Sunday 6 January 2013


When the Linden bursts its banks, the ancient city of Lindchester is safe.  It rises from the sky-filled fields like an English Mont St Michel.  Even when the river keeps to its meanders the place has an island feel to it.  It is landlocked, though, as far from any coast as it is possible to be in Britain.  There are no motorways near.  Tourists never Visit Historic Lindchester because they are passing; they have to go there on purpose.  Once upon a time the city lay on a busy coaching route, as the Georgian inns of the Lower Town attest.  But when the stagecoach was superseded it was twenty years before the railway came to Lindchester, and the city has never shaken off that backwater heritage.
But backwaters escape the attentions of town planners, who focus their ruinous zeal on more important places.  Places like Lindford, county town and seat of local government, its once-beating heart now concretised by 60s improvement.  Lindford still has its attractions.  People must head there if they are looking for nightlife and shopping malls, for the Crown Court and council offices and someone to lambast about wheelie bins.  Lindford is where you will find A & E and multi-screen cinemas, trains to London and signs saying The North, The South. 
            What does Lindchester have to offer?  It is the sort of place where you take your American visitors and bored grandchildren to mess about on the river and get punt poles tangled in the willows.  You can visit the History of Lindchester Museum, with its 1970s model Vikings and merchants in dusty periwigs.  You can explore the cobbled streets, or climb the very steps John Wesley was tumbled down by a mob when he tried to preach here.  This is where you finally find a present for someone impossible to please—in the specialist coffee merchant’s, or the antiquarian bookdealer’s.  Afterwards you can treat yourself to Earl Grey and homemade scones in a teashop with beaded doilies over the milk jugs, just like Grandma used to have. 
            But above all, on the summit of the island, Lindchester boasts a medieval cathedral.  It is so perfect it looks like a film set, or a toy Cathedral Close.  You expect giant hands to reach down and move the canons in and out of their houses, lift off the cathedral roof and post the choristers into their stalls then shake the spire to make the matins bell tinkle.

It is New Year’s Eve, 2012.  Light is fading.  Before long the residents of the Close will be partying.  Not the bishop and his wife: they are away in their little bolt hole in the Peak District.  He is a lovely, lovely man, but we can have a naughtier time without him, because he is an Evangelical.  We can drink more than we ought, tell cruder jokes, be cattier about our colleagues when Mary Poppins isn’t at the party.  At midnight we will reel out into the Close and assemble in front of the cathedral’s West doors around the giant Christmas tree, and wait for Great William to tremble the air as he tolls out twelve ponderous strokes.  Rockets from the Lower Town will streak the sky.  We will cheer and champagne corks will fly—or rather, the corks of special offer cava, because these days canons aren’t made of money—and we will busk our way through Auld Lang Syne, not quite knowing the words.
            But that is still hours off.  Let’s while away the time somewhere else in the region.  The Diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.  Tonight I want to take you to an ordinary parish and introduce you to its priest, someone who toils away fairly unglamorously on the coal face of the C of E, and seldom breathes the rarefied air of the Close, except when he’s buying books or candles in the cathedral bookshop, or attending an ordination service. 
Come with me.  We will launch ourselves on the wings of imagination from the cathedral’s spire, swoop down over the city to where the Lower Town peters out into water meadows.  Do admire the river below, if you can still glimpse it in the dusk.  There’s the lake—an oxbow lake! that one feature of Second Form geography we have retained, when everything useful has long since vanished—where herons stalk and shopping trolleys languish.  We are heading southeast, towards Lindford, over fields striped with ancient ridge and furrow; cows and pigs, rape and wheat; this is gentle midlands countryside, with hedges not dry stone walls, punctuated by mature trees.  Soon these hedges will look like smiles with the teeth punched out.  We don’t need to weep for the ashes quite yet, but they are going the way England’s elms went forty years earlier.   Our children’s children will never see their like.
Look down again: that’s the dreary politeness of 1930s suburbia, the dormitory village of Renfold.  This is where I am taking you.  You will notice that they like their Christmas lights in Renfold.  Twinkling Santas clamber over roofs like burglars.  Blue icicles dangle from eaves.  In every garden the magnolias and cherry trees are festooned with lights.  We are coming in to land now.  We circle a brick church, make a pass over the detached house next door just to be sure: yes, this is the one.  St John’s Vicarage
Inside is Dominic Todd.  He is seeing the New Year in with an old friend, Dr Jane Rossiter.  I hope you will suspend judgment on Father Dominic.  I am very fond of him, but I’m aware you will not be meeting him at his best.  Go on in.  That’s his cassock hanging on a peg, and that pompom hat there is called a biretta.  (Insiders will know from this that Dominic is no Evangelical.)  Go straight past the study and the downstairs loo (which every vicarage must have).  You will find them in his sitting room. 

‘Oh rubbish!  He is not gay.’  Jane put her hand over her glass.  ‘I’ve had enough.  You can always put a spoon in the neck.’
‘Put a spoon in my ARSE!’ Dominic cried in horror.  ‘You do not spoon 1989 Veuve Clicquot!’
Jane gave in.  ‘Paul Henderson is not gay,’ she repeated.
‘Yes he is.’
‘Oh, you think everyone is gay.’
‘Do not.  I so don’t.’
Jane recited a list of those prominent churchmen and politicians who, from time to time, had strayed into the cross-hairs of Dominic’s gaydar.  One by one Dominic re-certified them gay.  A couple of them he had no recollection of ever identifying before.  Perhaps Jane was testing him?  That would be like her, the cow. 
‘Anyway, everyone knows Paul Henderson is gay.’
‘Of course they do!’ said Jane.   ‘Except HIS WIFE.’
‘Even back in Cambridge we all knew,’ said Dominic.  ‘In Lightfoot we kept a list of closet queers and Paul Henderson was right at the top.’
‘You’re making that up.’
Possibly Dominic was.  He couldn’t remember.  But Jane was annoying him.  ‘Poor, poor Paul!  He is so far back in the closet he's in Narnia!  Always winter and never Christmas,’ he mourned.  ‘I actually pity him, you know.  No, really.’
‘I preferred Narnia before Aslan came and melted the snow,’ said Jane.
‘Oh!’ shrieked Dominic.  He was a great shrieker.  He sounded like duchess with mice in her pantry.  ‘You can’t say that, Jane!  Aslan is Jesus!  Every time you say that, an innocent Evangelical dies!’
‘Anyway,’ Jane said, ‘ you’re only saying it because you hate him.’
‘I do not hate him.’  Dominic took a prim sip of champagne.  ‘One does not hate ones bishop.  He is my Father in God.  And anyway,’—yes, they had reached the and anyway stage of drunkenness, I’m afraid—‘You only think he’s not gay because you’re still in love with him.’
Jane sat back and tilted her head, giving this accusation proper academic scrutiny, for she was a university lecturer.  Was Dominic right?  Was she?  Still in love with Paul Henderson?  She turned the notion this way and that. 
While Jane is pondering, I will provide a bit of helpful background information.  Many years before, when she was an earnest young woman in her mid-twenties and God still seemed like a viable proposition, Jane Rossiter had begun training for the Anglican ministry.  She spent two whole years at Latimer Hall Theological College in Cambridge.  Paul Henderson was also there, with his young wife Susanna, being great with child.  The Hendersons lived out, but Paul had a study next door to Jane’s college room on G Staircase.  They prayed together in Staircase Prayers, they attended lectures together.  Together they waded through Wenham’s Elements of New Testament Greek, in which blaspheming lepers threw stones into the sea, or carried trees to James in the clean temple.  And yes, back then Jane was more than half in love with Paul Henderson.  But as belief gave way to doubt, she needed ever more urgently to escape from the clean-limbed heartiness of Latimer to the loucheness of Lightfoot House, where the liberal catholics trained for ordination.  The Lightfoot students rather pitied the boorish Evangelicals, metaphorically tapping fag ash on them from their far greater aesthetic and cultural height.  This was where Jane got to know Dominic.
But that will have to do for now.  Jane has reached her considered conclusion: ‘Bollocks I am.’
‘Am bloody not.’
I think we’d better leave them to it.  They are not far from shouting aggressively how much they really really fucking love one another, and conking out, so we may as well speed on fiction’s wings back to Lindchester Cathedral Close.  

An almost full moon hangs picturesquely in the sky above the spire.  Wind stirs the branches of the Christmas tree, making the lights dance.  The lights are white.  They are tasteful, because this is the Close, not Renfold.  All around in the historic houses we can see windows—round ones, arched ones, tall narrow ones—with pretty trees glowing.  It is like a huge Advent calendar.
Down in the Lower Town there is some vulgar roistering.  You can probably hear the shouts.  Sirens tear the night.  A rocket goes off prematurely.  It is five to midnight.  And now the big door of the canon precentor’s house opens and people spill out.  Next comes a troupe of lay clerks from Vicars’ Hall.  Stragglers from other houses join the throng and stand shivering on the West front.  The precentor carries a jingling box of champagne flutes, his wife and sons have the cava.  Here comes the canon chancellor, Mr Happy, and here’s the Dean, Marion Randall—yes, a woman dean! In deepest Lindchester!—with her supercilious wine merchant husband.
Someone asks, ‘Where’s Freddie?’  Where’s Freddie, where’s Freddie? goes up the cry.  Yoo hoo, Freddieeee! 

Freddie woke with a lurch.  What the fuck?  He was up on the palace roof still.  Oh man.  What time was it?  The first boom of Great William rocked the air.  He scrambled to his feet.  Out of sight below the corks began to pop.  He heard everyone cheering.  He’d missed it.  His last New Year in Lindchester, and he’d missed it. 
Should Auld Acquaintance be forgot?
But just then: how silently, how silently!  A flock of red Chinese lanterns floated up from some hidden garden and over the cathedral.  Freddie watched them in wonder.  They trailed wishes behind them.  Prayers.  Resolutions. This year everything will be different.  I will be a better person.  Let it be all right.  Off and away they sailed into the night, carried by the wind. 
And the days of Auld Lang Syne.
Then, sure-footed as Amadeus, the cathedral cat, Freddie made his way back over the bishop’s roof to the window he’d left open.
At the last second a tile slipped under him. 
He clawed at air.  And fell.


  1. Fabulous, Catherine! Have waited SO LONG for another book by you. I adore the authorial voice too :)

    Crikey, it's a long time until next Sunday...

  2. Glad you like it. And no, it isn't long when you're the author.

  3. Brilliant! I recognise the Theological Colleges where I tried to keep the libraries running smoothly in days of yore. Your word pictures are peerless. Really looking forward to the next instalment.

  4. I am looking forward to reading this.

  5. It's great stuff! I still want to know what happened with Annie and Will though. Still fancy the pants off Will! Loved all the Durham connections ex went to Cranmer Hall, so Benefits of Passion is very nostalgic.