“In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Christ Jesus, who healed those brought to him in sickness of body and mind, hear our prayers this evening for those present and elsewhere who come to you in faith. Give the strength, comfort and assurance of your presence with us at the laying on of hands and look graciously on all who … on …”
Jane’s voice faltered. For a moment, she was quiet and seemed to be gathering herself together to continue. Then, without warning, her body folded and crumpled as she fainted.
There was a murmur. Cat got up and went quickly over. She knelt beside her.
“Jane? Can you hear me? It’s Dr Deerbon.” She took her wrist. The pulse was weak and Jane’s face was chalk white, but her eyelids fluttered and she tried to move her arm. “You’re fine, you just fainted. Don’t sit up for a moment.” Cat turned and looked at the anxious faces in front of her. “Don’t worry. She’s fainted. I don’t know why, but that’s all it is.”
Jane was trying to sit up and there was a little colour in her cheeks. She looked upset and embarrassed.
Half an hour later, they were both in the sitting room of the Precentor’s house. The French windows were open on to the garden and the smell of stocks came in from the terrace.
“I feel a complete idiot.”
“Yes, well, enough said.” Rhona Dow was pouring tea. “I did tell her, Cat.”
“I’m sure you did.” Cat and Jane exchanged a quick glance.
“She had a frightful shock and she shouldn’t be rushing to get back to normal … and to make a start in the very chapel where that man … Honestly, Jane.”
“I was sure I was OK. I can’t sit about your house doing crossword puzzles for ever. I’m not a convalescent, I’m perfectly all right.”
“So why did you faint?” Rhona looked triumphant. “Why did she, Cat?”
“No idea. But I’m not worried. Come and see me in the surgery though,” she said to Jane. “We’ll do a blood test for luck. I doubt if it will be anything other than absolutely normal but let’s play safe.”
“And I will make the appointment,” Rhona Dow said decisively.
A telephone rang.
When she had swept out to answer it, Cat and Jane dared not meet one another’s eye.
“Whatever,” Cat said, smiling into her tea. “But do come and see me. I like to check new patients anyway.”
“I did register with you the week I arrived because …”
“Rhona told you to?”
“Do you feel up to a walk round their garden? It’s the nicest in the close.”
“I know. I live at the bottom of it, remember.”
Cat had. She wanted to see if Jane avoided her bungalow, which would give her an idea of what lasting impact her time there with Max had made on her.
Rhona’s voice was still booming through the hall behind them.
“She has been a brick,” Jane said now, “so kind, so good … so has Joseph. They’ve simply treated me as if I’d always lived there.”
“But you are now beginning to find it all a bit oppressive.”
“Isn’t that shameful?”
They started to wander down the lawn.
“Understandable, I’d say. I can only take Rhona in small doses.”
“I’m so glad you were in the chapel. Thanks. I don’t know what they thought, poor things.”
“They were concerned for you.”
“It’s been quite a week or two. My mother was burgled and beaten up, I’d only just started to feel my way into Lafferton—it’s a big job for me—then Max.”
“I don’t wonder you fainted. I noticed you’d started straight in at Imogen House.”
“Yes. And I’ve had a lot of meetings at Bevham General, learning the ropes there.”
“We needed to meet—just not this way.”
They went through the trellis which divided the garden and turned right down a path between the fruit trees. The corner of Jane’s bungalow was in sight. Cat felt her tense slightly, then stop.
Jane took a deep breath, then said, “Will you come in with me? Once I’ve been in it’ll be all right.” For a split second, she hesitated again, but then went straight forward, round the corner of the bushes and up to her front door.
“Oh. They’ve changed the lock of course, they told me. I think someone up at the house has the new keys.”
“Never mind. Go to the window.”
Jane glanced at her, then moved up to the glass, cupped her hands round her eyes and peered in.
“Yes. It looks like someone else’s house. I don’t recognise that I’ve lived there at all. How odd. I feel I shouldn’t be looking in.”
“But do you feel anxious?”
“No.” Jane turned. “Detached from it really.”
“Fine. You’re doing well. Next time, get the keys and go in. You’ll have to sooner or later so make it sooner. I think you’ll feel at home again.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure how much I’ve felt at home here anyway, even without Max. Not sure if I feel at home in Lafferton.”
Cat was silent. Jane might want to confide in her but now was not the time and after a few seconds they walked back into the garden, enjoying the first faint brush of evening cool.
The terrace was empty and there was no sound from the house.
“Can I ask you something?” Jane gestured to Cat to sit on the bench against the wall. The sun was touching the tips of the fruit trees ahead of them but the bench was in shadow. “I feel I have to go and see Max. What do you think?”
“Why do you feel that?”
“He’s in trouble. His wife’s death affected him very badly. He wasn’t trying to hurt me—as me—he was exploding with grief and anger and I got in the way. I think he needs help. Well, it’s obvious he does.”
“You may well be right but are you the person to offer it?”
“Because I’m a priest?”
“No, because of what he did—there’s no getting away from that, is there? You haven’t pressed charges against him but it was a pretty desperate way to behave and you’ve been in shock because of it, to put it mildly. Perhaps stand back a bit? Max is my patient—let me do it.”
“But that’s medical help … maybe he does need that but I wanted to tell him it was all right.”
“And that you forgive him?”
“Exactly. I suppose you think that sounds too pious.”
“Not at all. Perhaps you could write to him if you think you need to say it?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that, it would be so cold.”
And you, Cat thought, looking at her, are quite the opposite—and perhaps too much so for your own good. She studied Jane Fitzroy’s face now in profile, surrounded by the rich, springing Titian hair. She was not only beautiful but had a face with character—an unusual, thoughtful, intelligent face. Her skin was enviable, gardenia cream, her eyes green-flecked hazel, wide and direct. She would not fade into any background but there was a stillness and a depth to her, beneath the surface anxiety and tension.
“I have to get home,” Cat said, standing up. “Look, do what you think is right but do it carefully. God, how patronising, of course you will. And make that appointment to come into surgery. This is your doctor speaking.”
Two hours later, after supper, Jane went to find Rhona Dow. She was cutting out a dress on the long table in what had once been the playroom at the top of the house; the Dows had three sons, all now away from home, one still at university, the other two both priests and both working abroad. Jane suspected that Rhona had been anxious to invite her to stay as much for her company and to muffle the emptiness of the big house as anything else. She was grateful. But she also knew that she had to move out.
“My dear, do sit down, shove all that stuff off the chair. I let this room get like a tip when I’m dressmaking, it seems to help.”
“I love the fabric … what is it?”
“Here.” Rhona pushed the cover of the dress pattern across. “I need something smartish—there are garden parties and fêtes and weddings and teas with bishops from now until September and everything in the wardrobe has been about in public for too many years.”
“I can’t thread a needle.”
“Well, you do other things. Have a square of chocolate.”
A large bar of Galaxy was open on the table beside the sewing machine. Rhona Dow was a heavy woman and after twenty-four hours with her Jane had understood why.
“I’ve come to tell you that I’m going back into the garden house tonight. You have been wonderful and it’s made all the difference being here but I have to get back, Rhona. I know you’ll understand.”
There flickered across Rhona’s face an expression that Jane found all too easy to read. When she left, the house would be empty. Rhona busied herself as she could but Joseph was out a lot and it was clear that she was lonely.
“I won’t start trying to persuade you to change your mind, my dear. Only if you aren’t happy down there after that business, promise you’ll come back. Even in the middle of the night. We shan’t mind a bit.”
“I promise. Thank you.”
“Well, at the very least let me pack you up some things … you’ll need bread and milk and—”
“No, I’ll drive over to the supermarket. Honestly. I must get back to normal, Rhona.”
Rhona Dow sighed and broke off another square of chocolate.
The all-night supermarket on the Bevham Road was not a place Jane would ever have thought of as a haven but when she pulled into the car park, and saw the multicoloured blaze of lights and bright hoardings, she felt a lifting of her spirits. Inside it was warm and cheerful. She pushed a trolley round, exchanging words with other shoppers, picking out foods she would not normally buy as well as the dull essentials, eking out her time there. As long as she was surrounded by the cheerful hum everything else receded into the background and did not trouble her.
After the checkout she went to the café. She was hungry, she realised, queuing for her coffee, and added a plate of bacon, eggs and toast to her tray. She also bought a newspaper.
Supermarkets were good refuges, good for the lonely, those with empty lives, those needing a break and some company of the sort which committed you to nothing more than a few words and the price of a cup of tea. People who said they were soulless and that small shops were always best had not felt as she had, and been restored, even temporarily, by the wide aisles and bright clatter and activity. You couldn’t linger in a small shop, taking advantage of warmth and company, for as long as you liked, and she had known plenty in London with brusque and unwelcoming staff.
God, she thought, the God I know, the God I believe in, the God of love and comfort, the God who sustains, is here as palpably tonight as in the Cathedral of St Michael.
The bacon and eggs were hot and surprisingly delicious, the local newspaper a carousel of gossip and titbits of information and the sort of photographs of amateur dramatic society productions, school sports and wedding pictures that delighted her.
As she was leaving the café a couple came up to talk, recognising her from the cathedral and wanting to ask about having all four of their children baptised together.
The streets were quiet as she drove back. The moon was a paring from a silver sixpence, over the Hill.
She slid her car up to the space on the cobbles beside the Precentor’s house, which was in darkness. Joseph’s car was back. She wondered how Rhona had got on with her dressmaking and how she managed to keep chocolate stains from the fabric. Now she had only to lug three carrier bags down through the garden to the bungalow, let herself in and put on all the lights to send any dark shadows and memories shrinking back into the walls.
The torch she kept on her keyring and which normally sent a thin, piercing beam some distance ahead was not working when she clicked the end, but she knew her way down the path by now. The bushes whispered as she caught against them, and out beyond the fruit trees she heard some creature scuttle away. In one of the gardens further along, a cat yowled, startling her. She edged her way up to the porch, touching a hand against the wall to help her get her bearings. Above her, the constellations of stars prickled against the sky. Key. It slid sweetly into the new lock. She pushed open the door. The house smelled of fear, her fear, the last time she had been inside it, trapped, held, caught claustrophobically inside with Max Jameson. She felt his arm round her throat and the chill edge of the knife blade and began to shiver. Her hand shook as she felt along the wall for the light switch and when the light came, for a second the place looked utterly strange, so that she was disorientated, half wondering if she had mistaken the house.
She went quickly round, turning on every light in kitchen, sitting room, study, bedroom, every lamp. She pulled her carrier bags of shopping inside, shut, locked and bolted the door, drew the kitchen blind and the curtains in each room. Only when she had done all of that did she take deep breaths to still herself. It was a while before her heart stopped thumping.
She made herself look about slowly. Everything was as it had been. Chairs, table, desk, pictures, television, books, all in their places, all familiar. There was the faintest smell of must. The garden house was damp in spite of the maintenance team’s best efforts.
She went to the window in the sitting room. Stopped dead, hearing something. Some scrape or scratch outside, a stone kicked, a brick dislodged?
Of course she could not sleep with the windows open.
It was after midnight. She unpacked her shopping and put it away, switched on the kettle, took out a mug and tin of chocolate powder, milk, a spoon. Set them on the table. The slightest noise, of tin on table, plug into socket, sounded uncanny, loud and hollow, and when it was over, the silence was total, a nervous, taut, unfriendly silence.
She took her hot drink resolutely into the study, and picked up her prayer book from the desk.
“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, Until the shades lengthen and the evening comes.”
She spent some time over prayer, the reading of the office and then of her Bible, so that it was well after one before she went to bed. But the silence had taken on a different quality, become a quietness, pleasing and soothing rather than an anxious silence. She read A.S. Byatt’s Possession for half an hour and then switched off the lamp. She felt a deep exhaustion that muffled her brain and made her limbs heavy. Sleep would come as a blessing.