The Wonder Worker (St. Benet's Trilogy #1)by Susan Howatch
Young, lonely, and insecure, Alice Fletcher is on the verge of emotional collapse when she stumbles into St. Benet's Church to dodge the London drizzle. There, she witnesses a group of gifted healers led by the charismatic Nicholas Darrow. Gaining refuge at last, Alice is drawn--inexorably, seductively--into the complex network of relationships at St. Benet's healing center--as she falls immediately, dangerously, in love with Darrow himself.
Yet Darrow and his cutting-edge clergy are not all what they seem. And while Nicholas's dazzling powers now threaten to ruin all he attempts to save--including his own disturbed marriage--Alice's devotion to him deepens. Then a devastating tragedy transports her to the shocking center of truth. Yet fueled by her love for Nicholas and a boldly emerging intuition, she will hold together the lives spinning wildly out of control--as she herself is transformed forever.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
ALICE: The Romantic Dream
Life is a pilgrimage. It is a pilgrimage to health. It is also a pilgrimage of health. We have it on our journey, always partially, always imperfectly, always with an admixture of that illness which is its opposite or the mark of its imperfections.
CHRISTOPHER HAMEL COOKE
"Health and Illness, Pastoral Aspects,"
an entry in A Dictionary of Pastoral Care
We all have our favourite addictions to which we turn when we are under stress. For you it is food, while for others it can range from chemical substances to spending money or constant contact with others in order to avoid alone-ness.
GARETH TUCKWELL AND DAVID FLAGG
A Question of Healing
I can remember exactly when the miracles began. It was when I first met Nicholas Darrow and fell in love with him. Can I write that and avoid sounding like a romantic schoolgirl? No, so I must start again. I'm not a schoolgirl and being romantic is pointless. What had romance ever done for me, I often asked myself, and the answer was always the same: zilch.
So let me reject any statement which reeks of romance and write instead: I can remember exactly when my life began to change out of all recognition. It was when I first saw Nicholas Darrow and glimpsed a life-style I had never encountered before.
That's better. That's more truthful, and truth matters. I suppose in the end it's all a question of integrity.
The meeting with Nicholas was quite unplanned. No doubt religious people would speak of divine providence, but I wasn't religious--not after slogging my guts out to look after Aunt. What had God ever done for me, I might have asked myself, and the answer would always have been the same: zilch.
It was the March of 1988. I was trying to get a permanent job because I needed extra money to pay for more nursing, but I'd messed around with temporary work for so many months that all the shine had been stripped from my curriculum vitae, and when I explained about Aunt I could see my would-be employers thinking: family problems, unreliable, forget her. However, if Aunt was to stay out of the geriatric ward she had to be cared for by a rota of nurses from a private agency, and I had to earn the largest possible salary to--no, not to make ends meet; that was impossible, since the nursing care was so expensive, but at least I could postpone the evil day when Aunt's savings finally ran out and I had no choice but to consign her to one of the National Health dumping-grounds.
On that particular morning in March I had unsuccessfully tried to flim-flam my way through an interview with a personnel officer who had behaved like a sadist. Trudging away from the hideous office block which housed her, I felt in a mood to jump off Tower Bridge.
I was in the City, that square mile of London's financial district which always seems a world away from what I call Tourist London: the grand West End streets crammed with monuments of our Imperial past, and the grand department stores crammed with frenzied shoppers. On London Wall, that wide, bleak highway just south of the Barbican, I paused to work out which was my nearest tube station but by that time I was so overpowered by the desire to binge on a high-calorie lunch (mushroom quiche, chocolate-chip cookies, rum raisin ice cream) that I was incapable of coherent thought. To make matters worse the heavens then opened, the rain bucketed down and I realised I'd left my umbrella in the office of the sadist. In disgust I looked around for shelter, but there were no shops to be seen, only office blocks, and no buses, only taxis which I couldn't afford. I hurried towards the nearest side-street but when I turned the corner I found no sandwich-bar where I might have sheltered but only older, grimier office build
ings. The street was narrow and soon became cobbled. I started to slither in the vile high heels I'd worn for the interview, and the next moment I wrenched my ankle. It was then, as I leaned against the nearest wall to take the weight off my throbbing foot, that I glanced further down the street and saw the church.
It was washed, shining, serene, an oasis in the midst of a desert. Automatically I limped on over the cobbles towards it.
I knew I had never seen the building before but I guessed it was one of the City's many Wren churches. As I drew nearer, the roar of the traffic on London Wall receded. I heard the birds singing in the churchyard and saw the daffodils blooming among the ancient graves.
Suddenly I forgot the misery of the morning. I forgot the sadistic personnel officer, and I forgot my dread that all the well-paid boardroom cooking jobs in the City would nowadays be awarded to girls called Caroline or Sophie who looked like the Princess of Wales, possessed Porsche-driving merchant-banker boyfriends and lived in the fabled streets around golden Sloane Square. I even ceased to be aware of the slapping, slashing rain. I was remembering the day long ago when Aunt had taken me on a tour of some of the City churches. They had strange names such as St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St. Botolph Aldgate and St. Lawrence Jewry--and this church, I had just discovered, was called St. Benet's-by-the-Wall; I glimpsed the name as I stumbled past the painted board outside. On reaching the outer door, which stood open, I plunged into the shelter of the porch. The relief of escaping from the downpour was considerable. Breathing hard I smoothed my wet hair, gave my spectacles a quick polish and prepared to take ref
uge in what I assumed would be a quiet, deserted interior.
I heaved open the inner door and stopped dead. The church was packed. I gazed open-mouthed, jaw sagging. What was all this? What could possibly be going on? I'd thought nothing happened in the City churches any more. I'd thought they were mere clerical museums maintained for their architectural interest. During all the times I'd done temporary work in the City I'd never realised the churches were still active ... But of course my work as a cook meant that I was never around in the lunch-hour to witness such a phenomenon.
This particular church was obviously very active indeed. The whole building seemed to be pulsating. Automatically I stood on tiptoe to try to glimpse what was going on, but I was too short to see past the forest of suits. Surely men didn't go to church any more? Maybe the building had been hired for some sort of yuppie rally ... I pictured an American guru holding forth on the wonders of capitalism before hosting a buffet lunch in the crypt. (Californian wine, barbecued nibbles, chicken-with-everything, coleslaw in tubs.)
I had just realised I'd forgotten I was hungry when more people came in behind me and I was propelled towards a dark, pretty woman of about forty who was wearing a badge inscribed: ST. BENET'S: FRANCIE. I muttered an apology as I bumped into her, but she merely whispered with a smile: "Welcome!", a reaction which astonished me so much that I found I had the courage to ask what was going on.
She said: "It's our Friday healing service. It's just started. Stick close and I'll get you behind the wheelchairs so that you can see."
I had no interest in watching a church service of any kind, least of all something so peculiar as a healing service, but since she was being friendly I didn't like to be impolite. I followed her as she eased her way through the throng to the side of the church, and when I stood at last behind one of the wheelchairs I took care to whisper my thanks, but she was already on her way to attend to the other late arrivals. Turning back towards the altar I began to absorb the sight which met my eyes.
The interior of the church was so unlike the usual Wren design in which the stalls face each other across a wide central aisle that I was sure the space had recently been rearranged. The wide central aisle now dissected a semi-circle of chairs, set in curving rows and catering for a much larger congregation than Wren would have envisaged. The distant altar looked as if it might date from a previous century, but both pulpit and lectern were modern, carved in the same pale wood as the chairs. The windows were clear; I supposed that the Blitz had blown out the old stained glass. The walls were a creamy white, nonclinical, almost luminous, and the panelling which rose some twelve feet from the floor was sumptuously dark in contrast. All the brass memorial tablets gleamed. Despite the greyness of the day there was an overwhelming impression of light, and despite the presence of so many people there remained also an overwhelming impression of space. With extreme reluctance I had to admit to myself that I was intrig
Beyond the lectern and seated facing the congregation were two clergymen, one silver-haired, one red-headed, but my glance travelled over them without stopping because I had finally become aware that someone was saying, in a pleasant, casual voice devoid of histrionics, exactly what that utterly silent, utterly fascinated audience wanted to hear.
I looked into the pulpit and saw Nicholas Darrow. II
Anyone who thinks I'm now about to describe some rip-roaring 1980s version of testosterone on two legs is going to be disappointed. But on the other hand, anyone who thinks the clergymen of the Church of England are all wet wimps in frocks is now going to be very surprised indeed. I myself was amazed. I had no time for clergymen (what had the clergy ever done for me? Zilch!) and had long since decided they were all damp-palmed hypocrites, so I was hardly expecting the pulpit to house an ecclesiastical version of a film star, but nonetheless the moment I saw Nicholas Darrow I felt my stomach churn in a way which reminded me of everything I'd always wanted but never come within a million miles of having.
As he stood in the pulpit it was hard to judge his height, but he was certainly no dwarf. The cut of his cassock was hidden by a surplice so it was also hard to judge his build, but I sensed he was well proportioned, slim without being slender. I was too far away to see the age-lines on his face, but I guessed him to be somewhere in his forties; he had an air of confidence, an aura of natural authority which people usually only acquire in mid-life. His unremarkable brown hair was short, straight and neat. His pale eyes I assumed were either blue or green. His skin was stretched tautly over his prominent cheekbones and the tough line of his jaw. There was no way he could have been described as classically handsome--and yet no way he could have been written off as unattractive. As he continued to talk with such low-key, easy grace, I found I was particularly noticing his elegant hands as they rested lightly on the curving edge of the carved wood.
There was a crucifix on the wall behind him and he was talking about Jesus Christ--well, he would, wouldn't he?--but I couldn't focus on what he was saying because I didn't really want to hear it. I had no time for all that Bible rubbish, couldn't understand it, didn't need it. What I needed was money, loads of it, enough to pay for masses of nurses for Aunt and masses of sessions at a health-farm for me (or could one lose four stone instantly by just having liposuction at an upmarket clinic?), and once I was slim I'd want a stunning house in Chelsea with a beautiful kitchen and a lavish bedroom with yards of wardrobes which contained oodles of designer outfits in size ten--well, twelve, one had to be realistic--and I'd want a gorgeous Mercedes in the garage and a handsome husband who loved me and four stunning children--not necessarily in that order, of course--and oh yes, an elegant cat, very furry, who would travel with us in a custom-made basket from our home in Chelsea to our country house in Gloucestershire which, inevitably, would be just a stone's throw from the rural retreats of the Royals ...
I had just realised with self-loathing that I was knee-deep in the most pathetic romantic dream, quite unsuitable for any woman of thirty-two who had no choice but to be a hard-bitten realist, when the sermon--homily--chat--whatever it was--ended and I became aware that Francie, the welcomer, was once more by my side. I whispered to her: "Who was that clergyman?" and she whispered back with pride: "That's our Rector, Nicholas Darrow."
As Darrow left the pulpit one of the other clergymen, not the young redhead but the silver-haired veteran, limped to the lectern and began to read, but I mentally disconnected myself again. I was thinking how beautifully the Rector moved, as beautifully as the actors I had seen on the West End stage in the old days when I was a schoolgirl and Aunt had taken me to see a couple of the Shakespeare plays. But perhaps that wasn't a flattering comparison. No respectable clergyman would relish being compared with an actor, but nevertheless ... I was still meditating on Nicholas Darrow's mesmerising stagecraft when the reading ended and Francie murmured: "Do you want to go up?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you want to receive the laying-on of hands?"
"Whose hands? You mean ... are you saying he touches people?"
"All three priests do. It's all right, it's absolutely above board, there's a long Christian tradition of--"
"No thanks," I said. "I'm not sick. I'm fine."
To my relief she made no attempt to argue but instead gave me her warm smile and turned her attention to the occupants of the wheelchairs nearby. I was still savouring my relief when someone muttered: "Excuse me," and I found myself being propelled sideways as people edged past me. Having wound up wedged against the wall I found myself next to a notice-board covered with requests for prayer. "Please pray for Dad who has cancer ..." "Please pray for Jim who has AIDS ..." "Please pray for Sharon, last seen two months ago ..." "Please pray for the family of Jill who died last week ..."
A voice in my head suddenly said: "Please pray for Aunt who's dying by inches," but I blotted out the sentence in shame. I didn't believe in prayer (what had prayer ever done for me? Zilch!) and I hated all that sort of thing and I particularly hated what was now going on in this church--I didn't know why I hated it so violently but I did hate it, I hated everyone and everything--in fact such was my uncovered rage, the rage I always repressed so efficiently that I had hardly been aware of it, that I wanted to grab a machine-gun and mow down everyone in sight--except that attractive man, of course--but no, why should I spare him? I hated all attractive men; in fact at that moment I felt I hated all men, attractive or otherwise, because none of them had ever displayed the remotest interest in me. So why shouldn't I want to mow them all down? And after I'd done the mowing I'd shoot myself too because life was so vile, so awful, so hellish, and even when Aunt died I'd still have no hope of happiness because there
'd be no money and no one would want to employ me and--
Somebody asked me if I was all right.
"Absolutely fine," I said. "No problems whatsoever."
The organ began to play quietly, and through my tears I saw for the first time how diverse the congregation was. In addition to the men in city suits there were young mothers with children, wrinkled old ladies, smart girls from the offices, women in fashionable clothes from some expensive patch of the West End. I also noted several camera-toting tourists, far off the beaten track, and even a yuppie with a bottle of champagne tucked under his arm as if he, like me, had been diverted on the way to lunch. The majority of these people remained onlookers, some obviously admiring, some more reticent, but all unable to tear themselves away as the minority made their way slowly up towards the altar. The woman in the second wheelchair was a stroke-victim like Aunt, and one side of her face was paralysed. I watched her with a growing incredulity. What did she think was going to happen? Did she imagine she was going to jump out of her chair and walk? I felt outraged. I also decided that this was the most embarrassing sc
ene I had ever witnessed and that I wanted above all to leave.
Yet I stayed. I found I had to go on watching Nicholas Darrow, so calm, so grave, so dignified as he went about his mysterious work. He was placing his slim, long-fingered hands on the heads of those who knelt at the altar-rail, his face tense with concentration, his whole body exuding an integrity which I instantly recognised and which somehow, by some mysterious force, pinned me in position. I could always have walked out on a charlatan. But I couldn't turn my back with contempt on someone honest.
My eyes filled with tears again and this time I started to weep. Immediately I was horrified by my lack of self-control, What would Aunt have said in the days when she could still speak? She had taught me that to show emotion in public was disgraceful.
The image of Aunt suddenly filled my mind. What had Aunt ever done for me, a stranger might have asked, and the one answer I could never have given was: "Zilch." Aunt had taken me in and brought me up--my great-aunt she was, the aunt of my foul mother who hadn't wanted me--God, what a disaster my early life had been, but Aunt had intervened, spinster Aunt, once a hatchet-faced teacher in a grammar school, no one special, just another bossy old bag who could be both beastly and boring, but this particular bossy old bag had been there when she was needed and now I had to be there for her, just as she'd been there for me. Well, that was only fair, wasn't it? I owed it to her. It was a matter of principle. I mean, one has to have one's principles, doesn't one, and even though I wasn't bright enough to make a success of my education and even though I was so plug-ugly that I had to have baths in the dark (how I hated all that flab) and even though I was such a failure as a woman, unable to get married or even to lo
se my virginity--even though all these ghastly facts were true, I wasn't entirely a write-off because I was trying, trying, trying to ensure she died with dignity in her own home. Yet I was beginning to hate her for taking so long to die. I knew I was. But that was because I was so done in through lack of sleep. Or was it? Maybe I was just afraid that in the end the money would run out and she'd wind up on the geriatric ward and then all my slogging would have been for nothing. Oh God, what a mess my life was, but there was no point in saying "oh God" like that as if calling on him would change matters. The situation could only change for the worse, and what had God ever done for me anyway? Zilch.
I told myself I had to leave before I started to scream in despair, but before I could move a muscle I saw Nicholas Darrow touch the grey, bowed head of the stroke-victim in her wheelchair. The voice in my head instantly cried: "Oh, let her get up and walk!" But of course she didn't and of course I'd been crazy to imagine such a thing was possible. The poor woman was quite unchanged--or so I thought, but when the wheelchair was steered back down the aisle I saw she was very, very far from being unchanged. Her dark eyes were luminous with joy and her lopsided ugly old face was radiant. With her twisted mouth she had managed to smile.
I thought: bloody hell! And the next moment tears were not merely flowing but flooding down my cheeks. Then suddenly Francie was at my side again, the unknown friend providing comfort in an alien landscape, and I felt a bunch of Kleenex tissues being stuffed into my shaking hand.
At that point I lost track of the service for a while; all I could do was reduce the tissues to a soggy wodge and say silently to myself over and over again in despair: oh, shit! Francie asked if I wanted to sit down and I shook my head, but I knew this wasn't the wisest response. The world had become chaotic, devastating. I felt as if something had split the outer shell of my mind and revealed unspeakable horrors lurking in the primitive darkness below.
At last I realised the service was ending. A hymn was being sung. That reminded me of my schooldays when we had sung hymns at morning assembly, and that memory in turn reminded me again of Aunt, spending her money without complaint to send me to a little private school in Kensington.
The hymn finished. Wiping away my last tear I heard the silver-haired clergyman announce that counselling was available to anyone who wanted it; those in need could approach either the "priests" (how Aunt would have hated the use of that Romish word!) or the "Befrienders," who wore St. Benet's badges and would refer each person to the right qualified helper. At once I glanced around for Francie but she was busy with someone else. What a relief! By that time I wanted only to slip away and lose myself in the City's lunch-time crowds.
The silver-haired clergyman stopped speaking. Nicholas Darrow pronounced a blessing. The organ began to play again, and the next moment I realised that the clergy were processing down the central aisle to the back of the church in order to mingle with the departing congregation. I shrank back against the wall. Of course I had no intention of speaking to him; my pride absolutely forbade me to make such a pathetic exhibition of myself, and besides, I could never have drummed up enough courage. (Supposing he were to look at me and flinch with revulsion?) But at least I could stay in the background and watch.
The music from the organ was being drowned by the rising tide of conversation, and by this time Nicholas Darrow had halted by the door which led into the porch. Effortlessly he shook hands, effortlessly he smiled, effortlessly he found the right words for everyone. "Drink a toast to St. Benet's when you uncork that bottle!" I heard him say amused to the yuppie clutching the champagne, and then a second later he was talking to a young mother about the problems of her council estate in Tower Hamlets.
At that point I found myself wishing I did have the nerve to talk to him, but what was there to say? I could hardly declare: "I don't believe in religion or churchgoing or any of that sort of thing, but I believe in you--I believe you've got something so special that when you touch the severely disabled they become inwardly transformed--I believe what I've just seen with my own eyes, and that's why I want you to visit my home. It's because I know you could transform my aunt." If I said all that I'd just sound nuts and Nicholas Darrow would be put in an awkward position as he figured out how to get rid of me, so I had to behave properly and sensibly, just as I always did in the world which existed beyond the walls of this church, and behaving properly and sensibly meant keeping my mouth shut, going home and pretending for ever afterwards that nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.
Yet that other world, the world where I always behaved properly and sensibly and never made an exhibition of myself by crying in public, now seemed as far away as the other side of the moon, and the next moment I realised I was no longer shrinking back against the wall. I was moving towards Nicholas Darrow. I still didn't see how I could bring myself to speak to him but that no longer mattered because I was sure now that if only I could touch him, no matter how briefly, I could magically siphon off some of his extraordinary power and pass it on to Aunt.
What a fantasy! Yet at that moment it seemed a brilliant idea, quite the most inspired plan it was possible to imagine. Nearer and nearer I crept, inch by inch, and all the time I was edging my way stealthily through the crowd I was drumming up courage by saying to myself: he'll never know.
When I finally reached him he was shaking hands with a gushing middle-aged woman. I could see her face shining with adoration, but the next moment she was hidden from me because I had moved directly behind him. I was very, very close now, so close that I could even see the faint hint of silver in the brown hair at the nape of his neck. The moment had come. I drew a deep breath. Then I raised my hand and laid my index finger gently, for a split second, between his shoulder-blades.
All hell broke loose.
As soon as he was touched he flinched as convulsively as if I'd knifed him, and spun round before I could recoil.
"Who was that?" he demanded in a voice which silenced the crowd. "Who touched me?" And as we at last came face to face I saw that his light eyes were neither blue nor green but a brilliant shade of grey. III
"It was you, wasn't it?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--"
"It's all right."
"I'll go away--I won't come back--I'll never do it again, I promise--" I was gabbling in the manner of one of those respectable middle-aged women who are caught shoplifting. My face felt as if it were in flames. I tried to edge backwards but everyone in the crowd seemed to have been transformed into pillars and I found myself hemmed in. Tears streamed down my face again and although I scrabbled at once to annihilate them I felt horribly humiliated. What was happening to me? I couldn't begin to work it out. All I knew was that I must be conjuring up an image of a drowned porpoise, and as soon as this revolting thought crossed my mind my humiliation became unbearable.
"I hate myself," I sobbed. "I hate myself, I hate myself--"
He interrupted me. Reaching out he clasped my forearms with his long, strong fingers and said firmly: "It's going to be all right. Believe me. It's going to be all right."
Both my arms began to tingle.
I fainted. IV
When I regained consciousness a woman was stooping over me, a youngish woman, bottle-blonde, square-faced, kind-eyed. "It's okay," she said as my eyes focused on her. "I'm a doctor. You just passed out for a moment."
I said distinctly: "How bloody awful," and blotted out the world by closing my eyes again.
I heard her say to someone nearby: "Stacy's taking his time getting that glass of water--anyone would think I'd told him in dig a well ... Ah, here's Nick again. Nick, she's all right but don't let her dash off--she ought to sit quietly for a few minutes."
"Right." His fingers gently enfolded my hand and at once I opened my eyes.
He was kneeling by my side, his face inches from mine. "You need some strong tea," he said in such a practical voice that I felt a return to normality was not only possible but imminent. "Do you think you're well enough yet to sit up?"
The young red-headed clergyman had finally arrived with the glass of water. Levering myself into a sitting position I took a sip. The church had emptied, I noticed, but although I was relieved to be spared a large audience I was still speechless with embarrassment.
Nicholas Darrow said casually, without any hint of condescension or annoyance: "What's your name?"
"Alice," I said, "as in Wonderland." If running away is impossible, one can always withdraw behind a mask of facetiousness.
He smiled. Daring at last to look at him I saw the lines creasing the corners of his eyes. I also noticed he had very even teeth, unstained by nicotine. "I'm afraid I can't offer you Wonderland," he said amused. "I'm no wonder worker peddling magic. But I can provide you with an easy-chair in my office while you drink that tea I prescribed. Do you think you can now trust yourself to stand?"
Ignoring the outstretched hands of the doctor and the redhead, I scrambled to my feet and followed him. V
Nicholas led me through the vestry and down the stairs into an area which had once formed the crypt of the church. To my astonishment I found myself in a large, brightly lit room which might have been the reception area of a doctor's office. The decoration was in soft, muted colours, very restful, and each item of the teak furniture seemed perfectly designed for the space allotted to it.
Bewildered I said: "What's all this?"
"The St. Benet's Healing Centre. I specialise in the traditional Christian ministry of healing, and that means I work hand in hand with orthodox medicine. Val, the doctor who looked after you just now, has a branch of her National Health practice here, and we have our own psychologist too."
As he spoke I was absorbing more details. I realised we had entered the Centre through a route reserved for the staff and that the glass swing doors, now facing me, formed the official entrance; they opened on to a flight of steps which led up into the churchyard. An assortment of plants made me aware that the reception area was not without natural light. The windows, set high up in the walls, were at ground level. Various signs directed visitors to a number of destinations, but apart from the intriguing arrow marked MUSIC THERAPY, these signs failed to register in my brain. I was too busy noticing the comfortable chairs, the table with the magazines and the grey-haired receptionist sipping coffee behind her desk.
"This is Pauline," said Nicholas to me. "Friday lunch-time's quiet for her as everyone's at the healing service and I have no fixed appointments directly afterwards. I like to leave time to see people who come to the service and stay on." And having put me at ease by implying I wasn't wrecking his busy schedule, he asked the receptionist to make us some tea.
On the other side of the area was a door marked CONSULTING ROOM ONE, and when I followed him inside I found myself in more austere surroundings. Waist-high bookshelves stretched along one wall. A desk and swivel-chair were placed beneath the high window. A small round table flanked by two easy-chairs stood in one corner, and two matching chairs were parked in front of the desk.
"Have a seat," said Nicholas, closing the door.
"Where do you want me to sit?"
"Where you'll feel most comfortable,"
I chose one of the chairs parked by the desk.
"And where would you like me to sit?" he asked, surprising me.
"Oh, behind the desk," I said at once. "In the swivel-chair." I had already worked out that once we were seated the desk would hide the lower part of my body.
As we settled ourselves I noticed that above the bookshelves was a portrait in oils of a striking blonde with dark blue eyes and a beautiful mouth, delicately painted but suggesting strong emotions effortlessly concealed.
"What an interesting picture!" I said, having stared at it for so long that some comment seemed to be required. Of course I'd instantly guessed who she was.
"My wife says a photograph would have represented her more faithfully," he said, "but I myself think the artist's captured the essence of her personality." As an afterthought he added: "Sometimes the essence of a personality is hard to perceive. In fact sometimes it's heavily masked by the physical appearance."
Below the level of the desk my left hand tried to push in the roll of fat which bulged over my intestines and I found myself picturing how I must have looked to him when I was unconscious. So appalled was I by this thought that I didn't hear his next sentence and had to ask him to repeat it.
"I was asking why you touched me just now in the church."
I made the obvious reply. "How did you know I had?"
He smiled, but although he averted his eyes I didn't think he was embarrassed. I sensed he was merely concentrating on the task of explaining his eerie awareness in the most prosaic language available. All he said in the end was: "I felt the power go out of me."
The words had an oddly familiar ring, as if I had heard them long ago in a different context, but I refused to be diverted by an uncertain memory. Intrigued I said: "What power?"
"The healing power. It doesn't originate with me--I'm just the equivalent of a channel, although the word 'channel' gives too passive an impression. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all human beings have a certain healing energy which can be jacked up by the main source of the power."
"But what's the main source?"
We fell silent. I can see now that he had wanted me to reveal my position on religion and my lack of comment was as eloquent as a five-minute speech.
"Christians like me are different from magicians," he said tranquilly at last. "Magicians like to believe they're the masters of the healing powers--they like to believe that they can bend nature to their will."
"Oh, we've no room here for ego-trips and personality cults. Our call's to serve, not to dictate and control."
I said "Oh" again but this time I sounded more respectful. He was talking about integrity. That was something I could understand, and even though the religious view was alien to me I could share his belief that pride and arrogance were destructive while a clear-eyed modesty kept one honest.
"I'm saying all this," Nicholas was adding, "because newcomers to St. Benet's are often overwhelmed by the healing service, even though we try to keep it low-key and unsensational, and often they feel there's some sort of magic going on. But there isn't. It's just that healing can trigger unfamiliar emotional responses, particularly when past wounds are exposed."
I'm saying that although it must have been both embarrassing and unpleasant to faint in public, there's no need to reproach yourself for what happened. If anyone was to blame it was me."
"But of course! I was the one who hit the roof and made you the focus of everyone's attention! No wonder you were so shocked you passed out!"
"Yes, but ... I'm sorry, I still don't quite understand what happened. Why did you react like that?"
"I was exhausted. The healing service always depletes me, rubs me raw so that my awareness is magnified. I think what happened when you touched me was that I knew you were in desperate need yet I felt I had no strength left to help you--and that in turn triggered a panic reaction."
I said stupefied: "But how could you possibly have known I was in desperate need?"
"By using my common sense. If your need had been less desperate you'd have collared me and demanded a private audience. As it was, you were so overwhelmed by this problem of yours--whatever it is--that you were beyond words altogether."
I said slowly: "I hadn't realised I was so desperate."
"That suggests you've been living with the problem for so long that you've grown to think of it as a normal part of life. Are you going to tell me now what the problem actually is? After making such a hash of our introduction I feel the least I can do to make amends is to listen if you want to talk!"
I was still trying to rind the words to thank him when the receptionist arrived with my medicine, the strong tea. VI
"Put a spoonful of sugar in it," said Nicholas when we were alone again. "It'll accelerate your recovery."
I would have helped myself to two spoonfuls but I didn't want to appear greedy. Restricting myself to one I said with care: "I don't want to bother you when you're exhausted."
"I'm better now. The adrenaline's flowing again."
"But even so, I should probably just go on bearing the burden by myself--"
"That's for you to choose, of course, but don't forget that this is a place where people can set down their burdens and get some rest."
Again my memory was jogged. "You're paraphrasing some quotation or other," I said. "I must have heard it at school long ago. I went to this small private school in Kensington and I hated it but I had to pretend I liked it because Aunt was making a financial sacrifice to send me there. I had this aunt," I said rapidly, "this great-aunt who brought me up. She taught history at a GPDST school south of the river, but I couldn't pass the exam to go there, I wasn't clever enough. That was such a disappointment to her but she refused to let me go to the local comprehensive. She didn't like comprehensive schools. In fact there were a lot of things she didn't like--foreigners, the Labour Party, Roman Catholics, the tabloid press, bad manners, pierced ears, long hair on men, bell-bottom trousers, Coronation Street, Concorde, policemen with beards, litter, hamburgers and cruelty to animals. She was a real old battle-axe. She didn't go to church. She said the Church of England was okay for the rites of passage because th
at was Tradition, but otherwise churchgoing was a waste of time--England was her religion really, I suppose, and she didn't have room for another. She didn't believe in God. But she believed in a Christian education because--" I stopped, diverted. "Wait a minute," I said finally identifying the memory which had been niggling me. "That's the New Testament you keep paraphrasing."
"It's an occupational reflex. Why did your aunt believe in a Christian education?"
"She said it was part of England's culture and that those who ignored it would end up culturally illiterate. She believed in morality too and said free love was designed by men to do women out of their rights. She never minced her words. In fact she was beastly to me sometimes, but I know that was all my fault for being such a disappointment to her. I wasn't the sort of child she could be interested in; I wasn't clever or pretty. 'You're devoid of charm!' she said once when I was depressed. I felt so awful letting her down after she'd done so much for me. She sent me to one of the best cookery schools to get my Cordon Bleu--she always tried to get the best for me, I suppose she thought it was her moral duty because I can't think why else she would have bothered. She talked a lot about moral duty--and about integrity. That's why she hated watching the politicians who were slimy on TV. 'They've got no integrity! she'd say. 'They wouldn't recognise the word even if it was displayed in lights at Piccadilly Circus
!' Well, she stuck by her moral duty to me, I'll say that for her. She was a bloody-minded old bag, but she was all-of-a-piece and she practised what she preached."
Nicholas merely said: "When did she die?"
"A month ago after the last stroke--except that she hasn't physically died because her heart's still beating. She's still alive," I said in despair, and pressed my clenched fists against my eyes to smother the tears. VII
I told him about the succession of strokes which had slowly destroyed her health. I told him of my struggles with the Social Services to get some measure of nursing help during the day so that I could continue to work part-time to pay the bills. I told him how Aunt's capital, always a modest sum, was now dwindling fast, especially since I had been obliged to give up my permanent job to look after her.
"And then after the last stroke," I said, "I found myself in an impossible situation. I couldn't cope with the additional nursing which was required--she now has to be turned every two hours--and I found I was getting so tired as the result of lack of sleep that I didn't have the strength for my temporary work. So I'm having to hire night-nurses but they're so expensive that I've got to go back to work full-time--and that means I have to get nurses during the day as well to supplement the care provided by the Social Services, and I doubt if I can earn enough money to pay for all this--in fact I know I can't, it's a losing battle, it's a nightmare with no end in sight, but I can't abandon her, I just can't--I've got to stand by her just as she always stood by me--"
"Of course you've considered the option of hospital and free care under the National Health."
"That was never an option. She had a horror of the geriatric wards. One of her friends died there, and I promised long ago after the first stroke--"
"I understand. What do the doctors say?"
"Nothing much nowadays. They probably think I'm nuts even to try to keep her at home."
"So it's a double-headed problem, isn't it? How do we enable your aunt to live her remaining days in her own home, and at the same time how do we ease this enormous burden on you?"
"Exactly." I felt so relieved not only by his acceptance of my stubborn, possibly stupid refusal to break my word that I was able to say: "You're not going to advise me to dump her?"
"I don't think such advice would be helpful."
"Because of the moral issue involved in breaking a promise?"
"That sounds as if morality has nothing to do with common-sense decisions about how to survive the consequences of one's actions! The truth is that after your aunt's dead, you'll have to live with the memory of how you handled her last days and you won't want that memory to include a crucifying guilt which will blight your future."
"So what you're saying is--"
"I'd rather meet you where you are, not where other people think you ought to be, and that involves respecting a decision which is still valid for you. In the end only the carer can know when there's no strength left to cope and when no avenue of help remains unexplored ... What exactly is the medical prognosis?"
"Zilch--but I accept that and I'm not seeking a miracle cure. All I want is for her to go back to where she was before she had the last stroke. Then I could cope on my own again with just the help from the Social Services."
Nicholas said evenly: "I'm afraid the likelihood is that no physical improvement is possible and I'd be seriously misleading you if I gave you cause to think otherwise. However, here at St. Benet's we always make a distinction between a cure and a healing. Even if no cure is possible a healing can still take place."
"I don't understand."
"A cure is the disabled person who gets up from his bed and walks. A healing is that same disabled person coming to terms with his lack of mobility, transcending his anger and grief and becoming an inspiration to all those who visit him."
"Well, Aunt's quite beyond any of that."
"The healing can take many forms ... Would you like me to call on her and perform the laying-on of hands? If she's strongly anti-Catholic I think I'd abstain in this case from administering unction, but the laying-on of hands is non-denominational and isn't even confined to Christian healers."
I was so overcome with gratitude that I could hardly find the words to thank him, but the next moment an unpleasant thought occurred to me. "Will her non-belief in God block the healing?"
"But if she's basically hostile--"
He smiled and said: "Obviously I'd prefer a non-hostile patient, but the hostility may be a surface emotion of no particular importance and beneath it the built-in human desire to be well may be burning with an additional intensity ... Can your aunt speak at all now?"
"How much does she still understand?"
"The doctors say she understands nothing."
"And what do you say?"
With difficulty I answered: "I think sometimes she comes back. I think sometimes she's still there."
We sat in silence for a moment. At last I whispered, still hardly daring to believe he was willing to help: "When will you come to see her?" And straight away he replied:
"Tonight. What's your address?"
From the Hardcover edition.
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