Sunday 9 May 2021

Burrington Spring 3


by Robert Ward

Earl Grey tea and crumpets- a third pot!


The following day the college went into lockdown as the Holy Week  and Easter mysteries began. The core community remained. Guests and outsiders of a more frivolous nature were expelled. And shortly afterwards, a train carrying Miss Lake and the Reverend Alfred Winchcombe ploughed its way down through the heaving green landscape ever deeper into the West of England. At the appointed place they were met from the station by the callow young ordinand whose disappearance from the college had been so peremptory. He seemed none the worse for the breakdown he was supposed to have suffered, and Winchcombe commented that his convalescence was evidently doing the trick, as he bounded up to take their bags and led them from the station with the energy of a young kangaroo.

   'Next stop the Mater's,' the young man declared, as he threw the baggage into the back of his mother's Lamborgini and took command of the steering wheel.

Minutes later the family motor swept into position at the front of the ancestral home, and the long-legged theology student leapt from the driving seat to open a rear door for Millicent. The Reverend Canon Alfred Winchcombe climbed out of the other side, muttering the while something about 'age before beauty.'

Jocelyn's family pile had come down through the generations since 1546. Modest in terms of the English country house, it had been re-fronted in 1817 and now presented a stately and somewhat classical frontage to the world. Jocelyn welcomed his visitors with a very wide smile, and with a sweeping gesture invited them to follow, as he opened the glossy front door and led the way into an entrance hall.  Millicent noticed a figure working in the gardens at the front who straightened from his labours as they passed, and who watched them disappear into the house.

   'Mother, let me introduce you to Miss Lake and to the Reverend Winchcombe,' said Jocelyn to the figure within; and to the visitors, 'This is my mother.'

  'Call me Alfred, do,' said Winchcombe, somewhat pointlessly, as Jocelyn's mother beamed at Millicent and took her warmly by the hand, ignoring the clergyman entirely. 'I'm so pleased to meet you, Miss Lake. Joss has told me so much about you…and the Canon too, of course.' Winchcombe looked discomfited. 'I do hope you had a comfortable journey?'

   Mrs. de Courcy led the way through double doors into the drawing room beyond, and motioned to them to sit on the plush red sofa or in one of several armchairs draped with fabrics. Millicent seated herself elegantly at one end of the sofa. Winchcombe almost disappeared into an all-engulfing armchair, and 'Would you care for some tea?' asked Jocelyn's mother. 'Assam or Earl Grey?'

   'This is a beautiful house,' said Millicent, as soon as the preliminaries were settled.  'Have you been here long?'

   'My husband's family have lived here for four hundred years, Miss Lake. My late husband, that is...' She broke off for a moment, and then continued. 'We were married in the church next door, twenty-seven years ago. My husband's parents settled the house on us as a wedding present and moved into something smaller on the estate.' Mrs. de Courcy looked up suddenly at her son, as though she had forgotten his presence. 'Jocelyn,' she  said, 'would you be so good as to ask Henry if he would like tea, and let Annabel know how many we are?' The boy went outside. 'Annabel was my husband's secretary,' his mother explained. 'We kept her on, you know, to help with running things.'  Moving closer to Millicent as her son's footsteps receded, the older woman lowered her voice to a more confidential tone, and added, It's kind of you to come down and see us. No one else from the college has come anywhere near. It's been such a worrying time, and Jocelyn tells us nothing, you know.'

   'Well, that's why we've come,' said Winchcombe, in his best down-to-earth manner. 'To see how Jocelyn's been coping since coming home.'


  'Well, then, to see how he is.'

  'He's been upset, padre. First by the death of that old clergyman, his tutor. It was Jocelyn who found him, you know.  Did they tell you that? And then, by the way he's been treated since. Hurried out of the way, as though they just wanted to avoid a scandal.'

   'Jocelyn found the old man, you say?'  

  'Went to his rooms when he was late for Sunday mass, but couldn't rouse him. Jocelyn went and found him sitting in the armchair next to his morning tea, stone cold.'

Millicent wanted to ask whether she was referring to the tea or the clergyman, but thought better of it. Instead she asked, 'Do you think Jocelyn's haunted, still, by that?'

   'What would you think, Miss Lake? He's a highly sensitive boy, and a young man his age is unlikely these days to be familiar with death and the deceased. I imagine it's an experience that will stay with him always.'

   'You say he felt bundled away?' said Winchcombe, eager to move the conversation on. But at that very moment the door opened and the workman they had seen earlier in the garden came in, looking somewhat dishevelled. 

   'Sorry, Mater,' he mumbled. 'I'm not interrupting, I hope?'

   'Of course not,' said the mother. 'Miss Lake, Canon Winchcombe, this is Jocelyn's elder brother, Henry. Henry, this gentleman is on the staff at Jocelyn's college.'

   Henry, it turned out, had recently graduated from Oxford in Estate Management. Jocelyn's elder brother by five years, he stood to inherit the family home and its moderately large estate. Just as well, really, as Winchcombe observed later to Millicent. Neither of them could imagine Jocelyn working on the land. His physique was hardly built for it: whilst Henry looked every bit the part.

   'Strange, though,' said Millicent, 'how seeing the very same genetic mix in another person means you see the first one somehow differently. Puts them in a different context, you might say. Like a picture in a different frame. And the older boy takes after the father rather than the mother, don't you think?'

   Winchcombe declared that he really couldn't say. But Millicent, over-awed by the broad shoulders and towering presence of the elder brother, had readily extended their conversation with the mother to include the elder son, who at his mother's bidding drew up a sturdy chair, to join them over tea.

   'Fanciful, my brother,' was his considered opinion. 'Always was, and even more so, now he's fallen in with the crowd he has.' He stopped, visibly taking a mental step backwards, and added, 'Saving your presence, that is.' 

   'Not at all, not at all,' said Winchcombe. 'Very funny places, seminaries. Especially those of a more High Church persuasion, you might say.'

   'Do him good to have a taste of the real world. All that religion, in a place that's shut away like that. No families, no children. All that stuff pumped into him from morning till night. Can't wonder at the things he comes out with. Then to leave him out in the cold like they have these last few weeks... seems all wrong to me. You'll forgive me, speaking my mind. But we're seeing now where it's led him.'

   'One person's real world is not necessarily the same as another's,' put in Winchcombe. 'Is life any more real on a factory production line than it is on a country estate? Or is a law school more ‘real’ than a theological college?'

   Millicent looked from one to another intently. 'Yes,' she said, eventually. 'I really do think I'm beginning to see...'   

   She was evidently in no mood to elucidate, much as the Canon might have wished her to; and later, when they were alone, she took their conversation in an altogether different direction.

   ‘Losing his father so suddenly must have had quite an effect on young Jocelyn, don’t you think, Father?’

   ‘Yes indeed.’ The clergyman gathered his brows together in concentration, and then added after a moment, ‘Not necessarily, though, in the way you might have thought.’

   ‘Why, what do you imagine I did think?’

There was a moment’s pause. ‘It’s commonly thought, Miss Lake, that a bereavement renders one unstable. One’s judgements temporarily unreliable. I thought so myself when I was younger. Suppose for a moment that the truth is quite the opposite. That the times in life we seem to lose our balance, our self-assurance, are perhaps the times we’re best attuned to the truth. The times we see what’s really there.’

About the author  

Robert Ward has been writing short stories for many years but has only recently found an outlet for some of these through Cafelit. His interests include history (particularly that of the medieval religious orders), theology, and travel within Europe and more widely.




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