It’s hard to describe quite how disturbing it is to wake up in the darkness, and realise you’ve been buried alive. I had a panic attack which must have lasted for hours. But the worst part, if I’m honest, was the boredom of being down there for nearly three months before anyone saw fit to rescue me, with no-one but myself for company the whole time.
I say “buried alive”, but I wasn’t actually alive, of course. Not in the strict sense of the word. I had died on the operating table. I remembered feeling my soul leave my body. I’d hovered over myself for a while, looking down at my corpse, the surgeon, all the other people in the operating theatre (I was surprised and flattered how many people had put in an appearance for my demise). But then I got frightened. Maybe it was best to stay with my body until I knew quite what it was I was supposed to be doing next? I didn’t want to get a ticking-off from some spirit or angel, demanding to know why I was jumping the queue of dearly departed when I was supposed to be waiting for a place in the Afterlife to become available. You have to queue for everything, after all. Why should Heaven or Hell be any different?
It would have been presumptuous of me to assume I was going to the former, anyway. I’d had my fair share of parking tickets, and once I’d noticed a restaurant had forgotten to add my drinks to the bill, and I paid up without mentioning it. That’s theft, I think you’ll find. Imagining how embarrassing it would have been to make my own way to Heaven, only for someone to take me to one side and explain in hushed tones that I’d come to the wrong place, and that if I didn’t leave immediately I’d be escorted off the premises.
So, all things considered, I opted to stay put. Play it safe, like I always do.
And then everything just faded out. It was probably my fault. Maybe I should have floated away while I had the chance. But when I opened my eyes again, everything was black, and I couldn’t move my arms or legs more than a few inches. I was in a box, and not a particularly roomy one either.
It wasn’t long before I worked out what had happened. They had buried me. I was six feet under (maybe less, those grave-diggers are a lazy lot) and would die unless I got out quickly. I didn’t know how much oxygen I had left. I thrashed around like a lunatic, I shouted, I cried like a new-born baby. But it was hopeless. No-one heard me. Or if they did, they couldn’t summon up enough courage or energy to come and dig me out.
All those films you see on television, where someone gets buried alive but manages to kick and punch their way to freedom. Nonsense, I’m afraid. I couldn’t even dent the coffin-lid, yet alone shift the two yards or so of earth while was heaped upon it. So I contented myself with weeping instead. Loudly and vigorously. It didn’t help much, but at least it passed the time for a while.
I think I spent the next two or three days crying, though when you’re in perpetual darkness it’s pretty hard to measure the passage of time. My watch had luminous hands, but they’d taken that off me before I was buried. When you bury someone, leave their watch on, that’s my tip. Or a mobile phone would be better still, supposing you have a signal down there (which seems unlikely, as with my network I only ever seemed to get a signal whilst standing outside McDonalds on alternate week-days, which wasn’t much use to anyone, I’m afraid).
It was during those few days of self-piteous sobbing that it gradually dawned on me that I ought to be dead. And then it dawned on me (equally gradually, I’m afraid, as I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box) that I already was. Maybe this was Hell, I thought? An eternity stuck in a mahogany box clamped tight in heavy earth, fretting about my lack of a watch as the worms munched their way through the rotting coffin towards my slowly decomposing body. That made me weep even more, I’m ashamed to say.
I cursed myself for returning to my body on the operating theatre. If I’d made a break for it, there’s no knowing where I’d have ended up, but I wouldn’t have been here, and anywhere else would have been better than this. I also cursed the NHS for letting me die, but then I felt guilty and took it all back. It was my fault I was here, and it was unfair to blame anyone else. I had voted Tory every election since my eighteenth birthday forty years before, so I had no-one but myself to blame on that score. Besides, I had been given a chance to get away, and I’d blown it, just as I’d blown everything else life had served up for me.
I thought of my wife. Gloria. She hated that name. She thought it old-fashioned. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned, I’d attempted to reassure her on numerous occasions (well, six or seven times, at least), but that had never gone down too well. “I’m pretty old-fashioned myself,” I’d added once, trying to illustrate my point, but that had just made her shake her head sadly, and lock herself in our bedroom for four hours, sobbing like a two-year old having a tantrum. She did that quite a lot; that’s women for you. I remember being relieved that she never locked herself in the bathroom, as I don’t think my bladder would have lasted that long.
My bladder was one of the clues which convinced me of my demise, by the way. No bodily fluids suggested to me that I must be dead. That and the fact that I wasn’t actually breathing, as far as I could tell. I could put my hand in front of my mouth, and could feel nothing except the wood against my knuckles, however hard I tried to puff upon it.
Time passed. Like I said earlier, that was the worst part. I would’ve killed for a good crossword puzzle. Even a Sudoku at a push (though not the big ones, as they get a bit tricky). But I had nothing to entertain myself except for my own wit and imagination, and both have always been sadly lacking in my case. Gloria’s told me so on many an occasion, back when I was still alive. And death does little to sharpen the mental faculties, as I would find out in time.
I waited and I waited, and then I waited some more. I couldn’t even sleep, as us zombies don’t really do that. All we have is a sort of stand-by mode, where you’re still conscious but you don’t really do anything. It’s a bit like when you’re dozing off, but you never actually get the luxury of sleep at the end of it.
Three months is a long time to be buried, even with a stand-by mode like mine. I had a lot of time to think. Most of the time, I thought about decaying. I yearned for it, in fact. If I’m decayed, I reasoned, I surely wouldn’t be here anymore. I’d be gone. And then my ordeal would be over. So I willed my body – and my brain in particular – to rot away as quickly as it could. I became frustrated at its slow progress, and tried to help it on its way a little. I started picking away at my index finger with my thumb-nail. And I couldn’t have been happier when I felt a scoop of flesh fall away. What was it Churchill had said? It may not be the end. It may not be the start of the end. But at least it was the end of the beginning. Or something like that, anyway. I’ve always liked history. Finding out about the adventures of dead people has always been fascinating to me. Less so now, though, now that I’m one of them.
I started worrying my leg, trying to prise away the flesh through the trousers they’d buried me in. I was making pretty good progress. I’d picked away a crater the size of a flattened egg-cup. Another day or two, and I’d be through to the bone.
It was then that I heard something. Or sensed vibration. Or something; it’s hard to describe what. All I knew was that someone or something was coming for me. I hoped it was someone living, but worried that it might be someone from the Afterlife, telling me that I’d finished my warm-up ordeal and that I was now ready for the really nasty stuff to begin.
I waited patiently. There didn’t seem to be much else I could do. I was pretty good at waiting, after all the practice I had had.
The sound (or vibration, if you like) got closer. I thought I heard voices, though it was hard to say for sure. And then the coffin lid was off, and the light from outside was so bright that it singed my corneas. I raised a hand to shield my eyes from the light. It felt weird. I wasn’t using to raising anything in that tiny space, yet alone an entire limb.
“We’ve got another live-one,” someone said from above.
I lowered my arm and squinted at him. I tried to speak. It didn’t really work out. I tried again. He waited patiently, without interrupting. A sign of good manners. I like that.
Eventually, I remembered that I needed to use my tongue to make sound. I flapped it around a little.
“What time is it?” I asked.
He laughed. That was a little rude of him, I thought, but I decided to forgive him as he had just freed me from my grave.
I held out my hand for him to shake. Time for formal introductions. “My name’s George,” I told him. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to meet you. It was getting a little stuffy in there.”
They had to carry me back to their car. I wanted to walk, but my legs didn’t. Nothing that a session or two of physiotherapy wouldn’t sort out.
They left me in the back seat. There was a blanket over it, as if I was going to decompose all over the upholstery (which, to be fair, I was worried about myself). “Send me the bill if I rub off on your seats,” I told them. They exchanged glances and sniggered, but I didn’t quite get the joke.
I was tired, and went into standby-mode. It was strange, really. I’d been lying down all that time, and it was only now I was back in the big wide world that I felt the need for a rest. I stared in front of me, while I recharged my batteries.
“He’s asleep,” said the one to whom I’d originally spoken. He never introduced himself to me. Let’s call him Dave. He looked like a Dave, I thought.
“He’s still got his eyes open,” the other one replied dubiously. I’m calling him Thomas, if that’s okay with you. Doubting Thomas. Do you see what I’ve done there?
“They do that. The lights are on, but there’s no-one at home, believe me. You could nick his wallet, and he wouldn’t even flinch.”
“I could nick his wallet?”
Dave sighed. “I don’t mean you could literally nick it, Dumb-ass. We’ve just dug him up, remember? Why would he have his wallet on him? People don’t tend to get buried with their valuables, do they?”
“Pharaohs do,” argued Thomas, who seemed determined to argue his corner, however misguided it was. “They build those big pyramids, and have all their gold and stuff carried inside before they shut the door. I’ve seen it in films, loads of times.”
“Doe he look Egyptian to you?” asked Dave, as if speaking to a simpleton.
“Is he covered in bandages?”
Thomas shrugged. “He could do with a few, from the state of his skin. I don’t like touching them. We should be given gloves.”
Dave sighed again. He was good at sighing, and showed off his ability as often as he could. “We did have gloves, didn’t we?”
“We did. And do you remember what happened to them?”
“I accidentally buried them when we were filling a grave back in.”
Dave sighed again, a deep long sigh of which anyone would have been proud. “You buried them. Right, let’s get on with this. We’ve got another three graves to check before we can go home, unless we get lucky gain with the next one.”
“We’re not taking his wallet first, then?”
“Let’s just leave him to sleep it off, shall we?”
I came out of standby when they loaded someone else into the back-seat next to me. A man my age, shouting and swearing, raging at them for leaving him buried for so long. I shuffled a little further towards the window, wanting to keep as far away from him as possible as I’m not good at confrontation. Fortunately, I wasn’t wearing a seat-belt (they didn’t think it necessary to buckle me up, bearing in mind that I was already dead), so I was able to put a good couple of feet between us at first. But then he started invading my side of the car, and calling on me to join him in raving at our saviours. I despair at some people, I really do.
“Do you know how long I’ve been down there, waiting for you?” he shouted at them. He turned to me. I shrugged, to make it clear that I had played no part in any conspiracy against him.
“Your grave-stone said you died six months ago,” said Dave, as he turned on the ignition. “So I’m guessing a little less than that, allowing time to bury you and all that.”
Thomas looked dubious, but said nothing.
“Six months! That’s half a year!” I couldn’t fault the man’s mathematic abilities. “You’ve left me down there for half a year! It’s a miracle I survived that long!”
Dave and Paul exchanged looks. They did that quite a lot. I would have exchanged looks with them too, but no-one saw fit to look at me. No-one except the man besides me, but I was avoiding eye-contact with him at all costs.
“How long did they leave you down there?” he asked me. “You must be furious.”
I shrugged. I couldn’t think what else to do. I was tempted to go into standby until he’d burnt himself out, but I didn’t want to offend him. Shrugging didn’t seem to help, though. His voice got louder and louder, his bad language became more colourful and he started jerking his arms around. He was like a windmill with Tourette’s.
Dave ignored him. He drove out of the cemetery at a respectful speed, and turned right into the main road. This seemed to annoy my travelling companion still further.
“Left!” he screamed. “You’re going the wrong way.”
“Shut up, or you’re walking.”
And then he snapped. He started making this funny gurgling noise, as if he was trying to blow the bubbles out of a gold-fish. I chanced a glance towards him, worried that he might be having a heart-attack, but a little confused as to whether that was even possible for someone already dead. His face was badly decomposed, with chunks missing from it. Part of his forehead had caved in, presumably where he had been head-butting the coffin-lid in a futile attempt to force his way out. I could see his teeth through his skin, which made him look like he was grinning (ironic in the circumstances). He was going red. That seemed strange to me (wouldn’t that indicate blood flow?) but hey, I don’t make the rules.
All in all, he was pretty damn cross.
And then he launched himself forwards, grabbing Dave’s head and forcing it back against the head-rest. Dave swerved, nearly taking out a lady on the pavement with a pram. He cursed, and tried to pull his head free. My friend in the back seat changed his grip, and tried to pull Dave’s left ear off. Dave screamed. My friend frothed. Thomas leapt out of the car, and stood on the pavement, awaiting developments. The lady with the pram started berating him. He ignored her.
“Now come on,” I reasoned with the frothing corpse on the seat next to me. “Let’s all calm down, and talk about this over a cup of tea. I live just round the corner. Everything will seem better after a nice brew. Who knows, Gloria might even throw in a few Hob-nob biscuits if you play your cards right.”
To my astonishment, the lunatic turned on me. He grabbed me by the throat, and tried to bite my face off. I managed to fend him off for a few seconds; I’d been out of the ground for a while longer than him, so I guess I’d recovered my faculties a little better than he had. But to see those rotting teeth gnashing away just inches away from my nose frightened the life out of me, I can tell you. Or would have done if it hadn’t deserted me already.
And then Dave was there, hauling him out of the car, flinging him on to the grass verge at the far side of the road. Dave sat astride him to stop him getting back up, and started pummelling him to the head with his fists. I watched for a few seconds, transfixed by the way that little puffs of flesh came up every tie his fist connected with the poor man’s face, but when one blow actually collapsed his cheek-bone I had to look away. Violence is never the answer. Never.
The lady with the pram came over and tried to pull Dave off. Thomas finally sprang to action, and tugged her away. For a second, I thought she was going to turn on him, and the whole sorry process would start all over again. I had visions of the young man sitting astride the equally young lady, punching her repeatedly in the face. Fortunately, he didn’t resort to such barbarity. He just threatened to confiscate her baby, and chuckled as she hurried off, shouting obscenities at him over her shoulder as she departed.
Dave had finished. His opponent was still. He got off, wiping his hands on Thomas’ clothes. “Gloves would have been nice,” he said. “If I catch anything off him, I’m suing you, okay?”
Thomas shrugged. He didn’t look convinced.
Everyone got back in the car, except the man lying on the grass verge (who appeared to be dead again) and the lady with the pram (who was virtually out of sight by now). Dave drove off again, muttering to himself about protective equipment (and health and safety in general).
“That’s my road down there,” I told him. I pointed, somewhat unnecessarily as his eyes were firmly on the road, and Thomas was too busy checking out the CDs in the glove-compartment to notice.
“What of it?” Dave hissed.
I thought back to the man on the grass verge, with his collapsed face and his little puffs of flesh. I shook my head (just as unnecessarily as before).
“Nothing,” I said, in as reassuring a tone as I could manage, having just witnessed someone being beaten to a sodden pulp in front of my very eyes. “I was just saying, that’s all.”
Discretion, I always find, is the better part of valour. With Dave, especially.
We ended up in a particularly unpleasant location in Dover. There were security men at the gates, who had to wave us through. They called Dave “John”, which seemed a little curious until I remembered that he was only Dave because I’d named him so. I’m going to keep calling him Dave, though. Avoids any confusion.
We pulled up outside this one-storey Victorian building, which looked a little like a toilet block. Dave told Thomas he’d go and book me in while I was getting cleaned up. He asked me my name. I reminded him it was George. I had a little trouble remembering my surname, which was strange, but I got there in the end. “Browne,” I told them. “With an “e”, as in echo”. And then I said “e” again, only echoing it this time, to make them chuckle. But they both looked at me as if I was demented, and Dave hurried off, leaving Thomas to it.
To my surprise, I was able to walk. It wasn’t a very impressive gait, I must admit. It was more of a shuffle than a stride. But it did the job. The main problem was getting out of the car, as Thomas got a little agitated when I held on to the front-seat head-rest to steady myself as I was decamping. I apologised, of course. I wouldn’t want anyone flaking their decomposing flesh on my upholstery if I had a works vehicle either.
There was a reception desk inside the toilet block (which tended to suggest that it wasn’t a toilet after all, as I don’t recall ever seeing a receptionist stationed by the urinals). There was an unhealthily thin lady behind a desk, viewing me with a mixture of caution and disgust, as if I was planning on relieving myself on her hole-punch.
“Name?” she asked.
“George,” I told her, as polite as you like in an attempt to win her round. “Browne. With an “e”. As in -”
I looked over at Thomas. He shook his head, warning me against a repetition of the echo joke. Maybe he was right; it hadn’t gone down very well at all first time round. I gave her a weak smile instead. “As in “empathy”, my dear,” I told her.
She scribbled something down on the clipboard in front of her. I wasn’t at all convinced that she’d got my name right, even with the clue I had given her, but decided that it didn’t matter all that much. My wife would know my name, no doubt, whether or not the “e” had gone astray from the end of it. And then she would come and fetch me, as if picking up a child at the end of the school day. The sooner the better, as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t too sure I was going to like it here.
“Cubicle 6F,” she said, and then she looked away, dismissing me. I wondered if I’d been buried longer than I thought. Surely people’s manners couldn’t have deteriorated so much in just a few short months?
Thomas took me through rows of cubicles. A few had the curtains closed, but most of them were open. It was a little like the changing cubicles at the local swimming pool, only with curtains rather than doors. They were pretty small; not much more than four feet by three feet. He pointed to a soap dispenser on the wall.
“Be thorough,” he advised. “They’ll send you back in if you’re not.”
I stood in the cubicle. I pushed the pressy-thing by the nozzle (sorry, I can’t think what the proper name for pressy-thing is right now) and soaped my hands thoroughly. He tutted. I looked at him, confused. I was being thorough, as he’d instructed. I was singing “Happy Birthday” twice in my head, like they’d taught me at school, to make sure I kept at it long enough.
“Is there a problem, young man?” I asked.
“It helps if you take your clothes off first.”
“To wash my hands?” I was starting to wonder whether Thomas was just a little simple.
“To wash your body, you daft old man.”
“My body?” I stared at him. He seemed to have lost his marbles. “Why would I want to wash my body with a soap dispenser? You need water, you see. Water. I’ll have shower later.”
He shook his head. “Not any more you won’t. They stopped that weeks ago. It would take your skin off. Just dab yourself gently with the soap. I’ll go and get you some paper towels.”
“To dry yourself. Now, could you get on with it? I haven’t got all day.”
The thin receptionist put in an appearance, popping up like the shopkeeper in that cartoon with the man with the bowler hat. “Is he acting up?” she asked.
“I’m not acting up,” I assured her. “I was just telling Thomas here that I’d prefer to have a shower than an all-over hand-wash. Or better still, a bath. A bath would be marvellous.”
“You’ve got two minutes to take your clothes off,” she warned me. “If you’re not naked by then, I’m going to come in there and strip you off myself. And believe me, you won’t like it if I do. The last gentleman who caused me trouble ended up losing an arm when I was trying to tug it out of his shirt.”
“Losingan arm?” I cried in alarm. “What sort of mad-house is this?”
But she ignored me, pulling the curtain across the doorway of the cubicle to end the conversation.
“My name’s not Thomas,” I heard Thomas say outside. Shows how much he knows!
I viewed the soap dispenser with suspicion. Oh, the indignity. Being made to strip off to order, and cover myself with liquid soap for no apparent reason (other than the fact that I had been buried alive for a considerable period of time). I would have cross words with whoever was in charge here, once I was safely out of the clutches of the anorexic dragon lurking outside.
“I don’t hear you undressing,” she said ominously from the far side of the curtain. It was enough to spur me into action. I started to remove the shirt I’d been buried in, anxious to appease her before she removed one of my arms in her crazed determination to get me clean.