Late October is dark and cold, bare branches framing a blackening sky. The season of decay seems to suit the churchyard, thick with drifts of rotting leaves. Even the headstones are decrepit, once crisply-carved lettering now almost erased by centuries of rain and frost. The church itself seems as dead as its surrounding congregation, windows and doors boarded up, slates coming loose. A bright plastic “For Sale” sign is nailed to the grey stone of a structure that has, in one form or another, stood for eight centuries. As dusk deepens, incongruously colourful LEDs blink on here and there: not all the graves are ancient.
The south-west corner of the graveyard has sheltering Yew trees, but no LEDs to lift the gloom; here, the graves are ancient, “f” used where modern orthography requires “s”. The headstones have acquired a drunken list. Not yet drunk, but full of anticipation are Tomasz, Seán and Brendan Jer, strolling companionably into the darkness of the graveyard and making for the Yews. As is their ancient custom, they have gathered to pool their alcoholic resources — cans of cider from Tomasz, a rather elegant-looking bottle of red wine from Seán, and a naggin of vodka — “No Russian shite Tomasz, Polish oak-aged!” from Brendan Jer. “Wine O’ Clock!” says Seán, and the teenagers set up their bar on a conveniently-placed 18th-century tomb whose iron fence, erected to prevent just such indignities, is reduced for the most part to knee-high spikes of rust.
It is the wine — cork, not screw-cap — that presents the first difficulty: all 3 have smartphones, but none a penknife. Brendan Jer is all for kinetic solutions — “smash the fuckin neck of it”, but Tomasz, future engineering student (he has already selected the University of Limerick, based on the twin criteria of a strong Mechanical Engineering course and the presence of a College of Nursing on the campus), has a more sophisticated solution.
Peeling the foil cap from the bottle and grasping it by the neck, Tomasz approaches the Yew and stabs the bottle forward, base first, slamming it into the trunk. “Hydraulic shock!” he proclaims triumphantly as Newton’s laws compel the wine first forward against the base, then back up into the neck, pushing the cork a little further out with each blow. He works up a thirst doing it, and the Yew bark suffers, but the physics works. He takes the first swig, then passes the bottle to Seán.
Two cans of cider later, Brendan Jer needs to “take a slash”. Stepping back from the “bar” he vanishes with an unfortunately high-pitched shriek, sending both his friends jumping backwards with a simultaneous “what the fuck!!!”.
“Give me a hand ye useless bastards” is the cry from ground level. By the light of Seán’s phone, the boys establish that Brendan is not being dragged to hell, but simply the victim of subsidence and poor signage. A hole in the earth — with, they now see, an ancient traffic cone as a warning — slopes sharply down and sideways into a blackness framed by the top of an arch of undressed stone.
A combination of “bottle courage” and curiosity launch a research program. Phone torches reveal that the arch is actually the roof of a barrel-vaulted chamber or tunnel — the lights find no end — that has suffered a partial collapse. Brendan Jer, being already filthy from his fall, is elected Digger; lacking a shovel, he simply sits on the edge of the hole and kicks more earth into the blackness until it is large enough for easy entry.
Fortified by his father’s wine, Seán is the first to clamber beneath the ground, closely followed by Brendan Jer and Tomasz, who loudly explained their complete lack of fear. Seán welcomed them with a huge smile — “Goes way back!”. The ebullient Seán in the lead, they press forward along a tunnel. 15 yards in, steps of cut stone rise to a wrought iron grill. Gingerly lifting it aside, the three find themselves in the nave of the old church.
The damp walls bloom with grotesque fungi between marble monuments to the gentry of the parish, but the pews are sound. Eventually, the boys settle in the front row to enjoy their drinks indoors. “Oíche Shamhna!” toasts Seán. “Who she?” says Tomasz, his accent betraying his new-Irish status. “Irish for Halloween — the night of the dead, when the walls of the world are leaky, and the dead walk in” says Seán, followed by a “Whoooo!!!!” from Brendan Jer — his best “Banshee” — and then “How is that supposed to work anyway? The poor feckers out there are well rotted now. Pure shite talk.”
The boys resume drinking and further shite talk, as the wind starts to rise, sighing and whistling through loose slates in the roof. Then Tomasz changes. There is a jerk — then he sits bolt upright, looking around him as if he has just woken up. A moment later and he is bounding up and onto the altar. Back ramrod straight, hands at his sides, feet tapping, he jigs and whoops as he dances an Irish reel over the ancient altar. “Jesus Tomasz!” is Brendan’s laughing reaction, but the laughing stops as the reel speeds up. Uncertainly now, he tries again as Tomasz, expression blank as any sleep walker’s despite his whoops, starts to sweat, but slows not at all — “Will you get down out of that before you kill yourself, you’ve half my bloody vodka in you”. Turning to Seán, he sees a fading smile. “Jer,” says Seán softly “Tomasz isn’t in Ireland 2 years, and Michael Flatley himself couldn’t dance like that sober, let alone drunk”. Brendan Jer tries again to get a reaction from Tomasz, but nothing works; his shoes beat the marble like hammers as he dances to music no-one else can hear, his friends apparently no more visible to him than the air itself. “Jer” says Seán again “they’re here… I think the dead aren’t walking at all… they are dancing.”
Brenden Jer laughs and tells Seán to fuck off, that the dead are dead but his heart isn’t in it. The pleasant buzz from drink is gone. Why won’t the ignorant shit see it isn’t funny anymore and stop arsing around? Then he sees Seán “go” too: his back locked as though he has just bitten a 220-volt cable and his face changes. Brendan Jer couldn’t have said what, exactly, was different about it, but he had the strangest sensation that he was now sitting beside a stranger who merely happened to look exactly like his friend. He is suddenly aware that he is cold, and needs to piss very, very badly.
Seán’s head snaps around to face him just as Tomasz slams his foot down with a final thud and freezes in a dancer’s salute, eyes locked on Brendan Jer. “Do you see now, Brendan Jeremy? Do you see how we walk now?”. Seán’s voice was gone, his Doctor’s son accent replaced by something rural, something old. “I’d say he does bhoy,” said Tomasz in a voice that has not a hint of Poland in it now, “I’d say he sees alright. His turn now, I’d say” and jumping down advances on Brendan Jer. “Ye see,” says whatever is running Seán’s mouth, “we didn’t quite make it to heaven, and yet we didn’t fancy the other place…” but his audience is gone, bottles forgotten, but not his phone, and the light flashes wildly as Brendan Jer sprints for the tunnel.
His lead is short when he jumps the steps and sprints for the hole, and by the time his head and shoulders are out, grasping hands are pulling his feet back down, and his balance is gone, and the loose earth gives nothing to grip, but he kicks savagely and is free, phone gone but who gives a shit, he is out now, up and sprinting, twenty yards and he can be back in streetlight, trousers are wet, must’ve…” and the old stone flat in the grass stops his foot mid-stride, and he goes down as if shot.
Seán and Tomasz are upon him in seconds, laughing again like the seventeen-year-olds they are, and then they stop. ”Oh Jer…” says Seán, but Jer doesn’t hear him. Jer doesn’t hear anything now, won’t be hearing anything anymore. Tomasz begins to puke copiously at the sight of what the rusty old spike has done to Brendan Jer’s skull as he fell onto it. Seán’s mind is suddenly completely clear, and he knows in this moment that he’ll never forgive himself for this trick, this stupid stupid fucking trick, not ever in his whole life.
A few feet below the boys, something smiles in the darkness, and a long, long tongue starts to lap as the red drops begin to soak through.