The warm night’s breeze raised the leaves and carried them, rolling and swirling and bouncing between the black peaks of earth. Far above, fingers of wispy cloud groped across the moon like Nosferatu’s shadow, clawing towards some dark end with menacing purpose. Silence gorged on the darkness, expanding and enveloping all that stood in its—
“Have you farted, lad?”
“Might’ve done, either that or I’ve dug through a drain. How deep do we need to go, anyway, Stan?” Trev leaned on his spade and reached into his pocket for a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Six feet of course. Standard,” Stan shrugged.
“Yeah but he was a big fella, wasn’t he? Don’t we get double rates or something, on account of us havin’ to dig a bigger hole?” The wind stole the flame from a third match in quick succession, and his cigarette remained stubbornly intact.
“Ah, in point of fact lad, holes don’t have a size as such.”
Trev looked down into the sizeable hole he was standing in to the waist. “Come again?”
“Holes don’t exist, see? They’re just nothing, with something around them. So the more we dig, the more nothing we make. We don’t get paid extra for making more nothing.”
Trev looked up at his pal, his doubtful expression unchanged.
“That’s ‘filosofy’, that is.” Stan creased his brow as he reflected on the black hole paradox before deciding that he had, all things considered, probably got the right end of the stick. “In fact, we’re lucky we’re getting paid at all.”
“Fair enough, when you put it like that. But how come we have to do it at night? It gives me the creeps.” Trev wedged the cigarette behind his ear and resumed his digging, whilst Stan sat on the mound of earth to take the weight off his boots. His boots creaked with relief, and the mound flattened considerably.
“All depends on how you look at it, lad. The way I see it, it’s nice and quiet; no-one to look over your shoulder, like.” He gestured around him, his sweeping arms taking in the proud oaks, the mournful willows, the wooden bench crusty with bird poo. As far as Trev was concerned, every one of them cast shadows enough to hide an entire football team looking over your shoulder. Possibly their manager too, if he wasn’t particular about the poo.
Stan sought inspiration from the myriad stars above to elucidate his point. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, and take in the silence—”
Tap, tap. Tap, tap.
“Will you stop that?”
“Stop what?” On instinct, Trev stopped scratching and adopted his default ‘Who, me?’ posture.
“That blasted tapping!”
“It’s not me. I thought it was you!”
They both fell silent, listening for the sound but with an eagerness not to hear it again. And then, beneath the creaking oaks and rustling leaves: tap, tap. Tap, tap.
Trev tightened his grip on his spade. Stan tightened his grip on his bowels. His face went from pale to ashen, and then after a moment’s consideration, back to pale again, before it surrendered to the relentless tide of his blood pressure, restoring the native red spider veins to his cheeks.
Trev pointed down into the hole from which he was tiptoeing, indicating the source of the tapping, and Stan nodded in reluctant comprehension.
“What should we do?” Trev mouthed, panic squeezing the words from his breath.
Stan replied in kind, “You dig down to see what it is and I’ll go and get help. Wait ’til I give you the signal, though. I’ll text it to you.”
“Sorry Stan, you’ll have to speak up. Stan? Stan, where’re you going?”
“Hello? Is there somebody up there?” The voice came from somewhere distant, but somehow not quite distant enough. “I say! Would you mind awfully letting me out?”
“Blimey Stan, there’s only someone buried down ’ere!” Trev thrust his spade into the mud and began digging furiously, hurling the spoil over his shoulder and on to Stan’s. “Hold on, we’re coming. We’re coming!”
Stan brushed soil from his hair but retained his supervisory role; he was less keen than his pal to discover who, or what, could be hailing them from six feet beneath the ground. In a cemetery. In the middle of the night.
“Oh, how wonderful. If I could impress upon you a sense of urgency, the air in here is somewhat depleted.”
“Say again, guv?”
“No matter, my good man. Do dig away.”
A dull thud announced that he had struck solid wood and Trev discarded his spade, hurling himself to his hands and knees to scrabble away at the remaining soil. With the coffin lid revealed, he wedged his spade into the seal, and with a creaking protest from bending nails and splintering wood, heaved it open.
He was struck by a blast of dust and musty air. Stan was struck by one of the nails. And now, peering down into the hole, they waited. A silver shard of moonlight fell across the ground, giving life to the oversized shadow of a crow circling overhead, cawing in excitement. Were it capable of sentient thought, the wooden bench may have braced itself for an aerial assault.
On cue, slender white fingers rolled over the top of the casket from the darkness within, and, finding their hold, raised their owner out of his erstwhile confinement. “My eternal gratitude, gentlemen, that was most unpleasant. Now, would you be so good as to divulge the motivation behind my being incarcerated in such a curious fashion?”
Trev glanced at Stan, and Stan back at Trev. They exchanged no words, and yet in that shared moment they both understood, in as much as neither of them, in fact, understood.
“You want us to do what with the what, now?”
“Ah. Do you know why I was interred?” The rephrased question was delivered slower, and for some reason louder, than the first attempt.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I most certainly do not. The last thing I recall, I was eating dinner with my wife, Lady Margaret. Fillet steak, if I remember rightly.”
“Lady Margaret?” Stan’s interest was piqued. Even further than it already was by someone climbing out of a buried coffin, that is.
“Steak?” So was Trev’s.
“Indeed. I think … I think perhaps a little must have gone down the wrong way. Margaret was patting my back, you see. The next thing I knew I was in the dark, and I could hear your voices.”
“Lady Margaret, did you say?”
“Hmmm? Lady Margaret. Yes. My good wife.”
“So you are …?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Who are you?”
“Bowden, Lord Bowden. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” There was a polite pause whilst Bowden decided whether his next question was appropriate. “May I ask why you are holding on to each other?”
Stan broke free from Trev’s clinging grip, and rubbed the bruises fast developing from his pal’s determination that the embrace be firmly maintained.
“And what is that peculiar smell?”
“Never you mind that. Look, we’d better see about getting you home. Where do you live?”
“Drains,” Trev volunteered, looking down as he scuffed some loose earth with his foot. “Not my fault. All these bumps in the night and folks jumping out of coffins, bound to make my insides nervy.”
Stan edged away from Trev and continued his questioning. “Lord, eh? You must have quite a plush house, then?”
“Gosh no, not at all. Merely a modest country home. Malbrook Hall. Do you know it?”
“The one with the marble columns at the front and stables round the back?”
“That’s the one. It’s only a summer home, of course.”
“Anyway, could be the drains,” Trev sulked.
“And you have a will, do you?”
“Well of course, for when the time comes.”
“For when the time comes, aye. Just before you’re buried, like.”
“It’s not as if we can just go to the toilet when the need takes us, is it? There isn’t one for miles. I brought that up at the last union meeting. Everyone laughed.”
“And who’d you be leaving your effects to, like?”
“Margaret, of course. She will inherit my estate in the event of my demise.”
“And the last thing you remember is Lady Margaret patting you on the back?”
“That’s right. She is something of a delicate flower, though. Perhaps that’s why she used a bat.”
“A bat? She hit you on the back with a bat?”
“A cricket bat, yes. Although she has a lady’s aim,” he chuckled. “She may have caught me on the back of the head once or twice.” He rubbed his crown as the recollection brought back a slight tingle.
“And that’s when you—?”
“Hold on a minute, you know what I reckon?” Stan and Bowden both turned their attention to Trev, his interruption reminding them of his presence. They watched as he retrieved the cigarette from behind his ear and rummaged in his pocket for the impotent box of matches. Then they watched the wind effortlessly extinguish flame after flame until finally, as another fizzled into disappointment, Stan cleared his throat.
“What is it?”
Trev turned his attention to Bowden, “Maybe you should sit down, guv.”
Bowden acquiesced, first placing a monogrammed handkerchief across on the seat of the wooden bench. Had it been capable of interpreting the meaning behind this action, its feelings may have been wounded.
Trev wringed his hands and his eyes shifted from Bowden to Stan and back again until, after deep contemplation, he found the words he was searching for. “Right, well, tell him then, Stan.”
“What? Oh, ah, all right. Let’s look at the facts, shall we?”
“Good idea,” Bowden agreed.
“You woke up in a coffin.”
A pause filled the time and space where jigsaw pieces should have been shuffling about.
“The last thing you remember is your wife hitting you over the head several times with a cricket bat.”
“That’s correct, to remedy my choking.”
“But you don’t actually remember choking, so that’s not a fact,” Trev corrected him.
“Quite right, Trevor. Do go on, Stanley.”
“Where was I?”
“His wife was bashing his head in.”
“Oh yes. So, in the event of your death, Lady Margaret gets everything?”
Another pause, if not pregnant then certainly more charged than the last, but still Bowden did not join the dots. Or, indeed, fit the pieces together. “In the event of my death, yes indeed.”
“Brace yourself, then.”
Bowden gripped the sides of the bench.
“You’re dead; your wife did you in.” Trev couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“Trev! There’s ways and means, lad! You can’t just blurt it out like that; you have to be sensitive.”
“Sensitive? How else do you tell him he’s been forcibly deceased?”
“Well, you could point out the positives. Soften the blow, ahem, so to speak.”
Trev considered a moment, and then turned to Bowden who was by this time looking somewhat shell-shocked. “You’ll never again play the violin, paint a watercolour, or kiss a beautiful woman. But you might get a pay-out from your PPI.”
Stan brushed away a tear. “Very poetic, that was.”
“Where is my gravestone?” Bowden was standing by the hole, staring at the empty space where a headstone should by rights mark his final resting place. Or temporary resting place, as the case may be. The question was soft, his voice calm, but its implication had the effect of a sledgehammer as realisation struck home. He was dead. And there were no flowers on his grave.
“Maybe the funeral wasn’t completely above board, like?” Stan ventured. “It would have avoided awkward questions, and there’s people can be paid for that kind of thing.”
“I bet they get double rates,” Trev muttered.
“Look on the bright side, eh? Not everyone gets the chance you’ve been given.”
“The chance for what, exactly?”
Stan looked at him evenly, his face conveying a wisdom begotten from living a lifetime by his wits. “Revenge, my lad. I mean, my Lord.”
A smile spread broad across Bowden’s face. “Quite right, that man. Stiff upper lip, what?”
Bowden’s smile was fixed but his eye twitched ever so slightly. “My gratitude for liberating me, gentlemen, but now I believe I have a house to haunt. I am off to Malbrook Hall to give my Margaret the surprise of her life. Or, indeed, of her death. Good evening, Stanley. Trevor.” With an amiable nod to both and a regal wave of his hand, the ghost of Lord Bowden moved off soundlessly into the night.
They allowed themselves a few moments, neither of them overly eager to break the silence. Nothing bad could happen when it was quiet. Eventually Stan blinked, “Well, that was an interesting turn up, and no mistake. At least he’s—”
Tap, tap. Tap, tap.
“Oh, no. I really think we should get double rates for the night shift, Stan. Stan?”
“I’ll text you the signal!” Stan shouted back over his shoulder.
Dan Forrester asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work