Exodus: Chapter 20, Verse 13
It was the whisky that did for Bernie Crowder. Not one of the worshippers crammed into the lovely church of Saint Alban the Martyr to venerate the man and his god doubted that for a minute. Not a single one. There had even been a few mutterings between those sagacious souls whose wisdom constantly managed to manifest itself after an event, but always struggled to reveal itself beforehand, that they had seen it coming, spotted Bernie’s demise from a mile off. But even those prophets blessed with the insight of hindsight didn’t profess to have foreseen the bizarre manner in which the treacherous booze would detach Bernie’s spirit from its mortal identity and transport his soul to its eternal home.
‘Bernie Crowder was a pillar of this parish,’ intoned Father Michael Roth with the deep and solemn voice he reserved for such unhappy occasions, ‘and a man who served as a model for those who aspire to lead a truly Christian way of life.’
Silent nods of agreement accompanied the sniffling sobs of the priest’s parishioners as they struggled to accept that the Bernie they had known was now no longer among them; his memory and his remains were all that lingered. The memory fluttered unceasingly within their hearts and their minds. His pitiful remnants rested in the coffin that pointed towards them, draped by a sumptuous snowy silk pall embossed with a single cross of lush gold thread.
Father Roth stood at the head of the casket and stretched out his arms to leave the abundant sleeves of his livid purple chasuble dripping towards the church floor. A figure of Christ suffered silently behind him, pinned to a massive golden cross.
‘Bernie told me many times that his parents had long ago passed on to a blissful life and that he had no brothers and sisters. He said he was alone. But today as he looks upon the scene in this church, his church, he will know he was mistaken – he was blessed with a family numbering a multitude of souls.’ The priest paused and watched the surprise kindle in the eyes of his flock as they looked up from their handkerchiefs. His thick lips stretched into a smile. ‘For we are all brothers and sisters of Christ, and we are all brothers and sisters of Bernie Crowder. Every person in this church loved him as a brother, and he loved us all with the love of a brother. It is human for us to mourn him, to shed tears as he begins his journey to a far better place. But we may be comforted by the certainty that the purification of his soul in purgatory will take merely an instant in eternal time, and he will shortly behold his Father’s face. Yes, it is human to grieve. But understand that we grieve for ourselves, we weep because we have lost one so dear. But shed no tears for Bernie, because Bernie has lived his life doing God’s work, and God will provide him his just reward.’
The late-spring Sun peeked out from behind a white cloud into the blue sky outside and the windows along the southern wall to the right of the mourners suddenly burst alight. The vivid greens and reds that clothed the saints beamed down onto the congregation and Father Roth as he swung the censer back and forwards over the coffin, the smoky incense gliding up to meet the wooden rafters on its way towards heaven. As the congregation rose to sing Abide With Me the saints dimmed respectfully and the church regained the melancholy sepias and browns that suited the occasion.
Finally, it was time for the obsolete body of Bernie Crowder to be lowered into the earth, and Father Roth led his deceased parishioner’s throng of brothers and sisters out into that lovely June day. As they snaked sadly to the graveside to witness the Rite of Committal, nobody paused to notice the pair of strangers who rose from the pews at the back of the church to join Bernie’s abundant family as they escorted him on his final earthly journey.
Yes, it was the whisky that did for Bernie Crowder, there was no doubt about that at all. So why had a couple of coppers from the Lockingham police force hitched themselves up to the funeral train?
A few days before Bernie was buried, and a few hours before he died, the usual game of unhappy families was being played out at the home Pauline Finnegan shared with her two sons.
‘What’ve we got for tea?’ demanded Ricky as he barged through the kitchen door and slung his thick black jacket over the dining chair. ‘I hope it’s something decent for a change.’
‘You’re lucky you get anything at all,’ replied his mother, ‘what with the pittance you give me towards your keep.’ She was a short woman with blonde hair turning grey at the temples, her thin face and slender nose giving her the delicate and fragile appearance of a nervous bird.
‘I didn’t ask for a lecture, just what I’ve got for tea.’
‘Fish fingers, mash and beans.’
‘Great. Just great. And why have I got to put up with muck like that when I’ve been breaking my back all day in the sun?’
‘Leaning on a shovel more like with a fag between your lips and dirty words finding their way out of them.’
‘Why, I’ll tell you why, because my dopey brother likes fish fingers. Because he’s got the brain of a kid, that’s why, and we have to have everything he wants just because he’s like a little kid. I’m twenty years old, and what do I get for my tea? Fish fingers.’
‘How many times do I have to tell you to stop going on about your brother like that?’ countered Pauline as she dolloped a tablespoon of mashed potato onto the three plates on the small square table in the middle of the kitchen. ‘He’s a good lad and never done you any harm.’
Ricky scowled at the plates as though they bore the plague while he pulled out his chair to sit down. His stubbled face and crew-cut black hair were supported by a thick neck. At first appearance he seemed to have inherited his mother’s short stature, but this was an illusion born from the breadth of his shoulders. He possessed the natural strength of a man used to manual work, not the artificial build of a townie who buys his muscles from the gym.
‘And it’s mash. We haven’t even got chips for tea.’
‘Give your brother a call before you sit down, he’s up in his room.’
Ricky Finnegan sighed, as though he had been assigned a Herculean labour. ‘Oh David, dear,’ he called up the stairs with his head poked around the kitchen door. ‘Your mummy wants you to come down for your tea.’ He sat down and attacked his meal with his knife and fork. ‘Only four fish fingers,’ he muttered.
Davey Finnegan clomped down the stairs and pushed open the door. He sported a less impressive physique than his brother’s, but his figure was still chunky enough. Brown, curly hair topped a friendly, ruddy face, like logs lying on glowing coals. His emerald eyes widened as they rested on his plate. ‘Fish fingers! Thanks, Mum!’
‘Enjoy your tea, David.’ She smiled as she sat opposite her youngest son at the table. ‘Here’s the tommy sauce,’ she added, shoving the plastic bottle towards him. She enjoyed watching his pleasure as he squeezed the bottle and smothered his mash with scarlet goo, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips.
Ricky stared to his left. ‘Look at that. Other people get brothers. I got him.’
‘Stop being so spiteful,’ said his mother.
‘I’m not being spiteful, I’m just telling it like it is. Do you know what it’s like being his brother? Being seen with him? Years at the same school with kids shouting Dopey Davey Finnegan at our backs when we went through the gate in the morning? Dopey Davey, that’s what they called him. Still do.’
‘Yes, I know what it’s like, because you’ve told me a thousand times. But the last time you went to school with your brother you were about nine so you can cut out feeling sorry for yourself. You never looked after him after that. Your shame about your brother does you no credit, Ricky, no credit at all. And if you call him by that name again I’ll have a hard time controlling myself, I really will.’
‘Christ, that’d be –’
‘Don’t you dare speak like that in this home, Ricky Finnegan!’ bawled his mother, pointing her knife at his face. ‘I’ll have you out of this house in the little time it takes me to put my boot up your backside and don’t you forget it.’ She stood and crossed herself, facing the wooden crucifix pinned above the kitchen sink, a cross to be found in every room of her terraced house. ‘Lord, forgive my son.’
Ricky knew he had gone too far, had encroached into the one area that was out of bounds. He ate the rest of his tea in silence, dwelling on the awful notion of living in a bedsit and cooking his own lousy meals. Even a diet of fish fingers was better than that.
When they had finished their tea, Pauline stacked the plates and left them on the work surface next to the sink. She opened the freezer and handed them each a Cornetto for their afters. ‘What are the pair of you up to this evening?’ she asked.
‘Pub,’ replied Ricky.
‘Going round to see Bernie.’
‘You should put a stop to that, Mum,’ remarked Ricky seriously, so that she was unsure whether he was being sincere or had just decided to declare another war. ‘I’m not sure about Bernie Crowder. I ask you, a forty-year-old bloke, never been married, what does he want to be spending his evening with our Davey for? That’s about as suss as it gets.’
‘I’ve told you before, Ricky, Bernie’s not gay. And even if he was, it doesn’t mean he’d get up to no good, take advantage of your brother.’
‘Davey’ll come back pissed as usual, after Bernie’s poured a bottle or two of whisky down his neck. Who knows what goes on?’
‘David’s nineteen, there’s nothing wrong with him having a little drink as a treat. And you don’t like the pub, do you Son?’ Davey shook his head. ‘I’d rather he enjoyed a drop of whisky with someone I can trust and in a place I know he’s safe.’
Ricky raised his black eyebrows. ‘Bernie Crowder’s place?’
‘I know he sometimes has one too many, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. He’s a good Christian man and he’s done wonders for this parish. Look at the way the place has perked up since he came on the scene, a new lease of life he’s given it. You can’t blame him for being single, and perhaps a bit lonely.’
‘Up to you, Mum. I don’t mind the guy – well, not too much anyway. I’m just saying you shouldn’t let him get too close to our Davey, that’s all,’ finished Ricky as he licked the remaining chocolate from his wrapper before laying it on the table.
‘You two get on, there’s hardly any washing-up, it won’t take me a minute,’ said Pauline, as though there really was a chance an offer of help could be coming her way. Kids, she mused as she squirted a jet of green liquid into the bowl in the sink. Who’d have ’em? Who’d be without ’em?