Deirdre Cronnie had the foulest mouth of any of them. Often, when a quarrel got to the stage where she started hurling swearwords, she would turn around and lift up her skirts :
“Kiss my arse ! Not that I’d let you do it, ’cause you’d get slobber all over me !”
I detected loneliness in her vehemence. It didn’t take me long to find out that she was Irish. An incomer. And a Catholic to boot.
“Are you one of pharaoh’s tribe ?” She measured me from head to foot and from foot to head.
“I’ve got nothing to do with the gypsies, ma’am,” I answered for the umpteenth time.
The woman turned her back on me, resting her hands on her hips. She moved away from me far enough for me to pay her no further mind, but then in front of me a pint of hot ale appeared.
“You’ll fill your pockets with pennies, you charlatan !”
“What are you talking about ! That woman who dresses the dead ?”
In less than a week, Joy signalled to me that we should go outside with our pewter tankards, to the waste ground between St Giles and Pye Tavern.
“You’ll earn yourself a little money if you can guess which woman will win. Lay your bet !”
He often boasted to me of winnings from such arrangements. And no less seldom did I see him gazing winsomely into the distance as he waited for a tankard of beer or a glass of brandy...
But then the fist fighters arrived. In one corner a huge woman in frilly pantaloons and with dugs like two bladders, in the other Deirdre, stripped to the waist and bare from the knees down.
“What is the madwoman doing ? Didn’t you say she dressed corpses ?”
“She saves up pennies from fist fights. She has floored all the dishrags that have come up against her so far. And this time it will be no different.”
“She has no chance of winning—”
“Put a bet on it !”
The bout was brief : Deirdre almost beat the big woman to death. The punters departed, some with purses bulging, others dragging the poor unconscious woman with the battered face.
For a time Deirdre was not to be seen at the Pye Tavern, although previously, rare had been the evenings when she did not harangue some man or woman for knocking back too many tankards. I myself had decided to avoid her. But spring had begun to lay its dominion over gardens and people’s inclinations...
I was amazed to hear that the Irishwoman had lost her mind : she had accepted to fight a bout with a Thames boatman. The fight was eagerly anticipated, it stirred passions and caused the beer, as well as wagered coins, to flow for plenty of days beforehand...
The woman was thrashed, felled, and lay croaking in the middle of the field.
“She asked for it !” muttered the boxer, stuffing some chewing tobacco in his mouth. “But ’tis an honest deed to pummel a whore. Maybe she’ll learn some sense !”
Together with Joy, I leaned her up against the wall of Oxford Court.
“She’s a goner ! Blood and slobber are pouring from her mouth. Can’t you hear the nasty sound she’s making ? Let’s leave her to the Lord’s mercy before the night watch arrives. That would be all we need : for them to arrest us and accuse us of beating her. Or to accuse us of... God forbid !”
Before he could say anything else, the gravedigger vanished. I wiped the blood from the woman’s face and determined that in a few days, given the proper care, she would be back on her feet. I carried her on my back down the lanes, like a precious burden, and I laid her in my bed. Then I lit a roaring fire. A bitter drizzle was falling, which made one shiver to the bone.
I heated some water. I washed her bloodied face and breasts with a sponge soaked in vinegar, and then her muddied legs, thighs and waist.
“What do you want, savage ? I’ve got nothing to give you !”
She turned her back on me. Her shoulders were trembling, as if the heat had not yet managed to drive out the chill.
“In the morning I shall bring gin and meat broth.”
She did not ask for anything, although she seemed shaken to the depths of her being. Soon she fell asleep. At dawn I left on tiptoe and then hurried to the tavern. But when I returned the bed was empty. Reconciled with myself, I knocked back the gin and slurped up the broth.
It was perhaps two weeks later that she appeared at the cemetery gate, sprucely, even jauntily dressed. It was easy for her to find me : I was carving a stone and sparks were flying from the chisel as I hammered.
She sat down on a tree trunk brought there by some penurious relatives to make the cross for their deceased, and next to it she placed a basket of victuals. I carried on with my work as if I had not noticed her, striking the stone strenuously. I intended to put questions to her and I expected prompt replies.
After a while, she unfolded a napkin, placed on it a flagon of brandy, a large round meat pie, and a cask of red wine, as if she had brought them there to sell.
The smell of the pie made me set aside my tools and my questions. She handed me the flagon of brandy, waited for me to drink, and then drained the rest. She broke the pie and offered me a piece that would have been large enough to feed a number of ravenous mouths. Nevertheless, I ate it all, while Deirdre barely nibbled a corner of the pie. She tossed the rest to the graveyard dogs. She passed me the wine. I thirstily drank half, it was sweet and good, but she barely tasted it. She stood up, placed the cask next to the tools I was using to carve the cross. She shook the crumbs off the napkin, folded it up, and put it in her basket. And then she was gone, without a word.
With the chisel, I smoothed the stone around the name of the deceased. Joy was digging the dead man’s grave, at one end of which I was to erect the stone cross.
“Deirdre has bairns by four men. Would you like to raise them ?” he asked, spitting in his palms and grasping his pick.
I did not want to. But I had drunk the woman’s wine and I reckoned she deserved better.
“What shall I give you, savage ?” she asked one evening, when, like Joy and the rest of the crew at the Pye Tavern, she was tipsy. Thinking she was drunk, I helped her to the latrine.
“I was in there a long time because I gave still birth,” she explained when she returned.
Without looking at her, I said : “Dress the living or the dead, but do not box—”
“Will you keep my children ?” she shouted, repeating the gravedigger’s question.
From that evening Joy watched me out of the corner of his eye. The boxing woman no longer made trial of her strength and for that reason I think she caused him to lose money. Fist fights and other fracases deliberately provoked among the lowlifes were a constant occurrence on the field by St Giles’s. And I was convinced that the Gravedigger did not miss a single bout, since for a while he ate and drank without a thought to the cost, he wore clean clothes and bracelets of tombac or silver, for which I would have sworn he had not given a penny... After a while, he even started powdering his cheeks and wearing white stockings, knee length britches, shoes, a flowery hat, and a curled wig, so that you would have wondered whether he was not in fact some fop who engaged in unnatural intercourse.
However, he strove to cut a dash in those clothes, as if he never intended to lay hands on a shovel again or on ropes to lower the transient clay of London’s dead into the earth.
Not long after that, one sunset, the boatman who had beaten Deirdre grabbed me by the arm.
“What did you do to her, you sorcerer ? What curse did you lay on her ?”
I did not wish to answer him, but the scoundrel squeezed my arm the harder, and so I said : “There are plenty of boxers to be found if you yearn for a fight—”
“You wouldn’t understand : I won money from the bout with the wench . . . She’s got firm breasts, she’s a fighter... Folk are fond of her !”
I would have had little luck if I had tried to hit him. But just then Joy the Gravedigger turned up, in his curly wig, he placed his silver knobbed cane between us and spoke to him imploringly : “I told you that you were drunk... Who would bet on you ?”
The man shrank back, like a snail into its shell. And it was only then that I grew afraid. The powdered Gravedigger, stinking of whore, put his gloved hand on my shoulder and showed me to the door.
“Don’t come round here any more... They all revile you. You’re a papist, a spy in the employ of Curie and Prince James’s men... Forgive me, but you look like that just so that you will gain people’s trust and inveigle their secrets... But you haven’t renounced your idols and you bring down misfortune after misfortune on us... And witchcraft !”
On the way to Stepney Graveyard, I understood that those brutal boxing matches had come to be fixed by Joy the Gravedigger. He decided the winners and shared out the money with both those who won the bets and those whose faces were beaten black and blue and whose livers were burst.
But in the icy wind that blew through the room I owed also to him a naked woman was waiting for me, and that woman was Deirdre. She dragged me into the depths as if into a well in whose dark water I could barely discern her face.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth