Catherine's short fiction, non-fiction and music journalism has also been widely published, and she is a member of the Crime Writers' Association and the Geneva Writers' Group.
When Catherine is not writing, she plays guitar in a heavy metal band, mainly to embarrass her four children.
Across grey waters, where the river Mersey meets the Irish Sea, wind turbines puncture the dawn horizon like spinning crucifixes. Further out still, tiny lights can be discerned, framing the ghostly shape of an exploratory oil rig which guards this watery Golgotha. Here on the beach the smooth sandscape is perforated too, by the evenly-spaced bronze figures of Another Place. So many faceless men, some half submerged, gazing out to sea and waiting calmly, expectantly in this liminal space. To the south is the port of Liverpool, there the piles of coloured containers and bright blue gantry cranes piercing the landscape, yearning for a prosperity long lost. And to the north, as the beach recedes into sand dunes and forest and piles of war-rubble; here too is a crucifix.
A cross, fashioned from two pieces of builders’ timber, has been erected in the sand, supported by sandbags. The cross is man-sized, with a hand nailed to each end of the horizontal plane. The naked body in between the hands does not hang forlorn and Christ-like, but is tied rigid and undignified to the vertical plank. Its skin is papery and grey, in the early stages of decomposition. The neck is fastened with ropes at the intersection of the cross in an eternal throttle, causing the man’s face to be tilted up towards the words painted neatly on the wood above his head: ‘Hath not the potter power over the clay?’.
At his feet the tide has left a pile of razor clams and bladderwrack, an offering to the dead. But no crown of thorns for this martyr; instead, across his forehead, a deep carving in which the blood has long dried, leaving the clear dark outline of an image: an inverted axe with a double blade. And no jeering crowds for this condemned man; only scatterings of oyster-catchers and sandpipers that beachcomb for treasures, while gulls and starlings soar vulture-like against the wind. Soon the first dog-walkers and joggers of the day will find their morning pilgrimage tainted forever.
‘What happens when we die?’
Dr. Helen Hope looked up at her audience, a decent smattering of first and second years ranged on benches that rose to the top of the windowless basement lecture theatre. Nowadays she always enjoyed this first rhetorical question of the trimester, this easy and rather theatrical provocation. The stage fright and spiritual terror that had crippled her at the beginning of her lectureship had dissipated, and she was spurred by the popularity of this course she had designed. Since Eschatology had been offered there had been a relative run on applications, both from within and without the Theology department.
‘What happens when we die?’ she repeated, shrugging expectantly. It appeared to be a shy group and no-one today was going to play along and venture an answer, so she continued.
‘This is the surely the central question that all religions and philosophies try to answer, and that’s why it must be the central question of any Theology degree. Perhaps you chose this course because you are looking for that answer yourself. Perhaps you just needed another credit and thought it sounded cool. Perhaps you heard there was this hot nun in a habit who teaches it..’
There was a ripple of laughter and she felt the tension in the room lift instantly; this always got them and she had perfected her deadpan reaction. But she still loathed herself for saying it and imagined herself in thirty years’ time, still here, with the wording of her joke changed to ‘crazy old nun’.
‘Perhaps you don’t even know what Eschatology means and you’re not sure why you are here. Eschatology is the study of death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. Pretty important, right? Eschatologies vary as to their degree of optimism or pessimism about the future. Each religion, each philosophy, each individual, all have their own interpretation of the hereafter. In this course, we will study eschatological texts in the hope that they will illuminate history, psychology, and what motivates humankind to keep going. You may also use this course as an opportunity to consider your own personal belief system.
‘And so for your first essay, using the reading list which should be in front of you, I’d like you to consider that simple question: What Happens When We Die? You can be as creative as you like with it really, but do make sure you use at least one of the set texts, and think carefully about the structure of your essays. Now if anyone does need help with essay planning…’
She stopped when she noticed that someone had put up their hand to ask a question. A man leant back in his seat, legs outstretched, twirling a pen and looking wry. He was older than the rest, perhaps a mature student.
‘Yes - please go ahead?’ she nodded towards him.
‘What do you think happens when we die, Dr. Hope?’
Ah, there’s always one, thought Helen. The cynic, the wise-guy. He’s already gone there. And why not - it livens things up. A hush had fallen over the room, and those who had been making moves to leave now stopped and took notice.
‘That’s a very good question, er, sorry I don’t know your name yet?’
‘Paul. That’s a very good question, and I was planning to cover it during our first proper lecture next week, but perhaps I should have introduced myself more fully at the beginning. Now the first thing to say, before I answer, is that none of you should feel obliged to reveal your personal beliefs, either inside this room or in the pub afterwards. That’s not what this course is about. But since you asked so nicely’, she smiled and bowed her head, ‘I will tell you just briefly about the belief system in which I operate. I am a Calvinist nun. Calvinist referring to John Calvin, the theologian who played a prominent role in the sixteenth century Reformation. Calvinist Christians, or reformed Christians, believe in heaven and hell, of course, but they also believe in...’
‘The tulip, right?’ the young man interrupted.
‘Well that’s right, the TULIP is sometimes known as the five pillars of Calvinism. T for Total Depravity, U for Unconditional Election, L for Limited Atonement , I for Irresistible Grace, P for Perseverance of the Saints’.
As she said this he was nodding knowingly, which she couldn’t help but find irritating. ‘We’ll have to leave discussion for another time, but the essential idea is that of predestination; God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned. Some say it’s a cruel doctrine, but it’s actually a clear interpretation of the Bible. And it leaves us with the huge challenge of how to know a god we cannot understand. The ultimate paradox which, I suppose my life is dedicated to solving, is that of the two divine wills.’
She was beginning to lose their attention since the session had run over into lunchtime, so she decided to wrap things up.
‘That question in itself is worthy of multiple Phds, so I hope it gives you a sense of how broad this course is.’ She began to pack up her own things, indicating that the students could do the same and raising her voice over the commotion. ‘As I say, it doesn’t have to be Christian, or religious at all. Some of you may want to focus on futurism, climate change, terrorism for example. I do hope you enjoy your first assignment, please don’t worry about anything and do email me if you have any questions. Thank you. Oh, and remember, ladies and gentlemen - no Wikipedia. I will know if you cut and paste!’
Students filed out, switching on phones and chatting. Dr. Hope made her way out of the lecture theatre, avoiding eye contact with Paul as she went; down the corridors and out of the university building onto Hope Street. The two cathedrals of Liverpool framed either end of the vista. Closest to her was the modern Catholic cathedral, known affectionately as ‘Paddy’s wigwam’ due to its unique modernist structure. The spiked cylindrical tower splayed down to a truncated conical body supported by flying buttresses, giving it a tent-like appearance. The quirky architectural design and multi-coloured stained glass conferred a scouse character and made this, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, the ‘fun’ cathedral. And so despite this Catholic cathedral’s unusual look, and the traditional dominance of Catholicism in Liverpool, it was the traditional-looking and austere Anglican cathedral, a lonely brick castle on its plateau opposite, that looked down over the city in judgement.
Today Helen had been lucky and secured a parking space right outside the lecture hall, and as she fumbled with her car keys she was aware of amused whisperings from a group of students hanging around nearby. It was to be expected; a nun climbing into a bright green Volkswagen Beetle was an odd sight to behold. Helen’s religious order made no concessions to modernity with their uniform. Her habit consisted of a floor-length grey tunic, belted at the waist with a traditional rope cincture. Over this was a white scapula and guimpe, while a white coif fitted around her head, ensuring that none of her hair could ever be seen underneath the black veil that crowned everything. A large wooden cross on a long string of wooden beads was her permanent accessory.
Helen started the engine and waved to the students whom she knew were still talking about her, admitting to herself that somewhere deep inside she enjoyed this little notoriety. The ancient Volkswagen was the Order’s shared car, known cosily by the Sisters as the ‘pootler’, a term that had made her cringe once but that now, she noticed with dismay, she was beginning to use herself. Apart from Helen, only one other Sister had a driving license, and so for the most part the car was effectively hers alone.
She drove back towards Formby contented, enjoying the mild exhilaration and relief of having completed this week’s public performance. The dock road always provided an evocative drive; the romance of industry, empty warehouses, broken windows, faded signs for businesses and pubs long closed. Liverpool was scattered with abandoned churches; some had been converted into apartments, or climbing walls; others left to rot and crumble, with graffiti, weeds growing in cracks, the whispering of angry ghosts. Here and there were businesses still thriving poignantly - a workman’s café, a sex shop, a Chinese supermarket - amongst the wreckage of the past. This was all changing, of course. The regeneration of Liverpool had been underway for ten years, ever since it had been awarded the European City of Culture in 2008, and now parts of the city centre sparkled with modernity. Container ships and car ferries easing into Liverpool Bay would still see the famous skyline of the Liver birds, the Seventies-style Radio city tower and the two cathedrals, but these landmarks now mingled with futuristic skyscrapers, chrome and glass. Meanwhile the crumbling warehouses along the docks were gradually being transformed into luxury apartments, hotels, live-work complexes. While she was glad for the city, Helen couldn’t help feeling a quixotic wistfulness for the nostalgia of industrial dereliction; the histories that lay behind each broken factory window, each faded shop sign.
She never allowed herself to listen to music, in the car or anywhere else, but today perhaps a little radio news was in order, and she turned on City FM to hear a soft scouse accent announcing the headlines.
'There is a police incident underway today on Crosby beach; reports are of a body being found, and the area has been cordoned off for investigation. No further details at this time but we’ll keep you updated.'
Her ears pricked up at the mention of Crosby beach; the Order was only a couple of miles up the coast in the Formby pinewoods, and her walks along the dunes took her down to Crosby almost daily. She imagined a drowning, perhaps the mud flats or a rip tide, and shuddered at unnameable ghosts.
Soon docks became suburbs became farmland and autumnal forest, as Helen approached the affluent residential area of Formby. She wound her familiar way down the long driveway of Argarmeols Hall, home of the Order of the Sisters of Grace. Argarmeols Hall consisted of a rambling, somewhat crumbling, Edwardian mansion flanked by a small church which was in rather better condition. Both were hidden from the road and surrounded by forest - the huge sweeping coastal pinewoods of Formby and Freshfields, last stronghold of the natterjack toad, and protected reserve for England’s dwindling population of red squirrels. Fortunate walkers would see them darting up and down the tree trunks.
The Sisters of Grace was the only Calvinist Order, male or female, in the northwest of England, the mansion and adjoining church having been donated by an eccentric benefactor early in the last century. In a city of kindness, warmth and Catholic forgiveness, Argarmeols Hall stood fast as a fortress of severity, and for the ten years since she had taken the veil, it had been Helen’s home, providing the mercilessness that she craved.
The crunch of gravel beneath her tyres was always her familiar welcome, followed by the scent of pine as she opened the car door. But today as she pulled into Argarmeols, the first thing she saw was a police car, and then Sister Mary waiting anxiously in the doorway. Mary came waddling hurriedly down the steps towards her, picking up her skirts clumsily.
‘Sister Helen, there are two detectives here to see you. They want to ask you some questions, about a body?’ Sister Mary looked nervous, but also a little excited. She lived for the promise of rare moments of drama like these, and Helen often wondered how on earth she could stand to live the life they had chosen.
‘We put them in the living room with a cup of tea, but you should go straight in, I think they’re in a hurry.’
‘Ok, thank you Sister Mary’
‘God bless you Helen. Let me know how it goes, won’t you?’
‘I will’, Helen smiled as she went opened the door.
A young man and woman stood up as she entered the room, and reached forward to shake hands. They didn’t look hostile at all, and Helen instantly relaxed; in fact, they looked out of their depth in more ways than one, eyeing their ascetic surroundings uncertainly. He was wearing a somewhat ill-fitting suit, with shoes that appeared to be running trainers. He was tall and handsome in that wiry scouse fashion, with an earnest frown and deep-set eyes that gleamed with sarcasm. But he rubbed frequently at his designer stubble and gave the impression that he would rather be wearing the same uniform as his colleague. Over her regulation white shirt and tie, this small and neat young woman wore an intimidating dark blue flack waistcoat which displayed the Merseyside Police logo, along with its radio, weapon and other threatening paraphernalia of law enforcement. Her hair was conservatively tied back under her policewoman’s hat, but she wore full make-up. She and Helen nodded almost imperceptibly at each other in knowing amusement at the incongruity of their respective female uniforms.
The man spoke with a deep Liverpudlian accent.
‘Sister Helen, please,’ she smiled. ‘I’m only Dr. when I’m at the University.’
‘Right, Sister. I’m Detective Inspector Darren Swift, and this is Detective Constable Colette Quinn. Nothing to worry about at all, and we’ll try not to take up too much of your time. We were just hoping for some guidance from you really.’
‘Guidance? You mean spiritual guidance detective?’ Helen said with an arched eyebrow as they sat down. The detectives looked unamused and she instantly regretted the moment of uncharacteristic insolence; what on earth was she thinking? Perhaps that student Paul had somehow rattled her today. Swift continued.
‘Unfortunately a body was found in the early hours of this morning on Crosby beach, up at the north end so very close to here.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘How..?’ Both detectives were taken aback, and glanced at each other.
‘I heard it on the radio on the way here.’
‘Oh, oh right’.
‘I didn’t hear it from God, if that’s what you were wondering’. She smiled. Back in the game, that one worked.
But she had set the detectives on edge and they seemed irritable now. ‘So anyway,’ said Swift, ‘we haven’t identified the body yet, and we’re checking missing persons, but unfortunately it is going to be a murder investigation. Whoever did this appears to have covered their tracks very well, and the tide has also been in and out, so we’re working with the evidence we have while we wait for forensics to identify the body. It’s very likely to be drugs-related.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Helen nodded expectantly as Swift continued.
‘The reason we’re here is that there was some writing at the crime scene, and it’s some sort of religious quote. Obviously we looked it up and it’s from the Bible, the Book of Paul apparently. Anyway we just went into the nearest vicarage in Crosby and they sent us here to see you, because apparently you’re an expert on religious texts. We’re just looking for some context and whether it could give us any clues. It says here’, he paused to read from his notes, ‘you’re an eschatologist - what does that mean exactly?’
‘Yes, I’m a lecturer in the Theology Department at the University, and eschatology is just a course I’ve been teaching for the past couple of years. It’s about death, the end of the world, fun stuff like that. So - what’s the quotation?’
‘Oh right yes. It’s’ - he read from the screen - ‘Hath not the potter power over the clay?’
At the sound of these words, Helen was momentarily lost to the room, drawn into private thoughts, and DC Quinn leaned forward and coughed to nudge her back into the conversation.
‘Do you know it then?’ Quinn asked. ‘If you can’t remember we can show you where we looked it up online, or there must be plenty of Bibles here.’ She gestured to the book shelves around the room.
‘Sorry, yes, sorry.’ Helen shook herself back into the conversation. ‘I do know it of course. Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? It’s from Romans, Chapter nine verse twenty-one if I’m not mistaken. I was just startled because it’s so very relevant to our…..’
She paused, lost in thought, and the detectives waited restlessly for her to continue.
‘It’s one of the many passages in the Bible that refers to the concept of divine will, or God’s power over the fate of mankind; and in particular the idea of predestination. That is, God in his wisdom chooses certain individuals who will be saved, and certain who will be sinners, condemned to hell’.
At this Swift and Quinn both made the same facial expression, mouths turned down at the edges in unwilling acknowledgement of her elucidation. Swift said:
‘Predestination.. and that can’t be changed? Seems a bit depressing. Why on earth would you choose to believe that?’
Helen smiled benignly. This was the usual reaction to Calvinism. ‘It’s not so much what we choose to believe. More important than the doctrine itself is the way it causes us to live our lives’.
‘And are we supposed to know who these saved and sinners are?’
‘Oh no. Can you imagine a world in which we did know? All we can do is our best.’
Swift looked at his watch, then at Quinn, saying ‘We should get back, that crime scene needed to be moved before the next tide comes in.’ Then to Helen he said:
‘If you don’t mind me asking, how does this place stay afloat?’
‘Well, we receive grants from English Heritage thanks to the history of the buildings, and funds from the United Reformed Church, since we act as an unofficial care home for very old or infirm nuns. One of our Sisters once trained as a doctor, so we have a degree of medical expertise here to take care of them. And then of course my lecturer salary goes to the Order, plus the Deaconness works as a teacher part-time. Other than that, we need very little really.’
‘Do you get many visitors to the convent? Has anyone unusual come here recently?’
‘We do get visitors, yes. Although Calvinism is a very conservative form of Christianity, we do try to play some role in the community. There are the public church services on Sundays and Wednesdays, we get a few locals in for that, and then the foodbank on Fridays. And we do try to be an open door to people in need - we act as a women’s refuge, for example.’
‘Not really an area of great need around here is it, Formby footballer belt...’ mused Swift. ‘Anyone taking refuge here at the moment?’
Quinn shifted uncomfortably, bristling at her colleague’s harshness, but the nun seemed unoffended.
‘No, not at the moment,’ Helen replied. ‘Of course, we use our country retreat for that anyway, and that’s in a secret location for obvious reasons.’
‘Well’, said Swift, straightening up to leave, ‘it’s impossible to tie any of that to a murder motive at this stage, but thank you for your time and we’ll come back to you if we find any more… religious clues, let’s say. It’s either drugs-related, or some nutter, obviously.’
‘Or maybe a disgruntled potter,’ ventured Helen. They realised she was making a joke, a terrible one, and were unamused. She told herself off again, what on earth was she thinking, making light of something like this? She could feel herself becoming a bore, long before her time, gradually turning into one of the old dears at the age of thirty-two. A faint spark of something, perhaps desperation, was kindling somewhere within her, and beginning to imperceptibly alter her behaviour. Swift was getting up to leave, when Quinn touched his arm and whispered:
‘What about the marking on the body? It might be linked..’
Swift sighed, irritated she had brought it up but conceding and sitting down again. ‘There is something else, as Detective Constable Quinn said out loud, there was a marking on the body. If you’re not too squeamish… we can show you on the ipad. This is confidential of course, not for the press or social media.’
‘I’m a nun. I don’t know what social media is.’ And now a pointless lie. What am I doing?, she thought.
Swift placed the Ipad in front of her, and she suddenly recoiled and gasped. They hadn’t prepared her, and yet again she was taken from the room, lost in the private horror of another time she had seen a body.
‘No, not exactly, he didn’t die like that. Looks like he died a while ago, and this elaborate set-up was constructed last night for people to find. Sorry, should have told you more before we showed you the photo. The carving on the body - it’s an axe right? Does it mean anything, religious-wise?’
Again, Sister Helen was very silent and still, and the detectives were about to give up, wishing they hadn’t shown her. But then she spoke.
‘It’s a double-headed axe, and it does have a meaning, yes. Several meanings. Sometimes known as a Labrys, it is originally from Crete and is one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilisation. It was often associated with female deities, and was also a symbol of Greek fascism. But - and the reason I know about this symbol since it relates to my eschatological study - is that it is also a symbol of death. It symbolises duality, in a similar way to the Tau Cross. In Athens, those prisoners sentenced to death had the lower case ‘t’ tattooed on their foreheads and if the prisoner was fortunate to be found innocent, he would have an upper case ‘T’ in the form of the Tau, which is the symbol of life, tattooed on their forehead.’
‘Symbol of death, ok.’ Swift tried again to leave, but Helen was not finished.
‘But detective, this axe is inverted, and that means something else again. An inverted axe means anti-justice or rebellion. Rebelling against God. The work of Satan. So I suppose what the writing and the symbol are saying together is that this person has rebelled against God and is going to hell.. no matter what. And of course that is horrible and unknowable. How terribly sad for his family. Who was he? He looks very young…’
But Swift had stood up and moved towards the door. ‘We’re not releasing any more details at this stage. Once the body has been identified and the family notified you’ll no doubt hear about it in the local press.’