The woods grew thick around them. The tree trunks were twisted, the bark swollen and scarred, the roots bursting out of the ground like deformed feet with great gnarled toes. Vines crept and slithered, cobwebs shook in the wind, yesterday’s rain was still falling from leaf to leaf to the ground.
But there was no one around.
They came out of the woods onto a bare hillock strewn with rocks and weeds. The track ran around it, along the line of a rusty fence. Beyond the fence, the ground fell steeply to the fields below. In the distance, a morning mist touched the spire of an old church.
In front of the fence, there was a post with a weather-beaten sign nailed to it that said, Sodding Hills Barrow Mound Next to the post stood a rusty wire rubbish bin, with another peeling sign tied to it. Keep Historical Britain Tidy And under the sign was written, CRIBBLE-SODDING WAS THE PROUD RECIPIENT OF THE KEEP SEASIDE BRITAIN TIDY AWARD, 1967
Alec glared at the hillock.
“Barrow Mound? How do they know it’s a Barrow Mound?”
“Made in the Iron Age, it says here.”
“Who is to say it’s not just an ordinary bloody little hill?”
“Because it looks to me like an ordinary bloody little hill.”
“By the Beaker People themselves.”
“Come on. Let’s get on with it.”
They swung the shovels onto their shoulders and retraced their steps along the winding track. Tommy was carrying a pair of rusty garden shears he had borrowed from Mrs. Eaton’s tool shed and with which he planned to cut the tent cords.
“A nurse in the hospital is running down the corridor with a pair of shears just like these. She’s chasing after a patient, a man who’s stark naked. There’s a mad glint in her eyes. The doctor comes running after them, shouting – Nurse! Nurse! No! I said slip off his spectacles.”
“At least it’s stopped raining.”
“Next day, the same nurse is running down the corridor chasing after another naked bloke. This time, she’s carrying a bowl of boiling water and her tongue is hanging out. The doctor comes running after them, shouting – Nurse! Nurse! No! I said prick his boil!”
Alec squinted down at him.
They came into the clearing.
“Where was it?”
“Over there, under those trees.”
The earth smelt of graveyard.
“The first time in my life I’m unfaithful to my wife, I end up in bed cuddling a bloke.”
They thrust their shovels into the soil, and soon the edge of Tommy’s hit Martin Bullock. At that moment, Mabel called. Alec stepped away and stood under a dripping branch.
“I cannot believe the coldness of your heart, Alec. I am accustomed to being treated like a piece of the furniture. I have felt like one for many years. But now I realize that I am nothing more to you than a bag of rubbish you forgot to take out.”
The big raindrops from the branch hit the crown of his head like cold bricks.
“We waited, but you didn’t come home. And now I have nothing left to say to you. But there is someone here who does have some words for you.”
The telephone changed hands.
“Mr. Swipple? My name is Derek Whitby. We met briefly at my front door yesterday. I’m in love with your wife. And she is in love with me. I can’t say it anymore plainly. We love each other deeply. We’ve both wrestled with this passion and agonized over it. We can’t go on leading double lives like this.”
Tommy tapped his shoulder.
“It’s not him.”
“What? Give me a second, Derek.”
“It’s a dead body, but it’s not Martin Bullock.”
“Derek, something unexpected has come up. I’ll call you back later.”
The corpse wore a worm-eaten jacket in which all kinds of crawling things had made their homes. Beneath the jacket was only bones. Alec stepped up for a closer examination.
“He doesn’t have a head.”
“Isn’t that it?”
“Near your feet.”
“I must have brought it up with the soil.”
The skull was wearing a black knit cap pulled down low over the gaping eye sockets.
Alec kicked it back to its owner.
“I wonder who he was.”
“It’s none of our business who he was, Tommy. Cover him back up.”
The dirt blocked out the brief light that had disturbed the corpse’s rest and returned him to darkness.
“So where’s Martin?”
“He can’t be very far away.”