A Crown of Lights
Goddess worshippers… are particularly concerned with creativity, intuition, compassion, beauty and cooperation. They see nature as the outward and visible expression of the divine, through which the goddess may be contacted. They have therefore more to do with ecology and conservationism than with orgies and are often gentle worshippers of the good in nature.
The Local People
Betty was determined to keep the lid on the cauldron for as long as possible, which might just — the way she’d been feeling lately — mean for ever.
The arrival of the old box was no help.
It turned up on the back step at St Michael’s only a few days after they had moved into the farmhouse and a week after Betty turned twenty-seven. It wasn’t her kind of present. It seemed like a direct threat — or at least confirmation that their new life was unlikely to be the idyll that Robin expected.
For Betty, the first inkling of this — if you could call such experiences inklings — had already occurred only minutes before on that same weird evening.
The new year had been blown in, battered and dripping, and the wind and the rain still bullied the hills. Tonight, though, it looked like being clean and still and iron-hard with frost, and Robin had persuaded Betty to come with him to the top of the church tower — their church tower — to witness the brilliant winter sunset.
This was the first time she’d been up there, and the first time she’d ever been into the church out of daylight hours. It wasn’t yet five p.m. but evening still came early to the Radnor Valley in late January — the dark side of Candlemas — and Robin was leaning over the cracked parapet to watch the final bloodrush over an otherwise unblemished sky.
‘I guess what we oughta do,’ he murmured playfully, ‘is shake down that old moon.’
The Forest was laid out before them: darkening storybook hills, bearded with bracken. There were few trees — misleadingly, it had been named forest in the medieval sense of a place for hunting. Betty wondered how much of that still went on: the lamping of hares, the baiting of badgers. Maybe some night Robin would be standing up here and would see a party of silent men with guns and dogs. And then the shit would fly.
‘So, uh, how would you…’ Robin straightened up, slapping moss from his hands, ‘… how would you feel about that?’
‘You mean now, don’t you?’ With both hands, Betty pushed back her wild, blonde hair. She backed away from the edge, which had got her thinking about the death of Major Wilshire. Down below, about six feet out from the base of the tower, two flat tombstones had been exposed beneath a bush blasted back by the gales. That was probably where he’d fallen. She shivered. ‘You actually mean out here?’
He shrugged. ‘Why not?’ He wore his orange fleece and his ludicrous flattened fez-thing with tiny mirrors around the side. The way Betty saw it, Robin Thorogood, having grown up in America, had yet to develop a functioning sense of the absurd.
‘Why not?’ Betty didn’t remember exactly when ‘shaking down the moon’ had become his personal euphemism for sex, but she didn’t altogether care for the term. ‘Because this is, you know, January?’
‘We could bring up blankets.’ Robin did his abandoned puppy face.
Which no longer worked on Betty. ‘Mother of God, I bet it’s not even safe! Look at the floor… the walls! We wind up down in the bloody belfry, in a cloud of plaster dust, with multiple fractures, what happens then?’
‘Aw, come on. It’s been here for six… eight centuries. Just because-’
‘And probably falling apart for most of the last hundred years!’
Betty gripped one of the battlements, then let go quickly in alarm, convinced for a second that a lump of mortar, or whatever medieval mixture those old masons used, was actually moving underneath it. The entire tower could be crumbling, for all they knew; their funds had run to only a cursory survey by a local bloke who’d said, ‘Oh, just make sure it doesn’t fall down on anybody, and you’ll be all right.’ They ought to bring in a reliable builder to give the place a going-over before they contemplated even having a picnic up here. If they could ever afford a builder, which seemed unlikely.
Robin stood warrior-like, with his back to the fallen sun, and she knew that in his mind he was wearing animal skins and there was a short, thick blade at his hip. Very like the figure dominating his painting-in-progress: Lord Madoc the intergalactic Celt, hero of Kirk Blackmore’s Sword of Twilight. Seven hundred pages of total bollocks, but it was misty cover designs for the likes of Blackmore that were going to have to meet the mortgage premiums until Betty dared come out locally as a herbalist and healer, or whatever was socially acceptable.
‘Just I had a sensation of what it would be like afterwards,’ the great visionary artist burbled on, unabashed, ‘lying here on our backs, watching the swirl of the cosmos, from our own-’
‘Whereas I’m getting a real sensation of watching the swirl of tomato soup with croutons.’ Betty moved to the steps, took hold of the oily rope, feeling about with a trainered foot for the top step. ‘Come on. We’ll have years to do all that.’
Her words lingered in a void as hollow as these ruins. Betty could not lose the feeling that this time next year they would not even be here.
‘You know your trouble?’ Robin suddenly yelled. ‘You’re becoming sensible before your time.’
‘What?’ She spun at him, though knowing that he’d spoken without thinking… that it was just petulance… that she should let it go.
‘Well…’ He looked uneasy. ‘You know…’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘OK, OK…’ Making placatory patting gestures with his hands, too late. ‘Wrong word, maybe.’
‘No, you’ve said it now. In normal life we’re not supposed to be sensible because we’re living the fantasy. Like we’re really not supposed to bother about everyday stuff like falling to our deaths down these bloody crumbling steps, because-’
‘There’s a guy over there,’ Robin said. ‘In the field down by the creek.’
‘It’s a brook.’ Betty paused on the top step.
‘He’s looking up.’ Robin moved back to the rim of the tower. ‘He’s carrying something.’
‘A spear of light, perhaps?’ Betty said sarcastically. ‘A glowing trident?’
‘A bag, I think. A carrier bag. No, he’s not in the field. I believe he’s on the footway.’
‘Which, of course, is a public footpath — which makes him entitled to be there.’
‘Naw, he’s checking us out.’ The sunset made unearthly jewels out of the tiny round mirrors on Robin’s fez. ‘Hey!’ he shouted down. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Stop it!’ Sometimes Betty felt she was a lot older than Robin, instead of two years younger. Whole lifetimes older.
‘He went away.’
‘Of course he did. He went home to warm his bum by a roaring fire of dry, seasoned hardwood logs.’
‘You’re gonna throw that one at me all night, I can tell.’
‘Probably. While we’re sitting with our coats on in front of a lukewarm stove full of sizzling green pine.’
‘Yeah, yeah, the wood guy ripped me off. He won’t do it again.’
‘Dead right he won’t. First rule of country living: show them, from the very start, that you’re not an urban innocent.’
Robin followed her down the narrow, broken stone steps. ‘While being careful not to antagonize them, right?’
Betty stopped on the spiral, looked back up over her shoulder. It was too dark to see his face.
‘Sooner or later,’ she said, ‘there is going to be antagonism — from some of them at least. It’s a phase we’re going to have to go through and come out the other side with some kind of mutual respect. This is not Islington. This is not even Shrewsbury. In Radnorshire, the wheels of change would grind exceeding slow, if they’d ever got around to inventing the wheel.’
‘So what you’re saying, making converts could take time?’
‘We won’t live that long. Tolerance is what we aspire to: the ultimate prize.’
‘Jeez, you’re soooo- Oh, shit-’
Betty whirled round. He’d stumbled on a loose piece of masonry, was hanging on to the hand-rope.
‘Third-degree rope burn, is all. I imagine the flesh will grow back within only weeks.’
She thought of Major Wilshire again and felt unsettled.
‘I was born just twenty miles from here,’ she said soberly. ‘People don’t change much in rural areas. I don’t want to cause offence, and I don’t think we need to.’
‘It’s not the same. I’m not from yere, as they say.’ Betty stepped out of the tower doorway and onto the frozen mud of what she supposed had once been the chancel. ‘My parents just happened to be working here when I was born. They were from Off. I am, essentially, from Off.’
‘That’s what they say. It’s their word. If you’re an immigrant you’re “from Off”. I’d forgotten that. I was not quite eleven when we left there. And then we were in Yorkshire, and Yorkshire flattens all the traces.’
Curtains of cold red light hung from the heavens into the roofless nave. When Robin emerged from the tower entrance, she took his cold hand in her even colder ones.
‘Sorry to be a frigid bitch. It’s been a heavy, heavy day.’
The church was mournful around her. It was like a huge, blackened sheep skeleton, with its ribs opened out. Incongruously, it actually came with the house. Robin had been ecstatic. For him, it had been the deciding factor.
Betty let go of Robin’s hand. She was now facing where the altar must have been — the English side. And it was here, on this frigid January evening, that she had the flash.
A shivering sense of someone at prayer — a man in a long black garment, stained. His face unshaven, glowing with sweat and an unambiguous vivid fear. He’d discovered or identified or been told something he couldn’t live with. In an instant, Betty felt she was suffocating in a miasma of body odour and anguish.
No! She hauled in a cold breath, pulling off her woollen hat, shaking out her sheaf of blonde hair. Go away. Don’t want you.
Cold. Damp. Nothing else. Shook herself like a wet dog. Gone.
This was how it happened. Always without warning, rarely even a change in the temperature.
‘And it’s not officially a church any more,’ Robin was reminding her — he hadn’t, of course, sensed a thing. ‘So this is not about causing offence. Long as we don’t knock it down, we can do what we like here. This is so cool. We get to reclaim an old, pagan sacred place!’
And Betty thought in cold dismay, What kind of sacred is this? But what she actually said, surprised at her own calmness, was, ‘I just think we have to take it slowly. I know the place is decommissioned, but there’re bound to be local people whose families worshipped here for centuries. And whose grandparents got married here and… and buried, of course.’
There were still about a dozen gravestones and tombs visible around the church and, although all the remains were supposed to have been taken away and reinterred after the diocese dumped the building itself, Betty knew that when they started to garden here they’d inevitably unearth bones.
‘And maybe,’ Robin said slyly, ‘just maybe… there are people whose distant ancestors worshipped here before there was a Christian church.’
‘You’re pushing it there.’
‘I like pushing it.’
‘Yeah,’ Betty agreed bitterly.
They moved out of the ruined church and across the winterhard field and then over the yard to the back of the house. She’d left a light on in the hall. It was the only light they could see anywhere — although if they walked around to the front garden, they would find the meagre twinklings of the village of Old Hindwell dotted throughout the high, bare hedge.
She could hear the rushing of the Hindwell Brook, which almost islanded this place when, like now, it was swollen. There’d been weeks of hard rain, while they’d been making regular trips back and forth from their Shrewsbury flat in Robin’s cousin’s van, bringing all the books and stuff and wondering if they were doing the right thing.
Or at least Betty had. Robin had been obsessed from the moment he saw the ruined church and the old yew trees around it in a vague circle and the mighty Burfa Camp in the background and the enigmatic Four Stones less than a couple of miles away. And when he’d heard of the recent archaeological discoveries — the indications of a ritual palisade believed to be the second largest of its kind in Europe — it had blown him clean away. From then on, he needed to live here.
‘There you go.’ He bent down to the back doorstep. ‘What’d I tell ya?’ He lifted up something whitish.
‘It is a carrier bag — Tesco, looks like. The individual by the river had one with him. I’m guessing this is it.’
‘He left it on our step?’
‘House-warming present, maybe? It’s kinda heavy.’
‘Put it down,’ Betty said quietly.
‘I’m serious. Put it back on the step, and go inside, put on the lights.’
‘Jeeeeeeez!’ Robin tossed back his head and howled at the newborn moon. ‘I do not understand you! One minute I’m over reacting — which, OK, I do, I overreact sometimes, I confess — and this is some harmless old guy making his weary way home to his humble fireside… and the next, he’s like dumping ten pounds of Semtex or some shit-’
‘Just put it down, Robin.’
Exasperated, Robin let the bag fall. It clumped solidly on the stone. Robin unlocked the back door.
Betty waited for him to enter first. She wouldn’t touch the bag.
It was knotted at the top. She watched Robin wrench it open. A sheet of folded notepaper fell out. He spread it out on the table and she read the type over his shoulder.
Dear Mr and Mrs Thorogood,
In the course of renovation work by the previous occupants of your house, this receptacle was found in a cavity in the wall beside the fireplace. The previous occupants preferred not to keep it and gave it away. It has been suggested you may wish to restore it to its proper place.
With all good wishes,
The Local People
‘ “The Local People”?’
Robin let the typewritten note flutter to the tabletop. ‘All of them? The entire population of Old Hindwell got together to present the newcomers with a wooden box with…’ He lifted the hinged lid, ‘… some paper in it.’
The box was of oak. It didn’t look all that old. Maybe a century, Betty thought. It was the size of a pencil box she’d had as a kid — narrow, coffin-shaped. You could probably fit it in the space left by a single extracted brick.
She was glad there was only paper in there, not… well, bones or something. She’d never seriously thought of Semtex, only bones. Why would she think that? She found she was shivering slightly, so kept her red ski jacket on.
Robin was excited, naturally: a mysterious wooden box left by a shadowy stranger, a cryptic note… major, major turn-on for him. She knew that within the next hour or so he’d have found the original hiding place of that box, if he had to pull the entire fireplace to pieces. He’d taken off his fleece and his mirrored fez. The warrior on the battlements had been replaced by the big schoolboy innocent.
He flicked on all the kitchen lights — just dangling bulbs, as yet, which made the room look even starker than in daylight. They hadn’t done anything with this room so far. There was a Belfast sink and a cranky old Rayburn and, under the window, their pine dining table and chairs from the flat. The table was much too small for this kitchen; up against the wall, under a window full of the day’s end, it looked like… well, an altar. For which this was not the correct place — and anyway, Betty was not yet sure she wanted an altar in the house. Part of the reason for finding a rural hideaway was to consider her own future, which — soon she’d have to confess to Robin — might not involve the Craft.
‘The paper looks old,’ Robin said. ‘Well… the ink went brown.’
‘Gosh, Rob, that must date it back to… oh, arguably pre-1980.’
He gave her one of those looks which said: Why have you no basic romance in you any more?
Which wasn’t true. She simply felt you should distinguish between true insight and passing impressions, between fleeting sensations and real feelings.
The basic feeling she had — especially since her sense of the praying man in the church — was one of severe unease. She would rather the box had not been delivered. She wished she didn’t have to know what was inside it.
Robin put the paper, still folded, on the table and just looked at it, not touching. Experiencing the moment, the hereness, the nowness.
And the disapproval of his lady.
All right, he’d happily concede that he loved all of this: the textures of twilight, those cuspy, numinous nearnesses. He’d agree that he didn’t like things to be over-bright and clear cut; that he wanted a foot in two countries — to feel obliquely linked to the old worlds.
And what was so wrong with that? He looked at the wild and golden lady who should be Rhiannon or Artemis or Titania but insisted on being called the ultimately prosaic Betty (this perverse need to appear ordinary). She knew what he needed — that he didn’t want too many mysteries explained, didn’t care to know precisely what ghosts were. Nor did he want the parallel world of faerie all mapped out like the London Underground. It was the gossamer trappings and wrappings that had given him a profession and a good living. He was Robin Thorogood: illustrator, seducer of souls, guardian of the softly lit doorways.
The box, then… Well, sure, the box had been more interesting unopened. Unless the paper inside was a treasure map.
He pushed it towards Betty. ‘You wanna check this out?’
She shook her head. She wouldn’t go near it. Robin rolled his eyes and picked up the paper. It fell open like a fan.
‘Well, it’s handwritten.’ He spread it flat on the tabletop.
‘Don’t count on it,’ Betty said. ‘You can fake all kinds of stuff with computers and scanners and paintboxes. You do it all the time.’
‘OK, so it’s a scam. Kirk Blackmore rigged it.’
‘If it was Kirk Blackmore,’ Betty said, ‘the box would have ludicrous runes carved all over it and when you opened it, there’d be clouds of dry ice.’
‘I guess. Oh no.’
‘It’s some goddamn religious crap. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of those chain letters?’
‘OK, let me see.’ Betty came round and peered reluctantly at the browned ink. ‘ “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, amen, amen, amen…” Amen three times.’
‘Hmmm.’ Betty read on in silence, not touching the paper. She was standing directly under one of the dangling light-bulbs, so her hair was like a winter harvest. Robin loved that her hair seemed to have life of its own.
When she stepped away, she swallowed.
He said hoarsely, ‘What?’
She shook her head and walked away toward the rumbling old Rayburn stove.
Robin bent over the document. Some of it was in Latin, which he couldn’t understand. But there was a row of symbols, which excited him at once.
Underneath, the words in English began. Some of them he couldn’t figure out. The meaning, however, was plain.
In the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost Amen Amen Amen…
O Lord, Jesus Christ Saviour Salvator I beseech the salvation of all who dwell within from witchcraft and from the power of all evil men or women or spirits or wizards or hardness of heart Amen Amen Amen… Dei nunce… Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen.
By Jehovah, Jehovah and by the Ineffable Names 17317… Lord Jehovah… and so by the virtue of these Names Holy Names may all grief and dolor and all diseases depart from the dwellers herein and their cows and their horses and their sheep and their pigs and poultry without any molestation. By the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Amen Amen… Elohim… Emmanuel…
Finally my brethren be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might that we may overcome all witches spells and Inchantment or the power of Satan. Lord Jesus deliver them this day — April, 1852.
Robin sat down. He tried to smile, for Betty’s sake and because, in one way, it was just so ironic.
But he couldn’t manage a smile; he’d have to work on that. Because this was a joke, wasn’t it? It could actually be from Kirk Blackmore or one of the other authors, or Al Delaney, the art director at Talisman. They all knew he was moving house, and the new address: St Michael’s Farm, Old Hindwell, Radnorshire.
But this hadn’t arrived in the mail. And also, as Betty had pointed out, if it had been from any of those guys it would have been a whole lot more extreme — creepier, more Gothic, less homespun. And dated much further back than 1852.
No, it was more likely to be from those it said it was from.
The Local People — whatever that meant.
Truth was they hadn’t yet encountered any local local people, outside of the wood guy and Greg Starkey, the London-born landlord at the pub where they used to lunch when they were bringing stuff to the farm, and whose wife had come on to Robin one time.
Betty had her back to the Rayburn for warmth and comfort. Robin moved over to join her. He also, for that moment, felt isolated and exposed.
‘I don’t get this,’ he said. ‘How could anyone here possibly know about us?’
There were four of them in the hospital cubicle: Gomer and Minnie, and Merrily Watkins… and death.
Death with a small ‘d’. No angel tonight.
Merrily was anguished and furious at the suddenness of this occurrence, and the timing — Gomer and Minnie’s wedding anniversary, their sixth.
Cheap, black joke. Unworthy of You.
‘Indigestion…’ Gomer was squeezing his flat cap with both hands, as if wringing out a wet sponge, and staring in disbelief at the tubes and the monitor with that ominous wavy white line from a thousand overstressed hospital dramas. ‘It’s just indigestion, her says. Like, if she said it enough times that’s what it’d be, see? Always works, my Min reckons. You tells the old body what’s wrong, you don’t take no shit — pardon me, vicar.’
The grey-curtained cubicle was attached to Intensive Care. Minnie’s eyes were closed, her breathing hollow and somehow detached. Merrily had heard breathing like this before, and it made her mouth go dry with trepidation.
It’s rather a bad one, the ward sister had murmured. You need to prepare him.
‘Let’s go for a walk.’ Merrily plucked at the sleeve of Gomer’s multi-patched tweed jacket.
She thought he glanced at her reproachfully as they left the room — as though she had the power to intercede with God, call in a favour. And then, from out in the main ward, he looked back once at Minnie, and his expression made Merrily blink and turn away.
Gomer and Minnie: sixty-somethings when they got married, the Midlands widow and the little, wild Welsh-borderer. It was love, though Gomer would never have used the word. Equally, he’d never have given up the single life for mere companionship — he could get that from his JCB and his bulldozer.
He and Merrily walked out of the old county hospital and past the building site for a big new one — a mad place to put it, everyone was saying; there’d be next to no parking space except for consultants and administrators; even the nurses would have to hike all the way to the multi-storey at night. In pairs, presumably, with bricks in their bags.
Merrily felt angry at the crassness of everybody: the health authority and its inadequate bed quota, the city planners who seemed bent on gridlocking Hereford by 2005 — and God, for letting Minnie Parry succumb to a severe heart attack during the late afternoon of her sixth wedding anniversary.
It was probably the first time Gomer had ever phoned Merrily — their bungalow being only a few minutes’ walk away. It had happened less than two hours ago, while Merrily was bending to light the fire in the vicarage sitting room, expecting Jane home soon. Gomer had already sent for an ambulance.
When Merrily arrived, Minnie was seated on the edge of the sofa, pale and sweating and breathless. Yow mustn’t… go bothering about me, my duck, I’ve been through… worse than this. The TV guide lay next to her on a cushion. An iced sponge cake sat on a coffee table in front of the open fire. The fire was roaring with life. Two cups of tea had gone cold.
Merrily bit her lip, pushing her knuckles hard into the pockets of her coat — Jane’s old school duffel, snatched from the newel post as Merrily was rushing out of the house.
They now crossed the bus station towards Commercial Road, where shops were closing for the night and most of the sky was a deep, blackening rust. Gomer’s little round glasses were frantic with city light. He was urgently reminiscing, throwing up a wall of vivid memories against the encroaching dark — telling Merrily about the night he’d first courted Minnie while they were crunching through fields and woodland in his big JCB. Merrily wondered if he was fantasizing, because it was surely Minnie who’d forced Gomer’s retirement from the plant hire business; she hated those diggers.
‘… a few spare pounds on her, sure to be. Had the ole warning from the doc about that bloody collateral. But everybody gets that, ennit?’
Gomer shuffled, panting, to a stop at the zebra crossing in Commercial Road. Merrily smiled faintly. ‘Cholesterol. Yes, everybody gets that.’
Gomer snatched off his cap. His hair was standing up like a small white lavatory brush.
‘Her’s gonner die! Her’s gonner bloody well snuff it on me!’
‘Gomer, let’s just keep praying.’
How trite did that sound? Merrily closed her eyes for a second and prayed also for credible words of comfort.
In the window of a nearby electrical shop, all the lights went out.
‘Ar,’ said Gomer dismally.
Through the hole-in-its-silencer roar of Eirion’s departing car came the sound of the phone. Jane danced into Mum’s grim scullery-office.
The light in here was meagre and cold, and a leafless climbing rose scraped at the small window like fingernails. But Jane was smiling, warm and light inside and, like, up there. Up there with the broken weathercock on the church steeple.
She had to sit down, a quivering in her chest. She remembered a tarot reader, called Angela, who had said to her, You will have two serious lovers before the age of twenty.
As she put out a hand for the phone, it stopped ringing. If Mum had gone out, why wasn’t the answering machine on? Where was Mum? Jane switched on the desk lamp, to reveal a paperback New Testament beside a newspaper cutting about the rural drug trade. The sermon pad had scribbles and blobs and desperate doodles. But there was no note for her.
Jane shrugged then sat at the desk and conjured up Eirion. Who wasn’t conventionally good-looking. Well, actually, he wasn’t good-looking at all, in some lights, and kind of stocky. And yet… OK, it was the smile. You could get away with a lot if you had a good smile, but it was important to ration it. Bring it out too often and it became like totally inane and after a while it stopped reaching the eyes, which showed insincerity. Jane sat and replayed Eirion’s smile in slow motion; it was a good one, it always started in the eyes.
Eirion? The name remained a problem. Basically, too much like Irene. Didn’t the Welsh have some totally stupid names for men? Dilwyn — that was another. Welsh women’s names, on the other hand, were cool: Angharad, Sian, Rhiannon.
He was certainly trying hard, though. Like, no way had he ‘just happened to be passing’ Jane’s school at chucking-out time. He’d obviously slipped away early from the Cathedral School in Hereford — through some kind of upper-sixth privilege — and raced his ancient heap nine or ten miles to Moorfield High before the buses got in. Claiming he’d had to deliver an aunt’s birthday present, and Ledwardine was on his way home. Total bullshit.
And the journey to Ledwardine… Eirion had really spun that out. Having to go slow, he said, because he didn’t want the hole in his exhaust to get any bigger. In the end, the bus would’ve been quicker.
But then, as Jane was climbing out of his car outside the vicarage, he’d mumbled, ‘Maybe I could call you sometime?’
Which, OK, Jane Austen could have scripted better.
‘Yeah, OK,’ she’d said, cool, understated. Managing to control the burgeoning grin until she’d made it almost to the side door of the vicarage and Eirion was driving away on his manky silencer.
The phone went again. Mum? Had to be. Jane grabbed at it.
‘Ledwardine Vicarage, how may we help you? If you wish to book a wedding, press three. To pledge a ten-thousand-pound donation to the steeple fund, press six.’
‘Is that the Reverend Watkins?’
Woman’s voice, and not local. Not Sophie at the office. And not Mum being smart. Uh-oh.
‘I’m afraid she’s not available right now,’ Jane said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘When will she be available?’
The woman sounding a touch querulous, but nothing threatening: there was this deadly MOR computer music in the background, plus non-ecclesiastical office noise. Ten to one, some time-wasting double-glazing crap, or maybe the Church Times looking for next week’s Page Three Clerical Temptress for dirty old canons to pin up in their vestries.
‘I should try her secretary at the Bishpal tomorrow,’ Jane said.
‘The Bishop’s Palace, in Hereford. If you ask for Sophie Hill…’
Most of the time it was a question of protecting Mum from herself. If you were a male vicar you could safely do lofty and remote — part of the tradition. But an uncooperative female priest was considered a snotty bitch.
‘Look.’ A bit ratty now. ‘It is important.’
‘Also important she doesn’t die of some stress-related condition. I mean, like, important for me. Don’t imagine you’d have to go off and live with your right-wing grandmother in Cheltenham. Who are you, anyway?’
Could almost hear the woman counting one… two… three… through gritted teeth.
‘My name’s Tania Beauman, from the Livenight television programme in Birmingham.’
Oh, hey! ‘Seriously?’
‘Seriously,’ Tania Beauman said grimly.
Jane was, like, horribly impressed. Jane had seen Livenight four times. Livenight was such total crap and below the intelligence threshold of a cockroach, but compulsive viewing, oh yeah.
‘Livenight?’ Jane said.
‘Where you have the wife in the middle and the husband on one side and the toyboy lover on the other, and about three minutes to midnight one finally gets stirred up enough to call the other one a motherfucker, and then fights are breaking out in the audience, and the presenter looks really shocked although you know he’s secretly delighted because it’ll all be in the Sun again. That Livenight?’
‘Yes,’ Tania said tightly.
‘You want her on the programme?’
‘Yes, and as it involves next week’s programme we don’t have an awful lot of time to play with. Is she in?’
‘No, but I’m Merrily Watkins’s personal assistant, and I have to warn you she doesn’t like to talk about the other stuff. Which is what this is about, right? The Rev. Spooky Watkins, from Deliverance?’
Tania didn’t reply.
‘I could do it, of course, if the money was OK. I know all her secrets. I’d be very good, and controversial. I’ll call anyone a motherfucker.’
‘Thank you very much,’ Tania said drily. ‘We will bear you in mind, when you turn twelve.’
‘Just tell her I called. Have a good night.’
Jane grinned. That was all Eirion’s fault. Making her feel cool.
In the silence of the scullery, the phone went again.
‘Mum. Hey, guess wh-’
‘Listen, flower,’ Mum said, ‘I’ve got bad news.’
Loved Like That
‘So, like… how long will you be?’
‘I just don’t know, flower. We came here in Gomer’s Land Rover. It was all a bit of a rush.’
‘She was never ill, was she?’ Jane said. ‘Like really never.’ The kid’s voice was suddenly high and hoarse. ‘You can’t count on anything, can you? Not even you.’
Merrily sighed. Everybody thought she could pull strings. Gomer and Minnie’s bungalow had become like the kid’s second home in the village, Minnie the closest she’d ever had to an adopted granny.
‘Flower, I’ll have to go. I’m on the pay phone in the corridor, and I’ve no more change. As soon as I get to know something…’
‘She’s not even all that old. I mean, sixty-something… what’s that? Nobody these days-’
Jane broke off. Remembering, perhaps, how young her own father had been when his life was sliced off on the motorway that night. But that was different. His girlfriend was in the car, too, and the hand of fate was involved there, in Jane’s view.
‘Minnie’s strong. She’ll fight it,’ Merrily said.
‘She isn’t going to win, though, is she? I can tell by your voice. Where’s Gomer?’
‘Gone back in, to be with her.’
‘How’s he taking it?’
‘Well, you know Gomer. You wouldn’t want him prowling around in your sickroom.’
Gomer, in retirement, groomed the churchyard, cleared the ditches, looked out for Merrily when Uncle Ted was doing devious, senior-churchwarden things behind her back. And dreamed of the old days — the great, rampaging days of Gomer Parry Plant Hire.
‘He’ll just smash the place up or something, if they let her die,’ Jane concurred bleakly.
Meaning she herself would like to smash something up, possibly the church.
How many hours had they been here? Hospitals engendered their own time zones. Merrily hung up the phone and turned back into the ill-lit passage, teeming now: visiting hours. Once, she’d had a dream of purgatory, and it was like a big hospital, a brightly lit Brueghel kind of hospital, with all the punters helpless in operation gowns, and the staff scurrying around, feeding a central cauldron steaming with fear.
From a trio of nurses, one detached herself and came across.
‘Eileen? I thought you were over at the other place.’
‘You get moved around. We’ll all end up in one place, anyway, if they ever finish building it, and won’t that be a fockin’ treat?’ Eileen Cullen put out a forefinger, lifted Merrily’s hair from her shoulder. ‘You’re not wearing your collar, Reverend. You finally dump the Auld Feller, or what?’
‘We’re still together,’ Merrily said. ‘And it’s still hot.’
‘Jesus, that’s disgusting.’
‘Actually, I had to leave home in a hurry.’ Merrily spotted Gomer coming out of the ward, biting on an unlit cigarette, for comfort. ‘I came with a friend. His wife’s had a serious heart attack — unexpected. You won’t say anything cynical, will you?’
‘What’s his name?’ Sister Cullen was crop-haired and angular and claimed to have left Ulster to escape from ‘bloody religion’.
‘Gomer. Gomer Parry.’
‘Well then, Mr Parry,’ Cullen said briskly as Gomer came up, blinking dazedly behind his bottle glasses, ‘you look to me to be in need of a cuppa — with a drop of something in there to take away the taste of machine tea, am I right?’ She beckoned one of the nurses over. ‘Kirsty, would you take Mr Parry to my office and make him a special tea? Stuff’s in my desk, bottom drawer.’
Gomer glanced at Merrily. She moved to follow him, but Cullen put out a restraining hand. ‘Not for you, Reverend. You’ve got your God to keep your spirits up. Spare me a minute?’
‘Pity you’re out of the uniform… still, it’s the inherent holiness that counts. All it is, we’ve got a poor feller in a state of some distress, and it’ll take more than special tea to cope with him, you know what I’m saying.’
Merrily frowned, thinking, inevitably, of the first time she’d met Eileen Cullen, across town at Hereford General, which used to be a lunatic asylum and for one night had seemed in danger of reverting back.
‘Ah no,’ said Cullen, ‘you only get one of those in a lifetime. This isn’t even a patient. More like your man, Gomer, here — with the wife. And I don’t know what side of the fence he’s on, but I’d say he’s very much a religious feller and would benefit from spiritual support.’
‘For an atheist, you’ve got a lot of faith in priests.’
‘No, I’ve got faith in women priests, which is not much at all to do with them being priests.’
‘What would you have done if I hadn’t been here?’
Cullen put her hands on her narrow hips. ‘Well, y’are here, love, so where’s the point in debating that one?’
The corridor had cracked walls and dim economy lighting.
‘I’d be truly happy about leaving this dump behind,’ Cullen said, ‘if I didn’t feel sure the bloody suits were building us a whole new nightmare.’
‘What’s his name, this bloke?’
‘We don’t know. He’s not a man who’s particularly forthcoming.’
‘Terrific. He seen Paul Hutton?’ The hospital chaplain.
‘Maybe.’ Cullen shrugged. ‘I don’t know. But you’re on the spot and he isn’t. What I thought was… you could perhaps say a prayer or two. He’s Welsh, by the way.’
‘What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?’
‘Well, he might be Chapel or something. They’ve got their own ways. You’ll need to play it by ear on that.’
‘You mean in case he refuses to speak to me in English?’
‘Not Welsh like that. He’s from Radnorshire. About half a mile over the border, if that.’
‘Gosh. Almost normal, then.’
‘Hmm.’ Cullen smiled. Merrily followed her into a better lit area with compact, four-bed wards on either side, mainly elderly women in them. A small boy shuffled in a doorway, looking bored and aggressively crunching crisps.
‘So what’s the matter with Mrs Weal?’
‘You might say that. Oh, and when you’ve said a wee prayer with him you could take him for a coffee.’
‘It’s surely the Christian thing to do,’ Cullen said lightly.
They came to the end of the passage, where there was a closed door on their right. Cullen pushed it open and stepped back. She didn’t come in with Merrily.
She was out of there fast, pulling the door shut behind her. She leaned against the partition wall. Her lips made the words, nothing audible came out.
Cullen shrugged. ‘Seen one before, have you not?’
‘You could’ve explained.’
‘Could’ve sworn I did. Sorry.’
‘And the rest of it?’
‘Quite.’ What she’d seen replayed itself in blurred images, like a robbery captured on a security video: the bedclothes turned down, the white cotton nightdress slipped from the shoulders of the corpse. The man beside the bed, leaning over his wife — heavy like a bear, some ungainly predator. He hadn’t turned around as Merrily entered, nor when she backed out.
She moved quickly to shake off the shock, pulling Eileen Cullen a few yards down the passage. ‘What in God’s name was he doing?’
‘Ah, well,’ Cullen said. ‘Would he have been cleaning her up, now?’
‘On account of the NHS can’t afford to pay people to take care of that sort of thing any more?’
Cullen tutted on seeing a tea trolley abandoned in the middle of the corridor.
‘Yes?’ Merrily said.
Cullen pushed the trolley tidily against a wall.
‘There now,’ she said. ‘Well, the situation, Merrily, is that he’s been doing that kind of thing for her ever since she came in, three days ago. Wouldn’t let anyone else attend to her if he was around — and he’s been around most of the time. He asks for a bowl and a cloth and he washes her. Very tenderly. Reverently, you might say.’
‘And then he’ll wash himself: his face, his hands, in the same water. It looked awful touching at first. He’d also insist on trying to feed her, when it was still thought she might eat. And he’d be feeding himself the same food, like you do with babies, to encourage her.’
‘How long’s she been dead?’
‘Half an hour, give or take. She was a bit young for a stroke, plainly, and he naturally couldn’t come to terms with that. At his age, he was probably convinced she’d outlive him by a fair margin. But there you go: overattentive, overpossessive, what you will. And now maybe he can’t accept she’s actually dead.’
‘I dunno. It looked… ritualistic almost, like an act of worship. Or did I imagine that?’ Merrily instinctively felt in her bag for her cigarettes before remembering where she was. ‘Eileen, what do you want to happen here?’
Cullen folded her arms. ‘Well, on the practical side…’
‘Which is all you’re concerned about, naturally.’
‘Absolutely. On the practical side, goes without saying we need the bed. So we need to get her down to the mortuary soon, and that means persuading your man out of there first. He’d stay with her all night, if we let him. The other night an auxiliary came in and found him lying right there on the floor beside the bed, fast asleep in his overcoat, for heaven’s sake.’
‘God.’ Merrily pushed her hands deep down into the pockets of Jane’s duffel. ‘To be loved like that.’ Not altogether sure what she meant.
Cullen sniffed. ‘So you’ll go back in and talk to him? Mumble a wee prayer or two? Apply a touch of Christian tenderness? And then — employing the tact and humanity for which you’re renowned, and which we’re not gonna have time for — just get him the fock out of there, yeah?’
‘I don’t know. If it’s all helping him deal with his grief…’
‘You’re wimping out, right? Fair enough, no problem.’
Merrily put down her bag on the trolley. ‘Just keep an eye on that.’
Well, she didn’t know too much about rigor mortis, but she thought that soon it wouldn’t be very easy to do what was so obviously needed.
‘We should close her eyes,’ Merrily said, ‘don’t you think?’
She put out a hesitant hand towards Mrs Weal, thumb and forefinger spread. The times she’d done this before were always in the moments right after death, when there was still that light-smoke sense of a departing spirit. But, oh God, what if the woman’s eyelids were frozen fast?
‘You will,’ Mr Weal said slowly, ‘leave her alone.’
Merrily froze. He was standing sentry-stiff. A very big man in every physical sense. His face was broad, and he had a ridged Roman nose and big cheeks, reddened by broken veins — a farmer’s face. His greying hair was strong and pushed back stiffly.
Without looking at her, he said, ‘What is your purpose in being here, madam?’
‘My name’s Merrily.’ She let her hand fall to her side. ‘I’m the… vicar of Ledwardine.’
‘I was just… I happened to be in the building, and the ward sister asked me to look in. She thought you might like to… talk.’
Could be a stupid thing to say. If there ever was a man who didn’t like to talk, this was possibly him. Between them, his wife’s eyes gazed nowhere, not even into the beyond. They were filmed over, colourless as the water in the metal bowl on the bedside table, and they seemed the stillest part of her. He’d pulled the bedclothes back up, so that only her face was on show. She looked young enough to be his daughter. She had light brown hair, and she was pretty. Merrily imagined him out on his tractor, thinking of her waiting for him at home. Wife number two, probably, a prize.
‘Mr Weal — look, I’m sorry I don’t know your first name…’
His eyes were downcast to the body. He wore a green suit of hairy, heavy tweed. ‘Mister,’ he said quietly.
‘Oh.’ She stepped away from the bed. ‘Right. Well, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you… any further.’
There was a long silence. The water bowl made her think of a font, of last rites, a baptism of the dying. Then he squinted at her across the corpse. He blinked once — which seemed, curiously, to release tension, and he grunted.
‘J.W. Weal, my name.’
She nodded. It had obviously been a mistake to introduce herself just as Merrily, like some saleswoman cold-calling.
‘How long had you been married, Mr Weal?’
Again, he didn’t reply at once, as though he was carefully turning over her question to see if a subtext dropped out.
‘Nine years, near enough.’ Yerrs, he said. His voice was higher than you’d expect, given the size of him, and brushed soft.
Merrily said, ‘We… never know what’s going to come, do we?’
She looked down at Mrs Weal, whose face was somehow unrelaxed. Or maybe Merrily was transferring her own agitation to the dead woman. Who was perhaps her own age, mid to late thirties? Maybe a little older.
‘She’s… very pretty, Mr Weal.’
‘Why wouldn’t she be?’
Dull light had awoken in his eyes, like hot ashes raked over. People probably had been talking — J.W. Weal getting himself an attractive young wife like that. Merrily wondered if there were grown-up children from some first Mrs Weal, a certain sourness in the hills.
She swallowed. ‘Do you, er… belong to a particular church?’ Cullen was right; he looked like the kind of man who would do, if only out of tradition and a sense of rural protocol.
Mr Weal straightened up. She reckoned he must be close to six and a half feet tall, and built like a great stone barn. His eyebrows met, forming a stone-grey lintel.
‘That, I think, is my personal business, thank you.’
‘Right. Well…’ She cleared her throat. ‘Would you mind if I prayed for her? Perhaps we could-’
Pray together, she was about to say. But Mr Weal stopped her without raising his voice which, despite its pitch, had the even texture of authority.
‘I shall pray for her.’
Merrily nodded, feeling limp. This was useless. There was no more she could say, nothing she could do here that Eileen Cullen couldn’t do better.
‘Well, I’m very sorry for the intrusion.’
He didn’t react — just looked at his wife. For him, there was already nobody else in the room. Merrily nodded and bit her lip, and walked quietly out, badly needing a cigarette.
‘No?’ Eileen Cullen levered herself from the wall.
Cullen led her up the corridor, well away from the door. ‘I’d hoped to have him away before Menna’s sister got here. I’m not in the best mood tonight for mopping up after tears and recriminations.’
‘Sorry… whose sister?’
‘Menna’s — Mrs Weal’s. The sister’s Mrs Buckingham and she’s from down south and a retired teacher, and there’s no arguing with her. And no love lost between her and that man in there.’
‘Don’t ask. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.’
‘What was Menna like?’
‘I don’t know. Except for what I hear. She wasn’t doing much chatting when they brought her in. But even if she’d been capable of speech, I doubt you’d have got much out of her. Lived in the sticks the whole of her life, looking after the ole father like a dutiful child’s supposed to when her older and wiser sister’s fled the coop. Father dies, she marries an obvious father figure. Sad story but not so unusual in a rural area.’
‘Where’s this exactly?’
‘I forget. The Welsh side of Kington. Sheep-shagging country.’
‘They have their own ways and they keep closed up.’
The amiable, voluble Gomer Parry, of course, was originally from the Radnor Valley. But this was no time to debate the pitfalls of ethnic stereotyping.
‘How did she come to have a stroke? Do you know?’
‘You’re not on the Pill yourself, Merrily?’
‘That would be my first thought with Menna. Still on the Pill at thirty-nine. It does happen. Her doctor should’ve warned her.’
‘Wouldn’t Mr Weal have known the dangers?’
‘He look like he would?’ Cullen handed Merrily her bag. ‘Thanks for trying — you did your best. Don’t go having nightmares. He’s just a poor feller loved his wife to excess.’
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ Merrily said. ‘I think he’s going to need help getting his life back on track. That’s the kind of guy who goes back to his farm and hangs himself in the barn.’
‘If he had a barn.’
‘I thought he was a farmer.’
‘I don’t think I said that, did I?’
‘What’s he do, then? Not a copper?’
‘Built like one, sure. No, he’s a lawyer, as it happens. Listen, I’m gonna have a porter come up and we’ll do it the hard way.’
Cullen gave her a shrewd look. She knew Sean had been a lawyer, that Merrily herself had been studying the law until the untimely advent of Jane had pushed her out of university with no qualifications. The difficult years, pre-ordination.
‘Man’s not used to being argued with outside of a courthouse,’ Cullen said. ‘You go back and find your wee friend. We’ll sort this now.’
Walking back towards Intensive Care, shouldering her bag, she encountered Gomer Parry smoking under a red No Smoking sign in the main corridor. He probably hadn’t even noticed it. He slouched towards her, hands in his pockets, ciggy winking between his teeth like a distant stop-light.
‘Sorry about that, Gomer. I was-’
‘May’s well get off home, vicar. Keepin’ you up all night.’
‘Don’t be daft. I’ll stay as long as you stay.’
‘Ar, well, no point, see,’ Gomer said. He looked small and beaten hollow. ‘No point now.’
The scene froze.
She’d left him barely half an hour to go off on a futile errand which she wasn’t up to handling, and in her absence…
In the scruffy silence of the hospital corridor, she thought she heard Minnie Parry at her most comfortably Brummy: Yow don’t go worrying about us, my duck. We’re retired, got all the time in the world to worry about ourselves.
Instinctively she unslung her bag, plunged a hand in. But Gomer was there first.
‘Have one o’ mine, vicar. Extra-high tar, see.’
Tuesday began with a brown fog over the windows like dirty lace curtains. The house was too quiet. They ought to get a dog. Two dogs, Robin had said after breakfast, before going off for a walk on his own.
He’d end up, inevitably, at the church, just to satisfy himself it hadn’t disappeared in the mist. He would walk all around the ruins, and the ruins would look spectacularly eerie and Robin would think, Yes!
From the kitchen window, Betty watched him cross the yard between dank and oily puddles, then let himself into the old barn, where they’d stowed the oak box. Robin also thought it was seriously cool having a barn of your own. Hey! How about I stash this in… the barn?
When she was sure he wouldn’t be coming back for a while, Betty brought out, from the bottom shelf of the dampest kitchen cupboard, the secret copy she’d managed to make of that awful witch charm. She’d done this on Robin’s photocopier while he’d gone for a tour of Old Hindwell with George and Vivvie, their weekend visitors who — for several reasons — she could have done without.
Betty now took the copy over to the window sill. Produced in high contrast, for definition, it looked even more obscurely threatening than the original.
First the flash-vision of the praying man in the church, then this.
O Lord, Jesus Christ Saviour Salvator I beseech the salvation of all who dwell within from witchcraft and from the power of all evil… Amen Amen Amen… Dei nunce… Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen.
Ritualistic repetition. A curious mixture of Catholic and Anglican. And also:
By Jehovah, Jehovah and by the Ineffable Names 17317… Holy Names… Elohim… Emmanuel…
Jewish mysticism… the Kabbalah. A strong hint of ritual magic. And then those symbols — planetary, Betty thought, astrological.
It was bizarre and muddled, a nineteenth-century cobbling together of Christianity and the occult. And it seemed utterly genuine.
It was someone saying: We know about you. We know what you are.
And we know how to deal with you.
Inside the barn, the mysterious box was still there, tucked down the side of a manger. All the hassle it was causing with Betty, Robin had been kind of hoping the Local People would somehow have spirited this item away again. It was cute, it was weird but it was, essentially, a crock of shit. A joke, right?
The Local People? He’d found he was beginning to think of ‘the local people’ the way the Irish thought of ‘the little people’: shadowy, mischievous, will-o’-the-wispish. A different species.
Robin had established that the box did originally come from this house. Or, at least, there were signs of an old hiding place inside the living-room inglenook — new cement, where a brick had been replaced. So was this the reason Betty had resisted the consecration of their living room as a temple? Because it was there that the anti-witchcraft charm had been secreted?
Betty’s behaviour had been altogether difficult most of the weekend. George Webster and his lady, the volatile Vivvie, Craft-buddies from Manchester, had come down on Saturday to help the Thorogoods get the place together, and hadn’t left until Monday afternoon. It ought to have been a good weekend, with loud music, wine and the biggest fires you could make out of resinous green pine. But Betty had kept on complaining of headaches and tiredness.
Which wasn’t like her at all. As a celebratory climax, Robin had wanted the four of them to gather at the top of the tower on Sunday night to welcome the new moon. But — wouldn’t you know? — it was overcast, cold and raining. And Betty had kept on and on about safety. Like, would that old platform support as many as four people? What did she think, that he was planning an orgy?
Standing by the barn door, Robin could just about see the top of the tower, atmospherically wreathed in fog. One day soon, he would produce a painting of it in blurry watercolour, style of Turner, and mail it to his folks in New York. This is a sketch of the church. Did I mention the ancient church we have out back?
And ancient was right.
This was the real thing. The wedge of land overlooking the creek, the glorious plot on which the medieval church of St Michael at Old Hindwell had been built by the goddamn Christians, was most definitely an ancient pagan sacred site. George Webster had confirmed it. And George had expertise in this subject.
Just take a look at these yew trees, Robin, still roughly forming a circle. That one and that one… could be well over a thousand years old.
Red-haired, beardy George running his hands down the ravines in those huge, twisting trunks and then cutting some forks of hazel, so he and Robin could do some exploratory dowsing. What you did, you asked questions — Were there standing stones here? Was this an old burial place, pre-Christianity? How many bodies are lying under here? — and you waited for the twig to twitch in response. Admittedly, a response didn’t happen too often for Robin, but George was adept.
No, there’d been no stones but perhaps wooden poles — a woodhenge kind of arrangement — where the yews now grew. And yes, there had been pre-Christian burials here. George made it 300-plus bodies at one time. But the area had been excavated and skeletons taken away for reburial before the Church sold off the site, so there was the possibility that some pagan people been taken away for Christian burial. The arrogance of those bastards!
What happened, way back when the Christians were moving into Britain, was some smart-ass pope had decreed that they should place their churches on existing sites of worship. This served two purposes: it would demonstrate the dominance of the new religion over the old and, if the site was the same, that might persuade the local tribes to keep on coming there to worship.
But that was all gonna be turned around at last. Boy, was it!
Robin stood down by the noisesome water, lining up the church with Burfa Hill, site of an Iron Age camp. He couldn’t remember when — outside of a rite — he’d last felt so exalted. Sure, it only backed up what he’d already instinctively known from standing up top of the tower the other night. But, hell, confirmation was confirmation! He and Betty had been meant to come here, to revive a great tradition.
It was about repaganization.
They hadn’t talked too much about long-term plans, but — especially after the weekend’s discoveries — it was obvious these would revolve around in some way reinstating the temple which had stood here before there ever was a Christian church. Physically, this process had already begun: the church had fallen into ruins; if this continued, one day only the tower would remain… a single great standing stone.
So why wasn’t Betty similarly incandescent with excitement? Why so damn moody so much of the time? Was it that box? He’d wanted to tell George and Vivvie about the box and what it contained, but Betty had come on heavy, swearing him to silence. It’s no one else’s problem. It’s between us and them. We have to find our own way of dealing with it.
Them? Like who? She was paranoid.
And also, he knew, still spooked about what had happened to Major Wilshire, from whose widow they’d bought this place.
The Major had died after a fall from a ladder he’d erected up the side of the tower. Hearing the story, George Webster — who’d drunk plenty wine by then — had begun speculating about the site having a guardian and maybe needing a sacrifice every so many years. Maybe they could find out if anyone else had died in accidents here…
At which point Robin had beckoned George behind the barn and told him to keep bullshit ideas like that to himself.
Besides, if there was any residual atmospheric stress resulting from that incident, Robin figured the best answer would be to do something positive on the tower itself to put things right, and as soon as possible.
Some kind of ritual. Betty would know.
Back in the house, he placed the oak box on the kitchen table. Betty’s sea-green eyes narrowed in suspicion.
‘We have to deal with this, Bets,’ Robin told her. ‘Then we forget about it for ever.’
‘But not necessarily now,’ Betty said irritably.
But Robin was already reading aloud the charm again, the parts of it he could decipher. He suspected Betty could interpret some of those symbols — as well as being more psychically developed, her esoteric knowledge was a good deal deeper and more comprehensive than his own — but she was not being overhelpful here, to say the fucking least.
‘OK,’ he conceded, ‘so it’s probably complete bullshit. I guess these things must’ve been real commonplace at one time — like hanging a horseshoe on your gate.’
‘Yes,’ Betty said with heavy patience. ‘I’m sure, if we make enquiries, we’ll find out that there was a local wise man — they called them conjurors in these parts. They were probably still going strong in the nineteenth century.’
‘Like a shaman?’
‘Something like that. Someone who dealt in spells and charms. If a couple of dozen lambs went down with sheep-scab or something, the farmer would start whingeing about being bewitched and call in the conjuror. It was usually a man — probably because farmers hereabouts didn’t like dealing with women. The conjuror would probably write out a charm to keep in the fireplace, and everyone would be happy.’
‘There you go. We just happened to be exposed to this one when we were overtired and stressed-out and ready to leap to gross conclusions.’
Betty nodded non-committally. Against the murk of the morning, she was looking a little more vital, in her big, red mohair sweater and her moon talisman. She’d already gotten sweating piles of pine logs stacked up both sides of the Rayburn. Yesterday, she and Vivvie had hung Chinese lanterns on the naked bulbs and called down blessings. But when George had suggested consecrating the temple in the living room itself, Betty had resisted that. Not something to be rushed into. Give the house spirits time to get to know them. Which had sounded unusually fey, for Betty.
‘You know, if I’d followed my first instinct when I spotted that guy from the tower, I’d’ve run down directly and caught him dumping the carrier bag.’
Betty shook her head. ‘If whoever it was had come face to face with you on the doorstep, he’d just have made some excuse — like seeing lights in the house, coming over to check everything was OK. He’d have pretended the bag was his shopping and just taken it away with him.’
He didn’t argue; she was usually right. He put his hands on the box, closed his eyes, imagined other hands on the box — tried for a face.
‘I did that already,’ Betty said, offhand. ‘Nothing obvious.’
Robin opened his eyes. If she’d tried it and gotten nothing then there was nothing to be had. He had no illusions about which of them was the most perceptive in that way. He didn’t mind; he still had his creative vision.
‘Put it back, now huh, Rob?’
‘In the fireplace?’
‘In the barn, dickhead! Let’s not take any chances. Not till we know where it’s been.’
‘Ha!’ He sprang back. ‘You just have to know, dontcha?’
‘I’d quite like to know,’ Betty said casually.
‘Bets…’ He walked over, took her tenderly by the shoulders. ‘Look at me… listen… What the fuck’s it matter if someone does know we’re pagans? What kind of big deal is that these days?’
‘No problem at all,’ Betty said, ‘if you live in Islington or somewhere. In a place like this-’
‘Still no problem is my guess. Bets, this is not you. It’s me does the overreacting. Me who won’t leave the house if there’s only one magpie out in the garden. I’m telling you, this is a good place. We’re meant to be here. We came at the right time. Meant, right? Ordained. Making the church site into a sacred place again. All of that.’
Betty gently disengaged his hands. ‘I thought I might go and see Mrs Wilshire. The note says, “The previous occupant preferred not to keep it and gave it away.” So presumably they’re talking about Mrs Wilshire. Or more likely her husband.’
‘He was an old soldier. He’d have thought this was pure bullshit.’
‘Before he died,’ Betty said.
‘Whooo!’ Robin flung up his hands, backed away, as if from an apparition. ‘Don’t you start with that!’
‘They didn’t even get to live here, did they? They get the place half-renovated and then the poor old Major is gone, crash, bang.’
Robin spread his arms. ‘Bets, it’s like… it’s an ill wind. It’s a big pile of ifs. If the Wilshires had gotten all the renovation work done, everything smoothed out and shiny, and then put the place on the market, it’d’ve been way out of our price league. If people hereabouts hadn’t been put off by the tragic reasons for the sale, there might’ve been some competition… If it hadn’t gone on sale in November, all the holiday-home-seekers from London woulda been down here. If… if… if… What can I say? All the ifs were in our favour. But, if it makes you feel better, OK, let’s go see her. When?’
‘The widow Wilshire.’
‘Oh. No, actually, I thought I’d go alone. She struck me as a timid kind of person.’
‘And I would spook her?’
‘We don’t want to look like a delegation. Anyway, you’ve work to do.’
‘I do. I have work.’
The Kirk Blackmore artwork was complete, and would now be couriered, by special arrangement, not to the publishers but to Kirk himself. But the idea of producing a painting of the church, fog-swathed, had gotten hold of Robin, and if he mentioned it to Betty she’d be like: If you’ve got time for that, you’ve got time to emulsion a wall. But while she was gone, he could knock off a watercolour sketch of the church. He was already envisioning a seasonal series… a whatever you called a triptych when there were four of them.
‘Besides…’ Betty walked to the door then turned back with a swirl of her wild-corn hair. ‘I’m sure there are lots of new things you want to play with, without me on your back.’
Robin managed a grin. With Betty around it was sometimes like your innermost thoughts were written in neon over your head. Sometimes, even for a high priestess, this broad was awesomely spooky.
And so beautiful.
Face it: if he really thought there was an element of risk here, any danger of it turning into an unhappy place, they would be out of here, no matter how much money they lost on the deal.
But that wasn’t going to happen. That wasn’t a part of the package. How they’d come to find this place was, in itself, too magical to ignore: the prophecy… the arrival of the house particulars within the same week, the offer of the Blackmore contract along with the possibility of a mega-deal for the backlist.
It was like the road to down here had been lit up for them, and if they let those lights go out, well that would really attract some bad karma.
The Local People?
Assholes. Forget them.
Every Pillar in the Cloister
‘Paganism.’ the Bishop spooned mustard on to his hot dog. ‘What do we have to say about paganism?’
‘As little as possible?’ Merrily suggested.
The bishop put down his spoon on Sophie’s desk. ‘Exactly.’ He nodded, and went on nodding like, she thought, one of those brushed-fabric boxer dogs motorists used to keep on their parcel shelves. ‘Absolutely right.’
The e-mail on the computer screen concluded:
The programme will take the form of a live studio discussion and protagonists will probably include practising witches, possibly Druids, and ‘fundamentalist’ clergy. Would you please confirm asap with the programme researcher, Tania Beauman, in Birmingham?
‘So, it’s a “no”, then. Fine.’ Merrily stood up, relieved. ‘I’ll call them tonight. I’ll say it’s not a debate to which we feel we can make a meaningful contribution. And anyway, it’s not something we encounter a particular problem with in this diocese. How does that sound?’
‘Sounds eminently sensible, Merrily.’ But the bishop’s large, hairless face still looked worried.
‘Good. Nobody comes out of an edition of Livenight with any dignity left. The pits of tabloid TV — Jerry Springer off the leash.’
‘Who is Jerry Springer?’ asked the bishop.
‘You really don’t want to know.’
‘One finds oneself watching less and less television.’ He brushed crumbs from his generously cut purple shirt. ‘Which is wrong, I suppose. It is, after all, one’s pastoral duty to monitor society’s drab cavalcade… the excesses of the young… the latest jargon. The ubiquity of the word “shag” in a non-tobacco context.’
‘I’ll get my daughter Jane to compile a glossary for you.’
The bishop smiled, but still appeared strangely apprehensive. ‘So this…’ he peered at the screen ‘… Livenight is not current affairs television?’
‘Not as you know it. How would you describe Livenight, Sophie?’
‘Like a rehearsal for Armageddon.’ A shudder from the bishop’s lay secretary, now permanently based in Merrily’s gatehouse office. Sophie tucked a frond of white hair behind one ear and used a tissue to dab away a blob of English mustard which the bishop had let fall, appropriately, on the head of the burger-gobbling Homer Simpson on the computer’s mouse mat. ‘They begin with a specific topic, which is loosely based on a Sunday paper sort of news item.’
‘Say you have a suburban husband who pimps for his wife,’ Merrily said, ‘is she being exploited, or is it a valid way of meeting the mortgage premiums?’
‘Invariably,’ Sophie said, ‘they contrive to fill the studio with loud-mouthed bigots and professional cranks.’
Merrily nodded. ‘And if you’re insufficiently loud-mouthed, bigoted or cranky they just move on to the psycho sitting next to you who’s invariably shaking at the bars to escape onto live television. Whole thing makes you despair for the future of the human race. I don’t really think spreading despair is what we’re about.’
‘No,’ the bishop said uncomfortably, ‘quite. It’s just that if you don’t do it, we… we have a problem.’
Merrily stiffened. ‘What are you saying exactly, Bernie?’
Bernie Dunmore had taken to wandering down to the Deliverance office on Tuesdays for a snack lunch with Merrily. He always seemed glad to get away from the Bishop’s Palace.
Which was understandable. He was not actually the Bishop of Hereford although, as suffragan Bishop of Ludlow, in the north of the diocese, the caretaker role had fallen to him in the controversial absence of the Right Reverend Michael Hunter.
In the end, though, Mick Hunter’s disappearance had not detonated the media explosion the diocese had feared, coinciding as it had with the resignation of two other Church of England bishops and the suicide of a third — all of this following calls for an outside inquiry into their personal expenses exceeding?200,000 a year, and the acceptance of unorthodox perks.
Questions had also been asked about Hunter’s purchase of a Land Rover and a Mercedes, used by his wife, and, as neither the press nor the police had been able to substantiate anything more damaging, the diocese had been happy to shelter behind any other minor scandal. Now the issue had been turned around: four bishops had spoken out in a Sunday Times feature — ‘Keeping the Mitre on C of E Executive Stress’ — about the trials of their job in an increasingly secular age. There was, inevitably, a picture of Mick Hunter in his jogging gear, ‘escaping from the pressure’.
Was it better, under the circumstances, that the truth had not come out? Merrily wasn’t sure. But she liked Bernie Dunmore, sixty-two years old and comfortably lazy. Prepared to hold the fort until such time as the search for a suitably uncontroversial replacement for Mick Hunter could begin. No one, in fact, could be less controversial than Bernie; the worst he’d ever said about Hunter was, ‘One would have thought the Crown Appointments Commission would have been aware of Michael’s personality problems.’
As Mick’s appointee, Merrily had offered Bernie her resignation from his Deliverance role, citing the seasoned exorcist Huw Owen’s warning that women priests had become a target for every psychotic grinder of the dark satanic mills who ever sacrificed a cockerel.
‘All the more reason for you to remain, my dear,’ Bernie had told her, though she couldn’t quite follow his reasoning. She hoped it wasn’t just because he enjoyed his Tuesday lunchtimes here sitting on the Deliverance desk with a couple of hot dogs and a can of lager.
‘You explain, Sophie,’ the bishop said.
His lay secretary sat up, spry and elegant in a grey business suit with fine black stripes, and consulted her memo pad.
‘Well, as you know, this programme approached us some weeks ago, with a view to Merrily taking part in a general discussion on supernatural phenomena — which Merrily declined to do.’
‘Because Merrily was afraid of what they might already know about recent events in Hereford,’ added Merrily.
‘Indeed. I then received a personal call from Ms Tania Beauman relating to this week’s proposed paganism programme, again requesting Merrily.’
‘They’ve obviously seen that understatedly sexy photo of you, my dear,’ said Bernie.
Merrily sighed, looked at the clock: 1.35. She had to be back in Ledwardine by three for Minnie Parry’s funeral.
Sophie said, ‘You’ll probably both recall the story in the papers last Thursday about the pagan parents in Somerset who demanded that their child be allowed to make her own religious observances at the village primary school.’
The bishop winced.
‘Livenight’s programme peg for this week,’ Sophie explained. ‘It’s now claimed there are over a hundred thousand active pagans in Britain. Either belonging to groups — covens — or nurturing their beliefs independently.’
‘Complete nonsense, of course.’ The bishop sniffed. ‘But figures like that can’t be proved one way or the other.’
‘The programme will discuss the pagans’ claim that they represent the traditional old religion of the British Isles and, as such, should be granted rights and privileges at least equivalent to those accorded to Islam, Buddhism and other non-indigenous faiths.’
Bernie snorted. ‘Most of their so-called traditions date back no further than the fifties and sixties. They’re a sham. These people are just annoyed because they’ve been refused charity status.’
‘In a secular state,’ Merrily said, ‘it could be argued that their superstitions are just as valid as ours — I’m doing my devil’s advocate bit here.’
The bishop jutted his chins and straightened his pectoral cross. ‘My question, though, is should we be actively encouraging people to strip off and have sex with each other’s wives under the full moon while pretending it’s religion? I think not. But neither do I think we should be engaging them in open battle — boosting their collective ego by identifying them as representatives of the Antichrist.’
‘However,’ Sophie said, ‘that does reflect the general approach of one of our more… outgoing rural rectors: the Reverend Nicholas Ellis.’
‘Oh,’ Merrily said.
‘In his sermons and his parish magazine articles, he’s tended to employ… quite colourful terminology. Livenight’s own kind of terminology, you might say.’
Sophie and the bishop both looked enquiringly at Merrily. She shook her head. ‘I know of him only through the press cuttings. Loose-cannon priest who dumped his churches. Spent some years in the States. Charismatic. Direct intervention of the Holy Spirit… Prophecy… Tongues.’
‘Split the community,’ Bernie said, ‘when he expressed disdain for actual churches and offered to conduct his charismatic services in community halls, barns, warehouses, whatever. So Mick Hunter agreed to appoint a regular priest-in-charge in the area, to appease the traditionalists, and let Ellis continue his roving brief.’
Merrily recalled that Ellis now belonged to a fast-growing Anglican anti-Church faction calling itself the Sea of Light.
‘Awfully popular figure, this Nicholas, I’m afraid,’ Bernie Dunmore said. ‘Since we cut him loose, he’s set up in some run-down village hall and he’s packing it to the rafters with happy-clappies from miles around. Which makes him somewhat unassailable, and yet he’s not a demonstrative bloke in himself. Quiet, almost reticent, apparently. But came back from America with a knowledge of agriculture and farming ways that seems to have rather endeared him to the Radnorshire people.’
Merrily grimaced, recalling what Eileen Cullen at the hospital had said about the piece of Wales just over the border: They have their own ways and they keep closed up.
Bernie flicked her a foxy smile. ‘The man was after your job, did you know?’
Her eyebrows went up. ‘Deliverance?’
‘Wrongly assuming you’d be on the way out in the aftermath of Michael’s, er, breakdown. Soon as I showed my face in Hereford, there was Nicholas requesting an audience.’
‘Did he get one?’
‘Showed him the door, of course, but tactfully. Good God, he’s the last kind of chap you want as your exorcist. Sees the Devil behind every pillar in the cloister. Fortunately, Deliverance is rarely up for tender. Press-gang job, in my experience.’ He beamed at Merrily. ‘And all the better for that.’
‘Is he currently doing any deliverance work?’ she asked warily.
‘Frankly, my dear… one doesn’t like to enquire. Though if there are any complaints, I suppose we’ll have to peer into the pond. Meanwhile… this Livenight.’ The bishop snapped back the ringpull on his can of lager and accepted a tall glass from Sophie. ‘Apparently, he has been mentioned as a possible — what do you call it? — front-row speaker.’
‘Having already been approached by Ms Beauman,’ Sophie said, ‘and having apparently said yes.’
‘But not on behalf of the diocese,’ Merrily said. ‘Just a lone maverick, surely?’
The bishop shrugged, spilling a little lager. ‘One can’t stop the man appearing on national television. And one can’t be seen to try to stop him.’
‘But if he starts shooting his mouth off about the invasion of sinister sects and child sacrifice and that kind of stuff, it’s going to reflect on all of us.’
‘In the wake of recent events here,’ said the bishop, ‘we were all rather looking for a quiet life for a while.’
Merrily looked into the big, generally honest face of the suffragan Bishop of Ludlow, a lovely old town in south Shropshire from which he was commuting and to which he clearly couldn’t wait to get back.
‘Well…’ Sophie folded a square of green blotting paper into a beer mat for the bishop, giving herself an excuse not to look directly at Merrily. ‘Ms Beauman did intimate to me that they might be prepared to consider rescinding their invitation to the Reverend Mr Ellis… if they could recruit for their programme the person they originally had in mind.’
There was an uneasy silence. The bishop drank some lager and gazed out of the window, across Broad Street. It was starting to rain.
‘Shit,’ Merrily said under her breath.
‘A box?’ Lizzie Wilshire looked vaguely puzzled. But more vague than puzzled, Betty thought.
‘Inside the fireplace.’
‘I did rather like that fireplace,’ Mrs Wilshire recalled. ‘It had a wonderful old beam across the top. It was the one emphatic feature of a rather drab room.’
‘Yes, the living room.’
‘You thought there ought to be beams across the ceiling too. Bryan said there still must be, underneath all the plaster. But I did like the fireplace, if precious little else.’
The fireplace to which Mrs Wilshire’s chair was presently pulled close was forlornly modern, made of brownish dressed stone. It surrounded a bronze-enamelled oil-fired stove — undernourished flames behind orange-tinted glass.
Mrs Wilshire frowned. ‘It also had woodworm, though.’
‘The beam, dear. That worried me a little, until Bryan said, “Lizzie, it will take about three hundred years for the worms to eat through it.” I would still have wanted it treated, though.’ She blinked at Betty. ‘Have you had it treated, yet?’
‘Not yet. Er, Mrs Wilshire… there was a box. It was apparently found in the fireplace, while you were having some repairs done to the walls. It contained a paper with a sort of… prayer. I suppose you’d call it a prayer.’
‘Oh!’ Understanding came at last to the bulging eyes of frail Lizzie Wilshire — big eyes which made her look like an extraterrestrial or a wizened, expensive cat. ‘You mean the witch paper!’
‘Yes,’ Betty said softly, ‘the witch paper.’
It wasn’t that she was particularly old, early seventies, Betty reckoned, but she had arthritis — obvious in her hands — and accepted her own helplessness. Clearly, she’d never been used to doing very much for herself or making decisions. ‘It’s so confusing now,’ she said. ‘So many things I know nothing about. Things I don’t want to have to know about. Why should I?’
She was still living in this colonial-style bungalow on the edge of New Radnor, the tiny town, or big village, where she and the Major had lived for over fifteen years, since his retirement. Just a stopgap, the Major always said, until they found the right place… an interesting place, a place he could play with.
She told Betty how she thought he’d finally accepted that he was too old to take on something needing extensive refurbishment when, out on a Sunday drive, they’d found — not three miles away, at Old Hindwell — the house with which Major Bryan Wilshire, to the utter dismay of his wife, had fallen hopelessly in love.
‘It was empty, of course, when we saw it. It had belonged to two reclusive bachelor farmers called Prosser. The last surviving one had finally been taken into a nursing home. So you can imagine the state it was in.’
Betty already knew all this from the estate agents, and from their own searches. Also she’d sensed a residual sourness and meanness in rooms left untouched by Major Wilshire. But she let his widow talk.
‘And that awful old ruined church in the grounds. Some would say it was picturesque, but I hated it. Who could possibly want a disused church? Except Bryan, of course.’
The Major had found the church fascinating and had begun to delve into its history: when it had last been used as a place of worship, why it had been abandoned. Meanwhile, the house was to be auctioned and, because of its poor condition, the reserve price was surprisingly low. This was when the market was still at low ebb, just before the recent property boom, and there was no rush for second homes in the countryside.
‘There was no arguing with Bryan. He put in an offer and it was accepted, so the auction was called off. Bryan was delighted. It was so cheap we didn’t even have to consider selling this bungalow. He said he could renovate the place at his leisure.’
A reputable firm of contractors had been hired, but Major Wilshire insisted on supervising the work himself. The problem was that Bryan was always so hands-on, climbing ladders and scaffolding to demonstrate to the workmen exactly what he wanted doing. Lizzie couldn’t bear to look up at him; it made her quite dizzy. But Bryan had always needed that element in his life, serving as he had with that regiment in Hereford. The SAS, Betty presumed, and she wondered how an all-action man like Major Wilshire had ended up with a wife who didn’t like to look up.
At least that had spared Lizzie an eyewitness memory of the terrible accident. This had been brought about by the combination of a loose stone under a slit window in the tower, a lightweight aluminium ladder, and a freak blast of wind from the Forest.
At first they’d told her it was simply broken bones, and quite a number of them; so it would have taken Major Wilshire a long time to recover. Many months. But no internal injuries, so it could have been worse. He’d at least be home in a matter of weeks. Mrs Wilshire meanwhile had determined that he would never again go back to that awful place.
But Bryan had never come home again. The shock — or something — had brought on pneumonia. For this energetic, seemingly indestructible old soldier, it was all over in four days.
There was one photograph of the Major on the mantelpiece: a wiry man in a cap. He was not in uniform or anything, but in the garden, leaning on a spade, and his smile was only a half-smile.
‘So quick. So bewilderingly quick. There was no time at all for preparations,’ Mrs Wilshire said querulously. ‘We’d always made time to prepare for things; Bryan was a great planner. Nothing was entirely unexpected, because he was always ready for it. Whenever he had to go away, my sister would come to stay and Bryan would always pay the bills in advance and order plenty of heating oil. He always thought ahead.’
How ironic, Betty thought, that a man whose career must have involved several life-or-death situations, and certainly some gruelling and risky training exercises, should have died after a simple fall from a ladder.
From a church? Was this ironic, too?
When it started to rain harder, Robin packed up his paints and folded the easel. A few stray drops on a watercolour could prove interesting; they made the kind of accidental blurs you could use, turned the painting into a raincolour. But if it came on harder, like now, and the wind got up, this was the elements saying to him: Uh-huh, try again.
He stood for a moment down below the church ruins, watching the creek rush into a small gorge maybe fifteen feet deep, carrying branches and a blue plastic feed-sack. Wild! There was a narrow wooden footbridge which people used to cross to get to church. The bridge was a little rickety, which was also kind of quaint. Maybe this even explained why the church had become disused. Fine when the congregation came on foot from the village, but when the village population had gotten smaller, and the first automobiles had arrived in Radnorshire… well, not even country ladies liked to have to park in a field the wrong side of the Hindwell Brook and arrive in church with mud splashes up their Sunday stockings.
In the distance, over the sound of the hurrying water, Robin could hear a vehicle approaching. It was almost a mile along the track to reach the county road, so if you heard any traffic at all, it had to be heading this way. Most often it was Gareth Prosser in his Land Rover — biggest farmer hereabouts, a county councillor and also a nephew of the two old guys who used to own St Michael’s. Robin would have liked if the man stopped one time, came in for a beer, but Gareth Prosser just nodded, never smiled to him, never slowed.
Country folk took time to get to know. Apparently.
But the noise wasn’t rattly enough to be Prosser’s Land Rover, or growly enough to be his kids’ dirt bikes. It was a little early to be Betty back from the widow Wilshire’s, but — who knew? — maybe she at last had developed the hots again for her beloved husband, couldn’t wait to get back to the hissing pine fires and into the sack in that wonderful damp-walled bedroom.
Robin kicked a half-brick into the Hindwell Brook, lifting up his face to the squally rain. It would come right. The goddess would return to her. Just the wrong part of the cycle, was all. He offered a short, silent prayer to the spirits of the rushing water, that the flow might once again go their way. Winter was, after all, a stressful time to move house.
The vehicle appeared: it was a Cherokee jeep. When the driver parked in the yard and got out, Robin stared at him, and then closed his eyes and muttered, ‘Holy shit.’
He didn’t need this. He did not need this now.
‘But we don’t believe in those things any more, do we, my dear? Witches, I mean.’
How on earth had the wife of an SAS officer managed to preserve this childlike, glazed-eyed innocence? Betty smiled and lifted the bone china teacup and saucer from her knees in order to smooth her long skirt. Jeans would have been the wrong image entirely and, after the assault on the house over the past few days, she didn’t have an entirely clean pair anyway.
Clean was paramount here. It was a museum of suburbia; it had actual trinkets. Betty guessed that the Major’s wife had secretly been hoping that the renovation work at St Michael’s would never be completed, that it would be simply a long-term hobby for him while they went on living here in New Radnor — which, although it was on the edge of the wilderness and still dominated by a huge castle-mound, was pleasant and open, with a wide main street, neat cottages, window boxes in the summer, a nice shop. Unlike Old Hindwell, it kept the Forest at arm’s length.
Mrs Wilshire said, ‘It was silly, it was slightly unpleasant. And, of course, it wasn’t even terribly old.’
‘About 1850, as I recall.’
‘Oh,’ said Mrs Wilshire. ‘Have you found another one?’
‘No, I think it’s the same one,’ Betty said patiently. ‘Someone brought it back, you see.’
‘Who in the world would do that?’
‘We don’t know. It was left on the doorstep.’
‘What an odd thing to do.’
‘Yes, it was odd, which is why we’d like to find out who did it. I was hoping you might be able to tell me who you gave the box to when you… gave it away. Do you remember, by any chance?’
‘Well, Bryan saw to that, of course. Bryan always knew where to take things, you see.’
‘Would there perhaps have been… I don’t know, a local historian or someone like that who might have had an interest in old documents?’
‘Hmmm.’ Mrs Wilshire pursed her tiny lips. ‘There’s Mr Jenkins, at the bookshop in Kington. But he writes for the newspapers as well, and Bryan was always very suspicious of journalists. Perhaps it was the new rector he gave it to.’
‘Not that he was terribly fond of the rector either. We went to one of his services, but only once. So noisy! I’ve never seen so many people in a church — well, not for an ordinary evensong. They must have come from elsewhere, like football supporters. And there were people with guitars. And candles — so many candles. Well, I have nothing against all that, but it’s not for the likes of us, is it? Are you a churchgoer, Mrs Thorogood?’
‘Er… No. Not exactly.’
‘And your husband? What is it your husband does for a living? I’m sure I did know…’
‘He’s an artist, an illustrator. He does book covers, mainly.’
‘Bryan used to read,’ Lizzie Wilshire said distantly. ‘He’d go through periods when he’d read for days in his sanctum.’ Her big eyes were moist; Betty thought of parboiled eggs.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘is there anything I can do, while I’m here? Vacuum the carpet? Clean anything? Prepare you something for tea? Or is there anywhere you need to go? You don’t drive, do you?’
‘Bryan never wanted me to use the car. He always said rural roads were far more dangerous because of the tractors and trailers. And we have a local man, Mr Gibbins, who runs a sort of part-time taxi service. He takes me into Kington twice a week and carries my shopping for me. You mustn’t worry about me, my dear, with all the work you must have on your hands, getting that old place ready to move into.’
‘We moved in last week, actually.’
Mrs Wilshire’s small mouth fell open. ‘But it was an absolute hovel when-’
She stopped, possibly remembering that her own estate agent had preferred phrases like ‘characterful and eccentric’.
‘It’s still got one or two problems,’ Betty said, more cheerfully than she felt, ‘but it doesn’t let the rain in. Well, not in most of the rooms. Mrs Wilshire, is there anyone else apart from the rector that your husband might have handed that box to — or even told about it?’
Mrs Wilshire shook her head. ‘He brought it back here to examine it, but he didn’t keep it very long, I know that, because I wouldn’t have it in the house — so dirty. I do rather remember something, but…’
Betty sighed. ‘Look, let me wash up these cups and things, at least.’
‘No dear, I can manage.’ She fumbled her cup and saucer to the coffee table, but the cup fell over and spilled some tea, which began to trickle over the edge of the table onto the carpet. Betty snatched a handful of tissues from a box nearby and went down on her knees.
Mopping, she glanced up at Lizzie Wilshire and saw years of low-level pain there, solidified like rock strata. And then, as sometimes happened when observing someone from an oblique angle, she caught a momentary glimpse of Lizzie’s aura. It was not intact and vibrated unevenly. This woman needed help.
Betty gathered up the cups and saucers. ‘Are you having treatment for the… arthritis?’
‘Oh, yes, Dr Coll. Do you know Dr Coll?’ Betty shook her head. ‘Dr Coll says I shall need a new hip, soon, and perhaps a new knee. But that may mean going all the way to Gobowen. Sixty miles or more! In the meantime, I’m on a course of tablets. Can’t have new hands, unfortunately, but Dr Coll’s been marvellous, of course. He-’
Mrs Wilshire looked vague again. ‘Cortisone, I believe. And something else — some different pills. I have to take those twice a day. I haven’t been taking them very long. Just since after Bryan died… It seems to have got so much worse since Bryan died. All the worry, I suppose.’
‘Mrs Wilshire… I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you ever tried anything… alternative? Or complementary, as some people prefer to say.’
‘You mean herbs and things?’
‘I would be very wary, my dear. You never know quite what you’re taking, do you?’
Betty carried the cups and saucers into a large kitchen — made pale, rather than bright, by wide windows, triple-glazed, with a limited view of a narrow garden, a steep, green hillside and a slice of unkind sky. At the bottom of the garden was a shed or summer house with a small verandah — like a miniature cricket pavilion.
Betty’s compassion was veined with anger. Lizzie Wilshire was happily swallowing a cocktail of powerful drugs, with all kinds of side-effects. An unambitious woman who’d let her husband handle everything, make all her decisions for her, and was now willingly submitting to other people who didn’t necessarily give a shit.
When Betty came back, Lizzie Wilshire was staring placidly into the red glow of the oil heater.
‘Are you going to stay here?’ Betty asked.
‘Well, dear, the local people are so good, you see… You youngsters seem to flit about the country at whim. I don’t think I could move. I’d be afraid to.’ Mrs Wilshire looked down into her lap. ‘Of course, I don’t really like it at night — it’s such a big bungalow. So quiet.’
‘Couldn’t you perhaps move into the centre of the village?’
‘But I know Bryan’s still here, you see. The churchyard’s just around the hillside. I feel he’s watching over me. Is that silly?’
‘No.’ Betty gave her an encouraging smile. ‘It’s not silly at all.’
She walked out to the car feeling troubled and anxious in a way she hadn’t expected. That unexpected glimpse of the damaged aura suggested she was meant to come here today. Prodding the little Subaru out onto the long, straight bypass, under an already darkening sky, Betty decided to return soon with something herbal for Mrs Wilshire’s arthritis.
It would be a start. And she was getting back that feeling of having come right round in a circle. It was as a child in Llandrindod Wells, fifteen or so miles from here, that she’d first become fascinated by herbs and alternative medicines — perhaps because the bottles and jars containing them always looked so much more interesting than those from the chemist. There was that alternative shop in Llandrindod into which she was always dragging her mother then — not that she was interested.
They were both teachers, her parents: her mother at the high school, her dad in line for becoming headmaster of one of the primary schools. Betty was only ten when he failed to get the job, and soon after that they moved to Yorkshire, where he’d been born.
Teaching? Until she left school, she didn’t know there was any other kind of job. Her parents treated it like a calling to which they were both martyrs, and it was taken for granted that Betty would commit her life to the same kind of suffering. As for those ‘flights of imagination’ of hers… well, she’d grow out of all that soon enough. A teacher’s job was to stimulate the imagination of others.
Her parents were unbelieving Anglicans. Their world was colourless. Odd, really, that neither of them was sensitive. If it was in Betty’s genes, it must have been dormant for at least two generations. One of her earliest memories — from a holiday up north when she was about four — was her grandma’s chuckled ‘Go ’way wi’ you’ when she’d come up from the cellar of the big terraced house in Sheffield and asked her who the old man was who slept down there.
Betty drove slowly, feeling the countryside. The road from New Radnor cut through an ancient landscape — the historic church of Old Radnor prominent just below the skyline, like a guardian lighthouse without a light. Behind her, she felt the weight of the Radnor Forest hills — muscular, as though they were pushing her away. At Walton — a pub, farms, cottages — she turned left into the low-lying fertile bowl which archaeologists called the Walton Basin, suggesting that thousands of years ago it had been a lake. Now there was only the small Hindwell Pool, to which, according to legend, the Four Stones went secretly to drink at cockcrow — an indication that the Hindwell water had long been sacred.
To the goddess? The goddess who was Isis and Artemis and Hecate and Ceridwen and Brigid in all her forms.
It was at teacher-training college in the Midlands that Betty had been introduced to the goddess. One of her tutors there was a witch; this had emerged when Betty had confessed she found it hard to go into a particular changing room where, it turned out, a student had hanged herself. Alexandra had been entirely understanding about her reaction and had invited Betty home… into a whole new world of incense and veils, earth and water and fire and air… where dreams were analysed, the trees breathed, past and present and future coexisted… and the moon was the guiding lamp of the goddess.
The recent Walton Basin archaeological project had discovered evidence of a prehistoric ritual landscape here, including the remains of a palisade of posts, the biggest of its kind in Britain. Being here, at the centre of all this, ought to be as exciting to Betty as it was to Robin, who was now — thanks to George — totally convinced that their church occupied a site which too had once been very much part of this sacred complex.
So why had her most intense experience there been the image of a tortured figure frenziedly at prayer, radiating agony and despair, in the ruined nave of St Michael’s? She’d tried to drive it away, but it kept coming back to her; she could even smell the sweat and urine. How sacred, how euphoric, was that?
Three lanes met in Old Hindwell, converging at an undistinguished pub. Across the road, the former school had been converted into a health centre — by the famous Dr Coll, presumably. The stone and timbered cottages had once been widely spaced, but now there were graceless bungalows slotted between them. In many cases it would be indigenous local people — often retired farmers — living in these bungalows, freed at last from agricultural headaches, while city-reared incomers spent thousands turning the nearby cottages into the period jewels they were never intended to be.
She didn’t particularly remember this place from her Radnorshire childhood, and she didn’t yet know anyone here. It was actually pretty stupid to move into an area where you knew absolutely nobody, where the social structure and pattern of life were a complete mystery to you. Yet people did it all the time, lured by vistas of green, the magic of comparative isolation. But Betty realized that if there was to be any hope of their long-term survival here, she and Robin would have to start forming links locally. Connecting with the landscape was not enough.
Robin still had this fantasy of holding a mini fire festival at Candlemas, bringing in the celebrants from outside but throwing open the party afterwards to local people. Like a barbecue: the locals getting drunk and realizing that these witches were OK when you got to know them.
Candlemas — Robin preferred the Celtic ‘Imbolc’ — was barely a week away, so that was madness. Lights in the old church, chanting on the night air? Somebody would see, somebody would hear.
Too soon. Much too soon.
Or was that an excuse because Wicca no longer inspired her the way it did Robin? Why had she found George so annoying last weekend? Why had his ideas — truths and certainties to him — seemed so futile to her?
When she got home, Robin was waiting for her in the cold dusk, down by the brook. He wore his fez-thing with the mirrors, no protection at all against the rain. He looked damp and he looked agitated.
‘We have a slight difficulty,’ he said.
Robin was like those US astronauts; he saved the understatements for when things were particularly bad.
Even in embittered January, the interior of Ledwardine Church kept its autumnal glow. Because of the apples.
This was an orchard village and, when the orchards were bare, Merrily would buy red and yellow apples in Hereford and scatter them around: on the pulpit, down by the font, along the deep window ledges.
The biggest and oldest apple there was clasped in the hand of Eve in the most dramatic of Ledwardine’s stained-glass windows, west-facing to pull in the sunset. Although there’d been no sun this afternoon, that old, fatal fruit was still a beacon, and its warmth was picked up by the lone Bramley cooking apple sitting plump and rosy on Minnie’s coffin.
‘Um… want to tell you about this morning,’ Merrily said. ‘How the day began for Gomer and me.’
She wasn’t in the pulpit; she was standing to one side of it, in front of the rood screen of foliate faces and carved wooden apples, viewing the congregation along the coffin’s shiny mahogany top.
‘Somehow, I never sleep well the night before a funeral. Especially if it’s someone I know as well as I’d got to know Minnie. So this morning, I was up before six, and I made a cup of tea, and then I walked out, intending to stroll around the square for a bit. To think about what I was going to say here.’
There must have been seventy or eighty people in the church, and she recognized fewer than half of them. As well as Minnie’s relatives from the Midlands, there were several farmer-looking blokes who must have known Gomer when he was digging drainage ditches along the Welsh border. You wanner know why most of them buggers’ve come yere, he’d hissed in Merrily’s ear, you watch how high they piles up their bloody plates with pie and cake in the village hall afterwards.
Now, she looked across at Gomer, sitting forlorn in the front pew, his glasses opaque, his wild white hair Brylcreemed probably as close to flat as it had ever been. Sitting next to him was Jane, looking amazingly neat and prim and solemn in her dark blue two-piece. Jane had taken the day off school, and had helped prepare the tea now laid out at the village hall.
‘It was very cold,’ Merrily said. ‘Nobody else in the village seemed to be up yet. No lights, no smoke from chimneys. I was thinking it was true what they say about it always being darkest just before the dawn. But then… as I walked past the lychgate… I became aware of a small light in the churchyard.’
She’d approached carefully, listening hard — remembering, inevitably, the words of Huw Owen, her tutor on the Deliverance course. They’ll follow you home, they’ll breathe into your phone at night, break into your vestry and tamper with your gear. Crouch in the back pews and masturbate through your sermons… Little rat-eyes in the dark.
The light glowed soft in the mist. It was down at the bottom of the churchyard, where it met the orchard, close to the spot where Merrily had planned a small memorial for Wil Williams, seventeeth-century vicar of this parish and the vicarage’s onetime resident ghost.
The light yellowed the air immediately above the open space awaiting Minnie Parry. Merrily had stopped about five yards from the grave and, as she watched, the light grew brighter.
And then there was another light, a small red firefly gleam, and she almost laughed in relief as Gomer Parry, glowing ciggy clamped between his teeth, reached up from below and dumped his hurricane lamp, with a clank, on the edge of the grave.
‘Oh, hell.’ Gomer heaved himself out. ‘Din’t disturb you, nor nothing, did I, vicar? Din’t think you could see this ole lamp from the vicarage. Din’t think you’d be up, see.’
‘I didn’t see it from the vicarage. I was… I was up anyway. Got a lot of things to do before… Got to see the bishop — stuff like that.’ She was burbling, half embarrassed.
‘Ar,’ said Gomer.
Merrily was determined not to ask what he’d been up to down there in the grave; if he was doing it under cover of darkness, it was no business of anyone else’s. Besides, he’d made himself solely responsible for Minnie’s resting place, turning up with his mini-JCB to attack the ice-hard ground, personally laying down the lining.
‘Fancy a cup of tea, Gomer?’
Gomer came over, carrying his lamp.
‘Bugger me, vicar,’ he said. ‘Catch a feller pokin’ round your churchyard at dead of night and you offers him a cup o’ tea?’
‘Listen, pal,’ Merrily said, echoing the asphalt tones of the verger of the Liverpool church where she’d served as a curate, ‘I’m a bloody Christian, me.’
Gomer grinned, a tired, white gash in the lamplight.
‘So… we went back to the vicarage.’ Merrily’s gaze was fixed on the shiny Bramley on Minnie’s coffin. ‘And there we were, Gomer and me, at six o’clock in the morning, sitting either side of the kitchen table, drinking tea. And for once I was at a bit of a loss…’
She heard light footsteps and saw a stocky figure tiptoeing up the central aisle; recognized young Eirion Lewis, in school uniform. He was looking hesitantly from side to side… looking for Jane. He must be extremely keen on the kid to drive straight from school to join her at the funeral of someone he hadn’t even known.
It was, you had to admit, a smart and subtle gesture. But Eirion had been raised to it; his old man ran Welsh Water or something. Eirion, though you wouldn’t know it from his English accent, had been raised among the Welsh-speaking Cardiff aristocracy: the crachach.
When he saw that Jane was in the front pew, a leading mourner, he quietly backed off and went to sit on his own in the northern aisle which was where, in the old days, the women had been obliged to sit — the ghetto aisle. Eirion was, in fact, a nice kid, so Jane would probably dump him in a couple of weeks.
Merrily looked up. ‘Then, after his second mug of tea, Gomer began to talk.’
‘All it was… just buryin’ a little box o’ stuff, ’fore my Min goes down there, like. So’s it’ll be underneath the big box, kind of thing. En’t no church rules against that, is there?’
‘If there are,’ Merrily had said, lighting a cigarette, ‘I can have them changed by this afternoon.’
‘Just bits o’ stuff, see. Couple o’ little wedding photos. Them white plastic earrings ’er insisted on wearing, ’cept for church. Nothing valuable — not even the watches.’
She had stared at him. He looked down at his tea, added more sugar. She noticed his wrist was bare.
‘Mine and Min’s, they both got new batteries. So’s they’d go on ticking for a year or so. Two year, mabbe.’
Don’t smile, Merrily told herself. Don’t cry. She remembered Gomer’s watch. It was years old, probably one of the first watches ever to work off a battery. And so it really did tick, loudly.
‘Dunno why I done it, really, vicar. Don’t make no sense, do it?’
‘I think, somehow…’ Merrily looked into the cigarette smoke, ‘it makes the kind of sense neither of us is clever enough to explain.’
‘And I’m not going to try too hard to explain it now,’ she said to the congregation. ‘I think people in this job can sometimes spend too long trying to explain too much.’
In the pew next to Gomer, Jane nodded firmly.
‘I mean, I could go on about those watches ticking day and night under the ground, symbolizing the life beyond death… but that’s not a great analogy when you start to think about it. In the end, it was Gomer making the point that he and Minnie had something together that can’t just be switched off by death.’
‘Way I sees it, vicar, by the time them ole watches d’stop ticking, we’ll both be over this — out the other side.’ Gomer had pushed both hands through his aggressive hair. ‘Gotter go on, see, ennit? Gotter bloody go on.’
‘What was it like when your husband… when he died?’
‘A lot different,’ Merrily said. ‘If he hadn’t crashed his car we’d have got divorced. It was all a mistake. We were both too young — all that stuff.’
‘And we was too bloody old,’ Gomer said, ‘me and Min. Problem is, nothin’ in life’s ever quite… what’s that word? Synchronized. ’Cept for them ole watches. And you can bet one o’ them buggers is gonner run down ’fore the other.’
Gomer smoked in silence for a few moments. He’d been Minnie Seagrove’s second husband, she’d been Gomer’s second wife. She’d moved to rural Wales some years ago with Frank Seagrove, who’d retired and wanted to come out here for the fishing, but then had died, leaving her alone in a strange town. Merrily still wasn’t sure quite how Minnie and Gomer had first met.
Gomer’s mouth opened and shut a couple of times, as if there was something important he wanted to ask her but he wasn’t sure how.
‘Not seen your friend, Lol, round yere for a while,’ he said at last — which wasn’t it.
‘He’s over in Birmingham, on a course.’
‘Psychotherapy. Had to give up his flat, and then he got some money, unexpectedly, from his old record company and he’s spent it on this course. Half of him thinks he should become a full-time psychotherapist — like, what mental health needs is more ex-loonies. The other half thinks it’s all crap. But he’s doing the course, then he’s going to make a decision.’
‘Good boy,’ Gomer said.
‘Jane still insists she has hopes for Lol and me.’
Gomer nodded. Then he said quickly, ‘Dunno quite how to put this, see. I mean, it’s your job, ennit, to keep us all in hopes of the hereafter: ’E died so we could live on, kinder thing — which never made full sense to me, but I en’t too bright, see?’
Merrily put out her cigarette. Ethel, the cat, jumped onto her knees. She plunged both hands into Ethel’s black winter coat.
The big one?
‘Only, there’s gotter be times, see, vicar, when you wakes up cold in the middle of the night and you’re thinkin’ to youself, is it bloody true? Is anythin’ at all gonner happen when we gets to the end?’
From the graveside there came no audible ticking as Minnie’s coffin went in. Gomer had accepted that his nephew, Nev, should be the one to fill in the hole, on the grounds that Minnie would have been mad as hell watching Gomer getting red Herefordshire earth all over his best suit.
Walking away from the grave, he smiled wryly. He may also have wept earlier, briefly and silently; Merrily had noticed him tilt his head to the sky, his hands clasped behind his back. He was, in unexpected ways, a private person.
Down at the village hall, he nudged her, indicating several tea plates piled higher with food than you’d have thought possible without scaffolding.
‘Give ’em a funeral in the afternoon, some of them tight buggers goes without no bloody breakfast and lunch. ’Scuse me a minute, vicar, I oughter ’ave a word with Jack Preece.’ And he moved off towards a ravaged-looking old man, whose suit seemed several sizes too big for him.
Merrily nibbled at a slice of chocolate cake and eavesdropped a group of farmer-types who’d separated themselves from their wives and didn’t, for once, seem to be discussing dismal sheep prices.
‘Bloody what-d’you-call-its — pep pills, Ecstersee, wannit? Boy gets picked up by the police, see, with a pocketful o’ these bloody Ecstersee. Up in court at Llandod. Dennis says, “That’s it, boy, you stay under my roof you can change your bloody ways. We’re gonner go an’ see the bloody rector…” ’
Merrily turned to find Jane holding a plate with just one small egg sandwich. Was this anorexia, or love?
‘What happened to Eirion, flower?’
‘He had to get home.’
‘Where’s he live exactly?’
‘Some gloomy, rotting mansion out near Abergavenny. It was quite nice of him to come, wasn’t it?’
‘It was incredibly nice of him. But then… he is a nice guy.’
Merrily tilted her head. ‘Meaning he’d be more attractive if he was a bit of a rogue? Kind of dangerous?’
‘You think I’m that superficial?’
‘No, flower. Anyway, I expect he’ll be going to university next year.’
‘He wants to work in TV, as a reporter. Not — you know — Livenight.’
‘Good heavens, no.’
‘So you’re going to do that after all then?’ Jane said in that suspiciously bland voice that screamed hidden agenda.
‘I was blackmailed.’
‘Can I come?’
Merrily raised her eyes. ‘Do I look stupid?’
‘See, I thought we could take Irene. He’s into anything to do with TV, obviously. Like, he knows his dad could get him a job with BBC Wales on the old Taff network, but he wants to make his own way. Which is kind of commendable, I’d have thought.’
‘Very honourable, flower.’
‘Still, never mind.’
‘Sure. You told that — what was her name? Tania?’
‘She’ll be ever so pleased.’
And Jane slid away with her plate, and Merrily saw Uncle Ted, the senior churchwarden, elbowing through the farmers. He was currently trying to persuade her to levy a charge for the tea and coffee provided in the church after Sunday services. She wondered how to avoid him. She also wondered how to avoid appearing on trash television to argue with militant pagans.
She turned and saw a woman looking down at her — a pale, tall, stylishly dressed woman, fifty-fiveish, with expertly bleached hair. She was not carrying any food.
‘I was impressed,’ she said, ‘with your sermon.’ Her accent was educated, but had an edge. ‘It was compelling.’
‘Well, it was just…’
‘… from the heart. Meant something to people. Meant something to me, and I didn’t even know… er…’
‘Yes.’ The woman blinked twice, rapidly — a suggestion of nerves. She seemed to shake herself out of it, straightened her back with a puppet-like jerk. ‘Sister Cullen was right. You seem genuine.’
‘Oh, you’re from the hospital…’
‘Not exactly.’ The woman looked round, especially at the farmers, her eyes flicking from face to florid face, evidently making sure there was nobody she knew within listening distance. ‘Barbara Buckingham. I was at the hospital, to visit my sister. I think you saw her the other night — before I arrived. Menna Thomas… Menna…’ Her voice hardened. ‘Menna Weal.’
‘Oh, right. I did see her, but…’
‘But she was already dead.’
‘Yes, she was, I’m afraid.’
‘Mrs Watkins,’ the woman took Merrily’s arm, ‘may I talk to you?’ Not a request. ‘I rang your office, in Hereford. Sister Cullen gave me the number. She said you were probably the person to help me. The person who deals with possession.’
‘I rang your office and they said you were conducting a funeral here, so I just… came. It seemed appropriate.’ She broke off. She was attracting glances.
‘It’s a bit crowded, isn’t it?’ Merrily said. ‘Would you like-?’
‘I’ll come to the point. Would it be possible for you to conduct a funeral service for me?’
Merrily raised an eyebrow.
‘For my sister, that is. I suppose I mean a memorial service. Though actually I don’t. She should have… she should have a real funeral in church. A proper funeral.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m not getting this.’
‘Because I can’t go, you see. I can’t go to the… interment.’
‘Because… it’s going to take place in that bastard’s garden.’ Her voice rose. ‘He won’t let her go. It’s all about possession, Mrs Watkins.’
‘I don’t…’ Several people were staring at them now, over their piled-up plates.
‘Possession of the dead by the living,’ explained Barbara Buckingham.
‘I think we’d better go back to the vicarage,’ Merrily said.
‘Oh my God,’ Betty said. ‘The only time I go out on my own, in walks number one on the list of situations I wouldn’t trust you to handle.’
Robin couldn’t keep still. He was pacing the kitchen, touching walls and doors, the sink, the fridge — as if the permanence of this place in his life was no longer certain.
‘So he’s in this old green Cherokee, right? And he has on this well-worn army jacket with, like, camouflage patches. And it’s unzipped, and all the time I’m hoping what’s underneath is just gonna turn out to be some kind of black turtleneck. With, like, a thick white stripe around the neck.’
Betty took off her coat, hung it behind the door and came to sit down. It wasn’t the vicar that worried her — every newcomer sooner or later had a visit from the vicar. It was how Robin had dealt with him.
‘Pretty damn clear from the start he wasn’t just coming to ask the way to someplace.’ Robin went over to the kitchen table; there were two half-pint glasses on it and four small beer bottles, all empty. ‘Guy wanted to talk. He was waiting for me to ask him in.’
‘I don’t suppose he had to wait long.’
‘Soon’s we get inside, it’s the firm handshake. “Hi, I’m Nick Ellis.” And I’m wondering do these guys drink beer? So I offer him a Michelob from the refrigerator.’
‘Normal practice is to offer them tea, Robin.’
‘No… wait… Transpires he spent some years in the States — which became detectable in his accent. And then — what can I say? — we…’
‘You exchanged history. You drank beer together.’
‘I confess, I’m standing there pouring out the stuff and I’m like…’ Robin held up a glass with a trembling hand. ‘Like, all the time, I’m half-expecting him to leap up in horror, pull out his cross… slam it in my face, like the guy in the Dracula movies. But he was fine.’
She looked sceptical. ‘What did you tell him about us?’
‘Well… this was hard for me. I’m a straight person, I’ve no time for deception, you know that.’
‘What did you tell him?’ Clenching her hands. ‘What did you say about us?’
‘Fucksake, whaddaya think I said? “Hey, priest, guess how we spent Halloween”?’ Robin went over and pulled out a chair and slumped down. ‘I told him I was an illustrator and that you were into alternative therapy. I told him you were British and we met when we were both attending a conference in New England. I somehow refrained from identifying the conference as the Wiccan International Moot in Salem, Mass. And although I did not say we were married I didn’t mention handfasting either. I said we had gotten hitched.’
‘Uh-huh. And when he brought up the subject of religion, as priests are inclined to do when they get through with football and stuff, I was quite awesomely discreet. I simply said we were not churchgoers.’
Betty breathed out properly for the first time since sitting down. ‘All right. I’m sorry. I do trust you. I’ve just been feeling a little uptight.’
‘Because you’re not being true to yourself and your beliefs,’ Robin said severely.
‘So what was he like?’
‘Unexceptional at first. Friendly, but also watchful. Open, but… holding back. He’s of medium height but the way he holds himself makes him look taller. Rangy, you know? Looks like a backwoods boy. Looks fit. He drank just one beer while I appear to have drunk three. His hair is fairish and he wears it brushed straight back, and in a ponytail, which is cool. I mean, I have no basic problem with these guys — as a spiritual grouping. As a profession.’
Robin got up and fed the Rayburn some pine. The Rayburn spat in disgust. Robin looked up at Betty; his eyes were unsteady.
‘But, if you want the truth, babe, I guess this is probably a very sick and dangerous example of the species.’
Robin had been anxious the priest remained in the kitchen. He would have had problems explaining the brass pentacle over the living-room fireplace. Would not be happy to have had the Reverend Nicholas Ellis browsing through those books on the shelves. He was glad his guest consumed only one beer and therefore would be less likely to need the bathroom.
And when Ellis asked if he might take a look at the ancient church of St Michael, Robin had the back door open faster than was entirely polite.
Still raining out there. The priest wore hiking boots and pulled out a camouflage beret. They strolled back across the farmyard, around the barn into the field, where the ground was uneven and boggy. And there it was, on its promontory above the water, its stones glistening, its tower proud but its roofless body like a split, gutted fish.
‘Cool, huh, Nick?’ Robin had told the priest about St Michael’s probably becoming disused on account of the Hindwell Brook, the problem of getting cars close enough to the church in the wintertime.
The priest smiled sceptically. ‘That’s your theory, is it, Robin?’
‘Well, that and the general decline in, uh, faith. I guess some people’d started looking for something a little more progressive, dynamic.’
The Reverend Ellis stopped. He had a wide, loose mouth. And though his face was a touch weathered, it had no lines, no wrinkles. He was maybe forty.
‘What do you mean by that, Robin?’
‘Well… uh…’ Robin had felt himself blushing. He talked on about how maybe the Church had become kind of hidebound: same old hymns, same old… you know?
The minister had said nothing, just stood there looking even taller, watching Robin sinking into the mud.
‘Uh… what I meant… maybe they began to feel the Church wasn’t offering too much in the direction of personal development, you know?’
And then Ellis went, ‘Yeah, I do know. And you’re dead right.’
‘Oh. For a minute, I was worried I was offending you.’
‘The Church over here has lost much of its dynamism. Don’t suppose I need tell you that in most areas of the United States a far higher proportion of the population attends regular services than in this country.’
‘So how come you were over there?’ Robin had grabbed his chance to edge the talk away from religion.
‘Went over with my mother as a teenager. After her marriage ended. We moved around quite a bit, mainly in the South.’
‘Really? That’s interesting. My mom was English and she met my dad when he was serving with the Air Force in the north of England, and she went home with him, to New Jersey. So, like-’
‘And it was there,’ Nicholas Ellis continued steadily, ‘that I first became exposed to what you might consider a more “dynamic” manifestation of Christianity.’
‘In the, uh, Bible Belt?’ Snakes and hot coals?
‘Where I became fully aware of the power of God.’ The priest looked up at the veiled church. ‘Where, if you like, the power of the Holy Spirit reached out and touched me.’
No, Robin did not like. ‘You notice how the mist winds itself around the tower? As a painter, that fascinates me.’
‘The sheer fervour, the electric momentum, you encountered in little…’ Ellis’s hands forming fists for emphasis, ‘little clapboard chapels. The living church — I knew what that meant for the first time. Over here, we have all these exquisite ancient buildings, steeped in centuries of worship… and we’re losing it, losing it, Robin.’
‘Right,’ Robin had said neutrally.
Ellis nodded toward the ruins. ‘Poets eulogizing the beauty of country churches… and they meant the buildings, the surroundings. Man, is that not beauty at its most superficial?’
‘Uh… I guess.’ Robin considered how Betty would want him to play this and so didn’t rise to it. But he knew in his soul that what those poets were evoking, whether they were aware of it or not, was an energy of place which long pre-dated Christianity. The energy Robin was experiencing right there, right this minute, with the tower uniting with the mist and the water surging below. Sure, the Christians picked up on that, mainly in medieval times, with all those soaring Gothic cathedrals, but basically it was out of their league.
Because, Robin thought, meeting the priest’s pale eyes, this is a pagan thing, man.
And this was when he had first become aware of an agenda. Sensing that whatever the future held for him and this casual-looking priest in his army cast-offs, it was not going to involve friendly rivalry and good-natured badinage.
‘Buildings are jewellery,’ Ellis had said, ‘baubles. When I came home, I felt like a missionary in my own land. I was working as a teacher at the time. But when I was subsequently ordained, ended up here, I knew this was where I was destined to be. These people have their priorities right.’
Ellis let the question go by. He was now talking about how the States also had its bad side. How he had spent time in California, where people threw away their souls like candy wrappers, where the Devil squatted in shop windows like Santa Claus, handing out packs of tarot cards and runes and I Ching sets.
‘Can you believe those people?’ Robin turned away to control a grin. For, albeit he was East Coast raised, he was those people.
‘Over here, it’s less obvious.’ Ellis shuddered suddenly. ‘Far more deeply embedded. Like bindweed, the worst of it’s underground.’
Robin hadn’t reacted, though he was unsure of whether this was the best response or not. Maybe some normal person bombarded with this bullshit would, by now, be telling this guy he had things to do, someplace else to go, calls to make — nice talking with you, Reverend, maybe see you around.
Looking over at the rain-screened hills, Ellis was saying how, the very week he had arrived here, it was announced that archaeologists had stumbled on something in the Radnor Valley — evidence of one of the biggest prehistoric wooden temples ever discovered in Europe.
Robin’s response had been, ‘Yeah, wasn’t that terrific?’
When Ellis had turned to him, there was a light in his eyes which Robin perceived as like a gas jet.
‘He said it was a sign of something coming to the surface.’
‘Them finding the prehistoric site?’ Betty sat up, pushing her golden hair behind her ears.
‘It was coming out like a rash, was how he put it,’ Robin said. ‘Like the disease under the surface — the disease which you only identify when the rash starts coming out?’
‘What’s he talking about?’
‘Man with an agenda, Bets.’ Robin detected a half-inch of beer in one of the Michelob bottles and drained it, laid down the bottle with a thump. ‘If there’s anything I can recognize straight off, it’s another guy with an agenda.’
‘Robin, you don’t have an agenda, you just have woolly dreams.’
‘You wanna hear this, or not?’
‘Sorry,’ Betty said, frayed. ‘Go on.’
Robin told her that when Ellis had first come here, before the Church let him go his own way, he looked after four small parishes, on both sides of the border. New Radnor was the biggest. All the parishes possessed churches, except one of these was in ruins.
‘But don’t take this the wrong way. Remember this is a guy doesn’t go for churches. He’s into clapboard shacks. Now, Old Hindwell is a village with no church any more, not even a Baptist chapel. But one thing it does have is a clapboard fucking shack. Well, not exactly clapboard — more like concrete and steel. The parish hall in fact.’
‘Is there one?’
‘Up some steps, top of the village. Built, not too well, in the early sixties. Close to derelict, when Ellis arrived. He hacks through the brambles one day and a big light comes down on him, like that guy on the road to Damascus, and he’s like, “This is it. This is my church!” You recall that film Witness, where the Amish community build this huge barn in, like, one day?’
‘Everybody mucking in. Brilliant.’
‘Yeah, well, what happens here is Christians converge from miles around to help Nick Ellis realize his vision. Money comes pouring in. Carpenters, plumbers, sundry artisans giving their work for free. No time at all, the parish hall’s good as new… better than new. And there’s a nice big cross sticking out the roof, with a light inside the porch. And every Sunday the place is packed with more people than all the other local churches put together.’
Betty opened out her hands. ‘What do you want me to say? Triumph of the spirit? You think I should knock that?’
‘Wait,’ Robin told her. ‘How come all this goes down in a place with so little religious feeling they abandoned the original goddamn church?’
‘Evangelism, Robin. It spreads like a grass fire when it gets going. He’s a new kind of priest with all that American… whatever. If it can happen there, it can happen here — and obviously has. Which shows how right we were to keep a low profile, because those born-again people, to put it mildly, are not tolerant towards paganism.’
Robin shook his head. ‘Ellis denies responsibility for the upsurge. Figures it was waiting to happen — to deal with something that went wrong. Something of which Old Hindwell church is symptomatic.’
‘So we’re both moving in closer to the church, and I’m finding him a little irritating by now, so I start to point out these wonderful ancient yew trees — how the building itself might be medieval but I’m told that the yews in a circle and the general positioning of the church indicate that it occupies a pre-Christian site. I’m talking in a “this doesn’t mean much to me but it’s interesting, isn’t it?” kind of voice.’
‘Robin,’ Betty said, ‘you don’t possess that voice.’
Ellis was staring at him. ‘Who told you that, Robin?’
Robin floundered. ‘Oh… the real estate agent, I guess.’
Furious with himself that, instead of speaking up for the oldest religion of these islands, he was scuttling away like some shamed vampire at dawn, allowing this humourless bastard to go on assuming without question that his own 2,000-year-old cult had established a right to the moral high ground. So how did they achieve that, Nick? By waging countless so-called holy wars against other faiths? By fighting amongst themselves with bombs and midnight kneecappings, blowing guys away in front of their kids?
‘All right,’ Ellis had then said, ‘let me tell you the truth about this church, Robin. This church was dedicated to St Michael. How much do you know about him?’
Robin could only think of Marks and freaking Spencer, but was wise enough to say nothing.
‘The Revelation of St John the Divine, Chapter Twelve. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought Michael and his angels.” ’
Robin had looked down at his boots.
‘ “And the great dragon was cast out… that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world. He was cast out… into the earth.” ’
‘Uh, right,’ Robin said, ‘I’d forgotten about that.’
‘Interestingly, around the perimeter of Radnor Forest are several other churches dedicated to St Michael.’
‘Not too much imagination in those days, I guess.’
Ellis had now taken off his beret. His face was shining with rain.
‘The Archangel Michael is the most formidable warrior in God’s army. Therefore a number of churches dedicated to him would represent a very powerful barrier against evil.’
‘What evil would this be precisely, Nick?’ Robin was becoming majorly exasperated by Ellis’s habit of not answering questions — like your questions are sure to be stupid and inexact, so he was answering the ones you ought to have asked. It also bugged Robin when people talked so loosely about ‘evil’ — a coverall for fanatics.
Ellis said, ‘I visit the local schools. Children still talk of a dragon in Radnor Forest. It’s part of the folklore of the area. There’s even a line of hills a few miles from here they call the Dragon’s Back.’
Robin shrugged. ‘Local place names. That so uncommon, Nick?’
‘Not awfully. Satanic evil is ubiquitous.’
‘Yeah, but is a dragon necessarily evil?’ Robin was thinking of the fantasy novels of Kirk Blackmore, where dragons were fearsome forces for positive change.
Ellis gave him a cold look. ‘It would seem to me, Robin, that a dragon legend and a circle of churches dedicated to St Michael is incontrovertible evidence of something requiring perpetual restraint.’
‘I’m not getting this.’
‘A circle of churches.’ Ellis spread his hands. ‘A holy wall to contain the dragon. But the dragon will always want to escape. Periodically, the dragon rears… and snaps… and is forced back again and again and keeps coming back…’ Ellis clawing the air, a harsh light in his eyes, ‘until something yields.’
Now he was looking over at the ruins again, like an army officer sizing up the field of battle. This was one serious fucking fruitcake.
‘And the evil is now inside… The legend says — and you’ll find references to this in most of the books written about this area — that if just one of those churches should fall, the dragon will escape.’
Then he looked directly at Robin.
Robin said, ‘But… this is a legend, Nick.’
‘The circle of St Michael churches is not a legend.’
‘You think this place is evil?’
‘It’s decommissioned. It no longer has the protection of St Michael. In this particular situation, I would suggest that’s a sign that it requires… attention.’
Robin put on a crazy laugh, but his heart wasn’t in it. And Betty didn’t laugh at all.
‘What does he want?’
‘He…’ Robin shook his head. ‘Oh, boy. He was warning me. That fruitcake was giving me notice.’
‘Of what? What does he want?’
‘He wants to hold a service here. He believes this church was abandoned because the dragon got in. Because the frigging dragon lies coiled here. And that God has chosen him, Ellis, given him the muscle, in the shape of the biggest congregations ever known in this area, given him the power to drive the dragon out.’
Betty went very still.
‘All he wants, Bets… all he wants… is to come along with a few friends and hold some kind of a service.’
‘What kind of a service?’
‘You imagine that? All these farmers in their best suits and the matrons in their Sunday hats and Nick in his white surplice and stuff all standing around in a church with no roof singing goddamn “Bread of Heaven”? In a site that they stole from the Old Religion about eight hundred years ago and then fucking sold off? Jeez, I was so mad! This is our church now. On our farm. And we like dragons!’
Betty was silent. The whole room was silent. The rain had stopped, the breeze had died. Even the Rayburn had temporarily conquered its snoring.
Robin howled like a dog. ‘What’s happening here? Why do we have to wind up in a parish with a priest who’s been exposed to the insane Bible-freaks who stalk the more primitive parts of my beloved homeland? And is therefore no longer content with vicarage tea parties and the organ fund.’
‘So what did you say to him?’
‘Bastard had me over a barrel. I say a flat “no”, the cat’s clean out the bag. So, what I said… to my shame, I said, Nick, I could not think of letting you hold a service in there. Look at all that mud! Look at those pools of water! Just give us some time — like we’ve only been here days — give us some time to get it cleaned up. How sad was that?’
Just like Ellis, she didn’t seem to have been listening. ‘Robin, what kind of service?’
‘He said it would be no big deal — not realizing that any kind of damn service here now, was gonna be a big deal far as we’re concerned. And if it’s no big deal, why do it? Guy doesn’t even like churches.’
‘What kind of service?’ Betty was at the edge of her chair and her eyes were hard.
‘I don’t know.’ Robin was a little scared, and that made him angry. ‘A short Eucharist? Did he say that? What is that precisely? I’m not too familiar with this Christian sh-’
‘It’s a Mass.’
‘An Anglican Mass. And do you know why a Mass is generally performed in a building other than a functioning church?’
He didn’t fully. He could only guess.
‘To cleanse it,’ Betty said. ‘The Eucharist is Christian disinfectant. To cleanse, to purify — to get rid of bacteria.’
‘OK, let me get this…’ Robin pulled his hands down his face, in praying mode. ‘This is the E-word, right?’
Theanswering machine sounded quite irritable.
‘Mrs Watkins. Tania Beauman, Livenight. I’ve left messages for you all over the place. The programme goes out Friday night, so I really have to know whether it’s yes or no. I’ll be here until seven. Please call me… Thank you.’
‘Sorry.’ Merrily came back into the kitchen, hung up her funeral cloak. ‘I can’t think with that thing bleeping.’
Barbara Buckingham was sitting at the refectory table, unwinding her heavy silk scarf while her eyes compiled a photo-inventory of the room.
‘You’re in demand, Mrs Watkins.’ The slight roll on the ‘r’ and the barely perceptible lengthening of the ‘a’ showed her roots were sunk into mid-border clay. But this would be way back, many southern English summers since.
Walking through black and white timber-framed Ledwardine, across the cobbled square to the sixteenth-century vicarage, the dull day dying around them, the lights in the windows blunting the bite of evening, she’d said, ‘How quaint and cosy it is here. I’d forgotten. And so close.’
Close to what? Merrily had made a point of not asking.
‘Tea?’ She still felt slightly ashamed of the kitchen — must get round to emulsioning it in the spring. ‘Or coffee?’
Barbara would have tea. She took off her gloves.
Like her late sister, she was good-looking, but in a sleek and sharp way, with a turned-up nose which once would have been cute but now seemed haughty. The sister’s a retired teacher and there’s no arguing with her, Eileen Cullen had said.
‘I didn’t expect you to be so young, Mrs Watkins.’
‘Going on thirty-seven?’
‘Young for what you’re doing. Young to be the diocesan exorcist.’
‘Diocesan deliverance consultant.’
‘You must have a progressive bishop.’
‘Not any more.’ Merrily filled the kettle.
Mrs Buckingham dropped a short laugh. ‘Of course. That man who couldn’t take the pressure and walked out. Hunt? Hunter? I try to keep up with Church affairs. I was headmistress of a Church school for many years.’
‘In this area? The border?’
‘God no. Got out of there before I was twenty. Couldn’t stand the cold.’
Merrily put the kettle on the stove. ‘We can get bad winters here,’ she agreed.
‘Ah… not simply the climate. My father was a farmer in Radnor Forest. I remember my whole childhood as a kind of perpetual February.’
‘Frugal?’ Merrily tossed tea bags into the pot.
Mrs Buckingham exhaled bitter laughter. ‘In our house, those two tea bags would have to be used at least six times. The fat in the chip pan was only renewed for Christmas.’ Her face grew pinched at the memories.
‘You were poor?’
‘Not particularly. We had in excess of 130 acres. Marginal land, mind — always appallingly overgrazed. Waste nothing. Make every square yard earn its keep. Have you heard of hydatid disease?’
‘Causes cysts to grow on internal organs, sometimes the size of pomegranates. Originates from a tapeworm absorbed by dogs allowed to feed on infected dead sheep. Or, on our farm, required to eat dead sheep. Human beings can pick it up — the tapeworm eggs — simply through stroking the sheepdog. When I was sixteen I had to go into hospital to have a hydatid cyst removed from my liver.’
‘That was when I decided to get out. I doubt my father even noticed I was gone. Had another mouth to feed by then. A girl again, unfortunately.’
‘She would be… ten months old when I left. It was a long time before I began to feel guilty about abandoning her — fifteen years or more. And by then it was too late. They’d probably forgotten I’d ever existed. I expect he was even grateful I’d gone — another opportunity to try for a son, at no extra cost. A farmer with no son is felt to be lacking in something.’
‘My mother miscarried, apparently,’ Mrs Buckingham said brusquely. ‘There was a hysterectomy.’ She shrugged. ‘I never saw them again.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Found a job in Hereford, in a furniture shop. The people there were very good to me. They gave me a room above the shop, next to the storeroom. Rather frightening at night. All those empty chairs: I would imagine people sitting there, silently, waiting for me when I came back from night classes. Character-building, though, I suppose. I got two A levels and a grant for teacher-training college.’
It all sounded faintly Dickensian to Merrily, though it could have been no earlier than the 1970s.
‘So you never went back?’ The phone was ringing.
‘After college, I went to work in Hampshire, near Portsmouth. Then a husband, kids — grown up now. No, I never went back, until quite recently. A neighbour’s daughter — Judith — kept me informed, through occasional letters. She was another farmer’s daughter, from a rather less primitive farm. Please get that phone call, if you want.’
Merrily nodded, went through to the office.
‘As it happens’ — closing the scullery door — ‘she’s here now.’
‘Listen, I’m sorry,’ Eileen Cullen said. ‘I couldn’t think what else to tell her. Showed up last night, still unhappy about the sister’s death and getting no co-operation from the doctor. I didn’t have much time to bother with her either. I just thought somebody ought to persuade her to forget about Mr Weal, and go home, get on with her life. And I thought she’d take it better coming from a person of the cloth such as your wee self.’
‘Forgive me, but that doesn’t sound like you.’
‘So she didn’t say anything about holding a special service in church then?’
‘Merrily, the problem is I’m on the ward in one minute.’
‘Bloody hell, Eileen-’
‘Aw, Jesus, all the woman wants is her sister laid to rest in a decent, holy fashion. She’s one of your fellow Christians. Tell her you’ll say a few prayers for the poor soul, and leave it at that.’
There was an unexpected undercurrent here.
‘What happened with Mr Weal after I left the other night?’
‘Well, he came out. Eventually.’
‘He came out when she did. And he chose to accompany her down to the mortuary.’
‘Is that normal?’
‘Well, of course it isn’t fockin’ normal. We’re not talking about a normal feller here! It was a special concession. Merrily, I really have to go. If the sister’s tardy, how can you expect the nurses-’
‘That’s all I can tell you. Just persuade her to go home. She’ll do no good for herself.’
‘What’s that supposed to-’
Cullen hung up.
It was dark outside now, and the thorns were ticking against the scullery window.
When Merrily returned to the kitchen, Barbara Buckingham was standing under a wall lamp, her silk scarf dangling from one hand as if she was wondering whether or not to leave.
‘Mrs Watkins, I don’t want to be a pain…’
‘Merrily. Don’t be silly. Sit down. There’s no-’
‘I try to be direct, you see. In my childhood, no one was direct. They’d never meet your eyes. Keep your head down, avoid direct conflict, run neither with the English nor the Welsh. Keep your head down and move quietly, in darkness.’
The woman had been too long out of it, Merrily thought, as the kettle boiled. She’d turned her spartan childhood into something Gothic. ‘Tell me about the… possession.’
‘In essence, I believe, your job is to liberate them. The possessed, I mean.’
Merrily carefully took down two mugs from the crockery shelf. ‘Milk?’ Through the open door, she could still hear that damned rosebush scratching at the scullery window.
‘A little. No sugar.’
Merrily brought milk from the fridge. She left her own tea black, and carried both mugs to the table.
‘It’s a big word, Barbara.’
‘And often abused — I have to say that.’
‘We should both be direct.’
‘And I should tell you I’ve yet to encounter a valid case of possession. But then I’ve not been doing this very long.’
‘It may be the wrong word. Perhaps I only used it to get your attention.’ Looking frustrated, Barbara tossed her scarf onto the table. ‘I’ve attended church most of my life. Much of the time out of habit, I admit; occasionally out of need. I have no time for… mysticism, that’s what I’m trying to say. I’m not fey.’
Merrily smiled. ‘No.’
‘But Menna has been possessed for years. Do you know what I mean? Weal suffocated her in life; now he won’t let her go after death.’
Cullen: He asks for a bowl and a cloth and he washes her. Very tenderly, reverently you might say. And then he’ll wash himself: his face, his hands, in the same water.
And followed her down to the mortuary. Did Barbara know about that?
Merrily heard a key in the side door, beyond the scullery, and then footsteps on the back stairs: Jane coming in, going up to her apartment.
‘They were our family solicitors,’ Barbara said. ‘Everybody’s solicitors, in those days, it seemed. Weal and Son… the first Weal was Jeffery’s grandfather, the “and son” was Jeffery’s father R.T. Weal. Weal and Son, of Kington, and their gloomy old offices with the roll-top desks and a Victorian chair like a great dark throne. I first remember Jeffery when he was fifteen going on fifty. A lumbering, sullen boy, slow-moving, slow-thinking, single-minded, his future written in stone — Weal and Son and Son, even unto the ends of the earth. I hated them, the complete unchangingness of them — same chair, same desk, same dark tweed suits, same dark car creeping up the track.’
‘Eileen Cullen told me she thought he probably became a father figure,’ Merrily said. ‘After Menna had spent some years looking after her own father. Your dad was widowed, presumably.’
‘Sixteen or seventeen years ago. I had a letter from Judith — my friend in Old Hindwell. My father wouldn’t have told me; I no longer existed for him. And he was ailing, too. Later I learned that Menna never had a boyfriend or any social life, so she lost the best years of her life to her bloody father, and the rest of it to Weal. Who, of course, became the proverbial tower of strength when the old man died.’
‘He looked after her then?’
‘Seized his chance with a weak, unworldly girl. I… came to find her about two years ago. I’d recently taken early retirement. My daughter had just got married, my husband was away — I was at a very loose end. One morning, I simply got in my car and drove up here, and knocked on their door…’ She stared into space. ‘Menna seemed… unsurprised, unmoved, entirely incurious. I’d forgotten what these people can be like. She just stood there in the doorway — didn’t even ask me in. Talked in an offhand way, as though I was a neighbour whom she saw occasionally but didn’t particularly care for.’
‘And you actually hadn’t seen each other since she was a baby?’
The woman shook her head. There was distance now in her voice. ‘She… wore no make-up. She was pale, in an unnatural, etiolated kind of way, like grass that’s been covered up. And quite beautiful. But she didn’t seem to either know or care who I was. She might as well already have been dead.’
Jane nicked the cordless from Mum’s bedroom and took it upstairs to the trio of attic rooms that now made up her apartment: bedroom, sitting room-study and a half-finished bathroom. She put on the lights, took off her jacket, sat on the bed. Thinking about poor Gomer going home on his own to a house full of Minnie’s things. It made her cry.
Jane dried her eyes on a corner of the pillowcase. Gomer wouldn’t cry. Gomer would get on with it. But how much in life was really worth getting on with? Where was it leading? Was Minnie any closer now to knowing the answer? Oh God.
Jane picked up the phone and looked at it and shrugged. If this didn’t work, it didn’t work. She rolled up her sleeve. The Livenight number was written in fibre-tip on the inside of her left arm. Jane pushed in the numbers, asked for Tania Beauman. The switchboard put her on hold and made her listen to Dire Straits — which could have been worse, though Jane would never admit it.
She leaned back against the headboard and contemplated the Mondrian walls, wondering if anyone else had ever had the idea of painting the squares and rectangles between sixteenth-century beams in different colours. She wondered what Eirion would think of it.
If she was ever to bring him up here.
If? Time was running out if she was going to fit in two serious lovers before she hit twenty. Serious could mean six months. Longer.
‘Oh, hi.’ Jane sat up. ‘You know who this is?’
‘Oh,’ said Tania.
‘Hey, don’t be like that. I may have cracked it for you.’
Jane swung her feet to the floor. ‘I’m telling you, Tania, it wasn’t easy. She really didn’t want to know. Livenight? Pff! But I’m, like, “Look, Merrily, being elitist is what put the Church of England in the hole it’s in today. You can’t just turn a blind eye to paganism and pretend it isn’t happening all over again. Or before you know it there’ll be more of them around than you…” ’
‘That’s a very cogent argument,’ Tania said, ‘but why aren’t I talking to your mother?’
‘Because I’ve, like, nearly got her convinced — but I’m not quite there yet.’
‘Well, I have to tell you, you don’t have much time.’
‘But do I have the incentive, Tania? That’s the point.’
‘I wondered if there’d be a point.’
‘To be blunt,’ Jane said, ‘I need a very, very small favour.’
Home burial. It was becoming, if not exactly commonplace, then less of an upper-class phenomenon than it used to be. Merrily tried to explain this to Barbara Buckingham: that it was a secular thing, or sometimes a green issue; that you often didn’t even need official permission.
‘The main drawback for most people is the risk of taking value off their house if and when it’s sold. No one wants a grave in the garden.’
‘He’s not…’ Barbara had picked up her scarf again; she began to wind it around her hands. ‘He is not going to bury Menna; that’s the worst of it. She’s going into a… tomb.’ She pulled the scarf tight. ‘A mausoleum.’
‘Oh.’ To be loved like that.
‘He has a Victorian house at Old Hindwell,’ Barbara said. ‘The former rectory. Do you know Old Hindwell?’
‘Not really. Is it in this diocese, I can’t remember?’
‘Possibly. It’s very close to the border, about three miles from Kington, on the edge of the Forest. Radnor Forest. Weal’s house isn’t remote, but it has no immediate neighbours. In the garden there’s a… structure — wine store, ice house, air-raid shelter, I don’t know precisely what it is, but that’s where she’s going to be.’
‘Like a family vault?’
‘It’s sick. I went to see a solicitor in Hereford this morning. He told me there was nothing I could do. A man has a perfect legal right to keep his dead wife in a private museum.’
‘And as a solicitor himself, your brother-in-law is going to be fully aware of his rights.’
‘Don’t call him that!’ Barbara turned away. ‘Whole thing’s obscene.’
‘He loved her,’ Merrily said uncertainly. ‘He doesn’t want to be parted from her. He wants to feel that she’s near him. That’s the usual reason.’
‘No! It’s a statement of ownership. Possession is — what is it? — nine points of the law?’
‘That word again. Do you mind if I smoke?’
Merrily lit a Silk Cut, pulled over an ashtray.
‘What about the funeral itself? Is it strictly private? I mean, are you kind of barred?’
‘My dear!’ Barbara dropped the scarf. ‘It’s going to be a highly public affair. A service in the village hall.’
‘Not the church?’
‘They don’t have a church any more. The minister holds his services in the village hall.’
‘Ah. And the minister is…?’
‘Nick Ellis.’ Merrily nodded. This explained a lot.
‘I don’t know why so many Anglicans are choosing to call themselves “Father” now, as if they’re courting Catholicism. You know this man?’
‘I know of him. He’s a charismatic minister, which means-’
‘Not happy-clappy?’ Barbara’s eyes narrowed in distaste. ‘Everybody hugging one another?’
‘That’s one aspect of it. Nick Ellis is also a member of a group known as the Sea of Light. It’s a movement inside the Anglican Church, which maintains that the Church has become too obsessed with property. Keepers of buildings rather than souls. They claim the Holy Spirit flows through people, not stones. So a Sea of Light minister is more than happy to hold services in village halls, community centres — and private homes, of course.’
‘And the same goes for burial.’
‘I would guess so.’
‘So Jeffery has an accomplice in the clergy.’ Barbara Buckingham stood up. ‘He would have, wouldn’t he? It’s such a tight little world.’
‘Look,’ Merrily said, ‘I know how you feel, but I really don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. And if Nick Ellis is conducting a funeral service at the village hall and a ceremony in J.W. Weal’s back garden, I’m not sure I can hold another one in a church. However-’
‘Mrs Watkins… Merrily…’ She’d failed with the solicitor, now she was trying the Church.
Merrily said awkwardly, ‘I’m really not sure this is a spiritual problem.’
‘Oh, but it is.’ Barbara splayed her fingers on the table, leaned towards Merrily. ‘She comes to me, you see…’
The bereavement ghost: the visitor. Maybe sitting in a familiar chair or walking in the garden, or commonly — like Menna — in dreams. Barbara Buckingham, staying at a hotel near Kington, had dreamt of her sister every night since her death.
Menna was wearing a white shift or shroud, with darkness around her.
‘You’d prefer, no doubt, to think the whole thing is a projection of my guilt,’ Barbara said.
‘Perhaps of your loss, even though you didn’t know her. Perhaps an even greater loss, because of all those years you might have known her, and now you realize you never will. Is your husband…?’
‘In France on a buying trip. He has an antiques business.’
‘How do you feel when you wake up?’
‘Anxious.’ Barbara drank some tea very quickly. ‘And drained. Exhausted and debilitated.’
‘Have you seen a doctor?’
‘Yes. As it happens’ — a mild snort — ‘I’ve seen Menna’s doctor, Collard Banks-Morgan. We were at the same primary school. “Dr Coll”, they all call him now. But if you were suggesting that a little Valium might help to relax me, I didn’t go to consult him about myself.’
‘You wanted to know why she’d suffered a stroke.’
‘I gatecrashed his surgery at the school in Old Hindwell. Made a nuisance of myself, not that it made any difference. Bloody man told me I was asking him to be unethical, preempting the post-mortem. He was like that as a child, terribly proper. If they’d had a head boy at the primary school, it would’ve been Collard Banks-Morgan.’
‘Did you find out if there was a long-term blood pressure problem?’
‘No.’ Barbara Buckingham put on her scarf at last. ‘But I will.’
‘Look,’ Merrily said, ‘why don’t we say a prayer for Menna before you go? For her spirit. Why don’t we pop over to the church?’
‘I’ve taken too much of your time.’
‘I think it might help.’ Fifth rule of Deliverance: whether you believe the story or not, never leave things without at least a prayer. ‘I would like to help, if I can.’
And there was more to this. Merrily was curious now. Everything suggested there was more. Why should this woman feel robbed of a sister she’d never really known?
‘Then come to the funeral,’ Barbara said.
‘Is that too much of an imposition?’
‘Well, no but-’
‘You were at the hospital with her.’
Merrily agonized then about whether she should tell Barbara Buckingham what she’d witnessed in the side ward. It was clear Cullen hadn’t or Barbara would have mentioned that. She remembered the feeling she’d had then of something ritualistic about the way Weal was putting dabs of water on Menna’s corpse and then himself. Refusing to let the nurses try to feed her. Refusing to let Merrily pray for her. Wanting to do everything himself. It was, she supposed, a kind of possession.
But she decided to say nothing. It might only inflame an already fraught situation.
‘OK. I’ll try to come. What day?’
‘Saturday. Three-thirty. Old Hindwell village hall.’
‘That should be OK. If something comes up, where can I get a message to you?’
‘Doesn’t matter. If you aren’t there, you aren’t there.’
‘I’ll do my best. Have you… spoken to Mr Weal?’
‘I’m not ready for that yet,’ Barbara said. ‘But I shall do. Thank you, Merrily.’
Nightlife of Old Hindwell
Robin had the map spread out under a wine-bottle lamp on the kitchen table, after they’d finished supper.
‘Come take a look, Bets.’ Holding his thick, black drawing pencil the way he held his athame in a rite. ‘Whole bunch of churches around the Forest.’
The lamplight sheened his dense, Dark Ages hair. Betty leaned over him. He smelled sweet and warm, like a puppy. She felt an unexpected stirring; he was so lovably uncomplicated.
And so simplistic, sometimes, in his thinking. Why, since they’d arrived here, had any physical desire always been so swiftly soured by irritation? She gazed around the still-gloomy farmhouse kitchen. Why, with the stove on for over a week, was there still an aura of damp — always worse after sunset? She felt clammy and uncomfortable, as though she had the curse. If Robin had said, ‘Let’s give this place up, and leave now, tonight,’ she wouldn’t have hesitated.
But since that mention of the E-word, his attitude had unsubtly altered. A couple of seconds of trepidation then the male thing was kicking in. Robin wanted to find out precisely where Ellis was coming from, then get in his face. It hadn’t been helped, Betty guessed, by Ellis wearing army gear. Combat gear? She was appalled to think that she might even once have shared Robin’s zeal. If only this had been someone else’s house, the home of a fellow pagan in need of moral support.
If only she wasn’t already growing to hate their church too much to want to defend it.
She’d tried to remember her reaction on first seeing it, and couldn’t. Probably because she was being practical at the time and paying more attention to the farmhouse, leaving Robin to moon over the ruins, take dozens of photographs.
He’d now finished ringing churches on the Landranger map. Although it didn’t identify individual ones except by symbols, nearby place names sometimes would give a clue to the dedication. Betty could help him out there a little, from childhood knowledge of Welsh. She put a thumbnail to the southernmost symbol.
‘That one: the village is Llanfihangel nant Melan. Llanfihangel’s Welsh for “The Church of St Michael”.’
‘Cool.’ Robin drew an extra ring around the church and then tracked around the others with the tip of his pencil until he came to the northern part of the forest perimeter. ‘What’s this? Same word, right?’
‘Llanfihangel Rhydithon. That’s another, yeah. And then ours, of course. Three St Michael churches around the Forest. He was right, I suppose.’
‘Gotta be more. Three doesn’t make a circle.’
With swift, firm pencil strokes, he redrew the plan on his sketch-pad. Graphics were important to Robin. Making a picture made things real.
‘Of course,’ Betty said, ‘there’s nothing to suggest all these churches were built at the same time. I vaguely remember going to Llanfihangel Rhydithon as a kid, and I don’t think it’s even medieval.’
‘It’s the site that counts. Come on, Bets, what are you, agnostic now? Look through Ellis’s eyes. Guy thinks he’s fighting an active Devil.’
‘Or, more specifically, in the absence of people actually sacrificing cockerels and abusing children on his doorstep — against us,’ Betty said bitterly.
‘I’m still not sure he knows. Ellis was fishing. Like, who could’ve told him? Who else knows, or could’ve seen anything? We didn’t even use removal men.’
Betty said, ‘It scares me. I don’t want this.’
‘Aw, come on,’ he said. ‘You’re a witch. Hey, you know, damn near all these churches have just gotta be on older sites, when you see how close they are to standing stones and burial mounds.’ He leaned back in satisfaction. ‘This valley’s a damned prehistoric ritual freaking wonderland. Which explains everything.’
‘You got all these sacred sites, right? It’s a good bet most of them were still being used by surviving pagan groups well into medieval times, and probably long after that. This was a remote area with a small and scattered population. Closed in, secretive. I think it’s fair to assume that even when they’d been brutally eradicated from most of the rest of the country, the Old Ways were still preserved here.’
‘The Archangel Michael’s the hard guy of the Church. It’s them saying to the pagans, you bastards better come around, or else. Ellis, as a fundamentalist, relates to all of that. Plus, he’s been influenced by insane Bible Belt evangelists who persecute snakes. Plus, his ego’s already been blown up sky high by the size of congregations he’s pulling when all the neighbouring churches are going down the tubes. I’ve decided the guy sucks. The only remaining question is how long we keep stalling before we tell him that he and his exorcism squad can go screw themselves.’
‘I was going to say that if we don’t make an issue of it, if we let it go quiet, then he’ll probably forget about us,’ Betty said lamely.
‘Not gonna happen. Believe me, this guy’s on some kind of crusade under the banner of St Michael. Hey! Would that explain the army surplus stuff? Shit.’
Robin smiled at his own flawed logic. Betty saw, with a plummeting heart, that he wanted to be a target of Christian fanaticism.
‘When we look at those ruins,’ he said, ‘we see a resurgence of the true, indigenous spirituality. Whereas he sees a naked tower giving him and his religion the finger. He so wants to be the guy who killed the dragon and claimed it all back. It’s an ego thing.’
‘You and him both.’
The smile crashed. ‘Meaning what?’
‘You have a few beers together, you size each other up, and now you’re both flexing your muscles for the big fight. You can’t wait, can you? You love it that he’s got this huge mass of followers and there’s just the two of us here, newcomers, isolated…’
‘Now listen, lady.’ Robin was on his feet, furious. ‘My instinct was to kick his ass, right from the off, but no… I play it the way I figure you would want me to! Mr Nice Guy, Mr Don’t Frighten The Horses… Mr Take A Faceful Of Shit And Keep Smiling kind of guy!’
‘No, you didn’t. You thought you could play with him, lead him around the houses, take the piss out of him a little… when in fact he was playing with you.’
‘You weren’t even there!’
‘And you’ve never given a thought to where this could leave us. We have to live here… Whatever happens, we have to live here afterwards. And we will have to live here, because — in case you haven’t thought about this — who is going to buy a rundown house along with a ruined church which the local minister insists is infested with demonic evil?’ She spun away from him.
Robin snatched in a breath that was halfway to a sob then threw his pencil down on the table. ‘I need some air.’
‘You certainly do!’
He turned his back on her, strode across the kitchen like Lord bloody Madoc and tore open the back door. Before he slammed it behind him, she heard the rushing of the rain-swollen Hindwell Brook in the night, like a hiss of glee.
Betty let her head fall into her hands on the tabletop.
What have we done? What have we walked into?
Robin stomped across the yard, hit the track toward the gate and the road. It was cold and the going wasn’t so easy in the dark, but he was damned if he was going back for a coat and flashlight.
Why, why was whatever he said, whatever he did, whatever he tried to do, always the wrong fucking thing?
Four years he and Betty had been together and, sure, they were different people, raised in different cultures. But they’d previously come through on shared beliefs, a strong respect for natural forces and each other’s destiny.
And he’d thought the road to Old Hindwell was lit for them both.
All the portents had been there, just as soon as they decided they would look for a place in the countryside where they might explore the roots of the old spirituality. They’d let it be known on the pagan network that they were looking for something rural and it didn’t have to be luxurious. The Shrewsbury coven had worked a spell on their behalf and, before that week was out, they’d received — anonymously, but with a wellwisher’s symbol and the message ‘Thought you might be interested in this… Blessed Be!’ — the estate agent’s particulars of St Michael’s Farm. And — in the very same post — a letter from Al Delaney at Talisman to say that Kirk Blackmore was impressed with Robin’s work and would like him to design the new cover… with the possibility of a contract for the soon-to-be-rejacketed backlist of SEVEN VOLUMES!
Even Betty had to agree, it was like writing in the sky.
Robin joined the lane that led first past the Prosser farm and then on to the village. The farm was spread across the council roadway, like it owned it, sheds and barns on either side, mud from tractor wheels softening the surface of the road. A Land Rover was parked under an awning. It had a big yellow sticker in the back window, and even at night you could read ‘Christ is the Light!’ in luminous yellow. Robin gave a moan, stifled it. He hadn’t known about this. If Ellis denounced them, they’d have no support from their neighbours.
When he got clear of the farm he surveyed the night. Ahead of him, the moon lay on its back over a long hill bristling with ranks of conifers — a hedgehog’s back, a dragon’s back. Robin held out his arms as if to embrace the hill, then let them fall uselessly to his sides and walked on down the middle of the narrow lane, with ditches to either side and banks topped by hedges so savagely pleached they were almost like hurdles. Gareth Prosser was clearly a farmer who liked to keep nature under his thumb. His farm, his land. Robin wondered how Prosser had reacted to the team of archaeologists who’d moved in and sheared the surface from one of his fields to uncover postholes revealing that, four thousand years ago, the farm had been a key site of ritual pagan worship. Maybe Prosser had gotten Ellis in to sanctify the site.
Whatever, there was virtually nothing to see there now. Robin had sent off to the Council for British Archaeology for the report on the Radnor Valley dig. A couple of weeks ago, when he and Betty had driven down with a vanload of books, he’d checked out the site but found just a few humps and patches where the soil had been put back and reseeded. The team had taken away their finds — the flint arrowheads and axes — and hundreds of photos, and given the temple back to the sheep.
And to the pagans.
Well, why not? The night before they moved in, they’d agreed there should be a sabbat here at Imbolc — which Betty preferred to call by its old Christian name, Candlemas, because it was prettier. They’d agreed there should be the traditional Crown of Lights, which Betty would wear if there was no more suitable candidate. At the old church above the water, it was all going to be totally beautiful; Robin had had this fantasy of the village people coming along to watch or even join in and bringing their kids — this atmosphere of joy and harmony at Imbolc, Candlemas, the first day of Celtic spring, the glimmering in the darkness.
But that had not been mentioned since, and he was damned if he was gonna bring it up again.
Robin walked on, uphill now. Presently, the hedge on the right gave way to a stone wall, and he entered the village of Old Hindwell. As if to mock the word ‘Old’, the first dwelling in the village was a modern brick bungalow. A few yards further on was the first streetlight, a bluish bulb under a tin hat on a bracket projecting from a telephone pole. Older cottages on either side now. At the top of the hill, the road widened into a fork.
On the corner was the pub, the Black Lion, the utility bulkhead bulb over its porch clouded with the massed corpses of flies. It was an alehouse, not much more; the licensee, Greg Starkey, had come from London with big ideas but not pulled enough customers to realize them.
Tonight, Robin could have used a drink. Jacketless, therefore walletless, he dug into his pockets for change, came up with a single fifty-pence piece. Could you get any kind of drink for fifty-pence? He figured not.
‘Jeez!’ He jumped. She’d come out of an entrance to the Black Lion’s back yard. ‘Uh… Marianne.’
Greg’s wife. She moved out under the bulb, so he could see she was wearing a turquoise fleece jacket over a low-cut black top. Standard landladywear in her part of London, maybe, but not so often seen out here. But Marianne made no secret of how much she’d give to get back to the city.
‘Haven’t seen you for days and days, Robin.’
‘Oh… Well, lot of work. The house move, you know?’
The last time he’d seen her was when he’d driven down on his own with a vanload of stuff, grabbing some lunch at the Lion. She’d seemed hugely pleased that he was moving in, with or without a wife. Anything you wanna know about the place, you come and ask me; Wednesdays are best, that’s when Greg goes over to Hereford market.
‘Bored already, Robin? I did warn you.’
She was late thirties, disillusion setting up permanent home in the lines either side of her mouth.
Robin said, ‘I, uh… I guess I just like the night.’
‘Robin, love,’ she said, ‘this ain’t night. This is just bleedin’ darkness.’
She did this cackly laugh. He smiled. ‘So, uh… you still don’t feel too good about here.’
‘Give the boy a prize off the top shelf.’
Her voice was too loud for this village at night. It bounced off walls. She moved towards him. He could smell that she’d been drinking. She stopped less than a foot away. There was no one else in sight. Robin kind of wished he’d turned around at the bottom of the street.
‘This is the nearest I get to a night out, you know that? We got to work. We got to open the boozer every lunchtime and every bleedin’ night of the week, and we don’t get the same day off ’cause we can’t afford to pay nobody, and we wouldn’t trust ’em to keep their fingers out of the bleedin’ till, anyway.’
‘Aw, come on, Marianne…’
‘They all hate us. We’ll always be outsiders.’
‘Come on… Nobody hates you.’
‘So we take our pleasures separately. Greg whoops it up at Hereford market on a Wednesday. Me, I just stand in the street and wait for a beautiful man to come along who don’t stink of sheep dip.’
‘Marianne, I think-’
‘Oh, sorry! I forgot — except for this Saturday when I’m going to a funeral. Because it is potilic… what’d I say? Politic — that’s what Greg says: politic. I’m pissed, Robin…’ Putting out her hands as if to steady herself, gripping his chest. ‘And you’re very appealing to me. I been thinking about you a lot. You’re a different kind of person, aincha?’
‘I’m an American kind of person is all. Otherwise just a regular-’
‘Now don’t go modest on me for Gawd’s sake. I tell you what…’ She started to rub her hands over his chest and stomach. ‘You can kiss me, Mr American-kind-of-person. Think of it as charity to the Third World. ’Cause if this ain’t the Third bleedin’ World…’
‘Uh, call me old-fashioned’ — Robin gently detached her hands — ‘but I really don’t think that would be too wise.’
‘Well, if anybody’s watching…’ Marianne’s voice rose. ‘If anybody’s spying from behind their lace bleedin’ curtains, they can go fuck themselves!’
Robin panicked; no way he wanted to be associated with this particular attitude. He backed off so fast that Marianne toppled towards him, clawed vaguely at the air and fell with her hands flat on the cindered surface of the pub’s parking lot.
Where she stayed, on all fours, looking down at the road.
Robin moved to help her. She looked up at him and bared her teeth like a cornered cat. ‘You pushed me.’
‘No, no, I really didn’t. You know I didn’t.’
Marianne staggered to her feet, hands waving in the air for balance.
‘How about we get you inside,’ Robin said.
‘You pushed me!’ Backing towards the yard entrance, holding up her scratched hands like she was displaying crucifixion scars. If the people of Old Hindwell hadn’t been watching from behind their curtains before, they sure were now.
‘Fuck you!’ Marianne said. ‘Fuck you!’ she screamed and flew at him like a crazy chicken.
Robin backed off and spun around and found himself running any which way, until he was out of breath.
He stopped. Apart from his own panting, the place was silent again. He looked around, saw only night. The buildings had gone. He didn’t know where he was.
And then he looked up and there, set into the partially afforested hillside, was the tip of a golden light, a shining ingot in the dense, damp, conifered darkness. It was, by far, the brightest light in Old Hindwell village and, as he stepped back, it lengthened and branched out. Became a cross, in golden neon.
Nick Ellis’s clapboard church.
The cross hung there as if unsupported, like a big, improbable star.
The truth was, Robin found it kind of chilling. It was like he’d been driven into a trap. Away in the darkness, he heard footsteps. He froze. Was she coming after him?
Too heavy, too slow. And the steps were receding. Robin walked quietly back the way he’d come and presently the light above the pub door reappeared. He moved cautiously into the roadway in case Marianne was still around, claws out.
A few yards ahead of him, passing the entrance to the school-turned-surgery, was a man on his own. A man so big he was like an outsize shadow thrown on a wall. Must be a head taller than most of the farmers hereabouts. But he hadn’t come out of the pub. He was not drunk. He had a steady, stately walk and, as he passed the pub, Robin saw by the bulkhead light that the man was dressed in a dark suit and a white shirt and tie. The kind of attire farmers wore only for funerals.
The guy walked slowly back down the street, the same way Robin was headed. After a dozen or so paces, he stopped and looked over his shoulder for two, three seconds. Robin saw his face clearly: stiff, grey hair and kind of a hooked nose, like the beak of an eagle.
The guy turned and continued on his way down the street. Robin, having to take the same route, hung around a while to put some distance between them; he didn’t feel too sociable right now, but he did feel cold. He stood across from the pub, shivering and hugging himself.
The big guy was a shambling shadow against curtained windows lit from behind. Halfway down the street, he stopped again, looked back over his shoulder. Looked, not glanced. Robin only saw his face in silhouette this time. He was surely looking for someone, but there was no one there.
Robin shook his head, uncomprehending — a little more spooked.
The nightlife of Old Hindwell.
No Ghosts, No God
Huddled in Jane’s duffel coat, she walked past the village square, where the cobbles were glassy with frost. The moon was in the west, still hard and brighter than the security lamp beside the front door of the Swan.
It was five-thirty a.m. She clutched the church keys in a gloved hand. She planned to pray before the altar for Barbara Buckingham and for the soul of her sister, Menna.
Merrily walked in through the lychgate. Somewhere, beyond the orchard, a fox yelped. Down in the churchyard she saw a soft and now familiar glow.
‘Last time, vicar. Honest to God.’
‘Gomer, I don’t mind, really.’
‘Unnatural, sure t’be. Be thinkin’ I’m some ole pervert, ennit?’
Merrily smiled. He was crouching by Minnie’s grave, an area of raised earth, an elongated mole-tump, with the hurricane lamp on it. No memorial yet. No sound of underground ticking.
‘I was just thinking, like,’ Gomer said. ‘I don’t want no bloody stone. I got to have a stone?’
‘Don’t see why.’
‘Wood. I likes wood. En’t no good with stone, but I could carve out a nice piece of oak, see.’ He looked up at Merrily, lamplight moons in his glasses. ‘En’t nothing to do with the money, like. Be a proper piece. We never talked about it, but her liked a nice bit of oak, my Min. I’ll put on it about Frank as well, see.’
‘Whatever you like, Gomer. Whatever you think she’d have wanted.’
‘Summat to do, ennit? Long ole days, see, vicar. Long ole days.’
Merrily sat on a raised stone tomb, tucking her coat underneath her. ‘What else will you do, Gomer?’
‘Oh.’ Gomer sniffed meditatively. ‘Bit o’ this, bit o’ that.’
‘Will you stay here?’
‘Never thought about moving.’
‘Jane thought you might go back to Radnorshire.’
Gomer sniffed again abruptly. ‘People talks a lot of ole wallop ’bout roots. Roots is generally gnarled and twisted. Best kept buried, my experience.’
‘Yeah, you could be right.’ She had a thought. ‘You ever know a family called Thomas down on the border?’
‘Knowed ’bout half a dozen families called Thomas, over the years. Danny Thomas, up by Kinnerton, he’s a good ole boy. Keeps a ’lectric guitar and amplifiers in his tractor shed, on account his wife, Greta, she hates rock and roll. They was at Min’s funeral.’
‘Around Old Hindwell, I was thinking.’
‘Ole Hindwell.’ Gomer accepted a Silk Cut from Merrily’s packet. ‘Gareth Prosser, he’s the big man in Ole Hindwell. Laid some field drainage for him, years back. Then he inherits another two hundred acres and a pile o’ cash, and the bugger buys ’isself a second-hand digger at a farm sale. Always thought theirselves a cut above, the Prossers. County councillor, magistrate, all this ole wallop.’
‘These particular Thomases had two daughters. Barbara was one?’
‘Got you now. Her runned away?’
‘An’ the other one wed Big Weal, the lawyer.’
‘Their ole man was Merv Thomas, Maesmawr, up by Walton. Never worked for ’em, mind — too tight, digged their own cesspits, never drained a field. Merv’s dead now, ennit? Ar, course he is. Her’d never be wed otherwise.’
‘You know Weal?’
‘Always avoided lawyers,’ Gomer said. ‘Thieving bastards, pardon me, vicar. Weal’s ole-fashioned, mind, but that don’t make him any less of a thieving bastard. Looks after his wife, though, ’cordin’ to what they says.’
‘Menna’s dead, Gomer.’
‘Never!’ Gomer was shocked enough to whip the ciggy out of his mouth.
‘Died in the County, same night as Minnie.’
‘But her was no more’n a kiddie!’
‘Thirty-nine. A stroke.’
‘Bugger me.’ Gomer stared down at the soil. ‘Big Weal must be gutted.’
‘Could say that.’
Gomer put his ciggy back, shook his head. ‘Ole Hindwell, eh? You know what they says about that place, don’t you, vicar?’
‘Tell me.’ Merrily managed to get her cigarette going before the breeze doused the Zippo.
‘ “Place as God give up on”,’ explained Gomer.
‘Lot of places like that.’
‘With the church, see. Lets their church fall into ruin and never had another.’
‘There’s a kind of missionary minister who’s holding services in the parish hall. Father Ellis?’
‘Oh hell, aye.’ Gomer puffed on his ciggy. ‘Nutter.’
‘That’s what they say about him, is it? Nutter?’
‘Had two or three proper, solid ole churches under his wing, and they says he favoured Ole Hindwell village hall above the lot of ’em. An’ all this clappin’ and huggin’ and chantin’ and stuff. Mind, in Ole Hindwell they wouldn’t notice another bloody nutter if he was stark naked in the snow.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Inbreedin’.’ Gomer chuckled. ‘We always says that. Some places gets that kind o’ reputation for no reason at all other’n being a bit off the beaten track. And havin’ its church falled into ruins.’
‘Why did it fall into ruins? Apart from God giving up.’
‘Now, there’s a can of ole worms, ennit?’
‘Last but one vicar, they reckoned he went mad.’
‘No, mad mad. All kinds o’ rumours, there. Never come out, proper. You got a problem out there, vicar?’
‘Well, erm… Mr Weal seems to be set on putting Mrs Weal into some kind of tomb in his garden.’
‘Well, well,’ Gomer said non-committally.
‘And Barbara doesn’t think that’s a good idea. She doesn’t think Weal’s quite grasped the need to let go of the dead. And she wants me to go to the funeral with her, to hold her hand… or maybe to restrain her. And I think there’s something odd about that whole situation. Would, er, would you happen to know anybody who might know the score there?’
Gomer nodded slowly. ‘I reckon.’
‘And maybe a bit about Barbara and why she hates that area so much.’
‘Likely. Anythin’ else?’
‘Father Ellis? Seems to me that for everybody who thinks he’s a nutter, there must be another five can’t get enough, if you see what I mean.’
‘No accountin’ for the way folks is gonner go, them parts. Seen it before, oh hell, aye. Gimme a day or two.’
This time, Gomer declined the offer of tea and breakfast, said he’d got himself a nice, crusty cob needed using up. She could tell he was pleased to have something to occupy his time.
And digging was what Gomer did best.
Merrily went into church and prayed for Barbara and Menna and asked the Boss about another matter — kind of hoping she’d get a strong negative response.
Back at the vicarage just before seven, she punched out Tania Beauman’s Livenight number. Waited for the answering machine to kick in.
‘Oh… this is Merrily Watkins at the Hereford Diocese. Sorry for not getting back to you last night. I’ll be in the office from about half nine, if you want to talk about… what I might be able to contribute to your programme. Thanks.’
No backing out now.
Be something different, anyway: bright lights, hi-tech hardware, the fast chat, the tat, the trivia, the complete, glossy inconsequentiality of it.
Jane came down for breakfast, all fresh and school-uniformed.
‘Been up long, Mum?’
‘Couple of hours. Couldn’t sleep.’
‘So, you rang Livenight, then?’
‘Not much gets past you, does it, flower?’
‘It’ll be fun.’
‘Be fun for you, watching at home.’
‘Er… yeah,’ Jane said airily.
That night, after a wedding rehearsal at the church for a couple whose chief bridesmaid would be their own granddaughter, Merrily phoned Eileen Cullen from the scullery.
‘I just got the feeling you might have heard from Barbara Buckingham again.’
‘And why would you be thinking that, Reverend?’ Cullen sounded more than usually impatient, as if she was carrying an overflowing bedpan in her other hand.
‘She’s keen to find out why Menna died.’
‘High blood pressure.’
‘Well, yes, sure. But why did she have high blood pressure at her age?’
‘I told you why, and I haven’t changed my mind. I reckon she’d been on the Pill for longer than she ought to’ve been. Years longer, that’s my guess. Prolonged ingestion of synthetic oestrogen. Bad news — but then you’d know all that.’
‘Eileen, I live the life of a nun. I’ve forgotten all that.’
‘Well, it’s not your problem, and it’s not mine either and it’s not poor Menna’s any longer.’ A pause, then she came back a little softer. ‘Listen, if you’ve got the Buckingham woman on your back in a big way, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I sent her over, so I am.’
‘You must have felt at the time that she had a valid problem.’
‘Just wanted her out of me hair. You know what I’m like.’
‘Mmm, that’s why I don’t think you’re being entirely upfront.’
‘Jesus Christ, I’m always upfront. Nobody in this fockin’ job’s got time to go round the side any more.’
‘Did you by any chance tell her about Weal and that business with the water?’
‘You mean so they could have a big row and disturb all my patients? Are you kidding? Did you tell her?’
‘Merrily, when the hell do we ever talk any other way?’
‘Barbara’s getting troubled dreams.’
‘Says she sees Menna.’
A pause. ‘Does she?’
‘Night after night.’
‘Stress,’ Cullen said. ‘Look, I’ve got to-’
‘Well, you would say that. No ghosts, no God. You think my whole life’s a sorry sham.’
‘Aye, but you’re a well-meaning wee creature. Listen, I really do have to go.’
‘So you haven’t seen her then?’
‘Of course I haven’t fockin’ seen her!’ Cullen snapped. ‘What the hell d’you think I am?’
Merrily’s head spun. She stared at the circle of light thrown on the Holy Bible. The rosebush chattered at the dark window.
‘I meant Barbara,’ Merrily said.
‘I have to go.’ Cullen hung up.
Witchcraft may be underestimated by Christians on the grounds that it is phoney and synthetic and that its covens are completely eclectic and belong to no national organization. There are, however, dangers…
She first became aware of him in the green room.
Her initial thought was that he must be a priest, because he was wearing a suit, though not a dog collar — well, how many did these days, outside working hours? And then, because he was so smooth and assured, and — perhaps, she thought afterwards, because his shirt was wine-coloured — she even wondered if he might be a bishop.
He brought her a coffee. ‘This stuff could be worse,’ he said. ‘BBC coffee is much worse.’
‘You do this kind of thing fairly often then?’ she said. God, that wasn’t quite, ‘Do you come here often?’ but it was dangerously close.
‘When I must,’ he said. ‘Edward Bain, by the way.’
‘I know,’ he said.
He was, of course, attractive: lean, pale features and dark curly hair with a twist of grey over the ears. He’d made straight for Merrily across the green room — it sounded like some notoriously haunted, country house bedchamber, but was simply the area where all the participants gathered before the show. It was long and narrow and starting to look like a pantomime dressing room because of some of the costumes: Dark Age chic meeting retro-punk in a tangle of braids and bracelets.
The producer and his team mingled with the main guests and the support acts, observing and listening, picking out the potential stars-for-an-hour. Meanwhile the guests drank tea and coffee and spring water — no alcohol — and nibbled things on sticks, talking a lot, losing inhibitions, unblocking their adrenal glands, developing that party mentality. As if most of them hadn’t brought it with them.
‘Lord,’ Edward Bain murmured, ‘do they really want to be taken seriously?’ He looked at Merrily with a faint, pained smile.
The smile chilled her. It was Sean’s smile — her dead husband’s. Boyish, disarming. Sean’s smile when accused. She turned sharply away, as though distracted by an argument in progress between a tight-faced security officer and a ginger-bearded man wearing a short, white cloak over a red tunic with a belt. Into the belt was stuck a knife with a black handle.
‘It’s my fucking athame, man. It’s a religious tool. You wouldn’t ask a fucking bishop to hand over his fucking crozier!’
Edward Bain’s smile became a wince, wiping away the similarity to Sean. If it had ever really been there. Merrily swallowed.
The security man turned to Tania Beauman for support. Tania wrinkled her nose. ‘Oh, leave it, Grant. I suspect it looks more dangerous than it actually is.’
‘Tania, it’s a knife. If we start allowing weapons in the studio, we may as well-’
‘It’s a f-’ The ginger guy blew out his cheeks in frustration, turned to Tania. ‘This doorman is really hacking me off, you know? This is religious persecution.’
‘Sure.’ Tania was a short, capable bottle-blonde of about forty. ‘If we just agree that it’s purely ornamental — yeah, sorry, religious — and that you won’t be taking it out of-’
‘Of course I won’t be fucking taking it out!’
‘And if you use that word on camera before midnight, you realize you’ll be excluded from the debate, yeah?’
The ginger man subsided in a surly kind of way, a semi-chastened schoolboy.
‘That’s his card marked,’ Edward Bain told Merrily. ‘He’ll be used purely for decoration, now. Won’t get asked a single question unless it starts to slow up and they’re really desperate for confrontation.’
‘I don’t see that happening, somehow,’ Merrily said, ‘do you?’
‘The boy’s an idiot, anyway. If the athame is to have any potency at all it should hardly be displayed like some sort of cycling club badge.’
He smiled down at Merrily — instant Sean once more — and glided away, leaving her feeling clammy. And she thought, Oh my God. He’s one of them.
‘Ooooooooh.’ Tania went into a sinuous shudder. ‘Magnetic — and more.’
Over by the door, Edward Bain was into an intense conversation with a woman in a long, loose, classical kind of dress, like someone from rent-a-Muse. Merrily saw now that one of Bain’s middle fingers wore a silver ring with a moonstone. She saw him and the woman clasp hands lightly and smile, and she imagined tiny blue electric stars crackling between their fingers. She wondered if they’d even met before tonight.
‘Who is he?’ Merrily muttered. ‘I mean, what is he?’
‘Don’t you vicars ever read the News of the World?’
‘Only if we’re really desperate for a sermon.’
‘He’s the Man,’ Tania said. ‘If you call him something like King of the Witches, he’ll look pained. He doesn’t like the word “witch”. He’s a champagne pagan, if you like. Works as a publishing executive and would rather be profiled in the Observer than the News of the World… and, yeah, he’s getting there.’
‘By way of Livenight?’
Tania frowned. ‘Don’t take this programme too lightly, Merrily. You can get deeply shafted out there. And we are watched by all kinds of people you wouldn’t expect.’
Especially this week! By the acting Bishop of Hereford this week, and probably half of Lambeth Palace. Take it lightly? She’d had to put down her glass of spring water because she couldn’t hold it still. Ridiculous; she conducted services every Sunday, she talked to hostile teenagers, she talked to God, she…
Sean was there, smiling in her mind. In getting here, she’d had to drive past where he died, on the M5, in flames. Go away!
She said, too loudly, ‘Tania, can you… give me a rundown? Who else is here?’
‘OK.’ Tania nodded briskly. ‘Well, we get the programme peg out of the way first, right? The couple who want their kid to be allowed to do his pagan prayers and whatnot at school.’ She nodded towards a solemn, bearded man in a home-made-looking sweater. His partner had a waist-length plait. They might have been Muslims. They might even have been Christians.
Merrily said, ‘Am I right in thinking you’re not going to be spending very long on them?’
‘Dead right. Boring, boring, boring. Actually, the headmaster of the school’s going to be better value. Born-again Christian. Actually talks like Sir Cliff, like he’s got a boiled sweet in his cheek. OK, over there… Patrick Ryan — long hair, velvet jacket — Cambridge professor who’s done a study of pagan practices. And shagged half the priestesses in the Home Counties by all accounts, but I doubt he’ll be discussing that. If Ryan’s too heavy, the little guy with the shaven head’s Tim Fagan, ex-hack from the Sun, was sent out to do an expose on some sexy coven and wound up joining them. Now edits a popular witchy magazine called — ha ha — The Moon.’
Edward Bain excepted, they all looked fairly innocuous.
‘What about the other side?’
‘Right. Well, we’ve got a really angry mother who claims paganism turned her daughter into a basket case. She is very strong. The kid got drawn into white witchcraft and ended up peeing in churches. Which leads neatly into you, I think.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Mmm.’ Tania had revealed on the phone that she had seen news cuttings on last year’s Herefordshire desecration case, involving the sacrifice of a crow in a country church. Not entirely appropriate, in Merrily’s view.
‘I mean, I can’t say that was your orthodox paganism — if there is such a thing, which I doubt. It was a peculiar kind of black magic. It was a one-off.’
Tania Beauman shrugged.
‘By “the other side”,’ Merrily said, ‘I actually meant us, the Church. You said I wouldn’t be on my own here.’ How pathetic did that sound?
Tania looked mildly concerned. ‘I didn’t say that, did I? I’m sure I didn’t say that.’
‘You did, Tania.’
‘Oh, well, what happened, the other bloke let us down. I think his wife had a miscarriage or something.’ She was blatantly improvising. ‘But if you’re looking for back-up, the headmaster’s brought along a few members of his church. See the guy in the white-’
‘Which church would that be?’
‘Well, Christian, obviously, but I suppose you’d probably call it more of a cult.’
‘They’ll be doing some heavy apocalyptic stuff about the Antichrist walking the earth disguised as… Hang on — looks like Steve wants to do his pep talk.’
A bald man of about thirty, in white jeans and a crumpled paisley shirt, strode into the centre of the green room, lifted up his arms for silence, and went — Merrily guessed — into autopilot.
‘OK, listen up, everybody, my name’s Steve Ewing. I’m the editor of Livenight. I’d like to welcome you all to the programme and point out that we’ll be on the air in about fifty minutes. You’ve all seen the show — if not, then that’s your problem for sticking with boring old Paxman or the dirty movie on Channel 5. OK, now what I mainly want to stress to you is that Livenight is like life — you don’t get a second chance.’
A woman cackled. ‘All you know, mate.’
‘Yeah, very good.’ Steve Ewing smiled thinly. ‘What I’m trying to get over here is that we don’t hang around and neither should you. If you have something to say, don’t hold back, because it’ll be too late and we’ll have moved on to another aspect of the debate, and you’ll be kicking yourself all the way home because you missed your chance of getting your argument across on the programme.’
Merrily looked around for any exit sign. Wasn’t too late to get the hell out of here.
‘What I’m looking for,’ said Steve, ‘is straight talking and — above all — quick, snappy responses. There’s a lot of choice material to get across, and we want to help you do that. So it’s straight to the point, no pussyfooting, and if it’s going to take longer than about thirty seconds, save it for your PhD thesis. John Fallon’s the ringmaster. You won’t meet him until you go in, but you’ve all seen John, he’s a smart guy, a pro, and his bullshit threshold is zero. Any questions?’
There was some shuffling but no direct response.
‘Why don’t we get to meet Fallon before the programme?’ Merrily whispered.
Tania Beauman hardly moved her lips. ‘You’d know more about this than me, but I don’t imagine they’d normally introduce the Christians to the lion.’
They called this the gallery. It was a narrow room with a bank of TV monitors, through which the director and the sound and vision mixers could view the studio floor from different angles. Once the show was on the air, the director would be in audio contact with the producer and the presenter, John Fallon, down in the bear pit. They actually called it that. In fact, Jane had found it a little disappointing at first. It was much smaller than it looked on the box — like a little theatre-in-the-round, with about six rows of banked-up seating.
‘Does the whole audience have some angle on the debate?’ she asked a white-haired bloke called Gerry, an ex-Daily Star reporter who was the senior member of Tania Beauman’s research team.
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘We’ve got a decent enough budget now, but it’s not that big. The audience are just ordinary punters bussed in — tonight’s bunch is from a paint factory in Walsall: packers, cleaners, management — a cross section of society.’
Gerry glanced at Eirion, who looked awfully young and innocent — and not happy. He had no stomach for subterfuge, Jane was realizing. He’d been appalled to discover that her mum, down there, did not know they were up here. Or, indeed, within sixty miles of Livenight.
Even in Eirion’s car, with the patched-up silencer, it hadn’t taken long to get here. The Warehouse studio complex had been quite easy to find, on the edge of a new business park, under a mile from the M5 and ten miles out of the central Birmingham traffic hell.
It was not until they’d actually left the motorway that Jane had revealed to Eirion the faintly illicit nature of this operation. ‘Irene, I’m doing this for you. This could be your future. This is like cutting-edge telly. It’s an in, OK. You might even get a holiday job.’
Eirion had looked appalled, like a taxi driver who’d just discovered he was providing the wheels in a wages snatch. He’d thought they were only driving up separately because Jane’s mum might have to stay the night. He did not know how Jane came to have Tania Beauman in her pocket, and would probably not be finding out. Neither would Mum; the plan was, they’d clear off about two minutes before the programme ended, go bombing back down the motorway, and Jane would be up in her apartment with the lights out by the time Mum got home.
Tania Beauman had turned out to be actually OK. She’d told both Gerry and the grizzled director, Maurice, that Jane was her cousin, doing a media studies college course. Which could well be true, one day.
‘How old is she?’ Maurice had enquired suspiciously.
‘Nineteen next month,’ Jane said crisply. Eirion looked queasy.
‘Stone me,’ Gerry muttered. ‘When the nineteen-year-olds start looking fourteen, you know you’re getting too old for it.’
Maurice took off his cans. ‘See, the problem with this particular programme is that we’re not Songs of Praise and this is not the God Slot. What we do not want is a religious debate. We don’t want the history of Druidism, we want to know what they get up to in their stone circles when the film crew’s gone home. We don’t want to hear about the people the witches’ve healed, we want to know about the ones they’ve cursed and the virgins they’ve deflowered on their altars. This is late-night TV. Our job — to put it crudely — is to send you off to bed with a hard-on.’
‘I’ll be interested to see how the little priest handles it,’ Gerry said thoughtfully. ‘She’s got enough of her own demons.’
Jane stared at him.
‘Marital problems,’ Gerry said. ‘Husband playing away… though what the hell possessed him, with that at home.’
‘You never know what goes on behind bedroom doors.’ Maurice shook his head, smiling sadly. ‘You turned all that up, did you, Gerald?’
‘And then, when it’s all looking a bit messy… Bang! The husband goes and gets killed in the car, with his girlfriend. Merrily wakes up a widow… and soon after that she’s become a priest. Interesting, do I detect guilt in there somewhere, or do I just have a suspicious-’
‘Christ!’ Jane snarled. ‘She didn’t become a bloody nun! She-’ She felt Eirion’s hand on her arm and shook it off and bit her lip.
Gerry grinned. ‘My, my. Women do stick together, don’t they?’
‘Lay off, Gerald.’ Maurice slipped on his headphones, flipped a switch on his console. ‘You there, Martin? Speak to me, son.’
‘So.’ Gerry leaned against the edge of the mixing desk. ‘There you are, Jane. Now you know how easy it is to get people going. You just watch the monitors. Within about seven minutes, everybody’s forgotten there are cameras.’ He pencilled a note on a copy of the programme’s running order; Jane made out the word Merrily. ‘Be a lot of heat, tonight, I think. When it gets going, it’s very possible one of those weirdos is gonna try some spooky stuff.’
Eirion stiffened. ‘Spooky stuff?’
‘I dunno, son. A spell or something, I suppose. Something to prove they can make things happen. I dunno, basically — it’s all cobblers, anyway.’
Jane looked at Eirion. She was still shaking. They had a little file on Mum; if the show lost momentum, shafting her became an option.
A Surreal Memory
Betty’s day clearly hadn’t been too great either. You could tell not so much from her face as from her manner: no bustle.
‘You don’t tell me yours, and I won’t tell you mine.’ Robin didn’t even lift his head from the kitchen table where he’d fallen into a sleep of dismay and frustration. ‘We’ll call it a shit amnesty.’
Ten-fifteen on this cold, misty, moonless night. Betty had been out since mid-afternoon. She’d been to see the widow Wilshire in New Radnor again, taking with her an arthritis potion involving ‘burdock and honeysuckle, garlic and nettle and a little healing magic’. Betty was good with healing plants; after pissing off her parents by walking out of teacher training, she’d worked at a herb garden and studied with a herbalist at nights for two and a half years. She’d gone to a whole lot of trouble with this potion, driving over to a place the other side of Hereford yesterday to pick up the ingredients.
‘How is she now?’
‘Oh… more comfortable. And happier, I think.’
Around six she’d phoned him to say she was hanging on there a while. Seemed Mrs Wilshire’s home help had not made it this week and she was distressed about the state of her house and her inability to clean it up. So Betty would clean up, sure she would. Wherever she went, Betty added to her collection of aunts.
‘OK,’ Robin said, ‘if she’s so much better, I give up. Where’s the bad stuff come in?’
‘It isn’t necessarily bad — just odd.’ Betty took off her coat, hung it behind the back door, went to get warm by the stuttering Rayburn. ‘So you first. It’s Ellis, isn’t it?’
‘No, haven’t heard a word from Ellis. This is Blackmore. He faxed. He doesn’t like the artwork.’
‘Oh.’ Betty pushed her hands through her hair, letting it tumble. ‘I did say it was a mistake, dealing with him directly. You should have carried on communicating through the publishers. If he can get hold of you any time he wants, he’ll just keep on quibbling.’
‘It was what he wanted. And he is Kirk Blackmore. And, frankly, quibbling doesn’t quite reach it.’
‘Not something you can alter easily?’
Robin laughed bleakly. ‘What the asshole doesn’t like is… everything. He doesn’t like my concept of Lord Madoc — his face is wrong, his hair is wrong, his clothes are wrong, his freaking boots are wrong. Oh, and he walks in the wrong colour of mist.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Betty came round the back of his chair, put her hands on his shoulders, began to knead. ‘All that work. What does it mean? What happens now?’
‘Means I grovel. Or I take the one-off money and someone else’s artwork goes on the book.’
‘There’s no way-’
‘Betty… OK. I am a well-regarded illustrator. Any ordinary, midlist fantasy writer, they’d have to go with it. Blackmore, however, is now into a one-and-a-half-million-pound three-book deal. He walks with the gods. Different rules apply.’
Betty scowled. ‘Doesn’t change the fact that he writes moronic crap. Tell him to sod off. It’s just one book.’
He sat up. ‘It’s not moronic. The guy knows his stuff. And it’s not just one book. His whole backlist’s gonna be rejacketed in the Sword of Twilight format, whoever’s artwork that should be. Which is seven books — a lot of work. Face it, I need Blackmore. I need to have my images under his big name. Also, we need the money if we’re gonna make a start on getting this place into any kind of good condition. We were counting on that money, were we not?’
‘Right, end of story. Back to the airbrush.’
She bent and kissed his hair. ‘You’ve gone pale.’
‘Yeah, well, I didn’t expect it. It was a kick in the mouth. Do me good — getting too sure of myself. All right, go ahead. Regale me with the unglad tidings you bring back from the big metropolis.’
They’d taken to calling New Radnor the big metropolis, on account of it having three shops.
‘Well…’ Betty sat down next to him. ‘Mrs Wilshire was all worked up because she remembered she’d promised to get the home help to hunt out some of the Major’s papers relating to… this place. He kept them in a wooden summer house in the garden. And of course, the home help didn’t show up. Anyway, she gave me the key. That’s why I’m so late. I was in there for over an hour. Quite a little field HQ the Major had there: lighting, electric heater, kettle, steel filing cabinet.’
‘And she let you loose in there? Almost a stranger?’
‘She needs somebody to trust.’
‘Yeah.’ People trusted Betty on sight; it was a rare quality.
‘And she wanted it sorting out, but quite clearly couldn’t face going down there, because of the extra responsibility it might heap on her, which she’s never been good at. And also because there’s a lot of him still there. You can feel him — a clean, precise sort of mind; and frustration because he couldn’t find enough to do with it. So when he was buying a house, he was determined to know everything, get the very best deal.’
‘Not like me, huh?’
Betty smiled. ‘You’re the worst kind of impulse buyer. You even hide things from yourself. You and the Major wouldn’t have got on at all.’
‘So what did you find?’
‘Mrs Wilshire said I could bring anything home that might be useful. I’ve got a cardboard box full of stuff in the car.’
‘But you didn’t bring it in?’
‘Tomorrow.’ Betty leaned her head back. ‘I’ve read enough for one night. No wonder he kept it in the shed.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I mean, in one respect, Major Wilshire was like you — once he’d seen this place, he had to have it. But it also had to be at the right price. And of course he wasn’t remotely superstitious. An old soldier, he wasn’t afraid of anything that couldn’t shoot him. But I suppose that if he happened to come up with certain information that might upset any other potential buyers…’ Betty stopped and rolled her head around to ease tension. ‘It’s funny… the first time I ever went in those ruins, I thought, this is really not a happy place.’
‘This is something the agent should’ve told us? We get to sue the agent?’
‘How very American of you. No, I rather doubt it. All too long ago. Anyway, they told us about Major Wilshire’s death, which was the main drawback, presumably, as far as they were concerned.’
‘So what is this? The ruins are haunted?’
‘We jumped to conclusions. We assumed the church was abandoned because of flooding or no access for cars. Or at least you did.’
‘I assumed. Yeah, assuming is what I do. All the time. OK.’ Robin stood up. ‘I can’t stand it. Gimme the car keys, I’ll go fetch your box of goodies.’
When he arrived back with the stuff, she had cocoa coming up. He slammed and barred the door. He was tingling with cold and damp.
‘Whooo, it’s turned into fog! Was it like that when you were driving home?’
‘Some of the way.’
Just as well he’d fallen asleep earlier and hadn’t known about the fog; he’d have been worried sick about her, with the ice on the roads and all.
He dumped the cardboard wine box on the table. ‘Best not to go out at night this time of year, living in a place like this. Suppose it was so thick you drove into the creek?’
‘Brook,’ Betty said.
‘Whatever.’ Robin unpacked the box. Mostly, it seemed to be photocopies, the top one evidently from some official list of historic buildings.
CHURCH OF ST MICHAEL, OLD HINDWELL.
Ruins of former parish church. Mainly C13 and C14, with later south porch and chancel. Embattled three-stage tower of late C14, rubble-construction with diagonal buttresses to north-west and south-west…
And so on. There were a couple more pages of this stuff, which Robin put aside for further study.
‘Like you said, looks like the Major built up a fairly comprehensive background file.’
He turned up some sale particulars similar to the one he and Betty had received. Same agent — and same wording, give or take.
‘A characterful, historic farmhouse with outbuildings and the picturesque ruins of a parish church, in a most unusual location…’
All true enough, as far as it went. Next, Robin found several pages ripped out of a spiral-bound notebook and bunched together with a bulldog clip. There was handwriting on them, not too intelligible, and a string of phone numbers.
‘Don’t know. Couldn’t make it out. There’s all kinds of junk in there. Mrs Wilshire told me to take it anyway. I think she just wanted to get rid of as much as she could. Right, there you are… that’s the start of it.’
He lifted out a news cutting pasted to a piece of A4. The item was small and faded. ‘Rector Resigns due to Ill Health.’
It said little more than that the Reverend Terence Penney had given up the living of Old Hindwell and had left the area. A replacement was being sought.
‘When was this?’ A date had been scrawled across the newsprint but he couldn’t make it out.
‘That late? You mean the Old Hindwell church was still operational until seventy-seven?’
‘Why did I have it in mind it must have been abandoned back in the thirties or forties?’
‘Because you were sold on the idea that it was due to motor vehicles and the brook. Read the letter underneath. It’s from the same woman who wrote the piece in the newspaper.’
It had been typewritten, on an old machine with an old ribbon.
Dear Major Wilshire,
Thank you for your letter. Yes, you are quite right, I did have the dubious honour of being appointed Radnor Valley correspondent of the Brecon and Radnor Express for a few years in the 1970s, receiving, if I recall correctly, something like one halfpenny a line for my jottings about local events of note!
My reports on the departure of the Reverend Penney were not, I must say, the ones of which I am most proud, amounting, as they did, to what I suppose would be termed these days a ‘cover up’. But my late husband and I were comparatively recent incomers to the area and I was ‘walking on eggshells’ and determined not to cause offence to anyone!
However, I suppose after all this time there is no reason to conceal anything any more, especially as there was considerable local gossip about it at the time.
Yes, the Reverend Penney was indeed rather a strange young man, although I am still inclined to discount the rumours that he ‘took drugs’. There were some hippy types living in the area at the time with whom he was quite friendly, so I suppose this is how the rumour originated.
In retrospect, I think Mr Penney was not the most appropriate person to be put in charge of St Michael’s. He was a young man and very enthusiastic, full of ideas, but the local people were somewhat set in their ways and resistant to any kind of change. The church itself was not in very good condition (even before Mr Penney’s arrival!), and the parish was having difficulty raising money for repairs — there were not the grants available in those days — and it was a big responsibility for such a young and inexperienced minister.
Yes, I am afraid that what you have been told is broadly correct, though I must say that I never found any signs of mental imbalance in Mr Penney, in his first year at least. He was always friendly, if a little remote.
My memories of THAT day remain confused. Perhaps we should have suspected something after the small fire, the slippage of tiles from the roof and the repeated acts of apparent vandalism (I realize no charges ever resulted from these continued occurrences, so I hope I can trust you, as a soldier, to treat this correspondence as strictly confidential), but no one could really have predicted the events of that particular October morning. It would not have seemed so bad had it not been raining so hard and the brook in such spate. Naturally, quite a crowd — for Hindwell — gathered and there was much weeping and wailing, although this was quickly suppressed and after that day I do not remember anyone speaking of it — quite extraordinary. It was as if the whole village somehow shared the shame.
No, as you note, the big newspapers never ‘got on’ to the story. Small communities have always been very good at smothering sensational events almost at birth. And what was I, the village correspondent, supposed to write? I was not a journalist, merely a recorder of names at funerals and prize-winners at the local show. Furthermore, later that day, I received a visit from Mr Gareth Prosser Snr, together with Mr Weal, his and our solicitor, who stressed to me that it would ‘not be in the best interests of the local people’ for this to be publicized in any way. Mr Prosser was the county councillor for the area and served on the police committee and was a personage of considerable gravitas. It was not for me, a newcomer, to cross him over an issue of such sensitivity!
The Church of England (the village is in Wales, but the parish is in the Diocese of Hereford) chose not to take any proceedings against Mr Penney. After his departure, another minister was appointed but did not stay long and thereafter the parish became part of a ‘cluster’ which is not so uncommon these days! I suppose one could say Old Hindwell ‘lost heart’ after the extraordinary behaviour of Mr Penney.
I do hope I have been able to help you, but I am rather ‘out of touch’ with events in Old Hindwell. Although I live no more than half an hour’s drive away.
I seem never once to have revisited the village since we moved house in 1983. Old Hindwell is one of those places which it is easy to forget exists, except as a rather surreal memory!
With very best regards,
Juliet Pottinger (Mrs)
‘The Local People,’ Robin said. ‘Whoooeee! Those local people sure like to wield power.’
‘No more than in any small community.’ Betty brought over cocoa for them both. She knew he’d go for the cover-up aspect first, rather than the significance of the event that had been covered up. She almost wished she could have censored the papers before letting him see them.
The idea of this panicked her. It was like the Wilshires in reverse. Until they came here, she’d never even thought of keeping secrets from Robin.
‘And who is this Weal?’ he said. ‘Was the plan that they might have to lean on this old broad legally?’
‘She wouldn’t have been an old broad then. She was probably quite a young broad.’
‘Whatever, this smells of real redneck intrigue. Prosser Senior — that would be Gareth Prosser’s old man?’
‘Sounds like it,’ Betty said. And then came to the point. ‘But the main issue is, what happened to the Reverend Penney? What did he do that day that scandalized the community so much that he had to resign on so-called health grounds?’
‘Didn’t the widow Wilshire know any of this?’
‘She’d never even seen the letter. Bryan would not have wanted to worry the little woman.’
‘Well,’ Robin said, ‘it’s clear that the Reverend Penney was under a lot of pressure and it drove him a little crazy. She talks about him feeling isolated. Maybe he came from some English city, couldn’t cut it in the sticks. And the Local People resented him, gave him a hard time.’
‘To the extent of vandalizing his church? Starting a fire? You don’t think that sounds a little inner-city for a place like this?’
‘Sounds like he was getting some hassle. Sounds like there could be something the Local People are a tad ashamed about, wouldn’t you say?’
He looked pleased about this. He would make a point now of finding out precisely what had happened and what, if anything, the community had to hide. Betty, on the other hand, could sympathize with Juliet Pottinger’s low-profile approach. Yes, it would be necessary to find out what had happened on what was now their property — but not to go about this in a conspicuous way. They were incomers and foreigners. And had a different religion, which may somehow have become known to certain people. Unspoken opinion might already be stacked against them; they must not be seen to be too nosy or too clever. They must move quietly.
‘After Penney left,’ she said, ‘the church appeared to “lose heart”. It was in full use until nineteen seventy-eight and now it’s a ruin. In just over thirty years. Not exactly a slow decay.’
‘Aw, buildings go to pieces in no time at all when they’re left derelict. She implies in the letter that it was already falling apart. And maybe in those days the authorities weren’t so hot on preserving old buildings. I’m more curious about what the Local People did to this Penney. Where’s he now?’
‘I don’t know. And we’re the last people to know anyone in the clergy who might be able to find out. We-’
‘Look, I’ll go find out the truth tomorrow. I’ll go see Prosser. We’re gonna need more logs — real logs. I’ll go find out if Prosser knows a reputable log dealer and at the same time I’ll ask him about Reverend Penney. See if he tries to lean on me, do the rural menace stuff.’
‘I’ll go, if you like,’ Betty said, without thinking.
Robin put down his cocoa mug. ‘Because I will rub him up the wrong way? Because I will be gauche and loud and unsubtle? Because I will say, you can’t touch me, pal, I got the Old Gods on my side?’
‘Of course not. I’m sorry. You’re right. You should go. Men around here prefer to deal with other men.’
‘What I thought.’ He looked at her and grinned. ‘This is nothing to worry about.’
‘No,’ Betty said.
Far from representing her and Robin’s destiny and the beautiful future of the pagan movement in this country, she was now convinced that the old church of Michael was a tainted and revolting place that should indeed be left to rot. But how could she lay all this on him now, after his crushing disappointment over the Blackmore illustrations?
‘Let’s go to bed,’ she said.
No way could she ever have imagined it was going to be like this.
She’d thought that it could never be worse than the pulpit that first time, up in Liverpool, when those three creaking wooden steps were like the steps to the gallows.
And may God have mercy on your soul.
She’d drunk very little of the spring water on offer in the green room, never once thinking of the fierce heat from the studio lights and what it might do to the irrigation of the inside of her mouth.
With ten minutes to go, she’d popped outside for a cigarette, sharing a fire-escape platform with two sly-smiling New Age warriors and their seven-inch spliff, shaking her head with a friendly, liberal smile when they’d offered it to her.
Never really imagining that the nerves wouldn’t just float away once they were on the air. Because… well, because this was trivial, trash, tabloid television, forgotten before the first editions of tomorrow’s papers got onto the streets.
This really mustn’t be taken too seriously.
Merrily froze, two thousand years of Christianity setting like concrete around her shoulders. The light was merciless and hotter than the sun. She was in terror; she couldn’t even pray.
‘Merrily Watkins,’ he’d said, ‘you’re a vicar, a woman of God. Let’s hear how you defend your creator against that kind of logic. Isn’t there really a fair bit of sense in what Ned’s saying?’
He was slight, not very tall. His natural expression was halfway to a smile, the lips in a little V. He was light and nimble and chatty. He earned probably six times as much as a bishop — the shiny-suited, eel-like, non-stick, omnipotent John Fallon.
‘Well, Merrily,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there?’
And yet, there were no tricks, no surprises. It had started, exactly as Tania Beauman had said it would, with the parents Jean and Roger Gillespie, goddess-worshippers from Taunton, Somerset, who wanted their daughter’s religion to be formally accepted at her primary school. They’d have a second child starting school next year; later a third one; they wanted new data programmed into the education machine, respectful references to new names: Isis, Artemis, Aradia. Roger was an architect with the county council; he maintained that his beliefs were fully accepted on the executive estate where the Gillespies had lived for three years.
They were both so humourless, Merrily thought, as Jean demanded parity with Islam and boring old Christianity, and special provision for her family’s celebration of the solstices and the equinoxes, the inclusion of pagan songs, at least once a week, at the school assembly.
Fallon had finally interrupted this tedious monotone. ‘And what do you do exactly, Jean? Do you hold nude ceremonies in your garden? What happens if the neighbours’ve got a barbecue going?’
‘Well, that’s just the kind of attitude we don’t get, for a start.’ Jean’s single plait hung like a fat hawser down her bosom. ‘Our rituals are private and discreet and are respected by our neighbours, who-’
‘Fine. Sure. OK.’ John Fallon had already been on the move, away from Jean, who carried on talking, although the boom-mic operator had moved on. Fallon had spun away through ninety degrees to his next interviewee: the elegant Mr Edward Bain, nothing so vulgar as King of the Witches.
‘We’re here to talk about religious belief,’ Fallon had read from the autocue at the beginning of the show, ‘and the right of people in a free society to worship their own gods. Some of you might think it’s a bit loony, even scary, but the thousands of pagan worshippers in Britain maintain that theirs is the only true religion of these islands, and they want their ceremonies — which sometimes include nudity, simulated and indeed actual sex — to be given full charitable status and full recognition from the state and the education system…’
When he had his back to Merrily, she saw the wire to his earpiece coming out of his collar, like a ruched scar on the back of his neck. Relaying instructions or suggestions, from the programme’s director in some hidden bunker.
‘Ned Bain,’ Fallon said, ‘you’re the high priest of a London coven — can we use the word “coven”? — and also a publisher and an expert on ancient religions of all kinds. I want you to tell me, simply and concisely, why you think paganism is, today, more relevant and more important to these islands than Christianity.’
And Edward Bain had sat, one leg hooked casually over the other like… like Sean had sat sometimes… a TV natural, expounding without pause, his eyes apparently on Fallon, but actually gazing beyond him across the studio. His eyes, in fact, were lazily fixed on Merrily’s… and they — she clutched her chair seat tightly — they were not Sean’s.
‘Well, for a start, they’ve had their two millennia,’ he said reasonably. ‘Two thousand years of war and divison, repression and persecution, torture, genocide… in the name of a cruel, despotic deity dreamed up in the Middle East.’
From the seats tiered behind Merrily came the swelling sound of indrawn breath, like a whistling in the eaves. Part awe, part shock, part admiration at such cool, convincing blasphemy.
‘Two thousand years of the cynical exploitation, by wealthy men, of humanity’s unquenchable yearning for spirituality… the milking of the peasants to build and maintain those great soaring cathedrals… created to harness energies they no longer even understand. Two thousand years of Christianity… a tiny, but ruinous period of Earth’s history. A single dark night of unrelenting savagery and rape.’
There was a trickle of applause. He continued to look at Merrily, his mouth downturned in sorrow but a winner’s light in his eyes. The space between them seemed to shrink, until she could almost feel the warm dusting of his breath on her face. On a huge screen above him was projected the image of a serene, bare-breasted woman wearing a tiara like a coiled snake.
‘Now it’s our turn,’ he said softly. ‘We who worship in woods and circles of rough stone. We who are not afraid to part the curtains, to peer into the mysteries from which Christianity still cowers, screaming shrilly at us to come away, come away. To us — and to the rest of you, if you care to give it any thought — Christianity is, at best, a dull screen, a block. It is anti-spiritual. It was force-fed to the conquered and brutalized natives of the old lands, who practised — as we once did, when we still had sensitivity — a natural religion, in harmony with the tides and the seasons, entirely beneficent, gentle, pacific, not rigid nor patriarchal. The Old Religion has always recognized the equality of the sexes and exalted the nurturing spirit, the spirit which can soothe and heal the Earth before it is too late.’
The trickle of applause becoming a river. John Fallon standing with folded arms and his habitual half-smile. Someone had dimmed the studio lights so that Ned Bain was haloed like a Christ figure, and when he spoke again it might have been Sean there, being reasonable, logical. Merrily began to sweat.
‘The clock of the Earth is running down. We’ve become alienated from her. We must put the last two thousand years behind us and speak to her again.’
And the river of applause fanned out into a delta among not only the myriad ranks of the pagans, but also the shop-floor workers and the wages staff and the middle and upper management of the paint factory in Walsall. The claps and cheers turned to an agony of white noise in Merrily’s head and she closed her eyes, and when she opened them, there was the fuzzy boom-mic on a pole hanging over her head, and the camera had glided silently across like an enormous floor-polisher and John Fallon, legs apart, hands behind his back, was telling her and the millions at home, ‘… really a fair bit of sense in what Ned’s saying? Well, Merrily… isn’t there?’
She’s frozen, Jane thought in horror, as two seconds passed.
Two entire seconds…. on Livenight! A hush in the bear pit.
‘Come on, love.’ Gerry’s hands were chivvying at the monitors. ‘You’re not in the bloody pulpit now.’
Maurice, the director, said into his microphone, ‘John, why don’t you just ask her, very gently, if she’s feeling all right?’
Jane wanted to haul him from his swivel chair and wrestle him to the ground among the snaking wires. But then, thank Christ, Mum started talking.
It just wasn’t her voice, that was the problem. She sounded like she’d just been awakened from a drugged sleep. Well, all right, it was going to be a tough one. Ned Bain was a class act, a cool, cool person, undeniably sexy. And Jane admittedly felt some serious empathy with what he was saying. Like, hadn’t she herself had this same argument with Mum time and again, pointing out that paganism — witchcraft — was a European thing, born in dark woodland glades, married to mountain streams. It was practical, and Jane didn’t even see it as entirely incompatible with Christianity.
The camera was tight on Mum — so tight that, oh no, you could see the sweat. And she was gabbling in that strange, cracked voice about Christianity being pure, selfless love, while paganism seemed to be about sex at its most mechanical and… feelingless.
Feelingless? Jesus, Jane thought, is that a real word? Oh God.
‘This is bloody trite crap, especially after the pagan guy,’ Maurice told John Fallon. ‘Let’s come back to her when, and if, she gets her shit together.’
‘All right.’ John Fallon spun away, a flying smirk. ‘That’s the, ah, Church of England angle.’
Oh God! When she was sure the camera was away from her, Merrily dabbed a crumpled tissue to her forehead, knowing immediately what she should have said, how she could have dealt with Bain’s simplistic generalizations. Now wanting to jump up and tug Fallon back. But it was, of course, too late.
From halfway up an aisle between rows of seats, she caught a glance from Steve Ewing, the producer, his mouth hidden under a lip-microphone as used by ringside boxing commentators. It was as if he was ironically rerunning his pre-programme pep talk: ‘… you’ll be kicking yourself all the way home because you missed your chance of getting your argument across on the programme.’
From the adjacent seat to her left, a hand gently squeezed her arm: Patrick Ryan, the sociologist who was supposed to have shagged half the priestesses in the southern counties while compiling his thesis on pagan ritual practice. ‘You’ll get used to it,’ he whispered.
She nodded. She sought out the eyes of Ned Bain, but they were in shadow now; he seemed to be looking downwards. He appeared very still and limp, as though his body was recharging. She thought, He was staring at me the whole time. And afterwards I couldn’t do a thing.
‘… gonna talk to Maureen now,’ John Fallon was saying, back on the other side of the studio floor, just across the aisle from Ned Bain. ‘Maureen, your teenage daughter was into all this peaceful, New Age nature worship. But that was only the start, because Gemma ended up, I believe, in a psychiatric unit.’
Oh, sure… blame Bain for your own deficiencies. Merrily shook herself, furious. Blame poor dead Sean.
‘She’s still attending the unit, John.’ Maureen was a bulky woman, early fifties, south London accent. ‘Apart from that, she won’t hardly leave the house any more, poor kid.’
‘She became a witch, right?’
‘She became a witch when she was about seventeen, when she first went to the tech college. There was a lecturer there like… him.’ Maureen jerked a thumb at Ned Bain, who tilted his head quizzically. ‘Smooth, good-looking guy, on the make.’
Ned chuckled. Really nothing like Sean. How could she have-
‘But let’s just make it clear,’ Fallon said, ‘that this was not Ned Bain here. So this other man recruited Gemma into a witch coven.’
Maureen described how her daughter had been initiated in a shop cellar converted into a temple, and within about six months her personality had completely changed. She’d broken off her engagement to a very nice boy who was a garage mechanic, and then they found out she was into hard drugs.
‘But I never knew the worst of it till her mate come to see me one day. This was the mate she’d joined the coven with, and she told me Gemma had got involved with this other group what was doing black magic. She said Gemma went with the rest of them to St Anthony’s Church — and I know this happened, ’cause it was in the papers — and they desecrated it.’
‘Well… you know… did… did their dirt.’ The big face crumpled. ‘Things like-’
‘John, let me say…’ Ned Bain was leaning forward. The camera pulled back, the boom-mic operator shifted position. ‘This is satanism, and satanism is a specifically anti-Christian movement. It is entirely irrelevant to Wicca or any of the other strands of paganism. We do not oppose Christianity. We-’
‘The hell you don’t!’ Merrily was half out of her seat, but well off-mic.
‘We are an alternative to Christianity,’ Bain stressed. ‘And also, I should perhaps point out at this stage, a precursor, of the tired, politicized cult of Jesus. And I say precursor, because there’s evidence that Christianity itself is no more than a fabrication, a modification of the cult of Dionysus, in which the story of the man-god who dies and is resurrected…’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Fallon stopped him. ‘Fascinating stuff, Ned, but I want to stay with satanism for a moment.’
‘As you would,’ Merrily muttered.
‘Now, Ned, you would say that satanism is as much anathema to pagans as it is to the Christian Church. And yet young Gemma graduated — or descended — to some kind of devil worship after being initiated as a witch. I want to come back…’ Fallon wheeled ‘… to Merrily Watkins…’
Merrily’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair. Please God…
‘Now, what we didn’t say before about Merrily is that, as well as being one of the new breed of female parish priests, she’s also the official exorcist — I believe Deliverance Minister is the correct term these days — for the Diocese of Hereford. That’s right?’
‘Yes.’ Ignore the camera, the lights. Don’t look at Bain’s eyes.
‘So what I want to ask you, do people like Maureen often come to you with this same kind of story?’
‘I…’ She swallowed. How could she say she hadn’t been in the job long enough to have accumulated any kind of client base. ‘I have to say… John… that what you might call real satanism is uncommon. What you have are kids who’re playing old Black Sabbath albums and get a perverse buzz out of dressing up and doing something horribly antisocial. Quite often, you’ll find that these kids will join a witch coven in the belief that it’s far more… extreme, if you like, than it actually is. That they’re entering a world of sex rites and blood sacrifice.’
‘Which is your fault!’ one of the pagans shouted. ‘Because that’s how the Church has portrayed us for centuries.’
‘She’s saying,’ Maureen shrilled, extending a finger at Merrily, ‘that my daughter only joined the witches because she thought they were evil?’
‘No, what I’m-’
‘She’s sitting on the fence!’ A heavy man bounded down one of the aisles. ‘That’s what she’s doing.’
Two security heavies moved in from different directions. Fallon blocked the man’s path. ‘You are?’
‘The Reverend Peter Gemmell.’ He was grey-bearded and big enough to take on either of the two security men. ‘You won’t find me on your list. I’m an industrial chaplain, and I came with the factory group from Walsall. But that’s beside the point. What I want is to tell you all the truth that my colleague here is too diplomatic, too delicate, too wishy-washy to introduce. And that is to say that Satan himself is present in this studio tonight.’
‘Oh hell,’ Jane said glumly, ‘a fruitcake. Just when I thought she might be really cooking.’
‘Lovely.’ Gerry leaned back in his canvas chair with his hands behind his head.
Voice-crackle from Maurice’s cans. He nodded, scanning the monitors to make sure Gemmell was alone. ‘OK, Steve, thanks, will do. John, let’s see where this one goes, OK?’
Eirion looked shell-shocked. ‘Anything could happen down there, couldn’t it? Suppose that guy had a gun?’
‘Probably wouldn’t be that much use against Satan, anyway,’ Jane reasoned.
‘Why don’t you tell them?’ The Rev. Peter Gemmell hissed at Merrily. ‘Why don’t you tell them that Satan is in our midst? That he’s here now. Why don’t you stand up and denounce him?’
Fallon saved her.
‘Well, you tell us, Peter, since you’re here. You point him out. Where exactly is Satan sitting?’
‘I shall tell you.’ Gemmell didn’t hesitate. ‘He’s sitting directly behind you.’
Fallon stepped aside to reveal Ned Bain smiling and shaking his head, pityingly.
‘That man…’ Gemmell glared contemptuously at Bain. ‘That man speaks from the Devil’s script. From his lips spews the slick rhetoric of Satan the seducer.’
Sea of Light? Merrily wondered.
‘ “The satyr shall cry to his fellow!” ’ Gemmell roared. ‘ “Yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place!” Isaiah.’
Merrily thought of the number of interpretations you could put on that. In fact, she was sure there was a rather more innocent translation in the Revised English Bible. She just couldn’t remember what it was. Couldn’t remember anything tonight.
‘The satyr,’ Gemmell explained, ‘is the so-called horned god of the witches — the god Pan. The night hag is the demon Lilith. And so the Bible tells us quite plainly that paganism invites the demonic to share its bed. And that is as true today as it was when it was written.’
‘The Old Testament,’ Bain said wearily. ‘This guy comes down here and quotes at me from a hotchpotch of myth and legend and old wives’ tales…’
‘The voice of Satan!’ Gemmell snarled, and Merrily was aware of Steve Ewing to her right, putting the bouncers on alert.
‘Thank you, Peter.’ John Fallon placed an arm on the big priest’s shoulder. ‘We’re grateful for that, but I don’t think we’re quite ready for the battle of Armageddon tonight.’
‘I have made my point,’ Gemmell said with dignity and, with a baleful glance at Merrily, walked back up the aisle and then stopped and turned and, before the security men could reach him, roared out, ‘We must — and will — put out the false lights in the night of filth!’
‘Good man,’ Fallon said. ‘Well… Ned Bain’s either the saviour of our planet or he’s the Antichrist. But before that interruption, Merrily, you were saying so-called satanists are just a bunch of delinquent kids…’
‘No, what I said was that real satanism is uncommon. I do know it exists. I have encountered the use of occult practices for evil purposes and I think Ned’s being a bit optimistic if he thinks all pagans are in it to heal the earth.’ Her mouth was dry again. She swallowed.
‘Go on,’ Fallon said.
‘Well, I know for a fact that pagan groups are infiltrated by people with less… altruistic aims — whether it’s money, or drugs or iffy sex.’
‘Black propaganda!’ a woman screeched. Fallon held up a hand for quiet.
‘I do know a young girl,’ Merrily said carefully, thinking of Jane watching at home. ‘She’s a girl who was very nearly ensnared by the people who were secretly running what appeared to be a fairly innocent mystical group for women. It’s a minefield. In the glamorous world of goddesses and prophecy and… and nude dancing at midnight, it’s very hard to distinguish between the people who truly and sincerely believe all this will heal the earth and free our souls… and the ones who are into personal power and gratification of their-’
‘What group?’ the woman shouted. ‘She’s making it up! John, you make her tell us where it was!’
‘Ssssh,’ Fallon said. ‘OK, where was this, Merrily?’
‘It was… around Hereford. Around the Welsh border. Obviously, I’m not going to name anybody who-’
‘All right.’ Fallon turned to the young woman who’d shouted out. ‘It’s Vivienne, right? And you’re the priestess of a coven in Manchester. How do you know what kind of people you’re initiating? How do you vet them?’
‘You just… know.’ Vivienne had cropped hair and earrings that seemed to be made from the bejewelled bodies of seahorses. ‘The initiation process itself weeds out the scum bags and the weirdos. It’s a psychic thing. You learn to pick up on it, and the goddess herself-’
‘That is rubbish,’ Merrily interrupted.
Vivienne paused. John Fallon smiled.
Merrily said, ‘People don’t get vetted before they’re allowed to mess with other people’s minds. You don’t have any real organization or any fixed creed. Your rituals don’t go back to pre-Christian times, they were all made up in the last half century. You’re a complete ragbag of half-truths and good intentions and bad intentions and-’
‘And that’s any different from your Church?’ Vivienne reared out of her seat. ‘Half of you don’t believe in a Virgin Birth! Half of you don’t believe in the Resurrection! And you call us a ragbag. I’m telling you, lady, you’ll have come to bits long before we do. It’s happening right now. And you… you’re part of the decay. We look at you and the blokes see a pretty face and nice legs, and that’s just the Church’s latest scheme to deflect attention from the rot in its guts.’
A build-up of cheers among the pagan ranks. John Fallon stepped back to let the camera catch it all.
‘Your Church is dying on its feet!’ Vivienne grinned triumphantly. ‘It’s not gonna see the new century out. You took our sacred sites from us, and we’re gonna take them back. Your fancy churches will fall, and honest grass will grow up through their ruins, and towers will stand alone, like megaliths-’
‘Whoah!’ Fallon stepped back into the action. ‘What are you banging on about?’
‘All right,’ Vivienne said. ‘She’s from the Welsh border, yeah? I can show you a church on her actual doorstep where that’s already happened. I can show you a church with a tower and graves and everything… which is now a pagan church. You don’t know what’s happening on your own doorstep. You don’t know nothing!’
‘Move it!’ Jane raced along the bright corridor, trailing her fleece coat over a shoulder. The building appeared to be still only half finished; there were lumps of plaster everywhere, and the panes of many windows still had strips of brown tape across them. ‘Irene, move!’
‘I was just trying to thank Maurice and Gerry.’
‘We’ll write them a letter! Come on. Believe me, she is not going to hang on here. She’s going to be out of that bear pit before any of them can pin her in a corner. She’ll be driving like a bat out of hell down the motorway, swearing that she’ll never, never, never again…’
‘I thought she did OK,’ Eirion said, blundering behind her, ‘in the end. She got that woman very annoyed.’
‘You thought she did OK. I think she just about managed to rescue the situation. She’ll think she was absolutely crap and like disgraced the Church and the bishop and… Jesus Christ!’ Jane hit a pair of swing doors, still running. ‘Can’t you move any faster? I thought you were in the rugby team.’
‘The chess team.’ Eirion caught the doors on the rebound. ‘You know it was the chess team.’
In the old Nova, with Jane leaning back, panting, against a peeling headrest, Eirion said, ‘I wonder what Gerry meant, when that woman was going on about the pagan church.’
‘He said, “That’ll flog, if I’m quick,” and made a note on his script.’
‘That church, you mean?’
‘No, the story, I suppose.’ Eirion drove out of the parking area, past a red and white striped barrier which was already raised. ‘He means sell the story.’
‘Who would you normally sell a story to? To the papers. He was a tabloid journalist, wasn’t he? And John Fallon didn’t even follow it up on the programme, so…’
‘He doesn’t follow up anything that’ll take longer than thirty seconds or won’t lead to a fight. Irene, was that crass, meaningless and totally inconclusive, or what?’
‘Bit like the Welsh Assembly without a vote.’
‘You still want to do TV one day?’
‘What? Oh… well, not quite that, obviously. Not exactly that. I want to be a TV news reporter.’
‘So did those guys at one time, I expect. I mean, nobody starts out wanting to shovel shit for a living, do they?’
‘That was you, wasn’t it?’ Eirion slowed for a roundabout. ‘We’re looking for M5 South, aren’t we?’
‘Yeah, this one.’ Eirion hit the slip road. ‘That girl your mother was talking about. The girl who nearly got ensnared by those people running that women’s mystical group in Hereford.’
‘You already know it was me. You saw how it ended.’
‘I wasn’t sure.’
‘Well, it was.’
‘And yet you’re still interested in paganism and all that. Because that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? I mean, I know you did think I might get something out of it, career-wise… but you are kind of drawn to all that, aren’t you? I mean, still.’
Jane snorted a laugh. A big motorway sign loomed up, wreathed in tendrils of mist: ‘Worcester. The South West’. So many options. The motorway was romantic at night, despite those dark, blurred, nightmare memories that were more nightmare than memory, but fading.
‘Like, despite everything,’ Eirion persisted, ‘you’re still turned on by weird mystical stuff.’
‘Irene, it’s not “weird mystical stuff”, it’s about what we are and where we’re going. Do you never lie in bed and wonder what we’re part of and where it all ends?’
‘I could lie awake all night and agonize about it, but it wouldn’t make any difference, would it? I don’t like the look of this fog, Jane.’
‘But suppose it would? Suppose you could? I mean, suppose you could go places, deep into yourself and into the heart of the universe at the same time?’
‘But I know I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have the — what is it? — the application. Neither would most of those people there tonight. They think they can discover enormous, eternal, mind-blowing truths by summoning gods and spirits and things, but they’re just fooling themselves. I mean they were just… kind of sad tossers.’
‘Ned Bain wasn’t sad.’
‘Course he was. He was just the tosser in the suit.’
Eirion drifted onto the motorway. It wasn’t too foggy, but you couldn’t see the sky. Jane hoped Mum wasn’t feeling too choked about her performance to drive carefully.
She said, ‘He was making the point that paganism is no longer a crank thing; that it has to be taken seriously as a major, continuing tradition in this country and a genuine, valid force for change. He was like… very controlled and eloquent. I’d guess he’s quite a way along the Path.’
‘You mean the garden path?’
‘You know exactly what I mean.’
‘He’s manipulative. You couldn’t trust him.’
‘Because he’s kind of good-looking?’
‘Well,’ Eirion said, ‘that’s obviously a small plus-factor with you.’
‘Sod off. If I was that superficial, would I be going out with you?’
‘Going out with me?’
‘Possibly. I don’t know. I might be too weird for you.’
‘Yeah, that’s my principal worry, too,’ Eirion said, deadpan.
‘Bastard.’ Jane leaned her shoulder into his. ‘I wish there’d been time to wait and grab that Vivienne when she came out.’
‘She wouldn’t have told you where that church is. You notice how quick she clammed up, as though she knew she’d said too much? Because if some witchcraft sect are secretly practising at a Christian church… well, I don’t know. If they haven’t actually broken in, is that some kind of crime? Probably not.’
‘Well, there you go.’
‘Your mother’s going to have to find out about it, though, isn’t she?’
‘And what will she do when she does find out?’
‘Go in there with a big cross? How should I know?’
‘You could be more sympathetic to her.’
‘I am sympathetic.’
‘You’re also sympathetic to paganism.’
‘I’m interested. I’ve had… experiences, odd psychic things I can’t explain.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it really.’
‘Oh.’ Eirion drove in silence. Yellow fog-warning lights signalled a forty mph speed limit.
‘I’m not being funny,’ Jane said. ‘This just isn’t the time.’
‘Haven’t you? Had things happen to you you can’t explain? Feelings about places? Things you thought you saw? Times when your emotions and your, like, sensations are so intense that you feel you’re about to burst through into… something else. Some other level? I mean, the Welsh are supposed to be like…’
‘My gran’s a bit spooky.’
‘Tell me in what way.’
‘No, you tell me about your mum. Tell me about your dad.’
‘That bloody Gerry,’ Jane said.
Eirion was hesitant. ‘Was what he said…?’ The rest of it was lost under the rattling of a lorry passing them in the centre lane, a low-loader without a load, fast and free in the night.
‘Yeah,’ Jane said. ‘He had it more or less right. My dad met my mum at university, where they were both studying law, and she… got pregnant with me and left the university, and he carried on and became a bent solicitor.’
‘There was a special course for bent solicitors?’
‘Ha ha. They were both going to do legal aid stuff and defend people who couldn’t afford solicitors and all kinds of liberal, crusading stuff like that, according to Mum. But Dad wanted money — because of me, maybe he’d have said. Because of the responsibility. Though Mum says she was already learning things about him she didn’t like. And, anyway, he got into iffy deals with some clients and Mum found out about it and there was this big morality scene, not helped by him screwing his clerk.’ Jane paused for breath. ‘Around this time, Mum had been helping the local vicar with community work and also she had this quite heavy experience of her own.’
‘What sort of experience?’
‘This was when things were really, really bad, and she was desperately trying to sort things out in her own head. She drove off into the sticks and came across this tiny little church in a wood or something and there was, like, a lamplit path…’
‘It was night?’
‘No, it was daytime, dickhead. The lamplit path was, like, metaphorical or in her head or a visionary thing. And listen, if she ever asks, I didn’t tell you this, because she hates… Can’t you go any faster?’
‘There’s a speed limit.’
‘I can’t even see any fog now. Because if she catches us up…’
‘There’s still a speed limit. And so your dad was killed?’
‘He hit a motorway bridge. They were both killed. I mean, Karen, too. I read some newspaper cuttings I wasn’t supposed to find. It was horrible — a ball of fire.’
‘It was years ago,’ Jane said without emotion.
‘The M5. I suppose this is the M5, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a long motorway.’
‘Well, it wasn’t on this stretch, I don’t think. I don’t quite know where it was. I didn’t read that bit. You don’t want to keep looking out for a certain bridge all your life, do you?’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘What Gerry said about a guilt trip, that’s bullshit. I mean, why should she feel guilty? She was never mixed up in any of those crooked deals. Well, all right, it’s easier for a widow to get into the Church than a newly divorced woman. Maybe she did feel guilty at the way that decision was so neatly taken out of her hands.’
‘How do you feel about your dad?’
‘He was kind of fun,’ Jane said, ‘but I was very little. Your dad’s always fun when you’re little. What was your home like? Did you all speak Welsh? I mean, do you?’
‘Only when we have certain visitors. As everybody can speak English and English is a much bigger language and more versatile, you don’t have to speak Welsh to anybody. But there are some people it’s more correct to speak Welsh to. If you see what I mean.’
‘It’s a cultural minefield, yeah. But I like Welsh. It’s not my first language, but it’s not that far behind.’
‘Do you swear in Welsh? I mean you could swear in Welsh at school, in front of the teachers, and nobody would know.’
‘That’s an interesting point,’ Eirion said. ‘Actually, most Welsh people, when they swear, revert automatically to English. They’re walking along the street conversing happily in Welsh, then one trips over the kerb and it’s, like, “Oh, shit!” ’
‘Oh shit,’ Jane whispered.
It was sudden — like a grey woollen blanket flung over your head.
‘Oh, dear God,’ Jane said.
It was like they’d entered some weird fairground. Red lights in the air. Also white lights, at skewed angles, intersecting across all three carriageways.
She heard Eirion breathe in sharply as he hit the brakes and spun the wheel. Spun into a carnival of lights. Lights all over the place. False lights in the night of filth. Grabbed by her seatbelt, Jane heard screams, dipping and rising like the screams of women on a roller coaster.
The engine stalled. The car slid and juddered.
And stopped? Had they stopped?
Under the fuzzed and shivering lights, there was a moment of massive stillness in which Jane registered that Eirion had managed to bring the car to a halt without hitting anything. She breathed out in shattered relief. ‘Oh, Jesus.’
‘It’s a pile-up,’ Eirion said. ‘I don’t know what to do. Should we get out?’
‘We might be able to help someone.’
There was fog and there was also steam or something. And the silhouettes of figures moving. Even inside the car, there was a smell of petrol. Jane scrubbed at the windscreen, saw metal scrunched, twisted, stretched and pulled like intestine. The fog swirled like poison gas, alive with shouting and wailing and the waxy, solidified beams of headlights.
Jane screamed suddenly and thudded back into the passenger seat. Eirion frenziedly unbuckled his seatbelt, leaned across her. ‘Jane?’
‘I saw an arm. In the road. An arm sticking out. With a hand and fingers all splayed out and white. Just an arm, it was just-’
Brakes shrieked behind them.
You never thought about behind. Jane actually turned in time to see it, the monster with many eyes, before it reared and snarled and crushed them.
Gareth Prosser was loading hay or silage or whatever the hell they called it in these parts onto a trailer for his sheep out on the hills. He was panting out small balloons of white breath. He didn’t even look up when Robin strolled over, just muttered once into the trailer.
Robin deduced that his neighbour was enquiring after his health.
‘I’m fine,’ he said, although he still felt like shit after the Blackmore put-down. ‘Nice morning. Specially after all that fog last night.’
Gareth Prosser straightened up. He wore a dark green nylon coverall and an old discoloured cap. Behind him, you could hardly distinguish the grey farmhouse from the barns and tin-roofed shacks. There was a cold mist snaking amongst a clump of conifers on the hillside, but the sun had risen out of it. The sun looked somehow forlorn and out of place, like an orange beachball in the roadway. It was around eight-fifteen a.m.
‘Wonder if you can give me some advice,’ Robin said.
Gareth Prosser looked at him. Well, not in fact at him, but at a point just a couple degrees to his left, which was disconcerting — made you think there was someone behind you with an axe.
‘Firewood,’ Robin said. ‘We need some dry wood for the stove, and I figured you would know a reputable dealer.’
Gareth Prosser thought this over. He was a shortish, thickset guy in his fifties and now well overweight. His face was jowly, the colour and texture of cement.
Eventually, he said, ‘Mansel Smith’s your man.’
‘Ah.’ Robin was unsure how to proceed, on account of, if his recollection was accurate, the dealer who had sold them the notorious trailerload of damp and resinous pine also answered to the name of Mansel Smith.
‘You get your own wood from, uh, Mansel?’
Prosser slammed up the tailgate on the trailer.
‘We burns anthracite,’ he said.
‘Right.’ If Mansel Smith was the only wood dealer around, Robin could believe that. And yet somehow he thought that if Gareth Prosser did ever require a cord of firewood from Mansel it would not be pine and it would not be wet.
‘Well, thanks for your advice.’
‘No problem,’ Prosser said.
Right now, if this situation was the other way about, Robin figured he himself would be asking his neighbour in for a coffee, but Prosser just stood there, up against his trailer, like one of those monuments where the figure kind of dissolves into uncarved rock. No particular hostility; chances were this guy didn’t know or didn’t care that Robin was pagan.
Well, this was all fine by Robin, who stayed put, stayed cool. If there was one thing he’d learned from the Craft it was the ability to become still, part of the landscape like an oak tree. Prosser stayed put because maybe he was part of the landscape, and Robin figured they could both have stood there alongside that trailerload of winter fodder until one of them felt hunger pains or he — unlikely to be Prosser — burst out laughing.
But after about five seconds, the farmer looked up when a woman’s voice called out, ‘Gareth! Who was that?’
Prosser didn’t reply, and she came round the side of one of the sheds onto the half-frozen rutted track.
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘Hi there,’ Robin said.
The woman was a little younger than Gareth, maybe fifty, and a good deal better preserved. She wore tight jeans and boots and a canvas bomber jacket. She had a strong, lean face and clear blue eyes and short hair with, possibly, highlights.
‘Good morning,’ the woman said distinctly. ‘I’m Councillor Prosser’s wife.’
‘Hi. Robin Thorogood. From, uh, next door.’
They shook hands. She had a firm grip. She even looked directly into his eyes.
‘I’ve got some coffee on,’ she said.
‘That would be wonderful.’
‘I’ll be in now,’ Gareth said.
Robin had learned, from Betty, that when they said ‘now’ they meant ‘in a short while’. So he smiled and nodded at Gareth Prosser and gratefully followed Judith up the track toward the farmhouse complex. In the middle distance, their two teenage sons were wheeling their dirt bikes out to the hill. There was a sound like a chainsaw starting up and one of the boys splattered off.
‘Be an international next year, our Richard,’ Judith Prosser said proudly. ‘Had his first bike when he was four. All Wales Schoolboy Scrambling champion at eleven. Perfect country for it, see.’
‘Doesn’t it mess up the fields?’
‘Messes up the footpaths a bit.’ Mrs Prosser smiled ruefully. ‘We gets complaints from some of the rambling groups from Off. But not from the local people.’
‘Councillor Prosser’s boys, see,’ Mrs Prosser said, like it was perfectly reasonable that being a councillor should automatically exclude you from certain stifling social impositions. Robin didn’t detect any irony, but maybe it was there.
‘I see,’ he said.
‘This is Juliet Pottinger.’ An efficient and authoritative Scottish voice. ‘I’m afraid I am away this weekend, but you may wish to leave a message after the tone. If you are a burglar uninterested in thousands of books which are essentially old rather than antiquarian, then I can tell you that you are almost certainly wasting your time.’
Betty thought she sounded like a woman who would at least give you a straight answer — if not until Monday.
Bugger. She cleared away the breakfast things, ran some water for washing-up. Whatever Robin learned about the Reverend Penney from the Prossers, she didn’t trust him not to put some pagan-friendly spin on it, and it was important to her now to find out the truth. What had Penney done to cause ‘weeping and wailing’ in the village? Why had the local people hushed it up? Did the priest, Ellis, know the full story and did this explain why he was so determined to subject the site to some kind of exorcism? She’d never settle here until she knew.
The phone rang, had her reaching for a towel before the answering machine could grab the call.
‘Oh, my dear, I’m sure it’s working already!’
‘I have had what, without doubt, was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months!’
‘That’s, er, wonderful,’ Betty said hesitantly, because the likelihood of her arthritis remedy kicking in overnight was remote, to say the least.
‘I can bend my fingers further than… Oh, I must show you. Will you be in this area today?’
‘Well, I suppose…’
‘Marvellous. I shall be at home all day.’
‘Er… you didn’t stop taking your cortisone tablets, did you? Because steroids do need to be wound down slowly.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t take any chances.’
It was psychological, of course, and Betty felt a little wary. Mrs Wilshire was a woman who could very easily become dependent on people. If Betty wasn’t careful, she’d wind up having to call in to see her every other day. Still, if it hadn’t been for Mrs Wilshire they would never have got onto the Penney affair.
‘OK, I’ll drop in later this morning if that’s all right. Er, Mrs Wilshire, the papers you kindly let me take — about the church? There was one from a Mrs Pottinger, relating to the Reverend Penney. Do you know anything about that?’
‘Oh, there was a lot of trouble about him, my dear. Everyone was very glad when he left, so I’m told.’
‘Even though the church was decommissioned and sold soon afterwards?’
‘That was a pity, although I believe it was always rather a draughty old place.’
‘Er, do you remember, when you bought the house — and the church — did the Reverend Ellis come to visit you there?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I was hardly ever there. It was Bryan’s project. Bryan’s house, until it was finished. Which I confess I really rather hoped it never would be.’
‘So you don’t know if the Reverend Ellis went to see Bryan there?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t. Though I’m sure he would have mentioned it. He never mentioned Mr Ellis in connection with that house. I don’t remember him ever mentioning Mr Ellis.’
‘No suggestion of Mr Ellis wanting to conduct a service in the church?’
‘A church service?’
‘Oh no, my dear. I’m sure I would have remembered that.’
Just us, then.
The first thing Mrs Judith Prosser asked him was if they would be keeping stock on their land. Robin replied that farmers seemed to be having a hard enough time right now without amateurs creeping in under the fence. Which led her to ask what he did for a living and him to tell her he was an artist.
‘That’s interesting,’ Mrs Prosser said, though Robin couldn’t basically see how she could find it so; there wasn’t a painting on any wall of the parlour — just photographs, mainly of men. Some of the photos were so old that the men had wing collars and watch chains.
As well as chairman’s chains. Robin wondered if ‘Councillor’ was some kind of inherited title in the Prosser family — like, even if you had all the personality of a bag of fertilizer, they still elected you, on account of the Prossers knew the way to County Hall in Llandrindod.
Mrs Prosser went through to the kitchen, leaving the door open. There was a black suit on a hanger behind the door.
‘We have a funeral this afternoon,’ she explained.
‘I guess councillors have a lot of funerals to attend.’
She looked at him. ‘In this case, it’s for a friend.’
‘We all are. Sit down, Mr Thorogood.’
The furniture was dark and heavy and highly polished. The leather chair he sat in had arms that came almost up to his shoulders. When you put your hands on them, you felt like a dog begging.
Funerals. Was this an opening?
‘So it’s, uh, local, this funeral?’ Boy, how soon you could grow to hate one simple little word.
‘In the village, yes.’
‘So you still have a graveyard — despite no church?’
Mrs Prosser didn’t reply. He heard her pouring coffee. It occurred to him she hadn’t commented on him being American. Maybe ‘from Off’ was all-inclusive; how far ‘Off’ was of no major consequence.
He raised his voice a little. ‘I guess there must’ve been problems with funerals when the old St Michael’s Church was in use. What with the creek and all.’ OK, it might not be in the best of taste to keep on about funerals, but it was his only way into the Reverend Penney, and he wasn’t about to let go.
‘Because of the brook, no one’s been buried there in centuries.’ She came back with two brown cups and saucers on a tray.
‘Thank you, uh, Judith. Hey, I met the vicar. He came round.’
‘Mr Ellis is a good rector.’
‘But not local,’ Robin said.
‘You don’t get local ministers anywhere any more, do you? But he brings people in. Very popular, he is. Quite an attraction.’
‘You like to see new people coming in?’
She laughed: a good-looking woman, in her weathered way. ‘Depends what people they are, isn’t it? Nobody objects to churchgoers. And the collections support the village hall. They’re always very generous.’
‘Just Nick doesn’t seem your regular kind of minister,’ Robin said.
‘He suits our needs,’ said Mrs Prosser. ‘Father Ellis’s style of worship might not be what we’ve been used to in this area, but a breath of something new is no bad thing, we’re always told. Jog us out of our routine, isn’t it?’
‘I guess.’ He tasted the coffee. It was strong and surprisingly good. Judith Prosser put the tray on a small table and came to sit on the sofa opposite. She was turning out to be unexpectedly intelligent, not so insular as he’d figured. He felt ashamed of his smug preconceptions about rural people, local people. So he went for it.
‘From what I hear, this area seems to attract kind of off-the-wall clergy. This guy, uh… Penney?’
‘My,’ she said, ‘you have picked up a lot of gossip in a short time.’
‘Not everybody finds themselves buying a church. You feel you oughta find out the history.’
‘Or the lurid bits, at least.’
‘Uh… I guess.’ He gave her his charming, sheepish smile.
‘Terry Penney.’ Judith sipped her coffee. ‘What’s to say? Quiet sort of man. Scholarly, you know? Had his study floor-to-ceiling with books. Not an unfriendly person, mind, not reclusive particularly. Not at first.’
‘He didn’t live at the farmhouse — our house?’
‘Oh, no, that was always a farm. No, the rectory was just out of the village, on the Walton road. Mr Weal has it now — the solicitor.’
Robin recalled the name from someplace. Juliet Pottinger’s letter?
‘So…’ He put down his coffee on a coaster resting on the high chair arm. ‘The, uh, lurid bit?’
‘Restrain yourself, Mr Thorogood, I’m getting there.’
Robin grinned; she was OK. He guessed the Christ is the Light sticker was just the politically correct thing to do in Old Hindwell.
‘Well, it was my husband, see, who had the first inkling of something amiss — through the county council. Every year Old Hindwell Church would apply for a grant from the Welsh Church Acts Committee, or whatever they called it then, which allotted money to old buildings, for preservation. Although the church was in the Hereford diocese it’s actually in Wales, as you know. However, this particular year, there was no request for money.’
She turned on a wry smile. She was — he hadn’t expected this — enjoying telling this story.
‘The Reverend Penney had been yere… oh, must have been nearly eighteen months by then. Thought he must have forgotten, we did, so Councillor Prosser goes to see him. And Mr Penney, bold as you please, says, oh no, he hasn’t forgotten at all. He doesn’t want a grant. He doesn’t think the church should be preserved!’
Robin widened his eyes.
‘The church is wrong, says Mr Penney. It’s in the wrong place. It should never have been built where it is. The water’s not healthy. The fabric’s rotten. Parking’s difficult. Oh, a whole host of excuses. He says he’s written to the diocese and whoever else, suggesting that they dispense with St Michael’s at the earliest possible opportunity.’
Robin was fazed. ‘He called for them to get rid of his own church? Just like that?’
‘Just like that. No one could believe it.’
‘Wow.’ Robin was thinking furiously. Had Penney realized this was a powerful pagan site? Was it that simple? Had he made some kind of discovery? He tried to hide his excitement. ‘Was he mad?’
‘Perhaps he’d always been a little mad,’ said Mrs Prosser. ‘But we just never saw it until it was too late.’
‘So, like… what did he do?’
Judith Prosser put down her coffee. ‘No one likes to talk about it. But, as the owner now, I suppose you have a right to be told.’
One of the few good things about living here was that the post usually arrived before nine; in some rural areas you couldn’t count on getting it before lunchtime.
Today’s was a catalogue from a mail order supplier of garden ornaments — how quickly these people caught up with you — and a letter addressed to ‘Mrs’ Thoroughgood with a Hereford postmark.
That ‘Mrs’ told her what this was going to be.
She sat down at the table with the letter in front of her. Usual cheap white envelope. They’d received two when they were living in Shrewsbury. They said things like: We Know About Your Dirty Nude Ceremonies Worshipping Heathen Gods. The Lord Will Punish You.
How had they found out? Who’d told them? Had Robin been indiscreet?
Betty felt gutted. The sick irony of this was that she hadn’t practised as a witch since they moved here and, the way she was feeling now, never would again — at least, not in any organized way.
She contemplated tossing the letter in the stove unopened. But if she did that it would dwell in her, would be twice as destructive.
With contempt, Betty slit the envelope.
She read the note three times. Usual capitals, usual poor spelling.
But otherwise not quite what she’d expected.
YOU HAD BETTER TELL THAT LONG HAIRED LOUT THAT IF HE WANTS TO GO HELPING HIMSELF TO THE FAVOURS OF THE BIGGEST HORE IN THE VILLAGE HE OUGHT TO BE MORE DISCREAT ABOUT IT.
It was incredible! So wonderfully bizarre that, walking back to St Michael’s Farm, Robin forgot all about agonizing over that asshole Blackmore who thought bestsellerdom had conferred upon him an art critic’s instincts.
On the footbridge over the Hindwell Brook, he stopped a moment, evoking the incredible scene on that October morning back in the sixties when the brook was in flood. Had anyone photographed it? Could there be pictures still around?
Naw, anyone who’d pulled out a camera would probably have been compelled by some local by-law to hand over the film to Councillor Prosser — whichever Prosser happened to be the councillor at the time.
Judith Prosser had let him out the front way, through a dark-beamed hallway with some nice oak panelling. Up against the panelling there had been an outsize chair with a leather seat and a brass plate on the back. The chairman’s chair, Judith had explained when he asked about it, from the Old Hindwell Community Council, disbanded some years ago under local government reorganization. And, yes, Gareth had been its chairman — twice.
Robin wondered if Judith Prosser called her husband by his title. Maybe got a little bedtime buzz out of it: Oh, oh… give it to me harder, Councillor…
He grinned at the winter sun. He felt a whole lot lighter. Holy shit, he’d actually spoken, in a meaningful way, to a Local Person! It was a seminal thing.
Indeed, when he looked across at the church on its promontory he even had the feeling that the Imbolc sabbat could go back on the schedule. He could see it now — using his visualization skills to cancel the brightness, and paint the sky dark, he could see lights awakening in the church, its ruins coming alive. He conjured the sound of Celtic drums and a tin whistle. Son et lumiere. He saw, in the foreground, Betty’s graceful silhouette — Betty in her pale cloak and a headdress woven from twigs. And, in the headdress, a ring of tiny flames, a sacred circle of candle-spears, a crown of lights.
He came in through the back door of St Michael’s farmhouse so much happier than when he’d gone out of it. Returning with the breeze behind him.
‘Siddown, babe,’ he told her. ‘You should hear this.’
‘Should I?’ She was already sitting down.
Robin halted on the stone flags. His mood fell, like a cooling meteor, to earth.
Her voice was flat as nan bread. At gone ten in the morning she was still in her robe. She looked pale and swollen-eyed, sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of the hot water she sometimes drank early in the day.
Her hair also looked flat, like tired barn-straw. She’d been sleeping when he’d slipped out of bed around seven. He’d first made some coffee and toast for himself, not keeping especially quiet, and left a note for her on the table before he went over to the Prosser farm. He was half suspecting then that it was going to be one of those days, the kind he’d hoped there wouldn’t be any more of after they moved to the country. In fact, since they’d moved here those days had accumulated one after the other, sure as sunrise. It was now reaching the point where it seemed they could never, simultaneously, be in a good mood. Like the sun would only shine on one of them at any one time.
Is this a psychic malaise? Could this be solved?
‘Bets?’ He was burning to bring her comfort, but he didn’t know how. There were always going to be areas of her he could not reach; he accepted this. He also accepted that in some ways he was no more than her attendant. This was not necessarily sad, was it?
‘I’m sorry. Time of the moon.’ She gave him the palest smile he could recall. ‘Tell me what you learned at the farm.’
She was evidently not going to talk about whatever it was. He sat down opposite her and, in a voice from which the oil of narrative enthusiasm had now been well drained, told her what he’d learned about the Reverend Penney.
It was obviously his change of mood, but now he saw beyond the bizarre; he saw the sadness of it all.
‘It’s like early in the morning, still only half light and a mist down by the water, so not everyone sees it. Just the Prossers, that’s the two brothers who lived here, and their older brother — Gareth’s father — and his wife. And Gareth himself, who’d have been in his twenties back then. And this Mrs Pottinger, she was there soon enough, in her role as the eyes and ears of Old Hindwell for the Brecon and Radnor Express. Because she’d seen a… what do you call that thing they kneel on to pray?’
‘Hassock,’ Betty said. ‘I think.’
‘Yeah. Pottinger was out for an early walk with the dog and she’d seen a hassock floating down the brook. Maybe her first thought was that this was the vandals she talked about in her letter to Major Wilshire. Seems she wanted to call the cops, but she ran into the Prossers, and the Prossers stopped her. They knew it was an inside job.’
‘Yes,’ Betty said, like she knew it would have to be.
‘Well, the brook was already high, with all the rain, and close to bursting its banks, and that’s what they think’s happened at first. It’s overflowed into the field by the barn and it’s halfway up the promontory where the church is. It’s like there’s a dam — like a tree or something fell into the brook — but as the day gets lighter they can see the full extent of what’s going down here.’
While he told her, he was seeing it so clearly, hearing the voices over the rushing and roaring of the water. Shrieks of shock from the women, Pottinger’s dog barking in excitement. Judith Prosser hadn’t been there, of course; it would be another fifteen years before she and Gareth were married, but she must have heard the story many times since.
‘Everything!’ Robin said. ‘Everything that wasn’t part of the fabric or nailed down. All the pews, the lectern, a big tapestry from the wall, the choir stalls… all floating down the Hindwell Brook. Until the first stuff reaches the bend and gets snagged on some branches and it all starts to pile up.’
He could see the great dam, one of the pews on end, wood groaning and splintering like the wreck of a sailing ship on the rocks, the water rising all around. He wanted so much to paint it, like Turner would have painted it, all mist and spray.
Betty said, ‘The altar?’
‘Oh yeah, that too. He’d stripped off the cloth and dragged it out through the doors and out to the end of the promontory, like he’d done with all the pews, and just… just tipped it into the water.’
Visualizing the great spout of water as the altar crashed into the brook.
‘He was apparently a big guy. Played rugby. Very strong. His most impressive feat was to rip out the stone font. He must’ve rolled it out the double doors. They found it sticking out of the water, like a big rock.’
Betty glanced bleakly across at him, then picked up her glass and drank the rest of the warm water like it was a double Scotch.
‘And where was he? Where was Penney?’
‘Gone. They never saw him again. The Prossers and some other guys they could trust salvaged what they could. Took about four of them to get the font out — they waited nearly a week till the water level dropped down, and draped tarpaulin and stuff over it meantime. Couple of weeks later, the diocese gets a cheque for several thousand. Whole damn thing was hushed up.’
‘They never found out why he did it?’
‘Just he’d grown to hate the church, was all. There was no further explanation. He’d cleaned it out. Musta taken him hours, working at it through the night, by the oil lamps — no electricity in there. Trashing his own church like a maniac. When they went inside, it was all bare. Just the Bible from off of the lectern. The Bible lying there in the middle of the nave. Lying open.’
Betty waited a long time before she asked him.
Robin smiled, shaking his head.
‘The Book of Revelations, wouldn’t you guess? About Michael and his angels taking on the Devil and his angels? The great dragon getting cast out into the earth? All of this underlined in ink.’
‘I see.’ Betty stood up.
‘Shows us where Ellis is coming from, doesn’t it? He’s clearly heard about Penney and the dragon fixation that gets him so screwed up he trashes his own church. Well, OK, maybe the poor guy experiences some pre-Christian energy on that site which is so awesome it shakes his Christian faith, scares the shit outa him. To Penney it’s devilish. It blows his mind… he wrecks the joint.’
‘Thereby becoming a vehicle for this energy, I suppose,’ Betty said wearily.
‘Holy shit!’ A big light came on in Robin’s head. ‘Hey, that’s so cool! The priest is unwittingly helping the church to cast off Christianity — to revert.’
Betty took her glass to the sink, not looking at him, like she didn’t want to hear what was coming next. But, hell, he had to say it. It was staring them right in the face.
‘Bets… it’s down to us, now, isn’t it? To, like, finish the job. It puts us hard against Ellis, but… like, is this fate, or what?’
He was tingling with excitement. This was their clear future.
At the sink, Betty put down the glass, turned both taps on full. She was staring into the water running out of the taps. ‘I doubt this is as simple as you imagine.’
‘Or maybe it just is. Maybe it’s also fate that the local people weren’t so attached to the church the way it was that they wanted to fight to save it.’
‘It was in a poor state, anyway. It was going to cost a fortune in repairs. That’s what the Pottinger woman said.’
‘And maybe Ellis was right about something coming to the surface. Bad news for him… but not for us, babes.’
‘Oh, don’t be so bloody simplistic! Just for a moment stop trying to make everything fit into your dream scenario.’
‘Well, sure… OK.’ He felt hurt. ‘I mean let’s talk this thing through.’
‘I have to go out. I have to go and see Mrs Wilshire.’
‘Again? What the fuck is this?’
‘It’s not your problem.’
‘Oh really?’ Hell, this needed saying, this was long overdue. ‘Well what is my problem is why you always have to find excuses to get out of here. Like going in the car. Why don’t you ever even go into the village? The place we live next to? Why don’t you get to know the people here? People like Judith Prosser next door. OK, Gareth might be a dumb bastard, but she’s OK, not what I imagined. Maybe we were wrong to start condemning the local people as total redneck bigots, purely on your flawed fucking childhood memories.’
Betty didn’t flare up. She just stared hard at him for a couple of seconds, and he stared back.
And then she said, ‘I never said that. I’m sure there are some decent, liberal, perceptive, outward-looking people down there.’ She went to the table, picked up a piece of white notepaper, pushed it at him. ‘Like, for instance, the person who sent that.’
Cold, Earthly, Rational…
The gothic letter D was still on the office door, but hanging loose now, at an angle. D for Deliverance — Bishop Hunter’s idea.
As had been the Reverend Watkins becoming Deliverance Consultant.
She stood on the stone stairs, in front of the closed door, and decided, after all, to go back home. Her head ached. What the hell was she doing here? As she turned to creep back down the stairs, the office door opened.
‘I thought it was!’
Merrily stopped, and slowly and sheepishly turned around again.
‘I thought it was your car.’ Sophie was expensively casual in a blue and white Alpine sweater. ‘What on earth are you doing here? Nobody would have expected you to come in today.’
She’d spoken briefly to Sophie on the phone, asking her to put the bishop in the picture.
‘Merrily, you look-’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Starved.’ Sophie stood aside for her.
Merrily slung Jane’s duffel coat on the back of her chair, and slumped into it. ‘If I hadn’t come in today, I might never have come in again.’
Sophie frowned and began making tea. Through the gatehouse window, above Broad Street, the late morning sun flickered unstably in and out between hard clouds. The air outside had felt as though it was full of razor blades. The weather forecast had said there might be snow showers tonight — which was better than fog.
‘The bishop tried to ring you.’ Sophie laid out two cups and saucers. ‘He said if I spoke to you to tell you there was no need to phone back.’
‘Don’t be silly, Merrily. On reflection, I’m glad you did come in. Are you listening to me?’
‘You cannot drive to Worcester.’
‘I’ll be perfectly-’
‘You will not. I shall drive you. Leave your car here. I don’t want an argument about this, do you understand?’
‘Well, I can take a bit of a rest this afternoon. They’re not releasing her until after five.’
‘She should stay there another night,’ Sophie said stiffly. ‘Concussion’s unpredictable.’
‘I think, on the whole, I can probably do without her discharging herself and stalking the streets of Worcester at midnight.’
‘I should have thought that she’d be sufficiently penitent not to dare to-’
‘Sophie’ — Merrily cradled her face in cupped hands, looked up sorrowfully — ‘this is Jane we’re talking about.’
‘If she were my daughter…’
‘Don’t give yourself nightmares.’ Merrily dropped her hands, trying not to cry from exhaustion, anxiety, confusion and a terror which seemed to be lodged deep inside her, which every so often would pulse, hot-wiring her entire nervous system.
‘Delayed shock, Merrily.’
‘If you tell me I need trauma counselling, I’ll put this computer through the window.’
Sophie brought over a chair, sat down opposite Merrily.
‘Tell me then.’
The sun had put itself away again. Sophie added two sugars into Merrily’s tea and switched on the answering machine.
Sophie? Sophie in her incredibly expensive Alpine sweater. Sophie who served the cathedral and all it represented. Yeah, why not?
‘When you really contemplate the nature of this job,’ Merrily said, ‘you can start to think you’re more than half mad. When the line between reality and whatever else there is… is no longer distinct. When it’s no longer even a line.’
And when you swerve around a crashed lorry in the fog, and there’s a figure staggering in the road that you just know you’re going to hit, and in the last second, while you’re throwing yourself around the wheel, you see her face.
‘I’m starting actually to understand the Church’s conservatism on the supernatural. Shut the door and bar it. Block the gap at the bottom with a thick mat. Let no chink of unnatural light seep in, because a chink’s as good as a… whatever you call a big blast of light that renders you blind.’
‘As in Paul on the road to Damascus?’ Sophie said.
‘Not exactly. Paul was… sure.’
‘You are tired.’
‘I mean, I’m sure… I’m just not quite sure what I’m sure of. It’s only by being dull and conservative that the Church remains relatively intact. Bricks and mortar and Songs of Praise. Leave the weird stuff to Deliverance. It’s a dirty job, and they’ve never been totally convinced someone has to do it.’
‘I did watch the Livenight programme,’ Sophie said. ‘I didn’t really see how else you could have handled it. Without coming over as a… crank.’
‘Or a bigot. Both of which are probably better than a drowning wimp.’ Merrily drank her tea, both hands around the cup, like someone pulled out of the sea and wrapped in a blanket. ‘You spend an interminable hour making a fool of yourself on TV, you walk out thinking all religion’s a joke. You’re unhappy and ashamed and cynical all at the same time. You get in your car, you drive maybe not quite as carefully as you ought to, given the ubiquitous fog warnings and the fact that your husband just happened to have died horrifically on this same stretch of motorway. You drive into a fog bank. You become aware of two dull specks of red that you think must be a hundred yards away and which turn out to be this bloody great crashed lorry dead in your path. You spin the wheel in panic. You become aware of a figure dragging another figure across the road in front of you. The second figure stares full into your headlights, and you see… you see the face of your daughter who you know for a fact is at home in bed fifty-odd miles away. Your daughter’s face… blank, white, expressionless. Like the face of a corpse.’
Sophie shuddered. ‘It must have been… I can’t imagine what that must have been like.’
‘Like… Nemesis,’ Merrily said. ‘You know what I was thinking about in the few minutes before? I was thinking about this woman who believes she’s seeing her sister’s ghost. I was just deciding she really didn’t have a psychiatric problem- Oh no!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I told her I’d go with her to her sister’s funeral. It’s this afternoon. It’s in about two hours. Or less.’
‘Oh, Merrily, nobody could possibly expect-’
‘I’ve got to.’
‘You’ve had no sleep.’
‘Oh, I’ve had… had an hour on the sofa. Fed the cat, grabbed a slice of toast, rung Worcester Infirmary twice to make sure Jane’s not… worse. No, look, I’ve got to go, because…’ Because if I don’t and something awful happens… ‘Because it’s something I can’t just leave in the air.’
‘Then you must lie down for a while first. I’ll find somewhere in the palace. Look at you — you’re trembling. Are you saying this pile-up actually happened in the same area where your husband was killed?’
‘Well, that was on the other side, the northbound lanes. He was… I suppose he was on my mind, when…’
When she’d walked into that studio? Was Sean stalking her then? Was he already deep-harboured in her head when she’d entered the TV building? Having driven along the same stretch of the M5, under the very same bridge against which his car had balled on impact and bounced in its final firedance, while he and Karen were torn and roasted.
Couldn’t tell Sophie any of that. Couldn’t tell her about the eloquent pagan, Ned Bain, sitting there with his lazy, knowing Sean-like eyes, and even his legs crossed a la Sean.
Just stay with the main event.
‘And, you think… what you think is that this can’t be happening. And if it can’t be happening then it’s a hallucination. And you know you’re not hallucinating. Therefore — click, click — it has to be a paranormal experience, just like all the paranormal experiences other people have told you about and you’ve nodded sagely and given your balanced opinion.’
‘But only you would think that. Only someone in your-’
‘Only someone in my weird, cranky job.’
‘But you didn’t hit her,’ Sophie said intensely. ‘Did you? You did not hit Jane.’
‘No. There was no impact. I didn’t hit anyone. But still a complete nightmare — I mean dreamlike. You haven’t physically driven into your daughter, therefore it must be a premonition: a vision of killing your own child.’
‘But it wasn’t, was it?’
‘I could see Sean in her face… that little bump in the nose, the twist of the lips. I could see Sean in her, like I’d never seen him there before.’
‘Juxtaposition of ideas,’ Sophie said, ‘or something.’
‘I swerved, violently. Stopped the car and got out, terrified out of my mind. Only to discover…’ Sophie reached across the desk, squeezed Merrily’s cold right hand. ‘… that this really was Jane. The actual Jane, being pulled away by a terrified Eirion after being very nearly killed when this speeding low-loader smashed into the back of his car. She was pale and expressionless not because she was dead, but because she was semi-concussed. This is the mind-blowing perversity of it, that there is an absolutely cold, earthly, rational explanation… for everything. For every aspect of it. Why do I find that even more frightening? The most horrifying moment in my life, and there is, in the end, a simple, rational explanation.’
‘You’re afraid that you’ve stopped looking for simple rational explanations? Is that what you mean?’
‘How many people were killed?’ Sophie asked. ‘In the end.’
‘Three. And one critical in hospital. I think about four slightly hurt, including Jane. There were about six cars involved, and a couple of lorries. Seemed like the parameds and the fire brigade were on the scene before I was out of my car. There was one poor woman…’
Merrily shook her head, blinked away the unbelievably horrific image of a torn-off arm on the central reservation.
‘You were very lucky, both of you. And the boy?’
‘Eirion. His car was a write-off.’
‘He’s not injured, that’s all that matters.’
‘Some whiplash. They kept him in for the night, too, but I think his father picked him up this morning. Or his father’s chauffeur. I talked to his stepmother on the phone. Eirion seems to be blaming himself for what happened. Nice kid.’
‘What I keep coming back to is, suppose I’d arrived one second earlier? Suppose I’d killed her? In one of those one-in-a-billion freak family tragedies? What would I have done with the rest of my life? What would any of it be worth?’
‘But you didn’t. Someone didn’t want to lose you — and didn’t want you forever damaged either.’
Merrily leaned back, shook out a cigarette. ‘You ever thought of getting ordained, Sophie?’
‘God forbid.’ Sophie stood up. ‘Put that thing away and get your coat.’
‘It’s Jane’s coat. What for?’
‘Jane’s coat, then. I’m going to drive you to this funeral. You can perhaps sleep on the way. If we leave now, we might even stop for a sandwich.’
‘Sophie, it’s Saturday. You can’t… You have things to do.’
‘Oh,’ Sophie said, ‘I think Hereford United can manage without me for one week.’
Merrily blinked. Sophie unhooked a long, sheepskin coat and a woollen scarf from the door. It did rather look like the sort of outfit you would wear to a football match in January. Bizarre?
‘This is above and beyond, Soph.’ Merrily got unsteadily to her feet.
‘I should be grateful if you didn’t smoke in my car,’ Sophie said.
The main road from Old Hindwell to New Radnor passed through the hamlet of Llanfihangel nant Melan. The church of St Michael was right next to the road and, although it didn’t actually look very old, there were indications of a circle of ancient yew trees, which suggested it had been rebuilt.
Although there were a number of other cars nearby, Betty stopped the Subaru. She was in no mood to talk to Mrs Wilshire or anybody else right now. She would check out the atmosphere of the church. It might even calm her down.
She was still furious with Robin. If he’d been accosted the other night by the drunken wife of Greg Starkey, feeling him up in the street, why hadn’t he told Betty when he arrived home? Old Hindwell wasn’t exactly known for its red-light quarter. So why had he kept quiet?
Why? Because they’d just had a goddamn row over his handling of Nick Ellis. Because he’d slammed out of the house and didn’t think she’d be speaking to him anyway. Because he was cold and tired. Because.
So why hadn’t he mentioned it the next day, even?
Because… Jeez, was it important? Did she think he enjoyed it? Did she think he’d snatched this chance to feel Marianne’s tits?
Actually, she didn’t think that. What she thought was that Robin hated to tell her anything that might make her think less of Old Hindwell. Why don’t you get to know the people here? Like Judith Prosser — she’s OK, not what I imagined.
Betty walked over to the church. The stonework suggested extensive Victorian renovation. Did anything remain of the church built as part of some alleged St Michael circle? How would this one feel inside?
Sooner or later, when Robin was not around, she would have to go back into the Old Hindwell ruins to face the question now looming large: the stained and sweating, fear-ridden man at prayer — was that him? Was that the Reverend Terry Penney? Was he dead now?
But this wasn’t an exercise in psychic skills. Before she went back there, she wanted to know all there was to be known about all the churches in the St Michael circle.
However, in Llanfihangel Church, she was immediately accosted by a man in a light suit who asked her if she was on the bride or the groom’s side. So much for standing there in the silence and feeling for the essence of the place. Betty apologized and escaped with a handful of leaflets, which she inspected back in the Subaru.
And just couldn’t believe it. One, apparently produced as a result of a community tourism initiative, was blatantly entitled, ‘Where sleeps the Dragon on the trail of St Michael’s churches’.
Betty slumped back in her seat, broke into a peal of wild, stupid laughter. A tourist leaflet. Was that how all this had started?
The text explained that there were four St Michael churches around Radnor Forest — at Llanfihangel nant Melan, Llanfihangel Rhydithon, Cefnllys and Cascob. It presumably didn’t mention Old Hindwell because it was a ruin, now on private land.
An inside page was headed: ‘St Michael and the Dragon of Radnor Forest’.
It referred to the introduction by Jewish Christians of ‘angelology’. Angels guarded nature and local communities. St Michael guarded Israel and was named in the Book of Revelations, etc., etc. Most Welsh churches dedicated to him had appeared in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
The specific Radnor reference had been pulled from a book called A Welsh Country Parson by D. Parry-Jones, who recounted a legend that the last Welsh dragon slept in Radnor Forest and, to contain it, local people had built four St Michael churches in a circle around the Forest. It was said that if any of these churches was destroyed, the dragon would awaken and ravage the countryside once more.
This was it? This was the source of Nicholas Ellis’s paranoia?
Still, it did look as though Robin and Ellis were right. Assuming there was no fire-breathing elemental beast locked into the landscape, this appeared to be a simple metaphor for paganism, the Old Religion.
… if any one of these churches is destroyed…
Old Hindwell had been virtually destroyed… and initially by its rector, which didn’t make any obvious sense. Why would a clergyman make a gesture which was bound to be adversely interpreted by anyone superstitious enough to give any credence to the dragon legend?
Unless Penney had been a closet pagan. Was that likely?
Not really. Something was missing. For a moment, Betty smelled again the rich, sickening stench from the praying man in the skeletal nave.
She drove off too quickly, the Subaru shuddering.
Lizzie Wilshire greeted her with a spindly embrace.
‘I don’t know whether it’s your herbal mixture or just you, my dear, but I feel so much better.’ Holding out her right hand and making it into a claw, the fingertips slowly but effectively closing on the palm.
‘Gosh,’ Betty said.
‘I haven’t been able to do that for months!’ Those ET eyes shining like polished marbles. ‘You’re a wonder, my dear!’
‘I wouldn’t quite say that.’
Psychological? The potion couldn’t possibly have had such a spontaneous and dramatic effect unless her problem was essentially, or to an extent, psychosomatic.
And yet… Betty caught an unexpected sidelong glimpse of Lizzie’s aura. It was, without a doubt, less fragmented. And she was talking constantly, garrulous rather than querulous now.
‘Were you originally called Elizabeth? Like me?’
‘A long time ago,’ Betty admitted, as they sat down.
‘A long time ago, my dear, you weren’t even born.’ Lizzie Wilshire laughed hoarsely. ‘Now, were those papers useful? If not, just throw them away. I’m in a clearing-out mood. Clutter frightens me. I’m even thinking of selling the summer house. Every time I look out at it, I expect to see Bryan walking across the garden. Do people buy summer houses second-hand like that? Can they take them away?’
‘I should think so. You could advertise it in the paper. I could do that for you, if you want.’
‘Oh, would you? That’s terribly kind. Yes. I told Dr Coll — I hope you don’t mind…’
‘About the summer house?’
‘About you, of course! About your wonderful herbal preparation. He called in this morning, even though it’s Saturday — such a caring, caring man — and said how much better I was looking, and naturally I told him about you.’
‘Oh.’ In Betty’s experience the very last thing a doctor liked to be told was that some cranky plant remedy had had an instantaneous effect on a condition against which powerful drugs had thus far failed to make a conspicuous impact.
‘He was delighted,’ Lizzie said.
‘Far be it from him, he said, to dismiss the old remedies. Indeed, he’s often suggested I might benefit from attending one of the Reverend Ellis’s services — but that’s all too brash and noisy for me.’
‘He must be a very unusual doctor.’
‘Simply a very caring man. I didn’t realize how pastoral country doctors could be until Bryan died. Bryan had a thing about the medical profession, refused to call a doctor unless in dire emergency. He’d have liked you. Oh, yes. His army training involved finding treatments in the hedgerows. A great believer in natural medicine, was Bryan. Although, one does need to have a fully qualified medical man in the background, don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ Betty said. ‘I suppose so. Shall I make some tea?’
She knew now where everything was kept. She knew on which plate to arrange which biscuits. On which tray to spread which cloth. All of which greatly pleased Mrs Wilshire. When it was done, Betty sat down with her and they smiled at one another.
‘You’ve brightened my life in such a short time, Betty.’
‘You’ve been very helpful to me, too.’
‘I won’t forget it, you know. I never forget a kindness.’
‘We never had children, I’ve no close relatives left. At my age, with my ailments, one doesn’t know how long one has left…’
‘Come on… that’s daft.’
‘I’m quite serious, my dear. I said to Dr Coll some time ago, is there anything I can do to help you after my death? Is there anything you need? New equipment? An extension to the surgery? Of course, he brushed that aside, but I think when you’ve been treated so well by people, by a community, it’s your duty to put something back.’
‘In the end, the most he would do was give me the name of a local charity he supports, but… Oh dear, I’ve embarrassed you, I’m so sorry. We’ll change the subject. Tell me how you’re getting on with that terrible old place. Have you been able to do anything with the damp?’
‘These things take time,’ Betty said, careful not to mention the need for money.
Getting into the car, she felt deeply uncomfortable. It might be better if she didn’t return to Mrs Wilshire’s for a while. The old girl probably wasn’t aware of trying to buy attention, even if it was only with compliments about a very ordinary herbal preparation, but… Oh, why was everything so bloody complicated, suddenly?
She leaned back in the seat, rotating her head to dispel tension. She noticed the dragon leaflet on the passenger seat. Where, out of interest, was the next church on the list?
Nestles in the hills near the head of the Cas Valley… village appears in the Domesday Book as Casope — the mound overlooking the River Cas.
Promising, she supposed. And was about to throw the leaflet back on the seat, when another word caught her eye.
It was ‘exorcize’.
A couple of miles into Radnor Forest, Betty became aware of an ominous thickening of cloud… and, under it, a solitary signpost.
She must have passed this little sign twenty times previously and never registered it, perhaps because it pointed up that narrow lonely lane, a lane which didn’t seem to lead anywhere other than: Cascob.
Strange name. Perhaps some chopped-off, mangled Anglicization of a Welsh phrase which meant ‘obscure-church-at-the-end-of-the-narrow-road-that-goes-on-for-ever’. Or so it seemed, perhaps because this was the kind of road along which no stranger would dare travel at more than twenty mph. It was deserted, sullen and moody. Robin would be enchanted.
There wasn’t much to Cascob. A bend in a sunken, shaded lane, a lone farmhouse and, opposite it, a few steep yards above the road, the wooden gate to the church itself, tied up with orange binder twine. Betty left the Subaru in gear, parked on the incline, untied the twine around the gate.
Sheep grazed the sloping, circular churchyard among ancient, haphazard gravestones and tombs that were crumbly round the edges, like broken biscuits. There was a wide view of a particularly lonely part of the Forest, and the atmosphere was so dense and heavy that Betty couldn’t, for a while, go any further.
Some places, it was instantaneous.
The old man in the cellar at Grandma’s place in Sheffield… that had probably been the first. None of them had frightened her for quite a while, not until she’d learned from other kids that you were supposed to be afraid of ghosts. Until then, she’d been affected only by the particular emotions specific to each place where something similar happened: fear, hatred, greed and — the one emotion she hadn’t at first understood — lust.
She steadied her breathing. Cascob Church squatted under low, grey cloud. It looked both cosy and creepy. To what extent had the present sensations been preconditioned by what she’d read in the leaflet?
… to exorcize a young woman…
She walked on, towards the church.
The stone and timbered building, like many this old, seemed to have grown out of the site organically. There were oak beams in its porch and under the pyramid-cap of the tower. It snuggled against an earthmound which was clearly not natural, possibly a Bronze Age tumulus. From the base of the mound grew an apple tree, spidery winter branches tangled against the cold light. There was a gate across the porch — more twine to untie.
Betty stepped inside. There were recent posters on the wall and a framed card invited all who entered to say a prayer before they left. She would not be so crass as to offer a prayer to the goddess. When she put out a hand to the oak door, Cascob Church seemed to settle around her, not unfriendly, certainly ancient and comfortably mysterious.
She wondered for a moment if this was a sign that she was not supposed to enter this place. But then, all churches were kept locked these days, even — perhaps especially — in locations this remote.
She walked back across the churchyard and the narrow road to the farmhouse to enquire where she might borrow a key. The bloke there was accommodating and presented her with a highly suitable one, about six inches long. It made her right hand tingle with impressions, and she twice passed it quickly to her left hand and back again before reaching the porch.
The lock turned easily. She went in and stood tensely, with the door open behind her.
The church inside was dark and basic. Betty stood poised to banish anything invasive. But there was nothing. It was quiet. So far removed from the foetid turmoil swirling in the Old Hindwell ruins that she banished that from her thoughts, lest she somehow infest Cascob.
The place was tiny and probably little changed since the fourteenth or fifteenth century. A farmers’ church, with a font for christenings but no room for gentry weddings.
There was a wooden table with literature on it, including the sleeping dragon leaflet and a similar one about Cascob Church itself. A collection box had Betty fumbling for a fiver, an offering to appease the god of the Christians. She stood for a moment behind one of the back pews, not touching its dark wood, her head hanging down so as not to face the simple altar. It was not her altar, it faced the wrong direction, and she’d turned away from all this eight years ago.
Betty closed her eyes. It had been her decision. She’d turned from the east to face the north: a witch’s altar was always to the north. There was no turning back… was there?
When she reopened her eyes, she was facing the whitewashed north wall, where a document hung in a thin, black frame.
Betty looked at it, breathed in sharply. The breathing came hard. The air around her seemed to have clotted. She stared at the symbols near the bottom of the frame.
And saw, with an awful sense of deja vu:
She felt almost sick now, with trepidation. There was nothing coincidental about this.
At the top of the document, under the funeral black of the frame, was something even more explicit.
Betty spun away from the wall, snatched up one of the leaflets about the church and ran outside.
Under the Zeppelin cloud, she opened the leaflet to a pen-and-ink drawing of the church and a smaller sketch of the Archangel Michael with wings outstretched and a sword held above his head.
Under the drawing of the church, she read:
‘… the Abracadabra charm, dated from the seventeenth century, purported to have been used to exorcize a young woman. Heaven knows what she went through, but it sheds an interesting light on the state of faith in Radnorshire at the time.’
Betty stilled herself with a few minutes of chakra breathing, then went back into the church and up to the document itself, again leaving the door open for light.
What she’d read was a transcript of the original charm produced, it said in a tiny footnote, by an expert from the British Museum. The original was at the bottom: a scrap of paper with the ink faded to a light brown and now virtually indecipherable. There were no details about exactly how or when it had been found in the church.
But there was no inglenook fireplace where a box might be placed.
Hands clenched in the pockets of her ski jacket, Betty read the transcript. The two charms might be a century or more apart, but the similarities were obvious.
In the name of the Father, Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen X X X and in the name of the lord Jesus Christ I will delive Elizabeth Loyd from all witchcraft and from all Evil Spirites and from all evil men or women or wizardes or hardness of heart Amen X X X
It went on with a mixture of Roman Catholic Latin — pater noster, ave Maria — and cabbalistic words of power like ‘Tetragrammaton’, the name of God. At the bottom were two rows of planetary symbols. The sun, the moon and Venus were obvious. The one that looked like a ‘4’ was Jupiter.
Wizards… spirits… hardness of heart. All too similar. Another solid link, apart from St Michael, between the two churches.
There was more obsessive repetition:
I will trust in the Lord Jesus Christ my Redeemer and Saviour from all evil spirites and from all other assaltes of the Devil and that he will delive Elizabeth Loyd from all witchcraft and from all evil spirites by the same apower as he did cause the blind to see, the lame to walke and that thou findest with unclean spirites to be in thire one mindes amen X X X as weeth Jehovah Amen. The witches compassed her abought but in the name of the lord i will destroy them Amen X X X X X X X
It was signed by Jah Jah Jah.
Poor Elizabeth Loyd. A ‘young woman’. How old?
Twenty? Seventeen? Was she really possessed by evil? Or was she schizophrenic? Or, more likely, simply epileptic?
Heaven knows what she went through, but it sheds an interesting light on the state of faith in Radnorshire at the time.
Had it been carried out here, in the church? If so, Betty wasn’t picking up anything. What kind of minister had mixed this bizarre and volatile cocktail of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, paganism, cabbalism and astrology?
Or was it the local wise man, the conjuror?
Or were they one and the same?
Betty was glad the charm lay behind glass, that she wouldn’t have to force herself to touch it, where it had been held by the exorcist, didn’t even like to look too hard at the original manuscript, was glad that the ink had faded to the colour of soft sand.
She walked back outside into the churchyard and was drawn back — felt she had no choice — to that spot amongst the graves where she’d previously felt the weight of something. She wondered what had happened if, after the exorcism, the epilepsy or whatever persisted? There was something deeply distasteful about the whole business — and there had probably been villagers at the turn of the eighteenth century who also found it disturbing. But they’d have to keep quiet. Especially if the exorcism was performed by the minister.
She was gazing out towards the Forest — yellowed fields, a wedge of conifers — when the pain came.
It was so sudden and so violent that she sank to her knees in the long, wet grass, both hands at her groin. There was an instant of shocking cold inside her, and then it was over and she was crawling away, sobbing, to the shelter of a nearby gravestone.
She stayed there for several minutes, her breathing rapid and her heart rate up. She pushed her hair back out of her eyes and found that it was soaked with sweat.
When she was able to stand again, she was terrified there might be physical damage.
She stumbled back to the church wall and, trembling, wrote a huge banishing pentagram, clockwise on the air.
And then followed it with the sign of the cross.
Blessed Beneath the Wings of Angels
Been a while since he was here last, but it might as well have been yesterday. Nothing changed, see. A new bungalow here, a fancy conservatory there. A few new faces that started out bright and shiny and open… and gradually closed in, grew cloudy-eyed and worried.
Like this boy in the pub. Londoner, sounded like. Gomer had seen it before. They came with their catering certificates and visions of taking over the village inn and turning it into a swish restaurant with fiddly little meals and vintage wine, fifty quid a time. Year or so later, it was back to the ole steak pie and oven chips and a pint of lager — three diners a night if they was lucky, at a fiver apiece.
Gomer sucked the top off his pint of Guinness. Ole Hindwell, he thought, where city dreams comes to die.
‘Not seen you around before,’ the London boy said.
‘That’s on account you en’t been around yourself more’n a week or two,’ Gomer told him.
‘Two years, actually. Two years in March.’ The boy had dandruffy hair, receding a bit, greying a bit. You could tell those two years had felt to him like half a lifetime. He’d be about forty years old; time to start getting anxious.
‘Bought the place off Ronnie Pugh, is it?’
‘Ar.’ Gomer nodded, spying the creeping damp, already blackening walls they must have rewhitewashed when they moved in. ‘Tryin’ to get rid for six year or more, ole Ronnie.’
‘So it appears,’ the boy said, regrets showing through like blisters.
As well they might. Never fashionable, the Forest. No real old money, see. Radnorshire always was a poor county: six times as many sheep as people, and you could count off the mansions on one hand. Not much new money, neither: the real rich folk — film stars, pop stars, stockbrokers, retired drug dealers and the like — went to the Cotswolds, and the medium-rich bought theirselves some rambling black and white over in Herefordshire.
While Radnorshire — no swish shops, no public schools, no general hospital, no towns with much over 3,000 people — collected the pioneer-types. Trading in the semi in Croydon or Solihull for two scrubby acres, a dozen sheep and a crumbly old farmhouse with rotting timbers, loose slates and stone-lice.
And the pensioners. Radnorshire got them too, by the thousand. Couples like Minnie and Frank, buying up the old farm cottages and the cheap bungalows. And then one of them dies and the other’s stuck, all alone in the middle of nowhere, on account of Radnorshire property prices don’t rise much year to year, and the poor buggers can’t afford to move away.
‘Not going up the funeral?’ the boy said. Though the car park was full, there was only himself and Gomer in the Black Lion. Mourners for Menna Weal had parked up outside, stopped in for one drink, and trailed off to the village hall. Funny old setup, doing church services at the village hall. But that was Radnorshire — lose your church and you makes do.
Gomer shook his head. ‘Well, I never knowed her that well, see.’ Truth was, with Min only days in the ground, he couldn’t face it, could he? Good to help the little vicar, but he realized the vicar was only giving him something to do to take his mind off his own loss; she wouldn’t want him attending no funeral.
‘Nor me,’ the boy said. ‘Mrs Weal never came in here. Her husband comes in occasionally.’
‘Picks up his business in the pub, what I yeard. Folks from Off. Friendly local lawyer, sort o’ thing.’ Gomer had heard this from a few people. He didn’t say much, Big Weal, played his cards close, but he put himself about in all the right places.
The boy came over bashful. ‘He picked us up, actually. He was in here when we were looking over the place. Knew the agent, wound up doing the conveyancing.’ He laughed, a bit uncomfortably. ‘Bloke’s so big you don’t feel you dare refuse, know what I mean?’
‘Likely it was the same with poor Mrs Weal,’ Gomer said.
He’d gathered a fair bit of background about Menna from Danny Thomas, the rock-and-roll farmer at Kinnerton who, it turned out, was a distant cousin. Danny had fancied her himself at one time, but Merv Thomas kept her out of the way of men. Selfish bastard, old Merv, especially after his wife passed on; he had to have another woman around doing the things women had been put on God’s earth to do.
Frail, pale little person, Menna, it seemed. All right for washing and cleaning, but too frail for farming, definitely too frail for Merv Thomas’s farm. Sons was what Merv had needed, but never got. So now the Thomas farm had gone to folk from Off, the deal sorted by J.W. Weal who then married the profits. What a bloody waste, Danny Thomas had said, guitar on his knee in the barn, crunching Gomer’s eardrums with something called ‘Smoke on the Water’.
‘Like I said, he never brought her in here.’ The boy leaned over his bar, confidentially. ‘You never saw her round the village neither. We used to wonder if she had agoraphobia or somefing, but I never liked to ask.’
‘Ar.’ Wise attitude. Nobody liked a new landlord nosing into the affairs of local people. ‘Her never had no friends yere, then?’
‘Mrs Prosser, Councillor Prosser’s wife, she used to go there once or twice a week, apparently.’
Judy Prosser. This figured. Judy Prosser was born and raised the other side of the quarry, no more than half a mile from Merv Thomas’s farm. She’d have known the Thomas girls, likely Barbara better than Menna, being nearer her age. Judy Prosser would know the score. Smart girl that one; not much got past her, whereas most everything got past that dull bugger Gareth.
Well, Gomer had always got on well enough with Judy, in the days before Gareth bought his own digger. Likely he’d hang around here, see if she came in the pub after the funeral.
‘My missus went across there once,’ the boy continued.
‘To visit Menna?’
‘They’d be about the same age, near enough, and she reckoned maybe they could be friends. But she got short shrift. Never got further’n the doorstep.’
‘This is the ole rectory?’
‘Blooming great big place for just the two of them. Never seemed to have guests to stay or anyfing, even in the summer. Never went on holidays either.’
‘Solicitor, see,’ Gomer said. ‘Gotter have ’isself a big house. Status in the community. Plus, his ole man likely got a good deal on it when they ditched the church. You drinking…?’
‘Greg. Fanks very much,’ the boy said. ‘I’ll have a half. So you were from round here, originally, Mr-’
‘Gomer Parry Plant Hire,’ Gomer said. ‘Radnor Valley born an’ bred. Used to run a bunch o’ diggers and bulldozers. We done drainage, soakaways, put roads in, all over the valley. My nephew, Nev, he does it now, see.’
‘Oh, yeah, I know. He was filling in after the archaeological digs, yeah? Used to come in for a sandwich and a pint at lunchtime?’
‘They were digging all over the place. We all got excited when it came out they’d found an old temple. We fought it was gonna be like Stonehenge and we’d get thousands of tourists. But all it was — it was just a few holes in the ground where there’d been like wooden posts what rotted away centuries ago. Noffing to see, apart from all the stone axe-heads and stuff they dug up. Terrible disappointment.’
‘Ar. Typical Radnorshire tourist attraction, that is.’ Gomer took out his tin to roll a ciggie. ‘Sounds good till you sees it.’
Crossing the Welsh border, you came, unexpectedly, out of darkness into light, Merrily thought, raising herself up in the passenger seat of Sophie’s Saab. The last English town, Kington, with its narrow streets and dark surrounding hills, had been more like a Welsh country town. The hills beyond were densely conifered until the trees thinned to reveal a rotting cathedral of fissured rocks.
And then, suddenly, the Radnor Valley opened up and the whole landscape was washed clean under a sandy sky, and Merrily sank back again, just wanting to go on being driven through the winter countryside, not having to make any decisions… not having to answer difficult questions with a boom-mic hanging over her like a club.
Sophie took a left, and the car began to burrow under high banks and high, naked hedges. As the lanes narrowed, Old Hindwell began to be signposted, but by now they might just as well have followed any vehicle on that road; every car and Land Rover seemed to contain people dressed in black.
‘One forgets,’ Sophie mused, ‘that rural funerals are such social events.’
The lanes seemed to have brought them in a loop, back into conifer country. The official Old Hindwell sign was small and muddied. Just beyond it, set back into a clearing, sat a well-built, stone Victorian house with a small, conical turret at one end. In most of its windows, curtains were drawn; the others probably didn’t have curtains.
‘The old rectory, do you think?’ Sophie said.
‘Weal’s house? You could be right. There’s obviously nobody about. If it is the rectory, we ought to be able to see the old church nearby.’
She peered among the trees, an uneasy mixture of leafless, twisted oaks and dark, thrusting firs.
‘I suppose it must have occurred to you,’ Sophie said, ‘that the old church here might have been the one referred to by that woman on your TV programme.’
‘The pagan church, mmm?’ The road took them through a farm layout — windowless buildings on either side. ‘But let’s not worry about that until someone asks us to.’
The first grey-brown cottages appeared up ahead.
And the cars. The village was clogged with cars.
The pub car park was full, as was the yard in front of what had once been a school. Cars and Land Rovers also lined the two principal lanes, blocking driveways and entrances, until the roads became so narrow that another parked vehicle would have made them impassable. Could it possibly be like this every Sunday?
Sophie slowed for a drab posse of mourners. They crossed the road and filed into a tarmac track between two big leylandii.
‘The village hall,’ Merrily said, unnecessarily.
It stood on what she judged to be the western edge of the village, partly concealed a little way up a conifered hillside, and was accessed by a footpath and steps. Sophie wondered aloud how they got any wheelchairs up there, for all the disabled people who thought Nicholas Ellis’s prayers might cure them.
‘So it’s true then?’ Merrily said. ‘He does healing, too?’
‘I copied cuttings from the local papers onto your computer file.’ Sophie reversed into a field entrance to turn round again in the hope of finding a space. ‘I don’t suppose you had time to read them yet. I don’t know how many people he’s actually supposed to have healed.’
‘You don’t usually get statistics on it.’
Sophie frowned. ‘That sort of thing is just not Anglican, somehow.’
‘No? What about the shrine of St Thomas, in the cathedral?’
‘Not the same thing.’
‘What — because Ellis spent some time in the States?’
‘My information is that he learned his trade with the more extreme kind of Bible Belt evangelist.’ Sophie shuddered. ‘Would you like to borrow my coat? It may not be exactly funereal, but it’s at least…’
‘I’m sorry,’ Sophie said. ‘I didn’t mean-’
‘Of course you didn’t.’ When Merrily smiled her face felt so stiff with fatigue that it hurt. ‘If anyone does notice me, I could pretend to be a poor single-parent whom Mr Weal defended on a shoplifting charge.’
When the strangers came in, Gomer was getting the local take on the planting of Menna Weal in the rectory garden.
‘Most people couldn’t equate it wiv him being a lawyer and into property,’ Greg said. ‘Who’s gonna wanna buy a house wiv a bleedin’ great tomb? They say he’ll leave it to his nephew who’s started in the firm, but would you wanna live in a house wiv your dead auntie in the garden?’
Gomer wondered how he’d feel if his Min was buried in the back garden, and decided it wouldn’t be right for either of them. In the churchyard she wasn’t alone, see. Not meaning the dead; it was the coming and going of the living.
‘But what I reckon…’ Greg said. ‘That building’s right down the bottom of the garden, OK? You could lop it off, make it separate. A little park, with a footpath to it. The Weal memorial garden. I reckon that’s what he’s got in mind.’
‘Nobody ask him?’
‘Blimey, you don’t ask him nothing. Not even the time — you’d get a bleedin’ bill. It’s like there’s a wall around him, wiv an admission charge. And no first names. It’s Mr Weal. Or J.W., if you’re a friend.’
‘He got many friends?’
‘He knows a lot of people. That’s the main fing in his profession.’ Greg turned to his two new customers. ‘Yes, gents…’
They wore suits — but not funeral suits. Both youngish fellows, in their thirties. One was a bit paunchy, with a half-grown beard; he ordered two pints.
‘Not here for the funeral?’ Greg said.
‘Ah, that’s what it is.’ The plump, bearded one paid for their drinks. ‘Must be somebody important, all those cars.’
‘Oh, that’s not unusual. There’s a mass of cars every Sunday. Popular man, our minister. You get people coming from fifty miles away.’
Gomer looked up, gobsmacked. Most of these folks were not here for Menna at all, but part of some travelling fan club for the rector? Bloody hell.
‘Hang on,’ the plump feller with the beard said. ‘Are there two churches, then?’
‘Kind of,’ Greg said. ‘Our minister uses the village hall for his services.’
‘But the old one, the old church — that’s disused, right?’
‘Long time ago. It’s a ruin.’
‘Can you still get to it?’
‘You probably can,’ Greg said, ‘but it’s on private land. It’s privately owned now.’
‘Only my mate wanted to take some pictures. With permission, of course. We don’t want to go sneaking about. Who would we ask? Who owns it?’
‘Well, it’s new people, actually — only been moved in a week or so. There’s a farmhouse, St Michael’s. If you go back along the lane, past the post office, and on out of the village, you’ll see a big farm, both sides of the road, then there’s a track off to your left. If you go over a little bridge and you get to the old rectory, on your right, you’ve gone too far.’
‘They all right, the people?’
‘Sure,’ Greg said. ‘Young couple. He’s American, an artist — book illustrator. Yeah, they’re fine.’
‘What’s the name?’
Gomer was suspicious by now. Gomer was always suspicious of fellers in suits asking questions. Not Greg, though; suspicious landlords didn’t sell many drinks.
‘Oh blimey, let me think. Goodfellow. Goodbody? Somefing like that.’
The paunchy bloke nodded. ‘Thanks, mate, we’ll go and knock on their door.’
‘You can take a picture of my pub, if you like,’ Greg said. ‘What is it, magazine, holiday guide?’
The two men looked at each other, swapping grins.
‘Something like that,’ said the one who did the talking.
The village hall was like one of those roadside garages built in the 1950s, with a grey-white facade and a stepped roof. From its summit projected a perspex cross which would obviously light up at night. Conifers crowded in on the building, so you had the feeling of a missionary chapel in the jungle.
It was coming up to 3.45 p.m., the sky turning brown, the air raw. As Sophie drove away, Merrily felt unexpectedly apprehensive. From inside, as she walked up the steps, came the sound of a hymn she didn’t recognize.
Below her, Old Hindwell was laid out in a V-shape. Beyond one arm arose the partly afforested hump which, Sophie had told her, was topped by the Iron Age hill fort, Burfa Camp. The northern horizon was broken by the shaven hills of Radnor Forest. The small, falling sun picked up the arc of a thin river around the boundary, like an eroded copper bangle.
Across the village, divided from it by a fuzz of bare trees, she could see the tower of the old church. She wondered if Nicholas Ellis would have made Old Hindwell his main base if that church had still been in use. Arguably not, since using the community hall was a good demonstration of his personal creed: the Church was people, ancient churches were museums.
The hymn she didn’t know, sung unaccompanied by organ or piano, came to an end, and then there was the sound of a communal subsidence into rickety chairs. Merrily pushed open the double doors and went in.
Into darkness. Into a theatre with the house lights down. But the stage — she stifled a gasp — was lit, as though for a Nativity play. Just not Anglican, somehow. Gently, she pulled the doors together behind her and stood under a cracked green exit sign.
There was a row of shadowed heads and shoulders no more than four feet in front of her. The chairs were arranged like theatre-in-the-round under the girdered ceiling. The industrial window blinds were all lowered.
It was alarmingly like the Livenight studio, and the audience must have been at least as big: maybe two hundred people, some on wooden benches pushed back to the walls. Spotlights in the ceiling lit the stage where stood a man in a white, monkish robe, head bowed, eyes cast down to hands loosely clasped on his stomach.
Merrily’s first, disappointing glimpse of the Reverend Nicholas Ellis was a definite so-what moment.
‘… is a particularly poignant occasion for me,’ she heard. ‘It’s only weeks since Menna came to me, with her loving husband, to be baptized again, to pledge herself to the Lord Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I wonder… if somehow… she knew.’
His face was bland and shining, his mouth wide, like a letter box. His light brown hair was brushed straight back, a modest ponytail disappearing into the folds of his monk’s cowl. Monastic gear was less unorthodox than it used to be for Church of England ministers, but in dazzling white this was hardly a sign of humility. Too messianic for Merrily. His words rang coldly in the factory acoustic.
‘I conducted the solemn but joyful service of rebaptism at their home. And on that day the very air was alive with hope and rejoicing, and these two souls were blessed beneath the wings of angels.’
From the shadows, someone, a man, cried out — involuntarily, it seemed, like a hiccup — ‘Praise God!’ As though the heavenly host had suddenly burst through the ceiling.
Nicholas Ellis was silent for a moment. Merrily couldn’t make out his expression because the spotlights in the ceiling were aimed not at him but at the uncovered coffin.
Lidless! In the American style, Menna Weal lay in an open casket. Wrapped in her shroud. Her face looked like marble under the lights. A curtain of shadows surrounded her.
Merrily didn’t like this, found it eerie. She looked for Barbara Buckingham in the congregation, but in this light it was hopeless. How could Barbara, wherever she was, stand this performance? How could any of them?
Eerie — what a funeral should never be.
Nicholas Ellis said, ‘And it is to that same loving home that, in a short time, Menna’s body will return. The final laying to rest of these earthly remains will be a small private ceremony which, in the context of that loving relationship, is as it should be.’
Merrily saw the seated figure of J.W. Weal, hunched like a big rock, gazing steadily at the body of his wife. Her thoughts were carried back to the county hospital, that first sight of him with his bowl of water and his cloth. An act of worship?
‘Let us thank God for love,’ Ellis said, ‘when the black dragon wings of evil beat above our heads and the night air carries the stench of Satan.’
Merrily wrinkled her nose.
‘… let us remember that only the strong light of love can bring us through the long hours of darkness. Now let us all rise and, with Menna and Jeffery together in our hearts, sing number two on our hymn sheet, “Take Me, Lord, To Your Golden Palace”.’
The lights blinked on, so that they could all read the words. Everyone rose, with a mass scraping of metal chair legs that was almost a shriek, and Merrily saw, at the front, one broad head thrust above all the others. J.W. looking down on the remains of his wife.
A statement of ownership, Barbara had said. Possession is nine points of the law.
Merrily found herself outside in the cold again, feeling slightly shocked.
She stopped about halfway down the steps, with her back to a Scots pine tree. The sand colour in the sky had all but disappeared, washed under the rapid, grey estuary of dusk. Below her, Old Hindwell settled into its umbered shadows. Merrily stood watching for the lights of Sophie’s Saab, listening for its engine.
Just not Anglican, somehow.
You could say that again. She sank her hands far into her coat pockets.
It had been a singalong, gospelly, country-and-western hymn. It was cloying, trite — no worse but certainly no better than the stilted Victorian hymns which Merrily had been trying for months to squeeze out of her services. She’d had no hymn sheet, but the dipping of the house lights told her when the last verse had finished. Then words that were not on the hymn sheet took over — when, in the darkness, the tune and the rhythm disappeared but the singing itself did not stop.
Merrily stood silent, not having been exposed for quite some years to this phenomenon: the language of the angels according to some evangelists. Nonsense words, bubbling and flowing and ululating between slackened jaws.
Tongues. The gift of. The sign that the Holy Spirit was here in Old Hindwell village hall.
Right now, she was in no position to dispute this. It wasn’t the hymn or its ghostly coda which had brought her out here, nor the sight of the silent, sombre Jeffery Weal, his gaze still fixed on his wife while the congregation summoned angels to waft her spirit into paradise.
It was just that, during the hymn, while the lights were on, she’d had an opportunity to investigate the congregation, row by row, and Barbara Buckingham was definitely not there. And while that meant she hadn’t had to listen to Ellis’s Gothic nonsense and stand in fuming silence while all around her sang themselves into a religious stupor, it did raise a possible problem.
Barbara was a determined woman. She had a serious grudge against this area, arising from a deprived childhood, which had become narrowed and focused into a hatred of the lumbering, sullen, slow-moving, single-minded Jeffery Weal.
Suppose she was already at Weal’s house? Outside somewhere, waiting for the mourners at the small private ceremony that would follow.
Merrily hurried down the rest of the steps. After what she’d seen in there, she too wanted very much to know how this was going to end.
‘Robin, it’s Al.’
But this was not Al. Al was so cheerful that if he called you too early in the morning it hurt.
And this was not early morning, it was late afternoon and Betty had gone to see the goddamn widow Wilshire again and the voice on the phone was like the voice of a relative calling to say someone close to you was dead.
As art director handling Talisman, the fantasy imprint of the multinational publisher, Harvey-Calder, Al Delaney did not know any of Robin’s relatives; he kept his dealings strictly to artists and writers and editors. So Robin was already feeling sick to his gut.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘How’s it going?’
With the light failing fast, he stood by the window in his studio. Or, at least, the north-facing room that was to go on serving as his studio until they’d gotten enough money together to convert one of their outbuildings. The room had two trestle tables, one carrying his paints and his four airbrush motors, only two of which now worked. Airbrushes seemed to react badly to Robin. Must be all that awesome psychic energy.
‘I’m calling you from home,’ Al said.
‘That would be because it’s Saturday and the offices are closed, right?’
‘And because I’ve just heard from, er… Kirk Blackmore.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Robin moistened his lips.
‘And I’d rather say what I want to say from home. Like that Blackmore’s an insufferable egomaniac who’d stand there and tell Botticelli he couldn’t draw arses, and that there are a few of us who’d like to use the Sword of Twilight to publicly disembowel him. But, tragically-’
‘Tragically, he is also the hottest fantasy writer in Britain, so it would be unwise to say that to his face. Yeah, yeah. OK, Al, just listen for one minute. Since I got Blackmore’s fax, I’ve been giving it a whole lot of thought and I’ve come up with something which I think he’s gonna like a whole lot more. I accept that the purple mist was too lurid, the lettering too loud, so what I propose, for starters-’
‘Robin, he now doesn’t want you to do it at all.’
On the second table, the work table, lay Robin’s preliminary watercolour drawings for the proposed new Kirk Blackmore format, the one which would run down the backlist like gold thread. The one, in fact, which would launch the fund which would finance the restoration of the outbuildings — providing Betty with her own herbal haven and Robin, in a year or two, with the most wonderful, inspiring, sacred studio.
‘He just… he just said he didn’t like the painting,’ Robin said. His whole body seemed very light. ‘He said he… he said there were elements of the painting he didn’t like, was all.’
Al said, ‘He wants someone else to do it, Robin.’
‘Who?’ Robin couldn’t feel his hands.
‘It doesn’t matter who. Nobody in particular — but not you. Mate, I’m sorry. I was so convinced you were the man for this, I would’ve… I had to tell you today. I didn’t want you spending all weekend working out something that wasn’t even going to get-’
‘And the backlist?’
‘What I’m saying, this isn’t just the one cover he doesn’t like…?’
‘It is the one cover he doesn’t like, obviously, and you’ll get paid in full for that, no problem at all. But it’s also… How many ways can I put this? He wants… he wants another artist. He doesn’t want you.’
Robin held up the core design which Blackmore should have loved, took a last look into the eyes of Lord Madoc who, in times of need, would stand in his megalithic circle and summon the Celtic Ray.
Robin’s Madoc — who would not now be Blackmore’s Madoc. A lean, noble, beardless face, its hairstyle — or glorious neglect of style — shamelessly modelled on Betty’s own delicious profusion. Sympathetic magic: Madoc’s hair was full of electricity and pulsed in the mist around him; Madoc, the hack fantasy hero, had been permitted to reflect the bright essence of Betty’s holy power. How could frigging Blackmore have failed to respond to that?
And what were they gonna live on now?
Maybe not love. He recalled Betty’s face before she had gone out, the light gone from her eyes, the shine from her skin. And her hair all brushed. She’d brushed her hair flat!
She also wore a skirt he didn’t even remember her owning, a dark, mid-length skirt — a very ordinary skirt. This was the true horror of it. When she left the house she was looking like an ordinary person.
And it was his fault. Ever since they got here, everything he did was wrong. And everything he didn’t do — or say.
Jeez, he’d never even thought much about what had happened with Marianne outside the pub. That whole sequence was like a dream — the glowing cross in the sky, the big, weird guy looking over his shoulder at no one right behind him. Robin had gone home and he’d slept, and tomorrow had been another lousy day.
He felt cold to his gut. Lately, Betty had lain with her back to him in bed, feigning sleep, a psychic wall between them.
Very tired, she would say, with the move and all.
‘Fuck!’ Robin tore the Madoc drawings end to end and let the strips fall to the floorboards. ‘Fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.’
Trying to picture Blackmore as he was ripping them, but he’d never seen the guy. The face that came to him was the smug, unlined, holy face of the Reverend Nicholas Ellis. Ellis had done this. Ellis who had made Robin his devil, focused his smug, holy Christian hatred on the ruins of St Michael’s, the lair of the dragon. Ellis had brought down bad luck on them.
And they were innocent.
He broke down and wept in frustration and despair, his head among the scattered paint tubes. Robin Thorogood, illustrator, seducer of souls, guardian of the softly lit doorways? What a fucking joke.
By seed, by root, by bud and stem, by leaf and flower and fruit, by life and love, in the name of the goddess, I Robin, take thee, Betty, to my hand, my heart and my spirit at the setting of the sun and rising of the stars.
A handfasting. None of this till-death-do-us-part shit.
In the fullness of time we shall be born again, at the same time and in the same place as each other, and we shall meet and know and remember and love again.
It made you cry. Every time you thought of that it made you cry. How much of the prosaic Christian marriage ceremony could do that to you?
Robin cried some more. He saw her in her wedding dress. He saw her slipping out of the dress, when they were left alone, for the consummation, the Great Rite.
How could it be that their souls were sailing away from each other? How could this happen in the sacred place which, it had been prophesied — it had been fucking prophesied — was their destiny?
Robin rose from the table. He figured what he would do now was take a walk down to the barn.
And from the barn he would retrieve the box containing the charm which promised to protect this house and all the chickens and pigs and local people therein from the menace of the Old Religion.
And he, Robin Thorogood, guardian of the softly lit doorways, would take this box and carry it to the edge of the promontory on which the Christians had built their church and, with due ceremony and acknowledgement to the Reverend Penney, hurl the motherfucker into the hungry torrent of the Hindwell Brook.
Robin wiped his eyes with a paint cloth. He thought he heard a knocking at the front door.
Local people. It was probably only Local People. Like the deeply local person who wrote the anonymous letter to his wife, shafting him good.
Well, these local people could just remove themselves from off of his — and the building society’s — property. Robin’s fists bunched. They could very kindly evacuate their asses from said property right now.
The guy said, ‘Mr Thorogood?’
Not a local person. Even Robin was getting so he could separate out British accents, and this was kind of London middle class.
Two of them, and one carried a biggish metal-edged case.
When Robin saw the case, he thought sourly, Whaddaya know, it’s another local person bringing us another box with another charm to guard us against ourselves and thus turn our idyllic lives into liquid shit.
‘Mr Thorogood, my name’s Richard Prentice. This is Stuart Joyce.’
Robin flicked on the porch light. Overweight guy with a beard, and a thinner, younger guy in a leather jacket. Double-glazing, Robin figured; or travelling reps from some company that would maximize your prospects by investing the contents of your bank account in a chain of international vivisection laboratories.
‘We both work for the Daily Mail newspaper,’ Prentice said. ‘If it’s convenient, I’d like a chat with you — about your religion.’
‘About my…?’ Robin glanced at the case. Of course, a camera case.
‘I understand you and your wife are practising witches.’
Robin went still. ‘How would you have come to understand that?’
Relax. No camera around the thin guy’s neck.
Prentice smiled. ‘You didn’t happen to watch a TV programme called Livenight, by any chance?’
‘We don’t have a TV.’
‘Oh.’ The man smiled. ‘That would certainly explain it. Well, Mr Thorogood, you and your wife were referred to on that programme.’
‘Not by name — but your situation was mentioned. Now, it sounds as though we’re the first media people to approach you. And that’s a good thing for both of us, because-’
‘Hold on a moment,’ Robin said.
‘If, as you say, we are witches — which, in these enlightened times, I’m hardly gonna deny… Why are you interested? There are thousands of us. It’s, like, the fastest growing religion in the country right now. What I’m saying is, what kind of big deal is that for a paper like yours?’
‘Well, I’ll be straight with you, Robin, it’s primarily the church. How many witches have actually taken over a Christian church for their rituals?’
‘Well, Richard,’ Robin said, ‘if I can reverse that question, how many Christian churches have taken over pagan sites for their rituals?’
Richard Prentice grinned through his beard. ‘That, my friend, is an excellent point, and we’d like to give you the opportunity to amplify it.’
‘I don’t think so, Richard.’
‘Could we come in and talk about it? It’s perishing out here.’
‘I really don’t think so. For starters, my wife-’
‘Look,’ Prentice said. ‘You were more or less outed — if I can use that term — on a TV programme watched by millions of viewers. I’d guess you’re going to be hearing from a lot of other journalists over the next few days. And I mean tabloid journalists.’
‘Isn’t that what you are?’
‘We like to call ours a compact paper. There’s a difference.’
‘Don’t make me laugh, Richard.’
‘Robin… look… what we have in mind — and this would be for Monday’s paper, so we’d have a whole day to get it absolutely right — is a serious feature explaining exactly what your plans are for this church, and why you believe you’re no threat to the community.’
‘Somebody say we’re a threat to the community here?’
‘You know what local people are like, Robin.’
‘Out,’ Robin said.
‘Robin, I think you’ll find that we can protect you from the unwanted intrusion of less responsible-’
‘Leave now. Or I’ll, like, turn you into a fucking toad.’
‘That’s not a very sensible attitude. Look, this was probably a bad time. I can tell something’s happened to upset you. We’re going to be staying in the area tonight. I suggest we come back in the morning. All right?’
Robin stepped out of the porch. Through the trees, he could hear the racing of the Hindwell Brook.
‘OK,’ Prentice said, ‘that’s your decision.’
And if they’d gone at that moment, things might all have been so much less fraught.
Unfortunately, at this point the porch and Robin were lit up brightly, and Robin realized the younger guy suddenly had a camera out.
The rushing of the brook filled his head. Cold white noise. Robin thought of silent Betty with her back to him in the sack. He thought he heard, somewhere on the ether, the rich sound of Kirk Blackmore laughing at his artwork.
Robin made like Lord freaking Madoc.
Merrily could see the battlemented outline of Old Hindwell church tower over the bristle of trees, and the spiteful voice cawed in her head.
I can show you a church with a tower and graves and everything… which is now a pagan church. You don’t know what’s happening on your own doorstep.
If these pagans had been around for a while, it would explain why Ellis had adopted Old Hindwell — extremes attract extremes. The only other abandoned Anglican church she could think of in the diocese was at Llanwarne, down towards Ross-on-Wye, and that was close to the centre of a village and open to the road, a tourist attraction.
But whether this was or wasn’t the alleged neo-pagan temple was not the issue right now. What she needed to make for was the former rectory, which was not ruined, far from abandoned… but about to accommodate its first grave.
She would probably encounter Sophie’s car along the way.
And Barbara Buckingham?
That grumbling foreboding in her stomach — that was subjective, right? Merrily walked faster, aware that the only sound on the street was the soft padding of her own flat shoes. She walked into the centre of the village, where there was a small shop and post office — closed already — and the pub had frosted windows and looked inviting only compared with everywhere else.
In one of the cottages, a dog howled suddenly, a spiralling sound; maybe it had picked up a distant discordant wailing emanating from the village hall. Something which was not, perhaps, quite human.
The pub car park was still full. With the cars — of course — of outsiders. The singing in tongues should have given it away: many people in today’s congregation were not, in fact, family mourners or friends or long-time clients of J.W. Weal, but core members of Nicholas Ellis’s church.
And the tongues was not a spontaneous phenomenon; for them it had become routine, a habit, almost an addiction, a Christian trip. She’d learned that while at theological college when a bunch of students, well into the born-again thing, had persuaded her to join them at a weekend event known as the Big Bible Fest, held in a huge marquee near Warwick. Two long days of everybody smiling at everybody else and doing the ‘Praise Him!’ routine like kids with a new schoolyard catchphrase, and by the end of the first day Merrily had been ready to swing for the next person who addressed her as ‘sister’.
It had been Jeremy, one of the faithful, who’d told her that the cynical bitch persona was simply concealing her fear of complete surrender to the Holy Spirit. He was challenging her to go along that night with an open mind, without prejudice, without resistance. Praise Him! So, OK, she’d attended a service where all the hymns had been simple, rhythmic pop anthems, sung by happy people in Hawaiian shirts and sweatpants — and all ending in tongues.
Tongues was the gift of Christ, originally granted to a select few. The Bible did not spell out what tongues actually sounded like, its linguistic roots, its grammatical structure, but modern evangelical Christians insisted it was a way of talking directly to God, who Himself did not necessarily speak English.
Not entirely convincing, but for the first two hymns she’d held out. After all, hadn’t her own formative mystical moment occurred in total silence, lit by the blue and the gold, alone in a little hermit’s cave of a church?
And then — Praise Him, praise God! — her mouth had been open like everyone else’s, and out it all came like those flimsy coloured scarves produced by conjurers. Words which were flowing and lyrical and meant nothing, but sounded as if they ought to. Lush, liquid worship. Dynamic, wordless prayer. A disconnecting of the senses. A transcendent experience, up there around the marquee’s striped roof.
She could, in fact, still bring it on when she wanted to, could summon that wild Christian high, simple as popping a pill, as though just doing it that once had been a lifetime’s initiation. It was easy.
Maybe too easy.
She wondered to what extent the locals had joined in. Were slow-speaking farmers now singing in tongues? Did they say ‘Praise God’ when they met by the sheep pens on market day, instead of the time-honoured ‘’Ow’re you?’
You couldn’t rule that out. After all, it was in Wales that traditional church worship had been massively abandoned in the rush to build stark, spartan Noncomformist chapels. So how far down the charismatic road did Old Hindwell go? Was it like the Toronto Blessing, with people collapsing everywhere? Were they discovering Galilean sand in the palms of their hands and gold fillings in their teeth?
But how appropriate was this at a funeral?
Merrily scanned the cars by the pub. Was one of them Barbara’s? What make had Barbara been driving? Merrily didn’t know.
She turned and walked on down the darkening street, a headache coming on, although it was dulled by the cold. Beyond the village shop and a lone bungalow with a 1970s-style rainbow-stone porch, the grass verge came to an end, so Merrily walked in the road, down into a conifered valley which would eventually open out to the hill country of Radnor Forest.
Soon afterwards, she heard the low mutter of approaching vehicles, and then dipped headlights began to cast a pale light on the road, and she pressed close to the hedge as the cortege came past.
As the mourners had started coming for their cars, Gomer had moved to the pub window to look out for Gareth and Judy Prosser. Chances were the Prossers would be on foot, but they’d still have to come this way. Most of the people picking up their vehicles Gomer didn’t recognize.
‘There a funeral tea up the hall?’ he asked Greg.
‘If there is, we weren’t asked to provide it. Nah, they say Father Ellis don’t go for eating and drinking in church.’
‘It’s a bloody village hall!’
‘Not when he’s there it ain’t.’
Gomer looked over his shoulder at Greg polishing glasses for the customers that didn’t come in. ‘You’re not a churchgoer, then, boy?’
‘Never was. But the bloody pressure’s on now.’ The anxious look flitted across Greg’s face again. ‘Lot of people’ve started going. He don’t look much, Ellis, but they reckon you come out feeling on cloud nine. I mean, whatever it is, I’m not sure I wanna catch it. The wife’s gone to this funeral. And I let ’em use the car park — all his fans from miles around. Not that many of ’em drop in for a pint or anyfing afterwards. Don’t need drink when you’re high on God.’
‘You got a few yere now, boy,’ Gomer observed. ‘Stand by your pumps.’
Two men and three women came in, all in black. One of the men was Tony Probert, farmer from Evenjobb — Gomer knew him to speak to, just about — and one of the women was…
‘Greta,’ Gomer said, ‘’ow’re you?’
Greta Thomas, wife of Danny, the rock-and-roll farmer from Kinnerton. She was little and busty, with a voice Nash Rocks could’ve used for blasting. Used to be receptionist for Dr Coll.
‘I hope you’re lookin’ after yourself, Gomer,’ Greta yelled. ‘Not goin’ back to the wild?’ Never one to make a meal of the ole condolences; once the funeral was over Greta believed it was time to start cheering you up.
‘I’m doing fine, Gret.’
‘’Cause if Min thought you was on the bevvy…’
‘Moderation in all things, you know me, girl. I dunno, I seen bloody Danny earlier, he never said you was goin’ to see Menna off.’
‘Never remembers nothing, ’cept his bloody chords. Tony and Julie was coming, so I had a lift.’ Greta pulled Gomer towards a table. ‘Reckoned somebody ought to represent Danny’s side of the family.’
‘Nothin’ to do with wantin’ to see the famous Reverend Ellis in action without goin’ to a reg’lar service, like?’
Greta looked sheepish. ‘No harm in that, is there?’
‘Worth it, was it?’
‘Well… strange, it is, actually, Gomer.’
‘Specially the funny singing. Like a trance — beautiful really, when it gets going. The voices are like harmonizing natural, the men and the women. Really gets you. It’s quite… I don’t know… sexy. That’s a stupid thing to say, ennit?’
‘Better get you a drink, Gret.’
He went to Greg at the bar, bought Greta a brandy. He might learn something here, and it beat going home to an empty bungalow with no fire, no tea, nothing but crap Saturday night telly and then a cold bed.
Greta looked up at him from under a fringe of hair dyed the colour of Hereford clay.
‘I didn’t mean that how it sounded, Gomer. I mean, I’ve never been that religious, but it makes you think. A lot of people’s saying that. Dr Coll — even Dr Coll — reckons Mr Ellis is the best thing ever happened to this area.’
‘Why do he reckon that?’ Clergy, in Gomer’s experience, came and went and never got noticed much, unless they started messing with people’s wives — or they were little and pretty.
‘The way it’s bringing the community together,’ Greta said. ‘You’d never get that with an ordinary parson and an ordinary church. When did you ever see local people and folk from Off hugging each other?’
‘En’t natural,’ Gomer conceded.
‘And they also reckons you can get a private consultation.’
‘Anything, really. Sickness, emotional problems…’
‘What’s he do for that?’
‘Fetches them out of you, Gomer. Lays his hands on you, fetches it all out.’
‘Bloody hell, Gret.’
‘There’s folk swears by it.’
He leaned back and thought for a bit. Doctor’s receptionist for what — ten years? Her’d have been no more than a young girl when her first went to work for Dr Coll’s old feller. Still…
‘How well did you actually know Menna Thomas, Gret?’
Doctors’ receptionists, it was easier for them to talk about the dead than the living, and Greta Thomas was still talking when Tony Probert and his wife and the other couple had finished up their drinks and looked a bit restive, so Gomer told them it was OK, he’d take Greta home himself.
On the way, he said, ‘And how well did you know her sister Barbara?’
Which was how he found out the truth about the hydatid cyst.
Behind the hearse came an old-fashioned taxi, like a London black cab. Merrily saw brake lights come on about a hundred yards down the lane and she moved quietly towards them. Stone posts stood stark against the last of the light and she heard the grating of metal gates.
Silhouettes now. Someone in a long overcoat pushing a bier. Merrily watched the coffin sliding onto it under the raised tailgate of the hearse, saw the bier pushed through the gates. It was followed by several people fused into one moving shadow.
Against the band of light below the grey roller blind of evening, she could see the roof of the old rectory. No lights on there. The taxi started up, rolled away down the lane. No sign of another car.
No sign of Barbara Buckingham.
Suppose Barbara had accosted Weal, made a nuisance of herself, and Weal — as a solicitor, able to expedite these things — had responded with some kind of injunction to restrain her. In which case, why hadn’t Barbara told Merrily? Why hadn’t she left a message?
At the gates, peering down an alley of laurels, Merrily was pulled sharply back by the realization that this whole situation was entirely ridiculous. Only Jane would do something like this. But then more headlights were glaring around the bend behind her, and she slipped inside the gates to avoid them.
The vehicle went past on full beams: not Sophie’s Saab but a fat four-wheel drive with two men in it. Leaving Merrily standing on the property of J.W. Weal as, somewhere beyond the laurels, a single warm light was anointing the bruised dusk with an amber balm.
She followed the laurel alley towards the house, now only half expecting the dramatic eleventh-hour appearance of Barbara Buckingham like the dissenting wedding guest with just cause for stopping the service.
By the house, the drive split into a fork, one prong ending at a concrete double garage, the other dropping down a step and narrowing into a path, its tarmac surface fragmenting into crazy paving to cross the lawn — which was wedge-shaped and bordered by spruce and Scots pine. At the narrow end of this wedge stood a conical building, the source of the light.
The wine store… the ice house… Menna’s waiting tomb.
Merrily stood by the last of the laurels, on the edge of the lawn, and looked up at the Victorian house — substantial, grey and gabled, three storeys high. The light from the open door of the tomb, maybe forty yards away, was bright enough to outline the regular stone blocks in the back wall of the house. She could see the shadows of heavy, lumpen furniture in the room immediately behind a bay window on the ground floor. This house was very J.W. Weal.
At its end of the lawn, the mausoleum was a squat Palladian temple. Victorian kitsch, its interior was creamed with electric light from two wrought-iron hanging lanterns. Then the light was suddenly blocked and diffused… two men looming. Merrily backed up against the house wall, laurel leaves wet on her face.
‘Mind the step, George.’
‘He could use a light.’
‘Knows his way down yere in his sleep, I reckon.’
The undertakers maybe? Must be the departure of the last outsiders.
Feeling very much on her own now, Merrily moved down the lawn, stopping about fifteen yards from the door of the mausoleum. From an oblique angle, she could see inside, to where mourners were grouped around a stone trough set into the middle of the floor. She saw Ellis, in his white robe. She saw a wiry bearded man, a squat bulky man, and a woman. They were still as a painted tableau, faces lit with a Rembrandt glow. And she thought, aghast, This is intrusion, this is voyeurism, this is none of my business!
This was about a man — not an affable man, not an immediately likeable man, but a man who had loved his wife, who had treated her with great tenderness till the last seconds of her life. Who had — whatever you thought of rebaptism, rebirth in the faith — come with her to Christ. Who could not bear to be entirely parted from her. Who had chosen to gaze out every morning from their bedroom window, probably for the rest of his life, across to where she lay.
That’s it. I’m going. She turned abruptly away.
And walked into the man himself.
Her face was suddenly buried in the cold, crisp shirt-front in the V of his waistcoat.
It smelled of camphor.
For a moment, she was frozen with shock, let out a small ‘Oh’ before his big arms came around her, lifting her off her feet. For a flowing second, she was spun in space through the path of light from the tomb, and then put down in shadow and held.
‘Men-na,’ he breathed.
The great body rigid, compressing her. Camphor. Carbolic. She was gripped for a too-long moment, like a captured bird, and then the arms sprang apart.
‘I’m sorry…’ she whispered.
He was silent. Neither of them moved.
A small night breeze had arisen, was rippling the laurels and sighing in the conifers. The firs and pines were like sentries with spears. J.W. Weal was just another shadow now; she didn’t feel that he was looking at her. The line of light shivered, and Merrily saw figures standing in the doorway of the mausoleum. Nobody spoke, nobody called to her. It was dreamlike, slow-motion.
She turned and walked away — trying not to run — across the lawn, in and out of the path of light, her arms pressed into her sides, as though his arms were still around her. The strong light from the mausoleum haloed the old rectory, illuminating the inside of the bay-windowed room on the ground floor.
And then, as she was looking up at that same window, it became dark all round. The door of the mausoleum had been closed. They’d been waiting for Jeffery Weal to return from the house, and now they’d shut themselves away for the finale, leaving darkness outside. The lawn was black, the track of light from the tomb having vanished. Merrily felt small and bewildered and ashamed, like a child who should be in bed but had peered through the bannisters into an unknown, unknowable, grown-up world.
What was he thinking then?
She searched for the entrance to the drive. Without light, she would need to go carefully.
Yet there was light: a dull, diffused haze behind the bay window, where the backs of chairs threw rearing shadows up the interior walls. She now hated that room. She knew it was very cold in there, colder than it was out here. She didn’t want to be looking in. She didn’t want to see…
… the pale figure flitting across the wide windows, from pane to pane.
The slight, moth-like thing, the wisp of despair.
She didn’t want to see it. She couldn’t see it.
But as the room came out to her, enclosing her in its pocket of cold, she could almost hear the flimsy, flightless, jittering thing beating itself against the glass in its frenzy, with a noise like tiny crackling bones.
Merrily flailed and stumbled into the laurels, slipped on numbed legs and grabbed handfuls of leaves to keep from falling. Only these weren’t the laurels; they had thorns, winter-vicious. Still she clutched them in both hands, almost relishing the entirely physical pain, then she scrambled up and onto the drive, hobbling away towards the gateposts.
The vast majority of charismatic churches are aware of the dangers of confusing demonic attack with psychological problems… There are, however, some charismatic groups which are inclined to carry out a ministry of deliverance which concerns most other charismatic churches and which leads to ‘casualties’.
Tango with Satan
Since coming home to her apartment at the vicarage, Jane had… well, just slept, actually. Longer, probably, than she’d ever slept before. She woke up briefly, thought of something crucially important, went back to sleep, forgot about it. Just like that for most of a day.
It was the hospital’s fault. Hospitals were, like, totally knackering. Unless you were drugged to the eyeballs, you never slept in a hospital — be more relaxing bedding down on a factory floor during the night shift. Naturally, Jane had tried telling them this, but no, they’d insisted on keeping her in, in case her skull was fractured or something worse. Which she knew it wasn’t, and they knew really, but it was, like — yawn, yawn — procedure, to forestall people suing the Health Service for half a million on account of her having gone into a coma on the bus.
Sleep was all you really needed. Real sleep, home sleep. Sleep was crucial, because it gave the body and the brain time to repair themselves, and because it was a natural thing.
And, also, in this particular case, because it postponed that inevitable Long Talk With Mum.
The Long Talk had not taken place, as expected, in the car coming home from Worcester Royal Infirmary last night, because it was Sophie’s car and Sophie was driving it, and Sophie — to Jane’s slight resentment — seemed more concerned about Mum, who had herself at one point fallen asleep in the passenger seat and awoken with a start — like a really seismic start — which made Sophie judderingly slam on the brakes going down Fromes Hill. Mum had shaken herself fully awake and said — in that flustered, half-embarrassed way of hers when lying — that something must have walked over her grave.
And, like, trod on her hands? Why were both her hands clumsily criss-crossed with broad strips of Elastoplast, like she was the motorway pile-up casualty?
Fell among thorns, was all Mum would say when they finally got home, must have been around ten. Bewilderingly, she’d hugged Jane for a long time before they’d staggered off to their respective bedrooms, without mention of the impending Long Talk.
Jane slept through most of Sunday morning, venturing dowstairs just once for a bite to eat from the fridge — lump of cheese, handful of digestive biscuits — while Mum was out, doing the weekly pulpit gig. Then leaving her plates conspicuously on the draining board so that Mum would know she’d eaten and wouldn’t come up to ask about lunch and initiate the Long Talk.
She vaguely remembered awakening to see Mum standing by the bed in her clerical gear, like a ghost, but she must have fallen asleep again before either of them could speak. She kept half waking to hear the ting of the phone: a lot of calls. A lot of calls. Was this about the accident? Or Livenight — Mum apologizing to half the clergy for screwing up on TV?
For Sunday lunch, alone with Ethel the cat, Merrily had just a boiled egg and a slice of toast. Which was just as well because, before two p.m., the bishop was on the phone, enquiring after Jane and revealing himself to be a worried man.
The Daily Mail had phoned him at home. Did he know that a former church in his diocese had become a temple for the worship of pagan gods?
Well, of course he did. He’d seen the damned TV programme like everyone else, but he was hoping that either nothing more would be heard of it or it would turn out to be safely over the border in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon.
Not that he’d told the Mail that. He’d told the Mail he was ‘concerned’ and would be ‘making enquiries’.
And this was one of them.
‘As it happens,’ Merrily said, ‘I was in Old Hindwell yesterday.’
Bernie Dunmore went quiet for a couple of seconds.
‘That’s an extraordinary coincidence,’ he said.
‘It is. But nothing more than that.’
‘Did you see the church?’
‘Only the tower above the trees. I didn’t see any naked figures dancing around a fire, didn’t hear any chanting. Is it really true? Who are they?’
‘Witches, apparently. People called Thorogood, ironically enough. Young couple, came from Shrewsbury, I think. But he’s American.’
‘In parts of America, witchcraft is awfully respectable these days.’
‘Merrily, this is Radnorshire.’
‘As for the church — well, strictly speaking it isn’t a church at all any more. Did all the right things when they let it go. Took away the churchyard bones to a place of suitable sanctity. Virtually gave it to the farming family whose land had surrounded it for generations. Stipulating, naturally, that relatives of people whose names were on the graves should be able to visit and lay flowers, by arrangement.’
‘Why did they let it go? It’s not as though the village has an alternative church.’
‘Usual reasons: economics coupled with a very convenient period of public apathy.’
‘You could dump half the parish churches in Britain on that basis.’
‘Also, this isn’t a building of any great architectural merit,’ Bernie said. ‘Old, certainly, but the only history it seems to have is one of more or less continuous major repairs and renewals, dating back to the fifteenth century or earlier. The dear old place never seems to have wanted to stay up, if you get my meaning. Close to a river or something, so perhaps built on ground prone to subsidence. Things apparently came to a head when the rector at the time actually suggested it should be decommissioned.’
‘Anyway, all that’s irrelevant. The unfortunate fact is, if it’s got a tower or a steeple and a handful of gravestones, the general public will still see it as holy ground, and there’ll be protests.’
‘But there’s nothing you can do about that, is there? You can’t actually vet new owners.’
‘The Church can vet them, obviously, when the Church is the vendor. And the Church does — we’re not going to sell one to someone who wants to turn it into St Cuthbert’s Casino or St Mary’s Massage Parlour. But when it’s being sold on for the second or, in this case, third time, you’re right, it’s more or less out of our hands.’
‘So is there any reason for this to escalate into anything?’
‘Merrily, this is Nicholas Ellis’s patch. This is where he holds his gatherings… in the village hall.’
‘I know. I was there for a funeral. The congregation was singing in tongues over the coffin.’
The bishop made a noise conveying extreme distaste.
‘But the point I was about to make, Bernie, is that Ellis is Sea of Light. He doesn’t care about churches.’
‘Oh, Merrily, you don’t really believe the bugger isn’t going to start caring very deeply — as of now?’
‘You’ve spoken to him?’
‘Never spoken to the man in my life, but the press have. They didn’t tell us what he said, but I expect we’ll all be reading about it at length in the morning.’
‘Oh. Anything I can do?’
Bernie Dunmore chuckled aridly. ‘You’re the Deliverance Consultant, Merrily, so what do you think you could do?’
‘That’s not fair. Look, I’m sorry I messed up so badly on TV, if that’s what-’
‘Not at all. No, indeed, you were… fine. As well as being probably the only woman on that programme who looked as if she shaved her armpits. Was that sexist? What I’m trying to say… you’re the only one of us who officially knows about this kind of thing and is able to discuss it in a balanced kind of way. Not like Ellis, that’s what I mean. Obviously, I can’t forbid the man to speak to the media, but I’d far rather it were you…’
‘The only problem, Bishop-’
‘… and if all future requests for information could be passed directly to our Deliverance Consultant. As the official spokesperson for the diocese on… matters of this kind.’
Merrily felt a tremor of trepidation. And recalled the whizz and flicker, the crackle and tap-tap on the window of a room full of shadows.
‘But, Bernie, this job… deliverance-’
‘I know, I know. It’s supposed to be low-profile.’ He paused, to weight the punchline. ‘But you have, after all, been on television now, haven’t you?’
‘I won’t dress it up,’ Bernie said. ‘You’ll probably have problems as a result. Extremists on both sides. The pagans’ll have you down as a jackboot fascist, while Ellis is calling you a pinko hippy doing the tango with Satan. Still, it’ll be an experience for you.’
She stripped off the plasters Sophie had bought from the pharmacy at Tesco on the way to Worcester last night — a fraught journey, from the moment she’d stumbled into the Saab’s headlight beams somewhere on the outskirts of the village.
She then changed out of her clerical clothes and went up to the attic to check that Jane was OK.
The kid was asleep in her double bed under the famous Mondrian walls of vermilion, Prussian blue and chrome yellow. Merrily found herself bending over her, like she hadn’t done for years, making sure she was breathing. Jane’s eyes fluttered open briefly and she murmured something unintelligible.
Merrily quietly left the room. They’d assured her at the hospital that her daughter was absolutely fine but might sleep a lot.
Downstairs, the phone was ringing. She grabbed the cordless.
It was Gomer. He’d just been to the shop for tobacco for his roll-ups and learned about the motorway accident.
‘Her’s all right?’
‘Fine. Sleeping a lot, but that’s good.’
‘Bloody hell, vicar.’
‘One of those things.’
‘Bloody hell. Anythin’ I can do, see?’
‘I know. Thanks, Gomer.’
‘So you wouldn’t’ve gone to Menna’s funeral then? I never went to look for you. One funeral’s enough… enough for a long time.’
‘You were in Old Hindwell yesterday?’
‘Reckoned it might be a good time. Found out a few things you might wanner know, see. No rush, mind. You look after the kiddie.’
‘In the morning?’
‘Sure t’be,’ Gomer said.
Good old Gomer.
Jane was standing in the kitchen doorway in her towelling dressing gown. She looked surprisingly OK. You wouldn’t notice the bruise over her left eye unless you were looking for it.
‘Not really. I just went to the loo and looked out the window, and I think you’ve got the filth.’
‘He’s outside in his car, talking on his radio or his mobile. Overweight guy in a dark suit. I’ve seen him before. I think it’s that miserable-looking copper used to tag around after Annie Howe, the Belsen dentist. I’ll go for another lie-down now, but just thought I’d warn you.’
Merrily let him in. ‘DC Mumford.’
‘DS Mumford, vicar. Amazingly enough.’
‘They have accelerated promotion for young graduates like DI Howe,’ Mumford said heavily. ‘For plods like me, it can still take twenty-odd years. How’s your little girl?’
‘You’re just a late starter,’ Merrily assured him. ‘You’ll whizz through the ranks now. Jane’s doing OK, thanks. But that’s not why you’re here?’
Andy Mumford’s smile was strained as he stepped into the kitchen. Another two or three years and he’d be up for retirement. Merrily had coffee freshly made and poured him one. She’d left the door open for Jane, for once hoping she was listening — a strong indication of recovery.
‘You’ve been in contact with Mrs Barbara Buckingham,’ Mumford said. ‘We traced her movement back through the hospital. Sister Cullen says she referred her to you.’
Merrily stiffened. ‘What’s happened?’
‘She’s been reported missing, Mrs Watkins.’
‘Barbara? By whom?’
‘Arranged to phone her daughter in Hampshire every night while she was here. But hasn’t rung for two nights. Does not appear to have attended her sister’s funeral.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘Checked with Hampshire before I came in. No word there. It’s an odd one, Mrs Watkins. Teenagers, nine times out of ten they’ll surface after a while. A woman Mrs Buckingham’s age, middle class, we start to worry.’ Mumford sipped his coffee. ‘You saw her last when?’
‘Tuesday evening, here. It was the only time. How much did Eileen Cullen tell you?’
‘She said Mrs Buckingham was very upset, not only over her sister’s premature death but the fact that she wouldn’t be getting buried in the churchyard like normal people. She said she thought you’d be the minister most likely to give the woman a sympathetic hearing.’
‘I’m just the only one Eileen knows.’
Mumford smiled almost shyly. ‘To be honest, Mrs Watkins, I got the feeling there might have been another reason she put the lady on to you, apart from this objection to the burial. But that might just be promotion making me feel I ought to behave like a detective. Of course, if you don’t think that would throw any light on our inquiry…’
‘Well… there was another reason, relating to my other job. You can put this down to stress if you like but don’t go thinking she was nuts because I don’t think she was — is.’
‘Not my place, Reverend.’
‘She was having troublesome dreams — anxiety dreams probably — about her sister. Barbara left home in Radnorshire when Menna was just a baby, and they’d hardly seen each other since. Anybody would feel… regrets in that situation. She’s a Christian, she was headmistress at a Church school. Eileen thought she might appreciate some spiritual, er, counselling.’
‘She explain why she was alone? Why her husband wasn’t with her?’
‘She said he was away — in France, I think. He deals in antiques.’
‘Didn’t say anything about him leaving her, then?’
‘Oh God, really?’
‘For France, read Winchester.’ Mumford pulled out his pocketbook. ‘Richard Buckingham moved out two months ago.’
‘That’s the information we have from the daughter. So, were you able to ease Mrs Buckingham’s mind? I mean, if I was to ask you if you thought there was any possibility of her taking her own life…?’
‘Oh no. She was too angry.’
‘Yeah, I’d say so.’
‘At anybody in particular?’
‘At J.W. Weal, I suppose. Know him?’
‘Paths have crossed in court once or twice. He used to do quite a bit of legal aid work, maybe still does. I don’t get out that way much these days.’
‘Really?’ She’d made a joke out of it to Sophie, but she couldn’t imagine Weal defending small-time shoplifters and car thieves and dope smokers; that would mean he’d have to talk to them. ‘I had him down as a wills and conveyancing man.’
‘Place like that, a lawyer has to grab what he can get,’ said Mumford. ‘Mrs Buckingham didn’t care for her brother-in-law, I take it.’
‘Not a lot. You have a situation where Menna spends her young life looking after her widowed father and then gets married to a much older bloke, in the same area. No life at all, in Barbara’s view. And then can’t even get away when she dies.’
‘You don’t like him either then, Mrs Watkins?’
‘I don’t know him.’
Mumford considered. ‘You’d wonder, does anybody? So, when you spoke to her, did Mrs Buckingham give you any idea what she was going to do next?’
‘She wanted me to go to the funeral with her. I went along, but she apparently didn’t.’
‘You were there?’
‘We were supposed to meet.’
‘Seems an unusual arrangement, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘I thought she needed somebody.’
‘You didn’t know Mrs Weal, then?’
‘Well, I was actually at the county hospital, with a friend, just after she died. But, no, I didn’t actually know her. I don’t really know why I said I’d go along. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do. Maybe…’ Why did coppers always make you feel unaccountably guilty? ‘Maybe I thought Barbara might do something stupid if I wasn’t there, which I might have been able to prevent. It’s hard to explain.’
‘Maybe cause some kind of scene. Start hurling accusations at J.W. Weal, or something, at the funeral.’
‘But you didn’t find her there?’
‘To be honest, it was a difficult day. I had Jane to pick up from hospital in Worcester. If I’d known Barbara had been reported missing, I’d have… tried harder.’
She returned from seeing Mumford out to find Jane at the kitchen table. The kid was dressed in jeans and her white fluffy sweater. She looked about ten. Until, of course, she spoke.
‘He thinks she’s dead.’
‘Police always think that, flower.’
‘I think you think she’s dead, too.’
‘I don’t think that, but I do feel guilty.’
‘You always feel guilty,’ Jane said.
Against the World
Old Hindwell Post office was a brick-built nineteenth-century building a little way down from the pub, on the opposite side of the street. Betty was there by eight-fifteen on this dry but bitter Monday morning. The newsagent side of the business opened at eight. There were no other customers inside.
‘Daily Mail, please.’
The postmistress, Mrs Eleri Cobbold, glanced quickly at Betty and went stiff.
‘None left, I’m sorry.’
‘You’ve only been open fifteen minutes.’ Betty eyed her steadily. It was the first time she’d been in here. She saw a thin-faced woman of about sixty. She saw a woman who had already read today’s Daily Mail.
‘Only got ordered copies, isn’t it?’ Mrs Cobbold swallowed. ‘Besides two extras. Which we’ve sold.’
Betty was not giving up. She glanced at the public photocopier at the other end of the shop. ‘In that case, could I perhaps borrow one of the ordered papers and make a copy of one particular page?’
Mrs Cobbold blinked nervously. ‘Well, I don’t…’
Betty sought her eyes, but Mrs Cobbold kept looking away as though her narrow, God-fearing soul was in danger. She glanced towards the door and seemed very relieved when it was opened by a slim, tweed-suited man with a neat beard.
‘Oh, good morning, Doctor.’
‘A sharp day, Eleri.’
‘Yes. Yes, indeed.’ Mrs Cobbold bent quickly below the counter and produced a Daily Mail. She didn’t look at Betty. ‘You had better take mine. Thirty-five pence, please.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs Cobbold whispered.
This was ridiculous.
‘Thank you.’ Betty also bought a bottle of milk and a pot of local honey. She took her purse from her shoulder bag. She didn’t smile. ‘And if I could have a carton of bat’s blood as well, please.’
This, and the presence in the shop of the doctor, seemed to release something.
‘Take your paper and don’t come in here again, please,’ Mrs Cobbold said shrilly.
The doctor raised a ginger eyebrow.
Betty started to shake her head. ‘I really can’t believe this.’
‘And’ — Mrs Cobbold looked at her at last — ‘you can tell that husband of yours that if he wants to conduct affairs with married women, we don’t want to have to watch it on the street at night. You tell him that.’
Betty’s mouth fell open as Mrs Cobbold stared defiantly at her. The doctor smiled and held open the door for her.
Robin paced the freaking kitchen.
She wouldn’t let him fetch the paper. She didn’t trust him not to overreact if there were any comments… to behave, in fact, like a man who’d been cold-shouldered by his wife, told his artwork was a piece of shit and then stitched up by the media.
She’d been awesomely and unapproachably silent most of yesterday, like she was half out of the world, sealing herself off from the awful implications of the whole nation — worse still, the whole village — knowing where they were coming from. Implications? Like what implications? A lynch mob? The stake? Their house torched? Was this the twenty-first century or, like, 1650?
Later in the day he’d actually found her sunk into a book on the seventeenth-century witch-hunts. The chapter was headed ‘Suckling Demons’; it was about women accused of having sex with the Devil. But she wouldn’t talk about it. He just wanted to snatch away the book and feed it to the stove.
She’d hardly moved from the kitchen for the rest of the morning, drinking strong herbal tea and smoking — Robin counted — eleven cigarettes. And still he hadn’t told her the truly awful news, about Blackmore, because things were bad enough. He’d just spent the entire day trying to persuade her just to talk to him, which was like trying to lure a wounded vixen from her lair.
Was she blaming him for the truth leaking out — like he’d been down the pub handing out invitations to their next sabbat. And the journalists… well, how was he supposed to have handled them? Invite the bastards in to watch them perform the Great Rite on the hearthrug?
If he’d had the brains he was born with, she’d told him, her voice now inflected with hard Yorkshire — this was while they were still speaking — he’d’ve kept very quiet, not answered the door. There was no car there, so they could quite easily have been away from home.
What? This had made him actually start pulling at his hair. Like, how the fuck was he supposed to know it was the god-damned media at the door? Might have been insurance salesmen, the Jehovah’s freaking Witnesses. How could he have known?
No reply. No reply either when he’d twice called George Webster and Vivvie, up in Manchester, to see if they knew anything about this damn TV show. He’d left two messages on their answering machine.
And then yesterday, after a lunch of tomato soup and stale rolls, Betty had said she needed time to think and went outside to walk alone, leaving Robin eking out the very last of the sodden pine wood. Maybe she went to the church to try and communicate with the Reverend freaking Penney. Robin wasn’t interested any more. When she came back, she started moving furniture around and drinking yet more herbal tea.
Maybe there was something on her mind he didn’t know about. Dare he ask? What was the damn use?
It was like she was waiting for something even worse to happen.
This was all down to Ellis. No question there. It was Ellis sicked the press on them.
Goddamn Christian bastard.
She came in from the post office and laid a newspaper on the kitchen table. She didn’t even look at Robin. ‘I’m going to change,’ she said and went out. He heard her going upstairs.
The room felt cold. The colours had faded.
This was bad, wasn’t it? It was going to be worse than he could have imagined, although he accepted that he maybe hadn’t endeared himself to the Mail hacks by going for their camera like that.
He looked at the paper. At least it wasn’t on the front. Nervously, he turned over the first page.
Just the whole of page three, was all.
Down the right-hand side was a long picture of St Michael’s Church, in silhouette against a sunset sky, the tower starkly framed by winter trees. It was a good picture, black and white. The headline above it, however, was just crazy: ‘Witches possess parish church. “Nightmare evil in our midst,” warns rector’.
‘Evil?’ Robin shouted. ‘They really listened to that crazy motherfucker?’
But it was the big picture, in colour, that made him cringe the most.
It was a grainy close-up of a snarling man, eyes burning under long, shaggy black hair. On his sweat-shiny cheeks were streaks of paint, diluted — if you wanted the truth — by bitter tears, but who was ever gonna think that? This was blue paint. It had obviously come off the cloth he’d used to wipe his eyes. In the picture, it looked like freaking woad. The guy looked like he would cut out your heart before raping your wife and slaughtering your children. Aligned with the picture, the story read:
This is the face of the new ‘priest’ at an ancient village church.
Robin Thorogood is a professional artist. He and his wife, Betty, are also practising witches. Now the couple have become the owners of a medieval parish church — while the local rector has to hold his services in the village hall.
‘This is my worst nightmare come true,’ says the Rev. Nicholas Ellis. ‘It is the manifestation of a truly insidious evil in our midst.’
Now the acting Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev. Bernard Dunmore, is to look into the bizarre situation. ‘It concerns me very deeply,’ he said last night.
It is more than thirty years since the church, at Old Hindwell, Powys, was decommissioned by the Church of England. For most of that time, it stood undisturbed on the land of farming brothers John and Ifan Prosser. When the last brother, John, died two years ago it passed out of the family and was bought by the Thorogoods just before Christmas.
Robin Thorogood, who is American-born, says he and his wife represent ‘the fastest-growing religion in the country’.
He claims that many of Britain’s old churches were built on former pagan ritual sites — one of which, he says, he and his wife have now repossessed.
However, when invited to explain their plans for the church, Mr Thorogood became abusive and attacked Daily Mail photographer Stuart Joyce, screaming, ‘I’ll turn you into a f-ing toad.’
Now villagers say they are terrified that the couple will desecrate the ruined church by conducting pagan rites there. They say they have already seen strange lights in the ruins late at night.
The Thorogoods’ nearest neighbour, local councillor Gareth Prosser, a farmer and nephew of the former owners, said, ‘This has always been a God-fearing community and we will not tolerate this kind of sacrilege.
‘These people sneaked in, pretending to be just an ordinary young couple.
‘Although this is a community of old-established families, newcomers have always been welcome here as long as they respect our way of life.
‘But we feel these people have betrayed our trust and that is utterly despicable.’
‘Trust?’ Robin exploded. ‘What did that fat asshole ever trust us with?’ Jeez, he’d hardly even spoken to the guy till a couple days ago, and then it was like Robin was some kind of vagrant.
He sat down, beating his fist on the table. It was a while before he realized the phone was ringing. By that time, Betty had come down and answered it.
When she came off the phone she was white with anger.
‘Who?’ Robin said.
She didn’t answer.
She said in low voice, ‘Vivvie.’
‘Good of them to call back after only a day. Did they know anything about that programme? For all it matters.’
‘She was on the programme.’
He sat up. ‘What?’
‘They were both there in the studio, but only Vivienne got to talk.’ Betty’s voice was clipped and precise. ‘It was a late-night forum about the growth of Dark Age paganism in twenty-first-century Britain. They had Wiccans and Druids, Odinists — also some Christians to generate friction. It’s a friction programme.’
Robin snorted. TV was a psychic drain.
‘Vivienne was one of a group of experienced, civilized Wiccans put together by Ned Bain for that programme.’
‘Jesus,’ Robin said, ‘if she was one of the civilized ones, I sure wouldn’t like to be alone with the wild children of Odin.’
And Ned Bain? Who, as well as being some kind of rich, society witch, just happened to be an editorial director at Harvey-Calder, proprietors of Talisman Books. Robin had already felt an irrational anger that Bain should have allowed Blackmore to dump a fellow pagan — although, realistically, in a big outfit like that, it was unlikely Bain had anything at all to do with the bastard.
Betty said, ‘She claims she lost her cool when some woman priest became abusive.’
‘She doesn’t have any freaking cool.’
‘This priest was from Hereford. Ned Bain had argued that, after two thousand years of strife and corruption, the Christian Church was finally on the way out and Vivienne informed the Hereford priest that the erosion had already started in her own backyard, with pagans claiming back the old pagan sites, taking them back from the Church that had stolen them.’
Robin froze. ‘You have got to be fucking kidding.’
She didn’t reply.
‘She… Jeez, that dumb bitch! She named us? Right there on network TV?’
‘No. Some local journalist must have picked it up and tracked us down.’
‘And sold us to the Mail.’
‘The paper that supports suburban values,’ Betty said.
The phone rang. Robin went for it.
‘He’s away,’ Robin said calmly. ‘He went back to the States.’ He hung up. ‘That the way to handle the media?’
Betty walked over and switched on the machine. ‘That’s a better way.’
‘They’ll only show up at the door.’
‘Well, I won’t be here.’
He saw that she was wearing her ordinary person outfit, the one with the ordinary skirt. And this time with a silk scarf around her neck. It panicked him.
‘Look,’ he cried, ‘listen to me. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry about that picture. I’m sorry for looking like an asshole. I just… I just lost it, you know? I’d just had… I’d just taken this really bad call.’
‘From your friend?’ Betty said.
‘From your friend in the village?’
The phone rang again.
‘From Al,’ he said. ‘Al at Talisman.’
The machine picked up.
‘This is Juliet Pottinger. You appear to have telephoned me over the weekend. I am now back home, if you would like to call again. Thank you.’
‘Look’ — Robin waved a contemptuous hand at the paper — ‘this is just… complete shit. Like, are we supposed to feel threatened because the freaking Bishop of Hereford finds it a matter warranting deep concern? Because loopy Nick Ellis sees us as symptoms of some new epidemic of an old disease? What is he, the Witchfinder freaking General, now?’
He leapt up, moved toward her.
Betty’s hair was loose and tumbled. Her face was flushed. She looked more beautiful than he’d ever seen her. She always did look beautiful. And he was losing her. He’d been losing her from the moment they arrived here. He felt like his heart was swollen to the size of the room.
‘We’re not gonna let them take us down, are we? Betty, this is… this is you and me against the world, right?’
Betty detached her car keys from the hook by the door.
‘Please,’ Robin said. ‘Please don’t go.’
Betty said quietly, ‘I’m not leaving you, Robin.’
He put his head in his hands and wept. When he took them down again, she was no longer there.
Ledwardine sat solid, firmly defined in black and white under one of those sullen, shifty skies that looked as if it might spit anything at you. Just before nine Merrily crossed the square to the Eight-till-Late to buy a Mail.
A spiky white head rose from the shop’s freezer, its glasses misted.
‘Seems funny diggin’ out the ole frozen pasties again, vicar.’
They ended up, as usual, in the churchyard, where Gomer gathered all the flowers from Minnie’s grave into a bin liner.
‘Bloody waste. Never liked flowers at funerals. Never liked cut flowers at all. Let ’em grow, they don’t ’ave long.’
‘True.’ She knotted the neck of the bin liner, spread the Daily Mail on the neighbouring tombstone and they sat on it.
‘Barbara Buckingham’s missing, Gomer. Didn’t show up for Menna’s funeral. Never got back to me, and hasn’t been in touch with her daughter in Hampshire either.’
‘Well,’ Gomer said, ‘en’t like it’s the first time, is it?’
‘She just go off without a word when she was sixteen?’
‘Been talkin’ to Greta Thomas, vicar. No relation — well, her man, Danny’s second cousin twice removed, whatever.’
‘Small gene pool.’
‘Ar. Also, Greta used to be secertry at the surgery. Dr Coll’s. En’t much they don’t find out there. Barbara Thomas told you why her was under the doctor back then?’
Barbara had talked as though the cyst epitomized all the bad things about her upbringing in the Forest — all the meanness and the narrowness and the squalidness. So that when she had it removed, she felt she was being given the chance to make a clean new start — a Radnorectomy.
Gomer did his big grin, getting out his roll-up tin.
Merrily said, ‘You’re going to tell me it wasn’t a hydatid cyst at all, right?’
Gomer shoved a ready-rolled ciggy between his teeth in affirmation.
‘I never thought of that,’ Merrily said. ‘I suppose I should have. What happened to the baby?’
‘Din’t go all the way, vicar. Her miscarried. Whether her had any help, mind, I wouldn’t know. Even Greta don’t know that. But there was always one or two farmers’ wives in them parts willin’ to do the business. And nobody liked Merv much.’
‘Hang on… remind me. Merv…?’
‘Merv Thomas. Barbara’s ole feller.’
Gomer nodded. ‘See, Merv’s wife, Glenny, her was never a well woman. Bit like Menna — delicate. Havin’ babbies took it out of her. Hard birth, Menna. Hear the screams clear to Glascwm, Greta reckons. After that, Glenny, her says, that’s it, that’s me finished. Slams the ole bedroom door on Merv.’
Merrily stared up at the sandstone church tower, breathed in Gomer’s smoke. She’d come out without her cigarettes.
‘Well, Merv coulder gone into a particlar pub in Kington,’ Gomer said. ‘Even over to Hereford. Her’d have worn that, no problem, long as he din’t go braggin’ about it.’
‘But Merv thought a man was entitled to have his needs met in his own home.’
It explained so much: why Barbara left home in a hurry, also why she had such a profound hatred of Radnor Forest. And why Menna had invaded her conscience so corrosively — to the extent, perhaps, that after she was dead, her presence was even stronger. When Menna no longer existed on the outside, in a fixed place in Radnorshire, she became a permanent nightly lodger in Barbara’s subconscious.
‘But the bedroom door musn’t have stayed closed, Gomer. Barbara said her father was determined to breed a son, but her mother miscarried, and then there was a hysterectomy.’
‘But then his wife died. Hang on, this friend of yours…’ Merrily was appalled. ‘If she knew about Barbara, then she must’ve known what might have been happening to Menna.’
‘Difference being, vicar, that Menna had protection. There was a good neighbour kept an eye on Menna, specially after her ma died. Judy Rowland. Judy Prosser now.’
Judy… Judith. ‘Barbara said she had letters from a friend called Judith, who was looking out for Menna. That eased her conscience a little.’
‘Smart woman, Judy. I reckons if Judy was lookin’ out for Menna, Menna’d be all right. Her’d take on Merv, would Judy, sure to.’
‘She still around?’
‘Oh hell, aye. Her’s wed to Gareth Prosser — councillor, magistrate, on this committee, that committee. Big man — dull bugger, mind. Lucky he’s got Judy to do his thinkin’ for him. Point I was gonner make, though, vicar, I reckon Judy was still lookin’ out for Menna, seein’ as both of ’em was living in Ole Hindwell.’
‘You mean after her marriage?’
‘No more’n five minutes apart, boy at the pub told me.’
‘So if she also still kept in touch with Barbara, maybe Barbara went to see her, too, while she was here.’
‘Dunno ’bout that, but her went to see Greta, askin’ questions ’bout Dr Coll.’
Gatecrashed his surgery. Made a nuisance of myself. Not that it made any difference. Bloody man told me I was asking him to be unethical, pre-empting the post-mortem.
‘What did Barbara want to know about Dr Coll?’
‘Whether he was treatin’ Menna ’fore she died, that kind o’ stuff.’
‘What’s he look like, Dr Coll?’
‘Oh… skinny little bloke. ’Bout my build, s’pose you’d say. Scrappy bit of a beard.’
‘He was at Menna’s funeral. The private bit.’
‘Ar, would be.’
‘So where’s Barbara then, Gomer? Where is Barbara Thomas?’
‘I could go see Judy Prosser, mabbe. Anybody knows the score, it’s her. I’ll sniff around a bit more. What else I gotter do till the ole grass starts growin’ up between the graves again?’
It was colder now. The mist had dropped down over the tip of the steeple. Gomer’s roll-up was close to burning his lips. He took it out and squeezed the end. He looked sadly at the grave, his bag of frozen pasties on his knees and his head on one side like a dog, as if he was listening for the ticking of those two watches under the soil.
‘I’ve got to go back there today.’ She told him about Old Hindwell seemingly metamorphosed into Salem, Mass. ‘You, er, don’t fancy coming along?’
Gomer was on his feet. ‘Just gimme three minutes to put these buggers in the fridge, vicar.’
Jane was not happy. Jane was deeply frustrated. She telephoned Eirion from the scullery.
‘They’ve found out where that church is! The pagan church? I had completely forgotten about it! The one that woman was going on about on Livenight? I’d forgotten about it. Like, you apparently lose all these brain cells when you have a bump, and I just didn’t remember that stuff, and then bits started coming back, and I knew there was something vital, but I couldn’t put my fing- Anyway, it’s all over one of the papers. It’s somewhere just your side of the border. And she’s just raced off over there… on account of there’s this major scene going down.’
‘Major scene?’ Eirion said.
‘And I’m, like, I have got to check this out! But would she let me go with her? Like, she’s even taken Gomer with her. But not me — the person who is profoundly interested in this stuff? And, like, because of the other night there is, of course, not a thing I can do about it. She just puts on this calm, sorrowful expression and she looks me in the eyes, and she’s like, “You’re going to stay here, this time, aren’t you, flower?” I am completely, totally, utterly stuffed.’
Eirion said calmly, ‘So how are you now, Eirion? How’s the whiplash? Is there any chance your car isn’t a complete write-off?’
‘Ah.’ Jane sat down at the desk. ‘Right. Sorry, Irene. You have to understand that self-pity is, like, my most instinctive and dominant emotion.’
‘Yeah, slept a lot. Still feel a bit heavy when I first get up, but no headaches or anything. No scars at all. Like I said, some things I can’t remember too clearly. About that programme and stuff. But… yeah. Yeah, I’m OK.’
‘My stepmother spoke to your mother. I’ve been feeling I ought to ring her, too. Do you think she’d be OK about that?’
‘With you she’d be fatally charming. So is it a write-off?’
‘Interesting you should ask about the car before asking about me.’
‘I know you’re OK. Your stepmother told Mum you were OK.’
‘I might have subsequently suffered a brain haemorrhage in the night.’
Eirion paused. ‘Yes, it is a write-off. A car that old, if you break a headlamp, it’s a write-off.’
‘I loved that car. I worked all summer at a lousy supermarket for that little Nova. I should get just about enough on the insurance to replace it with a mountain bike.’
‘Irene, I’m really, really sorry.’ Jane felt tears coming. ‘It’s all my fault. Everything I touch these days I screw up. I don’t suppose you want to see me ever again, but one day — I swear this on my mother’s… altar — I’ll get you another car.’
‘What, you mean in fifteen years’ time I’ll come home one day in my Porsche and find a thirty-year-old Vauxhall Nova outside my penthouse?’
‘In my scenario,’ Jane said, ‘you’re actually trudging home to your squat.’
‘Let’s forget the car,’ Eirion said. ‘You can sleep with me or something instead.’
Eirion said, ‘Listen, I’m sorry. That just came out. That was a joke.’
‘I said it was OK.’
‘You don’t understand,’ Eirion said. ‘I don’t want it to be like that.’
‘You don’t want to sleep with me?’
‘I mean, I don’t want it to be like… like you shag first and then you decide if you want to know the person better. I don’t want it to be like that. It never lasts. Most of the time that’s where it all ends.’
‘You’ve done a lot of this?’
‘Well… erm, I was in a band. You get around, meet lots of people, hear lots of stories. It’s just not how I want it to be with us, OK?’
‘Wow. You don’t mess around on the phone, do you?’
‘Yeah, I’m good on the phone,’ Eirion said. ‘Listen… It’s been weird. I can’t stop thinking about that stuff. I’ve just been walking round the grounds and turning it all over and over-’
‘Oh, the grounds…’
‘I can’t help my deprived upbringing. No, I was thinking how close we came to being like-’
‘Well… yeah, it really bloody shakes you up when you start thinking about it.’
‘Brings your life into hard focus. Unless you’ve had concussion, when it seems to do the opposite most of the time.’
‘I started thinking about your mum, what that would’ve done to her, with both her husband and her daughter — and it doesn’t matter what kind of shit he was, he was still her husband and your dad — like, both her husband and her daughter wiped out on the same bit of road. And maybe her, too, if she hadn’t stopped in time — these pile-ups can just go on and on in a fog. And… I don’t know what I’m trying to say, Jane…’
‘I do. It was like when I said to you in the car — I remember this because it was just before it happened. I said, do you never lie in bed and think about where we are and how we relate to the big picture?’
‘I just don’t lie in bed and think about it, I tramp around the grounds and the hills and think about it.’
‘That’s cool,’ Jane said.
‘And I was thinking how, when we were talking to Gerry earlier… you remember Gerry, the researcher?’
‘Gerry and… Maurice?’
‘That’s right. You remember Gerry saying, before the show started, that he wouldn’t be surprised if one of them — one of the pagans in the studio — tried some spooky stuff, just to show they could make things happen?’
‘He said that?’
‘He said spooky stuff. And I said, “What? What would they do?” And Gerry said a spell or something, just to prove they could make things happen. It was just after he was going on about your mum, and how your dad was killed and maybe she felt guilty-’
‘Oh yeah — the bastard.’
‘And you jumped down his-’
‘Sure. I mean, where did he get that stuff?’
‘He got it from that guy Ned Bain.’
‘Ned…? Oh, the really cool-’
‘The smooth-talking git,’ Eirion said. ‘But that whole thing was getting to me. Because they didn’t do anything, did they? There was no spell, no mumbo-jumbo, no pyrotechnics; they were all actually quite well behaved. But somehow Gerry had got it into his head that they were going to pull some stunt. So, anyway, I rang him this morning. You know… how I’m that bloke who wants to be a TV journalist? So I’m writing a piece on my adventures in the Livenight gallery for the school magazine…’
‘Of course I’m not. It’s just what I told Gerry to get him talking. I told him I was explaining in my piece how the programme researchers get their information, and there were things I didn’t have a chance to ask him there on the night.’
‘And where do they get it?’
‘Cuttings files, obviously. But they also talk to the guests beforehand. Like this Tania talked to your mum… and Gerry talked to Ned Bain and a few others. But Gerry reckoned it was Bain had provided all this detailed background on the Church of England’s first woman diocesan exorcist.’
‘Gerry just told you that?’
‘It took a bit of digging, actually, Jane. After which Gerry said how he thought I had a future in his profession; said to give him a call when I get through college.’
‘Wow, big time.’
‘So he was genned up on Mum? Like know thine enemy?’
‘But is that sort of stuff about your dad going to be readily available from the Hereford Times or something?’
‘She won’t do interviews about herself.’
‘So where did he get it?’
‘It’s no big secret, Irene. Maybe it’s all floating around on the Internet.’
‘Exactly. I’m going to check it out, I think.’
‘Who told Gerry they were going to pull a stunt? That from Ned Bain too?’
‘Gerry claimed he’d never said that. He said I must’ve misunderstood. But he bloody did say it, Jane. He just didn’t want it going in a school magazine that they were happy for stuff like that to happen on a live programme.’
‘Stuff like what?’
‘I don’t know, it just-’
‘I mean, OK, let’s spell it out, bottom line. Are you suggesting the evil Ned Bain and his satanic cronies did some kind of black magic resulting in a fog pile-up which caused the deaths of several people? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘Not exactly that…’
‘What are you, some kind of fundamentalist Welsh Chapel bigot?’
‘So what are you suggesting?’
‘I don’t know, I just… I mean no, it would be ridiculous to suggest that those tossers in fancy dress could do anything like that, even if they were evil, and I don’t think they are. Not evil, just totally irresponsible. They’re like, “Oh, can we work hand in hand with nature to make good things happen and save the Earth?” How the fuck can they know that what they’re going to make happen is going to be good necessarily?’
‘You sound like Mum.’
‘Well, maybe she’s right.’
‘Don’t meddle with anything metaphysical? Throw yourself on God’s mercy?’
‘Unless you know what you’re doing, maybe yes. And they don’t, they can’t know what they’re doing. How can they, Jane?’
‘It never occurred to you that by working on yourself for, like, years and years and studying and meditating, you can achieve wisdom and enlightenment?’
‘But most of those people haven’t, have they? It’s just, “Oh, let’s light a fire and take all our clothes off…” ’
‘That is a totally simplistic News of the World viewpoint.’ Jane’s head was suddenly full of a dark and fuzzy resentment. ‘You haven’t the faintest idea…’
‘At least I’m not naive about it.’
‘So I’m naive?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
There was a moment of true, sickening enlightenment. ‘You’ve been talking to her, haven’t you?’
‘My esteemed parent, the Reverend Watkins. She didn’t just speak to your stepmother on the phone, she spoke to you as well, didn’t she?’
‘No. Well only at the hospital. I mean you were there some of the time.’
‘That’s why there’s been no big row. Why she hasn’t asked me what the hell I was doing on the M5 at midnight. Why she’s so laid-back about it.’
‘Look, Jane, I’m not saying Gwennan didn’t also fill her in on some of the details, but I’ve never even-’
‘I’ve been really, really stupid, haven’t I? It really must have destroyed some of my brain cells. While I’m sleeping it off, you’re all having a good chat. You told her how I’d rigged the whole trip, making you think she knew all about us going. Then she’s like, “Oh, you have to understand Jane found it hard coming to terms with me being a priest, has to go her own way.” This cosy vicar-to-cathedral-school-choirboy tete-a-tete. Gosh, what are we going to do about that girl?’
‘Jane, that is totally-’
‘And you’re like, “Oh, I’m trying to understand her too, Mrs Watkins. If you think I’m just one of those reprehensible youths who only want to get inside her pants, let me assure you-” ’
‘For Christ’s sake, Jane-’
‘That is just so demeaning.’
‘It would be if it-’
‘You are fucking well dead in the water, Irene.’
Demonstration of Faith
Merrily pulled the old Volvo up against the hedge.
‘I’m sure that wasn’t there on Saturday.’
A cross standing in a garden.
‘Mabbe not,’ Gomer said.
It wasn’t any big deal, no more than the kind of rustic pole available from garden centres everywhere, with a section of another pole nailed on as a horizontal. It had been sunk into a flowerbed behind a picket fence in the garden of a neat, roadside bungalow about half a mile out of Walton, on the road leading to Old Hindwell. There were three other bungalows but this was the only one with a cross. Although it was no more than five feet high, there was a white light behind it, leaking through a rip in the clouds, and the fact that it was out of context made you suddenly and breathlessly aware of what a powerful symbol this was.
The bungalow looked empty, no smoke from the chimney. Merrily drove on. ‘You know who lives there?’
‘Retired folk from Off, I reckon.’
‘Mmm.’ Retired incomers were always useful for topping up your congregation. If the affable local minister turned up to welcome them, just when they were wondering if they were going to be happy here among strangers, they would feel obliged to return the favour, even if it was only for the next few Sundays. But if the friendly minister was the Reverend Nicholas Ellis, drifting away after a month or so could be more complicated.
This was what Bernie Dunmore had been afraid of. She’d received a briefing on the phone from Sophie before they left.
Apparently there was something of a record turn-out at the village hall yesterday. The bishop understands that a number of people were out delivering printed circulars last night, and bulletins were posted on Christian websites, warning of pagan infestation. Today there’s to be what’s been described as ‘a Demonstration of Faith’, which the bishop finds more than a little ominous.
‘I wonder what he said to them in his sermon. You know any regular churchgoers in the village, Gomer?’
‘We’ll find somebody for you, vicar, no problem.’
The bishop’s in conference all day…
… but what he wants you to do initially, Merrily, is to offer advice and support to the Reverend Mr Ellis. By which I understand him to mean restraint.
What was she supposed to do exactly? Put him under clerical arrest?
But if Merrily felt a seeping trepidation about this exercise, it clearly wasn’t shared by Gomer, who was hunched eagerly forward in the passenger seat, chewing on an unlit ciggy, his white hair on end like a mat of antennae. Describing him to someone once, Jane had said: ‘You need to start by imagining Bart Simpson as an old man.’
The lane dipped, darkening, into a channel between lines of forestry. The old rectory appeared on the left, in its clearing. Merrily kept her eyes on the narrowing road. How would she have reacted if she’d turned then and seen a pale movement in a window? She gripped the wheel, forestalling a shudder.
‘Not a soul, vicar,’ Gomer observed ambivalently.
‘Right.’ Her voice was huskier than she would have liked. The towering conifers were oppressive. ‘This must be the only part of Britain where you plunge into the trees when you leave the Forest.’
‘Ar, we all growed up never thinkin’ a forest had much to do with trees.’
Merrily slowed at the mud-flecked Old Hindwell sign. A grey poster with white lettering had been attached to its stem.
‘Christ is the Light!’
That hadn’t been there on Saturday either. She accelerated for the hill up to the village. Halfway up, to the right, the tower of the old church suddenly filled a gap in the horizon of pines. It was like a grey figure standing there.
The manifestation of a truly insidious evil in our midst.
A seriously inflammatory thing to say — Ellis playing it for all it was worth.
She’d read the Daily Mail story twice. Robin Thorogood sounded typical of the type of pagan recruited for Livenight. Primarily political, and an anarchist — what they used to call in Liverpool a tear-arse — but not necessarily insidiously evil. She wondered what his wife was like; no picture of her in the paper.
Sophie had said, The bishop would like you to point out to whoever it might concern that, while this might have previously been a church, it is also now this couple’s private property, and they do not appear to be breaking any laws — which the Reverend Ellis and his followers might well be doing if any of them sets foot inside it.
Merrily slowed to a crawl at the side road to the church and farm. This was where you might have expected to find a lychgate. There was a small parking area, and then an ordinary, barred farm gate. She saw that, while St Michael’s Church had never been exactly in a central position, trees and bushes had been allowed to grow around what was presumably the churchyard, hedging it off from the village. Somewhere in there, also, was the brook providing another natural barrier.
They moved on up the hill. ‘I wouldn’t mind taking a look at that place without drawing attention. Would that be possible, Gomer?’
‘Sure t’be. There’s a bit of an ole footpath following the brook from the other side. They opened him up a bit for the harchaeologists last summer, so we oughter be able to park a good way in.’
‘You know everything, don’t you?’
‘Ah, well, reason I knows this, vicar, is my nephew, Nev, he got brought in to shovel a few tons o’ soil and clay back when the harchaeologists was finished. I give Nev a bell last night. Good money, he reckoned, but a lot o’ waitin’ around. Bugger me, vicar, look at that…’
Merrily braked. There was a cottage on the right, almost on the road. It had small windows, lace-curtained, but in one of the downstairs ones the curtains had been pushed back and a candle was alight. Although the forestry was thinning, it was dark enough here for the flame to be visible from quite a distance. Power cut?
Not exactly. The candle was fixed on a pewter tray, which itself sat on a thick, black book, almost certainly a Bible. Christ is the Light.
‘Annie Smith lives there,’ Gomer said. ‘She’s a widow. Percy Smith, he had a little timber business, died ten year ago. Their boy, Mansel, he took it over but he en’t doin’ too well. Deals mostly in firewood now, for wood-burners and such.’
Merrily stopped the car just past the cottage. ‘She overtly religious, this Annie Smith?’
‘Never made a thing of it, if she is. But local people sticks together on things, see. Gareth Prosser goes along with the rector, say, then the rest of ’em en’t gonner go the other way. It’s a border thing: when the Welsh was fightin’ the English, the border folk’d be on the fence till they figured out which side was gonner be first to knock the ole fence down, see. And that was the side they’d jump down on. But they’d all jump together, see.’
‘Don’t matter they hates each other’s guts the rest o’ the time, they jumps together. All about survival, vicar.’
‘And does Gareth Prosser go along with the rector?’
‘They d’say he’s got one o’ them Christ stickers in the back of his Land Rover.’
‘What does that mean, then?’
‘Means he’s got a sticker,’ Gomer said.
Before they reached the village centre, they’d passed five homes with candles burning in their windows, and two of them with Bibles stood on end, gilt crosses facing outwards. A fat church candle gleamed greasily in the window of the post office. Merrily, usually at home with Bibles and candles, found this uncanny. We don’t do this kind of thing any more.
‘It’s medieval, Gomer. One couple. One pagan couple — OK, young, confrontational, but still just one couple. Then it’s like there’s a contagious disease about, and you put a candle in the window if it’s safe to go inside. Is this village… I mean, is it normally… normal?’
‘Just a village like any other yereabouts.’ He pondered a moment. ‘No, that en’t right. Ole Hindwell was always a bit set apart. Not part o’ the Valley, not quite in the Forest. Seen better times — used to ’ave a little school an’ a blacksmith. Same as there used t’be a church, ennit? But villages around yere, they grows and wanes. I never seen it as not normal.’
A big, white-haired man was walking up the hill, carrying something on his shoulder.
‘They d’say he does a bit o’ healin’,’ Gomer said.
‘Ellis? Laying on of hands at the end of the services?’
At the Big Bible Fest in Warwickshire, the spiritual energy generated by power prayer and singing in tongues would often be channelled into healing, members of the congregations stepping up with various ailments and chronic conditions and often claiming remarkable relief afterwards. It was this aspect Merrily had most wanted to believe in, but she suspected that, when the euphoria faded, the pain would usually return and she hated to hear people who failed to make it out of their wheelchairs being told that their faith was not strong enough.
‘They reckons he does a bit o’ house-to-house. And it en’t just normal sickness either.’
‘Know any specific cases?’ A snatch of conversation came back to her from Minnie’s funeral tea at Ledwardine village hall. Boy gets picked up by the police, with a pocketful o’ these bloody ecstersee. Up in court… Dennis says, ‘That’s it, boy, you stay under my roof you can change your bloody ways. We’re gonner go an’ see the bloody rector…’
When the big man stepped into the middle of the road and swung round, the item on his shoulder was revealed to be a large grey video camera. He took a step back, to take in the empty, sloping street, where the only movement was the flickering of the candles. He stood with his legs apart, recording the silent scene — looking like the sheriff in a western in the seconds before doors flew open and figures appeared, shooting.
No doors opened. Clouds hung low and heavy; there was little light left in the sky; the weather was co-operating with the candles. The cameraman shot the scene at leisure.
‘TV news,’ Merrily said. ‘There’ll be a reporter around somewhere, too. I’m supposed to make myself known to them.’
Gomer nodded towards the cameraman. ‘Least that tells you why there’s no bugger about. Nobody yere’s gonner wanner explain on telly about them candles.’
Even if they could, Merrily thought.
‘What you wanner do, vicar?’
‘It’s not what I want to do,’ Merrily said, ‘but I do have to talk to the Reverend Nick Ellis. He lives on the estate. Would that be…?’
Past the pub, about a hundred yards out of the village centre, were eight semi-detached houses on the same side of the road.
‘That’s the estate.’ Gomer pointed, as they approached.
Merrily parked in front of the first house. Though these were once council houses, fancy gates, double glazing and new front doors showed that most of them had been purchased.
They all had candles in the windows.
Only one house, fairly central, kept its maroon, standard-issue front door and flaking metal gates. It was the only one still looking like a council house. Except for the cross on the door: wood, painted gold, and nailed on.
There was a large jeep crowding the brief drive. A sticker over a nameplate on the gate announced that Christ was the Light. In the single downstairs window, two beeswax candles burned, in trays, on Bibles.
Merrily had heard that Ellis was living in a council house because, when he’d given up his churches, he’d also given up his rectory. The Church paid the rent on this modest new manse. A small price to pay per head of congregation, and it wouldn’t do Ellis’s image any harm at all, and he would know that.
She felt a pulse of fury. From singing in tongues to erecting a wall of silence, this man had turned a whole community, dozens maybe hundreds of people, against a couple who hadn’t yet been here long enough for anyone really to know them. The Thorogoods would need to be very hard-faced to survive it.
Spirit of Salem
‘This is no coincidence,’ George said on the phone. ‘This is fate. We all know what tomorrow is.’
‘Probably the last day of my freaking marriage.’
‘You have to go with it, Robin. We can turn this round. We can make it a triumph.’
Robin wanted to scream that he couldn’t give a shit about Imbolc; he just wanted things to come right again with his wife, some work to bring in some money, his religious beliefs no longer to be national news. He just wanted to become a boring, obscure person.
In the background, the old fax machine huffed and whizzed. He watched the paper emerge.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live
Poison faxes? Creepy Bible quotes? Someone had unleashed the Christian propaganda machine. The spirit of Salem living on.
‘It’s all our fault, man,’ George said.
‘Not your fault. Vivvie’s fault.’
‘I share the blame. I was there too. I also now share the responsibility for getting you and Betty through this.’
‘We could maybe get through this, George, if people would just leave us the fuck alone.’
He wasn’t so sure about that, though, the way Betty was behaving.
By nine a.m. the answering machine had taken calls from BBC Wales, Radio Hereford and Worcester, HTV, Central News, BBC Midlands and 5 Live. And from some flat-voiced kid who said he was a pagan too and would like to pledge his support and his magic.
Already they were starting to come to the front door. By eleven a.m., there’d been four people knocking. He hadn’t answered. Instead he’d closed the curtains and sat in the dimness, hugging the Rayburn. He’d listened to the answering machine, intercepting just this one call from George.
The whole damn story was truly out; it had been on all the radio stations and breakfast TV. Was also out on the World Wide Web, with e-mails of support — according to George — coming from Native Americans in Canada and pagans as far away as India. George claimed that already this confrontation was being seen as a rallying flashpoint for ethnic worshippers of all persuasions. Strength and courage were being transmitted to them from all over the world.
‘We don’t want it,’ Robin told George. ‘We came here for a quiet life. Pretty soon I’m gonna take the phone off the hook and unplug the fax.’
‘In that case,’ George said, ‘surely it’s better that the people you know-’
‘You mean people you know. Listen, George, just hold off, can you do that? I would need to talk to Betty.’
‘When’s she going to be back?’
‘I don’t know when she’s gonna be back. She’s mad at me. She thinks I screwed up with the Mail guys. I think I screwed up with the Mail guys. I’m mad at me.’
‘You need support, man. And there’s a lot of Craft brothers and Craft sisters who want to give you some. I tell you, there’s an unbelievable amount of strong feeling about this. It’ll be very much a question of stopping people coming out there.’
‘Well you fucking better stop them.’
‘Plus, the opposition, of course,’ George said. ‘We don’t know how many they are or where they’re coming from.’
Robin peered round the edge of the curtain at the puddles in the farmyard and along the side of the barn. It looked bleak, it looked desolate. In spite of all the courage and strength being beamed at them, it looked lonely as hell. Sure he felt vulnerable; how could he not?
When he sighed, it came out rough, with a tremor underneath it.
‘How many were you thinking?’
‘Well, we need a coven,’ George had said. ‘I’ll find eleven good people which, with you and Betty makes… the right number. We could be there by nightfall. Don’t worry about accommodation, we’ll have at least two camper vans. We’ll bring food and wine and everything we need to deck out the church for Imbolc. Be the greatest Imbolc ever, Robin. We’ll set the place alight.’
‘I dunno. I dunno what to do.’ For George this was cool, this was exciting. If you’d put it to Robin, even just a few days ago, he’d have said yeah, wow, great. It was what he’d envisaged from the start: the repaganized church becoming a centre of the old religion at the heart of a prehistoric ritual landscape. The idyll.
But this was not Betty’s vision any more — if it ever had been.
‘Leave it with me, yeah?’ George said. ‘Blessed be, man.’
‘I’m quite psychic, you know.’ Juliet Pottinger had what Betty regarded as a posh Lowland Scottish accent. ‘I was about to go into town, and then I thought, no, if I go out now I shall miss something interesting.’
Which was a better opening than Betty could have hoped for.
Lower Lodge was an extended Georgian cottage on the edge of a minor road about two miles out of Leominster and a good twenty-five miles east of Old Hindwell. Once away from Old Hindwell, Betty’s head had seemed to clear. The day was dull but dry, the temperature no worse than you could expect in late January. Out here, she felt lighter, less scared, less oppressed.
Mrs Pottinger’s house was full of books. Six bookcases in the hall, with two piles of books beside one of them, propped up by an umbrella stand. In the long kitchen, where she made Betty tea, the demands of reading and research seemed to have long since overtaken the need for food preparation. Books and box-files were wedged between pans on the shelves and under cups and plates on the dresser. The only visible cooker was a microwave, and an old Amstrad word processor with a daisywheel printer took up half the kitchen table. There was — small blessing — no sign of a Daily Mail.
Juliet Pottinger was about sixty-five, with a heavy body, layered in cardigans, and what you could only call wide hair. Her seat was a typist’s chair, which creaked when she moved. She was working, she said, on a definitive history of the mid-border.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t phone first,’ Betty said. ‘I just happened to be… passing.’
‘But you live at Old Hindwell, you say?’
‘At St Michael’s.’
‘Oh,’ said Mrs Pottinger. ‘Oh…’
It meant Betty didn’t have to spend too long explaining her interest in the church, and no need to make reference either to her religion or the ruined building’s palpable residue of pain.
‘The widow sold it, then?’ said Mrs Pottinger. ‘Thought she would. It was in the Hereford Times about Major Wilshire… old regiment man. The SAS. He wrote to me — as you know, of course.’
‘Mrs Wilshire passed over to me some documents relating to the house and the church, and your letter was one of them. That’s how we learned about Mr Penney.’
‘Oh, I feel such a terrible wimp about that, Mrs Thorogood. I wanted to write up the whole story, but I doubt the Brecon and Radnor would have printed it, for legal reasons. Also, I ramble so, become over-absorbed in detail — always been more of a historian than a journalist. And, of course, the local people were against anything coming out.’
‘Why do you think that was?’
‘In case it reflected poorly on them, I suppose. In case it drew attention to their affairs. Gareth Prosser the elder was the councillor then, upholding the family’s local government tradition of conserving the community in whatever ways are most expedient and saying as little as possible about it in open council. My brief, as local correspondent for the paper, was to report nothing that everyone didn’t already know. Except, of course, in the case of poor Terry, when I was instructed not to report what everyone already knew. Oh dear, it really has not been a happy place, I’m afraid.’
‘You felt that?’
‘I always knew that. However, I don’t want to depress you. You do, after all have to…’
‘Live with it? That’s why I need to know about its true history. It oppresses me otherwise.’
‘Does it?’ Mrs Pottinger’s eyes became, in an instant, shrewdly bird-like.
‘Yes, it… I…’ Betty’s banging heart was confirming that it was too late for subterfuge. ‘I’m, I suppose you’d say, sensitive to atmosphere — acutely sensitive.’
‘Are you indeed?’
‘The first time I saw that ruined church, I had a very negative reaction, which I kept to myself because my husband loved it… was enraptured. For some time I kept trying to tell myself we could, you know, do something about it.’
‘You mean feng shui or something?’
‘Or something,’ Betty said carefully. ‘The place upsets me. It unbalances me in ways I can’t handle. After we moved in, that became stronger, until I could feel it almost through the walls of the farmhouse. I hope I don’t sound like an idiot to you, Mrs Pottinger.’
She was amazed at what she’d just said — all the things she hadn’t been able to say to Robin. Mrs Pottinger did not smile. She pulled off her half-glasses and thought for a few moments, tapping one of the arms on a corner of the Amstrad.
‘While we were living in Old Hindwell,’ she said at last, ‘we acquired for ourselves a dog. It was a cocker spaniel we called Hopkins. My husband would take him for walks morning and evening. By using the footpath which follows the brook past the church, it was possible almost to circumnavigate the village. Have you walked that particular path yet?’
‘I haven’t, but I think my husband has.’
‘It’s a round trip of about a mile and a half, a perfect evening walk. But would Hopkins follow it? He would not. Within about twenty yards of the church — approaching from either direction — that dog would be off! Disappeared for a whole night once. Well, after this had happened two or three times, Pottinger tried putting him on a lead. But when they reached some invisible barrier — as I say, about twenty yards from the church, where the yew trees began — Hopkins would start tugging in the opposite direction with such force that he almost strangled himself. Pottinger used to say he was afraid the poor creature would choke himself to death rather than continue along that path.’
Mrs Pottinger replaced her glasses.
‘As you can imagine, that’s another story I didn’t write for the Brecon and Radnor Express.’
Betty found the story chilling, but not surprising. The only time she’d ever seen anyone on that path was the night the witch box was delivered.
‘Did you try to find out what might have scared your dog?’
‘Naturally, I did. I was fascinated, so I went to visit Terry.’
Betty registered that Penney was the only male — not even her own husband — whom Mrs Pottinger had referred to by his first name.
‘It was the first time I’d actually been up to the rectory, as he never seemed to invite people there. Normally I’d collect his notes and notices for the B and R at the church, on Sundays after morning service. The rectory was far too large for a bachelor, of course — or even for a married clergyman with fewer than four children. One can understand why the Church is now shedding so many of its properties, but in those days it was still expected that the minister should have a substantial dwelling. Terry, however, was… well, it was quite bizarre…’
Betty remembered how Mrs Pottinger’s letter to Major Wilshire had ended, with the suggestion that Old Hindwell existed for her now as little more than a ‘surreal memory’.
‘His appearance, I suppose, was becoming quite hippyish. He’d seemed quite normal when he first arrived in the village. But after a time it began to be noticed that he was allowing his hair to grow and perhaps not shaving as often as he might. And when I arrived at the rectory that day — it was about this time of year, perhaps a little later — Terry showed me into a reception room so cold and sparsely furnished that it was clear to me that it could not possibly be in general use. I remember I put my hand on the seat of an old armchair and it was actually damp! “Good God, Terry,” I said, “we can’t possibly talk in here.” I don’t know about you, Mrs Thorogood, but I can’t even think in the cold.’
Betty smiled. The book-stuffed kitchen was stiflingly warm.
‘And so, with great reluctance, Terry took me into his living room. And when I say living room… it contained not only his chair and his writing desk, but also his bed, which was just a sleeping bag! He told me he was repainting his bedroom, but I wasn’t fooled. This single room was Terry’s home. He was camping in this one room, like in a bedsitter, and, apart from the kitchen, the rest of the rectory was closed off. I doubt he even used a bathroom. Washed himself at the sink instead, I’d guess — when he even remembered to. Not terribly… Is there something the matter, Mrs Thorogood?’
Betty shook her head. ‘Please go on.’
‘Well, he’d chosen this room, I guessed, because of the builtin bookshelves. He might not have had much furniture or many private possessions, but he had a good many books. I always examine people’s bookshelves, and Terry’s books included a great deal of theology, as one would expect, but also an element of what might be termed the esoteric. Do you know the kind of thing I mean?’
‘That word, of course, merely means hidden. There was certainly a hidden side to Terry. He was perfectly affable, kind to the old people, good with children. But his sermons… I suppose they must have been beyond most of the congregation, including me occasionally. They were sometimes close to meditations, I suppose — as though he was still working out for himself the significance of a particular biblical text. When I told him about our dog Hopkins, he didn’t seem in the least surprised. He asked me how much I knew about the history of the area. At that time not a great deal, I admit. He asked me, particularly, if I knew of any legends about dragons.’
Betty cleared her throat. ‘Dragons.’
‘In the Radnor Forest.’
‘And did you?’
‘No. There’s very little recorded folklore relating specifically to Radnor Forest. The only mention I could find was from… Hold on a moment.’
Mrs Pottinger jumped up, her hair rising like wings, an outstretched finger moving vaguely like a compass needle. ‘Ah!’ She crossed the room and plucked a green-covered book from the row supported by tall kitchen weights on a window ledge. ‘You are enlivening my morning no end, Mrs Thorogood. So few people nowadays want to discuss such matters, especially with a garrulous old woman.’
She laid the book in front of Betty. It was called A Welsh Country Parson, by D. Parry-Jones. It fell open at a much-thumbed page.
‘Parry-Jones records here, if you can see, that a dragon had dwelt “deep in the fastnesses” of the Forest. And he records — this would be back in the twenties or thirties — a conversation with an old man who insisted he had heard the dragon breathing. All rather sketchy, I’m afraid, and somewhat fanciful. Anyway, it soon became clear to the people he was involved with on a day-to-day basis that Terry was becoming quite obsessed.’
Betty looked up from the book, shaken.
‘As a symbol of evil,’ Mrs Pottinger said, ‘a satanic symbol, the dragon from the Book of Revelation represents the old enemy. My impression was that Terry thought he was in some way being tested by God — by being sent to Old Hindwell, where the dragon was at the door. That God had a mission for him here. Well, English people who come to Wales sometimes do pick up rather strange ideas.’
Mrs Pottinger put on a rather superior smile, as though Scots were immune to such overreaction. Ignoring this, Betty said, ‘Did he believe there were so-called satanic influences at work in the Forest? I mean, is there a history of this… of witchcraft, say?’
‘If there was, not much is recorded. No famous witchcraft trials on either side of the border in this area. But, of course’ — a thin, sly smile — ‘that doesn’t mean it didn’t go on. Quite the reverse, one would imagine. It may have been so much a part of everyday life, something buried so deep in the rural psyche, that rooting it out might have been deemed… impractical.’
‘What about Cascob?’
‘Cascob? Oh, the charm.’ Mrs Pottinger beamed. ‘That is rather a wonderful mixture, isn’t it? Do you know some of those phrases are thought to have been taken from the writings of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, who was born not far away, near Pilleth?’
‘Do you know anything about the woman, Elizabeth Loyd?’
‘Some poor child.’
‘Could she have been a witch? I mean, the wording of the exorcism suggests she was thought to be possessed by satanic evil. Suspected witches around that time were often thought to have… relations with the Devil.’
… some women are known to have boasted of it, Betty had read yesterday. The Devil’s member was described as being long and narrow and cold as ice…
‘Nothing is known of her,’ Mrs Pottinger said, ‘or where her exorcism took place, or who conducted it. The historian Francis Payne suggests that the charm was probably buried to gain extra potency for the invocation.’
‘It was apparently dug up in the churchyard.’
Betty sat very still and nodded and tried to smile, and felt again the weight of a certain section of Cascob’s circular churchyard, and the chill inside the building.
‘Mrs Pottinger,’ she said quickly, ‘what finally happened to Terry Penney?’
‘Well, he’d virtually destroyed his own church — an unpardonable sin. He had effectively resigned. He’d already left the village before the crime was even discovered, taking with him his roomful of possessions in that old van he drove.’
‘You suggested in your letter to Major Wilshire that there’d been previous acts of vandalism.’
‘Did I? Yes, minor things. A small fire in a shed outside, spotted and dealt with by a churchwarden. Other petty incidents, too, as though he was building up to the main event.’
‘Where did he go after he left?’
‘No one knows, or much cared at the time. Except, perhaps, for me, for a while. But the Church was very quickly compensated for the damage done, so perhaps Terry had more money than it appeared. Perhaps his frugal lifestyle was a form of asceticism, a monkish thing. Anyway, he just went away — after setting in train the process which ultimately led to the decommissioning of Old Hindwell Church. And the village then erased him from its collective — and wonderfully selective — memory.’
‘You really didn’t like the place much, did you?’ Betty said bluntly.
‘You may take it that I did not feel particularly grateful to some of the inhabitants. We left in eighty-three. My husband had been unwell, so we thought we ought to live nearer to various amenities. That was what we told people, at least. And that’s…’ Mrs Pottinger’s voice became faint. ‘That’s what I’ve been telling people ever since.’
She sat back in her typing chair, blinked at Betty, then stared widely, as if she was waking up to something.
Betty returned the stare.
‘You’re really rather an extraordinary young woman, aren’t you?’ Mrs Pottinger said in surprise, as though she’d ceased many years ago to find young people in any way interesting. ‘I wonder why it is that I feel compelled to tell you the truth.’
‘Tell me,’ Mrs Pottinger said, ‘who’s your doctor?’
A Humble Vessel
There was no doorbell, so she knocked twice, three times. She was about to give up when he answered the door.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Reverend Watkins.’ Registering her only briefly before bending over the threshold, apparently to inspect the candles in the neighbouring windows. ‘Good.’
Meaning the candles, she guessed.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, Mr Ellis…’
‘They told me you’d be dropping in.’ He shrugged. ‘I accept that.’
‘I feel a bit awkward…’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you must do. Do you want to come in?’
She followed him through a shoebox hall which smelled of curry, into a small, square living room which had been turned into an office. There was a steel-framed desk, two matching chairs. A computer displayed red and green standby lights on a separate desk, and there was a portable TV set on a stand with a video recorder underneath.
‘The war room,’ Nicholas Ellis said with no smile.
His accent sounded far more transatlantic than it had during Menna’s funeral service. He wore a light grey clerical shirt, with pectoral cross, and creased grey chinos. His long hair was loosely tied back with a black ribbon. His face was windreddened but without lines, like a mannequin in an old-fashioned tailor’s shop.
He waved her vaguely to one of the metal chairs.
‘Not much time, I’m afraid. I’ll help you all I can, but I really don’t have much time today, as you can imagine. Events kind of caught up on me.’
When he sat down behind his desk, Merrily became aware of the aluminium-framed picture on the wall behind him, over the boarded-up fireplace. It was William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Sexually charged, awesomely repulsive. Ellis noticed her looking at it.
‘Revoltingly explicit, isn’t it — shining with evil? I live with it so that when they look in my window they will know I’m not afraid.’
They? The war room?
Merrily sat down, kept her coat on.
‘So…’ he said, as if he was trying hard to summon some interest. ‘You are the, uh… I’m sorry, I did write it down.’
‘Diocesan Deliverance Consultant.’
It had never sounded more ludicrous.
‘And the suffragan Bishop of Ludlow has sent you to support me. Well, here I am’ — he opened his arms — ‘a humble vessel for the Holy Spirit. Have you ever truly experienced the Holy Spirit, Merrily?’
‘In my way.’
‘No, in other words,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t happen in your way, it happens in His way.’
‘Damn,’ Merrily said, prickling. ‘You’re right.’
He looked at her with half a smile on his wide lips. ‘Diocesan… Deliverance… Consultant. I guess you’re like one of those young female MPs… what did they call them… Blair’s Babes? I suppose it was only a matter of time before we had them in the Church.’
He didn’t reply. He’d lost the half-smile.
‘Meaning I look vaguely presentable,’ Merrily said, ‘even though I must know bugger all.’
‘And you feel you must throw in the odd swear word to show that the clergy doesn’t have to be stuffy and pious any more.’
‘Gosh,’ Merrily said, ‘it doesn’t take you long to get the measure of a person, does it?’
Ellis smiled at last. ‘My, we really aren’t getting along, are we? You aren’t going to want to “support” me at all, are you? Well, other priests tend not to, as I’m a fundamentalist. That’s what the Anglican Church calls someone who truly believes in the living God.’ He leaned back. ‘I’m sorry. Let’s start again. How do you propose to support me?’
‘How would you like to be supported?’
‘By being left alone, I guess.’
‘That’s what I guessed you’d say.’
‘Aren’t you clever?’
He was looking not at her, but through her, as though she was, for him, without substance — or at least insufficiently textured to engage his attention. It made her annoyed, but then it was designed to.
She pressed on, ‘Um… you said “war room”.’
‘And, obviously, quite a few people here seem to agree with you on that.’
‘And it all looks quite dramatic and everything.’
‘You make it sound like a facade. It’s an initial demonstration of faith in the Lord. It will spread. You’ll see twice as many candles on your way out.’
‘Isn’t it a bit… premature to call this a war zone? One story in a newspaper? Two amateur witches in a redundant church? Unless…’
He gave her just a little more attention. ‘Unless?’
‘Unless this goes back rather further than this morning’s Daily Mail.’
‘It goes back well over two thousand years, Merrily. “The satyr shall cry to his fellow. Yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place.’
‘Isaiah.’ Merrily remembered the taunts of the industrial chaplain, the Rev. Gemmell, in the Livenight studio, inviting her to stand up and denounce Ned Bain as an agent of Satan in front of seven million viewers. ‘Meaning that, whether they accept it or not, all followers of pagan gods are actually making a bed for the Devil.’
‘In this case,’ Ellis said, ‘to reflect the imagery of the Radnor Forest, a nest for the dragon.’
‘Because the former church here is dedicated to St Michael?’ Merrily glanced up at the Blake print, in which the obscene and dominant dragon, viewed from behind, was curly-horned and not really red but the colour of an earthworm. It was hard not to believe that William Blake himself must have seen one.
‘One of five churches positioned around Radnor Forest and charged with the energy of heaven’s most potent weapon. Cefnllys, Cascob, Llanfihangel nant Melan, Llanfihangel Rhydithon, Old Hindwell.’
‘The Forest is supposed to be a nest for the dragon? Is that a legend?’
‘No legend is simply a legend,’ Ellis said. ‘We have the evidence of the five churches dedicated to the warrior angel. If one should fall, it creates a doorway for Satan. You see merely two misguided idiots, I see the beginnings of a disease which, unless eradicated at source, will spread until all Christendom is a mass of suppurating sores. This is what the Devil wants. Will you deny that?’
‘Hold on… You say there’s a legend that if one of the churches falls, et cetera… Yet you’re not interested in preserving churches, are you? I mean, as I recall, when the Sea of Light group was inaugurated, someone said that the only way faith could be regenerated was to sell off all the churches as museums and use the money to pay more priests to go out among the people.’
‘Correct. And in the village here, a resurgence of faith has already restored a community centre which had become derelict, a home for rats. Look at it now. Eventually, the church will move out, put up its illuminated cross somewhere else. But in the meantime, God has chosen Old Hindwell for a serious purpose. I can see you still don’t understand.’
‘You see a ruined church, I see a battleground. Look…’
He stood up and strode to the computer, touched the mouse and brought up his menu, clicked on the mailbox icon. His in-box told him he had two unread e-mails. One was: From: warlock. Subject: war in heaven. He clicked. The message read, ‘I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls.’
‘Book of Job,’ Merrily said.
Ellis reduced and deleted it. ‘There’s one every day.’
‘They like to use that Internet provider, Demon. Today’s is a comparatively mild offering.’
‘You reported this to the police?’
‘The police? This is beyond the police.’
‘They can trace these people through the server.’
‘It’ll only turn out to be some fourteen-year-old who received his instructions anonymously in a spirit message from cyberspace, and the police are gonna laugh. I would hardly expect them to understand that there’s a chain of delegation here, leading back, eventually, to hell. That, of course’ — he nodded at the computer — ‘is Satan’s latest toy. I keep one here, for the same reason I have that repulsive picture on the wall.’
Masochism, Merrily thought. A martyrdom trip.
‘I’m a defiant man, Merrily. Don’t go thinking this began with the arrival of the Thorogoods. I’ve been set up for this. I’ve been getting poison-pen letters for months. And phone calls — cackling voices in the night. Recently had a jagged scratch removed from my car bonnet: a series of vertical chevrons like a dragon’s back.’
‘Maybe you do need support.’
He hit the metal desk with an open palm. ‘I have all the support I will ever need.’
‘What do you plan to do?’
‘God shall cast out the dragon — through Michael. I made a civilized approach to Thorogood. I told him I wanted to perform a cleansing Eucharist in the church. He put me off. He can’t do that now. He faces the power of the Holy Spirit.’
‘And the cold shoulder from the people of Old Hindwell.’
‘You mean our Demonstration of Faith? You disagree with that?’
She shrugged. ‘Candles are harmless. I just hope that’s where it ends.’
‘My dear Merrily’ — Ellis walked to the door — ‘this is where it begins. And, with respect, it’s not your place to hope for anything in relation to my parishioners.’
‘Aren’t the Thorogoods also your parishioners?’
He expelled a mildly exasperated hiss.
‘And if they’re trying to make a point about reclaiming ancient sites, hasn’t it occurred to you that you’re just helping to publicize their cause?’
‘And what’s Bernard Dunmore’s policy on the issue?’ Ellis demanded. ‘Say nothing and hope they won’t be able to maintain their mortgage repayments? Try to forget they’re there? Is that, perhaps, why the Church is no longer a force in this country, while evil thrives unchallenged? Perhaps you should find out for yourself what kind of people the Thorogoods really are. Maybe you could visit their property. Under cover of darkness again?’
Damn! She stood up. ‘OK, I’m sorry. It was a private funeral, and I had no right. But I was looking for someone. Someone who, as it happens, has now been reported missing from home.’
‘Oh?’ For the first time, he was thrown off balance.
‘Barbara Buckingham, nee Thomas? Menna’s sister?’
‘I’ve never heard of her. I didn’t even know Menna had a sister.’
Merrily blinked. ‘Didn’t you ever talk to Menna about her background?’
‘Why should I have probed into her background?’
‘Just that when I have kids for confirmation we have long chats about everything. Rebaptism, I mean. I’d have thought that was something much more serious.’
‘Merrily, I don’t have to talk about this to you.’
She followed him into the hall. ‘It’s just I can’t believe you’re one of those priests who simply goes through the motions, Nick.’
‘I do have an appointment. I’m sorry.’
‘Splish, splash, you’re now baptized?’
When he swiftly lifted a hand, she thought, for an incredible moment, that he was going to hit her and she actually cringed. But all he did was twist the small knob on the Yale lock and pull open the front door, but when he noticed that momentary cower, he smiled broadly and his smooth face lit up like a jack-o’-lantern.
She didn’t move. ‘I still don’t fully understand this, Nick.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘And you must ask yourself why.’
‘I mean I don’t understand why you’re using the enviable influence you’ve developed in this community to put people in fear of their immortal souls. You didn’t have to make that inflammatory statement to the Mail.’
He looked at her as if trying, for the first time, to bring her into focus and then, finding she was too flimsy to define, turned away. ‘I can’t believe,’ he said, ‘that you have somehow managed to become a priest of God.’
She walked past him through the doorway, glanced back and saw a man with nothing much to lose. A man who had stripped himself down to the basics: cheap clothes, a small council house, a village hall for a church, and even that impermanent. There was something distinctly medieval about him. He was like a friar, a mendicant.
‘Of course,’ she said from the step, ‘they’re also helping to publicize you. And maybe the villagers aren’t afraid for their immortal souls at all, they’re just assisting their rector to build his personal reputation. If you were in a town, virtually nobody would think this was… worth the candle.’
‘This is a waste of time,’ Nick Ellis said. ‘I have people to see.’
The door closed quietly in her face.
Merrily stood on the path. She found she was shaking.
She hadn’t felt as ineffectual since the Livenight programme.
As Merrily got back into the car, Gomer pointed to the mobile on the dash.
‘Bleeped twice. Third time, I figured out how to answer him. Andy Mumford, it was, that copper. Jane gived him your number. He asked could you call back.’
‘He say what about?’
‘Not to me.’
She picked up the phone, entered the Hereford number Gomer had written on a cigarette paper, having to hold the thin paper close to the window because it was beyond merely overcast now — and not yet one p.m. Three fat raindrops blopped on the windscreen. This was, she told herself, going to be positive news.
‘It’s Merrily Watkins.’
‘Has she turned up?’
‘Afraid not, Mrs Watkins.’
‘Oh.’ She heard Ellis’s front door slam, and saw him coming down the path. He was carrying a medium-sized white suitcase. He walked past her Volvo without a glance and carried on towards the village centre.
‘But I’m afraid her car has,’ Mumford said. ‘You know the Elan Valley? Big area of lakes — reservoirs — about thirty miles west of Kington? They’ve pulled her car out of one of the reservoirs.’
‘Some local farmer saw the top of it shining under the water. Been driven clean through a fence. Dyfed-Powys’ve got divers in there. When I checked, about ten minutes ago, they still hadn’t found anything else. Don’t know what the currents are like in those big reservoirs. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Reverend, but I thought you’d want to know.’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘If I hear anything else, I’ll get back to you. Or, of course, if you hear anything. It’s been known for people to…’
‘What, you think she might have faked her own death?’
‘No, I’m a pessimist,’ Mumford said. ‘I tend to think they’ll pull out a body before nightfall.’
It began as a forestry track, then dropped into an open field with an unexpected vista across the valley to the Radnor Forest hills of grey green and bracken brown, most of which Gomer knew by name.
And strange names they were: the Whimble, the Smatcher, the Black Mixen. Evocative English-sounding names, though all the hills were in Wales. Merrily and Gomer sat for a moment in the car and took in the view: not a farm, a cottage or even a barn in sight. There were a few sheep, but lambing would come late in an area as exposed as this: hill farming country, marginal land. She remembered Barbara Buckingham talking about her deprived childhood — the teabags used six times, the chip fat changed only for Christmas. As they left the car at the edge of the field, she paused to say a silent prayer for Barbara.
She caught up with Gomer alongside a new stile which, he said, had been erected by Nev for the archaeologists. This was where the track became a footpath following the line of the Hindwell Brook, which was flowing unexpectedly fast and wide after all the rain. It had stopped raining now, but the sky bulged with more to come. Gomer pointed across the brook, shouting over the rush of the water.
‘Used to be another bridge by yere one time, but now the only way you can get to the ole church by car is through the farm, see.’
‘Where was the excavation?’
‘Back there. See them tumps? Nev’s work.’ He squinted critically at a line of earthmounds, where tons of soil had been replaced. ‘Boy coulder made a better job o’ that. Bit bloody uneven, ennit?’
She went to stand next to him. ‘You’d like to get back on the diggers, wouldn’t you?’
‘Minnie never liked it,’ Gomer said gruffly. ‘Her still wouldn’t like it. ’Sides which, I’m too old.’
‘You don’t think that for one minute.’
Gomer sniffed and turned away, and led her through an uncared-for copse, where some of the trees were dead and branches brought down by the gales had been left where they’d fallen.
‘Prosser’s ground, all of this — inherited from the ole fellers. But he don’t do nothin’ with it n’more. Muster been glad when the harchaeologists come — likely got compensation for lettin’ ’em dig up ground the dull bugger’d forgotten he owned.’
‘Why’s he never done anything with it?’
‘That’s why,’ Gomer said, as they came out of the copse.
And there, on a perfect promontory, a natural shelf above the brook, on the opposite bank, was the former parish church of St Michael, Old Hindwell.
‘Gomer…’ Merrily was transfixed. ‘It’s… beautiful.’
The nave had been torn open to the elements but the tower seemed intact. A bar of light in the sky made the stones shimmer brown and grey and pink between patches of moss and lichen.
‘It’s the kind of church townsfolk dream of going to on a Sunday. I mean, what must it be like on a summer evening, with its reflection in the water? How could they let it go?’
Gomer grunted, rolling a ciggy. ‘Reverend Penney, ennit? I tole you. Went off ’is trolley.’
‘Went off his trolley how, exactly?’ She remembered that Bernie Dunmore had made a brief allusion last night to the rector at the time actually suggesting that Old Hindwell Church should be decommissioned.
Now, with a certain relish, Gomer told her what the Reverend Terence Penney, rector of this parish, had done with all that ancient and much-polished church furniture on an October day in the mid-1960s.
‘Wow.’ She stared into the water, imagining it foaming around the flotsam of the minister’s madness. ‘Why?’
‘Drugs,’ Gomer said. ‘There was talk of drugs.’
‘Where is he now?’
She gazed, appalled, at the ruin. ‘I bet we can find out. When we get back to the car, I’ll call Sophie. Sophie knows everybody in a dog collar who isn’t a dog.’
They went back through the dismal, dying copse.
‘Not many folks walks this path n’more,’ Gomer said, ‘’cept a few tourists. Place gets a bad reputation. Then this feller fell off the tower, killed ’isself.’
Merrily stopped. ‘When?’
‘Year or so back? Bloke called Wilshire, army man, lived New Radnor way. Falls off a ladder checkin’ the stonework on the ole tower. That’s how come these Thorogoods got it cheap, I reckon.’
At the car, despite the extensive view, the mobile phone signal was poor and she had to shout at Sophie, whose voice kept breaking up into hiss and crackle, shouting out the name Penney.
Gomer said, ‘You wanner go talk to the witches, vicar?’
‘Dare we?’ She thought about it. ‘Yeah, why not.’
But when they drove back to the farm gate, there was a TV crew videotaping a thirtyish couple with a ‘Christ is the Light’ placard. You could tell by their outward bound-type clothing that they were not local. Merrily found herself thinking that some people just didn’t have enough to do with their lives.
She was confused. She didn’t know this place at all. It was like one of those complicated watches that did all sorts of different things, and you had to get the back off before you could see how the cogs were connected. Problem was, she didn’t even know where to apply the screwdriver to prise off the back.
‘Black Lion?’ Gomer suggested. ‘I’ll buy you a pint and a sandwich, vicar.’
At the Black Lion there were no visible candles — no lights at all, in fact.
Merrily saw Gomer glance at his wrist, before remembering he’d buried his watch. ‘About a quarter to two,’ she said.
Gomer frowned. ‘What’s the silly bugger playin’ at, shuttin’ of a lunchtime with all these TV fellers in town?’
Merrily followed him up a short alley into a yard full of dustbins and beer crates. There was a door with a small frosted-glass window and Gomer tapped on it. Kept on tapping until a face blurred up behind the frosted glass, looking like the scrubbed-over face of one of the suspects in a police documentary. ‘We’re closed!’
‘Don’t give me that ole wallop, Greg, boy. Open this bloody door!’
‘Gomer Parry Plant Hire.’ Sounding like he was planning to take a bulldozer to the side of the pub if he couldn’t gain normal access.
Bolts were thrown.
The licensee was probably not much older than Merrily, but his eyes were bagged, his mouth pinched, his shirt collar frayed. He’d shaved, but not well. Gomer regarded him without sympathy.
‘Bloody hell, Greg, we only wants a pot o’ tea and a sandwich.’
The man hesitated. ‘All right… Just don’t make a big fing about it.’
They followed him through a storeroom and an expensive, fitted kitchen with a tomato-red double-oven Aga, and the sound of extractor fans.
‘Busy night, boy?’
‘Yeah.’ But he didn’t sound happy about it. ‘Go frew there, to the lounge bar. I won’t put no lights on.’
‘Long’s we can see what we’re eatin’.’
The lounge bar, grey-lit through more frosted glass, looked to have been only half renovated, as if the money had run out: new brass light fittings on walls too thinly emulsioned. Also a vague smell of damp.
‘I can make you coffee, but not tea,’ Greg said without explanation.
‘We’ll take it.’ Gomer pulled out bar stools for Merrily and himself.
Greg threw out the dregs of a smile. ‘Hope this is your daughter, Gomer?’
‘En’t got no daughter,’ Gomer said gruffly. ‘This is the vicar of our church.’ As Greg’s smile vanished, Gomer sat down, leaned both elbows on the bar top. ‘Who made you close the pub, then, boy?’
‘And who made her close it?’
‘Look,’ Greg said, ‘I’m not saying you’re a nosy git, but this is your second visit inside a few days, asking more questions than that geezer from the Mail. What are you, Radnorshire correspondent for Saga magazine?’
Merrily was quietly zipping up her coat. It was freezing in there. ‘Well, Mr…’
‘Mr Starkey, the nosy git’s me. I’m with the Hereford Diocese.’
Greg’s eyes slitted. ‘Wassat mean?’
‘It means… Well, it means I’m interested, among other things, in what the Reverend Ellis is getting up to — you know?’ Greg snorted; Merrily unwound her scarf to let him see the dog collar. ‘This seems to be one of the few places without a candle in the window.’
Greg pushed fingers through his receding hairline. He looked as if there wasn’t much more he could take.
‘You wanna know what he’s getting up to? Like apart from destroying marriages?’
‘No, let’s include that.’ Merrily sat down.
Greg said there’d been a full house last night.
‘First time in ages. Folks I ain’t never seen before. Not big drinkers, but we got frew a lot of Cokes and shandies and if you know anyfing about the licensing trade you’ll know that’s where the big profit margins lie, so I got no complaints there.’
‘Thievin’ bugger,’ Gomer said. ‘So what brought this increase in trade, boy?’
‘Wife went to church, Gomer. That funeral. Mrs Weal. Never come back for a good while after you’d left. I mean hours. Said she’d got talking to people. First time she’d really talked to anybody since we come here.’ He scowled. ‘Including me.’
‘She’d never been before?’ Merrily said. ‘To church — to the hall?’
‘Nah. Not to any kind of church. See, what you gotta realize about Marianne — and I’ve never told a soul round here, and I would bleedin’ hate for anybody-’
‘Not a word, boy,’ Gomer said. ‘Not a word from us.’
‘She got problems.’ Greg’s voice went down to a mutter. ‘Depression. Acute depression. Been in hospital for it. You know what I mean — psychiatric? This is back in London, when we was managing a pub in Fulham. She was getting… difficult to handle.’
Merrily said nothing.
‘Wiv men and… and that.’ Greg waved it away with an embarrassed shake of the head. ‘Ain’t a nympho or noffink like that. It was just the depression. We had a holiday once and she was fine. Said she was sure she’d be fine the whole time if we went to live somewhere nice, like in the country.’ He snorted. ‘Country ain’t cheap no more. Not for a long time.’
‘’Cept yere, mabbe,’ Gomer said.
‘It’s a trap, Greg, boy.’
‘Tell me about it. I’ve had people in here — incomers, you can pick ’em out from the nervous laughter — still lookin’ for strawberries and cream on the village green and the blacksmith taptappin’ over his forge. Be funny if it wasn’t so bleedin’ tragic.’
‘That was you, was it?’ Merrily said softly. ‘When you first came here?’
‘Her — not me. I ain’t a romantic. I tried to tell her… yeah, all right, maybe I did fink it was gonna be different. I mean, there’s noffink wrong with the local people, most of ’em…’
‘I coulder tole you, boy,’ Gomer said. ‘You come to the wrong part o’ the valley. Folks back there…’ he waved a hand over his shoulder, back towards New Radnor. ‘They’re different again, see. Bit of air back there. Makes a difference.’
‘So your wife went to church again yesterday?’ Merrily prompted.
‘Yeah. Off again. Up the village hall. Couldn’t get out this place fast enough. I didn’t want this. Sure, I wanted her to make friends, but not this way. I said, come on, we ain’t churchgoers and it’d be hypocritical to start now.’
‘Without the hypocrites, all our congregations would be sadly depleted,’ Merrily admitted. ‘But she went anyway. And came back all aglow, right?’
Greg didn’t smile.
‘Made lots of new instant friends,’ Merrily said. ‘People she’d only nodded to in the village shop hugged her as she left. She realized she’d never felt quite so much at home in the community before.’
‘Dead on,’ Greg said sourly.
‘And she wants you to close the pub and go to church with her next week.’
‘Says it’s the only way we’re gonna have a future. And I don’t fink she meant the extra business. It won’t…’ He looked scared. ‘It won’t last, will it, Miss…?’
‘It can’t last. Can it? She’s not a religious person. I mean… yeah, I coulda foreseen this, soon as people starting whispering about the new rector, what a wonderful geezer he was, how their lives was changed, how he’d… I dunno, helped them stop smoking, straightened out their kids, this kind of stuff. All this talk of the Holy Spirit, and people fainting in church. And Marianne kind of saying, “Makes you fink, don’t it? Never had no luck to speak of since we moved in. Wouldn’t do no harm, would it?” ’ Greg looked at Merrily’s collar. ‘Not your style, then, all this Holy Spirit shite?’
‘Not my style, exactly…’
Gomer said, ‘Don’t do any good to let your feet get too far off the ground, my experience.’
‘Why did they want you to close the pub today?’ Merrily asked.
‘Aaah.’ Shook his head contemptuously. ‘You seen the paper. He told ’em all yesterday this was coming off. Got bloody Devil-worshippers in the village and they gotta be prepared. Bleedin’ huge turnout. Standing room only up the hall, ’cording to Marianne, when I could get any sense out of her. People hanging out the doors, lining the bloody steps.’
‘This is local people or… newcomers?’
‘Mainly newcomers, I reckon. A few locals, though, no question. And apparently Ellis is going…’ Greg threw up his arms. ‘ “There’s a great evil come amongst us! We got to fight it. We are the chosen ones in the battle against Satan!” ’ Satan is this Robin Thorogood? All right, a Yank, a bit loud — in your face. But Satan? You credit that?’
‘You know him, then?’
He shrugged. ‘Americans. Talk to ’em for half an hour, you know ’em. His wife’s more down to earth. I didn’t know they was witches, though. They never talked about that. But why should they?’
‘You were going to tell us why you’d closed the pub.’
‘He don’t want any distractions. He wants concentration of faith.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Merrily said. ‘Why?’
‘Mondays he holds his healing sessions,’ Greg said. ‘Up the village hall.’
There was a lot of pain and bewilderment in his eyes.
‘I can help,’ Merrily said. ‘Just tell me.’
Greg breathed heavily down his nose. ‘Last night, she says to me, “I’m unclean.” Just like that — like out the Bible. “I’ve been tempted by Satan,” she says.’
‘En’t we all, boy?’ Gomer said.
‘By Thorogood. Suddenly, she’s being frank all the time. She’s telling me stuff I don’t wanna know. Like she was… tempted sexually by Robin Thorogood, agent of Satan. She was possessed by his “dark glamour”. She wanted to sh- sleep wiv him. She comes out wiv all this. To me.’
‘Wanted to sleep with him?’
‘Ah, noffink bleedin’ happened. I’m sure of that. He ain’t been here two minutes. Plus she’s ten years older than what he is, gotta be, and if you seen his wife… Nah, I doubt he even noticed Marianne. It’s just shite.’ Greg shook his head, gutted. ‘I’ll go get your coffee.’
‘Greg, hang on… “Possessed by his dark glamour”?’ This wasn’t his wife speaking, this was Ellis. ‘Did she actually use the word “possessed”?’
‘I reckon, yeah. To be honest, I couldn’t take no more. I was knackered out. I went to bed. This is totally stupid. This don’t happen in places like this. This is city madness, innit?’
‘And she’s up at the hall now?’
Merrily slid from her stool, picked up her scarf.
Out in the pub car park, she was ambushed.
‘Mrs Watkins — Martyn Kinsey, BBC Wales. I gather you’re speaking for the diocese today.’
‘Well, I am, but-’
‘We’d like to knock off a quick interview, if that’s OK.’
He’d probably recognized her from Livenight. She asked him if there was any chance of doing this stuff later. From where she stood she could see the top of the cross on the village hall, and it was lit up, and it hadn’t been lit before.
‘Actually’ — Kinsey was a plump, shrewd-eyed guy in his thirties — ‘if we don’t do it now, I suspect we could be overtaken by events. Nick Ellis is over there in the hall, having a meeting with some people. We’re expecting him to come out and announce plans for a march to St Michael’s Church, probably tonight.’
‘That’s what he’s doing in there, is it?’ The cross was lit up for a policy meeting? I don’t think so.
‘Isn’t that going to be too late for your programme?’
‘Oh sure — much too late. We might get a piece in the half nine slot, though that’ll be only about forty seconds. But I think it’s going to be a damp squib anyway, with no one there to protest at. The Thorogoods have been smart enough to vacate the premises.’
‘You’ve not been able to speak to them?’
Kinsey shook his head. ‘That’s why we’re going to have to make do — if you don’t mind me putting it like that — with people like you. Just tell us where the Church stands on this issue. A straightforward response. Won’t take more than a couple of minutes.’
Of course, it wasn’t straightforward. And, with the positioning and the repositioning and the cutaways and the noddies, it took most of twenty minutes. Kinsey asked her if the diocese was fully behind Ellis; Merrily said the diocese was concerned about the situation. So would she be joining in tonight’s protest? Not exactly; but she’d be going along as an observer.
‘So the diocese is actually sitting on the fence?’
Merrily said, ‘Personally, I don’t care too much for witch-hunts.’
‘So you think that’s literally what this is?’
‘I just wouldn’t like it to turn into one. The Reverend Ellis has a perfect right — well, it’s his job, in fact — to oppose whatever he considers evil, but-’
‘Do you think it’s evil?’
‘I haven’t met the Thorogoods. I wouldn’t, on face value, condemn paganism any more than I’d condemn Buddhism or Islam. But I would, like everyone else, be interested to find out what they’re proposing to do in Old Hindwell Church.’
‘You’d see that potentially as sacrilege?’
‘The significant point about Old Hindwell Church is that it’s no longer a functioning church. It’s been decommissioned.’
‘What about the graveyard, though? Wouldn’t relatives of dead people buried there-’
‘There never were all that many graves because the proximity of the brook caused occasional flooding. What graves there were are quite old, and only the stones now remain. Obviously, we’re concerned that those stones should not be tampered with.’
‘What about the way the village itself has reacted? All the candles in the windows… how do you feel about that?’
Merrily smiled. ‘I think they look very pretty.’
‘What do you think they’re saying?’
‘Well… lots of different things, probably. Why don’t you knock on a few doors and ask?’
Kinsey lowered his microphone, nodded to the cameraman. It was a wrap. ‘Out of interest, Martyn,’ Merrily said, ‘what did people have to say when you knocked on their doors?’
‘Sod all,’ said Kinsey. ‘Either they didn’t answer or they backed off or they politely informed us that Mr Ellis was doing the talking. And in some cases not so politely. Off the record, why is Ellis doing this? Why’s he going for these people — these so-called pagans?’
‘You tell me.’
‘I can’t. He’s not your usual evangelical, all praising God and bonhomie. He’s quiet, he chooses his words carefully. Also he gets on with the locals… which is unusual. They’re canny round here, not what you’d call impressionable. Anyway, not my problem. You going to be around, if we need anything else?’
‘For the duration,’ Merrily said.
‘Well, good luck.’
She ran all the way to the village hall, meeting nobody on the way, bounding up the steps and praying she wasn’t too late, because if it was all over… well, hearsay evidence just wasn’t the same.
At the top, she stopped for breath — and to assess the man in the porch, obviously guarding the closed doors to the hall. Slumped on a folding chair like a sack of cement. He was an unsmiling, flat-capped bloke in his fifties. She didn’t recognize him.
He didn’t quite look at her. ‘’Ow’re you?’
‘I’m fine. OK if I just pop in?’
‘No press, thank you. Father Ellis will be out in a while.’
‘I’m not press.’
‘I still can’t let you in.’
Merrily unwound her scarf. He took in the collar, his watery eyes swivelling uncertainly.
‘You’re with Father Ellis?’
‘Every step of the way,’ Merrily said shamelessly.
He ushered her inside. ‘Be very quiet,’ he said sternly, and closed the doors silently behind her.
Suddenly she was in darkness.
She waited, close to the place where she’d stood at Menna’s funeral service, until her eyes adjusted enough to reassure her there was little chance of being spotted. Here, at the end of the hall, she stood alone.
All the window blinds had been pulled down tight, and it seemed to have a different layout, no longer a theatre-in-the-round. Whatever was happening was happening in a far corner, and all she could see of it was a white-gold aura, like over a Nativity scene, a distant holy grotto.
And all she could hear was a sobbing — hollow, slow and even.
Merrily slipped off her shoes, carried them to the shelter of a brick pillar about halfway down the hall. It was cold; no heating on.
She waited for about half a minute before peering carefully around the pillar.
The glow had resolved into two tiers of candles. The sobbing had softened into a whispery panting. Merrily could make out several people — seemed like women — some sitting or kneeling