The Spade Man
We should have just murdered them, of course. I came up with the idea years before those Ulster bandits Burke and Hare started butchering their tenants and selling the bodies warm, but my partner Comstock was too sensitive to consider it. Said it was ungodly, even when I pointed out that a fresher corpse made for improved anatomical studies (and compensation). He wasn’t interested in capitalizing on profits though; perhaps I should have ditched him outright. But he was an old friend and besides, when it came to bodysnatching there was no-one better or more ingenious than my pious associate.
In our time together, Comstock and I had disinterred over two dozen cadavers for dissection in the medical schools. We were the unsung heroes of anatomical science in Edinburgh. I won’t pretend it was all about altruistic philanthropy and research though. This was before the Anatomy Act of 1832, and our profit margins were obscene: £4/4 on army pensioners and children, £9/9 on healthy adults, and a paltry £1/10 for trollops, whose bodies are subjected to so much trade in life they have little value in death.
Comstock had come down with cholera and was spending his days emptying gallons of yellow matter into the bedpan. When I visited he looked marginally less alive than some of the commodities we’d hauled from the ground over the years. Conversing through the iron-barred window, he claimed to be receiving the very best of modern treatment, courtesy of our friends at the laboratory – the phlebotomist’s leeches, experimental blistering, there was even vague talk of amputation – but I took one long look at his pallid face before I left, just in case.
We had a snatch planned for that same evening, and Comstock recommended to me his own nephew, a young chap called Willis, as substitute. The boy’s mother was an ‘actress’ and nobody seemed to know who the father was. As Comstock had cared for the lad since childhood, I couldn’t very well tell him the boy was a complete halfwit.
I arranged to meet Willis outside the kirkyard at seven, the hour when the sun dipped beneath the bulb of Arthur’s Seat. The evening was cool and dry, perfect weather for preservation. I pulled my hat across my brow and loitered at the side of the thoroughfare, walking back and forth ten paces at a time, mingling into the crowds of fat harlots and syphillic tramps and skeletal children.
A High Constable walked past, his fat face folded in half by the weight of his spiked helmet. He might have known I was a resurrectionist, he might not. So long as I practised discretion we observed an uneasy truce with the police, although that wouldn’t stop them nailing your ear to the castle wall if you were caught with soil under your fingernails.
Across the street I spotted Willis crouching in the shadow of a vegetable cart, keeping low, timing his footsteps to fall in with the horse’s hooves. His countenance was plastered with dark brown boot polish, his fringe was combed down over his eyes, and he had borrowed his uncle’s grey overcoat.
‘What the bloody hell are you playing at?’ I tugged him by the sleeve away from the constable’s line of vision. ‘Stand up straight. You look like a damn Afghan.’
‘Uh’m in diss-gize,’ he insisted, mouth turned down. ‘It’s so nibbdy cin see me in the derk.’
I had half a mind to garrote him on the spot and sell the medical school their freshest bag of bones yet. ‘Tell me something: is it dark right now?’
He looked into the sky, from east to west, and appeared to carry out a calculation in his woolly head. ‘Jist aboot,’ he said.
‘Did anyone see you on the way here? Did you recognise anyone?’ I backed into the iron fencing that ran around the cemetery. The police could be fobbed off but you’d end up on the wrong end of a pitchfork if vigilante relatives caught you whisking granny’s organs off to the dissecting table.
‘Nibbdy seen me.’ His cheeks glowed an angry red through the polish. ‘Uh wouldna let nibbdy see me.’
The street slowly cleared. We ambled around, taking care not to stand in the same place twice, me kicking horseshit and pretending to look for dropped pennies, Willis amusing himself by trying to throw stray cats into the fast-flowing gutter.
The sky turned pink, then purple, and then indigo. When there were no policemen or vigilantes anywhere that I could see, we took a run-up and scaled the fence. I dropped to the turf silent as a mime, while my worthless associate stumbled and cursed, trying to keep balance. I concentrated all my wrath and condemnation into one cutting glare.
We nestled behind a granite obelisk, hidden from the street. Nobody could see us now, unless they were walking among the tombs. We might not be the only gulls out fishing.
‘Whozit we’re snatching, then?’ asked Willis, rubbing his hands together.
‘Banker’s daughter. Wealthy. One score and three. Funeral was just today. I had a man there, watching. Need to be careful. She was employed by a tobacco merchant and engaged to a man who works up the chimneys. Keep your eye sharp. Might be traps. Might be someone guarding her.’
Willis furrowed his forehead. ‘How’s she deid?’
‘Apparently the merchant got her pregnant and the chimneysweep stabbed her in the belly.’
‘Bah,’ Willis sighed. ‘Whit a hoor.’
Night fell like a lid. Using starlight to guide us, we crept near to the ground through the domino headstones. I was poised, alert, but comfortable. Every blade of grass like my own hair, every mound my own throat.
‘There,’ I said under my breath, pointing at a shining new slab of marble. The smell of flowers perfumed the air, petals scattered around the turf. Best not to tread on them.
‘Okay squire,’ I said to Willis, ‘show us your stuff.’ I handed him a wooden spade-head that I had smuggled beneath my overcoat. From each trouser leg I pulled an arm’s length of mahogany. All three pieces screwed together into a shovel. Head, handle, shaft. Tongue and groove, click and twist.
‘Here’s a tip – make friends with the carpenter. And the butcher. And the barman, if you’ve got any sense.’
‘Uh canna dig wi yon,’ he hissed, weighing it in his grip. ‘It’s naw steel.’
‘Steel would make enough noise to raise the whole lot of them. It’s either that or your hands.’
‘But uh’m still fifteen foot awa.’ He gazed at the grave.
‘We dig here and tunnel.’ I’d expected Comstock to explain the basics. This was his innovation, after all, and something we’d seen copied all over the city. ‘If we dig over there we leave an unholy mess. This way, we get the old girl out and re-fill the tunnel and no-one’s the wiser.’
I marked out a patch as wide as my shoulders and Willis began to dig, piling the soil up neatly on a cotton sheet, keeping his curses more or less to himself. I perched on a nearby mausoleum, as still as the statues, watching the graveyard glinting in the moonlight, skin prickling to every nuance of the breeze. An owl twooted. A fox dashed past, tail arcing.
Willis had a simian look to his face, a protruding jawline that made his speech wet. His nose was a button of flesh and his brow made dark shadows of his eyes. His shoulders and neck seemed much too big for his head, and in the moonlight there was something of the hunchback about him. Still, he shoveled the dirt out in half the normal time, at least, until he got to the last five feet of tunnel. The boot polish had run into his eyes and he was spitting muck and blades of grass. I clapped him on the shoulder and wormed into the hole, clawing out the last of the black granules with the shovel myself.
Then – clunk. Wood.
‘Pass the rope,’ I hissed. Willis wriggled in behind me, his hand gripping my ankle, squeezing, and then the rough rope was between my fingers. Knotted on the end was a small chisel. I stabbed and jabbed and cracked open the headboard of the coffin.
The girl had been buried wearing perfume. Her hair smelled of soap. The aroma tickled my nostrils.
Willis scrambled back out into the night and I looped a tight noose around the girl’s neck and under her arms. A friend of mine, a hangman, had fastened the knot for me, wrapped thirteen times for luck. My fingers probed the girl’s shoulders and clavicles, soft, smooth, cold. Wriggling in reverse was difficult, but I dug my toes into the dirt and pushed against her skull with the palms of my hands. I dug in with my kneecaps and managed to free myself of the damp tomb.
Willis was waiting for me, fidgeting. He held the rope close to his chest.
‘Pull her out,’ I said.
Willis braced his heels and started to heave, running the rope through his palms, panting, cursing, straining. Slowly, painfully, the body slid through the narrow smashed headboard, and then came more freely through the crumbling dirt. Like ripping out a particularly large plant at the root.
In the moonlight, sprawled out, she was pitiful. Her fine velvet dress was torn and blackened, the silk lining frayed, limbs spread at unflattering angles. Her blonde hair was matted with oily dirt. Panels of skin, pale like ivory, shone up at us. Willis stepped forward – I thought for a moment he was going to touch her – and then back again.
I checked her over, rolling and manoeuvring the deadweight with my foot.
‘Damn’, I said.
‘She’s wearing a necklace. Gold. And a brooch.’
Willis puckered his brow, teeth like big axeheads in that dark face. ‘Uh’ll keep um safe fur her. Aye, so uh wull.’
‘We can’t take them, you stupid bugger. Body-snatching’s just a misdemeanour; take her valuables and it’s theft, a hangman’s noose. They’ll need to go back.’
‘Uh’m no gaun doon agayn,’ he said, aghast.
The corpse lay at our feet, jewellery catching the starlight. Every minute she deteriorated further, like milk in summer.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘You bag her up. Here’s the sack. Don’t break any limbs.’
I bent and took the jewels from the girl. Her lips were parted and her eyes were closed; she might have just been asleep. A beetle crawled around the opening of her nostril. Willis was making guttural noises, his shadow looming over my shoulder.
I sank back into the tunnel headlong. The soil was loose around the edges. It fell into my eyelids and coated my tongue. Blind, I guided myself by hand until wooden splinters pricked my fingers. The perfume returned, floral, severe, swimming up my nostrils. I stretched my arm outwards, clutching the jewels, and my chest began to tighten. Blood pulsed loudly in my temples and I tried to pivot onto my back but couldn’t. My limbs felt restrained. The tunnel was sinking down, crushing me, compacted by the weight above.
I tried to shout for help but my mouth was filling up with filth. Worms and maggots tickled my cheeks. I was drowned. One ear was spared the soil, the only sensory outlet I had left.
Faint noises penetrated the four feet of collapsing soil above me. Grunting, panting, exclamations. Feet stamping. I thrashed about, eyes clenched, desperate for a clean lungful of air, skin set to burst. I lost sense of my being; was I upside down, on my side, back to front? I clawed with my fingers, displacing the soft wet grain. My hipbones ached and popped. It was like being torn in half, that some remote force was pulling me one way repelling me in another. All was dark but for a pinprick of moonlight, and then I was scrambling to the surface, half-dead, fresh air on my face, gasping. Willis stood next to me, shuffling footsteps near my head.
‘Dinna wurry,’ he said, his voice hoarse, wet, crackling. ‘Effryhing’ll be alricht, aye it wull, Uh’ll sort it aw oot.’
I coughed up a chunk of wet earth, black saliva trailing down my chin, dizzy.
‘Jist lay back noo, that’s a guid girl.’
My stomach felt full of sand. I hacked up more filth, my temples swelling and pulsing.
‘You’re byootiful. Uh’ll no let ‘em cut ye up and play wi yer bits,’ Willis whispered.
My fists closed around material lying on the grass: rough cotton, soft velvet, slippery silk. I pulled the fabrics to my face, smelled the girl on them.
‘Uh wouldna let that happen doll, naw, you jist come wi me. We’ll leave this sick bugger here for them. Me and you, hen, it’s jist me and you noo.’
His monologue was drowned out by the nearby shriek of whistles, by the choir of barking, running dogs. I peeled my eyes open and there was Willis, silhouetted in the moonlight. He had the naked corpse over one shoulder, dirty buttocks pointing at the moon, blonde curls bristling in the breeze. In his right hand was the shovel, aimed at my head, flashing through the air fast and hard.
And then – clunk.
I only saw Willis one more time. I’d got away fair with a night in the gaol and a gammy leg, so had no urgent desire to reacquaint myself with the brute. But on a misty, grey morning a few weeks later I attended poor Comstock’s funeral, and his nephew was a pallbearer. I shrunk back into the crowds, shielding my face behind the rim of my hat, but I needn’t have bothered. He walked straight past, hissing through his nostrils and blinking tears from his eyes, looking as if the box on his shoulder might be light as matchwood. He wore his uncle’s grey overcoat again. Clenched in his swinging left fist was a lock of clean, blonde hair.
Alan is from Fife, Scotland. He won his first poetry competition aged ten for a verse called ‘To a Baked Potato’. By day he works for a slightly evil global corporation and by night he studies at Glasgow University, where he edits the online journal From Glasgow to Saturn (http://glasgowtosaturn.com). His short stories appear here and there. Say hello at http://alangillespie.wordpress.com.
© 2011 All rights reserved Alan Gillespie