“Imagine you are in a very dark room; a cellar” the undertaker tried to explain. His deep doom-laden voice brought a slight chill to cosy living room of the vicarage. The way his tone rumbled with the rich eloquence of a classical education mixed with a delicate blend of sympathy and depression was fabulously macabre, Nigel Timmis mused.
“Imagine you’re looking for something” the funeral director continued. “But its pitch black in there and you can’t see a thing. Now, you do have a torch but the batteries are almost gone. So when you switch it on the light it casts is very dim and you only have a few moments to search the darkness and learn what is hidden before the illumination is gone and you’re once again blind to the treasure hidden just out of sight”.
Outside the grey midwinter sun began to set. The fire in the open hearth crackled invitingly, sending flickering shadows dancing over the walls accentuating the speaker’s deathly features. Nearly seven feet tall Guy Alderman of Alderman and Son’s Funeral Services carried a thin gaunt frame. His black hair, greying at the temples was always combed backwards which, together with his sallow cheeks and sunken eyes, gave him an uncanny likeness to Christopher Lee’s Dracula. Guy Alderman looked and sounded the archetypal undertaker and the vicar always believed he should have been in the theatre. Nigel had prayed his long term friend would join the church’s amateur dramatics society on occasions too numerous to mentions but alas he had always bowed out. He didn’t share Nigel’s flamboyant disposition, which was a tragic loss both to the group and the entire community.
“What I am about to tell you, Nigel, must go no further than these four walls” his long-time friend intoned gravely. “That trip I was telling you about has been brought forward and I must leave. Tonight”. Nigel had suspected something was amiss earlier when Guy telephoned to announce his visit. He never usually rang. Then when he arrived, Nigel had observed the surreptitious way his friend had scuttled into the vicarage after casting what looked like a nervous glance, if such an emotion were possible for Guy Alderman, around the snow covered churchyard next door. Outside the wind was picking up, rustling the branches of the fir trees that spread amongst the old crumbling gravestones. Flurries of freshly fallen snow danced through the air with the most intricate choreography that God could possibly conduct, before settling on the trees and headstones.
For a long time Nigel had suspected there was something his dear friend was hiding. It was that faraway look in his piercing eyes that suggested to the overly imaginative vicar that there was something lurking below the surface. God had failed to bless Nigel with a great capacity for patience and he often wrestled with his curiosity and imagination as to what macabre secrets his old friend harboured. His very active, if not eccentric imagination conjured up countless scenarios: Perhaps Guy Alderman had been a spy in a former life? Or maybe he was a serial killer? Or perhaps he was in some kind of witness protection programme? But no matter how hard he tried to coax it out of his comrade; he had not revealed a thing, until tonight.
The snow had begun to fall again and the wind outside blew stronger, rattling the window panes as if they were cheap stage props. Nigel took another sip of his whiskey and settled back into his seat feeling the fiery malt warmed his throat a pleasant hint of sandlewood and ginger. The aroma tingled his nose with its woody bouquet and making him long for one of the cigars he had given up at lent.
“I must insist you tell me what’s brought this on” Nigel prompted. “You know I can be the very embodiment of discretion”.
The other man was sat stiffly in his chair as if rigour-mortis had already set in. Nigel watched his companion examine his glass in the firelight, swirling the liquid around before continuing in his slow commanding yet regretful tone of voice. “Death has always terrified me” he confessed. “Ever since I was a child I remember lying in bed and worrying about what happens when we die”.
“It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to work out why you joined the family business then, dear fellow” the vicar chuckled with a flourish of his hand. “Tell me what’s happened to prompt this sudden trip of yours?”
Guy gazed out of the window onto the churchyard next door. He seemed to stare at the tops of the headstones just visible over the low wall for several moments. His distant faraway look had returned but then quickly fell away as he continued his monologue. “I thought if I understood death more it would no longer worry me so I started exploring religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, but none of them gave me any real answers. I couldn’t find what I was looking for – proof of an afterlife. So, when theology didn’t give me the answers I turned to psychology; studying the works of Kastenbaum, Reenberg, and Solomon. But again, they didn’t go far enough. My need to know became an obsession that took over my life for a time. I began to travel to distant places to search for answers. In Iraq I found what I was looking for. There, a group of people shared their sacred teachings with me and I devoured everything they could show me” His eyes sparked in a rare display of emotion as a fanatical zeal electrified his face. Clearly, Nigel saw, God hadn’t intended Guy’s face to be used for smiling.
“Then when I returned to England I began to practice”. He paused to glance through the window into the churchyard again. Nigel followed turned in his seat to follow his friends gaze but saw little in the soft white vista. Guy said nothing for several moments. A lifetime of listening to parishioner’s tales had taught Nigel the value of silence in a conversation and he enjoyed the delicious sense of anticipation bubbling in his chest while he waited for the undertaker to finally reveal his secret. Nigel, indulging his darker side and certain that God would surely over-look such mild indiscretion, hoped it would be something wonderfully ghastly.
Outside the wind blew stronger shrieking frantically through some unseen gap in the window frame. Nigel was glad to be indoors on a night like this and took another sip of his drink to warm his insides.
“I…” the undertaker sighed as if struggling to find the correct words. “This may sound farfetched but I need you to listen to me carefully”. It was such a waste he wasn’t in the theatre, Nigel lamented. He had a natural flare for the dramatic.
“I learned about a person’s soul from those teachers in Iraq. They taught me how to communicate with it after a person dies”.
“You mean like a medium, a séance?” Nigel was disappointed.
“No, no” he waved the comment away. “Necromancy” the word dropped from his mouth as if he were talking about something as normal and mundane as afternoon tea.
“Goodness gracious Guy, I’m afraid you’ve lost me” Nigel uttered feeling quite baffled.
“Then allow me to be blunt” Guy said in a fabulously sinister tone. “I’ve been performing rituals to raise the dead! When someone dies their soul leaves behind an echo of their personality and their memories. When I call them back I talk with them and have complete control over them as if I were a puppeteer. But their ability to speak, like their memories, quickly fades like a battery that is nearly empty. When they first awaken I there are a precious few minutes where they can still recall their life and their death and what happened next. When they have gone I’m just left with an empty shell, which I release again before the body is prepared for burial. These practices are still used in some remote areas throughout the Middle East but it is fiercely guarded, for obvious reasons. That is why I must go away tonight. If people knew of this practice there would be uproar. In fact, in order to maintain its secrecy I have been forced to do something quite terrible”.
Nigel put his glass down on the pine coffee table with a shiver as if someone had just walked over his grave. The howling wind and snow continued their screaming beyond the walls of the vicarage, bringing with it images from the darkest fairy tales; of skeletons waking from their eternal sleep to stalk unsuspecting travellers as they pass by ancient graveyards.
“… OK” the vicar replied mentally shaking his head and carefully drawing on all his acting skills to present a look of interest while hoping it wasn’t being received as patronising. “That’s an incredible story…”
“I don’t need you to believe me; I just need you to listen, Nigel” the undertaker’s tone changed and the living room seemed to grow colder and darker, despite the fire in the hearth. “When I’m gone I want someone to know about me, to remember me. I am telling you this because I trust you with this information and no one else. Unfortunately someone else was trying to learn about my research. She’s some kind of journalist and she’s been following me for the last few weeks. I’m troubled by how much she may already know or suspect”.
“Of course, old fellow, you need to keep it all close to your chest. Quite understandable” Nigel cleared his throat. He took another large swallow of his whiskey as Guy’s preoccupation with the graveyard seemed to have returned again. Nigel cautiously peered out as well but saw nothing of concern beyond the wall.
“You don’t think she’s she outside now do you?”
“Not anymore” the undertaker replied quietly. “She was there earlier, armed with her camera and goodness knows what other kind of recording equipment. But she’s gone now”.
“What if she comes back here? What would one say to her?”
“She won’t come back here” Guy Alderman rumbled quietly. He sounded more sinister than ever now. So much so that if Nigel hadn’t had the pleasure of being acquainted with him for the last fifteen years he may have felt quite unnerved by the dreadful resonance in his voice.
Nigel began a silent prayer for his friend as he opened the front door to let the funeral director out. Many discordant thoughts, like a choir in disharmony, clamoured for attention in the vicar’s mind. As his visitor left all Nigel could manage by way of a farewell was a weak; “God be with you”.
To which Guy Alderman replied solemnly: “No, I don’t think he will be, old friend”.
Flurries of snow raced through the garden and the old churchyard, swirling in the chill air before they descended to earth to settle on the trampled snow. Nigel remained on the doorstep for a few minutes watching the snowflakes after Guy had reached the end of the path and disappeared down the road. It wouldn’t take long for the fresh snow to cover the disturbed earth and strange trampling footprints that had mysteriously appeared around a number of the gravestones next door. It was as if something or some things had been prowling around outside while they had been talking. What was strange was about them was that the footprints were well away from the path. They seemed to begin and end in mounds of snow and brown earth, at the foot of individual headstones. Whoever had made them, there was no sign of them now. The wind was fading to a low whistle and thankfully, it was no longer screaming. Still, the air felt tense. Charged by his imagination Nigel hurried back inside and as he locked and bolted the door he hoped, regretfully, that he would never see his friend again.
Continued in Part 2
I have had stories published with yourself as well as on Microhorror, Popcorn Horror and local magazines. I also run a website entitled Black Cat Tales (blackcattales.weebly.com).