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The Pre-Wake

A bishop and his wife bury their only son

By Tony SpencerPublished 6 months ago 63 min read
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Prologue

Extract from the diary of The Most Reverend Robert Sullivan, Bishop of the Diocese of Sandburg:

“When I first found religion I hoped my life could be fulfilled. When I met the woman who was to become my wife I knew that a sacrifice by me was necessary.

She did not quite see God as I did, but she too sacrificed enough in those early days to overcome any doubts she may have held. Time came when I was called upon to do my duty and my wife threw herself into meeting her calling and life was good.

A child came and the child went and I was free to answer higher callings but this time my wife decided to follow a separate calling of her very own.

Far too soon the only child from our marriage was taken from us in his prime and my wife and I came together once more, united momentarily in grief, knowing that the only bond between us was now broken, a bond that perhaps only the greatest of sacrifices could mend.

Heaven help us.”

***

1 ARRIVAL

It was dusk by the time the limousine that had collected us from the local airport dropped us off by the front steps of my son John and his wife’s isolated mansion. Actually, the mansion had been the base of our daughter-in-law’s family since they built it deep in the wilderness 150 years ago.

To think Pauline and I were worried about gold diggers when our workaholic self-made son sold off all his businesses for billions six years ago! He was 39, the successful business he built bored him and he told us his aim was, “to search for a bride and have a family”. Then we discovered that the one woman who stole his heart was not only a lovely, adorable person both inside and out, but she was rolling in so much “old money” that she could regard our son's billions as “chump change”.

I asked Adrienne once what her family invested in and, with that tinkly crystal chandelier chuckle that would invigorate a dead man, Adrienne Eldrake-Sullivan said, “every business that has ever been, Robert, then we reinvest the dividends in everything that is to come. Our investments are so deep and so spread, that if every major industry or top 100 global business collapsed without a trace overnight, we would hardly suffer a scratch.”

The limo driver carries our overnight bags to the door. At the steps, Pauline stumbles but I hold onto her arm to prevent her falling. She buries her face in my chest, her grief still too much for her to bear. It is a terrible thing to see a mother’s only child taken from her while she still lives but especially hard when it is far too far past her own prime to have another.

If the limo driver didn’t know the family he might have regarded us as an odd couple. I am a big man, six foot four tall and built completely in proportion, Pauline is five foot two and still cute as a button, even though we are both only a year or two shy of our mid-sixties. The driver wouldn’t know that she had been a church minister for five years and for four years before that served our Lord Jesus Christ as a parish curate, while I had been a bishop now for almost a decade. Pauline hadn't worn a dog collar today, but with mine worn on top of a purple shirt and my large contemporary design pectoral cross in solid silver, I look every single inch the Lord Bishop I am.

Even before the driver could yank the antique bell to signify our arrival, a tiny but attentive young housemaid opens the door and ushers us into the cavernous entrance hall. The driver dropped our bags in the hall, saluted us and left, pulling the front door shut behind him, leaving us in the dim, guttering candlelight, while the infiltrating wind swept to every corner of the hall until sighing, finally starved of momentum by the closing door.

The quick staccato click-clack of stiletto heels heralds John’s widow Adrienne’s arrival across the highly polished tiled floor. It was six months since we last visited and I had always quietly appreciated her beauty, conveying both undeniable class and devastating animal sensuality. This time she literally takes my breath away with the glow of her utter other-worldly beauty. Stunning and surprising was the least of her look, especially at such a time of great loss.

***

2 TWO MORE

“Pauline, honey, look,” I coo to my wife, as I gently prise her away from the desperate comfort she has sought by burrowing into my chest.

Pauline turns her tear-stained face away from its temporary haven and is struck dumb for what seems like hours, as Adrienne's welcoming smile grows wider until she can hold back her infectious giggles no longer.

Breaking the spell of silence, Pauline asks in a breaking voice, “How far along, Addy dear?”

“Five months,” our gorgeous daughter-in-law smiles back, “but I’ve really only been showing for a couple of weeks or so.”

Pauline broke away from me and embraces our daughter-in-law. Now they are both weeping, yet each wreathed in smiles, with Pauline full of questions that come in such a torrent that Adrienne allows most of them to wash over her unanswered.

“There’s more,” Adrienne adds when Pauline finally runs out of steam, “in the main hall there are 24 members of my family, then you, my dear Bishop and Polly and little old me, make 27 and,” she ‘frames’ the extremities of her ‘lump’ with an elegant thumb and long slim forefinger of each hand, “this brings our family up to 29.”

“Twins?!” Pauline and I exclaim at the same time.

She nods, “Yes,” with the broadest of smiles, rubbing her stomach.

“Did John know you were expecting twins?” Pauline asks.

“Yes, Polly, Mother, he knew and had known for about two months.”

Pauline’s spread hand tentatively joins Adrienne's rub, her face a picture of wonderment. Adrienne grabs her hand and forces her to rub her tummy harder. While Adrienne’s eyes glow with an inner light, Pauline’s tears continue to flow at both the despairing pain of her loss and the joyful promise of new lives in the shape of grandchildren to come.

Adrienne glances at the watchful maid and almost imperceptibly tosses her head. The diminutive maid instantly sets off out of the hall as if on a pre-arranged errand.

“Come, both of you, into the library,” Adrienne insists gently, “neither of you are emotionally ready to be greeted by my grossly over the top family yet. We will refresh you with hot tea and some sandwiches after your long journey here. You need to keep your strength up before the Pre Wake reaches its most emotional point,” she glances at the delicate gold watch on her wrist, it had to be solid gold, as thinly plated gold overlaying a silver core simply wouldn’t do for her at all, “in about five hours.”

The library is just across the entrance hall, to the left of the grand staircase. Adrienne, an inch and a quarter short of six foot without her heels, leads the way, pulling my wife, a full eight inches shorter, to the library doorway.

Adrienne looks a vision, as if she was going to a high class restaurant or chic charity ball, in her black stiletto high heels, her ankle-length black silk evening dress slit up the side all the way to the top of her impossibly long and impressively shaped thighs. The dress is sleeveless and the vee-neck back plunges almost down to the base of her spine, the front neckline leaving little to even the dullest imagination. Even with her baby bump showing, she looks ready to party … and I really cannot get my head around this ‘pre wake’ thing of theirs at all.

OK, I do get a part of it. I can trace my Irish roots on both sides of my family since we came to this country during and after The Irish Famine. I get the idea of post-funeral wakes, really I do, and can accept that the heavy drinking makes you forget the maudlin, eventually, and by the time the corks start popping, the funeral is over, the spirit has departed, the husk consigned to the deep, dark earth, the first sods have been tossed onto the pine or oak planking and the burial can be completed. There is a sense of finality, of leaving the dead world behind us and facing the rest of our lives ahead to continue living. Never forgetting, of course, but remembering too the hope that the departed have a better future ahead of them, while normal everyday life for those left behind is to be enjoyed not endured.

And Adrienne was dressed apparently to party the night away, even though her loving husband, our only son, is probably lying in state in an open coffin somewhere in this magnificent mansion, awaiting the finality of his burial tomorrow. I have officiated at hundreds of burials, including both my parents and Pauline’s mother, but this would be the most emotional interment of all of them for both of us.

When she rang me the day before yesterday with the sad and unpleasant news of John’s sudden passing, Adrienne explained that her family had a long history of celebrating a much loved deceased family member with a Wake held before the funeral, what they called a Pre Wake, during the last evening three days after the death and on the eve of the final ceremony, signalling the change in state from life to “whatever you believe comes after life”, she said.

Adrienne has long protested that she is an agnostic and often pulls my leg about me being the alter boy who intended going all the way to the top within my church. Yesterday I had asked if I could officiate at the interment tomorrow, but she said no, her family had that service covered, but if I wanted to help take some small part at the time she was sure that I would not be denied.

I notice that all the mirrors in the entrance hall are covered over with black cloth, rather like they do in Jewish families when there is a death in the household. So perhaps their family traditions are not that far removed from what other religions would consider the norm.

Inside the well appointed library, full of rare and ancient tomes, here were a couple of serving plates of sandwiches on a side table, covered from drying out and curling by antique glass domes, plus a pair of bone china cups and saucers by the side. The door reopens behind us and the same short maid we saw earlier silently brings in a tea tray containing a teapot, pot of sugar cubes and jug of fresh milk. She leaves the tray on one end of the side table next to the cups and disappears just as quietly as she arrived.

“Are you not joining us for tea?” I ask Adrienne, noticing there are only two cups.

“No, during the Pre Wake we fast completely,” she smiles mischievously at me, “you could even say … religiously.”

***

3 TOGETHER SEPARATELY

Adrienne never could resist a small dig at me, I suppose. She may well have bantered similarly with John during their near six years of courtship and blissful matrimony. “Your room has been prepared. We are so pleased you could both come on the night before the ... ceremony, and attend our traditional pre wake.”

Adrienne is treating us, John's parents, as a normal couple. She wasn't to know that when Pauline and I met up in the departure lounge of the previous to last airport, Pauline had announced to me that she was both resigning her ministry and filing for divorce from our marriage on grounds of my abandonment of her.

Since I had been appointed Bishop of Sandburg nine years ago, we had indeed lived apart, me in my bishop’s palace in downtown Sandburg, and Pauline in her curacy in our small home town of Tanglewood, for a period before the appointment to her own ministry in Otterborne City.

I had actually been mortified by her announcement of the ending of our long marriage and found I couldn't find a single word to comment in return. How could she spring this announcement on me between hearing of our son’s death and while we were en route to his funeral?

Thus, the final leg of our journey here had been a quiet one, each side of our broken partnership enveloped in a whirlwind of thoughts and considerations, with sadness piled upon sorrow.

“You fast as part of your tradition?” I ask, referring to Adrienne’s fast imposed during this Pre Wake period.

“Yes, tradition is everything in my family,” she nods, “by following a known and practiced procedure or a ritual exactly to the letter, makes dealing with what had happened and later how we adjust to carry on … somehow easier to face.”

I nod in reply. I understood ritual. Why we do things a certain way, why religious services are carried out now as they have evolved over a thousand years and beyond, such as why an ambitious bishop moves on hoping a lowly curate would change her mind and follow him in her own good time. Ritual is all part of coping with what curve balls life throws at us.

“So, please tell me more about the tradition?” I ask, genuinely interested.

“Yes, of course, Robert. My guests did not have as far as you to come and are already here in their glad rags and getting themselves into party mood, and they do this because they love John, not just because he married into the family, but because they got to know the marvellous person he is so very well. They are intoxicated by the occasion, as I said before, we do not eat or drink during the Pre Wake. John's the best of men and he touched all our lives. Everyone in my family agrees that losing him to the insidious cancer that was eating him up from within was not the end that we would wish for the man I love more than I do my own self. But I owe you an explanation, because I know our Pre Wake tradition appears strange to those who have not experienced anything like it before.”

“So, have you had to go through many Pre Wakes?” Pauline asks, pouring milk into both tea cups. Almost out of habit my wife is taking care of my tea, even though she has already determined that we are completely broken as a married couple and she is taking steps to render our separation irrevocably permanent.

“No, very rarely. As you know, my parents are still very much alive, as are all my aunts and uncles, but those that have attended Pre Wakes have always insisted that outsiders make our tradition to party away the night before interment … well, awkward.”

“So you considered not telling us about it,” I say bluntly, “and holding this ritual among yourselves?”

“No, never, absolutely never! The thought never entered our heads or hearts,” Adrienne insists, “you have every right to be here and, in fact, we needed you both—”

“But you could have just invited us to the funeral tomorrow?” Pauline says, her voice falling away to a whisper, “you could have ... spared us this additional ... ritual.”

Adrienne embraces Pauline again, “Polly, Bishop, you are both of you a second Mother and Father to me. And how would John have felt if you had been deflected from taking full part in his last ceremony of passage in his mortal existence? He is a part of my family too and he wouldn't have wanted to feel left out of it at say, my uncle’s Pre Wake for example, because he loves my Uncle Toby almost as much as I do.”

“Loved,” I say.

“What?”

“You said John loves your Uncle, only it should be ‘loved’.”

“Yes, of course,” she forces back a tiny tear, then put one hand on her heart and the other on her new bump, “but in here, and here, John is very much alive and as long as he is loved, he will always remain alive to me.”

She slumps back into one of the library’s easy chairs, and Pauline follows her, taking her hand and holding it in her lap as she perches on the arm of her chair.

“Come, Addy, tells us what this tradition is and we will see if we can join in this ... party.” Pauline speaks cheerfully, but glares at me, and I take the hint.

“Yes, Adrienne, please tell all. I do want to understand it. And, if we understand the thoughts and motives behind the ritual, it would be better to be a part of it than skulking away from your ceremony here in the library.”

"Right." Adrienne sat up. “First of all the body must remain in the house where he died, or brought back to his loving home as soon as possible if it had been removed, say to a morgue or hospital. Only in extremis would the lying in state take place anywhere else but here at home. There are to be no harsh lights shining during the three days before the eve of the funeral. As you see, we have turned the electric power off from most of the house except the kitchens, and that is only for the safety of the staff who are presently preparing the post mid-night feast. As I said before, we have fasted today from dawn and that will end at the middle of the night. As for the lighting, that is why it is candles only for the whole of the three days and nights. The … body ... is first stripped, washed and anointed with aromatic oils, then redressed in the clothes he or she liked best, much in the same way as mankind has done for millennia. It is all about our respect for them as they were when they were ... mortal.”

“And through our love for them,” suggests Pauline. She has that faraway look in her eyes and I could imagine her mind full of images of John growing up as a child and young man and being cute at every stage of his development. Oh, yes, John was always the cutest and the handsomest boy around, in whatever company he found himself.

“Of course, love, lots of love. Nobody loved John like I do …” Adrienne glances up at me, “…did.” She holds up a hand as Pauline opens her mouth to say something, continuing, “While a mother loves her children unreservedly, and I am starting to understand that motherly love growing more and more with every passing day, the love between John and I was at such a physical and emotional level that it transcended every other feeling I have ever experienced or even imagined experiencing in my wildest dreams. Think back to the first five years of your own marriage, when you made your baby John so soon into your own relationship.”

Pauline and I quickly exchange glances, but I am unable to read her response, while I hope that she cannot read mine.

With no further comment from us, Adrienne continues, “The undertaker makes the … box ... and John is carefully, reverently, placed within it. He is then put in a quiet place, with the lid open if possible … and sometimes that isn’t possible, of course, but it is in John's case. He is so beautiful, my dear John, even in death.” She pauses, continuing, looking at Pauline, “Polly, sweetheart, you have to see him, see him as he is, and you will see him just as he was.”

Pauline sniffs, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. “It was all so sudden, only a week ago he told us that he had cancer, and that it was virulent, a terrible terminal illness, and just a few days later he was … gone.”

“He had known for months, Polly, and had spent time finding out about the treatments, the likely outcomes, the pain and lingering at the end, before he even admitted that he had a serious problem, not just to you, but he held back for a month or two in the early days to me too, the one person he should never keep secrets from.”

“Is that why? …” I point at her bump. She colors crimson prettily, nodding slightly, enough for us to know Pauline has assumed correctly.

“The original prognosis gave John an incentive in bringing forward most of our life plan, so this essential part of our bucket list just got bumped up the priority list.”

“So what you are saying is that John had virtually used up his life expectancy before getting around to telling us, his mother and father?” I ask as neutrally as I could force myself to make it sound. Now was not the time for rows or recriminations. They could come later if there was any residue of resentment.

“You could say that,” Adrienne admits, continuing, “so we now gather our little clan together. All of us in my side of our family know him well and love him for who he is, a person special to us all. And, rather like his Irish cousins who celebrate with a Wake after having said goodbye at the graveside, we have a party while he is still here with us and we can celebrate his existence rather than mourn his passing. It is a subtle difference but for many generations we in my family have found this to be the best way for us to handle such a rite of passage of a particularly well loved one. Well, my close family will see John in the middle of the night and I hope you will want to as well.”

“Yes, Addy, I-I would like to see him one more time ... one last time.” Pauline sounds hesitant, but resolved, “Is he in the ballroom?”

“No, he’s in an ante chamber beside the ballroom, somewhere quiet so he can be at rest, yet near at hand for all to pay their respects as privately as they may wish. I’ll come with you if you want. Then perhaps you could go to your room to freshen up. Maybe even join us in the ballroom when you feel able.”

I picked up earlier that Adrienne had assumed we would be sharing a bedroom tonight. I suppose up until three hours ago I had also assumed the very same thing. Sure, we had not formerly lived permanently under the same roof since I moved to the Bishop’s Palace at Sandburg, but we had got together for annual holidays, the public holidays, birthdays and anniversaries as well as regular Fridays and Saturdays at every other weekend. It may only be 45 to 50 nights a year, but for those nights I was expected to perform as a husband should and I made sure that I always rose to the occasion.

This last year, now that I came to think of it, Pauline had cried off on her birthday, for some reason I had now long forgotten, and John had cancelled two invitations in the last four months for reasons of ill health that were now proved to be the case in the worst possible way.

“I think we should freshen up first,” I suggest. “To come to the party in our travel clothes and then disappear to get into the glad rags that you insisted we bring with us, sends the wrong message about us and our feelings towards our son to everyone here.”

I move from where I stood by the side table to where Adrienne sat and take her free hand in mine. “Six years ago, when our John introduced you to us as the woman he wanted to marry, I was certain then, and even more certain now, that it was a bond made in heaven. In a way, he moved away from our family a little and threw himself headlong into yours. Here, with you, who I am proud to regard as my dearest daughter, he committed himself wholeheartedly. Here he lived enwrapped in love, a love that I believe will be eternal, through into the glorious afterlife in Paradise to come. Through our grandchildren…” I rested my left hand gently on her bump, touching as close as possible to those lives that were to come, “we will be coming closer to you and your family. We are passing the baton of our futures into your hands, Adrienne, so your traditions must therefore take precedence over ours.”

Adrienne squeezes my hand in response. She has a strong grip and makes me wince. I recalled the night that John was born and Pauline held my hand so tightly during her throes of labor, that I had to dictate my sermon that Sunday onto cassette tape and laboriously type it up using one-finger of only one hand.

The same little housemaid is waiting outside the library door and we are led up the grand staircase to a large airy bedroom that I recognise we had shared a couple of times before. We showered separately, each of us full of our thoughts and anxieties.

***

4 BRAVE FACES

I pace the guest room while waiting my turn in the bathroom, with two subjects occupying my mind. Our son was gone, I had had just three days to get used to that fact. How did I feel? Quite neutral, actually, as we had never really bonded through his childhood, as he won scholarships and was away at private schools much of the time. When he was home he always had his nose into the earliest computers and games consoles, writing new programs and designing platforms that eventually launched his successful business career. No, while I loved and admired him, we avoided ever being physically close, not like the multilayered bonds he had with first his mother and then the love of his life, the beautiful Adrienne.

Pauline’s declaration a few short hours ago, that she was instructing her lawyer to produce the forms that would lead us to being divorced after 46 years of marriage, was a shock that I simply hadn’t expected, and I felt more grief over the loss of our relationship than I had any real reason to. We had lived apart for a long time, and those little resentments, like her unwillingness to follow me to Sandburg, which had noticeably damaged my diocesan life, had fuelled my dislike of her stubborn refusal to support my career over the years; the divorce would almost certainly affect any slim chance of an archbishopric in the time remaining to me, and I discovered that the regret pained me more than the guilt associated with my ambition in clerical orders.

I look at the king size bed looming large in the room, regarding it as mere furniture and no longer an instrument through which tonight the reality of our marriage could have been reaffirmed and sustained until our next future meeting.

No, after tonight our exchanges will be through our respective lawyers, our conversations no longer candid, our worlds apart, with no more birthdays or anniversaries to celebrate together, until Adrienne’s twins forged new ones for us to attend, not together but as separate individuals. There would never again be a togetherness between us, once this final ritual, the farewell to the son bearing my name, was consigned to the consuming earth from which all life springs.

Pauline shimmers in the candlelight on the landing above the staircase, encased as she was in a bottle-green evening dress covered in sequins that seem to come alive as she moves. In the candlelight, her appearance is so much more romantic than the stark light that the garish incandescent lamps of modern life usually imposes upon us. John had received all his beauty, in quite masculine form, from Pauline's genes, he fortunately suffered little noticeable likeness at all by way of mine.

Pauline, even in the first third of her seventh decade, has a timeless quality about her looks. She had kept her firm, trim shape, while I was softened by too many banquets, too much time preparing speeches and sitting through too many interminable meetings and synods. I determine that, now I am soon to be single again and no longer had to play the role of a father, that I would embark on a regimen that would restore my body to health and vigour. I owe that much to John, God rest his beautiful soul, that I become a loving and doting grandfather to his offspring. I have no doubt that they would be beautiful, so loving them, while tempered by my natural reserve, it would never be a role taken on with any reluctance on my part.

I hold out the crook of my arm by way of invitation to the woman who was once my lady, who once held my heart in thrall until she decided to throw me away with so little apparent regret. My arm is offered alongside a wan smile, all I am able to raise with so much weight depressing my heart and soul.

Pauline returns mine with her smile, which plays on her lips, where I look for an answer to my question. I don't trust myself to consider if her smile has reached those sad eyes. I know mine are sad, not so much that things between us had changed, I have accepted that, but that the changes to my life were so sprung on me that I am still struggling to cope with the enormity of it all. So far I feel unable to sift through the bustle of the last few hours and balance the pain of separation from both wife and son with the joy of unseen new life to come. Pauline tucks one of her slim, elegant arms, with barely a hint of bat wing about them, into mine, and we step gracefully down that glorious staircase to the first floor.

I had traveled here as a bishop and had intended to be a bishop at the funeral, but tonight I am dressed in a formal black dinner jacket, with a bright purple cummerbund and a slim white dog collar instead of a bow tie above an extravagantly frilly shirt, to appear formal but in party mode, even if the party mood eludes us in our grief. We appeared to be an elegant couple, beauty and the beast maybe, but we are each doing our level best to keep up appearances in the circumstances of the additional ordeal laid before us.

We both know our way to the ballroom in this huge, rambling house, but even if we hadn’t, the sound of music would have led us to it straight away. A pair of smart liveried servants open the double doors for us and together we sweep into the room, one that would comfortably accommodate a couple of hundred dancers, but is littered with only about a dozen pairs dancing like planets in the huge expanse of space, with just a few tables and chairs for resting between dances at one end close to where the band were playing.

The dancers turn towards us as one and the band stops playing, almost as if a switch had been turned off. The dancers descend upon us with greetings and words of condolence that wash over us like a tidal wave.

Of course we’re acquainted with them all, if in various degrees of familiarity, but we were all part of the larger Eldrake family. Adrienne, stays to one side regarding the scene, allowing all her family to have their part in the greetings, but all the guests move away as Adrienne’s parents take centre stage and embrace us one by one and take us off arm in arm to a small doorway at the side of the ballroom, followed by our daughter-in-law some half a dozen paces behind us. As Adrienne closes the door behind us, I hear the band restart where they left off and, presumably, the energetic dancing continues behind the door and without us.

***

5 OPEN COFFIN

I never really knew Adrienne’s age. When John first introduced his then new girlfriend to us six years ago, I would have guessed she was a sweet-faced freshman half his age, but in private he told me she was an established businesswoman running a group of companies which dwarfed his own, even without including the family’s investment portfolio that looked like the financials of a medium sized first world country, so I guessed from that information that she was in her early thirties then, and now would be at the perfect age to be a mother for the first time.

If it was difficult to gauge the daughter’s age, her parents proved absolutely impossible. I could only guess that they were a decade younger than us, Pauline and I. Adrienne’s father, Gareth Eldrake, was probably half an inch shorter than his daughter, stockily built, with broad powerful shoulders, but with the narrow waist of one who exercised regularly and was extremely careful about what he ate. He had a full head of dark black hair, highlighted by a hint of distinguished-looking greying at the temples. But his face in repose was almost devoid of those usual signs of the ageing process, wrinkles. Only when he spoke animatedly, and laughed or smiled, lifting one or other eyebrow independently as he was wont to do in lively conversation, it was clear that there was no plastic surgery or injections of Botox involved here, he was simply an attractive man who took care of himself and his skin. I imagined that he probably moisturized, slept long and well and didn't allow the pressures of business to wear him down. Adrienne’s explanation of the spread of their investments clearly took away the stresses that might otherwise affect lesser resourced men. Of course, sharing a life with Sylvia, the raven-haired beauty who was always by his side, the incentive to keep up his strength, vitality and vigour was obvious.

If Adrienne was blessed with the looks of a girl, her mother was the glamorous epitome of the smoldering MILF of legend. She was six foot tall, I know because dancing with her in four-inch heels our eyes were in perfect alignment, and we had often enjoyed dancing together at family holidays in this very ballroom over the past six years. I was in no doubt that she must dye those raven tresses, the depth of colour, the absence of any grey and the way her hair shone as if her maids had brushed it a thousand times a day, framed her beautiful face perfectly. Her eyes were as dark as coal, her skin white and translucent as pure silk and, when we touched cheek to cheek in greeting, dancing or farewell, her skin felt as soft as a newborn baby. When she looked at you, looking down to most people, but level with me, she poured all her concentration on you, as if you were the only person in the world that mattered to her in that instance. My Lord, she was an inspiration.

Yes, Sylvia smouldered with an intense sexuality that could excite even a jaded and sexually frustrated old bishop who, even in that heightened sexual tension, knew that you could enjoy her attention, revel in her oozing desirability, but she only shared with you a hint of possible nirvana, she was unavailable to all but her one man. Her husband Gareth would observe all men reduced to quivering jelly, except for the one part that would never pass between an ordinary man and an extraordinary woman. Her fidelity was assured, and was apparent the instant she moved her eyes to the one object she openly desired, her husband. Immediately after appearing to seduce you to succumb to her eternal devotion, she would seek Gareth out, drape her arm around his powerful shoulders and almost dry hump him, leaving her latest quivering suitor bewitched but bereft.

Sylvia led me arm in arm, tucked in so close to me that we appeared as if born together joined at the hip, into the room and up to the open coffin containing John Sullivan, my son. Gareth holds Pauline in similar possessive vein. Their love and empathy towards us in our moment of confrontation with the facts of life and death was touching and I am sure we were both grateful. With Sylvia on my right and Gareth on Pauline’s left, we were guided to a pre-determined spot by the coffin side, so that Pauline and I stood side by side. I sought her hand and she grips mine tightly. Behind us, Adrienne squeezes our outside shoulders and molds her body against our backs in a mutuality of empathetic touching, resting her right cheek on my left shoulder, Pauline’s being too low for comfort.

We turn to look down at our dear departed boy. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe him. He always had been, yet now even in death, he looks more beautiful than ever. Asleep, not dead, that is how he looks. It is with a jolt that I suddenly feel at one with the Ancient Egyptians, they loved their kings so much that seeing them perfect in their death masks, why would they not pour the effort of an entire kingdom into preserving that instance of utter beauty forever?

Pauline sniffs, l see a tear escape and run down her nose, hovering for an instance before making a bid for freedom to the floor below. At the same time, though, she smiles. She turns to look at me with those soft and moist green eyes and it was like turning the pages back to the day she brought John into the world, her face emerging from pain and fatigue to that of an invigorated angel. And she said exactly the same words she uttered forty-five years ago when John was first placed on her engorged breasts, “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”

“Yes, my dear,” I choke, “he is, he always was.”

“And in our hearts,” Adrienne breathes, her lips inches from our ears, “he always will be.”

***

6 PARTY

We danced in pairs, rows, circles, we chatted in small groups about our memories of John, like all of those rites of passage that parents remember, however imperfectly, as Pauline reminded me on a couple of occasions. We menfolk congregated and offered up our most risqué jokes. In mixed company we lightly flirted outrageously, after all every one of the Eldrakes was physically attractive beyond belief. But, throughout that evening none of us ate or drank. I was soon thirsty and found I was hanging on until midnight and the promised refreshments. But it was already gone midnight and, when I checked the dining hall nearby, although the tables were laid up with glassware and cutlery, it was still empty of food and drink.

I seek out Adrienne, and see her enjoying herself dancing a jitterbug with one of her younger and enviously energetic cousins. I wait until the tune ends and grab her for the next dance, fortunately a waltz, where we can converse.

“I thought the Pre Wake fast ended at midnight.” I quietly say to her.

“Oh, I am sorry, Robert,” she always called me ‘Bishop’ when I dressed as such, but when I was in mufti, as now, I was ‘Robert’ or sometimes ‘Father’. “That might have been a slip of the tongue on my part, Robert, but I actually meant the middle of the night, the exact middle of the night. The clock times register only a vague human recording of time, as the seasons change, the length of day and night change on a day-by-day basis.”

“I see, so how have you determined when the meal is to be served?”

“Well, dusk was at fourteen minutes past eight o’clock this evening, Dawn will come at two minutes before six, so I calculate, and have already agreed with the chef, to serve the banquet at six minutes after one in the morning, which is exactly four hours and fifty-two minutes from dusk and exactly the same amount of time away from the coming dawn. Using another version of the word, ‘mid-hyphen-night’.” She smiles, “if you cannot hold on for another hour, I am sure I could arrange something to be delivered from the kitchen to the library, provided you can be discrete about it.”

“No, my dear Adrienne, I am sure I can manage, now that I know how long it will be.”

I look for Pauline. I owed her our last dance as a married couple, made even more symbolic as we were about to bury the light of our lives, our lovely son.

I could not find her shimmering green dress on the dance floor nor sat at the few tables around the periphery. I head for the ante chamber and close the door quietly behind us. Pauline kneels in prayer on the cold, hard floor by the head of the coffin, her eyes closed and her lips moving in silent invocation, her melting mascara leaving etched lines down both cheeks.

A cold thought runs through me about my own feelings. Was I so heartless that I am incapable of the same level of grief? Was she in some way compensating in this quiet demonstration of her broken heart for my lack of empathy for her loss? Was my silent and apparent indifference to the emotion of our dissolving relationship a symptom that led us to this point and, in His turn, God was punishing me for my parental indifference by taking my wife away from me too, in the cruelest of ways: to live her life fully engaged in the world about us, yet no longer be mine to hold from this day forward as we had once promised in front of God 46 years before?

I kneel down beside her, rubbing shoulders as lightly as I can to advise her of my presence. I too, clasp both my hands together, close my eyes and silently recite a number of short prayers in my head, that I feel are appropriate to the occasion. As I near the end of this devotion, I feel Pauline place her hands on mine. I complete the text of the litany I had started and open my eyes. I turn and look at the lovely woman who was still, for the time being at least, my wife.

“You do care?” she asks, softly, the smallest tremulous smile on her lips.

“Yes, of course I care,” I say, “I loved him at least as much as you.”

Despite myself, I did. I had always loved John Sullivan. I couldn’t help it, but my natural reserve had always prevented me from physically expressing my love for the lovely child who filled my daily prayers and thoughts and grew into a beautiful grown man in front of my eyes during two-thirds of my entire life.

Still on our knees, we embrace and kiss. There was a hungry desperation in her kiss, in that room that had become a chapel of rest for the boy we once raised together to adulthood in the best ways that we could. I was instantly reminded of our fumbling courting days when she so desperately wanted my physical love. We did everything short of violating her virginity, both our virginities in fact, during our long courtship, which was the norm in those days.

It was as if our sexual cycle has come full circle, inception, birth and death, with no physical way of doing those reproductive rounds once again. I always held myself in check during our court and betrothal until completing in full our promised passion on our wedding night. Yes, I was old fashioned enough to wed as a virgin on our wedding night and I had never slept with anyone else before or since. No temptation, and as I am as much a sinner as any mortal man, ever overcame my resolve in respect of my fidelity. I never sought pleasure outside of the marriage bed that I once shared with my one and only wife.

Now that she had announced her intention of bringing our marriage to a final conclusion, any husband could be forgiven for wondering, was it because she had already replaced me with a lover?

We look at each other in the flickering candle light and we both manage to exchange smiles.

“You look like a raccoon in the rain,” I chuckle, “we need to clean you up.”

“And it’s rubbed off on your nose and cheeks, so you look like a coal miner interrupted in the midst of his shift-end ablutions!” she laughs through her tears.

I pull a handkerchief from my pocket, lick it and start on her clean up. She lifts her chin to allow more candlelight to shine on her face, and I gently rub away the smudged tear stains, licking new clean patches of cloth as necessary.

“You’ll do,” I announce when complete, holding her chin and rotating her face up and down and side to side by way of full and final inspection.

Pauline took the soiled hankie from me, unfolded and refolded it to reveal a clean spot, and licks it languidly, looking me in the eye with mischievous intent.

“If I find afterwards, that you have left a conspicuous black spot, I will hunt you down and wreak revenge,” I warn her.

“Oh, darling,” she flutters, “I am shocked that you would even imagine I could do such a thing to my dear husband.”

“Well, the recent lack of permanency of such a state in our relationship may have shaken my confidence in your care of my wellbeing and dignity.”

“My darling, I meant no assault upon your dignity. I have no wish for us to feel any less love for each other. It’s only that we have grown apart for so long that living separate lives has become our way of life and the pain of pretence that our relationship is unchanged is preventing me from living a normal existence.”

“Like taking a new lover, perhaps?” I inquire.

“No! Not at all!” she insists with some fierce vehemence, her rubbing of my soiled cheek feeling like she was trying to polish out a large and stubborn watermark on a sideboard she was hoping to restore to its former glory. “Although, I wouldn’t rule out anything at all that may happen by chance in my future. I merely want to confirm my marital status when it is clear that we’re on distinctly separate paths. That is not to suggest that I might still want to visit you from time to time, or that we could be together when we visit the grandchildren when they arrive. We might not still be married but could still be friends, even friends with benefits.” She shifted her attention to the apparently even more stubborn stain on the opposite cheek. I knew I was going to have rosy cheeks in the stark light of morning.

“I for one have no experience of physical or emotional love outside the confines of marriage,” I state clearly.

She is silent on the subject, her tongue poking between her lips in concentration.

“I suppose we will have to see,” I continue, “but faith shaken isn’t easy to restore.”

“I truly had no thought that my decision would hurt your feelings so, Robert,” she says tetchily, pausing to lick the hankie again and begin the systematic scouring of my long nose, “I had long been of the opinion that you were indifferent to my feelings and was only hoping to clarify for us both the status in which we find ourselves. The severing of the bond of our son between us, and living our separate lives in different cities, brought the thought of divorce to mind. However, the possibility of a new bond through our grandchildren, may mean a rethinking of my position. There, you are done and you are my handsome prince once again.”

“Thank you.” I didn't feel ready to comment on the possibility of Pauline’s change of heart on the subject of our marriage at this point. There was still so much for my generally ordered mind to work on and the continuity or otherwise of our relationship was for the back burner all the while we still had to focus on burying our only son.

We hear the music stop in the ballroom behind us, followed by Adrienne, clear as a bell, call out to all that the hour was upon us. My wristwatch confirmed that it was nearly five minutes past one o’clock, therefore two minutes away from the exact middle of the night. It was high time for us presumably to head towards the dining room. I can certainly do with a drink as my throat is so dry.

We help each other up off our creaking knees and I watch her as she smooths down her dress, automatically checking herself that within her plunging neckline she was still decently tucked in and finally brushing a hand through her shoulder-length hair, still blonde in colour but streaked with grey, forming a natural soft frame around her still lovely face.

I wonder, not for the first time in the last half a day, how would I feel accepting the fact that I would never see that familiar face again? It was impossible to contemplate any resolution in my state of mind. I challenge anyone to reach a comfortable conclusion at such a crossroads of elevated emotions.

Unexpectedly, the door to the ante chamber opens and in strides Adrienne, followed by her parents. Gareth closes the door behind them.

“The time has come,” Adrienne announces, almost icily.

“Yes, indeed,” I concur, “we’ll be along to the dining room shortly. Just give us a moment to compose ourselves, make us fit for present company.”

“I am sorry, Robert, Polly, but the Pre Wake is over,” Adrienne says, with a steel in her voice that hadn’t been present before. Her eyes move from me to the coffin.

I turn to look where her eyes pointed and, slowly, surely, as if he was being effortlessly pulled on strings rather than pushing up from below, I saw my son, John Sullivan, deceased, sit bolt upright, his eyes still closed.

“Ah, right on time,” I hear Adrienne say from behind me, “now we have moved from the Pre onto the Wake.”

All I can hear, as my legs buckle beneath me, is Pauline’s ear-piercing scream.

***

7 THE WAKE

I must’ve struck my head when I fell in a faint, as my ears are still ringing and my eyes couldn’t quite focus on my wrist watch when I first awoke. I was lying on a chaise longue. I was still in the flickering candle-lit ante chamber where the coffin was, so the padded sofa must have been carried in after I fainted. I could see a cloudy vision of the coffin from where I lay, and noted that my son wasn't sitting up inside it any longer.

I felt sure that I hadn’t imagined it, at least I was almost sure. As a priest and bishop, dealing with death was a large part of the life that I had led all my working career. Naturally, I had heard undertakers tell of such stories of dead men sitting up on rare occasions, saying something about trapped gases in stomach and lungs overcoming the stiffness of rigor mortis. As soon as the gas finds a path to vent, the body loses that buoyancy and collapses back into the coffin with a sigh real enough to give the witnessing bereaved false hope that the newly departed had returned alive. I had never experienced it myself, but the undertakers or gravediggers retelling the tale were often in continuous day and night contact with any number of bodies in their charge, so I had little reason to completely discount the tale, other than regard it as a story worth retelling as a means to earn the gravediggers and pall bearers a free drink in the pub afterwards.

As my head cleared, I felt I could risk sitting up myself. Without the aid of decomposing gases, I have to push myself up with my arms and, turning as I swing my legs around to the floor, I am able to see another chaise longue opposite me, with Pauline already sitting upright, pale and absolutely terrified.

“Pauline,” I croak, my throat dry as dust, “are you all right?”

“N-no, Robert, I really don’t think I am.” She tosses her head, indicating something behind me.

I turn agonizingly slowly, not trusting that I could maintain my equilibrium if I turned any quicker.

Standing behind me, and tight up against the wall, was the risen body of our son John, restrained on either side of him by his father- and mother-in-law Gareth and Sylvia. They appeared to be using all their strength to hold him back. The first thing that crosses my mind is that my dead son was alive. Then he opens his mouth in a snarl, revealing elongated canines that are covered in spittle that gleams in the flickering candlelight. An inhuman growl emanates from between those snarling lips that once kissed his mother’s and latterly his beautiful lover’s welcoming lips. Gareth and Sylvia renew their efforts to restrain him and, parting their own lips, reveal equally impressive canines that would not have looked out of place on a pair of sabre-toothed tigers.

John’s eyes though, are not trained on me but focussed on his mother Pauline, sitting on the seat now behind my head.

“That is even more surprising, Robert,” Adrienne softly comments, from somewhere on my right. I can see her dimly, hiding in the shadows well away from the flickering fingertips of candlelight, “I thought that once you regained your senses that John would turn the object of his hunger towards you, being the least loving of the two people closest to his blood line.”

“So why do you hide in the shadows, Adrienne, could you be a target too?”

“As newly turned, John will naturally have a hierarchy of favourites upon which to slake his thirst, a choice which he consciously cannot make because his brilliant mind is now in limbo, only his beastly nature will command his actions until the flow of fresh blood satiates his desiccated organs. Only then will his brain reconnect and become aware of memories and be able to make rational choices in his actions. We are all targets when the hunger strikes us, Robert. Do you question how humane the bacon in your breakfast was raised or slaughtered before you satisfy your hunger?”

“No, I suppose not, but why does he not strike out at your parents? He, or should I say ‘it’, the Beast, is clearly unmuzzled.”

“Oh, John is definitely not an ‘it’, he is every bit the man he was but soon he will be so much more. He has the potential to live almost indefinitely, with no corruption of his body or mind by cancer or ageing, all he has to do is feed as regularly as he needs to on human blood.”

“So he is a blood-sucking vampire, like the rest of your family?”

“Very perceptive, Robert, yes he will become one of us but first there has to be a sacrifice. As you well know, nothing ever comes free, especially immortality and it comes at the highest price imaginable for a human.”

“So what happened to him and what happens now?” I asked.

“His illness brought this about. Although I told you earlier that we started our family because of John’s cancer, I lied. He actually kept the fact of his imminent mortality hidden from me as much as he had from you until just a few days ago. Six months before he had persuaded me that the time was right to start our family, arguing that he would be nearly seventy by the time our eldest reached the age when they would venture out into the world. And, as I was over a hundred and fifty years old myself, I felt I was ready for my first child. In fact, I was as eager as he was to knuckle down and make the first of our babies together.”

“So you criticize his reticence about his sickness, yet you kept secret from him what exactly you were, are a vampire?”

“That secret, yes. This one has to be kept from humans. At the moment we are not suspected, after all, who looks for clues about us if we are regarded as not existing? So I am only telling you both that we are vampires because one of you will be leaving this room in the pine box, while the other has to live, to be a loving grandparent to the twins.

"Ah, the twins, and what transformation do they have to go through?"

"None that you would notice. A vampire embryo can be fertilised by a human sperm, then the transformation to vampire naturally occurs in the woman as the vampire genes are dominant. Upon birth they crave milk just as a human child would and are happy to have human as well as vampire milk; mommy's milk is naturally best, but nursemaids have been used in our distant past. They twins will actively seek blood around puberty but within a loving family we will guide them through that phase of their lives."

"But one grandparent only from the male line it seems?"

"Yes, a necessary sacrifice, but the twins will still have three of the four grandparents. I still think it will be you in the box, Robert, and Pauline helping us out in the nursery for many years to come, but there seems to be a glitch in the system as far as who you call the Beast is concerned.”

“So, I suppose you were angry when John told you his secret about his terminal cancer?” I ask, “And was he upset when you suggested to him your ‘cure’? Did he readily agree to become this Beast or did you insist?”

“My, how insightful, Robert, I am impressed.” Adrienne smiles, and hesitates before continuing candidly, “it is difficult being deeply in love with a human, never being able to fully release my emotions, never to completely give myself to my lover as he could give himself utterly to me. When he lied about his illness and the enormity of what his death and loss would do to my happiness, I almost lost it. To preserve his life, I had to rein in my passion and anger, to take almost all his blood but leave enough residue to mix with my DNA I injected, necessary to begin to turn him from mortal to immortal. By the time he told me, the cancer had spread to his vital organs and he knew he wouldn’t see his children born. I was going to offer him the only way out, but he wanted to make gentle love to me after seeing the photos of our little babies—”

“You can be photographed?” I ask, “I saw the mirrors covered over and thought—”

“Misinformation, Robert, the history of vampires goes back to prehistory when a genetic abnormality showed up in the DNA. We shouldn't have survived that abnormality, but we did. It is all about the blood, the rest is misinformation. We can be seen in mirrors, we do show up on cameras and cctv. The mirrors are covered in the house because our ritual directs us to do this during the Pre Wake. We eat garlic all the time, wooden stakes in the heart are painful but ineffective, holy water is nothing at all, but silver is a problem, and crucifixes, that’s why I only embrace my father-in-law Robert, never the Bishop.”

I laughed, pulling the frills on my shirt to reveal my Bishop’s pectoral cross against my chest. “When you confirmed your non contact when I was wearing my cross, I took the precaution of concealing it.”

“Robert, please listen to me. We are not so inhuman as you think we are, we rarely kill for food and never for fun, but to survive we must have supplies of fresh blood from time to time, and the time between feeds varies from vampire to vampire.”

“H-how long is that time between feeds?” Pauline swallows and asks.

“It can be months or years, it depends on the activities of the vampire, Mom and Dad can get away with a small annual top-up, but Vincent, who is a successful Formula One racing driver, has to feed before and after a major race, which takes some organizing and finely tuned logistics for supplies. We often have a lot of requests as volunteers for Vincent, though, as they get a chance to see the world they would otherwise never see.”

“Yes, I have always noticed all the servants here have high collars, but the tiny girl in the library, is one I have not seen before. She is so short that I could see down her neck and she has quite a number of fresh puncture wounds.”

“Thank you, I will send Carrie back home to the village for a much-needed rest. She is particularly tasty, I understand, although I have so far resisted the temptation. Mom says she simply tastes so much nicer than anyone else she knows. We have a lot of guests here, and Carrie is so eager to please. I will be having words with certain members of my family, as I will not have my people abused.”

“Ha! Such sensibilities for one who has turned her husband—”

“Enough! I have no need to explain anything to you. I honestly expected you to be drained of blood and flat on your back in that box, fully twenty minutes ago, Robert, but he shuns you now as much as you have shunned him his whole life. Why do you not love your son John?”

“Love him? Of course I love him. I would gladly give up my jugular this instance if it would ensure he lived, even if it is this strange half-life that you have promised him. I have always loved him. Always.”

“But he says you can never even bear to touch him, even from his earliest memories.”

“And do you know why?”

“No, not really. Tell me.”

“Because, in spite of my faith, in the face of everything I believe in about my soul, my commitment to God, my diocese and my family, I cannot get too close to John, because of my overwhelming desire and love for him.”

“I don’t understand, Robert.” Adrienne comes forward, more into the light from the shadows.

“Yes, honey,” Pauline chips in, “you never cared for your son all the time he was at home. Even giving him a simple bedtime hug was too much for you. It was as if you had a heart of stone where he was concerned.”

“I loved him too much to touch him,” I shout out, “Look, I-I’m gay! I am attracted to men not women and have been ever since puberty. It was an impossible situation for me. Oh, I can appreciate your beauty, Pauline, your grace, the way you move, and I have developed a deep affection for you, call it love if you will, but John has always been my only true love and that love could never be consummated in the way that male lovers ... for want of a better word, mate. I am gay, while John was clearly not gay, and he loves Adrienne more than his own life. You talk about sacrifice, but I have sacrificed my happiness to maintain a lie … a lie that persuades parishioners that I am a normal heterosexual priest who can be trusted with wives, mothers, girlfriends, boys, girls, physically and mentally vulnerable men and women. And, yes, I can indeed be trusted to care for them, I am one hundred percent safe, but I can never kiss them, never reveal how much I like them, less my true nature be revealed and I lose their trust forever. You and I have so much more in common than you think, Adrienne, our true lives hidden behind a masquerade of deceit.”

Adrienne nods, a feint smile playing on her lips as so many things start to fall into place for her.

“Gay?” Pauline asks, still trying to think this through, married all those years, us making love thousands of times, “what the hell do you mean, ‘gay’?”

“I mean, dear wife, that although I have never indulged my natural inclinations as a gay man, for the sake of my family, our reputation and my further service unto God and my fellow brethren, I have denied all those urges and been a faithful husband and ... the best sort of father to our son John that I could possibly be. Can you honestly say the same ... wife?”

Pauline’s pale face reddens deeply, her mouth opens and closes wordlessly.

I turn to Adrienne. “So, tell me. What is the Pre Wake and why did Pauline and I have to be here to take part in it?”

“You have to be here and relaxed so that John can see you relaxed in mind and body and your blood warm and fresh, and to successfully transform from his present state to vampire he would have to completely consume every last drop of your blood, Robert. Therefore, the fasting is not necessary for you, in fact it is important that your blood is refreshed and recently refuelled, while all the alternative sources of blood around the place are starved by the fast and therefore less appealing to the Beast. It further focuses the subject on the preferred candidate.”

“I see, so I was the fatted calf. What exactly happens at the Wake part of your tradition?”

Adrienne walks into the light, looking at John all the time. I twist my head and see that John is still fixated on his mother. If he broke free now … well, I could imagine his mother would provide his first feed of blood. The word ‘sacrifice’ now took on more significance, for us both.

Adrienne didn’t need to explain it, I knew that John wouldn't drain my blood, and if his own mother Pauline wasn't in the room to be drained of blood, then he would indeed sacrifice his lover, the mother of his unborn children, in his driven mindless need to survive, his parents and wife were the closest related blood containers. His parents-in-law were not considered food for him, merely surplus packaging that was preventing access to the morsel or morsels his urges sought.

“And if the Beast fails to feed by dawn?” I ask.

“Yes, Dawn is most important, Robert. Failure to feed by dawn, two minutes to five o’clock, will leave the Beast as an empty shell, completely devoid of life and incapable of revival,” Adrienne wept, “he would be buried in his coffin, the paperwork prepared, filed and never questioned.”

“Never?”

“Never in over 150 years. This county is ours to do what we want, within reason. Hiding bodies is a reasonable favour owed by the authorities.” Adrienne sits next to me, her back to the struggling trio, testing their strengths and weaknesses and finding that they were at an impasse, and the Beast stares unwaveringly at the terrified Pauline, its favoured prey.

Both the women in John’s life knew, I was sure of it. Did this need to be played out or would we all put our cards on the table?

***

8 SACRIFICE

“If John fed on one of our human servants, or a rat or even a milk cow on the estate farm,” Adrienne continued, “his essence as John, the man I love, could not be fully restored. He needs blood that is a close DNA match to his own human blood, his father, mother, a full or even a half-sibling. It is not possible to take his blood or your blood and store it, and the three days is necessary so that the blood I drew from him has been completely absorbed and changed by my own body. However, I am not completely off the menu. I am there because I have been his lover of six years. We even made love on our first date, Robert, you, I now know, fully understand how utterly hot a man he is.”

“And I perfectly understand how hot you are, my dear,” I smile, “even though you are not at all my type.”

“Yes,” she snorts as she giggled, “but as frequent lovers for years we have regularly exchanged bodily fluids, and we vampires feed on more than simply blood. John has been sustaining me so well that I haven't touched a drop of blood from the time we met until three days ago. If he drained me now, he would achieve almost full restoration of his existence, but at the cost of his eternal love and lost forever would be the children he desired so much to spawn. He would indeed not be the John we all know and love but would be driven by grief to be a monster that cannot die, yet cannot live with himself. However much it will kill my heart, I would rather he was a husk in the coffin and I exist and endure the knowledge of what I had to sacrifice in order to save our children.”

Pauline’s eyes grew larger as Adrienne expanded her explaination, and the full horror of her fate became clear to her.

“How long does John have?” I ask as I pull my phone from my pocket and flick through the unread messages until I find the one I want.

Adrienne consultes her watch, “Three hours and fifty-three minutes. The draining of the victim only takes a matter of moments. Why? What does the time matter? It seems obvious to me that the choice is clear and you would have to be grandfather to John's children.”

“I see.” I say, as I read the note from the diocesan office, summarizing aloud, “‘Reverend Darren Greensward, Minister of Tanglewood, was flown into your local airport by my office, and checked into Room 208 in the Skyline Motel at 8.30 earlier this evening.’” I turn to Adrienne, “He thinks he is attending an interview for a permanent position at your church here first thing in the morning. He caught the last possible flight in. I was going to confront him in the morning and beat out of him the release of his hold on my wife. Apparently, Pauline advised him by phone of the death of his son three days ago, but I am reliably informed he told Betty Jones, one of his current lovers, that the death meant nothing to him.”

“No!” cries Pauline, “You can’t have found out all this after our conversation early this afternoon, you can’t!”

“No, Pauline, my dear, but I have known Greensward was your lover before you found him cheating and you began going out with me, the good Christian former alter boy who would never cheat and was destined to go places within the clergy,” I say, my mind calmer than I ever expected at this showdown, “I accepted you as my wife because you were the perfect cover for my shortcomings as a … man. You were beautiful, charming, a caring mother and wife, and I heaped as much affection on you as I could, except that you couldn't give up the cheater, could you? When Greensward made you pregnant, you passed John off as my child, but a public person can never hide secrets from a curious and determined congregation still loyal to a previous minister who they once took to their hearts. Quite a few of the kind-hearted and a couple of the more malicious parishioners told me the truth, and, when DNA tests came into common use I confirmed my fears.”

“You knew all along?” Pauline sobs.

“I shared you with Greensward all these years and sacrificed the sin of pride gladly. I hated it and I am sure it was common knowledge among your flock, and I could not deny the titters at my expense between the pews, but I did love you as far as I was able, Pauline, on an emotional level. I was bitterly disappointed when you didn't follow me to the Bishop’s Palace, and Greensward was appointed in my place as your Minister. I hoped that when you left his curacy that I still had a chance and patiently waited. When I heard John had died, I released all my gathered evidence about Greensward to your Bishop, I wasn’t going to stand for that creep moving in with you. If he hasn't already.”

“No, he hasn't. I do love you Robert, I grew to love you during our time together. I know Darren has always had this hold over me but, living openly with a lover? I would never do that to you, to knowingly embarrass us all among the parishioners we grew up with. But, now Darren wants to retire, leave his parish and move in with me in my vicarage. I couldn’t do that to my congregation and still be able to preach the values of marriage from the pulpit, so I resigned my position too. After the divorce I have no idea how or where I will live.”

“He is not retiring, Pauline,” I inform her sadly, “Greensward was forced to resign or be sacked. He has had a string of affairs, ruining the lives of a number of couples’ lives in our old parish. His own Bishop is a fool and covered up Greensward’s moral failings for far too long. With the evidence I sent him when I heard John died, it has finally forced his Bishop to hang him out to dry. This afternoon, after you sprung the divorce on me, I offered to take Greensward off their hands and provide him a living, calling in a favour from the Bishop of this diocese.”

“We can be at the Skyline in half-an-hour, and still have time to get back if he’s not there,” Adrienne says, as she strides briskly to the door, barking an order to the servant standing there, sending him off running to the dining hall. Within a couple of minutes, four burly cousins come in and bundle John, who bellows like a beast being dragged from the square meal he desired so badly, through the door.

“We’ve got this covered, Addy dear,” grunts Gareth, “you stay here and patch things up.” Gareth and Sylvia follow John and the party, but not before kissing their daughter in farewell and squeezing the shoulders of both Pauline and I, wordlessly offering us hope that together we’d get past this mess of transition.

In the silence, amid the candles guttering in the disturbed air of that ante chamber, Pauline asks in her small voice,“What happens now, Robert?”

“Either we’re both going to be parents to our lovely son again, and doting grandparents to those two vampire babies, the first of many I suspect, Sweetheart,” I say, “or it will come down to you being the one making the sacrifice for once.”

THE END

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