The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Song for the Missing
The Reverend William Southall was many things in his life; vicar, mourner of two children, deserted husband, world famous expert on cats and worshipper of the devil; well that is what certain members of his congregation claimed, and they should know.
Southall came to his parish in the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign. He was a tall, rather heavy looking man who dwarfed his wife Frances; a slight, blonde woman, who was the daughter of the bursar at Southall’s Oxford College. They had married shortly before Southall took this his first post in the small market town of Wombridge, in Shropshire.
Wombridge was a quiet town which somehow had remained oblivious to its neighbours; the thriving metropolis of Birmingham and the more cosmopolitan county town of Shrewsbury. The inhabitants were devout in their way, even if some of their ideas preceded the arrival of Christianity to Shropshire, and most of the population attended St. Leonard’s Parish church particularly as there was no rival chapel or meeting house that side of Shrewsbury.
Apart from the church, there were a few shops and a doctor, Heath who was unmarried and who seemed bemused that he had ended up in such an out of the way place, but had never left, and as he was in his sixties was unlikely to. Wombridge was surrounded by farms, and Southall spent much of his time walking from one to another to attend the spiritual needs of the farmers, their families and workers.
Southall soon proved to be what the people of Wombridge expected from a vicar; he was clearly clever and not above using Latin terms in his sermons and had an otherworldliness about him, often appearing to be contemplating higher things when seen walking down the high street or through fields. And yet he also had a kindliness about him and the local children flocked to him as if they knew that deep down he was one of them.
There was no surprise that within less than a year Frances had given birth to a son, Henry whom his father dully baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Southall clearly doted on his son; often carrying about with him on his – not very arduous – duties. Like his father, Henry was a healthy specimen and it seemed incredible that he could he come from the thin, frail vessel that was his mother. Two years later another child was born, this time a girl who was called Harriett after Southall’s mother.
Southall seemed even more besotted by his daughter than his son. Some thought it “unmanly” that he seemed to spend so much time with his children, others that it confirmed their vicar’s eccentricity. A couple of the elder parishioners looked with foreboding at the small family as if so much happiness was not meant to be.
“There is too much love, it isn’t the way of things” pronounced Vic Cartwright.
His friend Bert Wallace agreed “His wife should be with the children. He has too much time on his hands. He would be happier out in Shrewsbury or one of these big cities.”
Southall went over to Birmingham for a few days to visit an old friend from college days who had a church in the city, and it was presumably there that he was infected with the measles. Within a couple of days of his return he was running a temperature and very ill. At first Frances attended him but soon Vic Cartwright’s wife, Marjorie, who was the nearest the village had to a nurse, took over. It was incredible how such a vital, strong looking man could be laid so low by this illness. But just as his life was despaired of he slowly began to recover. Eventually he was up in bed and able to eat, which was when Doctor Heath, had to tell him that his children were dead of the illness and that Frances had disappeared.
“It was just last night”, the doctor told him. “I spoke to her and told her you were going to recover, and apparently once I had left she packed and was gone. Don’t worry I am sure we will find her. The poor lady has just lost her wits, and it is hardly surprising. Just concentrate on getting your strength back. She will need you fit and strong for when she gets back.”
In fact the death of his children sent Southall back almost to death’s door.
“It is almost as if he is willing himself to death,” said Marjorie to the doctor. “He was so wrapped up in those children. And with Frances gone…...”
And Frances was gone; she had been seen going towards Birmingham, but that was all. No letter arrived from her, and when the doctor wrote to her family in Oxford they professed ignorance of her whereabouts.
Eventually Southall did recover and he even began to be a vicar to his neglected parishioners. He looked frailer as he stood in the pulpit one Sunday in June, and his congregation struggled to hear his words. But he was able to finish his sermon, although his eyes kept wandering to where his family had been wont to sit as if trying to conjure them up once again.
The following day Southall disappeared and was away for a fortnight. He told nobody where he was going or why, but it soon became known, nonetheless, that he had gone to Shrewsbury and from thence to Birmingham. Doctor Heath imagined him walking the streets of that city, searching for his lost wife. Every so often catching sight of someone who looked like her and following them only to be disappointed. He wondered if he would ever come back.
He did return in the end. Lights could be seen in the vicarage, and he was there on Sunday at church looking even more haggard than usual. Nobody ever found out what he had done in Birmingham, not even Doctor Heath. Southall had never been particularly close to the doctor even though he was the only man who approached him in intellect, he was so taken up with his family and church duties. But now he often popped round to the surgery in the evenings when it was quiet and they shared a drink. Southall would barely utter a word, but he clearly appreciated the company.
Then, out of the blue, Mrs Lydiatt arrived at the vicarage one Wednesday evening. A large lady with a strong Birmingham accent, she was Southall’s housekeeper. The next morning she was at the local shops buying food and other necessities.
“He needs feeding up that man,” she told the various shopkeepers. “He has let himself go. Well I am here to look after him now.”
And look after him she did; if anybody wanted to see the vicar they had to go through her, and she had to deem it important enough to waste the vicar’s time. She could be strong and direct with those she thought feckless or indolent.
Southall benefitted from the benign dictatorship of Mrs Lydiatt. She made sure that he got up in the morning and looked neat, and told him where he had to go and who he had to see. And when he felt lonesome at night she joined him between the covers, but always made sure that she was back in her own room before day dawned. She was attractive in a mature, confident way and knew what she was doing in and out of bed.
Southall made his way to the church one Friday evening. It was an old building, dating from the late medieval period, although its antiquity was the only interesting thing about it. He knelt at the altar and prayed; for his children, for the return of Frances who had left him when he needed her most and for an end to the emptiness in his soul. He cried out to the Lord, at first just in his mind, but then out loud, but there was nothing. The altar just looked bare and he felt cold and empty inside. In the past when he had prayed he had felt something he was sure; a warmth even a feeling of love. But now he felt a void.
He returned to the vicarage, and read the Bible. Hebrews was his favourite book, but he got nothing from it. At about two in the morning he went to bed, where he was soon joined by Wendy who for a few moments was able to make him forget his absolute despair. Several times over the next few days, Southall prostrated himself before the altar but he just felt the same blankness. He hardly slept, and often after Mrs Lydiatt had visited him he would go back into the church and pray.
She nagged at him to start looking after himself.
“You are doing yourself no good at all; you don’t eat, you don’t sleep. Nobody can live like this. I know it is difficult for you. But enough of this self-pity, things will improve eventually. It will be a slow process.”
He looked at her, “I know Mrs Lydiatt; I am trying.”
They came together and for a moment he felt himself melt into her, but only for a moment, and then he was alone again.
He still continued to preach every Sunday morning and evening and visited the sick and dying. Worse for him were the new born children who were to be baptised, fortunately there were only a couple in the year that followed Southall’s losses. He continued to sit with Dr Heath in the evenings.
“Why don’t you have a holiday? You have a brother in Warwickshire, why not stay with him?” suggested Dr Heath.
Southall mused “Oh I am needed here. And if Frances came back it would be awful if I was away. Wherever I go, the loss will still be there. I may as well be here as anywhere.”
That night he prayed in the church, he was wearing a long white shirt and slippers. He felt cold in the church, and he could barely see anything, and the building smelt of damp. He looked in the direction of the altar and for a moment he could see a black shadow moving. He stared hard, and again he saw a movement.
“Is that you?” he asked shakily. Echoing around the church it sounded a strange and rather stupid thing to say. And then he heard a voice; a voice beyond description.
“Yes, it is me. You have cried out to your god but to no avail. I am here; stronger than you or your puny deity.”
“Who are you?” asked Southall.
“You know who I am? I am the most powerful; everything that you count as precious is under my dominion. Nothing lives or dies without my say so. And you waste your time in this church. This is nothing.”
Southall gazed at this creature; it was not clear in shape but it seemed to have a head, and were those horns? And there was a heat emanating from him. A strong, powerful heat which would engulf anything in its way.
And then suddenly there was fire; the altar itself was aflame. He could hear the crackling and the flames lit up the church. He could smell burning wood and something else he had never smelt before, something that seemed to come from the depths of the earth itself. He was drawn towards the conflagration and into it. He screamed as he felt himself devoured by the flames.
When Southall awoke from his swoon, he could still smell burning, a smell that was not to leave the church for several days. He walked over to the altar, but it was still whole as were the cloths atop it. Perhaps there were a few burnt marks at the edges, but that was all. It must have been a dream, but it had felt so real. He walked back to the vicarage and went to bed and slept as soundly as he had since his illness.
When he awoke he felt happier than he had for a long time. He was not sure why, but it was as if his burdens were gone. The sun seemed brighter outside, and he spent the day out in the fields. When he got home he made love to Mrs Lydiatt with passion. For several days he did not visit the church at night; in fact he only went in there if he had to; preaching and taking funerals.
And yet one night, he felt a loneliness in his soul. Mrs Lydiatt had started to stay all night now, and she lay sleeping besides him naked and softly snoring. He got up, and put on his robe and walked out of the vicarage, through the graveyard and into the church. The figure was waiting for him where it had been before.
“So you have come back?”
“Are you real or just my overwrought mind?” responded Southall.
“As real as anything in your life.”
“But nothing feels real; sometimes I waken and expect to feel Frances besides me, and hear my children already up and shouting. But there is nothing. Perhaps I am the one who died and they are left behind mourning me.”
“Do you think you will see them again?” asked the figure at the altar, “truly. Remember you are a man of God.”
“Truly? I really don’t know.”
For a moment he felt a warmth in his soul and a calmness. The figure was there, watching him and slowly it faded, so slowly that the Rev. Southall for a minute or two wasn’t aware that it had gone. Instead of going back home to the warmth of his bed and to Mrs Lydiatt, he walked round the churchyard. He saw black figures huddled over the graves; hissing occasionally, prowling or just biding their time. Cats. He had heard that cats frequented the churchyard, but rarely noticed them before, and he was reminded of a friend of who had told him about the cats in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Southall had always liked cats. His grandparents had owned a farm in Oswestry and he had often studied their habits on his visits there. He leant quietly against a gravestone and watched them. They seemed either not to know that he was there, or not to care. Perhaps he was dead after all. The day was getting brighter before he left the cats and went home. He then asked Mrs Lydiatt to put food out for the cats every morning and evening, which she said she would although she clearly thought it odd.
Soon a clowder of cats began to appear both morning and night, and some began to make their home in the large vicarage garden and even on occasion in the vicarage itself. In particular four cats; all male as it turned out, who were later to become the objects of study in Southall’s (by then no longer Rev. but just plain Mr) book A Study of Cats first published in 1907.
At first Southall just enjoyed the cats’ company; he often watched them in the evening, and followed them into the graveyard. But being of a studious bent he began to write down what he saw and began to observe their habits and the way they interacted with each other. They were all strays, lively and good company. He gave them names; Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Habakkuk, names which he later used in his work.
His parishioners were happy to see Southall beginning to find an interest. It might seem eccentric but there was nothing wrong with that, and at least it kept his mind off his children and errant wife.
“At least it isn’t drink, or something worse” said Vic Cartwright, and his friend Bert couldn’t but agree. As he remarked “Cats is cats”.
“I am glad you have found something” said Doctor Heath, Southall visited less than he used to, but he still came round on occasion. “It just takes time, even with worst losses.”
“It is just odd that I didn’t find solace in God. I am a clergyman after all, but from him nothing. It was these cats that have given me an interest.”
“But surely God put them in your path. God moves in mysterious ways as the great hymn says.”
Southall did not look convinced.
Every so often he still ventured into the church late at night, and the dark figure was always there. He spoke to it, told of his doubts and his search for Frances. And he always felt calmer after he had spoken. Perhaps it was the devil or some demon who had lived in this place long before the church and Christianity planted itself here, but in the end he did not care.
One day he dismissed Mrs Lydiatt, he was already embarrassed by their relationship, particularly when she started to hint at marriage. And then he came back into the vicarage one Sunday morning, having forgotten his prayer book and caught her viciously kicking Hosea. Despite it being a Sunday, she was seen leaving the vicarage later that day in a horse and cart pulled by Bert Wallace’s eldest son. The parish did not miss her, and neither seemingly did the Rev. Southall. The cats certainly didn’t.
One night he wandered into the church; he had not spoken to the figure at the altar for almost six months, had not felt the need. But now he felt a void within him, perhaps it was knowing that his book was near to completion or the fact that he was missing Mrs Lydiatt. The figure was there, looking larger and more distinct than usual. Southall knew that he would never see him again. They gazed at each other for a long time.
“You know what you need to do” said the voice and Southall realised that he did. He started putting the Bibles and hymn books in front of the altar, tearing them up so that they would make good kindling. He also found the altar cloths and laid them almost reverently upon the ground. He covered everything with the oil that was used for the heater and then he lit the lot and watched as the church burst aflame.
Doctor Heath happened to be walking home after presiding over a death. He saw the flames through the church windows and rushed in. He could see Southall almost dancing around the flames, and what was that creature in the altar howling with joy? Heath rang the church bell repeatedly, battling against the heat that threatened to engulf him, as all Hell went on around him. Eventually people from neighbouring houses came and put the fire out. Southall lay unconscious amidst the burnt bibles.
Nobody expected to see Southall again. It was widely accepted that he had set fire to the church in a fit of madness, and if it hadn’t been for Doctor Heath’s timely intervention the church would have been burnt to the ground. It was known that he spent time with his family and also travelled abroad. And after that even Doctor Heath did not know what had become of him.
The church was restored (most of the damage had been superficial), and a new incumbent installed; an older man with a sensible wife who was unlikely to disappear off to Birmingham anytime soon. He was a fine preacher, and good with the inhabitants. He occasionally talked of “poor Southall” which is how the parishioners also began to speak of him.
An old cottage just outside Wombridge became vacant. Old Mr Georges had died suddenly and his children who had long ago left for the big city decided to sell it. A rumour started that Southall had bought it, and sure enough one spring day, he arrived in a cart with some of his belongings. He looked to have aged considerably and seemed quieter in his manner, but there was an air of contentment about him. And although he did not bring any cats with him many local ones gravitated to his house where they were well looked after.
The village soon got used to him. He kept himself to himself, he had a housekeeper he had brought with him, an older lady who did all his shopping and who was very loyal to her employer. Southall spent the rest of his life in Wombridge, he did not write any more books but contributed too many learned journals concerning both cats and God. Newcomers to the village were told about “poor Southall” who gone mad but did nobody any harm, wrote endlessly and who had been vicar of Wombridge many years ago.
On occasion, late at night he could be seen walking round the church building, pursing his lips and looking confused, as if he were looking for something but whether it was his lost family or something else, nobody ever ventured to ask him.
© Andrew Lee-Hart October 2015
fridge2 at hotmail.co.uk