Peter Anghelides. Pack Animals

(Torchwood – 7)

Light filled Father Ninian’s church and lifted his soul. He loved the place most when it was like this in the mid-morning.

He shaded his eyes to stare up at the rose window above the choir loft. Its brilliant light silhouetted the music stands like skeletal overseers, and sent long shadows running down the length of the nave’s nut-brown parquet. Two centuries of city building around Holy Innocents meant this was the only time of day that natural light streamed uninterrupted through any window in the eighteenth-century building. For much of Cardiff’s population, passing by on their way to shops or work or clubs, the church might as well be invisible. It was tired and old, a bit like Father Ninian, but at moments like this he saw the glory of God again in its damaged pink sandstone. He could even ignore the thrumming vibration of the sewer works in the street around the corner.

He inhaled all the church’s familiar smells. The snuffed smoke of extinguished offertory candles. The beeswax of polished pews. The background tang of old incense. In the vestment room there would be the scent of crisp linen and the cheap aftershave of the more senior altar boys.

Only boys, because Father Ninian didn’t like altar girls.

Two lonely parishioners awaited his arrival for confession today. Mrs Wendle and her husband, of course, bundled in their heavy coats, sitting in the pew between the fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. Simon of Cyrene and St Veronica gazed down with the glazed beatific expressions of nineteenth-century oils.

He genuflected before the altar. When he rose, he smiled in the Wendles’ direction. Unlike the painted saints, they avoided his eyes. The pensioners preferred to talk with their priest in the supposed anonymity of the confessional, pouring out their endless personal litany of venial sins, trivial misdemeanours and perceived slights. Father Ninian kept the pain of his own mortal sins close to himself. He had entered into temptation, he knew, but the flesh was weak. He also knew the promise of damnation if his sin remained unpardoned, and that it must be expunged by sanctifying grace before the time of death. Well, he had opportunity enough for that.

His sacristan fussed by the altar rail as she prepared the church for afternoon mass. Father Ninian smiled at the old woman, and indicated the Wendles. ‘The usual suspects, eh, Miss Bullivant?’

Miss Bullivant scrunched her aged mouth into a disapproving pout so that it puckered like a dog’s bum. She opened the New Jerusalem Bible on the altar rail, and tapped an arthritic knuckle on a page. Father Ninian could see it was the Book of Revelation.

‘Its heads were marked with blasphemous titles,’ she whispered. Miss Bullivant always whispered in church. Father Ninian only ever met her in church, so perhaps she whispered all the time. ‘Blasphemous titles,’ she emphasised, and grasped his sleeve with a gnarled hand. An unlikely description of the Wendles, Father Ninian was about to say, when Miss Bullivant continued: ‘Those youngsters play with monsters. They don’t understand that Halloween should be All Hallows Eve. You should talk about it in your sermon, Father. It’s not about tricks and treats and ghosts and monsters. Forget the saints, and all that’s left is a cult of death.’

Father Ninian looked away from the old woman’s agitated face, and studied the passive expressions of the painted saints by the Stations. ‘I shall consider it, Miss Bullivant,’ he said, meaning no. ‘But I mustn’t keep the Wendles waiting, must I? Are my vestments ready for mass?’

A guilty thought made him smile as he walked away. The pensioners might confess a mortal sin at Halloween after all. If Mrs Wendle had, in a weak moment, been practising black magic, that would be a clear transgression of the First Commandment. He could only hope.

Miss Bullivant’s hiss followed him down the side aisle as she disappeared into the vestry. ‘There’s someone in there already. Waiting.’

Father Ninian frowned. He preferred penitents to wait outside until he had settled himself in place in the confessional box. It wouldn’t do to peer too obviously through the grille. He kissed and positioned his stole, muttered his words of prayer, and said softly: ‘Yes, my child?’

It sounded like a chuckle from beyond the grille. ‘My child?’ repeated a young man’s voice.

Father Ninian hoped it wasn’t another Saturday morning drunk. He leaned towards the grille. There was no smell of alcohol, just the dusty veil and the cherry-wood frame. ‘How long is it since your last confession?’

‘Forgive me, Father,’ said the soft voice, ‘for you have sinned.’

Now Father Ninian did peer directly through the grille. He saw a figure in an orange Cardiff United shirt. The unblinking green eyes stared back, so shockingly direct that the priest flinched away. He knew this boy. No longer a boy, of course, he was… who? Father Ninian’s mind reeled as he tried to compose his thoughts. One of his altar servers from… eight years ago, perhaps more. Gary or Gareth or Graeme. Gareth, it was Gareth. Must be in his twenties now. How could he have forgotten Gareth?

‘You’re not going to forgive me,’ Gareth said coldly.

Father Ninian fiddled with his trouser leg. He couldn’t leave now, he’d barely been in here two minutes, what would the Wendles think? ‘It’s not me who forgives you, my son. I absolve you in the name of-’

‘I don’t want your absolution.’

‘You could have sought penance at any church. Why choose Holy Innocents?’

‘Holy Innocents?’ Another snort of laughter. ‘You’re not wholly innocent yourself, are you, Father?’ He rattled the partition between them. ‘I’ve brought you this.’

A piece of coloured card was pushed through the side of the grille. It was like a large playing card, the size of a paper sheet folded in half. Father Ninian plucked it from the frame and studied it quizzically. His question died on his lips when he heard the fizzing noise, like a match being struck. Absurdly, the priest’s first thought was of Health and Safety regulations that forbade smoking inside the building but still allowed his altar boys to light a thurible and wave incense around the church.

A bright flare of illumination filled the confessional. The priest felt his heart pound. The place was ablaze with light. In the confined space, a squat human shape was forming before his eyes, dark against a brilliance brighter than the rose window.

No, not a human. Now he could see a monster in human form. Rags loosely covered its creased leathery hide. A skein of scraggy hair tufted around a snarling face of deep-set eyes and drooling mouth. Its forehead was marked with deep wrinkles, brutal furrows scribbled across its brow. The enclosed space filled with its foul stench.

‘Oh God!’ cried Father Ninian.

‘As usual,’ said Gareth’s calm voice, ‘God has nothing to do with it.’

Father Ninian choked a scream. The creature cocked its hideous head and turned its attention to him. It seized him in one savage movement and raked the flesh of his face and neck with its sharp teeth. The priest shrieked and slipped from its grasp. He squirmed between its straddling legs, through the curtain, and out onto the parquet of the aisle. Mrs Wendle craned her neck out of her overcoat, and stared down at him like a startled turtle.

Inside the confessional, the monster lurched to left and right in a furious attempt to escape from its wooden prison. The curtain wrenched aside and the creature loomed in the frame, bellowing. The Wendles fled.

Father Ninian scrambled backwards down the side aisle, too terrified to decide whether to waste time trying to stand. The creature slammed two pews aside. Beyond it, the priest could see Gareth swiftly but calmly walking away into the shadows at the rear of the church.

‘Gareth, help me!’ pleaded Father Ninian.

Gareth’s orange football shirt continued to move away. The young man’s calm voice floated back in the church’s echo. ‘Help you? I can’t even forgive you.’

Just as Father Ninian reached the altar rail, the monster reached Father Ninian.


Banana Boat was driving Rhys Williams crazy. Rhys hated shopping trips at the best of times, and his long- time school friend’s relentlessly cheerful running commentary during their progress through the out-of-town mall

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