The Choice Extract

In the second chapter of The Choice, Clarissa Phipps, rector of an ancient Cheshire village church, leaves home for the parish office before taking a primary school assembly.

She gathered her bag and coat and left for the church hall.  The dank air matched her mood and permeated her clothing.  Entering the hall, she went straight to the cramped office, with its bank of filing cabinets, shelves of mildewed parish registers and the wormy sounding board from an ancient pulpit, which she shared with Shirley Redwood and Titus, her mephitic corgi.  Dubious of Shirley’s claim that Titus doted on her, Clarissa gave the slavering dog a perfunctory pat as she made for her desk.

Shirley was already hard at work and well into her daily packet of chocolate digestives.  With Lent less than two weeks away, Clarissa dreaded the annual abstinence which, given her secretary’s frayed nerves, would be a penance for them both.  Now in what Marcus had caustically dubbed her crimplene years, the once pretty Shirley had let herself go.  In a bid to boost her confidence, Clarissa had rigged an Autumn Fayre raffle to ensure that she won a makeover voucher from Aphrodite’s of Nantwich.  But Shirley had donated it to a neighbour, explaining that ‘it would be wasted on me’.

With enviable efficiency, she was typing the minutes of yesterday’s meeting.  She’d just fielded a call from a young woman ‘on the estate’ (her squirm sufficient to identify it), who wanted to marry at St Peter’s but was reluctant to attend a service.  ‘I could tell she was living in sin,’ Shirley said, lowering her voice, although there was no one else in the building.

‘Then I should publish the banns soon as possible,’ Clarissa replied.

‘Of course,’ Shirley said, her tone suggesting that Father Vincent, for whom she’d toiled devotedly for twenty-five years, would not have been so shallow.  ‘That tramp – I mean down-and-out…or is it vagrant? I get so muddled – is back.’

‘Poor man!  There must be something we can do for him.’

‘I offered him a bus pass to Nantwich and vouchers for the food bank,’ Shirley replied, with a snort.  ‘He said he wanted money not charity, and sloped off.’

Clarissa glanced at the clock, its inscription Take time for God a permanent reproach to one whose habitual thought was God, is that the time?  She scanned her diary, relieved to find that the schedule was too tight for her to ring Daisy Quantock.  With a knowing smile, she left Shirley to ‘man’ the fort and headed to the school.

With its black-and-white, timber-framed cottages, cobbled streets and deep gutters, it was possible for a visitor, especially one taking tea in Jayne’s Country Kitchen, to imagine that little had changed in Tapley for centuries.  But like so much else about the village, it was an illusion.  As property prices soared, many homeowners sold up and moved to the Chapel Hill estate, leaving the High Street, once wide enough for the monthly cattle market, choked with the new owners’ four-by-fours.  The 300-year-old Wemlock Arms, said to have been frequented by Dick Turpin, was now a gastropub and boutique hotel, loved by the incomers and loathed by the locals, who transferred their custom to the Coach and Horses on the Burland road.  The sleepy village shop had been bought by Mr and Mrs Chabra and turned into a seven-day-a-week convenience store.  The Old Constabulary was now a museum devoted to the history of cheesemaking and watercress farming, trades that had formerly employed half the village.  As she strode past, shouting a hasty ‘Blessings!’ at Tricia Harding, the museum’s curator, Clarissa gave thanks that, despite their mutual suspicion and, at times, overt hostility, there was one thing that united Tapley’s sundry residents.  From the ages of five to eleven, their children all attended St Peter’s school.

She entered the school gates, newly equipped with magnetic locks and security cameras, and hurried through the hotchpotch of buildings, past the Victorian schoolmaster’s house turned administration block, and the two HORSA huts still in use as classrooms, to the 1970s assembly hall.  Mouthing apologies for her lateness, she joined the staff on the platform.  At a cue from Pamela, the two hundred pupils rose as one.

‘Good morning children,’ she said, struggling to soften her voice, which an ill-disposed critic in her BBC days, had described as ‘pickled in privilege’.

‘Good morning, Reverend Clarissa,’ they chorused, stumbling as ever over the protracted name.

Ignoring the adults’ bored faces, reminiscent of the Today programme presenters during her stint on ‘Thought for the Day’, she told them the story of Jesus’s encounter with a rich young man, who wanted to follow Him but refused to give up his possessions, leaving Jesus to explain that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man – or woman – to enter Heaven.  In an effort to engage the children, she first took a needle from her bag and pretended to prick herself, triggering a gratifying wave of gasps, and then asked for suggestions of other animals too big to squeeze through the needle’s eye, drawing an enthusiastic response from year four, who’d recently visited Chester Zoo.  After the lions, elephants, giraffes and gorillas, a whey-faced boy with suspiciously close-cropped hair called out:  ‘Lice!’

‘Yes, indeed.  Well done!’ she replied, flustered, ‘although to be precise, a louse is… lice are insects, not animals.  So what does the story teach us?  Hold on a moment!’ she said to a boy, who bounced up and down, waving his hand:  an alpha male in the making.  ‘Everyone will have a chance to speak.’

‘I think George is asking to be excused,’ Pamela interjected.

‘Yes, Miss.  I want a widdle,’ he replied, to a gust of laughter and Clarissa’s embarrassment.

‘Of course.  Go ahead,’ she said, as George scurried out, clutching his groin.  ‘Now what have we learnt?  Anything?’

With none of the children venturing a suggestion, Clarissa opined that ‘in my view, the lesson isn’t that we should all become paupers, but rather that we shouldn’t place too much value on material things – that’s any kind of thing, not only cloth.  Now, let’s all bow our heads in prayer.’

She thanked God for home and school, for family and friends, for lessons and games, for activity and rest.  She asked Him to fill their hearts with happiness, their minds with inspiration and their hands with creativity.  Then, after committing all the pupils at St Peter’s to His loving care, she watched them file out of the hall, before following Pamela to her office (rebranded from Daisy’s study).   Her lips twitched in a weak smile when Pamela, moving to the Nespresso machine, made her usual joke about trading in Brian for George Clooney.

Napoli, Firenze, Indonesia, Capriccio or Fortissio Lungo?’ she asked, listing the various flavours.

Lungo please.  I need the hard stuff.’

‘One of those days?’

‘And it’s barely begun.’