Through the window of the train traveling north, you could see this church in a field. I want to say it was a little church, but churches aren’t ever little, are they, not when you get up close to them. Only in that landscape of fields and hills, away it seemed from any village or town, it looked small. Built in the familiar yellow-grey stone, a church such as a church of any imagination would be, rugged and enduring, ancient of days, obdurate, a sharp, insistent spire pointing forever to the absent reality of heaven. I would tell you the style in which it was built—words like gothic and perpendicular, phrases like Saxon arch and barrel vaulting move in my mind like vague shapes of sheep grazing in fog at the edge of a ditch. But I don’t remember them now, and I can’t recall their meaning. I would tell you just where to go to find that church in the field so you could see it for yourself—I remember that I noted the place so carefully, and told myself I would search for it along the lanes there some day. But I have lost it now. I don’t know the place anymore, nor even if I was traveling to York or to Liverpool.
I remember only that I saw it through the window of the train hurrying north—leaned forward in my seat to see it as long as I could. A church standing in a green field with no other building nearby. A border of wall or hedging, quite high, protected the field and the church inside. I have forgotten which it was, but I remember it gave a sense of safety, hedging about that sanctuary so it should be utterly safe, a place perhaps wherein one might at last find peace.
And I know I wanted to be there more than anything; that I believed if only I could find the way there, and stay there, it would be a shelter and a resting place. I cannot remember the place from where I saw it, and I do not know the way; but in some sense what it was has lodged inside me, and is obscurely, I think, a source of hope.
Esme held this piece of paper in her hands and read what she had written so long ago. Back in the days when she wrote those words, her soul had been full of searching, of yearning—and these imply always hope. Then the church had stood for something full of quiet and mystery: heart’s desire, homecoming, belonging.
Possessed in those days by a fierce hunger and hunting her miracle like the gospel story of the woman twelve years with an issue of blood, Esme had wriggled and elbowed her way through the press of life and people to find a place where she might stretch out her hand and touch the hem of the garment of Jesus; and so it might be bring the restlessness of her soul to peace.
An oddity in her family, Esme had the sense of being less respected than kindly tolerated. Church attendance had been an unquestioned element of her upbringing, and her family had been established figures in the large parish church that occupied the center of the affluent village where she had grown up. Equally unquestioned had been the expectation of material success and, with a combination of personal confidence and conscientious application, Esme’s brother and two sisters had solidly achieved this in their lives. The youngest child of the family, Esme had dithered, occupying herself with temporary secretarial posts on the strength of a six-month intensive course when she finished high school. She knew she was looking for something but didn’t know what. Above all she hungered for a plain and authentic spirituality, sufficiently free of aesthetic pretension to pierce the conventional mould that had nurtured her. She thought she had found this when, in her early twenties, she began to attend a Methodist chapel pastored by a young and zealous minister, fresh out of college, with a fire in his belly for witness and mission and a political edge to his preaching.
Inspired, Esme involved herself in the Methodist church. She fell in love with a young man in the worship band, a budding executive in a Christian music publishing company. His lean good looks and brooding eyes appealed to her sense of romance. His sharp and fashionable style impressed her. So did his perpetual air of busyness and preoccupation, and the various electronic gadgets necessary to support the maintenance of his extensive social and business contact network. His interest in her gave her an unaccustomed sense of sophistication. He was widely regarded as quite a catch. He himself felt the importance of choosing a wife who could be relied upon not to let him down. Esme was flattered to be chosen. He went about his romance with characteristic intensity and focus, securing Esme as a bride in a matter of months. Her family, perplexed by her tendency to drift, felt relieved to see her settled. Her mother hoped she would have a baby, but Esme’s new husband decided they should prioritize the acquisition of a house and a car more suitable for his professional image. Esme didn’t really mind; she was happy to go along with his plans. She admired him, she enjoyed the status that marriage conferred on her, and his romantic attentions made her feel treasured and adored.
Yet something restless inside her still persisted, and began to feel positively trapped. All her upbringing drew her toward material consolidation, but a rogue element in her soul fretted to be free, as the stars and the wind and the clear cold light of morning were free.
She burrowed further into the spiritual teachings of the gospels. She began a daily routine of meditation and prayer. She felt drawn to a closeness with Jesus, and in her heart grew a desire to find the paths where he walked, and follow his footsteps into the wilderness and the hills.
From there to the parsonage had been a long slog, and not what she imagined at the beginning. Applying to become a lay preacher, training, taking exams; trial services and tutors; others weighing her in a balance hung from the safe height of their established accreditation. Then—local preacher status under her belt along with years of service to the church in Sunday school, Girls’ Brigade, coffee mornings, pastoral visiting, committees and Ladies’ Fellowship meetings—she offered herself for ordained ministry: more exams, interviews, trial services. Booklists and references and medical examinations were required, her knowledge tested and her opinions examined. Psychological screening and police checking and theological allegiances were sought. Her financial status and her relationship with her husband were inquired into. And at last acceptance, then training, then probationary ministry. Then the ordination ceremony and the reception into the Full Connexion of the Methodist church, and two more years finishing her probationary appointment.
”Formation in ministry” they called those years of testing and training; and certainly she had found them formative. It had changed her. The difference between a vocation and a career blurred confusingly. She had to polish her social and professional skills. She had to study time management and people management and develop a circumspect persona of encouraging but noncommittal affability.
Somewhere along the way, her husband, after fourteen years marriage, had found the authority and status of her new role undermining to his sense of masculinity and deserted her for the gentler contours of a hotel receptionist’s companionship. He had left her with no children (for which she felt grateful now), and a deep, unexamined wound of bereavement in the middle of her, which the passing of time flowed around and washed over but did not seem to make whole. She let their house go to him, since she had a parsonage to live in—her family expressed misgivings at this lack of prudence, but Esme couldn’t bear the idea of a legal wrangle.
Her sense of herself as a desirable woman seemed to have been cauterized by this parting. She chose to throw herself with determination into her work and to ignore the helpless, frozen center of her being. The time of tears and anguish soon passed. After it came a deep sense of vulnerability. Realizing that she had nobody but herself to rely on, Esme developed a nagging anxiety about material security. She had very little in her savings account at the bank, and no home but the parsonage provided by the church for her working years. She pushed this uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability to the back of her mind, and immersed herself in the myriad daily tasks of her occupation. She got used to ignoring the empty spaces in her soul, and the deprivation of companionship. Her colleagues had lives as full as they could manage, and allowing her congregation to see her insecurities and her loneliness was unprofessional.
Esme turned forty. More self-possessed, easy in her production of words suitable for public occasions, more sophisticated in her religion, she had grown less trusting of other people and chronically weary. On the journey she had developed a kind of spiritual irritation, an eczema of the soul, which itched and tormented her mercilessly as she sat in the homes of the elderly members of her congregation, listening patiently to their interminable, tedious conversation, their stories of the war and the details of their surgical operations and the descriptions of their infirmities and the progress in life of their grandchildren.
She repressed this successfully—hid it almost even from herself—so that she was approved and even loved as a pastor, and her congregation said their good-byes with tears when the time came for her to move on from her probationer appointment, extended a further three years by unanimous reinvitation.
It seemed such a very long time ago now that the call to serve the church as a minister had been the expression of Esme’s desire to creep as close as she could to Jesus. Her soul indefinably bleeding inside, she had thought that if only she could get close enough, near enough to touch the hem of his robe, healing would come for that half-ignored persistent inner sense of loss. Ministry had seemed like a spiritual thing, holding out the possibility of a connection to the presence of Christ. Then.
Now, so much later, it seemed just an impossibly complicated tangle of demands and expectations. A balancing act of appeasements and accomplishments. A muddle of paperwork and meetings, crumbling properties and ageing, lonely, ailing people waiting with ever-decreasing hope for her to produce what they thought any good pastor should be able to manifest, a replication of the 1950s, with fresh-faced young wives’ groups laughing as they prepared huge chapel teas, and devout businessmen willing to decorate the premises and calculate the chapel accounts in their ample spare time; and cheerful youth clubs happy with campfire songs and table tennis. Only with computer literacy, sophisticated child-protection administration and high-profile ecumenical relationships as an add-on.
She was caught in the throng and press of the crowd that stood around Jesus. It didn’t look big but it knew how to jostle and shove. She’d exchanged the relative calm of the periphery for the struggle of the thick of things, apparently without getting any closer to the hem of his garment at all.
And there was something else, which no one knew but Esme, and of which she felt every day most deeply ashamed.
Back in her student days at ordination school, immersed in the Christology of St. Luke’s Gospel and the anti-Semitism of St. John’s; Deutero-Isaiah and demonology and doceticism; the narrative theology of the Hebrew Scripture and liberation theology of Latin America, the empowerment of inclusive language in liturgy, the dark night of the soul, and the option of God for the poor, Esme had understood one vocational reality above all else.
Her college principal, scholarly, wise, and gentle, whom she loved and admired, insisted on the pastoral centrality of prayer.
The day Esme went for her interview to the improvised office in the converted church building housing the ordination course where she would eventually undergo her training, the principal spoke to her about prayer.
“Your people will expect many differing things of you,” he said (accurately, as Esme discovered), “but one thing all of them will expect of you is that you will pray, and that you will pray for them.”
Rarely a day went by that Esme did not reflect on this uncomfortable, undeniable requirement. For she had all but ceased to pray. Somehow, these days, her life was so pushed and shoved by so many people and so many tasks, that the possibility of reaching out to touch the hem of his robe, for her healing or anyone else’s, had receded into a distant dream.
Every few days she made herself go into the church with the book of offices, read the readings, say the psalms, remember the sick, and read the pastoral list in the context of a half-hour of prayer. The rest of the time she just felt guilty. She always felt guilty. And absolutely everything mattered a bit less every day.
In her visiting, perched on the edge of an old man’s hospital bed, as she looked at his unshaved face and anxious eyes, his mottled purple feet cold without socks in inadequate vinyl slippers, the inevitable stirring of compassion was outweighed by the disgust and revulsion at the contents of his sputum jar waiting on the bedside locker.
“I don’t love people anymore,” she thought, “and I don’t want to say my prayers. I’m all churched out. I just want to be left in peace.”
She couldn’t face a theological book, she couldn’t pray, and the people wearied her. But if ministry had taught her nothing else it had given her the discipline of keeping up appearances. From somewhere she found the energy to keep on keeping on and she wondered wistfully if that in itself might count as a form of prayer; or at least of faithfulness—if not with people, then maybe with God.
It never felt easy.
Now, at forty-four years old, she sat at her desk in a new parsonage, the stationing process successfully negotiated, appointed for the next five years at least to be the minister of Portland Road Chapel in the seaside town of Southarbour, with pastoral charge also of two little country chapels, one in the charming and historic village of Brockhyrst Priory, and the other in the hamlet of Wiles Green. An unexceptional appointment, but daunting enough.
In the weeks and months to come lay all the business of taking into her hands the reins of ministry among people still strangers as yet. She must win their trust and their confidence, earn their respect. Learn their names, hear their stories, discover their feuds and their power bases, their silent hatreds and alliances. She must find their hunger and feed them there, find the wounds of them and touch them gently, understand their weaknesses and call to their strength. She must seek out her ecumenical partners and discover the shape of the Anglican deaneries and learn the social and commercial profile of one town and two country communities. She must acquaint herself with three church buildings and all that went on in them. She must learn the roads, the shortcuts, and the junction approaches. She must find a dentist and a doctor, a better baker than the one in the high street, and a cheaper source of vegetables than the supermarket. It all lay ahead of her, and somehow it all would get done. Except the difficult, shameful thing: They would expect her to take time to pray for them all. And somehow it had died in her.
This August day she had been forty-eight hours in her new home, and was still sorting through the boxes marked “STUDY.” Going through a file labeled ”Worship Resources,” she had come across any number of odds and ends that came under no other obvious heading. And there she found again the piece of paper she now held in her hands, that brought back so vividly the vision of a country church, glimpsed in the blur of passing landscape, calling to the soul of her, even now at the memory of it.
For two minutes more Esme gazed at the words she had written years ago, then dropped them onto the pile of papers on the floor, destined for the recycling bin.
August was precious. The new church year began on the first day of September. Sorting through old papers and getting her new home into some semblance of order must be done this week or never. There was no time now for reflection. There never was.
But as (turning as she always turned from the restlessness in her soul that never quite had found peace—not in prayer, not in study, not in fellowship nor solitude) she got up impatiently from her desk and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee, Esme surprised herself by saying aloud into the empty room “Is there no one in the world who would really listen; really hear me; really see me for who and what I am?”
Having assembled milk, her mug, the jar of coffee, and a packet of biscuits, she stood waiting for the kettle to boil. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she gazed through the window at the dark bulk of the garden shed across the yard. Because of its darkness, her image stood clearly reflected in the window; a depressing reminder that in the last six years lived in the driver’s seat of a car, in the office chair behind her desk, in the chairs at hospital bedsides and the armchairs of housebound members’ sitting rooms, she had put on thirty-five pounds. Despite which she refused to be deprived of a biscuit with her coffee.
Perhaps here, thought Esme, as she contemplated her reflection, I should turn over a new leaf. I could build in a program of regular exercise. I could go for walks in the country when I do my visits to the villages. Maybe—a new idea came to her—perhaps here I could ride a bike.
Depressed by the vision of herself in the window glass, she made her way back to the study. For a little while she sorted papers, drank her coffee, filed things and made notes, but with less and less enthusiasm or attention. Just this week, she told herself; just this week to get prepared. But something inside her refused to pay attention and be good. She toyed with the idea of preparing ahead one or two sermon outlines, glancing through the lectionary for the Year C readings for September. But the same something inside dug in its heels and wouldn’t, and in the end she sat with her elbows on the desk, gazing out into the garden.
I want to go outside, she thought: it’s lovely outside.
Abandoning her papers and boxes of unsorted belongings, Esme grabbed her bag, stepped purposefully out of the house, got into her car and fished in the glove compartment for the new map book she had bought. She decided that a foray to explore Wiles Green could reasonably count as work. She had been there once only, on the day of her visit eighteen months ago to meet the stewards in each of her three chapels. Beside the grim and crumbling majesty of Portland Road Chapel in Southarbour, Wiles Green Chapel had looked like a doll’s house; small and trim, set back from the road, surrounded by a flower border, sheltered by a tree and enclosed on three sides by a yew hedge—the fourth side being open to the car park. A square gap had been neatly trained in the hedge as it grew, to accommodate the Wayside Pulpit containing a notice, that when last she had seen it had read SEEK YE THE LORD WHILE YET HE MAY BE FOUND.
Inside as outside, Esme had been impressed to find the chapel well maintained and lovingly kept; austere and free of religious art or any embellishment, but with an indefinable sense of good cheer.
On that first day her interest had been focused entirely on the chapel. She thought it now time to explore the village. She had at least located the post office and the supermarket in Southarbour, and spent a morning wandering in the busy village of Brockhyrst Priory with its thriving family businesses, its teashops and gift shops; but Wiles Green she remembered only as an indeterminate scattering of houses. and a pub—a place of no real consequence.
She refreshed her memory from the map as to direction and set out to explore. She left the town and drove through the beauty of the late summer countryside, through Brockhyrst Priory with its picturesque winding main street—you couldn’t see the chapel from here, it was up behind the houses in Market Street—left at the fire station, out through fields and woodland, left at the crossroads, right at the next turning, down the hill through a lane that resembled a dry stream running between steep banks of earth fixed by the gnarled roots, green with moss, of trees that met in a canopy overhead and carpeted the road with leaf mold.
Esme remembered from her earlier visit how long the lane had seemed, tunneling through the countryside with a sense of entering depths, passing the limits of civilization. I must drive out here at night, she promised herself; there will be badgers, foxes—maybe even hedgehogs and owls! The journey had a suggestion of having mistaken the way, a profound sense of secrecy, wilderness. I hope I’m not lost, Esme began to think. With relief she caught sight of a rather mossy sign partly obscured by the hedge, on which she could make out most of the letters of Wiles Green. The road remained uncompromisingly narrow, but climbed a hill past a cluster of farm buildings and cottages, and then turned a corner into the hundred yards or so that made up its village street. There was the pub—The Bull—the ancient and delightful parish church of St. Raphael, a dozen or so houses, mostly cottages but some more imposing residences, and a temporary looking structure built of corrugated iron with a handmade sign over the door saying Village Post Office & Stores. Along the road edges the pavement came and went, and there were so many trees and hedges that the houses seemed half buried in the undergrowth. Leaving behind these buildings, Esme came to a turning whose sign said CHAPEL LANE, and she drove along it to remind herself of her chapel’s situation.
Someone had hung a new sign in the Wayside Pulpit saying THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH, and Esme made a mental note to order a new set of posters. She had brought the keys with her, but something in the chapel’s neat appearance looked so closed and complete that she felt disinclined to go in. She could remember the interior. She would soon be preaching there. Today she could take the chance to explore places she would be less certain to see later on. She turned around in the car park, and made her way back to the parish church.
There she could find no designated parking place, so she pulled off the road as well as she could, and got out of her car to look in the churchyard. Roses sprawled on the old rough stones, lichened yellow, of the wall, and trees spread welcome shade over the higgledy-piggledy graves in the long grass. Oh, but it’s so pretty, thought Esme as she ventured slowly up the path, gazing at it all, and when she reached the door and tried it, she found to her delight that it was open. She stepped inside, smelling the holy smell of cool stone and incense and beeswax candles. The sun through stained glass windows dappled the deep golden brown of the pews with rich colors. Esme sat down in the back pew, and after a minute pulled toward her one of the kneelers covered in hairy woolen fabric of a gentle blue. For the first time in years, she knelt down to pray, wondering fleetingly as she slid to her knees why Methodists never do.
At first she just knelt, and let the peace of the place slide into her soul, but as she did so the calloused resistance began to ease and words started to form. She whispered, “What I’d really like, please, if it can be done, is someone to be my friend. It can be so very lonely. Please.” And then added, with a pang of guilt,—“And help me to serve you well. And all the people.”
She held the moment in silence—what was it about prayer that could so uncover the heart’s surprising secrets? Surrounded every day by people, her phone ringing from breakfast time to bedtime, her diary full two months ahead and almost every hour accounted for, days off jealously guarded, she had not realized until she took this fleeting space of solitary prayer that the hunger and the restlessness was to do with loneliness; the longing to be really known, and accepted and understood——not only loved and needed. Someone to be my friend. The thought that had come to her shone faintly with hope. Perhaps it would be. Maybe in the chapel communities she had come to serve she might find other women like herself——professional, single, with interests in common. If so, there might be a chance of some fun, projects shared, leisure outings together. A friend.
The habitual guilt began to pull at her. Here she was, kneeling in prayer——should she not seize the moment as an opportunity, commit her ministry in this area to God, intercede for her stewards, her treasurer, her pastoral visitors, her youth work, her colleagues? Probably. But here she felt somehow a necessity to take her prayer no further than honesty, to offer to God the simple truth of the desire of her heart: someone to be my friend.
Esme stayed where she was, looking at the sturdy stone pillars, the rood screen, and the altar beyond; the carved wooden pulpit and the polished brass-eagle lectern bearing the heavy Bible open on its spread wings. She could not quite place from where comfort came, but she was stilled by the profound serenity of the ancient place steeped in so many people’s secret prayers.
After a long while she got to her feet, and slowly, communing with the living sense of the place, walked back down the aisle to the heavy door, her hand caressing the dark wooden curves of the pew ends as she passed. Before she left, she stopped and turned to look, down the length of the church to its altar under the east window. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Good-bye.”
Out in the churchyard, the sunlight seemed dazzling. Esme lingered there a little longer, looking at the inscriptions on the graves as she wandered along the path that led back to the road, enjoying the warmth and the birdsong, watching a beetle on the grass stems and the bees visiting the flowers against the wall. With a sigh she went out through the lych-gate. There was so much still to do.
Out on the roadside, beside her car, she found a very old lady, whose clothing seemed to be composed of assorted loose layers in fabrics of a variety of hues but without the decoration of patterns or flowers, creating rather the effect of robes. Her hair, grey and disheveled, was more or less assembled in two very long plaits. On her head she wore a multicolored African hat, and some curious, primitive tribal earrings. Her right hand gripped the silver top of a walking stick. A jazz prophet, thought Esme. In spite of the overall impact of her appearance, undoubtedly the most arresting thing about this old lady was the unswerving gaze of her extremely dark eyes, which glittered at Esme as she emerged from the churchyard.
“Your car.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Esme said,—“is there a problem?”
The old lady looked at her.
“Supposing” she said, “I was to bring out a table and chair and set it up in the middle of the road to play cards, would that be a problem?”
Esme blinked uncertainly. The old lady continued to fix her with her gaze. She didn’t look cross, but something momentous regarded Esme through those bright eyes set in the wrinkled brown face. She continued:
“There’s something about cars that gives folks the idea that the whole world must make way for them while at the same time they have absolute right to block the way of others. ’Tisn’t so. Pavements is for pedestrians. We may not have much of a pavement in Wiles Green, but such as there is, is entirely filled up by your car.”
“There’s nowhere else to park by the church,” said Esme reasonably.
“Put it somewhere else, then,” said the old lady, “and walk.”
The sense of well-being Esme had found in the quietness of the church evaporated. Why was life like this? Where did they come from, these vile old ladies who made a career out of being rude and finding fault and telling people off? Did God send them to test our faith in the divine image within the human soul and the goodness of creation? Who needed a belief in a personal devil—wouldn’t old ladies do just as well?
She looked down at the ground and counted to ten slowly.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I’ll move it straight away.”
The old lady’s wrinkled face reassembled into a most mischievous grin: “There’s patience!” she said, and held out her hand to Esme: “Seer Ember.”
These two words meant nothing to Esme, but she shook the hand offered her, shook it politely, said, “Pleased to meet you,” climbed into the safety of her car and left.
As she pulled away, she glanced into her mirror, chancing therefore to see the old lady, her medley of clothing bright in the afternoon sun, prodding the hedgerow moodily with her stick, and pausing to spit in the road as she ambled along its verge. Esme kept her in view in amazement, until the narrowness of the road claimed her undivided attention. She had met the steward of Wiles Green Chapel. She had met this extraordinary person. She wondered who else might live in Wiles Green.
Following the lane back along its twists and turns the way she had come, Esme glanced along the unexplored ways that led off it here and there, saving them for another day. She paused at the crossroads for a very shabby and antiquated green-painted open truck to pass, otherwise meeting very little traffic until her passage through the center of Brockhyrst Priory coincided with traders and customers making their way home from the farmers’ market just closing in the village hall.
When she reached the parsonage, and made the now almost familiar turn in to her short driveway, Esme made a determined effort to muster the resolve necessary for tackling her desk work again as soon as she came in through the door. She began by visiting the kitchen to collect a cup of coffee and a biscuit (two biscuits—she ate the first while the kettle was boiling), which she carried along the passage to her study.
She turned on her computer and created a new file, set up the page margins and font size and centered a heading Sermon Notes for Portland Street, 10:30, September 6th. She pressed the return and centered a sub-heading Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time. And she gazed at the empty screen, ate her biscuit, sipped her coffee, gazed at the empty screen, played a game of solitaire, and returned to the file she had begun.
The twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time. “Ordinary Time.”
Esme thought about all the things that happen to ordinary people in their lives in ordinary time. A baby being born to a girl of seventeen in a precarious partnership, living on welfare benefit and housed in a basement flat. A woman of forty-eight opening a doctor’s letter telling her the ominous results of her smear test. A teenager who desperately wants to be a veterinarian waiting for the results of his university application. A five-year-old clutching his mother’s hand as they walk together through the infant school gates at the start of the autumn term, trying to find the courage for separation. A housewife married twenty-six years, looking across the street at young lovers locked in passionate embrace, wistful for the passing of the years and so much that slips away almost unnoticed. A young man who has tried and tried to find employment, wondering about joining the army. Ordinary time is the place where people are born and die. It is full of hopes and regrets and scored over and over with moments of deep emotion.
And ‘ordinary’ means also that which is ordained; the paths that cross, the eyes that meet, the decisions made and bargains struck which shape the future. She thought of how as an eight-year-old child, during the school holidays she had tagged along with her mother going to fulfill her turn on the church cleaning roster. While Mother rubbed the fragrant lavender wax polish onto the pews with the stiff, waxy putting-on rag and then buffed them vigorously to a beautiful deep shine with a clean duster, Esme wandered about the church, touching the cool stone and squinting through the grating set in the floor, exploring the choir stalls, and eventually, greatly daring, climbing the steps into the pulpit, like a tree house just right for a child. She stroked the faded velvet cloth on the sloping pulpit desk, and peered over the edge at the rows of pews below, and wondered what it would be like to be the minister, standing here preaching the Sunday sermon. She wondered if St. Raphaels had done something to reach that child buried under the passing years. An ordinary child in ordinary time, growing into an ordinary woman with all the ordinary griefs and doubts and insecurities. Memories might open a way back to the lost self hidden by her professional persona with its collateral brittleness and weariness. She reflected that ordinary means just normal, and ordained; that even the casualness of every day is on purpose, meant to be. The net of heaven is wide. Not even the whisper of a thought slips through it. This imposes grave responsibility. Sometimes it brings hope as well.
Esme began to type. She had no formed ideas as yet. She was just copying the words of the Collect for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time:
O God, you bear your people ever on your heart and mind. Watch over us in your protecting love, that, strengthened by your Spirit, we may not miss your way for us—and then the phone rang.
On the upper side of the telephone receiver, to catch her attention before she lifted it from its cradle, Esme had attached a sticker on which she had printed in bold letters, “BREATHE. SMILE,” and drawn a little flower. Despite this, she felt a small frown of irritation and an involuntary compression of her lips as she grabbed the thing that had scattered her train of thought and said into it, crisply “Hello. Esme Browne.”
“Um … Marcus Griffiths here.”
Esme recognized already the deceptively absentminded tones of her senior steward of the chapel at Brockhyrst Priory.
“Oh, hello, Marcus.” She tried to sound friendly, and then waited while he paused.
“Look—am I disturbing you? I mean, you aren’t yet here, are you. Tell me if I’m intruding.”
Yes, you are, leave me alone, thought Esme as she replied, “Of course not, it’s lovely to hear from you. How can I help?”
“Oh, well—” he hesitated. “I mean really, feel free to say no—but really. Hilda and I thought that you might be relishing the peace, but on the other hand you might be lonely. And if you’re not relishing the peace, if you’d like to—I mean, please, just say no—would you like to pop over for supper? This evening—if you’d like to? Not if you’d rather not.”
He sounded so thoroughly apologetic that Esme hadn’t the heart to say no. She accepted his invitation, thanked him, and went back to her sermon notes, added a few observations on the lectionary readings and on what it meant to be ordinary, a list of appropriate hymns, and then shut down her computer and abandoned her study for a hot bath.
And so, for the second time that day, as the evening chill mingled with the amber of late sunshine, she found herself driving out to Wiles Green, where Marcus Griffiths, a retired bookseller, lived with his wife, Hilda.
Their home proved to be a comfortable family house, with pleasing proportions and low ceilings, furnished with unpretentious but lovely antique furniture (fruitwood, rural craftsmanship with an unerring aesthetic eye), armchairs and a generous sofa occupied by a truculent-looking border terrier who watched her out of one eye. The large open fireplace was filled, in these days still hot at the end of the summer, with an arrangement of dried grasses and seed-heads. An assortment of paintings hung on the walls, striking modern oil or acrylic portraits mixing surprisingly successfully with more traditional landscapes and watercolor sketches. The ancient oak floorboards were softened with Eastern rugs whose colors glowed with the richness of silk. Taking all this in, Esme reflected that Marcus must have been a spectacularly good bookseller.
A tall, thin man, with sparse hair combed back from his brow, Marcus greeted her at the door with impeccable courtesy. A vague, indefinable abstraction hung in the air about him like the dust around an old easy chair that has had its cushions too roughly handled. His glasses provided a dual function—they focused the acute observation of his very intelligent gaze; they also served as a form of screen or hide for moments when he preferred to make himself absent. Esme thought he looked both perceptive and kind, which reinforced the impression she had received at their first meeting.
He stood aside to allow her to enter his living room ahead of him. Drawn to the view of the garden through the French windows framed in heavy linen floral curtains at the far end of the room, Esme walked across to look out at the profusion of late summer flowers in the herbaceous borders, the stone fountain in the lilied pond, and the grouped shrubs, stone urns and statuary that stood here and there, dwarfed by mature and graceful trees.
“Goodness me!” she exclaimed, “Your garden’s massive!” adding quickly “and so beautiful!”
Marcus wandered across the room to stand beside her.
“A little overblown, perhaps, at this time of year. I enjoy it at all times, but I prefer the sculptural qualities of a winter garden. So many flowers can be a little cloying at times. Rather an excess of pink, wouldn’t you say? Wine?”
As he traveled away across the room to fill with a generous helping of wine one of the heavy crystal glasses on the sideboard, Marcus bellowed “Hilda!” in the direction of the door, and this was rewarded by a sense of energetic bustling that heralded his wife’s arrival.
Stout and well made, a handsome woman conventionally and expensively dressed, wearing no makeup but with immaculately dressed hair, Hilda had bold, dark eyes and a determined chin that gave notice of a forceful character.
“Marcus, how remiss! I had no idea! Welcome, my dear, welcome! Won’t you sit down? I didn’t hear you come in—are you parked outside? It’s not like me to overlook a car drawing up. I’m so glad you could come! Have you been offered—ah, yes, good—let me find a little mat for that glass. You do eat meat, my dear? I was most annoyed with Marcus—‘what if she’s vegetarian?’ I said to him, ‘you must check; you must always check, times have changed, these young idealistic types live on the most extraordinary things, lentils and wild rice’, but he wouldn’t call you back to check, he would not! Not that we eat so much meat ourselves nowadays, a little savory pâté, a rasher of bacon, the odd chop. When the family was here with us it was different; of course it was all different then! My goodness! My brood could divulge a whole bird at one sitting!”
Marcus’s eyes flickered momentarily as Esme registered the strangeness of this last remark, but he said merely “Do you eat meat, Esme? If not, I’ve no doubt we can find something else.”
Esme reassured them that she did eat meat, though like most people less now than once; and when later they sat down to dine (at an exquisite beech-wood dining suite, the table laid with Georgian silver and damask napkins) the selection of vegetables grown in the garden accompanying tender cuts of locally raised meat with delicious gravy made her glad she had accepted this invitation to supper.
Inevitably, their conversation drifted to matters connected with the chapel, and Esme discovered that in addition to Marcus’ responsibility as senior steward, he and Hilda both were key members of the finance and property committee
“It’s been a difficult year for decisions. My dear, your wine is low—Marcus! Esme’s wine is low! Driving? Then some tonic water? Marcus! Very difficult. It seems not five minutes since we were raising funds for the replacing of the windows—I won’t say ‘replacement windows’ because in a conservation area that’s hardly what they are; and besides as Marcus says, it’s such a quaint idea—I mean they are actually windows; but you know what I mean. But the thing is now that having made good and decorated, the awkward place with the damp has caused the emotion paint to the west corner of the chapel to lift, and I really think—more gravy? More carrots? More potato? Nonetheless when Marcus comes to present the draft of the accounts—still to be audited of course, still to be audited, but he’s rarely out—in the autumn, I think you may satisfy yourself that our heads are still above the parapet.”
Marcus laid down his fork and waved his hand in vague demur. “Water,” he said.
“Water? My dear, you have a full glass—Esme too. I think sometimes you really should have your eyes checked again—try the other man this time, I’m not convinced Mr. Robinson isn’t becoming questionably visionary himself!”
Marcus glanced at his wife with a kind of wondering incredulity.
“Mr. Robinson is a practical man, who could never have been described as visionary, questionably or otherwise. I am adequately supplied with beverages, and at Brockhyrst Chapel we may be considered still to have our heads above water, though, as you say the year ahead presents its challenges.”
Hilda gazed at him, baffled. “Marcus, whatever are you talking about? You’re simply repeating everything I’ve said and adding nothing to the conversation at all—and why on earth were you asking for water if you know perfectly well you’ve already got some? Really, you could try the patience of a saint at times—you can see my point, Esme, I’m sure! Heavens! Are we ready to move on to pudding, or is anyone still waiting for secs?”
“Seconds, Esme?” asked Marcus, with utter gravity, but a certain sardonic gleam behind the glasses and under the eyebrows lifted in inquiry; “I’d like you to be clear as to what you were being offered. Potato, maybe? Or meat? No? Pudding then, Hilda, I think.”
Feeling most comfortably replete after an excellent meal, Esme settled herself into the cushions of an armchair as the three of them returned to the sitting room to enjoy their coffee. In their absence, the dog had moved off the sofa and now slumbered peacefully on the hearthrug, snoring slightly.
For a short while, as Hilda set off purposefully to the kitchen to fetch the tray of cups, Marcus and Esme lapsed into silence, and she wondered if she should take some conversational initiative.
“I’ve been thinking about getting a bike,” she said, searching for something to talk about. “I spend so much time in the car, and the roads are so busy. Can you recommend a good place to go for a bike?”
Marcus considered. “How much of a cyclist are you?” he asked, at length.
“Oh well—I mean, I can manage hills and I don’t fall off, but I shan’t be going in for races. Just for a bit of exercise really.”
“I see. Then I think Jabez Ferrall might answer your purpose. He sometimes has something to sell: and he’s in any case a useful man to know. I never met anyone so resourceful. He’s in Wiles Green—not far from here, fifty yards past The Bull as you come in to Wiles Green from Brockhyrst Priory. Back of the Old Police House, where Pam Coleman lives, you’ll find him. He could certainly advise you and maintain for you, regardless of what he may or may not have in.”
Esme fished in her bag for her diary, which experience had taught her to take with her everywhere, and in the memoranda pages at the back she wrote down what Marcus had said: “Jabez Ferrall” (Peculiar, old-fashioned name, she thought), “Wiles Green, behind the Old Police House, fifty yards beyond the pub.” “BIKES” she wrote above this memo, underlined.
Over coffee they chatted about Esme’s parsonage. “Have you got all you need?” asked Marcus. “Is everything as it should be?”
“It’s all in very good order.” Esme hesitated. What she wanted to say sounded a little unappreciative. “Will you understand if I say that for me a difficult thing to come to terms with in ministry is that I realize a parsonage can never quite be a home? Please don’t misunderstand me—the circuit stewards have worked so hard to make it lovely, the kitchen has just been completely redone, I have not a single grumble. It’s just—well—looking round at your sitting room I can see you are people who love your home, and part of what makes it home I think is that it’s either the place you grew up or the place you chose because you fell in love with it. And part of what makes it loveable is its idiosyncrasies—like a person, really. But of course the whole point about acquiring and maintaining a parsonage is to find a neutral kind of place—a sensible purchase—with as few idiosyncrasies as possible, and iron out what ones there are before ever anybody moves in. Little things, oddities, I don’t know …” She was beginning to feel a bit silly, and wondered if she would have been better never to begin this. Marcus and Hilda were both listening to her thoughtfully, and she could feel herself getting embarrassed and hot.
“Please don’t think I’m complaining. The parsonage is really nice. There’s nothing wrong with it as a parsonage, but—well, for example, here you have your fireplace, and it must be lovely in the winter to sit down by an open fire in the evening. But in Southarbour of course it’s a smoke-free zone, and naturally the parsonage will be there because it’s the biggest place in the section, the most convenient, and anyway parsonages never have open fires. But I do love a fire. D’you see what I mean? I can see why they don’t have one—not everyone likes a fire, chimneys have to be swept, fires are hazardous, then as well they make dust and ash and so on. I can see why parsonages only have central heating …”
Marcus just watched her (and Esme wished he wouldn’t), but Hilda nodded sympathetically. “I know just what you mean, dear!” she said, warmly. “It’s a blessing! Central heating is a blessing. Having the circuit stewards to sort things out leaves you free to do your wonderful work. I envy you your spanking new kitchen—ours leaves a lot to be desired—the parsonage is very convenient, everything done, all mod cons—but everything has a backside.”
In silence Esme and Marcus pondered this judgment. Marcus put his coffee cup back on the tray. “Downside,” he murmured, absently. Then he looked very hard at Esme.
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “You are talking about home being somewhere that somehow recognizes one; a place where one truly belongs. Somewhere one can in the fullest and deepest sense call one’s own. Well, please make this a second home. Investigate the junk shops. Find yourself a toasting fork and keep it here. You will always be welcome.”
He nodded slightly to give this emphasis, and Esme felt a sudden deep gratitude for the kindness of this couple.
“Thank you,” she said. “And thank you so much for a lovely evening. I won’t make myself a nuisance, but certainly I’d love to come again.”
Before she knew it, the remainder of August slipped away. Esme met some other members of her congregations. One or two dropped in with flowers or cards—one with an apple pie—to welcome her, and she was introduced to more people than she could remember when she stayed for coffee after worship at Portland Street and Brockhyrst Priory chapels on her remaining free Sundays. Then September came, the beginning of the Methodist year, with its flurry of committee meetings, special services, the round of preaching and visiting and leadership responsibilities, and so many things to plan and do.
Esme’s diary filled up until it was back to its usual level of dense notes on every page, scarcely thinning out until two months ahead. Her day off she guarded jealously; the rest of the time was like a juggling act in a circus of bureaucracy.
She had asked God for a friend, but right now she felt grateful she didn’t have any within easy reach of her—friends are a time-consuming luxury in a minister’s life.
Any thoughts of exercise, of cycling or walking in the country, were shelved for the time being. She might well get to that, but for now it would have to wait.
She knew that in due course patterns would establish, and familiarity would give space in the work; beginnings are always hectic. She worried sometimes that all her energies could be absorbed by the bigger congregation at Portland Street, leaving Brockhyrst Priory a poor second and Wiles Green to fend for themselves (which is what they were used to).
As she went to bed at night, in the brief time before she fell asleep exhausted, Esme whispered to herself “Don’t panic, Es,” and felt guilty that she was too tired to pray.
Excerpted from THE CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY © Copyright 2011 by Penelope Wilcock. Reprinted with permission by PUBLISHER. All rights reserved.