Arnold Drive

By Hugh Cornwell

The story of a man’s journey from innocence to experience where he discovers his moral compass isn’t always pointing the right way…

Arnold sat down and closed his eyes. He waited, knowing it was the only way to deal with the situation. If he kept his eyes closed for long enough he knew he'd open them up again and be able to carry on. By that time the sun would have passed on in the sky and there would be no shadows cast by its rays hitting the window frame. Whenever the sun came out at this time of year he was always unable to move around his living room. The criss-cross lines of the latticework's shadow fell across the plain buff carpet and he found it impossible to negotiate his way around the south facing room without his feet landing on one or more of the bars. With any luck a cloud or two would pass directly in front of the sun and he could feel the lower light intensity through his closed eyelids and be able to move across the room, either to his study or the kitchen, or, if not that far, to the hallway. He'd tried to do this a couple of times without opening his eyes but had bumped into the furniture on the way, leaving him even more distraught. It had made him feel relieved to see grey skies in the summer and when he thought about it, he couldn't remember when he'd started noticing the bars on the carpet.

It had all started when he was small and he'd been given a proper bed to sleep in rather than a cot. He would get ready for bed and find it impossible to get in without disturbing the tucked in edges of the blankets. The top white sheet had been neatly folded over for him to rest his chin on once he was in, but he would have to go around the bed first making sure the blankets were properly tucked in between the mattress and the base. Once he was sure all was in place he would carefully ease himself in without disturbing anything so that, once in, he could look down and see the bed as it should be. Only then could he switch off the bedside lamp and go to sleep. In those days he experienced a recurring dream. He was in bed in the middle of a vast empty room and would feel terribly small, bewildered and alone. Sometimes he still experienced this sensation before falling asleep and would have to switch on the light and get his eyes accustomed to the dimensions of the bedroom again before being able to sleep. He'd managed to get over that hurdle with time but other things began to preoccupy him over the years. When he'd tried to rationalise it all, the relative importance of these preoccupations had started to confuse him and he would have to stop, or risk becoming very muddled and disturbed about life in general. The only thing that helped was to think of God. In fact the only place he really felt relaxed was in a church, safe within the stained glass, and it seemed as good a reason as any to decide to become a priest.

He felt the light fade on his face but waited before opening his eyes as he was enjoying the sensation. When he did open them he saw a large bank of clouds moving in front of the sun which meant he could wander about his living room for a while. He decided to make a cup of tea and tidy a few things up before thinking about what he would wear for the last supper. The Indian restaurant was booked for 7:30 and he was looking forward to the occasion, although the reason that prompted it was regrettable. Despite a campaign lasting over three years the church authority had decided to sell St. Tobias' to a property developer. The dwindling numbers of his congregation had persuaded the Diocesan Advisory Committee and the Church Commissioners to consider the church's market value in such a prime location in the West Country. Arnold had made a study of estate agents windows in Corsham and estimated the church and the acre and a half of surrounding land could be worth several million pounds. The insides of the church were to be knocked out and the building converted into luxury apartments, but thankfully the exterior would remain and the graves would be preserved because they lay within hallowed ground.

The final congregation had gathered the Sunday before and Mrs. Cartwright had suggested then that they have a a little get together. There would be just the four of them: Professor Hatswell, Mrs. Cartwright and her daughter Lucy, and Arnold. Lucy was down on vacation from Durham University for the summer and Arnold could see no reason to object to Hermione bringing her along. He vaguely recalled meeting her years before at a fete at St. Tobias', but all he could remember was that she had blonde pigtails. Thankfully the grey clouds remained and Arnold was able to move about freely the whole afternoon. He'd noticed several wispy cobweb threads dangling from a light fitting in the hallway that morning and he was looking forward to removing them.

There were breaks in the cloud as he strode down Corsham High Street towards the Jaipur. He'd been there before several months earlier when the visiting bishop had taken him for lunch, to tell him the news about the church being sold. He'd enjoyed the food and was looking forward to reading through the menu again. Before he went in he saw Professor Hatswell through the window sitting next to the bar with a smug grin on his face, as always, obviously relishing the fact he'd got there first, and was in the position to monopolise the evening as he usually did.
“Arnold, old chap. Only a few minutes late. Not to worry. Everything's under control. Hermione will be late, of course.”
Arnold chose not to reply to this taunt and changed the subject:
“Hello, Trevor. Can I buy you a drink?”
“No, let me do the honours, as I was here first. Gin and tonic?”
Arnold noticed Trevor hadn't been there long enough to order himself a drink and took solace in that, as he nodded and sat down.
“Any news about your cottage yet? As I said before, you can always shack up with me if you get stuck, there's plenty of room.”
“No, none yet.” Arnold offered.
Now that the church had been sold off he was expecting something official in the post telling him to move out of his cottage, which also belonged to the Diocese. The bishop had explained he would receive an allowance in lieu of his stipend, but unfortunately the cottage was to be sold as well, so he would have to find somewhere else to live.
“Look at it on the bright side, Arnold.” he'd told him, “It's an opportunity for you to get out of this straitjacket. You've been in Corsham longer than I care to remember. You've still got an active, curious mind. Here's your chance to exercise it. Jump, and a net will appear, as Our Lord tells us.” Arnold wasn't sure whether the Lord actually had said those words, but he recognised the window of opportunity the redundancy represented. It was whether he could jump or not that was more to the point. But he had no intention of taking Hatswell up on his offer. It was difficult putting up with the pompous fellow at the best of times and he couldn't imagine anything worse than having to deal with him on a daily basis. Lord, no. He would have to find some other solution.

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