He was ordinary, so bloody ordinary. His hair was sandy, and he was of average height and build, and wore a sad pair of brown hush puppies on his feet. They in turn gave support to the ragged ends of a rather shabby pair of tan corduroys that looked as if he’d grated cheese with them. From his waistline sprouted a creased, earthy-coloured chequered shirt embraced by a beige unkempt jacket with the collar turned up. He reminded me of an old art teacher at school, the day after he’d seen James Dean in Giant.
If it was his ordinariness that caught my eye, the piercing glare emanating from his pallid face shred the distance between us both and gave my goose-bumps shingles. I imagined it fuelled by an enormous pocket of aggression located deep within his psyche. I can’t be the thorn in that paw, but his glower undermined my confidence.
He was about 100 yards from me, underneath the shade of a generously leafed ash tree, leaning back against Clair Temnestra. I knew little of Clair except that she’d been born in 1980 and died in 2007, because that’s all I could read of her neglected gravestone.
I was one of a small funeral party of seven, dressed obligatorily. Of the six others three were faceless, dour males in black suits and white shirts, and three women, all heavily veiled, who exuded repugnance through their rigid physicality. The whole scene, including coffin bearers (hired for the occasion) and the vicar in his customary robes, offered little more colour than an early Ingmar Bergman film.
That’s why he stood out I suppose, all those dreary shades of brown resurrected against the monochrome of our cortege. But why stare at me? Perhaps we’ve met before. He’s not unhandsome, despite the awful clothes and I’ve had worse; let’s be honest I hadn’t had anybody since that house party last Christmas - a brief coital wrestle underneath a pile of strangers’ coats. But he was a blonde, surely? Shame about his wife, I suppose.
Yet this certain attractiveness could not dispel a foreboding of personal endangerment and a powerful desire to quit the cemetery, but how? I’d come alone, or it seemed that way, and the idea of begging assistance from any of my fellow mourners filled me with repugnance. Who were they anyway, I pondered? They answered the priest in such a flat and uniform manner that their vocal choreography seemed almost supernaturally precise. And why, for some uncanny reason, did I have the impression that there should be seven of them here besides me. Funnily enough I couldn’t even recall the motivation behind my own presence. I looked down at the pale wooden coffin at my feet. Who was in there and why did I feel so pitiless toward them?
Again, though, my attention was drawn back to the onlooker. Any question that the object of that stare was any other than me dissipated, as a broad, creepy grin broke out on his face as our eyes met again. My heartbeat, which had been steadily rising, began to gallop and skip in disconcerting rhythms and my skin was a visible paradox, sweating through the extreme humidity and shivering with trepidation. Again that rabid urge to flee began to scratch away at my nerves, so I started to snake in and out of the group as discretely as I could, hoping to find a blind spot from his unrelenting glare and an opportunity to slip away.
Then, as I passed from behind the back of the last of the men, I looked for him and was astonished to see he’d disappeared. Relief bubbles rumbled deep in my stomach and the resultant sigh was rather loud and tactless, yet it was casually absorbed amongst the atonal prayers which continued unabated.
My giddy head retrieved some of its weight and I began to shake less severely, returning my attention to proceedings, but I could barely watch the death cot began its descent into the bitter earth. My feet shuffled nervously as I was forced to contemplate that awful day when my own life force concedes to time and the poor quality of human form. Peculiarly the others’ remained steady as if they were rooted to the earth through the leather in their shoes.
Suddenly from behind and to the right a shrill gust blasted across the open ditch, disturbing the blithe serenity of the trees. The wind itself lifted sharply, dragging with it an ominous dark blue cloud that seemed to have manifested from nowhere. Its underbelly sagged like a tarpaulin laden with rainwater, ready to burst. It strolled across the sky like a virus infecting the fickle sun and dissipating its light.
“In nomine Patris, et Fille et Spiritus Sancti”, the vicar chanted, his words assuming a sinister quality as a grey mist seeped in and entangled itself around us. The resultant “Amen” cowered above the pillow of clouded air that bedded itself across the corpse’s crib. But another voice was audible among the incantation; one lacking even less reverence than our own. Abruptly the left hand side of my face went numb as if frozen by novocaine and the hairs on my neck crackled as an electrical charge seemed to rip across my shoulder blades. The drop in temperature was so sharp and rapid I wondered if the mist might be liquid nitrogen. I turned sharply to investigate and came face to face with the art teacher.
The air was vacuumed out of my diaphragm and my knees capitulated as if they were riddled with arthritis. From a semi-kneeling position I peered up at my tormentor and could see in close-up that his complexion had the colour and texture of moulding saffron cake. Whatever appealing quality I thought he possessed from my first sight of him seemed to have been sucked from him like a needle drawing fluid.
In desperation I turned toward the others but they remained unmoved and oblivious to the scene unfolding before them.
“Amen”, he repeated, signalling me for a codicil. His breath was a cacophony of stale cabbage and fertilizer.
“Amen”, I finally choked out in obedience after what seemed an eternity.
“Good”, he rasped, “Good.” The words squeezed themselves out between clenched yellow teeth.
“You don’t know me do you?”
“Who…what are you?” I whimpered. “What do you want with me?” I began to rise and bumped into the woman next to me. “Don’t you see him?” I berated her but she simply motioned toward him momentarily and then, utterly disinterested, resumed her part in the service.
“No”, he rasped, “She cannot see me…yet” he chuckled.
What I did next I can’t explain. Perhaps there’s a basic strand of human DNA that triggers it, a part that is simply reacting to centuries of inherent religious dogma, nevertheless I moved toward the vicar.
“He can’t help you either”, he said with detestation. “He cannot see or hear me, and yet he should”
“Are you a devil?” I asked.
“We’re all devils” he replied curiously.
“Have you come for them” I said, pointing at the coffin and convinced I was now the centre of the kind of supernatural event I used to scoff at.
“There’s nothing there for me, now” he replied.
“But not me surely, shouldn’t I have been given a sign?” I enquired
“Beware the grin, the smile and the chuckle” He advised grimly, “They promise much but they are fey friends”
“But you’re smiling now” I said
“Then it must be time” he avowed.
I was trapped and helpless and fished in and out of my pockets for something, anything to rid me of this terrorist. That was when I found the rosary beads. I was caught between two concepts of madness: the grotesque creature in front of me and the fact that I owned a rosary.
Regardless, and in true Van Helsing style, I thrust out with them and suddenly became aware that the crucifix was upside down and this would be more likely to attract a devil than repel him. I quickly adjusted it and screamed at the malevolent fiend to get away.
In a spontaneous frenzy he clasped his ears and clawed his sides. He began to move further into the cemetery away from the cortege and I followed him ruthlessly stabbing at him mercilessly with the worn rosary cross. His head shook fanatically from side to side and he hopped up and down in violent indiscriminate patterns. I was witnessing a diabolical epileptic fit, I thought, as he staggered away to collapse out of sight behind another gravestone.
“I did it!” I whooped silently, “I sent the daemon back to his hell-hole!” and turned in celebration but the ritual was continuing in complete ignorance of our struggle. I investigated the beads burning in my soaking hands. The heat from them appeared to be evaporating the sweat pouring in my palms, creating columns of steam that issued from between my fingers.
As I stared down into them the face of an old woman materialised. Her face was ashen and her eyes scarlet with the burden of crying. "She's lost her son", I thought, the notion leaping into my conscious but from where I couldn't guess. Then she began to speak but I couldn't hear her voice. It seemed as if she was offering me forgiveness; but what had I done? She had something in her hand and was in the process of reaching out to me when the vision faded as quickly as it had arrived.
My stomach felt so tight as if a gang of sailors had been practising knots with my intestines. I must wake up I said to myself. This has to be a nightmare. That's the only rational explanation to the apparent obliviousness of the other mourners. If this was real they would react, surely. They'd be as afraid as me.
And then another thought threw itself into the mix: "They have nothing to fear now because all of their problems have resolved themselves". It must be the deceased, then; he's dead now and cannot hurt them any more". And I was sure of this and yet possessed no solid proof and was hardly likely to garner any from these stolid statues.
But then they did move; slowly and deliberate, opening up a small corridor between them. At the furthest end I could see the priest was beckoning me toward the grave. The mourners were ringing their hands as if they'd just disposed of something loathsome. As I stepped hesitantly toward the priest I could see chalky earth on their hands and gloves. Why did they come, I asked myself, as they obviously had nothing but contempt for the dearly departed? Nevertheless and with relief I bent down to complete the most ludicrous of human traditions.
I sunk my fist into the cold sticky pile of clay shivering by the graveside. Suddenly an arm shot out of the grave and clasped onto my wrist, followed swiftly by the devil’s face. I shrieked for help and attempted to pull away but his grip was too strong. I looked to the others but they remained unmoved. In desperation I, again, thrust the crucifix at him with my free hand.
“Want me to dance for you again do you? Were you really fooled into thinking I could be destroyed so easily? Besides which, why on earth should I fear my employer?” he scoffed.
“Your employer” I cried, “but surely that would make you an angel?”
“Aye”, he crowed, “an angel of death” and pulled me halfway into the grave so that I was peering directly at the wooden casket now firmly fixed in perpetuity.
I could read the inscription on the coffin:
Born 19/9/80 Died 20/06/07
“But she’s dead” I reasoned, “I saw you leaning on her gravestone”
“She is dead; she just doesn’t know it, do you Clair?”
That was the moment of agnorisis; that sublime sub-second of transition between knowing nothing and knowing it all. I was Clair Temnestra and I was dead. I looked back over my shoulder and suddenly I knew the identities of these other mourners. They were my employees and I was their impatient, inconsiderate and ruthless overseer. Only now did I understand why there were only six when there should have been seven, a young man. Now I could hear the words of the old woman, his mother, and recognized the religious item she was giving me; and finally I knew, too, who the blonde man and his wife were and how I’d come to be in this terrible place.
In a trice the veils slipped from the faces of the women. Laugh, I thought, go on this is your time. But they remained insipid; perhaps there was even a trace of sympathy within their lightless eyes. Slowly they turned to leave taking with them the indifferent coffin bearers. The priest, I could see had already left; useless to the end as death had promised. Death, himself, had stopped grinning and now looked at me earnestly, indicating with his eyes that it was now time.
So I succumbed to death’s tug and fell headlong toward my coffin. As I neared it, it opened slowly revealing eternity to me and the dark embrace of everlasting sleep…
And as quickly woke up. I was back in the cemetery above ground and it was a cloudless, sunny and humid day. There was a funeral taking place and one of the mourners, a blonde-haired man, was staring intently at me. His name was Horace Tees. I knew this because that was the name on the gravestone I was leaning on.