The Gravedigger’s Tale

by

by Simon Clark

“Jesus!” exclaimed the electrician as he levered the back off the big one hundred cubic foot chest freezer. “What did you have to dig them back up for?”

Weathered brown, whip-lean, sixty-plus, half-Smoked cigarette behind one ear, the gravedigger grinned, displaying an uneven row of yellow chips that had once been teeth; he leaned forward, bare wrinkled elbows resting oh the freezer lid.

“The new by-pass. It’s going to take half the graveyard yonder, so before they lay the road, we have to lift ’em and plant ’em in the new municipal ground up
Borough Road.”

Pulling a face, the electrician wipe the palms of his hands on his overalls. “There must have been some … some sights. Well, they’ve been dead years.”

“Aye. First one were interred in 1836. So… most of the coffins were well rotted. Soon as you tried to lift ’em,” — he made a wet crackling sound — ” they just
folded — just folded like wet cardboard boxes. And everything — everything spilled out into a heap.” The gravedigger waited for the young man’s reaction.

“Jesus.” He wiped his mouth as if something small but extremely unpleasant had just buzzed into it. “You must have a strong stomach.”

The gravedigger recognized the infection in the young man’s voice. Disquiet, distaste, unease. He eyed the electrician up and down. I floppy white hat, slack mouth and wide-eyed gormless look signaled, here was a lad who’d believe anything; the kind that cropped up on every factory floor, in every shop and office, who, when asked, would conscientiously hurry to the storeman to ask for the long-wait, or the jar of elbow-grease, or packet of Featherlite. The gravedigger had been steeling himself for a dull afternoon of ten Woodbines, five cups of tea and a solo darts tournament, but a faulty freezer in the cemetery store-cum-restroom, and fate, had brought entertainment in the shape of the young electrician who was, realized the gravedigger, as green as he was cabbage-looking. “I’m just brewing up. You’ll want a wet when you’ve done.”

“Oh, ta. Trouble is with this unit, it’s been too near the window. Direct sunlight makes them overheat. Shouldn’t take long though.” He looked round the untidy, brick floored room. Spades, shovels, picks, rusting iron bars leaned into dusty corners, fading graveyard plans curled away from the corrugated iron walls; at the far end was a table cluttered with chipped mugs, cigarette cartons, stained milk bottles; above, an asbestos ceiling punctuated by dozens of tiny corpses — spiders that had died and been mummified by the dry air.

“Are the others out, you know, digging?” asked the electrician conversationally.

“Aye.” The old man accurately tossed tea bags into two-pint pots. “They’re working up the top-side. Look.” He pointed a yellow-brown nicotine stained finger. Through a grimy, cobwebbed window two men could be seen digging in the graveyard. “That’s where they’re going to plant James Hudson, the old Mayor. Top-side, you see, is where all your nobs are — doctors, solicitors, aldermen. Bottom-side is for your working folk and paupers.”

“And that’s where the new road’s going through.” The young man returned to work, prising at cables with a screwdriver.

“Aye… that’s where they all had to be dug up.” The gravedigger licked his lips. “Disinterred, aye.” Taking the kettle from a solitary electric ring, he limped to the freezer top to fill the mugs with boiling water, and then he paused, staring thoughtfully at the rising steam. “Aye, a bad business this disinterring. You see some things so bad it makes you fair poorly. You know in some of the older graves, well, we opened coffins and found that they…”

The electrician’s eyes opened wide.

“Well. They’d moved.”

“Moved? The bodies had moved?”

“Well sometimes, years ago, people were buried alive. Not deliberately of course. ‘Spect some were in comas so deep they were certified dead. They buried them. Course, then they woke up.” He glanced at the electrician to see if he appreciated its full significance. “No air, no light. They’d be suffocating, trying to fight their way out. But six feet down. No one would ever hear ’em. There they screamed, fought, clawed at the lid, breathed up all the oxygen and then… well, they died.”

“What did they look like?”

“Oh… terrible. You see, natural salts in the soil preserve ’em, only turns ’em bright yellow. Apart from that they looked the same as the day they died. Like this.” Eyes wide open; his face the distillation of pure terror, panic, and the gravedigger hooked his brown fingers into talons and contorted his body as if twisted by unendurable agony. “They just froze like that, like statues.”

“Jesus… that’s awful.”

“Oh, I’ve seen worse, lad.”

“Wh-what was the worst you’ve seen.” The young man gulped at his tea.

“Ah… that was two days ago. When we disinterred Rose Burswick. When we opened the lid we saw… ah no… no.” He shook his head gravely and slurped his tea. “No. It’s so bad I can’t bring myself to… no.”

But he did go on to describe others in lurid detail. “Old Walter Weltson. My uncle was a gravedigger when they planted him — summer of 1946. Weltson was the fattest man in the country — twenty stone or more. It took so long to build a coffin that the meat-flies got him. Ah… when we opened his coffin up it were like opening a box of long-gram rice. Couldn’t see him. Just this mound of maggots all white and hard like dried rice. Then it rained. My God, I’ll never eat rice pudding again. Look.” The gravedigger pointed to something small and white on the brick floor. “There’s one. Must’ve trod it in on me boots.” The gravedigger watched with satisfaction as the young man nervously peered at the white morsel.

“Oh, Christ,” he murmured loosening his shirt collar. “Awful.”

“Then there was…” The gravedigger had stories involving worms, rats; even rabbits — “you see, the rabbits had tunneled down and built nests in the coffins, and we found the baby rabbits scampering about inside the empty rib-cages” — and there were stories about valuable jewelry, about pennies on eyes — “of course when the eyeballs dried they stuck to the pennies, so when you lifted the pennies…” — and then back to maggots and… The gravedigger noticed the young man’s attention had wandered, he even finished replacing the freezer back plate and swigged off his tea without really taking any notice of what he was being told.

Time to play the ace.

Sighing, the gravedigger lit the butt that had been tucked snugly behind his ear. “You know, I can’t get that last one we dug up out of my mind. Aye, Rose Burswick.”

The electrician’s eyes focused on the gravedigger. “You mean that really… awful one?”

“Aye. The worst.” Sombre faced, but inwardly gleeful, the gravedigger tragically put his head in his hands. “The worst ever. And I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.”

The young man was hooked. “What happened?”

“Well. Promise you’ll tell no one.”

“You can trust me, mister.”

“Remember the old factory down by the river?”

“Yeah, that’s the one that got sealed off with those radiation warning signs.”

“That is because during World War One,” the gravedigger jabbed the glowing tab into the air for emphasis, “that’s where they painted luminous faces on watches, ships’ instruments and such-like.”

“Uh?”

“Then, what they used to make things luminous was radium. And radium is radioactive. They took girls, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, to apply this stuff to watch faces. Course, nobody knew what radiation did to you. Most of the factory girls were dead before they were twenty — just rotted away. Rose Burswick worked there five years. She’d use a little brush to paint the radium on. Trouble is it dried quickly so she’d lick the brush every couple of minutes to keep it moist. Each time she did that, she must have swallowed a few flakes of radium.”

“Jesus. It’s a wonder it didn’t kill her.”

The gravedigger shrugged. “It did — at least that’s what they said. In 1935 Rose Burswick was buried — she was thirty-six.”

“Bet she was a mess, living that long after.”

“Aye, but that’s not the worst of it. Like I said, two days ago we opened the grave.”

“Ugh… what did you find?”

The gravedigger rubbed his eyes as if trying to erase some terrible image. “Well… we lifted the coffin, it were intact. It was then I noticed where the lid met the coffin there was like this pale yellow trim round the edge. Funny, I thought, but reckoned it were just a bit of mold. Anyway, when we came to prize off the lid it — it just flew off, like the top off a Jack-in-a-box.”

“Jesus Johnnie!”

“And inside… inside it were full. Ram-jam full to the brim.”

The electrician rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. “Full of what?”

The gravedigger shrugged. “Rose Burswick.” He pulled on his cigarette, hard. “They say she weighed six stone when they buried her. But when we opened that coffin it were like opening a carton of ice cream. There were just this big block — bright yellow. It were as if it had grown and grown until the coffin side had stopped it growing any bigger. But even then, pressure inside had been so great it were being forced through the crack between the lid and coffin, making that yellow trim. Course, we just thought it were some kind of fungus, so we tipped it out. It came out like a banana jelly from a mold. On the grass was that yellow block — coffin shaped.”

“What — what’d happened to Rose Burswick?”

“Oh… that’s just it. It was Rose Burswick.”

“Christ! How?”

“Mue-tay-shun.” The gravedigger rolled the word around his mouth like a juicy morsel. “Mue-tay-shun.

You see, the radiation’d caused her to mutate in the grave. The coffin had become her — her second womb. And she like… gestated… aye, evolved into something that — well — was not human.”

“Did you touch it?”

“Not on your nelly. We ran like hell. But when the Cemetery Board found out, we had to go back to… IT.” The gravedigger leaned back against the freezer. “We found it had changed. Just sort of a soft mound and, aye, it had grown. Tuesday was that sunny day — scorching hot. The heat must have brought it on, and it were growing fast.”

“Jesus. Then what?”

“We tried to lever it into a skip to take it down to the Crem. Burn it. But… but it’d taken root. Mue-tay-shun caused what were left of the intestin’ to grow and worm into the earth like a long yellow snake. It ended up us cutting it through with a shovel. She… it screamed. Pain, real pain! God, it were a nightmare. Then — there it were up and moving. What were left of her arms and legs had turned into like swollen yellow stumps with back-to-front feet and hands that had twisted up into hooves like… oh, I tell you — revolting.

“It were growing dark and we were trying to get into the hut. That’s when we noticed the worse part. I held a torch to it and looked at it close up. This yellow stuff were almost transparent, like yellow jelly and I — I could see inside it.”

The young man’s eyes bulged. “What ya’ see?”

“Terrible. Just under the surface, about four, maybe six inches down through this thick jelly, I could see — clearly see — Rose Burswick’s face. Or what was left of it. Wide, staring eyes coming out of their sockets three inches or more like red raw sausages. The tongue… long, thrusting out the mouth, up through the skin until the top wiggled all pink and wet above the surface. Aye, and the mouth… opening, shutting like this.” Wordlessly, he solemnly slapped his lips together like a goldfish. “I reckon she were trying to say something; call for help. You know, that expression on her face will stick in my mind forever. Sheer terror, like — like a continual state of shock, as if she knew what had happened… mue-tay-shun.”

“What happened to it?”

“Well. It kept growing. So we had to find a way to stop it.”

“And how…” The electrician trailed off in horror as if guessing.

“Sub-zero temperatures.” The gravedigger tapped the freezer lid with a nicotine-stained forefinger. “Why else do you think that a cemetery store would keep a freezer.” He began to lift the lid. “Look.”

“No!” The electrician’s voice rose to a shriek. Slamming the part opened lid down, he tightly shut his eyes. “No!”

Enjoying himself hugely, the gravedigger kept a straight face but couldn’t keep the mischievous twinkle from his eye. “Suit yourself.”

“I — I — I’ve got to go. I’m late.” The electrician snatched his tools together, then holding onto his limp, white hat he ran from the building.

The electrician was starting the van when the gravedigger hobbled breathlessly up.

“Hey… oh, my leg is giving me hell. Hey, you’ve forgotten this.” The gravedigger waved the screwdriver in the air.

“Oh, ta.” Opening the door, the electrician hurriedly took the screwdriver and tossed it into the back.

“You know, as long as the freezer’s working,” said the gravedigger, “nothing’ll happen. Old Rose Burswick is frozen solid — like a block of ice cream.”

Something occurred to the electrician. “How long since the freezer packed in?”

“Ah… let’s see. I saw some water on the floor yesterday mornin’, but Bill said, don’t bother, it’ll only be — ”

“Jesus! It’s been off more than twenty-four hours? You’re lucky it didn’t thaw.” He suddenly looked hard at the gravedigger. “You’ve got it on fast-freeze; on full?”

“No. I haven’t touched it. Thought you did.”

“It’s still switched off! Jesus Johnnie! Just pray we’re in time.” He jumped out of the van and hurried back in the direction of the hut, the gravedigger trailing behind and grumbling about his dicky leg.

Too late.

They heard a noise from inside like dozens of loose boards being knocked over, a succession of thumps, then with a loud crunch the twin doors burst open. And what had once been Rose Burswick, swelled and flowed out onto the path. A mass of quivering yellow, the size of a beached whale, it moved as fast as a man could walk.

The gravedigger shouted a warning to the electrician, turned, and then ran. The limp forgotten, he sprinted across the cemetery, leaping clean over headstones at such a hell of a rate it would have drawn murmurs of approval from any two hundred meter hurdles champion.

Luck had deserted the electrician. Stumbling backward over a mound of soil, he slipped and fell into Mayor Hudson’s grave-to-be. Down at the bottom, the electrician opened his eyes to darkness. Something had blocked out the daylight. Looking up, he saw that covering the grave like a lid was the yellow form of Rose Burswick. For a second, the sun shone through the yellow to reveal shapes suspended in the translucent body, like fruit suspended in a dessert jelly — an arm, a leg, splinters of bone, distended internal organs. And a head. The head turned in the jelly; rotating slowly but smoothly until its face was turned, gradually, to the electrician.

The face. That expression…

At the bottom of the cemetery, the gravedigger, scrambling over a brick wall, heard the muffled scream. He wanted to go back and help, he really did, but something drove him from the cemetery as fast as his legs could carry him.

In the grave, the electrician’s eyes were fixed on that face as Rose Burswick plopped into the hole.

And after more than sixty years of solitude in her cold and lonely grave, Rose Burswick hugged the handsome young man in the floppy white hat in an embrace that seemed to last forever.

And the expression on her face stayed on the electrician’s mind as if burnt there by fire.

She was smiling.

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