Precious Remedies for Wearied Souls: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
The invitation came from a Brethren church in Truro. It was David’s second engagement to speak there, and his fourth of their three-week foray outside Wales. And it encouraged them both that it represented progress in his calling, from the short informal Bible studies he had given in the mid-week meetings in Plymouth, to a full Sunday-morning address, and in a relatively conservative assembly which did not normally welcome speakers from outside the Brethren movement. He preached on the Apostle’s advice to church leaders, a choice he hoped would show boldness and grasp, qualities he believed the church nationwide to be lacking. Looking up from his notes to where his wife Elen sat among the married women, he noticed her suède shoe dangling from the hinge of her nylon-covered toe.
He asked her gently in the guest room that night if, in so traditional a church, the gesture might not be thought disrespectful? An only child of Welsh-language activists, and a Methodist since her college years, she had made a decision before she married to subsume her career in David’s: to support him in his schoolteaching and his theology degree, to follow him into the ministry if he thought it right, even in the Brethren churches. She had spent the last two weeks in the studies of various elders with David, and in the kitchens of their wives, knowing that she was being measured and probed as much as he. Now she looked into David’s kindly, serious face with the deepening frown lines, and she agreed that while they were with the Brethren she would avoid the gesture. She placed the shoes that pinched side by side near the bedroom door, and went to the bathroom to wash out her lenses. She told herself it was not David she was angry with, or David who could help. And she lay stiffly by his side until he slept.
They were spending the Monday with old friends of his, who had encouraged him in his preaching and studies, and written letters of commendation for him to the Brethren. She sat on the edge of the bed the next morning, watching as he knotted his tie, and told him she had made a decision not to accompany him that day. He turned round and looked at her with concern.
‘Mike and Sarah Stannard are looking forward to seeing you,’ he said. ‘Would you really rather spend the day here, with the Cullimores?’
‘I need a day on my own. I’ll probably go and visit the manor gardens we saw in the guidebook.’
He pulled her to her feet for a kiss. ‘You’ve been on display more than I have,’ he told her. ‘Spend the day on a park bench, and read your Bible and pray. Come back home refreshed.’
So she felt an ambiguous sense of licence as she passed from sight of the house and lost herself among the shoppers and tourists in Truro. She slipped off her jacket to let the summer breeze reach her arms, and bought a pair of sunglasses from a stall before getting on a bus at the station. For a while the motions of the bus put her in mind of trips to visit her parents in prison, but as they laboured into the hills above the town she put her jacket behind her head and settled down to sleep. A downward turn of the bus made her mouth close and her eyes flick open, resting on a road sign not far from her destination. She reached inside her handbag till her fingers touched not her Bible but her tourist book.
An aged Labrador had found a sunny spot to lie down, in the lay-by outside the Tegleaze estate. It blinked placatingly as the bus pulled in, ceding its place stiffly and with a martyr’s dignity. Elen took a moment to scratch its head, then bought her ticket at the gatehouse, and passed onto a driveway that curved between chestnut and maple trees towards the house.
And walking in sight of the front doors she came across a wedding party. The bride and groom were posing for photographs in the midst of a water-garden, while the guests in their dresses and suits waited their turn, or wandered into the shrubberies. She sat down on a bench, more formally clothed than some of the guests, while a woman in stiletto heels tottered past her, literally supported on the arm of her man.
Elen watched them go, and returned to her tourist book. It was Lady Margaret Tegleaze, a Cornish-language enthusiast, who had inherited the manor in 1930, and returning from among the cottagers of the far west, had determined to make it the seedbed of Cornish national revival, the possible seat of government of an independent Duchy. Fluent in the latest edition of Cornish, which she spoke with flourishes of her own, she had set about imposing the language on the people of her estate. The experiment had proved a success: footmen muttered embarrassed obeisance in Cornish while the maidservants went blushing in folk costume. Lady Tegleaze was briefly fêted in London, while delegations from Wales and Brittany visited her in her home.
There must have been something regal about her, thought Elen. Yet servants had left her employment abruptly, complaining of ill treatment; autocratic and capricious, she had cut links with other leaders of the language movement. Her interest in cultural nationalism had been corrupted by something harder: a rejection of socialism, even democracy, an anti-Semitic sentiment and a dalliance with Fascism. As war loomed she had declared herself only for Cornwall, announcing that those who left her service to fight would have no positions to come back to. In the end, very few of her followers had stayed. She had spent her war years in isolation, researching the constitutional history of Cornwall, and writing endless tracts about its historic wrongs. With her Cornish speakers scattered or dead, and denying all hope, she had taken her life the day Russian troops marched into Berlin.
Elen swept a fly from the page, and looked up. It was almost cold in the shade of the trees, but a haze surrounded the hills behind the manor house, and the legs of the wedding guests shimmered as they crossed the gravelled driveway between the arbour and the house. The Cullimores’ hospitality did not leave room for hunger, but she had drunk nothing since morning. She got up, slipping her new sunglasses over her eyes, and walked into the sunlight.
Had she been right to marry? She had respected David as a man unlike her parents, even of temper and clear of intent, consistent in his application of the teachings both of them honoured. Later she had loved herself as his wife: the spiritual disciplines her marriage imposed on her, the good she accomplished in the churches by his side. But walking to the café in the stable yard, she admitted that this régime had made her neither better nor happier than she had been before they met.
It was pleasant to look out over the lawn in front of the stable yard. A man with a cyclist’s thighs was teaching his toddler to pedal her tricycle; a young mother was playing goalie for her husband and sons between two piles of bags. Elen sat down at a canopied table, and ordered cloudy lemonade from the waitress. A couple her own age took a table nearby, and absorbed themselves in the menu.
Could she really be the minister’s wife? Could she accept all the strictures of the rôle when her childhood had been ruined by activism? In Exeter, David would be sitting with Mike Stannard, perhaps discussing this very question, and Elen knew that if they took this path, even the time she claimed for herself would be scrutinised by others. She was reaching inside her bag for her purse when a sound made her look up. The couple nearby were discussing their order in a language not Welsh, that showed glimpses of Welsh, in a language that could only be Cornish. Where the stable-hands had made sly jokes about her obsession, and in the shadow of the house where Lady Tegleaze had cut her wrists, the language found new breath, new expression.
She got off the bus in the centre of Truro and walked across the river towards the Cullimores’. The hills round the city had trapped the afternoon sun, and now towards evening the slates and asphalt gave up their heat with a smell of traffic fumes and drains.
She had made a decision. On the corner she put her sunglasses away in her bag and covered her arms with her jacket, letting herself into the house with her borrowed latchkey. It was all quiet and still. The door of the guest room was open, and David in his shirt with his tie undone lay sleeping with a serious frown, as though sleep required the most concentration.
He always preserved that boyish modesty. Other women never saw him bare-legged or bare-chested, as she saw other men. With single women he was reserved and respectful, preferring to keep Elen close by. She stood in the doorway for a moment, wondering at the tenuousness of the bonds that held her. Then she came forward to lie down beside him, closing the door very softly behind her in case she disturbed his sleep.