Excerpt: A Season of Singing

‘Well,’ the bishop said, sinking into an armchair, ‘how have they been looking after you at St Cuthbert’s?’
The grizzled hair at his temples and his small brown eyes gave him the air of a badger, though the only badgers Mark had ever seen had been dead on the verges of the B485.
‘They’ve been very kind to me.’
‘Too kind, perhaps?’
He shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the overstuffed seat. The last two times he’d spoken, albeit briefly, to the bishop, he’d been in pyjamas. It didn’t help. And the question was dangerous. Agree, hoping to flatter the man’s insight, or disagree and avoid a trap. His thoughts were sluggish, and he couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t always been that way. ‘I needed to start doing things for myself. I hope they don’t feel I’m ungrateful.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The bishop smiled and Mark relaxed, the trap avoided. ‘But people are apt to get their feathers a bit ruffled when their good offices are declined.’
Mark bowed his head. ‘I’ll try and behave with more…grace.’
‘I hope that won’t be necessary.’ He picked up another file. ‘I understand the medical board has passed you as fit to return to ministry?’
Don’t show any uncertainty. ‘They have.’
‘They’ve also made some recommendations.’ There was a pause while the bishop read. He let the paper drop back onto the table at his side with a breath of irritation. ‘I think the medical profession—may the Lord guide them—has little belief in our ability to see what is known colloquially as the bleeding obvious.’
‘Perhaps they just didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.’
‘Ever the peacemaker, Mark?’ The words were mild, but somehow it didn’t sound like a compliment. ‘Still, there is a benefice just become vacant which should fulfil their recommendations.’ He lavished irony on the final word. ‘It’s rural, two churches, no more than three services a week. I sent someone to have a look at the rectory, as it’s one of the old ones. A couple of minor alterations, and you should be able to manage.’
‘Two churches? I can’t drive.’
‘I’m sure we can find someone on the parish council to help there. You could,’ he added with ponderous humour, ‘get yourself a donkey.’
The interview concluded, Mark hauled himself to his feet, grateful to escape the embrace of a chair that appeared designed to inflict maximum discomfort. He forced a brisk pace while he was still in sight of the bishop; hearing the door close behind him he stopped and leaned against the nearest wall. Somewhere two floors down was the young ordinand assigned to escorting him, as if left to his own devices he’d either fall on his face or throw his walking stick away and make a run for it. In reality he’d probably achieve both simultaneously.
But only another week and he’d leave St Cuthbert’s for ever. He could endure another week. The board had been amused by his eagerness to take up his ministry again. Sometimes he was able to admit to himself that it was closer to desperation.
Ever the peacemaker. Was I? Was that how I was seen? He could remember the past, but much of it was a silent film, emotionless, an unknown actor hijacking his memories.
Wincing, he straightened and made his slow way to the stairs.
Halfway down the second flight the ordinand rushed up and took his arm. Resisting the desire to snap at him, Mark allowed himself to be helped down the last few steps and out to the St Cuthbert’s minibus. The loathing of this innocent vehicle had become automatic; the disabled stickers in its windows, the boxes of latex gloves and tissues always to hand, the lift at the back for wheelchairs, in and out of which he’d been ignominiously carted for months. And always, at the same time, the apologetic internal litany of how this hate didn’t extend to the disabled, that his compassion for them was clear and absolute, that he would be honoured to minister to them.
He settled into his seat, and before he could object, the ordinand reached across and belted him in.
‘There,’ the young man said, smiling benignly. ‘All ready to go?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
Grace, Lord, please give me grace.


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