The Roadside Floral Memorial Committee (Part Two)
Henry thought hard about it and concluded: why not? He still had access to a council pool car. His comings and goings were absolutely unregulated. He could please himself what he did and would have a clear conscience about it as long as he did not break any actual laws. Besides all which, he deserved a break and this odd little folklorist was quite interesting, albeit creepy. They shook hands on it and Henry had to wipe his palm on the leg of his trousers to dissipate the oily residue of sweat which had been transmitted to him.
Henry regretted being seen out and about with is new associate, even if they ended up in some out of the way places where they should have escape attention. It was one thing to have co-workers nudge each other in the ribs as they passed through the lobbies of municipal offices; it was quite another when motorists craned their necks dangerously to gawp at the ill matched pair standing like elongated gnomes on the roadside.
‘Are they really staring at us?’ he wondered out loud after the fourth or fifth such occurrence.
Bryant broke off his mumbling and runic scrawling in his notebook and regarded him keenly, if coldly.
‘What else do you think they might be regarding?’ he asked.
Henry’s instincts clamped shut his mouth before any words could come out, and he felt it was a good thing.
He took to ignoring both the startled attention of motorists and the muttering-scribbling actions of the academic as they toured the accident sites. It was only on a few occasions when he was stirred out of daydreams, and in one of these times he woke to what must have been a custard pie thrown by his imagination rather than reality. He thought he saw Bryant break off the stem of a plastic daffodil someone had tied to a hawthorn tree as a tribute and stuff the thing wildly into his mouth. After blinking rapidly for ten seconds he saw only the folklorist staring at him with his accustomed hungry look.
‘Where to next?’ Henry asked, for the sake of saying something.
Henry frowned: it was not on the list, but he recognised the name. When he said this, Bryant merely asked him blankly if he knew where it was.
‘Of course,’ Henry said smoothly. He didn’t appreciate his knowledge of local geography being undermined. ‘Let’s go.’ He thought the man sniggered as they drove off, but he may well have imagined it.
Ramley’s Corner was a place where three lanes leading nowhere joined together in a perfectly and perpetually dismal triangle of scrub and grass which seemed to be the intersection between several sinister places. Was there a tradition that there had been a triple gallows here, doing a roaring trade for the miscreants of three parishes which touched borders here? Henry was disinclined to ask his companion as they both stood on the sodden grey turf of the spot. He could not be certain, but it did not seem a likely spot for road accidents. The land on all sides was perfectly flat. The hedges for the three lanes which met around the triangles were set well back from the intersection, so in no way was vision obscured.
When the thin wind rattled the grey stems of grass, the soil beneath rippled in bitter sympathy. Henry’s jaws were again wired shut by some instinctive force which now seemed liable to betray rather than save him. He was just able to crank his skull to the left and witness Bryant’s face forming a bizarre, cyanide smile. Now he was not mumbling, but actually chanting into the face of that unclean breeze.
He broke off momentarily, addressing Henry, though not actually looking at him.
‘In answer to your unsaid question,’ he said. ‘The accident hasn’t happened here yet. But it will. I thought it might be here that we were able to break through and I was right. I’m always right, invariably.’
Henry was planted to the spot, or rather worse than that, for what he thought might be tendrils of astonishly abundant weeds sprouting from the earth around his lower limbs were in fact something else. Roots became writhing threads that hardened into malleable bones shrouded definitely with flesh, forming fingers which crept upwards and would not let go. The academic watched the event impassively and explained what was happening, in layman’s terms.
‘I was being disingenuous,’ he informed Henry. ‘I’m really not working on reseach about roadside memorial sites, nothing so crass. Really what I hoped to encounter and have now found, thanks to yourself, is an actual interface.’
He opened up a door which should not have been there, in thin air. In the beyond was a boardroom and Henry was pushed through into that space and made to take a seat. All of the others around the table turned politely towards him and looked at him expectantly, or those who still had eyes did so.
‘You see,’ said Bryant, ‘this is the real committee, where the power actually resides. The past is one thing and its traditions should never be dishonoured, but we have to think of the way ahead and the continuing customs. You should really be honoured Henry that you have been chosen to sit on the panel and shape the future of all the deaths to come. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll fit in right away and I’ll speak to you soon. In the meantime, bye bye!’
Henry managed to open his mouth as the door finally closed. But by that time it was too late.