There are certain individuals whose superior memories allow them to recall every word in a conversation, every nuance in a voice and every gesture in an encounter, and then there are those who forget as easily as a flake of snow dissolves on a wave.
Mrs Auster had a good memory. She remembered how Father Geary liked his coffee with two sugars every morning and his tea with one sugar in the afternoon, how his eggs had to be poached and his plates warmed. She remembered his long sermons about encouraging the youth, for they were the future of the church, and above all, as she pulled back the lace curtain of the rectory window to see the grey Vauxhall Corsa crawling up the drive, she remembered how the mere sight of him made her clench her fists in rage.
It had taken Father Geary a good four hours to drive down from London to Lewes. The traffic had frustrated him and he had been tempted to linger at a farmhouse brewery, gulping down a few pear ciders before continuing his journey. From now on his life would be nothing but country pubs and open fields. But best of all he would have his own flock of innocent lambs to lead, just as before. He had been ordered to return to Sussex by the Bishop of his old diocese for the sake of his health because the city had made him grey; in fact, he was grey in general; with a grey moustache, grey skin and grey eyes. And right in the middle of all this greyness was an oily pink nose with a dent in it.
The car skidded to a halt in the gravel. Father Geary extinguished his cigarette, got out of the car and walked up the path to the oak door where he was greeted by Mrs Auster who appeared to him to be wearing the same apron she had worn nearly twenty years ago. He stepped through the door into the hallway which gleamed with waxed wood; above an antique oak table hung a solemn oil painting of Bethlehem and there was that smell of cleaning fluid and warm semolina that seemed to pervade every rectory he had been in. But Mrs Auster would soon light a fire, filling the air with the sweetness of cedar. Father Geary unpacked his suitcase then came downstairs to the living room where he squeezed himself into the largest leather chair he could find and slept in front of the crackling fire until morning.
He was awoken by a loud banging noise. It was eight o'clock. 'What the devil is that?' he shouted.
'Had you forgotten?' replied Mrs Auster, 'it's the fifth of November.'
'What of it?'
'It's the Bonfire Society, they wanted to borrow a garden.'
The priest got up and peered through the french doors. Two men in overalls were banging nails into a giant wooden head.
'But what are they doing in my garden?'
'I said they could use it. They needed to finish their effigy. It's only for one day.'
'Who's it supposed to be?'
'They're doing Pope Paul the Fifth this year.'
'Doesn't look anything like him. If they're only going to burn the damned thing, why take so much trouble over it? They can't, tell them to go away.'
Mrs Auster hurried into the garden and delivered the message. The men stared at Father Geary then grudgingly turned the model around and wheeled it out of the garden.
After breakfast Father Geary decided to go for a walk. The magnificent oak trees were shaking with more vigour than usual and the movement of the wind stirred something deep in him that he could not easily suppress. He knew Mrs Auster did not approve of his desire to resume his old routines for when he told her of his intention to take "confessions" from the boys at the primary school and asked her to prepare a kneeler, she gave him the strangest look. But he had long ago made up his mind that he did not care for women at all; they did not have the adventurous spirit or vigour of boys. With the thought in his mind that he may soon find some healthy new lambs to shepherd he walked jauntily down the steps of the rectory and along the stream into town. There was Rotten Row with its endless flint wall and through an archway he could see the mushrooms taking over the cemetery. He almost slipped on a blanket of pus-coloured leaves but grabbed the wall just in time, swearing loudly. A raven haired woman cutting a hedge with an electric trimmer across the lane looked up at him through dark eye goggles, curled a lip and carried on shearing.
In the village the shopkeepers were boarding up their windows. Father Geary walked down the main street, opposite the castle. Suddenly, two girls wearing tudor dresses ran out of the sweet shop in front of him and almost knocked him over. He spun round to see a very tall man in a black cape striding towards him. The man's head was hidden under a horned mask; his hands were covered with bearskin gloves attached to which were long claws. Whoever had made the costume was surely a master craftsman. For a moment through the slots in the mask the priest thought he could see two glistening black eyes; but in a flash a cyclist rode past, ringing his bell, and the creature was gone. Father Geary felt suddenly unsteady, the wind had turned sharp and a sudden chill made him pull his grey anorak around him.
A little further along the high street was a bookshop with black timbers and a thatched roof. The priest hunched his shoulders as he stepped down inside. A customer was having a conversation with the owner of the shop about an effigy of a member of parliament they were going to burn that evening. Father Geary cleared his throat. ‘Any books on theology?’ he asked. The shopkeeper frowned and pointed to the adjacent room where there was a section labelled 'Religion and Spirituality' which spanned the whole wall, but there was only a very small section on christianity and a very large one on witchcraft. Father Geary had always been curious about such unconventional beliefs and so, tentatively, he ran his finger over the leather bindings until he came to one that said, 'Aleister Crowley's Collected Works'. No sooner had he picked it up than the shop bell rang and he heard a small voice behind him. ‘Are you a friend of bonfire?’ said the voice. The priest turned and saw a slim, pale-skinned boy of about eleven or twelve. ‘For the Bonfire Society,’ said the boy, ‘I’m collecting,' and he rattled the box. A thrill went through Father Geary’s chest. It was a long time since he had seen a boy of such beauty and the excitement hit him like a powerful drug. How sweet it would be to take confession from such an innocent as this in the privacy of the rectory; the image of it had already possessed his mind and a dangerous but quite delicious flickering of pleasure ran up and down his body and would not be extinguished. The boy again shook the money box in his hand. His clothes were a little too tight, as if he had outgrown them and his hair was a darker shade of blond than it should have been. ‘Yes, of course I’m a friend,’ said Father Geary, dropping a one pound coin into the box in a gesture of condescension, as if it were payment in anticipation of a service not yet performed. He looked at the boy with the eyes of a magpie, fascinated by his plump, creamy skin, wanting to get closer, to see if the boy would let him. He advanced a few steps and the boy stayed still, smiling at him with thick lips the colour of grapes. A few steps closer and he could smell the boy; a musky warmth seemed to rise from his young body and reach upwards making the priest tremble and yet he advanced once more so that his coat was just touching the boy's chest . But the moment he did so the boy laughed, turned on his heels and ran out into the street.
The yearning stayed with Father Geary all day; even when darkness settled over the village he stood at the rectory window, hoping to catch a glimpse of that pale, fine boned face in the crowds below. Children held burning crosses aloft, waving them back and forth to create shimmering trails of light, men dressed as soldiers began rolling tar barrels down the hill over the cobbles, making the ground roar. And suddenly out of the smoke and lightening and after all the waiting a lithe silhouette appeared, dressed in a black and white striped pullover, his matted hair now covered with a red woollen hat. Father Geary's heart began to pound. Lust rising in him, he put on his anorak and rushed downstairs, hoping his prize would still be there by the time he reached the hallway. He flung open the door and there, waiting for him just across the graveyard by the gate was the boy. He winked at the priest as if to say, 'follow me', and started down the hill.
Unable to hear his own footsteps over the cracking of the fireworks Father Geary pushed his way through the crowds after the boy. The running made him hot and feverish, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his forehead nearly tripping over a loose cobblestone as he did so. He ran past a group of revellers who had started throwing fireworks into the throng outside the Crown Court; two of them were striking a police constable with his own baton. Spectators watched and pointed from balconies as an effigy of a judge was dragged past the courtroom on wheels, already alight and billowing smoke.
Father Geary persevered. Down through the lanes he stumbled, guided by those who stood against the walls with flaming torches. It was hard to keep up but the boy turned round at intervals to make sure the old man was still behind him. The red hat bobbed up and down like a bright rubber ball until it turned a corner and was gone. Father Geary followed as fast as he could, until he reached the point of the child's disappearance and found himself at the top of an alleyway that sloped sharply downwards. It was flanked by walls made of pebbles and ivy covered cottages. It was empty. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. 'You hiding from me? Hey? Little boy?' he called out, puffing and panting. 'Father Geary's coming to get you. You want me to come and get you, don't you? I'm looking for you.' He peered over a wall and a man in a white skull mask jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, startling him.
‘Have you seen a boy in a red hat?’ asked the priest.
‘Oh yes,’ replied the man in the mask, ‘he's gone to the bonfire.’
‘Straight ahead,' said the man, and then he began to sing, 'there was a man of god, who liked boys in the choir, he burnt out both his eyes by falling in a fire.'
'What's that?' said Father Geary, but the man in the mask ducked quickly down behind the wall and was gone.
There was mud on the priest's shoes but he continued to walk into the darkness and through the maze of alleyways; he was a little off balance now, his heart beat a little faster and there was a bitter taste of ashes in his mouth. The drums, like gunfire, thundered in the distance, but still he staggered on, hoping the boy was waiting for him in the dark around the next corner. 'Walking in circles,' he mumbled, seeing his own breath come out of his mouth in a vapour. Suddenly, a man in a Guy Fawkes mask popped up from behind a fence, ‘Excuse me sir,' he said, 'do you have the time?'
'No, I haven't got my watch on.' said Father Geary.
The man tapped his wrist. ‘It's time to take confession.'
'No sense of right or wrong, keeping secrets far too long,' said the man and he raised his hat and disappeared behind the fence.
'Look, what sort of game...?' stammered Father Geary, leaning over into the garden, but the man was gone. He kicked the wall in frustration and called out again, 'Boy with the red hat, father's here! Come along, don't keep me waiting now.' He continued to make his way unsteadily down the lane until he came to a small bridge which arched over a brook and lead to a field. A corner of the field was glowing and the orange light radiated upwards into the sky, scorching the universe beyond. He tottered across the bridge and waded through the mud on the other side, then in a last burst of impatience ran out into the field. He looked around him. The field was empty but for a huge bonfire which exuded smoke and heat, almost nauseating him with its intensity. He was forced to stop, gasping furiously, choking on the cinders that were floating in the air. But then, out of the corners of his watery eyes he saw that he was not alone at all. As he coughed and spluttered he saw them come, slowly at first out of the shadows; figures which seemed to him half human, half animal. They had been crouching in the trees, but now they crawled forward and spilled out into the field, slowly rising, pressing in on him. Through the furnace he saw men dressed as demons, torturers and hangmen. Father Geary ran backwards but they were behind him, he ran sideways, but there appeared through the lanes and alleyways yet more creatures carrying sticks and knives. He tried to break free of them but they drew closer, clinging to him, clawing at him, sinking their teeth into his arms and legs.
He struggled fiercely but the demons pulled him upwards and held him aloft on their shoulders. The sky seemed to be falling into the fire; the masks on the faces which circled him began to melt and distort in waves of heat. Father Geary craned his neck painfully to one side and saw a wooden scaffold to the left of the bonfire. 'Oh, God, no!" he screamed. He wriggled and struck out jerkily in his panic but his tormentors gripped him tightly and carried him onwards to the stake. Again Father Geary tried to scream but this time the fire swallowed his breath and made him mute. He grabbed frantically at the wooden posts but was wrenched away and pushed up onto the plinth where his arms and legs were strapped to the scaffold. A man dressed as a butcher reached inside a sack for something bulky; as the priest glimpsed the top of a jagged toothed blade he felt his body begin to shake violently. But his torturers were calm. They were not vulnerable young boys now, afraid of being called into the priest's study for confession, but sturdy, powerful young men.
Father Geary let out a high pitched scream as the sharp teeth of the blade sliced neatly through his trousers and carved into his flesh. His body arched back, fresh red blood spurting from his legs. And just as the young men began to saw Father Geary in half they took off their masks one by one and grinned. ‘We’re the bonfire boys. You don’t remember us, do you?’ they said, 'But we remember you.'
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