccountably, though, now I’m leading the way past slate and marble and limestone and weeping cherubs and draped urns and crosses and, no – wait a minute, over slate and marble and limestone and draped urns reaching out of the earth like fat forearms as I realise I’m actually walking on gravestones.

Argh. I shudder. And then, phew we reach a clearing.

It should be lovely with dappled sunlight and the spread out branches of a shady oak tree dripping tiny orange butterflies – if you discount dead Archibald and Theodora Cullen who died a week apart and went to God, and their neighbours - but it’s not. It’s full of litter and wet wipes and….

‘Condoms,’ remarks Luke.

‘Lovers,’ I say, incurably romantic, even in the presence of ankle deep sex debris.

‘Prostitutes, probably,’ Luke counters. Not a man who calls a sh*g a sea bird.

I walk quickly and very, very gingerly out in the other direction and dust myself down free of imagined grime when I reach the path. There’s another bench. Another man sitting on it. This time a young black guy in a very tight white t shirt perched on the back rest, feet astride, and as we turn to walk towards where we think the church might be we meet a group of Japanese students, one in costume and made up like a baby doll carrying a camera bag and a light reflector who are obviously going to do a shoot beside the Hammer House of Horror, and yet another slim-hipped man in tight jeans who swaggers towards us without making eye contact.




It seems to occur to both of us at the same time that we are, in fact, sightseeing in a gay cruising area.

I give Luke a very hard push.

‘Something you want to tell me?’ I ask trying not to think about those too-tight for a straight guy black jeans that he wore to Fran’s wedding and which then I admired.

‘I didn’t know,’ he protests as we pass yet another bench with, this time, an older man, and then another who walks off purposefully up the more solitary paths. ‘It wasn’t like this the last time I was here. I must ask Len if he knows anything about it.’ Len, fyi, is his gay best friend. Friend, I repeat reassuringly several times, to myself.

Luke gets his camera out. He wants me to pose in front of an angel with her head in her hands looking bored. I grimace obligingly. The last time he took a photograph of me he deleted it without showing it to me which should give you a clue about how dire it was, especially if I showed the picture he didn’t delete where I’m walking ahead of him. My best points don’t follow the rest of me.

He then walks off holding his very large telephoto lens erect like a divining rod and I perch on Millicent Agnes Oliver, who joined the angels in 1903.

‘Don’t you be long,’ I call after his retreating back.

And then nod to a chap in a wife beater who gives me a tight, fairly smug little smile and sashays past with his mobile phone in his pocket.

At least I’m assuming that’s what it was.