By Liz Parkes
SHE is five metres tall and sparkles with broken light like the sunlight when you break surface after a long dive. She stretches her wings and the draught from them sweeps the motes of dust into the air blinding the bastards facing me. It is my chance and I will take it.
I know the way out of here like the back of my hand. The nave has a small door to my right for the priest to enter. We have been lined up against the back wall where the altar would have been if the building had been finished. It would take seconds at most. Crouched low I sprint out into the fresh air and morning light. The sun has risen cleansing the village. It could be a normal Friday with Agnes waking, sleepily and pulling her brush through her long tousled hair while I fetch the hungry baby to her.
This has been my life’s work. We were building this church to the glory of God, but with one eye on our neighbours in Seville. See: not the collection of country bumpkins you thought us, see, not just goat herds, pig farmers, yokels but men of culture. That was how we saw it. Who knows how God saw it.
Agnes had not wanted to live in this village. We were both raised in small villages with their parochial ways. University had shown us a different life, one where people debate wider issues than the price of cheese.
Our first home had been an apartment above the baker’s shop, the smell of fresh bread and sex forever mixed together; sweet long evenings of food and wine with friends arguing and laughing about how we would change the world. Nothing was impossible then. Everywhere things were changing. The old order would crumble, we had read Karl Marx. A new transitional phase was starting. We were at a crossroads in history and we were so sure of our way.
Agnes was working at the government building at the back of the barracks. She would laugh at the antics of the soldiers, the boys who had not made it to the universities parading in their uniforms like peacocks. She would feel sorry for the troops penned up like cattle leaning out through the small windows to watch the girls go by. Her tales and mimicry amused and entertained; it was cruel but we had all teased the boys in our school yards who had been military fodder. Freedom was for those who knew how to use it.
You are wondering how we ended up back here in this village with its cobbled streets of whitewashed houses?
Life, my friend, has a way of clipping your wings.
It had been a weekend when we had been to the coast. The station was crowded, the train full of troops coming back from Morocco. Agnes had been tired and slept throughout the journey but it still came as a shock when she collapsed on the platform. A doctor pushed through the crowds, seeing my worried face he clapped me on the shoulder and congratulated me on the child she would be having. My wife had held this secret for weeks trying to hang on as long as possible to the life we had.
We were parents. The apartment became too small when Pedro arrived. He and his sisters had to share a room. The baby’s cries woke the others, things became difficult. Although my practice was doing well in the town, even an architect can find it a struggle to buy into the bigger houses. Agnes wanted to go back to where her mother and sisters would be on hand to help.
Leaving our home of 10 years had been a wrench. The baker made each of the children a special cake. Even little Pedro seemed to know that something momentous was happening as our friends hugged him then squeezed him into the back of the car where his mother was making gaps in the piles of our belonging to fit the girls.
We put a brave face on it as the children rushed around their new house. After a week it began to feel like home. Agnes cleaned and straightened the garden, neighbours called to bring gifts and find out as much as they could about us to hold an audience in the cafe on the square. It was life as our parents had known it: safe in its daily sameness.
Walking to the small town hall where my office opened onto the square, was a novelty. People stopped to speak, no-one was ever too busy. I should have been so happy. The government work was routine, lunch was a long relaxing hour in the cafe listening to the gossip, by Christmas I was tearing my hair out, not that Agnes would have known. I told her the gossip, was always relaxed and had time for the children. She was pleased when I put my name forward for the committee.
The village had raised an enormous amount of money to build a new church. With my training as an architect I was able to lead the project. It was bigger than anything I had approached before and more high stake, living as we did ‘on site’.
It was the challenge I had been looking for, something to get my teeth into away from the mundane everyday work. The plans were the best work I had ever done, ambitious, yes but wonderful, our little village would become a place of pilgrimage. There was so much enthusiasm in those first years, everyone took part and the foundations and walls seemed to come together in a miraculous prayer to Our Lord.
Then the arguments started. The debates that we had held over coffee as students turned ugly here. Families took sides, opinions became entrenched. Money for the building work was no longer there and accusations of fraud were made. Neighbour fell out with neighbour.
The committee struggled on hoping that when the roof went on people would unite in the glory of their project, but the estimate was far more than we could raise. The building stood like an ark on the outskirts of the village, hosting the bats and swifts that flew through its windows and roosted on the open walls.
And that was how it was when these soldiers came. Moroccans led by Spaniards. They pulled up in the square. Jumped out with guns leveled, took the mayor, the teacher, the policeman, all the committee. They listened in the cafe to the gossip, no longer harmless, now men and some women disappeared at night. There was no trial our crime was in our education, our standing in the area.
I heard Agnes outside trying to find out where I was, what was to become of me. The window was shuttered and locked. The other men watched empty-eyed from their places on the floor, I called willing to face the beating but I am not sure she heard.
Before dawn we were taken out along the silent cobbled streets. Occasionally dogs barked or an owl hooted but the people were too scared to show a light, if anyone was up watching you would not know it.
My church stood a deeper black against the lightening sky, the empty windows and doors cavities of nothingness. The soldiers cursed and used their rifle butts to hurry us along. Inside the church, our eyes adjusted to the gloom. The birds had started to stir in their nests ready for the dawn they could sense the coming light. We shivered in the cool air.
As long as I live, I will remember the silence before the shots. Even the birds sensed our fear as the soldiers pushed us back into a line against the altar wall: where the stained glass of the east window should have been stood my angel.
Agnes ran up the street towards the unfinished building. The shots had set every dog in the area barking. She was cold although the sun was rising on a lovely clear morning. The soldiers were making coarse jokes as they loaded the truck. No-one would tell her where they were going. Her husband’s body had been thrown onto the flat bed of the truck under that of the mayor. His arm trailed over the back and she saw his wedding ring had gone.
© Liz Parkes 2016