Sixpence by Raymond Hopkins - HTML preview

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As a vicar of many years standing, I sometimes despair of the human race. Not always, but there are times when I wonder just why we do to ourselves the things that we do. As a species, we seem to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on others. Not always. Not always. I tried to remind myself that it had been a bad week, one of those in any clergyman’s life when he begins to wonder if he shouldn’t take up something less stressful. There had been several incidents which I would rather have forgotten, or better still, rather not have had to deal with. Violence, attempted suicide, drunkenness, petty theft, vandalism in the church porch which would now have to be repainted, to mention only some of the events of the week. Occasionally, though hardly often enough, I come across the other side of human nature, that side which is much more common than many would have us believe, but which is very definitely a human characteristic, as much so as the darker side of us. So it was on one mid spring day, just at that time when everything is making an effort to came alive again after the rigours of winter. Well, almost everything. One of the main events of this particular day seemed to suggest quite the opposite.

It was a funeral, not my favourite work by any means. Somehow, it felt as though it should be raining, a common feeling at almost any ceremony of a similar type, but it wasn’t. Instead, the sun shone bright in a cloudless sky, bringing warmth to a land starved of it during the recent winter months. Crocuses were already fading, their place being taken by daffodils. A soft, balmy breeze stirred their yellow trumpets, and moved the glossy green leaves already thrusting forth from tree branches as though impatient to be seen.

The party of mourners by the graveside moved to one side, tactfully allowing a woman, no longer so young, but not yet of full middle age to say her last goodbyes. She was formally, yet lightly dressed, as befitted the weather. Her face was pale, with dry cheeks now, for she had shed all the tears she would ever need for one she had loved so well. Again and ever again, her hand went unselfconsciously to a simple necklace she wore, fingers caressing the pendant at the end of its chain.

Watchers might have seen her lips moving. Careful listeners might have heard the words she half whispered, but a strong sense of decency denied any obtrusion into what had to be a very private moment. At length, she made her way to a cedar wood bench with a small brass plaque on its back, one of several donated over the years, and sank down on it, staring out at perhaps nothing, or perhaps something which only she could see.

I watched her for a while, then moved closer. In my experience, people need a little privacy at such times as these, but also need to know that someone is near. Being on their own for too long is not a good thing.

‘May I sit down?’ I said.

Her head moved slightly up and down. Taking the movement as a sign of assent, I sat down beside her.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked. It was a trite statement, but one has to say something, and that fits as well as anything. It is contact, or an effort to gain contact at any rate.

She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite all right again. On the other hand, I expect I shall learn to live with it.’

‘We all do,’ I said. ‘Eventually. Sometimes, it needs a little help. If there is anything I can do...’  I left the statement hanging in the air. It is possible to suggest, but I never like to make people think they are being pressured.

‘I think not.’

‘The church is always open, if you prefer quiet contemplation. And my door is always open too if you ever need anyone to talk to.’

She gave a weak smile. ‘Thank you vicar. It’s a nice gesture, but I’m a Catholic, you see. Only a nominal one, but Catholic anyway, more by birth than by conviction. I inherited it from my mother. It never meant very much to me. I was never even confirmed, and I never go to mass, haven’t done for many years. I suppose I shall roast for it, but I don’t care.’

‘We all serve the same God,’ I said. ‘The offer still stands.’  Catholic or anything else makes no difference to me. I see the person rather than their beliefs.

‘Thank you,’ she said again.

‘Your husband wasn’t a Catholic?’  It sounded like a question, but wasn’t. I knew the man slightly. Many people did.

‘Would it have mattered if he had been?’ she asked.

‘Not in the slightest. As I said, we all serve the same God.’

‘I’m not very sure what he was. He went to a Church of England School, that I do know, and must have been raised as Church of England if anything at all. I don’t think it mattered to him which church he was in. We were married in a Lutheran church. It was as good as any.’

‘ It seems to mean something to you, when you brought him here’, I said. I knew they were not regular members of my congregation, a fact which didn’t have the slightest importance, but the Catholic connection had me puzzled. It wasn’t exactly usual.

‘It was what he wanted himself. He had a high regard for you personally. He thought you were an understanding man.’

‘That’s good to hear,’ I said. ‘I do my best.’

‘Yes, I know. He asked me to see to it, especially when he knew he didn’t have much longer.’

‘So he was a believer then?’

She gave a weak smile. ‘Oh no, vicar, not a believer, not in the sense you mean. There were a good many things he didn’t believe in, like blue skies, rain, sunshine. He saw them, accepted them as facts, that’s all, just as he accepted the existence of God, as a fact. Belief doesn’t enter into it.’

‘That’s a most unusual interpretation,’ I said. ‘I have heard something similar, but not couched in quite those terms.’ 

‘It wasn’t all acceptance of facts with him,’ said the widow. She rubbed her arms gently with her hands. ‘There was belief, strong belief. There were many things he believed in, things such as truth, honesty, fairness, cooperation, if that’s not a dirty word, and justice to mention only a few. Man made things, you see, things which can be unmade much more easily than they were created. He thought he had to believe in them, and work at the ideas too, otherwise they would go away and be lost, and the world would be all the poorer for it. He thought everybody should work at them, though he wasn’t naive enough to believe that everybody would. He was a realist in that way.’

‘He sounds to have been a more unusual man than I had realised,’ I said.

‘He was. I don’t think you’ll find many like him. We had longer together than I had any right to expect, much longer, but I never found anyone else quite the same either.’

She looked around her, apparently taking in the scenery, although it was not certain just what it was she saw.

‘How long were you married for?’ I asked, prompting what I thought was a need to talk.

‘Over twenty years. A long time. Yet not long enough. Never long enough with a man like that. I suppose that’s true for any happy marriage.’

‘He was... That is, there was a fair age difference between you,’ I said diffidently. That much was true, I knew, and had heard certain comments about it from members of my parish, people who should have known better, people who received a swift reminder about Christian charity. I regret I’m a bit sharp in the tongue when it comes to that sort of thing. No, that’s not in the slightest bit true. I don’t regret it at all. Certain things cannot be accepted.

She gave another smile, one a good bit stronger this time. ‘You mean he was a lot older than me. Yes he was. Forty years, and that’s rounding it off by a fair margin. It didn’t seem so great, except towards the end when he grew weaker and less capable. Even then, he gave me the strength to continue. Of course, I always knew it would come. I always knew I would survive him. We never had any doubt about that. He was fit and healthy all the time we were together, but age tells, doesn’t it? Twelve months ago he had a fall and broke his leg. Even that didn’t seem to bother him too much, but he never really got over it and it slowed him down considerably. It was only natural ageing, that’s all.’ 

She turned to me and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘You know, he gave me all the stability I ever needed, even when I was caring for him over the past year. I didn’t have a very easy childhood, you see. Oh, I’m not saying it was anything so very bad, some people have it much worse, but it was unsettled. Perhaps you know the sort of thing. Family fights, broken marriages which is pretty terrible in a Catholic family, even nowadays. My husband gave me all the love and compassion, all the help and care I think any child, anyone, is entitled to and which I had been missing in my life up to the time we met. In the end, he gave me everything.’

‘It bothers you after all this time?’ I asked. ‘Your childhood, I mean?’

She sighed, gazing around with internally focussed eyes. ‘Silly, isn’t it? It shouldn’t. I’ve had more happy years in my life than unhappy ones. Just the same, yes, it still bothers. It always did. I suppose our earliest memories are the ones that go deepest and have the most effect. That’s what my husband always said, and he was in a position to know. He didn’t have much of a childhood himself. Truth to tell, he had no childhood at all.’  She smiled wanly. ‘God made two of us, you see. No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. God isn’t responsible for the actions of people. There is a choice. There is always a choice.’

She turned to me and studied me with clear eyes, studying my face as though searching for something.

‘You know, I do believe I would like to talk to you after all. Of course, I told my husband everything, but that’s not quite the same thing. There’s a natural end to my life as it was right now, and I’ve lost my closest confidant. I’m not sure if it was all a dream, after all, and that I’m not going to wake up and find that what I think I remember never really happened. I’d rather like to tell it all again, get it sorted out in my mind, convince myself that I’m not dreaming.’

‘I think you need to talk to somebody,’ I said. Women often do, in my experience. It’s the strong, silent men who try to pretend that they don’t, and crack as often as not.

‘I do. I’ll talk to you, if you don’t mind listening,’ she said. ‘My husband trusted you, and that’s good enough for me.’

‘Then that’s good enough for me, as well,’ I said. ‘Besides, that’s what I’m here for. It’s not all Sunday services and one day a week of work. Would you like to come to the vicarage, or should I come to your own house? It may be more comfortable there in your own surroundings.’

She shook her head. ‘No. I mean, no thank you. It’s a lovely day, vicar. Well, lovely otherwise. Nice weather is what I mean. If you can spare the time, I’m ready to talk now. I’m not sure I could do it later.’

‘Of course. I understand.’

‘Where should I start?’ she mused. ‘It all began a very long time ago, just before my husband was born. But there, you see, there are two threads in the story. Perhaps I should start with the one most familiar to me. Of that, I can be reasonably sure of the facts. The other is partly supposition, but almost certainly true. We checked as much as we could over the years, and filled in the gaps with what seemed to be reasonable assumptions.’