The story so far: Joseph Makumbo is attending a Monday morning prayer meeting at St Marmaduke’s church with five elderly ladies. The effigies of two saints look on from the pulpit with interest.
Monday 4th November 1985: 08.00 – 08.35
Joseph reached the front, and took hold of one of the chairs to draw it out and sit down. Without so much as a backward glance the lady to its right slid across, pinning it to the floor and almost trapping Joseph’s hand in the process. ‘We must pray for Father Rawlings this morning,’ she remarked to her neighbour. ‘He has let standards slip just lately.’
Joseph hesitated, then laid his hand on the chair she’d vacated. With the same dexterity, and seemingly still unaware of his presence, she slid back onto it.
‘Why don’t you try the one opposite?’ a voice whispered in his ear.
He looked over. Yes – lady Number Three was sitting staring into space, and Number Four was leaning across to chat to her left-hand neighbour; Number Five, if he counted the first ladies as One and Two. If he was quick, he might get between them before either could counter the move.
As he almost scurried round and took the unoccupied seat, he realised he was capitalising the numbers he’d given the ladies as if they were their real names.
That is most odd, he thought. Could they be their real names? Perhaps I have heard them on a Sunday morning without realising?
Then he caught himself up. Do not be silly, Joseph. He’d begun to chastise himself quite often since he’d left his childhood home and no longer had his mother on hand to do it for him.
And then another realisation hit him.
He stared at the vast but empty space behind Numbers One and Two, then carefully moved his head from right to left, then back again. Then, just to be sure, he twisted it a full 180 degrees and looked directly behind him.
The voice had been male. Definitely male.
There were the five elderly ladies in their seats.
There was one male; himself.
There was nobody else.