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For Anne Ostrowska


On Wednesday the bishop came in person. He was a modern prelate, brisk and plump in his rimless glasses, and he liked nothing better than to tear around the diocese in his big black car.

He had taken the precaution—advisable in the circumstances—of announcing himself two hours before his arrival. The telephone bell, ringing in the hall of the parish priest’s house, had in itself a muted ecclesiastical tone. Miss Dempsey heard it as she was coming from the kitchen. She stood looking at the telephone for a moment, and then approached it gingerly, walking on the balls of her feet. She lifted the receiver as if it were hot. Her head on one side, holding the earpiece well away from her cheek, she listened to the message given by the bishop’s secretary. “Yes My Lord,” she murmured, though in retrospect she knew that the secretary did not merit this. “The bishop and his sycophants,” Father Angwin always said; Miss Dempsey supposed they were a kind of deacon. Holding the receiver in her fingertips, she replaced it with great care. She stood in the dim passageway, for a moment, thinking, and bowed her head momentarily, as if she had heard the Holy Name of Jesus. Then she went to the foot of the stairs and bellowed up them: “Father Angwin, Father Angwin, get yourself up and dressed, the bishop will be upon us before eleven o’clock.”

Miss Dempsey went back into the kitchen, and switched on the electric light. It was not a morning when the light made a great deal of difference; the summer, a thick grey blanket, had pinned itself to the windows. Miss Dempsey heard the incessant drip, drip, drip from the branches and leaves outside, and a more urgent metallic drip, pit-pat, pit-pat; it was the guttering. Her figure moved, the electric light behind it, over the dull green wall; immense hands floated towards the kettle; as in a thick sea, her limbs swam for the range. Upstairs, the priest beat his shoe along the floor and pretended to be coming.

Ten minutes later he had got himself up; she heard the creak of the floorboards above, the gurgle of water from the washbasin, his feet on the stairs. He sighed as he came down the hallway, his solitary morning sigh. Suddenly he was behind her, hovering: “Agnes, have you something for my stomach?”

“I daresay,” she said. He knew where the salts were kept; but she must get it for him, as if she were his mother. “Were there many at seven o’clock Mass?”

“It’s funny you should ask,” Father said, just as if she did not ask it every morning. “There were a few old Children of Mary, along with the usual derelicts. It wouldn’t be some special feast of theirs, would it? Walpurgisnacht?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Father. I’m a Children of Mary myself, as you perfectly well know, and I’ve not heard of anything.” She looked aggrieved. “Were they wearing their cloaks and all?”

“No, they were in mufti, just their usual horseblankets.”

Miss Dempsey brought the teapot to the table. “You ought not to make mock of the Sodalities, Father.”

“I wonder if something has got out about the bishop coming? Some intelligence of a subterranean variety? Am I to have bacon, Agnes?”

“Not with your stomach in its present state.”

Miss Dempsey poured from the pot, a thick brown gurgling stream, adding to the noise: the dripping trees, the wind in the chimneys.

“And another thing,” he said. “McEvoy was there.” Father Angwin hunched himself over the table. He warmed his hands around his cup. When he said the name of McEvoy, a shadow crossed his face, and hovered about his jaw, so that Miss Dempsey, who was given to imagination, thought for a moment she had seen what he would look like when he was eighty years old.

“Oh yes,” she said, “and did he want something?”


“I wonder why you mention him then?”

“Dear Agnes, give me some peace. Go and let me compose myself for His Corpulence. What does he want, do you think? What’s he after this time?”

Agnes went out, a duster in her hand, her face full of complaints. Whatever he had meant about subterranean intelligence, surely he was not accusing her? Nobody but the bishop himself, forming the intention in his deep heart, had known he meant to visit—except perhaps the sycophants might have known. Therefore she, Miss Dempsey, could not know, therefore she could not hint, divulge, reveal, to the Children of Mary or anyone else in the parish. Had she known, she might have mentioned it. Might—if she had thought that anyone needed to know. She herself was the judge of what anyone needed to know. For Miss Dempsey occupied a special mediatory position, between church, convent, and everyone else. To acquire information was her positive duty, and then what she did with it

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