The Return Chapters 7-9
‘Hello, what can I do for you?’ Ask the Rector, as she is about to put on her blue clerical blouse and collar. A man has emerged silently through the vestry door into the robing room of St Mary’s. He is dressed as a clergyman in an old fashioned long black vestment, a shining crucifix is on a chain hanging around his neck.
‘Y…You’re a woman. Why are you dressed as a priest?’
‘Because I am one,’ she replies. ‘Didn’t you know there are many women priests, even bishops these days.’
‘Good heavens, it would have been heresy in my day.’
‘My service is starting soon,’ says the Rector, annoyed at the imposter’s mysogyny, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ The Rector is always a little touchy before services, it is her nerves.
‘No, I am revisiting places I once knew, I am finally hoping to move on. I have been roving for a while, I think God is punishing me for my past sins.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘To be with God, if he permits me.’
‘Bless you, I am certain you will find a way. How do you know St Mary’s?’
‘I was the p…p…priest here many years ago,’ he replies with a slight stammer.
‘Oh, I really must get on…’ says the Rector. She points to a board with all the past incumbents’ names dating back to the fifteenth century, hoping this will send him on his way. ‘Where are you on here?’
The figure moves silently across the vestry and points to his name. ‘Oh dear, it seems as if someone has been trying to obliterate my past.’
‘Surely that can’t be you? You are pulling my leg,’ says the Rector. ‘That’s over a hundred and ninety years ago.’
‘That’s about right,’ the robed figure says.
‘Please leave,’ she says and sits down on a chair and starts to pray. When she looks up the figure has thankfully disappeared as silently as he had arrived. There is a knock on the door and the church warden comes in.
‘Are you alright, Rector? You look as if you have seen a ghost.’
‘I think I might have!’
The Rector rises unsteadily to her feet, the churchwarden slips his arm under her elbow to help her balance, he fears she might collapse. The Rector moves unsteadily towards the roll of past vicars and points to the Reverend Sebastian Fairfax 1835 – 1848. There is a thin gold line running through his name as if someone in the past has tried to blank it out.
‘Oh yes, the notorious Reverend Fairfax. He stole all the church funds and those of his poor wife, made off with the lot. It was a terrible scandal evidently.’
‘Good Lord, he appeared to be quite a pleasant fellow.’
‘I think he had plenty of charm, he had reputation as ladies man, so the stories go.’
‘He had a west country burr and also a slight stammer.’
‘It was hushed up by the Bishop at the time, he had brought disgrace on St Mary’s. It was thought he had absconded to Australia.’
‘Quite a character, then?’
‘It was wise not to get on the wrong side of him. It was said he had tried to poisonthe Lord of the Manor, one of the Stanswick’s, but it was never proven.’
‘I had better get on with the service.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘With God’s help I will manage, but thank you all the same. Ironically, my theme for this morning is all about forgiveness.’
The Rector totters out into the knave to address the congregation. Bunty, her best friend and sometime companion, is in the choir stalls and looks alarmed at Jessica’s ashen appearance. She tries to catch her eye to give a reassuring smile but the Rector’s head is buried in the liturgy, she is muttering to herself in prayer. After a long period of silence, the congregation is shifting uncomfortably in their pews. The Rector looks up, forgets to say good morning, and announces: ‘Now we will sing Psalm 33, Rejoice You Righteous in the Lord.’
After the service Bunty fusses around the Rector, ‘Are you okay Jess, you seem a bundle of nerves, whatever is the matter my dear?’
‘Will you help me de-robe?’
‘Of course.’ The pair move into the vestry.
‘Do you know why the Reverend Fairfax has a line through his name on the roll of honour of past incumbents?’ Asks the Rector.
Bunty studies the mahogany board with the gold leaf lettering. ’What date am I looking for?’
Bunty stands in front of the board her finger tracing the dates on the antique roll call. ‘Ah here it is. Reverend Fairfax, there is no line through the name, it just like the others.’
‘There must be, I saw it with my own eyes before the service. The man seemed hurt that his name had tried to be eradicated.’
‘The priest in old fashioned vestments, he was here just before the service, did you see him in the church?’
‘ I spoke to him. He claimed to be the Reverend Sebastian Fairfax.’
‘Are you sure you weren’t imagining it. Was anyone else with you?’
The Rector walks over to join her friend to look for herself. Her hand goes to her mouth in astonishment. ‘Can you see if Roger Cranswick is still here, ask him to come into the vestry immediately.’
Bunty scuttles out and returns with the Sexton.
‘Roger, do you remember if Sebastian Fairfax’s name on the rector’s roll had a gold line through it?’
‘It has always been there on account of him being dismissed.’
The Sexton walks up to the lettering and runs his finger over the scroll, ‘Well I never, it appears to have vanished.’
Jessica wobbles and sits down, her hands are shaking, and she has gone white.
‘Jess, my darling,’ cries Bunty, going to her side and takes her hand in hers.
‘I’have had a visitation from the past.’
‘It is a puzzle,’ says Bunty.
‘I am certain. I have been talking to the late and disgraced Reverend Sebastian Fairfax.
‘It’s baffling, I must say.’ says Roger. ‘Nobody could have rubbed out that gold line during the service. There is no trace of interference with the script to suggest monkey business,’ he continues, looking closely at the board.
‘Dear God, help me!’
The rumours did not take long to multiply and become evermore preposterous. Brakehall is awash with contradictory stories, and the commotion becomes so great it is decided to hold a public meeting in the village hall to try and calm matters down.
The history society andthe archaeology group are invited to speak to see if there is any context to the recent happenings. To the annoyance of Sir Shackleton, the Rector has taken it upon herself to chair the whole assembly on the grounds of the spiritual nature of the sightings. The bishop has agreed to attend and hear the witnesses called who will relate their own stories. A committee of three parish councillors agreed to vet the stories beforehand to weed out any fantasists who fancied a moment in the media spotlight. A local TV crew was present who thought the story would make a light piece to end the regional news bulletin.
The bishop opens the proceedings with a very short prayer which adds to the solemnity of the occasion:
Guide us O’Lord as we investigate the strange happenings in our community.
Give us peace of mind and calmness of spirit.
Please hear our call in the name of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord . Amen.
There is a spontaneous, loud amen from the packed hall. After the Rector’s introductions the history society kicked off the evening with some historical highlights of the village: the plague, the adherence to a strict spiritual life after the civil war, the Chartist riots and the toll of WW1 on the local population. People started shuffling in their seats and someone shouts out, ‘But what about the ghosts?’ The lady from the history society sits down, white faced, humiliated. She has no idea why she had ever been invited. Then up pops a jolly bearded man of middle years from the archaeology group. He launches into the importance of the area in prehistory and especially the long barrow on Jacob’s Acres. He explains it is believed to be an ancient place of burial, worship and perhaps even sacrifice for over 3000 years. This provokes some interest from audience: ‘Why are the council allowing housing on this sacred, holy ground?’
‘It is not holy in the sense we understand it, not in strict Christian terms of today,’ says the Rector.
‘The long barrow will be preserved’ says Councillor Steele.
‘In someone’s back garden, more like.’
‘A disgrace. That meadow is ancient land, it has been a part of our village for hundreds of years and should not be defaced,’ says the lady from the history society, pleased at last to make a meaningful contribution to the debate.
The Rector bangs a gavel on the table to bring order to the proceedings. ‘This meeting is not about planning.’
‘We have rejected the planning application,’ pipes up Councillor Steele.
‘A fat lot that will do,’ says another angry villager.
‘Can we have the first witness please,’ says the Rector. ‘Oh silly, that’s me.’
She rises to her feet to relate her tale to a hushed audience. The memories of her experience cause her to become tearful as she describes the priest in black vestments and his shining crucifix. Roger Cranswick, the Sexton, backs up her story and describes finding the Rector in a distressed state, barely able to conduct the Sunday morning’s worship. There is complete silence.
‘And you had a conversation with this character?’ Asks the bishop.
‘For three or four minutes.’
‘He had a west country accent and a slight stammer.’
Kirsty Daventry is next up. The audience listens attentively, she is a calm and reliable witness, not given to exaggeration, so her story is even more powerful. She is followed by Sir Shackleton who relates the stranger who arrives unexpectedly at the parish council meeting, and who’s says nothing but moves around silently, dressed in old fashioned clothing.
‘The figure I saw in the graveyard sounds like the same man,’ says the doctor.
Tracy Armitage tells her story of the disappearing pony and trap to gasps of astonishment. PC David Snowden talks of seeing five men standing in the middle of road at the entrance to the market square around midnight four nights ago. His patrol car headlights pick up the figures but he was unable to question them as he drove in their direction they just evaporated into thin air.
Peter Houseman is up next and tells of seeing a hooded man coming out of Roger Cranswick’s allotment tool shed wearing a long green cloak and having the appearance of an old shepherd or drover. He waves a piece of green cloth as evidence.
‘What about the bell ringing?’ Somebody in the audience shouts out.
‘We cannot fathom it at all,’ says the Rector. ‘Roger was with me when the bell started to ring. He rushed to the church and found the door locked.’
‘When I opened up there was nobody,’ says Roger.
‘Are we being invaded by aliens?’ Asked Doris Whitman, the postmistress and UFO conspiracist.
‘Stuff and nonsense says,’ Sir Shackleton, trying to damp down alarmist speculation.
‘The Bishop has already blessed St. Mary’s of All Angels earlier this afternoon,’ says the Rector.
‘Anyone invited the ‘Most Haunted’ TV people to come and investigate?’
‘The most important thing is to keep calm, nothing evil or bad has happened. We just seemed to have been visited by some people from another time,’ says the Rector.
‘Isn’t that at odds with your Christian teaching?’ Asks an audience member.
‘No, not at all, if you believe in a Second Coming, intervenes the bishop.’
‘But there is more than one.’
‘Perhaps they have got stuck before crossing to the other side,’ said a diminutive lady who has been sitting quietly throughout the witnesses’ explanations. There is a brief lull in the conversation while the audience absorbs the inconspicuous lady’s remark.
The words of the Rector’s visitor came back to her, “he was hoping to move on.” She shivers at the memory. The Rector pauses before going on as if deciding to reply to the elderly lady, but thinks better of it. ‘I think at this point we should close the meeting with a short prayer, but before, can I ask if any one of you encounters anything strange to report it to Sir Shackleton Huntswick at the old rectory. May I urge you not waste his time with fantasy stories. In the meantime a small group of parishioners will be formed to investigate the phenomena further.’
Someone shouts, ‘Ghostbusters,’ and there is a nervous laughter from the audience. The Rector carries on: ‘If anyone is interested in helping us please see me afterwards. Thank you all for coming, and let is pray:
‘We ask you good Lord, our protector, to watch over us and let us walk without fear in our village and at our places of labour. And may those that seek explanations to the supernatural occurrences be rewarded with answers that renews our faith in the presence of Jesus Christ, who walks with us and watches over us every day of our lives. Amen’
Miss Erin Fitzgerald is a retiring, insular sort of person, some people may unkindly describe her as nondescript. She is not one to stand out in a crowd, and the comments she uttered at the village meeting were out of character. She could have been cloned from the mould of an Agatha Christie novel.
Her years as a civil servant in the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Tax office were as anonymous as her personality. The was dedicated, hardworking and sometimes very useful to her employers. She never married although had come close in earlier years. Reginald, to whom she was once engaged, was tragically killed in a bicycle accident on his way to work. She had foreseen his death but did not have time to warn him to leave his bike at home and take a bus on that dreadful day back in 1973. Erin’s gift of second sight has been both a benefit and a hindrance in her life. On balance, should would have rather been without it.
She inherited this augury from her Irish grandmother on her father’s side. From an early age her sixth sense predicted events and mapped out her life. For example, she knew she would work with numbers and that she would retire age sixty four and live, unmarried, in a small village. This extra sensory perception was occasionally employed at work and her seniors were often baffled at her uncanny accuracy in detecting vat fraud. She was asked to go and work in a London office of the Treasury but refused despite enticements of money and more perks. She did not like to abuse her powers or use them for financial gain. Erin had foreseen the terrible events in New York in September 2001 and the tsunami in Japan ten years later, but felt powerless to intervene. Who would take notice of an old lady in England, they would more likely lock her up as a nutcase.
More recently she had been receiving conflicting messages from the past involving wrongs being righted, and revenge sought for occurrences centuries ago. This was a new experience for Erin, she normally foresaw events in the future, things from history have never troubled her in the past. She tries best to shut them out but whenever she walks near the ancient trees on the edge of the village green her mind begins to crowd with images. They are nonsensical, jumbled visions that appear to be portents of conflict and awakening of long lost souls. For the first time in her life she feels true dread, as if a cloud of misfortune is about to affect her beloved village.
Uncharacteristically, she volunteers to join the now nicknamed, “ghostbusters group,” a name she hates as it degrades the unseen. She does not report her mixed up messages but worries that Sir Shackleton, the Rector, and some unidentified councillors, could be in danger. How, or in what form, she cannot yet understand and it would be silly to start spouting off until she has a clearer picture of future events.
One late afternoon, before darkness has descended, she plucks up the courage to position herself under the oldest evergreen oak on the village green. Anyone passing would see an inconspicuous old lady taking in the last of the day, Standing motionless, she opens her mind to see what the future might hold. The tree boughs crackle and creak and the leaves rustle as she feels the channels opening and knowledge ripples down like a waterfall from above. She sees a group of five cloaked and hooded figures, arms linked, at some kind of ritual. It could be a burial she is not sure. Erin picks up strange chants and evocations to some God, they are definitely pre-Christian. The vision is very frightening, there is fire and in the glow she can see a body being carried on a roughly made pallet which is being lifted onto a flaming pyre. It is a human sacrifice …! She has to close her mind, her head is swimming and she feels faint. Erin staggers towards the bench on the edge of the green and sits down, the tree continues to sway gently until it ceases, there is no wind.
Erin senses she has evoked something awful, unlawfully witnessed an act she should not have been allowed to see. She immediately regrets her actions as she has broken her own self-imposed code for using her special powers. She is truly shaken by the experience and is afraid her head will explode, will she ever be rid of the images now swirling through her mind.
Using all her mental strength she walks slowly across the green towards her semi-detached cottage. Nearing her garden gate she spies a raggedly dressed man in a top hat emerging through the church lychgate. She feels an immediate chill, the man tips his hat in recognition, she immediately recognises who he is.
Erin hurries up her garden path but her legs feel as if they are stuck in thick mud and fear overcomes her. After what seems like an age, she eventually opens her door and slamming it shut, bolts it behind her, whatever good that will do.
Her legs are now working normally and she enters her kitchen, pulling a china mug off a shelf she sets the kettle to boil and brews a mug of calming tea.
For some reason the dead of the village are coming alive and she is at a loss to know why. She has no idea what she will say to Sir Shackleton at the group meeting the following day. Her mind is still spinning with the realisation of who the top-hatted figure is.
As she sinks into her favourite armchair with her tea and a chocolate digestive, there is a knock at the door