DIGGING UP JAMES
“Thank you,” I murmur, “to all the books and websites I found all this stuff in and whose titles and authors I ignorantly forgot to take note of.” I’m walking: along the London Road, shovel in hand. That might look odd but I’m also wearing my luminous yellow jacket, everyone assumes I’m a council-worker, off to work! and they’re sort of right, I sort of am. Back to the bench: I stand the shovel against the tree, dose myself with tryptamine drugs, I sit unmoving, car-whoosh and silence until midnight. The bench separates from its stone slab without protest. With the shovel I crowbar that stone up, easy. And then there’s mud:
And I’m digging.
And I’m thinking: for witches and warlocks North Essex is the place, it’s up near Colchester that you get a better class of local folklore and mystery, it’s up there where Matthew Hopkins operated, Hopkins who was declared “Witchfinder-General” on the authority of himself, famous Hopkins obsessed with little imps sucking at breasts, who died at the tragically old age of twenty-six. North Essex’s black spectral vast-dogs breathing fire and demanding that girls give them butter could bite the shit out of Hadleigh’s Highwayman, who gleams transparent outside The Castle pub with his gun, he says he’ll buy you a drink and if you let him you have to let him buy you another one, and another one, and…
Hadleigh, though, Hadleigh has its castle-remains and that’s something; but witches? There was Mrs. Eves, who kept her son in a jar and wouldn’t let him out to play. Oh and who could forget Sarah Moore of neighbouring Leigh? – Sarah Moore, who could cause babies to be born with a crooked nose like her, and whose only deed of note seems to have been cursing a sailor who wouldn’t be begged money off of, she flung that curse at him and not far out to sea a storm broke out, lives were nearly lost! But the accursed sailor grabbed an axe, struck the mast, the malediction rebounded back to Sarah killing her instantly. So much for Sarah! And a bit up the road from here, in Canewdon, not really my beat but within good cycling distance, there lived George Pickingill, another cunning-man, who would throw curses at his neighbours whom he’d subsequently unhex for the price of a beer.
It’s embarrassing really. So what about you, Murrell?
Have you got anything to teach us?
Anything to teach me?
Hff! Any tricks left, Mr. Murrell?
Hff! Red-hurt hands. My love-line, wealth-line, life-line, are all obscured by dirt.
Hff! …What if anyone can see me?
Hff! They say, Cunning Murrell, you had healing-powers, you knew your herbs, knew numbers, and the stars in the sky and the patterns in those stars and patterns in language as well, you saw the shape of the future, you found lost knowledges and memories, you invented new memories too so your people could be the people they’d never been.
Hff! My arms!
Ff! They say your house was filled with magic smells: people came from all over the country just to inhale. They say you had a brass telescope which looked through walls and into souls. They say you’d sit at your desk with a dagger to one side of the books you were always reading and writing, on the other side of them is a human skull, there on your high-backed chair you’d pen anonymous letters to the vicar hysterically denouncing yourself.
“He cured Janie Motts’s kid! Walking around on the ceiling like a fly, she was!”
“Vicar himself swored it had happened!”
“Nah: when’d he say that then?”
“…He caught the thief who robbed Sam Rowle: he sticks his knife in the footprint and the very next day John North was limping, I seen it with my own eyes!”
Ffuh: and here he is, the man himself. “Roll up, roll up!” My head hurts from the exertion. “Half a penny and he’ll have the wart clean off your nose! Half a crown and he’ll curse whoever’s cursed you and that’ll be the end of it! – operations involving the Higher Spirits may cost extra. James Murrell: how do you do?!” His skeleton scowls at me. “Lost for words? They say you predicted the exact moment of your death but did you predict this?”
“They say,” his skeleton says, “I can fly, I can turn invisible and walk through walls and be in two places at once.” His voice certainly isn’t deep but it is commanding: here’s a man who knows how to tell people what to do.
“I’ve come to wake the dead, James.” His skeleton stands. The curving surface of his skull doesn’t come up to my shoulders. His face: a comical-awful gape. His insides: worm-squirming soil, some of it dribbles down out of him but he’s packed pretty tight. We face each other, down in that pit. Then his body lowers itself, for a second I have the stupid idea that he’s bowing to me but no, he’s getting dressed. He lifts up from next to his toe-bones his hat, that “hard glazed black hat” all the articles mention. And he lifts up his umbrella: he was seldom seen without it, that umbrella with the whale-bone handle, tiny baskets of preserved herbs dangling from it. He lifts up, too, and clasps tight in his deadgone hands, the gem that the texts call his “holey stone”: and there are eight holes in it.