by Kate DeJonge
Joseph Ambrose was a perpetual bachelor, and happy to be so. He had no need for a woman bent on cleaning him up or changing his ways; he liked his meat fatty and his drinking cups full. Truth be told, he didn’t like men, either. As long as his belly was satisfied and his senses were dulled, to hell with all the rest. With that attitude, he was perfectly suited to his profession: Night Watchman.
He lived and worked in The Devil’s Acre, a region in London known for its derelict buildings and criminal residents, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. Nothing made him happier than patrolling those labyrinthine streets, kicking at beggars and brawling with drunkards who were too stupid to run when they saw him coming. Joseph was a large man with a scarred face, and he cast quite a shadow under the few gas lights the city maintained in that quarter. Everyone knew him, as he was the only Watchman who regularly patrolled the area. Nobody else cared what happened in the Acre.
Every night, Joseph walked from his tenement on Old Pye Street through squalor and crime, ignoring cries from women and children until turning into one of his favorite taverns for a pint and a shot of gin. If he was lucky, someone would already be enough into his cups to take a swing at him, and the night’s festivities could begin early. He patrolled the slums from 9 PM until 6 AM, alone, and was never left wanting for action. The Acre was small and well contained, ironically surrounded by the places that England deemed most important: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace. It amused Joseph to no end that they were paying him to beat on the destitute all night but refused to properly fix the problem with all that money while they toiled one block away during the day.
After several years of service, Joseph began to feel invincible. His superiors never checked in on him, leaving him to police the Acre as he saw fit. His game of baiting drunks into fistfights evolved when he added an ice pick to his uniform. It began with one man, unconscious on the cobbles outside of a tavern. Joseph had seen the pick left unattended on the tavern’s bar and impulsively taken it. When he stepped out to continue his patrol and saw the crumpled man, he plunged the pick into the drunk’s ear. The sound it made delighted him, so he did it again. Three times, then four, he plunged the pick until the man’s brain stopped making the satisfying pop and suck sounds, turned to liquid as they were. He stood himself upright, grinning from ear to ear, and pocketed the pick. Feeling invigorated, he whistled as he left the Acre to continue his patrol past the Abbey.
Part of his duty was to walk through every cemetery he passed to watch for grave robbers and listen for bells. He enjoyed helping the snatchers, taking any items of value for himself before dispatching them with the corpses they had been paid to retrieve. The bells, though, he found intriguing. There was something to be said about their necessity during the age of cholera, and he had, in fact, heard the bells chime from time to time. Those who had been buried alive were thankful for his presence and his strong back. Digging implements were always left outside of the caretaker’s shed, just in case, and having no fear of such things as death, Joseph thought it easier to rescue the recently buried himself rather than calling for help. He dug his way down to the coffin and pried it open, but that was where his beneficence ended. He left the poor souls there to climb out of their graves themselves.
On the night that Joseph stole the ice pick, one such bell rang as he walked through an old yard near the outskirts of his patrol route. Most of the stones were tilted and broken, protruding from the ground haphazardly like the bottom row of his own teeth. There were very few modern markers such as the one that was tinkling furiously just then, but with a quick glance at the chapel, he could see the familiar digging tools propped against its wall. He took a step toward them and then paused. He put a hand in his pocket and fingered the ice pick, remembering the excitement he felt as he took the drunk’s life. Following the sound of the bell, he found a freshly engraved stone announcing the death of Anna Whiteside, another victim of cholera. The date on the stone was only one day old. Poor Anna, it seemed, had been buried on the day of her death to prevent the spread of the disease, like so many others.
Joseph felt his pulse quicken as he thought about the young woman lying in her box under several feet of dirt, panicking and clawing against the coffin lid for light. He sat on the ground before her stone watching the little bell dance on its string and smiled. The drunk’s death had been quick, and his victim had been unconscious. He had taken the man’s life, but there had been no struggle. Watching that bell chime filled Joseph with a euphoria he had never felt before. He had the ability, the power, to save this woman as he’d saved others before, but he could choose not to. He could watch her die.
He laid down and pressed his ear to the ground to see if he could hear her scream and was pleasantly surprised when he did. It was muffled, of course, but it was there. He raised one hand to steady the bell between his fingers and listened again. There it was again, the terrified scream of a woman buried alive. He thought about pulling the bell off its string to make the listening easier but realized that the woman may detect the new slack on her end and stop trying. He wanted her to try, to believe that someone may hear the bell and come for her. He looked about himself and found a bed of clovers, their small ball-shaped buds growing plentifully. He pulled a few from their stems and inserted them into the hollow of the bell one at a time, careful not to pull too hard on the string. Three were enough to stop the clapper, and after a few minutes of observation, he was satisfied that they would hold. He lay back down on Anna’s grave and pressed his ear to the ground once more. When daylight began to break, he brushed himself off and headed back to his tenement, his shift ending with the rise of the sun.
The following night he returned to Anna’s grave, bypassing all but one tavern on his way. The clovers were still inside the little bell, but it was no longer dancing on its string. He pushed his ear to the ground quickly, every ounce of focus listening for her wails, but there were none. She had died in his absence. Frustrated, he pulled the clovers out of her bell and put them in his pocket beside the ice pick. He was about to leave the cemetery when he heard another tinkle. Whirling on his feet, he raced back to Anna’s grave, but it wasn’t her bell. He scanned the dim yard, ears pricked, waiting for the sound to repeat itself. Not three yards from Anna’s plot was another fresh grave, one that hadn’t been there the night before. Could it be? Joseph approached the newly turned dirt slowly, unwilling to believe his own good fortune.
James Oleander, aged 23, was buried that very day. Joseph almost wept with joy. He pulled three clovers out of the nearest patch and crouched over James’ grave, inserting them into the bell exactly as he had with Anna’s. It bounced silently, even more vigorously than Anna’s had. James was only a few hours underground by Joseph’s estimate. He may last several days yet! With unbridled glee, the night watchman laid down on young James’ grave and pressed his ear to the ground. And there it was, the horrible scream of a man buried alive.
Joseph continued on with his duties for many more years, using his ice pick to satisfy his new appetite on nights when there were no bells chiming. By the time he retired, the cholera epidemic was over and safety coffins had fallen out of fashion, but by his count he had listened to no less than seven souls scream for release from their graves. He died alone in his tenement, having refused the government aid he’d been offered. He didn’t have any use for people when he was a young man and certainly didn’t want their help in his last years. His body was found by squatters, the scent of his decaying body overpowering the already horrible stench left behind in the Devil’s Acre. His body was wrapped in a tattered blanket, sat in a chair before his only window, his rotting skin stuck to its glass. His eyes were open, and his lips were pulled back in a grotesque grin. They said it was to be expected, considering the length of time he’d sat in the sun decomposing, but they didn’t know Joseph Ambrose. They didn’t know him at all, in fact. His identity had been lost after the last city representative had given up on moving him, and rats had chewed through any paperwork that may have been lying about in his squalor.
The Watchman had died exactly as he’d wished to, with his forehead pressed against his window and glee on his face, watching tormented souls suffering in the streets below. He was buried in an unmarked grave along with the other derelict residents of the Devil’s Acre whose names were long forgotten, his crimes never discovered.
About Kate DeJonge