Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 2 Entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Vision of St Wilfred (Prompt: stained ground beside Forsbury Chapel)

Miss Maddox saw it first, just after the curate had finished saying Mass for the Feast of the Madonna of Macclesfield.

She and Miss Weatherby were hobbling down the south aisle of St Wilfred the Less, and as they squeezed between the pew ends and the scaffolding tower put up by the electricians working on the Reverend Bob’s new lighting scheme, she clutched at Miss Weatherby’s elbow and pointed with her stick at the flags by the Forsbury family chapel.

“Oh my goodness!” Miss Weatherby said. “It looks just like…”

“Shh!” Miss Maddox rebuked. “Remember where you are.” She hoped that the dim light of votive candles would conceal the burning of her cheeks.

Miss Weatherby told Mrs Dunston all about it as they queued together for their pensions in the Post Office. Mrs Dunston passed it on to her husband over freshly-backed fruit cake at tea-time. Mr Dunston carried it with him to the dominoes match at the Fox and Ferret. It came to the ears of the Reverend Bob the next morning, when he gave his talk to the Mothers Union about his vision for modernising the church and attracting fresh faces. He was, he mused, the last to know about these things, as usual. Nobody knows who told the Daily Comet.

Nobody owned up. Doreen Maddox said that she wouldn’t be in the least surprised if if wasn’t Mrs Dunston, the brazen hussy, while Peggy Dunston could be heard muttering to anybody who would listen that it was surely that infernal busybody Alice Weatherby. Miss Weatherby, for her part, was quite certain that the leak came from the Fox and Ferret, because that was the kind of low place where you would find the type most likely to read a rag like the Comet.
It was Mrs Dunston, while she was cleaning, who spotted the pert young woman with the long blonde hair and the fuchsia trouser suit checking into the Forsbury Arms. By switching off the vacuum cleaner to attend to dusting the framed hunting prints she was able to gather that the young woman’s name was Eleanor Pegg, the dark-suited, shadow-chinned man at he left shoulder was Brian something-or-other, and that the Daily Comet would be picking up her bill as arranged. That evening, the bar at the Forsbury Arms was fuller than it had been since the Spile Troshing last St Wilfred’s Day. The men had found the energy from somewhere to abandon their fireside chairs and walk the dog. The women were all filled with an irresistible urge to chaperone them. When Ellie Pegg shimmered into the bar the chatter stopped and every head turned as if some mighty hand had flicked a switch on a huge automaton. At first it seemed that Ellie would have nowhere to sit, and then twenty chairs were scraped back across the carpet as one. But Ellie didn’t stop. The throng of drinkers parted like the Red Sea for the Israelites as she strode straight for the front door, and in her wake a column formed that made a stately procession across the village green and under the lych gate to the west door of St Wilfred the Less where the Reverend Bob waited with his jaw sagging under his nose. The procession didn’t break step as it marched past him into the darkness of the church, up the south aisle to the gate of the Forsbury Chapel. Some of the more agile parishioners climbed up the electrician’s scaffolding tower; the remainder of the crowd formed themselves into the best semicircle they could muster in the cramped space. All of them made free with their opinion, for Ellie Pegg’s benefit as much as in hope of getting their pictures in the paper.

“The Lord is showing his anger at the desecration of His church,” somebody called.

“It’s them women priests that brought this down,” said somebody else.

“God is going to destroy us for our deviant ways,” another shouted.

Under the photographer’s floodlight you couldn’t see anything very much at all, really. Just a faint shadow of rusty red. But when the space was illuminated only by the flickering of candles, if you screwed your eyes up and used your imagination a bit, you could see something almost lifelike. If you tried really hard you could believe that it was moving in some kind of gesture. What exactly you could see was another matter. Some saw an arm stretched out in supplication, with fingers that wiggled and beckoned. Miss Maddox swore it was something quite different, but flushed red and stammered when invited to name it.

The picture editor at the Daily Comet had done a good job as it could with weak material. They’d held on to the story for a week for maximum impact, and broke it on the front page on the day of the critical House of Commons vote on the Public Morality Act. The Prime Minister, ravaged by plummeting poll figures and the collapse of the government’s coalition partnership, was staking his jaded reputation on a campaign for a return to basic moral principles. The Comet was throwing its crusading weight behind him.

“Have you seen this, Sir Hector?” said the Chief Whip. He’d made it his personal mission to prise the Honourable Member for Loamshire East from his armchair at the Athenaeum for the vote.

“Saw something in the Times about it, old chap. Seems there’s charabancs full of happy clappies pouring into St Wilfred’s and trampling on the family brasses. What nonsense!”

“People are saying it’s God showing his displeasure at the vicar’s modernisation scheme. Ripping out the organ and the pews and so on.”

“Rubbish! Sir Hector said. “You don’t believe that rot, do you? It’s a call to arms to the Forsbury family of course. Country’s going to the dogs. It’s up to me now, you know. I’m the last of the Forsburys.”

“It’s such a shame you couldn’t have children,” said the Chief Whip. “What was the story again? A rare tropical virus you picked up while you were with the army in Malaya? Ah yes. Well, we wouldn’t want any tales of your exotic adventures in El Salvador reaching your constituents, would we. Now, it’s time to be going. We’ve squared up Madam Speaker to make sure she catches your eye. I think you’ll enjoy the day out, don’t you?

The House was muted when Sir Hector Forsbury was called. Members hadn’t seen him in the chamber for so long they weren’t sure whether they were supposed to cheer or jeer. He creaked to his feet at the very back of the government back benches, cleared his throat, and began. “Honourable Members,” he wheezed, “will have seen in this morning’s Daily Comet…”

It had been a long time, but after forty-eight years in the House you never really forgot how to do it. Even if the young turks had their own ideas. And weren’t they getting younger and younger. Barely out of short trousers, some of them. Sir Hector was putting his final flourishes to his line about how even God, in his, Sir Hector’s, very own constituency; speaking indeed from his own family chapel,.was urging the nation to embrace the government’s moral stand. And then his voice broke off in a rattling snore before he crumpled into a heap. Convention decrees that nobody may die within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. The whips wheeled him outside to the waiting ambulance, but not before they had wheeled him past the tellers to be nodded through the Aye lobby. Only after that could he be declared dead with full propriety.

The Reverend Bob was delighted to welcome Kelly Fisher, East Loamshire’s new MP, to the opening of the St Wilfred’s Ecumenical Centre. Hers had been a dramatic rise, and she had become, to her chagrin, the pin-up girl of the Daily Comet. When she won the seat narrowly at the by-election the government’s majority disappeared completely. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition immediately tabled, and won, a motion of no confidence and in the general election landslide that followed, Kelly Fisher secured a comfortable majority.

Meanwhile, the Reverend Bob was more than pleased with the way the designers had transformed the interior of the church so that the space could be put to much fuller use while still being sympathetic to the architecture. It had been a difficult decision to make; one he had prayed hard over, but he was convinced it was the right one.

As the new lights went on for the first time they turned the stone walls to a rich honey shade and made the gilded bosses in the ceiling twinkle like stars on a frosty night, drawing oohs of appreciation from the gathered audience. They caught something else, too, and the jag of bright light from the floor in the south aisle drew Kelly Fisher towards its source. By the entrance to the new coffee bar she picked up a shard of glass, like a very thin piece of mirror, and took it to show the Reverend Bob.

“It’s a piece of broken Thermos flask,” Reverend Bob explained. “The electrician dropped his tea when he was working on the lights.”

“So, the stain, the vision, it was tea?”

Reverend Bob nodded.

“And you knew all the time? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We wouldn’t have had all this fun, would we?” He paused to sweep his arm around the church.
“We’d never have achieved any of this if I had, I think. And a great deal more besides.”

“You mean you set all this up?”

Reverend Bob winked. “God moves in mysterious ways,” he said.


One Response to “Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 2 Entry”

  1. tvor Says:

    I think i like this one the best of the three but the long paragraph about Ellie Page seems to be a bit too long and involved.

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