The End of the Road
The road was hemmed in by thick dry-stone walls tangled in ivy. Half-bricks and smashed tiles were embedded in the rutted track. Clem belched and I tried not to breathe. The heater was stuck on, blowing scorched dust through the vents.
‘You don’t know where we’re going.’
Rain was threatening. We hadn’t much daylight.
‘Not a bloody clue.’
I dug my nails into the steering wheel. Clem was sucking Coke through a straw, poking and rattling the ice cubes in the paper cup.
‘You finished?’ I said.
We’d driven another half hour in silence when I spotted the turning. I couldn’t say the name. I had to check the letters against the ones I’d scribbled on the fag packet. Clem stared out wild-eyed. He was looking at the crooked hawthorns.
‘They’re all facing one way.’
‘It’s the wind,’ I said.
Clem shook his head. ‘They’re praying.’
I scanned the fields for the chapel. We passed standing stones and a burnt-out car. Someone had left a slashed mattress at the roadside. I had to change down into first as bricks and fist-sized pebbles bumped the tyres and wrestling the steering.
Clem wound down the window and hawked. ‘I haven’t come this far for sightseeing.’
We crawled on, the engine choking in first. There was a dog-leg between banks of gorse. It was so narrow you could reach out and touch the stones.
‘You’ve got us lost.’ Clem spat. He got out and slammed the door, shaking the van. I climbed onto the dry-stone wall. There, beyond the gorse and the sheep, was the little stone chapel.
Ezekiel Thomas Roberts, d. June 14, 1887
Clem started hopping from tomb to tomb. I started by the gate and took a line at a time, ignoring the modern-looking shiny marble for the weathered stones. The wind had scorched the names and dates from the ones facing west.
‘Whose idea was this?’
‘The man who’s paying you,’ I said.
In the corner of the churchyard I saw a lone grave beyond a patch of nettles.
‘It’s here. Bring your spade.’
Clem bounded over, crunching through gravel and dead flowers. Clem began to scrape away the gravel. I took out the tarpaulin and stretched it out on the grass. Clem shovelled gravel onto it. Soon he’d scraped away to a layer of peat. Clem lit another cigarette as the light began to fade. Clem took the last drag of his cigarette and cut into the earth, stamping the spade deep with his heel. I kept watch on the lane.
‘Nice work,’ I said.
Clem was three feet deep. He gave me a withering look. I took a wander to check the farm. The few cottages back along the lane were in darkness. The shadows fell longer from the yew and the hawthorn. I don’t mind saying I quickened my step.
Clem greeted me with a sneer, muttering something about finding a pub. He wiped the sweat from his brow and smeared peat across his cheek. He lit a cigarette, watching me all the time. I glanced at my watch. He jigged his feet, scuffing the wood beneath, doing a little stamp on the coffin. I fetched the tool bag and dropped it onto the coffin lid.
‘Let’s get on, eh?’
Clem got to his knees, unscrewed and cracked the lid. He lifted it and soil slid into the darkness.
‘That better be packed with cash,’ Clem said.
A small, battered leather case like a school satchel sat in the bottom of the coffin.
‘Did you know about this?’
I shook my head slowly. Clem took the case and began to unfasten the buckle.
‘No,’ I said, holding out a hand, ‘Mr Crawford wants me to do that.’