First of all, the place.
Laddenham. A village long detached from its origins, dormitory satellite of an expanding country town known for light engineering, London overspill, and an intractable traffic problem. Its name hitches it still to a past. That, and a few buildings lingering here and there amid Wates and McAlpine estates, bulbous thirties semis, Victorian terraced cottages and seventies “executive-style” developments. A muddled place–its associations incoherent, its strata confused. Ugly for the most part, but shot here and there with grace: an avenue of old limes, a Georgian house in the High Street, a cottage-lined alley offering a slice of blue-distanced landscape. The church.
The church. St. Peter and St. Paul. Perilously sited, nowadays, beside the Amoco garage, its gray stone extinguished by lime green and tangerine plastic bunting flapping along the perimeter of the adjoining forecourt. On the other side, the George and Dragon’s car park presses up tight against the churchyard wall. Cigarette packets and crumpled crisp bags twinkle in the long grass around the gravestones.
The effect of this juxtaposition is that what must once have seemed so large, so solid, so impregnable, now squats small and a little apologetic: a pleasing anachronism, of architectural interest. Time has juggled the order of things.
The church’s own chronological confusion, of course, is absolute. Airy Dec. east window, sterner Perp. to right and left, Victorian stained glass, Norman tympanum over the west door–uncouthly carved whale and Jonah from an age when symbolism came in pictures, not in words.
In a literate age, the symbolisms are more obscure. The Doom over the crossing arch, for instance, the fourteenth-century wall painting that is the church’s glory and surprise, puzzles members of the congregation today. Those queerly bundled figures on one side, their form barely discernible (the plasterwork has not been restored}, those other gray statuesque forms sitting up in, apparently, bathtubs. Those red monkeyish things with–toasting forks, could it be? Angels to the left, sinister and spectral figures to the right; a rising or a falling; a golden glow (despite the faded pigments} or a dark writhing obscurity. In any case, the whole thing is very difficult to make out and perhaps uncomfortable if studied in detail.
George Radwell, the vicar, coming into the church on a June morning, was surprised to see a woman standing in the nave staring intently at the painting. A tall, bony young woman with stringy brown hair wearing jeans and a cotton jersey, a stranger, he thought, no one local, until she turned and glanced at him and he recognized the thin face and large mouth of the new woman next door, the one with the white mini and two children and a husband said to be something important at United Electronics. She stood there in a shaft of sunlight, bathed in gold like a stained-glass Virgin, bared her teeth at him in, apparently, greeting, and turned back at once to the painting.
He cleared his throat. “Ah,” he said. “You must be, er “” and she paid him no attention at all. He was dismissed.
Clare Paling saw a sandy-haired man hovering at the doorway, a man of forty odd with the papery red skin of the very fair, blinking and shuffling and somehow inspiring distaste even at that range and on a translucent summer morning. Oh lor, she thought, the vicar of course, him from next door, and sweetly beamed before returning to the painting.
George took four steps left to the font and fiddled with the cover. Mrs. Paling continued to study the Doom. He went over to the organ and shuffled the pile of sheet music. Then he marched down the nave and launched into conversation. Disastrous, as it was to turn out, conversation.
Ah, he said, you must be Mrs. Paling, my churchwarden mentioned, Sydney Porter, lives in the corner house, possibly you’ve come across, also I’ve noticed the car, nice to have children around, not that I’ve been twitching the lace curtains, don’t think. He laughed; the silly, snorty laugh that always came when he was least sure of himself. Settled in all right, I hope, he continued, very friendly place Laddenham, quite a bit going on one way and another, madrigal society meets at, er, flourishing adult whatsit classes I’m told, cricket if your husband plays, thought he looked as if possibly, anyway sure you’ll find plenty, lot of redecorating I expect, these big Edwardian houses, vicarage badly in need of, know the area already perhaps?
And she ignored all this, not even looking at him most of the time, engrossed still by the Doom.
“Fourteenth century, I suppose,” she said. “It’s very like the one at North Leigh, isn’t it? Same hand, I wonder? And the Weighing of Souls at South Leigh. The colors are remarkable.”
George mumbled something. Said he always found it a bit depressing. Made or tried to make a joke about red devils that she didn’t follow. Aeroplanes? she said, staring, sorry I don’t quite ” R.A.F. base, he persisted, Wilierton, ten twelve miles away, aerobatic stuff. Ah, she said, really? Moving off now to examine the screen, putting out a thin hand with long clean unpainted fingernails to touch for a moment the wooden foliage, the worn gilding of the tracery.
He drifted after her to the font, saying things. Once she turned to him and bared her teeth once more; a conversational response, it seemed to be. He could see very thin pointed breasts nudging at her jersey when she squatted down to examine the carvings.
She said, “Splendid Tree of Life. I say, I do like that. Apostles. Christ in Majesty. The Lamb. What’s this? Oh, it must be the Annunciation. Rather knocked about–Cromwell, I suppose. Twelfth century, Pevsner thinks. Very nice too.” She stood up.
George regarded the font. It was old, Miss Bellingham said. Miss Bellingham went on about carvings and things, a bit like this woman. Otherwise this woman wasn’t like Miss Bellingham at all, who was treasurer of the Parochial Church Council and something of a busybody and had a face like the back of a bus. Mrs. Paling wasn’t pretty at all, but she was’
She made you think about sex, not to put too fine a point on it. “Pevsner?” said George. “Can’t for the moment place ” Yes, twelfth century, that’s right.” He continued to regard the font with his head slightly on one side and the assessing expression of a person in an art gallery. It didn’t feel right; a church isn’t an art gallery; he had never looked at the font like that before.
Mrs. Paling gave him the toothy grin again. “Never mind,” she said. “Well, I must go.” She headed for the door; he was dismissed once more.
He beat her to the door, opened it. ‘so glad we’ve met at last. Must come in for a glass of, er. And look, don’t let the children keep you from the Sunday service, we welcome children, everyone brings them, babies and all, fearful racket sometimes.” The snorty laugh.
She stared at him. “Oh,” she said. “We shan’t be coming to services. We’re agnostics. Thanks all the same.”
George went scarlet. R.C. he could have dealt with, nonconformist or whatever. Other creeds, no problem–you nodded understandingly, implying breadth and tolerance. Or people who weren’t anything, for that matter; you evaded their own evading eyes and talked about something else. But such an outright statement of unbelief knocked you sideways. It was provocative, unnecessary.
He snorted. Waved over her shoulder to a passerby to indicate ease and failure to be disconcerted. Felt in his pocket for the cigarettes he gave up five years ago. Said loudly, too loudly, “Quite, quite. Well, in that case. Naturally, though, one assumed, seeing you in the church, and interested” –he waved at the font, the Doom, the screen–”interested in all that, well of course one supposed C. of E.”
“Interest in ecclesiastical architecture,” said Mrs. Paling sweetly, “is not restricted to Christians. And infrequent amongst them, I’ve noticed.”
She was paying him attention now. As much attention as the church furnishings. Almost. She doesn’t like me, George thought, she doesn’t like me and she doesn’t think I matter much. He was in a lather of emotion; resentment and obstinacy and a whole lot else. She had this horsey face and large teeth and long thin thighs and a very small behind. Not a pretty woman, oh no.
He crashed on, his voice coming out shrill now, hectoring. “What I want to know with you people is–what about when you’re dead? Then what?”
Mrs. Paling gazed at him. “Then nothing, I’ve always assumed.”
“Where d’you think you’ll go, that’s what I want to know.”
“Do you mean,” said Mrs. Paling, “will I be wanting a bit of the churchyard? No thanks.” She began, again, to depart.
“Death,” George insisted, beetroot now to the hairline, “is the problem.”
“Oh no it isn’t,” said Mrs. Paling. “It’s life that’s the problem. That’s where you people go wrong. Sorry. No point in a discussion really. Always ends up stalemate” –teeth gleaming at him again–’must go now, ought to be in Spelbury. I like your church. Bye.”
And that, for the time being, was that.
George Radwell had entered the Church because of a typing mistake. Or rather the mistake triggered the process that had sent him, eventually, into St. Stephen’s Hall A secretary, in the list briefing the Headmaster of his school on the career intentions of the sixth-form leavers, had substituted “Theological” for “Technical.” “Theological college?” read the Headmaster in surprise, looking with new eyes at the ginger-haired boy whose name he never could recall, whose school career was so undistinguished as to leave him totally anonymous, without even transgressions by which to be remembered. “That’s interesting, er, Radwell, now what made you plump for the ministry? I don’t think we’ve had anyone going into the Church for some while. How interesting. We must have a talk about the various colleges–personally I’ve always thought well of Loxfield though of course St. Chad’s is highly regarded.” And on he went, talking now of vocations and deploring, discreetly, the decision of Manners, the Captain of Cricket, to go in for estate agency until at last he came to a halt and George, crimson and desperate, was able to mumble that actually there was a mistake, that actually”
The Headmaster stared at him. “The tech,” he said. “I see. The tech.” He wrote something on a pad; he was no longer engaged. No longer was a man of substance and discrimination finding George interesting, a matter for concern. ‘very well, Radwell. Have a word with the Careers Master if there’s anything you want to know. Would you ask Tremlett to come in now, please.”
George went home, humiliated. On the way, he thought about the Church; he thought vaguely of carols at Christmas, of the Hallelujah Chorus and Salisbury Cathedral, of forceful manly clerics on television discussion programs. He had nothing against Christianity, he realized, nothing at all. That evening, he told his mother of the incident with the Headmaster, of the mistake. His father had died when he was fifteen. Mrs. Radwell, for whom little that he did was right, for whom carping at him had become an occupation, was silenced for once. She didn’t laugh. She reversed her knitting and started on another row. Halfway along the row she said, “You could have done worse. There’s some lovely houses, vicarages, for a family. It’s a nice sort of job.”
Later that week, George went to see the local priest. He was given a glass of sherry and talked to for an hour and more; he stayed for lunch; the man’s wife called him ‘dear” and later he found himself giving them a hand with some gardening chores. They seemed, to his surprise, to like him.
At the end of term he asked to see the Headmaster again.
He had been worried, before arrival at college, by his lack of either faith or calling, until it dawned on him that those, after all, were what presumably the course was designed to supply. Which indeed it did, more or less. He quite enjoyed it. Whereas at school he had been among the proletariat of the dim, the featureless, the unassertive, here he bloomed a little. There were others with greater inadequacies than his. By his second year he had found a small talent for debate, been elected secretary of the Junior Common Room, and played snooker for the college against a rival establishment. He had also got drunk twice and put his hand inside the shirt of a friend’s sister. More importantly, he was bolstered by being a part of something larger than himself; he was no longer alone with his failings.
He spent several years as a curate in north London, where he found himself out of his depth, made to feel a lackluster figure both by his more racy colleagues and the parishioners. He was no good at Youth Clubs and disturbed black teenagers. They made rings round him, as did the jaunty young vicar and his jeaned, chain-smoking wife and her brisk, emphatic community-worker friends. When the Laddenham living came up he fled with relief.
The church, the Amoco garage, and the George and Dragon’s car park face what was once the nucleus of Laddenham, the village green, and is now a grassy area called the Green, with bus shelter, a few flower beds and a seat for the elderly provided by the British Legion In Memory of the Fallen. There are also some fine pink-flowered chestnuts and a small play area for young children with revolving wooden contraptions and some swings. The area itself is a triangle, the two long sides formed by rows of houses confronting each other through the chestnuts: a set of large Edwardian villas including the vicarage and the Palings’ house, and a line of three- and four-bedroomed semis built in the sixties on the site of a condemned nineteenth-century terrace. The Edwardian houses, which rarely come on the market and are the most highly priced in Laddenham when they do, have large gardens with brick walls and too much privet and laburnum. The modern houses, also expensive, have shaven lawns fore and aft, standard roses and small weeping willows. The area is considered the most desirable part of Laddenham, being quiet, free of council housing, and within easy walk of the shops and schools.
Sydney Porter, churchwarden and retired accountant, came out of his house to sweep his doorstep and saw the vicar on the church porch talking to the new woman from number five. He looked away at once, in case either of them should see him, not to get involved, and when he had shaken the mat and done the step and closed the front gate left open as usual by the milkman, the woman was gone and the vicar was standing there in the sun, alone. He went on standing there and Sydney, whose day was already apportioned, as was each of his days, went indoors, a small, spare, neat man, nearer seventy than sixty, accustomed to solitude.
Sydney’s house stood at the end of the row of modern ones, on the corner by the church. It was, however, an uneasy juxtaposition since Sydney’s was not reconstituted stone with double garage and playroom/granny annex but a bow-windowed brick building with something vaguely marine about its lines, slipped in next to the old terrace in the thirties and no doubt an enviable property then but now much overshadowed by the new houses and the revived prosperity of the Edwardian villas.
Sydney had had to endure the demolition of the condemned terrace and the building of the new houses, twelve years earlier. He had lived through it grim-faced and uncomplaining, dusting daily instead of twice a week, polishing and re-polishing the procession of brass elephants in the hall, flapping and realigning the gardening magazines that lay on the lounge table. Stoically, week by week, he had gathered up and burned the rubbish that drifted from the building site onto his garden. On the night after the bulldozers had moved in he had woken shouting from a nightmare, and had gone to the window to see, in the moonlight, the shattered windowless shells of the few remaining cottages. In the morning, at the office where he then worked, they had been surprised to see him shaking. He wasn’t, you’d have thought, a nervous man; a bit close, perhaps, but not nervous. He’d been away for a week or so after that, flu or something, people said, and thereafter appeared his usual self, quiet, composed, reserved.
The new houses rose from the rubble of the old. The raw earth of their fenced gardens sent forth lawns and paving from the garden center and neatly spaced and labeled shrubs and, in summer, padded and canopied seats and hoses with sprinkler attachments. Sydney got to know their occupants by name: the Marshalls and the Haddows and the Coggans.
And the Bryans, next door. Keith and Shirley. And the child, Martin.
The Bryans did not have a lawn with a sprinkler, or labeled shrubs. Their garden plot remained much as the builders had left it: things seeded themselves and grew haphazardly, rank clumps of grass, groundsel, and chick-weed. The boy played in it, alone. From time to time someone planted lobelia or african marigolds, forgot to weed or water, and the flowers shriveled or were smothered.
Sydney Porter, his morning already planned–hoe the seedbeds, cut the grass, tie back the climber if time–came out of the house and went over to the potting-shed. There, he selected a hoe from the row of garden tools. The tools, blades and tines wiped clean of earth, hung in gradation on the wall, orchestrated from long-handled fruit-tree pruners to wooden bulb dibber. Flower-pots were stacked in columns; hanks of twine were ranged on hooks; sprays and fertilizers were lined up on a shelf. Sydney went over to the vegetable plot and set to work.
“I can never see what people get out of gardening. You’re always at it, Mr. Porter, aren’t you?”
She seemed to be forever yawning, Shirley Bryan. Yawning and scratching an armpit. She stood at the fence now, doing just that, a fluffy-haired girl with a bad complexion.
Sydney paused. He thought. Eventually he said, “It’s having control over something, I suppose. Knowing what will happen.”
“If I try to grow things they just flop over and die, or something eats them. You can’t win.”
“You get the odd bother,” said Sydney smoothly. “Not enough to put you off altogether.” He went back to the hoeing: thrust and back, just deep enough to clip the seedling weeds, a wake of tiny wilting shoots behind him, french beans pushing up nicely to right and left. Shirley Bryan continued to watch, arms akimbo along the top of fence.
“Keith’s got his promotion.”
He wished she’d go away.
“Five hundred and a Granada at the end of the year.”
“Not that much of it’ll come my way, I daresay.” She yawned again. “Hey, there’s Martin’s ball under that bush of yours. He was on about what had happened to that last night. D’you mind chucking it over, Mr. Porter. Thanks a lot.”
The boy, over the years, had left infancy behind, topped the garden fence, acquired footballs and guns. He was a thin, pale-faced child, quiet, to Sydney’s relief. Quiet and rather solitary, playing mostly by himself, strange furtive games along the fence and among the bushes and saplings that, eventually, had grown and furnished the end of the Bryans’ garden.
He did not play with the Coggan children, next door on the other side, the two tidy, fair-haired little girls. Neither did the Bryans consort much with the Coggans, Sue and John. John Coggan of E. J. Coggan & Son, Estate Agents, 14 High Street, Laddenham. A different type of family, Sydney could see, more homely people, the garden spruce, Sue Coggan regular as clockwork trundling her pushchair along to the shops, in later years hurrying the girls to school, off to collect them at three-thirty.
Martin Bryan took himself to school, brought himself home.
John Coggan sat on the Parish Council and was chairman of the Parent Teacher Association. A stocky, brown-haired man, running to fat a little, nicely paired with Sue, so small and trim and fresh-faced beneath her shiny fair fringe.
The Coggans, all four, attended Matins every Sunday; the Bryans, never.
The Bryans, the Coggans, Sydney Porter, George Radwell–for all these people Laddenham had come to seem a satisfactory choice. A nice locality, Sue Coggan thought, a lovely house, plenty of children for the girls to play with. Five miles from the motorway, Keith Bryan would say, two hours dead to Piccadilly. George Radwell found it a great deal pleasanter than north London. Not being a thoughtful man, he had never dwelt on the slippery nature of choice in human affairs; he felt that he had chosen Laddenham, just as he had come to feel that he had chosen to go into the Church.
Sydney Porter, who had long since ceased to take much interest in questions of choice or blind accident, simply moved through the days, doing what had to be done. He quite liked Laddenham; it was as good a place as any. You had to feed up the soil a bit, but there was no clay. Things went on the same, on the whole, year in, year out. The odd fuss about a planning permission or a road scheme, but nothing to disturb, really. Hardly ever.
Just sometimes, nowadays, the motorbikes. Roaring through the Green, always after dark, deep into the night, a gang of them, shattering the quiet like an explosion, the more violent because unexpected. The first time the din had had him half out of bed, wrenched from sleep, his heart thumping. And then they were gone so quickly he thought he might even have dreamed the sound. But they’d been back a week later, circling the Green two or three times.
Thus the place, the people. In random association.