Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins

BOOK: Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins
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For Marilyn

 

 

 

 

‘To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.’

G. K. Chesterton

Contents

The Forgiveness of Sins

 

Nothing to Worry About

 

Fugue

 

A Following

 

Prize Day

 

Florence

 

A Note on the Author

 

By the Same Author

The Forgiveness of Sins

One cold Thursday morning, in February 1964, a man walked into the church in Grantchester and would not leave. He had fled from his Cambridge hotel after waking to discover that his wife had been stabbed to death. He had been sleeping beside her, the door and windows were locked on the inside and a knife was on the bedside table. The man could remember nothing. Now he was claiming sanctuary.

The skies were a sombre grey but the day was filled with light after three days of snow. The vicar, Canon Sidney Chambers, had just returned from walking his Labrador, his baby daughter had croup and a new curate had only recently been installed. The last thing he needed was a crisis.

The stranger had dressed in a hurry, using the clothes he had left on a chair from the previous night: an evening suit, a bow-tie that was loose and draped around the collar, and a dress-shirt. Despite the cold of that Lenten morning he was in a feverish sweat. Beads of perspiration formed beneath eyes that had still not completely woken to the day.

Sidney was sure that the ancient law of sanctuary, in which those accused of murder could be given forty days’ protection from revenge and the law, had been abolished in the seventeenth century. But perhaps there were exceptions, he told himself. He knew it was his Christian duty to speak to strangers and offer compassion.

‘My name is Josef Madara,’ the man began. He spoke with an Eastern European accent and his gaze was fixed on the middle distance, as if he was speaking to someone dead or far away. ‘I am the principal violinist in the Holst Quartet. My wife, Sophie, plays the cello. We were performing last night: Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, late Beethoven. All was good. We had some dinner afterwards and then a nightcap at the hotel. That is all I remember.’

‘Were any other people with you?’ Sidney asked, troubled by the intensity of the man’s eyes. They appeared caught between colours.

‘Only Dmitri and Natasha Zhirkov, the two other members of the quartet.’

‘And they play the violin and the viola?’

‘We are two couples. Five years we play together.’

‘And there was nothing unusual last night?’

‘Nothing. It is like a dream. Am I here now, in this church? Is this place sacred? Who are you?’

As a clergyman and now, almost officially, a part-time detective, Sidney was used to unexpected arrivals, unfortunate departures, accident, surprise and the apparently inexplicable. The key thing, he told himself, was not to rush. ‘You are safe here,’ he replied.

‘Can I stay? I am not free from fear.’

‘You are welcome to remain for this morning; but there will be evensong this afternoon. You will have to leave the chancel.’

‘But this is sanctuary. I cannot move.’

It was too soon to press a point. ‘We will come on to that,’ Sidney said calmly.

‘If I am here, I am safe.’

‘Perhaps you would like to tell me what happened?’

Josef Madara pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and began to roll a cigarette.

‘Please . . .’ Sidney asked. ‘Not in church.’

‘I know, I know. I am Catholic. It is something to do with my hands.’

‘You were going to tell me . . .’

‘All I remember,’ the stranger continued, ‘is waking up and thinking that something was wrong. I was lying on my side. Then I saw blood. At first I thought I had cut myself. Perhaps the glass by my bed had fallen. I moved but I felt something sharp and looked down . . .’

‘Was it light?’

‘It was grey. I could see darkness against the white of the sheet. A knife. I turned on the light. I saw Sophie and the blood. Her face was in the pillow. I sat on the bed staring. The blood was everywhere. I looked across at the knife. Then I went to the door. I was going to get help but the door was locked and I couldn’t remember where we had put the key. I washed my face. I thought I might still be asleep. The water was cold. I wanted to wake up. But I couldn’t. Or I was already awake. I couldn’t remember anything. I got dressed. The key to the room was in the pocket of my trousers. I drew the curtains to see what the day was like. I don’t know why I did that. I saw a bus. It said it was going to Grantchester. I decided to go there. I would follow its direction. Then I could be free.’

‘Were the windows closed?’ Sidney asked.

‘There was a door on to the balcony. We never went out. There was snow. I unbolted the window and threw the knife outside. My hands were frozen and there was the blood. I closed the window. I put on my coat and saw Sophie. She had a white silk nightdress. It was red. The heart. I think an artery. I could not look any more. I turned out the light. Then I opened the door to the room. I locked it from the outside. I left the key at the reception. I did not say anything. Then I started to walk and I came to this church.’

‘Why here? There are others.’

Madara’s response was puzzled. Had Sidney not been listening? ‘Because of the bus.’

‘And you have told no one?’

The man had little left to say. ‘I like the colour of the stone here; and the glass. When was the church built?’

Sidney needed more information. ‘As far as you know, your wife is still in your room?’

‘She must be.’

‘The hotel maid will discover her body.’

‘Unless Dmitri and Natasha . . . they will knock. Perhaps they will find her.’

‘When were you due to leave?’

‘Today.’

It was after eleven o’clock, and Josef Madara had the settled look of a man who had decided that his day’s work was done. Sidney needed help and he thought of Inspector Keating. ‘I must tell a friend of mine what has happened.’

‘I stay here.’

‘For the time being, yes.’ Someone was at the North Door. ‘It is good of you to come to my church,’ Sidney concluded, trying to be as honest as he could. ‘And I can assure you that we will look after you. I will have to lock the building. It is not something I like doing, but at least it is the middle of the week, and it will be for your protection. What was your room number at the hotel?’

‘It was on the second floor.’

‘Your name again?’ Sidney checked.

‘Madara. My family are originally from Latvia.’

‘And I can trust you to wait here, Mr Madara?’

‘The Church is my hope,’ the musician replied. ‘I see the cross of Jesus before me and I know that he is coming down to greet me. Against the light, he comes.’

The figure that emerged from the darkness was not, however, the Lord and Saviour of Mankind, but Malcolm Mitchell, the new curate. Having previously challenged his parishioners with Leonard Graham’s intellectual demands (one of his sermons on Kierkegaard had been entirely incomprehensible), Sidney had chosen, as his replacement, a larger-than-life, cake-loving, model-railway enthusiast.

Malcolm Mitchell had a ready smile and a boyish excitement, prepared at any time for the opportunities God gave. He sat down next to Josef Madara and asked, quietly and patiently, if there was anything the man needed. Would he like a cup of tea or a glass of water? Was he warm enough? Perhaps he required a blanket? Even when the church heating was on, he said, it was hard to feel any warmth.

Sidney explained the situation, made his farewells and bicycled across the frozen meadows to his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, at the police station. He could already hear the exasperated reaction in his head. ‘Sanctuary! Murder! Why didn’t you telephone? It would have been a hell of a lot quicker.’

Keating’s response would have been justified but the unusual nature of the situation made Sidney want to discuss it in person. The gritters were out on the roads, the first snowmen had begun to appear across the town and Geordie was on his third cup of tea of the morning. ‘This is trouble, isn’t it?’ he asked.

‘I am afraid so. I think you will want to come with me to the Garden House Hotel.’

‘I have had my breakfast, Sidney – an inadvisable kipper – and it’s too early for lunch. What has happened?’

‘I am not sure.’

‘Even when you’re not sure, you worry me.’

‘Then please help me find out what’s happened. You have time?’

‘Sometimes I think you take advantage of our friendship.’

The hotel was a modern building on the River Cam and its distance from the police station allowed Sidney enough time to brief his friend as they walked down Mill Lane. It was a bitter morning, without birdsong, the traffic sparse and subdued as people made their way fearfully through the streets. An old man fell, a child cried, a young girl slipped, screamed and laughed. Inspector Keating asked the hotel manager if he wouldn’t mind showing them up to Josef and Sophie Madara’s room on the second floor. A coach party huddled at reception, reluctant to step out into the world.

As they climbed the stairs, Sidney dreaded opening the door. He imagined the sheets awry and covered in blood, a female body eviscerated: a chaos of hatred.

And so it came as something of a surprise to find a perfectly ordered room with the bed made, suitcases packed and clean towels left out. There was nothing amiss.

‘Are you sure we’ve got the right room?’ Keating asked.

‘This is 211,’ said the manager.

‘Look. Here is Madara’s violin,’ Sidney noted. ‘And a suitcase. Their name is on the luggage label.’

‘Any sign of the wife’s clothes?’

‘I’ll open it.’

Inside was a skirt, blouse, underwear and a make-up bag. There was, however, no sign of Sophie Madara’s cello. ‘Perhaps she left it at the concert hall?’ Sidney suggested.

‘I can’t believe you are wasting my time with a nutter’s cock and bull story.’

‘I believed him, Geordie.’

‘Sometimes I think you accept things too readily.’

Sidney had a sudden thought about Easter: the discovery of the empty tomb, the linen left unfolded like a napkin in the middle of a meal, the symbol that Jesus would return.

Keating turned to the manager. ‘Has the room been cleaned?’

‘I can’t be sure. The covers aren’t arranged in the usual way. The toiletries have yet to be replaced. Perhaps it’s the new girl. I’ll make some enquiries.’

‘Is it possible the couple never slept here at all?’

‘Someone has been in the room.’

‘Then either Madara, or his dead wife, must have tidied up.’

Sidney wondered if he had been tricked. He had always thought himself a good judge of character. In fact, he prided himself on his ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood. But if Madara was not a fantasist, who would have come into a locked room and how could they have tidied up the scene of the crime without anyone noticing? More importantly, where was the victim?

BOOK: Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins
4.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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