For the story so far, please click here.
Monday 11th November 1985: 08.00 – 08.35
Another Monday morning, another Monday morning prayer meeting.
Joseph stared around the church and wondered why on earth he was there.
Or, more particularly, how he was there.
He’d nearly jumped out of his skin (which might have been awkward, but possibly wouldn’t have caused comment among all the other extremely odd things that were going on at the moment) when he’d found himself, suited and collared ready for work, sitting in the same place in the almost-a-circle of chairs as the previous week. One moment he’d been reaching out a hand to silence his alarm clock, thinking to himself that there was no point going to church this morning because Hettie Number One was no longer around to tell God how to run things; and the next moment —
That was the nearest he could come to describing the sensation. It was not the sort of word that would normally enter his vocabulary. But he’d read it in a newspaper article yesterday about an earthquake in a village called Bottomly, wherever that might be; though as the name, according to the account, was pronounced ‘Bumly’, without any particular rhyme or reason, it was obviously in a part of England where the locals liked to take the rise out of ignorant tourists when they got it wrong. (That is, pretty much anywhere.)
Whatever the case, the word ‘whump’ seemed to fit what had happened to him very well.
He’d been there, at home, in bed; and now he was here. No intermediate stages in the morning ritual: no showering, dressing, breakfasting (although strangely, his stomach did feel as though it had been satisfied in that respect), teeth-cleaning, coat-donning and striding along Church Avoidance Avenue (so called because in times past a cunning vicar had noticed the drop-off in his congregation, and lobbied the council for a name-change to fool the parishioners into using that road and feeling guilty when they came across the church at the end of it)…
What was possibly worse — if anything could be — his watch told him that a good hour and a half had passed between one side of the whump and the other. He was now feeling very cold, and not only because of the winter-retaining stone edifice surrounding him.
Opposite, the remaining ladies from the previous week — Numbers Two, Four and Five — sat whispering to each other. Befogged as his mind was with the shock of finding himself there, he still noted with interest that today they were sitting next to each other, as if in the last seven days they’d decided that they were friends after all and had no reason to leave significant gaps between them.
If you are there, Lord, he shot a request heaven-wards, please may I find out what is happening to me?
And also please, he added as a thought struck him, chilling him even further if that were possible, let there be not be any pointy objects on display this morning.
‘Do not worry,’ that voice he’d heard last week whispered in his ear. ‘None of that this morning, I can assure you.’
‘Hey!’ Andrew hissed. ‘James! Are you awake?’
There was a moment’s silence, then a sleepy ‘Uh huh’ came from his fellow saintly carving.
From centuries of experience, Andrew interpreted this as, Not really, and I don’t want to be either. ‘Well — wake up, then,’ he said, determined that James wasn’t going to remain dormant for whatever came next. ‘We’re back in the story!’
The silence was longer this time. Andrew counted to ten before repeating himself.
‘Huh?’ James’s voice came, slightly stronger, but still in the netherworld of somewhere between alertness and leave-me-alone-and-let-me-sleepness ‘What are you on about?’
‘What I say,’ Andrew insisted. ‘That prayer lot — what’s left of them — are back. That means we get a section to ourselves again.’
‘Oh, right.’ James’s voice was suddenly full of interest. ‘Does that mean one of them’s about to be bumped off again?’
Andrew pondered this. ‘Hard to say. The only ones left are the black fella and the three who seem relatively harmless. I’d say on balance the chances are slim.’
‘Oh.’ Andrew could hear James’s disappointment. ‘Oh, well. Why bother waking me up, then?’
Andrew pondered this as well. ‘I’m not really sure, to be honest. I think it’s because last time we came into the story, you were tied up with that tape stuff and couldn’t speak. I thought the readers might like to hear your voice again.
‘Besides,’ he continued. ‘We’re obviously here to serve some sort of literary purpose. Like denoting the passing of time between, say, the start of this prayer meeting and its end. Fill in the gap, so to speak, because the prayers themselves aren’t that interesting. I can’t really do that on my own.’
There was another moment’s silence, which extended into two moments, possibly three. Then James harrumphed. ‘You know what?’ he said. ‘I haven’t a clue what you’re on about — all this “literary”, and “section”, and “story”, and “readers” and stuff. You don’t half talk some rubbish sometimes.’
‘I know,’ Andrew said, and was astonished to realise that not only was he admitting a fault to his friend/pain-in-the-backside, but that actually, he didn’t know what he was on about either. ‘But it’s worked, hasn’t it?’ he found himself adding. ‘We’re going into the end of the meeting now, and nobody’s even noticed the time passing.’
‘Well,’ James yawned, ‘wake me up again when we get to another exciting bit. This “section”, as you call it, really wasn’t worth bothering with.’
The meeting drew to a close, and Joseph stood with nothing short of relief.
He’d had to sit on himself very firmly (he’d been surprised to find out how heavy he was; living on his own obviously agreed with him) in order not to run out screaming when the voice had spoken to him, and now he began to make a very cautious way down the central aisle, tensed to bolt if he should hear anybody else who wasn’t there starting a conversation.
Lady Number Two had taken charge of the praying, and Joseph had been also relieved to hear and see that there were no vitriol, condemnation of other denominations and, most importantly, pointy objects involved.
Now he heard that lady say, ‘Now, Lily, Daphne — we must decide how we’re going to find the person who murdered poor Mabel and Hettie.’
Joseph stopped dead; fortunately, metaphorically rather than actually. The first thought that struck him was: Are not the police doing that? Why do these elderly ladies think that they must do so?
The second thought was: But we know who murdered Miss Mabel Number Three Cartwright. It was Miss Hettie Number One Foster. We all saw it!
By the time these thoughts had flashed through his mind, his ears had registered Lady Number Four say, ‘That’s right, Lavinia dear. Justice must be done, mustn’t it?’
‘Certainly,’ Lavinia Number Two (another name to go with Joseph’s list of numbers; he was making progress on his identification of these little old ladies!) agreed. ‘Now — any ideas as to how we go about it?’
There followed the kind of silence that Joseph was certain would be described in some novels as ‘head-scratching’. Then Number Five said, ‘I do think that dear Mrs Christie is the best authority when it comes to solving a murder, don’t you? What would she do, do you think?’
‘Well,’ Number Four chipped in, ‘I’m sure she’d have someone lurking around hotel bedrooms with not-quite-closed doors, overhearing mysterious conversations. They would provide important clues.’
‘Oh, yes, Lily, of course,’ Number Five said, excitement in her voice. ‘And shadowy corners. There are always shadowy corners in Mrs Christie’s hotels.’
‘Hmm, yes,’ Lavinia Number Two said. ‘However, there is one problem with that idea.’
‘A problem, dear?’
‘Yes. We don’t have a hotel handy to lurk around bedroom doors in.’
This time, the silence was accompanied by the adjective ‘disappointed’. Then Number Five (Daphne Number Five, it must be), said, ‘What about a boat, dear? Mrs Christie has a lot of murders happening on boats, doesn’t she?’
‘Well, yes,’ Lily Number Four (he’d got all the names, now. Excellent!) said. ‘But they’re normally only when Mr Poirot is involved. And he’s rather — well, foreign, don’t you think?’
The ladies fell to silence again, and Joseph wondered whether to feel insulted or not; but then, he was so used to such attitudes, especially in the few months he’d been living in such a small, provincial town, that he’d decided it was best to employ the expression ‘water off the back of a duck’ when faced with them.
‘Well, one thing is certain,’ Lavinia Number Two broke the silence. ‘In the absence of hotels and boats, and any other ideas at the moment, we may as well begin our lurking somewhere. Lily, dear, I suggest you try lurking around the font. And Daphne, you take the altar. I’ll lurk around the vestry for a while.’
Carefully, Joseph resumed his tiptoeing down the aisle. As he reached the exit, he turned to look. The ladies were certainly making a fine job of their lurking. Whether or not they were picking up any mysterious conversations was another matter.
As he left, he came to a decision. As soon as possible, he would make an appointment to lurk around the vicarage and ask Father Rawlings what he thought the disembodied voice was all about.
He just hoped that the answer would not involve mention of Joan of Arc. Hearing voices hadn’t exactly ended well for her, had it?