He had never killed
a woman before, indeed he thought of himself as a pacifist.
His mother had always described him as someone who wouldn't
harm a fly but that was an exaggeration. He had killed many
flies in his lifetime as well as a considerable number of wasps,
mosquitoes and even a bee which had distracted him earlier this
morning as he sat in his deckchair reading the Times. It was
best to think things through. To botch a task like this would
be unforgivable. He did not want to cause her unnecessary pain.
Death must be swift and apposite. He would kill her with kindness.
He closed his eyes for a moment savouring the sheer beauty of
the plan which was forming in his mind.
They had been
brought together six months ago by well meaning friends who
thought it was time that he married and settled down. Andrew
and Francis Percival had insisted that he and Pamela were destined
to be soul-mates. Both were meticulous in their habits, both
worked in administration, both had looked after elderly parents
until their deaths and were now comfortably provided for with
their own homes and financial security. Pamela was a few years
older than Malcolm, she admitted to forty-five but he suspected
that she was nearer fifty, he was forty three.
Marriage had been
unthinkable before his mother's death. She would not have
been able to manage without him. She was so trusting and so
naive; believing everybody and everything no matter how many
times he warned her about the dangers inherent in her position
as a widow-woman of private means. His father had cosseted her
until he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in the arms of
a woman who claimed to be a passer-by but who knew a surprising
amount about the family. He had resolved to continue his father's
task. Until his mother passed away he devoted himself to her
protection. As an only son it was the least he could do.
Of course friends had tried to set him up with women before.
He found that being wildly enthusiastic had driven off most
contenders for his affections. He liked women, he adored some
women, but they needed to be kept in their place. Given a free
rein they would ride roughshod over him as he had seen happen
so many times to acquaintances.
an ungainly woman with bad breath, had told him that he was
a control freak. He thought at the time that it was a very unscientific
diagnosis. His compulsions were a necessary part of his life.
Without them there would be chaos.
The hinge on the gate squeaked and he raised his head pushing
his thinning hair back from his eyes. Yes, there she was, a
vision in her floral chiffon blouse and long white linen skirt.
She clutched a wide brimmed straw hat in one hand and a biscuit
tin in her other.
The two words conveyed the hysterical desperation she exuded
- a middle aged woman trying to look and to sound like
a young girl. I was making shortbread and I thought I
would bring some over for your morning coffee. Do you mind if
I join you.'
through narrowed eyes as she flapped her hat at him and laid
the biscuit tin on the garden table beside his deckchair. He
leant over and with the tip of two fingers moved it in line
with the edge of the table, then centred it more precisely.
The embossed gold and green tin lay on the marble surface of
the table like a cockroach. The beauty of the garden was defiled.
He sighed and stood up.
how kind. I adore home made biscuits.' He squeezed her
arm rather more tightly than he had meant to as he guided her
towards the other chair.
Do sit down. I was just going to make a pot of coffee.
I'll bring a plate for the biscuits.'
to free herself. Let me help. I'll carry the tray.'
No,' he insisted sliding his hand down her arm and
nudging her towards the chair.
You must take it easy. I'll have things ready in
She held her hat
over her eyes to shade them from the glare of the mid-morning
sun. Her skin looked pale and blotchy like frogspawn. He smiled
Perhaps we should allow ourselves an aperitif. A Pink
Gin would refresh you after your labours in the kitchen.'
She nodded and rubbed at her arm which had reddened just above
her bony elbow.
Malcolm put two
tall glasses into the fridge and took a bottle of Gordon's
Gin from the bottom shelf of the drinks cabinet. He took a blue
Magnesia bottle from the top shelf of his larder cupboard and
using a silver medicine spoon put two spoonfuls of distilled
monkshood into one of the chilled glasses. The Angostura Bitters
would cover the sour taste. Next he uncorked the gin and half
filled both glasses, topping them up with ice cubes. He added
a sprig of fresh mint to his own and floated a twist of lemon
peel and a sprig of mint in hers. It was an aberration to treat
good gin like this, but needs must. He placed an oval Beleek
dish, one of his mother's favourites, on the tray.
Pamela half rose
from her seat as he put her drink beside her. She prised the
lid from the biscuit tin and held it out. He selected four sugar
dusted shortbread fingers and arranged them on the dish.
Yummy,' he said raising his glass and sipping from
so thirsty.' Pamela half emptied her glass as he stretched
for a biscuit and bit into it. Surprisingly, it was delicious
- sweet and buttery with a hint of cinnamon. She waved
him towards the others and he selected a second one. As he swallowed
the last crumb of his third biscuit a profound lassitude stole
over him. His legs felt numb and fidgety but he could not move
them. His arms hung uselessly at his sides and a trickle of
saliva made a gelatinous trail from the corner of his mouth,
down his chin and on to his shirt collar.
Pamela leant towards
him and whispered in a voice hoarse with excitement,
I made them especially for you, Malcolm. They're
exactly what you deserve.'
Abruptly she put
her hand to her mouth and a stream of vomit gushed between her
fingers and over the table, splattering mother's china
dish. Malcolm had never felt more helpless nor more fully conscious.
Of course, he
thought, struggling vainly to respond to the tide of fevered
revulsion gleaming in her watery grey eyes.
Of course we were destined to be soul-mates.
THUS SPAKE ARETHUSA
If she hadn't
been a regular listener to Thought for the Day it might
never have happened. When the programme initiated an exploration
of alternative ideologies Arethusa was gripped by religious
fervour. We weren't surprised. We were shocked but, when
we thought it over, we weren't at all surprised. Over the
years we had become accustomed to Arethusa's enthusiasms.
There had been the food fads, no meat, no carbohydrates, nothing
that wasn't organic and nothing that had been transported
for more than twenty miles - that was the most difficult.
The countryside should be full of local produce, and it is,
but unless you are prepared to shoot it, slaughter it with your
bare hands or grow it, it is not readily available. Home produce
does not appear on the shelves of our local shops. They are
filled with vegetables flown in from Spain, fruit grown in Israel,
exotics from Zambia. You would have to creep into a field at
dawn and wrestle a sheep for a home grown turnip. There are
nettles of course and apples and blackberries in season, but
they make precious little contribution towards a healthy diet.
Arethusa's food fads faded as quickly as they appeared
but she had been a collector for more than half a century. That
was a consistent trait.
notice for some time how narrow her field of interest had become.
The gaudily painted icons fitted in with her decorative schemes.
The pitch pine organ stool was sturdy and practical as a TV
stand. It was when she started to accumulate larger church furnishings,
several heavy mahogany pews, two carved pillars and some altar
rails from a disused Parish Church, silk lined tabernacles and
finally a full size crucifix, that we became uneasy. She was
nothing if not ecumenical - Baptist, Catholic, Church of Ireland.
There were exquisite prayer mats from Jordan and an embroidered
screen from the Yemen. In pride of place at the centre of her
collection stood a flaking gilded Buddha. She had been smitten
by religion. Exactly which religion she had been smitten by
was not yet apparent.
The hut stood
in a clearing in her overgrown garden. It was a nondescript
building used mainly to store garden furniture. When she began
to incorporate her religious artefacts into it that first spring
we were amused by the ingenuity she showed in creating an original
garden feature from what had been something of an eyesore. The
carved pillars were fixed to the veranda, the altar rails were
strung between them and the crucifix hung at the apex of the
pitched roof. This had to be removed as the Saviour's feet
caused head injuries to anyone entering without genuflecting.
She put the cross on the wall facing the door and replaced it
with a monstrous set of antlers mounted on a rough wooden facsimile
of a stag's head. Lifelike plastic decoy pigeons roosted
on the branched horns. A Buddha sat slightly to one side of
the cross and an iridescent Vishnu sat on the other. The floor
was heaped with camel bags, prayer rugs and lushly decorated
velvet cushions, the walls hung with embroidered cloth and mandalas,
copied from designs she found on Wikipedia.
We agreed, with
the benefit of hindsight, that it was the reliquaries which
pushed her over the edge. She sourced the first - purported
to be St Bridget's fingernail - this was no mere clipping
- it was a complete fingernail with shards of desiccated
flesh adhering to it, from e bay. Next came the filigree box
containing the knuckle of St Patrick. It was when she produced
the scrotal sac of St Jerome that we began to doubt her sanity.
For a time she
was happy arranging and classifying these testaments to holiness
but when she discovered how common body parts of the saints
were on the World Wide Web she became disillusioned. She proposed
a forty day retreat to her temple, as she now referred to the
hut. She returned to the house at night. It was too cold and
uncomfortable to sleep in a draughty shed and the lack of toilet
facilities, except for the Royal Doulton chamber pot she kept
in one of the tabernacles for emergencies, was daunting to a
woman in her early seventies.
When she emerged,
in early May, she was radiant. Her religious experience had
borne fruit. Like many great spiritual leaders she was to write
a book - a book of aphorisms - to meld all previous
religious beliefs into a systemic pattern for living in the
new millennium. The threads of faith, the definitive philosophies,
the solutions to life in the twenty-first century were to be
formulated, digested, indexed, with footnotes, appendices, and
commentaries, and proclaimed from the temple of Arethusa, Oracle
of Tullycrackin. It was to be her life's work. Of course
at seventy-six it would be a fairly rushed life's work.
But Arethusa was confident that her experience, her sensibility,
her finely honed instincts and the certainty that she had found
her vocation, would lead to success. This was not to be one
of those religions which evolves from humble beginnings and
years of contemplation and sacrifice. This religion would burst
on the world, indeed the universe, if space travel took off
as it was forecast to do; it would blaze a trail through swathes
of obscure prophesies and be hailed as the spiritual path to
She gave herself
six months to compose her magnum opus, six months to
publicise it and a further six months to consolidate its position
as the leading brand among world religions. It would not detract
from other faiths; it would bring them together in an easily
understood form, a spiritual equivalent to the Delia Smith How
to Cook Course. As Delia had taught millions how to boil
an egg in Book 1 and how to braise a pheasant in red wine in
Book 3, Arethusa's mission was to condense millennia of
spiritual wisdom into Easy-Use Chunks. She did not intend to
do research. She would rely on inspiration and instinct. She
would know when the truth was cooked to perfection. Others needed
guidance; she needed only her solar-powered laptop and conditions
of uninterrupted calm.
She rang the nearest
deli, unconcerned that it was thirty-three miles away (some
things are more important than ethical consistency) and placed
an order for the delivery of healthy vegetarian lunches, Monday
-brie, grape and sunflower seed on linseed and rye bread,
Tuesday - falafel with mild chilli sauce in pitta, Wednesday
- polenta with soused beetroot, pickled walnuts and sun
blush tomatoes on a bed of rocket, Thursday - baked sweet
potato with Haloumi, red onion marmalade and mayonnaise, Friday
- gnocchi with pesto and parmesan. On Saturday and Sunday,
when the Deli was too busy to deliver, she asked friends to
produce lunches in keeping with her principles. Desserts were
welcome at weekends, together with dried fruit and seeds and
nuts which could be consumed during the low sugar intervals
which she feared would result in energy troughs. A robust Shiraz
or a dry Muscadet were desirable accompaniments. She hinted
that Malcolm's special recipe brownies were of great value
in releasing her inner spirituality. She kept them in a biscuit
box beside her worktable and nibbled on one when a sticky theological
she had a self-composting lavatory placed at the back of her
temple and took delivery of several hundred sticks of assorted
incense: although the self-composter is environmentally friendly,
no one can deny that, at the height of summer, week-old cat-piss
smells much sweeter.
I, as Arethusa's
oldest friend, was her most frequent visitor. It was unwise
to interrupt her in her temple during the morning when most
of her writing was done and after lunch she spent time meditating
on her day bed - a full size chaise longue in faux leopard
skin. If this seemed more Eleanor Glynn than Gandhi none of
us were brave enough to mention it. At four-thirty each afternoon
Arethusa received visitors. I usually brought a few home made
delicacies to re-activate her thought processes. When I arrived
Arethusa was often smoking one of her herbal cigarettes. She
grows the tobacco in her roof space. I would sit among print-outs
of her musings, resting my back against a scattering of sequined
cushions and stuffed camel bags while we discussed her work.
It is, perhaps, an exaggeration to call it a discussion. In
reality I listened while Arethusa preached. With the musky smell
of incense, the calming effect of the herbal smoke and the drone
of Arethusa's voice I often fell asleep during these sessions
and woke at dusk to find myself alone in the temple. Even on
warm summer evenings, sleeping on a damp wooden floor surrounded
by pungent smells and bitten by mosquitoes did not help my arthritis
or my temper. I would stagger home vowing not to visit Arethusa
again, but after a few days I returned, curious to see what
progress she had made.
It was during
the August heatwave that matters came to a head. A neighbour
complained to the council that the temple was attracting vermin
and demanded that the building, including the self-composting
loo, be removed in the interests of public health and hygiene.
Arethusa, who had ignored the detailed instructions for the
maintenance of an eco-friendly waste disposal unit, responded
by burning lavender and lemon balm, and lighting scented candles
From early evening each day the temple shimmered with light
and reeked with cloying odours. As dusk fell it shone like a
beacon, attracting clouds of frenzied moths and adding romance
and glamour to the garden. Seldom had religion brought such
a heady flavour to our quiet backwater.
The crisis came
when she announced a press conference to launch her spiritual
text, provisionally titled 'THUS SPAKE ARETHUSA'.
The local press came in force - Poetic Patriots, The
Wee Free Sheet, Down, Down and Further Down, Wrapping It Up,
Press On , The Protestant Agnostic, sent reporters and photographers
or reporter/photographers, or photographer/reporters, or in
the case of Wrapping It Up the editor/reporter/photographer
and co-owner - Dermot Atkinson.
Dermot is a mild mannered religious fanatic who, when he falls
victim to 'the Demon Drink', assumes his alter ego as the scourge
of liars, thieves and charlatans throughout the townland. The
launch of a new religion was just the kind of thing to set Dermot
off. He had been drinking on Wednesday at The Hole in the
Ground; his wife took her usual precautions by locking herself
into the bungalow with their five kids, and he spent the night
with a litre bottle of Jameson's whiskey in the back seat
of his Ford Mondeo. By noon on Thursday he was ready to take
on anyone or anything.
appearance Dermot decided to make use of her facilities. I pointed
him towards the back of the hut and consequently feel some responsibility
for what happened. Dermot needed a sustaining swig of whisky
while enthroned. Unfortunately in his unco-ordinated state he
dropped his cigarette and while trying to retrieve it splashed
alcohol liberally round himself and his surroundings. By the
time he managed to strike a match to relight his Benson &
Hedges, enough methane had built up in the confined space to
trigger a muffled explosion and a sheet of flame which rose
several metres above the back of the temple. At that moment
Arethusa materialised in the open doorway, dressed in an embroidered
gold and white caftan, a cerise silk turban and white Nikes
with gold laces. She was briefly haloed by fire before being
catapulted into the arms of the press.
Several reporters helped her to her feet, intent on freeing
one of their number who had acted as a landing pad for her not
It is time,'
she shrieked. The fire dog dies and the superdragon lives.
In the day of my womanly prudence mine hour hath come.'
Only then did I remember Dermot and wonder if his hour had also
come. I pushed Arethusa aside and rushed to the back of the
temple where he was lying in a bed of nettles, his clothing
in some disarray and the empty Jameson's whiskey-bottle
clutched in his hand. As an argument broke out about whose responsibility
it was to attempt to resuscitate him, he opened his eyes and
struggled towards an upright position.
seen the future,' he muttered, I've seen the
future and it stinks.'
He pulled up his trousers with as much dignity as he could muster
and pushed his way through the spectators towards his car. We
breathed a collective sigh of relief. He would sleep it off
as he had on many previous occasions. Tomorrow Bernie, his wife,
would clean him up, feed him some nourishing barley soup and
listen sceptically for the millionth time to his protests that
he would never drink again.
As the crowd started
to disperse Arethusa strode, like a morning sun rising above
the gloomy mountains, through the garden. It was then that I
noticed that the back wall of the temple had begun to smoulder.
Flames licked hungrily at the pews and the caskets containing
the relics were well alight. I pulled the door gently closed,
and, murmuring a benediction, followed the others along the
crazy paving towards the house to toast the transfiguration