The Abbot coughed, his spittle landing in a bubble of blood beside a bunch of fallen grapes, already shrivelling in the heat. He wondered if the doctors were right in their estimate of how long he had to live. So far, he had managed to avoid telling anyone about his disease. Not that it would have made any difference to his job. There was no one lined up to take over his role, long since considered a waste of time. When he had been appointed as a young man, the fear had been there. Now the coming of the scientific age had destroyed the superstitions that had surrounded his appointment.Looking up, he saw the figure of a small boy running fast across the bare fields leading from the monastery to the vineyard. Then he heard the bell tolling. A long, consistent clanging that he knew was meant for him alone.
Wiping his brow with one hand, he stood up, deliberately squashing the grapes into the blood of his spittle before grinding the mixture into the soil. Picking up his small leather bag he turned and made his way slowly up the hill towards the running boy.
‘Sir, sir. There’s a message for you. From the Vatican.’ The boy stood facing the Abbot, his lower jaw so far open that it was in danger of falling off.
‘Thanks, Mario. We shall return at the pace of the oldest man in the company, shall we not?’
‘But, Sir, it’s the Vatican.’
‘I’m well aware it’s the Vatican calling, Mario. You have made that abundantly clear. Nevertheless, even the Vatican must wait while our earthly bodies perform such simple tasks as returning to the monastery.’
He could see the boy was so excited that he was on the point of wetting himself. ‘Come on, youngster. Tell me the names of the wines we produce from this crop of grapes. I want them all, mind, not just the most obvious one. And from the fields, as far as the eye can see.’
He felt the tremors of excitement slowing in the boy’s blood. If only the child knew a part of what the Abbot was feeling he would doubtless become so excited he would keel over and die of a heart attack right there and then.
The old monk who met them in the courtyard had a totally different expression; more of horror than of delight.
‘Tomas, you old dog, why do you look so fearful?’
‘I think the day has come, Abbot. The day has come.’
‘Then fear not. It is what we have been preparing for all of our lives, is it not?’
The Abbot smiled calmly and sent the boy up ahead to fetch him a brew of hot soup and wine. Together with a crust of bread he would regain the energy he had lost in the walk up the hillside. He put an arm around the monk and swept him back across the courtyard into the main office.
‘Thank you for being patient,’ said the Abbot. ‘I was working in the fields.’
‘Abbot, we apologise for disrupting your routine. There has been a report.’
‘I see. Perhaps this is not something we ought to discuss over the telephone?’
‘There is a car on its way to the monastery. It will be with you within the hour. We have a light aircraft standing by to bring you here. How much equipment will you need to take with you?’
‘Nothing but the information that lies inside my head.’
‘That’s good. We can’t afford to waste time.’
After showering and dressing the Abbot looked out of the west window. He saw a cloud of smoke as a Mercedes worked its way along the winding dusty road leading to the monastery. His heart began to beat faster and faster, as though he was undergoing a panic attack.
‘Calm down,’ he ordered himself out loud. ‘This has to be no more than a false alarm, just like all the other ones turned out to be.’ In his heart he knew this alert was different.’
Tomas appeared with a sad look on his face. ‘You’ll be back, Abbot?’
‘Why so sad, Tomas. I shall be back or I shall not be back. You’re a man of God and you ought to trust more in his divine wisdom. At our age we our fortunate to wake in the morning to welcome the sun or the rain.’
‘Do be careful, my old friend. You have been away from Britain for so long I wonder you remember what the place is like.’
‘What makes you think I shall be returning to Britain?’
Tomas looked sheepish. He seemed on the point of answering and then turned away his head.
‘Is there something you know that I ought to be told?’
The city centre shopping mall was crowded, as it always seemed to be these days on a Saturday afternoon.
Keith Mackton strolled along the main boulevard, a long heavy bag hanging from each shoulder, oblivious to the shoppers coming towards him.
‘Rude bastard,’ he heard from a rather fat woman who had been forced to leap out of his way at the last moment.
A smile crossed Keith’s face for the first time that day. He glanced at his watch, careful not to unbalance the shopping bag. He was due to meet his sister in the pub just outside the complex. With any luck they could complete their plans for Christmas and present their mother with a fait accompli.
About ten minutes later he was sitting in one of the large corner seats in The Dying Sparrow, sipping a pint of Tetley’s ale and waving at the tall blonde who had appeared through the swing doors to the snug like a Hollywood princess on a roll.
She sat down beside him, dumping seven assorted bags of shopping, plucked the martini from the table, slurping it into her perfectly shaped mouth without a drop sliding onto her cheeks. Keith thought Samantha looked like a greedy baby getting its first drink of the morning. One day he would put the martini inside a baby’s bottle and see if she still swept it into her mouth. She was the nastiest person he knew, apart, of course, from himself.
‘Can Dad get away?’
Keith pointed to his mobile phone. ‘He’ll ring to tell us. Bit of a problem with the curate and the verger. I think Dad wants to shoot them both.’
‘Bit inappropriate for a Bishop at Christmas.’
They both laughed, but in such a cruel fashion that the couple heading through the rapidly filling pub towards their large but nearly empty table changed their minds at the last moment.
‘Let’s hope he’s in mufti, this time. I couldn’t bear a repetition of his last appearance here.’
‘Couldn’t agree more, Keith,’ said Samantha. ‘I’ve warned him again and again. It’s not as if he even wants to talk to these damn parishioners.’
‘I know. But he loves the glory.’
‘The power and the glory. Oh yes, he does.’
‘Now, what are we going to do about mother?’
‘She’s so bloody religious. I wish she was more like Dad.’
‘We’re never going to get her to come round to our way of thinking. So let’s forget that and work around it.’
‘Worth one last try?’
‘Dad says to stop. We’re wasting our time. She’s a believer and nothing we say or do is going to change that.’
‘You’d have thought being married to a clergyman for more than three decades would’ve altered her perspective on that matter.’
The tear-filling sobs of joy were frozen on their faces as they watched their parents struggling through the now-packed pub towards the window seat.
‘I don’t like the look of this,’ said Samantha. ‘He’s got something on his mind.’
The bishop had arrived dressed in a smart brown jacket with an open-necked beige shirt and beige trousers, looking every inch the relaxed accountant that he might well have become had the Church not got there first.
‘Hullo, you two,’ he said, trying to smile. ‘We have something to discuss. I have asked your mother to join us as this affects the family.’
Keith glanced at Samantha, but her look of confusion was returned by an equally confused look from her brother.
The midday summer sun sent shafts of light streaking through the trees, until the millions of fragments shattered on the lush green grass.
The Abbot had parked his car in the neighbouring village and walked across the fields. Under the circumstances, he thought it wise not to advertise his presence.
The parish priest of Olderton lived in a small detached modern house on the edge of the road leading towards the A508; the massive rectory having been sold off decades earlier to fund church losses in land speculation. It was now occupied by a former drug dealer turned publisher, who produced illustrated books for babies and local pamphlets for charities and other organisations.
The Abbot was concealed by a hedge on one side of the footpath and a field of ripened wheat on the other, stretching down towards the road. He slipped through the moss-covered gate leading into a small immaculately kept garden, mainly filled with roses. He stopped for a moment and smelt the air. As he did so he saw a face at the rear window. Moments later the back door opened and the priest beckoned him inside.
‘Well done, John. I should have suggested you come across the fields.’
‘There was no need. I understand what is involved. But, do you?’
The priest answered by turning away and going towards the kitchen.
‘A cup of tea or something stronger, my friend?’
‘Tea will do fine. I have to drive north this evening.’
‘You’re welcome to stay here. There’s a nice little pub about ten miles away that’s deserted until about eight. We could go there for a bit of peace and quiet.’
‘Maybe another time.’ He followed the priest into the tiny kitchen.
‘I was surprised you used the codeword.’
‘Not quite as surprised as I was when I saw the boy.’
‘Tell me about him.’
‘Early teenage, long hair, brilliant light blue eyes. Generally friendly but distant until cornered. The family did not engage in many of the village activities.’
The Abbot’s jaw dropped. ‘Did not. Why the past tense?’
‘They left last week.’
‘After your message?’
‘Correct. While it was in transit. They cannot have intercepted it.’
The Abbot coughed, politely. ‘Oh but they could. Who was your initial contact?’
‘John, why do you ask?’
‘I want to know from your lips.’
The parish priest did not answer. Instead, he placed a couple of cups and saucers on an old silver tray and, along with the pot of tea and a small jug of milk, carried it into the lounge.
‘I had two options, as you very well know.’
‘Go on,’ said the Abbot.
‘The first was to do nothing. An activity with which I am well acquainted in this quite diocese.’
‘Three parishes rolled into one?’
‘You belittle yourself, Steve. I have never known you take that option.’
‘It helps that we studied together, albeit you were my tutor. How many others are there?’
‘I cannot possibly tell you that. It would defeat our security arrangements. Just let me say I was surprised the call came from you.’
‘It’s not what you see that matters it’s what you don’t see.’
‘I never expected to come across the Boy Messiah in my lifetime.’ He picked up his cup and took a long draught of tea, before slowly returning cup and saucer to the tray. ‘And I still have not.’
The Abbot gasped. ‘So, what’s going on?’
‘The family were the most secretive in the village. As you might have guessed looking around at the houses in this area, not all of the wealth here has been amassed through good Christian practices. I’d like to say the people here are unhappy but that, in general, would not be accurate. They are, how shall I put it, confused as to their purpose in life. Sure, they have their health spas, their gyms, their Masonic gatherings, their work to occupy them, but they are almost all linked by a strange sense of otherworldliness, as though they can’t quite work out how they came to be here. Amongst these people the Knaptons were not so strange as to stand out, except to me. It was as though they feared the Cross.’
‘You are not imagining this, my friend?’
The parish priest looked deeply affronted. ‘I may be in my dotage, as indeed are you, but my mind is as active as ever it was. I am not imagining this. What I am trying to tell you is that while many others would have happily engaged in church activities, the flower festival, the harvest festival, the arts festival, while never ever setting foot inside the church for a service, these people seemed to force themselves to church on a regular basis. They were deeply unhappy inside our St. Mary’s. I couldn’t help wondering why they bothered.’
‘Tell me about the boy.’
‘It was about a month ago. The year they spent here I saw them once a week, obviously, and on a few other occasions. The boy gave me the collywobbles.’
‘A strange word for an old man to use,’ said the Abbot, smiling at his former pupil. ‘You sure you’re not regressing back to childhood.’
The priest ignored him. The boy never took his eyes off me. It was as though he was transfixed. Then, a month ago, I caught him in the small wood at the end of the graveyard. It was twilight and he was stark naked, covered in mud and leaves and dancing like a dervish.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Surely you would have smelt drink on his breath?’
‘Ah, that’s the point. I didn’t approach him. It was obvious that he had not seen me so I hid behind one of the yew bushes and watched. He continued this crazy dance for about half an hour. Then, when it was dark, he buried something in the ground, put on an all-enveloping cloak, a pair of heavy boots and made his way through the graveyard back towards his home.’
‘What did he bury?’
The priest stood up and walked across to a glass fronted cupboard filled with books.
‘This is where I keep most of my treasured first editions, although I ought to wrap them up and seal them inside an airtight container. But, I like to read them and since I have no intention of profiting from them by selling them, it doesn’t matter to me that they are ageing faster by the sweat from my fingers and the air in this room.’
By now he had unlocked the doors and reached inside for a hardback book, that he promptly turned around and handed to the Abbot.
‘Mein Kampf,’ exhaled the Abbot.
‘Look inside, on the flyleaf.’
The Abbot did as he was told and nearly dropped the book in surprise.
‘Signed by the author. A rarity indeed. And you say he buried this in the churchyard?’
‘It was packed in polythene and had an inner wrapper of brown paper.’
‘Did the boy return?’
‘I could not be sure of that. He was not seen in the village ever again. I thought he might have been punished for returning home in such a state, so I took the opportunity to visit the house. I must say they gave me the frostiest welcome I have ever received. The boy was there, still staring fixedly at me. Smartly dressed. He even had a slight smirk on his face, as though he knew I had been watching him. I had invented some excuse about the Carol Concert, forward planning, that sort of thing. They promised that one of them would read one of the lessons. Then, a month later, they’ve gone.’
‘Is the house for sale?’
‘It’s a rental, through a Lichtenstein company. I found that out from one of the local estate agents; quite peeved he was that business was going out of the county.’
‘And the book?’
‘I confess that I returned it to where the boy had buried it. I did not retrieve it and bring it here until after the family had left the village.’
‘And this is your Boy Messiah?’
The priest nodded. ‘It is not what you were expecting?’
The Abbot laughed. ‘I think you’d be right in assuming that. So, why the secrecy?’
‘Some rather odd things have been happening recently.’
The priest went to the window and looked out.
‘It’s a quiet time for the village. I think we might brave a little stroll around the houses. Then the churchyard. I’d like you to see where this awful book was buried. There’s something else, inside the church, that I would welcome your opinion on.’
‘And my first question: your contact?’
The air was thin, the heat was thick, the smog gathering in the city far below was threatening, the storm clouds gathering a long way off were just visible. When the boy reached the rock that marked the top of the hill he paused and drew in a deep breath. He looked around and saw no sign of other humans. A goat had strayed seemingly for ever upwards on the hill that afternoon, having nothing of a brain to inform it that turning back towards the lush grass surrounding the lake might perhaps have been a better idea, it had sniffed and sucked the stones around the marker until boredom made it approach the boy.
The boy stared at the goat, as though it were the very Devil himself. Maybe it was due to exhaustion or maybe it was due to the over religious upbringing he had been forced to endure