Can’t Catch Me
by Arthur M. Mackeown
I was never one for drinking on duty. In my day this village was a tiny, conservative place with nowhere to drink except the old Rose and Crown, where every pint that went down the throat of the village bobby would be noted and commented on after he’d gone. Even so, I still made a point of visiting the pub at least once an evening just to remind the rowdier elements I was keeping an eye on them.
The winters were a lot harder back then and that year — 1956, I think, or was it ’57? — we’d been having one snowstorm after another ever since Christmas and the forecast said even more was on the way. Absolutely perishing, it was, and no mistake.
On the night this story begins, I decided to make the ’Crown the last stop on my rounds and had cleverly timed my arrival to coincide with the very moment my shift ended, as I was really looking forward to warming myself up with my usual, small off-duty brandy. Only the one, mind. I never had more than that.
The landlord, a chap by the name of Pete Worrel, was used to my little ways, so he had the brandy waiting on the bar when I came in. I admit I was pleased to see it was a large one. He was grinning all over his face. “’Ave I got somethin’ to tell you,” he said.
“First things first,” I said. “Now you can tell me.”
Pete laughed. “You ’eard about our Joey’s latest adventure?”
Joey — Joe Bates, that is — was sitting behind us in his usual corner and he didn’t like Pete’s tone. “Don’t you talk about me like I’m not ’ere, Pete Worrel,” he snapped.
Pete ignored him. “’E says he saw an archangel.”
That was no surprise. Joe was the parish gravedigger and a famous teller of ghoulish and unlikely tales, who spent most of his spare time getting plastered in the public bar and boring the pants off everybody with his yarns of spirits and spooks and such like in the local churchyard.
“I never said nothin’ about no archangel,” spluttered Joe.
“What sort of angel was it, then?” I said.
“The one over little Tommy Perkins’ grave, if you must know,” Joe answered.
“Who’s Tommy Perkins, when he’s at home?” I asked.
“You mean who was ’e? A little monster, that’s who ’e was.”
“Before your time,” said Pete. “Fell into old Father Swithin’s duck pond and drowned, when ’e was playin’ ’ooky from school. ’E was only ten years old.”
“’E was wicked, that child,” whispered Joe, and nodded to himself. “Evil.”
“Evil?” I said. “A ten-year old?”
“Always scribblin’ nasty stuff on my ’eadstones.”
“I’d’ve clipped ’is ear for ’im,” said Pete.
“Couldn’t catch ’im. Little ’orror just stuck ’is tongue out ’n’ scarpered, didn’t ’e?”
“Let’s get back to this angel,” I said. “Do you wish to charge it with any offence?” I should have known better, but it was difficult not to make fun of Joe at times.
“What did it do?”
Joe poked his tongue out at me.
“Here,” I said angrily. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That’s what it did,” said Joe.
“You need your ’ead seein’ to,” said Pete.
“You can laugh, you iggerent berk,” said Joe. “I’ll ’ave you know I’ve seen things’d curl your ’air if you ’ad any...”
“You certainly ’ave,” agreed Pete. “Most of ’em through the bottom of a glass.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” said Joe.
“Oh, ye of little sense,” muttered Pete.
“I ’eard that.”
“You should be off ’ome while you still know where it is.”
It was time for the calming influence of the Law.
“So should I,” I said. “Come on, Joe. I’ll make sure you don’t get lost.”
* * *
My teeth started chattering the minute we left the pub and I began to regret offering to see Joe home
“Right,” I said, briskly. “Let’s get a move on.”
Joe grabbed my arm. “Just you ’old on a minute,” he said.
“I’ll show you,” he mumbled. “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll show you.”
“Oh, no, you won’t,” I said. “It’s freezing out here,” — I began stamping my feet — “and I have to get up early tomorrow.”
“Never mind that,” he answered. “I said I’ll show you, an’ I will. Come on.”
“Come on where?”
Joe didn’t hear me. He lurched off down the street without looking back.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. He was heading in the direction of the churchyard.
“You’re going the wrong way, you silly old fool. You’ll owe me a beer for this.”
* * *
Apart from ourselves the High Street was empty. The only sounds were the wind and the crunching of our shoes on the half-frozen snow, which seemed to be getting deeper with every step. When we reached the churchyard gate, Joe pushed it open and staggered down the icy path between the graves. Even three sheets in the wind, he seemed to know just where he was going. But, then, he would, wouldn’t he? This part of the churchyard contained a good many former patrons of the Rose and Crown, some of ’em in holes dug by Joe’s own fair hands.
“Get back here,” I shouted. “You’ll fall.”
Joe stopped in front of a small headstone. “Not so loud!” he hissed.
“Why not? Nobody’s listening.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, if I was you.”
I cursed under my breath. “This is ridiculous,” I said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“Not until you’ve seen for yourself,” Joe answered. He sounded almost sober. “Come ’n’ take a butcher’s at this.”
I went and stood next to him, feeling like an actor in a third-rate vampire movie, and we both looked down at the little grave. Joe pointed at the headstone and whispered, “Read the inscription.”
I sighed and shone my torch on it.
“Me eyes ain’t what they used to be,” he said. “Remind me what it says.”
“Give over,” I answered. “What’s next? Holy water? Not part of my standard equipment, that isn’t.”
“Humour an old man.”
So I humoured him and read the inscription out loud in as solemn a tone as I could manage. There wasn’t very much, just a name and the words, ‘Rest in Peace, My Angel,’ in faded gold lettering.
Joe snorted and muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath.
“That’s it?” I said. “You brought me all the way out here in the middle of a snowstorm just for this?”
Joe pointed at something at the base of the headstone. “For that,” he said.
‘That’ was a little stone angel, one of those — what d’you call ’em? — cherubs, that’s it, with wings on its shoulders and a silly smile on its fat face.
“Enter the villain of the piece,” I said.
“Tommy Perkins to the life,” remarked Joe. “Especially that grin.”
“Alas, poor Yorick. So what do I do now? Arrest him?”
“Don’t be in such an ’urry. Just wait.”
So we waited. Then we waited some more. Nothing happened.
“Right,” I said, after five minutes had passed. “That’s it; I’m off. You can either come with me or stay here and freeze.”
* * *
I turned my back on the grave and walked towards the churchyard entrance. Joe followed me, mumbling and complaining to himself. When I reached the gate I tugged at it as hard as I could, but it wouldn’t budge. “’Urry up!” said Joe. “My ol’ bones can’t take much more o’ this.” He seemed to have forgotten he was the reason we were here in the first place.
“Stop moaning and give me a hand.”
Joe didn’t answer.
“Quiet!” he said.
“Listen. Don’t you ’ear it?”
I did hear it: a faint, drawn-out creaking that set my teeth on edge. It seemed to be coming from behind us, so I aimed the beam of my torch back to where the cherub stood next to Tommy Perkins’ grave.
“That’s odd, “I said, “I could’ve sworn it was facing the other way.”
“Don’t be daft.”
The creaking sound came again, and the cherub’s smile widened as it ever-so-slowly poked its tongue out at us. A child’s voice chanted in my head: “Can’t catch me Can’t catch me Can’t catch...”
“Told you,” said Joe and chuckled.
At that very moment the torch batteries gave out and the gate opened easily at the same time. You may raise your eyebrows at that as much as you like, but it’s true as I’m sitting here. The torch fell from my hands, but I didn’t stop to pick it up and the two of us tumbled out into the street.
“You believe me now,” said Joe.
“I do,” I said.
“And you’ll back me up.”
“Back you up where?”
“In the pub. You will, won’t you? You’ll tell ’em all I was speakin’ the truth?”
My heart sank. “’Course I will,” I said.
* * *
But I never did. Joe was found dead in his bed the following morning. Old age and booze, the doctor said. His grave was the first in our village to be dug using a mechanical digger and to add insult to injury they buried him right across the aisle from Tommy Perkins.
Copyright © 2010 by Arthur M. Mackeown