I watched the screen as the information rolled in. More breaking news: the bodies of two children now found on the grounds of the churchyard. Police looking for two more. The image panned out to reveal a heavenly view of an idyllic country church.
I turned my head to see Karen standing behind me, holding what looked like a sock.
“They’ve found another body.”
“Could you tidy away your clothes?”
She ignored me. “There’s a jacket in the hall and a pile of clothes in the bedroom.”
“Hmm…” I returned my attention to the screen. Some local woman was now being interviewed. “I don’t believe it,” she was saying. “He’s a lovely man; it just doesn’t make sense. A more gentle human being you wouldn’t find.”
“And could you stop watching that bloody TV?”
Karen hovered over me like a hawk. Her blonde hair was tied back in a pony tail, her arms folded like the clothes she had probably just ironed. She wasn’t going to move until I did.
“Oh for God’s sake. OK.” I picked up the remote and switched off the TV.
“Where’s the baby?” I asked, inferring she’d left him alone, something she’d have killed me for herself.
“In his cot,” she retorted.
I lowered my sword. I knew when I was beat.
Michael was almost two now but still we called him baby. Karen’s mum had cracked a wry joke a couple of days previous. She had said that if we kept calling him that, that he’d eventually think his name was baby.
“I’m going for a shower,” Karen declared. “And then I’ll take the kids to my mum’s.” Even after all this time she still had the accent. She wasn’t actually Australian; she had only lived there for about ten years, before moving back to the UK. But it had been long enough, and she’d been young enough, for the accent to stick. Karen loosened her long blond hair from its tight restraint.
“Am I taking Depp to his sleepover?” I asked. Depp was our oldest son. He had just turned five.
“No, I’ll take him this arvo. I should be back in a couple of hours.”
Excellent. Some quality time to myself. XBOX here I come. I picked up my jacket from the banister and leapt up the stairs, hot on the heels of my darling wife. “They know who did it,” I said.
“I need you to do one or two things about the house while I’m out.”
I wondered to myself whether she’d even heard me. People do that a lot to me. I say something in a crowd and it doesn’t register; it doesn’t even need to be that big a crowd – there just needs to be one other person in the room. I tried again. “He was the local priest.” As soon as I said this I knew I had made a mistake.
I hesitated. I was a practicing Catholic and Karen wasn’t. She had been born a Catholic, but that didn’t make you a Catholic. I suppose like with most people these days she belonged to the faith of secularism. For a second I thought about changing the subject. Was I betraying my faith by going any further? The last thing the church needed was another scandal involving kids. I decided to tread very carefully. “The murdered children. They’re holding the local priest for it. I think they’ve charged him.”
“Right, I need you to tidy away your mess in the bedroom and take the bottles to the dump. They must think we’re alcoholics.”
“Anybody who comes near the door. Have you seen the pile of bottles in the porch lately. And besides, I thought you said you were going to cut down on the drinking? I don’t like it when you drink.”
“I have cut down. Where’s Depp, anyway?”
Karen was gone. She had disappeared into the bathroom.
I turned around to face Depp’s room. He was being quiet, too quiet for a five-year-old. I opened his door to find him sitting in the corner playing with a pile of LEGO. This was a new thing. Up until recently Depp had demanded our attention from the moment he got up in the morning to the moment he closed his eyes at night. But he was changing.
I closed the door quietly. My other son, Michael, was talking to himself at the other end of the hall. He was babbling away in his own language, and then he was laughing hysterically. His door was closed so I couldn’t see what he was doing. Perhaps his babies were entertaining him – that’s what we called his toy koalas. Or perhaps someone else was. He laughed, paused, and then laughed again.
I smiled sadly, a warm blanket of nostalgia drifting over me. Was he talking to my dad, to his grandad? My dad had been gone now for two years. I still missed him. I would always miss him. And I was just about to open the door when I stopped myself. No, I won’t disturb them. I’ll leave my dad and the baby alone. They deserved their time together. I winced. It still grated that they had missed each other by a matter of months.
“Oh, and another package arrived for you, Pete.”
“It’s by the door. It came special delivery – a courier. You haven’t been buying toys from eBay again, have you?”
“No,” I shouted back. Karen didn’t have to say much to make me angry these days. I think that went for the both of us. We pissed each other off with ease. It hadn’t always been like this, though. We used to have a laugh, and not too long ago. At least I think we used to.
“Toys?” It was Depp. “Has the postman brought me more toys?”
I paused for a second, puzzled. I couldn’t remember ordering anything lately. Money was tight at the moment, tight for everyone. We were in the midst of a recession, or so the news had told us. Banks and countries were folding by the day. Up until recently I had gone berserk buying any technical gadget I could lay my mouse on. It comforted me – buying things. I actually think I had a bit of an addiction there. But as I said, that had all stopped, mostly.
“What’s the postman brought me, dad?”
“Nothing, you have to be a good boy for the postman to bring you toys.”
“I am a good boy.”
I chided myself. That was the wrong thing to say. “Sorry, of course you are.”
I weighed up in my mind whether to go back down stairs, or tidy up first. Tidy up first. Karen would rip me a new one if I didn’t put my clothes away first.
Depp shot down the stairs in pursuit of the non existent toys. “Don’t open it until I get down there,” I shouted.
I walked into the bedroom to address the mess. I looked around but I couldn’t find any of the offending articles. But then out of the corner of my eye I spotted it: the other sock. I shook my head. The girl was sick, sick in the head, a serious case of OCD. Fuck it. I picked up the innocuous sock and headed downstairs to see what the parcel was.
Depp was standing in the hall with the package in his hands, turning it over in his mind’s eye. The second I saw it I started to remember. I’d had a drink the other night, as per usual. I think I was searching the computer forums for the topic of “the broken society”. I was angry with the state of modern Britain. It was my latest gripe with the world, but I had my reasons, believe me; I’d experienced broken Britain first hand, and the wound was still fresh in my mind. Karen on the other hand was pig sick of my society anxiety, so I didn’t talk to her about it anymore; in fact, I didn’t talk to her about much anymore, except maybe the weather, prospective holidays, and of course the children.
“It’s not a toy, Depp.”
“What is it then?”
I ripped open the paper to reveal a book. I’d found it on eBay a couple of nights previous, an auction item entitled: “The Youth Of Today – a modern idea”, or something like that. In the end I had bought it for a “buy it now” price of 50p, postage 48p. Worth a read, I had thought. I unwrapped the brown paper parcel to reveal a crappy book cover. The book was bound, but all it had on the front page was the name of the book: “The Youth of Today – A Modern Tale”. Ah, that was it. It didn’t even have a blurb on the back.
Great buy, Pete. Well done.
Depp pulled my hand down to have look. “Oh,” he said, disappointed. “It’s a book.”
I had to laugh.
I opened the cover. Chapter one started on the first page. No publishing information, no introduction, just a heading: Chapter 1. Great, that’s the world of self publishing for you. Anybody can publish a book these days. It looked like it had been put together by a real amateur as well. Usually I would read the first couple of sentences on receiving a new book but I didn’t even bother. I just threw it down on the sideboard and unfolded the accompanying letter. It was the eBay receipt with the sellers details.
“Negative feedback coming your way Mr… John…” I paused, stumbled in my step, and then blurted it out, “Thomas!” I let out a burst of laughter. John Thomas? John Thomas? If there was ever a name that needed to be changed by deed pole then it was John Thomas. What were his parents thinking? John Thomas? The name was right up there with the likes of Zowey Bowey or Richard Head.
“Well, Mr John Thomas, of…” I looked at the address, “The Church of St Patrick, Sussex?” It took me a couple of seconds for the address to sink in. He lived in a church? Strange. Perhaps it was one of those conversion jobs, like the Old Vickarage?
Depp suddenly appeared by my side. “A’m goin for a sleepover,” he informed me.
“Really? And when are you going?”
“No till this arvo.”
“Excuse me? “Not until this afternoon”; you’re not a ned, so don’t speak like one.”
“When I get back, I think we should go to Toys R Us.”
“Not if you speak like that, you won’t. Repeat after me: “Not until this afternoon”.”
He ignored me, his fickle attention now fixing a LEGO Star Wars ship.
“Depp? Are you listening to me. Depp?”
“It's not “what”, it's “pardon”.”
“Pardon. At Toys R Us I could buy you a Darth Vader costume for your birthday. That would be a good idea. Yes?”
“No, it wouldn’t. It's not my birthday. Repeat after me...”
“Sorry, sorry, I mean for Halloween. No, I mean, you could choose. I mean, I mean.”
““Not until this afternoon”, say it.”
“Not until this arvo. It's a good idea, though, isn’t it, yes?”
“Oh for God's sake.”
“Don't say “God”,” he reproached, repeating what I had said to him only that morning. “It's a bad word.”
“Depp?” It was Karen standing just behind us. “It's “this afternoon”, not “this arvo”. Speak properly.”
I was surprised by this. Karen was the one who had taught him to say it in the first place, “this arvo” being Aussie slang for “this afternoon”. If it had been her that I had corrected, all hell would have broken loose.
“This afternoon,” he repeated.
“Good,” she replied. “So, are you all set for your sleepover this arvo?”
“Oh for God's sake.”
Just then Michael started to cry in his room.
“Could you get the baby?” Karen asked.
“No worries.” I threw down the letter and quickly ran up the stairs, leaping three at a time. Karen was close to “defcon 1” with me at the moment so I wanted to get to him as quickly as possible. Right enough he was crying. I opened the door, peeping my head around the corner.
“What’s wrong with the baby?” I asked.
Michael got up from his sitting position in his baby gaol and tottered over towards me. He had a pleading look on his face, real tears running down his cheeks. He pointed towards the light and grunted optimistically.
“Yes, that’s the light.” I said. “What’s this?” I pointed to one of the pictures on his wall; again he blurted something out in baby lingo. I moved onto the next one “What’s this?” Again the foreign reply, but this time he started to cry. He wasn’t in the mood for “guess the picture’s name”.
“OK, OK, enough of the education. Would you like to watch baby TV?”
“KKKYAGHHHHHH.” This was one of the only answers I could understand from him, that and “Dada” which he hardly ever said. Roughly translated it meant “yes”. I picked him up, carried him down the stairs and placed him beside the TV. He toddled over towards the screen and switched it on. He had been able to do this from about the age of thirteen months.
“Would you like a drink, Michael?”
I walked through to the kitchen, filled his baby blue cup with water and then returned to where he was standing. I had forgotten to change the channel, it was still on the news. I sat on the edge of the sofa and listened. Someone else was getting interviewed. At first it sounded like it was one of the priest’s parishioners, but it turned out to be his house keeper. She was standing not too far from the church, which could be seen sitting ominously in the background bound in yellow and red police tape. A caption hovered above the woman’s head stating her name and location:
Mary Reilly, house keeper:
St Patrick’s Church, Sussex.
Depp suddenly charged into the room, almost toppling his little brother over. Michael found this hilarious. He grabbed him around the waist in retaliation, dragging him to the floor.
Looking at the pair of them they couldn’t have been more different. Depp, as you may have already guessed, was named after Johnny Depp. Karen had gotten to choose the name on the proviso that I would get to choose the second, if we ever had one, that is. We did, so I called him Michael.
It wasn’t just their names we got to have an influence over. Depp was tall for his age with long blonde hair and brown eyes, just like his mother, whereas Michael took after my side of the family: brown hair and blue eyes, your typical celt. I cast the mirror a forlorn look. Where did the luscious locks go? Short of leg and bald of head, that was me now. I wasn’t exactly small, though. I had a long back. In fact, I was taller than most men when sitting down. It was just that when I stood up I was the same height.
“Can I watch something else?” Depp asked.
I didn’t answer him. I was staring once again at the name of the priest’s house keeper, not knowing why my memory had been sparked. It was like my mind had just clashed together two pieces of flint. Why did the name sound familiar? I said it out loud: “Mary Reilly”. No, nothing. But it did sound familiar. Probably reminded me of my mother’s name: Mary Murphy; the Irish were everywhere.
“Can I watch Boomerang?”
“In a minute.”
Mary Reilly continued along the same lines as the woman who had been interviewed earlier. She was saying things like, he was a great guy; she didn’t believe any of it for a second; a more gentle and devoted man you could never find. The banner across the bottom of the screen hadn’t changed much either. It still said that they were looking for a third, possibly fourth missing child, and that a priest had been taken in for questioning.
“I want to watch Boomerang.”
The woman being interviewed mentioned the name of the priest, and yet again the sparks flew, but still nothing caught. Why did the name sound familiar? The answer smouldered on the tip of my tongue. Why did the… Whoosh! Her words suddenly burst into flame. My God, it wasn’t the house keepers name I had recognised, it was where she had worked: St Patrick’s Church, Sussex. And the name of the priest: Father John Thomas.
I headed back into the hall, picked up the letter and read the details once more. No sign of a “Father”, but the name was definitely John Thomas and the location was definitely The Church of St Patrick, Sussex.
Could it be a coincidence? Could there possibly be more than one St Patrick’s in Sussex with a residing John Thomas?
I picked up the book and examined it. It was nothing special, bordering on amateur. A dark shadow drifted across my mind. If this book were indeed the priest’s on the TV – and he was indeed a serial killer – how much would some sicko pay for it on eBay now? The book even came with proof of purchase. I could get a holiday out of this.
That’s nice, Pete. Your mother would be proud.
I shook the sick thought from my head and returned my attention to the cover of the book. No author, just the title. I headed back into the living room. The baby was holding the remote control in his hand, trying his best to change the channel; Depp was busying himself with a pile of broken LEGO. On catching my approach Michael held the remote up in the air and stumbled over towards me.
“Oh sorry, Michael, I’ll put baby TV on for you now.” I took the remote off of him and changed the channel.
“I want Boomerang,” Depp yelled.
“You’re not the only person in this house, Depp. You can watch Boomerang after Michael watches his program.”
“Don’t start me, Depp. After Michael watches his program. OK?”
A nursery rhyme was playing on the TV. Michael moved erratically, turning around, bouncing up and down – baby dancing. Depp ran out of the room in pursuit of his mother, crying his crocodile tears.
“Give me strength.” I walked into the adjoining dining room and sat myself down at the PC. Within seconds I had the auction page back up. I scanned it quickly. What the…? I couldn’t believe it. How the hell did I ever buy this book? The page had hardly any information on it at all. All it said was: “A book about the youth of today, written by a brother. An interesting if not disturbing read. Never published; fast sale appreciated; one day invitation only”.
Invitation? Surely he meant auction.
Regardless, it had indeed been written by an amateur, his brother to be precise. Made sense; it was probably a pile of shit. Why did I even give this book a second glance, though? I couldn’t have been that drunk when I bought it. On saying that, I couldn’t remember the auction page, so I must have been a bit drunk. Maybe Karen was right. Maybe I was drinking too much lately.
A thought suddenly occurred to me: I wondered if he had sold anything else. I examined his eBay feedback score. It was 0 – great.
“Why is Depp crying? Are you on that computer again? You need to watch Michael like a hawk, always.”
“The baby’s OK. Come and see this.”
“I don’t have time, and neither do you.”
“Believe me, you need to see this.”
“What?” Karen marched into the room, her face like a cut snake. “Are you buying more toys on eBay again?”
“No, no, I bought this a while ago. It’s the book that came today.”
Karen said nothing.
“Look at this.” I showed her the letter that came along with the book.
She read it but didn’t smile. “Very amusing,” she said, handing it back to me.
“What? No, no. Well, yeah, his name is amusing. But I don’t mean that. Look at this.” I clicked on the BBC web page hoping to find the story. I wasn’t disappointed.
“I’ve got to go. I’m going to Braehead and then I need to take Depp to his sleepover.” Braehead was the local shopping mall, Karen’s tour of duty. When the going got tough the tough got shopping. On more than one occasion I had asked her how much she owed to that piece of plastic, but she had refused to tell me. So far I had managed to turn a blind eye to it, and today was going to be no different.
“Hang on a second.” The BBC page finally came up, and Right enough the topic was splattered all over it. I didn’t have to read too long before landing on both the priest’s name and his address.
Karen scanned the article.
“See anything weird.”
“I’m still reading.”
“There,” I said pointing to the priest’s name, “Read there.”
“Hmm… So that’s the dirty beast’s name.”
I cringed. I could feel the fires of hell licking at her feet. The girl was going to burn for her blasphemy. I decided to defend our faith. “They don’t know if he did it yet.”
“The news seems to think he did.”
I couldn’t be bothered fighting with her. “Just look at the letter,” I said, holding back my anger.
Karen read the letter once more.
“Notice anything weird now?”
“No, I’ve got to go.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Karen. The name on the letter is the same name as the priest’s. And so is the address.”
She looked at the letter and then she looked back at the article. “Hmm… So it is. Is it the same man?”
“Don’t know. Quite a coincidence, though, aye?”
Karen clicked on another article, still on the subject of the murders.
“What in God’s name are you boys doing?” I shouted, trying not to raise my voice too loud. I was saving the raised voice for when they were older, for when they had done something worthy of censure, like lighting a bonfire in their bedroom or playing on the motorway. Michael had just thrown one of his toys onto the floor, nothing too serious.
“Right, could you do something useful, instead of sitting at that computer all day? Could you put Michael’s jacket and gloves on, and put him in his push chair.”
“Please? But don’t you think it’s weird?”
Nothing. She was gone.
“For fuck’s sake,” I mumbled. And then I remembered something: “I’m going to Dumfries today. Is that OK?” I walked into the hall. “Karen. Karen! I said I’m going to see my mum this arvo.” I chided myself for using that word.
“Yeah, yeah, I heard you. I remember. I’ve got to get Depp ready.”
“So, it’s still OK?”
She supposed so? “Karen,” I said, running up the stairs. “You suppose so? I can’t help it if my mum’s ill.”
“Look, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that… it’s hard going. I need you to help me. It’s hard looking after two kids all day. I need some help.”
“I do help.”
Karen was attempting to push a jumper over a wriggling Depp. “Stay still, Depp. I’ve got to go. Will you be gone before I get back?”
“I think so. I’ll probably leave in a couple of hours.”
“Can you be back sharp, tomorrow? I’ll need you to pick up Depp from his sleepover.”
Don’t get angry. Don’t get angry. “I’m only staying the night. I should be back around two.”
“Are you going to see Ray while you’re there?”
“I’m only going for the night. Probably not.”
“I think it’d be good to see your friends. You haven’t seen them in a while. You should keep in touch with them.”
Karen gave me a disapproving look, but said nothing more on the matter. “Could you put the baby in his pram for me?”
“And could you get rid of that mess in the hall?”
I headed back down the stairs to see what she was talking about. This time there actually was a mess, sort of. Lying on the sideboard in the hall was the ripped parcel the book had come in. I picked it up and walked into the living room. My steps slowed until I had come to a complete halt in the middle of the floor. I was staring hard at the stamps on the brown paper envelope. I was baffled. I had paid less than a pound in total for the book and postage. I counted up the cost of the stamps on the parcel. The total came to around £14.50. What the…? That meant he had made a loss of… £14.00. What was the point of that? It looked like he had paid me for the privilege of taking the book off his hands.
“Michael,” I shouted, “Don’t touch that.” The baby was switching the SKY box on and off. He looked back at me with a glazed expression, paused, and then continued to press the switch anyway. Typical, I thought to myself: the youth of today. I walked over to the machine and switched it back on. It was still on the news channel. I stared at the screen for a second before noticing that the rolling banner across the bottom had changed. They had found a third child – a young girl.
She was dead.
My heart disappeared down a dark hole. What possessed people to do such things? God, what must her parents be feeling right now? I lowered my head. I couldn’t even imagine. For a second I tried, though, I tried to imagine. But I didn’t have the guts to go on, to walk down that path. And even if I did, where would I go? It was a bit like experiencing the birth of your first child or the death of a parent. Until you’ve actually walked down that road, you’re only guessing, you really are.
I searched for my youngest son, honed in on him and hugged him tightly with both arms. I couldn’t even imagine.
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