All the while he'd been burying Ollie, Bernard felt as though he was being watched. Ollie wouldn't stop talking, pleading not to be buried and Bernard felt exposed, scrutinised by some unseen presence. True, the graveyard was in the middle of the city, but the streets around Chancery Lane were empty on a Saturday evening and it was dark. He did the deed within the lee of the distant streetlamp, well into the graveyard; but the feeling of being watched was still there. Perhaps it was just because Ollie wouldn't shut up.
"Please, Bernard, don't do this," Ollie said, staring up at him from his felt lined box with those great big eyes wobbling beneath the enormous lashes.
Bernard had only managed to get this far because his flat was nearby. It would have been better to have dropped Ollie into the Thames, or gone to waste ground to burn him but Bernard knew he'd never get that far, not with Ollie the way he was.
"I'm begging you Bernard. For the sake of all we've been through together."
Somehow with his little trowel he managed to dig into the ground of an old grave and make a hole to put Ollie in. Then he took one last look at that grinning red-cheeked face, and then he put the lid on the box and began to cover it in dirt.
He thought it was all over but even with the earth still wet on his hands, before he'd reached home, Ollie was talking inside Bernard's head. Burying him hadn't worked.
"It's terrible here," Ollie said, "we all have to do exactly as we're told. 'Sit, Ollie. Stand up, Ollie.' Most of the time we all have to just lie still on the shelf where we've been put. No moving. No talking."
"Shut up, shut up," Bernard said, snarling under his breath even though there was no-one around.
"It's like a lumber room," Ollie went on, "a big work bench and shelves and cabinets with tools and spare parts. The man's here, he's reading from a book now. Great big hefty tome, all nonsense about clocks and gears."
"Shut up, Ollie," Bernard said, "I've buried you. You should be dead."
"And Bernard," Ollie said, ignoring Bernard's remark, "the worse thing is the ticking. The endless bloody ticking. Gets right on your nerves."
"Please," said Bernard, "leave me alone."
He had nearly reached his flat now, was fumbling for his keys.
"You have to come and get me, Bernard," Ollie said.
"Go away, you're dead."
"Then why can you hear my voice?"
"We both know why," Bernard said and he jiggled the key in the lock that opened onto the stairs up to his flat. It was a tiny attic above a notary's office. Bernard had lived there for years, inheriting the place. Ollie had liked it here, a little cubby hole in a part of the city that was almost empty by seven o'clock on weekdays and all day at weekends; Ollie didn't think much of other people.
As Bernard scrubbed his hands in the sink Ollie started up again.
"He's some sort of clock maker or mechanical craftsman, I think." Ollie said, "Knows all the secrets of automata."
"Automata?" Bernard didn't know what he meant. And as much as he wanted Ollie to shut up, he couldn't help but be interested.
"Oh yes," said Ollie, "clockwork men and clockwork girls. Some of them are a bit saucy if you know what I mean. Animals too…"
"But you're not an automata."
"Oh but I will be. That's what he does. He takes your insides out and replaces them with clockwork. With cogs and springs. Oh yes. You've got to get me out of here."
"I'm sorry, Ollie," said Bernard. He slumped into his armchair and put his hands over his eyes. "If I'd known there was an afterlife for someone like you…."
"What? You wouldn't have buried me?"
"And anyway," said Ollie, "why 'afterlife'? Why not call it what it is?"
"No, you dolt," said Ollie, and he actually laughed, Bernard feeling the slight movement of his own jaw as this happened, "this is heaven. This is where we all get eternal life. I just don't like it…" And Ollie's tone changed, fell to almost a whisper. "Bernard, I'm scared. Come and get me Bernard, come back to the graveyard."
Ollie went on. An endless pleading.
Once, long ago, Bernard had been able to shut Ollie up. He'd simply put his hand over his own mouth and refused to ventriloquize. Ollie hadn't liked it of course. But Bernard had been a professional then, able to perform and then afterwards put Ollie in his box, covering his own mouth until Ollie was safely locked away. But over the years Ollie had found ways to keep talking, refusing to go into his box, refusing to stop his endless verbiage.
"Come and get me, Bernard," he was saying now, "come and get me. I don't want to be made into clockwork. I don't want to be an automaton."
Bernard went over to the glass fronted cabinet and got the bottle of vodka, not bothering with a glass. Back in the armchair he wigged a few gulps and then found his Rothmans in his jacket pocket and lit a cigarette.
"Please, Bernard," said Ollie, "I'll be a good boy, I'll behave this time. We were always good together. We could go back on the road, start doing shows again. Just like the old days…"
What was the point? Bernard might as well dig him up because burying him hadn't worked, hadn't shut him up. But it was an interesting thing this afterlife that Ollie had been consigned to.
"Who's there?" Bernard asked.
Ollie broke off from his endless pleading.
"What do you mean 'who's there'?"
"I mean," said Bernard, "are there others like you or are all the rest automata?"
"Of course not," said Ollie, "aren't you listening? They're made into automata. Before that they were dolls, figures, puppets. Anything that's had a semblance of life given them by the likes of you, or a puppeteer or a child's imagination. Whatever. Well they're given proper life here. Clockwork life. Just that I don't want it Bernard. I want to be with you…"
Ollie began his pleading again. Bernard drank some more, gulp after gulp until Ollie's voice became slightly muffled, easier to handle. If Bernard finished the bottle he might even be able to sleep. By the time he woke up it could all be over, Ollie might have been given his clockwork gear and he might not need to bother Bernard anymore.
"Please…" the distant voice went on, fading as Bernard nodded off.
He woke in the armchair to a devastating silence. For a moment he didn't realise what was wrong but then he knew. Ollie was gone. He'd shut up at last. Bernard sprung up and skipped about the room, rubbing his hands together.
"Oh yes," he cried, "oh yes. La da da, da da."
Today would be a day of celebration. He'd do something. Go to a film. Or the theatre. No, not the theatre. Too many memories. Maybe something as simple as a little walk in the park, to hear the birds sing without Ollie constantly commenting.
He stood still and listened. He had to make sure because it was too good to be true; to be free at last.
He went to his bedroom to change. On the wall, in frames, were old show posters: the season at the London Palladium, nights at the Hackney Empire. A younger Bernard posed with Ollie on his knee, both had fixed grins.
Oh yes, they'd had some times but it had all gone too far. At least now, at last, it was over.
He took the pictures off the wall and placed them face down on the dresser. Then he got changed into his best suit, finishing off with his paisley silk cravat. He sat at the end of his bed and looked in the dresser mirror.
Ollie would have said.
But there was no comment now.
On the street it was the same. Bernard headed up to Holborn where there were a few tourists about but there was no Ollie to nudge inside his head with a 'look at those melons on her' or 'he's an ugly sod ain't he?' By the time Bernard got to Bloomsbury he could feel his arms trembling, a tremor that felt as though it could engulf him entirely.
He went into the Museum Tavern and ordered a pint and a vodka chaser, sat at the bar for a moment but didn't like looking at his own reflection in the mirror below the optics. He headed for a side table; the pub was empty at this hour except for some tourists at the other end drinking coffee in a gross cultural misunderstanding of what a pub was for. Ollie would have had a few choice words about that. As he took a few sips of the vodka a man came in the pub and went over to the bar. Bernard stared at the man's almost comically large nose, almost like a beak. 'Bird face, beaky,' Ollie would have said laughing wickedly.
Bernard stared, drank some beer. His hand was still shaking. He looked at it for a moment, at the little ripple his shaking made across the surface of the beer.
"Hey," a voice called, "you're Bernard Slate."
It was the beak-faced man, about his own age, just another Sunday drinker. But he had recognised Bernard. Bernard was nodding his head as the man came over.
"I saw you at the Dominion," the man said, "and on the tele' of course. You were great. Couldn't see your lips move at all. And that puppet, what was he called?"
The man loomed over the table bearing down on Bernard. There was sweat on Bernard's forehead. If Ollie had been here he would have told the bloke that the technical term was ventriloquist's figure, not dummy, and certainly not puppet; probably Ollie would have told beak face to 'eff off.
"Ollie," Bernard said, "he was called Ollie."
"You still got him? You still doing the old act?"
"No," said Bernard, "he's dead."
For a moment the man looked at him dumbly, then erupted into laughter.
"Oh, very good," he said, "very funny."
Bernard took a long mouthful of beer then downed the vodka in a few sharp gulps.