Tainted Ground Part 1
The teeth of the big earthmover tore through the earth. It shook its great jaws, knocking aside the headstones and shattering into splinters the names of the dead. A crowd gathered to watch as the three-hundred-year-old graveyard was being pulled asunder in the name of progress. It was many years since anyone was last buried there, but there were those among the watchers who were old enough to recall family graves. Bill took his handkerchief from the pocket of his threadbare jacket and wiped his eyes.
“There’s a sharp wind blowing today,” he said to the woman standing beside him.
She nodded, aware of his distress at the desecration. From somewhere behind him, there came a cry of horror and he looked back into the graveyard. The machine reared its head and he saw the reason for the cry. The bones glared white against the dark earth, as the beast turned and spewed its load into a waiting dumper truck. Some of the workmen were sifting through the wreckage and picking up the bits of headstones. These were thrown into another truck and would not accompany the disturbed dead on their travels to a new location.
The demolition had begun at dawn, and while most of the people from the surrounding district had come and gone during the day, Bill never moved, not even to eat. The cold March wind sent his grey, unruly hair flying and his hands were chilled, causing the arthritis in his old bones to flair, but he stood his ground. At times, he perched on the small wall opposite the graveyard and gnawed on the sugary sweets that he is so fond of. Some of the workmen cast furtive glances his way and he nodded at each of them. He knew they found his constant presence disturbing and thought him a bit of a nut, but he was there for a reason. As the light began to fade, they started on the tombs. The sound of the wrecking ball on the ancient stones was frightening, and he jumped at the sound of each contact. The elaborate carved pieces joined those of the lesser headstone on the separate truck. It was after seven that evening when the men finally knocked off for the night. They would begin demolishing the ruined church the following morning, one of the men told him, and if the weather held, they would be finished by the end of the day. Bill waited until a stout padlock was placed on the gates, before making his way home. He would be back at dawn, and nothing bar death would keep him away.
Let me tell you a little about Bill. He is what most would class as, a wise man. I know the notion seems outdated, but people like him do exist, though we choose to ignore them. In Ireland there are many remote places that still cling to superstition and strange customs, and I found myself in one such place on Sunday last. No one knows for sure how old Bill is. Some of the neighbours I spoke to said he must be in his nineties. One woman swore he was born the same year as her great-grandmother, which to my reckoning would make his over a hundred. He is shy about revealing his true age and when I asked, he laughed and said.
“I’m a few months older than my teeth.”
Whatever age he is, he’s in the best of health. The arthritis gives him a bit of trouble, but he’s otherwise sound. His cottage is an old one and quite picturesque, considering he does all the repairs himself, right down to the straw thatch on the roof. It still has the huge, open fire and when I ducked my head to look up the chimney, I could see the sky, through the curls of peat smoke. He has been promising to tell me the story about the old graveyard for over twenty years. At times he’s given me little hints about what happened after the place was dug up, and I finally tied him down to telling me. As I sat opposite him on that rainy Sunday, I noticed how the light was fading in his eyes, and I felt my stomach go into spasm, when I realised why he’d decided to tell me now. He knows his time on earth is drawing to a close, and he wants me to record all that he has learned over the years. He likes me, because I look like my late grandmother, and it’s rumoured he was in love with her, so this is why I’m being taken into his confidence. He knows I will write and publish his stories, but he doesn’t mind, as long as I change the names.
“Will anyone read them, do you think?” He asked.
“They will read them,” I promised. “People from all over the world will know about you.”
“That’s good,” he stared into the leaping flames. “And maybe, they’ll learn something.”
Bill returned to the graveyard the following day and took his place on the wall. The old, ruined church was still standing, but not for long. As the arm of the wrecking ball drew back to begin its assault, Bill looked away. The truck containing the headstones was full, and it wasn’t long before he saw the driver climbing into the cab. Two of the workmen held the old graveyard gates open to allow it to leave, and Bill watched it progress until it reached the crossroads and turned onto the main road. He knew where it was headed and by crossing the fields, he could catch up with it in no time. It moved slowly under the weight of its dreadful load, and Bill was at its destination point well before it.
“I’d know from the beginning,” he said. “What was going to happen, and I was powerless to stop it. You remember Brian Thomas; he had the building company that went belly up a few years back?”
I knew the man he was talking about. He was known for his shoddy work and only an outsider would even think of hiring him.
“I tried talking to him about it, but he wouldn’t listen. Called me an old crank, if you don’t mind,” Bill looked at me in amazement. “It would have saved those poor people a lot of time and money if he had only listened. The woman of the house had a nervous breakdown after what she witnessed there, you know?”
He was rambling now and I had no idea who he was talking about, but I didn’t want to interrupt. He must have realised what he was doing, as he stopped short.
“Sorry, girl, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself,” he smiled. “Where was I?”
“In the field, waiting for the truck,” I said.
There was a huge hole in the centre of the field, with mounds of earth piled up on either side. The warning signal, as the truck backed over the grass, became a death knell to Bill as he watched the hydraulic arm edge the bed of the truck upwards. The rumbling and grating of the headstones and bits of tombs sounded like thunder, as they fell into the waiting, black chasm.
“I waited until the truck drove away,” Bill said. “Once it was out of sight, I went over to the hole and looked down at the stones. I saw names on some of the broken bits, the odd date, and a headless angel, probably from one of the finer graves, but it would need more than her divine intervention to stop what was about to happen. I took a small holy water bottle from my pocket and shook it around the hole. I threw my old rosary’s bead it for good measure, but I knew, even as I carried out the small blessing, that it was not enough.”
He shook his head, sadly and went back to staring into the flames. I had no idea where the story was going, but I waited in the silence until he was ready to proceed.
“Two days later, the hole was filled in,” he said. “When I went back the ground was smooth over with concrete and there was no sign of what lay beneath the earth, waiting.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What were they doing?”
“That cur, Thomas, had used the headstones for the foundations of a house he was building.”
“No,” I was aghast at the idea.
“Oh, it’s not the first time something like this has happened,” he said. “And is it any wonder there are so many disturbed places in this country? The dead should be left alone. They have had their time on this earth, and deserve to be remembered. Taking their markers like that was pure sacrilege, and they wouldn’t put up with it. No, from the minute those stones hit the earth, it was tainted ground and there’d be no rest for anyone living above it.”
He got up to switch on the light, as the evening was drawing in. He heaped more sods of turf on the fire, and I was glad of the heat. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the story that made me shiver.
“What happened after the house was built?” I asked.
“A lovely couple bought it. They had two little girls and had come away from the city in search of a better life. A better life,” he gave a sad laugh. “They bought themselves a nightmare.”
A knock at the door of the cottage made me jump.
“That will be Sean now,” Bill eased his aching bones out of the chair. “It was he bought the house in the first place. I told him you would be here and he agreed to see you. I thought it better you hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
I watched Bill walk out into the small hallway and heard the opening of the door and his words of greeting. I picked up my glass and went to the sink. The water in the cottage comes from a well in the garden, and it’s always cold and clean-tasting. I was glad of its touch on my dry throat, because I knew once Bill’s visitor appeared, I would have to share in his nightmare.
Sean O Rourke looks ever day his fifty nine years and the wrinkles around his eyes are not caused by laughter. It is obvious he has suffered, and even if I didn’t know his story, I would have suspected as much. The first few moments after the introduction were awkward, but once Bill placed a glass of whiskey in his hand, Sean settled down. After a few sips he relaxed and the tension in his shoulders eased.
“I take it that Bill has told you about the house?” He looked at me.
“Yes, he had just finished the story when you knocked,” I said.
“You know its over twenty-three years and I still can’t shake the feeling of unease,” he took a big gulp from his glass. “I’m constantly on edge, looking over my shoulder, you know?”
I nodded; there was little I could say at this point.
“It’s the house down by the crossroads,” he said, explaining exactly where it was.
I knew the place well, but had assumed that its unlived in state was due to the usual Cain and Abel dispute, that occurs so often in this part of the country, as brother fights with brother over some parcel of land. I never took the time to ask about the house, as it is quite modern compared to the others surrounding it, and one doesn’t think of ghosts haunting new buildings. I have come to realise that this is not the case, and it is not only at night that things go bump. This is Sean’s story. I hope I can convey some of the terror of what he felt, not to frighten you, but so you can imagine the effect it had on his life.
Join me next week, as the tale unfolds, but don’t read it at night. It is at this time, when the curtain of night descends, that our senses are at their most potent, and we are more open to the creeping terrors of those things that lurk within the darkness.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley