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Meeting an Old Friend (who happenned to die in 1821)

It is a wonderful tool, the Internet. It enables writers to research settings for the stories inside their heads without ever leaving the house. Sadly, this has its limitations.

Last weekend, I went to Brighton to meet an old friend – an old friend who died in 1821.

“Ma! Ma!”

“What’s that terrible to-do about? Is that you, Lottie?”

I recovered my balance with one hand on the door-frame, and panted, “I’ve just discovered the oldest woman that ever lived! Only she’s dead now.”

Bent over the table with a rolling pin, Ma merely turned her head, apparently unimpressed. “That must be Phoebe Hessel you’re talking about.”

“You’ve heard of her?”

“Ask around town and you’ll still find people who remember old Phoebe selling gingerbread at the foot of Old Steine. That’s where Prince George first came across her.”

“A prince?” Gawping, I slipped into my seat at the table.

“The prince. But it was her early life that was a mystery. Some say, after her mother died, her father dressed her as a boy soldier so she could follow him into the army. But she would tell anyone who cared to listen how, at the age of fifteen, after she fell madly in love with a private from the King’s Lambs, she disguised herself as a man. And together they fought, side by side.”

(Taken from Chapter 2, I Stopped Time)

I chose to bury Lottie Pye – one of the main characters from I Stopped Time –  next to Phoebe Hessel. Since they both lived to the age of 108 it seemed appropriate. As it happens, there was no shortage of room for her.  

Like the pilgrimage Sir James makes to his mother’s grave, mine was long overdue. I had imagined Phoebe Hessel – and by ‘Phoebe’ I mean her gravestone – surrounded by friends as she was in this photograph taken in 1910.

It may sound strange to say that I think of graveyards as living places, but, if you care to look, you will find the histories of the hundreds of people who loved and fought and worked together. I was saddened to find that the graveyard at St Nicholas’s church – the oldest church in Brighton – is a dead place. You will find the gravestones of Phoebe Hessel and Martha Gunn, and a few other Brighton notables, separated by feet of carefully-manicured grass. But the gravestones of the ordinary folk – those we might learn the most from – have either been removed or propped up against walls.   

Sadder still is the fact that the church was locked on a Saturday and is also closed on a Sunday (although, bizarrely, I note from their website that Yoko Ono is giving a lunch-time piano recital on 10th April – tea and coffee will be served but bringing your own sandwiches is recommended).

And so I find that my description of Sir James’s eventual ‘meeting’ with the mother he didn’t know during her lifetime is inaccurate. Should I change it? Possibly. Will  I change it? No. Frankly, I prefer the church and the churchyard as I imagined them. The grass a little overgrown. A dandelion or two. A well-meaning volunteer giving guided tours… 

I recommend visitors pay their respects to Phoebe and then do as Sir James did – walk through Queens Square (past the former St Mary’s Home for Female Penitents, where Lottie first encounters Felicity) to the seafront. Ignoring the bustle of Palace Pier, make straight for the remains of West Pier. The footings and supports stand on the beach like lonely sentries – a little like Anthony Gormley’s incredibly evocative Another Place, a little like the fishermen’s wives I describe keeping their silent vigils – with the skeletal remains of the pier now protected, providing a home to sea birds.