I’ve got a wicked fucking hangover and I’m trying to waiting for the Alka Seltzer to dissolve when “La Cucaracha” screams out of my phone and into my ears. Dougie set it up and now I can’t work out how to change it. As I stumble across to where my jacket’s lying, I knock over one of the beer cans from last night. Stale lager and cigarette ends spill across the kitchen table and I try to set up temporary breakwaters using an old copy of Time Out and a slice of bread. This unforseen disaster should be taking up all my attention, but that bastard song is still chirping away, so I have to deal with the phone or my head will explode.
It’s work. Bollocks. I can’t answer it, but I can’t not answer it, so I press the button and bring the squawking thing up to my ear.
“Hi Jeff,” I say, wincing pre-emptively.
“Chas, what the hell is going on?”
“Uh… I suppose I’m running a little late,” I say, still trying to mop up the beer-and-fag waves washing across my tabletop. I’ve found it’s easier to lie when you’re concentrating on something else. It gives you less time to think, so the deception flows naturally.
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Jeff says, before lowering his tone urgently. “You know that I don’t want to be a ballbuster. I’ve been flexible with you with regards to your… timekeeping.”
He means drinking, but he can’t just come out and say that.
“But I asked you to have the Havelock plot dug before you left yesterday and the funeral’s at twelve, so I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. You really let me down, Chas.”
“Hang on…” I say, having finally stemmed the tide from the spilt can. “I did do the Havelock plot. I stayed until seven to do it, because I knew-“
(that I was going on the piss last night)
-“that it needed to be done.”
“I’m telling you, Jeff. I dug the plot, alright? I did it.”
And I did. I know I did. I remember finishing it off, putting away the tools in the shed and locking the door. That much is clear. The blackouts came later.
“Look, all I know is that there’s supposed to be a hole in the ground and there isn’t one. I’ve got the funeral director on his way and the service is starting in a couple of hours-“
“I’ll have it dug by then,” I interject. “I swear I will. I mean, I’ve already dug it once, how hard can it be?”
There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. Jeff knows that he should probably fire me right now, but he’s in a jam and he’s certainly not going to dig the hole himself, so what choice does he have.
“You can really do it in time?” he asks eventually. “You promise?”
“Jeff, I swear on my life. I’m leaving now.”
“Alright. Get it done and we’ll talk.”
Every second counts, but I take a two minute shower to wash off the layer of boozy sweat that’s seeping though my pores. There will be more to come, but I need to get the first layer of muck off my skin. Also, my head is pounding and the water seems to help. I’m still damp when I leave the house, but that’s nothing compared to the brain aneurism I get when the bright sunshine first hits my eyes. Fucking horrible. I squint my way through to the minicab office and splash out fifteen quid on a taxi to work. It’s an extravagance, but a necessary one and probably nothing compared to what I spent last night. When I’m feeling a bit more brave, I might go through the receipts in my wallet and try and piece together what I spent and where. More likely, I’ll just throw them away and try to keep the figleaf of denial in place for just a little while longer.
After ten minutes in the cab and half a bottle of Lucozade Sport, I’m starting to feel a little better. By the time I pull up to the cemetery gate, I feel certain that Jeff will tell me that he mixed up the plot numbers and that he’s sorry for the misunderstanding. In fact, so confident am I of this that I make sure to get a receipt from the cabbie, so I can claim back the fare.
But when he comes out to meet me, Jeff’s face is like thunder. The apologetic smiles are nowhere to be seen and it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever seen the placid cemetery manager look angry. It’s difficult to tell whether his fury comes from this supposed incident or the backlog of shit I’ve put him through over the past few months. Jeff’s a nice bloke. Too nice, probably, for someone like me not to take advantage of him. Today, though, he’s almost shaking with rage. The one thing I have in my favour is that I’m trying to put it right. I know that he’s in a jam and if I can get him out of it then maybe, just maybe, I might still have a job. And the weird thing is that I do still want the job. I like being outdoors and graveyards don’t come with a lot of hassles. Digging holes and tending the shrubbery is a nice, low-stress earner for a screw-up like me. I don’t want to go back to signing on and I sure as fuck don’t want to go back to telesales.
“Jeff, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what happened. I can’t understand how this could have happened.”
“Really, Chas? Because I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it happened. You got drunk and fucked off without doing the job.”
“Jeff, I swear…”
What? That I didn’t get drunk at work? That would be a lie and not one that I would be able to pass off. Yeah, I had a drink at lunchtime, but it was only a couple of pints. I wasn’t drunk. And I came back to finish the plot. I know I did.
But as we approach the plot, I can see that not everything is as I left it. There’s the new headstone for Arthur Havelock, but there’s no hole in the ground.
I don’t know what to say.
“Jeff… I dug the hole. I swear I did.”
He just shakes his head in disgust, presuming that I’m trying to maintain a pointless lie in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
“Look,” I say, “the earth’s been turned and there’s no grass. Someone’s filled it in.”
“Why on earth would someone do that?”
“I don’t know. As a joke or something?”
“You’ve got just over an hour and a half. Get on with it.”
There’s nothing more I can say, so I just nod and grab a spade. On a day as hot as today, I’d usually take it easy, but I don’t have the luxury of goofing off. I unzip the top of my overalls and start digging. As I do so, I try to understand the thought processes of someone who would break into a cemetery at night and fill in a grave. My best guess is students or, more likely, a rugby club. The hot weather and bright evenings encourage alfresco drinking and even though this usually means tramps with cans, it can lead to other, more boisterous types.
Grumbling about rugger-buggers serves as a distraction from how unspeakably rotten I feel inside. My guts are quaking and the sweat on my brow is about 40 proof. I swig from a bottle of water, but if I’m honest I could really do with a beer or a nip of vodka, just to take the shakes away and muzzle the dog that bit me. There’s an offie ten minutes away, but I can’t run the risk of sneaking off there. This is supposed to be me coming through in a pinch, not nipping off for a six pack. Body and mind are wailing, but this is just one of those times that you have to get through. The one consolation is that because the grave has been recently re-filled, I don’t have to break ground and it’s a bit easier to shovel it out and pile it on the wheelbarrow. It’s the one piece of evidence that shows that I actually dug the hole in the first place, but it takes a certain affinity with the dirt to be able to appreciate the distinction. Jeff’s an administrator, so maybe it’s expecting too much of him to understand the qualities of soil. Still, it keeps me from thinking that I’ve completely lost my marbles.
In the hour that follows, I work harder than I have done in years. Digging in this hot weather with a fuck-off hangover is torture, but it’s also cathartic. Maybe if I had to endure this sort of horror every time I got pissed, I wouldn’t drink so much. That’s a delusion, to be sure, but I appreciate the motivation it gives me and I spent a little while attacking the ground with vigour as I think about my new dour and virtuous lifestyle. So enamoured am I with my protestant work ethic that I almost don’t notice when my spade hits something hard in the ground. At first, I think it’s just a loose root or branch, but when I lean down to haul it out I realise that it has fingernails.
All feelings of moral righteousness go out of the window and I scramble to get out of the ground and away from the arm. My stomach, already under siege, cramps and spasms in disgust at the dead limb in the ground. It would be the most natural thing in the world to vomit now, but I don’t have much to bring up and just spit a line of bile into my wheelbarrow and try to get a sense of what’s happening. That’s a dead body in the ground and I’m guessing that it’s not Arthur Havelock. Even though I work around dead people all day, that hasn’t prepared me for being that close to one. I tend to think of myself as a landscaper more than a cryptkeeper. The truth is that I’m freaking the fuck out. At least, I think I am. It’s only after a couple of moments that I have a thought that chills me to my core.
What if I put him there?
I spent most of last night in blackout. I remember leaving work and going to The Crown and then somewhere else, maybe The Buckley Tavern, but there’s big chunks of last night that are missing. That’s not usual for me, but on this night more than any other total recall would be a godsend. Is it possible that somewhere between one of those pubs, my flat and any number of other places along the way, I could have killed someone, brought them to this empty plot, thrown them in and covered the grave with soil? It seems too ridiculous for words and yet I can see it in my mind, not as memory but as if it were being filmed by a Crimewatch reconstruction film-crew. The fact that I can see myself in my mind’s eye is the only thing that makes me think that I probably didn’t do it. Probably. I’m, like, 95% sure I’m not a murderer. I do stupid things when I’m drunk, but they tend to put myself in jeopardy, not other people. Everybody’s different when they drink like me. Some people weep, some fight, others strip their clothes off and run around naked. I’m boring. I tend to mind my own business.
Maybe it’s not good enough to say that you don’t remember not killing someone, but that it doesn’t seem in character. At the moment, that’s all I’ve got and it’ll have to do.
Yeah, yeah, the sick part of my brain says, keep talking, killer.
I tell that part of my mind to shut up and take another look into the hole, thinking that maybe the hand in the ground might be some sort of alcoholic vision brought about by the DTs. I don’t know whether it’s a relief to see the hand still there. It proves that the situation is real, but it doesn’t prove that I’m not crazy.
Maybe I should just run. I know it would make me look guilty, but maybe it would be better if I just downed tools and legged it. Not noble, but I gave up on that a long time ago.
I feel my brain folding in on itself and as the horror of reality comes crashing in, my stomach finally relents and spews out a bit of sick. Not the prettiest of reactions, but somehow it snaps me back to reality.
There’s a body here. People will need to know. Jeff first, then the funeral directors and the Havelock family. Then, presumably, the police. I’m almost certain that my sense of guilt comes from being a hopeless drunk who can’t piece together what happened last night. I don’t think it’s anything more than that, but if it is, maybe I’m about to get what I deserve.
I put down my spade and start walking towards Jeff’s office. Before I know it, my stride has turned into a jog and then a full-pelt sprint. Whether I’m running towards something or away, I really don’t know.
All I know is I can’t stay here.