Rowan’s way: 12 Revealed

We caught a taxi from Liverpool Street station to the address near Soho which Ryan had texted me. Irina squeezed my hand: “tell me that it is going to be okay.” I smiled at her and told her that it would be, squeezing her hand back. It wasn’t, I reflected to myself, as though Ryan was going to do anything bad while I was there, and we had discussed the various eventualities.

We stopped off on the way at the address Lynne had given me to pick up the piece of “kit” we needed. The pill that Irina swallowed would give those monitoring us twenty four hours during which they would always know her whereabouts, and the ring I gave her would do the same thereafter for another forty-eight. I did not want to think about what would happen if we needed longer. That would mean something had gone wrong, and we would be having to improvise.

We got to Greek Street in time, and I rang the bell and gave our names.

“Come right up,” said a female voice. The door opened onto a flight of stairs and we went straight up and found ourselves in a receptionist’s office. A pleasant-looking young woman smiled at us and asked if we’d like a drink. She buzzed and told her boss we were here. Ryan opened the door and smiled broadly.

“Great to see you, Rowan,” and then with rather less warmth, “and you Irina, glad that you were able, finally, to make it. Do come in. Fiona, bring me a coffee too.”

His office was spacious. I loved these Victorian terraces, they adapted themselves well to modern use. Once Fiona had brought our coffees, it was, Ryan said, “down to business.”

“I take it, Rowan, you are aware of the services Irina offers our clients?” Looking pointedly at me he was clearly expecting some protest, so he overrode it by adding swiftly. “It’s regrettable, but she knows the culture with which we are dealing, the Russians expect sweeteners, and what she provides helps us materially. You could look on it as oiling the wheels.”

I knew full well that if he knew how I regarded the farrago of nonsense he’d just emitted, we should get nowhere, so I played the ingénue:

“I can’t say I approve, darling”, I stuttered, “but I know nothing about these things. And yes, I was a bit upset at the start, but accept your explanation, and of course, if Irina is now happy, that will have to do.”

He looked so smug that I wanted to hurl something at him – preferably something heavy and blunt, but he turned to Irina:

“And I take it you are?”

She crossed her legs, showing a generous expanse of thigh.

“Of course, sir, I am sorry I panicked. I hope you can forgive me.”

As she said the last words in a suitably apologetic voice, she crossed her legs again. I could follow his eyes. He had got, he thought, what he wanted, and leaned back in his chair, content that the women in the room were both complying with his wishes.

“Irina, I am glad you are here. I was not looking forward to having to postpone tonight’s meeting with our clients. Here’s the address, oh, and get yourself something nice to wear – you know their preferences. Fiona will give you the cash. You can spend the night at the hotel and someone will meet you in the morning. All clear?”

I was struck by the change in his tone. Now he was getting what he wanted, he’d both relaxed and gone into dominant male mode. Seeing she was dismissed, Irina thanked him, and me, and left. As she shut the door, I suddenly, for the first time, felt a frisson of fear. We had expected something like this, and Irina had said there would be other women involved, so it should be possible for a police raid to begin the process of rounding up the men – and tracing the women. She was content to take the risk, but now it was down to me.

He smiled broadly:

“Darling, thank you so much for being a good sport, I don’t expect you to approve, but I am grateful to you for taking the time to calm her down. I am afraid these foreign fillies don’t have the pedigree and take fright easily.”

I had to conceal both the anger his words aroused, and the fact I was concealing the anger, so I resorted to the Irina tactic. I had worn a short skirt and duly crossed my legs nervously, hoping, successfully as it turned out, that he’d be distracted.

“It’s okay,” I reassured him, “I know I don’t understand, and you know I don’t approve, but what do I know?”

He laughed.

“You take it in excellent part, and I think you are owed a swanky dinner somewhere nice. Look, it’s four o’clock now, why don’t we meet at Maxim’s at six for drinks, that’s where Irina will be with the clients, and I need to make sure they are happy. You and I can go on to a little club I know and then, well let’s see. If you really need to get back, I’ll pay for a cab. How’s that grab you.?’

I confirmed it “grabbed” me just fine.

“I am so hoping,” he added, “that finally, I shall be able to uncover the secret of those legs of yours. Fiona has some hospitality funding, and I think this calls for a new dress – see you soon darling.”

He leaned forward and kissed me. Somehow I contrived not to shudder. The die was cast.

Rowan’s Way: 11 Undercover

Lynne’s arrival put an end to our embrace. Our conversation did little to settle anything. Because Irina was not an “illegal” she had a right to stay in the country as long as she was working here, which raised the question of her job. Her account was, of course, “anecdotal evidence” and without corroboration could only add to a picture of what Ryan might be up to, but there was nothing there for the Trust or for the police to take forward. It left us in the air. Lynne said they would be happy to find a “safe house” for Irina, but that would raise the issue of her status. It would not help in terms of finding out what Ryan was up to. Just as we were rather stymied, I made a suggestion.

“Lynne, what if Irina and I were to arrange with Ryan that she could continue to work with him? Irina, how would that sit with you?”

She smiled at me.

“Anything has to be better than going into some half-way house. We can’t allow him to get away with this. What do you suggest?”

My mind working at full pace, I outlined a plan which I put to them both. It would depend on the Archdiocese finding a temporary replacement for me for a day or so, but that was where Lynne proved helpful, they could recommend someone. I phoned the Archdeacon’s and with the sort of swiftness which never normally happens in the Church, we were set.

Lynne promised that their “people” would help and gave us the number of a contact in London. As she left, Irina looked at me:

“Are we mad?”

I nodded: “probably, but we can’t let this go on. Are you happy for me to phone him now?”

It was her turn to nod.

I phoned. He answered. This would be the test.

“Sorry, darling, I was so exhausted last night I couldn’t get back. But there was also a problem.” I had it on speakerphone so Irina could hear him ask what it was.

“There was a strange woman, Irina, who came to me last night with some cock and bull story. I’ve set her right and she apologised this morning and wants to come back to work. She said she was supposed to be with you in town today, so I thought, given it’s my day off, I’d come in with her. It would be an unexpected chance to see you.”

There were times when my tendency to rattle off conversation at the pace of a machine gun helped. He could hardly decline such an offer, but of course, he must have had many questions, but could hardly be sure where to start. Sensing his hesitation, I replied in my cheeriest voice:

“Don’t worry my darling, she told me what she’d done, and I told her that blaming it on you was silly, after all, you didn’t force her, and men, after all, will be men.”

We could both hear his sigh of relief. He’d bought it. After all, I was a naive virginal clergywoman, what did I know of such things?

“You’re a gem Rowan, and you see it correctly. If you want to bring her, I’ll text the address, and perhaps you and I can have some fun later?”

Hold out the promise of a bit of carnal pleasure to a man and he’ll swallow anything, it appeared, as he had taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

I telephoned the Churchwardens to tell them that an emergency demanded my absence for the rest of the week, but that the diocese would be in touch.

I went with Irina back to the Old Rectory so she could pack a bag, and from there we took a taxi to the station.

As we settled on the train she smiled at me and, holding my hand as we sat, she leant in and kissed me on the cheek.

“Thank you, Rowan – do you think we can do this?”

I nodded, kissing her back. Then, over cups of coffee, we planned our campaign. Much depended on whether Ryan believed me, but then as he had no reason to suppose I didn’t believe him, and as I was delivering the elusive Irina, why should not believe that his naive girlfriend was, as ever, being a good girl and helping out? The idea that I was working undercover would not, I imagined, occur to him, and the only undercover work he would have in mind would be of a more literal nature.

For a moment I felt overwhelmed. Quietly I prayed for help. Literally, God knew I needed it.

Rowan’s way: 10 Fracture

As soon as I got back to my study I phoned the hotline. It was manned all hours of the day and night, though I had feared that Sunday after ten might be a test too far – but they did not let me down.

“Clewer Trust, how can we help?”

I explained who I was and why I was calling. By sheer good fortune, the woman at the other end remembered meeting me a few years previously at the launch of the Trust, which helped. She was pleased with my advice to Irina and suggested that they should send someone round to talk with her in the morning, though, given the time and where we were, it was more likely to be in the afternoon. She confirmed with me that Irina was safe and that I was in no danger. I was relieved.

The Clewer Trust was an organisation through which the Church worked to combat the evils of modern slavery. For the most part, my limited contacts since I had been in Suffolk had been to do with gangmasters and rural labourers, though I knew colleagues elsewhere who had dealt with cases like Irina’s. All of that was easy enough, at one level. What was not easy at any level was what I was going to do about Ryan.

I suddenly felt physically sick. Feeling myself starting to shake, I ran to the bathroom and retched into the toilet until I could be sick no more. After flushing away the detritus, I brushed my teeth and used copious amounts of mouthwash; gosh, that took me back to my teenage years.

I settled myself and went to my home altar, lighting the beeswax candles. As I prayed the opening lines of Compline, it was with a sense of irony I spoke the words about “a quiet night and a perfect end.” It took a complete five decades of the Glorious Mysteries before I calmed down enough to seek my bed. I did not reply to my text.

I woke with the sunrise, which at the time of the year meant just before five in the morning. As I drew my curtains I saw a solitary red sports car drive past – it was Ryan’s car – he was on his way to London.

I said Morning Prayer then showered and dressed. Just after seven, I heard noises from the spare bedroom. Irina came down quietly, in case I was asleep. We smiled at each other.


“Please, whatever you are having will do, thank you so much.”

I prepared us both a bowl of cereal with plenty of fruit and a pot of herbal tea. As she tucked in I told her what I had done and who the Clewer were. She clearly trusted me as she calmly accepted it all. I was glad it was my day off, though I doubted I’d be taking much rest.

As Irina showered, I phoned the churchwardens to tell them that something had cropped up and that I wouldn’t be about for the rest of the day. I let them assume I had gone up to town. Then I phoned the archdeacon’s office to fill them in on the situation.

While Irina showered I ironed her skirt and blouse and found a fresh pair of tights for her.

“You are perfect hostess”, she smiled, stripping off the dressing-gown, and asking me to help with her bra clasp. I was a little taken aback, but happy to help.

“What do you think?” I told her she looked just fine, and she went off to fix her make up.

By the time she was back, I’d done the washing up and begun making the bread, my usual Monday morning routine. She watched, fascinated, and was delighted when I asked if she’d like to knead it. She told me it reminded her of home when she’d helped her mum; I told her that was why I delighted in doing it.

When we’d finished, I let it rise, and suggested we had some coffee. As we sat she told me more about her life. Ryan’s charity had provided her with support when she and her family had needed it, as well as a way out. She told me that she’d been aware that some of the aid workers had exploited the girls they’d been helping, but that she’d thought that as a worker for the charity, and with Ryan, she’d be safe. Then she asked the question I’d been dreading: “And do you know Mr. Ryan?”

There seemed no point in doing a St Peter and denying it, even though the cock had crowed many hours before. The question was how to say it? I decided to trust my instincts, and her, so told her the truth.

“Quite well. Indeed, until last night we were dating each other.”

Her eyes widened. “And your telephone it was him?”

I admitted it had been, and told her about the text.

“You, too, had sex with him?”

She seemed somehow relieved when I explained the situation to her.

“But he is quite forceful and so handsome.” She looked at me, intrigued. “Do you perhaps not like men as much as they like you?”

I explained to her that it was a question of morality. I did not believe in premarital sex. Her eyes widened. She took a gulp of coffee, then, putting her cup down looked at me.

“I think maybe you do not like men as much as you think you should.”

I felt uneasy, wondering how to parry the questions.

“Do you, perhaps, prefer women?”

She smiled the sweetest smile. She reminded me, as I had subconsciously known she did, of Elena, who had been my best friend in the sixth-form and with whom I had a sapphic affair. Quite innocent, but we had kissed and shared a bed, though to no great effect.

“You blush, Miss Rowan. Am I perhaps in the ballpark?”

That was a good question. It was not one I wanted to answer.

Thank goodness for the phone, which rang at the right moment. It was the woman from the Clewer, Lynne, she was in town and wanted to know the way to Little Linstead, as her sat-nav seemed unable to find it. For small mercies.

As I stood looking out of the window, I felt Irina’s arms round me. I felt her breath on my neck. I let her pull me to her and we stood together for what seemed the longest while. Something had broken.

Rowan’s Way: 8 Clouds

I was still in shock when I opened the door, but this was where professional training came into play. I was glad that I had not had too much to drink. The woman was obviously nervous. I took her coat and ushered her into the study.

“Can I get you anything to drink?”

“If it is no trouble, I’d appreciate some tea.”

Her accent, and the way she’d phrased the answer confirmed what I had intuited on the phone, she was eastern European, from her appearance, Slavic. She had high cheekbones and fine features, she was taller than me and blonde, at a guess I’d have put her in her early twenties if that.

“Do you want to come to the kitchen while I make us a pot?”

She came with me.

“So,” I said, breaking the ice that was beginning to form, “I’m Rowan, and you are?”

“Irina,” she replied, “I work at the Old Rectory, I came over on one of Mr. Ryan’s programmes.”

My questioning, as I prepared a pot, established that she had been in the country since Easter. She was Ukrainian.

As she sat, I noticed how very short her skirt was – and how attractive she was. I asked if she felt comfortable sharing her concern with me and asked if she was sure she did not want someone else to be with us. She shook her head vigorously.

“Do you feel able to tell me what is concerning you?” I asked, trying to remember my training in how to deal with people who came to you as Irina had. It must have worked, as she began to relax.

“It’s Mr. Ryan.”

“What is?” I asked, trying to keep the strain out of my voice. It occurred to me that I might not be the right person to hear this and that given my involvement with Ryan, I might actually be the wrong person, but Irina was ready to talk, so me it would have to be.

She looked a little embarrassed.

“I don’t want you thinking I am some kind of slut,” she began, “I like men, and I liked what Mr. Ryan and I were doing at the start, and that’s why I don’t want to go to the police, it began with my consent and if it is his word against mine, no one is going to believe a Ukrainian girl against a man in his position.”

By now my heart was beating fast and my stomach was doing gymnastics. It was all I could do to repress the urge to run to the bathroom and vomit. I could feel myself trembling. Was it really only a few hours since I had felt so safe and warm in his arms?

“I don’t know if you know about Mr. Ryan’s business?”

I confirmed I knew something, knowing that I was about to know far more than I wanted to know.

“You know that he is a trustee, is that the word, for a refugee charity?”

I nodded, I did know that, and liked him for it. I suddenly felt horribly numb.

“My family were displaced by the Russian invasion, and we were helped by his charity. I have been working for it for the last year and was invited over to help interpret at the recent conference. Mr. Ryan asked me to stay for a while to help set up further meetings with the Russians.”

I remembered my training. Listen, let them tell their story in their way, at their pace, it was their story, your job was to listen. I topped up her cup, and mine, as she proceeded.

It had been, she said, after the second meeting with the Russians that “it” had happened. I wondered, idly, when that had been, but concentrated hard on her. The conference had finished late, and Mr. Ryan had booked them rooms ‘just in case.” He bought her dinner as a thank you and then one thing had led to another, and that had led them to a night of passion.

Yes, I thought, sick to my stomach, she was just his sort, young, pretty, and lively – but also vulnerable. The training had clearly taken, as I concentrated grimly.

It has, she said, all been “good” until recently. Just over a month ago things had changed.

“Mr. Ryan”, as she called him, had been courteous and not too pressing, but, as she put it, “when he stopped spending time in London so much” his demands had escalated. It had come to a head on Friday last when two Russian guests had stayed at the house. Lord Surtees was away, and Mr. Ryan had suggested she join them to “help lighten the evening.” To her shock, at the end of the evening, when she was, as she admitted, rather drunk, he had offered her “services” to the Russians. Her attempts to say “no” had been met by him with a firmness which had shocked her. His words as she reported them sent a shudder through me: “you are bought and paid for, and you are my whore, so you’ll f**k who I tell you to.” So, feeling she had no choice, she had done as he told her. The following morning he had paid her an extra £1000 and told her that she’d be expected to “join the other girls in town” next week – that is tomorrow.

“What should I do?”

That was a very good question. It was also the question I was asking myself.

Seven degrees of separation

Remember that one never knows where inspiration is going to come from? Well, I’ve just had my socks blown off by a recent article in the UK magazine The Critic. You can visit The Critic online and also – keep an eye out for the writer Michael Collins; he’s an author and an excellent writer that contributes to The Critic.

So, my beloved friend Alys, who lives in Wells, England, is so very dear and kind, she sent me this wonderful ceramic creamer in the shape of a resting cow. The manufacturer is Burleigh, a company over a hundred years old still doing what they did a hundred or more years ago. Burleigh has a very good name in England so my gift is extra special. Because I’m an Anglophile and because Alys knows I have a taste for English-made things (note to women who read this – check out the UK company The 1 for U. They make the BEST nightgowns you will ever wear! The cotton is superior and they wash and wear as if they were new every day. You can order on US Amazon), Alys sent me my beautiful little creamer.

Being much interested in Burleigh, which the article covers, early on in the narrative, I saw the name, Tunstall. A huge bell went off in my head. I know that name. And you probably do, too. Remember the movie Young Guns about Billy the Kid? Who did Billy work for before becoming a bad guy? John Tunstall – an Englishman from Hackney (London)!

John Tunstall is played by the wonderful British actor Terrance Stamp.

We know John Tunstall from the Lincoln County War. Here is the Wiki page with the history of Tunstall, McSween, Dolan, Murphy, and Riley. John Tunstall – Wikipedia. The historians and westerns lovers amongst you know the story well.

Then I wanted to know more about Tunstall, England, and found this very short Wiki page. Tunstall, Suffolk – Wikipedia. Note the last sentence of the piece. I’m still laughing. That last bit of information might, depending on to whom one speaks, tie into bigfoot. If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t done YOUR homework!

What an afternoon it’s been. I’ve spanned two centuries, two countries, noted craftmanship, and a tie between England and America that has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers, lol! It’s been a good day!

Rowan’s Way: 5 a kiss is just a kiss

Picking up where we left off here.

I’d be lying if I said I was not tempted to say “yes”. Part of me thought that such a carefully-planned game deserved the reward it was aimed to acquire, but the temptation was not worth the name if it did not tempt you. And yes, as any red-blooded woman would be, I was tempted. But this was not the way I wanted to end the evening, and if his moral code did not, and it clearly did not, include my moral objections to a one-night stand, then I was assuming it would at least take on board the “consent” angle.

I looked at him.

“Thank you.”

I left it just a second before adding.

“But I’ll take the greater risk.”

For once I had him on the defensive.

“Yes, a night here with you carries a known risk, a drive home unknown ones, so let’s be adventurous.”

If he was disappointed, he hid it successfully.

“You can’t blame a chap for trying,” he seemed almost to sigh, “but your wish is my command, my lady. Your chariot awaits.”

The night air had turned chilly, and I was glad of my coat and beret.

“Are you cross?” He asked, as he put the car in gear and exited the pub car park.

“At what?” I asked.

“At my attempt on your virtue?”

“I’d have been surprised if you hadn’t. You’re clearly interested, but in what, apart from the obvious, we shall see.”

He laughed.

“That depends on whether you want to see me again, after all, at some point my assaults on your citadel may tire you.”

“If that’s all you’re interested in, they will, but you may get tired first.”

“Touché”, he responded, turning right at the crossroads toward our gate. “Tell you what, I’m back in London tomorrow, but if you give me your mobile number, I’ll ring, and we’ll go somewhere more upscale next time?”

“And, was it Allegra?”

“I’ll take care of that.”

He drew up outside the box which passed muster as the vicarage. Unbelting he went round to my side and opened the door.

“My lady”, he gestured.

I stood, straightening my back after the low seat. There was a pause, a tension. I felt a chill. It was cold. Then I felt his arms round me, pulling me to him, and his lips on mine. He pulled away. I had not resisted.

“Till next time then, Rowan.”

I watched him go from the window. My head, and heart, were giddy, and I knew I had to be careful here. As long as we’d played love chess in our heads, I’d just about held my own, but that kiss! I was, I suddenly realised, vulnerable in a way I had not thought myself before now. It wasn’t that men had not tried to date, or indeed kiss me, it was that I’d felt in control of the process; I realised, with a dull thud, that with Ryan, I might not be.

This was something we girls had talked about at theological college, but which none of our tutors had wished to address. There were well-defined paths for men who wanted to date, but for whatever reason, including but solely, the relatively recent date at which women had been ordained, there was not the same guidance from precedent. Indeed, memory said that we’d heard more about “same-sex attraction” than we had about dating. Typical! Who ran these things?

Well, I thought, who knows? Ryan was away, and within the foreseeable, I would be off, so no point getting my hopes up. Golly, I thought, I have hopes? That in itself was a bad sign. Then the phone went.

Who on earth?

“Is that Miss Topham, the Reverend Topham?”

The voice sounded serious.

“It is.”

“This is Lavernham hospital. Could you get over here, your colleague Susan Foster has been involved in an accident.”

Recovering from my shock, I said that I would do my best. I phoned Janet, the churchwarden, and explained I needed a trip to the hospital. Bless her, she came right away, and within the hour we were at the A&E department.

The doctor explained to me that Susan had been involved in a car crash. Her legs had been broken and there might be other damage. She was in surgery and it was too soon to say.

Janet and I went to the prayer room and offered a prayer for Susan. So much for leaving Lavernham.

Over the next few days, I was able to see Susan and the Rural Dean. It was clear Susan would need a prolonged convalescence, although, given that, she should be able to return to ministry within the year. Nigel, our RD, was, as ever, direct. “In the meantime, Rowan, I am afraid you will be taking over. You’ll need to talk with the lay readers and non-stipendiaries about how you work things out, but for now, my dear, you are the Vicar of Lavernham. I am pleased to say that we can add a little extra to your stipend. By the way, how are the driving lessons coming on?”

And that was that.

Whatever I had thought, it was plain that I would not be leaving anytime soon. If I had a pile of practical things to sort out, I also had the matter of that kiss to ponder.

As though on cue, my mobile went as I left the Deanery.

“Rowan? Ryan here. What’s this I hear about Susan?”

I explained, and he was suitably sympathetic.

“I think a girl needs cheering up. I am back tomorrow night, how about a morale boost?”

Despite myself, I laughed.

“As long as that leaves my morals intact, okay.”

“Be with you about seven. The kiss did not put you off?”

Well, I said, groping for the nearest cliché: “A kiss is just a kiss.”

“We shall have to see, shan’t we?”

My treacherous heart skipped a beat.

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