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Word from Wormingford

10 January 2014

Ronald Blythe takes two funerals, and spends some time with the dead

THE Epiphany, the time for poets. Wild journeys, travelling light, destination, great gifts. And roses still in bloom. The white cat sleeping it off - the non-existent winter. The cards have tumbled down; the wreckage of an iced cake calls for appetite; the bottles wink. Two funerals: a lad of 19, and Bobby the lorry driver, in his eighties.

Leading the procession to Bobby's grave, I am anxious not to tread on the daffodil shoots. The gravedigger with windblown curls takes the shine off his spade with a bit of sackcloth. All is as it should be - except for teenage Matthew. Fat blackbirds hop about in the bare hedges.

Colin brings his little boy to see me, plus their happy dog. Both - the boy and the dog, that is - make a beeline for the stairs. We hear them crashing about in the ancient rooms. For some reason unknown to me, there is always this rush to the top of the house.

The boy is half Belgian, and chatters in a flood of two languages. Colin is half Scottish; I am most Suffolk. Colin's chickens are so free-range that we have to slow down so as not to slaughter them as we drive to church.

Having a moment to spare, I visit the monuments. These are amazing. Proustian. Such obsequies! Not a bit like those that I perform for Bobby. Although he was lowered in to depths of fine language; for we are "not to be sorry as men without hope. . .".

Waiting for Sunday lunch with the neighbours, I enter the glorious world of the Little Horkesley dead. First, there is Richard Knight, a relation of the Thomas Knight who, in 1783, adopted Jane Austen's father, Edward, and whose excellent character was given to Mr Knightley in Emma. Serving at the altar, my feet are firmly placed on the riven memorial to one who set the standard for a gentleman.

Startlingly, by the entrance to the church lie three enormous wooden people. These are the de Horkesleys, no less: Robert, William, and Emma. And then, further inside, is the battered brass of the Mayor of Bourdeaux and captain of Fronsac, in Guinne. We sing evensong in great company.

What dust these fine folk left was blown to the winds on 21 September 1940, when a German parachute-mine fell into the church, fragmenting its past. No one was killed or injured. Everything disappeared, then returned in a later guise. And Major-General de Havilland - Olivia's cousin - who lived at the Hall, insisting that what had vanished must be replicated. Our little parish contains the plots of a dozen blockbusters. They sing well there, too.

Climbing the pulpit, I say: "When we open a door, a box, or ourselves, what lies inside becomes manifest. Something that was hidden shows itself." For centuries, the prophets have spoken of a spiritual force that would stay hidden until it would manifest itself in a newborn child, in a precocious boy, in a poor homeless young man, in a welcome guest at Bethany, in a marvellous storyteller, in the Christ.

But it is three very grand people who arrive at the Epiphany: King Gaspar, King Melchior, and King Balthasar - monarchs you will not find in scripture.

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