This poem is in memory of Martin Colfer. Skipper of the Rebecca C, who often took me out to search for the whales off the Hook Head in County Wexford. The video was shot at a reading of this in The Troubadour London, during an evening organised by Coffee House Poetry.
Dolphins danced in the harbour that day
in memoriam Martin Colfer, Skipper of the Rebecca C
Whistling past the Graveyard and on beyond the Bridge
( A tale commonly told in many forms, but in this instance the author, a man of integrity in the re-telling of tales heard by him, assures his readers of it’s absolute veracity )
“Terence and Jerome, such fine sounding names,” Surgeon Westropp paused carefully then added, “for two such disreputable, down right ruffians, blackguards and…”
“Body snatchers?” suggested James Hartley, one of his old friends from their days studying medicine in Edinburgh.
The three of them chuckled at the irony. James Hartley, Richard Westropp and William Percy were gathered around the Surgeon’s fireside. The servants had been dismissed once the needs of the two travellers from London had been met. They were now refreshed and eager to spend an evening of conviviality together.
They had much indeed to discuss as they sipped the fine Brandy offered by Richard. Smuggled no doubt, thought Hartley, recalling the many coves and inlets along the coast on the final leg of their arduous journey. Still, he was appreciative of the warming alcohol and the tobacco filled long-stemmed clay pipes resting ready for them beside their comfortable chairs.
“While the laws stand as they are at present, I’m afraid gentlemen, the advancement of our Scientific Enquiries must rely on using such distasteful methods, carried out by such dubious characters.”
With a typical Scotsman’s droll humour Hartley observed that no matter how distasteful employing the likes of the finely named Jerome and Terence was to them, they in turn were equally likely to find plying their trade distasteful.
The three old friends laughed uproariously at the image thus presented, of two such fellows digging by the pale light of a half hidden lantern to recover the body, newly laid to rest. Who knew what West Country superstitions they had to overcome? Still, that was the work they were prepared to undertake in their quest for golden guineas, payable on delivery of a corpse suitable for their quest in the pursuit of the aforementioned Scientific Enquiry.
“So William, what latest news have you brought us from London?” Westropp asked. “As you can see this is a rather remote place, the mail coaches take forever to arrive and the ships around these waters are mainly engaged in fishing.” Pouring them more of his fine Brandy from his Waterford Crystal decanter he added, “with some additions to their income!”
William Percy mused aloud, “silver the herring and silver the coins, eh? Yes, I have matters of interest to us, matters that should encourage us in our mutual endeavours.”
He reached down beside him and took some papers from his leather satchel. He passed these over to the others before reaching down again. This time he removed a finely bound volume. Balancing it on his knee he waited quietly while the others leafed through the material he had brought them, eagerly trying to absorb all they could.
“There’s a Bill to be brought before The House which would advance our cause!” Westropp was astonished, he had never expected to see Parliament consider, even for a moment, the use they and others wished to make of the deceased.
Hartley, reading from The Spectator, intoned, “a Bill is being prepared by the Select Committee to inquire into the needs of the medical profession in the matter of teaching and learning essential anatomy.”
“Alas, you may temper your enthusiasm, gentlemen,” Percy cautioned them. “The Archbishop of Canterbury has already spoken in Lords against any changes to the 1752 Murder Act. I am afraid he is not alone in such opposition.”
He drew a broadsheet from out of his well supplied satchel.
“Let me read you this from an otherwise intelligent man, William Corbett, who was nonetheless able to put forth these few words, ‘…they tell me it was necessary for the purposes of Science? Why, who is Science for? Not for the poor people. Then, if it be necessary for the purposes of Science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit Science is cultivated.”
Westropp explode, “Nonsense! Science benefits us all, rich and poor alike. Why, Jenner saved the milkmaids with his vaccine, did he not?”
The other signified their agreement with this irrefutable argument while Hartley, again with his native droll humour, informed them that the common folk in Aberdeen were known to say that there were no pockets in shrouds.
Taking up again the matter of their coming together Percy proposed, “so we are decided then, we must continue as heretofore. Westropp, your chaps will deliver, no doubt?”
Their host reassured them both, “by morning we shall be ready to proceed apace,” continuing he asked, “you mentioned in your correspondence some new study which might better guide our enquiries?”
“Here it is,” said Percy, holding aloft the precious tome. He read the title aloud, ”The Anatomy Of The Human Body, by Andrew Fyffe.” He smiled as he mentioned the name of their old Anatomy Professor in Edinburgh.
“But this is wonderful, wonderful indeed,” Westropp called out. “How has this come about? I understood poor old Fyffe died a few years ago, reached the fine old Biblical three score and ten, I believe.”
Hartley could not resist observing, “it’s one thing for him in his day and us in ours to study the dead in order to serve the living. It beggars belief that the dead should now be induced to present us with their findings!”
As the posthumously published volume was passed around and commented on they planned some of the areas they wished to explore in the morn. It was only when the light began to dim as the candles guttered down that they were reminded of the necessity for a good nights sleep.
With no trace of his previous wit as they focused on the serious business at hand, Hartley wondered aloud were their two ruffians already on their way about their grim business. With such thoughts, an admixture of Science, Law-breaking and Speculation as to the Phase of the Moon, would it help or hinder their suppliers, they eventually retired for the night.
For Terence and Jerome the end of the night was a long way off, they knew exactly the phase of the moon. They needed a certain amount of light, enough to work by, but not so much as to reveal their work to anyone else on the roads that night.
“Cloudy night,” Jerome observed as they gathered the tools of their trade to put in the rough-hewn home-made barrow they used.
“Chance of rain, might keep everyone in by the fire,” he continued. There was still no reply from Terence. He was concentrating on applying to the wheel’s axle copious amounts of the pork grease he had carefully saved for just this purpose. Eventually satisfied he tried wheeling the cumbersome vehicle back and forth to further spread quietening grease.
“Still a squeak,” he muttered. His fingers scooped out more from the wooden bowl he used. Deftly he applied as much as he could. “Lean back on the handles,” he told his confederate.
Jerome knew what he meant. Leaning down hard he raised the wheel off the ground. Terence was thus able to spin the wheel and apply the required grease. Satisfied now he nodded to Jerome. Without further ado they proceeded to load their necessities. A coarse blanket lined the interior of the barrow and on this they placed their short handled shovels and picks. In went two lanterns, each with only side clear, the remainder deliberately blackened by candle smoke. The cargo was completed with some ropes attached to iron hooks. When the whole had been covered over by the sides of the blanket, to further muffle any rattling sounds, they were on their way.
Not normally the most talkative of men it was easy for them to proceed with the necessary quietness. The intermittent light projected by the quarter moon was sufficient for eyes accustomed to seeing in the dark. Poaching, by land or water, along with nights spent working with smugglers, nights when you could be sure the Excise men would not be abroad, instead confined to their home fires, these had all given them eyes that could see where others would be left peering helplessly into a shapeless dark.
Wordless, without a sound, they went on their way.
At the graveyard they located the fresh mound of clay and set about their business. The work was warm, Jerome removed his jacket first. Terence followed suit, handed him his own coat and whispered, “hang them on those railings there, behind the lamps, that’ll help block them out from the gate.”
“That’s good, about the only thing good about those damned railings!”
They were both in no doubt about why the custom was growing that those who could afford them had taken to placing sharp-tipped iron railings around their family graves. The height of a man’s chest they could still be climbed over readily enough, but they would restrict their movements such that digging would be nigh impossible. As for raising a coffin, emptying it’s contents, transferring said contents to a barrow, all out of the question in such confined spaces. If this trend continued they would soon be forced out of this line of work.
It was a lucrative line of work indeed. Not only did the body fetch golden Guineas when duly delivered, but there were coins holding eyes closed to collect. Oftentimes rings, necklaces, lockets, trinkets and tokens could be gleaned.
It was really a matter of luck, good luck for them, bad luck for the mourners who had placed such items intending them to remain for eternity in the grave.
Hands and muscles were toughened by a lifetime of manual labour, including spells of breaking stones in the prison yards after petty sessions in Yeovil Courthouse. They soon made short work of the earth between them and their goal. Nicely loosened by the gravediggers the clay soon gave way to the satisfying sound of iron on wood.
“Bring over one of those,” Jerome, now standing on the coffin lid, asked. Terence moved one of the lamps to the head of the grave where it cast enough extra light for them to finish this part of the night’s work.
Effortlessly switching to the picks they soon levered them under the coffin and were able to pass the ropes through the space thus created. After that it was a matter of moments to have the lid removed once their burden was hauled up on to ground level.
By now they were wearing cloths, well doused with vinegar, across their mouths and noses. They also knew to to step swiftly back and let the stench of rotting flesh waft away on the faint breeze. When the initial rush of decay had passed, and the vinegar was defence enough, they examined their prey.
It was a good result, two pennies held two eyes closed, quickly scooped into two pockets. A fine locket on a golden chain was next, followed by a golden ring which did not slip easily from a swollen finger. Still they knew the Surgeon would not complain. This one, in spite off the smell and now some extra bruising, was fresh enough.
While they set about covering over their traces the corpse rested patiently in the barrow. More talkative now, their own version of ‘whistling past a graveyard’, Terence said, “I heard a tale told in ‘The Admiral Benbow’ the other day.”
“Aye, and what was that,” Jerome asked, cheerful now that he had something in his pocket, now that he was sure of more. Mention of the Inn rose a thirst in him that he knew would be quenched soon enough and well enough.
Terence paused, pulling the cloth down from his face, “there were two fellows caught up Bristol way, for doing this,” he nodded towards the half-filled grave.
“You sure of that,” asked Terence. Such news was a serious matter.
“Certain sure, the news came in on the coach and that drunk of a schoolmaster read it off the penny papers.
“What happened them?”
“Nothing yet, the case is listed to be heard at the next Assizes”.
“God help them!” He suddenly thought to ask, “here, how did it come about they were caught, were the Magistrates on to them, watching?”
“No, not that,” although they both involuntarily glanced around, “simple really, they were stupid and greedy.”
Jerome waited, it was a grim prospect, being found guilty of grave robing. He was sure as could be of a few things, that they had learned their trade well, that no-one else, apart from the Surgeon, knew they did this. They never left any signs of their work, no-one would ever know.
“Greed was their downfall, one them did a bit of tinsmith’s work. He took the four brass handles, changed them a little, added a base and there you were, four fine matching candlesticks.
With that they took hold of the handles on either side and pitched the coffin into waiting space. As Jerome added the lid Terence continued.
“That was all well and good until the desire came on him to turn the candlesticks into ready cash. Off he went then to the nearest and soonest fair, over Glastonbury way.”
They were now well into the back filling, their spades working together in a fine rhythm.
“The man who’d made the coffin was at the same fair, needless to say, he knew his own work and that was the end of that. I hear tell he got a nice reward from the Magistrates for his news and he got the brass again, did well enough all told.”
By now their work in the graveyard was done. The blanket was placed under and over the body in the barrow and they were quickly on their way.
At first the going was perfect, dark but not too dark. Quiet, not a soul about but themselves. It was a satisfactory night’s work until, without warning, they heard approaching from behind them the clatter of cantering horse’s hooves.
“Quick, turn in here!” Terence needed no second telling, in a matter of seconds they had twisted the barrow to the side and off the road. They threw themselves down, faces pressed into the dirt lest bright they might shine out of the gloom, drawing attention to themselves.
Their luck held, whoever else was abroad in the dead of night was intent on their own affairs and sped past.
Jerome and Terence emerged from their wayside hiding place, brushing yet more dirt and earth from their already filthy clothes. Together they wrestled the barrow and it’s load back on to the road and went about their journey.
It was no good. A few steps told them something was wrong. The barrow squeaked and squealed. No matter how hard they tried to wrestle their burden it could not be kept going in a straight line. The hurried exit from the road had twisted their axle and wheel.
A few more minutes of cursing did nothing to improve either their temper, or the wheel. “Here,” said Jerome in desperation, “put this damn thing over my shoulders and tie it on with that rope there. We may go on as best we can, even on foot.”
Terence did as he was told and while Jerome struggled up the road with his horrific load hid the barrow behind some wayside bushes. Running to catch up he said, “there’s that old tin mine up ahead, just beyond the bridge. Wait for me at the bridge while I take a quick look around, there might be a bit of an old handcart lying around.”
He was quickly gone, swallowed up in the gloom. Jerome staggered forward, the burden of dead weight pressing him down. By the time he reached the bridge he was in a lather of sweat.
With an iron will and screaming muscles he made it as far as the mid-way point across the bridge before he stopped. With relief he tried to arrange himself in such a way he could sit and wait. It wasn’t easy, he struggled to place the corpse with it’s legs dangling over one side of the parapet, legs dangling above the steep drop to the swift flowing waters far below.
He took a section of the rope he had used to secure the rotting body to himself, lifted it slightly, then sat himself upon the roadside edge of the parapet. The rope across his chest jerked upwards to his scrawny neck. Once more the corpse plummeted down into empty space, to a watery grave this time. Cleanly, swiftly, the rope cut through the grave robbers throat. His headless corpse slumped forward, back resting against the wall, going nowhere now, awaiting the approaching dawn and eventual discovery.
The Surgeon and his learned friends, to their scientific delight were asked by the Magistrates to assist in the investigation by preparing a report, based on the scene on the bridge and it’s surrounds.
Terence was never heard of afterwards but then again, he was never missed by anyone. It is said that the local blacksmiths almost immediately began to prepare iron sharp tipped graveside railings for future anticipated sales.
On a dark October evening trees reached bare arms towards the little group on the poorly lit street. The few remaining leaves added to the unnatural effects. Leaves dancing across the few street lamps scattered splinters of light and shadow over the youngsters.
“You go first!”
“Why should I?”
“Yeah, why should she?”
“Cos I said so, that’s why!”
“If you’re so brave then go on yourself!”
Silence followed, broken only by the wind rustling yet more dead leaves on the ground. Distant lorries added a low rumbling note, steady and ominous, heard on the fringes of hearing. Somewhere nearby a door slammed and loud footsteps echoed down the narrow street. They had all involuntary jumped at the sudden sound.
The tallest youngster, the last one challenged, looked around his little band of followers. A challenge was a challenge and could not be left unaccepted, even more so when you are the eldest and the tallest.
“All right, I’ll go first, but you all follow! Is that clear?” He looked slowly around the little group who all nodded in reply, some more certainly, firmly, than others. “I go first and you all follow, got it?”
“I will, don’t worry, I’ll follow.” Everyone looked in surprise at the fair haired girl with the good torch in her hand. Her little brother, the youngest of all, stayed close by her side, saying nothing. There was an air about him that if he thought he’d get away with sucking his thumb he would. It was hard to say which he clung to more, his sister or the torch she held.
“Go on then, we’ll follow you,” one of the other boys added. Vigorous nodding of heads expressed heartfelt agreement. Faced with all of this the tall boy now had no choice. He must go on, he had to lead them in.
Rotting ironwork pretending to be the gate it once was presented no barrier to them. As quickly as possible in the gloom they moved past tottering headstones, yew trees pointing towards the dark sky, celtic crosses crumbling towards them. The further they went in to the old graveyard, the deeper the darkness seemed. He hesitantly stepped forwards, steering a course by the dim outline of a large chestnut tree he could see.
If that was the far corner then he knew the collapsed vault he had seen in daylight had to be nearby. He was suddenly afraid he would take one step too far, one step into the waiting open grave. “Damn!” he said, louder than he intended.
Behind him he heard the shouts from the others, “you all right?” “You O.K.?”
Realising he was near enough their target he couldn’t resist crouching down behind a tottering headstone, tall enough still that he could hide in it’s shadow.
“I found it, come on!” he shouted out, grinning to himself in the darkness.
Now the wind sighing through the skeletal branches of trees was accompanied by stifled laughs, squeals of delighted terror, muffled curses as shins barked on unseen kerbstones of graves.
When he judged the moment right he jumped out dramatically from behind the headstone. His loud screech, prolonged as his lungs could bear, was enough. He heard the sounds they made running as fast as they could. Now they were heedless of obstacles, drawn towards the dim street lights like moths with a death wish drawn to the candle’s flame.
A bright beam projected a cone of light along the ground. The fallen torch cast it’s own shadows. The fair haired girl and her little brother had been too stunned by the initial fright to flee with the others. Satisfied with his results the tall boy retrieved the torch and returned it to the girl. The little boy spoke up then. “Well, where is it? You said you’d show us.”
Faced with the pair of them looking at him expectantly and unexpectedly he blurted in reply, “over there, I think,” pointing vaguely to his left.
“Thought you knew, come on so,” the little boy said, dragging on his sister’s free hand. She shrugged and went along with them.
“Wait up then, I’ll show you.” The older boy quickly overtook them and with the torchlight illuminating the ground ahead of him quickly located the dark space yawning open in the ground.
Old red bricks were visible along the sides of the collapsed vault. Three pairs of eyes followed the beam of light downwards. They peered at the rubble of brick, mortar, clay and dust. “There it is!” cried the little boy, calling a halt to the wandering light.
Fascinated he peered down, oblivious to the comments on either side of him. The skull returned his gaze from the furthest corner. Hollowed eye sockets were even darker in the bright light’s glare. Torn between horror and curiosity they seemed frozen in place until the girl felt her brother tugging at her sleeve again, saying, “come on, we can go now.”
With their curiosity now satisfied, their courage tested, they went.