Thursday, 30 May 2013
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’s 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’s, 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.
The drinks arrived and they'd just clinked glasses when the door opened and in trotted Hermione Cartwright followed by her daughter Lucy.
‘Hello, you two. Sorry we're late. Women's prerogative, I'm afraid. Something you two bachelors won't be used to. Arnold, you do remember my daughter Lucy? Grown up a bit since you last met her. Lucy, this is Trevor Hatswell.’
Arnold couldn't identify this Lucy as the one he'd met before. He did a quick calculation and realised it had been at least five years earlier, making her a young teenager at the time. She'd since grown into a younger version of her mother and had overtaken her in height.
Hatswell made a feeble attempt to be charming. He fawned over her, which made Arnold think of Terry Thomas.
‘What a delightful daughter you have, Hermione. You must be very proud of her. Obviously inherited your beauty, and hopefully with it your unquestionable ability to put all men at her mercy. How say you, Lucy?’
Lucy smiled politely, not bothering to hide how bored she was at this comment. Instead she turned to Arnold.
‘Hello again, Reverend Drive. I remember meeting you once, on my fifteenth birthday, at St Tobias’s. It was the Harvest Festival, and mum's pumpkin won first prize. Do you remember?’
Arnold's memory was failing him.He'd given away so many medallions for prize vegetables over the years. He had no idea which year she was referring to, but muttered, ‘Oh, yes, yes. I think I do recall the year’, and nodded, offering a faint smile.
Trevor ordered some drinks for the ladies and they all sat down and studied the menus. Lucy seemed to be an expert on Indian food, having travelled to India during her gap year, and she explained the names of several of the dishes to them. It gave her an opportunity to contribute to the evening as she'd assumed she would be the gooseberry, sitting there with two of her mother's friends.
They were shown to their table which was a booth for four, and Arnold made sure he wasn't hemmed in at the window by excusing himself before sitting down. In the toilet he washed his hands and was wiping them on a paper towel when he spotted a hole in the wooden panel under the sink in which, he presumed, he should place his used towel. Feeling curious he opened this hinged panel to find no basket there for the used towel to fall into. He felt one of his familiar panic moments coming on and stood there transfixed, not knowing what to do next. He must have stood there for several minutes, unable to move, and could think of no way out of the situation. The door opened and another diner came in, so he quickly closed the panel door, stuffed the wet paper towel into his jacket pocket, and left to rejoin the others. He sat down, and found himself sitting next to Hermione, opposite Lucy.
‘There you are, Arnold.’ Hatswell said, ‘We were just wondering where you'd got to. Hermione tells me the church will stand empty for several months, before they begin the conversion. Have you been lucky enough to look over the architect's plans? Spill the beans. ‘
It was true the work wasn't due to start until the autumn at the earliest which made the closure even harder for Arnold to bear.
‘Not yet,’ he replied. ‘I'm expecting an invitation to the architect's office in Bath this week, as a matter of fact. I hope they don't mess around too much with the floor. Apparently they intend to move the brass to a new location, but it hasn't been decided yet where to put it.’
Lucy claimed to have rubbed the brass herself and still had the rubbing hanging on the wall of her bedroom:
‘Took me a whole day to do that. I'll never get rid of it. It's one of the things I really like to see when I come back from Uni.’
She told him her interest in brass rubbing may have helped her gain her place at Durham studying Philosophy. Apparently the tutor interviewing her had his own brass rubbings up on the walls of his rooms and it had obviously helped break the ice between them:
‘I like to think maybe it kept me in his mind when they made their final choices for the course,’ she said brightly. Arnold felt she was being unfair on herself. She looked striking enough to leave a lasting impression on anyone.
The food arrived, so they all tucked into the various curries and Lucy became the guide to what she'd helped them order. It was clear Hatswell had decided to make a night of it, ordering gin and tonics throughout the meal for himself and anyone else who cared to join him. Arnold didn't drink that much, and after the first two rounds he moved on to water. Hermione was determined to keep pace with Hatswell and the two of them chattered away about various local issues, sometimes completely forgetting Arnold and Lucy were sitting there with them. Arnold quietly enjoyed his food and listened to their conversation, occasionally adding weight to what one or the other was saying. Lucy was also kept on the sidelines and Arnold felt her staring at him once or twice, but he never looked back. Disappointingly, she fell into the role of being the representative of the younger generation and would be referred to by Hermione as if she wasn't even there, with expressions such as,
'How can they even begin to realise how lucky they are!' and 'How they can be so worldly, yet so young!'
At one such outburst, Arnold looked across and saw Lucy raise her eyes to the heavens as if to say, ‘Please spare me this, mother!’
Everyone seemed to be very hungry and in no time they'd eaten their way through all the dishes and were ordering coffees. Hatswell insisted they have a brandy together and as they fell silent to digest the food, Arnold could sense their minds were returning to the subject of St Tobias’s. Hermione turned to him and placed a hand on his wrist, gently squeezing it.
‘Dear Arnold. What are you going to do with yourself? Have you even thought about it?’
All eyes were upon him and he opened his mouth as if to say something. He sensed they were expecting something of note to issue from his lips but nothing came to mind.
‘No, not really... It hasn't yet... quite... sunken in.’ was all he could manage to say, and he nervously looked around to see if he could find any answers in their faces.
Hermione increased the pressure on his wrist and offered him a 'brave face' smile.
‘Shall we get the bill?’ he offered, to lighten the mood and to divert attention away from himself. He could feel the dampness of the paper towel as it had seeped through the pocket lining of his jacket during the meal. He'd inadvertantly sat on it and now had a wet left buttock.