‘Coffin Road’, Terry Grimwood

Illustration by Joy E. MacMillan

 [ Coffin Road, image © 2007, JE MacMillan ] Doug curled his gnarled old builder's hands about the steering wheel of his tiny hatchback and waited for his grandson to emerge from the garage where he had gone to fetch some digging tools.

A chill draught slithered round Doug's neck. The air had entered through the car's half-open hatch, which was tied down onto the lid of the coffin.


Doug swallowed, eyes, tear-blurred. Lisa was his daughter. Daughters should not die before their fathers.

He noticed that the front door of Lisa's Persimmon four-bed detached was open, giving a view of the hall and stairs. Fuck it. Let Steve sort it out. He was supposed to be a trouble-shooter, or project manager or some such. It would be his son-in-law's own stupid fault if he was looted. Let him sit up there staring into space like an idiot until the flu took him the way it had taken his wife. The way it was taking millions all over the world.

Nothing mattered now except giving Lisa a proper burial.

"You want me to drive, Granddad?"

Doug started and looked round to see Jason, peering in at the rolled-down driver's window. He carried a fork, and a spade. He was a good lad was Jason, only seventeen and already more of a man than his father would ever be.

"No. No, thanks. Just hop in and let's get on with it."

The engine-noise was loud through the rear hatch. Exhaust fumes tainted the plastic sweetness of the car's interior. Doug always kept his cars clean and serviced. You never knew when there was going to be an emergency did you, when your car would have to look after itself.

The estate was deserted, its surviving, middle-class, middle-income, middle-England inhabitants trusting closed curtains, deadbolts, wood and glass to keep out both human-sized looters and microscopic purveyors of genocide. They would succumb though, Doug mused bleakly. Everyone would, except the elderly of course. The elderly had all been vaccinated. The elderly looked set to inherit the Earth.

Doug swerved to avoid an upturned dustbin and narrowly missed the neglect-mangy collie foraging at its spewed contents. Perhaps it would have been kinder to run it over. There were broken windows, smashed fences, possessions strewn over lawns and other, motionless bundles, sprawled on pavements and in their own gardens. Some were wrapped in polythene, others in blankets, all dragged from their homes by grieving and frightened relatives, lovers and in rare cases, where such relationships managed to survive, friends.

A van raced past and into the Close, a big grey Toyota with "Bryant's Carpets" printed on its flanks. Doug caught a glimpse of the driver and passenger and saw white overalls, a respirator. Corpse Collectors – Carrion Crows. Anyone with a van and a strong stomach was making a fast buck out of the pandemic, clearing up the dead for a fee (cash of course) or payment in kind; food, clothes, anything necessary to survival.

"Bring out your dead," blared the van's horn. The relentless, jarring blast sliced though Doug's skull. Why couldn't they just bugger off?

Or perhaps he should just hand over a couple of tenners and let them deal with Lisa...

They came to a junction. On the far side, trees bordered the town park. Doug was glad of the trees. They blocked off what the park had become – a vast, open air mortuary. At first properly controlled and attended, all bodies decently bagged and tagged by volunteers, anonymous in white overalls and masks. The volunteers were long gone now, many of them lying among those they once bagged and tagged.

Everyone was long gone.

Glancing at the fuel gauge, which was showed all-but-empty, Doug turned left. This would probably be the last journey he made in this car. He could, of course, try to find an abandoned vehicle and either steal it or siphon its fuel. Risky though. The army – what was left of it - was shooting looters on sight. No sign of any soldiers or even police on this street however. No sign of anyone in fact.

Other than those bundles of clothes and limbs that littered pavements, lawns and, here and there, the road itself.

A few of the living hid inside the bay-windowed semis that faced the park. Some of the houses were burned out. Most had smashed or boarded-up windows. Cars lined the street, all of them, vandalised wrecks.

Doug glanced at Jason, who hugged himself and trembled. "You alright, lad?"

"Feel a bit rough," Jason answered.

"I'm not surprised." Doug tried to sound reassuring. "We'll get this done and get you home."

The residential street gave way to shops. Smoke stained the air; a thin blue mist filled with spiralling ash and charred debris. And here, at last, were people. Some stood and stared, others moved in huddled groups, glancing at Doug's hatchback like frightened animals. Most of the groups consisted of pensioners like himself, gathered together for safety. Weapons were carried; bits of wood, gardening tools, even a shotgun.

And there was the funeral parlour Doug and Jason had raided early that morning. A forbidding 1960's cube of brick and concrete with a smoked-glass window that bore the company name, printed in neat calligraphy. Its door was smashed from its hinges. They had broken (no, someone else had already done the breaking by the time Doug and Jason arrived) in and taken (stolen) the most expensive looking coffin they could find. The funeral parlour smelled bad. The cooling systems were off. Jason had been sick. Doug had managed not to be.

"I'm sorry," Doug said.

"What for?" Jason asked.

Because you are probably going to die of the flu and there's nothing I can do about it because I'm an old bastard and it's only us old bastards who stand a chance.

"That I've dragged you out here to do this."

"We have to get mum buried properly," Jason said. His face was ashen and he shook badly. "Come on, Granddad, we've got this far. We'll be alright."

Doug nodded, not trusting himself to answer.

The street widened, now bordered by chain stores, Marks and Spencer's, Woolworth's, Boots, none unscathed. Stock and dead flesh was scattered about their entrances like vomit. The road was littered with debris, glinting with shards of glass. Smoke billowed. The smell slithered into the car through all the usual vents and gaps, but mostly through the semi-open back.

Doug's cough dissolved into a chesty, smoker's hack. Jason's went on and on until he was doubled up and gagging for breath.

Figures lurched out of the murk. They ran at the car. One carried a machete. Doug jammed his foot hard down.

For a moment the machete-wielder filled the world and Doug saw that it was a young woman in a fur coat, her grubby face was filled with hate, her nose streamed bloody mucus. Them or us, Doug told her silently, head filled with blood-roar, them or us –

There was a thud and the woman was hurled aside. Jason screamed and swore. Doug clung to the steering wheel. Figures danced out of their path. Something heavy crashed against the side of the car. Another. A third. There was a dull thud of brick on coffin-wood.

"You killed her," Jason yelled. "You hit her on purpose. Fucking hell, Granddad, you killed her."

Yes, Doug answered silently. Them or us...

"You got any cigarettes?" Doug asked, more to shut Jason up than from any nicotine craving.


"Oh come on, lad. I know you smoke. You stink of it under all that perfume and aftershave or whatever you call it."

Jason grinned weakly, reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. The welcome and long-missed tang of nicotine blanked out most of the other smells.

They came to a roundabout, overlooked by a church where crowds had gathered, clutching blankets, sleeping bags and each other. Light flickered from the open doorway and through the stained-glass windows with non-electric uncertainty.

Never a religious man, Doug nonetheless found himself craving the warm soul-comfort of a church, because surely no one could touch you when you were hiding in God's house. The idea of a church as an unassailable sanctuary was strong in him.

Doug took the third exit onto a long, gently curving road. The road was busy.

It wasn't only cars; it was wheelbarrows, carts, vans, trucks, and pedestrians. All headed for the cemetery, all with their dead safe inside stolen coffins, muffled in sacks and bags, wrapped in polythene. The living were grim-faced and quiet and almost all past the age of sixty.

Doug carefully slotted the car into the stream, careful not to touch or bump. Even through the car's closed up windows, the sounds of the traffic were audible; the shuffle and flap of feet, the rattle of wheels and rhythmic purr of engines. Exhaust fumes hung heavy on the air. The river moved slowly with the polite caterpilling of an English queue.

Closer to the cemetery, the stream of widows, widowers, orphans and other bereaved grew denser. Some sat on the side of the road, exhausted. Others lay, motionless and ignored. At the ornately gothic cemetery gates there was chaos, a great milling, pushing clot of humanity and vehicles, all trying to force their way through the main entrance. Doug stopped the car and turned to look at his grandson.

"Come on, lad," he said. "We'll have to walk."

"What? You must be joking -"

"Can you see a smile on my face?"

No, and you'll never see another one, believe you me, Jason (stupid name, by the way, Steve's idea no doubt, what was wrong with Robert or Michael or John?).

Jason sighed and was out first, already working at the knots that held the hatch down and the coffin in place by the time Doug got to him. The job was made awkward by the push and shove of flesh and metal, by elbows, wheels, curses and sobs.

They slid the coffin back. It jammed against the front of a van that had parked right behind their hatchback. A horn blared and Doug looked up to see a big man with earrings and a goatee beard miming obscenities through the windscreen. Still straining under the weight of Lisa's coffin, Doug shouted at him to reverse a little. The van driver pushed open his door, which scythed through a group of frail-looking men and women who were pulling a flat cart bearing two blanket-smothered bodies.

One of the pall bearers staggered back, then fell, clutching at a bloodied face. A woman sobbed his name and sank to her knees beside him.

"You fucking old bastard!" the van driver yelled. His tattoo-covered arms bulged with muscle, his fists were clenched. Doug held his eye. I know your sort, he mused silently. We had them in Korea. You're one of those big-talk tough guys who cry like babies the moment the shooting starts.

Someone else shouted. It was the van's gaunt, long-haired passenger. Tattoo-man snarled something at him in return then forced his way back to the van. A moment later its rear doors opened and cadavers began to spill from the van's interior. Corpse Collectors, Doug realised, fucking vultures.

Emptied, the van crunched into reverse and bumped over its former cargo. The crowd was forced aside, screaming and cursing. A wheelbarrow on which a coffin had been tied was overturned, its owner knocked off his feet by the van's rust-spattered flank as it revved, spewed blue smoke and raced away.

Using his daughter's coffin as a battering ram, Doug pressed through the crowd and into the cemetery.

Which was a vision of Hell, a desolation where the grief-wrought living mingled with the dead. The ground was torn open, like the craters and slit trenches of a battlefield. People dug and howled and squabbled and collapsed from exhaustion and despair. Grave stones and monuments were skewed, broken, ripped out of the ground. Flowers were scattered.

And the stench...

There was no time to stand and stare. The light was deep orange, fading quickly. Doug, his grandson, and his daughter – oh yes, she was still his daughter, that old bastard death couldn't take that away from him - moved awkwardly over the churned and muddy grass. They slipped, stumbled and, at one point, the foot end of the coffin slipped from Doug's hands and thudded onto the wrecked soil.

The light shifted another notch towards dusk.

They found a small space, relatively undisturbed. It was nowhere near Doreen's resting place. Doug's eight-years-dead wife lay in a prime spot, atop a slope that gave a sweeping view of the town - with its columns of smoke and shattered buildings - but Doug could carry the coffin no further. His heart raced too fast, the papery old organ no doubt galloping into its final furlong. "It'll do," he muttered.

Will do? For Lisa? Do? Is that all? ... ?

"Go and get the spades, lad," Doug said.

"In a minute," Jason answered. He sat on the ground, arms hung over his up-bent knees, head bowed. "Bloody hell I feel bad."

"We're nearly done," Doug said gently and leaned over to ruffle his grandson's hair. He recoiled. Jason's head was hot. Exertion probably, he was unfit, like most of today's youth. It came from too much sitting in front of the telly and driving cars when you should be walking or even biking round the corner to work.

"You stay here," Doug said after a moment. "I'll fetch the tools. Just keep an eye on your mum for me, eh?"

"Yeah, yeah."

Jason sounded alarmingly vague.

The walk back to the car was a war, an upstream swim against a steady current of human beings and their dead. Progress was further hampered by the ailing; people who sat or lay where they fell, who hugged themselves, shivered, coughed and sneezed out blood-flecked mucus. The rattle of their fluid-filled lungs was audible even above the sobs and cries of the grief-stricken, the relentless thud of feet and the smack of spade-steel against earth.

Jason was no better when Doug finally returned, if anything, he seemed worse. Exhausted and shivering... well, it was cold out here - he broke into a wrenching cough that doubled him over and left him clutching at the nearest gravestone for support. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. Doug was glad of the failing light. He didn't want to see what Jason had smeared on his jacket, didn't want to see its colour and consistency. Its truth. Jason drew the cigarette packet from his pocket and stood, huddled into himself like an old man. He wavered, almost fell then offered the pack to Doug.

"I'll use the fork to break up the ground, you take the spade and shovel it out," Doug said. Although you didn't look well enough to spoon tea, he added silently. They lit up. Doug coughed. So did Jason. His cough sounded wet.

Doug drove the fork at the ground. The impact jarred through him. The tines barely cracked the trampled, grass-tufted surface. Bones creaking, joints grinding, he pulled back on the handle and prised loose a chunk of earth.

His chest on fire, his back a web of pain. Jason didn't seem to be doing much better. The lad was forcing himself on and Doug was aglow with pride over that. Jason was obviously exhausted, struggling with the unaccustomed exercise. It had been a gruelling few days for him. And that cough, well, he smoked too many ciggies for a lad of his age. Mind you, Doug had smoked heavily enough in his teens, and like a chimney in his early twenties, especially in the army.

Especially in Korea, on that fucking hill after a squadron of Yank A20s had dosed it with napalm. He had thought the hill to be the end of the world, that he would never again see so many dead bodies in one place...

Doug stabbed and pulled; Jason lifted and tipped. Doug's eyes were drawn relentlessly to the coffin. His daughter, his child, his little girl. How the hell could it be her in there? It should be him, worn up old Doug.

Coughing again, doubled over and clutching his middle, Jason sank to his knees. His breath was a wet, gag, a claw for air. The spade clanged down beside him.

Doug picked it up. "Have a break," he said gently, and once more tousled that thatch of dark hair. He ran his hand down onto Jason's forehead, which was hot and damp. Then he began to empty the broken soil from the grave. The weight of earth increased with each load.

He stopped, crouched and felt about the grave, which had become an oblong of black in the gathering dusk. He estimated it to be to be two feet deep. Not deep enough for the coffin, but just deep enough for Lisa herself.

"Come on Jason," he said gruffly. "I need you lad. One last effort."

Jason looked up and in the gloom his face was white and haunted, his eyes, pits of featureless darkness.

With Jason hanging onto his scrawny, hard muscled old arm, Doug crossed to the coffin. After a brief rest, bent over, hands on knees, they dragged it the two yards or so back to the grave. The coffin was crushingly heavy. Jason coughed, gasped and stumbled, Doug crushed all pain and weakness and hauled. Just hauled and didn't think or look or feel.

He stumbled up against a body, turned to utter an instinctive apology and saw that it was a broad, squat woman. Her hair was long and unkempt, her breath more wheeze than respiration. Behind her, two men dropped something into Lisa's grave.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Doug was breathless, not able to force enough volume into the shout to make the grave stealers turn round. So he pushed at the woman who rocked back then unleashed a mouthful of vile language that slammed against Doug's face like vomit.

It ended with "... so fuck off!"

She spun round to berate the two men, one skinny-tall, the other as portly as her, and both smudges in the dusk.

Doug's heart raced, his nerves and flesh on fire with whatever pushed rage about your body. This was Lisa's grave. That mouthy, ignorant bitch had stolen his Lisa's grave.

The spade was in his hand. Its weight was good, its weight was right.

"Hey!" His shout was a gasp. "I'm speaking to you, you fucking old cow." The woman half turned, even began another tirade, before steel met flesh and a judder shot into Doug's shoulders and through his head so violently it sent him staggering backwards until he bumped up against a gravestone and almost fell.

The woman was a crumpled shadow, looking no different from the piles of dirt torn out of the earth around her. Her men stood silent and frozen, even while Doug wrestled their child (and sister?) out of his own daughter's grave and laid it on the ground beside the woman he assumed had been its mother. The corpse was small and light, a slippery, awkward-to-handle bundle of sticks wrapped in mouldering flesh.

He glanced at the body he had felled. Them or us, that's what he had told himself, back in Korea. That's how it was now. Perhaps, he mused as he lifted the spade above Lisa's coffin, it's why the old have been chosen to survive, because we know how to fight, but not to hate.

He smashed the spade downwards onto the coffin's lid.

He was glad it almost dark.

When, a moment later, they rolled Lisa into her grave, Jason collapsed and fell in with her to lie, sobbing with his head resting on her shoulder. His tears dissolved into yet another bout of violent coughing. The cough became a breathless gag.

Doug gently tugged at him until he crawled back out of the grave and curled up on the ground, teeth clattering. His chest sounded as if it was full of water. Doug hunted through his grandson's jacket until he found his cigarettes, lit up then offered one to Jason. His answer was the incomprehensible mumble of delirium.

Finding a nearby tombstone to lean against, Doug sat down to enjoy his smoke. No use closing the grave when he was going to have to enlarge it in a few hours time. Besides, he needed to make himself comfortable, it was his turn for guard duty.

And while Doug's cigarette ascended, flared, faded, fell then ascended again like a slow motion pendulum, the dark seethed with the animal utterances of the grieving and the thud and clink of spades as they wounded, fed, then healed the earth.

Inspired by events in South Africa during the great influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919

© 2007 Terry Grimwood

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