THE DEAD are never more alive than during the month they have gone. I am thinking of a good old man who whistled under his breath to announce his approach, and who now lies in a huge silence by the churchyard hedge. This after the young trumpeter from the barracks had blared forth Last Post and Reveille from the rear of the church.
Last thing at night, given a conversational chance, the desert snapshots would appear, the sandy tanks, the grinning lieutenant, Monty in his beret. Alexandria, El Alamein, Sidi Barrani, Tobruk. “That’s me.” And it would have ended there, were it not that Sergeant Peter gave death a shove. Not yet. Not yet. “He saved my life.” The sunburnt bodies, the endless dunes, the unimaginable future. And now no sand, but London clay.
Evensong for Christ the King. Pius XI instituted this feast in his encyclical Quas Primas in 1925. How George Herbert would have rejoiced. We sing kingly hymns, and I preach on “Who do men say I am?” Services become alight or do not become alight. This one does. Prayers are said without praying or with praying. These are prayed.
Before this evensong, being early, I wander around, reading inscriptions. They are all cracked and battered by the landmine that fell on the church in September 1940. Here is Mrs Husbands’s tomb. She was a Mrs Knight from Chawton, where her descendant would write Emma and Pride and Prejudice. In my sermon, the confused magistrate asks the strange person in the dock, “Are you a king, then?” November darkness creeps against the coloured glass. The congregation goes home to watch Cranford, the lime leaves hissing under its feet. The church goes cold.
Most days at dawn, I use the kitchen window as a view-finder. Drinking tea, being loving to the cat, I allow the glazing-bars to line up the field opposite. It swells like a great breast. Now and then a rider or a walker appears on the horizon like someone in a Western, disturbing the landscape. Paul? One of the girls?
The hazel spreads its branches like fingers to let me see through them. I keep putting off the coppicing. It is so wondrous in its fanning. Squirrels ascend and descend it like Jacob’s messengers, and already there are catkin buds. Shakespeare would have been writing Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet when someone went down the hazels to chop wattle for my walls. All I chop are pea-sticks.
Page-proofs have arrived. This is a nice job, and one not to be hurried. A ruler has to be set under each line to prevent block reading. Other than this, I just read word by word, like a six-year-old. The Indian voice on the telephone wants me to change my ways. It gives a Scottish name. A lady begs my pardon, but could I do an envelope charity collection on my street? What street? A friend says, “Are you busy?” and settles down to a long chat.
The proofs are put on hold. A bit of book comes into my head and has to be written down. “Your head is like a sieve” — Mother. Not true. My head is like an attic, full of things that might come in handy. You never know. People tell me how astonished they are at what it holds. They don’t know that there is a cupboard full of questions. But prayer and staring through the breakfast window provide a few answers. Which is a mercy. Or else where would one be?