Dulcie Hanson, the Reverend Dulcie Hanson, was unsettled. Incidentally, her name is pronounced with a hard 'c' – 'Dull-key' – she'd insisted on that because that was the way her Grandfather (the only member of her family that had really cared about her) always said it. She left the Vicarage and crossed the road to the small, modern church building in inner-city Sheffield. She unlocked the door, her usual sadness that locking the church was necessary surfacing briefly, and entered, shutting the door behind her but not locking it.
Walking to the front of the nave, she sat in one of the upholstered chairs in the front row and stared at the crucifix on the high altar. The agonised figure hanging there. Why was pain such a part of faith? Standing, she walked into the sanctuary and prostrated herself – face down, arms spread in mimicry of the crucified figure, a handkerchief folded under her face to collect the tears she knew she would be shedding. Why, Lord? Must we go? Must I leave my family, the people I love, that love me ... my home?
Peter Hanson, Vicar and Dulcie's husband, walked quietly down the aisle. He, too took a seat at the front of the nave, looking at the crucifix, watching his wife as her shoulders shook.
Dulcie gradually calmed, relaxing into the loving Presence she'd been avoiding for days, finding peace at last, though not without pain.
Peter, sensing the change, moved to the organ. The sound of the blower winding up always sounded loud, today it was thunderous, but he slid onto the bench before it, selected a couple of the quietest stops – the Celeste and Dulciana – and began to play; a short chorus that Dulcie and he knew well.
After a couple of repetitions, she moved from her face to her knees and, extending her hands as if offering, began to sing, her soprano a little uneven, but strengthening and clearing as she continued;
"All my life, Lord, to You I want to give,
this is my worship, please show me how to live.
Take every part of me, make it Your own,
Me on the Cross, Lord, You on the throne."
Then, changing key, not waiting for Peter, expecting him of follow her or leave her to sing a capella;
"All I once held dear, built my life upon,
all this world reveres, and wars to own;
all I once thought gain I have counted loss
spent and worthless now, compared to this;
knowing You, Jesus, knowing You
there is no greater thing.
You're my all, You're the best,
You're my joy, my righteousness,
and I love You Lord..."
Her voice trailed away. Rising, she moved to the altar rail, genuflected and crossed herself; not something she would normally do – a conscious physical expression of her surrender - then, turning, came face to face with her husband and walked into the circle of his arms.
"Okay," she said, her voice steady once more. "Will you let them know we accept the appointment today?"
Their friends at St. Jude's the Obscure were perhaps more upset than Dulcie; she'd been so much a part of the life of the church which was now thriving largely because of her. They had three months to say their goodbyes, then a last party for their friends in and out of the church family. Dulcie and Peter were deeply touched by the obvious love that was shown to them and could only hope and pray that the people of St. Jude's would continue in their walk of faith.
Their last service was a celebration. Peter insisted that Dulcie preside at the Communion Table and that he serve. At the end, old Harry Banks, with Mike and Helen, laid hands on them, anointed them and prayed they would see their way clearly. Everyone wanted to touch them and say goodbye; some would be travelling down to Essex to be at Peter's induction and Dulcie's licensing.
Paul Meadows got the message in Athens. 'Come home, Linda needs you.' There was no indication of urgency. Linda? Why would Linda Cameron need him? She'd broken off with him when he'd announced his intention to spend a year or so cruising the Mediterranean. He didn't want to leave his boat, Aglaia, in Greece and travel across country or fly back to Britain ... but a four thousand miles or so voyage home? He decided to sail home, leaving as soon as he could provision Aglaia, making the best time he could. It would take not less than forty days, he thought, sailing solo.
He made good progress in the Med; with fortunate slants of wind Aglaia sailed sweetly; eighteen days after leaving Athens he was clear of the Straits of Gibraltar and turning north. Another three days with reliable south-westerly winds saw him turning north-east across the Bay of Biscay which then lived up to its reputation for bad weather; He was hove to for twenty-four hours before the weather moderated and then making progress under mizzen and fore-sail; the rough sea slowing progress. Normally progress up channel would have been straightforward with south-westerly winds, but unusually he faced easterlies, the four hundred miles or so becoming more like eight hundred, beating in long tacks. There's a sea-song about the journey up channel against a foul wind ... the landfalls; Dodman, Rame Head, Start, Portland, Wight...
By the Isle of Wight he was exhausted from sailing and cat-napping and anchored in the Solent for a long sleep. When he set off he chose a favourable tidal flow and he was favoured by westerly winds. So it was eight days to Dover from Ushant. Turning north again he arrived in the mouth of the Blackwater in the early evening with the ebb just beginning so he anchored and slept soundly until roused by his alarm at five am, to complete the journey to Maldon Hythe Quay by high water just before eight am.
He moored alongside the visitors' pontoon and went in search of breakfast in the Crystal Café on the High Street. Only then did he ring his friend to find out ... why the summons?
"Paul – she's in Farleigh Hospice."
"She's dying, Paul."
Stunned, he punched off the call, sitting on the quay oblivious of the tourists gawping at the old barges moored there. Linda, dying? Feelings he'd suppressed for months flooded back – anger, rejection, confusion ... love.
What to do? Farleigh was in Chelmsford, twelve miles away ... but he'd sailed four thousand miles – what was another twelve?
The bus service (oh, how he hated buses) was really not at all bad and he was able to get off barely an hour after deciding to visit the Hospice, to walk the few yards to the place. It was an attractive modern building and entering, he found it light and airy. An attractive young woman at reception directed him to Linda's room.
He didn't recognise the skeletal woman asleep, comatose? In the bed. He checked the name on the door again, and the name over the head of the hospital bed. It was her, but there was no trace of the beauty that had captivated him; she was skin and bone, her head bald from the effect of the chemical poisons used to fight the cancer but just showing a fuzz of new growth.
But then her eyes opened and met his. A moment of confusion, then...
"Paul ... why? Oh..." She closed her eyes for a few seconds, "Jimmy, huh? He never could leave well alone." Her eyes closed again and he thought she'd gone back to sleep, but after a while she looked at him again. "Won't you sit, Paul? You've come a long way."
He hesitated, but it made sense and he pulled a chair round so he could sit facing her, reached out and took her hand. He still hadn't spoken.
"I didn't want you to see me like this," she said, "I didn't want to get ill and spoil your voyage."
"You knew? You knew this was coming and didn't tell me?" It came out more as a croak.
"I knew ... I didn't want to tie you down, take away your dream..."
They were silent then as he continued to hold her hand, tears beginning to trickle, unheeded, down his cheeks.
A couple, a young woman and an older man in nursing uniforms, entered the room.
"Would you excuse us, sir? We need to tend to Linda and see if she'll eat. If you'd like to get some lunch, perhaps, and come back in an hour?"
He nodded, becoming aware of the tears on his cheeks. Embarrassed, he hastily wiped his face with a handkerchief and left. He felt he needed fresh air and walked the half-mile or so to the town centre for a sandwich and coffee.
When he returned, Linda was more alert but there were signs of strain in her face.
"I had them reduce the dosage on the pump," she said, "I didn't want to sleep the time away if you're here."
"I think..." he stopped, fumbling for words, "Linda, I think there was something you didn't ... perhaps still don't ... understand. It wouldn't have been a burden to put off sailing for a few months. I loved ... I love you. I hate it that you've been suffering and I haven't been here to try to help. It nearly broke my heart when you sent me away."
She squeezed his hand feebly. "I'm annoyed with Jimmy for telling you, but ... thank you for coming. I'm glad you're here though I really don't like you seeing me like this."
For perhaps half an hour he told her of sailing in the Mediterranean; visiting places he'd only read about. Pompeii, Rome and Capri, Delphi, Corinth and Athens. He described sitting in the Oracle's cave at Delphi and the sense of history that was almost oppressive.
"But you came back."
"But I came back." He stood, seeing the tension round her eyes denoting pain. "I won't be long," he said, leaving the room.
He found a member of staff and told her that Linda appeared to be in pain and that he'd be leaving shortly; she followed him back to the room. Linda put up a token resistance, but Paul promised to return the next day and left the hospice to catch the bus back to Maldon.
Peter had been inducted as Rector of St. Mary the Virgin Maldon and Dulcie licensed to officiate as NSM (non-stipendiary minister). It represented an enormous change for both of them, though more for Dulcie. The church is Anglo-Catholic, placing great emphasis on sacrament and ritual. Peter was accustomed to many of the practices as he'd used them at St. Jude's but the symbolism was taken much more seriously at St. Mary's. However, they'd been welcomed and accepted and were gradually finding a place among their people; gradually becoming used to the very different accents, the flat vowels and different intonations. They both loved the old building with its sense of centuries of prayer and worship, the excellent pipe organ and choir, but from time to time longed for some simple songs accompanied by guitar.
Dulcie particularly enjoyed having the church open so anyone could walk in, to look round, sit and rest or pray. She'd often walk in to sit quietly herself, reaching out for the Presence that had changed her life and seeking reassurance that they'd made the right choice in moving.
She'd seen the travel-stained yacht at the visitors' pontoon and wondered about its owner before buying tea at one of the kiosks and chatting to the proprietor. Workers and owners of the small water-front businesses had begun to know and like the young Rector and his pretty wife. Having finished her tea (and Eccles cake) she walked back to the church. It was late afternoon; time to return to the Rectory to do something about tea. She noticed him immediately; sitting in a pew, gazing at the Pieta, his shoulders shaking as he wept. Without consciously thinking, she quietly went to sit near him.
He only gradually became aware of her presence. When he looked at her she saw devastation in his eyes and her heart went out to him.
"May I pray for you?"
He just looked at her for long seconds, then nodded without speaking. She reached out and laid her hand on his shoulder and began to pray, not fighting for words, but allowing her God to work through her. For some time, he couldn't understand what she was saying but then some words became clear;
"Son ... will you trust Me? I will turn your grief to joy if you will let me. Linda is my daughter as you can be my son."
The the words were strange again as feelings of warmth, comfort and peace crept through him. Her voice changed again, taking on an unmistakeable authority.
"May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you, now and always."
He looked at her in amazement. "How did you know about Linda?"
"Know? I knew nothing, just followed the direction of the Spirit."
"But..." he looked at her and she seemed to blur; she smiled and he saw an attractive young woman, he blinked and saw a woman wearing a dog-collar and an air of authority. Which was she? Either? Both.
"My name is Dulcie," she said. "I'm ordained myself, but my husband is Rector here. I think ... if you'd like, you could come home with me and we'll give you something to eat and tell you anything you want to know. If we know it ourselves, of course!"
He nodded, a little dazed and very puzzled. "Thank you. Some food would be good and some answers would be very welcome."
They sat in the Rectory kitchen as Dulcie prepared Lasagne.
"We've only been here a couple of months," she said, "we were in a church in Sheffield. I've never lived anywhere but in the city and this is culture shock! But people are people and God is God, and this is where He wants us."
"I don't understand how you can say that ... It's as though you know what God thinks."
"In a small way, a limited way, that refers to myself, or Peter, or some of the people we come into contact with ... I do. You see..." she paused. "This isn't a secret, but I don't advertise it. Eight ... no, nearly nine years ago, I was a prostitute. I was heavily addicted to heroin and right at rock bottom. Peter and Sara – Sara was his first wife, she died ... tragically – took me in and ... I met Jesus. It's the only thing I can say. I was freed of my addiction – never had any withdrawal symptoms or craving since. Most of the time, to some extent, I'm aware of the presence of God and sometimes I say something without knowing why, but it strikes right at the heart of a person's problems."
"Like when you were praying for me..."
"Just like that. You see, because I know what happened to me and things that have happened to others that I've seen, I know God cares and sometimes works a miracle."
"I could use a miracle right now."
"I can't promise you one ... but what happened in the church suggests to me God has something in mind for you"
"I can't imagine you as a prostitute..." he spoke without thinking. Dulcie wasn't offended though and just smiled gently.
"Can you not? Desperation makes people do all sorts of things they'd not choose to do if they had a choice." She looked sad, then added, "Sadly, not everyone is willing to take a chance on changing."
Peter Hanson came in shortly after that, was introduced, and they sat down to eat. As they finished, he glanced at his watch. "I'm going across to say Evening Prayer," he said, his glance at his wife a question.
"Evening Prayer was my first encounter with Peter and God," Dulcie said. "I try to join him as often as I can, but if you prefer I will wait here with you until he returns..."
He thought about it. He could return to Aglaia, or accept the implied invitation. There was nothing waiting for him at the boat, nothing that mattered anyway.
"I'll come with you," he said, "it's been a long time since I attended any sort of church service, though."
The 'offices' – morning and evening prayer, sometimes shorter monastic services like Compline, are said services. Evening Prayer is sometimes choral, when it's called Evensong, and hymns may be sung at any. But some ministers use the said services as a form of spiritual discipline ... Peter and Dulcie among them. While they didn't expect anything remarkable, they knew his willingness to accompany them was significant.
He found the ... exercise ... to be valuable. He sank into a hazy sort of state in which his previous distress retreated, at least temporarily, from dominating his consciousness. Afterwards, Dulcie and Peter asked him about Linda.
He told them about asking her to accompany him on his cruise around the historical sites of the Mediterranean; how she'd turned him down, making him think she didn't love him. How her brother had left messages for him to call him back; how he'd found her in the Hospice, clearly near death and she'd admitted that she'd concealed her illness and sent him away because she'd loved him and didn't want to burden him. How he was half angry with her, half desperately unhappy for her, and didn't know what to do.
"Were you going to go back tomorrow?" Dulcie enquired gently.
"Yes ... yes I was. I can't stay away now."
"Would ... would you like us to come with you? I can't promise a miracle – I said that before – but if she's willing, we'd be glad to pray for her."
This was outside his experience and rather uncomfortable. His impression of this sort of ... religion ... was that it was more about self-deception than anything real. But ... he had nothing to lose, did he?
"Yes, please," he said simply.
"If you'd like to come up to the church at eight o'clock for morning prayer, we'll give you some breakfast and drive you to Chelmsford afterwards. Or come at eight-thirty when we should have finished," Dulcie said.
Why not? There was nothing else pressing. "Okay," he said, "I'll see you in the morning."