One was the Vicar and the other was the devil. I was up in the bell tower, where I sometimes go, and in the distance I could see two men walking across the fields to the town. I recognised them. One was the Vicar and the other was Mr Leach, who is a friend of the Vicar. Mr Leach helps with everything in the church, but somehow I don't like him. And from up here he was the devil.
Thirty thousand souls live in our town, and the parish has three churches and two priests. The churches are “St Swithins within”, “St Swithins without” and the “Chapel of Our Sweet Lady”.
“St Swithins within” is a big 16th century, trinket-style, stone-built church in the middle of town. I am very fond of it, especially the bell tower. When it was built, it was within the town walls, but there is hardly anything left of them now.
About two hundred years ago, the brick works and other factories were built to the west of the town, in a part called Newton. How many towns on this earth are called Newtown? And are no longer new? More people live in this part of town than in the middle, so another church was built.
“St Swithins without” is of course outside the town walls. It is a very fine brick-built Victorian church and very big. The “Chapel of Our Sweet Lady” is rather small. It is used mostly for the old people and for funerals; it lies between the old people's home and the cemetery. We normally just say the “Chapel”.
The Vicar has been here for a long time; he is married with four children. I'm very new and very young; I'm the Curate; here for a couple of years and very much the junior priest. I'm engaged to Primrose who teaches music in a local school.
I never found out why the two churches have the same name, well, almost the same name. And I'm sure no one is being disrespectful to Saint Swithin when they talk about Swin and Swout.
Mr Leach was always there, on every church committee, in every activity, at most services, always ready to help. But who was he? What was he? He did not appear to be married or have a family or have friends outside the church. He could have been thirty or sixty.
I climbed the bell tower and had a good think, a few prayers also helped.
I never liked him much. However you can't like everybody or indeed everything. I of course tried never to show that I disliked him or anybody else, we are all God's children. Somehow I never had much contact with him and nor did the Vicar's wife. It was the Vicar and Mr Leach that were always together discussing something.
I decided to find out more about him. Not by asking other people directly, but just by listening. I certainly was not going to tell the Vicar that Mr Leach was the devil. The Vicar would just laugh and say that there is a bit of the devil in all of us. Unfortunately this is probably true.
I decided to search the church records and those in the town hall. I did not know much about him: just his name, that he never went to the Chapel and that the Vicar's wife did not like him, not that she ever said so.
I did not tell anybody about what I knew, or better what I didn't know, not even Primrose. Yes, God had given me an advantage, and what ever God gives you, you must use. I knew something and nobody else, including Mr Leach, knew that I did.
I decided to find out more about him. I failed.
The Vicar's wife does the Sunday School for the little ones up to six years old. I do the Sunday School for the older children and prepare them, with God's help, for confirmation.
I hated Sunday School when I was young. Not that it was bad, no, but it was always in the middle of the best part of the week. After Sunday lunch, Sunday afternoon was always something special, but no, at three o'clock Sunday School, really bad timing.
We have Sunday School in the morning, just before the Family Service, one week at Swin and the next week at Swout. Primrose plays the organ.
I try to make it fun, different from school or kindergarten. We act a story out of the bible, which the children always like to do. Sometimes they understand the meaning of the parable or story, sometimes not. I take them for walks and show them what God has done for us. We sing songs and say prayers. It is never boring.
I failed to find out anything more about Mr Leach. There was nothing, which was very interesting.
Nobody could say anything about Mr Leach, just that he was very helpful, always there in the church. Nobody had seen him away from the church.
He wasn't in the telephone book, nor on the list of voters at the town hall, he wasn't in any list anywhere. Once after a service I was talking to the church-goers outside Swin, it was a very hot Sunday, I watched him leave the church. He had no car, he walked into town and was gone.
I took my turn to deliver the parish news to all our regulars. His name was not on the list, someone told me that he always picked up a copy in the church, no one knew where he lived. No one knew what his name was, just Mr Leach, no given name, ever.
The church records were really interesting, I had difficulty to keep on subject, what had Mr Leach done in the past. On one side a lot and on the other nothing, and there was nothing about him personally. Yes, he had been and still was on every committee and in every group. Mr Leach was always mentioned, in fact continually back until the time that Swout had been built and consecrated.
But it was always Mr Leach, never a John Leach or a Peter Leach. And then the big surprise. The name Leach was not in the lists of births, deaths or marriages. No one of the name Leach had ever been christened or married or had a funeral in our parish. Was Mr Leach over two hundred years old?
One of the old people I regularly visit, is Mrs Harris, at 102 she is probably the oldest in the town. She is still quite active, she can walk a bit and sometimes we take her in a wheel chair to a church service. Oh, she is quite with it.
I asked her once if she was the oldest person in the town. She said no, that cannot be, Mr Leach was older. I could feel my ears opening wide. He was there when she first went to church, so he must be older. You mean his father or grandfather. Oh, no, she said, it has always been the same Mr Leach.
What should I do? What could I do? I asked myself what did I know? I knew that Mr Leach appeared to have no existence outside the church and that he was the devil. That was all.
I don't think that Mr Leach could read my mind, he ignored me and I ignored him. I knew that what ever I should do, I would have to do it soon. But what and when and how?
As usual I climbed to the top of the bell tower and prayed. It wasn't the first time that God had set me a task that began as a puzzle. There was one thing that I had forgotten. Mr Leach and I spoke with one another at most once a week, he never spoke to the Vicar's wife much. Why?
The Vicar's wife and I worked with the children and Mr Leach not. I decided that I was wrong, I should not ignore Mr Leach. What did he do? I tried to find out, but as carefully as I could. I discovered something very interesting about what Mr Leach was doing. I decided to check the church records to see if he had always done that.
I spent hours checking the records one Saturday. Yes, it was true. Whatever Mr Leach did in the church, it always ended badly, in disaster. Oh, no, Mr Leach was never to blame, but somehow whenever Mr Leach was there something went wrong. No wonder, that he never did anything with the Sunday School or with anything that the Vicar's wife or I organised.
It was very late, working with the archives takes time. I opened the door of the church, it was Swin, to leave and the weather was awful. Odd, when I came the sun was shining. I turned to find my coat. Why? I had no coat. But there on the last row of seats was a coat. Odd, it must have been there since the Wednesday service. Why had no one found it? I took it, I borrowed it.
Good idea! The weather was awful, it was loud, it was raining hard, it was cold, it was very windy and it was very dark. The coat was very warm and it had a big hood. It was a night to stay at home and watch TV, but I felt warm and I enjoy bad weather. My head was not full of ideas, no, full of little information and many questions. I walked round the town, everything looked different. I saw no one and no cars.
I walked round the town for a long time, not caring where I went. Suddenly through the rain I saw the huge shape of Swin before me. Swin looked different, there was a flickering red light in the windows. I was not alone. Others dressed the same as me with their hoods pulled down over their heads went into the church. I slowed and entered the church last.
The others moved slowly to the front of the church. Strange music was being played, someone was holding a ghetto blaster, others were holding lighted candles. They formed a row in front of the altar and the one in red. I could see no faces and no one could see mine. I joined the end of the row. The one in red spoke:
Bite the dust! Fall on your face! Bite the dust! You are ugly. Bite the dust! You are worth nothing. Bite the dust! You are evil. Bite the dust!
It was the voice of Mr Leach. Everybody fell to the floor and lay there with the head to the feet of the one in red:
Kiss the ground! Bite the dust!
I was the last to lay down, but as the one in red turned to see the other end of the row I stood up again.
There is a stranger here. I will destroy him.
Good idea of the one in red, it is easier to attack someone flat on the ground, but my timing was better and his people were flat on the ground. I grabbed him, I pulled off his coat, I was prepared for the awful face of the devil. But no! There was Mr Leach looking very stupid and very naked. I screamed “Mr Leach!” He screamed “The Curate!”
He tried to grab back his coat but I was standing on the end of it. He ran screaming and naked out of the church and into the bad weather. I pulled the coats off some of the others, I recognised some of them, they all ran with or without coats screaming out into the bad weather.
I stepped out of my coat and began to shout. The only thing in my head was the Creed. I repeated the Creed time and time again.
When I woke up I could see the Vicar, the Vicar's wife and Primrose at the end of the bed. Oh, my heart rose, dear friends and dear Primrose. However, why was I in bed?
You need a lot of rest. A few days and you will be fit again. You've been overdoing it a bit, working too hard.
Yes, when we found you in the morning, you were sitting on the altar and shouting the Lord's Prayer as loud as you could.
Later you began to speak in many tongues, I could not understand half of it. But I scribbled down a few things that you said and I'm going to use some of them for my sermons.
When you say days, I said, did the doctors mean weeks or months? No answer.
Well, at least Mr Leach won't come and visit me.
Mr Leach? He hasn't been seen for weeks. Mr Leach has disappeared.