Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
A Fine Body Of Marching Men by Ashok Ferrey
I could see the old woman through the frosted glass fiddling with the locks on the door. She rattled the
chains, she unbolted the bolts. With a sudden yank she opened the door.
“You’re too late,” she said to me. “Somebody’s already bought the house. They came last
“I came last Thursday,” I said. “I’m the one who’s buying your house.”
“I suppose you’d better have a look at it,” she said resignedly, “now that you’re here. You never
know, the other fellow might change his mind.”
She propelled me into the hallway with its tessellated Victorian tiles, its varnished tobacco-
“Mind you,” she said confidentially, “I never liked the looks of him. You seem so much nicer.”
All summer long the madness followed me around. And now at the tail end, in those dog days of
August, it was the worst. The air smelt like the inside of an ashtray, or the breath of someone you
happened to wake up next to, the morning after: used, spent, corrupt. But it didn’t take me long to
realise it wasn’t the madness that was following me around after all. It was death.
The house had been broken into so many times there was hardly anything left of the front door
frame. After I moved in, it was no different. There were tower blocks to the west, on the Wandsworth
Road. They said there were thieves and drug addicts in them. They said, they said. I knew better.
Thieves are like water. Once they find a way into your house they can never unlearn that knowledge. It’s
like water coming through concrete. Once it finds a way it will not stop.
The first night I was there the angle grinder was stolen. Then the nine-inch skill saw. Then they
got bolder and sillier. They took fifty foot of skirting that was lying in the hallway. And Barry’s
overalls. (If only they knew what Barry got up to in those overalls every day.) And all the while I slept
upstairs, in the topmost room of the house, with a length of cast iron gas-pipe wedged against the door.
Every night I imagined I heard them rooting about down below, and I was sure now it wasn’t thieves. It
was death, snuffling about, looking for its kill.
Naturally, it began to tell on my nerves. I knew what was necessary: a good old-fashioned Sri
Lankan watchman, who snored through the night but somehow kept you safe by his very presence. But
this wasn’t Sri Lanka. This was a building site in South London. So what I got instead was Michael.
Those days I employed three brothers to do the electrical work, Ed and Jim and Pat Mulcahy.
Don’t ask me why you needed three electricians to do the work of one, but they weren’t the brightest
sparks in the fuse box, if you know what I mean. They took themselves seriously, the Mulcahys, and you
wouldn’t think to hear them speak that they came from deepest darkest Connemara in the west of
Ireland, where the landscape is wild and inhospitable, and the people no better. In contrast, the Mulcahys
were terribly tame. They had worked at Buckingham Palace, something they never let you forget.
“We know a bloke who’ll watch over the house for you,” they said. “Big bloke. Bit of a bruiser,
but he’ll do the job.”
Michael arrived that evening, long after everyone had left. I’d just gone out to get a
packet of razor blades (and other unmentionables) because I had a hot date that night. A sure thing.
Michael was at the door when I got back, tall and grizzled and rough. Ideal watchman material.
I took him round.
“All you have to do,” I said showing him the front room, “is to kip down in here every night.”
Michael raised his head, like a horse sniffing out the clover. “Are you sure there’s no one else
here?” he asked. “I thought I heard something.”
I very nearly told him then not to bother about the job. One psychic in the house was bad enough. Two was plain excessive.
“I can’t start tonight,” he said. “I have commitments. I’ll be here from tomorrow.”
“What’s your last name?” I asked curiously.
“Mulcahy,” he replied. “I’m the eldest brother.”
The following morning I was almost late for work, squeaking in just before the others arrived.
The three-stage ladder that had been lying on the staircase was gone. And down in the cellar where I
had just begun work on the drains, right next to my pick, was a large brown turd, perfectly round and
roundly perfect. They had been down there while I showed Michael round. It didn’t bear thinking about:
you don’t stand a chance in a cellar only six foot wide and six foot high, with someone swinging a
pickaxe at you. But I hadn’t gone down there. I was still alive. Suddenly I felt all light-headed, as if I’d
just won a race. I began to sing.
“You ought to be on the radio,” the Mulcahys said gloomily. “Because then we could turn it off.”
It was interesting to compare Michael to his brothers. He was the real thing, genuine and
unadorned. He spoke Gaelic.
“So can they,” he muttered darkly, “that shower of bastards. Though you wouldn’t think, would
you, to hear their poncey English accents now?”
Michael was the one who had refused to change even after twenty years in England, to conform.
All the others could talk about was Buckinham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. A fine body of
marching men, they agreed with each other. Michael refused to go anywhere near Buckingham Palace
and they never forgave him for that. To them he was the black sheep of the family. The big black Irish
sheep from Connemara..
The weather turned and it got sharp and there was a purplish tinge in the air, morning and evening.
Down in the cellar it was biting cold. My pickaxe struck a live electric cable and I found myself thrown
back a couple of feet; and I laughed, because I had cheated death yet again. Really, I was unkillable that
Every night Michael rolled in after a quick few at the pub. He stood at the bottom of the staircase
swaying gently. Then he began to abuse me in Gaelic. I didn’t mind, really I didn’t. I’m all for
proficiency in the dead languages. Then he crashed to the floor like a giant oak felled by a bolt of
lightning. Strangely, he never got hurt.
By now I had begun employing Michael for small daytime jobs on site. He was digging a manhole
out front when the West Indian woman swept past, in her smart black skirt and hat. She reached our
skip, and assumed a graceful backward-sloping stance, as if she were curtseying to the Queen. (The
Mulcahys would have approved.) A thin stream of pee issued forth, miraculously clear of skirt and shoe.
Michael wolf-whistled and the woman straightened up sharply, noticing for the first time his head
poking out of the manhole.
“You underground?” she asked. “Me husband underground too.”
“Does he work for London Transport, then?”
“Me buried him today. Me just back from the cemetery.”
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any colder it did. Every year for Christmas I went home
to Sri Lanka, sometimes for just five days. Every year the Mulcahys had a big family do for Christmas,
which they couldn’t somehow stop telling you about, months beforehand.
“Will Michael be joining you?” I asked curiously.
They looked mildly bemused at such an absurd question.
“He’ll only get drunk and upset the wives,” they said.
The drains were not finished. I worked extra hours, digging in the back room long after the
others had gone to their homes and Michael to the pub. There were high banks of earth either side, like
walls either side of a road, and it was so cold I could no longer feel my hands though I kept swinging
the pick into the frozen ground. And all of a sudden I felt this thing settle gently upon me, as if the earth
itself had come to life and was pressing down, soft and damp and unyielding, and I found I couldn’t
breathe. I knew then I was in the presence of death: unrequited, unforgiving; ceaselessly famished. And
I felt immeasurably, inconsolably sad at the emptiness of this world, and even more at the emptiness
that must lie beyond. I struggled out of the trench.
It was warmer outside the house than in. A soft powdery rain was falling. I must have walked
up and down those bleak, desolate South London streets for at least an hour before I was brave enough
to go back in.
In Sri Lanka they say you’re safe from evil if you cross water, because evil can’t follow. I did just that,
flying home on Christmas eve, having given Michael a hundred pound bonus and the week off.
“Spend it wisely,” I said.
“I’ll be home getting pissed,” he replied cheerily.
The Mulcahys went to collect Michael for work the day I got back, early in the New Year. They had to
break the door down. He was sitting in a chair by the stove in his council flat, dead. And you know
what? The stove was still on.
He had been arrested on Christmas day for being drunk and disorderly, and spent the night in
the lock-up. He was released next day unharmed. At least that was the official story.
I went out and bought myself a thin black knitted-wool tie for the funeral. I still wear it
sometimes, when the occasion demands. Afterwards we all trooped over to Ed Mulcahy’s for the wake.
There was potato salad and Branston pickle and thin slices of ham arranged prettily on a glass plate.
“You can’t avoid death,” said Mrs Ed, a woman with iron grey hair and a heart of stone.
“When it calls you, you just have to go.” She devoured a piece of ham.
“Yes,” I said softly, “but they got the wrong man.”
I don’t think she heard. She started telling me then about having been to see the Changing of
the Guard only the day before. A fine body of marching men, didn’t I think?