Henry helped out in church on Sunday, providing Dad was at Trewern, and this Sunday at the ten o’clock eucharist, he was. So Henry togged up in a zipped alb, carried the cross in front of Dad and acted as server. Mum played the Victorian organ, rather well. The main congregation at Trewern was not bad for a country parish. There was a village primary school, and the Sunday school usually pulled in at least ten kids, so there was a scattering of young families amongst the grey heads. There were over forty people in the pews of the large medieval church. It was an encouragement to Dad. It was also a tribute to his preaching, which was always worth listening to.
Henry occupied a place on the south side of the long-abandoned choir benches during the readings. He gazed up at the numerous wall monuments, and that Sunday morning he observed one up close to the sanctuary on the north side opposite. It was a rather theatrical marble cartouche, topped by the inevitable urn, flames spouting out of the lid. Henry squinted up to make out the words, but only caught the name ‘Scudamore’. He made a mental note to get a closer look after the service.
After he had tidied the sanctuary, he went for a closer look at the monument. But he was in for a disappointment, the wording was in Latin. He saw the name of Edgar Scudamore, so it was the same rector from the boy’s tomb in the graveyard. He got the blank side of a pew news sheet and a pencil from the vestry and scribbled the text down:
D.M. In tumulo prope hoc marmore resident cineres EDGARII SCVDAMORE qui in vita mortali rector templi Trewerni erat. Vir probus. Sacerdos prudens. Maritus castus. Alumnus universitatis Oxfordiensis magister artium erat per decem annos socius et tesaurarius collegii Omnium Sanctorum. Mortuus est in LVIIo anno aetatis suae in anno incarnationis MDCCCII relicta FRANCESCA devota uxore sua, filia nobilis domini Roberti Simpkins baronetti, quae in pietate hoc monumentum erexit.
It was as he was finishing this off that he heard a fine old voice say behind him ‘Hello, young Henry, still busy researching?’ It was Dr Mackenna, the churchwarden. Dr Mackenna was a retired academic from some northern university, who had been warden of Trewern now for twenty years. Henry liked the old man, who was one of those sympathetic types just born to be grandfathers. Henry had told him all about his researches, and he had been very interested, showing Henry a stack of older graveslabs stored behind the sexton’s shed, which he would have otherwise missed.
Henry grinned, ‘Hi, Dr Mac! Yup. Just copying down this monument. But it’s in Latin and I can’t read it.’
‘Not a problem, Henry. Let me get my reading glasses. I took Latin for matriculation and I had to keep it up for one reason and another. Now, let’s see. Mmm.’ The old man frowned and then cocked an eye at the boy, ‘Ready? Got your pencil? Here goes.’
‘“In a grave near this stone rests the dust of Edgar Scudamore who while alive was rector of Trewern. He was a fine chap, a wise priest and a faithful husband. He was a graduate of Oxford University, was a master of arts there and for ten years was fellow and bursar of All Saints. He died in his fifty-seventh year in the year 1802 leaving his devoted wife Frances, the daughter of Sir Robert Simpkins, baronet, who dutifully put up this memorial.”’
‘That’s brilliant Dr Mac! Thanks a lot. Odd thing though, it doesn’t mention any kids: but he had at least one son, with some biblical name or other, who’s buried out in the graveyard. But he did predecease him I suppose.’
‘Yes, that is odd. These memorials usually go into extensive family details — his father-in-law got a mention after all — and they usually do name the children, even if they had died. I suppose it must have been an only child too, tragic.’
Henry took his leave and finished clearing up. Dad was still chatting to parishioners in the south porch when he left. ‘Dinner in one hour, Dad!’ he called cheerily as he passed.
Dad’s timekeeping was good where it involved funerals, baptisms and weddings, and pretty useless otherwise. Like most clergy, he felt he was at the disposal of his parish, and he couldn’t say no to anyone, poor man.
Henry was happy that day, and when he was happy he was — like a surprising number of adolescent boys — extremely good company: quick, amusing, and attractive. Dinner was very good fun, and Dad told his best funeral stories. Henry had heard them before but some stories got better the more you heard them. He helped Mum stack the dishwasher.
Henry was on his way up the stairs when Dad called him down. ‘Henry, can you pop across to the church? The candles needed changing this morning, but I didn’t have time, and the ones on the altar were nearly down to stubs.’ Henry was not going to be disobliging today, so he smiled and said he’d do it right then. His Dad ruffled his hair and hugged him as he went past.
The heavy south door creaked open and closed back on itself with an echoing crash, as Henry let it go. The church was left unlocked on weekends, despite the risk of thieves from Birmingham raiding its Victorian fittings. It was on the tourist circuit, and Dr Mac or one of the parochial church council tried to be there to keep an eye on it when they could. But there was no one there that afternoon.
Henry was not spooked to be on his own in the ancient building, smelling of dust and candle wax. The creaking and cracking of boards and beams left him unmoved, and the cool dimness of the church did not daunt him. Cobwebs, fluttering bats, scurrying rodents were all as nothing to him. He had grown up with churches and they were to him what the local park was to most kids, and probably a lot less dangerous.
Humming to himself, he got the knife and fresh candles from the vestry, and began clearing out the candlesticks. He boiled up water in the kettle, and melted off the dripped wax. It was as he was drying off the brass that he was aware of a curious hum in the air. It sounded as though the sound system was giving off feedback. He was curious enough to open the vestry cupboard to see if someone had left it on, but when he did there were no lights and the switch was down. He went back to the job in hand. When all six were sorted, he began taking them in pairs back to the altar.
As Henry looked over the altar and back down into the nave, he was aware that someone had come into the church. A slight, dark figure was in a back pew, and seemed to have his or her head down in prayer. This was not an infrequent occurrence, and Henry had learned that such people generally did not want to be disturbed. So he did his best to be quiet and unobtrusive. When he looked again he found that the dark figure was also looking up. He found it strangely difficult to focus on the figure in the darkening afternoon, but he got the impression of a young male face looking fixedly at him.
‘Er … hi!’ he called out, ‘can I help you?’
There was no reply, the figure just kept looking at him. Henry was unnerved. Christ, it might be a druggie on a bender. His dad had told him some cautionary tales about drug addicts and churches. As the alarm rose in his chest, the sound system definitely gave a crackle and the humming sound became yet more obvious.
All of a sudden, Henry had a decided conviction that he did not want to go down into the church, and indeed he had changed his mind about being alone in this place. He remembered that the dead lay all around him and under the very flagstones on which he was standing.
There was however an option. An old priest’s door opened off the chancel, and Henry had the key. He finished his task and walked in a controlled way to the south side. He did not look, but he knew the bloke was still there and was staring at him and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a movement. His key engaged with the lock, it twisted and the door opened.
A flood of springtime scents and warm sunshine surrounded him. Death and decay were behind him, and life and colour in front of him. He breathed out, only now aware that the breath had frozen in his chest. But as he stepped out on to the grass he was almost certain he heard a sigh from just behind him, definitely a boy’s sigh with that adolescent rasp that many teenagers get. He span around, but nobody was there.
Henry’s alarm subsided and he felt ashamed of himself. He was by nature a secure sort of boy. He had never asked for a night light, and he wasn’t ordinarily bothered by loneliness or the dark. His sudden panic in the church had been an aberration, and he wanted to efface it. He turned around on the path and went nervously back in. He looked around. Nobody was in the chancel. Nobody was in the nave. The pews were empty. He coughed, and called out, a little tremulously, ‘Hullo! Anyone there!’ There was no reply. Henry breathed out and shrugged. He finished tidying the altar and went home, pondering what he had experienced.
That night Henry dreamed again. He was once more in Trewern Woods, walking the paths embarrassingly naked, and once again a boy was walking with him and talking, but this time he was also holding his hand. He could not understand what the boy was saying, but he seemed happy and amused for some reason. His eyes were bright and his face was clearer to him this time. It was quite a good looking face: dark haired with large grey eyes, a little sad maybe, but twinkling now with laughter. He was clothed in some black stuff.
The stranger in the dream stopped Henry and they looked at each other. He put a hand on each of Henry’s bare flanks, and he moved his head towards Henry’s. Hey! The boy was going to kiss him! This wasn’t right! Henry turned his head away. The unknown boy looked hurt and then annoyed. He stormed off through the bushes leaving Henry cold and alone in a darkening wood. There was a rumbling sound and the wind rose in the trees, the branches thrashing, Henry felt himself buffeted in the gusts and he felt his feet leave the ground. He woke with a yell. Bloody hell. What a dire dream, he thought; shaking as he reached for the light switch.
The minibus arrived. It was Monday again and it was back to Hogwarts, but there would be no quidditch practice today. Henry smiled to himself. He had a note from his father saying that Henry had twisted his ankle and Mr Atwood would be grateful if Henry could be excused games.
During games, Henry was sent to the library. He sat happily in the corner of the empty room and put his hands behind his head as he stretched. The blackened rafters above him reminded him that this was the old part of the school, in fact he remembered that this was the core of the old school itself and had once been the hall in which all the boys had been taught, ranked on benches, each reciting their own exercises in Latin grammar. The room was panelled with oak, and he had before now looked at the ancient graffiti that his predecessors had carved into the panels down the centuries.
The librarian’s desk was empty and there was an expanse of the old panelling behind her chair, so Henry, ever curious, went over to view that unexplored area. It was covered with jagged penknife etchings. Of course all boys had carried sharp little knives in those days: not to stab each other, but to trim the quills of their pens.
There were some classics. He particularly liked the despairing ones. ‘Jn Andrewes. 1814. Longinge for death’ was an instant favourite. Some were tall and skeletal, some smaller and beautifully executed, a monument to the long boredom of school afternoons.
But one now caught his eye: JE’DA SCVDAMORE. 1795, it proclaimed in firm deep strokes. Well, well! Henry was intrigued. So it was the Trewern boy, who had gone to Edward VI Grammar in his day too. And he noticed something else. The same hand had cut another name, a name that interlaced artfully with the first, almost as if it were caressing it: NATH’L CORNER. What to make of that? Henry had no idea. He got a blank sheet from his file, and laying it over the names, used the side of his pencil lead to make a rubbing of the two linked carvings. He smiled at the result, and went back to his table.
The library windows looked on to the sports field, where figures in white were enacting the immemorial rituals of cricket. Henry was not in fact against cricket as a spectator sport. It was the forced participation that he disliked. Temple house was in at the moment, and Edward Cornish was bowling. He did it with intensity and coordination, sending the ball hurling down on to the crease with appalling power. As Henry looked, Mukhtar Patel’s middle stump took wing as the ball smashed through the wicket. Cornish leapt in the air, raising his fist, his face a mask of delight.
Henry was a little moved, despite himself. The power and the joyous youth of the boy were nothing if not impressive. And when Cornish embraced and danced around with Gardiner, Henry was curiously saddened. It was a world of physical accomplishment to which he would always be a stranger. He sighed.
As Henry was once more heading towards the minibus along bottom corridor that evening, he was again confronted by Cornish, although this time without Westenra and the other two. Cornish looked straight into his eyes, and then looked away rapidly, shamefaced and actually moving out of Henry’s path. There was a certain apologetic submissiveness about the gesture that Henry could not but see, and it moved him, as he was a generous-hearted boy. Oh hell!, he thought in his head. I hate being a Christian.
As he passed Cornish, he stopped him. ‘Hey, Cornish.’
‘Uh … hey.’
‘You didn’t half send Patel’s stumps into orbit,’ Henry said, and he smiled.
Cornish looked taken aback briefly, and then stared back full into Henry’s face. He too smiled, and when he did, he looked very different. ‘Thanks Atwood,’ he said, and then he added: ‘We missed you out there.’ But he said it with a very human and mischievous grin, and Henry could only grin back. He felt a curious surge of emotion towards this boy. He offered his hand, and it was taken.
Cornish in fact held on to it, as he said the last thing Henry had ever expected him to say, ‘I’m sorry for what I did, Henry. I don’t know what came over me. Can you forgive me?’
‘Course. No problems. What’s a boot up the arse between friends?’
Cornish laughed, and let his hand go. ‘Friends? On my part, yes. Though I don’t know how I’ve got the nerve to say it; you’re very kind, Henry.’
‘Er, thanks … by the way, you called me Henry. What happened to Atwood?’
‘My name is Ed. Call me Ed, okay?’
‘Sure … Ed. Well. See you tomorrow.’
‘Yeah. Tomorrow.’ They smiled into each other’s faces, and parted. And much to his surprise, Henry felt his heart lighter. That’s forgiveness for you, he said to himself. It’s liberating. I should listen more to Dad’s sermons.