The Burning Girls
“It’s an unfortunate situation.”
Bishop John Durkin smiles, benevolently.
I’m pretty sure that Bishop John Durkin does everything benevolently, even taking a shit.
The youngest bishop to preside over the North Notts diocese, he’s a skilled orator, author of several acclaimed theological papers and, if he hadn’t at least tried to walk on water, I’d be amazed.
He’s also a wanker.
I know it. His colleagues know it. His staff know it. Secretly, I think, even he knows it.
Unfortunately, no one is going to call him on it. Certainly not me. Not today. Not while he holds my job, my home and my future in his smooth, manicured hands.
“Something like this can shake the faith of the community,” he continues.
“They’re not shaken. They’re angry and sad. But I won’t let this ruin everything we’ve achieved. I won’t leave people now when they need me the most.”
“But do they? Attendance is down. Classes canceled. I heard that the children’s groups may move to another church.”
“Crime scene tape and police officers will do that. This is not a community that has any love for the police.”
“I understand that—”
No, he doesn’t. The closest Durkin gets to the inner city is when his driver takes a wrong turn on the way to his private gym.
“I’m confident it’s only temporary. I can rebuild their trust.”
I don’t add that I need to. I made a mistake and I need to make amends.
“So now you can perform miracles?” Before I can answer or argue, Durkin continues smoothly. “Look, Jack, I know you did what you thought was best, but you got too close.”
I sit back stiffly in my seat, fighting the urge to fold my arms like a sulky teenager. “I thought that was our job. To build close ties with the community.”
“It is our job to uphold the reputation of the Church. These are testing times. Everywhere, churches are failing. Fewer and fewer people are attending. We have an uphill battle even without this negative publicity.”
And that is what Durkin really cares about. The newspapers. PR. The Church doesn’t get good press at the best of times and I’ve really screwed things up. By trying to save a little girl and, instead, condemning her.
“So, what? You want me to resign?”
“Not at all. It would be a shame for someone of your caliber to leave.” He steeples his hands together. He really does that. “And it would look bad. An admission of guilt. We have to give careful consideration to what we do next.”
I’m sure. Especially considering my appointment here was his idea. I’m his prize show-dog. And I had been performing well, turning the once-derelict inner-city church back into a hub of the community.
“So, what do you suggest?”
“A transfer. Somewhere less high profile for a while. A small church in Sussex has suddenly found itself without a priest. Chapel Croft. While they nominate a replacement, they need an interim vicar.”
I stare at him, feeling the earth shift beneath my feet.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not possible. My daughter is taking her GCSEs next year. I can’t just move her to the other end of the country.”
“I’ve already agreed to the transfer with Bishop Gordon at the Weldon diocese.”
“You’ve what? How? Has the post been advertised? Surely there must be a more suitable local candidate—”
He waves a hand dismissively. “We were chatting. Your name came up. He mentioned the vacancy. Serendipity.”
And Durkin can pull more strings than frigging Geppetto.
“Try and look on the bright side,” he says. “It’s a beautiful part of the country. Fresh air, fields. A small, safe community. It could be good for you and Flo.”
“I think I know what’s best for me and my daughter. The answer is no.”
“Then let me be blunt, Jack.” His eyes meet mine. “This is not a f***ing request.”
There’s a reason why Durkin is the youngest bishop to preside over the diocese and it has nothing to do with his benevolence.
I clench my fists in my lap. “Understood.”
“Excellent. You start next week. Pack your wellies.”
“I know, but—” Flo shakes her head. “What a shithole.”
She’s not wrong. I pull the car to a halt and stare up at our new home. Well, our spiritual home. Our actual home is next door: a small cottage that would be quite pretty if not for its alarming off-kilter bearing, which makes it look like it’s trying to slope away, quietly, brick by brick.
The chapel itself is small, square and a dirty off-white. It doesn’t look much like a place of worship. There’s no high-pitched roof, cross or stained glass. Four plain windows face the front: two up, two down. Between the two upper windows is a clock. Florid writing around it proclaims:
“Redeem the Time, for the Days are Evil.”
Nice. Unfortunately, the “e” has worn off the end of “time,” so it actually reads, “Redeem the Tim,” whoever he is.
I climb out of the car. The muggy air immediately shrink-wraps my clothes to my skin. All around us, there’s nothing but fields. The village itself consists of about two dozen houses, a pub, general shop and village hall. The only sounds are birdsong and the occasional buzzing bee. It sets me on edge.
“Okay,” I say, trying to sound positive, and not full of dread, like I feel. “Let’s go and take a look inside.”
“Aren’t we going to look at where we’re going to live?” Flo asks.
“First the house of God. Then the house of his children.”
She rolls her eyes. Communicating that I’m impossibly stupid and tiresome. Teenagers can communicate a lot with eye rolls. Which is just as well, seeing as oral communication hits something of a brick wall once they turn fifteen.
“Besides,” I say, “our furniture is still stuck in traffic on the M25. At least the chapel has pews.”
She slams the car door and slouches along grumpily behind me. I glance at her: dark hair, cropped into a ragged bob, nose ring (hard fought for and taken out for school), and a hefty Nikon camera slung almost permanently around her neck. I often think my daughter would be a dead ringer for Winona Ryder’s role in a remake of Beetlejuice.
A long path leads up to the chapel from the road. A battered metal mailbox stands just outside the gate. I’ve been told, if no one is here when we arrive, that this is where I will find the keys. I flip up the lid, stick my hand inside, and . . . bingo. I pull out two worn silver keys, which must be for the cottage, and a heavy iron thing that looks like it should open something from a Tolkien fantasy. I presume this is the key to the chapel.
“Well, at least we can get in,” I say.
“Yay,” Flo deadpans.
I ignore her and push open the gate. The path is steep and uneven. Either side, tilting headstones rise up from the overgrown grass. A taller monument stands to the left. A bleak grey obelisk. What look like bunches of dead flowers have been left at its base. On closer inspection, they’re not dead flowers. They’re tiny twig dolls.
“What are those?” Flo asks, peering at them and reaching for her camera.
Automatically, I reply, “Burning Girls.”
She crouches down to snap some shots with her Nikon.
“They’re something of a village tradition,” I say. “I read about it online. People make them to commemorate the Sussex Martyrs.”
“Villagers who were burned to death during Queen Mary’s purge of the Protestants. Two young girls were killed outside this chapel.”
She stands, pulling a face. “And people make creepy twig dolls to remember them?”
“And on the anniversary of the purge, they burn them.”
“That is way too Blair Witch.”
“That’s the countryside for you.” I give the twig dolls a final contemptuous glance as I walk past. “Full of ‘quaint’ traditions.”
Flo pulls out her phone and takes a couple more pictures, presumably to share with her friends back in Nottingham—Look at what the crazy yokels do—and then follows me.
We reach the chapel door and I stick the iron key into the lock. It’s a bit stiff and I have to push down hard to get it to turn. The door creaks open. Properly creaks, like a sound effect in a horror movie. I shove it open wider.