Since my last post there has passed much time. Life in the parish has returned to normal and yet is still coloured by my sabbatical time. This ‘normal’ isn’t the old ‘normal’ which I guess is the whole idea of a sabbatical.
I’ve also had very limited time to continue the story of Ashes to Ashes yet Fr. James, Janko and Sarah have never been far from my mind. Below is the continuation of where I left off in retelling you the story. There is still more I’ve written that I am not sharing with you just yet – you’ll have to wait for the next portion.
But for now, here we go……
September started for Fr. James with start of term assemblies, the continuing wedding season and the beginning to organise Harvest Celebrations, Remembrance Day, Advent and the initial inquires regarding group, school and organisations Carol Services. The two week holiday down in Cornwall at the start of August already seemed a long way off.
He also kept his eye on Sarah. He made a habit of talking to her after church, of having a cup of tea with her at least once a fortnight. He also talked to her other friends, those offering her support, trying to make sure that Sarah wouldn’t feel overwhelmed but also letting her know that he, and her other friends, hadn’t forgotten her to cope with her loss alone.
She seemed to be doing well, but you could never tell. Sarah had told James that she was attending grief counselling for which he was immensely grateful – and neither of them had talked about that coffee after the press statement. James put it down to Sarah reaching out in her grief. He was still aware of his personal feelings towards her but exploring them would have to wait until she was sure where her feelings were. Until then his time was full with the usual run of parish life. Never a dull moment.
It was in the third week of September that James decided to check the tunnel on his day off. After his morning run and shower he sat down to a light breakfast and cup of coffee before starting the short ritual of checking out his secret.
St. Joseph’s had been originally built as the servants chapel to the Manor House of Swanhill in the mid fifteenth century. Crafted as a show of wealth rather than out of any religious observance it had been large but plainly decorated. It was something that James liked about the church, the plain walls and exposed timbers of the oldest part of the church, now the vestry.
As the town had grown so had the church, with an extended chancel first and then the side aisles added in the nineteenth century but it was the first alterations that really intrigued James.
In 1558 the owners of Swanhill Manor were Catholic and with the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne their way of religious observance was threatened. The chapel in the Manor House itself was closed down by royal decree but Lord and Lady Kemble had started worshipping at the small chapel, and had employed Nicholas Owen to design and build a priest hole behind the altar. This hole had become a tunnel soon afterwards, hidden behind panels in the East wall of the chapel and travelling underground into what was now the cleaning cupboard in James’ downstairs bathroom.
When James had arrived in Swanhill there had been talk of a Nicholas Owen priest hole but no-one involved with the church knew where it was or how to access it. And no-one at all spoke of a tunnel leading from the church
It had been on his second day in the vicarage when James had walked into the frankly oversized cupboard he had in the downstairs toilet. Who needed a full height, five foot deep, cupboard there? As he stood in the empty cupboard he had absent-mindedly kicked the skirting board around the inside of the cupboard. The wall nearest the toilet door sounded different from the others. Hollow perhaps. It was then that James did some measuring. The edge of the cupboard was about three feet before the toilet door and the wall of the toilet between the cupboard and the rest of the house sounded strange when he rapped his knuckles on it too. There appeared to be a three foot square ‘hole’ in his house, one that he couldn’t understand why it was there.
After grabbing a candle and seeing the flicker of its flame as he held it near the inside of the cupboard he felt determined that there was a mystery in his new home. That was how, instead of putting his study books on the shelves and unpacking his belongings into his new house he had spent time on his hands and knees prying open a small door and looking into a black hole, the beginning of a tunnel that led… Well he had to find out. With a torch he could see the remains of a steep wooden staircase, leading down. It only took one trip to the local D.I.Y. store to buy a small ladder which James put down into the darkness. Once at the bottom of the hole he had found the tunnel. Just over five foot in height he crouched as he made his way along. He loved a good adventure and there was something of a childhood excitement about exploring that tunnel. It ended in another wooden staircase, leading upwards this time, and in slightly better condition than the one he had first found. Standing straight and carefully climbing the first couple of rungs he was able to see a wooden panel off to his right. Knocking on it had proven that there was an empty space here too. Not trusting the other steps of the staircase James climbed using the walls instead onto a small ledge, a space behind the wooden panel. Using his torch he could see a mechanism, one that had long jammed. But through a small hole in the panel before him he could see the outline of the vestment closet in the vestry of St. Joseph’s. He had found the priest hole.
It took Fr. James a few days off to re-establish the stairs on either end of the tunnel. He hadn’t known why he was doing it, maybe an old army adage of always having a back-up plan. He thought it was mainly to keep himself busy. He couldn’t think of why he’d need an escape route out of church. Maybe an over excited meeting of the Mothers’ Union or a particularly boring sermon by a visiting preacher. He could nip out through the tunnel, watch a bit of TV and then get back into church without anyone knowing he’d been gone. The thought made him smile but he’d worked hard at the tunnel. Working out how the release mechanism had worked had taken some time too but in the end James had figured it out and with some new oil on old hinges the panel in the vestry would swing silently just as it had several centuries before. All he needed to do was to twist the corner section of the moulding above the panel and the secret door would swing silently into the vestry. Once inside, and crouched on the ledge, James could swing the panel back and it clicked into place. With a torch and batteries that he regularly replaced he could make his way down the tunnel and up, into the now full cleaning cupboard at the vicarage. As long as no-one was using the downstairs facilities there was no way of anyone else knowing about this four hundred year old secret passageway.
It was about once a month that James checked on everything to do with the priest hole. It didn’t take much to lock the toilet door and then quickly enter the tunnel, walking crouched the one hundred meters or so to the bottom of the church staircase, climbing the seven steps up and pulling the mechanism down to unlock the panel. He usually just swung it open a little, closed it again and then retraced his steps back to the vicarage to then continue his day.
On the same day that Fr. James checked on his tunnel Janko and his driver got to the port of Calais. None to quickly either. It had been a difficult journey, not least because Nikola insisted on stopping at almost every truck stop for a small bite to eat or to relieve himself at the roadside at regular intervals. The nights had been worse. Janko was made to sleep in his seat, which wasn’t too uncomfortable in itself but the noises coming from the crib at the back of the cab, a veritable cacophony of noises, and smell, that sleep was impossible for anything more than a few snatched minutes. Janko had taken to staying in the cab during the refuelling stops Nikola made in order to catch half an hour of sleep before the roar of the truck starting and the lurch of movement brought him back to the reality of the never speaking, scrunch-eyed, eyebrow laden face of Nikola that Janko had come to dispise.
Now they were nearly there. Stopping some fifteen miles outside Calais Nikola instructed Janko into the crib; moving the bedding off to the side Nikola slid open a compartment which was half filled with his laundry and ordered Janko inside. There were a few moments of hesitation as Janko realised what the next stage of the trip would be like. Cocooned in sweaty socks and underwear and in a small, dark compartment – airless and pungent, beneath the mattress from which direction all the night-time noises had emanated. Unable to sense the passing of time or distance and then there was the added joy that the majority of this section of the journey would also be done in the rolling belly of a ferry ship. Yet this was the only way to get to Jim Pooley. The only way his hatred could be unleashed and so, taking a deep breath of good air and promising himself that this would all be worth it he crawled into the pit of sweat, cotton and stains.
Nikola replaced the lid of the compartment after covering Janko with more foul clothing, putting the bedding on top and closing the curtain separating the crib from the rest of the cab. Janko’s world lurched suddenly and a sock, he hoped, rolled across his mouth. Struggling to work his right arm up from beside his body he managed to brush the offending material away from his face and then used his hand to push more of a space near his head. In doing all of this he couldn’t see his hand – he knew it was just centimetres in front of his face but the darkness was complete.
It wasn’t long before his mind started to play tricks on him. The temperature in his hell hole was rising and before long Janko own sweat mingled with that on the clothing around him. The stench assaulted his nostrils as his eyes and ears fought to claim some sensory input but the darkness was total and all sounds muffled. The only thing Janko could hear was the vibration of the engine of the truck. Everything else was the touch of another man’s dirty clothes and the smell they produced.
On arrival at the ferry port the rear of the truck was thoroughly searched for anyone that might have tried the risky task of jumping aboard, or beneath, the trailer and it’s cargo. Nikola said that the customs officials had climbed into the passenger side of the cab and made a quick inspection of the crib but the mess of well slept in bedding and their lack of enthusiasm meant that the search for potential illegals concentrated towards the rear of their transport.
Of course Janko knew nothing of this at the time. All he knew was that the engine finally stopped which cut off any auditory stimulation; making his sense of smell even more acute, and unwanted, whilst he sweated and waited. Imagining, almost wanting to see, a glimmer of light as the bedding and compartment cover were removed and strong hands reached down into the rot and darkness to grab him. But that didn’t happen. The time simply stretched in darkness, and smell. Occasionally Janko heard metallic noises as the rear doors of the trailer were firmly slammed shut or as custom officers crawled beneath the trailer and tapped areas with their batons but none of the noises came close to the fetid womb in which he hid and finally, with another stomach turning lurch, Nikola was given permission to move the vehicle forward and prepare for embarkation.
Janko heard the sound change as the wheels of the truck hit the metal floor of the ferry, he knew then that he was almost there, and yet the bit of the journey he feared most was before him. He hoped that the crossing would be smooth yet The Channel in September is not known as a millpond. He waited for the slam of a door that indicated Nikola was off to another deck, probably to find the cafe and chow down some more grease and indeterminate meat product. More fuel for the inevitable slumber land serenade that Janko hoped would be his last tonight.
Once he knew he was alone Janko began to wriggle. Trying inch by inch to turn over. He wasn’t convinced that during the channel crossing in the environment he found himself in he would be able to convince the contents of his stomach to remain where they were and the last thing he wanted was to be covered in his own vomit as well as what he was currently surrounded by. As a close second he also wasn’t looking forward to confronting Nikola with the news that he had added his own awful ingredient to the concoction of the compartment beneath his bed. This was going to be a tough fight but one Janko was going to give his all, and still prepare for the worse.
In the end if wasn’t the rolling of the ferry that caused Janko trouble. In fact he’d found the movement soporific and for at least part of the crossing he had drifted between wakefulness and light sleep. It was once the ferry was docked that he had major nausea problems. Nikola returned from wherever he had spent the hour or so and, as soon as he was back in the cab, started the trucks engine. The diesel fumes of this, and every other waiting truck on the deck, seeped into Janko’s hiding place and this was almost the last straw. His head swam with half sleep and his working sense of smell was almost overwhelmed. He fought his inner reflexes and willed time to move faster, to move so that the deck could be cleared and something like fresh air return to his lungs. When the familiar lurch forward told him of movement he knew the fight was almost over; he only had to wait now until Nikola found a spot far enough from the port to not arouse suspicion. An age later the truck stopped, Janko waited, still face down, until he was punched in the back by Nikola. Then he moved, emerging like an Egyptian pharaoh from his mummification of damp wrappings. Trailing socks, t-shirts and underwear he spilled from the passenger side of the truck; almost into the centre of the road. Realising that Britain drives on the opposite side of the road to the rest of Europe Janko stumbled around the front of the truck to find the verge of the road. It was there that he knelt and gave up the battle he had fought for over two hours. Inhaling large lung fulls of clean air whilst depositing his last meal on the roadside.
A few minutes later Janko was feeling better but Nikola insisted on waiting for ten more minutes until some colour returned to his face and a little water had been drunk to make sure that Janko wouldn’t be ill in the cab of his truck. He was too weak to argue and besides, the hardest part of the journey was over. He was in England, closer to his enemy than he had been for nearly two decades. He could wait another ten minutes to clear his head. Revenge was coming, it was getting closer – he had waited until now, he could wait a little longer.