It took Stephen about three quarters of an hour to walk to Thorncombe. The weather was deliciously Novemberish and, although it was too early in the day for bonfires, the damp, grey air seemed to breath yesterday’s wood smoke, and the rotting leaves along the banks of ditches were oozing a pleasant mustiness; the smell of England.
Just as he entered the main part of the village one high, unbeautiful bell began to ring (not very rhythmically at first). In another quarter of an hour the service would start. He was glad about the timing. He liked to catch the atmosphere of a place before anything much happened. He liked to sit down and look around and watch the way people came in, the way they prayed, observe the small muttered greetings, the furtive glances 'the regulars’ gave strangers. Him. He smiled and hoped, very fervently, that no-body would rush up to welcome him or shake his hand so he felt out of place. It did happen sometimes, even in these out of the way villages and, when it did, it disturbed him. He had come to be in the presence of God, not to be grabbed. So he paused a moment and thought. Then went up the three steps cut into the bank at the side of the road, opened the wooden gate and, walking more slowly now, up the curved incline towards the church.
It was a funny feeling this. Everything seemed so familiar: the churchyard raised high above the level of the road, the lopsided gravestones, the chirrup of the odd sparrow, the way the grass was encroaching along the uneven edge of the half gravelled path; then the deadening of sound as he went into the porch, so only his feet were loud as he stepped from the earth path onto stone flags. Then the rough grating of iron as he lifted the catch on the heavy door - this was the best welcome he could have had and its loud screeching (because no-one ever oiled its hinges) collected up the memory of all such church doors when he pushed them open, and it rolled them into one eternal sensation of always arriving, and going in, and belonging. This same scene, the same smells, the same quiet expectancy, it was the same here as in almost every parish in rural England. He smiled, and leaning against the latch, stepped down into the gloom of the church. Smells: smells of old hymnbooks, dusty hassocks, the peppery sweetness of dried out chrysanthemum leaves in cobwebby vases, wood polish . . . . . Home!