“Money in for the very first round of the second year,” called Simon, “come on, hands in pockets. But freshers” — he smiled his famous smile at the girl next to him – “freshers go free.”
Notes and coins pooled on the table and Simon struggled back from the crowded bar with three pints of lager, a bottle of beer and a still orange. “You didn’t maximise your advantage,” he scolded Rosie. “A freebie on offer and you only want an orange! That’s not the way we do things here, oop North.” He smiled again and so did Rosie. “I suppose I’ll learn,” she said.
Students were flooding into the city for the start of the university year and the Keys of the Kingdom, like most pubs inside the river’s great loop, was bursting with eager drinkers and excited story-swappers.
Tom had been on a charity trip to Africa, helping in a rural medical centre, and his story of finding an abandoned, Aids-wrecked boy in a village hut momentarily silenced their table. “I just saw his eyes in the dark, big eyes looking up. My heart jumped, I thought it was a wild animal.” Then answering the looks on the faces around him, he shook his head. “Nah, he had no chance. He starved really. The family wouldn’t go near him.”
Alex spent his vacation in Greece, mostly exploring the Aegean islands where he planned to set his first novel. But Japan was too far and too costly for Mitsuaki, so he worked on improving his English as a helper at a school camp.
Rosie turned to Simon. “You’re not from oop here, are you?” she asked, bravely repeating Simon’s jokey allusion to North-speak. “Nae lass,” he responded, then cut-glass again, “Aye’m from Cheltenham, actually.”
Tom watched over the top of his Foster’s as Simon launched into his Master Of Ceremonies routine, talking up the city, its hostelries, the sweep of the river, the great castle on the rock and, particularly, his ancient college and its boat club. When Rosie said that was also her college and she was a rower, too, Simon gave her a hug and Rosie’s eyes sparkled. “It all seems so perfect,” she exclaimed, whereupon Simon raised his hands, maestro-like, and the table chorused the university slogan, “A perfect place to live; a perfect place to learn!”
Tom waited until the hubbub subsided. “You forgot one item, Simon,” he said.
“I did? What could that be?” Simon’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “Tesco’s? The court house? The council offices?” He paused. “Oh yes, I have it – the public toilets!”
Rosie sensed tension and glanced at Tom, who looked steadily at Simon.
Brushing the cowlick of hair back from his pale, fine brow, Simon shrugged and turned to Rosie. “We know what he means. He means that other big building on the hill next to the castle, the big, big church which Tom and his fellow sheep flock to every Sunday. Can’t forget that, can we?” He sketched what might have been a sign of the cross. “It’s so important they call it a cathedral. In Church-speak that’s heavy, man! That’s big! You can get lots of sheep in there.”
Alex waved a placatory hand. “Ignore him, Rosie. The place is amazing. Dates from 1093, the finest example of Norman architecture in the world. Faith or no faith, you can spend hours there.”
It was as the four men walked towards the Keys earlier that Simon had stopped suddenly and raised a hand — “hang on, chaps.” Rosie was alone, head tilted, examining a bronze, life-sized art work of six men carrying a casket. When Simon spoke, she turned and smiled. Yes, she was alone, she said. “My parents saw me into my lodgings this afternoon, but granny is poorly so they couldn’t stay. A friend from school is due but not till tomorrow, so I thought I would look around the town.”
“No need for explanations,” declared Simon, “you’re at uni now. But weren’t you lucky to bump into us? Four fellers, just like that!” He snapped his fingers and they all laughed.
For Rosie, the evening raced past as she learned about her new friends, their families, their degree courses and ambitions, the tantalizing glimpses she got of their characters. Awareness of their physical presence was unavoidable, squeezed as they were around a small table. Simon, with his startling blue eyes and that unruly, blond lock, white shirt open at the neck, was impossible to ignore and she could not help noticing the covert glances he got from girls at nearby tables or passing to and from the bar. By now drinking white wine, Rosie guessed he was probably the cleverest of them, certainly the most attractive. She wondered if he was the nicest.
Mitz, the Japanese economist, had little to say and Rosie wondered how much of the conversation he caught. Alex sported a dark brown beard going on red, permanently maintained at two days’ growth. She suspected his literary ambitions might in time turn into something less aspirational, a role behind an Eng Lit teacher’s desk perhaps? Tom was harder to read. Local, square-jawed, neat trim of beard, kindly eyes and a slow smile. If he became the doctor he planned to be, he would not be one who spent much time looking down microscopes, she guessed. Simon, she noticed, was the only one without facial hair – even Mitz had a tuft on his chin.
Rosie’s academic achievements were supportively explored and advice handed out concerning her profs and their methods. A vast raft of student activities were outlined and she was interrogated on her tastes in music, her interest in politics and social activism, language skills, where her gap year took her, who was her friend and what time tomorrow would she arrive.
Deep into the evening, Simon stood and said, “Won’t be a moment, just want to warm the monk’s leg.” Seeing Rosie’s perplexity, he stopped and spread his hands: “See a man about a dog? Point Percy at the porcelain? Spend a penny?”
“OK, I guessed,” said Rosie. “But ‘warm the monk’s leg?’ That’s a new one.”
“My very own invention,” said Simon. But instead of heading to the door marked MEN, he left the bar and stepped outside.
Rosie turned to Tom. “It’s the statue you were looking at, The Flight,” he explained, “six monks carrying the body of the saint to its final resting place. The story is they spent a hundred years fleeing from the Vikings before finally stopping at this rock above the river. They built a church over his remains, then the cathedral after that, the one that annoys Simon so much.”
“The Flight,” said Rosie. “I had a good look at it. It’s quite marvelous, carved in elm probably, then cast in bronze.”
“There speaks the fine arts student,” said Tom.
“But why put it here?”
“This part of the town was expected to become a kind of cultural redoubt. A small museum and a library were planned and bookshops were expected, but things went the other way – bars and restaurants. So it turned out to be the worst possible place for a piece like that.”
“Why? Has it been defaced?”
“Not defaced, traffic cones on the monks’ heads, football shirts, balloons, that sort of thing. The worst, though, is some late-night drinkers have been using it as a urinal or a vomitorium.”
Rosie grimaced and Tom went on: “I suppose you could say they have an excuse – caught short or couldn’t keep the last pint down – and of course it’s useful to hide behind.” Simon reappeared at the table and looking up at him, Tom concluded, “Other people don’t have any excuse.”
“He means me,” said Simon, “but I’m not disrespectful. I do not mock the holiness of the saint or his loyal burial party. If they want to gallivant around the country with a decomposing corpse for a hundred years, that’s up to them. Mine is simply a scientific experiment. I am assessing the effect of uric acid on bronze. I always use the same guy’s left leg, the middle bloke in the outside three, the one with the curly beard. I’ve peed on him for a year. He’s held up well so far, but I think I’m seeing progress, some thinning of the metal. I’m getting there.”
Alex leaned forward, shaking his head. “Sorry to tell you this, Simon, but your scientific experiment is over. The statue is being moved inside the cathedral perimeter tomorrow. The council announced it this afternoon, ‘to safeguard it from vandals.’”
Simon paused only briefly. “And about time,” he said. “Who wants a coffin outside their favourite pub? Tell you what, I’ll be happy to join in myself and carry the bod the last few yards, add my shoulder to the cause, why not?” He looked round. “All right, are we finished here? Let’s bid the saint farewell. Come on.”
Rosie decided to powder her nose and when she and Tom got outside, there was no sign of Simon. The statuary was deserted and a light rain was falling. They called their friend’s name and searched the road half a mile either side of the Keys. They checked two pubs nearby and the chip shop. Once, Tom stopped. “Listen! My name!” But Rosie heard nothing and the voice did not come again. Was it a video, a karaoke maybe, a trick of the wind? Tom looked shaken. “Hopefully, we’ll catch him in the morning.”
He held his arm out. “Come on, Rose, I’ll see you home.”
But they did not catch Simon in the morning. Or in the afternoon. Or the evening. When he had been missing for 24 hours, Tom contacted the university authorities who called the police. Simon had not returned to his flat, it seemed; his laptop had not been used, his mobile phone was missing and calling his number did not produce a ringing tone; he had not been spotted in any other pubs, his most recent ex-girlfriend said she had not seen him since last term and he had not contacted his parents in Cheltenham.
There had been a rash of after-midnight student drownings lately and though no reports had been received of anyone in the river, or acting strangely on the bridges or towpaths, police frogmen carried out a three-day dragnet operation, without result.
As the last persons to see Simon, Rosie and Tom were questioned at length. Their friend was not drunk, they affirmed, he held his drink well; he was not angry, provocative maybe, impish in mood, but that was his nature; he was not suicidal, absolutely not.
Could it be a trick? the police sergeant wanted to know. Did he play practical jokes? Was it a stunt for the student newspaper? They shook their heads, no, no and no.
“But you thought you heard him calling for help,” the sergeant said.
“Not for help,” Tom said, “I thought I heard a voice calling my name, just my name, ‘Tom.’ I couldn’t swear it was Simon.”
“Was it different?” asked the sergeant. “I mean, pronounced in his usual way?”
“My name is a single syllable, sergeant. There’s only one way to pronounce it.”
“But the tenor,” the sergeant pursued. “Even a single syllable can convey emotions.”
Tom hesitated. “That’s why I didn’t think it was him, that it was maybe from some drama or a video or radio playing out of a window somewhere. It sounded… fearful.”
“Fearful, yes.” Tom said. “Full of fear. Terror, really.”
*No cry for help, just ‘Tom,’ full of fear?”
“And it was not repeated.”
“No. I waited. We waited. It didn’t come again.”
“And you Madame,” turning to Rosie, “you didn’t hear it, a terrified cry?”
“What can I say, Sergeant? I heard nothing. No shouts, no cries. I just assumed Simon had gone his own way. I didn’t know him well, we only met that night.”
“Let me ask you this,” the policeman said. “Did you at any point see anyone running in the area of the statue? We have a report from a student that he saw a hoodie hurrying along, apparently limping, favoring his left leg, but hurrying away. See anything like that?”
They both shook their heads. “Plenty of hoodies around here, sergeant,” Tom said, “and it was starting to rain. If people were hurrying, it was to their digs.”
“Which is what you did?”
“Yes, I walked back with Rosie. And we bumped into another crowd from my year, so we all went together.”
The sergeant nodded. “We will keep looking. If you hear anything …”
The lady on the Cathedral Green, elderly, white-haired and well-spoken, wore a blue verger’s robe over her white silk blouse and tweed skirt. The blue badge of an accredited guide was pinned to the robe.
“Over here, please,” she called to a small group of tourists dispersed across the lawns. Most seemed British or European, but two couples were East Asian, probably Japanese, and there were four bored-looking children. Most of the group held guidebooks, all had mobile phones.
“I understand some of you were recently in France,” the guide began. “And I am sure you will have seen examples of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame in Paris, perhaps, or Chartres or possibly Soissons. However, the magnificent cathedral you see in front of you is not Gothic in style, it is Norman. Indeed it is perhaps the finest example of Norman architecture in the world, certainly in Britain.
“But first,” she added hurriedly as two of the children started towards the great cathedral doors, “first, I want you to see an extraordinary example of religious art. This way please.”
Moments later, the visitors stood clustered around The Flight, positioned at the center of the Green and protected by a small iron fence. The children reached through the railings to caress the metal figures as the guide recounted the story of the saint’s violence-wracked, century-long journey to its present resting place.
“We will soon see the saint’s remains in the cathedral crypt,” she said, “but first I would like you to study these figures. They were originally carved in wood, probably elm, then cast in bronze. Originally, I’m told, The Flight stood in the city itself, but for various reasons, it was positioned here, a more appropriate site, don’t you agree?”
The group murmured and nodded and the guide spoke again. “Now I would like you to look carefully at these six monks and tell me if anything strikes you.”
Mr Iwase spoke up. “This one,” he said, pointing to the middle figure on the outside row of three.
“And what have you noticed about him?” the guide asked.
“No hoodie,” the tourist said.
“Cowl,” the guide corrected. “The hood attached to a monk’s robe is known as a cowl. Yes, he is the only one without a cowl. Anything else?”
A boy pointed. “He’s got a bad leg.”
“Well, yes,” the guide said. “Some of the metal on his left leg seems corroded. It’s more exposed to the elements or perhaps this was a casting fault. But anything about the monk himself?”
Mr Iwase raised his hand again. “No beard,” he said.
“Exactly, well done, sir!” the guide said. “Of all six monks, he alone has no beard — very unusual for a mature male then. How could a man stay so closely shaven at a time when cutting tools were the crudest things imaginable. A clean-shaven cleric, an anachronism, very odd. The sculptor’s joke perhaps? Who knows?”
Her listeners looked back blankly but she pressed on: “One final thing. Come and look closely again. This particular monk has a stray lock of hair over his forehead, just a little curl. In English, we call that a cowlick. It gives him a certain humanity, a personality that perhaps the others lack, something you rarely get in religious art. He looks a nice young man, this monk, and so lifelike, happy to be a coffin-bearer for the saint, don’t you think so?”
But the crowd was already drifting off towards the cathedral and the guide hurried to catch them up. “As I was saying, this magnificent structure…”