I. In which we meet, for the first but not the last time, the most noble Father Thomas and his inimitable rhetorical style.
And so, gentle reader, it was in such a manner that Socorro, with no greater impetus than the bright smile of a young Englishman and a lack of contrary inclinations, found herself less than half an hour later standing in the open doorway of a church behind the Aspenall sisters and Guerric Forbes – individuals she knew not well, if at all – facing, with her newfound comrades, rows upon rows of pews that led, sentinel-like, toward the small, recycled coffin laying before the decrepit, late-eighteenth century altar, above which hung, gracelessly, a crucified and somewhat emaciated Christ.
Perhaps if there had been more people in the church their entrance would not have created the disturbance it undeniably did. Sadly, the congregation was made up solely of a priest, an old woman in a wheelchair, and two elderly individuals of indeterminate sex sitting in the back and wearing distinctly ghoulish expressions. At the opening of the church doors all of them stopped what they were doing, turned in their seats, and stared, goggle-eyed.
Faith went first down the aisle with long, feline strides, her eyes locked in with those of the priest, round-faced, who stood smiling faintly over the flower-bound casket. Guerric followed her, his stride strangely more languid than before, his clear eyes scanning the scowling bereaved with a friendly, rather condescending gaze. Then came Grace in a rippling shuffle of steps punctuated by the sounds of shoulder and hipbones popping. After Grace, tripping gaily, was Joy, trailing wreathes of summer flowers. Following her kin – and perhaps yet even more beautiful, for the Promethean cast of her features and the fact that, with Grace, she stood second only to Charity – was Hope. After her came Prudence. And finally, last but not least – and most assuredly so in the Christian sense! – was Socorro, whose expressionless face attested to the fact that she had moved beyond the ability to be surprised and into the blissful state some call nirvana and others shell shock.
“Wewcome, wewcome,” Father Thomas said charitably, waiting for them to be seated before he started his sermon. Faith tarried till they all stood in the pew.
A shuffle, a moan, and a silence.
“Oy beet sheesh Airish, Mally,” whispered one of the mysterious persons in the back. Socorro settled herself in her seat and looked around. Up by the front row, in the lap of the old woman in the wheelchair, was a terrier. The dog studied the priest with a fervent countenance. The old woman appeared to be asleep. Father Thomas’ gaze came to rest occasionally on the attentive pair with something akin to father-like solicitude.
“Why is there a dog in church?” Socorro whispered at Prudence.
“It’s Father Thomas’,” Prudence replied. “He won’t say mass without it. Inspiration, or something like that.”
Socorro was about to ask what sort of inspiration she could possibly be referring to when the priest lifted his head and hurrumped twice. Such an action representing to the initiated ‘hear ye, hear ye, it’s sermon time,’ and Socorro being a good Spanish Catholic (i.e., trained from birth like a Pavlovian puppy), she had no alternative but to fall into an attentive silence.
“We awe gwadewed here todway,” Father Thomas began sententiously, “to mawk the depawtuwe of our deawly belowed fwiend, Mth. Janith Maginneth.” Socorro, already bored, leaned her chin in her hand and stared at the cracking stained glass windows.
“We stwand,” continued the Father, his eyes moving from his twosome to seek out individual members of the congregation and pin them in their seats with a Jehovah-like intensity, “beweaved, lotht, theeking thome meaning in thith gweat loth, thith gweat void that hath cwept up behind uth, awound uth. What, we athk ouwthelveth, what hath happened, that the would be taken from uth? We feel alone, loth, athee in a gweat flood of mithewy, lonlineth, longing! We awe alone, we are wicked, we thand lotht in our thins, our thins which rithe up around uth and thweaten to dwown uth! For we awe thmall, weak, thinful beingth, adwift!”
Hope rolled her eyes, muttered something, and was stilled to silence by the watchful hand of her elder sister. Socorro, who had been able to understand on average one word in fifteen, redoubled her attempts to derive meaning from the syllables exiting in such lovely profusion from the priest's mouth.
“But,” Father Thomas continued, “God loveth uth. Yeth, my brothewth and thithewth, he loveth uth! Even though we awe weak, thinful, and without thwength, even though our thoulth are dawk and dank and diwty, our thoulth are altho where the love of God will come to thtay! ”
Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the priest chuckled. His jowls joined in. A faint murmur of assenting giggles was heard from the enigmatic individuals in the back row. The dog attempted to leap from the old woman’s lap and into the priest’s loving arms. It was hastily restrained, and almost fell, yelping.
Joy leaned over and tugged at Socorro’s sleeve. “Whatever you do,” she whispered intensely, “do not go near the dog.”
“Why not?” Socorro asked.
“It’s been known to attack,” Prudence explained.
“What do you mean,” Socorro said cautiously, “by attack?”
Prudence paused, trying to find the right sort of words. Hope, never one to be stopped by language, leapt in to fill the bore.
“Blood, gore, that sort of thing.”
“You’re not serious.”
Hope nodded (seriously). “It’s Satanic,” she explained. “And extremely whimsical. It took a fancy to Joy’s shoes once. When her feet were in them, too.”
“Bloody expensive shoes, they were,” Joy said pensively.
“Hush!” Grace whispered, flapping a hand. “I want to hear this.”
“He loveth uth, yeth, my bwothewth and thithtewth, he doeth! Look! We awe weak, we thin daily, we think evil thoughth, the clay fwom which we withe is the weaketh of thowth!”
“O, ‘ts lovely, doon ya think, Mally?” said one of the cryptic individuals in the back row.
“I thought this was a Catholic Church,” Socorro murmured.
“I believe he’s considered somewhat liberal in his interpretation of dogma,” Prudence said doubtfully.
“Liberal, ha.” Joy whispered. “Try incorrect.” Father Thomas, unaware of the slurs being cast upon his ecclesiastical education, had begun shouting in a distinctly Presbyterian manner. His dog ejected the occasional whining bark, as if to offer him a canine ‘yes brother!’ or ‘you know it!’ or ‘sing it, baby!’
“How does she know about Catholic dogma?” Socorro asked Prudence.
“We're Catholic,” Prudence replied.
Socorro goggled. “But … Henry,” she stuttered, bemused. “I mean … John Knox!”
Prudence – understanding instantly that Socorro, being a Spaniard, knew nothing of English history beyond the Armada and thus laboured under the illusion that all Englishmen were, by definition, born heathen and eternally damned – waved a negligent hand. “It was our grandfather,” she explained. “He insisted we be brought up Catholic. He was hoping his Irish cousin, Timidity, would bequeath him her money.”
“Oh,” Socorro whispered, “is that why you have those names?”
Prudence sighed sadly. “We were ostracised at school, you know?” she said.
Socorro nodded commiseratively.
“Yeth, the weaketh of thowth! We awe, in ethenth, twuly pitiful and puewile beingth! And yet, he thill loveth uth! Ith that not a love to cover all thingth?” A minor struggle ensued down the aisle, as Grace and Joy whispered furiously at Hope, who sat trembling in her seat, her eyes fixed intently on the priest’s waving hands, her mouth twisted in a strange snarl.
“And Mth Maginneth, our beloved, motht dearly departed thithter, the - like uth all, weak, poow, mithewly and mithewable, without many thwength or gifth - the too, wath loved! Weak, poor, dawk and dank of thoul, pwone to mithewy and thtupidity, even then, and even tho, he loveth her! Yeth! Yeth!” Panting slightly, Father Thomas paused like an overweight gymnast waiting for his second chance at the pommel horse.
“And tho,” he continued, his voice gentle now, almost lyrical, “into Youw loving embwathe, O Lord, we give our thithter, Mrs. Janith Maginneth, in the hope that You will take her poow, mithewable thoul, make her one with You, and lift her to the highetht of heightht.” Father Thomas squeezed his eyes shut very tight, opened them, and smiled lovingly at the congregation. “Amen,” he intoned. Taking up the incense, he moved toward the flower-covered casket.
II. In which Socorro discovers the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mrs Maginnes’ death.
Socorro watched the droning, falsetto-chanting priest for one deliberate moment, sniffed, blinked, glanced around the room, and slumped in her seat. She shrugged her shoulders. She stared at the wooden effigy of a corpse hanging over a real one in a wooden case. She wondered if there was some significance to that. She sniffed once more. She looked around. Something occurred to her.
“How did she die?” Socorro asked, leaning over to whisper the question in Prudence's ear.
“Mrs Maginnes?” Prudence replied. Socorro nodded. Father Thomas moved to re-hang the incense. “Oh,” Prudence said blithely, “she was thrown off Arthur’s Seat. You know, the cliff.”
“What?” Socorro whispered, appalled.
Prudence nodded sadly.
Joy leaned over. “Yes,” she murmured. “She was murdered.”
Grace’s anorexic expression appeared over her sister’s shoulder. “It was the goat,” she hissed.
Thunder cracked noisily outside.