Tuesday in Holy Week...
Dulcie's heart was heavy with dread as she unlocked the Rectory door. It was not the first time she'd experienced such a thing and she did not know what was wrong. She took off her coat and was about to hang it up when the phone rang.
"Dulcie, you need to be at the church right now." There was something in Arthur Glover's voice that intensified her fear until she could hardly move. She closed her eyes and her lips moved silently. The darkness receded a little, enough that she was able to move, to shrug into her coat and leave the house again. She retained enough of habit to lock the door again before setting off running to the church.
In Church Street, she saw blue strobes. An ambulance stood, doors wide open, at the church gate, a Police patrol car behind. She sped up, pain burning in her side; a currently irrelevant thought flitted through her mind that she'd let herself get out of condition. Through the gate, fortunately recognised by the Police officer standing by the church door, then, gasping, she ran down the centre aisle to the group in the chancel, terror building. "Oh, God ... not Peter. Please, not Peter..."
But it was Peter, and the paramedics were carefully moving his inert body to a stretcher.
She was only peripherally aware of another activity, two Police officers manoeuvring a struggling man towards the door.
"Is he... ?"
The paramedic at his head looked around. "He's still alive, just. You're his wife? You'd better come with us."
No tears, just an icy lump where her heart should be. The siren, the jerking of the uneven road, swerving through the traffic scattering to let the vehicle through. The rush and bustle, rolling the stretcher into Accident and Emergency. Standing, holding Peter's limp hand as the staff moved systematically, professionally, round her.
A bubble of silence and light around her, voices, machines, muffled. A familiar scent in her nostrils and the sensation of an arm round her shoulders; warm breath on her ear. Two of Peter – a limp body, and a somehow more substantial living one, smiling at her.
"Dulcie, my love."
"Let go, my love. Let go, and step back. Please?"
Reluctantly, her fingers relaxed and released the limp hand; slowly, she retreated, somehow aware of warm arms holding her. Less aware of the continuous note of the monitor, the changed activity in the room.
"Mrs. Hanson?" She turned toward the voice; a man in blood-stained blue scrubs, mask loose on his upper chest.
"I'm Dulcie Hanson." She pronounced her name with a hard 'c' ... Dullkey ... the way her dear Grandfather used to.
"I'm sorry, Mrs ... I mean," he saw the clerical collar and recognised the woman in front of him. "Reverend."
"Dulcie will do, Richard. It has done until now, hasn't it?"
"I'm sorry, Dulcie. We did everything we could, but..."
"I know, Richard. Thank you, and thank your colleagues."
She turned and made her way to the waiting area, where she found a seat; plastic, hard and uncomfortable, but there, and sat. An hour – perhaps more – she sat. Then a voice.
"Dulcie ... still here?"
The doctor, Richard Chesterman, now in slacks and a sweater in place of the scrubs – tall, salt-and pepper hair.
"Oh, Richard ... I just sat, you know. I didn't know what to do."
"I'm off duty. Can I give you a lift? Or perhaps you'd like me to call someone?"
"A lift? Are you sure it isn't out of your way?"
"I live in Danbury. A few miles more would be no problem. I'd ... like to help, if I may?"
Dulcie took a deep breath and stood, slowly. "Thank you. I probably should get home. I'll need to make some phone calls."
She entered the Rectory and walked on leaden legs through the house to the kitchen. Tea. Loose-leaf tea in a proper pot. Served in a bone-china cup and saucer.
Flash-back; she was a dirty, emaciated, drug addicted prostitute, sitting at the kitchen table of an inner-city Sheffield church Vicarage. Peter and his first wife, Sara; tea, in a bone-china cup. The same cup, or one of the same set, that she was sipping from. A hint of a once-familiar scent – Sara. The sense of loving presence.
Footsteps on the polished wooden hall floor. "Dulcie?" Emma's voice, then her hand on Dulcie's shoulder. Lighter footsteps, stopping just inside the kitchen. "Dulcie?"
The tears Dulcie hadn't shed erupted, soundlessly, and dripped on the table, into the cup, onto her hands.
Dulcie shook her head, her throat too tight to form words.
Two chairs scraped on the floor. Emma's hand back on the shoulder, then another, lighter touch; Liina, the young orphan, rescued from a white slavery ring just months before. Then an arm from each girl round Dulcie and a head on each shoulder, the only comfort they could offer as they, too, began to mourn.
The door-bell rang and Emma went to answer it. It was Arthur Glover, a member of the church council and a friend of Dulcie and Peter's.
He sat opposite Dulcie and reached to take her hand. "Dulcie, I'm so sorry. I've rung the Bishop. He ... I suggested he ask your friend Harry Banks to come. He said he thought that would be good ... Sasha said she and Malcolm would prepare a meditation for tomorrow – the mid-day service."
Dulcie husked something, cleared her throat. "She is a treasure. So is Malcolm. You all are, Arthur, Emma, Liina ... everyone. Thank you for coming, Arthur..."
"I had to," he said simply. "You and Peter ... you've done so much for us. You know we all love you, Dulcie."
Dulcie lifted her eyes for the first time to his and a watery smile touched her lips. "I know. That's why I haven't collapsed completely."
"I don't suppose you feel like eating," he commented, "but I'm sure you had no lunch, and it's now..." he looked at his watch, "nearly seven o'clock. You should eat."
"There is soup," Liina's voice from Dulcie's left. "I will put it in the saucepan to heat."
"Good girl," Arthur said, glancing at the young girl. Then his attention back on Dulcie, "I need to get home, though. Angela needs to know what's happened, and Carli and Jen, too. Dulcie, you know that if we can help in any way, you have only to call?"
Later, Dulcie lay, naked as usual, in the bed that was now much too large. It wasn't the first time since their marriage she'd been alone in bed, but always before she'd known he would be back. There was a large, black, cold, dead space inside her as she lay awake.
The door whispered open, and a slight figure, silhouetted by the night-lights in the landing, slipped in. Dulcie felt the bed move as Liina slipped in beside her. "You should not be alone," the girl whispered, snuggling up against her. The darkness receded just a little
A few minutes later, a second, taller figure entered the room and slipped into the other side of the bed and spooned up behind Dulcie. The dark space shrank some more, and Dulcie slept enfolded in the arms and love of the two she and Peter had taken in to their home and their lives.
When she woke in the morning, Dulcie was still held in Liina's arms. The young girl was already awake and watching. "We love you, Dulcie. Do not forget that we love you." Dulcie nodded and held Liina in her arms, her eyes closed, and breathed deeply, deliberately. "Breakfast will be ready when you get downstairs. There is no hurry, but you might like to go to Matins," the young girl added.
When Dulcie got out of bed, Liina led her to the shower and washed her tenderly, afterwards patting her dry and picking out clean clothes for her to wear. Thus, Dulcie entered the kitchen in jeans, but with a blue shirt having a clerical collar. Dulcie had made a small protest when handed the shirt. "I'm not sure I want to be 'Reverend' today."
"It is a part of who you are. You need to hold on to all that you are."
Dulcie looked at Liina in surprise. "You are wise, little one."
She managed to swallow a slice of toast, despite nausea, and sipped from the mug, but made a face, then lurched to her feet and dived for the sink, retching. Having emptied her stomach, she staggered back to the table. "I'm sorry, girls." Emma handed her a glass of water and she nodded her thanks. "Can't think why I did that..."
Matins, in the side chapel, was a comforting routine led by Malcolm Stevenson. When it ended, Dulcie sat silently, unable to pray even internally, but looking up at the crucifix on the altar. Words came, unbidden. "I want to know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, so, somehow, to enter into eternal life."
"Peter had to die, so I could know the fellowship of Your suffering? I don't want to think You could be so cruel..." For once, there was no immediate, comforting answer.
Dulcie stood, and walked out of the building; Liina was waiting outside. "I'm going to walk along the prom," she told the young girl.
"May I come?"
"Please do, Liina." They set off, turning right out of the gate to head down the short hill to the Hythe. The lump of darkness in Dulcie's middle, which had grown again, receded once more when Liina slipped her hand into Dulcie's. On the quay, she was greeted time and again by friends; Tom Carmichael, Gerry Westwood, several of the barge crews. Each had something, perhaps a quiet, 'I'm sorry' or a touch on the arm or shoulder, to try to communicate sympathy, compassion ... and love.
On the return from the end of the prom, they met Grace Quinton who was pushing a buggy, her son Peter toddling alongside and Erica, her daughter, running ahead. Erica wrapped her arms round Dulcie's legs, while Peter, when he got there, lifted his arms in a request to be picked up. When Dulcie lifted him, he kissed her cheek and snuggled his face into her neck.
"They don't really understand," Grace commented, "but they know something is wrong."
So much support; so much love. It was like being cocooned in a warm nest. But the dead space remained an icy, leaden lump within her.
Sasha and Malcolm led a simple meditation on psalm 22 at mid-day; the psalm quoted by Christ as he hung on the cross; "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?" ("My God, My God – why hast Thou forsaken me?"). She half wondered if the choice was deliberate – it was, after all, one of the regularly used passages for the season.
She managed a sandwich and black tea for lunch, but at what would have been tea-time she was being driven – Emma wouldn't let her drive – to Witham, to meet the train bringing Harry and Lydia Banks. She saw them alight from the train, saw them catch sight of her and hurry towards her. Lydia's embrace, comforting, compassionate ... more than that, conferring peace, an enfolding of love. Harry watching, a sad smile on his face as he watched his wife exercise her precious gift.
Back at the Rectory, Liina had ordered a delivery from a local Chinese restaurant when Emma called to say Lydia and Harry had arrived. Both their guests were hungry after an afternoon of rail travel and Dulcie even managed a smile as she recognised that Emma had told Liina all her favourite dishes. For the first time in over twenty-four hours, Dulcie ate a full meal.
Neither Lydia nor Harry tried to talk much to Dulcie beyond normal sympathy, or to get her to say anything. They were sure she would talk when she was ready. Instead, they, with Emma and Liina, sat with her, touched her, and prayed for her. Once more, the two girls joined her in bed and their presence comforted her.
The following day, her friends accompanied her to the church for Matins. The Police tape across the Chancel was gone, Peter's blood removed. There was now no sign of the assault that had taken place. Make that ... no physical sign. Matins took place in the side chapel. Once the short service was over and most of the congregation had left, Lydia said to both Dulcie and Harry, "There is a most unhappy presence in the Chancel."
"Yes, you're right," Harry responded.
"Oh ... that's what it is!" Dulcie looked at her friends. "I couldn't ... I mean ... oh, I can't ... I don't know, Harry." She closed her eyes, her lips moving silently, then opened them and went to stand where her husband had lain in the chancel. She closed her eyes again and just stood.
Harry disappeared, returning with linen, chalice and paten, bread and wine, which he placed on the altar.
Dulcie's eyes widened. "Yes, of course. Harry, will you... ?"
"It is your place, Dulcie."
Her voice steady and firm, she recited the prayer of consecration. Broke the bread and lifted the cup.
"Are you alright, Dulcie?" Lydia's voice came from close by.
Dulcie shook her head, "No, but I will be." She looked and saw a small line of people kneeling at the chancel step. "Will you take the cup, Lydia, please?" Starting with Lydia, she gave bread to each person... "The Body of Christ, for you ... Lydia ... Harry ... Arthur ... Stephen ... Emma ... Liina..." and lastly, took some for herself; "for you, Dulcie." She watched Lydia place and tip the cup at each person's lips, and knelt as the older woman approached her.
"Dulcie; the Blood of Christ, shed for you. Drink this remembering Christ died for you, and be thankful."
Dulcie sipped, and tears flowed down her cheeks, but she stood and finished the little ceremony, aware that the atmosphere was lighter, if not her heart. She pronounced the seasonal blessing, ending with the dismissal; "Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord."
The voices of her tiny congregation were firm with the response, "In the name of Christ, Amen."
Dulcie mechanically finished the bread and wine, cleaned and put away the chalice and paten, walked out of the vestry into the nave and into Lydia's arms ... broke down and wept.
She recovered enough to conduct the evening Maundy Thursday communion. Normally, it would have been a small, intimate affair, but the little church was packed. There was no sermon, as Peter had planned. Instead, the service itself was the sermon, following the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. Harry assisted Dulcie. At the 'Peace', it seemed ... probably was ... that every person present wanted to embrace Dulcie and wish her, 'The Peace of the Lord, Dulcie.' She couldn't help, again, the tears that flowed and she was far from the only one. The service over-ran by an hour.
On Good Friday, it is traditional to hold a vigil, fasting, from mid-day to three in the afternoon, corresponding to the last three hours of Christ's ordeal on the cross. Usually, there would be a handful of people and they would change as folk called in for perhaps half an hour or an hour. On that day, though, the church was full and many stayed for the whole three hours. Dulcie didn't lead the meditations, though; Harry and Lydia shared that.
Each evening, Dulcie retired to the bed that seemed too large, but was joined by Emma and Liina who sandwiched her between them.
At length, it was Easter morning. Harry led the sunrise service on the quay, but Dulcie stood at the Altar in church for the morning communion, the bright vestments shining. She didn't feel bright or excited by the resurrection morning, but as she emerged from the vestry something changed in her. She was carried along, uplifted by something both strange and familiar. Her friends would remark afterwards that she seemed to glow. At the sermon, it had been intended that Harry speak, but instead Dulcie moved to the Chancel steps.
Words came to her, unbidden, flowing smoothly. Words that touched each heart bringing here a smile, there, tears, but no-one was unmoved as she ended, paraphrasing Deuteronomy chapter 31; "The Lord goes with us. He will be with us and will never leave us or forsake us. Let us not be afraid or discouraged."
Whatever it was lasted through the Communion, through the warm embraces and kind words, through the cups of coffee and the walk back to the Rectory, but there she collapsed.
Harry, Lydia and Emma had prepared a turkey (and put it in the oven on a timer) and vegetables early in the morning so they were able to eat in the early afternoon. Dulcie ate mechanically what was placed in front of her. No-one had anything to say over the meal or, after, as they sat in the lounge with coffee or tea. As the afternoon drew on, Dulcie stood.
"I'll get ready for evensong," she said.
"Your Reader said he'd take it," Harry told her. "I think you have another priority." He stood, too, and looked at Liina and Emma. "If you two young ladies wouldn't mind, I'd like some company while I walk along the prom. Perhaps we could buy an ice."
The two girls looked at each other and Dulcie. Dulcie, however, was looking at Lydia and sank back onto the couch. The girls looked at Harry and nodded.
After they left, Lydia moved to sit close next to Dulcie on the couch.
"Have you used your Gift, dear?"
Dulcie looked blank. "I..." she paused, "I ... prayed to get through the service this morning..."
"My dear, you need to ... allow God to pray in you. Use your Gift."
When Dulcie first encountered Peter Hanson and his first wife Sara, she had experienced something which turned her from a drug-addicted prostitute at rock-bottom into the person she was meant to be. Part of that experience had been receiving something usually called 'the Gift of Tongues'. Often since then, she had prayed in an unknown language – actually the Spirit of God praying in her – whenever she was at a loss for what to say.
Dulcie just stared at Lydia. "I..."
"You are angry, I think very understandably, and perhaps have avoided a personal encounter with the God who allowed Peter to be killed. Do you want to turn your back on Him?"
Dulcie shook her head, tears trickling down her cheeks once more.
"Dulcie, it's okay to be angry with Him, it really is. It's never going to be easy, but I think you're strong enough to start dealing with it now."
Dulcie shook her head again, but closed her eyes and began to speak. The incomprehensible (to Lydia or Dulcie) words weren't the usual rhythmic, smooth, flowing sounds; they were guttural and harsh. Dulcie's posture was tense, hunched over as if in pain.
Lydia observed, her own eyes bright with unshed tears, her lips moving in silent prayer.
After an age, the words changed, conveying a desperate, desolate sadness. Dulcie slumped sideways into Lydia's arms, the words still flowing.
The telephone rang, but Lydia ignored it, letting it go to voicemail. She continued to hold Dulcie as her speech changed again, becoming like one side of a conversation before stopping completely. Dulcie lay heavily in her arms. It was some time later that Lydia realised Dulcie was asleep. She was also aware that she really needed to visit the toilet. Fortunately it wasn't long after that she heard her husband return with the girls. Harry tentatively poked his head in the room, to be greeted by his wife's smile. Entering the room quietly, he raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Could you ask Emma to come and hold Dulcie for me, please?" Lydia asked. He nodded and left the room. When Emma came and Lydia was able to ease away and let Emma take her place she breathed a sigh of relief.
Dulcie slept more than an hour more, but when she woke the life was back in her eyes. Still sombre, but Lydia and Harry were able to reassure Emma and Liina that she was on her way back.
It was well into the evening before Lydia remembered the phone call and checked the voicemail, which proved to be the Bishop firstly apologising for not having visited earlier and then asking if he could call the following day.
The Bishop's visit was quiet – he was a quiet man. Quiet, but possessing that authority exhibited by some teachers. He hardly needed to say anything about Peter's death as he had a similar gift to Lydia's; an empathy that soothed as well as shared.
"Dulcie ... I don't suppose you know what you want to do just now. Would a retreat help?"
Dulcie shook her head. "Perhaps in a few weeks. Right now, I'm ... well, I suppose I'm in the arms of my family. I'd like to keep working, at least for the time being..."
He stood, and Dulcie did also. Nodding, he said, "I don't want to lose you from the Diocese. I have several positions I think would benefit from your ministry when you're ready, or if you want to go somewhere else, I will happily recommend you..."
Dulcie stiffened. "You know, I hadn't thought ... of course, the Living is vacant, isn't it?"
He rested a hand gently on her shoulder. "We're not going to turn you out on the streets, Dulcie." Then, unsure how it would be received, gently drew her to him in a hug. She didn't resist and indeed wrapped her own arms round him in response. "Bless you, Dulcie," he said quietly, "you know my office is open to you whenever you need. Reverend Banks is willing to stay for the time being, and your License to minister remains."
She nodded against his chest. "Thank you, Bishop."
"I think – at least in private – we know each other well enough for you to call me Jeremy, Dulcie."