The story so far: Joseph Makumbo is attending a prayer meeting at St Marmaduke’s church with five elderly ladies, the effigies of two saints looking on with interest. A seemingly disembodied voice has advised him which seat to take.
Meanwhile, two postmen fight over the right to deliver an envelope to the Proctorpress Publishing Company.
Now, back at the church…
Monday 4th November 1985: 08.00 – 08.30
The meeting was in full swing, but Joseph was no longer taking part. He was worrying over the voice he’d heard, and the lack of any-other-maleness in the vicinity.
He hadn’t whispered in his own ear, after all. At least – he was pretty sure he hadn’t.
He had tried to join in. Ignoring the chills that both the atmosphere and voice had sent crawling down his spine, he’d launched into his introductory speech, the one he’d written for himself the previous night.
Good morning. My name is Joseph. I am 20 years old and my family hails from Kenya. I am trainee editor at the Proctorpress Publishing Company in Wordsworth Street, and have recently commenced writing my own first novel, which concerns a murder and a robbery in a church much like this one. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning.
Unfortunately, he’d got as far as Good morning before the rest of the words had taken a detour between his vocal chords and his mouth. After a couple of seconds flapping his jaw up and down like a goldfish, he’d given up.
Besides, the prayers were progressing quite happily without him. Lady Number One was obviously in the driving seat, and a stream of complaints against every other member of the church’s congregation was issuing heavenward, backed by a chorus of amen-amens from the others. His participation didn’t seem to be required.
Three of the others, anyway. The fourth, Lady Number Three, continued to stare off as if her body was there but her mind still in bed.
Perhaps the man who spoke to me is hiding behind one of the pews.
But that was absurd. Why would somebody do that?
Perhaps he left before I could turn and see him.
Nonsense. The only way he’d have reached the door in time was to have run; and Joseph would have heard that, quite clearly.
Perhaps he followed me round and is behind me, hiding in the choir stalls.
That didn’t make sense either. Again – why?
Perhaps he’d been spoken to by somebody who wasn’t there.
But that was the most absurd of all. Mainly because it was too frightening to think about.
‘We ask thee, Lord, that those who embrace the evils of Roman Catholicism will come to true faith before it is too late for them.’
Joseph’s attention thudded back into the room. Pardon me…?
‘And their demon-inspired beliefs of papal infallibility and transubstantiation,’ Number Four added.
Number One opened her eyes and scowled at her. ‘I rather think I was about to say that!’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Hettie dear,’ Number Four stuttered. ‘I just thought you might have forgotten.’
Joseph wondered if, with all the oddness the morning had so far contained, his ears might have started inventing words. Did these ladies really believe that about their fellow Christians?
And just as oddly, it was at this point that Number Three finally left wherever it was she’d been tarrying, and arrived in the meeting. ‘Excuse me, my dear,’ she quavered. ‘Don’t we believe in the transubstantiation?’
The others turned to stare at her with expressions that suggested a snake had just dropped in to offer them an apple each. The atmosphere in the church dropped another ten degrees.
‘No, Mabel Cartwright,’ Hettie Number One snapped. ‘We most certainly do not!’
‘But isn’t that where Jesus rose from the dead after his crew cut?’
There was dead silence.
‘Oh, Mabel, don’t be such a silly,’ Number Five broke in. ‘Jesus had a crucifixion, not a crew cut. And afterwards, he had a resurrection, not a transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is where the communion bread and wine turn into his body and blood.’
‘And don’t we believe in that, dear?’
Hettie Number One surged to her feet. ‘Mabel Cartwright,’ she barked, ‘as the scripture says: Hereby we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.’
Number Two sighed. ‘Really, Hettie dear. Must we go through this again?’
But Hettie Number One was advancing on Mabel Cartwright with a frighteningly mad gleam in her eyes. As she did so, she fiddled with her hat, from which she produced something long, gleaming and extremely pointy.
‘And the Lord spake unto Moses,’ she intoned, ‘saying, “Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp. And let all the congregation stone him.”’
Joseph stared at her, his mind in a whirl. Stone him? Surely she didn’t mean…?
She did. With a splurping noise that rang through the church, she thrust the pointy object straight into Mabel Cartwright’s left eye.
Mabel let out a scream that echoed backwards and forwards, multiplying itself until there were a hundred Mabel Cartwrights in the throes of agony. Joseph’s consciousness fled the building for a second, and when he came to he found himself, almost impossibly, curled tight underneath his chair.
He stared around wildly. To his astonishment, the other ladies were now shuffling down the central aisle towards the exit; one even had a solicitous arm around one of her fellows, helping her to hobble along. The only one not going anywhere was Mabel Cartwright. She was lying inches away from him, one watery grey eye staring at him in reproach, as if it was all his fault.
The other eye caused his breakfast to leave him in a hurry.
Gasping, he slithered backwards, then stood, very slowly. Then, pausing only as long as it took to make sure the ladies – and, more importantly, the pointy object – were gone, he bolted down the aisle, out of the door, and down the road towards the vicarage.
‘Was that him doing the screaming and gurgling and stuff?’ James asked. The phrase ‘I told you so’ hovered on his lips. He was looking forward to collecting his winnings from Andrew.
‘No,’ his fellow carving replied, ‘it was one of the wrinklies.’
‘Oh?’ He swallowed his disappointment. ‘That’s a surprise. Which one?’
‘The one who never looked like she was here when she was.’
‘Oh, that one.’ James had never actually seen ‘that one’, or any of the others. But Andrew had described them all in great detail over the years.
He dismissed the situation from his mind, with the hope that Andrew had forgotten their bet, and went back to his own problem. He was trying to get back into his gargoyle’s good books; she, for her part, was now flirting shamelessly with an ornamental griffin adorning the font. James began calculating how he could span the distance between the front of the church and the back for a confrontation while being inextricably attached to a lump of marble.
‘No,’ Andrew continued, ‘our lad’s just shot out the of door like he’s in a race. I think he would have won, too. Impressive speed.’
‘Ah, well,’ James said, only half listening. ‘That’s the end of the excitement for this morning, then.’
‘Hmm, maybe not.’
James tutted, annoyed at still being side-tracked from his gargoyley concerns. ‘What’s up now?’
‘I’ve just noticed. He’s left the door key on the cupboard with the hymn books.’
‘Forgotten to lock up, you mean?’
‘Tricky. He’ll cop it from the vicar.’
‘True,’ Andrew said. ‘But then, to be fair to the lad, he probably had other things on his mind.’
End of Chapter 1