Seven years ago,
As the old horse pulled the old cart up to the even older gates, the moon crept into the one patch of sky which was free from cloud. Its appearance didn’t last long, but it was enough to reveal the grave-robbers.
A pair of rough, thuggish criminals, right – stubble darkening their scar-ruined faces?
“Bugger,” exclaimed a woman in a strong Scottish accent. “I canny see a thing.”
Her companion, taller and quite a bit thinner, smiled.
“Good, then no-one’ll see us.”
The shorter muttered under her breath and clambered from the cart.
As she did so, her foot disappeared into a puddle.
“Och, for goodny sake!” she cried.
“Hush up now!”
The taller shook her head and hopped lightly to the ground.
“See, nothing to it.”
The shorter glared at her, stomping her left shoe repeatedly on the pavement. Finally, she gave up, and taking the reins from the horse, looped them over an iron railing.
“Well come on then. You get the lantern, I’ll get the spades.”
A minute later, tools in hand, the two arrived at the tall rusting gates.
They craned their necks, gazing up uncertainly. This was the moment of truth; once they entered there was no going back. They looked at one another, nodded in agreement, and taking hold of the bars, pushed.
The gates creaked loudly, a long groaning screech which echoed through the night. They froze, holding their breath.
When there were no shouts, barks, or worse – police sirens, they slipped through the gap into the graveyard.
“What now?” asked the shorter, peering around nervously.
For a moment the other said nothing.
In front of them, long, wet grass sloped away on all sides, everything blurring into a damp grey. Here and there, a few darker smudges suggested graves.
Finally, the taller shrugged.
“I’m not sure.”
“Not sure! What do ye mean, not sure?”
“Well there wasn’t exactly a map, was there?”
The shorter let out an exasperated sigh and tugged back her hood.
“Can we at least light the lantern then? No-one’s gonna see us.”
Her companion looked doubtful.
“Really? You reckon anyone’s stupid enough to be skulking roond here in weather like this?”
Relenting, the taller began searching her pockets.
“Fine, here’s the matches. Shield the wick from the rain.”
As the light blossomed, they peered at one another. In the amber glow they seemed almost strangers.
They were middle-aged – the shorter perhaps sixty. As the lantern flickered, shadows danced over their faces.
They looked scared.
“Right,” whispered the taller. “Let’s do this.”
They set off along the gravel path, feet crunching loudly on the shifting stones. After a minute, the shorter’s hand slipped hesitantly into the taller’s.
The taller clasped it tightly.
Around them, all was still, silent, and grey.
The fog had thickened since their arrival, and they could see nothing but the vaguest of shapes. One by one, ancient stones emerged like drunken statues, and trees (perhaps even older) dropped what felt like coin-sized parcels of water onto their heads as they passed.
In the distance a clock-tower chimed one. It sounded thick and muffled.
They carried on, squinting through the misty rain, until a fork in the path brought them to a halt.
“Bugger,” exclaimed the shorter for the second time that night. She lowered the spades and turned to her companion.
Holding the lantern higher, the taller considered their choices; left or right.
“That way, I think.”
She pointed right.
“The gravestones don’t look as big.”
“Means,” she raised her eyebrows to show the importance of her next words: “They’re not as old.”
“Oh,” said the shorter, catching on. “Maybe we’re gettin close.”
They turned right.
The stones indeed became smaller, and before long were standing to attention in neat little rows. After a minute flowers started to appear.
When they arrived at one which was completely covered in them, they shuffled to a stop.
“This’ll be it then,” whispered the shorter.
The taller bent and read the epitaph.
Again, they were silent.
Somewhere behind them the distant bells chimes quarter past. As the last of the tolls faded, the shorter spoke.
“I’m still no happy with this.”
“You think I’m happy about it?”
“No, it’s just…” she faltered.
“Well, just that I’m no comfortable, that’s all.”
A frown creased her forehead.
Instead of answering, the taller set the lantern on the square headstone, moved aside the floral wreaths, grabbed a spade, and thrust it into the earth.
The shorter watched for a minute or so, then with a resigned sigh started to help.
They made for a strange sight.
Two middle-aged women digging in the darkness, a mound of soil growing slowly around them.
That they were involved in the ancient crime of grave-robbing was unthinkable. They were the unlikeliest of criminals, and yet there they were – rain mixing with sweat, backs hunched over, panting as they dug.
Time and again they stopped to catch their breath.
The work was painfully slow, but they continued to worry away at the dark earth, small clumps joining the ever-growing mounds.
Two o’clock came and went, and still they dug.
By the time the bells chimed three, the smaller was clutching her back every few minutes, and the taller had grown so weary she’d started dropping her spade.
By four, the shorter was almost weeping.
And then, not ten minutes later, a dull thud rang out.
It was the coffin.
They fell to their knees and scrabbled at the dirt.
When it was uncovered, the taller slowly climbed from the hole for the light. She held it over the coffin, and the shorter, mustering the rest of her strength, used the edge of a spade to pry off the lid.
And there was the girl.
She lay on her back, hands folded over her chest, and face so peaceful she might have been sleeping. She wore a thin white dress, and around her neck hung a delicate silver chain.
The shorter shook her head.
“We canny –”
“We can,” said the taller firmly. “And we will.”
Lowering herself into the hole, she took her companion’s shoulders.
“You know we have to do this, don’t you?”
The other nodded, sniffed, and wiped her eyes.
The taller turned to the girl again.
“She’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.”
“Aye,” agreed the shorter at last “That she is. But how we gonny get her oot?”
“With great difficulty.”
By the time they emerged from the grave, tempers were running high. The last thing either wanted was to fill the hole back in, but secrecy was vital.
They set to.
“Come on,” groaned the taller, propping the last of the wreaths against the stone. “Let’s get this over with.”
They turned to the girl, her pale skin and white dress now hidden under a layer of mud, and taking a foot apiece, began dragging her through the graveyard.
As they did so, the clock struck six.
“Och, I thought we’d be home ages ago,” whispered the shorter. “Ye dinny think anyone’ll be up yet do ye?”
The taller shook her head.
“I doubt it. Let’s not hang about though.”
They redoubled their efforts, and within minutes were squeezing themselves through the open gates. With no thought of closing them they staggered to the cart, somehow hoisted the girl inside, and covered her with a pile of blankets.
And then they were off; a horse, two women, and a small dead girl, disappearing into the darkness of a foggy morning.