February 26, 2020

A Canvas Painted Over


I crossed the Atlantic on my way from Boston to London in a haze of drunken nervousness. God, I hate the plane. The invasive thoughts pour in, crashing and slamming down into the abyss. Every jolt of turbulence bouncing my soul around in my body. Just look at me up there. Up in there in the firmament, zooming out into the great beyond. I thought about how many souls had perished in the water down below over the millennia while traversing this body of water, an ocean of tears. The blood, sweat, hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares; all there in the watery void below. Now look at me, gliding over it effortlessly, drinking away this strange combo boredom and nervousness. The vast, impenetrable and mighty Atlantic Ocean, now a minor inconvenience. My fellow passengers all around me, unimpressed in cramped slumber.

London is both uninterested monolith and inviting fireside parlor. At times I found it hopeless and labyrinthine to navigate, at others I felt as comfortable in its streets as in those of my hometown. It’s a wet and achromatic metropolis with rubber boots and umbrellas and citizenry hurriedly lurching from this place to that. The booze fuels it the way coffee fuels the American cities. There are never enough pubs. Humanity oozes in and out of them day and night. The rainfall and murk along the Thames and me there, probing for something to bring back. Aiming for enlightenment in the National Gallery and The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields. A fox jumping out and jetting through the autumn graveyards—a small orange body dashing out among the fallen orange leaves. Looking for home in a series of huddled Soho pubs, the ornately engraved stone on seemingly every building in the city, and far out into the English countryside.

The resources and craftsmanship that went into the construction of such a place originating in the blood and guts of India, Ireland, Scotland, Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Burma, and other places far beyond. Power through violence and domination—divide and conquer, the way of the world. You can still see it all over the nation—a demonstration of power in the form of opulent buildings and palaces. Those days are over now and the city is being overtaken by sizable, garish skyscrapers that nobody likes, laying waste the aesthetics of the skyline. Knife and acid attacks have become more common as the country slips into slow decay. Reminders of what once was still wash up on the shores of the Thames every day like old memories. Clay pottery, smoking pipes, toys, cutlery, weapons, and human remains still resurface. The past is always present here. A canvass painted over again and again.

My accommodation was an old cemetery lodge over in the Barnes district. There were Victorian and Edwardian Commonwealth war graves outside my door that appeared to sink into the wet green ground as I stomped through the mucky terrain among them. Crumpets with Marmite were munched on in the morning and I gulped down whiskey on ice at night as I peered out at the crosses of the headstones there in the dusky mist. Marc Bolan of T. Rex had been in a fatal accident not far from this place and I made it a point to visit his shrine the morning after my arrival. People like to leave bits of memorabilia at these places. The rain had come along and soaked it all. Old feather boas and broken vinyl records, wet and ragged there in the November rain. I see this kind of stuff all the time on the writers’ graves in New England. Always with the pens. Cheap plastic pens stuck in the ground, God knows why. We love trash so much, we feel compelled to adorn our heroes’ graves with it. So much garbage. Even in death, no one can escape the garbage.


Bolan’s memorial

The 1960s seem like a wretched time indeed. Some time during that decade, they decided to convert the Barnes Cemetery into a lawn cemetery. Taking all the life out of death. Thankfully the plan was abandoned. The cemetery was as well, and the vegetation was allowed to grow over, reclaiming the land. The cemetery is now a beautiful, semi-abandoned garden of the deceased. I was overcome with a feeling of enchantment here. It’s so wonderfully overgrown. Ravens and other birds swoop down from time to time as odd rays of light stream in among the leafy canopy onto the ivy-blanketed stones and headless statues. Light and rain play upon the concrete and vines. Oak and holly, yew and cedar all cradle this resting place in the great seat of fallen empire.


Julia Martha Thomas, an old widow, was buried there. Her story was major news in Victorian England and Ireland. Thomas had been destroyed and dismembered in 1879 by her servant, an Irish woman by the name of Kate Webster. Webster spent years in and out of prison, mainly for larceny, before she charmed her way into the old widow’s employ. However, their relationship soon soured. Rumor had it that Thomas had been working up the nerve to fire Webster. Kate Webster had been driving Julia Thomas into an uneasy and frightened existence with her erratic and violent disposition. Webster came to work late one day as Thomas had been preparing to go to church. There was an altercation, and Webster threw Thomas down the stairs. Webster then strangled Thomas until she was dead.

Webster dismembered and gutted Thomas’s body, burning and boiling some of it down in a large laundry copper in the basement. The head was buried in the stables in the back of a pub. Other parts were placed into cases and thrown into the Thames. Due to the tidal nature of the river, one of the cases containing the trunk of the body washed up. It was discovered soon after. Webster’s hubris got the better of her. For some reason, she assumed she could go ahead and pose as Julia Thomas at her house and get away with it. Of course this didn’t work and she was soon found out. Webster fled back to her native Ireland, but it was too late. The authorities soon found her after discovering a paper in Thomas’s house with an Irish address on it. Webster was arrested and executed after a fruitless attempt to plead her belly. There are a few ghost sightings attached to Julia Thomas’s grave, but I’d rather not give that sort of thing much attention. I didn’t see anything.

I was in the changeless shadow of death there and yet I felt in a warm a state of comfort. I suffer from death anxiety. There are days where I cannot come to terms with the fact that I am going to die. I dwell on my own death to the point of obsession. I’ve exhausted years attempting to be at peace with it, as well as the inevitable deaths of everyone that matters to me. No matter how I’ve tried, I can’t find it in me to be a spiritual individual. Any notion of the hereafter evades me. Yet, I paradoxically find consolation in the source of my condition. The inevitability and permanence of death grounds me and serves as a steadfast reminder that the race can never be lost or won when the outcome is all the same.

Flying to your destination is to be envied. Flying back is a situation deserving of pity. The rot gut feeling of the end of things is upon you. The hours and minutes until you slam back into real life are ticking through the brain with massive reverb. All that turbulence doling out winks and nudges at the fragility of life. Vulnerable and helpless up there in the sky again like Icarus flying too close to the sun. There’s time to process. Time to hearken back to all that had gone on. I had someone waiting for me back home and my mind was on her then, as it had been the entire time. Being so far away from someone you love while on a pleasure trip is its own kind of blues. You try to enjoy the sights. You go to all these incredible places, you drink in these comfortable pubs. You try to take in the same countryside your literary heroes took in. You look at these buildings with their astonishing architecture. Now they just served as a reminder of how very much I missed her out there, across the ocean. A piece of myself was missing. We’ve all been there I guess.

It was a short trip. A week is just about all I can take. I’m big on my routine. A week-long trip is something akin to opening a window to a place you’ve never seen before and sticking your head out to get a better look around. There’s no way you’re going to be able to see everything, you’re just having a bit of a jolly. London is a city of the dead. Under its streets lie countless skeletons. An old Roman outpost made good. I wanted to find a spot and just start digging. There were all sorts of stories down there, underground. All that stuff buried down below. Now here I was, as if none of it had ever happened. I thought about all these places all over the world that had served as the canvas to countless lives and their dramas, painted over again and again, giving way to new ones that in turn will receive their coat of paint. I jumped on the Tube, crowded sweaty and far below ground. I could smell the whiskey seeping out of me. It took hours to get to Heathrow, but there I was, pretty beat up and thankful to be gone. Back in the air, gazing down into the blackness.

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About Ryan Fabian

New England writer and lover of knowledge.

Latest Posts By Ryan Fabian


19th Century, blog, death, enlightenment, essay, European History, History, life lessons, London, memoir, mortality, philosophy, public transit, Ryan Fabian, Terrifying World, Travel, Uncategorized


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