Nestled on the brow of the common stands an old church. It’s a Gothic sort of place; gnarled and twisted with age, its roof battered by the elements and its gravestones eroded by wind and rain, just like the bodies of the once living sailors they contain.
Its a special place by daylight. Its where Grandad used to bring me as a boy to walk amongst the dead and reminisce; to remember the stories that lay behind the names.
Come night though it has a haunting, spectral feel about it. The darkness of an underworld descends upon it, inky blackness like you’ve never seen. The willow trees around the graveyard whisper in the wind, calling your name. Its somewhere to avoid lingering, to be bypassed and not waylaid.
It was the soft sound of singing, faint and wispy on the night air that drew me in. The tune was maudlin and sung with sadness, the voice a baritone male kept in time by the whistle of a harmonica. The words hung in the air.
“Oh, poor old Richard Parker,
A cabin boy was he,
Shipwrecked on his first sailing
Aboard the Mignonette…”
I crept forward along the pathway, edging closer towards the sound of harmonica and voice.
“A stranded in the Ocean,
Were three men and Richard see
For sixteen days they drifted,
Depending on God’s scant mercy…”
I knew the story well. Grandad had told it to me one day in the cemetery. I must have been about ten or eleven years old. It was a cold, windswept winter’s afternoon and so I wore my new Parka, zipped right up so you could only see a red tipped nose and innocent eyes from within the hood. They grew wider as he told the story with a glint in his own eyes.
“Now poor young Richard Parker,
Drank salt water did he,
And as he drifted heaven wards,
To draw lots did his shipmates agree…?”
Richard Parker had been a young orphan who grew up in the local sailing community. Against his guardians wishes he had signed up aboard the Mignonette, a racing yacht unfit for ocean travel, for a voyage to Australia.
“To survive the Mignonette’s sinking,
To eat an avoid tragedy,
And so the fate of Poor Parker,
Was to be the survival feast for three…”
Disaster befell the boat and the crew had found themselves adrift in the Pacific Ocean with no rescue in sight. Young Parker, parched by thirst and dehydration had drunk sea water, fallen delirious and on the brink of death. The surviving crew members had drawn lots and chosen to dispatch the dying Parker so they could survive on his meat.
With their rescue came notorious celebrity in early Victorian Britain and the surviving crew members were at first feted as survivors before being tried and acquitted for the murder of the young sailor.
Grandad had concluded the story with a knowing nod, his moral being that stupid buggers don’t survive and I had better not grow up to be a silly little bugger on his watch. Well, something to that effect I suspect.
Frost was beginning to form on the ground and leaves crack-crackled under foot, warning of my advance. Faint light glowed by a gnarled tree that I knew was where young Parker’s grave would be. The singing had stopped by now and I could see two men sat by the graveside, flickering shadows cast out from the small fire they had built, slurping noisily from beer cans.
One was tall and thin, lanky as my Grandma would have called him, with a long pointed nose, hair in a ponytail and a thin beard. He was dressed all in black; from pointed boots to denim jeans and faded shirt. The other appeared much shorter and plumper, laid out flat on the ground with his round face shrouded in a hooded top and head propped up on a broken piece of gravestone.
The taller of the two stood up and raised his can aloft, as if making a toast, whilst the smaller one watched him and smoked. The tip of his cigarette glowed amber red in the darkness. They looked like a couple of down and outs getting pissed in a secluded spot; no real trouble, just liable to get a bit loud. I edged closer and as I did a fallen branch snapped underfoot.
The taller one froze mid toast and turned around, peering into the darkness.
“Oye, ou’s thar?” he called out, words slurred from drink.
I wondered what to do; show myself and potentially face a confrontation for spying or turn tail and scurry away, the coward’s option. A small part of my brain wondered if they were even human. Ghosts in a graveyard, very Edgar Allan Poe. I took the plunge and stepped out from the darkness.
The taller of the two men stared at me for a moment, his eyes trying to focus as he swayed unsteadily on his feet.
“Alwite Guv’nor?” he slurred as he raised his can and shook it in my general direction.
“Fancy a drink?”
I thought about it for a moment then shrugged my shoulders and decided why the hell not.
The ground was cold and hard as I sat down. The beer can opened with a satisfying fizz and froth spurted out. I gulped at it greedily.
“Gud ya?” the taller asked with a knowing nod as he returned from taking a piss from behind a nearby gravestone.
“Yeah” I replied, “As good as gold, many thanks. I’m Marty by the way”
I took another long slurp before asking the obvious.
“So who are you two then?”
The taller one, who seemed to do all of the talking, replied for them both.
“Well squire, they call me Bob the Carpenter,” he bowed with a theatrical flourish as he spoke, “gentleman of life an all it purveys and this here is me friend an’quaintance Mongrel Jack.
The shorter of the two nodded at me on hearing his name and took another long drag on what I now suspected was a joint. The sickly smell of sweet herbs hung pungent in the air. The taller one continued.
“An I suspect yu’ll be awondering what exactly me an me main man ‘ere are doin on such a night as this? Well, let me tell ya squire that we is commerating the passing of the poor y’ung sailor that lays buried ‘ere thru the mediums of song, celebration and inebriation…
He raised his can in toast once again whilst swishing the other outwards to indicate the water beyond.
“…To the life of y’ung Parker who lays at tha bott’um of tha ocean out thar!”
And with that he slumped down onto the floor, laughing deeply with the baritone voice that was so mismatched with his tall, scrawny body, before launching into another melancholy old sailors song. Whilst Bob amused himself so Jack leant over, nudged me in the ribs to get my attention and offered me the joint he was smoking with a quizzical raise of his eyebrows. What the hell, I thought, as I took it from him, inhaled deeply and breathed out an ever expanding cloud of smoke into the night time air.
“It’s good.” I said, coughing slightly. Jack smiled and nodded in mute reply.
“Don’t say much do you Jack?”
“Yer what?” shouted Bob, taking a momentary break from his singing. He was on his feet now, dancing a drunken jig about the graves.
“I said, you don’t say much.” I replied.
Bob stopped dancing and starred at me.
“Don’t say much? I bludy talk all tha time man!”
I shook my head.
“No, I was saying that to Jack, he doesn’t say much.”
Bob looked at me as if I was stupid.
“E’s not likely to is ‘e, being bloody deaf and whatnot. Can’t speak can ’e, never learnt the wurds, on account of not ‘earing.”
As he spoke he crashed down beside me, close enough for me to feel his breath on my face and tapped himself on the forehead.
“Mind you, got the eye ‘as e. Canna see inside people’s minds, knows what they’r a finking for sure, knows more than ‘e lets un, little fuckar.”
Jack, bored with the conversation, leant over and plucked the joint from out of my hand and took a long, deep drag on it. Smoke once more billowed up into the air as he exhaled and spoke at the same time. Bob swigged his can then carried on speaking.
“Anyways y’ung Mar-tay, what ya doin out on a night like this?”
A good question.
“Couldn’t sleep so thought I’d go for a wander. We needed some milk and there’s an all night mini-mart down the road.”
I pointed further down the road towards Woolston, where all the sailors and their families used to live, long ago.
“An wont ur y’ung lady wunder where u are?” Bob enquired.
“There isn’t one,” I admitted quietly, “I live with my Grandad…”
It seemed almost embarrassing to admit it to these two but Bob just nodded his head sagely.
“Footloose an fancy free then, just like a y’ung ‘un should be,” he said as he gently punched me on the arm in that sort of manly way men do to try and be manly with other men, “good for y’u, lots of life an living to look forward to.”
Jack raised his can in agreement with that, so clearly he understood at least some of what we were talking about. I raised mine back in reply before draining the last dregs from it. Positive was not how I was feeling after the last few days but the joint was clearly having an effect as I grinned at Bob and announced a hearty
“Here’s to life!”
“ ‘ear, ‘ear!” Bob shouted back as he leant over and passed Jack the joint.
Maybe it was just the chemical effect, but sat here with these two it felt as if the stresses and strains of the previous weeks and months began to slip away, off of my shoulders and into the darkness beyond, purging my soul of the angst, anger and frustration caused by Grandad’s steady decline. In the distance the Guildhall clock tower chimed midnight, its bells echoing over the water. I had been sat here for at least an hour and could feel the cold of inactivity seeping under my skin and into my bones, so I stood up and swung my arms around a few times and stamped my feet to get the circulation going again. Bob and Jack continued to sit on the floor, watching me as if I was some sort of oddity who had dropped into their midst. Once up I figured it was time to go.
“A walk will get the old circulation going after all,” I told them.
They seemed as unconcerned about my going as they had my coming and, with a wave and a farewell, I walked back onto the road and headed down towards the shops.
Behind me Bob’s laughter faded until nothing was there. I glanced back, but they had already become hidden in the darkness of the night.
I have other short stories on this site. Have a look at Shopping, The Zuse Room & The Last Will and Testament of Simeon the False Prophet