Winter outstays its welcome by the end of February – the low sunlight through bare branches holds no warmth, the waking hours are dark and without birdsong, and the daylight hours stretch with a sluggish reluctance. Half a century ago, at this time of year, my parents lost their first baby. My mother held him for a brief few seconds, they bonded but he was taken ill and she never held him again.He died two weeks later.
It took her six weeks to recover in hospital, the darkest days of her life, the physical pain, the intense undying grief of a lost baby in a drab hospital ward. In the speed of the unfolding events, she was too ill to attend the burial, my father was too concerned for her welfare. Records of ink and paper were filed away, only memory and incurable grief remained. Soon their lives became full for in the following years, my sister and I were born and our terraced house in the London Borough of Merton became a flurry of children’s play and chatter, prams and nappies in a loving home. The limelight was on us two.
Growing up, mum sometimes mentioned that we would have had an older brother. His name was going to be Chandra, meaning moon. I didn’t think a lot of it, only in child-like, practical terms – someone I could have played football with, someone who could have intervened in the fights with my sister (and being a boy he would have judged in my favour surely) and someone who could have got me ‘hand-me-downs’ to wear and boardgames to play.
Because we had grown up knowing this, we didn’t think of the deep sorrow that engulfed our family before we were born, the magnitude of the pain felt by parents who lose a child, for that bond is indestructible and undying, no matter the distance or worlds those ties bind.
Years passed. I went to high school in Wimbledon and on top of my studies, I did all kinds of activities from tennis to winemaking and I also did community volunteering as a hospital radio DJ – a co-presenter of the Luna Tuna and Captain Haddock Show, every Thursday at precisely 7.30pm when I’d open the show with a rap. I though it was cool at the time. We were trained to use the turntables, the latest technology (CD players) and make our own jingles.
The evening started with taking requests on slips of paper from the wards, which, being a geriatric hospital, were usually something gentle and soothing like Dvorak or Debussy. On some nights we’d just ignore the requests and played what we wanted as loud as we wanted – heavy metal, pop, and soul, on audio levels so loud the needles just flickered, as if they were dying insect legs, in the red zone for the whole 3 hours.
We took turns to play our tracks, and would wait in a storage room behind the soundproofed studio which was filled with sacks of old hospital records and shelves of LPs. My co-host rolled joints, but I’d just find something to read like an old record sleeve. One evening, I picked up a random book from a sack and flicked through the yellowing pages filled with handwritten lines from the 1960s recording births in the hospital, columns of names, genders, birth-weights and birth-dates. My surname popped up at me and my eyes dwelled on a single entry. After it was written my brother’s name, Chandra, and his date of birth. I had stumbled on the record by chance and I stared down at it to the haunting melody of a slow classical track. When I got back home my mum confirmed that that hospital in Wimbledon was where he was born 20 years earlier.
It was paradoxical, I always loved history, I studied it at university, became a tour guide in museum, I had mulled over books about the lost children of others, of Catherine of Aragon’s stillborn, or the Lost Princes in the Tower, of the premature death of the Tsarevic, Edward VI and the ‘Lost Prince’ of George V. Yet had never researched my own history.
It would have been left that way, an unanswered question of our own family history had it not been for last year, when my mother said something that hit me and ignited my curiosity. I had asked her about her retirement plans, surely India, vibrant and sunny, cheap and cheerful where a pension goes a long way.
– No I’d like to come to London, I have bond here, she replied.
– Of course you have, fifty years in London that’s a long time.
– No, it’s a deeper bond.
Then she added:
‘My first-born is buried here.’
BOOM. That blew us away. It hit me in the ribs, warm and fuzzy. Distilled melancholy, brought forth from remote places in the mind, often left unvisited for years, where the memories that reside are rich in sanctity.
My mother is confident, brave and forthright – she flew airplanes as a teenager in the 1950s in India (more on this another time) and she’s quite unlike women of her age. So to hear those words from her, resonated so much more strongly. To me they brought back the unanswered question. Where was he?
I went online to look up death records. I entered his name, that was all I needed, and the record just popped up in the middle of the screen. Place of death: Sutton. I already knew that, but what I wanted was the place of burial.
I subscribed to the site to access the burial record. By chance, the date of burial was was 10/3/67, almost exactly 50 years ago to the day and the place: London Road Cemetery in Merton.
I knew it well for there were tennis courts beside it where I had learned to play tennis in the time after school until sunset, and sometimes our shots would send the ball looping over the fence in to the graveyard and we’d spend quite some time searching out lost tennis balls, hidden in the long shadows of the headstones.
I wondered if I had, as a child, unknowingly passed by my brother’s grave, too engrossed in finding a tennis ball.
The scan of the hand-written burial register from March 1967 listed all the burials form that month, with names and dates and ages at death in a column – there was one aged 100, one aged 82, 57, 76, mostly all in their 60s and 70s. The single record that stood out from that column was the penultimate row which stated “Age at death: two weeks”. He was buried five days after he died in a consecrated and communal grave and it gave the plot reference number.
I crossed Figges Marsh, a long field by London Road stepping over fallen branches from the last of the passing Storm Doris. Clouds above, laced in shadows, chased patches of peeling blue.
This was the field where I crossed to go to and from school every day, where I played as a child in the holidays, collecting sticks in winter to cover with tinsel to make a Christmas tree, making bird nests in summer from freshly mown grass cuttings, kicking a plastic football that was so light that a breeze could whisk it up and send it askew. There were swings at one end of the field née, before Tyrone unscrewed them and put them in his back garden. I crossed the avenue of trees that my mum would race me through to St Mark’s nursery in a pram after dropping my sister off. The gaps in the lines of trees were still noticeable, they’ve been there since the hurricane of 1987. Every detail coaxed in me a rich memory.
The tennis courts were still there, well maintained now, back then the fences would curl upwards where they touched the ground, inviting us to climb under on concrete and play for gratis.
The sound of traffic receded as I passed rows of graves, alabaster angels, their wings splayed, headstones of polished red and black marble, their edges seeming freshly cut, beside them photos and fresh flowers and etched in them words of sorrow and rememberance.
Plot 12 was grassier, like a field and some of the graves were warped by the movement of soil over the years, perhaps less tended, some headstones chipped and cracked by time, their nooks and crannies overgrown with moss and sprinkled with leaves.
A small windmill on grave turned in the chill wind – to had a number below it – so I knew then that the patch of grass to its left was the object of my search, a place, so simple, unmarked and unremarkable, restful and quiet, only the breeze and the chirp of a blackbird on the boundary fence disturbed the silence. This was so much more than just a patch of grass. A place of sentiment and perhaps closure.
It had taken only a few minutes online, and an utterance from my mother that triggered the will in me to find out. One of the unanswered questions in our genealogy was now answered.