The Cure of Souls
It was really getting to Jane now, tormenting her nights, raiding her head as soon as she awoke in the mornings. The way things did when there was nobody — like, nobody — you could tell.
I’m sixteen years old, and I’m…
Feeling deeply isolated, she walked numbly out of the school, with its acrid anxiety-smell, and into the sun-splashed quadrangle, where Scott Eagles and Sigourney Jones were already into a full-blown, feely snog almost directly under the staffroom window.
The big statement. This was Jones and Eagles telling the sad old gits in the staffroom that the English Language GCSE that they and Jane and a bunch of other kids had just completed, was, like all the other GCSEs — the focus of their school-life for the past four or five years — of truly minuscule significance in comparison with their incredible obsession with one another.
Yes, having done their sleeping around, they were into something long-term and meaningful. Life-partners, possibly. An awesome thing.
Jane, however, felt like part of some other species. Sixteen years old and…
She closed her eyes on the superior, super-glued lovers. Walked away from the whole naff sixties edifice of concrete and washed-out brick sinking slowly into the pitted asphalt exercise yard, which the Head liked to call a quadrangle. She needed out of here, like now. And yet she kept wishing the term still had weeks to run.
‘So, how was it for you, Jane?’
She spun round. The sun was a slap in the face. Candida Butler was shimmering alongside her, tall and cool, the words head girl material shining out of her sweatless forehead as they probably had since she was ten.
‘The exam, Jane.’ Candida wrinkled a sensible nose at the Jones-and-Eagles show. Her own boyfriend was at Cambridge, reading astrophysics. An older guy, natch. Candida — who was never going to be called Candy by anyone — was serene and focused, and knew it.
‘Pity the essay titles were all so crap,’ Jane said.
‘Did you think so?’ Candida looked mildly surprised. She’d have opted for the utterly safe and anodyne My Grandmother’s Attic. ‘Anyway, it’s another one over, that’s the main thing.’ She looked down at Jane with that soft, mature smile. ‘So what are you going to be doing with yourself this summer?’
The sun’s reflection lasered out of the plate-glass doors of the new science block. Danny Gittoes and Dean Wall, who probably still couldn’t get the letters ‘GCSE’ in the right order, came out of the toilets grinning and ripping off their school ties in preparation for another bid to get served in the Royal Oak, where the teachers drank. Went without saying that they wouldn’t be coming back in the autumn.
Jane wished it was already winter. She wished she could spend the next seven weeks holed up in her own attic apartment, under the Mondrian walls, with a pile of comfort reading.
I am sixteen, and I’m an old maid.
‘I’m going on holiday for a couple of weeks,’ she said miserably. ‘With my boyfriend. At his family’s holiday home.’
From the edge of the quad, where it met the secondary playing fields, you could see across miles of open countryside to the Black Mountains on the horizon.
On the other side of the mountains was Wales, another country.
On the edge of Wales, probably nearly a hundred miles away, was the Pembrokeshire coast, where Eirion’s family had their five-bedroom holiday ‘cottage’. Where you could go surfing and walk the famous coastal path and lose your virginity. That kind of thing.
‘Some people have all the luck,’ said Candida. ‘We’re kind of constrained this year, because Robert’s got a holiday job at his cousin’s software plant near Cheltenham.’
‘Beats strangling poor bloody chickens at Sun Valley.’
‘I suppose.’ Candida’s wealthy farming family probably had major shares in Sun Valley. ‘Welsh, isn’t he, your guy?’
‘Not so’s you’d notice.’ Jane blushed. Then, furious with herself, she went over the top again. ‘I mean, he doesn’t shag any old sheep.’
Candida’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you all right, Jane?’
‘Yeah.’ Jane sighed. ‘Fine.’
Candida patted Jane’s shoulder. ‘See you next term, then. On the A level treadmill.’
Jane watched Candida stride confidently across the quad towards the car park, where her mother would be waiting for her in the second-best Range Rover. Jane’s own mum — ancient, clanking Volvo — would be a while yet. She’d had an early funeral to conduct: Alfred Rokes, who’d gone out at a hundred and two, having still been blacksmithing at ninety, so nothing too sorrowful there. And then — a little grief here, maybe — the Bishop was expected to call in.
With a good hour to kill, Jane could have strolled round the back for a cigarette. If she’d been into tobacco. But when your mum smoked like a chimney, what was the point?
Jane’s nails dug into her palms.
An old maid who didn’t even smoke. What kind of life was this?
OK, the problem. The problem was that Eirion was giving every impression of wanting to move them up to the Scott Eagles-Sigourney Jones relationship level.
Jane watched Jones and Eagles heading hand in hand for the students’ car park. Scott had passed his test on his seventeenth birthday; he’d been driving Land Rovers since his feet could reach the pedals, which had probably been around the age of nine, because he was a tall guy, maybe fully grown now. Adult. Experienced.
Also, Eirion, himself — sexy enough, in his stocky, amiable way — had obviously been putting it about for years. Well, you know, I was in this band, he would say. Oh, Eirion had been around, no question.
And he could have had Jane, too, by now. She would have had sex with him, no arguments. In the back of the car or somewhere, anywhere; she just wanted the bloody thing cleared away, like dirty dishes — everybody said the first time was crap anyway, this messy chore to be undergone before you could start enjoying it.
But Eirion would gently detach her clammy little hand from his belt. I want this to be proper, he’d mumble. Do you know what I’m saying?
Proper? Like, what did proper have to do with it?
I don’t want this to be… ordinary, you know? Run-of-the-mill. Me and you, we’re… And then he’d go all embarrassed, looking out of the car window at the moon. Jesus.
Ordinary? Listen, ‘ordinary’ would have been just fine by Jane, who had no illusions, didn’t expect rockets and Catherine wheels. ‘Ordinary’ would’ve been an enormous relief.
She found herself stomping across the playing field between the tennis courts, panting with anguish under the merciless sun. A torrid sun, guaranteed to turn the Pembrokeshire coast into Palm Beach. Did Eirion’s fat-cat family have their own beach? Did they all sprawl around naked and uninhibited? Like, just because they were Welsh didn’t mean they were all buttoned-up and chapel-whipped, necessarily. Probably the reverse: she and the Young Master would be assigned a double room and presented with a gross of condoms.
Shit. She shouldn’t be feeling like this, because back in the exam room she’d probably done OK. You always sensed it. She’d get her ten GCSEs and then come back in September and do some A levels.
Come back as an adult, with a lover.
So Eirion, at seventeen, was experienced and mature, had done the rounds, and had met Jane — who was sexually backward to what, in this day and age, was a frightening extent — and she had become like ‘special’ to him, maybe because when they’d first met she’d been physically hurt by someone she’d thought was a friend, and he’d felt protective and stuff… and that was OK, that was acceptable.
And ‘special’?… yeah, OK, that was flattering.
Or would have been flattering if she was ready to be ‘special’, which might have been the case if there’d been others — or least one other — before Eirion. But the first guy you actually did it with, at the age of sixteen, really should not be ‘special’, should he? Not long-term special, not Jones-and-Eagles special. Not the very first guy.
Why the hell had she said she’d go there?
Jane began to blink back tears, seriously unravelled, not knowing what she wanted — except not to be a virgin. Not to be a virgin now. Not to have to take this useless lump of excess baggage with her to the Holiday Cottage.
In fact, if there’d been some not-over-acned sixth-former wandering towards her right now, she’d probably have been tempted to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, just to get IT out of the way.
She was alone on the playing field. Somewhere in the distance she could hear howls of laughter — Wall and Gittoes on the loose, ready to crash the Royal Oak, pick a fight with a teacher. Their last week at school, the week they’d been dreaming of for five long years. They were adults now, too. Official. Even Wall and Gittoes were adults!
Panic seized Jane and she stood there, feeling exposed, the sun directly above her like a hot, baleful eye.
She was a child. Still a child.
Ahead of her was the groundsman’s concrete shed, a square bunker standing out on its own. The groundsman was called Steve and he was about thirty and had big lips, like a horse, and this huge beer gut. He was a useful guy to know, however, because of this concrete shed: a safe house where card schools could meet, cigs and dope could be smoked, and Es and stuff exchanged. Steve would also deal the stuff himself, it was rumoured, but not with everybody; he was very careful and very selective.
Lower-sixth-formers Kirsty Ryan and Layla Riddock were less selective. They laughed openly at Steve but sometimes went into his shed with him after school. And what did slobbery Steve give them in return? Nobody knew, but it was rumoured that he could get actual cocaine for anyone who offered that kind of payment.
School life. Sex and drugs and-
Jane saw that the blinds were down over the window in the shed.
There was absolutely no reason why a groundsman’s hut should have blinds at all, but every window in the school was fitted with the same type, black and rubbery, so that educational videos could be shown at any time or the Net consulted.
There was no TV in here, obviously, no computer. The lowered blinds could only mean one thing: with the English Language GCSE not half an hour over, slobbery Steve was in there doing business.
You couldn’t get away from it, could you? Jane shook her head wearily and was about to turn back across the field when the wooden door of the shed swung open.
She stiffened. The sun-flooded playing fields stretched away on three sides: everywhere to run, nowhere to hide.
‘Well, come on,’ a voice drawled from inside. ‘Don’t hang around.’
Jane didn’t move. She imagined pills spread across Steve’s workbench — or maybe some really desperate sixth-former. Jane felt cocooned in heat and a sense of unreality.
Layla Riddock, large and ripe, stood there in the doorway of Steve’s hut — in her microskirt, blouse open to the top of her bra. Like a hooker in the entrance to an alleyway.
‘Well, well,’ Layla said. ‘The vicar’s kid. We are honoured.’
Little Green Apples
Safety in numbers…spread the load… a problem shared. The Bishop was heavy with cliches this morning, although what he was saying made sense when you accepted that the Church of England looked upon the supernatural like the Ministry of Defence regarded UFOs. Visitations? The blinding light on the road to Damascus? The softly glowing white figure in the grotto? God forbid.
The blinding sunlight over Ledwardine Vicarage was diffused by the thin venetian slats at the kitchen window. Bernie Dunmore’s friar’s tonsure was a fluffy halo. He topped up his glass with Scrumpy Jack from the can, beamed plumply at Merrily.
‘They look at you, they see a symptom of escalating hysteria. They see the Church being dragged towards the threshold of a new medievalism simply to stay in business. Oh no.’ Bernie shuddered. ‘If the Third Millennium does witness the collapse of the Anglican Church, we’d rather go down quietly, with our passive dignity intact, leaving you out there waving your crosses at the sky and waiting for the angels.’
‘That’s not me, is it, Bernie?’ Below the dog collar, Merrily wore a dark grey cotton T-shirt and black jeans. Her hair was damp from the swift but crucial shower she’d managed to squeeze in between Alf Rokes’s funeral and the arrival of the Bishop. ‘They’re saying that? Even after Ellis?’
But, OK, she knew what he meant. Nick Ellis had been a rampant evangelical who preached in a village hall plastered with CHRIST IS THE LIGHT posters and used the Holy Spirit like an oxyacetylene torch. Merrily Watkins was the crank who prayed for the release of earthbound spirits, currently setting up the first Hereford Deliverance Website to offer basic, on line guidance to the psychically challenged. They hadn’t liked each other, she and Ellis, but to a good half of the clergy they were out there on the same ledge.
And one of them was mad, and the other was a woman.
Bernie Dunmore was quite right, of course: she’d been putting it off too long.
She saw that he was blatantly inspecting her from head to feet — which wasn’t far — as if looking for signs of depreciation.
‘So you want to build a team, then, Bishop?’
‘If Deliverance has its back to the wall, better it should be more than one back,’ Bernie said sagely.
Well, fine. Most dioceses had one now: a Deliverance cluster, a posse of sympathetic priests as back-up for the exorcist. It was about spreading the load, fielding the flack, having people there to watch your back.
‘OK, let’s do it.’ She came to sit down opposite him at the pine refectory table, where bars of yellow sunlight tiger-striped her bare arms. ‘The problem is… who do we recruit?’
Bernie sank more cider. Merrily tried to think what his appearance suggested if not Bishop. You could almost think he’d been appointed simply because he looked so much like one — unlike his predecessor, Mick Hunter, who might have been a rising presenter from Newsnight. Previously, Bernie had been suffragan Bishop of Ludlow, the number two who rarely made it to the palace. But his formal acceptance by Downing Street as Bishop of Hereford had been a relief all round: a safe option.
‘Anyone in particular you want to sound out, Merrily?’
Of course, she’d already been thinking about this a lot. But the members of the local clergy she most liked and trusted tended to be the ones who wouldn’t touch Deliverance with coal-tongs and asbestos gloves. And the ones who actively sought involvement in what they imagined to be a hand-to-hand battle with Satan… well, Nick Ellis had wanted the job for himself; that told you all you needed to know.
‘There must be any number of people out there better equipped spiritually than me.’ Fighting off the urge to dig for a cigarette, she poured herself some spring water. ‘I mean, so many people who seem to be living in what, seen from my miserable level, looks awfully like a state of grace.’
She glanced at him, worried he might think she was fishing for praise and reassurance. But there truly wasn’t a day that went by without her feeling she wasn’t up to this job, wondering if she wasn’t any better than the mystical dabblers she was obliged to keep warning off.
‘Then make me a list of these saintly buggers.’ Bernie Dunmore would never have considered himself one of them either, but then saintliness had never been a prerequisite for bishops. ‘Fax it across to the Palace or give it to Sophie. I’ll make the approaches, if you like. Suppose we start with… what would you suggest… two?’
‘That’s enough to begin with. Don’t want Deliverance looking like a faction. And, ah, would they… pardon my ignorance, but would these two need to be, ah…?’
‘What?’ Merrily blinked.
‘You mean psychic?’
He looked pained. ‘What’s that other word?’
‘Yes. Well… would they?’
‘That’s a good question.’ She sipped some water.
‘I mean, I never liked to ask, Merrily, but would you say that you yourself…?’
‘This is not a witch-hunt, Merrily.’
‘I don’t honestly know,’ she said. ‘Maybe we all are, to a varying degree. And maybe just doing this job gives you… insights. That is, God-’
‘All right,’ Bernie said. ‘Forget it. What else do we need?’
‘A tame shrink. Sure, we can make a good guess at who’s in genuine psychic torment and who’s clinically paranoid, but a guess isn’t good enough.’
‘And how on earth do we go about finding one of them?’ The Bishop shook his cider can, but found it empty. Merrily rose to fetch him another from the fridge, but Bernie shook his head and put a hand over his glass. ‘I mean, should we make a direct approach to the Health Authority, asking for nominations? And wouldn’t a proper psychiatrist require some kind of retainer? Doctors don’t like to do anything for nothing, in my experience, and the Archdeacon would be the first to query any kind of-’
‘I don’t know.’ Merrily sat down again. ‘There’s a whole lot I don’t know.’
‘We’re all feeling our way here,’ said Bernie, whose official elevation had been confirmed only at the end of May. ‘I mean, it’s all hit-and-miss, isn’t it? You get the wrong shrink, point him at some little old lady spouting the Lord’s Prayer backwards in a rich baritone, and he’ll still swear she’s a paranoid schizophrenic.’
‘Be hard to find one who won’t always say that. And he — or she — also needs to be a Christian because, if we ever get someone with a malignant squatter inside them, the psychiatrist is going to have to be there for the showdown.’
Bernie winced at the terminology. ‘I really can’t help you much there, I’m afraid. I don’t think I actually know any psychiatrists of any religious persuasion.’
‘Me neither,’ Merrily said. ‘But I know a man who does.’
He looked at her with the interest he usually displayed when she mentioned she knew a man. She didn’t elaborate. She was aching for a cigarette. Ethel, the black cat the vicarage had acquired from Lol Robinson, jumped onto her knee as if to prompt her, but Merrily kept quiet.
The Bishop got up and moved to the window. He was wearing his golfing clothes: pale green polo shirt over cream slacks and over what you didn’t like to call a beer gut. If this had been Mick Hunter, the ensemble would have been mauve and purple-black: episcopal chic. But Mick Hunter wouldn’t have played golf.
‘What you said a few moments ago’ — Bernie was looking out over the vicarage lawn, which Gomer Parry insisted on mowing twice a week — ‘about people living in a state of grace.’
The lawn ended at the old Powell orchard, which belonged now to the church. There were already tiny green apples on the trees, like individual grapes. Where was the year going to?
Merrily glanced at the clock. She was going to have to leave soon to pick up the kid after her English exam. No anxiety on that one, at least; English came naturally to Jane and it was the one GCSE that required no revision.
The Bishop coughed. ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you for a while.’
‘You’re still young.’
‘Young,’ he said firmly. He had grandchildren Jane’s age. He turned back into the room. ‘And a very young widow.’
Merrily was about to remind him that if it hadn’t been for a particular fatal car-crash on the M5 she might have been a notso-young divorcee and therefore would never have made it into the priesthood. But she guessed they’d been into all that before.
Bernie said, ‘We all know that when Tommy Dobbs was exorcist here he felt it incumbent upon him to develop a rather rigid, monastic way of life. Frugal. Steeped himself in prayer.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think I can understand that fully now — why he did that.’
‘However, he was an old man. You’re a-’
‘Whatever.’ She stood up.
‘Obviously, stepping into Dobbs’s shoes, you were bound to feel you were walking on eggshells.’
‘Well… that, and for other reasons, too.’ She had a vague idea what was coming and clapped her hands together briskly. ‘Look, Bernie, I’m afraid I’ve got to be off in a minute. Have to collect Jane from the school. GCSE-time? Once they finish an exam they can go home. I don’t really want her heading down the pub.’
He nodded, not really taking it in. ‘I… we’ve never minced words, you and I. Both accept that Hunter set you up to succeed Dobbs, to appear trendy… politically correct… all that tosh. And again, in my opinion, as I’ve told you on a number of occasions, in spite of all that it was probably one of Hunter’s better moves. Not least because people who wouldn’t dare go near that gruesome old bugger Dobbs will talk to you, as a human being. Young people, for instance. It’s very important that we should help the young people.’ He screwed up his face. ‘What I’m trying to say, Merrily… I don’t want you to be scared to be a human being.’
‘I mean, there must be times when you find yourself looking at young Jane — with all of it just beginning for her. Boyfriends, parties, you know what I mean. You must feel-’
‘They’re fairly human, too, in my experience.’ Merrily raised an eyebrow. ‘Nuns.’
There was a moment of silence, then the Bishop sighed softly. ‘Well, you said it.’
‘I was trying to help you out.’
‘Bloody hell, Merrily!’ He brought his left fist down on the back of a dining chair.
Well, what was she supposed to say? She hadn’t exactly applied for the job down here on the coalface of Christianity: day-to-day confrontation with the intangible, the amorphous and the unproven, as experienced by the damaged, the vulnerable, the disturbed and the fraudulent.
Was the Bishop actually implying that she might find all this easier to cope with if she went out, got drunk, and got laid a time or two?
Probably not. He was probably just covering himself.
‘All I’m saying’ — Bernie thrust his left hand into his hip pocket, maybe to conceal the fact that he’d hurt it on the back of the chair — ‘is that Deliverance has started taking on a much higher profile than any of us imagined. I don’t want you cracking up on me, or tightening up — building some kind of impenetrable spiritual shell around yourself, the way Dobbs did.’
‘Oh, I doubt I’d have the personal strength for that, Bernie.’
‘Didn’t matter with Dobbs, because half the Hereford clergy didn’t even know what he actually did. He could go his own way. All his pressures were… inner ones.’
She noticed that a few of the little green apples had either fallen or been plucked from the orchard trees and now lay forlornly on new-mown grass that was already showing signs of sun-scorching. She wondered if there was some sinister piece of local folklore about premature windfalls.
‘Anyway,’ the Bishop said, ‘I’ll want you to email me that list by tomorrow night.’
‘I will, I will.’
‘And start helping yourself to a bit of ordinary life, Merrily. Before it gets eaten away.’
It was like some illicit members’ club for which she’d accidentally given the secret sign. One foot over the threshold, and she was pulled in and Layla Riddock had closed the door behind them. Then she heard a lock turn and Layla was pulling the key out of the door, sliding it into her skirt pocket.
The two candles on the workbench made shadows rise and turned the metal handles of the oldest lawnmower into twin cobra-heads. One of the flames was reflected, magnified and distorted, in the bevelled side of a glass. It looked like one of the water glasses from the dining hall, upturned in the centre of the bench-top.
‘Welcome,’ Layla Riddock said.
If Candida Butler looked mature, Layla looked somehow old, as in seasoned, as in tainted, as in kind of corrupt — or maybe you just thought that because of what you knew about her and all the guys she’d had. Like, actual guys, not boys.
But there were no guys in here today, not even Steve the beer-gutted groundsman.
‘Take a seat, then.’ Layla pulled out some kind of oil drum, tapped on the top of it with her nails.
The other girls said nothing.
Only the chunky Kirsty Ryan, Layla’s mate, turned her spiky red head towards Jane. Kirsty was sitting on the mower’s grassbox turned on its side. The other girl, on a stool, kept on looking down at the bench-top where pieces of cardboard the size of playing cards were arranged in a circle, the candles standing outside of it, in what looked like tobacco tins.
‘Well, go on,’ Layla said.
Jane sat down on the oil drum, next to Kirsty Ryan, because… well, because when Layla told you to do something, you somehow just did it. Layla was tall and good-looking in this kind of pouting, sexual way, and she somehow had this forceful thing about her, an aura of grim authority. Her father had been a gypsy — she liked to tell people that, liked hinting she had a long tradition of secret powers behind her. The gypsy must have moved on pretty quick, though, because Layla’s mother was long-married to Allan Henry, the well-known builder and property developer — ALLAN HENRY HOMES — and they lived in this huge, crass, ranch-style bungalow, with a swimming pool and a snooker room, out near Canon Pyon. Riddock was presumably her mother’s family name… or the gypsy’s.
‘It’s Jane, right?’ Layla sat down on a stool at the head of the bench, behind the candle tins. ‘Kirsty you know, I assume. And that’s Amy. Fourth year.’ She pushed the candles further apart, so that they were arranged either side of her and she looked like some sombre, smouldering idol in an Indian temple.
The card in front of Jane said NO. The letters were printed on white paper stuck to the card. Now she had an idea what this was.
Kirsty Ryan turned to her. ‘You got the ten quid on you?’
Jane said nothing.
‘She can bring it in tomorrow,’ Layla said crisply, then looked at Jane without smiling. ‘Cheap at the price, love, you’ll find out.’
Jane thought she saw Amy stiffen. The kid was slight and fair-haired and was the only one in here wearing her school blazer, despite the heat. She was sitting directly opposite Jane. In front of her was the card that said YES.
Kirsty said to Jane, ‘You come with a special question? Got a problem you want sorted?’
Jane shook her head.
‘Lying little cow,’ Kirsty said.
Jane said nothing. She had to get out of here, but it would be seriously unwise to let any of them know that.
‘Told you there’d be another one along, didn’t I?’ Layla folded her arms in satisfaction.
‘There was this other kid,’ Kirsty explained, ‘but she got shit-scared and backed out, and we were worried they wouldn’t like it. There should be four.’
They? Jane cleared her throat. ‘Why?’
‘’Cause we started out with four. So, like… your mother’s a vicar, yeah?’
‘Oh, not just a vicar,’ Layla said, ‘is she, love?’
Jane shrugged, keeping her lips clamped. She didn’t like talking about what Mum did, especially to someone like Layla Riddock.
‘So what would she say to this, your old lady?’
Jane managed a nervous grin but still said nothing. Her old lady would probably have snatched up the glass, scattered the letters and called on God and all His angels to cleanse this soiled place like now.
Kirsty said, ‘Who told you about this?’
‘Nobody,’ Jane said. ‘I was just-’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Layla leaned forward, those big, heavy breasts straining to come bouncing out of her blouse. ‘This is excellent. I think… I really do think that this is going to be a really good sitting.’
‘Yeah,’ said Kirsty, rebuked. ‘Right.’
Jane had never actually done this before. It belonged to the realm of sad gits, people with no real hold on life. It was a joke. Unhealthy, maybe, but still a joke.
She had to keep thinking like that, because she knew there was no way she was going to get out of here until it was over. OK, she could leap up and demand the key and they probably wouldn’t use violence to stop her. (Or would they?)
But that wouldn’t be awfully cool, would it?
Besides, it might be, you know… kind of interesting.
The air in the groundsman’s hut smelled of oil and sweat. The candlelight had found a little moisture in the cleft over Layla Riddock’s upper lip as it curled at last into a sort of smile.
‘Let’s go for it, then,’ Layla said.
It was terrifying.
And like… really addictive.
The glass made an eerie sound as it moved across the greasy surface of Steve’s bench. Like a coffin sliding through the curtains of a crematorium, reflected Jane, who had never been inside a crematorium, not even when her dad had died.
The first time-
‘Are you here?’ Layla had asked calmly.
— the glass shot directly to YES with the snap precision of a fast cue ball on a snooker table, and the sudden movement made both candle-flames go almost horizontal, like in the wind created when someone suddenly slams a door. Jane was so shocked she almost jerked her finger away.
‘Good,’ Layla said.
Jane let out a fast breath. She hadn’t expected that to happen. Nobody could be pushing; it just wasn’t possible.
‘Now, tell us your name,’ Layla instructed.
It, Jane thought.
There couldn’t be an it. Not on a summer afternoon in Slobbery Steve’s filthy shed in the precincts of the dreary once-modernist Moorfield High School, Herefordshire.
It was a scam, that was all. There had to be a trick to it, a method of setting up momentum without appearing to apply pressure — an interesting end-of-term conundrum for the anoraks in the new science block.
Jane looked into Layla’s face. Layla’s eyes were shut, but her wide mouth was set into a closed-lips smile that seemed to shimmer in the moist light, and Jane felt sure that Layla could see her through those lowered lids, as-
The glass glided, dragging Jane’s finger, then her hand across the oily bench-top towards the letter J.
OK, that was it. She was annoyed now. So, like, suppose she tried to manoeuvre it. Suppose she exerted a little deliberate pressure of her own next time. Suppose, with some really intense concentration, a blast of hyper-focused will power, she could make it spell out Jane…
Will power, yeah: thought-projection. She glanced up at Layla. Layla’s eyes still didn’t open.
All right. She located the letter A, halfway between Kirsty and the kid Amy, and she really, really concentrated on it, and when the glass began to move, she tried to-
The glass was dragged from under her forefinger, to slide unstoppably to the letter U.
Jane leaned back. She didn’t like this. She really didn’t like it.
She became aware that the girl opposite her, Amy of the fourth form, had begun panting. Her fair hair was pulled back tightly from her face and her skin seemed to be stretched taut. Now, Jane knew exactly who she was. She was the one who looked like one of those plaster mannequins in an old-fashioned school-outfitters: skirt always uncreased, blazer always buttoned, tie always straight, hair perfectly shoulder-length, perfectly brushed. Amy’s ultimate role model would be Candida Butler.
What was wrong with her? If this scared her so much, what was she doing here?
Because it was addictive? Because it worked?
Get me out of this.
The glass moved under Jane’s finger, slid back into the centre of the circle of letters and off again. The bloody thing seemed to know exactly where it was going, and she just let it happen now, watching the finger in motion, with the fore fingers of the other three — all of them apparently just resting on the thick base of the glass — and all the time trying to separate herself from this, pretending that finger was no longer connected to her nervous system.
Watching the glass spelling out one word, before it stopped in the dead centre of the circle.
Amy drew in a long, ratchety kind of breath.
The Flavour in the Beer
The hop belongs to the same family as hemp and cannabis and is a relative of the nettle. A hardy, long-lived climbing perennial, its shoots can reach 20 feet in length but die back to ground level every winter. It has no tendrils and climbs clockwise round its support. Although it will grow in the poorest soils, only optimum conditions will produce the quality needed for today’s shrinking markets. As a result, hop-growing in Herefordshire is now concentrated in the sheltered valleys of the Frome and Lugg, where there are at least 18 inches of loamy soil.
In the warm, milky night, Lol was leaning against a five-barred gate, listening for the River Frome. It couldn’t be more than six yards away, but you’d never know; this was the nature of the Frome.
Crossing the wooden bridge, he’d looked down and seen nothing. That was OK. It was a small and secretive river that, in places, didn’t flow so much as seep, dark as beer, obscured by ground-hugging bushes and banks of willowherb. Already Lol felt a deep affinity with the Frome; he just didn’t want to step into it in the dark, that was all.
‘River?’ Prof Levin had said vaguely this morning. ‘That’s a river? I thought it was some kind of sodding drainage ditch.’
Which had only made Lol more drawn to it. Later, he’d sat down in the sun with his old Washburn guitar and started to assemble a wistful song.
Did you ever think you’d reach the sea,
Aspiring to an estuary.
But — hey — who could take that seriously…?
Yeah, who? Like, wasn’t he supposed to have turned his back on all this for good?
Now here was Prof Levin, forever on at him to give it another go. And Prof didn’t give up easily, so Lol had gone wandering out into this milky night feeling guilty and confused, nerves quivering, jagged pieces of his past sticking out of him like shards of glass from a smashed mirror.
Seeking the unassuming tranquillity of the night-time river, nothing more than that. The modern countryside, Prof Levin had insisted this morning, was one big sham.
‘Close to nature? Balls! This is heavy industrial, Laurence. Guys in baseball caps driving machinery you could build motorways with — six-speaker stereo in the cab, blasting jungle. These lanes ain’t wide enough for the bastards any more.’
Grabbing hold of the bottom of Lol’s T-shirt, Prof had towed him to the window, overlooking someone else’s long meadow sloping to the bank of the River Frome.
‘Week or two, they’ll be out there haymaking… techno-hay-making. Come September they start on the hops over there — and that’s all mechanized. Take a look at the size of those tractors, tell me this ain’t heavy industry. They don’t even stop at night! Got lamps on them like frigging great searchlights — doing shift work now! Who ever hears the cock crow any more? This, Laurence… this is the new rural. And here’s me padding out the frigging walls to double-thickness on account of I don’t want to disturb them.’
Prof Levin grinning ruefully through his white nail-brush beard: a shaven-headed, wiry man of over sixty years old — precisely how far over nobody would know until he was dead and not necessarily even then. When Lol had first known him, Prof had been the world’s most reliable recording engineer, always in work, and then, after forty years in the business, he’d emerged as a revered producer, an icon, an oracle.
And now a bucolic oracle. Disdainful of belated acclaim, Prof had quit the mainstream industry. He would produce only material that was worth producing, and only when he was in the mood. He would create for himself a bijou studio, a private centre of excellence in some deeply unfashionable corner of the sticks. Knight’s Frome? Yeah, that sounded about right. Who the hell had ever heard of Knight’s Frome?
Who indeed? Down south, there was at least one other River Frome, only much bigger. The Frome Valley here in east Herefordshire had just the one small market town and a string of villages and hamlets — Bishop’s Frome, Canon Frome, Halmond’s Frome and little Knight’s Frome, all sunk into rich, red loam and surrounded by orchards and vineyards and hop-yards under the Malverns, Middle England’s answer to mountains.
Not that Prof appeared to care about any of this; that it was obscure was enough. In fact, the real reason he was here, rather than the west of Ireland or somewhere, was that an old friend, a one-time professional bass-player and cellist, was currently vicar of Knight’s Frome. It was this unquestionably honest guy who had identified for Prof a suitable property: a cottage with a stable block and pigsties but no land for either horses or pigs, therefore on sale at an unusually reasonable price. And Prof had shrugged: Whatever. He had no basic desire to communicate with the landscape — or with people, for that matter, except through headphones.
Unless, of course, he needed help. Arriving out here, marooned among crates of equipment, Prof had put out an SOS to every muso and sparks he knew within a fifty-mile radius — only to find that most of them had moved on, some to the next life.
In the end, it was only Simon, the vicar, and Lol Robinson, formerly songwriter and second guitar with the long-defunct band Hazey Jane, now on holiday from his college course in psychotherapy. Not that Lol was any good with wiring, but that wasn’t important; it was mainly about making the tea and listening to Prof grouch and taking the blame for malfunctions. This afternoon they’d installed the final wall-panels, and tested the new acoustics by recording — in the absence of anything more challenging — some of Lol’s more recent numbers.
This had continued into the night when, at some point, Prof had stopped cursing and wrenching out leads and replacing mikes… and sat back for a while behind the exposed skeleton of his mixing board, just listening to the music.
And then had stood up and stomped across the studio floor, positioning himself menacingly in the doorway of the booth where Lol sat with the old Washburn on his knees.
‘Laurence! You little bastard, stop right there.’
Lol looking up timidly.
‘Listen to me.’ Prof glowered. ‘How long, for fuck’s sake, have you been sitting on this stuff?’
It was past eleven now, but the night was still awash with pale light, forming long lakes in the northern sky. To the south, a plane tracked across the starscape like a slow pulse on a monitor.
In the middle distance was a round tower, like some story-book castle, except that the tip of its conical hat was oddly skewed. There was a window-glow visible in the tower, unsteady like lantern light. Lol was stilled by the unreality of the moment, half feeling that if he were to climb over the farm gate and walk towards that tower, the entire edifice would begin to dissolve magically into the grey-black woodland behind.
It was, he concluded, one of those nights for nothing being entirely real.
From the shadowed field beyond the gate, he heard the slow, seismic night-breathing of cattle, so loud and full and resonant that it might have been the respiration system of the whole valley. The air was dense with pollen and sweet with warm manure, and Lol experienced a long moment of calm and the nearness of something that was vast and enfolding and brought him close to weeping.
At which point he cut the fantasy. The fairy-tale castle hardened into a not-so-ancient hop kiln. There were dozens of them around the valley, most of them converted into homes.
Sad. Not some rich, mystical experience, just another bogstandard memory of the womb.
… Because therapy, Laurence, is the religion of the new millennium. And we’re the priests.
Lol gripped the top rail of the gate until his hands hurt. Prof was exaggerating, of course. His material wasn’t that strong.
Anyway, Lol was too long out of it. The most he’d done in years had been occasional demos, for the purpose of flogging a few songs to better-known artists — makeweight stuff for albums, nothing special. It was an income-trickle but it wasn’t a career, it wasn’t a life, and he thought he’d accepted the reality of that a long time ago.
Back in January, he’d enrolled on this course for trainee psychotherapists, the only one he could find still with any available places, up in Wolverhampton. It made a surreal kind of sense to Lol, though he didn’t share the irony of it with any of the other students, certainly not with the tutors.
Without actually saying therapy, shmerapy, Prof had managed to convey a scepticism well over the threshold of contempt.
‘I can’t believe you waste your time on this! You want to take money for persuading the gullible to remember how they were abused by their daddies, then they go home and slash their wrists? It’s like I say to Simon: you’re just being a vicar for you, not for them. Who gets married any more? Who wants to hear a sermon, sip lemonade at the vicarage fete? If you want to reach people, cure people, calm people, and you have it in you to give them beautiful music, from the heart… then, Jesus, this is the real therapy, the real spirituality. Forget this counselling bullshit! Who’re you really gonna change?’
Of course, Prof knew all about Lol’s history on the other side of psychiatry, brought about by early exposure to the music business — the blurred fairground ride ending in half-lit caverns with drifting, white-coated ghosts and gliding trolleys, syringes, pills.
Medication: the stripped-down NHS was a sick system, drug-dependent. It made sense to Lol that he should be using his own experience to help keep other vulnerable people out of the system. Otherwise, the medication years were just a damp, rotten hole in his life.
Prof knew all about this, just didn’t accept the logic.
‘Listen to me, boy, I have strong contacts these days… people who trust me, who tend to act on what I say, and I’m telling you, you gotta take these songs into the market place.’
‘Well, sure,’ Lol said obligingly. ‘Anybody who wants one-’
‘No! They’ll want you! Listen to me. I can get you a good tour-’
Lol had been backing away into the booth at this point, the guitar held in front of him like a riot shield, Prof pursuing him, hands spread wide.
‘Laurence, you’re older now, you know the score, you know all the traps. I’m telling you honestly: you don’t do this now, you’ll be a very embittered old man one day. Jesus, what am I saying, one day? How long you been out of it now — ten years, fifteen? That’s three whole generations in this business! How much time you really got left? How long now before the looks start to fade, before the winsome little-boy-lost turns into some sad, wrinkled-? Listen to me!’
‘I can’t… I can’t tour.’ Face it: he couldn’t even play all that well any more.
‘Right, let’s see, now.’ Prof went on like he hadn’t heard. ‘It would have to be as support, the first time. But supporting somebody tasteful — don’t worry about that, it can be arranged. REM, Radiohead… all these guys admit to being influenced by your work. You’re a cult… OK, a minor cult. But a cult is still a cult…’
‘Prof?’ Lol was resting the guitar on his trainers, his fingers among its machine-heads. ‘Be honest — you don’t even know that’s true, do you?’
‘The hell does that matter? Laurence, I apologize in advance if this sounds immodest, but if I’m the one spreading it around, everyone is going to believe it, therefore it becomes the truth.’
‘I can’t tour.’ Lol stood with his back against the partition wall again, his breathing becoming harder at the very thought of on the road.
‘You can tour! You need to tour… this will kick-start your confidence. You’re just using this therapy shit as some kind of buffer against the real world. You’re institutionalized and you don’t even know it. It’s like… like so many schoolteachers are really just kids who were afraid to leave school. Believe me, Laurence.’
And part of Lol did believe him, because Kenneth ‘Prof’ Levin had been down in the half-lit caverns, too — in his case alcoholism, the destruction of a good marriage.
Lol recalled the buzz he’d felt when he’d had the message to call Prof, a couple of weeks ago — around the same time he was concluding that knowing the difference between cognitive therapy and humanistic therapy didn’t make either of them any more effective. In fact, the day after his senior tutor had told him, not with irony but with something approaching pride: Therapy, Laurence, is the religion of the third millennium. And we’re the priests — the voice slick with self-belief, after a few glasses in the wine bar down the road from the college. Everybody needs a church. A confessional. Forgiveness. This senior tutor, this high priest, was younger than Lol, maybe thirty-four.
‘All right!’ Prof Levin had finally backed off. ‘Enough. We’ll talk about this again. For starters, we just do the album.’
Prof had spread his arms magnanimously. With his own studio set up, he was at last able to make these decisions without consulting anyone in a suit.
And Lol had thanked him for the offer — very profusely, obviously, because having Prof Levin produce an album for you was kind of like having Spielberg take on your screenplay — but then pointed out, reasonably enough, that he had only four songs: not quite half an album.
Prof had smiled beatifically through his white, nail-brush beard.
‘You have the whole summer, my son. This summer… is yours.’
And he had shambled smugly away to his room in the adjacent cottage, leaving Lol to switch everything off before climbing to his own camp bed in one of the old haylofts.
Like he was really going to sleep after this?
Instead, he’d stumbled out, bemused, into the warm night, to commune with the Frome. But the river was already asleep and that was how he ended up following the track running down a line of poplars and out the other side, close to where the hopkilns stood. The sky was now obscured by a tangle of trees, and he was aware of a high, piercing hum that somehow translated itself into Everybody needs a church. A confessional. Forgiveness.
Not exactly the wisest analogy to hang on Lol who, in his late teens, had seen his parents find religion, watched them being swept away on waves of foaming fundamentalist madness, causing them to reject the Godless kid playing the devil’s music — the kid who would always remember coming home one weekend to find that those two small mantelpiece photos of himself as a toddler had been replaced by framed postcards of Jesus. Which was probably how it had started — the alienation.
And then — in just this last year — a surprise development. Lol’s fear and resentment of the Church had been fatally compromised by encounters with a priest called Merrily Watkins who lived and worked, as it happened, less than twenty miles from here… but if this was another reason for coming back to Herefordshire he wasn’t going to admit it, least of all to himself. Their last meeting had followed events so dark that maybe she wouldn’t want to be reminded.
He felt a sharp pain below his knee and stopped, feeling suddenly out of breath. He realized he’d been running, like he sometimes did to try and overtake a dilemma, to put an impending decision behind him. He must have veered from the path and now he was in the middle of an unknown wood and there were brambles tangled around his legs.
Wrong turning, somehow. It was easy enough to do, even in the daytime, even in countryside you thought you knew. In the middle of this unknown, unmanaged wood, snagged with hawthorn, he heard his T-shirt rip, and he stood there, shaking his head.
Lost again. Story of his life.
Knight’s Frome was a scattered hamlet with no real centre, so it wasn’t as if he could look around for a cluster of lights. Or even listen for the river. All he could hear was the humming: a plaintive sound that rose and fell and pulsed as if a melody was trying to escape.
Lol turned, walked back the way he’d come, putting a hand up to his glasses, pushing them tight onto the bridge of his nose; losing your specs was not something you did in a wood at night. When he took his hand away, he saw the trees and bushes had fallen away and there was now a clear space up ahead. A small yellow light appeared, not too bright, a little unsteady, with a black cone above it: a witch’s hat. The kiln tower again.
When the sky was clear of branches, a trailing scarf of brightness told him which direction was north… and then it was suddenly split by something black and rigid that made him reel back, startled. He slipped and stumbled, went down on one knee before it — waiting for the thing to move, bend down, snatch him up, hit him.
Nothing moved. Even the humming had stopped. Lol scrambled warily to his feet.
It was only a pole, half as thick as a telegraph pole, but not tall enough to carry telegraph wires or electricity cables — although it did support wires of some kind. To avoid it, he took a couple of steps to the right. No trees or bushes stood in the way and the ground was level.
A second black pole appeared, rearing hard against the northern sky, and this one had a short crosspiece like — his first thought — a gibbet. From it hung something limp and shrivelled, the skeletal spine of a dead garland; when he passed between the two poles, his bare elbow brushed against the remains with a dry, papery crackle.
Now he could see the extent of it: dozens of black poles against the pale night, in lines to either side of him across the barren ground, most of them with crosspieces, some connected by dark wires overhead. It was like a site laid out for a mass crucifixion. Between the wires, he could still see the yellow kiln-house light, perhaps two hundred yards away. And the nearness of the kiln told him what this was… or should have been.
It was high summer and these poles should be loaded with foliage, the ripening bines high on the wires, rippling with soft green hop-cones. But this whole scene was in black and white and grey, and there was an awning of silence: no owls, no scurryings in the undergrowth. No undergrowth, in fact.
The silence, Lol thought, was like a studio silence: soft, dry, flat and localized. The air seemed cooler now, and he could feel goosebumps prickling on his bare arms as he ventured tentatively into a hop-yard where no hops grew, along an alley of winter-bleak, naked hop-poles, a place as desolate as the stripped-back bed of someone recently dead. He felt a little scared now. There was no contented cattle-breath around this place — it felt less like a memory of the womb than a premonition of the grave.
No reason to stay. Lol started to turn away. Afterwards, he couldn’t remember whether these thoughts of death had occurred in the moment before the humming began again, or whether it was the combination of the sound and the stark setting that conveyed the sense of mourning, loss, lamentation. The bleak keening seemed to be around and above him, as if it was travelling along those black wires, as if they were vibrating with some kind of plangent sorrow.
And then, as he turned, there was another noise — a crispy swishing, like dried leaves in a tentative breeze, like the noise when he’d touched the remains of the dead hop-bine, only continuous — and a pale smear blurred the periphery of his vision like petroleum jelly spread on a camera lens.
Lol saw her.
It was like she was swimming through the night towards him, from the far end of the corridor of crosses.
No sense of unreality here, that was the worst of it. It was not dreamlike, not hallucinatory.
She stopped between the poles, legs apart, leaning back, one moment all shadows, and then shining under the northern sky: a thin, white woman garlanded with pale foliage. Rustling and crackling like something dead and dusty, moved by the wind.
But there was no wind.
Lol backed into a pole, felt it juddering against his spine and the back of his head, as he gasped and twisted away, semistunned and reeling, into a parallel hop-corridor, the poles rushing past him like black railings seen from a train.
Between them, he saw the woman moving. A long, dried-out, bobbled bine was wound around her like a boa, around her neck, under her arms, over her shoulders, pulled up between her legs — the cones crackling and crumbling on her skin, throwing off a spray of flakes, an ashy aura of dead vegetation.
As she drew level with him, he could see, under the winding bine, black droplets beading her breasts, streaks down her forearms, as though the bine was thorned.
She turned to Lol and the bine fell away as she extended her hands towards him.
Lol very nearly took them in his own.
In the Old-fashioned Sense
It was like she’d told the Bishop: anything iffy, out came the coal-tongs and the asbestos gloves, and it made you wonder whatever happened to that old job description: The cure of souls.
‘I’d just said “The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life,” and that was when the girl went slightly crazy,’ Canon Dennis Beckett explained on the phone.
To be fair, he had good reason to feel this wasn’t really his problem. He was retired now, and lived on the other side of the county. He only came across to Dilwyn to take the Sunday services for two weeks a year, when Jeff Kimball, his godson, was away on holiday. Which was a diversion for Dennis, too, and a nice place to drive out to: this neat black and white haven with its village green.
But at the end of it, the thing was, other than on a superficial, hand-shaking level, he didn’t really know these people, did he? And in this case there was a young girl involved — always dicey. Also, for extra tension, a touch of drama, it had happened during Holy Communion.
‘We’ve all had situations of people becoming ill, of course,’ Dennis said, ‘even dying in their pews on two occasions that I can recall. But… well, it’s usually elderly people, isn’t it?’
‘Mmm.’ Since coming to Ledwardine less than two years ago, Merrily had seen a stroke, a blackout, an epileptic fit and a birth. ‘Not invariably.’
She wasn’t yet seeing this as a deliverance issue. She’d met Canon Beckett two or three times at local clergy gatherings, remembered him as grey-bearded, vague, affable. She wondered why, if this incident had occurred last Sunday, it had taken him five clear days to decide he should tell her about it.
It was the first morning of Jane’s school holidays. Friday the thirteenth, as it happened.
‘It was embarrassing rather than anything else, at the time,’ Dennis said. ‘The mother appeared to be affected the most — essentially such a good family, you see, in the old-fashioned sense; a family, in fact, to whom the term God-fearing might once have applied. And I’m afraid you can’t say that of very many of them nowadays, can you?’
‘No.’ Merrily tucked the phone under her chin, leaning forward through a sunbeam to pull over her sermon pad and a felt pen. ‘I suppose not. So, what did happen, exactly?’
‘She dashed — that’s the only word for it — dashed the chalice from my hands. And then she was sick.’
‘Threw up. Copiously. Tossed her cookies, as my grandson would say. In the chancel. On everything. On me.’
‘Rather a mess. And the smell soured everything. Hard to continue afterwards.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘Everyone was extremely understanding and trying not to react. Someone said, Oh dear, very quietly, and then they all discreetly moved out of the way. The mother was absolutely white with the shame of it, poor woman. She’s one of Jeffrey’s regulars — cleans the church, arranges the flowers. There she was, dragging the child away down the aisle, followed by the father, and I was starting to go after them when this elderly lady suddenly began clutching her chest. I thought, Oh Lord, that’s all we… Anyway, as it turned out, the old dear wasn’t in the throes of some cardiac crisis, which was a mercy, but by the time I reached the door, the whole family had vanished. So… we simply cleaned everywhere up and… resumed. At the time it seemed-’
‘The best thing?’ Merrily said.
‘Luckily, I managed to find a fresh surplice. There were only about five communicants left by then. A few had walked away in… the wake of it.’
Dennis Beckett paused. Through the scullery door, Merrily heard impatient footsteps across the flags in the kitchen.
‘Look, I’m aware this doesn’t sound like much, Merrily,’ Dennis said. ‘Certainly didn’t seem so to me, at the time, but I thought I ought to reassure the parents, so I got their number and when I arrived home I gave them a call. No answer. I made a note to try again the following day, but I’m afraid it got mislaid and other things cropped up, and it wasn’t until this morning that I finally got through to them.’
‘Mum?’ Behind Merrily, the scullery door opened. Jane stood there in jeans and a yellow sleeveless top, summery but somehow waiflike, a bit forlorn. ‘Look, I’m going to get the bus into Hereford, OK?’
Merrily held up a hand, signalling for the kid to hang on until she was off the phone. ‘Sorry, Dennis…’
Dennis Beckett lowered his voice.
‘It was still quite a long time before anyone answered. I was about to hang up when the mother came on, rather abrupt until she realized who I was. Whereupon she simply burst into tears. An eruption. As if she’d been holding it back for days. You know… “Thank God you’ve called. Thank God. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what”… No, in fact, her actual words were: “I don’t dare to think what’s got into her.” ’ He paused.
Jane scowled, threw up her arms in exasperation and walked out.
‘ “Got into her”?’ Merrily said cautiously.
‘Her own words. The child’s being generally… not herself. She’s normally a quiet, studious, demure sort of girl. A nice girl. Been taken to church every week since she was about seven. Suddenly, she’s exhibiting signs of a distinct… aversion. Claiming she’s not well on Sunday mornings — headaches, this sort of thing.’
Merrily thought about Jane. ‘Being generally difficult? Mood swings? Emotional?’
‘Well…’ Merrily tapped her pencil on the desk, remembering similar phases. ‘No need to get too carried away about that. Unless-’ An obvious thought had struck her. ‘Could she be pregnant?’
‘What? Oh… I see what you mean.’ He was silent for a moment, thinking it over. ‘Well, she… seemed to me to be a very young fourteen. She was wearing her school uniform, which in itself is a rather uncommon sight these days, out of school hours.’
‘True.’ Half of Jane’s school clothes seemed to have vanished by the time she reached home.
‘Let me tell you the main thing,’ Dennis said. ‘It seems Amy had been brought along to Holy Communion precisely because her parents were getting worried about her spiritual health. In the old-fashioned sense.’
‘Meaning what, exactly?’
Dennis hesitated and then sighed. ‘Meaning they’re now asking for something I would not personally be happy to undertake,’ he replied eventually.
As Merrily went into the kitchen, Ethel the cat looked up at her from a sun-pool on a deep window sill. No sign of Jane; the kid must have gone back up to her apartment in the attic. Merrily went back into the scullery, stared at the phone for a few seconds and then picked it up and rang Sophie at the gatehouse.
‘I’m just following procedure here, Soph.’
‘Do we have a procedure?’ The Bishop’s lay secretary, servant of the Cathedral and posher than the Queen, would be in her office next to the Deliverance room, from where she also dealt with the admin side of Merrily’s business.
‘We have a rule. There’s only one situation where we have a rule,’ Merrily said, ‘and this is it.’
‘I see.’ A tiny pause, a vacuum snap — Sophie uncapping her gold Cross fountain pen. ‘What would you like me to tell the Bishop? We’re talking major exorcism?’
‘Won’t be an exorcism at all, if I can help it. I suspect they don’t know quite what they want, apart from some reassurance. I’m just informing the Bishop, according to the rule.’
Jane appeared in the doorway. ‘What?’ She saw the phone at Merrily’s ear and rolled her eyes.
‘Sorry, Sophie, I’ve just got to ask Jane something before her very limited patience snaps.’
‘I am sixteen,’ Jane muttered. ‘As you keep telling me, I have all the bloody time in the world.’
‘You know a kid called Amy Shelbone?’
Jane blinked. ‘Know the name. Probably.’
‘I think she goes to your school.’
‘Not in your class, then?’
‘No, she… I guess she’s probably in the fourth… or the third year. Something like that.’
‘OK.’ Merrily nodded. ‘Thanks, flower.’ Worth a try, but kids in a lower form were pond life. ‘Sorry, Sophie.’
Jane didn’t leave. Merrily frowned at her. ‘You’ll miss the bus.’
‘So like, what’s this Amy Shel… thing done?’
‘Go,’ said Merrily.
She waited until she heard the front door slam. Her dog collar lay in the centre of the pale blue blotter, glowing in the sunbeam. Sophie would disapprove of her discarding it simply because of the heat. The women’s ministry had been hard-won; it was like some ex-suffragette not turning out for the polls because it was raining.
‘Sorry about that.’
‘I think you can assume she’s gone now,’ Sophie said. ‘But you may wish to check the room for listening devices.’
Sophie would also disapprove of Merrily asking the kid about Amy Shelbone, but Merrily knew it would go no further. It had reached the stage, with Jane, where there was a certain trust, forged out of experience. Jane was sixteen; there wasn’t such a huge age-gap between them. They told each other almost everything. Didn’t they?
She sat for a while at her desk, looking down the garden towards the apple trees. She was thinking about Father Nicholas Ellis, the fundamentalist zealot who had interpreted the term cure of souls all too freely, administering exorcism like doctors prescribed antibiotics, without ever consulting the Bishop.
But at least Ellis had certainty, a complete faith not only in God and all His angels, but in himself as the approved wielder of an archangel’s broadsword. How he must have despised her.
Merrily put on her dog collar.
Ellis had crossed the line, big-time. She was never going to do that, God help her. Nor was it up to the priest to decide who was genuine, who was misguided, and who was trying it on.
She knelt by the side of the desk, under the window, put her hands together, the backs of her thumbs against the centre of her forehead. She closed her eyes, let her thoughts fall away. The sunshine through her eyelids made her feel washed in a warm orange glow. It felt good.
Too good. Merrily moved into shadow, facing the white-painted wall of four-hundred-year-old wattle and daub, and prayed for perception.
Since Dennis Beckett had first told her about Amy Shelbone, she’d been thinking, on and off, about the occasion she’d thrown up in church herself — her own church, on the fraught night of her installation as priest in charge. Churches were powerful places; they sometimes amplified emotions, might well have an emetic effect on stored-up stress. It didn’t necessarily mean any kind of invasion.
However, this was at Holy Communion, and a dramatically adverse reaction to the presence of the sacrament was… something that needed to be looked into.
After a few minutes, Merrily picked up the phone and called the number Dennis Beckett had given her for the Shelbones, in Dilwyn.
There was no answer.
The first time Lol saw Gerard Stock, he thought the bloke must have some kind of status here, that maybe he was the original owner of the whole place, including the stables and the pigsties.
This was perhaps because Gerard Stock kind of swaggered.
It was not a word Lol recalled ever mentally applying to anyone before. Stock walked like he was shouldering his way through a crowd of people who didn’t matter, to get to somebody who did. This looked odd, because he was all alone on the track which crossed the hay meadow. No bushes, no banks of nettles, no cows; nothing but lush, knee-high grass in a valley smouldering with summer.
It was eleven-thirty in the morning, and Stock was heading their way.
Prof was not glad to see him. ‘The sodding countryside. You get more privacy in Notting Hill. He wants to know who you are. He always has to know who everybody is, the bastard. He’s obviously seen you walking around here and he thinks you might be someone of significance.’
‘Obviously hasn’t noticed my car, then.’
Lol was standing, with a mug of tea and a slice of toast, at the window of the studio anteroom-cum-kitchen, which had once been a pigsty and now possibly looked even more of one.
‘This guy…’ Prof drained his mug, added it to a pile of unwashed crockery beside the sink. ‘I ask myself, should I have to cope with guys like this any more, my time of life? The business is top-heavy with the bastards, always has been. They know everybody — shared spliffs with Jerry Garcia, toured with Dylan, played jew’s harp on the cut that never made it onto Blood on the Tracks… which, of course, is how come their name was tragically omitted from the sleeve. These guys…’ Prof palmed his stubbly white chin. ‘These guys are losers the likes of which I hoped that by moving out here I should never have to encounter again.’
‘So who exactly is he, Prof?’ Lol saw a man who was not that much taller than he was, but wide and powerful. A man swaggering like he owned the place, but not hurrying. A man wanting them to know he was coming.
Prof snorted. ‘For my sins, my nearest neighbour. He lives, with his distressingly younger wife, in a converted hop-kiln somewhere over there where I’ve never been. He walks over here two, three times a week, in case maybe I got Knopfler or Sting hanging out.’
‘A… hop-kiln.’ Lol had fallen asleep thinking of a woman in a hop-yard near a kiln, then had dreamed of her, and then had awoken this morning thinking Did that really happen?
‘Very sought-after, these old kilns, apparently. So how come such a loser is able to buy one? Answer: he didn’t. It was an inheritance, and not even his own. His wife’s uncle left it to them. What kind of man was this uncle to bequeath this leeching bastard to the community?’
‘Nice guy, actually,’ said the man who was sitting on the floor below the window, his back against the whitewashed bricks, mug between his knees. ‘Though he went a little strange, I suppose, before his death.’
Prof turned on him. ‘And you… when you were selling me on this place, did you mention the proximity of this freeloader, this ligger, even once?’
‘You weren’t interested in the neighbours.’ Simon St John, bass-player, cellist and vicar, had known Prof for many more years than Lol had. ‘As long as they don’t have noisy kids or barbecues, you’re never remotely interested in your neighbours.’
‘Life’s too short for neighbours,’ Prof said gruffly. ‘Whatever time I got left, I want to spend it laying down good music in my own place, at my own pace. Is that too much to ask?’ He glared down at Simon. ‘You knew him well, this uncle?’
‘Prof, I buried him.’ Simon lifted pale hair out of his eyes. ‘But before that, he used to come and see us periodically. He was interested in the history of the church. He was interested in most things local.’ He turned to Lol. ‘You’ll see his books in various shops in Bromyard. Local books, full of pictures — photos. Old ones and new ones he took himself, but he did them in sepia, so they looked like old ones. An Illustrated Guide to the Frome Valley, Past and Present and The Hop-grower’s Year. They’re still selling very well. I think Gerard’s quite annoyed because the income from those books was left to another niece.’
‘And all they got was the house,’ said Prof. ‘Poor little bleeders.’
‘Stewart Ash was his name — the uncle,’ Simon said. ‘Good bloke. What happened to him seemed really shocking, obviously, especially in a close community like this. But in my own defence, Prof, I have to say that when I first told you about this place I hadn’t yet met friend Gerard.’
‘Both times I called at the kiln — making my initial pastoral visit, as we do — he appeared not to have heard me knocking.’ Simon flicked a wrist. ‘Naturally, I assumed he was of a reclusive disposition. And not exactly a Christian.’
‘Reclusive? Jesus, nah, you were wearing your bloody uniform — no wonder he wasn’t answering the door. The bastard thinks you’re collecting for the organ fund, and he doesn’t have any money, and of course that’s the very last thing these hustlers are ever going to admit — their private capital’s always tied up in some big-deal promotion they can’t tell you about just yet.’
Lol wanted to ask what had happened to the uncle that had so shocked the community, but there wasn’t going to be time for that. He saw Gerard Stock push through the gate, leaving it open behind him, and cross the yard. Stock’s thinning hair was slicked straight back and he had a beard that was red and gold, fading to grey where it was trimmed to a small, thrusting wedge.
And Lol was still not sure what the bloke actually did.
‘See, if there was a whole bunch of neighbours’ — Prof spread his hands — ‘it might not be so bad. But this guy on his own, with the wife at work all day — oh yeah, it might be her inheritance, but she goes to work while he hangs around here, supposedly engaged in renovation but actually pissing the time away and getting in what remains of my hair. I tell you, if you live in the sticks and you have just the one neighbour, it’s like I would imagine being in prison and sharing a cell. As you’ll find out when I go.’
Lol smiled. Prof kept saying when I go like he was expecting imminent death. In fact, he was going to Abbey Road studio to produce the long-awaited fourth solo album by his old friend, the blues-guitar legend Tom Storey. Lol had agreed to mind the studio while Prof was away — knowing this was Prof’s way of forcing him to work on his own solo album, which was not long-awaited, not by anybody.
There was a knock on the back door. Just the one. Prof jabbed his thumb towards the passage.
‘And if you ever do let Stock in here when I’m gone, you don’t permit him to play a chord or touch a knob on that board, that clear? Not for my benefit I’m saying this, but for yours, because if your album eventually starts to sell in any quantity, he’s gonna swear blind he co-produced it. Am I right, Simon?’
Simon rose languidly to his feet. He wore well-faded jeans and a collarless white shirt. ‘You know me, Prof. I must never allow myself to think the worst of people.’
Prof turned to Lol. ‘If it reaches court, this man will be your principal witness. He don’t play bass so good any more, but his God loves him increasingly.’
Simon St John smiled but didn’t reply. Nothing Prof said ever seemed to offend him; he would bend with it, like a willow. Simon had probably not changed much, or put on a pound in weight, in twenty years. He seemed to know exactly who he was and to feel comfortable with that. He made Lol feel unstable and directionless.
‘Aw, just let the bastard in,’ Prof said, resigned. Then he grinned at Lol. ‘I’ll do you the favour of ensuring that he develops no interest in you from the start.’
As good as his word, Prof handed Gerard Stock a mug of lukewarm tea and jerked a thumb at Lol.
‘Gerry, this little guy is Laurence Robinson. He used to be in a minor band, way back. Now he’s a psychotherapist.’
Lol sighed. He was polishing his glasses on the hem of his T-shirt, so Gerard Stock was just a blue-denim blur, but he could feel the guy’s lazy gaze like a damp towel as Stock cranked out a laugh.
‘Guess we’ve all been down that road at some time.’
Lol put his glasses back on. Stock’s voice had surprised him: underneath the vague mid-Atlantic slur, it was educated, upper-middle-class, like Simon’s. He saw that the bloke had intelligent, canny eyes, a wet little rosebud mouth inside the oval of the beard and moustache.
‘I was in therapy for six months, in the States,’ Stock said. ‘It really fucked me up.’ He laughed again, eyes glinting with challenge.
Lol nodded. ‘It can happen. It isn’t right for everybody.’
Stock drank some tea. ‘And what kind of person isn’t it right for?’
‘Don’t get him going,’ Prof snapped. ‘He’ll bore the arse off you with his psycho-babble. What can we do for you, Gerry? I hate to hurry you, but we need to have this rig up and running. Time is money in this business, I don’t need to tell you that.’
‘You most certainly don’t, Prof,’ Stock said. ‘Actually, I wanted a word with the vicar.’
Prof said nothing, clearly thrown by this.
‘Me?’ Simon said, also thrown, obviously.
‘If you have a few minutes.’
‘Sure.’ Simon shrugged. ‘I was just leaving anyway. I should be out there ministering to my flock, but Prof’s still a novelty, made me self-indulgent. Would you excuse me one minute, while I pop off and have a wee? Then I’ll walk back with you.’
When Simon vanished into the passage, Lol went over to the sink and filled it with hot water for the washing up. When he turned round to find a teacloth, he saw that Gerard Stock was contemplating him, eyes screwed up like he was trying to figure out the species of a bird in the garden.
‘You were in a band? Laurence… Robertson…?’
‘Robinson,’ Lol said. ‘Lol, usually. But you probably wouldn’t-’
‘Ah,’ Stock said triumphantly. ‘Hazey Jane.’
Lol’s turn to be surprised. Maybe it took one loser to recognize another.
‘You did this Nick Drake-y thing,’ Stock recalled, ‘long before the man was rediscovered. All sensitive and finger-picking, when everybody else was crashing about on synths. Brave of you.’
‘Didn’t get us anywhere,’ Lol said lightly.
‘If ten years too early.’ Stock’s teeth were very white and even — Hollywood teeth. He couldn’t always have been a loser. ‘And now everybody’s discovered Drake, it’s probably too late. A hard and ungrateful business, my friend. You’re probably better off, even in psychotherapy.’
‘Unfortunately, everybody’s discovered that, too,’ Lol said. ‘Story of my life.’
‘Sad,’ said Gerard Stock, as Simon returned.
Prof and Lol followed the other two men down the passage and out through the back door, Prof seeming much happier now that he was seeing Stock’s back. The sun was a big white spotlamp, tracking them, and all around the countryside was surging with summer, the meadow lavishly splattered with wild flowers — Mother Nature flaunting herself, happy to be a whore.
Prof stopped in the yard, and sat a Panama hat on his bald head. ‘He piss you off, Laurence?’ he asked hopefully.
‘Give him time.’ Prof rubbed his beard. His baggy American T-shirt carried the merry message BABES IS ALL. ‘What’s he want with Simon, that’s what I would like to know. He strike you as a man who feels himself in need of spiritual absolution?’
Lol smiled. ‘You jealous?’
‘I shall treat that with the contempt it deserves,’ Prof said.
‘What does Mr Stock actually do? You never said.’
‘Nothing! Strolls about like the squire while the poor wife’s at work, temping for some agency in Hereford. She inherits the house, now she earns the money for them to live there. All right, he was some kind of a freelance publicist, a term that can mean whatever he wants it to mean on any particular day. He offers to handle my PR. I say, Gerard, watch my lips: I do not want any relations with the public.’
Lol watched Stock and the vicar crossing the river bridge at the bottom of the meadow, where the line of poplars began. Where he’d walked last night. He told Prof about the hop-kiln he’d seen, with its fairy-tale tower. Prof nodded.
‘Yeah, I expect that would be his place. It’s not a prime location, Stock maintains, on account of being blocked in on either side by these two enormous great metal barns. Same situation as this, with the land all around it owned by someone else. He should moan — like he paid a penny for it.’
‘They still grow hops there?’
‘Only there was this kind of hop-yard with no hops — well, a few shrivelled bits of bine hanging from the wires. I mean, hops had obviously been grown at one time, in quantity, but it was all barren now. Scorched earth and just these poles. It was… depressing.’
‘Hmm,’ Prof said. ‘This would be the wilt, I expect.’
‘Verticulum Wilt… nah, that’s wrong, but some word like that. It’s this voracious hop disease — no known cure. Wipes out your whole crop, contaminates your land like anthrax or something, throwing hop-farmers out of business. You want to know about this stuff, take a walk down to the hop museum by the main road.’ Prof smiled slyly. ‘You’ll like it there — check out the back room.’
Prof winked. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘apparently that’s how these stables got split off from the farm. The owner has hard times, maybe from the wilt, sells his land bit by bit, flogs off what buildings he can, for conversion. Maybe that’s also how Stock’s wife’s uncle got his kiln, I forget. It’s an ill wind, Laurence.’
It was noon, the time of no shadows, but the sun was momentarily weakened by a trailer of muslin cloud.
‘What’s the, er… what’s the wife like?’ Lol asked.
Prof gave him a curious look. Prof had sensitive, multi-track hearing — sometimes even picking up tracks you hadn’t recorded.
‘Never met her, Laurence. Quiet, I’m told. Often the case with a guy like that — wants a listener.’
‘And what happened to the uncle?’
‘Ha! I’m detecting — forgive me — a burgeoning interest here?’
‘The moment I mention hop-kilns! After our discussion, am I to conclude you went for one of your little strolls and you came back with — dare I suggest — the seed of an idea? I’m thinking of the song you did a year or two back for Norma Waterson — “The Baker’s Tune”?’
‘ “The Baker’s Lament”.’
‘About the slow fading of the old village fabric — a good one. Well, I’m not pushing it, but there are strong themes here, too. Change and decay. Visit the Hop Museum — in fact, I’m going to set that up for you.’
‘Prof, there’s no-’
‘Check it out. Reject it, if you want, but check it out first.’
Lol gave up. In an avalanche, lie down.
‘So what did happen to the uncle?’
‘Aha.’ Prof sat on an old rustic bench against the stable wall, tilting his Panama over his eyes. ‘Well, that, Laurence, was a very sick wind.’
Lol waited. Prof seemed to have a remarkably extensive knowledge of people he claimed he hadn’t ever wanted to meet.
He talked from under his hat, stretching out his legs. ‘I think what Simon didn’t mention about this Stewart Ash was his interest — as an author, a chronicler of social history — in our travelling friends. Not the New Age travellers — the old kind.’
Prof nodded. ‘Romanies. Used to come here in force every autumn for the hop-picking. Enormous work in those days before the machines. Some of them even travelling over from Europe in their vardos, year after year. A colourful spectacle — you’ll find all this in the hop museum, as well. The Romanies were a little community inside a community, and of course Ash very much wanted to record their memories, for his book — what they thought of the hop-masters, how well they were treated. A man with a social conscience. Well, there’s a few Romany families, not many, still coming back, to help the machinery do the work — though whether they’ll be back this year, after what happened, is anyone’s guess. Anyway, off goes our Mr Ash to talk to them. Only gypsies, by tradition, don’t like to talk. It’s their history, why should the gaujos profit from it?’
Prof tilted up his hat, looking for Lol’s reaction.
‘That’s a point,’ Lol said cautiously.
‘I have sympathy for the Romanies,’ Prof said. ‘A persecuted race, big victims of the Holocaust.’
Prof rarely talked about this; he liked to call himself a ‘lapsed Jew’, but Lol knew from other sources that his family had been considerably depleted by Hitler. Aunts and uncles, certainly, if not his parents. It would explain why Prof, who was accustomed to ignoring his immediate neighbourhood, had taken a certain interest in this story.
‘But Ash, you see, was by all accounts a generous man, and he didn’t expect the stuff for nothing. He established what you might call a rapport with a few of the gypsies. What he might have called a rapport, though they would probably have had a different name for it.’
‘Like, they got more out of him than he got out of them?’
‘They haven’t survived, the Romanies, by passing up on opportunities, though it was probably a little more complicated than ripping off the guy for a bunch of made-up stories. Complicated, for one thing, by Ash being representative of another significant minority.’
‘Did he form too close a rapport with certain of his travelling friends? Did they take his money for services rendered? None of this ever came out in court when the case was heard earlier this year. It amounted to two little bleeders breaking in one night. Gypsy boys, brothers. Old man comes down in the night, catches them messing with his cameras and stuff — this was how it was put in the papers. They beat the poor bugger to death.’
‘Christ,’ said Lol.
‘Last year, this would be, late summer. There you go: ain’t what it was, the countryside.’ Prof laughed hoarsely. ‘Bear this in mind, Laurence. Make sure you always lock up at night, when I’ve gone.’
St Mary the Virgin guarded Dilwyn like a mother hen: a good, solid medieval parish church with a squat steeple on the tower. But it was always going to be the village below that got the attention: bijou black and white cottages around the green — a movie set, birthday card, timber-framed heaven.
In fact, you only really noticed the church on the way out of the village. And if she hadn’t been leaving the village, Merrily might also have missed seeing the woman, coming down from the porch past ancient gravestones — just a few of them, selectively spaced as if the less-sightly stones had been removed.
She seemed as timeless as the cottages themselves: a big woman, comfortably overweight, walking with her head high, a shopping basket over her arm. You expected there to be big, rosy apples in it, maybe some fresh, brown eggs.
It could be her, couldn’t it? Merrily slowed the car and then reversed, turning on the forecourt of the Crown Inn, and parking next to the village green.
The Shelbones’ bungalow had been easy enough to find, sunk into a lane leading out of the village in the general direction of Stretford whose church of St Cosmas and St Damien — once desecrated with a pool of urine and a gutted crow — had been the scene of Merrily’s first, humiliating exorcism-of-place. The bungalow had lace curtains and flower beds with bright clusters of bedding plants. It was traditional — no barbecue, no water-feature. And no one had answered the door.
But this woman looked promising. She was about the right age — mid-fifties. With her dark green linen skirt and her grey-brown hair loosely permed, you had the impression she didn’t care overmuch if she did resemble her mother at that same age.
Merrily switched off the engine, wound down the window and waited for the woman to reach the green. Late afternoon had brought on the first overcast sky of the week, dense with white heat. Droplets of birdsong were sprinkled over the distant buzz of invisible traffic on the main road above the village.
The woman had stopped to check something in her basket. Wearily, Merrily levered herself out of the car, leaned against the door. She was wearing a blue cotton jacket, a white silk scarf over her dog collar in case the Shelbones didn’t want the neigh-bours knowing they were having visits from strange clergy. She hadn’t bought any new summer clothes last year, and there’d be no need for any this year either. She wasn’t planning to go anywhere. This would be the first summer she’d stayed behind while Jane went off on holiday — joining another family in a big farmhouse in Pembrokeshire where there was sea and surfing.
Not that the kid seemed especially excited. She just slumped around, sluggish and grumpy. Maybe it was the weight of the exams and the weather. Or some unknown burden? Something they needed to discuss? Perhaps there’d be a violent thunderstorm tonight, with the electricity cut off, as it usually was: a time for candlelight confidences to be swapped across the kitchen table, maybe their last chance for a meaningful discussion before Jane went away for a month, leaving Merrily alone in the seven-bedroom vicarage.
The woman was now crossing the road towards the green. Merrily stepped away from the car.
‘Good afternoon.’ She looked neither surprised nor curious — in a village this size a stranger would swiftly have rounded up a dozen people who could have pointed her out.
‘I had a call from Canon Beckett, this morning,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m Merrily Watkins. I rang-’
‘I know. It wasn’t convenient to talk to you then. I’m sorry.’ Mrs Shelbone spoke briskly, local accent. ‘I was intending to call you back tonight when we could speak freely.’
Dennis must have told her to expect a call from the Deliverance Consultant, but the girl, Amy, had been in the house, Merrily guessed, at the time she rang. She suddenly felt wrong-footed, because this woman already knew exactly who she was and what she was doing here, and now she was getting that familiar, dismayed look that said: You’re the wrong sex, you’re too young, you’re too small.
She slipped a hand defensively to her scarf. Mrs Hazel Shelbone shifted her shopping basket from one hand to the other. In the basket were two tins of polish and some yellow dusters, neatly folded. No apples, no eggs.
‘Well, my dear,’ Mrs Shelbone said, ‘this isn’t really a good place to leave your car. I should take it a little way down that lane over there. Perhaps we could meet in the church in about five minutes?’ She produced a smile that was wry and resigned. ‘The scene of the crime, as it were.’
In the long church porch with its glassless, iron-barred Gothic windows, Merrily took a few long breaths, whispered a rather feverish prayer.
Jane had once asked, insouciantly, So when do they issue you with the black medical bag and the rubber apron for the green bile?
The truth was that Merrily had never exorcized a person. Deliverance Consultant might be an unsatisfactory title, but it was a more accurate job description than Diocesan Exorcist. Heavy spiritual cleansing had never been more than an infrequent last resort.
Tell me if it’s real, Merrily mumbled to God. Don’t let me get this wrong.
It was only a few steps down from the porch, but the body of the church had a subterranean feel — a cool, grey cavern. Hazel Shelbone was alone there, waiting in a front pew, a few yards from the pulpit and the entrance to the chancel where her daughter had — in the phraseology of Dennis Beckett’s grandson — tossed her cookies.
She half rose. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Watkins, if I was abrupt. It’s been very difficult.’
‘I… would like you to understand about me from the outset. I am a Christian. And a mother.’ She said this almost defiantly, her wide face shining in the white light from the leaded windows.
Merrily nodded. ‘Me, too.’
‘You’ve got children?’
‘Just the one. A girl. Sixteen.’
Mrs Shelbone’s brown eyes widened. ‘A child bride, were you?’
‘Sort of. My husband was killed in a car accident. Long time ago.’
The body of the church seemed fairly colourless. There was no stained glass in the nave, but behind the altar was a crucifixion window with blood-red predominant.
‘And you remarried?’
‘Found the Church instead.’ A deep nod of understanding from Mrs Shelbone. ‘It’s important to know where your destiny lies, isn’t it? I knew from a very early age that I was destined to be a mother, that this was to be my task in life. My occupation. Do you see?’
Merrily smiled. Hazel Shelbone’s expression rebuked her.
‘But we couldn’t have children, Mrs Watkins! Couldn’t have them. Imagine that. It was enough to shatter my faith. How terribly cruel of God, I thought.’
‘But after a while I began to understand. He intended for me to be a reservoir, do you see? A reservoir of maternal love for little children who were starved of it. When I came to that understanding it was a moment of great joy.’
‘Foster parents we were, for a number of years. And then we took on Amy as an infant, and God, in his wisdom, decided that she was to stay and become our daughter. We had a big, decrepit old house, up in Leominster in those days, with lots of bedrooms, so we sold that and we moved out here. This was when Amy was five and we knew she was going to be staying.’
‘I didn’t realize she was adopted.’ Merrily was wondering what basic difference this might make. As a foster parent, Hazel Shelbone would probably already have had considerable experience of kids from dysfunctional families, kids with emotional problems. She wouldn’t easily be fooled by them. ‘What does your husband do?’
‘David’s a listed-buildings officer with the Hereford Council. He looks after the old places, makes sure nobody knocks them down or tampers with them. They offered him early retirement last year, but he said he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.’ Her eyes grew anxious. ‘I wish he’d taken it, now. He’s not been in the best of health recently, and now…’
She looked ahead, through the opening in the oak screen, towards the altar, and then suddenly turned, leaning urgently sideways in the pew, towards Merrily.
‘We never pushed the Church on her. We never forced religion on any of our children. We just made sure they knew that God was waiting for them, if and when they were ready. There’s a great difference between indoctrination and bringing up children in a home which is full of God’s love.’
Merrily nodded again. ‘That’s sensible.’
‘And Amy responded better than anyone could have wished. A daughter to be proud of — respected her parents, her teachers and her God.’ Hazel Shelbone paused, looking Merrily straight in the eyes. ‘You understand I’m only talking like this to you now because you’re a woman of God. I don’t make a practice of scattering the Lord’s name willy-nilly on barren ground. The Social Services people one has to deal with in fostering and adoption, many of those people are very left-wing and atheistic, and they’ll automatically take against you if they think you’re some sort of religious fanatic. Well, we’re far from fanatics, Mrs Watkins. We just maintain a Christian household. Which you always think will… will…’
She bit her lip.
‘Will be a protection to them?’ Merrily said softly.
Hazel Shelbone leaned back and breathed in deeply as if accepting an infusion of strength from God for what she was about to say. ‘Sometimes, when I come home and she’s been alone in the house… it seems so cold. There’s a sense of cold. The sort of cold you can feel in your bones.’
Merrily said nothing. Once something started gnawing at your mind, it could produce its own phenomena.
‘Last Sunday, when she was… sick, and we took her from here, I don’t think she even realized where she was. Her eyes were absolutely vacant, as though her mind had gone off somewhere else. Vacant and cold. Like a doll’s eyes. Do you know what I mean?’
‘It was only when we got her home that she began to cry, and even then it was like tears of… defiance. I’d never seen that before, not in Amy. We’ve had other children, for short periods, who were resentful and troublesome, but not Amy. Amy became our own.’
Merrily asked carefully, ‘Have you consulted a doctor?’
Hazel Shelbone blinked. ‘You mean a psychiatrist?’
‘We are a Christian household, Mrs Watkins. We seek Christian solutions.’
‘Well, yes, I understand that, but-’
‘You may say we’ve become complacent in our middle years, having a daughter who was always conscientious with her school work, who’d been going happily to church from the age of seven… and was, by the way, confirmed into the Church in March this year by Bishop Dunmore. A girl who even’ — she looked at Merrily, whose silk scarf had come loose, revealing the dog collar — ‘who even talked of one day becoming a minister.’
Merrily thought of Jane who once, in a heated moment, had said she’d rather clean public lavatories.
‘She always kept her Bible on her bedside table — until it went missing and I found it wedged under the wardrobe in the spare room. The Holy Bible wedged there, face down, like some old telephone directory! This was the child who always wanted to be assured, before the light went out, that Jesus was watching over her. Now she doesn’t want go to church any more, she looks down at her feet every time she has to even pass the church…’
‘Five weeks? Six weeks? The first time she wouldn’t go, she claimed she was feeling ill, with a bad stomach. Well, she’s always been truthful, never tried to get a day off school, so of course I sent her back to bed at once. The second time… Oh, it was some essay she had to write for school — she’s always been very assiduous about her school work, as I say. Very well, her dad said, you must decide what’s most important, and she promised she would go to evensong that night instead, on her own. And, sure enough, she got changed and off she went. But I know she didn’t turn up. I know that.’
Her voice had become loud enough to cause an echo, and Merrily glanced quickly around to make sure they were still alone.
‘Another time, she made the excuse of having a particularly severe period pain. But when she gave me the same excuse again last Sunday, I counted up the days and I can tell you there’s nothing wrong with my arithmetic. “Oh no,” I said, “up you get, my girl. Now!” And I made her come with us to the early Eucharist.’
‘Did she make a fuss?’
‘She was sulky. Distant. That glazed look.’
‘Has she got a boyfriend?’
‘What does that-? No. She hasn’t got a boyfriend. But she’s only fourteen.’
‘You sure about that?’ What could be better guaranteed to undermine the piety of a starchy fourteen-year-old girl than a sudden, blinding crush on some cool, mean kid who despised religion? ‘For instance… where did she really go, do you think, when she claimed she was off to evensong?’
‘I know what you’re thinking, Mrs Watkins! And yes, I’ve had her to the doctor this week, and no, he couldn’t find anything wrong with her. But… well, I can tell you there certainly has been illness in the house as a result of all this. David’s had migraines again, and my… Anyway, everything has seemed under a cloud. Unhealthy. A darkness, even in the height of summer. And you may say this is subjective, but I know that it isn’t. The child’s become a receptacle for evil.’
Hazel Shelbone stood up, her back against a stone pillar by the pew’s end. Defensive, Merrily thought. If she’s so certain, then there’s something else.
Mrs Shelbone walked into the chancel and faced the altar.
‘I come here, and I polish and polish the bit of rail where she was sick, and I pray for her to be redeemed, and I get down on my knees and ask God what our family could have done to deserve this.’
Merrily went to join her. ‘You seriously believe Amy is possessed by evil.’
‘By an evil spirit.’
‘And you want her to be exorcized.’
‘I feel it’s not something we can ignore.’
‘Yeah, but it’s… it’s not something we undertake without a lot of… There’s a procedure, OK? I’m afraid it would involve bringing in a psychiatrist, initially.’
Hazel Shelbone didn’t turn around. Her whole body had stiffened.
‘We need to be sure.’ Merrily put a hand on her arm. ‘What might at first appear to you or me to be demonic possession could be some form of mental breakdown.’
‘Reverend Watkins…’ Hazel Shelbone stared up at the crucified Jesus in the window above the altar. ‘We’ve had our share of problem children, David and I. We’ve had children from broken homes… children whose parents have been admitted to psychiatric institutions… disturbed children, a child who ran away after smashing up our living room. There’s really not a lot anyone can tell me about child psychology.’
‘We have to be sure,’ Merrily said, and took a step back as the big woman spun round at her.
‘Is this what it’s come to? Has the Church become a branch of the Social Services now? Do I have to sign forms? Mrs Watkins, it’s quite simple — I would like the darkness to be driven out, so that God may be readmitted into the heart of my daughter. Is that too much to ask of a priest?’
‘No. No, it shouldn’t be.’
Then, Merrily needed advice. This sounded like a simple and sudden adolescent rejection of parental values, but you could never be sure. Before taking this any further, she needed at least to talk to Huw Owen over in Wales. Who, of course, would warn her not to leave the village without praying for and — if possible — with this girl.
‘Mrs Shelbone,’ Merrily said softly, ‘is there something you haven’t told me?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ It came back too quickly.
‘It’s just that for you to want to put your daughter through the stress of a spiritual cleansing-’
‘She knows things,’ Hazel Shelbone mumbled.
‘She knows things she shouldn’t know. Things she couldn’t know.’
Mrs Shelbone bowed her head once, and moved away from the altar. ‘She will look into my eyes sometimes and tell me things she could not possibly know.’
She started to walk quickly back towards the nave, where her homely shopping basket sat on the raised wooden floor at the foot of the front pew.
‘All right.’ Merrily moved behind her. ‘Where is she now?’
‘At home, I assume, in her room. She spends most of her time in her room. I’d better go now. Her father will be home in an hour.’
‘Why don’t we both go and have a chat with her?’ Merrily suggested.
Al and Sally
Like a fine-boned girl, he thought: pale and graceful and slim-hipped.
Lol was suddenly besotted. Since coming into the museum he’d been aware of little else. His gaze kept returning to this shadowed alcove, overhung with tumbling bines.
The man standing by the counter covered with books and leaflets was watching him, smiling. He wore a white linen jacket, of Edwardian length, and looked about sixty-five. He had long white hair and a pointed chin, goblinesque, and there were tiny gold rings in both his ears. He gestured towards the alcove. ‘Go ahead.’
Lol moved closer but didn’t touch.
Mother-of-pearl was inlaid around the soundhole but the softwood top was otherwise plain, with a dull sheen but no lacquer, no polish. There was an orange line of yew in the neck. She was like one of those old parlour instruments from the late nineteenth century.
A holy relic. What was it doing here?
Lol said reverently. ‘She’s a Boswell.’
‘Mother of God!’ The man with long white hair strode out from behind the counter. ‘She’s a guitar!’ Carelessly plucking the instrument from its stand, handing it to Lol. ‘Go on, take her. But no plectrum, if you don’t mind. I’d hate to need a scratchboard.’
‘I’m no good with a plec, anyway.’ Lol accepted the guitar, one hand under its sleek butt.
‘Quite right, lad.’ The man clapped his hands, two rings tinking. ‘Plectrums, thumb-picks — condoms for the fingers. Why would God have given us nails?’ His sharp rural accent, with flat northern vowels, was unplaceable, the kind sometimes affected by traditional folk singers.
The guitar was unexpectedly lightweight.
The man smiled. Check out the back room, Prof had said earlier, winking. Back room?
‘Ah, you’re embarrassed,’ the goblin man said. ‘All right. I’ll leave you alone with her for a while.’ From behind the counter, he pulled a wooden stool for Lol to sit on. ‘I’ll give you just one tip — don’t be too delicate with her. She won’t repay you.’ He wagged a finger. ‘Remember now, Lol, she’s not sacred. She’s only a guitar.’
Lol looked up at him, unsure whether he’d fallen on his feet or into a trap.
‘The Prof.’ The goblin smiled — a couple of gold teeth on show. ‘The Prof said you’d be around sooner or later.’ He unlatched the door. ‘I shall be back in about ten minutes. Enjoy!’
The Hop Museum was set back from the main road to Bromyard, about fifty yards from the turning to Knight’s Frome. Like Prof’s place, it was the remains of farm buildings, but in this case with a few acres around it. There were two ponies and a donkey in the field in front, and a pond with ducks. Also, a gypsy caravan in green and gold.
The River Frome passed unobtrusively under the access drive, through what looked like a culvert.
Earlier, Lol had played the Frome song for Prof, as far as it went. The chorus had written itself, but sounded a bit trite.
The River Frome goes nowhere in particular
It isn’t very wide
There’s nothin’ on the other side…
Pity it was pronounced froom, to rhyme with doom and gloom. Lol had decided he’d still have it sounding in the song like home and loam so as to carry the vowel in that first line: Frome goes nowhere. He was, after all, a stranger.
‘You don’t know enough about the place to finish this song,’ Prof had said flatly. ‘It might be about what a complete loser you are, but you still need some images to carry it. What do you really know about this sodding river except its name and that it isn’t very wide? You ask me, Laurence, it’s time you went to talk to Sally, down at the hop museum. The river, the hills, the woods, the people — Sally knows everything about them all.’
‘Sally?’ Lol had stared at him. ‘You actually know this woman? I thought you had a policy of not knowing local people unless they could play something useful?’
‘It was an accident,’ Prof said.
It was about five-thirty when Lol had set off to walk the half-mile or so from the studio. The white-haired man had been closing the gates at the foot of the drive but had beckoned Lol in anyway. The only visitor they’d had all afternoon, he said. Admission was a pound, and there were a few items on sale inside.
But not, presumably, the Boswell guitar, handmade by the great Alfonso Boswell who had given all his guitars women’s names. The same instrument on which Lol now played the slow and ghostly Celtic instrumental he called ‘Moon’s Tune’… knowing it was going to remind him of the abandoned hop-yard, the place of the wilt, and the woman he’d seen there. He’d dreamed of her since, twice in one night. Not pleasant, though, as dreams went.
Are you all right? Then letting her approach to within a few inches before he slunk bashfully away. Registering by the rhythm of her movements and her blurred smile that she was not hurt, bar the scratches, and had not been attacked or forcibly stripped… was more likely some stoned moonbather who’d assumed she was alone but didn’t really care.
The low-beamed room, one of three linking up to accommodate the museum, was dim and crowded with annotated exhibits that looked at first like junk. These included the hopcribs — hammocks in frames, in which the cones were separated from the bines; the giant sausage sacks called hop-pockets, in which they were collected; a huge cast-iron furnace, rescued from some subsequently converted kiln.
On the walls were blown-up black and white photographs of kilns like Gerard Stock’s, in which the harvest had been dried on platforms over the furnace. The atmosphere in the museum was humid and laden with a mellow, musky aroma that could only be the hops themselves. And because hops were used to flavour and preserve beer it was easy to find the smell intoxicating. It seemed to soften Lol’s senses, made it easier to accept the curious turn events had taken.
He pulled the Boswell guitar comfortably into his solar plexus. The soundboxes of Boswells had curved backs long before Ovations became ubiquitous but, while Ovations were fibreglass, the back of the hand-crafted Boswell was like a mandolin’s. There were probably fewer than a hundred of these instruments, so it had to be worth more than anything else in the museum. But what was it doing here — and did it have anything to do with hops?
Lol played the opening chords of the River Frome song: B minor, F sharp. The tone was entirely distinctive: deep but sharp, a bit like the voice of the man with the long, white hair.
He stopped playing. No… No, really, it couldn’t be. Because he was dead, wasn’t he? He would surely have to be dead, after all this time.
‘Al,’ he said, jabbing a thumb at his own chest. ‘And this is Sally, my wife.’
They stood together in the doorway, looking strangely like a period couple from a sepia photograph. Sally’s hair was ashgrey, fine and shoulder-length. She was tall and slim and, at surely close to the same age as Al himself, still startlingly beautiful. She wore a long, dark blue dress and half-glasses on a chain.
But her handshake was businesslike and her accent clipped and cultured. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘you thought he was dead. Everybody thinks he’s dead. Which is absolutely no handicap at all when we have one to sell. It gives it a certain patina of antiquity.’
‘You like her, then?’ Al Boswell asked him. ‘You like my baby?’
He meant the guitar.
Alfonso Boswell: virtuoso blues and ragtime guitarist and perhaps the most revered, if eccentric, guitar-maker of the past half-century.
‘Can’t believe this,’ Lol mumbled.
‘He’s a little older than he looks.’ Sally Boswell flicked at her husband’s snowy hair. ‘But also he’s been making guitars and things since he was just in his teens, so that rather confuses people.’
‘I wanted to stop,’ Al Boswell said, ‘but after I finished the last one, I awoke in the night with what seemed very like the first twinges of arthritis. Well, I’m a superstitious man, from a long line of superstitious men, so I started work again the very next morning.’
Lol thought of the gypsy caravan outside. According to the legend, Alfonso Boswell would travel the country lanes, selecting and cutting his own wood and then set up his workshop in some forest clearing — each instrument growing organically in the open air, under the sun, under the stars. There would be no more than three or four guitars a year; it was never a full-time job, and he’d also be doing seasonal work on the farms: fruit-picking and… hop-picking?
Looked like Al Boswell had uncoupled his caravan and settled down.
‘And if you didn’t know already,’ Sally Boswell said drily, ‘the Rom are renowned for their outrageous lies. Proud of it, too, for reasons that still escape me after all these years.’
‘Non-confrontational is all we are,’ Al said. His face carried very few lines and his skin was lighter-toned than you’d imagine on a pure-bred gypsy. ‘Amazing, it is, how much conflict can be avoided by a well-timed fib. The truth can be hurtful and dangerous sometimes. Come on, lad, what do you really think of the instrument?’
Lol thought this was getting increasingly unreal. He thought, Why should Alfonso Boswell care what the hell I think?
‘We heard your playing,’ Sally said. ‘We were listening outside the door, I’m afraid.’
‘So you’ll know why I’m not worthy even to tune it.’ Lol was embarrassed. He was still holding the guitar but careful to keep his fingers well away from the strings.
‘How long you been playing?’ Al Boswell asked him.
‘Oh…’ Lol blinked nervously. ‘Since I was a kid with a plastic one. Sad, isn’t it?’
‘It’s not the technique, lad. It’s the heart, the relationship. You know that.’ Al tapped the body of the guitar. ‘This one — she’s very young, you see. She’s the first this year. And she’ll probably be the last, I reckon. What she needs is a good playing-in. I never let one go until she’s been played-in. What do you think, now? Is she worth it?’
‘Oh, Al!’ Sally frowned. ‘You can hardly expect a snap judgement. Why don’t you let Mr Robinson take the thing away for a couple of weeks?’
Al stared at her, then he threw up his arms. ‘Well, damn it, why didn’t I think of that? Aye, you take her away, lad. Break her in. Bring her back in — what shall we say? — September? Unless you want to buy her, of course. In which case we can discuss terms.’
Lol was shocked. He put the guitar carefully back on the stand, stepped away from it.
‘Now what’s that mean?’ Al said. ‘Is it some form of gaujo insult?’
Sally closed her eyes, shaking her head.
‘This is all moving too fast,’ Lol said. ‘I just walk in here, you don’t know a thing about me… I can’t just walk out with six thousand quid’s worth of-’
‘Mother of God!’ Al cried. ‘Is that what they’re fetching now? I’ve never had more than two and a half!’
Sally smiled tiredly at Lol. ‘Mr Robinson, a short time ago, Mr Levin rang us to say you were on your way. Al has known him for many, many years. Mr Levin feels you could use a little inspiration.’ She looked at him over her half-glasses. ‘Don’t, as they say, knock it.’
Al Boswell laughed loudly, threw up his arms and walked out of the museum.
‘He loves his little games,’ Sally explained. ‘They’re mischievous sometimes, like elves. He’s just gone to find you a guitar case.’
She bent to adjust the guitar on its stand. When she straightened up she stood taller than Lol. Where Al Boswell was volatile, Sally seemed watchful and serene.
‘Al owes Prof Levin some favours from way back and wanted him to have a guitar, but Mr Levin insisted that a Boswell should never go to someone who couldn’t play. This is the guitar he was promised. Consider yourself an intermediary in this. Play it while you’re there, if it agrees with you, and then perhaps forget to take it with you when you leave. In a few years, I suppose, it’ll be worth ten or twelve thousand to a collector.’
Lol was still bemused. ‘He recorded with Prof?’
‘Mr Levin would always find Al session work when we needed money. He’s a kind man, and he’s very fond of you. He doesn’t want you to fall by the wayside.’
‘The wayside’s OK, sometimes,’ Lol said awkwardly.
She arched an eyebrow. ‘That’s the sort of thing Al says. But we are not Romanies, you and I. When we fall, we don’t just roll over and land on our feet again, grinning all over our faces.’
Lol was curious. ‘Did Prof know Al was going to be here when he bought the stables?’ I have sympathy for the Romanies, Prof had said.
‘Pure coincidence, actually, although Al knew Simon St John, of course. We’re all parts of interlinked circles, aren’t we?’
Lol wondered how this very English woman had come to link up with Al Boswell, pure-bred Romany, apparently luring him off the road for good.
‘But, according to the Prof, you want to know about the Frome Valley,’ Sally Boswell said. ‘Therefore I want to tell you… because there are aspects of life here which do need to be recorded, and nothing keeps memories flowing onwards like songs. And the Frome flows through that guitar — the vein of yew in it came from prunings from a thousand-year-old tree in Simon’s churchyard and there’s also a little willow from a tree which bends over the river itself. The Romany is ever a discreet scavenger. He lives lightly on the earth.’
She led him into the next room. Hop-bines were intertwined along the beams (silent, but as soon as he saw them he could almost hear them crackling and rustling, and he felt a small shiver). More blown-up photographs were spotlit on the walls: men in flat caps, women in print dresses, berets and head-scarves. People laughing. The strange sadness of frozen merriment.
‘Until mechanization began to take over in the sixties, hop-picking was very much a multicultural phenomenon,’ Sally Boswell explained. ‘Well… four cultures, really: the indigenous locals, the Welsh Valleys, the Dudleys, as we called them, from the Black Country, and the gypsies.’
She told him how, at picking time, in September, the local population would expand eight- or tenfold — perhaps a good thing, leaving the locals far less insular than in other rural areas. The hop-masters would have huge barrack blocks for the pickers, and the pubs were always overflowing — the police constantly back and forth, breaking up the fights.
Lol studied a photo in which the smiles seemed more inhibited and there were scowls among the caravans and the cooking pots.
‘Ah, yes,’ said Sally, ‘when did the travellers ever like to be photographed? They were always a settlement apart, but usually very honest and faithful to their particular employers. They liked being able to return to the same establishment year after year.’
‘Al was here, too?’
‘For a while.’
‘That was how you met?’
‘Romanies can be charming.’ She didn’t smile. ‘Also infuriating.’
Lol peered at a picture showing a girl lying in one of the hop-cribs, laughing and helpless, men standing around.
‘Cribbing,’ Sally said. ‘When the picking was almost over, an unmarried girl would be seized and tossed into the crib with the last of the hops. The unspoken implication was that she, too, might be picked before next year’s bines were high on the poles.’ She looked solemn. ‘Al and I met when I was… drawn to the Romany ways. I’ve been planning to write a book. Well, I was planning to. In the end, I gave all my material to Mr Ash, for his book. I suppose this place is better than a book, in the end. More interactive, as they say. And Al, like most Romanies, is suspicious of the written word.’
‘Doesn’t seem to have done Mr Ash much good either,’ Lol said hesitantly, ‘in the end.’
She looked at him thoughtfully, as if deciding how much to say. ‘No,’ she agreed eventually. ‘Stewart was the last casualty — we all hope — in an unhappy chain of events at Knight’s Frome.’ She nodded towards the next doorway. ‘Go through.’
No hop-bines hung in the third and smallest room. It was also the darkest, with no windows and few lights. A long panel in a corner was spotlit. It was a painting on board, in flat oils, or acrylics, of a stark and naked hop-yard at night, with pole-alleys black against a moonlit sky, a tattered bine hanging from one of the frames. Halfway down the central row, hovering above the bare ground, was a woman in a long dark dress, like Sally’s, billowing in the wind. The caption read: The Lady of the Bines: a ghost story.
If Sally noticed he’d gone quiet, she didn’t comment on it.
‘The hop-farmer’s angel of death,’ she said with a curator’s jollity.
There was a half-smile on the face of the woman in the picture.
‘Who painted it?’
‘I did,’ Sally said.
‘It’s really good. It’s as if-’
‘As if I’ve actually seen her?’ She laughed lightly. ‘Perhaps I have. Sometimes I can imagine I have.’
Lol was glad it was dark in here. This was unreal — the sequel to a dream.
‘I expect there’s a story,’ he said.
‘She was the wife of some local lord or knight — maybe the original knight of Knight’s Frome, for all I know. And she couldn’t give him a son. So he sent her away.’
‘Like you do.’
‘Like you did, apparently. What was the point of having the king give you a few hundred acres of stolen land if you couldn’t found a dynasty? Anyway, he threw her out. Gave her some money to go away, and then settled down with his mistress. But the poor, spurned lady pined for the valley. Pined all night long in the fields and the hop-yards.’
‘Is this true?’ It sounded like the theme of a traditional folk song.
‘Until one morning, one beautiful midsummer morning, with the hops ripening on the bines,’ her voice hardened, ‘they found the poor bitch hanging from one of the frames.’
‘When was this?’
‘Don’t know. No one does. It’s a legend. I suppose, if it had any basis in fact, the story couldn’t have dated back earlier than the sixteenth century because hops weren’t grown for brewing in this country until 1520. The postscript is that, from the night she died, the knight’s hops began to wither on the bines and his yard was barren for many years. And if you see her ghost, then your crop will also wither… or someone’s will.’
Lol recalled the shrivelled old hop-garland hanging from the gibbet-like arrangement of poles. He didn’t want to think about the naked woman in the hop-yard. He found himself wanting her to have been a ghost. Ghosts were simpler.
‘She’s become a metaphor for Verticillium Wilt,’ Sally said. ‘And, before that, for red spiders, aphids, white-mould… all the scourges of the hop. Wilt, particularly, renders a hop-yard virtually sterile for a number of years. Perhaps you should write a song about her, Lol.’
‘It’s a thought,’ he said uncertainly — although he knew he could. If he knew what he was writing about.
‘Perhaps we could have it playing softly in this room.’ Sally Boswell laughed. Lol thought she didn’t seem to have much sympathy for either the knight or the Lady of the Bines.
‘She still seen?’
‘Depends who you believe. It’s certainly said she was widely observed in the sixties.’ She nodded towards a black and white photograph of a man with a heavy moustache, who looked a bit like Lord Lucan. ‘But then, people would say that — in the last days of the Emperor of Frome, when all was darkness and chaos.’
She was poised to go on, but for Lol, the darkness and chaos could wait.
He hadn’t planned to ask it. He just did. ‘Does she always have a dress on?’
Sally Boswell’s face was gaunt with shadows. From two rooms away, there was a skimming of strings: the legendary Al stowing away his creation.
‘What an extraordinary question,’ she said coldly.
Full of Dead People
Muffled sobbing gave way to those time-honoured battle-cries from the generation war.
‘Leave me alone! Just go away! It’s nothing to do with you!’
The clouds were a deep luminous mauve now, and the sky looked like a taut, well-beaten drum-skin through the long window pane in the front door.
It was stifling in the small, rectangular hall with its beige woodchip and wall-lights with peeling coppery shades. Merrily stood under a print in a chipped gilt frame: Christ on the Mount of Olives. Opposite her was a cream door with a little pottery plaque on it.
The door was closed, but its plywood panels were not exactly soundproof. Merrily thought David Shelbone, historic-buildings officer, was unlikely ever to see his own home listed, except as a classic example of 1970s Utility. How did the Shelbones spend their money? Probably on their adopted child? Perhaps long, educational holidays.
‘I… am… not… going… anywhere! Do you understand? There is nothing wrong with me! And… and if there is, it’s nothing to do with you. It’s nothing to do with her. Just get her out of the house. Please. This is… disgraceful.’
Please? Disgraceful? Comparatively speaking, this was a restrained, almost polite response. In extreme situations, kids were rarely able to contain extreme language. You sad old bitch had sometimes been Jane’s starting point, before things got heated.
Hazel Shelbone murmured something Merrily didn’t catch.
‘No!’ Amy screamed. ‘You… How dare you make out there’s something wrong with me?’
‘Amy, do you really think you’d be in any position to judge, if there was?’
‘What do you know? What do you know about the way I feel? How can you understand? You’re not even-’
Merrily willed her not to say it. This was not the time to say it.
Then the unmistakable and always-shocking sound of a slap. Merrily closed her eyes.
An abyss of silence. Jane would have been composing a response involving the European Court of Human Rights.
Amy just started to cry again, long hollow sobs, close to retching.
But this was surely not the first time she’d thrown out the not-my-mother line. There had to be something additional to have provoked Hazel, the seasoned foster-mother, the reservoir. And when I look into her eyes…
With no windows you could open, it was hard to breathe in here. Merrily ran a finger around the inside of her dog collar, walked away towards the front door. She felt like an intruder. She felt this was becoming futile. She looked across into the placidly glowing face of Jesus in the picture, and Jesus smiled, in His knowing way.
Merrily closed her eyes again, let her arms fall to her sides, stilled her thoughts.
Mrs Shelbone was saying, ‘Oh, my darling, I’m so sorry, but you-’
‘Go away. Just go away.’
‘We only want to-’
‘You can’t help me. Nobody can help me.’
‘The Good Lord can help you, Amy.’
Another silence. No sniffles, no whimpers. Then, as Merrily straightened up, Amy said,
‘There’s no such thing as a Good Lord, you stupid woman.’
‘It’s all just a sick, horrible joke! There’s nobody out there who can protect us. Or if… if God exists, he just totally hates us. He watches us suffer and die and he doesn’t do a thing to help us. He doesn’t help us, ever, ever, ever! He enjoys watching us suffer. You can plead and plead and plead, and you can say your prayers till you’re b-blue in the face and nobody’s going to ever save you. It’s all a horrible sick lie! And the Church is just a big… a big cover-up. It’s all smelly and musty and horrible and it’s full of dead people, and I don’t… I don’t want to die in-’
Merrily leaned back against the wall. Christ gave her a sad smile. The door of Amy’s Room opened. Hazel Shelbone stood there, stone-faced. ‘Mrs Watkins? Would you mind-?’
‘Don’t you dare bring her in here! I’m not talking to her, do you understand?’
Merrily took a step back along the hall. Something had happened to this kid. If not a sneering boyfriend, what about some cool, compelling atheistic teacher?
She whispered, ‘Hazel, I… think, on the whole, it might be better if Amy came out, and-’
‘I’m warning you, if she comes in here I’ll smash the window. Do you hear me? I’ll smash the window and I’ll get out of here for good! I’ll throw the chair through the window. Can you hear-?’
‘I’m sorry.’ Mrs Shelbone pulled the door closed behind her, new lines and hollows showing in her wide, honest face. ‘I don’t know what to do. She’s never been quite like this before, I swear to you.’
‘You just keep lying to me. Lies, lies, lies!’
Merrily opened the front door and stepped down to the flagged garden path, followed by Amy’s mother.
The bungalow was detached but fairly small, with a bay window each side of the door. There were other houses and bungalows either side of the country lane, well separated, with high hedges and gardens crowded with trees and bushes.
The sky was the colour of a cemetery. In contrast, a small yellow sports car, parked half up on the grass verge, looked indecently lurid.
‘Hazel, what does she mean by lies?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve told you, this is not my Amy. I don’t know how she can say these things about God.’
But she looked away as she spoke, and Merrily thought perhaps she did know… knew something, anyway.
‘What’s she been like at school?’
‘Well behaved, always well behaved. Her teachers have nothing but praise for her.’
‘Do you know her teachers?’
‘Most of them. We’ve always made it our business to know them. As good parents.’
‘What about her friends?’
‘She’s…’ A sigh. ‘She’s never had many friends. She’s very conscientious, she studies hard. She’s always felt she had to, because… well, she’s bright, but she’s no genius. Because she’s adopted, I think she feels she has to make it up to us. Make us proud, do you see? Good children, children who study hard, they aren’t always very popular at school these days, are they?’
‘Has she been bullied, do you think? Picked on?’
But after that one small confidence, Mrs Shelbone had tightened up again. ‘Look, Reverend Watkins, this isn’t what I expected at all. I think she needs an infusion of God’s love, not all sorts of questions.’
Merrily sighed. ‘I’ll be honest with you. I’m not really sure how to handle this. Can’t take it any further without talking to her, and if I go in there, it’s likely to cause a scene, isn’t it? The last thing I want is to upset her any more. I mean… I suppose I could start by taking off the dog collar.’
Mrs Shelbone’s brown eyes hardened. ‘What’s the point of that? You’re a priest. Aren’t you?’
Merrily stared hopelessly at the close-mown lawn, at the well-weeded flowerbeds. Demonic evil was something you could sense, like a disgusting smell — sometimes precisely that. The only identifiable odour in this house had been floor-cleaner wafting from the kitchen. All she’d sensed in there were confusion, distress… and perhaps something else she couldn’t yet isolate. But it wasn’t evil.
In the end, all she had — the only universally accepted symptom of spiritual or diabolic possession — was the mother’s suggestion of a sudden, startling clairvoyance.
‘You said she knew things. Things she couldn’t have known.’
‘I’m sorry I said that, now.’ A nervous glance back at the house, as though a chair might come crashing through the window. ‘It’s nothing I can prove.’
‘This isn’t the time, Mrs Watkins.’
‘What kind of… intrusion do you think might be affecting her?’
‘Isn’t that for you to find out? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to-’
‘Help me,’ Merrily said.
Amy’s mother stared over the low hedge, across the lane. ‘The spirit of a dead person.’
Merrily didn’t blink. ‘Specifically?’
There was a movement at the window of a room to the left of the door. The child stood there, not six feet away. She wore a white, sleeveless top. Her fair hair hung limply to her shoulders. She looked maybe twelve. She looked stiff and waxen. The room behind her was all featureless dark, like the background to a portrait. It’s so cold now. There’s a sense of cold. The cold you can feel in your bones.
Merrily tried to attract Amy’s gaze, but the kid was looking beyond her.
She turned. Nothing. Nothing had changed in the lane. There was nobody about; even the yellow sports car was pulling away.
It began to rain — big, warm, slow drops. When she looked back at the bungalow, the girl had vanished.
Hazel Shelbone walked back to the door. ‘My husband will be home presently. I don’t really want him to know you’ve been here. He’s under enough pressure.’
‘I’ll take advice,’ Merrily promised. ‘I’ll be back. I’ll leave you my number but I’ll call you tomorrow, anyway, if that’s all right.’
‘Just pray for her,’ Mrs Shelbone said limply. ‘I expect you can do that, at least.’
No thunder, yet, but the rain was hard and relentless, clanking on the bonnet of the old Volvo like nuts and bolts, turning the windscreen into bubblewrap. Both wipers needed new blades. After a few miles, Merrily was forced into the forecourt of a derelict petrol station where she sat and smoked a Silk Cut rapidly, filling up the car with smoke because she couldn’t open the window in this downpour.
Nothing was ever straightforward, nothing ever textbook.
In the car, behind the streaming windows, she prayed for Amy Shelbone. She prayed for communication to be reopened between Amy and her mother. She prayed for any psychic blockage or interference to be removed. She prayed for the healing of whatever kind of wound had been opened up, by the puncturing of what the kid now evidently believed to be the central lie of her upbringing.
She prayed, all too vaguely, for a whole bunch of whatevers.
With hindsight, if she couldn’t work with Amy, it ought to have been her mother. With extra-hindsight, she and Hazel Shelbone ought to have prayed together before they left the church. Except at that stage, Merrily hadn’t been convinced. She’d needed to see Amy.
And, having seen Amy, having heard her, she still wasn’t convinced.
She could perhaps have persuaded Mrs Shelbone to let her stay until Amy’s dad got home. Perhaps the three of them could have returned to the church this evening and, with Dennis Beckett’s permission, conducted a small Eucharist. Just in case.
In case what?
Six p.m., and she was back in the scullery/office, with the window open and the dregs of the rain dripping from the ivy on the wall. A Silk Cut smouldered in the ashtray. Jane was not yet back from Hereford.
Merrily felt like a cartoon person flattened in the road, watching a departing steamroller.
The phone was life support.
‘It’s the old dilemma,’ she said. ‘Don’t know whether I’m making too much of it, or not enough.’
‘When do we ever?’ said the Rev. Huw Owen. ‘You should know that by now.’
‘Did I tell you? Bernie wants me to set up a deliverance group.’
‘Never liked committees, focus-group crap. But in this case — traps everywhere, folk always looking for some poor bugger to blame when it all goes down the toilet. Do it, I would. Just don’t co-opt a social worker.’
She could picture him in his study in the Brecon Beacons, his legs stretched out, his ancient trainers wearing another hole in the rug. The old wolfhound, her Deliverance mentor, technical adviser to half the exorcists in Wales and the West Midlands.
‘Tell me that last bit again, lass. You asked the mother what she reckoned had got into the girl. And she said…’
‘The spirit of a dead person,’ Merrily said. ‘That was what she said.’
‘Anybody in particular?’
‘That’s what I asked her next, but she didn’t reply. Then she started to backtrack on what she’d said earlier about Amy telling them things she couldn’t possibly have known without-’
‘If they don’t cooperate, you’re buggered.’
‘Basically, you want to know whether they need you or a child-psychiatrist.’
Huw was silent for about a minute. She knew he was still there because she could hear his trainer tapping the fender. No matter how hot it was, he always kept a small fire going. Not that it could ever get over-hot in a rectory well above the snowline.
Outside a late sun was blearily pushing aside the blankets of cloud.
‘Got a favourite coin?’ Huw said at last.
Merrily’s heart sank.
‘Well?’ said Huw.
‘When you told us about this on the first course, I thought you were kidding. Then I read Martin Israel on exorcism, but I still think-’
‘Stop shaking your head, lass. I’ve done it a few times. It’s always worked — far as I could tell. It either tells you what you already knew or it tells you to think again. And once you start thinking again, you find some new angle you hadn’t noticed and that’s the way ahead.’
‘I wouldn’t have the bottle.’
‘Aye, you would. Take an owd coin and bless it and explain to God what you’re doing. I use this old half-crown. Not legal tender any more, therefore not filthy lucre. I keep it in the bottom of a candleholder on the altar.’
Merrily imagined some hapless parishioner wandering in and witnessing the Rev. Owen apparently settling some vexed spiritual issue on the toss of a coin. It could overturn your entire belief-structure.
‘Course, it’s nowt to do with the coin,’ Huw said.
‘Any more than the Tarot is to do with the cards.’
‘Don’t go fundamentalist on me, lass.’
‘Look at Israel — a scientist, a distinguished pathologist. And they made him exorcist for the City of London. What d’you want? Oh aye, I know what you want. You want summat foolproof. You want a solution on a plate.’
‘A second opinion would do.’
‘If you don’t like the cold, come out of the mortuary.’
‘Thanks a bunch.’
‘Any time,’ said Huw.
‘Look, luv, give yourself some credit, eh? I’d’ve kicked you out of the bloody ring meself if I didn’t think you were a contender.’
‘That were only before you got your little feet under t’table. Listen, trust your feelings and your common sense. If you want a second opinion, ask Him, not me. Like the song says, make a deal with God.’
‘You’re a complete bastard, Huw.’
Then she remembered that he actually was: born in a little bwthyn halfway up Pen-y-fan and then his mother escaped to Sheffield where he was raised, after a fashion.
‘Sorry,’ Merrily said.
At least Jane looked happier when she came into the kitchen. She’d been saving up the money she’d earned working two Saturdays a month at the Eight-till-Late shop, and she was loaded with parcels: clothes for the holiday. No alluring night-wear, Merrily hoped — though, from what she’d heard about Eirion’s father’s extended family, nocturnal recreational opportunities were likely to be seriously limited.
A small carrier bag landed in her lap.
‘It’s a top. It’s for you. You never get yourself any new clothes.’
‘Gosh, flower… that’s very…’ Merrily pulled it out of the bag. It was pale orange, cotton, very skimpy. ‘It’s going to be, er, how can I put this… slightly low-cut, isn’t it?’
‘Won’t go with the dog collar, if that’s what you mean,’ Jane said smugly.
‘Well… thank you.’ Merrily put the top back in its bag. ‘Thank you very much. It was very thoughtful.’
‘If you don’t wear it, I’ll be seriously offended,’ Jane said. ‘It’s going to be a long, hot summer.’
‘That’s what we always say, and it never is.’
‘Yeah.’ Jane sat down, stretched her bare arms. ‘I expect Lol’ll be taking a summer break from his course about now. You do remember Lol?’
‘The greatest living writer of gentle, lo-fi, reflective songs and also a cool, sensitive person in himself.’
‘Yes, flower, I think I remember.’
‘No, all I was thinking was, if you found me an inhibiting presence, this would be a good opportunity-’
‘Thank you, flower, for considering my emotional welfare.’
‘Any time,’ Jane said. ‘Oh, that Amy Shelbone — I remembered — she does go to our school.’
‘I suddenly realized who you meant. Kind of old-fashioned. Always tidy. Bit of a pain, basically.’
Merrily nodded. ‘Mm-mm.’
‘So, is there, like, anything I can help you with?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Merrily said, ‘at this stage.’
‘Sure,’ Merrily said. ‘What time’s Eirion picking you up?’
‘You looking forward to this?’
‘Sure,’ Jane said.
With the kid upstairs, Merrily went into the hall and ran a hand along the top of the tallest bookcase. It was still there, in all the dust, where she’d popped it hurriedly after they’d found it under the bath when they were having — the year’s big luxury — a new shower installed.
It was thick and misshapen, the head of the monarch obscured but Britannia distinct on the other side, also the date: 1797 — over a century after the death of Wil Williams the martyr, Ledwardine’s most famous vicar.
Feeling faintly ridiculous, she slipped the coin into a pocket of her denim skirt.
Stealing the Light
In the early evening, a sinister, ochre light flared over the Frome Valley before the storm crashed in, driving like a ramraider down the western flank of the Malverns.
Although there wasn’t much thunder, every light on the mixing board went out at 7.02 p.m., leaving only Prof Levin incandescent.
‘Some farmer guy comes on to me in the post office in Bishop’s Frome: “Ah, you want to get yourself a little petrol generator, Mr Levin.” These hayseeds! You imagine recording music with a bloody generator grinding away out there?’
‘But think of the amazing effects,’ Lol said innocently. ‘The lights flicker… the tape stutters. Elemental scratching?’
‘Fah! You’re just being flippant because you got a new toy.’
‘It’s your toy. I’m just minding it.’ Lol had been trying to identify the different fragments of tree involved in the Boswell guitar. Here in the studio, its range and depth were incredible.
‘He’s getting it back,’ Prof said. ‘I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but he’s getting it back. They pulled a fast one on me. I said to Sally, “Help the boy if you can. Inspire him.” That’s all I said. So they palm you off with this ridiculous, overpriced-’ He pulled up the master switch so that everything wouldn’t happen at once if the power ever returned.
‘Still… you at least know where you are now, geographically, I would guess.’
‘Well,’ said Lol, ‘I know why Knight’s Frome’s all in pieces.’
Prof sniffed. ‘The Great Lake,’ he said.
‘A moral tale.’ Prof went back to his swivel chair, behind the board. ‘The Fall of the Emperor of Frome — that’s what they called Conrad, behind his back at first, but they say he grew to like it. She told you how the gods turned against him? His problems with the wilt?’
‘Actually, it wasn’t the wilt as such. It seems that Verticillium Wilt only-’
‘Verticillium! That’s the word.’
‘Only really hit these parts in the seventies. It started in Kent, and took a long time, decades, to reach Herefordshire. But there were other scourges before that: red spiders, aphids, white mould. He got them all, like the Seven Plagues of Egypt.’
They were both talking in epic terms, Lol realized, because it had seemed epic: the bountiful legacy of four generations of hop-masters wiped out in about seven years. Conrad Lake was, in effect, the last — and for a while the biggest and wealthiest — hop-master in Herefordshire. His poles and frames had surrounded Knight’s Frome like a great creosoted barrier. Looking like Belsen, Sally Boswell had said disdainfully, like Auschwitz. The estate was big enough when he inherited it, and twice as big when the first disaster struck.
Lol recalled the portrait photograph of Conrad Lake in the third and smallest room at the hop museum, his smile submerged in a heavy moustache. A difficult, greedy and obsessive man, Sally had said, referred to by the locals, behind his back, as the Emperor of Frome. Twice married and both wives had left him, the second taking his infant son. They never divorced; the boy, Adam, was raised by his mother and grandparents in Warwickshire — never again saw his father, who stayed in Knight’s Frome and fought all through the 1970s against the aphids, the red spiders and the white mould. And against the banks, who kept squeezing him, forcing him to sell off his estate piece by piece.
‘Big drama,’ said Prof laconically.
The land had then been bought by various farmers, most of them from outside Knight’s Frome, which explained why there was no real community any more, why so many of the scattered houses were now owned by incomers like Prof. A few of the old hop-yards had been reinstated, but demand was no longer so great, with so many breweries importing cheaper hops from Germany and the USA. Most of it was grazed now. A pity, in a way, Sally Boswell had said, because the deep river loam in the valleys of the Frome and the Lugg was so perfect for hops. And yet, in a way, not a pity at all; it was no accident that the third room in the museum was the darkest, a sober coda to the song of the hop.
But not everyone, it seemed, believed it was over. Least of all Adam Lake, son of the Emperor.
Though the storm had passed and the evening fields were left steaming under a bashful sun, the power failed to return, and Prof announced in disgust that he was going to bed.
‘You give me a call when it’s dark, Laurence… if we’ve got the bleeding juice back. I always work better after dark, as you know.’
Lol watched him stumping across the yard to the cottage, then went back and sat for a while in the studio, trying the River Frome song again on the Boswell, and then, because he felt bad about deserting it, on his faithful old Washburn.
But the song still lacked direction, and after a while he gave up and went out into the luminous, storm-washed evening. As the trees dripped and the air glistened with birdsong, Lol made his first real foray into what remained of the community of Knight’s Frome.
A soggy rug of slurry unrolled from a farm entrance towards the edge of what passed for the centre of the hamlet. Big old trees, oak and sycamore and horse chestnut, were still dripping onto the roofs of stone and timber-framed cottages that sprouted like wild mushrooms. A humpback bridge straddled the Frome, and on the other side of it was the church, sunken and settled as an old barn, and next to it the white-painted vicarage where Simon St John lived.
There was no shop here any more, but a pub survived — a pub created sixty years ago, Lol had learned, out of a row of terraced cottages, to cater for the hop-picking hordes. It hadn’t changed much. There were no friendly signs promising food or coffee, no rustic fort for the kids, just a rotting bench beside the porch.
The pub was called the Hop Devil; on its sign, nothing more demonic than a red and smoking brazier. The sign was hanging from a gibbet at the road end of the dirt forecourt.
It was reassuring to see places like this still in business, but that didn’t necessarily mean you had to go inside. Lol, the sometime folk singer, the traditionalist, was actually wary of country pubs — often the haunts of old men in worn tweeds and young men in stained denims, bruising you with their stares until you finished your drink too quickly and slid away.
As he padded cautiously past the pub, its scuffed and rust-studded oak door creaked open, releasing a richly brackish old-beer smell and also a man in a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, moleskin trousers stuffed into high tan boots. He came loping angrily over the puddles in the forecourt, a tall bloke with mutton-chop whiskers, swallowing his scowl when he saw he wasn’t alone, glancing briefly over Lol’s head.
Lol took a step back into the slurry to avoid having the guy knock him down and walk over him.
‘Needed that storm, I suppose,’ the man called back over his shoulder. He was about thirty-five, with a lean face and a wide, beer-drinker’s mouth. He gave the sky a dismissive glance. ‘Getting too muggy.’
Lol nodded. ‘Was a bit.’
But the big guy appeared to have finished with him, was climbing into a mud-scabbed Land Rover Defender on the edge of the forecourt, and now another voice was curling lazily out of the pub porch.
Prof’s unwelcome neighbour, Gerard Stock, was leaning against the door frame, a whisky glass in his right hand, a roll-up smouldering in his left.
Lol walked over — like he had a choice. The Defender crunched and clattered away through the trees and into the lane, while Stock stood watching it go.
‘Wanker,’ he said. ‘Arsehole.’
Lol realized he was drunk.
‘Wanker strolls in’ — Stock tossed his cigarette into a puddle. — ‘and here’s Gerard Stock sidding at the bar, minding his own. Wanker barks out cursory greeting, then drifts off to the dark end of the bar, engaging Derek, the landlord, in some trivial chat. And all the time, liddle sidelong glances, corner of an eye, wondering whether this is the day to make his move. And Gerard Stock’s just smiling into his glass and saying nothing. And the wanker knows that Gerard Stock knows he’s a phoney liddle arsehole.’
‘I don’t really know too many people around here,’ Lol said. ‘Who was he?’
Stock swallowed some whisky. There was a powerful fug of mixed fumes around him, like, if you struck a match, the air would flare and sizzle.
‘See, I don’t have to talk to people if I don’t want to. It’s a rare skill and I’m good at it, man. I can be very relaxed, very cool, sidding quietly, saying nothing. Liddle-known trick of the trade — people think PR men talk all the time, talk any old shite, but a good publicist has control. Tells you what he wants you to know, when he wants you to know it. Timing. And Gerard Stock, ’case you were wondering, is still a fucking good operator. You coming in, Lol?’
‘Well, I don’t think-’
‘Come ’n have a drink. I’d offer you some spliff, and we could sit out here, chill out, reminisce, but poor old Derek’s very timid, for a country landlord.’ Stock grinned. ‘See, I’ve made you curious. You thought you were supposed to know who the wanker was, and now you want to. You really want to. Technique: I can turn it on, man.’
They were inside the Hop Devil now, small and square and dark as a chapel. The landlord peered out from the shadows around the bar. ‘Sorry, gents, only bottled and shorts. Power’s off, see.’
‘Put your glasses on, Derek, it’s me again,’ said Stock. ‘With a friend. What are we having, Lol Robinson?’
Lol said a half of shandy would be good and Stock groaned. ‘Jesus Christ, no wonder you got yourself out of music.’
‘Have to pay for a pint shandy, I’m afraid,’ the shadowy Derek said. ‘Got to open a bottle of beer, see, and they don’t come in quarter-pints.’
‘And another Macallan,’ Stock said. ‘How long’ve I been here, Derek?’
‘Since just before lunch.’ Derek sighed. ‘On and off.’
After they collected their drinks, Stock steered Lol to a table by the biggest window. The only other customer appeared to be an elderly man with a bottle of Guinness and a copy of the Worcester Evening News he surely couldn’t see to read. Lol made out an inglenook fireplace with a brazier like the one on the sign outside.
‘What’s a hop devil?’
‘Thing they burned coke in. Hop-pickers used to cook their meals over it. You wanna know all this rustic shite, there’s a dear old couple run a hop museum out on the main road. Sold me a hop-pillow.’
He obviously hadn’t discovered who Al Boswell actually was.
‘Supposed to give you a good night’s sleep. Sleep?’ Stock brayed. ‘Fucking hops work like rhino horn. Fact, man. Me and Steph, we’re living in this old kiln, walls impregnated with as much essence of hop as… as the beer poor old Derek can’t pump. My wife’ — Stock swallowed whisky, shook his head and growled, — ‘leaves scratches a foot long down my back. You wan’ see?’
‘I’ll take your word.’ Lol avoided Stock’s eyes, wondering how he could find out what the guy’s wife looked like.
‘Could use some bloody sleep.’ Stock bawled out, ‘Can I sleep here, Derek?’
‘Thought you always did, Gerry,’ said Derek.
‘Gerard, you fucking peasant!’
The old man looked up from the paper he couldn’t see to read.
‘Language, sir,’ said Derek.
‘Derek goes to church, Lol.’ Stock had lowered his voice but not much. ‘Derek listens to Saint Simon’s sermons. Can’t be so pissed, can I, if I can say that? Shaint… Did I tell you I was briefly head of publicity for TMM? For whom Saint Shimon used to record as a young man? Wasn’t so fucking saintly in those days, by all accounts. Shaint Shimon the shirt-lifter-Jesus, that’s an even better one. Shaint Shimon the shirt-’
‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave in a minute, Mr Stock.’
Stock waved an arm in the direction of the bar. ‘I’ll be quiet. Don’t send me home, landlord, I’m too shagged out.’
‘You were going to tell me who that guy was,’ Lol said. ‘The guy with the…’ Putting a hand either side of his face to signify side-whiskers.
Stock beamed. ‘I said, didn’ I? Said I could still do it. You’re curious, yeah?’
Lol sighed. ‘I’m curious.’
‘Liddle shit annoyed the piss out of me, following me in here like that.’
‘You’d already been here about six hours,’ Derek said quietly, ‘before Mr Lake came in.’
‘As if he thought I was going to make the move — that I’d ask him to make me an offer. No chance. No frigging chance.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Lol said. ‘I’m not getting this.’
‘Course you aren’t. I’m about to tell you. Wanker’s Adam Lake. His old man owned Knight’s Frome, more or less. Then lost it. The lot — several farms, this pub, finally even my place, that clapped-out old kiln. Died in penury, well-deserved, by all accounts. And now Adam, the boy-’
‘That was him? With the-’
‘The young squire… the wanker… wants it all back… roots, birthright — the whole, sprawling Lake estate.’
‘Right,’ said Lol. Some of this he’d already had, if less colourfully, from Sally Boswell.
‘Field by field, barn by barn. He’s approaching the buggers who bought land off his old man, one by one, making ’em offers only a complete idiot would refuse. His heritage, geddit? Buying back his heritage. The young Emperor of Frome.’
‘He can afford?’
‘Oh, yeah. Big irony is the liddle shit can well afford. He’s a dot… com… fucking… millionaire.’ Stock spat out the words like cherry stones. ‘Or whatever else they called them ’fore someone coined the term. Adam, we’ve since learned, invested some of his ma’s money, few years ago, in what might’ve appeared at the time to be an off-the-wall software concept proposed by an old university friend… which in fact created the world’s fastest search-engine… at the time. Probably be like a bloody steamroller these days. Sold it off for some obscene sum, and then… Oh, this is boring, it’s not bloody important how the cunt got his millions.’
Lol sipped at his shandy, which was warm. ‘I’m sorry about your wife’s uncle.’
‘Poor old bugger,’ Stock said viciously. ‘Wonder how well he knew the fucking vicar.’
‘That’s it,’ said Derek softly, coming out of the shadows, a bald, middle-aged man with serviceable fists. ‘Out you go, Mr Stock.’
‘Shimon shirtlifter,’ Stock said and giggled into his glass.
Lol couldn’t avoid walking back with him, and for most of the way Stock was talking about his career as a publicist, at TMM and other recording and management companies, and then working solo for book publishers and film and TV companies: outfits that hadn’t known how badly they needed him until they had him on board.
‘And I could do it for Levin, too, man. Doesn’t see it yet, but he will. Poor old guy thinks he’s being cool and enigmatic getting out of London, downsizing, all that shite. Doesn’t realize how soon he’ll be forgotten.’
‘Actually, I think he wants to be-’
‘I could make that hovel of a studio world-famous in six months. A hint here, a line there. I could get Levin on The South Bank Show. Got a good friend at LWT.’
‘Maybe, you-’ Lol gave up. Stock wasn’t the kind of bloke to whom you said: You don’t really know Prof very well, do you?
They left the lane and walked down the track, past Prof’s stables towards the concealed river, under a sky like beaten copper. Gerard Stock raised his face to the sun and it reddened his beard. He looked wide and powerful and ruthless — and yet somehow, Lol thought, unsure of himself, like a Viking on a strange shore.
‘And you, Lol Robinson. Shy boy with the liddle glasses. Very cute, to a certain kind of woman. You were marketable, man. Once.’
Lol said nothing. Stock was talking, the way he had earlier, as if it was all too late for a career which Prof seemed to see as still salvageable. Maybe this was deliberate, to sound him out — or put Prof down.
‘And let us not forget’ — Stock grinned slyly — ‘all those years in and out of the loony bin. Marketable, plus.’ Lol shot him a sidelong glance. ‘Oh, yeah, I know your history. Checked you out soon’s I got home. My business is to know everything about everybody. I am The Man.’
Stock kicked a stone down the track, and then he looked directly into the sinking sun and his voice suddenly sagged.
‘And now — all right — I’m broke. Only cash flow, of course, as we say.’
‘You’ve got the house — the kiln.’
‘Yeah, stroke of luck, there, ’cause we’d been reduced to living in a bloody trailer at the time. Poor old Stewart. Perhaps he should’ve taken the wanker’s offer when he had the chance. You see, buying the kiln back — very, very important to Adam, because that was the site of the original ancestral home.’
‘Conrad Lake’s mansion?’
‘Lord, no, that came later. But this was the original family farm. Twice the size it is now — but not big enough for Conrad, once he was on the up. Built the new place for the new wife, ’bout a mile over the hill there — where Adam lives. All there was left to bequeath to the boy. The old man’d already knocked down half the farmhouse — this is late sixties, when you could still get away with flattening history — just kept the kiln. When he died and the bank or whoever flogged it off, Stewart picks it up for a song.’
They crossed the river bridge, passed between the poplars. And then suddenly the kiln was in view, halfway up a hill — or, rather, part of a conical tower was visible, the tip of its cowl pointing at an angle.
Lol stopped, shocked.
A wall of bright blue corrugated metal concealed the rest of it — the side of some huge industrial building, rising almost as high as the kiln itself. It hadn’t been apparent the other night, except as a patch of shadow that might have been trees or part of the hill. Now, in an area where most of the farms and cottages looked almost organic, its brashness was savage.
Stock watched Lol’s reaction, half-smiling. ‘You like Adam Lake’s barn? There’s another one the other side, even higher. About ten yards away. Man, we’re living in a barn sandwich.’
‘He did that?’
‘Wanker’s land surrounds us. Had the first one put in place after Stewart refused to sell him the kiln.’
‘Can he do that?’ Stock’s fury made sudden sense.
‘Done it, hasn’t he? Yeah, sure he can. Country landowners can throw up whatever kind of monstrosity they want, long as it’s an agricultural building and they can show a need for it. Need. Jesus. You know what those barns are used for? Nothing. They’re empty — great, echoing, empty shells.’
‘He did it just to-’
‘Steal the light.’ Stock was sweating, but he seemed sober now. ‘It’s about stealing the light. You see, this was particularly cruel — though whether Lake was subtle enough to realize that is anybody’s guess — because the old boy was a photographer.’
‘Light being his medium.’
‘Yeah.’ Stock took out his tin to roll a smoke. ‘He loved light. Course, Lake wasn’t trying to force him to sell. He just needed some extra storage facilities for hay and sundry fodder at the extremity of his estate. That’s what he tells you. The cunt.’
‘Didn’t… Stewart make any kind of protest?’
‘Didn’t live long enough, thanks to his good friends, the gypos — those lithe and slippery gypo boys, dear, oh dear. But, yeah, he did make a last, meaningful gesture.’
The path forked — Lol thought this was probably the point at which he’d lost his way the other night — and Stock went to the left and climbed over a stile.
The kiln house was in front of them now. It was built of red brick and was smaller than it had looked by night, and now the full horror of the barn sandwich became apparent. The actual kiln tower, with just one window, was at the front, but most of the other windows seemed to be on the sides, permanently shadowed by industrial metal.
Lol climbed over the stile and found Stock standing on the edge of the field, lighting his roll-up.
‘If you hadn’t guessed, Uncle Stewart’s final gesture was Gerard Stock. Stephie was Stewart’s’ — he coughed out smoke, — ‘favourite niece. Always close to her after her parents split. How’s she repay him? Marries Gerard Stock. Steph’s sweet eighteen, this guy’s twenny years older, smokes a lot of dope, gets both of them busted one time, dear oh dear. And, oh yeah, the clincher: one night Stephie falls downstairs and loses her baby and there’s some internal messiness so there aren’t gonna be any more babies. And this is all Gerard Stock’s fault, naturally. And Stephie, once beloved, gets sliced out of Stewart’s will. We thought.’
They both looked up at the kiln house.
‘Now why,’ said Stock, ‘would the dear old turd-burglar let his beloved home fall into the hands of a man he couldn’t stand the fucking sight of? You’re right. He didn’t bequeath his house to Gerard Stock. He bequeathed Gerard Stock to Adam Lake.’
Stock coughed, then laughed. The sun was sinking fast, and the side of the kiln house facing the nearest barn was already almost black in its shadow.
‘When Lake finds out who inherited, we get a letter from his agent, making an offer. We refuse. That’s when the second barn goes up.’ He nodded at the house. ‘There you go — power’s back on.’
Lights had appeared in two of the windows in the shadowed wall. None of them seemed to be very big windows, Lol noticed, and the Stocks wouldn’t even be allowed to enlarge them because the kiln house would be on the historic-buildings list. Living there couldn’t be easy; it would look like deepest winter all year round.
‘You have to keep lights on all day?’
‘Some. Yeah, we live like moles, but it’s a liddle better than the trailer.’
‘What, even though-?’ Lol broke off. He couldn’t say it.
Stock could. ‘Even though we have our dining table resting on the flagstones where the nice gypsy boys spread Uncle Stewart’s brains?’
He burst out laughing again, but it was shallower this time and soon tailed off. The light that Lol remembered from the other night came on palely below the conical roof of the kiln.
‘Spooky.’ Stock’s cigarette lit up in his rosebud lips, like a spark from the setting sun. He stood with his legs apart, looking like some kind of psychotic troll. ‘It’s a spooky place. You believe in ghosts, Lol?’
Lol thought of the naked woman in the naked hop-yard who, for one icy moment-
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I suppose I do.’
‘I don’t.’ Stock squeezed out his cigarette between finger and thumb and winced. ‘But something needs dealing with.’
Late Saturday afternoon, the vicarage seemed more still and vast than Merrily had ever known it. One woman, seven bedrooms. Even the kitchen was as quiet as a crypt.
Wearing Jane’s old Radiohead T-shirt, she sat down at the table, took out the lumpy old penny from a hip pocket of her jeans, and stared at the blurred woman with the trident. Some broads had all the backbone.
In the dawn-lit chancel, she’d blessed the coin on the altar — and then been unable to go through with the rest, spending the next half-hour on her knees, concluding that she was not a natural psychic and could never imagine herself approaching a state of grace.
And then it had been time to go home and finish the last bits of Jane’s packing and help carry her bags out to the boot of Eirion’s stepmother’s silver BMW, where Eirion stowed it as carefully as if it was the kid’s trousseau and kept looking over his shoulder at Jane, as if to make sure she was still there, his guileless face breaking into the kind of smile that told you everything you didn’t really want to know.
Merrily caught herself thinking he was the sort of guy Jane ought to meet in about ten years’ time, when she’d… been around?
God, it was always so hard. Sometimes you wished they could have some kind of life-experience cell implanted in their brains as soon as they hit puberty.
Jane was being practical, methodical, counting off on her fingers all the things she needed to take — and avoiding Eirion’s eyes, Merrily noticed. Eirion she thought she could understand; Jane was more complex. Jane, she suspected, would always be complex.
Last night, the power hadn’t gone off. They hadn’t managed a proper talk, but what was she supposed to have said, anyway: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do? At about three and a half years older than Jane, she’d been pregnant.
‘You will be OK, won’t you, Mum?’ The kid wore a high-necked lemon-and-white striped top and white jeans. She’d looked about nine.
‘Yes, flower, I’ll avoid junk food, I won’t drink to excess, I’ll observe speed limits and I’ll try to be home before midnight.’ The kid was still looking too serious; her mood clearly did not match Eirion’s. ‘And, erm… I expect you’ll ring occasionally from Pembrokeshire?’
‘Got enough money?’
‘I won’t flash the plastic unless things get really tight, if that’s-’
‘Whatever,’ Merrily said. ‘Do you want to take the mobile?’
They still only had one between them.
‘Your need’s far greater than mine. Besides, it’s supposed to be a holiday.’ Jane picked up Ethel, the black cat, and nuzzled her. ‘A whole month. She won’t remember me.’
‘Of course she will.’
‘Anyway, I can borrow Irene’s phone.’
‘Ring any time. Any time at all.’
‘It’s all in.’ Eirion had closed the boot and stood with his back to the car, his baseball cap hanging from both hands at waist level, obviously trying to control his smile, contain a youthful glee that might be viewed as uncool.
‘Off you go, then, flower.’ Merrily accepted Ethel, popping her down on the lawn, where she lifted a paw and began to lick it, unconcerned. Cats.
Hugging them at the gate, Eirion had felt reassuringly stocky and trustworthy. Jane’s face had felt hot.
Now, Merrily laid the coin on the table, her eyes suddenly filling up, a hollow feeling in her chest.
She was thirty-seven years old.
She wondered sometimes if the kid’s dead father, the faithless Sean, could ever see them. She tried to remember if Sean had ever been remotely like Eirion, but the only image she could conjure up was the range of emotions — dismay, anger, resignation and a final apologetic tenderness — warping his twenty-year-old face on the night she’d told him that something that would turn out to be Jane had been detected.
She walked aimlessly into the echoey hall, looked at herself in the mirror, a good two inches shorter than Jane now. On her, the one-size, once-venerated, Radiohead T-shirt looked as baggy as a surplice.
She thought about taking the coin to the church again. But it wasn’t long after five p.m., and there’d probably still be the odd tourist about. Or worse, a local. The vicar tossing a coin at the altar? It’d be all round the village before closing time at the Black Swan.
On impulse, she went out to the Volvo.
Unfinished business: a surprise visit to the Shelbones in the cool of a Saturday evening. Just happening to be passing.
In the churchyard at Dilwyn, the yews threw big shadows across three women leaving the porch. None of them was Hazel Shelbone, and when Merrily reached the bungalow, there was no car in the drive and the garage doors were open — no vehicle inside.
But as Merrily drove slowly past, she caught a flicker of movement at the end of a path running alongside the garage.
She drove on for about two hundred yards, past the last house in the lane, and parked the Volvo next to a metal field-gate. With no animals in the field, she figured it was safe to leave the car there for a while. She got out and walked back to the Shelbones’ bungalow, where she pressed the bell and waited.
No answer. OK. Round the back.
The flagged path dividing the bungalow and the concrete garage ended at a small black wrought-iron gate. As Merrily went quietly through it she heard a handle turning, like a door opening at the rear of the house. Around the corner of the bungalow, she came face to face with Amy Shelbone, emerging from a glassed-in back porch.
The girl jumped back in alarm, her face red and ruched-up, thin, bare arms down by her sides, stiff as dead twigs, fists clenched tight.
‘Sorry, Amy. I rang the bell, but-’
Amy was blinking, breathing hard. She had on a sleeveless yellow dress. Her thin, fair hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore white gymshoes, not trainers.
‘They’re not here.’
Merrily turned and closed the metal gate behind her, as if the girl might bolt like a feral kitten. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘perhaps-’ Moving slowly to the edge of the path, taking a step on to the lawn.
‘No!’ The kid backed away towards a small greenhouse in which the sun’s reflection hung like a lamp. ‘No! You just keep away from me!’
Recognition at last, then.
‘It’s OK, I’ll stay here.’ Merrily looked down at her T-shirt. ‘It’s my day off. See — no cross, no dog collar.’
Merrily shook her head. ‘Not this time.’
‘You’re trespassing! It’s disgraceful. I’ll call the police.’
Amy backed against the greenhouse, then sprang away from it and started to cry, her shoulders shaking — a gawky, stick-limbed adolescent in a large, plain, rectangular garden.
‘I only want to talk,’ Merrily said. ‘Or, better still, listen.’
‘What would be the point? I’d just have to keep coming back.’
‘People like you make me sick,’ Amy said.
‘So I heard.’
‘Ha ha,’ Amy cawed.
‘I was sick in church once. It’s no big deal.’
Amy looked down at her white shoes in silence.
‘And sometimes I’ve felt God’s let me down,’ Merrily said. ‘You think he’s watching you suffer and not lifting a finger. You think maybe God’s not… not a very nice person. And then sometimes you wake up in the night and you think there’s nobody out there at all. That everybody’s been lying to you — even your own parents. And that’s the loneliest thing.’
Amy didn’t look at her. She walked to the middle of the half-shadowed lawn. The garden, severely bushless and flowerless, backed on to open fields that looked more interesting. Amy stopped and mumbled at her shoes, ‘They did lie.’
‘Your mum and dad?’
‘Yes, they are. They wanted you. Not just any baby… you. That’s a pretty special kind of mum and dad.’
Amy didn’t reply. She was intertwining her fingers in front of her, kneading them, and seemed determined to keep at least six yards between herself and Merrily. With feral cats, you put down food and kept moving the bowl closer to the house. It might take weeks, months before you could touch them.
‘Where are they — your mum and dad?’
Amy produced a handkerchief from a pocket of her frock. A real handkerchief, white and folded. She shook it out, revealing an embroidered A in one corner, and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
‘Shopping,’ she said dully, crumpling the hanky. ‘They go shopping every second Saturday. In Hereford. She can’t drive.’
‘How long have they been gone?’
‘Why do you want to know?’ Amy hacked a heel sulkily into the grass. Then she said, ‘They went off about nine. They always go off at nine. They’ll be back soon, I expect.’
‘And you stayed home.’
‘There was no point.’
It wasn’t clear what she meant. At first, she hadn’t seemed much like the teacher’s-pet type of girl described by either her mother or — more significantly — Jane. Yet there was something that kept pulling her back from the edge of open rebellion, making her answer Merrily’s questions in spite of herself.
‘Could we go in the house, do you think?’
Merrily nodded. ‘OK.’
‘I don’t have to talk to you.’
‘Of course you don’t. Nobody has to talk to anybody. But you often feel glad afterwards that you did.’
Amy shook her head.
‘You used to talk to God, didn’t you?’ Merrily said. ‘I bet you used to talk to God quite a lot.’
The girl’s intertwined fingers tightened as if they’d suddenly been set in cement.
‘But you don’t do that any more. Because you think God betrayed you. Do you want to tell me how he did that, Amy? How you were betrayed?’
‘Have you told your mum and dad?’
‘And what did they-?’ Merrily broke off, because Amy was looking directly at her now. Her plain, pale face was wedge-shaped and her cheeks seemed concave. She did not look well. Anorexics looked like this.
‘I don’t need to talk to God.’ Sneering out the word. ‘God doesn’t tell you anything. God’s a waste of time. If I want to talk, I can talk… I can talk to her.’
Her voice was suddenly soft and reverent. For a moment, Merrily thought of the Virgin Mary.
Over Amy’s shoulder, the lamp of the sun glowed in the greenhouse.
‘Justine,’ Amy whispered.
In the softening heat of early evening, Amy’s lips parted and she shivered. This shiver was particularly shocking because it seemed to ripple very slowly through her. Because it seemed almost a sexual reaction.
Merrily went still. ‘Who’s Justine, Amy?’
Amy’s body tightened up. ‘No!’
‘Get out!’ Amy screamed. ‘Just get out, you horrible, lying thing! It’s nothing to do with you!’
As if she’d been planning this for some minutes, she suddenly hurled herself across the lawn, passing within a couple of feet of Merrily, and into the glazed porch, slamming the door, shooting a bolt and glaring in defiance from the other side of the glass, poor kid.
Three times that evening, Merrily tried to call Hazel Shelbone. Twice it was engaged, the third time there was no answer.
When she’d got home, there’d been a message from Jane on the answering machine. Merrily replayed it twice, trying to detect the subtext.
‘Well, we got here. All of us. The whole family. It’s quite a big place, an old whitewashed farmhouse about half a mile from the sea, near an old quarry, but you can see the sea from it, of course. So it’s… yeah… cool. And the whole family’s here. Everybody. So… Well, I’ll call you. Look after Ethel and, like… your little self. Night, night, Mum.’
Hmm. The whole family, huh?
The shadows of apple trees meshed across the vicarage garden. In the scullery, Merrily switched on the computer, rewrote her notes for tomorrow’s sermon and printed them out. It was to be the first one in — well, quite a long time — that she’d given around the familiar theme of Suffer little children to come unto me. A complex issue: how should we bring kids to Christ? Or was it better, in the long term, to let them find their own way?
Merrily deleted a reference to Jane’s maxim: Any kind of spirituality has to be better than none at all. Dangerous ground.
We never pressed the Church on her, David and I, Hazel Shelbone had said. Never forced religion on any of our children.
Bet you did, really, Merrily thought, gazing out at the deepening blue, whether you intended to or not.
She recalled Hazel saying, in answer to her question about what might have got into Amy, The spirit of a dead person, in a voice that was firm and intense and quite convinced.
Now she had a question for Hazel: who is Justine?
She reached out for the telephone and, as often happened, it rang under her hand.
He said his name was Fred Potter. It was a middle-aged kind of name, somehow, but he sounded as if he was in his early twenties, max.
He said he worked for the Three Counties News Service, a freelance agency based in Worcester, supplying news stories to national papers. He said he was sorry to trouble her, but he understood she was the county exorcist.
‘More or less,’ Merrily admitted.
‘Just that we put a story round earlier,’ Fred said, ‘but a couple of the Sundays have come back, asking for a quote from you or the Bishop, and the Bishop seems to be unavailable.’
‘Let’s see… Saturday night? Probably out clubbing.’
‘What? Oh.’ He laughed. ‘Listen, Mrs Watkins, if I lay this thing out for you very briefly, perhaps you could see if you have any comments. I’ve got to be really quick, because the editions go to bed pretty early on a Saturday.’
‘Go on, then.’
‘Right. This chap’s convinced his house is badly… haunted. He and his wife are losing a lot of sleep over this. It’s an old hop-kiln, a man was murdered there. Now they say they’re getting these, you know, phenomena.’
‘Wow,’ said Fred, ‘it always amazes me when you people say “I see” and “Sure”, like it’s everyday stuff.’
‘Wow,’ Fred said. ‘Brrrr.’
‘Is this person living in the diocese?’
‘Just I haven’t heard about it.’
‘Well, this is the point,’ Fred said. ‘Our friend gets on to his local vicar and asks him if he can do something about this problem. And the local vicar refuses.’
‘Just like that?’
‘More or less.’
‘What did the vicar say to you?’
‘He said, “No comment”.’
‘So what do you think? Do you think it’s a genuine case of psychic disturbance?’
‘Hey, that’s not for me to say, is it? What I wanted to ask you was, what is the official policy of the diocese on dealing with alleged cases of, you know, ghostly infestation, whatever you want to call it. Like, if you get something reported to you-’
‘We help where we can,’ Merrily said.
‘And how common is it for you to refuse?’
‘I didn’t refuse. It’s never been referred to me.’
‘No, I mean-’
‘Let me tell you the normal procedure with Deliverance, which is the umbrella term for what we do. A person with a psychic or spiritual problem goes to his or her local priest and explains the situation, then the priest decides whether to handle it personally or pass it on to someone like me, right?’
‘Do they have to tell you about it?’
‘No. I’m here if they need me. Sometimes they’ll just ring up and ask for a bit of advice, and if it’s something I can tell them I do… or maybe I’ll need to seek advice from somebody who knows more about a particular type of… phenomenon than I do.’
‘So, if I say to you now, have you had a call or a report from the Reverend Simon St John, at Knight’s Frome, about a plea for help he’s received from a Mr Stock…?’
‘No, not a word. But the vicar doesn’t have to refer anything to me.’
‘Even if he’s refusing to take any action?’
‘Even if he’s refusing to take any action.’
‘Doesn’t it worry you that there’s someone in the diocese who’s plagued by ghosts and can’t get any help from the Church?’
Merrily had dealt with the media often enough to recognize the point where she was going to be quoted verbatim.
‘Erm… If I was aware of someone in genuine need of spiritual support, I would want to see they received whatever help we were able to give them. But I’d need to know more about the circumstances before I could comment on this particular case. I’m sure the Reverend St John has a good reason for taking the line he’s taken.’
There was a pause, then Fred Potter said, ‘Yep. That’ll do me fine. Thanks very much, Mrs Watkins.’
‘Whoa… hang on. Aren’t you going to give me this guy’s address, phone number…?’
‘Mr Stock? You going to look into it yourself?’
‘Just for the record, Fred.’
‘Oh, all right. Hang on a sec.’
She wrote down Mr Stock’s address. Afterwards, she looked up the number of the Rev. Simon St John. She didn’t know the man, but she thought she ought at least to warn him.
Lately, everywhere she tried, there was no answer. Jane would explain this astrologically, suggesting Mercury was retrograde, thus delaying or blocking all forms of communication.
… Always amazes me when you people say ‘I see’ and ‘sure’, like it’s everyday stuff.
Merrily gathered up the printed notes for her sermon and walked into the lonely, darkening kitchen.
God and Music
They’d turned Stock’s kiln-house into Dracula’s castle, rearing against the light, looking to Lol very much as it had on that first, milky night, only darker, more brooding.
… BLACK HELL
It shrieked at him from the pile of newspapers in the shop, the top copy folded back to page five. Two other customers bought copies while he was still staring.
You believe in ghosts, Lol?
Christ, he hadn’t seen this one coming, had he? Nobody had, judging from the comments in the shop. ‘I’ve heard of this feller,’ a woman in sweatpants told the newsagent. ‘He’s an alcoholic.’
‘On bloody drugs, more like,’ an elderly man said.
The newsagent nodded. ‘Need to be one or the other to live in that place.’
Whichever, it was a development Prof Levin did not need to know about, Lol decided, driving back from Bishop’s Frome with a bunch of papers on the passenger seat. It was eight-thirty, the sun already high: another hot one. Prof was due to leave for London before ten, his cases already stowed in the back of his rotting Range Rover — Abbey Road beckoning. The unstable virtuoso Tom Storey would already be pacing the floor with his old Telecaster strapped on, spraying nervy riffs into the sacred space.
Lol considered leaving the People in the Astra until after Prof had gone. Not as if he’d notice; all the time he’d been staying here, Lol had never once seen him open a newspaper; it was only Lol himself who was insecure enough to need to know the planet was still in motion.
In the end, he gathered the papers into a fat stack, with the Observer on top, and walked into the stables with it under his arm. He found Prof in the kitchen, connected to his life-support cappuccino machine, froth on his beard.
‘Two things, Laurence. One: when I return, I expect to hear demos of five new songs. No excuses. You get St John over to help. If he don’t want to come, you get his wife to kick him up the behind — metaphorically speaking, in her case, as you’ll find out.’
‘The vicar’s married?’
Prof gave him a narrow look. ‘Why do you ask?’
Prof frowned. ‘Robinson, I can read you like the Sun. Who’s been talking about the vicar?’
‘What was the second thing? You said two things…’
‘The second thing — maybe I mentioned this before — is you keep that bastard Stock out of here. Bad enough he shows up when I’m around, I don’t want him-What? What’s going down? What’s wrong?’
Lol sighed. He didn’t want to pass on Stock’s innuendo about Simon. He unrolled the newspapers: Observer, Sunday Times, People. He handed the tabloid to Prof.
‘What’s this crap?’ Prof held up the paper, squinting down through his bifocals. ‘What am I looking at?’
Lol said nothing.
After about half a minute, Prof peered over the page at him, looking uncharacteristically bewildered, glassy-eyed, as if he’d been winded by a punch from nowhere to the stomach. He put down the paper on the upturned packing case he was still using as a breakfast bar.
‘This man,’ he said at last, ‘is the most unbelievable piece of walking shit it was ever my misfortune to encounter. Is there nothing in his life he won’t exploit?’
There were two pictures, one of them tall and narrow, running alongside the story. This was the Dracula’s Castle shot of the kiln house, doctored for dramatic effect. The other, near the foot of the page, showed an unsmiling Gerard Stock, holding a candle in a holder, his arm around a younger woman with curly hair.
OUR BLACK HELL IN THE HOUSE OF HORROR
by Dave Lang
A terrified couple spoke last night of their haunted hell in the grim old house where a relative was brutally murdered.
And they claimed that a ‘rural mafia’ had condemned them to face the horror alone.
Gerard and Stephanie Stock say their six-month ordeal in the remote converted hop-kiln has driven them to the edge of nervous breakdowns.
But when they asked the local vicar to perform an exorcism, he refused even to enter the house, which is so dark they need lights on all day, even in summer.
The couple inherited the 19th century kiln house near Bromyard in Here-fordshire from Mrs Stock’s uncle, Stewart Ash, the author and photographer who was beaten to death there by burglars less than a year ago.
Since they moved in at the end of last January, the Stocks say they have endured:
creeping footsteps on the stairs at night.
strange glowing lights in an abandoned hop-field at the front of the house.
furniture moving around a bloodstain that won’t go away.
an apparition of a hazy figure which walks out of solid brick walls.
‘It’s become a complete nightmare,’ said Mr Stock, a 52-year-old public relations consultant. ‘Everybody locally knows there’s something wrong in this place, but it’s as if there’s a conspiracy of silence. It’s a rural Mafia around here. And now it looks as if even the vicar has been “got at”.’
Turn to page 2
Prof shook his head slowly.
‘Nah.’ Prof turned over the page and creased the spine of the paper, laid it back on the packing cases next to his coffee cup, contemptuously punched the crease flat with the heel of a fist. ‘Not in a million frigging years. Let me finish this, and then we’ll talk.’
Lol read the story over Prof’s shoulder.
Mr Stock and his thirty-four-year-old wife say the house has proved impossible to heat, and they’ve built up massive electricity bills, running to hundreds of pounds.
And the already gloomy house was made even darker when neighbouring landowner Adam Lake built two massive barns either side of it, blocking light from all the side windows.
Mr Lake has claimed the buildings were necessary for his farming operation.
But Mr Stock claimed the landowner was furious because both they and Stewart Ash had refused to sell him the house and had the giant barns built to make the haunted kiln impossible to live in.
‘Lake showed up here once,’ Prof said. ‘Made me an offer for this place even though it wasn’t part of his old man’s original estate. Crazy. The guy’s as mad and arrogant as Stock. Dresses like some old-style squire twice his age. Campaigns for fox-hunting. Jesus!’
‘I saw him the other night.’
‘He’s a buffoon. And he don’t fully realize the kind of desperate bastard he’s up against — though maybe he does now.’
‘You really think Stock’s making all this up, to try and publicly shame Lake into moving those barns?’
‘Look,’ Prof said, ‘Stock’s on his uppers, right? Suddenly he gets a break; he wins a house. With problems attached, sure, but it’s a wonderfully unexpected gift, and he’s determined to capitalize. He wants the very maximum he can get. He’s gonna use whatever skills he’s got, whatever contacts. What’s he got to lose? Nothing, not even his credibility. What’s he got to gain? Jesus, those barns go, you can add seventy, eighty thousand to the market value of that place.’
‘Why doesn’t he just sell to Lake for some inflated price and walk away?’
Prof opened out his hands in exasperation. ‘Because he is Gerard Stock.’
‘That first barn made poor Stewart’s life into a black hell,’ Gerard Stock says. ‘But he was a stubborn man and refused to give in.’
But Mr Ash’s determined stand was ended the night he surprised two young burglars.
They beat the sixty-six-year-old author to death on the stone floor of his kitchen. ‘I did not believe in ghosts or hauntings, but I’ve often felt Uncle Stewart’s presence in the kitchen,’ says Mrs Stock. ‘I feel his spirit has been somehow trapped in the darkness of this place.’
The Stocks approached the local vicar, the Rev. Simon St John, asking him to exorcize their home.
‘But he didn’t want to know,’ said Mr Stock. ‘He implied that we ought to be looking for psychiatric help. When something like this happens, you become aware of a rural mafia at work. Stewart Ash fell foul of it, and it looks as if we have too.
‘Nobody in the village speaks to us, except other outsiders. I’ve even been refused service in the pub.’
Lol shook his head. ‘He only got thrown out because he was completely pissed and insulting people.’
Prof’s beard jutted. ‘Who was he insulting, Laurence?’
‘Well… Simon. Called him Saint Simon. And other things. Stock said he used to work for TMM when Simon was in a band recording with them.’
‘The Philosopher’s Stone,’ Prof said tonelessly. ‘For your own information, Simon was a classical musician. A session cellist, if you like, and he was brought into this band about twenty years ago. Tom Storey was in it, too, for his sins. I worked with them for a while — for all our sins. It didn’t last.’
‘I think I remember something.’
Prof looked hard at Lol. ‘Whatever you heard, it was probably crap. Whatever Stock said about Simon, you can put it to the back of your mind. For a while, God and music were fighting over Simon, but it was never really a contest. He’s a good man, he loves his music, but he needs his God. And his wife. And whatever else you hear… Simon and Isabel — this is a marriage to die for. You understand?’
‘Whatever you say,’ said Lol, bemused.
‘Of course he refuses to exorcize the house of this despicable scheming bastard! He knows as well as I do that there’s no conceivable basis for this garbage.’
‘Stock asked me if I believed in ghosts,’ Lol said.
Mr Stock added: ‘I never believed in ghosts but after what we’ve witnessed here, it seems to me that the spirit of Stewart Ash cannot rest, even though two young men have been convicted of his murder.
‘I can’t help feeling that the whole truth has not yet come out and perhaps someone in the area knows more than they’re saying.
‘We feel very isolated, but we feel we owe it to the memory of Steph’s murdered uncle to see this through.’
The Rev. Simon St John refused to comment about what he said was ‘a private matter’.
But Hereford’s diocesan exorcist, the Rev. Merrily Watkins, said last night that she would be looking into the case.
‘If I was aware of someone in genuine need of spiritual support, I would want to see they received whatever help we were able to give them,’ she said.
‘Pah.’ Prof tossed the paper to the stained stone flags on the floor. ‘He’s trying to stir the shit. It’s what he does. Now they have to try to shore up this nonsensical crap by calling in some stupid woman who doesn’t know Stock from Adam. And then they wonder why-What’s the matter now, Laurence? What is the matter with you this morning?’
‘Nothing,’ Lol said. ‘That is… I know her, that’s all.’
‘We lived in the same village — when I was with Alison. And then… not with Alison.’
Prof squinted curiously over his bifocals. ‘You know this exorcist, this woman priest? I thought you couldn’t stand priests.’
‘Except for this one, eh? Nice-looking?’
‘She’s…’ Lol thought he was too old to be blushing; Prof’s little smile indicated that perhaps he wasn’t yet. ‘I haven’t seen her in some months. She’s become a friend.’
‘We can all change,’ said Lol. He had a mental image of a small woman in a too-long duffel coat borrowed from her daughter, wind-blown on the edge of an Iron Age hill fort overlooking the city of Hereford. Requiem.
‘My, my.’ Prof stood up and went to rinse his coffee cup at the sink. ‘And see, by the way, that you keep this place in such a condition that we don’t have visits from the jobsworths at the Environmental Health.’ He placed the cup on a narrow shelf matted with dust and grease. He started to whistle lightly.
‘What?’ said Lol.
‘Hmmm. They got room for a mere man, with God in the bed? I don’t think so. Women priests, women rabbis? You ask me, it’s the Catholics got it right on this one.’
‘Not that you’re an old reactionary or anything?’
‘Plus, exorcism, that isn’t a game.’ Underneath the cynicism and bluster, Prof was some kind of believer. Lol had always known this. ‘This Stock crap — this is a game…’
‘You’re entirely sure of that, Prof?’
Lol had kept staring at the picture, of Gerard Stock and Stephanie Stock but, like the shot of the kiln, it was printed for effect, her face two-dimensional in the candlelight. It could be, but he couldn’t be sure. And if it was, what did that say about Stock and his alleged haunting?
‘Listen, don’t get involved.’ Prof unplugged his cappuccino machine, began to roll up the flex. ‘You let Stock and Lake get on with destroying each other. Warn the woman priest to keep out of it as well.’
‘You’re taking that thing with you?’
‘Just work on your songs,’ Prof said. ‘Don’t let any of those people into this place — when I’m gone.’
‘I’m just calling to apologize,’ Merrily said to the vicar of Knight’s Frome. ‘I wasn’t exactly misquoted, I just wasn’t fully quoted. They didn’t use where I explained that I couldn’t really comment on a case I knew nothing about and I was sure you must have had good reason for refusing to deal with this guy. So I’m sorry.’
‘Yeah, sure. I mean, that’s fine,’ the Rev. Simon St John said. There was a pause on the line. ‘Sorry… which paper did you say it was in?’
It was gone three in the afternoon. It had been before nine this morning when she’d called into the Eight-till-Late in Ledwardine, on her way back from Holy Communion, to ask if she might have a quick flip through the tabloids — actually missing the story first time, never expecting a spread this size.
‘You mean…’ Merrily sat up at the scullery desk. ‘You mean you haven’t read it?’
‘I don’t see the papers much,’ Simon St John said in his placid, middle-England voice.
‘But you must have known they were going to publish it?’
‘I suppose I had an idea, yes.’
‘Had a-?’ The mind boggled. She tried another direction. ‘Erm… the feeling I get is that this Mr Stock is trying to… get back… at the landowner. Mr Lake.’
‘And also his wife’s uncle, I’d guess,’ St John said.
‘The one who’s dead?’
‘It’s rather complicated.’ He didn’t seem unfriendly, but neither did he seem inclined to explain anything.
Last try: ‘You’ve also been accused of being part of a rural mafia,’ Merrily said.
Simon St John laughed. There was laid-back, Merrily thought, and there was indifferent. ‘I’ve been accused of far worse things than that,’ he said eventually. ‘But thanks for letting me know.’
‘I expect we’ll get to meet sooner or later.’
‘Goodbye, then,’ he said.
It was another of those days: Mercury still retrograde, evidently.
She tried the Shelbones again and let the phone ring for at least a couple of minutes before hanging up and calling back and getting, as she’d half expected, the engaged tone. The implication of this was that someone was dialling 1471 to see who’d called. So maybe they would phone her back.
But they didn’t, and Hazel Shelbone’s excuse that she didn’t want to talk to Merrily while Amy was in the house was wearing thin. Most people now had a mobile, especially senior council officials. Behind that old-fashioned, God-fearing Christianity, deep at the bottom of the reservoir of maternal love, there was something suspicious about this family.
So how was she supposed to proceed? The request for a spiritual cleansing was still on the table. Merrily didn’t think she could just turn away, like Simon St John. Besides, she was curious.
She was finishing her evening meal of Malvern ewe’s cheese and salad when Fred Potter, the freelance journalist, rang again.
‘Before you say anything,’ Merrily said, ‘who alerted you to this story? I mean originally.’
‘Ah, well.’ He laughed nervously. ‘You know how it goes, with news sources.’
‘Yeah, down a one-way street. If someone like me doesn’t disclose something, we’re accused of covering up the truth, while you’re protecting your sources.’ She paused. ‘How about off the record?’
‘Oh, Mrs Watkins…’
‘You know,’ Merrily said thoughtfully, ‘something tells me this won’t necessarily be the last time our paths cross. I do tend to get mixed up in all kinds of things that could make good stories. Who knows when you might-’
‘You’re a very devious woman.’
‘I’m a minister of God,’ she said primly.
The scullery’s white walls were aflame with sunset. She lit a cigarette.
‘All right,’ Fred Potter said. ‘Off the record, it was brought in by our boss, Malcolm Millar. He knows Stock from way back. Stock was in PR.’
‘When was all this? When did you learn about it?’
‘Couple of days ago. Malcolm sent me out to see the Stocks yesterday morning.’
‘So it’s likely they cooked it up between them?’
‘Oh no. I don’t think so. I mean, a ghost story — that’s not something you can verify, is it? I can tell you it’s dead right about how dark it is in there. I couldn’t live in that place. It’s a scandal that this guy, Lake, can just block off someone’s daylight to that extent.’
‘There are laws on ancient lights. It’s one for Stock’s solicitor.’
‘But the press don’t charge a hundred pounds an hour, do we?’
‘What I’m getting at, that’s not our problem, is it? I mean the Church’s. We just come in on the haunting. And if that turns out to be made up-’
‘Please, Mrs Watkins.’
‘I’m not making notes, Fred. I’m just… covering myself.’
‘It’s like asking if I believe in ghosts,’ he said. ‘Maybe I don’t, but a lot of people do, don’t they? Presumably you must.’
‘OK…’ A pause, as if he was looking round to make sure he was alone. ‘He’s a bit of an operator.’
‘He’s been in PR a long time. A lot of PR involves making up stories that sound plausible. If he did want to make up a story, he’d know how to go about it and he obviously knew where to take it. It’s only people close to the media who know that if you want to make a big impact very quickly, you don’t go to a paper and offer them an exclusive, you go to an agency like ours because we can send it all round… national papers, TV, radio…’
‘And the more outlets you send it to, the more money you collect.’
‘Sure, news is a business. But it’s in our interest, at the end of the day, to make sure the story’s sound — or at least, you know, stands up — or else various outlets are gonna stop coming back to us. If you get a reputation for being a bent agency, it’s not good, long-term.’
‘But, bottom line, this probably is a scam.’
Fred hesitated. ‘I don’t know. He’s a bombastic kind of bloke — comes over like big mates soon as he meets you — but underneath… I reckon there was something worrying him. He was really shaky. I mean, when people are quivering and telling you how terrified they are, it could be an act. But when somebody’s got this veneer of cockiness, and something else — call it fear — shows through, that’s harder to fake, isn’t it? Or it could mean he’s got a drink problem or something, I really wouldn’t like to say. You’re not gonna drop me in it, are you? I mean, I’d love to work for the Independent or something, but you’ve got to take what you can get.’
‘Life’s such a bitch, Fred. What did you ring for, anyway?’
‘A follow-up, I suppose, a new line on the story. I mean, you said you were going to look into it…’
‘I didn’t really, though, did I? What I said-’
‘Give me a break, Merrily. I think you’ll find a few papers’ll pick up on this again tomorrow.’
‘Meaning you’ll try and persuade them to.’
‘It’s…’ Fred Potter whistled thinly. ‘It’s a business, like I said.’
‘All right — off the record?’
He sighed. ‘Yeah, OK.’
‘I’m in a difficult position,’ Merrily said. ‘It’s hard for me to move on anything unless the local minister requests assistance. In this case, it strikes me that the local guy, St John, knows exactly what Mr Stock’s up to. So I don’t think we’re going to want to get involved.’
‘But if you do take it any further…’
‘I’ll let you know, promise.’
‘That’s what they all say.’
‘Yeah, but I’m a minister of the Church, Fred.’
‘Hmm,’ Fred Potter said.
Merrily washed up her solitary dinner plate, went back into the scullery and called the Shelbones yet again.
The phone rang and rang, and she just knew the bungalow wasn’t empty. She imagined all three Shelbones standing in the narrow hall, silently watching the base unit quivering. These Shelbones were wearing starched Puritan dress, like the Pilgrim Fathers, and the phone was a dangerous conduit to a bad, modern world that they believed could only do them harm.
She put back the receiver, picked up her cigarettes and lighter and took them into the kitchen, where she put the kettle on. She stood at the west window, waiting for the water to boil, looking out on the twilit garden and the scrum of shadows in the apple orchard where, in 1670, the Rev. Wil Williams, of this parish, was said to have hanged himself to escape a charge of witchcraft. It was claimed Wil had frolicked here with sylphs and fauns. Except it probably hadn’t been so simple.
Merrily recalled Amy Shelbone’s thin body surrendering to that eerie shiver.
Who’s Justine, Amy?
She slid a cigarette between her lips and flicked at the lighter. Nothing happened. Several more flicks raised nothing more than sparks. Merrily took her shoulder bag to the kitchen table and felt inside for matches. Something rolled heavily across the table and fell to the floor.
The room was sinking into the dregs of the day. She put on lights and finally found a book of matches with the logo of the Black Swan Hotel. Its timber-pillared porch stood across the cobbled village square from the vicarage under a welcoming lantern, and she briefly thought how pleasant it would be to wander across there in the dusk and sit in the new beer garden at the back with a glass of white wine.
She sat down at the kitchen table, lit her cigarette and saw, through the smoke, an image of Jane at the front gate yesterday morning. Merrily bit her lip, leaned back out of the smoke, and finally bent and picked up the misshapen penny dated 1797. It must have rolled from her bag, though she didn’t remember putting it in there.
It just kept turning up. Like a bad penny.
If you don’t like the cold, come out of the mortuary, Huw Owen had said mercilessly.
Merrily sat for a while, with Ethel the black cat winding around her ankles, and smoked another cigarette before she left the vicarage.
It was that luminous period, well beyond sunset, when the northern sky had kindled its own cool light show above the timbered eaves of Ledwardine and the wooded hills beyond. The village lights were subdued between mullions, behind diamond panes.
Wearing her light cotton alb, ankle-length, tied loosely at the waist with white cord, Merrily crossed the cobbles and slipped quietly through the lychgate.
The church looked monolithic, rising out of a black tangle of gravestones and apple trees into a sky streaked with salmon and green. In a summer concession to trickle-tourism, the oak door was still unlocked, but she assumed she’d be alone in here; since evensong had been discontinued, Sunday night was the quietest time.
She didn’t put on the church lights, finding her way up the central aisle by the muddy lustre left by dulled stained glass on shiny pew-ends and sandstone pillars. It was cool in the nave, but not cold.
In the chancel, behind the screen of oaken apples, she took out her book of matches and lit two candles on the altar, creating woolly, white-gold globes which brought the sandstone softly to life.
She placed the old penny on the altar, blessing it again.
‘As I use it in faith, forgive my sins…’
It was, she realized now, not a game of chance but a simple act of faith. Of trust. Most priests, in times of crisis, would open the Bible at random, trusting that meaningful lines would leap out, telling them which way to jump.
How different was that to one of Jane’s New Age gurus cutting the Tarot pack?
The difference was Christian faith. There was a huge difference. Wasn’t there?
The candles had hollowed out for her a sanctum of light, with the nave falling away into greyness, along with the organ pipes and the Bull Chapel with its seventeenth-century tomb. The atmosphere was calm and absorbent, the church’s recharging time just beginning. As Jane would point out smugly, this was a site of worship long-predating Christianity. You’re employing some ancient energy there, Mum.
Pre-dating Jesus Christ perhaps, she’d reply swiftly — but not pre-dating God.
Gods. Jane grinning like an elf. And goddesses.
Merrily let the kid’s image fade, like the Cheshire cat, into the flickering air, with its compatible scents of polish and hot beeswax. She knelt before the altar, her covered knees at the edge of the carpet, just within the globes of light.
She closed her eyes and whispered the Lord’s Prayer and then knelt in silence for several minutes, feeling the soft light around her like an aura. She remembered, as always, those deep and silent moments in the little Celtic chapel where her spiritual journey had begun: the moments of the blue and the gold and the lamplit path.
Her breathing slowed. She felt warm with anticipation and dismissed the sensation immediately.
Then she summoned Amy Shelbone.
More minutes passed before she was able to visualize the child: Amy wearing her school uniform, clean and crisp, tie straight, hair brushed, complexion almost translucently white and clear. Amy kneeling at the altar, as she’d been on the Sunday she was sick.
I don’t know anything about her, Merrily confessed to God. I don’t know what her problem is. I don’t know if she’s in need of spiritual help or psychological help or just love. I don’t know. I want to help her, but I don’t want to interfere if that’s going to harm her.
Her lips unmoving. The words forming in her heart.
Her heart chakra, Jane would insist: the body’s main emotional conduit.
Without irritation, she sent Jane away again and put Amy at the periphery of her consciousness, at the entrance to her candlelit sanctuary. She knelt for some more minutes, losing all sense of herself, opening her heart to…
She’d long ago given up trying to visualize God. There was no He or She. This was a Presence higher than gender, race or religion, transcending identity. All she would ever hope to do was follow the lamplit path into a place within and yet beyond her own heart and stay there and wait, patient and passive and without forced piety.
When — if — the time came, she would ask if Amy might join them in the sanctuary.
Three questions hovered, three possibilities: Is the problem psychological, or demonic, or connected with the unquiet spirit of a dead person?
Merrily let the questions rise like vapour, and prayed calmly for an answer. More minutes passed; she was only dimly aware of where she was and yet there was a fluid feeling of focus and, at the same time, a separation… a sublime sense of the diminution of herself… the aching purity and beauty of submission to something ineffably higher.
At one stage — although, somehow, she didn’t remember any of this until it was over — she’d felt an intrusion, a discomfort. And for a long moment there was no candlelight and the chancel was as dark — darker — than the rest of the church and bitterly cold and heavy with hurt, incomprehension, bitterness and finally an all-encompassing sorrow.
She didn’t move, the moment was gone and so, it seemed, was Amy Shelbone. And Merrily’s cheeks were wet with tears, and she was aware of a fourth question:
What shall I do?
Please, what shall I do?
She tossed the heavy old coin and it fell with an emphatic thump to the carpet in the chancel. She had to bring one of the candlesticks from the altar to see which side up it was. But it didn’t matter, she knew anyway. This was only proof, only confirmation.
She held the candle close to the coin. The candle was so much shorter now, the candlestick bubbled with hot wax.
She tossed again.
No possession by an unquiet spirit.
She nodded, held the coin tightly in her right hand, snuffed out the candles, bowed her head to the altar and walked down the aisle and out of the church.
In the porch, it was chilly. The goosebumps came up on her arms.
In the churchyard, it was raining finely out of a grey sky that was light though moonless. Clouds rose like steam above the orchard beyond the graves. It had been a warm, summer evening when she went in, and now-
Now a figure appeared from around the side of the porch, carrying an axe.
One Girl in Particular
The dew on the tombstone was soaking through the cotton alb to her thighs. She had her arms wrapped around herself, one hand still clutching her coin, and she was shivering.
Disoriented, she looked up, following the steeple to the starless sky, puzzled because it was so bright up there, yet she couldn’t see a moon.
‘Oughter get home, vicar,’ Gomer Parry said. ‘Don’t bugger about n’more.’
He was leaning on his spade. It was an ordinary garden spade, not an axe, but could be nearly as deadly, she imagined, in the hands of the wiry little warrior in the flat cap and the bomber jacket. So glad it was Gomer, Merrily tried to smile, but her lips took a while to respond. She felt insubstantial, weightless as a butterfly, and just as transient. She gripped the rounded rim of the tombstone, needing gravity.
‘Wanner get some hot tea down you, girl.’ Gomer’s fingers were rolling a ciggy on the T-handle of the spade.
Now in semi-retirement from his long-time business of digging field drains and cesspits, Gomer saw to the graveyard, where his Minnie lay, and kept the church orchard pruned and tidy. Also, without making much of a thing out of it, he reckoned it was part of his function to look out for the vicar. This vicar, anyway. Been through some situations together, she and Gomer. But still she couldn’t tell him why she’d been in the church tonight or what had happened in there.
The colour of the sky alarmed her. It was streaked with orange cream, laying a strange glare on Gomer’s bottle glasses. Merrily pushed her fingers through her hair. It felt matted with dried sweat.
‘Time… time is it, Gomer?’
‘Time?’ He looked up at the sky behind the steeple. ‘All but five now, sure t’be.’
‘Five in the morning?’
Her knees felt numb. Strips of… of sun were alight between layers of cloud like Venetian blinds over the hills.
Gomer struck a match on a headstone. ‘That Mrs Griffiths, it was, phoned me. Her don’t sleep much n’more since her ol’ man snuffed it. Reckoned there was some bugger in the church, ennit? Bit of a glow up the east window, see. Vicar? What’s wrong?’
‘It can’t be.’ Merrily was shaking her head, frenziedly. Her face felt stiff. ‘It can’t be. I’ve only been-Gomer, I…’ She clutched his arm. ‘I went in there… maybe an hour ago. An hour and a half at the most. It was about ten o’clock… ten-thirty.’
And then the earth turned.
The molten copper of the dawn sent terrifying pulses into Merrily’s head.
Gomer patted her hand.
‘Young Jane… Her’s gone away, then?’
‘First time you been alone yere, I reckon, vicar.’
‘It was ten-thirty,’ she said faintly. ‘I swear to God, ten-thirty at the latest.’
She remembered then how far the candles had burned down. It couldn’t be.
Six hours? Those few minutes had become… hours?
Her hands were trembling. The penny dropped out of one and fell onto the tombstone where she’d been sitting.
She recalled a blurred Britannia on the coin. Tails.
Gomer lit his ciggy. ‘Needs a bit of a holiday yourself, you ask me, vicar. Pack a case, bugger off somewhere nobody knows you, or what you do. Don’t say no prayers for nobody for a week, I wouldn’t.’
She bent to pick up the coin. ‘I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for dragging you out, Gomer. I really… Maybe I fell asleep or something.’
‘Sure t’be.’ Gomer Parry stood there nodding sagely, patient as a donkey.
She met his eyes. Both of them knew she didn’t believe she’d been asleep in the church, not for one minute of those six hours.
She invited Gomer back to the vicarage, but he wouldn’t come with her. ‘Strikes me you don’t need no chat, vicar,’ he said perceptively. ‘’Sides which, me and Nev got a pond to dig out, over at Almeley. Get an early start. Makes us look efficient, ennit?’
She walked back to the vicarage lucidly aware of every step, the warming of the air, the shapes of the cobbles on the square, the tension of the ancient black timbers holding Ledwardine together.
Back in the kitchen, she looked around the painted walls, as if walking into the room for the first time. Yes, she’d been away for a while, a night had passed. She put the kettle on and some food out for Ethel. The little black cat didn’t start to eat for quite a while, just sat on the kitchen flags and stared at her, olive-eyed, while she drank her tea.
‘I look different or something, puss?’
Ethel didn’t blink. Merrily went upstairs and had a shower hot enough to hurt. She was aching, but she wasn’t tired. She still felt light and unsteady, slightly drunk. But also strengthened, aware of a core of something flat and firm and quiet in her abdomen. Afterwards, she stood at the landing window, wrapped in a bath towel like someone out of a Badedas ad, and watched the morning sun shining like a new penny.
Lifted up or cracking up? State of grace or a state of crisis?
If she’d been seriously stressed-out last night, she could have understood what had happened: the collapse into the arms of God, the acceleration of time, the flooding of the senses.
Like being abducted by aliens.
She started to laugh and went to get dressed.
It wasn’t about stress. It was about the decision to toss a coin.
She put on the grey T-shirt and the dog collar and an off-white skirt. It was Monday, usually a quiet day in the parish. Meetings with the Bishop in Hereford were on Tuesdays.
With the decision to toss the coin she’d broken through something — probably her own resistance. She went quickly down the stairs and into the kitchen, its walls cross-hatched now with summer-morning light. The kitchen clock said nearly eight. Time still seemed to be moving faster than usual. She needed to ground herself. She needed another tombstone to sit on.
She went on into the scullery and sat behind the desk of scuffed and scratched mahogany. She didn’t plan to wait too long before she phoned the Shelbones. She’d ring just once, and if there was no answer she’d drive over there.
Knowing that this time she would get some straight answers.
She’d make the call at 8.45. She went back into the kitchen to make some breakfast, then decided she wasn’t hungry and cleaned the sink instead, scrubbing feverishly. She had energy to spare. Don’t question it. Don’t question anything about this.
Just after 8.35, as she was drying her hands, the phone summoned her back into the scullery.
‘Merrily,’ Sophie said quietly. ‘Can you come in, please — as early as possible.’
Not a question.
‘Yes,’ Sophie said. ‘I’m afraid there is.’
Merrily lit her first cigarette of the new day.
It was the usual battle getting into Hereford, with the hundreds of drivers who just wanted to get through Hereford… and the inevitable roadworks. Not half a mile from the Belmont roundabout, southern gateway to the city, lorries were feeding pre-cast concrete into what used to be Green Belt and would, when completed, apparently be known as the Barnchurch Trading Estate.
Merrily found herself winding up the car window in response to a sudden sensation of the air itself being polluted by human greed, like poison gas.
Don’t let’s get carried away, vicar…
The traffic started to move again, and this time she made it all the way to Greyfriars Bridge without a hold-up.
Hereford Cathedral sat at the bottom of Broad Street, snug rather than soaring. Behind it, the medieval Bishop’s Palace was concealed by an eighteenth-century and Victorian facade that made it look like a red-brick secondary school with Regency and Romanesque pretensions.
This was Administration; it brought you down to earth.
The morning had dulled rapidly and a fine rain was falling as Merrily parked the old Volvo next to the Bishop’s firewood pile close to the stone and timbered gatehouse, the quaintest corner of the complex. The view under its arch was back into Broad Street; you went through a door in the side of the arch and up some narrow stone steps and came out at the Deliverance office, with the Bishop’s secretary’s room next door, from where Merrily could hear people talking — two male voices. She didn’t know what this was about, hadn’t liked to ask on the phone because it had been clear that Sophie was not alone.
Now Sophie appeared in her doorway. She wore a silky, dark green sleeveless dress and pearls. Always pearls. And also, this morning, a matching pale smile. She slipped out of the room, to let Merrily go in.
‘Ah,’ said the Bishop.
The other man, elderly with grey and white hair, didn’t say anything, and Merrily didn’t recognize him at first.
‘We’ll have tea later, Sophie,’ Bernie Dunmore called out, and then lowered his voice. ‘We shall probably need it. Come in, Merrily, take a seat. You know Dennis, don’t you?’
Oh God, it was, too. Since she’d last seen him, Canon Beckett had shed some weight and his beard. He looked crumpled and unhappy.
‘Dennis?’ Merrily went to sit in Sophie’s chair by the window, overlooking the Cathedral green and the traffic on Broad Street.
‘I, ah… imagine you can guess was this is about,’ the Bishop said. He sat across the desk in the swivel chair he used for dictating letters to Sophie, his episcopal purple shirt stretched uncomfortably tight over his stomach. The Bishop was looking generally uneasy. Canon Beckett just looked gloomy, sitting on a straight chair a few feet away, with his back to the wall.
‘Dennis’s presence offers a clue,’ Merrily said.
‘Merrily, did you go to see this girl Amy Shelbone on Saturday evening, when her parents were out?’
‘Well, I…’ Merrily glanced across at Dennis, who was inspecting his hands. ‘I went over with the intention of talking to her parents, actually. They were — as you say — out. But I met Amy in the garden. I tried to talk to her about — obviously you know what about, Bishop. I mean, Dennis has presumably filled you in on the background?’
‘The child behaved in a disturbed fashion during the Eucharist, as well as exhibiting symptoms of what appeared to be clairvoyance, plus personality changes… enough to convince her parents she was being, ah, visited by an outside influence. You, however, seem unconvinced.’
Merrily nodded. ‘She did seem to have turned away from God, but it seemed to me more like disillusion. Or, if there was an influence, then it was an earthly influence.’
‘You didn’t offer the parents any suggestions as to how she might have become susceptible to whatever was influencing her?’
‘I wondered about a teacher, or a boyfriend.’
‘But her mother insisted she didn’t have a boyfriend.’
‘Quite immature for her age,’ Canon Beckett mumbled.
‘The girl went to church with her parents yesterday,’ said the Bishop. ‘Did you know that?’
Merrily raised an eyebrow. ‘No.’
‘Not to Holy Communion this time. To the morning service.’
‘She was all right, then?’
‘Dennis…?’ The Bishop swivelled his chair towards the Canon.
‘She was fine, as far as I could see,’ Dennis said. ‘I kept a close eye on her, obviously. She was a little quiet, sang the hymns somewhat half-heartedly. It seems she and her parents had had a long talk the previous night. After… Mrs Watkins’s visit.’
The Bishop swivelled back to face Merrily across the desk. ‘The child admitted to her parents that she’d been caught up in certain activities involving other pupils from her school. One girl in particular.’
‘Activities?’ Merrily tilted her head.
‘You don’t know about this?’
‘Am I supposed to?’ Was she being naive?
‘Spiritualism,’ the Bishop said. ‘The ouija board. Making contact with… the spirits.’
‘Seems unlikely to you?’
‘It would have, at first. She really didn’t seem the sort. Far too prissy. But then-’
‘Inhibited, strait-laced, unimaginative, if you like. But then, on Saturday night, she said — fairly contemptuously — that she didn’t see any point in trying to talk to God, but if she did want to talk she could talk to someone called Justine.’
‘Her mother,’ Dennis Beckett said.
‘Her real mother. She was adopted by these people. Her real mother was called Justine.’
Merrily closed her eyes, bit her lower lip.
‘The apparent opportunity to talk to one’s dead mother,’ said the Bishop, ‘would, I suppose, be sufficient bait to lure even a prissy child into spiritually dangerous terrain.’
Merrily had come down with a bump that was almost audible to her. ‘I’ve been stupid.’ She felt herself sag in Sophie’s chair.
‘Have you?’ the Bishop said.
‘I should have made the connection.’
‘Why?’ asked the Bishop, a lilt in his voice.
She felt like crying. Driving into Hereford, she’d still felt high, swollen with… what? Faith? Certainty? Arrogance? She’d cast aside her scepticism, opened her heart, broken through — six hours passing like minutes.
Tails. The coin kept coming up tails. She’d been given her answer.
And it wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t any kind of answer. The inspiring and apparently mystical circumstances had obscured the fact that little had been revealed to her. It might even have been misleading.
‘Where did this happen? These ouija board sessions?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘You don’t have to rub it in, Bernie. I don’t know. The kid wouldn’t talk to me.’
The rain was coming harder, rivulets on the window blurring Broad Street into an Impressionist painting. She felt a pricking of tears and looked down into her lap.
‘I really don’t think you do know, do you?’ The Bishop’s voice had softened. She shook her head. ‘Or the identity of the girl who led Amy into these spiritualist games?’
She looked up into his fat, kindly face. His eyes were full of pity.
The room tilted.
‘What are you saying, Bishop?’ She turned on Dennis Beckett. ‘What are you saying?’
Bernie Dunmore shuffled uncomfortably. ‘Your daughter Jane goes to the same school, doesn’t she?’
‘Yes, she-’ It was as if her mouth were full of cardboard. ‘No!’
‘After the service, Merrily, Mr and Mrs Shelbone invited Dennis back to their house, where Amy admitted to Dennis that she’d been lured into what had become quite a craze at Moorfield High School for attempting to make contact with the dead. She said-You’d better relay the rest of it, Dennis, I don’t want to get anything wrong.’
Dennis Beckett cleared his throat. He didn’t look directly at Merrily.
‘Amy told her parents, in my presence, that a Jane Watkins had approached her one day in the playground and told her that a group of them had been receiving messages from a certain… spirit… who kept asking for a girl called Amy. Amy gave this — this Jane short shrift, until the girl told her the woman had identified herself as Amy’s mother, from whom Amy had been parted as an infant. Amy, of course, had always known that she was adopted.’
‘And she was then persuaded to attend one of these, ah, sessions, was she?’ said the Bishop.
‘Which, it seems, proved somewhat convincing — and immensely traumatic, apparently. The child claims she was able to communicate with the spirit of her mother — who gave her some very frightening information. Mr and Mrs Shelbone, however, declined to tell me what this information was.’ Dennis leaned back, as if exhausted, his head against the wall. ‘For which, to be quite honest, I was grateful. Suffice to say that Amy asked the Shelbones certain questions about her birth-mother and then proceeded to give them information about things which they did know but had never revealed to the child. Beginning with the significant disclosure of the mother’s name.’
‘Justine,’ Merrily whispered. ‘Oh God.’
‘They were so shocked to hear her saying these things that Amy could tell at once, from their reactions, that she must be in possession of the truth. All of which was quite enough to reduce both the girl and the parents to a state of absolute dread.’
The spirit of a dead person.
The Bishop said, ‘Did she tell them then, Dennis, about the ouija board sessions? Because-’
‘No, she didn’t. This initial exchange took place immediately following Amy’s… upset, during the Eucharist. When they got home, there was an attempt at a family discussion, which ended rather abruptly when Amy realized that her adoptive parents had concealed this — whatever it was — disturbing information from her. She became resentful and spiteful. She told them she was in contact with her real mother, but she didn’t explain how this had come about. She was, I would guess, behaving in a rather sly way: playing her parents off against her natural mother.’
‘Pretty unnatural mother, if you ask me,’ Bernie Dunmore spluttered. ‘So this, presumably, is what led to the adoptive mother’s request for an exorcism.’
‘Hazel Shelbone didn’t tell me about any of this,’ Merrily said tonelessly. ‘And as for Jane’s-’
‘It was only after Mrs Watkins’s latest visit that Amy explained, somewhat reluctantly, about the ouija board,’ Dennis Beckett said. ‘Which I would imagine carries less kudos than direct personal contact with one’s late mother.’
‘Do we know when the mother died?’ Bernie asked.
‘Not in childbirth, then.’
‘I don’t know, I’m sorry.’
‘Are they still asking for this exorcism?’
‘I was able to pray with the child,’ Dennis said.
Merrily felt the Bishop’s glare this time. More than you were able to do.
‘I think it was sufficient,’ Dennis said. ‘But I’m prepared to go back.’
‘Look…’ Merrily fumbled for words. ‘I… I accept that I probably mishandled this from the beginning. And maybe I shouldn’t even have attempted to talk to Amy when her parents weren’t there. But I can’t accept that Jane’s in any way involved in this.’
‘Merrily,’ the Bishop said, quite gently, ‘I think I’m correct in saying that it wouldn’t be the first time Jane’s exhibited curiosity about things that-’
‘She would not do this.’
There was silence, the two men looking anywhere but at Merrily. The door was open; Sophie, presumably in the Deliverance office next door, would have heard everything.
‘She’s my daughter,’ Merrily said. ‘I would know.’
Bernie Dunmore pulled out a tissue, blotted something on his beach ball of a forehead. ‘You’d better tell us the rest, Dennis.’
‘Amy…’ Dennis Beckett half turned to face the Bishop. ‘I’m afraid that Amy maintains that Mrs Watkins was fully… fully aware of her daughter’s involvement.’
Merrily shut her eyes, shaking her head.
‘And when Mrs Watkins came to see Amy on Saturday evening — when her parents were out — she warned the child very forcibly-’
‘What?’ When her eyes reopened, Dennis Beckett was finally staring directly at her, perhaps to show how much he wasn’t enjoying this.
‘-that she’d better keep quiet about Jane Watkins-’
Merrily sprang up. ‘That’s a complete and total-’
‘-if she knew what was good for her,’ Dennis said.
‘It’s a lie,’ Merrily said.
Bernie Dunmore breathed heavily down his nose. ‘Sit down, Merrily,’ he said. ‘Please.’
When I am involved in the work of deliverance I admit my own ignorance …
‘The lady of the Bines in person?’ The Rev. Simon St John was slumped like a tired choirboy on a hard chair he’d pulled into the centre of the studio floor, his cello case open beside him. ‘Scary.’
He hauled the cello out of its case. It was every bit as dented and scratched as a much-toured guitar. Simon drove the bow over the cello strings, and the sound went up Lol’s spine, like a wire.
‘It was scary at the time.’ He’d decided he had to tell somebody. It wasn’t so long ago that a vicar would have been the very last person he’d have opened up to, but there were aspects of Simon St John that made him more — or maybe less — than what you thought of as a normal clergyman.
Lol had spent the night, as usual, alone in the stables. Prof had said he should move over into the cottage, but he felt more comfortable in the loft room above the studio. All last evening he’d been somehow expecting Stock to turn up, with an explanation of the newspaper story, but Stock hadn’t shown. And then, this morning, when the footsteps sounded in the yard, it had been Simon St John in jeans and trainers, carrying his cello case, looking like a refined version of Tom Petty.
Prof had mentioned that Simon would often drop in on a Monday, to unwind after an entire day of being polite and cheerful to his parishioners. Before moving to Knight’s Frome, he’d been in some bleak sheep-farming parish in the Black Mountains, which thrived on threats and feuds and general hatred and where the vicar was expected to be hard-nosed and cynical.
‘But — am I right? — you didn’t know the story of the Lady of the Bines at the time you saw this woman,’ Simon said.
Lol sat a few feet away, on the hardwood top of an old Guild acoustic amp he’d picked up in Hereford last year. ‘No.’
‘That is quite spooky.’ Simon’s bow skittered eerily across the strings. He winced. ‘And naked, hmm?’
‘And bleeding from superficial cuts, like she’d just run through some spiny bushes or brambles or-’
‘It’s how ghost stories are born,’ Simon said. ‘Give me your chord sequence again. B minor, F sharp…?’
‘Then down to E minor for the intro to the verse.’ This was the River Frome song, for which there were still some lyrics to write.
‘And you made a careful exit,’ Simon said. ‘Wise.’
‘I was thinking drugs, I was thinking witchcraft. I was wondering, should I call the police in case she’s been… you know? But she was… smiling. She seemed relaxed. Have you ever met Stephanie Stock?’
Simon pushed the bow over the strings of the cello in a raw minor key, recoiled. ‘Ouch. I’m just so bloody atrocious these days. No… when he comes to Church — and he’s actually been a time or two recently, the cunning bugger — he comes on his own. She’s a mouse, they say — quiet, goes off to work in Hereford in her little Nissan. Making the best of the dismal place, presumably, when she gets home, because she never goes to the pub with him.’
‘So, what do you reckon?’
‘Dunno, is the short answer. I don’t know what you saw. Why don’t you ring her one night while he’s out? Why were you naked in the old hop-yard, Mrs Stock?’ Simon lifted his bow. ‘No, wouldn’t be such a good idea. Anyway, it doesn’t change my view of the situation. He’s a lying git. “I need an exorcism, Si, soon as you can.” Jesus!’
‘That was what he was asking for when he came here? And you said no.’
‘Damn right. An Anglican exorcism, sanctioned by the Bishop of Hereford, would put God and the Church of England firmly on Stock’s side. Comes to a civil court case, I get called as a witness. Stuff that.’
‘But why would he then go to the papers? Why would he expose himself to public ridicule?’
‘You think that bothers him? He’s a PR man. He knows how transient it all is. News today, chip-paper tomorrow… except in Knight’s Frome. Here, it might send a slow ripple up the river… Still, what’s he got to lose?’
Lol persisted. ‘OK… Prof suggests Stock’s making up the haunting bit to put pressure on Adam Lake to dismantle his big barns and stick them somewhere else. But that still doesn’t quite add up. Getting rid of the barns might put a few thousand on the value of the place. But when you think how many people’d want to live in a house well known as a murder site — and now even better known — at the end of the day, Lake’s going to be the only person really interested in buying it.’
‘All right.’ Simon leaned forward, letting his arms droop over the body of his cello. ‘I’ll tell you what I think, why I think Stock wouldn’t talk to Lake’s lawyer when the first approach was made. I think, in normal circumstances, he’d sell that place tomorrow. He’s a townie, an arch-townie. He hates it here. But I don’t think he can sell. Not to Lake, not to anybody. What did Stock say to you about the reason Stewart Ash left them his house?’
‘He said Ash didn’t bequeath his house to Gerard Stock, he bequeathed Stock to Adam Lake. He wanted to be sure there was someone in that house who wasn’t going to do Lake any favours.’
‘Yeah, but Stock doesn’t do anyone any favours. Especially not someone who’s both dead and stupid enough to leave him a house.’
‘But it was his wife’s inheritance.’
‘His wife does what she’s told. She’s a mouse. What other kind of woman would Stock marry? What I’m trying to suggest to you is that Stewart Ash would never leave his house in the hands of someone like Stock to make sure it didn’t fall into Lake’s hands… if he hadn’t already taken steps to make sure Stock couldn’t sell it, anyway.’
‘You mean some kind of — I don’t know the legal term…’
‘Restrictive covenant. Stock wants us to think he doesn’t want to sell the kiln, when in fact he can’t. I’d put money on it.’
‘It makes sense,’ Lol admitted.
‘It’s the only explanation that does. He’s buying time until he can find some way — legal or otherwise — around it. Maybe the place is going to mysteriously catch fire one night, maybe one of the extra candles he needs to combat the awful darkness topples over. Oh, there are lots of things he could do.’
‘And still emerge looking clean and innocent?’
‘He doesn’t care, Lol, long as he stays out of jail. Look… he wants — ostensibly — to get back at Lake for what he did to the house and to Stewart Ash. He also wants — perversely, it might seem, but not when you get to know him — to get back at Ash for saddling him with a saleable country property that he can’t sell. Which means he’s almost certainly looking at a way of turning the situation into money — maybe even now selling the story, a book, a TV documentary. Something…’ Simon stood up, leaned his cello against the chair seat.
Lol stood up, too. ‘What if you’re wrong? What if he really has got problems in that place?’
‘Why are you so bothered?’
‘Anything to do with your forlorn and possibly unrequited love for the Reverend Watkins?’
Lol sighed. ‘Good old Prof.’
‘Yeah, yeah, he called in at the vicarage before he left for London. And then, lo, she rang me herself. Apologetic, in case she’d said something to the press that might have offended me.’
Lol went still. ‘Merrily?’
‘I truly hope your friend has the sense not to get involved. You don’t have any influence there, I suppose?’
‘I’m a songwriter, Simon. I write songs.’
‘And don’t you go making any silly connections between some doped-up woman and the Lady of the Bines.’
‘Am I allowed to write a song about it?’
Simon made a thoughtful, sibilant sound through his teeth. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth about the Lady of the Bines, OK?’
Lol sat down again.
‘According to the legend,’ Simon said, ‘if you see her, your hops will start to wither before the season’s out. Right?’
‘Once the Wilt hits somebody’s yards, the old codgers in the pub will start muttering about the Lady. You’ll have seen the signs: Keep Out. Danger of Infection. Most big yards have them. The Wilt’s voracious and it can be carried by people just walking in and out of a field. Most people observe the restrictions. Kids, though, are another matter. Always been a problem keeping kids out. And I guess that’s why they made up the story.’
‘Made it up? Who made it up?’
‘They did. I don’t know who, but it’s bollocks, Lol!’ Simon threw out his arms; you could almost see the bat wings of a surplice. ‘The story was made up to scare kids away from the hop-yards. The history of hops in Herefordshire doesn’t go back as far as the days of knights and ladies.’
‘Sally Boswell was spinning me a line?’
‘Maybe she made it up. She’s a clever lady; she’s been around long enough.’ Simon had picked up his bow and was tapping it against his leg like a riding crop. ‘This is the country, Lol. In the country, in certain situations, everybody lies.’
Question of Diplomacy
Although she worked for the Bishop and the Church of England, in essence Sophie Hill served the Cathedral. If you confided in her, only God and those medieval stones would ever know.
She was not exactly a mother-figure — just that little bit too austere — and certainly not an older sister. Agony aunt would probably get closer. Merrily wondered how many perplexed priests in a crisis of faith, or facing divorce or the prospect of being outed as gay had, over the years, consulted Sophie before — or instead of — bishops and deans and archdeacons.
‘Except, I should have done something,’ Merrily insisted. ‘From the start, Huw Owen always used to stress that, regardless of our own opinions, we should never leave the premises without-’
‘Merrily — seriously — how could you?’ Sophie handed her tea in a white china cup. ‘If the girl herself wouldn’t have anything to do with you, and if the mother felt unable to take you completely into her confidence-’
‘She took bloody Dennis into her confidence.’
‘Only because the girl had accused you of threatening her — transparent nonsense which, in my view, throws immediate doubt on her casting of Jane as the instigator.’
Merrily paused, with the cup at her lips. ‘You don’t see Jane involved in this?’
‘There was a time, not too long ago,’ Sophie conceded, ‘when there was very little of which I would have acquitted Jane without a number of serious questions. But no. There’s an element of… malevolence here. Not that I think she was ever malevolent but, with younger children, mischief and maliciousness can be horribly interwoven, and I rather think she’s grown beyond that stage.’
‘Well, thank you.’
‘All the same, you do need to speak to her without delay. Where is she now?’
‘On holiday, with her boyfriend’s-with Eirion’s family. In Pembrokeshire.’
‘Can you contact her on the phone?’
‘If I can’t,’ Merrily said, ‘I’ll be driving down there tonight.’
‘Sophie, I’ve just been accused of menacing a juvenile!’
‘Accused by the juvenile.’
‘I wasn’t aware of Dennis Beckett immediately springing to my defence.’
‘No. But then, Canon Beckett was hardly vociferous in support of the ordination of women.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘I’ll make you a list sometime.’ Sophie pushed the phone across the desk to her.
‘Merrily!’ Gwennan squealed. ‘How marvellous it is to hear from you again!’
They’d spoken twice on the phone but never actually met. She hadn’t met Eirion’s father, either, the Cardiff-based business consultant, fixer, member of many quangos and chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales. Gwennan was his second wife.
‘Erm… I just wanted a very quick word with Jane, please,’ Merrily said. ‘Something she might have forgotten to tell me before she left.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Gwennan. ‘You’ve just missed her. She’s just this minute taken the children to the beach.’
‘What time will she be back?’
‘Oh heavens… I don’t know really. The problem is, Merrily, that Dafydd and I have a lunch appointment in Haverfordwest, so we won’t be seeing Eirion and Jane until tonight. They’ve taken the children out for the day. Isn’t she marvellous with children?’
Merrily blinked. ‘She is?’
‘What I’ll do, I’ll leave a note in case they come back earlier. Though, knowing Jane, she’ll have too much planned for them all. But she’ll definitely call you tonight, I’ll make sure of it.’
‘If you would. It’s nothing vital, just something I need to check. She’s actually looking after the children, then? Young children?’
‘Eight and eleven,’ Gwennan said. ‘She’s wonderful with them. You don’t have any other children of your own, do you? I expect that’s what it is.’
Merrily put down the phone to the sound of heavy footsteps and puffing on the stairs: the Bishop returning, after seeing Dennis Beckett to his car. He came in and closed the door.
‘I’ve told him to keep this to himself, naturally.’
‘Don’t feel you have to protect me,’ Merrily said bitterly. ‘If it turns out to be remotely true about Jane, I’ll be out of here before you can say Deuteronomy.’
‘Merrily, the very last-’ The Bishop glanced around to make sure the door was firmly shut, then sat down opposite her at Sophie’s desk. ‘The very last thing I want is to lose you from Deliverance because of something-’
‘Bernie, if this is true, I’ll have to leave the parish, the diocese… everything, probably.’
‘I’ve told her she has to speak to Jane.’ Sophie placed a cup and saucer in front of the Bishop, poured his tea.
‘It looks like it’ll be tonight before I get through to her,’ Merrily told him. ‘I’ll also need to speak to the Shelbones, of course, but not until after I speak to Jane.’
‘No!’ The Bishop dislodged his cup, splashing hot tea on his cuff. ‘Out of the question. You stay well away from that family. Dennis has prayed with the girl, and that’s enough for the present, as far as I’m concerned.’
‘You can’t say that. Now it’s out in the open, I’m going to have to find out about this ouija-board stuff. If that’s not part of the Deliverance agenda, what is?’
‘What this whole business is, my girl, is a pretty firm pointer to why we need a Deliverance support group, without delay. Jobs like this, it’s like the damned police — you need to go out in pairs to give yourself a witness. Have you even provided me with a list of possibles yet?’
‘Well, at least I’ve eliminated Dennis.’ She took out her cigarettes. ‘Would you mind?’
Sophie frowned, but Bernie Dunmore waved a hand. ‘Go ahead, if it’ll make you think clearer.’
‘Suppose I have a word with the headmaster at Moorfield?’
‘Do you know the headmaster?’
‘Bernie, Jane goes there.’
He coughed. ‘Yes. What’s his name?’
‘I don’t think I’ve met him yet.’
‘You probably won’t.’ Merrily lit a cigarette. ‘He’s an atheist.’
‘Aren’t they all? But, sure, go and see him, by all means. Go and see him in your capacity as a concerned parent — if he isn’t already in the Algarve or somewhere.’
‘I’ll call him for you,’ Sophie said.
‘In a moment, Sophie. Merrily, there’s something else we need to look at, on the other side of the county, as it happens. Sophie, could you get that e-mail? You’ll be glad to know, Merrily, that you’re not the only minister in this diocese facing, ah, flak.’
‘I know.’ Merrily took one more puff on the cigarette and then stubbed it out in the empty powder compact she used as a portable ashtray. ‘That was all I needed, thanks. This would be the vicar of Knight’s Frome?’
‘You’ve read the Sunday paper, then.’
‘I was quoted in it, Bernie.’
‘Yes. Of course you were.’ He wiped a hand across his forehead. ‘I think I need a holiday.’
‘And Sunday wouldn’t be Sunday, at Ledwardine Vicarage, without the People and the News of the World. Anyway, I thought I ought to ring him. He certainly didn’t seem over-worried, and he didn’t ask for any help. I’ve also spoken to the guy who — well, let’s just say a journalist. The inference is that the story was engineered by Mr Stock, for reasons of his own. So my feeling is that Simon St John probably knew exactly what he was doing when he said no.’
Bernie Dunmore’s dog collar disappeared under his chins. ‘Just as you did when you said no to Mrs Shelbone on that first occasion?’
Merrily was silent.
When the Bishop had gone, she stood up to let Sophie repossess her desk.
‘He obviously just wants to keep me well away from Dilwyn.’
‘Oh, more than that, I think.’ Sophie scoured her blotter for traces of ash. ‘If it was anyone other than the Reverend St John, he might have let it go. But I don’t think any of us are entirely sure about Mr St John.’
‘Tell me.’ Merrily sat in the chair vacated by the Bishop.
‘And it’s not simply that he used to be in some sort of rock-and-roll group in the eighties, if that’s what you were thinking.’
‘I wasn’t aware of that. Would it be a band I’ve heard of?’
‘You probably would, but I don’t even recall the name. Nor is it the fact that St John isn’t known for his diplomacy… or the delicacy of his language.’ Sophie’s eyes narrowed under her compact coiffure. ‘Even more profane than you, Merrily, by all accounts.’
‘A Quentin Tarantino priest?’
‘Certainly a troubled priest. Or was. I believe he’s come very close to leaving the Church more than once. He seems to have what you might call an attitude problem. Came to us from Gwent, newly married. His wife’s quite seriously disabled. The vicarage at Knight’s Frome had to be considerably modified before they could move in.’
‘How does that affect his ministry?’
‘Not at all — except by eliciting sympathy from the parishioners. Not that Mrs St John appears to welcome sympathy. I think, in the end, it probably does mainly come back to that question of diplomacy. He tends to be volatile and arbitrary. For instance — and this is the instance the Bishop’s no doubt recalling — he once refused to marry a member of a very well-established local farming family, someone with family graves in the churchyard going back at least two centuries, because he said it was a marriage of convenience and the couple clearly didn’t love one another. He told them to… “Eff off to a registry office”.’
Merrily rolled her eyes. ‘The times I’ve wanted to say that.’
‘But you didn’t, did you?’
‘Only because a, I didn’t have the bottle and b, Uncle Ted the churchwarden would’ve had me on toast. Come to think of it, that comes down to bottle, too, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s simply a matter of tempering one’s responses,’ Sophie said. ‘The Reverend St John tends to form personal opinions about people and act on them. Which is why the Bishop feels it might be advisable in this instance to have a second opinion. There’s also this message — probably the first serious response to your Deliverance website.’
Sophie laid in front of her an e-mail printout.
I am grateful that you were less quick to dismiss my appeal for spiritual assistance than was my local minister. I am assuming you were not misquoted in saying that if you were aware of someone in genuine need of spiritual support, you would wish to see they received whatever help you were able to give them. May I therefore appeal to you as a Christian to at least investigate the situation here before my wife and I are driven to the edge of sanity. May I stress that this is not a ‘wind-up’.
Yours very sincerely,
‘Note where it indicates copies,’ Sophie said.
Copies: Bishop of Hereford, C of E Press Office, The People, BBC Midlands Today, BBC Radio Hereford and Worcester.
‘That explains everything. So, it’s on TV tonight, is it?’
‘They haven’t approached us yet, but I suppose they will. What do you want me to say?’
‘Better say we’ll be talking to Mr Stock. What choice have we got?’
‘You want me to reply to him, too?’
‘I’ll do that.’
‘I don’t envy you any of this.’ Sophie began to put the cups and saucers back on a tray. ‘Your biggest problem’s always going to be sorting out what’s genuine from what’s-’
‘Complete bollocks,’ Merrily said, unsmiling.
‘One can only hope you don’t get on too well with the Reverend St John.’ Sophie started to carry the tray to the sink in the corner opposite the door and then she put the tray down again. ‘If you don’t mind me saying… you seem different.’
‘This is none of my business, but has something happened in your personal life?’
‘I don’t have much of a personal life, Sophie.’ Merrily looked out of the window, over Broad Street. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still mainly overcast, layer upon layer of cloud, fading to amber rather than blue. ‘Actually, something odd did happen, but you wouldn’t thank me for pouring it out right now.’
Sophie nodded and picked up the tray. ‘Whenever you want to talk, I’m here.’
She picked up the e-mail, went into the Deliverance office and switched on the computer to reply to Mr Stock, whose copies list alone revealed his media know-how. Was it still conceivable this man could have a genuine psychic problem?
She wondered if Simon St John had tossed a coin.
The headmaster said it had to be considered heartening to hear of any fourteen-year-old girl who was communicating at all with a parent. Even if the parent was dead.
‘Well, there we are.’ Merrily smiled warmly. ‘Everyone was saying what a complete unbeliever and a rationalist you were. But I had faith — I just knew you’d take it seriously.’
The staffroom had been updated to resemble a kind of scaled-down airport lounge with fitted recliner seats around the walls. There were two computers, a TV set and a video — maybe the teachers played stress-management tapes in their lunch hour. Robert Morrell looked health-club fit in his polo shirt and sweatpants. He’d reacted to hair loss by shaving what was left to within a millimetre of his skull.
‘Put it this way…’ There was a faint smile on his face, but she could tell he was annoyed by her attitude. ‘I’d rate it considerably lower down the scale of antisocial behaviour than marketing drugs in the cloakrooms.’
Morrell was going on holiday with his family tomorrow, which was why the meeting had been arranged for this afternoon, before Merrily would’ve had a chance to talk to Jane. It was clear he would also rather have put it off — probably until next term, when it all might have blown over — but Sophie had enviable ways of dealing with authority figures.
‘However,’ he said, ‘to forestall any accusations of being anti-Christian, I took the liberty of inviting our chairman of governors to sit in. A regular churchgoer, Mrs Watkins.’ He inclined his head to her, patronizing bastard. ‘And, as it happens, a golfing companion of your Bishop’s.’
‘Listen.’ She must have looked pained; like everybody else, he was covering his back. ‘I’m not here to make a big deal out of it, Mr Morrell, I’m just trying to find out what’s happening, who’s involved and if any other kids have been damaged by it.’
‘Damaged?’ A corner of his mouth twisted up; not quite a sneer. ‘Damaged how? Physically? Emotionally? Psychologically?’
She shrugged, reluctant to use a word he would sneer at. Jane despised him for teaching maths, playing electronic Krautrock in his car and joining the older boys for rugby training — his way, the kid reckoned, of getting around the ban on corporal punishment.
Thoughts of Jane made Merrily tense. Maybe she’d still been high from the time-lapse experience, or lack of sleep, but so far she’d managed not to think too hard about the kid’s possible involvement. Now, in this deserted school, with its hostile head teacher, she felt insecure and it seemed altogether less unlikely that Jane had been into some psychic scam.
‘And do you accept the idea of communication with the dead?’ Morrell asked, as heavy footsteps echoed in the corridor outside, like the dead themselves walking in, on cue. Merrily jumped, but Morrell looked relieved. ‘We’re in here, Charlie!’
‘Rob, so sorry I’m-’ The chairman of governors came into the room like someone used to having people wait for him. ‘Oh.’ A leathery face registered unexpected pleasure. ‘I was expecting old Dennis — whatshisname?’
‘This is Mrs Watkins, Charlie. She’s-’
‘I know who she is. She’s the reason Bernie Dunmore spends so much time in Hereford these days instead of walking off some of that weight on the golf course.’ His right hand flashed. ‘Charlie Howe.’
‘Hullo.’ Merrily was letting him squeeze her fingers when she suddenly realized who he was. ‘I think I… may have encountered your daughter.’
‘Yes indeed!’ He beamed. ‘We’re all very proud of Anne.’ His local accent was as mellow as old cider. He wore a light suit and a broad, loose tie. He was in his sixties, had wide shoulders and strong, stiff, white hair in what, in his young days, would have been called a crew-cut.
Charlie Howe: one-time head of Hereford CID, father of its current chief, DCI Annie Howe, the steel angel. Icy blonde with a serious humour deficiency. Merrily searched for family resemblance, could find none at all.
‘She’s done well, Mr Howe.’
‘Youngest head of CID we’ve ever had. She’ll have outranked her old man before she’s finished. Can’t hold you girls down, these days.’ Charlie Howe took a step back to have a proper look at Merrily. ‘My Lord, when I think of your predecessor, old Tommy Dobbs, what a-well, God rest his poor old soul, but what a bloody improvement!’
And she had to smile, not least because this was the kind of sexist remark guaranteed to turn Annie Howe white.
Morrell said, ‘Mrs Watkins believes there’s reason to suspect the school’s become infested with the Powers of Darkness, Charlie.’
They sat at a circular table from which Morrell had discreetly removed a pack of playing cards. ‘You must know,’ he said, ‘that even as the chief executive of this establishment, there isn’t much I can do without knowing the name of either the victim or the instigator.’
Merrily hadn’t felt empowered to name Amy, had revealed only that it involved a girl with a dead mother. She didn’t think Morrell would be able to narrow it down, especially with no staff to consult.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘You asked how the child had been damaged. What you had here was a well-behaved, considerate, hardworking, honest and possibly slightly dull kid who’s turned into someone who is secretive, remote, resentful… and seems to have rejected God while embracing what some people like to call the spirit world. In effect, it seems the dead mother’s become her private support mechanism, to the exclusion of… anyone else.’
‘The way children sometimes find an imaginary friend,’ Morrell said smoothly. ‘To fill a gap in their lonely lives.’
Merrily shook her head. ‘Not really.’
Charlie Howe leaned back on an elbow. ‘Can you believe this young girl might actually be in contact with her mother, Merrily?’
‘I could believe it. But I think it’s more likely to be a contact with… something else.’
‘Like what?’ Morrell’s chair jerked back with a squeak that amplified his outrage.
‘Poor Rob,’ said Charlie Howe, ‘this en’t your world at all, is it?’
Merrily said, ‘When a group of people get together, in a circle — like we are now — with a particular objective in mind, then perhaps that focus of group consciousness could result in — well, it could be like a radio picking up signals. Or maybe like a computer network, and one of the group goes home with a virus attached.’
‘That’s based on science, is it?’ said Robert Morrell.
Merrily shrugged. ‘I’m just telling you it can have harmful effects.’
‘You’re talking about possession?’ said Charlie Howe.
Merrily wrinkled her nose. ‘It’s not my favourite word.’
Morrell said, ‘Mrs Watkins… when I was teaching in Bristol, I used to pass, every day, on my way to work, a former warehouse that sported a large sign proclaiming it to be a Spiritualist Church. A church. Like your own, but less grand. And presumably some of the members of this church had children or grandchildren attending local schools, where the teaching staff were obliged to respect all the various forms of religion, whether Islam or Sikhism or Hinduism or… Voodoo, for all I know.’
‘We’re not talking about religion, Mr Morrell, we’re talking about a bunch of kids hunched up in a cloakroom with an upturned glass and a set of Scrabble letters!’
‘And frankly, as I’ve made clear, Mrs Watkins, I’d have to find something like that a good deal less disturbing than if they were trading their pocket money for pills and then, when the pocket money ran out, clobbering some elderly lady for her pension.’
‘Whoa!’ Charlie Howe put up his hands. ‘Let’s get this into proportion, shall we, folks? I was a copper for nigh on forty years. Sure, I know what drugs can do and I know what some kids’ll do to keep supplied. But I also know, Rob, what… what religion can do. Well, not religion, so much as… well, I don’t know what you’d call it. But I think I know what Merrily’s warning us about, and in my experience it can sometimes lead to offences a sight worse than mugging.’
Morrell’s lips clamped shut. He looked affronted.
‘For instance,’ Charlie Howe said, ‘some years back, I was on the fringe of a very big murder hunt — one that I’m sure we all know about — where the murderer, when he was finally nicked, insisted he’d been told by “voices” to kill a particular kind of woman.’
‘Give me an hour or two and I could find you a dozen or more other cases in the past ten years where killings, serious assaults and God knows what else, with someone acting entirely out of character, have been put down to-’
‘But Charlie, this is-’
‘This is a juvenile. Certainly. But aren’t youngsters more prone to this kind of thing than adults because their imaginations are that much bigger? I’m going to use the word “delusion”, Merrily, for Robert’s sake. And, anyway, we all know that a delusion can be just as real to the person involved. Now if this child’s become antisocial and starts taking advice from what she reckons is her dead mother, then who knows what her so-called mother’s going to advise her to do next? No, I’d be the last to dismiss this kind of problem out of hand.’
Merrily felt like filling the silence with applause. Morrell spread his hands on the table, looked down between them for a moment.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘but what do you suggest we do about it now? The summer holidays have just started. The students are no longer under my jurisdiction. Chances are that, by September, there’ll be some new fad.’
‘The truth of it is,’ Merrily said apologetically, ‘this was supposed to be an informal inquiry.’
‘Nothing formal about me, my dear,’ said Charlie Howe.
‘I was hoping somebody might have some idea about what was going on — like if there were certain kids known to be particularly fascinated by the occult… maybe encouraging or even pressurizing other kids into getting involved. Teachers usually have their noses to the ground.’
‘Tell me,’ said Morrell, ‘have you asked your daughter about this?’
‘She’s… away on holiday.’
‘You see, I’m afraid I really can’t help you. I don’t know anything about any ouija-board sessions. They could very well be happening outside school hours, outside the campus. If you want to give me this girl’s name, we can probably arrange some counselling for her next term.’
‘Or,’ said Charlie Howe, ‘why don’t you ask Merrily to come and give a talk to the sixth-formers? We still have religious education, don’t we?’
‘Social and cultural studies. I’d have to discuss it with my team.’
Merrily pushed back her chair. ‘Well… thanks for listening to me. Although I suspect I’ve wasted your time.’
‘Absolutely not.’ Charlie Howe placed a hand over hers. ‘Emphatically not. Anything that’s affecting the lives of our young people, we want to know about it.’
‘Of course,’ Morrell said.
The car park had a view of playing fields and the distant Black Mountains. Moorfield High, serving scattered villages in north and central Herefordshire, was half a mile from the nearest one and not a church steeple in sight — which wouldn’t displease Morrell, Merrily thought.
Watching the head driving away, the chairman shook his head.
‘It’s his one blind spot, Merrily. He’s a good headmaster in most respects. Knows about discipline. Doesn’t let the little beggars run wild. But he’s an unbeliever. Don’t mind me calling you Merrily, do you, Reverend? I feel I know you, after talking to Bernie.’
‘Whatever’s he been saying?’
‘He just gets anxious about you, poor old devil.’
‘Ah, but he handles anxiety very well,’ said Merrily. ‘It’s part of being a bishop.’
‘You’re not wrong.’ He patted her shoulder, then consulted his watch. ‘Half-four. Fancy nipping over to Weobley for a coffee?’
‘I’d like to, Mr Howe, but I’ve got to… talk to someone.’
‘Charlie. If I can’t be Chief Super any more, I’ll just be Charlie. Least you didn’t call me Councillor Howe.’ He looked sad for a moment, as though his useful life had ended when he retired from the police, which it clearly hadn’t.
‘You’re Chairman of the Education Committee now, aren’t you?’
‘Vice-chairman.’ He put his head on one side, winked at her. ‘As yet. Tell you what, why don’t you come and talk to one of our sub-committees? Tell the beggars a few things they didn’t know.’
‘You think they’d want that?’
‘They never know what they want these days. Think they know what goes on, but they bloody well don’t. I know you’ve got a pretty thankless job. Got to deal with some weird customers.’
‘You’d know all about that.’
‘What, thankless jobs?’
‘I meant weird-’
‘Oh, aye,’ Charlie said. ‘Getting more thankless all the time, policing. I don’t know how they keep going, today’s coppers, with all the restrictions and the human-rights legislation — known criminals laughing at you from behind their slippery lawyers.’
He gazed across the fields towards Wales, sucking air through his teeth. A pillow of cloud lay over the Black Mountains.
‘Your daughter seems to be coping,’ Merrily said.
‘You reckon?’ He looked up at the sky for a moment, as if deciding whether it would be disloyal to take this any further. Then he turned to her. ‘I’ll tell you, Merrily, it was the shock of my life when Anne joined the force. Never told me, you know. Never said a word. Leaves university with a very respectable law degree, moves away, next thing there she is on the doorstep in her uniform.’
‘Not for very long, I imagine.’
‘Oh no. Fast-track, now. Doing undercover work while she was still a PC, out of uniform altogether within a couple of years. Detective Sergeant at twenty-five.’
‘Chief Constable material, then.’
‘Aye,’ Charlie said. His eyes narrowed shrewdly. ‘Don’t get on too well with her, do you?’
‘She tell you that?’
‘No need. When it comes to religion, Anne stands shoulder to shoulder with Brother Morrell. Always been her blind spot.’
‘Hasn’t held her back. Not even in a cathedral city.’
‘No.’ Charlie Howe stood with his legs apart, his back to the horizon. He must have cut an intimidating figure as a detective, framed in the doorway of the interview room. ‘Not as a copper, no.’
Merrily, who’d had two encounters with Charlie’s daughter, didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure she could have got on with Annie Howe if the woman had been Mary Magdalene with a warrant card.
Charlie took out his car keys and tossed them from one hand to the other. ‘Didn’t tell Brother Morrell everything, did you?’
‘I doubt it would have helped. What do you think?’
‘Oh no, you’re quite right, it wouldn’t’ve helped at all. But you wouldn’t have brought him out here in the school holidays if there wasn’t something about this issue that had you particularly worried — now, would you?’
Merrily met his eyes: they were deep-sunk but glittery, playing with her.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I don’t really like this kind of thing. New Age stuff I can put up with — a bit of fortune-telling, astrology, meditation. Trying to contact the dead, that’s unhealthy. Let them go, I say.’
‘And where do the dead go, young Merrily? Heaven? Hell? Purgatory?’
‘Leominster, Charlie. Everybody knows that.’
He grinned. ‘Well, you have a think about talking to my subcommittee. I’ll give you a call in a week or two.’
She stood by the old Volvo and watched him drive away in his dusty Jaguar. She thought she liked him but she wasn’t sure if she could trust him — he was a councillor.
Back in the vicarage, she paused under the picture in the hall: a good-quality print of Holman-Hunt’s The Light of the World. It had been a gift from Uncle Ted, who knew nothing of the lamplit path, and showed Jesus Christ at his most sorrowfully benign. A middle-aged Jesus, laden with experience of humanity at its most depressing.
What am I learning from this? she asked him. Because it seems to me I’m just muddling around, getting up everybody’s noses and not helping a soul.
Summer had never been her favourite season. People expected it to be a time of pleasure: new feathers, cares dropping away like rags. But too often the old feathers refused to fall, and the rags still clung, clammy with sweat.
Inside the house, tiredness came down on Merrily like a tarpaulin. She checked the answering machine — nothing pressing, no Jane — drank half a glass of water and fell asleep on the big old sofa in the drawing room, with Ethel the cat on her stomach.
And dreamed she was back in the church.
It was evening. The sandstone walls were sunset-vivid and the apple glowed hot and red in the hand of Eve in the huge west-facing stained-glass window, and Merrily was standing in a column of lurid crimson light and she could hear her own thoughts as she prayed.
Oh God, please tell me. Is Jane involved in the summoning of the dead? Please tell me. Heads for yes. Tails for no.
Her thumb flicked against old copper; it hurt. The coin rose up sluggishly into the dense air, rose no more than three or four inches and she had to jump back to avoid catching it as it fell. She didn’t see it fall but she saw it land because it appeared dimly on the flags, rolling onto one of the flat tombstones in the floor at the top of the nave, into the gaping, time-ravaged mouth of the skull at its centre.
She peered down, couldn’t make out whether it was heads or tails. She bent over double and the shadows deepened. She went down on her knees and all she could see was a void.
She started to weep in frustration and found she was scrabbling in her bag, buried in the shadows beside the sofa, like a great catafalque in the dreary brown light.
‘Jane!’ She struggled to sit up, clutching the mobile phone to an ear.
‘I… yeah. Of course I’m OK.’
‘Good.’ Jane’s voice was as light and hollow as bamboo.
‘Are you OK?’ Merrily sat on the edge of the sofa, hunched up. The room was dim and felt stagnant. The dull day, deprived of any summer glory, was refusing to go gently and seemed to be sucking out the last of the light like a vacuum pump. The feeling she had was that Jane was not OK.
Jane lay on Eirion’s single bed, watching the last of the light in the sky over the sea. All kinds of emotions were pressing down on her — guilt, regret, some bitterness. But mainly she was furious, and not only at herself.
‘So what did you tell her?’ Eirion whispered.
‘Everything. What could I tell her?’
Eirion had claimed the only bedroom as yet converted from the attic. It had white walls and the smell of new plaster, and even he could only just stand up in here. But the views towards Porthgain and the old mine workings were incredible.
If would be OK, brilliant even, if it was just Eirion and the views and this amazing moist, translucent feel you got in Pembrokeshire, the mystical otherness of the countryside.
Oh, no, she’d been about to say to Mum, the house is top, it’s the family that’s from hell. But she’d wound up playing that down, in the end, because of the guilt. And the fury.
Eirion stroked Jane’s bare arm. ‘You didn’t tell me about any of this.’
‘What was to tell? All kinds of shit happens at school. You put it behind you, don’t you? And when you get back after the holidays it’s all forgotten and there’s a new kind of shit waiting.’
‘So this Layla… is she a genuine medium?’
‘Dunno. She claims to have psychic powers, gypsy ancestry, all that. And she’s certainly got this… charisma’s not the word, it’s more threatening than that. Can there be like negative charisma? I mean, she lays it on, obviously — she’s clearly found that being threatening, looking brooding, that works… gets you stuff. Even the teachers don’t mess with her — I’ve noticed this. Teachers are very polite to her, especially the men. Arm’s-length situation. They are… kind of scared.’
‘You know what that means, don’t you?’
Jane rolled over. ‘Enlighten me, O Experienced One, Mr Been Around, Mr Done All That.’
‘Yeah, OK,’ Eirion said wearily, ‘you’ve made your point.’
‘So what’s it mean? Half the male staff are shagging Layla Riddock?’
‘It only needs one,’ Eirion said. ‘Or maybe she set one of them up and he was just that bit slow saying, “How dare you, young lady?” They’re only human, aren’t they? And then they start gossiping in the staffroom as well, warn each other of the traps — “Let’s be careful out there”.’
‘She’s certainly got Steve on a string, the groundsman guy.’
‘There you go.’
‘But this kid, this Amy… I didn’t realize how far it went, you know? I mean, how could I? Like, OK, she’s Miss Prim, fourteen going on forty-five-year-old spinster, stiff enough to snap any time.’ Jane turned over, leaned across him and clicked on the bedside table-lamp. ‘And she set me up. She’s scared shitless of Riddock so she set me up. All it was, I just happened to be there… and virtually dragged in anyway. I was nothing to do with it. This Amy’s more or less claiming I organized it! And I told Mum the truth, but all the time I’m thinking, why should she believe me this time?’
‘You should’ve told her in the first place, shouldn’t you? You knew that stuff was right in her ballpark.’
‘Oh, come on, Irene, you don’t, do you? You just bloody don’t. Even if it’s somebody you don’t particularly like, unless it’s life and death, you just don’t grass them up. And now Mum could be in some deep trouble over this.’ She sank back, rolling her head on her bit of pillow. ‘She was really pissed off with me. More than she was saying, because whatever I’d done she wouldn’t want to louse up my holiday — she’s cool that way. But I could tell she thought I was going to say it was all total crap, that I didn’t know a thing about it, that somebody had obviously fitted me up, et cetera. She was like totally shattered to find out there was some truth in it.’
‘Sorry,’ Eirion said. ‘I’m not being very helpful, am I?’
‘It’s not your crisis. Maybe I should have noticed how it was with Amy and Layla Riddock. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?’
‘You ever have days you were so scared to go to school you were faking stupid symptoms? Hasn’t happened to me since I was like really young… eleven, twelve. I was quite small then, for my age. Thought I was going to wind up looking like Mum.’
‘Little and cute?’
‘Little is not cute at school.’
‘Always the ones who are just a bit bigger who go for you, isn’t it?’ Eirion said. ‘The ones who’ve maybe been bullied a bit themselves. They do much worse stuff and they get away with it because nobody suspects them.’
‘And you’re just so scared at the time. Adults are like, “Oh, you should stick up for yourself.” But you know they can do anything to you at school, right under the noses of the staff. Like, even if you die, it’s only going to look like an accident! They’re completely outside the law. Nobody out there realizes how totally evil kids can be. It’s like some false-memory thing sets in with adults, and all kids become cute and need protecting. And that’s how you wind up with teenage psychos like Riddock.’
‘When you’re nine’ — Eirion lay on his back, gazing into the darkness of the room — ‘there are eleven-year-olds who’re like… like Charles Manson.’
‘This weird American guy who got people to kill for him. Murdered this movie star and all these rich people, just went into their homes and ripped them to pieces. Manson was claiming to be receiving these psychic messages. And the people who killed for him — who included women — they wrote “pigs” and stuff on the wall in the victims’ blood.’
‘You’re right,’ Jane said. ‘You’re really not being very helpful.’
She wondered if he’d grown up thinking of this guy, Manson, as the ultimate bogeyman because his own family was so damn rich.
There was a knock on the bedroom door.
‘Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!’ Jane reached up and snapped off the lamp. Did they never, never, never go to sleep?
‘Eirion?’ That hated tripping, lilting, little-girly voice.
‘What?’ Eirion called out hoarsely.
‘Ydy Jane yno?’
‘Er… no,’ Eirion replied.
‘Wel, ble mae Jane?’
‘Probably gone to the shop.’
‘Aw, Eirion… ma’r siop ar gau!’
‘That does it!’ Jane swung her legs off the bed. She was wearing her jeans and her lemon-yellow top. She moved across the bare boards to the door.
Eirion was looking anxious. ‘Look, don’t,’ he whispered. ‘Can’t you just let it go?’
Jane stopped at the door and thought for a moment, then smiled. She crept back and lay on the bed. Eirion was sitting on the side of the bed by now, shoving his bare feet into his trainers.
‘Sioned?’ Jane called out in this foggy, slurry voice.
‘Look, would you mind giving us a few more minutes. We’re having sex, OK? Ni’n, er, yn shaggio.’
A wonderfully awed silence.
Eirion kind of crumpled.
‘Again!’ Jane breathed loudly. ‘Harder! Deeper! Oh God…!’
From hell? Oh yeah.
See, most of the ordinary Welsh people she’d met, Jane liked. This might seem like generalized and simplistic, but they seemed kind of classless, no side to them. Contrary to what everybody said, you could have a laugh with them. Look at Gomer Parry.
Look at Eirion, for that matter: chunky, honest, self-deprecating… and this incredible smile that was (as she’d written in a poem she was never going to show him in a million years) like all the birds starting to sing at once on a soft spring morning.
The poor sod. Raised among the crachach.
This was what they were called — the Welsh aristocracy, the top families. A few of them had titles, but most of them were contemptuous of English honours, although — being sharp business people — they were usually incredibly polite to the English people they encountered.
Eirion said his dad, Dafydd Sion Lewis, was some kind of Welsh quango king. He ‘served’ on the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Arts Council, the Wales Tourist Board, the Broadcasting Council for Wales. And he was a major executive shareholder in whatever Welsh Water and Welsh Electricity were calling themselves this week. There was a bunch of them like his dad, Eirion said. The names of the organizations and businesses might change but it was always the same people in control.
Dafydd Sion Lewis was plump and beaming and hearty and, according to Eirion in his darker moments, majorly corrupt.
Gwennan was his second wife, about fifteen years younger. She was a former secondary-school teacher of the Welsh language and now — as a result of being married to the quango king — a key member of the Welsh Language Board, which existed to keep the native tongue alive and thriving.
Not that Jane had a problem with this. She was all for having more languages around: Gaelic, Cornish… anything to keep people different from each other, to create a sense of otherness.
At first, she’d thought that Gwennan, with her two cars and her movie-star wardrobe, was a fairly cool person.
It had taken only one day of the holiday for her to realize what Eirion had already kind of implied: that everything had gone to Gwennan’s head — the wealth, the status, the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. She was now a warrior queen of the New Wales, wielding the language like a spear.
‘Except it isn’t a new Wales at all,’ Eirion had said morosely. ‘It’s the same old place, run by the same old iffy councillors, except they’re now known as Assembly Members, supported by the same old bent financiers, but with this new sense of superiority. Suddenly, they’re looking down on everybody…’
‘Especially the English?’ Jane had suggested.
‘Especially the English because the English don’t have Wales’s unique identity.’
Actually, Eirion said, most of the time he found Gwennan quite amusing. She was essentially superficial and quite naive. And she could be very kind sometimes. When she noticed you.
Unfortunately, Gwennan had come with baggage: Sioned and Lowri, eleven and eight, the little princesses. Bilingual through and through. Pocket evangelists for the language and the culture.
‘No, Jane,’ Sioned would say, wagging her little forefinger until Jane wanted to snap it off. ‘I’ve told you and told you, I’m not doing it unless you ask me yn Cymreig.’
‘You know what I’m really doing here, don’t you?’ Jane said to Eirion when Sioned had gone, presumably to wait for her mother and Dafydd to return to receive the shocking facts. (Was there such a verb as shaggio? They seemed to have converted every other English term coined since about 1750.) ‘You know what I am?’
‘If she says anything, we’ll just simply tell her you were joking,’ Eirion said uncomfortably. ‘Kind of a risque joke to make to an eleven-year-old, mind, but…’
‘I’m the first English au pair in Wales, that’s what I am. Do you realize that?’
Behind the door in the farmhouse kitchen Gwennan had hung an appointments calendar. Every day this week displayed a lunch date for her and Dafydd. Every evening they went out for dinner in St David’s or Haverfordwest, because several of their friends also had cottages in the area. Because the Pembrokeshire coast was becoming like some kind of Welsh Tuscany.
And who had to look after the bloody kids, meanwhile?
‘It’s exactly like being an au pair,’ Jane said with acidic triumph, ‘because I work my butt off for the privilege of learning the fucking language!’
She began to beat the pillow with her fists.
‘I’m sorry!’ Eirion almost sobbed. ‘I genuinely didn’t realize she’d be quite so…’
Eirion was too honest to reply.
It was a big old farmhouse. The first floor had been divided into two sections. There was a separate staircase to Dafydd and Gwennan’s suite; the other staircase led to three small bedrooms: Sioned, Lowri… and Jane in the middle. Most nights the kids fell asleep with their respective boom-boxes still pumping Welsh-language rock through the plasterboard walls either side of Jane’s bed.
Come to think of it, Gwennan and Dafydd were unlikely to be at all put out by the thought of the young master giving one to the English au pair.
Not that he had, yet. The daily and nightly presence of the evil little stepsisters seemed to be intimidating him more than whoever had been his school’s version of Charles Manson.
Stepfamilies: a nightmare.
She’d made the kids’ supper. She’d made them tidy their rooms. She’d made them go to bed at ten p.m. She’d made them go back to bed at ten-fifteen. And in the course of this endlessly crappy evening, she’d been grilled by Mum over the phone and made to feel like shit. At eleven-thirty, probably looking like some totally knackered housewife, she’d followed Eirion up to his attic bedroom and collapsed, fully clothed, onto his bed and poured it all out.
‘Let’s go over it again,’ Eirion said. ‘This Layla and this…’
‘Kirsty.’ Jane moved closer to him, which wasn’t difficult on a single bed.
‘… Find that by staging little seances, or whatever you want to call them, they can wield enormous power over certain kids.’
‘It’s addictive, I reckon. You keep going back, even though you’re terrified. I mean, I’m not terrified — OK, maybe a little scared — but I’m, like, somebody who’s attracted to all this stuff anyway. As you know.’
‘Yeah,’ Eirion said grimly.
‘But this is a buttoned-up kid from some fiercely Christian household, who’s been taught that spiritualism is, like, firmly in the devil’s domain, and her immortal soul is at risk — and she still keeps going back because something about it has… grabbed her.’ Jane gripped what she thought was going to be Eirion’s arm but turned out to be his thigh. ‘Sorry.’
‘Go… go on.’
‘Kid knows she’s like doomed. She’s totally beyond the pale. I mean, I’ve listened behind the door when Mum’s been counselling individual parishioners — which is, like, her version of confession. You get some people who are really, really scared that they’ve thrown it all away because of some really piffling sin.’
‘Gets blown up out of all proportion.’ Eirion tentatively slid an arm under her waist.
‘You’d think it was only a Catholic thing, or hellfire Nonconformism or something, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with what denomination you are, or even what religion. It’s a psychological condition. A kind of dependency. A terrible fear of getting on the wrong side of God. I mean… no wonder she threw up in church. Holy Communion? The Eucharist? You’re kneeling there with a mouthful of the blood of Christ, knowing you’ve as good as sold your soul to the other guy? It’s all gonna come down on you in a big way, isn’t it?’
‘Layla would have known about this girl’s background?’
‘Oh yeah, Riddock knew exactly what she was doing. Must have been giving her a major buzz, a cruelty high. But you can’t help wondering how shocked she was when it really started to happen. When this Justine started coming through and turned out to be Amy’s real mother.’
‘Would heighten the power trip no end.’
‘Mind-blowing. She wouldn’t want to let Amy go after that.’
Eirion pushed a hand through her hair. ‘You’ve got this pretty well sussed, haven’t you, Jane?’
‘I don’t know. It’s all guesswork, isn’t it?’
‘You tell your mum all this?’
‘Not the theoretical stuff. But she’ll have worked that out for herself by now. She’s not thick.’
Eirion drew her to him, the length of his body the length of hers, toe to toe, faces almost touching. ‘You haven’t told me how it ended.’
Jane closed her eyes, saw the circle of letters, the glass with a mind of its own.
‘How it ended? We got raided, didn’t we? Pretty ludicrous. The shed door just like crashed open and they burst in. The drug squad — the deputy head and the caretaker. All very dramatic. “Nobody move! Hands on the table!” Like one of us might pull a gun. Of course they didn’t expect it would be so dark. Layla just blew out the candles, and it was probably Kirsty gathered up the letter-cards. I don’t know where she put them — down her front, I expect; they certainly weren’t there by the time the caretaker found the lights. The glass was knocked off the table and smashed. It was just a glass. They were expecting… I don’t know — Es or worse.’
‘They search you?’
‘Nah. Layla had her cigs out by then. Plain old Rothmans scattered across the table, like she was sharing them out. Smart bitch. You could see the relief on the deputy head’s face, now it was clearly no longer a police matter. “Now, girls, because it’s the end of the term, apart from confiscating these disgusting things, I’m not going to take this any further. However…” ’
‘That was smart of her.’
‘What will she do now, your mum? Go and tell the girl’s parents, try and patch things up?’
‘Or go after this Layla?’
‘Yeah,’ Jane said soberly. ‘I’m afraid that’s exactly what she’s going to do — having not the slightest idea of just how massively evil that bitch can be. And if I try to warn her, it’ll look like there’s something else I don’t want her to find out. I… I’m like… feeling pretty pissed-off, Irene. On every front.’
He kissed her gently on the lips.
‘OK,’ Jane said, ‘except maybe that one?’
She put a hand behind his head, opened her mouth to his tongue and moulded her body into his. One of Eirion’s hands seemed to be trapped against her left breast.
Jane was feeling less and less like a knackered housewife when they heard the doors of Dafydd Lewis’s new Jaguar slamming down in the yard, then laughter. And then something about Eirion, the great lover, Mr Experience, began to kind of shrink.
Soon afterwards, Jane crept back to her own room and lay glowering at the ceiling. She’d been set up; she’d been framed; she’d been used to damage her own mother. She couldn’t live with this.
Lol gently shook the hand of the vicar’s wife.
‘I won’t get up,’ she said.
Simon St John said, ‘You might think she says that every time.’
‘Just go and get me a drink, you bugger.’ Isabel’s accent was Valleys Welsh. She was plump and had light brown hair, with tufts of gold, and warm eyes. ‘No hurry. Give me time to get to know this boy.’
‘I’ll get these,’ Lol offered.
Isabel glared at him. ‘Sit down, you!’
Simon headed for the bar, still in plain clothes — the jeans, the crumpled collarless shirt. Vicar’s night off. It was gone nine p.m., the Hop Devil three-quarters full. Lol sat down.
Isabel’s black top was low-cut and glittery. Over one shoulder strap and a handle of the wheelchair, he caught a glimpse of Gerard Stock, sitting in the shadow of the bellying chimney breast. So the landlord had let him back in.
Stock was on his own, except for a pint of Guinness and a big whisky. He was leaning back against the wooden settle, with an empty smile and an arm extended along the top of the back rest like he was claiming an invisible girlfriend. Lol thought suddenly of the Lady of the Bines and felt uneasy for a moment.
‘You a Catholic, Lol?’ Isabel inquired loudly. ‘Only I’ve decided it’s time I went to Lourdes, but you’ve gotta go with a Catholic, isn’t it, or it doesn’t work.’
‘Is that true?’
‘That you need to be accompanied by a Catholic?’
‘Well, he won’t take me, anyway. And his lot’s rubbish at healing.’ Isabel pouted. Then she laughed. ‘I fell off a high wall, Lol, is what it was. A long time ago. So, that gets that out of the way. Now — what’s a nice-looking boy like you doing all on his own?’
Simon had said he and his wife had made a practice of going to the pub on Monday nights, making it known that this was when the parishioners could get to them without making an official visit out of it — and therefore when delicate issues could be raised informally.
He’d asked Lol to join them, explaining that Isabel liked to meet new people; she didn’t get out much.
So Lol had back-burnered his usual reservations about country pubs. Tonight, he felt he owed Simon several drinks. The first analogue recording they’d made of the River Frome song — Lol humming the bits where the lyrics were incomplete — had been so much stronger, more atmospheric, more ethereal than the demo playing in his head. And this was all down to the cello, of course. The cello — dark, low-lying, sinuous — had become the spirit of the Frome.
Simon had sat there, listening to the playback with his arms folded, wincing at the cello parts and then remarking shrewdly, ‘Somehow, you can’t settle anywhere, can you, Lol? You’re the kind of guy who really needs a proper home, but you don’t know where it’s safe for you to be.’
‘Rejected by the born-again parents, shafted by the shrinks, dumped by the girlfriend in Ledwardine. You want to trust, but you’re scared to trust people. And then you fetch up here, and the first thing you latch on to is a sad little river.’
‘Very perceptive of you, vicar,’ Lol told him. ‘But I’ve learned how to psych myself now, thanks.’
Isabel leaned her head close enough for Lol to smell her shampoo. ‘Expecting trouble, he is,’ she murmured.
‘Simon?’ Lol wiped condensation from his glasses.
‘Needs you for back-up,’ Isabel confided.
‘And me. Who’s going to assault a clergyman minding a short-sighted songwriter and a cripple?’
Lol grinned. He loved the way she said crip-pel and troubel. Now Isabel had turned away and was loudly advising a woman who didn’t look pregnant to get the christening booked before she missed the boat. The woman looked alarmed for a moment, then dissolved into giggles and tossed Isabel an oh you kind of gesture on her way into the toilets. Lol thought that maybe the vicar’s wife had already become more a part of this community than the vicar was ever going to be.
‘There’s a reason someone would want to assault him?’
‘Oh, always someone who’d like to.’ Isabel grimaced. ‘Some people here, they’d do anything for Simon. Others… well… Trouble is, he doesn’t care, see. Doesn’t give a toss, not about himself nor who he offends. One reason I had to marry him. Give him a reason to keep himself alive.’
‘You’re not one of those men who says “sorry” all the time, are you?’
‘Good. Play well for you today, did he?’
‘It was almost spooky.’
‘You want to hear him on electric bass. Always be a fallback for him, when they chuck him out of the Church.’
‘There’s a danger of that?’
‘He tries,’ Isabel said.
Lol stood up to help Simon with the drinks: lagers and something golden-brown for Isabel. The atmosphere in the pub was like in the days before ventilators and smoking restrictions. Thin fluorescent bars glowed mauve between the beams, as Isabel jogged her neckline to and fro to fan the air on to her breasts. Lol tried not to look.
‘Stock’s over there,’ he remarked.
Isabel pushed her wheelchair back to see. ‘On his own, too, poor dab. She’s a funny one, his wife. Adapted to that dreary hole like a bloody barn owl. Invite him over, shall I?’
‘This woman is a liability,’ Simon said to Lol, then he turned to his wife, and spoke as to a child. ‘Isabel, Stock has probably been in here three hours, at least. Do you know how drunk that makes him?’
Lol said, ‘Why exactly are you expecting trouble?’
‘After a while, you learn never to ask him that,’ Isabel said. ‘Never tempt fate.’
Trouble came, just the same. It came with the arrival of Adam Lake and a lovely young woman with a wide, sulky mouth and short hair the colour of champagne.
‘His wife?’ Lol wondered.
‘Fiancee,’ said Isabel. ‘Amanda Rae. She’s got a discreet little chain of tiny fashion shops in Cheltenham and Worcester, places like that. Not Hereford, mind — they wouldn’t pay those prices for that tat in Hereford.’ She sipped her drink. ‘Don’t much in Cheltenham, either, I reckon. That’s why she’ll always need someone like him. Shallow, pointless people, they are, supporting each other’s public facades.’
‘My wife the social analyst,’ Simon murmured.
‘They’ll’ve come out for the first time today, I reckon,’ Isabel told Lol. ‘All these press people about the place, see, and the wrong kind of press. Rip off all their clothes for a centrefold in Horse amp; Hound, but the buggers’ll lie low till this one’s over.’ She smiled slyly at Simon. ‘Bit like him. Taking off before ten in the morning with his cello case.’
Simon glanced uncomfortably at Lol. Lol thought about the magical enhancement of the River Frome song. It was an ill wind.
It was getting very warm in the bar. He noticed that all the tables had been taken except for the one in front of Stock, who sat there motionless, still smiling. See, I don’t have to talk to people, if I don’t want to. It’s a rare skill and I’m good at it, man. I can be very relaxed, very cool, sidding quietly, saying nothing. The level of Stock’s pint had gone down a couple of inches, though, like he was taking it intravenously.
‘Lake usually come in on a Monday night, too?’ Lol asked Simon.
‘More often than not. Meets his friends from the hunt. He’s taken up the cause — a crucial part of the salvation of his birthright. Just become local organizer for the Countryside Alliance, so called. Leads demonstrations to London.’
‘Hypocritical bastards, they are,’ Isabel growled. ‘Still the Norman overlords, isn’t it? All the countryside’s their hunting ground. It is a class thing, whatever anyone says. But they also grow to enjoy killing. I’ve seen it. Doesn’t have to be like that.’
‘She means that, in the country, sometimes things do have to be killed, if they’re preying on stock,’ Simon explained. ‘But there has to be something questionable about people who simply love to do it.’
‘He said that in the pulpit one week,’ Isabel said proudly. ‘That old bugger complained to the Bishop.’ Lol followed her eyes to a fat man, seventyish, in a khaki shirt, at the centre of a group at the bar.
‘Oliver Perry-Jones,’ Simon said. ‘Former master of the hunt. Failed politician. Almost made it into Parliament once, until the true nature of his politics became apparent, thanks largely to revelations by Paul Foot in Private Eye.’ He swallowed some lager, leaned back and scanned the room. ‘Knight’s Frome’s like all rural communities: scratch the surface and you come away with all kinds of crap under your-’
‘Shhhh.’ Isabel’s warning hand on his wrist.
‘Good for you, vicar,’ Adam Lake said.
‘I’m sorry?’ Simon looked slowly up at him. Lake wore a light tweed jacket. His mutton-chop sideburns had been pruned and razored to sharp points. The whole style looked too old for him, too old for anyone of his generation, Lol thought. Lake was like a gangly mature student playing a spoof squire in the college review.
‘It won’t be forgotten,’ Lake said, and Simon was on his feet.
‘Oh shit,’ said Isabel.
‘What won’t be forgotten?’ Simon said quietly.
‘Your support,’ Lake said. He was taller than Simon, taller than anybody here. ‘Your support for the community, against potentially disruptive influences.’
‘Right, listen!’ The bar noise sank around Simon like it was being faded by a slide control on some hidden mixing board. ‘I support what my particular faith tells me is right. And you, Adam — you don’t represent the fucking community.’
Dead silence. Adam Lake smiled nervously, his girlfriend looked annoyed. ‘Fine language for a so-called minister,’ Oliver Perry-Jones muttered.
‘OK,’ Simon said. ‘As Adam’s raised the issue, is there anything anyone thinks I ought to know about?’
And Lol realized what this was about: the vicar making himself available for questioning about the Stock affair. Most clergy might have saved it for the pulpit, but that would leave no opportunity for argument. In pubs, though, arguments never lasted long before they turned into rows, and rows turned into fights.
This was Simon St John opening his arms to the accumulating shit.
Which was admirable, Lol thought. Also a little crazy.
Simon looked around, raised his voice. ‘Anyone here who thinks I’m under the thumb of what Gerard Stock likes to call the rural mafia? Anyone thinks I declined to assist Mr Stock purely for the purpose of currying favour with The Man Who Would Be Squire?’
Silence. No sign of anyone rising to the bait. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy.
Simon shook back his hair. Isabel had a hand around her glass as if she was expecting someone to knock it to the floor. Eddies of tobacco smoke fuzzed the lights.
And then a slow handclap began.
Pock… pock… pock…
Heads started turning, cautiously.
Stock didn’t lift his head, just went on clapping. His pint glass was down to its final quarter. His whisky glass was empty. The space in front of his table soon grew bigger, people instinctively edging away, until there appeared a meaningful emptiness between Stock’s table and the one Lol was sharing with Simon and Isabel. Although no one was looking at him, Lol, who hated an audience, felt exposed. I can get you a nationwide tour, Prof Levin promised in his head.
Pock… pock… pock…
‘What’s the problem, Gerard?’ Simon said.
Stock stopped clapping. His eyes were like smoked glass.
‘You’re a hypocritical bassard, vicar.’
‘But thas how the Church survives, isn’t it? Never take sides.’
Isabel shouted, ‘That’s ridic-’ Simon put his hand on her shoulder and she gripped her glass tighter, clammed up.
‘Thas right,’ Stock said. ‘Keep the liddle woman out of it.’
Oliver Perry-Jones called from the bar, ‘Why don’t you just clear out, Stock?’ His voice was high and drawly — like a hunting horn, Lol thought. ‘Take your money from the gutter press and your drink-sodden fantasies, go back where you came from. People like you don’t have a place heah.’
Stock stared into his beer for a moment and produced a leisurely burp before turning his head slowly. He was clearly very drunk. He peered in the general direction of Perry-Jones.
‘Jus’ like old Stewart, me, eh? Din’ fit in either, did he, the old gypo-loving arse-bandit?’
‘Take your foul mouth somewhere else,’ Perry-Jones said predictably. ‘There are ladies here.’
‘I bet…’ Stock pointed unsteadily at Perry-Jones. ‘I bet you were so fuckin’ delighted when Stewart got topped. Served the bassard right. And, hey, it also took a couple of dirty liddle gypos out of circulation.’
No reaction. Stock’s rosebud lips fashioned a blurred smile. Lol caught sight of Al Boswell with his wife, at the end of the bar. Expressionless. Non-confrontational is all we are.
‘Din’ like the gypos, did you, you old fascist? Gypos and the Jews. You and old man Lake, eh? Fuckin’ blackshirts. Still got your armbands?’
Lol wondered if Derek the landlord might intervene at this point, but Derek was looking down at the glass he was polishing; he’d know there were enough people here to deal with Stock — and enough people who would want to watch it happening.
Perry-Jones had started to vibrate with fury, but Lake’s tanned face was like a polished wooden mask. His girlfriend, Amanda, had her mobile out. ‘I’m calling the police.’
‘Go ’head, darling,’ Stock said mildly, not looking at her. ‘Lezz have the coppers in. Whole wagonful of the bassards. Swell the audience. Lezz get the fuckin’ press back.’ He shouted out, ‘Any hacks in the house?
Amanda clutched the phone but didn’t put in a number.
‘Where’s the Lake boy gone? Where’re you, you liddle arse-hole? Tell me one thing: what you gonna do if the Smith boys geddout? Appeal’s gotta come up soon. Case’ll be wide open again, the Smith boys geddoff.’
If Stock was expecting a reaction from Lake, he didn’t get it. He searched out Simon again.
‘You think they did it, vicar? Maybe the police were a liddle hasty, there, whaddaya think, man? You’re a liberal sorta guy. You think the Smith boys really did it? You ever wondered who else wanted poor ole shirtlifting Stewart out the picture?’
Lol sat up. A new agenda was forming like invisible ink appearing between the lines of the old one. He heard Lake’s girlfriend saying, ‘Right. I am calling them,’ but felt nobody was really listening to her.
Adam Lake finally spoke. ‘Put it away,’ he told Amanda. ‘Let him finish himself. Plenty of witnesses here. We can talk to my solicitor tomorrow.’ He walked out into the space between Simon and Stock. ‘Spell it out, Stock. What exactly are you saying? You think someone else killed Ash, rather than the convicted men? That it?’
‘There’s a turn-up,’ Isabel murmured.
Lake said coolly, ‘Well?’ He was either hugely arrogant or he really had nothing to hide.
Stock picked up his beer glass and drained it calmly.
‘Come on!’ Lake suddenly roared. ‘Scared to say it, are you? Scared to say it in front of witnesses?’ He put both big hands flat on Stock’s table. ‘Stock, for Christ’s sake, how much do you really think I care about that place? You really think I’d… you think anyone would kill for it? For a broken-down bloody hopkiln? Have you seen my place? Have you seen where I live? You really think I’m now going to offer you some ridiculous sum for that hovel, is that it? Just to get you out of my hair? Are you mad? Are you sick?’
Stock stared at him, froth on his beard, set the glass down hard, about an inch from one of Lake’s hands. He said nothing. He’d got what he wanted: Lake was losing it.
‘Let me tell you… Gerard. Let me tell everybody…’ Lake looked around wildly, and Lol saw emotional immaturity twitching and flickering in his big angular frame like a forty-watt bulb in a street lamp. ‘You picked the wrong man.’ Lake levered in towards Stock. ‘You couldn’t have done it to my father and you won’t do it to me.’ His face inches from Stock’s, exposed to the booze and the sour breath. ‘You can stay in that dump for as long as you like, you and your imaginary ghosts, you stupid, pathetic little turd.’
Like some soiled Buddha, Stock gazed blandly into the bared teeth and the glaring eyes for maybe a couple of seconds before his own eyes seemed to slide up into his head and his body wobbled.
Lol knew what was coming and so did Lake, but too late.
Simon stood with Lol on the forecourt under a night sky like deep blue silk shot with rays of green.
His white shirt was dark and foul with brown vomit. The good shepherd. It was Simon who’d guided Gerard Stock outside. In his life of ducking and diving, bartering and bullshit, Stock had probably come close many times to getting beaten up; Lol reckoned maybe he was now so physically attuned to the proximity of a kicking that his metabolism automatically came up with the most effective defence.
After it happened, Adam Lake could have battered him, drunk or sober, into the stone flags without blinking. But it was clear that all Lake wanted — women and some men shrinking away from both of them with cries of abhorrence and disgust — was to get into the men’s toilets and wash Stock away. On his way, he’d collided blindly with Simon.
Now Simon stank of Stock’s vomit, too, but Stock was clean and dry, leaning casually against the pub wall, the calm in the eye of the storm.
‘You are a piece of work, Gerard,’ Simon said. ‘It just drips off you, doesn’t it?’
‘I’m a survivor, Simon,’ Stock said.
‘You’d better go home. Lake’s going to be out in a minute, in search of a change of clothes. He sees you out here, he — he’s a big boy, Gerard. And not a happy boy.’
Stock made a contemptuous noise.
‘You as good as accused him of murdering Stewart. You accused him in front of a score of witnesses.’
‘Oh no.’ Stock straightened up. Apart from the sheen on his face, caught in the blue light from the window, he looked almost sober. ‘You don’t listen, Simon. I asked a question, was all. I asked who else might have done for Stewart if it wasn’t the Smiths. No libel in a question. Didn’t even ask him, either, I asked you. He doesn’t get me that easy. Nobody gets me that easy.’
Simon walked over to the pub door and pulled it until the latch caught. ‘Where did you get that idea, anyway, Gerard?’
Stock tapped a meaningful finger on the side of his nose: not telling. ‘But what a reaction, vicar. What a beautiful, instantaneous reaction… and’ — inclining his head to Simon — ‘in front of witnesses.’
Lol wondered precisely how drunk Stock had really been in there. How pissed did you have to be to throw up on cue?
A good publicist has control, tells you what he wants you to know, when he wants you to know it. Timing.
What was happening here? Lol felt on the edge of something from which he could still, if he wanted to, turn away. ‘You OK to walk home?’ he said to Stock. ‘Or you want Simon or me to-?’
Stock looked down at the dirt and cindered surface of the forecourt. ‘Not going home, yet, Lol, thank you. Gonna take a walk, clear my head. Time is it?’
‘Nearly closing time,’ Simon said, ‘in case you were thinking of going back inside, to attempt to get served.’
‘Actually, I think this may finally call for a change of hostelry.’ Stock produced a hawking laugh. ‘What d’you think, vicar?’
‘I think you’re walking a narrow ledge,’ Simon said.
‘Reason I need a clear head,’ Stock said, ‘is I’ve got your lady exorcist coming to visit. Tomorrow, we lay Stewart, as it were.’
Lol froze, as the latch of the pub door clacked. ‘Thanks very much,’ Isabel said to someone, and wheeled herself out. Then she saw Stock. ‘Bloody hell, you still here?’
‘You’re going to ask this woman to exorcize your place, then, are you?’ Simon said quietly. ‘It isn’t that simple, you know, Gerard. It isn’t just a formality.’
Stock sniffed. ‘Goodnight, boys. Goodnight, Mrs St John.’
He began to walk away towards the lane. Above him rose the broad-leaf woods that enclosed the village, the pinnacles of occasional pines piercing the green-washed sky, stars beginning to show.
‘Gerard,’ Simon called out, ‘it’s not something you fart about with.’
Stock stopped about fifteen feet beyond him and turned round. He was quite steady. He pointed a finger at Simon.
‘Don’t you,’ he said, ‘presume to patronize me, sunshine. I came to you with an honest request and you told me to piss off. Whatever happens with this woman, it’s down to you. Remember that.’
Lol thought the pointing finger quivered; he thought he saw a smear of something cross Stock’s half-shaded face, and then Stock stiffened and turned and walked away. At some point before the shadows took him, Lol thought the walk became a swagger.
Lol walked back to the vicarage with the St Johns, Simon pushing Isabel’s chair, lights blinking up on the Malverns.
‘Bloody hell,’ Isabel said. ‘Stink rotten, you do, Simon.’
They crossed the humpback bridge over the silent Frome, hop-yards either side, the bines high on the poles. Simon looked over to the church, about fifty yards from the river bank, small and inconspicuous among trees risen higher than its stubby tower.
‘Maybe the stink around Stock is subtler.’
‘I’m not sure he’s right about Lake,’ Lol said. ‘The way he claimed he just threw out a question and Lake dived on it, like this was a sign of some kind of guilt. I don’t think-’
‘Be nice, it would, to think he did have a hand in it.’ Isabel looked up at Lol. ‘But it didn’t feel right to me either. Boy was clever enough to realize smartish where Stock was going, but not intelligent enough to control his reactions — if he had something to hide. Does that make sense?’
Lol nodded. ‘Lots of money, well educated, but nowhere near as clever as Stock. And yet…’ He turned to Simon, took a breath. ‘Look, what you said about exorcism…’
They came to the vicarage; against dark woods and hills and the lines of foliate poles in the hop-yards, its whiteness seemed symbolic. There were no lights on in the front rooms, but a soft glow seeped through to most of the windows from some inner core.
‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’ Lol said.
Simon didn’t reply, went to open the gate. Isabel reached up and squeezed Lol’s arm. ‘Listen, love, he gets things he can’t put into words, sometimes. You know what I mean?’
Lol looked up over the wheelchair to a broken necklace of moving lights rising up into the Malverns, to a band of black below the stars.
Comfort and Joy
Sod it. Not a question of keeping confidences, not any more. Merrily switched on the anglepoise in the scullery, picked up the phone. At 10.45 p.m., this wasn’t going to make her very popular.
However, the situation had altered. She hadn’t been in a position to give away any names before, when all her information had come from Hazel Shelbone. But now there was another and possibly more reliable source.
Reliable? Merrily sat in the circle of light and prodded in Robert Morrell’s home number. Really?
Little Jane Watkins, now learning that there was no such thing as a free holiday, had done it again. While she hadn’t actually initiated the spirit sessions, she had been involved, albeit peripherally.
Peripherally? She’d had a finger on the damned glass!
The phone was ringing out at the other end. Morrell was going to be in bed getting a pre-holiday early night, sleeping the sleep of the self-righteous. The phone would also awaken his wife and kids — always hard to get kids off to sleep on the eve of a holiday.
Merrily wondered how easily Jane would sleep tonight. Getting it into proportion, she couldn’t really imagine herself as a kid — the black-clad, black-lipsticked Siouxie and the Banshees fan — standing up and warning her mates that their ouija game was actually a form of psychic Russian roulette, then walking primly away, to communal jeering.
Not even if she’d been a vicar’s daughter.
‘Yes?’ The woman’s voice wasn’t sleepy, but it wasn’t exactly accommodating either.
‘Mrs Morrell? Could I speak to your husband? I’m sorry it’s so late. My name’s Merrily Watkins.’
‘One moment.’ Resentful now.
Merrily waited. The fact remained that Jane hadn’t even mentioned the incident afterwards, even knowing it would be in confidence. This hurt; she’d thought they’d got beyond secrets, beyond concealment. She’d thought there wasn’t anything they couldn’t discuss any more. She’d thought they were friends, for God’s sake.
The phone was snatched up. ‘Mrs Watkins, I have to tell you that in just under seven hours, we’re leaving for the airport with three small children.’
‘Look, I’m really sorry. But this is something I need to know and if I left it until tomorrow I’d be doing it behind your back, which-’
‘If this is about what I think it’s about, I’d be immensely glad if you did look into it behind my-’ Morrell calmed down. ‘All right, I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult year. I need a holiday. Go on.’
‘I’ll be very quick. I understand the organizer of — what we were talking about — is a girl called Layla Riddock.’
He breathed heavily into the phone. ‘And you’re asking if I’m surprised?’
‘I can tell that you’re not — which is interesting.’
‘Before we take it any further,’ Morrell said, ‘anything I tell you has got to be absolutely unattributable. And I mean-’
‘Because normally I’d only discuss any of my students in this way with the police, and only then if there was some suspicion of-’
‘All right,’ Morrell said. ‘Layla Riddock… God almighty, do I really need this? Layla is… a dominant kind of girl. Stepdaughter of Allan Henry, yes?’
‘Allan Henry of Allan Henry-?’
‘Homes. With all the baggage that implies, and more. Obviously, I don’t have an overview of their domestic situation, but if I had to guess, I’d say that, like a lot of wealthy men with potentially problematical stepchildren, he’s been throwing money at her for years. Buying her compliance, until such time as she leaves home. She’s driving around, for instance, in the kind of car I couldn’t afford. Well… I probably could, but you know what I’m saying…’
‘She’s an intelligent girl, but she’s got away with too much at home, which is why she expects to get away with the minimum of work at school. Swans around the place under this thin veneer of disdain at having to spend her days with children. You getting the picture?’
‘A bully, would you say?’
‘Not in the physical sense, far as I know. To be honest, I don’t think she’d lower herself. I think she can be intimidating enough, without resorting to physical violence. I mean, she’s quite…’
The line went quiet. Jane’s word had been ‘sinister.’
‘Something you’re thinking about, particularly?’ Merrily pulled her sermon-pad into the lamplight, reached for a fibretip. ‘Something which might save us both some time?’
She heard him breathe down his nose. ‘I’m thinking, inevitably, about the Christmas Fair we held at the school last year. Did you come?’
‘No, I was… a bit busy before Christmas. And Jane was off school, she wasn’t very-No, we didn’t come.’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I can tell you we were all quite surprised, to say the least, when Ms Riddock volunteered to take part in the fund-raising — a Christmas Fair being something she might normally consider well beneath her. What she did, she approached the teacher in charge of the event and volunteered to set up a fortune-telling stall.’
‘Oh, did she?’
‘Yeah,’ he said ruefully. ‘I thought that might get you. Made a few of the staff sit up when she appeared on the day in full gypsy costume. Very exotic — and very expensive, too, according to my wife. Long, low-cut black dress, big gold earrings — gold, not brass. Black hat with a dark veil. All very mature, very mysterious, just a bit sinister, I suppose — but that may be hindsight.’
She always looks… tainted, somehow, Jane had said. Merrily lit a cigarette.
‘Some of the staff had reservations from the start,’ Morrell said. ‘But as it was the first time in anyone’s memory that Layla Riddock’d shown any enthusiasm for anything apart from burning rubber outside the gates, they weren’t inclined to push it. So they set her up in the hall, back of the stage, behind a curtain. Somebody painted a sign — Gypsy Layla — and, as all the other stalls were fairly routine, people were queuing up to cross her palm with silver. Men, too, once they’d seen her.’
‘She’s very attractive?’
‘I suppose you would say she exudes a certain hormonal something. Something you don’t often find at school Christmas fairs, anyway.’
‘And was she good at telling fortunes?’
‘She was bloody good at frightening people,’ Robert Morrell said bitterly. ‘Wouldn’t have frightened me, as you probably realize by now. But I accept that a lot of people are taken in by that kind of rubbish, against all their better instincts. Anyway, I don’t know much about this sort of thing, but I gather that the usual routine is to tell the customers they’re going to cross the water, or come into some money, live long and happy lives, have lots of children.’
‘What was she using? Crystal ball?’
‘I wouldn’t know. She was certainly reading palms at some stage. Anyway, the staff started to notice that very few people were coming out actually smiling. And the ones who did, their smiles tended to be rather strained. Then some granny emerges very white-faced and almost fainting. One of the female staff sits her down, brings her a cup of tea, learns that Layla’s looked at her palm and advised her to start getting her affairs in order because she ain’t… got… long.’
‘Quite. There were several others, we found out later. One pregnant woman, for instance, had been told to prepare for the worst. Or, as Layla apparently put it, “I see a withering in your womb.” ’
‘You found this out on the night?’
‘Not all of it. Some of the stories came out over a period of days. But, I suppose, the atmosphere on the night itself… well, as Christmas Fairs go, it’s fair to say there was gradually less of an ambience of comfort and joy than one might have wished for.’
‘She wasn’t stopped?’
‘Oh, she was stopped. Eventually. One of the parents had been kicking up about it long before it became widely known that she was taking people’s money for predicting death and sickness. The guy was objecting on religious grounds. Eventually, to my shame, we had to use that as a way of bringing it to a close.’
‘Anyone talk to Layla afterwards — ask her why she was doing this to people?’
‘I had Sandra — the deputy head — haul her in on the Monday morning. Waste of time. The girl pretended she couldn’t understand what the fuss was about — she was simply passing on the information she was picking up. Psychically. She claimed there was a long line of gypsies on her father’s side — her real father. I wanted to make her an appointment with the schools psychiatrist…’
Merrily wrote down: Gypsies — ask J.
‘But Sandra talked me out of taking it any further. Let it go. Just make bloody sure Gypsy Layla and her crystal ball don’t get invited back.’
‘Any of the kids, the other students, go in to get their fortunes told?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who was the parent who complained?’
‘A religious nutter. I’m sorry, I should say, one of our churchgoing parents, appalled that such a thing should be allowed to go on in an educational establishment, was threatening to take it up with the Director of Education. I was a bit short with him at first.’
‘What was his name?’
‘Is that important?’
‘Shelbone.’ A thoughtful pause. ‘David Shelbone. Father of — a fourth-year girl. And unfortunately he works for the council. He actually knows the Director of Education.’
Merrily kept her voice steady. ‘Layla know about this?’
‘Well, yes, of course, everybody did. I… the way we played it — and I’m not proud of this, but it seemed expedient at the time — Shelbone was still around, in another part of the school, so we had someone tip him off that people had been upset by the girl’s predictions. Sure enough, he comes rushing back. In God’s name, stop this wickedness! Embarrassing, really.’ Morrell chuckled. ‘But I don’t think anybody else went to have their fortune told after that. After a few minutes, Gypsy Layla walks away through the hall, head held high, grim little smile on her face. Crisis over.’
‘You thought.’ Merrily sat in the circle of lamplight and tried to remember if Jane had ever mentioned the incident. But she hadn’t gone back to school until the January term; probably all blown over by then.
‘And that’s all I can tell you,’ Morrell said. ‘However, if you are planning to take this any further, I’d offer two suggestions — one, if you’re going to take on Layla Riddock, remember you’re taking on Allan Henry, too, and he’s a man with unlimited money and with friends in high places.’
‘Not as high as mine, I always like to think.’ Merrily was starting to feel light-headed. How peevishly simple this could all turn out to be: Shelbone terminates Layla’s power-trip; Layla puts the frighteners on Shelbone’s daughter.
Morrell said, ‘My other advice is, leave Shelbone alone.’
‘You think he might try to convert me to Christianity?’
‘If you want to know about David Shelbone, talk to our friend Charlie Howe. He’ll tell you what kind of fanatic you’re dealing with — and I don’t just mean religion, which would probably never seem like fanaticism to you. The other reason not to bother Shelbone is that I’m afraid the poor guy has personal problems at the moment. I… I had a call about it earlier this evening. His daughter attempted suicide this afternoon.’
Merrily froze, the cigarette at her lips.
‘Less uncommon, I’m afraid, than it used to be,’ Morrell said, ‘especially at this time of year — children thinking they’ve done badly in their GCSEs, therefore their lives must be over. Maybe nothing at all to do with us, so I’m not going to theorize at this stage. Summer can be a stressful time for some kids.’
‘What did she do to herself?’ Half an inch of ash fell to the desk.
‘Friend of… Jane’s — is she?’
‘What did she do?’
‘Overdose, I believe. Taken to the County Hospital. They got to her in time, I gather.’
Merrily closed her eyes. The penny started spinning.
‘Always sad,’ Morrell said. Just like Merrily, he must have been putting two and two together from the moment the name Shelbone left his lips.
But he did have to be at the airport by seven.
‘So… if that’s all, I’ll get off to bed,’ he said.
She called Dennis Beckett; he knew nothing about Amy and an overdose. He couldn’t seem to absorb the significance. ‘But I prayed with her,’ he said querulously. ‘We prayed together.’ And then he added vaguely, ‘Perhaps she should have seen a doctor.’
‘Her parents wouldn’t.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘when I left her, she was spiritually calm.’
And how could you possibly know that?
Merrily asked him if he’d be visiting the parents tomorrow. ‘You are still minding the parish, aren’t you?’
‘Why did this have to happen?’ Dennis said plaintively.
Meaning, why did it have to happen while Jeff Kimball was on holiday.
‘What is it you want me to try and find out?’ he asked her at last, with resignation. He clearly didn’t want to have anything more to do with this case.
‘Could you find out if they’ll talk to me?’ Merrily said. ‘Both of them?’
She switched off the anglepoise and sat in the dark, watching the red light on the answering machine, wondering how she would have handled this if she’d known from the beginning about Layla Riddock.
When she switched the light back on, nothing seemed any clearer and it was eleven-thirty. She called Huw Owen, who never seemed to sleep.
‘I tossed the coin,’ she told him eventually. ‘It came up tails. Twice tails: no spiritual interference, no unquiet spirit.’
‘And how did you feel, lass?’
‘Come on, talk grown-up, eh?’
‘Sorry. I felt separation. Transcendence. Little me, big God. Plus, I was in there all night, but it felt like… not so long.’
‘Six hours felt like — I don’t know — less than two. And you don’t fall asleep on your knees, do you?’
‘Contraction of time, eh?’
‘And it was… profound, moving, exalting — all that stuff. But I’m trying not to get carried away, because somehow it didn’t tally with what happened afterwards, out here in the material world. It’s not been a great day for me, Huw.’
‘Bugger me.’ She heard him drawing in a thin breath, like the wind through a keyhole. ‘You’re still expecting God to make it easy?’
‘I should scourge myself, put Brillo pads in my underwear?’
‘What I’m thinking, Merrily,’ Huw said reasonably, ‘is if you were in the church all last night, you should be getting some sleep. Just a thought.’
‘I grabbed an hour or so earlier. Look, I’ve got a kid who tried to kill herself. What can I do?’
‘Nowt. Let this Dennis pick up the mucky end of the stick for a change. Hang back, see what transpires.’
‘What transpires? Hasn’t enough bloody transpired?’
‘The girl’ll be safe in hospital for the time being.’
‘And what about Layla Riddock?’
‘Aye,’ he said, ‘there’s your problem, looks like. But we’re not the police. And even if we were, what’s she done wrong?’
‘Apart from terrifying old ladies and driving a little girl to the point of suicide as an act of pure vengeance?’
‘All right, it’s a tough one,’ he admitted. ‘Needs thought, prayer.’
‘Or the toss of a coin?’
‘Get off to bed, Merrily,’ Huw growled.
She lay in bed, with Ethel the cat in the cleft in the duvet between her knees. She slept eventually. She dreamed, over and over, that the phone was ringing. She dreamed of a withering foetus inside her and awoke, sweating, and then closed her eyes, visualizing a golden cross in blue air above her, and slept again and awoke — something coming back to her from the night in the church. And she thought, Justine?
Awakening, stickily, into blindingly mature sunlight and the echoey squeak-and-clang of the cast-iron knocker on the front door.
Panic. Jane would be late for-Stumbling halfway downstairs, dragging on her towelling robe before she realized there was no Jane to worry about. The knocking had long stopped; she didn’t know how long it had been going on, and now the phone was shrilling. She dragged open the front door, and found nobody there. She ran through to the scullery, saw she’d left the anglepoise lamp on all night, and grabbed the phone.
‘Oh. I was begining to think you’d left already.’
‘Sophie-? Oh God, what time is it?’
‘It’s just gone eight. Are you all right?’
‘Er — yeh. Sorry, I… Late night.’
‘You haven’t forgotten Mr Stock?’
‘The haunted hop-kiln,’ Sophie said. ‘You’re due there by nine, remember? I made an appointment for you?’
‘Merrily, I was ringing to warn you that we’ve had more calls from the press. The People asked if they could be there — exclusively — for the exorcism. We said on no account. We also declined to confirm that there was going to be an exorcism. Also, more alarming as far as the Bishop was concerned, the religious affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph-’
‘Did you know Amy Shelbone had tried to kill herself?’
‘Consequently, I need to speak to both the Shelbones. I think I’ve finally got some idea of what it’s about. Now, obviously they’re not going to want to speak to me, after what-’
‘Is the child all right?’
‘I think so. I don’t know. I haven’t had-’
‘I’ll talk to them. I’ll arrange something if I can. Merrily. Meanwhile… I hate to do this over the phone, and I did try to reach you last night but you were constantly engaged… I have to tell you the Bishop would like you to expedite this hop-kiln thing with the minimum fuss and the minimum publicity. He doesn’t want it dragged out. He doesn’t want to see you walking out of there into a circus of flashbulbs and TV lights.’
‘Sophie, it’s not that big a story.’
‘His exact words, as I recall, were… “Tell her to throw some holy water around and then leave by the back door.” ’
‘Put a bottle in the post and do the rest down the phone, shall I?’
‘He’s nervous, Merrily. Since the Ellis affair, where Deliverance is concerned, he’s been like the proverbial cat on hot bricks. Rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t ask me if we have a shortlist yet, for the panel.’
‘Meaning he doesn’t quite trust me.’
‘He’s nervous,’ Sophie repeated. ‘And once he finds out about this attempted suicide, he’s going to be very nervous indeed. Fortunately, he’s leaving at ten for a three-day conference in Gloucester. Transsexuality in the clergy. Should absorb his attention for a while.’
‘This year alone, surgery has increased the number of female clergy in Britain by four,’ Sophie said dryly.
‘I need to speak to Simon St John, obviously. I trust he’s not in the operating theatre.’
Sophie made a small noise indicating it wouldn’t surprise her unduly. ‘I shall call him and tell him you’re on your way. Just… go.’
‘I’ll call you when it’s over,’ Merrily said. ‘Whatever the hell it turns out to be.’
‘And this is where…?’
‘You’re standing on it,’ Mr Stock said.
Although a despicable shiver had started somewhere below her knees, Merrily made a point of not moving.
‘The police, it seems, don’t operate a cleaning service,’ he said. ‘So we could hardly avoid knowing precisely where it was.’
They were standing, just the two of them, on stone flags in the circular kitchen at the base of the kiln-tower. The place had a churchy feel, because of its shape and its shadows. The light was compressed into three small windows, like square port-holes, above head height — above Merrily’s, anyway. And it was cold. Outside, July; in here, November — what was that about?
It’s about doing your job, isn’t it? It’s about not prejudging the issue on second-hand evidence.
She let the shiver run its course, let it sharpen her focus.
She’d driven over here with a head full of Amy Shelbone and Layla Riddock and Jane — everybody but Gerard Stock, whose problem had been devalued because he was allegedly a professional conman, a manipulator, a spin-doctor.
And then you walked out of a summer morning into this temple of perpetual gloom, and it came home to you, in hard tabloid flashes, that a man had actually been beaten to death, in cold blood, right here where you were standing, his face, his skull repeatedly crunched into these same stone flags.
Violent death would often have psychic repercussions; you knew that.
Then there was Gerard Stock himself — bombastic, bit of an operator, possible drink problem. This morning Gerard Stock was wearing a clean white shirt and cream-coloured slacks. His hair was slicked down and his beard trimmed. The impression you had was that Mr Stock had bathed this morning in the hope of washing away the weariness in his bones, changed into clothes that would make him feel crisp and fresh. But the weariness remained in his bleary eyes and the sag of his shoulders.
If this was an act, he was good.
‘There are… two different versions of the story.’ He was standing with his back to the cold Rayburn stove that sat on a concrete plinth, probably where the old furnace had once been. His voice was as arid as cinders. ‘The prosecution’s submission was that Stewart had been in bed upstairs — alone — when the boys broke in.’
‘Glen and Jerome Smith, nineteen and seventeen. Travellers. Members of their family had been helping Stewart with his research into the links between the gypsies and the Frome Valley hop farms. He’d bought the boys drinks in the Hop Devil, paid them also in cash for their “research assistance” — mainly a question of finding Romanies who were willing to talk to him. But, according to the prosecution, the Smiths got greedy, and they came to believe he had a fair bit of money on the premises.’
Merrily looked around. No indications of wealth and no obvious hiding places in a circular room that didn’t seem to have altered much from its days as the lower chamber of a hopkiln. Its walls were of old, bare brick, hung with shadowy implements, non-culinary.
Romantic, maybe, but not an easy place to live.
‘In their defence,’ Mr Stock said, ‘the Smith brothers told a different story which, to me, has more than a ring of truth. It certainly didn’t do their reputation any favours. Basically, they admitted visiting poor old Stewart on a number of occasions at night to… administer to his needs.’
‘You mean sexual,’ Merrily said. ‘For money.’
Next to her was a dark wood rectangular table top on a crossed frame which looked as if it had once been something else. A large-format book called The Hop Grower’s Year lay face down on it. On the back of the book was a photograph of the author — small features under grey-white hair so dense it was like a turban. The photo was one of those old-fashioned studio portraits with a pastel backcloth like the sky of another world, and the face brought home to her the reality — and the unreality — of why she was here. For this was him: the kiln-house ghost.
Her first task: to determine whether it was reasonable to believe that some wisp, some essence of this person was still here. Madness. Even half the clergy thought it was madness.
‘… Agreed they’d accepted money several times,’ Gerard Stock was saying, ‘for research and for giving him… hand relief, as it was described to the court. All rather sordid, but gypsies aren’t squeamish about sex. As Stewart pointed out in his book, their society might be closed to the outside world, but it’s very open and liberal when you’re on the inside. Gypsy kids tend to get their first carnal knowledge at the hands of siblings, if not parents. Prudish, they’re not, which is healthy in a way, I suppose — you won’t find many Romanies in need of counselling.’
He inspected Merrily, as if checking how prudish she might be. No way could she align this Stock with the slick PR man described by Fred Potter, the reporter, and hinted at by Simon St John. He was just someone trying to rationalize the irrational, more scared by it than he’d ever imagined he could be. He’d told her frankly that Stewart Ash and he had never got on — Ash always blaming him for leading his niece into a world of ducking, diving and periodic penury.
People will talk to you, as a human being, the Bishop had said, meaning she came over as small and harmless — no black bag.
‘Look… if you want to sit down over there…’ Mr Stock indicated a chair pulled out from the table. ‘I’m afraid Stewart really was found lying with his head almost exactly where your feet are.’
‘I’m OK. Go on.’
‘Well, he was wearing pyjamas. There was a lot of blood. His face was almost unrecognizable. We’ve scrubbed and scrubbed at the flag, but when the sun’s in the right position you can still see the stains distinctly.’
Merrily made a point of not looking down, inspecting the upper part of the room instead. She’d been in hop-kilns before, and couldn’t help noticing how basic this restoration had been — rough boarding fitted where once thin laths would have been spaced out across the rafters, supporting a cloth to hold the hops for drying over the furnace.
‘The Smiths always fiercely denied killing him, insisting, at first, to the police that someone must have followed them in and done it after they’d left.’
‘Any evidence of that?’
‘Of sexual activity? Apparently not. When there was nothing in the forensic evidence, nothing from the post-mortem, to suggest Stewart had recently had sex, they panicked and one of them changed his story — claiming they’d come here to do the business and found him already dead.’
‘That couldn’t have helped them,’ Merrily said.
‘Finished them completely, far as the jury was concerned. Found guilty, sent down for life. They’ve appealed now — every one appeals. Couple of civil-liberties groups assisting. Probably won’t succeed, but I imagine one or two people in the area are getting a touch jittery about it. We certainly are.’ He laughed nervously. ‘If they didn’t do it, who did? It’s one thing to live in a place where a murder was committed; something else to live with the possibility that the murderer’s still out there.’
‘You think that’s a real possibility?’
He walked over to the wall, pulled down a wooden pole with a slender sickle on one end. Unexpectedly, the crescent blade flashed in the shaft of sunlight from the middle window. Merrily stayed very still as he hefted it from hand to hand.
‘They used these things for cutting down bines. I sharpened it. I thought, they’re not going to get me like they got Stewart. Ridiculous.’ He shuddered, replaced the tool. ‘I just don’t trust the countryside.’
So why hadn’t the Stocks sold the place and got out?
‘I don’t understand. Why would anyone want to get to you?’
‘I-’ He looked at her, as if he was about to say something, then he hung his head. ‘I don’t really know. I just don’t feel safe here. Never have. Lie awake sometimes, listening for noises. Hearing them, too. The country is-’
‘What sort of noises?’
‘Oh — creaks, knocking. Birds and bats and squirrels.’ He shrugged uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know. Nothing alarming, I suppose. Except for the footsteps. I do know what a footstep sounds like.’
‘You’ve actually heard footsteps?’
‘Not loud crashing footsteps echoing all over the place, like in the movies. These are little creeping steps. Always come when you’re half asleep. It’s like they’re walking into your head. You think you’ve heard them, though you’re never sure. But in the middle of the night, thinking is… quite enough, really.’
It wasn’t quite enough for Merrily. ‘What about the furniture being moved?’
He looked up sharply. ‘Oh, we didn’t hear that happen. We had the table over the bloodstained flag — to cover it, keep it out of sight. We’d come down in the morning and find it was back where… where it is now. This happened twice. But we never heard anything.’
‘And you talked about a figure? You said in the paper you’d seen a figure coming out-’
‘Yeah.’ He walked over to the part of the wall opposite the door. ‘Coming out… just here. I said “a figure” because you’ve got to make it simple for these crass hacks — my working life’s been about avoiding big words. But actually it was simply a… a lightform. Do you know what I mean?’
‘A moving light?’
‘A luminescence. Something that isn’t actually shining but is lighter than the wall. And roughly the shape of a person. We’d finished supper… a very late supper; it was our wedding anniversary. And sudenly the room went cold — now that happened, that’s one cliche that did happen. It’s a funny sort of cold, you can’t confuse it with the normal… goes right into your spine… do you know what I mean?’
‘Yes, I do.’ This was, on the whole, convincing. When you thought of all the embellishments he might have added — the familiar smell of Stewart’s aftershave, that kind of stuff…
Merrily shivered again, glad she’d put a jacket on — to hide the Radiohead T-shirt, actually. She’d left the vicarage in a hurry — no breakfast, just a half-glass of water — throwing her vestment bag into the boot. Usually, she’d spend an hour or so in the church before a Deliverance job, but there’d been no time for that either.
‘Mind you, it’s so often like a morgue in here.’ Gerard Stock folded his arms. ‘And dark in itself creates a sense of cold, doesn’t it? The living room through there’s no better. That was formerly the part where the dried hops were bagged up, put into sacks.’
‘Hop-pockets,’ Merrily said.
‘Oh, you know about hops?’
‘Stewart had absolutely steeped himself in the mythology of hops — not that there’s much of one. He got quite obsessed over something that-I mean, it’s just an ingredient in beer, isn’t it? A not very interesting plant that you have to prop up on poles.’
‘There was a hop-yard at the back here?’
‘Was. The wilt got it.’
‘Is that still happening?’
‘I believe there are new varieties of hop, so far resistant to it. But it happened here.’
‘You said you saw lights out in the hop-yard.’
‘My wife. My wife saw them. I never have. That was the first thing that happened. It was soon after we moved in. Winter. Just after dusk. We’d brought in some logs for the stove, and she was standing in the doorway looking down the hill towards the hop-yard and she said she saw this light. A moving light. Not like a torch — more of a glow than a beam. Hovering and moving up and down among the hop-frames — appearing in one place and then another, faster than a human being could move. She wasn’t scared, though. She said it was rather beautiful.’
‘Just that once?’
‘No. I suppose not. After a while we didn’t-This might sound unlikely to you, but we stopped even mentioning those lights. When far worse things were happening in the house itself, I suppose unexplained lights in the old hop-yard seemed comparatively unimportant.’
‘Hops,’ Merrily said. ‘When you say Stewart was obsessed by hops, you mean from an historical point of view, or what?’
‘Well, that too, obviously. But also hops themselves. I wouldn’t claim to understand what he saw in them. To me, they’re messy, flakey things, not even particularly attractive to look at. But when we first took possession of the house, the walls and the ceiling were a mass of them: all these dusty, crumbling hop-bines — twelve, fifteen feet long — and the whole place stank of hops. I mean, I like a glass or two of beer as much as anyone, but the constant smell of hops… no, thank you. And when you opened a door, they’d all start rustling. It was like-’ He shook his head roughly.
‘Like a lot of people whispering, I suppose. Anyway, we cleared out the bines. It felt as though they were keeping even more light out of the place. Some of them were straggling over the windows. The windows in the living room back there once looked out down the valley. Apparently.’
Through the central window in here she could see blue sky. Through the other two, blue paint. It probably hadn’t even been this dark when it was a functioning kiln with a brick furnace in the centre.
‘The barns,’ she said.
‘That’s awful,’ Merrily agreed, ‘but I’m afraid it’s not-’
‘Your problem. No.’
‘Have you talked to a solicitor?’
‘I’ve talked to a lot of people,’ Mr Stock said.
‘Erm — that aroma of hops.’ Merrily breathed in slowly, through her nose. ‘I almost expected you to say you’d been smelling it again.’
She thought his eyes flickered, but it was too dim to be sure. He shook his head. ‘No, nothing like that.’
‘So… what about your wife?’
He was silent. His face seemed to have stiffened.
‘I mean, how badly has she been affected? She saw the… lightform?’
‘My wife…’ He turned away, shoulders hunched. ‘Won’t talk much about it. When the hacks were here, we had to virtually manufacture some suitable quotes for her. Maybe she thinks it’ll all just go away.’
‘You mean she’s not so scared…?’
‘As me? Probably not. Obviously, neither of us likes the darkness — it’s the kind of darkness you have to fight. And you lose. In here, a two-hundred-watt bulb’s like a forty. Bills’ve been horrendous. But Stephie — perhaps she just doesn’t believe Stewart would harm her. Also, more of a religious background than me. Catholic, lapsed. But it doesn’t go away. Not like…’
‘I’m sorry, didn’t mean to be insulting. I was raised in the C of E.’
‘All I meant about your wife,’ Merrily said, ‘is that I think she should be here too, when we do whatever we do. As a blood relative of Mr Ash.’
‘Well, she will be… She’ll be here tonight.’
‘Mr Stock,’ Merrily said, ‘if I could just make a point here. Unless you really think that for some reason it’s important for this to be done at night, I don’t necessarily think that’s a good idea. I think it might be better for all of us’ — better for the Bishop, too — ‘if we said some initial prayers, perhaps a small requiem service for Mr Ash. Without delay.’
‘Now?’ He didn’t quite back away.
‘By daylight, anyway. Personally, I always think there’s an inherent danger in making this all too-’
‘Serious?’ Almost snapping.
‘Sinister. I’ll probably need the book, but we can dispense with the bell and the candle.’
She could almost see his thoughts racing, something almost feverish in his eyes. Did he have plans to involve the media? Had something already been arranged for tonight?
He unfolded his arms. ‘All right. I can call Stephie at work. Maybe she can take time off. How long will the exorcism take?’
‘That might be too big a word for what we do. Not very long, I shouldn’t think. Best to keep things simple. Oh — and I’d also want to ask the vicar if he’d like to join us. Two ministers are better than one in this kind of situation and it’s usual to involve the local guy when possible.’
‘St John?’ Hint of a sneer. ‘He won’t want to know, tell you that now.’
‘I’d like to ask him, anyway, if that’s all right with you.’
He shrugged. ‘Your show.’
‘Yours, actually. And your wife’s. And it would actually be helpful to have a few other people who knew your wife’s uncle. Is there anyone you think-?’
‘Oh no!’ Both hands went up. ‘Definitely not! I don’t want local people in here, I’m sorry. We don’t exactly have any close friends in the area. I’d rather this wasn’t talked about.’
‘But you went to the press.’
‘I was desperate. I’ve told you, I felt threatened. I didn’t know who I could trust, especially after the vicar refused to help us. Bottom line is I don’t want any of those people in here. All right?’
‘OK. Erm, another point — at a service of this kind, we need to draw a line under the past. A big element is forgiveness. I think that means we’re looking for some kind of reconciliation between you and Stewart, which of course has to be initiated by you.’
He laughed. ‘I’d guess that for Stewart one of the best things about death would be never having to see Gerard Stock again. But… you know best.’
‘Well, I don’t really know anything for sure,’ Merrily said. ‘We’re assuming Mr Ash is what you might call an unquiet spirit.’ Huw Owen would call it an insomniac. ‘Our fundamental purpose has to be to guide him away from whatever’s holding him down here towards a state of-’
‘Look!’ He put his hands on his hips, faced her. ‘Is this going to, you know, tell us anything?’
‘I’m not a medium, Mr Stock.’
‘What if Stewart’s… spirit, whatever you want to call it, is unable to rest because it wants to get a message across? Like, for instance, that his killer’s still out there.’
‘Ah.’ Merrily looked down at the flags. Around her shoes she could now make out the outline of what might have been a stain. Hidden agenda coming out at last? ‘Who’s the killer, then, in your view?’
‘I can’t tell you that,’ he said.
‘Because you don’t know. Or maybe you’ve got ideas?’
‘I’ve got ideas. However, I might be open to legal action were I to share them with you, Mrs Watkins.’
‘OK. What’s the actual time now? I’m afraid I came out without my watch.’
He held his wrist up to the light. ‘Just after ten minutes to ten.’
God, was that all? She needed breathing space, prayer space.
‘Look, I’ll call her now,’ he said. Something seemed to have lifted inside him. ‘Daytime. Yes. I should’ve thought of that. Daytime’s much better.’
‘And meanwhile I’ll go down to the church, talk to the vicar and change. See you back here in… an hour, or less?’
‘Yes. Fine. Thank you.’
They went back through the living room, the former hop-store, where any extra light not blocked off by the barns was absorbed by drab leathery furniture — Stewart’s, probably. By the back door, Merrily turned, looked up at Stock.
‘Could I just ask you — what do want this to achieve? I mean you personally?’
He wasn’t ready for this one, didn’t meet her eyes. Instead, he went to open the door for her, and the day came in like a golden cavalry of angels.
‘I want things to be normal,’ he said. ‘That’s all.’
She drove up to the minor road leading to Knight’s Frome and was almost through the village before she realized that it was the village. The church was out on the edge, the other side of the river; the white house nearby could only be the vicarage. No car outside.
She pulled on to the verge, about fifty yards away from the church, took off her jacket, threw it over the passenger seat, lit a cigarette and checked her mobile for messages.
Just the one. ‘Merrily. Sophie. I’m afraid I can’t raise the vicar, but Bernard says go ahead without him. He’ll clear up any political debris. Which I suppose means I shall.’
Right, then. Merrily switched off the phone and put out her cigarette. As she was climbing out of the Volvo, she saw, through the wing mirror, a rusting white Astra pulling in about twenty yards behind.
It was already hot, and not yet ten-fifteen. A single cloud powdered the sky over the church, which was low and comfortably sunken, with a part-timbered bell tower. Pigeons clattered in what had once been a hedge surrounding the vicarage.
From the car boot, Merrily pulled her vestment bag and a blue-and-gold airline case containing two flasks of holy water. She’d knock on the vicarage door, on the off chance someone was home. If not, she’d change in the church, always assuming it was open. Slinging the bags over her shoulder, she bent to lock the car. As she pulled out the key, there were footsteps behind her, a quiet padding on the grass. She turned quickly, wishing she hadn’t locked the car.
The mirage was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and those same round, brass-rimmed glasses. She was aware of the bird-song and the laboured chunter of a distant tractor as they stood and stared at one another for two long seconds.
He shuffled a little, nodded at the Radiohead motif on her chest. ‘So, er… what did you think of Kid A?’
‘Erm…’ Stunned, she put down the vestment bag, adjusted the plastic strap of the airline case. She swallowed. ‘Well… you know… it kind of grew on me. Parts of it.’
‘Uh huh.’ He nodded. Then he said rapidly, ‘Merrily, I’m sorry to, you know, spring out at you like this. I did come round to the vicarage quite early this morning, but-’
‘That — that was you knocking?’
‘But there was no answer, so I went to buy a Mars Bar and a paper at the shop, and then I ran into Gomer Parry and we talked for a few minutes and then… when I got back your car had gone.’
‘I… overslept.’ Merrily saw flecks of grey in his hair. It was shorter now; the ponytail hadn’t come back. She bit down on her smile, shaking her head. ‘You really choose your times, Lol.’
‘Because you’re working.’
‘Yeah. I mean, could we…? I mean…’
‘Gerard Stock, right?’
She felt the smile die completely.
‘As… as you know,’ Lol said hesitantly, ‘I’m about the last person to try and tell you anything about your job. But… don’t do this.’
‘Put him off — could you do that? Stall him? Please?’
‘I… No. No, I can’t do that.’
‘Then at least come and talk to the vicar,’ Lol said.
And then… Peace
The vestry at Knight’s Frome was about the size of a double wardrobe and didn’t have a proper door, never mind a lock. She had Lol stand guard just inside the church porch while she changed.
This was getting crazy, too much to take.
She unpacked the bag: full kit plus pectoral cross.
Jane, of course — Jane would love this situation, wouldn’t she just? All the times in the past six months the kid had asked innocently, ‘Have you heard from Lol? Has Lol been in touch? Does Lol spend all his weekends in Wolverhampton…?
Merrily took off her skirt and T-shirt, got into the cassock that she never wore except for services, since a certain incident.
Laurence Robinson: palely sensitive singer-songwriter — in downbeat, low-key, minor chords. Unlucky in love, survivor of a nervous breakdown and some years of psychiatric treatment. Might well have become the next Nick Drake — Q magazine. If, like poor Nick, he’d killed himself, the less satisfactory route to immortality.
But Lol had survived to become droll, self-deprecating and, from Jane’s point of view, dangerously cool. The stepfather to die for. And flirt with, obviously.
Merrily did up all the fabric-covered buttons of the cassock. Fortunately the kid was away. Her own feelings she could control, up to the present.
The last time she’d seen Lol Robinson had been on Dinedor Hill, above Hereford, where a few days earlier a young woman’s death had been shatteringly avenged — leaving Lol in the middle of steaming wreckage with two people dead and one dying. Heavy trauma. In a still December dusk, before Christmas, the two of them had stood next to a fallen beech tree on the edge of the Celtic hill fort and looked down over the city, where steeples and the Cathedral tower were aligned under a shadow of cloud and the distant Black Mountains.
A prayer, a meditation, in remembrance of the victims and then they’d walked back down the hill, hand in hand. And then Lol, no big fan of organized religion, had told her he was wondering if there wasn’t some middle way between spiritual guidance and psychotherapy… a new path, maybe. And they’d walked away to their separate cars and she’d known in her heart that they would meet again sometime, at least as friends, but that this wasn’t the moment to allow things to go further.
Lol Robinson. Just about the last person she’d expected to meet today, materializing in a heat haze at the roadside. And, more confusingly, revealed as one of the anti-Stock contingent warning her to back off.
Like she had a choice.
Abandoning attempts to contact Merrily, Lol had been on the road by seven a.m., knowing that if he didn’t catch her before she went out, she could be anywhere in the diocese and there’d be no chance of talking to her until she arrived at Stock’s tonight — by which time it would be too late.
I truly hope your friend has the sense not to get involved, Simon had said. And then, last night, Isabel: He gets things he can’t put into words.
When he found Merrily had left the vicarage, he’d gone into Hereford, checked the Bishop’s Palace parking area, then called the office to make sure she wasn’t there. Mrs Hill remembered him but wouldn’t tell him where Merrily had gone. She’d offered to pass on a message; Lol said it was OK, no problem. He’d decided to stake out the entrance to Stock’s place, all day if necessary, to catch her before she could go in.
But he’d arrived back in Knight’s Frome to find she was already there. Shoved the car into some bushes, gone running down the gravel track by the kiln, about to go and hammer on the door, disrupt whatever was happening… when the door had opened and she’d walked out-
— followed by Stock: Merrily and Stock together. The first time he’d seen her in six months and here she was with Stock, who was looking, from this distance, as pristine as the husband in some old soap-powder ad, a man on the side of the angels. Merrily had been nodding to him — conveying understanding and sympathy — and at one point seemed about to take his hand. But then she’d turned and walked towards her car and Lol had sidled along the bushes, back to the Astra, to follow the Volvo.
When she’d parked close to Simon’s church, it had seemed meant. He’d made his move. Shock value. It hadn’t even been too difficult to persuade her to walk with him the few yards to the white vicarage.
Where it had all seized up like an overwound clock.
The door had been opened by a woman of about sixty-five, in a pinny, who told them the vicar and Mrs St John had gone shopping in Hereford. They always went on a Tuesday, see, because it was a slack day in the city, between the weekend rush and the Wednesday market. Easier for Isabel to get around town, the housekeeper had explained. Easier for Hereford if Isabel was in a good mood, she’d implied.
Blank wall. How could he persuade Merrily to back away from this when he couldn’t tell her any more than she already knew?
Like, what was the real reason Simon had refused to exorcize Gerard Stock’s kiln? It was becoming clear that there was more to it than the vicar’s declared belief that Stock was fabricating the whole thing either to screw Lake or milk some money out of an inheritance he couldn’t sell.
Isabel had implied, Trust him. Lol didn’t trust him — too many suggestions of instability there. And if anybody could spot instability, it was Lol.
He stood gazing down the aisle of Simon’s very basic little parish church — no fancy carving, no stained glass — towards the altar. The truth was he had no reason to trust anyone in the clergy, except-
He turned at the swish of the velvet curtain, and she emerged from the vestry like she was stepping out of a dress-shop cubicle. Apparently, some men were kinky for women priests, like with nurses and meter maids, because of the uniform. But when Lol watched Merrily stepping into the nave, in her cassock and white surplice, it only made him scared.
Stock was very bad news. Simon knew more than he was saying.
Lol… was just a guy who wrote songs.
She gave him a small smile. She looked like a child playing dressing-up — the silly-vicar outfit. Then he saw the lines at the corners of her eyes. New lines.
‘Don’t look so worried,’ Merrily said. ‘It’s what I do.’
Walking back to the car, she sensed his discomfort. She didn’t think he’d ever seen her in the full gear before. Now she was a priest, with an aura of black and white sanctity; not a woman any more. There was even a new stiffness, a formality, in the way he spoke to her.
‘I just think,’ Lol said, ‘that perhaps you should ask him why he can’t sell the kiln — just to see what he says.’
‘Lol, that’s…’ It was childish, but she did it: pushed herself onto the bonnet of the Volvo, with the surplice fanning out around her. ‘That’s irrelevant, isn’t it? I’ve heard all about him, I know what kind of man he’s been, I realize he probably went to the papers for the express purpose of stirring it for this guy Lake, or capitalizing on it in some other way. But it — it doesn’t change the fact that I do think he’s got some trouble here. If I had to like and admire all the people I was asked to help, then… well, I’d be having a lot of days off, you know?’
Lol kept peering up the road and Merrily knew he was hoping to delay things until Simon St John got back from Hereford.
‘If you’re thinking about me…’ She felt suddenly edgy and embarrassed and delved in her bag for cigarettes. ‘I’m protected. From above, by the Bishop. And… from further above. I mean… you know… come in with me, if you want.’
‘When we do it. I don’t imagine Mr Stock would mind. I wouldn’t.’
Merrily bit her lip. She hadn’t thought about that, she’d just said it. She thought about it now. The standard advice to Deliverance ministers was to have a few good Christians around at an exorcism, including a second minister, if possible. Back-up. What kind of Christian you could call Lol she had no idea, but he was actually living here, he actually knew Gerard Stock… and, however he felt about dogma and the clergy generally, she knew by now that she could trust him. All the way.
The car bonnet was warm under her cassock. She looked at the fragmented cloud over the little church of Knight’s Frome and then back at Lol. He was coincidence. Charismatic Christians, like the infamous Nick Ellis, saw every small coincidence as a pointer from God.
‘Look, there are two ways of looking at an exorcism of place,’ she explained.’ It’s not waste disposal, pest control, Rentokil, whatever… it’s helping a dislocated essence… spirit… soul back on to the path. What I mean is, maybe we’re doing this less for Gerard Stock than for Stewart Ash.’
‘Whom neither of us knew.’
‘Every day, in crematoria all over the country,’ Merrily said sadly, ‘duty clergy conduct funerals for people they never knew, in front of grieving relatives they’ve only just met. Maybe we’ll meet him today.’
Lol looked up, startled.
‘It’s been known for the subject of an exorcism to make one final appearance,’ she said. ‘And then… peace.’
‘Hi!’ Stephanie Stock sprang up from the old leather sofa. ‘It’s really, really nice to meet you at last.’
A central ceiling light-bowl and two lamps were on in the living room at the kiln-house. It still didn’t get close to summer daylight. The walls had been painted white, but the furniture was old and dull. Unexpectedly, the brightest thing in the room was not the white-shirted Stock, but his wife. She squeezed Lol’s hand, lingering over it, smiling into his eyes.
‘I’ve kept on saying to Gerard, hey, bring him over! I had the first Hazey Jane album years ago, when I was at school, and I’m just dying to know what you’ve been up to since. It’s not as if… I mean, you’re looking good!’
Lol blinked. Stephie Stock wore a short white summer dress, like a low-cut tennis frock. She was considerably younger, conspicuously more animated than her husband who, close up, was looking as worn and grey as you might expect after last night in the Hop Devil. She’s a mouse, Simon St John had said dismissively. What other kind of woman would Stock marry?
‘Steph, this is Merrily Watkins,’ Stock said. This was a different Stock, sober and withdrawn. He had raised no objections to Lol being here, expressed no particular surprise that Lol and Merrily were acquainted. The feeling Lol had was that Stock was just relieved it wasn’t Simon.
Stephanie slowly let go of Lol’s hand, running her warm, slender fingers to the tips of his. She looked at Merrily and her wide mouth flexed into a one-sided grin. ‘You know, it’s still really strange to see a woman with the full-’
‘Steph was brought up a Catholic,’ Stock said quickly. ‘Convent girl.’
‘And, let me tell you, you don’t escape that easily,’ Stephanie said ruefully.
Lol was studying her. He still couldn’t be sure. He remembered that his Lady of the Bines had had darkish hair, stringy. Or maybe just wet. Stephanie’s hair was golden brown, shorter, looked altogether healthier. As did the woman herself: smiling, confident, in essence not the keening banshee wreathed in dead bines. But then nor was this the Stephanie Stock he’d been told about.
‘Coffee?’ Stephie offered. ‘Beer? Wine?’
Merrily shook her head. ‘Maybe afterwards.’
‘Afterwards! Wow. This is really going to happen, isn’t it?’
‘Of course it is!’ Stock snapped. Then he straightened up, pulling his shoulders back.
‘Poor love,’ said Stephie. ‘He gets so spooked. One thing about Catholicism, it teaches you not to be too afraid of what goes bump, right? Look, Mary-’
‘Right. Sorry. Look, am I… suitably dressed for this? I could go up and change.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ Merrily said. ‘I was saying to Gerard earlier, I don’t like this kind of service to seem sinister, because it’s basically about liberation. We’re asking God to give you back your home and at the same time free Stewart’s spirit from this earth and let him go into the light. In fact, it could be that when we’ve finished, you’ll notice a difference here.’
‘Let’s just see what happens.’
‘Wow,’ said Stephie.
She seemed very young to Lol. Although she had to be over thirty, she still had the confidence of inexperience — innocence, even. He couldn’t understand, seeing her now, why she’d kept such a low profile locally, why neither Prof nor Simon had ever met her. It couldn’t be that Stock had kept her penned up like some exotic pet; she didn’t seem the kind of person you could treat that way. And anyway, she was the one who went out to work while he stayed at home.
‘So, how much time have you got?’ Merrily asked her.
‘Well, I’m currently temping for this big car-dealer and it’s quite busy… but I guess I’ve got two hours. Is that enough? I mean, I can phone them…’
‘Let’s see how it goes. Erm… Stephanie, I’ve already asked Gerard, but is there anything else you think I ought to know?’
‘About Uncle Stewart?’
‘Well, not really, I’m just — I’m just glad you’re doing this for Gerard. I’m glad someone’s taking him seriously.’
‘But how do you feel about it?’
‘How do I feel?’
‘You don’t seem too scared.’
‘What’s to be scared about? He’s my uncle. My charming, camp old Uncle Stew.’
Merrily smiled tentatively. Lol could see her dilemma. Trying to put them at their ease, saying she didn’t want it to be sinister. But this girl seemed more at ease than the exorcist.
‘OK, then,’ Merrily said. ‘Let’s make a start. I want to organize some things in the kiln area. What I’d like the two of you to do is sit quietly and think about… about what this is for. Think about Stewart. Think about helping Stewart. Maybe recall some happy memories of him?’
Stock snorted mildly.
‘I can think of some,’ Stephie said.
‘Good.’ Merrily beckoned to Lol. ‘And, Gerard… maybe you can think in terms of reconciliation, like we talked about.’
The airline bag was open at her feet. She brought from it one flask and placed it on the table.
‘This was once a hop-crib,’ Lol observed. ‘See the crosspieces? There’d be like a big canvas hammock thing hanging here.’
‘Gosh,’ Merrily said, ‘you know your way around hops, then.’
‘There’s a museum down the road. They’ve got several cribs.’ Lol sensed that Merrily was less sure about all this now, after meeting Mrs Stock. He wondered if he should tell her about the Lady of the Bines.
He looked around the circular wall of old bricks, some of them actually blackened by the furnace. It was like being in a big chimney and nearly as dark. Apart from the stove and a tall, juddering fridge everything in here seemed to be still hop-related. Even the shelves on which crockery was piled looked old and stained.
‘OK,’ Merrily said quietly. She looked around the kitchen, then took down one of the coffee cups, put it in the centre of the table. She bent and took a small canister out of the airline bag, stepped back, closed her eyes.
Lol moved away, looking down at his trainers. He couldn’t quite believe he was doing this. He felt privileged to be here, but that didn’t make him feel any closer to her. She was The Reverend Watkins.
Merrily said softly, ‘We come to bless this place and pray that the presence of God may be known and felt in it. We pray that all which is evil and unclean may be driven from it. As a sign of the pouring forth and cleansing of God’s Holy Spirit, which we desire for this place, we use this water. Water has been ordained by Christ for use in the sacrament of Baptism…’
She poured water from the flask into the coffee cup, whispered to Lol, ‘We’re guarding against anything else that might be around.’
He nodded. The fridge rattled.
‘Lord God Almighty, the Creator of life, bless this water. As we use it in faith, forgive us our sins, support us in sickness and protect us from the power of evil.’
Merrily made the sign of the cross, opened her eyes and picked up the small canister. She took off the lid: salt. She blessed the salt, sprinkled some on the water. ‘Water for purification,’ she explained softly to Lol. ‘Salt representing the element of earth. A formidable combination. In any religion.’
Merrily stepped back from the table. ‘You up for this, Lol?’
Merrily put her right hand briefly over his. Her fingers were cooler than Stephie Stock’s. The light, at close to noon, glanced off her pectoral cross. Lol thought, unhappily, of vampires.
‘I think we can bring them in now,’ Merrily said.
It was particularly during a Requiem Eucharist that images of the departed had been known to appear, sometimes standing next to the priest. They would usually look solid and entirely natural, an extra member of a select congregation.
Sometimes, as the rite was concluding, they would smile.
Gratitude. The received wisdom was that the hovering essence, presented with an overview and offered assistance, would usually recognize the pointlessness and the tedium of haunting. Nine out of ten cases, Huw Owen had told his students, they’re not going to resist you. They’ll not fight. Most times you’ll get a welcome like an AA van at a breakdown on the M4.
And so sometimes they appeared. Smiling.
Actually, this had never happened to Merrily — either that or she wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to have noticed. Always nervous enough, anyway, before it began. Who was she to go dancing on the great boundary wall?
Never, never, never show nerves, Huw Owen would warn his students. All the same, don’t let them think it’s a bloody tea party.
A balancing act, then, these dealings with the dead.
Initially, Merrily had prepared for a Requiem for Stewart Ash. The dining table, the converted hop-crib, was to be her altar. On it, she’d set out wine in a small chalice she kept in the airline bag and communion wafers in a Tupperware container.
And then — woman priest’s privilege? — she’d changed her mind.
Question of sledgehammer and nuts, Huw had said more than once. You don’t even get out the nutcrackers if you can squeeze it open between finger and thumb.
So she ended up telling the Stocks she didn’t think there were enough people here for a valid requiem — not enough committed Christians (she didn’t actually say that). She’d explained to them that she proposed, in this first instance, to offer a prayer commending the soul of Stewart Ash to God, and maybe a prayer of penitence for his killer, followed by a blessing of each room, a sprinkling of holy water.
A Eucharist for Stewart would be the next step if all this proved ineffective.
Gerard Stock had nodded: whatever the priest thought best.
Stewart’s book on hop-growing still lay on the table. Merrily was unsure about this. Perhaps it should have been taken away; it represented his work, part of his attachment to the earth which it was now necessary to break. His other known attachment had been to young men; how strong was that now? The pull of earthly obsession: weakened, but not necessarily severed by death.
In the otherwise-silence of the kiln, the growling refrigerator was an unstable presence; its noises varied and fluctuating, as if it were trying to tell her something.
It remained the most powerful prayer of all, an exorcism in itself. This was how they all should begin.
How you took it from there… well, there was always an element of playing it by ear, by sensation, by perception — always remembering that, in the end, it wasn’t you doing this; you were only the monkey, you didn’t have any powers. You could only respond to signals.
In the kiln-house kitchen, the sun shone through as best it could; the fridge still shivered. The timing seemed about right: nearly noon, the time of no shadows. Nothing sinister.
Merrily offered the prayer conversationally, with only a little extra stress on the crucial line ‘… and deliver us from evil.’
Four of them in a semicircle in this half-lit brick funnel. Gerard Stock with shoulders back, eyes closed, lips invisible in the beard. But she knew now that those moist, rosebud lips were clamped tight on Gerard’s hidden agenda — oh, there was one, something raging inside him, like the fire in a brick furnace. Merrily was sensing anger and frustration made unbearable by fear. Even Fred Potter, the journalist, had picked up on that. But fear of what, exactly?
‘For ever and ever. Amen.’
‘Amen.’ An echo from Gerard Stock and Lol.
‘Sorry.’ Stephanie giggled. ‘Amen.’
Convent girl, huh?
There was — and face it, it could be relevant — almost certainly a problem in Stock’s marriage, no concealing that. Stephanie’s eyes were wide open, the twist of a smile on her lips — not taking this seriously and not caring who knew. There were perhaps twenty years between her and Gerard. Maybe he’d been slim and successful when they’d met — glamorous parties, cool contacts. Now he was looking florid and finished — career-wise, anyway.
Stephanie was standing between the two men, but closer to Lol than to Stock, their shoulders sometimes even touching, and Stephanie’s was bare, her strap slipping, and Merrily felt a stirring of-
Whatever the emotion was, she squashed it. She was the priest here.
All right: the metaphysics.
Had the transition of Stewart Ash simply been too sudden? Merrily caught a cold, shocking image of the spirit flung out, flailing and struggling, as the skull went crack, crack, crack, crack on the flags, an implosion of shattered bone and dying brain cells. Huw Owen again: Most hauntings are imprints, caused by the atmospheric shock of sudden death. Your imprint is no great problem — a tape loop, a magic-lantern show. It’s with the insomniacs and the sleepwalkers you need a bit of one-to-one.
Or was there, as Gerard Stock had suggested, a powerful, residual sense of injustice because the nature of the crime had been misunderstood, the wrong people convicted?
Merrily prayed silently to understand, to get a feeling of what was needed, and then intoned aloud: ‘O God, forasmuch as without You we are not able to please You, mercifully grant that Your Holy Spirit may, in all things, direct and rule our hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
‘Amen’ — Stock and Lol. Nothing from Stephanie — she looked hazy, suspended in the column of the midday sun. Next to her Stock seemed dense, leaden. Was Stephie already building another life for herself, away from here? And where would Stock be if she left him? This was, after all, her house.
‘At this point, we’ll have… a period of quiet,’ Merrily said. ‘If that’s OK.’
‘Sure.’ Stephanie’s voice was crisp, and Stock glared at her, like a disapproving father, but said nothing. Merrily turned her face away from a collision of light beams emanating from the tiny trinity of windows, and looked down at the flags where Stewart Ash had been taken down, and then closed her eyes.
Careful not to reach out for him or call him back. It was about being receptive. She kept her eyes shut, allowing any unfocused thoughts to drift away. There was a metallic shudder from the fridge, then comparative quiet.
In her head: Stewart… don’t be afraid to let go. I know it’s very confusing for you. You must have been utterly terrified — and outraged. You must have felt, along with the pain, a terrible sense of betrayal. Perhaps you’re still feeling that. But there’s no progression without forgiveness. Try to release your resentment, the sense of injustice. We’re with you. God’s with you. Let go. Please.
She lifted her face towards the central window, now framing the full sun, an orange glow through her eyelids. Appealing now to Jesus Christ to come into this place, because it was always better to welcome in the light than simply drive out the darkness.
‘Jesus, we ask that Stewart might be free of all earthly bonds. Free to go into the light and the warmth and the sublime reality of Your eternal love.’
She bent her head.
The commendation came next: a call to the spirit, in the name of its creator, to leave this world. An appeal to God to send His angels to meet Stewart, guide him home. Something told her to omit the prayers of penitence for the killers. Keep the killers out of this, whoever they might be.
Next: the cleansing.
‘Father, You have overcome the power of death, strengthen us now with Your spirit and make us worthy to perform correctly the blessing of this home. Let evil spirits be put to flight and may the angel of peace enter in. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Lol thought, This has to be a scam. But who’s using who?
He watched the priest, his friend, through half-closed eyes — her hands together, the tips of her fingers parallel with the bridge of her nose, the pectoral cross catching the sun through the inverted V of her black-sheathed forearms.
Doing her best for these people: no scam, no sham.
Merrily. If there was only…
Stephanie Stock’s bare arm slid up against his own, again. He tried not to think about it.
Merrily opened her eyes to a light lancing through the central window, was momentarily blinded and felt an intense heat all around her, as though there was still a furnace in here and the doors had been flung open.
She felt sweat on her forehead and a harsh rawness at the back of her throat. She fought the urge to cough.
It had caught her off guard. Until then, there’d been nothing: a growing sense of anticlimax, no sense at all of Stewart Ash. Now the kiln seemed claustrophobic, suddenly stifling, and when the fridge grated like a passing container lorry she realized what she’d forgotten to do.
She saw Lol watching her, a flaring of alarm in his eyes. She put a hand to her throat, swallowed. Her throat was burning. She was gasping on a stench of gunpowder and rotten eggs and the smell of cheap fireworks from when she was a kid, fierce and searing as a jet from a blowlamp, hot breath of hell.
The Brimstone Tray
As she struggled for breath, she was asking herself Is this real? and turning to glance at the stove in case it was pumping black smoke.
Then Lol’s voice: ‘Merrily…?’
His normal voice — no wheezing, no coughing. He wasn’t getting it; none of the others were. She began to utter in her head the lines of St Patrick’s Breastplate: Christ be with me, Christ within me…
Hand to her mouth, she crossed the room and pulled open the door leading to the hop-store-turned-living-room. Rushed in and grabbed a wooden dining chair to wedge the door open.
Christ behind me, Christ before me…
Huw Owen coming through. What’ve you forgotten, Merrily? Huw putting them through their paces in a Victorian chapel in the Brecon Beacons. DOORS! All of them… cat-flaps… cupboards… open and wedge… firmly… come on… it’s not a joke! Do it! Open and wedge! OPEN AND WEDGE!
She dragged open the door of the huge old fridge… a cold, white bulb blinking on inside. Then the heavy door began to swing back on her and she pulled down two bottles of Chardonnay from a shelf inside to set on the flags and wedge it open. When she turned back into the room, Lol was moving towards her.
She croaked, ‘No!’
One of them must have jogged the hop-crib table, because the chalice instantly tipped over and the red wine began dribbling into the cracks in the wood. Why hadn’t she put away the sacrament when her plan for the Eucharist was shelved? Why hadn’t she done that?
She snatched the flask of holy water to safety as the spilled wine dripped down and pooled in the outline of Stewart’s bloodstain on the flags below.
When she could manage to speak, she said, ‘It’s all right. Not what I thought.’ It came out both hoarse and shrill, no kind of reassurance.
What she meant was: It’s not Stewart Ash. Something was loose, playing with her senses, but it wasn’t Stewart.
‘Grant, Lord-’ She broke off and took a deep breath, watching droplets of holy water from her flask twinkling in a channel of sunlit dust. ‘Grant, Lord, to all who shall work in this room that in serving others they may serve you.’
But in her voice, the recommended blessing for a kitchen sounded as potent as watered milk. She’d blown it. She’d been unprepared, had come in here, unforgivably, as a partial sceptic, her mind absorbed by something else, and whatever was here had known it and gone for her and only her.
What is it? What’s here? Who are you?
She cleared her throat, hands trembling around the flask. She could still taste the sulphur. Stephanie Stock was watching her, amused, as if storing up the whole event for a party anecdote — Stephie’s famous impression of the loopy woman who thought she was an exorcist.
‘The living room?’ Merrily asked.
Gerard Stock nodded. He kept glancing at the small pool of wine on the floor, now a stain on the stain.
But Stock was sweating, wet patches the size of dinner plates under each arm. I’ve lost it, Merrily thought in horror, I’ve let it through. It’s come through me! She was aware of Lol watching her intently, as if there were only the two of them here. Lol, who rarely judged, almost never condemned — because he was a loser and a wimp, he’d insist.
Stock began to lead the way into the living room. She stopped him, a hand on his arm.
‘Gerard, I think I… need to go first.’
How ridiculous that must sound from the smallest person in the place, and plainly incompetent. She saw Stephanie suppressing a smile, with difficulty. And then she goes, ‘Gerard, I need to go first…’ Howls of laughter.
In the living room, the only smell was a faint aroma of mould from the two heavy armchairs and the lumpy sofa. Merrily called on God to unite all who met therein in true friendship and love. It sounded trite and hollow. She saw a wood-burning stove and over it a framed photograph of a younger, slimmer Gerard Stock with two people she didn’t recognize and the late Paula Yates.
Of course, she should already have known where it was. She should have been up there already. Should have been all round this place.
‘Through that doorway,’ Stock said, ‘and the stairs are on the left.’
The bedroom was instant vertigo.
Lol came last up narrow, wooden stairs that were not much more than a loft-ladder, passing through where a trapdoor must once have been, joining the Stocks and Merrily on the platform where hops had once been strewn to dry. It was floor-boarded now, but it didn’t feel safe, somehow — probably because you emerged gazing straight up into the apex of the big timber-lined cone, the witch’s hat of the hop-kiln, all that dark-stained wood rising to the wind-cowl.
Someone had switched on lights — metal-cased bulkhead lamps bolted to the sloping walls. Just as well; the only windows up here were like the arrow slits in a church belfry. On a stormy night, Lol thought, it would be either wildly exhilarating or terrifying.
‘We’ve got quite a lot to do up here yet, as you can see,’ Stephie Stock said, as if they were potential buyers viewing the place.
‘Shut up,’ Stock rasped.
What a turnaround: bullying, boisterous Stock become all edgy and anxious. Swaggering Stock turned sober and tense. His back to the wall. His back to Stephanie. And to the bed.
The only furniture — apart from a modern sectional wardrobe, its louvred doors now being flung open by Merrily — was a double bed without a headboard, still unmade. Stephie went to sit on the edge, crossing her legs. Lol was aware of a slightly sour amalgam of scents, including — he was fairly sure — hops. Hop-pillows, maybe… or the residue of millions of rustling hop-cones?
Sleep? Fucking hops work like rhino horn. Fact, man. Me and Steph, we’re living in an old kiln, walls impregnated with as much essence of hop as… as the beer poor old Derek can’t pump. My wife… leaves scratches a foot long down my back.
The other Gerard Stock. The one who did not bring his wife to the pub.
From the bed, Stephie gave Lol a conspiratorial smile. Her golden-brown hair was in provocative disarray, her eyes still and knowing; she was now the only one of them who appeared entirely relaxed.
Lol smiled briefly, uncomfortably, turned away to look for Merrily. Something had happened to her down there, maybe just an attack of nerves, and she’d temporarily lost the plot and then recovered. Now she was moving round the sloping wall with her bottle of holy water, and she looked forlorn, vulnerable, like a child.
He felt useless — worse than that, faithless; he didn’t believe this exercise was helping anyone, least of all the murder victim. He didn’t know why they were here at all, what Stock was after. He felt superfluous and embarrassed, an extra. He felt Merrily was being made a fool of — joke vicar. He felt an irrational and unusual urge to put a stop to this melodrama, demand an explanation — what Prof Levin, with style and finesse, would have done ages ago.
Only two people were taking this seriously now, pressing on.
‘Stand up,’ Stock said tiredly to his wife. ‘Please.’ It was clear to Lol now that, whether Stock believed in the power of the Holy Spirit or not, this was something he still very much wanted to happen.
Stephie came languidly to her feet, stood by the bed. Merrily moved into the centre of the room, and they formed a small circle, the boards creaking.
‘Lord God, our Heavenly Father,’ Merrily began, ‘you, who neither slumber nor sleep, bless this bedroom…’
Water flying again like a handful of diamonds. The bedroom formally cleansed and blessed, but nothing, for Lol, seemed to have changed. At the end, flask in hand, Merrily stood at the top of the stairs. Her forehead was gleaming. She faced the bed.
‘Lord God…’ Her voice was louder now, Lol sensing defiance. ‘Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity.’ With her right hand, she made the sign of the cross. ‘Bless…’ Another cross. ‘… hallow and…’ again. ‘… sanctify this home, that in it there may be joy and gladness, peace and love, health and…’
The noise came out of her surplice. She drew a wretched breath and closed her eyes, carried on.
‘… goodness, and thanksgiving always… to You, Father, Son and…’
It didn’t stop; it shrilled and shrilled, piercing the prayer like a skewer, over and over.
‘… Holy Spirit,’ Merrily’s voice shook. ‘And let Your blessing rest upon this house and those who…’
With a peal of pure joy, Stephanie Stock reeled back on to the bed. A shoulder strap slipped all the way down, half uncovering a breast, with two livid scratches forking up from the nipple.
‘I think you’d better answer that, vicar,’ Stephie squeaked, convulsed. ‘It might be God.’
The minutes after midday. A brutal sun. Global warming: so un-British. Christ. Merrily pressed her back against the ouside brick wall. She’d pulled off her surplice, and she buried her face in it for a moment.
‘I’m so… so sorry.’
‘These things happen.’ Stock was beside her, sour with sweat.
‘I switched it off. I was sure I’d switched it off. I distinctly remember switching it off.’
‘You don’t understand.’ He leaned his face into hers, suddenly almost aggressive, his eyes red and squinting in the full sun. ‘These… things… happen here. They happen. I thought you knew this stuff.’
In a pocket of Merrily’s cassock, the mobile phone went again.
‘Answer it,’ Stock said. ‘Go on… answer it. There’ll be nobody there. I guarantee there’ll be nobody there.’
‘Don’t go,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to go.’
Skirt hitched up, shoes kicked off, she was squatting at the top end of the bed, her head back against the wooden wall. She raised a hand. A double click, and two of the bulkhead lights went out, leaving only the one over the bed still on. She was very much in shadow now, and there was no doubt at all any more. She was from his dreams.
‘Look.’ She was reaching down now, to the side of the bed, then underneath. A rustling. ‘Remember…’
Merrily had left very quickly, making the sign of the cross, then almost stumbling down the stairs, with her phone still screeching; she couldn’t seem to switch it off. Stock was right behind her, Lol making to follow, until Stephanie had called him, sultry siren in a slippery tennis dress, slipping off. She glanced down at it, then back at Lol, blinking hard as if trying to wake up. ‘He won’t come back,’ she said rapidly. ‘He’ll see the vicar off and then he’ll go to the pub, drink himself stupid, come crawling home in the early hours. Collapse on the couch, like the sad pig he’s become.’
‘What’s to be sorry about?’ She lifted a forefinger, crooking it at him. Baring her teeth. She said something he didn’t understand, which began with a sibilance. ‘Usha…’ He didn’t like it. He started down the wooden steps. It was the sound that made him look back — he had to — and he saw her haloed under the utility lamp, fingered by the slitted sunlight.
‘… A kam mangela.’
She was breathing hard, her breath surrounding her, it seemed, like a chilled mist.
‘I warn you,’ he heard, ‘don’t say no to me now.’
The voice came rolling warmly out of the phone, so loud Merrily had to pull it away from her ear. Stock heard and hmmmphed and walked away, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets.
‘Merrily! Wasn’t sure I’d get you. Knew you couldn’t be in church, this time of day. Least, I thought you wouldn’t.’
‘You had lunch yet, Merrily?’
‘Charlie, listen, I’m with somebody right now.’
‘Oh, I am sorry,’ Charlie Howe said. ‘Just that I’ve got some information for you, my dear. Talking to Brother Morrell last night about this sad business with the Shelbone girl, and a couple of things rather clicked into place, and I thought… I thought you ought to know about them, that’s all. And, of course, I also thought you might like some lunch.’
‘Well, thanks, but… actually, I don’t feel too hungry. I was thinking of-Well, it’s been a complicated morning.’
‘A coffee, then. I’ll be here for an hour or so yet.’
‘The Green Dragon in Broad Street? If you don’t manage to show up, look, give me a ring tonight — though I’ll be out till quite late. But you might find it worth your while, I’ll say n’more than that.’
‘All right. Thanks. That’s very good of-Charlie, how did you get this number?’
He laughed. ‘That Sophie Hill’s a hard one to crack, but her armour’s got its weak points, like everyone else’s. My, you do sound a bit subdued, girl. Nothing else going wrong in your life, is there? Can’t take on all the troubles of the world.’
‘No.’ She saw Gerard Stock walking back towards her and realized how badly she wanted to get away from here. ‘I’ll try and get over there. I’ll do my best.’
Gerard Stock had made an irritable circuit of the yard and, as he came beefing back, she saw the change at once and got in first.
‘Gerard, would you do something for me?’ He looked suspicious. ‘If I give you some prayers, would you be sure to say them?’
He stared at her.
‘I’ve got some appropriate ones printed out in a case in the car,’ she said. ‘I’d like you to say them at specific times. Both of you, if possible. If not… one of you will do.’
‘That going to help, is it, Merrily?’
For the first time, he was challenging her. Was this because she’d quite clearly messed up in there? Or was it because his wife was no longer with them? So where is she? And where’s Lol?
‘It will help,’ she assured him. ‘But I’d also like to come back again. I think this may need more attention. And more preparation than we were able to give it today.’
‘You and liddle Lol?’
She sighed. ‘Like I said, I’ve known Lol Robinson for some time, although I didn’t know he was living here. He’s somebody I can trust, that’s all.’
‘He’s a bloody psychotherapist. That why you brought him? Just tell me the truth.’
‘No. Really.’ She shook her head. ‘And he’s not yet officially a therapist, anyway.’
‘So what was it that made up your mind?’
‘What I’m asking’ — he tilted his head, scrutinizing her sideways — ‘is what happened, liddle lady, to make you decide I wasn’t after all just a scheming townie trying to shaft his neighbours?’
‘I’d never decided you were.’
‘Because something did happen in there, didn’t it?’
She took a breath. ‘All right, something happened.’
‘So tell me. I’ve got to go on living here.’
‘Tell me something. What does sulphur mean to you?’
‘Is there anything around here that might… or might once have… released sulphur fumes?’
‘Not now. Not any more.’
He shrugged. ‘I’ll show you.’
She followed him back into the kitchen. The gloom seemed at once oppressive — or was she imagining that? He went straight to the wall where the implements hung, brought down a short pole with what looked like an ashpan from a stove or grate attached. He sniffed at it.
‘Can’t smell anything now.’ He thrust it towards her. ‘Can you?’
‘What is it?’
‘Was known, I’m told, as a brimstone tray. Used for feeding rolls of sulphur into the furnace.’
‘Why’d they do that?’
‘Some sort of fumigation. It also apparently made the drying hops turn yellow, which the brewers preferred for some reason. Made the beer look even more like piss, I don’t know. I don’t think they do it any more.’
‘Would sulphur have any special interest for Stewart Ash? Can you think of-?’
‘You’re saying you smelled sulphur.’
He tilted his head again. ‘Fire and brimstone… Merrily?’
‘That was what it smelled like. Could be argued it was subjective, I suppose.’
‘Oh… subjective.’ Stock held the wooden shaft of the brimstone tray with both hands like a spade. ‘There’s a good psychologist’s word. Why don’t we ask Lol what he thinks?’
‘Like you said, things are inclined to go awry in there. A few minor elements which, when you put them together, suggest a volatile atmosphere. Not necessarily connected with the murder of Stewart Ash.’
‘I would like to come back, Mr Stock.’ She saw Lol in the doorway. ‘What about tonight?’
‘To do what?’
‘There are quite a few things-’
Stock hurled the brimstone tray to the stone with cacophonous force.
Merrily flinched but didn’t move. ‘-things we can still try.’
‘You don’t really know what the fuck you’re doing, do you?’ Stock snarled.
Lol walked in.
‘No… geddout… both of you.’ Stock picked up the chalice and the Tupperware box of communion wafers, shoved them in the airline bag, tossed the bag to the flags near Merrily’s feet. ‘You’re a waste of time, Merrily. I heard you were a political appointment.’
Merrily bit her lip.
‘Been better off with the fucking arse-bandit,’ Stock said.
‘Well…’ Lol picked up the bag. ‘This is actually quite reassuring. For a while back there, I was almost convinced you’d been possessed by the spirit of a nice man.’
Stock looked at him silently, then back at Merrily. He was waiting for them to go.
Merrily paused at the door. ‘I’d like to come back. If not me, then someone else.’
‘Geddout,’ Stock said.
‘Merrily!’ Charlie Howe stood up, tossing his Telegraph to one of the tables in the hotel reception area. He was wearing a creased cream suit and a yellow tie with the lipsticked impression of a woman’s red lips printed on it, as though it had been kissed. He looked genuinely delighted to see her. Putting an arm around her shoulders, he steered her into the coffee lounge. ‘What a job you’ve got, girl: devils and demons on a wonderful summer’s day.’
She’d shed the cassock, was back in the T-shirt. ‘How d’you know I wasn’t doing a wedding?’
‘Contacts.’ Charlie tapped his long leathery nose.
‘Sophie’ll be mortified.’
‘When Mrs Hill wouldn’t tell me where you were, look, nigh on forty years of being a detective told me a wedding wasn’t an option.’
‘Pathetic, more like.’ He pointed to a window table. ‘Over there?’
‘Fine.’ She followed him. ‘Why pathetic?’
‘’Cause I miss it, of course.’ They sat down. ‘Don’t let any retired CID man tell you he don’t miss it. I’m even jealous of my own daughter.’
‘I’m jealous of your daughter,’ Merrily said ambivalently.
Charlie laughed and patted her wrist. ‘Scones,’ he said. ‘I feel like some scones. You don’t diet, do you?’
‘My whole job’s a diet.’
‘Scones, my love,’ he called to the waitress before she’d even made it to the table. ‘Lashings of jam and heaps of fresh cream. And coffee.’
‘Just spring water for me, please, Charlie, I’m afraid I don’t have very long. I’m sorry.’
She and Lol were due to meet at the Deliverance office in the gatehouse at five. Lol had said he had things to tell her, but neither of them had wanted to hang around Knight’s Frome. It was a blessing, in Merrily’s view, that someone like Lol had been there, seen the way it had gone, the two faces of Gerard Stock.
‘We better get down to it, then,’ Charlie said. ‘Brother Shelbone.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘Not wrong about that one, were you, Merrily? As for the little lass…’
He looked pained. ‘Give me some credit, girl. This suicidal Shelbone child and that kiddie getting messages from her dear dead mother, courtesy of Allan Henry’s stepdaughter — one and the same, or what?’
‘You never retired at all, did you?’
‘I tell you, my sweet,’ said Charlie Howe, ‘the longer you live in this little county, the more you wonder how anybody manages to keep anything a secret. There are connections a-crisscrossing here that you will not believe.’
‘She was very lucky, mind — the child. The version I heard, the mother only found out because she’d got a headache herself, and saw the aspirins were down to about three in the bottom of the jar. Another half-hour and your colleague over in Dilwyn would’ve had a very sad funeral.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No cry for help, this one. Kiddie must’ve been messed up big-time. You were dead right, and Brother Morrell was dead wrong, out of touch.’
‘He didn’t know the full circumstances.’
‘Nor wanted to, Merrily, nor wanted to. I tell you another thing — nobody who was at the Christmas Fair’s likely to forget that girl of Allan Henry’s. Jesus Christ, no…’ He looked suddenly appalled. ‘Oh, I am sorry. Easy to forget what you do, Reverend, when you’re out of uniform.’
‘Doesn’t offend me, Charlie, long as it’s not gratuitous. Keeps His name in circulation.’
Charlie Howe raised both eyebrows. The scones arrived. ‘Put plenty of jam on,’ Charlie said. ‘You’ll be needing the blood sugar.’
Then on to David Shelbone. ‘Got to admire him, really,’ Charlie said. ‘Sticks his neck out for what he believes. You know anything about listed buildings?’
‘I live in one.’
‘So you do.’
‘Frozen in the year 1576. I pray we never get an inspection, because my daughter’s created what she calls The Mondrian Walls in her attic… all the squares of nice white plaster and whatever between the beams are now painted different colours.’
‘Good example,’ Charlie said. ‘Most listed-buildings officers would let that one go, because you can always paint them over again in white. Brother Shelbone — forget it. A stickler. Told one of our lady councillors she had to take down a conservatory porch she’d put on her farmhouse. When the good councillor tries to square it with the department under the table, it gets leaked to the press. Red faces all round. That’s David Shelbone: staunch Christian, not for sale.’
‘And that’s bad, is it?’
Charlie grinned. ‘Oh, it’s not bad. It’s good, it’s remarkable — and that’s the point. In the world of local government, a very religious man who cannot tell a lie or condone dishonesty of any kind is remarkable.’
‘Meaning a pain in the bum.’
‘Correct. It was widely thought that when the councils were all reorganized, he’d get mislaid, as it were, in the changeover. But he survived.’
He looks after the old places, makes sure nobody knocks them down or tampers with them. Hazel Shelbone in the church. They offered him early retirement last year, but he said he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
Merrily licked jam from a finger. ‘His wife indicated he’d been under some pressure.’ Migraines, Hazel had explained. ‘Maybe that’s not been a happy household for a while.’
She didn’t look at Charlie Howe, helped herself to a second scone. Anything said to her by Mrs Shelbone ought to be treated as confidential; on the other hand, Charlie expected give and take. After forty years in the police and now local government, it would be how his mind worked.
‘Pressure,’ he said. ‘Oh, no question about that. Brother Shelbone’s under serious pressure. Over Barnchurch alone.’
‘The new trading estate, up past Belmont?’
‘Source of much weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ Charlie confirmed.
‘Well, it looks awful,’ Merrily said. ‘There was a time, not too many years ago, when Hereford used to resemble a country town. I mean, do we really need a supermarket every couple of hundred yards? DIY world? Computerland? It’s like some kind of commercial purgatory between rural paradise and traffic hell.’
‘My, my.’ Charlie added cream to his coffee.
He leaned back, hands clasped behind his head. ‘What do you know about the origins of Barnchurch? The history of the site.’
‘Fields and woodland, home to little birds and animals.’
‘Gethyn Bonner? You know about him?’
‘Not a thing.’
‘Thought you’d know about Gethyn Bonner. He was a preacher. Came up from the Valleys in the 1890s, sometime like that.’
‘Ten a penny,’ Merrily said with a small smile.
‘Tell a few of my colleagues that. Tell English Heritage.’
‘I’m not following.’
‘Gethyn Bonner was an itinerant firebrand preacher with a big following, who came out of Merthyr Tydfil and decided Hereford was the land of milk and honey.’
‘As you do.’
Charlie drank some coffee. ‘Hadn’t got a chapel of his own, but a good Christian farmer, name of Leathem Baxter, had a barn to spare. A few local worthies, including a craftsman builder, all gathered round and they put a big Gothic window in the back wall, and in no time at all Leathem Baxter’s barn was a bona fide church.’
‘Exactly. Well, in time, Gethyn Bonner falls out of favour, as these fellers are apt to do, and moves on up to Birmingham or back to the Valleys, I wouldn’t know which, and Leathem Baxter dies and the church becomes a barn again, and the Gothic window gets bricked up… and it’s all forgotten until the Third Millennium comes to pass.’
‘And, lo, there came property developers…’ said Merrily.
‘Barnchurch Trading Estate Phase One. Should be completed in time for Christmas shopping. Phase Two, however… that’s the problem. Nothing in its way except a derelict agricultural building, not very old — Victorian brick — and falling to bits.’
‘I see.’ Merrily poured some spring water.
‘Well, even before work started on Phase One, the developers had been assured by the Hereford planners that there’d be no bar at all to flattening this unsightly structure — which, as it happens, also blocks the only practical entrance to the site of Phase Two. Reckoning, of course, without Brother Shelbone.’
‘Suddenly, I like him a lot.’
‘Who helpfully points out that, although the building itself is of limited architectural merit and not, in fact, very old, its historical curiosity value makes it a monument well meriting preservation.’
‘It’s fair enough,’ Merrily said. ‘They should’ve consulted him before they started.’
Charlie leaned forward. ‘Merrily, nobody in their right mind consults David Shelbone, they just pray he’s otherwise engaged at the time. Brother Shelbone gets involved, it’s gonner cost you: time and money. And the stress factor.’
‘So he’s put a preservation order on the Barnchurch. Can he do that on his own?’
‘What he does is gets it spot-listed. It then goes to the Council, with a report and a recommendation from Shelbone. Well, this is seen as a very significant project, with considerable economic benefits for the city, and the Council, by a small majority, goes against the advice of the Listed Buildings Officer and declares that the Barnchurch can be flattened.’
‘I don’t remember reading about this in the papers.’
Charlie smiled thinly. ‘The authority has a certain leeway these days to conduct business not considered to be in the public interest less publicly.’
‘Which stinks, of course.’
‘But is quite legitimate. Anyway, David Shelbone isn’t a man to be put off by petty local tyranny. He goes directly to the body responsible for conservation of historic buildings — English Heritage — and they step in. So then-’
‘Which way did you vote, Charlie? Just so we know where we are.’
Charlie Howe grinned, whipped cream on his teeth. ‘I abstained, of course.’
‘Didn’t really think I knew enough about the issue.’
‘Why do I find that hard to believe? So, can English Heritage overrule the Hereford Council?’
‘Not just like that. It’ll have to go to Central Government for a decision. Because what had happened, see, was that the developers had already lodged an appeal contesting the scheduling of an old heap of bricks as a building of historical merit. There’ll be a public inquiry before an inspector from the Department of Culture — or the Ministry of Arty-farty Time-wasters, as one of my colleagues likes to call them.’
‘Which will take time to organize, I suppose.’
‘Months and months — and then more months waiting for a decision. Even if they get the green light at the end of the day, it’s going to’ve cost the developers a vast amount of money, what with all the delays and their contracts with prestigious national chains on the line. In the meantime, some of those firms are bound to go elsewhere. The situation is that Barnchurch Phase Two’s already looking like a financial disaster on a serious scale.’
‘And all because of one man.’
‘You got it.’
‘Who are the developers?’ Merrily asked.
‘Firm called Arrow Valley Commercial Properties.’
Merrily shook her head. ‘Not heard of them.’
‘Subsidiary of Allan Henry Homes,’ said Charlie. ‘You with me, now?’
Merrily put down her scone.
Charlie Howe’s arms were folded. She studied his face, tanned the colour of lightly polished yew. She knew very little about him, either as a councillor or a former senior policeman, but if she had to guess why he was going out of his way to feed her controversial information, she wouldn’t get far beyond the fact that he clearly enjoyed causing trouble — stirring the pot.
‘Gosh,’ she said.
‘You talk for a bit and I’ll listen.’ Charlie glanced around. ‘You’re all right: no witnesses.’
‘Well… phew… where do we start? David Shelbone may well have got himself crossed off Allan Henry’s corporate Christmascard list.’
Charlie poured himself more coffee. ‘You ever actually come across Allan Henry, Merrily?’
‘He doesn’t go to my church.’
‘He’s an ambitious man, and a very lucky man. Things’ve fallen his way. Just a moderately successful small-time house-builder for quite a few years, then his horizons got rapidly wider. Took over Colin Connelly’s little workshop development beyond Holmer when Colin had his accident. And then things started falling into his hands. A few slightly iffy Green Belt schemes, but he got them through. One way or another.’
‘Erm… would you say he found success in ways that might have interested you in your former occupation?’
Charlie Howe said, very slowly, ‘I am saying nothing that might incriminate any of my colleagues on the council.’
‘I see,’ said Merrily.
Charlie drank the rest of his second cup of coffee.
‘So David Shelbone could be getting in quite a few people’s hair.’
‘I think I said as much earlier.’
‘Why are you telling me all this?’
He cupped his hands over his eyes and nose, rubbed for a moment before bringing them down in the praying position.
‘Got nobody else to tell any more,’ he said. ‘Last thing Annie wants is the old man on her back. Most of the people I mix with… well, you never know quite who you’re talking to, do you?’
‘What happened to your… to Annie’s mother?’
‘Oh, it was a police marriage. Average life expectancy five years. Better nowadays, actually. Now there are plenty of professional women around, so you can take up with one who understands all about funny shifts and late-night callouts and having to cancel your fortnight in Ibiza because you’re giving evidence at Worcester Crown Court. Back then, it was this huge majority of full-time housewives and mothers who didn’t understand at all.’
He grinned. ‘Don’t be bloody sorry, vicar. I’ve had a lot more fun in twenty-five unencumbered years than I had with her. Anyway… I met you there at the school and I liked your attitude and I thought we were likely to be on the same wavelength on certain matters. And then that little girl taking the overdose — that rather clinched it.’
‘I don’t much like Brother Henry,’ he said. ‘I don’t like him as a businessman or as… as a man.’
‘Because… well, he’s ruthless and he’s vindictive, for starters. The rest I’d need to think about.’
‘And Layla Riddock’s not even his daughter.’
‘He brought her up, though,’ Charlie said, ‘didn’t he?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Me neither, really. I don’t know how long he and Shirley Riddock have been together. But it makes you think, don’t it just?’
‘He must’ve been very disappointed when certain people failed to persuade David Shelbone to take early retirement.’ Merrily broke off a small piece of scone and then put it back on the plate. ‘Oh hell, this is getting ridiculous.’
‘Nothing’s ridiculous,’ said Charlie Howe. ‘Hello…?’
Merrily looked up. A man had come in through reception and was walking directly towards their table.
‘Well, well,’ Charlie said.
Merrily recognized Andy Mumford, Hereford Division CID. Being promoted to Detective Sergeant in the twilight of his career must have given him new heart, because he’d lost weight. Sadly, it had made him look even more lugubrious.
‘Andrew Mumford, as I live and breathe.’ Charlie beamed but didn’t stand up. ‘This your local now then, boy, in keeping with your new-found status?’
‘Hello, boss,’ Mumford said heavily.
‘Dropped in for some career advice, is it? Stick it as long as you can, I’d say. Half these so-called security jobs, you’re just a glorified caretaker. Have a seat.’
‘I won’t, thank you, boss. In fact, it was actually Mrs Watkins I was looking for.’
‘Well… you can study for the ministry up to the age of sixty,’ Merrily told him, ‘but at the end of it, caretakers still earn more money.’
Mumford didn’t smile. ‘Mrs Watkins, Mr Howe’s daughter and my, er, governor would like it a lot if you could come to her office for a discussion.’
‘Oh.’ She sat up, surprised. ‘OK. I mean… Just give me half an hour. Because I do need to pop over to my office first.’
‘No, Mrs Watkins,’ Mumford said. ‘If you could come with me now…’
‘Only somebody’s going to be waiting for me, you see.’
‘If it’s Mr Robinson you mean,’ Mumford said, ‘we’ve already collected him at the gatehouse.’
Mumford’s unmarked car was parked in one of the disabled-driver spaces at the top of Broad Street. He drove Merrily across town and entered the police car park, from the Gaol Street side.
It was the pleasantest time of day, layered in shades of summer blue. Mumford didn’t have much to say. He’d evidently been warned not to spoil the surprise. But he’d said enough.
Annie Howe had been given a new office. Merrily couldn’t remember how they reached it. She didn’t notice what colours the walls were. She didn’t remember if they’d taken the stairs or the lift. She felt like she was walking on foam rubber through some bare, grey forest in the wintry hinterland of hell.
Howe’s office door was pushed-to, not quite closed; they could hear voices from inside.
He pushed it a little. ‘Ma’am?’
Inside, the room was dim, the window blinds pulled down. Merrily could see a TV set, switched on. The picture on the screen looked down at a group of people standing about awkwardly, looking at each other as if they didn’t know what to do next.
‘… oom?’ a woman said.
One of the others, a man, nodded and walked across the screen and out of shot.
‘Better wait here a moment, Mrs Watkins,’ Mumford said.
On the TV screen, nobody moved for a second or two, then a woman, much shorter, followed the man.
The sound was not very good, with lots of hiss; you could hear the voice, although you couldn’t see who was speaking.
The voice said awkwardly, ‘Gerard, I think I… need to go first.’
Poppies in the Snow
‘Sit down, Merrily.’ Annie Howe switched off the TV. She went over to the window and reeled up the blind, revealing a small yard and the back of the old magistrates’ court.
It was possibly the first time she’d said ‘Merrily’, rather than ‘Ms Watkins’. Using the first name the way police talked to suspects — patronizing, to make them feel lowly and vulnerable.
Right now, it was entirely superfluous. Merrily sat in an armless chair, one with aluminium legs. She felt sick, wishing she’d said no to the scones. And to Gerard Stock.
The last time she and Annie Howe had been face to face, Howe had said, I don’t know how you people can pretend to do your job at all. To me, it’s a complete fantasy world.
Merrily put her hands on her knees. ‘Where’s Lol?’
‘Robinson’s being interviewed separately, by Inspector Bliss.’
‘If you only knew,’ Howe said, ‘how badly I’m wishing there was something I could charge you with.’
She was in white blouse, black skirt. Her ash-blonde hair was tied back. She was wearing maybe a little eyeshadow, mauvish. If she’d worn glasses they would doubtless have been rimless, like a Nazi dentist’s — Jane’s line. Merrily thought, There is absolutely nothing I can tell this woman that she’s going to believe.
She bit her lower lip. The whole office was painted butcher’s-shop white. There were no plants, no photographs. The calendar did not have a picture; it was framed in a metal box, and you expected it to have ten days in a week, ten months in a year. Andy Mumford sat in the corner by the door, presumably in case Merrily should try to do a runner.
‘Still,’ Annie Howe said, ‘I suppose by the time you leave here, you’ll at least be in a better position to assess your own degree of responsibility.’ She ejected the videotape from the machine. ‘At some point you and I will have to watch it all the way through, to verify certain points. Did you know you were being recorded?’
‘No. It never even occurred to me.’
‘Two cameras.’ Howe went to sit behind her desk, which was away from the limited distraction of the window. ‘Semiprofessional: one digital, one hi-eight. Both of them wedged between timbers in the ceiling. It’s a fairly primitive ceiling, with small holes and gaps all over it, so all he had to do was prise up a couple of boards in the bedroom and position the cameras underneath — one wide-angle, one focused on the table. Why do you think he wanted it all on tape?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Of the suggestions so far, the most likely is that he may have been planning to make the material available for some future television documentary. I’m told he’s always looking to the main chance. Perhaps — let’s not overestimate the man’s intelligence — perhaps he thought he might even capture something looking vaguely paranormal.’
‘Media-oriented, I suppose. He’s a… professional PR man.’
‘Really? According to people in the village, he’s a washed-up drunk.’
‘He wasn’t drunk when I was with him,’ Merrily said.
‘No, amazingly, he wasn’t. So you didn’t even hear the cameras? One was quite old and noisy.’
‘There was a big fridge, which made a lot of noise. If I heard anything, I would have assumed it came from that.’
Howe thought for a moment, expressionless. It was hard to credit she was probably only thirty-two years old.
‘Doesn’t seem to have been a very successful exorcism, does it, Ms Watkins? Or are they always like that?’
‘They’re all different, in my limited experience. But no, it wasn’t as… productive as I might have hoped.’
‘Depending on how one interprets the word “productive”.’
‘What time did you leave?’
‘I’m not sure exactly. It couldn’t have been long after midday. I’d suggested we might go back tonight.’
‘He didn’t seem to take that proposal terribly well.’
‘No.’ Merrily was looking down into her lap. Her hands were on her knees, but they wouldn’t stay still.
‘My impression from the tape is that he’d about had enough of you.’
‘He described you as amateurish.’
‘I remember exactly what he said.’
‘You and Robinson left at the same time?’
‘Where did you go?’
‘I drove back to Hereford. I had an appointment to meet someone at the Green Dragon.’
‘You know who; your dad.’
‘Why don’t you ask him?’
‘I’m asking you.’
‘It was in his capacity as a school governor. He rang me while I was at Knight’s Frome to tell me he had some information relating to an attempted suicide by a young girl whose parents thought she was… spiritually troubled.’
Howe’s top lip lifted in disdain. ‘And was this attempted suicide before or after you were called in to assist this child in her alleged religious distress?’
Merrily didn’t answer.
‘Really not your week, is it? Did you go directly to the Green Dragon?’
‘No, I went to the Deliverance office first. I parked on the Bishop’s Palace forecourt which, as you know, is only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Green Dragon.’
‘Was Robinson with you?’
‘He followed in his own car. We had a brief discussion, and then I had to go and meet your father. Lol and I agreed to meet up afterwards.’ She shook her head. ‘Can’t get my-I can’t believe how quickly this all happened.’
‘If it’s any help, the videotape shows that it happened precisely eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after you and Robinson made your last appearance on the tape.’
‘Useful, that videotape.’ Merrily moistened her parched lips.
‘From our point of view, it’s unique. Like being handed a case gift-wrapped with a pretty bow on top.’ Howe stood up, looking down on Merrily. ‘We can even say that it was approximately sixteen minutes after the event itself when Gerard Stock telephoned here, asked to be put through to CID and baldly informed DC Little that he’d just slaughtered his wife.’
It was an interview room with a tape machine, for suspects, and that didn’t help. DI Francis Bliss was about Lol’s age, with red hair, a Merseyside accent and a chatty manner, and that didn’t help either.
It all took Lol back to when he was twenty, a baby rock star… the accused. So hard to tell with young girls these days, isn’t it, Laurence? How old did you think she was? Stitched up by the police and a ruthless bass-player called Karl, and by the parents of a nice girl called Tracy Cooke. Prelude to the great psychiatric symphony.
‘Listen, I’m gonna get yer another cup of tea,’ DI Bliss said.
‘I’m all right, thanks.’
‘You’re not, you know. You’re in shock. Be a shock for anybody.’ Bliss perched on a corner of the interview table. ‘Sorry about this room, but I’m not based here, so I’ve not gor an office of me own. Known Merrily long?’
‘Just over a year.’
‘And you two just met up in the village this morning, after not seeing each other for a few months, and she told you what she was doing and she asked you to go in with her, yeh?’
‘I know that sounds…’
Bliss put out placatory hands. ‘I’m not trying to catch yer out, Lol, I’m just trying to get the basic picture, that’s all.’
‘I was worried about her doing it,’ Lol said.
‘Because of what you knew about Mr Stock?’
‘That’s fair enough, I’d’ve been a teensy bit worried meself after reading that stuff in the papers… and the local vicar himself refusing to have anything to do with him.’
‘It was the vicar who suggested I should try and talk her out of it.’
‘Was it now?’
‘He was suspicious of Stock’s motives. But Merrily doesn’t like to prejudge people.’
‘She’s a very nice person,’ Bliss agreed fervently. ‘I was there during that thing, back before Christmas at… Oh, what was that little church called? Anyway, she was giving it a spiritual clean-out after this bugger broke in and hacked up a crow all over the altar. She wasn’t very well that night, mind.’
‘I wasn’t there.’
‘She was with this priest looked like an old hippy. Hugh somebody. He took it over in the end, ’cause she wasn’t well.’ Bliss had a gulp from a can of Diet Pepsi. ‘See, unlike the Snow Queen in there, I’ve gorra very open mind about all that stuff. Comes with being raised a Catholic in a big Catholic city. You’re a Christian yourself, obviously.’
‘I’m not sure what I am,’ Lol admitted.
‘Just a good friend of Merrily’s, then, Lol.’ Bliss put down the can. ‘Listen, pal, I do know a bit about what happened to you way back, and I accept you may’ve had a bad time with coppers in the past… but I do like Merrily and I fully understand the problem she’d got with this guy. And I know it’s her job, and I realize that after that stuff in the papers there was no way she could duck out of it.’
‘So, you’ve gorra believe me when I say I’m not trying to stitch her up, I’m not trying to stitch either of yer up — it’s just we’ve got a feller down the cells putting up both hands to the big one and, before we start talking seriously to him, we want as much background as we can get. Make sense to you?’
Lol nodded. He decided that, for Merrily’s sake more than his own, maybe he should open up a little to this cop. To a point… a point stopping well short of the Lady of the Bines.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I just-’
‘You’re all right, pal. Take your time.’
‘Truth is, I was on edge from the minute we went in there. I mean, I didn’t think — not in a million years — that the guy was going to do anything like…’
‘Goes without saying.’
‘But everybody who’d had anything to do with Stock was on about what a conman he was, and a manipulator, and how he’d drop you in it without a second thought. Also, I’d seen him in the village pub a couple of times when he was well pissed. Had a big chip on his shoulder about this bloke Adam Lake — virtually suggesting he was behind Stewart Ash’s murder, rather than the two lads who went down for it.’
‘Let’s not open that can of worms for the time being, eh, Lol?’
‘I was just worried he might try and involve Merrily in that.’
‘I don’t know, but she doesn’t like to turn away from anyone.’
‘So what was he like when you and Merrily went along today?’
‘Not himself. I mean, he couldn’t’ve been nicer.’
‘Why was that, you reckon?’
‘Well, it might have been genuine. Maybe he was serious about needing an exorcism, and he didn’t want to put her off or make her suspicious. That was what I started to think, but now… I suppose that’d be for the tape, wouldn’t it? Like, if he was videoing the thing, he’d want to appear on it as a sincere and honest man, genuinely concerned about what was happening in his house.’
‘That’s a good point, Lol.’ Bliss thought about it. ‘Mind, he wasn’t being very appreciative at the end, was he, when he threw yer out?’
‘But he’d got it all in the camera by then, hadn’t he? Everything that counted. The Deliverance stuff. He could just have wiped the end of the tape afterwards.’
‘True. Why’d he turn nasty, you reckon? Apart from his wife’s attitude.’
‘I don’t think there was anything apart from that. Stephanie started taking the piss, so Stock took it out on Merrily.’
Bliss nodded. ‘Certainly the times you see him looking at her you can tell he’s trying to keep his temper — or something. But then, she was a lot younger than him. And clearly not too worried at being in a haunted house. Or was that bravado?’
‘She was a Catholic, like you. Protected. She said earlier — maybe before we went into the kitchen — that she didn’t think Uncle Stewart would do her any harm.’
‘Oh, we’re not scared of ghosts, us Catholics?’ Bliss blew out his lips. ‘News to me. How did Merrily react to the wife?’
‘Tried to ignore it. Just carried on.’
‘A true professional.’
‘A good person,’ Lol said. ‘Doing the best she could.’
‘You’re fond of her, aren’t you?’ Bliss smiled. ‘Who wouldn’t be, eh?’
Lol said, ‘You haven’t told me exactly what he did.’
‘How he killed her?’
Lol looked at Bliss: pale skin, freckles, an unusually small nose.
‘What happened when you all went upstairs, Lol?’
Lol had a terrifying thought: the only cameras in the bedroom were the ones under the floorboards, pointing downwards, but suppose their microphones had picked up the voices from above, during Merrily’s blessing of the upstairs room? And during what happened afterwards, when Merrily had followed Stock downstairs. If there was anything on the tape, the quality would be terrible. But they could work on that. Someone like Prof Levin could clean up the thinnest of recordings.
‘… Just more or less what happened in the kitchen,’ he said. ‘With different words.’
He could tell Bliss about Stephie’s implicit invitation. But it sounded too incredible, unless you knew about the Lady of the Bines incident. Which he’d also kept quiet about. Which he hadn’t even told Merrily about.
Lol blanked it out. He was terrible at cover-ups. He would look furtive, he’d sweat.
Bliss said, ‘Nothing happened up there you think might throw more light?’
‘Not… not that I can think of.’
‘You wanna see the tape, Lol?’
‘Don’t blame yer. But… I think you’re gonna have to. I think we’re gonna have to take the both of you through it. I’m sorry.’ Bliss thought for a moment, then sighed. ‘Look, all right, I’ll be frank wid yer — he’s not saying a lot.’
‘In fact, the bugger’s not saying a thing. Won’t see a solicitor, won’t make a formal statement, just sits there like some bloody big Buddha.’
‘But he phoned you to confess…’
‘Oh aye. When we get there, he hands us the videos. Looking relieved, if anything. He won’t talk about it, though, won’t explain. That’s why you and Merrily are so important to us at the moment.’
‘Don’t tell the Snow Queen I told you that.’
Annie Howe said, ‘Have you heard of the case of Michael Taylor?’
She’s loving this, Merrily thought. A case on a plate.
Me in the toaster.
She was desperate for a cigarette, but she wouldn’t give Howe the satisfaction. She was also desperate for silence, somewhere to collapse and think and, if necessary, scream. Nothing made any sense. Nothing had made sense for days. She felt a welling hatred for Gerard Stock and a bitterness towards Simon St John who had known enough to shut the door in his face.
‘Happened near Barnsley, in Yorkshire.’ Howe was back behind her desk. ‘In the mid-seventies. I know most of the details because of the pseudo-Satanist person we found in the Wye last year. I called up some background on Satanism and related issues, and this case was the first to come up on the screen.’
Merrily closed her eyes and inhaled on an imaginary cigarette. This was one of Huw’s cautionary favourites, which Howe would just love relating.
‘Michael Taylor was thirty-one, a good Christian, a family man — and a member, with his wife, of some local religious group. At some point, for reasons I’ve never found entirely understandable, he came to believe he’d been taken over by the Devil.’
Howe had a set of files on her desk. She opened one and extracted a cellophane folder.
‘Two church ministers agreed that Taylor appeared to be possessed by evil, and they spent all night trying to exorcize him, claiming to have expelled — I think — forty demons — the statistical exactitude here obviously adding important credibility to what most people might consider an inexact science. However, Taylor left the priests early the following morning, went home-’
‘I know,’ Merrily screwed up her eyes in anguish. ‘I know what he did, there’s no need to-’
‘He went home and, with incredible savagery, attacked his wife with his bare hands.’
‘He tore at her skin, ripped out her tongue. And her eyes.’
Merrily leaned her head back, stared at the ceiling.
‘Eventually, she choked to death on her own blood,’ Howe said.
‘And Taylor claimed, in his statement to police’ — Merrily’s voice was starved; she couldn’t look at Howe — ‘that he loved his wife very much but there was an evil inside her that had to be destroyed.’
‘Not, I think it’s fair to say, the Church’s finest hour.’
‘Exorcism of a person is a complex and dangerous process,’ Merrily said. ‘But this… this case wasn’t anything like that.’
‘It wasn’t an exorcism. I made that completely clear to Mr Stock from the start. I even decided to hold off the customary Requiem Eucharist because it might look too much like Christian magic. It was prayer, that’s all — prayer as the first stage in dealing with a suspected spiritual presence, there being no reason to suspect any demonic infestation.’
‘Let’s go back to Taylor,’ Howe said. ‘Found not guilty by a jury for reasons of insanity. Caused quite a stir, didn’t it?’
‘What should be said about that verdict… although Michael Taylor had been, by all accounts, a friendly and popular man with no history of violence, nobody — not the judge, nor the jury, nor the media — seemed prepared even to consider that he might actually have been possessed by a metaphysical evil.’
‘He was considered insane.’ To Howe the difference between insanity and possession would be indiscernible. ‘His mental decline appears to have coincided with his taking up membership of a Christian group. His recourse to almost unimaginable violence immediately followed his so-called exorcism by two Christian ministers, isn’t that true?’
Merrily could only nod, knowing now where this was going — a goods train with a toxic cargo inexorably picking up speed, and nothing she could do to stop it.
Howe was still flipping through the file on her desk. ‘I’m trying to find what the local bishop said at the time.’
‘I can tell you more or less exactly what he said.’
‘Here we are… “Exorcism is a type of ministry which is increasingly practised in Christian churches. There is no order of service for this; it is administered as the situation demands. Clearly a form of ministry which must be exercised with the greatest possible care and responsibility.” ’
‘But this was not-’
‘Ms Watkins, the tape clearly shows the sacrament laid out on your impromptu altar, and the sprinkling, by you, of water, which I assume is what you regard as holy water.’
‘The sacrament wasn’t even used, it was-’
Annie Howe wasn’t listening; she was back into the report, flipping pages.
‘Yes… the Taylor case was also commented on by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, who said, I quote: “We must get this business out of the mumbo-jumbo of magic. I do not see exorcism as something set off against and in opposition to medicine. Far from it. I think there are many cases where the more rash exorcists have bypassed the work of psychiatrists.” ’ Howe looked up. ‘Partly as a result, I believe, of the Taylor case, there was a re-examination by the Church of the usefulness of exorcism and how such disasters might be avoided in the future. As a result, the guidance now to exorcists is that they should always work with community psychiatric resources. Is that correct, Ms Watkins?’
‘Before an exorcism is carried out on an individual, it’s recommended that they should be seen by a psychiatrist, to make sure they aren’t, for instance, schizophrenic. Yes.’
‘And when an exorcism takes place, it’s advised that a qualified psychiatrist should be present. Is that correct?’
Merrily sighed. ‘Yes.’
Howe rearranged the papers in the report, applied a paper clip and slipped them into the folder. She smiled pleasantly at Merrily.
‘So, is your idea of deploying community psychiatric resources — in carrying out a ritual that might loosely be described as “mumbo jumbo” at the behest of a notoriously unstable, possibly alcoholic, individual — to take along with you-’
‘That’s not what-’
‘-take along with you, as your expert medical consultant, a former psychiatric patient with a police record?’
‘You stay the fuck away from me!’ Stock screamed. ‘You do not come near me!’
He was backing into shot. His shirt had come out of his trousers. The sweat patches under his arms were the size of hi-hat cymbals, Lol thought.
And it was all so beautifully bright. This was what video did; it compensated for the conditions. Clear and clinical, then, even if the quality was not great; Bliss had said these were quickly made VHS copies of the two originals. The one they were looking at was wide-angle, evidently shot from a camera position just above the fridge. The constant picture included all of the table and an area of flagged floor about three feet around it.
On the table were Stewart Ash’s book on hop-growing, and a wine stain.
Frannie Bliss froze the tape.
‘I think, boss, that this bit gives the lie to the theory that this whole thing was like some big theatrical production… that he even had an idea how it was gonna end. Whatever she’s doing now, you can tell he’s not expecting it.’
‘Not necessarily,’ DCI Howe said. ‘We can’t even see Stephanie at this point. We don’t know that she’s doing anything. She might not even be there. This could be part of his act.’
‘He’d have to be bloody good.’ Bliss started up the tape again.
Stock was shaking. He just stood there trembling, almost full-face to the camera. His beard was shiny with sweat and spittle.
The fridge noise was rumbling out of the TV speaker. Lol thought of rocks before an avalanche. He thought of Stock in the seconds before he’d spouted a gutful of sour beer over Adam Lake. He prayed that both Stock and his wife would be out of shot when the killing happened.
‘If I didn’t know the circumstances, I’d say he was shit-scared,’ Bliss said. ‘What would he be scared of, Merrily? What could she be doing that would put the fear of God into him?’
‘I couldn’t give an opinion on that.’ Merrily’s voice was all dried out.
‘We’re looking for ideas, that’s all,’ Bliss said. ‘Doesn’t have to be a thesis.’
Merrily had been placed near the covered window, DCI Howe standing next to her chair like the angel of death. They’d brought Lol into the room, but only just, seating him near the door, between Frannie Bliss and the other detective, Mumford; he couldn’t even exchange glances with Merrily.
‘Not saying much, is she, young Stephanie?’ Bliss said. ‘She still taking the piss? Is she taunting him, you reckon? What’s she doing, Lol? What d’you reckon?’
Lol said nothing. Why should Bliss think he would know? Had he given something away, with a reaction, an expression? Had Merrily told them that Lol and Stephanie had been alone together, upstairs, not long before the killing?
‘Bearing in mind that her body was unclothed,’ Bliss said, ‘when we found her.’
‘I don’t…’ Lol was thinking of Stock that first night in the pub. Derek, the landlord, must certainly have overheard when Stock had said, My wife leaves scratches a foot long down my back.
‘Stock implied that his wife was highly sexed,’ Lol said. ‘He talked about it in the pub a few nights ago.’
‘He’s not looking too turned-on now, is he?’
There was a movement on the screen — Stock reaching up to the wall.
‘Recognize that thing, Ms Watkins?’
‘Yes. It’s a hop-cutter’s hook. It was part of Stewart Ash’s collection of hop-farmers’ implements. Stock said-’
Breaking off because Stock had walked out of shot again. Carrying the hook. Lol had seen enough. Both Howe and Bliss had gone quiet and were watching the screen. There was nothing to see there now but stone flags, a curving brick wall and a table with a book on it. The fridge was going whump, whump… whump — irregular, as though its metal heart was about to fail.
After about a minute, there arose, from somewhere in the house, perhaps everywhere in the house, this cavernous, animal bellow, mingling with its own echo and the sound of the fridge.
Rage and terror, Lol thought, numbed.
Then only the sound of the fridge.
‘What were you about to say, Ms Watkins?’ Howe asked mildly, as if the TV was merely screening some corny old melodrama they’d all seen many times before. ‘What did Stock say?’
‘He told me he’d sharpened it himself.’ Merrily’s voice was flat. ‘He said that, because of what had happened to Uncle Stewart, he’d become afraid of someone breaking in at night, and so he… he wanted to be ready.’
On the TV screen: flags, table, book. The only sound was the fridge.
Frannie Bliss said delicately, ‘I wouldn’t think there’s any particular need for Merrily to watch any more, would you, boss?’
Lol heard Merrily saying, ‘He said it might seem ridiculous, but he just didn’t trust the countryside.’
‘Boss…’ Bliss said plaintively, ‘do you really think this is…?’
Annie Howe didn’t reply.
Lol was still hearing But he just didn’t trust the countryside, repeated like a loop in his head, when Gerard Stock walked casually back into the kitchen.
He wasn’t carrying the hop-cutter’s hook any more. The picture quality was crisp and suddenly very pleasant, the midday sun throwing a bright path from the middle window across the flags, creating a golden alley. Into it, Gerard Stock — the stains on his white shirt as startling as poppies in the snow — put down Stephanie’s head.
If a terrible crime has been committed in the area — especially if justice has not been properly carried out — the disturbances will be potentially very unpleasant. The entity is inflamed by a combination of fear and anger for the injustice it feels has been committed against it. If a person believes that they have been especially wrongfully treated, they may be inspired to curse the individual who they blame or else the locality in which the wrongful action has taken place.
Traffic had faded, the shops and the city library were all well closed. Broad Street was cooling into torpid evening and the trees were draping long shadows over the Cathedral green.
Inside the gatehouse, Merrily sipped tea the colour of engine oil, not tasting it. Furrows of concern on Sophie’s forehead were dislodging strands of her fine white hair.
‘I mean, what was the woman trying to do to you?’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ Merrily watched a man aiming a camera up at the gatehouse. Just the one camera, not very big — a tourist, then. It would be the real thing soon enough, the pack unleashed. ‘She probably did the right thing in the circumstances. Until we saw the video, I don’t think I quite believed it. Thought maybe I was being set up — or that he’d told them he’d killed her, but he hadn’t… not really. She was probably right to show us.’
‘I shouldn’t have gone in with you,’ Lol said. They’d both had to make full statements, which had taken another hour and a half. ‘It isn’t as if I was any use in there.’
The three of them were hunched close to the window, as if putting on lights might draw the eyes of the world. Siege mentality already.
Sophie looked at Lol. ‘Mr Robinson, were you posing as a qualified psychotherapist when you went into the kiln with Merrily?’
Merrily smiled wanly. ‘He’s not good at posing. Even if he was qualified, you’d never get him to admit it.’
‘Quite,’ Sophie said. ‘So there’s no real argument, is there? A — neither of you was suggesting that Mr Robinson was there to fulfil the psychiatric or psychological function. B — this was a minor exorcism-of-place, for which a psychiatrist would hardly, in normal circumstances, be considered essential anyway.’
‘That’s not how it’s going to read, though, is it?’ Lol said.
‘The fact remains,’ Sophie told him severely, ‘that, for reasons of her own — resentment, religious antipathy, whatever else — Detective Chief Inspector Howe is fabricating a spurious scenario.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Merrily almost howled. ‘A man’s murdered his wife. Would that still have happened if I hadn’t gone there and done what I did? Possibly. But possibly not. And possibly not is enough to hang me. But more than that-’
‘Just don’t hang yourself first,’ Lol said. ‘You know really that you didn’t have a choice.’
‘-more than that, I’ve got to live with the killing of a young woman. And the inference — the increasingly strong inference — that it… it doesn’t work. Or when I do it, it doesn’t work.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Sophie snapped.
‘So what do you think God’s telling me?’
‘Look.’ Sophie raised a finger. ‘If — if any one person can be said to carry any blame here — and I don’t necessarily accept that anyone should — then it has to be The Reverend Simon St John, doesn’t it? Whatever St John knew about Stock to convince him to stay out of it, he kept it to himself.’
‘You don’t understand…’ Merrily lit a cigarette and, for once, Sophie didn’t frown. ‘I was approaching this right on top of the Amy Shelbone issue.’
‘Oh, Merrily, that-’
‘No, look…’ Merrily glanced apologetically at Lol. ‘I’ll explain this properly sometime but, in essence, I was being accused of not responding to a situation with sufficient effectiveness. Following which, a young girl tried to take her own life.’
Sophie hissed, exasperated. ‘For heaven’s sake, Merrily, Dennis Beckett-’
‘Look at the facts: here’s me driving down to Stock’s place this morning with a head full of Amy Shelbone and, like, totally insufficient background about Stock’s own problem — in fact, not really believing he has a problem. And then, while talking to him and coming to realize there is a situation, am I not then subconsciously thinking, God, I can’t underplay this one as well? Less concerned with finding out what the hell’s going on than with covering myself? Was I-’
She stopped, realizing her speech was becoming swollen by sobs, and aware of Sophie getting decisively to her feet.
‘Drink your tea, Merrily. Pull yourself together.’
Through a film of tears, she saw Sophie walking over to the door, beckoning Lol to follow her.
Sophie Hill almost dragged him down the stone stairs. Her expression was taut and her eyes were like grey stones in the half-light.
‘Mr Robinson, I don’t know what your current relationship with Merrily is, but I think you’ll agree that what we need to do now is get her out of here, before she does or says something from which there’ll be no going back.’
Lol nodded, bewildered. ‘Anything I can do. Anything.’
Sophie took his arm, led him to the foot of the steps and even then kept her voice low. ‘I was very much playing it down in there, as you probably realized.’
Lol nodded. He instinctively liked Sophie, wished she didn’t have to keep calling him ‘Mr Robinson’.
‘This is actually rather grim.’ She opened the door leading out to the stone archway. ‘We both know that the press and the Church of England are going to hang Merrily out to dry, and if she thinks she’s in any way at fault she won’t even fight back.’
He remembered Merrily in Howe’s office, what he could see of her: cowed, shattered. ‘In any situation, she always tends to feel responsible.’
‘All right,’ Sophie said, ‘let’s examine the situation. First — I can’t see them charging Stock with murder tonight, can you?’
‘Not unless he’s had a change of heart and given them a full statement.’
‘They won’t charge him even then, not immediately. And you know what that means.’
‘Gives the press free rein to rake over the story. They go back to the original piece in the People and they find that quote from Merrily saying she’s going to be looking into it carefully, and they’ll want to know if she ever did.’
‘And whatever answer they get will be the wrong one. If she didn’t actually do anything, the Church was being fatally neglectful. And if they find out the truth…’
‘Merrily’s dog food,’ Lol said.
Sophie stood in the gatehouse doorway, gazing through the stone arch towards the Bishop’s Palace yard. An elegant, white-haired Englishwoman with a cardigan draped over her shoulders. Formidable.
‘I don’t know how much you know about the Church of England, Mr Robinson, but I can tell you with some authority that, like any large secular organization, it’s essentially self-serving and self-protective.’
Lol said nothing. It was hardly a revelation.
‘For the Church, it’s going to be more than Merrily on trial, it’s the credibility of the entire Deliverance Ministry — arguably one of the few dynamic arms we have left. They may not even try to defend her, simply wash their hands of it all. They’ll have an inquiry, at the end of which they’ll agree that she behaved in an arbitrary fashion, reacted too quickly, disregarded the guidelines, failed to take advice.’
‘Can they throw her out of the Church?’
Sophie looked him in the eyes. ‘With what you know of Merrily Watkins, would they need to?’
Merrily stood at the window, staring down at the evening light on Broad Street. Stephanie Stock’s severed head lay in the middle of the road. She wondered when Stephanie’s head would no longer be visible everywhere she looked, with its smile slashed to double-width and one of its eyes fully open — and the other one missing.
In fact, she realized that she and Lol must have been spared the worst. They’d only seen Stock’s video. The police’s own footage, while it might have less narrative tension, would be far more explicit. She’d heard Frannie Bliss and Andy Mumford talking in the corridor, and so she knew that Stephanie had not died by having her head cleanly cleaved off, like Anne Boleyn, but that Stock had gone at her, at the bottom of the stairs, like some barbaric Dark Age butcher.
This had happened immediately in the wake of what the papers would inevitably describe as an exorcism. A botched exorcism. Howe hadn’t exactly been concealing the existence of Stock’s video; its contents would inevitably be leaked.
And had this supposed exorcism, it would be asked, brought out something savagely malevolent, long dormant inside Gerard Stock?
It wouldn’t matter that, unlike Michael Taylor, Stock had not been personally exorcized — no induced convulsions, no speaking in guttural tongues, no green bile, no Out, demons, out. Wouldn’t matter that it had been simply a modest entreaty to God for the Stocks’ home to become dweller-friendly again.
Merrily’s fists tightened. How could that possibly cause a man to go into a murderous rage? How could it?
It wouldn’t matter.
Tell her to throw some holy water around and leave by the back door. She wondered if Bernie Dunmore would even remember saying that.
The phone rang.
She turned slowly. Perhaps this was Bernie himself, fresh from the conference on Transsexuality and the Church, disturbing gossip having reached him while he sat nursing his single malt in the bar of Gloucester’s swishest. Casually approached by some journalist, perhaps, as he debated with the Bishop of Durham how best to react to an archdeacon’s new breasts.
She started to laugh, and let the phone go on ringing.
A clattering on the stairs. Sophie rushed in. ‘Don’t touch that.’
‘Wasn’t going to.’
Sophie sat down behind her desk, took two calming breaths and picked up the phone.
‘Diocese of Hereford, Bishop’s Palace. Sophie Hill speaking.’
Lol came in, looking a little brighter; Sophie could do this. Don’t depress Merrily.
‘No,’ Sophie said, ‘I’m afraid she’s on holiday. Is there anything I can do for you?’
She? The only two women working from this office were Sophie and Merrily.
‘When?’ Sophie said. ‘Well, I don’t know, precisely. I know she was supposed to have left yesterday, but I believe she delayed her departure for some reason… No, I couldn’t. I’m afraid that’s not the sort of personal information I’m permitted to give out.’
Merrily held her breath and moved away from the window: they could be out there somewhere, on a mobile.
‘No, I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. You’d have to ask Mrs Watkins herself about that sort of thing… No, the Bishop’s away at a conference. He’ll be back on Thursday night… Look, I’m sorry, but I’m only a secretary. I’m really not party to that kind of information. I should try our press officer tomorrow. Goodnight.’ Sophie hung up. ‘The Daily Telegraph.’
‘Why am I on holiday, Sophie?’
‘For the sake of your health.’
‘Not good enough.’
‘For the health of the Christian Church, then,’ Sophie snapped. ‘Look, I’ve just been asked if you conducted an exorcism today at the home of Gerard and the late Mrs Stephanie Stock. What would you have said if you’d been asked that question?’
‘I’d have explained that it wasn’t exactly an exorcism.’
Sophie and Lol exchanged glances.
‘Yeah, I know. And they wouldn’t have believed a word of it.’ Merrily reached for her cigarettes, glared from one to the other of them. ‘I’m supposed to run away?’
‘Yes,’ Sophie said. ‘For the moment. At least until such time as the police charge Gerard Stock with murder and the media are formally gagged until after the trial.’
‘What about the Bishop?’
‘I’ll phone Gloucester and advise him to stay in his hotel room and lock the door.’
‘And where am I spending my holiday? Learning Welsh in Pembrokeshire with Jane?’
‘You can stay at my house tonight.’
Sophie lived with her husband in one of the streets behind the Castle Green.
‘Which would implicate you,’ Merrily said. ‘Thanks, but forget it. Anyway, I have to go home and feed the cat.’
‘Don’t throw up silly barriers,’ Sophie said irritably. ‘Phone Gomer Parry. He has a key to the vicarage, doesn’t he?’ Sophie knew everything. ‘Or Mr Robinson has an alternative suggestion,’ she said.
In the fields to either side, cut and turned hay lay like a choppy green sea. The road and the fields and the woods lay in shadow, but the Malverns above them were caught in the sunset, their foothills glowing as if lit from underneath, like a Tiffany lamp.
It was serenely beautiful. And yes, she had to agree, it was the last place anyone would think of looking for her.
Eye of the storm. Merrily lit a cigarette. She felt a little scared, actually. Trepidation — or the electric, arm-bristling fear of another imminent revelation.
Lol had driven her back to Ledwardine Vicarage, and she’d packed a case and phoned Gomer Parry. Gomer had been round in minutes: how about he move in tonight, feed the cat, keep the newshounds off the premises? He’d caretaken once before, when Merrily and Jane had been armlocked into a family wedding in Northumberland. Now widowed and restless, he liked being the guy who looked out for them both… which also brought him closer to the action. Good old Gomer.
‘A holiday.’ Merrily inhaled and leaned her head over the torn back of the Astra’s passenger seat and closed her eyes. ‘So what’s that like, exactly?’
‘Boring,’ Lol said, ‘as I recall.’
‘We had a few odd days, when Jane was younger. Not for a while, though.’
‘How is she?’
‘Raging. Eirion’s stepmother seems to think she enjoys being a nanny to her youngest kids.’
‘Taking a risk there.’
‘And can she even begin to know how much of one?’ Merrily closed her eyes. ‘Don’t really want to get there. I want to drive through the night talking inane crap. Like when we were young.’
‘That’s a holiday. I remember now. Inane crap with bits of sex in between.’
‘You and Alison?’
‘Once. Five days in Northern France. You ever see Alison in the village?’
‘Well, she’s still with James Bull-Davies, if that’s what you mean. They say she’s really taken him and his decrepit house in hand. But they don’t come to church.’
‘So who sits in the Bull pew now?’
‘Nobody. People are so superstitious, aren’t they?’
She felt the car slow and turn, and when she opened her eyes the road had become an alley between rows of short wooden pylons. Entwined around them, luxuriant growth seemed to be surging towards the awakening stars.
It was Lol who was shivering. He pushed his compact body back into the seat to stop it, but she felt the tremor and she knew his hands were tightening on the wheel.
‘Time to abandon The Prince of Wales Guide to Making Stupid Conversation, I think.’ Merrily caught some ash in the palm of her hand. ‘What haven’t you told me?’
Lol watched the road winding between the hop-yards, put on his headlights. ‘So exactly how long have you been a vicar?’ he said.
She recognized the church, embedded in shadow, fusing with the bushes above the river bank. There was a light on in the vicarage, just one. It was the kind of light you left on when you went out for the night, to create an illusion of habitation.
The Astra crawled through the village, if you could call it that. There were several cars on the forecourt of the pub. One was a station wagon with its rear hatch flung up, a man pulling out a black tripod.
‘Didn’t take them long, did it?’
Lol drove slowly past. He even managed to give the man a suspicious glance, like a true local in his battered old car. Subtle. There are rooms at Prof’s studios, he’d said. It’s not finished yet, but it’s quite respectable. Who else would be there? Only me, in a loft, out in the stables.
The road curved out of the village, up a slight incline and down again. The Malvern Hills disappeared and reappeared, undulating with lights like gems mounted on a jeweller’s velvet tray.
‘Is this going to help?’ Merrily said. ‘Us coming here?’
‘Trust me, I’m a drop-out trainee psychotherapist.’
‘Well, I’m not any kind of psychotherapist.’ She squeezed out her cigarette, turned to look at him, her back resting against the passenger door. ‘But I’ve learned enough about your little ways in the short time we’ve known each other to know that when you’re at your most facetious it usually means you’re also kind of scared.’
Lol turned through a gap in the hedge, went very slowly downhill and eventually came to a stop. She could see the humps of buildings but no lights. What had she expected: The Prof Levin Studios, in neon?
‘You’re obviously not scared of the dark, though,’ Merrily said.
‘No, I like the dark.’
‘Yes, you would.’
Lol switched off the engine. ‘When…’ He hesitated. ‘When I first came here… I went out for a walk in the dark. Well, actually, it wasn’t that dark, bit like tonight. I walked down there.’ He pointed through the windscreen to a line of poplar silhouettes. ‘Over the river bridge, then I picked up a path and wandered into a wood. Then I got a bit lost.’
‘Your thing, being lost,’ Merrily said softly.
‘But it’s produced some lovely songs. Ask Jane.’
‘She’s just being kind.’
‘She’d take that as a serious insult. Go on — you went for a walk. You got lost.’
‘And then I came to this abandoned hop-yard. Everything cleared or dead, with the poles and the frames naked.’ He paused. ‘And a woman — Stephanie Stock. She was naked, too.’
Merrily stiffened. The summer night gathered around the old car, opaque now like November fog.
Down past the inn, at the edge of the old harbour, there was a stony footpath, and if you followed it for about half a mile you came to a fairly secret cove. Or at least it seemed secret at night; there was probably an oil refinery beyond the headland.
‘You can’t.’ Eirion stood with his back to a millpond sea. There were just the two of them on the beach. One of the great things about Pembrokeshire was that you could still find lonely beaches in July.
Jane climbed onto a rock so that she was looking down on him. Post-sunset, the sky was luminous, almost lime green.
‘What?’ Hoping her eyes were glittering with an equally dangerous intensity.
Eirion backed off, the heels of his trainers almost in the water. ‘Well, yes, all right, of course you can.’ He would always start to sound Welsh when he was agitated. ‘You can do what you want. You’re free, you’re sixteen years old, you’re-’
He moaned to the brilliant sky. ‘Don’t start that again! Please, please, don’t hit me with that racism stuff again. They’ve just been brought up to be proud of their language and their culture.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Jane. ‘Their culture.’
This evening they’d been to the movies, to a cinema in Fishguard. Well, not actually a cinema, a cinema club. Where they’d seen this thriller, with not-bad car chases and a couple of half-hearted love scenes and a leading actor who Jane recalled from TV and who was moderate totty, in his fresh-faced way.
It had actually helped that it was in Welsh and that snogging had been rendered impractical due to two small girls sitting in between them with their chocolate ripples. It had allowed Jane to contemplate the terrible turn events had taken, and the element of guilt she could no longer reject.
An unexpected wave hit Eirion’s ankles and pooled into his trainers. He groaned. ‘Jane, please don’t do this to me. Stay until the weekend, at least, then we can think of something.’
‘I’ve thought of something. I’ve thought of a taxi. I’ve thought of the nearest station. I’ve thought of… lots of things.’
‘But there’s nothing you can do there!’ Eirion sat down in the sand and took off his trainers to empty the sea out of them.
‘I let her down.’
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘I dumped her in it.’
‘Because I didn’t have the guts to say to Riddock, “This is naff, this is dangerous, this is wrong.” ’
Jane came down from her rock, and began to ramble up the beach — but slowly, always keeping Eirion in sight. People here still talked about that couple who were murdered years ago on the Pembrokeshire coastal path and nobody was ever caught. English couple, as it happened, on holiday.
‘Jane, we’re all-’ Eirion picked up his trainers and ran barefoot along the sand towards her. ‘We’re all braver after the event. She’s not going to hold it against you. You think she doesn’t understand how hard it is? You think she was never in that position herself, of having to keep her street cred at school?’
‘Plus, she’s your mother. Plus, she’s a — you know — a Christian. And also a very nice woman.’
Jane stared at him in pity. ‘Irene, did I even mention my mother?’
‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ Eirion said. ‘I’m a stranger on your planet.’
‘OK.’ She stopped. ‘This evening, when I went up to change before we went to see the film, I pinched the cordless from the sitting room — leaving three quid in the dinky little box marked ffon, I hasten to add — and I locked myself in the bathroom and found the number from directories, and I tried to ring Amy Shelbone.’
‘Ah.’ He sighed. ‘I did wonder if you might.’
‘She’d fitted me up, Irene. She’d lied. She was supposed to either put that right or give me a bloody good reason why not. She wouldn’t talk to Mum but she’d have to talk to me. Also, I was gonna tell her what a disgusting old slag Riddock was and how she should tell her to piss off out of her life. Try and put her right, you know?’
‘All right.’ She felt Eirion’s hand close around hers. ‘That was a reasonable thing to do, but why’d you have to be so secretive about it?’
‘Wasn’t anything to do with anybody else.’
‘Thanks.’ Eirion had trodden on an old bottle in the sand, and let go of her hand to rub his bare foot.
‘I didn’t mean you. I’m sorry, I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch… Anyway, she wasn’t in. I got her mother, and I said like, when will she be in? I didn’t say it was me, of course, just a friend from school. But then her mother, she’s just like… screaming at me: “Don’t you go claiming to be one of her friends, she hasn’t got any friends, just enemies.” And then she goes, “You’re evil, you’re all evil! But you won’t hurt her again, she’s not going back to that school.” And I’m like… what? Gobsmacked, obviously. I mean, come on, let’s get this thing in proportion, you know? Oh, for Christ’s sake, Irene, put your bloody shoes on!’
She walked up a couple of steps, where the beach joined the stony path, and waited for him to pull on his trainers. She could see a light far out in the bay. This was such a romantic place.
‘And then it came out,’ she said. ‘ “As if you didn’t know,” she’s screaming. ‘ “As if you didn’t know, you Godless wretch!” ’
‘Know what?’ He reached for her hand.
‘Amy tried to top herself.’ Jane pulled away. ‘Overdose of aspirins.’
‘Oh, dear God,’ said Eirion.
‘Yeah.’ Jane picked up a big pebble, pulled back her arm as if to hurl it at the sea, then let it drop by her feet. ‘Could you live with that?’
Eirion said, ‘It doesn’t mean-’
‘It does, Irene.’
‘It’ll all come out now, though, won’t it? There’ll be an investigation.’
‘Proving what? Gonna nail Riddock, are they? Not a chance. Her old man — her mother’s husband — is one of the fattest fat cats in the entire county. It’ll never come out, unless…’
‘Oh, shit,’ Eirion said.
Jane glared at him. ‘How do we know there aren’t other kids being terrorized? I think it was actually you who said the other night that when you’re nine, an eleven-year-old could seem like Charles Manston.’
‘Yes,’ hissed Eirion through his teeth.
‘What kind of holiday do you think I’m gonna have, dangling my toes in the ocean, listening to Sioned trying to teach me the complete works of Taliesyn and all the time thinking about the evil that slag’s wreaking?’
‘And what could you do if you were back home?’
‘Loads of things. I could speak out about it for a start. I know this woman, Bella, at Radio Hereford and Worcester. I could go on there live and talk about it and I could just like name names before anyone could stop me.’
‘They’d pre-record you,’ Eirion said. ‘And then they’d edit out the names.’
‘I could do something. I could get that slag. I will get her.’
They both stood looking at the light out at sea, Jane thinking, What a magic night, what a magic place to make love. What an incredible memory to have for the rest of your life.
Too late now. It was all soured.
Lol would keep pausing, glancing at her to see if she believed him. As if she might be thinking he’d invented these two bizarre, creepy and sexually provocative encounters with Stephanie Stock, both of them ending with him walking away. But this, in fact, confirmed it: walk away was what Lol would do.
Of course she believed him. But what was it all supposed to convey, apart from that Stephanie had been as mad as Gerard?
As she followed Lol across the yard, a sensor switched on two lamps projecting from the stable wall, revealing the cottage in front of them. She could see it had originally been quite small, a typical Herefordshire farmworker’s timber-framed home: two up, two down and a lean-to. There was a brick extension, probably nineteenth century, longer and taller than the original dwelling.
‘Just the four bedrooms at present.’ Lol had a long key for the cracked and ill-fitting front door. ‘But there’s scope for conversion of a few more outbuildings, if Prof can get listed-building consent.’
Merrily thought that with David Shelbone around this could turn out to be more of a problem than Prof might figure.
Unexpectedly, she discovered she was starting to feel less depressed. It was clear that the case of Gerard and Stephanie Stock had several dark and, as yet, unprobed levels, was more complex than either the police or even she had imagined and went deeper than a violent rage inflamed by a botched Deliverance.
If she could be convinced of this, it was a start. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself — as an exorcist, a priest or a person — if she thought anything she’d done had led, however indirectly, to the slaughter of Stephanie Stock.
‘It’s a nice idea, in principle,’ Lol was saying. ‘Musicians can come and stay, no real time limit, and help out generally around the place when they’re not recording. Van Morrison on orbital sander — that’s yet to happen, but people will do all kinds of things for Prof.’ He pushed open the front door and put a hand inside, feeling around for light switches. ‘This is the living room. It’s still a bit, er…’
Merrily stepped inside, looking around by the harsh light of two naked bulbs. She saw several wooden packing cases, a bubblewrap mountain, an inglenook full of CDs, a TV set on a tea chest, two deckchairs and one padded garden recliner in the middle of an ice floe of polystyrene packing.
‘Lol, this is a dump.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’s, er… that’s one way of-’
‘It’s the only way, Lol.’
‘The bedrooms are tidier,’ Lol said.
Which was true. Merrily chose the smallest of them, which contained just a tiny porcelain washbasin, a rag rug and a bed. It was in the old part of the cottage but had recently been done up — fresh plaster between the beams. The three-quarter bed had no headboard, but there was a new duvet lying on it, still in sealed plastic.
It was stuffy in here. ‘It was supposed to be my room.’ Lol prised open the window — one pane, eighteen inches square. ‘But for some reason I keep going back to a camp bed in one of the lofts over the stable.’
Yes, he would do that; he’d need the feeling of impermanence.
Merrily sat on the bed. She felt like an asylum seeker in a hostel; tomorrow seemed as impenetrable as Prof Levin’s living room.
‘Hang on a minute.’ Lol went off and came back with a small wooden reading lamp with a parchment shade. He placed it on the deep window sill and plugged it into a socket underneath. With the ceiling bulb switched off, the lamp turned the room a hazy buttermilk. Monastic cell to cosy boudoir in two clicks.
Lol asked if could bring her up a drink. ‘Probably better if you didn’t see the kitchen tonight.’
He shrugged. ‘The rats live with it.’
‘Is there a kettle, say, and a teapot that we could perhaps bring up?’
‘Sure.’ He was hovering in the doorway. ‘I’ll… fetch your case in, then?’
‘You want some help?’
Lol held up both hands. ‘Stay. Luxuriate.’
She spread the duvet on the bed and sat down again, staring at the rough plaster. She and Lol had shared some secrets again. She wondered if he still had the sweatshirt with the Roswell alien motif.
With Lol, it all went back to a teenager called Tracy who had a mate called — Kath, was it? Karl Windling, the aggressive and unpleasant bass-player in Hazey Jane, had fancied this Kath and set Lol up with Tracy — she was about four years younger than Lol, but you probably wouldn’t have known, seeing the two of them together, and he certainly wouldn’t have suspected. And then Windling had decided he wanted Tracy as well, and it had all turned nasty, and Windling had squirmed out of it, leaving Lol — innocent in everyone’s eyes but the law’s — with a conviction for having sex with an under-age girl, six months’ probation and rejection by his family.
That was the start of it. A long time ago. A long time for anyone to remain an alien. But it would partly explain his reaction, both times, to Stephanie Stock.
‘You must have thought she was unreal… a ghost.’
‘I’d’ve been happier with a ghost.’ Lol put down the tea tray.
Merrily thought back to his involvement with the ethereal Moon, who’d lived on Dinedor Hill. ‘It’s like cats, isn’t it?’
‘Put a cat in a room with someone who’s afraid of cats or allergic to cat hair, the cat invariably heads straight for them, jumps onto their laps.’
‘I like cats.’
‘Well, I know that. And you quite like women, too — I realize this is an inexact analogy. I’m talking about women with problems. Weird women. They tend to come on to you like cats. And you put out a tentative hand, and then experience tells you to back off.’
‘I’m not proud of backing off.’
‘I don’t like to imagine what might have happened if you hadn’t.’ Merrily poured the tea. ‘Could she have been stoned?’
‘Or was she ill?’ Lol wondered.
‘What? Something long-term? Schizophrenia? Could that have been why Stock kept her apart from the community? Was he drinking to excess to cope with it? The mad woman in the isolated kiln? But you can’t really do a Mr Rochester these days, can you? You can’t keep this kind of thing secret any more — if she was on medication, for instance… and schizophrenics are almost invariably on medication.’
‘And she apparently went out to work.’
‘Yeah, but did she?’
‘She said she was temping for a car-dealer in Hereford.’
‘But was she?’ Merrily leaned her head against the side of the bed. ‘All this will have to come out.’ She looked at Lol. ‘That night in the hop-yard — was she aware of you?’
‘Yes.’ Lol drank some tea. ‘And no.’
‘Good answer. Helpful.’
‘It was dark.’
‘She was aware of you in the bedroom, though. And she was certainly aware of you downstairs before we began.’
‘Well… coming on to me like I used to be this big rock star — what kind of crap was that? She’d probably never heard of me until Stock mentioned I was staying at Prof’s. But she gave absolutely no sign of recognizing me from the hop-yard. Not then, anyway.’
‘But you recognized her?’
‘Wasn’t sure at first. Not till we were upstairs together and she was on the bed and you and Stock had gone… and then suddenly she was.’
‘Because of the hop-bine?’
‘The Lady of the Bines? Who never existed? Who is an invented ghost?’
‘Remind me about that again.’
Merrily lit a cigarette; she’d smoked it by the time he’d finished.
‘So the museum woman made it up. You been back to ask her, Lol?’
He shook his head.
‘Hops.’ Merrily tapped the tea tray with her fingertips. ‘Think hops.’
‘Hop-pillows? Stock said hop-pillows were supposed to give you a better night’s sleep. But not in this case.’
‘Hops as a turn-on? The first time you saw her, she was naked and winding a hop-bine around her. And up in the bedroom, she was playing with an old hop-bine again — a hop-bine, which she was again using in a… lubricious fashion. How did you feel?’
‘And maybe just a bit…?’
‘I’ll stick with scared and embarrassed.’
‘Basic nymphomania?’ Merrily wondered. ‘That can be a mental illness, can’t it? I mean, people have a good laugh about it. Men in pubs always like to pretend they wish their wives would catch it, but it’s a mental illness, isn’t it?’
Lol considered. ‘I don’t even think it’s a clinical term. There are no criteria to back it up. It’s applied to women who want “too much sex” — but how much is too much? And what do you call a male nymphomaniac? Could be a purely sexist term, because a woman who lives for sex is a slut, while a man who can’t get enough is a role model.’
‘Wow,’ Merrily said, ‘you really have been on a course.’
He looked uncomfortable at that. He pulled off his glasses and began to polish them on the hem of his T-shirt. Merrily slid down to the rug and leaned back against the side of the bed, her bare arms around her knees. She was aware of the irony of being alone in a bedroom talking about sex with a man she’d always found attractive, but in circumstances that rendered the whole subject forbidding. Like going into a tobacconist’s to discuss emphysema.
‘We’re going round in circles, Lol.’
He told her about the odd words uttered by Stephie in the bedroom, the foreign language which definitely wasn’t French, might have been Welsh. And then Don’t say no to me…
‘As if someone else had been saying no to her? Well, Stock’s a lot older than she was and probably close to being an alcoholic, which-’
‘-is no cure for impotence,’ Lol said. ‘And I think I’m right in saying the number one reason for men killing their wives is being drunk and on the receiving end of taunts about not being able to perform. And Stock’s an arrogant guy. Very, very hard for someone like that to admit to sexual inadequacy. And if he doesn’t say another word to explain why he did it, that’s probably what they’ll put it down to.’
‘If,’ Merrily said heavily, ‘there hadn’t also been what they will insist on describing as an exorcism.’
They were both silent. It occurred to Merrily that she might have done rather better if Lol had accompanied her as a psychologist, part of her putative Deliverance team.
He stood up and leaned against the window sill next to the lamp. ‘How about if I go back to Bliss and tell him about Stephanie?’
She looked up at him. ‘You’d hate to have to do that.’
‘It might alter the direction of their inquiries. And it’s the truth.’
She went and stood next to him. ‘They wouldn’t believe you.’
‘Also, Howe would take enormous pleasure in bringing up your… past record.’
He smiled. ‘Hazey Jane Two?’
They looked at one another; she saw his face soften. It was the kind of confluence of gazes that might normally have progressed rapidly to a meeting of mouths.
But the moment passed, and Merrily went and sat on the bed.
‘Call this a vague guess,’ she said, ‘but it’s my feeling that if there’s one person who could explain much of this, it’s Simon St John.’
Lol used a phone plugged into the wall next to Prof’s garden recliner. The call was answered in seconds.
‘It’s…’ He always found it hard to identify himself. ‘It’s Lol.’
A sigh. ‘Sorry, mate. Thought you were the media. About to tell you to fuck off.’
‘You said that to the papers?’ He really didn’t care, did he? What must it be like not to care? ‘Had many calls tonight?’
‘Not as many as I expected.’ Simon sounded tired, though, like he’d been doing a lot of talking.
‘But the police have been round?’
Lol said, ‘So you know everything.’
‘This is the English countryside,’ Simon said. ‘Everybody within a six-mile radius knew everything by teatime.’
‘You don’t sound surprised.’
‘I’m getting over it.’
‘The thing is,’ Lol said, ‘Merrily Watkins is here.’
‘Good for you.’
‘It’s not looking good for her.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘We thought you might like to talk. Now… or tomorrow morning? There’s quite a lot to-’
‘No, there isn’t,’ Simon St John said curtly. ‘It’s over. Let the police sort it out.’
‘Hang on, how can you-?’
‘It’s over, Lol.’
The vicar hung up on him.
The old pine door of Lol’s loft opened on to a rickety wooden gallery directly above the mixing board, overlooking the studio floor — moonlight now falling through the skylight on to snaking cables and the Boswell guitar on her stand.
It must have been after three a.m. when he came out and stood there, leaning on the basically unsafe rustic railing. Times like this when you smoked a cigarette. Maybe he should start, if only to get through the nights.
He’d just dreamed of the Lady of the Bines again, weaving and rustling towards him, and this time she was a ghost and she came in a shroud of cold, and her eyes were like smoke, and Lol had shuddered awake.
He stood on the gallery — the minstrel’s gallery, Prof called it — and thought about Merrily, lying no more than forty feet away, thought about how close he’d come to kissing her. Clearly it just wasn’t meant; as she’d pointed out herself, only weird cats jumped into his lap.
And although he thought about her every day, only negative circumstances had ever brought them together, and even then… He was aware that tonight they’d attempted to analyse his experiences but hadn’t even touched on hers: whatever had happened to her in the kiln, whatever it was that had made her appear to choke, sent her dashing around the place flinging open doors.
It’s over, Simon St John had said. Was it?
Was Gerard Stock lying awake in his cell at Hereford Police Station, going back over the day, screening the movie? Lol tried to see that movie — Stock, still angry after showing Merrily the door, walking in on Stephie… Don’t say no to me… Predatory Stephie. Gerard Stock imploding, like an old radio blowing all its valves.
It struck Lol that Stock could still virtually walk away from this. Only in exceptional circumstances these days did the perpetrators of hot-blooded domestic murders get life. A domestic killing was a one-off, the killer no danger to the public. In this case, the killer had been under massive stress, heightened by an exorcism that hadn’t worked.
It could, in the end, be Merrily who came off worst. A career wrecked. More than a career, a calling.
In the hour before dawn — the only way to cool the fever of his thoughts — Lol wrote a song and, as the sun came up, sat in the shadows of the booth with the Boswell guitar and played it through, complete.
It even had a title: ‘The Cure of Souls’.
As she opened her eyes, a shaft of sunlight from the one small window threw her back into the kiln-house. She tasted sulphur, heard the shrill, cold calling: beep… beep… beep… beep… invoking dead Stephie, racked with laughter. I think you’d better answer that, vicar. It might be God!
She clawed around the bare boards for the mobile. ‘Yes?’
‘Sophie…’ She sat up in the bed — no headboard: stone and rough plaster against her back and shoulders, dungeon-like. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in the office, of course. Are you alone?’
‘I’m in bed. Yes,’ she said, ‘I’m alone.’
‘I have the morning papers here.’
‘Oh. Do I want to know this?’
‘Gerard Stock was charged last night with the murder of Stephanie Stock.’
Merrily closed her eyes.
‘I think that for you we can take that as a…’ Sophie hesitated. ‘I was about to say reprieve.’
‘Think the phrase is “stay of execution”.’ Merrily fumbled for her cigarettes. ‘What do they actually say?’
‘It’s made page one in the Mail and the Telegraph. All the reports identify the Stocks as people who complained that their home was haunted, and how it was the site of the murder of Stewart Ash. Nowhere, I’m relieved to say, is there any mention of an exorcism taking place, although the Telegraph reminds us you’d voiced an intention of looking into the problem. I would think that they’ve said all they consider themselves allowed to say until after the trial.’
‘Which, since he’s confessed, may be not too many months away.’
Sophie said calmly, ‘Has he?’
‘He was the one who called the police.’ Merrily tried to grip a cigarette between lips that felt slack and rubbery.
‘But you don’t know if he’s made a formal statement, do you?’ Sophie said. ‘We may not even find out. He’ll probably be shipped off to a remand centre, if he hasn’t gone already.’
‘Well… it means I’m back in circulation, at least.’ Merrily looked around the tiny monk’s cell and felt a small pang of regret. Safe haven. Sanctuary. ‘For the present.’
‘Ah,’ Sophie said. ‘About that. I’ve… spoken briefly to the Bishop at his hotel in Gloucester. He feels, as I do, that — since we’ve already told several people that you’re away on holiday — perhaps it would be best if you were to remain away. For a week, at least.’
‘What about the parish?’
‘That’s all been arranged. A locum’s been organized for the Sunday services, if you agree. It’s the ubiquitous Canon Beckett, I’m afraid. Jeffrey Kimball’s back in Dilwyn tomorrow, so the Canon’s available again.’
‘I imagine DCI Howe will need to talk to you again, but I wouldn’t make the first move there if I were you. I’d keep your head well down.’
‘What’s Bernie’s attitude?’
‘Guarded,’ Sophie said.
‘That’s a useful word.’
‘And there’s something else. Someone else wants to see you. I pass this on now, but I’ve also told him you’re going away.’
‘Mr Shelbone. David Shelbone. Perhaps you could talk to him on the phone, if you must.’
‘Something’s happened?’ Merrily swung her feet to the bare boards.
‘Well, it seems Mrs Shelbone’s done something rather drastic.’
‘Oh, Jesus…’ The unlit cigarette fell from her lips.
‘Nothing like that,’ Sophie said hastily. ‘What’s happened is that she’s apparently left home and taken the child with her. Convinced — he claims — that, in the wake of her attempted suicide, Social Services will try and take Amy away from them and put her into care. Mr Shelbone reckons there’s a story going round that he and his wife are religious extremists and the child may be psychologically dam-’
‘Does he know where they are?’
‘If he does, he isn’t saying.’
‘Sophie, I need to talk to him.’ A couple of days ago this would have seemed like a serious breakthrough, and it was still important. ‘Maybe Lol could give me a lift in.’
‘If you must do this, I’ll pick you up. An hour? Don’t wear a dog collar.’
First time Sophie had ever said that.
Lol had somehow produced scrambled eggs in the microwave. He’d spread a clean tablecloth on a packing case. Merrily looked around, felt quite touched. Either he’d lied about the condition of the kitchen or he’d been up for a long time, scrubbing.
He brought her more toast from the toaster. He was actually wearing his old Roswell alien sweatshirt, faded now to light grey — big slanting eyes on the chest, holes in the elbows. She told him about Sophie’s call and that the worst of the heat was off, for a while. She also told him about the Shelbone situation, why it was important for her to go back to Hereford.
‘And afterwards?’ Lol said lightly.
‘I’ll get Sophie to bring me back here. If that’s OK with you.’
‘Or maybe I’ll just pick up the Volvo. Not as if it’s got a Deliverance sticker in the window. Sophie was perhaps being a little overcautious last night.’
‘I just don’t think she trusted you on your own,’ Lol said. ‘How do you feel now?’
‘Well — I’m eating… thank you.’ She looked at the remains of her breakfast, then at Lol. ‘Can’t say I feel a more seasoned human being for having seen a man carrying his wife’s head around like a potted plant.’
First shudder of the day. Get it over with. Why had Stock done that — brought in the head, put it down in a beam of light, like a Stone Age priest with a sacrifice commemorating the arrival of the midsummer sun? She carried her plate to the sink, turned on hot water.
‘Lol, when — when I said Stock had confessed, Sophie said, “Has he?” Like there was some doubt.’
She watched his reaction. Lol was looking unhappy.
‘Am I missing something?’
‘Well…’ He picked up a tea towel. ‘Maybe she means, what if he pleads not guilty?’
‘But he did call the police, didn’t he? He did actually tell them he’d killed his wife?’
‘But he’s had time to think about it, hasn’t he? I didn’t like the idea of him refusing to make a statement. He’s clever. Suppose he gets a smart barrister and they try to hang the whole thing on exorcism?’
‘You mean on me, right?’
‘I don’t know. You studied law for a while, didn’t you?’
‘But saying what?’ The backs of her legs felt weak. ‘That Stock had acted out of character due to a sudden infusion of the Holy Spirit? I don’t think even that was quite suggested in the Taylor case.’
‘But you said that was over a quarter of a century ago. Probably twice as many people going to church as there are now. We’ve become a secular country very quickly. You might talk about the Holy Spirit…’
‘I imagine some barrister would argue that’s become a meaningless term. Mythology.’
‘They’d probably bring on a tame shrink,’ Lol said. ‘There are dozens of the buggers out there — university professors… authors of distinguished textbooks, theses. Awesomely eloquent, frighteningly fluent, oozing with… certainty. I’ve been listening to them for months. They’re scary. Not necessarily right, but convincing.’
He put down the tea towel, and came to lean against the stainless-steel draining board. Merrily let the hot water run over her wrists. This was a new Lol, wasn’t it?
‘So they screen Stock’s video in court,’ he said. ‘The jury see you at work. Then they see Stock at the end, when he’s about to throw you out. He’s angry, almost irrational — this is the real Stock, of course, but the jury don’t know that. The first Stock they saw was this quiet, subdued, compliant character who just wants peace restored to his home. They’re thinking to themselves, what happened in there? What brought about this change?’
‘He was annoyed at Stephanie, the way she was behaving.’
‘But on the video he isn’t going for Stephanie, he’s going for you. And me — he’s questioning what I’m doing there. Am I there as a psychotherapist in case he’s bonkers? So what’s this other guy about? the jury asks itself…’
‘Is directed to ask itself,’ Merrily said, ‘by the smart brief.’
‘Meanwhile, back on the video, Stock’s trying to find out what’s been achieved there, and he’s not satisfied with the answers. He loses it completely, hurls the brimstone tray to the floor. And what do we do? We just walk out, leaving this unstable and clearly violent man-’
‘With the offer of a few prayers to tide him over,’ Merrily said bitterly.
‘And then they… I suppose they put you in the witness box.’