A Piece of Work

By Dan Brotzel

i.

An exhausting evening out with Trish in The Calf and Plough. She has freckles, I notice. I don’t really like freckles.

Trish is having troubles with her on-off boyfriend Rob. Rob treats her like shit, she says. He takes her for granted. ‘One minute, he’s all into it, knocking at my door at midnight with a bottle of wine,’ she says, with a hint of that West Country twang I got rid of long ago. ‘Then he’s off at dawn, and I don’t hear from him for weeks at a time.’

‘Have you asked him where you stand?’ I say, grateful for a line I heard on daytime TV that very morning.

‘I’ve tried. He just says, we don’t have to give it a name. Or some such.’

‘Hmm. It’s almost as if Rob only ever comes round when he wants a shag.’

‘Oh shut up, you,’ says Trish, pushing me playfully but actually quite hard. ‘It’s just coz of his parents. He was really hurt when they split up.’

Trish seems to think that I’m joking about Rob, but I was just making what seems to me an obvious inference.

‘You can talk, Matt, you big old dog,’ she says. ‘How many have you got on the go now?’ 

‘Three in play and another five potentials,’ I say.

‘You probably could too, if you wanted,’ she says, apparently determined not to take anything I say at face value. ‘You’re going to break a few hearts in this parish, you know.’

‘Well, there aren’t many eligible blokes, but there seems to be a glut of needy young women,’ I say. ‘Not to mention all the affluent widows and widowers. I’m bound to clean up.’ 

‘Sarcastic sod,’ she says, laughing again. 

By closing time, Trish has run through the Rob saga a further three times. It’s basically the same account each time, with a few additional details: gifts he’s given her, promises he’s broken, things he likes doing in bed, more things she said that he didn’t respond to.

‘Rob’s on to a winner,’ I try again. ‘He gets ready sex when he wants it, with someone who’s always prepared to make excuses for his failure to commit.’

‘Oh stop it,’ says Trish. ‘He’s not like that. You should see these texts he sends me. I know he wouldn’t see anyone else.’

I know about the texts. I helped him write some of them. I also know about the things he likes.

When it’s time to split, Trish leans over and gives me a big wet kiss on the cheek. Her freckles loom in at me, and I’m subjected to a big rancid blast of cider breath. It’s no wonder I don’t drink.

‘Thanks for letting me get all that out, mate,’ she says. ‘I feel so much better now.’

‘No worries,’ I say. ‘See you at Choir.’

‘It’s great that we’ve got each other again, isn’t it?’ she says, as her Dad’s car approaches. ‘Someone that knows you inside out. Someone you can say anything to.’

‘You don’t know the slightest thing about me,’ I say.

‘Oh you,’ she laughs, and punches me again.

‘Hello Matt!’ waves Trish’s Dad cheerily. He seems nice. He doesn’t for example slur You’re a fucking piece of work into the dark, as he bolts the little attic door shut on me for another night.

After Trish leaves, I unlock my bike and cycle down to the lorry park by the ring road. I find a man there who bangs my head against a car door and gives me what for. It is a convincing performance and I decide to spare his life.

ii.

‘Matthew, would you come here a minute?’

‘Coming!’ I say, as brightly as I can. I throw my Bible down on the sofa, where it stays splayed open at the Book of Jeremiah.

‘Could you just give this a read-through for me?’

Nicholas is hunched as always over his PC, pecking away at another of his life-affirming takes on contemporary politics. He is a profoundly Whiggish writer, a cut-price Pollyanna who can take the blackest situation – fatal bushfire, devastating plane crash, ethnic oppression – and find a silver lining to console his audience of worried Christians, whom I imagine, like him, sitting in their little cottages wringing their hands at the Radio 4 news in their identikit M&S outfits. All wishing, no doubt, they had the courage to take in a refugee, only, you know, the box room still needs a proper clear-out and the neighbours might not understand.

‘It’s good,’ I say, leaning closely over him with an arm on his shoulder, in a way that I know makes his breath quicken. ‘I love the bit where you compare Christ to a bottle of hand sanitiser.’

‘Oh good, good,’ he smiles, sitting back, removing his specs and sucking on one plastic arm – a gesture, I have learned, that means he is feeling very pleased with himself. ‘I was worried you might think I was going too far.’

‘Absolutely not, Nicholas! It’s the best bit.’ Nicholas has an extraordinary talent for finding things to compare Christ to, usually in a way that he thinks gives his work a refreshing contemporaneity. In the last few months since he hired me to be his editorial assistant, Christ has variously appeared in his columns and radio talks as a cricket bat, a lightning rod, a respected trading partner and even as the ultimate bingeworthy box-set.

‘Please,’ he says. ‘Call me Nick.’

My role is to be a sounding board, to provide praise and validation, but if my judgements are to be credible, I know they cannot be 100% positive.

‘Only one thing,’ I say.

‘Yes?’

‘That quote from the Psalms at the end there. It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it – a bit obvious?’

‘Yeeees,’ he says.

‘How about that one from Jeremiah: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster.’

He is silent a moment, and I have no idea what he is thinking. I keep my arm on his shoulder.

‘Oh yes! In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. That’s brilliant!’ he says, clapping his hands in delight. I return my gaze to the screen and pretend not to notice as he steals a glance in my direction.

‘Quite a piece of work,’ he smiles to himself. His expression, I know, is one of naked admiration.

iii.

After Choir, we younger ones go for a quick drink in the Calf and Plough. (Or the Blade and Bastard, as I like to call it.)

Trish has alerted me to rumours that Becky has a thing for me. She is not the only one, of course, and I have done my best to keep them all interested with some carefully rationed parcels of attention. Now, on returning from the loo, I discover that somehow Becky and I are the only two left in the bar.

‘They’ve all gone, it seems,’ says Becky, with embarrassing transparency. She is, I suppose, the sort of woman that many men might find attractive. Her expression could be read as kind, and I see that her eyes cannot lie. She has petite ears and rather large teeth, not alas a combination I have ever cared for. (Though I suppose the opposite combination would also have its drawbacks.)

‘I’ll walk you home,’ I say.

We stroll the long way round, like lovers are supposed to, and I make sure that we saunter and meander and tell stories and share jokes. When we reach the door of her flat, she asks if I’d like to come in for a coffee.

‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘I never touch caffeine after 11am.’

She touches my arm lightly and I sense that I have misread her meaning. There are those born only to give, and it is my duty to accept their offerings in good part.

‘Do you have any sparkling water?’

The power of my words often surprises me, for she leans up to me and flings two arms around my neck. As we kiss, I can sense her body trembling, and for a moment I feel a tremendous, aching hollowness. A space, I suppose, where pity might go.

Twenty minutes later, she is leaning heavily across me on the sofa and the necessaries are well under way. There is the usual confusion of textures and odours, sensations and sounds. I am wondering why I’m here until I spot a photo on a cupboard.

‘Who is this striking woman?’ I say, picking up a framed photo of a glamorous older lady in some sort of ballgown.

‘Oh that’s my gran. You must have seen her around church. Myra – she does the flowers.’

Indeed I have.

‘So,’ says Becky a little later, with terrifying predictability. ‘Perhaps we could see each other again?’

‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘How about three weeks on Thursday?’

iv.

‘Matthew,’ he says.

‘Yes Nicholas?’

‘Nick. Please.’

‘Sorry. Nick.’

‘There’s something I want to show you.’ He’s been smiling away to himself all morning, and now we are about to discover his ‘secret’. ‘Would you mind stepping this way, sir?’ This comic formality is his way of expressing affection. (I do not mock him for this specifically; it is one more way than I have.)

I follow Nicholas into his little pantry and out through the door beyond, which he now holds open for me. It is, as I well know, the door that leads to the neat little grannexe that housed his mum right up until her long-overdue death a year or so ago. (I only met her a few times, but it never went well; I would have liked to have done more to hasten her departure.)

‘I’ve been thinking about your money troubles and accommodation issues and so forth,’ he is saying now, although I am not really listening; I’m just watching the key he keeps twirling in his fingers. ‘You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me in my work. And so I can’t help thinking that it’d make more sense all round if you were to… move in here.’

I put my hands over my mouth and count to ten, as planned.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ I say, as planned.

‘Think nothing of it, old boy!’ he beams.

‘Those dreadful beige curtains will have to go, though.’ This was not planned, and I sense from Nicholas’ expression that I have committed some sort of error. But it is an error that is not hard to rectify, especially once I start touching him in an intimate place and enjoy the rare spectacle of the great commentator at a loss for words.

‘Well Matthew,’ he says, picking himself up off the floor at last. ‘I did not expect that.’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Call me Matt.’

But he never does.

v.

I find I am becoming more and more active in the church. It began in the Choir, which is where I reconnected with Trish again, years after we used to hang out together at school. For some reason I have joined the Youth Team and become the Youth Liaison on the Parish Council, which is how I first got to know Nicholas. Through Trish, I met Rob (though Trish does not know this) and Becky too, and through Becky I found a connection to Myra. There are plenty of other assets, some in play and some as yet to be activated. They’re all on the spreadsheet, awaiting their turn. It’s password-protected of course, along with my poems.

It’s well-known in the parish that I now lodge with Nicholas, but he is keen to keep our relationship discreet for now, as there are many who still have fond memories of his wife and might be troubled, he says, by this change of direction so late in life. I encourage this view, since it occurs to me that Becky might be troubled by it too, and possibly Myra and a few others. Such complexities show why a spreadsheet is so useful.

Father Martin is a great ally. He and I have got to know each other well. To Nicholas’ great pleasure, I have decided to put myself forward for holy orders. Father Martin has to approve my application, and we’ve begun a series of chats to ‘explore my call to the diaconate’. I can’t help feeling all this will be a formality. I do so much around the church, I’m already the vicar’s right-hand man. ‘You have an enormous heart for service,’ he’s always telling me, as he eyes my pecs. I do sometimes wonder if he isn’t a little besotted. People often are.

Trish expresses surprise at all this. She says she just doesn’t remember me ever being very religious at school. I’m not of course. But it’s a wonderful way to make valuable connections and unearth new potentials.

‘I don’t remember you ever having much of a thing for priests and Jesus and all that,’ she says.

‘I’m very interested in Jesus,’ I say. ‘We can learn a lot from him.’

‘I think that’s the idea,’ she laughs.

I am indeed interested in Jesus. Also his father. I like how he gets people to do all sorts of stuff against their will – and then they just worship him for it.   

vi.

I am just updating my spreadsheet – adding a new row for another girlfriend of Becky’s – when Nicholas calls out to me. I drop his phone into an empty vase and head into the study.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says. ‘How does it sound?’

Following our weekend in the Cotswolds, my friendship with Matthew has taken off in a completely new and unexpected direction. I know now that we are meant to be together, and that I am about to embark on a wonderful and quite unprecedented new chapter in my life. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and Matthew and I continue to discuss future plans and details. But I can say with confidence that I now know where the rest of my life is heading, and I have never been happier.

‘I’m not sure the Anglican Herald will print that,’ I say. 

‘You mistake my intention, sir!’ says Nicholas, chuckling fondly. ‘This is to Bob.’

I put my hand over my mouth and count again. Twelve beats seems about right this time. Bob is Nicholas’ best friend. He was the best man at Nicholas’ wedding to Diane. He also did the honours when they divorced three years ago – ‘more in sorrow than anger’, as Nicholas always puts it. (I met Diane once. It didn’t go well.)

NB: Bob is Nicholas’ solicitor.

‘This is so exasperating,’ says Nicholas now. ‘I can’t find my phone again.’

‘Oh Nicholas,’ I say. ‘This is becoming quite a habit, isn’t it?’ And then I say, quietly and for the first time: ‘Darling.’

He looks up at me and smiles.

‘Thank the Lord I have you,’ he says.

‘I’ll always be here,’ I say.

‘I shall have no other gods before you,’ Nicholas says. He has the arm of his specs in his mouth again.

First I do a scandalised look, and then I do ‘secretly delighted’. Nicholas smiles at me cravenly.

‘When did you last brush your teeth?’ I say. ‘You stink.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ he says, and hurries away to the bathroom.


vii.

Trish is not sure if me dating Becky is such a good idea.

‘She’s not really in your league,’ says Trish. ‘You’re studying for a Masters,’ she says. ‘She’s more of a babies-and-baking kind of girl.’

‘I like babies,’ I say. ‘Though I couldn’t eat a whole one.’ Trish slaps me. ‘I’ve seen you do this before,’ she says. ‘You like to be around people that make you look clever.’

‘I am clever,’ I say.

‘You know what I mean. You always want to be the one with the intellectual put-downs.’

‘Becky is a lovely girl,’ I say. ‘I’m meeting the whole family on Sunday.’

‘Well, I’d be keeping a close eye on you, if I was her.’

‘“If I were her,” I say.

‘What?’

‘The subjunctive.’

She gives me a funny look, as if she’s uneasily aware that she’s become the butt of a joke she doesn’t understand. It is a feeling I once knew, before I made the world my punchline.

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting Becky’s people,’ I say. ‘Especially Myra.’

‘What is it about you and Myra?’ she says. ‘You’re always mentioning her.’

I have this answer ready. ‘Becky is really close to her,’ I say. ‘I need to get her gran on side.’

‘Wow,’ says Trish. ‘This sounds serious! Perhaps she’ll make an honest man of you yet.’

‘I’m the most honest person I know,’ I say.

Later that night, as the village bathes in the unpolluted skies of a full moon, I rise from my place next to Nicholas (a man who could sleep through a bombing raid) and let two men in to the grannexe. I explain that I have sinned and need to do urgent penance. They understand, as they are paid to, and I take my carefully defined punishment like a man.

viii.

I am about to head into Myra’s for another Sunday lunch with her and Becky when I receive a text from Nicholas.

‘Have you seen my credit cards?’

‘Try under your keyboard,’ I say, fingering his plastic.

‘OK. Keep feeling dizzy,’ is his satisfactory reply.

Myra is 82 but she has, I tell her when Becky leaves the room, the heart and soul of a much younger woman. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how I cannot understand why she is on her own.

‘Just haven’t found the right chap, not since my Clive passed,’ she says, with a sad nod at the jumble of silver-framed pics that clutter up her sideboard, all showing her in various poses and settings with a cheery-looking bald man with a silver moustache. Then she nods at the ceiling. ‘Anyway. It’s all in His hands,’ she says. ‘My will is His will.’

Her walls, I notice, are dotted with crucifixes and devotional texts and photos of Myra and Clive standing next to various men of the cloth.

Now she catches my eye. ‘Becky is a lucky young woman,’ she says gravely.

‘The man who could woo and win your precious heart would be a lucky man indeed,’ I say. I worry for a moment I have overdone it, but I have forgotten the bottle of prosecco I brought along, half of which has already descended into her gullet.

She blushes and simpers and smiles and looks at the floor all at once. Then she says something that sounds like ooaammhhh. It is hard to spell but easy to interpret, even for me.

ix.

Nicholas’s behaviour, I confess to Father Martin, is becoming steadily more erratic. It’s hard to know with certainty how things will progress, it’s not as if you can look these things up. (The idea that one can delete one’s search history is a transparent fiction, of course.)

Nicholas keeps losing things, forgetting things. His speech is slow and repetitive. Some mornings he can barely drag himself out of bed. It seems obvious to me, I tell Bob, that he is suffering from some sort of as-yet-undiagnosed neurological deficit.

One evening, I stay on for supper at Father Martin’s. I confide in him my worries – I tell stories of the delirium, the mood swings, the violent outbursts. The falls. Father Martin is such a good listener that I end up tearfully confessing my fear that Nicholas has a severe alcohol issue.

‘Poor Matthew,’ says Father Martin, with a fierce arm around me. ‘It’s not exactly the ideal engagement gift, is it?’

‘In sickness and in health,’ I say with a sad smile.

Father Martin says, ‘You’re very brave, Matthew.’

‘Till death us do part.’

x.

Now Trish knows that Nicholas and I are engaged, and she wants answers. When did I know I was gay? It’s the first she’s heard of it. Why did I string Becky along for so long? How can men be so heartless, taking what they want from someone and then just pissing off at the very moment that the other person has let them into their hearts?

‘Are we talking about Rob again?’ I can’t help asking, and am rewarded with yet another shove.

‘I’m sorry,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I know you want some answers, and you deserve them.’ The thing with Nicholas comes from a part of me that I’ve always tried to repress, I tell her. But this is a union of heart and soul, and mind, and with Nicholas I have at last had to acknowledge my true feelings, my true self. I tell her that it all goes hand in hand, somehow, with the growth of my faith. My friendship with Becky – and yes, other women – was a desperate attempt to deny my true nature.

‘So: Are you saying you’re gay now?’ she demands. ‘That you’ve never been straight?’

‘You’re drinking rather a lot tonight,’ I say. ‘I get enough of that at home.’

‘Oh.’ She eyes her cider guiltily. ‘Is Nicholas still…??’ she asks, her face a picture of concern.

‘Yes,’ I nod sadly. ‘I’m working on it, but old habits…’

I open the crisps. I bring my own, as they don’t have prawn cocktail in the Axe and Foetus and it’s the only flavour I eat.

‘Anyway, it’s not a question of gay or straight,’ I add. ‘It’s about your relationship with an individual person.’

Then I tell Trish that she is the only person in the world that I can really confide in, and that her friendship means everything to me, and that Rob is a prize dick for not appreciating what he had with her. That she is such an amazing person she can have anyone she wants, and that I’m sure it won’t be long before she finds someone who is worthy of her.

Trish blushes on cue. Then she hugs me, and all that.

No. It’s not about gay or straight, I reflect later as I lie in a crumpled heap in a diesel-tinged puddle in the lorry park. It’s about those who define reality – and those who submit to it.

God gets it.

xii.

A visit from Bob and from Diane, who has driven 76 miles to be here. I believe they are attempting some sort of intervention.

Nicholas slumps in his chair, silent as instructed. I wait on him hand and foot, as always, but cannot/do not prevent the empty Bells bottle slipping out of his dressing gown.

‘Are you sure you’re really up to all this, Matthew?’ says Diane. ‘Nicholas seems to need a lot of care right now.’

‘Matthew’s all I need,’ says Nicholas, on cue.

‘And now I understand you’re studying for the priesthood too, as well as editing Nicholas’ book and completing your masters?’

‘You mean Musings Against the Backcloth of Eternity? I’d hardly call it a book.’

Diane looks at me sharply, and I imagine her suddenly disappeared.

‘I see it as more an ongoing conversation between a questing soul and its saviour than a mere book,’ I add smoothly. (I don’t mention that I wrote most of that twaddle anyway. My favourite section is called ‘The Lord is my air bridge’.)

‘And what about your parish duties?’ says Bob. ‘Visiting the sick and hospitals, and so forth. I gather you’ve taken on Whiteoaks Care Home too. How will you fit it all in?’

‘Attending to the elderly and the infirm: it’ll be good practice for married life.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, look at him.’ Nicholas is now lolling almost sideways in his chair, dribbling and babbling, like a man who has been innocently ingesting a small amount of a toxic substance in his hot milk every night for several weeks.

Diane feigns shock, but I know lots about her from Nicholas.

Later, I step lightly to the closed pantry door, where Diane and Bob are conferring in a low murmur.

‘Something just isn’t right,’ she says. ‘How can Nicholas have just declined like that?’

‘It’s certainly very sad,’ says Bob. ‘But at least he has a full-time carer now, in a sense, someone who obviously means a great deal to Nick.’

Please just tell me he hasn’t signed over the house.’

Silence.

‘Bob? Bob?

‘You know I can’t comment on that,’ I hear Bob say.

The ensuing silence is broken only by Diane swearing very quietly but forcefully.

‘Look at this kitchen,’ says Diane, clinking things. ‘There are bottles everywhere. It reeks of spirits.’

‘It is very sad,’ says Bob again. ‘I just don’t remember him ever being such a big drinker.’

‘I was married to Nick for 23 years,’ says Diane. ‘And one thing I know for sure about my ex-husband is that he couldn’t stand the taste of whisky-’

I open the door fully so they can see me, holding a pack of antiseptic wipes, and togged up in Marigolds and a wipeable apron.

The pair of them look around, like a couple of children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

‘And did you ever know this about him, Diane?’ I lift up my top and show off some of my choicest cuts and bruises. They are both suitably appalled.

I take a hand from each of them, so that we are joined in a little circle of concern. ‘I know it’s not really him, when it happens,’ I say. ‘That’s what I tell myself.’

Diane sobs. ‘He’s not the man I know,’ she says.

‘Me either,’ I reply sadly. ‘But we must put all this in His hands. Perhaps… we could all say a prayer?’

Bob and Diane bow their heads obediently, and I scrutinise his bald spot and a little patch of eczema behind her left ear, as I invoke some of the words that Father Martin used with me the other night.

Listen, Lord, to our prayer; hear our cries for help. We call to you in times of trouble, because you answer my prayers.

Psalms. A little obvious and hackneyed, perhaps, but it seems to do the trick, for Bob at least. But I notice that Diane’s eyes – eyes that live 76 miles away, by the sea – do not stay closed as we pray.

x.

Myra is touched by the way I look after Nicholas. She comes round on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon with one of her lovely lemon drizzle cakes or a plate of her delicious chocolate and peanut cookies.

‘I daren’t ask you for the recipe,’ I say coquettishly.

‘Oooh no!’ she laughs. ‘That one goes with me to the grave.’

We sit by his bed – Nicholas rarely gets up now – and we talk of this and of that. In her company I develop the story of Gabrielle, my half-sister, and our crowdfunding project. She has a rare liver disorder and requires specialist treatment. In Israel, I add.

‘The Holy Land!’ she says, marvelling.

‘Yes,’ I say quietly. There is no need to add that this treatment would be very expensive.

One week, Myra arrives to find me sitting in a deep prayerful trance by Nicholas’ bedside. A bottle lies under his pillow. Nicholas does not move.

At the funeral, I give a faultless eulogy, loosely adapted from one I ghost-wrote for Nicholas’ ex-father-in-law. Afterwards, so many parishioners come up to tell me that I am ‘brave’, a usage that has always confused me. Only the weak can be brave.

Outside the church, Nicholas’ relatives huddle together in the rain, trying to draw strength from each other. They acknowledge me with nods and handshakes and muted smiles. Only Diane stands aloof, eyeing me coldly across the coffin. A 76-mile stare. I can’t help thinking how fitting it would be if she were to fall into the hole beside dear old Nick.

Grief is a terrible vice, cloying and narcissistic. The sniffs and moans appal me. I maintain a dignified silence, head bowed at all times. Black becomes me.

At the graveside, Myra holds my hand for the first time. That’s one for the spreadsheet.

Xi

I like to spend my weekends round Myra’s, helping out with the house and the garden. There are always lawns to mow, bonfires to build, pictures to put up, white goods to drag out and clean behind. Things that involve a bit of heavy lifting or the climbing of a stepladder.

Myra is endlessly grateful. It’s nothing, I say – just another way I can serve the Lord, by lending a hand to one of His most faithful servants. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of elbow grease and a few power tools.

Myra hates phoning companies and ‘being passed from pillar to post like some sort of leper’, as she puts it. She says she can only get through the waiting by quietly reciting her favourite bits of The Book of Common Prayer.

I say I’m happy to help.

On the six-month anniversary of Nicholas’ death, I find myself dialling for her again, this time to help her divert some funds from an ISA into a crowdfunding account for Gabrielle. We agree it’s probably easier just to transfer the sum to me first.

I do the phoning and the waiting and the chitchat, and then when I’ve got hold of the right account executive at last, I pass over the handset and discreetly retire. It is not for me to intrude on such conversations, though I can’t help catching the phrases ‘sometimes you just want to do a bit of good for someone’ and ‘withdraw it all please’.

I retreat to Myra’s guest room, which I have made into my study, and to my personal poetry. Myra is not an easy rhyme, but with a rap-like intonation the words starts to flow…

Myra
I’ll build you a pyre
To set you on fire

As you turn to ash
I’ll burn through your cash


It’s a little different to the verse I present her with that night.

Myra, you have set me on fire
With righteous passion;
Holy beauty; I am wholly yours.
I yearn for your embrace,
For the sunlight in your face —
The exquisite surrender
Of a heart full of grace.

Xii

Myra has doubts. Her intimates are worried for her. The age gap, the finances, the business with Nicholas that some in the village will continue to mither on about. A call from Diane that she will not discuss.

‘I understand,’ I say. I’m supposed to be going away that weekend, on a Bible Studies course for Anglican ordinands at a residential centre run by the diocese.

‘Let us pray,’ I say, and she smiles and bows her head. I head off to the guest room, where I’ve got all my books out, to fetch my missal.

‘Oh my God! Myra!’

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t believe it!’

She heads as fast as her arthritis will allow into the guest room, where a series of large, slightly cursive letters, written in the ash of Ash Wednesday, spell out a message across the far wall and window.

M + M: BELOVED SERVANTS

BLESSED UNION

LOVE AND SERVE ALWAYS

‘M & M!’ says Myra, breathless and ecstatic. ‘You don’t think…’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s the chocolates.’ I do not say this, though I very much want to.   

That night, a Friday, Myra takes me to her bed for the first time. She is surprisingly directive and I happily follow her lead. I have learnt a lot about what people want, and what to do when, but it is refreshing when someone like Myra – with the impatience of age – just lays it out for you. Afterwards I lie with my head on her bosom, and I wonder if this is what mothers and children do, albeit no mother I ever knew.

‘Well. I did not expect that,’ she says. ‘Not at my age.’

‘My bride and my queen,’ I say, and I feel a deep heaving sigh beneath me. I think about the strength in frailty, and the beauty in disgust, and how in the morning the letters will have gone, and the possibilities before me are so many that I almost swoon.

I bring us both cocoa in bed, and make sure Myra drinks all hers. I have a long drive before me. Seventy-six miles.

xiii

Despite what I say to people, I am not one for visions as a rule. But recently I dreamt of a woman who lived in a wooden house by the sea. And in my dream I betook her to the very top of a cliff, and smote her with kindness, and lay her down with her dead head overhanging the sea. And I made a hole through her skull, from one temple right through to the other, so that her blood flowed straight out pure and true, and lost itself in the green waters far below.

I was not able to follow my vision to the letter. But I like to think, out there on the moor, with my axe and my power saw, that I was true to its spirit. Visions are good, but proper Ordinance Survey-backed research is your true friend, every time. 

I think if Diane could have her time again, she would probably not have opened her front door to me. She would probably not have got in the car. She would probably have started struggling sooner, or called for help while there was still a chance that people might hear.

But I told her that I needed her to be happy with what was happening. She was the person everyone looked up to. Myra, like Nicholas before her, trusted her judgement implicitly. I apologised for the lateness of the hour, but I realised that I too needed her blessing. I just wanted to go for a drive and talk things through. And if I couldn’t convince Diane of my good faith, I would gladly withdraw from the parish and the village altogether. I would bow to her wisdom, her powers of discernment.

I was humble. And Diane, in spite of everything – in spite of herself – was flattered. 

When I arrive home, Myra is still in bed, as she should be. She has slept through it all. I slip in beside her just as the light of a new day starts to peep beneath the curtains, and fall into the deep sleep of the just. In the morning, delighted to find me there, she brings me a tea in bed. I tell her how well I slept, and how happy I am to be here. 

‘What about your training course?’ says Myra.

‘I couldn’t bear to be away from you,’ I say. ‘I can learn more about grace and the living faith here.’

This is almost too much for her. ‘Bless me, father,’ she says breathlessly, and – though technically I’m not allowed to do this yet – I slice a cross through the air, up and down, and left to right. Myra makes the sign of the cross too, and her whole face settles into an expression of devout calm. It is powerful magic.

I think about the day, three weeks hence, when we shall go to the cathedral and the bishop will lay his hands on me, and I shall be ushered into the inner circle of the ordained.

Forgiving sinners, healing the sick, saving souls, casting out demons, bestowing holiness with the wave of a hand…

I open my laptop and I start a new poem.

Diana the huntress
I penetrate your fortress
Lady Di, your time to die

To be or not to be
There was no question. 

What a piece of work is this man.
How like a god.

+++

HMP Bedward, August 2019

Hi Jill

Thanks again so much for agreeing to take a look at this.

Just to recap the background: Matthew Manston remains on remand here at Bedward, awaiting proceedings at the Central Criminal Court on two counts of Murder, one of Attempted, and various Attempting to perverts.

Following the granting of an expedited exhumation licence, full post-mortem forensics were carried out on the body of Nicholas Roy. The discovery of the (partial) remains of Diane Harkness will of course be familiar to you from TV and tabloids. 

The alleged crimes apparently only came to light as a result of extensive informal surveillance carried out by two of the defendant’s former friends, Rebecca Winstrop and Patricia Wright. Courageous and resourceful stuff, by all accounts.

As discussed, the judge has requested a more detailed psychological evaluation, and I’d very much value a second opinion – specifically yours! – at this point. I think a good place to start are these extracts from the defendant’s diary, which he stored on his laptop and regularly updated over a period of almost seven years. These extracts cover the period March 30, 2016 to February 12, 2018.

Do give me a shout if you have any questions. Perhaps I could give you a call in a week or so when you’ve had time to digest?

All the very best – and thanks again Jill!

Robert Steveny

Head of Forensic Psychology, HMP Bedword

PS Despite the weight of media opprobrium to which he has been subject, I have to say Manston has conducted himself as a model prisoner at all times. He has been helping a number of other prisoners to develop their literacy skills, and has been on hand to offer support and guidance to two prisoners – and one prison officer! – experiencing spiritual distress. All in all, he is a charming resident, and we will miss him.

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

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