September 1984 – Waldringhythe Abbey, Suffolk
It’s the afternoon of an Indian summer. The birds are silent, and the air hangs hot and dry. You’re looking in through a window. It’s not right to be a voyeur, but you can’t help yourself. You’re much too fascinated. You see a young man you know to be a priest, sitting on the floor, tightly embracing a woman. She’s clearly some years older than he, but endowed with a rare and fortunate beauty.
‘Now I’m ready to talk to you,’ she says.
‘Then talk,’ he replies. ‘You may pause as often as you need to, but I won’t interrupt. Just tell me when you’ve reached the end.’
She begins to speak. You recognise gentle Irish overtones, but her voice is so hesitant and soft you have to strain to hear the words.
‘The laughter became louder and louder, until it turned to helpless hysteria and clapping. Then a sudden lurch of the boat, a splash, and a shout of, “Child overboard!”
Roger rushed from the wheelhouse and hurled himself into the water.
Toby followed him in nanoseconds.
Tim briefly stood transfixed before diving in too.
Then all the other men tore off their ties, and jackets, and shoes. The women were screaming, but I was silent and calm, just waiting for the first good swimmer to reach her. There was a real panic around the bow, with too many rescuers getting in each other’s way, but Roger’s strong crawl gained ground over everyone else. “Where was the splash?” he shouted.
“Over there! Over there!” thirty voices yelled back.
“Where for fuck’s sake’s over there?”
‘He dived under the water time, after time, after time, but it soon became stirred up into a muddy sludge. He tried, and tried so hard, but each quest became shorter and more desperate.
‘The women were now silent and holding disbelieving hands over their mouths. The San Fairy Ann, with no one in control, slewed a wayward course and collided hard with the river bank. I heard the cracking and crumpling of metal twisting, and those of us left on board were flung on our backs.
‘No one wanted to be the first to admit it was a hopeless cause, but in the fullness of time Roger conceded failure and everyone in the water began to gasp and scramble for dry land. The women were now openly sobbing, and rapidly abandoned ship to assist their menfolk. I was left to stand alone.
‘The place she’d fallen in was now as still as a millpond and the normal life of the river had already returned. A heron hooked a fish with the plummeting beauty of its large wings, a pair of swans led their cygnets in a slow, weed-trawling glide, and the wind swung the willows. It was only then that I screamed. I screamed so loudly I didn’t make a sound.’
She stops speaking, slowly raises her head, and looks up at the priest. ‘My daughter was drowned. My husband was drowned. There’s no more story to be told . . .’
April 2008 – Waldringhythe Abbey, Suffolk
Father Ewan McEwan. The name demanded perfect diction. A strange, quiet, and serious man who never laughed, but whose face retained the softness of a permanent smile. A face that drew the eye to his peculiar, imperfect beauty.
Today he sat staring at a Howard Hodgkin print on his sitting room wall, but the bursting splash of its colours were faded to dullness. Earlier that day a phone call from Timothy Proudfoot had confirmed that Marina’s death would come before nightfall, and thus, the hours had passed in an empty silence, waiting for the phone to ring; his body moving only to prepare endless pots of coffee, and light numerous cigarettes. Now the light was fading, and he could delay his walk no longer. With an abrupt decision he laced up his boots, and flung his cloak around his shoulders.
His daily two-mile discipline along the Deben estuary bank was a strict, sacrosanct routine. It was his time for philosophy, reflection, and debate with all things spiritual, but today he found no room for anything beyond his misery. His feet followed their usual beaten path towards the marshes, but the thrash of his strides gave no relief. At the turn-back point he stopped to rest, sitting on a dry tussock of grass to overlook the lower reaches of the wide waterway. With the tide drawn out it was a flat stretch of muddy sand, showing the criss-cross imprints of a seabird’s wavering walk. He lit up, drew in deeply, and lowered his head in painful memory.
From a vantage point, high up in the Abbey library, Ewan had watched her drive in. A chance broken moment he’d taken to rest his eyes from writing; to go to the window and absorb the autumn splendour of the gardens, basking in strong sunshine. It was the first time in nearly twenty-five years she’d arrived without an official appointment, and he knew instantly that something was different – something was wrong. Her normal entrances were consistent and legendary. The Aston Martin gliding to a smooth halt, and the widow emerging with the slow body language of depression. Her face a waxwork of apathy, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, and her head bowed to confirm the solitude she displayed like a medal. Today the car had swung into the car park at speed, and the brakes applied so harshly the chassis rocked. There were no dark glasses, her hair, normally in a tight chignon, hung past her elbows in a thick, flaxen waterfall, and her traditional mourning black replaced by a sleek trouser suit in a wild shade of scarlet.
With mixed feelings of apprehension and delight, he briskly descended the stone staircase and walked outside to greet her. Aware of a gardener, raking up leaves, he moved forward with his arm extended; the action of a professional, detached therapist greeting his patient. ‘Lady Proudfoot. What a pleasant surprise.’
‘Sudden decision, Father. I need to see you.’ Her voice was pitched much higher than usual, and she displayed an excited edge; as if she’d consumed just one drink too many.
‘Then if you’d like to go over to reception and book in, I can see you now.’
As she walked away he nodded politely to the gardener, and hurried towards his house on the outskirts of the Abbey estate. The house where he’d lived for most of his life, but before shutting the front door he positioned the usual notice,
Father Ewan is in consultation
Please do not disturb
Marina casually flopped down onto a large Edwardian armchair, and slowly crossed her legs. With a lazy turn of the head, and a slouched, angled shoulder, she lowered her eyes and smiled. ‘Well, at least say you’re pleased to see me. You look as if someone’s just nicked the altar silver.’
‘I’m just thrown a bit off guard,’ he replied. ‘What’s happened? There’s something wrong, isn’t there? I can tell.’
‘Oh, fie! I just had an urge to see you. A fit of madness caused by this wonderful autumn weather.’
Ewan looked at his watch. ‘The thing is, I’m a bit tied up. Father James is away and I have to say mass at six.’
She glanced at the clock. ‘Well, it’s only four. How long does it take to put your party frock on?’
The aftermath of orgasm can be alarming, alerting one to the fine line one treads between life and death. The disappearance into a black, hazy void where you’re never so close to your lover, but never so blissfully alone. Ewan was sure he’d briefly lost consciousness. His heart raced, his head was filled with a blurred underwater sound, and his lungs so restricted, speech was impossible. ‘Can’t breathe,’ he choked, fighting to emerge from the shroud of her hair. She rose to her knees and he inhaled sharply. She laughed, crouched over him, and then, as was her custom, leaned down to run the tip of her tongue over the small scar on his top lip.
‘You’re beautiful, Ewan.’
She left the rumpled bed, pulled on her black satin kimono, and moved to stand before the life-sized facsimile of Crucifix Man that hung on the wall. The iconic anti-nuclear image of the late twentieth century, as renowned in the western world as the napalmed Vietnamese girl, running in pain and terror.
A dramatic sepia-wash showed a young dog-collared man shackled to a cross. Bare-chested, arms spread-eagled, legs encased in torn Levi’s, and Doc Martens hanging heavily on crossed feet. Long wet hair obscured his face, and around his brow a barbed wire crown held a large medallion depicting the CND Logo. She stared at it for several seconds, as if it were the first time she’d ever seen it, then ran her fingers slowly across the youthful arms to the flopped, manacled hands. ‘Why did you do it?’
‘You know why. Love of man. Love of the world. The right to life.’
She fixed him with a steady gaze. ‘Life, I know not what thou art, but know that thou and I must part.’
He threw himself out of bed. ‘There is something wrong, isn’t there?’
‘I’ve got a little problem,’ she said. ‘In fact, quite a big problem.’