Joan stood before the wrought iron gate, a sense of trepidation gnawing at her. It wasn’t a feeling of danger, merely apprehension about what was likely to happen in the coming minutes. Two days previously, she had followed the coffin of her dear departed mother down this gravel pathway, supported and comforted by a small group of friends and well-wishers. Naturally, she had broken down a little, but the presence of other people had served to reassure her. Now it was her, alone.
Looking around the carpark at the entrance to the cemetery, she noticed hers was the only car, which only reinforced her sense of isolation and loneliness. The day was overcast and threatened rain at a moment’s notice. Wind soughed through the trees and hedgerows, a wailing cacophony that sounded like the massed sighs of the recently deceased. Taking a deep breath and composing herself, Joan took a step forward, clutched the handle and opened the gate.
As she walked down the path, gravel crunching underfoot, her grief grew with each step. Pausing where the path opened into the graveyard itself, she had a momentary blank in her mind. Where was the burial plot? It was almost as if her subconscious was trying to protect her. Perhaps it was too soon to pay her respects, the emotion too raw.
She closed her eyes and balled her fists, willing the pain to go away, which was as likely as being able to lift herself from the floor by her own shoelaces. Opening her eyes and looking up, her mind cleared and it came back to her. Her mother was buried to the left, behind a centuries old mausoleum which had fallen into a state of disrepair. Perhaps the family line had passed away, or in today’s selfish society, the honouring of your ancestors was a much lower priority to people. Joan continued walking down the side path, past the mausoleum doors that had long since been broken and lay open. Litter and alcohol containers were strewn across the steps to the entrance and graffiti could be seen just within the main doors.
Her pace slowed as she reached the plot. Her fear and sorrow grew to such an extent that her chest became tight and she could barely draw breath. The mud was still piled where the coffin had displaced it, only a small patch in the middle seeming to have sunk in. Flowers stood around the headstone, although after two days they had started to wilt. Something that had been so lovely was now another stark reminder of what was occurring only six feet under the soil to her beautiful mother. Joan stood before the gravestone which bore the details of her mother;
June 16th 1952 – September 12th 2015.
She lives with us in memory, and will forever more.
All strength left her and Joan fell to her knees, only the soft, loamy soil preventing damage to her joints. She put her face in her hands, racking sobs escaped her and she cried out; “I miss you Mum, I miss you so much.”
Joan would have given anything to have someone there with her to lean on, to share the burden of sorrow, but it was not to be. Her mother had been a troubled woman, finding it hard to express herself and make friends. Her father had been killed in an industrial accident when Joan had been only a year old. Suddenly left alone with an infant had only served to make her mother more withdrawn and introverted. As the years had passed, caring for her mother had left Joan no time for her own life, which is why she had never married, or had children.
Her sobbing subsided a little. Looking up from her hands, she glanced around and noticed that a few other people had arrived. It served to reduce her feeling of isolation and gave her some relief. The improvement in her fragile emotional state was short lived. Embarrassment flushed her cheeks because the other mourners’ attention was fixed on her. They must have thought she was making such a scene with her crying and wailing. She looked away, concentrating on the grave instead, trying to cool her burning face. She did not notice the movement at the broken entrance to the mausoleum, or how the other people in the cemetery had begun to slowly, clumsily, make their way toward her. If she had been in a better frame of mind, she may have even noticed the mode of dress of the others; how it was entirely suits and dresses, and how they were all covered in dirt and other filth.
Staring intently at the grave, she noticed some movement on the broken earth, a bit more sunk into the depression that had already formed in the middle. Mud began to move more freely, and she thought to herself, ‘I was sure moles were nocturnal creatures, how strange to see one in daylight.’ Looking around at the surrounding area, there were no other signs of disturbance, no more mounds where the moles had surfaced, which seemed strange.
Looking back to the grave, her mind reeled, and horror rooted her to the spot. She couldn’t breathe, only stare in disbelief at what was occurring only two feet in front of her. No cute, blind creature was disturbing the soil. What had appeared were the fingers of a human hand; skin torn and hanging in flaps from the digging, nails missing and bones showing through the flesh. Reality hit her with a hammer blow when she finally noticed the ravaged wedding finger with the loose, dirty, gold ring that her father had slid onto her mother’s finger at Bosham Church, over forty years ago. Her chest clenched with an agonising tightness and her arm went numb. Crashing waves of pain washed over her and her vision began to blur as she grasped at her chest, struggling in vain to rise. I’m having a heart attack, she thought to herself absent-mindedly. The combination of grief, pain and shock was inuring her from the unfolding events. Falling to her side as the darkness overwhelmed her, Joan now saw that both arms had broken free of the soil. Mother would be horrified to see how dirty her dress is, Joan mused, as she watched the sleeves rise, the dead fingers flexing. Something that could never be, was now trying to sit up, soil cascading from the rising mound. Mercifully, Joan’s mind shut down before the blasphemous reunion of mother and daughter could take place. Joan did not feel the teeth of the body that had dragged itself from the mausoleum behind her, nor her mother’s cold embrace.
Frank sat on the worn barstool, sponge padding showing through the split leather. One stool leg had worked itself loose, causing it to rock when his weight was shifted forwards and backwards. He sat there rocking himself like an infant, calming himself as best he could from the rage that was building. He was so mad these days, the simmering anger never far away. Last week, it was his boss who had suffered Frank’s wrath after criticising his bricklaying for being poor. Two missing teeth and a split eyebrow had finished that job off, followed by six hours in a police cell and a court appearance in two weeks’ time. ‘Fucking wanker!’ Frank thought to himself, as he finished the pint in one large swallow before slamming the glass down with sufficient force to risk breaking it.
Squeezing the glass, he looked up and saw his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He was in his mid-fifties with a shaven head, eyes glaring and teeth bared, veins throbbing in his temples, and beads of sweat forming on his brow. He had grey stubble on his worn face, where it had once been black. The bartender was eyeing him warily, unsure if this was to be one of the infamous blow ups that Frank was renowned for.
Taking a deep breath and relaxing his grip, Frank rocked backwards and took stock of his surroundings. Everything had an air of dilapidation. The bar was worn and stained with spilled drinks and cigarette burns from years of misuse. The landlord knew that this was never going to be a popular family pub, with a restaurant and a more discerning customer. It was why he never invested any money in it, except for essential maintenance such as when the toilets were vandalised or windows were smashed from a particularly rowdy night. The owner had tried to sell on several occasions, but had no offers. The prospective buyer just had to look at the patrons to see the problems they would inherit.
It was the most local pub to Portsmouth Football Clubs’ ground, which meant it was the go to place for the 6:57 crew; PFCs band of loyal football hooligans, which got the name by travelling on the 6:57 train service to away games. The pub had been Frank’s boozer of choice since he was fifteen years old and followed his brother into the crew. He was aware that he was on a final warning; any more aggravation would mean a lifetime ban from the Hare and Hound and all surrounding establishments. That would be intolerable.
The bartender gingerly approached and asked, “Refill Frank?”
“Carling,” he grumbled in reply, before turning and making his way towards the heavy entrance doors. Grateful that the situation had calmed down a little, the barman picked a fresh glass and began pouring a new pint. Conversation resumed around the bar, quiet and focused on what could have happened moments before.
Pulling the brass handle, he walked out into the cold morning and over to the smoking area. Fucking government! The indoor smoking ban was a big fuck you to the working man who built this country, he thought to himself. Looking around, his mood was darkening as he lit the
cigarette and drew deeply. The sky was dark grey and cold wind beat against him, causing goose bumps to rise on his exposed arms. Blowing the smoke out in a thin stream, he began to think about better times.
Twenty years ago was the heyday of the football hooligans, firms from all the great clubs would organise and meet for fights. It had been glorious! Frank had been top boy for several years and was feared up and down the country. He was a legend, who had been stabbed during one brawl, but still fought on with the blade embedded in his flesh. The good times had gone on for several years, until the ‘powers that be’ decided this behaviour was a blight on the country and local communities. After a vicious battle in Millwall, he had been arrested and imprisoned for four years as a menace to decent society. The prison time had been relatively easy, as had the subsequent periods when he had been locked away for various nefarious activities. Coming out of the reverie, his mood, momentarily elevated with thoughts of the glory days, crashed.
He finished the cigarette and ground it angrily under his boot heel. Hearing a metallic rattle from a van that needed urgent engine work, he watched as the vehicle pulled into the carpark. “Johnsons Decorating Services” was emblazoned on the side. Smiling to himself, Frank got up from the bench and walked over.
“Oy, you old bastard!” Frank called out as he approached.
“Less of the old, you fucker!” came the chuckling reply from the driver’s seat.
Climbing out, Alan Johnson was an imposing figure. He stood six foot two and was seventeen stone with barely an inch of skin unmarked by tattoos. Alan had been with Frank all through the 6:57 days. The muscles had started to soften in the past few years and the beer had taken a toll on the belly of his friend, but back in the day he had been totally fearless. It had often been the pair of them at the front of any trouble that had come their way.
“How long you been here?” Alan asked, locking the van door.
“Since opening, about nine o’clock,” replied Frank.
“And you’re not rat arsed? It’s nearly lunchtime!” Alan laughed as he began walking towards the pub entrance.
“Nah, I’ve been nursing my pints, Jobseekers benefits pay sod all,” he grumbled.
“Well, we finished the school refurbishment early, the boys have gone home and I’ve got cash. Let’s get you a proper drink!” he said, putting his arm around Frank’s shoulder and giving it a supportive squeeze. “You will find something soon enough.”
“I’ll probably be going to prison again in two weeks’ time, so I’m not bothering to look. If I only get a fine, I’ll see what work’s about then.”
“Ah, I forgot about that, mate. Bloody liberty, taking the piss out of your work, no wonder you punched him,” commiserated Alan.
“Mmm,” agreed Frank, lowering his head and looking at his dirty shoes as they took each step. He knew that his workmanship was not up to scratch recently. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed. Maybe he wanted to go back to prison, things made sense in there. As a violent offender with a reputation, he was idolised. The youngsters would ask him to tell stories of his fights on the football terraces. He was ‘someone’. Out here, there was always a sense of pity toward him, as if time had left him behind.
Nearing the entrance and lost in thought, he heard Alan gasp and then burst out laughing. No more than ten metres away, a man was shuffling towards them with his arms outstretched. He was shuffling because his trousers had fallen around his ankles, catching his legs as he tried to walk. His shrivelled penis was on show for the world, tucked into a dark patch of hair. A soft moan, as well as a trickle of brown spittle, was coming from the man’s mouth. The initial hilarity was over, Frank realised there was something wrong with this whole situation. Alan’s laughter had ceased, he too had noticed the milky, white coating on the man’s eyeballs, the greyness of the skin, and the mottled dark patches at the bottom of the legs.
“What the fuck is your problem, eh?” Frank growled threateningly as he stepped towards the man.
“Leave it, Frank, let’s get inside,” said Alan.
Frank was shocked to hear real panic in Alan’s voice for the first time in his life. In the brief moment it had taken for Frank to look over his shoulder at his friend, and see the frantic look in his eyes, the stranger had cleared the distance and grabbed his outstretched arm. Almost in slow motion, Frank felt the coldness of the grip as it closed around his wrist. It was as cold as ice, and strong. He saw that the open mouth had dirty teeth, and he froze as the mouth clamped down on his skin. Agony broke the spell and Frank roared in pain. Wrenching his arm free of the vicelike grip was not easy, but the pain and adrenaline rush proved enough. A welter of blood sprayed from the open wound as the strange man stumbled backwards, while chewing the flesh he had just torn from Frank’s arm. Frank clutched at the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood that poured through his fingers. Alan stepped forward and delivered a crushing right hook to the jaw of the psycho. The bone broke, the jaw dropped away to the left, but amazingly, the man didn’t fall to the ground. He didn’t seem to be in any discomfort at all, instead, he appeared to still be trying to chew! Using all his weight, Alan pushed the man full in the chest and the trousers did the job that the punch could not, he fell backwards and hit the ground hard. Rushing forward, the two men rained kicks at the prone body, which was trying to regain its footing. Screaming obscenities, Frank started to stamp on the stranger’s head, once, twice, three times. Then bone split and fluid began to run onto the tarmac. One more stomp and the figure was still, certainly dead, with brain clearly visible in the sun.
“What have you done, Frank?” Alan gasped, breathing heavily from the exertions of kicking the man repeatedly. Frank just stood there, cradling his arm, trying not to notice the stains on his shoes, or the sticky puddle that was spreading toward them.
“Jesus Christ!” Alan shrieked, motioning for Frank to look towards the entrance of the carpark. Turning towards the frantically pointing finger, Frank’s mind could not make sense of the scene. Four people had turned the corner, and like the previous assailant, were moaning with their arms outstretched. That was where the similarity ended. These ‘people’ were in a much worse state of decay. Flesh was visibly peeling from bones and clothing was stained and wet with the leaking fluids of corruption. The slowest of the group was in the worst state. Leaving pieces of herself as she went, one arm had come away from the shoulder completely and dangled by a few tendons. Her other arm was raised, but was shedding putrid flesh. Fingers, toes and eyeballs were not present.
The two men grabbed each other, for support as well as reassurance, and slammed the front door of the pub open in their rush to get inside. Alan shut the door and jammed home the top and bottom deadbolts, which were made of solid iron.
“Whoa! Careful,” the barman admonished at the slamming of the door. “Why are you locking the doors?” His eyes went from Alan to Frank, and then to the blood that was still running down Frank’s arm onto the carpet.
“What the hell happened, what did you do to him?” he shouted at Alan, while reaching for the phone.
“Fuck all, it was something outside, get him a towel and call an ambulance, NOW!”
The bartender tossed them a clean towel. Frank wrapped it tightly to the wound, and made his way to the men’s toilets. Aware of the chaotic activity that he had left in his wake at the bar, he saw Alan checking the doors once again and heard the barman shouting; “It’s engaged, how the hell is 999 engaged?”
Just before the toilet door swung shut on him, Frank heard the first knockings of fists on the wood entrance door of the pub. Walking to the wash basin, he removed the towel and ran cold water on the wound. The blood had stopped spurting from the bite, only the slowest dribble of blood issued from the torn veins. Fingering the edges of the wound, he found it remarkable that it could hurt so little. His body felt strange, lethargic and slow. Usually strong as an ox, he suddenly felt as weak as a kitten, more tired than he had ever been in his life. He managed to stumble into a stall before slumping on the toilet and splitting the seat into pieces. ‘I’ll just rest here for a few minutes,’ he thought before closing his eyes.
“Keep trying to get an ambulance here! I’m going to see how Frank is,” Alan told the barman as he made his way to the toilet, shooting fearful glances at the doors and the silhouettes visible in the frosted glass. The barman needed no such advice and was redialling at a lightening pace. Entering the toilets, Alan noticed the blood stained towel hanging on the basin and the tap still running.
“Frank?” Alan inquired. Looking around, he saw feet protruding from one of the stalls. Frank was slumped there, arms hanging to the side, no blood running from the wound at all. Had he bled out?
“Oh God, Frank!” he exclaimed. Rushing over and kneeling down on the cold, tiled floor he checked for a pulse, but found none. Alan lowered his head, not noticing Frank’s eyes and how they slowly opened, filled with a vacant look with mismatched pupils from the death that had occurred moments ago. Alan heard a faint, guttural moan and glanced up as Frank lunged and clamped on to the neck of his friend. Teeth biting deep before Alan could even scream, the flesh came away, spraying the cubicle red. Frank fed on his fallen friend, their love forgotten by his dead mind.
Frank and Alan re-entered the bar area minutes later while the barman was still focused on the phone, trying to reach an ambulance. Outside, more had joined the group at the doors. The screams that followed from inside only served to drive them into a frenzy, banging and clawing at the heavy oak doors in desperation to get inside and feed. When silence returned, those outside moved off. From inside came the first rapping’s of flesh on wood from those who wanted to join them.