Delia woke, disoriented for a moment. 'Where am I?' The faint glow of the clock-radio display was sufficient as she reached full consciousness; the room not entirely unfamiliar, for she'd woken there, in that bed, the last few days. Just after six am ... no chance of sleeping again, not once her mind started running over the events of the last two weeks ... and her part in them. The police interviews as she genuinely tried to co-operate with them as they attempted to wring every detail out of her memory, in the process forcing her to confront her culpability. Her guilt threatened to strangle her as she thought of the couple who'd taken her in, despite her complicity in the attempt to abduct the woman. Dulcie Hanson. The Reverend Dulcie Hanson ... who defied her every preconception of 'religious' women. Sighing, she swung her legs out of bed, reaching out for the switch of the bed-side light; the blaze of light searing her eyes before she clamped her eyelids shut.
Once she could cope with the light, she collected clothes; mid-November, it was chilly, the central heating on a low, overnight setting. She dressed quickly, carelessly, and padded downstairs in slippers to make and eat toast, brew and drink coffee. Needing something to occupy her, to distract her from her churning emotions, she washed up the few items from the previous night, wiped and laid the table for breakfast, set up the coffee-maker. It was still not quite seven. She went to the lounge and browsed the bookshelves; perhaps she'd get a clue about what made her hosts ... tick. Her eyes lit on a slim paperback... 'The Screwtape Letters'. C.S. Lewis. The name was familiar; surely he wrote 'The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe'? Children's books? She took the book down and took it back to the kitchen.
'The Screwtape Letters' purport to be a collection of letters from a senior devil to his nephew on 'temptation duty'. It's an easy read, at turns funny and challenging, but always holding one's attention. Delia was gripped and Peter Hanson was in the kitchen before she registered his presence.
"Oh!" She squawked and shot to her feet.
"Hey! Don't worry! Relax," Peter smiled at her. "Dulcie's on her way down."
"I woke early," she said, "so I thought I'd come down and prepare for breakfast. I've had some ... I hope that's okay?"
"Of course. You're a guest. Feel free..."
"Can I cook anything for you?" She moved to the coffee-maker and switched it on.
"I don't usually bother except for toast. You could put some in the toaster, if you don't mind."
"Not at all. Actually ... I don't have a job to go to; Jack earned enough I didn't need to work, but I suppose I'll need to think about that. He won't be working at his job for quite some time ... if ever. I thought I could make myself useful with housework and so on..."
She was getting bread out as she spoke. "Brown, white or what?"
"Oh, brown, please."
She popped a couple of slices of brown bread into the toaster, suddenly aware that her nipples were erect and rubbing on the t-shirt she'd thrown on. "Shit, I should have worn a bra..." The toast popped up and she put it in a toast rack and placed it in front of him. "Crap ... he's got a hard-on. How the hell am I going to handle this?" Turning away, she saw that the coffee-maker was finished dripping and took the jug across to the table. She couldn't look at him as she filled his mug.
"I could heat some milk if you like," she said, her voice a little uneven.
"Thanks, but no thanks; black for me." He took a sip of the dark liquid and nodded approval. "Excellent, thank you." Then, as he spread butter on his toast, "Delia ... you need to talk to Dulcie, preferably this morning." He paused, seeing her stiffen, her expression close with a frown. "Don't worry, please. You haven't done anything wrong ... quite the reverse. Right now ... I hear footsteps on the stairs. Would you put some granary bread in the toaster, please?"
She'd barely started the toaster when Dulcie entered the kitchen and greeted Peter and herself cheerfully. If she noticed Delia's blush, she certainly didn't comment, for which Delia was truly thankful. The two teenage girls ... Rosie and Emma? Followed shortly after, ate their breakfasts and left for school. Peter rose to his feet.
"Dulcie, love, I'll go and lead matins. You and Delia need to have a chat."
Dulcie smiled at him and looked at Delia, who blushed hotly. Dulcie, still smiling shook her head slightly. "Don't worry, I don't bite ... often."
They carried mugs of coffee into the study, where Dulcie waved Delia to the two-seat sofa and pulled the office chair from behind the desk and adjusted it to her preference. Delia nervously perched on the edge of the sofa.
"Delia ... sit back, please and try to relax. I am not angry with you and I am not going to tell you off, whatever you may think."
Delia obediently leaned back in the seat, but remained stiff and silent. A tear trickled down her cheek. Dulcie, apparently quite relaxed, sat and watched for what, to Delia, seemed like an eternity.
"Suppose I tell you some of it and you can tell me if I'm right?" Dulcie leaned forward. "You woke early because there's a lot on your mind, and you threw on whatever clothes were handy. Having had some breakfast, you decided to make yourself useful by setting the table for everyone else. The combination of your confusion, my husband's presence when he arrived and the friction of your nipples on that t-shirt meant you were somewhat aroused. I noticed your nipples pushing at the fabric when I entered the kitchen. At some point, you realised Peter had also noticed and responded to your stiff nipples. You were embarrassed and felt guilty at being roused by my husband..."
Delia's voice was so small as to be almost inaudible, "Yes."
"Well," Dulcie went on, "there's an Italian writer, Giovanni Guareschi, who had one of his characters say 'A priest is not a man ... he's something more, or something less ... it just depends'. I can tell you, Peter is very much a man, despite his undoubted calling as a minister of religion. It's no fault to either of you that you ... respond to each other. I don't mind Peter looking as long as he saves the touching for me. When we first met, he was still married. I loved him from the moment we met, I think, but I also loved Sara, his first wife. I wouldn't have done anything to hurt her and I don't think you'd do anything to hurt me."
In a very slightly stronger voice, Delia said, "Thank you."
"So relax. You're our guest, so you don't need to be all formal all the time. If you think about it, it might be an idea to put on a bra, but you don't have to worry about my husband. If he gets horny, he'll save it for me ... and I get the benefit."
Delia blushed. "Oh, Dulcie..."
"So, Delia, what are you going to do today?"
"Um ... I think I ... could I borrow a car, do you think? It's really cheeky ... but I could do with getting some clothes from home. I think ... I will put our house on the market, too."
"Don't rush into selling your home, Delia. Wait until you're sure you won't need it. Use my car by all means, though. I have some visits to do, but they're all nearby and I'd walk anyway."
The house felt cold. Not physically – the central heating had been working away industriously all the time it had been unoccupied – but it was an emotional chill. Delia collected a supply of clothes and winced at some of the contents of her wardrobe. She found a suitcase, packed it and carried it downstairs to leave it by the door. After some thought, she put the heating on a caretaker setting, set a couple of lights to come on at a random period, locked up, set the alarm and left without looking back.
She returned to the Rectory and carried her case to her room before going to the kitchen in time to make sandwiches for lunch.
The girls being at school, it was just Dulcie and Peter, who expressed their appreciation at her efforts in the kitchen; after which she asked Dulcie if there was anything she'd like her to do.
"If you're really willing, then, yes ... there's quite a lot you could do to help. If the phone rings it goes to voicemail after so many rings, but a real human voice is much better even if all you say is 'I'll make a note of your name and number and Dulcie or Peter will call you back'. I'd be grateful if you could run the vac over, certainly downstairs. How do you feel about gardening, that sort of thing? There's not a lot to do outside at this time of year, of course, except some sweeping up. For now, I'd better be here when Rosie and Emma get home from school. I hope you're not offended, but I need to check with them about whether they're comfortable with you..."
"Not at all. I'd expect nothing else. And, well, I don't have much experience with housekeeping and gardening, that sort of thing; we used to have someone come in. I can cook, a little. We always had caterers when we were entertaining. Dulcie ... you've been very kind, but I know I've got a long way to go to earn people's trust."
"Not as far as you think, Delia. I need to go; I have a couple of visits to make if I can. I'll be back at four. Perhaps we could work together on supper and then I want to tell you something about myself."
Delia vacuumed and dusted. When that didn't fill the time completely, she made a start on sorting the books on the shelves by categories and authors but hadn't got far when Rosie and Emma arrived, followed shortly after by Dulcie.
Dulcie and Delia went to the kitchen and Dulcie told her guest what was available to work with. Delia suggested a fish pie with carrots and cabbage with a steamed sponge to follow.
"Could you do that?"
"No problem; I've made those many times."
"Would you mind if I went and caught up on some things?"
"Not at all – I'm only too pleased to be useful."
Dulcie didn't go straight to her office, though. She found Rosie and Emma in their room, reading. She asked them how they felt about Delia.
"Actually," Rosie said, "I think ... I like her. I'm shocked, really, I'd think I would hate her, but I don't."
Emma agreed. "I don't think she'd do anything to hurt us," she said, "in fact I think in time I could confide in her. Not yet though."
"I'm asking," Dulcie said, "because it would simplify things for me if you didn't mind being on your own in the house with her."
"Oh! I don't mind that at all," Emma said. Rosie just nodded in agreement.
"In that case," Dulcie said, "I'll leave you to your studies and get on with mine!"
"You're still studying?" That was Rosie, but both girls were showing their surprise.
"Oh, yes ... you never really stop. Actually, I'm just working through the Greek text of next Sunday's Gospel reading. Not really critical this time, but sometimes it throws up something about the original that doesn't really show in the translation."
"Wow! You read Greek?" That was Emma.
"Yes, and Hebrew. It was a requirement of my course. Many of my contemporaries let it go as soon as they could, but I thought it important to keep it up." She smiled at them and left the room, heading for her study, followed by the eyes of the two girls.
"Wow!" Rosie watched Dulcie leave the room. "I knew Dulcie was great, but I didn't know ... actually I didn't think about what she had to learn to be a vicar."
"No ... French is bad enough, but at least it's a Latin alphabet. Makes you think, doesn't it?"
Delia's fish pie was a great success and drew compliments from the other four. The steamed syrup sponge and custard produced something akin to awe. "So light and fluffy," commented Dulcie.
"Delicious," confirmed Peter Hanson,
"Could I have a little more?" was Emma's verdict.
"Oh, me too!" was Rosie's.
When everyone was finished eating, Dulcie said; "Leave the washing-up for the moment, Delia, and come to the study, please."
"We'll wash up," Emma offered as Rosie nodded vigorously.
"Thank you, girls, that's very kind," opined Peter.
"Delia?" Dulcie stood at the door, looking questioningly at her.
Delia nodded and followed her to the study.
Dulcie told her story ending with, "So, you see, I was at rock bottom. I was an addict, selling my body ... except I was so scruffy no-one wanted me by the time I walked into the church. I was going to try to seduce the Vicar, Peter, to get a bed for the night, food, money for drugs. I took one look at Sara, his wife and knew he wouldn't be interested in me, not that way. They took me in, let me bathe, gave me clothes and food ... prayed for me and the craving for drugs almost went away. The next day ... I met Jesus. I haven't touched drugs since and have no desire to."
"What ... happened to Sara?"
A grimace of pain twisted Dulcie's face and Delia regretted asking the question.
"She ... died. Someone threw a television over a balcony from one of the flats and it hit her head. She died before we could get to see her. But she knew, you know. Before it happened, she made me promise to look after Peter if something happened to her."
"And you did..."
"And I did. Not that I had any choice in the matter; I was hopelessly in love with him almost from the start. Sara knew that, too. She ... visited us, you know. But I still feel a little guilty sometimes, that Peter and I are together because Sara died."
"It's not a ... panacea, then, knowing God?"
"Oh, no, not at all. The hardest thing ... is not being forgiven, it's accepting the forgiveness ... or maybe forgiving oneself."
Delia nodded. "Yes ... you're right."
"And, of course," Dulcie added slowly, "we often have difficulty forgiving others. I suspect..." she raised an eyebrow at Delia, "you blame your husband ... Jack? For getting you into the situation."
Delia's jaw dropped. "Yes. It's not entirely fair, but getting involved with ... you know ... was his idea. But I know I didn't have to go along with it. I should have asked more about where the young girls came from..."
"You probably wouldn't have got a straight answer – perhaps not a truthful one either."
"Maybe not ... but I didn't try. I'm going to have to visit Jack..."
"Would you like me to come too?"
"Certainly. I don't think you should go alone. Not wanting to frighten you, I'm not worried about Jack, I'm worried about what he opened himself up to. I don't think anyone involved really understood the dangers of what they were doing."
Delia sat, silent, for several minutes, while Dulcie just sat. "It's strange," thought Delia, this could be uncomfortable, but it isn't. Dulcie ... radiates ... what? Serenity, I suppose. I get the jitters just thinking about what's happened to her, yet she not only copes with it, she supports and encourages those round her. How does she do it?" She looked at Dulcie and their eyes met.
Dulcie smiled. "I'm not Superwoman, you know..."
"It's easy enough to guess when you look at me like that. You're right; I should have had the 'screaming hab-dabs' on several occasions, not to mention 'All Hallow's Eve'. But, you see, I trust in the promises I've been given, because God has never let me down. I just ... lean ... on Him. And when that's hard, I've always got Peter ... and friends like Harry and Lydia Banks. Sometimes it's ... as if my prayers bounce off the ceiling and I just have to trust He hears them. That's when the church is important. Then there're times, like this one, where I'm talking to someone with a problem and I am so sure of everything I believe it comes across to them. I have been accused of arrogance sometimes..." Dulcie's smile broadened.
"I can't imagine anyone thinking you were arrogant..."
"Well ... if someone's struggling, perhaps facing having preconceptions or prejudices challenged, having someone project total confidence is annoying, I think."
"You've certainly given me something to think about..."
"Eventually, you're going to need to stop thinking. Like swimming; if you're going to swim, you've got to take your feet off the bottom, let go of the side ... and swim. Faith isn't reasonable, it's a matter of trust, 'being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we cannot see.' But I think you've had enough for one night; I'd like to pray with you, if that's okay."
Delia nodded. "I don't really know ... never really thought about ... God, but ... okay."
Dulcie nodded in her turn but didn't begin immediately, instead sitting, eyes closed, still and apparently relaxed. Delia, who had begun by closing her eyes, puzzled, looked at her.
"Dear Lord, my sister is uncertain, confused and troubled ... guide her in the way to peace ... Amen."
Delia, eyebrows raised, was about to comment on the brevity of Dulcie's prayer, but instead found herself weeping and saying, over and over "I'm sorry ... I'm sorry..."
Dulcie stayed until Delia's expression changed and her apologies (clearly not addressed to Dulcie) ceased, then left her in the study. The girls had left the kitchen tidy; she found them and her husband sitting in the lounge, watching 'Friends' on DVD and settled down to join them.
Delia came in some time later, but only stayed long enough to whisper, "Thank you," in Dulcie's ear, adding, "I'm really tired, so I'll head off to bed. See you in the morning."
When she left, Peter looked at his wife with an eyebrow raised; she responded with a smile and a nod ... he smiled too and returned his attention to the television.