The next morning began as badly as the previous day. I awoke from a fitful sleep in the grey zone before dawn — my back aching from the lumpy mattress that most likely endured countless couplings and still no nearer to resolving my immediate plight. Had that bugger Berko been more helpful, I wouldn’t be stranded in this flea pit fending off the advances of an old maid.
It would be nearly midnight in London, but I hoped my financial saviour was still awake. It had to be Mary; her number was the only one still etched in my mind. As soon as she recognised my voice, she garbled.
‘Oh, Charles, do you know what happened to Jane? Isn’t it terrible? I tried to call Delcie, but there’s no answer.’
‘Hold on, old girl,’ I said. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Don’t you know? I thought that’s why you called.’
I had about two minutes credit left. ‘Call me back,’ I said. ‘It’s important.’
My Nokia buzzed — low-battery warning.
I waited twelve restless minutes watching my Nokia exhaust its battery before Mary phoned back. Before she could say anything more than Charles, I jumped straight in.
‘Where have you been? I said it was urgent.’
‘You said it was “important”.’
I felt like strangling the bitch. ‘Urgent, Important — for God’s sake, listen to me…’
I was talking to a dead phone.
I kicked my bag into touch with a well-placed punt. In my younger days it was a real crowd pleaser. But now it resulted in a throbbing foot. I hobbled into the washing area frustrated by Mary’s incoherent babbling about her daughter. If I was going to sort her out — and my life — I needed to get my Nokia recharged before I went crazy.
My mind now made up, I washed, dressed, and went in search of Emily. Would she be cooking me breakfast? No. No kitchen smells. No clatter of dishes. No Emily. Perhaps she’d gone to market or...?
The sound of church bells pealing outside the house told me she’d be at morning Mass, which gave me an idea. Churchgoers had phones, had chargers — I would rely on someone’s Christian spirit to help me.
Maybe Hannah would be there.
The front door was closed, but unlocked, and I left it that way before easing along the stone path towards St. Michael’s with my dead Nokia in hand. A dampness in the air, a fine coating of dew not evaporated by the rising sun, and I watched my step — a broken leg or worse would have been the last straw.
Father Angelo, dwarfed by the imposing front door, stood on the top step at the church’s entrance, arms milling as he greeted his flock. Men, women, and children, all in good spirits which augured well for me. I picked my way across the cobbled pathway and climbed the four steps to meet him.
‘Mr. Charles,’ he said. ‘Emily is inside. So is Mr. Berko. You are welcome to join us today.’
‘As it happens,’ I said, ‘I was hoping...’
He held up a hand. ‘After Mass we can talk.’ He turned and beckoned to me, with a cheeky grin on his rosy face. ‘Take a pew,’ he said.
Oh God, not another delay. Worse than British Rail.
Inside, I nodded a polite greeting and sat next to a backpacker couple rather than seek out Emily, or put up with Berko jerking my chain. My mind drifted while the sermon droned on. I gazed at stone pillars stretching up to the rafters, light filtering through stained-glass windows, but there was a sense of space and coolness not dissimilar to England’s rural churches.
I missed England; particularly Sunday mornings when I rode my stallion across the Downs before tethering up at the Blacksmiths Arms for a tankard or two of Watney’s Best — and a light lunch with a friendly filly afterwards.
This Sunday morning didn’t quite match my younger memories, but much to my relief, the sermon was succinct and we didn’t sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. When the organist — a polished practitioner in the Les Dawson mould — hit a few wrong notes, the backpackers gave me wide grins.
I smiled back.
Afterwards, and outside, I asked the couple if they had a charger for my Nokia — more in hope than expectation. The girl smiled, delved into her backpack, and extracted one. She handed it to me.
‘Take it, mate. It’s a spare.’
The guy explained in a broad accent. ‘My Sheila bought a new mobes in Jakarta — lot cheaper than in dear old Oz.’
I expected a seagull to launch another dollop of shit on my head because at that moment her reject was priceless. I thanked them in the time-honoured way.
‘I couldn’t possibly…’
I tried not to flinch when the guy put a hairy arm on my shoulder. ‘She’ll be apples. She’s sweet. Anyway, gives her more room for my tinnies.’
I nodded as if I had any clue what he was talking about.
The girl punched the guy on the other arm. ‘Jake, it’s fine with me,’ she said, ‘but you pack your own beer, you hear me?’
With that they saddled up their backpacks and waved goodbye. I watched them walk along the path to Lake Toba; my spirits lifted by their conviviality, but I still had no money. With any luck I could persuade Father Angelo to donate a contribution from the collection tray. While I waited for the last few stragglers exiting the church, I dawdled on the steps, hoping to catch a glimpse of Hannah, but it came to nothing.
A swish of silk — I sensed a presence behind me — and Father Angelo was at my side, holding a large metal key.
‘Perhaps you would like to take refreshments with us,’ he said. ‘Emily is in the annex kitchen — so is Mr. Berko.’
My empty stomach lurched at the thought of tea and toast, and I nodded at him while he swung the door shut and locked it.
He sighed as he slipped the key into a large pocket. ‘Once upon a time all my flock needed was spiritual guidance. Now it’s possessions. The artefacts inside the church are fair game — it’s a sign of the times.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ I said. ‘I’ve never been one for materialism.’
He lifted an eyebrow. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘the annex is round the back by my humble abode.’
As we walked along the path, he explained that Berko had been a troubled man. Ghosts haunted the beach at Calang where he worked — it became unnerving. That was one reason Christian Mission set up a base by Lake Toba amongst our community.
‘I’ve helped him exorcise the spirits in his head. It may be enough.’ He paused. ‘And you, Mr. Charles. What do you want?’
His direct manner unnerved me for a moment. I needed to deflect his way of thinking. Hannah’s image swung into my mind. A chink of light appeared; an opening to get myself out of my mess.
‘I have a proposition for you,’ I said.