Dancing Prophet, fourth in the Dancing Priest series, will be published In October. This is how it begins: “The match that ignited the reformation of the Church of England was lit by three teenagers.”
Dancing Prophet, fourth in the Dancing Priest series, will be published In October. This is how it begins: “The match that ignited the reformation of the Church of England was lit by three teenagers.”
Bishop Jeremy Smallwood was so practiced at nodding and smiling that he could have taken a nap while he listened.
Mrs. Brightman-Pennington, referred by many except to her face as Bright Penny, was talking. Droning, in fact, her voice acting like a sedative, a very harsh sedative, as if she could simultaneously put a listener to sleep while dragging sharp nails down his arms. Her voice had an irritating, vaguely condescending quality that, if their meeting exceeded the allotted 30 minutes, Smallwood knew would drive him to a criminal act.
His mind stuck on that phrase – criminal act – and he nearly jumped up from his chair. Instead, he calmed himself, offering a platitude here, a cliché there, anything to avoid alerting Bright Penny that he was coming unglued and his life, so carefully cultivated and constructed, was beginning to unravel.
With each of his nods or comments, Bright Penny would smile and continue to talk.
He didn’t want to listen. Not today. All he wanted to do was to run to his Mini in the cathedral parking lot, drive to the Bristol airport, and hop a plane to Brussels. From Brussels, he would promptly lose himself, somewhere in Europe. Anywhere. His French was tolerable enough; he could find a village in Belgium or perhaps Provence.
Bright Penny had shifted her subject from missions to the cathedral gardens; he couldn’t remember how she had made the transition. He glanced at his office window to the gardens outside. She was saying something about charging extra for a garden tour, and he realized she was saying that visitors could pay extra if they wanted to see the gardens.
“We’re very proud of our gardens, of course, Mrs. Brightman-Pennington,” Smallwood said, “but they’re not that spectacular to charge visitors an extra fee, surely.”
“It’s what they could be, bishop,” she said, and then she was off and running on yet another stream of consciousness monologue.
He felt like screaming. Instead, he dug his fingernails into his legs where his hands rested. He briefly glanced as the phone message left by his secretary. Please call as soon as convenient. He would like a meeting as soon as possible. And a phone number for a Detective Merwin with the Bristol police.
His hands were sweating, and he felt slightly faint. He knew why the detective had called. He couldn’t help but know why. The news stories had been pouring out of London for days. Priests arrested. Boys abused. Pedophilia rings.
Eleven priests had been arrested, their names published in the news reports. He knew two of the priests. Both had been sent by Canterbury, the archdiocese Bristol was officially part of. He had seen their personnel files and had immediately protested. Then he received a call from his former seminary head, telling him to man up and be a team player. That was code. Follow your orders, or someone will remember the good old days at seminary.
The priest hood had been part of his life as far back as he could remember. He was a third-generation Anglican cleric. His grandfather had been a parish priest, his father had been dean at Durham Cathedral, and now he was a bishop, with bright prospects for his career. His father would often mention Lambeth Palace as a career aspiration. Smallwood had attended St. Simon’s because that’s where his grandfather and father had attended. As he was the only son, it was expected. And he did what he had to do to get ahead and excel. He’d become a team player.
He’d hated it. He’d hated St. Simon’s, and he’d hated the priesthood. No one who knew would believe. Including his wife. And his father.
None of the news reports mentioned anything outside of London. At least yet. But he knew it was only a matter of time. Too many transfers from parishes and dioceses all over Britain.
The media had already anointed it a “crisis.”
He knew it worse than that. There were more priests. A lot more.
His hands were trembling. He tightly clasped them together to stop it.
“Bishop Smallwood,” Mrs. Brightman-Pennington said, “have you heard a word I’ve said?”
“Of course,” he said, offering his trademark smile that often dazzled her and other female parishioners.
“Do you feel all right?” she said. “You look positively ashen.”
“Actually,” he said, grateful for a potential end to the meeting, “I’ve been fighting the beginning of a migraine all day.”
“And here I’ve been prattling away,” she said, promptly launching into a discussion of everyone she knew who suffered from migraines, how they coped, and some of the folk remedies they had tried, with mixed success.
His secretary discreetly knocked at the door and entered. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Bishop Smallwood,” she said, “but you have that scheduled meeting.” She smiled at their guest.
He stood and thanked Bright Penny, and said he hoped to continue their discussion soon. She beamed, talked a few more minutes, and then left.
After seeing Mrs. Brightman-Pennington out, his secretary returned.
“Detective Merwin is insistent that he see you today,” she said. “I’ve told him your schedule is full, but he became rather demanding. And rude.”
Smallwood nodded. “Let’s bump that meeting with the deacons to another day. That should provide enough time. Tell the detective I can meet with him at 4 p.m.” He glanced at his watch; it was now 2 p.m. There was a flight to Brussels at 3:30.
“Is this about the news reports from London?” she said. “I saw the list of names.”
“More than likely,” he said, displaying a sense of calm and perspective he didn’t feel, “they will need to check on the backgrounds of the priests arrested.” How many had passed through the diocese since he’d been bishop? Thirty? Forty? He’d lost count. How much more had been covered up, parents calmed down, discreet payments made, counseling arranged?
She nodded and left. He could see she was unconvinced.
Should he call Gwendolyn? He knew his wife was volunteering at school today. She wouldn’t be home until 4 or 4:30. Should he say anything? This could be just a perfunctory conversation with the detective, just the routine thing they did.
Should he say anything to the children? Joan, their oldest, was at St. Andrew’s. Peter, 15, was in school in Bristol. Elliott, their youngest, was 9 and attending school at St. Edward’s, where Gwen was volunteering.
Andrew Brinley. His name came unbidden and unexpected. His close friend, doing seminary together at St. Simon’s. Jeremy had been a team player; Andrew had not. Jeremy got the plum assignments and was shortlisted for the next archbishopric opening. Andrew, whom he had not talked with since seminary, had been banished to some obscure failing church in Scotland. He’d turned the church around. A remarkably gifted preacher and pastor. A man who loved serving. The priest who a 15-year-old boy named Michael Kent to his church, a boy who believed he was being called to the priesthood, the man now sitting on Britain’s throne.
Brimley hadn’t been a team player, Smallwood thought bitterly. He had kept his integrity intact.
Everything had gone according to plan until this.
He would leave. He would drive home, pack a suit bag, and get to the airport. He knew there were ATM machines at the airport. He couldn’t face his family, and he couldn’t bear the idea of facing his father.
Avoiding the main door to his office, with his secretary seated outside and the next appointment waiting, whoever it was, Smallwood slipped through the door to the garden making his way to the cathedral car park. Within minutes he was home, grabbing a suitcase and throwing clothes into it. In his study, he opened the petty cash jar, the funds inside ostensibly to be used for needy parishioners. It was diocesan money. He quickly counted the 220 pounds. He could get more at the airport ATM.
He shoved the cash into his pocket, suddenly realized he was wearing his clerical collar. He rushed back up the stairs, stripped off the collar and short, and found a polo shirt and jacket.
Smallwood glanced at his watch. It was now 2:35. He could still make the 3:30 p.m. flight to Brussels.
He raced out the side door to his car. A man was leaning against it. The man smiled.
“Bishop Smallwood? I’m Detective Merwin with the Bristol police.” The man looked at the suit bag in Smallwood’s hand. “I believe I’m a bit early for our appointment. I hope that’s not a problem.”
This story is based on a scene in my upcoming novel Dancing Prophet.
He remembered the light, then the roaring. A silence followed, succeeded by screams.
People gathered around him, doing things, barking instructions. He tasted blood. The pain came suddenly, a blinding, screaming pain tearing him in half. He heard the screaming again.
“Morphine! Now!” someone shouted. And he knew the screaming was his own.
He opened his eyes and saw white. And light.
A man’s voice. “We’ve got this, Peter. Soon you’ll be dreaming.”
He saw the café. They had stopped for a coffee. It was safe, in the green zone. They had stopped there for coffee dozens of times. He liked the coffee that was so strong it could keep him wired for hours.
He saw the girl. Dark hair and eyes. She was perhaps six. Someone at the table handed her a candy bar, a treat that carried with them for the children. She smiled. And pulled at her belt.
He could feel the vibration and knew it was a plane. He could smell leather and metal, and something antiseptic. He heard beeping sounds. Through a haze he saw a drip bag. A face.
“You’re going home, Peter. It won’t be long.”
His lips felt cracked with dryness, and he moved his dry tongue over them. Then fingers on his lips, smoothing ointment. Mandy will be glad.
“Joanie will be there with me,” Mandy said. “She’s my coach, but she’ll have a camera and take lots of pictures. When the baby’s born, of course. You won’t want to see the actual birth and the mess.”
“But I do,” Peter said, “I want to see it all. I want to be there.” He didn’t tell her that his captain was moving heaven and earth to try to get him leave for the birth. He knew how the army worked, and he might get it, or he might not. He didn’t want to disappoint her. Or himself.
She was due in three weeks.
He woke with the touchdown on the runway. He was fully awake. He saw a nurse come by and smile.
“We’ve landed,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “I felt it.” He could see portable military beds. Some men were standing. Bandaged. A man was the right side of his face bandaged. “Are we going to hospital?”
“The Royal Chelsea,” the nurse said. “They have great facilities there.”
He knew. It was where they took they badly injured, flown from the airbase in Basra to the big RAF base near Norfolk, and then driven to London by ambulance.
He saw her inject something in the tube from the drip bag.
Two men in white coats were talking. He could hear their voices but not make out the words.
He was lying on the floor of the café. Something was on his chest. Someone’s leg. And the wet stickiness. He pushed at the leg. It rolled to the floor.
Mandy. He heard her voice.
He felt a hand on his cheek.
“Yes, Pete, it’s me.”
“Have we had the baby yet?” he said.
“Not yet. Just under three weeks.” He heard the stifled sob.
“I take it I’m in a bad way. No one’s said.”
The sobbing was no longer stifled.
A nurse doing something, fiddling with the IV tube.
The voices pulled him from a deep sleep with no dreams. He didn’t recognize them. A man and a woman. The man was being deferential, and Pete wasn’t sure why.
Someone sat next to his bed. He opened his eyes.
“The open eyes are a common feature,” a man’s voice said. “He’s still asleep.”
He stared at the women’s face. She was beautiful. Her brown eyes had flecks of gold.
“Are you sure he’s asleep?” she said.
“Quite sure, ma’am. He’ll likely not regain consciousness.”
He felt her touch his cheek. Feeling her fingers on his skin, he could immediately tell he needed a shave. She didn’t seem to mind.
She stood and, leaning over him, she kissed him on his forehead.
“It will be all right,” the woman whispered. “She’ll be okay.”
Before slipping back into sleep, he realized she was right. And that she was an American. Were all angels American?
Escorted by the hospital administrator, Sarah Kent-Hughes walked down the hall to a waiting room. A very pregnant young women, tears staining her cheeks, looked up. Stunned, she struggled to stand.
“Your majesty—” she said.
“No,” Sarah said, “sit. I know what late-term pregnancy feels like.” She sat next to the young woman and took her hand.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” Sarah said, “but it will be all right. It doesn’t mean it won’t be hard, but it will be all right.”
The soldier was dreaming of angels with American accnts.
Top photograph by Des via Unsplash. Used with permission.
Jonathan Crowe stood on the sidewalk along Buckingham Palace Road, staring at the security entrance for the palace. He glanced at his watch. He was 10 minutes early for his interview with Jay Lanham, head of communications for Buckingham Palace who, at only 30, was already becoming legendary in UK public relations and media circles. Lanham was the communications man for King Michael and had successfully fended off a series of almost brutal public attacks on the king.
Lanham, and the king, were looking for a speechwriter.
Jonathan was 26 and a reporter at The Guardian. He was five foot ten, with closely cropped hair, a slight beard, and a medium-dark complexion. The only person he had ever written a speech for was himself, and that was for presentations he had made at university. But Lanham had seen Jonathan’s newspaper stories, and had read dozens of them, in fact. During the initial phone interview, Jonathan had been impressed with just how well Lanham had read his stories. Lanham also knew a considerable amount of Jonathan’s background, including his family’s Jamaican heritage, where his parents worked, that he still lived with his parents (a reporter’s salary alone wasn’t sufficient for almost anything in London), and that he attended St. Paul’s Church in Brixton.
Lanham had both reassured him and slightly alarmed him when he said that palace security had already done background checks.
“It’s standard procedure, Jonathan,” Lanham had said on the phone. “But it’s also more than that. This speechwriting job reports to me, but you’re going to have ongoing access to the king. He takes his words seriously, and he doesn’t want bureaucratic layers between him and his speechwriter. In fact, he’s made that a condition of the job. We have to make sure that all of his staff pass security checks.”
Jonathan had already had a videoconference interview with Josh Gittings, the king’s chief of staff. Gittings was also legendary, but it was of a different kind than Lanham. He’d served for years as the prime minister’s hatchet man and chief political operative, until he was dispatched to San Francisco by the PM to help Michael Kent-Hughes and his family during The Violence. And Gittings seemed to have had a fundamental change of heart – some called it a religious conversion – while in California.
Jonathan shuddered at his memories of that weekend the previous October. The royal family had been assassinated, and what amounted to open warfare between Muslim extremists and British nationalists had turned London and the country into a war zone. Trying to cover the story, Jonathan had been chased and shot at by a Muslim group and almost caught by a skinhead group looking to attack anyone they thought might be a Muslim.
Somehow, palace security had learned about that as well.
He had dressed carefully for the interview, keeping in mind that he would eventually interview with the king as well. He was wearing a blue suit, white shirt with a muted red tie, and tan shoes (he had polished them just that morning.) He hadn’t said anything to his parents or his sister, or anyone else, about the interview. At breakfast, his mother had noticed he looked a bit spiffier than usual but kept her words to hos nice he looked. She hadn’t asked any questions, but he could see she suspected more was afoot than just another day at The Guardian.
He’d tell them if things worked out. He didn’t expect to be offered the job. He believed he was likely the diversity candidate. Michael might be new to the monarchy and being a royal, but this was still old-boys network Britain. Still, he knew that they had to gone to significant lengths to learn about his background.
It was time. He walked inside the security station, gave his name, and presented his identification. The woman security officer checked a list, nodded, and smiled. A second officer assisted him in providing a basket for his watch, wallet, and whatever was in his pockets. His portfolio was sent through x-ray, as was Jonathan himself. Everything went smoothly.
The security officer walked him through a hallway. He expected to be escorted to Lanham’s office, but Lanham suddenly appeared through a doorway, smiling and holding his hand out to shake Jonathan’s.
“It’s good to meet you, Jonathan,” Lanham said. “And call me Jay. My office is close; we’re actually in the administrative wing now. Do you want a coffee or tea, or water?”
“Black coffee would be fine,” Jonathan said.
They entered an area containing a suite of several offices. Lanham introduced him to several communication staffers in the area and then walked to the small kitchen included in the suite. He poured the coffee for Jonathan and fixed a tea for himself.
Lanham’s office was spacious and comfortable but not opulent. One wall included several screens of television news channels, newsfeeds for twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and a scrolling list of news stories from Reuter’s, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, and several other wire services. One screen contained a scrolling list of stories from all the major UK newspapers, including The Guardian.
“How is your time today?” Lanham said.
“It’s fine,” Jonathan said. “I had holiday time and some comp time stored up, so I took the day off.”
“No other appointments?” Lanham said.
Jonathan shook his head. “No. “
“Well, that’s great, then,” Lanham said. “I hope you can stay for lunch. His Majesty asked me to check to see if you might be available.”
Jonathan felt his heart pound. “That should be fine.”
“It will be just the two of you,” Lanham said. “I have a luncheon and the king usually likes to have some time alone with people he’s interviewing.” He smiled. “Don’t let this throw you. The king likes to move quickly. And he’s fairly certain that we’ve found the right candidate.” Lanham sipped his tea. “Based on our background and reference checks, and our phone conversations, both Josh Gittings and I have recommended you to the king as the best candidate. Josh and I have interviewed others, but you’re the only candidate to talk with the king. We’re that convinced. I’m that convinced.”
“I’m surprised,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t expect this. I thought my meeting with you today was a step in the process.”
“It is,” Lanham said, “but as far as we’re concerned, it’s close to a final step.”
“Can I ask an impertinent question?” Jonathan said.
Lanham laughed. “Absolutely.”
“Am I here because of my Jamaican heritage?”
Lanham shook his head. “No, you’re not. We’re not asking you to join the staff here at the palace because you’re a black man. Let me explain how we did this.”
Lanham sipped his tea. “We never advertised this position. We put feelers out to people who might know good candidates for speechwriting. A lot of names came back, and we screened them carefully. We put out more feelers and received more names. We narrowed the list to three, and then we went about collecting samples of their writing – articles, blog posts, newspaper stories, speeches, whatever we could find. We then gave each a designated letter, A, B, and C, and we removed any and all personal references. We gave the three sample sets to the king. He saw no resumes or anything else that would identify the writers. This was about as blind a test as we could devise. What he knew was that all three were well qualified; it was my responsibility to make sure of that.
“When he came back to us, it was your writing set he singled out. And what he told me was that all three were technically and professionally excellent, but it the samples for candidate A he felt the most comfortable with. And more than that, it was candidate A’s writing that demonstrated someone writing from his heart.”
For a moment, Jonathan said nothing. Then he spoke. “You’re doing a terrible job of convincing me not to accept this position.”
Lanham laughed. “To continue. After he picked the samples of candidate A, then we showed him your resume. He read it, and he personally called one of your references.”
“The king called one of my references?” Jonathan said.
Lanham nodded. “He called your vicar at St. Matthew’s. And he was circumspect. He didn’t say you were being considered for one of the top communications positions at the palace. He asked the vicar what he could tell him about this young man who had come to his attention. I was there when he made the call. And so you know, your vicar said nothing about your race. He talked about your service at the church and two ministries you were involved in, tutoring of at-risk children and the choir. When he’d hung up, the king looked at me and said, “’See, I was right about him writing from his heart.’
“And that, Jonathan, is how you came here today,” Lanham said. He then summarized Jonathan’s starting salary and benefits. “Your office will be next door here to mine. We have normal 9 to 5 working hours, but there are times for various emergencies, crises, and things that suddenly happen. You should expect to see a lot of the king, sometimes with me and sometimes on your own. And I know this is all rather overwhelmingly, so we don’t expect an immediate answer. But you are officially being offered the position of speechwriter to King Michael.”
Lanham stood, and Jonathan followed suit. “It’s time for you to see the king,” he said. “If you have questions, we can talk on the way or you can call me afterward. I’ll be off site when you finish lunch, and a security officer will see you out.”
They walked down a hallway toward the back of the palace.
“The king is currently in the library,” Lanham said, “His office is still be renovated; the construction manager discovered an old broken pipe and some rotted wood, and Mr. Epworth, the master of the House, has been having to jump through hoops to get approval from the landmarks commission to make the repairs. Have you been to the palace before?”
“No, I haven’t,” Jonathan said.
“The library is actually two rooms across from each other, underneath the Music Room. The area gives out on to the terrace, and I believe that’s where the king said he’d be for lunch.”
They turned a corner and continued to the library area, where Lanham stopped.
He handed Jonathan an envelope. “This is the official offer,” Lanham said. “If you find the terms acceptable and decide to accept, simply sign one copy and return it to me.” He turned and continued walking. Jonathan followed him up a short flight of steps and through the door to the terrace.
It was a brilliant June day. The sky was blue without even a hint of a cloud.
“By the way,” Jonathan said, “I accept the position, assuming the king approves.”
“Good,” said Lanham, smiling. “I’m very pleased. And I think King Michael will be very pleased as well. I’ll let you tell him.”
Jonathan could see a man sitting at a table set for lunch. His back was to them and he was reading something.
“Sir?” said Lanham.
Michael turned and stood up, a huge smile on his face.
“You’re Jonathan,” the king said, extending his hand. “I am so pleased to meet you.”
Jonathan shook the king’s hand and remembered to bow.
Two hours later, Jonathan was again one the sidewalk on Buckingham Palace Road. He stood for a minute next to the gate, out of the way of the pedestrians and the lines waiting to buy tickets for the palace tours, beginning at the end of June.
He knew he had just spent the most remarkable three hours of his young professional life. He and the king of Great Britain had just finished talking and developing a rough scheme for speeches. He would need to give notice at The Guardian today; he would start working at Buckingham Palace in two weeks.
He thought about his vicar, who had said such kind things. He thought about working for one of the top communication operatives in the country. He thought about the man he would be working with and writing speeches for.
And he thought about the looks on his papa’s and mama’s face when he told them about his new job. His father the janitor. His mother the worker at the dry cleaners. He thought about what they had sacrificed for him and his sister. He thought about the position of trust he had been given, and, there at the fence, he said a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
This story is about one of the characters in my upcoming novel,Dancing Prophet, to be published this fall.
Top photograph by Ian Baldwin via Unsplash. Used with permission.
It’s the calm after the storm.
For months, it’s been days and weeks of intense writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing, adding to, and subtracting from. I thought novel #4 would be a relative slam dunk, since large chunks of it have existed for more than a decade. All I had to do was add a few thousand words and polish it up, and then it would be ready, correct?
What finally emerged as a completed manuscript draft bears little resemblance to the text I started with. The story idea remained the same, but along the way a supplementary narrative was added, characters changed, new conflicts emerged, and the original text was rewritten at least three times. Then it was editing and proofing and fact-checking.
To continue reading, please see my post today at the ACFW blog.
Photograph by Keenan Constance via Unsplash. Used with permission.
My introduction to series fiction happened in college. I was checking the sale table at a B. Dalton’s Bookstore and found God is an Englishman by R.F. Delderfield, a novel about the Swann family set in mid-19thcentury England. Not long after, I realized there was a second volume, entitled Theirs Was the Kingdom. And a couple of years later, the third and final volume, Give Us This Day, in the series was published.
I loved those stories. Delderfield had created an entire world built around the coming of the railroads and how one man realized that there was opportunity in the routes not connected by the railroads. He builds a business empire upon that realization. It was (and is) good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best. I still have those three books.
Writing a fiction series seems to have become popular in the 19thcentury. It’s not the same thing as serial publication, which is how Charles Dickens published his novels – a chapter per issue of a periodical. One of the best-known series in the 19thcentury was the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, comprised of six related novels. Trollope also write the six-volume Palliser series.
The currently popular Poldark television program on PBS is based on the 12 novels written by Winston Graham, written in two periods, four from 1945 to 1953 and the rest from 1973 to 2002. And a beloved series still being published are the Mitford novels of Jan Karon.
Fiction series are not limited to adults; in anything, they’re even more popular among children. I grew up on the Hardy Boys. Other popular children’s series at the time were Nancy Drew, The Dana Sisters, the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and others. Today, my 8-year-old grandson is deep into the Boxcar Children series.
Having written three novels in a series, with the fourth now in editorial production, I can explain why fiction authors tend to write related books. Dancing Priest began its manuscript life as some 250,000 words, almost enough for three novels. (For a word-count comparison, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is 587,000 words.) (Tolstoy could get away with that. Few if any novelists could get away with that today.) I ended up splicing it into a novel of 92,000 words, a manuscript of 70,000 words that was eventually expanded to become A Light Shining, a manuscript (a really rough manuscript) of 45,000 that grew to become Dancing King, and some 35,000 words that eventually made their way into the fourth novel in the series, tentatively entitled Dancing Prophet.
What happened was this: as I constructed what became the world of Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes, the construction grew, it expanded over time, it became more elaborate and detailed, and it became too big to be contained in only a single book. What was one rather large manuscript was transformed into four novels.
There are potentially more. I have story ideas and even extended fragments and outlines for additional books. I’m not sure if I will go there, although it’s difficult to resist when you’ve connected with a character who won’t appear for another two or three books. Perhaps what will happen, or what should happen, is that these fragments and outlines will make it into a story collection.
But I know what it is for an author to publish a series. You come to inhabit a fictional world, one of your own creation. It becomes incredibly familiar. You see things in the real world and almost without thinking apply them to your fictional world. You read a newspaper story and translate it to your fictional world. Sometimes you get surprised and discover that something you wrote becomes reality. That’s happened to me at least three times during the writing of the Dancing Priest novels.
Little did I know when I picked up that copy of God is an Englishman.
Top photograph by Jake Hills via Unsplash. Used with permission.