Sunday 20 October 2013

The Gravedigger

Something a little random for you today.

I'll have news on the next Tube Riders release very soon - yes, really! - but in the meantime I was going through the files and found something I'd almost forgotten about which you might find interesting.

Fans of the Tube Riders will know what happened at the end of the first book, and so of course the second book takes place mostly in France. I wasn't quite sure what the Tube Riders would find there, so I did a number of sketches - outtakes, mostly - of the beginning of the novel, envisaging France in a number of different ways. In the end I played it pretty safe, but for a while I wanted it to be this nuclear holocaust post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I'd just bought the brilliant new Mark Lanegan CD, and the first track is called "The Gravedigger's Song". What an awesome name for a character, I thought. So, I decided to have a "gravedigger" of some kind in Exile.

What follows below is an aborted beginning to Exile, featuring the character of the Gravedigger. The character actually survived into the book proper, however, for better or worse, the landscape did not.

Chris Ward
October 21st 2013

The Gravedigger

   It had been another long, tiring day of burying the dead.

   To the west, a crimson pool was seeping like blood across what was left of the afternoon sky. The gravedigger cocked one eye heavenward, curled a lip back to reveal dirty metallic teeth held crookedly by failing, inflamed gums that mirrored the fiery colour of the sky, and drew in a deep ragged breath.

   ‘Ahhh!’ he roared, his stomach contracting as if he meant to vomit, the single chilling word ejected from his throat like a foreign body, as one arm rose the rusty, muddied spade high up into the air like a challenge to the fading sun.

   From a copse of trees to the east came a cacophony of bird cries. With a flurry of wings a flock of crows took to flight, little more than black shadows as they raced from east to west across in front of him.

   The gravedigger slammed the spade down into the ground like a defiant Roman legionary planting a standard in the face of an enemy onslaught. His other arm shot up, ramrod straight, two remaining fingers either side of cauterized stubs marking the fleeing birds like a gun sight.

   There was a bright flash followed by twin squawks, part of pain, part of surprise.  Two birds fell dead out of the sky, the sound of their landing hidden by the terrified cries of the others.

   The gravedigger chuckled deep in his throat. He looked down to see that he’d planted the spade into the breastbone of a decomposed corpse, breaking open the rotted chest cavity with the force of the blow. The man – he assumed it had been a man from the broader shoulders – lay three feet below the surface of the ground on the top of a stack of other bodies the gravedigger had been charged with burying today. There were eight in the grave, the gravedigger’s lucky number, because, back in the day, that was the number of times he’d got laid, but it made a good, even number in a six foot pit in any case.

   And the animals climbed in two by two . . .

He’d dug, filled and covered four other graves today. A quiet day as it went. Twice this week he’d dug ten, and as the disease showed no signs of abating, he might top that yet. Monday tended to be a quiet day because most people died on weekends, it seemed.

He stomped off towards where he’d seen the birds fall. If he was lucky they’d still be warm, as he liked them. If not, he’d eat them anyway.

He heard a roaring sound to the south and habit made him glance back. It was just one of the trains, rocketing across the countryside, cutting through the hills like a spade through mud, along the main Paris to Nice trunk line. Damn, those things flew.  Steam locomotives, too, billowing clouds of stinky shit out behind them like a dirty cloud of fart. Back and forth from the fucking cities like yoyos, ignoring all the shit and the filth in the countryside as if it didn’t exist.

And people said Britain had it bad.

The gravedigger reached the spot where the birds had fallen. One of them was still twitching, so he ate that one first, stuffing it into the metallic mess of his mouth and ripping through it, feathers, beak, bones, everything. He would puke up later what his body didn’t want.

He did the same with the second bird, although that one wasn’t as tasty, being dead as it was. Still, it was food, better than most of the country folk ever got.

Not for the first time in his life the gravedigger thanked those scientist bastards for messing around with his insides. He felt like an outcast and society had labelled him so, but in these war-torn times a body more resilient than the rest was proving a godsend.

The gravedigger turned back towards the graves. In a hollow somewhere beyond he could see wisps of smoke rising from what was left of the nearest village. A plane had come over yesterday and nailed it, which the gravedigger didn’t really care too much about because it gave him plenty more stiffs to bury, and plenty more commission from the government as a result.

He decided to quit for the day. The human part of his mind still felt tiredness, and shoveling could be draining work, particularly in hard ground. Back at the graveside he hefted a bag containing various tools, some spare clothes and a few trinkets he had collected over the past weeks over his shoulder, tucked the spade under one arm and headed off in the direction of the village. There, if he could find a house with a roof he would find shelter, as most families had fled and those that hadn’t wouldn’t refuse a gravedigger hospitality. Some of the old values still stood, after all.

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