It was late on a winter’s evening when I turned on to the lane leading to the Bad Vicarage. There was ice in the puddles and the thorn bushes glittered in the moonlight. On the other side of a filbert hedge a peasant person was worrying the ground with an agricultural tool.
“Good evening, peasant!” I called, “Can you tell me who is vicar nowadays in the Bad Vicarage?”
It was twenty years since I had been in these parts. I doubted that the Bad Vicar of the olden days was still in residence, but I wanted to make sure.
“Good evening to you, sir,” said the peasant, resting from his twilight labours and leaning on his implement, “The vicarage is bad indeed, as bad as any vicarage in Christendom. But the vicar whose sinecure it is is, shall we say, a fair to middling vicar. I would not call him good, but he is by no means as bad as the Bad Vicar of old.”
“Thank you,” I said, and felt compelled to add “You are, I may say, very well-spoken for a peasant.”
“I am a so-called New Peasant,” said the peasant, “My soul has been re-engineered by the Great Helmsman, all praise to him. It was he who ensured the destruction of the Bad Vicar, after all.”
“Is that so?” I asked, “Then praise to him indeed, as you say. Yet for all that, the Bad Vicarage is still bad, in spite of its fair to middling vicar, and though you are a New Peasant, here you are at nightfall, tilling the fields or whatever you are doing with that agricultural implement, just as an old peasant would do.”
“The countryside is the countryside, sir,” he said, gnomically, and he went back to work.
I carried on up the lane, my mind a welter of chaos. If the Great Helmsman had wrought the ruination of the Bad Vicar, why had he left the Bad Vicarage standing? And why, installed in it now, was a fair to middling vicar? Were there no good vicars in these parts? My uncle, for example, was a good vicar. Why had he been passed over for the sinecure? But then, was he still alive, or had he been one of the many victims of the Bad Vicar, mourned and unmourned? These and other questions tugged at the reins of my sanity as I approached ever closer the great forbidding gate of the Bad Vicarage.
As if to signal a shift in the very nature of things, just as I raised my hand to grasp the bell-pull dangling from the gate, the bright moon was of a sudden blotted out behind a cloud. I shuddered, but yanked the rope, only to hear a dull flat clunk rather than a clang. A bad bell for a bad vicarage. What else should I have expected?
But the clunk had the desired effect, for peering between the railings I saw the door of the Bad Vicarage creak open, and emerging from it a fellow I took to be the fair to middling vicar. He was young and spry and came bounding up the path to open the gate for me.
“You are the vicar?” I asked.
“That I am,” he cried, with unwarranted bonhomie, “Come, visiting stranger, for the night is a chill one, and you must warm your collywobbles beside a roaring fire.”
And soon enough the two of us were sat in armchairs by the fireside, slurping from beakers of hot and vitamin-enhanced goaty milk froth. Clearly, in destroying the Bad Vicar, the Great Helmsman had spared his goats. I could hear them, tethered in the back garden, bleating and occasionally butting their heads against the wall.
“Explain to me,” I said, coming straight to the point, “How it can be that this vicarage is still a Bad Vicarage, when you yourself, armed with the sinecure, are not a Bad Vicar?”
The fair to middling vicar laughed, slopping some of his milk froth onto the threadbare rug at his feet.
“This will always be a Bad Vicarage,” he said, “The rugs are threadbare, the floorboards are rotting, the paint is chipping, the roof is falling in, the heating is clapped out, the drains are clogged, and the goats are maddened.”
“Could you not see to it that repairs are made and the goats inspected by a veterinary surgeon?” I asked.
He laughed again, but this time it was a hollow laugh of infinite despair.
“What would be the use?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “If both the repair persons and the veterinary surgeons were unstinting in their efforts, it would no longer be a Bad Vicarage. It would become fair to middling, and in time, possibly, even good. Imagine that.”
He put his drained beaker on the rug, stood up, and went to stand by the window, peering out, his back turned to me.
“You have come here, ” he said, after some minutes of eerie silence, “On a cold winter’s evening, uninvited, unannounced. I sense you are no stranger to this place. I can hear in the bleating of the goats that they know you, that they have encountered you before. Just before you arrived, I received a message on my metal tapping machine from the New Peasant stationed behind the filbert hedge at the entrance to the lane. He told me you had no need to ask for directions, that you made your way here with practised steps, indeed that you minced hither as directly as a crow in flight. You nestle in the armchair by the fire and slurp the hot and vitamin-enhanced goaty milk froth from the beaker I have given you, and you know damned well that the rugs are threadbare, the floorboards are rotting, the paint is chipping, the roof is falling in, the heating is clapped out, the drains are clogged, and the goats are maddened. You know the Bad Vicarage as well as you know the back of your hand. Who the devil are you?”
And he spun around to look at me, and I looked back, my red eyes gazing at him like firebolts.
“I am the Bad Vicar,” I said, “Come to regain my sinecure.”
And, at my summons, the maddened goats, their tethers loosed, came crashing through the window.