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Note: The Cross Bones yard in Redcross Way was a dumping place for unwanted bodies for around 500 years. It is currently empty. London Underground would like to sell off the valuable land for use as office blocks.
“The pay is thirty four pound- from 6pm through to eleven the next morning”
Sally Benson was impressed. Two pounds an hour! Peak Freans, where she normally worked, paid £1 4s a day.
[private]The man was called André Ferryman. He was smart and fat with a small moustache and bowler hat. More than anything he looked like Oliver Hardy. “Thirty four pound” he repeated. “In your hand.”
“But what does she ‘ave to do?” Dad asked again.
“As I said, it’s a novelty. ‘Modern Lazarus’ we call it. We shut her in a coffin- but your young lady aint scared of that so you says.”
Sally shook her head vigorously. Some people were batty. They were terrified of heights, spiders, undertakers, even walking under ladders…. “I’m scared of dying and toothache.” She said firmly. “I aint scared of your box- Just so long as it’s not one of them iron maidens- you know, with the spikes.”
André’s moustache twitched and she saw he wanted to smile. Dad didn’t notice. “One night only.” André assured him. “Thirty four pound.”
“How’s she supposed to breathe?” he asked.
“Hidden tube. It’s quite safe. We had a lady does it twice a week- rain and shine eh. Charming lady.”
“So what happened to her?” Sally demanded.
Andre met her eye, and bowed slightly. “She’s… in the family way, miss. We couldn’t shut the lid if you know what I mean. So when I heard your daddy mention you…”
Sally looked across. Dad looked bemused. He was strong, a waterman who rowed people to and from the ships in his wherry. He had fingers big as bananas, and a mouth to match, but he couldn’t think straight about things like this.
“I’ll do it for cash upfront.” Sally held out her hand to shake André’s. “See you tomorrow night.”
“Don’t miss the Ferrymen’s Famous River Fair- Redcross Way- See! The hilarious Doll Family! The extraordinary Bermondsey Dwarf! The mysterious horsleydown mermaid! Be horrified by the Queen Rat! The long-tongued Lime Lady! AND…The modern Lazarus! See miracle-worker Professor André cheat death- See the woman buried before your eyes on Saturday, bought back to life on Sunday!”
The generator stood in the centre of the yard, flywheel still. A couple of men were feeding cables towards a festoon of lightbulbs. Penny booths and stalls were half-up… gambling tents, a shooting range, grossly coloured signs proclaimed the Queen Rat and the Walworth Dwarf.
“Barmy place to have a funfair.” Sally said to André. “Thought this place was a church land- or something.”
“Land’s land.” Andre shrugged. “We used to have a friend in the London county council. He got us Southwark Park last time. But he copped it.”
“Couldn’t you bring him back to life?”
Andre grinned. “You’re too good for a biscuit factory, love. Here we are.”
“It’s tragic when they’re so young, eh? I can see you’re a compassionate lot. My friend here has a hankie for those who needs it. This here young lady was Sally Benson. Local girl. Sweet nature. But none of us knew she had this condition of the heart- very rare. Situational Coronary Narcolepsy. And breakfast time Thursday, just like that, she drops face-down-dead in ‘er porridge. Yes ladies and gentlemen, on my life, she’d dead as a keg of rocks. Just look for yourselves. And for them who don’t believe their own eyes- maybe even you will believe six foot of solid earth.”
Sally lay in the coffin, eyes closed. André had taken her through the act thoroughly, explaining everything. In a second she was going to be touched.
“Anyone who wants to take a closer look, now’s yer chance.”
His big dirty thumb pulled back her eyelid. Sally lay limply, thinking of thirty-four quid. Easy money for a girl with guts.
A lamp swung over her face. Beyond the lamp she caught a glimpse of the inside of the tent. It was dark of course, and it stank- aftershave, booze and fags. The afternoon show was for women and kids, but tonight was the main attraction, and the tent was packed with men. “It’s a shilling tonight.” Andre had explained, winking. “But a pound each come Sunday morning.”
Sally didn’t move.
“From the dust we come, to the dust we return.”
That was Andre, closing the top. Panic overwhelmed her. Seventeen hours in a box!
Crack-crack-crack went the hammer, painfully loud. By wriggling a bit, she got fingers in her ears. Her heart cantered. In the tent above, André placed the last nail. Three more thumps and it was secure. Then, with a lurch, the coffin dropped into its hole.
It was completely black inside. Sally continued to gasp, fish-like, trying to gain control. Deep breaths, Andre said, and slow. There’s plenty of air.
A heavy rattle told her that the first clod of earth was in. Sally squeezed her eyes shut. All those deep breaths were making her dizzy. Another spadeful of earth fell. Sally held her jaw firm. She wasn’t such a sop as that.
More earth fell, and more. Gradually the clatter became more distant. Peace pressed reassuringly from all directions, and Sally began to relax. Her body was loose, that was a blessing, and she wasn’t prone to cramp. With a bit more wriggling, she found the small bag of toffees André had put in her jacket pocket.
It was warm down there. The lid was two inches from her nose. Bloody lovely.
Gradually Sally became aware of countless tiny tickles. Just so long as we’re not on an ant’s nest, she thought, squeezing her toes in and out. Five minutes later she realised that she was thirsty.
The clean mossy rot of earth filled her nostrils.
Bloody queer place to have a funfair, she thought again. Bermondsey was full of bombsites, but this wasn’t one of them. It was just a bit of empty ground, nothing on it. Like a spare piece of London. Then, suddenly, she remembered.
When they were kids they called it ‘the old cross bones’ and said you shouldn’t go in. Later they found out it was an excommunicate graveyard. A resting place for nameless bodies. Bodies who weren’t welcome in a proper churchyard. Thieves and fences. Heathens and witches, abortions, mobsters and prostitutes.
They gathered around her.
Sally heard a voice speaking. It was muffled, but definite. Must be André, shouting through the breathing-hole. “How did you get on?” she called back, meaning ‘how much money did you take?’
The box pushed her words back in her face.
“André?” she repeated. “André? André?”
There was no reply.
“Hello?!” she shouted. She wasn’t supposed to be noisy of course, but it didn’t seem to matter. Her voice was stuck in the casket with her. After a few more fruitless yells she fell silent. Then she heard it again; a voice, muffled but definite.
its our garden
“Who are you?” she whispered.
The voice whispered back.
sisters and brothers fathers and mothers sons and daughters
Sally had never felt her own life as powerfully as she did at that moment. Blood surged through her veins. Breath rushed into her throat. Her lips formed the words without sound. “Do you live down here?”
we don’t live
“I’m sorry” Tears started to run from her eyes, sideways into her hair. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
its our garden
Sally couldn’t stop the crying. It was as if all the tears that had never been shed for these dead people were being wept now through her eyes.
you can cry until your eyes burst
They surrounded her. Men and women, children and babies, piled on top of each other, layered and mixed. Snatches of hopes rags of fear, of passion and of love seamed the ground like coal. “Let me out!” she screamed. “Dig me up!” But Andre didn’t hear her.
“When did you die?” Sally asked. “What’s your name?”
But there was no reply. They weren’t people any more. All mixed together in a cake of silence. An hour went by.
Thirst returned, worse than ever.
She hadn’t drunk much beforehand, scared of weeing in the coffin. Slowly, Sally pulled out a second toffee, and started to suck. It made things worse. Her mouth was gummy and acidic.
An hour passed, or maybe less. Sally felt the wedge of notes, where she’d hidden them, in the elastic of her pants. Her thoughts went around in her head.
“What do you do down here?” she asked through sticky lips. The answer came back, distinct and still.
“Do you ever get thirsty?”
There was no reply. Her throat was hurting. Suddenly Sally knew that she would give back every one of those pound notes right now, for a single drink of water.
“Can you help me?”
The reply was indistinct.
“Please help me,” she lisped. “I need some water. Please. I beg you.”
The people heard her and came closer. As they came upon her, the earth started to penetrate her flesh. It filled her lungs and her eyes, it entered her ears and blood. The thirst was blotted out, the longing was gone, the tickles on her feet were killed stone dead. Sally came into the beautiful darkness of the garden and waited patiently.
At 10.30 on Sunday morning, a crowd was gathered in Redcross way. Men in caps and bowlers, men in trilbys and pork-pies. Some even had their sons, missing church for the spectacle. It was a golden August morning, the fireweed was starting to go to seed. It made white fluff which floated in the sunlight.
Andre opened the tent on the dot of eleven. He produced a spade, declaring. “Which of you strong young man will dig her up?”
A fellow came forward and set to digging. Spadeful after spadeful of soil was discarded around the edge of the plot. Everyone watched him work, breathing hard and sweating. No one spoke. Finally the lid of the coffin was revealed, the polished pine, the cheap brass fittings. “Now…” Andre announced. “Who here’s got a claw hammer?’
No one spoke.
“None of you? Then she’ll have to stay dead!”
A few men laughed uneasily. Andre pulled out the hammer, and with a practiced movement, levered out the nails one at a time. He lifted the lid. Everyone looked down to see Sally’s face.
There it was, very pale, eyes shut.
“Wake up.” Andre proclaimed. “Arise!”
With one dirty thumb, he pulled back her eyelid. Behind the lid was earth. With a snap, Andre drew back his hand.
That evening he decided to bury the body again. But first he remembered to take the thirty-four quid from her knicker-elastic. He had bills to pay. She wouldn’t need it anyway.[/private]