If you’re coming in late, the novel starts here: CHAPTER 1: Some bugger steals my sushi
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I gasped for breath, and stumbled backwards, vomiting into a small, dented, metal wastepaper bin by the door of the choir room.
Easy, Mike. Easy, I told myself. There’s got to be a rational explanation for what you just saw.
My brain wasn’t designed to deal with this shit.
I was just becoming calm, and I’d almost convinced myself that the guy who’d shot himself was my brain playing tricks on itself when I heard a door bang open down the empty church corridor, and heavy footsteps on the tiled floor.
I’d forgotten the cop.
Shit. And here I was, cornered in a choir room. The footsteps were coming closer up the corridor, quickly and solidly. There was little time, and no way I could escape the room I was in.
I quickly tiptoed through the room, quiet as I could, and hid behind some music stacks in the far corner, hoping like hell that the cop didn’t actually know I was in here and was just doing a quick check. I peered around the corner of the stacks, watching for his approach.
The footsteps changed pitch as the cop mounted a short flight of steps in the corridor, then the cop was there, standing in the doorway, his massive girth almost as wide as the door and as tall. He just stood there, paused, taking a breath.
And in that split second, time seemed to freeze again.
The cop was there, and then he was gone, and then he was flickering back and forth like a bad television image, in black and white, the colour washed from him.
Over their dresses they all wore voluminous white tablecloths, with holes in the centre for their necks. I’d have laughed at their clothing if I wasn’t so stunned at all this happening when the room should be empty.
Because, like the cop, these people also flickered on and off like a bad transmission. It was like they weren’t really here – then they were, then they weren’t. Here, then gone again. A part of some other world, or time, bleeding through to the present.
Then a large group of men came through the door, after the boys – right through the flickering image of the cop.
They were dressed the same as the boys, but wore white neckties instead of frills. They, too, talked among themselves, and dumped their music down on an old wooden table that stood in the centre of the room, right where the strangely-dressed man had shot himself.
Every time another piece of music hit the table, I could hear a distant belltower tolling. Then I heard a man’s voice whisper “Don’t tell anybody…Don’t tell anybody…,” over and over again, prayer-like.
The men and boys went to the open lockers that were mounted on the walls of the room, and took off their red dresses, neck frills and ties.
I briefly wondered if I’d ever manage to escape this strange world in which I’d found myself, or whether I’d be stuck here forever, watching image after image of people that didn’t fit in my time, wondering where they belonged and why on earth I was fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to be witnessing this window into their lives.
Under their tablecloths and dresses they wore clothing I recognised – clothing from the late twentieth century. One guy had jeans slung so low I wondered how the hell he was keeping them on – half his arse was on display. Another guy put a baseball cap on backwards, and stuck it down over long, greasy, hair.
Most of them wore clothing for the middle of winter, even though it was spring, with scarves and jackets. I noticed, as they talked, that their breath frosted, and realised that although it might be spring in my life, it was winter for these guys.
“So, what do we do now?” one of the guys asked the group, short, dark-haired. He seemed to be phrasing a question no-one wanted to state, but that was on all their minds.
“We leave,” said a redhead. “No choice. It’s just not on…they can’t get away with it.”
“The Cathedral will suffer. No-one wants that,” added a third. “But you just can’t go treating people like that, and expect to get away with it. The man is innocent, for Lord’s sake! We all know that.”
“Which is why we walk,” said the dark-haired short guy. “All of us.”
There was silence. Then:
“I don’t want to sing at another church.” It was a young blond guy speaking up for the first time. He a boy, not even a teenager really, but the men all stopped and listened to him. “This is where I belong. This is where we belong.”
“We’ll come back, if they apologise to him.”
“They won’t. You know how they are. Find a faggot, hang a faggot. The Church hates gays. Hates them. Always has, always will. Doesn’t matter if a man actually did anything or not.” An Asian guy seemed to find agreement in the room, and people were nodding.
“Yeah. Guilt and innocence mean squat when you’re gay, or different, or even if you’re right and the crowd has painted you as wrong,” said another guy. “Remember Donald, and how MacFadyen bullied the crap out of him? For years, and the fricking clergy did nothing. Too wrapped up in their prayers to help a kid whose life is hell.” People were nodding, and faces were grim.
“The Church hasn’t changed one inch. This is screwed. This place is screwed. I’m leaving, no matter what anyone else decides.” It was the redhead again.
“I want to sing for God,” said one guy quietly. “Jesus never booted anyone out. He wouldn’t have stood for this mess. I don’t agree with it. If this Cathedral is booting people, it isn’t a place of God for me any more.”
“We all know he did nothing!”
“Yeah, we all know, but do you think anyone will listen to us?” argued the redhead. ” We’re just the fricking choir. We’re just kids. We don’t matter. Look: their minds are made up. All we have to decide now is whether we stay and put up with this shit, or we go and do what’s right, and support an innocent bloke who has been treated like shit.”
The group looked at one another, and the image flicked suddenly and was gone.
In the distance, I could hear bells tolling, and the whisper repeated, “Don’t tell anybody… Don’t tell anybody…” over and over and over again. There seemed to be a buzzing in the room, and the walls were swaying and pulsing in beat and rhythm with the whispering and the bells.
I could see the cop standing, frozen in the doorway, but my body knew that no time had passed whatsoever – no more time than between one heartbeat and the next. And then life can back to me, and I breathed in deeply, gasping for air.
The image of the cop flickered again, and new images were in front of me, on and off, on and off, lighting then disappearing again. The signal was just as faulty, but again I knew that what I saw had happened somewhere in time, in this very room, even though I had no idea why I was witness to it.
Then the room spun, the scene changed, and a tall, skinny man was in the room, in a crowd of people, all dressed in those red dresses again, and he was wearing one too, and he pushed a blonde girl up against a locker, and leered over her. And she seemed to shrink and he seemed to expand, and I’ve seen fear before, and I could see it in her eyes now.
And, strange (or maybe not) the whole roomful of other people seemed to stop, and watch, but although they all watched, none of them intervened, or did anything. The man drew himself up to his full height and threatened the woman, and she cowered in fear.
Everyone in the room saw everything, every moment of the interaction – I know they did – but every single person looked away and had the same blank, empty expression of non-involvement on their face.
Then the room spun yet again, and it was the same guy again, this time with an unattractive dumpy brunette at his side, and the pair of them yelling at a younger redhaired woman, screaming, spit flicking from their mouths in anger.
I couldn’t catch the words, but I knew that every single word was an attack, a challenge, and I could also see fear and hatred in the brunette’s face, but above all there was jealousy of the woman she was screaming at.
The other woman stood there in horror, said nothing through the abuse and the spittle, and finally turned on her heel in disgust and walked silently and quickly from the room. And it was only because I was outside of it all, an unknown and uninvolved observer, that I could see her shoulders shaking in shock and perhaps with tears, because I couldn’t see her face.
And still that voice, and the echoing bells tolling, as the whisper echoed around the room, “Don’t tell anybody… Don’t tell anybody…”
Then the room spun again, and the same man was there again, together with the dumpy brunette, packing boxes of music and belongings, and then they were both gone, disappeared to nothing, like wisps of smoke, and the room was empty.
I was aware of a clock ticking loudly, like a bomb about to explode. The cop in the doorway became unstuck, like a fly pulling itself away from flypaper. He pulled the door closed behind him, and I heard his steps moving off back down the stairs and down the tiled corridor. Finally I heard the sound of a door slamming, and the echo calling back down the empty corridor to me.
I collapsed to the cold floor, shaking, wondering what on earth I had witnessed, and why on earth I should be the one to witness it.
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It was almost half an hour later, with time seemed to have returned to normal, that I felt safe enough and calm enough to leave the choir room and try to make my way home.
I walked out of the room, and back down the tiled stairs and through the portrait room, and out the side door of the Cathedral. When I opened the door, I don’t know what I expected, but it was dark outside, and it had been early morning when I had entered the Cathedral. I shuffled down the small, worn steps to the tarmac path outside, and heard bells on the other side of the Cathedral garden wall.
Peering over the wall, I saw antique fire carts – large water tanks on wagons pulled by horses – tearing around the octagon to the other side of the circuit where it looked like the Regent theatre was up in flames.
Except it wasn’t the Regent. A cluster of old buildings, a few stories high, and what looked like a pub, were blazing furiously, and the whole scene was flickering oddly again, like the scenes I’d witness in the choir room.
I hobbled, aching, along the path beside the Cathedral, only to find that the Cathedral had disappeared, and in its place was a smaller, single-storied church – much less grand, but more welcoming, somehow.
And as I stared around me, the whole world switching on and off, everything was old and outdated from centuries before. There were horses and carts, and men in long frock-coats wearing hats, and there was no statue of Robbie Burns overlooking the Octagon. The Octagon itself was a muddy pit with a few stunted saplings newly-planted down the middle, and the grass was overgrown and tatty.
I rounded the Octagon, and joined the crowd watching the burning building. A dozen firemen had arrived, and were pumping water – with a hand pump – at the flames, which showed no signs of abating.
I could see people caught on the upper level of the building, and hear women screaming, and the whole scene was one of horror, and fear.
As I watched, the whole top story of the building collapsed, and screams were cut off in the roar of the flames. And the world shook, and night became day, and the world skipped a beat again, and I was back in my own time with electric trams buzzing along behind me through the centre of the Octagon, and the warmth of spring on my skin.
I hobbled over to The Craic, straight to the bar.
Although I think I was back in my time and it might not even have been nine in the morning, I ordered a stout and drank it all in less than a minute, while standing at the bar.
Then I ordered another, took it to a table, sat down, and drank some more.
READ ON: CHAPTER 4: Coffee