Sunday, 10 May 2009
Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light.
-Dorothy Thompson, wartime journalist
This story is based on actual events.
There was something about pubs that creeped him out. He was a bar kind of guy. The smoking ban came in six months ago but every pub still stank of smoke. He couldn’t help but expect to have some weird rural tradition forced upon him, like being accosted by a local farmer, who would to try to sell him dead pheasants from under his overcoat.
He should never have moved up here.
Still, The King George’s clientele were younger than he had expected- mostly men still clinging onto the last few years of their twenties, and drinking with the enthusiasm they probably had ten years ago. There was an undertone of teenage angst still brewing amidst their arrogant, defiant attitude. The sturdiest looking man in the pub must have been about forty, but Douglas thought his cocky persona would have better suited a twenty-year-old.
“You thought the soldiers were bad,” said the stocky man, speaking a bit too loud for the small pub. “It was the women that made Eastern Europe so fucked. Some of them were pure evil.”
“Always the campaigner for women’s rights,” The lad in his early twenties bantered. “Aren’t you, John?”
John didn’t pick up on the humour: his drinking buddy had touched a raw and lethal nerve. John’s deadpan stare cooled any warming effect the joke might have had.
The lad gulped.
It wasn’t hard for John to pull this persona off- John was huge, probably a farmer.
But shit, thought Douglas. What does he grow? Lead?
John was quite short but horrendously ripped, sporting scabby holes in his forearms. The desecrated blue football tattoos cast serious doubt over the slim possibility that his muscle was not drug-enhanced.
John visibly backtracked, perhaps stifling an outburst, then continued. “A lot of the cruellest Nazis were women. Most of them were hung after the, er…” Then, clicking his fingers, “The main trials after the war-“
“Nuremberg trials.” Douglas felt his temperature soar as he impulsively interjected.
He didn’t think this “John” was someone he really wanted to know, but here he was- slamming himself into this meathead’s conversation. John’s neck was so abnormally large that he had to twist at the torso to glance over to the pub’s apparent amateur historian. His eyebrows lifted as two quiet seconds dripped by awkwardly.
“Right,” acknowledged John, eventually. He shifted his posture to address the two of them. “But a few made it out to Europe. One of them got killed out here actually. Have you heard that?”
His sidekick- a much smaller but similar looking young skinhead- took a breath to answer, but was cut off as John ranted on. Douglas tried to stifle a sigh of relief that this giant was accepting him.
Don’t they just show VH-1 in most gyms? When did The History Channel become the choice background programme for working out?
“Winefred Schroder, she was called.” John supped his beer. “Evil, evil bitch. Made it over the channel during the Blitz. Adolf Hitler himself gave her this mission. Hitler had heard that this one plant- Just down the road from here actually- was the only place in the world making the gears for spitfires. He knew the Nazi planes, the, er, Luftwaffe, basically weren’t up to the job. If he wanted to invade, he’d have to take out our planes. His spies had figured that the guy who knew how to make them- he was just some joey in the factory. He wasn’t the manager. The manager made cars before the war, but with the war effort they had to start making other stuff.
“You couldn’t just slam anything into a spitfire. It had to be this exact, er, component. They only made it in this local factory, and the only guy who could do it was this little mechanic- a nobody. That’s how much Hitler knew. It’s fucking scary, mate.
“So they gave Schroder instructions to get to the exact housing block and room that this mechanic lived in. He was a marked man.
“The housing block was full of people- it was the evening. Houses back then weren’t just terraced- they were back-to-back, so about four different families were living in this block. She had to scout it out before she knew who she was after. She follows people home from work to figure out which one he is, and follows the mechanic into the building. Ten minutes later, all the locals heard this guy screaming. This was back when people actually knew their neighbours, and helped each other out. On top of that, the building had been hit in the Blitz – a rogue bomb- and it had smashed up a side wall; the sound was travelling further. So the guy next door comes round with a cricket bat, smashes the door down and finds Schroder throttling the mechanic. And she’s only a little woman, but she’s lying on him with her legs locked onto his and her arm locked round the back of his head, choking him out. The neighbour just swings at her and goes BOOM…”
John’s enthusiastic miming of the attack caused Douglas to grip his bottle even tighter, which in turn made him realise how on edge he was. It’s just a conversation, he thought. Calm down. The guy’s a loon. He’s watched far too much History Channel. But, Jesus, it’s like he’d done it himself…
John showed no sign of mellowing. “Her head just implodes and she’s out for the count. Right at that moment, PC Plod charges into the room.
“So there’s two guys, civilians, and a policeman- thinking, what the fuck have I walked into here- and a dead nazi woman in this house. Right- back then police didn’t give a fuck about detection figures. There was no- you know, incentive for reporting crimes and stuff. But if people had found out that some woman broke into a flat nearby carrying loads of er, SS regalia- it would have made the papers and freaked the neighbours out. That’s something they don’t need.
“So they wrap her up in bedsheets and carry her out. None of the neighbours are asking questions. The coppers just had to give someone a stare back then and people would back down. And besides, they didn’t want people thinking they’re a spy or owt like that.
“This is in the middle of the Blitz, remember. Loads of people had already died. Bodies were being brought to the mortuaries all the time. So the police pay off the mortuary guys and they sling her in with a load of British bodies.”
“So you’re saying that’s how we won the battle of Britain?” Douglas asked. “We still had the, er, resources to fight off the nazis,” he said, gesticulating, “Because this woman didn’t kill this…mechanic?”
“Exactly,” John said, leaning back on the bar.
Doug saw right through him in a flash. The guy’s a steroid-abusing meathead, he thought, who comes out with these ridiculous fabrications of general knowledge to pass himself off as having at least some brains to compliment the excess brawn.
But I’m sure as fuck not going to tell him that.
“That’s what I heard. I mean…” John, suddenly more blasé, took a sip of his now flat-looking pint. “Well. Supposedly, he only knocked her out. He didn’t kill her. The mortuary attendant’s story is that after the bribe, they dumped her in there while he tidied the other bodies up. She started breathin’ again. Morgue guys don’t scare easily- when rigor mortis sets in bodies can sit up and all sorts. She’d been waking up and dozing off... Making moaning sounds… They didn’t know whether she was just expelling air, like fresh bodies do, or whether she was really still alive.”
It’s disturbing how much this guy knows about dead bodies, thought Douglas.
“You can imagine- these guys were freaked out,” John continued. “They didn’t want the locals hearin’ about it, and they just wanted her off their hands. So they thought, fuck it, and buried her under a headstone for victims of the Blitz along with about fifty British civilians. Legend has it, if you take a pink nail up there and hammer it into the headstone,” he said, almost embarrassed, “she comes out of her grave, drags you in, and that’s the last thing you ever see.”
What else is there to add to a conversation like this? Douglas thought. It’s all rhetorical. He took a sip of his pint. “I’d do it.”
His heart was now punching its way though his chest bone with adrenaline as he cursed his lack of self-control. It was becoming almost unmanageable to take deep enough breaths to stay calm but still breathe quiet enough to not let people notice him hyperventilating.
“You’re on,” said John without hesitation. “Let’s go. Lee?”
John necked his pint with alarming speed. Sidekick Lee got a quarter of the way down in the same time, coughed, and dumped the glass on the bar.
Douglas rooted through his pockets. “Hold on, let me just get my pink headed nails out…” Great, he thought. Give cheek to the nutter meathead you’ve just met. Great start to a Friday night.
“You mean ones like this?”
John put down a nail, doused in pink paint, right next to Douglas’s pint.
Douglas managed a smile as he sighed, shoulders suddenly slouching.
After introductions outside the pub Douglas buttoned up his overcoat, which he realised was a bit too big for him. This kind of coat wasn’t usually necessary in Newquay, but there was plenty of outdoor wear in the few shops he had found around his new home. The biting cold had tempted him into investing fast. He couldn’t feel the cold now: just the beer, and the tension forming from the niggling feeling that a long dead nazi woman could be throttling him within the next hour. That was keeping him warm enough.
As John ranted on to Lee about some other lunatic he’d come toe to toe with a few days ago, Douglas pulled out his phone and activated the built-in light. The phone chimed, empty-battery symbol displayed. The light didn’t reach very far. But against the backdrop of a cloudless, smogless night the knife-like silhouette of a church steeple cut into the heart of the starry sky.
Douglas, looking at John’s bulky frame, started to make further assumptions as they marched up the road. Must be lonely being a big guy, thought Douglas. Being able to scare people that easily must be a good feeling at first. I’ve never scared anyone, I don’t think. But after a while… people’s constant apprehension must piss you off. No wonder he’s pressurising anyone he can find into these ridiculous games. Why me, though? What am I doing here? About fifteen years ago this kind of behaviour would have been acceptable. But I’d have shit it back then. He wrestled with his conscience. Oh, so what? You’ve got something to prove now? No, but I still need to meet people. I’m not a hermit.
Douglas snapped to, realising he’d been quiet for some time. It also occurred to him that John and Lee would think that he was either terrified or just a stuck-up city boy, already bored of yokel folk and their small-town interests.
A crash of rocks at the side of him made Douglas gasp audibly. He spun to see John knocking down half a stone wall, collecting one massive rock in a single hand.
This is it, thought Douglas. This is how it ends.
John stepped towards him. He thrust the stone at Douglas’ chest and he instinctively took it in his hands. He wheezed, partly with relief- it was a gift! It was also a lot heavier than he’d expected- John had picked it up easily. But Doug could probably hold it in one hand if he tried, especially with the sheer volume of adrenaline pumping through him now.
The church was looming over them now, and as Douglas looked up even the clouds seemed to be moving away from the graveyard, giving the effect of the steeple falling forward onto him… The stars blurred as he tried to concentrate on them, and not think of the desecration he was about to commit. People strived valiantly sixty years ago to defend my freedom. And now I come along and chip their headstone just to defend my ego. You are a disgrace, Doug…
Yeah right. That isn’t the problem here. Douglas smiled to himself. Let’s be honest. I am afraid. Because I am going to be killed by a ghost. Well. Now let’s think rationally, play this idiot’s game, hammer this gay nail in then I’ll just say I’ve got to go.
“Let’s do this, Doug,” said John. “Are you ready for Schroder? To take her on, and all her horrors?” John smiled.
“No fear,” said Douglas, although he could have vomited with paranoia. He held the stone in one hand and his bicep turned to hot rock. Stepping over the decrepit wall, eroded by time and possibly vandalism, he entered the world of the dead.
Douglas wanted to focus on how absurd this all was. The chances of himself doing anything like this on a Friday night in Newquay was non-existent. He wouldn’t be acting like a child with a load of yonners, chasing ghosts.
But hey, there’s a first time for everything…
No amount of lateral thinking could stifle the fear. He looked over his shoulder and John, barely lit by the stars but a silhouette block of a man on the horizon, was keeping his distance behind the stone wall. He pointed at something beyond Douglas, in the graveyard, then clenched his fist in encouragement.
Douglas pointed the phone light into the cemetery, illuminating the resting places of long-dead people. He wanted to stop and read every faded headstone, to do anything to delay the inevitable. The beer had worn off now, but he was woozy with a cocktail of fear, shame, cold, and a little bit of pride. Retreat was not an option. He’d rather deal with the consequences than back down.
The two sad eyes of the church windows, reflecting the night sky, glared down at Douglas with disdain. He’d been raised a Catholic, but had forgotten all about it once he’d hit college. Now he was going to push the immoral boat out, and disturb a resting place.
The light picked up a giant grey crucifix, a prestigious reminder of those who died for Britain’s freedom- without ever leaving their hometown. Douglas stepped cautiously toward it.
They whom this headstone commemorates…
When close enough to the honourable dead Douglas noticed that the stone, embossed with multicoloured lichen, was engraved with the names of exactly who’s grave he was about to desecrate.
…were numbered among those, who, at the call of King and Country, endured hardness, faced danger…
The phone gave a death rattle and he was plunged into darkness.
He felt for the nail in his pocket, taking a deep nasal breath. It didn’t help to steady his pulse. Rolling it between his fingers, he placed the tip on the eroded marble plaque, right in front of the crucifix. Holding the stone over the head of the nail, he started to tap.
Douglas felt the cold air permeate his thick coat, like a wet paintbrush stroking down his back. Maybe it was because he’d stopped moving and the tiny motion of hammering was no insulator compared to striding through an overgrown graveyard… But this was cold like none other, radiating nauseatingly through his core. He hammered harder.
The nail wasn’t moving- the tip was embedded in the marble, but he wasn’t going to do things by halves. He wanted it properly in. He’d come this far.
Douglas gave three last whacks with the rock and tossed noisily it to one side. The deed was done.
Schroder had not made her appearance. It was all over.
There was no wash of relief, though- he was still in a starlit, cold graveyard, walking over bodies of people who died before he was even born. The Chiseled flags served as an almost mosaic reminder that we all face death eventually… especially when a vengeful un-dead woman has you in her clutches.
Leaning on the marble, he looked back to the wall where John and Lee last were. All he saw was black- not even horizon. Something wasn’t right. He was shivering as he turned to walk.
Something snagged. It had him by the wrist and was pulling him back down.
It’s Schroder, he thought. She is real, and she is here.
He turned back to the stone, seeing nothing, as his bowels gave way.
Two weeks later, John sat in the same seat in the same pub. The same tobacco odour leaked from the wallpaper. It was still cold outside.
Lee took up a stool beside him. John was talking to another new city boy, tired of urban stress and looking for a placid, rural lifestyle. With polite, restrained nervousness, the newcomer listened as John recounted that fateful night.
“He just looked more ridiculous than anything. Some drunk loon on his knees in front of a gravestone, knockin’ a nail in. People do all sorts of shit after a few scoops. I can’t believe he bought it all. The whole story might be bollocks for all I know. But, y’know, he wanted to go there… I suppose it beats sitting in this pub bein’ avoided by everyone.”
The newcomer discreetly glanced around the King George. People talked quietly, sipping pints. Everyone would have heard John, but they were all acting like they hadn’t. He noticed the landlord roll his eyes.
“I’d figured,” said John, “Why not dip a nail in the missus’ varnish and see if anyone would do it.
“He’d hammered this nail in good an’ proper, but as he went to leave he gasped- an’ I mean loud. Something put the shits up him. He looked like he’d fainted, but he was still holdin’ on to the headstone like he was danglin’ over a cliff. “Go an’ check on him,” I said to Lee, but he just looked at me like his arse had given way.”
Lee nodded with a guilty smile.
“So I walked over,” said John, “turn my phone light on, an’ I ‘ave a butcher’s.
“He’d nailed his coat sleeve to the headstone. The muppet. His eyes were dry an’ cloudy, sorta, and he was lookin’ up at me like I’m the scariest thing he’s seen in his life. An’ I’ve seen that look on people’s faces before, believe me. But nothin’ like this. Eyes bulging, mouth wide open an’ everythin’. I wanted to check his pulse, but I thought, nah… don’t wanna put fingerprints on him. If he is dead, I don’t wanna look like a murder suspect or anything… he did this to himself. Everyone in here heard ‘im say it. “I’d do it,” he said.
“‘Sides, I think he shit himself.
“Lee wanted to phone 999, which I thought was a bit off of him to be honest- at first, at least. I look after ‘im. Don’t I?”
Lee, pride battered, nodded again.
“I was like, ‘and what, now you’re just gonna grass me up when I didn’t make him do it?’ I’m a knobhead, it took me about 2 hours to calm down enough for him to tell me he was phonin’ for an ambulance. We just told the paramedics it was all Doug’s idea. And he had been drinking, the coroner… well, he verified that. He was a healthy guy; he just got freaked so bad his heart- and his arse- couldn’t take it.
“I’m not goin’ back into that fucking graveyard.”