Read Crusaders Online

Authors: Richard T. Kelly

Crusaders (3 page)

No, he thought, setting down the notebook. Not easy, by no
means. Easy to
say
, for sure. Easy to say ‘You must love’. Easier still to say ‘But it’s not easy’. All talk came easily. Anything worth doing was onerous. ‘He that will eat the kernel must first crack the nut.’ The point was to do it. Also to succeed in it? Gore was unhappily conscious that for large swathes of his life he had sat on plastic chairs in small aggrieved groups, listening to just this kind of pained debate – from Labour Party branch meetings to parish church councils and back again.

As for his sermon – no doubt it needed work, but he sensed it would repay the effort.

*

Oh river city, industrial seat, Victorian marvel of Newcastle …

If no one else in the carriage seemed greatly fussed, still Gore felt a fond sentiment kindling in his chest as their train trundled onto the King Edward Bridge across the River Tyne. The sky
outside
was overcast but daubed with patches of serene blue, a pale sun straining to burn through tufted clouds. He craned his neck in search of the best vantage from the window. To his right,
stalwartly
arrayed down the river’s gentle bend, were four other crossings – their fulcrum the great radial green steel arch of the Tyne Bridge, a sight that filled Gore with boyish delight.

The general view he considered only a little tarnished by the faceless candy-coloured uniformity of offices and apartment blocks that seemed to have sprouted in clusters down the
riverside
toward the Crown Court – itself a blank, brute mica-pillared parody of classical form. Long gone were the derricks and trolleys and giant cranes, the colossal black trappings of heavy industry that formed the river landscape in picture-books Gore had pored over as a boy. But the banks of Gateshead now behind them were like one big building site – mounds of tilled earth, lying in wait for some forthcoming venture of labour and capital.

The train swung right toward Central Station, a shed of iron and glass looming up ahead, and then they were trundling under its high arched portico. Gore was quick on his feet and to the
luggage
rack, taking up his chattels and disembarking into the
hubbub
of the afternoon, shafts of sky-light falling on the tiled
concourse
, its burger shacks, sports bars and ticket hutches. He had not to go far before sighting his promised welcome party: it could only be Mr Jack Ridley holding up a white card with carefully etched letters in black felt-tip, ‘
REV. JOHN GORE’
. Ridley stood stock-still amid the bustling commuters, as if he had been rooted there dourly for years while the old Victorian station was slowly remodelled around his ears. A stocky man of medium height, probably in his late fifties, he wore corduroy trousers and Hush Puppies, an olive-green car-coat and a flat cap, some scant reddish hair curling out from under it. Though there was an affable aspect to his squashed nose and chubby cheeks, he was unsmiling, and something in his even, assessing gaze was flint-like – if not
obsidian
– as Gore drew near.

‘Jack? I’m John.’

Gore’s glad hand received a cursory clasp. ‘How do then, Reverend.’

‘You’ll call me John, I hope.’

‘Shall we’s gan? I’m parked a canny way off.’

Ridley had wrested one of Gore’s bags from his hand, wheeled and set off before Gore could quarrel. Indeed he sensed already that there would be little arguing with this man – either that, or a great deal.

*

‘How long have you been active in the parish, Jack?’

Ridley, now in bifocals, was peering through his windshield with displeasure at a lady motorist reluctant to nose out onto the roundabout. ‘Helpin’ out, you mean? Whey, since we started
gannin
’ to St Mark’s up in Fenham, me and the wife – before I was retired, even. Before the new vicar started and all. I’ll always help, but, where I can. If I’m asked to. I’m still at it, any road.’

Ridley refocused his riled attention on the traffic. Gore took a moment to decide where he might start decoding. ‘The new vicar being Bob Spikings? My mentor-to-be?’

‘Aw aye. He’s alright, is Spikings. Not the worst.’

‘And you’re not working any more yourself?’

‘Oh I’ve never stopped
workin
’, me. No fear. They laid us off, but, back in – must have been nineteen-eighty-six? When they shut down the County Council, y’knaa? Tyne and Wear. On the orders of bloody
Thatcher
.’

This last was virtually expectorated. Gore weighed his options before opening the next front. ‘What kind of work did you do for the Council?’

‘What I’ve always done. “Technical services” they called it. I’d been a carpenter and joiner, had me certificate in electrics. So if they’d problems in the housing I’d gan out and fix ’em. If they
could
be fixed, mind you, cos you’d see some bloody shambolic things, I can tell you.’

‘And so – you’re working freelance now, is that it?’

‘“Freelance”?’ The scowl endured. ‘I s’pose. I’d a tool shop for a bit, but I got sick to the back teeth of little buggers breaking in.
I
wasn’t making any money but the locksmith and the glazier got a wad out of us.’ He gave his car horn a testy smack. ‘And even then, y’knaa, I’d get neighbours coming round, some problem they’d want looking at. And what with me at the church so
regular
, I’d only be having me bit tea and biscuits after the service and Spikings’d bring owa some owld biddy. “Have you met wor Jack? Aw he’ll sort you out …”’

Gore was not at all certain he would have actively sought the help of such a dyspeptic individual as this man seemed. Not that he was the type who would take a penny in return, that much was clear. Nevertheless, Gore did somehow suspect that for any favour Jack Ridley might grant, one would never quite stop
paying
.

‘Well, I want you to know, Jack, I couldn’t be more grateful to you. For agreeing to help me out like you’re doing, with the
starting
up and so on.’

‘Never you mind, son,’ Ridley grunted. ‘It’ll not amount to much.’

They paused for traffic lights at Marlborough Crescent, Gore peering out at a sprawling construction site bounded by tall wire
fences and boards proclaiming multiple sources of public money. Drizzling rain speckled the windshield. Ridley rummaged in his dashboard and produced a tin of mints which he flipped open with one thumb and offered to his passenger.

‘You’re on your tod, right? Nee wife or bairns?’

‘Thas’ right,’ said Gore, settling a mint on his tongue.

‘Huh. You’re on the young side, I’d say. For the job you’ve got here.’

‘I think,’ Gore ventured, ‘the Church believes that planting is a job best suited to the younger minister. In terms of the physical effort.’

Ridley looked askance. ‘Whey, I wouldn’t have this job of yours for the world. And I’m still in canny nick. Nah.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s nowt to look at, Hoxheath. Oakwell Estate’s not bad, the one where they’ve put you. They wanted to, mind. Some of them holes? Crossman Estate? Dear me
how
. I mean, look at that bliddy great tower block there.’

Gore followed Ridley’s jabbing finger out of the window.
That
– he granted inwardly –
is one fuck-off big high-rise
.

‘There’s folk older than
me
stuck up there. You can’t tell me that’s right.’

Gore had the unhappy sense of being a coerced party to an
argument
. He wished to rebut, but held his tongue. The plain fact was that he had accepted this job with alacrity, yet without requesting a preliminary tour of his catchment area. Newcastle, he had
reasoned
, was where he was from – or near enough, at any rate.

They had broached the west of town. Rain lay in puddles for the dispiriting drive down the main Hoxheath Road – one darkened civic building, a succession of shabby commercial facades,
takeaways
and bookmakers, off-sales and newsagents.
PUB KICKING: LATEST
read a fly-poster on a sandwich board. A bus shelter looked to have been assailed with a sledgehammer. Turning off the main drag, Ridley drove past a gated industrial-heating
factory
, the surrounding grass evenly coated with fast-food litter and leavings. A lone telephone exchange box was adorned with a red-paint graffito:
CRESSA CHOKES ON COCKS
.

Gore turned his gaze back to the road, just in time to see a dark shape weave into view twenty feet shy of the car bonnet.

Ridley’s foot went to the floor, he and Gore lurching forward, Gore’s stomach turning over. Ridley hammered on his steering wheel in anger as a hooded boy, maybe twelve years old,
scampered
back to the safety of the pavement. Gathered there were others of his kind – a pack of them, in identical casual clobber. One cheerily clapped his pal on the back. Ridley thumped his car horn, three sharp blares. The tallest of the boys swivelled and issued a boldly defined middle-finger rebuke.

Moments later, the Fiesta pulled up into a row of parking spaces by a built-up wall and a fenced pathway into the Oakwell Estate. As Ridley locked up and checked each of his doors, Gore
surveyed
the dense cluster of low-rise properties, cheek-by-jowl, identikit in their yellow-brick construction and red-tiled roofs. The system of layout was immediately apparent – the small houses arranged in set squares, criss-crossed by long narrow alleys, orderly as a sheet of graph paper, though the alleys
proposed
a touch of menace. The last of the afternoon sun was a blessing for the moment, but Gore had begun to wonder about the level of lamplight after dark.

*

In silence they stood together in the sitting room, the small sum of Gore’s worldly goods stacked all around them in sealed wooden crates, his bicycle pointlessly wrapped in paper and propped against a radiator in the hallway. A gloss-painted door yawned open onto a narrow fitted kitchen, off-white units crammed
together
in an awkward L-shape. A floor-to-ceiling window looked out onto a patch of enclosed lawn. The place was cold as stone and Gore knew by his nose that it had been recently wiped clean with bleached rags throughout. He traced a semicircle with the tip of his shoe on the carpet, a rough and bristly industrial textile in charcoal.

‘That’ll be black so the fag burns don’t show,’ said Ridley, returning from an inspection of the fuse-box in the hall.

‘Oh, but they do,’ murmured Gore, pointing his toe-cap at a crop of small scorched holes. He climbed the staircase that led
from the sitting room to the upper quarters, and surveyed the cabin-like rooms. A turquoise bathroom with sink and shower tub, mildew leaching into the corners of the splash-back tiles. One decently sized bedroom and two cubbyhole spares, all with
magnolia
walls, Allied carpets and cheap pine-finish furnishings. He drew back a yellow voile curtain and peered out. Ridley was crouched on the lawn below, fingering the stem of a wilting plant. Gore headed downstairs again, keen to discharge the needful goodbyes.

‘My wife,’ said Ridley, unmoving, ‘asked us to ask you if you’d like to have your tea at ours th’ night.’

‘Oh, that’s very generous. I just have a feeling, you know – I’d like to make a start, crack on with things here?’ He gestured around him, not wishing to offend, nor to lose the chance of a break from the steady barometric pressure of Ridley’s company. Ridley, though, took several brooding moments before responding.

‘Aye, well, I see that. You’ve got your work cut out.’

*

In the smallest bedroom he bolted together the panels of his
collapsible
desk, then unwrapped and wiped clean a framed print that he nailed into place above the worktop. The picture was a Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, one that Gore had toted with him from place to place since seminary days. Generally wary of the graven image, he made an exception for Byzantine art. This Jesus was face-front and symmetrical, his forehead long and furrowed, features lean and lips pursed in a blank, unreadable mien. There was just a certain something in the rational,
near-anonymous
execution that rendered the son of God no more exalted than the man in the street.

As he wiped the glass he heard a sharp crack from out of doors, like the report of a starting pistol.
Christ
, was his thought.
Not a gun?
Then came a sizzling sound, airborne.
Okay, a firework. Surely?

From a box file he retrieved a carefully pressed photocopy he had made of his catchment area from an Ordnance Survey section, and he Blu-tacked this to the wall beside Christ.

At just after three o’clock he lifted the telephone receiver, found it functional, and dialled the mobile number he had been given, its sequence still foreign to him. But the call was snapped up on the second ring.

‘Hel-lo?’
Mildly irritable, over background buzz and chatter.

‘Suze. It’s John.’

‘Oh! Hello there, St John. Hang on … God, it’s today, isn’t it? Are you here?’

‘Yep, just got in. Just getting settled.’

‘And how’s your new gaff? Is it really, really awful?’

‘It’s fine, I’ve no complaints.’ Gore was never sure why his
sister
had ever strayed north of Watford again, having made home in London all through her twenties. Yet here she was, a mere few miles from where he sat as the crow might fly.

‘And have you spoken to Dad yet? Have you fixed to go and see him?’

‘I haven’t. Not yet. I will.’

‘Look, you’ve got to see him, John. He’s talking about going back to work again. With electrics and whatnot. And God knows what he could do to himself, the state he’s in.’

‘Suze, we’ve been through this, that’s rubbish.’

‘John, it’s dementia. Or some sort of clinical daftness, I’m telling you. He’s getting nearly as stupid as you.’

Further pleasantries were exchanged, but Gore could taste the usual tartness in their conversation, one that did not conclude with a pledge from either party to pay a call upon the other.

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