traffic outside and the television, and at least the heating goes on in the bedrooms at six. But the irony was that even though I loathed the Ardenleigh it was better than where I would probably end up, because I wouldn’t be able to afford even the Ardenleigh’s terms for permanent residents after September.

Later, it was the three of us together, Michael, Steph and me, and then the baby, and its seeming suddenly so clear what was important. This is hard. I’ve just read that last bit back to myself and it doesn’t really tell you much, does it? Suppose I put it like this: it wasn’t just the thought of the Ardenleigh or worse, or this house, or the things in it, or just me, or just Michael, or Steph, or the baby. Not any one single thing, not one thing more than any of the others. It was all of us, and all of it: the way this place allowed each of us to stop struggling in our various ways, how it seemed to give us strength, how it seemed right to care for it so much, and for one another. All of it added up to more than just us.

We came to it late, you see, we came late to the idea of belonging in a place and belonging to other people. I mean we’d all had goes at it in the past, it’s hard to avoid, but it was us being here, the family we made, that was the point. If you think that sounds like an attempt to justify what’s happened, you’d be quite right.

Six tapestry kneelers at maybe eight pounds each would hardly make it worth the trip. Michael’s whole trip had been planned round the pair of 16th century alabaster effigies in the display case and now, just because the vicar wasn’t here and thanks to this stupid woman, he wasn’t going to get his hands anywhere near them. The consolation prize of six tapestry kneelers made it worse, somehow. Michael was thinking this in his head while smiling and listening to the woman- she must be some church volunteer- who had interrupted him between the sixth and seventh kneeler and was now following him round the church.

He had called at the vicarage to ask if he could handle the alabaster figures, to be told by a preoccupied woman at a computer screen that the vicar was away and she knew nothing about the procedures for unlocking the case holding the figures, but he was of course welcome to look round the church. He had been glad to find it empty, and not too disheartened. He had half-expected to find the figures inaccessible, but he might still find out useful things such as the strength of the lock on the case, perhaps even where the key was kept (pathetically often with church people, simply in a drawer in the vestry). It would not be the first time he would have to make a return trip, and in the meantime a decent number of kneelers would make this one worthwhile. So when this other woman had appeared eight minutes later he had been sitting in one of the pews with his backpack beside him, half prepared for the interruption.

Long ago he had learned that the quiet of country churches was deceptive and that people came and went all day, self-importantly engaged in parish drudgery of one sort or another. So he always made sure that he was ready to assume, at the split second’s notice usually given by the clack of an iron latch, an attitude of prayerful contemplation. Until such time as he might be interrupted- today, a mere eight minutes- he would be quietly busy. This time he had been stuffing the boring but quite saleable hand-stitched kneelers into his backpack. It could have held twenty. Twenty might have fetched well over a hundred quid; still only a fifth of what the alabaster figures would make, so it would have gone down as a poor day. But still respectable, at least worth his while.

But he would have to revise those calculations, because he had only managed to get six of them. And the woman was now into her twentieth minute of telling him that the vicar wasn’t here because his wife had died three weeks before Christmas and the poor man had had to go on a retreat.

‘Just yesterday, how unlucky! Poor man. I said to him, you just never know how it’s going to take you, we’re all different. We are, aren’t we? But he said he would see things through to Epiphany, that was yesterday of course, and then he would take a break. He’s finding it much more difficult than he expected, if you ask me.’

Michael smiled and said he quite understood. ‘But if perhaps you could open the case? As I explained, I’ve been looking at artefacts from this period for several years and it’s only by-’

‘I said to the parish clerk on Sunday, I said if you ask me that man is heading for a breakdown, he said oh I know, but at least he’s off for a week, off to Columba’s Lodge on the seventh and I said well I’m glad to hear it-’

‘You see, handling the figures is the only way-’

‘What? Oh, no, I am sorry, I wouldn’t be comfortable. I am churchwarden as I said, but I’m not sure I’ve got the authority. I’ve never been asked, you see, and the vicar keeps the key at the vicarage, so-. I mean if the other churchwarden was here as well, but no, he’s away, I know for a fact it’s this week. He’s in the Canaries, they always go in January. Lucky for some!’

Michael pulled his mouth into another understanding smile but doubted if he could say ‘it doesn’t matter’ without hissing, so said nothing. He wandered off down the nave, raising his eyes to the roof as if it held some interest, blinking several times to disguise the faint flickering of muscle that tugged at one side of his face whenever he got upset. Then like a familiar ache came the realisation that she was not going to finish talking and push off to leave him alone again in the church. He would have to leave first.

‘You see, it’s Jeff, you said, isn’t it, you see, Jeff, I think the vicar would say it’s not the value so much as the fragility. Do you know, nobody’s even meant to touch them without gloves? I couldn’t take it upon myself, you see. But the vicar might let you handle them, if you came back when he’s here.’

Michael pressed his eyebrows into an angle of scholarly disappointment. ‘Yes, yes, that would be marvellous, except I’m due back in Norfolk by the weekend, you see. And one does so need to examine them. The main idea for my little book revolves round certain dating uncertainties, as I said, and only close examination gets one any further forward…’

‘Oh, but we’re quite confident they’re genuine sixteenth century, because-’ Michael was too taken up with noticing how hamstery she looked to hear the details. Her hair might have been red once, and was still abundant. Twisted wires of it were held under a knitted hat and a gingery down surrounded her small mouth, which worked too quickly. Michael took a deep breath for one last effort and interrupted her to explain that his hypothesis, based on his understanding (imperfect, of course, just a little interest of his, though a publisher may be getting keen) of the religious iconography of Northern Europe, the details of which he would spare her, was that the figures might be much older.

‘They might, in fact, even be twelfth century. Though one must get them in one’s hands, you see, as the weight and density of the material is key. And a little scrape test on the base would confirm, and so on. But if I’m right, they’d be so rare you could say they were priceless. Immensely valuable.’

This had worked before. It was extraordinary how the unwillingness of some people to put their important and valuable objects into his hands could suddenly evaporate at the suggestion that a closer examination might reveal even more importance and value. But infuriatingly, inexplicably, it was not working now with Hamster Woman. Was she simple?

‘Oh my goodness! That would be something for the PCC, wouldn’t it! But oh, you should have telephoned the vicarage first, it’s too bad you’ve missed the vicar! Though to be honest I’m not sure if he’d have been up to it, he’s exhausted. It’s only four and half weeks since she finally went and such terrible timing, just in the run-up to Christmas and you can imagine Christmas nearly finished him but no, he wouldn’t bow out of a single service, he’s like that, throws himself into everything, too hard if you ask me. And oh, he did need the break, we could all see that. She was only fifty-nine and towards the end, you see, with the nursing, well. The bishop’s quite good about things like that. The new bishop I mean, the last one wasn’t quite so aware, not at the grass roots. Though as a parish, we all try to be terribly-’

‘No, well! Sadly, I didn’t know. Ah well, very sad. Another time. Well, I won’t…’

Michael was not finding the right words in the way he had once been able to, and his face was definitely ticking now. Why was it calling for greater effort each time? This part of it, the part of the whole business that should be fun, that might even in a strange way have been the point of it once, was now becoming more and more difficult. His attention tended to wander, and that was dangerous. Or perhaps, Michael considered, pulling a hand across his face, he was allowing his attention to wander because it was dangerous, because the fire he was playing with had been cooling over the course of the last few trips and a little more danger might generate a little more heat from it. Or was he just tired, tired beyond words, like the vicar, exhausted?

Michael bestowed his curatey smile on the woman once more and concentrated hard. He was not Michael, he was Jeffrey ‘everyone calls me Jeff’ Stevenson. He adjusted his voice to reveal his gratitude, his smile to show his regret, his eyes to leave her in no doubt about his sincerity. He ran it over again in his mind. He, Jeff, was a Church of England curate taking a few days’ holiday, researching his special interest in devotional objects. He was

Вы читаете Half Broken Things
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату