by Robert Ward
Earl Grey tea and crumpets- a final portion
Autumn came, and with it the falling of the leaves, the twittering of the swallows gathering on the telephone wires, the return of the novice priests to Burrington. Winchcombe had resumed his pastoral duties at the college, and with them, a new adventure.
‘They’ve asked me to teach a little,’ he told Millicent, excitedly. ‘Who’d have thought it? They’re a man down, of course, since losing the late Vice-Principal, and they’d no-one to teach the latter part of the doctrine paper: The Communion of Saints, and the life of the world to come.’
‘Really, Reverend?’ Millicent gave him a look that spoke volumes. ‘What on earth can you tell them about that?’
Winchcombe looked sheepish. ‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ’I get it from a book.’
‘A book? Just one book?’
‘My way of saying sorry, I suppose. Making amends. It’s the book our late V.P. was still writing when he died. He’d done all the research. Written all the notes. Jocelyn found them in the library. I have them here, in my study.’
'But Reverend...didn't Jocelyn say that the book was never finished? That the old man appeared to him precisely because he wanted to make sure that one day, it would be?'
'Well..yes. Yes, he did.' The canon reached under the chair he was sitting on, and pulled out an enormous bundle of dog-eared papers, tied together with string. These are the notes,' he said sheepishly. 'They're rather muddled. Looks like someone might have dropped them. But they're enough, they'll serve. It's all about pointers, you see. Nothing too distinct. Clues, intonations, partial understandings.' Winchcombe smiled, then chuckled, highly amused. 'Let's face it, Miss Lake, gIven the subject matter, that's as much as anyone could ask for.'
‘Miss Lake!’ The Principal extended his arms in welcome and beamed at her. ‘How nice to see you back again. Alfred, you really should have warned us in advance.’
‘You mean, so you could put up the barricades?’ she smiled, teasingly.
‘Not in the least, Miss Lake, not in the least.’ He took her by the hand and looked into her eyes. ‘You know you’re always welcome here. You do know that, don’t you?’ He held her gaze for what seemed an unconscionably long time, and Millicent was the first to lower her eyes. Any embarrassment she might have felt was dispelled by the arrival of a troop of students, among them the Senior Student and the young man Jocelyn. They exchanged greetings, the last two in particular paying court to their female guest as though she were Guinevere at the court of King Arthur. As they moved on down the corridor, Father Principal caught the look in Millicent’s eye.
‘I’m pleased to say that young de Courcy’s back amongst us this term,’ he explained. ‘A term away and the summer to recover have made all the difference. Allowed him to get things in proportion, as it were, and put all that publicity behind him.’
‘Allowed the college, more like,’ was Winchcombe’s comment later on, but at the time he held his peace.
Millicent lowered her voice in in order not to be overheard. ‘There’s something quite delicate I need to ask you, Father,’ she said, seizing the moment.
The Principal looked surprised. Millicent pressed on.
‘When we spoke to Jocelyn’s mother in the summer, she told us that after Fr. W’s funeral there was no burial. She seemed to imply the body just... disappeared.'
‘My dear Miss Lake, that’s utterly preposterous.’
'Then - what did happen to him?’
Millicent and the Canon were ushered hastily into a private sitting room just along the corridor, where the Principal invited them each to take an armchair, whilst he stood with his back to a low burning fire.
‘Of course there was a burial. It was a private affair. The family insisted.’ He cleared his throat, shifting uneasily. ‘We kept it quiet at the time. We didn’t want any more press intrusion, so we didn’t tell the students, at the family’s request. They were content to let us handle the Service of Thanksgiving, but the interment was a different matter. They’re Catholics, you know. I’m afraid they considered our late Vice Principal the black sheep of the family.’
The following day they made an expedition to the nearby Parish Church of St. Aloysius, serving the Catholic community of Burrington, just as the Priory served the Anglican: and in particular, to the place where Fr. Wiesoslavski had been laid to rest. The glorious October sun came slanting through the slender trees, picking up the colours of chrysanthemums and the other floral tributes left on the more established graves.
'All Saints, All Souls,' said Winchcombe. 'The Catholics remember their dead. All the faithful departed, all the host of heaven…they pray for is, as we pray for them. On a day like this, you can feel it.'
'And Hallowe'en, Reverend. Much more my kind of thing. Hobgoblins, ghouls and evil spirits.'
‘Communion with the dead. A dodgy business, Miss Lake. Open season I’m afraid for all kinds of charlatans to get in on the act.’
Millicent stifled an exclamation, remembering her earlier life and the Canon's current occupation. They walked on for a bit in silence through the churchyard, the damp grass and fallen leaves striking chill through their shoes. At length they came to the area laid out most recently, where the grass had been strimmed to enable easy access to the newer graves. The plot they were seeking was easily found, standing proud above the grass around it and marked by a simple wooden cross, as was the habit of the community.
‘No one to make a fuss of him, I suppose, Reverend,’ offered Millicent.
‘No money, more like,’ said the other, his tone and the expression on his face softening slightly as they stood at the foot of the grave.
‘No doubt where he is now, then,’ said Millicent: adding almost immediately, ‘Well, after a manner of speaking.’ Her eyes rested on a small brass plaque fastened to the centre of the cross. ‘Though they die, yet shall they live,’ she read. Then underneath, ‘Resquiescat in Pace. May he rest in peace.'’
‘He’ll live on, of course,’ said Winchcombe. ‘In the lives of those he taught. In the life and ministry of that young priest, Jocelyn-’
‘And in your lectures, Reverend.’
Winchcombe made a noise. They stood in silence for a time. Millicent realised that she was physically as close to the late Vice Principal now as she, or anyone else, would ever be.
It was Winchcombe who broke the spell, reminding her of their foray into the west of England earlier in the year. ‘You remember, Miss Lake, when we were guests of the de Courcys, taking tea at the family home… it seemed for a moment as though you’d had a moment of enlightenment. You said, I think, that you were “beginning to understand.” The timing was hardly propitious. You clearly didn't want to elaborate, and afterwards I’m afraid I failed to follow it through. Do you remember what it was that struck you then?’
‘Oh yes. Oh yes, I do.’ The moment seemed right for them to turn away from the grave, and they began to walk slowly back towards the gates. ‘It was the brother, Reverend. Mrs. De Courcy’s elder son. Seeing the whole thing through his eyes, and how different his world was from the world that Jocelyn was just coming to know. You see, Reverend, the problem I think is that he just thinks it’s all true.’
Winchcombe stopped in his tracks, causing Millicent to do the same, and fixed her with a baleful look. ‘I think it’s more serious than that, Miss Lake,’ he said, weighing his words carefully. ‘It’s not just that he thinks it’s all true. It’s that he knows it is.’