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the archbishop's umbrella

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  1. the island of misfit toys

As Jane leaves the house in the morning, she grabs the archbishop’s jumbo-sized umbrella.

The apocalyptic weather that Hebden Bridge has experienced recently should correctly be attributed to climate change—or climate disaster, as any scientist with half a mind calls it these days. Some of Jane’s parishioners believe it the handiwork of God, a sign of end times, a judgment cast down on the wretched kingdom of Brexit and the bigots and fools who brought it about. Or, conversely, it’s condemnation of the immigrants who supposedly flood the country and ruin it through their mere existence. Either way, neither side sees beyond the tiny province of the tiny country in which they live.

As for the tiny vicar herself, Jane likes to think there are thunderstorms a week before Christmas because Yorkshire is just fucking weird. Perhaps, she thinks, that’s why God sent her here. A week ago, while watching old Christmas cartoons with a young girl during a hospital visit, she thought of Hebden Bridge as the British version of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So maybe she really does belong here, because she is a misfit both in the church and the queer community and she is somehow part of God’s grand yet infinitesimal plan—or maybe she is suffering Stockholm Syndrome and subconsciously resigning herself to the reality of dismal winters and alcohol-free vegan lesbian potlucks for all eternity, or maybe she is grasping at all sorts of justifications metaphysical and metaphorical to validate her ridiculous infatuation with a traumatized, taser-toting police sergeant.

What Catherine Cawood thinks and feels, however, remains an enigma wrapped in a shiny neon Kevlar vest—an article of clothing upon which Jane laid an impulsive, affectionate hand last night when Catherine had spontaneously dropped in at her house after a late shift. She did not anticipate Catherine doing a startled backward bunny hop as if dodging an oncoming bus and nearly bumping into a pot of tea. For they were doing nothing more than having tea like two normal middle-aged Englishwomen, one of whom is a respectable vicar, well, not so respectable in London anymore and not so respectable to the people who think there should not be women in the clergy let alone gay ones, all the same Jane refuses to believe that the ever-increasing and helpless attraction she feels for this woman would manifest itself in some divine lusty spark transmitted through mere touch because while she most certainly and fervently believes in God, she is not fucking mental. Yet. Despite the fact that both Catherine and Yorkshire seem to be pushing her in that general direction.

After the Saturday morning service she finds herself reshuffling the day’s scant duties so that she can walk over to Catherine’s house and—what? Talk about what happened? Because nothing happened, not really. But like some bizarre talisman or the sword of Damocles, the massive umbrella—dominating a dusty corner of the parish office, its dark sheen hinting at rare use so much so that it practically screams use me, take me out—makes her think she can do anything, even gently swat Catherine Cawood upon her broad, neon-protected chest until latter sees bloody sense. In this case, certain arrest seems well worth the risk.

Outside, the irregular quilted pattern of the puffy white sky sags like the ceiling of a pillow fort and threatens rain at any second. At the approach to Catherine’s house she finds Ryan kicking a ball in the alley, a clear indicator that Catherine is not around, because otherwise she would be shouting at him to knock it the hell off about every two minutes.

“Hiya!” he bellows at Jane.

“Hey, Ryan.” The boy likes her. Most children like her; it is a distinct advantage in her line of work. But while she is not, as a rule, over-fond of children she reciprocates Ryan’s affection, and finds herself praying that the love and guidance in his life will be enough to counter the black inheritance of blood and birthright. “What’s doing?”

He sighs dramatically. “Not much.”

“I see, I see.” She gestures at the soccer ball. “All right, then. Come on. Kick it over.”

Ryan scoffs loudly, making a kind of pah! noise that she has heard Clare make on occasion.

“Come on,” Jane repeats. “I’ll have you know, I played footy for all of six months at university, and never you mind how long ago that was.”

With an exaggerated eyeroll that only a young boy can manage, he sends a condescendingly feeble pass her way.

In retaliation Jane chips it elegantly over his head.

“Bloody hell!” Ryan roars, and goes off after the ball as it skitters down the lane.

Abruptly the door opens and Clare bursts out of the house. “What’s all the racket—?” Seeing Jane, she grins. “Oh, now that explains the uptick in foul language.”

“Does it now, Ms. Cartwright? Distinctly I recall some choice obscenities coming out of your mouth on occasion.”

Too distracted by the umbrella to banter properly, Clare nods at it. “That brolly is as big as you are,” she says. “Like you’re auditioning for Mary Poppins.”

“Who’s Mary Poppins?” Ryan pipes in.

Claire shakes her head. “I despair of you, lad.”

Ryan kicks a cross over to Jane, who manages to get in a dribble before gracefully lobbing it back across the alley.

“Nice,” Clare says. “Did you learn that to impress girls?”

“Yeah.” They watch Ryan, scowling furiously in concentration, practice some dribbling on his own. Jane sighs. “Didn’t work.”

Disappointed with his efforts, Ryan starts booting the ball against Winnie’s house again.

“All right, enough of that,” Clare says. “It’s about time for your lunch anyway.”

Despite a protesting groan and one final angry kick of the ball against the wall, Ryan slouches back into the house without a fuss—a certain sign that he is actually peckish.

Clare leans in the doorway. “Want to join us?”

“Thanks, but not this time.”

“Catherine’s not here, by the way,” Clare says pointedly.

“Did I ask?”

“Didn’t think you were here to practice your smooth footy moves.”

“Why not? I might consider a career move. If Wayne Rooney can still play—”

Clare gives her an exasperated look. “What’s going on with you two?”

“Nothing.” Jane shuffles her feet, pokes delicately at the abandoned ball with the pointy-sharp tip of the umbrella.

“Swear to God?”

“You know, I fucking hate it when people say that to me.”

“You hate it because unlike the rest of the world, you take it seriously.” Idly Clare kicks at a step. “You know, she cleaned kitchen last night.”

“Oh.”

“She hates cleaning.”

“Well, no offense to your housekeeping skills, but maybe it needed done?”

“None taken, but it didn’t need doing.”

“I see.”

“Especially since it were after midnight.”

“Maybe she had too much coffee that day.”

Clare sighs heavily. “Jane.”

“What?”

Clare opens her mouth as if to pour forth a stream of useless bromides and encouragements, but hesitates. Already she has had a careful, circuitous conversation with Jane about Catherine—damn lesbians always overthink everything, Clare thinks. Conversely, she had a similar conversation with Catherine about Jane, but in their usual elliptic sibling shorthand and with the expected result of knowing that while Catherine understands her completely she will nonetheless do the complete opposite of what Clare thinks she should do, which means Catherine will bottle her feelings and shout at Ryan and rail at the world and smoke too much and clean the kitchen at one in the morning.

So, thinking better of it, Clare opts for practical advice. “Go down to the nick and see if she wants lunch.”

  1. a caution

At the station, Jane presents herself to Joyce, who frowns at the archbishop’s umbrella as if somehow personally affronted that such a small woman possesses such an oversized accessory.

“She’s not here,” Joyce says. “Out at Dodd Naze, cautioning a pensioner.”

“Wow.” Jane grins. “Big crime day in the big city, eh?”

In this moment Jane discovers that Joyce (1) is charmed neither by Jane’s smile nor her friendly country-vicar persona, rather well-honed since her arrival up North; and (2) possesses a rather unnerving stare. Later she realizes that Joyce may have interpreted the comment as the unsurprising snottiness of a native Londoner. Which, she will confess to herself, it was.

So Jane clears her throat noisily and begins again. “Right. Well, um, maybe there’s a chance she’s still there? I’ll see if she’s there.”

“It’s the estate,” Joyce repeats wearily, as if the snotty London bitch had never set foot anywhere near council housing in her entire life.

“Think I’ll live.”

Joyce hums skeptically.

“Right.” Jane raises the umbrella. “Cheerio.”

“You sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Out at the estate she finds the Battenberg quite easily, if only because Ann Gallagher, whose sunglasses on a cloudy day are indicative of a raging hangover behind polarized lenses, leans against the driver-side door of the vehicle as if posing for a law-enforcement recruitment poster.

Ann is completely nonplussed by her appearance: “She told me to stay here,” she says by way of greeting, and then nods at a cluster of teenaged boys loitering nearby. “Wanted to make sure none of that lot monkey with the car.”

“Oi! Mary Poppins is a nun now!” one of the lads shouts at Jane.

“Hello!” Jane says cheerfully, and waves the umbrella at them.

They are momentarily baffled by the politeness.

“Don’t encourage them,” Ann says. Then she puffs out a large, bored breath. “It’s a slow day.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Yeah. So there’s this old fella who keeps stealing lingerie and vibrators from a sex boutique downtown—the business don’t want to press charges, they just want him to stop, you know? So we’re delivering a caution. Well, Cath—I mean, the Sarge is delivering the caution and I’m just Battenberg bodyguard.” Ann pats the flank of the car.

The same loudmouth from the group tries again to get Jane’s attention. “That’s a big, big umbrella. D’ya like everything that big, rev?”

Well accustomed to sexual taunts from the opposite gender, Jane only smiles grimly.

Ann shakes her head. “Told you, shouldn’t have said anything.”

“I’ve heard worse,” Jane replies.

“I’m sure, but that’s not the point. You give these tossers an inch, they take a mile.”

Already, Jane thinks, Ann is beginning to sound like her beloved mentor. Outside the building at the other end of the complex, Jane notices a short, chunky elderly man with a rollator moving at a surprisingly decent clip across the macadam. On the low shelf of the rollator is a pile of clothing—women’s underwear of all sorts and lacy bras—that slowly sheds items in its wake. He disappears down a path between two council buildings.

“I mean, it’s really hard to serve the public when they treat you like shit just because you’re a woman—”

“Um, Ann?”

Ann turns around in time so that she and Jane can witness together the glory of Catherine in full pursuit, running, arms and legs pumping. After a perfunctory chest tightness prompted by worry—here Jane reminds herself that if Catherine can survive the likes of Tommy Lee Royce she should acquit herself well in hand-to-hand with a lingerie-loving pensioner—Jane admires Catherine’s form, wonders if she ever ran as sport, and then realizes that Catherine could be limping along with a rollator herself and no doubt she would still find the woman as staggeringly beautiful as she does right now.

“Shit,” Ann spits angrily and takes off running.

As Ann disappears to the sound of raucous catcalls from teenaged boys, God—with her impeccable sense of timing—unleashes a torrent of rain that sends them scattering. Jane smiles and quietly gives thanks: Well done. The sleek, powerful umbrella vaults above her head, opening with the effortless beauty of a blessing.

  1. the wind almost took me away

For the remainder of the day, the rain continues sporadically; in the parish, the world reduces itself to translucent spackling on stained glass. In the afternoon Jane endures a children’s arts and crafts fair wherein someone with a unicorn sculpture nearly rogers her from behind; one hopes the attempt was truly accidental. Then a child eats part of a salt painting on a dare and throws up. After that, she barely manages a stack of meager paperwork before calling it a day.

Bleak twilight illuminates the walk home, as blue-black as the most unremitting midnight. Thunder cracks wise in the distance and the rain starts up again. With the slightest touch of a button, the archbishop’s umbrella unfurls with stately magnificence.

Within a block of home, Jane notices a police car parked nearby, and a black-clad figure awkwardly huddled in the slight doorway of her house.

Catherine wears a rain slicker, a peaked cap spangled with raindrops pulled low on her head. The dim streetlamp suggests a shadowed expression comprised of consternation, ruefulness, and perhaps even embarrassment.

Jane stops, gapes at her—and then rushes over, raising the umbrella over both their heads. “Why are you outside in this mess?”

“I like the rain,” Catherine says, almost defensively. She shrugs. “I like the feel of it, always have.”

“We’re in the middle of a thunderstorm and you want to stop and feel the rain?”

“Put it that way, you make me sound like a complete nutter.”

“Well, it is freezing out.”

“Yeah, I know.” Catherine drops her head for a moment and rain sluices the brim of her cap. “But it’s nice,” she says with a tentativeness bordering on the shy. “To feel something, something that’s—outside yourself at first, and then it sinks in so gradually you don’t notice at all how it becomes part of you, and how you become part of it.”

Jane says nothing, only tightens her grip on the umbrella at the humble miracle of Catherine Cawood offering a bit of herself seemingly untrammeled by the past, unfiltered by trauma. She can add this to an innocuously beautiful and ever-increasing trove of minor facts that she hoards about the woman: She’s left-handed, she will only eat chocolate digestives—which is why Jane has half a dozen packages of them her house—she knows Rocky Horror by heart, and now, she likes rain.

Abruptly, Catherine glances up at the canopy that easily shelters them both. “Where’d you get this thing? It’s huge.”

“The archbishop,” Jane says. And because Catherine makes her want to confess to just about anything except the one thing that matters most—not yet, she tells herself, not yet—she blurts out, “I stole it. By accident.”

“Oh ho ho,” Catherine laughs. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“No, really. There was a Christmas party at his house a week ago, around the time all this crazy weather started. I was about to leave, and it was raining very hard. He said to me, ‘just take an umbrella from the stand near the door,’ so like an idiot I grabbed the first one I saw—yeah, all right, I’d had about three glasses of flaming brandy punch too—and when I get outside I pop it open and it was just so—bloody huge the wind almost took me away. It’s, um—well, God knows what he spent on it. Or maybe it was a gift, I don’t know. But it’s Burberry, and it’s got his initials on the little silver ring on the handle—see?“ She tilts the curved wooden handle, so satisfying to hold, and hopes that the thin initials engraved in ostentatious script on the silver band are somehow visible.

A violent gust nearly wrenches the brolly out of her grasp, but Catherine quickly steadies it; her hand upon Jane’s is wet and cold but not in the least bit unwelcome.

“Do you want me—um, I mean—“ Idiot, idiot, fucking idiot, Jane screams at herself. “Do you, um, do you want to come in?”

“Yeah,” Catherine says. “I do.”

And once more, the wind almost takes her away.