The Bishop and the Balloon
by Ian Cooke-Tapia
Started October 2017 – Finished November 2017
It smelled heavily of cut grass.
Harry and I stood on a narrow gravel path, sandwiched somewhere in-between two steps on the social ladder. On the southern side: tall stone obelisks and kerbed headstones possessing a post-mortem magnificence that only high-income means could erect; on the other side there were small wooden crosses. It was the latter that interested us the most – these small markers, often rotted or kicked three meters over yonder, were a mystery unto themselves. The crosses had small plaques that you sometimes couldn’t find unless you searched for them by walking around in a circle. Forgotten somewhere in the grass, nearly lost to time. On these plaques, numbered codes such as N.601 and N.308 were engraved in small letters. The hidden codifications of a graveyard have a stronger pull, I find, than transparent textual histories of a dying. Were these small crosses gravestones-in-waiting? No, couldn’t be, judging by a recent mound of upturned clayish soil nearby. Were these crosses the resting place of the forgotten and the abandoned, then? And what did the codes on the plaques communicate, really? These questions had a strange gravitas to them, and I felt very much like I was a translator who knew meaning but not nuance. Ideas for me to understand, but like snow in the sun, melting away before it could be properly noticed.
We stood a moment in this spot, staring out at these crosses and silently asking questions we would only be shared after the bitter taste of beer warmed us up. All around us, the reverberation of publically-funded gardening was progressively gaining some definition. Harry pointed to the right and then the left of the path and I shrugged before pointing at the gardeners. Some twenty paces ahead, across a set of headstones and trees, was a man sitting on a bright orange machine whose blades decapitated grass to a standardized height. I followed this man with my lenses for five breaths before a perfect moment materialized out of this last cosmic die toss. The moment became immortalized in pixel form, in easily-rewritable data, kept in code inside an SD card one could so easily snap in half. I checked the setting on my camera for another shot when a voice came from between the memorials of those dead between 1830-1850.
“Oi, lads,” His words were like mud sticking to the soles of your shoes.
I turned to see a tall man, lanky or chubby I couldn’t tell, for the armour of high-vis and waterproof gear wrapped him thickly. His weed strimmer hung at hip height from his shoulder, mutilated grass remains splattered on him like a crime scene. He wore protective goggles that covered half his face in a bronze-violet sheen, and ear protectors hanging askew around his neck. Bloodless lips moved but we didn’t react. There was a pause in which neither of us moved and the whirring of engines the only thing to be heard.
“Nice day for a walk!” Again he tried, raising his voice to be heard above the petrol-intoxicated murmur of his companions’ tools.
Kneejerk politeness gripped Harry as he replied, “Yeah, man. S’alright, like.” He put on that voice, the one usually reserved for mocking most elusive behaviours of those who drank Monster energy drink cans at nine in the morning.
I just nodded my head.
In response, the man’s lips moved. The flapping or red and a lack of melanocytes happened; a murmur of background engines and ventriloquism. “If you want to take good ones, you can,” I heard him say before words were swallowed by the vrum vrum vrum of grass cutting. I must’ve been wearing my partial deafness on my face, for he raised his voice once more.
“I said you can walk that way!” His hands were gripping either end of the U-shaped handles on his machine, pointing with the circular plastic of the trimmer head, its whips looking like degraded orange whiskers, at a copse behind us.
Harry and I nodded, then looked at each other.
“Sorry, what?” Harry made himself heard when he wanted to – strong lungs, for a perpetual cougher.
I remained silent, not wanting to deal with this sort of raw-in-the-middle interaction. Just nod and walk away, I kept thinking. Just nod and walk away but here I am in this Decartian Hell.
Vrum vrum vrum… “So you can find the best ones,” The man repeated. Vrum vrum vrum…
“Best ones?” I found myself repeating what I heard in that question-statement tone of my generation. Damn, I had been caught in this senseless loop. Why, life, why did you flip Trap Cards at such inopportune moments?
Sometimes the High-vis Knight cocked his head at our confusion before remembering that there was a lawnmowing quartet all around us. He would breathe in deeply and compensate for the noise, only for his voice to return to a trebling bass. This arpeggiato wasn’t a good performance, let alone good communication. I glance at the other men armoured in plastic and high-vis gear and wondered how unremarkable auditory damage might be amongst them.
“–piggy breeder too,” I found myself tuning in to his words, catching something that made my brain spark up with electrical signals that produce confusing and intriguing half-ideas. My eyes are drawn to the lopsided ear protectors around his neck; maybe he has tinnitus worse than mine, all things considered. Maybe he is some sort of rogue who fell through the spaces were health and safety regulation didn’t reach.
vrum vrum vroooooooom
“Greesdat bishop anda balloon,” The garbled nonsense he spews straightens itself out like a molten metal is shaped into a horseshow… if I strain my ears, that is. This is one reason I don’t got to clubs, can’t distinguish voice from the every-there static of a place.
I turn to Harry and I have the feeling that the Chameleon Effect just took over, our expressions of confusion a never-ending feedback loop we cannot escape from.
“Sorry, what was that?” I hear myself, feel myself projecting my voice. My friend nods. Of course we want to know what the hell this man is on about now, despite our earlier conversation against social interactions on this walk. Half-understood or not, it has taken a turn for the cryptic.
Vrooooooom “See, lads, datwaythr and it is big as a– where you usually see the ‘shop and ‘is tru—loon,” vrum vroooom vrum vrum vrum
“Oh, alright, man, we’ll try and sure’ll check it out,” Harry butts in before this rambler can say any more.
I agree with him.
“Good one, lads. Past the Chinese grave and a piggy breeder, it is,” The dim of the trees and birds return as the concerto reaches its apogee and dies out. “And say hello to the bishop from me. Top chiz, he.”
Our goodbye got swallowed up by the fresh screams of decapitated grass. Our forced polite smiles become shadowed by our turning faces. We eye roll in tandem. Underfoot, mud mulches and dew drops begin to be collected by my trouser leg like greedy financial speculators amass toxic debt. The two-stroke static fades away behind us as we make our way towards an upturned headstone that picked Harry’s interest. My camera is at the ready, documenting, documenting.
The grass is taller in this small clearing, the headstones thin and weathered. Again we stood at imagined crossroads, trying to envisage our path. We picked a random direction.
“D’you hear that, rait?” I asked after a long while. “About da bishop and da balloon?”
“What!?” Harry was crouching on the ground, looking down at a splattered white spot and two cans of Stella on the grass. As he turned he had to stop himself from falling. He blinked. “Oh, shit, yeah.”
He stood up, brushing grass and mud from his knees. “I thought I heard that, but there’s no way he said that.”
“I could barely hear anything at all, if I am honest,” I said as we begin walking westwards and on both parallel and perpendicular trajectories in relation to every single grave in this place.
Harry sighed heavily, “People try to talk to you, but don’t want to, and there’s noise and–” He made a sound.
I snorted some laugh-sigh through my noise. “I can’t hear voices well over da background noise, but I did hear him say ‘bishop and balloon’.”
We stepped over some brambles and a sinking, crumbling headstone once belonging to a Sean O’Brien, whoever the hell he was.
After a short silence I continued: “That’ll be cool, I reckon.”
“How can it be cool? You don’t even know what that could’ve meant,” Harry makes a point.
I looked at the treetops swaying in the chilly breeze, camera looking and failing to find something engaging perched up there. “I choose to interpret literally. My life will not be compleet until I see a bishop holdin’ a balloon in some way.
“You don’t know if he meant that the bishop was holding the balloon.”
I shrugged. “Well, that’s how I choose to interpret it.”
Harry was about to point at a fallacy in my words but instead he lets his head shake a figure of eight, a vacillating nod of disagreement. He hisses through a smile that cannot touch wandering eyes. “Yeah, I admit, that’ll be cool in a David Lynch sort of way.”
The conversation dies there as I point at a tree pushing a headstone out of place. Behind it is broken obelisk and behind that a small angel being swallowed by a wild blackberry bush. Or perhaps the angel is sitting there, waiting for a self-repenting sinner to come by and take the angel’s offer for a dark and final rite. I documented the composition, the texture of the stone angel, the rotting ultramarine green of bird shit. My friend writes some notes.
From a distance of thirty paces I saw two dragons. I blinked and lifted my camera halfway before determining that the lenses wouldn’t do this justice.
I tried to remember the cemetery in every way I had experienced it. Images came to me, re-edited in their recovery; recalling anything through that system of human memory was untrustworthy. I could no more remember if I had seen a dragon than I could trust myself to remember the actual visual elements on the sticker of a Heera-brand tin of coconut milk. And yet nothing came to mind. For being a Welsh cemetery, there was a distinct lack of dragons, I realised then. The Church had once loomed hard here, after all, with crosses and mausoleums specially built for priests, and wooden crosses for those unimportant and in the mud. Would there be more dragons if the English Empire hadn’t stomped on the Welsh for so long, I pondered in silence.
“The dragon could be a symbol only in the face of years of oppression,” I ruminated aloud.
“Wassat?” My friend looked at a tree with rotting bark and mushroom caps growing black. Dust and splinters came off where fingers picked at the arboresque scabs.
“Nothing. Just nonsense.” I evaded.
I drummed fingers on my camera, staring at the sky.
“Hey,” I said, stepping closer to Harry. I got his attention and redirected it at the three square towers in the distance; they were covered in green moss, and wore three white, curling shapes as hats. “D’you see dragons there?”
He squinted, “Fuck, I dunno. Maybe,” His yellow and black scarf shrugged in a meagre flutter. “Let’s see if they are.”
My fingers drummed on the hard plastic as his feet mulched forwards. A dark green and orange bus snored past; seen through the cemetery gates, it looked like a lustful bull who had just smelled a cow and knew exactly where that wind was blowing from.
“Never seen a dragon on a grave,” I said as I caught up to Harry.
The three obelisks were gaining detail as we got closer to the clearing. Bereft of headstones in comparison to other abandoned parts of this cemetery, this section was lonelier, cleaner, less comfortable; it felt very much like a dream from someone who worked in an office-shaped bubble and away from common folk. The vines were claiming urns whose ash, I bet, had congealed into clay long ago. With the sky being a milky grey colour, the grass had a colour that was more the idea of green than an actual colour. Again, as if someone with a taste learned from experiences on yachts and first class trains had come and painted it all over. I rubbed my eyes at that and, yes, the lime-green unreality was still there. I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me.
“Shit! Yeah,” Harry exclaimed. “You’d think there’d be more in this country.”
We were halfway to the obelisks as my mouth opened and whatever I was going to say came out a stillborn. There, three winged women wearing flowing robes perched on top of their matching square towers. I stopped suddenly. My shoulders slumped down, my head bent backwards as if it could do a three-sixty on its Y-axis.
“Ah… uuuuuh,” I moaned.
Harry stopped, squinted at the statues. His eyebrows went up high.
“Nooo…” Heaviness was my voice. “It is just… angels,” I put as much disappointment on that word as I could. Even my body felt heavy.
“Bob Saget!” Harry exclaimed, throwing air at the floor. “You want something interesting to happen, and then this!” He looked like a monkey beating the ground. A moment of pretend-outrage turned unexpected playfulness. A smile had split his dour face at near the same time some clouds parted to gift us with some warmth. I smiled too, enjoying this manufactured disappointment.
I felt the plastic of the camera’s viewfinder against my eyebrow and the bridge of my nose. It was a decent photograph of high-hopes ended prematurely by our own want for extraneous marvels. Shame no one would ever understand that from this photo.
We had reached a point of no return. Often times I had placed wooden boards in the garden and thrown kitchen knives at it, out of boredom and a bare-chested bravado; Harry would see me and bring more knives, bigger ones at that. I had tried weed and cocaine, too, just because Harry was about doing it and what is safer than trying it out with a good friend? It’s safe, isn’t it…? Harry and I, we gave each other’s antisocial sides a crowbar and pointed at some shop windows and said ‘do some damage, son, the camera’s won’t be bother‘. Boys will be boys, they say, but I think that there is something… consuming about violence and destruction as means of expression. These things are insidious, self-centered, egotistical… fine artists would understand these words, I am sure of it. But we weren’t thinking about the implications of a sexist society in our conceptions of masculinity as we came across a dead tree resting on top of some headstones. The weight of the rotting carcass had pushed one of the headstones off at an angle, swallowed it some too. It looked like the tree had extended its lips to suckle on the top of the headstone. As I pushed the tree, the headstone shifted. I turned to look at Harry and there was a moment of confusion and then an encouraging nod.
I kicked it and heard a satisfying crack-moan coming from the roots. Harry joined in after I insisted we were really speeding the decay process along. The trunk moaned and cracked, the headstone tilted this way and that but no destruction came forth. It was like we were punching a rubber band. After about ten minutes we had broken a sweat. Harry was breathing heavily. Not to be outdone by a tree, I climbed on top. My trainers slipped, but I pressured down and friction let me stay on. I bobbed my weight up and down, seesawing harder and harder.
“Yes, boiii!” Harry’s throaty laughter was visible in the air.
I laughed back, heart in my throat. The tree was snapping, I could feel it, splintering at the roots. I bobbed up and down and kept going down, lower, lower; the tree was bending, leaves falling, branches snapping. The trunk plonked on top of the headstone proper, tipped to the side, and I lost my footing. I fell backwards onto the mud, and kept rolling backwards to get away from anything that could fall on me. I kneeled on the floor, and Harry was by my side helping me up. I waved his concerns away; laughter and adrenaline were good opiates.
We looked about, and hoped the dim static of grass cutting was enough to mask the roaring of trees we just made. Harry was beckoning me away, but I simply took a one step forward towards the headstone; it had crumbled like a biscuit under a shoe, revealing a skeleton of wrought iron older than many a country. There was a metaphor there, but it eluded me at the time. With ragged breath, I took a photo, once, twice, thrice, because my hands were still shaking and made everything blurry.
We walked away in silence and in circles. I kept thinking someone would come and find us.
Pine needles crushed underfoot. Harry kicked a can of Polish beer hard and far, and the wind picked it up farther than he hoped. He panicked and ran after it. I let my eyes follow a red breasted robin that had kept us company as we rested in a tucked-away hole-amongst-trees, next to the final resting place of Private D. G. Williams (1922). The robin perched just out of my reach, and I had the feeling that had I had some seeds in my hand it would’ve jumped on it for a perfect Snow White moment. I only had lint and tissue paper in my pocket.
Tiny branches and brambles scratched at my body as I half-stumbled out of the little sanctuary of forgotten war graves and some homeless person’s occasional bed. This side of the cemetery had a lot more trees, taller and older too. And many more hovels bearing evidence of life-on-the-streets like the one we had just found. I looked about, lifting my camera and took a picture too dark for my liking. I looked at it, finger hovering on delete when I noted something. I raised my gaze and looked at that corner where a tall pine tree was being choked by bramble. Aimless feet stepped forward, guided by inquisitive eyes; nearly claimed by the overgrowth, concealed the way a jealous man takes away the rights of woman, was a headstone, unimposing, of a green-brown colour that could blend with anything old and spent.
“Hey, Harry,” I called after my friend. I didn’t dare take my eyes away from the stone.
Harry jogged back, smiling. “What?” He said. His eyes were like a pug’s, breath ragged. Wind buffeting hair this way and that.
“Look at that,” I pointed at the incisions made into the stone. Just under a late-50s expiry date and the name Chung Lung, there were three rows of hànzì characters on top of which a grander, more complicated character rested like a crown on a king’s head. The unknown story behind this tomb was hard to swallow: a Chinese man buried in a Christian cemetery in mid-20th century Wales. It was only later that someone pointed out that this shouldn’t have surprise me at all; Tiger Bay had existed just a couple of miles to the south, after all.
“No way!” Harry exclaimed, unbelieving. That set the tone.
This headstone alone was a proper specimen to the virtues of urban wandering. But as we crouched before it, our minds pulling resources from a billion Terabytes of experience to fabricate a story fitting for the holes in our understanding, the last respite of what we assumed to be a Chinese man became as wonderful to us as steel would’ve been to the Olmecs.
“He did say somethin’ about a Chinese grave, didn’t he?” I say. “The gardener, I mean.” My camera snaps a picture, not great, I might add. The light’s too crap here.
“He said we have to go past the Chinese grave…” Harry began, looking about. He took some steps down the path, behind the pine tree. “Nothing here. Say, what about…” I couldn’t see what he was doing, but leaves began to rustle. “Nope, just some bloke named Davies.” He enunciated the surname with as much Valleys stereotype as you could pack into a word.
I got up, looked directly at the grave, trying to discern layers of ascribed meaning. Perhaps to others it would have more significance, but I was hard-pressed to see beyond its numerical oddity-ness.
“He said we should go past the Chinese grave, but what did he mean by that?” Harry’s voice was picking up. “Do we go past from where we were coming from, or from the other side? Back away, come around… what did he mean by past the grave?”
My head turns as Harry passes along the path. I blink and stare at the thing that doesn’t belong here.
“We go left,” I say suddenly.
“How do you know that?”
Pointing at a spot to our left, behind Harry, my eyes go wide, my lips flat, my smile unable to form due to incredulity. I say: “P-piggy.”
“Wot?” He sees my finger, turns round fast. “Wot!?” A pause, a glitch of self. Then he steps closer to the beige piggy bank resting on top of a stone cross lying flat on the ground. “Noooo! No way. No fuckin’ way!”
“He did say somethin’ about a piggy breeder. Or at least I think dat’s what I think he said. Was doubtin’ that whole conversation – if you can call it dat – had actually happened, but now…” I waved at the little piggy bank, its beige ceramic glistening new in a style characteristic of cheap trinkets found in a household items aisle at a Chinese supermarket. It was decorated with blue and yellow words – if in Mandarin or Cantonese, I didn’t know.
While Harry’s self kept giving a 503 error, a silly idea came to me. I got onto my hands and knees, putting my head level with our unexpected find. I let my eyes follow the pig’s glazed gaze and stared at a neat row of thick pine trees and mausoleum structures beyond. It was dark there, with age and moss going black over concrete and marble. I wait a little while, my hands going cold against the wet mud, a pebble digging into my knee. As I am about to move I see something in the woods, like a person with a conical head had walked between two trees, but then I see it is just a low branch swaying between the two trees.
I came to standing, brushing mud and leaves off my knees. Harry’s self had found its server connection, and was lucid enough to look around the felled cross for clues. Question was, we thought the gardener said something about a piggy breeder, but that could just be us not hearing things properly at all. Very likely. So, what did he actually mean? And how could it point us at the bishop and the–
There, by the trees the pig’s nostril was pointing at I saw something colourful floating lazily on the wind, sailing upwards in a long arch, bobbing from side to side.
I tap Harry’s shoulder. “We follow its nose and go that way.” I point.
Harry got onto his feet, squinting in the direction I point, “At the mausoleums?”
As I shrugged, I felt a sudden chill hit my back. I shivered in place, the wind finally dying down a tad. We had been walking out in the cold and grimness of this Welsh sky for hours and it was getting to me. But we were not going anywhere until we figured this one out, I felt, or until we got fed up with it all. So we walked towards the strange sight. It wasn’t far, and we came upon where I thought the balloon had come from. Harry made for the small structure while I remained standing on a pebbled path obscured by a million brown pine needles and rotting leaves. My feet were wet at this point, dew and mud seeped through the thin fabric of my trainers. To our left was what I could call an imposing high low-tier mausoleum, the sort of thing I figured a long line of priests from a rich local parish would get. To the right we had a lot of tall pines and some oaks. Harry was kicking leaves off the mausoleum, revealing some steps, making many a moist sound. I stood in the middle of the two, staring high above, my camera hanging lazily from my neck. I was hoping to see the balloon caught in the branches up there, but I couldn’t see anything, not even the sky. The branches should’ve captured that ball of helium trapped inside the ball of latex, but I saw nothing. I took a photo instead.
“Whatchu doin’?” I asked Harry as I approached. It was a baritone chewing noise his feet made on the leaves, followed by scrapping of freshly-made soil and dying worms as he pushed the leaves off the marble steps.
Behind Harry was the mausoleum proper, a square stone and mortar platform about a meter off the ground. The steps led up to a single-storey triangular-roofed house about twice as tall as a man. Spikes and small spires made up most of the frontal detail up there. The walls were stained green, the floor black with mould of the sort nothing but acid can remove. Dark, slimy stuff also covered the chest-high walls surrounding this small house, creating a dark corridor all around it. I could see a rusted beer can in one corner. A perfect example of secularism affecting old infrastructure… no, not secularism… more like religious and historical apathy… This edifice had once been well-decorated, and was now more Gothic than it had ever been; decay suited this sort of architecture. I ran my eyes over the mould and moss going up walls and laid eyes on four Grotesques protecting each corner of the mausoleum outer wall at eye level. Curious addition of decoration, that. I began to wonder about the sort of demons clergymen need to keep other demons at bay.
I stepped closer to the stairs and took a photo of Harry pushing a considerable amount of leaves off the structure with the inside of his foot. There were four columns where the four walls met in corners, each no taller than tiny Harry. On top of each column was a vase of stone flowers. Even through decades of wind, frost, rain and moss, the whole structure looked grand, imposing, sharp and like it could turn you into a doner kebab.
“Cleaning,” Harry finally replied, his labours not easing.
A soft breeze ruffled my hair. I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just stepped onto the stairs. My gut clenched as balance was lost on the frictionless mulch resting on centuries-old stone. I put my hand against a tower of granite, once a smooth pillar, now weathered to middle-age acne. Once stabilized, I laid my camera softly in a corner where it would be safe. Harry’s helping hand was quickly replaced by a snigger; deft hands of friendship, were honest concern can be quickly replaced with brotherly mockery and none would be the wiser.
I walked towards the small house. Up front I realised that what I thought was a wall wasn’t part of the original structure; you could see the iron of the gate where the rendering hadn’t been done properly, and you could even see the word Yale on the red lock protruding from the wall. It all looked as if it the metal had been pushed through the cinderblocks but the phasing only worked half-way. I ran a finger around the lock, and some of the wall crumbled under my touch. The iron below was shiny and fresh. The moss and age made a good show of camouflaging this atemporal curiosity in a Gothic manner, though; but I didn’t think that those who had died knowing they’d have their remains interred here would be happy with this. I looked up at the cinquefoil half-way from the top of the entrance to the slate ceiling. There was a man’s pudgy face wearing a bishop’s mitre; orange once, but now a thin film of green gave it a very alien sunburn. On a ribbon-shaped stone under his screaming portrait, was an inscription in Latin; half-broken and faded, I could only make out the words Porcus, Draco and Deus in there. The words triggered a distinct feeling around the back of my neck and shoulders, like someone was touching me with a hair-thin brush or the tip of a needle.
I turned around to see only Harry half-way done cleaning the steps and, farther away, an old lady with a pram walking in the direction of the main road. I let my eyes linger in the distance, scanning; I couldn’t see anyone else about.
“You helping or what?” Harry asked, suddenly. His face was red down to the neck, his jumper tied around his waist, and his hat, gloves and scarf resting on top of his orange bag some feet away. Breath coming out of his nose made him look like some Industrial-age Replicant of astounding design.
“Yeah, sorry–” I got to push leaves.
I had been about to say that, for the first time in my years of walking through this cemetery as a shortcut home and elsewhere, I felt uncomfortable. Decided not to say it, don’t know why. Maybe saying it out loud would’ve made it more tangible… maybe. I just felt suddenly uneasy.
In less than five minutes we had removed years worth of leaves, pine needles and twigs off the stone steps. The stuff had been collecting for so long that we found proper black soil underneath and some hazelnut saplings growing in between the stones. We plucked them out carefully and placed them to the side, hoping to find a random stop to plant them in. We were on a role, though, and continued cleaning the surface of this mausoleum. Leaves went over the walls, and we found some sticks to loosen up the thick mud. To do a proper job we needed a shovel and a brush, but as public services and karma accumulation went… I like to think we were in a better position than we had been before. There must be at least some cosmic belief system out there were such things mattered.
As we looked at our work, our breath steaming in the air, I pointed at the face on top of the blocked door. Harry followed.
“It says pig dere,” I said.
Harry made a semi-impressed face, bobbing from side to side. It wouldn’t be out of place on a 9GAG post, that face. “Pig breeding bishop. Better than little boys, I guess.”
I groaned at that but a very not-PC chuckle shook my chest. “Can’t say for sure if that’s what it says, really. Can only pick up pig, dragon and god in there.”
Harry paused, considering, thinking. Perhaps about the series of events that led us to cleaning some dead clergymen’s fancy stones. “Oh, well, at least it led us to some fun. I feel much better after this.”
“You should clean tombs more often, then.”
“Not this… the whole thing, you know. Walking, trees, grass… Clears the head.”
“Gardeners,” I added, feeling grass under my feet with more friction than the steps.
The wind picked up then, slowly and coming in from the west. It was a cold breeze, a little humid too. I would’ve smelled rain, if the cold hadn’t killed my nostrils some weeks back.
I turned my head towards a nearby exit. I yawned. “Should we go? I am hungry and cold and wet.”
Harry nodded. We collected our stuff and started walking, spooking a curious squirrel as we did so. Can’t say why – maybe it was like one of those painful twinges that suddenly appear behind your knee or at the back of your skull and are gone as quickly – but after three paces, I got this sharp feeling behind my neck; similar to a random muscle spasm but much colder. I turned around on instinct honed from afternoons spent in other latitudes, sitting by mangroves and all the mosquitoes that lived therein. There was the mausoleum, the pine and oak trees, and beyond more tombstones than I would ever bother to count. Don’t know what I expected, the shot was crap if I am honest, but I lifted the viewfinder to my eyes and snapped a picture of the work we just did. Once, twice. A familiar filling gripped mind and soul and I walked back, moving towards the south. I snapped another photo, and another. The light was better on this side, and the angles I could get… but what if… Yes! There.
“Oh, fuck’s sake, man!” Harry called, halfway down to the entrance.
“Gimme a sec,” I say.
I crouched on the floor, my lens angled upwards at the height of the mausoleum wall. There was an abandoned cigarette pack on the floor and its plastic cover is a blur of yellow and black, adding depth to the view of a weathered mausoleum against a chav-grey sky. As I lined a second shot I noticed something moving in the trees. I blinked and saw a balloon cross from one edge of my viewfinder to the other. I follow its trajectory back to a dark spot between wall and the mausoleum’s entrance. I snap the second shot there instead, completely out of focus. I snapped a third right there, better too.
I stood up and checked the photos I had just taken. I felt that bite of cold go down my back with exaggerated sharpness. A clawing cold, like icicle drops falling on a bare back and digging right into the spine before their coldness dribbled down slowly. Right there on the photograph, in the spot where the stairs got to the raised platform, between the left balustrade and the mausoleum proper, a heavy-set shadow with a conical shape on its crown stood lazily, looking upwards.
“Hey,” Harry was standing next to me, suddenly. “You okay?” The tone and hush in his voice sobered me up.
“I… I um… yeah. Yeah, I think so?” I breathed in deeply and exhaled. I opened my mouth, choked on the words, and made a sobbing sound in my through. I showed Harry the photo instead.
“Wot?” He said, looking up and squinting at the mausoleum; the breeze was shaking leaves back onto it, and in a month or two our job would’ve been undone. If no one cleaned those steps in a year’s time it would’ve looked like we had never been here, as if we had never been alive to make this tiny change in the world.
Harry looked down at the camera, up at the mausoleum. He walked slightly to the left, and then to the right. I kept my eyes glued to that dark spot between wall and blocked-off entrance, where the only shapes visible were stone and the shadows they cast and nothing else.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and Harry was pointing at a blue balloon that shot upwards from that dark spot. We couldn’t see anything but shadows, leaves and very old stones.
“Let’s go home,” I find my voice, dry.
Harry nodded in silence and gave me my camera. We walked backwards a while, then turned around. We would’ve ran, but kept looking over our shoulders.
As soon as we got home, I sat down on the floor, not even bothering to take my shoes off, Harry was brewing us a green tea. He dropped a pan and slammed the doors, he cursed, dropping sugar on the floor. I looked through the photos I had just taken; he was there, a shadow against the walls of the mausoleum. In some photos you could see him, in others there was just mundanity. And he was never in two pictures taken of the same angle mere microseconds apart. Not at all.
I turned my camera off and cupped the warm mug in my hands. Harry and eye drank in silence until the postman knocked at the door. It was dark then.
Two days later when I was editing the photos I couldn’t see that shadow at all. Not on a single one where we had seen it. I called Harry and neither could he see what we had seen. Deleting that lot of photos made me feel better.
We still go through the cemetery; it is a good shortcut after all. But we often cycle through, too fast to notice the leftover balloons on the floor and lazily through by bins. When we walk we see them, those blue balloons, deflated, sad, veritable Titanics. And sometimes, if it hasn’t rained, and we’re in no hurry, we see a lot little kids and toddlers walking with their parents, and blue balloons held in leash by small fingers.