FICTION (October 2018)
by Mark Sadler
CHRIS Nevin telephoned me a few weeks before Easter.
It was strange to hear his voice again after so many years. I stared out of the kitchen window, pondering the rectory garden which was unrecognisable underneath three feet of pristine snow that had fallen overnight.
He quickly informed me that he was suffering from end-stage liver cancer. He had rediscovered his Catholic faith and asked me whether I would object to taking his confession. While I harboured no love for the man and what he had allowed himself to become, I agreed to assist him on the basis that, when we were at boarding school together, he had saved me from drowning in a boating accident. The least that I could do in return was attend to the salvation of his soul.
Truth be told, I was motivated more by a strong sense of unabsolved guilt than by the opportunity to gladly repay a life debt. Chris had endured a hard upbringing and I had added to his long chain of sorrow. Up until the age of nine he had been resident at a boys’ orphanage in Shadwell. Under the care of his adoptive parents his East London accent became more entrenched, as if in defiance of the expensive education that they bestowed upon him. He was frequently in trouble, both in and out of school. I recall two occasions where the police were called.
He drifted in his early twenties. When he was twenty-five he was in a motorcycle accident.
He ended-up on the male head trauma ward at St Joseph’s Hospital, in Southwark: a half-mile stretch of broad corridor interspersed with arched windows, with beds lining either side, the patients arranged in ascending order of their duration of stay. It was informally referred to as ‘Noggin Row’. The long-termers who had been on the ward for years, and who would likely never leave, occupied what was known as ‘Upper Noggin’ and inhabited virtual shanty dwellings, made up of stacked possessions that had been brought-in from home by their family and friends. Chris spent eight months there. After his discharge he seemed calmer and more at peace.
At the age of thirty-three, he became engaged to a student of divinity, named Diane Martin, who was eleven years his junior. It was an intense courtship. He was enamoured with her and, superficially, she appeared to feel the same way about him. It came as a surprise to many when she suddenly broke off the relationship and took up with a stage magician named Erik Alkema. As part and parcel of the break-up she aborted the child that Chris had recently fathered. When he learned of this he was devastated. Thereafter a marked change took hold of him, that was defined by a gradual darkening of his character.
I was one of the few to have known of the affair between Diane and Erik, having borne witness to its early stages.
In the interests of sparing myself the drama and the aggravation of being caught in the crossfire of their love triangle, I selfishly chose to keep my knowledge of this blossoming infidelity to myself. Under the influence of her new lover, Diane abandoned her religious studies and began publishing papers on the occult, which I am told were well-received by her peers. The couple married the following year and became minor celebrities within the arcane fraternity.
Chris immediately removed himself from our circle of friends. He eventually moved to Belgium where he became embroiled in an unsavoury sex scandal that touched the highest echelons of the government. Somehow he avoided prison. He returned to England and took residence in a compact, late-Elizabethan manor in the London suburb of Richmond.
I visited him a few days after the snow had cleared.
A nurse answered the door and guided me through the house. The domed, circular lobby was occupied by a life-size, classical statue of a naked man with androgynous facial features and mutilated genitalia, his body contorted into pose that was, in equal measures, both repulsive and lascivious, as if even the removal of his progenitive organ could not curb his vulgarity. At his feet, a glass bowl of peeled almonds was surrounded by a cluster of small, flickering candles. The magnified shadows of the flames licked at the walls, as some quirk in the interior architecture elicited a double echo from our advancing footsteps.
In another large room a gigantic wooden cross, like a marionette frame, had been hoisted from a central fitting, where it hung just below the painted panels of the high ceiling. Several ornate ballgowns dating to the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, fitted around wire mannequins, were suspended from the arms of the hanger at different heights. They dangled like aristocratic ghosts, casting dim shadows onto the parquet floor, stirred into slow back-and-forth rotation by faint currents of air.
Chris was waiting for me in the drawing room. A gaunt and sickly figure, swaddled in blankets, seated bolt-upright, as if posed, in an art deco wingback armchair that was inconsistent with the surrounding period décor. A drip feed was attached to his arm with strips of medical tape. The light from a log fire sparkled in the facets of a cut crystal bowl that was filled with pastel-coloured, candied almonds.
“No deals with the devil to confess?” I jibed as I sat down. I was only half joking.
We reminisced for a while.
I feel that I owe you an apology, regarding Diane,” I said, when the subject of old flames came up. “If I had voiced my concerns earlier…”
“I have often wondered how you came to know before I did.”
“She did some work for the church.”
He raised one bushy eyebrow while continuing to stare fixedly ahead.
“One summer, down in the archives at St Magnus. There is a large collection of books there dating to the dissolution of the monasteries. In religious manuscripts of a certain age you will sometimes encounter a feature of calligraphy called a devil roost. They are handholds and ledges incorporated into the illuminated lettering, where perching devils can gain a footing and draw the eyes of men away from the gospels towards baser thoughts. I expect they were placed in the texts by subversive elements within the church. Diane was adept at spotting them. She would deftly burn away any signs of corruption with a candle and a magnifying glass.”
“She’s a clever girl. Still is. I could never fathom what she saw in Erik. Did you ever see his stage act?”
“I steered well clear of the man. Something about him disturbed me.”
“His persona? That was all front. His singular talent was that he made very good use of eye bafflers: Chains of diversionary movements about his person and elsewhere onstage that would draw away and confound the attention of spectators. There was skill there, but it was choreography rather than magic. After one of his shows I told him: ‘I counted eight distractions during the finale.’ Do you know what his reply was?: ‘You missed three.’ The cocky sod. I suppose you heard about what happened to him and Diane?”
I shook my head.
“We’ve fallen out of touch. They’ve stopped sending me Christmas cards.”
“You’ve heard nothing of their recent troubles then. They purchased a house, just around the corner actually, that belonged to William Bastos. They still live there. Old Bill spent his dotage compiling a loose sheaf of the spells that he had gathered, over the course of a lifetime, into a single volume. Before he died he sealed it up in the walls and summoned a guardian to watch over it. The Alkemas heard about the book. They were ambitious; magpie eyed. Here was a guarantor of power and wealth within their reach. So they moved in. Between the renovations, the painting and the wallpapering, they worked together on breaking the charms protecting the tome.
“Well, you of all people know how it is with these unholy objects: They have one master. No committees. Something within the book must have called out to them. They began making individual attempts at dispelling the layers of protective wards around it. At first they worked in secrecy, hiding their intentions. Later, as their respect for one another diminished and they moved to separate bedrooms, they became more brazen in their endeavours. It was a fierce competition that slowly turned into a war. Caught between the pair was their son, Toby, who was seven years old.
“The book of spells was entombed inside a wall cavity, adjacent to a cupboard under the stairs, where they stored alcohol and confectionery. One day, Toby ventured there without permission, hoping to indulge his sweet tooth, I expect. The guardian in the wall mistook his fumbling in the darkness as an attempt to reclaim the book and it killed him in the most upsetting manner. All of the moisture was drawn out of his body. When the coroner finally managed to pry-open his fingers they found a handful of candied almonds.”
“That is truly appalling. I had no idea,” I said.
“After the body was released, they kept it in the house. The day before the funeral it went missing. There were no signs of a break-in. It was something more out of the ordinary. They had connections. The whole thing was kept quiet. No police.
“One evening, it was about three weeks after the boy’s death, Diane wandered into the kitchen to get herself a glass of water. She had left a pair of small, white cotton gloves, that she used for housework, drying on the stove. They had once been part of a costume that she had worn on stage with her estranged husband.
“One of the gloves was hovering in the air, the fingers filling-out and then falling limp as if somebody with small hands was struggling to put it on. She stood in the kitchen door for several minutes watching it.
“There were other manifestations. A hot tap left running. The whispered monologue of a child who has been left to their own devices, emanating from an empty room. Then there were the gifts.”
“Sweets. Mostly candied almonds, which they kept in the house, bundled-up in coloured tissues or pages torn from books or magazines. They would appear in an instant, the moment the back was turned. A tiny package deposited on a freshly-made bed, lightly cratering the smooth surface of the duvet. Or on the kitchen table, alongside a bowl of dry cereal, while milk was being taken out of the fridge. On their first Christmas morning without Toby, Erik was awakened by Diane screaming.
“The tree in their front room was surrounded by hundreds of these small, screwed-up packages. He burned the whole lot in the fireplace. Threw out every sweet he could find in the house. The next present they received was something different.”
Here Chris paused in his story. He made a wet sound with his mouth that was followed by a strained attempt to swallow. The room filled-up with silence, broken only by the subdued crackle of the logs slowly burning in the fireplace.
“Please do go on,” I prompted.
“It contained the middle segment of a finger. Upon further inspection they concluded that it was Toby’s. After that they brought sweets back into the house, put them everywhere for him to find, but things were never the same. A gift, when unwrapped, might consist of candied almonds. Or it might be a piece of leathery flesh cut from the missing body.
“I went round there once for dinner. They confessed everything to me. The tragedy and its aftermath had brought them closer together. All thought of retrieving William’s book of spells had been put to one side. They were united by their guilt and their terror. I asked them if the gift-giving ever stopped:
“ ‘Never,’ Erik told me. ‘On birthdays it is unbearable.’
“I will not forget the look that haunted his face when he spoke these words.
“ ‘The body parts tend to be more frequent when we argue,’ Diane said. ‘He punishes us when we bicker and rewards us when we get along.’
“I asked them how they were disposing of the body. It seems that, for a while, they kept the pieces in a shoebox. On one particularly bad day Erik took it with him as he stormed out of the house. He emptied it into the Thames.
“When I asked them what they did with the sweets, Diane bowed her head: ‘We eat them together,’ she admitted quietly. ‘We don’t know what else to do.’
“I suggested to them that perhaps you might be able to help, but they were adamant that the church should not be involved.
“’He is still our son and we still love him,’ Erik told me. ‘We fear what might happen to him if he is exorcised. We worry that he might go to hell. For the same reason we can’t move. We can’t predict what the new owners might do.’
“As I departed, later that evening, Diane held me tightly by the hands at the front door and begged me not to go.
“ ‘That is to say that it would it help if I you were to stay,’ she added, after she had composed herself. ‘He is a good boy. He won’t misbehave when there are guests around.’ ”
In the fireplace, a charred log toppled softly into a mound of grey ash. Chris appeared tired. I asked him whether he still wished for me to hear his confession, or if I should return the following day.
“You have already heard it, barring a few key facts.”
“I don’t follow.”
“It was I who alerted the Alkemas to the location of the book of spells belonging to the late William Bastos. I undid his protective wards and removed it from the wall cavity on the afternoon that he died. I replaced his sentry with a more aggressive guardian of my own so they were none the wiser. On the day of Toby’s death, the Alkemas held a barbecue to which I was invited. I sent the boy indoors on a false errand from his father, to retrieve some sweets for the guests from the downstairs cupboard.”
He leaned forward in his chair and I noticed that his eyes had suddenly brightened. A trembling, liver-spotted arm extended from the rumpled sleeve of his pyjamas towards the bowl of candied almonds. His emaciated fingers selected one and span it around weakly on the coffee table, the pastel blue shell wobbling on its axis as it turned.
“The body of the boy, what remains of it, is upstairs in the attic.”
My mouth was dry. I wondered to myself whether my failure to inform Chris of his fiancée’s infidelity might, in his mind, also warrant some form of poetic retribution.
“I wonder will you tell them?” he mused gruffly. “Or will you stay true to form and play the martyr. That’s how you get your jollies, isn’t it?”
I ignored the slight though I have dwelled upon it since.
“They have already suffered enough. It would be a kindness, I think, if you were to discreelty release the soul of the boy back into the care of his parents.”
“They can’t have it.”
“Then you are damned.”
I spoke this truth plainly and without emotion, but it seemed to anger him anyway.
“She was carrying my heir, John. It wasn’t cruel enough for her just to leave me. She had to dash my son, or my daughter, from the world before they could even be named. No, let the pair of them languish for the rest of their lives in their fear and their guilt. ”
I rose to my feet.
“I am leaving,” I said. “Do not contact me again. Call St Mary’s if you still require absolution.”
He called out after me: “In a peculiar way I think that I may have saved them.”
I shouted back, without turning my head: “It’s not me who you need to convince.”
I made my way through the twilit house, across the room where the ballgowns were suspended overhead, taking great care not to pass into their shadows.