The air was colder than when she entered the church. Though it was still early in the afternoon, Norah saw the glitter of frost on the grass. Tying her headscarf under her chin, she hoisted the heavy shopping bag she carried into the crook of her arm, and set off the short distance to the priest’s house. Weaving her way along the path leading to the side gate, she couldn’t help, but notice how the style and size of the headstones changed over the years. The grander ones, carved into the form of angels in white granite from the local quarry, were outnumbered by the smaller, marble markers. Muttering a prayer for those lying beneath the earth in restless sleep, she crossed herself and tried to banish such thoughts. It’s the time of year, she decided, it sends the imagination wild, and it was any wonder. Everywhere you looked there were effigies of monsters or skeletons. It was enough to give somebody nightmares.
Flecks of old paint came away on her hands, as she pushed against the latch on the small gate. The hinges were rusted with age, and groaned protesting the intrusion, as she pushed it open. Tutting, she surveyed the grey flecks on her fingers, before running her hands down the front of her coat. It wouldn’t do to turn up for tea with dirty hands, and she was fussy about cleanliness. Like the gate, the front door was showing signs of wear, as she lifted the old-fashioned knocker and tapped twice.
“Come in, Norah, come in,” Father Brown opened the door and stood aside to let her pass.
Though stooped with age, he was much taller than her, and she felt dwarfed in his presence. The hallway was dark after the glare of the sun, so she stood for a moment to let her eyes adjust.
“This way,” he motioned, and she followed his dark silhouette. “I have the fire lighting in here,” he opened a door and led her into the sitting room. “I’ll be back in a moment,” he gestured to a chair. “You make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you, Father,” Norah allowed the shopping bag to slip from her arm and took off her coat and scarf.
She heard him rattling about in the kitchen preparing the tea, and this gave her time to look around. Despite the blazing fire the room was chilly, and she rubbed her hands down her arms, trying to bring life back to her cold skin. Like the hallway, this room was shrouded in shadow, and seemed to come from another time. She knew it wasn’t a phoney attempt by some designer trying to replicate the Victorian era, but the way the furnishings had been for over a hundred years. The stuffed armchairs were comfortable, though faded with time. The arms showed the most sign of wear, as the brocade was worn and stuffing protruded through the fabric. Yellowing antimacassars draped over the back of each chair. On the mantelpiece above the fire, a black, ornate carriage clock ticked loud enough to make its presence felt. An old china cabinet held an assortment of cups and plates, and on top sat a stuffed owl in a glass dome.
“Here we are,” Father Brown shuffled in and put a stop to any further probing. “It’s going to be a bitter night,” he placed a tray on the coffee table.
She saw how his hands shook, as he reached for the teapot.
“Here, Father,” she stood. “Let me do it.”
He relinquished this task, and moved away to sit in the chair opposite.
“There you go,” she placed a cup and saucer on an occasional table beside him and offered the sugar bowl. For a while neither of them spoke, and she watched, as he stared into the flames. His face showed signs of strain and his brow furrowed, as though he was trying to remember something. His eyes had the haunted look she’d noticed developing over the past weeks.
“Are you all right, Father?” She asked.
“I’m fine, Norah,” he turned and looked at her. “Feeling my age, that’s all.”
She concentrated on stirring her tea. The only sound came from the clanking of the spoon against the sides of the cup.
“Are the graves troubling you, Father,” she asked. “The ones that won’t settle?”
He nodded, and fumbled in the pocket of his threadbare cardigan for a handkerchief. She noticed, as he wiped his eyes, how the veins showed on hands shrunken with age. Despite his years, his dark hair lost none of its colour with just a scattering of grey at the temples. Rather than giving him a more youthful look, it served to emphasise the pallor of his skin.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, Father,” Norah didn’t know what to do. Should she stay sitting or make her excuses and leave?
“No, no,” he brushed aside her apology. “It’s nothing you said. I’m feeling a bit run down, and now with the worry…” he stopped and looked towards the window.
She knew he was picturing the graveyard.
“I heard some foolish talk,” Norah tried to brighten the mood. “You know how it is here, Father, with everyone caught up in everyone else’s business.”
“I’ve heard it too,” he turned back to her. “But what troubles me the most is how foolish is it?”
“Come now, Father,” she laughed. “Surely you don’t believe in those old wives’ tales?”
“I don’t” he paused. “At least I didn’t, until now.”
Norah shivered. Sensing her distress, he smiled.
“I’m not going to bother you with my nonsense,” he emptied his cup and held it out for a refill.
“I know it’s not nonsense, Father,” Norah picked up the teapot, glad of its warmth. “I’ve noticed how you’ve changed over the past few months. Perhaps, if you talked about it?”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” he sighed, and sipped at his tea.