Mrs Wilson was firmly of the opinion that she was a treasure. This was because that was what people called her when she was within earshot. She steered her mobility scooter around her small seaside town being a treasure in all kinds of places. She was a treasure at the cancer fund shop, a treasure at the ladies lifeboat guild, a treasure at the amateur operatic society, where she prompted, a treasure on the summer fair committee, and most of all she was a treasure at St Mark’s church up on the clifftop. Not much went on at St Mark’s that Mrs Wilson didn’t help to organise and nothing at all that she didn’t know about. That was what she liked to think anyway. She had seen off three vicars as PCC secretary and she knew how things should be done.
Mrs Wilson first had her suspicions about the new vicar when she met what she called the “hangers on” from his old church at his induction. They looked a bit odd to her. Some of them wore jeans and they looked like the sort who made banners. A lot of them held up their arms during the final hymn and Mrs Wilson didn’t like that kind of thing. There was some hugging going on during the peace and as the congregation left to go to the church hall for tea one of them asked her how she had come to know the Lord. Cheek. As the weeks went by her suspicions grew. They started to sing some of the choruses that she had heard on Songs of Praise and didn’t like, a group of the congregation began to meet on Tuesday nights to pray in Alice Jefferson’s house, and a big pale blue and gold banner with a dove on it appeared at the front of church after the vicars wife organised a banner making workshop. Alice Jefferson was at the front when the banner was dedicated and got a special thanks for her design. Mrs Wison hadn’t gone to the banner making. She hadn’t been asked. She supposed that twenty six years of making kneelers must not qualify her. When Alice Jefferson had made a kneeler it had had to be given back to her to sewn up again after it came apart. That was the trouble today. There were no standards any more. Mrs Wilson was a big believer in standards.
However it wasn’t the banner which made her decide that she must go and sort things out with the vicar, it was the business of the activity bags for children. When she asked him about an appointment he tried to fob her off with a quick word after the ten o’clock service, but she insisted it must be a proper appointment so that was what was decided.
She turned up at the vicarage exactly on time and pulled out the old brass bell next to the door, noticing that it needed polishing. The vicars wife Hilary answered the door. She had on a tee shirt with thin straps and her shoulders were showing. Mrs Wilson didn’t think it appropriate.
“Afternoon Mrs Wilson. Nice to see you. Are you well?”
Mrs Wilson smiled thinly.
“Bearing up thank you.”
“Can I get you something to drink? Tea maybe? Or lemonade?”
Mrs Wilson looked at the stair carpet. It could do with a good hoover.
“Tea thank you. Milk and two sugars. Very kind.”
Hilary had seen her visitor looking at the stairs and had a pretty good idea what she was turning her nose up at. Never mind. Let Richard deal with her.
“Go on through. Richard will be with you in a minute. He’s just on the phone.”
Richard? Mrs Wilson frowned. Nobody would ever have called the Reverend Howard by his first name, and that was as it should be.
Mrs Wilson was shown through into the side room which the previous vicar had used as an office. She saw that they had stripped out the carpets, oiled the floorboards and put up blinds at the window instead of the curtains which she had made ten years earlier. It all seemed rather cold and bare to her, though she had to admit that the Persian carpet in the middle of the room was nice. There were two large graduation photographs on the wall. Those must be the two sons. What really surprised her was the table football machine in the corner. Surely that shouldn’t be there? Finally the vicar arrived carrying a tray with tea and flapjack on it.
“Sorry to keep you waiting Mrs Wilson. Are you well?”
Mrs Wilson wondered if he always wore shoes like that.
“Very well indeed thank you.” She waited while he poured out the tea, settled himself down and offered her some flapjack.
“Margaret Benson’s special.”
Mrs Wilson had tried Margaret Benson’s flapjack before. It was hard. She took a small piece and balanced it on her saucer. A plate would have been nice. Richard took a deep breath and smiled cheerfully.
“Now what can I do for you?”
He had no idea what Mrs Wilson was there for, but he was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to be good news. She had been introduced to him as a treasure but it hadn’t quite turned out that way. Nothing had been said but he was pretty sure that there was a lot that could be and he had a nasty feeling that he, and the Lord, were going to hear some of it now. He asked silently for patience and bit into his flapjack nonchalently as if they were just there for a pleasant chat.
“I just wanted to have a quiet word about one or two things.”
Oh dear. A quiet word. This was going to be worse than he expected. He was right. It took some time. Mrs Wilson put down her tea and explained in great detail about the new hymn books, the blessing from the back of the church, the banner making, the open prayer time, the guitars and drums, and the all age worship services, and why she didn’t like any of them. Then she came to the activity packs.
“Now we have this strange business of providing play packs for children to use during services. During services!”
For the first time Mrs Wilson’s voice rose a little.
“It is my opinion that if children are not prepared to sit down and listen when they arrive in church they simply should not be there. They can play at home. There is far too much pandering goes on these days when what is needed is a bit of old fashioned discipline. It is impossible to worship with children crawling around all over the place.”
Richard looked her in the eye.
“Well we are having a creche for the very little ones, as you know.”
Mrs Wilson wasn’t ready to listen to him. She was well into her stride now.
“It is quite unnecessary. We already have three children coming regularly to St Marks and all of them are quite capable of behaving themselves. What effect is it going to have on them if they see children being allowed to do as they like?”
Richard didn’t know where to start. Suffer the little children perhaps? How you had to be like a child to enter the kingdom of God? The bums on seats argument sometimes worked with people who were afraid of change but probably not this time. The last thing that Mrs Wilson wanted was new people coming into church and getting in her way. Something other than reasoned argument was going to have to soften Mrs Wilson’s heart and he had a meeting to go to. This was going to need careful handling.
“Well”, he said brightly, “Thanks for that! I must say you have have given us some food for thought. Can I suggest you bring your ideas to the next PCC meeting? It’s very important that we are all happy here at St Mark’s and clear about the direction the church is headed in.”
Mrs Wilson frowned. A quick word in his ear so that he would stop things heading in the wrong direction was what she had been hoping for. She hoped that the vicar had understood.
“It certainly is.”
“A great deal of prayer will be needed all round.”
Mrs Wilson was glad that he could see her point.
“Indeed it will.”
Finally Richard managed to usher her out, see her safely onto her mobility scooter and wave her off down the road. She really was a miserable old bat but at the same time she was a pretty amazing woman. One of the last dinosaurs of the Anglican church. Bless her.
Later on that day, when he got back to the vicarage, tired and hungry after his meeting, he told Hilary about her over dinner. Hilary was a very private, quiet woman. When she had met Richard he had been a college lecturer and God’s call to him, only a year after they were married had come as a nasty shock to her. She managed to cope with the demands it made on her, who had received no kind of message from the Almighty whatsoever, by insisting on carrying on with her teaching, and keeping her opinions to herself. Especially those opinions which wondered whether her shaky belief in God might be just wishful thinking. Hilary had already made up her mind about Mrs Wilson.
“She’s a spiteful old bitch.”
Richard winced and shook his head.
“She’s a lonely old woman.”
“Who takes it out on everybody else. The only thing she ever cared about was that dog, what was it’s name? Pinkie? Nauseating.”
Richard sighed. He had seen too many lonely people fall apart after the death of a pet to take it lightly. They suffered real grief and he sometimes felt like grief was the only reality he had left to deal with. Weddings and baptisms were often just the church as a photo opportunity. But grief was still as tough to deal with as it ever was, especially in a world where death was so often swept under the carpet. People still needed the church for that at least. Hilary looked at husband anxiously.
“You can’t let her win Richard, you know that.”
Richard did know that.
“She has every right to have her say, and other people will have theirs. It will be a good thing in some ways if she brings her criticisms out into the open. I’ll see if I can get hold of that growing healthy churches material. That might help.”
“You can try.”
“I bet she hasn’t realised yet that we’re going to get rid of the pews.”
“She’ll be dragged out, clinging to the last one, singing Onward Christian Soldiers. You wait.”
“Marching as to war,” Richard quoted, pulling a rueful face.
“War might not be so far off the mark if you’re not careful.”
They finished their pasta in a rather gloomy silence. Mrs Wilson, on the other hand, ate her ready meal (Marks and Spencers salmon in a watercress sauce) extremely cheerfully feeling that she had given the new vicar what for.
The following morning Richard set the answer machine and settled into his study to get some work done, but instead of writing his all age worship talk he found himself staring at his computer screen and thinking about Mrs Wilson. This was annoying. She had cost him enough time already. Surely there must be some way he could shut her up. In his experience people who complained constantly were usually deeply unhappy. The poor woman was clearly lonely and he felt sorry for her. He didn’t like to see people unhappy. Surely she hadn’t been nearly so bad before she lost Pippin? He stopped short. No she hadn’t. Nowhere near as bad. She had worshipped that dog, never mind God. She even used to tie it up in one of the side aisles during early morning communion. When he had explained that he wasn’t happy about it she had told him that Pippin’s place there was not negotiable, and to give the dog it’s due there had never once been a peep out of it. He bit his lip. Maybe there was an easy answer after all.
Two days later Mrs Wilson was sitting in the front passenger seat of Richards Toyota. She was still grumbling.
“I’m still not sure if I’m doing the right thing.”
Richard tried to reassure her.
“Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything yet. All you’re doing is going to have a look, that’s all. Just a quick look.”
He was pretty sure that when you put Mrs Wilson in front of a row of caged up dogs, each one wagging the very end of its tail, one of them would be coming home with her. She needed something to focus on other than his shortcomings and this might just do the trick. In fact he was relying on it. She stared ahead of her, her eyes fixed on the road.
“I couldn’t go through all that again.”
“These dogs need a home. You could make a difference to one of them.”
Richard often said that to lonely people. Mostly that was all that they needed. Just to feel that there was someone, or something, that they could make a difference. Sometimes it was that, rather than a search for God, that brought them into church.
“I don’t know.”
The woman in charge of the kennels sent them out with a dark haired, sulky looking teenager who announced herself as Kylie. Mrs Wilson didn’t like the look of her, but then Mrs Wilson didn’t like the look of most of the teenagers she saw hanging around the park shelters, and the bus station in town. Once one of them had asked her very loudly where she got her hair done. She had told the girl to mind her own business and a whole group of them had laughed at her. It had been a little bit upsetting. Richard smiled at Kylie.
“Do you work here then?”
There was a lot Kylie could have said in answer to a stupid question like that but she had seen the dog collar so she just grunted and glared at Mrs Wilson.
“What sort of dog are you after then?”
Mrs Wilson looked a bit flustered.
“Oh, well I’m just having a look really, weighing up my options you know.”
Kylie rolled her eyes. Bloody hell, another time waster. She could have been getting on with the feeding up.
“Well, they’re all down here. Help yourself. Their details are on the door of their run.”
“Thank you very much.”
“I’ll come back in a few minutes. See how you’re doing. Give us a shout if you want anything.”
They walked down the first row of kennels. The noise was astonishing. Loud metallic and desperate. Richard watched Mrs Wilson carefully as she looked into each run. There was an open friendly look on her face as she watched a dog come towards her that he had never seen when she was dealing with people and she spoke gently and reached out to touch them through the mesh walls of their runs. It was like watching a different person and the more he saw the more he was convinced that he was right. What she needed was a dog.
“What do you think Mrs Wilson?”
His heart sank as he watched her face close off.
“Well, some of them are lovely of course, but I don’t know. I just don’t know if I could go through all that again. Poor Pippin was such a dear. I don’t know.”
They walked back down the rows while Mrs Wilson persuaded herself that there was something wrong with each dog in turn. Too lively, too big, too small, too timid, too long a coat. It was obvious that her mind was made up. As they got back in the car Richard began to dread the next month’s PCC meeting. It had been hard enough getting them this far at St Mark’s. If Mrs Wilson started throwing her weight around they would never pass the buying of the new sound system he needed for the worship group, and he could probably forget about moving the pews out altogether. In fact, by the time he got home he had persuaded himself that the whole of the Lord’s work in St Mark’s depended on a small mongrel finding its way into Mrs Wilson’s heart and he had to pour himself a stiff whisky and tell himself not to be so silly.
It was three days later, on his way to a home visit, that he saw the poster.
“New home wanted for friendly two year old cairn terrier. Genuine reason for sale.”
The number given was a local number and he rang it straight away from his mobile. The dog was still needing a home.
“May I pop round and have a look at him?”
Fifteen minutes after he had finished his home visit he was ringing the doorbell. Immediately there was the sound of frantic barking and a brown blur kept appearing and disappearing behind the frosted glass of the front door.
“Josh! Get down! Down! In the kitchen! Now!”
He heard a slamming door and silence followed by a single set of footsteps. The woman inside was already apologising as she opened the door.
“I’m so sorry. He isn’t usually as bad as this. He’s all wound up ready for his walk.”
Richard smiled, watching her face change as she noticed his dog collar.
“That’s OK. Can I come in and meet him.”
“Yes, sorry the place is such a tip.”
Richard followed her into the kitchen. Washing up was piled into the sink and a large pile of dirty clothes lay in front of the washer. The brown blur had materialised into a scruffy cairn terrier who was sitting in the middle of it.
“This is Josh.”
When he heard his name the dog made a rush towards Richard and started scrabbling at his legs. He moved back but it began to take off vertically towards his face. It was not difficult to see that there was definitely a genuine reason for the sale. The dog was a complete nightmare.
“Bed, Josh. Bed!”
Josh flung himself into his bed and stared hard at the tin of biscuits on the work surface. He was in his bed but it didn’t look as if he was going to stay there. Richard bent down to stroke him and something wet collided very suddenly with his nose. He stood up quickly.
“Is he always like this?”
“Well not really. He’s just excited.”
They both looked at Josh doubtfully.
“He’s very friendly.”
“I can see that.”
Richard accepted the offer of a cup of coffee just to give himself some thinking time. He had a plan deveeloping in his head but now that he had met Josh it looked like being a high risk strategy and if it failed Harriet was going to break the sixth commandment. As he listened to the woman explaining why Josh needed a new home he was able to read between the lines and he began to feel sorry for her. Josh had been her ex husbands dog and she had obviously been stuck with him when her husband walked out. Josh was not the kind of dog you would want to get stuck with. He was the kind of dog who needed a hard core dog lover to take him on, a demanding dog who knew his rights. Richard sent up a quick apology for the lies which he was about to tell and set his plan in motion.
“Well I have to say I think he’s absolutely charming. I’ve always had a soft spot for cairn terriers. My aunt used to have one. Do you think I could take him home for just a month, say, see how he gets on? A kind of trial period so to speak?”
A look of intense relief spread over the woman’s face.
“Yes, I’ll give you his stuff and some food to start you off.”
Richard had never owned a dog and he was startled how much clutter there was to put in the car. The boot shelf was taken out and Josh was tied to one of the fixing points. Then, with a promise to ring the next day and tell her how things were going he was off. Josh stared out of the back window, shocked into silence. At least Harriet wouldn’t be back for a few hours yet. With a bit of luck she might not even need to know.
When he got back to the vicarage he shut Josh into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
“Mrs Wilson? It’s Richard Newsome here, yes, Rev Newsome, have you got a minute? Well I’m in a bit of a hole actually. I was wondering if you might help me out. YOU could be just the person…………..”
Ten minutes later a bewildered Josh was bundled back into the car and they were on their way again. Richard left him in the boot while he rang the door of Mrs Wilson’s immaculate bungalow on Cherry Bank. He began to use every bit of charm he possessed as soon as she opened the door.
“Mrs Wilson, you have no idea how grateful I am. You are an absolutely saving my life. I was at the end of my tether wondering what to do and I suddenly thought there is just one person who might be able to help me out. I don’t have the experience I’m afraid. Wouldn’t have a clue. It will only be for a month or so. Honestly I would be so grateful.”
Mrs Wilson was already looking for Josh.
“Where is the little man?”
“He’s in the car. A little bit shell shocked I’m afraid. I’ll go and fetch him.
Mrs Wilson was already on her way towards the car.
“No, leave it to me.”
She swept Josh up out of the boot and held him next to her face. He wriggled happily.
“You poor little scrap.”
Richard carried everything through into the house and then made his escape while things were still looking good. Mrs Wilson waved him off with Josh still under her arm.
“Don’t you worry. He’ll be fine with me.”
Josh was more than fine. He was ecstatic. It began with half a fresh chicken for his dinner that night and it just kept getting better and better. He soon found out that Mrs Wilson was a soft touch so long as you had four legs and a tail and he did exactly as he liked. If he felt like taking off across a stubble field to sort out some crows half a milke away, he did. If he felt like digging a very large hole in the middle of the lawn he did that too. He found out that the hall carpet came up at the edges in a way that was very satisfying to him, the lid of the kitchen bin made an enormous bang when you tipped it up, and if he was in any trouble he could avoid it by sitting in any number of places which were quite inaccessible to Mrs Wilson. Within a week he had taken charge and got things very nicely organised for himself. When Richard rang uo to ask after him he was greeted with peals of laughter.
“Oh, he’s such a little character. Full of fun.”
Richard was glad to hear it. Fun wasn’t exactly the word he would have used.
“That’s good. He seemed a bit too lively to me. Just goes to show that all he needed was an expert hand.”
Maybe he wasn’t going to have to tell Hilary after all.
For the next few weeks Mrs Wilson talked about nothing but Josh. People who had never noticed her before began to smile and say hello when they saw him sitting bolt upright in the front of her mobility scooter. Just like Pippin he went everywhere with her, but he didn’t seem to fade into the background the way that Pippin had. When she looked round for him he was always there with his tail up and his eyes sharp. Ready for anything. Richard watched his progress and reported back to his old owner, trying to stick to the truth as closely as possible. After a month he was ready to put the final phase of his plan into action.
Two days before the PCC meeting he was sitting in Mrs Wilson’s front room opposite a plate of sultana scones. It had been a long earnest tale and he was just about to reach the punch line.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance………… you wouldn’t possibly consider keeping him? I wouldn’t ask normally but he’s so happy here.”
Mrs Wilson pointed at Josh, who was storming up and down the hallway with a filthy toy in his mouth, and beamed at Richard.
“Of course he’s happy! Just look at him! Rev Newsome- haven’t I made a difference to this dog?”
Richard was only too pleased to agree that she had. Josh of course wasn’t the least bit bothered. He had known from day one that he wouldn’t be going anywhere and he had seen some very nice left over braising steak waiting near his bowl.
Two days later the PCC agreed to remove the pews from St Marks and undertake a feasibility study for a bookshop and cafe area in a remodelled open space at the back of the church. Mrs Wilson agreed with everything and even made a large donation. When Richard gave a vote of thanks he was told that in future he must call her Eleanor. Some people in the parish were very impressed by the way the new vicar had got things moving and he had a letter of congratulations from the bishop. Only Richard knew that it was Josh who had really got things done and neither of them were about to tell anybody.