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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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Ten to six. We have a journey ahead.'

Six o'clock on a cold rainy morning, and her bloke's antique due
to be stolen. Why the hurry, unless he lived on the Isle of Mull? Another lip
chew. It was worth a gnaw. I could see that.

She stepped to the door, raised her lamp, saw the shambles of
decrepit furniture and old clothes between the divan and the door, and nodded.
Her conclusion: nobody could reach the back door without a hang-glider.

'I shall switch off the light,' she pronounced firmly. ‘You will
please dress. My car is in the lane.'

'That'll ruin my reputation.' My drollery fell flat. The place
went dark. I groped for my things. It's as if my mind gets mad about things but
the person I am simply does as it's told. It narks me. I wish one or other of
me would make things easier, because one day both of me's going to come a
cropper. I dressed quickly, because a naked man looks stupid; it's naked women
look brilliant.

‘I’m death until I've swigged my morning tea.'

The torch lit the cottage. She tried to smooth her face, but the
light caught her in mid-hate.

'Why so . . .' She coloured, tried to end in a way that wouldn't
offend her mam. ‘So
unkempt
, Love
joy?'

'I haven't time for housework.' I was double nasty. 'Birds keep
barging in and molesting me in bed so I'm worn out.'

'That will do,' she said sternly, and watched as I got some
crumbs, a morsel of cheese and laid it by the porch.

'Bluetits and my robin,' I explained.

'Lock the door, Lovejoy.' I'd never met a lass like her for giving
orders - well, actually I have, but I meant today.

'No locks. Women keep battering in and molesting me - '

'Stop it, Lovejoy!' She went nuclear. I blundered into her on the
path. 'Your duty is to protect Father Jay!'

Who? Miserably I followed her out to her motor while she ballocked
me for not having a gate. I explained that these women kept battering in, et
cetera. It made her hiss in fury like a snake. That's woman's logic - turf you
out of bed, deny you breakfast, haul you out before cockshout, then blame you
for having a non-gate gate and not doing your cleaning.

Spirits low, they went lower. A priest, at this ungodly hour? And
in trouble? They're supposed to help us, for Christ's sake, not the other way
round. And why was she so desperate to help the bloke? Only a lover, actual or
potential, can drive a woman so, and a priest was way out of reach, right?
Unless . . . well, things change.

'Can we call in Fenstone?' I asked, clambering into the scented
interior. 'Only there's a bloke called Jox owes me - '

That gentleman brings the village unwelcome attention,' she said.
'Do not associate with him while you are engaged upon this undertaking.'

‘I’ not engaged upon any undertaking, Miss Witherspoon.'

Women have a distant smile that isn't a smile, but shows secret
scorn at your pathetic resistance. She did it. I watched, gloomier than ever.
It always implies threat. I wish I could do it. I've tried in the mirror,
failed. If ever I learn how, I'll do it to everybody, then let them watch out.
She fired the engine, and we hurtled - and I do mean streaked like an arrow -
north through Suffolk's dark leafy lanes. My cheeks dragged at my skull from
the G force. Only the seat belt kept me in the damned vehicle. She drove with a
cool disregard for limits, scared me to death. Her one comment was Tut tut'
when a herd of Jersey cows lumbered across our path. I thought we were going to
smear them and us, but with a horn blast she set them scampering clumsily any
old where, their demented collie scurrying after to round them up.

Not that I wanted to linger. Countryside's grim and horrible. It
lies there with nobody much in it, waiting, ticking off the days like one
massive timepiece. I'm convinced it only looks pretty the way demons and sirens
are said to take on a winsome guise, to lure honest people away from reality.
How ruralists have the nerve to stock up with jam butties and tea flasks, then
march along lonely riverbanks and ancient trackways enjoying woods and fields,
God alone knows. I can't understand. If ever I get the money I'll be out of our
remote rusticity and never ever leave the comfort of dense town houses, crammed
humanity and shops. Where nature lovers see 'scenery' and conservationists see
'survival', I see only things sinister.

'I beg your pardon, Lovejoy?' she asked, as we slithered to a
stop. 'You said "eating everything".'

'Ah. Countryside. Everything hunts everything.'

She opened the car door. That's simply Nature, Love joy.'

Oh, aye, I thought. Putting a nice word to anything makes it okay
then, does it? Assassination, murder, carnage, they all sound respectable. It's
only their import chills your spine. I disembarked in the cold wind. She dowsed
the motor's glims.

We were in a narrow lane near a lych gate - modern. The original
old gate had gone. There was just enough coming light to see by, the eastern
skies shredding black clouds but leaving the pieces there as a warning. More
rain due soon. Vaguely I could see the sombre mass of a church thickening the
shades beyond the trees. Down the lane, I guessed hopefully, a huddle of
houses, cottages, maybe a farm or two. . . ? Until I realized this must be
Fenstone, that huddle of vacancies, one of East Anglia's dying villages. In
Juliana's careering arrival I'd noticed one or two wattle-and-daub cotts, one
shop front, a walled garden, in a blur.

'This way, please.' Her torch went ahead up the path.

Incredibly, a vestry light was on. She knocked, and we entered
light and dryness. I shut out that widespread malevolence of field and flower.

'Good morning,' he said.

'Father Jay Smith, may I introduce Lovejoy,' Juliana simpered. She
didn't blush, but it was a near thing. 'Lovejoy, Father Jay.'

'How do, er, Father Jay.'

'How do you do, Lovejoy.'

He was of average height, thirtyish, with springy hair and a
pleasant open face, though I never know why we say things like that because all
faces are open, aren't they? He wore a cassock, and had been reading his
breviary. Juliana went instantly into apology.

‘Oh, I'm so sorry! Were you. . . ?' She writhed in abasement

The priest smiled. 'Just finished my office, Miss Witherspoon.
Vest for mass in a few minutes.'

if there is anything I can ever . . .' She halted in near-blunder.
I looked away. Another's pain spreads like ripples on a pond, goes on and on
affecting every molecule in the water. I couldn't see the problem. Celibacy's
all very well, but it's not gospel, is it? She was gorgeous, he looked hale, so
why not get on with it? There's enough problems in the world without inventing
more. I joked to staunch the wound.

'Miss Witherspoon overtook Fangio at Bures.'

'Miss Witherspoon is kind to trouble.'

He smiled his appreciation, gestured us to seats. The vestry was
spacious, but the furniture was reproduction. Old pock-marked linoleum covered
the floor, the flagstone edges making indentations. Cruets of wine and water
stood on a small chipboard stand, Woolworth's best glass. This place also felt
gutted, breathing as if comatose and with a terrible emptiness. An ancient
church all right, but I’ll bet even the pews were sold. It was walls and a
roof, and nothing.

'Where is it?' I asked. If the priest was bound heavenward, I'd
have starved to death by the time I reached any grub.

He went blank, it?'

'The antique.' I glanced from her to him. Some mistake?

'Oh.' Eyebrow play, looks darting. The antique?'

A door in the main church boomed. A shuffle began, some ancient
dragging to morning mass. You don't get many papists in East Anglia, so I
expect he wouldn't have to struggle to find a pew. In fact, I was rather
surprised to find a church of that persuasion still at it. We've hundreds of
churches dwindling year by year as congregations empty into modern life. His
quizzical smile showed he'd sussed my thoughts.

'Not being critical,' I said hastily. 'Times are changing.'

‘I know, Lovejoy. This church was of a, ah, former denomination. I
came three years ago. I think I have found paradise early, so fond I am of this
village.'

'Hard up, eh?'

'Lovejoy!' Miss Witherspoon in outrage.

'I'm sympathizing!' I shot back indignantly. 'For Chri . . .
Goodness!' I completed piously with a feeble grin. I'd have to watch my
language, but you've got to talk, for Christ's sake, or nobody would say
anything to anybody. Then where would we be?

it is true, Miss Witherspoon,' he reproved her sadly.

She subsided instantly, bowed her head. See? Subservience for him,
vituperation for me? I began to regret having come. Not a single antique in the
place, from its feel. Sorry, old church, I mentally apologized. But if all your
church silver, your ancient pews, fonts, lecterns, misericords, have been
ripped out, what did the exquisite Juliana fetch me for?

She glared hatred, but only because the priest's sad gaze was
fixed on some distant sorrow. Miss Witherspoon was truly smitten. She would
kill to avoid seeming unpleasant in his eyes.

He sighed. The world has shrunk, Lovejoy. Less than a dozen
parishioners. If it wasn't for Miss Witherspoon, and Mr. Geake, my other
churchwarden, I'd not survive. This week three more families leave. Fenstone is
dying.'

'It will grow again, Father Jay!' Juliana cried fiercely.

‘We can hope, Miss Witherspoon.' He was suddenly tired. I felt a
bit sorry, but not all that much. I mean, I'm always on my uppers. He at least
had a roof over his head. He spoke directly to me. 'I've no illusions. Folk see
a priest nowadays, and ask why he enjoys such privilege - his keep, rent-free position,
security - when they are out there earning their beans, children to clothe,
battling for jobs.'

'Well, that's people.' I smiled to show I didn't think that, I was
on his side. Well, he had an antique.

'This great old church is crumbling. We've tried various schemes
but been unfortunate - '

‘It's more than misfortune!' La Witherspoon interjected. 'It's a
plot!'

'Look, padre.' Talking with priests makes me uncomfortable, but I
had to say it. 'East Anglia's famous for dying hamlets. Young folk want out.
They don't want to slog in the fields twelve hours a day. They want town life.
In Lincolnshire - '

‘I do not claim we are unique, Lovejoy. Only that it's happening
to us. y Juliana nodded with vigour even before she'd heard him out. 'Our
church appurtenances have been sold. I auctioned our last treasure in Norwich
last Michaelmas- an Elizabethan vestry chest. It was stolen on the way. Are you
all right?'

'Fine!' I must have groaned aloud with baulked lust.

It was photographed for a book on antiques,' Juliana complained.
'A very unusual design.'

'Then there was the fire. We couldn't afford the rewiring, so I
did it myself. It caused a fire in the presbytery.'

'The antique you want me to guard?' Why I'd come.

'I will have it collected tomorrow by the auctioneers.'

'Why not have them collect it today?' I asked. 'You're daft to
leave an antique lying around.'

'Because today's Sunday.'

'Ah, yes.' I cleared my throat. 'I forgot. I was just on my way to
morning service when Miss Witherspoon called.' I stared defiantly at her. I was
bloody sick of piety. Because she wanted to ravish this defenceless priest I
was out in these wilds starving to death. She could get on with it. 'Where?'

He raised his eyebrows. 'The painting behind you.'

'No, it isn't,' I said, fed up. 'If there's a painting behind me,
it's a fake.' I rose. 'I'll be going. Thanks for . . .' He hadn't done anything
except ruin my dawn.

'You haven't even looked, Lovejoy!' They said it together.

'Chance of a lift?'

'Of all the. . . !' the bird started up, but the priest must have
shushed her. She fell apoplectically mute.

The painting caught my eye, as paintings will. Even daubs halt you
in mid-stride. It was a good forgery. The colours were right, including the woad
blue. A woman seated at a window, a little girl in pre-Carolean dress at her
knee. They were staring out in sorrow shared. I thought of Frank Bramley's
A Hopeless Dawn
painting, Tate Gallery,
but this was a faker's attempt to do Elizabethan. Little knowledge and mediocre
talent. One thing he'd done right, though, was get the pigments correct, which
for a forger wasn't at all bad. Most make tragic mistakes with wrong colours.
I've even seen Turner lookalikes done in acrylics-and
sold!
Unbelievable. Except not quite as unbelievable as all that,
in an age when forgers openly boast that every thing can be made from any thing
(and note those word spaces).

Woad's funny stuff. It grows frankly as a weed. Rum-looking, even
for a plant. When you first see it you're downright disappointed. Especially
thinking of those Ancient Brits with painted blue faces attacking Roman
legions, that embarrass schoolchildren by reminding them that we were once
almost as barbaric as we are now. For a start woad's not blue. And you never
see as many branches on a plant. And it's yellow flowering, with green leaves.
Only two feet tall. I like to sit on a summer's evening watching insects. They
fly at the yellow blossom and pop each flower. Sometimes on a quiet evening you
can actually hear the petals pop apart, like whinnymoor broom flowers do. Our
old villagers use the seeds for roasting into coffee. (Don't try it. It tastes
horrible, and it makes you nod off all the time.)

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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ads

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