A wind is picking up around the village of Goosenest Bridge, blowing its dark mischief around, shaking the foundations to see what muck might rise to the surface, searching out any unmade-up minds, any unsubstantiated thought, making disarray and confusion. But most minds were made up and that was that. It fits and starts around the gravestones of All Saints, splattering the grass, picking at the roof tiles like a scab. But the little church hunkers down like an old sheep, ears back, eyes closed, waiting out the wind.
The Reverend Arthur Day bursts through the church doors as if his congregation is in hot pursuit. Breathing heavily he lifts his balding head to the late October sky, frowning against this cold gusting rush that billows his vestments and toys with his wispy hair; not ruffling like a father but lifting up soldier straight in mockery. The racing sky now draws behind it a darkening purple cloak of cloud and the crazed wind flings a panic of yellow leaves from ash and beech around the churchyard. Looking back at the gaping black hole of the doorway, Arthur Day sees no baying mob and hears only the miserable tones of the organ fading away. His rabid sermon has apparently not ignited the fires of guilt in his oblivious flock. They begin to emerge. Arthur Day narrows his eyes and stretches out his thin hand like a reticent proboscis.
'Reverend,' greets Mr Thomas Carter, taking Arthur's hand mechanically, briefly, trying to keep his hat on his head. 'Windy.' He sucks as if on a sweet but his mouth is empty. His expression is of deep thought but his head is empty. The whiskers on his ruddy cheek and eyebrows are thick and grey. He stands beside his wife, tall and silent, apparently there but he is elsewhere.
'Well, well,' says his wife Elizabeth, as she too shakes Arthur's limp hand, eyeing the Reverend closely. 'It's Arthur Day isn't it?'
Arthur's mouth opens a little and his eyes narrow, peering.
'What's wrong? Can't you believe I'm still alive? Elizabeth Carter! I'm eighty four years old and there's life in the old dog yet.'
Arthur believes her to be not a dog but a grey rat in a bonnet. Slowly her face floats to the surface of his memory. His own confused squinting face, jutting forward in an effort to remember, now jerks back in disbelief. It had never occurred to him that the people who occupied the village of his youth would still be here. Unease begins to chew at his insides, and he isn't sure why.
'We haven't seen you in Goosenest Bridge for… how long?'
'Um,' he scratches the backs of his hands, 'Well, yes, it's over forty years. Yes must be forty.'
'Must be. Are you stepping into Reverend Turnbull's shoes permanently?' she simpers, the tips of her yellow front teeth sliding out. She dabs at her sharp nose with a handkerchief then twitches it and sniffs. Her shiny black eyes dart around until they stop to find disgust in the smallest places.
'No, no. He has gone to his sister's to recuperate. I came at the last minute.'
'Ah,' she nods, still scrutinising his face. She turns her head as a gust whips up detritus from the churchyard. To look at her expression, Arthur thinks, it might be bits of old corpse.
Mr Thomas Carter plants his hand atop his hat. 'Fair fit to lift the church roof off, eh?'
'We are raising money for a new church roof, Arthur,' explains Elizabeth. 'Although I don't want those horrid things on the new one.' She draws her shawl around her shoulders as if it will protect her.
'What?' Arthur looks at the two stone gargoyles she was pointing to. 'Don't you like them?'
'I do not. Why on earth do we want those evil creatures looking down at us? This is a House of God not a Den of Evil.'
'Aren't they supposed to repel evil spirits?' Arthur yawns but has the unsettling feeling that this wild wind is emanating from their ghastly mouths. He frowns. 'Just water spouts at the end of the day.'
'Hm. Ugly things.' She gives them a last threatening glance and they sneer back with their rain-pelted, worn-away grins.
Next in line is Miss Jennie Barrett, a widow whose plumpness reminds Arthur of a soft armchair. She smiles, plumping her cheeks for his comfort, and reaches toward him with her pudgy hand.
'Thank you, Reverend, lovely sermon,' she says in her shrill voice, hitching the reticule on her arm.
Arthur Day half smiles. The title of his lovely sermon was 'The Wages of Sin is Death' and it has taken him forty years to write. As he unleashed this concept of the sin lurking within, he had seen rotund Miss Jennie Barrett knitting, Mr Thomas Carter asleep, and Mrs Elizabeth Carter craning her neck to take an inventory of all things and people in attendance. It had clearly struck a chord with them.
'Ah, Reverend!' Now red faced Farmer John Mutton thrusts out his red hand, the wind unable to dislodge his hat or his bluster. 'Top sermon! Need to point the finger at these sinners who steal sheep and anything else that ain't pinned down!' As he turns, several parishioners decide to abandon Reverend Day and rush home out of the wind.
One by one the good upstanding residents of Goosenest Bridge emerge unbeaten and disappear into the darkening afternoon. Last of all, as usual, is the quiet, shadowy seamstress Miss Lettie Beckett, her slim outline carefully cut out with no waste. She adjusts her practical bonnet, her practical head down, and offers her work roughened hand to the Reverend as if fulfilling a duty.
'Lettie?' The Reverend's voice has changed.
She looks up and gasps. He feels her cold hand withdraw suddenly like a blade through his hand. She covers her mouth with her fingers, a bitter gall rises in her throat and a pressure in her chest begins to build. Arthur looks at his palm expecting to see blood.
'Lettie Beckett?' he croaks, a withered smile distorting his face.
'You remember Lettie?' Mrs Carter springs forward, hands lifted, nose twitching, searching their faces. 'Lettie, it's Arthur Day. My goodness you don't look very well, dear. I wanted you to come and take some measurements for my new dress.'
'Yes,' Lettie begins, the word sticking to the bitterness in her throat. 'I'm so sorry. I must go home. I must go home now.'
She staggers a little and begins to walk away down the churchyard path, feeling so light she imagines she is floating. As she passes the newly dug soil of her mother's grave she sees something more; the soil starts to crumble. Something marble white is growing out of the earth, round and curled, then it springs upright. A hand, bony and black-nailed lunges to snatch at her ankle again then again. Lettie jumps aside and pulls her skirts away. She looks back but the soil is bare and black and the hand is gone.
Reverend Day watches her disappear through the lych-gate, his heart racing.
'Ah Lettie,' sighs Elizabeth. 'Always was a bit odd, wasn't she, Thomas? Thomas!'
'Lettie. Odd. Still, her mother was odder. French.'
'Belgian, I think, dear.'
'French. Made beautiful lace, exquisite lace, but so odd.'
'Odd nothing's growing on her grave, I'd say,' muses Mr Carter who has strolled over to the bare earth at her headstone, jabbing at the soil with his shoe.
'Probably poisoned the earth,' mutters Elizabeth. 'It's only been two weeks, don't be silly. Lettie!' she calls after the seamstress, 'come at six when you're feeling better!' Then to Arthur, 'Please, won't you come back home with us now for a cup of tea, Arthur. Several of our dear friends will be there. It's a fixture on Sundays. I'm sure you'll want to catch up with the village's fortunes over the last forty four years.' She looks at Arthur who appears to be staring after Lettie. 'And one month.'
'Pardon? Oh, no, really.'
'Tea and cake, Arthur, not the fiery furnace of Hell. You'll come. Myrtle House at the end of the lane. You remember.'
Arthur does as he is told. He nods a brief acknowledgement to Mr Eustace the organist who touches his hat, gives him a look which says 'I could have told you', clutches his music bag, and they both hurry away from the church before it blows itself to bits.
Lettie stumbles off down the road. Forty four years ago they had dawdled here with summer dusted feet, beneath crashing waves of beech green that collided above them; now only crumpled black fingers grasp at the last of their leaves in jagged agony, black against the sky, black against the past. Anger quickens her step. I thought you were dead, why have you come back? A mad laughter of leaves blows up before her. She shields her face with her hand against all the debris of what's over and done and a lone dry holly leaf scrapes along the road on needle tips, halting then on again. Arthur Day, Arthur Day, after all this time, why have you come back now? She turns abruptly off the road, grabs her skirts and climbs over a stile and across the farm field on a muddy footpath that slathers her hem in brown sludge. Thistles snag at the cloth of her dress puckering threads. Knot upon knot of black thread is curled inside her chest and as much as the wind harries her shawl and jostles her bonnet so the black knot tightens itself.
She can see her little slate cottage at the end of the row that nestles into the foot of the fell, and she cannot get there quickly enough. Arthur Day, good God, the wages of sin is death and death shall surely come to me never forgiven I am going to be sick. One hand over her mouth, she lurches through the door and vomits over the cold stone floor. Panting and gripping the table edge, slime stretching between her trembling fingers, she begins to calm but cold sweats are making her shiver. Reaching for the poker, she prods at the fire to jab some life into it but only sees once again his note "Lettie for a Day. Lettie forever"curl and catch, listening for her mother, gasping, laughing… but the pale yellow flame flickers and dies. The cottage smells of smoke and damp.
The door to the little parlour is closed. Behind it dwells a ghost where her lace still soothes the back of the old armchair. Her pins and needles still prick the fabric of the house, dropped in the stone crevices on the floor, left around in fragments of cotton and silk; sharpness in her dark edges and a cutting edge to her words. She had dressed the dead of the village and told Lettie she did more than that, she sewed together their lips; there would be no more gossip in the hereafter, and she stuffed their mouths with cotton to blot the poison and stop the damage.
Lettie climbs the steep stone stairs cupping the pain in her chest with her hands like a cradle as if to carry the knot that is growing. They both slither into bed, muddy dress sodden shoes and all.
Arthur Day, on the other hand, settles comfortably into a generous armchair, his hands smoothing over the tapestry hunting party on its fat arms. He is handed a delicate plate of cake which he gazes at lustfully, and a pretty cup and saucer is placed upon the little table beside him. He takes a small sip of tea and a large bite of cake glancing around hoping his greed has gone unnoticed. Mr Eustace's cake has fallen on the floor and so the ensuing fuss has got Arthur off the hook.
Mr Hector and Mrs Dora Loveland sit poker straight taking tea with great finesse. She has a surprised expression in this unsurprising company, and she rotates her eyes to save unnecessary turning of her head.
Mrs Elizabeth Carter's daughter Eloise begins to sing at the piano which she plays with precision. Her face is rodent like her mother's, her teeth are brown and the greying ringlets that are coiled at the side of her head bounce gently as she moves. Her eyes are closed as deserving of her artistry and as the song fades into the distance she turns with a self- satisfied smile that tells the audience how lucky they are, so they clap lightly but not for long. Arthur happens to glance at Mr Eustace. The hand that had been cupping his disinterested chin now appeared to be chewing his face in anguish.
Mrs Carter takes her daughter's hand. 'Bravo my dear. Such a sensitive interpreter of Schumann.' Mr Eustace is muttering Schubert Schubert and rolls his eyes. Mrs Carter is oblivious. She continues, 'And Reverend Day I must risk embarrassing you by saying my darling has resisted many proposals of marriage to stay with her mother. Such devotion! So your hopes all those years ago would never have been realised.' The two women smile at each other like dogs about to fight.
Arthur chokes on his cake crumbs. 'Ah but I never... heh heh, mm.' He tips his head to one side and raises his eyebrows as if that will express his response to everyone's satisfaction. Mr Eustace isn't fooled.
Arthur watches Eloise demolish a wedge of cake and thinks it would have been more appropriate to put her plate on the floor. He is stung by her mother's remark and tries to examine memories that have apparently backed out at the last minute. He looks to the window as if the glass might reveal some truth but sees only trees panic stricken in the wind and he thinks of Lettie and feels sideswiped by the jolt of seeing her.
The heavy clunk of the clock fills the thickening space; this… then that, this… then that and there is a sadness to this inexorable passage of time that feels like a series of meaningless scenes of clumsy blunders and petty victories, and Mr Eustace's foot twitches to a silent rhythm displaying a far superior sense of timing than the Schumann impresario, and Arthur wishes he was elsewhere.
'So tell me Arthur,' Elizabeth Carter's voice cracks the gloom like a whip. 'Did you marry? Have you family?'
Arthur had married a suitable girl, approved by his parents, at the age of thirty, but had never found real happiness. His wife Rebecca couldn't understand why she occupied such a small part of his inner life, though she loved him completely. She had died five years ago after apparently running out of ideas.
'I'm a widower. We had no children.'
Elizabeth nods. 'Lettie never married.' She looks intently at him for some shift in his demeanour.
'So tell me Arthur,' ventures Mrs Jenny Barrett, hoping mimicking Elizabeth's opening would be a safe bet, 'do you find the village much changed?' She looks up from her clicking needles and pulls more wool from the ball in her little blue knitted bag.
'It seems to be as I remember it. But something is missing across the road here.'
'Oh, Mr Seddon's bakery shop. Yes it burned down. I say burned down but of course it didn't burn down on its own.' She begins to count her stitches.
Arthur raises his eyebrows.
'Well it was common knowledge he was having an affair with Janet Bradley and her husband found out and…'
'Don't be ridiculous Jennie. He spent too many evenings in the Dog and Duck and came home drunk and set the house on fire by mistake. Silly man. Mind you,' she mutters brushing imaginary crumbs from her lap, 'Janet Bradley is a bit of a trollop.'
Mr Carter flicks the pages of the Goosenest Gazette he is reading, licks his thumb and turns the page. 'John Jones at the bank told me a different story. Seems he was near to bankruptcy and set the place on fire himself.'
'You never told me that!' Elizabeth stiffens.
'He mentioned it in passing. It's a long time ago.'
'Oh, dear. What happened to him?' asks Arthur.
'Well he died in the blaze didn't he,' said Mrs Carter.
'Maybe not. Old Deb Morris thought she saw him last week at Low End market,' says Jennie Barrett looking up smugly.
'Deb Morris wants spectacles,' scoffs Elizabeth.
'Ha!' says Mr Carter. ''She won't get any if they have to be paid for.'
'No, I dare say,' says Elizabeth. ''She could pay for the church roof in small change.'
'I'm not sure she's sitting on what everyone thinks,' muses Jennie, beginning a new row.
'Lives in a hovel and worth a fortune,' confirms Elizabeth.
Eloise nods and chuckles. Arthur considers her to be a very ugly woman.
Mr Carter disappears once more behind his newspaper. Mr Eustace has gone to sleep. Arthur wants to leave but doesn't know how to. The clock clunks on bored to death.
Lettie Beckett's eyes snap open. She is gasping for breath in a room thick with darkness. She pulls the damp sheet to her chin with bone white fists, eyes swivelling as dull shapes become bedstead, water jug, window. Nausea leans on her throat, pulling at her tongue, and the shadows flow into her mouth as she heaves… but then…what's that? What's that noise? Something flashes beyond the window and a squeak, squeak, squeak. She crushes the sheet in her sweating palms, peering at the window glass, fearful. A weight is bearing down on her chest and she is drowning in this ugly darkness, breathing it in; it is black and tastes like blood.
It's there again! Squeak, squeak, squeak… the birdfeeder hanging in the tree flashes, catching the sudden moonlight, swinging in the wind. But is there something else? Something is coiling around it; a squirrel? A cat? She strains to see. It seems to flow, twisting around the swinging metal like a strange caress. Shivering in the gloom, she reaches to light a candle and takes it to the window, but she is jolted by a hideous face looking in at her from the window sill. The candle shakes in her hand. What is it? The creature has a huge mouth and wide eyes. It crouches with its eagle feet and night-bat wings, panting. It grins and taps on the glass with its sharp claw, cocking its head like a curious poodle, but there is no sweetness here. It taps again. Then a sound tears at her guilt; a small sound; a little sob, stifled. She cries out and flings open the window.
'What are you? What are you!'
The coiling creature leaps past her into the room and disappears in the shadow. She lifts the candle in horror.
'Miss Lettie Beckett?' comes a gravelly voice.
She squeals, her hand at her mouth. The creature leaps onto the bedpost. 'Lettie Beckett?' Its great lips quiver around its teeth. It blinks its stony eye. A serpentine tail curls delicately around its feet. It is a gargoyle from the church roof, apparently.
'What do you want?' She is convulsed with fear, assuming the devil has entered her bedroom. 'Did you make that noise?'
'Hm,' it puts a considering hand to its chin. 'What noise was that, Miss Beckett?'
She cannot answer. That would be too much. Death has surely come.
It puts up a finger. 'I think a nice cup of tea is in order before we go. I'll put the kettle on.' The gargoyle leaps off the bedpost and down the stairs, not, it strikes Lettie, unlike her mother's highly strung cat. Hypnotised, she follows it. By the time her heavy sodden skirts sway over the kitchen flags, the fire is lit and the kettle spitting hot water. She lowers herself into an armchair glaring mistrust as the gargoyle offers her a gingernut from a cracked plate. It leaps around confidently, pouring water into the brown teapot and after passing her the cup and saucer settles itself on the table in front of her.
'Now tell me, Miss Beckett, when did you first meet the fool Arthur Day?'
'Your sermon was a little surprising today, Arthur,' says Mrs Carter, folding her arms. 'The Wages of sin is Death. Are we losing you to the non-conformists?'
'Not at all. I feel we can become complacent in our faith and…'
'Shouldn't that be 'are death'?' offers Eloise, pouring herself another sherry. 'Not 'is death'? Wages is surely, pardon me, plural?''
'Yes, rather a long sermon I'd say, Reverend,' says Mr Loveland, crossing his legs and jerking his head to one side, as if he'd cast his remark into the ring but didn't want anyone to know it was him.
Dora Loveland is surprised. 'We're used to the same sermons each week! We are traditionalists!'
'Oh, is that the time? Must dash!' Mr Eustace has exploded into life. He bows jerkily to the hostess and leaves, clutching his music bag even closer. Arthur follows him enviously with his eyes, and the remaining guests glance at each other as if the weakest of them had been picked off.
Arthur continues. 'We need to recognise the sin that lurks in our deepest thoughts.'
'Well there's plenty of sin in Janet Bradley's deepest thoughts,' snorts Eloise.
Jennie Bennett rocks with laughter and Arthur can't help staring at her wobbling flesh.
'Be that as it may,' says Mrs Carter, 'we don't need to stray far from the tradition of the Church of England. This new-fangled thinking is a distraction in my book. It's more about keeping the numbers these days. Churches have to be paid for.'
'Of course,' he feels obliged to concur, 'but at the same time I feel we should examine our own,' he detects a certain tension descending, 'lives.'
Mrs Elizabeth Carter pats her regal hands on the chair arms and smirks at Arthur. 'Perhaps that sentiment extends to our clergy as well.'
'Undoubtedly, I would be the first to admit,' Arthur is aware of many eyes upon him, 'we are blown by the storms of conscience the same as everybody else.'
Mrs Carter nods as if to confirm her suspicions. 'And that storm blew you to Goosenest Bridge today I assume.'
The remark is lost on Arthur. He ploughs on. 'Of course the wages of sin are indeed death but the gift of God is life.'
'I think, Reverend, you'll find that the sinners to whom you refer are the ones not filling the pews in church, but idling in the taverns and on the street corners,' spits Mr Loveland.
Mr Carter slaps down his newspaper, hauls himself to his feet and pours himself a sherry. 'This wind isn't abating. We lost a damn good elm in the last storm.'
'Tom Hutchinson's roof blew off,' nods Jennie Barrett.
'The French woman was a sinner!' slurs a sprawling Eloise, holding her sherry glass in front of her eyes and gazing at it. 'Tried to poison me!'
'Aye! ' nods surprised Dora. 'Can't trust the French! She tried to poison the whole village with her salves and potions. Doctor Marsden told me himself of her antics.' She screws the handkerchief in her lap into a ball in her anguish. 'We don't need her sort in the village. We're fine as we are.'
Another gift of God is the ensuing lull in conversation that allows Arthur Day to rise from his seat and announce his departure. Jennie Barrett stuffs her knitting into the little blue bag and gets up. 'It's time for me to go too. Thank you, Mrs Carter, as always for your hospitality. Reverend Day perhaps you could accompany me to my humble abode,' she chuckles with closed lips and assembles her outer garment and shawl. 'I'm not as steady on my feet as I was and the road is rather stony.'
Mrs Carter looks sideways at her and forces a smile. It looks like a snarl.
Once on the street Jennie Barrett slips her arm through Arthur's. 'Please permit me, Arthur. I really don't feel confident.' She draws him closer. 'Now we are alone I would like to tell you a few things. Mrs Elizabeth Carter is a self- appointed arbiter of morals in this village. She has a great propensity to weave her own truth about what she sees or thinks she sees, and I must tell you she sees a lot from those windows and those health giving promenades around the village. No-one really knows what happened to Mr Seddon. His shop burned down and he disappeared. That's all. Old Deb Foster may or may not be sitting on a pile of gold (I suspect the latter) but it is true she never gives any of it away. Miss Eloise Carter has never to my knowledge turned down any proposals of marriage and her piano artistry is second rate. And I'm going to tell you something else, Arthur.' She pulls him closer still. 'I knew you were meeting Lettie on the fells all those years ago. Elizabeth Carter knew too. Your secret was not so secret. You see she had ideas that you would make an ideal match for her Eloise. Shortly after you left Lettie fell seriously ill. We did not see hide nor hair of her for some months. When she emerged to take the air she was changed. Never the same again. Doctor Marsden says she has a heart condition and she succumbs most easily to any changes in the air. Her mother… ' she hesitates. 'Her mother, Arthur, told me the truth herself after a few too many gins one Christmas, then afterwards told me if I ever told anyone she would slit my throat and I have no doubt she would have too. Francine had a nasty side.' She pats his hand genially. 'Anyway this is my cottage, goodnight.'
Miss Bennett slides her arm out of his and trots down her stony path with all the surefootedness of a mountain goat.
Arthur's shoulders are slumped and his mouth is open. It is a few moments before he realises it is raining.
Miss Lettie Beckett is stroking a purring gargoyle upon her knee. He feels oddly warm and soft to her touch. Ears back in pleasure, he draws himself up into her neck under her caress and she is reminded of Arthur's skin.
'What is your name?' she asks
He withdraws from her, ears pricked. 'Name? That would be inappropriate. I am an architectural feature. Now, my dear, if you are ready, it's time to go.'
She follows him to the door. It seems like the best thing to do.
The wind has bated its putrid breath and bodeful darkness has oozed over the fells. Pelting rain rushes through the trees as the gargoyle, its lantern held high, guides Lettie up the stony path behind her cottage, hidden in a fold, overgrown with trees. It undulates before her, crisscrossing over the ground and she, for her part, stumbles on the stones, clutching her sodden skirts, wiping the dripping hair from her face. The creature hesitates, lantern aloft, waiting, then on again, its serpentine form curling and bending through the shadows like enfolding love.
'You came up here with Arthur,' she thinks the gargoyle says.
'No, no, I never did!'
Water cascades now, splashing over rocks, a merciless flow of bitter memory and dark disgrace and she stumbles into scratching hawthorn; the creature's terrible face is suddenly close to hers, its lantern light searching… and Arthur bent his head when hawthorn was smothered in bridal white and mother-die draped its white lace veil over the hedgerow and the moon was just a whispered white smudge in a pale blue sky.
'You walked through the meadows with Arthur,' she thinks the gargoyle says.
'No, no, I never did!'
The lantern winks and flashes in front of her, bewitching her steps… and fingers brushed like nettle sting and arching fern embraced the sweet steaming earth where madness stretched its tendrils and Arthur's slender arms reached along dusty paths in secret ways where all was lost in the winnowing wind.
'You loved him,' the gargoyle might have said.
'No, no, I never did!'
But the words collapse around her. All was scorched that sweltering summer then bridesmaid Autumn seeped up from the damp earth where hawthorn dangled red wooden beads and dewy webs waited trembling in the hedgerows and mist ghosted the fields and the black beady eye of bramble and elder accused the tender touch that burst the fragile clot, bleeding over flustered furtive fingers.
The black knot that her mama tied in her chest is unravelling; she gasps for breath, she is falling apart.
Arthur strides into the vicarage, slides out of his overcoat and shakes it over the hall floor.
'You could have done that outside!'
Mrs McHugh, the tiny irate housekeeper snatches the coat from him and shakes it vehemently outside the door as if to punish it. Her rotund form turns, slams the door shut and rolls from side to side past him back to the kitchen.
'I didn't see you in church, Mrs McHugh,' queries Arthur.
'Didn't you?' she answers enigmatically. 'Did you enjoy Elizabeth's … ' she pauses, then smiles in mockery, 'swahray?'
Arthur raises his eyebrows and scratches his head.
'I warrant she wasn't best pleased to see you after all these years.'
Arthur puts his hands on his angular hips and crumples his brow, his eyes on the delft rack. 'Well… um…' The delft rack wasn't giving any clues away.
'She had plans for you and Eloise, don't tell me you didn't know!' She throws her head back and cackles. 'And you dallying with poor Lettie. Must've been a shock and a half for her.'
'Well anyway,' she says, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders. 'I have to go. I'll come back at seven to put your dinner out.'
'No don't bother I can manage myself, thank you. But I didn't know she had plans for me and Eloise. I can't even remember Eloise. I can barely remember Mrs Carter.' He rubs his eyes trying to fathom what is happening. 'I'm told Lettie was very ill after I left?'
Mrs McHugh looks at him pityingly. 'That she was. What on earth were you thinking?'
'Haha, Elizabeth was driven to lunacy trying to find out what ailed Lettie. She told me once: ''I saw that French witch leave the house with a basket and a spade and go up the fell, she looked mighty guilty. I'd give my eye teeth to know what was in that basket!'' '
Mrs McHugh narrows one eye and nibbles with her front teeth. Arthur is aghast. This is mimicry at its finest.
'Anyway,' she says, 'enough of all that, water under the bridge. Out of my way, I've got my cat to feed.' She rolls out of the door like a boat in a swell.
Arthur stands before the crackling fire as if its dancing flames would explain but it's just more gossip.
'Dallying?' he mutters. The fire's nasty voices ignore him. 'Hmph.'
He pours brandy into a crystal tumbler and drops heavily into an armchair, prickling as if falsely accused. But then he sighs with pleasure at his friend in the glass whose warm amber eyes glint happily back at him, twinkling in the facets. He takes a sip and closes his eyes but snaps them open again as Lettie's face appears. Grumbling at this intrusion, he picks up his book of sermons and opens it, but sees no words and it falls from his lap as he looks around the room, the seascapes on the wall, the heavy brocade curtains, the fading light. He drains the glass, and gazes into the fire.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
'What, what… who's braying on the door?' shouts Arthur, staggering to answer it. He yanks it open.
Mrs McHugh is not impressed. 'I'll give you braying! Get out of my way, I'm not here for the good of my health!'
He flattens himself against the wall to avoid her charging figure. She smells of roses and stale washing. He suspects she has not removed her black bonnet in ten years.
'Looks like you fell asleep,' she observes wryly as she lays the table, waddling back and forth from the kitchen with cold meat, bread and potatoes.
'So how did the sermon go down?' she asks, hands on hips. 'You'll be flogging a dead horse hereabouts.'
'Um, Mrs McHugh, did everyone know about Lettie and… I?'
'Ha, there's no secrets in this village. Not with the likes of Elizabeth Carter and her cronies. She hated Francine. I'll tell you something,' she narrows one eye and pauses. 'It wasn't just the dressmaking, Francine served the village well with her remedies. I used to walk the hedgerows with her and Beast, my old Jack Russell, ah, bless him, and she knew everything that growed there, she gave me a salve for my knee, worked wonders, made it from meadowsweet she picked it while we walked. You couldn't rely on Dr Marsden he spent too much time in the pub. Elizabeth Carter didn't understand and thought Francine could make magic potions and cast spells and,' she looks around conspiratorially, 'she asked Francine for a potion to calm Mr Carter's unwanted advances. Rather a large appetite it appeared!' She screeches with laughter. After a few minutes hysteria, she stops abruptly, smooths down her apron and says, 'Ah, loved little Beast had him shot in the end. Goodbye I'm off.'
The door slams and Arthur returns to his chair, the food untouched. But Lettie is here with him, he feels again her cool hand from the morning, remembers the smell of elderblossom, the urgency of summer, the suffocating heat.
'No,' he says, unaware he is speaking aloud. 'My sermon must occupy me. If I have only sown the seeds of change in their minds that they may turn away from sin and embrace a path with our Lord to walk in righteousness…' He pours another brandy and forgets the water. He turns the glass enjoying the angularity beneath his fingers. 'I must continue my work for God, he will show me the way. I must shake the foundations. They need to wake up! Or death awaits them.'
'Indeed it does.'
Arthur jumps out of his skin. A hideous creature is languishing in the chair beside him, holding a glass of brandy and smoking a cigar, one reptile leg crossed casually over the other.
'The soul is mere wreckage where there is sin,' the creature nods, and draws on its cigar exhaling a blue plume of smoke. 'Another brandy, Arthur? And have a cigar. I do love a good Cuban.'
It offers the cigar box to Arthur and replenishes his glass. Arthur is frozen, his eyes wide. The creature is made of stone yet lives like flesh. It has a terrible wide mouth, thick lips and narrow eyes. It is a carving; it is smoking like an authority, drinking like a bishop, pausing like an academic. Arthur takes the cigar, although he has stopped breathing. He puts it to his mouth, mechanically. The creature strikes a match and lights it. Arthur is horrified. He gazes into its ugly stone face and thinks he sees a twinkling eye.
'I very much enjoyed your sermon today,' it says, tossing the spent match into an ashtray. 'Spiritually inspiring and intellectually challenging.'
Arthur grips the chair arm. He has had episodes of intense experience before, sometimes through a glass darkly, often when the glass has brandy in it. The creature's eye glints like a mirror.
'Thank you,' says Arthur. 'High praise indeed.' He is not sure why he says this since he is conversing with a gargoyle but the thrill of debate proves irresistible.
'The wages of sin is death,' nods the creature as the crackling fire sends dancing lights around the room and the constant tap of rain drips outside the window beats a slow time. 'I do so admire Saint Paul. Quite the hero in my eyes.' It turns to Arthur and a smile creeps across its hideous wide lips.
'Oh I agree entirely. I am in his shadow of course but I feel an impetus now to open the eyes of people who are sleepwalking into oblivion. Yes they may tend the church flowers, polish the pews, raise money for the roof repair, but in truth they have let sin deaden their consciences. It creeps upon them, makes them comfortable and complacent and the moment they are under its spell they are dead.' Arthur leans forward in earnest. 'This afternoon in the company of some of the congregation I found myself witness to the presence of greed, pride, hate and yes even inebriation.'
The creature raises its eyebrows and twitches an ear. 'Hard to believe. They look so innocent.'
Arthur shakes his head. 'Aha. Not so innocent. The small stones add up to a mighty wall. That veil of gossip brings down a curtain on their vision.'
'''If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.'' ' The creature considers its cigar and continues. 'But the concept of sin is thorny. What brings about a separation from God might not be so obvious to everyone.' It turns its head slowly and scrutinises Arthur's face.
'They seem to see the sins of others quite clearly. That veil of gossip that draws the curtains in the parlour makes for a degree of privacy that just incites them. And then of course the filthy sins of lust and drink bring with them quite obvious horrors of the flesh which no-one could mistake.' Arthur drains his glass. 'They sit there dispensing their judgement as if it is a duty.'
The creature shrugs. 'We are all sinful, Arthur. Didn't our friend Saint Paul assert that by one man sin entered the world and death reigned from Adam to Moses?'
'Ha! I think we have Eve to thank for that!' Arthur slithers further down in his seat, his long legs out before him like two bent sticks. 'Women are,' he gazes at nothing and blinks slowly, 'temptresses. Adam was tempted.'
'Indeed he was, but I could argue that he was also rather pusillanimous in his blame first of Eve for his transgression, and then even God for giving Eve to him in the first place.'
Arthur seems morosely preoccupied with the fire. '''All women are the devil's gateway.'' 'He turns to the creature. 'Tertullian.'
'More brandy, Arthur?'
The gargoyle fills his glass. Arthur looks into its face. It is beginning to look like his own. 'They weren't listening,' he slurs.
'The con… congregation. None of them listened.'
'One of them listened to every word.'
'Miss Lettie Beckett.'
'I didn't know she was there until…' he rubs his hand on his thigh as if to clean it.
'She imagines she has committed a sin so terrible she will never be forgiven. I would think your sermon gave her no solace at all.'
'Cast your mind back, Arthur. I think you know.'
Arthur is drunk and breathing heavily. 'It wasn't my fault! Even they said her mother was a witch. She cast a spell on me. I was young. I was… it was a long time ago. Water under the bridge. All forgotten.'
'Who are you?' Arthur shouts, ploughing a furrow through his hair with his bony fingers. Hr drops his face into his hands and groans.
'Tell me, Arthur,' the creature asks quietly in a voice more like Arthur's own, 'how did you meet?'
Arthur is silent. Then he says,' I had seen her around the village. I could sing in those days and travelled about the local churches with my brother singing in the church choir. My father's parish was further down the valley. We had sung for the Christmas service that year. About that time I wanted to be an artist and would wander the fells with my brushes, paints and easel, sketchbook. She was on the fell walking, just walking. We spoke.' He pauses, falling into his memories, sipping his brandy. 'She was different. She had no knowing look, no flounce of her skirts. She trusted me. We began meeting secretly.'
''Your family would not have approved.'
'Oh, no. Not at all. No.' He shakes his head and laughs ruefully. 'I told them I was sketching landscapes. I was sketching her.'
'They found out.'
'My father found my drawings. Perhaps Elizabeth Carter had told them, I don't know. Anyway I told my father I was going to marry Lettie. He flew into a rage. So did I. My father struck my face. My mother fell in a faint. I wept.' Arthur's voice is barely audible. 'I was sent away to University. I decided I had made a mistake and attempted to forget it all.'
'And did you?'
Arthur turns to the creature, but it has gone.
Lettie has reached level ground on the fellside. She stands limply in the rain too cold to shiver.
'You know where we are, Lettie?'
There is grass shining green at her sodden feet, a patch of copper bracken, boulders thrust up among silver birch, their branches trembling, dripping.
The full weight of forty years' shame is upon her chest. 'Am I dying?' she asks, but knows the answer. This is where it ends.
'I want to show you something,' the creature says, leaping down from atop a huge boulder.
It begins to dig furiously like a dog among the fading ferns, flinging soil up behind it in a black shower. The lantern throws its devil shadow large across a rock. She sees it is digging her grave into the darkness of hell.
Arthur leaps from his chair and staggers. The room is dark but for the red glow of the fire. It draws his gaze as it fades and flares. He reaches, shaking, for his amber comfort and closes his eyes, savouring the reassurance bathing his mouth.
Then, something heavy lands on the back of his neck. His knees buckle, his glass falls. Sharp needles are penetrating his shoulders, he reaches up and tries to see, and the face of the creature, horrible in the shadow, is suddenly before him. Its eagle claws are in his flesh, its tail twitching ominously. Arthur shrieks, grappling with its stony wings, trying to dislodge but he cannot. He hears its rasping hot breath whisper in his ear, 'The wages of sin, Arthur. Who did the devil pay forty years ago?'
'What?' Arthur cries. 'Let go! Let go!'
The gargoyle sinks its serpentine teeth into Arthur's neck and as a poison enters his blood he feels Lettie's soft lips and mouth not a needle piercing and the creature's rough tail curls and caresses him and gentle hands stroke and soothe. Arthur is going mad.
The creature whispers with Lettie's voice, 'Say you love me, Arthur, say it again.'
'Argh!' he screams, sinking to the floor.
'What befell Lettie after you left?' the creature hisses, sinking its claws further into his back.
'I don't know! She was ill. They told me. I never knew!'
The room erupts in orange flame and the creature laughs into the inferno, leaping from Arthur to stand before him.
'You're a fool, Arthur Day,' it spits and smacks his head with its tail.
Then it is gone and the room subsides into cold, clammy shadow.
Lettie's hands are at her mouth. The creature is pulling something out of the earth… a basket… a blue blanket inside. She screams, 'No, no, cast it away it is a monster!'
She hears that tiny sob.
'What is that? Did you make that noise? Did you?'
'No, my dear.' The gargoyle opens the blanket. 'Look Lettie. Look here.'
Shaking now, she steps forward, hesitantly, to look, her hands still covering her mouth.
'My baby! My baby!' she cries.
'Mama said it was deformed, a monster. I had sinned against God, an unforgivable sin she said, and this was my punishment. It was dead, she said, it was from hell. But I heard that noise. I knew it wasn't dead. She took it away and buried it.'
'Take him, Lettie.'
She lifts the baby into her arms. He opens his birth blue eyes and gazes at her face. She cups his head in her hand, soothing gently round and round, circling time, measuring forgiveness. Lettie lies back into the warm earth, steamy as that summer in bracken unfurling from a tight green fist, cradling the child, and closing her eyes. 'But the gift of God,' she whispers, 'is Life.'
A creature's ghostly shadow is moving around the vicarage garden. It stops at the corner of the house and begins to dig, deeper and deeper, grappling wet earth, down and down towards its black heart. With a shrill laugh, it thrusts its front claws under the foundations and lifts and drops, lifts and drops, faster and faster, shaking its solid position, made ever safer in its advancing years.
Arthur is lying on his back on the hearth rug. He feels the house begin to rock.
'Argh!' he cries, grasping the edges of the rug. 'An earthquake!'
'No earthquake,' comes a voice from the seascape over the mantelpiece. 'Storm!'
The ship is tossed on the waves. The crew is lost.
'Hold on, Arthur!' shouts the captain. 'We can ride the tempest together!'
'Help me,' says Arthur, the grey waves are roaring and surging, spray is lashing his face like a whip. 'Oh, Lord, is this your anger?'
He feels the sea falling far, then rising up on a sickening wave of frothing foam. 'Why this, Lord? Why this?'
Arthur wails in anguish. 'Oh, my sermon! It must have been my sermon. I have displeased you! Please, tell me what I have done wrong!'
'There's the lighthouse, brother,' calls the captain. 'Let us pray we can reach solid ground!'
'I am praying. God isn't listening.'
The ship lurches over and Arthur grabs the fender, screaming.
'I'm dying, Lord! Will you hear my last prayer?'
'It will be alright,' murmurs Lettie. 'Don't be scared. I love you.'
'Oh, Lettie.' Arthur is weeping. 'Why do you come now after what I did?'
'I'll never leave you, Arthur.'
Arthur is screaming. The rock he has clung to has shattered the hull. He feels the sea in his mouth, choking him, he is drowning.
The storm subsides as suddenly as it came. Arthur is panting on the hearth rug. He has vomited. He hauls himself onto his knees, wiping the tears from his face with his sleeve.
'I understand,' he says grimly, then shouts it again in case God hasn't heard.
He staggers to his feet, reeling, and grabs his coat. He stands for a moment, then lurches at the door and stumbles out into the night. He hurls himself down the street past Myrtle Farm Cottage and sees Elizabeth Carter at the upstairs window, watching, nibbling with her rodent teeth, hears Mrs McHugh's cackling laugh behind him, feels Jennie Barrett's pudgy hand squeezing his arm.
Lettie's cottage door is standing open, but the kitchen is cold and empty. The rain has passed and a bright moon shows the dark hulking silhouette of the fells. Arthur sees a light behind the cottage twinkling up on the fellside. He knows the path too well.
'Lettie, I'm coming!' he shouts. 'Wait!'
Grunting and moaning, he makes his slippery way up the rocky path, faltering, floundering over stones where water cascades, glass-shattered in the sudden moonlight, gasping in the icy chill of remorse. And then he is there, this hidden place, this Garden of Eden. He grabs the lantern that is still on the rock and looks for her, slashing at his heart through saw-toothed bracken, a thousand hanging raindrops exploding through the air. He pauses and shouts her name. And like this his thrashing arms fall upon her, laid in the earth, her arms clutching her chest. He cries out in anguish; he has seen death from a failed heart before.
'I'm so sorry, Lettie, I'm so sorry.'
He lowers the lantern, drawing a veil of light over her night enshrouded body. He thinks he sees ice creeping over her face, freezing her open eyes, crystallising his own vision. At a loss he tries to lift her into his arms but finds he cannot.
'Too late,' he whispers. 'Everything is too late.'
He peers down, tears dropping on her hand in his. There is black soil on her hands, beneath her nails; moon white stones beside her have disturbed from the earth, but… not stones, no, they are bones, small bones, a tiny skull… a baby. Arthur lifts the skull then drops it, white hot.
'What is this? What is this? Oh God, Oh God!' he shrieks. 'There was a child? Oh, Lettie, I never knew!'
Arthur slaps his hands to his face.
'You're a tough nut to crack, Arthur.'
He spins around. The gargoyles are behind him, but Arthur only hears the voice of God. The weight of recognition sinks down upon his shoulders until his knees buckle. But then, as if the thought had stolen him, he veers off among the boulders, climbing away, wild eyes seeing it all, frantic hands tearing away the branches. The gargoyles follow him to a rocky outcrop over a sheer drop.
'" Oh, wretched man that I am!"' he cries. '"Who shall deliver me from this body of death?"'
'I will,' offers the intellectual gargoyle. It grasps Arthur's ankle and with a quick lift and a twist, he is sent head first over the edge.
The creatures peer over to see Arthur's broken body, dim in the moonlight, then turn away and disappear into the shadows of the night.