Jean hated silence. It gnawed at her nerves and sapped her spirits, especially during night-time drives. Maybe she should give up teaching evening classes, and try to get by on her widow’s pension alone. Or perhaps she should scrape together the money to buy a radio for her car.
In the darkness, the slopes of the Sussex Downs sank into valleys, and woodlands merged into fields. The windscreen wipers screeched across the glass, smearing dirt with the remnants of a November drizzle. At least the sound kept the silence out.
A hitchhiker pumped her arm up and down. Jean disapproved of hitchhikers on principle, but this might be an emergency. Why else would a girl hitch a night-time lift at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere?
Jean could do a good deed, and at the same time get stimulating conversation to kill this unnerving silence. She slowed the car. It stuttered to a halt, then the motor went dead. A battery replacement was long overdue.
Leaning across the passenger seat, she opened the door. “Do you need-”
The girl slid into the seat and crossed her arms over her chest “To Seelsden.”
To Seelsden PLEASE, Jean almost corrected. Young people these days had no manners. The girl had not even given her the chance to say that Seelsden was out of her way.
But to refuse would be rude, and besides, the girl might get picked up by a psychopath.
“Seelsden it shall be.” The car hiccuped, but started on the fourth try.
“Do you live there?”
The girl shrugged.
“I’m Mrs Jean Mills. I teach in adult education. Local history, mostly. What about you?”
Another shrug. So much for conversation.
“Of course, these days it’s not safe to reveal personal details to a stranger.”
After that conversational effort, the girl sank back into silence, with her arms tightly crossed and her chin on her chest
Jean glanced at her from the corner of her eye. She was about fifteen, skinny with an unhealthy pallor and the kind of dishevelled look favoured by teens. Her smell suggested that she had not had a bath for weeks and compensated with perfume. If so, the scent was badly chosen, over-sweet with an underlying note of something rotten. On the other hand, the odour might stem from a smoked substance. Jean thought it better not to ask.
The silence stretched for mile after mile. Silhouettes of trees and steeples stood black against a violet sky.
“That’s Seelsden up there.” Jean winked the indicator into action. “Where do you want me to drop you off?”
St. Roch’s, PLEASE, Jean wanted to correct, especially since that church was another three miles off her route. Once Seelsden’s parish church, it now stood lonely and desolate on the ridge. Long ago, after an epidemic, the survivors had burnt their village and rebuilt it further away, leaving only the consecrated church in place.
But it was cold and dark, and the girl was tense. The way she kneaded her fingers in her lap, the way she hardly spoke a word. Heaven knew what bad stuff had already happened to her that night. Jean had a teacher’s protective instincts. She would deliver the girl safely to her doorstep.
St. Roch’s came into sight, a huge silhouette of silent stone. Not a single house in the vicinity.
“Where exactly do you live, Anne? I’ll walk with you to make sure you’re safe.” Jean got out and clicked the car door shut. A damp chill wrapped around her.
“This is where I need to be.” For the first time, the girl turned her white face towards Jean, and unclenched her arms. The stink spread.. Something dark protruded from her chest: a piece of half-rotten wood.
“What the… do you… Are you hurt? I’ll take you to hospital.” Jean grabbed the handle of the driver’s door.
Anne croaked a laugh. “It doesn’t hurt, you know.”
Jean berated herself for overreacting. This was nothing but a drug-induced prank. A belated Halloween party with fancy dress.
“But you must dig me a grave in there.”
Jean adopted a stern tone. “The joke has gone quite far enough, Anne. I admit you’ve given me a fright with that phony stake, pretending to be a vampire -”
“Nah. Vampires aren’t real, you know.”
“Then what are you supposed to be? I mean, what archetype are you aiming to portray?”
“I’m a suicide, right?” Anne sounded proud, as if she had announced that she was a head girl or a carnival queen.
Jean recalled the custom of burying suicides at crossroads, with stakes through their hearts to stop them from rising. “Not many people will appreciate the difference, but as a historian, I congratulate you.”
“Then you understand. I must get into the consecrated ground at St. Roch’s.” Anne pointed at the curving gate. “You’ll bury me.”
“Now listen. I agreed to drive you to Seelsden, and I gave you a lift here.” Jean clung to her denial. “But I don’t have the time to play games. Hop back into the car and I’ll drive you home, wherever that is.”
The girl pushed between Jean and the car, leaning insolently against the door. Jean grabbed her wrist to pull her out of the way. The flesh felt as squishy and cold as a wet sponge, with little substance.
Shock slammed into Jean’s stomach. She stared, unable to move from the spot.
“Listen to me. I’ll explain.” Anne’s wide eyes implored Jean. “Please.”
The sudden courtesy did it. “Very well. I’ll listen.” The teeth of the car key cut into Jean’s palm.
“I was murdered.”
Jean grasped the contradiction as if it could cancel out the whole horrible unreality. “I thought you killed yourself?”
“My sweetheart’s family wanted him to marry another. They wanted me dead.” Anne’s voice, though flat, vibrated with hatred. “They got their chance when my brother came back from Rome. He had the plague. They locked our whole family into the cottage, healthy and sick together. They shut their ears to our pleas, and waited for us all to die.”
Jean sucked in a sharp breath. Putrid air passed through her throat. She was familiar with the tragedies of local history: crosses painted on the plague houses, doors nailed shut.
Suddenly words bubbled out of the girl’s mouth. “I watched my mother die, my sisters. My brother and I survived. John never forgave himself for bringing this fate upon us.” She kneaded her hands. “By the time I got out, my sweetheart was married. I killed myself.”
Jean’s hand holding the keys trembled. The fate of the plague victims had haunted her nightmares since she was a girl.
“I’m a good Christian. I need to rest in holy ground, and a human must do it. Please, Mistress Mills. The ground is soft. It’ll only take half an hour.”
Jean’s knees were quaking, but she had to do this. Here was her chance to undo one of the horrors of history, to save one of the people she had pitied so much.
“Very well. I’ll need to turn the car around to shine the lights.” With shaking fingers, she fumbled the lock open, then the ignition. She manoeuvred until the headlights, illumed the churchyard, but the car still faced down-slope so she could bump-start it later.
The car boot contained no toolbox, no shovel, not even a spoon. A rummage through the glove-compartment yielded a nail file.
The night was silent around the 13th century Norman stone church. Jean unlatched the heavy wooden gate. It creaked on its unoiled hinges. Jean’s feet crunched gravel with every step. Anne moved without a noise.
In the blaze of the headlights the tree stems threw stripes across the ground, black on grey. Tombstones stood as pale pillars.
Anne pointed to her chosen spot.
Jean braced herself and ducked into the darkness of the deep-hanging branches. She hung her gabardine jacket over a crumbling tombstone, and placed her black pumps neatly next to it. Wind brushed her arms and neck, soft but cold. Kneeling, with her skirt tight around her legs, she stabbed the nail file at the earth to break it up. Fortunately weeks of persistent autumn rains had softened the local clay soil. When she pulled out the first tuft of grass, its roots teemed with silvery maggots.
Already, the twin lights from the car were dimming. Moisture seeped through her skirt and tights and chilled her knees. Her scalp itched. Despite the prevailing chill, sweat trickled from her armpits down her sides.
Her fingers groped their way in the cold slippery ground. The smell of fresh earth blended with the odour of dusty museums, of moor and decay. She touched something hard, sucked her breath in and examined the pale sliver. Probably a piece of bone from an earlier burial.
The light grew faint.
Above, something rustled in the silver-grey leaves. The twigs of the trees beckoned like skeleton fingers, withered and pale.
The church stood high and still, an indifferent observer.
“Would you mind talking?” Jean asked the girl. Even a ghost’s voice was better than the void. “Tell me about what life was like in your day. Please.”
Jean was already burrowing as fast as two bare hands and a nail-file allowed. She clawed and shovelled, shutting her mind to the question about how long it would take to dig a hole big enough to hold an adult body.
Then the light was gone and darkness descended.
The wind died away, and the silence became as suffocating as the darkness. There was no sound now but the thudding of earth on earth, and the occasional rustling of nettles against the fence.
As Jean’s eyes adapted to the darkness, recognising its shades of grey, she could see the gravestones again. They stood erect in rows, large ones and small ones side by side like families in a procession.
“Don’t look. Keep going,” urged the girl.
Don’t look at what? Jean strained to see. Was it the stones that were moving, or ghosts, approaching slowly, a bold noiseless army?
All further speculation was cut short. Something cracked, the sound of breaking stones, of a tomb bursting into pieces, and white silhouettes emerged everywhere.
“Dig, dig!” Ann stamped her foot on the ground. “You’re nearly done. Don’t let me down. They won’t harm you, it’s me they hate…”
“They?” Clutching her nail-file, Jean scanned the surroundings for an escape route. Ghosts were rising everywhere.
“My sweetheart’s family,” the girl stated flatly. “They begrudge me the Christian burial They don’t want me to lie next to their only son. Hurry up.”
Already, a dozen pale spectres approached in slow silence.
Jean leaped out of the hollow to run.
The ghost clamped an icy hand around Jean’s arm. “Don’t stop now. You’re nearly done. Once I’m buried, they’ve lost and will leave us alone.”
Proving her point, she curled in the shallow hole. It would just take few more inches.
Jean dropped to her knees again to burrow in feverish fear. When she looked up, the spectres were looming above, wrapped in white tatters. Many had ugly swellings at the neck, and eczema covered their limbs like purple roses. Smells of cadaver and pus made Jean retch.
“They’ve… they’ve got the plague, haven’t they?”
“It got them eventually,” Anne said. “Hurry up.”
A one-armed old man limped close, leaning over the grave. Purple nodes dotted his face, black blisters his swollen lips. A lifeless tongue hung out of his mouth, black and tainted with gore. Jean shrank deeper into the grave, where Anne was already cowering in the foetal position, her face buried in her arms.
From above, many inflamed, swollen eyes stared at her. Arms, full of open sores, reached out. Could they infect her with their touch? Had she been digging her own grave?
“Dig,” the girl screamed. Her cold fist hammered Jean’s legs. “They murdered me and my brother! Save me!”
Jean carved and tossed soil with bare fingers. She had to get the girl underground before the other ghosts reached her.Sweat drenched her blouse and blended with the dirt to dark smear.
Another inch down. And another.
Already several pairs of stinking arms reached out from above.
“Enough. Now cover me.”
With both hands, Jean heaped earth on the slight form. Then she closed her eyes, and right through the cluster of ghosts, feeling their repulsive bodies touch hers, their fingers claw at her clothes. Breathless, she made it to the car.
She slid into the seat, slammed the door shut, shifted the gear to second, turned the key in the ignition. Rrr-rtch. Rrr-rtch.
On the third try, the motor jerked to life. She sped away from St. Roch’s, away from Seelsden, back onto the main road she should never have left.
She was safe. Never in her life had she experienced such relief. With the heating turned on full, and with the familiar motor smell around her, warmth came back to her limbs, and the rapid heartbeat in her throat subsided.
What she needed was a big mug of hot tea with lots of sugar, and more importantly, a human voice to break the silence. A voice. Any voice would do. Preferably a young, chatty one. Preferably male. No more ghost girls.
A hitchhiker was pumping his arm by the roadside. She squealed the car to a stop.
“Thanks.” The young man fell into the seat. “I’m glad you’ve stopped, Miss. Not much traffic on the road at this time of the night. I appreciate it. My name is John.”
A polite passenger. Talkative. Just what she needed to return to reality. Even if he smelled awful. Why didn’t young people bathe these days, and brush their teeth properly? But what did it matter, as long as he talked?”
“I’m Mrs Jean Mills. I teach adult education courses at the local college.” Hearing her own voice was a relief. “I may not look respectable, but I am. My hands and clothes got dirty when I helped someone with an emergency.” She kept talking, risking that this young man would think her a loony old bat. “I’ve had a horrid night. In fact, you probably won’t believe me.”
“I believe you, Mistress Mills.” He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. His odour intensified, sweet and foetid.. “And I really appreciate what you did for my poor sister. Anne had waited so long. Now, will you take me to St. Roch’s, please…”
Jean would have preferred silence.
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