The main topic of conversation in our street was the issue of digging up the bodies. Some argued that shifting bones at this time of year, in the autumn fogs, was bound to lead to some monumental cock-up and the Council should have planned it better. Others maintained that waiting for the fog to clear would cost the taxpayer even more and the sooner the graves were dug up, the contents identified, labelled and dispatched somewhere more convenient, the sooner work could begin on the new road, which most people, apart from the usual reactionaries, agreed was a good thing.
High screens around the graveyard prevented nosey-parkers from peering into the worksite, but most people said they wouldn’t be seen dead there anyway. Only a handful of protesters were left now, pacing back and forth in front of the fence, holding placards with words like SACRILEGE and R.I.P MEANS R.I.P in big black letters. Cycling past them, we thrilled to the krakka krakka whump of bulldozers and shovels mingling with the tinny music from the workers’ radios. Of course we’d been warned not to go anywhere near the graveyard while the work was in progress so naturally that was exactly where we gravitated.
After an hour or two of cycling round and round we still hadn’t seen a single skeleton emerge from behind the fence so what was the point in hanging about?
“Not sissy are you?” asked Terry, the leader of our gang, peering into my face.
He peered at me a bit longer, smirking the way he always did, then told the six of us to go home and meet up again when it was dark. He’d heard there’d be nobody working here tonight so we could climb over the fence and have a good poke around. None of us was keen on that idea, but we didn’t dare admit it.
At home I wrapped the string around the neck of my jar, looping some of it over to make a handle. Then I lit my candle, dripped wax on the bottom of the jar, stuck the candle in it and nipped the flame. After dinner my mother looked out the kitchen window and said, “Are you sure you want to go out tonight? It’s thick.” I said I’d be fine, so she reminded me to wrap up warm, stay away from the graveyard and not stay out too long. Then she tucked a box of matches into my coat pocket and reminded me not to burn my fingers.
Outside, I lit the candle and held the jar up in the dark. The fog dragged ragged veils over the terraced houses, the cracked concrete yards that everybody’s mothers scrubbed once a week, the outside lavvies inhabited by mice and spiders, the bombsite where the church used to be, the railway line, the Council allotments where men with vacant eyes and missing limbs spent their days supposedly digging, but mostly yelling at invisible enemies.
I loved the way the fog obscured the ordinary and the ugly and transformed the most mundane into a place where anything was possible. I even liked the idea of arriving at an unknown destination by not sticking to the rule of trailing my hand along the walls and counting the number of doorways. I was tempted to follow other lanterns I could see bobbing up and down the street. Some threw shadows over the railway line, another place we were told never to go, and where our gang would normally have gravitated on foggy nights. Terry said it was safe if you knew the train times and it wasn’t his fault what happened to Simon.
Outside the graveyard Terry grumbled that I was late as usual and then scaled the fence. Inside, we held up our lanterns to see what horrors were illuminated. But there was only a bulldozer, some boxes, tarpaulins and half a dozen empty graves.
“Let’s play Dare,” said Terry.
My heart sank. I was always the one who got caught when Terry issued dares. I hadn’t forgotten the beating I copped from Mr Golightly for uprooting his prize rose bushes for our Guy Fawkes bonfire, and for stealing money from his milk bottles. Never Terry. He ran faster, jumped higher and lied his way out of any situation more convincingly than the rest of us. I decided to beat him at his own game this time.
“I dare you to jump in that grave.”
I heard his sharp intake of breath.
“On the count of three,” I added. “One…two…”
Before I got to three he jumped. We shone our lanterns into the grave and saw him crouching there rubbing his ankle and groaning.
“Double dare you to stay there all night, eh Terry?”
We waited. We couldn’t make out what he said.
“Goodnight then Terry. Sweet dreams.”
On the way home we were laughing so much we could hardly walk straight. We wondered if we should creep back later with white sheets and make woo-hoo noises. Terry wasn’t easily scared, but we thought that might do it. What stopped us was knowing what Terry would do to us in retaliation.
“Did you and your friends have fun playing hide and seek?” my mother asked as I walked in the door.
“Yup,” I replied.
She made me some toast. As I bit into the melted butter I wondered what kind of revenge Terry would extract after his long night in the grave. I couldn’t think of anything that would top what we’d done to him. When the workers found him in the morning I knew he wouldn’t rat on us. He would never damage his reputation doing that.
My mother ruffled my hair and smiled when she saw me warming my feet in front of the fire. “Poor lamb. Your teeth were chattering when you came in,” she said. “There’s going to be a hard frost overnight. I’m glad you’re not out there catching your death.”
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of A Distraction of Opposites, Tomorrow’s Empire and Sing no Sad Songs. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand, published in literary journals including Landfall, Sport and Takahe, and anthologised in Social Alternatives, Dreadlocks and The Best New Zealand Fiction, amongst others. Her awards include the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack,Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South, Spontaneity, Spelk and The Baby Shoes Project. She has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017.
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