It was Sunday morning in Ballykillduff. The town's sizeable Anglican congregation were gathered in the Church of St. Michael, with the magnificent stained glass image of St. Michael slaying a dragon towering over the worshippers. A graphic statue of a similar scene was prominently displayed to the left of the altar.
The vicar offered up prayers for the soul of Joseph McMahon, who had drowned in the river only the previous week. As always, the left-hand side of the church was the more crowded, but the more sparsely occupied right-hand was where the most enthusiastic singing of the hymns came from. The vicar finished up proceedings with a reminder of a non-religious event that would be soon coming to the town.
That was his traditional signal that the service was at an end. The choir struck up the last hymn, the right-hand side of the church joined in, and the vicar made his way outside the church so that he could greet his parishioners as they left.
As the vicar stood outside the church, greeting his parishioners as they went on their way, one young-ish man stopped to chat with him.
"Ah, Mr Cantwell. And how are you this morning?"
"I'm fine, vicar. And you?"
"I can't complain. God's work keeps me healthy. And how are things at the Manor?"
"A constant struggle to make ends meet. But you know how it is, vicar?"
"I can only imagine, Mr Cantwell".
If you knew nothing of Cantwell and were meeting him for the first time, his voice would suggest to you that he was not one of the plain people of Ireland. His accent was that minority one enjoyed by those people sometimes classed as Anglo-Irish - a kind of upper-class English accent but with the occasional strange twang that would never allow him to pass as a squire from southern England. Cantwell's immaculate Barbour jacket, shirt and elegant cravat, combined with his perfectly pressed trousers, reinforced the impression, as did the slight eccentricity of his hair, which was somewhat longer than was considered normal for the time. Cantwell was indeed the scion of an old Anglo-Irish family who could trace back his ancestry to the Norman Conquest. His family had been the major landowners in Ballykillduff as far back as records could tell.
It was customary for him to chat with the vicar after the Sunday service. As he did so, the parishioners leaving the church acknowledged them both. Some of them tugged their forelocks and muttered a "good morning Mr Cantwell" in a manner that was obsequious but with a faint undercurrent of surly resentment, while others seemed to greet him with what seemed like a genuine respect and even affection. The people who had been sitting on the right-hand side of the church were generally more likely to fall into the latter category.
"Awful business with that young lad drowning last week, vicar," said Cantwell.
"Indeed it is, what terrible burden on the poor boy's family. I only hope that the Lord will send them some consolation."
"There seem to have been a fair few of these drowning tragedies this year."
"That is a terrible indictment of our alcohol obsessed society, Mr Cantwell. The heavy drinking of these young lads and the nearby presence of the river makes for a dangerous combination".
"Indeed it does. But to brighter things - this festival next week sounds like a rather unusual business. Not the kind of thing the church would normally play host to."
"It is not, but the steeple restoration fund cannot be too particular. And the two organisers seem like nice people, though I suspect they are not exactly devout Christians. They're artists, you know."
"Yes," replied Cantwell. "I've seen some of their things in the Courthouse. A load of rubbish, if you ask me. I like to keep an open mind, but I do feel that art went to the dogs when pictures stopped looking like things. Still, I'm sure their heart is in the right place. And the church will be hosting quite a few of their concerts?"
"Oh yes," the vicar. "Mostly during the day. They'll have their evening concerts down at the Courthouse. But they are going to have one night-time concert, next Sunday. At midnight, in fact."
"Yes indeed, Mr Cantwell. They say it will be very atmospheric. I had my doubts about that one, but the organisers insist that nothing untoward will happen, though I will of course be along to keep an eye on things."
"I might show my face there myself. Ah, Mrs Deane, how delightful."
The vicar's young wife had been separately bidding farewell to the parishioners. Now she joined her husband and Cantwell.
"Mr Cantwell, always a pleasure. Will you be joining us for Bridge on Tuesday evening?"
"I would love to but… well I don't have a partner. Lucinda has gone back to Dublin. It didn't work out. I'm afraid we won't be seeing her down here again."
"Oh dear, how unfortunate," said the vicar. "But plenty more fish in the sea, eh?" He chuckled in a manner that was meant to sound reassuring but which came out sounding oddly salacious for a man of the cloth.
"Do come along, Mr Cantwell," continued Mrs Deane. "I'm sure we'll find a partner for you. "Gerard Murphy is always looking for an excuse to get away from that wife of his".
"I'm sure he is," replied Cantwell. "Very good, I'll see you then. Well, I must be off now, things to attend to. You know how it is."
He bade them farewell and climbed into his battered Range Rover and drove off to the Manor.