The pre-dawn light still washed the headstones in charcoal and dove-grey hues when Topps arrived to begin his first job of the day. Many people, he knew, would find it spooky, but he’d never been frightened by anything in his life. He hooked his canvas satchel over the wing of a small, sad-faced stone angel and strolled over to the shed, looking behind it to check if the vixen had eaten the nightly feast he left for her. She had cubs to raise, and Topps had been lucky to see them, just once, playing rough and tumble until the vixen had smelled his scent and ushered them through the hedge and away. The dish was empty, licked clean.
He unlocked the shed and quickly loaded up the wheelbarrow with all the tools and paraphernalia he would need. Whistling tunelessly, he bumped the barrow over the uneven grass to the opposite end of the churchyard, eager to get started. With a short break for breakfast he could be done by lunch time. Never mind that the job would take a tenth of the time with an excavator, Topps preferred hard, manual labour to taking the easy way with power tools. And he liked to work alone.
Flat cap pushed to the back of his head and shirt sleeves rolled to above his elbows, he spat into the palms of his huge, calloused hands and flexed his muscles. Raising the spade high, he brought it down hard so the the sharpened edge sliced cleanly through the grass into the top few inches of packed soil. Then with booted foot, the veins and sinews of his arms bulging, Topps worked it all way in and so began the task of digging a new grave.
It wasn’t long before his entire body dripped with sweat, but Topps, lost in the steady rhythm of digging, didn’t pause even to wipe his brow. He dug deeper and wider, only becoming mindful of his surroundings again when the sun broke over the crenelated church roof in a blaze of scarlet and gold. It was going to be another scorching day.
Figuring he was about halfway done, Topps decided to take a break and eat. He rinsed his hands at the standpipe, gasping as the cold water hit the heated skin of his face and the back of his neck. He retrieved his satchel from the angel and carried it over to the cooler shade of the yew tree. With a sigh of pleasure he dropped to the ground and quickly made himself comfortable, leaning his back against the old stone wall, propping his feet on the grave of Gladys Edwina Ashburton. According to the lichen-covered headstone she had been born in 1817, died in 1901, and had ‘dedicated her life to Nature’. Topps felt some affinity with Gladys because he also liked the natural order of things. The only downside to Nature, he thought, was people. He didn’t like people.
Ravenous after his labours, he made short work of two thick slabs of white bread smeared liberally with lard and wrapped round two mustard-covered cold pork sausages, washed down with swigs of dark, sweet tea. He contemplated eating the two blackened bananas he’d brought along, but decided to save them for later and get back to work.
In another four hours the digging was done and the mound of freshly-dug earth had been covered with artificial grass. Topps was preparing to lay out the webbing straps that would support the coffin as it was lowered by the pall-bearers, and something caught his eye. It was a mere glimmer in the packed, dark soil in the floor of the hole, but he wondered how he’d missed it when he’d smoothed the surfaces.
Curious, he jumped nimbly down to investigate, and used his old penknife to prise the encrusted object free. He spat on it and cleaned away the dirt with the ball of his thumb, revealing a smooth-edged coin, a raised pattern on each of its faces. It was surprisingly heavy and he wondered if it could be gold. But no, probably not. It was more likely to be something worthless, if his previous finds were anything to go by. He’d once uncovered a beaded necklace, which had caused a lot of excitement, until the Heritage Museum in the city said it was modern and not at all valuable.
Topps slid the coin and his penknife into the back pocket of his shabby moleskin trousers and grabbed the spade to dig around a bit, but there were no more coins to be found. Disappointed that he hadn’t discovered a treasure trove, he once again smoothed out the sides and floor of the grave. It took another hour to finish preparing the grave, clean and put away his tools, lock up the shed and grab his satchel. He was headed for the vicarage as the clock struck two.
Reverend Hartley Cordwell answered his knock, his white hair like a dandelion clock atop his long, thin, jovial face.
“Good afternoon, Topps! Another fine day, isn’t it?”
“Aye, sir, that it is. Just came to tell you that Jack’s grave be ready, and I found this.” He retrieved the coin from his pocket and held it out. “Couldn’t find no more, though.”
“Thank you, Topps. We’re not destined to find riches in our churchyard, are we?” Hartley peered at the coin. “I’ll put it in the safe until I’ve got time to have a proper look at it. Now, would you like a cup of tea? I’ve half an hour before I have to go out.”
“No thank you, Reverend Cordwell, sir. I’d like to get the green watered, right parched the grass is.”
“Well, if you’re sure?”
“Aye, thanks all the same. I’ll be getting back to work.”
Topps wondered if the vicar would ever stop offering him refreshments. They must have been through this ritual hundreds of times, and, although he actually liked the vicar, never once had he accepted an invitation to tea. He simply loathed small talk or chitchat. The solitary nature of his job as village handyman suited him well; he did a good job for whoever paid him a fair wage and neither offered nor expected any conversation in return. After all his years doing odd jobs around the village everyone had learned this and so left him well alone.
He touched a forefinger to his flat cap and walked down the vicarage driveway, his mind on the village green and the grass turning brown and unsightly in the relentless heat. He caught a flash of something red ahead of him and narrowed his eyes at what he thought was someone half-hidden among the rhododendrons. It was someone! A man, wearing bright red trousers, staring hard back at him. Topps assumed he was on his way to see the vicar, but the figure suddenly vanished and by the time Topps reached the spot, there was no trace of anyone. Puzzled, he could only wonder if he was suffering from too much sun.
For the rest of the day he tried to put the red-trousered man out of his mind, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was being observed. Time and again he couldn’t stop himself looking over his shoulder, but there were no more flashes of red, no mysterious figures diving into shrubs or behind garden sheds.
His last task was to put food out for the vixen and it was still light as he headed home, but during the short walk to his cottage the feeling of being watched grew ever stronger and he looked back over his shoulder four times before telling himself off for having fanciful notions. Who would want to spy on the likes of him? But the uneasy feeling persisted while he prepared and ate his dinner of rabbit casserole with peas and tiny new potatoes grown in his own vegetable patch, and he kept glancing at the window, half expecting to see a face peering in at him.
He passed the rest of the evening hand-washing his shirt and underwear in the sink and polishing his boots and then, at almost midnight, he put a pan of milk on the stove to heat it for his bedtime mug of cocoa. A tawny owl hooted, and Topps, spooning cocoa powder into the milk, listened for its mate to reply; they were probably hunting and Topps wished them luck.
A sudden and loud thumping on his front door took him so completely by surprise that he jarred the pan and a stream of hot cocoa spewed out onto the back of his hand. He turned off the burner beneath the pan and went to see who could possibly be bothering him at this time of night; it was unlikely to be the vicar as he only ever knocked very gently while calling Topps’ name. Besides, he always went to bed early.
Feeling very angry at being disturbed, not to mention scalded, Topps yanked the door open, to find a tall man, wearing bright red trousers, grinning at him.
“You!” he barked, curling his fists at his sides. “I saw you skulking around earlier. Who are you and what do you want?”
With a cheeky wink, the stranger replied, “You would not believe me if I told you who I am. But what I want, my dear chap, is for you to take a little holiday.”
“What? What are you talking about, you stupid man? Go away!”
Topps went to slam the door, but the stranger swiftly pushed his way into the cottage with surprising strength. Topps, rooted to the spot, could only utter a strangled protest as the stranger walked around the tiny room, his eyes roving from the stained armchair to the scratched pine table to the single bed in the far corner. The man studied the damp clothes hung to dry, then pulled on the rope that worked the pulleys to raise and lower the airer from the ceiling, seeming to find it amusing. Then he picked up Topps’ very shiny boots, and laughed out loud at the rounded reflection of his face in the toecaps. Finally, the stranger swung his gaze to the stove and exclaimed, “Oh, is that cocoa I smell! Wonderful!”
He turned the full force of his grin on a paralysed Topps and said, “I’ll make some for both of us, shall I? Nice and sweet? Then we’ll talk about your little holiday.”
Episode 2: be careful what you wish for