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: 2 Pooh Sticks

I’d tried to explain to my step-mother, but I might as well have saved my breath to cool my porridge. Like it or not, and I didn’t, we lived in an era and a society where a common sense of morality had broken down. My answer to why I would not have sex with a man to whom I was not married was simple; it was wrong. What did I mean by wrong? I meant that I was a Christian and that set my moral framework. Sex was a natural human urge, but there were lots of those, and the idea they were all okay was easily disproved by what would happen to me if I gave into my appetite for cream buns; I’d look like one in no time, with deleterious effects on my health and figure. I didn’t need to go to that utilitarian argument, because my moral framework told me gluttony was a sin. But what common moral framework did our society now have?

Even I, with my views, would hesitate before giving again the sermon I had given once at Theological College on ‘the sinfulness of pre-marital sex’. Most of my male colleagues seemed to take it as a cue to ask me to bed, while my female colleagues felt compelled to regard me as “weird”, even if in private, some said they agreed with me. The only framework which it seemed was held in common was “consent”. As long as the woman consented to sex, that was fine. It ruled out criminal sexual acts on the grounds of a lack of an ability to consent by one side. I was uncomfortable with the whole thing, but as my tutor had said, I was going into ministry in the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. Of course, there were those who would counsel me that what I did in private was my own business – but I had my moral framework and I tried to live my faith. That’s why I was still a virgin at the grand old age of twenty-eight. It looked as though Ryan might want to test the waters – hence the challenge.

I’d have been lying to myself if I’d denied finding him attractive – indeed, very attractive. But then I doubted that any red-blooded woman would have found herself neutral on the subject.

Over the next few days, I found my thoughts straying in that direction. Monday was a welcome day off, and like most clergy, I used it to catch up with mundane things like getting my washing done and ensuring that my vestments were clean and starched; I was one of those odd women, maybe the only one, who loved the process of ironing and starching her surplice. Indeed, I loved it so much I did Susan’s too. Across the period I served my ticket there, she said the thing she’d miss most when I moved on – apart, of course, from my cheery smile, was my laundry services. If all else failed, I could earn my living as a cleaner cum laundry-maid. I could not abide mess or dirty clothes. Nor, it turned out, men who thought they were God’s gift.

It was my regular practice to take a long walk on Monday afternoons. The country lanes were white with blossom, the abundance of which, this year, reminded me of God’s love for us – there was so much of it that one marveled at it – as well as our ability not to appreciate it. As we had just passed the second Sunday in Easter, I thought a gold-coloured beret would go with my pashmina and my mid-calf skater skirt, and as it more or less matched my walking shoes, I thought I would present a suitably coordinated picture to any of the congregation I might encounter. Men could get away with looking like scruff bags, women clergy ought not to hold themselves to such a low standard.

It was my habit to pray my Rosary as I walked, and I had just finished the fifth decade of the Joyful Mysteries when I reached the weir. The sun was still high in the sky, and the water was running slowly. We’d had a winter notably without rain, and a hot Easter. But I still couldn’t resist doing what I had always loved doing as a girl – playing Pooh-sticks. For those unfamiliar with Winnie-the-Pooh, well in the first place, buy and read the books, and in the second place, it consists of dropping sticks on one side of the bridge and seeing which of them comes out first. I was so engrossed in my game that it was only when he spoke that I realised I had company.

“The stick on the right will win. Want to wager me ten pence?”

Turning, there he was – Ryan, smiling broadly. “Well?”

I tried not to look as startled as I felt.

“Well, since I agree, I’m hardly going to bet against my preference. Do you play?”

The moment the words were out of my mouth I could have kicked myself. Grinning broadly and looking me straight in the eyes he responded:

“Depends on the game and the stakes. What did you have in mind?”

“A quiet country walk, as it happens. You?”

Again, the urge to kick myself came.

“Oh this and that, nothing that I could mention to a vicar in knickers.”

I felt myself flush. He invested the words with a wealth of meaning which I was determined not to get, or indeed, to investigate.

“Thank goodness for that,” I said, with what I hoped was a light laugh, but which I feared had probably come out as a nervous giggle.

“So, if I take the left side and you the right, let’s see which stick wins – are you Pooh or Christopher Robin?” he inquired, teasingly.

“Why narrow it down?” I teased back, I could always be Kanga or Tigger.”

I really did need to take a vow of silence, or else think faster.

“I suppose that depends whether you’re the motherly sort or more bouncy?”

He looked at me, quizzically.

“A vicar in knickers never answers such questions”, I said, extricating myself from the dilemma he had posed.

“Sounds more like Wol,” he said, “a wise Vicar holds onto them that way.”

I couldn’t help laughing, he was quite outrageous, but in a flirtatious way at which it was impossible to take offence without coming across as a total kill-joy.

“Quite agree, and I am a Wol Vicar. I choose the left.”

“I thought you said the right would win.”

“That was with the willow twigs, the two oak twigs you have will work differently.”

“Oh”, and expert are we? Tell you what, make it fifty pence if you are that confident.”

“We poor curates are hard-pressed you know.” I smiled, looking straight back at him.

“Tell you what, if you win, I buy you dinner, if I win I buy you a drink at the White Swan. What do you say?”

“I say that it’s a way of asking me out, but accept.” I was now daring him.

“You’re on. One, two, three … .”

And we dropped the twigs simultaneously, before turning and looking over the bridge to the edge of the weir. I still got that childish sense of triumph when I saw my twig go over first.

“Dinner it is then,” Ryan smirked. “As it’s your day off, what say I pick you up at seven?”

“Hey,” I protested, “Mr. Fast Worker, who says I’m even free tonight?”

“Well, are you?” His smile was as broad as the river.

I felt myself blushing as I answered:

“As it happens, yes.”

“So, seven it is? I’ll pick you up from the new vicarage?”

“I think you already did”, I smiled.

And so he had.

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