You ask too many questions.
Alison glances over my shoulder and then shifts her gaze away from me as if her attention has been caught by something on the distant sea shore. She scowls. Close to us a wren bursts into song. Her scowl deepens.
You ask too few.
There’s no need. I accept, you see. How can you find any meaning to your life when you believe in nothing?
Now you’re the one asking questions. Only I think that you haven’t the least interest in what my answer might be. Or perhaps you might be afraid of what my answer might be.
She looks back at me, peering at my face over her glasses. She seems to be searching for something. Some clue. But she won’t find anything. She’s not capable of it. And neither is she capable of acknowledging any challenge so far as her faith is concerned. It’s not up for scrutiny.
Michael – questions are being asked …
Questions, questions. You really have a problem with questions …
No, seriously. It’s that … that book you’ve written.
Which book? To date I’ve written seven – six published.
Her lips purse. And a hint of a flush intrudes upon the pallor of her unmade up cheekbones. My sister, scholarly and confident as she is, seems suddenly to be thrown. She looks down at her feet, then back at me.
You know which book.
Then refer to it by its title.
Of course I know which book she means. It appeared on the shelves, oh, three months ago, and it has caused quite a stir among literary circles and the wider public. I was never under any illusion that my sister would share my satisfaction, delight even, at its success. She had been, in fact, quite angry and seemed convinced that I had timed its publication deliberately to coincide with what she thought, no doubt, was a pinnacle, if not the pinnacle of her career. And, you know, I don’t think I can disagree with her entirely.
I won’t – I won’t utter any such blasphemy. I mean, it’s foul ...
I nod. Really, she is sometimes beyond my ability to understand. And then I smile.
You know, Alison, I really think that were it ever to be in your power, you would issue a fatwa against me. Your sort were burning people like me at the stake just a few hundred years ago. The way you go on, anybody would think you’d like to turn the clock back. This time, though, you may have to satisfy yourselves with a bonfire in the cathedral precincts
Oh, don’t be so childish ...
A few drops of rain fall from the darkening sky, and a squally wind whips through the bare hedges.
Better come back into the vicarage.
She puts her hand up to her dog collar, as if seeking to adjust it in order not to appear in any way less than seemly in her domain. She leads the way to the back door of the house and into the spacious living room.
Is this one new? I ask. I am looking at a tall clock standing at the far end of the room.
Oh – Yes. David bought it for me. It’s rather fine, don’t you think?
‘Rather fine’ is an understatement. I know a lot about clocks and a little about antique clocks – even if nothing like as much as does my sister – and I would guess that this specimen is early nineteenth century. It wouldn’t surprise me if doting, doddering husband David had parted with a good five grand or more to please the wife he adores. And as if in a rejoinder to a compliment it begins to strike the hour – four o’clock - a split second ahead of the five other similar clocks, great and small, in the room. The clanging, chiming and discordant ding-donging grates a little. We remain silent, unable to talk over the clamour, until the last reverberation is spent.
Well, I hope that you are well insured. And that you’ve got good locks. Matthew 6:19 and all that ...
I can’t resist the dig.
Alison’s look would freeze hell. Damn you she almost spits at me.
I feign surprise. Such language, I say, from a woman who will soon be one of only the handful of women consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.
* * *
Later, in my own home in the less salubrious quarter of the city, I find myself speculating over the way in which our paths in life have diverged in the way they did. I have always been quite clear about it, although I suspect that Alison never really understood. She is some two years older than I, and as a child was rather bookish and solemn. Our mother had died when I was six. Father took over our care as best he could, with live in help. He was a churchgoer, although I had no reason to think that his faith had any depth to it. Surprisingly, it was at about that time that he gave his daughter and son a free choice as to whether we would like to join him at the Sunday services. Alison never hesitated in her reply. And neither did I. Father seemed quite unfazed by my response, although I can remember Alison looking quite aghast when she heard me. ‘Father, you must make him’ she had said. He just replied, firmly, ‘No’ And that was the end of the matter. And if Alison did not understand me, she might have done well to speculate upon the fault she had found in me earlier that afternoon – it was all a matter of questions ... questions. You see, even at that tender age I had the makings of a scientist. Also I was an atheist, even if I did not know it then, and it was only many years later that I started to read widely on the subject, and then to write about it.
For a moment my attention is caught by the object standing on its own in the centre of the low coffee table in the middle of the room. It is a water clock – a replica of an ancient Roman original. My ‘time machine’ I call it. It is the only timepiece in the room. And I find myself remembering a book I found in our school library at about the same time as the decision that sent Alison and me upon our separate ways: ‘Man Must Measure’ by Lancelot Hogben. Since then I have remained fascinated by mankind’s attempts to measure all things, ever more accurately.
Alison has devoted almost her entire life, I think to myself, on matters lying out of the reach of science and measurement, obtaining her doctorate on a premise of no less than a colossal delusion. And I obtained mine working on the cold caesium atomic clock in Switzerland. Perhaps she thinks me just as deluded ...
* * *
Alison does not contact me again in the few days remaining before her consecration, although I do receive a formal invitation to attend the ceremony. Even though I have not received a letter from her for many years I recognise her copper-plate hand writing in the turquoise ink that always seemed strangely affected for a woman not given to idiosyncrasies. I place it on the mantle shelf, unopened.
On the day itself I remain at home. Maybe I am a little odd, but I find something quite sinister in men and women in robes, light and dark, en masse, much though I love places of worship for their beauty, their sublime music and their sense of intrigue. In due course I glance at my time-piece on its place on the table. It suggests – within the stricture of its limited accuracy – that things must be well underway.
The telephone rings. It is David. I am surprised and think at first that that my water clock is being perverse, and badly out of synchronisation with Greenwich mean time. A quick glance at my wrist watch tells me that this is not so.
David is evidently flustered. Where is she?
Alison, of course.
At the cathedral, surely, with all of you.
No ... no. She never arrived. Has she been in touch with you?
No. I’ve heard nothing from her for days ...
In the early evening, when the tide is receding, a man walking his dog finds a woman’s body among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.
They are not long in identifying her. It is Alison. She used often to walk on the high cliffs when meditating or in prayer, and it is soon assumed that this is what she was doing on the morning of her consecration.
Later two police officers call round with questions. I do not think I am of much help to them. Tell me, I say, do you think that she just went a little too close to the edge? Or did she ...
No. There is nothing to suggest that it was anything but a tragic accident. She left no note, and so we have nothing to substantiate any suggestion that she might have taken her own life. No doubt you will all be very relieved to hear that.
No doubt ...
* * *
The next day the usual bundle of mail drops through the letter box. I am in the habit of receiving a certain amount of what can only be described at hate-mail, mostly from people who do not like what they are told I write. I can hardly imagine that they actually read it. They devise various fates for me at the hand of their gods. Most I recognise without even opening the envelopes, for they are betrayed by their semi-literacy or inability to spell my name. And these I consign to the fire.
The last in the bundle causes me suddenly to draw breath. The writing is copper-plate and the ink turquoise. I pick up the paper knife. Then I hesitate and place it back upon the table. I look at the writing, and then look again into the blazing hearth.