Two Women

‘And at the end, all shall be charity’

-Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)


Among the regular communicants in my former parish was the redoubtable Mrs. Arkwright. She was a formidable figure, married to a mild and unassuming civil servant a good six inches shorter and a good deal narrower than his wife. They had three polite, good-looking children, all of whom were involved in parish activities. Mrs. Arkwright—no-one called her Martha—was one of those tireless worthy women (they were always women!) on whose energy, wisdom and initiative fortunate churches used to be able to depend. She helped organize the parish bazaar with unflustered efficiency, co-ordinated the outreach food bank donations, and presided over innumerable banquets and teas with imperturbable charm and good humour. She had a genius for compromise, and animated A.C.W. meetings with her tactful, luminous presence. Occasionally, she accompanied me on my rounds, visiting the shut-ins, the lonely and the bereaved, and maintained her composure under provocation, most famously during the harangue of a visiting liberal bishop who had urged the conservative congregation to “embrace change” with a new liturgy featuring “inclusive and up-to-date language.” His exhortation had on that occasion been met with such a stony silence that he feared to return. Mrs. Arkwright in the front pew had affected to be busy with her knitting throughout it all.

“This, too, shall pass,” was her only comment.

Yet Mrs. Arkwright’s greatest talents lay in the kitchen, from which emerged an unending stream of hearty home-made soups and stews for pot-luck suppers, sandwiches for impromptu social occasions; scones, tarts and fruitcake for afternoon teas, entire suppers for choir practices, and her piece de resistance, her much-anticipated simnel cake, with its burnt-almond marzipan icing, for Mothering Sunday. It was at one such social event, an illustrated tour of some pilgrimage sites that my curate Geoff Chancer had visited, that Mrs. Arkwright’s baking made the memorable first acquaintance of Janet Elderkirk.

Miss Elderkirk was an eccentric. She lived alone. She had no family or obvious friends, nor did she appear to want any. She appeared in church irregularly, and repelled any friendly advance with an icy glare, occasionally with a threatening gesture of her umbrella if the conversation took an unexpected turn. Her odd mannerisms, shabby, faded clothing and her curiously formal way of expressing herself kept people away, whether by design or not was unclear. She reminded me of an antimacassar on a modern sofa, or a spittoon in a hotel lobby of marble and chrome, so out of place was she. She was rumoured to have been unlucky in love, and she chose to remain studiously on her knees at prayer during the exchange of the ‘Peace’, to avoid shaking hands with others, it was assumed, but perhaps this was ungenerous. I was surprised to see her during the break at Geoff’s talk, and smiled companionably at her, receiving a queenly nod in acknowledgement. While the audience filed back to their seats and the lights dimmed for the accompanying slide show, she remained hovering near the refreshment table. In the half-light, I saw her lunge for a vol-au-vent, a croissant sandwich, and a pastry, gulping each in quick succession, a movement that made her standing angular figure disconcertingly resemble a heron swallowing a frog. Furtive scampering movements behind me confirmed that she had made several return visits to the table. When the brief slide show ended, the lights came on, and Miss Elderkirk was caught guiltily devouring the rest of the baked goods by herself. She deflected her own embarrassment adroitly by raising her hand.

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Two Women

Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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