The Fabric of Sin
(The ninth book in the Merrily Watkins series)
A novel by Phil Rickman
Shapen of clay and kneaded with water
A bedrock of shame and a source of pollution
A cauldron of iniquity and a fabric of sin …
What can I say that hath not been foreknown
Or what disclose that hath not been foretold?
Do I believe in ghosts ...? I answer that
I am prepared to consider evidence and
accept it if it satisfies me.
ALTHOUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE around the barn was open and level, three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the Border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow.
Standing at the barn window with Adam Eastgate, she tracked them, right to left, from the southern end of the Black Mountains: the volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of The Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross.
Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them.
At least, not the way someone had with the third and lowest hill, the only one this side of the Welsh border but still maybe a dozen miles away. The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.
‘Oh,’ Merrily said, realizing. ‘Right. They say it’s like another country up there.’
The light through the window was this deep, fruity pink, the sun dying somewhere behind the hill with its radio mast, its famously enigmatic church and a farmhouse called the Master House that they were saying was haunted.
Adam Eastgate had been aiming a forefinger like he wanted to stab the hill himself, again and again. Sighing, he let his hand fall.
‘We don’t often make mistakes, Merrily.’
* * *
She’d never actually been to Garway Hill. Nor, before today, to this place either – a tidy cluster of converted farm buildings off a dead-end country lane, maybe three miles outside the city. Pieces of Herefordshire adding up to more than twelve thousand acres were administered from here, on behalf of perhaps the most prestigious landlord in the country, and she hadn’t even heard of it.
All the stuff you ought to know about and didn’t. Sometimes this county could be just a little too discreet. All a bit awkward. Merrily turned away from the window and the hills.
‘Jane and I – my daughter – we keep planning to go over to Garway, check out the Knights Templar church. Somehow never seem to find the time.’
‘Aye, we saw it with the Man, when he came to inspect the farm. Likes a quiet stroll when he can. And, of course, it’s always so quiet there, nobody noticed us even when—’ Adam Eastgate slipping her a cautious glance. ‘Why are you smiling?’
‘You might not have seen a soul, but it’d be all over the hill before he was back in his Land Rover.’ Merrily looked down at the outline plans on the conference table. They were blurred. She rubbed her eyes. ‘He inspects every property you take on? Personally?’
‘Aw, hey, he’s not just a figurehead.’
The brackeny accent digging in – Northumbria. In his dry, soldierly way, Adam Eastgate was affronted. Very protective of the Man, the people working here.
‘Does he know about this particular problem then?’
Eastgate didn’t reply, which could have meant yes or no or not something you’re supposed to ask.
‘OK, then.’ Merrily sat down in one of the high-backed chairs, red brocade. ‘What, specifically, are we looking at?’
‘Oh hell, I can’t tell you. Perhaps I wasn’t listening hard enough, y’know?’
‘Or you find it embarrassing?’
‘Not a question of embarrassment, Merrily, I’m just not the man it happened to. If anything did.’
Always the get-out clause.
‘How would you like me to play it, then?’
‘How would you normally play it?’
‘Well …’ Dear God, how long was this going to take? ‘To begin with, we usually try to find out if there’s a back-story. Talk to local people, village historian – there’s always a village historian. Or maybe—’ She clocked his wince. ‘That would be the wrong approach, would it?’
‘Depends if you want it on American TV before the week’s out.’
‘Merrily …’ Tight smile. ‘I’m the land-steward. Deal with builders, architects … and tenants, right? Most of whom … good as gold. But we know if we’re forced to evict somebody who hasn’t parted with the rent for two years, next day’s tabloids we’re half-expecting Prince Puts Family on the Street.’
‘You see where we’re going?’
‘Haunted Prince calls in Exorcist?’
Eastgate shuddered. Nice chap, Adam, the Bishop had said. Knows what he wants and how to get it done. But raising this had taken the best part of half an hour and three false starts.
This had been two nights ago, one of those receptions where the Duchy was explaining its ambitious conservation plans to the great and the good of Hereford. The Bishop and the Archdeacon and their wives were having a drink afterwards with Adam Eastgate when the Garway investment had come up. And its complications. You could imagine the Bishop nodding helpfully. We do have a person, you know, looks after this kind of thing.
‘I mean, you’ll’ve read the stuff, same as I have,’ Eastgate said. ‘He only has to venture an off-the-cuff opinion on whatever it is – architecture, alternative medicine, GM foods …’
‘The benefits of talking to plants?’
‘See, there you go! That’s exactly it. How many years ago was that? But do they ever forget?’
Well, no. This was the nation’s last bit of official glitter, a face from commemorative investiture plaques, Royal Wedding mugs on your gran’s dresser. Merrily feeling slightly ashamed that, although she’d known it was most unlikely that the Man would be here today, she was wearing her best coat. Her mother would have agonized, changing tops, changing shoes, inspecting her hair many times in the car mirror, just in case.
‘Who is it safe to talk to, then? Who’s actually living in the house?’
‘Well … nobody. I’m trying to explain, this came from the builder. Canny fella, normally. Or so I thought till he’s ringing us up – Adam, man, I think you’re going to have to find somebody else for this one. I’m going, What?’
Eastgate walked to the darkening window, glanced out briefly, unseeing, turned and came back.
‘We’re good employers, Merrily. In some ways, the best. Never short of tenders and once they’re allocated we don’t get jobs chucked back at us. Doesn’t happen.’
Merrily nodding. They’d be a fairly significant name on a builder’s CV. But it worked both ways, Eastgate said. This builder had a rare feel for an old property. And the Master House itself …
‘See, normally, we’re not interested in anything less than about two hundred acres, and this is, what, ninety-five? But it’s a forgotten bit of old England, right down there on the very edge of Wales. Not much you find these days completely unrestored, hardly touched in over a century. We get to tease out the past. Plus, I’m thinking craft workshops in the barns, the stables, the granary … a little working community, new economic life. And green. Very green. Woodburners, rainwater tanks, sheep’s-wool insulation …’
‘Oh, he loves all that, doesn’t he?’
‘The Man? It’s his number one, and it influences us all, naturally.’ Eastgate shook his head. ‘I’m going, come on, Felix, what is this really about? You sick? Domestic problems? Adam, he says to us, maybe this is an old place that doesn’t want to be restored. His words. Hostile. That was another. One of his team had a powerful feeling they were not wanted.’
‘He pulled out of the whole project because one person thought he—?’
‘It’s a she, Merrily.’
The sun had gone, leaving a raspberry hue on the room, but you could still make out the shapes of the fields and the fuzz of hedgerows on the side of Garway Hill.
‘I’m going to leave it in your hands, all right?’ Eastgate gathered up the plans into a black cardboard folder. ‘You take these, they’re only copies. See what he’s putting in jeopardy.’
‘The bottom line being you’d like him back on the job ASAP.’
‘Only if he’s normal. Look, if you want to ask a few questions locally, go ahead. We’ve nothing to hide. Bought in good faith, and what we have in mind is going to be good for the community. I’d just say exercise a bit more discretion than usual.’
‘My watchword, Adam.’
She had a headache.
They walked into the forecourt, deeply shadowed now. Not quite six, and everyone seemed to have gone home. Maybe Adam Eastgate had timed their meeting for the tail-end of the working day so he wouldn’t have to explain any of this to the staff.
All the leaves were still on the trees and it was still warm – too warm. A long, flooded summer and the planet in the condemned cell. At least the nights were drawing in now, the tindery musk of autumn on the air as Eastgate walked with Merrily to the old Volvo. It had been nicked last summer – in the dark, obviously – and then swiftly abandoned, presumably after they’d heard the engine.
‘So – just to get this right – what exactly will you do at the house, Merrily, to, ah …?’
‘Depends what it is.’
‘You work on your own?’
‘I … like to think not.’ She smiled wearily; he didn’t get it. ‘OK, there are a few advisers I can call on, if necessary. Usually when there are people involved who might have particular problems – psychological … psychiatric? When you’re looking at an empty … that is, a house not lived in, as such …’
Oh, the way you shaped and trimmed your glossary of terms when addressing ingrained scepticism. Adam Eastgate cleared his throat.
‘Only I didn’t think you’d be so …’
‘I was going to say, matter-of-fact about it.’
Meaning, like it’s real.
‘I don’t do it all the time. There’s also a parish – weddings, funerals, rows with the churchwardens.’
‘I suppose medieval was the word I was groping for.’
‘I’m medieval?’ She looked up at him through the fast-thickening air. ‘You’re working for an institution dating back, if I’ve got this right, to thirteen—?’
‘Thirty-seven. Duchy was created by Edward III, to provide an income for his son, the Prince of Wales. The king’s father having been the first to hold the title.’
‘Well … the first Englishman.’
‘And by that you mean … what, exactly, Merrily?’
‘Well, they …’ Flinching at the sharpness of Eastgate’s glance. ‘They had their own, didn’t they? The Welsh. For a long time.’
And even after the princes of Wales had become English there was Owain Glyndwr, in the fifteenth century, still trying to get it back. But maybe mentioning this would not be very tactful.
‘Not my subject, Welsh history. Thank God.’ Eastgate straightened up. ‘Anyway, you’ll keep us up to speed, I hope.’
‘Obviously tell you what I can. Without, you know … breaking any confidences that might arise.’
Not that this was likely. It didn’t seem to be any more than what Huw Owen would call a volatile or a delinquent: the wonky fuse box, the dripping tap – Deliverance-lite.
Merrily unlocked the car.
‘It’s an empty house. If anything’s happening, nobody has to live with it day-to-day. So we’re looking at … probably, prayers, a room-by-room blessing. Or, if a particular and persistent personality is identified, maybe a Requiem Eucharist involving the people most closely involved, present and – where possible – past. Nine times out of ten, this is enough to restore a kind of calm. Adam, why’s it called the Master House?’
‘If anybody was able to explain that,’ Eastgate said, ‘they didn’t want to. Maybe the main house when there were subsidiary farms. Or the local schoolmaster used to live there?’
She had a last look at the hill, where isolated white lights had appeared, its big sisters, the Skirrid and the Sugarloaf fading, uninhabited, into the dried-blood sky.
Adam Eastgate said, ‘Ever get scared yourself, Merrily?’
Merrily laughed, an unconvincing hollow sound in the stillness. An early owl picked it up, or seemed to, and flew with it as she got into the car.
‘THEN HE WAS back on the phone,’ Merrily told Lol in the pub. ‘Soon as I got in. Barely had time to put the kettle on.’
‘The Duchy guy?’
‘No, the Bishop. Must’ve rung several times already. I don’t think I’ve ever known him this jumpy. I just … I don’t get it.’
She took a drink. Serious decadence: a house-white spritzer in the Black Swan – oak beams, low lights – with one’s paramour. How long had it been before she’d felt able to do this comfortably? Six months? A year?
Seemed stupid now; nobody glanced at them twice – although this was probably because almost nobody knew them. Thursday night, and most of the drinkers in the lounge bar were from outside the village, having drifted in for dinner. Some probably responding to the dispiriting Daily Telegraph travel feature identifying Ledwardine as the black-and-white, timber-ribbed heart of the New Cotswolds.
Like, when did that happen? Couple of years ago, the village was still on the rim of the wilderness. Now there was talk of the Black Swan chasing a Michelin star.
‘The Cotswolds are coming.’ Merrily listened to the brittle laughter at the bar. ‘Ominous. Like a melting ice cap. Rural warming. Feels suddenly claustrophobic, or is that just me?’
Final confirmation of the county’s new economic status: the major investment in Herefordshire by the old Cotswolds’ most distinguished resident.
Charles Windsor, Highgrove.
‘Does he know about this?’ Lol said.
‘Well, that’s what I asked. Didn’t get an answer.’
‘He’d probably be fascinated. Has his other-worldly side.’
‘Only, he keeps quieter about it these days.’ Merrily looked around, making sure nobody could overhear them in their corner, well back from the bar. ‘Since the tabloids labelled him as a loony who talks to plants. Maybe they’ve been advised not to tell him, just get it quietly disposed of. As for the Bishop …’
‘You can see his problem. This is the guy next in line for head of the Church of England.’
‘That didn’t escape me. I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to play it by the book.’
No reason, however, for the Bishop to go adding extra, entirely gratuitous chapters. Full attention, I think, Merrily. We’ll need to get you a locum for at least a week. Move you over there.
And she’d gone, ‘What?’
Like … what? Sounding like Jane, probably.
‘Lol, I don’t want to go and stay in Garway for a week. I just … I don’t see the point.’
‘In which case …’ Orange sparks from the electric candles on the walls were agitating in Lol’s glasses ‘… why not just tell the Bishop to, you know, piss off?’
‘Because he’s a friend. Because I owe him. Because …’
Merrily shook her head, helpless. Lol leaned back. He was looking good, actually. Old denim jacket over a Baker’s Lament T-shirt, which he wore like a medal but always keeping the motif at least partly covered up, as if he could still only half-believe what was finally happening to him. He put down his lager, thoughtful.
‘Suppose I come with you.’
‘It’s only three gigs next week, just the one night away. I could reschedule … or cancel.’
‘That is not a word we use, Lol. You give anybody the slightest reason to think you’re slipping back …’
A year ago, the thought of three gigs – three solo gigs – would have given him palpitations, night sweats.
Lol looked into his glass, obviously knowing she was right, and Merrily watched him across the oak table, through this haze of love and pride blurred by fatigue. Very happy for him, if concerned that he might just be feeling he didn’t deserve it. Ominously, when she’d gone over to the cottage to drag him out to the pub, she’d heard the voice of his long-dead muse, Nick Drake, from the stereo. Worst of all, it was ‘Black-Eyed Dog’, Nick’s voice pitched high in bleak and terminal despair. Lol had turned it off before he opened the door, Merrily staring at him in alarm but finding no despair in his eyes, just this sense of puzzlement.
‘Besides,’ she said, ‘I’m supposed to be staying with the local priest. They haven’t got a vicar in the Garway cluster at present, so a retired guy’s taking services meanwhile. He and his wife do B. & B. I turn up there with a boyfriend, how’s that going to look?’
‘What about Jane?’
‘Jane stays here. Can’t miss any school at this stage. Woman curate called Ruth Wisdom’s lined up to mind the parish. Work experience. She’s OK. And Jane’s less likely to drive her to self-mutilation than at one time, and she—’
Merrily looked up. A woman was standing behind Lol’s chair.
‘Excuse me. You just have to be Lol Robinson?’
She was tall and very slender. She’d been with a group of women in their twenties, with fancy cocktails, their backs to the bar. All of them now looking at Lol, hands over smiles.
‘Nobody has to be anybody,’ Lol said.
Mr Enigmatic. The woman was leaning over him now, her glossy black dress like oil on a dipstick, one small breast almost touching his cheek.
‘Lol, I just wanted to say, we all went to see The Baker’s Lament at the Flicks in the Sticks special preview, and it was … absolutely enchanting. Especially the music, obviously. But, listen, when I went to buy the CD in Hereford they hadn’t even got it? Nobody had?’
‘Well, it … it all takes time,’ Lol said.
‘And I’m like, for Christ’s sake, this guy’s local? And the manager guy, he eventually admitted they’d had about fifteen orders just that day? Fifteen orders in one morning? This tells me you need to get a better recording company, Mr Robinson. I couldn’t even find a download?’
‘Well, it’s kind of caught them on the hop,’ Lol said. ‘All of us, really. We didn’t actually—’
‘Well, I have to say I just totally love it. Hope you don’t mind me coming over?’
‘Er, no,’ Lol said. ‘No, not at all. Thank you.’
The young woman straightened up. As did her conspicuous nipples. She looked across at Merrily and smiled at her.
Merrily felt small and dowdy and old.
‘He’s lovely, isn’t he?’ the woman said.
Walking back across the village square, Lol avoided the creamy light of the fake gaslamps; Merrily was a pace behind him.
‘Fifteen orders? In one morning?’
‘She was probably exaggerating.’
‘Why would she?’ Merrily pulled on her woollen beret, zipped up her fraying fleece. ‘She doesn’t know you. Although she’ll probably be telling people she does, now.’
‘One small song in one small film?’
‘Not so small now. And you know what? People will remember the song when they’ve half-forgotten the film. Because it’s somehow caught the mood. The zeitgeist … whatever. You have become a cool person, Laurence.’
‘It’s not real.’ Lol was shaking his head, as if to clear it after his two halves of lager. ‘It’s a freak accident.’
Sometimes you wanted to encircle his neck with your hands and …
Over a year now since this young guy, Liam Brown, not long out of film school, had written to Lol, telling him about his self-financed rural love story. How badly, after hearing it on Lol’s album, Alien, he wanted ‘The Baker’s Lament’ on the soundtrack, only wasn’t sure he could afford it. Just take it, Lol had told him, the way Lol would, sending him three versions of the song, including an unreleased instrumental track, and forgetting all about it. Not even mentioning it to Merrily until the middle of July, when the first DVD arrived.
The Baker’s Lament. There on the label, with a bread knife stuck into a country cob. The guy had named the movie after the song.
Shooting the picture with unknown actors who’d formed some kind of workers’ cooperative. Lol and Merrily had watched it together at the vicarage: the tragicomic story of a young couple setting up a village bakery on the Welsh border in the 1960s when the supermarkets were starting to starve small shopkeepers out of business. Following through to the new millennium when the couple were played – and not badly, either – by the actors’ own parents and the village had turned into something like contemporary Ledwardine, the bakery now a twee delicatessen.
The movie was simple and charming and unpretentious, a rural elegy with Lol’s music seeping through it like a bloodstream, carrying the sense of change and loss and a kind of resilience.
Liam Brown was even worse than Lol at self-promotion, and they hadn’t known it had been released – in a limited way, on the art-house circuit – until it was in the papers that an obscure British independent film had picked up some debut-director award at Cannes. Then the who is this guy? calls had started coming in to Lol’s producer, Prof Levin.
Change was coming. New Costwolds, new Lol.
They stopped on the edge of the cobbles, where they’d go their separate ways, Merrily to the vicarage, Lol to his terraced cottage in Church Street. When he took her hand, his felt cold.
‘Apparently, the next question they ask is, Is he still alive? Thinking maybe it’s a forgotten recording from the Sixties, by some contemporary of …’
‘It should be him, Merrily. Not me.’
‘Lol, he’s dead. He died in 1974, after a mere five, six years of not being successful. You get to double that … and some.’
She pulled him under the oak-pillared village hall and – bugger it, if there were people watching, let them watch – clasped her hands in his hair and found his lips with her mouth and then unzipped her fleece and tucked one of his cold hands inside.
‘All this,’ she said, aware of the ambivalence, ‘is something overdue. Remember that.’
Trying to banish the image of the girl in the pub, showing him her implants out of a dress that must have cost something close to two weeks’ stipend.
Jane said, ‘You’re a soft touch, Mum. Always were. A doormat.’
It was getting late, but it was Friday night and Merrily had lit a small log fire in the vicarage sitting room. The whole place was colder since they’d said goodbye to the oil-gobbling Aga. Which, while it had to be done, meant she wasn’t looking forward to winter.
‘And I don’t mean one of those rough, spiky doormats,’ Jane said.
‘You’ll like Ruth. She rides a motorbike.’
‘Jeez, if there’s anything worse than a trendy lesbian cleric in leathers with a vintage Harley between her legs … Like, maybe I could arrange to stay at Eirion’s …’
Jane’s voice dried up, and her face went blank. Eirion was away at university now, and she still hadn’t got used to that. OK, it was only Cardiff, and he came home to Abergavenny at weekends, but things, inevitably, had changed.
‘Ruth’s not a lesbian, Jane.’
‘Not a problem, anyway.’ Jane, on her knees on the hearthrug, stared into the desultory yellow flames. ‘I was thinking of giving girls a try for a while, actually.’
Shock tactic. Cry for help. Merrily pulled up an armchair.
‘He didn’t phone, then.’
‘Erm … no.’
‘Ten days? No problem. I don’t think he was even able to get home last weekend, didn’t I mention that?’
‘No, but I kind of assumed that was why you suddenly had to work on your project.’
‘All that’s gone quiet, too. They may not even start the dig until the spring.’
Pity about that. Jane had been hyper for a while after her campaign to stall council plans for executive homes in Coleman’s Meadow. Convinced that the field had once been crossed by an ancient trackway and, amazingly, she’d been right. They’d found prehistoric stones there, long buried by some superstitious farmer. Sensational archaeology, for a place like Ledwardine.
‘He’ll call,’ Merrily said. ‘He’s Eirion.’
‘I don’t care if he calls or not.’
‘Yes, you do.’
‘Like, it’s very demanding, university life.’ Jane didn’t look at her. ‘Lots of guys you’re obliged to get smashed with. Lots of girls to assist with their essays and stuff.’
‘Eirion was never like that.’
‘He was never at university before.’
University. Further education. This could be the time to talk about it again. Just over six months from her A levels, Jane needed to start applying to universities … like now. But Jane wasn’t interested, because that was what everybody did. She kept saying she could feel The System trying to stereotype her. And look at the cost. Tuition fees. Could they afford it? Was it really worth it? Especially as she hadn’t yet decided on a career. Like, you didn’t just do further education for the sake of having done it.
‘You went to uni,’ Jane said, looking down at the rug, ‘and got pregnant before you were into your second year.’
‘We were naïve in those days. Well … comparatively immature. Although I suppose every generation gets to say that.’
‘In which case I must be—’ Jane turned to her, moist-eyed, or was it the light? ‘I must be very seriously immature, then. Pushing eighteen and only the one real boyfriend? That’s not normal, Mum. That wasn’t even normal in your day. That’s, like, almost perverted?’
‘Well, actually, flower, I think it’s really quite—’ The phone rang then, offering her a timely get-out, which she felt compelled to ignore. ‘I’ll let the machine—’
‘No, you get it. Go on. You’ll only sit there worrying until you find an excuse to sneak off and play the message.’
Merrily nodded, got up.
‘It’s a doormat thing,’ Jane said sweetly to her back.
She took the call in the scullery office, padding over the flags in the cold kitchen where no stove rumbled, scooping up the phone with one hand, switching on the desk lamp with the other.
‘Mrs Watkins, is it?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Adam Eastgate likely mentioned me.’
‘Oh … right. Mr …’
‘Barlow.’ Low-level local accent. ‘Felix.’
‘Right. I was going to call you tomorrow, actually, see if we could arrange to meet.’
‘Tomorrow would be all right for us, yes.’
‘At the house?’
Owls whooping it up in the orchard. Silence in the old black bakelite phone, the kind of phone that could really carry a silence.
‘The house at Garway?’ Merrily said.
‘No,’ Mr Barlow said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Any … particular reason?’
‘Well, see … person you need to talk to, more than me, is my plasterer. It’s my plasterer had the experience.’
‘I call her that. We’re converting this barn at Monkland, see. We’re in a caravan on the site.’
‘That’s not far for me. It’s just I thought you might find it easier to explain the problem in situ,’ Merrily said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘You couldn’t spare the time?’
Another silence; no owls even. She waited.
‘I think you’re gonner have to come here,’ he said. ‘We don’t plan to go back, see.’
‘To the Master House.’
This was what he was ringing to tell her? That they weren’t, on any account, going back to the house?
‘That’s correct,’ he said.
She had the feeling that he was working to a script and whoever had written it was standing at his shoulder. She felt another question coming and hung on for it.
‘I was told you … you were the Hereford exorcist.’
‘More or less.’
‘And you’ll have the, um, full regalia, is it?’
‘We’d like it if you came with all the regalia,’ Felix Barlow said. ‘The full bell, book and candle, kind of thing.’
‘If that’s all right with you,’ Barlow said.
SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL and shimmery in the mist. Like one of those exotic birds that weren’t supposed to migrate here. Greens and blues in her dark, tangly hair, skin like milky coffee. She stood by the long green caravan, in her pink-splashed overalls and her turquoise wellingtons, calling out when Merrily was close enough for the dog collar to show.
‘Will you bless me?’
‘In the old-fashioned way, please,’ she said. ‘That is, with all due ceremony?’
From the field gate, through the lingering mist – a keen hint of first frost – she’d looked as young as Jane. Close up, you guessed she was nearly thirty. Still not Merrily’s idea of a plasterer.
‘I can tell.’
Merrily looked into eyes which were startlingly big and round, like an owl’s, and widely separated.
‘It strengthens the aura,’ the woman said. ‘Isn’t that right?’
‘I’m sure it must be.’ Merrily parted her woollen cloak to expose the cassock, hemmed with mud now. The full regalia could be a pain. ‘But would it be all right if we talked first?’
‘I just wanted to ask you while Felix wasn’t here. He’s not religious.’ The woman turned away and moved back to the caravan. ‘Fuchsia,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘Fuchsia Mary Linden.’
Which meant that her parents had been either gardeners or big fans of the Gormenghast trilogy. Following her into the caravan, Merrily’s money was on Gormenghast.
* * *
She felt tired again, had a lingering headache. She’d awoken a good hour before dawn, her body all curled up, tense with resentment.
Never her favourite negative emotion, resentment. Most times it came hissing like poison gas out of inflated self-esteem – they can’t treat me like this. Seldom objective, never exactly Christian and hardly (thank you, Jane) the Way of the Doormat.
At six a.m. she’d been hugging a pot of tea, Ethel the black cat on her knees, in the frigid kitchen. Watery sunlight eventually seeping into the windows before the mist had blotted it up.
The more she’d thought about the Duchy job, the more senseless it had seemed. She was expected to desert the parish – and Jane and Lol – for up to a week to address some embarrassment in an empty house?
An empty house. That was the other point. No family life disrupted there. Nobody’s sanity at risk. Was there, in fact, anything more on the line than the reputation of the Bishop of Hereford as a faithful servant of the monarchy, and the professional judgement of the Duke of Cornwall’s land-steward?
Merrily had put on her pectoral cross and knelt, in her bathrobe, on the cold stone flags and prayed. And listened.
The result had been inconclusive.
It was a substantial, professional caravan, with a living room and a good-sized kitchen area, copper pans on hooks conveying weight and a sense of permanence. Twin doors at the bottom of the living area suggesting a separate bedroom and bathroom.
The walls of the living room were lined with oriental rugs, and there was a wood-burning stove, lit, the sweet scent of apple logs mingling with the sweeter fumes of cannabis. Fuchsia kicked off her wellies, picked up a rubberized walkie-talkie.
‘I’ll call Felix. He’s over at the barn. Have a seat, please, Merrily.’
Shrugging off the black woollen cloak, Merrily made a space for herself between tumbled books on one of the fitted sofas. She could see the barn, its bay agape, through the window opposite and the goldenbrown mist. The window behind her framed the church tower across the rutted field and the lane where she’d left her car. Monkland was a main-road village on the way to Leominster; this was the first time she’d penetrated its hinterland.
‘So the barn’s going to be …?’
‘Our home. It’s supposed to be finished by now.’ Fuchsia prodded at the walkie-talkie. ‘But that’s what it’s like with builders, Merrily, they fit in their own projects between jobs. If a builder’s home looks like some wretched hovel, that means he’s doing very well.’
The ephemeral beauty didn’t include her voice, which was quite slow. And loud, in an uncontrolled way, like a child’s.
Merrily folded the cloak over her knees, less puzzled now about why it, or the cassock, had been necessary. Why Felix Barlow, though not religious himself, had thought traditional priestly attire would be appropriate.
The walkie-talkie cackled and Fuchsia said, ‘She’s here, babes,’ and clicked it off. ‘He’ll come now, Merrily. He was getting a bit frazzled and he needed to work with his hands to calm himself down. Felix has problems talking about the non-physical. Which is very odd because he’s really perceptive, and buildings speak to him.’
‘How do they do that?
‘They send him information, communicating what they were and what they can be again. It’s like dowsing. He feels it in his muscles – the needs of the stone and the oak. Well, in some buildings, anyway.’
‘What about the farmhouse at Garway?’
‘The Master House had been left to rot.’ Fuchsia was wrapping her thin arms around herself as if to crush a shudder. ‘And it wasn’t complaining. Houses know when they’ve gone bad.’
‘And this is what it said to Felix?’
‘This one didn’t speak to Felix, Merrily,’ Fuchsia said. ‘It spoke to me.’
‘And now my aura’s permeated with darkness.’ Fuchsia opened her arms. ‘Can you see?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Some priests can. Not the man at Garway, he was no help at all, but there was a very good guy in the place I grew up. He’d packed it in, but it never goes away. It’s a calling, like they say. I believe that, Merrily. If you answer the call, you may receive gifts.’
‘It’s as well to be careful about gifts,’ Merrily said. ‘You can never be too sure who they’re from.’
Fuchsia crouched in front of the stove and opened up its vents, pale flames spurting in the glass square. On a shelf to the left of the stainless steel flue, Merrily read titles from a stack of paperbacks. The Gap in the Curtain, The Secrets of Dr Taverner, The Flint Knife, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
‘Where did you grow up, Fuchsia?’
‘West Wales. Cardiganshire.’ Fuchsia watched the flames. ‘I was born there.’
No Welsh accent, though. Through the caravan window, Merrily saw a man in a hat coming out of the mist.
‘Felix was there, too,’ Fuchsia said.
‘In the place where I was born. He was there when I entered the world.’ Fuchsia smiled, her face reflected, stretched and warped, in the shiny flue. ‘Felix cut my cord, Merrily.’
‘Which makes for a lifelong connection,’ Fuchsia said.
Something you learned as a deliverance minister: whatever ghosts were, there were people who saw them and people who wanted to see them, and they were seldom the same people.
Put it this way: if whatever had happened at Garway had happened to Felix Merrily would have been more inclined to believe it.
He was a big, untamed-looking man in a leather waistcoat. Long red-grey hair in a rubberbanded ponytail, a wide smile through a stubble like sharp sand. He’d left his wellies at the bottom of the caravan steps, and she saw that his woollen socks had been darned. How often nowadays did socks get darned?
‘Didn’t really want this, Mrs Watkins.’ He lowered himself with a sigh into the sofa opposite her; he had to be a good twenty years older than Fuchsia. ‘I just wanted off the job, and that would be an end to it, but Adam … he’s like a terrier, is Adam.’
‘He likes you. Trusts you to get it right.’
‘He should know better.’ Felix pulled out a dented cigarette tin and Rizlas. ‘All right if I …?’
‘Please do. In fact …’ Merrily reached gratefully down to her bag, bringing out the Silk Cut and the Zippo. ‘And he doesn’t want to see you lose the contract, if something can be … cleared up.’
‘I never asked for this. I want you to know that. I said to Adam, leave it. It’s just one of those things.’
‘But then he told me,’ Fuchsia said, ‘and I realized you must be meant, Merrily.’
‘Meant,’ Merrily said.
‘It’s a matter of metaphysics.’
Merrily looked at Felix, who said nothing, and back at Fuchsia whose wide-eyed gaze met hers full-on.
‘That house is diseased, you see. We need spiritual antibiotics.’
‘You know a bit about these things, then.’
‘I know that this is about good and evil, Merrily,’ Fuchsia said, ‘and I’ve experienced the evil.’
‘OK.’ Merrily lit a cigarette. ‘Do you want to tell me?’
Nearest the Scissors
Mostly heavy-duty plastic, Felix explained. They’d laid them on the floor where the damp and sunken stone flags had been taken up. This was after the roof had been made safe. First things first. They’d spread the dust sheets on the floor, so they could make a start on the walls.
‘Lime-plaster,’ Fuchsia said. ‘I love it.’
‘You should see her,’ Felix said. ‘She moves like a dragonfly.’
‘Not that day.’ Fuchsia moved closer to the wood stove. ‘There was no air that day. It was close and heavy outside, but still damp inside the house. My wings …’ She giggled bleakly, a sound like pills rattling in a jar. ‘My wings were drooping.’
‘It was the first time she’d been there, see,’ Felix said. ‘I have three blokes in the regular team, they’d made a start on the roof.’
Fuchsia watched the flames.
‘I was looking forward to it. It seemed a lovely area. It has two personalities, Merrily. Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales.’ She gripped her knees. ‘All spoiled now.’
Felix looked at her, worried, then he turned to Merrily.
‘So … Ledwardine, eh? You know Gomer Parry?’
‘Oh, yes.’ She smiled. ‘Very well.’
‘Not quite as well. I didn’t meet him until he became Gomer’s partner in the plant-hire.’
‘I was in Danny’s band in the Seventies,’ Felix said. ‘Bass. Fingers always too messed up for anything more delicate than a bass guitar, and a bit clumsy at that. I think we did one gig, and I wouldn’t say folks was actually walking out the door—’
‘It was full of death,’ Fuchsia said. ‘The cold, white, waxy stillness of death.’
Merrily saw Felix grit his teeth, turning away from Fuchsia, whose elongated reflection in the stainless-steel flue was starting to look like Munch’s Scream.
‘I didn’t know whether it wanted me out or it wanted me dead, Merrily.’
‘Stop it, girl.’
Felix’s fingers gripping his knees. Merrily knelt down next to Fuchsia on the rug.
‘What made you think that something wanted you dead?’
‘I tried to work – I went out, I came back, I went out again. And then I went back. I am a professional.’ She stared defiantly at Merrily. ‘Felix went back on his own the next day, and when he came home it was like it was all over him. I made him shower and then I burned all the clothes he’d been wearing. Just out there, Merrily. I poured petrol on them.’
Merrily nodded. Very early in her deliverance career she’d been advised to do something similar, to draw a line under a particular situation. Some things it was easier not to question.
‘You said you went back.’
‘It was under the dust sheets.’
‘I tried to ignore it, but all the time I could hear the dust sheets behind me, wriggling and rippling and whispering. The air was really thick and heavy and I wouldn’t let myself turn round.’
‘Felix wasn’t there?’
‘I was checking out the granary,’ Felix said. ‘Working out how many steps could be repaired. Heard her screaming, started running …’
Fuchsia was staring down at her hands, mumbling something. Merrily bent to her.
‘I’m sorry …?’
‘A face of crumpled linen,’ Felix said. ‘She’s said that a few times.’
‘That’s what you saw?’
Fuchsia nodded her head violently and bent forward as if she had awful stomach-ache, and Felix looked depairingly at Merrily, and then Fuchsia said, ‘Can we do it in the church?’
‘The blessing. Don’t see why not. But I’d need to clear it with the vicar.’
‘No. There’s no need, Merrily.’
‘Well, it’s what we usually do, but …’ At least she was on fairly good terms with the minister at Monkland; she could get away with it. ‘If you’d rather not make a thing out of it …’
‘Not this church,’ Fuchsia said.
She’d insisted on changing first, into something white.
The old-fashioned way. All due ceremony.
Merrily went back across the field, through the clearing mist, to the car and brought the blue case out of the boot. Inside it were the holy water and oil for anointing. Borrowed from Roman Catholicism but it was sometimes helpful. Partly theatre.
She waited in the field, with Felix.
‘Those books on the shelf near the stove – are they yours or Fuchsia’s?’
‘I don’t read much nowadays. Half a page and I fall asleep. If they en’t technical books, they en’t mine.’
‘I meant the ghost stories.’
‘Oh. Aye, she likes the old ghost stories. Sometime she’ll read one aloud and it scares the pants off me, but she just giggles. Finds them comforting, mabbe. The old houses, the formality, the stiff way people talk. Stilted. Sometimes she says she was born out of time. Wrong place, wrong time.’
‘Where was she born?’
‘She didn’t tell you?’
‘She said Cardiganshire.’
‘Well, that …’ Felix half smiled. ‘That’s more or less right. You heard of Tepee City?’
‘Blimey, is it still there?’
‘I reckon. Likely the longest-surviving alternative community in Britain by now. I was there about a year, as a young feller. Gap year, as you might say. Nice folks, in the main. Had to pull your weight, mind, or you wouldn’t be welcome for too long.’
‘So you were a tepee dweller.’
‘Bender, in my case. You know – the ole bent-over sapling kind of thing?’
‘Only there a year, like I say, but I never regretted it. When you eventually graduate to building and rebuilding proper houses, if the first ones you ever put together was benders you’ve probably got your priorities right – make it warm, watertight and use natural insulation.’
‘Fuchsia said you, erm …’
‘Cut her cord? Aye, she likes to tell people that.’
‘Is it true?’
‘It is, actually.’ Felix squeezed his prickly jaw. ‘Childbirth in the valley, it could be like a communal event. I just happened to be nearest the scissors. Afterwards, Mary asked me to be her … godfather, kind of thing. Though we never went to church, just down the wood. Where we lit a fire, asked the gods to bless the child … bit pagan, sorry about that, but they did, kind of … you know, they included Jesus.’
Merrily smiled faintly.
‘Then we played some music, smoked some weed, and I held the child for a bit and made some vows in the smoke.’
‘So you and Fuchsia’s mother – I’m sorry for asking personal questions but it helps to know a few basics …’
‘No,’ Felix said. ‘Me and Mary, that never really happened. I wanted it to, at the time, I en’t denying that. She was beautiful. Thin. Fragile. Didn’t have much to say. Needed looking after. When she turned up at Tepee City, she was already pregnant. Said the father’d buggered off to America to go on the road in a pick-up truck. I suppose I got closer to her than anybody, but not as close as I’d’ve liked, you know? She stayed a few months, and then she … she just left.’
‘With the baby?’
‘No, she left the baby in the Valley. With another family.’
‘Just like that?’
‘More or less. Rachel, the woman who took Fuchsia, she was this earth-mother type, done it before. I mean, it was that kind of place. Fuchsia was a child of the tribe, kind of thing. We thought Mary was gonner come back – she said she’d been offered a job, good money and she’d be back for the kid. The social services tried to find her, got nowhere. So it ended up with Rachel adopting Fuchsia, or fostering her, whatever. And I kept in touch, kind of thing. Helped out. Sent money.’
‘You left when it was clear that Fuchsia’s mother wasn’t going to come back?’
‘No, no, what happened, my ole feller died suddenly, I had to sort things out. He had a builder’s yard, my dad. I sold it after a bit, went to work for a firm of conservation builders. Learning the trade, kind of thing. Then went on my own, built up a business. Got married, got divorced. Then Fuchsia showed up.’
‘What, just appeared?’
‘We’d put her through art college, see.’
‘Had the money by then, Mrs Watkins. Why not? I mean, I never meant for this … for us to be like, you know, how it’s turned out. She just arrived one day, and she was interested in what I was doing, the conservation work, and she hadn’t got a job …’
‘She went to work for you, before there was any … relationship?’
‘That was how it started, aye.’ Felix wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. ‘I call her my plasterer – what she does really is mouldings, recreates original colours, experiments with limewashes. She just loves the feel of plaster.’
‘Look, Mrs Watkins, I’m under no illusions about how long it’s gonner last, but we’re rebuilding that—’ Felix nodded towards the barn. ‘It was a ruin, and I’m determined to make it into a proper home for her. Like an ancestral home, kind of thing, for the ancestry she’ll never have. She reads all these stories about folks living in country houses, and if I can give her that, things might be … good. For a while.’
‘You never heard from her mother again?’
‘Not a word.’
‘You’d never tried to find her?’
‘Didn’t know where to start. No idea where she was from. She had a bit of a Brummie accent, I remember, and she was mixed race – one of them must’ve been black. Fuchsia reckons she’s dead.’
‘Why does she think that?’
‘Just a feeling. There’s this kind of tribal mysticism in Tepee City, and she had a period of building fires in a clearing in the wood and looking for Mary in the smoke. Now she just mopes around ole churches and reads ghost stories. I was hoping, when the barn was finished, it’d be some kind of stability.’
Merrily looked at him, saying nothing. There was a sadness here. A longing, but also a realistic suspicion that it wasn’t going to work out.
‘If you can take away the fear,’ Felix said. ‘If you could just do that … you know?’
‘You think it’s more than just this place – the Master House.’
‘Look, I don’t know. I believe something happened to her in that place, I just don’t know if it’s … in her mind. I don’t know, Mrs Watkins. I accept that these things go on.’
‘What I mean is, you have a feeling for houses, but nothing seems to have … I mean for you …’
‘It didn’t have anything to say to me, good or bad. What I usually do, if a place is blocking me, is I’ll spend a night inside, in a sleeping bag. You wake up in a house, you can somehow get a proper feel of it. I might’ve got round to that, but … she didn’t want me to. Look, I know what you’re thinking, but … it’s just a job. Just money.’
‘Right. Erm … why’s it called the Master House, do you know?’
‘Not really. Bloke I spoke to said it goes back to the Templars who built Garway church. They had masters and grand masters, apparently. It could be old enough, I found fourteenth-century bits, maybe older.’
‘Did you ask anybody if it was supposed to be haunted? Anybody locally?’
‘A woman we talked to said it wouldn’t be a surprise. Said it hadn’t been a happy house.’
‘Who was that?’
‘Has a smallholding, edge of the hamlet. Sells free-range eggs and honey and herbs. Mrs Mornington … Morningside. Something like that.’
‘And the reason you won’t go back now is purely …’
‘See it from my position, if you can,’ Felix said.
Fuchsia came down the caravan steps then, wearing what looked like a bridesmaid dress with a bodice of white lace. The colours in her hair were like streaks of oil rainbowed in dark water.
Merrily felt a flicker of unease and glanced at Felix, but he was gazing across at Monkland church with its halo of gilded mist.
Pity this wasn’t the church they were using. She had no history here.
Felix turned and saw Fuchsia and swallowed.
‘Looks so much like her now it scares me a bit.’
Who is This?
THE LAST TIME Merrily had been inside the Church of St Cosmas and St Damien, somebody had sacrificed a crow on one of the altars.
These things happened, just occasionally, after a church had been decommissioned by the C of E, left to fade into film-set Gothic.
Lifting cloak and cassock to climb into Felix’s silver truck outside the caravan, she was remembering the crow’s entrails arranged like intricate jewellery on the right-hand altar. It was a church with two of everything – twin chancels, twin naves – with a pulpit in the middle. They might see this as representing a dualism, Huw Owen, her spiritual director, had said at the time. Left and right, darkness and light.
This was in the very early days in Deliverance, and she’d blown it, been unable to handle the necessary cleansing of the church. Emotionally exposed at the time, her senses still snagged on memories of a fairly sickening job in the old General Hospital. Feeling clammy, palms itching, and then the explosion of coughing … and Huw, supervising, ordering her out.
This was when she’d been advised to burn the vestments she’d been wearing, and she’d done that, in an incinerator behind the vicarage. Burned everything, except for …
… This cloak, the same heavy, woollen, cowled cape that she’d worn here on the night of her humiliation. Because it hadn’t been at the General Hospital, it had seemed OK not to burn it. After all, they weren’t cheap, these cloaks, the female clergy still a minority market.
But – never dismiss coincidence – it was better not to take it in. She began to unlace the cloak as the truck bounced down an eroded lane where torn shards of tarmac were crumbling like piecrust into the verges and Fuchsia’s voice came cawing from the back seat.
‘Are you High Church, then, Merrily? Anglo-Catholic?’
‘Oh, well, I’ve never been one for labels, Fuchsia. You adapt … compromise where you can.’
Mix-’n’-match. Pick your own. Anything works now, in the new, flexible C of E.
‘Do you have a statue of Our Lady in your church, Merrily?’
‘No. But I’ve thought about it.’
‘We have two in the caravan, now,’ Felix said bitterly. ‘One’s above the bed. Makes you feel a bit queasy when you look up and the moonlight’s full on it.’
‘I also like to go to the cathedral in Hereford,’ Fuchsia said. ‘When it’s fairly quiet.’
Merrily turned to look at Fuchsia, rocking in the narrow rear seat, her hair centre-parted, one hand holding a cream woollen shawl together at her neck, the other steadying the canvas zip-bag on her knees – the Deliverance bag. She’d asked if she could carry it.
‘When it’s quiet, Merrily. When there’s nobody to say I don’t belong.’
‘Why would you think you don’t belong?’ Merrily said. ‘Nobody has to sign anything.’
‘I’m neither one place nor the other. That’s how I feel.’
Everything had turned around. This was no longer just about an empty house with a presence. Now there was a human dimension, complicating matters in a way the Duchy of Cornwall wouldn’t have anticipated.
… There are a few advisers I can call on, if necessary. But that’s usually when there are people involved who might have problems – psychological … psychiatric?
Like an apparently intelligent woman with the manner of a small child – repeatedly clutching your name like a mother’s hand in a bewildering department store.
‘I’ve thought of joining the Catholic Church, Merrily, but they haven’t got the old churches any more, and I like the old churches. Especially St Cosmas and St Damien. It’s open all the time. I can go in at night … at dawn, whenever.’
‘And what do you do there?’
‘Just sit there. It’s a place of healing.’
‘How long have you felt you needed healing?’
‘Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for my mother.’
‘You … won’t remember your mother.’
‘But you were only a baby, when she …’
‘I’m sure I do remember her. Part of her’s in me, isn’t it?’
‘Have you … ever tried to find her? Maybe the internet?’
‘I did once. There was another Mary Linden. It just got confusing.’
‘Would you like me to … include your mother in the prayers?’
‘It’s too late, Merrily.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I just want you to make my aura strong, please,’ Fuchsia said.
The mist was low and white among the pines around the little sandstone church. There might have been a proper village here once but it barely qualified as a hamlet now. A couple of dwellings sat fairly close, one of them a farm.
The church of St Cosmas and St Damien had a squat body and a timbered bell-tower, and its churchyard was raised like a cake stand. Supported by the Churches Restoration Trust, it apparently held just one service a year.
Felix left the truck at the side of the track and locked it. With the sun muffled like a coin in a handkerchief, Merrily, uncloaked and chilly, opened the gate into the churchyard.
‘Perhaps we should tell someone we’re here.’
‘Nobody ever disturbs me.’ Fuchsia handed her the bag. ‘They probably take one look at me and think I’m a mad person.’
Shouldering the bag strap, Merrily saw Felix wince.
‘Look,’ he said quickly. ‘I’ll stay outside, yeah? Explain to anybody who shows up.’
His look confirmed it. Merrily nodded, and Fuchsia drifted ahead of her, like a ghost in the mist, around the church to the arcaded wooden porch.
Is this safe? After several recent cases of exorcism turning up the jets under something combustible, you were forced to ask.
But this wasn’t an exorcism; Fuchsia knew enough not to be asking for it. She’d wanted a blessing which was exactly what Merrily, under the circumstances, would have been offering, so no problem. Really, no—
‘Fuchsia, before we go in …’
Fuchsia stopped just inside the porch, the mist hanging in shining strings from the Gothic points of its deep and glassless windows. Merrily caught her up.
‘I want to get this right. Is it your feeling you might have brought something with you, out of the house at Garway?’
Fuchsia stood for a while, moistening her lips with her tongue.
‘Something found me.’
‘Something which … knew you already, do you think?’
Fuchsia said nothing. Her eyes gave nothing away.
Merrily said, ‘When you talked about evil and also a feeling of death …’
The owl eyes didn’t blink or flicker, the skin around them softly lucent.
‘And about something moving … under the dust-sheets?’
‘You mean, was I talking about something subliminal?’ Fuchsia said.
‘Something under the surface of my own mind? Are you asking if I’m mentally ill, Merrily?’
Merrily found a smile from somewhere.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not asking that. Let’s go in.’
She remembered its intimacy, emphasised by the central pulpit, the two chancels like cattle pens. She remembered the harmonium and the discreet domestic medieval tomb of John and Agnes de la Bere, praying effigies modestly separated by John’s shield.
Found herself picturing stone images of herself and Lol with his Boswell guitar between them.
‘Candles.’ Fuchsia held up a brown paper bag she’d found inside the pulpit. ‘They’re still here.’
‘Three left. And a stub. Sometimes I light them on one of the altars.’
‘You have a preference?’
‘The left-hand one. Because it’s furthest from the door.’
‘All right. Shall we make it just the one candle?’
‘Oh – I haven’t brought matches.’
‘I’ve got a lighter.’
They didn’t use the candlesticks provided, instead placing the candle stub in a tin tray, and Merrily lit it, praying within herself for assistance. They sat side by side, facing the altar from benches just inside the rood screen, Fuchsia in white, Merrily black-cassocked. It was less cold than she’d expected.
‘You OK, Fuchsia?’
‘You know what I’m asking?’
‘There’s nothing here now. There never is, in here. It’s a holy site. A healing place.’
Merrily nodded, stood up.
‘Shall I kneel down, Merrily? Before the altar?’
It didn’t take long. Hands-on, very gentle.
‘Father, I ask you now to cleanse and make new all things within the heart and soul of Fuchsia. To restore her to new life and a new relationship with you. To … make her welcome.’
The lids were down over the owl-eyes. Wings of white light opening up in the window over the altar.
There was a small rustling from behind them, in the left-hand nave. Churches were full of small sounds. Merrily didn’t look towards it, but was suddenly thinking of dust sheets wriggling and rippling like something malevolent under the skin, and it—
It needed more. Something – a vibration in the solar-plexus – telling her that.
She left Fuchsia kneeling there, the white dress tucked under her knees, the shawl hanging loose over her shoulders, keeping her in view as she moved quickly back to the bench and her bag, feeling for the smoothness of glass and bringing out the most Roman Catholic item in there.
The oil. Olive oil, extra-virgin, blessed by the Bishop, in a brown screw-top vial.
Fuchsia’s forehead shone. Merrily bent and, with a forefinger, inscribed on it a cross, in oil.
‘And if you could open your hands …’
On the left palm, another cross.
‘Oil of wholeness and healing …’
And then the right, Fuchsia drawing a slow breath, eyelids fluttering.
‘Watch over her, in the name of all the angels and saints in heaven. Keep guard over her soul day and night.’
All very solemn and slightly surreal. Merrily shivering slightly as Fuchsia’s eyes opened and she was looking back through the chancel screen towards the harmonium and the doorway.
‘Who is this?’ Fuchsia whispered. ‘Who is this who’s coming?’
And laughed as lightly as her harsh child’s voice could manage.
THE LOOK ON Sophie’s face was beyond outrage, bordering on disbelief. Down in Broad Street, air brakes gasped.
Bishops came and bishops went, Hereford Cathedral remained.
She sank down at her desk, almost fading into it like a ghost. Merrily shut the window of the gatehouse office, usually a refuge under the cathedral’s calming façade, where the Bishop’s lay secretary applied cold cream for the soul.
Today, the air up here was tainted with dismay, Sophie’s snowy hair disarranged. Merrily had phoned her before leaving for Monkland, outlining the brief, and this was when Sophie had gone over to the Bishop’s Palace to elicit some hard facts from Bernie Dunmore. And been unaccountably, shockingly, stonewalled.
Merrily sat down opposite her, with her back to the window.
‘That doesn’t happen, Sophie.’
‘It certainly never has before. I actually thought at one stage that he wasn’t going to tell me about any of it.’
All the time Merrily had been telling her about Fuchsia and Felix, Sophie had been rearranging the correspondence on her desk, lifting up the pile and stacking it like a pack of cards that she was about to shuffle. Finding things to do with her hands as if she was trying to stop them shaking.
Autumn at last: twinset time, but no real need for that extra scarf. The idea of Sophie feeling the cold was disturbing to Merrily; she stood up again as the kettle came to the boil.
‘I’ll make it.’
‘I should perhaps take one sugar,’ Sophie said calmly.
‘Jesus.’ Merrily pulled down the teapot and mugs. ‘So … all in all, there’s probably more to this than either of us knows.’
‘You know rather more than I do.’
‘Until last night, I didn’t even know how heavily the Duchy was into the county.’
‘I’ve made a point of finding out.’ Sophie put on her chained glasses to consult a computer printout. ‘The serious involvement with Herefordshire happened fairly rapidly. According to the Duchy of Cornwall’s website, major investment here began with scattered segments of the once-vast estate, around Hereford and Ross, owned in the seventeenth century by Thomas Guy. Of Guy’s Hospital fame.’
‘I should know about this, shouldn’t I?’
‘Held more recently, of course, by the footwear magnate Sir Charlie Clore. And then, after his death, by Prudential Assurance, who sold it to the Duchy in, I think, 2000. This probably means there’s now more Duchy investment in this county than anywhere outside of Cornwall itself.’
‘The showpiece being the very impressive Harewood Park. Which, of course, one can’t miss because it’s right next to the A49.’
‘Why here? I mean, why Herefordshire?’
‘Beautiful. Unspoiled. Perhaps the Prince wants to help keep it that way. He’s famously keen on Green issues. Seems likely to ensure that the land will be treated sympathetically, with an eye to heritage, conservation and organic farming.’
‘Nothing overtly sinister, Merrily. Nothing for, say, Jane to rail against. Which is why I can’t understand—’
Sophie, cathedral person, confirmed royalist, closed her lips and turned her head, ostensibly fixing a clip in her hair.
‘Nothing about Garway on the Duchy website.’
‘Do you know Garway, Sophie?’
‘Haven’t been over there for many years. Not since our hiking days.’
‘Hiking days?’ Merrily blinked. ‘Bobcap … knapsack … flask of soup. You?’
‘I’m not in the mood, Merrily.’
Merrily sighed. ‘Maybe you could tell me what you remember?’
‘I remember the church. Small and rather strange.’
‘Built by the mysterious Knights Templar.’
‘In fact, one of the best-preserved examples of Templar architecture in the country. Especially since the London church was badly damaged in the Blitz. And there’s a medieval columbarium nearby, said to be absolutely the finest of its kind anywhere.’
‘Dovecote. The Templars kept doves and pigeons as a food supply. The whole area had, I suppose, a sense of isolation – self-isolation, in a way – that I wouldn’t imagine has gone away. Not an area, I should have thought, that anyone visits without a particular reason. I printed out some general background material for you, Merrily. After the Bishop dropped what crumbs of information he deemed it necessary for me to have.’
OK, time to deal with this. Sophie hadn’t seemed so screwed-up since Siân Callaghan-Clarke’s attempt to turn Deliverance into a branch of social services. Merrily dumped two tea bags into the pot and brought the kettle back to the boil.
‘What exactly did he say when you first mentioned it?’
‘It’s not so much a question of what he did or didn’t say said as of what he did next. Which was to telephone Canterbury.’ Sophie scowled. ‘On his private line.’
‘How do you know he did that?’
‘About twenty minutes later, someone returned his call on this line.’
‘Suffice to say, the voice was instantly recognizable.’
‘Not—? Aaah!’ Pouring boiling water into the pot, Merrily had scorched the back of a hand in the steam. ‘Shit. Sorry.’ What was the matter with her?
‘Some issue of Church politics here,’ Sophie said. ‘Obviously.’
‘It isn’t obvious to me.’ Merrily held her reddening hand under the cold-water tap. ‘All I can see is a conflict of loyalty over a woman who could well be emotionally disturbed.’
‘You think the girl’s delusional?’
‘Don’t know enough to say one way or the other. She has a complicated history. Seems to be looking for a kind of stability she’s never had. Likes old churches and ceremony. You might’ve seen her in the cathedral. Big eyes. Doesn’t smile.’
‘And what were you able to do to help her?’
‘Protective blessing. In church. With oil, which seemed appropriate.’
‘You don’t look entirely convinced.’
Who is this who’s coming? Outside, she hadn’t even remembered saying it. Merrily dried her hand on the towel.
‘I’ll keep an eye on her. Meanwhile, check out the house at Garway. Actually, I’ve got some stuff here …’
She came back to the desk and brought out the folder that Adam Eastgate had given her, with the plans and a photo of what looked like a traditional Welsh longhouse, stone-built, one end extending into the barn or cowshed.
‘We haven’t had any reports about this house before, have we, Sophie? Nothing on the database? Even peripheral?’
‘Nothing. I checked the files and correspondence going back to Canon Dobbs’s time and earlier. You haven’t been there yet?’
Merrily shook her head. She’d driven directly over to Hereford after picking up the Volvo in Monkland. Sophie brought out more printout.
‘I looked up the Master House on the Listed Buildings database. It’s given as fourteenth century, but they usually play safe so it could be earlier.’
‘If it dates back to the Templar occupancy of Garway, which is what Felix Barlow reckons, that would be thirteenth century … maybe very early fourteenth. I think the order was scrapped around then, wasn’t it?’
‘The order was officially – and rather brutally – dissolved in 1307. In France, anyway. This was less than two centuries after it was formed. The Templars would have survived a little longer in Britain, but not in any organized way.’
‘And would they have been connected, in any way, with the Master House, given that head Templars were called Masters?’
‘Possibly. In peacetime, they seem to have behaved like any other monastic community – farming the land, employing local people. As the house is still part of a farm, I phoned an acquaintance in the local NFU office. It seems to have belonged for quite some time – many generations – to the Gwilym family, whose land straddles the Welsh border.’
‘Not heard of them. Should I have?’
‘Very long-established. And rather affluent now, with business interests here in the city. They seem to have had financial difficulties in the early 1900s and had to sell the Master House, with a large package of land, to a family called Newton, who settled there for about fifty years. Finally moving out of the house itself in – we think – the late 1960s.’
‘Why did they move out?’
‘Nothing of interest to you. Upkeep, heating costs. They had no historical attachment to the Master House. Bought another farm nearby, with a more modern house. The Master House was later rented out to various people at various times. A riding stables, a commune of self-sufficiency fanatics in the 1970s.’
‘And it’s these Newtons who sold it to the Duchy?’
‘The Grays now. An eldest daughter married into a family called Gray. They seem to have sold it to the Duchy with about ninety acres. Feeling the pinch, I gather. Had a very bad time during the Foot and Mouth in 2001, rather losing heart. When are you going?’
‘Not decided yet. Possibly tomorrow. I’d hoped to persuade Felix and Fuchsia to come with me – doesn’t make a lot of sense going alone. I can do a house-blessing and prayers, but who’s going to say if it’s achieved anything, with nobody living or working there to report back?’
‘So you’re going tomorrow, to stay for a few days.’
‘I’m going for half a day, have a look around, talk to a few people locally and then come back to think about it.’
‘The Bishop was insistent,’ Sophie said, ‘that you should have as much time as it takes to get to the bottom of this. I was asked to ring the Reverend Murray in Garway and reserve you a room at the guest house his wife runs. And, no, I don’t understand it either.’
‘Can’t you stall him? Frankly …’ Merrily poured tea ‘… it’s hard to imagine Bernie Dunmore being so far – excuse me – up the Duchy’s bum. Maybe I should talk to him.’
‘He’s in London, I’m afraid, until Tuesday. House of Lords.’
‘Would be, wouldn’t he? Still gives us three days. If you can copy some of this stuff, we’ll present him with a full and careful report which he can safely dangle in front of the Duchy, the Prince of Wales, the Archbishop of— Are you sure he was talking to Canterbury about this?’
‘I’m his confidential secretary, Merrily. Supposed to be.’
‘So what are your personal feelings?’
Sophie was looking down at her desk. Sophie Hill, who worked for the cathedral. There was a pause in the traffic on Broad Street.
‘Mmm.’ Merrily nodded. ‘You’re probably right. The Church has always relied on the silence of its employees. No disruptive questions asked. Knowing your place. As you say.’
Sophie looked up, letting her chained glasses fall to her chest. Merrily avoided her gaze.
‘I think,’ Sophie said very quietly, ‘that a lot would depend on whether the Prince of Wales knows about this.’
‘He has, after all, been known to express an interest in such matters.’
‘Well, he’s talked publicly about spiritual healing, organic farming, relationships with the land … and plants. If that’s what you mean.’
‘I think you’ll find that it goes deeper,’ Sophie said.
Merrily stood up, walked across to the door, opened it and looked down the stone steps.
‘I don’t think they’ve got around to bugging us yet, Sophie. We’re quite alone.’ She closed the door, came back and sat down. ‘What?’
The Naked Cross
THE STEEPLES OF the two city-centre churches, St Peter’s and All Saints, were far more visible in Hereford than the tower of the cathedral, which was in a corner, backed up against the river, not central.
It didn’t hide, exactly, it just didn’t show off.
It didn’t have secrets, as such, just didn’t go out of its way …
‘This relates to your late predecessor,’ Sophie said.
You could see him standing silently in the corner, face like an eroded cliff face. The man who had refused to be called a Deliverance minister. Who, until his last collapse, in the cathedral itself, had been the Hereford Diocesan Exorcist. Canon Thomas Dobbs, who wouldn’t even open his front door to Merrily but had left a message for her in its letter box, succinctly conveying his thoughts on being replaced by a woman.
The first exorcist was Jesus Christ.
Interesting how rapidly the situation had changed since then. First Merrily, then Siân Callaghan-Clarke, canon of this cathedral, getting herself appointed Deliverance Coordinator, with plans to subtly secularise the service. Hadn’t worked, and now Siân’s ambitions were, allegedly, focused on the impending vacancy for Archdeacon.
‘Sorting through Canon Dobbs’s files after his death,’ Sophie said, ‘I came across a box file of press cuttings – I didn’t bother you with any of this at the time; it seemed hardly relevant and you had enough problems. But he’d accumulated a substantial collection of newspaper and magazine articles about the Prince of Wales.’
‘Dobbs?’ Merrily rocked back in her chair. ‘Dobbs collected stories about Prince Charles?’
‘I don’t mean photo spreads from Hello. These all have specific references to the Prince’s spiritual life. For some reason, I filed them away in a storeroom in the cloisters.’
‘Why would Dobbs be especially interested in Charles? I mean, this was presumably before the Duchy got into Herefordshire?’
‘Certainly before they bought the Guy’s Estate from the Prudential.’
‘Is there any possibility that Dobbs knew him personally?’
‘I don’t know. I have no reason to think he did. I mean, he may have … I really don’t know, Merrily, it just brought it back to me, with all this …’
‘Could I have a look at the cuttings?’
‘I’ve brought them up. You can take them with you when you leave.’
That night, Merrily called Huw Owen, who took it all unexpectedly seriously. Listen, he said, you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level.
Covering the phone, Merrily reached out a foot and prodded the scullery door shut. Jane, in a black mood, had Joanna Newsom on the stereo in the sitting room: California Gothic, cracked and witchy. Merrily lowered her voice.
‘Who are we talking about – the Duchy of Cornwall or the royals generally?’
‘It’s not so much the royals, lass, as the C of E. The Church and the Monarchy have been an item for nearly half a millennium. But change comes fast these days. Some of our masters, as you know, have become a bit wary about a certain individual.’
‘Let’s not walk all round this. Charles.’
‘Most of it dating back to his famous remark about the Monarchy – when he takes over – becoming Defender of the Faiths, plural. Muslims, Hindus … Catholics? My God. Is this a safe pair of hands for the sacred chalice? It’s backs to the cathedral walls, lass. Knives unsheathed in the deepest cloisters.’
‘I’ve always liked the way you underplay a drama, Huw.’
Trying to psych out if there was even a hint of a smile on his cratered face as he sat by the racing flames in the inglenook of his eyrie in the Brecon Beacons. Smuggled out of his native Wales by his mother as a small child and brought up in Yorkshire, Huw was back in the land of his unknown father, supervising Deliverance courses for C of E clergy in a former Nonconformist chapel burned out by decades of hellfire preaching – the place where it had begun for Merrily, this weird ministry, not quite as long ago as it sometimes seemed.
‘All right, maybe I’m exaggerating,’ Huw said. ‘I’m just warning you to watch your back. Where the royals are concerned – the royals and Canterbury – the smallest rumour can cause a seismic shift, and little folks like you can get dropped down the nearest crevice.’
‘Thanks, Huw. I’ll sleep so much easier tonight.’
‘I’m just telling you.’
‘So …’ Merrily shifted the heavy bakelite phone from one ear to the other. ‘Having established that nobody in ermine or a dog collar is to be trusted, what’s your considered opinion of why Canterbury would need to be kept informed about a house owned by the Duchy of Cornwall that’s alleged to be haunted?’
‘Well, they wouldn’t, would they?’
‘Would they tell the Prince, or would they try to keep it from him in case he became too curious?’
‘I think if he is curious, he’s probably experienced enough now to keep it to himself. Happen what’s more important – like your feller at the Duchy said – is that the press don’t get wind of it. They’d hound the builder and then they’d hound you.’
‘You ask me, this is just Bernie Dunmore covering his own back. Thinking how it might rebound on the Diocese if it all went pear-shaped.’
And it did go pear-shaped sometimes, no denying that. An inexact science, deliverance. Well, not a science at all, obviously …
‘Everybody lives in fear nowadays,’ Huw said. ‘Way things are going, deliverance itself could be C of E history in a year or two.’
‘And what would you do, Huw, if we all got the elbow?’
‘I’d retire, lass. Take the pension, rent a little shack at the rough end of Sennybridge, with a back yard and a bog, and carry on with the job. No bureaucracy, no politics, no farcical PC synods. Just me and the naked cross.’
‘Talking of which … Canon Dobbs.’
‘Old bugger’s dead.’
‘Sophie’s given me a collection of news cuttings he kept about the Prince of Wales and the Church and other connections. Why would Dobbs keep a royal scrapbook?’
‘Traditionalist of the first order, Dobbs. Happen he’d started to notice the lad spreading his favours. I wouldn’t worry about it. Concentrate on covering your own arse.’
‘And your specific advice, as my spiritual director, would be …?’
‘Keep all your cards on the table, face up.’
Merrily shook out a Silk Cut.
‘Stage one: find the former owners of this hovel and see what kind of recent history it’s got. Forget the White Lady and the Phantom Stagecoach. The home movies you can do without.’
Home movies: Huw’s latest euphemism for place-memories and trapped events that repeated themselves.
‘And then … if it’s just what the girl claims she saw and there’s nowt blindingly obvious from the last few years, Stage Two would be to set up a low-key house-blessing for a specific date. Being careful, mind, to invite the local incumbent.’
‘There isn’t one. A retired guy’s holding the fort.’
‘He’ll do. Also, you want at least one member of the family – the folks who flogged the place off to the Duchy, plus, if possible, someone from the family as owned it before. For many generations, you said?’
‘So I’m told.’
‘That would help, then. And finally – this is important – you must formally request the presence of an official of the Duchy of Cornwall. The higher up the better.’
‘Wow.’ Merrily sat back, lit her cigarette. ‘Smart.’
‘That way, you’ve acquitted yourself in full view, and they’re all involved – all implicated.’
It wouldn’t be, of course. It was never that easy.
‘And what do you do after that?’ Huw said.
‘I don’t know. What do I do after that, boss?’
‘You bugger off out of it just as fast as your cute little legs will carry you.’
‘What about the woman? Fuchsia. Aftercare?’
There was a lengthy, meditative silence. She imagined him staring down at his peeling slippers, their rubber soles smoking on the edge of the hearth.
‘You do need to separate it,’ he said eventually. ‘If there’s nowt particularly to support it at the house, you most likely are looking at a different problem. You said she was orphaned?’
‘Abandoned. She’s certainly had personal problems. Maybe the house brought something to a head?’
‘Possible. How was the blessing?’
‘Curious. There wasn’t the normal sense of relief afterwards. In fact, she looked up, as if something might have followed us into the church. Said something like, is something coming? Something like that. And laughed. I mean, it’s always a problem, isn’t it? You can never be quite sure when somebody’s winding you up.’
‘Happen include her in your prayers when you do the cleansing. Something moving around under the carpet, was that what you said?’
‘Dust sheets. I suppose a shrink would be talking about demons in her past that she’s covered up. Perhaps she just has a Gothic imagination: the wriggling under the sheets, the face of crumpled linen. She’s also obviously read a fair amount about healing and deliverance, because she knew exactly what she—’
‘Hang on … Gimme that again, lass.’
‘Crumpled linen. A face of crumpled linen?’
‘That’s the image Fuchsia claims she saw when she turned around from the wall she was plastering. Poetic, in its macabre way. Although this would’ve been crumpled plastic.’
‘Aye. Very literary,’ Huw said. ‘But, then, not surprising, really. It’s a quote.’
‘M. R. James. Author of classic ghost stories in the 1900s?’
‘Yeah, I know who M. R. James is.’
‘I can even tell you which story it comes from. “Whistle”.’
‘What are you—?’
‘“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is the one about the university professor haunted by a malevolent entity which … I’d get hold of a copy if I were you, without too much delay.’
‘You’re saying …’
There’d been a book of James’s stories amongst Fuchsia’s collection in the caravan. Orange-coloured spine on the shelf by the wood stove. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
‘All right, lass?’
‘Let me get this totally right. You’re telling me it’s an actual phrase taken from one of M. R. James’s ghost stories?’
Merrily dropped her cigarette in the ashtray and flopped forward, both hands around the old black phone.
‘Bit of a coincidence, eh? If you have any problems finding the story, give us a call and I’ll scan a few pages and email them across.’
‘Yes. Thank you, Huw.’
Merrily tipped the phone very gently into its rest. Gazing at her reflection in the dark mirror of the scullery window and into a too-familiar void.
THIS JOB …
People learned what you did, and envisaged desecrated graves, chalices of blood, night-long spiritual struggles with an indelibly black metaphysical evil, his satanic majesty, The Beast 666.
Their disappointment, almost invariably, was palpable.
So you’ve never really had to rescue anyone from actual demonic possession?
To which you’d shrug and smile awkwardly and admit that, rather than the coils of the Old Serpent, it mostly came down to the spirals of the subconscious mind.
This was the void – the thought that there might, in the end, be nothing there that psychology would not be equipped to explain. That people like Siân Callaghan-Clarke might just be right about the relevance of what you were doing.
The dark night of no-soul. What, in the end, you feared most, and a dampener on the spirit, as Merrily drove down into the Unknown Border, using a route she’d never travelled before: sunken lanes below the bare, abraded hillsides, wind-whipped, twisted trees.
Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger.
But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts. Rural Wales – almost all of it, now – was designated tourist country, while Herefordshire’s own tourist country was Ledwardine and its neighbouring black and white villages in the north of the county and the lushness of the Wye Valley in the south.
The Unknown Border was only about an hour from Ledwardine and, sooner or later, it would be joining the New Cotswolds.
Not for a while, though.
And it certainly had never been, nor ever would be, East Anglia.
Jane had them all, natch. The Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1862-1936).
Sitting up in bed last night, under the blackened oak beams, with her dressing gown around her shoulders and the tawny owls fluting in the churchyard, Merrily had read ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, first published in 1904.
She couldn’t possibly have read it before or even seen it on TV, because it really wasn’t something that would ever allow itself to be forgotten, this story of Parkins, an academic on a golfing holiday on the Suffolk coast, and what he discovers there, and what discovers him.
Oh Parkins, says a colleague before he leaves, if you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templars’ preceptory and let me know if you think it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.
Templar preceptory. The only immediate connection with the village of Garway. Preceptory: the Templars’ term for one of their communities, a description apparently unique to this curious order of medieval warrior monks.
But Burnstow, according to the author’s own foreword, was based on a seaside town the whole width of England away.
Merrily had followed Parkins into the Globe Inn, where the only room available had two beds. Sure to be significant. As for the Templars’ preceptory, all Parkins had found there was a series of unpromising humps and mounds … Oh, and – in a cavity near the possible site of an altar – an old whistle.
On one side of the whistle it said:
QUIS EST ISTE QUIVENIT
Who is this who is coming?
* * *
If you weren’t aware of Garway Hill, it meant that you were either on or immediately below it. She couldn’t see a radio mast, only a row of houses like battered ornaments on a shelf, overlooking – a couple of fields away on the right – the Church of St Michael.
Welcome to GARWAY. Please drive carefully.
Like you had a choice in lanes like these.
Sanded by the low October sun, the church was aloof, in its own shallow valley. Saturday afternoon, nobody about. The folder containing the directions and the key of The Master House lay on the old Volvo’s passenger seat. The house was supposed to be within sight of the church tower, but only just. You should look for two white gateposts, one broken in half.
If at all. Thanks to Huw Owen and M. R. James, the case was as good as closed. Fuchsia was making it up. Delusion was another possibility, but probably less likely, now.
A right turning brought Merrily to the entrance of the churchyard. No concessions here to the advent of the motor vehicle. Parking tight into the hedge, she climbed out through the passenger door, walking up, in jeans and a Gomer Parry Plant Hire sweatshirt, into a curving and shaded path leading to a mellow enclosure. A haze of greens and ambers, an awning of birdsong.
If you wanted to know about a place, always check out the church first. Feel its disposition: benevolence or disapproval or, more often nowadays, a mildewed resignation.
This one, she thought, was … aware of her.
She walked up into the bumpy churchyard, under the tower: plain stone, simple pyramidal hat. And yet …
Its origins are almost certainly Celtic. The earliest record of a monastery on the site is in the seventh century. Sophie’s notes, from the internet. But it is not until the arrival of the Knights Templar in 1180 that the history of Garway Church opens out … and, at the same time, closes in.
You could, apparently, still see the foundations of the original circular nave which the Templars had created in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the extent of Merrily’s knowledge of Templar architecture. She took a step back, looking up. The tower was square and unadorned, stonework like oatmeal biscuit, the lower half darker as if it had been dunked in tea. Two vertical slits near the top on each of the four sides were disconcertingly like all-round eyes. Watchful and mildly amused.
‘I suppose, seen from above, it does look rather as though its neck has been broken. Like a chicken’s.’
Merrily half-turned. He was standing alongside her, in walking boots and fishing hat, a two-tone nylon hiking jacket over his faded blue shirt and clerical collar.
‘You see, the tower originally was entirely separate from the body of the church, which is why it’s set at such an angle. The gap was bridged at a later date, as you can see. The arrangement would have looked less odd, one imagines, in the days when the nave was circular. I’m so sorry …’ He bowed his head. ‘Didn’t mean to sneak up. It is Mrs Merrily Watkins, I hope. Walking home from the pub when I saw the car, and you did look rather purposeful behind the wheel.’
‘Teddy.’ He bent down to her, putting out a hand. ‘So glad. I realize this must be a terrible bind for you, but … heavens, the gossip this sort of thing engenders. Usually among people who enter a church no more than twice in their lifetimes, carried in and out both times. Not really what one looks for in retirement.’
‘No, I suppose not.’
Actually, the Reverend Murray didn’t look old enough, or unfit enough, to be retired. Handshake firm, eyes vividly blue, and skin tanned to the colour of Garway’s lower tower around the stiff white beard and the high bland dome of his forehead.
‘Never been a particularly pastoral sort of chap, Merrily. When the girl turned up here asking for protection … sanctuary … I confess I was completely thrown.’
‘You mean … Fuchsia?’
‘Fuchsia. Indeed, yes.’
‘She came here to the church? To ask for sanctuary?’
Merrily remembered now. The bloke at Garway, he was no help at all.
‘Sanctuary is perhaps too emotive a word. The builder chap was waiting in the entrance in his truck. The girl was rather vague, disoriented. I thought she was … Anyway, I brought her in and said a short prayer. You know the routine.’
‘What did you think she was?’
‘You said when you first saw her you thought she was …’
‘Ah.’ Murray straightened up, hands behind his back, looking up at the tower. ‘I thought – I’m afraid – that she was probably on drugs. A small percentage of the visitors here do tend to be what we used to call potheads. Found a chap the other week completely out of it, lying with his head under the holy spring. Harmless enough, I suppose, but not what one expects to see in a country churchyard.’
‘Where’s the holy spring?’
‘My, we are getting down to business, aren’t we? I’ll show you, if you like. I can show you everything.’ Teddy Murray extended an arm to steer Merrily towards the church entrance. ‘It appears to be my principal role in this community: guide and interpreter. Much more my sort of thing – I have to say, with no little shame – than dispensing spiritual succour. Historian by inclination, I’m afraid. And the walks.’
‘For the guests. My wife’s guest house tends to cater for people who like to tramp the hills in all weathers. I compile the handy route-maps. And I’m available to go along and point things out, when required. This …’ The Rev. Murray turned and flung out an arm towards the guardian hills ‘… is God’s own weekend retreat. I always say that. In fact it’s in Beverley’s brochure. God’s Own Weekend Retreat.’
‘Very, erm …’
‘Presumptuous, I suppose. But there had to be some reason for the Templars to favour it, remote spot like this. Was it divine guidance? Sorry!’ He put up his hands. ‘One gets carried away. Do you want to know all this? I only ask because, as someone’s bound to tell you, the Master House does seem to be contemporaneous with the Templars’ occupation of Garway – although, despite the title, it does not appear to have been the home of the preceptor, or master.’
‘So you didn’t go back to the Master House? With Fuchsia?’
‘Well … no.’ Murray looked bewildered. ‘She didn’t ask me to. Hardly my property to intrude upon. Anyway, my impression was that you couldn’t have dragged her back and, in the absence of a full-time minister here, I wasn’t sure who it would be best to inform. And then events overtook me, and so— Paul. How are you?’
A man in jeans and a heavy work-shirt had come out of the church, leaning on a stick. There was a motorized wheelchair on the path outside; he stood looking at it with no great love. Teddy Murray took a step forward, and the man raised his stick.
‘Bugger off, eh, Teddy?’
‘Not ready for him yet, boy. Gonner have another bit of a walk round. Come back for the thing.’
Teddy nodded. They watched the man making his way up the path. He couldn’t be more than mid-thirties, thick brown hair.
‘MS,’ Teddy murmured. ‘What kind of luck is that for a farmer?’ He opened the church door, stood aside for Merrily. ‘You been in here before?’
No sooner were they inside than he’d closed the door, blew out a breath.
‘Didn’t want to introduce you, Merrily. Difficult. That’s Paul Gray – he and his wife …’ Teddy lowered his voice ‘… sold the Master House to the Duchy.’
‘Long story. Bad feeling. Not for me to … Still a bit of a newcomer. As, of course, is Paul, which is one of the problems.’ He laughed. ‘You can be here for three generations and they’ll still call you a newcomer. Couple of families go back to the Norman Conquest. So …’ Extending an arm. ‘What do you think?’
‘It’s … unusual.’
‘More than you know.’
Merrily nodded, taking it in. It was quite small but lofty and airy and filled with rosy light. The chancel was framed by a classic zigzagged and serrated Norman arch, wide and theatrical. Red velvet curtains were drawn across it, as if what lay beyond them was not for the unprepared. Something rare and sacred, Grail-like.
Or perhaps a body in a coffin?
Merrily shook herself. Too much M. R. James.
Teddy Murray nodded towards a banner with a crusader kind of cross, red and gold on white, hanging from the pulpit.
‘Still a major presence, then?’ Merrily said.
‘The Templars? Yes, I suppose they are. Do you know much about them, Merrily?’
‘Erm …’ She looked up at the dark brown wooden ceiling, curved like the bottom of a boat and decorated with a small and regular galaxy of white stars. In a pocket of her jeans, the mobile phone began to vibrate against her left thigh. ‘Maybe not as much as I ought to.’
Merrily placed a hand over the phone, and Teddy Murray leaned back against a pew end, looking down at her with what you could only describe as a beneficent smile, evidently all too ready to do what he was better at than dispensing spiritual succour.
‘It’s sometimes difficult to separate the truth from the lurid speculation,’ she told him. ‘Never a problem for my daughter.’
‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘that few of us like to countenance the idea that the Templars guarded the secret of the bloodline of Christ through his supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene.’
‘Oh, she’s happy enough with that idea. I suppose what bothers me most is the idea of the Templars – or someone – guarding the secret resting place of his bones.’
‘Let’s not talk of heresy.’
‘None of it, however, makes the Knights Templar less interesting,’ Teddy Murray said. ‘Follow me, Mrs Watkins.’
WHEN MERRILY CLIMBED back into the car, the weather had changed; the sky had the deep grey lustre of tinfoil and a single slow raindrop rolled down the windscreen like a cartoon tear, and she just wanted to be home and lighting a fire.
She pulled out her phone. Lol would be on the way to his gig in Newtown, Powys, so it was more likely to be Jane.
It was neither, just a short text.
A text from Frannie Bliss? If it was him, this was a first. Mobile would mean he didn’t want to take the call in the CID room. She found his number in the index, but the signal was on the blink, so she reversed out of the church entrance and drove away from the village, uphill, pulling into a passing place, winding up the window against a rising wind.
‘Nicely timed, Reverend,’ Bliss said. ‘You’ve caught up with me in the gents.’
‘I totally refuse to picture the scene.’
‘Not good enough, anyway. Too much of an echo. I’ll call you back. Just give me a couple of minutes to … finish up in here.’
Merrily sat watching the sloping landscape losing its colours in the gathering rain, compiling a mental inventory of all the curios that Teddy Murray had revealed in Garway Church.
* * *
Beginning with the green man, the familiar stone face with entwined foliage, inexplicably found in churches. This one was in the chancel arch and, with those stubby horns, he wasn’t typical. There was also a cord or vine with tassels resembling fingers, so it looked like he was making a funny face at you, waggling his fingers at either side of his head.
What the green man had to do with the Templars Teddy couldn’t explain, but this was a Templar church so it must have had some significance.
Everything in a Templar church was significant. They’d moved on to the matching long stones set into the chancel steps, the altar steps and one window ledge – these identified by Teddy as the lids of Templar stone coffins, now part of the fabric of the church. Teddy laughing, in his element now, the historian, the tour guide.
‘Someone said you can throw the Templars out of the building, but you’ll never get the building back from the Templars.’
Giving her the primary-school version, for which she’d been quite grateful.
The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon: founded in the early twelfth century, the time of the crusades, ostensibly to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, had allowed them to establish their headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque, believed to be the site of the original Temple.
They’d begun, it was said, with only nine members, led by one Hugh de Payens. Monastic soldiers, red crosses on their surcoats, growing over the next century into something internationally powerful, influential and very wealthy.
Too wealthy and too powerful, by the thirteenth century, for the King of France, Philip IV, and the pet pope he’d acquired, Clement V, accommodated at the time in Avignon. The French Templars had all been arrested in a series of simultaneous dawn raids on Friday, 13 October 1307, accused of a black catalogue of heresies.
‘Hang on …’ It hadn’t taken much calculation. ‘Doesn’t that mean it’s exactly—’
‘I’m afraid it does. Seven hundred years ago next Saturday. I was hoping we’d have a permanent minister in place by then, but it was not to be. It therefore falls to me to conduct some sort of memorial service for the poor chaps.’
‘You don’t sound totally enthused.’
‘It is so obvious?’
‘And the problem is … what?’
‘Fanatics, Merrily. The known facts about the Templars are relatively few – the amount of wild speculation has been quite monumental in recent years.’
‘The Da Vinci Code?’
‘And its source, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. All the preposterous theories undermining the central tenets of Christianity as we know it.’
Everybody knew about it now: the alleged bloodline of Jesus from his alleged marriage to Mary Magdalene, the female disciple whose crucial role was supposedly written out of the scriptures by the Roman Catholic Church. Jane had been quite taken with the idea that the real reason for the suppression of the Knights Templar had been their guardianship of this secret knowledge … and the whereabouts of the tomb of Christ, unrisen.
Whether or not you accepted this, Teddy Murray had said, the charges against the Templars were surely made up.
‘Like many of those levelled at various abbots by Henry VIII’s people during the Reformation. What kings tended to covet most in religious organizations was their money.’
The last Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, had been burned alive in Paris, but the persecution had been less extreme in Britain, where most Templars had been allowed to join other monastic orders – except, apparently, the order of Hospitallers of St John to which the properties of Garway had been transferred.
De Molay was now seen as a martyr and Friday the Thirteenth … ‘Because of this? That’s the reason for the whole superstition and a bunch of slightly distasteful movies?’
‘Such is the received wisdom, Merrily. What rather bothers me is that the church promises to be packed. I’ve had letters from all kinds of organizations wanting to be represented – from Templar re-enactment groups to more … shall we say more sinistersounding societies.’
Teddy had said there seemed to be a number of occult-sounding groups whose rituals were supposed to be based on Templar practices. He said he didn’t know much about them. Merrily knew a little more, from Huw Owen’s reading list. Supposedly ancient formulae handed down through Renaissance magical orders and then developed by the fashionable fraternities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mainly bollocks.
‘Lucky the anniversary is going to be a Saturday, then,’ Merrily said.
‘You think that will change anything? I don’t. It’s their first opportunity in a century to commemorate the suppression – and a century ago few, if any, of these theories were in the public domain.’
‘Why here? There must lots of Templar churches all over the country. In fact—’
‘Actually, no,’ Teddy said. ‘Nothing so perfectly preserved. The London temple, for instance, was wrecked in the Blitz. There’s nowhere more authentic. Or more isolated and yet … get-at-able.’
He’d unlocked the tower, dark and starkly atmospheric with its funeral bier and a magnificent medieval oak chest hewn from a massive log.
‘Whose idea was it to have a memorial service?’
‘So many people wrote in, we couldn’t get out of it, Merrily. So I’m quite anxious that this business with the Master House should be dealt with before then. Do you think that will be possible?’
‘Before next weekend?’
‘Bad enough when the girl arrived. Wish I hadn’t been here.’
Merrily had been forced to say that she’d do her best to get it wrapped. And if Huw was right that might be on the cards. She’d asked Teddy where the Master House came into the picture. One of the Templar farms, he’d said, that was all. They farmed sheep, as did the Hospitallers after them.
As did the locals today. Not much had really changed in Garway, Merrily was thinking as the mobile chimed to indicate that DI Bliss had left the building.
‘Raining hard in the police car park, is it, Frannie?’
‘It’s not raining at all, and I’m not in the police car-park. I’m off the premises entirely, and if it was known I was calling you I’d probably have a tail.’
Merrily was still thinking about the Garway Green Man who, having small, stubby horns, might be expected also to have a tail.
‘All right, listen,’ Bliss said. ‘I may be touching upon something you already know about, but why would the gentlefolk that humble coppers like myself used to call the Funnies suddenly have become interested in you?’
‘I’m thinking specifically of a feller in an unmarked room at headquarters who very occasionally creeps around this division when it’s felt that national security might be at stake.’
Merrily rubbed vainly at the condensation on the windscreen. Without the engine running, it kept re-forming under her palm.
‘You’re talking about the Special Branch?’
‘I hope you’re on your own using language like that.’
‘Frannie, are you actually saying the Special Branch are making inquiries about me?’
‘I’m saying nothing, Merrily.’
She scrubbed furiously at the windscreen, starting to put it together, and it was … it was beyond ridiculous.
‘What are you doing, exactly?’ Bliss said.
‘Trying to see out of the bloody—’ She sank back in her seat. ‘I’m looking into something connected with the Duchy of Cornwall’s investments in Herefordshire. Would that explain anything?’
A short silence, except for a car engine somewhere and a clanging that became duller. What sounded like Bliss moving away from something to a place of greater safety.
‘That would possibly explain it, yes,’ he said.
‘It’s nothing particularly contentious.’
‘With respect, Merrily, how would you know?’ Bliss paused. ‘You want to explain? Being as we’re old mates and those smart-arsed cloak-and-dagger twats get right up my nasal passages?’
‘Well …’ She thought about it, could see no harm. ‘All right. The Duchy of Cornwall have paid good money out of the Prince’s piggy bank for an old farmhouse which their favourite conservation builder is refusing to work on because his girlfriend says it’s haunted.’
‘Sorry to disappoint. Obviously I’d like to be able to tell you that the vengeful spirit of Princess Diana’s been seen around Highgrove in a—’
‘But that’s it, Frannie. That’s the lot. As far as I know.’
‘You don’t, though, do you? Where’s the threat to national security in that?’
‘Maybe there’s more to it than you know.’
‘I’ve already been thinking along those very lines. These inquiries about me … is that still going on?’
‘I don’t know, Merrily. I’ve been off for a couple of days. I got this from Karen Dowell – now promoted to DS, by the way. They wanted your background, potted biog, any political connections and … Oh, yeh, they wanted to know about little Jane and her widely reported altercation with the Herefordshire Council over the proposed development of Coleman’s Meadow.’
It was like yobs had strolled up and starting rocking the car.
‘Calm down, Merrily, it’s not so unusual. And it would’ve been pointed out by somebody fairly quickly that the kid’s a force of nature, as distinct from a rural terrorist.’
‘It doesn’t matter, it’s just—’ Merrily sat up, dipping into her bag for the Silk Cut packet. ‘The bastards! I mean, you know what else they’ve done, don’t you? Someone’s leaned on the Bishop, so that he’s actually freed me up to … to devote all my attention to a minor issue which, the way it’s shaping up, may not even be Deliverance business.’
‘The Bishop’s told you this himself?’
‘Bishop Dunmore is conveniently away in London until Tuesday.’ She lit a cigarette, opened the window to let out the smoke, which blew back in a blast of wind from Garway Hill, wherever that was from here. ‘Sod this, I’m going home.’
‘You’re on this now?’
‘Be a spectral sheep-shagger, then, would it, Merrily? All right, just remember we haven’t spoken and you know nothing of this. If you need to speak to me, call the mobile. Using your mobile. As distinct from the vicarage landline.’
‘You actually think—?’
‘I’m just being careful.’
‘Bloody hell, Frannie.’
‘Stay cool, Merrily.’
Switching off the phone, she felt hunted, exposed, focused-on … and just tired, brain-dead. Sod it. She took two angry drags on the cigarette and then put it out. Pulled her waterproof jacket from the back seat and walked out into the rain.
A lumpy grey mattress of cloud meant that she couldn’t see the village or the church tower or anything much apart from the wind-combed coarse grass on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Supposed to be going back to check out the Master House, but what was the point?
As Merrily was leaving the church, Teddy Murray had said, We, ah … we have a room for you, Merrily. I’m not sure what you …
I don’t know, to be honest, Teddy. I don’t live that far away, and I can’t really understand why the Bishop feels the need to inflict me on you.
Oh, I think we both know what that’s about. They want you to put the lid on something … firmly. As regards my interpretive role, I suspect Mervyn Neale might have had a hand in it.
The Archdeacon. Been with the Bishop when the issue was raised by Adam Eastgate.
Mervyn and I have known one another for some time. He refers people to us – people looking for an open-air holiday. Not on a percentage basis, I have to add.
Well, she’d said finally, I have a few things to sort out at home, so maybe I could ring you tomorrow.
Pleasant enough guy, but Merrily had been glad to get away. His interpretive role suggested he’d been appointed by the Archdeacon as her native guide. Useful in some ways, but there was a sense of remote control that she didn’t like.
The rain gusted into her face and drummed on the side of her hood. She let it come, shivering, thinking of the wind that had suddenly arisen when Parkins, the academic in the M. R. James story, had blown, experimentally, on the old whistle he’d found in the remains of the Templar preceptory.
Who is this who is coming?
A figure like wind-blown rags pursuing Parkins along the deserted beach. Making its final, most memorable appearance at night in his room at the Globe Inn. Arising under the sheets of the second bed and standing in front of the bedroom door, with its arms outstretched and its intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.
Although the dust sheets were plastic, you got the idea.
Merrily turned back towards the old Volvo, with the wind behind her.
USING THE MOBILE from the scullery – this was insane – she called Sophie at home. Sophie’s husband, Andrew, answered, humphed a bit. Andrew, the architect and cathedral widower – they even lived in one of the cloisterish streets behind the close.
‘Merrily.’ Sophie had picked up an extension, Andrew humphing again and hanging up. ‘I was half-expecting you to call this afternoon – the Bishop having suggested, in an email from the Palace this morning, that a preliminary written report might be quite useful.’
‘And you thought, odd – he’s never previously particularly requested a report of any kind on anything relating to deliverance.’
It was almost dark, the grey-brown sky melding with the churchyard wall outside the scullery window. Still no rain here. Maybe Garway Hill had its own climate.
‘Well, Sophie, it might all be academic now, anyway.’
Merrily put on the desk lamp and explained in some detail about Huw Owen’s M. R. James revelation. Never any discretion problems here; next to Sophie, the grave was Broadcasting House.
‘So the woman made it up?’ Ice particles in Sophie’s voice. ‘The whole thing?’
‘Either that or her perceptions have been conditioned by her reading habits, which seems unlikely.’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Presumably you’ll go back and ask her.’
‘That should be revelatory.’
‘I’m almost looking forward to it, in a rather unChristian way. I’ll try and get over to Monkland tomorrow after the morning worship. With or without a Special Branch tail.’
‘I’m sorry, Merrily – I may have misheard.’
‘You didn’t.’ Merrily looked at the cigarettes on the desk, decided against. ‘Sources close to Gaol Street intimate I’ve been checked out by the security services. Jane, too – the heritage terrorist.’
‘This is purely because of your unsolicited proximity to the business interests of the heir to the throne?’
‘I don’t know, Sophie.’
‘But you’re a minister in the Church of England.’
‘That makes me harmless? Think about it.’
‘The amount of surveillance in this country is becoming quite terrifying.’ A pause. ‘Incidentally, have you had a chance to read Canon Dobbs’s file on the Prince of Wales?’
‘Not really. It’s on the desk here. I’ll try and have a look later.’
‘Well,’ Sophie said, ‘I realize we live in troubled times, but I think this has gone far enough. Leave it with me.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I think I’m going to call the Bishop in London.’
Sophie was probably the only person, outside his immediate family, with the Bishop’s mobile number.
‘I’m not sure that would really—’
‘Will you be in tonight, Merrily?’
‘Yeah, but I don’t want to ruin your night. Or Andrew’s.’
‘Merrily,’ Sophie said with some severity. ‘This is what I do.’
Merrily sighed, pulled over the old black box file and opened it up. Unwrapped a wodge of A4 copier paper, held together by two rubber bands, the top page splashing two headlines.
CHARLES IN HEALTH STORM
TOP DOCS SLAM PRINCE OVER SUPPORT FOR ‘QUACKS’
Both dated back to the early 1980s when the Prince of Wales, newly married to Diana Spencer, had been appointed President of the British Medical Association, the conservative and seriously cautious organization representing doctors in the UK.
The BMA was not into alternative therapy. In fact, the hatred of the association for practitioners who had not been through the System knew few bounds.
You would have thought these guys might have known better than to appoint, as their figurehead, a man whose famously healthy family had a long history of consulting osteopaths, homeopaths and various spiritual healers.
The first warning came at a dinner for the new President. In his speech, the Prince said how touched he’d been that the BMA should have even considered electing him, adding, You may, for all I know, wish to get rid of me after six months.
The laughter, Merrily thought, must have been hollow. She’d thought she remembered the row, but was now realizing that she couldn’t have fully absorbed it, nor been knowledgeable enough at the time to recognize its significance.
One of the cuttings had an edited transcript of Charles’s speech to the BMA.
It was dynamite, basically.
One of the least attractive traits of various professional bodies is the deeply ingrained suspicion and downright hostility which can exist towards anything unorthodox. I suppose it is inevitable that something which is different should arouse strong feelings on the part of the majority whose conventional wisdom is being challenged.
I suppose, too, that human nature is such that we are frequently prevented from seeing that what is taken for today’s unorthodoxy is probably going to be tomorrow’s convention …
Perhaps we just have to accept it is God’s will that the unorthodox individual is doomed to years of frustration, ridicule and failure in order to act out his role in the scheme of things, until his day arrives and mankind is ready to receive his message … a message which he probably finds hard to explain himself but which he knows comes from a far deeper source than conscious thought …
Merrily lit a cigarette. Amazing to think he’d actually said that to a bunch of doctors.
It got better – or worse, depending on your angle of approach.
Through the centuries, healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom that sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to …
… the cosmos. I would suggest that the whole impossible edifice of modern medicine, for all its breathtaking successes, is, like the tower of Pisa, slightly off-balance.
You could imagine some of Britain’s leading physicians having to leave, at this point, to check their own blood pressure. Especially if they looked closely at the Prince’s sources.
Merrily found an interview with Charles, which Dobbs, or someone, had marked down the side in what looked like felt pen.
It seemed that Charles – how had she avoided knowing about all this? – had become interested, apparently via the writings of Carl Jung, in the power of dreams, coincidence and what he called signposts.
In other words, the idea that individuals were open to guidance from … elsewhere – the collective unconscious. The cosmos. That they should be alert for psychic pointers.
One of which had apparently manifested while Charles was in his study attempting to draft his speech to the BMA. He was quoted as saying.
It was the most extraordinary thing. I was sitting at my desk at the time and I happened to look at my bookshelf and my eyes suddenly settled on a book about Paracelsus. So I took the book down and read it, and as a result I tried to make a speech around Paracelsus and perhaps a relook at what he was saying and the ideas he propounded. Wasn’t it time to think again about the relationship between mind and body, or body and spirit?
Paracelsus. Rennaissance physician and … herbalist?
Also, an occultist of the Renaissance period. A magician.
Because it was Raining
‘AS ABOVE …’ Jane did the arm movements ‘… so below.’
At least she seemed happier, the sullen face replaced by the concentration face. It always paid to consult Jane. They’d built a log fire in the parlour and eaten from trays, and Jane had produced one of her paperbacks with planets and pentagrams on the front.
‘Paracelsus was just the name he adopted, OK? His real name was – this is interesting – Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, from which the word bombast is derived. Because that’s the kind of guy he was. Always throwing his weight about and losing his cool. Got up people’s noses.’
‘Can we get back to “As above, so below”?’
‘Paracelsus said the human body was like a microcosm of nature … or the universe. Whatever. It’s the basis of astrology. He had this theory that your main internal organs corresponded to individual planets? It made serious sense in the Renaissance. Still does, in a way.’
‘He was an occultist, though?’
‘Ah, see, that’s a typical Church attitude.’
‘He didn’t think of himself as an occultist – like, nobody did. It was science. Science and philosophy. It was like high learning. Cutting edge. Like, is Stephen Hawking an occultist? I can see where Chazza was coming from on this. Homeopathy operates on this microcosm basis, doesn’t it?’
‘I believe it does.’
‘So you could consider Paracelsus as the father of alternative medicine. Except it wasn’t alternative then, it was—’
‘Cutting edge. State of the art.’
‘Exactly. So does this mean the Duchy of Cornwall’s going to be setting up a centre for alternative healing at Garway?’
‘No, it … there’s probably no connection at all. I’m just interested in why the late Canon Dobbs was interested in the spiritual development of Prince Charles.’
‘Be a good place for it, though, Mum.’
‘With the Knights Templar. A lot of this started with them and their excavations of the Temple of Solomon. Most ritual magic, raising of spirits, all this, goes back to Solomon. And maybe the whole microcosm/macrocosm thing.’
‘Sometimes I wish you didn’t know all this,’ Merrily said, and Jane smiled.
Happy … ish. Down on the rug, arms around her knees, watching baby flames scurrying from log to log. She’d be happier still if she knew she’d been checked out by the Special Branch, but perhaps this wasn’t the time to enlighten her.
‘I was over in Coleman’s Meadow this afternoon,’ Jane said.
‘I thought it was all fenced off.’
‘It is, but Coops has a key to the temporary gate.’
Jane turned from the fire, picked up Merrily’s look.
‘Neil Cooper – the guy from the County Archaeologist’s department?’
‘Actually, he’s pretty pissed off. Been trying to leave for a while – too young, obviously, to be tied to local government. He’d like to be a field archaeologist. But he’s afraid of what will happen at Coleman’s Meadow if he quits now.’
‘In what way?’
It had gone suspiciously quiet since the initial excitement over the discovery of the three long-buried megaliths in Coleman’s Meadow. Jane had been euphoric about the stones, because the field was bisected by what she – and the great visionary Alfred Watkins before her – had considered to be a seminal ley line linking Ledwardine Church with the Iron Age earthworks on the summit of Cole Hill, the village’s holy hill.
Hills again. Always hills.
‘OK,’ Jane said. ‘You know about rescue archaeology, right?’
‘This is where archaeologists are given a specific period of time to excavate an area scheduled for development?’
‘It’s what most archaeology is these days, thanks to the rampant overpopulation that’s suffocating Britain.’ Jane scowled. ‘Time we scrapped all family allowance if you’ve got more than two kids, so it’s like … three kids, no more benefits. Four kids, compulsory sterilization.’
‘That’s your personal concept, is it?’
Jane’s politics could veer from extreme left to extreme right and back again within seconds. Extreme being the only constant.
‘I don’t know. We’ve got to do something, haven’t we? Like I don’t care what colour people are or what they worship, as long as there are less of them.’
‘Fewer,’ Merrily said.
‘You clergy are just so pedantic.’
‘But to return to Coleman’s Meadow …’
‘Yeah, well, obviously it’s our beloved councillor, Lyndon Pierce. Gomer should’ve buried that bastard with the JCB while he had a chance.’
‘Gomer almost wound up in court, as it is.’
‘He wanted to go to court. He told me. He wanted his day in court, so he could stand up and publicly accuse Pierce of corruption and get it into the papers. If you say something in court, you’re like immune from getting sued for slander?’
‘Mmm.’ It was interesting, the way Pierce had declined to give evidence and the police inquiry had been dropped. ‘However—’
‘OK.’ Jane plopping down next to Merrily on the sofa. ‘The situation is that Pierce and some of his fascist friends in the council’s so-called cabinet want it confined to rescue archaeology. Which means Coops is allowed to get the site excavated and learn what he can from it and then they have to give it back. Like, take the stones away or something, and then give back the Meadow? So all that’s left is like maps and stuff in a report?’
‘And the housing estate goes ahead?’
‘Which would be crass, soulless and a total crime. As well as, obviously, destroying the ley.’
‘I’m with you there. What can we do to stop it?’
‘OK, well, there’s a small lobby inside the council, supported by the heritage guys and the tourist guys, suggesting that if the stones were reerected they’d be the best prehistoric remains in the county and a major tourist attraction.’
‘So potentially better for the local economy than an estate of four-bedroomed houses with double garages.’
‘Means we get coachloads of tourists, but still the lesser of two evils.’
‘So what are you proposing to do?’
‘Nothing.’ Jane’s face had gone blank. ‘Coops says it’s best if I do nothing at present. Don’t give Pierce any ammunition.’
‘And you … you’re going along with that?’
‘Coops is a very persuasive guy. In his quiet way.’
Merrily watched Jane selecting a new dry log for the fire, considering the options in the basket: the ash or the oak, fast burn/slow burn.
‘Don’t suppose Eirion called?’
‘Wouldn’t know,’ Jane said, insouciant. ‘Haven’t had the mobile switched on all day.’
The call came just after ten. Jane was watching Law and Order, the one about sex crimes, Merrily’s eyes closing when the mobile chimed on the arm of the sofa.
‘Sophie rang me,’ the Bishop said. Doleful.
‘Two seconds, Bernie.’
Merrily took the mobile into the kitchen, where the cold air was like a razor. The Aga had swallowed two gallons of oil a day, but it had had its compensations.
‘I suppose a grovelling apology’s due,’ the Bishop said. ‘All I can say is that I kept nothing from you. Not intentionally.’
‘That’s reassuring. Kind of.’
‘And I’m still no wiser, Merrily. Although, yes, I am now inclined to believe that the initial information I was given by Adam Eastgate is … probably incomplete.’
‘Incomplete. That’s a very elastic word, Bernie.’
‘Whether any concealment of information is down to the Duchy I would personally doubt. I don’t think Adam’s the sort of man to play a double game. However I, ah … Sophie did say she’d felt obliged to tell you that we’d also had a call from, ah …’
‘A private number in Canterbury?’
‘Yes, well, whoever it was from, I was advised that the best way of dealing with this might be simply to allow my Deliverance consultant to devote herself to uncovering what there is be uncovered. Without the usual constraints on her time.’
It was Canterbury who wanted the investigation?
‘So – let’s just clarify this, Bernie – there is more to it than a decidedly iffy haunting.’
‘I’m assuming there is. I honestly do not know.’
‘But someone in Canterbury does.’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Bernie, we’re not somehow … indirectly working for the security services, are we?’
‘Good God, Merrily …’
‘All right. Suppose I was to conclude that the ghost story was a fabrication.’
‘You can do that?’
‘It’s a possibility.’
‘Then please do it,’ the Bishop said. ‘Soonest.’
Afterwards, she felt exhausted, but couldn’t settle. With the half-eight Eucharist tomorrow, she ought to be in bed, but …
She made two mugs of hot chocolate, took one to Jane in the parlour then came back, sat down in the scullery and reopened the phone. Rang Felix Barlow and asked if it would be OK to come and speak to Fuchsia tomorrow.
‘I know it’s late, Felix, but I need to fit it into my fairly rigid Sunday schedule. I’m sorry.’
‘Hang on, would you?’
Felix didn’t sound happy. Merrily heard him moving back into his tin home, and thought there were raised voices. She drank some chocolate, lit a cigarette, still unsure of what to make of this. It wasn’t unprecedented, but – if you excluded council tenants desperate to be rehoused – it was rare for anyone to invent a ghost story. Rarer still for anyone to transpose a relatively well known fictional story into a real situation.
After just over a minute, Felix returned and told Merrily that Fuchsia didn’t want to talk to her.
‘No offence to you, Mrs Watkins. She gets like this. Maybe leave it a few days?’
‘A few days?’
‘We’ll get back to you, all right?’
‘No. I’m afraid it’s not all right. I’m under a certain pressure to get this sorted one way or—’
‘You’re under pressure …’ She heard the clangs of him hurriedly clambering down the caravan steps into the night, then his voice, upclose and frayed. ‘Tell the Duchy we won’t be touching that job now under any circumstances, all right?’
‘Yeah, I know this is me burning my boats with them for ever, and that’s some kind of madness, and I’m going to regret it for a long time, but that’s the size of it.’
He was panting.
‘Has something happened, Felix?’
‘We’ve told you everything we can. Why do you need us any more?’
‘Because …’ Merrily really didn’t want to say any of this to him, she needed to put it directly to Fuchsia, but it was late and she was overtired, and … ‘… because I’m not sure you have told me everything.’
‘I have to go now.’
‘Where is she?’
‘In the … bathroom. Doing her hair. She got soaked.’
‘Tell me one thing. Has anyone else been to talk to her about that house? Or to you?’
‘Why would they?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You think Fuchsia’s holding something back, is it, Mrs Watkins? Or do you think she’s lying?’
‘I think we need to discuss it again, that’s all.’
‘You think she’s lying, Mrs Watkins?’
Oh God, why had she made this call? Why hadn’t she thought about it first? Or maybe prayed for advice, sat in silence and listened to the voice inside.
‘How’s she been, Felix, since the blessing?’
Through the scullery’s open doorway, the kitchen clock ticked off the seconds of silence in the phone.
‘I think she’s been back,’ Felix said.
‘To Garway. To the Master House. I had to go and collect some timber for the barn, and when I got home she wasn’t here. Gone off in the van. When she got back it was dark. She said she’d been shopping in Hereford. Which is something she never does on a Saturday. Hates crowds.’
‘How do you know she went back to the house?’
‘Because we still got a key to the place. When I said I’d take it back to the Duchy, Adam said no hurry. Likely still thinking we might go back to the job one day.’
‘And the key was missing?’
‘It’s back now. And, no, she won’t talk about it.’
‘All right,’ Merrily said. ‘How about I come over now?’
‘I think it might help.’
‘It might help you, it wouldn’t help me. If she won’t let me go back to the bloody place because it’s so evil, why did she go there again? You explain that?’
‘I can’t. I wish I’d known. I was in Garway this afternoon, too.’
‘At the house?’
‘No. I was at the church. I didn’t go to the house.’
Good question. Because I’d decided I was being misused, under-informed, short-changed. Because I was pissed off. Because it was raining.
‘If I’d known she was there, I would have, obviously.’ Christ, what a mess. ‘Felix, can you ask her to ring me? Can you tell her it’s very important?’
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll try and get her to call you.’
‘Any time. Doesn’t matter how late.’
On which basis, Merrily took the mobile to bed and kept waking up in the night, thinking she was hearing its electronic chimes.
Although she never did.
Ghosts and Scholars
USUALLY, AFTER A Eucharist, you were aware of subtle ambient changes: a charge of energy, a sharpening, a recolouring – on a fine day, shards of sunlight spilling between the apples in the rood screen, raising shivers of gold dust in the air.
This was not a fine day. When Merrily unlocked the church, under a sky like a gravestone, the interior had been unresponsive. Sixteen people had since taken Holy Communion. Afterwards, nothing much seemed to have altered. Or so she felt, blaming herself and her headache.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Shirley West said in the vestry, cradling the empty chalice like a sick baby. ‘I’m so terribly clumsy. I just get nervous, I’m afraid, Merrily.’
‘But you didn’t knock it over.’
‘I very nearly did.’
‘Shirley, I nearly do most weeks. I’ve stopped worrying about it.’
You were often told that a Mass was supposed to be like perfect theatre, conducted with precision and …
‘Grace,’ Shirley said. ‘I have no grace.’
‘Shirley …’ Merrily shook her head. ‘That’s not true.’
Which was a lie, but what could you say?
Shirley had come to live in Ledwardine a few months ago and had shown up in the church before the removal van had left. She was in her early forties, overweight, divorced, a bank manager in Leominster. She had family here. She’d come to virtually every service, moving up rapidly to giving out hymn books, arranging flowers and assisting, eventually, with the Eucharist.
‘Someone said in the shop,’ Shirley said, ‘that there’s been talk of those old stones they found in the ground being put back up.’
‘Mmm. It’s a possibility.’
Merrily looked up from the chalice into deep-set brown eyes full of worried fervour.
‘Shouldn’t we be doing something to try to stop it?’
‘The raising of heathen stones opposite our church?’
‘Erm … well, you won’t see them from the church, will you, Shirley? You’ve got the market square in between, and the market hall. Besides, I suppose they were here first.’
‘And duly toppled over and buried. There was a Christian purpose to that, surely.’
‘I think it was probably more to do with three big stones getting in the way of ploughing and haymaking.’
Evidently nobody had told Shirley about Jane’s pivotal role in the discovery of the Coleman’s Meadow stone row. Parish life. Complications everywhere.
‘The thing is, Shirley, quite a lot of medieval churches were actually built on the sites of prehistoric stone circles and burial chambers.’
‘Exactly. Burying the evil under the house of God, surely.’
‘I’m not sure if pre-Christian necessarily means evil.’
‘Our Lord was born into a world full of darkness. He was the Light of the World.’
‘And, in fact, looking at it in a practical way, most archaeologists seem to think the early Christians put the new churches in the places where local people were used to worshipping.’
‘I’ve never heard that.’
Shirley looked at her, eyes narrowed.
‘Nothing’s ever quite as it seems,’ Huw Owen said on the answering machine. ‘Give me a call, would you?’
Priests rarely phoned one another on Sundays.
Merrily had twenty minutes before having to go back for the Morning Service. She’d only slipped home in the hope of finding a message from Fuchsia or, at least, Felix – she’d been worrying about it on and off since waking into the grey light. Suppose Felix had gone back into the caravan and told Fuchsia that she was being accused of lying?
Before calling Huw back, she tried ringing Felix. Phone switched off. For possibly the first time ever, she took the mobile back to the church with her, calling Huw from a damp bench in the graveyard, catching him in his Land Rover, between parishes. The signal wasn’t brilliant.
‘… Might be pu … oincidences …’ Huw on the hands-free, breaking up. ‘… You should know … James collection … foreword mentions … based … ordshire … call you back.’
‘Mobile, Huw – on the mobile!’
Getting interested glances now from fragments of congregation filtering through the lych-gate. In most parishes, the Morning Service was as good as it got, congregation-wise, Evensong having been dumped through low attendance. Here, mornings had actually been overtaken by the Sunday-evening meditation, even though the rumours of healing had long since died down. It was satisfying, a good reason to be able to be here tonight rather than at Mrs Murray’s guest house in Garway.
Merrily waved to James Bull-Davies, a fairly impoverished remnant of the Ledwardine squirearchy, and his partner Alison Kinnersley who, when she and Jane had first come to Ledwardine, had been living with Lol. Always faintly troubled, Alison would return tonight for the meditation – alone. James wasn’t into silence.
A nervous sun tested the clouds, and the phone chimed.
‘“The Stalls of Barchester”,’ Huw said.
‘M. R. James mentions in his foreword to the collected edition that his Barchester Cathedral was partly based on Hereford Cathedral. I’d forgotten that. Herefordshire was also the imagined setting for one of the later stories, “A View from a Hill”.’
‘I thought they were always set in East Anglia.’
‘Sorry to complicate matters, lass.’ No engine rattle now; he’d parked up somewhere. ‘But it seems that James – Monty, as he was known – came to relate to rural Herefordshire extremely well. You could even say it became a refuge for him.’
‘You didn’t know this before?’
‘Of course I didn’t, else I’d’ve mentioned it.’
‘How come you know it now?’
‘How does any bugger know owt these days? I Googled Montague Rhodes James and found an unusually erudite website called Ghosts and Scholars, devoted entirely to the man. How much do you know about him?’
‘Hardly anything. He was an academic, wasn’t he?’
‘Divided his career between Eton – his old school – and King’s College, Cambridge. Son of a clergyman, brought up in the parish of Livermere in Suffolk – moody sort of place, apparently, very inspirational. In later years, he reckoned there was only one area to match it.’
‘Let me guess.’
‘Aye. Specifically, the countryside around Kilpeck and Much Dewchurch. Four miles from Garway? Five?’
‘The trail, however, does lead to Garway itself.’
Merrily pulled her cloak over her knees, wanting a cigarette. Watching an unexpected sunbeam stroking a mossy headstone. Where was this going?
‘Monty never married,’ Huw said. ‘But he did have a close, though presumed platonic, female friend called Gwendolen McBryde. Widow of his good mate James McBryde, a talented artist, illustrated some of the early stories. Gwen was pregnant when he died, very young, and gave birth to a daughter. Mother and daughter moved to Herefordshire.’
‘As youngish widows with daughters sometimes do.’
Oh, sod it. She pulled her bag onto the bench, found the cigarettes. ‘Seems Monty would visit Gwen on quite a regular basis,’ Huw said. ‘Finding the countryside much to his taste, like I said. Monty was very fond of old churches and extremely knowledgeable about them. No big surprise that he’d visit Garway.’
‘If you say so.’
‘This is the point. After Monty’s death, Gwen published a collection of his letters – Letters from a Friend. In one of them, James recalls a particular visit to Garway in, I think, 1917. Actually, there are two mentions of Garway, but one just in passing. The one you need to know about … Well, I’ve already emailed it to you. Best if you read it when you get back home.’
‘Huw, for heaven’s sake—’
‘The woman who edits the website, Rosemary Pardoe, says Monty appears to have had, quote, a peculiar experience at Garway, the nature of which is, quote, tantalizingly unclear, but which he writes about with typical spooky Jamesian humour.’
‘Read it when you get back. I don’t want you thinking I’m embroidering it, winding you up. Some places just attract this kind of thing.’
‘Have to be off, anyroad. I’ve work to do, and so have you.’
And then he wasn’t there, the bastard.
But if he’d thought it was so important, surely he’d have told her.
Couldn’t Make it Up
AFTER THE SERVICE, when everybody else, even Shirley West, had gone, Merrily had a furtive cigarette with Gomer Parry behind the tower. Asking him what the feeling was in the village about the resurrection of the old stones in Coleman’s Meadow. Maybe most people would actually prefer a new estate of executive homes?
‘En’t so much that, vicar,’ Gomer said. ‘Few more fancy houses en’t the argument. Tip o’ the muck-heap. It’s who’s in bed with Lyndon Pierce. Who wants to see the village turned into a town? Supermarkets and posh restaurants. And who’s on young Janey’s side.’
‘And yours, Gomer. Let’s not forget that.’
‘Ar. I’ll be doin’ my bit, sure to, to see Pierce gets his arse kicked, vicar.’
The light was back, big time, in Gomer’s wire-rimmed glasses, his white hair topping his weathered brown face like the froth on beer. Councillor Pierce had said Gomer Parry was halfway senile, an old joke who ought to be in a home. Gomer would need to be a long way into senility to forget that.
‘Harchaeologists needs a JCB and a driver,’ he said. ‘Won’t be no charge from me.’
‘That’s very generous of you, Gomer. I’m sure Jane’ll see it gets back to the right people. Erm … you know Felix Barlow?’
‘Barlow …’ Gomer adjusted his cap, screwed up his eyes. ‘Builder?’
‘From Monkland. Knows Danny.’
‘Ar. Met the feller a few times over the years. He don’t build no mock-Tudor rainbow-stone crap. Don’t build nothin’ new at all, far’s I can see.’
‘Oh, straight, I reckon. Liked a drink at one time, so I yeard. That’d be when he was married.’
‘When was that?’
‘Eight years, nine … I lose track. But I remember his wife. Oh, hell, aye, I remember her, all right.’
It started to rain. Merrily leaned into the base of the tower.
‘You know Lizzie Nugent?’ Gomer said. ‘Widow, up by Bearswood?’
‘Don’t think so.’
‘Husband left her with two kids and a twenty-acre smallholdin’. I was over attendin’ to some ditchin’ one day, early March it’d be, when the gales blows the roof off Lizzie’s cowshed. Smashed to bits. So I calls a few people, see if we could get some galvanized, cheapish, and somebody puts me on to Felix Barlow. He comes round in his truck that same day, with these sheets off a shed he’s took down, and we fixed the ole roof between us. Took us n’ more’n a few hours, and when he found out Lizzie en’t got no insurance he was very reasonable about it, was Felix, no question ’bout that.’
Gomer ignited his roll-up, hands cupped around it.
‘We’re havin’ a cuppa with Lizzie afterwards when up comes this bloody great white BMW. Woman inside leanin’ on the horn till Felix goes out. Givin’ him hell, we could all of us year it. Folks in the next village’d likely year it – all this, what you doin’ yere when you oughter be up at Lady So-and-So’s? What you think you are, bloody registered charity?’
‘This is Mrs Barlow?’
‘Good-lookin’ woman, mind. But it en’t everythin’, is it?’
‘Erm … no. I suppose not.’
‘Barlow goes around helpin’ too many poor widows, where’s the next BMW comin’ from?’
‘You met the woman he’s with now?’
‘The hippie? Never met her, no, vicar.’ Gomer waved his ciggy. ‘Feller’s a bit alternative hisself, mind. Builder as en’t into cheating his clients, that’s alternative for a start, ennit?’
‘Knows the job, too. Could be in an office, collar and tie, directin’ operations. But he knows that money en’t everythin’, no more’n a goodlookin’ woman is.’
‘She is a good-looking woman, as it happens.’
‘And not much more than half his age.’
‘Oh well.’ Gomer shrugged, teeth crushing the ciggy. ‘Just cause a feller spends all his time shorin’ up ole buildings, don’t mean all his tools is obsolete.’
Merrily didn’t know what M. R. James had looked like. The only face she could see in her mind was Huw’s, framed by hair like dried-out straw, mounted on an age-dulled dog-collar and settling into a complacent conjuror’s smile.
We must have offended somebody or something at Garway, I think.
‘I wondered why you were so anxious,’ Jane said, ‘to borrow the M. R. James.’
Always a danger with emails. She’d been on the computer in the scullery, researching some aspect of stone rows, when Huw’s mail had come through. She’d read it, looked up the references, been into the Ghosts and Scholars website.
‘You couldn’t make it up,’ Jane said, still sitting at the desk.
Impressed, excited. Merrily walked to the window. Oh hell.
‘Mr James could make it up, though, couldn’t he? I mean, that was what he did.’
‘Oh, Mum. It was a letter to his friend. Someone who obviously knew exactly what he was on about. He doesn’t spell it out, does he? He knows she understands his point of reference.’
Merrily read the rest of it.
Probably we took it too much for granted, in speaking of it, that we should be able to do exactly as we pleased. Next time we shall know better. There is no doubt it is a very rum place and needs careful handling.
No, the kid was right. You couldn’t make it up. She could see why Huw had insisted on emailing the whole page from the Ghosts and Scholars website. Something had happened to M. R. James at Garway. Either something faintly curious which James’s serpentine imagination had inflated into something disturbing. Or something seriously disturbing which James, in this otherwise routine letter to a female friend, was deliberately making light of.
The editor of the website had made a kind of pilgrimage to the area to track down the settings for the main Herefordshire story ‘A View from a Hill’. Although the story seemed to be set in the general area of Garway, the village itself didn’t appear to feature, even under a different name.
‘I love this guy.’ Jane was glowing. ‘Greatest ghost-story writer ever. Because he just … well, basically, he just … he didn’t do ghosts.’
‘What did he do, then?’
‘Entities. He did entities. Creeping things. Indefinable things, exuding … malevolence. In traditional settings, like old churches and deserted shores and places with burial mounds. According to the website, he once said there was no point at all in writing about the supernatural if it wasn’t evil.’
‘Doesn’t that kind of invalidate the Bible?’
‘He meant fiction, Mum.’
‘Wow,’ Merrily said, ‘there’s a step forward for you.’
‘I mean complete fiction. Anyway, he wasn’t exactly anti-religious. His old man was a vicar, in Suffolk. He was brought up in the Church. He might even have gone that way himself if he hadn’t got into academic research and teaching and stuff.’
‘And did you know he came to this area?’
‘Well, no! I just didn’t! It’s incredible.’
‘But you’ve read all the stories.’
‘Erm …’ Jane fiddled with the mouse. ‘Not all of them, to be completely honest.’
‘You totally love him, but you haven’t read all his stories.’
‘OK … mainly, I’ve just seen the TV versions.’
‘I don’t remember us watching them.’
Remembered them being on. Usually around Christmas, and mostly before Jane had been born.
‘Erm … I didn’t mean us.’ Jane’s face had clouded. ‘I saw them at Irene … Eirion’s. His dad had a complete set of the videos, and we watched most of them one night, one after the other. It was … it was pretty good. We were on our own and we scared ourselves silly.’
‘That must’ve been a long night. Watching them all.’
‘Not that long.’ Jane looked away. ‘They only lasted half an hour each. Or a bit longer.’
Oh, Jane, Jane …
Merrily guessing they’d watched them tucked up together in Eirion’s bed, when his parents were out.
‘Anyway,’ Jane said. ‘The TV versions were obviously set in East Anglia or somewhere. To be honest, I bought the book but I only got round to reading a couple. And I didn’t read the foreword, otherwise I’d’ve known about him coming here. Obviously, I’m now going to read everything. I’m going to find a biography. It’s amazing.’
It was certainly a complication. Did Fuchsia know M. R. James had been to Garway? It was not unlikely.
‘So …’ Jane sat back, hands behind her head. ‘What’s your angle on this, Mum?’
‘Oh, it … it’s just somebody else who scared themselves silly.’
‘In a house belonging to Prince Charles?’
‘Did I tell you that?’
‘Not directly, but I just happened to click on history …’
‘And found the Duchy of Cornwall website.’ Merrily nodded, resigned. ‘Right.’
‘Didn’t mean to snoop, but this one was interesting. And you know it never goes any further, with me. Not any more.’
‘I’d’ve told you all about it, if you’d asked.’
‘I know, but … Anyway. Sorry. So, like, the house is at Garway, then. With the Knights Templar church. How did you get on to M. R. James?’
‘Because … there’s a mention of a Templar preceptory in one of his stories – “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”.’
‘That one is really scary. In the TV version, this professor, he’s not what you’d call sociable and he just goes around kind of mumbling to himself on this grey beach, and then he—’
‘Do you know of any more? Any more stories mentioning the Knights Templar?’
‘No, but I could email this website and ask this Rosemary Pardoe, who obviously knows, like, everything about M. R.’
‘OK,’ Merrily said. ‘Why not?
Whatever had happened to M. R. James at Garway, he didn’t appear to have used it in a story, but perhaps he had, in some less obvious way. If he’d been at Garway in 1917, it would have to be one of the later ones.
And Fuchsia … whatever Fuchsia had seen or imagined or invented at Garway, she’d linked it to a story set in East Anglia, albeit with a Templar connection.
James had talked of next time. Next time we shall know better.
You sensed a residual fascination.
‘Holy shit …’
‘Look at this …’
Jane had read further down, to where Rosemary Pardoe was passing on her own observations about Garway Church and its environs. Merrily leaned across.
‘Mum, did you know about this?’
‘Sophie mentioned it. It’s apparently the finest of its period in the country.’
‘Oh, yeah, that too … Now, read the rest. Go on.’
‘It was built by the Knights Templar?’
‘Probably. And then rebuilt by the Hospitallers who took over at Garway. Go on … read it.’
Jane stood up. Merrily sat down.
As well as the ancient Garway church itself with its (semi) detached thirteenth-century tower, there is a huge dovecote on private property on the adjoining farm …
Its doveholes number a worrying 666.
‘When are you going back?’ Jane said. ‘And can I come?’
When she went upstairs to change into jeans and sweatshirt, Merrily took the mobile with her and called Felix again from the bedroom.
Unsure, now, of how best to approach this. It was all subtly turning around, M. R. James himself becoming a player, seventy or so years after his death.
As for the dovecote … if it had been there for the best part of eight centuries, it was a bit late now to start worrying about the implications of 666 dove-chambers.
‘The person you are calling is not available. If you would like to leave a message …’
‘Felix, it’s Merrily. Could you or Fuchsia please call me. I need to talk about the …’ She hesitated. ‘The face of crumpled linen.’
Crumpling her cassock for the wash basket, she put on jeans and the Gomer Parry sweatshirt. The alarm clock said one-forty. Meditation was seven-thirty. She swallowed two paracetamol in the bathroom, came back downstairs to find Jane still hanging around in their chilly kitchen.
‘Not got a meeting with, erm … Coops today?’
Jane shook her head. She looked less happy, her face a little flushed.
There were crossroads in her life.
‘Do you want to drive, then?’ Merrily said.
This is wild frontier country with
an aura of barbarians roaming over
the adjacent border …
As Above …
WHAT JANE KNEW about the Templars came, of course, out of paganism.
Those difficult months when she’d been a teenage goddess-worshipper, slipping out into the vicarage garden at night to make her devotions to the Lady Moon. Partly a rebellion thing – OK, understandable in an intelligent, imaginative kid who’d been dragged away to the unknown village where her mother had become a low-paid, low-level employee of the boring, set-in-its-ways, male-dominated, hierarchical Church of England.
Jane’s paganism: partly about giving Christianity a good kicking.
Merrily watched her driving, back straight, hands textbook on the wheel, eyes unblinking. Remembering the all-time-low, a couple of years ago, with the heat of the old Aga at her back, a white-faced Jane rigid in the kitchen doorway, and their relationship trampled into the flagstones.
Nobody gives a shit for your Church. Your congregations are like laughable. In twenty years you’ll be preaching to each other. You don’t matter any more, you haven’t mattered for years. I’m embarrassed to tell anybody what you do.
The rage had evaporated, tensions long since eased, but Jane’s pagan instincts remained – tamer now, certainly, but still feeding something inside her that was hungry for experience; up in her attic apartment she was still reading books about old gods.
‘Like, for centuries it’s been accepted that the Templars were the guardians of arcane secrets – including the Holy Grail. I mean, who better? They were spiritual warriors. They put their lives on the line to protect sacred truths. They were like … the SAS with soul?’
‘Who says the SAS have no soul?’
‘Unlike the Templars, however, they’re not known for their monastic celibacy,’ Jane said.
They’d driven in from the east, less of a back door to Garway and better roads for Jane, who was hoping to take her driving test before Christmas. The sun was low and intense, a searchlight spraying the yellowing leaves on the turning trees. When you weren’t driving, you got a more spectacular overview … or underview, maybe; all you could see of Garway Hill itself was the top of the radio mast on its summit.
Changing down for a sudden incline, Jane let the clutch slip.
‘It’s OK. Take your time.’
Jane, red-faced, pulled the car out of its shudder, the Volvo wheezing and protesting like an old dog being dragged out for a walk by a child who didn’t understand.
‘So if The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail concept is that the Grail is actually the suppressed feminine principle as, like, enshrined by Mary Magdalene, who was Jesus Christ’s other half … and don’t look at me like that, Mum.’
‘You don’t know how I’m looking at you, your eyes are firmly on the road.’
‘I can feel the self-righteous hostility.’
‘It’s not self-righteous and it’s not hostility. It’s just that all that’s been discredited. Even the authors are now saying they were just testing a theory.’
‘It doesn’t change the fact that Mary Magdalene, whether or not she was Mrs Christ, represents the goddess figure which male-dominated Christianity suppressed.’
Jane’s debating skills had become formidable, but how many times had they been here?
‘Look … I accept that there may be a hidden feminine principle. What I don’t accept is Jesus and Mary Magdalene being an item, starting a bloodline. For which, when you look into it, there’s no real evidence at all.’
‘Aw, Mum, why do you have to deny the poor guy a sex life?’
‘There you go. The guy. If he was just a guy, just another prophet who didn’t rise again, didn’t ascend into heaven … if you want to deny his divinity…’
‘I don’t want to deny anybody’s divinity, I’m into divinity big time. But I don’t see why women shouldn’t have a share of it, whether it’s Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary.’
‘We won’t argue now,’ Merrily said. ‘Take this bit slowly.’
Maybe she ought to be driving instead. The lanes were proving unpredictable, and there were more of them than she’d figured. More to Garway, too, than you imagined; flushed by the low sun, it seemed like a remote and separate realm. Like Cornwall was to England. Maybe the Duchy had recognized that aspect.
Jane glanced at a signpost which seemed to have been twisted round, so that Garway was pointing into a field.
‘So Garway and Garway Hill are like separated, right?’
‘Looks like it. I thought the church and a few cottages nearby were the centre of the community, but apparently not. You get these separate clusters … kind of disorienting.’
After half a mile or so, the landscape broadened out and they were into a random scatter of modern housing and an open stretch of common with a children’s play area. Across the lane from the common was a pub of whitewashed stone with a swinging sign: a full moon in a deepening twilight sky.
THE GARWAY MOON.
‘Cool sign,’ Jane said. ‘Artistic. Kind of pagan.’
‘Why does the moon always have to be pagan?’
‘You tell me. Does the Bible have much to say about it?’ Jane relaxed into the driver’s seat. ‘This is very much my kind of place, Mum. It’s like frontier country. On the edge.’
‘It is frontier country. Those hills are Wales.’
‘I actually meant frontier in the deeper sense. The Knights Templar move in, monks with horses and swords, and they stamp their presence on the whole area. Infuse it with mystery. I mean like, why out here? Unless … maybe it was considered a really good, obscure place to conceal secrets, practise arcane … practices.’
‘Or they were just given the land. Maybe no better reason than that.’
‘There’s always a better reason,’ Jane said.
‘For you, flower, there always has to be.’
‘Don’t call me “flower”. And don’t tell me you’re not curious, too.’
‘I can be curious without having to subscribe to the whole fashionable Gnosticism thing.’
Jane slowed, as the road sloped past a modern-ish primary school on one side and a run-down village hall on the other.
‘I don’t see what’s so wrong with Gnosticism. It’s just saying that faith is not enough. The Gnostics wanted to know. They wanted direct experience of the reality of … something out there. God. Whatever. I don’t see why you have a problem with that.’
‘Anyway …’ Not now, huh? Too weighty. ‘… I’d’ve thought you’d lived in the sticks long enough to know it’s absolutely the worst place to keep a secret.’
‘Yeah, now. But in medieval times, when almost nobody could read.’
‘Including the Templars. Most of the Knights Templar seem to have been illiterate.’
‘Mum, they were international bankers! People could stash money at one preceptory and withdraw from another.’
‘Since when did banking demand literacy?’
‘OK, then, maybe this was just where they came to carry on their own form of Gnostic worship, which the straight Church would see as heresy.’ Jane pulled the Volvo over to the grass verge to let a tractor get past. ‘Was that all right?’
‘Except you should’ve signalled first, to let him know what you were doing. And why are we going up here?’
Inexplicably, Jane had taken an uphill right.
‘Sorry. I thought …’
‘I think the church was straight on down the hill. Never mind, carry on.’
It didn’t matter. Merrily suddenly wanted to hug Jane. If the worst you had to deal with was theological debate …
‘You OK, Mum?’
She felt the pressure of tears, deciding that when Jane wasn’t around she was going to ring Eirion on the quiet, find out what had gone wrong between them. Just wanting the kid to be happy.
‘This sort of location is actually more suited to the Cistercians,’ Jane said. ‘They liked to be way out on their own. But, see, that fits, too, because the Knights Templar were connected with the Cistercians. Through Bernard of Clairvaux? The top Cistercian fixer, smartest operator in the medieval Catholic Church?’
‘I know who you mean. I’m just impressed at the extent of your knowledge.’
‘It’s in the medieval history syllabus – just. Our history guy, Robbie Williams, it’s his period. So what happened, Bernard cleared up the problem the Templars had about being devout Christians and also having to kill people on a regular basis. Simple solution: he ruled that it was OK to kill non-Christians.’
‘Especially Muslims,’ Merrily said. ‘A medieval interpretation, which now seems to operate in reverse. What’s your point?’
‘Comes back to paganism again. Of all the medieval monastic orders, the Cistercians were the ones who most reflected pre-Christian religion. The old ways.’
‘Some sources might say that, but—’
‘Come on – natural successors to the Druids? Sheep farmers who liked relative isolation and were into ancient sites and earth-forces and sacred springs?’
‘Natural running water was very much prized in the days before taps,’ Merrily said. ‘And, sure, maybe they dowsed for it. That doesn’t mean—’
‘Garway Church has a holy spring, doesn’t it?’
‘It does. And if you can find somewhere to turn this car around we’ll go back and check it out. No, not there. Jane, keep your eyes on the—’
‘Did you see that sign?’ Jane’s head swivelling. ‘On the house?’
‘Mmm. I’m afraid I did.’
They’d passed a grey stone corner house which might once have been a pub and still had a big yellow sign on the side. THE SUN. A mystical golden sun, with a smug-looking, curled-lipped face and waving tendrils of radiance; below it were sunflowers and a naked figure on a horse. Merrily also noticed that the farmhouse almost opposite had a name plate: The Rising Sun.
‘It’s just an old pub sign, Jane, that’s all.’
‘Mum, it was like a giant tarot card. The Sun? And the Moon? This place had two pubs called The Sun and The Moon? That says nothing to you?’
‘I’m … reserving my opinion.’
‘I think I was probably guided to turn up this road.’
‘You don’t say.’
‘As above, so below,’ Jane said.
The holy well was at the bottom of the churchyard. Like most holy wells, it was disappointing. A trickle under the wall. Ribbons on a nearby bush, which could be down to either visiting pagans or local kids.
Jane crouched down, unzipping her white hoodie, holding cupped hands underneath the water. Merrily was reminded uncomfortably of the author Winnie Sparke, who had hung around the wells in Malvern, and what had happened to her.
‘Jane, you know how much I really hate doing the mother-hen bit, but that water …’
Jane looked into her cupped hands but didn’t drink the water. She smiled and dabbed some on her cheeks. Beyond the body of the church, the vertically-slit-eyed tower gazed down with what Merrily took to be a kind of benign cynicism.
‘If we go back to the church, we can see the outline of the original circular nave. Templar trade mark. Designed in honour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem?’
‘On the other hand …’ Jane stood up and walked off to the edge of the churchyard ‘… if we go along here, we should be able to see the dovecote designed to commemorate the Beast 666.’
‘It’s on private land. We’d need to ask for permission.’
‘Not just to see it.’
Jane – why else was she here? – was already walking across a marshy-looking field towards the fringe of a farm with barns, storage tanks, a galvanized shed and some kind of stone silo. Merrily, wrong shoes, as usual – bugger – stepping uncertainly across a boggy bit, following a shallow stream, while slowly realizing that the stone silo on the edge of the farmyard clutter was probably what they were looking for.
She stopped and confronted it: a squat round tower, like a sawn-off, roofless hop-kiln. The fading sun balanced on its rim, Jane shading her eyes.
‘Doesn’t look very evil from here,’ Merrily said.
‘Why should it be evil?’ Jane turning in annoyance. ‘That’s just Christian propaganda. Anyway, recent translations of the Book of Rev from the ancient Greek suggest it might actually be six one six.’
‘Not being much of a Greek scholar, I may have to continue to be wary of 666.’
‘Whatever,’ Jane said, ‘it does suggest a kind of partly submerged mystical awareness, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s a dovecote.’
‘Everything is significant. Another pointer to this whole hill being a store of arcane knowledge. I can’t believe Coops and his guys haven’t checked this place out. I need to ask him.’
‘Jane, I think—’
Merrily shut up. Some mothers with daughters, it was pregnancy, abortion, drugs. If the worst you had to worry about was your kid creating a fantasy landscape …
And Coops, of course. Maybe she ought to find out more about Coops.
‘Fantastic energy here, Mum.’ Jane began whirling around with her arms spread wide, eight years old again. ‘Can’t you feel it?’
‘Not to speak of, no.’
The sun had tucked itself under the rim of the tubular dovecote, the ground dropping into shadow, and Merrily was aware of a damp pattering, as Jane said, ‘You just don’t want to admit—’
And then was staggering back, something long and grey and damp surging between them.
Merrily lurching towards Jane through the wet grass, a woman’s voice crying out behind her.
When Jane sat down in the grass, it was on top of her, pinning her down, all over her face.
Tail waving, thank God. A woman with shoulder-length white-blonde hair threw down a short leather dog-lead.
‘You bastard, Roscoe!’
The dog shifted from Jane, looked back at the woman, seeming bemused.
‘Obviously thought she was offering to play with him,’ the woman said. ‘Is it racist nowadays to say the Irish wolfhound’s the stupidest bloody creature on four legs? You all right, darling?’
‘I … sure.’
Jane had struggled upright, holding Roscoe’s hairy head against a hip to prove that she wasn’t afraid of him. If there hadn’t been energy in the air before, there was now.
‘Teach you to stand there in a place like this,’ the woman said, ‘calling out the Number of the bloody Beast.’
THE WOMAN PICKED up the dog-lead. She wore an ancient Barbour, flayed almost white in places, full of holes and flakily at odds with her rose-pink silk scarf. Her face was long and thin-lipped, and older than the Barbour, but by how much was anybody’s guess.
‘If we’re on your land,’ Merrily said, ‘I apologize.’
Frowning at Jane, who was brushing herself down, smudged brown paw marks down the front of the white hoodie.
‘It isn’t my land, don’t worry.’ The woman patted her knee and Roscoe ambled over, and she attached his lead as a mobile phone beeped inside the Barbour. ‘Not that ownership of most of the land around here isn’t open to some kind of dispute. Excuse me a moment.’
Reining in the wolfhound, she dug out the mobile, pushed back her straight white hair and held the phone to an ear without turning or moving away.
‘Mr Hinton, good afternoon … No, not yet, I’m afraid. As you may not have noticed, it’s Sunday … Yes, indeed, I’m expecting the delivery in the next week and as soon as it gets here I shall bring it round … Yes, I guarantee you’ll love it. Guarantee it … Money back, yes, absolutely. We’ll talk again, Mr Hinton.’
The woman clicked off the phone, dropped it into a coat pocket.
‘Farmers. They think everybody works on Sundays. The columbarium, yes, why does it have 666 chambers? Not often spoken of locally. As you see by its situation, we tend not to advertise our antiquities.’
‘Why not?’ Jane asked. ‘It’s supposed to be unique.’
‘No idea.’ The woman smiled, exposing a dark and raunchy slit between upper front teeth, setting light to deep-set but vivid blue-green eyes. ‘But then I was merely born here. We tend, nowadays, to rely on outsiders – usually Americans – to explain all our mysteries. Where’ve you come from?’
Merrily told her Ledwardine, in the north of the county. Aware of time moving on, the need to take a brief look at the Master House before they left.
‘You’re no use at all then.’ The woman patted her pockets. ‘Haven’t got a fag on you, by any chance? Slim chance nowadays, I know.’
‘Actually, I have.’ Merrily reached down to her shoulder bag. ‘Only Silk Cut, I’m afraid.’
‘That would be perfect, m’ dear. Left my buggers on the mantelpiece, and I’m absolutely gasping. Thank you.’
She mouthed a cigarette and Merrily lit it for her and she swallowed a lungful of smoke, head tilted back to exhale it into the sky in the direction of the devil’s dovecote.
‘Lit up in the pub the other night in joyful contravention of the law. Chap looking at me as if I’d pissed on his shoes. Bloody government. How dare they?’
Merrily looked at Jane. Jane was wide-eyed and trying not to laugh.
‘Ledwardine, eh?’ The woman lowering her eyes to Merrily’s Gomer Parry Plant Hire sweatshirt. ‘And you evidently know the little digger chap with specs that you or I might use to track the canals on Mars.’
‘I didn’t realize Gomer worked so far out.’
‘Needed new field drains in a hurry – ditches overflowing. Quagmire. My regular chap had packed it in but absolutely refused to recommend anyone local. He’d worked for the Grays, you see, and, oh my God, you can’t work for the Grays and the Gwilyms. You were here yesterday with Murray, weren’t you?’
‘So fascinated that I came back.’
‘Thought so.’ Squinting at Merrily through the smoke and a frond of hair, nicotine-blonded, fallen forward, a worn elegance about her.
‘Bad penny,’ said Merrily.
‘Oh, I don’t think so, Mrs Watkins.’
And you thought the intelligence services in Ledwardine were fast. Merrily took a step back. The woman held up her cigarette.
‘Not habitually nosy. But living here, one learns there are things it’s as well to know about as not. So, yes, I do know who you are.’ She snatched another puff, blowing the smoke out sideways. ‘And what you do.’
‘Not exactly a chance encounter, then,’ Merrily said.
‘No. Sorry.’ The woman switched the cigarette to her left hand, putting out the right. ‘Morningwood. Mrs.’
Free-range eggs and honey and herbs. The woman who’d told Felix the Master House was unhappy.
They shook hands.
‘This is Jane. My daughter.’
‘Of course. Girl involved in a fracas with the wretched Council. I applaud you, m’ dear. Would have been there m’self, with a placard, but always too busy.’
Merrily sighed. ‘Mrs Morningwood, this is all very impressive—’
‘Darling, it’s not impressive at all. Truth of it is, Roscoe and I happened to be padding quietly through the church precincts yesterday afternoon when Murray was kind enough to identify you by name.’
‘You must’ve been … behind the church tower?’
‘No wish to intrude.’
Merrily imagined Mrs Morningwood flattened against the stonework with a hand around the wolfhound’s muzzle. Not that this would have been necessary; you couldn’t help noticing how docile and obedient Roscoe had become since being … set on Jane?
‘And the rest was down to Google. Directing me immediately to your Diocesan website. Deliverance? That’s really what they’re calling it nowadays?’
‘Mixed blessing, Google.’
‘Brass tacks, Mrs Watkins?’
‘If you like.’
‘All right.’ Mrs Morningwood flicked away an inch of ash. ‘Save some time, I ask you why you’re here. You say, what’s it to you, you prying cow? I then try to convince you that I might be able to assist in some way, being the nearest neighbour of whoever’s attempting to live in that benighted hovel at any particular time.’
‘The Master House.’
‘So-called. And now, interestingly – or mystifyingly, perhaps – in the ownership of the heir to the throne. Should we feel honoured, do you suppose?’
Merrily said, ‘Attempting to live there?’
‘If you were able to point to anyone who’d succeeded, you’d have a sight longer memory than me, m’ dear. Am I to understand you’ve been invited to subject the place to some form of exorcism?’
‘That’s probably overstating it. We haven’t even found it yet.’
‘Want to find it now?’
‘That was the original plan, but now we don’t have much time.’
‘Not much time is probably an advantage. An excuse to get out of there.’ Mrs Morningwood patted her thigh, and the dog crept close. ‘Follow me.’
The sun had been reduced to a reddening corona on the rim of the dovecote. They followed her back to where the Volvo was parked, up against the hedge on the edge of the churchyard. Then along the lane and into a lay-by concealing the entrance to a mud track.
All too easy to miss. Cigarette poking from her lips, Mrs Morningwood began pulling nettles away from the bars of a galvanized gate with her bare hands, a rural skill that Merrily had never mastered. Impressive.
‘Entrance seems to seal itself up in a matter of days, even at this time of year. Make of that what you will.’
‘Not you, Jane,’ Merrily said, and Jane smiled and moved alongside Mrs Morningwood at the jammed gate.
‘Mrs Morningwood, can I ask you something before I forget? Why were there two pubs around here called The Sun and The Moon?’
‘Before my time, child.’
‘I was thinking that the Knights Templar were well into astrology,’ Jane said.
‘You don’t know much about the Templars?’
‘Problem at Garway …’ Mrs Morningwood freed the gate, with a ferrous clatter, prising it from the post ‘… is separating fact from legend. You probably know the saying about the Garway witches. No? There’ll be nine witches from the bottom of Orcop to the end of Garway Hill, as long as water runs.’
‘And are there?’
‘To my knowledge … only me.’ Mrs Morningwood let loose a short, throaty laugh. ‘Herbs, darling. I grow various medicinal herbs. Make potions and flog them at the farmers’ markets, two fingers up to the diabolical EC regulations.’
‘Have you lived here all your life?’
‘Except for the twenty years or so when I tried to separate myself, before the damn place reached out its suckers.’ Mrs Morningwood pinched out the remains of her cigarette. ‘Mother passed along, leaving me the cottage, which tied in roughly with the divorce. Came back to recover. That was thirteen … no, fourteen years ago. God almighty. Shouldn’t’ve reverted to the maiden name, that was the mistake. Slotted myself back into a fearsome tradition.’
Jane looked at her, waiting for it.
‘Always be a Morningwood on Garway Hill, as long as badgers shit on the White Rocks!’ Mrs Morningwood exploded into catarrhal laughter and flung open the metal gate. ‘In you go.’
A SQUARE, RIDGED field, given up to docks and thistles. New thorn trees sprouting around the greying bones of the old. Woodland enclosing it on three sides hid many of the hills, and the only sighting point was the conical cap of the church tower.
‘So many folds and hollows,’ Merrily said. ‘Hard to be sure exactly where you are.’
‘You know Kentchurch Court?’ Mrs Morningwood’s arm, another of Merrily’s cigarettes at the end of it, was signposting a heavy canopy of oak woodland. ‘Down behind there. Home of the Scudamores. Normans who followed the Conqueror over here in the eleventh century. One of the sons married Owain Glyndwr’s daughter, and they’re supposed to have sheltered him when his rebellion went down.’
‘And the Master House is … where?’
‘Close. Over the ridge.’ Mrs Morningwood pushed the gate shut and plucked a twig from one of the holes in her Barbour, turning to Jane. ‘Suppose I might as well tell you – those pubs, Sun and Moon?’
Jane stood on the mud track, a hand on Roscoe’s grizzled head. Getting better at containing her curiosity.
‘That’s only half the story,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Used to be a third inn. Called, as it happens, The Stars.’
‘Wow.’ Jane blinked. ‘Really?’
‘And … if you continue past The Sun, you’ll come to a white house which also used to be a pub. With the, I suppose, equally celestial name of The Globe.’
‘Holy sh …’ Jane lost it. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘Go and look on your way home. There’s a small sign on the wall. The Globe.’
‘Four astronomical pubs in one small area? This is amazing, Mrs Morningwood.’
‘Yes, it is interesting, I would agree. When you’ve grown up with it, you don’t think. Part of the fabric.’
‘I’m sorry …’ Merrily kept on looking at the point of the church tower and the autumnal woodland glowing dully, like dying embers, under clouds the colour of old brick ‘… but did you say The Globe?’
At the first oblique sight of it, you thought of a fox dozing in the undergrowth.
Except they didn’t, did they? Not out in the open, by day. Foxes didn’t sleep like that.
They’d walked uphill for about fifty paces, cresting a rise with two oak trees on top, boughs locked like antlers, and then the house was in a hollow below them: sprawling side-on, low-slung and sagging in a frame of bleached oak, built of rubble-stone the muddy colours of Garway church. A tin-roofed lean-to had collapsed at one end, exposing arms of oak raised in a ragged V to the rafters.
There were the usual twentieth-century additions to the house itself, notably the dormers jutting from the old stone tiles, but you could see that they were already rotting – slates slipping, guttering hanging off, while the original oak endured.
‘Sort of Welsh longhouse in one of its incarnations,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Barn or cattle shed attached. Are you all right, Mrs Watkins?’
If disoriented. Like she’d passed into a dream and then from one dream into another that was darker. The Globe: where did fiction begin? And why had Mrs Morningwood suddenly decided to pass on information that would make the place, for Jane, even sexier?
‘Nice job on the roof, actually, Mrs Watkins. Timbers patched rather than replaced, and he had the foresight to use second-hand stone tiles. New ones might’ve been disastrous. The chap was good. Pity he couldn’t stay.’
‘What’ve you heard, Mrs Morningwood?’
‘His girl was frightened.’
‘He told you that?’
‘Yes, he did.’
‘You told him it was an unhappy house,’ Merrily said. ‘Would it be possible to explain further?’
Moving beyond the second oak tree, she saw a granary, with stone steps and a barn with a badly holed roof. Mrs Morningwood zipped up her cracked and fissured Barbour over the pink scarf.
‘Last time I was in there was nearly fifty years ago. I was nine years old.’
‘You lived next door and you haven’t been in for fifty years?’
‘“Next door”’s a relative term, darling. My cottage is six fields away, including one we let go to conifers, for purposes of concealment.’
‘So you wouldn’t see this house?’
‘Word is the Duchy of Cornwall wants to turn it into craft workshops, employing green energy. Good luck to them. I’ve nothing against Charles – been times I’ve even applauded the chap. Especially when he supports alternative remedies against the weasels of the medical profession taking their grimy little backhanders from the drug companies to cure us of non-existent ills. Cholesterol – who the hell invented cholesterol?’
Mrs Morningwood had sunk her fists so deeply into the pockets of the worn Barbour that you could see her knuckles through the holes.
‘Do you know what a watch night is, Mrs Watkins? Or was.’
‘Erm … maybe.’
‘Most places it had faded out by the end of the nineteenth century. Garway’s said to be the last part of Herefordshire to carry it on. Even so, it had almost vanished, even here, when it was reinstated by the Newtons.’
‘This was the family who’d bought the place from the Gwilyms?’
‘And how much do you know about that?’
‘Not much. That’s why I’m here. Learning history.’
‘Fychan Gwilym,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
‘A name inevitably – and deliberately – mispronounced this side of the border. It all begins with Fychan. The Gwilyms, while not exactly marcher lords – being, of course, mainly Welsh – nonetheless had a substantial domain, and Fychan was their patriarch around the turn of last century. Notorious drunk, gambler, fornicator, wife-beater and, worst of all, a very bad farmer. Weekends, he’d take himself off to the fleshpots of Hereford and Monmouth. Weekdays, he’d be out hunting and gradually running the farm into the ground to pay off his debts.’
‘When was that?’
‘Early 1900s? Fortunately, one morning they found the bastard dead on the road to Bagwyllydiart. The eldest son far too young to take over, and the widow – much relieved, one imagines – rejected the local vultures, moved to a cottage on the edge of the village and shocked everyone by flogging the farm to the Newtons. From Off, Mrs Watkins.’
‘How far off?’
‘Over towards Ross, I believe. Well-heeled farming family, the Newtons, looking for a living for a second son. Gwilyms incandescent with rage. Hordes of them wriggling out of their holes. Imagine a raiding party of red-necked bastards, spitting and cursing – well, I exaggerate obviously, but such were the recriminations that the widow Gwilym found it expedient to leave the area altogether within the year.’
‘This house was so important to the family? Or was it the land?’
‘Oh, the house, principally. Ancestral family home, you see. Attempts to stop the sale, but it was legal, and once the Newtons were in they started buying more land – couple of fields here, bit of woodland there – gradually assembling a lucrative holding. Aware all the time, of course, of the Gwilym family closing in like Birnam Wood from the Welsh side – for many years in the ample shape of one Owain Gwilym, who had a farm near Skenfrith, ground extending almost to the border. Dedicated to getting the Newtons out and the Master House back. Not an ideal neighbour.’
‘Sounds like the seedbed of a classic border feud.’
‘Inevitably. Two farming dynasties head-to-head. Harassment … destruction of fences … smashing of gates … rustling of stock …’ Mrs Morningwood sniffed in contempt. ‘Farmers can be like children – petty bullying and breaking one another’s toys. Split the community down the middle. You were either for the Gwilyms or the Newtons. And the Newtons, during this period, had considerably more money and were generous to their local employees.’
‘And they were clever. Always thinking of ways to weave themselves into the very fabric of the area, learning its psychology, absorbing its traditions – and using them. Which brings us back to the watch night. You remembered yet?’
‘I think …’ Merrily flicked a wary glance at Jane ‘… that it was about … keeping company with the dead?’
Mrs Morningwood folded her arms and hunched her shoulders, leaning her head back, as if to allow the memories to come sliding down like grain.
‘Specifically, Felicity Newton. Only ever remember her as an old woman. Must’ve been close to a hundred when she died in the 1950s – and not many people made the century in those days. Her son, Ralph, head of the family, decided to make an event of it – in theory, to allow everyone to pay their respects. One can see now that it was designed to work as a kind of ritual homage, binding the village and the neighbouring farms to the Newtons. All I know is, it haunted my dreams for years.’
‘You all had to see the body?’
‘Darling, if only it had stopped there.’
Mrs Morningwood pointed down to the Master House, where the skeleton of a porch had been half pulled away from the Gothic-shaped front door of whitening oak. She described a square hall just inside, which had also served as the living room. With a large inglenook, in front of which the remains of Felicity Newton had been displayed.
‘It must have been about eleven p.m. on a winter’s night – I was quite excited, I’d been allowed to stay up. We walked across the fields, my mother and I – just across here. People going in before us, all dressed in black, leaving their hurricane lamps outside. People who all knew one another, but no one spoke. I remember there was a fire in the room, kept very low, the only source of light, apart from the one candle. Like a grotto, a shrine. We were allowed to enter in ones and twos, and each time the door closed behind us, so that we were shut in with the corpse.’
Merrily saw Jane discreetly rolling her eyes.
‘First time I’d seen a dead ’un,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘The candle was in a saucer. Sitting in a mound of salt on a saucer placed on the chest of the corpse, which lay in its coffin on trestles in the centre of the room. The candle casting a quite ghastly light on the face. I remember – one of those frozen moments that resurface, for years, in nightmares – taking one look and being gripped by a horror that was physical, like a cramp in my stomach. Tried to run out, but then, from the shadows by the inglenook, a bigger shadow arose. Tessie Worthy, the Newtons’ housekeeper. A large and formidable woman. I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, Tessie Worthy, in her big white starched apron, rising up and intoning, in this low rumble of a voice, Everybody is to touch her.’
‘Gross,’ Jane said, hugging the wolfhound.
‘I remember my mother lifting me up and placing my hand on the withered cheek. I remember turning my head away when the smell wafted up at me – I’m sure if I went in there now I’d smell it again. Putrid. The faint but piercing stench of decay, mixed with the sickly smell of molten wax. I closed my eyes tightly. The face felt like the skin on a cold egg-custard.’
‘This is an old Celtic thing?’ Jane said, unfazed. ‘Like corpse candles?’
‘About keeping away evil spirits, m’ dear. A light must remain burning in the room where the corpse lies, up until burial.’
‘Until the funeral,’ Merrily said, ‘the spirit was supposed to be hanging around the house and shouldn’t be left alone. That was the belief, I think.’
She looked down at the house, some of its windows leaded and framed with rusted metal, others just holes, like the sockets of eyes which had been put out.
‘However, I do believe the Newtons used it as a kind of controlling device,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Each hand on the dead cheek an unspoken gesture of allegiance. And, of course, almost everyone came – except, obviously, anyone called Gwilym.’
‘How often did that happen?’ Merrily asked. ‘These communal visits to the Newton dead.’
‘Twice? Three times? I don’t truly know. I left home in my twenties. Couldn’t wait to get out, to the big, exciting, non-superstitious city. By the time I returned, they’d moved out.’
‘Left the house?’
‘Built a new house, originally for a tenant, then improved and extended it, and then it became the family home. More convenient, easier to heat – or that was their story. The Master House was rented out, first to some people who tried to run a riding stables – and failed – and then to one of those 1970s good-life communes, posh kids with ideals but no morals. They’d gone, too, time I returned, and word was the Gwilyms were trying to buy it back. Gruffydd Gwilym, not a bad chap, actually, but the Newtons turned him away – rather see the house rot away than returned to the Gwilyms. And now, of course, there’s Gruffydd’s son. Suckarse.’
Merrily blinked, patting Roscoe, the wolfhound, who’d come to sit between her and Jane.
‘Sycharth, actually.’ Mrs Morningwood spelled it out. ‘Some of us do know our Welsh pronunciations but can’t resist taking the piss. Sycharth inherited earlier than expected, Gruffydd having been killed in one of those ubiquitous tractor accidents that occur on hill farms. Wouldn’t happen to Sycharth – man’s never even been on a bloody tractor. Big businessman, now, in Hereford. Property, restaurants. Latest is some abomination called The Centurion?’
‘I know it.’ Flash eatery on Roman Road. ‘He owns that?’
‘A reversal of fortunes for both families. The Gwilyms back in the money, hard times for the Newtons. Suffered terribly during the Foot and Mouth of 2001 – which, of course, the despicable government allowed to spread, to shaft the farmers the way Thatcher shafted the miners.’
Merrily nodded. You heard this all the time. A conspiracy theory that would last for at least a generation.
‘All governments are the same underneath. Final straw, though, for the Newtons. Farm was like a concentration camp after the war – smoke and death. And the Newtons – hardly the powerful family I remembered, and it didn’t get any easier. The boys wanted out, and that might’ve been the end of it, had the eldest girl, Roxanne, not married Paul Gray. Young farmer with ambition and enough family funds to buy in. Actually started to turn it around … before he was diagnosed with MS.’
‘Ah. I saw him. Briefly. Trying to avoid his wheelchair.’
‘He’s fighting. Cursed, though. Farm was cursed. People still talk like that, as I’m sure you know.’
‘And the feud?’
‘Never went away. Like a live electric wire under the ground, and periodically someone would strike it with a spade. Sycharth pretends it’s all history. When the word leaked out about Paul’s illness, he immediately offered to help by buying back the Master House and surrounding land. Which might’ve been tempting if he hadn’t been a Gwilym.’
‘Didn’t want to know?’
‘But I think it did make them realize that this might be a good time to sell … to the right buyer.’
‘Ah.’ Merrily nodded. ‘Perhaps a respectable outside buyer with plenty of money and no possible link to the Gwilyms?’
‘I don’t know the details,’ Mrs Morningwood said, ‘but it was clearly the Grays who made the approach to the Duchy of Cornwall.’
‘Knowing how keen the Duchy were on Herefordshire at the time, having recently bought Harewood Park, not a dozen miles away.’
‘Oh, they’ve always been clever, Grays and Newtons both. If rather unlucky.’
‘And how do the Gwilyms feel about the Duchy?’
‘One can only imagine. All right then, darling …’ Mrs Morningwood squeezed out her cigarette, tidily pocketing the stub. ‘If you want to go into the house, I won’t detain you any longer. But at least you know some of the background.’
‘Yes. Thank you, Mrs Morningwood.’
‘You have a key?’
‘A very big key.’ Merrily could feel its outline bulging her bag. ‘Only problem now is, I’ve a church service to take at seven-thirty, back in Ledwardine.’
‘Time for a peek, surely. I’m sure your God will protect you. Come along, Roscoe.’
‘You’re not coming?’
‘Hens to get in before nightfall. Besides, I think I told you – I never go there.’
‘Because you actually believe it’s haunted or for some other reason that you … maybe don’t feel able to share?’
For just a moment, Mrs Morningwood looked almost thrown. Then she smiled.
‘I trust the dog, Mrs Watkins. Once got carried away, in pursuit of a bunny, found himself within yards of the ruins. He froze for a moment – absolutely froze – then made the most extraordinary noise and came running back to me like the wind, tail well down. Walked pitifully to heel all the way home.’
She attached the leather lead to Roscoe’s collar and then held out the looped end, first to Merrily, then to Jane.
‘Go on – try him. See what happens.’
Jane looked at Merrily.
‘Wouldn’t be fair,’ Merrily said.
A YEAR OR so before moving to Ledwardine, Merrily had helped take the funeral of a youngish woman with psychiatric problems, wife of a local head teacher. Probably suicide but passed off, by a kindly coroner, as accidental death.
Up in Liverpool this had been, when she’d been a curate, and there’d been an open coffin, in the American tradition. And that had bothered her, and the fact that it bothered her was also worrying. Was she squeamish? Immature? Surely it was good to be as open as possible about death. Took away the fear. Touch a corpse, you’ll never be afraid again.
They’ve made her look so composed, the husband had said. After all her suffering and her confusion, I want everyone to see how together she looks.
Together, yes. Like an expensive doll in a white padded gift-box. A classy ad for the embalmer’s art, but you couldn’t believe it had ever enclosed an animating spark.
This was the problem: the underlining of the finality of death, the erasure of the spirit, a lasting image of the recently departed in eternal rigid repose. Where was the promise of freedom, the energy of release?
Standing in the ruins of the Master House porch, gripping the big, rust-brown key, Merrily was still unsure how she felt about public displays of mortality. But one thing was certain: a single, eerie experience as a child would hardly be enough to keep someone as world-hardened as Mrs Morningwood at bay for a half a century.
‘Weird about the dog,’ Jane said.
‘You think she was winding you up? You could’ve just taken her up on the offer, walked him down here yourself.’
‘Wouldn’t have proved anything. Most dogs don’t like being suddenly taken away from their owners on the end of a lead. Perhaps she knew how he’d react.’
‘Honestly …’ Jane scowled. ‘You’re always so suspicious of people. Is that really good for a vicar? I mean, I liked her.’
‘I liked her, but I’m not sure how far I’d trust her. Everybody has an agenda, and she’d targeted us. There were things she wanted me to know. That’s suspicious.’
‘And you a Christian.’
‘Yes, it’s very sad.’
Down in the hollow, the air was already purpling with dusk, the birdsong withdrawing into the trees. Two sparrows flew out of the eaves. Merrily looked at the oak front door.
‘Makes you wonder why these Gwilyms wanted it back,’ Jane said. ‘It’s going to cost a fortune even to patch it up.’
‘I can understand that – if it’s the family home since way, way back. And if this guy Sycharth owns The Centurion, he’s certainly got the money.’
The house looked heavier close-up, less vulnerable, some of its lower stones like boulders. Jane picked up a stone tile fallen from the porch and propped it against the wall.
‘So these Gwilyms are obviously going to be seriously pissed off about the Newtons or the Grays or whoever cut this deal with Charles’s guys behind their backs.’
‘Having to sit there on the other side of the river and watch the old homestead getting immaculately renovated. Turned into somebody else’s business.’
‘Would there be any chance of them ever buying it back?’
‘Can’t be ruled out, flower. The Duchy’s a business, buying and selling property. If they can’t make it work, they might sell it on. And the project certainly hasn’t got off to the best of starts.’
Merrily was watching the top unrolling from a new can of worms. How influential was Sycharth Gwilym in Hereford property circles? Had Felix Barlow ever worked for the Gwilyms? Had Felix somehow been got at? OK, that seemed unlikely but … God, who could you totally trust? Who could you ever trust?
‘So,’ Jane said. ‘We going in?’
She was standing, brown paw marks down her front, under the grey metal skull of a lamp over the front door. Fragments of glass embedded in its rim like splintered teeth. Merrily frowned.
‘Perhaps not. Can’t just look around and leave. First rule of deliverance: never walk away from an alleged disturbance without leaving God’s card.’
‘In case of what?’ Jane said. ‘A ghostly coffin in the hall, and the body suddenly sits up, with the pennies dropping from its dead eyes?’
‘Wasn’t quite how I was thinking.’
‘You know what I think? I think you just don’t want to go into a possibly haunted house with someone you think might still be halfpagan.’
‘Things have changed. These days, I tend to credit the boss with being more broad-minded.’
‘So go on, then. Unlock it.’
Jane’s eyes were dancing erratically. It could be that she didn’t actually want to go in. But she was Jane Watkins.
‘Yeah. All right.’
Merrily put the key into a hole enlarged, probably, by generations of Gwilyns coming home from the pub in the dark. The key rattling around in there, failing to locate the tumblers. It took both hands and a lot of jiggling before the lock turned over and the door sprang loose and hung there sullenly, still needing a shoulder to shudder it open.
‘House that doesn’t want to be restored,’ Merrily said.
She stepped inside ahead of Jane, inhaling damp and plaster dust disturbed by the vibration. Two grimy leaded windows were set into a sloping wall, and the restricted light – brown and flecked, like the sediment at the bottom of an old medicine bottle – was barely reaching the shadows that crowded the corners of what seemed quite a big room.
Smelling wet earth, Merrily counted one, two three four … five doors, and the wall opposite jaggedly agape: a vast inglenook, the oak beam across it as rough and massive as the capstone of a cromlech. Primeval. Like the tree itself had fallen onto some waiting stones, been sawn off and the entire house built around it.
‘So this …’ Jane peering over Merrily’s shoulder ‘… this is where they laid the old girl out?’
‘Not here now, though, Jane. Sorry to disappoint.’
The only furniture was in the hearth, a rusted iron fire-basket the size of a small sheep-pen. In search of better light, Merrily walked across what seemed like worn linoleum ground into the earth to a narrow door next to the inglenook. When she unlatched it, greyness slithered down a stone staircase, half-spiralling behind the fireplace.
She didn’t go up. She was cold, rubbing her arms through the toothin sweatshirt, looking over her shoulder into an empty …
‘Down here. Couple of steps going down into … looks like the kitchen. Big hooks in the beams. Kind of a fatty smell.’
‘Just … tell me when you’re going somewhere, OK?’
‘In case of what?’ Jane came back up, pulling a door shut behind her. ‘What’s upstairs?’
‘I don’t know. I’d feel better with a torch.’
‘If it was dangerous, they’d have warned you, wouldn’t they?’
The only warnings had come, in that faintly teasing way, from Mrs Morningwood, Merrily scenting a set-up.
‘Go on, then, Mum.’
Jane was behind her on the steps, the wooden handrail was hanging loose from the wall. Merrily didn’t touch it.
Upstairs, they found a landing with no windows, the only light fanning from one door left narrowly ajar. Merrily put out an arm to hold Jane back – could be floorboards missing – before stepping tentatively into a long and dismal bedroom smelling of dead things in decay. Bluish light from a single dormer, half-boarded. Wooden skeletons of two beds, at either end of the room.
‘Like in the story,’ Jane whispered.
‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You”. In Parkins’s room at the … whatever the pub was called.’
‘The Globe Inn.’
Jane turned sharply.
‘Bloody hell! That’s why you—’
‘It’s just a bit coincidental.’
‘In the circumstances, Mum, I’d say it’s seriously coincidental.’
‘It’s … noteworthy.’
There was a paper sack up against one wall. Fuchsia’s lime-plaster? Was this the room where she’d … claimed to have seen something wriggling under the …
The floor was bare boards. Felix had evidently taken his dust sheets away.
‘Mum, why didn’t you ask Mrs Morningwood about M. R. James?’
‘Because there’s a couple of other people I need to discuss it with first. And if you were to email the Ghosts and Scholars website we might learn a bit more from the experts.’
‘I’ll do that tonight. But if … like, if M. R. James admits something strange happened to him in Garway, maybe he actually stayed in the Globe Inn? That would surely—’
‘He always stayed with some people not too far away. Let’s not speculate, huh?’
‘Whatever.’ Jane looked around. ‘Are you going to leave the calling card or what?’
‘Can’t decide what to do. It’s just an empty house. In my limited experience, they need … people.’
‘Don’t ask me what they are. However, I think – Huw Owen thinks – we might need to ask a few people round, interested parties. Although getting a Gwilym and a Gray into the same room might be problematical.’
‘Why would you need to?’
‘That seem a bit like meddling to you?’
Feuds were a pastoral issue, and she wasn’t the parish priest. Maybe she needed to talk to Teddy Murray again, even though he was only a stand-in.
They checked out three other bedrooms of varying sizes, unfurnished. A bathroom with a cracked, discoloured bath and no water from the taps. A separate toilet that stank. Everywhere tainted by dereliction, in dire need of Felix Barlow.
If Felix was right, something had brought Fuchsia back here yesterday. Fuchsia, who wanted to be blessed in the old-fashioned way. Watch over her, in the name of all the angels and saints in heaven. Keep guard over her soul day and night.
Fuchsia, newly blessed, had returned to a place she’d judged to be full of death. Nothing here was suggesting why.
Jane headed for the top of the half-spiral stairs, and Merrily followed her down, unsatisfied, mildly annoyed. The stone steps were worn smooth at the edges, slippery, some shored up underneath with bricks. Pointless doing a room-to-room prayer cycle; she didn’t know enough of the history to have any kind of focus, and all she could feel in the air was the criss-crossing of private agendas. It was an unwelcoming old house, soured by neglect, and that was probably the extent of it.
Back in the big room, the light seemed stronger, but that would be just her eyes adjusting. She looked around, walked around the ingrained lino and then stepped inside the inglenook. Ducking, although there was no need to, under the vast beam.
The inglenook was almost a small chamber in itself. A separate place. In the sooty dimness, she found the remains of what must have been a bread oven, empty, and a matted tangle of grey bones, all that was left of a bird, behind the fire-basket. She looked up the chimney: glimmerings of light, but something blocking it – nests maybe.
‘Nothing much here, Jane.’
Jane’s voice coming from the other side of the room.
‘I’m sorry,’ Merrily said, ‘I thought you—’
The sentence guillotined by the thought that if it hadn’t been Jane who was with her in the inglenook …
‘… Sort of passage, leading to a back door,’ Jane called out. ‘Kind of a washroom?’
Standing very still and fully upright, her back flat to the rear wall, Merrily let in a long, thin river of breath.
‘… An old sink.’ Jane’s voice further away. ‘Cupboards …’
Merrily’s throat spasm-blocked, her headache back, like spikes, like a crown of thorns, twisting in. The iron fire-basket gaped up at her like an open gin-trap while she scrabbled in the pockets of her mind for prayer. Christ be … Be, for God’s sake, calm. Pushing back a sudden amazing panic, vile as a migraine, she closed her eyes, but it was like when you made yourself dizzy as child, and she felt sick, feeling the crumbling house turning slowly around her, grinding on the axis of its origins.
‘Christ be wi—’
‘… with …’
Only half-hearing the words – St Patrick’s Breastplate, the old armour – but her lips were cold and flaccid and wouldn’t shape them. There was a solid, substantial resistance, a flat, hard-edged no, and a rubbery numbness in her hands when she tried to clasp them together. And although the prayer was sounding in her head, it was distant, someone else’s whispers, and she tried to turn up the volume, envisioning bright brass bells clanging in a high tower, but the sound was harsh and industrial.
Christ behind me, Christ before me …
A muted crackling down there: bird bones crunching under her shoes. When she opened her eyes in revulsion, there was a face in the high corner of the inglenook and it had stubby horns and a worm squirming from its blackened mouth, and Merrily recoiled.
Jane’s footsteps sounded on the ingrained lino. But she mustn’t …
‘Mum, look, I don’t want to worry you or anything, but it’s getting dark, and you’ve got your meditation in just over an hour? And I think we’ve both had enough of this place.’
Merrily wouldn’t move. Or try to speak because, if Jane knew where she was, Jane would join her.
WHAT LOL LIKED best about the gigging was the coming home. Home to the mosaic of coloured-lit windows in the black and white houses, the fake gas lamps ambering the cobbles, sometimes the scent of applewood smoke.
He parked the Animal under the lamp on the edge of the square, well back from the cars and SUVs of the Sunday-evening diners in the Black Swan.
The truck had been Gomer’s idea, watching Lol loading two guitars and an amp awkwardly into the Astra, together with all the one-man-band gadgets which contrived the drumming and the toots and whirrs and storm noises that audiences loved for the apparent chaos of it all.
Gomer had remembered that his sidekick Danny Thomas knew a reliable bloke who was selling his Mitsubishi L200. Animal, it said on the side. Gomer seemed to find this funny. He and Danny had converted the truck, building a watertight compartment into the box to accommodate the gear, fitting a metal roll-top cover you could lock, and Gomer had taken Lol’s old Astra to recondition for himself: Waste not, want not, Lol, boy.
Lol climbed down, walked round the Animal in the late twilight and pushed back the roll-top under the lights, uncovering the case of the lovely Boswell guitar, handmade by Al Boswell, the Romani, in the Frome Valley, two harmonicas, shining like ingots in a black velvet tray, and the plastic thing that could make your voice sound like an oboe. Audiences everywhere – Hello Hartlepool, Good Evening, Godalming – seemed to warm to the homespun, the cobbled-together. They actually wanted to like you.
Taken him a long time to realize that. Nick Drake never had. Nick who, for God’s sake, was so much better, all he’d felt was a paralysing isolation which had sometimes left him playing with his back half-turned away from the crowd.
Lol opened the case that held the Boswell. Paranoia, he knew, but he was always worried that the vibration of the truck might have damaged it. Many different kinds of wood had gone into its mandolin soundbox. It wasn’t the kind of guitar you took out on the road, but he felt it was his talisman – receiving it from Al Boswell when his life was turning round, the songs coming through and Merrily, miraculously warm in his bed.
The guitar seemed fine. But, across the street, over the corner of the square, the vicarage had no lights.
Not how it should be. Before Merrily left the house to do the evening meditation, she’d always put on the globular lamp over the door. Always. Symbolic. Place of sanctuary. For Lol more than anybody. He pulled back the roll-top, locked it quickly, ran across the square to the vicarage gate. No visible lights in the house. No Volvo in the drive. Garage doors shut and bolted.
Lol felt the inner freeze of dislocation. She wasn’t there, and she hadn’t told him. He felt, for cold moments, like a stranger here again. Without Merrily, he would be a stranger, snatching moments of warmth only from his hard-earned applause, a furnace door opening and closing.
Stupid. Not as if they were married.
Maybe she’d left him a message on the answering machine? He ran back across the square to the terraced cottage in Church Street, unlocked his front door.
A haze of street light on the desk under the front window. Silence. No bleeps. Lol looked out into the street, up and down at the windows of Ledwardine, the mosaic of coloured squares now as unwelcoming as the ash in the hearth.
There would be a simple explanation. He was becoming neurotic, over-possessive.
Not as if they were married.
Yet, so often, with the nature of what she did, when he’d felt a wrongness there had been … something wrong.
He went back out to the square, to where he could see the body of the church through the lych-gate, the bunched shadows of people drifting through to an evening service with no hymns, psalms, lessons or sermon.
A vaporous glow from the church-door lantern. About to walk down, glancing back at the vicarage, he saw a blur of white, someone emerging from the gate, crossing the cobbles towards Church Street.
Lol made tea, and Jane seized her mug with both hands, carrying it through to the parlour with the burnt-orange ceiling, where Lol switched on the parchment-shaded desk lamp, leaving the curtains open, his initial relief burning away.
‘You mean she’s ill?’
‘I don’t know.’ Jane’s eyes glassy and anxious. ‘Maybe.’
‘We were in a hurry, Lol. We got back late. I said I’d get on the computer, try and get some background.’
‘On what? She is in the church?’
‘Yeah. She dashed straight across. Left me to put the car away and feed Ethel and stuff.’
‘So what’s wrong with her?’
‘Lol, I just … I don’t know, all right? Maybe it’s been coming on for a while. OK, it’s been a heavy year, all the death, all the things she couldn’t prevent. All the stuff that came to nothing. I don’t know.’
‘OK.’ Lol sat down in the chair facing Jane on the sofa, a chill on the room. ‘Tell me. In sequence.’
And she tried to, but most of it he couldn’t really take in. The number of the beast and the pubs with the cosmic names, the spooky woman with the dog. And the farmhouse.
‘When we came out, honest to God, Lol, she was white as … as a surplice. Like, trying to be normal – kind of, let’s not worry Jane. Which only made it worse because it was so obvious. Like I’m going to be worried? Me? The pagan?’
‘Worried about what?’
‘And then we go into this field, and I get the full blessing bit. The spiritual body-armour, at sundown on the edge of a field? Like, huh?’
‘She ever done that before?’
‘No. But then I don’t usually go with her on these jobs, do I? She said it was routine. Quite normal. Yeah, right.’
‘And she’s gone ahead with the meditation?’
‘Mmm.’ Jane nodded. ‘I mean … maybe that’ll help?’
Lol got her to tell him again – about the pubs and the dovecote and M. R. James.
‘After you came out of the house, what exactly did she say?’
‘She looked at her watch, and she’s like, “Oh my God, we’re not going to make it back in time.” But you could tell that wasn’t what was really bothering her, and if we were late why was she wasting time with all this blessing crap? Like, I’m an idiot? And all the way back she was like talking about other things – trivial things, in this brisk, practical way. Like she was trying to screen something out. Like she’d seen something in there, or realized something she didn’t want to face up to.’
‘And when you got back, was she still …?’
‘Upset, yeah. That was obvious.’ Jane drank some tea. ‘She looked totally out of it, like someone who’d been in a car crash. But when we were actually looking around the place, she was fairly dismissive, a bit annoyed, like she’d been set up. She hates that, people treating her like she’s some dim … vicar.’
Jane finished her tea, still looking starved and unhappy and maybe even resentful that some dim vicar might have picked up on an aspect of otherness that she’d missed out on.
‘Lol …’ Catching him looking at her. ‘I think I’ve changed quite a bit the past year. I’d like to think I could help her. But she’s still wary, you know?’
‘I’ll talk to her,’ Lol said.
Lol padded past the font, unseen. Not difficult at the Sunday-evening meditation, when the front pews were arranged in a circle, and the only light was candlelight, vast shadows ghosting the sandstone walls.
About two dozen people had come – about normal. When the rumours of healing had been circulating, there would have been as many as a hundred, but it had calmed down now.
‘… Idea that prayer’s as much about listening … means we have to think about what we mean by listening.’
No priestly trappings, no ceremonial. No smoke, no mirrors, no applause, no stamping for encores.
She was sitting on the edge of the circle in her black jeans and sweatshirt, hair tied back. Never a pulpit person.
‘Because, when you think about it, we hardly ever really do it.’
Lol sank down a couple of rows back, in deep shadow, his eyes closing momentarily in relief. Feeling her voice: low, soft, conversational, unassuming, intimate. Half-guiltily fancying the hell out of her.
‘If we’re holding a conversation with somebody, even if we think we’re taking in what they’re saying to us, what we’re actually doing is filtering it … putting it through this sieve of our own needs, desires, fears. Thinking of what we want them to be saying, and also of what we’re afraid they might really be saying. We’re processing the words, analysing, alert for any subtext. Our minds are taking an active role, in other words. We’re not listening. Does that make sense?’
Murmured assent. The people who came here on a Sunday evening were, by and large, not the ones who came to the family service in the morning. This was post-watershed.
‘OK, then,’ Merrily said. ‘Do you think we should try listening tonight? Without filtering, without questioning or intellectualising? Without any attempts at interpretation.’
Someone said, yeah, they should go for it, and Merrily moved her wooden chair a little forward, into the candlelight.
‘First, we need to go into the contemplative state, opening ourselves up. So …’ laying her hands, palms down, on her knees ‘… if we start with the relaxation exercise, beginning at the feet. Becoming aware of our feet. Curling our toes …’
The scraping of a pew.
‘Merrily … I want to ask …’
Merrily looked up.
‘Is this in the Bible?’
‘Does the Bible tell us we should be opening ourselves up to … messages?’
‘Well … I think you’ll find it’s all over the Bible in one way or another. But when you say messages, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same—’
‘Messages from beyond? Is that in the Bible?’
‘I could find you some examples, Shirley, but this wasn’t really intended to be a Bible-study session as much as—’
‘Only, it’s what the spiritualists do, isn’t it? Go into a trance and wait for something to come through. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate you’re trying to do something different here, Merrily, to bring some of these people into the fold, but I’m an old-fashioned Christian, and I keep asking myself, is the church the right place for it?’
Merrily sighed, her breath fluttering a candle flame.
‘Shirley, I take your point, but there’s a subtle difference between spirituality and spiritualism – spiritism. What I’m— No, actually the difference is not that subtle at all, it’s something entirely—’
‘How do we know that what’s coming through is from God? That it’s not a dead person?’
Merrily’s face was tilted into the candlelight, and now Lol saw the furrows and the strain.
‘Or something evil,’ this Shirley said.
Restive murmurs from around the circle. A groan. Lol just sighed. A fundamentalist – all she needed.
‘Because when we approach it like this,’ Merrily said, ‘in this context, it’s coming out of prayer and it’s an act of faith. Shirley, if you could bear with me …’
‘It’s just that, in the dark, with a ring of candles, it doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t like opening myself up. How do we know there isn’t somebody here who’s brought something evil in with them?’
This time, when Merrily looked up, Lol was shocked at the pallor of her face.
Sound Like Jane
WHEN IT WAS over, Merrily held the snuffer over the last candle and then guided Lol through the darkness towards the south door.
‘Didn’t handle that too well, did I?’
Moving them both swiftly down the nave. She could find her way blindfold around this sandstone cavern – had even actually done that once, when she was new here; it had seemed necessary, having an intimate, tactile knowledge of the body of the church, her own sacred space, to which it had seemed desperately important tonight to get back.
Bad mistake. She felt sick. Better she hadn’t made it in time than have to watch the so-called ground-breaking meditation service crumbling away into a pointless debate about the validity of replacing the traditional Evensong, hymns and all, with quiet and contemplation. More like a bloody parish meeting.
‘I wouldn’t care, Shirley doesn’t normally come on a Sunday night. I mean, if she prefers the formality of a structured service, well, fine …’
‘Who is she?’
‘Shirley? I think I mentioned her. Currently my most enthusiastic parishioner.’
‘Oh. Yes, you did.’
Lol bumped into the prayer-book rack; there was the slap of a book landing on flags.
‘Leave it, I’ll find it in the morning. Why are we talking in the dark? How did the gig go? Oh hell, I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten where …’
‘Newtown. Theatr Hafren. It was good. Almost full. The local record shop was selling albums in the foyer. They sold out.’
‘That’s fantastic. Come back to the vic? Have some supper with us?’
Lol didn’t move. She could see his outline, head bowed.
He said, ‘When she said that about … someone bringing evil into the church …’
‘Lol …’ God, what was she supposed to say? ‘Look, this is uncharitable, but I sometimes think Shirley actually comes to too many services.’
‘You thought she meant you, didn’t you?’
Merrily’s fingers found the stone bowl of the font, pressing into its whorls and furrows.
‘You’ve been talking to Jane, right?’
‘Well, she came over just now. A bit worried. Told me about M. R. James and the woman who was saying she’d seen one of his ghosts. And the dovecote. And this Mrs Mornington …?’
‘Wood.’ Merrily straightened up. ‘Morningwood.’
‘And how you came out of the house, white-faced, and wouldn’t talk about it.’ Lol was standing next to her now. ‘Pretty much the way you’re not talking about it now.’
Merrily leaned against the firmness of the font. She looked back along the nave, vaguely moonlit now. Like a straight path through woodland.
But there was no green man at Ledwardine.
‘All right. I may have … I saw something that wasn’t supposed to be there.’
‘Inside the house? The Duchy of Cornwall house.’
‘It just looked ordinary. It felt ordinary. Until I decided, for some reason, to have a look inside the inglenook. It’s quite a high inglenook. Someone like me can stand upright in it, and quite a lot of space all round. Like a small, black room.’
Her mind was already tightening. She’d hoped it might melt away in the meditation. But the meditation had never happened, and maybe that was just as well. Maybe she had brought something back and if they’d gone into the meditation it would’ve been contaminated. Maybe Shirley— Oh, for God’s sake …
‘Go on.’ Merrily felt Lol’s hand on her arm. ‘The small black room behind the inglenook.’
‘There was a feeling of not being alone. I’m not talking about God or anything.’
‘You’re saying you actually felt something was with you inside this inglenook?’
‘Something watching me. It’s all a bit subjective. A feeling I’d been getting at Garway generally. It has a very peculiar atmosphere, I can’t explain it. Even the church seems to have eyes. Ancient landmark, sentient landscape … Oh God, listen to me, I’m starting to sound like Jane.’
Lol was silent. There were cooling clangs from the heating, which had switched itself off.
‘You know the green man?’ Merrily said. ‘Like you get in country churches? Stone face looking through foliage?’
‘Mouthful of leaves and stuff.’
‘Maybe an ancient fertility symbol. Several in Herefordshire. The one in Garway Church is moulded into the chancel arch, and … there’s also this one inside the oak lintel over the fireplace in the Master House. Almost identical, I’d guess, but I’d need to check. I just looked up, there it was.’
‘That’s what you thought was watching you?’
‘At the back, so only visible from inside the inglenook. You don’t see him unless you enter his …’
‘A secret green man.’
‘And not in a church. I don’t know of any ancient ones that aren’t in churches, though maybe there are. And hidden away. Why?’
‘This green man is what scared you? Why you’d turned white?’
‘I haven’t been feeling too great lately.’ She pulled away from the font, couldn’t deal with this now. ‘Let’s go.’
Outside, a wind had arisen, chattering amongst dead chrysanths in a grave-pot. Merrily pulled the church keys from her shoulder bag. The Master House key poked out, and she thrust it back.
Lol said, ‘You now think something actually happened to this Fuchsia at the house?’
‘I’d convinced myself she was pulling some kind of scam. The face of crushed linen, all that. I was coming round to thinking there was some entirely prosaic reason for Felix changing his mind, wanting out of the job. I was ready to confront her about it.’
‘So what are you going to do now?’
‘Confront her. But maybe with a bit more … sensitivity. That is, I still think there’s a lot she hasn’t told me, but I’m no longer ruling out the possibility of something else.’
‘What are you going to tell Jane?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You sure you’ve told me everything?’
‘Lol, I’m going to ring them now, OK?’
Fumbling out the phone and putting the number in the frame.
They stood under the lych-gate, opposite the square, orange and green lights making lanterns of the leaded windows of the Black Swan.
Lol said, ‘Why don’t you call them in the morning?’
‘They might leave early.’ The ringing stopped. ‘Hold on, he’s—’
The voice in the phone said hello.
‘Felix,’ Merrily said. ‘I’ve been trying to get you all day. Listen, I really need to talk to you. Both of you. Tomorrow morning if possible. Even tonight, if you’re up for that. Take me about twenty minutes to get there.’
There was no reply, something quizzical about the silence.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s Merrily Watkins.’
‘Yeh. I thought it was.’
‘Frannie, I’m sorry, I must’ve put the wrong number in. More haste, less—’
‘Who did you think you were calling, Merrily?’
‘Just … just a guy I’ve been trying to …’
‘Felix, you said,’ Bliss said. ‘That would be Felix Barlow.’
‘How did you …’ Something jerked inside her chest. ‘Frannie …?’
‘Twenty minutes, then,’ Bliss said. ‘I’ll be waiting.’
Supposed to be Sheep
THERE WAS THE usual small, sordid fairground under a frantic night sky, fallen leaves panic-dancing in the intersecting headlight beams from three cars and a dark blue van, all pointing at the caravan, engines growling. Flapping and crackling from the plastic screen they’d erected inside the tapes, to keep out the rising wind. A rich smell of churned mud.
The West Mercia Police travelling show.
‘Fuchsia.’ Merrily felt insubstantial, blown around like the leaves. ‘Where is she? Please, can someone—?’
Nearly a dozen men and women, cops and crime-scene technos like worker ants in the grass, none of them answering her, all of them hyper: never let anybody tell you these guys didn’t get a wild buzz from violent death.
‘This is the feller?’ Bliss was in a white coverall, what he liked to call a Durex suit. Flicking occasional questions at her like pellets. ‘You’re sure about that?’
All the motion only emphasizing the stillness of the big man in a heap, dumped like manure below the caravan’s open door. Oh God, oh God, oh God.
Was she sure? Under the hardened mud and the congealed fluids, his head was a different shape. Mouth half-open, dried blood caked around his nose, both eyes soot-black. Merrily forcing herself to keep looking at him, aware of Bliss watching her closely.
‘This is the builder you were telling me about, right? Doing up the farmhouse for Charlie’s outfit?’
One of Felix’s feet was twisted into the gap between two of the metal steps. A hand clawed the mud, poor guy trying to seize the earth one last time.
‘A decent man, Frannie. Kind. Trying to do the best thing.’
‘Really,’ Bliss said.
‘Do you know where Fuchsia is?’
Bliss said, ‘Tell me again – why were you ringing him tonight, Merrily?’
‘I was trying to arrange a meeting.’
‘Sounded like an emergency to me,’ Bliss said. ‘Sunday night, very heavy day for the clergy, and there you were, prepared to drop everything and come rushing out here in the dark?’
‘What conclusions am I to draw from this?’
‘I was …’ Merrily sighed. ‘How long have you got?’
‘Till Billy Grace gets here.’
‘Which I hope is gonna be before flamin’ daylight.’
Two crime-scene women were moving around Felix’s body with evidence bags. Emotions uncoupled, not seeing a person, not looking for history much beyond the final act.
‘Who found him, Frannie?’
‘Dog-walker. Where would the police be without dog-walkers, eh?’
‘What do you think happened?’
‘That’s for Billy Grace to find out.’
‘Well, he didn’t …’ Merrily spun at him, furious ‘… just fall off the sodding step, did he?’
Segments of smoky cloud on fast-forward across the three-quarter moon. Bliss’s eyebrows going up.
‘My, we are fractious tonight, Merrily.’
‘It’s interesting that you’re so emotionally involved.’
Bliss had his head on one side, red hair shaved close to the skull these days, to disguise erosion. Merrily looked away, over towards the edge of the field where Lol was parked, forbidden by some jobsworth copper even to get out of the truck.
‘You need …’ steadying her voice ‘… to find Fuchsia. The house I told you about …’ How trivial and foolish this was going to sound. ‘It was Fuchsia, who had the problem.’
‘This is Fuchsia Mary Linden. The assistant.’
‘And girlfriend. I keep asking if anyone’s looking for her, and nobody— At first, I thought she was being, you know, disingenuous. I’m now more inclined to believe there’s something to what she’s saying, and I wanted to tell them that. Talk it all over again.’
Bliss scratched his nose, obscuring a reluctant half-smile.
‘I’m loath, as ever, to go into the details of your frankly unenviable job, Merrily, but … you’re saying you were feeling a bit guilty?’
‘I … yeah.’
‘When did you last talk to Mr Barlow?’
‘Last night. On the phone.’
‘And the girl?’
‘Not since last week. When I met them here.’
‘What’s she like?’
‘She’s … unusual.’
‘Unusual. Yeh, that explains everything. I’ll be sure to put that in my report.’
‘Whimsical? Imaginative? In a childlike way. And beautiful, of course. And about twenty years younger than Felix. That what you were looking for?’
‘This word whimsical,’ Bliss said. ‘Would that translate, for the rest of us, as three sheets to the wind?’
‘What are you asking?’
Bliss didn’t reply.
‘You have got people out looking for her?’
‘We’ve gorra couple of people out there, yeh.’
‘You’re sure she’s not … somewhere close?’
An image of Fuchsia crouching, big eyed, between tree-roots in the woods.
‘Sure as we can be,’ Bliss said.
‘You actually think she did this, don’t you?’
‘Can’t deny that the domestic solution would save us a lorra graft.’
‘What was he hit with?’
‘Could be one of his own tools. I’m never one to pre-empt the slab, Merrily, but when the head’s swollen up like that, battered out of shape, you’re looking at multiple skull fractures. And, no, you wouldn’t generally get that falling off the steps into a field. The killer must’ve been … very, very angry.’
A fourth vehicle had appeared next to the dark blue van. A cop shouted across to Bliss.
‘Dr Grace, boss.’
‘Must be a bad telly night.’ Bliss turned to Merrily. ‘You ever think, on these occasions, that our fates might be entwined, Reverend?’
‘Every time there’s one of those occasions, Frannie, I just … Look, when you find Fuchsia, will you let me know?’
‘If I can,’ Bliss said. ‘And we’ll probably need to talk about this at length, maybe tomorrow. Thanks for dropping by, Merrily.’
Walking back across the field, hands jammed into the pockets of her fleece, Merrily looked behind her once and saw, on the very edge of the headlights, the gaping maw of the bay in the barn that Felix had been renovating for Fuchsia. To bring her stability.
‘Shit.’ She wanted to scream it into the wind. ‘Shit, shit, shit …’
Jane’s mobile played the riff from Lol’s ‘Sunny Days’ and she tightened her lips and ignored it. Wouldn’t be Mum; she’d call the landline.
Ethel, the black cat, prowled the scullery desk. The mobile stopped. Jane clicked on the email address from the Ghosts and Scholars website, put in the message she’d drafted, read it through one last time.
Dear Ms Pardoe
Sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you might be able to help me. After reading on your website about M. R. James’s unexplained ‘strange experience’ at Garway Church, on the Welsh Border, I wondered if you could throw any more light on it.
I live in Herefordshire and went with my mother to Garway today and, to me, the mystical influence of the Knights Templar could still be felt very strongly there after all these centuries. M. R. James’s story ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’ has a Templar preceptory in it, and we were wondering if the story could have come out of whatever M. R. James experienced at Garway.
Like me, you were also intrigued by the medieval dovecote with 666 dove holes. Do have any ideas why this might have been?
Anything you can tell me would be very gratefully received.
Perhaps we might be able to help with your own researches too, one day.
Seemed OK. Didn’t give too much away.
Jane sent it.
Feeling a lot less excited than she had when she’d composed it. Since then, Mum had been back with Lol – Mum looking totally like death, this time – and then they’d both gone out to this place at Monkland. Mum apologetic, as usual – could Jane get herself something to eat? Jesus, what about her? Like, when was she going to eat? Mum was clearly losing weight. She looked like a small bird after a long winter.
Jane picked up Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, one of two books she’d brought down from her apartment. She put it down again. ‘Oh, Whistle’ was actually quite a bleak story, full of solitude. The guy didn’t die or anything, but the effects of what he’d seen would be hanging over him for the rest of his life.
She saw – the image still as vivid in her head as if it had been on the computer screen – Mum walking out of that derelict farmhouse into the early dusk. Walking with her shoulders stiffened and her spine kind of pulled in, like she knew there was something very close behind her. Her face like yellowing paper.
Never seen her quite like that before. Never. And it was unnerving because, in one way, she needed Mum to be basically sceptical – as resistant to the paranormal, despite her job, as Jane was to the strictures of the Church.
Mum as a buffer against her wildest ideas. Giving Jane the freedom to explore because there was always that framework of stability. Maybe she was really afraid of growing up into a world where a mature and intelligent woman was visibly and seismically shaken by the irrational, trying to conceal her fear from a kid … who was no longer a kid.
Jane turned, with a reluctance she recognised as unusual, to the second book on the desk. Ella Leather’s The Folklore of Herefordshire. In the index, under Garway, she’d found the line about nine witches and also a page reference for The watch after death.
On page 120, Mrs Leather listed the places where:
It was customary, until a few years ago, for the household to sit up all night when a death had occurred. They did not sit in the same room as the corpse, but elsewhere, the idea being that the spirit of the dead person was still in and about the house, and the people said, ‘it was for the last time, it was the last night’; so no one went to bed. But at Orcop and Garway, the watch is still kept, so Martha S— who lived on Garway Hill, assured me. ‘Only if it was somebody you cared about,’ she added, ‘not for strangers.’
So, as for bringing comparative strangers into the same room as the body … The Newtons had obviously bent the rules in their own best interests, picking up on what came next. Maybe they’d even read this very account, published for the first time in 1912.
… Usually, among the country folk, a light is kept burning in the room where a corpse lies every night until burial; a pewter plate of salt is placed on the body; according to Martha S—, the candle should be stuck in the middle of the salt, heaped up in the centre of the plate.
Seriously creepy. Jane shut the book. It was too quiet in here. Picking up the mobile, she got up and walked to the scullery window, looking out at darkness and a wall, pressing one on the keypad.
You have three new messages. To listen to your messages …
She hesitated, staring into the little square of light, before pressing one again.
First new message, received at thirteen forty-three today.
‘Jane, it’s … Oh, shit, you know who it is. For God’s sake, I’ve left about seventeen messages …’
‘… I know there’s nothing wrong with the phone, which means something wrong with YOU. I even tried ringing the landline, thinking I’d ask your mum – yeah, yeah, I know how much you’d hate that, but I’m a bit beyond caring. Only it’s always the bloody answering machine.
‘I mean, have I done something? Have I done something I didn’t know about? Has somebody told you I’ve done something? Just— You don’t even have to ring me back. Just leave a message. I’ll close down the phone for the rest of the night so you don’t risk speaking to me. Just leave a message, Jane. I mean, Christ, we’ve been, like, together for two years? That’s longer than a lot of marr— Oh … fuck it!’
Jane stared into the phone for a long time before switching it off.
The builder was dead, his girlfriend missing.
Most of this Lol had already put together out of fragments of chat heard from the open window of the truck, watching the shadowy scurryings around the screened-off caravan. Guessing what was coming when Merrily returned. Just not sure – as a failed psychotherapist and a derivative songwriter finding a little success a little too late – how best to handle it.
‘Maybe you need a good manager.’ She was rubbing her eyes wearily. ‘A tour-organizer. Whatever the word is.’
‘I really don’t think so.’
‘Or just a roadie to carry the spare guitar.’
‘You’re tired.’ Lol started the engine, flicked on the headlamps. ‘You haven’t eaten since lunch. Or, as it’s Sunday, knowing you, maybe even breakfast.’
‘It’s still Sunday?’ As they bumped into the lane Merrily loosened her seat belt, as if there was pressure in her chest. She hadn’t yet reached for a cigarette. ‘Couple of weeks ago … I lay awake counting up all the people who’ve suffered in some unnecessary way, or died – unnaturally – in spite of all my prayers and entreaties and …’
‘It’s supposed to be sheep, Merrily,’ Lol said gently. ‘I suppose counting corpses will eventually get you to sleep, but the dreams are going to be altogether less pastoral.’
‘She had the blessing, Lol. The full bit. Holy water. Oil.’
‘We could drive into Hereford now, and you could go round administering blessings at random to people in the street, but some of them would still get into a street fight, cause a road accident or something.’
‘So what’s the point? What’s the point of any of it?’
Lol was silent, pulling on to the main road, speeding up as Merrily stared out of the side window. On the way here, she’d told him about the ritual in the little, disused church, the girl suggesting something was coming – Merrily’s discussions with Huw Owen leading to her discovery of the fictional origins of that line.
This constant tension between her faith and an equally-necessary scepticism must drive her half-crazy at times. Like now. Her face was still turned away from him, watching the night.
‘You keep thinking, what if the Church is actually reaching the end of its useful life? And every day it gets harder to answer that persistent, nagging question: If there is a God, why does he allow so much suffering? Well, my children, the truth – the bottom-line, heartfelt truth – is, I’m buggered if I know.’
‘You’re thinking—’ Lol braked hard for a badger ambling across the road. ‘You’re thinking of that guy … Michael Taylor, that his name?’
The Yorkshireman who, back in the 1970s, told his local priest he was possessed by evil spirits and then, having been subjected to a night-long exorcism, went home and murdered his wife. In the most horrific way possible with bare hands.
Merrily shook her head, probably meaning she hadn’t been thinking about the guy for a whole half-minute
‘It was a blessing, not an exorcism,’ Lol said. ‘There was no question of possession, was there?’
‘I did at least two things wrong. One, I didn’t involve Felix.’
‘In the blessing? Would he have even wanted to be involved?’
‘Two, I had a chance to go to the house yesterday, and I didn’t. I decided it was probably bullshit.’
‘But you had every reason to think that. You talked to Huw Owen and he—’
‘I was careless. Cynical.’
Traffic was sparse, this area still managing to stay a decade or so behind the rest of the country. High in the cab, Lol saw, in a dip on the left, the lights of the perfectly-formed-around-the-green, black and white village of Dilwyn. He tried again.
‘Even if you’d gone to the house yesterday, there’s no certainty you’d have felt any reaction. That isn’t how it works, is it?’
‘I don’t know how it works. Nobody knows how it works.’
‘Maybe the woman didn’t kill him,’ Lol said. ‘They don’t know it was her, do they?’
‘They know something. I’m fairly sure there’s something Bliss wasn’t revealing. It’s how they operate. Never tell anybody anything unless it serves a purpose.’
‘When they find her, you need to talk to her. Bliss would arrange that, wouldn’t he?’
‘She didn’t want to talk last night. And why did she go back to Garway? Why did she go back after the blessing? Evidently, he didn’t want to tell me that.’
‘Please,’ Lol said. ‘Just …’
He slowed for the sign that said LEDWARDINE 3, trying to shut out the whingey voice of the fundamentalist woman, Shirley West.
How do we know there isn’t somebody here who’s brought something evil in with them?
The road curved towards the village, the hump of Cole Hill forming under the half-clouded moon and the steeple rising out of nowhere like an ancient rocket petrified on its pad.
Crises of faith, Merrily would say, when she wasn’t in the middle of one, were part of the deal; they could only strengthen your faith, in the end.
Until, Lol thought, you had one too many.
He parked easily on the square. The diners had left and the lights of the Black Swan had dimmed. There was nobody about. He turned to Merrily, not touching her.
‘You, um … want me to come in with you?’
Lesser Creatures and Birds
IN THE EARLY light, Merrily let Lol out by the vicarage back door, so that he could use the garden gate to slip, unseen, into the churchyard. Creeping between shadowed headstones and out the other side into the old orchard which had once enclosed the village like a nest around eggs.
The secret ways of Ledwardine.
Merrily, in her bathrobe, watching from the landing window as Lol emerged from the alley by the new bistro, onto the square. Vanishing into Jim Prosser’s shop – called Eight Till Late but usually open by seven – and coming out with a morning paper.
There was no real need for this game any more; everybody must know by now. Yet she had the feeling that it was expected, a matter of decorum, a village thing.
No sex, anyway, just needed warmth. Whatever gets you through the night and the recurrent images of wide-eyed, big-eyed Fuchsia: ‘Will you bless me?’
‘You look like the Lady of Shallot or something,’ Jane said.
Appearing at the top of the stairs, already dressed for school, face shining, hair brushed.
‘Wasn’t she last heard of lying in a barge or something?’ Merrily said. ‘Kind of … dead?’
‘Before that, she was a seriously messed-up person.’
‘Erm …’ Jane had waited up last night, knew the worst. She was leaning against the stair-rail with her blazer over an arm ‘… I’ve just been listening to the news on Hereford and Worcester. They said a man’s body had been found near his caravan at Monkland, and the cops were treating it as suspicious.’
‘They didn’t mention a woman.’
‘Mum …’ Jane came down to the landing. ‘Look, I’m not stupid. I can put the pieces together.’
‘If not always in the right holes.’
‘Are you OK? I’m serious.’
‘I’ve been thinking maybe I should take a hairdressing course, open a little salon in Lol’s front room.’
‘Do something useful.’
‘You need a holiday.’
‘Mmm. I’ve been thinking about Garway Hill. Nice views.’
‘So do it,’ Jane said. ‘I mean it. If you want to go over there and deal with whatever needs dealing with, I’ll stay here with whichever loopy, militant-lesbian cleric they want to dump on the parish.’
‘Jane, I was just—’
‘And I’ll help however I can. Checking stuff on the net, ringing people, whatever you need. I … well, I just wanted to say that. Any religious differences don’t come into it. I want to help. No ulterior motive, I swear it.’
‘I never thought there was, flower, but—’
‘I looked up some stuff in Mrs Leather last night. Left the page refs on your desk.’
‘Thank you. Maybe I’ll get a chance to read them when you’ve gone to school.’
Merrily set off downstairs, Jane right behind.
‘I bet you didn’t sleep much last night, did you? And not because Lol was here.’
‘Yeah, well, thanks for your concern, however …’
‘For Christ’s sake, Mum, your guy’s had his head smashed in. That must be—’
‘Something I wish I hadn’t had to see, yes.’
‘And, like, not the only thing? I saw your face when you came out of that house.’
This wasn’t going to go away, was it?
‘Look … I’ve told you. I’d seen something that was in the wrong place. The green man – we don’t know what it means, but it’s an odd, symbolic, medieval thing, and it isn’t usually, if ever, found in houses. So it was unexpected, just a bit of a shock.’
‘Bit more than that, if you ask me.’
‘The jury …’ Merrily stopped on the stairs ‘… is still out, all right?’
‘There are some things you just don’t want to face up to. You’re a priest but you’re afraid to confront the reality of, like, metaphysical evil. Even when it’s possibly caused violent death. I’m just putting two and two together.’
‘And making thirteen. Violent death, in my limited experience, is caused by people.’
‘Sure, but what causes the people to cause the violence?’
‘Let’s just get some breakfast, or you’ll be late.’
Merrily carried on to the bottom on the stairs, listening out for the bleep of the answering machine, but all she could hear was Ethel crunching dried food, rocking the bowl on the stone flag.
‘Oh, the other thing,’ Jane said, ‘I emailed the M. R. James site last night, while you were out. About the dovecote and the Templars? So like if something comes in for me don’t feel you have to wait till I get home. Just open it.’
Jane looked at her. That look got shrewder every year; all you could do was stare back and hope you came through.
‘Breakfast,’ Merrily said.
‘I’ll make it,’ Jane said. ‘And I’ll make yours, too, and I’m not going to school until I’ve watched you eat it.’
No overnight messages on the machine and no early calls. Local people had come to accept that Monday was a vicar’s day off, usually the only one. By the time Merrily had read Mrs Leather’s account of the watch after death, the computer’s in-box was showing what looked like an actual email amongst the spam.
Thanks for your mail. Garway is certainly the most mysterious and intriguing place I’ve ever visited in my quest for MRJ. I’m afraid I can’t throw any particular light on the dovecote mystery apart from pointing out, as you probably already know, that, before the suppression of the order, the Knights Templar were accused of denying Christ, rejecting the Mass and the sacrament and spitting on the cross. These charges may have been fabricated, but the possibility of the order becoming corrupt in later years cannot be ruled out.
The dovecote, as it stands today, seems to have been largely rebuilt by the Knights Hospitaller, who succeeded the Templars at Garway, but I don’t know of any satanic scandal attaching to them.
Re. your question about ‘Whistle’, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. Whatever happened to MRJ at Garway seems to have occurred in 1917, a good thirteen years after the publication of the story (it was probably written in 1903). He may have visited Garway before Ghost Stories of an Antiquary came out in 1904, but there is no record of it that I know of. He doesn’t seem to have found any reason to come to Herefordshire until the widow of his friend James McBryde moved there with her young daughter in 1906.
So that was that. Merrily sat back, unsure if she was disappointed or relieved that, despite the Templar connection and the Globe Inn coincidence, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could hardly have been inspired by whatever happened to M. R. James at Garway Church nearly fourteen years later.
Remiss of her not to have checked those dates herself.
And Fuchsia, the face of crumpled linen, it had all turned around again: more evidence that whatever had happened to Fuchsia had happened inside Fuchsia’s head, whether creatively or otherwise. It was not unlikely that Fuchsia had even made those same connections with ‘Whistle’.
Time to talk to Huw Owen again. As she glanced at the big black phone, it rang.
‘You in, Merrily?’ Bliss said.
‘What’s it sound like?’
‘You’re not still ratty …’
‘Make that confused and upset.’
‘Will you still be in in half an hour or so?’
‘Have you found her?’
‘I’ll have another bloke with me,’ Bliss said.
Background buzz suggesting the CID room rather than the car park. His tone – and the fact that he was ringing on the landline – suggesting she might need to exercise caution.
‘You’ll like him,’ Bliss said. ‘He’ll make you laugh.’
‘You still haven’t told me whether—’
The line went dead. Merrily sat holding the empty phone, staring blankly at the rest of the message on the screen.
Incidentally, if you didn’t know this, Gwendolen McBryde’s daughter was also called Jane, and MRJ was very fond of her. This may well have been because Jane, something of an artist like both her parents, was fascinated by the supernatural and creepy things generally. So when MRJ says ‘we’ caused offence at Garway, he may well be referring to the, by then, teenage Jane and possibly her mother as well as himself. It occurs to me that you might like to read Michael Cox’s biography of MRJ, relevant pages of which I’ve attached.
Good luck with your investigations; do let me know how you get on!
Merrily sat up, clicked on the attachment, bringing up two scanned pages from M. R. James, An Informal Portrait. The first began by examining the possibility that the lively and affectionate young widow Gwendolen McBryde had been rather attracted to her late husband’s best friend, a man who had helped her through difficult times and been conscientious about his role as Jane’s guardian.
Monty had been entirely relaxed at the house, Woodlands, in south Herefordshire, treated with ‘affectionate and admiring indulgence’ by his host. Gwendolen had recalled him doing impersonations, putting on funny accents and once reading aloud from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a background of nightjars.
He’d also once read the lessons at nearby Abbeydore. According to Gwendolen, he had a beautiful voice which, when he read aloud, lent you his understanding. At Abbeydore, it gave me an unreal feeling as if some saint held forth to lesser creatures and birds.
As for Gwen’s daughter … well, it seemed she was very much Monty’s kind of kid, producing lots of delightful drawings of unspeakable entities emerging from gaping tombs.
So Rosemary Pardoe’s suggestion that it was the daughter who’d been with Monty James in Garway seemed to be on the money.
Oh God. When in Herefordshire, M. R. James had stayed with a widowed single mother with a teenage daughter who was into creepy things and was called … Jane.
Into the bleak morning, after the night of cruel tragedy, came the brittle sound of cosmic laughter.
She thought of Bliss. He’ll make you laugh.
And what he’d said on the phone when she was in the car on Garway Hill.
What they used to call the funnies.
‘This is Jonathan Long.’ Bliss hooked out a chair at the refectory table. ‘One of my colleagues.’
All the time she was making them coffee, Merrily kept glancing at Bliss, but there was no eye response; he didn’t look happy. She felt the tension rolling in her stomach, hard as a golf ball.
Jonathan Long – rank unspecified – looked several years younger than Bliss, perhaps very early thirties. He didn’t look like a cop, maybe a young academic, a lecturer in something dry and exact like law or economics. His body was thickening, and he wore a dark grey threespiece suit. A cop with a waistcoat was rare these days, a young cop with a waistcoat entirely outside Merrily’s experience.
‘I gather you’ve known Francis for some time,’ Long said.
‘Way back. Since he had a full head of hair.’
Tension throwing out flippancy like feeble sparks. Long didn’t smile. Neither did Bliss. Long had spiky black hair, and a light tan; Bliss needed to avoid the sun in case his freckles turned malignant.
‘We were hoping, Mrs Watkins, that you might share some of your impressions.’
Long’s accent was educated and still fairly refined; seemed unlikely that he’d spent much of his career confiscating crack pipes and bundling binge drinkers into blue vans. It also seemed unlikely that he was going to identify himself as Special Branch.
‘About what, Mr Long?’ She sat down opposite them. ‘Theology? Contemporary music?’
‘Specifically, Fuchsia Mary Linden.’ Long examined his coffee. ‘Do you have cream, by any chance?’
‘Erm … no, sorry.’ All right, playtime over. ‘You’ve found her, right?’
‘Yeh,’ Bliss said. ‘We’ve found her. We think we’ve found her.’
His usually foxy eyes were dull as pennies. Sudden sunlight dropped from the highest kitchen window like a splash of cold milk.
‘We’re still waiting for the dental report,’ Jonathan Long said. ‘But it’s unlikely to be anyone else.’
HAD SHE, ON some level, expected it? Had she looked down on Felix’s body last night, dumped like a heap of building rubble on his own doorstep, and somehow known she was seeing only half a tragedy?
I didn’t know whether it wanted me out or it wanted me dead, Merrily.
A train in the distance, rattling through the night. The coffee going cold in front of her while the horror came out in short, sick spurts.
‘On the southern line. The London train, via Newport.’ Jonathan Long’s voice light and casual, as if he was reading from a passenger timetable. ‘Just under half a kilometre from what I understand is known as the Tram Inn level crossing.’
‘Past the big feed place with the silos,’ Bliss said.
The full significance of it crashed in on Merrily like a rock through a windscreen. She pushed her chair back, a raking screech on the stone flags.
‘She laid her head …?’
‘On the line,’ Bliss said. ‘I don’t know how people can do that, meself. They just think of the train roaring unstoppably out of the night. Never a thought for the poor bastard driving it.’
Watch over her, in the name of all the angels and saints in heaven. Keep guard over her soul day and night.
‘You knew last night, didn’t you?’ Merrily stared at him. ‘You knew when we were at the caravan.’
This word ‘whimsical’ … Would that translate, for the rest of us, as three sheets to the wind?
‘Don’t look at me like that, Merrily. We knew a woman had been hit by a train, that was all. What do you know about her?’
‘Not much. But then, in some ways there isn’t much that anyone knows.’
‘We have names of adoptive parents, but we haven’t spoken to them yet.’
‘You even found them?’
‘I’m— We have someone working on it.’
Merrily told them about Fuchsia’s mother, Tepee City.
‘How did you get an ID, Frannie?’
‘Car keys in her pocket. A van parked near the Tram Inn, registered to Felix Barlow.’
‘Tepee City,’ Long said. ‘That’s well into Wales, isn’t it, Mrs Watkins? A Welsh-speaking area.’
‘A significant amount of old-fashioned Welsh nationalism in that area, I think.’
‘Not much in Tepee City itself, I’d’ve thought. Alternative communities are usually immigrants. What’s your point?’
Like he was going to tell her, this smooth git with his secret agenda. Merrily just wanted to throw him out, throw both of them out and take herself down to the church to scream abuse at God.
‘This house,’ Long said. ‘The Master House. Fuchsia was instrumental in getting Felix Barlow to pull out of the contract?’
‘She was the reason he pulled out.’
‘Because she thought it was haunted.’
‘Because she said she’d sensed a … an evil there,’ Merrily said, reluctantly.
Long smiled the kind of smile where you couldn’t have slid a butter knife between his lips.
‘From your conversations with her, can you think of any other reason why she – or anyone else, for that matter – might not have wanted that house redeveloped?’
‘You mean a sane reason? No. I can’t.’
Wasn’t God’s fault. Merrily gripped her knees under the table. She was incompetent. Smug, self-satisfied, lazy. She’d spotted the unconvincing elements, the lines from M. R. James, and missed all the danger signs.
When he came home it was like it was all over him. I made him shower and then I burned all the clothes he’d been wearing. Just out there, Merrily. I poured petrol on them.
‘So what did you …?’ Long was steepling his fingers. ‘Francis has tried to explain your role in the, ah, Diocese, but what precisely did you do with this woman?’
‘Are you actually leading the inquiry, Mr Long?’
‘Mr Bliss is leading the murder inquiry, I’m dealing with a side issue which may or may not be connected.’
‘Do you want to explain that?’
Jonathan Long said nothing. Merrily played with a teaspoon, let the silence drift for a few seconds, looked at him.
‘So would that … would that be one of those we ask the questions kind of silences?’
‘I did try to tell you on the way here, mate,’ Bliss said. ‘This is a woman who isn’t invariably attracted to the enigmatic type.’
Long’s gaze settled for a moment on Bliss, and then he turned back to Merrily.
‘You performed an exorcism? Or whatever you prefer to call it.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake—’ Merrily dropped the teaspoon into her mug. ‘We have an escalating series of responses, and exorcism is so far up the ladder we usually get vertigo before we … She had a blessing. In a church. That’s it.’
And it shouldn’t have been. There should’ve been follow-up. Aftercare.
‘What was your opinion of her, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Give me a picture.’
‘She was intelligent, in her way. Intense. Seemed certain about what she’d experienced, but I was … keeping an open mind.’
‘You thought she might be delusional.’
‘Or making it up. Some people do.’
‘But you went ahead, all the same.’
‘At the blessing stage, we can afford to be … a bit uncertain. For the heavier stuff, you need permission from the bishop. It’s also likely to involve a psychiatric assessment.’
‘And do you think psychiatry might have been appropriate in the case of Fuchsia Mary Linden?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Any suggestion of previous violence? On either side.’
‘Her and Felix? No. I mean, are you sure she did this?’
‘Merrily,’ Bliss said. ‘As I’m apparently leading the inquiry, I’ll make an executive decision to spell it out for you. We’re waiting for forensic. Even the dental stuff isn’t straightforward. When a train’s – I’m sorry – when a train’s run over someone’s head, it’s like collecting beads from a broken necklace. No, we don’t know she killed him and there’s a possibility we never will, for sure. We haven’t found a weapon. But it’s one of those situations where the press statement is likely to say that we’re not looking for anybody else. That any clearer?’
‘Thanks. No … I can’t see any reason she’d want to kill Felix. My impression was that she very much needed him in her life. Her rock, if you like. An old family friend, a link going … way back. She’d gone in search of him. She seems to have wanted security, a proper home.’
Didn’t want to mention either umbilical cords or paying for art college. Might tell Bliss later, but not in front of Jonathan Long.
Not for her to pass on Mrs Morningwood’s stories, either. Not to this guy.
Long nodded. ‘Right then.’ He stood up. ‘That’s probably all for the present … unless …’
He glanced at Bliss, who came more slowly to his feet.
‘If you think of anything else that might be relevant, Merrily, you know where I am.’ Bliss smiled. ‘Jonathan … well, nobody really knows where Jonathan is.’
When they’d gone, Merrily poured Long’s coffee, untouched, down the sink and rang Huw Owen in the Brecon Beacons. No answer. She called Sophie at the gatehouse. Engaged.
She wasn’t ready to go to the church.
She ought to sit down and think about it, sensibly.
She didn’t feel sensible. There was a possibility – no getting round it – that she could, in some way, have prevented this. All of it. If she hadn’t been so blasé, so easily deflected. She fumbled a cigarette out of the packet, started to light it and couldn’t get a proper grip on the Zippo. No use saying it had all been out of her hands; she’d let it slip through them, fall to the flags, smash.
The phone was ringing in the scullery. Merrily dropped the lighter, went to the sink and splashed water on her face. Towelled it roughly and went through to the phone.
‘Adam Eastgate, Merrily, at the Duchy. Listen, have you heard the radio news this morning?’
‘I’ve been trying to get some sense out of the police.’
‘Erm … I was over there last night. Not long after they found him. I’m so sorry, Adam.’
The big black phone was full of a charged-up silence.
‘The police’ve just been here,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m afraid …’
‘Jesus, Merrily, I could never in a million years have imagined—’
‘No. Me neither. I’m not sure if you know this, but Felix’s girlfriend Fuchsia is also dead. Found on … on the railway. Not yet officially identified, but I don’t think there’s any doubt.’
‘Christ almighty. So, how … how did Felix die?’
‘He had head injuries. Adam, I’m sorry. I didn’t see any of this coming, either. And I ought to have.’
‘Come on, that’s easily said, Merrily. We could all say that. Hell, I knew him better than any builder we ever used, he was a canny fella, I liked him a lot, but … Jesus, this is not real. This is complete madness.’
In her head, Merrily was in the car again on Garway Hill, on the phone to Bliss, irritably deciding not to check out the Master House. Sod this, going home.
‘I’ll have to get word to the Man,’ Adam Eastgate said. ‘He always admired Felix’s work.’
She heard him breathing steadily. Pictured him standing by the window in the Duchy’s barn, looking out towards the Welsh border hills and Garway and wondering how this might rebound. Heard him clearing his throat.
‘Merrily, I’ve got to ask. Does this connect, in your … your view of things, to the Master House?’
‘Be stupid of me to say it doesn’t. But not, I’d guess, in any way that would interest the police.’
‘So it won’t come out at the inquest or anything, about …’
‘Inquests tend to stick to the cold facts.’
‘Right.’ Eastgate paused. ‘Well, I don’t know what to say. Have to … get another builder.’
‘I don’t know how to react to this. Was she crazy? I mean, that’s the issue, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know. At first I thought it was something like that, but now I’ve been to the house, and … I don’t know. There’s a lot of history.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘The Bishop referred it to you, Merrily.’
Remembering how she’d reacted, telling Lol, I don’t want to go and stay in Garway for a week.
‘You think it’s over, Merrily? You think it begins and ends with this disturbed woman?’
‘No,’ Merrily said. ‘Not really.’
Corruption of Muhammad
WHEN SHE WENT out by the back door, it had turned into the kind of October day that made global warming seem like a scare-story, cold air seizing her arms through the thin sweatshirt; she didn’t care.
She walked through into the churchyard, the way Lol had left at dawn, the sun now pulsing feebly in a loaded sky. Self-disgust oozing rancid fluid into her gut.
We have to think about what we mean by listening. Because, when you think about it, we hardly ever really do it.
She hadn’t. She hadn’t really listened to Fuchsia.
Smug, sanctimonious, hypocritical bitch.
‘He don’t look happy, do he?’ Gomer Parry said. ‘The ole sun.’
He was sitting, gnomelike, on the headstone of Minnie’s grave, his head on one side, as if he was listening for faint sounds from below the soil. When Minnie died, they’d both had new batteries in their watches and he’d buried them together in a small box under her coffin.
The watch after death.
‘You OK, Gomer?’
‘En’t too bad, vicar.’ He stood up. ‘Ole Min’ll be sayin’ I’m makin’ the place look untidy again.’ He peered at her. ‘’Ow’re you?’
‘Had better days.’
‘Felix Barlow, is it?’
‘How did you hear?’
‘Danny rung me. Hour or so ago.’
‘What are they saying?’
‘Usual. Never mess with a mad hippie, kind o’ thing.’
‘Reckons there’s likely things we don’t know and en’t never gonner find out. ’Bout Barlow and that woman.’
‘He’d known her since she was born. Literally.’
‘Knowed her ma. When her moved in, some folks put it round he was the girl’s ole man.’ Gomer shook his head. ‘Feller starts doin’ well for hisself, always some bugger ready to pull him down the gutter. Don’t take it to heart, vicar, I reckon you done your best.’
Merrily stared at him. Didn’t recall telling Gomer anything about her dealings with Felix Barlow and Fuchsia.
‘The ole church, vicar.’ Gomer dipped a hand into his top pocket, pulled out his ciggy tin. ‘St Cosmo’s?’
‘Cosmas,’ Merrily said. ‘And St Damien.’
‘Ar, them’s the boys.’
‘Bloody hell, Gomer, it’s a disused church … remote.’
‘Exac’ly. You wasn’t exactly dressed for not gettin’ noticed, place like that. You like a nun, her like a bride. Word gets round.’
Like a bride. Fuchsia in the white dress. The candle and the bigger light from the window over the altar. The light in Fuchsia’s wide-apart owl eyes. No light now, no eyes, no head.
‘Go back in the warm, eh, vicar?’ Gomer said. ‘You’re shivering.’
‘I’m OK. I just …’ She stared at the dull sun. There was something else. ‘Gomer, you did a drainage job in Garway – for a Mrs Morningwood?’
Gomer stiffened, shut the ciggy tin with a snap.
‘Sorry, I don’t know her first name.’
‘It’s Muriel,’ Gomer said.
‘Just that we met her, Jane and me, the other day.’
‘And when she heard we were from Ledwardine, she mentioned you.’
Gomer said nothing. He looked wary. Merrily blinked.
‘This is, erm … where you usually tell me something interesting. Some little anecdote.’
‘What’s to tell?’ Gomer sniffed. ‘Got her own smallholdin’. Keeps bees, chickens. Does this toe-twiddling treatment thing. And herbs.’
‘Yes, I knew some of that.’
‘And her’s popular with the farmers.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well … knows her way around, ennit? Lot o’ the ole farmers don’t. Don’t like computers, paperwork, London, Europe. Hell, don’t like Hereford much neither.’
‘Plus, add to the list the council and the Min of Ag, whatever they calls it now.’
‘She helps farmers deal with red tape?’
‘Knows how to talk to shiny-arsed buggers with clipboards, that’s the basic of it. Farmer’s got hisself a problem with some official, don’t know how to harticulate it, he calls Muriel. Officials’ll back down, write it off as a bad job, see, soon as deal with Muriel.’
‘And this is official, is it? I mean, does she do this kind of thing as … you know … some kind of agricultural consultant?’
Gomer laughed, started coughing and fitted a ciggy in his mouth, still laughing, still coughing.
‘I see,’ Merrily said.
‘Go and get warm, vicar. That’s the best thing.’
Robbie was complaining that his coffee would be ready. Couldn’t this wait? But Jane persisted; these guys were sometimes inclined to forget they were getting paid fairly decent money to feed young minds.
‘I suppose you’ve been reading some trashy novel,’ he said.
‘No, Mr Williams,’ Jane said. ‘I’ve been to Garway Church.’
Robbie sat down again, behind the history room desk.
‘Have you now?’
‘Seriously interesting place.’
‘Yes, it is,’ Robbie said. ‘Spent many a day there, fully absorbed.’
Morrell, the head, had introduced this system where sixth-formers got to call teachers by their first names, like they were your mates. It just led to awkwardness, in Jane’s view, and this was a view clearly shared by the head of history, who refused even to reveal his first name. It had always been R. Williams. So, obviously …
‘Right …’ Jane pulled up a chair. ‘So if anybody could answer my questions about Garway and the Templars …’
For you, Mr Williams, the mid-morning break is over.
‘Damn and blast,’ Robbie said mildly. ‘Dropped myself in it there, didn’t I?’
He had to be coming up to retirement. Sparse white hair, tweed jacket, comfortably overweight and, unlike most of his smoothie colleagues, so determinedly uncool that he almost was cool.
‘You see, it’s not exactly very big, that church,’ Jane said. ‘But so full of mysteries.’
She wasn’t going to tell him she hadn’t been into the actual church yet, due to them running into Mrs Morningwood and everything. Anyway, no problem, she’d been on the common-room computer, and there were two or three websites with stacks of pictures of the church’s unique features – the Templar coffin lids in the floor, the enigmatic carvings, the remains of the circular nave …
Robbie took off his brown-framed glasses, looked at the ceiling.
‘Thing is, Jane … there’s an awful lot of twaddle talked about the Knights Templar. Always has been. Supposed to be magicians and guardians of famous secrets, but in reality they were uneducated and illiterate, most of them. Weren’t even monks, in the true sense, simply a religious brotherhood who observed various disciplines and went out into the world to fight people.’
‘But they obviously knew about magic and astrological configurations and things.’
‘Not “obviously” at all, girl. Magic, in medieval times, was a high science, chronicled in Latin and Greek. Hardly for the illiterate.’
‘Yeah, maybe one kind of magic, but, like, what about all the hedge witches and the local conjurers? You’re saying they were intellectuals? I mean, there was always like an instinctive element, surely. Like, something that was passed down?’
‘An oral tradition. Perhaps. I’m merely saying that the ornate web of mythology woven around the Templars was precisely that.’
‘But you don’t know that. You don’t know that they hadn’t—’
‘They’ve became a very convenient repository for ludicrous conspiracy theories, and you need to remember that I—’
‘But you don’t know that they didn’t develop some instinctive spiritual feel for—’
‘—teach history, Jane, not New-Age theology.’
‘OK, history.’ Jane focused. ‘The Templars were linked to the Cistercians, right?’
‘That’s one theory.’
‘And the Cistercians were known for being close to the earth, in like a pagan way? Always settled in remote places where they could be self-sufficient. And they studied the stars and they were well into landscape patterns and stuff.’
‘To an extent.’
‘And that wouldn’t’ve been written down in Latin, would it? And … OK, if the Templars weren’t into magic, what about all the charges that were proved against them? Secret rituals at night?’
‘The charges were not proved, Jane. The Pope, Clement V, actually declared that they were un proven, but decided to dissolve the Templar order anyway because these accusations had brought it very much into disrepute.’
‘But if you—’
‘Ah, Jane …’ Robbie Williams sat back, arms folded, smiling almost fondly and shaking his head. ‘You really are a most unusual girl. Hard to think of anyone else in your year who displays the smallest curiosity about anything not actually involved with achieving the necessary qualifications. And I’m not being very helpful, am I? Why don’t you tell me where you’re going with this? Or hoping to go.’
For the first time, Jane felt her engine stall. Couldn’t tell him that. Stick to questions. Teachers always liked questions.
‘There’s only one pub left in Garway, right?’
‘The Moon.’ Robbie patted his comfortable stomach. ‘I do know my hostelries.’
‘Did you know there used to be another three, called The Sun, The Stars and The Globe?’
‘I didn’t know that. How interesting. Do you know how far those names go back?’
‘Well, I … haven’t had a chance to check it all out yet. But it does suggest there’s some astrological tradition in the area, doesn’t it?’
‘Astronomical, anyway. Then again, it may be simply that some chap opened a pub called The Moon, and another chap set up in opposition and called his The Sun. And so on.’
‘Yeah. I suppose.’
‘Sorry, Jane. What else have you found? The dovecote with 666 compartments? Your guess is as good as mine on that one. Could be a coincidence, could be someone’s idea of a joke or it could be rather sinister. Who knows?’
‘How about the green man?’
‘Ah,’ Robbie said.
A bell at the end of the passage signalled the end of break-time.
‘The stone face carved into the chancel arch,’ Jane said quickly. ‘And nobody knows what it really means … even though they’re fairly common in churches.’
‘Yes. Is the green man of Celtic origin or early medieval? And does this one even qualify for the title?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘A green man is, by definition, a foliate face – leaves and vines coming out of his mouth and his nose and whatnot.’
Jane had a picture of it in her head, from one of the websites. The blank eyes, the stubby horns …
‘But what’s interesting,’ Robbie said, ‘is that the specimen inside the chancel arch at Garway appears to have no foliate embellishments whatsoever. No representation of greenery emerging from its mouth – instead, what, on closer scrutiny, is quite obviously a thick, studded cord with tassels at either end. I admit that’s puzzled me, too.’
‘What could it mean?’
‘Well now …’ Robbie leaned forward in his chair; he smelled quite strongly of mints. ‘If we return to the list of charges against the Templars, they were, if you recall, accused of worshipping an idol. In the form of a bearded male head.’
‘Yeah! Of course … It was supposed to have powers?’
‘It was also said to have a cord wound around it,’ Robbie said.
‘Holy sh—’ Jane slid to the edge of her chair. ‘So that face could be—’
‘Baphomet.’ Robbie raised both arms and joined his hands behind his head. ‘It came to be known as Baphomet. A name for which there seem to be several explanations, the most common of which is that it’s a corruption of Muhammad. And the Templars, during the Crusades, would obviously have been much exposed to Islam.’
‘The Templars could’ve been secret Muslims? This could be a kind of Islamic idol?’
‘The Muslims don’t have idols, Jane. And if we pursue that theory, we also tend to stumble over the word “worship”. While the Muslims afford their prophet the very greatest respect, they only worship Allah.’
‘Maybe the Pope or somebody put a spin on that. Because, like, messing with Muhammad, that would be serious heresy, right?’
‘Obviously, it would. However, since those days – in the West anyway – Baphomet seems to have acquired a rather darker image. Satanic, even. Demonic, anyway. Which is where it rather departs from the medieval historian’s sphere of expertise, so you’d need to research that at the library.’
‘But, like, the fact that the head’s set into the chancel arch, the entrance to the holiest part of the church …’
‘If that is Baphomet …’ Robbie put on a slightly twisted, conspiratorial smile ‘… is he guarding the altar? Or is he drawing attention away from it? Think, for instance, which side it’s on.’
‘Well, erm …’ Obviously she hadn’t seen the actual thing, only the picture, which was close-up. ‘I suppose that would depend which side you’re approaching it from.’
‘It’s only visible from one side Jane. The side facing you as you walk in. Putting it very firmly on the left.’
‘Sinistral, as it were. The left-hand path. Hah! Now I’m getting carried away. And my coffee will be completely cold.’ Robbie rose from his chair. ‘I do so hate cold coffee.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Williams. But you’ve been really helpful …’
‘I suppose I really ought to have asked you why you’re so interested in all this.’
‘Maybe I’ll tell you sometime.’
‘Might, on the other hand, be better if I never knew, Jane.’
She watched him plodding across to the door, his battered briefcase under an arm, and couldn’t believe how, after rubbishing all her other ideas and dismissing the Templars as some kind of thick thugs, he’d suddenly come out with something as weird and disturbing as this. She came to her feet.
Robbie stopped, neck hunched into his shoulders as if she’d thrown something at him.
‘Just one more thing, Mr Williams. Have you ever heard of a green man or a bearded head or whatever … that wasn’t in a church? Say, in a public building. Or a house?’
‘Can’t say I have. And, unless it was in a chapel, that would strike me as unlikely.’ He turned and looked at her, his eyes narrowing. ‘Why? Have you seen one somewhere else?’
‘No, no.’ Jane slid her chair back under one of the desks. ‘I just wondered, that’s all.’
This time, the phone was picked up at once.
‘Sophie, it’s me. Look, I’m sorry about this, but—‘
‘I know. It’s been on the radio. No more brutal form of suicide, in my opinion, than to lay one’s head in the path of a train. The engine driver is usually traumatized. I did try to ring you. I don’t think the Bishop knows yet.’
‘It brings up the question of going back to Garway.’
‘Oh,’ Sophie said. ‘I doubt he’d want that now.’
‘I think I want it.’
‘Merrily, some people appear to be locked into a tragic cycle, and whatever we—’
‘A cycle I just might have broken if I’d known more.’
‘Yes, you would think that.’
‘I need to understand, as far as I can, what happened.’
‘That’s surely for the police to establish. Or the coroner.’
‘And you think this would need a full week?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve had another message I can’t really ignore. I’ll explain when I know a bit more.’
‘You want me to tell the Bishop?’
‘I’ll see if Ruth Wisdom’s still available … Merrily?’
‘I think you need to be very careful,’ Sophie said. ‘This may go deeper than either of us had imagined.’
Merrily made some tea and took it into the scullery. Lit a cigarette and stared unhappily at the answering machine for a minute or so before rewinding the last message. The one waiting for her when she’d come in from the churchyard.
‘Mrs Watkins. Morningwood. Come and see me, will you, darling?’
A pause, then
‘Someone didn’t do a terribly good job, did they? Was it you or was it me? Or is something dreadfully amiss?’
‘BACK OFF, MERRILY,’ Huw said. ‘You’re not thinking, you’re reacting.’
She said nothing. Over by the door to the hall stood two overnight bags, packed. She didn’t have a respectable suitcase.
‘Let it lie, lass. Attend to your parish, go into the church morning and evening for three days. Contemplate. Let things settle. And then look at it again.’
‘I’ve just been to the church. It wasn’t a great success. I was probably too emotional.’
‘My point exactly.’
‘Anyway,’ Merrily said, ‘it was already too late.’
She was on the mobile in the kitchen. Using the mobile too much, thanks to Bliss and his paranoia.
‘So you think you had a bit of a psychic experience, do you? That’s what this is all about.’
‘No, what it’s about is that two people are dead. For reasons it seems unlikely anybody will ever be able to explain. Except possibly me. After a fashion. And too late. Because I was putting my home life and my parish and my personal comforts before the job I agreed to take on. Because I was being lax and lazy.’
‘Wrong attitude, lass.’
‘Mopping up, Huw. It’s just mopping up. And a miserable attempt at penance. I won’t exactly enjoy it, but I don’t think I really deserve to.’
‘Mopping up?’ Huw’s voice rose, uncharacteristically. ‘It’s digging up. It’s disturbing the ground, it’s exposing live wires. A little woman with a bucket and spade?’
Spade. Wires. Mrs Morningwood talking about the sometimes-dormant feud between the Gwilyms and the Newtons/Grays: Like a live electric wire under the ground, and periodically someone would strike it with a spade.
‘I’ve told you what to do,’ Huw said. ‘Talk to the vicar of Monkland or whoever’s attending to the funerals, and the bloke standing in at Garway. You then have a Requiem at Garway Church, followed by a blessing – or something a bit heavier, but don’t overdo it – at the house. Two priests, plus interested parties. Bang, bang … out.’
‘And if it goes on?’
‘What … deaths?’
‘I don’t know. They bring in another builder, who happens to have a heart attack, whatever. I need to find out what’s there.’
‘Merrily, there’s masses there. It’s always going to be there. Garway’s layered with it, that whole area. Tantalizing little mysteries. Codes nobody’s going to crack and symbols and forgotten secrets. And occasionally summat flares. So you tamp it down and you walk away and, with any luck, it won’t flare again in your lifetime.’
‘You’re saying it’s too big to deal with?’
‘Too big, too deep. It’s Knights bloody Templar. Folks’ve been obsessing over the buggers for centuries. You don’t need it.’
‘One week.’ Merrily looked across at the overnight bag. ‘I’m giving it one week, max.’
She’d phoned Teddy Murray. ‘Oh dear,’ he’d said, all vagueness, the kind of minister who held garden fêtes and came to tea. ‘I was told it was all off. Never mind, I’m sure we can organize a room. Do everything we can to ensure your stay is as painless as possible – think of it as an autumn break in God’s weekend retreat.’
He clearly hadn’t known about Felix and Fuchsia.
‘All right.’ Huw did one of his slow, meditative sighs; she thought of him pushing weary fingers through hair like waste silage. ‘Tell me again. Tell me what happened to you.’
‘I’m not going into it again because it sounds stupid and if anyone told it to me I’d react the way you’re reacting.’
‘Oh, for— Listen. Don’t get me wrong, Merrily. I accept that summat happened. You’ve been doing this long enough to know the difference and it’d be patronizing of me to suggest otherwise. Give me the physical symptoms.’
‘You bloody do.’
‘All right, couldn’t breathe, heart going like an old washing machine.’
‘And the feeling of being … I was transfixed. It was like I’d invaded his space and had to take the consequences.’
‘It felt evil?’
‘It was … without heart. I thought it had some kind of worm coming out of its mouth, but it was rope or something fibrous. There was a sense of naked contempt. And a sense that it was …’
‘I was trying to pray. As you do. The Breastplate. Second nature. And I couldn’t get the words out. Couldn’t, you know, form the words. Jane was calling to me from across the room, and she might as well’ve been miles away. There was just me and him. I’d invaded his space, he … invaded mine.’
‘How’d he do that?’
‘It was just an instant, a microsecond of insidious cold, a … a penetrating cold.’
‘The so-called green man …’ Merrily stifled the shudder, leaning back hard ‘… carries a lot of associations, some of them fertilityoriented, therefore—’
‘Therefore it’s all subjective. Jesus wept! You go in with that kind of namby-pamby academic attitude, you’re stuffed before you start. You’re a priest. You either treat it as a level of reality, or you back off. Which is what, as your spiritual director, I’m formally suggesting that you do.’
‘You’re spending too much time in your hellfire chapel, Huw.’
She listened to him breathing. Shut her eyes, bit her lip.
‘Let’s lay it out,’ Huw said. ‘A woman kills her lover and then tops herself, and you’re worried it’s because of something she picked up at this house. That correct?’
‘I think … that it’s a question that needs an answer. And a question that neither the police nor the coroner are ever likely to ask.’
‘Even though the only experience in that farmhouse she told you about was a not-even-thinly-disguised scene from a famous ghost story by Monty James?’
‘I can’t explain that. Doesn’t help, either, that the story predates James’s visit to Garway by about fifteen years.’
‘And bears no relation to your own perceived experience.’
Frannie Bliss’s face had appeared at the kitchen window, peering in, hands binoculared against the glass. Merrily pointed in the direction of the door, making turning motions to indicate that it was open.
‘Ever think summat’s playing with you?’ Huw said. ‘The way a cat plays with a bird?’
‘You trying to scare me or something?’
She’d noticed he’d said bird. Unlike mice sometimes, she thought, birds don’t escape.
Bliss said, ‘I’m not here, all right?’
‘You’re asking me to lie for you again?’
Merrily filled the kettle. Bliss sat down and stretched out his legs under the table, hands behind his head.
‘He really bothers me, that bastard. They all do.’
‘If that’s his name.’
‘I thought you knew him.’ Merrily sat down. ‘I thought he worked out of a little office at headquarters.’
‘No, Merrily, that’s Bill Boyd. We’ve learned to put up with Bill. Jonathan came up from the capital last week, apparently to look into a certain issue. One of the less-publicized aspects of nine-eleven and seven-seven and the rest is that we get to see a lot more of his sort. Lofty, superior gits in expensive suits.’
‘You’re not the first to ask.’
‘You’re expected to work with him, and you don’t know what he’s investigating?’
Bliss glanced at Merrily, an eyebrow raised.
‘I didn’t like to ask him directly, Frannie, if he was Special Branch, in case he realized we’d been discussing it.’
‘I’m grateful, Merrily.’
‘So …’ She half-extracted a cigarette and then pushed it back. ‘He’s not investigating a haunting, is he?’
‘I think it’s reasonable to assume,’ Bliss said, ‘that he’s looking into a perceived threat against the Heir to the Throne.’
‘I don’t think I understand.’
‘Applying my renowned deductive skills, I’m working on the assumption that they – the Duchy of Cornwall – have received certain communications. Could be anonymous letters, untraceable emails, text messages – lot of options in the technological age.’
‘Or at their head office, wherever that is. But relating to here, that’s clear enough.’
‘Posing a direct threat to the Man?’
‘Maybe suggesting – if I’m reading between the right lines – that the Duchy is acquiring too much property in this part of the world.’
‘But who would that be likely to bother? And what can they do about it anyway? It’s probably just a crank.’
‘Merrily, Al-Qaeda might just be five towel-heads in a cave with a computer, a video camera and a mobile phone.’
‘It’s the world we’re trying to go on living in.’
‘All right …’ Merrily let her chin sink into her cupped hands. ‘Long did ask a particularly odd question, didn’t he, when we were talking about Fuchsia and Tepee City? He said isn’t that a Welsh-speaking area full of Welsh nationalists?’
‘Old-fashioned Welsh nationalists, was the term he actually used.’
‘Why would he think Welsh nationalists are concerned about the Prince of Wales buying property in Herefordshire, England?’
‘Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, Merrily?’
‘And anyway, the days of Welsh nationalist terrorism, such as it was, are long over.’
‘If he really thought there was anything in it, he certainly wouldn’t’ve mentioned it in front of you. Oh, Merrily …’ Bliss bounced his heels alternately off the stone flags, like a kid ‘… you don’t know how much it pisses me off when there’s something high-level going down in my manor that I don’t know about.’
‘You think I can help, or you’re just here for sympathy?’
Bliss smiled. Merrily leaned back, folding her arms, thinking it out.
‘OK … if someone is suggesting that the Master House – for reasons we can’t fathom – is one acquisition too many, was this before or after Felix Barlow told Adam Eastgate that this was a house that didn’t want to be restored?’
‘After would be my guess.’ Bliss nodded at the overnight bag in the corner. ‘What’s with the luggage?’
‘Going to Garway.’
Merrily pulled over the padded folder containing Adam Eastgate’s plans for the Master House. When she upended it, a plastic bag fell out, resealed like a police evidence bag. She pulled it open and shook out the key onto the table.
‘You don’t find too many like this nowadays, do you, outside of churches?’
‘And prisons,’ Bliss said. ‘You’re not staying there, are you?’
‘Too scary. And the central heating’s not working.’
‘Come on, Merrily, the truth.’
‘Why I’m going back? Apart from, every time I close my eyes, seeing Fuchsia Mary Linden swimming towards me, asking to be blessed in the old-fashioned way?’
‘And all the things we might have found out if I hadn’t been so smug and sceptical. Things that would never come out at an inquest. I’m assuming an inquest is going to be where this ends.’
‘The media have indeed been told we’re not looking for a third party,’ Bliss said. ‘And, frankly, if it was so much as suggested that the third party might turn out to be the kind of third party I suspect you’re looking at then I think we’ve made a sound decision.’
‘Assuming the forensics support the obvious conclusion that Fuchsia killed Felix and then herself … how important is it to you to find a motive?’
‘It’s obviously tidier, for us, Merrily, if we can find evidence of domestic strife and/or mental imbalance.’
‘You tried to find the mother, by any chance? Mary Linden.’
‘We’ve got the birth certificate, and the name tallies. As does Tepee Valley. But the mother’s name is less poetic than “Linden”. Mary Roberts.’
‘What about the adoptive parents?’
‘Moved on, some years ago. We’re trying to pin them down, but bloody hippies, they could be anywhere. We’re continuing inquiries, but we don’t have the manpower to make too much of it.’
‘If you get anywhere … would there be stuff you’re able to share? Sometimes it’s easier for the police to get information than somebody like me with no obvious reason to inquire.’
‘Equally,’ Bliss said, ‘there are situations where it’s easier for a harmless cleric to learn things than a copper.’
‘Does that mean we’re looking at an arrangement? You tell me what you’ve learned from relatives or anyone else, I tell you … what I can.’
‘What you can?’
‘Look at it this way, Frannie – most of the stuff I wouldn’t feel right divulging is going to be stuff that would embarrass you anyway. And the coroner.’
‘You’re so cute, Merrily,’ Bliss said.
‘I’m a professional. It’s odd how people seem to forget that.’
Bliss smiled, shaking his head.
‘Particularly me,’ Merrily said.
After a lunch of soup and a cheese sandwich, she rang Uncle Ted, the senior churchwarden, to explain that she might be away for a few days. He was out, so she laid it gratefully on his machine. Uncle Ted was still resentful of Deliverance, although he must know that without it she’d probably wind up with another four parishes and Ledwardine would see even less of her.
She rang Lol, but he must have already left for tonight’s gig, somewhere in South Wales. She’d try his mobile later. She ought to go and lie on the bed, try and recharge, but there was too much to do in a very short time.
Looking up Morningwood in the phone book, she found just one entry and called it on the mobile.
‘Poor girl,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
Nothing about Felix. Just ‘Poor girl.’
‘I’m … coming over. Either tonight or early tomorrow. Will you be around, Mrs Morningwood?’
‘In and out, darling. Never far away. Always there around nightfall to shut the chicks away.’
‘And you’re … where?’
‘Coming in from the Hereford side, past The Turning – know where that is?’
‘Ask. Three hundred yards, sign on the right, Ty Gwyn. Short track.’
‘OK. If you’re not in, I’ll keep trying.’
There was an uncertain pause. Mrs Morningwood cleared her throat.
‘Reason I called earlier … Spoke about you with a friend, Sally, in the Frome Valley.’
A momentary fog; you ran into too many people in this job.
‘You met, it seems, under difficult circumstances, relating to gypsies,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
‘Oh … Sally Boswell?’
At the hop museum. Her husband, Al, had made Lol’s most precious guitar. Mandolin soundbox and about a dozen different types of wood. Lol revered Al. Al revered Sally.
‘Known her for quite some years, darling. She confirmed what I’d sensed when we met. That you are rescourceful and trustworthy.’
‘That was very kind of her. Mrs Morningwood, can I—’
‘No, come and see me. I’m wary of phones.’
And she’d gone. Suddenly nobody was trusting phones. It was getting like the old Soviet Union.
Merrily dropped the mobile in the in-tray, picked up Dobbs’s Charles file and read an unidentified cutting – looked from the typeface and the length of the paragraphs like one of the quality broadsheets – about the Prince’s diet. How, aged around thirty, after seeing how some pigs were treated, he’d vowed to become vegetarian. Dropped red meat, taken up raw vegetables, lost weight and developed a rather ascetic appearance.
He’d still gone shooting, though. Some family traditions must’ve been hard to shed, especially with a father like his. But the interest in organic farming had grown out of it, with impressive results.
How relevant was any of this stuff? If there’d been anything immediately pertinent in the Dobbs file, Sophie would have spotted it. Merrily slid the papers back into the file as the phone quivered before it rang.
‘You have … a locum.’
Her voice was not so much dry as arid.
‘That was quick.’
‘Merrily, I’m afraid that it isn’t going to be Ruth Wisdom.’
‘Ruth has unexpected domestic ties,’ Sophie said. ‘Consequently, I had to put out a round-robin email. Which, I’m afraid, was answered within … a very short time.’
‘I did point out, didn’t I, that Jane will still be here? I mean, she’s got her own apartment in the attic, but— it’s not a bloke, is it?’
‘I’m very sorry, Merrily,’ Sophie said. ‘You really won’t like this, but it was out of my hands.’
WHEN JANE GOT off the school bus, there was a silver-grey car she didn’t recognize outside the vicarage.
She walked over. It looked like one of those hybrid jobs that ran partly on urine or something, cost an arm and a leg but the driver was guaranteed a martyr’s welcome in eco-paradise. Very tidy inside, a pair of women’s leather gloves on the dash.
Jane went back to the market square, wishing whoever it was would just sod off. Needing some time, undisturbed, with Mum, because what she had in her airline bag was likely to be of serious and sobering significance.
Normally, if you had a free period in the afternoon, you spent it wiping out any outstanding homework essays. Jane had had two free periods and had spent them both, plus most of the lunch hour, on one of the common-room computers. Feeling she had something to prove. To Mum and … maybe to Coops, who she hadn’t seen for a few days. But she intended to, soon.
She looked around the square for Lol’s cool truck. Not there. He must’ve left for his gig. Jane felt a kind of dismay. While it was good that Lol had gigs, better still that he’d found the balls to do gigs, inevitably it was pulling him and Mum in different directions. And although they did their best neither of them, in all honesty, was what you could call a strong and decisive person.
Outside the Eight Till Late, a news bill for the only evening paper that reached Ledwardine, the Star, read:
DOUBLE DEATH RIDDLE OF BUILDER AND GIRLFRIEND
The girlfriend, too?
Jane froze. Literally froze, hard against one of the fat blackened oak pillars holding up the market hall.
She could remember, quite clearly, a time when shocking death had given her not a shiver but a frisson – subtly different, fizzing with a forbidden excitement. Back then, death had not, essentially, been about loss. Even – God forbid – the death of her own dad, because it had happened, when Jane was quite young, in a high-speed car crash with a woman next to him who had not been Mum.
Then they’d moved to the country, and death, in Ledwardine, had resonated. It was so much closer – as close as the churchyard just over the garden wall, where funerals were conducted by her own mother, before burial in a grave dug by Gomer Parry. Whose wife, Minnie, had gone, in the hospital in Hereford. His nephew, Nev, in a fire. And there was Colette, the friend Jane had first got drunk with, on cider, both of them paralytic under the tree in Powell’s Orchard where old Edgar Powell had blown his brains out at the wassailing. And, worst of all, Miss Lucy Devenish, Jane’s friend and mentor and inspiration … but not for very long before her moped had been on its side in the main road under Cole Hill.
The fragility of life. Random cosmic pruning. One snip of the big secateurs. And then what?
Sometimes, she wished she had Mum’s faith. Always assuming it really was faith. She pictured Mum standing at the landing window in her frayed robe, staring bleakly out into the drab, grey morning.
This guy, the builder. Obviously Jane hadn’t known him, or his girlfriend, but out here he was much more than a cheap cliché on a billboard – Death Riddle – tapped onto a screen by some cynical hack in a town where the air was always singing with sirens.
Out here, where it was quiet and death resonated, he’d been part of the fabric, working the sandstone and the timber and the Welsh slate.
And the girlfriend. Mum was not going to be easy to live with tonight.
Now the stuff in the airline bag, the printouts – from, admittedly, some fairly lurid websites – felt like some kind of porn. Not the kind that could get you banned from using the computer for the rest of term, more insidious than that.
Unnerved by the billboard, switching the bag from her left shoulder to her right, Jane crossed to the vicarage.
She’d seen the woman somewhere before, she was fairly sure of that. Fiftyish and elegant, heavy hair with a dull sheen like pewter, serious grey eyes, dark grey suit. Dog collar.
Mum said, ‘Jane, this is Siân.’
Mum was looking, to be honest, frazzled, her skin close to grey, standing at a corner of the refectory table, like the kitchen wasn’t her own. Which of course it wasn’t. The Church owned it. The Church owned everything. Owned Mum.
There was a case in the hall. A real leather traveller’s case, with stickers, next to Mum’s old overnight bags.
Siân? Jane stared at the woman. The woman smiled in this bland way. Perfect teeth.
Holy shit. It had to be Siân Callaghan-Clarke.
‘Siân’s going to be looking after things here for a few days,’ Mum said. ‘As you, erm, suspected this morning, I need to go over to Garway, sort some things out.’
This was the woman who, only a few months ago, had nearly destroyed Mum after getting herself made diocesan Deliverance coordinator. Callaghan-Clarke’s view of Deliverance seemed to be that it was totally about helping deluded people to seek treatment – bringing in this smooth shrink as part of the Deliverance Module. At least he’d gone, and the last time Mum had mentioned Callaghan-Clarke it was to say that she’d been keeping a low profile lately, not interfering, never going into the office.
But Mum was inclined to take her eye off the ball.
‘Jane is fairly self-sufficient, Siân. She has her own apartm— a big room on the second floor. And a lot of studying to do. So, with all the parish business, you probably won’t get to meet a lot. Anyway …’ Mum smiling inanely ‘… here she is.’
Jane just stood there, like struck dumb, Ethel doing a figure of eight around her ankles.
‘Hello, Jane,’ Callaghan-Clarke said. ‘I’ve heard such a lot about you.’ Black farce. Mum had collapsed into the old captain’s chair in the scullery. The door was shut, Jane with her back to it.
* * *
‘Have you gone insane?’
Callaghan-Clarke was upstairs in the guest room, unpacking her fancy case of Italian leather covered with stickers from international church synods, and it was a big house where voices didn’t travel … so, like why, in God’s name, were they whispering?
‘Nothing I could do,’ Mum said. ‘Fait accompli. Ruth Wisdom couldn’t make it, Sophie asked around by email, Siân offered.’
‘Sophie accepted that?’
‘If she’d said no, how suspicious would that have looked? Siân’s … highly placed in the Diocese. I wouldn’t want Sophie to get on the wrong side of her over something like this.’
‘I have to stay here with this monster?’
‘She’s not a monster, Jane. She’s just an ambitious, very smart, exbarrister with … some kind of calling.’
Mum started to laugh. One of those laughs where things really can’t get any worse.
‘Your builder guy,’ Jane said. ‘There’s a news bill outside Prosser’s. It says the girlfriend’s …’
It was worse than Jane had expected. Immediately, she was imagining doing it: one ear squashed into the cold steel track, the other exposed to the enormous saw-bench scream of the oncoming train. Did she lie facing it, watching the lights? Or was she turned away, feeling the vibration inside her brain, her whole body hunched and tensed, foetal? What could make a fairly young and apparently beautiful woman batter to death somebody she’d loved and then have herself demolished, her face ground into fragments of bone, shreds of tissue?
Jane pulled the plug on it. She dragged over the other chair and sat down.
‘Why does Callaghan-Clarke want to come here? Like, what’s the ulterior motive?’
‘I’m not a kid any more, Mum, I can keep my mouth shut and I’ve been around this situation long enough to get a feel for seedy C of E politics. Why?’
‘OK,’ Mum said, ‘to look at it charitably—’
‘Oh, yeah, sure, let’s all be terribly Christian about it—’
‘To look at it charitably, first … Maybe she just wanted to help out, knowing this was a job that the Bishop’s keen we deal with efficiently and it would need to be a woman.’
‘She wants to be the first woman bishop, right?’
‘Archdeacon, apparently. In the short term.’
‘The present Archdeacon’s coming up to retirement, possibly next year. Becoming Archdeacon would be a good stepping stone to a Bishop’s Palace, when that becomes a possibility for a woman.’
Jane thought about this. As she understood it, the Archdeacon was like the Bishop’s chief of staff, the Head of Human Resources in the Diocese. He – or she – organized priests.
‘The Archdeacon’s in charge of like not replacing vicars who retire or burn out, so the rest of you can all have seventeen parishes each? The Bishop’s axeman. Or woman.’
‘Something like that.’ Mum wasn’t laughing now. ‘The word is – according to Sophie – that Siân’s shadowing Archdeacon Neale for a month, using the time to put together a new game plan for rationalizing the Diocese. I’ve known for a while that I could be affected.’
‘But you can say no to more parishes, can’t you?’
‘I can. But I’m on a five-year contract, which may not be renewed if I don’t agree with whatever they propose. No getting round the fact that I’m one of the very few to have only one church. Because I’ve also got Deliverance.’
‘She wants to figure out how to turn you into the Vicar of North Herefordshire, with South Shropshire, and no time for Deliverance?’
‘You sound like you don’t care.’
‘What can I do, anyway? Siân’s view has always been that Deliverance should be spread out over quite an extensive team. So you have a larger number of clergy with rudimentary training in aspects of healing and deliverance. Like the way – stupid analogy, but it’s all I can think of – a percentage of police are firearms-trained. Many more now than there used to be.’
‘And you’d …’ Jane was dismayed ‘… you’d actually go along with that?’
‘I think too many armed cops can be dangerous. Better to have a handful who know when not to shoot. But I didn’t get ordained to become Deliverance Consultant.’
‘You’re good at it. I don’t care what you say.’
‘Anyway, it might all be academic. She may not become Archdeacon. And there’s nothing she can do in a few days.’
‘Just stay cool, disappear into your apartment, feed the cat and don’t get into arguments.’
‘I’ll try not to antagonize her. But I will be keeping an eye on her.’
‘Just don’t make it too obvious.’
‘Discretion is my middle name.’
Mum smiled this weak kind of if only smile. Her face looked drawnin, blotchy.
‘You know what?’ Jane said. ‘You shouldn’t be going to Garway, you should be going to the doc’s.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’
‘Have you looked at yourself?’
‘Just need a good night’s sleep.’
‘No, you just don’t want to give Kent Asprey the satisfaction of having you at his mercy.’
‘I’m all right. Probably one of those twenty-four-hour bugs. Be fine tomorrow. Why are you hugging that case?’
‘You weren’t fine yesterday.’ Jane took her airline bag over to the desk and unzipped it. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid this isn’t going to help you sleep.’
‘What’ve you done?’
‘No, it’s not … I was talking to Robbie Williams. The head of history?’
‘He’s a medieval historian, and he knows a lot about the Crusades and the Knights Templar.’
‘Jane, you didn’t—?’
‘I didn’t say a word about you. I just said I’d been across to Garway and got interested. Bottom line is, I asked him about the green man, and he said he thought the one at Garway Church was a representation of … something else.’
Jane pulled out her plastic document case and opened it out. All the stuff she’d printed out from the net.
For some reason – Sod’s Law – it opened to the crude engraving of the dark and devilish bearded figure with a goat’s head and cloven hooves, wings and a woman’s breasts and a candle burning on its head between the horns.
Mum went, ‘Oh, for God’s sake …’
Scarecrow for the Vulgar
AN IMAGE OOZING calculated perversity. Paint it in blood on the wall, in the soiled sanctity of some abandoned crypt: the Devil, the Antichrist, the Beast 666. The oldest enemy.
Introduced into the vicarage, inevitably, by little Jane.
Merrily’s first instinct was to cover it up with the mouse mat, take it away, but that would be playing into its … hooves.
Don’t let Siân see it. Siân, whose upper lip would pucker in distaste – not revulsion, no nervous fingering of the pectoral cross here, merely distaste at the medievalism of it.
Only, it wasn’t medieval. Nineteenth century, probably.
Merrily propped up the plastic folder against the computer and gazed into the smudgy smirk of the goat/man/woman/demon. The face of bored decadence. The face of look-at-me-I’m-so-twisted-and-satanic-and-don’t-you-just-love-it?
The red and black ink had blurred, making it look even more perverse. Hints of blood and lipstick.
‘It’s an old printer and I probably whipped the paper out too fast,’ Jane said. ‘You’ve got to be a bit careful about what you download, Morrell has occasional dawn swoops. Anyway, this is the work of Eliphas Levi. You have heard of him?’
‘Heard of him?’ Merrily turned wearily to Jane. ‘Flower, I’ve worn his jeans.’
Jane scowled. Merrily smiled fractionally.
‘Sorry. Yeah, I have heard of him. French occultist, late nineteenth century or thereabouts, who, under his real name, was an ordained priest. Although he and the Catholic Church became increasingly estranged – didn’t help when he ran off with a sixteen-year-old girl. Like Aleister Crowley, who claimed to be his reincarnation, he really wanted to be a rock star but, unfortunately for both of them, rock music wouldn’t be invented for another century.’
‘I hate it when you’re flip,’ Jane said. ‘Although I realize it’s essentially a defensive thing.’
Merrily felt the thickness of the file. Must have taken Jane quite a long time to collect all this.
‘Sorry. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble. Yeah, I suppose you could be pointing me in a direction I hadn’t thought of. Both Levi and Crowley, as I recall, were, at some stage in their murky careers, into what they saw as the tradition of the Knights Templar.’
‘If you already know it all I’ve been wasting my time.’
Jane snatched down the copy of the engraving, looking quite hurt. Merrily sighed.
‘I’ve probably forgotten most of it. Remind me.’
‘That woman will be down soon.’
‘No, she won’t. She’ll see the value of giving us some time to talk before I leave.’
It was like this: in 1307, with no crusades on the agenda, the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon were no longer even pretending to be poor. They were multinational bankers: a wealthy, powerful, secretive and formidable presence.
The guardians of too many arcane secrets – that was Jane’s view of it, but to orthodox historians they were simply a threat to the French monarchy. And the Pope. This Pope, anyway, Clement V, based at Avignon and therefore under the protection of the French king, Philip IV. A puppet Pope.
Jane talked and it all came back.
How the list of charges against the Templars was drawn up, or dreamed up, nobody could quite say, but it was impressively damning: they denied Christ, they didn’t believe in the Mass, they practised sodomy and exchanged obscene kisses on being received into the Order. They were taught that the Masters of the Order – none of them ordained priests – could absolve them from sin.
And they worshipped this bearded head, which came to be known as Baphomet. Mr Williams had told Jane that the name was seen by some sources as a corruption of Muhammad, but Merrily vaguely remembered other interpretations.
‘It was quite clever,’ Jane said. ‘If you look closely at the charges, you can definitely see where some of them are coming from.’
‘Yeah, I know. The denial of Christ could mean that they were simply denying the divinity of Christ because they were supposed to have known the so-called truth: that he’d died, leaving behind his girlfriend, Mary Magdalene and their family. On the same basis, you have the rejection of the Mass, because – allegedly – they knew there could be no transubstantiation.’
‘Right. And then we come to the head.’
‘OK, tell me about the head.’
‘Probably goes back to the Celtic cult of the head,’ Jane said.
‘I hadn’t heard of that connection.’
‘The Celts saw the head as the receptacle of the spirit, right?’
‘Mr Williams thinks the Templars actually did worship the head?’
‘Or maybe just recognized it as symbolic of something? Consider the fact that the Templars were linked to the Cistercians and gnostic sects.’
‘Here we go …’
‘And other guys who weren’t stupid enough to reject centuries of pre-Christian knowledge of nature and harmony with the land and … and a lot of other practical stuff that you can’t get in any way from the Bible.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it must’ve been symbolic of something. However, if the bearded head represents that revolting joke’ – Merrily jerked a thumb at the engraving of the horned beast with the candle on its head – ‘then it really doesn’t say a lot to me about mankind’s links with the earth. Especially as it also features in black masses and is often found above the altars of satanic temples.’
‘You haven’t actually read Levi, have you?’
‘Somehow, that thing with the teenage girl kind of said it all for me. But go on …’
‘What it basically comes down to …’ Jane shuffled papers ‘… is whole centuries of superstition, smears and misrepresentation. It’s a hieroglyphic representing male and female and illumination – the candle? It’s also Pan, the goat-foot god, the spirit of nature. OK, listen to this: “The symbolic head of the Goat of Mendes is occasionally given to this figure and it is then the Baphomet of the Templars and the Word of the Gnostics … bizarre images which became scarecrows for the vulgar.”’
‘So only thick people think there could be anything evil here. And the Church, of course.’
‘Well, thank you, flower, you’ve converted me. I’ll pack in all this Christian crap, put up a Goat of Mendes poster in the hall – only ten dollars from the Church of Satan and All Fallen Angels, Sacramento – and once I’ve popped into the church and spat on the altar—’
‘All right … you can mock.’ Jane stood up. ‘I’m just trying to show you what you’re dealing with, that’s all. There are two sides to everything.’
‘So the Garway Green Man is actually Baphomet. Mr Williams thinks that?’
‘He knows Garway church, and he thinks it makes sense. And if what you found inside the inglenook at the Master House was a replica of the Baphomet in the church …’
‘You didn’t tell Robbie Williams about that?’
‘No, I just asked about it in a general kind of way.’
‘Only I would hate any of this to get back to your beloved head teacher, because if Morrell thought I was involving you, a minor, in what he regards as my unscientific, primitive and superstitious occupation …’
‘It’s OK. I don’t think Robbie Williams likes Morrell either. And in case …’ Jane’s gaze softened. ‘In case you were fearing the worst, even I would be a bit wary of bending a knee to Baphomet. Or the Goat of Mendes.’
She came over, and Merrily half-rose and then they were spontaneously hugging. Ridiculous. Embracing your heathen daughter because she’d granted you the concession of drawing the line at actual devil worship.
More probably, Merrily guessed, it was the formal sealing of a pact against what was upstairs.
‘Jane, look … I’m sorry. It was a bad night, and it’s not been a great day. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing. Going over to Garway – it could be a wasted exercise. Even Huw Owen’s telling me to back off, because whatever happened there concerns ancient secrets that aren’t going to get cracked. Definitely not by someone like me.’
‘He actually said that?’
‘I don’t think he meant it in any mystical sense. I think he was saying I’d just tie myself up in knots, getting nowhere. And when you come home and hang all this on me, with the saintly Siân upstairs …’
Merrily was feeling almost painfully tired. Tired and inept. Huw was probably right: tamp it down, walk away and, with any luck, it won’t flare again in your lifetime.
‘Listen, there’s one final thing, Mum. Jacques de Molay?’
‘The last Grand Master of the Templars.’
‘I think there’s an engraving of him here. I’ve got it … there … He looks a bit like Baphomet himself, doesn’t he?’
Merrily looked at the drawing of the figure with the cross on his surcoat. Dignified but defiant. Che Guevara. Or maybe just the quiet one from some electric-folk band in the 1970s.
‘He was burned at the stake?’
Jane nodded. ‘After refusing to confess to sodomy, sacrilege and the rest of it. Most of the others who were arrested did confess after being threatened and tortured. But De Molay insisted to the end that he was a good Christian. He said he wanted to die facing the Church of Our Lady. But – get this – before the flames took him, he said that God would avenge him. He said the Pope and the King of France could expect to see him again before too long.’
‘I know. De Molay’s dying curse. Where’s this going, Jane?’
‘Neither the King nor the Pope lasted a year. And Jacques de Molay became this kind of cult figure. Still is, apparently.’
‘There was some guy in the French Revolution,’ Jane said, ‘and when they guillotined Louis XVI he was like, This is for Jacques de Molay.’
Merrily thought she could hear footsteps on the stairs and stood up. Felt, for a moment, slightly dizzy.
‘Suppose I’d better show Siân around.’
‘Hang on,’ Jane said, ‘I haven’t told you, yet.’
‘And this isn’t, like, supposition or legend or anything. This is official history. I think it was 1294.’
‘All right.’ Merrily paused, holding the door handle, aching for a cigarette. ‘What happened in 1294?’
‘That was the year Jacques de Molay came to Garway,’ Jane said.
Bev and Rev
SETTING OUT A place by the window in the whitewashed dairy, now the guests’ dining room, Beverley Murray glanced at Teddy across the table, and you could almost see it happening: this smouldering issue reigniting in the air between them.
Then Beverley went back to the cutlery tray, and Teddy said, ‘If handled discreetly, I think it would be sensible. Discretion being the operative word.’
‘When was there—?’ Beverley letting the cutlery clink more than was necessary. ‘When was there ever discretion in a place like this? Sometimes I think that damned radio mast picks up everything we say and broadcasts it into everybody’s living room.’
‘In which case, Merrily needs to get it all done and dusted before too many people find out.’
By ‘too many people’ Teddy presumably meant some of the cranks likely to descend on Garway next weekend for the Templar memorial service.
‘Quick as I possibly can.’ Merrily was not feeling up to an argument. ‘As soon as I can establish what we’re looking at.’
Meaning help me here. Teddy prised out a reluctant chuckle.
‘Merrily has a most unenviable job. Bumps in the night being an area most of us tend to steer clear of. Too many pitfalls.’
‘If there’s a crisis in the parish, Teddy tends to take himself for a walk,’ Beverley said.
She was maybe ten years younger than Teddy, one of those brisk, practical, short-haired blondes who’d become a familiar breed in these parts, like the golden retriever. Their farmhouse was eighteenth-century, a block of sunburned-looking stone wedged into the hillside half a mile beyond the church, ruinous outbuildings scattered below it like scree. The Ridge: Dinner, B & B. Walkers welcome. Two public footpaths intersected below a terrace with tables and green and yellow umbrellas.
‘Balm for the soul, this landscape.’ Teddy was in thick socks, still carrying his walking boots by their laces. ‘You’ll start to feel it soon, Merrily. Take away that anxious frown.’
‘Well, it’s true, Bevvie.’ He turned to Merrily. ‘Sorry if I’m being tactless, but I have to say I don’t think I’ve seen anyone alter as dramatically as you have in just a few days. Well, yes, sudden death … inevitably a shock to the system. But it’s not your fault, my dear, not your fault.’
‘Yes, well …’ Merrily said, ‘Maybe a good night’s sleep …’
‘Or, as I say, a good walk. Oh, I know Bevvie thinks I’m an avoider, but the countryside calms and strengthens. One of the functions of a parish priest is to remain centred and … essentially placid.’
‘He means passive,’ Beverley said. ‘In other words, uninvolved. Male priests think there’s some sort of dignity to being remote. One of the benefits of having girls in the clergy is that at least they aren’t afraid of getting their feet wet. Women get involved, men go for a walk. He does yoga, too, I’m afraid.’
‘Basic stuff, but it keeps one in trim.’ Teddy dumped his boots by the door. ‘Like to enjoy this place for a couple more decades. That so wrong?’
‘I mean, obviously we’re delighted to have you here, Merrily,’ Beverley said. ‘If only the circumstances were different.’
If only. Merrily was the sole guest, although a party from Germany was expected at the end of the week. There were no-smoking signs in the dining room, the lounge, her bedroom and the en-suite bathroom.
‘At the end of the day, I’m afraid I really don’t see,’ Beverley said, ‘why this community has to be dragged into something which might be terribly sad but is also sordid, sordid, sordid. Bad enough that Teddy’s forced to conduct a service next Saturday for a bunch of … anoraks, I suppose. But nothing to do with the Knights Templar is terribly healthy, it seems to me. The activities they were accused of … well, no smoke without fire, that’s my view.’
Outside the window, rolling shadows chased the last of the sunlight out of a patch of woodland.
‘I can … understand how you feel,’ Merrily said carefully.
When she’d rung from the vicarage, thinking she’d go to Garway in the morning, Teddy Murray had invited Merrily over for supper. Jane, listening to her vacillating, had held up both palms, pushing: go.
And it was the only way, she realized that now. Time-consuming, but if you went in cold you learned no more than the police would, or the media. Interviews. Statements. On the record, therefore restricted.
Really, it was about listening. As she’d said at the Sunday meditation, not quite getting through to Shirley West. Merrily shivered, not the first time, Beverley noticing at once.
‘Oh no. Not at all. Goose walked over my …’
After a light supper – Vegetarian? Not a problem, grow our own – the three of them were sitting around a glass-fronted wood stove in the lounge, which had rough panelling and a small cocktail bar, like a pulpit, in one corner.
‘More coffee, I think,’ Beverley said, reaching for the pot, and Teddy, having collected more of Bev’s sidelong glances, discreet as neatly folded notes, made another approach.
‘How much of a public affair does this have to be, Merrily?’
‘Well, I won’t be selling tickets.’
‘No … ha … I think what I’m asking …?’
‘Eight people, max. That’s what I was thinking. You, me, a representative of the Duchy, a couple of friends or relatives of Felix and Fuchsia and – tell me if you think this is going to be a problem – members of the two families who’ve owned the place. The Grays and the Gwilyms.’
Teddy’s white-bearded chin sank into his chest, and Merrily pined for a lie-down and a cigarette. She sat up.
‘A bit ambitious, do you think?’
‘They don’t speak to one another, you know.’
‘I did hear that.’
‘Family feuds in this part of the world can be very bitter indeed and go on, literally, for centuries.’
‘It’s not a joke.’ Beverley was filling cups. ‘Personally, I think it might cause more trouble than any of this is worth. There’s still a lot of superstition in this area, and this is almost encouraging it. I mean, how can a house …? It seems more than a little absurd.’
‘Yes.’ Merrily nodded. ‘I suppose it does.’
Later, when Teddy had gone for his evening stroll, she joined Beverley in the kitchen. Stainless steel, halogen lights. Ultra-functional, no dust, no stains, no dark corners. Beverley wiped down a worktop with a damp cloth.
‘I didn’t want to be offensive, Merrily, and I’m still a churchgoer of sorts but do you really think the atmosphere of a place can affect the way someone behaves? Make them do something horrible?’
‘I suppose I have to say yes, sometimes, in a way, but—’
‘And that you can do something about it?’
How were you supposed to answer that? Tell her about the times you awoke in the night and wondered if you weren’t just patching up the fabric of a great big ancient but flimsy construction that was, in fact, completely hollow?
Merrily closed her eyes momentarily, finally admitting to herself that she wasn’t very well. Couldn’t be pre-mentrual, she wasn’t due for another … ten days?
‘You OK, Merrily?’
‘I’m fine. The thing is, I thought at first it was going to be nothing. I thought the Bishop was going over the top in asking for a full inquiry. Then two people die.’
‘Yes.’ Beverley threw the cloth into one of three sinks. ‘Something you said earlier worried me a little.’
‘When you said there should be no more than eight people at this … ceremony. And that one of them should be Teddy. How necessary is that? I suppose what I’m saying – and please don’t tell him we’ve had this conversation, he’d be angry with me – is that I’d really rather you did it without him.’
‘No, you don’t. What you see is a fit, healthy, athletic man who walks at least five miles every morning before breakfast. You don’t see what I saw when he was the rector of our village near Cheltenham.’
‘How long ago was this?’
‘Six years? That’s how long we’ve been married, anyway. I was recently divorced at the time – when I first met Teddy. And my son was abroad – gap year before uni.’
Beverley said she’d had room to breathe for the first time in years. She’d been awarded the house in the divorce settlement, and there was a recent bequest from an uncle. But she’d only been forty and on the lookout for a meaningful job.
‘I was thinking of going back to nursing, but that’s a thankless task nowadays. NHS hospitals are like meat-processing plants.’
Beverley switched on the dishwasher and then, mercifully, dimmed the lights. She stood looking out of a small square window towards the glowing of distant farms. Telling Merrily how she’d started going to church, helping out, spending time with the rector. Much as Merrily had when her own marriage had been coming unstitched. The difference being that it had led Merrily into a personal calling and Bev into a project called Teddy.
‘His workload was becoming ridiculous, poor man. Four large parishes in Gloucestershire, and the phone never seemed to stop ringing. And then the main church was broken into five times in two years. You get that, too, I imagine.’
‘Not so far.’
‘Then you’ve been very lucky. The final straw was a wave of absolutely awful vandalism. Well, not just vandalism – desecration. Gravestones pushed over, defaced, strange symbols chiselled into them. And one night someone broke in and actually defecated in the church, which was horrible, horrible, horrible …’
‘And a police matter, surely?’
‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you? It’s only when it actually happens that you find out that, unless the damage is very serious or someone’s been hurt, the police really aren’t interested in the slightest. They might show up and take a statement, looking rather bored, but you never hear from them again.’
‘How long did this go on?’
‘Couple of months, intermittently. There was supposed to be a neighbourhood watch in the village, but they were only interested in protecting their own homes. Teddy would be out patrolling the churchyard himself at all hours of the night. One night, he almost caught someone and was knocked to the ground. What is happening in our society? Sometimes they’re killed. Priests killed outside their own churches!’
‘We’ve been lucky in this part of the world. So far.’
‘I suppose that’s one advantage of a place where everyone knows everyone else. But, to cut a long story short, he more or less had a breakdown. Constantly tired – you’d see his hands trembling, dropping the prayer book at service. When the graves were desecrated, some people in the parish were talking about – well, it was inevitable, I suppose …’
‘What – Satanism?’
‘That sort of thing. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant. It left a nasty taste. Teddy seemed to age about ten years. I … found myself looking after him. It’s what I’m good at, I suppose.’
‘He, erm … he wasn’t married then?’
‘His wife had died some years before. Car accident. The Church was his life, if you could call it a life. And in the parish … the nerve of people. The way some of them reacted when they found out I was divorced! I mean, it was hardly a major scandal. One night, I said, for God’s sake, why don’t you pack in this stupid, stupid job, and let’s move to somewhere they don’t know us and start a guest house. I did know what I was doing, by the way – my parents were hoteliers.’
‘He got early retirement?’
‘After I threatened to go to the press. Overworked, overpressured, underpaid and under threats of violence?’
‘There were threatening phone calls. Didn’t I say? Untraceable these days, people make them from cheap mobiles. But … he got early retirement, and we wound up here. Not quite my idea of an idyll, but the people are OK, they don’t judge. “Bev and Rev”, that’s what they call us in the pub. We thought of having it on the sign outside, but that would be a little too cosy.’
‘He seems OK, now.’
‘I tease him about his walks, but it’s really done him the world of good, the four years we’ve been at Garway. Learned all the history, guides people around, leads expeditions, and able to keep his hand in with the church. Just our bloody luck that the vicar would have to leave and there’d be an unexpected hiatus before the next one takes over, and Teddy would feel obliged to stand in full-time. And that it should coincide, God help us, with this madness.’
It wasn’t clear whether she meant the Master House problem or the Templar service. Maybe both.
‘What sort of service is he going to give them?’
‘We still haven’t given up hope that someone else might take it on.’ Beverley looked at Merrily, eyes steady. ‘I don’t suppose …?’
‘Beverley, most of what I know about the Knights Templar I got from Teddy the other day. All he needs is an ordinary service with a couple of customized prayers, a sermon about the need for religious tolerance and … I dunno, “Onward Christian Soldiers”? Beverley, would it be OK if I—?’
‘Your exorcism service … someone prone to stress-related problems, that could be damaging, couldn’t it?’
‘Well, it … it’s been known. But in the vast majority of cases it—’
‘So if you do need an extra minister at your, whatever you call it, deliverance, perhaps you could call in another … exorcist or something?’
Merrily nodded wearily.
She’d end up doing it on her own in the dim, mould-smelling room, the atmosphere swollen with historic hostility, the Baphomet grinning in the inglenook.
‘Is that all right?’ Beverley said.
‘Of course. Would it be OK if went to bed. I’m feeling a bit …’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, you must be absolutely exhausted. It’s obviously been a difficult couple of days.’
‘Just a bit tiring,’ Merrily said.
As always when you were feverish, there wasn’t much sleep that night. Strange bed, a hard, fitness-freak mattress. Getting up around two a.m., feeling hot, and leaning out of the first-floor window. Cold air on bare arms, murky night obscuring distance so that the end of the cigarette, feebly glittering against the moonless sky, was like the tail light of a passing plane.
Before bed, Merrily had called Jane on the mobile. Jane said Siân Callaghan-Clarke had been very friendly, not at all what she’d imagined. They’d actually talked for a couple of hours, about Siân’s time as a barrister and Jane’s problems finding the right career plan.
‘Erm … great,’ Merrily said.
‘Hey, Mum, it’s not my fault she wasn’t being a bitch.’
‘I never said a word …’
‘That meaningful pause said it all.’
‘You remembered to feed Ethel?’
‘Like Ethel would let me forget? Mum, don’t—’ Small hiss of exasperation. ‘How’s it going there?’
How was it going? Merrily peered down the valley, into vague dustings of light. There was a prickling of fine drizzle now, on her arms. She pulled them in, stubbing out the cigarette on the stone wall under the windowsill, feeling cold now, and hollow and disoriented. No sense of where she was in relation to the top of the hill with its radio mast or the hidden valley of the church, the rum place where M. R. James believed he’d caused some offence.
This was not an easy place.
Jacques de Molay had located it, though.
In 1294, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon had sailed from France, then ridden across southern England to visit the remote preceptory at Garway. According to Jane’s internet research, nobody appeared to know why he’d come or what he’d done here. And if there were no crazy theories on the net, last refuge of the extreme …
She shut the window, groped her shivery way back to bed. Please God, not some bloody bug.
Woke again, from a darkly vivid dream in which the tower of Garway church was with her in the room. The tower was standing in the far corner beyond the window, its vertical slit-eyes solemnly considering her. Guarding its secrets, knowing hers.
She sat up violently in bed, the duvet gathered around her. The moon had come out, sprinkling talcum-powdery light on the wardrobe.
The wardrobe, no more than half a century old, was roughly the same shape as the church tower and had twin vertical ventilation slits, high up in each door, black now.
You could go crazy.
Merrily lay down again, rolling herself in the duvet, turning her back on the wardrobe, stupidly grateful that The Ridge was not The Globe and the room had only one bed.
When she walked on to the square in Ledwardine, a crowd was gathering, but nobody was looking directly at her, although she was collecting meaningful sidelong glances from people like the Prossers, James Bull-Davies, Alison Kinnersley and Shirley West.
It was a deep pink dusk and the lights were coming on. Lol wouldn’t be at home, of course, he was off on a gig somewhere. So why was there a filtered light in his cottage in Church Street?
She walked across the square, getting out the key he’d given her, but she didn’t need it, the door was slightly ajar. She went in.
There was a dim light in the hallway and low music coming from somewhere, the song ‘Cure of Souls’, from Lol’s album, the one he’d written about her before they were together:
Did you suffocate your feelings
As you redefined your goals
And vowed to undertake the cure of souls …
Over the music came the throaty notes of slippery female laughter. Dripping down the stairs, like a pouring of oil, was a shiny, black, discarded dress.
Merrily, heartbroken, ran out, back onto the square where they were burning Jacques de Molay, his cold eyes fixed on hers through the darkening smoke as his white smock shrivelled up, turning brown.
She awoke sweating and shivering, no light in the sky.
Mystery is a way of saying that we
do not fully understand what it is that
we are experiencing or talking about
but nonetheless we know it to be real
and not false. It is not about trying to
evade important questions as to how
or why or what.
Suicide Note – Kind Of
MRS MORNINGWOOD, HAVING beckoned her into the window, now appeared to see something worrying in Merrily’s eyes.
‘You’re not at all well, are you?’
‘Shoes off,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
‘Lie down on the chaise longue. Put that pillow behind your head, the other one under your back where the springs have gone in the middle.’
Mrs Morningwood wore jeans and a military sort of jumper, ribbed, and a pale lemon silk scarf. Her hair was down and looked freshly washed. Merrily tried to focus, saw the blur of a timelessly handsome woman no longer over-fussed about what she looked like. A clock was ticking somewhere. The room had cream walls, a bentwood rocking chair, an ebony desk and a black cast-iron range with a fresh log on a glowing bed, Roscoe the wolfhound lying full length below it, longer and hairier than the rug he was on.
‘I’m sorry …’ Merrily looked around for the clock, confused. ‘What time is it now?’
‘I should think coming up to midday. Clock’s in the kitchen. We don’t allow time in here.’
Midday. Oh my God.
She’d had breakfast at nine – most of a boiled egg, one slice of dry toast – watching Teddy Murray cheerily loading his knapsack, off to plan out a circular ten-mile walk for the German party next weekend, Bev inspecting Merrily, practical, blonde head on one side. ‘Are you sure you’re all right, Merrily?’
She’d gone back to her room, lay down for a moment on the bed … woke up over an hour later, in a panic. Rushing into the bathroom, washing again, brushing her hair and stumbling down the stairs – nobody about, a radio somewhere playing Classic FM, but it still brought back celloed strands of ‘The Cure of Souls’, that reproachful song. She’d ring Lol, just as soon as she got back. Wasn’t his fault – her dream, her paranoia. Slipping quietly out of the front door, which had steps down to the lane, forgetting for the moment where she’d left the Volvo, only remembering where she had to go in it. Past The Turning three hundred yards, sign on the right, Ty Gwyn. Short track.
An end of a terrace, two tiny white-rendered cottages at one end knocked together, set well back from the road, overlooking fields and woodland under a pocked and mottled cheesy sky. Didn’t really remember getting here.
Mrs Morningwood had pulled up a piano stool with a black velvet seat to the foot of the chaise longue. Arranging a blue woollen travelling rug over Merrily’s legs. Bending over her feet now, reading glasses on her nose. Separating the toes and then running a thumbnail along one sole; it felt like a Stanley knife. Blanking out the pain, Merrily scrabbled for a question unrelated to her state of health.
‘Why did Jacques de Molay come to Garway?’
‘Haven’t got a heart condition, have you?’
‘Not that I’m aware of.’
‘Should’ve asked before I started. Remiss of me. Jacques de Molay. I suppose it’s more or less established that he did come here. About twelve years before his unfortunate death, I believe.’
‘Where would he have …? Oh my—’
‘Your stomach, darling. Tight as a drum. Intestines wound up like a watch spring. And then something implodes. I think you’re rather close to an ulcer. What’ve you been doing?’ Mrs Morningwood stood back, deep lines in her long face, all her features hard-focused in the sunless light. ‘You really weren’t aware of this? At all?’
‘No, I … God!’
‘It’ll get less painful after a while. At first, you know, I was thinking premature menopause.’
‘No stigma. Sometimes happens to girls in their twenties. Probably isn’t. Probably plain stress. Never had reflexology before?’
‘Well …’ Rolling her head in the pillow ‘… Not quite like this. Not the seriously painful kind.’
‘Some so-called practitioners are merely playing at it. Feelgood, massage-parlour stuff, bugger-all use to anybody. Sorry, darling, what was your question?’
‘De Molay. I was trying to ask you where he might have stayed. When he was here.’
‘You really need to rest. A holiday. When did you last have a holiday?’
‘Four years? Five? I don’t know, we weren’t living here then. Another lifetime.’
‘I can feel other people’s problems curled up tightly inside you, stored away in little sacks.’
The Stanley knife again, biting into the side of a big toe.
‘Sacks that swell,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
Merrily shut her eyes. This was not going the way it was supposed to. The plan had been to walk in, eyes wide open, go for some straight answers: Mrs Morningwood, you didn’t just accidentally bump into Jane and me the other day, you had an agenda and presumably still have. Why did you court Jane with your revelations about the four pubs and the heavenly bodies? Why were you so keen that we should check out the Master House while you buggered off?
The pain faded. She let her head sink into the pillow. With her usual uncompromising dynamism, she’d staggered up the path, under a wooden pergola still lush with vines. Still trying to find a doorbell or a knocker when the door had opened and she’d virtually fallen over the threshold.
‘I suppose you’re thinking of the Master House,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘It would make sense of the name, certainly. Doubtless the sort of grand celebrity occasion they’d have wanted to commemorate.’
‘Nobody know for sure?’
‘So little from that period was written down, Mrs Watkins. Not exactly known for their illuminated script, the Templars. Didn’t keep diaries or ledgers, far as I know.’
‘Being illiterate couldn’t have helped. No word-of-mouth, old wives’ tales about why de Molay came?’
‘He was presumably inspecting the preceptory. Why does it interest you?’
‘Trying to get a handle on the place, that’s all. To what extent it’s connected to the Templars.’
A log collapsed in the range, gases spurting, Merrily starting to sweat.
‘Good.’ Mrs Morningwood didn’t look up, working on a toe with both hands, like peeling a plum. ‘You’re probably full of toxins. I’d hate to even inquire about your diet.’
‘Mostly vegetarian. Bit of fish.’
‘Bit of this, bit of that, I know. A vegetarian diet needs to be carefully organized or there’ll be deficiencies. Looks of you, I bet you don’t even bother to eat at all half the time.’
‘You find life isn’t something that happens between meals.’
‘Life, my darling, needs to be battered into shape.’
‘Easier said than— Oh, for … I thought you said it’d get less painful.’
‘I expect I lied,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
When Merrily awoke, still on the chaise longue, the light in the two windows was blue-grey and the light in the cast-iron range was molten red, like the crater of a live volcano. Like the sun through the glass of red wine she’d been given. The sun had been out then, when she’d drunk it. Gone now, the sun and the wine.
Mrs Morningwood was rocking gently in the bentwood chair, smoking. Merrily raised herself up on her elbows.
‘What was in it?’
‘Nothing much. Valerian, mainly.’
‘What’s that do?’
‘A remedy for nervous debility. Unclenches the gut. Promotes sleep, quite rapidly sometimes.’
‘You didn’t tell me that.’
‘Of course I didn’t tell you that – you’d’ve buggered off.’
‘This wasn’t supposed to …’ Merrily’s head fell back. ‘How long have I been here now?’
‘Why are you so obsessed with time? You’ve been here as long as was necessary.’
‘Don’t get up yet, Watkins, you might fall over.’
Couldn’t have if she’d wanted to. Merrily felt limp and disconnected and distinctly odd but not in a bad way. And not, as she’d feared, in a drugged way. Something seemed to be vibrating inside her, like a motor idling.
‘Where did you learn all this stuff?’
‘The basic herbalism – and it is basic – was from my mother and she had it from her mother and so on.’
Always be a Morningwood on Garway Hill, as long as badgers shit on the White Rocks.
Right. Merrily felt like someone abducted by aliens, taken away to the mother ship, physically investigated, brought back. Mrs Morningwood supervising the experiment.
‘Wasn’t complicated, darling. Bad diet, insufficient sleep and nervous stress. You’ll sleep well tonight, probably wee quite a lot first, mind. And after that it’s up to you. The reflexology, picked that up in London. Seemed to be something I could do, almost from the outset. Technique might go back to ancient Egypt – who knows that the Templars didn’t bring it back from the Middle East? Although it’s not, as far as I know, in the traditional repertoire of the nine witches of Garway.’
‘Garway’s loss. I expect.’
‘You feel better.’
Merrily eased herself up again, nodded slowly, very aware of the movements of her neck, the fulcrum of bones.
‘I feel – a bit worryingly – relaxed.’
‘Smoke if you want to. Why worryingly relaxed? You feel guilty about relaxation?’
‘Teddy Murray says it’s a function of the clergy to appear totally placid at all times. I realize that’s his excuse for spending hours strolling the hills, but maybe there’s something— How much do I actually owe you, Mrs Morningwood?’
‘It’s going dark, I’ve been here over half a day—’
‘Lots of other tasks were performed in between. You just didn’t notice.’
Mrs Morningwood arose from the chair, went over to the range. There was an earthenware teapot on the hob. She detached a brown mug from a hook.
‘But since you mention recompense, sadly from your point of view I’m not much of a Christian, so yes, I have every intention of extracting payment in kind.’
‘What brought you here – feeling of failure?’
‘What could you have done?’ Mrs Morningwood brought over the cup, steaming. ‘It’s only tea, weak as gnat’s piss, and I can assure you there’s nothing in it that will send you back to sleep. What do you think you might have done to save either of them?’
‘Could’ve believed her. Thank you.’ Merrily sipped, holding the mug in both hands, swinging her feet tentatively to the floor. ‘Although I had no reason to at the time.’
Drinking the weak tea slowly, telling Mrs Morningwood how Fuchsia had claimed to have been haunted by something which, it transpired, had been invented by M. R. James.
‘You’ve read that one?’
‘And you knew James was in Garway?’
‘My grandmother met him. And the girl – his ward, Jane McBryde. But that’s by the by. So Fuchsia Mary Linden borrowed Monty’s seaside ghost. How very imaginative of her.’
‘What’s that say to you?’
‘Only that she didn’t want to tell you – or Barlow – what actually happened to her in the Master House.’
‘How should I know?’
‘She wanted me to bless her, give her protection. Before she came back here.’
‘And then, afterwards, she returned and battered Barlow to death. What do you know about Barlow’s history?’
‘Not a great deal.’ Merrily thought about it; where was this going? ‘He spent time in a tepee community in West Wales where he met Fuchsia’s mother, who was already pregnant. Felix was a bit in love with her and also, I think, felt sorry for her. He said she was … fragile. And he seems to have accepted a role as a kind of godfather … guardian. Tragically sealing his own fate, if you want to be—’
‘Tepee community,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
‘Tepee City. In Cardiganshire.’
‘Why did Barlow go there?’
‘Gap year was all he said.’
‘No such thing in those days, darling.’
‘I think he was probably being ironic. It was just a year between leaving school and having to do something responsible connected with his dad’s building supplies business. Which maybe didn’t seem very appealing at a time when everyone else seemed to be sleeping around and taking exotic drugs.’
‘Did he …’ Mrs Morningwood sat on the piano stool ‘… mention being a part of any other community? Before Wales?’
‘No, he didn’t. What are you thinking of?’
‘I’m thinking of the one that was in occupation at the Master House in the 1970s, when the Newtons were repeatedly leasing it out.’
‘Don’t know anything about it.’ Merrily finally brought out her cigarettes. ‘Some kind of good-life smallholding – did you tell me that?’
‘Good life? Not me, darling. Bastards couldn’t even grow their own dope. The house was leased by the Newtons to an honourable – son of some minor member of the Midlands aristocracy. Newtons were well pleased, at first. Not realizing he’d turn out to be the kind of dissolute, overprivileged hooray hippie that could turn … I don’t know, Sandringham into a shell in a matter of weeks.’
‘Anybody I’ve heard of?’
‘Shouldn’t think so. Lord Stourport?’
Merrily shook her head.
‘Endless rumours about the things that went on there,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Orgies and the rest. Nude bathing in the Monnow. Place would probably’ve been burned to the ground, result of some discarded spliff, if there hadn’t been a rather timely police raid. Result of which Lord Cokehead was sent down for three months or so. Lease effectively terminated.’
‘So why would Felix Barlow have been there?’
‘Most of the hoorays couldn’t replace a washer on a bloody tap, so anybody who was halfway practical was welcome to move into one of the sheds, drugs on the house, long as he brought his tools. That’s what I was told, anyway – wouldn’t know anything for sure, all this happened while I was … away.’
‘Well … Felix was indeed a very practical man, but I’m not getting why you think he would’ve been at the Master House. In fact …’ Merrily sat up, the cigarette halfway to her mouth. ‘What is your angle on this, Mrs Morningwood? Where are you actually coming from? Like, what did you mean when you said on the phone that someone didn’t do a terribly good job?’
Merrily slumped on to the edge of the chaise longue. Her body felt weak but the low vibration was still there and went cruising up into her head, bringing on a dizziness.
‘Steady, girl. You got the works, you know.’
Mrs Morningwood turned and threw the remains of her cigarette, with practised accuracy, into the heart of the fire.
Merrily lay back against the pillows. The windows had dimmed, crimson caverns opening up in the iron range. Roscoe, the wolfhound rose up and stretched, his front legs extended, revealing the black smudges of old burn marks on the rug where he’d been lying.
Mrs Morningwood stood up and moved across to the ebony desk. Sound of a drawer sliding open. She bent and drew the piano stool towards the well of the desk, switching on a green-shaded oil lamp converted to electricity.
Placing a fold of paper on the floodlit blotter and beckoning Merrily over.
‘Sit there. Won’t take you long to read it. I have to go and shut the chickens in for the night. Toilet’s back into the hall, second left. You’ll probably need it now you’ve been on your feet.’
Merrily sat looking down at the paper, pooled in lamplight, apple green. She opened it out.
‘What is it?’
‘A suicide note,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Kind of. With hindsight.’
Like a Ghost
SITTING ON THE lavatory, bent over, elbows on her knees, head in her hands, Merrily was holding the first sentences in her head.
People say death is like sleep.
I just hope they’re wrong. Sometimes I think I must be very close to death and I hate sleep more than anything.
It wasn’t the original, that was clear. There was no address, and – she’d looked at the bottom – no signature. Mrs Morningwood, or somebody, must have copied it into a computer.
When she came out of the downstairs bathroom, a bit fresher, Mrs Morningwood had returned and was stripping off her old Barbour, hanging it in the whitewashed hall, fluffing up her hair – the first conspicuously feminine thing Merrily had seen her do.
‘You’ve read it?’
‘I had to stop. Had to … go.’
Mrs Morningwood nodded, and Merrily went back to the desk in the living room.
You wouldnt know me Muriel. Theres nothing of me no more I am so thin and my head feels like a rotten egg sometimes and what can you do with a rotten egg except get as far away from it as possible. But you can’t, can you, if it’s inside your head day and night and all your dreams are addled. (See, I remember all about eggs. They were the good times.)
Merrily looked up.
‘This is a girl?’
‘Poor little darkie.’
Mrs Morningwood came over to the desk. Brought out a small leather photo album and began thumbing through it.
‘It was what people called her. Almost a novelty in the 1970s, a black girl in these parts. Mixed race, actually. Used to come here on holiday with her parents, in a caravan on a farm at Bagwyllydiart. There.’
The photo, its colours faded, showed two girls sitting together on a five-bar gate.
‘That’s … you?’
‘Frightening, isn’t it?’
The young Muriel, willowy and lovely, linking arms with the other girl, who was laughing so hard that her face was fuzzed and her white hoop earrings had ghosts.
‘They were from Coventry. Black father, white mother. They didn’t appear one year and then we heard the parents had broken up. Learning later – from the poor kid herself – that she was being interfered with by the mother’s new man. She’d’ve been fifteen or sixteen. Ran away a couple of times, finally hitch-hiking to just about the only place that had good memories for her.’
‘Twenty quid in her pocket. Got picked up by the chip man – there was a chap in Monmouth ran two or three fish-and-chip vans, came out to the villages one or two days a week. He recognized her, picked her up, gave her a job in his shop in Monmouth, let her sleep in the room over the top. Until his wife found out.’
‘It was probably quite innocent. She’d never have told, anyway. He was there when she needed help. Upshot of it, she turned up at our door, ended up moving in. Would’ve been on the streets otherwise.’
I’m sorry to keep on at you but you were always strong and I dont know anybody else I can tell who wouldn’t just hate me more.
‘You didn’t try to contact her parents?’
‘So she could go back and get fiddled with again? Not a chance, darling. She asked us not to, anyway, and she was sixteen or seventeen, we knew that. Besides, I was going to London, had a job lined up with a distant relative, theatrical agent. She filled the space.’
Mrs Morningwood took the photo back, put it in the album, left the album on the desk and went back to the hob.
‘House was only half as big then. I suppose she was here nearly a year. My mother found her a post as housekeeper – not live-in. Farmer called Eric Davies whose wife’d walked out because she couldn’t stand the isolation and Eric’s refusal to take a day off. Go on – read the rest.’
I’m writing this now because theres times when I still think I can get rid of it if I want to. Like Oh its not that bad it’s only your body and look at the money your getting.
‘I take it this is not about Eric Davies.’
‘Hardly. That came later. We exchanged letters for about a year. Most of them more coherent, I have to say, than this one. She was actually an intelligent girl, resourceful. Adaptable.’
‘So this is referring to the Master House, is it?’
Mrs Morningwood chose a wooden block from the log basket, wedged it into the fire and talked about the Master House commune. Two or three couples there originally, but there was always room for more bodies in the five bedrooms and outbuildings. Then two of the women left and one of the men. Eric Davies, meanwhile, had been made aware of gossip – he was in line for chairman, or president or something, of the local branch of the NFU and someone had discreetly pointed out that perhaps Mary Roberts was not good for his image, middle-aged farmer with a little darkie on the premises several hours a day.
Merrily said, ‘Mary Roberts?’
‘I don’t know where she got the name Linden from. Perhaps she thought it sounded pretty.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Merrily said. ‘You’re absolutely sure about this?’
‘Soon as I saw the girl with the builder. Look at the photo again. Look at the eyes.’
The eyes were blurred in the picture, but the size and the separation … well, maybe.
‘If I had one of her a couple of years later, even you would be in no doubt. Fuchsia, the first time I saw her and Barlow, they weren’t here to work, just look around, so not in overalls. She was even wearing the same kind of clothes as Mary had. Highly coloured. As if she’d seen some old photos of her mother and gone out of her way to recreate the image. Barlow was asking about the house and I tried to help him – rambling on in a state of slight numbness, trying not to keep staring at the girl. Hell of a shock, Watkins. Like seeing a ghost.’
‘Did you say anything?’
‘No. I needed to know if she knew. Needed to get her alone. The name, you … that was the clincher. Mary’s few possessions included a decrepit, much-thumbed paperback copy of Titus Groan. Mervyn Peake? Leading female character?’
‘And did she know?’
‘Never got her alone to ask. Barlow came back alone some days later telling me she’d been troubled by something in the house. Wouldn’t go into details.’
‘You didn’t tell him you may have known Fuchsia’s mother?’
‘Of course I didn’t.’
Mrs Morningwood bit her lip.
‘You’d better tell me the rest,’ Merrily said.
When you dont go to bed no more because they come to you in your sleep thats pretty bad isnt it. And when you wake up it’s like your body is not yours no more, it’s their’s. They can make your arms and legs move about and make you see what nobody should have to see. Well thats when you think you must be getting close to the end of this sick life and thank God for that.
‘I’d actually wanted her to come to London with me,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘I was working for a magazine by this time, making better money – in the process of moving to a flat in Clapham. But, for reasons I didn’t know about at the time, she declined. I … didn’t make proper arrangements for the forwarding mail so may have missed a couple of letters from her. And then that one arrived … five months after it was posted.’
‘That does not sound good. At all.’
‘I phoned my mother straight away, and of course it had all gone wrong – Mary had been staying away for several nights at a time, and then a whole week. Having taken up, it emerged, with one of the Master House people. And taken various drugs, obviously. Possibly, judging from the letter, LSD or mescaline.’
You wouldn’t recognise me now. Youd walk past me in the street, I probably look like some old bag out the gutter. I went into Hereford once, into the shops but I could sense like a shadow behind me all the time and once it touched me and run its fingers down my back and I turned round and I screamed GET AWAY GET AWAY FROM ME and people did get away they all crossed the road thinking I was drunk or doped up and that was awful. I really need normal people not to hate me like your mum does now.
‘And your mother hadn’t told you any of this?’
‘There was … a distance between us at the time.’
Mrs Morningwood was smoking again, the room clouded, Roscoe prowling.
‘“Thinking I was doped up”,’ Merrily said. ‘She’s saying fairly categorically here that she was neither drunk nor stoned.’
‘Then what?’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘How would you explain the rest of it?’
I went into the Cathedral but it didnt feel right, it was too big and quiet and I had to keep walking round to be near people because I dont like being on my own in a big empty place and then I found I was standing in front of the old map. You know the one called something in Latin and these disgusting things were grinning out at me and the shadow was leaning over me like when the sun suddenly goes in and you feel cold
‘The old map.’ Merrily looked up. ‘The Mappa Mundi?’
‘Displayed in the cathedral in those days.’
Hereford’s only world-class treasure. Medieval map of the world, now on view, along with the historic chained library, in a recently constructed building of their own in the cathedral grounds. Merrily had seen it a few times, never really had time to study it. Remembered the bizarre drawings around the primitive topography – a bear, a mermaid, a griffon, a unicorn. Didn’t remember any of them as grinning or obviously disgusting, but …
and I mustve screamed out or something because there was this man in black clothes and he said I’ve been watching you he said I can see your in trouble let me help you and I screamed at him GET AWAY GET AWAY GET AWAY YOUR EVIL.
I think it was just that he was in black clothes I thought he must be evil. He gave me a card to get in touch with him but I never have, whats the use.
One of the cathedral canons? Might even have been Dobbs, the exorcist.
‘She must’ve been looking a bit deranged to get that kind of approach.’
‘Evidently.’ Mrs Morningwood nodded. ‘What does it suggest to you?’
‘Extreme paranoia? Which obviously could be linked to drug use. Did the police find any acid? If she was still tripping, she might look at the Mappa Mundi, with all these mythical beasts, and it becomes like a nest of monsters or something.’
‘I’ve never seen an inventory of what they found.’
‘I could probably get some background. There’s a cop I know—’
Mrs Morningwood backing away, well out of the pool of light, leaving Merrily blinking.
‘What’s the point of involving the police? They’re not going to find her now, are they? Not going to be remotely interested.’
‘Find her? I thought she was—’
‘I don’t know she’s dead. I simply never heard of her again. Nobody I know ever did. We even tracked down her mother in Birmingham. Not interested. Didn’t seem to care. Nobody cared. Except me, because I could’ve saved her. Could’ve got her out of there.’
‘But somebody obviously did …’
Mrs Morningwood’s face was grim amongst the shadows.
‘Mary came back to my mother, apparently unwell. Stayed for four days. Quiet, penitent. And … my mother would awake in the morning to hear her throwing up. Coming to the obvious conclusion. Which she put to Mary. When she got up the next morning, Mary had gone. For good.’
‘Didn’t leave a note or anything?’
‘Only this one. Which took weeks to find me. I came back at once, but of course it was all too late.’
I expect you guessed I’m writing to ask a favour. You were always so strong Muriel and I cant go back on my own.
You see I’ve got a baby now.
NOT THAT JANE was fooled or anything. This woman was a former barrister. Barristers defended people they knew were guilty and prosecuted people they guessed were innocent. You didn’t need to watch much TV to know that.
You didn’t trust barristers, you paid them. And if someone else was paying, you’d mean less than nothing to them. They’d take you apart with merciless precision and discard the bits.
OK, Siân was a priest now, but you could still sense this kind of – to borrow a stupid word from one of those hi-gloss US forensic shows – directionality. Focus. Everything she said was coming from somewhere down in the small print of her personal agenda.
Like, when Jane was showing her round the vicarage, entering the nest of rooms around the back stairs, Siân going, ‘It’s awfully large, isn’t it? For just the two of you.’
Translating as, Even in its present condition, we could flog this place for well over half a million and put you in a bungalow.
With no attics and no apartment.
‘Well, you know, I used to think that, too,’ Jane had said, ‘but that was before we had to take people in. Like deliverance cases? People who think they’re mad? Need a big house for that, so nobody can hear the screams.’
Knowing as soon as it was out that, if she’d been in the witness box, Siân would have dismantled her. Having studied all the cases in her capacity as Deliverance Coordinator, she’d know this was not even loosely true. Well, except for …
‘Like, Dexter Harris?’ Jane pointing at the blackened oak beam where a door had once hung at the bottom of the stairs. ‘That was where he … you know …’
‘Yes, I heard about that. Regrettable.’
‘Mum had to do the necessary, for quite a few nights afterwards, to make sure there was no, like, detritus?’
‘Yes, I’m sure she would have felt that was necessary.’
Like, Your mother is a superstitious idiot.
It really hadn’t been easy last night, having to watch what you said all the time, looking for the loaded questions. Now, with dusk and rain seeping in, Jane, in her old parka, airline bag over a shoulder, was standing between the oak pillars of the market hall, looking across at the vicarage, psyching herself up before going home. Except it wasn’t really home at all, right now, was it?
After school, she’d slipped into Leominster in the vain hope that Woolies might have any CD by Sufjan Stevens who, she’d just discovered, was sufficiently like Lol to be interesting. Catching the last bus back to Ledwardine, predictably Sufjanless, she’d realized this had been just an excuse to shorten the evening.
The hardest bit of all was when Mum rang and Jane, taking it from the privacy of her apartment, had been like, Oh, no, fine, she’s really quite nice. We had a long chat about how she’d wanted to be a barrister from the age of about eight.
Mum trying hard to conceal her dismay, Jane going, Hey, Mum, it’s not my fault she wasn’t being a bitch. Knowing that if she’d come out with the truth, Mum would be on edge the whole time, imagining this cataclysmic row exploding, Jane screaming at Siân. Mum imagined her daughter was still fifteen or something and had no subtlety. But Jane was changing. She had to.
During the lunch hour, she’d called the vicarage from the school library stockroom, borrowing Kayleigh Evans’s mobile in case Siân checked. Getting the answering machine and deepening her voice, sounding posh, she’d asked for the time of the wonderfully inspiring meditation service and would it really be all right if someone from outside the parish attended, she’d heard it was always so packed.
A few more calls like that, carefully spaced, would do no harm at all. Maybe a toned-down Scottish accent next time. Go careful, though, because this woman was …
… oops, coming out.
Jane stiffened. It was strange, almost surreal, watching another woman cleric emerging from the vicarage drive. Siân had on a dark belted coat, unbuttoned, over her cassock, the dog collar luminous and her pewter hair gleaming in the lights from the square. Walking purposefully, with directionality, up towards the church through sporadic rain.
On the edge of the square, Siân was ambushed by Brenda Prosser from the Eight till Late. Nobody else was about, so Jane could hear most of what they were saying.
‘Yes, I am indeed,’ Siân said. ‘We couldn’t leave Ledwardine without a priest for a whole week, could we?’
‘Well, you know, I hadn’t seen her since church on Sunday,’ Brenda said, ‘and I thought she might be ill or something. She works a bit too hard, I think, sometimes.’
Well, thank you, Brenda.
‘Merrily is very conscientious,’ Siân said. ‘Now, I know you’re at the shop, Mrs Prosser, and I fully intend—’
‘Oh, quite a few years now, Mrs Clarke. Came over from Mid-Wales, we did, when my husband was made—’
‘Only— I hope you don’t think I’m being terribly rude, but I did arrange to meet someone at the church at six o’clock, and I’ve just realized I’m going to be late.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry—’
‘No, it’s not your—’
Meet someone? Hadn’t taken her long to get her feet under the table, had it? And why not meet whoever it was at the vicarage?
Unsettling as the situation may appear, trust your instincts, listen to your inner voice and by next week’s climactic conjunction of—
Jane’s horoscope in the Sunday Times.
Right. Sod this.
Pulling up the hood of her parka, transferring the airline bag to her left shoulder, she came out from behind the pillar, walking directly towards Siân and Brenda. And then, drawing the fur trim across her face, she was gliding anonymously past them towards the end of the square. Crossing the street, slipping under the lych-gate and running through the spitting rain down to the church, calculating that the lower door would be unlocked because Tuesday night was choir practice.
It always felt better sidling in by the smaller door. OK, she might be coming around to accepting the sense and the structure and the basic morality of Christianity, but she couldn’t imagine ever going the whole way, not even when she was old and scared; it lacked thrills, wasn’t sexy.
And yet its buildings were, somehow. The church yawned around her, that sudden sense of live air you never quite got used to. The secondary lights were on, high in the rafters.
Jane didn’t move until she was sure that all the pews were empty. Then padding down the aisle, listening for footsteps, voices. Sliding into the Bull Chapel. Always a good place to hide; if anyone came in, you could slide around the wooden screen to where the organ was and then out through the chancel.
The effigy on the tomb of Thomas Bull, long-dead squire figure, had a naked sandstone sword by its side and, instead of the eyelids being humbly lowered, the eyes were wide open, part of this self-satisfied half-smile.
Lowering herself into the only pew, Jane smiled back: Don’t smirk at me, pal, your family counts for zilch these days.
Siân’s meeting, she was thinking maybe Uncle Ted. Retired solicitor – maybe he’d even worked with Siân?
Ted in senior churchwarden mode was a hypocritical old sod, suspicious of Mum’s deliverance role, for ever whingeing that she should be devoting all her energies to the parish. Ted would love that the village was getting increasingly upper-middle-class, and given the choice between ancient stones and executive homes in Coleman’s Meadow …
He’d sell you down the river. Jane patted Tom Bull’s eroded cheek, hoping his bones were twisting and tangling up in fury. Turn this chapel into a wine bar.
She jumped as the main doors creaked, and they came in together, the famous acoustics soon making it clear that this wasn’t Uncle Ted.
THERE WASN’T MUCH doubt at all, any more, was there?
‘Let me try to understand this,’ Merrily said. ‘Mary was writing to you from Tepee City.’
Mrs Morningwood was squatting on the floor now, arms around the dog, face in deep shadow, Roscoe panting. Merrily picked up the letter.
‘She wanted to meet you back at Garway. She wanted you to go with her to the Master House – because you’re the strong one. And yet you read this … and it doesn’t seem right.’
It’s in my dreams, Muriel. I thought I’d got away but I cant. When I was having the baby it was terrible, the dreams I was having then I cant tell you. Rachel who was looking after me said it was just the hormones and they got Rick who was a priest to pray with me and it was all right for a while but then it started again after the baby was born.
‘She’s had a very bad time at the Master House and yet she wants to go back?
‘She needs to deal with it,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘And now it’s different. Now she isn’t the only one affected.’
The baby cries too much. The baby cries day and night. I cant get no sleep and when I do the dreams start.
The baby cries whenever shes WITH ME. Thats not how it should be! It really frightens me! Please help me Muriel! Theres nobody else I can go to to do what I need to do.
‘You agreed to meet her? You replied saying you’d—’
‘I didn’t waste time replying, I came back. Drove across to West Wales, found this rather pathetic community, boiling their drinking water from the ditches. She’d left. Nobody knew where she’d gone. They weren’t terribly helpful.’
‘Nobody told you about a baby, then.’
‘Not a word. Probably thought I was a spy from Social Services.’
‘And you never heard from her again.’
‘Nobody did. And then, of course, while I was in Wales, something else happened. The police carried out their famous dawn raid on the Master House, removing quantities of drugs … and the future Lord Stourport.’
‘Just Lord Stourport? He carried the can?’
‘Couple of others, I think. Nonentities. There were said to be some more people involved in the activities, but not living in. They may have got away minutes before the police broke the door down. A dawn raid tends to be less effective when its targets are habitually not going to bed until dawn.’
‘Have you still got the original letter?’
‘Somewhere. It was getting worn with repeated, agonized readings, so I retyped it, word for word. Preserving the erratic application of the apostrophe, as you may have noticed.’
‘And this is all of it? I mean, is this all she said? No explanation of exactly what happened to her at the Master House.’
‘No, it … perhaps she’d explained in a previous letter that went astray. That seems the most likely explanation.’
‘Or that she didn’t want to put it in a letter anyone might read. Or that she couldn’t bear to write about it. What’s all this about money? Look at the money your getting.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘The people at the Master House seem to have been paying her. For what?’
‘Evidently not merely as a housekeeper.’
‘No local gossip about it?’
‘Of course there was gossip. Sex, drugs, orgies. But nobody really knew.’
‘What about Lord Stourport? What’s happened to him?’
‘Became some kind of rock-music promoter, putting on concerts and festivals and making a ridiculous amount of money. Last I heard of him he was languishing at his family seat in Warwickshire – I think he acceded to the title within a few years of coming out of prison. I actually wrote to him once asking if he remembered Mary Roberts. Had quite a polite, civilized reply – under the circumstances he could hardly deny he’d been at the Master House – saying there’d been quite a number of young women at the house over the months and, to his shame, he didn’t really remember their names.’
‘Lying, I don’t doubt, but, darling, what could I do? You know what always haunted me?’
‘The thought that Mary might have gone back to the Master House without you?’
‘You’re very perceptive.’
‘It’s …’ Merrily shrugged ‘… It’s what would’ve haunted me, too. Look, the only thing that occurs to me – if she’s out there, she’s likely to have heard about what happened to Fuchsia. I shouldn’t think it’s made that much impact in the national press, but it’s not a common name, is it, Fuchsia Mary Linden, and if Mary is out there …’
‘You mean if she’s still alive.’
‘You’re fairly sure that Fuchsia was conceived at the Master House?’
‘So her father could be Lord Stourport himself? The story Felix gave me was that the father had gone to America. But that’s the sort of thing Mary might just say to forestall questions. And you were obviously wondering about Felix himself.’
‘I was simply thinking of reasons why the girl might suddenly have wanted to smash in the skull of the man she was living with.’ Mrs Morningwood waved an unlit cigarette. ‘Might she simply have found out, coming here, that Barlow was at the Master House at the same time as her mother? The same time, in fact, as her mother got pregnant?’
‘With the worst will in the world, I really don’t think we’re looking at an incestuous relationship.’
‘Some strange and complex alliances are formed, Watkins. I merely floated the possibility.’
‘Yeah, well, I feel fairly confident about sinking it. If Felix was Fuchsia’s father, why would he tender for the building contract at the Master House in the first place and bring her with him? Wouldn’t a few people have recognized him?’
‘Hmm.’ Mrs Morningwood sniffed. ‘Stourport’s people didn’t exactly mix in the community, but I take your point. It would have to be unusually perverse – especially whilst employed by the Duchy of Cornwall.’
‘Who were the other girls Lord Stourtport mentioned?’
‘I … I’ve no idea. I suppose you didn’t have to be able to change a washer to get a bed at the Master House. You could also be a woman. And probably didn’t have to be all that good-looking either, towards the end, when everyone was perpetually stoned.’
‘No idea where Mary got to, between walking out on your mother for the last time and turning up in Tepee City? She must’ve been introduced to the community.’
‘I have no idea. Tell me – why do you think Fuchsia did it – killed Barlow?’
‘Don’t know. It’s why I’m here. Partly.’
Roscoe hauled himself up, stretched and wandered over to Merrily, tail waving. She stood up.
‘He wants me to go. Would it be his dinner time?’
‘You’re very perceptive,’ Mrs Morningwood said.
‘I wanted to be a vet when I was a kid. And then discovered about all the pets they had to put down.’ She patted Roscoe, didn’t need to bend. ‘It’s surprising how well behaved he is, isn’t it, when he’s not in a churchyard?’
‘Good icebreakers, dogs.’ Mrs Morningwood smiled, disarmingly girlish in the glow from the range. ‘Had to get your attention somehow. I thought – and still do – that you would be my best bet for finding out … not only what happened to Mary, but … other things I can’t quite put my finger on. The girl showing up like that, after all these years …’
‘And then you made sure you kept our attention by telling Jane just what she wanted to hear about the mysteries of Garway.’
‘It was all true.’
‘What – including the gruesome tale of Mrs Newton laid out in her coffin to be pawed by the whole village?’
‘That was true … in essence. Garway was almost certainly the last village in Herefordshire to maintain the Watch Night traditions.’
‘So which bits did you exaggerate?’
‘Well, it … wasn’t the whole village. Just a few neighbours. But I really didn’t like the place and like it even less since Mary disappeared. Whatever you propose to do there, it needs it. What will you do?’
‘I was thinking some form of Requiem Eucharist.’
‘A service for the repose of the dead. Thinking originally of Felix and Fuchsia but, from what you’ve said, we could be looking at something more extensive. Mrs Morningwood, look … thank you for all you’ve done. I do feel better. If a bit tired.’
Face it: without the reflexology, she’d most likely be on her way home by now, driving slowly, popping aspirins.
‘That’s normal, that’s good. You need to come back in a couple of days, have it topped up … and, of course, tell me what you’ve found out. This Requiem Eucharist – would that aim to deal with what one might term evil residue?’
‘Those accusations of heresy and idolatry against the Templars – no smoke without fire. We get people here, a handful every year, poking around, taking measurements in the church. Freemasons, some of them, believing themselves to be the inheritors of the Templar legacy. Idiots in robes, sometimes. Think about what might’ve destroyed Mary’s sleep. What they were doing to her. What continued to throw a shadow over her wherever she went.’
‘Well …’ Merrily picked up her bag. ‘The Eucharist can be very powerful. I need to go away and think about it.’
They walked out of the cottage, Roscoe between them, into a greyness of fields, a blackness of woodland. Two windows were lit up at Mrs Morningwood’s end of the terrace, the rest of it dead, like a neon sign in which most of the letters had fused.
‘What are the neighbours like?’
‘Absolute worst kind.’ Mrs Morningwood snorted. ‘These are all holiday cottages. We were isolated in Garway at one time, but now it’s getting just like everywhere else – local youngsters priced out by London lawyers and stockbrokers and junior government ministers here for an average of about three weeks a year. Three out of four in a single terrace, all so-called weekend cottages, and the bastards wonder why we have a housing crisis. Answer is, we don’t, we’re simply top-heavy with self-indulgent second-bloody-homers.’
Merrily stood looking back at the terrace. An empty holiday home conveyed its own distinctive form of dereliction. But then, what right did she have to moralize, her and Jane rattling around in their seven-bedroom vicarage?
‘I can’t get my bearings up here.’ Eyes adjusting now, she looked away, along the limited horizon, hills concealed by the woods. ‘Where’s the church?’
‘The church – this church – is always closer than you think,’ Mrs Morningwood said. ‘Go carefully, Watkins.’
‘… FOR AGREEING TO meet me, Canon.’
‘My pleasure. That’s what I’m here for.’
‘You see, it’s difficult—’
‘And let me say that, although I’m only here for a few days and you don’t really know me at all, you can safely tell me anything you would have told Merrily.’
Safely. Jane glared at Tom Bull. Oh yeah.
‘Look, it’s all right.’
‘No … this is about Merrily, you see.’
Jane stood up quickly, her back to the wooden screen.
‘I think we’d better sit down,’ Siân said firmly, and Jane, well out of sight, automatically sat down again, before realizing.
‘I’ve agonized about this, you see,’ the woman was saying, really intense. ‘When I heard that a very senior minister had taken over for a few days, I knew what I had to do. I said to myself, you’re not going to get a better opportunity than this, are you? In fact, to be honest, I thought … well, I thought this was a sign from God.’
‘I see,’ Siân said.
Oh sure. Like she’d believe in signs from God. Jane stood tensed against the wooden screen, airline bag at her feet, hands clenched into fists, pushing at the pockets of her parka, listening to it all coming out, this senseless stream of totally unfounded bollocks. No sublety at all, no restraint, no … no basic intelligence.
‘… I know people were beginning to have their doubts when she reduced the number of hymns at the morning worship from three to two. Hymns are traditional, aren’t they? Songs of praise we all know. And the church I went to before, there was always an evensong.’
‘Well, yes,’ Siân said, ‘I’m afraid quite a few parishes have had to dispense with it, mainly due to falling congregations, especially in the winter. Many people really don’t like leaving their firesides and, indeed, in some places, simply don’t feel safe any more going out after dark. Especially the elderly.’
‘But replacing it with this so-called service of meditation?’
‘It seems to be rather popular.’
‘But it’s not Christian, is it, Canon Clarke? It’s eastern religion, that’s what it is. Sitting there in a circle with candles, men and women, dressed in … in casual clothing, so-called opening themselves up …’
‘Well, you know, there is a fairly well-established tradition of Christian medi—’
‘Not in the Bible!’
‘Well that depends on how you— However—’
Siân, you had to give her some credit, was doing her best, but you could hear the woman’s voice rising higher, when she wasn’t getting the reactions she’d obviously expected, the accusations getting wilder, crazier. Jane getting madder.
‘… And I think what offends many of us is the way she makes no attempt to conceal her private life, which is not … Well, she has a boyfriend, see, and there’s no doubt – no doubt at all – that they’re sleeping together out of wedlock. A priest! What kind of example is that setting to young people?’
Jane fought for control. All the time and energy she’d spent bringing Mum and Lol together, and this small-minded—
‘At least, she’s one of the women he’s sleeping with. He’s a so-called musician, see, a rock musician of some kind, and we all know the level of their morality.’
‘I’m sorry, Shirley, I’m not sure I understand precisely what you’re saying here.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you, Canon. My brother overheard some young women talking in the Black Swan. They were drunk, as so many of these young women are today, and one of them said she … well, there are words I will not use in church, or anywhere else, but she seemed very much to be implying to her friends that she’d had sexual congress with this man.’
Jane froze up, Thomas Bull smiling at her, and she wanted to kick his smug face in. The despicable, small-time viciousness of this village. Anyone who really knew Lol. But they didn’t want to, did they? They just watched from behind their curtains and muttered and fantasized.
She wanted to storm out there, snatch this bitch out of her pew, point out that people like her were the reason the Church was dying on its Celtic foundations, losing what was left of its real spirituality. Haul her to the door and throw her out.
‘And the smoking. It’s not nice, is it? There’s no excuse any more, all the help that’s available. It’s a sign of weakness. I’ve seen her smoking in the churchyard, with the gravedigger. It’s a public place. I could have them arrested.’
Jane let her face fall into her hands.
‘… And you do know, I suppose, that she’s supporting these people who want to reinstate a pagan temple?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Siân said. ‘A pagan temple?’
‘In the field where they were going to build a housing estate? Starter homes for our young people.’
Executive homes, you ignorant …
‘Nobody can tell me that those stones were not buried for a good reason.’
‘Oh, the stones,’ Siân said. ‘I see.’
‘You would expect our parish priest to oppose that on principle.’
No reply from Siân. She must surely have realized by now the level of insanity she was dealing with here.
‘And if it wasn’t for the daughter …’
‘The daughter – well, that explains a lot.’
‘You’ve rather left me behind here, Shirley.’
Shirley West. Mum had talked about this woman a few times, Jane only half-listening because this had been Mum as doormat: feeling obliged to help someone whose attentions had become kind of smothering. Just another vicar-hugger, Jane had figured. And all the time, behind Mum’s back …
‘Put it this way,’ Shirley West said. ‘How often do we see the daughter in church?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’
Jane had to hold on to the screen to prevent herself from walking out there and going, Not quite never.
‘Believe me, Canon Clarke, she’s had a terrible time with that girl. Hated the idea of her mother becoming ordained and has just … gone out of her way to make her life a misery. Impossible to control, absolutely no respect … and this is not gossip, Canon, I’ve had this from a respected public figure. This girl and that old man who digs the graves and smokes, they were very nearly arrested for vandalizing the buildingsite in Coleman’s Meadow, did you know that? She was in a kind of hysterical frenzy.’
‘Shirley, I …’ Siân paused. ‘Regrettable as all this might be, I’m afraid you’d probably find similar situations in the homes of over half the clergy in this diocese. Most teenagers go through a period of rebellion against their parents’ values. The only consolation being that if children are left to make up their own minds, without being pressurized, they will often find their own way into what we still like to think of as the fold.’
‘But is it?’
‘I’m sorry …’
‘Is it a rebellion? Because Merrily is involved with the other business, isn’t she? Ghosts and the demonic.’
‘You mean deliverance.’
‘Which is to do with the occult. I’ve been in the vicarage, Canon Clarke, I’ve seen the occult books on the shelves.’
‘Well, she’s had to study all that, Shirley. She’s had to go into areas of study that many people would find distasteful.’
‘But does she?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Does she find it distasteful? I’ve talked to people about this. I have many Christian friends all over the country. My information is that this is a job that’s always been done by men before. She was probably the first woman exorcist in the country, that’s my information. And she’s also the first that I – or any of my friends in the church – have known to introduce this so-called meditation. This opening up of a congregation to unseen presences.’
‘I don’t think you’ll find it’s that uncommon nowadays. As for deliverance being a male preserve, just a few years ago, the whole ministry—’
‘I think we have to look at all these things together – the interest in exorcism … the meditation … the pagan temple … and the near-Satanism practised by the daughter. And see what it adds up to. I think it adds up to a terrible danger.’
The silence was so absolute that Jane could hear her own breathing. Jesus, this was not a joke.
She made eye contact with Tom Bull, his bearded face openly malign. Jane thought of the green man and Baphomet, anger giving way to a kind of fear of the unknown. Fear for Mum, out there on the unknown border, Lol gigging somewhere miles away. Their little nucleus fragmented, and she was alone here, in this supposedly sacred place, this sanctuary, watching the poison dripping into the chalice.
Shirley West said, ‘I think before Merrily goes around encouraging people to open themselves up, she needs to take a good look inside her own family. Don’t you?’
And then Siân, who so far had been displaying a reasonable attitude to this insanity … Siân blew it.
‘You’d better tell me everything,’ she said.
Turn Over Stones
OVER DINNER – RAIN rolling down the dairy’s main window, silent as tears of old grief – Merrily asked the Murrays how much they knew about the Grays and the Gwilyms.
‘Our friends either side of the great divide,’ Teddy said.
Lifting his wineglass, as if in a toast, his silhouette a magic-lantern show on the white wall behind him in the lamplight.
‘Not that you’d know it,’ Beverley said. ‘They sound exactly the same. Not as if the Gwilyms have Welsh accents, let alone speak Welsh. Well, certainly not … Oh, I never know how to pronounce that man’s name.’
‘Sycharth, Bevvie. We’re inclined to say Sickarth, but it’s Suckarth. Yes, it’s an odd thing. If someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh. Perfectly affable chap, though.’
‘Not that we see much of him,’ Beverley said, ‘since his business has become more Hereford-based. Rich enough now to have a farm manager.’
‘And his family owned the Master House,’ Merrily said.
‘Since medieval times, I believe.’ Teddy nodding. ‘I can certainly tell you something about that.’
His version tied in with Mrs Morningwood’s. As a result of the sudden death of the head of the family, the house had been sold around the turn of last century. The wife, embittered at the way she’d been treated over the years, had got rid of it almost before anybody noticed.
‘Causing an awful fuss, but there was nothing the Gwilyms could do,’ Teddy said.
‘But the Master House is in England.’
‘Well, yes, Merrily, but a part of England that seems to have been more Welsh, in its time, than many parts of Wales. In religious terms, particularly. Both early Welsh Christianity and Welsh Nonconformism in the nineteenth century have their roots hereabouts. And, of course, if Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion had been successful in the fifteenth century, the border would have been redrawn, putting this whole area in Glyndwr’s new, independent Wales. You do know about Glyndwr’s connection with this area?’
‘He’s supposed to have retired here, after his campaign collapsed.’
It had always seemed odd to Merrily that Glyndwr should spend his last years in the border area where he’d caused maximum damage, burning down most of the major castles. You’d have thought he’d feel safer in some Welsh heartland.
‘Hidden away, more like, with a price on his head,’ Teddy said. ‘A celebrity outlaw. His daughter, Alice, had married a Scudamore from Kentchurch Court, and they might have helped to conceal him. He was never caught, he just disappeared. There is a legend that he once hid out at the Master House – but, then, lots of places claim that connection.’
Beverley said, ‘It’s the sort of legend I imagine some of the Gwilyms liked to pretend was actual history.’
‘And they’ve been trying to … reacquire it?’ Merrily said. ‘I mean, the Master House?’
‘Periodically, yes. I’m not sure how bothered Sycharth is now.’
‘I heard he was totally hell-bent on getting it back.’
‘Well, you could be right.’ Teddy shrugged. ‘I don’t know. How are your plans going, as regards, ah …?’
‘Still thinking it would be good to get the Gwilyms and the Grays under that roof. Especially as it no longer belongs to either of them. No better time to heal old wounds.’
‘Would you like me to have a word?’
‘The Grays, at least. They come to church – Paul in a wheelchair now, poor chap. My feeling is that they were more than glad to get rid of that house. Whether you believe in some sort of spiritual malaise or not, they haven’t had much luck. The question is, will they come if the Gwilyms are going to be there? I don’t know. I’ll talk to them. I’ll do what I can.’
‘Thank you, Teddy.’
‘If I tell them someone from the Duchy of Cornwall will be there?’
‘I’ll try and talk to the land agent tomorrow.’
‘Not the, ah, Duke himself, presumably.’
‘At a rite of cleansing?’
‘Quite.’ Teddy smiled. ‘Although that would certainly bring both families out of their cupboards, wouldn’t it?’
‘It would also bring the Special Branch out of theirs,’ Merrily said. ‘And, on the whole, I don’t think my nerves would stand it.’
Earlier, sitting on a corner of the bed at The Ridge, with the bedside lamp on, she’d called Lol on spec, a bit surprised to catch him in.
‘I’ve been back all day,’ Lol had said patiently. ‘Last night’s gig was Brecon. Thirty miles?’
‘Of course … sorry.’
‘Old hippies and young soldiers, mainly.’
‘Brecon. It’s a garrison town. Plus a few girls who couldn’t have been born when Hazey Jane started.’
The power of bad dreams. Merrily closed her eyes. Sometimes you could punch yourself in the mouth.
Lol said, ‘Been watching Canon Callaghan-Clarke familiarizing herself with the village landmarks: church, market hall, Black Swan, Gomer Parry …’
‘I’m sorry. Couldn’t even let you know we were getting her. Events … overtook.’
Lol had met Siân only once, last spring, during a tense and troubling evening in Ludlow Castle, when Siân had finally been exposed to the blurred reality of deliverance. Not a comfortable night, for any of them.
‘Not a problem,’ Lol said. ‘I kind of thought you’d wind up going. Under the circumstances.’
Not a problem? Why wasn’t it a problem?
‘Lol, I’m sorry, it’s … I’m still a bit tired. Got up feeling lousy and wound up having foot-reflexology. From this Mrs Morningwood. It was … strange.’
‘But it worked?’
‘Something worked. I think. It’s just knocked me out a bit. After some moments of rare clarity, I’m tired and confused again, but yeah, I feel better. Don’t knock it.’
‘Never straightforward, this job. You turn over stones, things crawl out. You ever come across Lord Stourport?’
‘Well, we’ve obviously exchanged nods at various receptions,’ Lol said. ‘Buckingham Palace garden parties, that kind of …’
‘You’ve never heard of him, then.’
Merrily took a long breath and told him, in some detail, about Lord Stourport’s time at the Master House, his supposed connections with the music industry. About Mary Linden nearly thirty years go. It was good to talk about it, to bring it out of the dreamlike fug of the day.
‘We think she was abused.’
‘Don’t know. Don’t know anything for certain. Or even if there was an element of fantasy. Drug-fuelled. I mean, it was a very long time ago but I really, really don’t like the feel of it.’
‘How about I ask Prof about this guy,’ Lol said.
‘Prof. Of course. That would be … What the hell is that?’
Her head wouldn’t process the clamour, but its vibration brought her to her feet.
‘You OK, Merrily?’
‘It’s …’ She started to laugh. ‘It’s a dinner gong.’
And no time to hang out of the window to smoke half a cigarette.
‘A period boarding house,’ Lol had said. ‘I so envy you.’
* * *
There was a strained kind of formality about the Murrays. As if she was a child they were in the process of adopting.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so, Merrily …’ Beverley was putting out nut roast; why did non-veggies always think it had to be nut roast? ‘… You seem rather … sleepy. I was quite worried about you this morning. Now, you don’t look unwell, but you do look exhausted. And Teddy, please don’t say anything about the powerful air of God’s own country.’
‘Actually,’ Merrily said, anything to get this sensible woman off her back, ‘I had some treatment today.’
Telling them about Mrs Morningwood. No reason not to. Presumably it was a legitimate business, the reflexology.
Beverley frowned. Teddy looked intrigued.
‘It was effective? Because I’ve often thought of consulting her myself. A lot to be said for preventative therapy. Beverley’s not so sure, though, are you, Bevvie?’
Beverley didn’t reply until she’d finished serving the nut roast, the onion gravy and the veg.
‘It’s nothing to do with alternative therapy, which I’m sure has its place. I just never know quite what to think of Mrs Morningwood.’
‘In what context?’
Merrily realized how hungry she was, the body craving food, even nut roast. Beverley sat down, pushing a strand of blonde hair away from an eye.
‘Oh, you hear things. Put it this way, if Teddy was to go I’d certainly make sure I went too.’
Merrily’s fork froze just short of her lips.
‘Something of a man-eater,’ Beverley said. ‘That’s what they say, anyway.’
‘Always strikes me as a little … threadbare for that sort of thing. Eccentric, deranged. The way she drives around in that big Jeep, taking corners too fast. Sorry, I didn’t mean deranged, I think I meant disarranged.’
‘Can’t say anyone’s said anything to me,’ Teddy said. ‘Apart from you, of course, Bevvie.’
‘Well, they wouldn’t, now, would they?’
‘Blimey,’ Merrily said.
She ate slowly, aware, it seemed, of every spice in the roast. Aware of herself eating – that element of separation which sometimes came with extreme physical tiredness when the senses, for some reason, were still alert.
Gossip. There was, unfortunately, a place for it; it was often the most direct route to … if not the truth, then something in its vicinity. She looked at Beverley.
‘Who are we talking about, then? Mrs Morningwood and … who?’
‘Oh dear.’ Beverley pouring herself some water from a crystal jug. ‘I wish I’d never …’
‘Ah, now you’ve started …’ A slightly sinful sparkle in Teddy’s blue eyes. ‘Can’t not tell us now, Bevvie.’
He knew, of course. Merrily watched their eyes. They must surely have had this discussion before. Now they were having it again for her benefit, passing on something they thought she ought to be aware of. Especially if submitting to further reflexology.
‘Farmers. I was told,’ Beverley said.
‘Farmers plural?’ Merrily blinked. ‘I mean … how plural?’
‘Well … at least two, certainly. I suppose she has that sort of rough … edge that I imagine a certain kind of man would find attractive. Admittedly, always farmers living alone. And it never seems to lead to anything. No evidence that she’s after anyone’s money, if you see what I …’
‘An independent sort of woman,’ Teddy said. ‘Was she ever married? I’m never quite sure.’
‘In London,’ Beverley said. ‘She was in London for over twenty years. Long enough to lose her local accent, certainly. But she came back, unmarried, re-adopting her maiden name, and whatever she gets up to … is a question of roots, I suppose. They go back many generations in Garway, the Morningwoods. Whatever they do is accepted.’
‘Whatever they do?’
‘Well, her mother … oh, I hate this.’
Beverley drank some water. Teddy leaned back.
‘It’s all right, I know. The family has quite a history of what are now known as alternative remedies. Folk remedies. What were known as wise women. There’s an old tradition of nine witches of Garway, and her mother and grandmother were more in that mould. Allegedly.’
‘They were …’ Merrily looked up ‘… considered to be witches?’
‘They dispensed herbal remedies. They were also said to – no way to dress this up, I’m afraid, Merrily – assist girls who got themselves into trouble.’
‘Used to be a local social service, didn’t it? No great need for it now.’
Merrily remembered Gomer Parry’s uncharacteristic reticence on the subject of Mrs Morningwood.
Beverley looked down at her plate.
Lord Stourport – Lol was surprised to find out that he did know him. Well, knew of him, mainly – they’d met, briefly, maybe a couple of times.
‘I never realized,’ he said on the phone to Prof Levin. ‘Jimmy Hater.’
He’d called around nine p.m., when Prof habitually took a coffee break from whatever album he was mixing. Often, he would work through midnight, the cafetière at his elbow. An addictive personality, but caffeine was safer than the booze of old.
Lol said, ‘I remember he always sounded kind of upper-class, in comparison with most of the others.’
‘Real name James Hayter-Hames,’ Prof said. ‘If you were rock ’n’ roll management in the punk era, that was not a good time to let it get out that your family was even posher than Joe Strummer’s. Hayter on its own, however – that was a strong and impressive name to have. Especially if you left out the “y”.’
‘I didn’t even know about the “y” for a long time.’ Lol recalled a stocky, strutting guy, Napoleonic. ‘I used to think it was a completely made-up name, like Sid Vicious. You ever produce anything for any of Hayter’s bands?’
‘For my sins. Post-punk death-metal. Not my favourite period, Laurence. Bearable at the time, with three or four bottles of red wine, God forbid, on the mixing desk. That era, I like to draw a curtain across it. Death metal – mostly foul. Jimmy Hayter – a twat.’
Prof said, ‘Once a twat …’
‘Where does he live? I mean, is he accessible?’
‘Yes and no. He inherited the pile eventually, of course. It’s a responsibility. Nobody wants to besmirch the coat of arms. On the other hand, the family seat gobbles wealth. And farming, even big-time farming, doesn’t pay half the bills any more. So the earl, whatever he is now, he keeps his hand in, and when the roof falls in on the orangery or something he puts on a festival. On the very fringe of his estate, naturally. The house a mere dot on the horizon.’
‘Where is the house?’
‘I dunno, someplace south of Brum. Stratford way, possibly. I could find out.’
‘Death metal,’ Lol said. ‘A lot of occult there?’
‘Generally pseudo. Guys on Harleys, with skull rings and slash-here neck tattoos. So … occult … this would be a Merrily inquiry, would it?’
‘Would he talk to her, do you think? Say, on the phone?’
‘On the phone, Laurence, he won’t say anything worth the price of a cheap-rate call. And, frankly, the last thing you want is to expose a woman as appealing as little Merrily, with or without the dog collar, to Jimmy Hayter. Especially with his lovely wife, her ladyship, living a lavishly subsidized life in France, her physical role in his life complete … and, from what I hear, bloody grateful for that.’
‘Would he speak to me, do you think?’
‘Why should he do that?’
‘Maybe in the interests of … I don’t know … keeping the past where it belongs?’
Lol had the map book open on the desk in the window, marking out the route to a village he didn’t know, outside Gloucester. Tomorrow night’s concert: a big pub with a folk club, the kind of intimate gig which, on the whole, he preferred. He pushed the page under the lamp. How far from Stratford? Forty miles, fifty?
‘The situation is, Prof, that in his youth Jimmy Hayter seems to have been part of a commune. In a farmhouse down on the Welsh Border. Some of what they might have got up to … it would help Merrily to know about that.’
‘Might have got up to?’ Prof said. ‘What’s that mean? Do I like the sound of that? I don’t. What does Merrily say?’
‘She says it gives her a bad feeling.’
‘Never dismiss a woman’s feelings, good or bad,’ Prof said, and Lol could hear the clink of the beloved and necessary cafetière, the slurping of the brown elixir. Then a silence, then, ‘Jesus, Lol, you need to understand, you must not threaten this man.’
‘Don’t take the glasses off, then?’
‘Laurence, listen to me. Jimmy Hayter … stately home, dinner parties with the gentry, but the guys with the skull rings and the slash-here tattoos, they still dig his garden, you know what I’m saying?’
TEDDY WAS RIGHT, it had once been an accepted rural service, like blacksmithing, and there had been an opportunity for Muriel Morningwood to talk about it and she hadn’t.
My mother would awake in the morning to hear her throwing up. Coming to the obvious conclusion. Which she put to Mary.
Merrily lay on the bed, gazing up at the wardrobe. Just a wardrobe, mesh over its ventilation slits, nothing like Garway Church.
There was a different light, now, on Mrs Morningwood Senior’s motherly concern for Mary Linden. Finding out about Mary’s pregnancy, would she have offered to terminate it, or what? What had actually passed between them to cause Mary to leave the Morningwood house before morning?
Need to know. Did she need to know? Was this important? You kept turning over stones and uncovering other stones. At which point did you back off?
There were times when deliverance could seem like the most rewarding role in a declining Church, but it was also the most ill-defined.
It was not yet nine p.m. Needing to think about all this, Merrily had accepted Beverley’s assessment of her level of fatigue, taken herself upstairs. Had a shower, put on a clean T-shirt, lay down, her body instantly falling into relaxation … but her damn head just filling up with questions, anomalies …
Tomorrow she’d need to talk to Sycharth Gwilym. Might find him at his farm, or it might mean driving into Hereford.
Before or after facing up to Mrs Morningwood? This time, no flam, no bullshit.
She sat up. There was an electric kettle on the dressing table. She prised herself from the bed, filled the kettle in the shower room. And, of course, she needed to call Jane, perhaps talk to Siân, make sure everything was OK. Sitting on the side of the bed, she switched on the phone, and it throbbed in her hand.
‘Merrily, it’s Sophie. Could you ring me at home?’
Sounding strangely close to excited, Sophie said she might have solved the mystery of the cuttings.
‘Canon Dobbs, Merrily.’
‘Oh … sorry.’ Hell, the cuttings. On hands and knees on the carpet, Merrily pulled one of the overnight bags from under the bed, dug out the plastic folder. ‘I was just … going through them again.’
‘In which case, you’ve probably noticed several mentions of the late Sir Laurens van der Post.’
‘Yes.’ Scrabbling through the papers. ‘That’s, erm …’
Uncovering an article enclosing a picture of this benign-looking old guy with a grey comb-over, side-on to the camera: PRINCE’S GURU: SAGE OR CHARLATAN?
‘You haven’t read them, have you, Merrily?’
‘I …’ Merrily sighed. ‘I haven’t read them all. Things have been complicated. Just inconveniences, really. But time-consuming.’
‘Do you know anything about van der Post?’
‘This and that.’
Van der Post, Laurens: white South African who bonded with the bushmen of the Kalahari studying so-called primitive belief systems and showing what Western societies might learn from them, while drawing public attention to the horrors of apartheid.
A war hero. But known primarily, in later years, as a close friend of the Prince of Wales. A seminal influence.
‘The Church wasn’t happy,’ Merrily recalled, ‘when Charles decided he should be William’s godfather. On account of van der Post’s own belief system being not strictly C of E. Correct?’
‘He believed that all religions were, essentially, one,’ Sophie said.
‘Which possibly accounts for Charles’s declared intention of becoming Defender of Faiths, when he becomes king?’
‘Which almost certainly does account for it. The extent of van der Post’s influence can never be overstated. He was extremely mystical in a way that I suspect your … daughter would understand.’
‘That would be too simplistic. He died in’ 96, at the age of ninety, having been far closer to the Prince in his crucial formative years than, I would guess, anyone in the Church of England. You’ll find details in the cuttings about the time they went together into the wilderness of Kenya and van der Post imparted his knowledge of … I suppose the word “shamanism” would not be inappropriate.’
‘It’s coming back to me. Closeness to the land, anyway.’
‘And the alleged … spirits of nature. Evidently a very powerful experience for a young man. They were camping out in a very remote area, without guards or detectives. And there, if you want to look for it, lies the basis of this much publicized – and possibly much misrepresented – communication with plants. It might have sown the seeds of the Prince’s passion for conservation and green issues generally.’
What was also interesting was the way Sophie – who worked for the cathedral – talked about it, with no hint of condemnation. As if even the fringe-pagan became less obnoxious, for her, if it happened to be championed by royalty. If it ever came to a stand-off between the Church and the Crown, whose side would Sophie be on?
‘But where’s it leading, Sophie?’
‘It leads,’ Sophie said, ‘directly to Canon Dobbs. When he first came over here in, I think, the late 1920s, van der Post became a farmer in Gloucestershire for some years. Canon Dobbs grew up near Cirencester. My information is that he might even have worked on the van der Post farm as a boy, during holidays.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘I’ve been speaking to a retired clergyman – nobody you would know, so don’t ask – who knew Dobbs years ago. He said Dobbs would often talk about a South African farmer he’d known before the war who had helped to awaken his spiritual faculties.’
‘If they stayed in contact, Sophie, that doesn’t totally add up. Dobbs’s attitude to spirituality, while not exactly fundamentalist, was certainly tightly focused.’
‘Merrily, you only encountered him at the very end. We’re talking about the 1930s, when he was a boy, and Laurens van der Post a young man. They may not subsequently have followed the same spiritual paths, but in their questing years … Anyway, they were exchanging letters almost until van der Post’s death.’
‘You know this for a fact?’
‘I confirmed it about an hour ago, with Mrs Edna Rees. You remember her?’
‘Yes, I do.’
Dobbs’s housekeeper in Gwynne Street who had once told Merrily he hardly spoke to her. A cloistered existence in his later years.
‘She sometimes, in his absence, managed to clean his office,’ Sophie said. ‘And she remembers the letters.’
Merrily recalled Mrs Rees. Stolid West Herefordshire countrywoman. Shrewd.
‘She read these letters?’
‘As Canon Dobbs was apparently shutting her out – unnecessarily, she felt – I would guess she saw it as justified. How far she understood them is another matter. The parts that stuck in her mind, inevitably, were the references to the late Princess Diana.’
‘It’s been widely reported, since, that Sir Laurens was not entirely in favour of that marriage. Once describing the poor child as, I recall, a pinhead.’
‘Sharing his opinions with Dobbs? Elderly men conspiring against Diana?’
‘So it seemed to Mrs Rees.’
‘A big Diana fan, I’d guess.’
‘Until then, she hadn’t really known who Laurens van der Post was.’
‘When was this?’
‘Early nineties, I would guess. Mrs Rees made it her business to find out about him – afterwards, of course. And although she insists she never discussed the correspondence with anyone from that day to this, I think she was rather glad to have finally unloaded it all on … someone.’
Someone who worked for the cathedral. And who – humiliatingly excluded, for the first time, from the Bishop’s confidence – would be bitterly identifying with Mrs Rees’s dilemma.
‘Well,’ Merrily said, ‘it’s certainly fascinating from an historical perspective, but—’
‘There’s more. Mrs Rees believes something was entrusted by Sir Laurens to Canon Dobbs – information, perhaps even a package of some kind. Canon Dobbs never actually accused her of reading his mail, but a locksmith arrived one day to change the locks on his study door, and this time Mrs Rees never found the keys.’
‘Any idea what it was?’
‘There was one significant reference in the last letter she saw from Sir Laurens. He … believed he was under surveillance.’
‘Well, that would figure. Anybody that close to the heir to the throne, the security services would be bound to check him out.’
‘Yes, I suppose.’
‘I don’t know what to say about this, Sophie. It’s intriguing, but unlikely to have any bearing on what I’m supposed to be dealing with. It’s all getting too crowded for me. I just want to strip it down to the basics, get the right people in one room, hold a suitable service. I’m just a small-time cleric in the sticks – let’s not get too ambitious.’
‘Oh,’ Sophie said.
‘The Bishop’s here.’
‘With you now?’
‘Standing in my porch. I can see him through the window.’
‘He usually show up this time of night?’
‘No. I’m going to have to go and let him in.’
‘Of course you are.’
* * *
Jane said everything was absolutely fine which, if you knew Jane at all, meant that everything was very much not fine.
‘Can you talk? I mean, is Siân there?’
‘She’s not far away.’
‘Nothing I can’t handle.’
‘Jane, I don’t want you handling anything.’
‘Mum, have you seen the Baphomet again? I mean, have you been back to that house?’
‘Don’t change the subject. Do I need to come back to deal with anything?’
‘Of course not. Don’t even think about it.’
‘If you need any advice,’ Merrily said, ‘you go to L