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J.D. Keith
J.D. Keith

Hot Steppah

The air in the street was stifling and syrupy thick. Smoke rose from the tarmac and fumes from stationary exhausts choked the sweat-greased crowd that was beginning to gather. The music had stopped and the singing was over, but Pastor MacDonald’s voice was still audible from outside, even through the heavy Sunday-afternoon traffic, now being diverted away from the cordoned-off Plaza.

          The microphone settings had been specifically adjusted to project his voice out into the world, towards the seething mass of unbelievers that passed along the road every week on their way to the cinema, the bookmaker’s, and even the Methodist church, because broad is the way that leadeth to destruction. The building wasn’t designed to keep noise in.

          Pastor MacDonald first knew the place as a butcher’s back in the 1960s. He enjoyed recounting to anyone who would listen how it became a temple for God and, even though he was not one to embellish a story, every time he told it the church’s history became increasingly laden with signs and miracles.

          His wife, Constance – respectfully called Mother MacDonald by church members – had several memories of the butcher’s. Pastor, leaning against the pulpit, was standing where the counter used to be, where he would send her to beg for scraps of meat at the end of the day, back when they had no other family on what she called “this wretched island¸. She was in her mid-thirties then and her belly had begun to stretch with Joshua, her firstborn. (And now, every day, she prayed for him, repeating the same words: “’Elp ’im, Lawd, cos yu did say hif yu train up a chil’ in de way him should go . . .¸)

          The heathen butcher needed God more than most. She had hated going in there, stooping her neck, sensing his crocodile smile but refusing to look into his eyes. She was older now and vowed never to be humiliated like that again, unless it was for Jesus’ sake, because bless?d are ye, when men (an’ women too, hmmph!) shall revile yu, an’ persecute yu, an’ shall say hall manner o’ heevil against yu . . . She still felt guilty about the pleasure she derived, years later, from hearing the butcher had died suddenly. He had choked on a steak, if rumours were to be believed. And that was how Wimpy’s bought the building.

          After only a few years, the Wimpy’s closed too and it was left derelict. Squatters came in and the council did nothing until the church applied to take it over, holding several twenty-four-hour vigils outside the imposing brick structure of Brent Town Hall, marching up and down the steps as if expecting it to collapse at any moment, like the walls of Jericho. A sympathetic councillor agreed the building should be put to good use and, eventually, it became the True Word Centre.

          Over the following months, the congregation took to the streets after every service, collecting money for the building renovations. With a small budget, they began trying to erase the evidence of the restaurant. A sealed corridor now led to the toilets at the back, but they still had the Wimpy’s red doors and round windows in the middle. At the end of the corridor was the side entrance and, next to it, running along the left side of the building, was the Sunday-school room, which had once been the kitchen. The raised platform on the right, on which some of the congregation sat, betrayed where the restaurant’s seating area used to be. The spotlights were unchanged here but, on the other side, there was strip lighting and a higher ceiling, left over from the butcher’s.

          It was an unspoken rule, but only the more attention-seeking members of the congregation would come straight through the main glass door at the end of the aisle after service had started. Latecomers and curious outsiders, drawn to the music, would come in through the more discreet side door and peer in through the window at the end of the corridor. So when the main door opened suddenly that afternoon, everyone was surprised.

Mother MacDonald was among those in the eighty-strong congregation fanning themselves with their Bibles; the hot, stale air had baked everyone to feverish distraction. Pastor MacDonald strongly disapproved and would have used the moment to throw himself into a righteous fury about using the Word of God as a fan. He could have talked about how the scribes and Pharisees defiled the Word of God too, but instead he stood in silence for a while. He could not remember what he had just said, so he lifted up his head from the passage he was reading and took a sip of water.

          His co-pastor had nodded off to the lilt of his voice and only the faithful few were spurring him on with sporadic “Amen¸s – Mother Dawkins, right at the back, the Bailey sisters in the middle, Sister Ogilvie and the little preacher boy, aptly named Samuel, both to Pastor’s left in the front row. Their positions rarely changed week to week.

          Mother MacDonald was in the second row desperately trying to keep her husband in focus, but he kept splitting into two. She was seated behind some of the disruptive children she’d deliberately placed at the front – “children¸ meaning anyone under twenty. Sarah, Reuben, Obadiah, Nathan, Daniel and Natasha: all were joined together in their unruliness despite being a decade apart oldest to youngest. She removed her glasses and breathed on them, then bent down to look for a tissue to wipe them with. She nudged Sister Davies next to her, a large, alert woman with bright-blue slippers and matching tights. Sister Davies was ready for her and there was no need to say anything: out came her expensive-looking leather handbag, which her son had bought her with his large wages. She offered Mother MacDonald a packet of Kleenex, Polo mints, Olbas oil.

          Mother MacDonald snatched the Kleenex and wiped her glasses. She then wiped down her neck and the sweaty cleavage that always seemed to end up rising up and into the open, announcing itself as she danced, singing to the congregation. (No dress can hol’ dem down. No blouse, no coat, no gown, amen! No tomb, no too-oo-omb, no tomb couldda hol’ Him down.)

          The chairs’ wooden slats were beginning to take their toll on everybody’s buttocks; most people had begun fidgeting. Mother MacDonald looked to the right and studied Sister Ogilvie’s back; she was sitting up on the platform as always. They were both wearing the same hat: black felt covered with tiny silver sequins that sent light sparkling off in all directions every time they moved their heads. Sister Ogilvie and Mother MacDonald were kindred spirits, separated by just half a decade and about a hundred pounds in weight. Mother MacDonald marvelled how that skinny old woman could cope with the slats digging into her bones for four hours. She wondered whether, if the congregation paid its tithes more honestly, they could have bought proper chairs, not the cheap garden ones most people were sitting on. “Brudder Davies could have feed da five t’ousand an’ den some with what dey tell me him get pay,¸ Sister Ogilvie had once told her over the phone. And as she returned to that thought, she adjusted herself and straightened her flower-print dress, while her husband kicked back into gear.

          “An’ dere shall be weeping-ah . . . an’ a wailing-ah . . . an’ gnashing of teet-ah. And again I say-ah . . . dere shall be weeping-ah! I said-ah weeeping . . .¸ Pastor sang the last note in a falsetto voice and the keyboard kicked in with the organ effect. “And way-ay-ay-ling . . .¸ he added and, again, the keyboard player riffed over him, always attentive, always looking up at the preacher or casting sideways glances towards the congregation.

          The children in front were elbowing each other. They were anxious to get outside, waiting for the sermon to end so they could step out into a world that promised not eternal damnation but ice cream and much-needed fresh air. Mother MacDonald resisted the urge to reach over and scold them and instead found herself shouting aloud, “Preach!¸

          The atmosphere was starting to warm up. Samuel was crying loudly – his mind full of conjured images of hell – and some of the congregation were shifting about in their seats. The restless bodies were becoming more alert, more aware of something that was happening. Mother MacDonald sensed a stirring in her spirit, and she started trying to tune into what the Lord might be telling her. Some of the teenage girls at the back felt the noise from outside getting louder, and they too had recognised a new buzz in the air.

          Marsha – acne-ridden and usually truculent – was sitting in the middle of the back row as usual, her shiny face bursting from holding in her breath. She was trying not to laugh out loud at the cartoon she had been passed, drawn on a scrap of paper torn from a hymn book, of the child crying at the front. Right at that moment, the noise level from outside rose even higher. Someone was entering the main door. Her whole row turned.

          Pastor MacDonald stopped mid-flow. Sister Ogilvie’s body swivelled around instinctively, her head following. Sister Davies, who always kept an eye on Sister Ogilvie, copied her and then nudged Mother MacDonald. The rest of the congregation waited for the split second that the door banged against the wall then, as one, turned to see who had entered.

          It was Sovereign.

He didn’t mean to open the door so rough but it had swung back the whole way. He’d practically run in, his breath heavy, his forehead itching with sweat and his hands shaking. His entrance must have been loud because a whole sea of eyes turned to greet him. He almost backtracked. Maybe he should have gone into the Methodist church opposite.

          There was a host of women in shoulder pads, men in dark suits, walls covered with blue curtain. He’d seen it all before – he’d been dragged into holes like this as a child by his grandma – but this time was different. He was a big boy now.

          He realised his head hurt.

          A woman with a doily on her head pointed to a spare seat near the back, up on the raised bit. She walked him towards it. She had a badge that said Usher, which he’d always thought was a guy’s name. He clocked a pair of eyes staring back at him. Marsha, from school. She turned away in what looked like wide-eyed horror and folded into the chair. He left Usher pointing, went to the other side and sat down at the end of a row just in front. The pinstripe-suit guy sitting beside him almost seemed not to have noticed he was there. He’d picked up the large Bible on the seat next to him and put it on the floor, allowing Sovereign to sit down, and that was that. Didn’t even look at him.

          The preacher seemed to be waiting. He’d removed his big round glasses carefully to wipe the sweat from his shiny head, which reflected the bright light from above. He replaced the glasses, putting them as far down the end of his nose as he could, and the sweat poured down to his beard, yea, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirt of his garments. Resting his left arm on the pulpit and leaning over, leaning right up close to the microphone, his slightly crossed eyes rested on his audience and then he began to speak.

          “I have,¸ he started, in a low echoing voice, “a revelation right now-ah.¸ He paused again and there were a few mumbles in the background: “Speak, Laawd. Yes!¸

          “Dis is-ah,¸ he continued, “the time-ah to repent-ah. Dis may be your last opportunity right now-ah.¸

          The eyes that had stared at Sovereign began darting about. Several old women, in assorted large hats that swallowed their faces, looked round and stared past him to his left, where Marsha and her friends were. The lethal, half-squint accusations coming from those watery, yellow eyes were enough to freak anyone. He tutted and smiled to himself. Looks like everyone knew what she was like.

          He looked over at her row again. Several pairs of batted eyelashes and dipping eyelids, no hint of make-up. Apart from Jezebel herself, they were all fixed on him. Every time he crooked his neck a little, he could sense the eyes bearing down, following his every movement.

          He checked out the row directly behind him and caught one girl square in the face. Four of them sitting together, all acting like they weren’t checking him, but she’d looked away too late. She had the soft, round cheeks of an innocent church girl but he could see from the way she held his look before turning away slowly that she was one of them ones. One of those beenies that want to mess with you. The kind who will giggle and go on all shy if you chat to her around her friends, but when you get her alone, you get the other side.

          Intelligent. Probably stayed on for Year 12. She leaves home for school with her socks rolled up tight, skirt below the knees, copper face shiny and smelling of coconut lotion, greased-down hair in pigtails, even. She turns the corner and pulls down the socks, pulls out the hairbands, pulls up the skirt and unbuttons the blouse till she’s got some decent cleavage going. Then on go the clip-on earrings and the lipstick. He knows.

          Marsha was just like that at school. And she’d go on like a real sket, but here she was every Sunday shaking her booty in the name of Jesus . . . And Jag told him some things about her recently. Well, maybe he said that just because she darked him. You never know. And the first and last time he’d jonesed that girl was five whole years ago. He’d been nearly fourteen and it was his first time. He’d tried to lie, act like he’d been doing it ever since he could get it up. Those were the days.

          He felt all the eyes up and down the rows looking at him looking at this other girl. The preacher was yelling “Repent!¸ He’d repeated that for the second time. The girl bit her lip. The friend next to her gave a nudge. It was Shantelle’s sister, Ruth. What, like half his class had family here – this was unreal. After Ruth nudged her, the corner of the girl’s mouth went up and her body spasmed. She put her hands to her face styling it out like she was sneezing. Blatant with a capital B.

          A few guys had started looking over too. One of the only other guys around his age was sitting just in front, yellow shirt, red tie, an out-of-date Afro with a parting. Shameful. This guy practically swivelled his head around 180 degrees just to cut his eye at him. Must be digging the girl as well. Too bad. I’ve done been with church girls and I ain’t about that right now. He gulped, and for the first time since he’d sat down he thought about how he came to be there. He let the beads of sweat trickle down his head and looked around again at the other eyes.

          Mr Pimpstripe next to him had his closed tight shut. Just as well because, from the looks of it, my man here spend the whole weekend with a wavecap on. Now that gives you real headache, worse than what I got now.

          Sovereign thought about closing his own eyes but his mind had begun racing. He wondered what might be going on outside. He became aware that his body was aching as well as his head and his thoughts were moving too quickly from one place to the other. When he blinked, flashbacks clung to the back of his eyelids, spoke to his brain. “Repent! For the time is at hand-ah.¸ His mouth was dry, and his hands were now unwilling to unclench themselves from the taut fists he’d created on his lap. He tried to focus his attentions instead at the wave of women surrounding him.

          Two sequinned hats looked across at each other and twisted their lips in his direction. Sequin Hat Number One bellowed out a powerful “Amen¸ that seemed to shake the foundations of the building. She was just a small old woman, didn’t look like she had it in her. Meanwhile, Number Two peeled herself from off her seat and ambled towards the back. She was hench – bingo wings, mafia boss’s mother type. Her expression was resolute, her eyes constantly shifting through the rows of chairs to meet other eyes and her cheeks puffed out like she was on the cud. Her boulder-like breasts hung down in her flower dress like ammunition in a sling (and David say, “’Ow dare you defy my Laawd de Gawd of Hisrael?¸ And ’im did swing him sling and Goliat’ did faall). He would not have liked to get on the wrong side of those babylons. He thought he recognised her face from somewhere, but couldn’t quite place it.

          “Dere is-ah no coincidences with Gaawd-ah. You are not here by coincidence-ah. You may heven have just stepped off the street-ah and your life may be out of control-ah, but Jesus is calling you now-ah. Jeeesus-ah . . . is calling-ah . . . you . . .¸

          The older eyes refocused their attentions from the pretty little eyes sitting in the front and the back. Everyone was looking at him. He met the first few stares and then looked instead at the floor, then at his dirty trainers, his ripped jeans, his baggy string vest, hugely different to the suits and ties and neat polished shoes that didn’t seem to fit with the weather. Not only was it baking outside, but the clammy bodies pushed together in this strange place had produced a hellish heat and a heavy odour. Sweat mixed with strong perfume . . . and stale cheese. Worse still, the main door and the windows were closed, but he could still hear the noise of the High Street traffic. He picked his red baseball cap up from the floor and began to fan himself with it. Hot Steppah, it said on the front.

          “How will you antsah this day-ah? I said how-ah will you ants-ah?¸

          Sequin Hat Two with the bazookas stood by the glass door at the corridor entrance. She swatted off a little boy who tried to push through to get to the bathroom. As she bent over, the little butterfly on her dress wobbled. Her face and neck were glowing with sweat.

          He wondered how they managed to put up with the stifling heat. When he’d gone to America, all the shops had air conditioning, even the dollar stores. They were better at things over there. Then again, even if air conditioning got big in this country, it wouldn’t end up in a converted shop like this one, here in Harlesden, the place even God had forgotten.

          “Are you dat prodigal son-ah? Today-ah He is telling you to come-ah. Dis may be your las’ chance-ah, for we know not the day nor the hour-ah. Will you come back to the fold this day-ah? I said will-ah . . .¸

          He kept his eyes down for a while, stretching out his legs and crossing one foot over the other. He thought of America, the tall buildings, all those nice cars and that don’t-give-a-shit attitude. He wanted to go back there, get away from his crew, the Terror Boys; get away from the chicken shop and all the trouble that came out of that place. In America they didn’t have to hang out in holes like that. They had Fifth Avenue. They had bigger guns and better drugs. What’s more, they had style to go with it.

          He breathed in deeply, unclenched his fists. He felt inside his deep left pocket. The weighty metal was warm. Although you could see the bulge in his jeans, it wasn’t that noticeable. He wanted to readjust himself and put it inside his waistband. He breathed out. Shit! He must have said this aloud because the man next to him made a kind of “Hmph!¸ noise.

          He felt his heart thud and decided to concentrate on something else. He continued looking at his faded Nike trainers. $45 from the flea market and better than the real thing. A couple of times, when he first came back with them, he got stopped in the street and asked where he bought them. And then he remembered how once, some boy stepped on his foot and he flipped. Him and a couple of the crew, Shortie G and Slicer, they dragged the boy out of the chicken shop, his arms flailing, cursing at the top of his voice. Slicer got all hyper as usual, shouting out in his squeaky voice, “Let’s mash him up, mash him good.¸ They kept dragging him through the High Street and past Headlines, where Big Jeff got out waving a razor and said, “You better leave that bwoy alone.¸ Shortie G, always practical, was like, “You guys are on a long ting. Just kick the bwoy down and let’s go back.¸ So, with a crowd starting to form, they put him down outside Headlines and got a few kicks in. A siren went off somewhere. Everyone walked off nicely. Just how it should be. He wasn’t concerned about people chatting his business and getting him into it. Not like now. Shit.

          “The Spirit is telling mee-ah that there is a soul here today-ah. A soul-ah that is lost-ah. A soul-ah that is wrestling-ah. Wrestling in their mind-ah. And the Bible says-ah that we wrestle not-ah against flesh and blood-ah, but against principalities-ah and powers-ah.¸

          Sovereign tried to switch off completely, think about where he was now instead, but he didn’t want to look up. He studied the floor. Both feet were now firmly in the middle of one of the brown carpet tiles that went up to the pulpit area. He followed the pattern of squares for a while and the places where they had lifted slightly. He looked across the aisle, noting by their relation to the squares how uneven the nine rows of chairs were. His eyes skimmed over the things people kept under their chairs: Bibles, hymn books, tambourines, handbags, handkerchiefs and, under a few, high heels. So that was the cheesy smell. Old-people feet. He scrunched up his nose then looked over towards the walls, covered with a thick royal-blue curtain. Most of the light came through the shop-window entrance and the strip lighting. There was nothing else to decorate the room, just a large banner at the front saying “Victory in Jesus ’92¸. They must have reused it three years running.

          “Are you wrestling this day-ah?¸

          He checked his breathing. His pulse was still racing but he felt back to normal. In fact, so normal he was thinking about risking it and leaving Pastor to see to the rest of his flock again. As much “fun¸ as it was being here, there was still business to deal with. He needed to work out what had gone down, how bad things were, whether he should lie low for a bit. Maybe go up to Wolverhampton for a while and stay with some family.

          He looked behind him to the entrance and thought about ducking out but Number Two fixed him an iron stare. That’s when he recognised her. Constance MacDonald – Jag’s aunt. Jag was one of the Terror Boys, always mouthing it off, saying how his older cousin was the baddest thing going; he was in for ten years or something after he peeled up this guy who juiced one of his girls. So when Shortie G said he’s got to be one fool doing that for a girl who probably smelt like fish, “because that gally’s been round the block twice, better believe dat one,¸ Jag went, “Yeah, you chatting Biggie now? You just watch. He can even get you from inside, trust.¸ And so Shortie got all scared. Sovereign had kept quiet. Not worth getting involved.

          He wondered if Constance recognised him. He’d only been round there once, when him and Jag were still in school, like more than two years ago now.

          The preacher lowered his voice almost to a whisper over the microphone and spoke the last words of the sermon. “Today-ah, your soul-ah may be required of thee-ah.¸

          Sovereign groaned. Oh, God. That was the punch line. He cut his eyes at Constance, moving his head back round to face the preacher, whose bulging eyes were fixed on him. He met the preacher’s gaze and wiped his mouth, still stinging from the sharp right hook that had caught him square less than a half hour ago. He looked down at his hand and jumped when he saw how much blood stuck to it. He must look real bad.

          The preacher let out a huge cry which made him jump again. No one else seemed surprised. His eyes again hooked on to the preacher’s, daring him to outstare him, knowing he would have to look away soon and address the rest of the congregation, who were starting to get noisier with “Amen¸s and “Preach!¸ and other exhortations to continue. Sovereign didn’t look away as he began to hear sirens outside. There were only a few but they echoed in his head, getting louder each time and forcing the congregation to crescendo in turn in some twisted battle. Wrestling against the powers. His mouth went dry.

          He felt his eyes widen as the sirens blazed on, whirring, whooping, hollering, rising against the sounds of the congregation, which was being charged up by some strange energy, bubbling up with no limit, no control. An old woman led the stampede – squealing loudly, she leapt from her seat as if it had struck her and danced to the front. She must have been at least seventy, but her stooped heavy frame glided across the floor, weightless, effortless.

          As she got up, she knocked the head of the young girl next to her, almost removing her black beret, which was stuck down with a hairpin. The girl, who could have been no more than twelve, convulsed in her chair like she’d been given a jolt of electricity, then fell forwards muttering and then back again, stretching out her hands and screeching. The chair rocked back and forth and a couple of women from the row behind grabbed on to it to steady her.

          The dancing caught on like a Mexican wave and soon nearly half the congregation were shouting and shimmying their way to the front, whilst the others were righting upturned chairs, limiting the damage.

          At this point, Sovereign felt a hand on his shoulder as Constance leant over him, breasts level with his eyes, grip firm and unapologetic.

          “Come to de haltar,¸ she commanded, not waiting for him to look up at her.

          He could still hear the sirens, but they seemed stationary now. Loud whoops that made him dizzy. Definitely more than one and probably a whole legion of cars and vans surrounding the place. He gulped.

          She repeated herself. His legs moved of their own accord – his will was giving way. Eyes welling up with angry tears, ears filled with nothing but the cars outside. He found himself pleading for a miracle that would clear up the stupid mess he was in. If he hadn’t been there that morning, it wouldn’t have happened. If Jag hadn’t given him the piece, then it wouldn’t have happened. If those damn boys hadn’t wanted to start something, and if that one especially hadn’t got feisty, it definitely wouldn’t have happened. He wanted to scream.

          “Come,¸ she said, and pushed him up roughly. He staggered towards the front, steering his body around the limbs of the crowd, which had begun to sing. His ears could not focus on the words and his eyes were now clouded over. The bodies blurred around him, multiplying until he was standing among a myriad of spirits.

          Constance shoved him further forward until he was standing right by the pulpit. She touched his head and he felt himself falling to his knees. Weak and heavy, dry-throated and naked in front of the thickening crowd. He was hotter than before, almost dizzy with fever, and his sweat poured down around him. He closed his eyes.

          Constance was kneeling behind him, but her voice seemed to surround him completely. She was transformed, swallowing him, increasing as he decreased. She pressed his head down until it was almost level with his knees and now all he could hear was her voice. A voice that spoke words he couldn’t understand. That seemed to be scolding him and comforting him at the same time. A voice that went on and on, barely pausing for breath.

          And now the sirens stop, the yelling and the crying and the singing around him cease. In the silence, his spirit lifts itself, up through the congregation, through the glass door, through the police cars parked outside, through the High Street and upwards, upwards, upwards. His spirit is giddy, slicing through clouds and surging forwards. It begins to spiral downwards, swirling towards the chicken shop, where he can see a large circle of curious bodies stretching over a police cordon. He doesn’t have time to wonder if they managed to hide all the stuff that was under the counter because it continues floating onwards and, just as he thinks his spirit is running home to safety, to a third-floor flat on the Stonebridge Estate where the police won’t find him, it turns back towards the car park in the Plaza. It hovers over the blocked traffic, where the noise of horns fills his ears like sweet gospel music and joins with the hum of the choir back in the church, still weighed down with the notes of Sinner Come Home. It skates through the police barriers, cuts through the whirring of sirens and lowers itself slowly into the corner, just by Blockbuster Video. The air out here is stifling and choking smoke rises from the tarmac and his spirit twists with the rhythm of Pastor Macdonald’s voice, echoing louder, stronger, deeper, above all of the other sounds. The car park is unfamiliar: almost no cars, no people running into the shops screaming, just a heavy atmosphere of uniformed men standing watch while an ambulance approaches. His spirit hovers over the boy lying in a pool of blood, the still conductor in this orchestra of sirens and choirs and weeping and hollering.

          Constance knocks him backwards and his body feels light. His spirit is melting. Its weightless world merges with the carpet tiles on the floor and the sound of the preacher talking over him and the woman with the sequinned hat chanting over him and now his own words, which surprise him. He shouts out to Jesus, shouts out for salvation, shouts out for something or anything that will rescue him, take him somewhere else, make him new and clean and safe. He remembers chunks of the Bible he learnt as a child and his shouts become screams become noises become whispers. “Let this cup pass, let this cup pass, please let this cup pass . . .¸

          And then she’s on his left-hand side and she’s pressing her body into him. He can hear that they’ve entered. Hear the tension in the air because the music’s stopped and the singing’s stopped and there’s a voice telling him to freeze and put his hands in the air and everyone else better back away. Suddenly it gets a lot noisier again and he doesn’t know what’s going on because it all seems like a dream and his heart has gone into his mouth. But Constance has been holding on to him, squeezing his leg and now she lets go. The preacher’s saying something. He’s talking to them, saying, “How dare ye gentiles defile de House of de Lawd! ’Ow dare ye enter into dis sacred ground! You come here under whose name? Under whose right?¸

          The police have grabbed him roughly, wrenched his wrists behind his back and clicked on the handcuffs. He’s hardly moved because he suddenly needs to pee and now he can’t see much because his eyes are blurry and he wants to close them again and not open them until he wakes up from this nightmare.

          All he notices through the blur is that the congregation is moving towards the front, singing at full strength, and that the pigs have got bullet-proofs on. They’re saying, “Stand back, stand back, we are dealing with an armed murderer,¸ and the preacher is saying, “De only authority you must respeck right now in dis place his de autority of de Lawd.¸ He’s at the pulpit, his voice still coming through the speakers. And the congregation has begun a new chorus of We Shall Not Be Moved. This has got to be a dream. His arm feels weird up against his back and the cold metal cuffs are digging into his hands. He’s still talking to himself, still asking God to help him and the police are patting him down. “Where’s your weapon?¸ they’re asking him and they’re going into his pockets and pulling out money and keys and cigarettes and rolling papers and nothing else. “Where’s your weapon?¸ they keep saying, and the chorus has gathered pace, quickening, louder, fuller, angrier. More police have trickled through to the altar and one of them is on his radio calling for backup and they’re shouting at the congregation, “Stand back.¸

          Through all the commotion he can hear them: “I’m arresting you, Christian Wilson, for the murder of . . .¸ and then “Just like a tree that’s planted by the wa-a-ters¸ and then “Anything you do say may be given as evidence¸ and then another pig’s threatening the preacher saying, “Quiet down or we’ll arrest you and all for obstructing the course –¸ and suddenly the preacher’s struck the cop and he’s been handcuffed too. But he’s still trying to talk into the microphone, saying, “Brethren, let us render unto Caesar dat what pertainet unto Caesar – but dey shalt be struck down if hany ’arm shall come upon dis boy.¸ And he hears the preacher saying, “Lawd, I deliver us into your hands,¸ but he’s not on the microphone any more.

          Then he feels himself being dragged up the aisle and the congregation parting like the Red Sea, still singing, right? Only it’s something else he can’t quite catch the words to. He can’t stand properly because he’s weak. And then Pastor is right behind him, saying, “I know ye scribes and Pharisees. I do know all your hungodly ways. I know what you did to my Joshua.¸ And he’s wondering who’s Joshua, and he’s wondering what happened to the gun, knowing now for certain what happened to the boy. And then he’s wondering where he is because his mind goes funny. Then he feels his wrists again and the arms squeezing his elbows and he panics and wonders where Shortie is and where Slicer is and where the rest of them all is. And then his head is being pushed down into one of the many police cars. And when he looks out onto the street and sees Constance standing among the crowd that has rushed out with him, he knows he doesn’t have to wonder what happened to the gun any more. She just looks at him through the glass as they speed off to the chorus of sirens.













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