by Mike Driver
I wish I could remember how Rio Bravo ended …
Mr. Jansen picked me up on my first morning in a canary yellow pickup truck, liveried with the County Council markings and hauling over a hundredweight of gardening equipment in the back. He told me on the drive that I would be working with Kenneth. He didn't give me a surname, just Kenneth. He said Kenneth could seem a little unusual, especially to strangers, but I wasn't to mind his little ways. He said this with a crooked grin, which pulled his black moustache out of shape.
He told me normally Kenneth worked alone but there had been some trouble.
"Kids," said Mr. Jansen by way of a one-word explanation, and then shrugged his shoulders. He told me they had been messing around with some of the graves, even tried to dig up one or two of the bodies. Usually maintenance at the municipal cemetery was a one-man job but with summer here, the grass getting longer and now these kids playing up Mr. Jansen wanted two of us for a period. I was still thinking about how sick someone had to be to dig up a body when he dropped me off at the large black wrought iron gates along with two rakes from the back of the vehicle.
I looked at the cemetery sign, the letters picked out in flaking gold against a weather-worn cream background and then back at Mr. Jansen. He smiled his barely visible twenty-watt smile and pointed past me.
"There's a hut on the right of the gates about two hundred yards in, just follow the path," he said.
The rakes and I followed the path as instructed. The path meandered ahead skirting a newly mown grass verge; shady poplar and plane trees lined the route and I began to think that this job might not be so bad. The sun was shining, cheerful bird song echoed about the trees and a couple of weeks in the fresh air gardening couldn't be all bad -- even if it was in a graveyard.
As Mr. Jansen had described, after two hundred yards of following the path I came to a brown hut. It was little larger than my father's garden shed but less well assembled. It didn't have a proper handle on the door, just a latch with a padlock hanging loosely in the hasp. The door was slightly ajar. I knocked politely and pulled the door open.
I felt like I had intruded on a private scene as a figure resembling an oversized Boy Scout looked up at me self-consciously and then flushed red. He stood up nervously wiping his hands on his trouser legs. His face contorted in an expression of unease.
I stuck out my hand.
"Hello, Kenneth," I said. "I'm Jeff. I'm here to work with you."
"Oh, no, no, no," said Kenneth in a soft voice that belied his size. "That's not right. That's not right at all."
My hand remained outstretched.
"Mr. Jansen told me to come and see you. I'm your assistant for the summer."
"No, no, no," said Kenneth. "Not Jeff. That's not a name. Not a real name. Is it Jeffrey? Are you Jeffrey? I don't think I know a Jeffrey."
My hand dropped to my side.
Kenneth looked around himself nervously. He wore large khaki shorts on an even larger frame and a short sleeved shirt that might charitably have been described as off white. His doughy face twitched uneasily while his watery blue eyes, magnified by the milk-bottle-thick wire frame glasses he wore, blinked intermittently.
"No, not Jeff. Jeffrey is a proper name," he repeated.
I tried again.
"Hello, my name is Jeffrey," I said self-consciously, feeling like I was at an AA meeting and wondering what I was getting myself into. No one called me Jeffrey apart from my mother and then only when she was angry. I hated the name Jeffrey. Men called Jeffrey wore pattern knitted jumpers and had friends called Godfrey and Cecil.
"Jeffrey, is it?" said Kenneth with a large gapped smile. "I like the name Jeffrey. What do you want, Jeffrey?"
I could feel this was going to be a long day.
Eventually I was able to convince Kenneth that I was here to work with him. By then we were seated in the only two chairs in the small hut and the stench of body odour, leaf mulch and decay was incredible. Kenneth sat in a large overstuffed beige armchair wedged in the far corner of the hut while I sat precariously perched on a wobbly canvas fishing stool, with one foot propping open the door to allow in the faintest breath of fresh air.
Kenneth didn't seem to have much in the way of small talk and it seemed up to me to initiate any conversations we were destined to have. I told him I had just finished a degree in history and that I was planning to travel at the end of the summer. I had clearly intrigued him.
"History -- is that like kings and queens?" he asked, rummaging in his nose with one thick finger.
I didn't feel like telling him that my main area of study had been the Renaissance period; there didn't seem to be much point.
"Is history like war films and westerns?" he asked again. "I saw a good western film with mother. It had John Wayne in it. Do you know John Wayne?"
"Not personally," I replied.
"He's very good. I've seen all his films. Mother and I watch them all the time. I like them all. Except 'The Searchers'. He's not nice in that one. Mother told me his real name was Marion. I had an Aunt Marion. She's in row seventeen. We can see her later. I thought it was funny my aunt having the same name as John Wayne. Not John, you understand. She was called Marion."
After that we tried silence for a while. It gave me less of a headache.
Finally the stench proved too much.
"Shall we go outside?" I suggested. "You could show me round and tell me what needs doing."
"Okay." He said. "I'll just finish my cup of tea."
I hadn't noticed him drinking a cup of tea. Puzzled I looked around the small hut. I could see an unlit primus stove and a small silver kettle, its base long ago blackened with heat, but there was no sign of a cup, or tea bags, or milk for that matter. I turned back to ask about the tea only to be confronted by Kenneth's large canvas covered arse as he bent over his chair and tugged something from the back of the seat cushion. Then I heard the twist of a steel cap and the clink of a bottle upon a tin cup. Kenneth stuffed the bottle of whatever he had just poured back behind the seat cushion and turned to face me.
He smiled engagingly; his large fist now held a battered white enamelled mug; chipped around the edges and corroded to reveal patches of tarnished silver. He slurped at it noisily. He drained the last drops and then smacked his lips in satisfaction.
Then we ventured outside.
It was a beautiful late spring morning. Daffodils and crocus were in bloom and the air was fresh with the smell of new mown grass. I realised with some horror that I had become so accustomed to the smell in the hut that I had stopped noticing how foul the odour in there really was. I made a mental note to shower every evening as well as every morning from now on.
First Kenneth took me a large singly storey building built from rough-hewn local sandstone. The black double doors were locked with a heavy link chain and a padlock. Kenneth pointed to a large wall stone wall studded with bronze and silver plaques that ran alongside the building beside an ornate gravel pathway, flanked by low topiaried privet hedges.
"That wall," he said pointing with one chubby finger. "Is for them that goes up the chimney in smoke."
"They're not really there," he added in a voice that would normally be reserved for explaining matters to a small child or an imbecile but seemed to be used by Kenneth for every occasion when an explanation was required. "It's just a plaque. It's for 'In Memberian … Membo … Memoria'." He struggled with the word a few times, then defeated, gave up. "But we have to sweep the gravel, and sometimes we sweep the plaques because folks don't like it when their departed gets a bit cobwebby."
We walked a little further until we came to a rolling landscape of headstones.
Row upon row of memorial stones marched way from us to the crest of a small rise. All shapes and sizes; large black obelisks, square cut granite, white marble, all ranged in neat regimented lines. All cut into neat geometric shapes by the pathway.
I think it must the proximity to your own mortality that makes cemeteries unnerving. I have always felt that way about them and even in daylight they make me feel a little uncomfortable. I think it‘s the thought that one day I could be under one of those headstones. I know I'm mortal, I'm not stupid, I know it's inevitable; I just don't like to be reminded of the fact.
"These are the main plots," said Kenneth. "We mow the grass and when there's a planting we dig the hole."
It took a few seconds for the word ‘planting' to register.
"Wait a minute," I said. "We dig the graves."
"It's all right -- we have a digger," said Kenneth. "But we have to climb down to straighten the sides. People like straight sides. We do that with our spades."
I felt even more uneasy.
We continued to walk past headstone after headstone, with dates and names that became nothing more than a trite procession except that every so often, we would reach a small gravestone with childish script, cherubs and a life span that could be measured in months. That hit me hard. I've always had a small sentimental streak and those gravestones just tore right through it. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do this part of the job and was beginning to regret taking the job when we came to a fenced off area.
"That's the natural plot," said Kenneth pointing beyond the fence.
"Where?" I asked. I could see nothing except an open expanse of field and a few trees. It looked like a great spot for picnic to me.
"In there," he said. "They don't have headstones. They just plant a tree on top of them."
"You're kidding," I said
"It's not a joke," he said, a serious expression clouding his face. Then he looked back at the plot. "It's not right planting people like that without a coffin. It's not natural."
"What's that over there?" I asked noticing something at the foot of one of the thin saplings and pointing at a small patch of disturbed earth.
"Trouble," said Kenneth darkly. "Them bastards is always after something. No coffins to hold 'em down, you see. Them that goes up in smoke, they're no bother, just puffs of air, and them in the coffins is safe enough, but this lot is nowt but trouble."
"You mean people try to dig them up," I said.
"Try to get 'em out," he said. "But I wait for them and then BANG".
The word was so loud in my ear that I physically jumped.
Kenneth mimed his actions. "I waits for them and BANG," he mimed swinging a spade down on some poor unfortunate's head. I could not tell from his manner of speech whether this was something he intended to do or had done. Either way I didn't feel like quizzing him much on the matter.
"BANG like that, and BANG like that," he continued to pantomime behind me, the imaginary spade rising and falling in vicious arcs.
"Won't let them do it," he finished.
I spent the rest of the day clearing weeds from flowerbeds and when I left for the evening Kenneth bade me farewell by ignoring me and having another nip of his special "tea" from the small whiskey bottle hidden in the back of his chair.
"Kenneth likes you," Mr. Jansen told me a couple of days later.
"Really," I said. "He said that, did he?"
"Not in so many words, but you can tell."
I didn't bother to ask how you could tell and I was unsure whether Kenneth liking me was a good thing or not. I didn't think I wanted to be close to a man who spent long hours alone in a cemetery and who smelt as if he had just emerged from one of the graves.
Time passed and Kenneth and I found a way of working that suited both of us. I would get out in the fine weather as much as possible, weeding, hoeing, riding the five gang Ransome mower, trying to get my lines as straight as possible; and Kenneth would sit in the shed and drink his special tea. Mr. Jansen would pick me up at dusk each day on his return trip from wherever he spent the daylight hours and we would leave Kenneth behind.
"Does he ever go home?" I asked one night.
"Not often," said Mr. Jansen. "He says he likes the quiet. His mother's profoundly deaf and when she watches television the next street can hear it. She must be close to a hundred years old. Hasn't a clue what's going on in the real world. Kenneth dotes on her. He'll be lost without her."
Prophetically, the next night Kenneth's mother fell ill.
I was out in the natural plot. There wasn't as lot to do out there and the truth was it was supposed to look as natural as possible but I was clearing a patch of nettles near the fence when Kenneth came bounding over, his face pink with exertion and wild fear in his eyes.
"It's Mother," he gasped. "She's not right. I have to go. You have to stay tonight."
"I can't stay here," I began.
"It's Mother," he said again, as if repeating the point made it more meaningful. "She's dreadful. Someone has to stay. I must …"
He seemed lost in confusion, whirling first in one direction then another. It was like the competing forces of his work and his mother were tearing him apart. He was incapable of choosing between them.
I said I'd stay.
When Mr. Jansen came to collect me, I explained what had happened.
He looked concerned then a little flustered. He said he could get another night watchman, but not tonight -- it was too short notice. Then he asked if I would stand in for Kenneth -- for double pay.
I had already told Kenneth I would, so I accepted his offer immediately.
He said to make sure the gate was locked. There was a sleeping bag in the hut that Kenneth used and there was flashlight. If I walked round the perimeter path every few hours waving the flashlight then no one would know that it wasn't Kenneth.
I would know it wasn't Kenneth, I thought, and decided I would do one set of rounds at ten P.M. Then I was staying in that hut all night with the door barred from the inside. Only idiots go out in graveyards at night. There was also no way I was setting foot in that sleeping bag.
Darkness was slow to fall that night. It seemed to rise up out of the shadows beneath the trees rather than spread from the heavens, and for a long time the sky remained a deep, cloudless, starless blue. Then gradually, shade by shade, it grew dark.
I looked at my watch. It was nine P.M. I had planned to make my round at ten. I decide to do it then, waiting until ten P.M. would just make me more nervous. I found the large flashlight, fastened my jacket and pulled a spade off the wall hooks. Then I remembered something. I reached down the back of Kenneth's chair and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey with a faded Bell's label.
Whatever was inside wasn't whisky. The liquid was clear and oily and judging by the vapours rising from the mouth of the bottle about 90% proof. I sniffed at it. It smelt like turpentine. I took a sip. It set my mouth on fire and my tongue swelled to twice its normal size. A few drops slipped down my throat and I dreaded to think what the stuff was doing to my insides; if I had any left after this. It was the foulest thing I have ever tasted but as I stepped into the cool night air I felt surprisingly warm and confident.
Kenneth could make a fortune if he could ever produce a version that was fit for human consumption.
I was therefore in pretty good heart and feeling more in control of my fear than I ever would have imagined in a cemetery in the dark. I even decided to make a full tour of the site rather than just keeping to the perimeter path. That's what took me to the natural plot and that's when I heard the sounds.
It didn't sound like digging. But as I approached the plot and played the flashlight over the ground I could see a small mound of freshly turned earth. I switched off the flashlight and pushed it into my pocket then gripped the spade with both hands.
If it was kids out for a laugh they had picked the wrong night. I felt pretty nigh on invincible.
I clambered over the fence as quietly as I could manage which wasn't all that quiet and fell into the bed of nettles that I had been trying to clear earlier in the day. They must have stung me a hundred times as I staggered and clambered to get out. But give credit to Kenneth's elixir of eternal numbness, I barely felt a thing.
I stood beside the small mound of earth my breathing was laboured and I could see plumes of steam rising from my mouth. I stood stock-still and listened. Faintly I could hear scratching. I looked around me. The spade poised above my head. BANG, I thought, come and get it. I'll show you BANG.
A decayed cadaverous hand reached out the ground beneath me and snagged my ankle. All around me the ground erupted. Hands groped for my feet and ankles. I fell. I could feel putrid breath on my face as a rictus grin appeared from the ground beside me and began to inch towards my face. Hands clamoured at my legs, my arms and began to pull at me. Dragging me beneath the soil. I could feel the damp earth giving way around me, sliding over my body as I was pulled deeper and all the time the rictus face grew closer, the mouth opening wide, rotting teeth bared to deliver a final terrible bite.
Then it was gone, shattered in flying splinters of bone.
"BANG!" I heard a loud voice say above me.
Kenneth's spade fell all around me. Smashing, flaying, decapitating anything that moved or tried to squirm from the ground.
"BANG!" he shouted. "BANG, BANG, BANG!"
Then all was silent, and I lay on the ground.
Kenneth patched me up and got me back to the hut. He gave me another drink of his special tea and after my tongue had gone back to its normal size I was able to ask him what had happened.
"Them lot," he said. "They back again, but I show them BANG, like that, and BANG."
He laughed, an idiot's drooling laugh, but the most pleasant sound I had ever heard.
"BANG!" I said with him, "BANG!" and laughed hysterically.
Then I wondered what the hell I was laughing about as scratching sounds came from the wooden door.
A terrible sound in the narrow confines of the small hut; it sobered me up instantly.
I held the spade that Kenneth had left by the wall. Something was trying to pull open the door.
A gnarled hand curled round the wooden frame and began to pull at the door. I grabbed for the latch and held it tight but I couldn't keep the door closed. A second gaunt hand gripped the doorjamb and began to lever it back, I could hear the nails shrieking in the wood. In desperation I let go the door picked up the spade and raised it above my head.
The face that appeared in the doorframe is one that will haunt my nights for years to come. Missing an eye, pestilent skin stretched and torn over a bony skull; it forced its way into the shed. I swung with all my might. The blow never landed. Kenneth held the spade at the peak of its arc in one meaty hand. He shook his head. I looked back at the creature that had now forced its way in and screamed.
Above my screams I could hear Kenneth saying, "Jeffrey, this is Mother. Mother, this is Jeffrey."
Mother had joined us.
Kenneth looked at me. "I'm sorry, Jeffrey," he said. "They just won't leave her alone. They want her back. But I need her more than they do and they can't have her." He shouted the last words into the night.
A noxious, murmuring cry answered him and I could hear more of the creatures dragging themselves towards us.
Kenneth grinned at me. "Just like Rio Bravo," he said, his moon face beaming; so spades in hand, Mother cowering in the corner, we prepared for the next onslaught.
© 2006 Mike Driver
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