A new song

It was a Friday evening in January, and the voices of the choir resounded in the shadows of the fan vaulting of St Michael’s Parish Church. Thomas Sibson, the Director of Music, winced as the sopranos sang their semiquaver passage too slowly. It was untidy and unnecessary; he was, after all, conducting them. Rapping his baton on the music stand, he stopped the singing.
“Sopranos, you were behind the beat.” He scanned the rows of faces, making sure he had everybody’s attention. “How many Musical Directors does it take to change a light bulb?”
The choir knew the answer, and chorused it. “Nobody knows, because nobody was watching.”
He nodded. “Geoff, from the top again if you don’t mind.” The assistant organist obliged, and the choir tried again. Tom looked at each of them as he conducted.
Gill was staring earnestly at him as always. Fay didn’t seem to be watching, but she was exactly in tempo; he didn’t know how she managed that. He could hear her voice, which was beautiful and true despite her three score and ten years. The basses were, at last, concentrating. They were the weakest part musically; only Ralph and Jeremy had any formal musical training. Tom didn’t know how he’d manage if either of them left. And John, in the tenors, seemed to be worried about something. He must talk to him later.
This time the music met Tom’s exacting standards, and he was satisfied.
“Well done everybody. That’ll do for tonight. If you sing like that on Sunday we’ll wow them.” He drifted in John’s direction, gently delaying him so they could talk privately.
“Thank you for your contribution tonight, John. I could hear you inspiring the tenors – as usual.”
“You’re too kind, Tom. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about my voice. I’m eighty, you know, and I’m losing it. The top notes have almost gone; I can’t go above G, and even that’s a struggle, and as for stamina…” He shook his head. “Still, I mustn’t grumble. I’ve sung here since I was eight years old.”
“As long as that? Well done! Look, I don’t want bully you into singing once it stops being a pleasure, but at present you’re an asset to the choir.”
“Well, I’m not sure about my voice, but if you say it’s good enough…”
“Shall we agree that I’ll audition you when you’re eighty five?”
John grinned. “Sounds fair enough to me. Thanks, Tom.”
They walked together down the chancel steps, through the darkened church towards the vestry.
“Good evening, Tom. I hope you don’t mind; I eavesdropped the last fifteen minutes of your rehearsal.”
Peter Wright, the new vicar, left the place in the pews where he had been sitting and approached Tom with a friendly expression. He offered his hand to shake.
“I know you’re a busy man, Tom, but could you spare me a little time now? I’d like to hear your thoughts about the parish’s musical life.”
Tom glanced at his watch. It was already eight forty. There was a television programme he wanted to watch at nine o’clock. Never mind. The music must come first.
“Of course, Vicar. I am at your disposal. I’ll just disrobe.”
“Oh, please! Call me Peter; everybody else does.”
Peter followed Tom into the vestry. Most of the choristers had left. Gill was chivvying a couple of the youngsters about putting away their robes properly. “Watch how Mr Sibson hangs up his robes,” she instructed.
Tom kept a straight face, and tidied away his cassock with particular care.
“I thought we’d have our chat in the vicarage. That way we can have a coffee and stay warm.”
The diocese had sold the old vicarage some years earlier, replacing it with a smaller, modern house that occupied a part of the original large garden. It was easier to heat, more convenient, and had raised much-needed cash. A few of the oldest parishioners regretted the change, but even they agreed that it made sense. The vicar’s study, where Peter and Tom sat with their coffee, was comfortably warm and pleasantly furnished.
“You have a fine choir, Tom. You must have worked very hard with them.”
“Thank you. The choir will be pleased to hear that you appreciate their efforts.”
“I expect you have something special planned for Holy Week?” Peter smiled. “Or do I presume too much?”
Tom returned the smile. “We usually sing a Bach chorale between each of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. We always sing a substantial anthem on Easter Sunday, of course. It’s not chosen yet. Do you have a favourite that you would like?”
“Thank you. I’ll leave it to you, though; I’m sure your choice will be better than mine.”
Tom bowed his head in acknowledgement. Of course his choice would be better; how could it not be? He knew the repertoire, the choir and the tastes of the congregation.
“Actually, what I wanted to talk to you about was more general than the Easter services. I wondered what your view was on contemporary liturgical music?”
Tom was silent for a minute or two. “I take it that you mean guitars and noise rather than Lauridsen and Whitacre?”
“I’m not a fan.”
The vicar stayed silent, and eventually Tom spoke again.
“This congregation is…pretty traditional. I think guitars would drive many of them away. And, if you want my personal opinion, I think almost all such stuff is entirely devoid of musical merit.”
“I won’t debate the musical merit; I’m not qualified to argue with you over that, Tom. But, you know, it is the musical language of today. It forms the backdrop to peoples’ lives. They understand it, and respond to it.”
“I’m inclined to think that we should offer our best and most beautiful music to God. People will listen to that and respond to it, whatever their daily experience. We have an opportunity of lifting their souls above the mundane towards the transcendent.”
Peter contradicted him gently. “I’ve seen popular music used very effectively to draw in young people, and we badly need to do that in this parish. You’re the Director of Music, Tom. Will you help me do that? No, don’t answer now; take it away and think about it, please.
Perhaps read a little about it, too. Here, borrow this; it’s quite a good description of how contemporary music can inspire a congregation. If you have time, I’d like to discuss it again with you before the next PCC meeting; we’ll be focussing on evangelism, and music will be an important part of that.”
February’s PCC meeting was well attended, despite wintry weather and an FA cup replay live on the television. The members of the PCC wanted to see their new vicar in action. He seemed a nice chap on Sundays, but Tom had muttered about guitars in church, and Nigel, the Treasurer, had spoken darkly of ‘unacceptable changes to church furnishing’.
Tom and Nigel sat next to each other, Tom flanked by Ralph, and Nigel by Peggy Latimer, the formidably organised lady who arranged distribution of Bible reading notes, and who ruled the flower arrangers with a rod of iron. All four had arrived early. Sue Smart, the Vicar’s Churchwarden, looked pained by the way Tom and Nigel seemed to be ganging up. Her friend, Cheryl Unwin, the PCC Secretary, was too busy making sure that everybody had copies of the minutes of the previous meeting to notice the seating.
Just before 7:30 p.m. the vicar entered.
“Ah, Nigel! You’re Treasurer. I need you up here at the front, please, with me, Sue and Cheryl.”
Nigel raised one eyebrow but complied.
After the routine business, the Vicar stood up and said, “I don’t want to keep you for too long, but I want to share with you the vision that I have for St Michael’s Parish Church.” His manner was open and friendly.
“I’d like to start by saying how impressed I’ve been with the expertise of the church’s officers, and the commitment of the volunteers whose efforts enable our work and our worship to proceed so smoothly. In my first month here, I’ve noted particularly the spotless building and polished furniture, the wonderful music, the beautiful flowers, the timely delivery of bible study notes, the fact that we’re solvent and pay our Parochial Share, the weekly prayer meeting and the crèche for the Sunday Sung Eucharist.”
He smiled again. “It’s usually a mistake to mention groups by name, because you always leave someone out. If you feel you’ve been missed out, please accept my apologies. I’m sure I haven’t been comprehensive.” He glanced down at the notes in his hand.
“I want us to build on your achievements. You see, we’re none of us growing any younger – even I am forty-eight, and I’m younger than most of the congregation. We cannot escape the conclusion that if this church is to survive, we need to bring in more young people. We have a crèche. Wonderful. But we could have a Sunday School covering all ages from toddlers to teenagers. They are the future of the church.
More than that, on the new housing estates that have sprung up around us during the last eight or nine years, there are people who are suffering spiritually. We have the answer to their needs; we have Jesus; we need to go out and tell people about Him.”
He spoke fluently. He spoke briefly, fifteen minutes in all, and concluded, “I don’t want any response now. I would like all of you, please – all of you – to think and pray earnestly about this. I’ve spoken about flexibility in how we use our facilities. We will need flexibility from our congregation too, especially from you, the members of the PCC. Over the next week or so, I shall speak to each of you again. It would be lovely to think that you will be full of bright ideas as to how, without compromising what we already have, we can reach out to all those people who need our message of hope.”
There was silence, broken by Nigel.
“Thank you, Vicar, for addressing us so eloquently. I’m sure that we’ll all be praying hard about your vision for our church.” He paused for emphasis. “I take your point about not making an instant response, however I think I must say that those of us who are officers of the PCC must make sure that our responses are practical. We won’t be able to let our hearts rule our heads.”
“Well, is there any other business?” exclaimed Cheryl, brightly. “No? Then let’s close with the Grace.”
* * *
A few weeks later, the vicar started a House Group. It would be agreeable but mistaken to imagine that all those who attended the first meeting were solely motivated by a desire to study and pray together. Nigel and Peggy were there, and Fay, Sue Smart and a new young couple, Martin and Linda Grant, and Ralph; with the Vicar leading them. Ralph had offered to host the meeting, and the vicar had asked him whether he had a piano.
“Yes, Peter. I’ve got quite a decent upright.”
“I wonder, Ralph, if you would be willing to play a few choruses for the meeting?”
Ralph hesitated. “I’m afraid my playing isn’t very good, and I’m not used to the idiom. I’ll give it a go if you like, but don’t expect miracles.”
Peter clapped him on the back.
“Good man!” he said.
Martin and Linda were the first to arrive.
“I’m so glad you could come this evening,” said Ralph. “I’ve noticed you in church for a couple of weeks now. Which church did you attend before you came to us?” Martin beamed at him, “It was another St Michael’s, in Stockwell.” His West Indian accent was pronounced. “It was a lovely congregation but not such a beautiful church as this one.”
Ralph had set out twelve chairs. When everybody had arrived he served coffee and biscuits, and then sat himself next to Martin. The seat beside Linda was vacant too.
Linda leaned across her husband. “We just adore the choir! You sing with them, don’t you?”
Ralph felt pleased. “Yes, I do. We’re very lucky in our Director of Music, Tom Sibson.”
“Those high voices! I’d sure like to hear you all sing some gospel!”
Ralph grinned sheepishly. Gospel! Tom would have a fit!
Peter brought them to order, and started the meeting.
“Welcome, everybody!” I’ve prepared a study on Micah, chapter 6 verse 8.”
There was a quiet ‘A-men!’ from Martin, and everybody jumped and looked at him.
“Oops, sorry people! I guess you’re not used to that here!” He grinned.
“That was lovely, Martin,” said Fay. The others stared at her. She wriggled and hunched her shoulders. “Well, it was!” she exclaimed.
“Martin, do you know that verse?” enquired Peter.
“Sure. It’s one of my favourites. ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’”
“A-men,” said Fay, quite loudly, looking with shining eyes at Martin.
“A-men, sister!”
“Good,” said Peter. “This week, we’ll be looking at ‘to do justice’; next week we’ll consider ‘to love kindness’; week three we’ll think about ‘walking humbly’; and in week four we’ll discuss how the three actions fit together.”
The study went well. Peter was assiduous in encouraging everyone to speak, and Nigel and Peggy found they had plenty to say about ‘doing justice’. And then Fay spoke up.
“I don’t want to be argumentative. That’s not me at all. But doesn’t Christian justice include quite a lot of mercy? There’s that story in – John, isn’t it, Vicar?” She turned towards Peter.
“Do you mean the story of the woman taken in adultery? ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’? Yes, that’s John, chapter 8.”
After the study came the choruses. Martin and Linda gave a strong lead, and Ralph discovered that the music in front of him was slightly different from what they were singing. By the end of the third chorus, he was red-faced and perspiring with embarrassment.
At the end of the meeting, Peter lingered to talk to Ralph.
“Thank you ever so much for your hospitality.”
“My pleasure,” murmured Ralph.
“I really appreciated your playing the piano for the choruses tonight. I think next week, if you don’t mind, we could try practising them together for a few minutes at the start. Would you mind doing that?”
“Well, vicar, I…”
“That’s settled then. Thank you, Ralph. Music is so important in worship, isn’t it? I’m deeply grateful to you for your efforts.”
Tom’s phone rang at 10:30.
“It was a long meeting then, Nigel?”
“I’m only just home.”
“Was it as bad as we feared?”
“A mixed bag. Quite a good Bible study; Peter knows what he’s doing there. Some rather odd moments, too. Fay exclaimed ‘A-men’ out loud during the study!”
“Fay?” Thomas’s tone was incredulous.
“Yes, indeed. And I suppose Ralph told you that he was going to play the piano for some choruses?”
“No, he didn’t, but of course he’s under no obligation to tell me, Nigel. Nothing says that the choir has exclusive rights to his talent!”
“It’s the thin end of the wedge, Tom. Before you know it, we’ll have guitars in the Eucharist. Electric guitars!”
“Over my dead body.”
“On the other matter, I managed to have a word with Peggy about the pews. She’s solidly with us on opposing their replacement, and she’s going to make sure that Cheryl toes the line on that one. There’s nothing we can do about Sue, though. She’s right behind Peter.”
“To be fair, Nigel, she is the Vicar’s Warden.”
“Oh, I don’t blame her, Tom; I just wish she would see reason. It would cost a fortune to replace the pews with decent chairs – at least twenty thousand pounds – and what would we gain?”
As Tom replaced the handset, he stroked his chin. He was disappointed that Ralph had played this evening; he felt betrayed. He knew it was irrational. The vicar had asked him whether he would play, and he had declined. He should have realised that the vicar would simply find someone else. ‘On the other hand,’ he thought, ‘I am the Director of Music, and the vicar has no business changing the whole direction of our music without my agreement. We’ve a choral tradition that dates back four hundred years, for goodness sake!’
Tom dropped by Ralph’s house the following evening.
“Do you fancy a beer?”
Ralph glanced at his watch. “Okay, as long as it’s a quick one. I want to be back for ‘Masterchef’”
The White Horse was only fifty yards away, and tonight, as it was early, they were the only occupants of the lounge bar. Tom bought the beer.
“How was the House Group meeting last night?”
“Pretty good actually. Peter led it very well. That new couple, the Grants, were there.”
“I don’t think I’ve met them; what are they like?”
“Very pleasant. They seem to know their bible. They weren’t afraid to join in, either, despite being new. I think they’ll be a tremendous asset to the church, provided they stay.”
“Is there some doubt about that?”
“I think they’re used to a rather more informal style of worship than we offer. Although Linda did say how much she enjoyed the choir’s singing.”
“And how did the choruses go? I hear you played the piano for them.”
“Ah, yes.” Ralph took a swallow of beer and looked appraisingly at his glass. “Do you think they’ve flushed the line properly after cleaning? I think this beer tastes slightly off.” He looked again at the glass, and shrugged. “Yes, I played the piano for the choruses.”
“What do you suppose people see in them, Ralph? I don’t see their attraction at all myself, but plenty of people do. I read an article about them the other day. It seemed very…emotional. Did you enjoy them last night?”
Ralph shook his head “Not really my cup of tea, Tom. Besides, I played them abominably! Even Peter noticed!”
“I have a problem with them beyond my personal taste. If we’re realistic, most of our congregation don’t properly appreciate the music we provide. They don’t understand the value of what we’re preserving here. I mean, think about it. We have records of a four-part choir here in Henry the Eighth’s time. We were still singing when Henry Purcell was composing. Charles Villiers Stanford came here and performed with the choir. I can go to the church archives and read handwritten notes by my predecessors of one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. If we let guitars into the Eucharist, that will all go. It’s happened in other places.”
“I wouldn’t want to lose that, Tom, any more than you would, but it’s early days. I think there’s probably a place for them in House Groups, and perhaps in less formal services – maybe in the church hall.
Anyway, I think these House Groups are a great idea. They could invigorate us. I want to support Peter with them; I think he’s working on the right lines.”
“Fair enough, Ralph. By the way, if you would like any help with sorting out the rhythm of those choruses, I’d be happy to run through them with you after choir practice. If our church is going to use this music, we might as well make sure it’s right.”
“Tom! Come and play for the meeting! It would be so much better than my efforts, and I really think you’d enjoy the study and fellowship.”
Ralph shook his head and glanced at his watch. “Masterchef in five minutes, Ralph.”
* * *
The evening of the June PCC meeting was glorious, the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows. Peter had taken to holding the meetings in the Lady Chapel, a reminder to all the participants, especially himself, that their work was for the glory of God.
“You’ve probably all noticed; attendance is up again this month. Thank you, Peggy, for organising the delivery of over two thousand laminated sheets carrying a map of where we are, the service times, and the contact details of the pastoral team. Every household in the parish has had one. We hope that most of these sheets will be pinned on corkboards or held on the fridge with magnets!
Possibly the best news of all is that twenty children are interested in taking part in Sunday School, which will be launched with an ‘Adventure Week’ at the start of the school holidays. Martin and Linda will be running this. There are still opportunities to help, if you’re keen. Please see Linda to make sure that your safeguarding training is up to date.”
He paused and mentally said a very quick prayer.
“There is another thing we could do to make our church more welcoming towards newcomers and that is replace the pews with chairs. The big advantage that they have is that they can be used flexibly. For a formal sung Eucharist, we put them in rows and they emulate pews. For a family service we could place them in concentric circles, so that people could see each other better.
For a smaller service, perhaps a monthly meditative prayer service, we would put away most of the chairs. For the Stations of the Cross, they would all be put away. I have it strongly in mind that we will need to have services for recent Christians, where they can feel relaxed. I don’t feel we can achieve that at the moment. A dozen people scattered yards apart in the pews is not relaxed!”
Peggy raised her hand. “Vicar, is it true that it would cost twenty thousand pounds?
“Yes, it is, Peggy. We would need a major fund-raising effort. But it should be possible. I’m told we raised £30,000 to refurbish the organ only three years ago.”
“We did, Vicar, but that was essential. The tuner told us that without the work our organ would deteriorate rapidly. We’re very proud of our musical tradition.”
Sue was looking agitated. “These chairs are essential, too. It’s not our tradition that matters; it’s our outreach to others. I organise the Greeters, and they all think that the pews put off people who aren’t used to coming to church.”
“Greeters!” muttered Nigel under his breath. Until recently they had been called sidesmen; he wished they still were.
“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” persisted Peggy. “I don’t think you’d find people had the same appetite for fund-raising that would replace the pews with chairs. We grew up with pews; we like them. What’s wrong with them?”
“I think we should look at this from the positive side,” said Peter. “It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with pews, it’s just that chairs would improve the way we use our church. I am personally convinced that they would help our missionary effort.”
“We must consider the practicalities as well, Peter,” said Nigel. “Removing the pews and installing chairs instead would require a faculty from the diocese. I had a word with my contact in the Diocesan Advisory Committee. He was not sanguine that a faculty would be forthcoming.”
Peter’s face paled and his lips set thin and narrow, but he responded mildly, “We won’t know if we don’t try. My discussions with the Archdeacon,” – and he emphasised the word – “were altogether more positive.”
Cheryl, the Secretary spoke out. “We seem to be divided on this issue. I propose that we postpone further discussion until the July meeting, by which time we’ll have had chance to think more about how we move forward.”
“Thank you, Cheryl, but I would like the PCC to vote on the matter at this meeting. It is my strong and positive recommendation as your vicar that we should seek to replace the pews with chairs. A show of hands in favour, please.” The vicar and Sue raised their hands, and, after a slight hesitation, so did Cheryl. There were nine contrary. Motion defeated.
“Thank you, everybody. We’ll close with the Grace, please.”
As the members were picking up their things ready to go home, Peter said quietly to Nigel, “A word, if you please. In my vestry.”
The vicar sat himself behind his desk. “Please sit down, Nigel.”
Nigel sat.
“You are, of course, entitled to talk to whom you please, when you please, about what you please. But if that discussion is designed to deliberately undercut my position as your vicar, that is, in my opinion, an abuse of your right, and damnably rude into the bargain.”
“I’m sorry you see it that way, Peter. It seemed useful to me to have the opinion of the Advisory Committee.”
“But you didn’t have their opinion, did you, Nigel? I found that the Archdeacon is in favour. In future I would ask you, as a matter of courtesy, to discuss with me beforehand any contacts you intend to have with the diocese.”
“I’ll leave you to deal with the Diocesan Treasurer, shall I?”
“You’ll do your job and you’ll do it properly and courteously, or you can resign. Right at this moment I would prefer the latter, but it’s up to you.”
Without a word Nigel rose and left the vestry.
“Shit!” exclaimed the vicar, sotto voce, after the door closed. “I made a right mess of that!”
* * *
The church hall was full. Children climbed over parents, ran around, and shouted with excitement. Some of the parents knew each other and tried to chat, shouting to make themselves heard above the din. Ralph nervously checked his musical forces; one guitarist, one bassist, a drummer with a set of drum pads, and the keyboard that he himself would play. It was five to six on the Sunday evening at the end of the Adventure Week.
“Okay,” he mouthed, “On four. One, two three, four!”
The chorus ‘Praise Him on the trumpet’ began. The enthusiasm of the musicians exceeded their competence; there were wrong notes in handfuls; but the liveliness gradually penetrated to the congregation. One by one they stopped speaking; some joined in and sang.
As they finished, Peter stood up. He was beaming.
“Have you all enjoyed yourselves?”
“Yes!” chorused the children.
“Shall I tell you a story?”
He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, which had been the theme of the Adventure Week. As the story unfolded, children came forward in small groups to show their artwork, to act out a short scene, or to sing.
The service was short, only forty minutes, and was followed by coffee and cakes. People were laughing and chatting merrily. One young man, a small boy hanging on his arm, approached Ralph.
“Hi. I’m Sam. I enjoyed the music! Is there any room for another performer? I play trumpet.”
“Excellent! There’s always room for a willing volunteer! We’re going to be having an informal evening service here in the hall once a fortnight, but we’ll be practising every week, Thursday at half past seven. As you could probably tell, we badly need as much practice as we can manage!”
* * *
“Tom, could I come and have a chat with you tomorrow evening about the Harvest Festival?”
“Yes, of course, Vicar. Is eight o’clock satisfactory for you?”
“That will do nicely, Tom. See you then.”
Tom replaced the receiver, and pursed his lips. He had ambitious plans for the Harvest Festival music. It would be of such excellence that thereafter there could be no question of allowing guitars into the Sung Eucharist.
Peter, for his part, sighed and picked up the things he needed for the House Group meeting. Why were people so resistant to change? Thank goodness for Ralph!
The House Group went particularly well that evening. There weren’t enough seats for the eighteen people who attended, and Ralph distributed cushions so those sitting on the floor could be comfortable. They were soon going to need to start a second group.
Although Ralph was the host, it was Nigel making the coffee for them that evening, and Peter joined him in the kitchen.
“The music was lively tonight, I thought,” he said.
“Yes, I enjoyed it. You gave a good Bible study, too, Peter.”
“It always goes well when people are prepared to join in.”
“Can you put some biscuits on a plate, please, Peter?”
The vicar obliged, and said, “Have you seen the attendance figures for the Sunday evening informal service, Nigel?”
“I have. They’re impressive. I went to the last service, as you know, and there was a real buzz. And most of the people there were people I didn’t recognize! The difference shows up in the offering, too. Our finances are looking better than they have done for some time.”
“Nigel, I would really like to get some of that ‘buzz’ into the Sung Eucharist. Do you think we’ll ever win Tom round to that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I, personally, would be in favour, and you’re welcome to tell Tom that if it would help. Now, we’d better take coffee through to thirsty people. Would you mind bringing in that other tray please, Peter?”
Although Nigel was often the last to leave, tonight he excused himself as early as possible. He wanted to phone Tom and it was already late in the evening.
“Hi, Tom. It’s Nigel. I’m sorry to call you so late.”
“Nothing wrong, I hope?”
“No, nothing drastic, it’s just that the vicar spoke to me about having choruses in the Sung Eucharist. I have a feeling he plans to talk to you about them.”
“Tom, would it really be so bad to have some of this modern stuff in the Eucharist? It’s not as though Peter wants to do away with our traditional style of worship. He wants to keep mostly classical music but have some choruses as well. The informal services are drawing people in. It would be great if we could do the same for the Eucharist!”
“Nigel, you may be keen to dilute our heritage, but I am not.”
“Tom, what are you going to do if the PCC expresses a view in favour of modern music in the service?”
“Are you threatening me, Nigel? Is that what the Vicar told you to say?”
“No, Tom, of course not! You and I have been friends for decades; you know I wouldn’t do that. But I think the vicar might ask the PCC’s opinion, and I’m just forewarning you.”
“And where will you stand, if this opinion is sought?”
“Well, I have to say, Tom, that I can see benefits from doing it, and very few downsides. I’d have to speak in favour.”
Tom slammed down the receiver and stood shaking with rage. How dare they? How dare they? All his work. All the work of generations of musicians, going for nothing!
Needless to say, his meeting with the vicar did not go well.
* * *
The weather was cloudy on the evening of the August PCC meeting.
The committee quickly completed the routine business and then the vicar rose to his feet. He was pale and tense. He knew what he was about to do and he hated it.
“Over the past few weeks, you’ve all attended at least one of the informal evening services. You’ve seen how the style of worship there is accepted and welcomed. You’ve seen that we have gained many new members and that they are actively participating in our outreach.
I’ve proposed to our Musical Director that we should experiment with a less formal style of worship in the church, not abandoning traditional music but augmenting it with some in a more modern idiom. He does not believe that this would be a good idea.
I ask him now to put his point of view to the PCC, and when he has done so I am going to ask the PCC for their decision as to how we proceed. There will be no further discussion – this issue has already done enough damage – there will simply be a vote. The choice will be do we retain purely classical music? Or do we introduce some chorus-style worship with appropriate instruments? I will abide by the result of the vote without complaint whichever way it goes. I hope that everybody else will do likewise.
Tom stood. He spoke of tradition. He spoke of beauty. He spoke of how the very best music could inspire the soul to look beyond the finite to the mystery of the spiritual. He was not eloquent, and yet his clumsy words were probably more powerful than eloquence. Nevertheless, it was not enough. He could see on the faces of the PCC that it was not enough.
The vote was thirteen to two against him; only Peggy had backed him. He held his face stiff and struggled not to weep.
“Then I must tender my resignation with immediate effect,” he said. From his leather music case he pulled out a smart cream envelope containing a hand-written letter. Its calligraphy was immaculate. His self-control wavered, and nearly cracked. “I cannot work in a place where my professional expertise is disregarded. I’ve spoken to Geoff. He will hold the fort until the PCC is in a position to make a permanent appointment. If you want my final recommendation, you should appoint him; he’s a fine organist and musician.”
He turned, handed the envelope to Cheryl, and walked out. As he passed her, Linda Grant stood up and went with him. “I am so sorry you feel like this,” she said, taking his hand. Gently, Tom detached her hand from his. He took out a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
“Thank you,” he said, and left.
* * *
That year, the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was packed; people were standing at the back. The choir’s ensemble was a little less good than hitherto, but only Geoff noticed; he made a mental note to be quite sure that he recruited a deputy as soon as possible so that he could conduct whenever necessary. The music group were noisy and lively; the congregation joined in with enthusiasm.
It was the end of the service, and time for ‘O come all ye faithful’. The musical forces combined. The choir sang a descant for verse five, and, during the chorus, the flute from the music group played an obbligato. The last verse started a little more quietly. High over the melody, two trumpets sent their silver tones into the fan vaulting. Then, for the last line, Geoff used full organ, and Ralph turned up the amplification.
“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” The building shook.
* * *
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A milestone reached

I’m delighted that my short story blog, “Autumn Leaves”, has passed a milestone. It’s received just over 500 views since I started. Not a lot, I know, but we must take encouragement where we find it!
Here are a few personalised recommendations for friends who may not have sampled it.
Deborah Alma, you might enjoy “Cats”.
Taryn Clements, James Heavingham and Clare Weiner, “Where is Europe?” might appeal (it’s a story, not a political diatribe – honest!).
Jon Tofts, you may well find that “Under a dark sky” interests you.
For those of you looking forward to “A new song”, I have finished the first draft and I’m revising it ready to publish next Saturday
The blog can be found at pennygadd51.wordpress.com

Where is Europe?

Latifah struggled up from the nightmare, sobbing, the taste of fear like blood in her mouth. As she opened her eyes she saw her mother. “Quickly, Latifah, quickly!”
She heard revving engines, screeching tyres and gunshots. For a few seconds she lay petrified, too frightened to move. They had come!
Her mother pulled her to her feet, thrust her abaya over her head, tied her niqab in place.
“Come quickly,” she moaned.
“Allah, do not let me fall into the hands of these men; let me die first,” Latifah prayed.
Men were pounding at the front door, battering it. She could hear her father shouting. There was a burst of automatic fire, and agonized shrieks. Her mother gasped, pushed her out of the back door, and they ran.
Behind them were screams and the flickering light of burning buildings; in front was darkness. Latifah’s mother fell to her knees. “I’m wounded. You must run, Latifah, run!” She fell forwards, face in the dirt and lay still. Latifah let out a howl of despair, and then ran.
She ran until breathing hurt, until her legs wobbled, until she could no longer hear the dreadful sounds and the flames were hidden behind a hill. And then she wept for her mother and her father and her brothers, for her friends and for her home. There was no way back.
She walked on through night and the desert and the sunrise until she reached a small town. The gunmen weren’t there; this was still a place of friends. Latifah had a little money, and she bought some bread and drank from a water fountain. “Which is the way to the sea?” she asked everyone.
It was a long walk. Sometimes she was lucky and found a day’s work, which would buy her a little food that would last a week. Sometimes she had to beg. She slept in the open, fitfully.
And she reached the sea. Her eyes grew large and round in her gaunt face. The sea was so large! It was like a desert of water! “Where is Europe?” she asked everyone.
Some shrugged; some laughed; “It’s like heaven,” said a woman. “You only get there after you’re dead.”
One good-looking young man said, “I can fix it for you to travel there. Show me your face.”
“No, that would be sinful!” she exclaimed.
He grabbed her niqab and pulled it off roughly, tossing the rag into the bushes at the side of the road. She fought him, but he was strong and she was starving,
“Allah protect me!”
She fell and felt him press hard on top of her. He smelled sweet, rotten. The stones under her were gouging into her back, and they lacerated her as she struggled. He was laughing as he forced her legs apart. And then, suddenly, he slumped. His head fell against Latifah’s, stunning her.
It was the face of a young man that she saw first as she recovered consciousness. She gasped and shrank back.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “See, I’ve found your niqab. You can put it on and be modest again.” She looked at him as a cat approaches a stranger, warily, ready to flee.
“It’s alright. Here it is.”
He held it up. Latifah snatched it, tied it in place.
“Are you alright to walk? We’d better go. I think I killed him when I hit him with the rock. He…he hasn’t moved.”
Latifah dragged herself upright, and sobbed. She hurt all over, and her limbs shook with fatigue. She looked at the young man. Why, he was a boy really, hardly older than she was!
“Thank you,” she said. “Do you know where Europe is?”
“It’s over there somewhere.” He gestured towards the sea. “Is that where you want to go?”
Latifah nodded.
“My family is going tonight. Do you want to come with us?”
“Could I?” she said, hardly daring to believe it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I shall have to ask.”
That night, Latifah and Asif, in life jackets, and with the strong arms of Asif’s mother around them, crossed the sea and reached safety.

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I saw the earth move

When I look out of my dining room window on a misty, drizzly day, I see in the foreground a half dozen houses that are part of the estate on which I live. Beyond them, an old viaduct looms magnificently among the even older trees of Long Timber Wood. Tiny cloudlets form and dissolve above the valley of the River Erme, which brawls down from ancient Dartmoor into the village of Ivybridge. It is a sight of sombre beauty even on a grey winter’s day.
Saturday, by contrast, was clear and bright. I sat at breakfast enjoying a soft-boiled egg and a cup of freshly ground coffee, and I gazed at the frost on the roof of one of the houses. My attention was caught by the hard-edged shadow that the building next to mine cast in the light of the new-risen sun. The shadow contrasted sharply with the bright white of the frost and made an acute angle across the roof.
And then I realised that I could see the shadow move. Its edge was travelling just fast enough for the motion to be perceptible. It was moving because the sun was rising. The sun was rising because the earth was rotating. I was – literally – watching the spinning of the earth about its axis!

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Under a dark sky (repost)

I’m sorry if some people see this post twice. WordPress and Facebook became disconnected, so when I posted it the first time, it failed to appear on Facebook.

I’ve been interested in astronomy since childhood, and when I moved to Devon I attended a few meetings of the Devon Astronomical Society. At the February meeting we sat, about thirty of us, in uncomfortable chairs – the stackable kind, steel frames with fabric seats – while the chairman, Richard Wilberforce, gave a presentation about the Society’s observatory. It looked impressive, and when he asked for volunteers to help man it for a fortnight in April I expected a rush. But not a single person came forward. I raised my hand; I must have had a rush of blood to the head, or something!
“Thank you, Amelie. You’ll be working with Lawrence. He rang me earlier to let me know he was available. He’s fully familiar with the equipment; you won’t have any trouble.”
I hadn’t met Lawrence, but I’d heard about him. He was the closest we had in the Society to a professional astronomer; he had a PhD in astrophysics and wrote articles for magazines.
Astronomical observatories are, by their nature, solitary places. If you wish to gather light from a great distance, you must shun the brightness of the world, forsake the city, and go into the darkness.
To tell you the truth, I was a little apprehensive as I drove from Crediton after sunset on my first night as a volunteer. Exmoor is called a dark sky area, and that made more and more sense as I followed the directions of my satnav down smaller and smaller lanes. There were no streetlights, no other cars and, as far as I could make out, no farm buildings. The beam of my headlights illuminated my way forward; other than that it was completely black.
Branches from the hedgerow sprang out of the shadows to poke and slap at my car as I descended a steep hill. Water ran across the corner of the road at the bottom of the hill, and the lane rose even more steeply on the other side. There was grass growing in the middle of the tarmac.
“You have reached your destination”, announced the satnav, taking me by surprise.
I slithered to a halt, skidding on the red Devon mud, wondering whether this could really be the right place. There was a battered Land Rover pulled across a farm gate. N207GHU. I checked against the note I’d made on my phone. Yes. That was Lawrence’s vehicle, so all I needed to do now was find him.
The only place I could park off-road was beside his Land Rover. The ground was scarred with tyre tracks that I could see were full of muddy water. If I put my poor little Clio there she was likely to stick. I shrugged. There was always a rope in the back of a Landie; Lawrence would just have to pull me out. Then I hesitated. What if I couldn’t find Lawrence? I kept my car on the tarmac and left as much room as I could. You could squeeze a small car through. Probably.
Before switching off the engine and the lights, I made sure that I had my mobile phone in my pocket, and my torch switched on and in my hand. With my car abandoned in the middle of the road, I walked across to see whether Lawrence was in his car. He wasn’t, but a small, faded sign next to the gate read “Devon Observatory. Private.”
By now I was becoming quite cross. ‘You would have thought that they’d provide proper directions for how to find the place in the dark,’ I fumed. ‘After all, that’s when you want to find it!’
There was a track over the grass. Presumably it went to the observatory. My torch was bright, but the area a torch illuminates is tiny by comparison with the darkness. I shone it around, trying to visualize exactly where I was standing. I didn’t want to get lost. Also – and I don’t really like admitting this – I was a little frightened. I had no idea what might be lurking out of sight. Fear of the dark and the unknown evolved to protect us when we were primitive, but I’m rational, intelligent, I know about the cosmos and I know about statistics. The chance of anything bad happening to me, other than becoming cold and wet, was about zero.
I slipped and skidded up the track. The drizzle was fine and penetrating. Every part of me that wasn’t covered by cagoul and leggings was rapidly becoming saturated. I wondered whether my torch was properly waterproof. It would be a problem if it failed. I could hear a faint throbbing, more like a flutter in the air than a noise, and wondered what it could be. It must surely be something to do with the observatory. Then, at last, I saw two small buildings, the domed observatory and the control room. I half ran the last twenty metres in my eagerness.
The control room was a wooden structure, a shed rather than a building, but when I pulled open the door it was warm and, after the pitch-black of the field, dazzling.
“Oh, there you are. I thought perhaps you were lost. I’m Lawrence. You must be Amelie. Welcome to the Observatory, and…would you like a coffee?”
Luxuriant curly black hair. A strong face with brilliant blue eyes. Tall and slim, but not in any way puny.
“Coffee would be lovely, thank you.” At least, that’s what I meant to say. In reality I stammered, spluttered and used “Er” and “Um” almost as often as “Sorry”, which was meant to be an apology for being late but became muddled up with apologies for being incomprehensible and for dripping rainwater onto the desk where he was working. What is it about masculine beauty that renders me incoherent?
Lawrence grinned. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re not going to see anything before two a.m. with this rain. However, the good news is that the weather forecast is promising and we should have clear skies from then. Have you worked in an observatory before?” He handed me a large mug of hot coffee, and the biscuit tin
“I left my car in the lane,” I say. “There’s room for a little car to pass it, but anything bigger…I didn’t want to park in the mud until I was sure you’d be able to pull me out if I got stuck. Had I better go back now and take it out of the way?”
“I shouldn’t bother. I’ve been here overnight dozens of times, and I’ve never known anything come along that lane except members of the society. Now, let me show you how this beast works.”
It was a startlingly sophisticated instrument. The mirror was six hundred millimeters diameter. The telescope was equipped with an interferometer and a computer-controlled device that measured and corrected for upper atmosphere turbulence and temperature fluctuations, which cause stars to twinkle.
“That must have cost thousands!”
Lawrence nodded. “Hundreds of thousands. It’s lucky that some millionaires prefer astronomy to sport!” His smile was charming. It made me feel all wobbly inside. “It deserves a better situation, really. The seeing here is never better than moderate, and it only reaches those heights on about thirty nights a year. But then, if we were in the Arizona desert with wonderful visibility, we wouldn’t live in beautiful Devon would we?”
Lawrence explained that when the rain had cleared, we would check the weather forecast and, provided it was still favourable, we would open the dome and start observation.
“We shall be looking at Messier 4, which is a globular cluster,” he told me. “We’re going to record separate spectra from different points on the cluster; we can just about achieve the necessary resolution.” He paused, and looked at me.
“You mean, we can measure the speed that the cluster is rotating? Gosh, I’m seriously impressed. I thought you’d need a much bigger instrument for that.”
“Brains as well as beauty!”
“You wouldn’t say that to a man, would you?”
The conversation paused. I watched his face as he considered all the implications.
“All I meant was that I was glad you were following my explanation. Most of the volunteers don’t know very much. And I meant that I find you attractive; I don’t find men attractive.”
What an odd reply, I thought. He looked perfectly candid, and a little puzzled. Surely he couldn’t be that naïve?
“Lawrence, my appearance has nothing to do with my suitability to be your co-worker. Beauty and brains are orthogonal variables.”
His face cleared. “Oh, I see. My would-be compliment was incongruous and offended you. I’m sorry; I’m not very good at knowing what other people are thinking. It’s probably why I’m an astronomer.”
“No problem.” I smiled at him. “Thank you for the compliment. I find you attractive too.”
The briefing he gave me on operating the telescope was comprehensive. By the time we’d covered everything, and I’d set up the necessary computer accounts to be able to control the observatory it was gone midnight. The drizzle had ended, replaced by full-blooded Devon rain that was lashing against the building.
“Is it really going to clear for two o’ clock?”
“We use the farmers’ weather forecast. It’s usually excellent.”
“It sounds like Niagara out there!”
The lights dimmed. Lawrence looked across at the control panel, where a red light was flashing.
“Mm. The generator’s gone down. What time is it? Nearly one a.m. The batteries should hold out, but if they drop too low we have to stop observing. I’d better go and have a look. It can’t be fuel. There was plenty there; I checked when I arrived.”
He was already pulling on waterproofs. He changed into his wellingtons at the door and left. There was gust of air, which felt very chilly by contrast with what we’d been enjoying. There was a ‘pinking’ sound, the sound of metal contracting as it cooled. I went over to the radiator under the window. Yes. That was it. I pulled on my sweater.
I went over to the library. There were about two hundred volumes, a mixture of standard texts and books on specialized fields by acknowledged experts. It was most impressive; there was just about everything a professional astronomer would need.
The room was chilling rapidly. The red light still blinked. I logged onto the auxiliary systems computer to check the status of the batteries. Seventeen kilowatt-hours; still close to fully charged. I wondered how long Lawrence would be, and whether he’d mind if I switched on the electric fan heater. But that might shorten the time we could observe. I left the heater switched off.
Anyway, where was he? He’d been gone nearly fifteen minutes. How long should I leave it before going to look for him? By now I was pulling on my cagoul and protective trousers. Bother it. I was going to go and find him. I’d probably bump into him on the doorstep.
As I pulled on my boots, I realized I wasn’t sure where the generator was. It was presumably close to the control room, as it was waste heat from the engine that warmed the radiator in the room. I decided to turn left out of the door and walk anti-clockwise around the building. If I didn’t find the generator, I would widen my circle. That way, I must eventually come across it.
Left out of the door was downhill. I slipped on the mud, and nearly went over. I turned across the front of the building. The raindrops flared with light as they fell through the beam of my torch.
“Lawrence! Lawrence!”
There was no reply.
At the far end of the building, I turned left and played my torch beam over the ground ahead of me, and there was Lawrence.
He was half on his back. His eyes were shut. The rain was running over his face. He didn’t move.
No reply.
I dropped to my knees beside him. Was he breathing? It was hard to tell. I thought so, but it was very shallow. I must get help, I thought, get an ambulance. All the time I was thinking, ‘How did this happen? Was Lawrence attacked? Is his attacker still here?’ I shone the torch around me, looking for an assailant, then realized that was probably the most stupid thing I could do. If there was someone, he wouldn’t want a witness…
Mobile phone. I patted my pockets. No. It must be in the Control Room. I rushed back. It was lying on the desk. My mouth was dry, and I fumbled the phone as I tried to pick it up.
I dialed 999.
“Emergency services. Which service do you require?”
“Um, er, ambulance, please.”
“What is your emergency?”
“My colleague is unconscious. I don’t know what happened to him. He’s lying on the ground outside.”
“Are you able to rouse him?”
“I shouted at him, and he didn’t move at all. I think he’s still breathing.”
“Where are you?”
“At the Devon Observatory. It’s on Exmoor. The grid reference is…” I hastily searched my pockets for the scrap of paper on which I had scrawled the location. Why am I so disorganized? Was this it? Ah! Yes! I recited it to the man on the phone.
“My word, you are in the middle of nowhere aren’t you? Is there any change in the patient’s condition?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to go outside again, I’d left my mobile indoors when I went to look for him.” The rain drenched me as I rounded the building again. I tried to keep the mobile under my hood so it didn’t get wet. “No, he’s the same as before.”
“Right. I have an ambulance on its way to you. Stay on the phone. Do you have anything you can use to cover the patient to keep him warm?”
“Um, I don’t know. Had I better go and look or stay here with him?”
“Stay with the patient, please.”
Lawrence didn’t stir. Tentatively I felt his hand. It was cold, but not icy. There was some warmth. He was still alive. I looked more carefully at him. His head was against a rock, and there was blood on the rock. He must have fallen and hit his head. He’d been unconscious for an awful long time. I wished that I’d gone out to look for him sooner. I wondered how long the ambulance would take, and suddenly remembered where my car was.
The man from the Emergency Services was talking. “Right, they’re getting close now. You should be able to see the blue lights shortly.”
“They’ll come to a red Clio which is partly blocking the lane. That’s my car, and it’s right by the gate to the observatory.”
“OK. Got you. I’m passing on your message now. Can you see the lights yet?”
Lawrence moaned and stirred.
“He’s coming round! What should I do now?”
“Keep him calm if you can. Just talk gently to him. Reassure him that we’re on our way, and everything will be fine. Tell me immediately if he shows other symptoms, if he vomits for instance.”
“Lawrence, you’re okay, you fell and hit your head.”
“Ow! Oh, my head!”
“You’re going to be fine, Lawrence. There’s an ambulance on its way. Just stay still.”
He moved fretfully.
“I should fix the generator.”
I took hold of his hand.
“Lawrence, you’ve been unconscious for ages. You need to go to hospital.”
He sighed, and closed his eyes.
“Lawrence?” No answer.
“He’s lost consciousness again. Should I try to wake him?”
“No, just stay by him. Can you see the lights yet?”
“Oh – yes I can. They’re close, they’re probably at the entrance.”
“Shine your torch in their direction so they know where you are, but take care not to dazzle them.”
I shone my torch down the hill, to where I thought the gate should be.
“Okay, we’re with you.”
The white faces and yellow hi-vis jackets of two paramedics loomed out of the darkness. Swiftly they examined Lawrence, then they slid him onto the stretcher they’d brought.
“Which hospital are you going to?”
“Royal Devon and Exeter. The neurological unit is there.”
And then they left.
I went back into the Control Room. The red light was still blinking its futile warning. I felt chilled, and desperately sad. It was a few minutes before I summoned the courage to ring Richard Wilberforce. He was so kind. He promised to ring Lawrence’s parents straightaway, and told me to switch off, lock up and leave.
“And I’ll ring you tomorrow and let you know how things are going. I’m sure he’ll be alright, Amelie.”
The room seemed very empty without Lawrence. Even though I had my torch, turning off the light was scary; it felt so final, somehow.
I walked carefully down the hill. My phone alarm sounded and I realized that it was two o’clock. I looked up at the sky and, just as the forecast had promised, the clouds had rolled away and the stars were brilliant. It was breathtaking.
My spirits rose. I made a promise to myself to visit the hospital in the afternoon and see Lawrence. We had some observations to make together!

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The Bridge

The rain fell on the moor in torrents, in cataracts. It spilled from a dozen tributaries into the Avon and roared down the valley like a wild beast. It tore trees from the banks, trees that had grown patiently for a hundred years, and hurtled them downstream. It smashed them like battering rams into the old bridge, but the bridge held fast and the trees wedged against it, pressed intimately against the stones by the power of the flood.
For a while the trees impeded the predatory waters, but still the deluge continued and still the beast grew. The water level upstream of the bridge rose and overtopped the flood defences. It reached the parapet of the bridge and spilled over. The wall started to bulge; for perhaps a minute soil and weeds bled from the cracks opening in it, until the massive stones exploded outwards and a huge wave surged through.
The bridge was gone.
Two days later the water still ran high, swift and muddy but with nowhere near the ferocity of the spate. The road by the river was passable with care, and Lucy was always careful. She gripped the wheel of her VW Golf, and drove slowly through the sticky, slippery mess that the river had left behind. As the crow flies, she lived two hundred yards from her work at a solicitor’s office. With the bridge gone it was nearly three miles down to the next crossing, and three miles back. Lucy wasn’t complaining about the inconvenience. Her house was just far enough up the hill to have been spared. She’d spent yesterday helping her next door neighbour shovel out the worst of the filth dumped by the flood.
There was a figure up ahead, carrying a violin case as she trudged along the road. There was a large, wet, slimy patch on her coat. She must have slipped over, Lucy realized. She stopped and wound down the window.
“I’m going down to New Bridge. Would you like a lift?”
The girl was about twenty, with long, fair hair.
“I’m ever so dirty,” she admitted.
“Oh, don’t be silly; get in. The seat will clean easily enough, and you’re soaked, you poor love. Whatever brings you out today?”
The girl climbed into the front passenger seat.
“This is ever so kind of you. I’ve got to get to the train station to catch the train to Glasgow. My first class of the new term starts at two o’clock. I thought it would be easy enough to walk the six miles round by New Bridge, but this stuff’s so gloopy and slithery. I say, I’m really sorry to be making your car dirty.”
“What are you studying?”
“Violin. I’m at the Conservatoire. I’m Emma, by the way.”
“I’m Lucy. I’m only going to New Bridge to cross the river, then I’m going back to Casterton. I can drop you at the station.”
“Oh, that would be great.”
“Do you live in Glasgow during term-time?”
“Only during the week. I’ve got a flat in Casterton, and I don’t want to lose it. I sleep in my friend’s flat in Glasgow during the week, but her boyfriend comes up from Newcastle at the weekends.”
“So you’re coming back on Friday? Would you like me to pick you up from the station?”
Emma looked apologetic. “That would be ever so kind if it isn’t too much trouble. I wasn’t looking forward to the long walk in the dark. I’ll be on the train arriving at six fifteen if that’s really alright?”
“That’ll be fine. I wouldn’t want that long walk in the dark either.”
Lucy finished at four on Fridays. She wondered whether to wait in the library, or perhaps go to the pub, but neither option appealed. She drove home, put a meal into the oven and went out again to meet the train.
It was late. Lucy had to move her car from the short stay spaces and pay a fifty pence parking charge. It was cold, and light rain blew in the blustery wind.
Emma was full of apologies.
“No problem,” reassured Lucy.
“Gosh, can’t you smell the river?” said Emma.
Lucy sniffed. “I suppose so,” she agreed. She hadn’t noticed.
As Lucy drove carefully through the darkness, she realized that Emma had dozed. “Poor girl,” she thought. And when she pulled up outside Emma’s flat and woke her up, she asked, “Have you got food for tonight?”
Emma blushed. “I’ve got some cereal.”
“Would you like to eat with me? I’ve cooked a nice chicken casserole; there’s enough for two. If you don’t come, I shall have to freeze half of it.”
“Are you sure?”
Lucy grinned. “I wouldn’t have invited you if I wasn’t sure.” She put the car into gear, and drove the quarter mile to her terraced house.
The house was warm and welcoming.
“Gosh, that smells wonderful!” exclaimed Emma.
Lucy spooned rice and chicken, fragrant with tarragon, onto the Portmeirion plates. It felt like a banquet. Emma didn’t need much encouragement to talk about her studies. She was passionate about music. Lucy was glad to listen and not talk. There was too much in her recent past that she would prefer to forget.
They ate an apple each for dessert, and then Emma said, “Would you like me to play something for you?”
“That would be lovely.”
Emma took her fiddle out of its case, tuned briefly, and played. Lucy listened. The music was both sad and happy, with a transcendent serenity. Tears rolled down Lucy’s cheeks, but she sat still and made no attempt to dry them. She turned a little away from Emma; she didn’t want her to see she was weeping and maybe stop playing. Only when the music ended did Lucy take out a handkerchief, dry her eyes and blow her nose.
Emma sat in silence.
“That was beautiful, just beautiful,” said Lucy.
“It was by Bach. I love his music.” Tentatively she stretched out a hand and rested it on Lucy’s shoulder. “You’ve been so kind,” she said. Her blue eyes were very dark. Lucy felt a warmth run through her from the touch, a sense of homecoming and a delightful security.
It became routine. Lucy would take Emma to the station every Monday, and fetch her and feed her on the Friday, and after the meal Emma would play her violin. Lucy learned that Emma was in her first year, that she had a part-time job to pay her way through college, and that she had no boyfriend. Emma hardly spoke of her parents, and Lucy didn’t ask.

It was four weeks after Lucy had met Emma that she saw him, in hard hat and hi-vis jacket, giving orders to a group of men by the wreckage of the bridge. She shrank back into a side street, out of his sight, and shuddered. What should she do? If he saw her, it would all start again. She panted. She ached from the memories. All the bruises, all the fear.
Did he know she had fled here? He must have found out somehow! What should she do? Was she going to have to run again? Quickly, while he’s still busy! She dodged up a back street and through to where her car was parked, almost in sight of the bridge. As she sank into the driver’s seat, she gasped with relief. He hadn’t seen her. Hastily, she drove out of the car park and fled home.
The next morning Lucy thought of calling in sick. But it was Friday; she had to collect Emma. She didn’t want to let Emma down. She parked at the further car park, away from the river, and walked the half-mile to her office. He might be near the bridge so she left the main road and slunk through the backstreets. Would he come into he office and catch her? She spent the day terrified.
As she drove into the station car park to meet Emma, she saw his car. She nearly turned tail and fled. She tried not to look at the car as she passed it, just in case he was inside.
“What’s wrong?” asked Emma, as soon as they met.
“Is it as obvious as that?”
“Lucy dear, you’re trembling.”
“That car over there; the blue Range Rover. Is there anybody in it?” Lucy gestured in the general direction of the car.
Emma looked. “I can’t see anyone,” she said. “Are you hiding from the driver? Is that it?”
Lucy nodded.
“There’s nobody in it. It’s alright”
Lucy shook as she engaged first gear and moved towards the car park exit. And then there he was, right in front of her, tall, red-haired, broad. She slammed on the brakes. He looked contemptuously in her direction, and then did a double-take. A grin spread over his face. He walked up to the driver’s door and pulled at the handle. The car was locked. He pantomimed that Lucy should open the door. She sat motionless, quaking with fright.
“Don’t!” said Emma. “He has no right! Drive on!”
Eyes rigidly ahead, Lucy depressed the clutch and engaged first gear. She let out the clutch with a jerk, nearly stalling the engine. There was a yell from the red-haired man. Lucy pulled out of the car park without looking at the traffic. A white van screeched to a halt, horn blaring. She didn’t notice. Emma put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, Lucy. You’re alright.”
Emma’s quiet voice broke the spell. Lucy shuddered violently for a few seconds.
“I am so sorry, Emma,” she said. “So sorry.”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for, Lucy.”
“I just want to drive home as quickly as possible. I don’t want him following me.”
“If he follows you, I’ll call the police. Look, I’m holding my mobile ready.”
Lucy glanced across. It was true; Emma had her mobile on her lap in her left hand. She relaxed a little.
She refused to park outside her own house, choosing to leave her car two streets away. All the way from the car to the house, she was looking about her. As she opened the door, she looked up and down the street.
“Quickly, Emma, quickly,” she said as she entered. She slammed the door, locked it, bolted it. She drew the curtains. She checked the back door, even though she knew it was locked. Only then did she draw a deep breath, releasing it in a long, fluttering sigh.
Emma took her hand. “Well done,” she said. “Oh, very well done!”
“I don’t feel as though I did well. I ran.”
“He told you to stop, and you defied him. You did what you decided, not what he decided for you. You were so brave!”
“He’ll find me on Monday. He knows I’ll be working at a solicitor’s office, and there are only three in Casterton. He’ll find me.”
“Then we must have a plan.”
“Emma, this isn’t your fight. You mustn’t become involved. You don’t understand what he’s like!”
“I’m already involved. I saw how he behaved this evening, and I can guess a little bit about what he’s like.” She paused; she seemed hesitant.
“I think I’m going to have to run again. Perhaps London would be safer, I don’t know.” Lucy spoke to fill the silence.
“I’d hate that.” Emma spoke quietly. She looked at the carpet. “I want to be near you, Lucy. I want to see you every week; well, every day actually. I want to be with you.”
“Oh, Emma.” Lucy sighed.
Emma looked up, looked Lucy full in the face. Her expression was earnest, beseeching. “Will you marry me, Lucy?”
“Marry you?”
Lucy sank onto the sofa. “Marry you,” she repeated. “Emma, I’m twenty-nine. How old are you?”
“Twenty. What does that matter? I love you. I shall always love you. I know that as certainly as I know the music of Bach.”
“I love you, too. That doesn’t mean it would be wise for us to marry, Emma. There are things in my past.”
“I saw some of your past this evening. If he’s the worst we have to face, then let’s do it!”
Emma approached Lucy, who reached out to her. They clasped hands.
“I wish I could. I wish I could!”
“It’s too sudden for you, isn’t it? There’s unfinished business with that man. I’ll help you deal with that, and then we’ll see.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Emma. Yes, I think that would be the best thing. But let me just say it properly…” Lucy hesitated, and when she spoke her voice was husky, “I love you, Emma.” The two women kissed, gently, and then Emma released Lucy’s hand and sat down beside her on the sofa.
“Is your boss in the office tomorrow?” asked Emma.
“Mr Abercrombie? Yes. At least, I think he is.”
“He can probably help us. He won’t want you harassed in his office, and I’m sure he’ll want to make sure you’re safe all the time. He’ll know the right people in the police to talk to about domestic violence.” Lucy nodded. After a little pause, Emma continued, “My dad used to beat my mum, that’s how I know this. And I saw the police stop him. That man who’s threatening you, he won’t want the police involved. He’s respectable. He can only hurt you if you let him. But you don’t need him any more, do you?”
Lucy shook her head. “I hate him,” she said.
It was mid-morning on Monday that the red-haired man appeared in the solicitor’s office. His right hand was bandaged.
“You shouldn’t have driven off like that.” His voice was quiet, his tone menacing. Lucy’s heart raced, and her face went white. She pressed the panic button below her desk. As the man leaned threateningly towards her, there was a noise of footsteps clattering downstairs.
“Is this the man, Lucy?”
Lucy nodded.
“Your staff member caused me personal injury last night.”
“Yes, I’ve heard what happened.” Mr Abercrombie looked over his spectacles at the bully. “In fact I’ve heard a great deal about you, Mr Brodie. I have a sworn deposition from Lucy in my files about your treatment of her during the period August 2010 to February 2016. I may say that it does you no credit, sir, no credit at all.
Now, if any harm should come to Lucy, this statement will be placed in the hands of the police. I would advise you that our local constabulary take a dim view of domestic abuse, a very dim view indeed, sir.”
Brodie puffed out his chest, and glared at Mr Abercrombie, who met his gaze calmly. “You’ve not heard the last of this,” he snarled at Lucy.
“Oh, but she has, Mr Brodie, she has. Any further harassment on your part and the police will be contacted. As will your employer, Kielder and Company.” Brodie snorted, turned on his heel and stamped out of the office.
“Well that was fun, wasn’t it?” exclaimed Mr Abercrombie. Lucy slumped forward.
“Oh my goodness! First aider!” Mr Abercrombie called for help.
Even as they moved her into the recovery position, Lucy’s eyelids flickered open.
“Don’t disturb yourself, Lucy. You passed out. We’ve rung for an ambulance. You’ll be fine, just stay calm.”
Lucy felt cold and rather sick. The first aider fetched a blanket and covered her. She snuggled it around herself as she shivered.
A paramedic first responder reached them quickly. He checked her vital signs carefully.
“Well, you look okay now. I don’t think there’s any need for a hospital visit. If there’s somebody at home, you might be more comfortable there. You had quite a shock.”
“Would you like to go home, Lucy? That was an ordeal for you, I’m afraid.” Mr Abercrombie was concerned.
Lucy nodded. Emma had taken the day off; she would be waiting for her at home.
“You’ll take a taxi, of course. You don’t want to drive after that. Oh, the company will pay, and for the taxi in tomorrow. You’re too good an employee to lose, Lucy, far too good.”
As she slumped in the back seat of the taxi, Lucy breathed deeply. It was over. The nightmare was over. Her fear had gone. She thought of Emma waiting for her and her limbs slowly suffused with warmth. She sat up straighter. The clouds parted and the sun gleamed through.

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The Annunciation

Although I was only fifteen years old, I knew enough to realise that I was expecting a baby. As I helped Susannah, the Rabbi’s wife, prepare the family meal, I was queasily aware of my belly. I hoped that my father and brother would soon have finished their conversation with the elders, and we could go home together.
“Don’t worry, girl,” Susannah chided. “Things happen. You’ll be fine. My Reuben will see that everything is managed discreetly.”
I wanted to weep. Everybody would know. I would be disgraced. Look! Susannah had guessed already, and I wasn’t six weeks gone.
“There now, child, of course I know. There’s only one reason why a girl would come here with her father to speak to the Rabbi and the elders.”
“It happens most years, Mary. A girl will be betrothed and then have to marry a little sooner than planned. The baby comes early. Everybody can count the months, but nobody says anything. You’ll still be a respectable married woman with a fine child.” I stayed silent.
“It’s not Joseph’s child, is it?” Susannah spoke casually, almost without interest you might think. I shook my head.
“Well, that’s not so good, but Joseph, he’s generous and he wants a wife. At his age that’s not always easy”. Her eyes were far away as she thought about how things could be worked out. “Tell me about it, girl. Maybe I can help.”
I started slowly. “It was six weeks ago – the first hot day of the year. Everybody was laughing and joking as we got on with spring-cleaning. Dad and Jesse were in the lower part of the house, mending the animal stall, and I had just come down from the upper room with an armful of bedding to wash.
Then I saw the stranger. He was standing right beside the door, and he seemed to shine. He was tall and straight. His face was like a king’s, very handsome and stern.”
I looked doubtfully at Susannah. She nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. “Go on,” she encouraged me.
“Dad noticed him too, and stepped towards him with Jesse following. ‘Shalom’ said Dad. The stranger held up his hand and they stopped. I thought Dad was trying to say something, but no sound was coming out.
‘Hail, Mary,’ said the stranger. ‘You have found favour with Yahweh.’
‘Don’t be afraid.’ His voice was beautiful. It was gentle and yet, had he shouted, rocks would have tumbled from the mountains and the sea risen in tumult. ‘Yahweh is pleased with you,’ he said. ‘Listen!’
’You are going to become pregnant, and give birth to a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High. Yahweh will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the House of Jacob and his reign will have no end.’
What would you have thought, Susannah? All I could think was how on earth could I be pregnant? I’d never done anything that would get me pregnant. So I just said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t see how that can be. I’m not married yet, and I’m a virgin.’
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and so the child will be holy, and will be called the Son of God.
And, Mary, your kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son, and is now in her sixth month. Everybody said that she was barren, but nothing is impossible to God.’
He stopped speaking then, Susannah, and stood looking at me. It was the strangest thing. Somehow I knew that I had to choose. There was the life I had always dreamed of as a wife and mother, loved by my family and respected by my neighbours – or there was the promise of the….angel.”
“What did you answer?” Susannah’s voice was hoarse.
“I said ‘Let Yahweh’s will be done.’”
Susannah sighed. “You did well. It will be hard for you, though. It’s lucky that your father and brother witnessed the angel. Is that what they’re telling the elders?”
I nodded.
“Even so, you’ll have to go away. Go and see Elizabeth. Have the baby somewhere else. The townsfolk would accept an illegitimate child if you were discreet, but some people might call your story blasphemy.”
She was right, of course, and Joseph, that good, dear, trusting man took me to Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem. And since then, what a life it’s been! We fled from Herod’s soldiers into exile in Egypt. My son grew up, worked miracles, healed the sick, even raised the dead. And then that terrible day; I can’t talk about it; it was a day no mother should ever have to see. My soul was pierced with the agony.
I know it was Yahweh’s will. I believe that through it great good will come. My son’s closest disciples told me that they’d met him again after that day, talked with him, eaten with him. But he never appeared to me. Perhaps that was best. He who died was flesh of my flesh; He who rose – who was he? My son died; it was Yahweh’s son who rose.
And so I wait. I’m old, my braided hair is snow white and my face is furrowed. Yahweh’s will has been done, as it had to be. And yet I wonder greatly.
You see, I could have said “No”.

Forbidden Fruit

Gilbert and Rhoda’s two horses grazed peacefully at the far end of the paddock. An electric fence protected the whips of hawthorn, damson, dog rose and briar that would grow into a hedge.
“Just this last jump to move into the corner with the others and then we can start to plant the fruit trees.”
Gilbert took a firm grip of one end of the structure; Rhoda took the other. “And…lift!” she called. Together they carried it easily to the hedge and put it down.
“I wish things had worked out as we planned,” said Gilbert. Rhoda took his hand and squeezed it. They both gazed at the low jumps.
“Those are the past, dear. The orchard is the future.” Although Rhoda spoke positively, she thought, ‘Maybe – maybe by relinquishing my dream I’ll make it come true.’ But she knew it wouldn’t.
Gilbert dug holes, Rhoda spread the tree roots, and Gilbert filled the holes with a mixture of soil and compost. Rhoda staked each tree carefully and watered it. They planted twelve trees, six apple trees, two cherry trees, two pear trees and two plum trees. The meadow would become an orchard and they would tend it together. It would bear fruit for them.
They stood side by side in the late afternoon sunshine, and looked at their handiwork. The new trees were well spaced, leaving them plenty of room to grow. Gilbert and Rhoda hoped to see them flourish and mature. Gilbert held Rhoda close. He kissed her tenderly on the mouth. Very gently she pushed him away. “We’d better go in,” she said. “I need to cook dinner, and you need to clean up ready for choir practice.” As they walked towards the house she slipped her hand into his.
“If the miracle happens, we can put the jumps up again,” said Gilbert.
Great Pinnerton Choral Society was a good choir, and Gilbert sang tenor with them. He was also the Secretary. His fair hair, blue eyes and athletic build had the more susceptible of the sopranos sighing over him; they knew he was safely unobtainable. Gilbert and Rhoda were a by-word for loving fidelity.
The choir was halfway through the vocal warm-up exercises when the door opened, and a man in a leather jacket entered. He made an apologetic gesture to the Musical Director, and stayed where he was until the vocal exercises were finished.
“Have you come to join us?”
The man nodded. “If you’ll have me. I’m a bass.”
“Excellent. I’ll give you a short audition in the break. Would you like to sit next to Eric in the back row?”
Eric waved a welcome. Mavis, the society’s librarian, bustled round with a score. “You can borrow this for now, but please come and see me during the interval,” she instructed.
The new arrival, dark-haired, tall and muscular, grinned at everybody. His teeth gleamed very white in his sun-tanned face. “Thanks for the welcome, folks. My name’s Brendan. I’ll hope to meet some of you later.”
Violet, the oldest soprano, nudged her neighbour and giggled sotto voce. Gilbert glanced up at Brendan as he squeezed past to reach his seat. There was an energy about the man that was simultaneously unsettling and attractive. Brendan caught his eye, patted him on the shoulder.
“Sorry for barging through.”
During the interval Gilbert went to greet Brendan; as Secretary he needed to record contact details. And, although he usually went straight home after the practice, this time he invited Brendan to join him for a beer in the Cutlers Arms.
As they started their second pints, Brendan pulled out his mobile.
“Let me show you something,” he said.
It was a video clip, an aerial view that plunged vertiginously to trees a hundred feet below. The camcorder panned through one-eighty degrees and showed a limestone cliff a mere twenty feet away, which stretched up another hundred feet above the camera.
“I shot this video in a microlight in Cheddar Gorge,” said Brendan. “You sound like an active chap, Gilbert. Have you ever flown a microlight?”
Gilbert shook his head, and laughed. “The highest I ever go above ground is when I’m hacking cross-country.”
“Ah! Hunting, shooting and fishing, eh?”
“No, just riding for pleasure. I’ve never felt the urge to kill things”
“Have you got the bottle for flying, do you think?”
“I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out.”
“Well, if you fancy giving it a try, I shall be in Kemble on Saturday. I’m a qualified instructor. I’ll take you up in tandem if you like. Give me a call; here’s my card. And now, I’d better be off. Two pints is more than enough. I’m on the bike tonight.”
He covered Gilbert’s hand briefly with his own. It was warm, dry, and calloused. “I hope I’ll hear from you.” The words were soft, almost a caress, and then Brendan was gone. Gilbert sat looking at his hand for fully twenty seconds, hearing again Brendan’s parting words, feeling again that odd, intimate, touch. Then he shook his head. He, too, should be on his way.
Come Saturday he was in Kemble, wearing both sweater and cagoul; Brendan had instructed him to come warmly dressed. He listened attentively to the induction talk, and then helped Brendan wheel the two man aircraft from the hangar onto the grass runway.
“Listen,” said Brendan. “This is important. For this first flight you are a passenger. All you must do is sit still; I’ll do everything necessary for the flight. You don’t need to try to move with me; that will only make controlling the craft more difficult. Just keep still, right?”
Gilbert nodded. “No problem.”
It was a glorious April morning, the cloudless blue sky scarred only by the contrails of airliners passing far overhead. The grass, short and even, glowed in the clear light. Brendan started the engine, which throbbed directly behind Gilbert. He felt the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, the slight cool breeze on his hands. The engine note rose in pitch and the craft began to move.
It reminded Gilbert of the first time he’d ridden a motorcycle, that sense of precarious balance, the speed of the ground passing beneath, simultaneously fast and slow. He looked up, ahead, past Brendan’s helmet. The speed was only about thirty miles an hour. And then the horizon dropped gently away and they were airborne.
They climbed slowly, in great circles. The rim of the world expanded. Gilbert saw a pigeon fly beneath them, flapping industriously from one rooftop to the next to join her mate. The wind was stronger and colder, and the fabric airfoil occasionally chattered slightly. The light of the sun perfused everything, dazzling when straight ahead, glinting off every reflective surface. Gilbert closed his eyes. He listened. He breathed the chill air. He felt. He lived.
When he opened his eyes again, he was surprised at their altitude. Cars on the motorway passed like coloured beads sliding on a thread. But even as he watched them, he realized that Brendan was taking their craft down. The engine note was quieter and less insistent. They were returning to the mundane world, with its problems and its grief. Gilbert wished that Brendan would climb again, take them ever higher until they reached the edge of the finite, the beginning of eternity.
Down they went, and now the aircraft was racing towards the runway. Fifteen feet, ten feet, they were over the grass, the wheels were spinning, five feet, a slight bump, and they were on the ground, with Brendan taxiing towards the hangar.
They stopped, dismounted. Brendan looked at Gilbert. The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Good, eh?”
Gilbert nodded. “Stunning.”
“Same time next week?”
“I’ll call you. Thank you.”
Gilbert sat in his car, motionless, his mind filled with the bigness of the sky and the closeness of Brendan. He had wanted to touch him, wanted to hold him as they flew. ‘I love Rhoda,’ he thought. ‘That’s what love is, the feelings I have for her. I can’t love Brendan.’ And once the thought had been articulated, he couldn’t rid himself of it.
Eventually he drove home, slowly, carefully, letting the concentration purge his mind, letting the morning’s scintillating images dim and dull until he could safely examine them, talk about them to Rhoda.
Of course he went the next week, and the week after. He started lessons. At first, Rhoda enjoyed his new liveliness; he had been becoming restless and frustrated. She was glad that he had this new hobby. She took advice from friends and bought him a single man aircraft ready for when he qualified to fly solo. It was the best birthday present he’d ever had.
A few weeks later, when Gilbert arrived for choir practice, he was accosted by Mavis.
“I’m a friend of yours, right?” she demanded of him.
“A very good friend, Mavis.”
“Would you mind walking me home after choir practice tonight, and having a coffee?”
“It will be my pleasure.”
During the interval, he told Brendan that he wouldn’t be able to join him in the Cutlers Arms after the practice. Brendan nodded.
“Okay.” He looked disappointed.
As Gilbert escorted Mavis, he asked whether she’d had any trouble to make her fearful of walking home on her own.
“I’m worried about you, not me,” she replied. “Let’s be discreet, and wait until we’re indoors, shall we?”
Once indoors, Gilbert accepted a biscuit and quietly took a sip of his coffee. Mavis cleared her throat.
“So what’s going on between you and Brendan?”
“That’s very blunt, Mavis. What on earth do you think is going on? Brendan and I are friends.”
“My eye. You’re inseparable. And the way you look at him. It’s not just me, Gilbert. People are gossiping.”
“I can’t be responsible for other peoples’ words. Brendan and I are friends, nothing more. We go flying together at the weekends.”
“How much time do you spend with Rhoda at the weekends?”
“Mavis, you are a dear friend, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate for you to ask me that sort of question.”
“Someone needs to ask it, Gilbert. I’m Rhoda’s friend too, remember.”
“Do you think I’m neglecting her? She seems happy about the flying.”
“We’re not talking flying here, Gilbert. Have you introduced Brendan to her?”
“I’m sorry, Mavis, I’m not prepared to be interrogated like this.”
“Hmph! I thought not. I bet you haven’t even told her about him.”
Gilbert put down his cup on the coffee table and stood up.
“Mavis. I appreciate your concern for me and for Rhoda. I take it in the spirit in which it was intended, but I have to say it is misguided. There is nothing…improper between Brendan and me.”
That weekend, in the hangar after the flight, Brendan kissed Gilbert. It was not a long kiss, a mere brushing of the lips with a warm embrace. Gilbert’s face convulsed. He pulled Brendan fiercely against him, then pushed him even more fiercely away.
“Brendan, this is impossible. I’m married.” His voice was rough.
Brendan shrugged.
“There’s little enough joy in the world, Gilbert. Grab it while you can.”
“I have joy with Rhoda.”
Softly. “I’m glad for you; but I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t do that again, Brendan. Not ever. Or I won’t be able to see you at all.”
“That might be better anyway.”
“No, wait, I didn’t mean I don’t want to see you. I do want to see you. It’s just that I don’t want to betray Rhoda. But you’ve woken me up, Brendan. Something had died, and now it’s alive again. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t see you again.”
Brendan crooked a finger.
“Come here, Gilbert. This won’t hurt you, or anybody else.”
He opened his arms. Gilbert looked at him. There was that little upward crease of the lips that he loved to see, the teasing, questioning recognition of his own identity that it implied. He slipped into the embrace, allowed Brendan to kiss him firmly. Then he stepped back.
“I must go, Brendan, I must go.”
“See you at choir practice, then. I hope you don’t get dragged off for more committee business afterwards; I enjoy our beer and chat.”
* * *
The row with Rhoda was the following Thursday. It started quietly; the worst rows often do.
“There’s a microlight festival in three weeks time, love. I thought I might go.”
“You do remember Val and Brian are coming to dinner on the fifteenth?”
“Ah. That had slipped my mind. Couldn’t we put them off?”
“I don’t want to put them off, Gilbert. I’d like to see them. I’d like us to see them together, because we haven’t done much together recently. In fact, I haven’t seen much of you at all.”
“Okay. Yes, sure. I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you.”
“You could sound a little more enthusiastic. They’re our best friends.”
“I’m sorry, love. You know what I’m like when I start something new.”
“This is different, Gilbert. You’ve been a different person since the weekend. Distant. Not unhappy, in fact sometimes you seem positively exalted. But you never seem close.”
Gilbert spread his arms, expecting Rhoda to snuggle in as she usually did. She ignored the gesture.
“You don’t seem close now, Gilbert. In fact, you seem a mile away.”
Gilbert’s pulse raced. Had Mavis been talking? Had he better say something about Brendan?
“There’s something, isn’t there, Gilbert?”
“I’m having a great deal of pleasure from flying. It…lifts me up, opens me to, I don’t know, new thoughts, new experiences.”
“Take me this Saturday. Let me share that with you.”
“I’d better check with Brendan. We…”
“Brendan! This is about Brendan, isn’t it? That must be what Sheila meant when she commented on how close the two of you seemed at choir practice! It’s not about flying, not really. What’s going on, Gilbert?”
Gilbert folded his arms.
“Nothing is ‘going on’, Rhoda. Brendan and I are good friends.”
“I don’t like it, Gilbert. I want you to stop seeing him. Go and fly from a different airfield. Take me with you. Let’s be together again. I’ll learn to fly too, and we’ll fly together.”
Gilbert froze.
“You want me to stop seeing Brendan?”
“Yes. I want you to stop seeing him altogether, before you…you do something you would regret.”
“But…he’s my best friend, Rhoda.”
“Yes. And I’m your wife.”
“Rhoda, let me try to explain. What I feel for Brendan is different from what I feel for you.”
“Oh, you feel for Brendan, do you?”
“Yes, I do.” Gilbert spoke quietly but firmly.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that you love him?”
“I suppose, in a way, I do.”
“Have you…?”
“No. No, of course not. Of course we haven’t.”
“There’s something, though, isn’t there? Something happened at the weekend.”
“Brendan kissed me. He wanted more but I stopped him.”
“How could you, Gilbert, how could you?” Rhoda’s face worked with passion. “You’re my husband. You’re nothing to him. He doesn’t love you; I love you, I need you. Give him up – for both our sakes!”
“I don’t think I can give him up, as you put it. I think I’m in love with him.”
Rhoda was panting now, gasping for breath. “You bastard. You utter bastard. I’ve stayed with you even though you can’t give me children, the children I long for – the children I deserve!” The tears cascaded down her cheeks. Gilbert had never seen her weep before. It tore at his heart.
“My dear, my love, please stop. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do; I feel as though I’m being washed away in a deluge.”
He reached for her, tried to make some physical contact that would tether him to reality, to the bedrock of their relationship.
She hit him.
The marks of her fingers purpled his cheek.
She was screaming now.
“Don’t be under any illusions. If you have sex with someone else, if you betray me, I shall have my children. I shall have sex with the milkman, or the postman, or the…the vicar – whatever it takes to get pregnant. And you, Gilbert, you will raise them as your own because when that predator has finished with you – used you up – wrung you dry – you’ll come to me on your knees, and that will be my price for taking you back.”
Gilbert stood, ashen.
Rhoda took several deep breaths, calmed herself, although the tears still flowed.
“I shall have a child with Brian!”
Gilbert recoiled from her. “Val is your best friend! Would you really do that to her?”
Rhoda’s lips twisted; her eyes were hard as stone. “Val will let me, when she knows what I’ve gone through. It’s only sex, when all’s said and done.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I will tell Val and Brian that your low sperm count is why we’ve never had children. I shall tell them about your fancy-man, and throw myself on their mercy.”
Gilbert sank onto one of the kitchen chairs. He looked at the ground without seeing it.
Rhoda grabbed the kitchen roll, and mopped her face.
“Leave him, Gilbert. Ring him now. Tell him it’s finished, he’s never to see you again.”
As though hypnotized, Gilbert drew his mobile out of his pocket. He called Brendan.
“It’s over, Brendan. I’ve been thinking. I love Rhoda; I’m not going to betray her even for you.” He struggled to speak. “I’ll stay away from Kemble. Would you, please, stay away from the Choral Society?”
Gilbert imagined the little shrug that would have accompanied Brendan’s “Okay.” He thought his heart would break.
“Well, goodbye then, Brendan.”
He rang off and looked up at Rhoda.
“I really do love you,” he said.
“I know.” She reached out and touched his hair. “The pain will go, Gilbert. It will go.”
* * *
Rhoda was pregnant by Christmas. Four years later, Gilbert and Rhoda watched hand in hand as their little boy, blond, blue-eyed and the image of Gilbert, set his pony at a low jump in the orchard – and cleared it.

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