Was it voyeurism? Here, in the weekday pews, didn’t they come to be alone? Should she be watching as they talked with what her brittle clever self suspected were imaginary friends? They weren’t all elderly, but there was a core, a quiet gang of worn persistence who clearly came without a list of either complaint or catastrophe. One of them was a beam of gentleness. He moved always at the same steady pace, so much so that when she spotted him on other days – either making for the place or leaving it, moving up the hill, she had an overwhelming desire to follow with a speedometer, to pinpoint the precise rate at which he ushered his days along, leaning slightly towards one side, apologetically. He wore a hat, and always took it off in the porch, and then made for the same place, his presence his quiet contribution to the clubbish weekday regularity of people who knew where everything was and loved to go and get it.
Beyond the pillars, things got under way. There’d be preliminary scuttling
about, in and out, up and down the altar steps, big pages leafed in one direction and then suddenly in the other, ribbons flicked and reordered. There’d be folding and arranging and the shuffling of every item of the blessed day into its good and proper order and suddenly they’d all be rising for an entry which oddly seemed more stroll than procession and they’d be off and she’d be out, slipping down the side, to snatch at what was left of two hours and smile at her folly.
The father of her children, without unreasonable impatience, put it down to resettlement nerves and ancestor worship, of which he did not entirely disapprove. Both their families were sprinkled with the stuff, a smattering of the old religion. He rather fancied the idea of an ancestor among Robert Aske’s men; though quietly ambivalent towards monastic coffers and the rights of kings, he could fancy forcing a mass on the cathedral at the point of a sword. But no need to overdo it. His post-theism shifted robust about her shoulders like an ill-fitting coat which
had looked so very different in the flattering mirror of her own treacherous imagination. She fell contrary upon poor commandeered Aske, determined to deconstruct the lawyerly, swashbuckling trappings suffocating him. Simmering in a side-chapel, she turned from lighting defiant candles. Behind the regulars and the occasionals, the Polish girl in a canvas jacket chewing the end of her long protest plait and someone attached to a briefcase, signalling the mingling of reason with superstition, she glimpsed the familiar slope of a shoulder. The gentle man of the pew. Mr Aske.
It would be a matter of learning his language, of handling its nouns and verbs and adjectives. She wouldn’t have to think in it. She would simply master enough to navigate its intricacies, its slippages and cunning dovetails, the pities that it nudged one through; what it feared and how it promised and where it warned life’s greatest tricks would lurk, all ready to strip the mind bare.