Jane Oliver was a creature of habit. There is so little in life that one can control but habit allows a small degree of rule over one’s environment. Neither weather, length of stay, nor vicinity from assignment to assignment would deter Jane from indulging. If pressed, she would say it was a grounding effort; it connected her to the new place like the birth of a secret.
Since leaving London a few years earlier, habit became more important. When Linh had left Jane, it twisted the city’s profile so that 6 months later, it was almost easy to accept reassignment. It hadn’t been her idea, but she went, trusting a larger plan was in place. Still, Jane grieved. First for the loss of the woman, and then later, the city where they met which had been home. The grief had silenced any carnal appetite and then other appetites followed; she lost a noticeable stone.
In the following year, she would awaken from dreams in a sweat and panting, bolting upright, reaching for a body that wasn’t there. In response, Jane closed off the interior rooms of want. She missed the shape of Linh, and with her gone, the empty spaces were cavernous. Jane missed her scent and finding her hair in odd places, finding t-shirts Linh had borrowed, laundered, only to fold incorrectly when she put them back. She missed waking up to find Linh twisted around her, holding onto Jane like a lost possession finally found. The city’s fog was menacing more than mysterious, knowing that Linh wasn’t going to walk out of it. The soup kitchen where Linh worked regularly evolved to a loud echoing racket and it took all of Jane’s energy not to shut down her overloaded senses before the end of a shift. The change to a new city would be welcome.
It was the first parish after London where the new assignment routine took on meaning. Jane would walk around the entire outside of the church three times counterclockwise. The first round was conducted walking through with her head held straight, taking in everything at eye level: The way the building sat, its relation to neighbors. Every church/ parsonage/ hamlet/ assignment had something they were exceedingly proud of: a relief, arches, gargoyles, an ancient door. Jane marked the trees of the property and their kind. If the parish had Sycamores, the water table wouldn’t be low, so she looked for how the drainage would be accommodated. She noticed the shrubs, stone walls, street lighting (or lack thereof), size of doorways, slant of roads, intersections of property, fences, statues, altars.
The second pass took the most time and was the most educational. Jane would inch around the property while staring at the ground and walking slowly. She took in the condition of the pavement, steppingstones, the roots of trees and if they grew into the walkway, and pathways. Gravestones, steps, waterspouts. Jane found gloves, money, odd shoes, and once, an electric fan that looked like it had just come out of the packaging but to surprise the owner it needed an outlet to work.
The third and final circle was devoted to the airspace above her. She focused on the silhouette of the church, the negative space of the town, where she could see furthest from; the canopy of the sky above would barely shift, but still reveal where doves roosted and birds nested; the quickest way in from the road when it was raining. The final trip was an offering: Hello God, here I am. Use me.
Once complete, Jane felt she understood a little about how the building and the church were viewed by its surrounding parsonage. Even with this small connection, Jane would feel alien in assignments, never treated as if born and raised in the parish, nor approached with the grace of familiarity. Instead, people were cynical of her, of God, of service.
Jane stepped off the train in Halifax, on a Tuesday morning in early April. A drizzle from the previous night was just beginning to dry with the sun. Never a fan of the traditional vestments of her vocation, Jane was attired in her normal jeans, trainers, her shirt with the tell-tale collar, covered by a jumper and a waxed overcoat. Her things were being transported from London to the parsonage apartment later in the afternoon via a transport service as she didn’t have a car. She arrived at St. Mary’s, a standalone, modest building from the turn of the nineteenth century; it looked over the town from a hill amidst a small graveyard and overgrown garden. She started her rounds before entering.
It was an ominous sign this new posting in Halifax would be challenging: Jane’s final lap was interrupted a quarter of the way through as she turned the corner past the side door and her trainer caught on a bit of stone which sent her skidding onto the walk and gasping for the air knocked out of her.
“FUCK!” She wheezed and smacked at the ground with both fists. She’d torn the right knee of her jeans, small wonder, they were already threadbare.
“Are you all right, love?” A small woman with an air of sophistication that she clutched like her handbag trotted over from the carpark. “The state of this walkway is disgraceful. Lucky you caught yourself, you could have broken your teeth.” She said these as statements of fact and then turned to a white-haired man who was leaving a flashy red sports car. “Alan, do you have that kit in the glovebox?”
The man stopped and flapped the pockets of his sport coat searching for a key fob while Jane managed to get herself into a sitting position to face the woman. He turned to the car.
“I’m sorry,” Jane managed. “I was…walking.”
“Mmm, you were looking up, small wonder you fell.” The woman pronounced as if it were obvious.
“Yes. Ah, how may I help you?”
The man returned with a plastic white box with the words ’Clumsy Git’ written on it in blue. He opened it, and to Jane’s surprise, there was an instant ice pack that he squeezed — *POP*— shook it a bit, and then offered to Jane for her knee.
“Oh, thank you, really, it’s not necessary. How may I help you?” Her breathing was becoming regular again.
“Well you should complain to the vicar here, have them fix this walkway.” The woman seemingly spoke for the pair.
“That’s really not necessary. I think they are aware of the problem.” Jane was embarrassed now.
“Maybe it was this shrub, it should be pruned, I’ll find t’groundskeeper. Unless, you’re t’gardener?” The man found his voice, and looked concerned for the blood seeping through the leg of Jane’s jeans. I suppose I do look like a gardener.
“Thank you again, but it was my fault.” Jane went to stand, and the man reached out to take her elbows and assist. Jane inhaled with a dry hissing sound and softly said, ”Fuck” when weight hit her knees. The motion of standing up popped the snap at her throat and her jacket fell open to show her identifying collar.
The couple’s faces made similar “Oh” expressions with a raising of their collective eyebrows.
“She sounds like your Gillian” the woman said with eyebrows still raised.
“Yes, she does.” The man concurred, “Don’t s’pose you’ve farmed love?”
“I like gardens but can’t grow a thing,” Jane offered quizzically. “I know I don’t sound like other vicars,” she continued easily. “It’s my first day here. I’m sorry that you saw me wipe out like that. I’m Reverend Oliver, but please, Jane is preferred.” She offered her hand in between the couple, only to see it was wet with mud and had skinned her palm in the fall. The extension of the limb released a burning sensation that caused Jane to inhale sharply.
“Nice t’meet you,” the man took the back of Jane’s hand, and with his other grabbed her wrist so as to carefully avoid the injured palm, “I’m Alan Buttershaw, this is my wife Celia.” His eyes twinkled with the introduction.
“So you’re replacing Karen Bixby. “ Celia appraised Jane, not moving to take Jane’s outstretched hand, and instead shifted her grip on her handbag and the first aid kit.
“Yes, for now, she was called away for some family issues.” Jane’s closed-mouth smile was a way of conveying she didn’t know anything further, and if she did, she wouldn’t be sharing. That the previous vicar had been called away to take care of her elderly parents primed for hospice didn’t need to be shared with everyone.
“We had an appointment with Karen Bixby for 10:00 today, we’re a little early.” Celia continued to eye up Jane critically, trying to divine her entire history from Converse to collar.
“Of course, however I can help. I’m sure the appointment is in the planner; I haven’t seen it yet. Please allow me.” Jane gestured to the door, and began herding the Buttershaws into the small church. Before following them, she paused to look back for the stone she had tripped over.
Nothing was on the path. Odd, she thought. Something was there.
“We’ve met the new vicar at St. Mary’s.”
At the end of the day Celia called Caroline to catch up, and after initial pleasantries, Celia launched into the bit of gossip about her most recent disappointment.
“Oh?” Caroline asked without enthusiasm. “Why were you at St. Mary’s? Did you want a vow renewal?” She was slouching at the kitchen table with a glass of wine to fortify against the weekly phone call.
“It’s a woman.” Celia ignored the question. ”She reminded us of Gillian,” she made a t'sking sound. “Another woman in the church. Why do they even bother?”
Caroline closed her eyes and raised her eyebrows in anticipation. “I suppose it’s because they want to do God’s work, but what of it? Why were you there?” She was already tired of the conversation.
“Isn’t St. Mary’s where the christening is on Saturday? And we were there talking to the parsonage about support for summer drama. I was hoping for something, but didn’t expect much from her.” Caroline could hear her Mother’s lips curl.
“Goodness Mother, you act like women in the church—”Caroline faltered, what was the issue? “—have all been a disappointment.”
“Name one who has done some good,” Celia countered.
“Hmm, aren’t you a quick wit.”
“Wonder where I get that from.” Caroline softened. “Yes, Becca’s having a christening on Saturday.” Looking over to her refrigerator where the invitation was posted, she could see her mother had the correct venue. When did she see that and how has she memorized my schedule? “You’re right, it’s at St. Mary’s.” Caroline sat up straight with the realization that she hadn’t thought of taking Flora with her. This Saturday, already? ”Would you be free to watch Flora for a bit, then?”
“There won’t be anything for her to do there.” Appeal to her vanity. “And she loves afternoons with you.”
“You mean to say, you’d forgotten, and why go to a secretary’s baby’s christening anyway?”
Yes I forgot, but like I’m going to give you the satisfaction. “She asked me to come, the pregnancy was difficult.” Caroline removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t mind attending. It’s being supportive.” And it’s not like she’s asked me to be the godmother.
“It’s fine, and who knows? Maybe you’ll meet someone.” Celia baited.
“Christenings aren’t exactly hot pick-up spots.” Can rolling one’s eyes lead to eye strain?
“’Bout as good as the Hebden Women’s Disco, I’d wager.” Celia enunciated, figuratively throwing down her hand in a card game that takes the house. She knew because Alan told her, and he knew because Gillian had told him.
Oh shit. Caroline blushed at the memory. What had Gillian told him? The truth was Caroline had managed to leave with 2 women’s phone numbers that came unsolicited, but to hear Gillian hoot about it after in the car, one would think Caroline had divested the frisky young things of their undergarments in the deejay booth before spinning their brassieres about her head while being crowd-surfed out of the pub into the night. That’s the last time I let Gillian talk me into anything.
“I’ll drop Flora at yours at 1.”
Music for One
The Only Answer – Mike Doughty (how long does it take for an ex’s name to be just another word? That KILLS me)