A Pit of Clay

 “Oh, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.”

Gravedigger’s song
Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1

There were three who worked in the Surrey dump: William, Barney, Mugs. They wore gray overalls and black rubber Wellies, and Barney and Mugs wore caps. But William had a full head of silver hair that made him look like an actor or a lawyer, and he liked to go bareheaded. It was William who drove the bulldozer and old Barney who built the fire to warm their hands and make the tea. Mugs, nineteen, sipped beer and frowned into the October mist.

The dump was mammoth. From the chain-link gate at the entrance, a dirt road wound slowly upward through an odd, hilly land. This was the first dump, the old dump, now covered over. These were the barrows, softening back into the earth. Long pale grasses grew on the mounds, and the occasional incoming car startled a rabbit beside the road.

After a way, the road forked. The left branch was barred with a tree trunk, no dumping yet permitted in the area beyond. This land was in reserve for the future. The right fork was open, and the dirt road again curved upward. Here the work was fresh, the mounds roughly covered, the excavations raw. Chunks of creamy yellow clay mottled the upturned earth. This was the present dump, great shallow pits scooped out, filled in, covered over, as William, Barney and Mugs advanced along the road. Bits of rubbish fallen from cars and lorries marked the route.

“Here we go then, here we go.” Squatting on his heels, Barney prodded his small blaze with a stick. There were always old newspapers and wood in the dump for burning, but yesterday someone had left a spindle rocking chair, a considerable prize. Broken in pieces, it made excellent kindling. He rubbed his hands cheerfully. “It’s a lovely fire we’ll be having today, Mugs. How about a nice cuppa?”

“No, thanks.” The youth lifted his can. “I got me beer.”

“You’re never without it,” said the old man, chuckling. He raised his voice. “Here, Will!  Are you wantin’ cuppa tea?”

“Later!” William shouted over the noise of the bulldozer as he started it down the hill. “Going to level Section Five!”

“Section Five.” Barney gave his companion a telling glance. “No bloody Section Five here. Just one great lolloping dump. Now then, no tea for the chief, no tea for the lad, whole pot for me. Ha!” He poured fresh water from a jug into a battered kettle and set it on the fire.

Mugs’ gaze remained fixed on the horizon, his mouth open in a daydream. Pale blond curls tumbled from under his cap. The landscape around him was muffled and ghostly, and in one of the open pits, a flock of gulls scavenged in the garbage. They were huge birds, as big as geese, and their cries sounded uncannily like bawling children. Mugs frowned at their wail, and his fingers tightened around his beer.

“Maybe Miss Katie will come today,” said Barney, with a wink. “I’d sure like to see that one again.” He rubbed his grizzled chin. “Aye, but I didn’t shave, more’s the pity.”

“Car comin’ now,” said Mugs.

A brown van rumbled out of the mist toward them, followed immediately by the bulldozer. Barney rose to meet them.

“Mornin’ to you, mate. What might you be bringing us today?”

“Furniture.” The driver, a paunchy, middle-aged man, thumbed behind him into the van. “Old suite from the salon. Can I dump it here?”

“You certainly can, sir,” William replied, descending from the bulldozer. “We can take just about everything except chemical and commercial waste. However, pieces of furniture this large do need to be broken up. If you’ll drive up a bit, we’ll unload over there.”

The man parked as directed and opened the rear doors of the van. A chintz sofa and two armchairs were wedged tightly inside. Barney, William and the driver tugged at the heavy sofa to free it while Mugs pursed his lips and swirled the beer in his can.

“Got a new suite…give this away if anyone could use it…past repairing…only taking up space.” The man’s explanation came in short-winded spurts as he struggled with the unwieldy couch.

“Here she comes,” William warned.

They eased the sofa to the ground and set the two armchairs beside it. The driver took several deep breaths and rubbed his back.

“Damp day for you fellows working out here.”

“Morning mist, that’s all, sir. The weather report today has it clear by noon. Let me direct you out.” William strode to the slope of the hill, beckoning the van to follow.

Barney stood appraising the dilapidated suite. The chintz was sadly worn, the stuffing was escaping, and the sofa sagged like a swaybacked mare. “Mugs!” he called suddenly. “Come and help!” He dragged the furniture toward the fire.

“What’re you doing?” the youth asked, perplexed.

“Getting’ ready.” He arranged the armchairs at either end of the couch and stood back to admire his work. “There, doesn’t that look cozy-like? When Miss Katie comes, we’ll invite her to tea.”

“You can’t invite a girl to tea in a dump.”

“‘Course we can. Ah, lad, wait’ll you see her. She hasn’t been since spring, before you started, but she promised me faithfully come autumn she’d be back.”

William returned to the bulldozer and swung himself up. He was a big, well-built man, and his movements were sure and easy.

“I understand from this gentleman there’s a log obstructing the road down near the gate,” he said gravely. “No doubt it fell off that lorry that came in earlier. I’ll see to its removal.”

“That’s right, chief, you take charge of it,” Barney agreed. He sighed as the other man expertly backed the bulldozer and headed off. “Our Will. He doesn’t belong in a place like this.”

“He’s happy here,” said Mugs.

“Oh, he’s happy all right.” The old man snorted. “A king in his little kingdom. Look at him.”

William was just disappearing down the hill, his silver hair and jaunty bearing apparent even through the mist. Above the noise of the bulldozer they heard him singing.

“He’s happy here,” Mugs repeated.

“But he could’ve been something! Was something once, I suspect. He’s got brains. Reads books. Talks big words natural as you please. Look at him!” Barney gestured disgustedly, but the bulldozer was out of sight. “Comes here with his overalls washed and pressed, brings a comb and his pocket handkerchief. Bet you haven’t got a comb, have you? No, I thought not. And I bet you don’t go calling up the weather report on the telephone every mornin’ neither. Why ever do you need a weather report in a bleedin’ dump? And right he is, right every time!” He waved his arms wildly at the mist, which was already beginning to clear.

Mugs shrugged. “Will’s hap—”

The old man turned a fierce eye on him and shook his finger. “And you, lad, you’re naught but a dreamer, standin’ there with this far look on your face, lookin’ and not seein’, forgettin’ even to be drinkin’ your beer. What’s there to be thinking about all the time anyway?”

“Life,” said Mugs. “I think about life.”

“Heaven help us, a philosopher!”

The youth turned back to the horizon. The entire dump was on raised ground, and they stood now at the summit. The immediate view was rooftops, chimneys, a metal forest of TV antennas. Farther off, a few office buildings were becoming visible through the receding vapor, pale sunlight seeping in. Barney contemplated the rubbish jumbled around them on the hill. In addition to the chintz suite, there were three and a half bicycles, scattered automobile parts, tires, two oil drums, bundles of rusty wire fencing, a bottomless washtub and a dozen packing crates. A tasteless plaster statue of a bare-breasted woman bearing a water jug stood at a tilt among the garbage. The old man shook his head.

“Naught but a graveyard it is, a graveyard of things beyond their use and come to be buried in the clay. I wouldn’t like to see you buried here, too, lad, buried alive as it were.”

“Car comin’,” said Mugs.

Down below a shiny yellow Austin Mini picked its way along the dirt road.

“It’s her!” Barney cried. “It’s the lass! Look at her coming into our dump in that bright little car like the very sun itself.”

The Mini had disappeared behind a hill. Now it reappeared for the final ascent, a load of cardboard boxes strapped to the luggage rack on the roof.

“Miss Katie!”

The young woman swung both feet out of the car and landed with a laugh before them. A mass of coppery hair curled to her shoulders, and her eyes flashed green. She was of medium height, in her early twenties, and her snugly fitting blue jeans and sweater revealed a figure that made Mugs’ throat go dry. If her nose was a trifle upturned and her mouth a shade wide, he didn’t notice.

“Hello, Barney,” she said, smiling. “You’re looking well.”

“I’m fine as a man could wish, now you’ve come.” He doffed his cap and motioned Mugs to do likewise. “I hope your shop had lots of trade this summer?”

“Lots indeed. Crowds of tourists every day. Now it’s a little quieter, Mum and I can get back to sorting Gran’s things.” She gestured to the boxes on the roof rack.

“Then we’ll have the pleasure of your company more often. And by the way, Miss Katie Sweeney, won’t you meet…Mr. Edward Hadleigh.” He bowed from one to the other. “You can call him Mugs.”

“How do you do, Mugs?” Katie extended her hand.

Mugs reached to shake and discovered his right hand still held his beer. He offered his left and found it held his cap. Red-faced, he slapped the cap on his head, shifted the beer from right to left, wiped his right on his overalls, and at last managed to shake hands.

“I uh, I uh…thank you,” he mumbled.

Katie smiled. “Where’s William, Barney?”

“Gone to inspect the premises. Did he not pass you on the road? Off surveying on the bulldozer then. Well, what have we today?”

“It’s books.” She opened the car trunk, also packed with boxes.

“And none of it worth saving?”

“I’m afraid not.” She picked out a volume and held it by a corner of the cover. Pages sifted onto the ground. “They smell, too,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “We found them in the attic, and the roof must have leaked. They’re all water stained and mildewed. I wish Gran would have let us help her clear out the house earlier, but she got a bit funny toward the end.”

Barney began unloading the boxes, and Mugs rushed to help. They heaved them onto the nearest pile of trash, and some of the books skidded out and lodged among the garbage.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” Katie said. The sun was strong now, warming the earth, bringing to life new odors in the dump and picking out colors previously lost in the mist: the shine of a hubcap, a red book, a pile of orangeish bricks, a bright green garden hose sticking out from under a crate. With the fire glowing and the chintz suite in place, the dump looked homey and cheerful.

“Come and have some tea,” said Barney, guiding her to the couch. He took a china teapot and cups from a box, tea bags, a container of milk, and sugar from his lunch pail, and brought the kettle from the fire. An overturned crate served as table.

“You’ve moved quite a way along this road since I last came,” said Katie, accepting a cup. “I wouldn’t guess a dump could fill so quickly.”

“Ah, you would be surprised, lass, just how busy we are.” Barney took an armchair, giving his head a sideways jerk to urge Mugs closer to the young woman on the couch. “It’s all part of good management, administration and such. Not a bad place to start for a lad who hopes to move on to bigger things.”

“And what do you hope to move on to, Mugs?” she asked, her green eyes fastening on him over her tea.

“I uh…I uh…”

“Geography,” Barney announced. He got to his feet and beckoned the young people to the edge of the hill. In the clear air, the view was extensive. “Look that way. See that church spire?”

Katie nodded.

“And beyond that you see a big patch of green?”

“Yes.”

“Now then, right past the green there’s a gray tower. You see it? Taller than all the rest?”

She squinted, following the old man’s pointing finger, then blinked and tried again.

“Yes, yes, I see it!”

“Ha!  It’s the Post Office Tower in London.”

“It is? That’s amazing! We’re fifteen miles from the city.”

“And who do you think it was discovered this? None other than our Mugs.” Barney clapped the youth on the shoulder. “A far-sighted lad he is, indeed.”

“Well, what I want to know is this,” blurted Mugs. “Can they see the dump from the Post Office Tower? That is the question.”

Katie’s lips twitched. Her eyes danced. She raised her fingers to her mouth and patted it back into shape. “Yes, we mustn’t forget the issue of perspective. I will think about this on my drive home. Thank you both for the lovely tea. I’ll see you again soon.”

The three of them walked back to the car, and as the yellow Mini bumped down the hill Barney gave his companion a nudge.

“What did I tell you, eh? Isn’t she a smasher?”

“She’s pretty all right,” Mugs conceded. “But is she smart? It’s not enough for a woman to be good looking. Intelligent conversation, that’s what I like.”

“Of course, she’s smart! Runs an antique shop and you have to have brains to do that. How about a lass like her for you, eh? Just the inspiration you need to get up and out of here. Got to spruce you up a bit first, though.” Barney’s eyes narrowed as he studied the youth’s attire. “Get your mum to wash your overalls and find you a pocket handkerchief like our Will. Where’s he got to anyway?” He scanned the dump.

Mugs looked down at the gate where Katie’s car had disappeared. “What was Will, Barney?”

“Eh?”

“You said you suspect he was something once. And what were you? What’re you doing here?”

“Ah.” Barney sat back on the chintz couch and poured himself another cup of tea. “It’s different for me. I been out to see the world, lad. Joined the Royal Navy—you’ve heard me talk about that—did farming with me dad. Had a mechanic shop, drove a mail truck, chased the girls. Now I’m on the going-out end, and the dump just carries me and the old missus with a bit of comfort.” He put his feet up on the crate and nodded around, well satisfied. “I watch a little telly, stop into the local for a pint. Till one day, nice and easy, I slip away in me own bed.” He closed his eyes and lay back, sending his hand heavenward in a gentle drift.

“And Will?”

Barney opened his eyes and sighed. “Can’t say for sure. You know he never talks of times past. But one cold day in winter, I brought a flask and added a little something to the tea. Got a few words out of him about managering a business and how things went sour. Then his wife up and left.”

Mugs’ face hardened, and he breathed an accusing ahh. “It was a woman then.”

“No, it was Will. He buckled, lad, caved in. He settled for a bleedin’ dump, and I’ll not let you do the same, d’ye hear?” He scooped up a chunk of yellow earth and shook it in the youth’s face, digging in his grimed fingers till the clay oozed out between them. “You got to squeeze life, squeeze your best into it or you won’t get nothing out.”

The bulldozer chugged up behind them. William brought it to a stop and gracefully hopped down. “I’ve taken care of that log,” he announced. “I’m quite sure it fell off the county lorry first thing this morning. Possibly they hit a bump in the road or they may have been overloaded. I’ll bring it to their attention the very next time.” His handsome face lighted. “And I’ve had a superb idea concerning the future development of Section Five.”

“And what about Miss Katie?” Barney glared.

“Miss Sweeney? Was she here?”

“Aye. Asked about you, too, and you nowhere to be found. Ungentlemanly of you, Will. Un-gentle-manly.” He crossed his arms and tapped his boot, and the big man’s shoulders sagged.

“I’m certainly sorry to have missed Miss Sweeney. Had I known of her presence, I would have hastened to greet her.”

“Well, she’s gone, and now I suppose you’d like a nice cuppa?”

“Oh yes, I would. Thank you.”

“Well, it’s too late!” Barney stamped his foot and threw out his arms. “Too bloody late. The tea’s cold in the pot, and the fire’s naught but embers. Look at it!”

William’s face fell. “Is it really too late?” he whispered.

Barney scowled at the crisp overalls, the clean boots, the carefully combed silver hair. His arms dropped, and his foot stopped tapping. “Never mind, mate,” he said, more kindly. “We’ll put on more wood and brew a fresh cup.”

“And let me tell you what I’m planning for Section Five,” said William, as they went to fetch kindling.

Mugs stood on the rim of the hill, sipping his beer. His blue eyes searched the horizon. The mist had melted for a great distance and yet, far in the distance, a vague grayness still clung. For a moment his face cleared, and a murmur passed his lips.

“If they can see the dump from the Post Office Tower, I wonder…can they see me?”

His gaze clouded, and his mouth fell half open, dreaming.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1987)

~ Return to the list of stories ~