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Cross Bones
Cross Bones
by Charlie Fish 2008

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Recently I have felt an ominous weight pressing down on me, as if the city is conspiring against me. I've been working too hard. My mind is playing tricks on me.

I walk east along Union Street from the tube station. All the signs lure passers-by towards London's proudest modern landmarks; the Royal Festival Hall, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, the new Globe. But I head in another direction.

As I walk, the signs become more urgent, desperate to draw me away. Then they disappear. The scenery around me turns from gleaming office blocks and redbrick terraces into a crumbling wasteland. Gradually, my way seems strewn with ruin.

How can land so close to London's core be so neglected? The dark arches of the railway run to my left, buffered by a no-man's-land studded with piles of bricks and broken concrete. A warehouse towers above me to my right, with glowering crows perched in its broken windows.

Half a millennium ago, when London was just City and Borough, this was the realm of bear-pits, black-toothed prostitutes, cholera-infested stews. The air seems to ring with it. This place is for damaged things whose age is measured in centuries; it does not welcome me. Time clots between the soot-blackened bricks and becomes infected, and if I linger I will become infected too.

The sun is low already. I notice that I'm the only person walking this way. My cheeks flush and my stomach feels hollow. I feel as if I have ignored some unspoken command to turn away. The city is broken here. I am violating London's privacy by witnessing its hidden shame.

The road narrows, and I quicken my pace. I almost miss the turning for Redcross Way. Instinctively, my muscles tense, bracing for confrontation. As I approach, I can hear raised voices.

I see the angry crowd ahead, guarding the gate, holding placards and chanting. A scrappy rabble of hippies and spiritualists overflowing with misplaced fervour. I long to turn back but my body moves me on. I wish I could go unnoticed, but I can't. And I can't help but notice them.

Their accusations are as rusty and sharp as the iron gate. "Grave robber! Godless resurrectionist!" I keep my head down and fumble with the keys to unlock the side door.

Once through, I lock the door behind me, bile rising in my gut. I glance at the mob through the bars of the ancient gate; I linger for a moment too long. Something hits me in the stomach. A projectile from one of the protesters. I turn and quick-march into safety, out of sight, and out of the line of fire.

It's an egg. Rotten, by the smell of it, and disembowelled all over my crisp-ironed suit. I take off my jacket and exchange it for an unflattering high-vis vest and a hard hat. Only a rigger and a pair of surveyors are out; work has not yet started.

I duck into the Portakabin that serves as the site office. It feels like a real office - receptionist, photocopier, plastic plants - but smaller. The clock on the wall says I'm four minutes late. My eyes dart left and right to check that the walls aren't moving closer.

I enter the meeting room; I am greeted by a tight-lipped nod from the foreman, who is sitting behind a tiny desk, squashed between stacks of paper.

"Cassandra?" he asks, his beak-like nose dipping as he looks up at me with black eyes under the rim of his yellow hard hat. I nod and try to smile. "Any trouble?"

"Nothing I can't handle," I lie. I help myself to a plastic cup and fill it from the water cooler. I can still smell the ghost of rotten egg on my clothes, and it makes me self-conscious, wrong-footed. I sit, wondering where exactly to put my knees.

"We can give twelve thousand square feet on the southwest corner," says the foreman. Straight to business.

I lean over to look at the site diagram half rolled out on the foreman's desk. It takes me a minute to work out which way is up. Finally, I look up. "What about archaeological excavations?"

"No way. Unacceptable delay."

"We've got to give them something."

"Twelve thousand is plenty for a memorial garden or whatever."

"Yes, but the graves are over here," I counter, poking the site diagram. "Right where you're digging. So they're going to want to know what's happening to the bodies. They're going to want something, some gesture of respect, or they'll make us look bad."

His hollow cheeks turn pinched red, and he scratches his bony chest. "We don't have time for the dead. The living are putting on a lot more pressure."

"All that's required is a token gesture. A couple hundred exhumations for the British Museum or something."

"How long would that take?"

I pluck a figure from the cool stale air. "One month. Max."

"Ha!" The foreman shoots me a crooked smile, which promptly falls as he realises I'm being serious. "You're kidding me."

My eyes narrow. "Well, how much can you give?"

His arms spread, almost knocking over a stack of multicoloured papers. "Nothing! I can't give you anything! We have to start on Monday."

I lean forward. "You know that's not true. There're always ways around these things. You can start digging at one end and let them dust for skeletons at the other." His face stretches at the expensive implications of this suggestion, so I throw in a couple of worse ones to make it seem more palatable. "Or you can let one of them oversee your dig. Or you can doctor the topsoil surveys to get them digging in the wrong place, out of your way."

The foreman's face says it all. His brow is creased, and his jaw slack. I press my point. "This could be pretty high profile. It'll be your name in the headlines. You don't want to come out looking like a grave robber." A godless resurrectionist.

His face tightens. He starts shuffling paper around. I watch him for a second, and then exhale. I lean back in my chair and catch a faint whiff of rotten egg again. I pinch my skin through my blouse. I feel a pang of discomfort there. I'm eating badly; maybe I'm too thin.

"Two weeks," says the foreman, picking up a pen and drawing a red square on the site diagram. "Only on the western side. And if -"

The foreman's telephone buzzes, interrupting him. He picks it up. "Hello Karen? Yes. Okay, we're ready. Send him in." He hangs up and stares at me through slitted eyes. He straightens up, then stands. "I've got to go on site. I'll leave you to it. Give me a call to tell me how it goes. As soon as you're done."

He leaves. I stand, and my entire body twitches in a moment of revulsion when I realise I am not alone.

The man standing in the doorway is large; not fat but thick. His pockmarked face is buried in a nest of wiry hair. His clothes are loose and ragged like sackcloth. I fall back into my seat as if pushed.

His giant arm sweeps up to his head and plucks off a hat that might be brown or dirty, I can't tell. He holds it against his chest.

He smells the air deeply, then looks at my stomach where the rotten egg hit. "I'm sorry if you had trouble out there; they feel passionate, you know?"

His damaged voice resonates in my chest. It coils up inside me as he speaks, spreading its dryness, its cigarette bluntness. The room is smaller now.

"Have a seat, please," I say, surprised at how smooth my voice sounds. "My name's Cassie Bandon." My instinct is to shake his hand, but I don't want to touch his flaking skin. He turns his hat around in his hands, and doesn't sit.

"You can't dig here," he states.

I hesitate; I am taken aback by his directness. I feel awkward looking up at him so I stand, but I am still looking up at him. There is not enough room in here; I feel uncomfortably close. I can smell something on his clothes, turmeric perhaps, or flower bulbs.

"I'm on your side," I explain. "I don't want them to dig here either, but we can't stop them. But I'm in a position to negotiate with them." I spread my palms and softly tilt my head. "I understand."

His cracked lips smack open. "With respect, your job is not to negotiate, it's to pacify the dissenters. It's to pacify me. And you don't understand."

"I do understand," I snap. I pause to try and open myself out again. He thinks I'm stupid, but I've done my research. I can care. "Cross Bones is a sacred site. An unconsecrated medieval graveyard that has hosted centuries of forgotten dead from the fringes of society."

"Prostitutes," breathes the man. "Whores. Thirty thousand of them at least, knocking shoulder bones with each other. Licensed by the Church in life, and cast out in death."

"We can delay excavations by a few days and exhume some of the bodies, to protect them. Put them in the British Museum and share their story with the world. And we can build a memorial garden, right here on the site. Then -"

"Your job ain't to negotiate," he interrupts. "And neither's mine. I'm warning you is all. You cannot dig here."

"Why not?" I bark.

He sighs, and sits down, placing his hat on his massive lap. I wonder how he got in without a hard hat. I sit opposite him, trying not to rub my legs against his.

"Do you believe in the spirit of place?" he asks, although he doesn't seem to need an answer. "This is a place of healing where the wild feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is - whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer. Prostitutes, thieves, murdered destitutes all, but women first, and here they are honoured as women."

"Don't you want their story to be told?" I ask, leaning forward.

"It needs to remain a grave, not become a story. If it's a story, all those bones are outcast dead. Only here are they protected and remembered as human."

"They would be better protected in a museum."

He shakes his head. "Better protected from what? From you?"

"I'm on your side," I insist, crossing my arms. "This is a valuable patch of land. Whatever happens it'll get developed eventually. But I can help preserve the memory - and the remains - of these women."

"It's not them who needs protection. Who knows for sure what you would release by digging. Disease, spirits, evil dreams; maybe even the guardians themselves..."

I give up. He isn't making sense. I can't reason with someone so deluded. And he's creepy. "Superstition is not going to stop them from digging, so what do you want me to do?"

He replaces his hat on his head and gets up. "You have the power to stop it, Cassie." He turns to leave.

"Don't leave." I get up and put my hand on his shoulder. "What am I supposed to say to them?"

He freezes, then drops his head, still looking away from me. Without turning, he says, "Do what you like. But if you're digging, I need to prepare for the worst."

I need to stall him. "Will you call off the protesters at the gate?"

But he doesn't answer. He leaves without a backward glance. I make a stupid claw gesture behind his back and grit my teeth. What a total waste of time. I smell my hand that was on his shoulder. A mixture of metallic soil and my own perfume.

I check my watch. It's late already. I still have to write a letter to the developers and the community council, and I have a pile of washing to do at home. I haven't sorted through my post for weeks either, and -

A lump grows in my throat and my eyes start to sting. I rub my face and exit the tiny office. The receptionist has gone home. I run my fingers along the plastic plants. I need the toilet.

I leave the Portakabin. It's dark outside now, save for the permanent methane glow, and cold. It smells like it might rain. I exchange the hard hat and vest for my jacket, but it stinks of rotten egg so I don't wear it.

The protesters are gone, so I pass the rusty gate without looking up. I can get the bus home from Waterloo. While I walk, I think about what the creepy man with the flaking skin said. The Grave of the Outcast Dead. The rhythm of it echoes in my mind.

Why would anyone be so defensive about a stack of murdered hookers? No-one would fight so hard to protect my grave in five hundred years' time. Not that I'll have a grave; the cemeteries are all full. Too many people in this city, knocking shoulder bones with each other.

I shiver violently. It's cold. I suppress my disgust and put on my eggy jacket; the velvet lining feels even colder against my skin. As I approach the sodium glare of Waterloo station, I consider ignoring the red man and walking in front of a bus. I stop and close my eyes, wavering.

Now I'm surrounded by people. It's hard not to step on someone's heels. I wish they would speed up. I can't wait to get home and be alone for a few precious hours, until I have to get out of bed and do it all again.

I'm running late. This meeting is going to be unpleasant enough anyway, I don't need to make it worse by being late.

I don't know how bus drivers keep their patience, having to stop every hundred metres. Every time the bus stops my stomach tenses. Then we accelerate gradually, so that my teeth clench, urging us forward. And just as we get up some speed, another stop, like Sisyphus.

I haven't been sleeping well. I think I'm having nightmares, but I can't remember them. As soon as I wake up I think about work.

I extract my arm from the press of bodies and squirrel through my handbag. I pull out my phone to check the time. Twelve minutes to go. I could walk faster than this bus.

The doors open and three men board. They push cruelly through the crowd, garnering evil glares from the other commuters, and surround me. Shoulders on all sides. I shuffle towards the door, to get away from them.

I start counting the seconds before the bus moves off again, but the driver switches the engine off. There is a heave of squeaked complaints and clicked tongues. I look around to see if anyone knows what's happening, but I don't make eye contact.

"I will not start the bus," shouts the driver, "until the three gentlemen who boarded without paying come out."

A wave of body mass and smell crushes me as the collective body language turns against the intruders. This is three minutes wasted already, maybe four. The three men push back towards the driver and start shouting at him.

I can't breathe. I'm going to lash out. I step on several shoes in an urgent rush for the door. I bang on the glass and then force the door open and stumble out.

Without a pause, I start marching up Waterloo Road, staring straight ahead, until there's some distance between me and the bus. I close my eyes until I'm no longer sure if I'm walking in a straight line. I brace myself to hit someone or something until I can't bear it, and I open my eyes again. There are no taxis.

A black couple argues loudly ahead, making a show of it, clicking and slanging. The newsstand headline is 30TH TEENAGER STABBED SINCE JAN. Tires screech on the road to my right. The air smells of exhaust and rage.

I cross the road onto Union Street. I frantically root around in my handbag again for the phone, but I can't find it. In a moment of madness I drop to my knees and spill the contents of my handbag onto the floor, my cheeks and neck prickling at the accusatory stares from passers-by.

It's missing. My wallet too, they're both gone. The men on the bus - no, impossible. I scrape around compulsively in the empty handbag, but they don't materialise.

I numbly gather my belongings and walk on. I can barely see through my streaming eyes. I am approaching the place of ruin now. All of the signs urge me away, but I walk at ninety degrees to reality. I am alone with the city again. I run my knuckles against the brick and then suck my finger where it bleeds. I feel mechanical, violent.

I turn and the gate looms ahead of me. The protesters are not there; they have lost their battle. The gate is strewn with votives; glittering ribbons, feathers, dried flowers. I think of the thousands of buried whores, stripped of their identity by being thrown together with so many others in death. I feel a frisson of anger against them.

The foreman is waiting for me. He opens the side door and hands me a hat and vest.

"We found them yesterday," he explains as he leads me into the heart of the construction site. "Thought we'd hit the bedrock, but they turned out to be coffins or something. We've had to stop the whole operation."

We walk through a doorway in the wooden perimeter wall and the ground drops away. I lean back towards the wall and try to swallow, but my tongue is dry.

Cranes like dinosaurs guard the gigantic open grave, stooping above us. I imagine that time is jagged, and this is already an underground car park, or the foundations of a shopping mall, and I'm a ghost wandering through the sacrilegious concrete.

We enter a makeshift lift and descend to the bottom of the leviathan pit. I feel a terrible guilt. We are violating London's soul. We are picking apart the invisible strands of the social fabric; and if we pull, it will unravel like a woollen jumper, leaving us naked and cold and desperate. The deeper the hole, the worse it gets.

History is thick here. I can hear the hum of ancient molecules, that have witnessed centuries of abandoned dead; that have constituted them. I'm breathing them in; I can taste them. If I breathe too much I will become them. I have to leave. I have to get away from this city before I lose control.

"Cassandra? Hello?" The foreman is staring at me with his bulging eyes, cocking his head like a bird. "Look. Here it is."

I look down into the exposed earth. There are two sarcophagi of stone lodged there. They are covered in runes, and each with a carving of a dragon, chipped and matted by the ages. They are too large to contain men or women; they could only be for giants.

I jerk my head away from the sight, averting my eyes. I see a bulldozer with its toothy yellow bucket full of dirt and human bones. I hear the outcast dead squeaking and gibbering; I shrink down to nothing as the ground rumbles and shifts beneath me. The sky brews and the river swells. A hand as cold as iron touches my face.

The foreman is talking to me, but I can only hear the blood rushing through my ears. I sit and try to steady myself. I think I have vomited. I realise that I am saying something. "I need to speak to him. The giant with the flaking skin. We must not open them."

I feel a dizzying wave of fear and panic. I close my mouth, embarrassed. I look up at the foreman, who is standing above me and talking urgently into a radio. I touch my face and he holds a paper towel out to me. I accept it and wipe my nose and mouth. For my eyes, I use a sleeve.

I am ashamed, and I try to get up. The foreman motions for me to stay, but I struggle onto my feet and lean against some scaffolding. My eyes dart around; I force them to fix on the oversize coffins in the ground. They are there, they are real. And the bodies in the bulldozer. I am not imagining, I am sane. My face creases in confusion.

The foreman is calling for help. I open my mouth to tell him not to, but I am worried about what I will say.

"I'm fine," I manage, and I gently push his radio away. He seems to get the message. I take a deep breath and compose myself. My strength is returning. I can feel the mask of confidence closing around me again.

"I'm very sorry," I say with a forced laugh. "I must've eaten something rotten."

"Are you ok? You look white as a sheet." His hard hat drops an inch as his forehead creases. He puts a hand to his chest.

I straighten my back and beam a selfless smile. "Yes, yes, I'm feeling much better now it's out of my system."

"Should I take you out?"

"No really, I'm fine now. Shall we go to the office? I think I'd like a cup of water if you don't mind."

"Well - if you're sure? - Well, of course." He steps onto the open lift and I follow him. "To be honest, we need to work this out as quickly as possible. Every day we delay costs me a quarter of a million pounds."

We step off the lift and into the Portakabin with the plastic plants. "Can I take my hat off in here?" I ask.

"Sure, Karen'll look after it for you." We step into the tiny office among the stacks of multicoloured papers. "This bloody project is neverending. It seems that wherever we dig, we dig up the bones of the dead. Delay delay delay."

He pours me a cup of water from the cooler and we sit either side of the desk. I empty the cup and lean over to pour myself some more.

The foreman starts shuffling papers on his desk. He talks quickly. "We'll have to set up another community liaison meeting, hopefully by the end of the week, and meanwhile we can -"

"I've got good news for you," I interrupt, meeting his eyes. "We don't have to do a thing."

His hard hat dips an inch again. "Sorry?"

I picture the dirt-encrusted dragon carvings, and I suppress my conscience easily. "Leave them in there. Dig around them if you have to, just forget about them."

"But don't they have any historical significance or something? If we pour twenty thousand tonnes of concrete on top of them they're not going to make it into a museum anytime soon."

"The community has agreed," I lie, "that out of respect to the dead, any such tombs are to be left undisturbed."

The foreman leans back and taps a pen against the desk. He stares at me with his black eyes like a crow. I watch the recognition spread and stain his face. He knows I will never breathe a word about the coffins. And in exchange for his complicity, he will save a fortune in bureaucracy and delays.

"Don't worry," I smile. "I'm happy to accept responsibility. It's the right thing to do. Bury them. Bury them forever."

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