Robin had requested the meeting and, having done so, realised there was no going back. 

The Canon’s study was far from welcoming, a large room with a high ceiling and an ornate plaster cornice.  Despite its size, it was overwhelmed with furniture; a sofa, three generous armchairs, an oak rolltop desk and a scattering of side-tables.  The walls were lined with shelves with books stacked in higgledy-piggledy arrangements.  They looked dusty, uninviting, and Robin wondered how many of them had actually been read, and by whom.           

The morning was bright, but the room was gloomy.  Outside unkempt rhododendron bushes pressed hard against the windows.  It was chilly too, with ashes from an earlier fire piled high in the grate.  Logs in a large wicker basket stood by expectantly. 

‘How long will we be?’ the Canon enquired.  ‘Should I light the fire?’

Robin realised this was a thoughtful offer but that accepting it would delay proceedings, perhaps long enough for his courage to fail him.  He was surprised to find himself so apprehensive and, not for the first time, reassured himself that this meeting was a mere formality. 

He was reminded of those occasions at school when exasperated teachers had despatched him to see the headmaster.  The headmaster’s study was approached through a heavy mahogany door which, when opened, revealed an inner door of green baize.  Once the outer door had swung shut there had been enough space between the two doors to linger in the dark.  A place to pause, before knocking and setting off an unstoppable chain of events. 

‘Thank you, sir, a fire would be nice,’ he found himself saying, cursing himself for acquiescing.  He’d always been a people-pleaser, adept at falling-in with what other people wanted and pretending that’s what he wanted too.  He knew this explained his popularity with a huge network of friends.  But, he reflected ruefully, it was precisely because he was a push-over that he found himself in this regrettable situation.

Lighting the fire proved to be something of a ritual.  First, the Canon removed the ashes with a large shovel, tipping them into a bucket and creating clouds of dust that lingered playfully before settling on the hearth rug.  Then he tore some strips from a newspaper, crunched them up, and built a wigwam of kindling wood over them.  Finally, he reached up to the mantelpiece, fumbled for a matchbox, and struck a match.  Flames flickered hesitantly, as if undecided whether to take hold or not.

‘That should do the trick,’ said the Canon, settling back into a lumpy armchair, his hands  clasped in his lap.  The Canon was a large man, clad in a black cassock, with a bald head and huge eyelids, usually closed as if they were too heavy to combat gravity for more than a few fleeting moments.    

‘Now, what can I do for you, young man?’

Over the past year, the two men had met four or five times and on each occasion the Canon had been polite, but formal.  He’d never given any indication how he wished Robin to address him — sir? Canon Sowerbutts? Harold? Harry? — and neither had the Canon ever used the younger man’s name. 

The phone rang and with some difficulty the Canon hauled himself to his feet.

‘I’ll just take this call.  It might be the hospital.  Put a couple of logs on the fire, there’s a good chap.’

Robin obliged.  Sparks shot up the chimney, the flames becoming eager.  He sat listening to one half of the conversation.  It seemed to be about the next issue of the parish magazine.  Apparently, the entry from the bellringers had missed the deadline and was required urgently.  Robin toyed with the idea of bolting, but how could he justify such a cowardly act?  Anyway, the vast bulk of the Canon stood between him and the study door, his only escape route.

The call ended and the Canon sank back into his armchair.

‘Forgive me, I thought that might have been be a call from the hospital.  I fear poor Mrs Clutterbuck is close to the end.  Now, where were we?’  The Canon’s eyelids came down, like shutters.

Robin took a deep breath.  ‘Well, sir, I’ve come to ask for permission to marry your daughter.’

The Canon said nothing and his eyes stayed firmly shut.  Robin hadn’t known what reaction to expect, but silence wasn’t one of them.  He’d imagined the Canon either being appalled or resigned.  But silence?

Robin found himself filling the silence. He’d always found silences unsettling.  ‘I know I don’t need your permission, sir, but, in the circumstances, I thought it was the decent thing to do.’ 

‘In the circumstances?’ the Canon repeated, his eyelids fluttering open momentarily. ‘I can’t pretend this isn’t a surprise.  May I enquire if Mrs Sowerbutts knows?’

‘I believe Beth is breaking the news to her now, sir.’

Suddenly Robin found himself feeling sorry for the Canon.  It seemed unfair to upset the calm equilibrium.  Perhaps they should have gone off somewhere and got married without any fuss.   

‘I see, all carefully orchestrated.’  The Canon lapsed back into silence again, presumably processing the implications of what he’d heard.  Suddenly, as if he’d been whispered to by an invisible prompter, he leant forward and said, ’Prospects.  I think I’m supposed to enquire about your prospects.’

There it was, a question — not the only question — Robin had been dreading.  Having just left university with a disappointing third class degree, he had no idea how to describe his prospects.  He’d applied for three jobs recently and been rejected by them all with no interview and no explanation.  

I’m actively job hunting,’ said Robin, knowing it sounded feeble.  ‘I’m hoping to get a place on a graduate trainee scheme.’

‘And,’ said the Canon, ‘should you succeed, does a graduate trainee earn enough to pay the rent?’

‘I hope so, sir,’ said Robin lamely.

‘Well, old chap,’ said the Canon, sounding decisive, ‘all things considered, I think it would be best to delay any thoughts of getting married until after you’ve secured a position.’

Robin took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry to say that isn’t an option, sir.’  There, he’d said it.

The Canon looked puzzled. ‘Not an option?’  The question hovered unanswered in the air.

Suddenly the study door flung open, scattering a nearby side-table, and the Canon’s wife burst into the room, closely followed by her daughter, looking pale. 

Mrs Sowerbutts glowered at Robin, then turned to her husband.  ‘Has he told you,’ she screamed, ‘he’s got her pregnant!’

Robin, uncharacteristically energised, sprang to his feet and rushed to Beth.  He put a comforting arm around her and she pressed her face against his chest, sobbing gently.  Robin swelled with pride, suddenly confident about the way ahead.  The Canon’s eyes were wide open now and Robin thought — but perhaps he was imagining it — he could detect a twinkle of approval.


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