“Dead on the Doorstep” by Peter Cooper
“There’s a dead bloke at the door.”
Eleanor looked up from her darning. Nanna Kay stood in the doorway, a little mountain of curlers and blue flannel dressing gown. She didn’t appear to be joking.
“A dead bloke?”
“At the door, yeah. I told him you was busy, but it didn’t seem to bother him much.”
Eleanor carefully placed her needle and thread on the coffee table and peered through the open window of the sitting room. The sun shone brightly outside, bathing the roses of the garden and the green hills beyond in warm light. “But it’s just gone noon. Are you sure he was dead?”
Nanna Kay let out a hacking laugh. “Look, I know enough about men to know when they’re dead or no. Credit me with a bit of sense, will you?”
There was nothing for it but to go and look. Eleanor lifted herself from the battered armchair, grimacing at the ache in her bad knee, and hobbled towards the hall. Sunlight shone through the partly open door at the end. Through it she could just make out an arm clad in rough brown cloth.
She pushed open the door. A man stood there, and he was definitely dead. His eyes were like balls of glass, his skin the pallid color of a steak left too long on the kitchen bench. There was mud on him too — in his hair and all over the ill-fitting tweed suit he wore.
“What do you want?” Eleanor snapped. “I’m busy.”
Silently, the dead man raised a hand. One of the fingers was missing, the stump caked in blackened blood.
“Ah.” Eleanor nodded in recognition. “I thought it must be you.”
“You know him?” Nanna Kay appeared at her side.
“Of course I do. That’s old Haysman from Sumner’s farm.”
Nanna Kay’s button nose wrinkled as she looked the corpse up and down. “Really? He doesn’t look at all well.”
“Well, he’s dead, isn’t he.”
“Very true.” Nanna Kay gave a firm nod. “I suppose the drink got to him at last?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Hmm…well, there’s a lesson in there somewhere. But why’s he here, and not buried good and proper?”
“He was buried. They buried him on the farm yesterday, before the rains.”
The corpse stood silently in the doorway, one bloodied hand still hanging limply in the air.
Eleanor let out a sigh. “Well, come on.” She stepped back and gestured with a bony arm. “No point you standing around all stiff like that, scaring the neighbors. Come in and have some tea.”
As the corpse of Haysman lurched past, Nanna Kay leaned over and whispered, “Can they still drink tea, when they’re like that?”
“I suppose we’ll find out.”
Eleanor busied herself with the kettle and cups, while Nanna Kay helped the corpse into a kitchen chair. The old woman kept trying to look at the bloodied stump, but the corpse covered it with the other hand, as if afraid it might lose yet another finger.
“Are you gonna tell me what this is about, or what?” said Nanna Kay as they sat at the table. “I’m dying to know!”
Eleanor straightened the front of her apron, her mouth a thin line in the aged skin of her face. She nodded towards the corpse. “I’m more interested to know what he’s doing here. You! What are you doing here, in broad daylight? Don’t you know it’s against the rules?”
The corpse shifted its muddy shoulders slightly in what might have been a shrug.
“Hang on a mo’,” said Nanna Kay. “How’s he supposed to know the rules? He hasn’t been dead more’n a few hours.”
Eleanor leaned over and sniffed. “You’re right, he’s not even whiffy. I just thought someone might have told him, or lent him a book or something.”
Nanna Kay took a big slurp of tea. “You’re speaking in riddles, woman. What’s with the cut finger and all?”
Eleanor leaned back, her cheeks suddenly warm. “I was on my walk this morning, just after the rains stopped. I went past Sumner’s farm. It’s always lovely down there after the rain’s been, there’s a little creek that winds down from the — ”
“Are you gonna get on with this story or what?”
Eleanor sighed. “Well, you know that useless lot on the farm. Any minute out-of-doors is a minute away from the bottle. They hadn’t even buried poor Haysman here properly. He must’ve been no more than two feet down, with a bit of dirt over him for good measure. The rain had washed most of it away, and I could see one of his arms. It was sticking out of the mud.”
“His arm was sticking up?”
“Yes. I assume he died clutching a bottle.”
“That’d be right.”
“All the more reason to dig a deep hole.”
Nanna Kay clicked her tongue. “You deserved better than that, Haysman.” She turned and shouted in the dead man’s face. “I say, you deserved better than that, Haysman, even though you was a bastard!”
The corpse remained unmoved and staring.
“What did he ever do to you?”
Nanna Kay drained the rest of her tea in one noisy slurp. “It’s what he wouldn’t do, but never mind about that. You were saying?”
Eleanor refilled the other woman’s cup. “He was wearing a ring. Only a thin little thing, but real silver. It looked quite pretty in the sunlight.”
Nanna Kay choked, and spent a moment thumping her chest noisily. When she found words, her voice was hoarse and tears filled her eyes. “You didn’t? Tell me you didn’t!”
“I did. I tried to get it off, but I couldn’t. I ended up using my pruning scissors, the ones I use for getting cuttings and things.”
As if on cue, the corpse lifted its hand again. The blood caked the stump like wax around a spent candle.
Nanna Kay peered at it. “So where is this ring then?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? He’s come to get it back.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Eleanor let out a spitting cough. “A zombie doesn’t come and knock on the door in broad daylight and ask politely for his ring back. That’s what I mean, he has no idea about the rules.”
Nanna Kay leaned back, her eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe we need to educate him. Who else is gonna do it? Ain’t no other graveyards round here. No mentors to speak of.”
Eleanor’s bony jaw worked from side to side. She turned to the corpse. “Nanna Kay’s right. You need to know something about the rules.”
The corpse looked at her with glassy eyes. A muscle in the dead cheek twitched.
“I came to your grave this morning, after the rain, and I pinched something that belonged to you.”
The corpse stared.
“Make sure you say some positive things,” Nanna Kay whispered. “You always have to say positive things, when you’re giving someone criticism.”
“Will you shut up and let me do this?”
Nanna Kay raised her withered hands in a gesture of appeasement.
“Where was I? Oh yes. I took your ring this morning, I cut it off your hand. Now, yes, you did the right thing in coming here. As a dead person, it’s quite right and proper for you to get all offended if somebody comes and pinches something you were buried with. It’s called re-filing.”
“I already asked you to shut up.”
“I’m only saying.”
Eleanor laid her palms flat on the table and took a deep breath. “What you did was right, Haysman, it’s just the way you did it was all wrong.”
The corpse turned its head stiffly, from one woman to the other. It shrugged again.
“Your heart’s in the right place, deary.” Nanna Kay patted one of the dead man’s arms. “I say, your heart’s in the right place, Haysman!” “Kay.” Eleanor twisted a finger in one ear. “He’s dead, not deaf.”
“Ah yes, quite right.”
“Now,” said Eleanor. “Perhaps if we work through a few little things. The first one is this. As a walking corpse, you should never travel in the daylight. That’s rule one in the book; the dead always come out at night.”
“Rule one.” Nanna Kay’s voice echoed into her teacup.
“Rule two,” continued Eleanor. “Never knock on the door and ask for something back. Come and take it, preferably in a way designed to scare the wits out of the thief and anyone else who happens to be around.”
“A good scare’s always the tonic,” agreed Nanna Kay.
The corpse looked at her, its mouth open and lopsided.
“I don’t think he gets it,” whispered Nanna Kay.
“I’m being as clear as I can.”
“I know, but maybe you need to give some examples. Spell out how you’d do it, if you was the one dead.”
“Why don’t you?”
Nanna Kay’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, could I?”
The old woman struggled to her feet and pulled thoughtfully at her hair-curlers. “Right, well. Let’s say it was me, right — and somebody had come and whipped off me finger, say to get some priceless ornament left by a prince, bereft at my passing from the mortal world, and — ”
“Kay, it’s your turn to get on with it. I don’t want him rotting in my kitchen any longer than necessary.”
“Right. Well, if it was me, first thing I’d do is wait ’til midnight. Then I’d make my way slowly to the cottage, across the fields.”
“A windy night would be good.”
Nanna Kay stabbed a finger in the air. “You’re right! Yes, a windy night. Maybe one of those nights where the clouds are shooting ‘cross the moon, and the owls are hooting. I love those.”
Eleanor inspected her fingernails. “A storm might be good too.”
“Ooh, yes! A windy, thundery kind of storm, with lightning flashing every now and again, and the poor old owl struggling to keep on his perch…do you think we should give him some paper and a pen?”
Eleanor glanced at the corpse. “No, I think it’s going in.”
“Right. Well, I’d make my way to the cottage, happy in the knowledge its inhabitants were all peacefully asleep, completely unaware of what terror was about to descend on them from the moors.”
“These are hardly moors. They’re more like boggy fields.”
Nanna Kay put her hands on her hips. “I’m using poetic license, aren’t I.”
“All right, please continue.”
“I get to the door. It’s not locked, ‘cos nobody locks doors on the moor, they just don’t. It’s also not been oiled in years, ‘cos nobody oils doors either. So when I push it open, it gives a long creak, like my stomach when I’m waiting for me dinner.”
“Can you hear it over the thunder?”
“Oh, God’s teeth, yes. Especially if I haven’t eaten elevenses…”
“No, I mean can the people in your example hear the creak?”
“Ah, good point!” Nanna Kay waved her arm in the air. “It’s important to push the door open in between the thunder claps, so it can be heard clearly.”
“I push it open, and I slowly stomp my way towards the bedroom door. Stomp, stomp, stomp.” With each word, Nanna Kay stamped her slippered feet on the kitchen floor, her hands held claw-like before her, the flannelette sleeves of her dressing gown swinging like curtains in the breeze. “Like this, see? Then I get to the bedroom door.”
“This one hasn’t been oiled either.”
“No! No oil at all. And I push it open with a creak.”
“And lightning flashes, and thunder roars.”
“Yes! And I stomp my way into the room, in the dark.” She continued to stamp about the kitchen, eyes narrowed as she looked from side to side. “And I walk up to the bed, and I say: ‘Oi! You there. Give us me ring back!”
Nanna Kay grinned at Eleanor, raising her eyebrows in apparent satisfaction.
Eleanor raised her hand in a questioning gesture. “What was that?”
“What do you mean ‘what was that’?” Nanna Kay sagged like an old cushion. “That was my nice scary scene.”
“You can’t do it like that. You can’t just ask for it like that! It was good, then you ruined it at the end.”
Nanna Kay folded her arms. “Well then, perhaps Miss Expert would like to show us how it’s done.”
“I will.” Eleanor stood and dusted herself off, and gestured for Nanna Kay to sit. When she had done so, Eleanor took a deep breath. “It is dark, except for the occasional blast of piercing light that sends the shadows fleeing.”
Nanna Kay nudged the stiffly sitting corpse. “‘Shadows fleeing’, I like that.”
“Thunder makes the window pane rattle, and the thief lies in her bed, clutching at the covers and straining to listen over the noise of the wind.”
“I can’t do this if you keep interrupting.”
“I shall be as silent as the grave.” Nanna Kay guffawed into her hand.
Eleanor sniffed and stood up to her full height, one arm resting on her breast. “There can be no mistake. The bedroom door has opened, and now slow footsteps echo through the small room, sounding for all the world like the steady beat of an executioner’s drum. The thief pulls the covers up higher. Perhaps this is a neighbor, concerned for her welfare in the storm. Perhaps it is an animal — a sheep or dog from a nearby farm, lost and afraid. She recites such things over and over beneath the covers, as the presence in the room grows stronger, nearer, a cold menace reaching for her from the darkness.”
Nanna Kay let out a squeak and nudged the corpse again.
“A face is near hers, too dark to see. Her nose fills with the cloying scent of disturbed earth, and the musty fetor of the dead. She knows now; there can be no mistake. Her heart stops, refuses to beat until the words snake through the darkness. ‘My ring. My ring. Give me back my ring.'” Eleanor’s voice became a brittle whisper as she spoke, each syllable sharp and hard as nails. Nanna Kay clutched at the table, her mouth a perfect little round “o”. The body of Haysman sat as stiff as ever, but even he had leaned forward in his chair.
“Fingers quivering, the thief pulls the covers up around her. But the dark face comes closer. Now she can feel the coolness, the aura of rage about this dead thing. ‘My ring, my ring! Give me back my ring’. A hand is held high. In the blinding flash of sudden light, she sees that it has but four fingers.”
“Save me!” Nanna Kay clamped her hands over her mouth.
“The thief holds up her hand. ‘Take it!’, she says, holding out the finger that bears the stolen ring. ‘Take it, and go!’ There is silence, but for the whipping wind and rain outside, and a sound that might be an intake of breath, or a hiss of pleasure. ‘Take it?’ says a damp voice. ‘Yes! Take it!’ Her hand is still in the air. Why does this dead thing delay? A coldness envelopes the finger, as if it is plunged into ice water. She manages to open her eyes as the pain grips her. A tearing, rending pain, as dead teeth sink through the flesh of her hand.”
“No!” Nanna Kay leaped to her feet, scattering cups and doilies everywhere. The corpse jumped too, its hands raised defensively. “What are you doing? You don’t wanna be telling him things like that! What if he comes and bites off your finger?”
“Look, I don’t write the rules,” said Eleanor indignantly. “All I’m doing is telling him the way it is.”
Nanna Kay tucked her hands into her armpits. “Well I’m not about to start having fingers bitten off. Why don’t you just tell him the nice version? She throws the ring at him, he takes it and buggers off. Something like that.”
“Honestly, next you’ll be telling him he should turn up at the doorstep in broad daylight. With flowers. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do these things, you can’t just — ”
The dead man pushed back his chair and stood, a movement so sudden that both women took a hurried step backward. He stared at them, one corner of his mouth twitching horribly, then turned and lurched from the room.
“Where are you going, Haysman?” Eleanor called out. “Don’t you want your ring back?”
The front door banged shut.
The two women looked at each other. Eleanor opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without a sound. In unison, they pulled back chairs and sat at the table.
“You scared him.” Nanna Kay slurped the last dregs of her tea.
Eleanor slapped herself on the chest. “What do you mean, ‘I scared him’? You were the one who wanted to know how it’s supposed to be done. And you were the one who told the story first!”
“Yes, but mine wasn’t scary. You said so yourself.”
“When did I — ” Eleanor’s retort died in her throat at the sound of heavy knocking on the door.
Nanna Kay clicked her tongue. “Don’t tell me it’s another one. Did you cut off anyone else’s bits ‘n’ pieces on your walk this morning?”
Lips pursed, Eleanor stood and dusted her apron. She made her way to the door, aware of Nanna Kay’s padding footsteps close behind.
She opened it to find the corpse of Haysman standing there, swaying slightly. He was clutching a bunch of roses, most of which still had the roots dangling beneath. As soon as the door was opened, he thrust them forward, one side of his mouth lifting slightly as if somebody on the roof had it snared on a fishing line.
Eleanor pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh no, don’t tell me.”
“They’re beautiful!” Nanna Kay chortled. “Go on – aren’t you gonna take them? Don’t tell me you get flowers from men every day, ‘cos I know you don’t.”
“Would you mind not being so rude?”
Nanna Kay pointed at the flowers. “Look, if you don’t take them, I will. You better decide.”
With a gesture of surrender, Eleanor snatched the flowers and handed them to Nanna Kay. She rummaged in the pocket of her apron, all the while muttering and cursing, and finally drew out a small silver ring. “Here you go, Haysman. Now bugger off.”
The corpse lifted its intact hand and gently took the ring. With a last tug of a dank forelock, it turned and lurched away over the fields.
Eleanor and Nanna Kay watched the dead man go, ignoring the insistent whistling of the kettle in the kitchen behind.
When the mortal remains of Haysman had finally disappeared over a rise, Eleanor clicked her tongue. “I don’t know. What is it with zombies these days?”
Nanna Kay chuckled. “They’re going soft?”
“Same with most men, I’d say.”
“And they can’t hold their drink neither.”
Despite her annoyance, and the mess Haysman had made of the rose-bed, and the fact that she had lost a lovely little silver ring, Eleanor laughed. “Come on, let’s go make that cup of tea.”
|Peter Cooper lives in Adelaide, Australia, with his wife and 3 small but energetic sons. His short fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Antipodean SF, and his first novel, The Ghost of Ping-Ling, was published by Scholastic in February of this year. He blogs at cacklingscribe.blogspot.com.au.|