Darkwoode (Part Two)
Part Two: Draco Movens
VIII: September 12th
‘God bless them, poor souls,’ murmured the Rural Dean of Templeton. ‘I don’t suppose they have any firm idea as to the death toll yet?’
Georgios Anagnosides shook his head. ‘No, I’ve heard the figure of 5,000 bandied around, but it’s really a very rough estimate. Given the sheer number and variety of the businesses and offices housed within the World Trade Centre - more than seventy nationalities, I gather - it’s possible we may never know the exact figure.’
‘I must admit, I’d never heard of this “Al-Qaeda” until yesterday,’ said Canon Harris reflectively. ‘Or Osama bin Laden. Foreign affairs was never my strong suit.’
‘I’m afraid I knew a fair bit about them,’ observed Georgios. ‘In my curacy, I was on very good terms with our local iman. He was very much aware of bin Laden, and regarded him as a highly dangerous individual, whom the West ignored at their peril. The bombing of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi three years ago first brought Al-Qaeda to America’s attention. Two hundred lives were lost then, following much the same modus operandi as they employed yesterday - almost simultaneous attacks on multiple targets. Clearly, the danger bin Laden posed wasn’t taken seriously enough. Well, that’s changed now. “A day of infamy”–that’s how Roosevelt described Pearl Harbour. It’s almost sixty years later: and here we are again.’
‘You know, we had dared to think that this new millennium would be different. What happened to all the talk of a “peace dividend”, with the collapse of Communism, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the West victorious; even, it was said, the “end of history”?’
The younger man smiled, and said: ‘Francis Fukuyama, who coined that phrase a decade ago, may well live to regret it. I rather prefer the Chinese saying: “Better to be a dog in times of tranquillity than a human in times of chaos.” My fear is that the relative tranquillity of the last ten years is over now.’
‘Well, I fervently hope that as far as Templeton with Morrington with Llanfihangel Gilfach are concerned, the reverse is true, and the times of chaos have now passed. I must confess to being relieved now we’ve finally met. You’re not quite what I was expecting. Don’t take this the wrong way, my boy - but I’m glad my worst fears don’t appear to have been realised. More tea?’
‘No, thank you. I’m delighted to have confounded your expectations, Vernon; and I hope I won’t give you cause to re-evaluate them again. So what do you think the greatest challenge will be for me, as the newly-arrived incumbent, in these three parishes?’
‘The countryside is going through a terrible time of it right now, Georgios. This Foot and Mouth disease: I’ve never witnessed anything like it. It’s been far worse than the 1967 outbreak. Rural footpaths closed for months, millions of cattle slaughtered, livelihoods ruined. The crisis seems to be easing, at last, but you’ll still get your fair share of suicidal farmers to deal with, I’m sure. And then, of course, there’s the particular challenge of ministering to a parish that is still grieving the loss of a beloved priest.’ The Rural Dean put down his teacup, and folded his hands together, as if in an attitude of prayer, and rested his lips on them in contemplation. After a few moments, he lowered them, and said simply: ‘Know thy enemy, Georgios - that’s the simplest advice I can give, and a reminder of the greatest challenge you will face. I’m afraid you will find a veritable spider’s web of intrigue in the Templeton group. Remember, many of the individuals you’ll be dealing with belong to families that have been around in these parts for generations. We may just have passed into the 21st century - but you’re going to be ministering in a part of the world that barely feels as if it’s left the Victorian Age behind.’
‘Yes, Benedict said much the same when I saw him on Monday.’
‘Ah, you’ve already met your curate, then. What did you make of him?’
There was something about the way that Canon Harris posed that question that put Georgios on his guard. He’s clearly fishing, a bit too obviously: a fairly anodyne response is required, I think. ‘Pleasant enough. Liturgically, he’s clearly “higher up the candle” than myself: but theologically, I think we’re close enough. I’ll certainly appreciate his support. There are two Lay Readers within the ministry team I gather, yes?’
Vernon Harris nodded. ‘Jack Copeland - who I’m sure you’ll get along with - and Harry Barrington-Smythe.’ He paused. ‘You will undoubtedly find him more tricky.’
‘I’ve spoken to him on the telephone. Long enough to realise he’ll be difficult.’
‘Hmm. Well, both of the Readers are based in Morrington, though available for deployment across the group. Which is more than we can say for Fr Benedict.’
‘I’m afraid quite a number of the parishioners of Morrington and Gilfach objected to the Bishop giving a licence to Benedict Wishart, when the new parish grouping was formed last year. On account of his living arrangements. St Matthew’s especially has become a bit of an evangelical hot-bed over the past decade, thanks to that idiot Huw Davies-Jones. The chief instigator of the trouble, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was Barrington-Smythe. He threatened to resign as a Reader, and his wife as People’s Warden. The Bishop was adamant he wasn’t going to licence Fr Benedict to only part of the group - it was all or nothing. Eventually, Edgar Dyson came up with a compromise: a kind of self-denying ordinance on Benedict’s part. He’s licenced de jure to the whole group, but he only ministers de facto at Templeton. All this despite the fact, of course, that he lives in Morrington. It’s a peculiar arrangement, but it seems to work. Edgar was good like that. Pragmatic.’ Harris sighed deeply. ‘I will never understand what possessed him to take his own life. I’ve lost a reliable colleague; and a good friend.’
‘I know I’ll certainly have some big shoes to fill. After all, he was in the parish quite a bit longer than any of his predecessors in living memory - including our Bishop. I must say,’ said Georgios, carefully, ‘I was surprised to see the name Mervyn Mortlake on the Roll of Vicars. Given he never mentioned it to me at my interview.’
If Georgios was looking for a veiled reaction from the Rural Dean, he received none. ‘That is surprising. Perhaps it slipped his mind - no, that’s nonsense. Nothing much slips Bishop Mervyn’s mind. I’ve no idea as to why he would have neglected to mention that little detail. Still, he most certainly has other things to contemplate at present.’
‘So the Sacred Synod is going ahead on Friday?’ queried Georgios.
‘Hmm, I did wonder if they might postpone it. But no: full steam ahead. And the Diocesan Conference will proceed as planned on Saturday, too. You don’t need to attend, Georgios, in case you were wondering - make the most of not yet belonging to the Diocese, officially speaking!’ The Rural Dean chuckled. ‘I think it could be a contentious gathering. I’ve heard rumours that the Bishop is going to use his presidential address to unveil a Diocesan Review. Structures, deployments, maybe even church closures - that kind of thing. The Archdeacon has denied it most vehemently: which almost certainly means it’s true.’
‘Church closures? Will that affect us in the Deanery?’
‘Given the glacial speed at which the Church of Wales moves, I doubt it. Quite a few of the smaller churches in the Deanery really are overdue for closure, mind. Llanfihangel Gilfach, with you, for example. As you’ll soon discover, a congregation of four people and a sheepdog isn’t particularly inspiring.’
‘Ah, but isn't that one of the famed Llanfihangel churches,’ countered Georgios, ‘that must be kept open at all costs?’
‘You mean the Darkwoode legend?’ Vernon Harris frowned. ‘Who’s been filling your head with that nonsense? Bernard Meeks? He loves to spin yarns, that old rascal. Oh - that reminds me - do please be aware there’s ill-feeling between Delilah Meeks, Bernard’s wife, and Belinda Buxton, the People’s Warden in Templeton. She’s a formidable woman, Belinda. Be very careful to keep on the right side of her, as best you can. She’s not very happy with me, I’m afraid, right now. Blames me, I think, for the fact your induction service will be held in Morrington, not Templeton. But that’s entirely down to the Bishop - nothing to do with me.’
There was a knock on the door, and Mrs Mary Harris - short, mousy and demure - appeared in the doorway.
‘I’m so sorry to interrupt,’ she began, ‘but I do think we need to be getting ready for the Farmers’ Club Dinner, darling.’
‘Oh, goodness me, is that the time?’ exclaimed Harris. He jumped up, agitated. ‘I’m most dreadfully sorry, Georgios - but I think we’re going to have to cut short our discussion. Is there anything else you need to know urgently?’
The reason my predecessor killed himself, thought Georgios. There’s some real, dark mystery underlying that, I’m certain of it; and that’s what I really want - no, need - to discover.
‘Nothing comes to mind,’ he lied. ‘I’ll call you if I think of anything. I hope the Conference goes well on Saturday - do let me know if the Bishop decides to make all three of my churches redundant!’ Despite Julie Johnson’s warning, Georgios had found himself warming to the slightly crusty but nevertheless well-meaning Rural Dean.
Harris chuckled. ‘Will do, my boy.’
Georgios turned to Mrs Harris, still hovering anxiously in the doorway of Vernon’s study. ‘Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs Harris. I hope you have a pleasant evening at the Farmers’ Club Dinner.’ He shook her hand.
‘Well, we’re just pleased there’s a Dinner at all, after this terrible year,’ she replied sadly. ‘The Foot and Mouth epidemic has been absolutely devastating. Those poor farmers! Still, there have only been a few outbreaks reported this month so far - and none at all in Wales. Let us hope it’s almost over.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Georgios gravely. He picked up his diary, and held out his hand to the Rural Dean of Templeton. ‘See you next week - Monday, didn’t we say? - to discuss the induction service. With the Archdeacon.’
‘Yes. All the best with the rest of the unpacking. It’s good to have you in our midst, my boy. Very good indeed.’
IX: September 13th (St Cyprian, Bishop, Doctor & Martyr)
Not for the first time, Councillor Donald Motte wondered if he had made a serious mistake in joining the Temple and Morrington Town Council. Yet he still optimistically believed that he had stood for election in 1999 out of an earnest desire to improve the lot and well-being of the people of Templeton. He had no tribal loyalty to a political party, and had stood as an Independent candidate - a true independent, not like most of his fellow councillors, who pusillanimously hid behind that banner of convenience rather than present themselves with honesty as the Conservatives they really were.
Motte looked around the room at the faces about him: the rogues, the chancers and the time-wasters sat there alongside the vainglorious, the self-important and the power-hungry. There were a few whom he believed to be genuinely motivated by a desire for public service - ones who had not become as jaded as he had, in a surprisingly short stretch of time. But only a few.
The current Mayor of Templeton, sat at the head of the long polished council table, was Cllr Keith Lewis. Lewis was a wily, ambitious politician; a smooth operator who was now serving his fourth stint as Mayor. He was a relative newcomer to Templeton, having moved to the town from South Wales some twenty years or so ago. A former County Councillor, he had narrowly lost that contest two years ago to one of his local rivals, Raymond Liddle. Lewis stood out from the other councillors in a number of ways. Firstly, he was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Liberalism wasn’t quite as strong in this part of mid-Wales as it had been half a century ago, but it still had a greater local following than the Labour Party. Secondly, Lewis was a faithful member of All Saints, Templeton, where his daughter Antonia also sang in the choir. Thirdly, he was married to a beautiful Spanish lady named Gabriela. Her exotic, dusky features were particularly notable in a remote Welsh town that was not renowned for ethnic diversity. Lastly, he was a proud Welsh language speaker: again, rather unusual for an Anglo-Welsh border settlement. All in all, Keith Lewis offered a marked contrast to his fellow councillors; and consequently was viewed with great suspicion by most of them. Motte didn’t trust him one little bit.
Immediately to Lewis’ left sat the Deputy Mayor, Cllr Terry Uckbridge. Uckbridge was one of the few unqualified ‘good guys’ on the Council, in Donald Motte’s book. Like Motte himself, he was Templeton ‘born and bred’, and his great love for the town and its people was without question. Self-effacing, with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he was a quiet but attentive man. He was also a lifelong member of the Labour Party. Strangely, whilst the local membership of the party, never great, had waned over the past two decades - failing to revive even during these recent years of good fortune for the national party, with Blair’s landslide victories in 1997 and now just a few months ago - Uckbridge’s personal popularity had seemed to flourish. He was now the third-longest serving member of the Council, but all attempts to persuade him to stand as Mayor had been in vain; he would simply shake his head, and say: ‘No, that’s not for me.’ Rather like one time Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell - often lauded as ‘one of the best Prime Ministers we never had’ - there were many in Templeton who pondered, wistfully, how things might be different with a man of such clear integrity and humanity as their Mayor. His trenchant atheism also meant that his one significant opponent on the Council was the current Mayor. Their uneasy personal relationship made for a somewhat difficult professional one.
Next to Uckbridge sat Cllr Grant Halliday, the local Funeral Director. A morose man who rarely smiled, he was certainly perfectly suited to his chosen vocation. It was a fairly open secret that he was a member of the local Masonic Lodge; less well-known was the fact that he was the Lodge’s current Master. His son Elliott was one of the boys who had found the unfortunate Sarah Dyson last Halloween besides her deceased husband in Templeton churchyard. By all accounts the boy had been badly shaken by the experience: surprisingly so, thought Motte, given the nature of his father’s profession. Still, not necessarily the case of ‘like father, like son.’
The next two seats around the table were vacant. One of them belonged to Wilfrid Sowerby, a local farmer who was barely literate, barely intelligible on the rare occasions he spoke in council meetings, and, in truth, barely ever present through the autumn months. Chances are he’ll reappear come the November meeting, once harvest-tide was finally past. Not that we’ll notice the difference. The other belonged to Cllr Byron Prothero, the town’s dentist, who was currently laid up in Templeton Hospital with a fractured pelvis, and who had already tendered his apologies. It was a great shame. Other than Terry Uckbridge, Prothero was the only one of his fellows that Motte really rated. He had only once served as Mayor - ‘never again’ was his repeated mantra. Not words one will ever hear, in that context, from the next man around the table…
This next seat was occupied by the oldest and longest-serving member of the Town Council, Cllr Joseph Jeffries, commonly known as ‘J J’ - or, less kindly, as ‘J J Magoo’, on account of his chronic shortsightedness. Cllr Jeffries had been a member of Temple and Morrington Council since its formation in 1974, and before that had been a member of its predecessor body, the Templeton Urban District Council, for twelve further years. He had served as Mayor on seven separate occasions - more than any other Councillor except his old political rival, and Templeton’s first Mayor, Kai Morgan. Kai had been Mayor a record eight times, and had died just six weeks before the end of his final year of office, back in 1994. Jeffries was determined to serve one last year as Mayor - a complete year, unlike his old opponent - all so he could claim, with some justification, to have been ‘Templeton’s longest-serving Mayor’. Nothing would please him more than to be elected Mayor one final time next spring, as he celebrated his 40th anniversary since his first election to the former Templeton Urban District Council in 1962. Unfortunately for Jeffries, he had made many enemies on the Council over the years, all of whom were determined to thwart his most fervent desire. There were plenty in the wider community who were tired of the curmudgeonly 85-year-old fossil too, and who were equally convinced that seven years of ‘Mayor Magoo’ was more than enough.
If Jefferies represented the very worst of ‘old’ Templeton, then Motte feared the naked ambition of the woman who was in the seat to his left: the Council’s newest member, Cllr Mrs Valerie Faraday. ‘Faraday from Far Away’, as she was nicknamed, had stirred up considerable controversy in the eighteen months since she had arrived as Templeton Hotel’s latest owner. The Hotel hadn’t been a going concern since the Seventies, really: but the misfortunes of one owner after another did not give Valerie Faraday any cause for concern. As she was fond of saying to any who would listen to her, she wasn’t going to be daunted by the pygmies who had preceded her: she was going to shake up this sleepy town, and its complacent Council - just you wait and see! The moment a casual vacancy had appeared back in May, she had sensed her opportunity. This was only her fourth full council meeting, and one would think that ensuring the Hotel weathered the storm after a calamitous tourist season, thanks to Foot and Mouth, would be her greatest priority. Nevertheless, it was already clear that she was eyeing the big prize. Forget J J’s fanciful pipe-dreams: come next year, it was perfectly apparent that she was the one who intended to be chairing this Council ‘of woeful inadequacy’ (her words) as Templeton’s first ever female Mayor.
Unless, of course, the individual sitting to her left had any say in the matter. Cllr Martin Bracket, like Keith Lewis, had served four times previously as Mayor, and was second only to Joseph Jeffries in terms of year given to the Council in service. For all that, he wasn’t particularly interested in chasing the records of J J or Kai Morgan - but next year was different. 2002 would be the year of Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Bracket dearly wanted to be the Mayor during that special year. He had been chairing the Council’s special Jubilee Committee for the past twelve months, and as far as he was concerned, there was no other Councillor more eminently qualified to become Mayor against the backdrop of what promised to be a year of tremendous excitement and celebration. As well - he hoped - the opportunity to meet Her Majesty herself.
The next round the table, County Cllr Raymond Liddle, was an unusual individual. Motte half-admired him for his willingness to nail his colours firmly to the mast: for Liddle was a true-blue Tory, unabashed and unrepentant. And as mad as a box of frogs. In an already crowded field, he too had declared an interest in standing for the Mayorship next year - only to have his arch-rival Keith Lewis declare that it was ‘inappropriate’ for someone to be both Mayor and County Councillor at the same time. ‘You managed to do it once yourself, didn’t you?’ Liddle had retorted.
‘Ah yes,’ Lewis had replied, sadly. ‘That is why I know it to be an ill-advised venture. I know from experience it’s all too much. I would strongly oppose anyone else attempting to do the same.’
The next seat was taken by Motte himself. Then, on his left, sat Cllr Tom Giddings. With Sowerly and Pothero, Giddings was one of three Councillors from the Morrington Ward. Giddings’ father had been the leader of the old Morrington Rural District Council, which had been united with Templeton as part of the local government reorganisation of 1974. Old Zechariah Giddings had fought tooth and nail against the changes. Better to be a big fish in a small pond, son, he would often say. Motte knew that Tom held his father in contempt. ‘I made up my mind, a long time ago, that my father was wrong,’ he had told Motte on several occasions. ‘Better still to be a big fish in a big pond.’ Tom Giddings was now the largest landowner in the district, owned the petrol station in Morrington and was a three-times former Mayor. He, like Grant Halliday, was a member of the Templeton Masonic Lodge. He was clearly ambitious, yet in a far less transparent way than the likes of Faraday, Lewis or Liddle. Motte had been in the same year at Templeton High School as Tom Giddings, and knew him better than anyone else on the Council. He had once regarded him, in their youth, as a good friend. But now Motte sensed that he was the most dangerous man around that table; and, potentially, the most ruthless.
Eleven men, good and true (well, ten men and one woman, on the rare occasions they were all present). The twelfth seat, the one on the Mayor’s right hand, was occupied by the youngest person in the room: the Town Clerk, Mandy Whitaker. She was in her late twenties, and had only been clerking the Council for the past twelve months: but despite her youth, she had proved herself competent. Clearly capable of dealing with older men, thought Donald Motte approvingly.
The public gallery had just three people present that night. As usual, there was Mrs Hilary Fossington, one of those strange creatures who took a peculiar and far from benign interest in every planning application that the Council would consider. Then there was Ernie Hutton, taking notes as usual on proceedings for the Llanmadoc Wells Courier. A former Town councillor himself (until he had some big bust-up with Kai Morgan during his final year as Mayor), now Hutton was ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, political reporter rather than politician. Hutton’s editor must despair of him, so detailed and abstruse are his reports, mused Motte. I can only assume Hutton is paid by the word, and has secretly amassed a considerable fortune, which he has left in his will to the Owl Preservation Society.
The final ‘visitor’ was a surprising one. Donald Motte couldn’t recall ever having seen the Rural Dean of Templeton at a Council meeting before. It was especially odd, given that Templeton wasn’t one of his parishes. No, wait - isn’t he in charge, technically, until the new priest, Ed Dyson’s replacement, is installed or confirmed, or whatever-it-is Anglicans call it? Still doesn’t explain what he’s doing here…
The Town Mayor raised his gavel and brought it down twice, with a resounding thud. Immediately, the room fell silent - well, almost silent. Jeffries was muttering away to himself, no doubt in his increasingly distracted mind reliving some historic battle of wits with the old enemy Kai Morgan. Lewis gave him a sharp stare, and looked as if he was about to say something withering, but then evidently thought better of it. Instead he cleared his throat self-importantly, before continuing:
‘Before we begin tonight’s meeting, I thought that given the appalling events in New York and Washington two days ago, we should observe a minute’s silence. We are the democratically-elected representatives of the people of Templeton and Morrington, and it’s only right we should take a moment to reflect on the terrible threat to democracy the world over that these atrocities represent. As you know, All Saints Church in Templeton - your pardon, Cllr Giddings, St Matthew’s Church in Morrington, and St Michael’s Gilfach too - those three churches are about to welcome the new Archbishop of Wales, to lead an induction service for their new Vicar.’ (Ah, thought Motte, that’s it. Vicars get induced.) ‘Canon Vernon Harris, however, has cared for the parishes very ably over the past almost twelve months, and provided considerable guidance, I must say, to our whole community - a community that was deeply shocked by the manner of the former Vicar’s death, and has additionally struggled, as all in our countryside have struggled, with the scourge of disease this year. I have invited him to be with us tonight, both as a courtesy, but also at a time of global uncertainty, asking to lead us in the act of silence, and then to end with a short prayer.’
There was surprised murmuring from several councillors; then Cllr Faraday raised her hand, and said: ‘Point of order, Mr Mayor: if I may speak, this is most irregular. The standing orders for a Council meeting are quite clear…’
‘And do not apply, Councillor,’ replied Lewis testily. ‘As the Town Council meeting has not, as yet, commenced.’
‘Hear, hear,’ said Cllr Bracket, glaring at Valarie Faraday as he did so. ‘These are extraordinary times, and I for one think the Mayor has acted quite appropriately.’
Canon Harris stood up and raised his hand, and the room fell silent. He noted Ernie Hutton, scribbling away furiously in the corner, and smiled: Doubtless the editor of the Courier will receive a particularly vivid account of this month’s Temple and Morrington Council Meeting.
‘My friends, members of Council,’ he began courteously, ‘I really wouldn’t want my presence here in any way to be a distraction, or a cause for dissension. I’m sure we all agree there is far too much of that in the world as it is. If any Councillor truly feels that the Mayor has acted inappropriately, then I will, of course, withdraw. My presence here is merely a community gesture, nothing more. In no way am I expecting the Council to take a religious stance. Isn’t that so, Keith–um, Cllr Lewis?’
You’re a cunning one, thought Motte. You’d make a good politician.
‘Quite so,’ replied the Mayor - feeling as if, somehow, the Rural Dean’s comments had slightly upstaged him. ‘Does anyone have an objection?’
Silence. Cllr Faraday sat very still, her lips pursed in disapproval, but said nothing. Cllr Uckbridge suppressed a smile, covering his mouth discreetly with his hand. Ernie Hutton stopped writing for a moment and lowered his notepad. The only noise was a sudden sharp whine from Cllr Jefferies’ hearing aid. ‘Confounded thing,’ he muttered, as he took it out and started fiddling with it.
‘Very well,’ said Lewis. He nodded at the Rural Dean. ‘Over to you Canon Harris.’
‘Thank you.’ The priest clasped his hands together, in a gesture of prayer. ‘Shall we all stand?’
X: September 14th (Holy Cross Day)
NOT SO SACRED SYNOD CONFIRMS NEW ARCHBISHOP
There was consternation and controversy today at the meeting of the Sacred Synod of the Church of Wales in the parish church of Llanmadoc Wells, mid-Wales. Ever since the disestablishment of the Church of Wales by William Gladstone in 1873, this modest-sized church - the nearest to the geographical centre-point of the Principality - has been where the House of Bishops of the Church of Wales has met whenever required to confirm the appointment of a new Archbishop.
The election itself takes place some weeks before, at a meeting of the Electoral Conclave, a representative body of lay people, clergy and bishops who take counsel together in closed session. The deliberations of the Conclave are conducted under oaths of strict secrecy, with no publicly-announced candidates for the archiepiscopacy (though from time to time rumours about the ‘runners and riders’ at a particular Conclave meeting may leak). Certainly this was the case at this year’s Electoral Conclave, which met in July following the tragic death of the last Archbishop, the Most Revd Geraint Morgan, in a car accident. It is rumoured that the eventual appointee of the Conclave, Bishop Mervyn Mortlake, the Bishop of Pengwen, was a ‘compromise candidate’ between representatives of the evangelical and traditionalist wings of the Church, Bishop Rhydian Howells, the Bishop of Llandewi, and Bishop Connor Jennings, the Bishop of Casnewydd.
Under the Constitution of the Church of Wales, the Sacred Synod serves merely to confirm the result of the Electoral Conclave, and has no power in and of itself to change the result. However, today’s meeting of the Synod was remarkable for two reasons. The first was the absence of the Right Revd Bryson Maxwell-Lewis, the Bishop of Abertawe, who is known to be suffering from cancer (Bishop Maxwell-Lewis’ retirement comes into effect at the end of September, leaving a second vacancy in the House of Bishops, additional to the late Archbishop Gerraint’s episcopal see of Segontium). The second reason was the extraordinary decision of Bishop Howells to denounce the outcome of the Electoral Conclave. In his address before the astonished Synod, Bishop Howells made veiled references to undue influence being placed on some of the electors, and suggested that the appointment of Bishop Mortlake had been ‘preordained by a poisonous cabal within the highest echelons of the Church of Wales.’ Bishop Howells then left the Church, refusing to make any further comment to the gathered media representatives. The confirmation of the Electoral Conclave’s decision was made in the customary manner, and the Most Revd Mervyn Mortlake was declared Archbishop of Wales, the 13th prelate to hold that office since disestablishment in 1873.
Shortly thereafter, the Secretary-General of the Church of Wales, Sir Donald Brodie, issued the following brief statement:
‘The Bishops of Caerdydd, Casnewydd and Wrecsam unequivocally today affirmed the decision of the Electoral Conclave of the Church of Wales, announced on July 25th of this year, the Feast of St James the Apostle, that the Right Revd Mervyn Mortlake, Bishop of Pengwen, should serve as the next Archbishop of Wales. I have spoken by telephone just a few minutes ago to the Bishop of Abertawe, who was prevented by ill-health from being at today’s Synod in person, and he has confirmed his support for the decision of the Conclave. We send him our thoughts and prayers at this challenging time for him. On behalf of the Church of Wales, as its Secretary-General, I must condemn the behaviour of Bishop Rhydian Howells in the strongest possible terms. Once the enthronement of the Archbishop has taken place, the House of Bishops will consider whether a Disciplinary Tribunal should be summoned to investigate Bishop Howells’ actions today. Archbishop Mortlake has a busy weekend, with a pre-arranged meeting of the Pengwen Diocesan Conference tomorrow, and a full schedule of services the Sunday thereafter. Consequently, he will not be giving any interviews at this time.’
It has been speculated that Bishop Howells comments today were motivated by disappointment at the outcome of the Conclave, given the reports that he himself was a strong contender for the post of Archbishop himself. We have been unable to contact him for any further comment. Thus ends an extraordinary day in the history of the Church of Wales.
BBC WALES NEWS - SPECIAL REPORT
Archbishop Mervyn Mortlake did not look like a man revelling in success. His clerical shirt was unbuttoned, and his pectoral cross had been tossed carelessly upon his desk. His face was almost as purple as his shirt, and his eyebrows stood out fiercely, as if possessing a pugnacious life of their own. There was no subtlety in the tone of his voice as he spoke into the telephone; only undisguised contempt and unbridled menace.
‘Let me make myself abundantly clear, Rhydian. Tomorrow morning, by ten o’clock at the latest, you will issue the statement - word for word - that was emailed to you earlier this evening. That statement contains a full retraction and apology for your despicable comments in Llanmadoc Wells today. It also contains your admission that you have struggled with various mental health issues, alcoholism and family problems, all of which have caused you considerable stress. It contains a declaration of your willingness to take an immediate and indefinite leave of absence from your Diocesan duties, while you seek medical help and counselling for your various afflictions. The administrative duties, at least, will be exercised in your absence by Archdeacon Denise. She will, of course, thereby offer an exemplary example of why women in senior positions of leadership should be applauded, not denigrated - a fitting testimony to my late predecessor’s views on women bishops, in preparation for our meeting of the Provincial Synod in November. We might as well try and salvage something useful from this shitshow. In return for your cooperation, I will see to it that the House of Bishops drops the threat of a Disciplinary Tribunal. So - is all that agreed?’
Mervyn paused for a moment, listening to the pleading voice from the other end. After just a few seconds, he cut the hapless Rhydian Howells short.
‘Clearly, I need to explain all this more succinctly. You will do as you’re fucking well told - I don’t care if your wife objects to the reference to ‘family problems’ - because if you don’t release that statement, exactly as written, you will soon have some pretty damned enormous family problems to contend with. The kind that I would expect to follow on, directly in consequence of certain photographs appearing in the gutter press. Photographs showing you in a variety of compromising positions with - what was her name? - ah, yes. Miss Mandy Whitaker. I commend your athleticism. Not at all bad for a man in his late fifties. But I don’t think dear Angela is likely to see it like that, is she? Dear me, no. Nor your Diocese. Nor your precious Welsh Evangelical Alliance. So think it over, Rhydian. Very carefully indeed. Oh - blessings of this Holy Cross Day to you.’
Mervyn slammed the phone down. ‘What a grade-A arsehole,’ he growled. ‘Holy Cross Day - You’ve ended up crucifying yourself today, you twat. How appropriate!’ Still - as he had intimated to his fellow-bishop - maybe some things could be retrieved from this bloody awful day.
He drained his wine glass, and almost poured himself another, but then restrained himself. He needed to remain sober whilst he reread his presidential address for tomorrow’s conference. There might be some alterations he needed to make in the light of today’s events. He’d already made several changes in the past couple of days as a result of the earth-shattering events in America that week. He rubbed his eyes and sighed. Was it all worth it?
Nonsense. This was destiny: destiny and revenge. Both writ large more than thirty years ago as a direct result of what had happened whilst he had been Vicar of Templeton.
This business with Rhydian was a minor irritation, no more. Like a fart in a wind, it would soon pass.
He looked down at his script, and read the page before him carefully once more.
The Church has traditionally seen itself as a guiding light in times of darkness, and a strong, steadying anchor when people feel themselves assailed by the storms of life. And yet - is it really true that people turn to us in times of need, in the way they once did?
This spring and summer our British countryside has faced one of the greatest calamities it has faced in decades. Foot and Mouth disease has devastated our farms, and has led to the closing down of much of our countryside, and the slaughter of millions of livestock. Yet did we see, in our country parishes, a swelling in our congregations? Did our farmers turn to God in prayer en masse? They required all those visiting them to bathe their boots in specially treated troughs of water placed at the entrance to their farms; but did they themselves feel compelled to turn to God, to ask him to wash away their sins? ‘Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.’ Thus says the psalmist. But did we witness those words in action, across our Diocese, in this time of crisis for our countryside? No, we did not. And - judging by the conversations I had with my brother bishops across Wales, and across the border in England - neither did they. Now that the pestilence has almost passed, one would imagine that all those who live and work in the countryside would turn to God with thankful hearts. Well, we wait to see - with baited breath - whether or not our harvest services in the next few weeks will be better supported this year, or not.
From the countryside, to the city. The terrible events we have witnessed in Manhattan this past week - they have shaken us to the very core of our being. How does one respond to unreasoning hate? In many places, of course, people have turned to the Church. They have come to light candles, to bring flowers, to fill books of condolence, to offer prayers. All very moving, I’m sure. But how long before these impulses have passed? How long before the customary rhythm of life returns? Will the tumultuous events in the United States this past week bring people back to the Church in any lasting, meaningful way? Be honest with yourselves, my friends. You all know that the answer is: No.
The challenges we face in the Church today will not be resolved by some unlooked for revival, in consequence of some calamity, like the Foot and Mouth crisis, or this event that already people are referring to simply as ‘9/11’. We have to be pragmatic. We need to wisely steward our resources. We cannot overextend ourselves on an ill-thought-out mission today that yields little result, when we need to be mindful of the need for us to facilitate the ‘missio Dei’ tomorrow. We cannot exhaust our resources now. And that will involve a realistic rationalisation of both our clerical deployment, and our historic plant - our church buildings.
That is why we need this Comprehensive Review that I have announced. Chaired by Archdeacon Graeham, it will leave no stone unturned. It will report back to me on October 18th - the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist - in a little less than five weeks time. Why the urgency, you ask? Because urgency is required. Like the watchman in Ezekiel, we cannot be complacent. Will some churches close? Yes. Will others be renewed? Undoubtedly so. Will we emerge from this Review leaner? Without a doubt. But stronger, too.
I hope that my brother bishops will follow my example in ordering similar reviews within their Dioceses…
Mervyn paused. He knew, already, what Rhydian would do. He had no choice. This was the point where a new paragraph would be needed, to reflect the extraordinary events at the Sacred Synod, and the statement from the Bishop of Llandewi that would follow tomorrow morning. Mervyn picked up his fountain pen, and wrote at the bottom of the page:
In particular, I am delighted that Archdeacon Denise has already agreed to implement a much-needed Review in the Diocese of Llandewi where, I regret to say, Bishop Rhydian has been very slow indeed to institute necessary reforms during his episcopacy. Of course, it goes without saying that we wish Bishop Rhydian well during his leave of absence, which he announced earlier today, and we hope he receives all the help he needs whilst he recuperates.
Mervyn put down his pen, and smiled.
There. That will leave them in no doubt whatsoever who is in charge. The only person left with sufficient respect across the Church of Wales, and with the moral stature to stand in my way, is Bryson. But his retirement is imminent; and, in any case, he’s not long for this world now. Fuck you, Rhydian Howells - you’ve well and truly shot your bolt. And when I’m quite ready - then and only then - you and Miss Mandy will still get your fifteen minutes of fame. Alas - I think the fallout from that will last for rather longer. Shame.
XI: September 15th
Georgios had spent the morning reading through the large file that Belinda Buxton had deposited on his doorstep the previous day. It contained the past five years worth of minutes of meetings of Templeton Parochial Church Council, together with statements of account, and other miscellaneous reports. It was all very depressing stuff. Even from a cursory reading it was clear that the PCC was faction-riven and quarrelsome. Edgar Dyson had clearly had his work cut getting them to agree on anything. The amalgamation of the parish with Morrington and Llanfihangel Gilfach had been especially bitterly opposed, it would seem. As for the parish’s finances: they were dire. The Diocesan Assessment had not been met during four of the five past years: the arrears had doubled in the last twelve months alone.
Georgios sighed. Brooding about the challenges facing him would achieve nothing. He looked out of the window. It was a bright sunny day, and the distant hills looked inviting. A walk would lift his spirits, and he knew that the public footpaths, closed for much of the year due to Foot and Mouth, were open once more. At least he had completed his unpacking, more or less. There was one box he hadn’t opened yet. It contained a miscellany of items associated with Caroline; books, photographs, a few letters, and a painting of him that she had presented on his last birthday. He had been deeply moved at the time: she wasn’t a bad amateur artist. But right now, he couldn’t bear to think about it, or any of the other objects within the box. He would put it into the attic, later. But first: that walk…
With the help of an OS map, Georgios had found the quickest route to the footpath that ran alongside the local remains of Offa’s Dyke. Although not as well-preserved as some of the sections of the Dyke to the north and south, the stretch near Templeton was impressive enough. He had been walking for about an hour when he came to a viewpoint that offered a spectacular prospect of the town below, nestled between three hills in the valley of the river Lud. Situated on one of the two high points of the town - the other occupied by the sparse remains of the 12th century Norman motte and bailey castle - the church of All Saints stood out, tall and proud compared to all around it. Its Decorated Gothic style - only minimally altered by the Victorians, thankfully - made it a jewel of the county. Even the great architectural historian Pevsner was impressed by it (even if he was a little sniffy about the Douglas frescoes).
There was a helpfully placed bench at the viewpoint, and Georgios sat down, pulling a Thermos flask of coffee from his rucksack. As he took in the panorama, he quite forgot the quiet despair of the morning.
‘It’s a breathtaking s-sight, isn't it?’
Georgios turned his head, and looked towards where the voice had come from. A dumpy man, wrapped up with a heavy overcoat, mittens and a long scarf wound several times around his neck, was standing about twenty feet away, on the rise. It wasn’t an especially cold day, and the man looked ridiculously overdressed.
‘Yes, it is,’ said the priest. ‘It makes me really appreciate that this will be a spectacular part of the world in which to live.’
The other man ambled down the slope towards him, grinning as he came. ‘Too right. Though behind the b-beauty, there’s plenty of devilry afoot. Like Christian divined in Pilgrim’s Progress: Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven. You’re newly arrived here, then?’ He held out his hand. ‘The name’s Bennett. Alexander B-Bennett.’
How unfortunate to have a stammer that prevents you from saying your own name without difficulty, thought Georgios. He shook the newcomer’s hand. ‘My name is Georgios Anagnosides.’
Bennett’s eyes widened with recognition. ‘The new m-minister at Templeton Church? Praise God!’
‘That’s right. And for Morrington and Llanfihangel Gilfach too.’
‘I’m the pastor at Overhill Baptist Chapel. It’s just a small place, Overhill - halfway between Templeton and Cwmpentre.’
Ah, a pastor: that explains the Bunyan quote. Georgios had noticed the chapel as he had driven through Overhill the previous Sunday on his way to St David’s. He nodded.
‘Yes, I passed that way recently. It’s good to meet you.’
‘We need a m-man of faith and courage, at All Saints, let me tell you. How I’ve prayed for it,’ said the pastor fervently. ‘Fifteen years I’ve laboured here, amongst the godless. This is where the Darkwoode lies, close by: here in the hills of the Marches. And you and I b-both know that the high places were where the false gods were worshipped in Biblical days. By the likes of the apostate King Ahaz. And he sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree: 2 Kings chapter 16, verse 4.’
Georgios smiled politely, but said nothing.
‘These are the Last Days, d-don’t you agree?’ persisted Pastor Bennett. ‘The events this week in America confirm it.’
Georgios shook his head. He didn’t really want to offend the pastor or get into an argument, but–
‘No,’ he said quietly but firmly. ‘I don’t believe that at all. I’m sorry, Pastor Bennett, but I have to disagree with you most decidedly on that matter.’
‘But the Book of Revelation says–’
‘Many things that had been misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied,’ interrupted Georgios: ‘Indeed, so much so that I sometimes think it would have been better if it had never been accepted in the canon of Scripture in the first place. Which it very nearly wasn’t.’
Alexander Bennett looked shocked. After a moment’s silence, he said: ‘I see my faith is being s-sorely tested once again. Get behind me, Satan!’ With a curt nod, he turned his back on the priest and hurried away at surprising speed. In a trice he had disappeared from view.
The sky had darkened, and there was a rumble of thunder from afar.
Doubtless, he would think that a sign, thought Georgios ruefully. Poor deluded fool: but I really should have handled that better. Blast, this coat isn’t very waterproof. I wonder if I can make it back home before I get drenched?
XII: September 16th (Battle of Britain Sunday)
Keith Lewis adjusted his Mayoral chain of office in the mirror, and called out to his wife: ‘Qué hora es?’
A few moments later, she appeared in the mirror behind him. Resting her head on his shoulder, she placed her arms around his waist, and said: ‘Quarter past ten, darling. Has Harrisons not mended your watch yet?’
He frowned. ‘No. They say they’ve hard difficulty getting the parts. It is an antique piece, admitted. Perhaps I should have taken it into Llanmadoc, but honestly, I’ve had no time this past week! Clive has assured me that he’ll have parts in on–’
‘Let me guess. On Monday?’
Lewis groaned, and rolled his eyes. It was a local joke that whenever Clive Harrison, who ran the town’s ironmongers and general supplies store, had difficulty getting hold of something, his standard response would be: I’ll have it in for you next Monday.
‘You really should have a spare watch,’ chided Gabriela. ‘Would you like to borrow mine?’
‘No, no, thank you,’ Lewis replied, as he combed his hair. ‘It would look a bit too gaudy on my wrist.’
‘Gaudy? What is “gaudy”?’
‘Hmm.’ Even after thirty-three years of living in Britain, Gabriela’s English still had some surprising gaps. ‘Showy, flamboyant, too bright and sparkly.’
‘Llamativo. Bah.’ She turned him round, and kissed him on the forehead. ‘You are so grosero. Remind me again why I married you.’
Before he could reply, their daughter Antonia appeared in the doorway. The Church Choir would have to manage without her morning. Instead, she was wearing her Band uniform, and holding her trumpet case. ‘Shouldn’t you have left by now, dad?’ she said.
And shouldn’t you have moved out of home by now? thought Lewis. He looked at Antonia crossly, but decided to ignore her comment. ‘Your jacket looks a bit creased,’ he noted. ‘Do you want a lift? It’ll be heavy carrying that trumpet all the way to the Hall.’
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll make my own way there.’ She opened the front door, then turned back, looked down at her father, and said: ‘Never mind my jacket. Your fly’s undone. Bye, mum.’
Harry Barrington-Smythe stood impatiently by the war memorial, opposite the Templeton Hotel, as the various parties milled around. This was the first time he’d been asked to lead the Battle of Britain Service, and he didn’t want to make any mistakes. He himself had only been called up in 1946, after the main conflicts in Europe and East Asia had ended, but he was still nevertheless a proud bearer of the General Service Medal awarded for his service in Palestine. He had pinned it very carefully to his Lay Reader’s preaching scarf earlier that morning. Now he was watching the young (and, to his mind, insufficiently well-disciplined) Air Cadets lining up, next to the members of the local branch of the Royal Air Force Association. As he did so, he remembered the telephone conversation he had had with the Rural Dean three weeks before…
‘I’m trying to finalise the rota for September, Harry. As usual, there have been a few difficulties. The main one is with regard to All Saints, on September 16th. It’s Battle of Britain Sunday, and I gather they make a big thing of it in Templeton: almost as much as Remembrance Sunday. They have a local RAFA branch, apparently; then there’s the Air Cadets; the British Legion turns out too, as does the Town Silver Band, the Town Council, the Town Cryer: the whole works. Anyway, I can’t take the service myself - I have commitments in my own parishes that day. Meanwhile, Jack Copeland is already down to lead both the Morrington and Gilfach services. Would you be free?’
‘What about Reverend Wishart?’ said Barrington-Smythe tartly.
‘I’m afraid Fr Benedict refuses to conduct any service with - as he calls it - “militaristic overstones.”’ Barrington-Smythe could practically feel Canon Harris squirming with embarrassment at the other end of the phone.
Of course, Barrington-Smythe had said: Yes. Anything that made him look cooperative and amenable - unlike that abomination Wishart - had to be a good thing.
But now, he was almost having second thoughts. Timing was everything with services like this: and Barrington-Smythe hated lack of organisation and unpunctuality at the best of times. He glanced at his watch again. It was fifteen minutes to eleven, the time the service was meant to start: all so as to enable the two minutes silence to be observed precisely at eleven o’clock, before the ensembled parade marched up the High Street to the Clock Tower, then down Church Street and on to All Saints for the principal service. Major Matlock, his own chest positively gleaming with medals, was now tapping his own watch impatiently, and glaring at him, as if it was his fault that they were running late. Why, the sheer nerve of it. What was the hold-up?
Flight lieutenant Dewi Wyn Hopkins (Retired) was Templeton’s Marshal of the Parade for both Battle of Britain Sunday and Remembrance Sunday. He’d only taken on responsibility for organising the Acts of Commemoration and the Parades themselves two years previously. His predecessor had organised proceedings for twenty-five years, and consequently Dewi still felt a little unsure of himself. He had liked Vicar Ed, and his relaxed yet measured manner in leading worship; but the scowling curmudgeon who was the Church’s representative at today’s proceedings was another kettle of fish altogether. He hurried over to Barrington-Smythe.
‘Sorry, sir, I think we’re ready. The Town Silver Band were still waiting for a few members to make their way down from the Hall - including the bugler who is going to play the Last Post and Reveille. But everybody’s here now.’
We won’t invite you back to the RAFA Club for drinks after the service, thought Dewi darkly.
‘Samuel Wentworth,’ called his mother from downstairs, ‘it’s almost eleven o’clock. Are you actually getting up today - or have you forgotten what day it is?’
Sam groaned, and turned over. Of course I haven’t forgotten, he thought. But if a guy can't lie in on his birthday, when can he?
‘Okay, mum,’ he yelled. ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’
Heather Wentworth shook her head in exasperation. She turned away from the bottom of the stairs, and headed back into the kitchen, where Simon Howley was finishing a cup of tea. ‘Sorry, Simon,’ she said. ‘I thought he’d be up by now - he was always up early on his birthday in past years, anxious to find out what presents he’d had.’ She looked at the crudely wrapped parcel that Simon had brought around. ‘You really don’t have a clue about wrapping things up properly, do you?’
Simon shrugged his shoulders. ‘You try packaging up a skateboard, and making it look like it’s not a skateboard. Anyway, let Sam have his lie in. He’s almost a teenager, after all. Mornings will be a thing of the past for the next few years, at least at weekends. At least they were for my sons.’ And now they’re grown up, and far far away.
‘If you say so. I never did understand boys. No brothers, my father in the grave by the time I was three, and then Sam’s father walking out before he was even one. And now he’s twelve - what hope do I have?’
‘Don’t be maudlin, lass. You have me now, after all.’
‘I know, Simon. You’ve been really good to us, truly you have. Oh, but look at the time. You’ll be late for church.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m not going this morning. It’s a later start today, but I still couldn’t get a band together. Belinda will be spitting feathers.’
Heather said: ‘But isn’t it Battle of Britain Sunday?’
‘Aye: the third Sunday of September, the Sunday on or after September 15th, marking the climax of the Battle of Britain in 1940. It was a big celebration last year, for the sixtieth anniversary. My father was one of The Few, you know. He abandoned the family farm, told my grandfather that fighting Hitler was more important. What’s the point of farming if the Nazis invade? he said. Grandad practically disowned him. He only came back after the war ended because his brother had drowned in a slurry pit accident. The younger son, the prodigal returned: only this time, no fatted calf was slaughtered for his homecoming, given that his elder brother had just died. He was the most reluctant farmer, my father.’
‘Not as reluctant as you, at least according to your brother Matt,’ laughed Heather. ‘But why aren’t you going today? The Air Force - for you father, then you - it’s been the best part of both your lives.’
Simon took her in his arms, and kissed her. ‘No, this is the best part of my life. After Felicity cleared out, taking the boys with her - I never thought I’d find happiness again. But if you want to know the real reason I’m not in All Saint’s this morning - or at the war memorial - well, I can’t face the thought of looking at all those young faces today. All those Air Cadets. Not after what happened in America on Tuesday.’
She hugged him closely, and realised to both her surprise and distress that he was trembling. ‘I know, darling,’ she said, ‘I know. You’re thinking - aren’t you - whether some of them are going to be serving in the Air Force in just a few years. Going into battle, goodness knows where.’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Flying sorties and combat missions somewhere in the Middle East. Who knows how this is going to play out? You heard what Bush said after the attacks: that America would make “No distinction between those who planned these acts and those who harbour them.” He’ll be gunning for the Taliban in Afghanistan, unless they hand over bin Laden: which they won’t. And what does that mean? Blood, and more blood, I should think. War without end. But that’s nothing new. And where America leads - we shall follow. Do you know how many years since 1914 there have been without the British armed forces fighting somewhere on the planet?’
‘You’ve told me that before. None.’
He nodded. ‘Not one damned year of peace, in almost a hundred years. I lost too many comrades - sailors, soldiers, airmen - in the Falklands. And for what? So that Maggie Thatcher could win two more elections, close down the pits, sell off half the country to asset strippers.’
‘England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself,’ Heather said bitterly. ‘That’s how Will Shakespeare put it, four hundred years ago.’
‘Spoken just like an English teacher,’ said Simon.
‘I am an English teacher.’ She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. ‘Look - it’s eleven o’clock.’ As she spoke, in the distance the town’s clock tower began chiming the hour.
Simon released her, and stood ramrod still. The silence was observed by him as respectfully in the Wentworth kitchen as it was by the assembled multitude gathered before the memorial in the centre of town. Only when the two minutes had passed did he look at her, and smile. ‘I will go up to the RAFA Club later, mind, for a drink: drink a toast to my Pa, and all those other magnificent men in their flying machines. Do you want to come?’
She shook her head. ‘No, best not. Not on Sam’s birthday. Oh, talking of which–’
‘Hi mum, hi Simon,’ came a sleepy voice from the doorway. ‘Isn’t someone meant to be bringing the birthday boy breakfast in bed this morning?’
Sam’s sort-of cousin, Gordon Howley, had been up for hours, ploughing in Clary Field. The winter wheat would need to be sowed soon. His father was busy checking over the gimmers and ewes in advance of Thurday’s inspection by the men from the Ministry. He wouldn’t have time to join Gordon today.
Gordon’s bright green Massey-Fergusson came to the rise at the top end of the field, near where Gospel Oak had once stood - until it had fallen during the Great Storm of 1987. Gordon lent forward and turned off the ignition, and with a judder the tractor came to a halt. It was a glorious sight, looking down across the fields of Withy Farm. From this vantage point, it was possible to see them all. Angelica Field, Five Shilling Wood, The Rough, Long Itching, Upper Tansy, Lower Tansy, Pease Close, Foxhole, Seven Pines. He remembered when his father had brought him up here, when he was just seven years old, and pointed them all out to him, naming each and every one of them, that wonderful litany of names. It had been a glorious summer’s day, he recalled, and the sun was setting, casting a regal glow across the fields as it did so. Matt Howley had placed his broad arms across his young son’s shoulders, and with great solemnity had ended his speech by saying:
‘All this will be yours one day, son. This will be my legacy to you. The greatest gift a man could bequeath to his offspring. Treasure it, Gordon. Treasure it well. And one day, you’ll stand on this spot with your son. And you’ll speak to him, much as I’ve spoken to you today. Just as my grandfather once stood here and spoke these words to me. Remember the words. Remember what it is to be a Howley, and to be a son of the soil here, in Morrington, working God’s good earth.’
Many times over the ten years since then, Gordon had come to this spot, and recollected his father’s words that day, with satisfaction and with pride. Only a few months ago, he had brought Cindy Giddings up here. The hay bails had been cut; and leaning up against one of them, with her sprawled at his feet, he had reached down and kissed her, and asked her if she would marry him.
‘We’re too young for all that, Gordie Howley,’ she had replied.
He had blushed, he remembered. ‘I don’t mean yet, Cindy. I’m off to agricultural college in a year’s time, hopefully. But we can still get engaged, can’t we? Or don’t you think your dad will approve?’
She giggled at that. ‘It’s your father who’s more likely to disapprove. You, a Howley - marrying the daughter of Tom Giddings. They’re not exactly friends, are they?’
‘It would treble the size of my family’s estate, though, wouldn’t it? Eventually, I mean.’
‘Is that why you want me?’ she chided. She pulled him down, protesting. ‘My father’s lands? And there was me thinking you were more interested in the contents of my knickers. Tell you what - ask me again, on my birthday.’
‘That’s not till next February!’
‘All good things come to those who wait,’ she teased. ‘That was true about my knickers too, after all, wasn’t it?’ And with that she had reached over, and started to unbutton his shirt…
All that seems so long ago. The happiest of interludes. But I didn’t know then what I know now.
Hadn’t the Father of Lies once stood on the pinnacle of a great mountain and shown Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, and offered them to him - in exchange for his fealty?
Gordon looked across Clary Field, and for a moment it felt as if his heart had stopped.
There it is - again.
Pecking away, at twenty yards distance, at some delicacy that had come to the surface of the soil (having been churned up by the plough that his Massey-Fergusson had been trailing) was a solitary magpie.
‘One for sorrow,’ muttered Gordon, despairingly. He looked around, anxiously seeking for any sign of the magpie’s companion. There was none.
Not so many months ago, Gordon Howley would have scoffed at such rank country superstition. But for the seventh day running, that was what Gordon had seen. One magpie - no more, no less. Every morning since Monday. Since the day after he had made the fateful decision that now, he feared, would cost him his life.
His life: but, he prayed not–
He crossed himself fervently, and repeatedly…
XIII: September 17th
The knock on the door came whilst Georgios was deeply engrossed with the third movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano concerto. He jumped up, lifted the stylus-arm from the vinyl LP record, and shouted: ‘Hang on!’
A few moments later, he opened the front door, breathless. Canon Vernon Harris smiled at him quizzically, but said nothing.
‘Rachmaninov,’ said Georgios, as if that was the only explanation required. ‘I’m sorry, I was somewhat carried away for a moment. Were you knocking long? The bell doesn’t work.’
The Rural Dean shook his head. ‘No, only twice. Don’t worry, it’s quite alright, my boy. May I come in?’
Georgios bit his lip, embarrassed. ‘Of course. Shall we go to my study? The Archdeacon hasn’t arrived yet.’ He ushered his visitor into the hallway. ‘Can I take your overcoat? Oh dear - I see it’s been raining.’
‘Only a little,’ reassured Canon Harris. ‘But yes, thank you.’ He passed his coat over to Georgios. ‘I’m afraid Archdeacon Graeham won’t be joining us.’
‘Oh, that’s unfortunate. Do take a seat.’
‘Thank you. And yes: it is. But I think he’s busy firefighting. The Archbishop didn’t exactly get the warmest of receptions to his Diocesan Review proposals on Saturday.’
‘Ah. Rather like turkeys baulking at the idea of voting for Christmas, I imagine. Can I offer you some coffee?’
‘Thank you, perhaps a little later. But I’d like to chat about the induction service for a bit first, if I may. I understand from Belinda Buxton that you’re not expecting many personal guests?’
‘That’s correct. To be honest, there aren’t many from Exeter I’d like to invite; and Leicester is a fair distance away. A couple of old friends from Oxford and Cambridge days are coming, but that’s pretty much it.’
‘None of your family?’
Georgios shook his head. ‘My grandmother isn’t in the best of health, and my father and I aren’t particularly close any more. There’s no one else - apart from some relatives in Cephalonia, that is.’
The Rural Dean frowned. ‘Well, we’re going to be looking a bit light as far as ministers are concerned too. We’ve invited the local Catholic priest, Fr Liam O’Higgins, and the Methodist minister, Revd Nathaniel Gyde, to attend and offer “fraternal greetings” as part of the service. I’m not sure if either will be in evidence. We haven’t bothered with the minister of Overhill, Pastor Bennett. He’s a bit of a nutcase to be honest.’
Georgios nodded his head. There seemed little point in relaying the story of his encounter with Pastor Bennett on Saturday.
‘Then there’s the Deanery Clergy,’ continued Canon Harris. ‘They have all been invited, and should make it a priority to be present; but I’m afraid you won’t get PG there.’
’Oh, apologies. You haven’t met him yet, of course. Revd Fr Peter Geoffrey Auldcourt: ‘PG’ as he’s generally known. He’s been the Rector of the Caer-yr-adfa group for twenty-two years now, the longest serving cleric of the Deanery. He’s vehemently opposed to female priests, and he’s refused to attend any Deanery events since Julie Johnson’s appointment to Cwmpentre. Very much ‘old school’, is PG. Widowed not long after arriving in the Deanery; there were no children. He’s highly eccentric: a vegan, an anti-hunt campaigner, and a poet. 68 years old, and absolutely determined not to retire until he’s 70. He’d carry on past that point if the Church of Wales allowed it, which of course it doesn’t. I think he’s somewhat homophobic too. At least, I get the impression he doesn’t approve of Fr Wishart.’
‘He probably wouldn’t approve of me either, theologically.’
‘Very true,’ sighed Harris. ‘He’s our only fluent Welsh speaker in the Deanery Chapter. A lot of his poetry is written in Welsh. Think of him as being like RS Thomas - but with even more attitude - and you won’t be far wrong.’
‘I prefer the other poetic Thomas - Dylan - myself,’ countered Georgios. ‘Who else is in the Deanery?’
‘Well, myself. And you’ve met Fr Wishart already. The only other cleric is PG Auldcourt’s bête noire, the Revd Julie Johnson–’
‘Whom I’ve also met.’
‘Oh, really?’ Harris raised an eyebrow and smiled, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. ‘Our clerical firebrand. Smokes cigars, swears like a navvy, is more left-wing than Tony Benn. A single parent too - I don’t believe she was ever married.’ The hint of disapproval in his voice was unmistakable, and Georgios had to restrain himself from rising to the clear bait. I see your game, Vernon: and I can’t say I care for it.
But instead Georgios said: ‘What about Lay Readers in the Deanery?’
Well, there are only two - both of them in the Templeton group. We’ve already spoken about them briefly. Jack Copeland and Harry Barrington-Smythe. You’ll need to ask one or other of them to act as Archbishop’s Chaplain for the service. Of course, whichever one you don’t ask is likely to be somewhat upset - but it can’t be helped.’
‘The Archbishop’s Chaplain? Can’t that be a cleric, rather than a Reader?’
Harris grunted, and folded his arms. ‘Well, it could be - but I wouldn’t advise you to ask Benedict Wishart. That really would put the cat amongst the pigeons with the Barrington-Smythes and their allies.’
Georgios looked at the Rural Dean squarely face to face, and said coolly. ‘That’s not what I had in mind, Vernon. I’d like Julie Johnson to act as Chaplain to the Archbishop at my induction service.’
Vernon Harris stopped smiling. His eyes narrowed, and there was a definite glint of menace behind his spectacles. For a long moment he paused, as if carefully considering how to respond. ‘Well,’ he said eventually, ‘it is your choice, my boy; and there’s nothing that forbids it, strictly speaking. But I’m not at all convinced it’s a good idea.’
‘Why not? You’ve as much as said that Auldcourt is likely to boycott the induction in any case. And if I’m going to offend one Lay Reader, I might as well give them equal cause for offence.’
‘I see. Very well, I’ll let Belinda Buxton know.’
‘I’m sorry, but what concern is it to Belinda? Granted, she’s Peoples Warden at All Saints - but isn’t St Matthew’s hosting the induction? Shouldn’t you be liaising, primarily, with the Churchwardens there?’
Georgios' sudden assertiveness had clearly taken the Rural Dean by surprise. Nevertheless, he slowly nodded his head. ‘You are quite correct. I’ll make sure all parties are informed, and due weight will naturally be given to St Matthew’s as the host church. Perhaps we should have that coffee now, before we look at the order of service in detail.’
‘Of course,’ said Georgios, standing up. But Canon Harris hadn’t quite finished.
‘The late Romanticism of Rachmaninov gives its own pleasures, of course; but personally I prefer the heavier cut and thrust of Wagner myself. His operas are so full of vivid storytelling, of lust and betrayal, of love gone awry, of madness and hubris, aren’t they? Yet for all that, it’s a great pity when real life comes to resemble a Wagnerian opera.’ He smiled, but there was no mirth hidden behind eyes this time. ‘Best avoided, I think. Milk, no sugar.’
XIV: September 18th
Matt Howley looked up, and saw his wife hovering in the doorway of his office. Oh Christ, he thought. I told her I’d only be another half hour.
‘Sorry, love, I know I promised to come and watch that James Bond film on the television; but I just have to get this paperwork in order before the inspectors arrive on Thursday. These new regulations that they’ve introduced across the board, for all livestock, since the Foot and Mouth outbreak - it’s been a nightmare.’
Susan crossed the room and evicted their black cat, Mintie, from her favourite armchair. She lowered herself into it, as Matt continued his complaint. ‘You know, it’s at times like this I really wish Simon was still here on the farm. It’s far too much for one man to handle.’
‘One man?’ said Susan. ‘What about Gordon?’
‘He’s still a boy. And anyways, we’re going to lose him for a while next year if he goes off to agricultural college.’
‘Actually, Matt, it’s Gordon I want to talk to you about.’ She sat forward in her armchair, and clasped her hands nervously together. ‘I’m worried about him. Really worried.’
‘Sue, we’ve gone through this before - it’s just a phase. Life’s full of worries when you’re his age.’
‘Matt, stop it! You know there’s more going on with him than the usual teenage angst. He’s not eating properly, he hides away in his room when he’s not out doing his farm chores, he won’t talk to us properly–’
‘You’ve just described any teenage boy - not just our son.’
She shook her head vigorously. ‘Does a normal teenage son put up crosses in his bedroom, and does he stick photographs and paintings of Jesus, Mary and the saints that he’s cut out of books and magazines onto the walls? Does he lug the great big Family Bible upstairs? Does he get all jittery and jumpy in the evening, and refuse to go to bed without a light on - despite having never been bothered by the dark since he was an infant? Does any of that sound like normal behaviour to you?’
‘No,’ said Matt quietly. ‘I guess not.’
‘I think you should ring the new Vicar, and ask him to call round, urgently.’
Matt was astonished by her suggestion. ‘I can’t do that! The Rural Dean has drummed it into all the churchwardens that we are to leave Revd Anagnosides well alone until after the induction. He’s not our Vicar yet. Canon Harris has already had words with a number of people that he knows have bothered him - like Belinda Buxton and Harry Barrington-Smythe.’ He hesitated, then said: ‘All the churchwardens are supposed to be meeting with Canon Harris on Thursday evening down at St Matthew’s, for one final run through. Belinda will try to dominate proceedings, as usual. But I could always have a quiet word with him after we’ve finished our business.’
‘No, I don’t like that man, and neither does Gordon. You know our son will never confide in him. It’s got to be the new priest.’
What makes you so sure Gordon will talk to him? thought Matt. ‘Then we’ll have to wait until at least the weekend - more likely next week.’
‘I’m afraid, Matt.’ She looked down at her feet. ‘I’m afraid that if we don’t act quickly - we might lose him. That he might - do something.’
‘Don’t be stupid, woman. My son would never…’ his voice trailed off, as he contemplated the implication of her words.
‘If you don’t telephone Georgios Anagnosides tonight, then I will.’
He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her looking so determined. ‘Okay,’ he assented. ‘I’ll call him. I’ll see if he can come tomorrow morning.’
‘No,’ he shook his head firmly. ‘It’s already dark. Meeting him can wait until the morning - if he’s free, and willing to meet, which he may not be. But I’ll ring him. Will that satisfy you?’
She jumped up from her armchair, and embraced him. ‘Yes, darling. But please do press upon him how urgent it is. And that I’m not just some neurotic mother.’
‘I will,’ he promised. ‘And then after I’ve phoned him, give me just another fifteen minutes. I’ll need to check over this final spreadsheet. Then - I’ll come through and we’ll watch some television together.’
‘The Bond movie has almost finished.’
‘Doesn’t matter. We’ve seen it before. To Morrington With Love, wasn’t it?’ It was a feeble joke, he knew - but at least it brought a smile to her face.
‘I’ll make us some cocoa. Shaken, not stirred. But first, I’ll just pop upstairs to check on him. I do love you, Matthew Howley.’
‘And I you, honeybun. It’ll all be okay - just you wait and see.’
XIV: September 19th
‘Thank you for coming around, Vicar. Ooh - I suppose I shouldn’t call you that yet.’
Georgios smiled at the anxious woman sitting opposite him in the large farmhouse kitchen. Her Rubenesque features were not unattractive; but she would look better, he thought, with her flaming red tresses hanging loose rather than being tied back as they were. She reminded him of Caroline, just a little.
‘Please, just call me Georgios. It’s quite alright.’
She carried on, almost as if she hadn’t heard him. ‘And I know we shouldn’t have called you over, just yet - it’s not the done thing, we do understand - but we just had to speak to someone. I’ve been so worried this past week.’
‘But you say your son’s not quite been himself for a few months?’
She shook her head. ‘No. Not since we found out he’d been seeing Tom Giddings’ daughter. I think that must have been July, when he told us. He’d been seeing her secretly for about six months before that, it seems. Anyway, there was the most terrible row between Gordon and Matt when we found out. There’s been bad blood between the Giddings and the Howley families, going back generations.’
Ah, from the balconies of Verona to the fields of Morrington: some stories don’t change, do they? ‘Maybe that’s why he’s been depressed. If he was close to his father, and now that relationship’s been damaged because of his choice of girlfriend…’
‘No, it’s much more serious than that. You’re right of course - he and Matt have always been close. But Cindy Giddings–’ (There was real feeling in the way she enunciated the name). She paused, and looked down at her hands, clasped together on the battered oak kitchen table. Georgios could see they were trembling slightly.
She looked up at the priest. ‘She was more than his girlfriend, Georgios. I think she was his mentor. She had a hold over him. I think she was introducing him to...’ she gulped. ‘To dark stuff. The kind of things we don’t like to speak of in this part of the world. Because it’s not just a silly superstition. It’s real.’
Georgios thought for a moment. This was unexpected: and yet, somehow, he didn’t feel surprised. ‘What signs have you seen that make you suspect that there’s an unwholesome spiritual dimension to all this?’
‘Gordon’s been reading a lot the past couple of months. Unusually so, because he’s never been a particularly studious boy. The kind of books he’s been borrowing from Templeton Library: they’re all about witchcraft, supernatural stuff. Alistair Crowley, Dennis Wheatley, even some American author, Stephen - somebody or other.’
‘Stephen King. What else?’
‘The last week or so it’s definitely become more disturbing. He’s been putting up crosses in his bedroom. Refusing to turn out the light at night. And last night, when I went up to see him, just before bedtime, he asked me…’ Her voice trembled, and she dabbed at her eye with a handkerchief. Then she looked intently at Georgios. ‘He asked me if I thought he was a bad person and if I thought he was going to go to hell.’ She turned away, and started sobbing uncontrollably.
The latch of the kitchen door was lifted, and the heavy door swung open. In the doorway stood the tall imposing figure of Matt Howley. Shit, thought Georgios. Talk about timing.
‘Vicar,’ he rumbled. ‘What have you said to her?’ He strode over to the table and put a comforting arm upon his wife’s shoulders. ‘There, there, my love,’ he said softly.
She shook her head, wiping the tears from her cheeks. ‘It’s not Georgios–Revd Anagnosides’–fault. He’s been very kind. Where’s Gordon?’
‘He went out early this morning - up to Clary Field, he said.’
‘But he only finished ploughing that the other day. Why would he have gone back there?’ She started trembling. ‘Go and fetch him, Matt. Go now!’
Gordon had left the engine of the tractor running, fascinated as he watched the magpies gathering. This time, he was relieved to see that there was more than the single solitary bird that had apparently been haunting him over the previous nine mornings. He counted them, and as he did so, he chanted the old familiar rhyme to himself:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy…
He remembered, he’d counted four magpies straight after the first time he had made love to Cindy. That had been a shock, and he had blurted out:
‘Fuck. What if the condom’s split?’
She’d giggled at that. ‘It’s okay, Casanova. I’m on the pill. Double insurance. There’ll be no boy - or girl - for you to worry your pretty head about yet.’
But there were more than four today. He continued counting.
Five for silver,
Six for gold.
He’d never ever seen more than six at one time before. He gulped.
Seven for a secret never to be told.
I’ll never tell. Never! How could I tell what I know? Who would ever believe me?
As he watched, his heart thumping, an eighth bird alighted next to the others.
Eight for heaven.
Please God, he moaned. Please, no more.
Nine for hell.
Gordon leapt up into the cab of the tractor, and swung at the wheel. He needed to get away, right now. He grinded at the gears, and with a reproachful cry of protest, the Massy Furgusson - that dependable vehicle that his dad had bought for him on his fourteenth birthday - began to turn to the left. Out of the corner of his right eye, he saw the flock of magpies had taken to the wing and were flying directly at him. Some intuition made him count them - quickly - again.
Ten for the Devil, his own self.
They were going to hit. He took his hands off the wheel, instinctively throwing them up to protect his face. His eyes. From the beating wings, sharp beaks and vicious claws; and the mocking chac-chac-chac. The tractor hit the tree stump: the last remains of the old Gospel Oak that had once stood proud at the apex of the field. It teetered for a moment, unbalanced, and then came crashing down on its side. The last piercing scream of the boy, and the last protesting whine of the tractor, cut out together.
The magpies flew off. All was silent on the pinnacle of Withy Farm.
Darkwoode (Part One)
It was Timmy Weston’s turn to knock on the door. He didn’t want to: but Sam insisted. When your best friend is three inches taller, twenty pounds heavier and dressed in a pirate costume that includes a sword that looks suspiciously realistic, it’s best not to argue. And Timmy didn’t want to appear churlish. After all, this might well be the last time he and his three friends went trick-or-treating. They were in Year 6: Sam had already turned eleven, and Elliot and Timmy weren’t far behind. By this time next year, they would be in Templeton High School: and, in all likelihood, dismissing these Halloween japes as beneath them. Why dress up as zombies, vampires, cut-throats and mummies when you could sit at home, play D&D, stuff yourself with as much pizza, coke and popcorn as you liked, and top it off by watching some violent slasher-horror than you’d persuaded your older brother to get for you from the DVD bargain basement bin at Dicky Jenkins, the town’s one and only supermarket? Well, that was the hope, though only Peter Pugh had a brother old enough to pull this stunt: and, unfortunately, Sean Pugh was currently rather more interested in pursuing girls that acceding to the artful demands, however carefully presented, of his younger brother and his nerdy friends.
But for now, it was cold, foggy and damp, and the four friends were standing at the bottom of the drive of Templeton Vicarage.
In the old black-and-white films, with their rather quaint takes on ‘horror’ that Timmy had actually seen, vicarages occasionally featured, alongside Gothic cathedrals in their gargoyled splendour, mist-enshrouded churchyards watched over by gravely-hooting owls, and draughty country churches filled with the sight of guttering candles and the sound of forbidding organ-tones. Set against all those tropes of ecclesiastical terror, Templeton Vicarage was disappointing, to say the least. An architect with a penchant for neoClassicism would perhaps have dismissed it as a hideous monstrosity: but to Timmy there was nothing the least bit monstrous about it - if only! He wouldn’t even have called it ugly. It was just boring. A fair bit bigger, admittedly, than the pokey council estate house he shared with his mother and two sisters: but otherwise, remarkably similar. He decided to make one last attempt to get out of knocking at this particular residence.
‘I was the one who banged on Vicar Ed’s door last year,’ complained Timmy. ‘Why does it have to be me again?’
‘Cos it’s your turn,’ said Sam. ‘This is the eighth one we’ve done tonight. The rest of us have knocked on two doors each: you’ve only done one. Don’t matter if you knocked it last year. It’s your turn now. Besides,’ he smirked, ‘You like Vicar Ed, don’t you? You’re one of his choir boys, ain’t you?’ He started laughing, and Elliot and Peter joined in.
Timmy’s face flushed, and started to resemble the large pumpkin glowing on the Vicarage doorstep. Quite an accomplishment, considering the skin lightening cream he’d applied to his face to make his vampire costume look more convincing.
He was the only one of the four boys to attend church. He’d actually been thinking about quitting the choir for some time. Nothing to do with anything untoward on the part of Vicar Ed, as Sam was hinting at. He was okay: even if he tried a bit too hard to ‘get with it’ (as he would say). Far too many ‘embarrassing Dad jokes’: not that Timmy had much idea of what a non-embarrassing Dad, or any kind of father, would actually be like. The only really creepy guy in church was Ernie Hutton. There was definitely something odd about him, and the way he sat in the choir stalls, wearing his creased, perpetually-lopsided surplice, with a dreamy, faraway expression on his face throughout the service. He used to wander around the town late at night: owl-watching, he would say. Peeping-Ernie, more like. No: the reason Timmy wanted to leave was the fact that choir-practice was held on a Thursday, at 5 o’clock. This suited the choirmaster and organist, Mr Meeks, perfectly. It did not suit Timmy. Not now that a new series of Byker Grove was back on television, every Tuesday and Thursday, at precisely that time. It was intolerable.
‘So - you going to do it, shithead? Or what?’ asked Elliot. He tried to look threatening, but without much success. That was Elliot Halliday all over: always talking tough, swearing liberally, trying to show himself as capable and as devil-may-care as Sam Wentworth - yet somehow, always failing. Take his zombie costume, for instance. He had tried to make it as gruesome in appearance as possible: ripped shirt and jeans, fake blood aplenty, carefully-applied makeup suggestive of scarring and rotting flesh. Yet he’d spent most of their evening out thus far complaining about his broken-down trainers, that he’d deliberately wrecked for the occasion, only to find them ridiculously impractical to wear, especially in the rain. That was Elliot in a nutshell.
It was nowhere near as absurd as Peter’s. Poor Peter’s choices were always very poor. Last year he had decided to dress up as a ghost: but he had put the eye-holes in the wrong place, meaning that the back of him was insufficiently covered up, whilst his feet kept tripping up over the dangling front side of the sheet. It never seemed to occur to him to make a new pair of eye-holes. This year’s selection had been worse still. He’d wound himself meticulously in reams and reams of toilet paper, carefully tied together around his ankles, abdomen and forearms. Three minutes of contact with even the light on-off mizzly rain that evening had been sufficient to reduce his costume to an unwearable mulch. He’d discarded it in stages, until only a single sodden sash was left around his waist. It wasn’t just that he was the youngest of them, by a good six months. No, there was something not quite there about Peter. God knows how he was going to survive High School.
‘Course I am,’ scowled Timmy. ‘Just saying - that’s all. Right. Here goes.’ He marched straight up to the door. The beckoning pumpkin gave assurance to Halloween callers that they would be welcome. That wasn’t the case everywhere, of course. Many of the older folk in Templeton would complain bitterly about these ‘unwanted American customs’ creeping in. The kind of women who would never kit out their younger children in new clothes if ready-made hand-me-downs were available from older siblings. And the same kind of men who objected to buying their wives a Valentines card. Or flowers for the mantelpiece, come to that. Mean-spirited, penny-pinching. There were plenty of that sort in Templeton.
Some of the very worst were the religious types, of course. Especially with Halloween. ‘Revelling in the works of the Devil, that is!’ they would cry. Vicar Ed would have none of it.
‘There’s no point getting worked up about kids-play,’ he had said in a sermon earlier that year about Beltane, and the revelries of the May. ‘Leaping at every shadow - that’s superstitious nonsense in itself. Templeton is not Summerisle, and we have no fear of Wicker Men here - only foolish minds, and limited imaginations.’
Timmy had asked Sam afterwards what a Wicker Man was. ‘A cool horror film,’ was his reply.
Regardless of the disapproval of his parishioners, on every Halloween Vicar Ed would be waiting behind the front door, with a bucket full of sweets. Sometimes his wife Sarah would be there too, chiding him about the perils of rotting teeth, and gorged stomachs. ‘One handful is quite enough!’ she would say sternly, whilst her husband would chuckle, shaking his head, looking for all the world like a misplaced Santa: dressed from head to toe in black (not scarlet) with a bushy beard that was tinged with only the slightest hint of white.
‘Nonsense, woman,’ he would bellow. ‘There’s plenty more where they came from.’ And then he would start asking the children after the health of their parents, and what their brothers or sisters were up to, and did they have anything else planned for the half-term holiday, and had Great-aunt Mabel had her hip operation yet. Whoever rang the doorbell would get the fiercest interrogation, of course: that was the real reason why Timmy had wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being in pole position for the over-enthusiastic cleric. And always he would end by saying: ‘All Saint’s Day, tomorrow. Our patronal festival. There’s a service in the evening. Hope to see you there. Happy Halloween!’ This was always celebrated with extra ceremony. Timmy knew this because last week’s choir practice had been especially long. Mr Meeks had been trying out a new, and rather difficult anthem, with results that could not, in all charity, be described as anything other than ‘mixed’. Timmy was dreading the next day. At least his friends would not be there to witness another disastrous patronal festival - the third since Timmy had joined the choir.
Curious. There was no answer at the front door. Timmy reached up and rang the doorbell again. Still, nothing.
‘Why don’t they answer?’ asked Peter.
‘Perhaps they’re hiding,’ said Elliot. ‘Pretending they’re not at home.’
‘Then why are all the lights on?’ reasoned Timmy. ‘Anyway, Vicar Ed wouldn’t do that. He likes Halloween - even if most of the Church people don’t.’
Elliot shrugged his shoulders. ‘Whatever. Fuck it. They’re not answering, so it’s got to be a trick.’ He turned to their leader. ‘You got the eggs and flour, Sam?’ He pointed at the backpack flung over the eldest boy’s shoulder.
‘No,’ declared Sam firmly. ‘Timmy’s right. This ain’t like the Vicar. And even if he’s out, what about his wife? Anyway, their car’s still here. Look!’
Without warning, a piercing scream filled the air. The boys froze momentarily in alarm, then looked at one another in turn, wide-eyed. Sam’s right hand instinctively went to the hilt of his sword, and half drew it from its sheath.
‘What the f–?’ cried Elliot; but before he could finish, a second scream rang out, even louder than the first. It was clear now where the shrieks were coming from. Across the road, from the Vicarage, was All Saint’s Church. But even against the backdrop of the now steadily-increasing patter of raindrops, the boys could tell that those harrowing sounds had come not from the Church, from the graveyard that surrounded it.
‘Come on!’ shouted Sam. ‘We gotta help whoever’s in trouble.’ Without even looking to see if the others were following, he charged across the road, drawing his cutlass as he did so. Impetuous, foolhardy, yes - but utterly fearless too - that was Sam Wentworth. That was why he was Timmy’s best friend. Why he - he gulped as the thought entered his head, unbidden - why he loved him. Though Sam would laugh at him, and call him a poofter if he had ever said as much, in so many words. Where Sam led, Timmy would always follow. He hurried across the road, trying to catch up to the older boy. Elliot followed just behind, cursing as he did so, limping along in his ill-considered footwear. Bringing up the rear, only following out of fear of being left alone, came Peter.
By the time Timmy caught up with Sam, he was standing by the notice board advertising the next day’s patronal festival service. The boy had sheathed his sword - for despite appearances, it really was just a bit of plastic, and of little practical use in an emergency. Instead he had fished a torch out of his backpack, and was shining it first down the church path, then across to the right where the garden of remembrance filled with cremated remains lay: then finally to the left, scanning the oldest part of the graveyard, filled with leaning lichen-encrusted graves with barely-decipherable lettering, overgrown with weeds, and tangled thickets of ivy, brambles, and unkempt shrubbery. Also scattered around this part of the graveyard were a number of gnarled old trees: elders and oaks, rowans and hawthorns, an enormous and venerable yew tree. And then there was the great horse chestnut tree, which only a few weeks ago Timmy and his friends had been foraging beneath, searching for the best conkers for their schoolyard contests.
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree
It wasn’t anything that might have been lying in the decaying litter of autumn leaves beneath the chestnut tree that was held now in the shaky spotlight of Sam Wentworth’s torch: nor was it the figure of the sobbing woman standing nearby. The boys stood and looked, in disbelief, at the nightmarish sight before them. This was no video nasty, though Timmy. This was real.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the last bit of Peter’s mummy outfit finally come adrift, and fall to the ground. He fancied - though he was probably imagining it - that he could hear the soft sound of the trickle of urine as poor Peter Pugh pissed his pants. He could certainly hear the voice of Elliot whispering, under his breath: ‘No, fuck - no, fuck - no…’ repeating that same pointless phrase, over and over again. And then Timothy Weston felt the strong, strangely father-like - or what he imagined a father would feel like - grip of his wisest of friends: resting his right arm across his shoulder, reassuringly, whilst with his outstretched left arm, now no longer trembling, he held his torch steady. The focus of its light remained firmly fixed upon that which was hanging by a thick rope from one of the outspread arms of that chestnut tree.
There, suspended from one of the thickest and firmest boughs, no doubt specially selected for this task, was the lifeless body of the Revd Edgar Dyson, Vicar of Templeton with Morrington with Llanfihangel Gilfach.
Part One: Draco Dormiens
I: May 8th (Julian of Norwich)
The towering horse chestnut trees on either side of the approach to Selsey Tower (the grandly-named home for nearly a century to successive bishops of the mid-Wales Diocese of Pengwen) were only just beginning to come into flower, Father Georgios Anagnosides observed, as he sauntered down the driveway towards where his conspicuous canary yellow Citroen 2CV was parked. Their flowering was running perhaps two weeks behind their counterparts in Exeter. It was a chilly afternoon in the second week of May, and the young priest could barely feel the enfeebled rays of the subdued sun on his face.
Standing by the driver’s door of his car, he looked back towards the unprepossessing red brick mansion that doubled as bishop’s residence and diocesan office: and smiling with about as much conviction as he could muster, he waved at the balding middle-aged figure in purple cassock and cincture standing on the doorstep. The man who had just offered him a lifeline, and a living, on the Anglo-Welsh border. He watched as Bishop Mervyn Mortlake turned around, and re-entered the building. Only once his prune-faced inquisitor had finally disappeared from sight, did Georgios draw the packet of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his jacket. He’d been trying to give them up for the past two years: but today was not a day on which he was likely to make any headway with that ambition. Already, he was beginning to wonder if he had made the right decision.
‘Anagnosides. That’s rather a curious surname, if I might say so. Greek, I presume?’
‘Yes, Bishop. My grandparents came over to Britain, when my father was in his teens, during the Greek Civil War, back in 1947. We still have family in Cephalonia.’
Bishop Mervyn nodded sagely. ‘I see. Anagnosis as in “agnostic”? An ironic name for a priest.’
Georgios smiled. ‘Not quite. Anagnosis actually means “recognition” or “reading”, with particular reference to a public reading of scripture, in a church or synagogue. It can also carry the sense of “knowing again” or “owning.” To read something, again and again, is to know something more deeply, to own it, to allow it to become part of you. Rather like the Lectio Divina method of studying scripture, meditating and praying. The very opposite of agnosticism, in point of fact.’
‘Well - my grasp of Greek is a little rusty,’ replied the bishop, frowning. ‘But you should know, I suppose, given your ancestry.’ Georgios suspected that the man interviewing him was not someone who liked to be contradicted.
‘So,’ continued the bishop, glancing down at the file lying open across his desk, ‘a First in history from St Ignatius College Oxford, then a doctorate. The offer of a fellowship follows, the start of what might have been a glittering academic career. But instead you turn it down, and elect to train for the priesthood, exchanging Oxford for Cambridge. Always a poor move, in my opinion, swapping the elder for the younger institution. I stayed in Oxford, and trained at St Simeon’s House. Why the change in direction? Not the universities - I mean the change in vocation.’
‘The death of my mother in a traffic accident had a lot to do with it.’
‘Ah, you found God in the midst of your grief?’
Georgios shook his head, conscious he was contradicting the prickly bishop for a second time. ‘No - I lost my faith. But I decided to give God a second chance. I went to Westcott House to study theology in the full expectation of having my doubts confirmed. If God could demonstrate his existence to me, to my satisfaction, then I’d resolve to serve him. If not - we’d go our separate ways. God won.’
Bishop Mervyn snorted. ‘Extraordinary. I’m surprised, with that attitude, any Warden of Ordinands would have supported your application. If you’d been in my Diocese - frankly, I certainly wouldn’t have accepted you for training.’
Silence. The bishop looked across his desk sternly, as if expecting - daring - Georgios to respond. But the young priest remained still, and met the bishop’s gaze impassively. Georgios sensed that the future course of the interview - and its ultimate outcome - was now hanging by a thread. He also knew that there must be no third contradiction of the bishop for the duration of their time together. But nevertheless, he stayed calm.
A full minute passed, with the steely-eyed bishop regarding him severely, fingering his pectoral cross all the while. Then, the purple-clad prelate lowered his gaze, seemingly returning to regard the documents laid before him. Georgios thought he saw the ghost of a smile fleeting across his face, before the lugubrious mask reformed.
‘Hmm. An excellent report from Unwin Hall, Cambridge, and an even more glowing one from your training incumbent. A challenging parish, that one, in Leicester. I served in the Diocese of Leicester myself, once upon a time, you know. Very multicultural. Lots of Poles, Irish - and, of course, Asians in abundance now, thanks to Idi Amin. Somalis too, over the last decade. Thirty percent of the city’s now non-White. Twice that percentage, actually, in the parish where you were placed. Well you’ll find Templeton very different, I’m afraid. But perhaps a country ministry will provide a welcome opportunity for you. It’ll be better than your past year’s experience, for certain. I understand you’ve not been enjoying your time as a university chaplain, yes?’
‘Correct, Bishop. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ve turned out to be suitable for my current appointment.’
‘That’s an understatement. I believe you’ve been asked to leave at the end of this academic year. Not - I’ve been assured - because of any scandals. You wouldn’t be sitting in front of me now if that had been the case. No, there’s simply been an acknowledgment all round that you’re something of a square peg in a round hole there.’
‘Precisely.’ And if you could see how appalling the attitudes are of these entitled upper-middle-class students that still make up far too large a percentage of the intake at Exeter, with their faux ‘Cool Britannia’ affectations, you’d feel like a square peg too. In some ways, it’s even worse there than it was in Oxford and Cambridge. What did the Church have to say, at the dawn of the new Millennium, to such as these? Far better for it to be engaged in radical social action in the challenging and changing suburbs of a city such as Leicester. At least I felt purposeful as a curate in Leicester. Would I feel the same way about mid-Wales, I wonder?
Georgios had allowed himself to become distracted. What was the bishop saying now?
‘Well, fortunately for you, we’re almost as desperate to find someone for the Templeton group as you are to find somewhere else to go after your minor debacle in Devonshire. The parishes have been vacant for over six months now, and my attempts to find someone from within the Diocese to take them on have been utterly unsuccessful. We’ve advertised twice in the Church Times. You are the only interested applicant, it seems. You’ve read the parish group profile, I take it? You’re fully aware of the nature of the previous Vicar’s untimely death?’
Georgios nodded. ‘Yes, I am.’
‘Good. They’ve had a torrid time of it lately. Morrington and Llanfihangel Gilfach were a separate incumbency until April last year. The Revd Huw Davies-Jones had been their Rector since 1990. A most unsuitable appointment, made by my predecessor, I’m afraid. He was one of those dreadful evangelicals, without the least bit of proper priestly formation. He trained at Alderdale Theological College - so what do you expect? Not a clue about Gregorian chant - but give him a guitar - hmm... Unfortunately, he didn’t stick to his guitar. He had an affair with his daughter’s piano teacher. Resigned his living in August 1999. He’s a taxi driver somewhere in the West Midlands now, I hear. I couldn’t find a replacement for him, so after consulting with the Senior Staff I suspended the parishes, then amalgamated them with Templeton next door. Edgar Dyson had been there since 1987. Well-liked, solid pastoral work, nothing too extreme in terms of churchmanship. He was a safe pair of hands.’ The bishop sighed. ‘Emphasis, alas, on the was.’
‘I’ve read the news reports following the inquest,’ said Georgios. ‘There seems little doubt, then, that he took his own life?’
‘No doubt whatsoever. As clear a case of suicide as you could ask for. What remains completely unclear is why he did it. There were no indications of anxiety or depression beforehand. Professionally, he was doing a good job with the new parish grouping. His personal life was untroubled. His poor wife was the one who found his body - alongside some young boys, I gather. Poor things.’ The bishop paused, reflective for a moment. Then, shaking his head, he continued. ‘Anyway, it’s been a major headache for me. This Foot and Mouth business has made it even worse, of course.’
Georgios nodded. The one thing that had made him hesitant about responding to the advertisement in the Church Times was the knowledge that since February the UK had been going through its biggest farming crisis in a generation. Was this really the best time to be seeking a country living?
‘Have there been any local outbreaks in the Templeton district?’
Bishop Mervyn shook his head. ‘No, the nearest was twenty miles away, so none of the local farmers have had to slaughter their herds and flocks. But they have still suffered because of the ban on animal movement, and the closure of the livestock markets. And then there’s been the impact upon tourism. It’s been a trying time for us all: and Templeton’s lack of a parish priest throughout this period has been most unfortunate. The Rural Dean has tried his best to keep the show on the road - you’ll meet him, of course, soon enough, should you accept the appointment. Then there’s the curate - Benedict Wishart - I take it you’d have no problem working alongside someone who’s - err - in a relationship?’
Should you accept the appointment…
Trying to conceal his excitement at this tacit admission that the post was practically his, Georgios asked: ‘Relationship, Bishop? Could you clarify that for me, please?’
‘Hmm.’ Bishop Mervyn Mortlake pursed his lips, and placed his hands together, as if in an attitude of prayer. ‘Fr Wishart is a homosexual. He has entered into a personal relationship with another man. They live together in the Old Rectory in Morrington. Not the one that Davies-Jones was living in - that’s been sold off by the Parsonage Board now. No - they’re living in the old Victorian Rectory. Rather fine, as I recall. Anyway, Fr Wishart assures me that he is celibate. Unlike in England - where they’re tying themselves in all sorts of knots - here in Wales the bishops have a little more discretion about appointments in these circumstances. Anyway, he’s only an unpaid curate - not a stipendiary incumbent - so one can afford to be a little more accommodating. It’s up to you what use you make of him of course, but you’ll probably be grateful for the extra help.’
‘Are the parishes aware of his circumstances? And if so, are they accepting?’
‘Well, there’s been some difficulty,’ said the bishop, evasively. ‘But nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle. Any problems, speak to the Rural Dean or, if absolutely necessary, the Archdeacon.’
And not you, you mean, thought Georgios. Typical.
‘Which reminds me,’ continued the bishop. ‘You appear to be an unmarried man. Is there anyone - significant - in your life, at present?’
Only the bloody Church could get away with such an unsubtle prurient line of questioning these days. He’s not really interested in whether or not I’m married. He just wants to know if I’m gay.
Sadly, my fiancée and I split up last month,’ responded Georgios. ‘She wasn’t sure, in the end, that she could see herself married to a clergyman.’ A bit more complicated than that - but it was true, up to a point. ‘We both agreed that it was for the best. So no - I’m single.’ The priest had sensed the strong sense of relief emanating from Bishop Mervyn the moment he had said the word fiancée.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said the bishop, insincerely. He glanced at his watch. ‘Well, I have another meeting shortly. When can you start?’
‘So you’re offering me the position?’ asked Georgios, cautiously.
‘Of course!’ declared the Bishop of Pengwen imperiously. ‘Should have thought that was obvious. Do you accept?’
Naturally, he’d said yes. He’d had several unsuccessful interviews elsewhere. This was as good an offer as he was likely to get. It brought him nearer to home, and his beloved grandmother: sprightly though she was for her age, Georgios was acutely aware that at 92 she was in the final autumnal years of her life. The mid-Wales countryside was gloriously beautiful, and he wouldn’t miss Exeter itself one bit. As for Caroline - it would be good to put a bit of distance between them. He’d miss her, Annabelle too: but life was too short for regrets. Time to move on.
Georgios took a final drag of his cigarette, and almost threw it out of the window: but given he was still within the grounds of Selsey Tower, thought better of it. Instead, he stubbed it out beneath his left foot, and turned the key in the ignition with his right hand. Momentarily he considered whether he should travel back to Exeter via Templeton, but then dismissed the idea. He’d already paid a brief visit to the place that morning (making sure his coat was buttoned up to hide his clerical collar), but calling in for a second time on the same day was asking for trouble: he knew he had to keep his appointment strictly under wraps for a few weeks yet. Besides, it would mean adding perhaps three-quarters of an hour to an already three hours long journey, and he had tickets to a Monteverdi concert that evening that he didn’t want to miss.
Tickets, he thought. Only one will be needed, now that Caroline is no longer a central part of my life. Ah well. Perhaps I should trust in the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, given that it’s her feast-day today: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Let’s go home.
Bishop Mervyn Mortlake stood at the window of his study, once again fingering his pectoral cross contemplatively, as he watched the yellow 2CV drive off. As soon as it had driven out of the gates, he walked across the room to a side table, upon which there was a whiskey decanter and a telephone. He lifted the jewelled silver cross on its silver chain over his head, and put it down on the table. He poured himself a large glass of whisky, then picked up the telephone receiver from its cradle, and dialled a number, muttering something under his breath as he did so. A few seconds later, a voice from the other end answered:
‘It’s Bishop Mervyn here. Your new Vicar has just left my office. I had to make a show of it - as if he really was being interviewed - I didn’t want to make it look too obvious. But he’s just what we need. He’s inexperienced, knows nothing about our ways. He won’t get in the way, like Dyson did.’ He took a sip from his whisky, then chuckled. ‘So spread the word: I’m sure you’ll all find the appointment most satisfactory. Oh - one other matter. The medical report on Bishop Bryson: it’s just as we expected. He’s having more tests, treatments, and so forth. But I think we can start planning the next phase. Draco praevalebit.’
II: June 11th (St Barnabas the Apostle)
At sixty-seven years old, the Right Revd Bryson Maxwell-Lewis, Bishop of Abertawe, was the oldest bishop currently serving within the Church of Wales. None of his fellow bishops, he believed, had any awareness as yet of just how seriously ill he was: but following his most recent consultation with the specialist who was treating his bone cancer, he himself knew that the prognosis was grave.
‘Nine months, most likely, Bishop,’ he had been told, ‘twelve, thirteen months or so at the most. I’m sorry, there’s little more we can do.’
Bishop Bryson looked at himself in the mirror, and frowned. His facial features had grown increasingly cadaverous of late, and the collar of his clerical shirts were loose and ill-fitting. It really was a wonder none of his colleagues had noticed the decline in his appearance. Then again, perhaps they had noticed, but were too polite to enquire.
Well, even if that’s the case - it’s time I spoke to the Archbishop. Give him a bit of warning. And I owe it to Edith, to make sure we have a bit of a retirement, however short.
There was a knock at the door. Bishop Bryson turned, and saw that his personal secretary was standing in the doorway of his study. She was as white as a sheet.
‘Yes, Sybil, what is it?’
‘It’s about Archbishop Geraint. Bishop, there’s been the most dreadful news.’
Twenty minutes later, the Bishop of Abertawe was still struggling with a difficult and entirely unanticipated telephone conversation with the Secretary-General, the chief administrative officer of the Church of Wales.
‘Donald, I know you don’t like it - I can assure you I like it even less - but the medical facts of the matter are incontrovertible. My doctors give me no more than a year. I may be the ‘senior bishop’ now, but I won’t let my name go forward to the Electoral Conclave.’
There was a long pause before the Secretary-General replied. Eventually, Sir Donald Brodie, his Scottish Lowland burr still discernible despite forty years living in Wales, said: ‘I fully understand, Bryson. It’s all incredibly unfortunate, and I do sympathise, with both you and Edith. The timing really is dreadful, with the debate about women bishops facing us at the next meeting of the Provincial Synod, come November. If you won’t take on the mantle of caretaker Archbishop for two or three years - if you’re certain your health is that precarious–’
‘Terminal, Donald. Much more than merely precarious.’
‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound tactless. But neither did we expect to lose Geraint like this. He’d probably have given us another five, maybe six more years, of service. Instead of which - if you won’t stand, it means a terrible tussle between the evangelical and the catholic wings - with Rhydian and Ambrose fighting it out. It could be very unpleasant.’
‘There is another possibility…’ mused Bishop Bryson.
‘You don’t mean Mervyn, surely?’ gasped Sir Donald. ‘He’s not exactly the most popular figure, is he?’
‘Precisely. Equally detested by both sides. The perfect compromise candidate, if the Conclave is split down the middle - which it will be. And Mervyn’s almost as old as me - he turns sixty-six in October, doesn’t he? Four years at most before he has to retire.’ Not that I will live to see it. ‘He can’t do too much damage in that time. And it’ll give one of the younger, more conciliatory bishops enough time to build their base, and establish their credentials - it doesn’t matter at this stage whether it’s Christopher or Tomos, does it? Either of them would do a better job at keeping the Church united than Rhydian or Ambrose. But it’s a bit too soon for the Young Turks, agreed?’
‘Agreed. It’s a shame we can’t pull the women bishops’ debate, though.’
‘We can’t. It was a cause dear to our late Archbishop’s heart. I’m still very unsure which way it will go, but we can’t bury it, just because we now have to bury its most ardent advocate.’
‘Yes, well thank you for your time, Bryson. It’s a great pity you didn’t become Archbishop five years ago, at the last election. You’ll go down as one of the best Archbishops we never had.’
‘Pish. That’s nonsense, and well you know it. Geraint Morgan has been the kindest, most inspirational leader we’ve had in half a century. The loss we face is quite profound. To lose him today, on the Feast of St Barnabas the Apostle, whose name means “Son of Encouragement,” is a cruel irony.’ There was real emotion in the bishop’s usual calm and authoritative voice.
‘Och, I know you’ve lost one of your closest friends. Listen, I must go. I have to check the official press release. And then start to make arrangements for the Electoral Conclave. I just hope you’re right about Mervyn Mortlake. Bye, Bishop.’ There was a click, and the line went dead.
So do I, thought Bryson Maxwell-Lewis. Good God, so do I.
III: September 2nd (12th Sunday after Trinity)
‘You’ll regret it, you know, Georgie - mark my words.’ Annabelle Hadley pursed her lips, and frowned. ‘I had to look it up, you know. Templeton. I’d never heard of it. Talk about a pimple on the arse-end of nowhere!’
Georgios smiled. Annabelle had been one of the few friends he’d made during his unfortunate spell as a university chaplain. He’d miss her.
‘Oh, it’s not that remote, Annabelle. Population: 4,000, with both a primary and secondary school, a cottage hospital and a public library, three banks, a cattle market (temporarily closed thanks to Foot and Mouth), a train station and a hotel, seven pubs, two post offices, a petrol station and a supermarket. And there’ll be three churches to look after. Plenty enough to keep me occupied, I should think.’
‘Pooh. You’ll be bored stiff within a fortnight. I know you’re Welsh - “We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside,” and all that blather - but, even so, are you quite certain this is what you want?’
Georgios ran his forefinger clockwise around the rim of his coffee mug, three times, before looking up at Annabelle. He knew - behind the bombast - she was worried about him, and that like a dog worrying away at a bone she wasn’t likely to let up. At least, not until she had received an answer that satisfied her.
‘You know I can’t stay in Exeter. The university has made that quite clear. And, with all that’s happened with Caroline–’
‘The little bitch.’ Annabelle paused. ‘Sorry, but she is.’
Georgios smiled ruefully. ‘That’s not a very nice way to talk about your younger sister.’ You were the one who introduced me to her, after all. ‘Anyway,’ (he continued, before Annabelle could respond) ‘the remoteness is what I need right now. I need time, and space, to think - and to decide whether or not I’m really meant to be a priest. Hopefully, Templeton can give me all that. And it’s not really Wales, Annabelle. It’s right on the border - and the folk there are neither one thing nor another.’
‘Inbred, most likely,’ snorted Annabelle. She turned her head, and gazed out of her kitchen window, though the streaks of rain running down the windowpane obscured the view of the unremarkable suburban cul de sac where she lived. Georgios fancied there was a glistening in her eye. She rubbed away at it angrily, and sniffed. There was a long pause.
All that might have been - if it had been Annabelle and I, and not Caroline. Life’s bitter regrets: perhaps time will wash them away. Like tears in the rain. For all our sakes, it’s best that I go.
‘When do you leave?’ asked Annabelle suddenly.
The removal firm arrives the day after tomorrow. Three days to pack, move, unpack. I’ll be firmly ensconced in Templeton Vicarage by the end of the week. The induction isn’t for another two weeks after that. September 21st. The feast of St Matthew the Apostle.’
‘My patron saint, isn’t he?’ laughed Annabelle. ‘Wasn’t he a tax collector?’
‘Yes. Patron saint of accountants, bankers and, of course, tax collectors, like you.’
‘Ex-tax collector, remember. I don’t work for the Inland Revenue anymore.’
‘Once a taxman, always a taxman,’ teased Georgios.
‘I thought,’ responded Annabelle, ‘that’s what they say about priests. You shouldn’t doubt yourself, Georgie. I know you’re struggling with it right now - but you are a good priest. There’s no question about it. If going to Templeton is what you need, to make you realise that - then so be it.’
Georgios said: ‘It is. Bishop Mervyn may be a dry old stick, but he’s given me the chance for a fresh start. It’s the right move.’
‘Bishop Mervyn? I thought he was Archbishop now?’
‘No, not yet. The Electoral Conclave has appointed him, certainly, but it needs to be confirmed by the Sacred Synod in Llanmadoc Wells on the 14th. Though that’s very much a rubber stamping exercise. And then there’s the enthronement - sometime next month, I think.’ It’s so tragic, thought Georgios, Archbishop Geraint dying in that horrible car crash.
‘Didn’t his predecessor die in some road accident?’ asked Annabelle, as if reading his mind.
‘Yes. He was reputed to be a somewhat reckless driver, I understand. Quite a few speeding tickets, too, over the years. A real shock: he was much loved throughout the Church of Wales. I only ever met him twice - but he was a gentle, kindly old soul, even if he was a bit of a terror behind the wheel. Requiescat in pace.’ The young priest crossed himself.
‘Et surgat in gloria,’ responded Annabelle. She looked at Georgios’ surprised face, and giggled. ‘You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? About our Catholic upbringing? Not that Caroline likes to talk about it. But I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before.’
‘Yes. Once or twice.’ Georgios glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. ‘I really should make a move. It’s getting late, and I need to be up early tomorrow. My contract was terminated last Friday, at the end of the month: but I need to go into the university to tie up some final lose ends.’
‘You could stay the night,’ said Annabelle. Her face was flushed. ‘If you wanted to.’
Didn’t see that coming. Damn and blast it. What the hell do I say now?
‘I thought,’ said Georgios slowly, ‘that you believed me to be a good priest. I think we both know that wouldn’t be a great idea.’
‘No. I guess not. I–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.’ Then louder, ‘God, I really shouldn’t have said that!’
‘It’s okay,’ he reassured her, ‘Please - it’s okay. I understand - truly. But…’ he stopped. Putting his coffee mug firmly down on the kitchen table, he pushed back his chair, and stood up. ‘I really should go. Thanks for the coffee. Thanks - for everything.’ He wanted to kiss her. Instead, he offered her his hand.
She couldn’t look at him. She took his hand, and shook it, limply. ‘Goodbye, Georgios.’ She never called him that. ‘Forgive me…’ she shuddered. ‘Forgive me being so stupid. Bad girl. How many Hail Marys will that earn me when I next go to confession?’
He smiled: ‘Ego te absolvo, Annabelle. I’ll be in touch. Think of me - on St Matthew’s Day.’
She said nothing further. He slipped on his coat, turned away and stepped out into the rain.
IV: September 7th
The driver of the removal van tooted his horn, and Georgios smiled and waved goodbye. Then he closed the front door of Templeton Vicarage, shut his eyes momentarily and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Well, it’s taken all afternoon to get everything unloaded: but, at last, I’m in.
He turned, and walked from the hallway into the study. A large mahogany desk beneath the study window, and two gun grey filing cabinets on either side, took up most of the wall opposite the doorway. Empty shelves lined the two walls running parallel to the desk: in the middle of the room, twenty boxes or more were neatly stacked. The process of transferring the contents of those boxes to the study’s shelves would take him a couple of days. Why do clergy always seem to have so many books? The thought was deeply depressing to him. And then there was the rest of the house…where to begin?
The kitchen: that’s where. The kettle had been the last item to be packed away in Exeter, and first to be unpacked here. A cup of Earl Grey would be just the thing - provided he could quickly locate which box contained the contents of his pantry.
Next to where the kettle was already plugged in, he knew there was a large lemon drizzle cake, with a note next to it saying: Welcome to Templeton. He had found it there this morning when he and the removal men had arrived. He hadn’t had time to consider it in the hours since: but now, he thought to himself, it would go down well with a cup of tea. Of course, as well as the Earl Grey, he’d also need to find the cups and saucers, and the side plates too.
There was a sharp rat-tat-tat at the front door. Georgios frowned: couldn’t he have even a few moments of peace? He crossed the hallway and opened the door.
Facing him was a stout ruddy-cheeked individual in his seventies with a weather-beaten face and an untidy thatch of straw-coloured hair. He was wearing, over a creased linen shirt, a disreputable-looking gilet that had clearly seen better days. His threadbare green corduroys and scuffed mud-splattered Doc Martens were further testament to this gentleman’s casual attitude with regard to his physical appearance. But there was a twinkle in his visitor’s striking pale-blue eyes that Georgios found compelling.
‘Begging your pardon, but you’re our new Vicar, Fr Georgios’ - he made it sound more like ‘gorgeous’, but never mind - ‘aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am, Mr–?’
‘Meeks. Bernard Meeks. Choirmaster and principal organist at All Saints Church. Sorry to bang on the door, but the bell hasn’t been working for a while, you see. Not since your predecessor - well, I have told the churchwardens, but they’re being very tardy about it.’ He paused, and took in a deep breath. ‘Very pleased to meet you, Vicar.’
Georgios offered his hand. ‘Please, call me Georgios.’
Mr Meeks clasped Georgios’ outstretched hand in both of his boney, deep-veined hands, and shook vigorously, chuckling as he did so. ‘No, no, I can’t call you that. Vicar Anag–Anag–you know, Vicar will do just fine. Now - I know the induction service isn’t for another two weeks - and you’ll want time to settle in - but I imagine it’s as much as you can do to find the kettle, right now, isn’t it?’
‘Well–’ began the young priest.
‘I knew it, I knew it,’ said Mr Meeks, beaming. ‘I said as much to Mrs Meeks. “He’ll be wanting a cup of tea,” I said to her. We only live round the corner. Why don’t you come along? I saw the van driving off five minutes ago. Rest easy after all that travelling, and upheaval - unpacking can wait. And then after a cuppa, perhaps I can show you round the church, yes?’
Georgios laughed. ‘You’re very persuasive, Mr Meeks.’
‘Call me Bernard. Right-o - just follow me.’ He turned and strode away, clearly expecting that Georgios would follow immediately behind.
Which he dutifully did.
An hour and a half later, feeling somewhat fortified after several cups of strong tea and a plateful of Welsh cakes and slices of bara brith in the Meeks’ kitchen, Georgios found himself walking with the choirmaster along the churchyard path of All Saints Church. Together they passed a noticeboard upon which, in spite of the fading light, Georgios was able to read the name of the unfortunate Revd Dr Edgar Dyson, still listed as Vicar of Tempeton. Mr Meeks noticed Georgios’ gaze, and shook his head, tut-tutting as he did so.
‘Terrible business. Poor Vicar Dyson. You know it was four boys who found him, hanging from that horse chestnut, o’er there?’ Meeks raised a hand, and pointed towards a forlorn-looking tree fifteen yards or so away.
‘Yes. Though I thought it was his wife who found him?’
‘Well, yes,’ Meeks rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘I suppose it was Mrs Dyson, bless her, who found him first. But it’s those boys - who came along straight after - well, what a thing for them to see! Timmy Weston was one of them - he sings in the choir. Sang, I should say. We haven’t seen him in church since that day. Beautiful treble voice.’ Meeks paused again, then said: ‘They should have updated that noticeboard by now. We’ve known for several months of your appointment. I did tell the churchwardens: but they don’t listen to me, alas.’ He shook his head, then fished a large, ornate iron key from his pocket. ‘This will be yours, soon enough, come the induction: but for the moment, it’s in my keeping. There are only three copies. Mrs Meeks and I have another one; she’s our sacristan, as well as me being choirmaster, you see. The People’s Warden, Mrs Buxton, has the third.’
‘The Vicar’s Warden doesn’t have a copy, then?’ asked Georgios.
Meeks snorted. ‘Claude Kennard? He doesn’t come to church that often. Typical farmer. Lives ten miles out of town. No point in him having a key. He’d only lose it, anyway.’ He slipped the key into the lock, turned it and pushed at the heavy oak door.
‘Right then, Vicar. Let me show you around.’
Over the next half an hour, Georgios followed the older man around the church building, listening to him politely as he regaled him with various vignettes about past Vicars of Templeton, pointed out the more significant of the many marble monuments mounted on the austere granite walls and told him something of the history of the church’s foundation by the Knights Templar in the early 13th century.
‘That’s how Templeton got its name, you see,’ said Meeks. ‘For a time, this was the site of one of the most important Templar Houses in the Welsh Marches. Until the Order was dissolved. The church remained, though, as a parish church. There’s a lot of queer stories about the Templars - but I guess you know that already.’
Georgios nodded. ‘Yes. Mostly nonsense, of course. Hidden treasures, heretical beliefs, even diabolical religious rites. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake by Philip IV of France, in 1314. Naturally, it was all politically motivated.’ He stopped before a set of three elaborately inscribed boards, halfway down the nave on the north-facing wall of the church. ‘What are these?’
‘Ah,’ said Bernard Meeks. ‘I thought you’d spot those. They’re the Roll of Vicars of Templeton. Your illustrious predecessors. We don’t know precisely how old the church is, of course. There was an archaeological survey in the 1920s which suggests that there was a small settlement here way back in the 8th century - an Anglo-Saxon outpost along Offa’s Dyke, perhaps: but we know very little about it, really. Not even its original name. Surprisingly, there’s no mention of the place in the Doomsday Book: the first solid written reference we have to Templeton dates from 1226, with the arrival of the Templars. And all the Templar records were later lost - probably deliberately destroyed. So the first parish priest we know of, after the Templar period, is a certain Thomas de Bullingdon, from 1328. But then, after him, we have a gap.’
Georgios nodded. ‘The Black Death. It arrived in England and Wales in the summer of 1348, the most fatal pandemic in human history. In some places whole villages were wiped out, fields went untilled, monasteries were laid waste, parish records were abandoned wholesale. The death toll amongst priests was probably even higher than the general population at large - and that was high enough.’ He peered at the list on the wall. ‘Richard Greene, 1427. That is quite a gap. But from then on, an almost uninterrupted record, it would seem - though with the usual disruption during the time of the Cromwellian Commonwealth. Then we have William Wilkes, 1662. And on into the 18th century…’ Georgios had reached the end of names on the first board. He looked across to the second board. ‘Hmm… longer incumbencies now: and signs of nepotism too. The dissolute Anglican church of the Georgian age. Edmund Tusker 1732. John Escott 1767, Vicar for 53 years, followed by Richard Escott 1820. His grandson, perhaps?’
‘Yes. And he was Vicar for almost as long as his grandfather, see: 48 years, until 1868. They had staying power, back then!’
‘Hmm. It’s interesting you say that,’ said Georgios, looking now at the final board in the series. ‘During the twentieth century, there’s a marked decline in the length of each incumbency. The average tenure seems to be five, maybe six years. Sometimes less.’
Odd that. I know Vicars tend to move on more frequently in modern times: they retire, too, rather than carrying on till they drop. But even so, my more recent predecessors really didn’t seem to hang around for long. I wonder why?
‘Until Vicar Dyson, God rest his soul,’ Meeks noted. ‘Eleven years: the longest-serving Vicar of Templeton of the twentieth century. Still just a blink in time compared to the long stretches of the Escotts, mind…’
Georgios was no longer listening to the choirmaster. He had noticed something quite unexpected about the Roll of Vicars.
‘Bernard, I didn’t realise Bishop Mervyn was a former Vicar of Templeton himself. Here: 1964 to 1966, it would seem. Mervyn Mortlake.’ Whyever didn’t he tell me?
‘But of course,’ said Mr Meeks, surprised. ‘The shortest tenure of the twentieth century. But there was nothing scandalous about his departure, though it was occasioned by a painful personal tragedy.’
‘His wife Lydia died in childbirth. Both she and the baby. Quite distressing. Vicar Mortlake was beside himself. It was his first living, after a spell as a curate - oh, dear me, where was it? - somewhere from off, across the border. The then Bishop of Pengwyn, Bishop Bannerman-Jones, felt it best for him to make a fresh start somewhere else. So off he went.’ Meeks looked at Georgios curiously. ‘I’m surprised Bishop Mortlake never spoke of it to you. When he interviewed you.’
‘No, he didn’t. I suppose it was a long time ago, and he was only here for a short time.’
‘Yes, indeed. Many of the current congregation wouldn’t remember him. It was well over thirty years ago, after all. But the older folk still speak of him, from time to time, and his beautiful wife. He never remarried. I have to say, though, we’re all rather delighted he’s become Archbishop. Delighted and proud.’
Archbishop-designate, still, as I keep reminding people... Georgios didn’t know why, but this unexpected discovery left him feeling very uneasy. Something’s not right. Why would the Bishop neglect to tell him something so obvious? Because it was something he felt to be unimportant, perhaps? Whatever the reason - it seems a startling omission.
‘You look a little tired, Vicar,’ said Bernard Meeks. He pinched the end of his nose thoughtfully. ‘I’d really like to show you the chancel and sanctuary - the frescoes by John Douglas really are superb. And then there’s the pipe organ - a very fine instrument indeed. But perhaps another time?’
‘Yes, Bernard,’ said Georgios, distracted. ‘Another time.’
The red light was flashing on Georgios Anagnosides’ newly installed answer machine as he returned to the gathering gloom within his new home. He groped for the unfamiliar hall light switch, they pressed PLAY on the answer machine and listened to the recording.
‘YOU HAVE FOUR NEW MESSAGES…’
FOUR? Good grief… He fumbled within the top drawer of the bureau upon which the telephone was perched, and found a pencil and pad of paper, just as the messages began to be relayed.
First, a warm, if slightly imperious-sounding female voice: ‘Good afternoon, Vicar. Belinda Buxton here. I do so hope you enjoyed the cake that I left for you in the kitchen. On behalf of the parishes, I do hope you’ll settle into your new home soon. We hope your stay with us will be a long, and happy one. Doubtless you’ll want to meet up with myself and Claude, the Vicar’s Warden at All Saints, sometime in the coming few days? Anyway, I’ll call again soon. Once again, welcome.’
After a beep, came the second message, delivered in a refined, somewhat fruity voice: ‘Good evening, Fr Anagosides: this is Fr Benedict Wishart. I’m sure Bishop Mervyn will have mentioned me to you. I just wanted to welcome you, and to invite you to the Old Rectory in Morrington. I know you’ll be very busy - but, perhaps, sometime in the next week, you could find the time to pop over for coffee? Would Monday be a possibility? I’m very much looking forward to working with you. My telephone number is 763538. Many thanks.’
The third message, after the next beep, was short and rather perfunctory: ‘It’s Harry Barrington-Smythe here: one of your Lay Readers. Could you give me a call, at your convenience? Thank you. Oh - my telephone number is 763597.’
Another beep, and then the final message. This time, the voice was very well known to him. ‘Hello, darling. Hope you’re settling in. I just wanted…’ a pause, then: ‘I just wanted to wish you all the best. Annabelle says hi too. Speak soon.’ It was silly, but it was almost as if he could smell her perfume, the moment he heard her voice. Would he ever be able to move on from her rejection?
Yes. I have to. Now, which of those telephone calls sounded most pressing?
He picked up the telephone, and pressed a series of numbers on the keypad. After a few moments, a voice on the other end of the line greeted him.
Georgios paused, then began speaking.
Harry Barrington-Smythe replaced the receiver to its cradle, and growled. It was worse than he had feared. He grabbed his walking stick and hobbled from the gloomy hallway into the comforting warmth of the parlour. He stood in the doorway for a moment, and looked across at his wife, sitting in front of a roaring log fire. Even though it was only September, both were increasingly feeling the chill of autumn. Winter characteristically came early in this part of Wales. ‘I can see we’re going to have problems with this new Vicar,’ he said ominously.
His wife Emelia looked at him sympathetically over her half moon spectacles, and laid her knitting to one side. ‘Oh dear, Harry. Is it really that bad?’
He nodded, and lowered himself into the armchair opposite, wincing involuntarily as he did so. His arthritis was progressively worsening, and, not for the first time, he wondered whether or not they should look at having a stair-lift installed. Unfortunately, the narrow, uneven steps of their Tudor cottage would present something of a challenge. He knew that trying to modernise their 16th century home to properly accommodate the needs of its current ageing inhabitants would be a miserable and expensive task.
‘Yes, my dear. I explained to him that we needed to speak to him urgently about that–’ he sniffed, ‘that creature living in the Old Rectory. He fobbed me off, I’m afraid to say. Something about being happy to meet with us after his induction, but that any pastoral matters should properly be addressed to the Rural Dean until then. I told him straight, that as a Lay Reader in the parish, that simply wasn’t good enough. I didn’t get the impression, frankly, that he intends to give us a sympathetic hearing even after his induction. Very cool, he seemed. Classic liberal aloofness. No wonder the Anglican Church is in such a dreadful state. Wouldn’t expect anything different from someone with such a foreign sounding name. What kind of dago-name is Anagnosides, eh? Well: he’ll soon find out just how determined the Barrington-Smythes are when our dander is up!’
‘Now, Harry, try not to get so excited. You know what the doctor said. You’re quite right to be indignant: the impudence of these clergymen! They’re all quite as bad as one another. That last man, Dr Dyson, was no better.’
‘Well, I can’t say I’m altogether displeased about what happened to him,’ ruminated Barrington-Smythe, stroking his white whiskers thoughtfully. ‘“He who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind.”’
‘Hosea chapter 8, verse 7,’ replied Emelia, taking up her knitting again. ‘Though his poor wife Sarah: that’s another matter. She spoke to the Women’s Guild once.’
‘Humph. That’s all in the past. But this new fella, Anagnosides: he’s the one that concerns us now. And if he won’t listen to us - well, we’ll just have to show him that the Barrington-Smythes are not alone and that they are not without influence…’
V: September 9th (13th Sunday after Trinity)
The full panoply of bells in the belltower of All Saints Templeton were not being rung that morning: once again, Simon Howley had failed to secure enough members of the band of ringers for a full peal before the Sunday service.
Belinda Buxton was standing in the porch doorway as he approached, looking stern. ‘I do hope, Simon, you’ve let it be known to the band that they really must turn out for the induction service. It just isn’t good enough, you know. What about the following Sunday? We really must make a good impression on our new Vicar!’
Simon shrugged. Many members of Templeton were easily intimidated by the redoubtable Mrs Buxton: but not him. He had encountered far worse in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War than Belinda Buxton.
‘We’ll see. I can’t work miracles. Are you even sure the induction will be here?’
‘What do you mean? Of course it will be held at All Saints. Oh, good morning, Alistair.’ Belinda smiled at the new arrival, a tall slender man in his early forties, but Simon noted, with some small amusement, that the dangerous glint in her eyes was undimmed. ‘No Marjorie this morning? Will poor Laura have to sing soprano alone, once more?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ replied the new arrival. ‘She’s laid low by one of her migraines again. Needless to say, if the new Vicar revokes the ridiculous ban this church has on young girls becoming choristers, then our choir will become far more robust.’
‘You know very well that Mr Meeks won’t hear of it, Alistair. I do hope you’re not planning to burden Dr Anagnosides by bringing up all that nonsense at his first PCC meeting.’
‘As you exercise considerable control of the agenda as PCC Secretary, that would be difficult,’ countered Alistair stiffly. ‘One thing, though: don’t call him “Doctor” - he doesn’t like it. I don’t think he’s particularly proud of his brief stint in academia. And he was singularly unsuccessful as a university chaplain. That’s what my sources tell me.’ He smiled triumphantly. There! That took the wind out of Madam’s sails for a moment. Simon Howley chuckled behind him.
For a moment, Belinda Buxton struggled to think of a suitable retort. Then her eyes alighted upon another member approaching, and she decided that the best response was simply to ignore the irritating Alistair Gillespie, and move on. ‘Ah, Major Matlock. Chilly morning, isn’t it? Dillie really has done a splendid job with the altar flowers this week…’
Young Justin Matlock slipped quietly in through the side door into the choir vestry, hoping that no one would notice his late arrival. The adults were busy chatting amongst themselves, slipping surplices over their heads, or in the case of Laura Jenkins, fussily attending to her hair before the long mirror that was propped up precariously against the back wall. But it was Laura’s elder son Ainsley who ensured Justin’s tardiness didn’t go unnoticed.
‘Late again, Matlock?’ he said, in a fair imitation of Bernard Meeks’ rustic tones. ‘Not good enough, boy.’
‘Piss off,’ hissed Justin, turning red, as several faces turned towards him. Ainsley Jenkins might be head boy chorister: but given that the treble section had seemingly shrunk to just three boys - Justin, Ainsley and his younger brother Trevor - over the past nine months, it wasn’t that impressive a position any longer.
‘Now, now,’ said Violet Hardcastle, who despite her ninety-three years had incredibly sharp hearing. ‘I heard that. You’re not too old to have your mouth washed out with carbolic soap, Justin Matlock. If the Major and Dillie could hear you now, dear me.’ She shook her head sadly. Justin wasn’t sure what carbolic soap was, but it certainly didn’t sound pleasant. Laura Jenkins turned around from the mirror, and gave Justin a venomous look.
At that point, the lad was spared any further humiliation as Bernard Meeks bustled into the vestry. In his starched, neatly-ironed surplice, precisely-fitted cassock and polished black shoes, Georgios would hardly have identified him, had he been there, with the dishevelled figure who had shown him around All Saints two days previously…
‘You all have your anthem books ready?’ said the choir-master peevishly. ‘Remember, we need to make a good impression now for the Rural Dean, as this will be his last Sunday with us.’
‘What’s he like, Mr Meeks?’ asked Maria Kennard, at twenty-six the youngest adult member of the choir - indeed, the youngest adult to regularly attend church at All Saints.
‘The Rural Dean?’ Meeks looked puzzled. ‘You know what Canon Harris is like, surely…’ He paused. ‘Oh, you mean the new Vicar?’
Maria giggled. ‘Of course, Mr Meeks. Is he as good-looking as the photograph of him that was in the Courier?’
‘The Llanmadoc Wells Courier is a serious newspaper, not a pin-up magazine for your immature fantasies, Maria Kennard,’ said Ernie Hutton huffily, gripping the ornate processional cross even more tightly as he did so. It was a heavy affair, poorly balanced, and Ernie was the only choir member who could carry it with confidence. As Templeton’s resident correspondent for the Courier, he was also known to be very defensive when it came to the reputation of his beloved newspaper. Its journalistic integrity was something he highly-prized - more so than most of its readers.
Walter Hardcastle, Violet’s younger brother, and principal bass voice, nodded his agreement; but Antonia Lewis, two years older than Maria, and her greatest confidant, came to her friend’s aid. ‘Maria’s just teasing. Go on Mr Meeks, we know you’ve met him. What’s he like?’
‘Well,’ said Meeks, ‘He seems to be a very personable young man. I think he has the makings of an excellent Vicar. He certainly seemed to enjoy Mrs Meek’s bara brith when he called.’
Belinda Buxton had a face like thunder as she entered the vestry at that unfortunate moment. Mrs Meek’s bara brith, indeed! What about my lemon drizzle cake? Their soon-to-be inducted parish priest had thanked her on Friday evening for her kindness: but which cake had he tucked into first? How typical of Delilah Meeks to try to get his feet under her kitchen table before anyone else. Without a word, Belinda grabbed her choir robes, and the chatter in the vestry ceased. Everyone there was well-versed in the People’s Warden’s darker moods. At such times, there was great wisdom in silence.
Mr Meeks said: ‘Well, I’d better go and start playing.’ He turned to leave, and as he did so, Canon Vernon Harris, Rural Dean of the Templeton Deanery, and Vicar of the Llanfair-y-Dolwen group of parishes, entered the room. He was already vested in readiness for divine worship. Canon Harris immediately sensed the tense atmosphere around him.
Just wait till they hear what I have to report about the induction, he thought. Ah well. Soon this whole nest of vipers will be Anagnosides’ responsibility. And may God have mercy on his soul…
‘Good morning, choir,’ he said briskly. ‘Shall we say the vestry prayer?’
Four miles to the south-east of Templeton, on the other side of Penley Hill, lay the village of Morrington. The parish church of St Matthew’s was a fraction of the size of All Saints, but it was not without charm, having been restored in the 19th century by one of the most notable of the Gothic Revival architects, William Butterfield.
Unlike the tower of All Saints, with its eight heavy iron-cast bells, St Matthew’s had just two. But even as Belinda Buxton was castigating Simon Howley for the shortcomings of the Templeton band of ringers, Benjamin Griffiths - ‘Old Benji’ as most villagers knew him - was ringing the bells of St Matthew with an astonishing degree of vigour, considering that at ninety-six he was the second-oldest resident within the village. Benjamin Griffiths still lived in the cottage where he had been born - in the year when Einstein had published his famous equation E=mc2, the HMS Dreadnought was laid down and the Wright brothers attained the first aeroplane flight lasting more than half an hour in only their third aeroplane. Old Benji was born into the world at a time when ironclads and aeroplanes were being built that would point the way to a world of vast change, in terms of speed and power, industrial might and scientific endeavour. But, for him, the ‘old ways’ had never really changed. Electricity remained a new-fangled invention that he could happily get along without, if need be; and the ‘infernal’ combustion engine he continued to view with great suspicion. He was determined that he would die in the home where he had lived his entire life.
In the meantime, his life continued to be regulated by his thrice-weekly visits to the Blue Boar, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night, and his dutiful ringing of the church bells, every Sunday morning. It was said that Fr Benedict up in the Old Rectory had an ancient and valuable grandfather clock to help him keep the time: but the common folk of Morrington had venerable Old Benji to help them mark the passage of the days and years.
Apart from the resolute bellringer, only five others had arrived for worship at St Matthews that morning. Only a little less than average, in these irreligious times, thought Jack Copeland, glumly. He glanced at his watch. The importance of punctuality was something that he appreciated in his day-job, as Deputy Headteacher at Templeton High School. It was only natural that he should feel the same way about the Sunday services he regularly led as a Lay Reader, a holder of the Bishop’s licence to preach within the parishes of Templeton, Morrington and Llanfihangel Gilfach. He glanced around the church, quietly noting those who had dutiful turned out for Morning Prayer. There were no strange faces in the congregation today. There very rarely were.
Standing at the back, pointlessly making a play of handing out the hymn books and service sheet, was the Vicar’s Warden and PCC Treasurer, Matt Howley. Like his counterparts in Templeton and Gilfach, Matt was a farmer. Is that some kind of divine right of farmers in this part of the world, that they become churchwardens? pondered Copeland. Matt, at least, was dutiful, if somewhat ineffective. His wife Susan was playing the organ - badly, as usual. It was a pity, especially as Dr Neville Turner, who had moved into the village only eighteen months ago, had offered, more than once, to play. Copeland had visited him at home several times, and on one occasion Dr Turner had played on the baby grand piano that dominated his living room. He was certainly very accomplished. The pain he must feel, sitting there half-way back, listening to every duff note from Susan Howsley’s ponderous playing, must be excruciating. But no, Susan Howley would have none of it, when it was suggested to her that perhaps she might like the occasional Sunday off. In this she was fully supported by her husband, naturally; but also by Gwendoline Hockridge, a gossipy and rather garrulous church member, who always sat at the back of the church near the front. This Sunday, as on many Sundays, she was joined by her spinster sister-in-law Rosaline, the postmistress at Cwmpentre Post Office.
There was no sign of Dr Turner’s wife Agnes today, which was unusual. She normally accompanied him, and her melodious voice was a considerable asset to the congregational singing, especially when the attendance was thin. Also absent were the Chessingtons, but Copeland knew that poor Jasper’s health was failing. The burden of it all was beginning to tell on his devoted wife Dorabella; he had bumped into her on the village green only yesterday, and she was decidedly lacking in her customary air of positivity and enthusiasm.
The only other missing regulars were the Barrington-Smythes, but this, at least, was more predictable. Harry Barrington-Smythe would be leading the service that afternoon at Gilfach, and Emelia would dutifully accompany him - this despite the fact that as People’s Warden at Morrington she should really have been at St Matthew’s. But for some months now, Jack Copeland had been aware that the Barrington-Smythes seemed to be avoiding any service that he happened to be leading. Copeland’s theological views were poles apart from those of his fellow Lay Reader, and he couldn’t pretend he particularly liked Harry’s preaching style either. BS by name - BS in nature, as he’d once described it, perhaps too indiscreetly, to a Lay Reader in another part of the Diocese. Things do have a habit of getting back: perhaps that’s why our relationship is so frosty these days. But no - there were more than enough reasons for the growing gulf between the two of them. Two interregnums - or should that be interregna? - in as many years, with the death of Edgar Dyson following so soon after the disgrace of Huw Davies-Jones. More had been required of the parishes’ Lay Readers in these testing times: and Copeland sensed that Barrington-Smythe had enjoyed the extra responsibility perhaps a bit too much. The arrival of an evangelical bedfellow in Neville Turner - refined, articulate and likeable though he might be in many ways - had complicated matters further. And as for Father Benedict…
Copeland looked at his watch again. Time to begin. On cue, Old Benji stopped ringing the bell, and shuffled down the aisle towards his seat, in the very front pew.
‘Good morning, and welcome to our Sunday worship,’ Copeland began. ‘I understand our new Vicar has moved into Templeton Vicarage, and we look forward to meeting him in due course. However, the Rural Dean has asked me to remind you that Father Georgios does not take up his duties until after his induction, so please do refrain from bothering him for a little while longer. But on the subject of the induction - I have some good news. As you know, when the late Dr Dyson became Vicar of the new parish grouping, the induction service was held at All Saints. However, in the interest of balance, the Bishop has decided that this time the induction will be held here - doubly fitting, seeing that it will take place in twelve days time of the feast of St Matthew, our patron saint. I do hope that the decision meets with your blessing.’
Smiles from the Howleys, a nod of approval from Dr Turner, stony silence from Old Benji - anything more demonstrative would have been most unusual - but from the very back of the church, there resounded an acerbic rejoinder from Gwendoline Hockbridge (ostensibly addressed to her neighbour Rosaline, but in reality fully intended for all to hear):
‘Well I just hope that lot in Templeton don’t expect us to foot the bill for all the refreshments ourselves.’
Georgios had decided that he should worship at another church in the Deanery this Sunday: it wouldn’t have been appropriate for him to turn up at either All Saints or St Matthew’s. He’d looked at a map - carefully noting the positions of all the other parishes of the Deanery - and decided that St David’s Cwmpentre, due north of Templeton, would be ideal. Mr Meeks had helpfully dropped a copy of the Deanery Magazine, listing all the services across the Deanery, through his letterbox the day before. The service time at St David’s was civilised - half-past ten - and it would certainly be good to get away from the interminable slog of unpacking.
On arrival, he discovered that the service, a celebration of Holy Communion, was to be led by one of his soon-to-be clergy colleagues, the Revd Julie Johnson. She was a plumpish woman in her early thirties: a younger version of Dawn French’s Vicar of Dibley, at least to look at, thought Georgios. But there was nothing particularly Dibley-esque about the way she led the service. She had a resonant, commanding voice - perhaps a little husky - and there was a clarity and intelligence in the way she delivered her sermon that was impressive. The congregation wasn’t large - perhaps a dozen or so - but they were attentive. Georgios sensed that there was real respect and engagement between priest and people within this church: all too rare, in his experience.
He’d worn his clerical collar, and could tell from the whispered comments from several pews that he’d been ‘spotted’. The priest herself gave no sign, throughout the service, that there was anything out of the ordinary about his presence in their midst. But at the end, as he made his way to the porch doorway where she stood greeting people, he could see her smiling as he approached.
‘Well, I think I can guess who you are,’ she said. ‘Reverend - Father - how should I address you?’
‘However you wish,’ he replied. ‘But Georgios will be just fine, really.’
She shook his outstretched hand. ‘Then Georgios it will be. I’m Julie. But I suppose you know that already. Welcome to the Templeton Deanery. Have you met the Rural Dean yet?’ She pulled a face.
‘That bad, is it?’ he laughed.
‘Worse. Just don’t tell him I said so. It’s just good to have someone here who has lowered the average age of the clergy of Deanery by about - oh - twenty years, I should think.’
‘I’m not quite that young.’
‘You look about eighteen. Did you get some special dispensation to take holy orders so young?’
He laughed again. ‘Hardly. But thanks for the compliment. I’m thirty-one.’
‘Phew, there was me thinking I was going to be accused of cradle snatching–what did you think of the sermon?’ The sudden change of subject threw him for a moment.
‘Pretty crap, really. I was all over the place today. The “cost of discipleship,” says Luke - It’s all pretty meaningless, really, when one considers what real suffering and martyrdom involves. “Cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer said. He knew exactly what he was talking about, of course.’
‘Yes, he did. But what you said about the parable of the king with the small army versus the king with the large one - how that’s utterly redundant now - that Jesus’ analogy, essentially, is wrong, in the post-Hiroshima age - that was quite powerful stuff.’
Julie shrugged. ‘Well, it’s true. Ten thousand men, or twenty thousand - it’s all pretty irrelevant when all you really need is one bomb. Just light the blue touch paper and retire. I’m not a paid-up member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for nothing, you know.’
‘Yes,’ he pointed to the CND badge pinned to her stole. ‘I’m not sure the Bishop would approve of you wearing that.’
‘Tough shit. Going to report me?’
He shook his head vigorously. ‘Of course not. Are you always so–’
‘Feisty? Yes. And yes - I always interrupt. Except when I don’t. What are you doing for lunch?’
‘Well, nothing. But I wouldn’t want to impose upon you.’
‘You wouldn’t be. Oh, wait.’ Julie’s face fell. ‘No can do. I promised to take Charlie to the zoo in Leadington Spa.’ She saw his quizzical look. ‘Charlie’s my son. Nine years old, and I love him to bits, but very demanding at times. And he hates changes to plans. But you must come again: I’ll call you, okay? It’s the same number in the clergy directory, I guess - as Edgar had.’
Despite himself, he felt disappointed. He hadn’t realised she had a son. Was there a husband too? Why did the thought of that displease him, somehow? ‘Yes it is the same number. And of course we should have lunch: another time. If your family doesn't mind. You can tell me all the stuff Canon Harris won’t.’
She seemed to be reading his thoughts. ‘My son is my family: and he won’t mind.’ She held out her hand. ‘Something makes me think you’ll have as much to tell me, as me you. It’s been good to meet you, Georgios. Till the next time.’
Midday approached. The churchyard of Llanfihangel Gilfach was eerily silent. There had been no Christian act of worship there in the morning. As the church with the smallest congregation within the group, it had to make do with an afternoon service at three o’clock each Sunday.
The doors of the lychgate creaked open, and figures slowly made their way towards the ancient yew tree that stood in the heart of the churchyard. The first service of the day was about to take place.
It would not be conducted with any rituals that Harry Barrington-Smythe would wish to incorporate into his offering of Evening Prayer.
VI: September 10th (William Salesbury & William Morgan, Translators)
Border folk are strange creatures, you know, Father. But perhaps you’ve already worked that out for yourself.’
Father Georgios Anagnosides smiled politely, but said nothing. He still wasn’t quite sure about his new curate, Father Benedict. Something, he sensed, was veiled behind the other’s genial, jocund exterior. He glanced around the sumptuously-decorated parlour, with its tasteful William Morris-style wallpaper, Pre-Raphaelite prints on the walls, plush armchairs and colourful rugs, Queen Anne drop leaf table with intricately-carved legs, and the gentle ticking of what - surely! - wasn’t a Thomas Tompion longcase clock.
‘Pardon me, but is that a Thomas–?’
Benedict followed the gaze of the younger priest, and chucked. ‘I’m afraid so,’ he said. ‘I have a Tompion for a grandfather. It once belonged to Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Well, allegedly. Insuring it is something of a nightmare, and it doesn’t even keep particularly good time: but it’s almost three hundred years old, so I suppose it can be forgiven. I’m impressed - you have a good eye for antiques.’
‘Not especially - but my father was a watchmaker.’ Georgios thought about the furnishing in his own 1970s-build vicarage and grimaced. His priest-colleague was clearly someone of substantial private means. Perhaps that explained why he had resigned his inner-city living ten years previously, whilst still in his mid-forties, and retired to the countryside, keeping his hand in by covering parochial vacancies along the Anglo-Welsh border. Thanks to the loquacious Mr Meeks he’d already heard other rumours about Father Benedict Wishart: but he didn’t want to dwell on that…
‘So your partner - what was his name - Oliver? He’s not at home at the moment?’
‘No, he generally comes home every second or third weekend. It’s a busy life, working at the Bar. Another two, maybe three years, then he’ll retire. Sadly, he won’t be around for your induction service on Friday week either. He knows the Chancellor of the Diocese quite well: they were in Chambers together, once upon a time. He’s an atheist, bless him. He always says I’m more than devout enough for the two of us. But you must come round for dinner next time he’s here.’ The elegant, smartly-dressed priest paused, then said:
‘Do you have any particular views on the supernatural, Father?’
There had been a distinct change in his tone of voice, and - Georgios noted - a slight tremble in his hand, as he lowered his teacup, and leaned forward, with the gravest of looks upon his suddenly-furrowed brow.
‘Please, call me Georgios. That’s a rather surprising question to ask of a fellow priest - but I assume you’re not looking for some conventional theological answer, Benedict. What exactly were you thinking of?’
Benedict drew a red silk handkerchief from the lapel pocket of his jacket, and wiped his forehead. In just a matter of seconds his visage had utterly changed, and his flushed face was glistening with sweat. The aura of comfortable condescending affability that had surrounded him since opening the door to his visitor half an hour before had vanished.
‘Well, if we are to be friends, as well as colleagues, then you must call me Benny. I hope we shall be friends - and that we can trust each other.’
‘Of course, Benny. What’s troubling you?’
‘As I said earlier, people who live on the border are the strangest of people. In the ten years we’ve been here, I’ve found them to be tight-lipped, and inclined to keep their own counsel. The warring may have ceased six hundred years ago now, but people in these parts are still disinclined to take sides. Neither Welsh, nor English. Perpetually suspicious of those who come “from off”. You understand what I’m saying?’
‘I think so.’
‘These are lands where much blood has been spilt; places of the hinterland, where there’s been so much violence and anger. It seeps into the very ground. The hills and the valleys have long memories of the treacheries and cruelties of the past. They don’t rest easily. As for the people: they cling to the old ways. There were other gods, other forces at work, here on the Marches, back in the days of old. Before the missionaries and the monks came, proclaiming the One God, here they worshipped the many. And - if the truth be told - there are plenty who still do.’
‘There’s nothing new or surprising about that. Folk religious beliefs have rubbed shoulders with the more dogmatic assertions of orthodoxy for a long time.’
Benedict shook his head vigorously. ‘No, Father - Georgios. I mean more than folk religion. This isn’t just a case of popular syncretism, or quaint traditions, handed down from yesteryear. I’m talking about something much older, and much darker. Something that is implacably hostile to the Faith. Something that is deeply diabolical - right to its very core. They worshipped many gods - but the chieftain of their pantheon was always the same. He goes by many names. Do you know the legend of Darkwoode?’
‘Silly of me, I know - after all, you only arrived in our midst three days ago. But perhaps you’ve noticed the predominant dedication of the churches in this locality?’
‘Well, there seem to be quite a few dedicated to St Michael. Is that what you mean?’
‘Yes. And on the Welsh side of the border - and even here and there on the English side - you’ll see that quite a few of the villages are named “Llanfihangel” - the llan (or place) of angels. As in St Michael and All Angels. Curious, don’t you think, all these churches dedicated to the dragon-slayer? Here on the Welsh border, of all places.’
Georgios grinned. ‘He’s not the only dragon-slayer. My own namesake, of course, was slaying reptilian leviathans long before the English adopted him as their patron saint, ousting poor old St Edward the Confessor for someone more suitably martial.’
‘Then perhaps you’re coming amongst us, here and now, is a sign. You’re young - thirty-one, yes? But perhaps you have the vigour and the courage that I lack. I’m tired, and I’ve witnessed too much. Believe me, Georgios, you will be tested if you stay here - and you will need all your wits about you. The servants of the Darkwoode are not to be trifled with.’
‘I’m sorry, Benny, you still haven’t explained. What is the Darkwoode?’
‘Oh, you won’t find it marked on an OS map. But it’s real enough. The ancient woodlands along the Marches have mostly gone now - just a few copses, a handful of spinneys, here and there, remain. You know those puzzles - what do they call them - dot-to-dot puzzles, yes?’ Georgios nodded. ‘Well, join up the churches dedicated to St Michael, just like a dot-to-dot…’
Benedict moved his forefinger through the air, forming a circle as he did so. ‘You’ll find that they enclose the forests of old. They’re markers for the boundaries - the borders of the Darkwoode. The place where the last dragon was driven, it’s said. Waiting for the End of Time. As long as the churches remain, the dragon remains trapped. They stand as shields - as wards - against Evil Incarnate. But if ’ere disaster befalls even one of the churches - the dragon will escape through the gap.’ The older priest sat back, and sighed.
‘That is the legend of the Darkwoode.’
VII: September 11th (St Deiniol, Bishop)
The scenes unfolding on the television screen before him were truly shocking: yet he sat, sipping a gin and tonic, unperturbed. As he watched, the 110-story tower entered its final death throes The cameras that were trained upon it captured the moment as each floor imploded, one after another, and the whole structure collapsed downward, like a concertina, in a great shower of ash, the grey-white pall hiding from the sight of the onlookers the shattering of metal, the pulverisation of concrete and gypsum, the atomisation of flesh, bone and blood. The roar of the collapse - like that of its twin tower twenty-nine minutes earlier - must have been deafening to the onlookers who were watching just a few blocks of the devastation.
Mervyn Mortlake, Archbishop-designate of the Church of Wales, looked across to the mantelpiece clock. The time was 3.28pm. What would that be in New York? 10.28am, yes? A glorious moment. The blue skies over the city had been so clear that morning: but Mervyn rejoiced in the devastating grey shroud that was now darkening the bright firmament over downtown Manhattan.
‘Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: teste David cum Sibylla,’ he murmured.
From the other side of the drawing room, came the reply, ‘“Day of wrath and doom impending! David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, heaven and earth in ashes ending!”’
Mervyn smiled, turned towards his companion, and raised his glass. ‘It’s precisely the sign we were looking for. The End Times draw nigh. Our course is set, my friend. Draco suscitabit.’
To Be Continued...
D&D and Me
My first experience of tabletop role-playing games - commonly referred to as D&D (even though that was, strictly speaking, merely the abbreviated form of the proprietary name belonging to the most popular RPG) - came about, essentially, because of a quarrel with a friend over a girl. My best friend in my first couple of years at university was ‘Bristol Boy’ Jeff. It was his romance with Carolyn, the girl who would later become his wife - a girl whom I also fancied - that led, for a time, to a pronounced cooling in our friendship. It resulted in my seeking out other friends, living on the opposite side of campus.
Initially, the common denominator I shared with these new friends was one that I had also shared with Jeff, Carolyn and my original circle of university friends: we were all members of the Christian Union.
But even by the time I was getting to know them, they (like me) were becoming somewhat discontented with the evangelical certitudes of the CU. And, one night, I discovered that most of them had an abiding interest in a hobby that was decidedly frowned upon in conservative evangelical Christian circles.
They were role-players.
Role-playing had first burst onto the indoor gaming scene as an offshoot of miniature war-gaming, with the launch of the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. When I was at grammar school, between 1977 and 1982, there was an after-school war-gaming club which also hosted some role-playing. A couple of the boys in my class attended: but at the time I had no particular interest in it myself, and so the increasing popularity of role-playing as we entered the Eighties initially passed me by.
Probably the first time I ever had a glimpse of a game in action was when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982. An early scene in the film shows the central character of Elliott, his older brother, and his brother’s friends, all playing a game of D&D. (Interestingly, Spielberg had run a D&D session himself for the young cast members prior to the production of the film). It’s not a long scene in the film, and at the time I certainly didn’t attach any particular significance to it. My own first encounter with role-playing was still four years away…
It’s strange, in a way, given my love of both fantasy and science-fiction - the two most popular milieus for early role-playing games - that it took me so long to become a role-player myself. The most likely reason for this, looking back, is the rather more conservative Christian viewpoint, on all manner of issues, to which I adhered in my mid to late teens. This was the early to mid-Eighties, the time of the most pronounced ‘moral panic’ about role-playing games, and their supposed ‘dark side’. As well as E.T., with its positive - or, at least, neutral - portrayal of RPGs, 1982 was also the year in which the preachy and antagonistic Mazes and Monsters was released. The film starred a young Tom Hanks (in his first leading movie role), as a young college student who suffers from psychotic episodes that are supposedly brought on by his obsessional interest in role-playing. Subtle? It was not.
And so it was, one evening in 1986, that I had my own ‘initiation’ into the strange world of role-playing. It was a Friday night, and I was at a loose end. I went and knocked on the door of my friend Gary, who happened to have the largest student flat in his particular hall of residence. It had become a natural place to hang out for me and a number of other friends. And that evening, I discovered a bunch of them huddled around a coffee table in his flat, covered with graph paper on which a makeshift plan had been drawn. Small miniature figures were positioned on the paper. Next to the figures were some peculiar dice - not the usual 6-sided cubes which I normally associated with board games, but a pair of polyhedrons with 20 sides each. In their hands, Gary and the others were holding sheets of paper which seemed to be filled with a bewildering plethora of statistics. It all seemed most mysterious.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, curious.
‘We’re playing a role-playing game,’ replied Gary. He looked slightly shamefaced, as if I had caught him and the others in the act of indulging some esoteric vice. Then he added the words that were to really perk my interest. ‘It’s set in Middle-earth, the world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Have you read it?’
Had I read J R R Tolkien’s magnus opus? What kind of daft question was that? It was only my favourite novel of all time, after all; the very pinnacle of the mountain of works of fantasy and science-fiction that I had ploughed through during my teenage years.
‘Of course I’ve read it. So,’ I continued, ‘you’re playing D&D?’ Now I’ve got it, I thought to myself. This is a session of the fabled Dungeons and Dragons in progress.
But Gary shook his head, and explained that no, this wasn’t D&D. Not as such. There were many different role-playing games, operating with different game mechanics, and set in different milieus. This particular game was called Middle-earth Role Playing - MERP for short. It was a game tailor-made for Tolkien’s fantasy world. Players could play dwarves or elves, humans or hobbits, undertaking together chivalrous and daring quests, battling orcs and trolls, wargs and giant spiders, even perhaps a dragon or a Balrog; all lovingly crafted and carefully adjudicated by the referee, or game-master.
The next words from my mouth almost took me by surprise - let alone Gary.
‘Can I play?’
‘Well– ’ Gary hesitated for a moment, and looked across the room. ‘That’s not really for me to decide - what do you think, Tom?’
Tom was the one there that night whom I knew best. He - like my now estranged best friend Jeff - was on my course, so I saw him in lectures several days a week. He was a short, softly spoken and somewhat shy young man. I was surprised that Gary - a confident, charismatic and even slightly domineering individual - should be deferring to him, especially as they were all sat in Gary’s flat. I noted that Tom was sitting at another table, slightly set apart from the others, pencil in hand, with what appeared to be a couple of rule-books, and reams of handwritten notes. On his table was another pair of the strange, 20-sided dice, a box containing a jumble of miniature figures, more pencils and an eraser.
‘Tom’s the GM - our game-master,’ explained Gary. ‘It’s his campaign we’re playing. It’s his call whether or not you can join.’
I looked expectantly at Tom.
‘Well,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘This is merely the second session of the campaign, and we only started half an hour ago. I suppose we could shoehorn you in - it would be better with four characters, actually. But I don’t have time to explain the rules - you’ll just have to muddle along for tonight. And we don’t have time for you to roll up a new character either. I’ve got some pregenerated PCs - those are player characters that come with their game stats already prepared. What kind of character would you like?’
‘What’s everyone else playing?’ I asked.
And so, briefly, I was introduced to the other characters. Matt had created for himself a laid-back mattock-wielding warrior dwarf of very few words. Phil’s character was a hobbit - but a rather serious ninja-scout who was a lethal dab-hand with a sling, far removed from the rather more jolly Shire-dwellers of Tolkien’s novel. Finally, there was Gary’s character. He was a noble but slightly down-on-his-luck Dúnadan ranger - a high man of the same stock as Tolkien’s heroic king-in-waiting Aragorn. His character was clearly the de facto leader of the group, a role with which Gary himself seemed very comfortable.
‘Can I play a hobbit?’ I pleaded.
Tom smiled. ‘Perfect. The party are about to arrive at a small hobbit community. They are taking refuge there, having just survived a combat with some wargs in the wilderness. The dwarf– ’ he gestured towards Matt, ‘was badly wounded. They’ll need to rest for a few days. It’s the ideal way to introduce your new character, if we make him a member of this community. I say “him” - but of course it needn’t be him. Do you want to play a male or female character?’
I was surprised at the question. The idea of playing a female character hadn’t occurred to me - and seemed downright odd.
‘Um - definitely male.’ I looked at the others in the room. ‘You’re all playing male characters, after all, yes?’
Indeed they were. As I was to discover, female role-players are almost as rare in gaming circles as female dwarves are in Tolkien’s works. The only time our group included the occasional female character was when one or two of the more confident players were willing to play against gender. Matt was the first to try his hand at this, playing a supplementary character for a time alongside his dwarf, a female healer of noble birth. She was a Maid Marian of sorts to Phil’s eventual second character, a complex wandering minstrel (possessing elements drawn from both Robin Hood and Alan-a-Dale) with a shady past. I always stuck to playing male characters. When I eventually had a go at GMing, I found myself perfectly at ease devising and controlling female as well as male non-player-character roles: but that was nothing like as intense as seeking to inhabit the skin of your own player-character.
And so I acquired my first character - a hobbit who I deliberately made a more exaggerated version of the fun-loving halflings of the Shire - a kind of cross between Merry and Pippin, with a penchant for pink pantaloons - in contrast to the darker, brooding and slightly sinister personality that Phil had developed for his hobbit. We might have come from the same race, but from the outset we weren’t particularly friendly towards one another, as characters. We later found out Phil’s original adventurer was actually in thrall to an evil magician; duly liberated, he developed a much more likeable personality, as far as the rest of the adventuring party were concerned. Gary’s noble Dúnadan was far more straightforwardly heroic, and counterbalanced Matt’s somewhat cynical, anti-heroic dwarf rather well. Their characters clearly had a strong affection for one another (even though they would have denied it), and in so doing they mirrored Gary and Matt’s long friendship - both had attended the same grammar school before coming to university.
I bumbled along, as best I could, having the most important rules explained to me along the way. Despite the initial strangeness of it all, I was soon immersed. Tom was a consummate storyteller, and very skilled at describing each scene. The combat sequences were thrilling, and it was made very clear to me that it was perfectly possible - either because of a poor choice on my part, or simply through an unlucky roll of the dice - for my hobbit character to come to a sticky end. There was no script immunity at work. And if we were to have our best chance of survival, then we had to work together.
Thus I began to have an insight into the moral value of role-playing games - in contrast to the hysterical nonsense spouted about them by religious fundamentalists. At their very best, role-playing games teach the importance of cooperation and problem-solving, and encourage their participants to take on the mantles of heroes. And that first night, I remembered that our adventure was taking place in Middle-earth: even if only in a small way, we were playing our part in the great struggle against the Shadow that was Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself. We were following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien, inspired to let our imaginations run riot within the world he had brought into being. What could be a finer way to apply our creativity than this?
We’d been playing for an hour or so when another knock came at the door. Another friend, Ken, had cycled round to Gary’s flat. He - like myself - was curious to see what was going on. Fortunately for our poor game-master Tom (who thanks to me had already been forced that evening to accommodate one new character into his campaign), Ken wasn’t interested in taking on a role for himself. He was content to watch, quietly amused by the unfolding drama of Tom’s storytelling, and our engagement with it.
At about three o’clock in the morning, my first ever game session concluded (on a suitably thrilling cliffhanger). Ken had given up and ridden home by now; but the rest of us, ravenous, headed off to where we knew a burger van would still be open, supplying hungry (and often drunk) students with sustenance well into the early hours. We weren’t drunk - we’d been imbibing from a deeper, richer draft, I reflected in a heady moment, as I munched upon my double-dog with cheese, mustard and fried onions.
I borrowed a rule-book from Tom - I was determined that by our next session I would be fully familiar with the rules. A few days later, I felt ready to roll up a secondary character to my hobbit hero - one whose characteristics I could tweak and shape for myself. A Beorning shape-changer, this first character I’d devised from scratch was also the first of our adventurers to come to a bloody and untimely end, after only a few sessions. Thus I learnt, early on, what Tom had warned me, right from the beginning: in good role-playing, there is no script immunity. Just like life itself.
Over the next few weeks, two other friends who were also gamers joined our group: Jack, who was interested in all things Oriental, and usually played warrior-heroes with a strong moral code, somewhat akin to the bushido ethics of Japanese samurai; and Tristan, who unlike the rest of us was a postgraduate student, and a devout Roman Catholic. He chose to play a Gondorian ranger-prince, the most high-born of the ten player characters that featured at one time or another in our MERP campaign.
As our band of adventurers grew, so our exploits became more epic, taking on a grander, more mythic turn. We travelled far and wide across Middle-earth. Our enemies became more dangerous: we moved on from fighting orcs, petty rogues and cutthroats to battling malign spirits, Nazgûl and even a water-demon (a terrifying adversary who succeeded in immolating one of Jack’s two MERP characters, a largely self-taught mage from a commoner background, by reflecting one of his own fireball spells back against him).
One of our most colourful foes was a malevolent sorcerer from the royal line of the Northern Kingdom of the Dúnedain, who was originally designed as a one-shot opponent, but who ended up becoming a formidable returning villain. And then there was the adventure in which my happy-go-lucky hobbit had a momentous encounter with a lost Silmaril - one of the wondrous jewels that gave their name to Tolkien’s posthumously published final great work, The Silmarillion. It was an incident that utterly changed him, every bit as much as Frodo was transformed by the burden of bearing the One Ring.
Over time, most of us took our turn at game-mastering. Sometimes we used published scenarios from gaming magazines; more often, our adventures were of the GM’s own devising. We were the Magnificent Seven - one game-master, six players.
We started playing other RPGs besides MERP: science-fiction games like Traveller, Star Trek and the darkly comic and dystopian Paranoia; superhero games like Champions and Golden Heroes (where my character was a reincarnated Welsh druid with magical powers); the wonderful steampunk Space 1889; fantasy games like Rolemaster, Runequest and - even - D&D itself. But you never forget your first love, they say: and my affection for MERP remained, long after we stopped playing it on a regular basis.
The following academic year, we moved into student digs together (all except for Phil, who unfortunately was kicked off his course at the end of his second year). We had obtained a house for seven: and in place of Phil, it was Ken who joined us - our token non-gamer. Ken aside, we continued role-playing. Meanwhile, I mended bridges with Jeff; and though I was never quite as close to him as previously, we became good enough friends again for him to ask me to be his best man, when he married Carolyn a year after their graduation.
In my third year at university, my father fell ill. During that year, I needed all my university friendships - old and new - more than ever. Three months after his cancer diagnosis, he passed away. In life - just like role-playing games - I was reminded: there is no script immunity. And there are some Shadows that cannot be overcome in real life, however much one might wish to change the outcome of the throw of the dice.
Towards the end of the year, I was game-mastering once again. Graduation was approaching for most of us. Our Fellowship, inevitably, would be breaking. Determined that we should go out in style, I devised one last grand scenario for our Middle-earth characters - those that were left, anyway, having not as yet perished on the battlefield, been retired (like Phil’s hobbit), or experienced elevation to quasi-immortality (the fate of my own once-humble halfling character).
The final tale was imbued with the essence of Arthurian romance. The death of my father undoubtedly played its part too, subconsciously, as I wrote the outline for By the Sword Divided, the concluding chapter of our characters’ adventures. This was to be our Le Morte d’Arthur, in which we dared to rewrite the work of the Master, Tolkien himself. Tom had taken over playing Phil’s minstrel with the mysterious past. He’d been revealed in previous chapters to be the bastard scion of a noble Dúnadan house, and had become an inadvertent kin-slayer, twice-over. His impetuosity and arrogance now became the trigger for a cataclysmic civil war, and the downfall - three hundred years earlier in the timeline than Tolkien had envisaged - of the Northern Kingdom.
Talk about destroying canon...
I played Holst, Orff, Mahler and Wagner in the background as the battle-scenes on The Field of Lost Dreams played out. I’d deliberately stacked the odds against the characters, and one after another, their inevitable deaths came. Matt’s laconic dwarf, his mattock buried deep in the chest of the dread Black Reaver that he and Jack’s bushido-warrior had vanquished together, at the cost of their own lives. Gary’s Dúnadan stalwart, going down against a dozen foes still yielding Ologcrist, ‘Trollbane’, the wondrous sword that had once been gifted to him by Glorfindel of Rivendell.
Finally, there remained the kin-slaying bard, facing his hateful and treacherous father as he had once faced his two brothers. ‘Come, father, let us embrace,’ intoned Tom grimly, with impeccable timing, quoting Mordred’s last line from John Boorman’s wondrous 1981 film Excalibur. It was the concluding combat. The dice practically rolled themselves.
One character alone survived, to tell the tale - Tristan’s Gondorian prince, remaining just like Bedivere, the last of Arthur’s knights left standing on the field of Camlann, as the blood-red sun disappeared beneath the horizon. The curtain had descended on the most complex, and involved, role-playing campaign I had ever been part of. It was our Götterdämmerung. And it was glorious.
Forty years have passed since E.T. came out, giving me my first glimpse of role-playing. And now, the fourth series of Stranger Things is about to be released on Netflix - a nostalgic television drama series set in the 1980s, the very first episode of which, just like E.T., practically opens with a group of teenage boys playing D&D. I was a few years late coming to that particular party myself - and it’s been five years now since I last played in an ongoing campaign (the sad reality of friends moving away, and drifting apart, is something that gamers and non-gamers alike would recognise).
But I still have enormous affection for the friendships forged and strengthened across a graph paper map of caves and dungeons, strewn with miniatures representing heroes and monsters, and dice of a variety of shapes - some with 20 sides, others with 12, or 10, or 8, or 4 or even common-or-garden 6 sides.
Maybe, one day, I’ll pick up those dice again. I’ll generate a character or two. I’ll find some friends, and go adventuring again. I’ll open the doorway, and I’ll see what paths our imaginations can take us down, once more.
Though somehow - without the three o’clock in the morning, post-session trek to the burger van - it will never quite be the same.
The Fuzzy End of the Lollipop
Since when was the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre funny? Even fictionalised - as it is in this movie - it’s hardly a barrel of laughs, is it? Especially when you’re looking down the barrel of a Tommy gun. It’s enough to make you choke on your tooth-pick. Maybe being filmed in black and white disguises the brutality of the scene (this certainly is no Scarface or The Untouchables). The blood on his spats that he’s troubled by later - not as bad, surely, as the coffee (that isn’t really coffee) which had been spilled on them in an earlier scene - these are the least of the worries that the humourless, cardboard cutout villain of the piece should be concerned with, surely?
Transgender rights are hotly-contested these days. But if you’re hoping for a nuanced approach to such matters, you won’t find them here. And it has to be said that the two cross-dressing leads - playing a pair of wisecracking down-on-their-luck musicians who have inadvertently witnessed a slice of gang warfare - really don’t look all that convincing at all as members of the fair sex. Even in black and white. Where’s Robin Williams when you need him? It’s not just the much-put-upon manager of the all-female band that they infiltrate (in their attempt to escape the Chicago Mob) who appears to have lost his glasses - everybody else is just as myopic, and there can be no other explanation, surely, for how they get away with their implausible scheme for so long.
The film’s view of millionaires (they would be billionaires now, of course - such are the effects of inflation) is quaint, to say the least. The assumption that most of them would be octogenarians is clearly outdated. Silicon Valley geeks were clearly a thing of the future. A modern-day remake of this film would doubtless feature a villainous billionaire looking like just like ‘Dr Evil’, with an obsession with space - and the package that is delivered in a key scene containing an expensive bracelet for one of the cross-dressing leads that he has unaccountably fallen for (more shortsightedness at work, clearly), would now be delivered by the billionaire’s ubiquitous freight service (which would be named Orinoco, or something suitable exotic). But instead of which, we must contend with stereotypical investors in stocks, shares, and futures; and watch as their beady eyes lift up in concert from the columns of the Wall Street Journal to peruse a rather more shapely set of statistics heading their way - not our gender-bending protagonists, but the seductively-proportioned ukulele player who functions as the female lead of the movie.
By all accounts, she didn’t get on at all with her male opposite number, and so the joke about the frigidity of their characters’ on-screen relationship may have mirrored what was actually happening behind-the-scenes. Not that any of this seems to bother the other male lead, the double bass player - one shake of his maracas, and he’s being proposed to by a lecherous millionaire who bears absolutely no resemblance to Elon Musk. Give it another thirty years, mind…
The reliance upon coincidence to further the ridiculous plot is telling. The most obvious example of this is when the hoodlums end up staying at the same hotel (out of all the many, many possible candidates) as the fugitives, where their improbable disguise as lovers of Italian opera is as unlikely as the fate they come to as a result of a suspiciously overlarge birthday cake. Viewers might be forgiven for assuming that at this point the female lead would pop out of said cake singing, ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President.’ No such luck. Never mind the sheer implausibility of a guy with a submachine gun hiding in a cake. Instead, let’s all chuckle as the spat-wearing villain spats out his final line: ‘Big Joke.’ It’s no Madame Butterfly.
Lots of screwball comedy ensues, with endless running around frantically (so much so, I was expecting Benny Hill to turn up at one point, and for Yakety Sax to start playing). But no, the only sax on view belongs to the square-jawed Spartacus star (no, not Kurt, the other one) who the ukulele player has fallen for, hook, line and stinker - despite the fact that, by his own admission, all he call really offer her is coleslaw in the face, old socks, and a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste. What an implausible end for these characters - though not quite as much so as the fate that awaits not-Spartacus’ best buddy. Despite asserting his true masculinity at the very conclusion of the movie, he still faces the prospect of marriage to a dirty-minded Bill Gates-substitute. Wowser.
In the final analysis, it’s all a bit of a lemon. I’m sorry to have poured cold water on those who think this movie is some kind of classic. But what more can I say about the film director who gave us this unlikely piece of whimsy - other than this?
‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’
John, Chris, and I had talked about it, we knew what we were doing. First, though, we wanted to make sure that our sister agreed too. And we knew we had to act quickly, if we were to dissuade our father. Much as we loved him, and admired him, we knew that once he had decided upon a particular course of action, persuading him to change his mind would be difficult.
Chris’ support was invaluable. Already, we knew that our father had appointed him as the principal overseer and custodian of his literary legacy. John’s moral stature, as the priest of the family, was something Father would respect too. I knew that my influence would be much more limited: whereas my sister possessed an empathetic connection, to both my father and my later mother, that would be invaluable.
It was a bad decision, my father’s sentimentality at its very worst. He could be excessive in this regard at times. He was never embarrassed to shed a tear, or to embrace his sons, even in public. This familial affection was in strong contrast to the prevalent portrait of him as a curmudgeonly writer, an outmoded academic content to dwell in his ivory tower, standing aloof from a world in which every sign of ‘progress’ or ‘innovation’ was greeted with suspicion, even derision.
I could imagine the defence he would mount, when we voiced our sincere objections to him; reservations that we would express only out of an earnest desire to protect him from ridicule. He had so many detractors, after all, in the world, jealous of his genius; and in some respect his devotees - the ones increasingly-known these days as ‘fans’, a word I suspect my father detested - were even worse. They would certainly spot the meaning of that curious name engraved on Mother’s gravestone, straight away.
I could picture him shaking his head, and waving his pipe in our direction. ‘No, Michael, I will not listen. Your mother knew the stories of my legendarium, long before anyone else had heard them. She may have been less familiar with their later iterations. She certainly never understood the attention I was later afforded by so many of those who seem to regard me as an author of something tantamount to holy writ, at least in their own eyes; I don’t pretend to understand it myself. But she knew the love which I bore for her, and the sacrifices we made for one another, not least in the days of our youth; and she knew the person with whom she was identified, in terms of the greater story. She also knew which character within the tale represented me. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.’
Thus, I imagined, he would respond to our entreaties. Our sister might hold the key to persuading him to our position. But to my surprise, when we spoke to Priscilla, she firmly took the side of my father.
‘John, Michael, Christopher,’ she said, addressing us from eldest to youngest brother, as always she did when speaking to us as a group. ‘Father is right. I know you show these concerns out of love for him. You do not want the memory of our mother tarnished, either. But his mind is quite made up. And when his time comes, he has told me what name he wants carved on the headstone, beneath hers. This isn’t for the fans, for anyone who might come afterwards. It isn’t for us. It’s for her - the girl he remembers who danced for him amongst the hemlocks, long ago. So let him have his way.’
And so we did. Nothing more was said. And when not so many months later we gathered at his graveside, we read together the inscription, suitably updated, in an Oxfordshire cemetery where one of the greatest writers of the 20th century now lay at rest with his beloved wife, our mother. Upon the headstone, besides the roses, were these simple words:
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973
I didn’t choose the names for this challenge: but as soon as I saw the opening sentence with which we had been charged to begin, I knew exactly what my story would be. My imagined ‘discussions’ between the children of J.R.R. Tolkien are entirely fictitious; but their names and relationships within the Tolkien family are not. The line beginning ‘But the story has gone crooked...’ is a direct quote from a letter of Tolkien to his son Christopher, written in July 1972. And at Tolkien’s behest, the names of the protagonists of his great love story, the Elf-maiden Lúthien, and the man Beren, were indeed added to the headstone that still stands on their grave in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Requiescant in Pace.
Y, It’s All Greek to Me
Simple answer - it’s a vowel. Or - at least - it started out that way. But do you want to know why? Blame the Greeks.
And so - the slightly longer answer…
The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, seven of which are vowels. These seven are:
α (alpha) - the equivalent of a in the Roman alphabet
ε (epsilon) - the equivalent of ‘short’ e
η (eta) - the equivalent of ‘long’ e
ι (iota) - the equivalent of i
ο (omicron) - the equivalent of ‘short’ o
υ (upsilon) - the equivalent of u
ω (omega) - the equivalent of ‘long’ o
Like the Roman alphabet, the Greek alphabet has a set of capital letters that complements the small letters. In the case of the vowels, the capital and small letter pairings in Greek look like this:
Αα Eε Hη Iι Oο Yυ Ωω
In some cases (A, E, I and O), the Greek capital letter look the same as their Roman counterpart. Capital eta, confusingly, looks like a capital H. Capital omega looks quite unlike any Roman letter. Which leaves us with capital upsilon. And that looks just like a Roman capital Y (I say ‘Roman capital Y’, despite the fact that Classical Latin didn’t actually have a letter Y at all. It was ‘imported’ into English - which otherwise generally used the Roman alphabet - from Greek. Precisely the point I’m making here, of course. Blame the Greeks.)
And that is also why certain words that are spelt with an upsilon in Greek are spelt with a ‘y’ in English, where the English words are derived directly from the Greek. Let me give you a few examples. The English word ‘psyche’ (which also gives us other similar words, like ‘psychologist’, psychiatry’ and ‘psycho’), is derived from the Greek word ψυχη (psuche) - notice that the second letter is upsilon. Another example is ‘hypnosis’, an English world derived from the Greek word υπνωση (upnose). Here, the first Greek letter, an upsilon, has ‘turned’ into a ‘y’ in English. One final example: the English word ‘synagogue’ is derived from a not-unexpectedly common word that is found within the Greek New Testament, συναγωγη (sunagoge) - once again, note how a Greek upsilon has been rendered with a ‘y’ in English (and in all these examples, is actually pronounced ‘i’, whether long or short, and not ‘u’).
So, the Greek vowel upsilon is, effectively, the ancestor of two letters in English - U and Y. And ‘y’, therefore - at least in terms of origin - is to be considered a vowel, not a consonant.
Of course, over time it acquired a usage as a consonant too. But that - as they say - is another story.
Then, of course, there’s the way in which ‘i’ in Latin could be both vowel and consonant - and when pronounced as a consonant was pronounced as a ‘y’ (and, eventually, rendered as a ‘j’). So, for example, Iove (pronounced ‘Yove’) eventually gives us Jove, Iupiter (pronounced ‘Yupiter’) eventually yields Jupiter, and Iulius… well, you get the picture. But that’s yet another story.
There are also the occasions when ‘y’ in English actually derives from an archaic Anglo-Saxon letter for ‘th’ - which is why in the phrase ye olde tea shoppe, the ‘ye’ should actually be pronounced ‘the’ (contrary to what most people assume). But that is yet another, entirely different, story!
And then there’s ‘y’ in Welsh...
I’m going to stop now. You did want the simple answer - right?
My Crowned Jewel
It’s very simple, really. I’m here on Prose because of @FJGraham (Flyn Graham). And it’s because of Flyn that I’ve rediscovered my own delight in being a writer over the past five and a half years.
Flyn is a remarkable wordsmith. His writing has an honesty, a rawness and a passion that is astonishing in a (relatively) young person, and I have no doubt that his talents will continue to grow. Flyn’s use of language, in his prose, is more taut and sparing than my own. The economy of words that he deploys, to great effect, is different from my own somewhat more verbose approach. One of the things he told me, and taught me, in a conversation a while ago is the importance of reading aloud one’s words. For Flyn, if something doesn’t quite flow, if it doesn’t quite feel right, then it needs to be cut. It’s a principle that he applies with forensic ruthlessness to his own work.
I’m reminded of the Koh-i-Noor diamond - one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, and part of the British Crown Jewels since 1849. It was placed on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851; but despite its size, its lustre failed to impress. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, ordered it to be re-cut; and it was ultimately reduced in size - over the course of thirty-eight days - from 191 carets to 106. Such an enormous reduction in size was shocking to many at the time; yet the great loss in weight was necessary because of several serious flaws found in the diamond as it was being cut. Though much reduced in size, the Koh-i-Noor now shone brighter than ever, with a brilliance that continues to take the breath away of those who behold it.
Flyn’s writing is much like that. With each new work - and with each new edit - his stories shine with ever greater brilliance.
Flyn is part of a remarkable band of brothers here on Prose - with whom I am tremendously honoured to be associated. Younger brother Jax (@brothersgraham) is especially skilled in the crafting of sonnets. Hunter (@hunter10G), meanwhile, is incredibly industrious; and his lighthearted tales of Monkey, and magical stories of the Robot Prince, can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Together, we’ve encouraged our dear friend Ethan (@ethangraham), who has written a number of delightful tales of his own. And in recent months, we’ve all enjoyed setting, or taking part in, a variety of Prose challenges.
Reading - and re-reading - the works of my Graham family affords me pleasure like none other. There are some very talented writers here on Prose, and I’m enjoying coming to know the works of many. But, for me, it is @FJGraham who continues to inspire me, forever, and always. And his friendship shines brighter for me than any diamond. He remains a jewel crowned in my heart.
Facing his Maker
Samuel Griffin, the new sexton at St Adelaide’s, was a relative newcomer to the village, and he certainly wasn’t a person who was steeped in the more arcane rituals of the Church. So how was he to know, unless someone told him, that the traditional burial rites for a priest were different, in one crucial respect, from those of other people?
Father Algernon Beaumont-Ward (‘Father Algie’ as he had been affectionately known by his parishioners throughout his forty-two years of faithful ministry at St Adelaide’s) had died at the impressive age of one hundred and three. He had retired from ‘St Adie’s’ at the age of seventy (and was said to deeply regret the fact that had he been born just eighteen months earlier, the newly-enforced canonical retirement age would not have applied to him, and he would have been free to continue as the parish priest for as long as he had wished). His last service at St Adelaide’s had fallen on February 2nd 1977, his seventieth birthday, and the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Appropriate, given the traditional prayer of St Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, associated with that day: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. Save for his short curacy in an inner-city London parish, his entire ministry had been spent at St Adelaide’s. None of his successors had lasted for more than half a decade; the shadow he had cast during his illustrious tenure had been a long one.
But sadly, over time almost all of the most stalwart members of the parish had died or moved away; fewer and fewer now remained to recall his incumbency, the heyday of the parish. As the congregation had dwindled, so successive reorganisations had seen St Adelaide’s grouped with first one neighbouring parish, then another: the grand if slowly decaying nine-bedroom Rectory that had served as home to Father Algie and his predecessors since the mid-nineteenth century had been sold off; the local church school had been closed as the school roll had dwindled; the post office had shut too, and even the Black Bull was struggling, like many a country pub, as the drink-drive laws had become more stringently enforced. One in three of the houses in Adelaide-on-the-Howe were now holiday homes, standing empty for three-quarters or more of the year. Bit by bit, the village was becoming a ghost settlement, like so many in that remote corner of East Anglia these days.
Only the local nursing home, optimistically and euphemistically named Sunshine Towers, seemed to be thriving; as the local population aged, so the queue to secure places in the home lengthened. Father Algie had lived there himself for the final nine years of his life, but had received progressively fewer visits from the diminishing pool of ‘old-timers’ who remembered his tenure as their parish priest with affection. The Bishop had visited him on his one hundredth birthday; a young whipper-snapper, just fifty-seven years old, with decidedly modern views. Father Algie, his mental faculties surprisingly alert still, even if his eyesight was failing, had not been impressed.
There was no doubt that Algernon Beaumont-Ward was ‘old school’. He had left meticulous instructions for his funeral service. The ceremony was conducted by the Rural Dean, Canon Smallbrooke, not by any of Father Algie’s former colleagues (who had all predeceased him), nor by any of his successors at St Adie’s (now part of a sprawling group of seven churches, currently in an interregnum that had already lasted for eighteen months). The Rural Dean had several other appointments that day - including a funeral in his own parish, forty minutes drive away, at the opposite end of the Deanery. Despite the pressure he felt himself to be under, he’d adhered as closely as possible to the strict requirements Father Algie had laid down for his funeral. The coffin had been draped with the old priest’s ordination chasuble and stole, the same vestments he had worn for his first mass in London, and later for his first communion service at St Adelaide’s, way back on Advent Sunday 1934. The hymns and readings were exactly as requested, and a CD player had been set up to play the Pie Jesu from Faure’s Requiem immediately before the Commendation. However, neither the Rural Dean nor the church wardens had been able to secure the services of someone to toll the church bell in the traditional manner. ‘For whom does the bell toll? Alas, it tolls not for thee, Father,’ Canon Smallbrooke had mused to himself.
The attendance at the funeral was sparse; Father Algie’s sole living relative, his great-niece Miss Evangeline Beaumont-Ward, lived in Cornwall, and was not well enough to travel. The churchwardens were there, out of duty, and the organist, likewise. Apart from the manager and two care staff from Sunshine Towers, the only person in attendance who had known Father Algie was Mrs Molly MacMillan, who had once been the old priest’s housekeeper. Eight-eight years old herself - stubbornly refusing the hip-replacement that she had been in need of for the previous fifteen years - she had struggled up the church path with some considerable difficulty. But she had been determined to pay her final respects to the person she regarded as ‘the last proper priest this parish ever had.’ Seven people, in all - not including the undertaker and his staff, and himself as celebrant, thought the Rural Dean, glancing at his watch to make sure he wasn’t running late. A sad epitaph to a life of faithful service.
Samuel Griffin hadn’t attended the service. He was on holiday on the day in question; and, in any case, he had been assured when he was appointed that it wasn’t a strict requirement for the sexton to attend each and every funeral. Just so long as the burial plot in the churchyard had been marked out, the grave-diggers engaged, and the paperwork was in order; that was what mattered. Then, later, after a few weeks had passed to allow the earth to settle upon the new grave, there would be the task of liaising with the stone-mason appointed by the family, ensuring that the design of and wording upon the headstone was strictly in accordance with the churchyard regulations, and making sure that it had been correctly installed. And then, of course, the biggest part of his job: to ensure that the churchyard was well-maintained, that the trees were managed and the grass was cut, that dead floral tributes were removed, and that no gravestone was leaning over dangerously. But be there at each funeral? No, that wasn’t a necessary part of his duties.
He received the paperwork from Miss Beaumont-Ward, in Cornwall, in due course. The epitaph was an odd one, he thought: ‘How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?’ The reference to ‘the gods’ didn’t sound particularly Christian - surprisingly, that, given that he was a reverend, thought Griffin - but there was the counter-signature of the Rural Dean, next to that of Miss Beaumont-Ward, approving the wording. Indeed, Canon Smallbrooke had scrawled a name, next to the sentence. C.S. Lewis. Was that the name of the original author of these strange words?
All was clearly in order. Once again - how was he to have known that the burial of a priest was different?
The first he knew that someone had made a grave error was the Sunday after the headstone had been installed. Shortly after midday, he received a phone call at home from an agitated Molly MacMillan.
‘Mr Griffin? It’s Mrs MacMillan.’
He struggled to remember the name. ‘I’m sorry–Mrs MacMillan?’
‘Mrs Molly MacMillan, from Violet Cottage. I used to be the housekeeper for the late Father Algernon Beaumont-Ward. Before your time. Before you were even born, I shouldn’t wonder.’ She sniffed. Her disapproval of his youth was self-evident in her voice.
‘How can I help you, Mrs MacMillan?’
‘Join me in the churchyard of St Adelaide’s, right away if you please. There’s something I need to show you. It’s urgent. I went to lay flowers on poor Father Algernon’s grave, and I was shocked by what I discovered.’
Griffin looked across at the dining table, where his Sunday lunch was lying, half-eaten. ‘Could I meet you there in half-an-hour?’
‘Well– ’ The voice at the other end of the telephone paused. ‘Very well. But no later. I shall meet you at the graveside.’
‘Now then, Mr Griffin, can you see the dreadful mistake that has been made?’ Mrs Molly MacMillan, dressed in deepest black, gesticulated with her umbrella towards the plot where the late parish priest of Adelaide-on-the-Howe was lying - hopefully - at rest.
Did he get much rest from this pugnacious harridan in life, when she was his housekeeper, I wonder? thought Samuel Griffin. He looked across at the grave. Nothing seemed to be amiss. The headstone was standing in place, positioned perfectly in line with the others in that part of the churchyard. Was there a problem with the wording on the gravestone? Or the dates? No, he had checked them most carefully. It could only be the strange epitaph, then. Mrs MacMillan must have some problem with that.
‘I can assure you, Mrs MacMillan, that the Rural Dean believed the wording to be perfectly in order.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Molly MacMillan scowled. ‘This isn’t about words.’
‘Then what– ?’
‘Do you know,’ she interrupted him, testily, ‘why gravestones are placed in the way they are?’
‘Of course. They’re placed at the head of the grave. The nearest point to the head of the coffin.’
‘And why are the lines of gravestones orientated in the way they are in a graveyard?’
He shook his head. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Churchyards, just like churches, are orientated towards the east. They are laid out so that, on the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies of the departed rise up, they find themselves facing east - towards the dawning sun. Towards their risen and ascended Saviour, who has come down again from on high to welcome them, and to judge them.’
Do people really believe that nonsense any more? thought Griffin. He looked at Father Algernon’s grave once again. ‘Then I don’t see the problem - this grave is exactly like all the others.’
‘No, Mr Griffin,’ said Molly MacMillan. ‘It is not.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘If you’d actually attended Father Algernon’s funeral yourself, you would. He had left precise instructions. The old tradition is that priests are buried facing the other way from the people: so that on the Day of Resurrection, when they rise from the grave, they are facing westwards - with their backs to the sun. They face their people, out there— ’ She waved her hand in an expansive gesture, across the graveyard. ‘Just as in church, as they face the people, at the altar, representing Christ himself - as it was in the life that was, so it will be in the life to come.’ She tapped the gravestone with her umbrella. ‘And so, this gravestone is in the wrong place. It’s been placed at dear Father Algy’s feet, you numbskull! It should have been positioned there– ’ she gestured, again, pointing to the place where, Griffin had naturally presumed, the foot of the priest’s coffin lay. ‘Now do you understand?’
Griffin nodded. Yes - he did. A grave error had, indeed, been made.
But was he really the one to blame?
‘He’ll rise to face them, the ones he christened, and married, and buried himself, on the Day of Resurrection,’ insisted the old woman. ‘And all the other ones he might have performed those offices for, if the Church hadn’t forced him to retire. All the people who weren’t there for his funeral. The ones– ’ she paused, for her voice trembling now. She dabbed at her cheek with her handkerchief, then continued: ‘The ones who should have been there. Who abandoned him.’
Ah, thought the sexton. That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? He’d heard that hardly anyone had attended the funeral. The old parish priest, who had baptised their babes at the old Norman font; who had dispensed the sanctified bread and wine from the altar to the faithful, and had exhorted and encouraged them from the pulpit; who had joined countless young couples in holy matrimony at the chancel step, and had presided at the funerals of hundreds of people, perhaps, over the course of his long tenure at St Adelaide’s; that pious, faithful old man had been forgotten, by and large, in death himself.
It started to rain.
Griffin looked at the basket of summer flowers that Mrs MacMillan had left by the gravestone - the headstone placed in error at the feet of the former parish priest. ‘Come, let me help you arrange these flowers,’ he said. ‘Then you can take my arm and I’ll walk you home. And I promise I will ring Miss Beaumont-Ward tonight, and ask her what I should do.’
He had dreaded the phone call, but was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
‘I’m so sorry, Mr Griffin,’ said Father Algernon’s great-niece. ‘It’s really not your fault. I’d completely forgotten, myself, about that rather quaint custom. Uncle Algy was a stickler to such things. I can understand why Mrs MacMillan was so upset.’
‘Thank you. Do you want to arrange for the memorial stone to be moved to the - err - other end of the grave? Of course, I’ll need to check with the Rural Dean if that’s in order, and the monumental mason may well make an additional charge, I’m afraid.’
There was a pause. Then Evangeline Beaumont-Ward spoke again, gently but firmly. ‘No, Mr Griffin, that won’t be necessary. I don’t believe all that stuff myself, about priests facing the other way on the Last Day, do you?’
‘I don’t happen to believe in God, Miss Beaumont-Ward. I plan to be cremated, myself, then for my ashes to be scattered. But, no, if there were a God - why would he treat priests any differently?’
‘Precisely, Mr Griffin. Something uncle and I disagreed on, alas. He was a deeply affectionate great-uncle to me, and I loved visiting him as a child, half a century ago, back when he was in his prime at St Adie’s. But we always had rather different theological views. You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek - he was rather fond of that quotation from scripture. Once a priest, always a priest, in his view. But to my mind - surely we all face God on the same terms, at the end of all things? That’s why I suggested that quotation on his headstone.’
‘That was down to you?’ asked Griffin, surprised.
‘Yes. I helped my great-uncle draw up his last will, and his final instructions for his funeral, some ten years ago, not long before he went into Sunshine Towers. He was stuck for an epitaph. I suggested the Lewis quote to him. We were both rather fond of his writings. He liked it - but I’m not sure he interpreted it in quite the same way as I did. I think that what Lewis was saying is that we can only look upon the face of God when we are really ready to look Him in the eye, to stand before Him face to face, without any of the masks, and personas, and false faces we so often wear in life. And how can we possibly do that if we’ve got our backs to Him? At the end of the day, my great-uncle has to face God not as a priest, but as a human being. Just like any one of us. We can’t change how Uncle Algy’s body was buried. Don’t you need a certificate from the Home Office, or some such thing, to move a body already interred? But neither should we change how his gravestone is positioned. So let it stand, in line with all the others. He may have baptised, and married, and buried, half of them there in the churchyard. But he’ll face his God, as one of them, I’m sure. He’ll face his Maker - as a man.’
The One-eyed King
The young boy should have shown fear
At the frightful sight of the ancient Collier
With one eye. But the old man – Hen ddyn –
No lie, was a friend. Edwin his name: ‘Rich friend.’
The kind to bend a knee to, perhaps. A King.
Truth, of course, he was the one who was
Bent, warped, shrivelled, maimed –
By long years toiling under the green,
Tapping the black, the reluctant vein
Giving up its yield to the deep delvers
’Neath the slate-grey hills of Cambria.
Edwin George was his name. ‘Kingy’ George.
A vigorous young man, of unassuming nobility,
two hands, two feet, two ears, two eyes (at first)
labouring honestly through the reign,
of two English monarchs – his Namesakes.
(Let’s draw a Veil o’er the one in between
Who came to the Valleys and proclaimed:
‘Something must be Done’
Before he himself was Undone,
For the sake – so he said – of Love).
No such easy choice for Kingy;
The pit the only palace, the dray his only throne.
The hacking cough, the demon-black spittle,
The creaking knee and crumbling bone
The only legacy, the final reward
For a life spent fuelling the life-blood of Empire.
Gnarled hands, barely capable of unscrewing the bottle
Of dandelion and burdock that the boy so loved;
Or dealing from the deck of cards
As he taught him the intricacies of crib.
Small comfort in such simple joys,
Before the final pegging out.
The boy never learnt how Kingy lost that eye,
How the weregild for wisdom was paid by this Welsh Odin –
No ravens to guide his Thoughts and Memories,
But, rather, racing pigeons. Cooing from their cots,
Flying free, escaping the confines of cloddish earth.
No dank mines for these graceful expressions
Of an old Collier’s desire to be free.
Long did the boy ponder the meaning
Of that name. Till at last he remembered
That ’In the land of the blind,
The one-eyed man is king’.
In Memory of Kingy George - old collier, neighbour, and friend.
Commentary: Edwin' Kingy' George lived across the road from me throughout my childhood. Edwin is an Anglo-Saxon name, meaning 'rich friend'; which is somewhat ironic, because Kingy certainly didn't possess any wealth to speak of. But then again, he WAS rich in friendship. The British monarchs alluded to in the poem are George V and VI - and the king who controversially reigned for less than twelve months between them, in 1936 - Edward VIII. The ravens are the constant companions of the one-eyed Norse God Odin - Huginn and Muninn - 'Thought' and 'Memory'.
The Queen’s Hat
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
My only claim to royal fame - in the sense of meeting and actually speaking to a member of the royal family - was an encounter some fifteen years ago with the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, the only daughter of Her Majesty the Queen. I don’t remember what I said to her - or she to me - the conversation was brief, trite and banal, on both sides, I imagine.
My wife has done rather better when it comes to royal hobnobbing. She’s met Princess Anne twice; the late Duke of Edinburgh a couple of times too, plus Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex. She even worked, for a short time, in the same building and for the same organisation as Sophie, Countess of Wessex (before she married Eddie-boy, and ceased to be one of the plebs).
The nearest we ever came to meeting the Queen herself was in 2002, the year of her Golden Jubilee. We didn’t actually meet the Queen - but we did get to see her hat.
Didn’t we have a lovely time
the day we went to Bangor?
A beautiful day, we had lunch on the way
and all for under a pound you know.
In April 2002, we’d become parents for the second time, with the arrival of Lucy, a sister for almost two-year-old Katie. Soon after, we received the invitation to attend the Queen’s official Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving at Bangor Cathedral - one of four national acts of worship being held in the four home nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over the course of the Jubilee.
We weren’t sure, frankly, whether we would be able to attend. Lucy was not yet seven weeks old on the day of the Welsh celebration. Helen was breastfeeding, and at this point had barely been out of the house with Lucy. It would be an all-day affair, with a long and not particularly easy cross-country road trip to Bangor. In the end, the only way we felt that we could manage it, logistically, was for Helen’s mother to come down from her Norfolk home, then for her to accompany us to Bangor, with Katie and Lucy both in tow. We would leave the children with my mother-in-law for the three hours or so we would need to allow for the Jubilee event (we were required to be seated at least an hour before the service started, and needed to allow almost as long to vacate the cathedral afterwards). Three hours apart from our young baby, we felt, was just about doable.
Why were we so determined to travel - despite the clear inconvenience to ourselves - all that way, to see the Queen? It’s not as if I have ever regarded myself as being an ardent royalist; and in the twenty-first century, the monarchy seems to be an increasingly-ridiculous concept. By what right does any one person find themselves born into such enormous wealth, privilege and status? The position of the monarch relies ultimately, it seems, either upon some ‘divine right’ of appointment, or upon the military prowess of some distant ancestor who once had sharper and more abundant swords or spears at his command than his rivals. Yet as the ‘sea of faith’ continues to recede in this country, what sense does divine right make? Wasn’t there a Civil War fought over the very idea, anyway - one which resulted in a former king losing his head? And in a democracy, haven’t we long since put away the notion of the acquisition of power by means of the bow, the blade and the bullet? Or is that perhaps too naive a belief, in the era of the mega-corporations, and the technocratic oligarchs?
Whatever. We still wanted to go, to avail ourselves of a little bit of pomp and pageant. How seductive the allure of royalty remains.
Bangor Cathedral is pretty small compared to most English cathedrals - several times over it could be fitted into Canterbury Cathedral (where the following year I would witness the enthronement of Dr Rowan Williams as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury - oh, how well-connected I was, back in those days!). Even so, it was crowded, and we didn’t have especially good seats. Some judiciously-positioned video screens afforded us with a reasonable view of what was happening near the high altar of the cathedral. But as for the Queen herself…well, please bear in mind that Her Majesty stands just 5 foot 4 inches tall. We craned our heads towards the central aisle of the cathedral - as did everyone else. And all we could see was her yellow hat - bobbing down the aisle.
Ironically, my mother-in-law and two daughters - the elder waving a Union Jack, the younger probably fast asleep - were better positioned to see the Queen as her motorcade passed by them, en route to the cathedral.
The sermon was delivered by Dr Rowan Williams - then Archbishop of Wales. It was an interesting, typically cerebral sermon from the man already being lauded as the finest mind in the Anglican Communion, and a potential future Archbishop of Canterbury. Was this the sermon that helped to secure his nomination? Who knows? All I can say is that the Duke of Edinburgh, judging from what we could see of him on the video screen, looked bored.
Dr Williams pointed out the linguistic connection between ‘kin’ and ‘king’ in Anglo-Saxon. He then went on to say:
The Christian monarch is one who shares Christ’s royal vocation of building and speaking for a kindred. But not just a tribal kindred…our Queen has given the greatest priority to the building and maintaining of kinship among the diverse cultures and races represented in this family of free nations; and the vision expressed in the Commonwealth has remained a strong and coherent moral benchmark, intolerant of oppression (as in the days of apartheid), working for real mutual accountability.
Hmm. Perhaps. Even then, I’m not entirely certain I was convinced. As for twenty years later…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We began the service by singing God Save the Queen - surely one of the most dismal national anthems in the world (we didn’t, of course, sing the jingoistic second verse, that even Prince Charles himself had condemned as ‘politically incorrect’ just a week before, at the Party at the Palace event). We ended by singing our Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (‘Land of My Fathers’) - with rather more gusto, it has to be said.
The BBC’s news report on the royal walkabout that immediately followed the service - Helen and I were still ensconced within the cathedral, at this point - was rather impolite, when I read it later. It contained the following mischievous assertions:
There are a few hundred people lining the street, but the numbers are small compared to those in areas like South West England. There is a little polite applause but not much of the cheering and vigorous flag-waving that has greeted her elsewhere. The reason seems to be indifference on the part of many in this strongly Welsh-speaking, Welsh nationalist part of the world to what is seen as an English monarchy. In this respect north west Wales is like Scotland. Here too there is resentment in some quarters at English incomers, who are accused of pricing locals out of the housing market by buying country cottages and retirement homes. Nervousness at how she will be received has perhaps influenced the decision by the police and the Palace not to extend her walkabout down Bangor’s narrow main street, where the prospect of the Queen trapped between the tall houses has raised security fears.
The late Harry Secombe (a great friend of Prince Charles) famously sang:
We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides,
We’ll keep a welcome in the vales.
This land you knew will still be singing,
When you come home again to Wales.
The BBC’s correspondent that day clearly didn’t think that those sentiments were being extended by the Welsh to the ‘foreign’ English monarchy. Perhaps he was right. The spirits of Arthur Pendragon, Llewellyn the Last and Owain Glyndŵr still endure, centuries later. In the hearts of many, the red dragon has not yet forgiven the white.
Helen and I made our way home, with the girls and Helen’s mum, satisfied with how the day had turned out.
And now, twenty years have passed. Another Jubilee draws nigh. Since 2002, our monarch has surpassed all those others who had sat on the English, Scottish or British thrones longer than she herself had back then: Edward III and Henry III of England, James VI of Scotland, ‘Mad’ George III of the House of Hanover, and finally Queen Victoria.
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us…
But never mind our current Queen, for a moment - is the United Kingdom more happy and glorious now, than it was twenty years ago? Are we, as a people, and as four nations, more united, or less? And in the light of the Windrush Scandal, the BLM movement, and the recent announcement that Her Majesty’s government wishes to ‘process’ illegal immigrants to our shores via Rwanda - one of the poorest countries in Africa - what are we to make of the hopeful comments about the Commonwealth made by Dr Williams twenty years ago in Bangor Cathedral? Do they ring more or less true now, than they did then?
This Platinum Jubilee feels rather different from the anniversaries that preceded it. In 1977, at the Silver Jubilee, we rejoiced in Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, a great sporting triumph (even though it’s common knowledge the Queen doesn’t particularly care for tennis). In 2002, we celebrated the Golden Jubilee at a time of economic prosperity, and of optimism for the new millennium that, though dented by the events of 9/11, was not as yet shattered. By 2012, the time of the Diamond Jubilee, the financial crisis had rocked our confidence, and austerity was beginning to bite; yet the Summer Olympics hosted in London that year (accompanied by the audacious sight of Her Maj supposedly ‘parachuting’ into the opening ceremony in tandem with Daniel Craig’s James Bond) lifted our spirits.
But now, the main sentiment that is in the air (if we are brutally honest) is mournful uncertainty. The Queen is 96, and we sense that this will be the last of her Jubilees. Her faithful consort throughout most of her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh, has passed away. Scandal about the behaviour of some of its members - never that far away from the Royal Family - has once again clouded the atmosphere. Add to that all our current political woes: in the aftermath of BREXIT and COVID; in the face of the lamentable inadequacies of the current Prime Minister, her fourteenth (God forbid that he’ll be her last); and with the grave concerns on the international scene - war in Ukraine, and America more divided than ever. It feels as if the Second Elizabethan Age is drawing to a close. At its beginning, the British Queen was still (just about, even without India) sovereign of the largest empire the world has ever seen. But now, one wonders how much longer the fourteen overseas nations that currently accept a foreign-born unelected figure as their head of state will continue to wish to do so. And one even wonders how much longer the fifteenth of her realms - the United Kingdom itself - will remain in existence.
Platinum is one of the least reactive metals, and is highly resistant to corrosion. But can this be said of the British Monarchy, for very much longer?
The pussycat, in the nursery rhyme, once travelled to London, to visit the Queen - and ended up frightening a mouse. Now, it seems, Britain - that once seemed to be the lion of nations - has been much reduced in stature. Are we more mouse than lion, these days? However much we might wish it to be otherwise, we are the ones that might as well scurry, and hide, behind a skirting board or beneath a chair; such are the timidity and paucity of our current times, a sad contrast to what once we were.
Unlike the pussycat, Helen and I travelled to Bangor, not London. But at least there we had the opportunity to see the Queen’s hat - bobbing down the aisle of a cathedral - once upon a time.