Face to Face with Death by Matthew J. Richardson

It’s not as though the job doesn’t have a kind of macabre romanticism. The moonlight casting huge shadows off the crooked gravestones. The periodic flash of a spade before a shower of dirt is thrown into the air. The lantern spilling smoky light through yew branches and over fallen leaves.

Like any job though, the reality of being a gravedigger is more mundane than what is held in the zeitgeist. Most of the work is now done in daylight by machinery and any time a man spends in a hole is really just for cosmetic purposes. There is no longer even the melancholic loneliness that the job used to bring; teams of people dig graves at an industrial scale. Line ‘em up and tip ‘em in. 

Like any old-timer, though, James still knows where there are perks to be had. Which is why he is standing in a recently filled grave, spade in hand, with only a cloth-covered electric lantern to guide him. This is the riskiest part of his endeavor – when his head is down and the work is at its noisiest. James stops for a moment, steam rising from his torso in the cold air. There is no sound save for the occasional growl of a vehicle on the distant main road, but anyone could sneak up on him on the manicured lawn of the cemetery. James bends down and continues. Speed is everything.

Grave-digging used to be a young man’s game, a family business James’s son would have inherited if not for the stigma that came with admitting what you did for a living. It was a reliable clientele if nothing else, but you can’t tell kids anything and once the boy had got his head turned by the wrong crowd.

Metal on mahogany tells James that he has another hour of digging before the coffin can be opened. A wind has got up in the cemetery. The trees heave and sway. A crunch of gravel makes James glance up. Probably just a fox. 

People might find themselves more at ease with putting people in the ground these days, but disinterring bodies still prompts the same queasiness as it did in yesteryear. Once underground, the dead should not be disturbed, they used to say. There should be a barrier between the spirit world and the physical. Let them lie, they’d whisper as they lit their candles in the window. James would be lying if he claimed that such superstition did not concern him, but tonight is not his first dig. With that in mind, he heaves the coffin lid open.

Even in death, Joseph Packard has been unable to give up what he considered the finer things in life. A gold-linked wristwatch hangs from the man’s skinny wrist while fine, Italian leather winkle-pickers poke skywards. Bastard. How many poor souls had been levered into his cramped, damp flats across the city? How many families have had their sub-lets sublet without their consent? How many paychecks have bypassed the hungry mouths of children to feed this glutton’s appetite for cigars and sports cars? The injustice of it all.

The blade gleams as it is drawn from his pocket. Joseph Packard will receive in death what he managed to avoid in life. It is hard work. Causing that much discomfort usually is and this is discomfort that is meant to last, pain that will confront Packard wherever he turns in the afterlife. 

When he finishes, James wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. Already the sky is beginning to lighten; he can see his work without the aid of the lantern. Lilac rays dapple the carvings on the inside of the coffin lid. Hideous, silently screaming faces are packed cheek to jowl inside high-rise buildings, their hands outstretched and their sawdust-flecked eyes blank. It is the work of a master craftsman; in ideal circumstances, James would want it to be appreciated as such. Never mind. What his audience lacks in number it will make up for in attention span. Joseph Packard will be staring into those faces as his eyes sink into his liquefying face. His wooden tenants will watch him wither and cringe.

Philanderers, rapists, thieves, tax dodgers, absent fathers, cheats, scoundrels. James shows them the justice that failed to find them in life. Each person deemed worthy of his attention receives a custom designed coffin lid. Their sins not only find them but lie atop them in the crushing darkness.

James nods wearily to a couple of early morning dog walkers as he leaves the cemetery, tools slung over his shoulder and dirt smeared on his overalls. If they have any questions they are too polite to ask them. He starts his van and begins the drive home. Not to rest, though. There can be no respite for James just as there will now be none for greedy Joseph Packard underneath the yews. 

There is another coffin lid waiting for James in his garage. It is one that he has been working on for years. It is one on which he works every day, one which he can never get quite right, one that he can never fit quite enough detail into. It is the coffin lid into which he will be staring sightlessly when his family lowers him into the ground.

Not all of his family, James reminds himself. His son will not be there. 

The old man may be an experienced carpenter but there are some woodworking skills he has never mastered. He was never a details man, and some of the carvings he has been attempting has been beyond him. He cannot, for example, quite capture the look of betrayal he saw in his son’s face when he was turned out of the family home. The chisels are too clumsy to bring out the expression of bliss. James had seen on his son’s waxen face when he had found him slumped next to the toilet in the bedsit, needle hanging loosely from his arm. The quirks and oddities in the mahogany do not allow him to illustrate the desolate state of that room, nor the grey face James sees looking back at him in the mirror. The old man works on nonetheless. He cannot wait until it shuts out the light.

Matthew J. Richardson is a doctoral student and public-sector worker who lives in Stewarton, Scotland. A lucky husband and proud father, he has previously been published in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, and Shooter. Matthew tweets at @mjrichardso0 and blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com.