Dennis Perkins should have been happy. At least, he thought he should be happy. Just turned thirty in middle management of a small but very successful PR firm, with good prospects of further promotion; married to a very lovely, bubbly and intelligent woman, joint owners with her of a prestigious apartment in London's Docklands overlooking the river. Surely he had everything he'd wanted and worked for? Surely he should be happy? So why was he wondering about divorcing Cathy? Okay, the sex could have been better ... it certainly could have been more frequent ... but sex wasn't all marriage was about, was it?
If Cathy had a fault (apart from her lack of enthusiasm for sex) it was her inability to get anywhere on time. Used to it after several years of marriage, Dennis dug out his book and opened it at the marker. He slipped a CD of monastic plainchant into the Audi's sound-system (not in the slightest religious, but he found the sounds soothing and relaxing) and reclined the seat a little for comfort.
The service area car-park at Trowell was large and congested so he'd had to park a long way from the entrance. They'd had lunch – it could have been worse ... it was edible – and he was now waiting for her to finish whatever women do when they disappear into the Ladies'.
The book (one of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels) was sufficiently gripping that he barely noticed a screech of brakes and the crunch of metal on metal and glass impact, just shaking his head at the latest example of stupidity on the part of modern drivers.
The sound of sirens did pull him out of the book though, and he glanced at his watch. What was that woman doing? He sighed and got out of the car to see if he could find what had happened to keep his wife so long. Nearing the services entrance, a flash of colour caught his eye. He would not have recognised the crumpled body, but the dress ... his wife loved vivid, striking colours and had the personality to carry them off. The colours, though, were marred by splashes of crimson.
"Cathy!" He pushed between several gawpers.
There was a couple – man and woman, kneeling by her. The woman looked up, her gloved hands stained with the same crimson. "Your wife?" He nodded, something in his throat preventing speech. "We're doctors," she said, "your wife has a chance if we can get her to hospital quickly. You'd better come too. We'll need personal information."
Paramedics, police ... the sound of a helicopter. "It would take too long by ambulance," he was told.
Cathy's admission details took him through perhaps fifteen minutes, but then he slumped in the waiting area plastic seating, half wishing he'd brought his book, half guilty for wanting it. Signing consent for emergency surgery. Waiting ... an hour ... two hours.
The sympathetic, mature woman in scrubs escorting him to an interview room. The surgeon, apologetic that the damage was just too severe for them to keep up with. The numb dullness as he talked to a police officer and his grateful acceptance of a lift back to Trowell services. The call to Cathy's parents and, at last, the tears as he told them their daughter was dead. Their insistence that he come the rest of the way to Sheffield.
Her parents were sombre, but composed. Her father took the hand he held out to shake and pulled him in to a hug, her mother stretched up to kiss his cheek.
"Can you tell us what happened?" Her father's quiet voice penetrated his discomfort.
He sighed. "Cathy ... I was waiting in the car, so I didn't see ... but the Police said she stepped off the kerb without looking round ... but the driver appeared to be under the influence of something and was driving too fast. There will have to be an inquest, I suppose."
"Well, come and make yourself at home, Den. I have a bottle of Auchentoshan that's rather good; will you have some?"
"You know, I think I will, Frank. Just a little water, please."
It was very good whisky, and they made serious inroads into the bottle before going to bed.
In the morning, Dennis was slightly hung over. He had several cups of coffee, followed by orange juice and toast, before feeling able to face the day.
"Let's take a walk," his father-in-law suggested.
Dennis opened his mouth to decline, but couldn't think of a reasonable excuse, so he shrugged and nodded. They reached the park before either of them said anything.
"You feel guilty," Cathy's father said.
Dennis thought about it for a while. "I suppose I do," he admitted. "I should have waited for her in the café. That way, she wouldn't have stepped off like that – I'd have stopped her."
"Cathy was very like her mother. If I had a penny for every minute I've spent sitting in cars waiting for Emily, well ... I'd be a lot better off than I am today. But I think there's more to it than that, isn't there?"
Dennis coloured and didn't say anything at first. They kept walking, though, and the silence wasn't uncomfortable. "You're right," he said eventually. "I suppose we were growing apart. And ... well ... she wasn't much interested in sex..." He really blushed as he said that, and wondered how he'd managed to get it out.
Cathy's father laid a hand on Dennis' shoulder. "She always was a bit of a prude," he said. "We hoped she'd loosen up a bit when you got married. We could tell, though, when you visited last time, that your relationship ... wasn't as close as it could have been. Don't feel bad about it. Emily and I ... went through a similar time when we were first married. When I realised I wasn't happy, I talked to her. Actually, I gave her an ultimatum. We got through it, and we were stronger after, but we could have divorced. It was that bad. Dennis ... we've lost our daughter, but we've thought of you as our son. We're hoping we aren't going to lose our son as well."
Dennis' eyes prickled and he swallowed hard and blinked to clear his vision. They walked on until they neared the museum café. "Coffee?" he asked.
They'd almost finished their coffee before Dennis spoke again. "You know my parents spend most of their time out of the country ... they didn't even come to the wedding?" The other man nodded. "So ... I've really valued your friendship. You and Emily have been more parents to me than my own ... so ... yes. I've really thought of you as my parents too. I won't lose touch."
It was a pleasant spring day, if cool. They returned home and, with Cathy's mother, drove into Derbyshire to have lunch at the Grouse Inn, followed by a stroll in the Longshaw Estate nearby. It was the perfect distraction; the quiet, restrained beauty of the Derbyshire countryside and the calm presence of Cathy's parents.
That evening, Dennis sat with Emily and Frank, the two men once more sipping at glasses of Frank's whisky while Emily enjoyed a dry sherry.
"Dennis..." Emily's voice was unusually tentative.
"Yes ... Mum?" Dennis was surprised, and a little nervous, both of his familiarity and the hint of a smile in his voice. He was relieved when she smiled in response.
"I know you and Cathy weren't ... church people..." she continued, "but we'd be pleased if you'd come with us to church in the morning. I think you might find it helpful..."
Dennis wasn't really antagonistic toward religion generally, he just (like Cathy) saw no relevance for it in his life. He had intended to drive back to the Capital Sunday morning, but couldn't resist Emily's appeal. "Sure – no problem."
He slept lightly, half waking several times, and was groggy in the morning. Frank was sitting at the kitchen table, a jug of coffee in front of him, and Emily was peeling onions. She looked round and smiled. "Good morning, Dennis. The coffee is fresh made."
"Morning ... Mum. Thanks. Morning, Frank." He sat at the table next to Frank, who filled a mug with coffee and handed it to him. He shook his head when the older man lifted the milk-jug with a questioning look. "Black is good, this morning."
Dennis sipped a couple of times and shrugged. "Didn't sleep all that well. Nothing particular. Apart from the obvious." Sipped again. "Good coffee. Really good."
Emily and Frank looked at each other. "It's Macchu Picchu – single source. We like it," Emily said. "Would you like something cooked for breakfast? Scrambled eggs? Bacon?"
"Oh ... no thanks. Some toast, if I may?"
Dennis was surprised that Emily and Frank drove several miles to a small, modern, inner-city church instead of walking to their local one. Frank could tell from his expression.
"St. Jude's is special," he said. "You'll see, I think."
Most church services begin with announcements and St. Jude's was no exception. Mostly they were routine with no meaning for Dennis, but at the end...
"Your prayers are requested," the young man began, "for Emily and Frank Firth, and their son in law Dennis Perkins. Cathy Perkins was knocked down by a car and died last week. Also, many of you will remember Dulcie and Peter Hanson; Peter was Vicar here before David. Peter was attacked in his church in Maldon during Holy Week and died in hospital. Please pray for Dulcie and the people of St. Mary the Virgin, Maldon."
The young man glanced at the priest – also young – before taking a place in the congregation and the service began. Dennis didn't really know what was going on, of course. He didn't know the hymns, or the songs led by a small group playing guitars, a flute, a violin, keyboard and bodhran. When it came to the communion, he was going to stay in his seat, but was gently encouraged to accompany the older couple to the communion rail, to kneel, and to keep head and hands down. The priest, administering the bread, laid a hand on Dennis' shoulder and murmured a blessing, then glanced at the young woman who was carrying the cup, who nodded. When she reached Dennis, she whispered in his ear, "Please stay and let us pray for you."
Perhaps the last thing Dennis wanted to do was remain on his knees at the rail, but he looked up at the young woman who was very slim with fair hair. Something in her eyes touched his heart. That, and a feeling of heaviness, of inertia, that made it very difficult to move anyway. It was some relief that Emily and Frank stayed too.
Most of the people left and the priest, and the young woman, finished what they were doing, covered the cup and plate with an embroidered cloth, and the priest led the closing prayers.
Most of the congregation left the sanctuary then, but several moved forward to approach the one or two who remained at the rail ... and Dennis, Emily and Frank, of course. The young woman approached Dennis.
"Hello, I'm Rose-Marie," she lifted her eyes to a man standing behind Dennis, "and my husband, Ted, is standing behind you."
An older woman who resembled Rose-Marie, and another man, were talking quietly to Frank and Emily.
"I ... I ... don't know..." Dennis stuttered. It was very unlike him to be unable to express himself.
"Don't worry," the young man behind him said, "you don't have to know ... and we don't know ... but Jesus knows and He has something in mind for you." He held his hand flat over Dennis' head, not quite touching. Rose-Marie held her hand similarly, but beside Dennis' face; they both lifted their free arms in a supplicatory gesture and began to speak.
It wasn't English, or any language Dennis recognised, and the two voices seemed to blend together in a sort of harmony. He lost track of time and his mind drifted. Afterwards, try as he might, he was never able to describe what he experienced during that time, except...
"I caught a glimpse of what my marriage should have been. There was no condemnation, though, just sorrow. When I ... came back ... tears were streaming down my cheeks. I looked at the young woman ... Rose-Marie ... and she was weeping, too. It was odd, because I didn't mind, and I felt ... I don't know ... free isn't quite right, but it's as near as I can get."
Rose-Marie stepped round the rail, kissed her husband briefly, and held out her hand to Dennis. "Come and have a cup of tea." She looked round and spoke to the others, "Mother? Mike? Frank, Emily ... are you coming for some tea?"
"Yes, Rosie, we're all coming," the older woman said.
Dennis found himself holding a mug of – to be kind – indifferent coffee, and talking to the priest, David Staniland. The Vicar got him to say more than he intended about his job and what it entailed. Dennis was interested to hear that many churches were employing administrators to relieve the ministers of activities that were necessary but which impeded the effective conduct of their office. He found that he was a little sorry to leave with Emily and Frank.
"Did you enjoy your chat with the Vicar?" Emily asked as Frank drove them home.
"It was quite fascinating," Dennis admitted.
"Dennis, would you mind if we had the funeral at St. Jude's?"
He was shocked to realise he'd forgotten about Cathy's death since the end of the service and it took a while for him to respond. "Um ... I hadn't thought about it," he told them.
"No, It's a bit soon. But if you don't mind, I ... we ... would like it if the funeral could be here. I mean, we'd come to London if you prefer, but..."
"No, Emily. We didn't really have any connection with church in London. The minister would be just someone off a list, wouldn't he? I liked the Vicar..."
Thus, Dennis headed back to London that afternoon and when, later that week, he heard from the hospital, he was able to tell them to contact John Heath, the Sheffield undertaker suggested by Cathy's parents.
His colleagues were shocked when he returned to work and they heard what had happened and assured him he could take whatever time he needed to settle the necessary formalities and sort out his feelings – it was a very enlightened company.
"Dennis," his immediate superior told him, "I understand it can take some time for the ... reality ... of a bereavement to dawn on the survivor. So, it's fine if you want to work and take some time for yourself later, okay? Just let us know what you want to do."