Rowan’s Way: 7 Evensong

The next month or so taught Ryan a lot about dating a vicar. May, June, and July are the busiest months of the year for weddings, so the idea of a Saturday afternoon spent at the beach, one he often floated, was knocked on the head. Sunday, with seven churches to cover, even with help, was pretty exhausting, and by the time Monday came, I was pretty well flat out with fatigue. It must have been fairly serious from his point of view I thought, as he kept coming round.

My favourite of all the churches was Little Linstead. It had originated as a chapel of ease and had somehow survived the steep decline in congregations since the 1960s. I suspected this was because it was on the Surtees estate and his lordship liked having his own church, even if he and the family were not the most assiduous attenders. It felt like the orphan of our Deanery, as it got only one Communion service and one evensong a month.

I had always loved evensong, not the choral evensong so beloved of so many Radio 3 listeners, but the plain spoken evensong of the Book of Common Prayer. There may only have been myself, Miss Bennet and her companion, and Mrs. Rooke there, but you could feel that God was there too. As I gave the final blessing, I felt an air almost of elation. Miss Bennet smiled as we shook hands:

“You seem very happy Miss Topham. I have to say, as you know, I was not in favour of ordaining women back in the nineties, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Susan and yourself do us very well.”

I thanked her. Her sentiment was not uncommon in this backwater. It was nice to hear, and as I disrobed back in the vestry, I reflected how lucky I was.

One of the things I loved about Little Linstead was that I could walk it. There was a footpath from the Old Rectory across the wheatfields straight to the Church. It was half an hour if I dawdled a little, and on this beautiful summer’s evening, why wouldn’t I? I loved the swoosh of my cassock against the wheat as I walked. God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. I stood and listened to the birds.

High overhead murmurations flew. The quietness enveloped me.

As I came to the wooden footbridge across the ditch I became conscious of a noise from beyond the hedge. Who on earth could be walking that way of a Sunday evening? There was no barking dog, so that ruled out the usual suspects. The sun was low now on the horizon and dazzled my eyes, so all I could see as I approached the bridge was a tall, imposing figure, silhouetted by the light.

“Rowan, finished early I see!”

It was Ryan.

For a moment I was overwhelmed, so much so that I yielded to the cliché – and fell into his arms. For a moment the word was as dead to me as I was to it; all that existed was the beating of our hearts. He held me for seemed forever (and must, in fact, have been all of five minutes). The warmth and the safety were infectious, and I felt for a moment as though all I wanted to do was to rest like this.

“Well, madam, this will never do,” he joked, pulling away with every show of reluctance. “We need to get you back to the Old Rectory where Cook has supper on the go.”

As I had been anticipating a scratch supper of whatever was not too out of date in my fridge, this was indeed welcome news, and I held his hand tight as he guided me across the wheatfields to the Old Rectory.

It was warm enough, and light enough, for us to dine out. He was charm itself, and I began to relax.

“Must you go back?” He looked at me quizzically.

I knew what answer I would give, but was tempted for a moment.

“You know the answer,” I told him.

“Can’t blame a man for asking,” he jested.

The kiss he gave me as he dropped me off home took my breath away. This, I reflected as I stripped off my clericals, was getting to be like one of those books my step-mother used to read. The phone went. Who on earth?

“Rowan here,”

“Is that the vicar?” The voice at the other end sounded anxious. I confirmed it was and asked how I could help.

“It’s difficult,” said the voice, “I need to talk about something confidential with someone who isn’t the police.”

“I would be happy to talk. Do you want to talk on the phone, or would face to face be better?”

“I don’t live far away, I can be with you in ten minutes.”

“Can I ask what it’s about?”

“Yes, yes, of course, it’s about my employer’s son, Ryan Surtees.”

The line went as silent as my heartbeat. The buzz of the broken line echoed through the room.

Rowan’s Way: 6 Red Beret

 

The day passed in a blur. After what seemed endless phone calls, things were arranged for Sunday. I would do the 8 o’clock in town and then Communion at 11 at Dunhelm. Stephen, one of the non-stipendiaries, would do the 9 o’clock at Clendon and evensong at Clendon Magna, Stephanie would do the family service at Arburgh at 11 and I would do evensong (traditional language) at Stopford. Little Linstead would, I feared, have to take care of itself. Lord Surtees hardly ever went, and the villagers tended to follow his lead. I checked with the estate manager and he confirmed that would be in order. Seven Churches was just too much for our reduced contingent. I was not sure how I would manage three services, but Vera, the other church warden at St Hilda’s was happy to act as my taxi service. It was a reminder that I really did need it to get on with the driving lessons, though goodness knows when I’d find the time.

By the time all that was done, and I’d phoned Susan, who told me how guilty she felt, and let the webmaster know the arrangements so he could put them all up on the site, I felt as though all I wanted to do was collapse onto the sofa and listen to some music. Instead, I had to get myself ready for Ryan. I could, of course, have cancelled, but as he’d come up earlier from town … gosh, the fibs one tells oneself, I reflected, as I perfected my lipstick, adjusted my silver necklace, and checked that my striped top was properly tucked into my slightly short black, pleated skirt. I thought the red beret would set it all off well.

Bang on the dot of seven the doorbell rang.

“That red beret, just the thing. Suits you Ma’am,” he joked. “I thought you might like the Goose and egg out at Dunhelm, so took the liberty of booking.”

It was the most expensive restaurant in twenty miles, a Michelin star and rave reviews in one of the Sunday nationals.

“Sounds like the first of many liberties, Ryan,” I laughed.

“That’s up to you, and I make it a rule never to tangle with anyone wearing a red beret.”

The restaurant lived up to its reputation, and I felt at ease with him. Yet again, he went the carnivore route, this time guinea-fowl with a white wine reduction, while, again, I went the vegetarian, this time pomegranate quinoa salad with kale. The Chardonnay was excellent, but this time he limited himself to the wine, and one glass at that. By the time the waitress brought the cheese and biscuits, we had relaxed into each other’s company, and the verbal sparring had stopped.

“Is it a cease-fire?” It was as though he’d read my mind.

“Were we at war, then?” I teased back.

“Only the eternal war of the sexes.”

“That,” I said with more cynicism than I had meant to show, “ceases only when the man has taken his prey.”

“I will take your word on anything to do with praying,” he joked, and I enjoyed the pun.

“And Allegra?” I queried, raising the name of his girlfriend.

“She may exemplify your maxim, Rowan, but to be accurate, you’d have to add the prefix, ‘ex’ as that is her status.”

“You or her?” I looked him in the eye. A direct question for once, and I signalled I was expecting a straight answer.

“You!” He smiled. I hesitated, not quite knowing what to say.

Seeing that, he added:

“If I want a chance with you, it would be unfair to lead Allegra on, and as she wasn’t prepared to wait to see how rural affairs developed, we agreed to end it – amicably.”

Now I was genuinely unsure what to say. Of course, he could be making it all up, how was I to know? But as he thought it worth going there, I could hardly question his good faith unless, of course, I wanted to signal that I was not interested; and I was – very.

“Don’t tell me I have finally reduced you to silence?” His broad smile told me he was anything but sorry if that had been the case.

“I dare say there are many more fish in the sea.” I parried back.

“My nets are cast your side of the boat, Rowan.”

“Are you sure you want to catch a lady Vicar?”

“I didn’t bring you here to say I don’t want to see you again, so you can assume I do want to catch you.”

“And I didn’t come, after an exhausting day, to tell you thanks but no thanks.” There, I had said it.

I was not in the mood for coffee, so ordered some fennel tisane, while he, as usual, had an espresso.

As we settled until the easy chairs, he stretched out his hand. I responded. His hand was cooler than mine and strong; I liked the firmness. His eyes met mine.

“Let me get this out now before I regret it.”
I looked at him questioningly.

“From what you said last time, I am assuming that you wouldn’t welcome a full -scale assault on your virtue, so I shan’t try. I mention it in case you have changed your mind, and so you don’t think I don’t want you.”

I heard myself laugh, though did not consciously do so.

“I am an old-fashioned girl,” Ryan, “and if you want modern mores, I’m not the girl for you.”

“You intrigue me, shall we say, and I am curious but patient. We have time.”

“All the time in the world,” I added.

He paid, again, and helped me in with my coat.

“I do like that beret, but I am afraid I lied earlier?”

I began to ask how but discovered that he was not averse to tangling with someone wearing a red beret as he pulled me to him and kissed me. Shivers shot through me, I tingled in places I didn’t usually and found my lips opening. His tongue felt its way in, and I found myself on tiptoe. It was everything those novels said it should be.

I don’t know how long we stayed like that. My arms clung round his neck, and I felt myself pulled into him, his hands on my hips. He felt warm, he smelt delicious. After what seemed an age, we disengaged. He looked at me.

“It’s a good job I made the other promise, the one I intend to stick to.”

Breathing heavily, I could only agree. I had never felt this way before. I was in a daze as he drove me back. As I unfastened my safety-belt he leaned over, and again our lips met. For a moment I struggled with the feelings surging through me, but I held firm.
“Thank you,” I said, “that was … .”

“That words fail you tells me more than you could say, Rowan. Let me ring you tomorrow, and see whether by then words have come.”

He kissed me once more.

As I watched him drive off, I realised that for the first time in my life, I was facing a challenge to my principles. As I hung my beret up, I giggled to myself. It was all very well him tangling with a red beret wearer, but was I up to resisting?

 

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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