Barington Cathedral (actually the Cathedral Church of St. Sybarite) had a long and storied history - at least, it’d once had one - written, as these things are, in the loving placement of every block of stone, plank of wood, and donated memorial plaque, brass, and window in the place. It survived Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries, Oliver Cromwell dissolving the monarchy, and the Industrial Revolution dissolving just about everything else, only to be unceremoniously dissolved itself during World War II. Not that its ceremonious dissolution would have been any better, mind you, but a tasteful cenotaph excoriating Nazi atrocities next to the ruin of a church founded by William II on the site of a Saxon priory stroke sauna itself built on the site of the brothel stroke nunnery run by St. Sybarite herself would have at least brought in the tourists, in addition to looking bloody brilliant in brochures.
Only it wasn’t the Luftwaffe or indeed any other of Hitler’s other favourite outrages which reduced the once-elegant Barington Cathedral to rubble; one fine day in 1944 the caretaker carelessly tossed his fag end too close to some cans of varnish and the whole thing went up like - you should pardon the Popish connotation - a Roman candle. A thousand years of history lost in 77 minutes; Guy Fawkes himself couldn’t have done a better job, and in doing so the caretaker, though he went to his grave not knowing it, became eligible for an Iron Cross.
The parish rebuilt it, of course, when it could afford to, which meant that the majority of the new Barington Cathedral had been put up in 1972, with the rest completed by 1987.
And it showed. Oh, how it showed...
The new cathedral was even uglier than its most unflattering description; not even the talented wordsmiths at the British Tourist Authority (whose job it was to blow smoke up the arse of foreigners from near and far alike with the help of flowery adjectives) were able to come up with a better word to describe it than ‘austere’ and even that word had nearly caused a fist fight in their office when it was first bandied about. Well, a slapping match, but you get the point...
When the Prince of Wales visited in 1991 he was momentarily rendered speechless - much to the chagrin of the pack of reporters waiting for him to say something sensible so they could distort it out of all reason and thus make fun of him for it forever after - and even after he’d regained his composure the word he used, namely ‘dreck’, seemed like flattery compared to what the Bishop of Barington called it on a good day. The best thing any of the editors on that day in 1991 could say about the visit was that at least the word ‘dreck’ could be easily made to fit into a headline.
None of which, or at least very little, of course would have been known to Trudy Carlisle as she approached the lumpen pile of austere dreck from the ironically distant Cathedral Close, unaware of her being in hot pursuit by a man from the Foreign Office in a scenario that couldn’t have been less like Ian Fleming if it had been written by John Le Carre, and couldn’t have been of less interest to her than if it had been written by Jeffrey Archer.
‘I say,’ she heard a man’s voice say. ‘Are you Mrs Carlisle?’
At the sound of his voice (or, more accurately, at the sounding of her name by his voice, his voice being no inducement to any activity whatsoever) she turned to behold the sight of a man who looked to be in his fifties - but who was actually only 38 - wearing an outfit of monochrome grey approaching her rather rapidly, half running half hopping up the steps of the Cathedral, though not quite as rapidly as he might have done were he in any way gainly.
In addition to wearing a grey suit which was exactly the colour of his grey hair, he wore wire-framed spectacles, which were steel of course. He winced whenever he tried to smile (though he had once accidentally smiled after stubbing his toe), and though he wasn’t quite fat, he wasn’t quite thin either. He was, you might say, a civil servant in the Goldilocks mode (not that such a finicky girl would have chosen someone like him for anything, mind you, except maybe a spot of light bear-baiting). He seemed to wear the indignity of being himself like a sign around his neck, routinely blent into his surroundings like a shape-shifter in a house of mirrors, and on more than one occasion had managed to startle himself while alone, so extreme was his innocuity. He even made the quotations with his fingers, so you have some idea what a complete and total ‘wanker’ he was.
‘Y-yes,’ she said, unsure of what else to say to such a person. ‘I guess I am. Or was.’
‘Mrs Carlisle,’ he repeated as he reached her, somewhat out of breath, though not from exertion; it was how he always sounded, as though his entire life were an exertion, which in a very real way it was. ‘Despite the condolence-inducing situation which has brought us together I am very pleased to make your ‘acquaintance’.’
Having made his quotes he thrust his hand at her and she shook it entirely out of habit, even though it looked clammy at a distance; as she held it, it even felt like a clam, possibly a geoduck, although for the life of her she couldn’t tell how she knew such a word, let alone such an animal, having never once dared set foot inside a Chinatown. Momentarily she heard Gary’s voice in her head; he’d have been all het up by now at having been handed such a lifeless thing to shake, so evangelical was he about such things as handshakes vis-a-vis their limpness. ‘And who might you be?’ she said, petrified in her best British way of accidentally having an honest reaction to him.
‘I am Frederick Toady. A ‘representative’ of the Foreign Office.’ He let her hand go to make his other quote, which was something of a blessed relief to her as she wiped it dry on the back of her long, discreetly flowered skirt. ‘Sorry I was late. It’s quite a trek to come all the way from London to Sussex, especially when one has to change trains in Brighton.’ He looked around in a studiously approving way, unable to dislike it even if he had, lest he cast Her Majesty’s Civil Service in a bad light; he also muttered the word ‘Brighton’, but then he usually only mouthed words like ‘damn’, ‘Hell’ and ‘knickers’, even when used in their non-profane contexts, so the fact that he’d utter an actual profanity like ‘Brighton’ meant he was feeling quite daring on that otherwise ordinary day.
By now Trudy Carlisle had well and truly shrunk back from him, although she’d done so mainly to avoid being misted by his pronunciation of the word ‘Sussex’, whose incipient moistness she had never previously considered until that moment, although it did neatly sum up the climate of the place, not to mention how wet everyone there was.
‘What seems to be the ‘problem’ then?’ he enquired.
That’s when she described all that had happened to her yesterday and today, including the Andromedan national anthem, the death of her husband, the theft of his corpse from their sitting room, the blackout drunk she’d suffered as a result after the 999 operator had rung off without sending help and she’d found them all gone, then the pounding headache she’d awakened with and the morning’s mad dash across the village in order to break up the barricading within the very Cathedral before which they stood of five creatures from another planet with the body of said dead husband who was, it bears repeating, an officer of the law.
He took it quite badly, did Frederick Toady.
Yet with Whitehall efficiency he dealt with the worst of the shock by suggesting Mrs Carlisle for the job of Foreign Office go-between, at a starting salary of £28,500 per annum, which she accepted a little too readily. Nothing soothes the nerves of a civil servant quite like a good bit of squandering from the public purse, and when she’d leapt at the opportunity (even though it was the money she’d leapt at rather than the opportunity, which truth be told she rather dreaded) he sighed with multiple kinds of relief, some of which he’d never known existed until that very moment, and at least one of which was the kind of relief a workaholic feels after a bout of premature ejaculation, since it meant he could get back to work a few minutes sooner.
This meant that she could now enter the Cathedral (and hundreds of other heritage sites besides) unimpeded, which was just one of the fringe benefits of government work civil servants liked to keep to themselves. It also meant that she’d be able to afford to fly to Majorca on holiday this year, which would have been quite difficult on a policeman’s salary, unless they got a good deal on a package, and even more difficult, package or not, with the impending insurance settlement currently being tied up in all kinds of red tape at an office outside Norwich, which is where they did that sort of thing. Especially now since, with her husband dead, she’d have no double occupancy upon which to rely.
All of these thoughts (though not many more) occurred to her during a long pause in their conversation, which silence Frederick Toady found particularly nerve-wracking, since it clearly had the potential to become awkward, which potential made her feel awkward in its own unique way. He tried to get her attention, but it did not want to be got. He pulled against the cathedral’s heavy wooden doors, against which she’d slumped, and try as he might he could shift neither them nor her against them. He waved his hand in front of her face, and even tried snapping his fingers, an act as much hampered by the total lack of cool contained within them as the clamminess secreted upon them.
None of which mattered, since none of it worked.
He cleared his throat: nothing. ‘Erm,’ he said. Again, nothing. ‘I say, Mrs Carlisle,’ he tried, but as it was his curse to speak rather softly, and in this case had spoken as a lorry was passing, this had even less effect than his previous attempts, in which case, it seemed not even the tremendous roar of twelve pistons filled with diesel going past encased in a giant noisy machine could shatter her reverie.
Briefly, he considered touching her, but having just attended a workplace seminar on sexual harassment, he was unsure where; given that he was he and not some of the suave yuppies he’d seen on the make at that wine bar near his office in Park Lane he was also unsure how. Instead, he withdrew a mechanical pencil from its slightly moist place in his shirt pocket and, satisfied that its lead – which was not even lead, but was still dangerously pointy – was safely sheathed, he poked her on the forearm just above the wrist. He also used the rubber end of it, just to be extra safe.
He prodded. Quite gently at first. Then again. And again.
Force applied from him to her via the pencil eventually penetrated the sleeve of her overcoat, then the sleeve of her sweater, and finally the sleeve of her blouse. This force in turn activated a few rather blasé nerve endings in her skin, which lackadaisically sent said impulses to her brain where they waited on queue for what seemed like hours (but which was in fact only seconds, as to most nerve-endings a second seems like an hour, especially when someone’s poking at them) until they were eventually received and processed by some rather surly neurons and not even told to have a nice day afterwards, since even the neurons in Britain had gotten ruder over the past twenty years.
Trudy Carlisle turned her head and rather blankly (as well as somewhat dreamily) stared at Frederick Toady. ‘Yes?’
‘Um, er, uh,’ he stammered, having completely forgotten what it was he’d been planning to say in the event of a still-rather handsome woman looking up at him dreamily. Then he remembered: ‘Hadn’t you ought to be getting inside?’ It was the first bit of supervision he’d ever given in the thirty years of his working life, and it felt good. So good he feared he might vomit again, which would be twice in one day, a personal best, as most days it was four or five.
There was another long pause, and another sickening feeling, such as usually accompanies that circular rainbow thing-a-my on the computer screen which appears whenever you don’t know if the damn thing’s going to do what you’d asked it to or crash. ‘Right,’ said Trudy Carlisle, finally - hesitancy, in this instance brought on by genuine fear. She took a deep breath and stiffened her own upper lip better than any Botox ever could.
To his credit, Frederick Toady waited until she was inside the Cathedral before fainting dead away from relief. Not that anyone noticed. Still, at least he hadn’t vomited...
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