The Churchwarden’s Conversion
A pleasant stroll by the river?
“Mystery trip? It’s a mystery to me why Doug Hammond brought us here. Pouring with rain, freezing cold, and nothing to do till tea time.”
Doris showed her displeasure by pushing up the spokes of her red umbrella so hard that the fabric turned inside out. At that very moment a fractured waterspout showered down a collection of rain and filth from the gutter.
“Bloody hell!” she yelled, as cold dirty water ran over her blue-rinsed coiffeur and down the back of her neck. “Why the devil did Doug bring us to this God-forsaken dump.”
“Hush, Doris, this is a church outing not a pub crawl.” Her dour husband — thin, tall and bent, long poker face with slender crooked nose, a slash of dusky pink for a mouth, and with hair doing a remarkable imitation of a worn-out bottle-brush under a shabby cap — looked around to see if anyone had heard his wife’s ungodly tirade. “Here, give the umbrella to me, I’ll sort it out.”
Doris pulled a few dead leaves from the nape of her new blue jacket. “Huh. Okay for you. You look like a drowned geriatric rat, no matter how much you dress up. Dark suit and striped tie for a coach trip? And that stupid flat cap, you never take the damn thing off. And don’t think I haven’t seen you polish your shoes with it — disgusting.” She dabbed at her hair with a handkerchief and then pulled tissues out of a pocket to mop her neck and shoulders. “My new jacket’s ruined. Not that you care.”
Henry looked dolefully at his wife of forty years, and wondered what had happened to that demure, slim and pretty redhead that had won his heart. No doubt about it, an unbridled appetite for chips with everything, plus an old-fashioned drawstring corset, had given her a real live bustle of Victorian proportions, no matter how much she blamed her size twenty on bearing their two children. Was he to blame for her dissatisfaction with life? He righted the umbrella and passed it back to her. “Hold this and I’ll help clean you up.”
“Just get that damn rubbish out of my hair.”
Henry sighed; she used to speak so nicely. Television soaps have a lot to answer for. He carefully removed the detritus from the now blue-rinse-with-brown-streaks hair-do. He actually thought the change rather fetching. He liked her scent too. Lavender water mingling with her light makeup? It took him back to their wedding bed, it always did. Now he got the scent but none of the action.
“Look, Doris, there’s a church across the road. A notice says it’s serving coffee. That’s good. We can look round the church until the rain stops.”
He took hold of her elbow but she pulled it away.
“You think I’m going on a mystery trip to spend my time in a bloody church? I have enough of that on Sundays. You go, I’m going to that shoe shop we passed back there.”
“Hang on, Doris. Look, the sun’s coming out. We can take a walk in that park by the river.” The last thing he wanted was to go home laden with shoes that would hardly get worn. His pension wouldn’t stand it anyway. “I think there’s an old castle near the river bank. You always like visiting old castles and country houses.
“Oh, all right. How long is it before we meet for tea?”
“The coach picks us up again at half four. Doug said by the bus stop, close to where we were dropped off.” Why tell her it was the other end of a row of posh new shops and a Bingo hall? “I don’t even know where we have tea. Like the rest of the trip — it’s a mystery.” He took hold of her arm again, but she pulled it away.
“For God’s sake, let me get this umbrella down, before you poke my eye out,”
Henry put up his hands in alarm. “Don’t blaspheme, Doris. Please remember you’re the wife of a churchwarden.”
“Huh. How can I forget it, with you spending most of your time either in church or messing about in the graveyard. Anyone would think you were booking a plot for permanent residence.” She gave a loud sniff. “I only came on this mystery trip to please you. I don’t get a thrill spending an afternoon with a load of holier-than-thou pensioners.” She pushed the umbrella under her left arm and started walking, her handbag clutched to her breast as though expecting to be robbed at any moment.
“You’re going the wrong way.” He took her arm again and led her in the opposite direction, along a line of drab shop fronts, most of them smelling of urine and looking as if they were due for demolition. “You’re not exactly spending the afternoon with the others, we will only be with them for tea.”
“And for the bloody journey! Sitting in a coach just looking at the rain. And with Holy Jo sitting behind us, stinking of fish and boiled cabbage. Huh! He’s forever whistling All Things Bright and Beautiful. Hell… that’s what it is, sheer hell.”
Henry steered Doris round the corner and through the park entrance. “Jo Brown’s okay. He just wants to make folk happy.”
“Happy? Happy? Driving them nuts with that damn whistling?”
“You only had to ask him to stop, Doris. He’s a kindly soul.” He tried to ignore his wife’s continual moaning and take in the pleasant scene: a formal sweet-scented flower garden and acres of mown grass, with nature-reserve islands dotted around. He followed the path along the river’s steep bank. The other side of the river, deciduous trees, glorious with summer foliage, dripped diamonds of light to the rough grass below. Water bubbling over rocks sparkled in bright sunshine. Against slate-blue clouds, a rainbow suddenly appeared. “Look Doris, a rainbow!”
“Never mind a bloody rainbow, did you hear what I said, Henry? I did tell the old geyser to shut up… when you were up front chatting with one of your girl friends.”
He sighed. The rainbow quickly disappeared as if knowing it was not appreciated. A lovely walk and fresh air but they might as well be at home. “They’re not my girl friends, you know that. I was merely asking them if they were—”
“I don’t give a damn what you were asking them. How do you think I feel? My hubby trailing around the coach, chatting up any woman still capable of giving him the glad eye? Body snatchers, that’s what I call them. They’re after any man — young or ancient — capable of unzipping his own fly!”
“Keep your voice down, Doris. And don’t be crude. Remember you—”
“Are the wife of a churchwarden? Or is it Jake the rake?” She stopped and gave him a long hard look. “I’ve heard talk, Henry. You and Mary Balding… goings-on in the vestry.”
“Goings-on? You know we meet occasionally to meditate for half an hour. Anyone can join us. Sometimes a few do. Really, Doris, look at me… I’m not exactly a Sean Connery.”
“She’s no Mona Lisa.” She burst out laughing. “Mona Lot, would be more accurate. The way she goes on about the cost of living, she should spend less time on the Costa del Sol.”
Henry had to smile. For once Doris was right. He’d been thinking of giving up the meditation at the church because Mary spent most of the time moaning. Not about the cost of food, but about her husband. It made him feel uncomfortable. “Maybe you’re right, but not about the chatting up. Well… I guess I do like to make sure everyone is happy. After all, I suggested the outing. It was Doug who decided on a mystery trip. He’s been driving coaches for years. I thought he would know the best places.” He did a sweep of a hand. “You have to admit, now the sun’s shining, this park is paradise.”
“Doris, really. No need to be like that. It’s lovely here.” He looked around to see if other walkers had heard. A woman with a big dog about fifty yards away. Could she be within range?
“You fool. Dog shit — I put my foot in it.” Bending, with difficulty, to look at the soul of her shoe, her face blossomed to a brilliant crimson. “Some paradise with this stinking muck.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Henry took a plastic bag out of his pocket and knelt on the wet grass to clean up the smelly flat-heeled shoe. Why can’t she look where she’s walking?
“Idiot!” Doris yelled, “Now you’ve knelt in the bloody stuff.”
“What? Oh dear. Never mind, let’s get your shoe clean first. I’ll do my trousers by the river. I’ll have to use my hanky.”
The sun suddenly disappeared behind a cloud and drops of rain began to fall. Doris quickly put up her umbrella.
“Ow!” Henry felt a spoke hit the corner of his eye, just as he was rising to his feet. He saw red all right — blood running down his cheek.
“Let me clean it for you.” Doris pulled the hanky out of Henry’s hand.
“No! Not with that.” But it was too late, Doris was already wiping his face with the hanky he’d polished up the shoe with.
“Bloody hell, Doris!”
“Hell? Henry, you just said…”
He didn’t hear any more, He was running down the bank to the river to wash his face, while trying to rid his mind of ungodly thoughts concerning his wife and dog owners.
With rain falling in a brisk shower, he chose where a tree gave slight cover and knelt on pebbles at the side of the river, first rinsing his hanky before using it on his face. His trousers must wait. He was aware of Doris shouting from the grassy bank where he’d left her, but he was in no mood to listen. Suddenly he felt a warm sensation on his backside. Curious, he turned his head and met face to face with a Golden Retriever. “What the—”
Too late, the dog had peed all over him. He shook his fist. The dog appeared to grin before running out of reach. Henry stood up, caught his cap on an overhanging twig, which propelled it off his head and into the jaws of the laughing dog. Each time Henry dived for his cap the dog ran out of reach, clearly enjoying the game. Fury rose and exploded from Henry’s throat. “You damn, bloody dog, drop the bloody cap or I’ll belt the bloody life out of you!” He waved his fist, tears of anger and frustration running down his cheeks.
The dog dropped the cap and Henry dived for it. Not since playing rugby had he managed such a manoeuvre. But the dog was too quick for him. He scooped up the cap and took it for a paddle in the river.
Henry fell on his knees and raised his arms and eyes to heaven. “My cap, my precious cap!”
He felt a rush of air beside him. Doris’s bustle of a bum nearly knocked him over as she threw herself at the dog about to run off again. She grabbed the cap and somehow managed to maintain her balance as she tore it from the jaws of the dog.
“Well, it’s a bit torn but I can patch it up for you. So for God’s sake stop your wailing.” She pushed the soggy cap back on his head. “I don’t know, Henry, what would you do without me?”
“Oh, I am so sorry,“ came a voice from the bank. “Rover is a very naughty boy.”
“Naughty? He’s bl—“
“Never mind,” Doris cut in quickly. “Dogs will be dogs. Is there a place we can clean up, and get a cup of tea?”
“How kind of you to be so understanding. Would you care to come over to my place just the other side of the park? I’ll get you some tea while you clean up and dry out.”
Two hours later, Henry helped Doris up the steps of the stuffy coach. He was in awe of the change in her. Instead of laughing at his fall from grace, she’d been most understanding.
“Where have you two been all afternoon,” Mary Balding, said. “We’ve all had a grand time at the Bingo hall. Betty’s won five pounds.”
“Oh really?” said Doris. “Actually, we were invited for tea at Rockingham Hall. It was rather splendid, but I don’t wish to talk about it. I dislike name-droppers.”
An awed silence filled the coach. But it didn’t last long; fluttering conversations began and gradually turned into a flood of speculation and rumour.
Henry smiled. Yes, they did have tea at Rockingham Hall — in the housekeeper’s flat in the attic. He glanced at Doris, looking serene and happy. “Enjoying the mystery trip then?”
“I don’t know about that, but I’m enjoying having a normal husband for a change.”
Whistling sounded behind them. Henry turned round in his seat.
“And you can stop that bloody whistling.”
“Henry, really,” Doris said, a huge grin making dumplings of her cheeks. “Naughty, naughty. Don’t forget you’re the churchwarden.”
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