Unsafe convictions, p.14

Unsafe Convictions, page 14


Unsafe Convictions

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  The decorations in this cheerless room must be pre-war, McKenna thought, the unyielding, hide-upholstered armchair in which he sat even older, and although the coals in the hearth burned bright, the chimney must cough when the wind turned, for the wallpaper above the mantel was discoloured by smoky stains.

  While Ellen rigged up her machines, he studied the tall young man who sat in another ancient chair, and thought he saw the shadow of death still about him. Barclay’s eyes burned holes in his parchment-like skin, and McKenna could almost see the blood pulsing through the matrix of veins on the beautiful hands folded in the priest’s lap. He was not clad in the garb of his calling, as McKenna had expected, but in old corduroy trousers, a fisherman’s rib sweater, and checked shirt. Firelight struck gold in his thick brown hair, and warmed his engaging features, but did nothing to dispel the shadow.

  ‘Thank you for allowing us to record the interview,’ McKenna said, ‘although I must stress that you’re not under caution.’ He smiled and, receiving a smile in return, felt as if he had seen the sun break through cloud. ‘Do you have any questions of your own?’

  ‘None that I can think of, and none that man can answer anyway I’m afraid, pretentious though that may sound.’ Despite the lingering smile, the priest’s eyes were dark with weariness. ‘If Father Fauvel saw me now, I think he’d be very contented. On my last day in Haughton he advised an unremitting search of soul and conscience. He thought I was perilously close to heresy.’

  ‘Did he?’ McKenna asked. ‘What had you done to warrant such chastisement?’

  ‘I questioned the humanity of His Holiness’s last encyclical on birth control. I believe the Church has no right to promote uncontrolled fertility when half its flock is already starving. Unfortunately, we don’t have the gifts of Our Lord when it comes to feeding the masses.’

  ‘In another age you’d have sizzled at the stake for comments like that.’

  ‘Priests who share my views would sizzle now, if some of the cardinals had their way. But the Church is more likely to founder through arrogance than by reassessing its position according to the time and place. What is acceptable in a country with state welfare is wholly inappropriate in the Third World, and even here, both spiritual and material poverty results from the compulsion people feel to have children they can’t afford.’ He stared thoughtfully at McKenna. ‘We can only ever guess at the shape of God’s Will. Doubt must inform our convictions. Apart from that, unquestioning faith tends to give others the wrong opportunities.’ Impatiently, he ran his fingers through his hair. ‘I’m sorry. I’m being very pompous. To be truthful, Father Fauvel and I were close to real conflict, and not only over theological issues. I found his conservative routines rather irksome, and he very much resented my criticism.’

  ‘He probably saw it as a power struggle,’ McKenna suggested. ‘The Church is no less prone than other institutions to vices like ambition. But at least, in South America, you were expected to make a difference. Will you go back?’

  ‘When my strength returns. It’s a long time coming.’

  ‘It’s a wonder you’re still alive,’ McKenna said. ‘You were very ill.’

  ‘What sort of missionary work were you doing?’ Ellen asked. ‘Our documents don’t say.’

  ‘You’ve probably heard about the street children in South American cities,’ Barclay replied. ‘They’re beggars, there are literally thousands of them, and they’re looked upon as vermin. Every so often, the “social cleansing squads” execute a few dozen here and there. Our mission was taking children off the streets, and providing food and shelter.’ The smile he offered was bleak. ‘A far more worthwhile enterprise than getting Piers Stanton Smith out of prison. I wish I’d never come back.’

  ‘Did you know him well?’ McKenna asked.

  ‘Only by sight. Converts were traditionally Father Fauvel’s property.’

  ‘I have to ask you this,’ McKenna said. ‘Are you absolutely sure you saw Smith in church on the afternoon Trisha died?’

  ‘Absolutely.’ Barclay nodded. ‘He turned up not long after two o’clock, wanting Father Fauvel. I told him Father Fauvel was in Manchester for the afternoon, at a meeting, but he waited. He must have footled around for the best part of three hours. It’s perfectly possible he was giving himself an alibi, but then, he also had a lot of time on his hands. I imagine he still has.’

  ‘Who else was there?’

  ‘The ladies who do the flowers and the cleaning, and I was in and out all the time. We were busy with preparations for Easter.’

  ‘You went abroad at the beginning of April, and wrote to Father Fauvel early in September,’ McKenna began. ‘I appreciate that from your point of view, he was the more certain conduit, and in a position to ensure the letter served its purpose, but why didn’t you lay greater emphasis on its importance?’

  ‘I almost didn’t write at all,’ Barclay admitted. ‘Smith and Haughton seemed terribly remote, but, more to the point, I knew there were other witnesses. My statement wasn’t crucial.’

  ‘But it was,’ McKenna said. ‘And you should have said as much in your covering note to Father Fauvel.’

  ‘It wasn’t his business.’ Barclay was adamant. ‘It was a matter for the police.’

  ‘Did Smith say why he was anxious to see Father Fauvel?’

  ‘No, but there’s nothing sinister in that. As the most junior of the priests, I hardly figured in his scheme of things.’

  ‘Did Trisha ever attend your church?’

  ‘I don’t know. I never met her.’

  ‘Do you know her sister, Linda ?’


  ‘What about Wendy Lewis?’

  Barclay nodded. ‘Of course. She’s very devout, and she also, I suspect, has a crush on Father Fauvel, although in that, she’s definitely not alone.’


  ‘He’s quite charming, and rather handsome, in that bland, old-fashioned way.’ He smiled. ‘A few years ago, two teenage girls virtually besieged the presbytery. They’d turn up in the morning before school, in the afternoon as soon as school was out, and be permanent fixtures nearly all weekend. When they took to peeking through the slits in the curtain nets he asked their parents to take them in hand.’

  ‘Interesting.’ Stifling a yawn, McKenna asked: ‘D’you know Julie Broadbent?’

  A strange expression crossed the priest’s face. ‘Yes, I know Julie. A very lovely woman.’

  ‘Is she? We haven’t met her yet.’

  ‘No, but I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about her, most of it bad. Take my advice, and don’t heed. She isn’t what people say, and if she ever was, she’s redeemed herself.’

  ‘Like Mary Magdalene?’ McKenna suggested.

  ‘I hope that isn’t mockery, Superintendent,’ Barclay said, an edge in his voice. ‘Julie’s a good person. She has purity and charity, whereas she’d be quite entitled to bitterness and anger. She’s been badly wounded.’

  Seeing the expression on McKenna’s face, he added impatiently: ‘Not as Smith claims to be damaged! Julie was saddled with her mother’s shame, and when she went somewhat awry, most people saw it as proof that immorality is inherited. Personally, I believe the accident is responsible for any lapses.’

  McKenna frowned. ‘What accident?’

  ‘Has no one told you? When she was eleven, a pan of boiling fat spilled over her. She’s very badly scarred, and I’ve often thought her so-called promiscuity was simply the outcome of an equally blistered self-image.’

  Chapter Two

  Trying to redeem some control over his life, Dugdale waited until the late-evening television news was over, then telephoned his wife. ‘How are the kids?’

  ‘Fine,’ Sue replied. ‘Asleep, of course.’

  ‘And your mother?’


  ‘And you?’


  ‘The police came back,’ he said. ‘Not McKenna, but that Turner woman who’s doing
the admin.’


  ‘Linda’s dad had a heart attack this morning, for one thing.’

  ‘Oh, no! That’s awful! Is he dead?’

  ‘No. They think he’ll pull through.’

  ‘I hope he does.’ She fell silent, and he could hear her breathing. Then, she asked: ‘Surely, she didn’t come just to tell you that?’

  ‘They wanted to warn me. Some woman’s writing articles about Smith in one of the nationals, and the town’s overrun with reporters again. They’ve heard about us.’

  ‘What?’ Sue drew in her breath sharply. ‘Heard what? How could they?’

  ‘People talk. I expect someone overheard the row last night, and saw you go off this morning with the kids.’

  ‘Have you told anyone?’

  ‘Only Turner, but I had no choice. She reckons I should tell Hinchcliffe, but I haven’t. Not yet. Anyway,’ he went on, ‘you’d better be prepared. I can see the headline now: “Wife runs out on dodgy copper”.’

  ‘I hope you’re not lying,’ Sue said. ‘You didn’t come clean about that woman, did you?’ When he failed to respond, she asked: ‘Why didn’t you? Why did you never tell me about her?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Are you still in love with her?’

  ‘It’s almost eighteen years ago!’

  ‘I think you’re trying to protect her, although I haven’t a clue why you should.’

  ‘Last night, you said I was trying to protect myself.’

  ‘I’ve had time to think. Are you protecting her?’

  ‘I don’t want to cause her more grief. She’s got nothing to do with this business, so I don’t see why she should be dragged into it, but I couldn’t keep quiet because McKenna already knew.’

  ‘How d’you think he found out?’

  ‘No idea, and there’s no point asking him.’

  ‘Ryman probably told him,’ Sue suggested. ‘He had his fingers in a lot of pies when he worked in Haughton. I expect he told McKenna about you and Linda as well.’ After another silence, she said: ‘Incidentally, what grief has that woman already had, apart from what she made for herself? You said you don’t want to cause her more grief, or was that just a figure of speech?’

  ‘No, it wasn’t. D’you know something, Sue? You’re turning into a jealous harpy. We flogged this to death last night.’ He took a deep breath. ‘If you can’t accept you weren’t the first woman in my life, there’s nothing I can do, but I’d be grateful if you’d stop referring to Julie as “her”, “she”, or “that woman”. She’s as much right to her name as you have.’

  ‘And what name is that? Tart? Trollop? Whore?’

  ‘This is pointless! Maybe you should stay away!’

  ‘Maybe I will!’ she snapped, and dropped the receiver with a clatter.

  Chapter Three

  Sitting bolt upright in her friend’s fireside chair, with her nerves strung like piano wire, Ida had the telephone within hand’s reach, but she kept nodding off, then snapping awake with a pounding heart, terrified that she might have missed the summons. She had dreamed of telling the doctor how, if she sat in a soft chair, or even a hard one, her eyes fell shut of their own accord in less than five minutes, as forceful with him as she had been on the telephone, and refusing to be fobbed off with platitudes about age and worn-out bodies, and yet another prescription for anti-depressants. The next time she returned to full consciousness, another twenty-five minutes had been lost.

  ‘She won’t ring now,’ the other woman said. She had kept her own part in the vigil by padding back and forth to the kitchen to make cups of hot, sweet tea to fortify her friend. ‘There’s no point you hanging on.’

  ‘Damn her eyes!’ Ida scowled. ‘She’ll be sorry.’ She struggled upright, her legs planted far apart. Her ankles were swollen with tiredness and fiery with the heat.

  The other woman stood by the door, holding Ida’s jacket and scarf.

  ‘I’ll be back in the morning,’ Ida said, fighting with the jacket sleeve. ‘As soon as I’ve done my shopping. We’ll get that madam sorted, you see if we don’t!’

  ‘If you say so, Ida.’

  ‘What d’you mean by that?’ Eyes narrowed, Ida stared. ‘I’m doing this for you. It’s your problem. No skin off my nose either way.’

  ‘I’m just not sure we’re going about things the right way,’ the other fretted.

  ‘What other way is there? If there was another way, we wouldn’t be doing this, would we?’

  As the door closed behind her, she realised how ferocious the wind had become while she dozed by the fire, for when she turned to make her way to her own front door, the wind caught her in the back and pushed violently. She tottered along the walkway, scuttling past darkened windows, almost lifted off her feet, and slammed into the high iron railings which caged each level of the maisonettes. By the time she reached her own place, she felt as shaky and fragile as a leaf bowled in front of that wind.

  Chapter Four

  ‘Jools? Jools! Are you coming down? Father Brett’s going now.’

  Seated in front of the silent television, Julie put her head in her hands, wondering for the thousandth time why her colleague made the long trek up several staircases to the attic flat to speak to her, instead of picking up one of the telephones. ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’

  ‘Right. Don’t be too long, will you?’

  She heard the footsteps shuffling away and padding downstairs, the sound of doors opening and closing, of voices mumbling, then Fauvel’s educated tones, so clear and sharp he could be outside her door. She began to shiver uncontrollably, teeth gritted, wanting to hit herself for being so stupid. Nevertheless, she listened like a hunted animal until his car crunched down the gravel drive.


  ‘You’ve missed him,’ her colleague said. ‘You were ages, and you said you’d only be a minute.’

  ‘There’ll be another time,’ Julie replied, leafing through the log book. ‘Anything happened?’

  ‘Since when? You’ve been around most of the day, even though you were on duty last night. Don’t you need sleep like the rest of us?’

  ‘Night shifts ruin my routines.’

  ‘Well, for goodness sake get some sleep tonight, otherwise you’ll be like a zombie tomorrow.’ The other woman smiled. ‘I saved you some supper. Make us a fresh pot of tea while I do the rounds. They should all be abed by now.’

  Once again, Julie stared through the kitchen windows as she waited for the kettle to boil, watching lights pop off downstairs in the houses which sprawled over the once exclusive grounds of the Willows, while other lights clicked on in bedrooms and bathrooms. It was colder tonight, she thought, pulling her sleeves over her hands and knowing it would become even colder before there was that rush of warmer air which always preceded the snow. She had lived her whole life in this place, its seasons defining memories, events pinioned in her mind by the weather and the colours of the earth which formed their backdrop. Last week had seen the twelfth anniversary of her mother’s death, then of her funeral, the earth where her grave was dug frozen two feet down. The first snows that year spiralled from a blackening sky as Fauvel, wreathed in incense and the earth’s misty vapours, proceeded to the graveside. When he began to eulogise over the remains of a woman who suffered wholesale rejection by the Christian community during her lifetime, Julie was so enraged she had to bite her tongue. Briefly, her loss allowed the community to embrace her, but she had no idea what to do with their condolences, or whether to trust their warmth, so she thrust both away, and returned to the known wilderness she and her mother had always inhabited.

  On the day she had asked her mother why she chose to be a prostitute, a spring sun shone with the first real warmth of the year.

  ‘D’you really think it was a choice?’ Kathy asked.

  ‘You could’ve got a normal job.’

  ‘Not when you were little. There was no one to look after you.’

  ‘I wasn’t alwa
ys little.’

  ‘It was too late by then.’

  ‘No, it wasn’t. You didn’t try!’

  ‘Nobody would let me try, Julie. Other people made me what I am, and wouldn’t let me be anything else.’ Kathy smiled with resignation. ‘Especially the women. The men aren’t so bad. They don’t judge you the same way.’

  ‘We could’ve moved,’ Julie insisted. ‘Gone to live somewhere else, where nobody knew.’

  ‘Where? There was nowhere to go.’

  On an earlier spring day, Julie had demanded to know about her father. Kathy had been young, then, yet somehow seemed so old. The rain was falling, gurgling in the gutters and splashing under the wheels of the trucks and cars and buses, which roared incessantly along the road outside their house.

  ‘He was my first boyfriend,’ Kathy remembered wistfully. ‘I was only seventeen when you were born.’ She sighed. ‘Your gran and grandad put me in the Willows when I said I was expecting. I was supposed to give you away, then go back to them as if nothing had happened.’

  ‘I know. You’ve said before.’

  ‘If I’d put you up for adoption,’ Kathy mused, ‘you’d have had the best of everything, like Beryl Kay. Are you angry with me because I didn’t?’

  ‘How can I be angry about something I’ll never know about? And who wants to be like Beryl Kay?’ Julie’s voice was snappish. ‘What was my dad like?’

  ‘Sweet,’ Kathy said. ‘Gentle.’

  ‘Then why didn’t you marry him? Weren’t you good enough for him?’

  ‘I couldn’t. He died.’ He was a merchant seaman, and had died not from age or sickness, but by accident, drowned in the Bay of Naples, and in ignorance of the child he had fathered. ‘You look like him.’ Kathy ruffled the girl’s hair. ‘You’ve got his eyes.’

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