The cold was gnawing rather than biting: a slow, painful, rasping sensation. The lack of light in Linda’s drab bedsit – its’ one window faced a brick wall – meant it was marginally less warm than the street outside.
She had finally broken down and switched on a lamp, straining her eyes as she read her library book, concentrating furiously on the cool words, black ink on white paper. Eventually it became too cold and dismal inside to be ignored, even with Jane Austen as a distraction. Her stomach clenching in hunger and her eyes drooping with tiredness, Linda flung down the hapless library book and went for a walk.
Walking didn’t cost anything, hence why Linda did such a lot of it.
It was dark out, shadows pooling in-between yellow street lighting. The takeaways and cheap restaurants and betting shops stared at Linda with neon eyes as she stalked past. They soon gave way to blank, boarded up houses, a hopeful few still sporting To Let signs that that adorned them for months. Middleton was a pleasant enough town during the day, in the sunshine, but at night it looked rundown and dejected,
The walk had been intended as a distraction, but as Linda went further, faster, her mind stuck in the same tracks as her feet. Hundreds of job applications, a pathetic total of two interviews, one earlier today that had cost her half her jobseeker’s allowance in train and bus fares and which she knew from instinct had been hopeless, ever-growing rent arrears despite living off baked beans for weeks…
‘Mind out, love!’
Linda, jolted from morose musings, apologised to the harried-looking woman emerging from a florists. Despite the lateness of hour the florist’s lights were on. The florist had her arms round an immense funeral wreath. Linda watched her haul it over to a nearby van, and continued on. She flicked a glance at the shop window as she passed. Judging by the number of artfully arranged wreaths in the window, the florist was doing a roaring trade in funerals. No wonder she looked harassed.
Morbidly, Linda wondered if she were to die, who would pay for her funeral. If she didn’t find work soon, she’d either freeze or starve.
Linda lost track of how long she walked for, through the streets, alongside the meandering River Irk for a short while. She liked the river. Despite the name, it was a companionable body of water, not at all Irksome. It was always there, not making too much noise, going about its business, content in her company. She left it with some reluctance when it became too dark to walk beside without breaking her neck. The world was trying to drive her into her grave, but Linda wasn’t going to give it any assistance.
She became numb with cold, but the numbness was not unpleasant. It was preferable to her constant worrying, like a rat gnawing the skirting board. Linda could feel her mind becoming numb with tiredness too. Blank, unthinking and unmoving.
Linda stumbled over paving stones, discarded beer cans, her own feet. Exhaustion was a suit of chainmail, weighing her down, curving her spine. It took her some time to realise it was raining, if that wasn’t too strong a term for the feathery, clinging drizzle that was gently soaking the streets.
Without thought, she slipped sideways into a little alleyway, thickly carpeted with weeds and detritus. She sank down on a convenient upturned plastic crate that bore her weight, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
Perhaps she slept.
‘Nah, worse luck. Shall we tap her on the head, make a proper corpse out of her?’
Linda opened her eyes. There were three men surrounding her, though their attitude was speculative rather than threatening. They wore dark, tattered suits, collarless shirts and cloth caps. They each carried an old fashioned lantern that emitted flickering yellow light and one had a bundle of canvas tucked under his arm, the other a length of rope slung over his shoulder. Two of them were merely curious, but the third was… covetous. He had a nose that curved like a fishhook, a tarnished watch-chain hanging out of a waistcoat pocket and a pawnbroker’s stare.
‘Who are you?’ she croaked.
The hook-nosed man chuckled. There was no warmth in the sound. It was reminiscent of someone knocking on wood.
‘Me? I’m Kanky, and this is my ginnel, my alleyway,’ he said. ‘Haul her up, lads. We won’t finish her off. She’s our guest tonight. Could do with an extra pair o’ hands, anyhow.’
The two lackeys did as bid and helped Linda to her feet. She made no protest.
‘Come on, lass, let’s be having you,’ Kanky grunted as he shuffled down the ginnel.
‘Where are we going?’ Linda enquired.
‘St Leonard’s churchyard,’ he answered, voice echoing eerily off the brick walls and cobbled pavement.
It occurred to Linda as she meekly followed the three men that the streetlights had all mysteriously extinguished themselves. The streets around them had lost all definition and were vague smears of purple and grey and black. Nonetheless she kept following Kanky, made reckless by hunger and fear and ceaseless worry.
Linda knew St Leonard’s only as the church she passed every now and then on one of her endless, aimless walks. It was a long, low, grey building, with a modest square tower that squatted sturdily in the midst of the churchyard. Tonight, it loomed out of the dark, a faceless black hulk. The modest light of the three lanterns failed to penetrate its shadows. But the church wasn’t where they were headed.
They halted in the churchyard, in front of a tilted headstone, crumbled by the wind and the rain.
‘Grab the shovels,’ said Kanky. ‘That includes you, lass.’ He gestured roughly to the shovels propped conveniently against an opposing headstone. There were three of them, all made of wood and no metal.
‘Buried just this morning,’ he continued to no-one and everyone. ‘Earth hasn’t had time to settle, and there’s no mortsafe. He’ll be short work, digging up. I’ll keep an eye out for the bobbies.’
The two men set to work as bid. Linda hesitated.
‘I didn’t bring you here for the pleasure of your company, lass,’ Kanky said, voice shot through with venom.
Linda began digging.
‘What’s a mortsafe?’ she asked with idle curiosity.
‘An iron cage in t’grave,’ said one of her fellow diggers. ‘To keep the likes of us out. But nobody was bothered this time.’
Linda felt she ought to voice a protest, but no words came, and she carried on shoving her spade into the soil.
It was hard going, even with soft soil and three of them working in concert. Linda was soon sweating hard, despite the cold. The wood of the spade handle was rough and unpolished, and rubbed savagely against her bare hands. Until finally a large splinter broke loose and jabbed her viciously in the palm.
‘Ouch!’ she cried, dropping her spade. Kanky only grunted contemptuously and the other men ignored her, but Linda raised her hand and stared incredulously at the shard embedded in her hand, a drop of blood adorning her skin. She pulled the splinter free, hissing at the pain, and felt her mental fog lifting.
She wasn’t dreaming. Was this all imagined then? Had she gone mad, hallucinating some uncanny nocturnal goings-on?
‘Get back to work, lass,’ Kanky said, picking up the fallen spade and almost throwing it at her. Linda caught it, just, the action sending a fresh jolt of pain up her arm.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked baldly.
‘I’m keeping a lookout,’ he replied irritably. ‘You’re meant to be digging up a corpse.’
‘To sell, dimwit,’ said one of Linda’s fellow grave-robbers. ‘We’ll dig ‘im up, carry him back along t’ginnel to the canal, and then tek ‘him to one of the doctors in Manchester. They pay good money for bodies, like.’
‘You’re body-snatchers?’ Linda stammered, even as she cursed herself for an idiot. Of course they’re bloody body-snatchers, you wally!
But Kanky surprised her.
‘We prefer the term “resurrectionist,”’ he said, a reptile’s smile curling over his face. ‘Too late to get squeamish now, lass. Dig.’
‘Or what?’ Linda asked defiantly. Kanky’s smile widened.
‘Or I might change my mind about giving you a knock on the head,’ he answered, and though his tone was mild, the gleam in his eyes made Linda shudder. She turned back to the grave and dug with renewed vigour.
Fortunately or otherwise, Linda’s spade soon struck wood with a sound not unlike Kanky’s laugh. She and the two lackeys scraped away the remaining dirt, and one man leapt recklessly into the grave. Using the shovel’s blade, he pried up the lid and revealed the body they had come to steal.
Linda had never given much thought to the deceased as a subset of society. When she had been seven she had worn a black coat and an appropriately solemn expression at a great-aunt’s funeral. After her mother died far too young, she had gone through the service and cremation and wake burning-eyed and stony-faced, and drunk herself into oblivion once she was blessedly left alone. And she had avoided all attendance, mention, thought, of funerals since.
So when all she felt upon beholding the middle-aged man in the casket was a mild curiosity, her surprise at her lack of feeling far exceeded her interest. The dead man was wax-pale and grey-haired, with impressive whiskers and a disgruntled expression. With little ceremony, the lackeys grabbed him, one by the feet and one by the shoulders, and hefted him out of his cosy grave onto the cold ground.
Then they went through his pockets, uncovering a gold watch and a few stray coins. To Linda’s shock, they tossed the watch and the money back into the coffin.
‘You’re stealing the body but not the money?’ she asked in amazement.
Kanky glanced over at her, but for once his face was serious.
‘The penalty’s worse for grave-robbing than it is body-snatching,’ he explained. ‘We always go through the pockets before we take them away. Safety precaution.’ Then he turned his attention back to the indifferent corpse.
‘Wrap him up,’ said Kanky.
The men laid out the length of canvas they had brought with them and wrapped the dead man up in it, tying it up tightly with the rope.
‘Carry him back, lads,’ Kanky said laconically. ‘Me and the lass will bring the shovels. Hop to it.’
‘Why grave-robbing?’ Linda asked as they walked along Kanky’s ginnel, staggering slightly under the weight of the shovels.
‘Why not?’ Kanky grunted. Linda came to an abrupt halt, appalled by his careless manner.
‘Stealing people’s bodies? Upsetting their families, desecrating their graves – and you ask why not?’ she cried, miserably aware of the hysterical note in her voice.
‘Shut your pan, and keep walking,’ Kanky snarled, grabbing her by the arm and hauling her along. ‘Why not, indeed? These people are dead, and nothing will ever hurt them again. You think they give a damn what happens to their mortal remains? ‘Sides, it pays better than down the pits or in them factories.’
Linda tried to dig her heels in, but Kanky was having none of it, and both their progress through the ginnel and his remorseless logic continued.
‘You know that sometimes relatives will sit by the grave for a few days, to make sure their loved ones don’t get disinterred? Well, quiet your conscience, lass, nobody was bothered about this bloke. But I know a doctor in Manchester who’ll pay a bob or two for the chance to carve him up, see what he’s made of.’
Kanky looked Linda full in the eyes then. His eyes were so pale as to be almost colourless. Earlier he had appraised her mettle, her value out of habit – now he was genuinely interested. She felt much as the corpse on the dissecting table would feel, if it were still capable of sensation.
‘So am I any worse than this doctor?’ Kanky asked, voice as cool as the air and gentle mist swirling round them. ‘I’m supplying a demand, lass. I’d soon move on to summat else if no-one wanted bodies. But they do. I’m a businessman, I am. This hurts no-one. Not like them poor sods shipped across the Atlantic to pick cotton.’
They had nearly reached the end of the ginnel. Kanky’s two accomplices had vanished into the shadows, together with their ill-gotten gain. Kanky took the spades from Linda, flicking her one last glance.
‘You can profit from death, lass. Hard but true. Bear it in mind. And do us both a favour – forget I was here, and forget you was here tonight.’
Kanky winked at her, and was gone.
Linda came to in the half-light between the dead of night and dawn. She was so cold her fingers had turned an alarming shade of blue and even breathing hurt. She managed to get to her feet, and staggered home. It took her five attempts to get her key into the lock. Once she was inside, she collapsed on her bed and slept for twelve hours.
When she woke, the first thing she saw was her hand on the pillow beside her head. The gash on her palm was jagged, red and angry-looking.
Scraped it on the alley wall, cut it on the crate, Linda told herself, and resolutely did not think about it any longer.
But she thought about something else.
She visited the florist a day later. It was very unlike Linda to be so bold, but after a night in Kanky’s company, she wasn’t frightened of even the fiercest florist.
‘Hmm, I wouldn’t mind a bit of help,’ the woman said, her appraising gaze not unlike Kanky’s. ‘Normally I’d ask me niece, but she’s on holiday at the moment. Minimum wage, mind. Can you start tomorrow?’
It was only for a few hours a week, for peanuts, but it was something. The florists was indeed doing a roaring trade in wreaths and bouquets for winter funerals, and the proprietor kept Linda on even after her niece’s return. It helped that the niece had a pronounced skiving habit and was employed due to family connections rather than any real aptitude or desire to work.
Linda soon learned the names and addresses of all the funeral homes in town, after a few weeks of delivering wreaths. It took months of sending letters, banging on doors and doing whatever scraps of paid employment came her way before she finally found herself in an interview for a job at an undertaker’s.
‘Why do you want to work in this business?’ the man in the sombre black suit behind the desk asked her.
‘It would be steady employment,’ Linda answered frankly. ‘Besides, I – know someone who works in the business. He sparked my interest.’
‘It wasn’t Kanky, was it?’ the man asked jovially, his happy smile an odd contrast to the rest of him.
Linda’s breath left her in one sharp exhale, as though a cannonball had rammed her in the gut.
‘Sorry – who?’ she stammered.
‘Oh, just a local legend round these parts,’ the man explained easily. ‘He was a body-snatcher, like Burke and Hare. Took bodies from a churchyard, and down the River Irk to be sold to medical practitioners in Manchester. There’s an alleyway around here somewhere that’s still known as Kanky’s ginnel.’
‘I see,’ Linda breathed.
‘Probably never existed,’ the man continued blithely. ‘There’s not a scrap of evidence to say he did. But it’s a good story.’
‘It is,’ she agreed. ‘I remember it, now that you mention it. I think Kanky did exist. I think he saw a steady living to be made, too.’
Perhaps fortunately, the interviewer didn’t register that remark. Linda left to await his decision, but for once she had a good feeling about it.
On her way back home, Linda paused by the entrance to Kanky’s ginnel. In the gilded light of a summer evening, it was just another alleyway. The ghosts traipsing up and down it had retired for the time being. They worked the night shift, after all.
Linda stared down the ginnel and toyed with the idea of telling people, staking out the alleyway, taking photographs, obtaining proof, calling in the ghost-hunters.
But no. Kanky had asked for one favour – to forget he had been there, and to forget she had been there. He had weighed up her, decided what she was made of and where her value was, and had decided she was worth more alive than dead. It was a conclusion that few others had ever drawn, including Linda herself.
She’d make a profit for someone once she ceased breathing, Linda reflected. But for now, she was worth more alive.
She walked on.
By Carys Crossen
Carys Crossen has lived, studied and worked in Manchester UK for the past fifteen years. She has published several non-fiction articles about horror and the Gothic, and her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, Three Drops Press and The First Line journal. She doesn’t approve of body-snatching but thinks Kanky would be an interesting dinner guest.
E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @academicwannabe