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Towards the east of St Mary's church, and beyond a stone grey mass of building societies and empty offices, lives Annie. Her flat is two up from the cobbled road and three below the rushing blue sky. She has four rooms; a bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom, all of which are simply but tastefully decorated in earthy tones. Notable items of luxury include a bookcase half full and a large teddy bear with the name Mr Munchy stitched onto its tummy. It is an old bear, judging by its lack of any fur and the general state of its face and seams.
From her living room window a view of the canal can be seen, where the barges plod along; painted to resemble Gypsy caravans. Frank knows this because he has seen in through Annie's windows.
There has been scaffolding around her building for two years, which allows access for stone masons. They are restoring the pre-Victorian facade, with its cherubim and feigned balustrades. Frank likes the old plastic sheets they put up to keep the rain from dissolving the cheeks of the cherubs, any further than they already have been that is. He likes the fluttering of the sheets, which to him sound like flocks of sea birds fanning the building's old grey face. They also form breezy tunnels from the scaffolding, allowing him to scamper and climb unseen as he thinks about Annie.
In his dark overalls and white hard hat he is easily mistaken for a safety officer, perhaps, or a surveyor of some kind. The scaffolding is usually empty for four out of seven days, however, so he does not have to bother about being apprehended.
St Mary's church is a fine gothic structure which has stood proud and tall for almost two hundred years, dark and skeletal, hollow and imperial.
Its mausoleum like walls have thinned slightly over the years but still it maintains its silent grip on all who dare to allow their eyes to wander its vertiginous turrets and impenetrable stained glass windows; that seem as dark as blocks of arctic ice with black roots crackling through its surface.
Roots perhaps from the gigantic, twin oaks that stand either side of the church's main entrance, swaying their full heads of emeraldine against the sharp corners of the church, as if tending to dust. They are the only emergence of colour within the boundaries of the thick, chest high wall that forms a dark square around the church.
St Mary's church is another thing Frank likes to look at. He likes the golden circle of the clock, like a gigantic cog stuck to the forehead of the church. It tells good time since its restoration four years ago. He had watched them, everyday, waiting for one of them to fall form their tiny platform. No doubt an angel would catch them in their arms before they smashed through the roof, onto the font.
Facing the church and its two oaks, lies the old market square. The stalls have not lit up this pale expanse for almost ten years, replaced by a succession of cheap shops nearby, and a selection of new stone benches; for contemplation and feeding the flocks of Pigeons that peck and scatter.
Frank recalls the old stalls with no degree of fondness, laden as they were with all manner of useless statuettes of dogs, and chunky digital watches. Better to have all that stuff tucked away on shelves in the shops on the thoroughfare, out of his view. He likes to sit here and try to find a chink of colour in the stained glass, as the bright sunlight finds a way through to aid him in his search. Mostly he sees only green; the green of a mouldering fish tank or aquarium. It's a favourite imagining of his, that one day he will see a fish float by, or a single swimmer trying to find purchase in the gluey water. Unlikely, seeing as how the church is attracting so much custom for its newly improved cafe.
Annie works in the cafe on a Saturday, when she isn't typing letters and making coffee for Markhurst and Bloodstock insurance ltd.
Frank lives above a shoe shop, two minutes walk from the church, and to the west. He overlooks a street that teems with busy traffic, day and night. His bed is a single bed and his TV is fourteen inches and fitted with a headphone socket. His doorbell is switched off to stop it ringing when it rains and he likes to watch the people shopping. Across the road is a bakery and a small library. He often sits in the Library after dark; an hour or so before it closes, reading the papers. He often buys a bun and takes it home, leaving it for when he returns from the library; to be eaten as he watches TV. He likes to watch the cop shows, and sometimes thrillers.
He likes to write too, before he goes to bed. He has been published seven times.
He writes fiction about ghosts and he is also a ghost writer.
During the night he has his nightmares and on waking, forgets them. As soon as he is dressed and presentable he leaves the flat and makes for the church, and buys a sandwich from the nearby shop to eat as he watches the oaks sway their heavy branches. The trees are as tall as the main body of the church, but considerably dwarfed by the tall turrets that make up the rear of the structure. He never watches, or even glances at the church from any angle other than the front. It is the only facet with any real personality to it, unless you made allowance for the meaningless headstones that lie propped up, waiting for god knows what, around the very rear of the church. The church is surrounded by roads and pedestrianised areas but only the front has benches to sit on. Maybe this has something to do with Frank's reluctance concerning the blander regions of the church.
Today is Tuesday and today the stone masons are cleaning the cherubim that protrude from Annie's building. Tomorrow they will be elsewhere.
Tomorrow is a word Frank likes to use, in his novels and speaking. Once an old lady asked him what time it was, and he had told her that it was 'tomorrow'. Later he had used the scene in a book, but the editor removed it due to it having no relevance to the celebrity he was helping to form. She was a local actress with breast cancer and a glass eye. She had lost her eye to a toy arrow as a child. He had written that scene seven times before he was happy with it. They cut that too, because it was unnerving, and unattractive. He didn't work for that publisher anymore. They never did pay him much anyway.
People like to feed the Pigeons in the old market square, and so does Frank. He gives them some of his breakfast sandwich, and some of his dinner sandwich, and the later some of his lunchtime sandwich. They never seem to have enough. No doubt they live amongst the dark turrets of the church, crouched up in the niches waiting for someone to drop a bit of bread. They saw parts of the church that no one could see, no one human that is. They were the stony grey angels of the church, peering in through the stained glass at the cafe tables and waiting for bits of bread. How difficult would it be to see their nests and perches? He had heard that they allowed tourists up the turrets these days, to see the bells and the clocks workings. Maybe he could see the newly oiled ratchets and fly wheels too, and take a look for Pigeon nests.
Frank sends love letters to Annie. They are marked with her address but not her name. Frank is writing to a girl called Vanessa, who he made up. She looks like Annie and is like Annie, but she has a different name. Annie must read them, he knows she does, who wouldn't? He would read them. Vanessa would read them.
He loves Vanessa, 'like the coal miner loves soap', 'like the sea loves the beach' and 'like the needle loves the thread'. He proclaims his undying devotion to her love of the church, and the way she used to bite her nails. He loved her in so many ways. And still does, even though she left him for a richer man, on their wedding day. Oh Vanessa come back to me darling, and kiss me like you used to kiss me. Hold me like you used to hold me etc etc.
Also, he has promised to send her one of his short stories, like he used to. He is still mulling over which to send her; maybe the one about the haunted school, or the poltergeist. Maybe he will write her a new one, one about the building she is living in. Vanessa loved ghost stories, and he loved her in a similar fashion. She was his ghost, haunting his heart, forever and ever.
Just lately he has been signing the letters, Mr Munchy.
Just recently he has entered the church, and bought for himself a pot of tea. Annie herself served him and for that matter the tea tasted all the sweeter for it. She really does have a pretty face. Far more refined than the stonework of the apse and the carving of the rood. The vicar, or one of them, had come out of some graven doorway clasping his hands in a lopsided act of prayer, just as he had finished his pot of tea, and taken her away to some dark corner. He had watched her face for signs of emotion as she was lead away, wondering if it was something she wanted, or not. He couldn't be certain but he thought the latter. He hoped as much. She had not returned that day, being replaced by the older, fatter waitress with the blank expression that implied some kind of mental defect. Frank knew that mental defects were common amongst the flock of Christianity these days. He saw them everyday, crying on buses, being shepherded into the church by tall men with outstretched arms.
He would never want to hear their prayers or confessions; what manner of nightmares must pass through their mouths, born from their unbalanced contemplations. But if it kept the church open, and Annie in part time work, then it could only be the work of some benign being with his interests at heart. This thought he had taken with him that night, as he walked home to his TV and his bed.
It had twisted its way into his dreams, like a fat worm through loose earth, and tickled its way across his mind's eye. The slack jaws, Annie laughing, the crossed eyes, Annie throwing tiny bits of paper around the market square, Pigeons with deformed red feet pecking at the paper.
He had dangled amongst these images, screaming, the trees his spindly puppeteers making him dance. Annie was gone once he was back in the church, which was now full of books, sliding around in piles of leather.
Frank had taken a walk to Annie's building later, carrying his white hard hat, putting it on once he was about to climb aboard the scaffolding. He noticed a general lack of untidiness about the bouncy walkways as he ascended; usually there would be dirty cloths and brushes lying about in the stonework. None of that now he had decided, for they had finished their restoration. This put a whole new perspective on things as he worked his way up the thick wooden ladders, careful to avoid splinters. He had peeked through the gaps in the plastic sheeting, marking where he was by the position of the church steeples. He had paid good attention to the state of the Cherubim as he snaked through holes and crouched beneath ropes. His time was up it all spelled out to him. His time watching was over. What was now left open to him was Annie's bedroom window. How careless her God must be not to warn her of such dangers. He must do the job for him, in the only way he could think how. She was asleep as he crept in. She looked like someone had stuffed a couple of pillows under the sheets to fool someone. He knew she was there, dreaming about Vanessa, wishing she were called Vanessa. He knew she had to be dreaming of him. Maybe he should waken her and find out, ask her her dream. Maybe he should whisper into her sleeping ear the things he wanted her to see and feel. But already he was losing the joy of being in her home. Soon he would want to leave, and feel safe again in his own home, alone.
Mr Munchy was sat on top of a box by the door, looking at him as he approached. He didn't look happy.
The morning after, he had posted a new story to his editor. Then he had bought a sandwich and sat outside the church and fed the pigeons, counting their maggot like toes and noticing how scruffy their grey feathers looked today. He almost wanted to pick them up and...pluck them bare. How dull pigeons are anyway. Couldn't they have peacocks strutting beneath the ragged shadows of the oak trees? Wouldn't they be a more fitting sight so close to the dark majesty of St Mary's church? Or how about small ponies? clopping and tossing their manes. Did he have to see these pigeons everyday for the rest of his life?
He had walked around the church to calm himself, spreading Mr Munchy's foam innards as he went, sowing it like seed upon the stony ground. The pigeons leapt from every building top to feast, only to turn their beaks up at the inedible meal, and then flapped away into the bright blue sky like dirty flannels.
Frank had wanted to stroll by Annie's building, to see if the cherished scaffolding still clung to its sides, like a dismal helter-skelter slide. But it would have been foolish to be seen just yet, so soon after his lesson. Maybe he could take a walk over to Markhurst and Bloodstock insurance ltd? Renew his life insurance policy. He wanted to see if they could include a death by falling clause.
Later he had wandered in the general direction of his home, and found himself buying more than his usual share of iced buns. He also paid a visit to a hardware shop and bought some needle and thread. After staring at himself in the library window for some time he had walked across the road and went up to his flat. He had eaten the buns as he worked, stuffing his mouth and then piercing the material with the needle, over and over again. Making holes with his scissors he found his eyeholes and a place to breathe. A place to poke his tongue through as he posed in the mirror. He donned his best suit and shirt. A black tuxedo that he had bought for his wedding to Vanessa. How clean the white cuffs looked against the pitch dark fabric of the sleeves. He liked that, a lot, and eventually fell asleep thinking about it.
The dreams had it in for him from the start. A wasteland of sharp stones and his bare feet sticking to the edges as he ran, making dreadful sucking sounds. The Christian flock waiting for him in the dark of some ancient bronze machine, or mouth. His stories filling the pages of the Bibles in their hands, which they sang to him, badly. A massive black object in the sky, like a lumpen balloon, hanging over his flock, dangling red threads to their eyes; caught beneath their eyelids. He ran to snap the threads, which he knew where feeding somehow, and found himself slicing through their eyelids at each tug.
He had woken before the cogs of the mouth had begun to move.
Laid on his bed, unmoving for many hours, he sought for a new story idea. He began, as he always did, with a single place or person, and presented to it something destructive, something dark and unholy. It was a good practise, but now he was unhappy with the results, being far too unsavoury for his tastes or the tastes of his editor. The ideas kept on slipping in however, and he could not stop them, not even when he finally slid from the bed and crawled across the floor to his TV. He clicked it on, and noticed the first image to appear as being special, far too special to be ignored. Scissors sliding through a sea of shimmering blue silk. He quickly clicked the machine off again and got the better of himself, taking off the new mask, and stuffing it into his tuxedo jacket pocket. He had to see the church and the pigeons feeding, the flocks gathering together beyond the grey stone boundary of the churchyard and the sweeping green heads of the oaks.
The day was breezy, and bright. He felt as if he had put on a pair of new spectacles, after suffering blurred vision for so long. But that couldn't be he knew, as the pigeons approached him, wobbling from side to side. Soon he would see the peacocks spread their mighty fans. Soon he would hear the ticking of the machine, as it spoke to him of love and stories. He was glad to give his bread to the pigeons today, to see them fight and toss the bits about. Where did they sleep? Amongst his thoughts and his dreams? A strange notion. No doubt they slept with the vicar by the side of a crocodile green pool. But he was being silly. They didn't sleep at all, but flew continually, watching over the church and his streets. It was to their benefit to protect their feeding place, after all.
People had passed him that day, on their way to work after dinner in some pub or cafe. Had they considered him a guest of some hidden wedding? Was he lost from their cheering and telling of stories? Or was he not some groom, about to drag them kicking and screaming to some dark alter beneath the mausoleum church, where the vicar spread his dirty wings and stumbled towards them on toeless stumps.
But his mind had to rest sometime, sometime. He couldn't keep thinking like this forever, could he? Stories had to end; they always did, and so would his.
Once he had known she would be dreaming he approached her building. Once he was safely within the flapping skins of its structure he put on the mask. It smelt old, and dusty. He should have washed it first, but he hadn't thought of it. If he hadn't washed it, it was because he wasn't meant to. He climbed, smelling the dust from her room, from every room she had ever lived in, feeling a part of their meaning to her. Like he had been sat in those rooms with her, held in her arms, and mopping up her tears. She owed him for all that comfort, and it was only fair he collect before her windows would be gone from him, forever. He climbed breathing in the perfume of her misery and heard a voice in every Cherubim as he passed; a voice so sweet and so dead it numbed his flesh. He could barely feel the ladders as he trotted up them, barely noticing the splinters of wood piercing his hands. In his drunken state of rapture he collided with a scaffolding pole and sent it out or true, just ever so slightly. He mumbled something as he finally reached her level, and wondered if it was to be the start of his next story, or the end of the last.
He rapped on her bedroom window to find out, knocking and knocking until her head rose, no doubt, from the painful dream of one of his very own love letters. She maybe had shared his sense of loss, after finding Mr Munchy gone from her home. But the look in her eye as she turned on the bedside lamp and stared upon his face once more held no relief. He was back and would receive no welcome. How bad was that?
Mr Munchy pressed his patchy brown face against the glass and waved with both hands. Then he was coming through the window in a deafening scream of broken shards and sparkling glitter. He was home, and he felt as much. Now it was down to him to make Annie feel as comfy.
Get used to it? No, you never get used to it.