Telling tales: trust me, I’m a Vicar’s Wife

Picture the familiar scene: it was early evening, and the phone rang. Except when I say it rang, I really mean it; in fact, it barely stopped ringing. The first call interrupted bedtime, tears and desperation whispered through the crackling conversation. The last came two hours later, screeching with fury and disgust. In the intervening time, in repeated calls never more than ten minutes apart, we had been on a journey of worry, confusion, growing terror, bafflement, suspicion, anger. The Vicar took the abuse, made the tough choices, fielded the follow-up call from the police at a quarter to midnight; essentially, he continued doing his day job until the early hours of the morning – so no change there. And it all happened within our home: the calls came through on our personal number, breaking into our family space; we talked through what we knew and what we didn’t whilst unloading the dishwasher; we worked through the personal and professional implications of the increasingly frantic demands and the demands of our overflowing laundry basket simultaneously. The calls were interrupted by screams from The Paleontologist (I haven’t done my homework! I’ve broken a nail! Why does everyone keep calling at this time of night!) and made me restart a treadmill run 4 times – and my motivation is really not up to keeping going after that many false starts. And at the end of it all? Nothing. Was it all a scam, or a woman desperate for protection? What would happen now? Did we act to protect ourselves, our family, and others, or did God come knocking in the guise of a stranger and we slammed the door in his face?

This not knowing the end of the story is something they don’t prepare you for when you are promising For Worse as well as For Better to someone wearing a clerical collar. It’s part of Quite a List. They don’t tell you that you will look like a student every week, buying Pot Noodles and microwave rice to give away on your own doorstop. They don’t tell you that others will consider your home as much theirs as it is yours; and that you will do the same, feeling mortified as every Midnight Blue acrylic stain on the beige carpet and scribble along the bedroom ceiling reduces the worth of the property gifted into your care by an institution already in financial crisis. They don’t tell you that some faces and stories and voices will stay with you forever, and others will blur into a featureless amalgam, and you’ll never know which is worse. They don’t tell you that you will feel forsaken by a church, and even a God, who own your husband and your home and give nothing but pain and uncertainty in return. They don’t tell you how hard it will be to walk out of a domestic argument and into your husband’s workplace and keep smiling because, whether you’ve chosen it or not, it’s now your workplace too.

They don’t tell you about Life in Limbo either. Where do I stand, and what is my place? I am not part of the Clergy Club, but neither am I fully part of the congregation. I am held accountable for the actions of the vicar, assumed to know by osmosis all his comings and goings (if only they knew. It takes me a bottle of wine and a clear evening just to sort out which of us has evening meetings when, and to make sure we’re not about to make The Cowgirl responsible for sorting out food for both herself and her far-less-grounded older sister). I bleed for the mistakes but have no place in the successes. My stomach crushes where my heart should be with every live-stream stutter, every microphone failure, every low attendance or argument at the church doors; and yet, I have no place in rectifying these things, no outlet for my anxiousness.

They don’t tell you about the double takes when you kiss a man in a cassock and clerical collar, or the abuse shouted at him on the street because of how he is dressed. They don’t tell you how often you will be told the same joke about having more tea, and how often you will try not to look jaded as you respond that you’ve always preferred gin, thank you. They won’t tell you about the comments that at least you’ve got God on your side (without ever asking about your own faith) or mention the all too familiar look of terror once you are outed to new acquaintances, and they run through everything they have said since you entered the room, muttering “Oh God, did I swear?”, too flummoxed to notice the irony.

“Shall I put the kettle on?” Still from Keeping Mum; the film that explains in great detail why every Vicar’s Wife needs access to a pond.

They don’t tell you that if your spouse gets a promotion you move home, move your own career, move doctors surgeries and swimming lessons and schools and hairdressers and supermarkets you can navigate with both eyes on your children and only 5 minutes to grab what you need. And they don’t tell you that when you arrive, you will be greeted by hampers and flowers and the welcome of a whole new family. They don’t tell you your children will gain a whole congregation-worth of doting uncles and grandmothers who drop everything to sew dinosaur facemasks at a moment’s notice, or break Lockdown to bring you Easter chocolate, who show you the trick of opening a door whilst pushing a pram through the snow, who put pictures of your children on the same wall as those of their own grandchildren, smiling in sunshine from half a world away. They don’t tell you that you will be guests of honour at the opening of new Chinese restaurants; meet authors and pop stars and all the local gentry; be invited to weddings and funerals and enough parties to scupper any hopes of keeping a simple wardrobe; be given wine that sells at 3-digit prices and bottles of Lambrini with equal joy and equal sacrifice. They don’t tell you that you will be welcomed into the homes of new mothers and old widowers, shown hearts and souls and senses of humour that crush stereotypes and fill the world with hope. They don’t tell you how many people will come into your heart and how many of them you will have to say goodbye to, and just how much you will miss them when you’re gone.

They don’t tell you any of this because, of course, there is no they. There is no Vicar’s Wife Academy, especially if, like me, you married someone already trained and ordained. There is nothing but an amazing, unspoken fellowship of men and women sharing tales and tears and knowing laughter, up and down the country and all around the world, as we do our best to be ourselves in what has turned out to be a life more baffling, and beautiful, and exhausting than I had ever anticipated. God has put an astonishing array of opportunities and challenges at my feet. Sometimes I have stepped up to them. Sometimes I have stumbled. Sometimes I have avoided them altogether and pretended that doing so was perfectly reasonable, the obvious thing to do. And always, I pray I can do justice to the power and the hope and the jaw-dropping joy that is the always-unexpected daily grind of life as a Vicar’s Wife.

Flowers that still make me smile years after they welcomed us into this parish.