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 her—with night classes in French, with cookbooks—but 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.’