The Darkness and the Fear
In April 1922, a 50-year-old Liverpool man named William Banks woke up in pitch darkness. At first he thought he was in his bedroom in the middle of the night, until he tried to stretch. He felt hemmed in. He tried to lever himself up by his elbows to get out of bed, when he realized to his horror that he was not in bed at all. Just inches above Mr Banks's head, he felt smooth satin. The same material was to his right and left. He realised why it was so dark. Mr Banks was in a coffin.
He muttered to himself, "Oh God they've made a mistake.'
He tried not to panic at first, then he realised that coffins aren't built with much air space. He shouted for help at the top of his voice and listened, but it was silent. As silent as the grave, he thought. He prayed that he hadn't been buried yet, and he tried desperately to push the lid of the coffin off, but it wouldn't budge. He started to think about being underground. He thought about the five feet of packed-down earth above the coffin lid. Hundreds of pounds of soil pressing down on the coffin. He screamed out again, and felt dizzy with anxiety, then wondered if the oxygen was running out. Soon he'd be choking on the carbon dioxide he was breathing out if he didn't do something, so he tried to calm himself down. He wondered how on earth he had ended up in the coffin. He struggled to remember the events that had led to the premature burial. He recalled drinking at a pub off Edge Lane. He had met a young woman named Blythe, who said she worked as a secretary in North John Street. He and Blythe had had too much to drink, and she and a man had hailed a taxi cab to take William Banks home, but he couldn't remember anything after that.
Time seemed to drag on and on. Banks wasn't sure if it was hours elapsing or minutes, but it felt like an eternity. He kept hoping it was all a nightmare and kept saying Hail Marys. Then he heard a faint pattering sound somewhere. It sounded like a rat.
Imagination got the better of William Banks in the silent, pitch black darkness of the coffin, and he listened to the scurrying noise. He thought about the big red-eyed graveyard rats that were said to tunnel their way through graveyards. Maybe the rats could smell him, and were gnawing their way through the coffin. He imagined their bristly snouts nuzzling him and their sharp yellow teeth.
These horrible thoughts gave Mr Banks a panic attack. Then things got worse. He felt something crawl over his neck. Something long and slithery with a tail stroked over his throat. It squeaked. William Banks almost fainted with fear. A rat was already in the coffin. He felt it crawl over his chest and sniff at his left hand. William Banks yelled out and suddenly he could hear his heart pounding in his ears.
Time dragged by, and it felt as if he had been in the coffin for days. Then suddenly he heard footsteps and voices. Mr Banks screamed out "I'm not dead!"
The coffin shook, and he heard voices mumbling outside. Footsteps walked away, and Banks screamed for the people to come back. They did return minutes later, and he heard them attempting to remove the coffin lid. Banks pushed at the lid and kept saying "Thank God" then he felt the rat run over his face. He felt its claw dig into his cheek.
"Stop pushing the lid." A voice said, then moments later, the lid was wrenched off and a bright light shone down at William Banks. He shot up and gasped for air. Two policemen and a workman stood there in a cellar.
It transpired that someone had just sent a boy into Lawrence Road police station with a letter. The letter said that a man had been left in a coffin in a cellar in an empty house in Edge Lane as part of an April fool prank.
It was surmised that the secretary William Banks had been drinking with had drugged him and that her boyfriend had put Banks in the coffin as a joke. 'Blythe' was traced. Her real name was Alice Kent. She was actually the daughter of a Reverend from the Congregational Church in Marmaduke Street, but she and her boyfriend denied any involvement in the prank, and nothing was ever proved. Where the jokers got the coffin from was a mystery. They'd drilled a hole at the end of the coffin to ventilate it, and the rat in the coffin was found to be tame.
William Banks had terrible nightmares about premature burial for the rest of his life, and when he died years later, he was cremated, according to his wishes.
Copyright Tom Slemen 2001.