STEPHEN climbs on a chair to photograph the dragon-crocodile from whose jaws dangle the pretty bare legs of a Wormingford maiden. A First World War St George strides above this pitiful scene, and stares Stephen straight in the eye. I hold the chair.
The window is gloomy, but digital cameras dispel gloom, this being their function. Bright the vision that delighteth is what they have to do.
We are taking a picture for a postcard of our celebrated local legend. A knight returned from the Holy Land with a crocodile. It terrorised the parish, lived in the mere, and demanded girls for dinner — all this owing to the “Worm” in Wormingford, which we equated with John Wycliffe’s name for the serpent — “Sith that wickide worme . . .”.
The etymological truth that our village is named after Widermund who kept the ford cuts no ice here. All the same, I might ask Stephen to provoke the neighbours by making another postcard of Widermund’s crossing. It is where Essex meets Suffolk, and kingfishers flash.
We had just returned from hearing the nightingales at Tiger Hill. There, among the grey-blue of acres of withered flowers, we listened to the wonderful overture of chook-chook-chook and the slow movement of piu-piu-piu which followed it, and felt immortal.
The guest gone, I fix more chicken-wire round the potato-bed in which a badger has been snouting, and try to think of something original to say when I preach at the Flower Festival. I think, too, about Alison Uttley, for whose Diary I have to write a foreword. The white cat sprawls on a willow, and thinks of human love.
At Phyllida’s bookstall in the barn, I buy three Agatha Christies for Ian, a young man with a lust for old authors. Church bookstalls are dreadful witness to the unlovable nature of so much current literature, the white airport blocks, untouched as it were by human hand, pristine, dead. The politicians’ memories and cookbooks, the grubby DIY manuals, the computerised fiction, the blockbusters that only burst the luggage.
But here is a nice paperback of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, squashed between stacks of Reader’s Digests. You will recall — I speak now to the joyous possessor of real novels — that these girls are members of the “May of Teck Club which exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”.
It is 1945, and, as the blurb says, the war is grinding to a halt. But not the youthful Muriel Spark. She is away! And still is, I discover, as I dip into her by the font.
On Sunday, the heavens opened. The sun hid. The track became a flowing road. The river was fretful, its surface rising into watery versions of a golf-course tee. Dace and roach swam in its still depths, unmoved by the downpour.
I imagined the procession at Walsingham, the dark majesty of all those clerical umbrellas and the soaked skirts, and the Protestant Truth Society hurling its spears and getting wet. And, maybe, “What Christ’s Mother sang in gladness Let Christ’s people sing the same.” Old friends will be there, splashing along.
My procession is Bernard with the cross and Pip with a loyal voice. One of my feet squelches a bit.