One is never prepared for the manner in which home changes over time. That tea room was twenty-nine years ago. Scotland was my mother’s world, and my years in Blackpool were spent in pastoral oblivion, a kind of homelessness which has followed me everywhere. Lancashire was the place where I grew up, my father’s world, but serving there as a parish priest provided me with nothing much greater than the small comforts afforded in my line by the habits of duty.
I wanted to add something new to my mother’s life. She had always been so original, so full of words, so ready with money, the distances between us being no bar to her encouragement of me, her enjoyment of our hard-hearted jokes. But she was growing old. I thought we might do more laughing together and visit the places she liked. The year before last, I came back and took charge of a small Ayrshire parish, to see her, to be close to her, though I can hardly say that the move was made in heaven.
Troubles like mine begin, as they end, in a thousand places, but my year in that Scottish parish would serve to unlock everything. There is no other way of putting the matter. Dalgarnock seems now like the central place in a story I had known all along, as if each year and each quiet hour of my professional life had only been preparation for the darkness of that town, where hope is like a harebell ringing at night.
It all began to happen on Good Friday. The rectory was pleasant and well-groomed, and my housekeeper, Mrs Poole, brought two large bowls of lettuce soup to the sitting-room table. I had just come back from the second service of the day, feeling tired, with a heaviness in my legs that made me wonder if I wasn’t ageing rather badly. It is not always easy to know the difference between religious passion and exalted grief. I felt Mrs Poole was watching me and ready to say a number of things, but the light of the chapel still glowered in my head, willing me to regret the need for human contact and the niceties of lunch. Mrs Poole was in her most efficient mode and soon had me smiling.
After several months in Dalgarnock I noticed she was more at home in the rectory than one would have expected. She loved it there, loved what she called the feel of the house’, and her admiration was particularly drawn to the presence of numerous clocks and books and second-rate pictures, the stuff of my own past.
You’ve a bit of education up yer sleeve, Father. That’s the thing. When people have been places you can just tell. What a house for pictures. You are somebody just like me: you like yer wee things round about you. Now, half the people you meet go on like their home is a prison. But when you walk in here, you see right away it’s a place for thinking.’
I don’t know about that, Mrs Poole.’
Oh, away ye go. A man like you knows how to think.’
She made a fetish of the house plants, speaking to them, paying tribute as she bent with the watering can to the good company they provided. She was a great enthusiast for the environment, by which she meant the outside world, but
the inside world was the domain of her greatest exactitude. Hours would come and go as she moved about the place, the dust a sign of some freedom she had barely known, the cluttered rooms full of corkscrews, prayer books, exhibition catalogues and seed packets seeming to her to indicate a peaceable universe very unlike the one she maintained in her house by the railway bridge.
Mrs Poole,’ I said, don’t get me started on big topics. I’m looking for laughter today.’
You’ve picked a fine day for it,’ she said. There’s a dirty great sponge of vinegar being presented to the Lord’s face as we speak.’
That’s fine,’ I said. But I need a glass of wine.’
Bloody hell,’ said Mrs Poole. When I was a girl, Good Friday was a day for closing the curtains and hanging yer head. Now you’re all calling for the wine bottle. You’ll be casting lots for the bloody cloak next.’
I spun my keys and looked up at the ceiling. A frosting of cobwebs sat lightly over the old chandelier.
Did I ever tell you, Mrs Poole?’ I plucked at my bottom lip and pointed up.
What’s that?’ she said.
This very chandelier was hung in my first set of rooms at Balliol. Can you imagine? A present from one of the Anderton aunts.’
Heaven save us.’
It’s true. My aunt thought it was criminal for a young man to have to study under an oil lamp. I used to stare up at it during the night instead of writing essays on the English Civil War. It was even dirtier then. Can you imagine that, now? This very chandelier?’
A right ticket you must have been, Father,’ she said, with your chandeliers and all the rest of it. Very nice. As you lay there inspecting your fancy light, my sister and I, we were five years younger than you and working nightshifts.’
Hard work. How dreadful. Was she cured of it?’
Oh, aye,’ said Mrs Poole. We were all cured of that soon enough.’
I’ll take your word for it,’ I said, given the amount of muck on that chandelier up there.’
Don’t start me,’ she said. There’s work enough to be done. Too much work to be bothering wi’ yer daft lights.’
Get you,’ I said. It’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
Yes, indeed,’ I said. You wouldn’t want it any other way.’
Mrs Poole was forty-two, but her attitudes made her seem older. Only when she smiled did one notice she was quite young. She had no college education, nor did she come from a background that supported her enthusiasms, but she had schooled herself with the kind of personal passion that verges on panic, and her mind absorbed and retained. This process had started years before I met herwith night classes in French, with cookbooksbut she always said that side of her had become important in her time with me.
You just sit there quiet half the time,’ she said. But I know you’re boiling with arguments, Father.’
Is that right?’
Oh, piping! And don’t be shy. There’s a thousand things to discuss and hardly anybody to talk to.’
Very good, Mrs Poole.’
My mother made the point that my housekeeper was like a heroine in Jane Austen: she would have distinguished herself in any class, yet her circumstances acted upon her like a series of privations she was determined to overcome. The fact made her unsteady sometimes but pretty much always likeable. She had little time for The Tongues, as she called them, the people of the town, and saw our friendship as an overdue reward and a lucky extension of her long dedication to self-improvement.
I have finally found my job,’ she said. And a person who knows how to put a sentence together.’
Good stuff,’ I said. Just don’t forget I’ve a gangplank through there for people who yell about their rights.’
Fascist,’ she said.
That’s right,’ I said. That’s my job.’
She smiled and hooked a dish towel over her shoulder. That’s enough of your cheek, Father. Come and have your lunch.’ She swept a theatrical hand over the dining table in the manner of a far-travelled merchant presenting his latest silks. Quickly now. It’s soup. Potage de Père Tranquille.
’ I said.
Right. The best abstinence money can buy.’
Goodness, Mrs Poole. Lettuce soup. There are monks and starving people who would thank you for this. Can we go wild and add a few bits of bread to the feast?’
Suit yourself. Be my guest. If you want to remember Christ’s agony by gorging on crusts, I can’t stop you.’
Just a few delicious dods of the old pain de campagne.
That’s fine,’ she said. I bought the organic stuff.’
Mrs Poole worked only two and a half days a week. She liked to smile at unpredictable things and gave the impression she showed sides of herself in the rectory that she couldn’t show at home. Her husband Jack was a part-time gardener for the council. He just cuts the grass,’ she said, as if to separate his efforts from the sorts of things we might do ourselves.
Mr and Mrs Poole appeared to live together in a state of settled resentment. She said they seldom went out and that he had given up on trying to make her happy. He wasn’t the man she had married, apparently, and a thousand things had happened, she said, that made it clear he couldn’t deal with responsibility. Even after the events of that year, I don’t think I ever came to understand what Mr Poole really thought of his wife and the world she craved. But she may have been wrong to assume that his drinking was the biggest part of him, that he was, in some barely conscious way, a standard-bearer for the town’s worst prejudices. Some might have called him a broken person, yet there was more to him, and more to her, than either of them would find time to recognise.