The Sexton of Grave Lane, a short story by JPK at
Unreal Airtist

The Sexton of Grave Lane

The Sexton of Grave Lane

written by: JPK


The plague stretched out across the years. The line of graves stretched out too until it became a long, high mound between the edge of the field and the lane that ran alongside. A shilling was paid for each grave, thruppence to Coulter, the farmer who owned the field, another ninepence to me for digging and filling. Parishes for miles around sent ‘em over for me to slot in. Better than two shilling a day, more some days, and no rest on the Sabbath. The slots grew closer and closer and the mound grew longer. Soon enough I planted old Coulter in a nice shady spot and the thruppences went to his wife, then she went in next to him and his lad got the money for a little while before he joined them.

I saved the best spot for my Alice and little Jack, under the shade of the big beech tree, nestled in a gap between the roots. The vicar came out and said a blessing for them, so wrapped up in cloth I could barely hear him, shaking his censer to keep out the bad air. He charged me half a crown but Alice would have wanted it. Anyway, I had pots of money by then and nothing left to spend it on.

The heart went out of me after that, but I kept digging. Without Alice, the cottage went to rack and ruin but I didn’t care. Sometimes I slept there, more often I rolled out my blanket next to the grave and dreamt of them. Winter came and the ground grew hard and cold but I kept digging. The verger and his wife brought me my payment and fed me for a penny a day. May God bless them for no other living soul would come near me by now and the winter would have seen me gone but for their Christian kindness.

The living stayed away from me but the dead kept coming and the mound kept getting longer. Two thousand souls I reckon I planted there, old friends and strangers, publicans and parsons. The plague dead are all equal. I spoke to all of them as I laid them to rest, I commended them to the care of Our Lord and asked them to watch out for Alice and Jack until I joined them.

The winter passed and the plague with it. There were fewer souls to lay to rest, fewer of the living left to die. By the time summer came I was digging graves in the churchyard again for those that died a normal death. The parish paid me a stipend for my services and had me put up a cross at each end of the burial mound and a sign naming ‘Grave Lane’ alongside it. Those that travelled the road crossed themselves or held their breath as they passed. A man from London bought the land cheaply and built a fine house where Coulter’s farm used to stand, but the spirit of the place entered the bricks and the beams and the rafters and it became a sad, drab home for him. He locked the place up before a year had passed and went back to the bustle of the city.

I carried on visiting. Alice and Jack and the others that I slotted in were all the family and friends I had, you see. Wild flowers grew along the mound, flax and hawkweed, bluebells and forget me not amongst the grasses and under the tree shade. I ran my fingers through them every day and spoke to those who rested beneath. I set a stone above my wife and child and marked out a spot for myself, so that I could one day rest beside them.

But now I visit them no more, for they buried me in the churchyard with a monument of my own. ‘John Hallard’ the carving says, ‘Sexton to this parish. In grateful recognition of his service through the years of plague.’

And here I stay, surrounded by these hallowed walls, unable to pass the churchyard gates to be with those I love, unable to rest in peace until I do. Here I stay until gates and walls tumble into ruin and the world is ended..

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