"Dearly Beloved" charged Cannon Bawn, his hands gripping the edge of the pulpit as he leaned backwards in a moment of ecstasy, "think on these things."
He paused, scrutinizing the congregation before turning aside with a flicker of pain and rejection. To Harold Coke this spiritual anguish seemed closest to that of a well dressed yet somewhat inebriated customer who had just been refused a final double brandy in an expensive hotel.
Coke glanced out of the corner of his eye at Emily who was seated beside him. Her face was aglow and her lips were slightly parted as she followed the Cannon's movements. At his feet he could hear little Eric playing with his tank.
From the pulpit, after seeming to have deserted his flock forever, the Cannon now relented and swung back into a position of renewed attack.
"The wireless, the kinema, the circulating library", his eyes momentarily fixed themselves on Harold Coke. "Dearly Beloved, think on these."
His right hand elevated itself. Emily regarded this as if it were the most delicate and overblown rose in danger of immediate disintegration. The hand soared higher, and yet higher, as if it were to reach the very rafters of the church until, fluttering in the air for a moment, it faltered in its motion and abruptly fell to the Canon's side.
Cannon Bawn swayed backward on his heels, trembled on the brink as if he were about to plunge rearwise down the pulpit steps then scrabbled rapidly at his chest.
"Snama Fatherson Arnholygo Sarmen"
The congregation rose in a corporate shuffle and Harold, relieved that the performance was now over, mumbled the Creed along with the others, pausing only at the worlds "resurrection of the dead". Well, scientists had pretty well put paid to that idea, although it wasn't totally out of the question that resurrected bodies could exist in some sort of fifth dimension. He must borrow Bertrand Russel's ABC of Relativity from the library and try to understand the meaning of the fourth dimension.
Harold Coke did not normally go to church on a Sunday, that was more in Emily's line. Harold preferred a slow and leisurely Sunday, cooking his breakfast while the others were out. A few pieces of bacon and those little savory pancakes he made with milk, dried egg powder, a few chives and a dash of Worcester sauce. He liked to fry them in the aluminum mess can he had taken from the American hospital during the war. With the house empty and the smell of bacon the whole experience gave him a sense of being out camping, the Old Wild West - not that Harold Coke had ever been in a tent in his life.
After breakfast there was time for a nice slow read of the Sunday Express, with his feet up by the fire and the wireless on in the background. Sundays on the Light Program were really the best time of the week.
"Defend all Christian Kings, Princes and Governors; and especially Thy Servant GEORGE our King, that under him we may be godly and quietly governed."
Yet for some reason he had decided to come along this morning. Nothing to be made out of that. Just to come along, along with Emily and little Eric.
As the voices reverberated around him, Harold allowed his eyes to be carried upward by the sandstone columns to where they divided and branched into the roof. He had an impression of a white cloud seen above the leaves of a tree, a cloud that was slowly expanding across a blue sky. Hereford. Emily had never suspected. It seemed so far away; the US army hospital where he had worked as an electrician during the war. And then something else, something more recent. It nagged at the back of his mind like a familiar name he could not recall, something heard or overheard.
"Judge of all men. We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness."
With a start he realized that everyone around him was kneeling. Emily had her hands pressed to her face and little Eric was making the sound of a power diving Spitfire from beneath the pew. As he knelt, Harold inhaled the smell of lavender furniture polish. An impression of a vast and ancient cathedral was mixed in with the memory of a face; a young woman in uniform; someone lying on the grass beside him as he looked up into the tree; the white cloud slowly forming as he watched. An answer? And afterwards they had entered the cathedral hand in hand. The war had seemed so very far away in Hereford - the American camp, the girl in uniform, so far away from Emily and Liverpool.
"The remembrance of them is grievous unto us: the burden of them is intolerable."
It came again, something heard or overheard, but washed over by a sense of upward movement. It had happened to him again, yesterday, as he raised his arms towards the apple tree. It was as if there were a pattern to it all, Emily beside him, the girl under the tree, hand in hand looking at the cathedral steps, sandstone that had been worm down by centuries of feet, the smell of lavender furniture polish. And something else too. Something out of sight. Something seen or overheard.
"Forgive us all that is past."
There had to be an answer somewhere, otherwise none of it would make any sense. A pattern was drawing him in, a part of something greater that would never be understood by him. At that moment Coke felt that he too had become part of the movement and that others, as yet unknown to him were being pulled towards the same impenetrable centre.
"Hear what comfortable worlds our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him."
Something heard or overheard. Heard on the wireless this morning. Or something said on the radio while he had been engrossed in the newspaper; a sense of sudden darkness. A feeling of dread came to him, the intimation of something appalling that he would be forced to do. And so he willed his mind to follow the words of the service, allowed his thoughts to be dragged away from their centre, away from all those questions and their inevitable answers.
Taylor glared at his watch. He'd been on duty for fourteen hours with this sodding business and it looked like another five or six more before he could get his head down for a bit of a kip. Bloody waste of time anyway, all this taking of photographs and grubbing round for fingerprints. He was dying for a drag as well, but the buggers'd scream the place down if he ever started smoking at the scene of the crime.
Taylor walked carefully between the lines taped onto the floor of the manager's office and perched himself on the windowsill. He peered out into the dark, drab street below, looking at the two constables who were still searching for the gun. What a way to spend a Sunday morning.
"Pathetic looking bugger wasn't he?", Taylor said to no one in particular.
The photographer shrugged. "Yes, well it takes all sorts. Some smart arse may even take the chance of putting a bugger like you away one day."
Taylor pushed himself away from the window and walked back towards the door.
"And, Taylor, mind your sodding feet while you're about it. If you want to bloody smoke then do it outside. This is a clean area so we don't need flat foots like you buggering up the evidence."
Taylor tried to stare him down but the photographer lifted his camera and fired the flash in his face.
"Look here, Taylor, why don't you sod off and let Taffy and me get on with our work? Go and try out your charm on one of them whores you're always bleating about."
Taylor leaned over the while line and deliberately allowed a gob of spit drop into the floor, then rubbed it in with the toe of his shoe.
"Get you mate to make something of that. 'Vital body fluid found at the scene of the crime.' That's all you wankers are good for, taking a few snaps and picking up lumps of snot with a pair of tweezers. You think that's police work? Bloody Sherlock Homleses with your toy chemistry sets."
The constable who had been dusting for fingerprints around the safe slowly sat back on his heels. "Don't let that bastard get at you, Mike. Everyone knows Taylor's a no good stuck up little fart that's only good for checking the locks on shop doors and pulling his tiny pudding."
"Who pulled your chain, you little Welsh git"? Taylor turned on him. "I don't particularly like the smell of sheep in this office but I've got to hang around to make sure you two bastards do your job. So put a bit of life into it, then fuck off and let me get on with finding out who did the shooting."
Taylor paced back to the window again. "Do you know why fingerprints and bloodstains aren't worth a ball's itch?"
Taffy at the safe looked across it friend with a great parody of rolling his eyes to heaven. "Oh, no doubt you're going to tell us, Taylor. Give us all a free lecture, will you?"
Taylor paid no notice to them. "It's keeping your eyes open that counts. The bastard that did this one won't be able to keep his mouth shut about it, that's why. It'll be around every pub by tomorrow night. He'll tell everyone around and then he'll just have to come and tell me, won't he?" Taylor looked at them both and smiled. "Oh I'll nail him for this. I've got ears and eyes in the Crown, the Beehive, the Crow's. As soon as anyone starts talking, I'll have my sodding teeth fixed to his balls."
Mike grinned back at his mate. "A right bloody PC 49 is this one. Taylor's been reading them comic books with Dick Tracey in them."
Taylor shook his head. "No, that's where you're wrong. No Dick Tracy'll solve this one with all his fancy gadgets. It's old fashioned police work that counts. It's having your eyes and ears to the ground. See, the bloke that did this is dead stupid, so he'll talk, and he'll make a mistake. Fancy holding up a bloody dump like this, there's nothing in it."
Taffy turned from the safe. "But he used a gun, man, there's no getting round that, he used a gun."
"Yeah, well that does make him a bit different. No one uses a gun outside London. But then I don't reckon this is a London job, see. It's local, I can smell that much already. So just give me time and I'll find that bastard and nail him to the wall."
Mike nudged his mate and laughed. "And if your can't find him you'll nail someone else, won't you, Taylor?"
In her dream Marge was skipping on the pavement and watching the grown-ups go about their business. A fat lady with lumpy blue veins in her legs was polishing her front steps with a piece of sandstone. Two old women in black shawls shook their heads and muttered, "Saints preserve us, donkey stoning her step on a Sunday -- the trollop."
Then the coal man was coming round the corner in his cart, with his black-faced mate perched up on top of the coal, all toothless and grinning. Marge caught the gleam of the brass weights and the scale on the back of the cart, the only thing that wasn't covered in coal dust.
The horse stopped and the coal man swore and cracked his whip. Marge became frightened, she stopped skipping and just stared with her big dark eyes at the great whip cracking high in the air. Then it was darkness and there was a belt above her with the brass buckle glinting. A tattooed arm. It's not Dad's arm. Whose is it? Marge cried out in her dream.
Once outside the church little Eric ran to the spire and stood with his head pressed to the lightning conductor, looking upwards at the sky. Coke studied him for a moment, disoriented, as if he was seeing this curious animal for the first time. Yes, Threlfall could be right, little Eric was a strange boy. He wondered at times if the child was entirely normal. Emily said that the boy was wonderful for his age and that his teacher, Miss Neville, had told her that he was doing quite well at school, except for games where he was a little backward.
Coke realized that the verger was approaching, swinging his great arms like Indian clubs. Looking for some way to escape he backed into Emily who was talking to an older lady dressed in a fur coat and a large, dark hat.
"And did we see your son today", Emily asked, "was he sitting at the back, Mrs Walther?"
At the last moment the verger was deflected in his course. Harold glanced around him, trying to keep one eye on little Eric and the other on the lookout for Threlfall. Well you never knew, Threlfall may be going past the church on his way for a lunchtime pint of bitter.
"He was poorly today, Mrs Coke. James has a really bad cold. It came on quite suddenly, just when we were about to leave for Church."
"A day in bed is the best thing for that, Mrs Walther. I always tell Harold."
"And he's so very good to you, isn't he?"
Eric had now thrust out his tongue and was licking the green copper of the conductor and squinting up at the dark, gathering clouds. Harold wondered if anyone had noticed and if he should just nip over and pull his son away.
"Of course the church should do more. Dances, lantern slides, amateur dramatics. James needs to get out."
"He's very pale." Emily observed.
"He needs someone of his own social level, someone local."
"Someone he could bring home for Sunday dinner after church?"
Stutty's mother glanced away and lifted the collar of her fur.
"We always have our dinner in the evening. Don't you do that, Mrs Coke?"
Harold walked over to Eric and tapped him ineffectually on the shoulder. "Looking up at the sun like that can make a chap blind," he said awkwardly.
Little Eric went on squinting with even greater intensity.
"It's time for the men to go for their walk while the ladies have their hen party. We could have a walk up to the canal and watch the men fishing. It will give us an appetite."
Coke noticed the way little Eric's eyes had lit up and he recalled their previous walk to the canal when a dead dog inside a coal sack had been dragged out.
"Or we could take the bus to the boating pond. How would you like to sail your yacht."
Little Eric had turned his attention back to the lightning conductor and the darkening sky.
Marge cried out in her dream and Vera poked her in the back. "For God's sake, Marge, someone's been banging at the front door for the last ten minutes...be a good kid and open it for us."
Marge tried to raise her head but the dream was still clogging her mind like the aftertaste of cheap port. "What? Warra is it?"
"How do I know? Someone's been hammering outside. It can't be the rent man on a Sunday. The front door must be locked and everyone's out. Why don't you gerrup, me head's splitting this morning."
But Marge lay back again so that Vera, rat tails of hair hanging in her eyes, was forced to stagger to the door and down into the hall.
Marge heard the front door open. Then shouting. That was Stutty's voice. What the hell was he doing here? The nerve of him, coming in the morning now. Next thing there were footsteps running up the stairs and the two of them came bursting into the bedroom with Stutty in the lead, banging a newspaper down on the bed.
"Have you seen it? It's in the Sunday papers. There's even more in the Stop Press."
Stutty was out of breath. He kept opening and closing the paper in a frenzy. Marge in a daze lifted herself up on an elbow and called out to Vera.
"What's the bugger on about? Will yer open the blinds so I can see."
Vera stood on the dressing table and tugged at the blackout curtain. "God, we could be in shit trouble with this, Marge. Accessories, Stutty says, its even been on the wireless."
"I was just going to church with m-m-mother when I saw it in the Sunday Express."
Marge grabbed the paper out of Stutty's hand and began to turn the pages.
"M-m-mother doesn't like me to read the paper before church, she says it isn't nice."
Marge turned to the front page and there it was.
"CINEMA HOLD-UP" "FATAL SHOOTING" "TWO MEN DEAD"
"Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us now and..." Marge tried to read but her eyes kept darting across the page and taking in inconsequential things. Two men dead. Who? A cartoon at the bottom of the page; a photograph of Princess Elizabeth; the red drawing of the Crusader a the top; phases of the moon; High Tide at the Pier Head. Was Cullen hurt? Had he been....? And all the time Stutty going on and on.
"Mother was trying on her new hat at the hall stand mirror, and since I was ready I just nipped back into the dining room for a quick read and...."
"Oh, thank God", Marge was sobbing now. "They killed the manager and another one. It wasn't Cullen. God, Vera, Cullen's all right."
Marge rolled over beside the wall and pushed her face into the pillow.
"B-b-b-but don't you see, we're in terrible trouble, It says they shot two people. One of them's dead and the other's in a coma. What are we going to do?"
Vera went upstairs to the bathroom to fill the kettle while Stutty sat on the bed snatching at his hands.
"What are we going to do? We could all hang for this."
He was till moaning when Vera came back into the room and put the kettle on the gas ring.
"God, I could really go for a cup of tea, Marge. I've been parched all morning."
She sat down and shook Stutty by the shoulder. "What are you moping about? I've been thinking while I was filling the kettle. What's it got to do with us? I told you all along Cullen was a crazy bugger; well now he's gone and done it. But what's it got to do with us? I don't know nothing about no killing."
Stutty grabbed her hands in a frantic way and tried to make her understand by pulling at her arms as he forced the words out.
"B-b-b-but don't you see? We're accessories. D-d-d-d-don't you understand? We're guilty too."
Vera laughed. "An, don't come that on me, Stutty. I don't know nothing about nothing. We wasn't there was we?"
Stutty tried again. "Remember those two men who shot the policeman in London. Well, one of them was hanged for it even though he didn't do the shooting -- he was an accessory."
"And what happened to the other one."
Stutty shook his head, "He got off or something."
"Well there y'are then." Vera got up and looked for the tea caddy. "You're just windy, Stutty. They can't do nothing to us. We didn't shoot no one. We just tell them we wasn't there."
Marge sat up and looked sharply across at Vera.
"But we were all there, weren't we? We were his alibi. We all stayed drinking in the snug till closing time, didn't we? That's what we've got to tell the police. We were all together at the Crown. All night."
Vera glanced at Stutty then turned away busying herself with the tea pot. "Yeah, well, not exactly kid. You see after you'd left I started to get hungry so Stutty took me out for a Chinese, didn't you love?"
Stutty looked across at Marge and nodded. "Yes, none of us were there. So we can't give him an alibi and they're going to hang us all as accessories."
Vera turned the tea pot round and round in her hands and smiled at Marge.
"We'll just say that we don't know nothing about Cullen, we had one drink then we all went out to the Chinese. We never saw Cullen and we don't know nothing about no murder."
She winked at Stutty. "There you are then. So that's that, isn't it?"
Marge felt confused, she reached for the newspaper and read the story again, giving great attention to the bits in the Stop Press. So Cullen had done it. He'd done it after all, something really big, something so big that all of England must know about it this morning. That would have been the gun. She wondered if they'd even know in America.
Vera made the tea and hunted round for a few biscuits. Stutty, like a cat on hot bricks, kept glancing over at Marge then whispering to Vera, things about accessories and alibis and even bits of Latin. Stutty was in a real panic.
Marge cupped her hands around the hot tea cup and tried to think, but her mind did not seem to work this morning. It was like trying to move in a heavy fog, a fog so heavy that it seemed to cling to her like treacle, so that each time that she started a thought her mind seemed to run out of energy. That was funny because usually the thoughts were racing out of control through her head. But this morning it was if a great exhaustion had come over her and her brain was refusing to register what had happened. In the end she looked up from her tea cup, shrugged and smiled across at Vera.
"Well, at least Cullen's all right. They're both safe, aren't they?"
At this Stutty broke away from Vera and screamed back at Marge. "Don't you understand what he's done? He's shot somebody. He's taken a human life".
In his agitation he began to shake the headboard of the bed. "It's not just that we're accessories. We're morally responsible for the act, it's the same as if we had all pulled the trigger."
Marge remembered the package that Cullen had set down on the mantleshelf last night. "That was it. He must have had it with him all the time. He probably had it in his mind that something like this would happen."
She looked hard at Stutty and then at Vera. "Remember what I said. It'll be all right for him if we stick together. All we've got to do is give Cullen and Terrance their alibi. He'll probably not need it; but if anyone comes asking we say he was with us all last night. Right, Stutty?"
Stutty started to protest again but now Vera started to be coming round to Marge's way of thinking. "Look, Stutty, we don't want to make trouble for ourselves, do we? It's simpler if we all tell the same story."
Vera tried to pull Stutty down on her lap but for once her resisted. Then Vera started on him about them all being mates and having to stick together. An one point Stutty nodded and began to mumble something about how he was never supposed to tell on anyone at school. Then, just at it looked as if he may be coming round, he remembered his coat.
"Cullen took my coat with him. Don't you remember? And Marge's scarf. What if he left it at the Scene of the Crime? Mother always sews Cash's name tapes into all my cloths. That coat's got my name in it and the police'll be on to me. They'll break me down. We'll all hang, we'll be accessories. They'll make me confess."
And so he was off again and this time there was no calming him down. Marge simply pulled the sheets over her and turned away to pick at the paper on the wall.
Contact F. David Peat