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Fiction Horror

There was something that Poppy found appealing about what she termed proper graveyards. A proper graveyard wasn’t one of those beautifully kept gardens of remembrance abutting some crematoria. They were lovely to look at, but too sanitised for her, too neatly organised and with too many prohibitions and prescriptions, and she thought they didn’t feel that much different from any other beautifully tended gardens. As for those natural burial grounds, well, in principle, having vaguely green leanings, she whole-heartedly approved of them, but couldn’t help thinking people might just as well have their ashes scattered on the sea or in the woods, or on the pitch of their favourite football team, if they allowed it. Admittedly it might be tricky if a person wanted to be buried rather than cremated.

     What Poppy liked were those slightly over-grown graveyards, often outside squat stone country churches, where large stones now at a rather precarious angle and with rather florid angels, shared their territory with those modern, modest stones that almost seemed to apologise for being there. The kind of graveyard that some folk called God’s Own Acre, though sometimes it seemed that they had more to do with nature than piety. 

     She was not necessarily sentimental about such things. When she saw those sad little lists of child after child called to the Lord, she felt a mixture of anger and melancholy and had no wish whatsoever to live in such times. But even in the oldest sections of these graveyards, there were still people who had lived to a ripe old age. Life had never been fair and it still wasn’t. 

     Poppy could never quite make up her mind if she relished solitude in the graveyards that were most to her liking, or if she had a wish for company. She remembered that an aunt of hers, who now lay in such a graveyard, had once lived next to one – not the same one – and had joked that at least the neighbours were quiet, though sometimes adding, whether just as a stock phrase or calling on someone or something to make it so, “And here’s hoping they stay that way.”

     Though she had made a will, Poppy had not yet left any instructions or requests concerning her own funeral. She was still relatively young (though the box she ticked when an age range was required recently seemed to have dropped down the list!) and, so far as she knew, in reasonably good health. She would get round to it.

     When she went on holiday or had weekends away, she did not (so she insisted) hunt out places where there would be some interesting proper graveyards, but it was always nice to discover that there were a couple on offer. 

     She was spending a long weekend in Suffolk. It wasn’t that far away from where she lived in Lincolnshire, but still had what she thought of as a different feel to it. For a break of any length, she much preferred self-catering, but she had booked into a solid, unpretentious pub on the market square that also offered rooms. Their own website had described them as comfortable but not fancy, and that was just what Poppy liked. The Axe and Cleaver would do very well. They weren’t busy and she had time for a chat with Esther, the friendly barmaid who was doubling up as receptionist. She was delighted to discover that Esther shared her fascination with Proper Graveyards though she still couldn’t work out how the conversation got round to it. “Listen, it’s entirely up to you,” she said, “But it’s the anniversary of the day my Grandpa died, and I’m taking some flowers to his grave tonight – would you like to come with me? It’ll be quite late, as I’m working until nine, but you can still see quite clearly from the lights on the road, and there’s a full moon.”

     “I’d be honoured,” Poppy said. It did cross her mind that she doubted if Esther’s Grandpa would have minded her being one day late or early, but there were people who placed importance on that kind of thing, which was fair enough. She’d definitely made a good choice of hotel! Others had humoured her about her fondness for proper graveyards, but she had a feeling that Esther was, well, and she smiled at the unintentional pun, a kindred spirit. Instinct told her that even if it hadn’t been the anniversary of her Grandpa’s demise, the kindly doyenne of the Axe and Cleaver would still have loved such places just as much as she did. She was determined not to be childish and waste her time and just wish the minutes away until the trip to the graveyard, and visited the local museum, and had an indifferent cup of coffee and a rather tasty slice of lemon drizzle cake in a café on the market square, but kept looking at her watch. Then she took her watch off and kept looking at the display on her phone, though of course she would switch if off in the graveyard. There was such a thing as showing respect. Talking of respect, she wondered if it would be appropriate to get a little spray of flowers herself to put on Esther’s Grandpa’s resting place. Finally she decided against it.

     She came down to the reception area just before the time they’d agreed to meet up and make their way to the graveyard, but stayed discreetly in the background. Well, at least as discreetly as you could in a small lobby. Esther saw her any way, and gave her quite a cheery wave, shouting, “Just a minute, Poppy, I’ll get my coat on!” It was the kind of evening that doesn’t look too cold when you’re inside, but Poppy was glad she had her own very warm coat on, too. Esther was carrying a huge bunch of lilies; the kind of real ones that sometimes look more artificial than the artificial type. Perhaps oddly, for someone who liked proper graveyards, Poppy wasn’t that keen on lilies. Something about that slightly waxy texture was unpleasant. But she couldn’t deny that they were beautiful, and realised that Esther must really have loved her grandpa.

     Poppy could tell even from a distance that the graveyard at St Brendan’s was definitely the type she liked most, sprawling out as it did around the church of that name on the outer edge of the town. But she was surprised when she realised that Esther was leading her towards the old part of the graveyard, the part where there were long lists of dead children on arched stones at a precarious angle, watched over by angels who, somehow, in the vaguely menacing metallic glow of a full moon, didn’t look quite so angelic as they would in the daylight. They had moved away from the road, but the aftermath of phosphorescent yellow lozenge lights still fell in shadowy shafts across the graveyard. 

     “I think there’s something especially atmospheric about the old graves,” said Poppy, then wondered if she had put her foot in it as, presumably, Esther’s Grandpa lay under one of the modern, marble, miniaturised variety. Esther only nodded, and said, “Yes. I’m glad somebody else understands. He’s just over this little ridge, tread carefully as the ground’s a bit rough.”

     Poppy obediently trod carefully. Just because she loved proper graveyards that didn’t mean that she wished to break her ankle in one of them. But the awareness that there was something not quite right about this was seeping into her mind as the night air seeped through that coat that had seemed so warm. “Er – how long ago did your grandpa pass away?” she asked, trying to sound casual. Poppy wouldn’t have thought that there was such a thing as an apologetic laugh, but if there was, she heard one now. Or did she? “I may as well own up, Poppy, I say Grandpa because it’s handier, and saves too many explanations, but really it’s my three times great grandfather.”

     “Oh, I see,” said Poppy, not quite sure if she did. She was all for family history and was forever meaning to do more research into her own, and maintaining old family graves was a perfectly decent and laudable thing to do. But something about trips to the graveyard in the moonlight with huge bunches of waxy lilies (and suddenly their perfume on the night air was almost sickly) was another matter. But she carried on trotting along beside Esther, telling herself that she would remember this her whole life long as an experience.

     “Here we are,” said Esther. She got out a torch, and Poppy wondered why she hadn’t got it out before, but didn’t say anything. She shone it on an arched gravestone that had no angels adorning it, and no list of names of dead children. The inscription read:

Josiah James Carlton

1840-1880

He Faces Another Judge Now

God Have Mercy on his Soul

Poppy thought of commenting on the rather cryptic inscription, but just said, “He died young.” She knew that if someone survived infancy, it was a fallacy that everyone in bygone days died young. In what bits and pieces of family research she had done she knew that her own great grandfather had lived to be in his 90s.

“It was not a natural death,” Esther said, her tone somehow sing-song and resentful at the same time, as if she were a schoolgirl reciting a poem she had recited many times, but that still moved her. “He had escaped from the prison, the prison they said nobody could escape from, out on the marsh behind the stone wall, escaped the day before he was to be hanged. But though he escaped the hangman’s noose, he couldn’t escape the bullets.”

     That was the sort of remark that you didn’t have a ready reply to. Somehow just to say, “I see,” again would have been wholly insufficient. “There must have been a terrible miscarriage of justice,” she said.

     Esther laughed again, but this time the laugh was not remotely apologetic. “Oh, bless your trusting heart. No, there was no miscarriage of justice. He murdered Daniel Rowe. He admitted to it, he had no time for lying and subterfuge, and thought he got what he was due. He was sure that he’d been having his way with Edna, that was Josiah’s wife, my three times great grandmother. She always swore it was untrue. Perhaps we’ll never know. But there were people who saw it, who said that it was almost as if whether Daniel and Edna had been lovers didn’t matter. He had that joyful look in his eyes, that look as if he’d finally found the fulfilment of his life and the only thing that makes him happy, as he swung the axe. And he carried on swinging it, and hacking away, long after Daniel Rowe was dead. Some of the witnesses reckon that he was humming a tune as he did – The Grand Old Duke of York. This isn’t his only memorial, of course. Though why it isn’t just called the Axe, I’m not sure. Probably because adding on the stuff about the Cleaver makes it sound more like a pub’s name should.”

     Coming nearer to them, Poppy heard someone humming. The kind of humming that never gets beyond the first line of a tune. And that tune was The Grand Old Duke of York. Turning round, though it was the last thing she wanted to do, she saw a man in Victorian clothing, swinging an axe, and with a bloodstained coat. She fled headlong, not caring how rough the ground was.

     They told her in the hospital that she had been very lucky, though she might not feel that way. Her ankle was badly sprained, but not broken, and thanks to a late night dogwalker with a taste for the vaguely macabre, not to mention a pampered Bichon Frise who led a fantasy life as a rescue dog, she was found in time to avoid succumbing to hypothermia. 

     “But you really should leave off the wandering round graveyards after dark,” the nurse strapping up her ankle said. “Especially by yourself.”

     “I wasn’t by myself!” she objected, and shaken and vaguely disoriented as she was, she knew that she must not mention Josiah. “Esther from – from the pub –“ (she couldn’t quite bring herself to name the name) was with me.”

     The nurse hurriedly rearranged her face, and said, “Don’t fret, Poppy, we’ve given you some strong painkillers, and they can play tricks with your mind, especially if you’ve been listening to some of the locals who – well, who won’t let things drop.” It was plain that the nurse, kind as she was, intended telling her no more, and she had the perfect, and entirely truthful, excuse, of attending to another patient, and one, who, presumably, wasn’t taking up the NHS’s valuable time as a result wandering around a graveyard after dark.

     But her neighbour on the ward (she was being kept in for one night for observation, just to make sure that there was definitely nothing seriously wrong, and, presumably, to let the effects of the drugs wear off) was more forthcoming. “It takes a brave woman to stay in the Axe and Cleaver,” she said, “Frankly I sometimes wonder why they don’t just bite the bullet – if you’ll pardon the expression – and cash in on it, because they’re struggling to stay in business anyway.” She didn’t need much persuading. Three years ago, the barmaid and receptionist, Esther Hawthorne, had taken a gun to her faithless husband, before turning it on herself. She had clung on for a few minutes, and her last words were, “It should have been an axe. I’m sorry, Grandpa Josiah.”

October 28, 2020 07:04

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2 comments

AJ Hensley
21:15 Oct 28, 2020

Great story Deborah! The last sentence gave me chills. I also really enjoy your choice in names. I always imagine "Poppy" to be a very bright, happy, sweet individual but pairing such a name with such a dark story made the reading experience a lot of fun. Great job!

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B. W.
18:13 Oct 28, 2020

Hey, i think that this was a great story and that you also did a pretty good job with it ^^ I'll give this a 10/10 :)

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