Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Potters Field

The Potters Field is the title of a detective novel set in the autumn of 1143, featuring the rather worldly Benedictine monk Cadfael, and set in and around Shrewsbury - as are most of the other twenty-odd Cadfael books, all written by Ellis Peters, the nom-de-plume of Edith Pargeter. She wrote this particular book in 1989. I have the paperback version, bought in Horsham in January 1996, when indeed I last read it. It's the seventeenth in a long series of Cadfael detective mysteries set in the first half of the twelfth century. I've just finished it. Lately I've been working my way through my entire collection of Cadfael novels: only three more left to read.

So why mention this one? Well, it had personal resonances. You may see what I mean if I outline the story.

Shrewsbury Abbey has acquired a large field from another abbey, formerly used for grazing. It is also the location of some worked-out claypits, and a disused cottage and kiln, that was once the home of a potter and his wife, both now living separate lives. They had been married for fifteen years. The wife, a spirited dark-haired Welsh woman, loved her man passionately. His devotion to her was sincere, but quieter. There were no children, but they were happy with each other.

Then, quite suddenly, the potter realised that his true vocation was to serve God as a monk. This entailed his leaving the cottage and abandoning his wife, who incidentally remained legally bound to him in marriage and was not free to make another life for herself. The fact of marriage remained. The life they shared seemed the true reality to her. She was distraught at losing him, and would not be reconciled to his going. But he felt driven by his intense and urgent calling to enter the abbey as a novice, and then take full vows as a monk. He did all he could to provide her with some money and the means to live. But she wanted only him, not his goods, and she became embittered and resentful. At their last meeting, she told him, viciously, that she had found a lover, someone else better than him to look after her. This was her bitter farewell, but nobody knew whether it was really true. The potter looked only ahead - to where he was drawn - and embraced the routine of the Abbey, his new home, and became utterly content with his new life.

Not long afterwards, his wife apparently left the cottage, and was not seen again. People thought she had returned to her kinfolk in Wales.

Then, within two years, Shrewsbury Abbey acquires the field and decides that most of it should be ploughed up to grow crops. In the course of the first ploughing, a female skeleton is discovered, and Cadfael gets deeply involved in uncovering who she is, who killed her, and why. (And if you have never read the book, I won't spoil the surprise by revealing what happens!)

Returning to how and why the potter forsook his wife, his view was that he could do nothing else. He was distressed by her grief and unwillingness to let him go, but the call from God was paramount. He utterly believed in that call, and felt absolutely compelled to respond as he did. He was overwhelmed. He felt great concern for his wife, and saw her plight, but had to go where his feelings were driving him. And because he felt the matter was out of his hands, it did not occur to him that what he had done to his wife might be considered selfish or reprehensible. So thoroughly and completely did he give himself to God, and such was the peace and fulfilment he found, that until the body was unearthed he never gave her another thought.

I said there were personal resonances here. Obviously The Potter's Field is not an exact parallel with my own history - no skeletal body, for one thing! - but there is this matter of years invested in a mutual enterprise, and then an overmastering calamity - beyond one's control - comes along unexpectedly, leading tragically to the destruction of a perfectly good relationship. Is there blame? Is there any question of guilt? Is bitterness justified?

I'm thinking of course of what happened to M--- and myself. I know that M--- felt herself disadvantaged and made vulnerable by the unfolding events of 2008 and the three years that followed, and robbed of a future she had hoped to share with me. Indeed, no other future seemed so worthwhile. Financially she came out of it without loss, but this wasn't all about money. It was about loss of trust, loss of certainties, loss of affection. For her the parting was bitter. She heaped blame and recrimination upon me, and accused me of wasting fifteen years of her life. Some will say I certainly did, and that I should feel shame and remorse.

And yet in many ways her situation was also my situation. We mirrored each other. I too became disadvantaged and vulnerable - and (financially speaking) have stayed that way. And I too was robbed of a shared future, and now feel there is no point in trying to build another one with somebody else. I didn't thrust bitterness and recrimination at her, nor did I accuse her of wasting fifteen years of my life; but some would say I had as good reason to say so.

And yet, what good would it do - now - to rake over past events and apportion blame? I haven't been able to do as the potter did, bury myself in a new life and forget the old one. I think about the past rather a lot. But nothing can be recovered from it. It has to be let go. The only worthwhile thing is to plan for whatever might be enjoyed in the time remaining.

I don't know what M--- has made of her life. So far as I know, she doesn't publish anything on the Internet - nor was it ever her way, to put her personal thinking out there for the public to read. I'd like to think that we are both making the best of things. But, given the bleak finality of our parting, we will almost certainly never get back together now. I can't see how that could happen.

It disturbs me to think that M--- might be worried, or ill, or in trouble, and myself never knowing about it. It saddens me to acknowledge that if she ever perished I would probably not be informed. To her family I must have become either a pariah - the bad person who made her so unhappy - or an irrelevance hardly now remembered. I might as well be hidden behind a nunnery wall, so far as they are concerned.

People slip in and out of your life so easily. Too easily by far. It seems that nothing is forever.

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Lucy Melford