Rose Browning skewered her church-going hat with her two amber hatpins. It was Harvest Festival and hot, for a hat, but you daren’t be seen in church without one – not if you hoped to avoid being quoted at by Mildred Weekes:
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. One-Corinthians-eleven-five.
She just had to stick that last bit in, every single time, self-righteous old bat. Ought to have married – that’d have cooked her goose for her. She’d have been far too busy with sprout-peeling, floor-mopping and kiddies to go round quoting things at people. But then who in his right mind would have taken Mildred, with her shrewish ways and her superiority? Rose had gone to school with Mildred Weekes. Woeful, they’d called her behind her back. Woeful Weekes.
Rose glanced out of the back window. Peter was down the garden lifting the spuds for their Sunday lunch, and whatever else he spent all those hours down the garden doing. Talking to robins, like in The Secret Garden, perhaps; lost in his memories, or just enjoying being out in the autumn sunshine and under a blue sky. Although they’d celebrated their ruby wedding last Christmas Eve, Rose knew she had never understood Peter. It hadn’t stopped them being happy, more or less. He was a private man – thin, with sticky-out ears and a knobbly, misshapen nose. That had happened when he was a child. Some child jumped in on him when they were river-bathing; broke his nose in two places and it didn’t heal right. And then there were the other injuries, that he’d got in the Great War: the shrapnel peppering his right leg – shards of it still in there, she believed – and the ragged scar on his right side. These she had discovered on their wedding night. She had not thought to ask him about them – she had been too frightened to think, to be honest, considering the mysterious thing that was probably just about to happen – and he had said nothing. And other injuries, invisible ones, like the loss of their son Kenneth. He had not mentioned Kenneth from that day to this.
But he was happy enough in the garden. He never said so, but she knew by the way he chewed on his pipe and puffed smoke at the sky and hummed a bit under his breath. Down the garden or out in his carpentry Lodge – those were his happy places. And grand-daughter Sophie was with him today, being it was Sunday. Blue dress today. Purple hair ribbons. My little mouse, thought Rose, tears of pity and affection springing into her eyes. My little deaf mousie.
But this wouldn’t do. Mustn’t be late for church, especially on Harvest Festival.
Remember the Five Foolish Virgins, Mrs Browning…
Silly old bee.
Peter plunged the fork into the ground and lifted it, heavy with potatoes for their dinner. He shook some of the earth off and held it out to Sophie for inspection. She stretched out a pudgy, eight-year old’s hand to touch a woodlouse scuttling away between the fibrous white roots. Because of her deafness they never spoke, but rarely bothered with signs either. There didn’t seem to be much of a need. It was peaceful, being together in silence; both treasured it though neither could have put it into words.
When she had looked enough he turned and dropped the potatoes, earth and all, into a pail. He cut a short length of string and handed it to her, along with the garden scissors, pointing in the direction of an apple tree in a sea of mint. This was her job. Gathering mint for mint sauce. When they got back to the house he would chop it for her and drop it into a bowl; she would spoon in vinegar, caster sugar and a pinch of salt, and she would stir. Making the mint sauce was her job. So was shelling the peas. Grandad would peel the potatoes and Nanny Rose, when she came back, would look after the roast, the tray of Yorkshire Puddings, the cabbage and the gravy. Nanny Rose made great gravy. She poured some of the cabbage juice into it, and then back onto the hob for another stir and a thicken, like they’d taught her In Service.
She wandered around what remained of Grandad’s latest bonfire, and poked around in the ashes with a stick, looking for left-over stuff. You could never tell what you might find, looking down. Sophie had discovered all sorts of things people had dropped or left behind – bits of broken teacup in Nanny Rose’s flower beds; a stone with a fossil on it, like a little octopus – she had found that over the field – even once a tin hat, a sort of flat one, gone all rusty under a bush in the front garden. Nan said it was what the air-raid wardens used to wear. Not being able to hear, Sophie looked, and had a knack for finding things. This time it was a big, brassy medal, with an angel on it, and a fallen soldier. The medal had been hanging on some thick, rainbow-striped ribbon but it had got burnt in the fire and as she lifted it, what was left fell away. She brought it to Grandad for inspection. He inspected it for a long time, stroking away the soot and dirt with his thumb. She didn’t need to look at his face to know that he was crying.
It was Godfrey Snaith’s first service as vicar. Until a few days ago he had been plain Curate Snaith. Towards the end of his four year curacy he had of course applied for a parish of his own. He had assumed he would be assigned away, to some distant island or city centre upon his ordination, as was the usual practice, but Reverend StAubyn’s demise, though long and sadly expected by his colleagues and congregation, had taken place at an inconvenient time – just a week before Harvest Festival. Godfrey Snaith found himself thrust into the limelight, amongst those who had known him in a junior role, and in an invidious position. He had been appointed Reverend StAubyn’s successor, but since ordination ceremonies are complex and take time to organise and he was having to make his big entrance, as it were, without quite the full credentials. Geoffrey Snaith was not a confident man – somewhat timid, in fact. He was frightened of his new responsibilities. He was frightened of making a mess of the popular Harvest Festival service. Most of all he was frightened of Miss Mildred Weekes, who was out to get him.
He had always known, although he had attempted not to, that Miss Mildred Weekes was in love with the Reverend StAubyn. The Reverend StAubyn had known this too and, in some unspecific, incomprehensible, unimaginable, unforgiveable way, had been taking advantage of it. Now Mildred Weekes was grieving, but she could not let it show. In the past week swallowed grief had transformed Mildred Weekes from a self-righteous but mostly harmless middle-aged spinster into a vengeful termagant. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose hero has been replaced by a white-faced curate, thought Godfrey Snaith, poetically. Mildred was plotting something.
It started well enough. Children from the local school, rehearsed by one of their teachers, processed up the aisle in a wobbly crocodile bearing pumpkins, cabbages, corn-dollies and whatnot (Godfrey had grown up in Bermondsey and was a bit vague about that sort of stuff) whilst the congregation bellowed Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home. Always a favourite, that one. He took as his text, the obvious – Ecclesiastes 3
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted… etcetera.
Keep It Simple, Stupid, he reminded himself. Keep It simple, Snaithy. He seemed to be getting more nervous rather than less. Mildred Weekes was sitting in the front pew, looking straight at him. Nothing unusual about this. She always sat at the front and she always stared but this time – this time her face was twisted, twisted into a veritable grimace, part pain, part rage. part malice.
And what is in season, right now, Curate Snaith? she interrupted suddenly.
That’s it, he thought. Here she blows. She’s going to heckle. And Curate, not Reverend. Technically correct but, but… His mind had gone blank.
You speak with assurance of the seasons, Curate Snaith. Pray tell us, which fruits and vegetables are in season at this moment in time? This is a country parish, Curate Snaith, and you have resided here for the past four years, have you not? (She was sounding more and more like Atticus Finch). Surely you must have learned that much, by now?
Rose Browning was incensed. How dare Woeful Weekes interrupt both a church service and the new vicar? How dare she spoil things? I’m going to fix her once and for all, Rose thought.
Ca-harrots! She coughed, behind her hand.
Well, er, there are carrots… said Godfrey Snaith, wondering what was coming next.
Oh…and celery. Yes, celery.
Rose had run out of coughs and sneezes and run out of patience.
Speak up, Reverend Snaith. I do believe I am becoming a little hard of hearing in my old age. I believe I heard Bramleys? Blueberries? Plums? Now Rose was well and truly up on her high horse. She walked up and stood between Woeful Weeks and this poor nervous almost-Vicar: Did I hear damsons, Miss Weekes? Do you think I heard damsons? Did you hear damsons? I believe I DID, Miss Weekes…
Altogether it was a very satisfactory occasion, and Rose Browning floated home towards her back kitchen and the making of Sunday Lunch for her beloved Sophie and her… good old Peter, veritably trailing those clouds of glory.
Peter polished the medal on his sleeve, and fetched the garden twine. He cut a long length of it this time, looped it around his grubby forefinger and handed the ends to Sophie. She had done this before and knew what to do. She held the ends of the string together and began to twist. After a while, the string doubled up of its own accord. She handed the two ends to Grandad and he threaded the cord through the slot where the ribbon had been, tying the two ends together. She bent her head and he lifted the cord over it, adjusting the medal so that the medal hung straight against her blue dress, angel-side outwards.
Then, and with dignity, they saluted.