The last time I moved house was six years ago, my seventh move. It was a straightforward transaction, as it usually is for me - though it's not always been so smooth and quick as this one. You see, I do my own
conveyancing. The advantage being that I can deal with delays straight away. I merely locate the hold-ups and apply a little persuasion. Once I sat in a solicitor's office for two hours, refusing to budge until he signed some crucial document. It was his only way to get rid of me. Often it just involves informing the vendor or purchaser of the source of a problem, and letting them deal with it - and no-one is more impatient than someone waiting to move house.

  On this last occasion there were no hold-ups at all. The vendor, John Batt, was the son of the previous owner who'd died; and from what I could make out, his solicitor, sole active member of Ozwald & Co, was a personal friend.

When it came to completion, my final task was to attend Ozwald's office. My sale was completed at 11 a.m. so I had the money to complete my purchase. The appointment was for noon, and he was expecting my cheque for the outstanding balance of £3,432.01 which at the last minute I'd worked out, as ever, on the back of an envelope.

The office was in a village five miles from my new house. I arrived ten minutes early and went straight in. There was only him and a secretary, occupying two rooms - one each - above a butcher's shop. He was about fifty, clean looking, slim (for a solicitor!), and wasn't wearing a tie - it was August, after all.

"Ah, Mr Saxby, Vicarage Lane," he said, wheeling back in his chair as he waved me to a seat in front of his desk. He selected a file from a table behind him and moved back to the desk, "and you owe me…" he scribbled in a margin for several seconds, "£3,432.01."

 I already had the cheque in my hand. I passed it over, amazed that I'd got it right to that last penny.

  The feeling was mutual, or so it seemed: he raised his eyebrows, glanced at the cheque then at me, with a grin that was oddly pernicious. (I assumed he was annoyed not to have caught me out, though also amused that I'd got it right) "Good," he said, clipping the cheque to the file, "So that's it. All that remains is for me to hand you the keys." He withdrew them from a drawer and held them out to me.

 I took them, thanked him and stood up, adding that I was impressed by the speed at which he'd conducted the whole transaction.

  He nodded appreciatively, then said, "You do realise what you've taken on?"

"I'm sorry?" I said.

"I mean, I trust you read the 'Restrictions and Stipulations'?"

"Well, er… they're always about the same, aren't they? Anything dubious is generally overridden by law, as in the small print of the Contract."

"In normal circumstances that's quite true," he said, "but strictly, these are not normal circumstances."

"Not normal circumstances?" I said, resting myself back on the edge of the chair.

"Oh dear… so you missed clause 7" he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "I'm sorry, perhaps I should have alerted you. But then my responsibility is to my client, and it could have influenced your decision to proceed. Didn't you suspect anything, considering the price?"

"Frankly, no. The garden's a real tip. The drive needs resurfacing, and the south wall needs re-pointing."

"A nice property though." he said, brightly, as if preparing me for something I didn't want to hear.

"Potentially," I said, "I think it takes a lot of beating. I used to be a landscape gardener; I'll enjoy that the most. But I'm also into a bit of a DIY, and none of your usual botch-ups. I like to do things properly. Once restored to its former glory the place should fetch quite a packet - though I've no intention of selling. It should make a very comfortable home."

He nodded several slow, glum nods, then said, "You mention the garden. Well, the last owner… occupant, now deceased as you know, neglected his duties somewhat. But now that the matter has come to light - not my fault, I can assure you - the local authority is intent on enforcing the stipulations of clause 7." He reached into the file and brought out a sheet of A4, "Here's a copy of their letter to my client."

He handed it across, and I sat there reading it feeling my face drop into my shoes. "Oh my God!" I said.

"Precisely." he replied smugly, "Couldn't put it better myself."

Was he trying to humour me, or what?

"Keep the letter," he said, getting up and putting out his hand, "My client won't be needing it now... A pleasure doing business with you Mr Saxby."

 I stood and briefly gave him a very limp palm and turned to leave. As he opened the door he paused, as if struck by an after-thought. Then, with another malicious grin, he said "And should you ever need my services…"

 I scowled at him, and marched out.

I went straight to the house. I went through the small front garden and into the back, which was 80 or so metres of brambles, nettles, hogweed and yarrow, all looking uncommonly healthy and vigorous. I'd taken hardly more than a cursory glance at all this when John Batt had shown me the place a month earlier. The idea had never occurred to me that anything could be wrong with a garden - at least, nothing that a good dose of spade-work wouldn't correct. And it wasn't a simple matter of contamination either. No amount of topsoil could rectify this particular menace.

But apart from the extra growth there was now one difference: a clear neat path had been cut along one side. Curious, I followed it for about 20 metres, then it turned sharply away from the edge and opened onto a clearing about 5 metres square. In the centre of the clearing was a shallow mound covered in wilted flowers and surrounded by a low wall of white marble. At one end stood a matching headstone inscribed: 'Robert Aloysius Batt 1912-1995 and his wife Mable 1919-1987 - R.I.P.'.

Around the edge of the clearing, hardly visible, were several other slabs and stones, so old and weathered that it was impossible to read names or dates. These had either broken, fallen flat or were at strange angles rather like wafers, I thought, in a knickerbocker-glory.

 I took the council's letter from my pocket and read it again slowly. Starting 20 feet from the house, the entire garden was consecrated, and with regard to section 37 of the local authorities act of 1892 it was the responsibility of whoever had charge of the land to keep it in reasonable order and allow access to those who wished to visit the deceased.

 I now realised that the old stone wall that marked the boundary with a back alley at the end of the garden had once been part of a church, and that it was not unusual for churches to be surrounded by graves. But the church had been abandoned a very long time ago, and surely no burials had taken place since then - apart, oddly, from Robert Batt and his wife.

   The next day I read through the stipulations and then went to visit the council offices. It took half an hour to locate the department that dealt with such issues. They held details on everything concerned with my garden, including the last will and testament of Mable Batt who had requested to be buried, since it was consecrated and she loved it dearly, at the end of their garden. Robert Batt had merely requested to be buried with his wife.

  Immediately, I pointed out that the grave was not at the end of the garden but in the middle - not even that, but more towards the house. The official said maybe there was no grave space at the end and that this may have been the nearest possible location.

I'd only been home a few minutes when I saw some people go past the kitchen window. When I went out to see what they were up to, I could see it was John Batt, and presumably his wife, who held a large bunch of flowers in cellophane. Obviously, they were heading for the grave.

"Good afternoon." I called out, "Can I help you?"

John Batt turned, "Mr Saxby! Good afternoon. As you can see we're visiting my parents' grave."

"Indeed," I said, "But isn't is supposed to be at the bottom of the garden rather than the middle?"

"How did you know that?" he said, "I suppose you've seen the will. But, you see, when my mother died the garden was neat and very beautiful. My father was a keen gardener until he lost the use of his legs. And this was actually her favourite spot. There was a huge ash tree here which came down in the '87 gale, just two days after she died. My father knew how she loved the tree and decided to bury her there instead. It was as if the grave had opened itself for her."

"So now you intend regular visits, I presume?"

"Certainly. It's our right."

"And my privacy is my right." I said.

"You didn't have to buy the property." He replied, "You should have been aware of the conditions."

"There was nothing about a recent burial." I said.

"Recent, ancient… what's the difference?"

"The difference is, Mr Batt, that no-one is likely to want to visit the ancient, and if they do it will probably be only on very rare occasions."

"Well," he said, nonchalantly, "That's tough. Goodbye, Mr Saxby."

 I turned and went back to the house, seething.

The next day, reluctantly, I called Ozwald's office. Apparently, he had handled both the wills, and had acted for Robert Batt on other occasions. He told me he hadn't realised Mable Batt had been buried in a location that was not entirely according to her wishes as made clear in her will, and that he'd make enquiries.

Then I called the council who told me that if I could locate clear space at the end of the garden, then I could apply for the grave to be moved - at the expense of those responsible for the incorrect location.

The next day I took a sledgehammer into the alley at the back and knocked out a bricked-up doorway. To tackle the huge thick original wall would have been more than I could have managed, but the relatively modern bricks fell away easily. Once in the garden, I proceeded to clear the thicket of growth. It took me longer than knocking out the wall, but by lunchtime, using an old scythe, I'd cleared six or seven metres.

There were gravestones all along the base of the wall, but then there was a wide gap which must have once been a path because the next stones began only at the edge of where I'd reached. I then erected a temporary fence of chicken wire to stretch from the doorway, around what I considered sufficient of the old path, and back to the other side of the doorway. Finally, on a big solid post, I fixed a sign reading: 'Cemetery may be accessed from the old vicarage by appointment'.

By late afternoon I was at the council offices again filling out an application requesting that Mr & Mrs Batt, deceased, be moved to the new location.

By December, after much prompting, the grave was moved, and by the following spring I had replaced the chicken wire with a new high fence. The garden is beginning to take shape. The gravestones, of which there were far fewer than I expected, have mostly been flattened and roughly matching slabs placed between them to make continuous paths. Hedges and borders are growing nicely, and original shrubs are starting to bloom. The whole place has a wonderful unusual peacefulness, though no-one would ever know it had been - and still is - a graveyard.

John Batt called once after his parents had been moved. He said he wanted to make an appointment to visit the cemetery. I asked him what the damage had been.

"Nothing," he said. "to me." And then when I asked him he told me it had been down to Ozwald's negligence, whose obligation it had been to ensure the wishes expressed in his mother's will were carried out to the letter. It had cost Ozwald £2,600.

He never kept the appointment and I haven't seen him since - and the little graveyard at the back with it's solitary grave is all overgrown with brambles, nettles, hogweed and yarrow, all looking uncommonly healthy and vigorous.    

                                             Hastings 17th Aug 2001