Last weekend, an incredible event took place at Belfast City Cemetery. Author Nicola Pierce helped make it happen and she tells us all about it in her emotional guest blog post…
Over the last two years or so Samuel Joseph Scott has never been far from my thoughts.
When Michael O’Brien rang me to see if I’d be interested in writing a children’s novel about the Titanic I told him that the very first death associated with the ship was that of a fifteen year old boy who had fallen to his death in Harland & Wolff two years before that fatal encounter with the ice-berg. Within twelve hours of this phone call I had worked out that Samuel’s spirit would narrate the book and accompany Titanic on her maiden and only voyage.
The next eight months or so were spent in building Samuel’s story alongside Titanic’s. I had few domestic details to go on; aside from where he lived (East Belfast), what he worked at (junior member of a rivet squad), what killed him (fractured skull) and when that happened (20 April 1910).
I stood beside Samuel’s unmarked grave on 21 April 2010, one hundred years and one day after he died. By this point I was half-way through the first draft. My heart raced as I made my way around Belfast City Cemetery, searching for Samuel, eventually having to ask a cemetery worker for help. I expected to be tearful when he led me to the exact spot but it proved almost impossible to feel anything. I don’t think I had really appreciated what “unmarked” meant. There was nothing to do except look around at the surrounding headstones and read them instead.
Standing there, however, an idea occurred to me but it seemed much too ridiculous. Nevertheless I asked Councillor Tom Hartley, the expert on Belfast City Cemetery, if there was some way we could mark the grave. Now, in all honesty, I don’t think I expected anything to come of it but, just like the novel, the idea grew to fruition when Tom, in turn, mentioned it to his friend, Danny Morrison, who runs the West Belfast Festival. Quite quickly the festival decided they were going to pay for a headstone and the date for marking the grave was set for Saturday 30 July 2011.
Two months following the book’s publication I found myself talking a lot about Samuel, from book festivals north and south, to various schools, including my own, Presentation Primary School, a place I had left rather reluctantly as a timid twelve year old. I could almost believe he was with me.
The day before the grave-marking I had to go to Belfast for an interview with UTV. The camera crew were due at 11 o’clock at the festival’s office on the Falls Road. I found the office thanks to my taxi-driver and arrived far too early, at ten but I was but a few doors from the cemetery.
So I pretended to amble up the road, crossed the busy junction and went into the graveyard. Over a year had passed since I was last there – and I have no sense of direction. Not wanting to talk to another person until I was ready to, I asked Samuel where the grave was…and, seconds later, saw the headstone. I don’t know how long I stood there but at some stage I felt I was bade to rest myself, which I did, but not before apologising to Samuel’s neighbour as I sat down on the tiny wall surrounding his old, unkempt patch.
Don’t ask me what I was thinking because I can’t remember, all I know was that I grinned a lot at the glistening stone.
The following morning I was back again and nauseous with nerves. A photographer led me off to a quiet corner to take my photo; I took deep breaths and smiled or looked thoughtful as instructed. When he was finished I thanked him and wondered what to do next, I looked about for my husband in vain; it was fifteen minutes before the ceremony was due to start and I didn’t feel nearly ready.
A good-looking couple was standing in front of me with the most beautiful toddler.
‘I’ve sent you a friendship request in facebook’.
Before I could try to make a reply to this he continued on, ‘I saw you on UTV last night and that’s why we’re here. I rang my grandmother and she wanted to come along. We’re related to Samuel Joseph Scott.’
I’m almost sure I asked him to repeat himself, as he pointed in the direction of a dignified looking lady who was slowly making her way towards me, accompanied by more relatives.
As a writer I should be able to describe what I was feeling as I shook Samuel’s niece’s hand.
Looking a decade younger than her eighty years, Mrs Margaret Donnelly explained how she heard her father talking about the brother who died while working on the Titanic. She and her grandson had tried once before to find where he was buried.
Samuel was no longer just mine.
Mrs Donnelly named his siblings and wracked with guilt I rushed to explain that he was an only child in the novel. I felt anxious, as if I had stolen something, despite the fact that his family seemed only thrilled to be standing there.
Before I had a chance to tell anyone I knew, Tom Hartley called Sammy Douglas (MLA, DUP) forward to unveil the headstone.
It was my turn next. I gave a little talk about Samuel and then giddily introduced his relatives, who were standing right next to Michael O’Brien. I need never wonder again how a magician feels when he whips a white rabbit out of a top hat. And then I opened up the book. I had chosen to read the last three pages of the first chapter, where Samuel tells us how he died – in my story, at any rate.
As I neared the last line I found myself dazed by fact that I had accidentally done something very fine, thanks to a team of individuals that included Michael O’Brien, Tom Hartley and Danny Morrison. In the novel I reunite Samuel with the ones he loved the most, and now, on 30 July 2011, I had done it again, only this time for real.