Death at the Lychgate

The parish church of St john the Evangelist sits proudly at the centre of the Kentish town of Spinton. Constructed in the twelfth century, the blue-grey church, built from local Ragstone, boasts a Norman tower that has stood unaltered for centuries, surviving minor earthquakes, violent storms, civil war and mining. Then, in the eighteen-fifties, a Victorian Alderman, aptly named, Mason Meddle, raised the funds to add a clock, a spire and a low, red brick, extension, (thankfully hidden from view behind the main structure,) that was used for Sunday School, Temperance Society gatherings and until the Town Hall was built some seventy years later, Parish Council meetings.

The surrounding graveyard is split by two paths. The first, the main walkway to the church, is a ragstone-paved avenue that leads from the church’s main gates directly to the vestibule. The second, a winding path made mostly from broken slate and gravel, is accessed from the Lychgate, a timber built, gabled, structure that has been the dead parishioner’s gateway to the afterlife for centuries.

The Lychgate, or corpse gate, was used to shelter the body of the deceased until the funeral service could take place. In years gone by, the corpse could rest there for up to two days, accompanied by friends or relatives who would sit on the hard plank seats built into the structure, sometimes as an act of vigil, but often, as a presence to ward off, the body snatchers that preyed on the poor of the district.

 

Chapter One

The early morning mist, that crawled across the land from the Kent coast, lay across the tombstones like a thin grey cloak, as a pale, almost water-colour, March sun began to rise from behind the church tower.

In the town, men slept off the excesses of their Saturday night drinking while their wives bathed a new black eye or cut lip before starting to prepare breakfast for the family. Children would be scrubbed and dressed in their Sunday best clothes before being packed off to be lectured about their heathen ways at Sunday School. Although most of the adults shunned the church, having far more important things to do on a Sunday morning, it was thought that the weekly disciplined, routine was good for the children, though there was the added benefit of getting them out of their hair for an hour.

At nine thirty, Mrs Rosegarden climbed off her bicycle and wheeled it across the pavement to the church gates. Finding them still locked, she frowned, looked at her wristwatch, then checked the time again by the church clock.

‘Villiers,’ she snorted into the misty air. The aging, but surprisingly sprightly woman, turned her bike around and rode across the pavement to the west side of the church where the lychgate entrance was situated.

The brittle haired, bespectacled Sunday School teacher was a woman to be feared, even by the toughest of the ragamuffins that attended her scripture lessons. Quick to anger and swift to punish, she patrolled the room like a prison guard. Armed with a bible in one hand and a leather strap in the other, she stalked the three, wooden benches, quoting from both testaments, threatening dire consequences, both in the present and in the afterlife for anyone who closed their ears to the word of God.

‘Drunk again, Villiers,’ she hissed as she dismounted by the Lychgate. She leaned her bike against the high, stone wall, and lifted the catch that secured the rough, wooden pole gates. Pulling them open, she looked through the gabled, porch-like structure into the mist covered tombstones beyond. She retrieved her bicycle and wheeled it over the ragstone paving towards the gravel path that led to the church.

As she strode under the roof of the Lychgate she glanced to her right-hand side where the figure of a grey haired, bespectacled man was slumped on the vigil seat. His right hand clutched the neck of an almost full wine bottle. His eyes were closed and his neck was twisted at what must have been a very uncomfortable angle. His lips were open and his teeth bared in a skeleton-like smile.

‘Reverend Villers!’ Mrs Rosegarden exclaimed. She leaned her bike against the vigil seat on the opposite side of the Lychgate, then reached out and grabbed the vicar by the shoulder. When he didn’t respond she shook him. When that failed to rouse him, she squatted down, grabbed the lapels of his grey jacket and shook him again.

As the vicar’s head slumped forward, the Sunday School teacher stood and turned in one movement. Forgetting her bicycle, she hurtled into the main road shouting at the top of her voice.

‘Help… someone help…. It’s the vicar. He’s dead.’