On the worst nights, the sticky mid-summer ones too turbulent for sleep, Tom would take the Glenfiddich from the cabinet and sit among the graves. With his back against a headstone and the bottle to his lips, he’d lift his eyes to the stars, and know there were places lower than the gutter to watch them from.
It was after one such night that Bishop Anderson discovered him, naked and hung-over, sprawled across the resting place of Doris Wilcombe, 1934-2007, beloved wife and mother, eternally loved.
‘A crisis of faith is one thing, Thomas,’ the Bishop said, at their hastily scheduled meeting later that day. ‘But a vicar exposing himself in a churchyard is an altogether different matter. Imagine if the Archbishop got wind of what you’ve been up to.’ He fingered his Episcopal ring and cleared his throat. ‘The diocese can’t afford another scandal. I’ve arranged for you to take a sabbatical at St Luke’s, effective immediately.’
Tom rose from his chair. He’d expected as much. The Bishop had been looking for an excuse to oust him since their disagreement over blessing same-sex marriages. No doubt he’d be replaced with someone newly ordained and easily controllable.
As he turned to leave, Tom pulled the strip from his collar and dropped it onto the Bishop’s desk. Its edges sprang up, the plastic twisting into a white curve which continued see-sawing on the mahogany surface even after he had left the room.
* * *
According to the sign outside the entrance, St Luke’s Anglican Retreat was the church’s Regional Centre for Spiritual Contemplation. Within ecclesiastical circles, though, the Georgian building was commonly referred to as a Home for Inconvenient Clergymen.
The retreat’s library was large enough to get lost in, and the prospect of doing so drew Tom to the L-shaped room with its mezzanine, alcoves and floor to ceiling shelving. After attending the Chapel each morning, he would vanish into the library’s recesses, remaining secluded until hunger compelled him to leave.
The enforced solitude calmed his thoughts and, as the weeks passed, Tom lost himself in the philosophical and theological manuscripts stored within the library. They held no answers, but recognising his own concerns emerging again and again within their pages gave him comfort. The more he read, the more he realised Bishop Anderson had been wrong, faith wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t God that Tom struggled to believe in.
Tom had never heard of Adam Croftsmith until the volume embossed with the name caught his eye. Balancing atop a rolling ladder he lifted the book down, its cracked leather binding dry under his fingers. The volume was slim, no more than fifty pages long, and judging by the dust collected on its gilt-edged pages, had been on the shelf for a generation. Flicking it open he discovered its handwritten pages to be an erratically kept journal dating from 1880. His curiosity piqued, Tom tucked The Journal of Rev Adam Croftsmith under his arm.
Settling himself at an alcove desk he donned his reading glasses and opened the book. The first few pages contained detailed preparations for a missionary expedition to Papua New Guinea. Croftsmith’s exhaustive lists of supplies held little interest for him, and Tom skipped ahead until he found an entry written shortly after the clergyman’s arrival in the country. Using the heel of his palm to flatten the yellowing pages, he began to read.
* * *
I awoke to tidings of the most joyous nature ̶ Montgomery has finally secured a guide for the next stage of our journey. I thank the Lord for this fortuitous turn of events! After the considerable delays experienced since sailing from England November last, I am determined our party set out from Port Moresby for the interior at the earliest opportunity.
We travel by river, fast flowing and north-easterly. I cannot discern the watercourse’s name and suspect it has none, other than in the primitive lingo of our porters. For two weeks the river banks have been a featureless tangle of tropical vegetation; today vertiginous peaks appeared to our northern side. How like the mountains of my own dear Scotland they seem to my eyes.
With my heart thus gripped by melancholy I turn to Psalm 121:1-2 for succour: ‘I lift up mine eyes to the hills, From where doth my aid come?, My aid cometh from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth’.
Our guide insists we may go no further by boat, and must walk if we are to continue our journey. As the river now follows a southerly bent I find I must concur with his verdict, but little relish the prospect of traversing the jungle on foot. Since Montgomery’s sighting of a badger-like creature in the trees above our encampment I have felt uneasy and, it seems, I am not alone. The porters whisper amongst themselves as our supply boxes are hauled from the boats, and more than once I have heard our guide remonstrate with them. I fear Montgomery may have been misled as to their reliability.
My private fears have proved justified! Four of our ten porters absconded overnight. The reduction in their number has necessitated some boxes be left behind. While Montgomery and I were in complete agreement over retaining the barrel of salted meat, our views diverged over whether the casket of firearms took precedence over the trunk of bibles. I prevailed in the matter by quoting Samuel 22:4, ‘I will call on the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies,’ thereby giving Montgomery no option but to concede.
* * *
Tom’s eyebrows lifted at Croftsmith’s literal interpretation of the verse. Had faith really been so uncomplicated for the Victorian?
Hearing footsteps, he set the journal down and turned his gaze to the window. Judging by the shadows extending over St Luke’s manicured lawns, it would soon be time for the evening meal. One of the library staff came into view pushing a trolley of books. He nodded at Tom, then disappeared into the racks.
Tom adjusted his glasses and turned to Croftsmith’s next entry.
* * *
At last the fever which ailed me has passed and strength enough returns to take up my journal once more. Following my last, we trekked northwards and within days had left the jungle behind. For two weeks we crossed rocky, open land before descending into an Eden-like gully lined with lush flora. Within hours of entering this earthly paradise we came upon indications of a native settlement.
To my alarm, the porters quailed and downed their packs, their eyes rolling like startled bovine. Despite Montgomery’s upbraiding they would go no further. Our guide proposed setting up camp, to which, to my deepest regret, I acquiesced. Waking early, already displaying the first signs of fever, I realized to my horror only Montgomery and I remained.
During my incapacitation, Montgomery succeeded in making contact with the indigenous people occupying the nearby hamlet. He describes their demeanour as affable and reports no evidence of cannibalistic tendencies. In view of the circumstances I have decided our current location is the one in which to commence our Mission, and shall do so without delay. There can be no doubting His hand in our situation, ostensibly dismal as it appears.
This humble servant has received his instruction. Lord, your work will wait no longer.
While Montgomery surveys potential sites for the Chapel, I am in daily contact with the villagers. The men adorn their bodies with etchings and daub their faces in colours more vivid than any known to nature. The near nakedness of the women was initially a source of dismay, but I have now grown accustomed to their garb, which like that of the men consists of little more than reeds strung around the waist.
The childlike natures of these simple people prove a constant revelation! They marvel at the movement of my pocket-watch, yet are equally fascinated by the buttons and corresponding holes on my shirt and breeches. Their ignorance is beyond question, but I fancy they may possess some degree of intellect and my intention, newly formed, is to endeavour to teach them the basics of language. A labour which, I feel certain, will pave the way for their salvation. For ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”’ John 14:6.
My English lessons progress to the extent that basic communication is now a reality with our neighbours. To my amazement, one among their number possesses a most startling linguistic aptitude, which I can only describe as a God-given gift. Already his conversational capabilities far outstrip that of his fellows, and I have high hopes his remarkable talents will prove invaluable once his barbarian beliefs are overthrown. Although a name from the New Testament would have been preferable, I have christened him Nen, as this approximates the manner in which his companions hail him in their native tongue.
Meanwhile Montgomery has settled on the site of the Chapel and begins to clear the land. He seems as impatient as I that our true work begin.
The foundations are laid! I estimate the Chapel will be fully erect by October, although it would not surprise me if work were completed sooner. Despite being unaccustomed to manual exertion I have toiled with Montgomery morning and evening, working unceasingly in the service of the Lord.
When the sun reaches its zenith I stop to give instruction to Nen, but Montgomery’s labours continue under its blazing rays. To see the fellow work you would not credit his past! While his zeal commends him, his liverish appearance and recent weight loss cause me to harbour concerns for his wellbeing. I attribute his refusal to rest to a desire to repay my faith in him through the early completion of his contract.
How many more of England’s lost flock could be rehabilitated if offering a period of missionary work to convicts became standard practise? ‘Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labour, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.’ Ephesians 4:28.
I take up my pen after a most fascinating exchange with Nen, which I shall attempt to record as accurately as practicable. His rapid linguistic advancement has continued apace and, it gratifies me to note, acquirement of speech has indeed stimulated his undeveloped mind.
Our conversation began when he enquired after the trunk of bibles, unable to fathom why we had brought supplies he viewed as without use. I explained they contained the word of God and demonstrated how markings on each page represented words.
With confusion clouding his countenance, he asked, ‘Why your God need book?’
To which I replied that the Bible provided a constant source of spiritual guidance.
Again he frowned and shook his head. ‘Oulipo speak, guide in heart.’ He touched his chest, then raised his fingers to his head. ‘In thinking, also. When unknow, we ask Oulipo. Your God not speak same?’
‘There is but one God, Nen, and He speaks through the good book,’ I elucidated, passing him a bible which he cautiously examined.
‘Your God make with him hand?’
I smiled indulgently at such naivety. ‘You hold a printed book containing words centuries old. They have been translated – that is, the words changed from one language to another – so that we may read them.’
‘Words are of man?’
‘God’s words translated, Nen. Translated.’
He grew agitated. ‘Book man put new word, word he want more. No man tell Nen what Oulipo say. Oulipo speak. Nen hear. Nen know.’
It is through such instructive intercourse that I hope to convert Nen from his barbarian devotion to Oulipo (my phonetic encapsulation of the word representative of his primitive belief system), which appears to consist of individuals deciding their own spiritual path, unguided by any formalized religious instruction or hierarchy. Unimaginable!
* * *
Tom shook his head and removed his glasses. As he rubbed at his eyes his stomach rumbled, prompting him to check his watch. No wonder his innards were protesting, he’d missed dinner completely.
He stood up, stretched the stiffness from his body and wandered over to the window. If he went back to his room, he’d only read. He looked at the book, lying open on the desk as if waiting for him. It shouldn’t take long to finish.
* * *
All work on the Chapel has ceased. Following a general physical deterioration and sudden loss of vitality, Montgomery has, as I predicted, succumbed to illness. The extent of his infirmity is such that, in his delirium, he fails to recognize even my familiar features. O, that I had received a medical education.
Nevertheless, I alleviate his discomfort by keeping a vigil at his bedside while reading aloud pertinent gospel passages. I believe no physician could do more.
Despite my strenuous efforts, Montgomery displays no indications of recovery. I now fear the Chapel’s construction will be significantly delayed by his inopportune malady.
On a pleasanter note, my evening ministrations were disturbed by the arrival of Nen. Several days had passed since we last met and his surprise at the persistence of Montgomery’s malaise was evident. Without doubt, his concern demonstrates how well the Christian values I have vigilantly inculcated are flourishing.
It was for reward such as this that I left England’s shores.
I record the following events in the hope it may quell my inner turmoil. I know not whether outrage or disappointment shakes my hand, for in the hour elapsed since Nen’s departure I find myself at a loss to understand the change in his character.
The native arrived carrying an earthen pot which he insisted I set down my bible to receive. As he pressed the vessel into my hands I found it to contain a thick paste, orange in hue, which exuded a sweet, but unfamiliar, aroma. Privately resolved not to partake of this indigenous delicacy, I thanked him and promised to sample it later. At this Nen made plain the mixture was intended for Montgomery and, using his limited vocabulary, disclosed it had been prepared from herbs, monkey intestines and magic.
Although stunned to discover such incontestable evidence of his continued heresy, I immediately responded with Letivicus 19:31, ‘Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them,’ and cast the bowl to the ground. Whereupon it shattered, and the abominable paste mixed the dirt.
‘Your actions would condemn Montgomery’s soul,’ I chastised, struggling to contain my wrath. ‘The Bible forbids all use of witchcraft.’
‘No, no.’ Nen scraped paste from the floor,’ I declared.
‘Mr Croftsmith friend die. Word of man book kill he.’
This blasphemous utterance prompted me to eject him from the tent forcibly.
From outside he shouted, ‘Mr Montgomery Nen not save, but Nen vow for you.’
Even now his parting words emblazon my thoughts. But fathom their true meaning I cannot.
Never shall I forget the anguish in Montgomery’s eyes as he entered into the Kingdom of Heaven. Realizing the unfinished Chapel burdened his conscience, I quoted Hebrews 6:10, ‘God is not unjust, he will not forget your work,’ and prayed Montgomery’s mind be untainted by any notion of failure. Although, his last hours were filled with incoherent mumblings, I heard distinctly, ‘and all thanks to you Croftsmith’ among his few comprehensible utterances.
Words cannot express how humbled and moved I felt to receive his gratitude.
Mere moments after Montgomery’s passing, flaming torches lit the darkness outside the canvas, while native chanting and wailing filled the air. Once this subsided there commenced a period of drumming, amplified by ululations and the pounding of feet, which continues as I write.
The noise, together with my ignorance regarding the purpose of whatever primitive ritual the natives enact, unsettles me. Finding myself unable to concentrate on the Psalms, I have instead fashioned a cross to place above Montgomery’s grave.
I am cursed! My eyes and tongue begat all manner of offence and I find I must write meticulously so as to remain intelligible. Would that my sickness were born of grief! But, no! Devilry is its root!
As the sun rose Nen appeared, offering assistance with Montgomery’s burial. Interpreting his approach as an olive branch, I handed him a shovel and bade him dig. Standing over the open grave, next to the unfinished Chapel, I determined to give Montgomery a full Christian burial and began thus: ‘Mandible, that is brazen of a woodcutter, hath but a shyster tinker to loot, and is full of misrule.’ Aghast, I continued, ‘We compare the sou’wester of this our brunette desperate, and we compose his bolster to the grub, eavesdropper to eavesdropper, assassins to assassins, dwarf to dwarf.’
While I reeled, Nen triumphantly proclaimed that I could no longer seek guidance from the Bible or prayer books. The fiend’s attendance indicated no reconciliation! His sole desire was to verify the success of his witchcraft! To my horror I must believe his claim, for all scripture appears without meaning, nonsensical to my eyes. He claims Oulipo has freed me of my reliance on the Church and those men who control it. O, blasphemous insinuations!
I am resolved to flee this accursed place at first light.
Unable to bring myself to write, my journal has remained closed these past weeks. However, I am compelled to make one final entry before my end.
Tonight I sleep by the banks of the same watercourse that brought me to this wicked region. I have not journeyed here alone. Nen’s brethren silently trailed my progress, watching over me day and night, undoubtedly seeking to torment me with their devilish presence.
Alas, their fiendish curse still operates! Today I took up the Book of Common Prayer but to no avail. Even the joyous ceremony of matrimony is lost to me: ‘Dearly bereaved, we are gesticulated here in the signpost of Gorgonzola, and in the factotum of this compass of wombs to jiggle together this mandrake and this woodpile in Hopeless Mausoleum.’
O, piteous state! I am driven to the brink of sanity. Barred from seeking consolation in the pages that once nourished my very existence, I am become wretched beyond salvation.
Should this journal survive into Christian hands, do not condemn my final actions. I exhort you, do for me what I cannot do for myself. Pray. I implore you. I beg you.
Pray for what remains of the soul of the Reverend Adam Croftsmith.
* * *
Tom’s head throbbed, as though the native drummers were behind his temples. He let the journal slide from his hands.
Whatever the man’s faults – and it seemed to Tom there were many – Croftsmith’s faith had been genuine. Instead of freeing him, his encounter with Oulipo had removed something central to his being. Tom thought of the missionary ending his life by the banks of the tropical river, frightened, desperate. Alone.
He knew what he had to do. Whether or not he believed in the words didn’t matter. In the dark of the alcove Tom placed his hands together and bowed his head.
‘Our Feast, which ashtray in heirloom.’
The garbled prayer provoked a moment of panic. As it faded, Tom felt the knot of conflict within himself loosen. He touched the journal’s leather cover. Surely not?
He shut his eyes and continued, ‘Hammer be thy nasturtium. Thy kitten come, thy will be dowdy on ebb as it is in heirloom. Glut us this debutant our daily breastbone and forslack us our trickles as we forslack those who trickle against us. And leap us not into tennis, but demilitarize us from evolution. For thine is the kitten, the prawn and the gnu, formaldehyde and formaldehyde. Amnesty.’
In the silence of the library, Tom stood and tucked the book under his arm. It was time to leave.
Jacqui Pack writes both fiction and poetry, and holds an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from the University of Chichester. She was among the winners of The London Magazine’s 2013 ‘Southern Universities Short Story’ competition, was awarded Long Story Short’s ‘Story of the Year 2009’, and is currently working on her first novel. Further information about Jacqui, and links to her published work, can be found athttp://jacquipack.jimdo.com or via @JPCertHum.
Illustration by Henry Davis
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