The Anglicans

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SUNDAY

“Are you not sleeping, Beatrice?” Met in the herding surge of the congregation for the doors, Velma Lettie’s weather eye traveled Bea’s Sunday Church outfit from hat to shoes, and having seen them all before, had to settle back again on a smoothness of cheek that surely must be puffiness at Bea’s age.

Snapping a glare to ensure that Vera was in tow, Velma slipped her purse strap to the elbow, aimed hymnal and bible in a firm, two-handed grip and plowed up the aisle, catechizing Bea all the way to the porch, “Mother not well? You were down. It’s a worry. And Katherine? You went all that way! And were you disappointed? Of course not, she’s fine. Still at the Art, is she? And still..? Yes. Still no little ones, though. It must be hard. Though some, no doubt, are best without, if they’ve only been to the altar to satisfy themselves. It may be said better to marry than to burn, but I’ve often thought the Apostle Paul spoke more as a man, than a saint. That’s so, isn’t it, Reverend?”

Through the vestibule, milling with husbands hunting hats, with wives smoothing the seats of coats they’d sat on, with children pouring up from basement classrooms waving God in pastels, all fighting to regroup without raising voices and pass to the porch for a murmur and a handshake with the Reverend, Velma hove to and took a hand from her bible to give to the minister, “A lovely service, Reverend. Rather a poor choice of music in the second hymn, but at least people know the words. Do you think we might suggest to Ginny Whelks that she’d be happier with that new baby down in the nursery? Yes. And did we notice poor Jack Wilson was quite unsteady with the offering plate? I won’t say he smelled of drink, mind you. No.”

A duty done, she shifted guns, “Indeed, a thought-provoking lesson, Reverend, although, as I was just saying to Beatrice, I find the Epistles rather too concerned with the male members… the men of that congregation… Corinthians, yes. Greeks, of course, I suppose that was the problem. And Bea was telling us just now of her problems, her worries. Not sleeping well, you can see. Mother’s not good, you know. No. And she’s been down to visit with Katherine. All that distance to drive and still no sign of a Little Blessing, you see, and I was saying that perhaps there was a Lesson there, which those of us who don’t burn, you understand, have a duty to point out. Helpful, as we’re sent to be.”

“Good morning, Beatrice. Now what lesson would that be, Velma Lettie? Morning, Vera.” The first year of his Strawbridge pastorate, Robert Ross had been terrorized by this bossy, meddlesome old maid, until Anna, his wife and always a local girl herself, had convinced him that the trick was to give Velma Lettie her full name, the way old Albert had done on the rare occasions he had addressed his daughters. It froze her long enough to get something said, “You saw the sign, Bea? Thank you for the warning.”

“Sign? What sign?” The Devil, Velma knew, used sign language. She had always avoided black cats and the deaf, and although she kept familiar with the zodiac on a daily schedule, convinced it was the only safe way to keep ahead of Satan’s doings, she was never sure where she was nowadays, what with this sign business quite out of hand, this silliness over magic crystals, for instance. Not a good solid gypsy ball that you could actually see something in, certainly nothing nice in a pinwheel pattern, just silly chips and chunks, dust-catchers supposed to cure cancer and part the Red Sea. And all this foolish dreaming and meaning and therapy and confronting a black weasel in a mound of new snow had nothing… Velma felt uncomfortably warm, she’d have to speak again to old Fooks about wasting the church’s oil… nothing to do whatsoever with anything! People who dream are no better than they should be, “Sign? What sign?”

“The buffleheads are congregating south of the bridge!” Vera felt called upon to say something. After all, it’s what people expect, a bit of conversation after service, everyone having a word with the minister and something polite with friends, nods for acquaintances; they do it in books. Vera thought it’d be lovely to go home to scads of tea and hot muffins and three different kinds of sandwiches and maybe a nice cake, an angelfood, instead of brown bread and pickles and a half pot, one bag. “Sign of an early winter, the ducks.”

The others let it pass, as they mostly did with Vera. Velma would get her for it later, they knew that, but it was considered safer to ignore Vera for her own sake, she mightn’t get tea at all.

“The letter board, Velma Lettie,” the Reverend indicated the church lawn with a wave of surplice, “I hadn’t made the day of our Supper clear, and Beatrice noticed that we might have been expected to feed the southern hordes tonight, and suggested that I clarify the date of our fête.”

“You should’ve called a committee. I’m always willing to see things done correctly.” Velma clapped her bible with a capable hand.

“Of course, Velma, but we seem to have managed,” Bea was modest, “Reverend Ross added next Sunday’s date, and that should prevent any confusion.”

“Confusion to the enemy, the filthy Sassenach!” Vera’s eyes winked a rapid dozen while she quivered a smile, “Southern hordes, you see, literary allusion, historical, really… Scotland the Brave and…” She would certainly go without tea now.

Straight to her room, Velma thought, the moment we get home. “How fortunate of you to be so… noticing, Beatrice. Although, I do believe that the best of our visitors, our summer-home people, are familiar with our local celebrations, and certainly those of my circle have all taken tickets and can be counted on to know what day it is, old families, people with calendars in their lovely homes, Beatrice.”

Bob Ross had chosen the ministry, in part, for the clothes. He’d once seen himself a bishop, indeed, had indulged himself in a chain of serendipidy that sat him in full fig on the Canturbury throne. But he developed early trouble with whisky and golf, loving the former, hating the latter, an imbalance of passions unfavourable to a political churchman. So, he’d turned his back on the lure of the see for the life of the country parson, and having been posted to the rim of civilization, had found himself watering the vestry wine and went native, marrying Anna McGee of the Strawbridge Hardware McGees. This was in the days before the coming of the Canadian Tire thrust that family into a scramble of rapacity and greed from which it emerged as the ‘Grocery McGees, them bastards’.

He made do for the most part on visiting sherries, and sought comfort in corduroy and tragic sopranos. A good man who tried not to judge what he didn’t understand, he was an intelligent man who had come to believe in instinct, and so adopted a dotty Church of England manner that predated any involvement with guitars. It allowed him a moral tone and enough pedantry to employ the proper parables which were, really, sufficiently instructive and saved him the humiliation of the modern homily. Leaning on the Good Samaritan, he sensibly avoided the Marriage at Cana, deeming notice of compassion more important than of water being wine.

A weaker man would have gone High Church, slipping into cassocks and the naming of saints’ days, at least for the comings and goings of seasons, offering an all-day liturgy to those with a tooth for God. However, Bob Ross enjoyed sitting to his sermons, the thinking and the crafting of them, much more than standing and delivering. The reading, the writing, the choosing of music to frame the service managed, with a measured beat of heart, to dull and make safe the sharp edge of his vision. For he too often saw the world as transparent, vein and sinew, and the urge to blood, to sacrifice, and to read the truth in entrails for the sake of a terminally confused humanity made him thirsty.

Bea considered the Reverend Robert Ross an affable man. His manner was careful, a touch donnish, perhaps, giving him the air of a bachelor cleric soaked in Greek, his household sketchily managed by an adoring plain sister. When in fact he was indolent, given to crosswords and canasta, and married to a nervous plain wife. Bea enjoyed his company because he was a sensible man and not unhandsome.

For his part, Bob Ross trusted Bea McAlpine to never have need to confess any sort of unmanageable sin; she would neither pat him on the knee, nor abet bloody intrigue. She was kind to Anna, his wife, and a dab hand at cards. Once in every month Reverend Ross found reason to forgo Sunday evening service, giving himself peace and preventing high-church addiction in the congregation, and this evening would be particularly celebratory as it was Anna’s fruit cake night.

Pinched at birth, Anna Ross tended to hold her elbows safely cupped in her hands. Asthmatic, and morbid about cats, she lived with mice and a dust cloth. Anna’s single indulgence was an annual preparation of six fruit cakes, twice three, or three twices, no one asked, created with a generosity of sweet nuts and rum and a joyous, heated intensity expressed at no other time of the year.

A bottle of brown sherry had already been ripened into the cheesecloth wombs, tonight was the wrapping of the rum-soaked shrouds. The possibility of a chance at Anna’s bottle, especially if Bea were to drop by, was making the Reverend anxious to be rid of the Letties for fear Bea should maneuver through Velma’s blockade; if she escaped uninvited, there’d be no rum for the sailor. “Vera Lettie, could I call upon your great good nature to slip up to the vestry and just see that Jack Wilson’s stowed the collection properly, snecked the lock on my cupboard, he might’ve muddled the chore, if he’s a bit unwell.” A scrape of guilt for sacrificing a friend’s reputation was salved by a certainty that Velma couldn’t resist supervision of her sister botching a job. And indeed, saluting the assembly good day and issuing commands, Velma stood about and sailed back the aisle, Vera in her wake, to preserve the Church from thieves and secret drinkers.

Bea said she’d be glad to drop by spontaneously around seven, “If we sit in at her kitchen table, maybe we can get Anna away from her cakes long enough to take a hand at the deck, and if she wipes us out, she might be in the mood to grant you a cup of her rum to make us up a bowl of punch.” And there might be a chance for a word of advice, if she could ask it right; she didn’t want to risk her place in consecrated ground, it was already paid for.

text by Robert Thompson

photo of a church carriage house by Robert Aaron Joseph Pigeon

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~ by Rocky Green on March 10, 2008.

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