I’m delighted to have this story published in Whatever Keeps The Lights On!
Ninepence per body. Not bad pay, if you’re brave enough.
Or desperate enough.
‘Slowin’ down, eh, mate?’
Will swats my arm, grinning. ‘Piss off.’
A cloth bound across the mouth, thick leather gloves and a long-sleeved shirt, and you’re good to go. It rained last night; we slip and squelch through our gruesome task. Me, Will Caxton, Jack Brook, Tom Weaver and a half-dozen others. Three cartloads of lolling corpses behind us, a bleak expanse of churned earth before our eyes. Charterhouse ought to be bustling at this hour: the smell of roasted meat wafting over from Smithfield market, the playful chime of the priory bells.
Not today. Silent as the yawning pit that stretches before us. Just the wet crunch of shovels sinking into the slimy earth. A dull curse as Will slips in the mud, a muffled cough. No birds call; even the flies keep their wary distance as we dig. The air feels cloying and heavy, as if the whole city holds its breath. Tom leans back on his spade, mops his brow with a gloved hand. Our shirts are soaked in sweat; smells revolting, but better safe than sorry. Another burial crew over in St Giles worked stripped to the waist. Morons. Half of them feverish by sunset, the other half dead within the week. Mayor’s orders. Shirts on, no matter the sweltering heat. No exceptions.
We knew when the rumours shivered through the streets of Blackfriars, as relentless as the cartloads of dead pouring in from the countryside. How could they not spread? Panic always wins. Whole households stripped to the bone. A sickness that slaughtered in a mere morning, they said: merry at breakfast, dead by noon.
Not everyone fears it, though. Always some who find a way to twist tragedy into opportunity. Gossiping washerwomen chattered about lucky charms and infusions; over at St Bartholomew, Friar Moreland did a roaring street trade in holy medals and sacred relics. Hollow-cheeked and lean as a gnawed cutlet, he’d bellow his oaths over the clamour of the bells, passing out wood shavings to desperate clutching hands. ‘Behold a piece of the True Cross! Protect your souls from harm! Only ten shillings!’ Christ must have been crucified four times over, at the rate that snake’s forking them out.
The Great Pestilence. Fear, panic and despair. Some people even made a killing from it. (Heh! See what I did there?)
And on we’d march, tramping from street to street, to every household with a blood-red cross daubed on the door and a watchmen lurking outside. Young, old…it made no difference. Men, women, children. Twelve under one roof in Aldgate, stiff and silent beneath the eaves. Two girls tucked into bed side by side, their stern little faces relaxed into sweetness.
Two hours since we began, slowly sinking into the earth as the voiceless skeletons clamoured around us. Eight metres. Ten. Our orders were simple: find room for fresh arrivals. Once you can’t, then make more. The reigning dead reduced to splintered shards, chalk-white fragments, as if our toil had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Every second thrust of the spade levers out some ghastly revelation. A jawbone with three gleaming molars. A gaping skull, spiders weaving their webs across lidless eyes. The pale curve of ribs, like the staves of an old barrel. The delicate filigree of a hand. We toil on, serenaded by that dull chorus of blade on soil, the bones clacking together like ale pots. Jack gently prises one of the smaller skulls from its earthly cradle, wipes a smear of mud from its brow and settles it again, like a fledgeling returned to its rightful nest. The dead are no longer surprised to see us – where once even the barest bones seemed affronted, cowed like some shy person pushed naked into the street, now they lie passive as brides awaiting the hands of the gravediggers to carry them up into the light. It almost makes me grin; the gone-ahead, the passed-over lifted from crushing darkness by bearded angels smoking clay pipes!
It’s nauseating work, sure. But it pays well. Every sunset our purses grow heavier with sterile coins washed in vinegar, fat brown pennies that we hoard like precious jewels. Our daily keep in bread and soup.
And beer, of course. The harder the day, the more strong grog needed to endure it. Today is a three-bottle day. A tenth of a bottle per man per metre dug. Is that the calculation? Not something they teach you in school.
Maybe I’ll try being a rat-catcher. If I survive the week, God willing.
Besides bones, other things are uncovered and passed up. A deformed metal cross, greenish. A broken broach in the shape of a rose. Buttons. An antique-looking belt buckle. A rusty knife blade. Nothing of value yet. And if something valuable should be found? Who then is the legal owner? The corpse it was lifted from? The gravedigger who uncovered it? Perhaps the Lord Mayor. He pays us, after all.
The dull thump of metal on wood. Will and Tom slither down into the pit to scrape away the earth. A coffin emerges. They lever their spades beneath the lid, peel it open like an oyster.
And stagger back, aghast. ‘Jesus wept!’ We stare down.
Inside the coffin lies a Dandy. Curled periwig, powdered white skin, rouge-red lips, fingernails, eyelashes. Perfectly preserved, right down to the black beauty spot on his cheek. Mummified like a dried flower; even his woollen shroud only needs some washing to restore it.
Jack crosses himself. ‘Bloody hell.’ We exchange uneasy glances; burying skeletons and buboe-ridden corpses is one thing, but a man lying as if peacefully asleep? We hesitate – it’s wrong to disturb him, somehow. Improper.
Clattering hooves; a cloaked rider thunders towards us out of the dusty haze. The fearsome white beak of the plague doctor in his dark oilskin overcoat. I shiver as those blank sightless eyes slide over me. He dismounts and approaches us, his mask sweeping over the earth vomiting up its howling dead even as we shovel more into unhallowed ground.
‘Finished, have you?’ That harsh grating voice. It can’t be…
Jack glowers. ‘Aye, sir.’
The cloaked figure saunters over to peer into the depths. Lifts his mask.
I clench my fists.
The pockmarked face of Squire Hackett. Taxman and bogeyman in equal measure. Cursed in every Cheapside tavern and mocked in every Southwark market. A conniving rat bastard leaching honest folk of their hard-earned riches. Half the men here owe him rent, the other half want to beat his brains out if given the chance.
His lip curls. ‘Where d’you find this Molly? Why ain’t he burning already?’
‘Didn’t seem proper, Sir,’ Tom mumbles.
Hackett sniggers. ‘He’s a painted fop who valued lip-paint more than manhood. Burn him with the cattle. All he’s good for.’
Tom hesitates. ‘But Sir —’
Hackett bristles. ‘Mind your tongue! He’s soiling the graves of good honest Englishmen. Do as I say!’
We close ranks, resentment crackling in the air. It’s a desolate wasteland, a muddy field strewn with corpses, but to us this is sacred ground, sacrosanct only to the dead and those who lay them to rest. And he’s trespassing.
Will’s voice breaks the hushed silence. ‘No.’
The Squire rounds on him, seething. ‘Damn yer eyes! Didn’t you hear me? That’s an order! Want to be thrown in the stocks?’
Will throws down the shovel with a clatter. Steps towards him. Hackett’s eyes dart around at a wall of stony faces.
Jack lifts his pickaxe.
Hadn’t grabbed it for nothing.
And Tom, for all his slowness, had understood. He approaches like a great lumbering bear, gnarled hands on hips. Solidly built. Strong as an ox.
Hackett flinches, glances around for an escape. None.
Will leans in. ‘You liddle worm,’ he growls. ‘Say one more word against ‘im, you bloodsucker, and you’ll be screaming in hell.’
Hackett shrinks back, gulping like a stranded fish. ‘S-steady now, gents! What’s it to you? He’s only a painted fop —’
I feel the jarring crunch all the way to my elbows. A beautiful scything swing flooded with boiling rage, two hundred pounds of sizzling fury in a vicious two-handed blow. The wet crunch of bone; Hackett flops into the mud in a sprawled tangle of limbs.
No one breathes. We are stricken with dread, all of us. Fear sinks its talons into our bones; whatever will we tell the Constables? Our friends? Our loved ones?
Then Will slithers down into the hole. ‘C’mon, you lazy bastards! Who’s gunna help me?’
A moment’s hesitation: then we clamber down after him and bend to our task, shovels gouging into the earth. Deeper. Deeper. Hackett’s body slowly vanishes as soil splashes over him. Legs first, then the torso. Finally the face. Ten metres of grave-dirt. Deep enough for anyone. Just another forgotten soul buried beneath God’s earth, awaiting the worms. Unmarked and unmourned.
Good riddance, I think.
We close the Dandy’s coffin and return him to his final resting place, almost reverential. The other bodies join him, gently laid side by side as if peacefully asleep. Closer to heaven, maybe? We’re not sure. But it feels right.
The sun kisses the horizon as the last shovelful of soil tumbles into the pit. We climb out and gather at the edge, each lost in his own thoughts. Three cartloads of dead consigned to the earth, three dozen angels and one devil entombed together…
Then Will chuckles, claps me on the back. ‘A good day’s work, mate! First round’s on me tonight!’
We trudge away, a tired company of soldiers leaving a hard-won battlefield, shovels and mattocks draped over our shoulders like muskets. The stink of putrefaction clinging to our boots.
Plague, desolation, misery. Play your cards right, and you might just make a killing from it.
Just ask us. We’d know.
© 2020 | Tom Burton
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