Ringing the Changes

(1750 words)   [original ‘publication’ date Mar 1st 2016]

I

Leaving the dreary wet concrete of London behind me, I zoomed along the motorway on my way down to Sussex. It felt great without Lucy moaning that I was going too fast. Sod her!
In warm sunshine, I drove along Poverty Lane into the village of East Chillingham, Shakatak’s Nightbirds’ thumping beat on my player. I spotted an old woman cutting her hedge with hand clippers and pulled over. Beneath a green wide-brimmed hat, straggly white hair fell over a crinkled face.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for the church.”
“What for?”
“I’m going to a wedding, Tony Simmons and Reverend Sue Sutton.” I thought she might have heard.
She grimaced, showing crooked, yellow teeth. Without speaking she jabbed her clippers away from her, in the direction of a turn to the right, perhaps 50 metres away.
“Oh, d’you mean I turn there?”
She didn’t reply, putting her head down and carrying on with her self-appointed task.

Taking that as an affirmative, I turned right and drove perhaps a mile down a narrow road, shrouded by overhanging greenery. Occasionally, rays of sunlight pierced the canopy, dazzling me. Finally I came to an ancient stone church with a number of smartly dressed folk outside. Adjacent to the church was a field with cars parked in it. I drove past the guests self-consciously, hoping, perhaps, to hear a cheery greeting, but only drew inquisitive, indifferent glances. I parked the car, checked my hair and tie in the mirror, and braced myself.

II

A few days previously I’d awoken early. At 5.30 a.m. the kettle was struggling as I’d looked out of the window in the semi-darkness, gazing over a dreary cityscape and watching raindrops running down the window. They ran their random paths, sometimes merging into one; Like our lives…I thought.
The light flicked on. “What are you doing?” said my ‘partner’ Lucy, cadaverous, and without make up, looking scary.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“I noticed.”
“Well you could have stayed in bed,” I remarked.
“It was cold. Without you…”
Hmm...“You know it’s Tony’s wedding on Saturday?”
“You did mention it.” She looked away, fussing over Sam, our arrogant Russian Blue.
“Well? He’s invited us.”
“For Heaven’s sake, you haven’t seen him in years. Just e-mail him to say something’s come up.”
“Look, I want to go. He was my best friend, we went through hell together. You decide whether you come or not…”
She turned, her backbone prominent through her nightgown, short enough to show slender pale thighs. Without saying anything she went back to bed.

I made tea in a small chipped white pot, feeling irritated. I wanted to see what Tony had got himself into – I’d heard he was hooked up with a female vicar. Rumour had it that he’d even moved into the vicarage. Because of her status though, there was some knot-tying to be done. Maybe he’d ‘got’ religion, or she was something special? Whatever, I intended to find out…

III

“Johnny! Johnny Hardacre!” A man with curly golden hair strode towards me, a big smile illuminating his handsome face. It was Josh, a mutual friend of Tony’s and mine. I was relieved to find someone I knew and he clasped my hand with a warm, firm handshake. “Hi Johnny, lovely to see you. How is Fiona?”
“Oh, I’m with someone else now. What about you?”
As if in answer, an attractive woman in her late thirties, accompanied by two young children, joined us.
“Johnny, this is Matilda, and my kids, Ronnie and Jude. Matty, this is Johnny, we were in the army with Tony.”
She smiled at me, her grey eyes staring into mine. “Lovely to meet you Johnny.”
“Where’s Tony?” I said, after exchanging pleasantries.
“He’s in there with his dad. It’s so lovely out here we thought we’d mingle for a bit.”
“I think everyone’s going in now,” said Josh.
We followed, admiring the white-painted stone walls, old oak pews and stained glass windows, the colours brilliant in the sunshine. The organist, a white haired lady with huge black-rimmed spectacles, was playing Franck’s Panis Angelicus. She reminded me of an ancient Michael Caine.
Matilda nudged me and nodded towards the front. Three smart-suited men in grey sat on the right. Two were practically bald.
“Where’s Tony,” I whispered.
“That’s him on the left, then his dad then his brother Roy.”
I went forward and tapped Tony’s shoulder. He turned around and I was surprised to see that, despite losing his hair, he seemed not to have aged – his face looked fresh and full and his green eyes shone. He stood and smiled. “Johnny, thanks so much for coming. It’s great to see you again mate; it’s been too long!”
I took a place in the fourth row with Josh, Matilda, Ronnie and Jude, the latter sitting on ‘kneelers’ and giggling. Looking around, I saw no-one else I recognised but got a shy smile from an attractive teenage girl behind me, a white flower fastened in her long blonde hair.

The music changed to Wagner’s Bridal March and an expectant hush fell. All eyes turned to the door.

IV

An usher opened it and in walked the Reverend Sue Sutton, tall and slim, striding purposefully, accompanied by a stocky, bald headed chap in a smart silver-grey suit, presumably her father. Two young bridesmaids dressed in emerald green followed. Nothing marked her as a member of the clergy; she wore a cream silk dress and a wide-meshed veil so that her face wasn’t clear from where I sat.
As they approached I sensed something familiar about her. When almost level with me I felt my gut wrench. My God! it can’t be. But it is, surely! The high cheekbones and slightly hawk-like nose of the Reverend Sarah Stratton, ex-vicar of the Church of St. Olave’s, Coffney, were unmistakable. I saw her step falter as she saw me, then she regained composure.
Reverend Sue Sutton, Reverend Sarah Stratton, of course! It all added up. Sarah, leader of our bell-ringing group, the Coffney Campanologists. Sarah, always willing to help. Sarah, everybody’s pal. That is, until she’d disappeared at the same time as thousands of pounds from church funds went missing, several years ago.
I sat there stewing as the service progressed. What to do? Memories flooded back: the bell-ringing sessions, Sarah pouring mulled wine at Christmas with that sweet smile. Then the looks of total disbelief on the parishioners’ faces when she vanished suddenly.
I felt like I was in a dream, unable to wake up. I became aware of the vicar’s spiel, “Should anyone here present….. speak now or forever hold your peace.“
I object!” The dream shattered and I found myself standing in front of a shocked congregation.
Sarah smiled condescendingly at me. The vicar looked perplexed. “Come this way please.” He beckoned to Tony, Sarah and myself and apologized to the congregation.
“Now what’s all this about?” he said, in his cubbyhole of an office.
“This person is a thief,” I said, gesticulating towards Sarah, my hands shaking, “and I can’t let my friend marry her.” Tony’s face flushed with embarrassment.
“Look, can you leave us alone for a couple of minutes?” Sarah asked the vicar.
“Well, we must sort this immediately Miss Sutton.”
“Yes, I know. Look, perhaps I could give you something towards church funds?” She opened a small cream clutch bag and took out a number of twenty pound notes.
He coughed nervously. “Well, I suppose two minutes extra can’t do any harm. Thank you.” He took the notes and left.
Sarah turned to me. “Look Jonathan, I’ve got a new ID now, all kosher, I love Tony and he loves me.” Tony looked at the floor. “And he knows I had nothing to do with that money, er.. disappearing.”
Hah, as if!
“Look Jonathan, this wedding has to go ahead right now, do you understand?”
“Well, in that case I shall go to the police. I’m sure they’ll be very interested in your whereabouts. Sorry Tony…”
She smiled. “Look, I have money now. How does ten grand sound to let things be? I’m sure you could use it!”
I felt a hot flush in my face but my mind was calculating. Yes, I bet she had money now! My thoughts turned to Lucy’s longing for a conservatory, one that, to her chagrin, I never seemed quite able to afford. And she’d been on about a trip to Bruges for a while too.
“OK, how do I know I can trust you?”

She unclasped a bracelet. “This was my mother’s. These are diamonds.” Tony nodded reassuringly. I looked at the brilliant gems, watching the fire burn within them as she handed it over.

V

Six weeks later I was sitting on our patio in the sunshine with Lucy. I hadn’t told her what had happened. My mind went back to the fateful day, feeling ashamed and foolish now.
The vicar had faced the congregation, looking relieved but embarrassed. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry for the delay and the service can now continue…”
A win-win situation, everybody happy. That was, until the expected cheque didn’t materialize. Phone calls were to no avail, Tony and Sarah/Sue were on an extended honeymoon in remote parts. A visit to a jeweler revealed that the ‘diamonds’ were cubic zirconia.
Lucy crossed her slim pale legs and smiled ironically. “I hear they’re giving ten percent off all conservatories over at Crowthers.”
“It’s nice to sit in the fresh air though isn’t it?” I said.
The doorbell rang and Lucy went indoors, emerging a minute later with a packet.
“I think it’s a book.” She threw it towards me and went back inside.
“Careful, for God’s sake!” The writing looked familiar and my heart pounded. I tore the padding open to reveal a hardback book and an envelope. Scribbled on the envelope was a note – ‘Sorry, needed the money for the honeymoon but keep the bracelet and here’s a grand. Love, Sue xx.’ I noticed she’d drawn a smiling face under the word ‘bracelet’.
In the envelope were twenty fifty-pound notes. I looked at the book – The Ringer’s Handbook. Inside was a note: ‘Hope this helps – you were a terrible bell ringer!’ Seeing Lucy returning, I secreted the cash and envelope.

She plumped herself down and I turned to her pale, curious face. “Hey, y’know that trip to Bruges you’ve been banging on about?”…

THE END

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 100! 

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