Susan Tate entered Canterbury Cathedral through the south doors. People had come from all over the county for the carol service. Above her, spotlights illuminated the intricate vaulted stone roof, picking out the richly painted bosses. Down the side aisles the brass candelabra glinted, throwing out drifts of light that now and again penetrated into the recesses of one of the small side chapels. She had first come to the carol service as a child with her parents and her sister Hilary. It had changed little, a thread of continuity even in uncertain times, appreciated by many whether they were regular church goers or not.
Susan hadn’t gone more than a few steps before one of the cathedral officials approached her. He was dressed in a black frock coat and hanging round his neck on a red ribbon, was an enormous gold medallion. She could not make out the detail but it gave him an air of authority.
“Do you have a ticket or are you a member of the general public?” he asked.
From her handbag Susan brought out a pink invitation. It had arrived at the library a month ago with a note from Mrs Jarrett the archdeacon’s wife. “Very good, follow me, if you please.”
He led her to a chair with a pink card on the seat. The second row from the front.
“I don’t think this can be right, I usually sit over there.” Susan waved her arm in the direction of the back of the cathedral. Where the rows of chairs made of plain hard wood were tightly packed in and not altogether comfortable. She saw the wrinkles of age on the official’s face crease up into a smile.
“All pink invitations are seated in this part of the cathedral by special invitation.” He pointed to the pink card on which her name was typed in bold. “You are Susan Tate aren’t you?”
“I hope you enjoy the service.” He said, then turned and walked down the nave.
Susan sat down and wiggled her bottom. The chair was wide, with arms and had a padded seat. She was the only person in her row so far. She suddenly got up, picked up the pink name card she had been sitting on and put it into her handbag. On reflection, perhaps she should get it out again, just in case another official came to check she really should be sitting there. This far forward Susan was able for the first time to admire the intricate work that had gone into the giant floral arrangements that stood guarding the entrance to the choir stalls and high altar. It must take hours to construct these magnificent red and green displays. To the right, a Christmas tree towered up to the rafters.
People started to fill up the row, she did not recognise anyone, they weren’t library regulars. Looking around she saw some familiar faces. Mrs Hiddcock, her parents’ neighbour, in the blue coat with the moth-eaten fur collar she always wore. She smiled at Susan and mouthed “Thank you for the card.” On the other side of the nave the Cooke family. Tom was in the choir, did he see it as an escape from his six sisters? He was the youngest, Jack and Molly Cooke had so wanted a son. He was a clever boy winning a scholarship to the choir school. Sophie, the youngest girl, waved at Susan enthusiastically. Susan returned the wave. Still no sign of anyone in the row in front. The rest of the cathedral was almost full. But these chairs remained resolutely empty. Those to the right had pink name cards like hers, and if she tilted her head she could just make out the name Mrs Jarrett on one of them. But those directly in front of Susan simple had the word ‘reserved’ – curious. They each had an order of service booklet neatly laid on the padded seat, with such precision it was as if someone had been along with a ruler. Susan had collected hers on the way in from Miss Pinhorne. One of the cathedral volunteers. Miss Pinhorne was a library regular, who liked to read biographies and owned the wool shop. She always wore some newly-knitted creation. This evening was no exception. A lilac mohair hat and scarf set. She should have knitted herself some gloves as well, her hands were icy and faintly blue in colour. Susan browsed through the order of service booklet. There were the old familiar favourites and newer ones with those complicated un-tuneful melodies that nobody quite got the hang of until the last chorus. The choir, of course, had a number of solo items to display their proficiency and talents. Some years they had dominated the service. She always felt invigorated after letting rip singing a traditional belter like ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. The lines ‘Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled’ gave her something to believe in.
Susan did not see the arrival of the dean but was immediately aware of his presence. A tall angular man with long thin fingers and manicured nails. She did not like men with manicured hands, it was creepy. Whenever he came into the library she tried to be busy elsewhere. Once, when it could not be avoided, she’d checked back in his returns and glanced at his selection – The Beginner’s Guide to Identifying Clarice Cliff Pottery, a low-fat cookery book, which explained the scrawny appearance, and two DVDs of the series ‘Friends’.
The dean took one look at the chairs in the front row and said, “This will not do.”
Bending down he picked up two of the pink name cards and swapped them over. Behind him, watching him, stood his wife. She gave him a small nod. She took her seat and smoothed down her skirt. The dean walked off towards the vestry. A few minutes later Mrs Jarrett the archdeacon’s wife arrived.
“Oh good to see you Susan, how are your parents? Mrs Jarrett asked.
“They’re very well, thank you.” Susan replied.
“Do pass on my thanks to your mother for those jars of home-made green tomato chutney she donated to the Christmas bazaar.”
“She loves making chutney but my father never eats it. So any opportunity to find a home for it.”
“And your bookstall was as popular as ever.”
Susan felt herself get a little hot and hoped it wouldn’t rise above her polo-neck jumper.
“Now let me see where am I sitting?” Mrs Jarrett examined the few remaining pink cards, shook her head and muttered something which Susan couldn’t make out.
At that moment the organ started to play quietly. There were still empty chairs in the front row. Out of the corner of her eye Susan saw two cathedral officials escorting up the nave a small group of people. There was a gentle murmur – it was their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess with a party of guests. The mystery of the vacant chairs had finally been solved.
The lights were turned down, the choir began to sing, the service had begun. Two candle bearers led the procession, clergy resplendent in vestments of embroidered gold, then lay preachers, more candle bearers and finally the choir. Their voices quiet at first and then louder and louder, the sound magnified to fill the cavernous space of the ancient building. They filed onto the steps and arranged themselves around the altar. Susan spotted Tom looking grave and solemn, concentrating hard. The lights came back on and it was now the congregation’s turn. She could hear the rush of air into the pipes as the organ swelled and she imagined the organist coming down on the keyboard as the notes of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ began to reverberate. Everyone shuffled to their feet and started to look for the right place in the order of service booklet. This wasn’t as easy as just turning to page one – there was a brief history of the cathedral, the etiquette of the service, when to stand, when to sit. The inevitable plea for funds, politely worded of course, but nevertheless quite clear in its request. There were all the words of the anthem the choir had just sung. By which point it was page five. Susan found the right place and began singing. But the elderly couple directly in front of her, who were in the royal party were struggling. She suddenly realised – they weren’t English. They were flicking the pages of the booklet back and forth. Without thinking she leaned forward and in her clearest diction said “Allow me,” and gently turned the pages of the booklet, pointing to the correct verse. The elderly lady gave her a broad smile and started to hum along. The service continued, with further anthems from the choir, Old and New Testament readings and prayers. All of this was punctuated with carols by the congregation. Whenever this happened, the elderly lady from the royal party turned to Susan and proffered her order of service booklet. Susan showed her where they had got to, she smiled and hummed along. There was one awkward moment when Susan thought the elderly lady was going to insist she came and sat next to her. But thank heavens that didn’t come to anything. Too embarrassing, expecting the entire front row to move along just as the dean’s sermon was about to begin.
At the end, as the royal party was about to leave, the Duchess came up to Susan.
“Thank you very much for helping my great aunt during the carol service, she does not speak much English but likes to follow what is going on. Merry Christmas.”
Before Susan was able to answer or fully take in what had happened the Duchess and her guests had left. Mrs Jarrett beamed at her.
“Oh, well done, I was supposed to sit next to the Duchess’s great aunt, I speak German, you see. Must go, entertaining the clergy, mince pies and sherry all round.”
Lucky them, thought Susan.
Then the dean appeared. “So, were you next to her?” he looked at his wife. For the first time Susan saw behind the austere persona; apprehension in his eyes.
“No, she sat at the far end of the row. I was stuck next to someone who didn’t speak a word of English. Wretched foreigners.” The dean’s wife picked up the pink card with her name on it, which had fallen under her seat, tossed it at her husband. “I told you I should have worn a hat.”
“I am sorry my dear, we were told no hats.” The dean slipped the pink name card into a pocket concealed in his voluminous cassock.
“She wore one, a little red thing and so did that German aunt of hers. I suppose we’d better go and drink the archdeacon’s sherry, I wish he would buy something decent.”
“Mrs Jarrett’s mince pies are always delicious.” The dean’s wife looked at her husband. Even Susan who was not familiar with all the nuances of married life could read that look.
The lights on the huge Christmas tree twinkled, a slight draught coming from the now open doors made the branches sway and the red and gold baubles jangled. The organist played ‘God Rest you Merry Gentleman’ and people milled about wishing each other a Merry Christmas and exchanged cards and gifts. Susan stood for a few minutes and even though she was on her own she did not feel lonely. The mystery and magic of Christmas weaved itself around her like an old familiar cardigan. This had been an unusual and rather special carol service. Her introspections were broken by Sophie pulling at her sleeve.
“Mummy says come and join us for supper.”
“Will there by enough?” Susan enquired.
“There’s always enough in our house. I’ve made a trifle for pud. What was all that with Mrs Dean chucking the pink card about and you and the royals? I could see it all from where I was sitting.”
Susan linked arms with Sophie and walked down the nave, basking in the moment.