The air was oppressively humid on the first Friday in July 2015. There was a rumbling followed by a roar. Yes, Richard Shackleton had found something to amuse him in the letter he was reading. His wife, Helen, knew him well enough to know that it would be funny, although it would probably lose a lot in the telling.
“The insurers for the Petty Green Church want us to test that the lightning conductor works, as a condition of renewing the policy,” he said. The conductor ran down from the old metal cross on top of the spire. “Perhaps they want me to shin up there with a nine volt battery and do a circuit test. Or, maybe I can persuade the National Grid to connect one of their high voltage lines to it? Otherwise, we’d better hope the Almighty has it in for someone else.”
Helen smiled dutifully. She’d been hoping for better. But it was their wedding anniversary the next day, July the Fourth, Loss of Independence Day in her life, so she stayed friendly.
“I’m sure you’ll find firms that specialise in conductor testing on t’internet, as your Boltonian chum Peter Kay would say.”
This marriage of laughing-eyed Lancashire man and sharp-edged Sussex woman was rock solid on the opposites-attract principle, which permitted sparks to fly as they made their connection. Richard would give nearly as good as he got, describing Helen’s home county as ‘Upper Normandy’. Nearly 70, Richard was a former investment banker with a conscience. He was now the lay reader who looked after St John’s Church in Petty Green, a Hertfordshire village considered too small to have its own parson. The hub Church for three separate satellites was in the larger village of Monkey Mead, where the Shackletons lived. Helen, 15 years younger than Richard, was less accepting of divine providence – her job as a vet meant she regularly took life into her own hands. Two of their four children had yet to fly the nest of their rambling old home. James, at 20, was a history student. Delightful-mistake Amy, aged 13, was still at school.
The family went out that evening for an Indian meal to celebrate the pre-anniversary. Helen and Richard intended a posh, candlelit meal for two the next night, gazing into each other’s eyes, he rejoicing in her beauty, she counting his wrinkles. The air was getting hotter as the varying-strength curries sank down.
Sure enough, there were storms that night. The sky was so bright from the lightning that it seemed like daylight for much of the time. The thunder rolled and crashed, rattling the windows. The 14-year old family dog, Trotter, sought refuge under James’s bed, gladly granted. Their even older cat, Chloe, snuggled up with Amy.
The sun was shining early the next morning. After a quick breakfast Richard set off for his regular constitutional with Trotter. The dog’s hackles rose as soon as they were outside. Sitting on the gatepost was (as Richard biblically described the beast a bit later to Helen) a large ginger cat, like a leopard, feet like a bear, mouth like a lion. Trotter was a border collie, and had increased the average intelligence of the household since arrival, despite his preference for herding joggers rather than sheep. When younger, he would chase cats but discretion was at this age the better part of valour, particularly with a monster this size.
The cat wailed heart-rendingly at the pair, as they left for their walk, and was still there when they returned. Richard fed Trotter before taking out a bowl of Chloe’s cat food, which Ginger wolfed down. Blown in on the storm, he was desperately hungry. In the house, Helen and Richard exchanged anniversary presents and shared a quick kiss. She came out to examine the cat from hell, and established that he was a neutered male. Ginger lingered at their door all morning. Tough as he looked, he was a pussy-cat metaphorically as well as physically. Once he’d cleaned himself up, Ginger became a strikingly handsome specimen of cathood. He adored young Amy, allowing her to hold and stroke him, hissing only at Trotter and Chloe if they ventured too close. Just before lunch, Helen decided to go to the surgery for her microchip reader.
While she was away, Richard received a phone call from a Petty Green congregation member, who thought he’d seen a lightning strike snake down the church spire overnight, although he could see no damage. Richard promised to gob over to have a look that afternoon. Helen returned from the surgery and soon ascertained that Ginger belonged at an isolated farmhouse a few miles away on the other side of Petty Green. The telephone number for the owner, Joseph Bartram, wasn’t working. A family forum agreed that Helen and Amy would take Ginger back to his home after lunch. James would go with his Dad to see if there was any damage at the Church, in case any lifting was needed. Helen laughed at the idea of God taking the lightning conductor test into his own hands.
“Don’t you go mending things,” she joked. “What God hath put asunder, let no man join together.”
After lunch, Ginger was placed into Chloe’s cat basket with a struggle. As they arrived at the farmhouse, the cat became extremely agitated.
At the Church, there wasn’t anything obviously damaged, but all the electrics had been knocked off, which they took as evidence of a direct strike. Richard planned to arrange for a fuller building inspection later in the week.He would also need to find someone to check the lightning conductor installation, satisfactory as it seemed to have been. The church bell was controlled electronically and proved beyond their capabilities to reset.
“Perhaps as well,” said James. “If there has been any damage to the spire, when it rings it might come crashing down on your head as you’re preaching. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Richard’s ministry was a permanent family joke. He wouldn’t have had it any different.
Meanwhile, at the farmhouse there was no answer at the door. While Amy talked reassuringly to Ginger, Helen went round the back. She peered through the kitchen window and thought she could see a boot on the floor. Standing on a bucket, she could see much more than a boot. It was a body of an old man, she presumed Joseph Bartram. There was nothing to be done but ring the police, and then Richard. Richard and James beat the police to the farmhouse by a minute.
Richard and James both stayed well away from the body, while Amy demonstrated that she had the constitution of her mother by looking closely. It didn’t take long for the police to believe the reason for them all being there. An occupied cat basket was an unlikely accessory to murder. The pathologist arrived. Further tests would, of course, be needed but death had been several days earlier – a heart attack or stroke the most likely cause.
Ginger was quiet, as if grieving. He must have been locked out of his home since the sad death. He was taken back by the Shackletons and encouraged to go out. He preferred to be in the house, finding a spot to sit by the washing machine, out of the way of the other two pets. Helen said she would advertise for a new home for him in her surgery.
It was a sombre anniversary dinner for Helen and Richard. They held hands on the way back and, once in the car, kissed long and passionately. Death was too final, and they didn’t want to lose each other.
The next morning Richard collected the consecrated items for the communion and drove to Petty Green. His sermon was subdued and downbeat. The congregation prayed for the repose of Joseph’s soul, not that he had ever been to their Church. A middle-aged woman sitting at the back cried softly. She didn’t come forward for the bread and wine. Richard almost sprinted down the aisle at the end of the service to make sure he could have a word with her before she escaped.
She was Joe Bartram’s daughter, Samantha. She explained the police had notified her of his death, as his only next-of-kin, and she had popped into the Church on an impulse having driven up from London to see the farmhouse. His will had been found already, which left everything to her. Joe and his wife had separated many years ago, when Sam was just a baby. She’d never known him. Her mother was long dead.
Sam was a single mother bringing up two kids in a one-bedroom, rented flat. On the night of the storms, she said, she’d had a vivid dream of a “beast from hell” telling her that she was his, the devil’s own, for forgetting her father. She reckoned she would have to sell the farmhouse, so she could buy her own place.
“Why not live there?” asked Richard. “God and the devil can be easily confused in the dark. And you could have that ‘beast’ for extra company. I think the dream was your Dad asking you to look after his cat.”
He told her Ginger’s story while the other congregation members filed out. The Shackletons didn’t have to find a new home for Ginger. A few months later, Sam and family moved into the farmhouse. Ginger was taken back to his old home. He purred like a tractor engine when he arrived.