Arthur Cunningham Codd lay, conscious of his own consciousness, aware of the sensation of his fingertips feeling their way around the cramped space he found himself to be in. A sensation of smooth wood. His eyes stared into infinite blackness, whilst his nose detected the faint odour of soil and dampness. He was aware of his breathing, rapid now with fear, and that his enclosed world likely had a very short supply of oxygen; in fact, he already sensed a slight difficulty in filling his lungs satisfactorily. He adjudged himself to be in a coffin, likely buried six feet under the ground.
Arthur was not especially an individual who succumbed to superstition, yet when leaving his house that morning to walk the quarter mile to the station, and the daily commute to his desk in a nondescript banking house, he had noticed a dead crow on the path. He’d nudged it with his foot, being careful not to soil his freshly polished shoe, watching as its head flopped over and its black eye stared sightlessly up at him. How had it died? he wondered. Perhaps from a heart attack, or maybe from old age?
And, come to think of it, why did one almost never see dead birds on the ground, considering the numbers of the little blighters? Starlings filling the trees, pigeons crowding the rooftops of London and pooing on peoples’ cars and heads, hedgerows full of finches. And yet, when they died, as they surely must, as we all must do one far-off day, then, unless they were sitting in a nest, they must, by virtue of their airborne status, simply fall out of the sky. You would expect the pavements to be simply littered with them, he mused.
It was old Henry Maskin, clerk to the bank’s president, Vernon McIntyre. Arthur couldn’t remember Henry taking the 08.30, as he surely must be planning. He was wont to take the 09.00, Vernon McIntyre not working the long hours that lowly employees, such as himself, were obliged to do. He forced a cheery greeting, “Good morning, Henry.”
Henry Maskin lived but two avenues from the Cunningham Codd residence, where Arthur lived with Brenda, his wife of thirty years, and her Chihuahua, Byron, a yapping thorn in his side of ten years. Arthur fell into step with his co-worker. “It’s a pleasant morning, Henry.”
Henry squinted up at the sun, peeking through a smudge of grey. “They say it’ll rain later.”
“Maybe.” Arthur hesitated. “Er, Henry, do you know, I encountered a dead crow on the path, just coming out of my gate.”
Henry’s pace slowed. “A dead crow, eh? Well, do you know what my Aunt Gertrude used to say?”
Arthur felt annoyed. How the hell could he know that! “What?”
Henry gave a long, throaty cough, as if to increase the suspense, then commenced walking at his normal pace. “Well, she used to say, ‘Kick a dead crow out of the way, you’ll be dead and buried by the end of the day.’ You didn’t kick it, did you, Arthur?”
Arthur felt a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Well, no, er, not exactly.”
“Well, that’s all right then. I say, did you hear that unemployment is down two per cent?”
“What? Oh.” Arthur thought over Aunt Gertrude’s adage. Pah! it was all nonsense.
Now, as he lay in the darkness, a feeling of foreboding filling his every cell, he tried to remember what had happened. Yes, it had been the day he’d met old Henry Maskin on the way to the station, the day he’d seen the dead crow on the path. Then he remembered feeling queasy mid-morning, like he was going to faint. Young Frederick Smethurst had accompanied him to the infirmary. He’d wanted to say that he’d suffered blackouts since catching malaria when he was out in Africa. Sometimes he’d go into a coma-like state and wake up hours, on occasion even days later, remembering none of it. but somehow, he’d been unable to get the words out. And why hadn’t Brenda said something for God’s sake?
Now he heard a dull thudding sound in the distance. With a start, he recognised it as the pounding of a spade. He felt a rush of relief. Someone was coming to the rescue! As he lay in the all-enveloping blackness, he realised that the sound wasn’t coming from above, but from some way to his left. Perhaps a gravedigger was at work on an adjacent plot? “Help!” he yelled, feeling shocked at the sound of his voice in that small, confined space.
The thudding stopped.
Arthur realised that shouting would use up more oxygen. Maybe there were only a few minutes of air left?
Far off, the sound of the spade began again.