George lurched out of the King’s Arms, knowing that Audrey was going to give it to him in the neck. He scurried down Old Paradise Street, past blustering newspaper scraps, chips and fag butts trampled into the pavement. He tossed his own fag end into the road, and wrapped his scrawny arms around his greatcoat, bent forwards to fight the wind. He could shave a good ten minutes off his walk home if he cut through the churchyard, for all that the entrance looked like a gaping maw. He’d done it before often enough. Not that he liked it. It was bad enough on a quiet night when you could hear someone creeping up on you, but when it was galing like it was now, you’d need eyes in the back of your head. It was less terrifying than Audrey. That woman had a tongue on her that could sour honey. Besides, he needed a piss, and although the streets were empty he didn’t like being caught with his pecker out.
So George scuttled down the path, barely visible against the pitch of the verges, and paused at around the spot where he could veer left to get to Uncle Jack’s grave. He’d have a quick pee there and then rush home.
Big Jack McKinley, navy man, the life and soul, whiplash smile, flush with money and drink with a killer eye for the ladies. Never mind that he was quick with his fists, not sparing George or his little brother Alf, that the money was never his, and that he could vanish faster than his first pint on a Friday night if a girl started hinting about rings and babies. Those were just the single ones. Jack was especially keen on other men’s wives. It must have been the challenge of it, or the lack of entanglement, unless the husbands found out, of course. It was hard to keep a secret round here. George was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who liked to water Uncle Jack’s final resting place. And he’d been a heartless bastard. George and Alf had been left to the care of their Nan after their mother had died giving birth to Alf. Jack hadn’t given a monkeys for his sister’s orphan boys, and he could be relied on to thieve from his own mother, no matter how cunningly she hid the pittance she got for laundering and darning for her neighbours. As well as those fists, George well remembered long nights trying to sleep with an empty cramping stomach, his little brother sniffling next to him, all because Jack had drunk Nan’s money away. In the churchyard, Nan was flanked in death by her feckless son and her wayward daughter, George’s mother. If baby Alf hadn’t killed her, the drink would have done for her soon enough. George couldn’t see the tombstone in the darkness, but he knew it as if it were engraved on his own eyeballs. ‘Here lies Anne McKinley, born 3 April 1905, died 24 December 1933. Beloved mother and daughter.’ George remembered the hot cloud that had filled his head when a kid in his class had raised a laugh from the other youngsters by pointing out that George’s mother may have been a beloved mother and daughter, but she’d never been anyone’s wife, beloved or otherwise. The kid’s name was Barry Clarkson. Fancy that he could remember a thing like that, when he could barely think what he’d had for his tea.
George was pretty sure he’d reached Jack’s grave and started fumbling with his flies. The wind forced the trees to list and howl. He heard a branch crack overhead and he cringed, cowering under his arms, and jumped backwards in a blind dodge. He lost his footing, then felt his stomach lurch and his heart pulse with pure electric shock as the ground disappeared from beneath him and he felt himself falling. Where he expected to land he just kept going, falling backwards like a skittle, going down to hell, no doubt. He screamed. He finally crashed to earth, landing awkwardly on his shoulder before his legs whacked the ground and his head smacked the dirt. He lay there for a minute, panting in panic and confusion, but thankful that there were no little demons dancing round him with hot pokers. Not knowing whether he was coming or going, he turned his attention to his poor battered body. He’d have some bruises to show for this all right, but he didn’t think he’d bust anything. He got to his feet, an awkward undertaking, as his legs were still boneless and his chest was fluttering like there was a bird trapped in it. He seemed to be surrounded by earthen walls. Flamin’ Norah he’d only fallen into an open grave. Death was close enough to an old codger like him without having to rush headlong forward to meet it. And he’d only gone and wet himself. What was Audrey going to say when she saw that? He felt a dread descend on him. He’d fouled a virgin grave.
His stick legs started shaking and he fought to breathe. He began to fret about vengeance from the dead. That the forthcoming occupant of this narrow piece of land would pay him back for soiling their bed of eternal rest. And Jack. He had a few scores to settle with his nephew, sure as eggs is eggs. Jack’s icy skeletal fingers could reach out and encircle his own chicken neck and snap it like a twig. The smell of the earth was thick around him. He was a captive of the dead.
‘Help me!’ The sound of his own squawk terrified him so much that he shut up straight off, and he whipped his head this way and that to make sure he hadn’t attracted any spectral visitors. Besides, his reedy little voice had been swallowed up by the wind. He may as well have been an asthmatic sparrow for all the good it did.
He reached up to the edges of the tomb. It was surprisingly high. He was sure it was supposed to be six feet under. Maybe they buried them deeper round here just to be on the safe side. Only the very tips of his fingers emerged from the hole. He curled them over the edge, inching them forward as far as they would go to get enough purchase to lift his own bodyweight. He stretched and did a feeble jump, but the earth rolled away in his hands, and all he got was a faceful of dirt. He tried it again but it was no good. He knew when he was beat. Even in his youth he’d never been strong, not by a long chalk. An Olympic athlete would have trouble getting out without a rocket up his arse.
Sod it. There was nothing for it but to let the spooks get him, or the dawn, whichever came first. Defeated, he sank down and sat propped up against one end of the grave, and gradually his heartbeat slowed and his mad disco legs began to still. He reached into his pocket for his hipflask. There was just a little drop left, which was gone in a gulp, but as the warmth spread across the inside of his chest, he began to feel a little better. For starters, he was way too long in the tooth to believe in ghosts. Also, the grave kept the wind off a treat. But best of all, he was so filthy that Audrey would never spot the wet patch on his old cords and would lower them into hot suds on the end of a stick he shouldn’t wonder. Which was the closest she’d been to his flies for years. And what a story this was going to make for his mates in the pub. It was a pity his hipflask was empty. That would be a comfort. He reached into his pocket for a smoke and clenched it between his teeth while he fumbled for his lighter. Christ on a bike he’d left the sodding thing in the pub. He rummaged again through all his pockets. Not so much as a matchstick. The thought of a fag had really cheered him up and now that that small pleasure was denied him his spirits slumped again.
He decided he may as well burrow into his greatcoat and try and get some shut-eye. He wriggled as far as his stiff little limbs would allow to generate some warmth. He tried best he could to get comfy, and he settled his head and closed his eyes. He heard something, a noise which blended into the sound of the wind overhead. It could have been nothing, but he looked up just in case, and saw only the movement of black trees waving in the black sky, and the sides of the black earth in the corner of his black tomb. Then he saw another murky shape which obscured the trees and he cringed into the earthen walls as he heard a scream as it fell forward, missing him by inches. George froze and the fag fell out of his mouth as he clutched his poor old ticker which thumped in pain. But there was nothing phantom about that groaning. It was all too human.
George exhaled. ‘Blimey mate, am I glad to see you, it’s that dark and lonely down here. Don’t s’pose you have a light?’ but his polite request was drowned out by the man’s otherworldly shriek. The stranger leaped up and yanked himself out of that hole faster than a slicked ferret, and was long gone, before the last clump of earth had hit the ground in fact. Distance and the wind killed off his screams in an instant, to George’s ears at least. George was once more left with nothing but earth and depth and blustering trees. His blood was hot in his face as he reflected on the stranger’s unfriendly behaviour. There was nothing else to call it but downright ruddy well rude. He was alone again with no flask, no smoke, no warmth, no light and no sodding company. And the fellow could have helped him out. He fumed for a little while then settled down again for sleep. As he lay there he was forced to admire the superhuman leap the man had made. All he’d seen was a shooting black blur disappear into the night, and as for that scream. There was no need for that. It still echoed in his ears. All he’d done was to greet the bloke, and welcome him to the grave. Abruptly George started laughing. And he’d asked for a light!
The wind died down as quickly as it whipped up, and it was probably a good thing the churchyard was empty as the sound of George laughing came from the open grave for a long while, and would most likely have scared the bejesus out of anyone who heard it.
Catherine Evans asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work