I was on one of the hedgerow gangs cutting back the growth on the edges of the narrow roads that wound their way from village to village through the valleys around the lake. We were up high in the fells in the summer heat, looking down at the lake with boats floating on it that looked as small as water boatmen in a pond. It was dusty work, but it felt like work I was born to do. I rolled the scythe across my hip as my grandfather had taught me, stroke after stroke into the bracken, watching it fall beneath the blade. From time to time I would stop and take the sharpening stone from my pocket to strop the blade, working one side and then the other, finishing with a light stroke which lapped them both. I was proud of this work as I was the only one of the younger men with the skill to use a scythe. The other lads used sickles or grass hooks as we called them; with a hook you have to work half bent over most of the time, using a stick in your other hand to lift the grass. We’d been up there over a month, mowing and stacking the cuttings to rot. These were old roads set between dry stone walls or thick hedges, with some parts of them dating back to the time of the Romans, and some parts perhaps older than that. The roads might be covered in tarmac, but generations long dead had walked and worked on them the same as us, whatever the weather or conditions. The worst of it was the horse flies, the clegs, which gave a nasty bite; all you could do was wait until they started to get their mouth parts into your skin ready to suck your blood, let them settle, then nip them. The wasps and the bees were no trouble as long as you let them get about their work in peace.
I was standing upright working on the scythe when two men from the council in a Bedford truck pulled up so the driver could talk to our foreman who was working the banking opposite. It seemed the sextant needed another man to help with digging as they’d hit rock in one of the new graves and there was a lot of burying to be done at the weekend. The driver’s mate looked over to me and I caught his eye; he winked and gestured that I should get my jacket and my bait tin. I smiled and did as he said even though the foreman and driver were still arguing about it. I climbed up onto the flat bed of the truck sitting with my back towards the cab, feeling somewhat sorry to be leaving the scythe behind as over the past weeks I’d managed to work up a pretty good edge on it. The driver took a look at me through the cab’s back window. I nodded at him then shrugged my shoulders at the foreman, as if to say I had no choice; he looked at me, swore in a familiar manner at the driver and waved us away. I sat there next to a heap of moist tarmacadam, a pile of picks, shovels and a pneumatic drill which rocked and bounced noisily as the truck jarred its way down the pot-holed roads towards the lake.
Our destination was once a working village, but was now a popular tourist place clinging to the edge of the lake, with the houses creeping up the steep sides of the fells. The graveyard was situated on a steep incline overlooking the village, though with all its shops and the cinema it seemed more like a town to us younger folk. The church and the sextant’s house stood on a flat stretch of land, which was where all the finer tombs and vaults stood, some of them quite ornate with columns and statues. Most were plainer, but all of them had cast-iron railings about them to show them off as private and more distinguished than the plain earth around them. Beyond this level area the churchyard fell away steeply; here were the lesser tombs – row upon row of grey slate headstones, some of them at wild and uncouth angles as they had shifted with the soil, slowly obeying the force of gravity and subsiding towards the lake. Lower down the ground levelled off for a short distance where the cheaper plots were. As the cemetery fell from high to low geographically, so did the class and status of its occupants. The poorer graves at the bottom were set into soil that was almost continually damp underfoot, acting as a kind of sump for the water that drained down the hill. It was foul earth, inhabited by a continual stench of decay, yet these graves were well tended, with jam jars or small pots set with flowers laid on the sodden soil. It was not unusual to see families clipping or weeding the meagre plots of ground that contained the last remains of those they had loved. Graves on the higher ground were usually neglected or were looked after by the sextant, who was no doubt earning a nice cut above his wages for this service. I hardly saw him after that first day and learned that he was supposed to dig graves but had found a way out of it long ago. He was also paid to keep all the graves tidy, but he purposefully neglected certain areas, telling the curate that he would get to that particular part as soon as possible, so as to make the families who tipped him aware that it was worth it.
On that first day I didn’t look at the sextant properly, perhaps because it was the first time I had met someone whose livelihood was dependent upon the dead. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes, but I remember that he seemed to fit my imagined image of such a person: long and thin, pale faced and dressed in dark and shabby clothing.
It was midday and hot; a thin wind blew through the yew trees and flies buzzed around us mercilessly as we unhitched the compressor from the truck and wheeled it carefully down the paths to the middle area of the cemetery, propping it up on blocks by a half-dug grave. A man rose from it, stretched and began to scratch his back. He was fat and ruddy, wiping sweat from his face with a dirty handkerchief, but saying nothing, bemused and pleased with himself. He stayed there watching us as we stationed the compressor and then carried the drill and several cans of diesel down in a wheelbarrow. The sextant had vanished by the time I had walked back to the half-dug grave, my new companion was sitting on the edge of the pit, his legs dangling into it with his tin on his knee eating his lunch.
I joined him on the edge of the tarpaulin laid to protect the grass from the freshly dug soil. His only comment, which caused him considerable amusement, was that we were sitting with two feet in the grave. Then he became quite serious for a moment and asked if this was the first time I’d worked on the digging of graves, when I reassured him that it was, his face lightened and he expressed the hope that perhaps we’d have a bit of beginner’s luck.
Shortly after this late morning food, or bait as we called it, the sextant appeared with a long folding rule to measure the depth of the grave. I was standing in it to one side of the outcrop of rock which we would have to drill through to finish the grave; a job neither of us was looking forward to, as it was going to be awkward and dangerous. The sextant remained a mystery to me. He bent over the trench seemingly oblivious to my existence, straightening his rule and reading its measurements. Down in the trench I was transfixed by his shoes, which were jet black and meticulously clean in contrast to the turn-ups of his shabby dark trousers which were frayed and filled with stains. Looking further up towards his crotch, which my position within the trench rendered inevitable, I could not help but see that one side of his trousers was so stained as to have almost formed a crust. It was a nauseating sight: the trousers contained a disgusting map of months, if not years, of penile emissions, an encrusted delta of urine and seminal fluids. The sextant shouted at the fat man, something about two more feet, however I was more interested to learn the fat man’s name, an item of information that he himself had thought unnecessary to communicate to me. Mr Carruthers, he called him in a sly familiar tone of voice, as if there was some disagreeable arrangement between them. Mr Carruthers made a nod in agreement after which the sextant turned and walked off. I looked at this Mr Carruthers, but for some reason he would not meet my eyes – gloom seemed to have descended upon him. We took turns at the drill, banging away at the rock and shovelling the shards of stone out of the grave; all the while hardly a word passed between us. He would indicate what I was supposed to do with crude gestures, and if he wanted to call me, he would call me ‘lad’. He had never once enquired of my name. I can’t say this bothered me, in fact I was rather glad of it, as I had decided for reasons that were rather hard to define, that I did not like him. I would call him ‘ boss’, a respectful, friendly and slightly ironic title used between working men in the area.
After smashing the rock in the grave and tidying it up, the broken stone was wheeled away in a barrow; neither mourners nor the vicar would expect to see stone standing by the grave, only earth looking clean and neat on the tarpaulin held in place by the three-sided box made expressly for the purpose. I was not present when they filled my first grave after the funeral on Saturday. The fat man did the backfilling on his own, relaying the turf in a neat mound so that eventually as the earth settled it became a level surface; nothing looks worse than a sunken grave, or so I was told. On the Monday we started again, opening up three others on the same level. The fat man’s only comment being that there would be no beginner’s luck here as it was all fresh land. I took little notice of this as most of the comments he made seemed to be addressed to himself rather than to me.
The burials in other new graves were held in quick succession, so Carruthers and I did the backfilling together. It made for an easy week and we sat out of sight amongst the yew trees for most of the day, mainly in silence, excepting the fat man’s occasional laughter. He suffered from extreme flatulence, and would let off loud and malodorous retorts which amused him and caused him a rich self-satisfaction. In between these bouts of farting and laughing I learned a little more about him, of me he learned nothing, for I had decided to exceed him in non-communication and I remained laconic in the extreme. The first thing he vouchsafed was the reason he was so fond of looking at his battered pocket watch, a reason which probably also explained his flatulence. He was a keen drinker who prided himself on never downing less than six pints of beer of an evening, more normally eight, however he made it clear to me that his golden rule was never to touch a drop before six if he was working, weekends being a different kettle of fish altogether, as he put it. The other thing I learned was that despite his hatred for the sextant, he wanted to keep in with him; more than that I gathered he hoped, one day, to have the double pleasure of digging the sextant’s grave one foot shallower than regulations stipulated, then becoming his successor.
At each of the new interments the sextant would appear to warn us to stand rather than sit out of sight during the graveside service. He seemed more upright, almost happy during these proceedings, and had made some attempt to improve his appearance – but only about the upper part of his torso. The jacket had been brushed, a black tie tucked under his shirt collar and there was a bowler hat of almost new appearance on his head. It was as if he saw his shoes as separate objects to be polished like horse brasses, and that the only part of his person he was aware of was that which might be seen in a shoulder-length mirror. This impression was reinforced by the fact he did not comb the hair at the back of his head. Carruthers was always meek and sycophantic in the sextant’s presence, however this behaviour was nondescript in comparison to the way he acted when in the company of the vicar, where his fawning was embarrassing, including ludicrous attempts to include the letters his speech normally excluded in an attempt to speak ‘properly’. His addition of the letter ‘H’, which was the main offender, often got added to words that didn’t need it at all. Not that the vicar minded. I spoke the local dialect the same as the next man, but had been lucky enough to have had a bit more of an ‘heducation’, as Carruthers would have it, at least when he was talking to the vicar.
During these burials the vicar would leave, leading the mourners away, then one of the relatives would pass an envelope to the sextant. Then, with the mourners at a distance, the fat man would rush ahead and there seemed to be a further exchange. Was it all prearranged? It could have been normal practice for all I knew. It put the fat man in a very good mood and he would whistle to himself as he backfilled the graves.
There was a break in the endless number of the dead and for a while, at least, no new graves to dig. The sextant had us move towards the upper part of the cemetery to a vault surrounded by a cast-iron fence, which was so rusted the black paint peeled from the metal like sunburned skin. However the padlock on the gate was well oiled, indeed when I thought about it the sextant seemed to spend a good deal of his time priming the locks of the better tombs with oil.
We waited outside this gate until the sextant pulled a huge clamp of keys from a small sack and the fat man became particularly covetous, eyeing the keys with a kind of lust. At the time I had thought he was looking at them as the keys of office he desired so much, since then less charitable thoughts have diverted my thoughts. The sextant was triumphant when the chosen key turned the lock, and with a pull the gate opened. I was bolder and more cynical in my attitude by now and used the opportunity to scrutinise the sextant’s face. The negligence I had already noticed about his grooming habits were even more marked than I had first supposed: his face was strangely fleshy for someone so thin, his eyes were huge although they appeared small and were covered by sagging folds of flesh and pellucid languid eyelids, and there were large revolting blackheads around the outer perimeters of his eye sockets. He had taken great care in shaving the front of his face, but there remained large untended patches of facial hair under his chin and by his ears; he was a truly horrible individual to behold. None of this deterred my fat companion who had let out a sigh of admiration as the gate opened. Inside the rusted fence there was a border of grass that was badly in need of cutting and well into seed, surrounding a stone box. The box had decayed badly, flaking along the bed lines of the stone which had been set vertically – one side had cracked and fallen away completely. This was the reason for our presence: there was a living relative ashamed enough of the state of a family tomb to be willing to pay for its repair. The name on the vault was Patterson, and whoever the funerary mason had been, he had the foresight to advise his clients to fill the lettering with lead, even so, much of it had fallen or had been pulled out.
The capstone was loose, and although heavy, easy to lift off, and we propped it against the fence. The broken side needed to be carefully taken away so it did not fall into the vault. The sextant mopped his brow with a handkerchief even though he had done no work at all, unless the opening of locks is to be considered as work. I began to read the lead letters, and not only noticed that most of the occupants were female, but actually said so. The fat man and the sextant became quite excited and peered into the tomb intently, then drew away from me and began a whispered conversation. The sextant used a flashlight to examine the dark shadow of the vault. After a moment their enthusiasm dimmed, and they described it as unpromising and much meaner than expected. I too had a look and inside saw a stack of coffins, all intact, right to the bottom. Standing back I could see why they had called it mean, for the stone box above the vault suggested a far bigger interior with room for steep steps. I was interested in the sight, interested in the fact the coffins were so well made, the most recent being at least fifty years old. This was what money could buy: a dry vault so the generations could stacked upon one another and remain whole, retain their symmetry, their meaning, and defy the earth, which devoured the dead further down the slope. In lesser tombs coffins were also piled one upon the other, but in bare soil the wood rots and the corpses themselves fold up like some earth-bound concertina to provide room for new generations of the dead.
I left the fat man, this Mr Carruthers, and the sextant and went to find the tools and the cement we needed to repair the broken slab. I also included a sickle and a sharpening stone to crop the grass around the grave. No sooner was this job finished than the weather broke.
Usually the lake was invisible to us through the pallid rain. I took to wearing a plastic jacket so that although my legs would be soaked by the day’s end, at least I’d been almost dry for half the day. The fat man just worked in his shirt, the rain didn’t seem to bother him, and it just rolled off him like it would from a beetle. Then we moved down to the lower part of the graveyard for the first time. Carruthers announced this to me in a typically brief manner, releasing a large foul-smelling fart, saying that if I thought that smelt bad then just wait until we started turning the earth down there.
The soil was truly sodden; it stank before we started to turn the earth. Our feet descending into the turf as if into a bog; worms squirmed across the crumpled grass, huge semi-translucent brown slugs slithered over the stones, and it was dark because of the shade of untended trees. I was already looking forward to getting away from this grim fetid place. The yews blocked any view of the lake, their branches an endless mass of thick green needles, their trunks black to rust brown, dripping with water. The rain was constant. I made the first cut into the turf with a spade and realised then why the fat man had not included picks amongst the tools: it was like digging clay. First we cut out a neat rectangle of turf laying it to one side for when we would backfill and cap the new grave, dug a short way in, then tucked the tarpaulins over the sides of the cut.
I was revolted by the number of bright orange centipedes which appeared, these insects had always disgusted me, among them were beetles, earwigs and woodlice in profusion. The soil was so sour that it stuck to our spades slowing the work, and the deeper we dug the more it stank. We stood in the grave cutting the earth out in slices, heaving it up and shaking it from our spades onto the tarpaulins. To some extent the yews provided a roof protecting us from the constant rain, but made up for this boon by occasionally spilling huge globs of water on us from their overladen branches. Down and down we dug until the small tombstones of the adjacent graves were more and more obscured.
The fat man was strangely happy, and much as I disliked him, he knew how to dig. His end of the trench was a good foot deeper than mine, his side of the cut was sharp-edged; a small pool of brackish water obscured the bottom. As I watched, he took another short stab downwards to reveal a mark, a section of earth of a deep brown colour; he struck at it again, hard, the spade making an scraping sound as it was pushed through the trench wall, much deeper than before and with dark purpose. After another cut equally hard, a hole appeared where that dark outline had stained the soil, and from that hole an indescribable stench. We stood there in the rain, me holding my nose trying not to retch, when there was slithering sound, a sliding and a putrid liquid began to ooze out of the hole, followed by a hand, the remains of a human hand, entangled in a morass of yellow hair. I saw the fat man looking through me, beyond me, scanning the horizon for the sextant. There was still some form of flesh on the hand, almost a liquid, like jelly, which began to peel from the bones, drifting into the puddle of water at the bottom of the trench. It was a left hand, a woman’s hand, lying half-submerged in the water and on the wedding finger there was a ring, no two rings, a golden wedding band and an engagement ring with a small white stone. I looked at this fat man, this Mr Carruthers, but he was unaware of me, his eyes looking once again at the steep slope behind me. Suddenly he lifted the spade and struck, slicing the fingers from the hand, he then pushed his hand into the horrid mixture of flesh, hair, bone and silt to find the rings, wiped them on his trousers, then slipped them into his pocket. He looked me squarely in the face, smiled, and said that if nothing got back to the sextant he’d see me right, followed by a remark to the effect that it’s not often the dead buy you a pint. I said nothing. He then deftly shovelled the hand back through the hole, covered it with a spade full of clay and told me to get back in the grave and keep on digging.
The Ring by Edward Allington, a story sent out in five parts over five days (31 October–4 November 2011) courtesy of Akerman Daly ⓒ 2011, Edward Allington and Akerman Daly