by SERENA SHORES
hen the Reverend Jonathan Barker locked the door of St. Margaret’s church, it brought to mind the locking of a chastity belt. At least now no-one could use her. Take advantage and enter her sacred space.
Barker often mused on the ethereal beauty of larger, more elaborate buildings, with their chiselled, elegant spires soaring confidently towards the heavens. The intricate stone carvings, vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass possessed by the supermodel churches. Then he would smile broadly as he looked upon Margaret’s pokey little Gothic arched windows, sunk deep, like twinkling eyes peering out of a congenial, plump face. The thick thatched roof hanging low over her eaves like a long fringe stopping just above her lashes.
The last remnant of a seventeenth century village lost to the Black Death, the pestilent corpses of Margaret’s parishioners had long since melted into the chalky earth. And with no congregation to fill her white-washed curves like dutiful spouses, she faced abandonment; relegated to serving the most degrading of functions.
Touched all over by Godless children who kicked at her pews and stuck gum into crevices. Laying back submissively as she accommodated the beaming heretical couples playing out their picture-book weddings.
“What nice people...and wasn’t the baby beautiful!” Miss Fraser leant on her walking stick in her matching long navy blue coat and wide-brimmed hat. “I can’t believe how the little dear managed to stay quiet all that time.”
Barker tipped his head back and gazed up at the tower. Dozens of round flints bulged out of the sandy mortar; the whole cylindrical structure seeming to sway as fluffy white clouds sailed past overhead. He thought back to how his words of blessing had echoed pleasingly round the thick old walls near the front. How they had been uttered in faith, only to drain away like the pointlessly spilt blood of a martyr.
He gritted his teeth. “They only had the child christened for show - because that’s what a respectable family does.”
Miss Fraser shook her head and walked away, her crooked staff sinking into the grass as she measured each tiny footfall towards the twisty black iron gate.
“And don’t you go closing up yet Reverend,” she called to him without turning. “You know it’s supposed to stay open until dusk.”
He often pictured her tumbling over the bonnet of his car then smacking down onto the tarmac with a bony crunch on that dangerous bend just a few hundred yards from her cottage. Her fierce violet eyes wide and staring at the verge; crutch skidded across the road to be run over by a car coming the opposite way.
Jonathan Barker wandered in among St. Margaret’s leaning crosses and moss-covered angels. The sun was warm and strong, accentuating the leafy shadows between the graves and rippling over her modest porch. Shiny green ivy leaves reflected the glare off robust silver boughs and twined along the ground each side of the winding soil path leading to her door from the country lane beyond.
They ambled towards him arm in arm - the woman wearing a thin pink vest top with no bra. Her large breasts bounced with every assertive stride of her bare legs which glowed brown and firm beneath a tiny pair of cut-off denim shorts. The man was all crisp white shirt and beige slacks. Their faces were fixed in identical grins when they spotted Barker examining the loose lid of a limestone tomb near the back of the graveyard.
“Is that John? Reverend John?” He stood up and cast one last frown at the ground before raising his head to greet them.
“We’re the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs Somerton,” said the man. “We rang last week about viewing the church.” The vicar just stood there blinking slowly. “Er, the possible wedding in September...”
Reverend Barker clasped his hands together and rested them against his chest. “To be honest with you, she’s not feeling herself today. Some kids were down here drinking and smoking God-knows-what the other night. They only caused minor damage, but it really spooked her when they lit that fire over there.”
He pointed to a scorched pile of logs and sticks stacked up in the corner near the low red brick wall that encircled the hallowed ground of St. Margaret’s home. A single scrunched up can of beer could be seen poking out from a clump of stinging nettles.
“Thank goodness it was a little bit too damp and the flames couldn’t spread. If her roof had caught, it would have been disastrous.”
Not taking his eyes off the blackened scar, the Reverend fumbled with something jangly in the pocket of his cassock, then turned and wandered towards the church.
“Mind you, it could have been devil worshippers; there are hundreds of them round here. They desecrate graves looking for skulls and...”
Colin stared at Sarah as she began to shudder and doubled over, pinching her nose. Barker stopped with his hands on his hips and glowered at the pair.
“You need to show a little respect. The little lady may be old, but she’s still highly sensitive.”
With that, Sarah spluttered and Colin’s face turned sour as he deliberately crossed his arms.
“Look, we really haven’t got that much time...”
Smiling to himself, the Reverend slipped the square fangs of a large key into the lock, feeling the satisfying grip and turn of the heavy mechanism. There was a loud clunking echo as the door swung open and a cool smell of wood and stone rushed out to meet the hot summer air.
“I will need you both to be quiet as you enter God’s house.”
The couple glanced at each other upon noticing the peculiar luminescence in the Reverend’s hazel eyes, which made them take on an almost sulphurous hue.
The man and woman stood silently holding hands in the middle of the chancel.
“That!” Barker thrust forward a quaking forefinger and hollered out towards the small shadowy alcove at the base of the tower. “That is the site of Margaret’s darkest hour!” He withdrew his finger then wrapped his hand across his mouth and blinked slowly. “That is where they disembowelled the child of a Pagan priest to prove the dominance of Christianity over heathen faiths!”
His spiky dark hair was framed by a halo of light pouring in from the window behind him and his eyes had swivelled back behind their lids to show only a slim crescent of iris above the milky white. He jolted his head back violently, as if it had almost been severed from his neck and flung his arms above him, the palms of his hands facing forwards and quivering rapidly. The old oak door bounced against its frame and a shaft of sunshine cast a spotlight on the place where the soon-to-be-Somertons had stood.
Barker dropped to his knees, fell stiffly forwards and lay prone in the aisle; his arms outstretched and his lips locked in a passionate kiss with the stone.
Sitting at his dining table, the Reverend Barker used his fingernail to scrape compressed dirt out of a knot in the smooth bleached pine. Mrs Barker was carrying a stack of crockery back to the kitchen, her broad rear end wobbling inside her dark grey sweatpants as she walked. He heard a cry and a curse and the sound of pottery revolving on tile.
Eventually, she slouched back into the room with two dessert bowls in her hands and placed them down onto the floral place mats, removing the oven gloves and blowing on the fingers of her right hand. Barker glanced at the red marks on their tips as Mrs Barker groaned and grasped her injury. Then he turned away and yawned. She swept her straw-coloured fringe out of her small brown eyes.
“Don’t you think it’s a little unfair not opening St. Margaret’s for the charity round-village walk?” She slid onto the chair opposite him and stooped down, ready to slurp up her pudding.
The Reverend moved the apple crumble around with his spoon, watching the sugary juice make swirls in the custard. He was beginning to think that it would be nice if Susan were to do a little bit more for the church. After all, she was a firm believer in self sacrifice.
“There seems little point,” he said flatly without looking up. “Hardly anyone knows she exists and it’s a long way off the beaten track.” Images of bearded ramblers laughing disrespectfully and grinding mud into cracks between the flagstones flashed before him. His wife frowned.
“You haven’t been the same since Bishop Wallis received that complaint from Mr. Summers, or whatever his name was...”
Barker dropped his head even lower and screwed up his features. “That was just a misunderstanding. I wasn’t threatening them, just trying to make them appreciate the inevitably chequered history of such an ancient spiritual site.”
“Alright, whatever you say, Jon. You know the church better than anyone.”
And the church knew him in return. She’d seen his confession: the long hours spent alone while he yearned to stand up and take the strain off his knees.
Later that evening, Jonathan lay in bed with a crisp white sheet pulled up under his chin. His mind filled with an amorphous stream of unwanted visitors trailing in and out of Margaret’s doors. All of them soiling her; everyone of them taking another little piece of her dignity.
Once he had finally found sleep, he dreamt of faceless parents staggering towards the church like zombies with hollow-eyed offspring in their arms. Skeletal ghost-hunters skulking around outside in the darkness, their bobbing lanterns casting circles of yellow light onto the walls. Dishevelled brides floating down the aisle like wraiths in ragged, filthy dresses, wearing a look of hopelessness and despair. A young altar boy begging the Lord for forgiveness for the act of pleasuring himself over a photograph of his stepmother.
Finally Barker saw himself standing at the lectern, slowly opening and closing his mouth, only to find no sound coming forth from his lips.
Barker looked at the pristine ivory of the wet slabs behind him. He dipped the scrubbing brush back into the bucket again, bubbles clinging to his wrist and popping as he drew out his hand. A tin of polish stood next to the hunky dark wood of a pew, which gave off an impressive waxy sheen. Near the doorway, his old transistor radio crackled - its bent aerial sticking out at an acute angle, probing the countryside for a decent signal. The DJ’s heavy west-country accent mumbled above the static din.
“Today, listeners, we’re talking about ghosts. This is following the case at a hotel in Torquay last week, where a couple left in the middle of the night and refused to pay the bill after the wife was terrified by a mysterious apparition appearing at the end of the bed. Our special guest this afternoon is paranormal researcher Brian Spooner.”
There was a cough and the DJ’s voice rose by half an octave. “Sooo, Mr. Spooner; do we know who the ghost might be?”
Spooner cleared his throat again. “We believe it could belong to a woman who lived in the place before it was converted into a hotel. Parts of the building date back to Tudor times.”
Barker straightened his back and sat back on his haunches. He eyes narrowed as he chewed his bottom lip.
“There was a story originating from the Seventies when Priory Court underwent a large-scale restoration. Apparently workmen uncovered a body thought to be that of Lady Montrose, who appeared to have been bricked up alive in a section of wall. At the time, people assumed she had run away.”
The phone rang out three times and Barker looked up from his desk. “Susan!” The shrill ringtone continued to pierce the silence. “SUSAN!”
Eventually he sat back with a sigh, rose, then strode into the lounge and snatched up the cordless receiver. After less than a minute of conversation he flicked open the red leather cover of a diary and scrawled the names Naomi and Greg into the space for the afternoon of 25th April. It was the only entry for months. More punters: his Margaret was whoring herself again.
Ms. Fraser cocked her head and pursed her lips.
“I don’t know how Susan puts up with you, Reverend.”
The corners of Barker’s mouth curled up too far, giving his face the appearance of a gargoyle that had just fallen from the roof and taken human form. He shot sly glances at the bunches of pink carnations strewn at his feet and ground into the dirt in a dark corner of the graveyard behind the church.
“It took me hours to make those flower arrangements. All I wanted to do was brighten up the place for Easter.”
Barker just stared at her - his manic expression not altering.
“I really think you need to seek help, Jonathan. I’m going to speak to one of your superiors.”
With that she tottered away, swinging her stick and was soon turning into the road. Only the top of her hat was visible, gliding above a hawthorn bush.
He waited until she was almost out of sight, before jumping into the sagging fabric seat of his old Rover and over-revving the engine. Moments later, the pointy black shoes of a witch were sticking out the bottom of a spindly hedge. There was a large dark pool in the road, the curved handle of a walking stick and the crumpled white pages of the Book of Common Prayer flapping about like the wings of a mortally wounded bird.
Jonathan leaned up against the limestone tomb, putting his shoulder to it and finally shoving the loose lid back in place. He wound a frayed blue rope around his hand and began dragging the bundle towards the church door in short spurts, crushing hogweed and bluebells as it went. Once inside, he let the lighter end of the baggage drop to the ground so that it lay in the aisle pointing towards the altar; small brown eyes straining out of a sunken, bloodless face and straw coloured hair fanning out on the floor as if it were standing on end. The arms were pulled tightly behind its back and a dirty cotton gag bound the mouth so tightly that it almost dislocated the jaw.
A brisk wind ruffled the canopies of the beech trees outside as he waited for voices to filter through from the churchyard. Soon he could identify a woman’s laugh and a man jabbering away excitedly.
He lifted the weighty metal object off the step in front of him, running his thumb over the end of the short, cold barrel. Then he raised it to his right temple. His Margaret was a very lucky girl indeed. At last she could slumber unmolested and at peace, which is more than could be said for one particular pair of tormented, malevolent spirits. Their presence would be more than enough to frighten that loathsome public away. Or so the Reverend Jonathan Barker hoped.
Serena Shores lives in North Norfolk and has spent several years working as a freelance feature writer and photographer. She finds writing short fiction a welcome counterbalance to the often dry nature of feature work and spends as much time on it as she can without feeling too guilty about neglecting her 'proper job.' She has been published in several online magazines, such as Dark Fire Fiction, New Realm and Hellfire Crossroads.
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