‘I think I should get straight to the point,’ she said. ‘I would like you to enclose me in a room in the Church, so I can worship Christ in the right way for me. If you refuse, I must find my own cell. That would be a dangerous undertaking for someone like me. Obviously.’
Her left arm ended at the elbow, but he wasn’t sure if that’s what she meant by ‘someone like me’. They were in the vestry at the back of the church. His first week at St Mary’s had been unremarkable until she had asked to speak to him after Sunday service. She had waited patiently on the back row of pews while the church emptied.
‘Where did you read about this?’
She smiled at his question. She had read accounts of the lives of hermits and anchorites in England in the library. She would have come to the same decision without her reading. The Lord would have sent her on her mission regardless.
There was no doubt in his mind that she was serious. His white collar felt tight around his neck. He asked if she wanted a cup of tea. There was a kettle in the room.
‘Are you taking me seriously?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I just thought you might like a cup of tea.’
He walked to the sink below the window and poured water into the metal kettle.
She spoke above the noise of the kettle boiling. ‘I will leave right now if you are making fun of me. I have already thought of a place to do it, if you refuse to help me, but I would like to be enclosed within the church, or the immediate vicinity, for obvious reasons.’ She paused. ‘No milk. And keep the bag in, please.’
He handed her the mug of tea, and thought about asking where she planned to do it.
‘That’s an unusual way of taking it,’ he said. ‘Your tea.’ They sat in the comfy corner of the room. She sat in the armchair, while he perched on a wooden chair. The room reminded him of a school staffroom. The mugs had been left by a long list of predecessors, and there were pastoral pictures hanging in ugly frames on the wall, accompanied by health and safety posters. The room really belonged to no one.
She took a sip from the Preston North End mug. Abigail held her head high. She inhaled deeply through her nostrils.
‘Do you believe in God?’
‘Yes,’ he said, not rising to her provocation. ‘Have you told anyone else about your plans? Wouldn’t your parents or friends be upset?’
She stood. ‘If you aren’t going to help me, then I’ll leave. I can work it out.’ She walked out of the room. He watched her march down the aisle and out of view. He heard the church door open and slam shut.
That was the last anyone saw of Abigail for ten years, until she emerged from her cell of her own volition, and returned to her parents’ semi-detached house in town.
He switched on the news at ten and recognised her immediately. Her face was sallow. Someone had filmed Abigail on their phone. In the video, which was shown on the news that night, Abigail was captured walking into the information centre at Beacon Fell. She wore a threadbare shirt. Her skinny jeans were baggy. Her stump was raw. Her emaciated body was scratched all over. It was a miracle she stood on her own two feet. The video ended when she finally fell to the floor. The news explained that she had been taken to hospital.
‘She remains,’ the anchor said gravely, ‘in a critical condition.’ He felt a cold sweat on his forehead. ‘Are you alright?’ Honour asked.
‘I know her,’ he said, struggling to speak.
He described to Honour, as best he could, his meeting with the girl ten years ago in the room at the back of the church. Honour led him to their bedroom upstairs. There was a tree which brushed the window during windy nights. Honour fell asleep, but he was kept awake by the sound of the wind and the gentle tapping of branches against the pane. In the morning, he turned on the television to see if there was news about Abigail. The item on Abigail was the third headline. He couldn’t imagine there being more important news, but apparently there was. There was a reporter outside the hospital, but no footage of her. A strange thought hit him, as he turned off the television. She must have been helped in some way if she really had enclosed herself in a hole for ten years. He felt a sudden pang of envy for Abigail’s helper.
They must have had a close relationship, like the anchorite and her maid, and he wished he recognised that intimacy. It could have been him. She had practically asked him.
He took himself for a walk that afternoon without Honour. She had her lessons to plan anyway. He walked into town and sat in the KFC. The tree outside his bedroom window was an unhappy, urban tree planted in the drab garden at St Mary’s, a stone’s throw from the town centre. He trudged back home after his meal. He walked through the park. He had never been to Beacon Fell. He Googled it after his walk. Honour was reading her book in the window seat. He pulled up every image he could find of the vast countryside. He imagined an underground bunker somewhere in Beacon Fell. He Googled how long it would take him to drive to the place. Only twenty-six minutes. He could be there in twenty-six minutes. But he had work to do. How could he explain it to Honour? It was a ridiculous idea. ‘Do you want a biscuit?’
‘What’ve we got?’ he asked.
‘Chocolate digestives, I think,’ Honour said from her window seat.
‘Is that it, no Hobnobs?’
Honour rose from her seat and went to the kitchen to investigate the biscuit situation. She returned to her seat and her book a moment later with half a packet of chocolate digestives and a glass of milk.
‘I think this is a three-biscuit book,’ she said, dunking her first digestive into the milk. ‘I don’t know why they’ve added it. How am I going to explain this to my year sevens?’
‘That’s why they pay you the big bucks,’ he replied, pleased that Honour was providing a distraction from his own problems.
‘Come on,’ he said, rising from his seat and joining her at the window. ‘It’s only a hundred pages.’
‘How about I poked you in the eye a hundred times?’
He put his two hands against her face and kissed her fully on the lips. He didn’t want to let go of her cheeks. They were methodically moisturised each morning with Dove cream. As they kissed, the smell of it invaded his nostrils.
One day he might drive there, when he found an opportune moment, and it would only take twenty-six minutes. He had no idea what he would do when he arrived.
By Tuesday, Abigail’s story was the last headline. He worried that by Wednesday she would not be featured on the news at all.
On Monday, they had sent a roving correspondent to Beacon Fell to interview the spotty teenager who had been working in the information centre when Abigail appeared. ‘She was like a skeleton. It was really scary.’ The roving reporter ended the link somewhere in the forest.
They were searching for Abigail’s cell. She had managed to mutter the words, ‘anchoress,’ or something similar at her hospital bedside, and there was a religious man on the news giving a brief explanation of anchoritism to the news anchor via Skype. He had not positioned his laptop well, and his webcam revealed a double chin and a few unattractive blemishes. This seemed to count against the religious man. He thought his unattractiveness undermined the story. Why had the BBC contacted this bumbling priest? They should have got someone better, he thought, turning off the television. Abigail should be taken seriously. On Twitter, she had the privilege of her own hashtag. But this only lasted for a day. Abigail had spent a decade in her cell, devoting all her time to prayer, but she was dropped by Twitter in an instant.
He went to bed.
Honour was asleep. Her year sevens had not taken to the book. She had endured ‘a hell of a day.’ He didn’t mind it when she said ‘hell’, or any amount of swear words. He had pulled her up about it once before. ‘Look,’ she’d said, ‘if you did my job, you’d swear too. We can’t all be saints.’
‘No milk, thank you,’ she said. Her voice was raspy. It had a deformed quality. They sat a meter apart, but it sounded like she was speaking from another plane. It seemed strange that she had any understanding of milk, considering the past ten years. He had finally convinced her to sit with him. He asked why she was there.
‘It’s my church,’ she explained. ‘I’ve nowhere else to go.’ Despite the raspy quality to her voice, she spoke with the same authority. He fixed her. Her cheeks were sunken dramatically. The pigment of her face, he thought, had changed permanently. She will be marked for the remainder of her life.
‘When did you leave the hospital?’
‘Thursday,’ she said.
It was a struggle for her to speak. She took a sip from the Preston North End mug. It took all her energy to stay composed. She twitched. She wetted her lips before speaking. He was keen to hear what she had to say. He had noticed her halfway through his sermon, and the remainder of the service was askew as a result. He was glad when she stayed in her seat, on the back row of pews, after the service, as the rest of the congregation slipped out of the church. Some members of the congregation had noticed her. She was a minor celebrity.
‘I failed then,’ she said, ‘but don’t rub it in.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m here. I should be back there,’ she explained, referring, he supposed, to her departure from her cell.
‘I feel nothing but sympathy for you, Abigail.’
She twitched as he said her name.
‘I did speak to Her though,’ Abigail went on. ‘The point is, if I succeeded in any respect,’ she paused to wet her lips, ‘it was this. I spoke to Her. There is no doubt,’ she said, putting her mug down, leaning forward in the armchair, looking him directly in the eye, ‘that He is, in fact, a Her. That was my revelation. I know people have talked about it before,’ she said deliberately, ‘but I know it to be true. She sounded so sweet. Like honey.’
He kissed Honour on her cheek and told her to have a good day. ‘I won’t let the little shits get me down,’ she said, as she ruffled his hair. She smiled. Honour walked out of the house and began her short journey to the local secondary school.
He shut the front door.
Upstairs, he opened his wardrobe and searched for insulated clothing. He pulled out a woolly jumper, a present Honour had bought for him in the Lakes last year, and another jumper he’d bought on sale at Dobbies. He slid his arms through the holes of the first jumper and thought it fit nicely over his chest.
Twenty-six minutes later, he was where he needed to be. Abigail had only hinted at the location of her cell, but he had the rest of his life to find it.
Kieran Wyatt graduated from Edge Hill University in 2018 with first class honours in Creative Writing (BA). Since then, he has trained as a TEFL teacher, and he recently started teaching English online to children in China.