Sasha Clarke left the church, deep in thought. Unconsciously, her hand reached out and met that of her boyfriend, Malcolm Stevenson. The Good Friday vigil had finished, enough in itself for sombre contemplation, but there was more to her mood than that. Malcolm squeezed her hand gently. "Penny for them?"
Ordinarily she would have responded with some humorous remark, but not that time. After several seconds, she said slowly, "Dulcie. It's a year, more or less, since Peter was killed. Seeing her there, holding baby Peter ... sorrow and love, Mal. Sorrow and love."
"Ah ... yes." They walked on, hand in hand, from Church Street to cross Mill Road to Wantz Chase. As they reached the corner of the school playing field, Malcolm stopped. "Sasha ... you know I love you..." she was about to speak, but he lovingly touched one finger to her lips. She kissed it, and was silent to allow him to continue. "We've been together four years, nearly five, and I think we'd know by now if what we have isn't real. Seeing Dulcie, I had to think what it'd be like not to have you in my life. Sasha, I know there're no guarantees, but I want to be with you for ever. Will you ... will you marry me?"
Sasha was stunned into silence for several seconds. "Oh ... Mal ... I don't know. I love you ... of course I love you ... but ... what would your mother say?"
"Ask her. I'll bet it's some variation of 'about time, too'. Talk to her. Talk to Dulcie. Take your time ... but, oh, Sasha..." he wrapped his arms round her and held her tightly. They disengaged and made their way home. Jeanne Stevenson's reaction was as predicted by her son. "My dear, that's wonderful! When's the date?"
"I haven't ... I mean, I'm not sure ... I can't..."
Jeanne held her at arm's length. "Don't tell me you're still hung up on your past? After you've lived here all this time? You know Malcolm loves you ... if I had any doubts, you wouldn't be sleeping with my son." Sasha's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, and Jeanne went on, "I thought I made it clear at the outset that I knew..." she paused, "of course I pretended nothing was going on, but why do you think you're in the room on the other side of the shared bathroom from Malcolm?"
"Sasha, go talk to Dulcie. She'll straighten you out."
Dulcie was smiling as she responded to Sasha's inarticulate and confused description of her difficulty. "Sasha, I went through much the same thing, you know. Except I really was a prostitute. And I was hooked on heroin, too – really badly. Not to mention dirty and half-starved. I can understand why you feel unworthy, but you aren't. 'If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone, the new is come.' Forgive me, Sasha ... I know you believe. You've worked hard to learn about the Gospel, led meditations, read the lessons ... done all the right things, but you've never met Jesus, have you?"
"I met Him ... in you, and Peter, Malcolm and Jeanne, Arthur ... everyone."
Dulcie smiled, "Thank you, Sasha – that is as it should be. But I think you need something more. I'm going to pray for you and I want you to ask Jesus to live in your heart. If you prefer, offer Him your life, or ask Him to show you what you mean to Him, okay?"
Sasha had often enough witnessed Dulcie praying for others, and was not troubled by the liquid sounds – almost musical on that occasion – that flowed from her lips. She found that her heart began to feel lighter as she relaxed into the situation. Intrigued by the choices Dulcie offered, she found herself asking, "Lord, what do I mean to you?"
The surroundings, the room at the Rectory, Dulcie herself ... faded away and she was standing on a hillside amidst wild flowers and grasses; further down the slope she could see trees, and not too far away there were sheep grazing. The sun shone down from a blue sky, dotted with small clouds. For a moment, she thought, 'I need sun-screen... ' but she was too comfortable to continue to worry.
"Well, sister ... you come at last."
She turned and saw a man ... a shepherd, with a long crook in one hand. Tall, bearded, his hair was long and dark, drawn back into a pony-tail. He was wearing a mostly red plaid shirt with a similar neckerchief and light-coloured, coarse, baggy trousers. His feet were hidden by the grass.
"Where am I?"
"You might call it heaven. That's near enough for now. There's much more of it, of course."
His voice ... afterwards she found she was unable to describe His voice, only that, "I felt so warm, so loved," but she knew that she would always know it again. "Sir?"
"You asked what I thought of you. Come here, sister."
She approached, wondering at how safe she felt doing so. He pulled back the sleeves of the shirt and showed her scars at his wrists ... she looked up at his face and saw scars forming a ring across his forehead ... and fell to her knees. "Oh, Lord..."
He reached out and lifted her to her feet. "What do you mean to Me? I would have hung on the Cross, just for you, if you were the only person in the world. You call me Lord, and so I am, but I am also your Brother, and I love you."
"But, I'm only..."
"Look at yourself, Sasha..."
Sasha looked down for the first time, to see that instead of the clean, but worn, jeans and t-shirt, she was wearing a dress; a dress so white she had to squint to look at it.
"Come with me. I want to show you something." He led her up the hill to the summit. At first, she could only see more of the same, but then she began to see scenes – all of them grey and dismal. Men and women, gloomy, trudging to work. A grubby child, huddled in a doorway, crying. A scruffy man hunched under a bridge, drinking from a bottle. A woman working in a kitchen, tears streaking her face. "I need you to be my eyes and ears ... to be my voice, to be my hands and feet in a fallen world. Will you go for me?"
Sasha was weeping, silently, overcome by the sense of suffering she had observed. "I will go, but I don't know what I can do."
"Don't be afraid. I'll be with you. My Spirit already dwells in you. You just do what you can and I will do the rest through you. And ... Sasha..."
"You will be even more effective, working with the man who also loves you as I do. When you see him, pray for him as Dulcie prayed for you."
Dulcie watched as a succession of expressions flitted over Sasha's face; puzzlement, wonder, awe, joy, sadness, determination ... then Peter, the baby, started to cry and she rose to deal with his nappy. Behind her, Sasha stirred and began to sing. Dulcie smiled as she recognised the hymn ... in Koine Greek ... from Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter two... 'Touto phroneite en humin ho kai en Christo Iesou... ' (Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus... ), and continued her necessary ministrations before lifting Peter off the changing mat.
"Can I hold him?"
Dulcie looked at Sasha, who was standing next to her, smiling; glowing might be a better description.
"Of course! I gather you did meet Jesus?"
"That was just ... there aren't words, are there?" Sasha took Peter from Dulcie and cuddled him. The baby, accustomed to several young women caring for him regularly including Sasha, accepted the transfer, and Sasha described her encounter to Dulcie, whose own smile broadened.
"Sounds as though you've accepted your own commission in the Army of God," she commented.
"And ... Malcolm," Sasha said.
"Ah, yes. Can I suggest including Jeanne when you pray for Malcolm? Ask her to pray with you?"
"Well, yes ... I suppose so..."
"I just have a sort of hunch about it."
"Uh huh..." Sasha looked at her with a slight smile, "I know about your hunches. Before I go ... how is your doctor friend?"
"Oh, he's fine. Why do you ask?" Dulcie's slight blush told Sasha more than her words or her careful tone.
"Oh, just that if I'll be more effective with a partner, perhaps you would, too?" Sasha kissed Dulcie on the cheek. "Thanks, Dulcie. I'd better get home."
After she left, Dulcie stood, thoughtful, holding Peter who was content in her arms.
"Oh, Peter," she said ... and she wasn't addressing the baby ... she was looking at something a very long way away.
"Well? Did Dulcie help?"
Sasha smiled at Jeanne Stevenson. "Actually ... Someone else did. Of course, Dulcie showed me the way."
"You certainly seem happier."
"Oh, yes. But I'm to pray for Malcolm. And Dulcie said you should, too."
"What's that? Me? Pray for someone? I don't do that..."
"Well, I agree with Dulcie; I think you should be there, at least. Is he back?"
"Yes – studying in his room, or he was."
"I'll fetch him and meet you in the lounge, Jeanne." Sasha was unaware of a sea-change in her behaviour; she was being much more assertive than usual. Jeanne was a little surprised, but very pleased.
Malcolm was pleased – as always – to see Sasha. It wasn't unusual for her to summon him downstairs ... but her behaviour was definitely not usual.
"What is it, Sasha?"
"I want you to come downstairs."
"Well, okay ... but why?"
"Come downstairs and you'll find out."
"But ... okay."
He knew there was something going on when he saw his mother waiting there; not that she wouldn't usually be in the room, but that there was something about her posture.
"Okay, then Sasha – give."
"I've been to see Dulcie..."
"I'm supposed to pray for you the way she prayed for me. And your mother, too."
There was a longish silence as Malcolm assimilated what she'd said. "What do I have to do?"
"Mal ... what do you want out of life?"
"I want to marry you, finish my degree, start a family..."
Sasha's eyes lit up; Malcolm hadn't mentioned starting a family before. Jeanne Stevenson smiled too, unnoticed by the two younger people. "That's all very well, Mal. But..." Malcolm's face dropped at the qualification, "you know God has to be involved too."
"Well, yes. That goes without saying..."
"No ... it has to be said, Mal. To be understood. I'm going to pray for you, and so is Jeanne. I want you to talk to God. Open your heart ... do you understand?"
He stepped up to her and took her hand. "I think so. I think so. But, Sasha, it's kind of ... scary."
She smiled then. "Yes, it is. I'll hold your hand if you like..." She thought she was joking, but Malcolm was very serious when he replied.
"Sweetheart, I don't think I could do it without you."
Sasha felt that her heart was melting, partly because of his words, but also his expression, which confirmed his words without a doubt. She did manage to keep her expression neutral, but it took an effort. "Why don't we all sit on the settee?" She didn't explain that it would be safer if one or more of them flopped down in a heap while God was dealing with them. She took Malcolm's hand – Jeanne took the other to her surprise – and led them to the seat where she began to pray before embarrassment stopped her. Malcolm murmured something she didn't catch.
Time and space mean nothing in eternity. Each of them experienced something different, and none were able to say how long they'd been there. Sasha was back on that hillside; the only words spoken were by the Shepherd, "Well done sister. Always remember you are a princess of the Kingdom," accompanied by a sense of being endlessly enfolded in love. She was the first to return to the room, seated next to her oblivious boyfriend and his mother.
Jeanne was in her house, but not just with Malcolm and Sasha. People were sitting around with drinks – tea, coffee, soft drinks – and snacks. Some were church people she recognised, but others were not the sort she would normally invite into her home; unkempt, tattooed, in dirty tattered clothing. One girl had dyed black hair in a Mohican, black clothes and purple lipstick. The doorbell rang and she went to answer it. She found Sasha with a woman who might have been young; heavily made up, it was hard to tell her age ... red leather miniskirt, halter top and stiletto heels were indicative of her occupation. Jeanne hesitated for long seconds before inviting them in. A sense of warm embrace and a voice saying, "They are all welcome in the Kingdom, like you ... Princess," followed by a kiss on her forehead. She was the second, but she took several minutes to try to assimilate the experience when she found herself still sitting next to her son in their lounge.
Malcolm found himself in a building site, wearing a hard hat and safety shoes, following a well-dressed man with an air of authority. He was led into a half-finished extension to a Victorian church building. "Café," the man said, waving generally at the open space. Moving forward, the man opened a door into a room which was clearly to be a bathroom, though the various items were not fully installed. "Men's facilities – ladies', similar, next door." A little further, "Clinic," he said. "So, young man, what do you think? This is what we do."
"I think ... maybe this is what I have been looking for."
"Good. Very good. The Church needs Christian architects." He paused, then said, "Why don't you come along and meet the boss?"
Malcolm could never verbalise the next encounter; the site Carpenter, long hair tied back and braided; jeans and work-shirt, tool belt round his waist ... putting the finishing touches to resizing a wooden door with a smoothing plane ... that was easy enough. But not the sheer presence of the ... man, who put down the plane, reached out and laid his hand on Malcolm's head.
When Malcolm opened his eyes again in the Stevenson lounge, he heard his mother mumbling to herself on one side and turned to look at her. She met his eyes and smiled, so he turned back the other way where Sasha was smiling at him. He opened his mouth to say something to her, but what came out sounded like gibberish, so he stopped. He tried several times to say something in English before deciding whatever he was saying made him feel good, so he just closed his eyes and relaxed. Liquid syllables poured from his lips in what he didn't realise was a paean of praise to God.
He wound down after perhaps half an hour, opened his eyes and looked from his mother to Sasha and back again.
"Mal," Sasha's voice drew his attention back to his girlfriend. "Yes."
He looked blank for a few seconds – too much had happened in the last hour or so. Then it penetrated and he pulled her into an embrace.
Dulcie was delighted to see Sasha and Malcolm when they called to discuss wedding plans. Jeanne went along with them, because she and Sasha had things to discuss apart from the wedding. Of course the wedding took priority; the two just gave a ten minute overview of their experiences and their thoughts on them. Malcolm stood back as they did so.
"And you, Malcolm?" Dulcie turned to him as Sasha and Jeanne finished.
He shrugged. "Nothing immediate, or spectacular. I was always heading towards architecture, but now I have a more definite goal. I suppose it will mean I make some slightly different decisions about elective modules and placements, but I have a clear objective."
After Sasha, Jeanne and Malcolm had left, Dulcie was introspective. What Jeanne had said of her vision of opening her house to people who she would not normally have welcomed and what Sasha had said of her call to reach out to people who were unhappy or even desperate; the way the two visions seemed to mesh together ... made her think back to her experiences in Sheffield. Maldon is a small town. While there were certainly social problems and deprivation, even drugs and perversion, they were not as overt as in the city. Dulcie herself had, as we know, encountered some. But the descriptions by Sasha and Jeanne brought her own experience of desperation to mind. She remembered the impact of her acceptance by Peter and Sara, her encounter with her loving, accepting, redemptive God.
And she remembered trying to live out her ministry at a distance from Peter before Sara died.
"But, Lord, You're enough for me ... aren't you? You're always there, always holding me..."
"Is there a reason I can't be there for you in the person of ... Doctor Richard Chesterman? Can I not hold you ... in his arms, the way I held you in Peter's?"
Emma came to find her, to ask a question, and found her standing still in the middle of the lounge with tears pouring down her cheeks. She hugged her and Dulcie wrapped her arms around her in return. They held each other for some time. Emma didn't know specifically why Dulcie was weeping, but she was so closely attuned to her she knew to just hold her and couldn't help her own eyes moistening in sympathy.
"Thank you, love," Dulcie said, relaxing after a few minutes more. "Thank you. Were you looking for me particularly, or was it an accident?"
"Now, then Dulcie! You always tell us there are no 'accidents' in the life of a child of God," Emma chided her gently. Dulcie chuckled and nodded. Emma then went on, "I was, in fact, looking for you. Dennis just proposed, and I accepted."
"Oh, that's wonderful, Emma! I'm so pleased!"
"Yes ... I'm very happy. But a bit scared, too. I ... need to talk to you ... not just to arrange a day for the wedding, but, you know..."
"I can guess, yes. Of course we can talk. Oh, and Emma, Malcolm finally got off the mark and is going to marry Sasha this summer too."
"Really? Lovely! There's only Carli and Jen left, now. I don't suppose..."
"Who knows? But perhaps they're enough for each other. And you're forgetting Susan Sorenson."
"Gosh, yes. So I am. I really must invite her."
"Well, Emma ... this has been a day and a half. I am absolutely whacked and I'm going to have a cuppa and go to bed."
"Okay. I'm too wired, though. I'm going to make some calls and do a bit of work. I'm not going to sleep any time soon!"
Dulcie laughed, kissed her cheek and left the room, followed by Emma who headed for her room.
The next day, Dulcie was woken a little earlier than usual by Peter. She took him downstairs having just thrown on a house-coat and proceeded to feed him and herself until Liina appeared, yawning and stretching. She took over so that Dulcie could shower and dress. There were still a few days of the school term left, so Liina had to look after herself, of course, but Emma came down a few minutes before Dulcie was going to leave for the morning 'office' of Matins at church. When the short service was over, Dulcie rang Emma to make sure all was well at the Rectory and went for a walk along the Prom. It was a good opportunity to greet some of the people associated with the boats, and pleasant to walk and think before the Prom got crowded later in the day.
Having reached Earl Brithnoth, still brandishing his sword at the Danes from the end of the Prom, she headed back. She was stopped by Phil Morton, by the Topsail Charters office.
"Dulcie ... good morning!"
"You've never taken us up on the offer of a cruise..."
Dulcie smiled, "No, I haven't. Somehow something always seems to get in the way."
"Well, we've got a couple of cruises coming up for Reminder. The next one is a music cruise with Tom Carmichael's wife playing and singing in the evening. Usually, that one is all booked up but we've had a cancellation, so there's a cabin vacant. We've space for yourself and a friend. If you really can't make that one, there's space on the one after, but there's no music for that one. Not officially, anyway. Chrissie often accompanies Tom during the holidays anyway."
Dulcie nodded thoughtfully, and smiled. "Thanks, Phil. You've given me an idea. I'll need to check something out, but I'll get back to you."
Dulcie knew she liked Richard. They'd dated several times now, and he didn't need to be invited to kiss her after the first time, but neither had felt able to take another step beyond that; Dulcie felt uncomfortable taking any further initiative and, though she didn't realise it, Richard was uncomfortable in several respects. Firstly, he did not believe in sex outside marriage anyway. Also, he was still in awe of Dulcie despite her initiative at the end of their first date. Finally, he felt – despite his medical knowledge – inadequate, having reached the age of forty completely without personal experience of sex.
On Sunday, after the service, as Richard did not have to work that afternoon, Dulcie invited him to the Rectory for lunch. That was not unusual. It was not particularly unusual for him to ask to talk to Dulcie privately; often that would be in her office, but sometimes the two girls would leave the Rectory to give them some privacy. Emma took Peter to walk the Prom; Liina accompanied them as far as the Hythe Quay, where she found her friend Nadiya. Nadiya and her boyfriend, with their friend Pippa, were working on their yacht.
Dulcie and Richard were alone in the lounge, with their cups of coffee. Both were reluctant to speak first.
Eventually Dulcie broke the silence. "So, Richard; you wanted to talk about something?"
He coloured slightly and cleared his throat. "I, um..." then chuckled, "I feel like a teenage boy asking a girl out for the first time! Dulcie, I'm under a little pressure to take some leave. Things are usually fairly quiet in the Department in August. I was wondering ... well ... whether you'd be interested in erm ... taking a ... er ... holiday ... with me..."
She giggled, but stifled it quickly at his expression. "Richard, I'd love to! I giggled, because I've been offered a cruise on one of the barges – Reminder – in a couple of weeks. It's a bit special. The skipper's wife is a talented musician and will be along to play and sing for the passengers in the evenings. I can take a companion, and I was going to ask if you could come along. I know how difficult it can be for you to get away..." She paused, and giggled again as his expression cleared. "It's often said that 'there are no coincidences in the life of a child of God', and I suppose this is a good example."
"Dulcie ... I ... that sounds wonderful. Have you got the dates?"
"Of course. There's one small catch, though..." she looked at him with a half-smile and a quirked eyebrow, "we'll have to share a cabin..."
He swallowed. "Don't you mind?"
"I think I can trust you to not do anything I don't want. Besides, the cabins have either two single bunks or a single and a double – I've seen them. So, will you come? Assuming the dates work out?"
"Yes, Dulcie. I'd love to."