Next chapter, please…
As always, all previous chapters can be found here if you need to read them.
And I hope, as ever, that you enjoy this next one.
Wednesday 13th November 1985: 17.40 – 18.35
‘You really sure about this, Charlie?’ Ernie grunted.
He and the chief inspector were standing, Dawson and Chowdhary a couple of feet to their left, near the font in St Marmaduke’s. The vicar — now togged up in his ceremonial garb; which to Ernie, looked too much like something his missus would wear to ever be taken seriously as a working man’s outfit — and Mrs Rawlings, the Cartwright woman between them, were positioned right by the font. What the hell was about to take place, Ernie could only begin to guess. But it sounded to him, from the way they’d explained it, like the holy couple were about to drown the dead woman.
Would that constitute murder or not? It’d be bloody ironic, either way. Thank buggery Charlie Meredith would be the one having to sort the charges out, not him.
‘The reverend thinks it will help,’ the DCI whispered back. ‘He reckons the fact she was never christened holds the key to why she’s still hanging around.’
‘And we should believe that bollocks because…?’
He saw Meredith shrug. ‘It might help and it might not. We can only give it a go. You don’t have anything better to do, do you?’
Ernie had a quick count, and totalled 538 things he could think would be better to do. He decided not to enumerate them to his superior, though.
(Interestingly, number 428 was being stripped naked and chained to the harpoon gun of a whaling ship, with the centrefolds from the entire back catalogue of Busty on the deck just out of his reach, on an arctic run, with killer bees in mad pursuit. Now that was a scenario he’d never contemplated would be preferable to anything else, even when it popped up in his dreams every few months or so.)
‘Now, Mabel,’ the vicar was saying. ‘You are certain that you’ve never been baptised before? Not even as a child?’
The voice in Ernie’s head was quite definite. ‘No, Father. Unusually for the days in which I was brought up, my parents decided not to have me christened just for the sake of it. Not being believers themselves, they would rather I made such a decision myself when I was older.’
Father Rawlings nodded. ‘As you say, unusual. Though not a bad idea, to be honest. There is, I feel, too much superstition involved in these things sometimes.’
It had to be said, the vicar didn’t seem at all the same bugger who’d been so het up about his bloody candles a week or so before. Probably been worked on by the wife, Ernie decided.
A remembrance of Clarissa Rawlings as he’d first seen her flashed through his mind. Now, being worked on by that — what kind of bloke wouldn’t be changed?
It also had to be said that she’d changed a lot as well. Especially in the chest-covering department; which in some ways was a pity, but in others a bloody relief, since you weren’t being put off your thinking by a pair of unclad harpoons of a different variety threatening to have your eyes out every time you looked in the wrong direction.
That reminded him. He’d missed at least two issues of Busty since he’d been working on this case, not to mention a hell of a lot of caramel wafers. Mr Singh had better be saving the former for him; and if anyone at the station had so much as looked in the cupboard where the latter were kept, he’d take the bastard’s balls and…
‘Ernie!’ Meredith hissed.
He stared around, and became aware that everybody’s gaze was on him. ‘What?’ he said.
Father Rawlings was staring at him with the air of a man who had shot an important point in somebody’s direction and was not at all chuffed to find it had missed its target by a good six feet. ‘I was saying, Sergeant, that in order to baptise Mabel here, we must have some who are willing to stand as godparents.’
Ernie stared back at him, and was suddenly aware as well that the reason for being told this fact was probably something for which he was about to become… ‘Sorry — what’s that got to do with me, then?’
Meredith tutted beside him. ‘If you’d been listening, Sergeant… Father Rawlings was explaining that there needs to be at least two of us willing to stand as godparents to Miss Cartwright. Preferably ladies, but as there aren’t that many here, it falls to us men to come forward.’
Ernie turned his stare from the vicar to the DCI. Somewhere in his brain, one and one were being added together, and the troubling answer of ‘you’ was pinging up on the calculator screen. ‘Well,’ he said, making sure the point was very, very carefully made, ‘there’s young Chowdhary there, and Mrs Rawlings. They’re a couple of ladies, aren’t they?’
The vicar shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Sergeant. I’m afraid that Miss Chowdhary is excluded because of her Hindu faith. Which, frankly, is a shame, because from what I have seen of her, I would be delighted for any child of mine to have her as a godmother.’
‘Thank you,’ Chowdhary said. ‘I’m sorry, too; it would have been an honour.’
‘And I’m afraid that Clarissa,’ Father Rawlings continued, ‘has never been baptised either. Rather an oversight, and one that I’ve only just found out about myself.’
The ‘you’ on the screen was growing disconcertingly larger. ‘So?’
‘So,’ the vicar said — and there was a relish in his voice that Ernie did not like one little bit, and began to wish he could take a good old-fashioned truncheon to work on — ‘I’m afraid that only those baptised can stand as godparents. That’s a hard and fast rule, Sergeant.’
‘There’s still Dawson and DCI Meredith, though. And you, for that matter.’
‘’Fraid I was never christened either, Sarge,’ Dawson said; and his voice had that same violence-inviting quality. ‘I was scared of water as a baby. Never had so much as a wash until I was eight.’
‘And I am precluded because I am officiating,’ Father Rawlings added.
‘So that leaves you and me, Ernie,’ Meredith said.
‘I take it that you have been baptised, Sergeant?’ the vicar shot at him.
The sentences were coming too fast for comfort, and the ‘you’ was covering the screen and spilling over the edges. ‘Well — I don’t know, Reverend…’ Ernie found himself spluttering, a fact that he didn’t like one little bit.
‘That’s a yes, Father Rawlings,’ Meredith put in.
‘I have your word on that, Chief Inspector?’
‘That is good enough for me.’ The vicar, apparently dismissing the conversation as a fait awhatsit, turned back to the font and the Cartwright woman.
Perhaps fortunately, the vicar interrupted that savage thought — which must surely have been heard by all present if he’d completed it, it was that loud in his head — by handing Ernie and Meredith a card each. ‘If you could follow this order of service and respond with the passages in bold?’
For the next half-hour or more, a slightly bewildered Ernie (a fact that he also didn’t like one little bit) found himself:
1) rejecting the devil;
2) renouncing evil;
3) repenting of all his sins, whatever the hell they were; and
4) generally promising:
a) to be a joyless git for the rest of his life; and
b) to ensure that Mabel Cartwright was brought up to be the same.
(Which was a bit bloody daft, in Ernie’s opinion. As the whole point of the shenanigans seemed to be to make sure the Cartwright woman pegged it rather than hung around for an eternity, the idea of taking her off to Sunday School every week wasn’t one he felt was going to be an odds-on starter.)
Added to the bewilderment, Father and Clarissa Rawlings, working together, seemed to be making deliberately sure the whole damned service lasted so long it would ensure that:
z) the vicar got his cassock’s-worth out of it; or
z-and-three-quarters) he, Ernie, would be so wound up by the whole thing, he’d fly off in all directions if anybody so much as tapped him on the shoulder.
The only bright spot — and one for which he sent winging into the ether what might have amounted to a prayer, if Thank Christ for that could be considered such — was when the vicar said, ‘We would, at this point, sing a hymn. However, I think in the circumstances we may forgo that pleasure.’
The torture finally ended, and Ernie looked for somewhere to stick the call-and-response card. Several places were tempting, but the nearest pew won out.
‘Please lean over the font, Mabel,’ the vicar said.
She did. Backwards — which, Ernie had to admit, was quite a feat for somebody who, even when alive, must have had the flexibility of twenty-six iron bars welded together side-by-side.
Father Rawlings took up what looked like an ice-cream scoop, and Ernie had the peculiar thought that maybe the vicar was going to start dishing out 99s. Instead, he intoned in a voice that was so full of cliched priestliness it could surely only have been the product of hours of practice at Vicar School, ‘Mabel, I baptise you in the name of the Father —’ splosh, he dipped the scoop into the font and poured water over the corpse’s forehead ‘— and of the Son —’ another splosh, another scoopful ‘— and of the Holy Spirit.’ And repeat.
Some drownin’, Ernie thought. Surely pouring it down her throat would’ve been more productive?
The old woman straightened, and turned towards them all. There was, Ernie was astonished to see, a distinct change in her features. They were brighter, somehow. Cleaner? Fresher? Less — horrible?
‘Thank you,’ her voice came into his head. ‘Thank you all. I feel so much better now. And — Father?’
‘Yes, dear Mabel?’
Her face cracked into the biggest smile Ernie could imagine had ever been on it. If rigor mortis had set in, which he suspected should really be the case, the smile might’ve carried on going all the way round. ‘Would you make sure that when I am buried, my right arm goes with me? I’ve become rather attached to it over the years.’
There was a momentary silence. And then: ‘Ha!’ Ernie couldn’t help but explode.
And suddenly, the whole church was alive with the sound of laughter, echoing off the walls in the weird way that sound seemed to have in that place, and coming back to them multiplied by several.
And during that laughter, there was a deep sigh, and the old woman slowly, and with Chowdhary and Dawson assisting her gently to the floor, keeled over.
Father Rawlings gazed down at the corpse, a look of satisfaction — tinged, Ernie thought, with more than a hint of relief — on his face. ‘It has worked,’ he said. ‘She’s at peace.’