A Stranger's Grave



Available in paperback and eBook formats from Amazon.


*1st Edition published by Grand Mal Press.

Back cover copy:

The dead rise, and only the dead can rock them back to sleep...but sometimes it falls to the living to do what the dead cannot.

Elton Burlock's done his time. Twenty-six years for a terrible murder. Some of those years were hard, some easy.

On the outside, he takes the only job he can find - the custodian of a local cemetery. A simple job, keeping the grass tidy...giving the dead a haircut. But there are three black angels in the cemetery: a little girl's ghost that roams the night...and two women, one a vision in white, one a nightmare in black.

When the killing starts, who can rock the restless dead back to sleep? Who but Elton? Elton, custodian of the dead, but the gatekeeper, too. The keeper of this world and the next.

And the dead are awake. The little girl is free of the earth. But there are no lullabies for the dead and if he's going to live, he's going to have to give her what she wants.

Then, maybe, he can find peace for them both - in the grave or out.

Sample Chapters (1-3)

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

Dylan Thomas
From ‘And Death Shall Have no Dominion’

In Prison Still

There’s a cemetery in a small Norfolk market town. It’s a peaceful place, a haven for the dead and the bereaved. There is birdsong in the trees no matter the time of year. Surrounded by hedgerow, the cemetery is hemmed in with roads running east and west to either side. The roads were there before cars, when people travelled in carriages, and before.
            It’s an old place. The earliest headstone dates back to the year 1756. The trees are much, much older.
            Nobody knows how far the trees go back, but in 1956 a great oak that overhung the small chapel was cut down, and should any have had a mind to look there were a hundred and seven circles around that stump, that fat stump that wasn’t anywhere near the fattest grown among the dead.
            The chapel is old, too. The stone, brick and flint and granite, is long tarnished, occasionally cleaned, but not often enough.
            The shine has gone from the marble headstones. The sandstone, the granite, the limestone, long illegible.
            Trees grow from forgotten graves and roots crack the pathways and tunnel through the old dead.
            But something older than all of this came in 2007. A trio of angels carved from basalt and polished to a black sheen.
The evil those angels brought was the oldest of all.



1.

The big gates shut behind Elton Burlock and for the first time in twenty-six years he breathed free air under a free sun.
The sun that shone back in 1985 was the same sun. The air he breathed back then, the same. The clouds drifting through the sky were no different.
            But time brings subtle changes. The sun didn’t seem as bright. The air didn’t smell as clear.
This road, before the gate, was only twenty-six years old. Probably once fresh and wet when he’d left the world, it was now potted and cracked and repaired time and time again.
            Cloud drifted across the sun and the air was instantly chilled.
When he’d gone into prison he’d brought a coat and a bag with the things he might need again on the outside. He hadn’t planned on staying so long, though. It wasn’t that his coat wasn’t warm enough for a mild spring day – though it seemed out of fashion now – nor was it that the day was especially chilly.
            He shivered because prison was always warm. Now he was sixty-one and he was cold because age had somehow caught him out, too.
Elton turned his face up to the sun, taking what warmth he could. It felt good, his skin tightening, his eyes burning behind his eyelids.
Was the memory of the sun worth it?
He was still a powerful man, still strong enough when it mattered. His hair might be grey, a little thinner, and his stomach a little thicker. Maybe his skin was paler, too. He’d missed sunshine. You didn’t see a lot of the sun in prison.
            He stroked his stubble, thick and rough. He saw his face most days in jail, but somehow it felt new, puckered and tight, even though he’d only stood in the glare of the sun for a few minutes at best.
            Hard time done, then soft time. Once he’d hit fifty and transferred to Wayland prison it seemed like he was set, all hope of freedom gone, and educated man without no other purpose in life than to live.
            Now, shifting his weight on feet that were once spry, once used to a boxer’s stance, shifting his bag in strong scarred knuckles, he set out on the road into town to meet the bus.
            He wasn’t the same man out that went in. Back then, at thirty-five, he’d done what he thought was his share of fighting, in the ring and out. Maybe he’d have been wary, then, walking down the street on his own in the night, past pubs kicking out, piss heads and druggies and punks.
            Thirty-five, he’d been married. Settled. Comfortable. His first degree earned, a teaching position, and his baby...
            Thirty-five years old with a wife and a child on the way he might have been worried by these young people passing, wearing hoods and walking like hard men, even though they looked like they were made of twigs. Once, back when. Now?
He wouldn’t even touch them. He’d been down that road. Twenty-six years worth of it.
            Prison didn’t take your pride. It didn’t take your strength. It didn’t take your will.
            The thing of prison was...
The thing of prison...
He stopped walking. The bus pulled up in town and he watched people get off, get on while he thought about what it was that was niggling away at him.
What had prison given him? A second degree that would never get him a job. Eyes in the back of his head. A stomach like cast iron from eating shit food and arms like steel from curls and bench presses for the last twenty years. A broken hand, a once broken knee that ached all day long and a shit shoulder since he took a wild stab with sharpened toothbrush for his trouble.
But what had prison taken?
He’d been fed. He’d been happy enough, late on.
            Maybe not back in the early days, when he’d fought it, railed against it, but late on, when he’d all but given up on getting out? Yeah, he’d been happy then.
            Soon enough now he’d be on a state pension, living out an empty life, somewhere he didn’t know with strange people all around him. Nothing to do all day. Food he didn’t recognise.
            He blinked at the receding bus, unable to make out the number.
He looked at the directions to the doss house on the print-out he’d been given. Hoped it wasn’t his bus he’d just missed.
It wasn’t dying he was worried about, either. Prison didn’t make you afraid of dying, not at all.
He was afraid of living.
Prison didn’t hurt you when you were in. It was when you got out. It was only then that you knew you were in prison still, and you always would be.
He pulled his coat tighter as he sat at the bus stop and stared at the sun for a while, until it hurt his eyes. It felt good.
Like it was worth the wait.


2.

Two fat policemen sucked their lips and looked down at the grave.
            Dirt was thrown up on one side, grassy clods still wet with spring dew.
            That alone and it would have been down to the gravekeeper, or maybe the council, at best.
            But whoever desecrated the child’s grave had also sprayed a swastika on the headstone and kicked it over.
            That was why two fat policemen stood beside the grave.
            ‘Was he a Jewish kid?’
            ‘Don’t know for sure. Not, like, a hundred percent,’ said his partner.
Local policemen didn’t really have partners. Mostly it was just plodding, keeping the old ladies happy. PC James didn’t like the cemetery, though, so he’d persuaded his mate to come with him. ‘Don’t think so, though.’
            ‘Samuel. That’s Jewish, right?’
            ‘Biblical, maybe. Jewish? Don’t know,’ said PC James, biting his tongue.
            ‘What about Smith?’
            ‘Samuel Smith.’
            ‘Yeah. Samuel Smith,’ said PC Davis.
            ‘Sam Smith,’ said PC James.
            ‘Could be.’
            ‘Sam Smith, Ewan? Sam fucking Smith?’
            ‘What?’
            ‘No, Ewan. I’m not a hundred percent, but no,’ said PC James. ‘I don’t think he was Jewish.’
            What PC James thought was that someone with roughly the same IQ as Davis had thought Sam Smith was Jewish. Some kind of neo-nazi idiot, listened to death metal in his mum’s basement kind of idiot. But he didn’t say that, because he didn’t want to make work for himself if he didn’t have to.
            ‘Well, I don’t fucking know, do I? It’s fucking Norfolk, alright? What do I know about Jewish people, or anyone else? Apart from the eastern European immigrants in the carrot packers, maybe. Or that fella runs the Portuguese shop with all them weird sausages...’
            PC James sighed.
            ‘Bump it up?’
            PC Davis kicked at a clump of grass and dirt. Made out like he was seriously considering it.
            ‘OK?’
            ‘Pub?’
            ‘OK?’
            PC James liked PC Davis. You knew where you were with PC Davis. Generally in the pub.
            He clicked his radio and called it in.


3.

Henry Harrison watched the two policemen at the grave. He didn’t want anything to do with it, and they didn’t want anything to do with him. They didn’t stop to ask him any questions, and that suited him fine. He’d been walking round the cemetery for two hours, trying to keep Emily asleep. The last thing he needed was someone waking her up.
            Emily was his beautiful daughter, tucked up tight in an all-in-one suit against the chill, bundled into an old Silver Cross buggy. It had a small place to store baby stuff underneath. The space was filled with nappies, wipes, bottles – already sterilised – and a change of clothes, because baby’s doings had a way of getting out.
            Henry Harrison liked things orderly. Baby stuff in the buggy, none in his pockets.
His pockets were full of pipe and pipe tobacco, a penknife for clearing the bowl, and a box of matches. He always used a match to tamp down his tobacco and a match to light his pipe. It tasted better that way.
            He pushed Emily away a little way, now she was sound asleep.
People thought maybe the most beautiful sound in the world was the deep roar of an expensive sports car, or a woman’s orgasm, or a symphony. It wasn’t. It was a baby snoring.
            He filled his pipe, already clean, and pushed the tobacco down into the bowl. He flicked the match alight on the rough old arm of the bench, puffed a while to get it going, and sighed in satisfaction as he sat on the same bench.
            Now he was down he didn’t plan on getting up for a good while, either.
It was his favourite bench. It was dedicated to the memory of Lily Anne and Frank Holt, whom he’d known, way back when. That wasn’t why it was his favourite bench. It was because it was smack in the middle of the cemetery, out of the way of the roads that ran parallel either side, at the east and west entrances. It was the quietest. You could barely hear the traffic, and the birdsong was clear.
It had the best view, too. The cherry blossom was out, spring in bloom. The trees were green again. Seemed like the older you got, the more you appreciated making another spring.
He would have been what, now? He would have been...?
Christ, he thought. Time flies. How many years had he been coming to this cemetery? Since he’d known the Holts, for sure. Since his wife had passed? Maybe that was when he’d started using the cemetery like his own personal park. Maybe that was when.
There was something comforting, being surrounded by the quiet dead, because at home his wife was with him all the time, no matter that she’d been gone for so many years.
Henry puffed his pipe for a while. Quiet, peaceful. Baby sleeping, birds singing in the spring.
Baby snoring softly, with a slight snuffle from a little spring cold, but nothing drastic, and a pipe on the go.
For an old man with a young baby in tow, life didn’t get much sweeter. 


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