It was clearly a good idea for Emma Pearson and Dennis Perkins to work closely together. Of course, Dennis was usually only in the church office for an hour or so each day, but most days they managed to at least 'touch base'. In doing so, they didn't realise that they were becoming close in other ways too. Dennis had changed considerably in himself and was considering talking to Dulcie about Confirmation, to become a full member of the church, rather than just a part-time employee. He was already attending services regularly.
One day, a week or so before Christmas, they had been looking for some detail in the church records that had been misplaced and it had got rather late; well after six o'clock. Dennis was the first to notice as he straightened up from the box file he was examining.
"Heavens! Look at the time! Shouldn't you be going home?"
Emma glanced up at the clock and yawned. "No panic. We had a cooked lunch. Liina will have got herself sandwiches for tea even if Dulcie wasn't there; they won't have waited for me."
"Well, I'm hungry, and I don't want to go home and cook. Will you come with me to Bombay Nights? I'd like some company as I eat."
Emma thought, frowned, shrugged and her expression cleared. "Okay ... that sounds like fun, actually."
It wasn't the first time they'd had a meal, or at least a snack, together. It was far from the first time they'd told each other things about themselves, but on that occasion, Emma found herself expanding on the superficial account she had given of how she'd come to be at the Rectory; how she'd run away from an abusive fostering, been picked up by members of a group who had intended to rape her and several other young girls in a purportedly Satanist ritual – the fear she'd felt, escalating to terror with the appearance of the demon – Dulcie's interruption, armed only with a bottle of Holy water. Remembering, she shivered, but then giggled. "She'd blessed a plastic bottle of spring water – the sort with a nozzle to drink from – and squirted it at the Thing. Would you believe it?"
"Once, no, I wouldn't. Now, knowing Dulcie ... and knowing you to be truthful ... yes, I believe it."
"I don't know why I told you that – I don't usually talk about it."
"I'm glad you did. Emma ... I've been wondering ... I mean ... this isn't a date ... is it?"
She cocked her head, watching him, neutrally. "What are you getting at, Dennis?"
"It's difficult. We're friends, right?"
"What if ... I wanted to maybe be ... more than ... friends?"
"Knowing what I've just told you?"
"That? That has nothing to do with you being a very special person. In fact, it makes me think you're even more special."
She looked down at her plate, then back up, reached out and took his hand where it was resting on the table.
"Thank you, Dennis. You make me feel special. I..." she frowned, "I don't know what I think about ... what? You'd like to be my boyfriend?"
"I suppose, yes. Seems a bit odd at my age to be talking about being boyfriend and girlfriend, but yes."
"I don't know, Dennis. I'm not saying no, just that I need to think about it. Is that alright?"
"Of course. You know I wouldn't push you, don't you?"
"Yes, or I wouldn't even be thinking about it."
"Then let us finish eating, and we'll go our separate ways while you think about it... ?"
"That's a plan..." she chuckled. "Thank you, Dennis. You're a friend. I will think about it, I promise."
On returning to the Rectory, Emma found Dulcie in her study. "Might I have a word?"
"Always, any time, Emma."
"I've just had dinner with Dennis ... we were late looking for that invoice for the roof repairs and he took me to Bombay Nights for a curry..."
"Sounds nice," Dulcie smiled.
"It was..." Emma paused, looking at Dulcie carefully. "You don't mind?"
"Why would I mind?"
"I thought, maybe, you might ... um ... be interested in him yourself... ?"
Dulcie's eyebrows rose and her mouth opened; she took a deep breath and released it with a sigh. She frowned, apparently thinking; took a breath as if to speak, but let it out and chuckled. "What to say..." She shook her head slightly. "Emma, I have no romantic interest in Dennis Perkins. I think he's a good man, who is feeling his way towards meaning for his life, and I'm happy to be his friend. But that is all."
"He wants to ... to ... date me. What do I do, Dulcie?"
"Ah ... that I can't tell you. Only you can know that."
"I'm scared, Dulcie..."
"Come here, darling..." Emma shuffled across the room and Dulcie drew her into her arms. She held Emma close until she felt her relax. "Are you afraid of Dennis?"
"I don't think so ... It's just..."
"You've spent quite a lot of time with him..."
"And he's never worried you, done anything to make you think he can't be trusted?"
"No, of course not!"
"Do you enjoy spending time with him? Find things to talk about that interest both of you?"
"Then the question you need to answer is, 'do you want to get closer to him?'"
Emma thought about that, then, "Will you pray for me, Dulcie?"
Dulcie continued to hold her as she prayed aloud. Emma was quite used to the 'foreign' sounds from Dulcie's lips and was only slightly surprised when her own voice joined in.
By the time Emma got to bed she was wiped out emotionally, her eyes shut, and she was asleep seconds after her head hit the pillow.
Dulcie worried only a little. She knew Emma to be sensible, but hoped her history would not affect any relationship she entered into. Two years after Emma's friend Rosie had fallen, hard, for a young man, Mannie Wagner, and headed off to University with him, Emma had shown no interest in any man beyond courtesy.
Harry and Lydia arrived the weekend before Christmas and were warmly welcomed.
Emma informed Dennis when they next met that she would enjoy spending more time with him, but suggested waiting 'til after the Christmas holiday was over. "But you're welcome to visit the Rectory if you're at a loose end."
"I'd like that. The office is closed until the New Year. Maybe we could take a walk or something?"
She giggled. "Taking a walk is not a date?"
He smiled and shrugged. "Well, we won't be making a formal arrangement." Turning serious, he added, "I know you'll want to be around in case Dulcie goes into labour."
Dulcie's pregnancy had not stopped her from carrying out her pastoral duties. For the most part, her parishioners understood and came to her, rather than expecting a visit. A few, however, were just not able. Among them was Edith Spurgeon, still in hospital after her stroke. Not too long previously she'd been a sour, bitter, old maid. Delia Westwood, (then Delia Cooper) had somehow pierced the hard shell and forged a friendship with her ... to the extent that Delia had worn Edith's heirloom veil as she married Gerry Westwood. When Edith had suffered her stroke, Delia had visited her almost daily, each week taking consecrated bread and wine for her to receive Communion.
Edith gradually gained better control of her voice, and shortly before Christmas asked Delia if she could ask Dulcie to visit. It being uncomfortable for Dulcie to drive, she rode with Delia to the hospital in Chelmsford.
"Rev-er-end Han-son," she slurred, lifting a hand as she saw Dulcie in her room. "Tha-nk you ... for ... com-ing. De-li-a, please?"
"Dulcie..." Delia's Liverpool accent was somewhat blurred by several years' living in Essex. "I've been talking to Edith and she's asked me to explain some things ... She's asked me..." she stopped and swallowed, clearly distressed, "she thinks she's going to die..."
"Ev-er-y-one dies ... De-li-a ... and I ... am ... quite ... old."
"She ... wants me to conduct her funeral and doesn't want you to be offended," Delia said. "I said ... I wasn't sure if I could..."
"There's no legal problem," Dulcie said, "and I'm not offended. I know how close you are."
"Oh, it's not that. I'm just not sure if I can do it. I don't want to break down in the middle..."
"Dear..." Edith released Dulcie's hand and reached for Delia's. "If ... you ... can... 't, I ... don't re-a-lly mi-nd."
"I'm sure we can arrange things to support you, Delia," Dulcie reassured her. "Edith, I'd like to pray for you and anoint you, if I may?"
"Ye ... s p ... lease..."
Delia held the old lady's hand as Dulcie prayed and wiped a little olive oil on Edith's forehead. Her face smoothed out as Dulcie did so and her eyes closed. For a moment, Dulcie wondered if Edith was going to die, remembering an old lady in Sheffield who had seemed to wait for Dulcie to visit. But Edith's breathing was slow and steady – she was just sleeping.
"I think it would be best I got you home," Delia told her friend. "I don't know how long Edith will sleep, and it wouldn't be fair to keep you here."
In fact, long after Delia had got Dulcie home, after she'd fed her husband and was thinking of heading for bed, she received a call from the hospital to say Edith had slipped from sleep into coma and wasn't expected to live out the night. Gerry, Delia's husband, drove her to Chelmsford.
"You'll be upset if Edith dies, and I don't want you driving yourself."
The old lady didn't wake up, but her nurse commented that she smiled a little when Delia took her hand. Delia sat beside the bed and looked round at her husband. "Go home, darling. I'll call if I need you, or get a taxi."
"Call. Even if it's in the small hours. Promise?"
Delia sat holding Edith's hand and praying silently. Over the next hour or so, there seemed to be no change, but then her eyes opened and she murmured, "Thank you..." Ten minutes later, she just stopped breathing.
The 'Midnight Mass' begins at eleven-thirty and ends about twelve-thirty. Dulcie presided and preached, though she did the latter from a chair placed in the centre of the chancel steps. Harry Banks assisted. Richard Chesterman was there, though he had to call in a lot of favours to get the night off from 'on call'. He was worried. Possibly no-one else would have noticed, but he was sure Dulcie was grimacing and her voice was catching from time to time.
At the end of the service, he waited by the vestry door for Dulcie to emerge and when she did, stopped her from heading to the back of the church to greet the departing congregation, and steered her back into the vestry as Harry passed them. "Sit, Dulcie."