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 priesthood 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 Brimley. 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’d led a 15-year-old boy named Michael Kent to his church, a boy who believed he was being called to the priesthood. And 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.