Diggers

A story before the story…

There is a tradition at the Lit and Phil of having ghost stories at midsummer and midwinter: live readings of original ghost stories by the authors to an audience, in the library itself, in amongst the shelves of books, and under the great dome of the reading room. I’ve been privileged to take part in this on three occasions: firstly with Seeing Things a few years back, last year in a slightly surreal and impromptu way (a phone call a couple of days before – “Simon, one of the readers can’t be there, can you help?”), and this year, which was entirely planned and with plenty of notice. So, despite that the story is set on midsummer’s eve, All Hallow’s Eve is a perfectly acceptable time to let it loose on a wider world.

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I love doing these – I do all the voices and everything!

Without further ado, I present to you Diggers.

This story is published under a Creative Commons licence: usual rules apply, and comments welcome.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.

Diggers

by Simon Morden

 

Here is midnight. Now the smoke has finally cleared, the fact that the northern horizon is bright blue and the southern pitch black is painfully obvious. It’s been light enough to work by all night, and it’s still four and a half hours till sunrise.

Here is a mad priest cavorting around me, singing ancient harvest hymns.

I’m not alone with him – there are another dozen of us, all bending our backs to the task, frantically shovelling soil from the huge pile on one side into the gaping pit on the other. We’re all exhausted and filthy, though the others seem to have approached their task with more stoicism than I’ve managed to muster. Quite what will happen if we don’t finish in time is anyone’s guess: that part of the plan was even more hazy than the rest of it.

And when I say plan, something like this is nothing you can really plan for. An ordinary man – that’s what I am, quite ordinary – has lots of contingency plans for when the washing machine breaks down or the car suddenly stops working or a storm flips a few tiles off the roof. We have phone numbers we can call. We pay people to make the problem go away, to fix things and make them right.

Not this time. This is something I have to do myself. That we all have to do ourselves. This is all our responsibility. We have to join together, and we have to dig. In the morning, I’m going to walk away. Just walk away, go home and never come back. Right now, I’m digging. And if you were here, you’d be digging too.

 

I, like lots of people my age, and in my position – kids all but grown up, work all but over bar the tedious business of turning up every weekday – we turn our thoughts to gardening. We’ve a small patch out the back, but it’s no more than a rectangle of lawn with two thin flowerbeds either side. It’s not really something you can make anything out of. Throwing open the curtains in the morning to be greeted with a vista resembling Hampton Court, or the glasshouses at Kew: it wasn’t going to happen with a small suburban garden, already busy with a table, four chairs, a birdbath, and a washing line.

It took a year. A year of waiting and reading up on crop rotation and natural biological control. A year of leafing through catalogues and online forums. A year of dreaming. Even then, I was lucky: the local allotment society were extending their plot, taking over some waste ground, clearing it and returning it to use. I was just far enough up the waiting list to be the last name contacted. It was Hobson’s choice in the end – a plot in the far corner of the site, about as far as you could go from the road. The railway line was the other side of a utilitarian metal fence and a tangled wall of brambles. I remember looking down at this stretch of land from the gate, at the churned mud and packed earth where the excavators had torn out the tree trunks, where weeds had grown rampant out of the ruts, where birds flitted and butterflies lifted, and thinking, “I could make something of this.”

I dug out roots left behind by the contractors. I marked out paths and beds with bits of green string. I rotavated. I brought in pallet-loads of paving and wood. I carted away bags of rubble and weeds. I was creating order out of chaos – imposing straight lines and clear soil on the unruly land. Everything looked impeccable and I was ready. It had taken me all winter, and into early spring: weekends, mornings, evenings, a snatched hour of daylight here and there had been enough. Time to plant.

The beginning of the growing year was full of promise. My runner beans were beginning their trip to the tops of their canes, the courgettes were leafy and green on their mounds, the leeks green-grey shoots in their individual pits. My potatoes were down the bottom of the plot by the railway fence, over on the left-hand side: eight broad rows of furrows, with ridges of soil in between. The first green leaves burst through the dark earth and unfurled in the warm air all over, except in one small patch, a yard across, going over two rows, where nothing came up.

I wasn’t particularly bothered. The rest of the plants were doing well. I earthed them up, and waited for the shoots to rise through again. Fewer emerged than I’d buried. I let another couple of weeks pass, then my curiosity got the better of me, and I dug down in the centre of what was now a barren patch that extended across three rows, and six feet at its widest. I’d planted the little chitted seed-potatoes the regulation four inches down. I couldn’t find them. I widened my search to those I knew had grown, but had then faltered. There was a slimy residue, a dark green sludge, a tight skin that popped when I nudged it with the blade of the spade and released a foul-smelling black ichor.

I reeled back, not so much to protect my nose as to protect my dream. I didn’t want to so much as look at the horrible thing in case I spread the contagion to the rest of my potatoes. But there was no use in denying it. Despite using the best stock, this part of the crop was blighted, and I’d have to dig up the diseased plants and destroy them.

I collected a plastic sack from my shed, waved at Trevor from the next plot along, and thought I’d just got unlucky.

 

Throughout the spring, plants that I’d raised from seed and lovingly tended, that were in full leaf and ready to be fruitful just… died. They rotted, almost overnight, leaving nothing but stinking, sticky piles of festering mess. A stench, sweet and cloying, hung over my allotment like a miasma, and I was at a loss to explain it. I didn’t have potato blight at all. The soil itself was contaminated, something from the industrial past that was poisoning the land. That trees and plants had previously grown there indicated that whatever rusting containers were buried beneath had broken open when the contractors and their heavy machinery cleared the overgrowth. I took soil samples, sent them off to a lab, and pretty much gave in shortly after that. There was nothing I could do to prevent this ever-expanding circle of herbicidal death claiming everything I’d worked for. I thought I ought to go and see Trevor and warn him.

Trevor was old school. Retired, lived for his leeks, cared less about the chrysanthemums he grew for his wife but still excelled in them. His shed was a shrine to the horticultural art, but still had enough room for a table and chairs, and a little stove which he brewed up on. He passed me a mug of builder’s tea and sucked hard on the stem of his pipe as I explained the problem. After I’d finished and sat gloomily nursing my tea, he adjusted his cap on his head and jabbed his pipe at me. “Wait there, lad,” he said, rightly assuming I had nothing better to do. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take a look.”

I waited for five minutes, then ten. I’d finished my drink, checked my watch, and was wondering about the etiquette of looking around Trevor’s indoor tomatoes and peppers, when there were bootsteps at the door. Trevor came in, followed by Colin and Donald. They were both on the committee, and it was clear from their expressions it was serious business. Donald knocked the clods of earth from the underside of his wellies and laid his spade by the door, before all three took their seats.

“What d’you think?” I asked. “Some sort of weedkiller, or heavy metal poisoning?”

Trevor frowned. “No, lad,” he said, “You haven’t got foreign muck under your land. Your veg are possessed.”

“I’m sorry. They’re what?”

“Possessed,” he repeated. “Possessed of the Devil.”

The seat I was sitting in creaked as I pushed myself more upright. “And you think that’s what’s causing the problem?”

“Oh aye,” he said. “Classic symptoms of the untoward influence of the infernal realms.”

I looked over the top of my glasses at Colin and Donald, but they seemed to be completely unfazed by this sudden revelation.

“And you agree that there’s no doubt that my vegetables are being haunted.”

“Not haunted. Possessed,” said Trevor.

Donald, the senior man, raised his hand, and Trevor fell silent.

“You won’t find out about this from any book, lad,” said Donald. “We don’t talk about it to, you know, outsiders. But needs must. I reckon you’re one of us now, so listen up. When something goes wrong with the balance of the soil, we can fix it with a bit of potash or lime, or adding a ton of manure. We get plagues of thrips and whitefly, and we net and spray and all that. But every now and then, we get something that’s beyond what mortal hand can vanquish, even with a bottle of Jeyes Fluid. That’s when we have to call in the professionals.”

“The … professionals?”

“An exorcist, lad. We’re not dealing with earthly opponents here, no flesh and blood enemy. We’re fighting against the Prince of Lies himself, and nothing else but a man of God well-versed in the matter and practice of expelling demons will do.”

“Aye,” said Colin, and nodded. He folded his arms, and as far as he was concerned, it was a done deal. My allotment needed exorcising.

I sat there for a while, then slowly realised that this had to be a practical joke. They’d taken a bad situation and were using it to make fun of the new member – and fleetingly thought that they’d deliberately poisoned my plot to bring this situation about. I veered between bristling indignation, real anger and hot shame at being so easily fooled.

“He doesn’t believe us,” said Trevor. He reached up to a shelf from where he separated out an old seed tray, and then lifted a short, stubby knife from where it hung on a post. “To be fair on the lad, neither did I. The first time, anyhow. Why don’t we all adjourn next door?”

It was my allotment. The unwritten rules meant I had to invite the others on, so I went first. The place looked sick. It reeked of decay and death, with only a very few plants now still upright and the rest, just … gone.

“What? What is it you’re trying to prove here?”

Trevor presented me with the handle of his knife. “One of them artichokes, if you don’t mind.”

It wasn’t going to make much difference, was it? They were having their fun – I was now simply going along with it, because I’d been ground down by months of failure. I trudged along my carefully laid paths to the where the globe artichokes had been standing proud last week, and where they were now lying on the bare soil, flower buds already turning brown. I cut off a couple of the flower heads, and dumped them in Trevor’s seed tray, along with the knife. I looked him in the eye, and he stared straight back with no hint of condescension, or even mischief. My certainty faltered.

Donald picked up the knife and sliced cleanly through one of the artichoke heads.

What should have been a dense mass of layered green petals collapsed into a ball of maggots, which writhed and wriggled obscenely, trying to escape the smooth black plastic of the tray. I turned away, gagging, but eventually looked back at what all my dreams had come to. Maggots.

Maggots, with tiny, distorted human faces, mouths opening and closing in soundless torment.

“What,” I asked, “what are they?”

“Them’s the souls of damned,” said Trevor. He held the tray up for my closer inspection. “See?”

I’d seen more than enough, and stumbled back to the relative safety of Trevor’s shed, where I perched in one of the chairs, shaking uncontrollably. I was given a splash of something in the bottom of a mug, of a colour and consistency not usually associated with the good stuff, but I drank it anyway. It burned on the way down and continued to seethe in my guts.

“What are we supposed to do?” I mumbled.

“I know a man,” said Donald. “Don’t you worry.”

 

His name was Augustus Kersal. I never did find out how they knew him, or where he was from, or anything about his qualifications. That, probably, is the only blessing to come of this – that I’ve done nothing that requires the particular expertise of Kersal, and that my part in all of this is as an accidental witness.

Kersal was spare to the point of emaciated. He seemed to be a retired priest, but retired from duties that had clearly unhinged him completely. He was, by any stretch, mad. He wore a long black cassock with some suspicious burn holes, and a dog collar so old that it was the same colour as his rheumy eyes. Not that anyone – not me, for certain – could look into those eyes for more than a few seconds without being scorched by their dreadful intensity.

He listened with bowed head, strands of white hair like a halo about him, as Donald explained the phenomena so far. As we stood at the allotment gate, pointing out various strands of the timeline, he nodded like a dandelion in the wind.

Then his head snapped up and he took my arm in a grip of iron. “You were the first, were you? The prime mover, the casus belli?” He dragged me away, and I stumbled after him.

“No, no, I…”

“Ah, but the Lord tells me that you are innocent, as innocent as anyone is, that is to say your sins are scarlet but of this particular infestation, this inhabiting, this break-through, you are not guilty. Guilty of many things, oh so many things, but of this work of the Devil, no. Machines. Machines came and disturbed what should not have been disturbed. The seal has been broken, by age, by carelessness, by design, no doubt design that one of the drivers was a worshipper of the dark one and even now rejoices in the evil he has set loose upon the unsuspecting earth.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, weakly.

“Ah, I see in you, through you, that you placed your hope in man not God. Beware, that God is not mocked.”

I looked down to find myself standing in the middle of my potato rills, exactly where the rot had, literally, started.

“Here?” he enquired. “Was it here that the Prince of Darkness manifested his twisted will? Did he rise from the infernal realms and scorch your tubers in this very spot?”

He let go of my arm, which had gone almost purple with trapped blood, and crouched low to the stinking ground. He sniffed. He crabbed a step to his left, and sniffed again. Then two to the right. And sniffed.

“The Almighty is most pleased in his servant to reveal the very locus of hellish activity. It is right below our feet, the footsoldiers of Dis have gained a beachhead and they must be driven back, isn’t that so, my Lord? Cleanse the ground, of course, of course we must, holy water and rebar and concrete, is that what’s required? Oh and digging. Much much digging, down as far as we need. A pit to reach the Pit, Holy Father? We are but your workers in this broad world, so it pleases us to bend our arms to your appointed task.”

All this time I was slowly backing away from Kersal. I felt a hand on my shoulder, jumped further than I have done since school sports day, and saw it was Trevor.

“What did he say?”

“I… something about concrete. And digging.”

By now, Kersal was stamping his sandled foot into the turned earth, shouting, “I strike you! I strike you with my heel! I crush you, serpent, with my foot!”

“Are you… are you sure about this?” I asked Trevor.

“Aye, lad. Go and get your shovel.” He looked up at the still-bright sky. “We’ve got a proper night ahead of us.”

 

I didn’t believe. I didn’t believe when men with silent, pinched faces descended on my allotment, spades in hand. I didn’t believe when a lorry arrived with heavy cross-woven iron grids. I didn’t believe when a concrete mixer backed up, reversing warning loud in the cool evening air.

I didn’t believe when we stood in circle around Kersal and he splashed us with water from a plastic bucket, while reciting words of Latin.

But as we started to dig, down into the soil, as we barrowed loads of earth away to make a mound, then a hill, of spoil, I did. I started to believe. The way the ground smoked. The way it grew hot. The way that dark red light started to filter, not from above, but from below.

We dug, further and deeper than I thought possible. The crater we were in became extraordinary. We should, by all reason, have gone a few feet and hit the bedrock. We were at twice the height of me, and still going.

And then, the blade of my shovel grated against something hard.

Kersal was there immediately, hanging off my back like a child. “We found it, Lord, the chasm, the abyss, the outermost circle, the very rim of Hell itself.” He fell on his bony knees and started scraping with his bare hands, and revealed a patch of tarnished metal. “More!” he cried. “More! Find the breach and thwart the Devil! Thus says the Lord.”

We shovelled harder, working from the centre, spreading out. The unearthly glow was all around us, and the heat made the summer air shimmer.

Not me, but some other man found it. He shouted and dropped his shovel, holding his hands as if burnt, and someone else dowsed him head to foot with the remains of the holy water from the bucket. That which missed, steamed against the metal plate beneath us, and that was when the light from the tear in it became obvious.

I didn’t have to see, but I knew that as long as even a drop of doubt remained, I would look on this night as nothing but a fever-dream, and dismiss it as wild fantasy. I slowly walked over until I stood directly over the crack. It was like looking into the heart of a furnace, the red light shifting and blurring my vision.

For a moment, and only for a moment, I caught sight of a lake of fire, and the things in it, and the other things keeping the things in the lake, before Kersal bundled me away. “Blessed is he who believes and has never seen,” he said. “Bring the iron! Bring the concrete! Go!”

 

So that is why we are digging on midsummer’s night. We dig and dig, and we will not stop until we are done. In the morning, when the earth is level, and there is no sign of our labour, I will go home, and have a long bath, and I will sleep, hopefully. I’ll never come back here. But I know this. I know I will be one of those flint-faced men, shovel in hand, prepared to dig all night, all day. When the call comes, I will dig and dig and dig until we are done.