Luella lamented that seventy-one was too old to receive the news about Cross Bones Cemetery, with its dead poking out of the ground. The family lawyer, Arthur Barrows, had come to her townhouse one evening last week and in his usual mordant manner informed her that due to the new Burial Act, a symptom of the epidemic that had seen so many riding old Charon’s ferry-boat down the Thames of late, that her Uncle Auley was marked for exhumation.
Thousands had fallen to the ‘blue death’, spluttering their last in cramps, vomit and rice-water stools from the slums of Mile End to Portman Square. Death made no distinction between rich and poor, though that in itself was not the cause of her dismay. In a rustle of crinoline, she slumped into her invalid chair like an exhausted moth, then rang a bell for Maud to bring her a large glass of sherry. Hands shaking, she urged Barrows to furnish her with the details, the grim cause of her undoing, even while she detested the sound of them.
“Yes, yes,” she said, snapping her fan at him. “I read the Times. Apparently one can’t dig a new grave in London without cutting into an old one. The population hasn’t helped matters. This is rotten luck.” She didn’t want to show him how perturbed she was, for the sake of Maud, her nurse and companion, more than anything else. “Can’t we have him removed to one of the new cemeteries at Nunhead or Camberwell?”
“I’m afraid not, madam.” Barrows, the grey at his temples matching his pallor these days, gave a grimace of unease. “Sir Chadwick’s influence, while unpopular, still looms large. It’s nigh on impossible to secure a burial within the city limits. It’s said that the decay is filtering into our water supply. Imagine that! We’re drinking the dead.”
Luella had been unable to spare Maud, after all, the girl paling and leaning against the doorframe.
“Goodness,” she said, crossing herself. “I heard there are bodies stacked up under the arches, ma’am. It’s ghastly.”
“There is, however, a solution.” Barrows offered a lukewarm smile. “The necropolis out at Woking Common. Brookwood. They’ve already overseen their first funeral. Stillborn twins. The plan is to dig up the . . . excess and bear the coffins by train to the site. Rather ingenious, wouldn’t you say?”
Luella wouldn’t, because a sudden fear gripped her and she needed another shot of sherry.
“Good Lord. Tell me his coffin lies undisturbed!”
Barrows, who’d softened his report of bones in the topsoil and the sweet-sour stench that was drifting through the windows of tea rooms and offices in Southwark, loosened his cravat, his morbid enthusiasm having run away with him. Courtesy of his father, he’d doubtless heard the rumours about the Crakepole family as most of her employees had.
“As far as I’m aware, madam, your uncle remains interred face down in a pauper’s grave, with no official deed and no headstone.” He shuddered, perhaps at the illegality, reminding her of his father that night forty years ago, faced with the unthinkable. Oh, Walter. How I miss you. “Nevertheless, father recorded the plot and—”
“And the amulet?”
She spoke in a distracted wheeze; there was no way that Barrows the Younger could know about the relic unless he’d dug up her uncle himself, which was of course ludicrous. In her mind, a terrible thumping, a terrible twitching, circled like an angry ghost . . . The lawyer looked at his shoes and declined to respond.
Ah, but you heard about it, all right.
Frustrated, she commanded Maud to wheel her into the drawing room so she could search for the record in her escritoire. Damn her old wound and the mahogany monstrosity it had consigned her to! Had she full use of her legs, she’d be running through the rain to Cross Bones this instant, checking the grave was intact for herself.
The date had been set in January. Today was the ninth to be exact, a miserable morning south of the river with winter in the air and her joints, the blanket spread over her knees not quite enough to warm her. Maud, a poor lamb in cape and hood, had joined Luella and Barrows at the graveside as the men dug and the priest in attendance—present at Luella’s insistence—muttered prayers and sprinkled holy water. Truth be told she’d insisted on all her own labour, and at some expense, refusing to leave the matter to either the London Necropolis Company or the County Council. To this end, she’d parted with eighteen shillings for the three ‘coffin tickets’ and a pound for the coffin itself aboard the grim sounding ‘Death Line’ to Surrey. Brookwood was to be Auley George Crakepole’s final resting place—hopefully, a permanent one. As such she’d made her arrangements. No public nod to decency. A private one to safety.
She would draw no attention to the matter and there was no one to invite. She was perfectly aware that only Barrows Sr. and herself had attended her uncle’s original funeral and there was no one left alive who would mourn him. How could she forget? The ceremony they’d held on this spot forty years ago had been nigh on occult, sweeping the horrors under the rug . . .
Oh, but I thought this business was done. Every shovelful of dirt seemed to land on her eyelids, forcing them closed like old pennies. Sleep, you bastard. Soon I will be joining you.
She hoped, leaning on Maud under leafless trees, that the Reaper would not bear her soul to the same destination. Unlike her mother’s passing, she had placed no obituary in the Post, no ‘black-plumed knight, with his silent hand, has loosened from its earthly moorings another of life’s frail barques . . . ’ What purpose would it serve? Auley’s burial was secret and no one who’d known him in life would share its sentiments anyway. More likely, they’d wish to lash the rump of the chevalier’s steed in question, urging it on into Hell.
It took less than twenty minutes for the hired hands to strike the coffin, a sound like a headman’s axe. So much for haste, she thought. We should’ve buried him deeper. Mercifully, she’d seen her uncle into the ground long before the graveyard swelled to breaking point, disgorging the dust of whores and the skulls of beggars, which dated back six hundred years or more. It was a paltry patch of ground for the son of a colonel who’d fought alongside Wellesley. Had society learnt of his burial, they’d have noted Luella’s parsimony. She could have afforded a mausoleum in Highgate. Yet no one had known and what good a mausoleum when no one, including herself, wanted to remember?
“Faugh!” She placed a handkerchief over her nose as a spade broke through rotten wood, lying underground these last four decades. An odour like faecal matter and vinegar wafted from the pit. “Careful, you bull calves. Don’t you know what you’re dealing with?”
Maud squeezed her arm, a gesture more for the girl’s own comfort, she thought, and the men in the ditch both blanched a degree. Barrows had told them enough—it was best to spare folk the details—and let the superstitions of ‘the great unwashed’ do the rest. One digger set aside his spade, crossed himself and began the business of inspection as instructed.
Luella, despite her better judgement, leant in on her cane for a closer look. One of the men gave a croak, gagging, and through a crack in the coffin lid she made out the dome of Uncle Auley’s head, or at least the back of it. It looked like a melon left out in the sun, more veins in it than strands of hair, all that was left of his greasy white locks. According to Barrows, it took ten to fifteen years for a body to rot down to bones, yet he’d wanted to prepare her regardless. Now she clutched the cross at her breast, realising that she wasn’t looking at a skull. The bastard wore flesh still, wormy, pallid and purple, and had Maud or the workers known the exact date of his burial—when ‘Prinny’ still sat the throne and they’d just begun work on the new London Bridge—all three would have screamed and run. Then came an ache that she supposed was relief, catching the glint of silver in the dirt. The amulet, the locket that Madam Baumann had blessed for her all those years ago, was still in place on the corpse, fastened around her uncle’s neck and lying on one tattered shoulder.
Barrows coughed. Luella nodded, trying to rub warmth into her hands. Silently, she swore that this was the very last day that she would think about Auley George Crakepole.
Then the hearse was at the gates, the horses steaming, and it was time to ride to Cemetery Station.
Luella was nine years old when she first met her Uncle Auley. A veiled crow in her weeds, she took her seat in the carriage reserved for Crakepole, the whistle blowing and the locomotive creaking out of Waterloo. Gazing out the window, the mist made bones of the ships on the river, too much like fingers poking from the earth.
It was a world away. The other end of life.
The necropolis train, a green-and-black dragon puffing steam, drew the passengers and the dead while Luella drew on her memories. She wished, with every bump and sway along the track, that decorum had allowed her to ride in the car with the coffins, the sachet of lavender she’d brought along to counter the reek of cadaverine and disinfectant lying useless in her purse. There were twelve bodies to every van, Barrows had explained, and here Death indeed did discriminate, the vans divided into first, second and third class respectively. And separated again by religion, Anglican or nonconformist.
Auley, for his sins, had been slid into place in the former.
“Heaven forbid,” the lawyer jested, “that the corpses should be seen to mingle! Could society bear such mafficking?”
The emptiness of the carriage did nothing to forestall the priest’s frown over his newspaper. Maud tsked at the impropriety while Luella glared through her spectacles, muttering that she shouldn’t be sat here among muttonheads but keeping watch over her uncle.
Defeated, she sank into black lace, her seat and the past.
Yes, it had been the summer of 1793 when Auley had returned from Barfleur where he’d served as a surgeon under Admiral Saumarez. Regrettably, a French cannon had blasted the Crescent belowdecks, shrapnel flying into his leg, and the somewhat portly gentleman had come to the townhouse on Lant Street with a limp and a request to convalesce, which Mama had solemnly granted. Her father, God rest his soul, had passed away three years before and his widow, who found work as a seamstress, had whispered that she could use a naval discharge pension to help with the mortgage although she’d skin Luella alive should she ever dare say so.
Luella, who liked to play in the garden with Misty her rabbit, could hardly blame Auley for his inimical air. In her crisp white pinafore and barley curls, she’d curtseyed and shaken his hand, suppressing a shiver at how clammy it felt and the thought of what use it had been put to in the war. The fact of his left eye, which bulged from his head as if frozen there by the terrible sights he’d seen, soon became something she tried not to think about in her bed at night. He was one of those curious fellows whose shoulders appeared to dwarf his head, which was always shrouded in pipe smoke, a fog in which he maintained a permanent leer. He gave her a grunt, then dismissed her forever, spending most of his time sequestered in the attic where Luella, on her mother’s strict instructions, wasn’t to bother him.
Instead, she played with Misty, feeding her carrots and tying pink ribbons around her ears. It might’ve been idyllic for a while. Soon enough, she grew used to her mother’s pinched expression, the way she’d mutter as she cleaned this or that plate or item of clothing left lying around by her younger brother. Once, Luella caught her mother scrubbing what looked like soil from a shirt in a bucket on the step—she hadn’t wanted the maids to see it, she’d hissed—and her knuckles, raw from lye, were enough to dissuade the girl from enquiring further.
Most nights, Auley would go bumping up the stairs past her bedroom after midnight, with a pall of tobacco and gin wafting under her door, a trailing odour of filth. As the floorboards creaked above her, a hunched and sodden weight, Luella would hold the covers over her nose until the smell dispersed and the noise faded into snores. A nine-year-old held no position to express dismay at the stranger in the house, the odd way he looked at her and his lack of conversation. A glance from her mother, her pursed lips, advised her to hold her tongue. She learnt not to interrupt their talk of the Revolution, the rise in smallpox and where Auley might find gainful employment. She ate all her meals in silence.
One day, however, she had cause for complaint.
“Mother! Misty has escaped!”
Pale and trembling, Luella had stood before the open cage on the veranda—an oversight she would never have made—gawping at the void left by her pet. All afternoon she’d searched, up and down Lant Street, knocking on doors, over as far as the fire station and the park. No one had seen her beloved Misty. There was no sign of a fluffy white scut or a ribboned ear in the scrub. Apples and calls failed to lure her. Her mother helped for an hour or so until duty called, the stitching of hems and sewing of buttons, the business of supper that eve. Misty was nowhere to be found.
“Perhaps she’s caught the last boat to glory, dear.” This said oh-so-gently, Mama holding her close as she sobbed. “Creatures . . . all creatures, Ella . . . I’m afraid that none of us last. Say a prayer now, there’s a good girl. We’ll get you a kitten come Christmas. What do you say?”
Luella didn’t want a kitten. She wanted Misty. And the next morning when she found the rabbit by the roadside, its fur speckled and neck broken, she’d screamed loud enough to bring the neighbours running. It must’ve been a horse-drawn coach, her mother said, holding her daughter once again.
“Such things happen, dear.” They had buried Misty in a stationary box at the bottom of the garden. “It’s God’s will.”
Come autumn, Luella learnt what God had in store for her, the years of trepidation ahead. Weeks passed and along with suffering Uncle Auley, who seemed to come later and drunker at night, she was warming to the idea of a cat. Perhaps it was the rain that woke her that chilly October morning. Or perhaps instinct drew her in her nightgown to the window, the dawn pressing against the glass. At first, she wasn’t sure what she was seeing in the garden, some bulky shadow crouched by the rockery, swaying back and forth. It was too large for a fox and a shocked circle of condensation formed under her nose when she saw him. Mother had asked her to watch out for him—he could wind up in a right old state when in his cups—and it was indeed her uncle, apparently locked outside on the lawn.
While the maids poked at embers in the hearths, Luella flew down the stairs and through the veranda, out into the rain. It barely crossed her mind that the doors were unlocked as she crept up on Uncle Auley, too timid to call out his name. One thing was certain, the man wasn’t sobbing, but eating, gnawing with some zeal at the object clutched between his fists. Soil covered his jacket and breeches, clawed from the hole in the ground. But not as much as the blood, splattering his grizzled cheeks and dripping down his chin. Still as the statue of Pan that overlooked the flowerbeds, it seemed easier for Luella to take in the details, the maggots that fell from his lips, the entrails dangling to the grass, than the fact of the rabbit he clutched. The stained pink ribbon on the grass.
Before she could scream, Auley’s eye was upon her, a fat, judgemental moon. It forced her onto her rump, dumbstruck on the grass, her head spinning.
“Breathe a word of this to your mam, lassie,” his warning was hoarse, made through red and horse-like teeth, “and I’ll take a bite of you too.”
“None of us last. She was wrong about that.”
It was Maud’s concern, the mouse of a girl peering across at her in the carriage, that wrenched Luella out of her reverie. The gentlemen present, the priest behind his paper, Barrows looking out the window as the smog gave way to fields and trees, pretended not to notice her, the babbling old spinster in their midst. How could she tell them that their neighbours in the Mint, the area around Lant Street, had come knocking that autumn, searching for budgerigars, dogs and cats, all mysteriously missing? Or how the girls at school spoke about the desecrated graves in Blackfriars and Lambeth, which couldn’t have been the work of ‘anatomists’ considering the mess left behind. How often she’d sat at the kitchen table, her uncle’s eye upon her, as Mother informed this or that caller that no, she hadn’t seen anything, sorry, while the secret—the awful, raging secret—had burned a hole inside her. Worse, when the front door closed, the fog and the sound of tears fading, how Mama had turned and given her brother one of her looks, stern yet fearful, and Luella had realised that Mama knew too.
“Ghosts.” She reached over and patted the girl’s knee. “That’s all, dear.”
Nor did she tell Maud that she was sat facing rearward to keep her eye on the van behind them. It was as close as she could get to a vigil.
The stationmaster had assured them that the journey to Brookwood only took an hour and Luella was praying for a swift reinternment. Once satisfied that all was in place, the corpse facing earthward, the amulet untouched, she’d travel back to London, procure a bottle of sherry and commence forgetting the whole dreadful business. Forty years of denial had been torn from her when Barrows had given her the news. She certainly hadn’t envisioned sitting on an ice-cold train at her age cursed with repeating the sparse yet necessary funeral of her hideous uncle. When the locomotive rolled to a halt to take on water, it hardly helped her mood.
“Heavens, what now? Will this day never end?”
“‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation,’” the priest murmured with a smile. Then, catching her gaze, he informed her that the diggers in Brookwood would surely wait and retreated again behind the Times.
Barrows, who knew his employee much better, stood and straightened his cravat.
“Bugger it, madam. I shall go and see how long this will take.” The lawyer was out the carriage door before Luella could protest, preferring the man by her side as a matter of honour, the promise she’d made to his father. “Perhaps there is tea,” he offered and then he was gone, vanishing into the steam from the idling engine.
Luella rested her head against her seat, her crucifix spinning between her fingers. She was remembering a respite, or perhaps she should call it an act of grace. A month before the Christmas of ‘93, her uncle found employment as a medical teacher at Oxford. The position came with lodgings and the distance was too great to commute so, like a black cloud lifting from Lant Street, Auley was gone from their lives.
Luella didn’t see him for another twenty one years.
In the spring of 1814, Auley came to her mother’s funeral.
Age had not improved him. Perhaps out of respect, Auley came late to Lant Street that damp evening in May. She’d hung a laurel wreath on the front door. Tomorrow morning, the hearse would come and cart Mama off to the funeral at St George the Martyrs. The wake allowed her friends and neighbours time to bid her farewell.
“Luella, my dear.”
“Oh!” Foolishly, it was all she could muster. “Oh.”
In top hat and tails, Auley had lacquered his wild grey locks and even shaved. It had done naught to assuage her shock when a maid ushered him into the drawing room. Guests had muttered and stared. Under his querulous eye, the new mistress of the house had done her best to dampen her grief and her shudder, and engage in causerie, however brief. How was life in Oxford? Could he ever forgive her for losing his address? The house had been in such a state since Mama’s illness . . . Somehow, she managed to embrace him with only her hands, maintaining a distance between her black velvet bust and his hunched, grumbling form. Luella had no idea how old he was—he still appeared hale despite his roughness, a matter that came back to haunt her—but she caught the definite whiff of gin under his cologne. That and the smell of earth, she thought.
Had she imagined it, the rabbit? Grief was confusing and so was the laudanum to help her sleep. When Mother had passed away of smallpox, Luella had put it in the Post. ‘The black-plumed knight, with his silent hand . . . ’ Her uncle must have found out that way, because she certainly hadn’t invited him.
The guests didn’t stay long. Luella wanted to think it was out of respect for her uncle’s visit; following his introduction and failed attempts at polite conversation, she knew they simply disliked being in the same room as him. She disliked it, her skin crawling, the dampness outside somehow creeping in. By the time the maid had seen the last guest out, Auley was standing by the casket in the drawing room, her mother painted and displayed as she had wished, the lamps a halo upon her silken pillow. Finding herself alone with him, Luella watched the wall of his broad, lopsided back, waiting in silence for his grief to come, some bestial roar that would shake the chandelier. Time stood still in the room; she’d had all the clocks stopped to mark her mother’s passing. The drapes were drawn and the mirrors turned to the walls, adding to her claustrophobia. How she wanted to loosen her collar, the lilies too sweet all of a sudden, and see the man out of her house.
Instead of tears, it was the house that Auley remarked upon.
“She left it to you, no doubt. Lant Street?”
“Those were her wishes, yes.”
“Ah, Beryl. No thought for where an old man might lay his head, eh?”
It was then she realised that Auley had swept up his sister’s hand, clasping it in his. Horrified, all thought of offering him port dashed from her mind, she hastened up behind him, her skirts rustling. Had she meant to reprimand him? Slam the coffin lid? She wasn’t sure what to make of his indecency, the limp white hand he presently gripped. When he turned his eye upon her, raw and liquid with grief, she could only shake her head, garble out the first words that came to her.
“For heaven’s sake, uncle. I’m sure we can give you a bed for the night.”
He gave a grunt. As if part of the bargain, Auley dropped Beryl Crakepole’s hand without a shred of ceremony. A leer returned to his lips.
“Did ye squeak something about a drink, lass?”
Hours later, Luella realised her error. Like the rain had awoken her decades ago, her eyes sprang open in the dark of her room, her breath a spectre in the murk. With no clocks to appraise her of the time, she hurried downstairs, the nine-year old girl in her nightgown again. Lamps were still aglow in the hall. On the bottom step, the smell of port and something else, a sweetness she knew but didn’t want to name, gave her pause. It was the wet, intent grinding sound, intermittent with the sobs, that propelled her first to the pantry where she fumbled for a minute in the dark. Then, on light feet, dread returned her to the drawing room door.
That was how she found them, Auley and Mama. Not one for decorum, her uncle had pulled the corpse out of the coffin, her embroidered robes settling around her on the floor, her crown of flowers askew. Cross-legged on the rug, Auley cradled his sister in his arms, her dishevelled hair not quite concealing the whiteness of her face. Luella might’ve thought he was rocking her back and forth, seeking comfort from one last embrace. Oh, if only! Instead—the unthinkable. Her heart dropped like a stone as she took in the corpse, the way he’d opened her navel to ribs, her bowels and her organs spilling to the floor, a slick harvest of human fruit. In a pool of blood, they sat, one of his fists greasy with fat and a surgical knife, the other holding her steady as he gnawed at her throat.
He looked up when he heard the hammer pull back to full cock. A spinster in London, according to the good Walter Barrows, should keep a rifle in the pantry at all times. She’d fumbled to load it, as she fumbled in the doorframe, shaking and pointing the muzzle at Auley.
There were no words for the occasion. Her uncle tried all the same.
“We’re together now, don’t you understand?” His mouth was a crimson mask, a door into Hell venting horrors. “Forever.”
Luella shot him through the head, adding further decoration to the room.
Part of Luella’s alarm when the locomotive shrieked and pulled off again, wrenching her from her memories, was the debt she owed to Barrows Sr. He’d helped her that night, running through the rain with the maid sent to fetch him, arriving within the hour at her door. Saints alive, madam! He’d found her weeping and mopping up the mess, locked behind the drawing room doors so the maid couldn’t see the carnage, the poor bewildered girl dismissed for the night. It had been Walter, the recently divorced and handsome doctor who’d been at her mother’s bedside, who cleaned and rearranged the deceased in the coffin, then helped Luella drag the grim bulk of Uncle Auley down into the cellar, telling her he’d return the next day with a delivery of quicklime, cover the stink while they thought what to do.
She hadn’t let him leave. Though he had a wee one at home and a censorious former wife, he also had nannies, she told him. Stay. Please . . . And after he’d bathed her too in the tub upstairs he’d held her shivering form until dawn, fathoming how they might escape the noose. Had Auley told anyone his plans? Twenty one years was a gulf that offered a sense of security, a comfort even if it was false. There was no question of notifying the constabulary; the constabulary may well not understand. Think of the scandal! In the warmth of her bedroom, there was little in the way of guilt on Lant Street. The word ‘murder’ never passed their lips. When their eyes met, the both of them knew the truth of the matter. A monster had come calling. Justice had answered.
Dearest Walter . . .
All these years later, Luella was stumbling to the carriage window and wailing at the engineman, the water-tender or anyone else in blazes who could hear her to stop the blasted train. Arthur Barrows, the son she’d hired fresh out of law school and sworn to protect had somehow been left behind. What stroke of ill fortune was this?
“Ma’am, please.” Maud was there, her hands on her shoulders. “There is naught can be done.”
“Oh dear,” the priest offered as the train picked up speed, the vans clanking in tow. “Your man will have to hire a horse, I’m afraid. Fear not, madam. Brookwood isn’t far. We’ll be nearing Necropolis Junction soon enough.”
Fighting back tears, Luella slumped into her seat, cursing herself for not bringing the sherry. Was every lurch of the train a punishment? The journey a stick to prod and remind her? And what, after so many years, had she learnt from the debacle? Only what Madam Baumann had told her, which was no comfort at all.
“Not all are welcome in the realm beyond, Ms Crakepole,” the famed German medium had said, her accent, usually so soothing for the seekers around her table, grim once the room had emptied, leaving the two of them alone. “We call them the sleepless and the damned. Ja, and there are those who feed upon the rest. Vultures. Necrophage. The old books refer to them as ghouls.” The woman shuddered, her bosom heaving, and she’d pressed the silver amulet into her petitioner’s hands. “I’m glad you came to me, Luella. Follow my instructions and that shall be the end of it. God willing.”
Only that some creatures last, yes. That is what she’d learnt.
“Ma’am? My, you look so pale.”
From the fog of forty years ago, Luella looked up at Maud and tried her best to offer a reassuring smile. Still, she couldn’t hide the fact that she was crying.
“The next day we covered him up. Sackcloth and powder in the cellar. Oh, Barrows . . . ”
Weighed down by the memory, Luella put her head in her hands.
Maud had misunderstood her.
“Arthur knows how to look after himself. Try to get some rest.”
“He came back, girl. He came back.”
He came back, her Uncle Auley. Luella couldn’t say, after all these years, how long it had lasted, that brief spell of peace on Lant Street. Two months? Three? Walter called on her most evenings. They would drink too much, laugh and engage in amorous congress. Avoid talk about the body in the cellar that at some point they both knew they must dispose of. No one had come asking questions. The funeral had proceeded without a hitch and no one had known that not all of Beryl Crakepole, deceased, had gone into the ground. Ashes to ashes . . . Then, one evening, Walter had appraised her of his own discreet findings. It seemed that Auley had been struck off at Oxford some years ago, an indiscretion at medical school that the local Journal deigned not to mention, and he had lived in the slums ever since, having narrowly avoided the clink.
It was in this sphere of relief that Luella existed, believing herself free and in love, until one Wednesday afternoon when Walter was at his practice and she at her sewing, picking up her mother’s old business more for something to do than any pressing financial matter. The maid was off duty for the day—a new maid since the other girl had resigned weeks ago—and a thumping sound had taken her down into the kitchen.
Rats? That was her first thought. The papers said you were never more than three steps away from a rat in London and perhaps it was high time she got a cat, after all, having spurned the one Mama promised her. Who knew what lurked in the cellars of Lant Street? Cockroaches and worse besides . . . Luella, stood before the small wooden door to her own, reminded herself to hire a cleaner to scour hers once they had rid themselves of—
Startled, she vented a cry, sagging against the kitchen table. The noise had been loud enough to rattle the porcelain in the cupboard, the utensils swinging over her head. It was a meat cleaver she reached for, oh-so-gently, when she realised the disturbance was coming from behind the door.
The sound was not as loud as her heart. She imagined him then. Waking in the shallow pit that Walter had dug for him, bound up in sackcloth and lime. Had time gnawed at him like he’d gnawed at Mama, the bulk of him holding the consistency of jelly, maggot riddled and pale? Had he roused to the stench of himself perhaps, the defecation and vinegar of decay, sour in the dark? And spitting out dirt and imprecations, had he turned his fat, watery eye to the rectangle of light at the top of the steps and dragged his seeping carcass towards it?
Three things happened then, in the fleet succession of dread. First, Luella noted that the cellar door was unlocked; what reason had she to lock it? Second, that it was rattling, some unseen weight bearing against it, fumbling for the handle.
Third, a groan, thick as a flooded sewer.
“Luella . . . ”
Her shriek sounded only in her head when she saw his face pressed against the crack, the large brown teeth and the terrible eye drinking in her shock.
Fright did the rest. As the door creaked open, an unimaginable pall of death from beyond, Luella threw her weight against the kitchen table and thrust it, the tiles screeching to rival her. The lumpy shadow in the widening door had no time to react, a ragged arm flung out, scattering bugs and muck. The creature was as thick as he looked and the door juddered as the table hit it, jamming her foul dead uncle in the breach.
He made a grab for her, a soiled spider, and she slipped onto her rump like the girl in the garden a lifetime ago, the knife clattering over her head. Desperate, the table and the door shaking, she realised then that neither would hold him, no more than death had held him, and she rolled onto her belly, wriggling for the blade.
Lord, please . . .
Her fingers closed on the cleaver the moment that Auley’s teeth closed upon her. With a terrible scraping sound, and no apparent thought of pain, her uncle had squeezed his head and his torso through the ingress and borne down upon her calf. Blood sprayed. Tendon and muscle tore away from bone. The pain was exquisite, singing through her, fluttering in her skull. Like a rabbit in a trap—like poor Misty between his claws twenty one years ago—Luella fell under a squalid shadow, Auley forcing his way from the cellar.
Later, she would say it was Misty that saved her, the thought of her beloved pet. That, or perhaps a God who’d decided she’d seen her fair share of troubles, haunted and hounded as she was with no mother left to protect her. All she remembered was red, the kitchen walls, the tiles all red, as she’d turned with the cleaver and answered, slamming it into his skull . . .
Half an hour later, Walter had come home and found her like that, drenched upon the kitchen floor, sobbing and hacking, and hacking again, with Auley twitching under her.
“Where the devil has he gone?”
The two of them were at Necropolis Junction, Luella and Maud, where the train had at last come to a halt. Trees lurked in the fog, watchful. Happy to explain, the priest had told them that the track branched here—the main line continued on to Basingstoke and the west—and that horse-drawn vehicles would come, drawing the vans to the cemetery platform itself where a bier and the diggers waited, ready to conclude the horrible business. Thank God. After five minutes, when no one appeared, the priest had tutted and marched off into the fog, swearing that someone was going to get a jolly good hiding even though Luella reminded him that it was them who were late. And that he should stay, she demanded it. Please.
Who listens to an old spinster? Bundled up in her invalid chair, the poor girl having wrestled the contraption out of the carriage, the two of them waited in a world of white. Oh, Walter. If only you were here. The nearby graves emanated silence, breathing mist and cold. Somewhere a crow squawked, laughing at this unfamiliar place that Luella had come to, seventy-one years old and alone.
“I can’t say, ma’am.” An anxious laugh. “I can barely see the end of my nose.”
Well, she might as well have been alone, she thought. Barrows the Younger she would have trusted, on account of her poor lost Walter, to grasp the gravity of the situation. Truth be told she’d been meaning to tell him for a while now, the whole of it about her uncle, and today would’ve been as good a time as any. How his father had kissed her and bandaged her wound, telling her she’d be all right although the gash had burned like buggery for weeks and she’d never walked without a cane ever since. How Walter had bound Auley’s suppurating, stinking body in rope, gagged him and shut him back in the cellar. How she’d seen the advert in the Gazette and gone to Madam Baumann that very night, begging for assistance, guidance in a matter that was in no way mundane, and extremely, grimly corporeal. And how they’d hired a coach under the strictest of conditions to bear them through the midnight streets to Cross Bones Cemetery. By hooded lantern, like pirates of old, Walter had dug as Luella kept watch. Then, mired and panting, they’d lowered Auley George Crakepole into an unremarkable coffin, the bones and the rags therein emptied to make room for a fresher occupant.
Muffled, raging, Auley had lain, an engorged grub in the dirt. Luella had murmured the Lord’s prayer and began shovelling dirt onto the back of his head, his greasy grey locks, the leer of him. Eyes closed, she’d buried the memory of the banquet he’d enjoyed, of which she’d become a living part. But not before she’d knelt down, wincing at the stench and the pain in her leg, and secured the amulet, the silver doused with charms and holy water, around her uncle’s neck.
It’s God’s will . . .
No, she couldn’t tell Maud that. Any of it. In this fashion, she spared the girl. She spared her the fact of the smell she had noticed upon their disembarking at the junction, the faint sting of faeces and vinegar on the air, that she didn’t think drifted from the cemetery and which had her rummaging for the lavender in her purse. Nor would she mention how her suspicions had scaled to fears, each passing mile offering up memories, yes, but also a growing dread. Where, oh, where had Barrows the Younger gone? Is he coming soon? For certain, she wasn’t about to tell the girl that should she turn and walk towards the vans, she may well find one of them unlocked, the door slid back and chaos therein. She may well observe the littered coffins, yes, and the twelfth one thrown open, the emptiness inside.
Does silver glint there, Luella wondered?
Shaken loose by the rattling train. Discarded in the dust . . .
Even had she wanted to, the clocks had all stopped. A figure was moving towards them through the fog, approaching with heavy steps. Had the priest returned? She heard no snort or clop of horses. It was a short distance to the engine and the driver—perhaps not short enough. There was no one in Brookwood but the girl and herself.
And the stranger who drew closer, a greeting on his lips.
“Luella, my dear,” he said.