It was only now, as I resumed my journey alone, that it struck me how quickly the weather was changing. The breeze had grown to a gusty wind, blowing away the last rags of mist and flinging angry spatters of rain into my face. To protect myself, I pulled up the collar of my coat and walked with hunched shoulders and half-closed eyes. When I came to the new drive, I knew it more by the crunch of fresh gravel beneath my boots than by anything I could see.

There was a squat, newly-built lodge at the entrance. I tiptoed past it, for fear of being challenged by the gate-keeper, and then out through the open gate on to the road. A hundred yards or so ahead of me a straggle of cottages marked the beginning of the village. Beyond them, I could just make out the black witch's hat of a church spire. As I turned towards it, the clock in the tower below it struck the hour.

The rain was falling continuously now, and with almost every step I took it seemed to become fiercer and more insistent. By the time I had passed the cottages it was an unremitting onslaught, jabbing my eyes and stinging my cheeks and working its way relentlessly through the seams of my coat and boots. If I kept going, I knew I should be drenched to the skin long before I could reach the haven of the Railway Inn.

Looking around for somewhere to shelter, I spotted the dark bulk of the church porch. The lych-gate was still some way ahead; but it was easy enough to scramble over the low wall, and take a short-cut through the jungle of headstones. The porch was unlit, so I had to grope my way on to the stone bench running along the side. As I did so, my hand brushed against something that felt like a cut flower. I picked it up, and gave an oof of pain as a thorn embedded itself in my fingertip.

I held it to my nose. Yes: it was an unseasonal rose. For an instant, as I smelled it, time dissolved, and I glimpsed soft summer shadows on a golden lawn, and caught the distant squeals of a playing child, and had the odd sense that any second I should see her jump out from her hiding place, and run laughing towards me. So desperate was I to hold on to the vision that I leaned back against a wall-beam and shut my eyes, to stop it from bleeding away into the darkness.

The next moment, from no more than five feet away, I heard a soft intake of breath.

I sat up so abruptly that the rough wood grazed my neck. A woman's voice said:
'The vicar's in the church, you know.'

I peered into the depths of the porch, but my eyes still weren't sufficiently accustomed to the gloom to see anything. The woman, however, could evidently see me: her tone had been assertive — as if she feared I might attack her, and was letting me know that she could summon help if I tried.

'Well,' I said, 'I'm glad to hear it. On balance, that's pretty much where you'd want a vicar to be, isn't it?'

There was a short silence, followed by a snuffling sound that might have been a stifled giggle. Then she asked:
'Do you know him?'

'No, I'm afraid not. I've never set foot in this place before in my life. But I don't doubt he's a splendid fellow.'

'I hope so.'

'For any particular reason? Or just from a very creditable concern for the well-being of the church in general?'

She did not reply. Though I still couldn't see her, I sensed her tortoising further back into the blackness. I flourished the rose, and said:
'Is this your flower?'

'Yes. I must have dropped it.' Her intonation was flat, squashed to a monotone by some heavy weight. 'Did you hurt yourself with it?'

'Oh, just gave my finger a little jab, that's all.'

'I'm sorry, it was careless of me. May I have it, please?'

I held it towards her. A hand appeared to take it. For the first time, I glimpsed the murky silhouette of a high-collared coat, and a pale blob of a face. Then they diffused into the gloom again.

'Thank you,' she said.

'A lovely scent.'

She said nothing. But I could hear her delicately sniffing it — and then the start of a sob, which she quickly strangled. There was, of course, only one remotely likely reason why a solitary woman would bring a hot-house flower to a country churchyard on a damp February evening — and good manners plainly demanded that I should avoid alluding to it. So I was startled to hear myself suddenly saying — as if someone who had never learned good manners had taken control of my vocal chords:
'Your parents, is it?'

'No.' She paused, and I wondered if I had offended her. But the instant she went on again, I knew I hadn't. The load had lifted from her voice: she sounded surprised, certainly, at the frankness of my question; but relieved, too, that it allowed her to be equally frank herself.

'The truth is, I haven't a clue where my parents are buried. Or if they're buried anywhere at all. They may both still be alive, for all I know.'

'Do you mean to say that you've completely lost touch with them?'

'I never knew them.'

'Heavens,' I said. 'But surely there must be some way you could find out? Somebody you could ask?'

I could hear the stirring of her clothes, and feel a whiffle of cold air as she shrugged. 'They've shown no interest in me. Why should I be interested in them?' "

Cover of Consolation

Faber and Faber (06 August 2009)
ISBN: 9780571238064

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