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Short story: ‘Relic’ by Matthew G. Rees

03 Mar 2024 16 minute read
Photo by Matthew G.Rees

Matthew G. Rees

The Dean stood waiting for the Government Minister at the top of the steps that led down to the cathedral in its slight hollow. Behind the cleric, sunlight of the flame-like, autumnal kind lit the building’s old, yellowed stonework.

It was as if – an observer might have thought, in the drizzle and dankness of the day – the mossed and ancient temple represented the crock of gold at the end of a rainbow. And the Minister – walking from where he’d parked his car – was somewhat heartened by the sight.

But in the main he felt the chill onset of evening (even winter) and he was conscious of a very different symbolism in the sunset through which he strode. Even the fallen, rust-coloured leaves that littered his way – in their limp wetness, their death… underfoot – seemed to speak of his political decline… his demise and decay.

Catching sight of the Dean’s cassocked figure, he nevertheless sought to console himself… to lift his spirits. Although ‘late in the game’ there would be a chance of survival, revival… even resurrection… wouldn’t there?

Yes, he insisted in an unspoken answer to his question. After all, that – surely? – was the Church’s whole point?  The Dean, who’d been concluding certain unconnected matters in the cathedral ahead of locking its doors for the night with the verger, put out his hand to the Minister in the dimming light.

The two men shook and exchanged brief greetings, their silvered breath rising in thin plumes in the cold, moist air: the day dying fast in the mulch and the gloom that surrounded them.

The cleric now led the Minister across the close in the direction of the front door of the deanery (for the meeting the Minister had requested be held with great haste). On the face of the churchman in the lamplight of the close: something of a frown. On the countenance of his gloved and overcoated caller: a grim unease…

‘Well,’ said the Dean, seated on one side of the cosy coal fire in his study (in which he had opted to leave the lamps unlit), ‘what can I do for you, Minister?’

The Minister, who was seated on the other side of the fire (and thinking for a moment about how he had surely criminalised such things – perhaps, in the matter of coal, the Dean had some ‘benefit of clergy’?), began by making his apologies for troubling the cleric at such short notice.

‘Not at all,’ his host responded. ‘I’m only too happy to give up some of my time’ – he paused for a second in a way that both men knew was done with the aim of giving his words maximum effect – ‘for a friend of the Church.’

With a smile of sorts and putting his fingers in a fittingly church-like way on his chest, he added: ‘Do go on.’

Having glanced at the fire for a moment, and deeming it best to approach the matter (at least to begin with) in an allusive (political) way, the Minister asked his host: ‘Do you ever sense a dying of the light?’

‘In what sense?’ asked the Dean.

‘In the sense,’ the Minister responded, ‘of… an ebbing of power.’

‘I’m not sure I quite follow you,’ said the Dean. ‘Are we talking of matters spiritual… or temporal? Mental… or physical?’

In the muted light of the study the coals of the fire suddenly slipped – with a crunching sound – in its brazier.

This, so the Dean noted, caused the Minister to ‘jump’ a little in his seat, as if Lucifer, creeping near, had – with some heavy mis-step of a cloven hoof – revealed himself. The man was ‘on edge’… clearly, thought the Dean.

The coals stopped and settled behind the fire’s cast iron frets, the Minister re-settling, likewise, in his armchair.

The parliamentarian (of so many years’ standing) now cleared his throat with a half-cough, and – keeping his eyes from his host and fixed instead on a painting (of what seemed a water meadow) on the wall behind the cleric’s shoulder, as if ashamed of the admission he was about to make – began.

‘I have the sense that I am… on the way out. That I am… in decline,’ he said.

To this, the Dean said nothing – which the Minister, moving his eyes to the cleric’s faintly visible face, knew was his cue to continue.

‘In short – and I shall come to my point before they encircle me with theirs – I am become like Julius Caesar… Spencer Percival…Abraham Lincoln.’

The Minister noted, by a flicker of the firelight, the look of puzzlement on his host’s face. With a seeming sigh of exasperation, the politician continued: ‘Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, at Builth… Kennedy – if you will – in Dallas, Texas.’ And then, as if losing all patience: ‘Assassination! It is of assassination, my assassination, that I speak!’

‘But… by whom? Why?!’ said the Dean, with an air of great startlement.

‘By my “friends”, if such a word can be used,’ said the Minister, slumping back into his chair, from which – with alarm and fury – he had bent forward, ‘… never mind my foes.’

‘But you are still popular, surely?’ the Dean responded. ‘The newspapers… the television… the radio… they practically sing your praises.’

‘All Pollyannas… false Hosannas. The knives are out, I know. I have heard the whispers. I have observed them in their cabals… interrupted them in their plotting. Believe me, my crucifixion is nigh.’

‘Oh, surely not!’ interrupted the Dean. ‘I find this very hard to believe. You are what… halfway through your current term? – if that. A public figure of good standing. Why would they wish to be rid of you?’

‘“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” You, Mister Dean, will know your Shakespeare… as an educated man. Besides, is the Bible not steeped in murder? Brother upon brother… regicides?’

A quiet now fell between the men, which was broken – hesitantly – by the cleric.

‘Is there not some… other way? Of you perhaps “stepping down”? Peacefully? (I cannot believe that blood is intended.) Or, dare I say, some means of “having it out” – as I think it’s termed – with your colleagues… facing down your “enemies”… carrying on?’

That,’ said the Minister, with a look of grave seriousness in the fading light, knuckles white – the Dean noticed – on the leather arms of his chair, ‘is why I am here.’ The Minister then said: ‘Listen to me now, if you will…’

To the sombre beat – from some darkened corner of the study – of a longcase clock, the Minister reminded the Dean (not that the clergyman needed a great deal of reminding) how some years earlier the relic of a saint (a Welsh saint), had been restored to the cathedral… having been missing since the days of the Dissolution imposed by Henry VIII.

‘Saint Braggoc’s…’ the Dean interjected, his words petering short of any specificity in the twilight of the room.

‘That’s it,’ said the Minister, his eyes, in what little transparency that remained, seeming to the Dean to acquire a heightened intensity.

‘And your point is what… exactly?’ asked the Dean.

‘My “point”,’ the Minister responded with vigour, ‘is that he… this Braggoc… was a man of particular… powers. He worked miracles, did he not?’

‘Go on,’ said the Dean (deeming it best for now to avoid a debate on the finer points of theology), the room’s darkness masking a furrowing he felt in his brow.

‘I want it,’ said the Minister. ‘The relic.’

Want it?’ responded the Dean. ‘For what?’

‘For its power, its… magic. I must… touch it.’

‘Touch it?’

Hold it. Have it. I need it. For God’s sake, man! Must I make it any clearer?!’

‘No, no… you are clear enough.’

‘Where is it? In the crypt?’

‘I think so. I can’t say that I’ve… laid hands on it… in a while. It’s not the sort of thing one…’ His words died away in the duskiness.

 The Dean began again: ‘In our Church, it isn’t the way to… venerate such things… relics. But, yes, it will likely be in the crypt, as you say.’

‘Then see that I have it,’ said the Minister, his voice brimming with authority now… as if his aging body had been entered by new blood, its cells surging through his septuagenarian veins.

He rose from his armchair – like some tribal chieftain (the priest his confessor, maybe even his soothsayer, in the fire’s pale light).

‘Very well,’ the Dean answered him (albeit – so it seemed to the Minister – with misgiving in his voice).

‘You sound doubtful,’ said the Minister.

‘Do I?’ answered the Dean. ‘Oh, nothing meant, I assure you,’ he added (judging it best to appear buoyant). ‘Thy will shall be done, Minister. You need have no concerns about that. A friend of the Church, as I say…’

‘Good. It will mean I shall have it in time for an important debate in the chamber… on Friday – when I intend to confound my critics.’

From its corner, the longcase clock now sounded six (as if, in the absence of any further comment from the Dean, someone… or thing… had to speak).

Cometh the hour, cometh Saint Braggoc, the Minister thought… sensing, as he did so, that the Dean might be reading his mind.

The Old Bruiser – the veteran of many a political battle – now buttoned his coat and walked to the door.

Nos da,’ he bade his host, without stopping, as he stepped out into the night (his tone suggesting satisfaction with the outcome of their tȇte-à-tȇte).

Driving home to his flat across the city, the ancient politico was dismissive… scathing… of those who would, to his mind, usurp him. In his eyes: minor leaguers. Tractor boys, who fancied themselves tough (but weren’t), from incest-riddled backwaters of the West.

Semi-literate cloggers from old coal villages in the Valleys that had long been consigned to dust. Bleating Northern sheep-shaggers with their constant whinges and whines. And, in the sealed-off postcodes of the new crachach, phony-as-fuck ‘working-class heroes’… perma-students preening and poncing on the taxpayers’ purse.

They were no match for him. None of them. He was old school: a ‘machine’ politician. ‘Dirty’ (when need be) wasn’t the word. If necessary, he would bring in mercenaries from over the border. He’d done so before (to consolidate his grip) and, if necessary, would do so again. By Christ – or rather by Saint Braggoc – he would put down their revolution… once and for all.

During the afternoon of the following day, the Dean drew a cloth-lined drawer from a chest in the crypt… and studied the relic. How strange it looked, he thought.

He remembered how, back in the day, its return to the cathedral (by a family who’d come by it in one of those quirks of history and who no longer felt any need of it) had attracted quite a splurge of publicity.

He also remembered how the authorities – he had, back then, been a mere canon of the Chapter – judged it best not to disclose to the Press the precise nature of the bodily ‘part’. The Church, after all, owed its position to a degree of… mystique.

‘Is that it?’ said the Minister, peering over the Dean’s shoulder, his arrival having been heralded by a clamour amongst the colony of rooks that nested in the close.

‘It is,’ said the Dean.

‘What on earth is it?’ said the other, gruffly.

The Minister leaned to take a closer look: ‘It looks like… a piece of old shoe leather.’

The Dean seemed to swallow for a moment. ‘Well,’ said the cleric, ‘what it is… precisely… is something that has been much speculated upon… over the years. But it is – according to the records… I think I can safely say – an important part, a powerful part, a vital part, one might declare it.’

‘Of Saint Braggoc?’

‘Of Braggoc – yes, indeed.’

‘The one who worked all those “miracles”… whatever they were?’

‘So it has been said. His… potency… has been much remarked upon. However, all of that should be viewed with a certain amount of caution,’ said the Dean, who, after his discretion of the previous evening, now felt it his moral duty to voice some reservations about the relic.

‘The “chroniclers of yore” had a slight tendency to… “egg the pudding”. Take Elgan of Aberglyntaff, for example. He was really quite a wag… naughty fellow. Contemporary theologians, on the other hand, such as the Reverend Professor Ivor—’

‘Never mind all that. I haven’t the time,’ the Minister interrupted. ‘I’ll take it.’

Take it?’

‘I shall need to have it… for the debate. I told you.’

‘Oh. Um, yes,’ remembered the Dean.

‘Don’t worry. You’ll get it back. And I shall – of course – remember your good service. Phone my office… in case there’s a grant or something that we can’t sort out for you. Now, can you wrap it?’

Crossing the darkening city with Saint Braggoc by his side – or, rather, a small part of Braggoc’s person… on his car’s front seat – the Minister felt his self-confidence, his old powers, returning. Hewas the governor here; this was his manor; this was his realm.

He would see off the schemers, the plotters, the mutineers. Damn their eyes! They were nothing without him. They owed him everything. Their heads would be on plates – if not the castle walls – by the time he was done.

In the softly-lit lounge of his flat, overlooking the city, the reinvigorated veteran contemplated how he might best arm himself with Braggoc’s mysterious powers.

Unwrapping the parcel given him by the Dean, he considered consuming the ‘thing’ (some replacement scrap could always be handed back to the cathedral; the item – so very drab and like some sort of deflated old sausage – was hardly the sort of thing that, in terms of its looks, the Chapter would miss).

He felt that – with his eyes shut and a certain forcing of it (straight neck and stiff upper lip) down his gullet – he could swallow it.

Yet there was something about its state (so very unappealing), also its (almost contradictory) saintliness – this, after all, was a part of a man of God… or so it was said – that deterred him.

To wear the relic… yes, to wear it, like a lucky charm – a kind of rabbit’s foot, or even a crucifix… to counter those vampires who would dance around him… that was the answer, he decided.

Taking some string from an oak drawer in his kitchen, he threaded it through one end of the dark and leathery artefact. For the forthcoming debate – on whose outcome, he acknowledged with a shudder, his future rested – he would hang it, like a pendant, beneath his necktie.

He poured himself a whisgi and sipped it as he surveyed his fiefdom through the plate glass window of his high eyrie.

I have you… you bastards! he thought to himself. To Hell with your petty points and your moronic motions and ridiculous resolutions. Braggoc… Saint Braggoc… is with me. Miracle-man!

He stood god-like above his glittering kingdom, Minister for the millennium to come, if need be… and drained what remained of his glass.

On the day of the debate, he knew – old hand that he was – the point in proceedings at which he would be called. Calculating that the moment was nigh, and having noted the green eyes of the so-called colleagues who were grouped around him, he leant down to his ministerial boxes on the floor at his feet – and reached for his secret weapon.

Setting his hands on it, he began to lower its loop over his head.

‘Statement from the Minister,’ he now heard the Presiding Officer announce. Whereupon, still crouched out of sight… seeking to draw the relic and its string down further… over his skull, he found that it was… stuck.

Hidden, as he was, below his lectern, he heard the Presiding Officer call again (amid a growing murmur in the chamber). ‘The Minister. His statement, please. We are waiting.’

All fingers and thumbs, he – beneath his parapet – struggled anew.

For some reason – perhaps some miscalculation on his part… how many glasses of whisgi had he had that night of his planning? – he couldn’t now extend the string beyond his ears; the cord (which he thought he had cut so very carefully) being trapped above his lobes, the relic itself  being lodged fast on his forehead – all of it like some awkward ‘party hat’ that would neither fit nor – as he fussed and fiddled – come free.

‘Where has he got to?’, ‘What is he doing?’, ‘Is he scared to show himself?’ came the cries of those on the benches around him.

‘Really,’ said the Presiding Officer now, ‘the Minister must rise. This house can be kept waiting no longer.’

And so he rose, as requested.

At first, silence fell over the chamber. Then there were whispers. Then there was laughter… and uproar – a total eruption – as, notwithstanding his state (Saint Braggoc’s relic hanging not like a pendant around his neck but appended in the manner of some piece of medical gadgetry worn by a surgeon, or a lamp on the helmet of a miner of coal, and, not to put too fine a point on it, resembling, more than anything, something beginning with a ‘p’ that looked like Mr Punch’s nose), he sought to deliver his speech.

Never, in all of the chamber’s days (… in any chamber’s days) had such a sight been seen.

The Presiding Officer boomed with her microphone over his halting words… not to mention the shouts, whoops and guffaws of those others who were present. ‘I must ask the Member,’ she said (fresh uproar greeting this last word), ‘to take his seat. Order! Order!!!’ she cried, in futile attempts to silence the riotous assembly.

Until finally, in exasperation, she uttered the words ‘I hereby suspend this sitting!’ and brought down her hammer – with one furious whack.

Not much more than a few days later, the new Minister met the Dean on the cathedral steps, where the cleric stood waiting to receive him.

Handing the Dean a small parcel, he commented: ‘I bring you tribute… a relic. Dissolution honours, it might be said.’

As they stepped through the close, the new Minister continued: ‘Now, about that grant…’

My… isn’t he the cheeky one, thought the Dean. Younger, slimmer, smilier, toothier, than his predecessor. And yet – inwardly – of much the same mould.

Well, the cleric thought to himself, as his visitor went on, that was resurrection (… careful with the spelling now!) for you. Elgan of Aberglyntaff would have found it quite the hoot!


Copyright Matthew G. Rees, 2024

Matthew G. Rees won the Rhys Davies award in 2023. His collection. The Snow Leopard of Moscow @ Other Stories is available here.

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