The Book - Excerpt


Then: this.
The church door bursts open and the Priest erupts from inside. The sound of the wailing organ becomes indeed a human cry, wild and inconsolable. He runs across the cobbles and into the gardens, slipping on the wet slush, skidding to a halt in front of the obelisk of the cenotaph. His priestly robes are dishevelled, his face gaunt, his eyes bright and glittering with a disturbed light. The sound of his anguish ricochets off the blank facades of the buildings and comes back to him like the voice of another man in torment. His eyes cast around him, taking in the icy fountain, the desolate trees, the mute memorial, before settling on the man with the soggy, woebegone hat.
‘I envy you,’ he cries, angrily, stretching an accusing fist at the vagrant. ‘Do you know that? I envy you!’
The man with the hat is so startled to be directly addressed that for a moment he does not respond. He turns slowly, left then right, to see who might be the recipient of the Priest’s resentment, but there is no-one, and he lifts a disbelieving hand to point at himself.
‘Me?’
‘Yes, you.’
The man with the hat gets to his feet and negotiates the few steps which take him down from the Court’s apron and onto the cobbles. The Priest comes to meet him. The Commissionaire, who has seen everything, finds himself descending the steps of The Grand and crossing the street.
‘At least you have time,’ the Priest exclaims, pointing an accusing finger at the vagrant, ‘and nobody bothers you. You can sit, and think, and pray!’ The Priest’s face, formerly bloodless, is now hectic. He spits out his words, their liquescent venom melding into the foggy air and sprinking, a little, the front of the vagrant’s grimy coat.
‘Well,’ the vagrant replies, hesitantly. Praying is not something he would wish to take credit for. The rest, he supposes, he can hardly deny. He reaches up to touch the brim of his hat, a reflex action; it is his lodestar, he knows where he is, with the hat. ‘Well,’ he says again.
‘Now, now,’ says the Commissionaire, calmly. ‘I don’t think we can blame...’ he realises - they all realise - that the name of the vagrant is unknown, even after all these years. The vagrant himself finds he does not have it easily on the tip of his tongue. ‘I don’t think we can blame this gentleman,’ the Commissionaire concludes, ‘because we’re run off our feet.’
‘You’re hardly run off yours,’ the Priest replies, bitterly. But his tirade is over. He sinks onto a damp bench and puts his head in his hands.