The New Incumbent

 

My C of E primary school was opposite the parish church. A couple of times I can remember there being great excitement in the playground when a big black car with a shiny wooden box in it drove very, very slowly up the hill to the church. For most of us, this was our first brush with death; real death, not floating goldfish and run-over cats.

There was a youth club in the church hall on Wednesday evenings, so we sometimes had to walk across the churchyard in the dark. Then it stopped being a place where men-in-suits buried long brown boxes, and turned into a real graveyard; a Scooby Doo landscape of stone crosses and tombstones and dead bodies and witches and ghosts. I suppose we believed that we would all go to heaven when we died, although Miss Muir had promised that the young man who had stolen crisps from the tuck shop would go to hell. But this didn't stop us talking about the things we had definitely seen in the grave yard after dark. Malcolm had seen an old man, sitting with his legs crossed on the gravestone. Kevin swore that when he had looked at himself in the glass window, there had been someone else standing behind him, but that when he had turned round to see who it was, there was no-one there. Not quite the sort of stories that you expect kids to make up, so maybe there was something in them.

I was much more scared of Miss Muir than I was of ghosts, or death, or hell. You were meant to pretend that you weren't scared of her, whereas having a story of being scared by a ghost was a very definite feather in your cap. Well then, this is what I saw in the graveyard.

It was the summer after my third year at college: the void between finals and finding a job. During a dull bit in the Two Ronnies, my mother asked me if I was going to come and hear the new vicar.

"What happened? Did you lose the old one?" Showed how out of touch I was.

"Mr. Cooper had to leave, suddenly. It was very sad."

I supposed so. I had never liked him very much. When I was kid, I used to think he looked like Batman as he swept down the aisle on Sunday mornings. I remember him looking straight at me during a sermon that was supposed to be on The Christian Family, about a week before I started at university. 'We may be sure' he had said 'That youths who have been brought up in a Christian environment will keep themselves pure from the twin scourges of drink and drugs and sexual impurity when they go out into the world.' He regarded making people squirm in their seats as part of his job.

"So what's the new bloke like?"

"He's very nice. Much younger than Mr. Cooper, and he gets on wonderfully with the kids. We're getting much bigger congregations than we used to."

We're getting much bigger congregations, I thought? Something is going on here.

The next morning I found myself trying to look half-way smart and dragging myself out of bed at 10.30 to go to church for the first time in three years. It never occurred to me to go to church while I was at college, although I always explained to the jeans-and-guitars club that I pretty much agreed what they said, partly because I did and partly because it would have been too time-consuming not to. Back home, it seemed the natural thing to do.

It was strange, climbing that old hill again, with the houses on one side, and the park on the other, and the road that we weren't meant to cross when we were kids between them. On Sunday afternoons in the summer the spectators of the village cricket match could hear the church bell; and the pious souls climbing the hill could hear the odd "howzat." Fortunately, from the vantage point of the church you couldn't see where someone had sprayed a large "NF" on the cricket pavilion wall.

Mr. George handed me a hymn book, and shook my hand.

"It's good to see our intellectuals returning to the fold," he grinned. Ha-ha, I thought. Perhaps there is something in the Bible that makes it important for Christians to go around dislocating other people's wrists.

My parents and I seated ourselves, as tradition demanded, two rows from the back. There was a woman with several children in tow in the pew in front of us. I had often wondered why, given Mrs. Edwards apparent dislike of children, she had managed to acquire so many of them. She seemed to be keeping the youngest, a kid of about nine, quiet by supplying him with a copy of the Lady Bird Book of Bible Stories, to keep his mind off the service. This was, I thought, an improvement over her old technique of booming "If you want to go straight to bed when we get home carry on exactly as you are," across the Co-Op.

"Michael? It's so very nice to see you again. How is college treating you? Your Mother has been telling me all about it."

I looked around to see if any of the angels would strike her dead with a thunderbolt. People talking to each other? People normally said "good morning," and "it's a nice day," before burying their faces in the church notices, a document the fascination of which has always eluded me.

"I'm finished for good now, actually. Looking for a job."

"Oh, good! Then we'll be able to see a little more of you. Would you and your mother like to come to tea this evening?"

I felt as if I was drowning in a lukewarm swimming pool surrounded by smiling attendants.

"Yes," said my mother firmly. "That would be very nice."

Very nice? Since when did we worry about things being very nice? We didn't come to church to be very nice in the old days, for g - for goodness sake. What was happening? My mother was agreeing that we should go out to tea with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards? On a Sunday?

Glancing around the building, I could see that other things were wrong. There was still the smell of polish and bookstalls, and racks of little duplicated booklets explaining that two of the walls went right back to the Norman conquest - but those walls had children's paintings stuck up on them. There was one of a waterlogged tent that I took to be Noah's Ark by the fact that there was a man with a shepherds crook drawn next to it and a rather strange rainbow drawn above it, and another of a yellow faced Arab that the accompanying text assured me was Jesus Christ.

The conversational agony was relieved, mercifully, by the vicar sweeping down the aisle in his clerical robes. He was, indeed, a much younger man than Rev. Cooper. There was a white haired man at college who was late for everything and wore rimless glasses that didn't properly fit. Once he put on a lab coat, you realised that he reminded you of the "absent minded professor" in every Carry On film you'd ever seen. Rev. Coleridge was balding at 30, had slightly red cheeks, and a smile that you simply knew was sincere. He could only have been a vicar. He climbed into the pulpit, one of those impressive old affairs with a lectern that shaped like a bird of prey. "Good morning," he said.

"Good morning," replied the congregation in enthusiastic unison. My mind reeled, slightly.

"Let's pray, shall we," he grinned. "And lets particularly thank God for the lovely sunny morning." I must say I thought it had been a particularly rotten August, but I supposed one ought not to complain to the Almighty about trivial details. This over with, we launched into a hymn I didn't know.

"And before we sing the next hymn," beamed Rev. Coleridge "Could we perhaps take the opportunity to say good morning to the people sitting next to us. Just 'good morning' for now, of course, but they'll be plenty of time to have fellowship with them the annex after worship."

After the 'next hymn', which was also not one I had heard before, he delivered a rather nauseous mini-sermon for the benefit of the children, about a cat and a mouse who had spent most of their lives trying to eat one another but who afterwards made it up. He explained that the "mummies and daddies" (I wasn't sure which category I was supposed to fit into) would be hearing their own story later on, from the Bible, about two boys called Jacob and Esau who had also had a quarrel but who had also made it up. He then sent them off to Sunday School.

There was a minor kerfuffle as the kids tried to find their way out. A couple of the kids who had sat themselves in the front row with their Sunday School teachers decided that it would be fun to have a race down the aisle. Jason Edwards managed to tear himself away from the Book of Bible Stories (I wonder if his mother realised he had a copy of Deathshead The Terminator secreted inside it?) just long enough to stick his leg out, so that one of the kids tripped over it and hit the stone floor with a highly satisfying thud. Mrs. Edwards explained quietly to Jason that this was not a very nice to thing to have done, and two of the teachers shepherded the now-bawling kid out of the back door to the hall where the Sunday School happened. It was nice to know that Jason had taken Rev. Coleridge's message to heart.

I am glad to say that once the kids were out, he dropped the baby-talk, and I could at least understand the bulk of what he said about what he called "the sacrament of reconciliation" that was more than could have been said for one of Rev. Cooper's sermons in the old days. By the end of the service, I felt distinctly won-over to this new way of doing things. I mean, a sermon that you stay awake through has got to have something going for it. And it must be said that there were about three times as many people there as there ever were before, and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I could almost swear that some of them were the same people from before. I am almost certain that the old gentleman who asked me how my job search was going was the same Mr. Hunter of the British Legion who used to greet you with a cheery "Bus late. Unions fault. Arrest them!" in the old days. It is even conceivable that the silver haired woman who embraced me like a long lost sister, with, I swear, real tears in her eyes, declaiming wildly that I was one of her lads and that she looked on those years as some of the happiest in her life was Mrs. Tudor, the miserable old bugger who used to teach the older Sunday School kids. She used to make snide comments to our parents if we had "misbehaved", causing more than one very uncomfortable Sunday lunch time.

Actually, my mother explained the softening up of Mrs. Tudor to me after the service, over a cup of tea in one of those peculiar cups, green on the outside and white on the inside that are standard issue to churches and hospitals. The old girl's husband had died rather suddenly the previous year.

So after another cup of tea we went home, and me and my mother and my father and my sister ate Sunday lunch, which my mother had put in the oven on a timer switch before we left for church, so that we came home to the smell of roast beef and roast potatoes just like we used to. "Used to" being two years, ago, you understand. I wouldn't want you to think that I was going nostalgic. Roast beef, and mustard. It never occurred to me to buy mustard to put on the beefburger in my flat at college: that, more than the table cloth, made me think I was home, and reminded me that if the civil service decided that they liked my application, there would not be many more of these lunches before I left again, and left this time for real.

We had barely had time to dry up the dishes (and had we really washed up without a major row about whose turn it was?) before it was time to set out again to the agreed tea with Mrs. Edwards. Tea time is half past four, apparently: I'd forgotten that such a meal existed: it involves cakes and sandwiches, enough to spoil your supper but not enough to allay your appetite.

I'm not aware of ever having visited the Edwards' house before, except once when it was the venue for one of the many abortive Bible Study Groups that Rev. Cooper had tried to found. It was a nice, pleasant, sensible house. Mrs. Edwards two elder boys didn't say very much, and excused themselves as quickly as was politely possible, presumably to go and play with their computers or something. One corner of the room was full of sensible, educational toys from the Early Learning Centre, although Jason seemed very much more interested in staging fights between two monstrous action figures with improbable amounts of weaponry. A hand written notice on the wall explained to him that he could have sweets on a Tuesday and crisps on a Wednesday but had to have fruit on a Thursday.

"I hate the new vicar," he explained conversationally over tea. Once Mrs. Edwards had persuaded him to leave his homicidal dolls behind, he concentrated on seeing how much jam he could put on his face, and rolling pieces of bread into balls and flicking them into his elder brothers orange juice.

My mother kept making oh-isn't-he-sweet smiles, and Mrs. Edwards kept telling him that that wasn't a very nice thing to say and how would he like it if someone said something like that about him, but eventually gave up and suggested that he went and played in the other room, which he duly did.

"I'm not saying he's always a little angel," she half apologised "But it's such a difficult age, and Miss Muir says he's very bright at school."

"My God! She's still there?"

My mother shot me a glance as if "my God!" was a major obscenity to use in such a nice family's house.

"I beg your pardon. I had Miss Muir when I was his age. I thought she would have retired by now." Or died, I thought. Or had her broomstick confiscated.

"No, she's still a few years of retirement, I think."

"Poor kid!"

I no longer believed in ghosts, but I still had nightmares about Miss Muir. I remembered one evening in particular, when she had kept me in after school to learn spellings. Walking home at four o' clock, I saw Kevin and Malcolm and some of my other friends walking across the park, making for the woods. They had had time to go home and change out of their school uniforms. I yelled at them to wait for me but they couldn't hear me, so I ran across the road.

The road was always called "that road" or "that dangerous road". I did look both ways, but I guess one of the parked lorries must have blocked my view, and a car pulled to an emergency stop. The driver was more shaken up than I was. When you're a kid, you don't know what is conveyed by "you might get run over". I somehow thought that it meant being squashed between two colliding cars. I was the never the sort to play chicken or dares, but as I stood on the grass, the motorist shaking his fist at me, I felt a sense of - fear? exhilaration? - as I realised that nothing had happened: the sense of relief as my heart started to beat again was almost a reward. It was only as I ran down the slope, towards the woods, that I began to feel a different feeling the realisation that I had been naughty, that I had crossed over the boundary and become one of those wicked children who disobeys their parents, who throws all advice to the wind and fail to look both ways when crossing the road. My stomach felt cold, my ears were burning as if everyone was looking at me. I desperately hoped that my mother wouldn't ask which way I had walked home: I was a terrible liar.

Next morning at school, Miss Muir announced to the assembly that "We have here today a boy who is very lucky to be here. Stand up the little boy who is very lucky to be here." I looked around, with a mixture of shame and sadistic delight, wondering who it was that she was angry with, who I was going to see punished, what dreadful thing it was that they had done.

"I was talking to her about Jason on Friday evening. She says it is natural for children to explore, and that a lot of the things we think are naughty are just natural for children at that age. You have to give them room to make their own mistakes, and watch that they don't hurt themselves."

"I think me must be talking about a different Miss Muir. The one I remember was a dragon with white hair and bifocals."

"She certainly wears bifocals, yes."

The gorgon who spanked me for nearly getting myself run over; who threatened us with the fires of hell for stealing crisps; who made us pray that God would protect Mr. Heath from the miners and all other wicked men - telling us that kids should be free to make their own mistakes? Telling Mrs. Edwards, of all people?

It was knocking around my head all week. There was no letter from the civil service or from the publishers' house in Croydon. About half my old Sixth Form friends had also finished university and were also home visiting no-man's land. We spent the afternoons in each others' houses and the evenings in the Red Lion. The landlord had thought that it needed jollying up and had painted it bright pink, and given the Red Lion himself a lick of yellow paint to complete the picture. I was a little thrown to find that one of the bar staff was Bobby Hooper, a guy of my age who I remembered from fifth form. It was quite awkward for the first five minutes, because he'd once beaten me up quite badly on the way home from school: I think the police might have got involved. He broke the ice by saying "God, I was a bastard when I was a kid. When I think of some of the things I did. Well out of order."

I found this mildly disappointing.

Maybe the new atmosphere of community spirit was getting to me, or maybe I just felt like a nostalgia trip, or maybe it was just because it was what my mother was doing, but a week later, on Saturday afternoon I found myself wandering around my old school's Summer Fete.

It rained, of course, so all the bran tubs and tombolas had to be moved inside. Rev. Coleridge gave only a very brief speech about community spirit and suffering the little children and how the Good Lord (chuckle) sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, before declaring the fete "well and truly" open.

The school hadn't changed very much, apart, of course, from the fact that it had got smaller. The same blue swing doors with chequered safety glass; the same lavatory doors marked "boys" and "girls"; the same out of date books on the shelves; the same flutter in my stomach as I walked past the door marked "Headmaster", even though I couldn't remember having done anything naughty in the past decade or so.

I think it must have been written into her contract that Miss Muir should run the lucky dip school at the annual fete as her contribution to the year's fun and fund raising. She didn't look much older than I remember her being, and she still wore those strange bi-focal glasses with the plastic eyebrows on the top of the rim. I paid her 50p, took a package wrapped in pink tissue paper out of the bran-tub and handed it to Jason Edwards, desperately hoping that it wouldn't turn out to be a water pistol.

I had rehearsed a set of things to say to her. "My road safety's improved, you old bag"; or "My word processor has a spelling checker on it, so there".

"Miss Muir? I don't suppose you'll remember me, but you used to me my teacher."

"Of course I remember you. But you'll have to tell me your name. I don't remember names. Only faces. I remember your face very well."

I thought you believed that the telling of lies was the worst sin possible?

"Its Michael Richards. I was the wicked wizard in your class play."

"Of course you were. How nice to see you again. What are you doing now?"

I told her about college.

"I always knew you would, Michael, and I am so pleased for you."

I felt the same way that I had about the thug in the pub. How dare she just sit there. I had seen her doing things to kids that would probably land a teacher in prison nowadays, and now she - she had evaded me by turning nice.

I had a go on a stall that offered you the chance of winning a new car if you could throw eight dice and have them all come up six. None of mine came up six, and the young teacher on the stall wasn't impressed by my arguments that that was so preposterously unlikely that she ought to give me the car anyway. To add insult to injury, I won an embarrassingly large and pink teddy bear on the tombola and had to walk home with it.

The next morning, in church, between the announcement about the Sunday school picnic next Thursday and the day of prayer for World Peace in conjunction with local Baptists next weekend, Rev. Coleridge was sorry to announce that after a lifetime of service to the community Anne Muir had died suddenly the previous evening. The funeral was to be on Wednesday afternoon, and her daughter had particularly asked that as many of her old pupils as possible should be there.

The cynic in me said that having promised myself at the age of 11 that I would one day come back and murder the old cow, I would never forgive myself if I did not at least help them bury her. In fact there was a vague feeling of warmness towards her breaking out already. That happens when people die, I'm afraid. I found myself remembering how she once gave out copies of the Hobbit as our class reading book, and when someone gave her a box of chocolates as a present and she brought it into school to pass around the class. It was truly the end of an era for the village, and surely as many of her victims - pupils - as possible should be there to see her off.

Rev. Coleridge outdid himself. Unlike the lilies of the field, Miss Muir had spent her whole life spinning and toiling for the good of others, but if good works, if lives enriched and little ones brought to a fuller knowledge of Our Lord were the cloths from which the robes of the blessed in heaven were cut, then we might truly say that Solomon in all his splendour would not be arrayed like her. All her current little pupils dropped flowers that they had brought from their own gardens into the grave. I was touched to see that Chris Tudor, old Mrs. Tudor's little grandson was crying, but then I realised that that was because Jason Edwards had tripped him up again.

When we were kids and Jeriamiah the gerbil had been found dead in his cage, half eaten by Joseph the gerbil, Miss Muir had let us bury it in the bit of earth at the back of the classroom that was normally out of bounds. Two girls used to tidy it up and put flowers on it. Then we went back inside and to our maths lesson. Would it have made the maths lessons easier to bear if we had known that someone would one day be wrapping Miss Muir up in a paper towel, and digging a little hole with a trowel, and dropping her in it?

No-one seemed to be very clear what had been the matter with her. "It was a long illness, born bravely," explained Rev Coleridge. Long illness? For God's sake she'd been running a bran tub on Saturday afternoon. She'd been at school on Friday.

"I was privileged to be with her when she was finally called home. Most of us cannot aspire to be saints, but to bring joy into the lives of those we meet, is surely, and in a very real sense, sainthood enough."

Old Mrs. Tudor, who I think had maybe been a teacher herself before she'd had kids (up to the sixties, teachers had to take vows of lifelong chastity) really seemed very upset. I don't think laughing at a funeral would have necessarily gone down very well; but I did think that in August, the extreme black mourning dress made her look like Queen Victoria.

Inevitably, we ended up going back to Miss Muir's daughter's home after the funeral; to consume more of the endless round of tea and sandwiches and biscuits.

"She wasn't herself, as the end, poor darling." sobbed Mrs. Tudor.

So I've heard, I was tempted to say: apparently some of her schoolkids positively liked her.

"I stopped visiting her, at the end, you know. Somehow, she didn't seem to want to see me. She wasn't rude, or anything like that: she used to be quite - friendly. But she wasn't there. Not in the way that she used to be. Did you see her walking home from school? With that funny smile and her eyes open as if she was looking at something no one else could see."

"What happened when you called on her?"

"She asked me in, of course, but somehow - she sat there. She sat in her chair, looking through me. And she just talked, about - things - that her children had been doing. Nice things, I mean. She didn't moan any more, or complain about the parents, or tell me funny stories of the mischief that they were getting up to."

My mother decided that it was time to go home. She pointed out that it was a great shame that a poor old woman like Mrs. Tudor would have to walk home by herself, having just lost a friend to remind her of the death of her husband. I had to admit that this was a fair point and volunteered to walk home with her, even though it was in the opposite direction to home. Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the dessert sand. Rev. Coleridge would be pleased with me.

"He is so nice, the new vicar, though, isn't he," remarked Mrs. Tudor as we turned the corner, past the yellow and pink pub, and began to walk up the main road towards her house.

"I only met him last week," I said. "But he seems nice."

"He spends so much of his time looking after people," she said. "Visiting the sick. He was with my dear Will when he..."

"That must have been a comfort for you both."

"Old Reverend Cooper was a fine man, of course, a very fine man. He lived close to the lord. And such a preacher"

Such a preacher indeed, I thought. He must have burnt more Sunday lunches then any one else in ecclesiastical history.

"But somehow...I don't know, it's a wicked thing to say. But I didn't like him. Reverend Coleridge is much nicer. He visits me twice a week."

"Just to see how you are?"

"And to say prayers. He reads them out of a special prayer book, and then he lays his hands on my head. It feels so nice when he does that. He says it makes him feel stronger, too."

So, it was now nine o clock, and I'd taken Mrs. Tudor back to her nice little house, with its nice little garden and nice little Christian messages in frames on all the walls

I had just extricated myself from the possibility of having to drink even more tea, when Mrs. Tudor gave a little shriek.

"Oh my. My little handbag. I must have left it in the church."

Little deeds of bloody kindness, I thought. "That's all right, Mrs. Tudor," I said "I more or less pass it on the way home". Scarcely more than a mile and a half out of my way. "I'll pick it up for you and drop it around tomorrow."

"Oh, would you. That would be so kind."

So I wandered back up the hill for a third time: it was half past nine when I got there. About the time when we would be have been being kicked out of the Youth Club and being sent home.

At first, I thought it was an old man, with his skin tight around his face and only a few strands of white hair left. There was a second where all those childish fears and fascinations returned, where my heart beat just fast enough to make me feel mildly sick. Then I realised that it was Rev. Coleridge.

He was crouched among the graves; near the newly covered over grave of Alice Muir. He was in his clerical robes. His head was jerked back looking at the sky - like a man in a hot shower, enjoying the water spraying over his head and neck. He leant forwards, scooped something up from the ground, and put it to his mouth. He did this several times, like someone trying to drink water from a pool. The ten year old in me wanted to run away, but was at the same time wondering if, finally, he would have a story to tell the other kids.

"Excuse me. Reverend Coleridge?"

He looked up, and the strange thing was he was still every inch a vicar. He wiped his mouth carefully with the corner of a handkerchief. I don't know if he was looking at me, or looking through me, but he started to talk, slowly.

"All those tears," he said "All that love; all those happy memories."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm very all right, my boy. Very all right indeed." He stood up, and made a gesture and walked towards the church. I followed him. I didn't know if there was procedure for dealing with a crazy vicar.

Inside the church, he sank down into one of the pews, and sighed, as if he were very tired. There was a book left open on the pew next to him. The writing wasn't in English, and it didn't look like Greek. It was squiggly enough to have been Arabic, I guess. He studied it for a couple of seconds, and mouthed some words. Whatever else it was it wasn't a Bible.

"Can you feel it?" he asked.

"Feel what?" I said.

"Mr. Hunter has spent his pension money on some flowers for Mrs. Tudor. Miss Muir's old class are signing a heart shaped card with "We love you miss," written on it to welcome their new teacher. Chris Tudor is packing up his stamp collection to sell it to send to Help the Aged in memory of Miss Muir."

I saw the black handbag, sitting on one of the pews. "That's what I came for," I said weakly "Perhaps I should go now. If you're sure you are all right."

He lent backwards, and smiled contentedly.

"A youth walks a mile in the rain to find an old lady's bag," he whispered "How very, very beautiful."

It was mid-morning the next day by the time I got around to going back to Mrs. Tudor's, although everybody says that if I had got there the previous evening, I wouldn't have been able to do any good. There were shocked looking neighbours, mainly people of her age, standing in the street, and a black van with opaque windows driving away.

"She was very old," explained one "And its nice that she hasn't had to struggle on for too many years without Will."

"We're supposed to be Christians in this country," said another "So we shouldn't be sad when someone goes to be with the Lord."

"No indeed," said a third. "And that nice new vicar was with her when she died."

I gave one of them the handbag to look after, and walked slowly home. My brain kept throwing the image of Mr. Colelridge crouched over the old lady's grave at me, and I kept telling it not to be stupid.

"I'm afraid I've got some rather bad news," I said to my Mum when I got home. That's the worse thing about someone you don't know all that well dying: you're the one who has to break the news to other people. It always makes me feel vaguely guilty, like when you're a kid and have done something wrong that nobody else knows about. "Mrs. Tudor, well, she died in the night."

"Oh dear," said my Mother. "First Miss Muir, and now this. It's strange how deaths always come together. In threes, they say. I hope we don't have another one to come," A pause, and a change of voice, as if she had had enough home-spun philosophy for one evening. "Does her daughter know yet?"

"I don't know, but Mr. Coleridge was there when it happened, so he'll break the news to her."

"Really?" said my Mother. "It's odd that he didn't mention it to me."

Having reacted to whatever it was I saw outside the church last night with calm and rationality, my brain decided that this would be a good moment to fly into a panic.

"He was here? Look, for God's sake Mum sit down and tell me what he said."

"He didn't say anything. He just, well, chatted. And said some prayers. Isn't it nice to have a vicar who - "

"What sort of prayers? From the prayer book?"

"Oh, yes. Well, from his new prayer book actually. In Greek, or Latin or something. He was here for ever such a long time. When he put his hands on me - "

"You let him - ?"

"Only in a holy way. It says so in the Bible, so he said. Anyway it felt - nice. In a holy way. As if - his hands were burning; as if he was touching me inside, taking all my nasty thoughts away and putting nice one's there instead. He said - that it makes me happy, and him stronger. Yes, that was it. Although I must say," she yawned "It has left me feeling tired."

While I was coming up with a perfectly rational explanation, everything in me screamed "Sunday School Picnic" and I ran out of the house.

It would be nice to be able to say that I ran all the way to the park, but rather too much beer and not nearly enough exercise made that hill a bit beyond me. About twenty kids, and a proportionate number of mothers were playing some fiendishly complicated party game on the grass. Rev. Coleridge was joining in, and seemed to be having more fun than the children. I noticed that Jason Edwards was not joining in, but sitting on the slope, watching.

"I hate the vicar," he said conversationally. "He killed Miss Muir. I'd like to kill him." Ha-ha. I thought, how sweet, the things they do come up with.

The party game had ended, and Rev. Coleridge was giving out prizes. For a second, with the kids crowded around him, it looked horribly like that picture of Jesus blessing the little children on the top of the Christening Certificate.

I worked my way through the kids, and went up to him.

"Mr. Coleridge?" I said "Do you think I could have a word with you?"

"Now is not the most convenient time," he said.

"This can't wait," I said "You see, I saw you in the church yard last night, and I want to know what the hell is going on here."

He looked at me, and smiled.

"But why shouldn't I have been in church last night. I was simply clearing up the grave. Making sure the sexton had done a good job."

"No," I said "That isn't true. You were doing something weird to the grave, and you've been using a book that doesn't look like any sort of Bible I've ever seen. Why's every one changed so much since you got here? And why is it that every time you visit an old lady, she drops dead?"

I think he looked angry for a moment, but then he looked very pleased. "My dear boy," he said "My dear, dear boy. You saw what I was doing and you came back here anyway, to confront me. How very altruistic. How beautiful." His eyes were glazed, as they had been in the church yard, and I'll swear he looked younger than he had five minutes before. He put his hand on shoulder, and smiled. I felt as if something was flowing from me to him, and from him to me. I felt weak, but calm. Somewhere inside me, something felt horribly violated.

"Mr. Hunter really does a very good job with the Cubs," he said "But he needs some help. Would you like me to put your name down?"

I wanted, very badly to say yes. Suddenly, having a nice time with all those nice children seemed very, very appealing.

I put the thought out of my head. "I'm going to find out what book you left on the lectern last night," I said, and marched resolutely up the slope in the direction of the church. It disturbed me to see that he was running, or trying to, after me, and I broke into a run myself. There were two big lorries parked at the top of the hill, I made a quick check over my shoulder to check that nothing was coming and ran across the road, over to the church. The vicar was only a few second beside me, but I don't think he saw the oncoming car.

He was running headlong, out of control, as if he'd lost his sense of balance, and I am fairly sure that he fell into the road before the car hit him.

The screech of breaks drowned out the sound of the kids singing, and I think it was almost a minute before anyone worked out what they were doing enough to call an ambulance.

Jason Edwards had been right near the road, and was the first to reach the accident, apart from me and the motorist. The kid leaned down and ran his hands across the man's body.

"Is he dead?" he asked.

"No, of course not," I said.

"Mummy says it isn't very nice to tell fibs," he said.

"Oh," I said.

Mrs. Edwards was with the bevy of mothers at the picnic, and at this point she came and grabbed her son by the ear. She looked pretty shocked, and obviously decided it would be a good thing to take it out on her son. The boy looked vaguely stunned, and looked at me as if to say "why isn't she being nice?"

I left the scene of the accident after going through a long rigmarole of giving my name and address to the police. I walked home, through the village, and bumped into Mr. Hunter who was waiting for a bus.

"Bloody council!" he announced "Ten minutes late and they expect me to pay for a bus pass."

I suppose I should have told him the bad news about Rev. Coleridge, but it seemed a shame to spoil his day.

 

 

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