Something for Halloween…
There were at least five ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan couldn’t think of any of them. He adjusted to the sharp shock of the winter darkness instead, lit a fag, and smoked it savagely as if it had in some way done him greatly wrong. Behind himself, the lights of the pub shut off one by one. Loneliness bit down. Stan Metcalf stoically lit another off the butt of the first. It was late, he was in trouble. Ruby would be waiting.
There were only two credible ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan didn’t like either of them. The last time my Uncle Stan took what might be described as the scenic route (should row after row of grey tithe cottages and the old slaughter house ever be considered what you might call ‘scenic’), Auntie Ruby assumed infidelity of the wildest kind. In particular, Ruby assumed Big Rose. Charming woman Rose, physique by brick shite house, pulled a pint as if she was milking a dinosaur, big breasted, sensuously smart, brashly beautiful: your basic nightmare. Stan never had a chance with a woman like that and he knew it, and in that sense he knew something which his somewhat insecure wife did not. Now this was rather odd, as we may assume that Rube was in possession of the full physical facts with regard to her husband. Friendly and kind though he undoubtedly was, poor old Stan stood at five foot nothing, forty something and was as bald as a stag beetle’s backside. Hardly Clark Gable, was our Stan, except maybe for the false teeth and the cab door ears.
Anyway, the last time Stan took the long walk home to arrive late, very late, Ruby had already cut the arms off his drape and the toes off his blue suede shoes. Bad scene for a Billy Fury man, and no mistake.
So, here’s Stan, seven days later, pissed on Old Perpendicular at the end of the working week, deliberating as to his appropriate direction of perturbed perambulation. If not Mount Street (all around the houses, dog-leg double back and at least an extra half an hour), then what? Had to be the village cemetery really, which was nothing if not direct. He spat out his fag and walked off down the road.
The Church and accompanying churchyard was not far from the pub and he arrived soon enough. Stan stood at the iron gate of the underworld, his head glowing dimly in the frothy light of a single sodium lamp and thought, ‘Bugger.’
Fallen angels, anointed with generations of pigeon shit and annotated with decades of graffiti, leered accusingly at the silly mortal as he lurched, faster than a rat can run, through the land of the dead. Somewhere a hound howled horribly. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ thought Stan.
He remembered his Mother, my Grandmother, Alice: long black hair, and very dramatic. If ever presented with a gift of flowers from an admirer or, more usually, from one of her seven surviving children, she would assemble the family, troop to the graveyard and ‘Give them to Mother.’ Once there, she would wander dreamily amongst the lilies, pointing out specific graves of particular interest and telling stories.
‘Fanny Wilson was a pious young woman who was much loved,’ she might say, gesturing towards a fractured mausoleum, ‘dead she was for nigh on fifty years when a bolt of lightning struck her tomb. And when they opened it up, there she lay, still as beautiful as the day that she died. But her husband was a wicked man who would not repent before his priest, his peers and the eyes of God… Well, what do you think children?’ The boys look confused and the girls gaze back transfixed, all doe-eyed and romantic. ‘Then I shall tell you. Look there, my darlings, do you see that big, old oak?’
‘That tree grew out of the wicked man’s grave, right where his heart was.’ And they always believed her, same as I did when it was my turn to stroll with her through the potter’s field.
Hang on, what was that?
So quick. So sharp. So cold. A noise where there should be none. Someone, or some thing, tapping on something else. Something cold. Shivering, Uncle Stan, old again, walked on and turned no more his head. Tap, tap, bloody tap…
Now Stan may not have had a full life in many senses of the concept, but he had seen a lot of movies. Did not this alien sound bespeak much in terms of premature burials and bleeding nuns? His mithered mind sought more rational alternatives. Stan lit another Capstan for support, tearing the cork filter off first and flicking it over his shoulder whereby it bounced, unbeknown to Stan, off the headstone of his Great Aunt Lucy, not that she knew nor cared, being long since gone.
The sound came again, playing on his spine like a tarantula on a sensitive keyboard.
Mice? Woodpeckers? Badgers?
The short-cut extended, achieved the infinite, stopped, and was satisfied. In the twilight distance a humble artisan chipped and cracked, deftly carving upon a simple headstone. Squinting, Stan could just make the figure out in the murky darkness. ‘Oh, thank the Lord,’ thinks he. He began to ease his pace a little then, grateful, as one so often is, for some simple human contact.
Walking casually now, Stan eventually drew level with the mason, his face obscured by the turned-up collar of his corporation donkey.
‘Bit late for over-time ain’t it, mate?’ says Stan, a genius at conversation with complete strangers, lighting another fag and offering the packet to the workman.
‘No ta,’ says the little man politely, ‘bad for your health,’ adding: ‘You’re standing on my granny, by the way, old stick.’ Stan stepped apologetically to the left, coughing awkwardly. ‘Don’t you worry, my friend,’ says the old man, ‘won’t be the first time the old girl’s ’ad a man on top of her,’ and he laughed.
Stan squinted down at the apparently freshly turned earth. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said awkwardly, ‘she must have died very recently.’
‘No,’ said the workman, ‘she didn’t.’
‘Ah well,’ Stan continued, bewitched, bothered and increasingly bewildered. (He needed a slash as well.) ‘Nice night for it.’ He tried to read the inscription the old boy was working on.
‘I don’t know about that, son,’ says the old man, ‘I saw a bat fly sideways round the church tower three times at moonrise,’ he sniffed and spat on his grandmother, ‘it’ll be snowing before dawn.’ Stan was impressed, this was the sort of thing Alice used to say.
‘So what are you working on at this ungodly hour, then,’ he asked, squatting down next to the old boy and reading aloud: ‘Here lies James William Webb. Sadly gone yet not forgotten. 1889-1955.’ The name had obviously been freshly re-cut with a flourish. The carver laid down his hammer and bolster then, and turned towards Stan, whose teeth promptly turned white with the shock of the terrible vision before him.
‘They spelt me bloody name wrong!’ said the old man, laughing, but Stan was no longer listening.
James William Webb (Will to his mates, all dead) giggled to himself and lit one of Stan’s cigarettes absentmindedly, the pack dropped by the unconscious fingers of the previous owner. ‘What the hell,’ he thought. He’d been off ’em for a while when he was away, but now he was back.
A huge and ancient cat, boot black and tatty, glided out of the shadows and wound itself around his ankles. He reached down and tickled its ears with his free hand and the animal arched its back with pleasure, filling the air with its purr. Will purred back, sitting down heavily on the prostrate Stan on account of the dampness of the grass. The cat jumped on his lap and ground its head into his face, by this time vibrating ecstatically.
‘Who are you then?’ he asked, gently pushing the cat’s head away so he could take another drag on his cigarette. The cat told him her name. ‘Really?’ replied the old man, ‘I knew your great, great, great, great grandmother.’ The cat rolled over and presented her soft, black belly, mewling and bleeping. Will stroked the furry softness, ‘It’s good to see you too,’ he said. He turned sideways and blew smoke in Stan’s face, Stan snored back loudly. ‘You know, I do believe this idiot is one of mine,’ he said.
‘Bobok!’ said the cat.
‘Very funny,’ said James William Webb.