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A Single Thread



Violet Speedwell frowned. She did not need shushing; she had not said anything.

The shusher, an officious woman sporting a helmet of gray hair, had planted herself squarely in the archway that led into the choir, Violet's favorite part of Winchester Cathedral. The choir was right in the center of the building-the nave extending one way, the presbytery and retrochoir the other, the north and south transepts' short arms fanning out on either side to complete the cross of the whole structure. The other parts of the cathedral had their drawbacks: The nave was enormous, the aisles drafty, the transepts dark, the chapels too reverential, the retrochoir lonely. But the choir had a lower ceiling and carved wood stalls that made the space feel on a more human scale. It was luxurious but not too grand.

Violet peeked over the usher's shoulder. She had only wanted to step in for a moment to look. The choir stalls of seats and benches and the adjacent presbytery seats seemed to be filled mostly with women-far more than she would expect on a Thursday afternoon. There must be a special service for something. It was the 19th of May 1932; Saint Dunstan's Day, Dunstan being the patron saint of goldsmiths, known for famously fending off the Devil with a pair of tongs. But that was unlikely to draw so many Winchester women.

She studied the congregants she could see. Women always studied other women, and did so far more critically than men ever did. Men didn't notice the run in their stocking, the lipstick on their teeth, the dated, outgrown haircut, the skirt that pulled unflatteringly across the hips, the paste earrings that were a touch too gaudy. Violet registered every flaw, and knew every flaw that was being noted about her. She could provide a list herself: hair too flat and neither one color nor another; sloping shoulders fashionable back in Victorian times; eyes so deep set you could barely see their blue; nose tending to red if she was too hot or had even a sip of sherry. She did not need anyone, male or female, to point out her shortcomings.

Like the usher guarding them, the women in the choir and presbytery were mostly older than Violet. All wore hats, and most had coats draped over their shoulders. Though it was a reasonable day outside, inside the cathedral it was still chilly, as churches and cathedrals always seemed to be, even in high summer. All that stone did not absorb warmth, and kept worshippers alert and a little uncomfortable, as if it did not do to relax too much during the important business of worshipping God. If God were an architect, she wondered, would He be an Old Testament architect of flagstone or a New Testament one of soft furnishings?

They began to sing now-"All Ye Who Seek a Rest Above"-rather like an army, regimental, with a clear sense of the importance of the group. For it was a group; Violet could see that. An invisible web ran among the women, binding them fast to their common cause, whatever that might be. There seemed to be a line of command too: Two women sitting in one of the front stall benches in the choir were clearly leaders. One was smiling, one frowning. The frowner was looking around from one line of the hymn to the next, as if ticking off a list in her head of who was there and who was not, who was singing boldly and who faintly, who would need admonishing afterward about wandering attention and who would be praised in some indirect, condescending manner. It felt just like being back at school assembly.

"Who are-"

"Shhh!" The usher's frown deepened. "You will have to wait." Her voice was far louder than Violet's mild query had been; a few women in the closest seats turned their heads. This incensed the usher even more. "This is the Presentation of Embroideries," she hissed. "Tourists are not allowed."

Violet knew such types, who guarded the gates with a ferocity well beyond what the position required. This woman would simper at deans and bishops and treat everyone else like peasants.

Their standoff was interrupted by an older man approaching along the side aisle from the empty retrochoir at the eastern end of the cathedral. Violet turned to look at him, grateful for the interruption. She noted his white hair and mustache and his stride, which, though purposeful, lacked the vigor of youth, and found herself making the calculation she did with most men. He was in his late fifties or early sixties. Minus the eighteen years since 1914, he would have been in his early forties when the Great War began. Probably he hadn't fought, or at least not till later, when younger recruits were running low. Perhaps he had a son who had fought.

The usher stiffened as he drew near, ready to defend her territory from another invader. But the man passed them with barely a glance, and trotted down the stairs to the south transept. Was he leaving, or would he turn in to the small Fishermen's Chapel, where Izaak Walton was buried? It was where Violet had been heading before her curiosity over the special service waylaid her.

The usher moved away from the archway for a moment to peer down after the man. Violet took the opportunity to slip inside and sit down in the closest empty seat, just as the dean stepped up to the pulpit in the middle of the choir aisle to her left and announced, "The Lord be with you."

"And with Thy spirit," the women around her replied in the measured tempo so familiar from church services.

"Let us pray."

As Violet bowed her head along with the others, she felt a finger poke at her shoulder. She ignored it; surely the usher would not interrupt a prayer.

"Almighty God, who of old didst command that Thy sanctuary be adorned with works of beauty and cunning craftsmanship, for the hallowing of Thy name and the refreshing of men's souls, vouchsafe, we beseech Thee, to accept these offerings at our hands, and grant that we may ever be consecrated to Thy service; for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen."

Violet looked around. Like the choir's, the presbytery chairs were turned inward rather than forward toward the high altar. Across from her were ranks of women in facing seats, and behind them, a stone parclose decorated with tracery in the form of arches and curlicues. On the top of the screen sat stone mortuary chests containing the bones of bishops and kings and queens-unfortunately jumbled together during the Civil War when Cromwell's men apparently opened the chests and threw the bones about. During a tour that Violet dutifully took after moving to Winchester, the guide had told her the soldiers threw femurs at the Great West Window and destroyed the stained glass. Once Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660 it too had been restored, using saved shards of glass, but it was remade higgledy-piggledy, with little attempt to re-create the biblical scenes originally depicted. Yet it looked orderly, as did the mortuary chests-so tidy and certain, resting above her head now, as if they had always been and always would be there. This building might look permanent, but parts of it had been taken apart and put back together many times.

It was impossible to imagine that such bad behavior could have taken place in so solid a building, where they were now obediently reciting the Lord's Prayer. But then, it had been impossible to imagine that solid old Britain would go to war with Germany and send so many men off to die. Afterward the country had been put back together like the Great West Window-defiant and superficially repaired, but the damage had been done.

"In the faith of Jesus Christ we dedicate these gifts to the glory of God." As he spoke the dean gestured toward the high altar at the far end of the presbytery. Violet craned her neck to see what gifts he was referring to, then stifled a laugh. Stacked in even, solemn rows on the steps before the altar were dozens of hassocks.

She should not find them funny, she knew. Kneelers were a serious business. Violet had always been grateful for the rectangular leather kneelers the size of picture books at Saint Michael's, the church the Speedwells attended in Southampton. Though worn and compacted into thin hard boards by years of pressing knees, they were at least not as cold as the stone floor. She had never thought they might require a benediction, however. And yet that appeared to be what this special service was for.

She glanced at her watch: She had left the office to buy a typewriter ribbon, with the tacit understanding that she might stop en route for a coffee. Instead of coffee Violet had intended to visit the Fishermen's Chapel in the cathedral. Her late father had been a keen fisherman and kept a copy of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler on his bedside table-though she had never seen him read it. Now, though, she wondered if kneelers were worth being late for.

The prayer over, she felt another sharp tap on her shoulder. The service might take longer than a coffee or a pilgrimage to Walton, but she could not bear to be bullied by this woman. "I've joined the service," she muttered before the usher could speak.

The woman frowned. "You are a broderer? I haven't seen you at the meetings."

Violet had never heard the word and was not entirely sure what it meant. "I'm new," she improvised.

"Well, this is a service for those who have already contributed. You will have to wait for the next service in October, once you have actually taken part and put in some work."

If the usher hadn't then glanced down at Violet's left hand, she might have accepted that the service was not for her and departed. She should have done anyway-gone for the typewriter ribbon and returned to the office in a timely fashion. Besides, services were often dull, even in a cathedral as magnificent as Winchester's. But she hated the judgment that the usher was forming from her not wearing a wedding ring. She couldn't help it: She glanced in return at the usher's left hand. A ring, of course.

She took a breath to give herself courage. "I was told I could come." Her heart was pounding, as it often did when she rebelled, whether on a large or a small scale. When she'd told her mother six months before that she was moving to Winchester, for instance, her heart had beat so hard and fast that she'd thought it would punch a hole through her chest. Thirty-eight years old and I am still afraid, she thought.

The usher's frown deepened. "Who told you that?"

Violet gestured toward one of the fur-wearing women in the front choir stall bench.

"Mrs. Biggins said you could come?" For the first time, the usher's tone faltered.

"Mabel, shhh!" Now others were shushing the usher, who turned scarlet. After one last scowl at Violet, she stepped back to her place guarding the archway.

The dean was midway through his address. "This magnificent cathedral has been blessed with many adornments over the centuries," he was saying, "whether in stone or wood, metal or glass. The effect has been to lift the spirits of those who come to worship, and to remind them of the glory of God here on Earth as in Heaven.

"To this abundance can now be added the kneelers you see before the altar-the start of an ambitious project to bring color and comfort to those who come to services in the choir and presbytery. The Winchester Cathedral Broderers group was formed by Miss Louisa Pesel at my invitation last year. The word broderer is taken from the Worshipful Company of Broderers-a guild of embroiderers established in medieval times. This new group of cathedral broderers reflects the noble history of this craft, brought forth by Miss Pesel to unite the past and present. Many of its members are here today. You have clearly been very busy with your needles, embroidering these splendid hassocks for the presbytery, and soon to commence on cushions for the seats and benches in the choir. Not only will we see glorious colors and patterns amongst the more sober wood and stone, but worshippers will find it easier to kneel as they pray." He paused, with a smile that indicated he was about to make a small, deanlike joke. "The cushions may well make it easier for congregants to sit and listen to my sermons."

There was a sedate collective chuckle.

As he went on, Violet glanced at the woman next to her, who had laughed more openly. Her face was thin and angular, like a long isosceles triangle had unfolded between her temples and chin, and her brown hair was shingled into another triangle whose points stuck straight out from her cheeks. She turned to Violet with eager dark eyes, as if the glance were the calling card she had been waiting for. "I haven't seen you before," she whispered. "Are you from the Monday group? Is one of yours up there?"


"Not done yet? I managed to finish mine last week-just before the cutoff. Had to run clear across town to get it to them. Miss Pesel and Mrs. Biggins were that strict about it. Handed it straight to Miss Pesel herself."

A woman in the seat in front of them turned her head as if listening, and Violet's neighbor went quiet. A minute later she began again, more softly. "Are you working on a kneeler?"

Violet shook her head.

"What, your stitching wasn't good enough?" The woman made a sympathetic moue. "Mine was returned to me three times before they were satisfied! Have they put you on hanking instead? Or straightening the cupboards? The cupboards always need that, but it's awfully dull. Or maybe you keep records for them. I'll bet that's what you do." She glanced at Violet's hands as if searching for telltale signs of inky fingers. Of course she would also be looking for the ring, just as Violet had already noted that she didn't wear one. "I said no straightaway to record keeping. I do enough of that the rest of the week."

The woman ahead of them turned around. "Shhh!"

Violet and her neighbor smiled at each other. It felt good to have a partner in crime, albeit one who was a little eager.

By the time the service dragged to its conclusion with the end of the dean's address, another hymn ("O Holy Lord, Content to Dwell"), and more blessings, Violet was very late and had to rush away, her thin-faced neighbor calling out her name-"Gilda Hill!"-after her. She ran across the Outer Close, a patch of green surrounding the cathedral, and up the High Street to Warren's stationers, then hurried with the typewriter ribbon back to Southern Counties Insurance, arriving flushed and out of breath.

A Single Thread
by by Tracy Chevalier