RESPECTING THE DEAD • by Paul A. Freeman

Daphne Mills, the sexton at St. Elijah’s Church, parked her white Ford van in front of the lych-gate. She opened the rear doors of the vehicle and manoeuvred a wheelbarrow out the back. Inside it she placed large swatches of Astroturf which she wheeled into the graveyard.

“Anyhow,” she said into her mobile phone’s headset, speaking to her friend Gloria who was on the other side of the village getting her children ready for school. “Steve says to me, ‘What bloody business is it of yours what time I get home from the boozer?’”

To emphasise Steve’s impertinence, Daphne spat out a wad of chewing gum. It struck a seventeenth century gravestone decorated with the skull-and-crossbones and bounced off into the overgrown grass.

“Cheeky bugger,” Gloria agreed, her voice as clear as tinkling ice in Daphne’s earpiece. “You need a new boyfriend. Steve’s all hassle and heartache.”

Daphne pushed the wheelbarrow towards a tarpaulin-covered mound of soil on the south side of the nave. A mechanical digger had excavated the grave beside it the previous day.

“Bloody right I need a new boyfriend,” she said, but was stayed from further comment by the gravestone she was passing. Its carved motif was an empty hourglass, signifying time up for the poor soul buried beneath. What was strange though, was that the gravestone had the words, ‘Respect the Dead’ inscribed on it.

Daphne blinked, shook her head to clear it and re-read the inscription. It now said, ‘Rebecca Stead’, the name of a long-deceased Victorian woman — ‘a spinster and beloved philanthropist’ according to nineteenth century records in the village museum.

Angry at the trick her mind had played on her, Daphne hawked up a glob of phlegm and spat it slap-bang into the middle of the hourglass.

Frowning, she continued on her way.

Her frown deepened when she caught sight of the shadowy figure of a woman. She was loitering in the shade of a sycamore tree at the head of the newly-dug grave. Daphne tried to make out the woman’s features, but they were hidden beneath a broad-brimmed, Victorian-style hat.

“You still there, peeps?” said Gloria.

Lowering her voice, Daphne said: “Yeah. A relative or friend of the deceased has already arrived. She’s skulking about like Countess bloody Dracula. Or maybe she’s one of the vicar’s faithful flock, checking up on me. Interfering cow!”

“What? Are you at the churchyard!” Gloria sounded incredulous, but soon saw the funny side.

“Mornin’!” Daphne said brusquely, as she prepared to ready the gravesite for the funeral later that day. She received no reply to her lukewarm greeting, however, and under her breath hissed: “Creepy bitch.”

From across the village Gloria sniggered into Daphne’s earpiece before signing off to drive her children to school.

At the grave site Daphne switched to an eighties music app on her phone and began removing the red-and-white tape and the steel rods cordoning off the perimeter of the excavation. She then pulled off the tarpaulin protecting the grave from rain and potential cave ins. Beneath the waterproof material were four planks, set out longwise beside one another. Their purpose was to prevent churchyard visitors and homeward-bound drunkards desperate for a pee from falling into the otherwise gaping hole. She lifted up the two central planks and placed them on top of the planks on either side of the grave, forming a secure base for the pall bearers to stand on when they lowered the coffin.

She returned to the wheelbarrow. One-by-one she took out the strips of Astroturf and set them down to cover the muddy ground around the four sides of the grave. The largest swatch she placed over the heap of earth removed from the excavation — soil that would later refill the hole.

When she looked up from her task, the mysterious figure in the broad hat was regarding her from the shadows of the sycamore tree. As though about to perform a magic trick in front of an entranced audience, the woman raised her hands, stretched out her ten bony fingers and made a palms-upwards rising motion.

Aware of muted scratching sounds all around her, Daphne switched off her music. She glanced about at the nearest graves, ones she herself had prepared and tended for in her trademark, slipshod manner during her tenure as sexton at St. Elijah’s. The centres of the graves were undulating, the surface soil pressing upwards, threatening to erupt.

A grey, leathery hand, its flesh desiccated, pushed through the dirt of a grave a few feet from Daphne. Amongst the other graves, other leathery, wrinkled hands pushed through the soil.

The rotted corpses rose, pulling themselves from their graves and advanced towards Daphne. As they surrounded her, the discontented muttering voices of the dead reverberated through Daphne’s head.

“She stomped over my grave taking a short cut…” said one.

“She laughed at my gravestone when they inscribed my nickname ‘Twinkie’ on it…” said a second.

“She pinched the flowers off my grave and put them in the vase in her dining room…” said a third.

As the dead crowded in on her, Daphne stepped back in horror from the skeletal bodies, gagging at the stench of putrefaction. Behind them, in the gaps between the spectres, she made out other graves giving up their dead, their yellowed corpses rising in a show of solidarity against Daphne’s disrespect.

“I’m sorry,” Daphne pleaded, tears of remorse smearing her face, unaware she had backed up to the edge of the newly prepared grave. “I’m sorry!”

She fell backwards, landing on her back, knocking the air out of her lungs. And as the corpses above tumbled in after her, she opened her mouth to scream.

When the vicar arrived to prepare for the day’s funeral, he was puzzled to find Daphne’s wheelbarrow beside an already filled in grave. Stranger still, when he tried to call her number, he heard the muffled ringtone of a cell phone coming from somewhere beneath his feet.

Paul A. Freeman isn’t very keen on cats and expects to be rated accordingly.

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