Monday, March 12, 2007

An Unofficial Position

I had this idea for a story back in 1999, polished it in the pub in Bentham with the help of people such as Ewan, Chris, John and Bob, and beer such as Landlord. I finished it later and submitted it to the BBC where it was rejected after several months despite being loved by the producer who read it. I read it at Cafe Create once but now, with the help of the writers' group I have just joined, have trimmed 300 words out of the beginning and it is almost sharp. Enjoy.

There was a newcomer in church. The Reverend Graham Gray was flabbergasted. There was no lych-gate poster at St John’s saying, ‘Push off’, but there may as well have been. The service was ‘Family Worship’, although until today the youngest member of the congregation had been in her sixties. The only gesture to ‘family’ was that the woman still came to church with her mother.

Some rural communities occupy very beautiful villages. Names such as on-the-wold or in-the-vale, upper this or lesser that clearly raise the expectations of the visitor. Some. Then there is Chim. Chim is a decaying village. City dwellers have not yet colonised it – nobody has had the guts to go first.

The sleepy churchyard surrounds a dozy church. Members of the regular congregation of ten (including organist and vicar) are not avidly reading church growth manuals. Everyone who might be interested in churchgoing has been visited and each in turn has declined the invitation.

Graham chatted to the newcomer who gave his name as Maurice Richardson - a researcher into village customs. Graham had no inclination as to what customs he might find in Chim apart from excessive inter-marrying in the nineteen forties. It had no fĂȘte, no fayre, no beating of the bounds, no village green and no maypole. Chim was destitute in interesting features.

The following Wednesday evening, as Graham drew into the village and parked outside the shop he noticed, and heard, activity coming from the pub car-park. In a dying village it is almost inevitable that the pub will be on the way out too. The George had managed to keep going by attracting some real ale fanatics to its single, well-kept, hand-pumped guest beer.

The music coming from the car-park was the very distinctive music which accompanies English country dancing. The occasional ringing of bells and clash of sticks betrayed that the dancing was Morris.

Graham hated Morris dancing. He had once closed down a church country-dancing group and destroyed an accordion in a fit of rage. He saw devilry and evil at the heart of such an apparently innocent pastime. He argued for the demonic origins of the movement, quoting sixteenth century apologists who called it , ‘The Devil’s Dance.’ And Mr Richardson the researcher, turned out to be the chief instigator of the noise. Maurice the morris-dancer. He was teaching the craft to a new group.

And so later they had a row. Maurice defended the dancing as part of England’s cultural heritage. Voices were raised, tempers engaged and at the end of a visit when a gentle clerical welcome to the Christian community was planned a threat was issued that Maurice keep his stupid, childish, dancing games well away from the church.

Maurice Richardson was not a vindictive man, but neither was he a push-over. Aware that the Reverend Gray spent little time in the village he persuaded his dancers to practice in the churchyard on warm, summer evenings. Some of the villagers would wander over and watch, sitting on grave stones, and then retire to the George for a drink or two. There were probably more people in and around the church that summer than there had been for many years; there were certainly more people in the George. The troop improved and soon had a repertoire of three or four dances.

It took several weeks before a Graham visit coincided with a churchyard practice. He was affronted and outraged. He had made his feelings abundantly clear and he demanded Maurice stay behind for a talk in the church. As the trainee dancers, apprentice musicians and followers drifted across to the pub, voices were raised in the church. Fingers were pointed. Prodding and poking took place. Just as everything seemed it could escalate no further, Graham snapped. A life-time of stupid people doing stupid things, from which Graham had hoped ordination would liberate him, came bearing heavily down upon him once more. The weight of a thousand people’s annoying lives were suddenly represented by this one man standing before him in a white shirt and trousers with red sashes round his arms and legs and who jingled as he moved.

There were two ceremonial swords on the wall of the church south aisle – a gift from an ex-army, Parish Council chairman. Graham grabbed one and swung it. He intended to have the impact of a mace-seizing politician. He didn’t really expect to do any harm. He wanted to show Maurice flippin’ dancer what he was like when riled.

But the sword was longer than expected, sharper and certainly heavier. As he swung it in Maurice’s direction he lost his grip. The entry and exit wounds met and Maurice’s head bounced once on the second pew from the back and rolled under the recently upgraded heating system. The rest of his body simply gave up doing anything useful and, after a short delay, fell to the floor.

Graham was stunned. Clearly not as stunned as Maurice, but stunned enough. He ran to the church door and locked himself in.

Graham didn’t really plan to cover up his crime, but he gradually tumbled to the possibility that a stranger might not be missed for a while. There would be no suspicions if he re-opened a grave. He embarked on several hours of meticulous scrubbing and cleaning – in fact if anything would arouse the suspicions of the people of Chim it would be a church interior thoroughly cleaned for the first time in many years. Having cleaned up the blood Graham went to some trouble to redistribute the dust and dirt.

After three hours Maurice Richardson was contained in a very large plastic holdall which had spent its previous thirty years keeping the dust off altar frontals.

Graham moved the body to the crypt. He was aware that the funeral, for which he had been in the village visiting, would involve a grave in the churchyard. He reckoned it would be easy enough to put an extra body in. Two nights later Graham drove back into Chim and found the grave – a family plot – which the sexton had just re-opened. He dug it a little deeper, down to the collapsed lid of the previous coffin, and Mr Richardson became a grave-crasher. Graham covered him lightly and to all intents and purposes the hole looked as the grave-digger had left it.

Next day at the funeral he committed two bodies to the ground, muttering Maurice Richardson’s name under his breath following that of the genuine holder of the grave-rights.

Graham Gray thought he had a Christian conscience but discovered, as he hot-wired Maurice Richardson’s Vauxhall Astra Estate and drove it into the city to dump it, that it was without depth of conviction. He felt equally comfortable as he emptied a flat of the recently deceased’s possessions and took them to the nearest charity shop. He slept soundly and nobody said anything. Over the next few weeks he heard one or two people wondering aloud where ‘that nice Mr Richardson’ had got to, but when asked to comment he simply expressed the opinion that such researchers probably moved on fairly regularly. He got away with it completely.

Summer came and went and the autumn witnessed no renewal at Chim Parish Church, no police inquiries and no more dancing either. It was a night-time in October and Graham Gray was dropping off to sleep. The phone rang.

‘The churchyard vicar, the churchyard.’ Graham recognised the voice of Betty, his Church Warden from Chim. He froze. What had she found?

‘What is it?’ he asked as calmly as he could. ‘A ghost? Really?’ Relieved that it was the sort of thing that merely needed reassurance and an explanation of the harsh shadows of moonlight he felt confident he could deal with the matter. He drove over, grateful that no bottle of wine had accompanied his quiet night in.

By the time he arrived at Chim there was no ghost, only a dispersing group of villagers, chattering animatedly.

‘What did you see?’ Graham asked a small group of women.

‘A dancer,’ they told him, all talking at once, ‘a dancer with no head.’ The colour drained from Graham’s face. It was dark. No-one noticed. Returning to his bed an hour later he fell asleep with his head in his hands, which, considering the plight of his ghost, had to be considered a luxury.

The following day the local newspapers and regional TV news crews were at the churchyard setting up. Rarely had they had a ghost story attested by so many witnesses and they wanted quotes, pictures and, if possible, live reportage. Maurice didn’t disappoint them. At midnight he performed a brief handkerchief dance in the moonlight and then vanished. Of course although all the reporters saw it with their own eyes the photos and films showed nothing. Corporeal non-compliance.

Graham spent much of the rest of that year ministering in Chim. Suddenly the village had a tourist attraction. The George got a second guest ale in. The two bedrooms in the pub were regularly booked for overnight guests. Remarkably the church grew as some people from the fringe of the community chose to attend worship. Within three months attendance had doubled and a small store Graham had set up in the church sold a booklet about the ghost and some inappropriate trinkets. Of course the booklet dated the myth of the dancing ghost back several generations because when Graham talked to the villagers about it many of them swore they could recall being told the story by their parents.

And so the income grew, the congregation grew, the village grew and all this came to the attention of the church hierarchy. Soon the Archdeacon was persuading Graham to look at another hopeless case in the Diocese – this time a run-down inner-city parish. He accepted. In fact pretty soon he was thinking of assassination as a generally well-rounded church growth strategy. That and fire – many congregations needed freeing from outmoded buildings and a diocesan arsonist might well help. It would have to be an unofficial position.

1 comment:

IAIN CUNNINGHAM said...

Great story. I'm still smiling. As sharp as the sword that removed Maurice's head from his shoulders. It would have made a great script for "Tales of the Unexpected." You'll just have to produce another couple of dozen of them and have them published as a collection of short stories.