The sun’s shining but the air’s damp. She’s wearing dark glasses and the hood of her rain-jacket is up. The Paddock Hill climb, taken without a break, leaves her momentarily out of breath. Finally at St Pancras she grips the handle to the entrance and heaves, but the wooden frame refuses to budge. Like many before her, she’s made the same mistake again. Shifting her weight to the front foot she pushes, and this time the porch door obliges, swings ajar.
About to go in and soak up the quiet, breath traces of incense, she hears someone almost running up the short flight of steps and through the narrow passage adjacent to the church. Residents at the presbytery tend to use this route – the alternative is via a metal gate and the tedious incline of Ireland’s Lane. Assuming this person-in-a-hurry will be the parish priest she hesitates, wondering if she should say hello.
A gentle warmth bathes her face as she waits, leaning to hold the door open, heat seeping from the floor-to-ceiling glazed lobby. The temperature in the eco-designed addition to the 1930’s building could be unbearable in the height of summer, but today – in the changeable weather of late April – it felt just right. Outside, the footsteps had stopped. A moment of uncertainty follows before she decides to continue inside.
Looking over her shoulder she sees Father J dressed in his black cassock – he makes a quick nod of the head as he goes by. He’s carrying a large black umbrella, as yet unopened, and exits the car-park between the stone and flint pillars to head eastwards along the main road into Lewes. Smiling she thinks they must have looked like two figures on a Swiss weather house, one retreating indoors, the other emerging.
With luck, she can pick up the bus from Brighton just beyond the corner and the Pelham Arms. From here she has to keep a close watch, ready to stick out her arm when it comes. Between seeing the no. 28 to Ringmer or the no. 29 for Tunbridge Wells appear over the brow of the hill and its arrival at the stop, she needs to be quick to attract the driver’s attention – or else he’ll speed past, leave her standing.
Today, as the rain shower’s finished and she’s refreshed from sitting, the gentle downhill journey seems fine. As she strolls towards the town centre, landmarks that house special memories nudge her thoughts – The Shelleys (a family gathering), St Anne’s Gallery (a birthday painting), the Con Club (Mike’s band playing when he and Jerry were over from Bulgaria) – and other places remain anonymous, allowing her mind to rest.
At the Bottleneck, the squeeze-point marking the old boundary between inside and outside Lewes, the road’s narrow and it’s one-way travel. As a pedestrian she’ll benefit from the pause in the flow of vehicles as the lights change. It’s here she notices Father J now carrying bag as well as umbrella walking back along the opposite pavement. But he’s seen her first, and the temporary lack of traffic has allowed him to veer across the road in her direction.
She replays their conversation in her head as she continues on her way, now walking faster and quite oblivious to the cars, vans and buses crawling by.
“I thought you must have been going to catch a train” she’d said.
“No, I was just going to Waitrose” he’d replied, indicating his shopping, and then “Did you hear from the Tribunal?”
“I did – thank you.”
“Is it a relief?”
“Oh, yes – once I’ve got used to my new identity and what that means … It feels like the truth.”
“That’s good” he’d said “I’d stick with that thought”.
With eyes focussing just a few metres ahead, her neck bent forwards, she hurries past her favourite charity shop and the nearby café without being tempted in for tea and cake. So inward her gaze as she walks, the view of Malling Down in late afternoon light – something to be enjoyed while descending School Hill – remains completely out of her sight. At last, the weather seems to have settled on sunshine, and she’ll be able to get all the way home – through the Pells and over Wiley’s Bridge – in the dry.