The Collection (Part 2)
The church air was crisp and cool, a relief from the oppressive heat. Layla stooped before the image of Christ, and crossed herself, then proceeded to the cupboard behind the vestry to retrieve a watering can and clippers.
She’d tended the church flowers since her mother has disappeared. Layla sometimes puzzled over her own unstinting service. She did not particularly enjoy arranging flowers, her attendance at services was patchy and she despised the committee meetings which came with the job. Yet, she’d helped her mother with the flowers since she was five years old, fetching and carrying the same watering can, learning to arrange and tidy and prune. To continue felt right, and the calm which came over her now, alone with the floral scents in this huge, empty space was pleasing.
After filling the can from the kitchen sink, she moved up and down the pews, sprinkling hyacinths and gardenias located at the end of every second row. There would be no need to change the flowers until after Sunday service, when she would collect a new batch from the florist. Water beaded on the petals and rolled over the edge of the display pots. She could almost hear her mother chastising for the tiny pools forming on the tiled church floor.
Layla looked up. The main entrance door rattled then swung open. After a pause, a dark featureless figure entered, back-lit by piercing sunbeams. The figure shambled up the central aisle towards her and the door closed behind, eclipsing the sunlight, uncloaking the silhouette.
He wore drainpipe jeans, bulky white trainers and a glazed puffer jacket that must have left him sweltering. His hood was pulled up over his head.
“Hello.” She said, “Joshua isn’t it?”
He appeared not to hear, looking up and around, taking in the stained-glass and stonework.
She was about to speak again when he removed the hood to reveal bud earphones, same as the ones her son Roland had, the type that didn’t need wires. Whatever he was listening to, the young man seemed to whisper along to it, mouthing inaudibly under his breath.
He looked directly at her.
She gestured for him to take out the earphones.
The boy raised a forefinger, still mumbling along, and closed his eyes.
Layla stood waiting, hand on hip. After some thirty seconds, he opened his eyes, smiled and took out the earphones. “Thank you”, he said, “I wanted to finish.”
“No problem. Joshua? Right?”
“Yes, and you’re Layla.” His voice had the clipped, confident tone she associated with children who attended expensive private schools.
“Was there something at the house that needed seeing to?”
He seemed confused by the question.
She went on, “The house. Is the Wi-Fi broken? It can drop out sometimes. You needn’t have come all the way out here. My husband is home.”
“No.” He said. “I heard about this church. I wanted to come and see it for myself.”
Layla narrowed her eyes. Everything about him was ill-fit. His clothes, his manners and now an unlikely interest in small town churches.
“Your mother said you were going to stay at home, relax.”
“My mother says lots of things. I wouldn’t pay her much mind if I were you.”
“Oh.” Layla scrambled to change the subject, “How did you hear about our church?”
Layla grimaced. Through sheer act of will, she tried one more time to strike up a cordial conversation. “What were you listening to? Music?”
He tilted his head. “Stories.”
“One audio book”
“A collection of stories. One of them is about this Church.”
“Yes. This is a special place. It has history.”
“St Dunstan’s is in a story? I didn’t know.”
“You won’t have heard this story before.” He spoke with a sneer, half patronising and half sinister.
“I see.” She said, irritated by his tone, but relieved to have found a subject ton converse on. “What’s it about, this story? What happens?”
The boy drummed his fingers on the wooden bench beside him. The thrum echoed around the church. “A priest they had here once. Way back, in the 1630s, just before the Civil War. An old priest who upset his flock, upset them in all sorts of ways.”
“An historical story?”
He shook his head. “Horror.”
The word made Layla think of cheap 1980s movies and fake blood. She suddenly wished the boy would go away, leave her alone.
As if sensing her discomfort, he went on, “They killed him, the Priest. Accused him of witchcraft and hung him from a tree outside his own church. The children of the village hung on his feet to make sure his neck was broken.”
She turned away and began watering the flowers again. “Well, I’ve lived in Shipston all my life,” she said, “and I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s ok,” he said, “Give it time.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that here” she said, gesturing towards the clay statue of Christ which loomed at the back of the church.
“Maybe this is the best place to talk about it.”
She’d finally had enough. “You’re a very confident boy, aren’t you, Joshua?”
“We hardly know each other. You’ve come into my church as if you own the place, and now you’re teasing me with fairy tales about Priests and hangings.”
“If you didn’t want to know the answer, why did you ask?”
She put down the watering can and turned towards him. He’d intended to get under her skin, and achieved it. She was torn between avoiding a scene, and giving him a piece of her mind. But before she could say another word, the boy placed the earphones back in and began to stroll around the perimeter of the church. She came very close to going after him, grabbing the buds and tearing them from his ears. Layla took in a deep breath and tried to calm herself. She looked up again at the rendering of Christ. The impulse seemed to fade.
Joshua Sheldon continued his lap of the church, his lips once again trembling with half formed words, whispered into the air.
The following morning Layla sat eating toast and honey at the kitchen table. Geoff continued to work on his garden plans.
She first noticed the sound as a vibration in the window frame, a low humming, rattling. The same happened if a large lorry idled on the lane outside. But it grew, the glass reverberating to a deep bass thrum coming from next door, from the guesthouse. It wasn’t music, and at first Layla thought it could be a problem with the new boiler, straining to provide hot water. But it kept on, rising and falling, heavy and monotonous.
Finally, she understood what she was hearing. A voice. A recording, amplified to an absurdly high volume.
She put down her toast and looked at Geoff. He’d stopped his sketching and was looking at the blank wall as if consternation alone would make it stop.
“What on earth is he doing?” Layla said.
“Dear, oh dear.” Geoff replied. “Is it some radio show? Or podcasts? They listen to podcasts now, don’t they.”
Layla put her hands to her forehead. “It must be blasting his ears off.”
“I’ll give it a couple of minutes and then pop round.” Geoff said.
Layla folded her arms, “Don’t ‘give it a couple of minutes’. Go now!”
He put up his hands, “Okay, okay.” And off he went, out of the front door and around the side path.
She expected the sound to cease, but it kept on for a while longer, continuing to shake the walls and the window. She tried to isolate the sound from the disturbance caused, but the vibration and volume crushed the words together, deforming them into a clumsy sonorous lump.
Layla pressed her fingers to her temples. After another minute or two it ended abruptly, like a Greek God halting an earthquake. Outside the window, starlings twittered around the bird-feeder. Layla waited for Geoff to return through the kitchen door. After a few more minutes delay, he appeared, a tense smile pursed between his lips.
“All done.” he said. Without meeting her eye, he sat back down at the kitchen table and went back to his garden design.
“Well?” she said, “What did you say? What did he say?”
Geoff looked up. “Oh. A book. He was listening to a book. You know. . .”
“Why was it so loud? Did he apologise?”
“No. He went away and turned it off.”
Layla bent her head to one side. Her husband’s eyes flickered from left to right. He seemed distracted, as if the conversation did not include him. “You okay, Geoff? You seem a bit funny.”
He paused before answering, lost in thought. “The thing he was listening to . . .”
“It was . . . strange. A story.”
“You said that.”
“I don’t think it’s something he’s supposed to listen to.”
For a fleeting moment, Layla thought of her own mother and her obsession with recording and listening to those damn tapes. She shook her head as if to physically expel the idea.“Oh. Anyway, let’s hope we don’t get a repeat.” she said.
Geoff nodded, still frowning, and went back to his garden planning.
The only people who ever visited their home were Auntie Alice and The Door.
The Door wasn’t his real name. That was just the word Layla thought of when she saw him, and it stuck in her head. He was tall and broad shouldered, bowing his head to pass under the beams of the old house. He had thick black hair which sometimes gave the suspicion of a wig, with a dark curling fringe framing glazed eyes permanently closed to the world. The Door wore a thick black coat which he never took off, even when drinking tea with mother and Auntie Alice.
They came to the house as a twosome, even though they could not possibly have been a couple. Auntie Alice was old and used up, her face resembling untreated leather and the corners of her mouth unfailingly laden with a thick white spittle, as if she’d been drinking bad milk. Her mother did eventually confirm that Auntie Alice was not related to either herself or Layla, by marriage or otherwise. She would not explain how or why the old woman came to be known as “auntie”, nor anything else about her.
When they arrived, Layla would be told to fetch the tea and make herself scarce. The threesome would retire to the studio with their mismatched cups and saucers, and would not emerge until some late hour, the visitors always leaving the house in reverential silence.