He was standing over a pint in a pub, listening to the mournful bells tolling the late hour from the church tower. Next to him, an old man in a faded suit rolled a snifter of brandy round and round under his nose. They were the only customers left, and the old man suddenly said:
“It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? Life, I mean. The things that happen.”
Tommy couldn’t disagree.
“And they’re all connected, those things. To give you an example. The other morning on the radio I heard an interview with a famous rock climber. Then, on the bus into the City, I read in the newspaper about vandals defacing some ancient rock paintings in a cave in France. The calendar on my office wall has got a picture of a Japanese rock garden on it. On my way home, I dropped by the local library. The first book I picked up was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. Do you see what I’m getting at, about everything being connected? I’ve studied these things, you know. I belong to societies. They send me newsletters.”
“Graham Greene’s dead.”
“Years ago. Isn’t he?”
“Well, I expect he is by now. But dying doesn’t mean much. My wife’s mother died twice already and she’s still with us. Once, in a traffic accident, and again during an operation on her womb. She claims she hovered both times out of her body. The first time, she memorized the number plate of the ambulance. The second time, she heard the doctor say, Oh shit. God obviously didn’t want her, which is understandable.”
He sipped his brandy.
“Did you know they found Jesus Christ’s bones?”
“I thought he died on the Cross.”
“Obviously he didn’t, if they found his bones. The Vatican is keeping it a secret.”
“Where’d they find them?”
“In the south of France. He was married. Did you know that?”
“I didn’t. Who to?”
“Mary Magdalene. They had a daughter. Sarah.”
“How do they know it’s his bones?”
He finished his brandy.
“Well, I must get on home. It was nice to have talked to you, nice to get some intelligent conversation for a change. Good night.”
After he went, Tommy looked at the dregs of beer in his glass and at the barman.
“Have I got time for one more pint before you close?”
“Not if you’re driving. Are you?”
“Yeah. I’ve got to pick up a bloke.”
“Then you better not have any more. He won’t be very happy having you pick him up as pissed as you’re getting.”
“He won’t mind.”
“He will if you crash into a lamp post and kill him.”
“No he won’t.”
Tommy took the last swallow of beer.
“Good night, sir,” the barman said. “Watch how you go.”
When he came out into the cold, a wind blowing in from the Hackney marshes hurt his cheeks like ground glass. The Rover’s heater wasn’t working, so Tommy’s icy breath steamed up the windscreen as the vehicle bounced blindly over the rutted track into the site and lurched to a stop with the headlights framing the mound of earth in which, somewhere, Martin Bullock lay.
Tommy found the shovel and the pick-axe he had hidden when he knocked off work and he used the pick-axe to break the frost-hardened surface of the soil before stabbing into it, this place and that, until he hit the solid resistance of the tent.
Like an archeologist, he dug the hard soil from around the corpse trapped inside it.
“Come on, out with you. Come on, lad.”
And he told it another joke.
(The dead make Tommy’s best audiences.)
“Have you heard the one about the woman and the baby in the burning council flat? She’s on the seventh floor at the window, screaming – Save my little baby! Save my baby! The firemen are underneath shouting – Throw him down. But the woman’s frightened, afraid they’ll drop him. One of them calls up – Don’t worry, luv. Barry here used to be a professional goalkeeper. He’ll catch your child. Come on, luv, before it’s too late.”
Tommy grasped the icy canvas and pulled it down onto the ground.
“Barry braced himself under the window, arms ready to catch the baby. The neighbours are watching. Everybody’s tense. The woman throws him out. The little bloke falls, screaming. Barry catches him. There’s a cheer, then a stunned silence as Barry bounces him twice on the ground and kicks him over a fence.”
He dragged the tent to the car. The night before, Martin had be pliable and cooperative. Now he was as hard as an ironing board. And that ironing board wouldn’t fit into the trunk.
Standing on his back (or his stomach; he wasn’t sure), Tommy grasped the legs, forced them back, pushed at them and sat on them until something snapped and he was able to get the broken ironing board into the trunk.
When he threw the shovel into the trunk, it bounced off the canvas. He tried to grab it, but in the dark he couldn’t see what part he was catching, and the sharp edge cut into the palm of his right hand, searing it with pain.