A clerical detective story by PDJ Aymes

Commander Melhuilish did not like Christmas. Her objection was sociological, not theological. Eve was as aware as anyone that most of the people charged with upholding its annual celebration did not actually believe in the Incarnation. But that did not matter. She did not even mind the commercialization. What mattered to Eve was the appalling bonhomie with which the festival was surrounded. Office parties in the Metropolitan Police, she had concluded, were especially odious.

Melhuilish’s task was done. She had discharged her obligation to the late Archbishop of Canterbury and solved the most puzzling case of her career to the satisfaction, if not of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, at least of the Deputy Commissioner. She decided to award herself a holiday away from the festivities.

‘Istanbul can be pretty cold in December’, said Ben, who had sung there in Cosi fan tutte and wished he had taken warmer underwear, ‘but at least it is relatively Christmas-free.’ He was wrong, as it turned out; but it was a kind thought.

‘We can wrap up and explore!’, said Eve who had longed to stand under the great dome of Aya Sofia and sail into the Sea of Marmara on the prow of a big boat. It would be a dream come true; and a precious time during which she would have Ben to herself.

‘With your current enthusiasm for collecting Archbishops’, Ben went on, ‘I should think you would want to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch.’

‘This’, replied Eve, planting a kiss on his broad forehead, ‘is a definite NO to any more religion. What I need is a religion-free zone, and at the end of it a return to the company of real honest-to-God villains. Good old fashioned crime has a lot to commend it.’

So the tickets were bought and a room booked at the Pera Palace Hotel. They were off!

The hotel proved to be reassuringly unrestored – a time capsule from the nineteen thirties. The wrought iron lift glided majestically up the centre of the building, from marble hall to marble hall, carrying its passengers (seated on a small gilt Louis Quinze sofa) into a world of brass bedsteads, Iznik tiles and Turkish towels. It was an austere form of luxury which puzzled Ben, and which Eve adored. From their balcony they looked out over the Golden Horn as far as the mosque of Eyup, almost lost in the evening mist.

Ben was a man of few words; but Istanbul loosened his tongue. They talked of all the things they never talked about at home. About the future mostly, and how their strange and not entirely satisfactory relationship might end or develop. On the Theodosian Wall they talked about babies, at Blachernae they discussed buying a house together, and in the Hippodrome Eve proposed marriage.

She had no idea why she was doing it, and a clear sense that it was an action which she would live to regret. But she was drawn to it, almost compelled to say it: ‘Will you marry me?’ The words had a ludicrously old-fashioned ring, even in that old-fashioned city.

Would she ever have brought herself to say them in another place, another city? Eve doubted it. But she got an equally old-fashioned and rather unexpected response: ‘I will.’

The next morning she needed time to herself. Taking a battered old taxi from beside the Galata Bridge, she gave the driver directions to the Phanar. Eve had promised herself a religion-free zone. But now she wanted, for reasons she hardly understood, to sit in a church and think.

The tiny, over-decorated church beside the Patriarchal residence was deserted, except for a man in a black cassock clearing out the candle trays. He left, and she was alone. Perhaps an hour passed. Perhaps more. The same man entered and walked towards her. He was bearded, but with young, intense eyes.

‘The Mother of God hears your prayer’, said the priest, in an accent heavy and musical. Eve looked up and realized that she was sitting before an icon of the Theotokos. It was a natural mistake for him to make.

‘I was not praying, Father, only thinking,’ said Eve. ‘I was trying to decide whether to marry someone or not.’

‘Ah!’ said the priest, ‘it is a great decision. You are deciding your own future and the future of other lives as well: of those who will be born from you; of those who will be born from them. It is a great privilege to give life; but with birth comes grief as well as joy. She knew.’

‘But is this a world, Father, into which to bring new life?’

‘It is a world no more nor no less evil than the world into which God himself entered. To doubt that he can bring good from evil and joy from sorrow is to doubt that he made it, and to doubt that he came. You cannot avoid the pain and evil, for he could not. But on his mercy you can rely. She knew.’

‘You see I am not sure that I can give up that much of myself. I have a career and a life of my own. I have my freedom. Would all that have to end?’

‘And what do you do with this life of yours?’

‘I am a police officer,’ said Eve. But immediately she knew it was no answer.

‘Well, then, you must decide. Is it better in God’s eyes to be a problem solver for others than to teach the knowledge of good and evil to your own children? Which is the higher vocation? You must decide.’

‘I am thinking of getting married, not entering a nunnery.’

‘How little you know! Look at her, and she will tell you what you need to understand. She is the priest offering Christ to the world. She is the martyr sharing her Son’s passion. She is the Mother of us all, the new Eve. She is the Queen and Crown of all created things. She knows.’

Eve was uncomfortable with this rather emotional theology. She found she could look neither at the icon nor the priest. He sensed her discomfort and withdrew into the gloom beyond the lamps. The Commander edged her way out of the little church. The Ecumenical Patriarch lit a candle and resumed his prayers.

* * *

On that very day, December 24, when Eve was sitting in the Phanar Church, somewhere between anxiety and prayer, Sergeant Whelan was waiting for a special visitor in his flat in Maida Vale. Whelan, too, was looking forward to a religion-free Christmas. Whelan, too, had been taking momentous decisions. The visitor, he hoped would be a permanent fixture.

Detective Constable Kumar was the squad’s resident ethic minority – a tall, aristocratic-looking son of the Subcontinent with lustrous hair, perfect teeth and flashing eyes. For Whelan it had been love at first sight. And now the intense privacy of his home life was to be shattered forever. Kumar was moving in. Everybody in the section house would soon know the score. Even Kumar’s mother would have to be told in the end. Whelan took a deep breath and opened the door.

‘Happy Christmas,’ said Kumar. Whelan could hardly disagree.