St. James’ Cemetery

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by John Davies

Narrated by Bob Eccles

 

St. James’ Cemetery
“I know for a fact that you’ve got piss all. Who are you tryin’ to kid? Anyone knows your wheezing gets worse when you’re attempting the bluff!”

“Well it c-costs to find out.”

“Oh, aye! Look at this. A fisher of men indeed, is our Wes! Isn’t that right, Iggy?”

The cards were almost lost in Wesley Shipman’s hand – grotesque fleshy shovels as far as Fisher was concerned. But he still tried to fathom what the other man was playing with. You could never discount the fluke. Fisher waited patiently for the other man to lose his nerve, for tick or tremor to give the game away. But for once, whatever hand Wesley had, his eyes were keeping it deep and dark.

“Give it up, Wesley,” Fisher tried, “never be afraid to show your feelings. You don’t want to go the same way as that degenerate Micky Mold, now do you?”

“What’s that you say?” Micky Mold looked up at the mention of his name. He soon saw nothing was required of him and let his eyes drop back to his newspaper. He’d lost all of his money in the first game so sat away from the others, sullen. A day’s pay in ten minutes, laying for face cards that never turned up. And Wesley Shipman wasn’t even cheating, that clumsy get. How could he be? Forever spilling the pack all over the floor while dealing, or spooning their cards face up out of those great hands of his, however often you clipped him round the ear-hole to deter him.

“Cost you to see me.”

The hanging patchwork of clouds brought dusk early to the cemetery. The men inside the lodge shivered in their overcoats, January wind finding its way through the rags they had used to plug the hole in the wall. A calendar flapped on a nail like a hooked fish, displaying the rural scene of a month they had no interest in changing. Ignatius, who never played cards with the others, stood at the window and tried to breathe heat into his clothes, into his wretched, damp bones, the chill on his spirit a cold clamp as the final moments of the morning service played out through glass full of rainwater. Reverend Kerrigan and the semi-circle of mourners seemed like miniature clay models in the distorted window, standing amongst rows of stones running like terraces in colourless towns. Old memorials that had outlived their tenders, all chipped wings and shattered skulls.

Ignatius watched the service, unconsciously picking at his fingernails. The dirt always got inside the gloves. He could never quite scrape all of it out, though he had tried until blood mixed in with the soil where he scrubbed too hard.

Feeling a sudden sharp draught, the players looked up from their cards. At the door they saw a boy peering in through its slight crack, the thin slivers of his fingers holding it ajar.

Fisher, half-rising from his chair, shouted, “Get out of it, you creepin’ little shit!”

The boy shrank back. Just the door slamming, then rattling in its ill-measured frame. Finally, silence again.

“Bit strong that, Fish,” said Micky Mold. “He’s only a kid, got nowhere else to go.”

Outside, the boy looked at Ignatius in the window sadly, before disappearing from view.

Come on then if you’re coming. Ignatius remembered allowing the boy to help them that morning, eventually caving in to Jack’s pestering. Jack, the boy with the tatty head, who had taken to mooching around the cemetery grounds. Ignatius had known all initial enthusiasm would be lost with the first backache, with the first skin seared from his palms, the first blister. But Jack had not complained, had thrown everything into the spade that, stood up, had reached the boy’s chin. For a time, the two of them tore the ground to pieces, butchers laying cleaver to raw meat.

Stay away from the ale, lad, if you want to last the pace, Ignatius had told him. Else you’ll end up with a gut like mine.

Nah, it’s nothing that – you should see me Dad’s.

It’s all soft though, son, it’s no good.

****

Spades in the fleshy earth like knives working between the ribs, the rhythm they settled into. Jack had paused in his digging: So they’re really down there? You bury them over?

Makes no mind to them, lad, they’re just dead.

God, he had warned the boy to be careful. Watch out for the loose stones, he’d told him. Taller than Jack, some of them. “My fault. I allowed the boy to dig, no one else,” said Ignatius. Quietly, so the card players could not hear.

Back at the game: “Get it over with, Wesley, we should be chatting up fresh widows in the parlour by now.”

Face flush with the prospect of sudden wealth, Wesley laid down his hand. “Three pair,” he declared proudly.

“Three pairs?” Fisher asked, drawing the words out. His eyes narrowed as he deliberated all possible outcomes.

“Well fair play to you, Wes, you sucked me right in there. Must admit, though, didn’t think you were up to much.” Fisher waited for Wesley to reach for his winnings then brought his fist down on the would-be winner’s grasping fingers.

“You thick bastard! Three pairs!” Fisher rocked back in his chair, in danger of falling backwards. “Three pairs! Are you having this, Micky? Put aside your small grievances for a minute! You’re in the presence of Three Pair Shitbag, here!”

Fisher laughed so hard his top set of false teeth dropped, and were instantly sucked back into place. The reason behind Fisher’s unrestrained joy failed to register with Wesley, still concentrating on his cards, the jackpot somewhere still alive in clear eyes that blinked now and again as if to stave off sleep.

“Three pairs beats two,” he maintained.

Service over and the mourners scattered, black as crows, seeking shelter from the hailstones making their ears thick with blood. The boy left behind in the rain. Back to work then, thought Ignatius, though they won’t need us much longer. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone.

Irritation was beginning to overtake the enjoyment Fisher was taking out of the situation. “Christ, what you’ve got to work with here. Micky Mold! Get over here and explain to this brute the widely respected and sacred laws of poker.”

Micky threw down his paper. It was never enough to just give them all of your money. They had to hound you after the fact.

Fisher motioned towards the cards in contention. “Now this shouldn’t be too hard to officiate – jacks and sixes beats eights and fours any day of the week.”

Micky Mold paused, bitterness turning him into a sudden Olivier. “Wait a minute, Wesley does have three pairs,” he said, frowning. “Surely that beats two?”

Fisher shot forward fast, grabbing Micky by the collar. Squirming backwards, Micky’s shirt loosed and rode halfway up his back. “Lost all of your money, eh? Try and take me down with you?”

Wesley moved in to separate his two workmates, somehow feeling to blame, trying to wedge his adequate bulk between them. Micky Mold freed himself from Fisher’s grip, leaving the other man to his shirt. The dead fish white of his gut exposed, Micky lurched back, his head coming up to collide with Wesley’s jaw.

“Enough!” cried Ignacious, turning furiously from the window towards the arguing men.

Fisher, in one wide sweep, cleared the uneven surface of the flimsy coffin of chips, currency and playing cards. All carefully collected into the fold of his overalls.

“Pleasure doing business with you fellows. And as you know, I’m always too willing to give you a chance to win it back.” He patted Wesley’s cheek, still flushed from the accidental blow delivered to him. “I’ll be in The Ship all week,” Fisher said. “Now let’s get this bastard buried.”

Cards forgotten for the moment, the men picked up the coffin that had until recently served as poker table.

“Even Iggy will tell you I won fair and square, wouldn’t you, Iggy?” Fisher cocked his head towards the coffin’s lid, making a pantomime of waiting for its occupant to reply.

Around the fresh grave, the fog had settled to obscure the rest of the cemetery. Tendrils of vapour twisted around the leaning, stained headstones. The taste of it rising with the rain – the turned earth filling the air, the nostrils; black and rich, clawing at the back of the throat.

At this north corner of the cemetery, it had taken a backbreaking fortnight to clear the detritus of years of neglect- a wilderness of half-buried stone and wrist-thick root. The cemetery was almost full now. Ignatius imagined sometimes that he felt the ground swelling beneath his feet, the turf bulging with them.

 

The sun fell, searing through the cemetery like swamplight. The three men took to shovelling, feeling no difference between the wooden grips and their hands. The rain was hanging sheets now, racing down the walls of the grave in muddy rivulets. In the window of the workmen’s lodge, Ignatius’ neck strained taut as rope cord. He flinched, feeling the first spadeful of earth bounce and scrabble down the sides, fall finely through the gaps in the creaking wood. The cheap timber already groaning under the weight of tossed earth that continued to collect.

“Some turn out this, Iggy old son!” Fisher shouted through the rain. “The gravediggers and the crows!”

“Poor bastard,” said Micky Mold, almost under his breath.

Only the sound of soil drumming in Ignatius’s ears. For the life of me, he thought, still work to be done with shovel and spade tonight. No machine for this final process. From the window he saw Jack standing a safe distance from the others, solemnly watching the grim ceremony. The scuffed, tatty-headed boy dragging a sleeve across his dripping nose. Had it been yesterday, or decades ago? Ignatius could not decide.

“God, I’ll miss this caper,” Fisher said as they filled in the hole. “Even you two numbnuts! Now let’s go the alehouse and get one in for Iggy. Say what you like but he worked his weight, alright.”

Jack stayed behind, watching the men enter the passageway leading up to the Cathedral, hearing their fading voices echo through the tunnel. He could still somehow feel the weight of Ignatius on his chest, so much that he struggled to breathe. And on Ignatius’ back the toppled statue. Heavy as anything. Remembered it falling slowly, its shadow threatening to swallow him whole, until Ignatius had appeared and pushed Jack backwards. Where they had landed, Jack trapped. Ignatius’s eyes close to his, glooming, then gone. The breath continuing to leave Jack until he had been dragged out from under the dead man.

Alone in the cemetery now, Jack powerless but to stare at the window of the deserted workmen’s lodge. Ignatius at the glass, mouthing: “It’s okay now. Go on, son. Get on home.”

Bright sunshine suddenly lit the cemetery, breaking the gloom, gradually filling the window of the workmen’s lodge until Jack could not see Ignatius anymore.

BIO: A member of the Poised Pen Writers based in Liverpool, UK, Nathaniel Lee has had stories and poems appear in Big Pulp, Bete Noire, Lightning Flash, Nerve, The Interpreter’s House, Smoke and Fire, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last year.