A clerical detective story by PDJ Aymes

The kitchen of ‘Bishopsdingle’ – the official residence of the Bishop of Motherwell and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church – was, in the opinion of Commander Melhuilish, something of a tip. She was not herself a notable domestic; but the overflowing dishwasher and sink, the piles of laundry and the clapped-out microwave, supported on two redundant copies of the proceedings of the General Synod, made her own facilities in Westminster seem salubrious by comparison.

The Primus was applying marmite to a veritable battalion of toast soldiers in readiness for the return from school of his two children, Bengy and Pippa.

‘Heather teaches on the North West Ordination Course in Carlisle Monday to Thursday’, he explained. ‘What with transport and all that, it seemed easier if she took a flat there for the duration. We fend for ourselves at the beginning of the week.’

The Most Revd Hamish McTaggart, Eve recalled, had a press machine which majored on the fact that his was the first young family ever to move into Lambeth Palace. Bengy was five; Pippa was seven. Most of their formative years would pass in those less than cheerful halls. She was sorry for them.

‘It must be a bit of a handful, being a house-parent and a Primus,’ Eve found herself saying. It was tactless, but the Primus did not seem to mind.

‘Not at all,’ said McTaggart. ‘We manage famously. To tell the truth there’s not much for a bishop to do in this little church. There are seven of us. Some with barely a dozen clergy and a thousand communicants. It’s hardly a demanding job, when you think of Holy Trinity, Brompton. They have their gardening, I suppose. And I have the kids.’

The world’s authority on the exegetical works of St Gregory of Nyssa piled the toast soldiers onto a none-too-clean plate and withdrew some eggs from the crowded fridge.

‘All this’, he said, with an expansive gesture, ‘keeps me in touch with the real world. Half the clergy have to look after the children whilst their wives go out to work. Unless, of course, they are women. In any case, being Primus is not much of a job.’

Commander Melhuilish was not in a position to know where modesty and accuracy met. So she said nothing.

‘But come, Commander,’ Hamish went on, ‘you did not drive all the way to Motherwell to quiz me on the details of my domestic life. You have questions to ask, questions of import – or at least questions which were important to the late lamented Tofts. Who stole the Quadrilateral? I might as well tell you from the start that I have rather less interest in that subject than you.’

‘To you, Commander, it is an item stolen, pilfered, filched, abstracted. And quite naturally, in one of your profession, you have a desire to retrieve it and to apprehend the abstractor. We could not see things more differently, you and I. What for you is a thing taken, is for me an idea outworn. You want to get it back – I know of a certainty that it can never be retrieved.’

‘Some people – the late Archbishop was one of them – think that Christianity is about things: propositions, doctrines, assertions. For them there was a Quadrilateral; and if it is now gone, someone must have stolen it. So they call in your people, whose pedestrian enquiries, whatever the outcome, will satisfy their superstition. But consider another possibility, Commander. Consider the possibility that, in the sense of a thing which can be abstracted, filched, pilfered (pinched, as you might say), it was never there at all. Truths are not stolen, Ms Melhuilish. Like human persons they die a natural death. Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be.’

‘Tennyson,’ said Melhuilish. ‘But hardly to the point. There was something in that glass case, guarded by those many locks and seals. Miss Plumridge, the Assistant Librarian, dusted it daily. Now there is nothing to dust. I am no theologian; but it seems not unreasonable to ask where it has gone.’

‘Où sont les neiges d’antan?’ relied the Primus. ‘It is a pretty conceit to suppose that everything which pious ladies dust is a reality. Any moment you will be asking me impertinent questions as to my whereabouts at the time of the alleged abstraction, and drawing conclusions of complicity or conspiracy from my every social attachment. It is quite absurd. Vanity of vanities.’

Melhuilish was becoming impatient with this sparring. She had a job to do, a job that was nearing completion; and she needed only a few pieces of the jig-saw to complete the picture.

‘So it simply does not matter to you, that the Quadrilateral has disappeared; been “pinched”, as I might say?’

‘I did not quite say that,’ replied the Archbishop. ‘The Quadrilateral is a heritage document. It is a recorded moment in a shared past. We are in dialogue with that past. But the dialogue is emphatically a dialogue of equals. The past cannot bind us precisely because it is past. Though in one sense the Quadrilateral was once in that glass case, guarded by the thirty-eight locks and the thirty-eight keys of the thirty-eight Primates, there is another, more profound sense in which it was never there. For the past only has reality when the present is in dialogue with it. We are the Quadrilateral, Ms Melhuilish, in the sense that it has reality only if we respect or revile it, adhere to it or reject it, now, in this present moment.’

There was no time for the Commander to respond. With the Archbishop’s last emphatic words the kitchen erupted with two noisy schoolchildren, their bags and gloves, and woolly hats. Bengy and Pippa flung themselves into the arms of their doting father, reluctantly washed their grubby hands and took their places at the crumb-covered table. The eggs, which had been boiling during this philosophical excursus, were duly placed in their cups and the Archbishop removed the top of the first with a bone-handled knife.

‘Bother!’ he said, gazing ruefully at the mountains of toast soldiers. ‘They’re all hard.’