The rising sap

Martha Tidmarsh sighed. As house-keeper to the good Reverend Soulsby, the coming of Spring brought about a certain broodiness to her outlook, enhanced perhaps by the pile of new-laid eggs in her pantry which seemed to grow daily. Inevitably every female member of the small congregation of St. Marks overwhelmed the vicarage with eggs at this time of year.

They came from the far corners of the earth, in baskets, in bowls, in paper bags, in shopping baskets, by hand and by foot. Their symbolic significance had not, however, gone without notice, and for Martha Tidmarsh, whose cap had been tilted towards the good Reverend for many a Spring, thoughts of fertility lingered well into the winter months.

“Can’t I have a sausage?” he asked, staring at the two brown eggs nestled comfortably in his cock-a-doodle-doo egg cup. The very thought of a sausage was more than revolting to Martha Tidmarsh, who remained a vegetarian since early childhood, after she had found out what happened to her father’s pigs! “You know my sentiments Reverend Cecil, I would never be able to hold my head up high at the RSPCA meetings if I lost respect for our animal friends!”

The walk from the vicarage to St. Marks on that Sunday morning, was invigorating, especially since it was the first official day of Spring, and everything around him seemed to be humming and buzzing with life. He stopped beneath the great Yew tree that stood at the Lych Gate (long since disused), to catch his breath when completely out of the blue, something pushed between his legs and toppled him over.

“Cor, sorry yer Reverence, old Gertie ‘ere seems to have taken a likin’ to yer!” Sure enough, the snout of the huge saddle-back sow continuously poked at the good Reverend’s ribs and no amount of persuasion by Arthur Potts, its master, seemed to deter the animal. “Get him off me,” roared the Reverend, attempting to stand.

Potts pushed at the animal’s flank to no avail. “I’m’s not a ‘I’m, I’m’s an ‘Er!” explained Potts. A well-aimed kick to the animal’s nether region seemed to distract its attention, and Gertie moved on, leaving the Reverend Soulsby with his posterior implanted among the buttercups and daisies.

“Do you always walk your pig on a Sunday morning?” enquired Soulsby. “Cor luv ‘yer no ‘yer Reverence, old Gertie’s just come into rut, and I’m taking her to be served.” “Rut?” queried Soulsby, lacking all knowledge of the animal kingdom and their peculiar habits. “What-ever is a rut?”

Potts’ cheeks flushed slightly, the thought of explaining the procedure to the good Reverend was more than embarrassing to him, especially since the gentleman was a confirmed bachelor! “‘Er well, you know, it’s human nature like ain’t it?”

Soulsby wasn’t to be fobbed off. “Nature… human nature? That’s a pig, there’s nothing whatever human about that creature!” Potts scratched his stubbly chin, and Gertie had wandered off somewhere among the tall pine trees. Raising his eyes towards heaven, inspiration came as if by divine providence. “Genesis chapter eight, verse 17, ‘yer Reverence, that just about sums it up in a nutshell!”

Soulsby thought for a moment. “Will you be at the service,” he called. Potts kicked nonchalantly at the sow’s flank, guiding her expertly through a gap in the hedge. He turned and called after the retreating Reverend. “You betcha, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

Slightly ruffled at his surprise encounter with Arthur Potts, the good Reverend Soulsby hurried to the vestry where he began preparing the food and the wine for the holy sacrament. There was half an hour to go, time enough for a quick one, before Jack Allweather arrived for the key to the organ vault.

The tedious practice of operating a great pair of bellows was of necessity, for the old organ had not been electrified and required the brute strength and ignorance of a man of muscle.

Allweather’s sudden entrance took Soulsby by surprise. The earthenware wine vessel was held aloft, and according to the laws of nature, its contents flowed freely. “Cor, has it gorn off, ‘yer Reverence?” asked Jack, using a certain amount of tact. Soulsby lowered the jar, and wiped his chin. “Not exactly Jack, I just wondered if it had been blessed?”

A slight noise made them both aware of the rapidly filling church, Allweather lifted the crate of beer onto his shoulder, a necessary evil for the generation of a goodly supply of wind, and made for the vault. He paused at the top step.

“Well it’s well and truly blessed now, ain`t it?” Glorious Spring sunshine flooded through the lead glass windows, and as the Reverend climbed the three stone steps and entered the pulpit, he smiled a greeting towards his congregation, counting heads with the mathematical accuracy of a chartered accountant.

“Oh happy day!” “All rise, let us sing unto the Lord, All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small.” A pregnant silence followed, after which Minnie Chambers was on her hands and knees beside the organ, shouting between the chinks of light coming through the rotting floor boards.

“Jack, you drunken sod, pump the ruddy organ!” A sudden skirl of wind, that sounded like bagpipes swelled into the majesty of a full pipe organ, and Jack, solely responsible for the dischord, was on top form again. During the holy sacrement the Reverend Soulsby first felt the soft awakening of Spring within his heart. He had twice filled the silver chalice, a rare occasion, causing doubt whether there would be enough of the precious liquid to go round.

Fred Parsons, undertaker, and smelling vaguely of formalin, drank deeply from the chalice. Next was Widow Wormsley, Sybil her youngest, then Dulcie, her eldest. “Dear, sweet dimpled Dulcie”, thought Soulsby, as he gazed down at her ample cleavage, and held the chalice to her lips.

Then it happened! Small shivers of pure delight ran to the extremities of his celibate body. Dulcie received the sacrament, her hand lightly touching his. Suddenly he wished that she would never stop drinking… that he could hold the chalice to her lips forever. “‘Ere ‘yer ain’t done yet y’know!” Gladys Watkins, ever to the fore when it came to human rights, thumped Soulsby’s left shin with her handbag, bringing him out of his paradoxical trauma.

Light of heart, the service came to an abrupt ending when Wally Grounsell’s set of upper dentures slipped out while reading the Psalms. They fell with a distinct clatter, and disappeared down a cast iron grid that covered the drainage system.

“Here endeth the lath lethon,” he murmered, holding his hand to his mouth, and making a dash for the exit. Ma Potter, ran to his assistance. Proprieter of the local pawn shop, she never missed an opportunity to do business. “I got a dozen pairs back in ‘me shop lovee, ye can ‘mix and match’ to yer heart’s content!” she whispered.

After the service, once the Reverend Soulsby had greeted the entire congregation, and wished them a happy week, he returned to the vestry, and carefully washed his hands. A tip gathered from Bishop Thickness, who admitted catching a dreaded disease from one of his social workers. Slipping into something more comfortable, Soulsby emptied the contents of the offertory box into the font, and began sorting the chaff from the wheat! ‘

“One trouser button, a sixpence, (obviously from Squire Beagle) four pennies, chewing-gum paper, four three-penny pieces, a copper washer, one French franc, 1923, and four sealed envelopes.” A motley collection, no matter which way one looked at it. The sealed envelopes were from those members of the community who had pledged certain specific amounts all year round. Usually in cheque form, their contents were considered to be a valuable asset towards the good Reverend’s livelihood.

With shaking hands, he carefully slit the first envelope open. “Earnie Trumble`s 20 quid!” said Soulsby, wondering how a postal clerk was able to subscribe so generously. The next envelope was slightly larger than the others, and pale blue in colour, and furthermore it gave off a certain aroma that caused his heart to skip a beat. “Could it be?” he thought, holding the paper to his nostrils, and breathing in the scent. Pushing his thumb into the sealed flap, he tore it open, hardly daring to breathe. “Roses are red, violets are blue, I`ll be your Sweetheart, if you know who?”

Soulsby stared at the spidery writing for more than a minute, and a sudden flush spread across his pallid complexion. A miracle was taking place, his heart beat faster, his hand shook with excitement. Only once had he felt this way before, the day when he made the visit to Ma Wormsley, and Dulcie had stood at the doorway.

“What had Potts said that very morning?” Soulsby’s thoughts soared, and then it all flooded back. It was something about that pig, and the answer lay there in the Good Book! “Genesis chapter eight, verse 17”. He flipped through the pages of the Old Testament. “Of course, it was Noah, what had God asked him to do?”

“Go ye forth and multiply,” he read. “Could this be true,” he thought. “Could six months of celebacy suddenly be thrown to the wind by a slip of a country girl in her early teens?” Pressing the piece of scented paper to his lips, he remembered the touch of dear Dulcie`s hand on his at communion.

This was more than he had ever dared to dream about, Dulcie had chosen him to be her sweetheart. From now on he was going to give her his undivided attention, plus perhaps the slightest hint regarding the multiplication factor. Never before had the roses smelled sweeter, the birds sung shriller, and the moon shone brighter for the good Reverend.

“You off ‘yer oats?” enquired Martha Tidmarsh, surveying the two golden brown boiled eggs lying virgin within their receptacle. “You ain’t bust a shell in two days, wot ‘yer livin on, love?” Before the good Reverend could call up an answer, Martha Tidmarsh, whose perception was way above average, took note of the Reverend’s multicoloured socks, a blue on the left, and a red on the right. A floral shirt for Matins, with matching shorts, and Jesus sandals.

He was indeed, in love! Standing at the old Lych Gate, he turned and waved towards Martha Tidmarsh, who wiped a bitter tear from her eye, knowing full well that she had lost her dearest Cecil. “Back before tea!” he called, waving a black-spotted handkerchief, then with a flounce, he vaulted neatly over the vicarage wall, and landed in a waiting bed of nettles.

The tiny barbs brought a modicum of sense back to Soulsby, whose long white underpants took full brunt of the plant’s savage sting, he realised he was without the necessary garment to cover his long spindle-like legs.

“My trousers Martha!” he yelled from behind the flint-stone wall. “I seem to have mislaid them!” Back in the cottage, Martha’s eyes narrowed as she selected a pair of clerical black serge, no-nonsense trousers, trusting that they might dampen the Reverend’s ardour a mite. “Can I ‘elp ‘yer slip ’em on?” she asked hopefully, as she threw them over the wall. “No, No, Martha, I am quite capable of dressing myself, thank you!”

It was a fair distance to the Widow Wormsley’s cottage, across the village green, and over the stile, through Wally Grounsell’s turnip patch, then along by the river bank. Here, the Reverend began to pick a small posy of buttercups and daisies for his beloved. Arthur Potts, together with Gertie, his prize sow, approached the black outline that appeared on the horizon, knowing that it wasn’t there earlier that morning. He had a puzzled look on his face, as had Gertie the sow, for after all, neither of them had ever seen the good Reverend from that particular angle – bent almost double!

Now pigs are unpredictable at the best of times, and Gertie was no exception, she took umbrage at the apparition, and made a charge towards the Reverend Soulsby, together with a fearsome grunt. “Watch out, ‘yer Reverence,” shouted Potts, attempting a warning. Alas, it came too late! Gertie’s flat snout connected with Soulsby’s posterior, propelling them both into the river.

“She’s sure taken a likin’ to you, ‘yer Reverence!” called Potts, surveying the mishap. “Wot you doin’ so far
from ‘ome?” Soulsby extended an arm. “Help me out of here Mr Potts, I’m… I’m… I’m going a’ courting, ‘er Miss Wormsley.” Potts pulled him out with a cunning smile. “Courtin’ ‘yer say, well bless my soul, ‘ats a coincidence, if ever there was one, old Gertie an’ me are just a’ coming back!”

“Coming back, how do you mean Mr Potts?” Gertie scrambled up the river bank, and nosed among the reeds. “You know, old Gertie’s been served again!” The Reverend’s mouth dropped open in complete surprise. “Again, how many times?” Potts winked. “You know the gals, can’t get enough can they?”

Soulsby dried out long before he came to the cottage, a little worse for wear perhaps, but still looking as fresh as the daisies that he was carrying. He paused for a moment at Widow Wormsley’s front door, then knocked boldly on its ancient timbers.

“All right, all right, I’m ruddy well comin’!” Widow Wormsley flung the door wide open, not expecting to see a member of the clergy standing there. Her pink shortie nightie together with her hair full of coloured rollers made an awesome sight. The good Reverend swallowed hard, but stood his ground.

“Why, ‘yer Reverence, it’s you!” she said, quickly folding her arms across her ample bosom. “What a luvley surprise!” Soulsby looked down at the posy of buttercups and daisies, and didn’t intend to raise his eyes until the apparition had faded from his sight.

“Ah yes, Mrs Wormsley, I came to see young Dulcie, is she… is she available?” The widow smiled, allowing a splendid view of some amateur dental work performed by Mr Trusscott, the chemist. “‘Course she is ducks, she’s round the back suckin’ up God’s glorious sunshine, she won’t ‘arf be surprised!”

The door closed, leaving the Reverend a little more than apprehensive, but nevertheless, anxious to deliver his posy of wild flowers. The side of the Widow Wormsley’s cottage was adorned with the kind of memorabilia that resembled a scrap-yard. He picked his way past several bicycle frames, a cast iron mangle, three galvanised iron baths, two dressmaker’s dummies, a bevy of pots and pans, and a plant stand minus one leg. Soulsby had managed to scale the bric-a-brac admirably when his left foot stuck firmly into an upturned bucket.

“Blast!” he whispered, but his exclaimation had been heard. “That you Robin?” Without doubt, it was Dulcie’s voice that broke the keen Spring air. Soulsby extricated his foot. “Come on ducks, I’m ready willin’ and waiting for ‘yer!” she cajoled. Overcome by the passion of the moment, the good Reverend decided that it might be best to announce his arrival.

“No Dulcie, its Cecil…Cecil Soulsby from St. Marks!” Peeping through the trellis fence was perhaps, not an honourable thing for a member of the clergy to do, yet in all sincerity, the view was quite enlightening. Dulcie lay reclining on a bath towel. Wearing nothing but sunglasses and a bewitching smile, her lithesome figure presented a never to be forgotten picture for Soulsby.

“Oh my Gawd!” she screamed, sitting up and wrapping as much of the towel as possible around her ample figure. “I’m… I’m expectin’ me boyfriend Robin, wot you doin’ ‘ere?” “But I thought,” stammered Soulsby. “I got your message… you held my hand.”

A soft white patch of thigh had been left exposed, and Soulsby found it virtually impossible not to look. “Message, I never sent no message, you must be bonkers!” exclaimed Dulcie. Confused, the Reverend tried to explain. “You held my hand as I held the chalice to your lips?” Dulcie grinned. “‘Course I did, ‘yer hand was shakin’ so much, I thought you’d spill the grog all over me dress!”

Soulsby raised his eyes towards Heaven. “Dear God, I’ve made an utter fool of myself, haven’t I my child?” Filled with compassion, Dulcie let the towel slip until it covered only what was absolutely necessary, then walked towards where Soulsby was peeking through the fence. A teasing smile lit her face, and the sun shone through the frizz of blonde hair.

For just a fleeting moment it seemed, she could have been an angel sent from Heaven, ruining the delusion, she bent and kissed him lightly on the lips. “No you ain’t ducks, you’re just the same as all the rest, ‘an I loves ‘yer for it!”

Walking back along the river bank towards the vicarage, the good Reverend felt a kind of elation mingled with his disappointment, clearly he had made a nasty mistake, yet Dulcie had not rejected him outright. He passed the spot where Gertie had nosed him into the river and smiled, remembering Potts’ words of wisdom.

“You know the gals, can’t get enough, can they?” Comforted by his new-found knowledge he knew that somehow, dear sweet dimpled Dulcie shared some mysterious affinity with Gertie the Saddle-back sow.

Sunday came around again, finding Granfer Pratchett safely installed within the portals of the Dog and Duck. It had clouded over, and the sound of “Onward Christian Soldiers” hung on the breeze in the public bar, as the small congregation offered their thanks to the Almighty. Pratchett filled his pipe, and hummed to the tune.

“They’m be in top form this mornin’ ‘arry.” he said, lighting the confusion of dried twigs and turnip peelings. ‘Arry Arbuckle nodded in agreement, he had intended to attend the morning service, but the Devil had waylaid him just as his flesh had weakened.

“Ain’t never seen the Reverend so ‘appy.” Downing what remained of his beer. Pratchett’s face wrinkled like an old walnut, and he began to chuckle. “That they letter you’m took fer his Reverence did ‘im a power of good!” ‘Arry Arbuckle filled his tankard, and sat down again.

“Widow Wormsley tells as ‘ow he and young Dulcie maybe goin’ steady, one of these days!” he said slyly. Pratchett puffed thoughtfully at his pipe. “Ye know.” He said seriously. “That they ‘risin’ sap’ wot comes in Springtime ain’t fussy when it comes to us mortals.” ‘Arry Arbuckle nodded in agreement. “Never knew the Reverend ‘ad it in ‘im!” Pratchett nodded, “Aah, life’s full o’ surprises!”

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