Clay Pit Cottage crouched at the foot of a broad old sycamore whose branches reached out above the clay-tiled roof like grasping arms. In the autumn, clumps of brown leaves fell like dead birds, and in the summer plates of bark flaked from the trunk, leathery and dry. At the bottom of Clay Pit Lane the tall hedges leaned in together like old men telling tales by firelight. I never liked it, but she fell in love at first sight; said it would be like coming home again.
<p>The Workers On The Cross</p>
The dog turned up one September night. It had been a hot day and hazed over towards evening. Cloud thickened as the temperature dropped. Heat still came off the house walls. You could feel it against your cheek as you turned.
What’s that? she said, in the darkness.
Out here? Where from?
What’s it doing?
Neither of us saw it. Both of us heard it. We'd gone to bed late. It was stifling in the room. We’d left the windows open wide to let some fresh air in. I woke suddenly. A chill air was leaking in through the window, dribbling down across my legs. I must have thrown off the covers. I could hear it scrabbling away at the soil underneath the sill. I don’t know how I knew it was a dog.
I got up and went to the widow – sorry, Freudian slip. I got up and went to the window. The noise stopped. I looked out. I couldn’t see anything. It was odd, what with us having found the collar.
We’d been digging too. We’d been digging a hole, to make a pond. It’s solid clay in the garden.
You won’t need a liner, Ben Worral, from the farm, said. We put in one for the ducks in my grandfather’s time, and it never leaked. Clay Pit Lane. They didn’t call it that for nothing, he said.
We must have been about two foot down when we found the collar. There was no dog, no remnants of fur, no bones; just the collar, leather, with a metal buckle. It was a bit worn, but all there.
Funny stuff, clay, Ben said. The clay-kickers used to find all sorts of stuff in it.
He pulled a face, made a lop-sided smile. The workers on the cross, he said. That’s what they called ‘em. Not quite like gypsies, but not quite like us either. They went back a long way did the clay-kickers. I used to run after them when I was a kid, ask them things. Funny buggers they were. Superstitious. They’d not stay on anywhere where something had been disturbed.
What do you mean?
Disturbed in the clay. All sorts of things locked up in the clay that it wouldn’t be good to go setting free.
What sort of things?
Ben shrugged. Things. Things the clay would be glad to get rid of. Things that would be glad to get free. Things that got left behind.
It don’t hold the bodies, he said.
Clay. It don’t hold the bodies. It holds water. That’s how you can make ponds. You can never drain a clay field. Hopeless trying. Put in as many pipes as you like, won’t make any difference. Water can’t move through it, see. You bury sommat in the clay, though, it’ll stay there for ever, but it don’t hold the bodies, pushes ‘em out. Why, after the Great War there were bodies pushing out all over Flanders, pushing out for years. Still are, I shouldn’t wonder. Blood, like rain. You’ve seen those cracks, in the clay, when it dries out. Like open mouths, wounds. That’s why they call it Redhills Farm. Not in my time. We’ve dug no clay in my time. We don’t go disturbing nothing.
The clay kickers used to find all sorts of stuff. Whole suits of clothes, small change in their pockets, but they never found the bodies. No bones. No soft tissue. No hair, teeth, fingernails. What about the souls? He put his hand on my arm. That’s what I wanted to know. Did it hold the souls? You know what they used to tell me? They said, when you break through to something like that, a place where a body’s been, if you’re quick and keen, you can hear it, just like a little breath, a sigh. Ben Worral looked around and shivered. That was the souls coming free of the clay. That’s what they said! It’s no use you looking at me like that.
Daft old bugger, I told her, the next day.
That old feller from the farm. Full of bloody stories.
Country people, she said. No streetlamps!
When you found the collar, I said. Did you hear anything?
I don’t know, a noise?
I don’t think so.
That’s all right then.
There was a funny puff of wind, she said, across my cheek.
Farms are all built round the edge of it, clay country. All to do with the soil; colour of blood when it rains. Runs like soup. Blood soup, Ben said. Old churchyards on clay are always a mess. All right while the coffin’s good, but once that starts to go, then the bodies start comin’ up. Clay gets that heave on it, pushes ‘em out. That’s why the clay-kickers never lived on the job, so to speak. Always itinerant they were, teams of them, carrying their crosses. They’d come in, work an area. Then they’d go. Disturb something, and then go. Maybe wait a year till you saw ‘em again. Wait until the air had cleared, they would.
I thought maybe it had been his dog. I should’ve mentioned it while we were talking.
I went up to the farm the next day. A young man was forking hay out in the yard. I told him I was looking for Mr. Worral.
Worral? He laughed. There ain’t been Worrals on Clay Pit Lane for generations.
Ben Worral, I said.
His face clouded, then cleared.
You’re the new folk, at Clay Pit Cottage, he said. They’ve been winding you up, down the pub, with all those old stories.
Ben Worral. He shook his head. Disappeared all right, he did, and that dog of his. He let out a sigh. They say he went running after the clay-kicker women. His eyes sparkled. Long black hair and bright eyes. They'd do things to a man, you’d never need anyone to do anything else ever again. He sidled closer. They’d do things to you, you couldn’t ever do again! And he flicked his hand down there. Not if you’s made like the rest of us. He gave an uneasy laugh. No clay-kicker women round here now though.
I turned to go, but he called after me.
Say they could feel the souls of the dead, clay-kicker women, like a breath of air, like a puff of wind on your cheek.
She was still digging when I got back. Sweat had made red streaks in the clay dust down her face. She looked up at me with bright eyes, and pushed her long black hair back.
When I’ve finished here, she said, I’ll go and shower. All that digging has given me an itch. I’m going to do things to you tonight, you’ll never need anyone to do anything else ever again.
© Brindley Hallam Dennis, 2008
The Workers on the Cross was read by Steve Wedd at the Liars' League Jekyll & Hyde event on Tuesday October 14th, 2008.
Brindley Hallam Dennis has lived in Cumbria for over 30 years. He has been writing fiction for about 10. Under a variety of names, he has won prizes for both fiction and poetry, had a (short) play performed, and works at times as a garden labourer, university Creative Writing tutor, and bookseller.