There were two churches around Stanley common: Saint Mary’s on the east side, MH Methodist to the west.
The first reminded Susan of a gothic sandcastle after the lap of a wave, its once keen edges retreated under erosion. The seraphim at the foot of the spire were like crippled babies with thinning limbs and melting smiles. The graveyard, sprinkled with great flakes of stony flesh fallen from the church walls, seemed freshly blitzed.
Susan could see the church from her bedroom window as she packed her bags.
While the moldings on this church perished, nothing seemed to affect the other building that couldn’t be fixed with a lick of paint. The only passing of time evoked by the second church was measured in the shades of magnolia that succeeded each other on the outer walls. It was a modern bungalow with an acute steeple covered in vinyl roof tiles.
This church had been blessed with a professional kitchen, which supplied weekly meat and potato pie to a congregation of the elderly, and to any straggler prepared to trade a dose of faith for dinner. On Thursday, Susan could smell the boiling gravy from her backyard.
Stanley common, the park that lay between Susan’s house and the two churches, served as a walkway for the hungry religious folk of Maris Hill, a route to service and lunch. Stanley the bleeding crossing. Susan had never thought of Stanley common as a religious being, although she did recall a spiritual experience that had taken place there during the autumn fair, two years back.
She had just purchased a red plastic chip for a ride on the cakewalk. Her throat was burning hot and cold from the cup of minted mushy peas she knocked back like a shot. Another warmth came from watching her neighbors on their night out.
She climbed onto the cakewalk behind a young woman with a peroxide bob, and jittered halfway around the track, stopping a minute to feel her body battle against the silly machinery. She stood rooted to the spot as steadfast as she could be, which proved to be steadfast enough to go nowhere, not even down. Behind her the other riders were eager for Susan to budge, so she did.
As she stepped off the ride, an old man with a birdcage accosted her, offering, for a modest amount, the services of his fortune-telling canary. Susan had a pretty good idea of her future and so, for the purpose of confirmation, she handed the man what he asked for.
The old man put the cage down and threw the bird a corn kernel. The bird finished the kernel and looked expectantly at his ringmaster. The man then placed a small box of tiny scrolls in the center of the cage. The scrolls were fastened with cake box string. The canary acted out some drama, flinging itself against the walls of the cage a couple of times, even losing a golden feather. Susan was unconvinced.
The bird walked towards the box, took one of the scrolls in its beak and passed it through the bars of his cage. “Well go on then, take it,” said the old man, “It’s no bloody good for nobody else.” Susan took the paper from the animal’s beak and rolled it open:
“Faith is a question fear won’t answer.”
Packing her bags today, Susan wondered whether faith had made her sleepy, fear had made her hungry, and whether Stanley common was the only one in Maris Hill who did not enjoy the fairground.
It was the one time a year the park disappeared completely to make way for the helter-skelters, carousels, rifle stands and Russian mountains. Patches of him still peeped through the podiums, in between the rides, but yellowed quickly and then vanished under mud.
To see him cut up, obliterated and overwhelmed in this way always made the residents of Maris Hill appreciative in the week after the fair. Dogs were walked on the paths, and children were swaddled and sent out to play on the frosty lawns despite the cold — offerings to the god of public amenity.
She closed the suitcase and looked around the room, empty now save for the bed.
Outside, a gun went off with a bang, followed by a thud. Susan peered through the window and saw the body of a wood pigeon, lying lifeless among her fennel plants. The neighbor, who lived next door with his 99 year-old mother, looked furtively at Susan’s kitchen and dining room window, to make sure he hadn’t been caught.
Susan watched him step into the kitchen and reappear seconds later with a plastic bag. Reaching over the wall between the two yards using the plastic bag as a glove, he wrapped his hand around the bird corpse and picked it up. He knotted the bag and tossed it into the wheelie bin.
Near the spot where the pigeon had fallen was a scrap of paper. Susan knew better than to ignore a message and so, once her neighbor had gone back inside, she ran downstairs and out into the backyard. This time it wasn’t a personal note, or a prediction, or even a meaningful interception of a third party’s message. Just another offer she wouldn’t have made herself:
“St Mary’s Church: a guided visit for the Devout, the Lapsed and the Apostate. Thursday, 7:15pm. Free. Dress warmly.”
She stepped onto the garden wall and followed its steps up to where the stones and the ivy merged. She looked over the rooftops at the perfect sky. One morning she had found this vantage while investigating a distant mass of smoke, and discovered that it patterned her understanding of time. From here she could see the edges of the blocks, like the units of a calendar. It was all there to be seen and reached. Linear, and relievingly there.
Which one was she? Devout? True-blue. Lapsed? Indisposed. Apostate? A possibility.
She thought how she had let this house in on many secrets. Others, it had picked up on without prompting. Some it had even delivered itself, in cahoots with the Truth.
“Goodbye, Stanley,” she said to what stretched south.
Clouds all over Maris Hill had sunk a good five hundred yards, and the houses were slicing through them quite elementally. Biting the air and leaving chimney-shaped dents in the atmosphere.
Sarah Françoise is a translator/writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has recently appeared in the Oxford Poetry, Tin House, Poor Claudia, Hobart, the Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Poems in Which.