Dulcie Hanson was conducting a wedding; Paul Meadows was marrying Eileen Glover, and the union was particularly pleasing to all concerned in view of the heartache and upset that had preceded it. (See, 'Dulcie and Paul' for the full story.) She was unaware, of course, of a tragic event taking place about fifty miles to the north. She would see a report, sketchy in detail, on the local evening news, but apart from sorrow and sympathy for those involved, she had no reason to know that she would have a personal part to play in the lives of the survivors.
A young man was pedalling a mountain bike along the narrow secondary road by the Orwell River. It would be fair to say he was 'labouring'. Rather overweight and pasty-faced, his face was moist with sweat and his t-shirt was also wet. Emmanuel Xavier Wagner was American, though living in England. He was a puzzle to his parents who were both confident, out-going professionals. Joseph Wagner was a mid-level diplomat assigned to the U.S. Embassy in London. For whatever reason, he and Simone, his wife, had chosen to live in Colchester rather than in London, and Simone was employed as a teacher in a local private school. The commute to London was, in fact, quite easy. Both parents took care of their health and could not understand their son, shy, reserved in the extreme, overweight and addicted to reading, mainly fiction ... adventure, fantasy, sci-fi ... and romance.
It would not be too strong to suggest Emmanuel disliked his names. Hatred might better describe his feelings about them, but he was stuck with them. The teasing he'd experienced from his peers at school and the bullying that resulted from his inability to shrug off his embarrassment went a long way toward explaining his social discomfort. But he had bravely decided to do something about his weight and general health. When he declared to his mother that he meant to buy a bicycle from his earnings as a very junior library assistant and get some exercise, she was delighted and insisted on going with him and paying for a much better machine than he'd intended.
On the day in question he was hopefully looking forward to a cold drink in the next village.
Some way behind him, Roger Marshall was close to losing his temper. Already driving too fast for the road, his wife Gillian was shrewishly telling him they were going to be late. Their three-year old, cute, blonde daughter, secure in her child seat in the back, was picking up on the tension and sniffling, preparatory to crying in earnest. They shot past the young man just before the blind bend ahead.
The young man winced at the closeness – the car skimmed past him bare inches away – and shook his head as it hurtled into the corner.
There was a screech of brakes and the horrid crunch of crushed metal and shattered safety-glass.
Reaching the corner himself, he saw the mangled car against a wall, a truck, bearing a largish yacht, with signs of the impact on its front off-side, the trucker climbing shakily down from the cab.
The young man stopped, dropped the bike unceremoniously and ran to the car; there was a strong smell of petrol and he heard the child screaming in the back; he wrenched open the door, released her harness and pulled her free, then ran to put some space between the car and his burden and himself.
Can anyone predict a child's reaction? One might expect the screaming to increase, but young Karen calmed and quieted and took a firm hold of her rescuer's neck with both arms and buried her face in the space under his chin. Reaching a grassy bank, he looked back and saw the trucker pulling the woman from the front passenger seat. The reaction hit him and he sank to the ground, the child still clinging to his neck.
Behind the truck, out of sight, another motorist had his mobile out, calling emergency services.
The trucker moved towards the young man and the child, half carrying the woman, who suddenly twisted free of him. "My child! Karen... !"
"She's there, ma'am," the trucker said, pointing. "She's alright."
She looked that way, seeing the child held in the pudgy, pasty-faced, young man's arms and screamed, pulling away from the trucker and rushing to her child.
"You pervert! What do you think you're doing? Let her go!" She was way beyond reason and couldn't – or wouldn't – hear what the trucker was saying. She grabbed Karen and dragged her away from Emmanuel, not noticing that the resistance was from the child's grip on his neck; his arms had fallen away and were wide open. The child, aware only of the hands on her, the sudden, rough attack on her comfort, burst into tears as her arms lost their grip. She wasn't at all happy to be squeezed, not realising initially that it was by her mother's arms.
Emmanuel's eyes widened, and what little colour his face possessed drained away.
The woman backed away, then, turning, looked back at the car.
The trucker moved in front of her. "Don't go there, ma'am ... there's nothing you can do."
The motorist with the mobile, blocked behind the truck, had gone to look in the mangled car. His eyes met those of the trucker and he shook his head.
The woman held her crying child and stared at the wreckage.
A siren sounded in the distance.
The police were first on the scene ... closely followed by paramedics and a fire appliance. The firemen foamed the petrol spill and cut Roger Marshall's body free of the wreck.
A female police constable listened to and recorded a rather hysterical rant from Gillian Marshall; her male colleague a much more coherent and rather different account from the shaking trucker.
It was clear no account of any sort would be obtained that day from Emmanuel Wagner, who was curled up in a tight ball on his side on the grassy verge. Photographs were taken, skid marks measured and, surprisingly, several witness accounts were recorded.
No one really knows how the human mind works ... yet, and there are many theories about why things go wrong. While the accident was traumatic all round, there was no apparent reason for Emmanuel Wagner to retreat into, well, catatonia. It is, by definition, not a rational situation. Gillian Marshall's reaction was similarly unreasonable but explainable in terms of mental defence mechanisms. Her behaviour before and after the accident, a major factor if not the only one, she denied, projecting all the blame on the trucker and Emmanuel.
Karen Marshall just became very quiet and withdrawn.
Dulcie Hanson's first involvement began a few days later.
"Darling," Peter Hanson began, "we've a funeral to handle. I'm sorry to land you with it, but even if I wasn't due at that conference tomorrow, I'd still want you to handle it. Youngish woman with a three-year-old daughter – the father died in an RTA on Saturday last. They are parishioners, but as far as I know, never attended. Tough one, but..."
"I know, lover. Don't worry."
Bereavement visits are never easy, but Dulcie was very good at getting the survivor to open up about their grief and, often, anger. While not exactly looking forward to the visit, she at least felt competent to deal with whatever she met. What she met, though, was, somehow, wrong. She couldn't put a finger on it, but though there was anger and distress enough, she felt uncomfortable.
She didn't say anything beyond explaining who she was and inviting Mrs. Marshall to tell her what had happened. A small, very pretty child sat in the room with them, arms tight round a large soft toy – a panda – almost as big as herself. As the woman talked, Dulcie listened, of course, but part of her mind was praying. When Gillian Marshall eventually wound down, Dulcie sat silent for quite some time.
"My God is not arbitrary," she began, gently, "He is a loving God who chooses, of His love for us, to let us choose our own way. Sadly, and I believe it distresses Him even more than us, sometimes the way people choose leads to tragedy; we call that 'sin' and 'evil'."
She paused and looked at the pretty little girl squeezing her panda comforter. Their eyes met and Dulcie shivered inwardly at the distress she saw there before she turned back to the mother.
"You don't have to make decisions immediately," she went on, "it will be a few days at least before we can have the funeral. But I'll need to talk to you about ... well, about your husband and what he was like, and what sort of service you would like. Whether you would like a service in church, for example, or just at the Crem. Whether you would like some hymns, or just some music, or nothing like that at all. Is there any other family?"
"Yes," Mrs Marshal spoke brusquely, "both our parents are well and will want to come. Roger's ... they're sort of religious. I'll leave the details to them. I ... Roger and I never had anything to do with church except when we married. But Roger..."
Her description of her husband, if even partly accurate, should have qualified him for sainthood...
Dulcie left the house with a number to call for Roger Marshall's parents, a question in her head about Gillian Marshall and an ache in her heart for a three-year-old blonde cutie.
The interview with the Marshalls a day or so later was ... interesting. Roger Marshall's parents questioned Dulcie, very politely but certainly penetratingly, about her personal faith. When, after some minutes of that they finished, she offered; "Mrs. Marshall, Mr. Marshall, if you'd prefer to have your own pastor conduct the service and committal, I would be happy to offer to withdraw, if your daughter-in-law agreed."
The older couple looked at each other, then at Dulcie. The woman shook her head. "Thank you, my dear, but I don't think so. Pastor Bill didn't know Roger either and I think we're more than happy with your personal faith. You say Gillian left it to us to choose the content of the service?"
"That's so. She didn't seem to have much idea..."
"And she's full of anger about the accident..." Mr. Marshall finished off the sentence.
"And, I suspect, you think as we do that there was more to what happened than her account?"
Dulcie cleared her throat and wondered what to say about that.
"Roger ... was far from perfect," Mrs. Marshall put in, "but although he might have exceeded the speed-limit from time to time, he was not usually a careless driver. We ... think ... he was probably distracted as well as driving too fast and the presence of that truck at that moment just unfortunate."
"I was ... a little troubled by the little girl, your grand-daughter."
Mrs. Marshall frowned. "Yes. You know she was pulled from the wreck by a young man? And Gillian then sounded off at him?"
"She seemed to think he ... had an ulterior motive."
The older couple looked at each other. "We ... think she's looking for scapegoats," Mrs. Marshall said.
Dulcie had for some time had the feeling she was treading in a minefield. "Well ... suppose we think about the service... ?"
By the time Dulcie arrived home, she had the material she needed for a service, but was no nearer feeling comfortable about Gillian, or her daughter. Peter was away, but Emma immediately picked up on her discomfort.
"Um ... are you okay, Dulcie?"
"Just a little worried about something," she replied.
"Er ... well ... would you like to talk about it?"
Dulcie smiled at her, genuinely touched by her concern. "Sorry, Emma, but I can't, I'm afraid."
"Okay, I understand, I think ... but me 'n' Rosie could pray for you, if you like?"
Dulcie opened her arms in invitation and Emma went straight to her. "Thank you, Emma. That would be lovely. Yes, please."
Emma held on to the hug a little longer, then gently released herself before bolting upstairs to fetch her friend. Dulcie sank onto a kitchen chair. The two girls each placed a hand on Dulcie's shoulder and spoke very simply, much as they would to a friend, or perhaps a respected teacher, asking God to give Dulcie, wisdom, peace and comfort.
"And, please, God, show her the answer to the problem she's facing."
Dulcie felt a warmth permeating through her, which began at the hands that were resting on her shoulder. She covered them with hers, to make sure the girls didn't leave immediately, and found herself having one of her intimate conversations with her Lord.
"Well, child, it's hard to trust, isn't it?"
"Yes, Lord, it is."
"Well, I promise you'll have all the answers, but not yet. There are three who need my love; you have only met two of them yet. Each has to come to the place where they can recognise their need and the time has to be right. Do as you always do. Reach out in love even though that love seems to be rejected."
Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over and Dulcie turned to the girls. "Rosie, Emma, thank you. That really did help."
"He spoke to you, didn't he?" Rosie spoke with confidence; the question 'that demands the answer yes.'
"How did you know?"
"Oh, that's easy," Emma chuckled, "your face ... sort of glows when you're talking to God. Not all the time, but quite often."
There would have to be an inquest, but the Coroner released the body to the family. The funeral took place a little more than three weeks after the accident; the service held in the Crematorium chapel. They sang 'The Lord's my Shepherd' to Crimond as one of very few hymns that would be known to the majority of the mourners, and listened to a recording of 'Dido's Lament' from Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas'. Dulcie spoke, abandoning her notes in favour of an extempore address that afterwards she would wonder she had the nerve to speak. She could do no other with the words burning within her. Objectively, it should have incensed her listeners, but it didn't.
" ... and so, we struggle to understand why a young man should die so suddenly and we blame God, or circumstances ... anyone except ourselves. Bad things happen because men ... and women ... choose to ignore the laws of God, choose to follow their own wills, which leads to evil. And usually, the people who suffer are not themselves evil. It is vital that we do not deny our own responsibility and slip into bitterness, for that will lead us away from God and truth. I believe in a God of mercy and love, who will treat Roger with love; for Roger is in His hands, now. But we ... we remain, and we have choices to make."
It was not the innocuous, calming, reassuring sermon that might have been expected. After the committal and blessing, Dulcie walked to the back of the chapel and waited for the reaction. Surprisingly, that reaction was positive. Gillian was subdued, as might be expected, but she met Dulcie's eyes and shook her hand, saying quietly,
"You've made me think. Perhaps I could come and talk to you sometime?"
Karen was with her and held up her arms to be lifted. Her arms threatened to strangle Dulcie and she whispered in her ear, "Pway for Mister Cuddles."
Dulcie didn't understand, but she whispered back, "Yes, I will."
The elder Marshalls shook her hand and the man said quietly, "Well done, young lady."
The funeral was done, but the story was barely started.