A Summer in the Country (novel excerpt)
Late summer Sunday afternoons gave the minister the feeling of not having enjoyed himself as much as he had hoped, of some pleasure he had reached for but failed to grasp, something lost or left undone. And today he had the sense that something other than summer was coming to an end.
That morning he had shaken hands with each member of his Sunday congregation, counted the meagre collection, or ‘offering’, as he knew he was supposed to call it, and had gone home for his lunch of cold roast beef and pickled beetroot which Mrs. Armitage had left plated in the larder. Then he tried to settle in his armchair with a book but couldn’t sit still. He was the one who provided professional comfort to others. Now he was looking for some, with no idea where to find it. He put the book down and stood outside his front door for a while then walked back up through the graveyard to the church to see whether he could harvest some peace from the seeds he had, for so long, been sowing in church buildings. He pulled his oboe out from its hiding place behind the altar curtain and tried to play something cheerful, but whichever tune he started, the oboe ended up playing the Bach piece in D minor.
He decided to take a walk up to Rachael’s house. When she had asked him whether he would mind, while she was away in London, wandering up there from time to time to pick the last of the summer fruit and put it in the freezer for her, he had managed to feign nonchalance at being able to sit in her chair and read her books and look out of the window at the hills she looked at every day. The thought of being alone in her house thrilled him. She was handing him the chance to be himself among her things and feel the sweetness of the air she moved through every day.
Walking up the hill to her house, he smelled the sharpness of autumn. Summer was closing herself down.
He walked around the back of the house, looking forward to the intimacy of letting himself in by the back door. But there, on the doorstep, having a cup of tea in the last of the sun, was the postie. He had got there first and spoiled the pure, sweet air around the house. The minister wanted to bash the postie’s face in. The postie stopped drinking his tea and looked up, maybe suffering a little discomfort, the minister hoped, at being discovered taking his leisure on someone else’s doorstep.
—Reverend. What a surprise, the postie said. You’ll have had your tea already?
The minister knew that this was terribly insulting, but that the postie, knowing that the minister was from away, would think he wouldn’t be aware of the insult.
The minister didn’t want to take tea with him but did want a cup after his walk up the hill. He had intended to make one for himself and sit quietly in Rachael’s house, listening for sounds of her.
—How very kind, he said, to the offer the postie hadn’t made. The postie didn’t move to make room on the doorstep for him so he unfolded a deck chair from its resting place against the wall and lowered himself into it, preparing to wait him out.
The minister watched the postie get up from the doorstep and fetch a cup from the kitchen, then come back outside and pour the minister a cup from the teapot and pull a paper bag out of his pocket. Ah, thought the minister, now that you are sure I won’t be usurping your place on the doorstep, you can afford to be generous.
—Mother made these gypsy creams for Rachael, the postie said, but I suppose we may as well finish them off. I’ve already demolished a couple.
The minister took a bite of the offered gypsy cream and had to breathe in hard and blink so that he wouldn’t weep. The taste whirled him back through years to his grandmother sitting at the piano, playing a late afternoon song, while she waited for him to come home from school. Sometimes she made these biscuits for him and they sat cooling on the kitchen table, giving off their bold gingery warmth and the scent of another spice he couldn’t name. Rachael had been playing the piano in this house when he saw her that first time. And the kitchen had been filled with the smell of fresh baking. Gingerbread, maybe.
—Something wrong, Reverend? the postie said.
The minister swallowed the last bite down with a mouthful of tea because feeling sad in front of the postie wasn’t what he had come up the hill to do. He would save that for later.
—These are a little too sweet, he lied, for my taste. So what brings you up here?
—Delivering Rachael’s letters, the postie said. And checking on Annie’s caravan. Last night’s rain might have got in through those windows.
Nobody delivers letters on a Sunday and there was no rain last night, the minister thought. He knew that the postie was there because he, too, was missing Rachael, so he would have come up the hill on this late summer Sunday afternoon to sit and think about her, which is exactly what he himself had done but they weren’t going to admit it to each other.
—It’s gooseberries I came up the hill for, the minister said. The last of Rachael’s fruit. She asked me to pick them and put them in the freezer for her.
He wanted to sit alone at Rachael’s kitchen table, watching the sun set behind the hill opposite and thinking about her. He wanted to imagine her at her sitting room window in London, missing him, and deciding to get the first train back to Scotland and then seeing her delight at arriving home and finding him there.
But how was he going to get rid of this postie interloper? He badly wanted another gypsy cream but the postie had put the paper bag back into his pocket and wasn’t offering any more. So he drank the last of his tea.
—I better be getting back for Evensong, he said, hoping that this declaration might spur the other man into leaving.
—Twice in one day, the postie said.
Twice? the minister thought. How does he know how many times I’ve been disappointed today?
—You wouldn’t catch me in church twice in one day, the postie said.
—No, I’m aware of that, the minister said, relieved that the postie was talking about something else.
—I’ll walk you back down the hill, the postie said. I’ll just take these cups in and rinse them in the sink.
—No, please let me, the minister said, picking up the cups and brushing past the other man, leaving him standing empty-handed on the doorstep.
Inside the house, there was a silence that had the quality of Rachael. A gentle, temporary silence, as if she had left the room to fetch something and was about to sweep back in, laughing. The room was shaped to her comfort, and had stayed as she had left it: the piano lid open, a sheet of music leaning against it, the piano stool pushed back a little, and the vase of dying roses on the kitchen table, some petals fallen onto an open book. Maybe she would be back before the roses had completely dried out. He wouldn’t throw them away, just in case.
Even the gardening gloves left on the windowsill were shaped to her gesture; palms up, fingers curved.
— Let’s go, minister. There’s a nip in the air, the postie said, flinging the words inside into the silence that Rachael had left behind.
He was leaning into the doorway, so that his head and shoulders had penetrated the house.
The minister turned his back to the door and slipped the book, with the rose petals still inside it, into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. He would stop himself looking at it until after Evensong to savour, for a few hours, the feeling of longing; the longing to find out what she had been reading when she left, and to smell the last of the rose’s perfume. A partial consolation for the thwarting of his afternoon desire.