Dead and Buried
by Andrew Lee-Hart
Esther was burying somebody when we first met; it was a cold evening, but she emanated heat from inside her large parka as she thrust her spade deep into the mud. Lying close by, wrapped tightly and neatly in black plastic bin bags was the body, large and if not dead certainly not moving.
I was intruding of course; it was Esthers garden, and I should not have been there. Although not exactly a burglar and certainly not a voyeur I was up to no good, searching the gardens of north London looking for gnomes which I required for an art project I was doing for my college course. I already had two in my rucksack and was thinking of calling it a day when I had stumbled upon Esther doing her nocturnal gravedigging.
Can I help? I enquired. She looked at me with a startled expression on her face; perhaps for the only time in our relationship I had taken her by surprise, and then she shrugged and handed me the spade. She was shorter than me and a pale face peeped out of her hood. She did not say a word; did not ask where I had come from or what I was doing there, but stood and watched as I dug. The mud was heavy but I was much healthier then than I am now, so soon the pit Esther had started was a decent size and when we rolled the body into its depths; it made a satisfying squelch as it landed.
After we had covered up the corpse, she headed back towards her house a large bungalow with no lights on and I followed her. I was not sure of the etiquette after helping somebody surreptitiously bury a body, but I imagined that I would at least get a cup of tea. She held the door open for me and I meticulously wiped my feet on the mat and was then ushered into the living room whilst Esther wandered off into the kitchen; I had still not heard her speak.
The living room was large with shelves of books but no television, there were four paintings of flowers, one on each wall, with the colour red predominating. Somehow I knew that the owner of the house had painted them, not that they were amateur by any means, just unlike anything I had ever seen. There was also a strong smell of tobacco and by a Pavlovian response I got out a cigarette and was smoking away quite happily when she returned with two cans of beer, and sat down beside me.
She appeared to be in her mid-forties, about ten years older than me, but she had a youthful spirit, and her body looked firm beneath her jumper and jeans. She handed me my drink with a shy smile and then stole a cigarette from the packet on my knee.
I love a fag after I have been a-burying.
She was softly spoken and her accent was more northern than if she had been a Londoner. In fact I never found out where she was from, being the secretive person she is, but I suspect Midlands; Cheshire or Shropshire, she had an air of the rural about her and she could certainly handle a spade.
Who was the body?
She smiled, an old colleague. He came here for sex and in the end I had to hit him over the head with a rolling pin. I didnt mean to kill him, but after the first two blows it seemed better to continue with it, I couldnt let him go home covered in blood.
But wont he be missed?
His wife didnt know that he was visiting me, so I doubt anyone else will either. Anyway I have learned to cover my traces. Dont worry, he is not the first inopportune suitor that I have had to dispose of.
We made love in her large bed, and she was even more beautiful naked than dressed; her breasts glowed beneath me and they quivered as she came.
Oh my goodness she murmured and then the same words more loudly a few moments later.
As I got dressed I asked her do you happen to have a garden gnome that yearns to appear in a gallery?
All very clever I am sure, but I am not sure I would want any of it in my house. I wouldnt call any of it beautiful.
Esther and I had been to visit the exhibition of students work from my college which was being held in a small art gallery, hired for the occasion. There were some strange things dotted about; childrens toys, body parts, used tampons, various dead animals and of course, and disappointingly hidden away, my garden gnomes, liberated from various gardens in North London, and arranged to echo Goyas The Disasters of War.
Esther had not said much as we walked around, just the occasional sniff and pursing of her lips. I had hoped that she would take my arm as I would gain some kudos with my fellow students being with such an elegant and well-dressed woman, but she kept her hands to herself. I had also tried to look more fashionable than usual but she had disliked my brown suede shoes telling me that she could not bear brown and that it makes me want to vomit. From then onwards I never wore brown in her presence, and got rid of any such coloured items from my wardrobe. But I was so much better dressed then than I am now, surrounded by mud and filth, with my clothes eaten away by damp.
We sipped tea and munched on scones and I waited for her judgement of my work.
I like Goya she told me, she was a slow and quiet eater, war is a horrible thing, and he captures the evil of it. She gazed around the café where we were sat; she looked at a young couple who were obviously rowing, ignoring their toddler who was sat between them, and who was whimpering quietly. I could tell Esther was cross and was worried that she would go over and cause a scene, but fortunately she confined herself to a few pointed stares and a rather loud tut, which must have penetrated to the couple who left suddenly, almost forgetting to pay.
Sometimes war is necessary she continued as if the family had not existed, I have seen some dreadful sights but if it is kill or be killed what can you do?
Were those your pictures, in your bungalow? I asked her, hoping she would then talk about my artwork.
Yes, I have been painting since I worked in the Middle East; I loved the colours of the desert so much I had to capture them, and I distrust photography so I decided to paint instead. When I was involved with so much destruction it was restful to create something. I am not a great artist, but I am better than some who think that they are.
What were you doing in the Middle East? I asked her.
For awhile she just sat there licking her finger and picking up crumbs from her plate but eventually she replied oh just politics. There is a lot of politics in the Middle East.
At the time I was living in a room in Highgate in a house owned by an elderly couple who were struggling to make ends meet. That evening Esther and I sat on my bed drinking Early Grey and then we made love with passion and kindness. Afterwards as we lay beneath the sheets she smiled down upon me and bit my lip lightly.
You are a good artist she told me, keep going with it. The best artists dont care what anybody else thinks, just follow your instincts and dont expect to get rich.
Sometimes I lie here in my box and the time I spent with Esther seems to have happened to a different person. Lying in her arms, watching her walk naked to the bathroom, visiting various London parks hand in hand and the fact that I had this proximity to this mysterious and beautiful woman, it cannot have happened to me, but somebody else a long time ago, buried away in the past.
I tried to talk about our future; what we were to each other, but she stopped any such conversations.
Be happy she told me, accept what we have got. I am a complicated person, and I wont be in London forever.
But I was young and stupid and kept prying. Were there other men in her life? Was she going to up and leave me, disappear back to Israel or one of the other troubled countries that she occasionally dropped into conversation? I wanted certainty and perhaps to capture her, and people like Esther have learnt to avoid such snares from childhood.
We still had happy times; sitting in cafes, visiting museums, making love and talking about what we had done in the past. We found a connection, both having lived in Moscow but whilst I had been a tourist with an easel she had been working, although she refused to say who she was working for; Mossad? The CIA? God knows. She talked about train journeys at midnight, hiding from somebody in the snow, the sound of a bullet whizzing past your head and being so close to death that you cannot move for a moment, but after a quick prayer of thanks you shrug and carry on. Kill or be killed as she was so fond of saying.
My course was finished and I had barely enough money to continue to stay in my room in Highgate. I could have gone home to my father in Leicester but I loved living in London despite the expense, and the few contacts I had in the art world lived there. Eventually I got a job in a shop selling cards and other gifts, my wages paid my rent and beer, but left little for anything else beyond such necessities. I had an idea for a metal sculpture and spent many an evening looking for bits of iron and steel which I could weld together. And I had more and more spare evenings as my friends from college were busy doing their jobs or had gone back to their provincial homes in despair.
I tried to see more of Esther, but she, perhaps sensing my desperation was often busy. Perhaps we had never seen that much of each other, but with time hanging heavy on my hands I missed her more. I rang her one evening and we had chatted about this and that, I wanted her to suggest we meet up, even just a drink would have been a blessing, but it was not to be.
I would invite you round she told me sensing what I wanted, but I have work to do. Why not forage for some metal, you need to be doing something.
So I decided to go out and search.
I did not intend to go to her bungalow, well not to start with, but the gardens were large where she lived, and the owners rich, so it had proven to be a happy hunting ground in the past, and of course I knew the area. By the time that I got to her garden I had collected a few potentially useful bits and pieces and should really have gone home, but instead I sat in her back garden and watched her house; there were no lights on, but then she liked the dark and the curtains were drawn and so I had no idea what was going on, there was just the occasional movement, but that might have been my imagination.
I became bored and cold and walked to her back door. Unusually it was locked, so I walked around to the front and rang the bell. She was wearing a white cotton dressing gown and did not look particularly pleased to see me, although she let me in.
I told you I was busy.
I know I said, but I was in the area collecting metal, I stopped to show her what I had collected and realised I had left my bag in her garden, I could get it later. I sat down and she brought me coffee.
Can I stay? I asked her.
No. Have your coffee and go. I will ring you tomorrow.
But I love you I blurted out I hate living on my own, not seeing you. Despair and loneliness overpowered me, and I wept slightly. She put her arm around me and kissed me lightly on the forehead.
Does anybody know you are here? She asked, and when I shook my head she went back out into the kitchen and I heard a drawer open. I felt awful at my loss of control, and was just reaching for a cigarette when I heard the faintest of noises next to my left ear and half turned before something crashed down onto me and I felt an excruciating pain penetrate into the back of my head and then I could taste blood which overwhelmed my mouth. Everything crashed in around me and then all there was pain, and even that disappeared along with everything else.
And now I lie here in a box in Esthers garden surrounded by numerous other bodies; friends, lovers and the occasional unfortunate intruder. I hear the insects scratching around me trying to get in, and sometimes I hear the rain above me which is soothing, but then the moisture gets in, and I shiver with damp and hunger, but I know that my suffering will not be relieved and that I will be here forever. We are her sentries, us unlucky few who she has killed and interred; we are keeping Esther safe from those who would interfere with her and cause her harm, and from those who want to trap her and make her life ordinary and dull.
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