Jane Herbert (horror) was the second member of the Circle to face her peers having made an attempt to write in the genre drawn, at Phil’s suggestion, from the pool of those written by every other member. Romance could not have been more alien to her and she had the added pressure of Deidre analysing her every word but, like Phil who had preceded her, although she found the exercise challenging she also found it rewarding and, as the attention of the group turned towards her, she felt ready to read them what she had written…
“…Frost prickled on the grass, turning each separate blade into a sparkling dagger and fringing the bursting leaves of the overhanging yew trees with a lattice-work of shining, icy lace. The morning sun reflected and glittered out from every surface, although it yet provided little warmth to the air. Sparrows fought over the squirming bounty unearthed in newly-turned soil: the desperate comedy of survival cast along the long, long morning shadows; the only other sound the cellophane crackle of bouquet wrappings.
Desmond Demona (Des to his friends, of which there were precious few) sat on the stone-flagged floor in an isolated pool of sunlit warmth, his back against the honeyed limestone of the church tower wall, eyes closed, the black plastic cup gently steaming the scent of stewed milky tea into the air, warming his soil-stained fingers, soothing his senses, calming his soul. He had the smell of the earth in his nostrils, he could still feel the weathered grain of the spade handle against the skin of his palms. He was happy in his work, but he took his breaks very seriously – almost religiously. His timing was meticulous and steady. In rain or shine, summer heat or winter chill, swaddled in multi-layered clothing or stripped to the waist, his routine remained unvaried: thirty minutes digging followed by ten minutes rest until the job was done.
The job was digging graves and Desmond took great pride in it. The symmetry of his excavations was revered throughout the diocese. Even when the unexpected was encountered, in the form of old church outbuildings, clay pipes or illicitly interred beloved pets, he found a way to ensure that the box nestled level, precisely six feet below the sod.
Sometimes he was bothered by the taunts of the local kids as they went to school. He started his day early, tailored his routine to be as far away from them as possible, but he couldn’t avoid those who chose to loiter around the graveyard during holidays. He kept his head down and he dug and when they started to pelt him, as they occasionally did, he was always at the bottom of a hole and unable to get out quickly enough to challenge them, so he simply collected the rubbish in a bag (he liked a clean grave) with a view to rubbing their noses in it if ever he caught them. He never did. He knew he never would, but the promise of revenge fortified him none-the-less.
The vicar was good to Desmond, managing to find him jobs even when no-one was dying: cutting grass, cleaning headstones, tidying decaying tributes and flowers. Occasionally he was asked to carry out some menial tasks inside the building; varnishing pews, Hoovering prayer cushions, dusting the surfaces that the vicar could not reach without standing on a chair. Desmond always did his best – occasionally bringing his own chair from home as it was a little higher than the vicar’s and more stable – but he did not feel suited to ‘inside work’. He liked to dig. It was what he was good at. He liked to feel the sun on his back. He liked to sit in the shade of the giant yew in the summer as he napped away his thirty minute mid-day break. For six precious weeks from late May to early July, the sun crested the tower and beat down on his little spot. Those were his favourite weeks of the year and, although they were still some months away, he sensed them coming in the air and he looked forward to the time when he could rid himself of the cloying cold of the grave by basking in the heat of the noon-time sun. He loved to feel the heat prickling on his darkening skin, adding definition to a body toned to perfection by a life spent digging.
At least, it was pretty close to perfection as far as the vicar was concerned. She had been here for five years now and, if anything, she looked forward to the summer months with greater anticipation than Desmond himself. She had tried to talk to him so many times, to draw him into conversation, but all he ever wanted to hear from her was where to dig and, if there really was no digging to do, he would hold her with his doleful eyes until she found him some tasks, preferably outside, with which to pass his day. There were times when she had to find him jobs to do around the church itself – when people were just not dying or when the bloody kids just wouldn’t leave him alone – but she could tell that he was not happy there. She devoted every moment she could at such times in attempting to draw some conversation from him, but she always knew that, for both their sakes, she would very soon have to find him work outside in the fresh air, where he felt able to remove his shirt – where she was able to surreptitiously observe him doing so.
But today, she watched him through the frost speckled windows of the vestry as he screwed the cup back on top of his flask and rose, fully-clothed to his feet. He moved, she thought, like a cat. What went on inside his head? She realised that the paraphernalia of vicarhood hung around her like an invisible cage. Few men ever think about vicars as suitable girl-friend material but then, truth be told, few vicars ever think about a withdrawn gravedigger as being the man to lead them up the aisle, and she was almost certain that even fewer ever see themselves quite so vividly breaking so many commandments simultaneously. Slowly she raised the cassock above her knees and sighed contentedly as the heat of the tiny electric heater slowly caressed her legs. For her, the summer just couldn’t come soon enough…”