On a table near the door, someone had laid out little stacks of books; Book of Common Prayer, a booklet with the latest words for a Parish Communion, and a psalter with an A4 sheet of church notices folded in half and tucked between the pages. He took his little pile, put his collection money on a big brass plate and moved on into the central aisle, wondering where he should sit.
There was bound to be a squire - and he and his family would sit in the front row. He knew where the Church Wardens would sit because their staffs were held up in spring clips on the ends of their pews. Most congregations, he reckoned, had a collection of old ladies who always sat at the back because . . . . . well, he didn’t know why, they just did, so he didn’t sit there either. He slipped into a seat about a third of the way down (on the right hand side, so he wouldn’t crick his neck during the sermon) and looked about him.
The church was Saxon in style, with walls fortress thick and the windows high. The sound of the ringing bell was faint and distant now he was inside but the grate and click of its rope mesmerised him and drew him so deeply into the stillness of the place that the clunk of the iron latch and the heavy squeak of door hinges a few minutes later startled him almost into turning and glaring at whoever it was who had destroyed the silence.
A loud voice.
The rhythm of the bell faltered slightly and a muffled voice called back ‘Good Morning’ from behind the heavy curtain in front of the entrance to the tower.
Some more footsteps around the doorway, lighter ones, and the door shut with a soft thud.
A few whispers while the newcomers chose their books, then the confident steps of a man who ‘belonged’ coming up the aisle, the sharper tapping of his wife’s heels following and the crackle and rustle of waxed jackets (which turned out to be surprisingly dirty when their wearers came into view).
It was an elderly man and his wife.
Without hesitation, they headed for the front row and settled themselves in. A-ha! - the people from the ‘Big House’ had arrived.
For the next couple of minutes, Stephen was distracted by the way they were organising their books along the shelf in front of them; each one clearly being placed in its ‘usual’ position, and their constant turning to nod greetings at acquaintances filing slowly into rows behind. Not that their greetings seemed especially well received, for the smiles returned were stiff and the replies that went with them barely polite.
He wondered why.
Then, when the man took off his jacket so he could kneel more comfortably to say his prayers of preparation, Stephen noticed his trousers were held up, not with a belt but with a frayed length of nylon blue binder twine. Binder twine!?
The couple spent a few minutes in prayer, then with a lot of scuffling and a few more whispers, they rose from their knees, the woman to sit, the man to walk forward to the oversized Bible which had already been placed on the brass eagle-lectern facing the congregation. He found the Old Testament lesson, read it through once and marked it with a long green tasselled bookmark. Then raising himself slightly onto his toes, he leant over the Book and looked down onto his wife with such a dazzlingly gentle and loving smile that Stephen was completely taken aback.
Another clatter of the latch, another scuffle of feet, and the woman in the front pew turned again to see who had come in. This time, Stephen took more notice.
Her hair was as white as white hair can ever be and her eyes were the bluest of possible blues. Her face was weather beaten, her white skin sun-darkened and grooved with paler little channels where she had wrinkled it against the wind. She seemed awfully tired. Stephen guessed she was about seventy.
And she was beautiful.