Father Mathew studied the group of mourners from the corner of one curious eye, the other eye concentrated on the lighting of candles with Godly intent. Eight people huddled in a ‘mutter’ around the coffin, around the deceased. He would join them soon; he was keen to hear what each one had to say about the man in the chipboard, elm veneered box.
Less than an hour ago Mathew had sat alone – but for a corpse and his ubiquitous God – on a pew wondering if anyone at all would turn up to this funeral. The small church and its adjoining graveyard sat way up on the moor, rarely attended at the best of times, but now, with a storm blowing in off the sea it was almost inaccessible too. Then as the church clock rang twelve pm the scarred, weather-beaten door, honed from a single oak five hundred years earlier, crashed open with vitality beyond its age. Wind, in her fury, dared to straddle the Lord’s threshold dumping her bounty of dead golden leaves in the nave like some pagan offering to the gods.
Autumn leaves fluttering like macabre butterflies in the turbulent wind announced the arrival of a man, a gloomy man with turned down face and turned up collar. He stood for a while in the doorway; unlike the wind he was hesitant to cross the threshold. Mathew came to greet the stranger, thinking he was probably a friend of the deceased. The man with the downturned face then, as if being booted from behind, staggered into the church and up the aisle. He teetered a while on his heels, hands in pockets, a look of confusion upon his face. The stranger looked at the dead man laid out in his Sunday best, he looked at him for a long while and then turned, with a slight stagger, and faced the rows of empty pews. Meanwhile Mathew closed the doors on the storm.
‘Am I too late?’ said the drunk.
’Not at all… And you are?’ asked Mathew.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt, but people tend to call me Perry quite a lot these days, I blame the internet, no one can be bothered with the old lineal model of experience,’ said Peregrine soberly.
‘Sorry I don’t follow.’
Perry took a small metal flask from his Saville Row pocket, unscrewed the lid and peered inside; it was empty.
‘Well, before the Internet, one would experience life as it came at you; you would travel through existence in a straight line, learning this and that along the way. One never dipped in, got bored and fluttered off in search of something better, something less taxing. The Internet has given birth to a generation of flutter-byes, alighting for a moment upon something that, if it does not offer an immediate kick, gets de-alighted tout de suite. By the time people have got half way through my name they are too bored to continue and so Perry will have to suffice. I t demonstrates a complete lack of application in the young. There are greater riches to be found buried beneath the surface.’
‘Were you acquainted with the deceased?’ asked Mathew politely guiding the inebriated Peregrine to a nearby pew.
‘Yes, I was but it would be more accurate to say that he was a friend to me. Theodore was not, it must be said, a flutter by. Theodore called me Peregrine. ‘Theodore the Studious’; ‘Theodore the Thinker of Things’. Once alighted he never let go, he immersed himself, always looking for answers, always asking questions. Questions of course are two-a-penny Father, as well you know, but an accurately placed question can keep you chewing for days. You know when someone asks you a really simple question about yourself and you realise you have not got the foggiest idea what to think? Theodore was full of them.’
‘How did you know Theodore?’ Mathew probed.
Rather than answer the question Peregrine asked Mathew, ‘What happened to Theodore?’
Mathew sighed, ’I know very little of the deceased, I’m afraid. You see I only met him the day he died. I came into the church to retrieve my metal detector, I’m a keen detectorist you know, and although it would be sacrilegious to hunt in the graveyard, the surrounding area can throw up the odd gem. Anyhow it was early, about eight thirty in the morning when I opened the doors, they are never locked, and there he was, sitting at the back, just there with his head in his hands.’ Mathew turned and pointed to a pew at the back of the small church.
Peregrine turned to look but said nothing so Mathew continued.
‘He wanted to talk, but not about himself as such. It was all a bit abstract; it was personal but not in a way we are so familiar with these days. He never mentioned family or friends and he never told me about his history, his work, his loves and losses, where he came from or what he’d seen.
It became quite obvious that he’d prefer to speak of universal themes like the existence of God and the process of judgment, rather than his own life experience. He wanted to know how we will be judged and on what? What are the criteria exactly? Is it all down to making the right decisions? Should we have an impressive portfolio of unselfish, morally un-reprehensible deeds under our belts? How high are the stakes? Are there special dispensations for the young, mad, passionate or just plain stupid? Will all non-believers, despite their good deeds, be weeping and gnashing their teeth beyond the walls of the kingdom? And, above all, he wanted to know if we even really possess freedom of will to do right? Or is free will just an illusion and are we, as people, condemned from birth to be on a predetermined trajectory?
Mathew laughed, ‘All a bit heavy for that time of day.’
Peregrine smiled and asked, ‘Did he say anything else?’
‘Well we talked at length about free will but as I pointed out to him several times I happen to believe in the existence of God and I also believe that God gave us all free will so that we could choose to love him. I added that I could not speak objectively when talking about God; I cannot be impartial about God. I can speak subjectively because I can speak about my faith. I asked him to be more specific, generalizing would only get us so far.
He said that he was trying to decide whether he’d lived a good life, whether he’d made the right decisions based on compassion or purely self-preservation. Do any of us really have a choice? He wanted to believe that we are all morally accountable, that we are all responsible for our actions, but feared that, in the end, predetermination prevails.
I told him that if everything was predetermined then God would have made us all truly equal and incapable of doing wrong. But he didn’t, because he wanted us to find our own way.
Theodore then shot me a piercing look and said, ’Then evil is a by-product of man’s free will? Is that what you are saying?’
I, rather hastily, replied that, yes, that is what I’m saying. To which of course he said, ‘Like Father, like Son’.
I have to say I was getting a little bogged down with his train of thought but could see that he was truly struggling with something and the more he tried to unravel it the more convoluted it became. I’m afraid throughout my career I have only had to deal with those that have experienced a slight, not so much crisis, but more a hesitation of faith. This was different, I didn’t know him and because of that I didn’t know for sure if he’d ever had a faith to hesitate over. We were entering into the realm of philosophy for which I have the upmost respect but I’m afraid I can only reiterate what it is that I intrinsically believe. It was at this point, having learned nothing of the man himself but recognizing a fellow human being that needed help and guidance, I decided to make us a cup of tea.’
Peregrine looked at Father Mathew to see if he was joking.
‘What I mean is that I’d resigned myself to the long haul and considered tea to be in effect a sort of ceremonial offering, a way of saying you’re not alone. Also, tea would have the practical benefit of warming, the spiritual benefit of bonding, and give me time to think whilst making it. Tea, in short, seemed like a good idea.
Mathew became thoughtful for a moment, deciding what to say next.
‘What happened next, I mean once you’d made the tea that is?’
‘Well while I was making our tea I thought to myself, I need to dig a little deeper, I need to find out what has caused this man to come here in the first place? I need to find something out about the man, to help him I needed something tangible, a place to start. But when I came back with the tea he was slumped, doubled over in the pew.’
Both men instinctively turned to look at the now empty pew.
‘At first I thought he was praying, not such an odd position to adopt in a church after all. But he had suffered a heart attack. Oddly, it came from nowhere; he had no reason to be concerned for his health, he was, apparently, a healthy man.’
‘He must have known his time was coming Father, why else would he have been here?’ chipped in Peregrine.
‘Yes I think that must have been it; he just knew, instinctively. I’d be grateful to know more about him from you if that’s possible; after all I have been charged with his interment and have very little to say,’ said Mathew.
Peregrine nodded as if giving himself permission to speak.
‘You see that man there,’ he said pointing towards the coffin, ‘He comes from my past and yet he is with me every single day. He represents that moment in my life, that instant, that changed everything. That moment I must live with forever. He helped me decades ago but what happened to him after that I do not know. I could only imagine, knowing him as I did, that he would have done great things.
It all started with a drink as so many events in my life have, most of which I can no longer remember with any clarity but this one… this one sticks all too well. Funny isn’t it that one drinks to forget but ironically the only thing you remember is the one thing you try to forget?
I’m a sort of sleeping earl you know. My father was the twelfth Earl of St Teath and I’m the thirteenth. My grandfather inherited a pile of money, a title and the family Estate complete with its own chapel, woodland and farm cottages, quite a spread. Grandfather gambled, that was his poison; he gambled and lost. My father inherited the debts. Father sold the lot, keeping only a small cottage adjacent to the family graveyard, paid off the debtors, put me through school and financed a life for himself in India running a tea plantation with the profits. The country pile became a luxury hotel and spa. I had little to do with my father and my mother took off with a saffron-robed Californian hippy called Burt; I think they still live in a commune outside of Jaipur where they work the loom and grow their own weed.
I had no one close to me and so I had to carve out my own life, make my own emotional bonds with other young people. The one thing I did have was money; money came in regularly from a trust fund father had set up to support me. I wanted for nothing.
Theodore and I were at Oxford together: I was studying literature and Theodore, philosophy. One Friday lunchtime we bumped into one another in a pub, had a few drinks and discovered we were both at a loss for something to do over the weekend. So I put it to him that we could use my father’s cottage on the old estate, do a bit of fishing and generally mess about in the countryside for a couple of days. Theodore was keen so we polished off our drinks, went back to our digs, hastily packed overnight bags, jumped into my Vauxhall Victor and hit the road.
It was early December, cold but sunny and the heating in the car wasn’t working. Somewhere near Swindon we passed a hitchhiker, a young man with a rucksack. He looked to be about our age and as it was cold and with Christmas on the way, we felt charitable so pulled over. Theodore jumped out and helped him with his rucksack. Once we were all settled I ventured to ask where he was heading. The hitchhiker, whose name was Clifford, said he was just going wherever the day took him. Clifford was, according to him, on an odyssey of fortune, just putting his life in the hands of Fate; he thought that life would be more interesting that way. This, I could see straight away, was the kind of topic that Theodore would love to get his teeth into. Do we ever really make any decisions for ourselves or do we all follow a pre-determined trajectory from birth? Is free will an illusion or do we really make choices of our own volition?
Theodore suggested that as fate had conspired to bring us together we shouldn’t disappoint her and therefore Clifford should spend the weekend with us at the cottage. Clifford agreed as did I: in for a penny and all that.
Clifford seemed to be a likeable fellow, thoughtful and good company to boot and although I am not a deeply philosophical animal I do like to capitalize on opportunity, see where the wind takes me. We chatted en route to the cottage about ourselves, joked and jibed about sex and women – all normal young men’s behaviour really.
Along the way we passed a young women standing dejected beside her car, the bonnet was open and steam was pouring out into the cold December air. Clifford advised we leave her for some other knight to save. We had, after all, done our good deed for the day by picking him up. This didn’t sit too well with me, the poor thing needed help and I’m sure if it were down to Theodore and me we’d have stopped. Fate it seemed had other ideas. We made one stop later, though, at a convenience store to buy provisions somewhere near Barnstaple – mainly whisky, wine and sausages. We passed a fairground on the outskirts of town and toyed with the notion of coming back but never did. We arrived just before sunset at the cottage.
The cottage was a fair distance from the old manor house, had its own single-track road which was in a poor state of repair but still useable. The tree-lined track ran past the cottage and led to the old family graveyard about 500 yards further on. The lights of the old manor, by then a hotel, were visible in the distance and as the evening progressed we could hear music wafting over from the Christmas party going on.
Anyhow, we three got settled into the cottage and before long the wine began to flow. After a while the conversation turned to philosophical matters, as I thought they might. I removed myself slightly from my guests and went into the little kitchen to prepare the sausages. I can wax lyrical about Chaucer or Dante as well as the next man, I had quite an encyclopaedic memory back then and so to reel off facts or learned text was easy. Philosophy, however, required a different kind of mind, a mind I felt I did not posses. Philosophy requires one to climb out of the world you think you know and look back down upon it and ask yourself, ‘Is any of this true and if so what does it mean?’ It can make some of us feel a little unhinged, some of us like to cling to what we think we know and leave it at that.
From the kitchen, I could still hear Theodore and Clifford talking and was happy to just add the odd wry remark. The conversation had turned back to Clifford’s notion of giving into fate. He was adamant that free will is nothing more than ‘a castle in the air’, that everything we do is predetermined by our history, in fact could be causally traced back to the beginning of the Universe – a knock-on effect of the big bang. Here Clifford quoted Skinner, ‘It is only because we are not aware of the environmental causes of our own behaviour or other people’s that we are tricked into believing in our ability to choose.’
‘With this in mind,’ he continued, ‘an individual committing a crime is led there by circumstance, he may not, probably is not, aware of the accumulation of events leading to this moment. Whether or not he feels like he ever had a choice is irrelevant, he does not, never did. It was woven into the tapestry of his life before he was even born. The criminal is, like the rest of us, compelled to play his role in life.’
I left my bangers to sizzle alone for a moment and chipped in, ‘So Basically the criminal justice system is overrun with people who, according to you, can not be blamed for their behaviour. It wasn’t their fault after all? I mean if some one punches me in the face and steals my wallet, they can legitimately say, ‘It’s not my fault, my behaviour was determined by prior events that were out of my control Your Honour?’
We just have to except that some people are made that way? That my ability to tell right from wrong is inherited or is the result of positive reinforcement somewhere along the line? I’m conditioned to be a positive influence on society and others are conditioned otherwise?’
‘Yes, I could not have put it better myself.’ said Clifford with a smile.
Theodore then said, ‘I’m still of the opinion that I’m the arbitrator of my own decisions, that actually the universe is not so easily measured or so simply defined. Much as we want it all to be quantifiable, tagged and labelled, I don’t think it’s that easy. There has to be a little room for chaos, for random, unpredictable acts. Look at this notion of quantum physics. Totally unpredictable, nothing is what it seems. Perhaps if we consider that it was, at any given moment, possible for someone to have physically pursued the other option, say not punch Peregrine in the face and steal his wallet, then in some other reality that option was fulfilled. There is some logic to your argument of course, I can’t deny that, but sometimes one needs to operate outside of the logical world and open up to an empirical view, actually experience the world. I really feel, intrinsically, that I make decisions.
‘I’m going to actually eat sausages and I shall do so of my own free will,’ I piped up, a little drunkenly, a little in need of sustenance. Clifford stood up and said,
‘You know that events, seemingly random events, have brought us together today. If you trace backwards, from now, at which point in your lives do you think you were at a crossroads? A place where if you took the other decision your life would have played out differently? Or has everything led to this point in time? Were you meant to pick me up today? Were we destined to meet? Isn’t it all so very predictable? You can start anywhere in time, from any isolated event or, and I use this word cautiously, decision, and trace it all the way back to here. Look at you both, you are well educated, you come from ‘good stock’, from the moment you were conceived it was inevitably you would go to Oxford just as your fathers did. Private school has hammered a sense of decency into you and, as neither of you has a family life as such, not in the normal way, you bond with others like you. You have been moulded into good morale subjects, potential leaders, and strong, thoughtful individuals. It is, when you think about it, highly predictable that you would both end up spending time together. You understand that you are privileged; you have both had a religious, ‘Do unto others’ education hammered into you too. Oh you want to test the boundaries, push it a bit, that’s predictable too, but the essence of who you are is formed. You can never really change that now. Tell me Theodore how did it make you feel to leave that young girl by the side of the road today?’
Theodore answered, ‘Not to good, I have to say: I think normally I’d have stopped to help.’
‘What was different?’ inquired Clifford.
’Oh I don’t know…’ said Theodore. ‘You were quite persuasive I suppose, but on reflection I feel a little guilty.’
Clifford said. ’What if I told you that you can let go of the guilt? You can exist without it. What if I persuade you that you are just the type of person that has been conditioned to be a team player? Not unlikely is it? Considering your private education: play rugger did you? If it looks like the team, your peers, are going this way, then you are likely to follow, aren’t you? There’s nothing you can do about it, there is no wriggle room; the decision was made long ago. There can be no guilt if we, all of us, are not morally accountable: the universe decides, we are but pawns.’
Theodore took a long swig of wine before saying, ‘Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing, if used to reflect on one’s behaviour. Reflection can bring reform. There are certain moral criteria we wish to live by: if, on reflection, I think I could have behaved differently, then given another of similar opportunity, I will. It’s what makes us human after all.’
Clifford pounced on this idea, ‘What makes us human? Now that’s another question all together. Some would say, reflection and projection, the ability to reflect on the past and to project or to dream about tomorrow. Others would have it that empathy is the key to humanity; without empathy you are not humane. And yet Theodore, I have no empathy. I mean I look human, right? And yet I have no empathy. I do not feel your pain.’
These last words were said in a voice unlike the one we’d heard before: compassionless, cold, and from a very dark place. In a few strides Clifford moved towards the rucksack he’d left on the floor between himself and Theodore and, to our astonishment, pulled out a gun!
‘Was it meant to be that I kill you tonight? Take your money and your car and leave your bodies to rot?’ he said in the same disturbing low voice, pointing the gun at Theodore.
I had a second to look at Theodore; his face was that of a frightened, confused child, totally lost and yet still trying to figure out what the hell it was all about.
Under the sink in the kitchen I kept a pistol, loaded, just for this kind of unpredictable occasion. I smoked a lot of pot in my teens and became increasingly paranoid as a result. As a safeguard to a good night’s sleep I decided to keep a loaded gun in the kitchen. Thankfully it was still there; thankfully the paranoia had paid off. In the time it took me to retrieve the gun I had only enough time to hear Theodore register his disbelief and to hear Clifford cock his weapon with ill-intent, CLICK…
‘My fate is to kill you, your fate is to die…’ he said coolly.
‘Not on my watch,’ I said from the kitchen door.
Clifford spun round quickly: he was going to shoot me… I shot first. I’m a good shot… well, I was then, haven’t picked up a gun since. Shot him clean between the eyes. Clifford sort of crumpled up very slowly, his mouth still gaping open in disbelief; he hadn’t seen that one coming.’
‘Holy Mary…” whispered Mathew rapidly making the sign of the cross on his chest.
The lights flickered momentarily; the storm circled overhead looking for a way to uproot the old church. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods but me!’ said the storm in her fury.
Peregrine continued, ‘I was having trouble computing what had just happened: I’d just killed a man! In that single moment our lives had changed forever. What was a single moment? In terms of time it was hardly measurable, the blink of an eye … and yet, nothing is ever the same. So many moments had passed before it, so many wasted moments and yet this one now overshadowed even the best of those moments. This one would define me.
‘We need to dispose of the body and the guns and clean up. We need to work fast and do it without detection,’ Theodore said opening the cottage door.
‘I don’t think anyone heard the gunshot from the hotel, the music’s still playing; if anything its getting louder. Nobody knows we are here so lets keep it that way, ok?
Peregrine we don’t have time to waste, we need to move,’ said Theodore firmly.
‘I feel sick, my life is over; I may as well have shot myself.’
‘No! Not at all … you did the right thing. You saved my life. I’m forever in your debt. Clifford, if that was his name, was a dangerous man: he’s more than likely killed before and would have gone on to kill again. You have terminated a cancer and in doing so saved the lives of others. People who will live their whole life never knowing what you did for them. You are a giver of life Peregrine. If everything is predetermined then, as Clifford argued, no one is to blame; Clifford can hardly blame you! If we have free will then your actions are commendable beyond reproach. What sort of person would stand and watch a murder without intervention had he the means to do so?
Now … we know what happened here tonight, we are the only witnesses and if you’d rather go to the police and explain it to them I will back you up, but what’s the point? What justice can be served now? If we make it public, innocent or not, our lives, our futures will be overshadowed by this moment. I say ‘bury it and forget it’.’
He was right of course. What would have been the point of prolonging the ordeal? So we set to work on removing all evidence of our time there. Theodore took charge of the situation; he seemed to be so calm, so confident, and so easy in his mind. I don’t really know how he felt inside of course or how he dealt with it afterwards. We found it easier afterwards to not see one another; it just brought it all back. I’d like to think that he went on to live a good life, a positive life, that he did some good in the world and that this whole business never played on his mind at all.
‘So what did you do with the body?’ asked Mathew intrigued despite himself.
‘Clifford had fallen neatly onto one of my father’s Persian carpets so we dragged his corpse to the graveyard still on the blood stained rug, like a sort of sledge I suppose. Clifford lay on the rug with a bullet hole in his forehead and surprise still registered on the remnants of his face. On top of him we put his rucksack and the guns. Theo took the front and pulled the rug and its contents towards the family graveyard. All I had to do was walk behind and watch to make sure nothing fell off. Five hundred yards of having to stare, with the aid of a full moon, at Clifford’s head bounce about on the rutted track.
Once we were inside the graveyard we were less exposed. The music from the hotel was in full swing. While the partygoers were dancing the Hokey-Cokey we were digging a fresh grave in the far western corner next to Great Uncle Mortimer the molester! No one ever talked about Mortimer and no one wanted to be buried next to him or wanted him buried next to anyone else, least his wandering hands were still tempted to pester.
We dug a grave by moonlight, taking turns to dig while the other kept watch but we were undisturbed and as far as I know unnoticed. Without a word, once the grave was sufficiently deep, we, as one, dragged the dead man into his resting place along with his belongings. The music had stopped and we could just make out the sounds of departure, car doors slamming, shouts and hoorahs, laughter on the horizon. It all seemed so detached, unreal. The carefree, drunken revelry of festive party goes was so incongruous to the reality we were now experiencing. It was one of those moments one stops to ask ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me, what did I do to deserve this?’ And then I saw my accomplice, without ceremony, shovel a heap of earth upon the startled waxen face of Clifford. Clifford the fatalist, Clifford the hitchhiker, Clifford the dead man. We filled in the grave next to uncle Mortimer as best we could, I doubt the graveyard had many visitors least of all in winter.’
Peregrine fell silent.
The thick stone walls of the church absorbed his pain from within whilst weathering the storm from without.
‘My goodness, that’s quite a story! Are you looking for absolution Peregrine?’ said Mathew.
‘But the story is not over yet Father. It gets worse. You see the following day we, Theo and I, were back in that convenience store in Barnstaple and splashed all over the local newspaper is the story of a young women that had gone missing the previous afternoon. You remember I told you that I had a good memory? Well the photo on the cover was the same girl we had passed with her car bonnet up. The one we didn’t stop to help. As the weeks rolled by her body was finally found dumped in some woodland near to where the fairground had been pitched. The story and subsequent manhunt filled the national news for several weeks.
Now you see Father, the thing I have been asking myself, torturing myself with over the past thirty years is, what if we had stopped to help, what then? What if we never picked up Clifford? What then? Why did life unfold this way?’
Mathew shrugged. ‘Well I don’t know the answer to that question Peregrine, I’m afraid. I put my faith in God’s wisdom.’
‘Faith? You are talking about faith? I can’t say I have any. Not anymore. You see I can’t help thinking that Clifford was right: we do not choose; we are dealt. But the dealer is not God or any of his incarnations; it is the Universe. We are all connected in a way, one giant, formidable, universal conscience, ever growing, ever expanding but without design or objective. From the second the Universe came into existence the causal nature of life began. One thing leads to another Father and we, as Shakespeare said, ‘are but players’. I’m blameless, we are all blameless: there is no forgiveness necessary because free will is a hoax, a confidence trick. We, in effect, hoodwink ourselves into believing that we have the capacity to decide our fate. Wrong.
Kathleen Harrington did not have a choice. That was her name, the girl on the side of the road. Kathleen’s fate was a cruel one and her killer, Terrence Hanzi was a cruel man.
Terrence Hanzi was a ‘showman’ he was born into a fairground family, he and his sister worked the stalls from a young age. They learnt the family trade, everything from fixing the rides when they were broken to making candyfloss. Most importantly they learnt the value of a smile, of making people feel good, it is an important part of the job. For them the fairground was their life and they loved it. For other kids it was a magical place full of treats and thrills and Terrence and his sister were groomed in playing their part in that dream. As adults their formative training lent them a certain charm, a charm that outsiders found irresistible. In most cases this charming demeanor is, I’m sure, heart felt. After all, a positive, sociability offers positive rewards. You know, it feels good to be kind, doesn’t it Father?
The point is this Father, when Terrence Hanzi stopped to help Kathleen Harrington she would have fallen for his easy manner and graceful charm. He would have offered practical help in getting her car fixed, he would have given her no real reason for concern. She had, I’m sure, no inclination that Terrence’s sincerity and kindness were a cleverly crafted mask, an illusion, an affectation, behind which lurked a psychopath. Unlike his sister, who is by all accounts a caring, warm and loving human being Terrence is, or was, nothing but a showman. He, I learnt later, offered to tow her car back to the fairground site where he had the parts she needed. At about the time I pulled the trigger on Clifford, Terrence brutally raped and then strangled Kathleen Harrington in woodland near the fairground site.
Kathleen’s parents said that their daughter was a supporter of women’s rights around the world and had plans to move to Calcutta. In Calcutta she wanted to set up health and social centres for women. Educating them about sexual health and family planning. She was opposed to Mother Teresa’s dogmatic approach to women’s rights. Kathleen wanted young women to have access to birth control and, if necessary, abortions. Kathleen wanted to empower women not enslave them to a life of servitude. She wanted women to have the choice, to have the same options as men, not be condemned to poverty and ill health because a young woman is raped by her uncle and made to have the child. Kathleen was the kind of person that would have made a real difference to people’s lives, a positive force in the world. And had I stopped to help her this may well have been the case.’
Mathew interjected now, warming to the theme. ‘You can’t think like that; you made your choice, you responded to reason, however fleeting, and you can’t play the ‘what if’ game now, it’s too late, it’s done, you must come to terms with it. You were hardly responsible for her murder! How many other people drove past that day? Are they all responsible too?’
‘What I’m driving at here Father, what I think Theodore was driving at too is, ‘Are we culpable, are we able to really choose or does it just feel that way? There is no end game Father only acceleration into chaos, into disorder. Entropy increases, and will continue to increase until there is nothing but carnage and we can’t do a thing about it.’
Mathew frowned, ‘Oh you make it all sound so bleak. But, you did what you had to do and you were both so young, unprepared for such things. What are the chances of finding two sociopaths on the same road, on the same day anyhow?’
Peregrine sighed and checked his watch. ‘I’ll be on my way now, just wanted to pay my respects, I won’t take up any more of your valuable time Father’
‘Are you not staying for the service Peregrine?’
‘No I think not’.
And with that Peregrine was on his feet. He stopped briefly to gaze upon the man in the box then strode up the aisle, a little less inebriated now, opened the doors and disappeared into the storm. The storm, losing against the stubbiness of the church, decided to go with him. Quiet fell with an audible bang.
Later Theodore’s widow Annette arrived with her two daughters. Mathew gave them a little space while he busied himself with rituals that had become nothing more than habits. Mathew wanted to find out more about Peregrine’s story but was hesitant, thinking that it wasn’t something he could just drop into a conversation.
Before any of the other mourners arrived Mathew spoke to Annette about her husband, trying to glean some insight into the man. At some point during these hushed exchanges he opted, in the end, to drop Peregrine’s name into the conversation.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, who was Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt?’
Annette looked startled.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt doesn’t exist Father!’ she exclaimed. ‘Peregrine Vanderbilt is a figment of the imagination of one of my husband’s patients, Terrence Hanzi. Terrence Hanzi is serving life imprisonment in a high security hospital. He abducted, raped and then murdered a young woman called Kathleen Harrington in 1974. He was also under suspicion for killing several hitchhikers around the same time.
When he’s interviewed he admits everything, shows no remorse and is in fact, proud of his actions.
But if it is not Terrence but his alter ego, Peregrine, ‘in residence’ that day, then he concocts another story. The other stories differ slightly but always have as a central theme, Peregrine killing someone else in self-defense. It’s as if Terrence Hanzi lived two lives in the same moment. In one he is himself, a charming, but calculating, ruthless psychopathic killer with zero remorse: a monster who, acting on impulse raped and murdered an innocent girl. In the other he is Peregrine, reflective, flawed and fragile, a man, like any other, that when put into an extraordinary situation, acts instinctively, then tortures himself over nuances of choice. A classic split personality. Only one of the stories is true, unfortunately.’
Father Mathew apologized for the question, said that he thought he’d overheard the name mentioned in connection with her husband.
The old church made a note of this lie.
Four weeks later Father Mathew stood in the graveyard on the grounds of the long deceased Earl of St Teath. In the far western corner, next to the resting place of Great Uncle Mortimer he passed his metal detector over the ground adjacent to the grave. Beep…beep…beep.