Conroy’s shop lay a little further up the hill, away from the hustle and bustle of the village centre but close enough that people could still get their daily meat.
The shop itself was little more than a thatched cottage, set a little way back from the road by a gravel courtyard. Around the perimeter, a set of tall hedges hid most of the house away from prying eyes whilst the occasional collections of purple bellflowers added a slightly more pleasing veneer to the place than the ivy that snaked it’s way up the cottage wall.
As Conroy turned into the courtyard, he was pleased to see that the boy had already started to close up shop. The spot where the joints and carcasses normally hung were bare and the shutters were bolted shut.
Good lad, Conroy thought. I’ve had enough of people for one day.
He crossed the courtyard and made his way around the outside of cottage, stepping carefully over the huge thistle bushes that grew in the middle of the pathway. When he reached the old, oak side door, he produced a large bronze key, unlocked the door and waddled inside.
He passed through the storage area, milling his way through the rows of hanging carcasses on his way towards the back room. He glanced approvingly at the large fireplace in the corner of the room, which still burned wildly and blasted heat through the room causing beads of sweat to form on Conroy’s brow long before he reached the far end.
As he stepped into the back room, he paused for a moment, glaring across at the small fireplace near the window that flickered playfully. Beside it, the boy had pulled up a large winged armchair and set it square on to the fire and, on a small table beside it, had placed a glass of wine.
Conroy sniffed in disgust. He slammed the door closed behind him and shuffled disdainfully over to the window that looked out on to the meadow behind his cottage. He looked out at the great expanse of swaying, tall grass towards the small collection of houses down the hill a little way, hoping to catch sight of the boy playing in the field with his brothers…
He’ll need a good talking to when he comes in tomorrow, Conroy thought. Such wastefulness…
‘I trust I haven’t come at an inconvenient moment, Mister Conroy?’
The sound of the elderly man’s voice nearly made Conroy jump out of his skin. Instinctively, he reached out for whatever he could find to use as a weapon but - finding nothing suitable to use - he balled up his fists and span around to face the intruder in his home.
The old man appeared as shocked as Conroy. At the sight of the giant bearing down on him, he quickly flung his hands up in surrender and cowered against the back of the winged armchair.
‘I mean you no harm, sir,’ he said quickly, rising delicately out of the chair. ‘As you can see, I’m just a frail, old man.’
Conroy took a moment to examine the unwelcome caller in his home.
The man couldn’t have been much younger than sixty, probably even older. His white hair was wispy and lacking, and the wrinkles and scars on his face and hands spoke of many years of hard graft and strain. Conroy’s eyes swooped over the intruder, taking in his expensive shoes and black garments before finally settling on the white collar around his neck.
Only then, did Conroy unfurl his fist and start to relax.
The Vicar nodded approvingly but remained standing awkwardly beside the armchair, wobbling uneasily on his unsteady legs.
‘Your boy was so kind as to let me in and provide me with a glass of wine whilst I waited for you,’ he explained, gesturing to the glass on the table beside him. ‘I trust you don’t mind.’
‘Trust away, Reverend,’ Conroy replied bitterly, striding across the room towards the fireplace. ‘I presume he lit the fire for you as well?’
As he spoke, he grabbed hold of the metal poker and started jabbing angrily down at the flames, trying to disperse the wood so that the fire would burn out quicker. To his annoyance, this only made the fire grow stronger.
The Vicar smiled.
‘No, no, I am responsible for the fire,’ he said, settling himself back into his chair with a gentle smile on his face. ‘I always find that a fire makes the room, don’t you agree? I thought you might appreciate coming home to a more…’ he paused to glance around the sparsely decorated room. ‘…Well, a more homely feel.’
Conroy thrust the poker down beside the grating and turned swiftly to face his visitor.
‘In future, Reverend, perhaps you would be so kind as to not meddle in my affairs…’
‘I certainly didn’t mean any offence by it.’
Conroy exhaled sharply and squeezed his fingers closed into a fist. The joints between his fingers snapped loudly, causing the Vicar to squirm a little in his seat whilst he looked around the room for inspiration for his conversation. His eyes fell on a landscape painting, the only painting inside the whole cottage, of a rolling, wheat field with cows grazing in the foreground and a sweet, little cottage just off to one side.
He pointed to the picture.
‘Our land is truly a beautiful one, is it not?’ he asked, his voice wavering slightly with anxiety. ‘I often think that if man were capable of creating such beauty without God’s help, we might live in a thoroughly more agreeable world…’
Conroy cleared his throat abruptly.
‘I have no desire to talk to you of God’s work, Reverend,’ he said. ‘Nor do I have any desire to provide funds for your church or your congregation. That being the case, I suggest you leave my house at once…’
Conroy turned his back on the Vicar and started to make his way back towards the window.
‘They were right, you know?’ The old man’s voice drifted over Conroy’s shoulder - still frail but full of resolve. ‘‘The Irishman is a barbarian’, they said. ‘He won’t help you if he can get away with it…’’
Conroy turned back to face him. To his surprise, the Vicar smiled curiously back at him.
‘Then I suppose you should have taken their advice, sir,’ he replied coarsely. ‘I have no desire to help your church, no matter how barbaric that may appear to you…’
‘Oh, of that I have no doubt, Mister Conroy. But I’m afraid my reason for being here is not on religious or social grounds. No, far from it, I fear that I am here for strictly personal reasons…’
‘Personal?’ Conroy replied, his eyebrow rising with mild curiosity. ‘If you are asking for a favour, then I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong person…’
‘You are the village representative of the constabulary, are you not?’
Conroy cursed under his breath. ‘It was not my wish, sir.’
‘But you are the contact for all things to do with the law and order of this parish, are you not?’
Conroy swung his lower jaw from side to side with a crack before moving it back to realign with its companion. ‘I was elected to be the local policeman, that is true. But it was done without my knowledge or consent.’
The Vicar nodded his understanding, settling himself a little further upright in his chair as he peered across the room at Conroy.
‘Yes, yes, I quite understand,’ he muttered. ‘But God moves in mysterious ways and, regardless of your disdain for the position, you are the elected police representative for this area. Which means you are precisely the man I need.’
At this moment, the Vicar sprang to his feet and moved across the room with his hand outstretched towards Conroy. When he reached him, the Vicar stopped in front of Conroy, gave a small, respectful nod and announced:
‘Reverend Charles Babbington.’
Conroy stared down at the outstretched hand.
‘I don’t go to church, Reverend, but I do know who the local vicar is. And you are not he…’
‘Quite right, quite right,’ Babbington replied gleefully. ‘I suppose I should have announced myself as Reverend Charles Babbington Retired for that is what I am. I moved down here two months ago from Warwick to enjoy my retirement away from the haggling and constraint of town life. Reverend Walcott suggested that you would be able to sort out this little affair of mine…’
‘Oh, did he?’
Conroy scoffed, moving over to a spare armchair by the window and falling into it roughly. He rubbed his head, the hard skin of his hands scratching against his forehead as he moved them back and forth. With his spare hand he gestured for Babbington to do the same before closing his eyes in exasperation and thinking, briefly, of happier times.
When he finally opened his eyes again, he discovered that Babbington had not only sat back down in his chair, but that he had also brought the chair right across the room so he was now sat opposite Conroy, staring intently into his eyes. He had even angled the chair ever so slightly away from the window so that, from Babbington’s position at least, he could see right out of the window behind Conroy.
There he sat, a curious smile adorning his face and his fingers pressed together as though in prayer whilst he waited for Conroy to speak.
‘You need to realise,’ Conroy began, flinging his hands on to his thigh with a loud slap, ‘I was not elected for any particular skills I have in this line of work, Reverend…’
‘Charles, please,’ Babbington interrupted, raising a playful finger towards Conroy. ‘And may I call you Patrick?’
‘You can call me whatever you bloody well like,’ Conroy muttered. ‘Everyone else does…’
‘Well, Patrick, it strikes me that the police force, such as it is, is so young that I don’t imagine any of us have any particular skills in that regard…’
‘But you must understand, sir…’
‘Charles…’ Babbington corrected.
Conroy winced slightly. He had always avoided over familiarity with the people of this village – something that the other villagers had been more than happy to oblige him with. The idea of speaking on first name terms with an Englishman, a vicar no less, was more bizarre than he could possibly verbalise.
‘Charles,’ he said hesitantly. ‘You must understand. The people of this village elected me to do this so that I might leave. Do you understand? They mean to force me out of the village by any means necessary. This is just their latest attempt…’
Babbington shook his head, smiling sympathetically.
‘I’m sure that isn’t true, Patrick,’ he replied. ‘I can’t imagine Reverend Walcott being so cruel as to endanger public order just to relieve the village of one man – Irish or not…’
‘Reverend Walcott was the man who appointed me. He made it abundantly clear that I was to be forced into serving for as long as I was foolish enough to remain here…’
‘I don’t imagine that would stop a man like you, would it? I would have hoped that a man of honour, such as yourself, would wish to be accepted into this community, wouldn’t he? Throw the words of your critics back in their faces, so to speak…’
Something about Babbington’s eyes were deeply hypnotic. As Conroy stared into them, he began to feel relief wash over him as though the vicar was forgiving his past sins right then and there, taking his innermost thoughts and giving them a voice.
He was right, of course. Conroy wanted nothing more than to be accepted. He’d already had one life stripped from him back home in Ireland – all he had ever wanted was the chance to start afresh, to build a new life in England along with the thousands of other Irish refugees…
But the butcher had been around long enough to know that the English would never let that happen…
‘Fine,’ he relented, collapsing fully into his chair. ‘Have you been a victim of a crime?’
‘Yes,’ the Vicar began. ‘And no.’
‘What do you mean?’
Babbington’s face began to fall. It was no longer sweet and friendly, but pale and wracked with concern – almost as though his very soul was being drawn out before Conroy’s very eyes.
‘No crime, in the legal sense of the word, has been committed yet.’
Conroy shrugged. ‘Then there is very little I can do for you…’
‘Except listen,’ Babbington replied, his eyes glistening. ‘Hear what I have to say and advice me on how to proceed. And then, when you’ve heard my whole story, you can decide then if it is worth your time.’
Conroy thought about this for a moment. All the while, Babcock watched him carefully, his body poised as though he might spring to his feet at any moment. Behind the vicar’s gentle façade, Conroy thought he could detect genuine fear. Whether it was that or the idea that helping a vicar might gain him some favour amongst the locals, Conroy couldn’t rightly say. But there was one thing he was sure of…
It can’t hurt.