Four Feet Under

It’s just something to do.

I mean, everyone’s taken drugs and stolen a car and shagged someone else’s boyfriend in the middle of Beaumont Park on a wet Saturday afternoon. There’s nothing unusual about robbing fags from the offie, or spray-painting your names on the railway arches, or drinking till you throw up all over a policeman. We all did that when we were 14, and now the little kids are doing it – we have to move on, or we become a joke.

You want to find something unique. Something no-one else has done. Something no-one else has felt. And when you hear that soil falling over your head, tumbling down onto the lid of the box – the patter that becomes a thud that becomes a dull and distant shuffle, then the heavy silence that follows… I can’t describe it, but it’s like nothing else you’ll ever experience.

This is my fifth time now, and it’s been a while. Too long. Like any other buzz, you get withdrawal if you don’t… you get cravings. I know some of the others, Wayne and Lisa in particular, they think maybe we should pack it in. Especially after what happened with Townsey. But I just couldn’t give it up. It’s so boring round here, you’ve got to do something or else they might as well plant you for real, a couple more feet down, or burn you up and toss the bits off the top of Stodely Pike. Besides, I still think Townsey’s having us on, trying to shit us out. That’d be just like him. And if we were all to just pussy out now, he’d really have the last laugh, wouldn’t he?

It was Townsey who came up with the idea, at his Uncle Michael’s funeral. Old boy was doing 110, undertaking a lorry on the hard shoulder of the M62 when he sneezed ‘cos the sun was in his eyes and lost control of his Audi. It would have been easier to cremate him, considering how many bits he ended up in, but Uncle Michael had always insisted on being buried, so they pieced him back together best they could, stuffed him in a box, and dropped him in the ground.

“You ever wonder what it must feel like, Jules – to be stuck down there, all that earth on top of you, no way out?”

“I think he’s past noticing,” I said, watching a crow fight with a stick and trying to tune out the dull vicar’s didgeridoo of a voice.

At first I thought maybe Townsey had taken what I’d said the wrong way, like I was taking the piss out of his Uncle Mike being dead or something – then I recognised that look on his face for what it was. The look he’d had when he used to dare us to run across the tracks when he knew the Intercity was coming; the look he’d had when we stole our old Biology teacher’s 4×4 and drove it into the canal (Wilco tried to get us all expelled, but he just couldn’t prove it was us); the look of someone who’d made Rob climb to the top of St. Agnes’ to tie an eight inch dildo onto the weathervane. Some of the crazy things he made us do, they were cool. Others were just stupid. For a long time, I’d gone along with whatever he said. Lately though, I’d started to say. If I thought it was a shit idea, I told him. I reckon he expected me to kick off about this one too… but I didn’t. I saw the potential. Right from the start, I had a feeling. He was onto something here.

“You’re fucking mental!” Turns out Rob was the dissenting voice this time. “Who d’you think you are, David fucking Blaine?” Course, by then it was already way too late to back out, because Townsey had it all planned. The location, the equipment, everything. There was an old cemetery up past Whittaker Woods. They’d filled it up years ago – and I mean years, there wasn’t a stone in that place dated later than 1952, and many of them were so old the date had worn clean off. Townsey had been scouting it out nearly a month before he took us all up there.

“There’s a groundskeeper comes up once a week, supposed to keep the place in order, but I’ve watched him and he’s a pisshead. Spends most of his time in that shed down the bottom, smoking some bad-smelling shit and wanking off to the Daily Sport.”

“Eurrrgh” said Lisa, “Townsey!” Like she was all Miss Prim-and-Proper. Like we’d all forgotten how much she got off on standing in the trees on the edge of the dual carriageway and flashing her tits at the lorry drivers, trying to get them to jack-knife. Scrubber.

That’s when Townsey showed us everything he had in the back of the van. Two spades, a pickaxe, the scuba gear – the box.

“Where the fucking hell d’you get that?” said Rob.

“My Uncle Jason used to dig drainage ditches for that farm up on—“

“Not the pick, you vadge!”

Townsey just grinned. “Well obviously, Robert, I stole it from the undertakers. Security’s a joke in that place.”

“Shouldn’t be,” said Rob, “people are dying to get in there.” Wayne punched him hard on the shoulder, giving him a dead arm. “Ow! Twat!”

“You carried that out all by yourself?” I asked.

Townsey proceeded to explain how Wayne had helped him, but that it was a two-man job and there was no need for the rest of us to know anything about it until the time was right. Wayne confirmed the story, adding that Townsey had also taken the letters ‘M’, ‘M’ and ‘O’ from a floral ‘In Memory’, plucked out the carnations from the top line of the ‘O’ and given them to his mum for her birthday. I didn’t like the idea of him going round behind our backs like that. That wasn’t how we were supposed to work, and Townsey knew it.

“And the scuba tank?” said Lisa.

“My cousin Billy used to dive for England. Haven’t I ever told you?” Townsey was grinning, and that usually meant he was bullshitting, but you never did know. It pissed me off, how he couldn’t ever give you a straight answer to anything. How there was always something else going on in his head that the rest of us were never let in on.

So this was the plan: we’d find an out-of-the-way grave, somewhere up towards the back end of the cemetery where the grass was longest and an absence of empty White Lightning cans meant the groundskeeper never ventured; we’d dig down till we struck the top of the coffin originally buried there (none of us wanted to go messing around with corpse crumblings); then we’d lower our box in on top of that. One of us would get in the coffin, with the scuba tank and an old blanket for comfort (there was no debate about who was going first), then the rest would shovel the dirt back over and leave them to it.

“How do you know this air’s going to last you all night?” said Rob, after finishing up his Darth Vader impressions with the respirator mask.

“Research, cockstain – I looked it up on t’internet. You don’t think I’d let you fuckholes bury me alive without knowing exactly what I was getting myself into? Without the tank, you’ve got approximately one hour’s oxygen before you start breathing your own CO2—“

“Fucking hell, Townsey – you sound like Wilco! Next you’re gonna have us dissecting rats or lighting our farts with Bunsen burners—“

Then we’ve got up to 12 hours breathable air in the tank – bearing in mind we’re hardly going to be exerting ourselves, just lying around and listening to the worms sing.”

“I dunno,” said Rob, “sounds fucking dodgy to me. What if something goes wrong with the tank, or—“

“And in case of emergency,” Townsey got out his mobile and waved it in Rob’s face, “ta-fucking-da!” If he started to feel faint, or panicky (like Townsey would ever admit to panic, even in a situation like this), or even if the whole experience proved duller than Saturday night in The Rat & Bottle, he’d simply dial us up and get us to come dig him out.

“I’ll give you five minutes,” said Rob, which either indicated he didn’t know Townsey very well at all – or that he did, and was using a clever goading tactic to make sure Townsey saw this through till dawn. Personally, I didn’t think Rob was all that smart, though he liked to think he was. But Townsey – I was starting to think Townsey was way too smart for his own good. Certainly too smart for ours.

Anyway, Townsey got in the box and we filled the earth in on top of him, then we all went off to sit in the van like good little soldiers and wait. We were scheduled to dig him up at 7am (any later, and we risked being caught by Saturday morning ramblers pissing about in the woods). Wayne and Helen watched a film on Helen’s phone. Rob did mental agility shit on his DS. I sat and stared out the back of the van and wondered what it was like, to be down there in the silent dark, to have an ancient dead person rotting away underneath you, to put all your trust in your mates that they wouldn’t just leave you down there where no-one would ever find you again…

Trust is a big part of this, see. Of what we’ve always been about. People out there – parents, teachers, your so-called ‘authority’ figures… They all lie. They lie to stop you living the way you want, being and doing the things you want. You can’t trust any of them. But your mates, you’ve got to trust your mates, haven’t you? To put your life in someone else’s hands and known they won’t let you down… that’s a powerful thing. It makes a bond, a bond that’s going to last your whole life. So when we’re, like 40, and everyone around us is sagging on the outside and dying on the inside, we’ll still have these times to keep us young, to keep us alive. Even when they stick us in the ground for real (and no way am I going to let them burn me, not even if I go tomorrow are they burning me), we’ll still have done these things, together, that no-one else has ever done. Nobody can take this away from us.

Of course, what happened with Townsey, something like that’s going to shake your trust – going to make you doubt… but personally, I still think he’s testing us. To see if we’ll crack. To see if we’ll tell anyone what we were doing… ‘Cos everyone’s asking. Where he is. Where he’s gone. When we last saw him. We can’t disappoint him now, we can’t let him down – that’s the way I put it to the others, anyway. It’s not the way I see it myself, but it’s what they wanted to hear. I told them whatever I needed, to get them to put me down here again.

I know they don’t appreciate it the way I do. Townsey did, you could see that on his face the first time we dug him up. He’d felt something… something new. That’s when I knew I had to go next. Wayne, Lisa, Rob – they could take it or leave it. They’d just as soon do a shitload of K and go for a multicoloured dip in the res’, or nick another GTI and razz it round the multi-storey. They won’t admit it, of course, because they know it’s different for me. I keep telling them, maybe they just need to try it a few more times, maybe something will click and they’ll feel it like I do – like Townsey did – but even if they don’t, I don’t care. As long as they help me do it. As long as they’re here to dig me out when the tank’s getting low and answer the phone if ever I call – not that I ever would, but…

It’s getting near time now anyway, I can tell without looking. The others, they watch the clock when they’re down here. They light up their phone and keep checking the gauge on the tank. Rob plays games, Wayne surfs porn and watches old Jackass videos on youtube, Lisa listens to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, which if you ask me is one step on from the coffin – but whatever gets her through the night. None of them really appreciate it. They do it because it’s what we do. If tomorrow we gave this up and started – I don’t know, battering old biddies to death with tennis rackets – they’d go along with that just the same. Some people lead, like Townsey – some people follow. Me, I used to be a follower too, but now – if the rest of them told me they didn’t want to do this anymore… but they won’t do that. Because I’m in charge now. Things have changed since Townsey went, for the better too.

I reckon it’s the quiet I like best. You don’t get this kind of quiet anywhere else, certainly not at home with all the screaming and shouting and… All my life, that’s been my soundtrack. My mum and dad, going at it, every hour of the day and night. School? You certainly don’t get any quiet there. Teachers love the sound of their own voices way too much. And when you’re out with your mates, well that’s when you need to make some noise for yourself, in’t it? You’ve got to make the most of that. Everything we’ve ever done has been loud… all the fighting and the robbing and the fucking… this is the first time we’ve ever done anything quiet. Completely, totally, utterly. Maybe that’s why it’s the best.

When it’s getting towards the end, like now, when I’m just laying here waiting for the slice and thud of the shovels above me, that’s when I start to get sad. I want it to go on, see – I don’t want it to end. I wish I could find a bigger tank, one that’d let me breathe down here a whole day, a week – forever. There could be a tube, they could drop food down and… for a while, I thought about running a tube out of the coffin and up to the surface, so I could breathe through that. Maybe then I wouldn’t even need the tank. But Rob said it’d clog up with leaves and insects and shit, or if it rained it’d flood the coffin and I’d end up drowning before they could get me out. I remember someone saying on the telly how back in the olden days they had these little strings that came up out of the coffin, all the way up through the earth, fixed to a little bell by the gravestone. Then if someone wasn’t really dead, if they’d just been unconscious and they woke up down here in the box, they could pull the string and ring the bell and the gravediggers would know to get them out of there sharpish. Saved by the bell, that’s where it comes from, supposedly. I’m surprised people nowadays don’t insist on being buried with their mobiles for just the same reason. Me, I… I…

Lost my train of thought for a second there. I don’t know, the air in the tank’s getting… shit, the gauge is touching empty. Come on, guys, I don’t want to have to call you. I’m the only one who’s never had to… Wayne had to call us ‘cos he really needed a wee, Lisa was having one of those funny breathing things one time and she’d forgotten to take her inhaler down with her, Rob… well, Rob was just arsing about, I think. He reckoned he could hear someone knocking on the coffin – from below. He laid it on pretty thick, too. The others thought… but Rob’s always been a bullshitter. I said that, and he proved me right. Wouldn’t stop laughing about it for days after. Wanker.

Townsey never called us, of course… but in the end, he must have called somebody. That was all Wayne’s fault really. We were doing it in shifts, like they do in horror films. One of us was always supposed to be awake, but Wayne – Wayne fell asleep too. I was the one woke up first, and when I saw it was almost eight o’clock…

“Calm down, Jules,” said Rob, as we rushed back to the grave with our shovels.” He’ll be alright – if he’d felt funny or something, if his air was running out – he’d have called us.”

“Yeah,” said Wayne, “he may be a hardcase, but Townsey’s not fucking suicidal.”

“What if his phone’s not working? What if he didn’t even realise he was running out of air till it was too late…? Lack of oxygen, I heard it can make your brain go funny, it can make you—“

“Townsey’s brain’s always been funny,” said Rob, but he was digging fast now, we all were. The earth’s always softer second time round, it comes up quicker, but by then I’m usually ready to go home anyway. I hate it when it’s not my turn. I just want that day to be over so we can get back to me. The first thought I had when we opened Townsey’s coffin and found it empty – well, the first thought once the shock and all that had worn off, once I started to think about how this affected me, and not just… My first proper thought: if there’s one less of us now, my turn will come round quicker.

Anyway, Townsey certainly didn’t dig himself out of there. Which means… even if all this is just another one of his… I mean… whatever reason he’s… he broke our trust. He told someone else. Even if he came back now, we couldn’t let him back in. The others might want to, I don’t know, give him a chance or… but no way. He’s gone now. They have to see that. I have to make them…

Shit. Oh, shit. My head’s getting really – there’s nothing left in the tank anymore, I’m gonna start breathing back my own… I’ve got to call them. I’ve got to call… Maybe it’s not – maybe they’ve just fallen asleep again (though Wayne swore he wouldn’t ever–) Maybe…

Why aren’t they answering? Why…? I’ll try Lisa’s phone, maybe Wayne’s is… maybe the battery’s gone ‘cos he’s always on the net…

No answer. God, who else can I call? The police – do I…? I’m gonna have to… if Rob and the others won’t answer, I can’t… I’m gonna have to call the fucking—

“Emergency – which service do you—“

“Police – ambulance – please, help me, you’ve got to get someone up to the… the old cemetery by Whittaker Woods, I’m trapped – I’m buried, I’m—“

“Can I just stop you right there, young lady? You should know that you and your friends are in real trouble now. Wasting police time is a serious—“

“What? No, wait—“

“While we’re wasting our time dealing with ten or twenty of your stupid prank calls like we have tonight, we’re not able to deal with genuine incidents where people’s lives might actually be in jeopardy…”

“No, wait, you don’t– I’m dying here! I’m nearly out of… It’s nearly gone!”

“Stop this. Stop this right now. We’ve traced the number you’ve used to make this call, and we will identify the owner of this phone, and any other phones that have been used to make similar calls tonight—“

Shit! Shit… what are they…? Hang up. Hang up, they’re not going to… Who else can I…? There’s got to be someone else I can – I don’t want to die down here, I don’t want to—

What? It’s ringing. Oh, thank god, my phone’s ringing – it’s—

Dad?

“Dad, listen – please don’t get angry, please don’t…” Fuck, I can hardly… even talking’s getting… “Daddy, please…”

“Soz, Jules, it’s not your dad. I’m just using his phone right now. Nicked it last night when he was pissed up in The Rat… nicked your mums too.”

Who…?

No, I know that voice. I know…

“Cut the landline into your house too, just in case you were wondering There’s probably a couple of other people you could call, but even if they believed you… they’re not going to get up here in time to dig you out, now are they?”

“Townsey… T… what are… wh…?” Head feels funny now. Losing… What’s the…? Can’t really…?

“My calculations are correct, Jules, even if me and the others started digging right this second, we wouldn’t be able to get you out in time – and we’re stood right on top of you. Oh well, I reckon if you’ve got to go – this would be how you’d choose, yeah? You were always saying how much you liked it down there. Save your folks on a funeral an’ all–”

“W… W…?”

“Why, Jules? Is that what you’re trying to say? I dunno. I suppose I could tell you it’s because I didn’t like the way you’d started questioning every single fucking thing I said, or because you were starting to think you were better than the rest of us, or because – and this all took us a fuck of a lot of work to set up, and I mean… I really don’t know, Jules. What do you reckon, guys? She wants to know why we’re doing this. Any…?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think you might be right, Rob. I think you put it better than us. D’you hear that, Jules? You hear what Rob said? I do hope you can still hear, it’d be a shame if… Say it again, Rob. Say it one more time for Jules, it’s probably gonna be the last thing she hears, so… Go on, mate.”

“Hiya, Jules. It’s nothing… I mean, don’t… It’s just something to do, like. That’s all, Jules. It’s just something to do.”

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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