Read The Chinese Takeout Online

Authors: Judith Cutler

The Chinese Takeout

The Chinese Takeout

JUDITH CUTLER

For Marion Roberts,
dear friend, fellow writer and inspiration

Thanks to Keith Bassett, David Houston
and Margi Walker for their help:
any mistakes are mine, not theirs.

My boredom threshold is pitifully low. I’ve always regretted it, but then, I am a Gemini. Mine isn’t the sort of boredom that has you staring into the middle-distance sucking the end of your ballpoint or playing endless hours of Patience on your computer when you ought to be doing your accounts. Not usually. It’s the sort that makes you look back on what you’ve just done and realise that, while it might have seemed an achievement at the time, you now feel absolutely flat: fulfilling one ambition just means you have to find another ambition to fulfil.

Father Martin’s sermon was inducing yet another sort of boredom, the sort that enables you to turn off your brain and reflect on what you’d rather be doing, such as work – in my case preparing for the fast-approaching lunchtime and the fully-booked restaurant awaiting me back in Kings Duncombe. But I could tell myself that my staff had everything under control, and so my thoughts turned back to ambition, and to what I’d be doing this time next
year. Where did I see myself? Would I still be the landlady of the White Hart, juggling the needs of local drinkers and the discriminating palates of a choosy restaurant clientele? Although it had once tickled me pink to see (over the door)
Licensee, Josephine Welford
, now it barely moved me. I needed a new venture, and with all my late husband’s ill-gotten fortune still largely untouched, I had enough money to do what I pleased. How would a possible new venture, up here at Abbot’s Duncombe, work out? Would the natives of this hamlet be any friendlier than those at the mother village, where I’d brought hostility upon my head by, amongst other things, usurping others’
flower-arranging
rights?

That was one reason for my starting to come to St Jude’s; the other was a sort of cultural tourism. I’d often seen the church when I was out on one of my long walks – indeed, its position on the top of a hill meant it was something of a landmark – and had wanted to see inside. These days even in the country churches had to be kept locked, so that meant a Sunday call. And since I didn’t have any floral (or other) history with the members of the congregation, it had become my regular church. No one from St Faith and St Lawrence had called into the pub to ask why I’d absconded. I’m not sure if I’d have been entirely frank if they had. You soon learn that in villages certain things are best left unsaid. Since Father Martin operated out of (there’s bound
to be a proper technical term for that) four or five churches, he at least wouldn’t see it as any sort of snub.

I could sneak a look at my watch.

Come on, Josie. Poor Father Martin can’t help being a kid young enough to be your son, with the most active Adam’s apple that’s ever joggled its way through a Church of England service. It’s like a mouse running up a stocking leg. The mole in my herb patch escaping from the Olbas Oil I’ve poured into its hill. A baby ferret in a tiny sack.

Josie! If you listened attentively, you might be able to give the sort of intelligent praise he so obviously needed.

That was how I always sugared the pill of my inevitable criticisms, which he unremittingly sought out. He had a problem, of course, being, like me, an incomer and therefore regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. Grockles were never welcomed with open arms, though their money was so vital to the community. So maybe that was why he chose me as his most unlikely mentor.

Off I was going again. I could barely remember the text that the sermon was related to, pretty shameful considering he’d been speaking a bare ten minutes. Perhaps it was a sign of incipient senility – decidedly premature, of course. They said that ballroom dancing and bingo were some of the best preventatives. Bother those for a game of soldiers. The latter at least. I wouldn’t mind swanning round
an old-fashioned ballroom in the arms of a handsome man. The trouble was, now I could afford the most swish of dresses, I no longer had the figure for it. I’d done my best with WeightWatchers, and had been featured nationally as one of their great successes, but that left me as a slim and svelte
fifty-something
, not a slim and svelte twenty-something with a chance of looking chic in acres of tulle.

Enough!

Perhaps I’d do better to look at the church itself. The solid shell itself was twelfth century, possibly earlier, not cruciform in shape, more like a lower case
t
, the dash on the
t
being a minute lady chapel, no more than three yards by three. With its small windows and huge, solid pillars, it was old enough to inspire, even if the Victorian improvements were not. A subsequent, but not consequent, fire had undone some of the damage and caused a lot more, to be honest. All the pews and the pulpit had gone, and what had once been fine medieval glass had been replaced by uninspired modern stuff, with a few fragments of the original gathered in a central panel in the east window. Both the east and the west windows cried out for some really fine contemporary work, but there hadn’t been enough insurance money. As for the sixteenth-century pews, their replacements were some individual seats, refugees from some defunct Baptist chapel now no doubt a bijou yuppie residence. They had come complete with book-holders screwed to the back.
No human form that I knew would fit them. At least the gaps between the rows were narrow enough to deter kneeling, a mercy to older knees, even though Father Martin was high church enough to have liked us to genuflect and cross ourselves at every opportunity – perhaps in rhythm with his Adam’s apple. There were persistent mutterings about the possibility of bells and smells, largely from a resentful choir.

In St Jude’s, the choir didn’t sit where you would expect them to sit, in the choir, that is, the area between the pulpit and the altar. It was equally correct and much clearer to refer to it as the chancel, anyway. Thanks to a quirk in the acoustics, it wasn’t possible to hear the poor, clapped-out organ once you got beyond the hideous Victorian rood beam, supporting a crucifix the Vatican might have turned down as too garish for the most exuberant Mexican church. So now, before each service, the three men and eleven women constituting the choir processed not up the aisle to the front, but down from our tiny lady chapel on the right of the chancel to the rear.

I usually sat as near them as I could, not least because I couldn’t hold a tune in my head and needed all the support I could get, and some of the singers were more in tune than the organ, which occasionally emitted those bum notes musical types call dominoes. And, of course, I could people-watch unseen.

The rest of the congregation – some sixteen in total – stared, as far as I could see, stolidly in front. Some might have been nodding, if not in agreement, but Father Martin, high in his pulpit, was in the best position to judge. They were mostly so old as to make a fifty-something like me seem youthful, generally farmers or smallholders, plus a few villagers. Occasionally there’d be the excitement of a holidaymaker. Children were invited to special monthly services, with a couple of pop-type hymns everyone was too embarrassed by to try to join in the syncopation. Very few children came a second time, despite, or perhaps because of, Father Martin’s acoustic guitar.

He was clearing his throat, working up to his denouement. No, wrong term. That OU course I’d taken was beginning to wear off and you don’t often use literary jargon in the kitchen. Tony would have been ashamed of me. For an old lag, veteran of no end of jail-terms, he’d had an amazing vocabulary, honed with a daily attack on every newspaper crossword he could lay his hands on in the confines of the prison library. Come on, Tony: what’s the word I’m after? Peroration, that’s it. The climax of his sermon.


Love thy neighbour as thyself
. And I tell you—’

What he had to tell us we never knew. For even as he primed his epiglottis, the church door crashed open and a figure hurtled up the aisle, tripping over the shallow step into the chancel,
and landing, like a rugby player scoring a try, at the foot of the altar.

‘Sanctuary!’ the intruder shouted. ‘Sanctuary!’ Or something close enough.

 

To my amazement – was it the age of the congregation, or the fact that some might well have been asleep? – there was no immediate action. A trendy film-maker would have frozen a succession of frames to show how slow we all were. Father Martin was hampered by his inevitably overlarge cassock and the steepness of the pulpit steps. Anyone else wanting to join his investigation of the still prone figure was hampered by the tight ranks of chairs, handbags, kneelers and other people’s knees. In a row to myself, I was at a distinct advantage, legging it the length of the aisle before some people had properly registered what was going on. I’m not sure what propelled me – my innate nosiness or a belief that a life mixing with violent criminals had qualified me to deal with potential crises. Then the church wardens, who would have liked to exercise authority over the interloper, bustled up, one yelling in the sort of voice a farmer catching scrumpers would use: ‘Hoy! You there! You can’t do that.’

Father Martin – such a mouthful, and much easier to call him Tim, which I did in private – always more wrists, elbows and knees than was convenient, hovered in anguish, not knowing
whether to exhort like his wardens or kneel beside the visitor to comfort him, as I was doing. In vain, I have to say. My gentlest touch was enough to have him trying to burrow under the altar, which as stone was impervious to his efforts.

He was bird thin, with filthy black hair below his shoulders. Until I could see his face I could no more than guess at his origin, but I thought perhaps Chinese or Malaysian. He smelt quite rank – not just in need of a shower, but unpleasant. One or two politer noses were pulled sharply away. For by now he was quite surrounded, and I had a sudden image of how it must seem to him – like a fox surrounded by baying hounds.

‘Call them off, Tim!’ I hissed. ‘Let the poor kid breathe. Hey, what are you doing?’

The church wardens were ready to manhandle him.

He scrabbled to his feet, hand outstretched, the other gripping the altar cloth.

‘No!’ I shouted. ‘Back. He’s got a knife!’ And might be prepared to use it, he was so terrified. Getting to my feet faster than my knees enjoyed, I shooed the others away. And damned soon joined them myself. ‘Everyone – back. And be very quiet.’

A bit of silent prayer might be a good thing, but it was hardly my place to suggest it. So now four of us – Tim Martin, William Corbishley, Geoffrey Malins and I – stood in a loose ring, just as the four
knights must have surrounded Thomas Beckett. The difference was, of course, that in our case the majority were unarmed.

Father Martin, every inch a Father, with no scrap of everyday Tim in evidence, stepped forward and, with a stern smile, held out his hand for the knife. The young man, scarcely more than a boy, brandished it more fiercely, making jabbing movements that could have spelt evisceration to any of us. Three of us made little pacifying gestures. Father Martin didn’t. His right hand, veins in his thin white wrist perilously close to the surface, stayed where it was. Not a shake, not a tremble. His face was calm, compelling. The only sign that he shared our terror was the convulsive yoyo in his neck.

It seemed the church was full of the sound of breathing: the young man’s gasps, Father Martin’s, which tried to be calm and relaxed, but ended with quick jerks, as if the muscles would hold out no longer, my own panting. There were audible sobs from some of the congregation, but I didn’t turn to see whose.

I sensed, rather than saw, Geoffrey Malins muscling up to speak. ‘I say—’

‘Leave it to Tim,’ I said from the corner of my mouth.

‘But he’s no right—’

‘Do as she says,’ Corbishley said, as the blade jagged in his direction again.

Neither of them should have been involved in these heroics. Neither would see seventy again, and while Malins was stringy thin, Corbishley was carrying a couple of stone more than he should, and his cheeks, though pale now, were normally reddish blue, as if neither he nor his doctor had heard of preventing heart disease.

‘Why don’t you two back off and sit down?’ I murmured. ‘Looks less intimidating if you do.’

‘Give in to that oick? Never!’

That augured well, I didn’t think.

Malins added, ‘And leave it to a lady?’

‘All my years in the hospitality industry,’ I said, using the politest term, ‘I’ve had a few knives pulled on me. And Tim’s doing very well.’

One reason the kid might be dithering, adrenaline apart, was the damp creeping up through the tiled floor. As the men backed away, I increased my surrender gesture, then, crossing my hands across my chest, mimed cold. I had his interest. I gestured again: would he like my coat jacket?

Assuming he would, I peeled it slowly and bunched it, ready to lob it to his other hand. Instead, I hurled it at the knife, which clattered across to Tim. Screaming, the kid fell to his knees. Slowly and deliberately Tim kicked the knife away, and bent to pick up my coat jacket. Instead of returning it to me, he passed it to the youth.

I nodded enthusiastically – he should put it on.
Two hundred and fifty quid’s worth of cashmere! Why not?

There was movement at the back of the church, and then hesitant footsteps. I risked a look – after all, the lad had no more of a weapon than my coat. It was one of the choir ladies, painfully arthritic, bearing a cup of tea in her free hand.

‘Plenty more in the pot,’ she announced cheerfully, in a voice surprisingly free of the local Somerset burr. ‘Would you like a cup too, Father Martin?’ She slopped a little as she struggled with the step, but made her way straight to the boy. ‘Go on, love: you try a drop of that.’

‘I think we all would,’ Tim declared, his voice as uncertain in register as if it were only now breaking. ‘And biscuits, if we may.’

There was more movement. At the back of the church, in what was once presumably the vestry, there was a minute kitchen, just large enough for a kettle and tea-urn and a cupboard holding disposable cups and equally plastic teabags and coffee. There was no running water, just a standpipe outside. Father Martin had introduced the idea of a communal drink after the service, the ladies taking it in turns to provide cakes and biscuits, so that people who had made in some cases a considerable effort to get here should be refreshed before they set off home again. It was a nice idea, somewhat undercut by the fact that the church had no lavatory.

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