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Thursday, March 22
The vernal equinox had come and gone, and Easter would soon be upon them. The Reverend Maxen "Max" Tudor was in his vicarage working at his computer, a machine so antiquated, it almost needed foot pedals to operate. He was rather feverishly trying to write a sermon on one of Saint Paul's letters to the Corinthians, a sermon that was beginning to irk even Max. Paul could sound so smug at times. So sure of himself. So holier-than—
Inspired, Max began to write: "Saint Paul at times appears to our modern world as the smug apostle—a man holier-than-thou, a preachy know-it-all full of scoldings and reprimands, chiding others for the way they lived their lives. But the Corinthians…"
But the Corinthians, what? There was no but. Saint Paul at his worst had always been hard to take—the garrulous, advice-giving uncle no one wanted to sit next to at dinner, the Polonius of his day. The fun-loving Corinthians had probably stampeded in their rush to avoid the old Gloomy Gus missionary.
Max, searching his mind for a more inspiring topic, a more accessible theme, a more man-of-the-people apostle, began playing with the various fonts in his word-processing software. Gothic typeface in deep purple for the stories of the apostles, orange Arial for the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, and blue Garamond in italics for her replies. Max deliberated some more, then in twenty-point Gothic he typed "Let there be light," and highlighted the words with the yellow text highlight function.
Well, this was getting him nowhere. He selected all the text on the page and with a sigh changed everything to boring old twelve-point black Times New Roman. He thought a moment, then keyed in "And darkness was upon the face of the deep."
Backspace, backspace, backspace. He stole a glance at the copy of Glossamer Living magazine on his desk, left behind by one of his parishioners—a sort of negative inspiration, since he and his parishioners were living in the season of Lent, a time for setting aside personal indulgences, most of which were featured between the covers of this publication. High fashion and fast cars; pricey houses, restaurants, and vacations. On the cover was a photograph of a castle garden in Normandy, with a bed of Technicolor tulips in the foreground.
How had it gotten to be springtime already? Max, leafing through his desk calendar, blinked with something like wonder, then looked at the watch on his wrist, as if that might confirm what he was seeing. The variable weather of the past few months had been disorienting, for humans as well as for plants and animals. It seemed to him the newborn lambs had arrived earlier this year. Easter, the most important day in the church calendar, would be here before he knew it—or, at this rate, had a sermon ready for it. He noticed the full moon fell on Good Friday this year, which seemed fitting somehow. Awena called it the "Egg Moon"; he had no idea why. Some pagan tradition rolled into the Easter traditions, he thought, enjoying the unintentional pun.
The God Squad would be meeting soon to discuss the "Eat, Pray, Plan" retreat, and while preparing for these vestry meetings seemed a futile gesture, preparation was necessary to maintain some semblance of order. He also needed to schedule tryouts for instrumentalists for the Sunday services while the organist was away for the summer. Max so far had vetoed the zither and banjo, but that had left him with few options. Awena had offered to play her set of crystal singing bowls, but that was as yet a step too far for St. Edwold's.
And—oops! There was the appointment with the bishop coming up in a few days' time. How could he nearly have forgotten? The man's secretary had been most insistent it was important, but she hadn't known what it was about. Max, who could guess, took a red pencil out of the top drawer of his desk and drew a big star on his calendar by the appointment date. Then, still unwilling to return to his sermon, he scrabbled around in the drawer for a pencil sharpener and began honing all his pencils to a fine point.
As he procrastinated in this way, Max glanced out the casement window of the vicarage study. The slice of Nether Monkslip in his view was of a classic village whose roots predated recorded history, a place that had survived centuries of wars and feuds and conspiracies largely because it had managed to go unnoticed. It was a village of stone cottages and thatched roofs, and of timber and brick; of Tudor wattle and daub and Georgian houses and the occasional postwar development—a mix of styles pleasing to the eye and just managing to avoid the chaotic. Max, from his favorite spot up on Hawk Crest, where he would rest with his dog, Thea, from the strenuous climb, found time evaporating as he gazed, trancelike, at the peaceful scene below. The villagers more often than not would be going about their shopping, or be huddled in little groups, often accompanied by a swirl of dogs. He was reminded of a toy village setting for an elaborate train set. Outlying fields were divided by drystone walls kept in perfect repair; on a clear night, he might see in the distance a ferry leaving Monkslip-super-Mare, lights ablaze. Once the weather warmed, there would be a duck race on the River Puddmill, an event to which Max looked forward with as much innocent pleasure as a child.
The eldest villagers of Nether Monkslip, most of whom descended from serfs, were rapidly dying off or selling up, to be replaced by Yuppies from afar. These transplants—many his parishioners—were today carrying bright umbrellas against a mild March drizzle. They often passed down the road fronting the vicarage, headed to or from the High Street, which is why Max had positioned his desk at the window for maximum viewing. Hedges in front of the window provided a bit of a screen for him to hide behind.
He saw Suzanna Winship slink by, in her dolce far niente way, throwing a provocative glance in the direction of the vicarage and metaphorically revving her engines, probably just to keep in practice. He watched Elka Garth of the Cavalier Tea Room and Garden bustle past, carrying supplies, her son loitering empty-handed in her wake. That he was with her at all meant she'd managed to tear him momentarily from the video games he played so obsessively.
Then there came the ironmonger, delivering a roll of chicken wire, followed by the woman who created beaded-jewelry purses she sold over the Internet—Jeanne something. And Annette Hedgepeth, who owned Cut and Dried, the local beauty salon. Annette was with two of her hairdressers, their three shiny well-coiffed heads—one blond, one brown, one white—together in furious discussion under a large blue umbrella. Hairstylists, he supposed they were called now. The eldest of them he knew by name, even though she was not a member of St. Edwold's, but attended a Catholic church in Monkslip-super-Mare. She was Gabrielle "Gabby" Crew—a widowed aunt or some sort of relation to Mme. Lucie Cuthbert—who would be at the dinner party to which he was invited Friday night. He knew little more about this woman with the beautiful white hair than that she was the type of person often to be seen with a yoga mat under her arm: She was a frequent habitué of the yoga classes taught by Tara Raine at the back of Awena's Goddessspell shop.
The party was to be held at the new home of Frank and Lucie Cuthbert, just outside the village proper. The ostensible purpose of the gathering was to formally welcome four relative newcomers to the village; its, in reality, purpose was to showcase both the house and Lucie's expert French cooking. Two of the newcomers were a couple, Thaddeus and Melinda Bottle. Thaddeus Bottle needed no introduction, or so Max had been assured, since Thaddeus was legendary for his roles on London's West End stages as well as for his authorship of several plays. Much like Shakespeare, Thaddeus in retirement had returned to the village of his youth and bought its second-largest house. But there, Max somehow felt certain, all similarities stopped. Apart from the fact of Shakespeare's unrivaled genius, there was his differing taste in architecture: Shakespeare had his timber and brick New Place, and Thaddeus had a remodeled glass and synthetic-wood horror, which stood just past the train station on the road to Staincross Minster. The villagers called it "Bottle Palace."
In addition to the hairstylist Gabby Crew—who was living over Lucie and Frank's shop in the village until she could find other accommodation—there would be the estate agent, Bernadina Steed, who had sold thespian Thaddeus and Melinda their new home. Bernadina had, in fact, lived in the area nearly four years, but like Max she was a newcomer in Village Standard Time. Village doctor Bruce Winship had also been invited, to make an even eight at table.
Max gathered he himself had been included to balance out the male-female ratio, his usual role. He had a suspicion from hints dropped by Mme. Cuthbert that Dr. Winship was intended as a potential match for the "new" estate agent. Somehow—and Max did not yet suspect the reason—the frantic matchmaking efforts aimed at his own eligible and attractively ruffled dark head had ceased. Max's involvement with Goddessspell shop owner Awena Owen, she of the faraway gaze and shiny smile and New Age beliefs, had retired him from the field, after his having defended his "most eligible bachelor" title in several skirmishes with matchmaking members of the Women's Institute—particularly those with daughters, nieces, sisters, and maiden aunts of marriageable age. Bitter as the disappointment had been for many (particularly Dr. Winship's sister, Suzanna), no one seriously questioned Max's choice. Awena was too well liked for that, and the match, if a bit unusual, seemed (in a word) preordained.
Awena might herself have been invited, but she had gone to teach a weeklong residential course on "Cooking and Curing with Herbs" at the Women's Institute's Denman College in Oxfordshire.
Max recalled a conversation he'd had with Awena when the Bottles had first moved into the area.
"Thaddeus doesn't go out of his way to endear himself to the villagers," Awena had said. "Nor did his wife at first, really, although the general trend is to feel sorry for her. It is felt she's made a bad bargain in marrying him and doesn't quite have the wit to know how to get out of it."
"Nor the money."
"Nor the money," Awena had repeated. "It so often comes down to that, doesn't it? There have been rumblings … something about a prenuptial agreement."
"How in the world did the villagers learn that so quickly?" Max was genuinely stunned, although on reflection he realized this sort of thing was all in a day's work for the village grapevine, under the command of former schoolmistress Miss Pitchford.
"Melinda drinks," Awena had added. "Quite a bit. Which must cloud her judgment, not to mention drain her energy for leaving him—assuming that's what she wants to do."
"Perhaps I should go and visit them, even though they've not joined St. Edwold's."
"I'll go," said Awena. "I'll visit her when I know the Greatest Star Ever to Shine on the West End is not around. I'm liable to get much further that way. And it's a woman she needs to talk to—that is my sense of things."
"All right," said Max. "You're right. I can see that."
"Besides, I think she's used to trying to manipulate men to get what she wants. It will save you hours if I go, since we'll be able to cut through all that."
And so it was decided. Although Awena kept the details of her conversation with Melinda confidential, Max gathered that Melinda had been grateful for the offer of friendship. Once Awena learned Melinda was a great reader (somewhat to Awena's surprise), she made sure the newcomer was included in the village's book club meetings. Awena also mentioned the local writers' group was always open to new members. Again to Awena's surprise, Melinda expressed an avid interest.
Max, after briefly returning his wandering attention to his sermon, thought how much he welcomed Lucie's dinner invitation as a novelty that would take his mind off Awena's absence. For his mind dwelt on Awena more than he had thought possible: She had quickly become a mainstay in his life. Several times a day, watching something on the telly or reading a book, he would turn in his chair to make some comment or to share a joke with her and be caught up short, realizing she was gone. It all somehow led him to think of what the world—his world—would be like without her in it ever again, and his heart would seize up with despair, his breath caught by the starkness of the vista painted by his imagination. Then he would give himself a mental shake—she was only miles away—and return to the task at hand. But still the shadow would have fallen on his day.
Max again checked his watch. It was not a good time of day to call her. Awena had set times for daily meditation, Max knew—not unlike his own prescribed Anglican practice.
A shaft of sunlight just then broke from behind a cloud, enveloping the village in a haloish spring glow. "From you have I been absent in the spring," thought Max. And he sighed, this time with a sublime happiness that radiated through his heart and his soul. He was as content in his personal life as a man could be without imploding from sheer joy. His concerns, if they could even be labeled as such, were minute. Yes, his sermon for the week would not quite come together, but he'd think of something—he always did. There was a recurring stain on one wall of the church of St. Edwold's, but that would be corrected by a new roof, paid for out of a wholly unexpected benefice from a wholly unexpected benefactor. A small patch of skin on his right arm stung from a cooking wound he'd dealt himself the evening before. The local writers' group was erupting with the usual skirmishes, and he was fending off requests to join and pour oil on those troubled waters: He had enough to do getting the sermons written. That several of the members were suggesting he, as a former MI5 agent, might write a spy thriller was added inducement for him to stay away. For one thing, he was bound by the Official Secrets Act from disclosing most of what he had done and who he had been during his years with the agency. For another thing, no. Just: no.
These were all, however, minor, negligible irritations. He was grateful. He was content, as content as any man could ever be. He had Awena in his life and she looked set to stay there, always at his side, at least in spirit—a perfect way to describe Awena at any time. What more could he ask?
There was a stirring behind him, the whisper of small feet brushing against the carpet. A mouse might make such a noise. But this particular mouse was a child named Tom. His mother, Mrs. Hooser, had earlier brought a huge breakfast tray into the vicarage study. The boy must have followed her in and remained behind.
"That's so kind," Max had said to her, "but really, you don't have to do this." He'd started to say he'd eaten already but then realized she might catch him in the lie, as there were no traces of such activity left in the kitchen as normally there would be. Mrs. Hooser cooked with a heavy hand in the carbohydrate and bacon-grease departments.
"Nonsense!" she'd said, in her musical accent, as if she might burst into song. "I'll not be leaving you to starve on my watch."
I am so very far from starving, he'd thought. Apart from the wonderful meals he shared at Awena's house, there were any number of other tempting dining options, for Nether Monkslip was fast becoming a gourmet's destination, as witnessed by the recent opening of the White Bean restaurant.
When Max had learned his housekeeper's children were being left alone in the late afternoons with only periodic look-ins by a neighbor, Max had told Mrs. Hooser to have them come to the vicarage instead. The girl, Tildy Ann, now did her homework at the vicarage kitchen table. It was hard to say what her younger brother, Tom, did exactly. Max would often turn from working at his desk to find the child sitting with rapt fascination and endless patience, waiting for Max's attention. The boy was preternaturally quiet—so much so that Max suspected he was under threat of some dire punishment from his sister if he disturbed the vicar at his work. Max had overheard her once promise to shellac him if he didn't behave. Tildy Ann stood in loco parentis to Tom, since Mrs. Hooser, a single mother, was too overwhelmed most days to take on the job.
Often Max would find Tom pretending to read one of the massive tomes from the study's bookshelf, his dark head bent with intense interest over a book that weighed nearly more than he did, as he petted Thea, Max's Gordon setter and a silent (usually sleeping) partner in this vicar vigil. Sometimes, the pair of them would have fallen asleep, waiting for Max to do something. In Thea's case, the something was always to take her for a walk. What Tom wanted, apart from Max's presence, it was more difficult to say.
Max, as he headed toward the kitchen to make some hawthorn tea, noticed Tom's shoelace had come untied. Also that the boy seemed to have cut his hair himself. More likely, from the tattered look of things, his sister had cut his hair for him, using the rounded plastic scissors he'd seen her using for her paper dolls.
Max first tried teaching Tom how to tie the lace himself; the child willingly gathered one side of the bow in one fist, holding it for dear life. But his fingers were still too small and his movements too clumsy to loop the matching lace around the stem, and he kept wrapping the lace around his fist instead.
As Max was tying a double bow on the boy's shoe, the sound of breaking ornaments confirmed that Mrs. Hooser was dusting in the next room. Max gathered his newfound contentment around him like a cloak before going to investigate, more out of curiosity than annoyance. Tom and Thea padded in his wake.
Subject: Hello! And an Update
From: Gabrielle Crew ([email protected])
To: Claude Chaux ([email protected])
Date: Thursday, March 22, 2012 6:48 P.M.
Claude—How lovely to receive your warm e-mail on a cold and blustery English day.
Aside from the weather, Nether Monkslip is a lovely village, quite cut off from the world—a drowsy sort of place. It is just what I needed—right now, at this point in my life. The loss of Harold was a rude jolt, a reminder, as if I needed reminding, that life goes by too quickly. We must all seize our own happiness as we can.
You asked if I had made new friends here. Indeed I have! The villagers are wonderful about keeping me included. And living over Frank and Lucie's shop, with its little white ceramic pig propped beside the front door, I feel very much at the center of village doings. Tomorrow I'm having dinner at their new home. As I have said before, they have treated me from the first like a long-lost relative. I nearly am a relative, as you know. These distant relationships mean more as time passes and fewer of us are left behind.
What a coincidence it was to open a magazine and see Lucie's village pictured in its pages. Well, the article actually was about a restaurant in the village, the White Bean, but the village itself is fast becoming what the young people would call a "foodie destination." Fortunately, I think, the village really cannot sustain a huge influx of people. To a man and to a woman, they keep themselves to themselves and they like it that way.
I'm sorry I have to rush, but tonight is the crochet circle I told you about and I'm running late now. It is true that the older one gets, the busier one gets. I've been asked to join the local writers' group, as well—I don't know about that! My scribblings I've always held private. But I did want you to know that, as always, I think of you.
Your loving Gabby xox
Copyright © 2013 by G. M. Malliet