Today the torch passes through the fens, and various towns with Dutch-inspired architecture (sensibly bipassing Wisbech with its odd arrangement of roads and waterways) to visit Cromer up on the North Norfolk coast, where they have the famous crab fishing, and also this rather pretty church.
The torch then heads south to Norwich, its final stop of the day. Tomorrow, it will head east and then down the coast to Ipswich, completely bipassing the town of Diss. While that means the torchbearers won’t have to deal with the A140 (the bane of my life when I lived near Stowmarket and travelled regularly to Diss and Norwich, it does also rather hamper the way I’d planned my introduction to the story I wanted to talk about today.
The chain of events in ‘Seven for the Devil’ (in A Series of Ordinary Adventures takes place on the A140, when Michael accepts a lift from a seemingly harmless old man on his way home from a ruined church. During the drive back to Diss, the man asks Michael if he wishes he could change the past and bring back the friends — all fellow members of his old rock band — whose graves he had been tending. After several nights of consideration, Michael agrees, and discovers that there’s more to the deal than he expected.
The story was inspired in part by the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary near Diss, which I discovered one morning while on my way to collect my then-manager from his hotel. I went back later, and tok a series of photos, and hope to do a repeat at some point to see how the ruin has changed over the years.
In the story, Michael’s best friend and drinking companion in the absence of the band is Jimmy, a vicar who had previously played lead guitar in a goth band. Jimmy deserved his own story, and here it is, set after the end of ‘Seven for the Devil’.
Work for Idle Hands
Jimmy knelt, and began to gently tease away the weeds from the last resting place of one of his Victorian predecessors. He’d planted autumn-flowering crocuses over the summer, and didn’t want to disturb them before they’d got established. No one visited this corner of the graveyard except him, but that was no reason to let it go completely wild, no matter what Michael and Patricia had to say on the matter. They’d come round to his way of thinking, once they came back from the band’s latest tour and saw what a splendid job he’d made of the tidy-up in their absence.
A twig snapped close by. Jimmy spun towards the noise, the trowel flying out of his hands and clinking against a nearby headstone.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The girl in the oversized hoodie and baggy cargo pants smiled shyly back at him. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, and evidently had only recently started cutting and dying her own hair. Unless her look was some new fashion he was unaware of, of course. For all he knew she could have paid a fortune up in Norwich to end up looking like she’d been dragged through a whole coppice backwards.
“I startle easily,” he said. These days, anyway: ever since that whole mess Michael had got him into the previous year. He looked at the girl a little more closely, and spotted the family features under her bad dye-job and over-done eyeliner. “Aren’t you one of the Thomson kids?”
“That I am, and I’m in need of a little spiritual guidance.”
“Surely Father Malone would be better equipped –”
“– He wouldn’t get it.”
Oh, Lord, spare me from someone else’s crisis of faith. I’ve had enough of my own to last a lifetime. “Shall we go into the vestry? I can make you a cup of tea.”
“Well, here we are.” Jimmy sat down in the less comfortable of the vestry’s two battered leather chairs: remnants of his recent house clear-out. “What seems to be the problem?”
“There’s a girl at school,” Molly Thomson began, a host of questions in her gaze.
“Go on.” Bullying he could deal with, especially if this other girl was one of his flock.
“I like her.” She scuffed her battered DMs against the vestry’s stone floor. “Really like her.”
And that was a whole other kettle of pilchards. Maybe he was better equipped to deal with the situation than his Catholic counterpart, but he also felt slightly out of his depth. “Go on. Does she like you too?”
“We’re friends, but… is it wrong to want more than that?”
“Does it feel wrong?”
She shook her head. “What if it ruins our friendship?”
“It’ll be worse if someone else tells her.” He’d confessed his feelings to Michael in the pub one night, after a busy day of trying to make the vicarage habitable – again – and had received a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ in response. It was better, knowing where he stood, and Patricia needed Michael’s support far more than he did, but the options for a bisexual ex-goth vicar in a parish on the wrong side of Diss did seem to be rather limited.
He opted for giving Molly the condensed version, naming no names, and attributing the story to ‘a friend of mine’ rather than himself.
Her face brightened as she listened. Oh, to be young again, with nothing more worrying than a teenage crush and overdue homework keeping you awake at night.
“You’re right.” Molly said as Jimmy’s story drew to its conclusion. She set her mug on the flagstones with a chink that seemed echo around the whole church, and then jumped to her feet. “I’ll tell her right now.”
Jimmy would have wished that all his parishioners’ problems could be solved that quickly and easily, but he’d seen before exactly where wishing got people.
Everyone knew the Thomsons. They lived in a rambling, much-extended pair of semi-detached houses, knocked into one some decades previously – probably without planning permission. The vast, overgrown garden backed onto the graveyard of the Catholic church, making Jimmy feel almost as if he were poaching as he walked up the roughly paved path, a week after his encounter with Molly.
He pressed the doorbell. After a minute or two, he tried a tentative knock right in the centre of the front door’s pane of obscured glass.
Yells and clatters reached him from deep inside, followed by footsteps, and then a click as the Yale lock was turned. The door opened just enough to reveal one side of an unfamiliar man, though he was obviously yet another of the clan. A visiting cousin; or an uncle, perhaps, since he looked closer to Jimmy’s age than to Molly’s.
“Whatever you’re selling, they’re not buying.”
“Good morning.” Jimmy refused to be deterred. “Is Molly in? She came to see me last week, about… a school project, and I’ve managed to dig out a few bits and pieces that might be useful.”
“Sorry, Reverend, I didn’t realise who you were at first. I’m just staying here a couple of weeks until I get the money together to rent a place of my own.” He stepped back and opened the door fully. “My brother’s got me a job on the building site with him, so that shouldn’t take too long. Is there anything you could leave with me?”
Jimmy held up a much-reused Waitrose bag. “I’d rather see what she wants out of this lot, but if you could tell me when she’ll be in, I could pop back.”
“She’ll be out all day, I expect. She’s with that Saskia.” He lowered his voice. “Her new girlfriend, but I don’t think she’s told the rest of the family as yet.”
“Maybe if I just leave my card…” Jimmy dug in his back pocket. “Then you could ask her to phone me.”
“Sounds like a plan.” The man took the card and smiled. He had a very attractive smile, and the rest of him wasn’t bad either; even if he was even more in need of a decent haircut than his niece. “You got one of those for me as well? I bet you’re the sort of bloke who knows where we can get a properly pulled pint of Guinness with none of that fake ‘Irish Pub’ crap.”
“That I am.” Since Michael had become more involved with Patricia, and then gone off with the band again, drinking in the Eagle hadn’t been quite so entertaining. “Of course I’m more of a cider man, myself, but they do know how to pull a decent pint in my local.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He almost said ‘It’s a date’ but that might have been pushing his luck a little too much.
Still, something told him he’d be seeing a lot more of this fellow over the next few weeks.
All photos not by me came from http://www.123rf.com/