Leech leant against the stone angel and struck a match on the broken wing. Shielding the flame from the driving rain, he lit his cigarette and sucked greedily on the filter. He exhaled a cloud of grey smoke into the murk and fished the can of Special Brew from the pocket of his dirty overalls.
“Hair of the dog,” he muttered, taking a deep swig as he watched the funeral.
The vicar’s words were snatched away by the wind, the sparse crowd gathered together against the weather, a black blanket looming over the open grave.
A glance at his watch–half an hour to opening time.
He touched the peak of his cap as the hearse drove past. “Righto,” he said as the small procession wound its way down the hill. He’d be half way done before Joe and Gwyn got there at this rate.
Leech gulped down the last of his beer, belched and slogged his way up the hill to the grave. Tossing the cigarette into the hole, he rolled back the patch of turf that failed to hide the mound of earth.
Rivulets of loamy soil trickled on to the coffin.
“Wassat?” hissed Leech, peering into the hole.
It came again, an urgent scratching sound. He frowned, his blood-shot eyes struggling to focus.
“Bloody rats,” he said.
He’d been after the buggers for weeks now. The better part of the morning had been spent tossing their stiff corpses into the bins that dotted the hilltop cemetery. He was slowly winning the battle, but the buggers could breed.
“Filthy little bastards,” he said.
He picked up his spade and drove it into the moist earth. The blade sliced easily through the soil. He grunted as he tossed the first spade full onto the coffin. It landed with a thump of finality that made him shiver.
The scratching came again, more insistent this time, and it seemed to emanate from the mound of earth. Leech walked around it, his feet slipping in the mud.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
The valley was shrouded in low cloud and he watched the rain being driven in vertical sheets along it, muting the colours to drab greys and sludgy greens.
Leech opened another beer, throat bobbing as he gulped the sweet liquid. Finished, he belched, tossed the empty into the hole and clambered to the top of the mound, feet sinking into the ooze.
Shovel, throw, shovel; throw. It was a rhythm he knew well.
The soil gave a lurch and he dropped the spade, arms wheeling for balance.
“Shit,” he muttered, as the motion stopped.
The rain drove at him, slamming in to his overalls like buckshot, the first pint looking more appealing.
“Get it done, Leechy boy,” he said, bending to pick up the spade.
That was when he heard it again. A frantic; industrious scratching from beneath him. The mud began to move. Over-balanced, his feet shot out from the cloying earth. For a moment he saw the name on the coffin lid and then, slam, he hit it, face first.
Pain shot through him and he sucked in soil as he cried out.
He coughed, spat–mud mixed with blood from a broken nose.
“Bastard,” he groaned.
Leech made to lever himself up, but his hands found no grip on the slick surface. He slammed back down, yelped as a weight settled on his back. His mind supplied the image of a hungry rat. More weight, the tickle of wet earth on his neck.
“Oh, boy, I’m in trouble now.”
He fought to turn himself over, trying to ease his breathing, but the confines of the grave hemmed him in. His fingers clawed at the moist sides, clumps of mud oozing between his grasping digits, increasingly desperate, tearing great chunks out of the walls of the grave.
More weight settled on his thighs.
Scratch, scratch. Thump. Scratch, scratch. Thump.
His breath exploded out as the weakening mound shed itself into the grave. Struggling for breath, Leech turned his head, saw grey sky, mud–a long leathery tail.
“No,” he wheezed.
The rat turned and peered in to the grave, its whiskers twitched with what looked like amusement as it regarded Leech pinned beneath the mud. Then another appeared, then another. They stared down at him with their hateful little eyes.
“Please,” he gasped. Muddy water lapped against his cheek, a cold kiss.
Dimly he heard the sound of an engine. The lads were coming. He began to struggle against the weight that pinned him in the grave. Above him the rats turned to the mound and began to dig, their muddied paws digging easily in to the soft soil. Leech blinked as thick earth rained down onto his face. Watched as a large section of the mound sheered away, closed his eyes, felt the impact on his face. The feel of the wet earth on his face galvanised him, but as much as he swam through the mud, more landed on him, each thump driving him back onto the coffin, each clod burying him further, until he could move no more.
The engine drew closer, the sound muffled now. Darkness hemmed him in, weight pushed against his ribs.
“Where’s the hell’s Leech, Joe?”
He didn’t catch the answer, heard only their laughter.
He struggled against the weight, but it pushed down on him, each breath was an effort, teeth filtering out thick mud.
“Half job Harry’s probably pissed off down the pub again. At least he’s done some of the digging for us this time.”
Their laughter came to him through the thick earth. He tried to dig, to let them know he was trapped. Fingers grasping at thick earth, he tried a scream. Mud slicked into his mouth.
“What was that, Gwyn?”
“Probably rats, Leech reckons they’re murder up here. Come on, let’s get this one filled in proper. We got another two to dig before we finish, and old Leechy’s probably propping up the bar already.”
Brett J Cryer lives in South Wales and has recently started submitting stories. He tries to give a local feel to his stories. So far he has had one story accepted by All Hallow’s.