Barbara Mercer was bo Read more [...]
Short Story Category: 20 Minutes+
Two of the younger monks came out of the little gate at dawn, running for their lives. The soldiers caught them. They ripped their woollen habits from them and put them on the fire, stripping them naked.
‘Pray to Saint Francis to get you a new shirt!’ the soldiers shouted, and then they laughed. The monks ran from them, crying and praying into the woods.
Later the monastery was a quiet place, and only the small birds and poets sang.
‘Now the party’s over,’ Roper the under-bailiff said with grim satisfaction, ‘we should get down to business.’
‘Is it really over?’ John asked, sounding mildly disappointed. His mood was suddenly lowered, not so much by the idea of discussing business, but the finality of the notion that the party was well and truly over. He liked a good party. And it was typical of Roper to spoil one by using the opportunity to bring the latest news hot foot from the Bishop’s palace – news that wasn’t likely to be good.
‘The work in the chapel will need to be done soon,’ Roper said.
‘Right,’ John said. ‘Soon then. But not tonight eh? More wine?’ He couldn’t help smiling at his own joke, confident in the knowledge his unwelcome guest would never refuse another glass.
‘Well, on this festive occasion it would be churlish to refuse.’
Roper watched his glass fill as intently as if he was witnessing a holy rite, then pursed his lips to greet the rim as he took another drink.
‘It’s a good drop,’ he said with an appreciative belch.
‘It’s always a good drop in my house,’ John said. ‘I make sure of that. What’s the point of success in this world if you can’t be merry?’
Roper nodded and waved his hand. He knew more was due in the way of thanks after the hospitality he’d enjoyed all evening, but wasn’t inclined to give his swaggering ill-bred host the benefit of it.
It was New Year’s Eve and they were sitting in the quiet parlour of John’s fine house, warmed by the glowing fire and the golden wine that helped even the most despairing soul believe there might be a solution for every problem, however uncertain the times. And the times were uncertain.
It was lucky they both liked their wine because that was all they had in common – Roper, the sour-faced official with scarcely a smile for anybody, and lucky John, the farmer’s boy with his russet cheeks and his big laugh. He was a successful merchant now with a seat on the local council, and always made sure he softened his boasts with generosity and good humour. Happy to do a favour for anyone, happy about any little thing that had even just a hint of promise in it, everything he touched had turned to gold, even his wife. She’d brought him a good inheritance from her father to add to his own gains, a house and money with it, and was a dab hand with the book-keeping. John was an easy man to hate for a hating person.
You could tell this just by seeing the two of them, and at fifty Roper wasn’t looking good. His fat, puffy cheeks were a greyish colour with a slight green tint, like whey, and his eyes sunk into his disappointed face like red worms in a barrel of skunked ale. As John was almost twenty years his junior, there was always the possibility his handsome face might meet the same fate in time – but then neither of them could be sure how much time they’d have.
The reason was the sickness coming again, the one that took old and young and not necessarily in that order. The unseasonably warm months in late autumn helped it make its way from the stinking stews of London to the green heart of England and sweet air was to be no protection, it turned out, with three deaths in Kineton already and a fourth in Tredington likely to follow. Stratford would be next, everyone feared so and nobody mentioned it without making a furtive sign of the cross.
John more than anybody knew the trick was to share a healing glass and forget, whatever the company. If fate brought you only a peevish under-bailiff to drink with then you had to make the most of a bad job; misery taught you that and it taught you how. By John’s way of thinking he’d have preferred a better companion to bring the New Year in with than this old codfish, but if they drank enough they might forget everything, even their mutual dislike of each other.
At midnight they heard the long chimes from the church across the river. ‘1564 by God’s grace,’ Roper said, and they drank to hopes too fragile to be voiced out loud. Both men crossed themselves without thinking. Afterwards there was a silence. Roper spoke first, with a half-hearted shrug as if not caring might be enough to absolve him. ‘Old habits die hard.’
‘They do indeed,’ John said. ‘But who’s to see when it’s between friends in these uncertain times?’
‘Uncertain?’ Roper raised his eyebrows.
‘I meant the sickness of course,’ John said quickly.
‘Ah yes, the sickness.’
‘You forget we lost Joan, then little Margaret only this past year.’
‘Ah yes, poor little ones. But they aren’t lost, only returned to God. It’s a new year. A time to look on the bright side, and surely you do? Being such a merry man?’
‘Oh I do,’ John said. ‘I look on the bright side all right. There’s everything to look forward to, with the boy due this spring.’
‘You know this one’s a boy?’ Roper said, his eyes wide with mock amazement.
‘Can you foretell the future then? Is that another of your many talents?’
John laughed out loud and declared:
‘I know it’s a boy. Don’t ask me how. I just do.’
Roper smiled and said nothing in reply, taking another mouthful of wine as reward for having won a small but significant battle.
John turned away to shield his face from his prying guest. He was good at defiance but suddenly, like a weary traveller on an unfamiliar path, he’d lost his footing for a moment and was thrown into the treacherous waters of confusion. Why on earth had he said that about the boy? At the very least he’d opened himself up to mockery by it, making himself sound like some superstitious old crone chattering over her rosary and potions. Of course he couldn’t know. No one could. You couldn’t tell the future, all you could do was hope – in secret. It was hope he was ashamed of.
He thought back to six months ago when Mary told him she was expecting. He found himself watching her closely and asked her again and again if she could tell it would be a boy this time. Only because he didn’t want eight daughters like they had in her family, he said, wanting to make her smile with that but instead a shadow crossed her face and she turned away. He promised never to mention it again but sure enough when he did she told him how the simple folk knew of ways, and they asked limping Kate from the farm to collect a few herbs and flowers for spells at the time of the waxing moon. Woman’s work of course, foolish but harmless, and who knew?
You still kept your grandfather’s pilgrim badge under the linen just in case.
In December they did the test with the thread-needle dangled over Mary’s swollen belly and it went first up and down for a boy, then round in a circle for a girl.
Mary cried after that, taking it for a bad omen.
‘It’s neither one nor the other,’ she said. ‘Does that mean no-thing? Death?’ John put his arms around her and told her, ‘Nay, darling. It only means the child will live. It all depends who holds the needle.’ He took the needle from the daft girl and did the test again and it went up and down for a boy with a passion. He threaded the needle into his tunic. This child would be a boy, and a rare one. Already he could see the man full-grown. A lively, pleasant-looking man with a slight build and a face regular of feature and full of wit. He knew the picture of his boy’s face as well as he did the paintings of the saints on the church walls, he’d looked at them so long. Now the year had turned and the bishop said they had to go.
‘You’re reluctant then?’ Roper asked. ‘I’m speaking again of the work needing to be done in the church. Perhaps it goes against the grain with you? You’re younger of course but one can’t assume it will always be the case that the next generation will look to the future – sometimes the old ways are too strong.’
‘Not with me,’ John said, rushing in to kick at the goad like a good Paris bull. ‘I’m not an ignorant housewife to dress up a statue and think it lives and moves, or a simple-minded boy to stare at a painted saint and imagine it smiles back at me. Or come to that, I’m not even so foolish as to want to waste a good candle in the clear light of noon. I’m saying it loud and clear, we may as well finish what we started now that the statues are broken and the rood-loft is burned. Scrub the whole bloody lot clean. Let the church be bare of angels and saints and stories, and all the better for it.’ ‘Though this deft-footed queen didn’t ask for it,’ he added, under his breath.
Roper smiled, and took another swallow of wine.
‘We could of course have undertaken it without you but in the light of your unexpected though well-deserved role as –’
Roper cleared his throat.
‘As Chamberlain, indeed, and you being so new to it and with all your other duties, ale-taster and the like, it would be a serious concern if you weren’t involved. After Her Majesty’s last proclamation and the decision of Bishop Thomas to follow it through to the logical conclusion …’
John put his hand out to shut him up. He was getting back into his stride and impatient to show Roper how in tune he was with the new thinking. The mummers and the glorious days of summer were in his mind and, if acting came into it at all, he threw himself into the part with all his might and so keenly spoken were his words he believed them.
‘As I said, let’s scrub the whole bloody lot clean. Not with piddling limewash either, but a proper covering so there’s not even a memory left. To hell with them.’
‘Oh that’s well said. The Bishop will be pleased.’
Roper waited for a moment before spelling it out.
‘We’ll need to cover the paintings of the saints in the chancel and the main church, especially the Saint Michael. The Dance of Death alone can remain. It holds no power to charm for the ignorant churchgoer and will serve as a useful reminder of the blessings of leading a good and godly life.’
‘All right, yes,’ John said, not bothering to disguise the irritation in his voice. ‘We’ll do it in a month or so when the light’s better and the weather’s warmer. Call it spring cleaning. Woman’s work. That’s all it is. And when it’s done it’s done.’
‘That’s a good way of looking at it, so typical of you to see it that way,’ Roper said, and then, hoping to spring a surprise on his slippery host by taking an unlikely argument. ‘But not everyone will, of course. There are many parishioners who haven’t seen the light like you and they’ll miss their painted idols. They’ll hate it, some of them. They might even hate you. But they always need guidance, don’t they, the weak? It’s simply a question of removing temptation.’
John sighed. ‘Well so what? No, they won’t like it for sure, to lose what they’ve always known.’ He drew himself up. ‘Let’s have another drink, to the new ways.’
Roper’s tongue flicked out quickly like a lizard’s.
‘Oh more than happy to. Let’s drink to you and your lovely wife, a most capable woman, and the child – the boy – to come in the spring. And who knows?’ He waited, then he whispered as if it was a secret between them. ‘Childbirth may sweeten the wine this time.’
John poured the wine and let his anger settle. He watched Roper nodding over his glass and chewing his lips together in his toothless mouth as if he was going to speak. Then he watched him close his eyes and fall asleep. ‘Death will be like that for you,’ John thought, ‘undignified but comfortable. A lucky death, in these changing times.’
‘Thank God,’ he said out loud.
It was over for the time being. All he had to do now was wait for the old fool to wake again and shuffle off home. In the meantime he took another drink. He knew you didn’t get on if you just obeyed the rules and stuck with the folk who pleased you best. You had to sup with the devil sometimes. But was he imagining it, or were the devils multiplying these days? Well that’s just how it was. And so he had to go on with his wiles and his flattery. He knew. There was to be no more help from magic now – prayers yes, but only the ones you were told to say and never anyone to answer. As for him and Mary, they must just believe and it would happen. The boy would come.
‘You old bastard,’ John said, unsure if he was talking to Roper or to the
Almighty. Either way, he felt some pleasure in the saying of it.
He heard the sound of light steps coming down from the upper chamber and then Mary appeared. She looked like a ghost in her night-clothes with her thin arms crossed protectively over her great belly. Unlike the last two times, the child inside her made her body seem all the more frail. The worry of it all turned her sweet mouth to a grim line most days, and especially nights. Life had made its mark on her so soon.
‘Still here?’ she said, looking at Roper. ‘Has he got no home to go to?’
‘Not a very jolly one.’
‘So you let him have ours?’
‘There’s a lot I have to do I don’t much like doing. You know that. And I do it all for your sake. What are you doing out of bed, Mary? You need your rest.’
‘How can I rest when I’m so full of worry? And I can’t lie easy when I’m this size.’
‘Are you getting those griping pains again? I told you, take some ale with your prayers of a night and then you’ll sleep.’
‘I can’t sleep. The child weighs heavy on me. So heavy.’ She turned to Roper again.
‘What does he want this time, apart from to drink us dry?’
‘But I’m forgetting, you have so many things to do you don’t like and all for me. And you hate having the drink forced on you, don’t you?’
John sighed. He’d thought it so many times lately he didn’t realise he’d said it out loud.
‘Oh Mary my girl, where did you go? Sweet May in the month of May with your hair full of rain, where did you go?’
‘Changed with the times,’ she said, and sighed and looked away until she thought of something else.
‘I see you’ve let the boy Tobie stay by the kitchen fire again.’
‘He may as well. He’s got nowhere else to go but that shitten hovel and he’ll need to be back here in the morning anyway. His wit may be set at half-cock but his work makes up for it. He’s strong and willing, that’s all he needs to be for the little life’s got to offer him anyway.’
‘You’re all heart for the waifs and strays of this world, aren’t you John? Let’s hope there’ll be enough to go round when your own child comes.’
John drew himself up by the shoulders in his customary way as if he was getting ready for a fight, then he remembered where he was and who he was with and felt guilty. He knew he should hold her and tell her everything would be all right, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it. How could you hold such a thorny creature and tell it to be full of trust when its spines were all turned out towards you? Sometimes he felt he couldn’t yield her the least kindness and yet he’d promised to love and protect her for eternity. A vow was a vow and that was it. So why couldn’t he be true to it? Maybe because you had to take so many vows with the changing times and some of them would lead you up the path to Calvary. One thing was sure, she wasn’t the enemy, although she sometimes seemed like it and he was afraid of her. He smelled the fear on her. He decided to tell her the truth, although he knew what would follow.
‘The Bishop wants the church whitewashed, all the saints to be covered, even the crucifixion,’ he told her.
The terror in her face wasn’t a shadow this time but more like the opposite, something like light. A white blinding one. She clutched her belly with an even closer grip. When she spoke, her voice was tight with fear.
‘Surely not, in the name of Jesus?’
‘Yes, the crucifixion and all the saints, especially Michael. It’s a great pity. Tobie will take it badly.’
‘Tobie?’ she all but screamed at him. ‘What’s he to do with it? You talk of blasphemy and then mention a half-wit in the next breath?’
Her eyes were wild with a terrible panic but although he knew she could be jealous and think herself superior, this time he was sure what was upsetting her had nothing to do with the words she was saying. He pretended otherwise for her sake.
Not for the first time, he told her the story.
‘It’s because that day when I first found Tobie – you remember it was raining hard and he was lost and sheltering in the church, shivering with the cold. He was crouching under the painting of the saint, Saint Michael, the one that shows the old-time peasants coming back from a long day’s work in the fields with their shovels and their shears and seeing the vision of the protector, his wings all full of splendour – he did a good job, whoever that painter was. Tobie looked up at me with the same expression on his face as those old-time peasants, as if to say, “Look, it’s an angel!”
And then he laughed.’
John laughed too, remembering.
‘He laughed Mary! Such a wretched, moon-faced creature and yet his heart was full of joy because he really believed you might get to see an angel one day if you look hard enough. So yes, I think about Tobie, especially tonight. Because he’ll take it hard all right, when the angel Michael goes from our great church.’
Mary began to cry.
‘They all will,’ she said. ‘No one will see an angel now. Something vital will be lost, and why? When Her Majesty’s Proclamation didn’t ask for it?
John took a quick look at Roper just to be sure. He was still upright in his chair but fast asleep, a trick that often helped him in his day-to-day work, with or without the benefit of good wine.
‘Ssshh, come further away in case he wakes,’ John whispered, and drew Mary away behind the heavy curtain so Roper wouldn’t hear.
‘Because the Bishop asks for it, that’s why. He wants to make sure he still looks like the master even if others are too squeamish. If the anointed hand’s not strong enough then others will reach for the sword. As for them at the top, it’s one bastard after another with little thought for our care. If they all agreed it would be bad enough, but when they don’t it’s worse. Changing times, you say? Don’t I know that better than anyone? I’m a few years older than you, don’t forget. My memory goes way back. First we had fat King Henry with his aching loins, and the monasteries got smashed but we could keep our candles. Then came the sickly boy Edward – not long for this world and anxious to make a name for himself in the next. Under him everything’s to go, statues, altars – it’s all to be pulverised and purified. Then comes papist Mary wanting to put it all back. The carvers get work again and have to be reminded how to wield a chisel. Then Elizabeth, our Glorious Majesty comes along and picks and chooses. Music for her, oh yes, and a secret altar. For the rest of us, fines and unemployment if we don’t go along with it all. The NEW new ways. So I choose accordingly. I order the whitewashing of the church, according to the Bishop’s instruction. And what do I make of it? Nothing. Do I have the luxury of an opinion when I have to get it done?’
‘You could refuse,’ Mary said, with that quiet face of sure goodness that made him want to slap her.
‘No, I couldn’t. I’ve no desire to be a Catholic martyr.’
‘Or even a Catholic.’
‘Sorry to disappoint you, my love. Saints are a pain in the backside for us ordinary mortals. Unlike for your cousin Edward and his friends, the disguised priests wandering the land peddling their Catholic wills for the good of the soul. And what’s the good of that? All comfort comes from money and compromise, surely you know? You chose me. I’m a farmer’s boy. I’d rather keep my head down. So I agree to one thing and think another, that’s how to survive.’
He waited, as he let the disappointment and the compromise settle on her calmly like a feather blanket. Then he said:
‘I still get the dreams about the monks at Merevale.’
‘You were a child then, how could you remember?’
‘My father told me, and we remember what we’ve been told if we’ve been told well, sometimes more brightly. Depends on the storyteller. Perhaps we take in the thoughts and feelings with our mother’s milk? If that’s the case then our boy will have some stories to nourish him, won’t he?’
‘What will you do?’ she said, ignoring his question and the struggling optimism behind it. He sighed and gave her a look of resignation as he told her the nearest thing he had to a plan.
‘I’ll put off the whitewashing of the church until spring and who knows?
Somebody else might be in charge by then?’
The next day he went out early to the church and looked at the Saint Michael and The Dance of Death, with its frolicking drunks and a knight and his lady holding hands with devils and skeletons and a fool. He’d taken a quick look at the carvings of mermaids and players on the misericords, although they hadn’t been mentioned as something needing to be done away with. It seemed no one had noticed them except him and he thought this strange, as one sight of them always made him dream of beautiful girls and their siren ways. Last of all he looked at Saint Michael, and felt the sadness of the loss to come, and then he went to work.
Back in the tannery he was still thinking about the church. He was scraping the skins with lime-piss to get the flesh and the hair off and Tobie was carrying the heavy buckets back and forth and slopping it all over the floor and singing along tunelessly with the labour as he always did when Mary came in.
‘Don’t come in here love,’ John said. ‘You know it turns your stomach at the best of times.’
‘And these aren’t them,’ she said.
‘You know what I mean … when you’re not six months with our child.’
But Mary in her anxiety had no time for his concern.
‘Roper’s back,’ she said in a flat voice, as if it was only the working out of an old story she’d known all along.
John threw down the cloth and the knife he’d been using and the blood and bits of flesh on it spattered against the wall.
‘Christ’s blood! What’s he here for now?’
He drew himself up for the fight, picked up his knife and wiped it against his shirt.
‘Did you take him into the parlour?’
‘And offer him a drink?”
‘I’ll leave that to you.’
‘All right. Let me get cleaned up and I’ll play host. And don’t worry, it’ll be some nonsense. Nothing I can’t put off for another time, at least until the bottle’s drained dry.’
Mary took his arm as he stood to go.
‘John, that was dangerous talk last night. I hope you don’t voice those opinions to anyone but me?
‘Not even drunk my darling. I’m lucky John, remember? And there’s a reason why. I don’t have opinions and anyway, I have a guardian angel, and so does that child in your belly.’
‘That’s the kind of talk I mean,’ she said.
Tobie laughed when he recognised a word and called it out, ‘Angel!’
‘That’s right Tobie,’ John said, as if he was already a father. ‘An angel, a guardian angel in fact, and that’s a very special kind.’
Then he turned to Mary.
‘And even if we do have to clean the church, will it be so bad? We got rid of pilgrimages and parades, didn’t we? And that turned out all right. We sent them packing, all those pedlars and swindlers flogging their trinkets and tat to the ignorant hoard, each one of them looking for their favourite saint and thinking he speaks only to them. Living in hope of a miracle. Imagine the town swarming now with the likes of that, come to the holy shrine to find a trace of their idol? We’re well shot of them, aren’t we?’
When he got to the parlour Roper was by the window waiting, looking out in the direction of the church.
‘What’s this Roper?’ John said. ‘Back so soon when you only left us hours ago?
I’m flattered you’re so fond of my company, or is it something else I have to offer?
He went to bring the glasses and the first bottle.
Roper turned and held his hand up, palm out, in refusal. ‘I haven’t come to drink,’ he said.
John smiled. ‘Oh surely now, a cup of cheer?’
‘No, nothing, thank you. I’ve forsworn all intoxicants from now on.’
‘What even Rhenish?’
‘Ah, then I wish you good cheer. I admire your sacrifice. I’m sure it’ll make the world a better place if not you a happier man. You give a great example.’ John poured himself a glass and drank from it as Roper watched him savour it.
He might have left at that but couldn’t resist going a bit further.
‘But we’re far away from Lent, it’s not even Twelfth Night, the eighth day of Christmas. Don’t we owe it to Christ the Lord to celebrate his birthday over its proper season? This holy time.’
‘No,’ Roper said, in stern denial. ‘I don’t believe we do.’
‘Then what does bring you here friend, if you won’t drink with me?
John affected his usual good humour, but he didn’t smile with his eyes.
‘A message from the Bishop, about the work in the church,’ Roper said. ‘There’s to be no further delay I’m afraid. It must be done tomorrow. Those were his express instructions.’
‘But I remind you, it’s not yet Twelfth Night. Is it fitting?
‘How you harp on about that night as if it had some real significance in the matter. It doesn’t. You’ll agree to order the work started tomorrow?
John took a long intake of breath before speaking.
‘I agree,’ he said.
‘I’ll say goodnight to you then. You’ll need your rest. No need to come to the gate, I know the way.’
John let him go without another word.
He turned his back so he wouldn’t have to watch his visitor leave. When Mary came in he told her straight away.
‘It must be tomorrow,’ he said in a weary voice.
She gave a gasp of shock. ‘Oh John, no. What now?’
‘I’ll do what I’m told, of course. I’ll get Tom Willet and Sam and the Penfold boys. Oh, and Fat Jack from the Swan.’
‘And Tobie can help you, I’m sure, he’s strong enough. As you said, what he lacks in wits he makes up for with brawn.’
‘No, not Tobie,’ John said.
‘He might be of use in some other way then, perhaps not the actual covering of the walls? He could make up the wash and take it over to the church?’
‘I said not Tobie,’ John demanded, and afterwards he softened the anger in his voice. ‘Let’s not argue Mary. Now leave me a while, I need to think out the plan for the work.’ Then he added with a bitter laugh. ‘And what do you know? The old bastard says he’s given up the drink. Fat lot of good that’ll do him, it’s too late for redemption now. He’s sacrificed every last scruple just to get called an important man and where does he end up? In a thankless job as the Bishop’s bully boy.’
She left him without another comment as he settled down to drink alone.
He was in the thick of it on that October night in 1538 at Merevale Abbey where a great fire roared and the broken wooden images were thrown onto it. The king’s soldiers were ripping the panelling from the walls and stacking it ready for putting onto the carts, but there was so much else that needed to be rendered to ashes. Shattered glass lay all around on the stone floor. He trod on a piece and it broke into smaller bits. The window had shown the story of the murder at Canterbury and now nothing was left to save but fragments.
John thought at first he was just there watching but when he picked up the eye of Thomas the martyr and put it in the pocket of his tunic he realised he was one of them.
Then he was with Tobie at the Stratford church, watching again as they covered the walls with whitewash. They worked fast. After only a short time they’d dealt with all the other scenes on the far wall until only Saint Michael was left.
Tobie wouldn’t stop crying. The snot was running down into his mouth along with the tears and still he kept begging them to stop. One of the group, Fat Jack from the Swan it looked like, turned and told him to shut up, saying the snivelling was getting on his nerves and putting him off his work. He never did like to exert himself, Fat Jack, and that usually accounted for his bad temper.
But Tobie wouldn’t stop. Two of the others – Tom Willet and Sam – came towards him and he took fright and ran towards the bell tower. He was halfway up the stairs when they nearly got hold of him, and when he reached the top of the tower he was too panic-stricken to think straight, and thinking straight had never been one of his talents in the first place.
He squeezed past the big bell and crouched by the little window, looking down at the snow-covered churchyard looking so pretty in the bright winter light. When he fell the bell rang once and then there was just the wind whistling as John watched him from below, flying in the blue air like an unlikely but surprisingly graceful angel.
John woke suddenly in his own bed, his breath rasping in his gullet as if death had him by the throat and he’d only managed to save himself in the nick of time. His head throbbed and his mouth tasted of something best not thought about.
It took him a while to remember everything from the night before and put it all together as if it was a particularly complicated dream. When the final piece fell into place it made him sit up and cry out in anguish.
‘Oh Christ – the church was to be done today! What time is it? Mary? Mary, where are you? Mary!’
As he repeated her name his voice became increasingly more desperate, but there was no answer and, when he got up to look, no sign of her in the house or the courtyard either.
He dressed quickly and went out, running along the street towards the river. The freezing air caught in his fetid throat like fire, and he had to stop and clutch his chest several times and wait for the pain to go.
When he reached the church the door was open wide, and the sound of the work reached his ears – brushes slapping against the walls, and the heavy ladders and tables being dragged across the floor.
When he got inside the first person he clapped eyes on was Mary. She stood there with her arms folded across her chest in a way that suggested authority and resignation. The sight of her infuriated him so much he noticed no one else. He didn’t need to ask her what she was doing there but he did, and with an accusing tone.
When she answered him it was with defiance, but her eyes told a different story. ‘I came to organise the work of course, since you weren’t able. You said it had to be done today.’
‘But not by you, in your condition.’
‘I did it because of your condition. I did it for you. Because of the danger.’ When he looked at her face he took her set expression for a provocation. He wasn’t ready to forgive. ‘Where’s the boy?’ he asked.
Mary placed her hand over her belly. ‘Here,’ she said.
‘I mean the boy Tobie of course.’
Again, he missed the torment in her eyes.
‘Ah yes, your first thought,’ she said. ‘Well he did come. He followed me here and I told him to go back. But he followed me again. He wanted to help.’
‘I told you, not the boy,’ John said, with something like hatred in his voice.
‘Will you not understand John? He wanted to please you. Look, there he is. He’s done a good morning’s work.’
He looked over at the far wall where the Saint Michael had been. Tobie stood there looking pleased with himself. John went slowly towards him.
‘Look master look! I took him away – the angel,’ Tobie said.
The look on Tobie’s face was one of such pride and achievement John wanted to strike him to the floor. Instead he spoke quietly.
‘Yes Tobie, I see. You’ve done a good job here. There’s not a trace.’
Tobie laughed and clapped his hands. ‘Angel, angel, fly away …’
‘Go now Tobie, go away from me please,’ John said. His voice was calm but his words were meant as a command and also a threat.
Tobie turned away, confused, but then he saw something that made him smile again, and forgot the momentary hurt.
The work was all but finished. It was only then that John noticed the others engaged on the task were all strangers, not Tom Willet or Sam or the Penfold boys or even Fat Jack from the Swan – he didn’t recognise a single one of them. He looked over at Mary and then he understood. Of course she’d known they wouldn’t do it, best not to ask them and make them share the weight of it afterwards. She’d taken his place and organised it. That would be just for the two of them to bear, he knew that now, and when he looked at Mary he didn’t doubt her strength for all her piety. The same couldn’t be said about his own.
Hours later when the work was done and they’d all gone home John sat in the empty church.
He heard the door open and the light footsteps on the stone floor but didn’t turn his head.
‘Are you still here John?’ Mary asked. ‘All alone in the dark?’
‘Yes wife. Still here.’
‘Yes, so cold and dark. When it was all colour before and just the sight of it would gladden the heart. The touch of it would do more. You shouldn’t be here Mary, you’ll catch your death. You should be at home in the warm.’
She let his concern touch her but made no move to go.
‘What will they have instead?’ she asked him.
‘As to that I don’t know. I haven’t received instruction. Maybe the ten commandments? “Thou shalt not …” Words will be what we’ll have instead of the pictures. Just words. We’ll have to imagine the rest. Those of us who can remember anyway. After that … nothing.’
‘Will you come home now, John?’
‘What? Yes, home.’
As they went towards the door he stopped and pointed to the western wall. ‘Mary, do you see the place where Saint Michael was? Saint Michael the protector, he who is like to God? Do you see him there still in your mind’s eye?’
‘I see him too, and something else. I was kidding myself there for a while, I thought I knew the way. The truth is I know nothing. I thought it was that fool boy who’d be left in the dark when Saint Michael was gone from the church. But it isn’t, it’s me.’
‘Yes, I know that,’ she told him. ‘It was always you. Come home John.’
For the rest of January the weather stayed cold and business was good, though John had little heart for it. His attendance at church services fell off and it came to the notice of the bishop and he was warned there might be a fine. Better news came about the sickness, stopped in its tracks by the wintery weather. Icicles hung from the roof of the house and the milk froze in the bucket. The red cow died.
In April the weather warmed at last and the flowers began to appear in the hedgerows and meadows. Mary was getting very close to her time. She spent most of the day in the parlour where John would find her saying her rosary as Kate from the farm threaded the little blue forget-me-not flower the locals called ‘mouse ear’ into a posy for her and sang old songs that made her smile.
On these occasions he hadn’t the heart to pass on the latest news from the town that there were two dead from the sickness and a child taken too.
‘Go on with your prayers Mary,’ he told her. ‘I can see it soothes you.’
‘Have you been in the workshop yet?’
‘Not today. Business is slow.’ He wanted to say, ‘can we wonder why?’, but stopped himself at the last minute and had to just think it instead.
‘There’s orders waiting,’ Mary said, and if she knew that she was telling him she knew all the rest.
‘They can wait a little longer, can’t they?’ he said wearily. ‘In these times.’
The girl got up to go but he put his hand on her arm and asked her to stay.
‘You’re excellent balm,’ he said.
He left them to their singing and their prayers and went to pour himself a glass of Rhenish. He felt as though the worries of the world were on his shoulders when as each day passed he was less and less able to carry them.
It was a loss to both of them when the girl didn’t come the next day and when they found out why, it was another bitter blow.
She must have slipped and fallen they said, getting water from the river and the current so strong she hadn’t the strength to fight against it, that and the weeds all around her and her arms full of flowers like a mermaid in a fairy bower.
Others said it might have been on purpose, with talk of a lost love and maybe a child on the way. John wouldn’t hear of it. Let her name not be tainted with idle talk he said, and the sweet balm she offered not forgotten.
It was Fat Jack who found her and pulled her from the river, and he told the picture of the scene so well John felt he’d seen it too. A drowned girl covered in flowers, with all her sweetness and her beauty still on her. As if there wasn’t enough death in these bad times.
On the night of the feast of Saint George the baby still hadn’t come. John went to the church, drinking a glass or two and leaving Mary with the helping women. He sat by the bare western wall and spoke out loud to the vanished protector.
‘Oh Saint Michael, now that you’re gone from us I feel the misery around me like a shroud. I know now there’s no way to find hope in this dark world. Aren’t we just poor worms trying to find our way back to the cold earth? Tell me, Saint Michael, if you’re there, listen to my prayer and give me comfort. May the child be well, may he live and live gloriously, may he blaze in all the darkness like the sun.’ But he waited and he waited and it seemed to him that there was no sign, no answer. And then he felt old, a drunken, old bloody old fool praying to nothing in a white church with all the hope gone from it.
‘Come on, come on, old fool,’ he told himself. ‘Get yourself home.’
He got to his feet with difficulty and left the silent church.
As he staggered along the lane he knew he couldn’t go home until he was right, he’d go the other way.
There was no moon, no stars to guide his way, nothing but darkness and the sound of the water flowing.
When he saw a single tiny light in the hedge flickering on and off he took it for a glow-worm at first, then he reminded himself it was months too early. A summer night’s magic it would be and all wrong for the times, a sign the world wasn’t turning according to the usual order. A white feather was held inexplicably in the light, as if time had been frozen. A moth flew up and shivered in the night air. He went towards the little light and, as he moved in for a closer look, he was startled by a sudden movement on the path behind him.
‘Christ! Is there someone there?’ he called out, with more shameful terror than the occasion warranted, as if he was a boy again caught out doing something foolish and likely to be thrashed for it.
‘Who are you?’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘Some villain looking to rob me? I’ve nothing for you, nothing.’
When he turned away from the deceitful light in the hedge his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness again and he saw the alarming presence was nobody but a beggar dressed in a ragged garment reaching almost to his ankles, showing his bare and knotty feet looking like they’d walked many miles. He was a thin, unthreatening man of uncertain age but likely to be older, much older, than himself.
‘John, is it?’ the beggar said. His voice was reassuring, but not the words he spoke.
‘You know me?’
‘Is that your name then, brother? A lucky guess.’
And the stranger laughed in an unexpected way. He laughed with a warmth quite out of keeping with the place and the situation they both found themselves in. His laugh made you feel you were in the home of a loving and forgiving father, one who might have known a trick or two.
John, recovering, took it as a duty to be vigilant although he felt no malice towards the stranger. If anything, he felt relief.
‘What are you doing out here on this dark night? What’s your business here?’
‘No business. I only walk the roads in the hope of charity.’
‘Where do you lie of a night then? Where are you going?’
‘With you for a while if you’ll let me. I’ll walk alongside you.’
‘I told you, I’ve nothing for you, nothing.’
But even so, they fell into step.
‘Perhaps not,’ the beggar said. ‘I’ve something for you though.’
‘Oh yes? And what can that be? You can’t spare much, I see that even in this light.’
‘Just to tell you, you’re going in the wrong direction, if you’re going home.’
‘You know that too, do you?’ John asked, not so much alarmed as disconcerted. He looked into the beggar’s eyes and saw an ocean, then himself, small and ineffectual and yet full of hope.
‘Another lucky guess.’
John stopped, suddenly coming to the end of one bitter road and seeing another. He saw no point in pretending. This was a strange night indeed. A summer night in the very hope of April.
‘I must be losing my wits,’ he said. ‘I thought I saw a glow worm over there come two months early – and now there’s you.’
The beggar laughed again, and it was the kind of laugh John recognised. The laugh of seeing a job well done, or nearly.
‘Go home now John,’ the stranger said. ‘The candles are all ablaze there. The house is full of light.’
‘Are you coming with me?’
The stranger shook his head and walked on without answering.
John turned and made his way towards home. As he reached the familiar gate, he saw the house was indeed filled with light and there was the sound of a baby crying.
He was going home to his courageous wife and his boy. Despite everything, he’d made one vow and kept to it. Now there must be another.