Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels
There is a lot going on in this chapter. So, first, the Kingscote girls have a Christmas play rehearsal in the Minster, and during a break, Nicola has a chat with Jess Geddes, the nice-but-untalented actress playing the Shepherd Boy. She too thinks the casting is bonkers, especially now it’s being held in the Minster with outsiders coming to watch, saying “I don’t see it’s so very reverent, not to have it done the very best we can.”
Nicola is a bit embarrassed that Jess is talking about religion (it’s bad enough they’re in a church), but excuses it on the grounds of Jess being Scottish, rather than “pagan English” like the rest of them. Then they discover a bird, possibly a falcon, carved into a pillar in an out-of-the-way place and wonder why someone would have carved a presumably non-Biblical bird where no one could see. Nicola ventures that perhaps it was “just for fun” and she contemplates how religion was different in medieval times: “I read once about a jester who turned somersaults in front of a statue of the Virgin because it was the thing he could do best.” Although she’s careful to say ‘thing’ rather than ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ because those words would be “priggish”.
Then half-term arrives. Poor Esther has to stay at school rather than going home to see Daks, because her hopeless mother messed up the dates, but everyone else is going home, even Tim. Rowan, looking very grown-up with lipstick, comes to collect the Marlow sisters, but first Nicola and Sprog meet Dr Herrick, who asks if Sprog can be part of the play, carried by one of the Kings. Nicola thinks this will be lovely for Sprog and also for the Minster, having a hawk inside again, because surely in medieval times, “when people believed properly”, they brought their hawks to church.
Dr Herrick, in a fairly blatant intrusion of Authorial Voice, is amused by her ignorance and corrects her, saying there are people now who “believe properly”, “without reservation”. Nicola later thinks that Dr Herrick and Ann are among these people, but didn’t people talk about “science having made everything different”? Nicola wishes she could ask Giles because he was a sensible person who’d “know what was true and what wasn’t”. (Ha ha, imagine thinking Giles the source of eternal wisdom!)
Meanwhile, Miss Craven has bailed up Rowan to ask what’s going on with Nicola. (She’s not in the netball team, Craven! Because you chose to exclude her!) Rowan and Nicola then realise Evil Lois was behind it, but Nicola makes Rowan promise not to say anything to Miss Craven. Rowan reluctantly agrees, worried that Nicola will end up “like Jan Scott and always passed over”. It turns out there was a “terrific scandal” in Upper Fourth when Jan was told to volunteer for some weeding duties and Jan said if it was voluntary, then she was choosing not to. So she was labelled Uncooperative Type and written off forever (except they made her a prefect, so not really). No wonder Miranda has a crush on Janice.
It is revealed Rowan is having a tough time on the farm, having spent six weeks milking cows and “clamping mangolds”. I had no idea what a mangold was, so I looked it up and it’s mangel-wurzel, a type of beet used to feed livestock. I don’t know why they need clamping, but it sounds like something from Cold Comfort Farm. Next thing we know, Rowan will be pushing people down the well and obsessively counting chicken feathers. In the meantime, she’s driving her sisters home even though she’s too young to have a driving licence (but quite old enough to run a farm, according to her parents), hence the lipstick, in case she gets stopped by a policeman.
The big news is that Grandmother (the French widow/possible Nazi collaborator) is staying till New Year and is making everyone miserable, especially their mother, especially as Mrs Bertie the housekeeper has the flu and Mrs Marlow can’t cook. Also, Grandmother is a devout Catholic, which has somehow escaped their notice till now, and she is demanding to be taken to Mass on Sunday. Nicola doesn’t help matters by getting knocked over by the dog as soon as she walks inside, letting Sprog fly up to the candelabra. Fortunately, Patrick arrives and helps to recapture Sprog and even more fortunately, he turns out to be Catholic. And they hear Mass at his house each Sunday, because the Merrick family are such old, important Catholics! (How come the Catholic Mrs Merrick only has one child, while the only-vaguely-Anglican Mrs Marlow has eight? Maybe poor Mrs Merrick had lots of miscarriages or Patrick had some stillborn siblings? Unless she saw how Patrick was turning out and decided that one child was more than enough?) But Patrick is actually polite and helpful here, so maybe being back at school is doing his character some good.
The other revelation is that Mrs Marlow remarks in passing that she had four brothers who were all killed in the First World War, which is news to Nicola. Does this family ever talk about anything important?! Surely there would have been family photographs or it would have come up somehow in the past thirteen years? Mrs Marlow said her mother was always strict with her and Aunt Molly, but “it was different for the boys, of course”. And Nicola notes that Grandmother is polite to Patrick and is always much nicer to Giles and Peter than to the sisters:
“Perhaps she liked boys better than girls. So, come to that, did Nicola.”
AARRGGH! I know poor Nicola is being brought up by a domineering father and doormat mother, in a family where the girls are expected to sacrifice any hope of a career to make the men’s lives easier, but I really hope Kingscote at least teaches her that girls can be as clever, interesting and worthwhile as boys.
At tea, Lawrie again demonstrates her (limited) understanding of theology, when Grandmother mentions a portrait of Our Lady painted by St Luke. Lawrie is confused as to how a non-existent person can paint another non-existent person (“like saying that a statue of Athene was done by Jupiter”). It turns out Lawrie hasn’t really been listening in church, but anyway, “I never thought I was supposed to think it was real.” Ann says that there’s a Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem so Christ must have existed, but Lawrie makes the completely valid point that “Mount Olympus is a place, too, isn’t it? And you wouldn’t say that proved Zeus was real, would you?” But just as I was thinking this was entirely too logical for Lawrie, she asks whether the Greek gods were real, too.
I laughed helplessly all through this section – Grandmother’s horror, Mrs Marlow’s exasperation, Rowan marvelling at Lawrie’s thinking processes, Nicola and Ginty mortified that people are talking religion at the tea table. But the thing is, I agree with Lawrie. I think it’s a story, too: an illogical but highly influential legend. (I have thought about this issue a bit more deeply than Lawrie, though.)
Anyway, the next day, Nicola takes Patrick to the Minster to show him the falcon carving. Patrick likes the Minster, saying he’d like that one back from the Church of England, along with Winchester and Westminster Abbey. On the way home, they discuss his Catholicism – how the Merricks stayed Catholic, despite one Merrick ancestor being martyred by Elizabeth and another by James I, and how Patrick thinks the Reformation was “the worst thing that ever happened to the English”. He says, “For us … it was the sort of thing the Poles have to put up with from the Communists now – torture and imprisonment and having to hear Mass secretly.” Patrick, it was five hundred years ago, get over it. It’s not as though the Merricks lost their estate and they’re not exactly lacking in power or wealth now, with Patrick’s father in Parliament and Patrick completely free to practice his religion. Patrick also seems to be ignoring all the reasons why English people might have wanted to get rid of a bunch of corrupt priests whose loyalties lay with the Pope rather than the English king, and also that there were plenty of martyred Protestants. But I have an idea that Antonia Forest is firmly on Patrick’s side.
Back at Trennels, Lawrie is ‘helping’ her mother with housework in a most incompetent way and getting further theological instruction from her grandmother. Grandmother’s bedroom is cluttered with Catholic paraphernalia – a crucifix, a candlestick, a little lamp, rosary beads, holy medals, a triptych, figurines of Christ and Mary and St Therese (and I like that Lawrie recognises the rosary beads only because they appear in Little Women). Grandmother attempts to explain their significance:
“Now listen to me, Lawrence. Whether you believe or what you believe is between yourself and God. I have no concern about that. But for a child of your age, going to a good school, to be as ignorant and ill-informed of the most elementary facts of Christianity as you seem to be, is something quite disgraceful.”
This is true – it is important for children to know the central beliefs of all the religions practiced in their region (so they can realise how illogical they all are and become atheists). But the useful thing for Lawrie is that she finally understands the metaphor of Christ as Shepherd, which will come in handy if she manages to infect Jess with the flu and take over the role of Shepherd Boy.
Lawrie would be a giant pain to have as a twin sister, but she really is hilarious in this chapter.
Oh, I forgot to say Nicola told Patrick about Lois Sanger and he wondered if Lois is in complete denial about her lies, or realises she’s a heel, which I was also thinking about. But I’ll write more about that if it comes up in a later chapter.
Next, Chapter Six: A Change of Cast