The Good Woman

by Barry Baldwin

Enid Fisher devoted her entire life to righteousness, faltering only on her last day, at the end of which she would be redeemed by her appeal to the Church and its-sempiternally ready salvation.

Up to a point, this was the fault of her parents, two of the very few people in this world who condemned the Jehovah's Witnesses for being too hedonistic. In the one bit of him that most people quote, the poet Philip Larkin says,

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.

But what about them? Presumably they were fucked up too by their mum and dad who in turn had been by theirs and so on. Where did all this start? Where will it all stop? This was not something Enid Fisher's parents had ever considered. If you'd raised it with them, they would have heard you out politely, unshocked by Mr Larkin's choice of verb - true puritans are usually unshockable - and answered that it all began with Adam and Eve in the Garden (the Fishers had no garden themselves) and Original Sin, and as for where will it end, that was up to God, it was none of their business.

And that would have been that. No point in playing the smart alec with them by saying wasn't it a pity that Pelagius who didn't believe in Original Sin had lost the debate to St Augustine who did. They had never heard of Pelagius. If they had, they would have been instinctively ashamed that he came from Britain, being themselves English, for which reason they would have felt a grim and guilty flicker of satisfaction at St Jerome's description of him as a Scottish porridge-eater, liking as they did neither Scotsmen nor porridge.

They knew little about St Augustine either. Well, not that one. The other, he who brought the Word of God to England in the year 597, landing on a sandbank at Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate, was a different kettle of fish. Of course, this Augustine had himself gone to the devil soon afterwards by being made the first Archbishop of Canterbury: as true English Christians, the Fishers did not hold with archbishops or the Church of England, a lax and immoral institution in which God seemed not to be more than an optional extra.

But he was in Bede, that was the point, the justification. Bede, the Venerable Bede (Enid Fisher once had her legs slapped sharply for reporting that the other children in her class at school called him the Verminous Bede), was (suitably edited - nothing about Pelagianism, for example) the source of much of what the Fishers believed, or were told by their sect leaders that they should, which amounted to pretty well the same thing. At the centre of this True English Church of theirs, apart from God and his son whose importance was (of course) taken for granted, was that holy trinity of Saints, Etheldreda, Ethelburga, and Sexburga. Given the hostile hilarity their names were doomed to inspire in the degenerate world in which the Fishers had been placed, it was as well that the last two of these ladies were less to the fore than the first. The leaders of the True English Church - assuming they knew - did not consider it necessary to inform their brethren that St. Etheldreda was also known in other circles as St. Audrey, whence is derived the term "tawdry" in reference to the cheap finery exposed for sale at her fair.

The important thing about St. Etheldreda was not her name or its etymological ramifications, but what she did. Or rather, what she did not do. For just as most of the Ten Commandments are actually prohibitions, so St. Etheldreda was held up as a positively negative paradigm. As the Fishers and their small but devout band of co-religionists were reminded at the weekly readings from the 'Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum', Etheldreda was married at a tender age to Prince Tonbert of the Gyrvii, but retained her virginity. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps not, Prince Tonbert expired only three years after his happy day. Etheldreda was then re-marrried off by her relatives to King Egrid of Northumbria, with whom she long endured, again in unbreachable virginity, impervious to his many prayers and curses. She in turn besought him to allow her to retire to a convent and assume the status of nun. After twelve long hard years, the outnagged King gave way. Etheldreda entered the convent of her royal husband's aunt, Ebba - it was a family affair - at Coldingham, whence she was promoted after a single year to Abbess of Ely. As the Victorian lady is alleged to have said upon the conclusion of a performance of 'Antony and Cleopatra', it was all "so very different from the home life of our own dear Queen."

In the words of the Venerable Bede, Etheldreda became "The Virgin Mother of Many Virgins." Over the seven years that remained to her, she continued in an exemplary display of negative virtues. As the Fishers and company were reminded at the hebdominal intoning of this text, she foreswore linen garments for wool, washed in hot water only before the major church festivals, and ate but one meal a day. Both Fishers found the first two of these examples easy to emulate; Mr Fisher had greater trouble with the third, being a large and hard-working man.

Seventeen years after Etheldreda had been sent to Christ in a simple wooden coffin at her own behest, an economy that appealed to the Fishers, her sister and successor, the aforementioned Sexburga, herself once married to King Earconbert of Kent, took it in mind to exhume her bones and have them more sumptuously reburied. Ely being rich in eels, hence its namer, and fens, but barren of stone, they set out in a boat in search of material for a new coffin. Thanks to God (or an anonymous benefactor), a white marble sarcophagus of great beauty was made known to them in the nearby ruined city of Grantchester.

When her original box was opened, the body of Etheldreda was discovered to be as fresh as though it were buried only that very day. And this was not all. When the linen clothes, which she wore in death if not in life, were unwrapped to permit the cleansing of her person, a small scar under her jaw was pointed to by one Cynefrid, the physician who was present at her exhumation as he had been at her death. This Cynefrid explained that in her last days Etheldreda had suffered from a large tumour under the jaw. "I opened and drained this," he said, "and for two days she was easier, but it returned on the third day and she died. When the tumour came, she welcomed it as divine retribution for her childhood vanity of wearing jewellery."

The sumptuary ban upon female adornment was congenial to Mr Fisher and other male members of the select group. Both sexes, however, were exalted by the concluding details in the story of the miraculous cures wrought by the original burial clothes and coffin of Etheldreda: as one of the faithful daringly put it, their speed and efficacy put the secular National Healrh Service to shame.

It was just as well (it may here be subjoined) that they knew nothing of the likes of St. Edgar, King of England, whose body when dug up from its grave at Glastonbury was also found to be uncorrupt and to whom miracles were also attributed, despite the less than virtuous kidnapping and rape by him of St. Wulfrida, of which latter offence St. Edith of Wilton was the product. No doubt his pious slaughter of Welshmen enhanced his claims to sanctity in English eyes; but all this came many years after the Venerable Bede.

Or perhaps it was not just as well. Being English of a certain class and generation, the Fishers found it difficult to rid themselves of a guilty respect, albeit managing to suppress any sinful affection, for the Royal Family, mentally manuring the thought that they were more deluded than vile, and having no truck with the notion propounded by a former footballer that the inhabitants of Buckngham Palace were actually lizards in human form, plotting in concert with other aliens including the President of the United States and the Romish Pope to subjugate Earth and its peoples to their power. This teetering on the edge of theological heresy persuaded them to consultation with the senior Elder, an occasion that required no repetition, his response being the immediately understood and at a certain moment in the future honoured promise, "If you need us,We will come."

The weekly meetings invariably ended with a rendition of the hymn in honour of St. Etheldreda thoughtfully given in its entirety by Bede's own hand. At fifty-six verses, it was something of a physical burden upon the older members, hence the middle section, more theological in nature with many hard unfamilar proper names such as Eulalia and Euphemia, tended to be ragged in tone or just hummed along to, the collective vigour being reserved for the great uplifting finale, from

For sixteen years her body, sealed away,
Remained untarnished by the tomb's decay.
Thine was the power, O Christ, that did maintain
Her holy body and its robes from stain...

to the self-serving last couplet

None from the Lamb's own flock can e'er remove
The souls close-bound to Him by chains of love.

When the Fishers first met, both were already members of the True English Church, thanks to their parents. He and his side were impressed by her having been born on June 23, the Feast Day of St. Etheldreda. Or so it was said: some members are not above fudging such dates in order to acquire extra cachet, despite the lip service paid to the ideal of absolute equality within the order.

The two sets of parents hit it off at once. Indeed, it was as if they had fallen in love with each other rather than the young couple, for whom bethrothal was presently arranged. The latter fell in with this marital scheme readily enough. Neither particularly wanted to be wed, but the Church required that they be so, hence by this parental arrangement they were spared the unwanted task of seeking, finding, and capturing a mate.

It would not now be long before the young couple were united in marriage; the True English Church did not encourage lengthy periods of engagement. Rather surprisingly, though, it did sanction an equivalent to what the outer world calls a bridal shower. Unfortunately, members of the Church are no more imaginative upon these occasions than their godless counterparts. The young people moved forward to their union armed with many copies of the bible of the True English Church, but without toasters or a single piece of china.

However, they faced a problem bigger than the prospect of a toasterless marriage. Children. Neither of them wanted any, but the Church wished them to have one, to be reared in the true faith and so help to maintain its numbers. More than one was discouraged. The Church must survive, but as a select group. Salvation must be rationed if it is to mean anything. As with most human associations, the point was not who was let in but who was kept out.

The issue, so to speak, was furthert complicated by virginity. Thanks largely, though not wholly, to their devotion to St. Etheldreda and her example, both of the young people were keen on chastity. He, if anything, more than she. But this was not the sort of thing they were capable of discussing with each other, let alone with their parents.

As it turned out, however, there was one person with whom they could discuss it. Indeed, they had no choice. This was the most senior of the church leaders, whose responsibilities included meeting with and counselling all young members of the faith who were in the condition of bethrothal. He was old and experienced enough to be able to anticipate the concerns his (as he thought of them) lambs would have. So, to their relief, the Fishers did not have to raise the children/chastity conundrum; he raised it for them.

And not only as a problem. He offered them a solution. "The question of virginity," he told them in a matter-of-fact way, for the True English Church did not go in for the fire-and-brimstone oratory of American televangelism, "is much misunderstood. To us, it is a tangible, not a miraculous, matter. In early times, the view that Jesus Christ had no human father but was conceived by the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit was challenged by various groups. The Psilanthropists, for example. Do not be alarmed," he added, seeing their faces growing gray with puzzlement, "there is neither reason nor need for you to know any of this, hence there is no shame in your ignorance." These comforting words did not altogether mask his satisfaction at knowing these things that they did not. "Our belief is that it is congruent with the full humanity of Christ that his birth should be like that of other men. On the other hand, we honour the ideal of virginity, above all as it was expressed by St. Etheldreda. Our veneration is based upon its value of self-denial and the rejection of pleasure, the supreme goals of our Church. Now, there is a way by which, with God's help, you may produce the child that is your obligation without detriment to your mutual purity. It was long ago established by science, which has its uses when put to holy service, that what we call Virgin Birth or Parthenogenesis is a common state of affairs among certain lower orders of life, for example the greenfly. Not (permitting himself a bonhomous smile, unreciprocated by the listening pair) that I am equating yourselves with the insect world. Science has shown that, while exceedingly rare, it is possible for a human virgin to conceive. I must tell you at once that I have explained all this to many a young couple within our midst before, and none of their endeavours have been blessed with success. It may be that you shall fare better. This is what you must do."

He told them in precise unfussed terms what they must do, and they did it. First, her hymen was surgically ruptured by a sympathetic doctor, not called Cynefrid. Then, on the single honeymoon night sanctioned by the True English Church, within the unerotic confines of two single beds pulled together in a boarding house in Cleethorpes run by another co-religionist, with St. Etheldreda smiling down benignly if a little sickly-looking from a cheap reproduction of a cheap portrait of herself, he placed himself between her thighs and provided the requisite liquid and, lo, the one spermatazoon needed to do its holy work made its heaven-sent way into her portal and a child was conceived and born of woman, namely Enid Fisher.

So, that was the first hurdle jumped. The marriage need not now be consummated, and it never was, but with a child on display no one was ever going to think about that, let alone know it, not even the senior man of the Church whom they decided should be deprived of the satisfaction of knowing that his scheme had at last worked, to save him from the sin of taking pride in such knowledge. Him they told that they had after all yielded to a single union of the flesh, for which lapse they were and ever would be mortified. This they also did lest he betray their success and accord them a status among the brethren which would bring the further danger of esteem. Of the couple, he was the more relieved. She, during the procedure, had felt some slight stirring of a physical sensation to which she could not give the exact word but knew it to be the forbidden feeling of pleasure.

Now came the bigger business of bringing the thing up and ensuring its devotion to the ways of the true English Church. The parents were especially agitated as Enid grew up into a beautiful young girl. So much easier, they worried, had she been ugly. In point of fact, a worldly fact of which they were unaware, youths tend to be intimidated by good-looking girls, hence Enid's unwanted beauty was more of a protection than a threat.

The parents were not cruel. Apart from the occasional smacking of legs, they never laid a hand on the child. She was decently if plainly fed, and allowed to attend the local school. There, she baffled the teachers by coming top in every subject, despite not showing the slightest interest in any of them. Any other such academic cynosure would have had their life made a misery by the other members of their class, but there was something about Enid Fisher that stayed the hands and voices of even the roughest element. One or two of the teachers, those old-fashioned enough to take a greater interest in their pupils than in the political posturings of their union and in going home the moment the final bell rang, sometimes spoke to each other in concerned tones about Enid Fisher, how she seemed to have no friends and never participated in school outings or social events and, strangest of all, attempted to refuse to accept her prizes on speechday.

These well-meaning creatures did not understand, not being members of the True English Church, indeed not knowing of its existence, that for the Fishers what was not done was what counted, as the story of St. Etheldreda made clear. After all, she was credited with no miracles until after her death: in life, she was a paragon of not doing rather than of doing.

Give me a child before he is seven and I have him for life. The Jesuits have no monopoly on the power of early example. The True English Church was quite as successful in this. As a child, Enid Fisher, like her parents before her, was moulded for all time. But some qualification of this is called for. Enid Fisher never changed her basic principles. But it is a mistake to assume that no such child will ever revolt against its parents. When she left school, she left home, never returning to either place for so much as a visit. Enid's revolt against her parents took a different form from those common in secular families: she became more, not less, rigid.

Revolt is perhaps not the right word. In deference to the views of the True English Church, the Fishers desired that their daughter should take a conjugal mate from within its ranks and by one means or another propagate a new member. Enid refused absolutely. Her reasoning was quite straightforward, and to her mind entirely logical, which it was. All obsession, like all farce, is based on logic. It may be twisted, but twisted logic is still logical. Enid would not become a wife and mother for the very simple reason that she would have liked to, hence true virtue required that she forego what she most coveted. The inexorable consistency of her position eventually satisfied her parents, it being the other side of the coin by which they, not wanting marriage or children, had had both, and was also approved, after an anguished special session, by the elders of the Chuch.

Despite the risk of contaminatory pleasure by association, Enid did choose to remain within the fold. The True English Church did not require its members to proselytise beyond the family circle, except by setting such moral example as might impress and encourage outsiders. This made it ideal for Enid: she aimed to avoid temptations that might be thrown at her by people by avoiding as much as possible all human contact; and if other folks didn't save themselves, she couldn't help that.

Enid lived alone and took in work at home, anything from laundry to typing, doing each job with passionless efficiency. No washing was too dirty, no typing too foul. She once hammered out a seven hundred page novel sufficently filled with obscenity to facilitate ts winning the country's biggest literary prize. To Enid, typing out this filth, further proof of the rightness of her avoidance of a species that could produce such things, was another air-mile point to heaven.

If pressed, Enid could not have explained her vision of paradise. For her, it was the qualifying that counted. She didn't ever read newspapers and had no television, of course, nor even a radio, but once when she was walking home from a weekly visit to the shops which even she could not avoid, she passed by a street corner political meeting. Naturally, she did not stop, but could not help hearing an exchange between the speaker and a heckler. The heckler challenged the speaker to describe the perfect society. "I don't know for sure," the latter replied, "all that counts for now is the movement." Enid understood exactly what he meant, though she wondered how a godless man could be so close to wisdom.

As she grew older, Enid began to feel, no matter how hard she tried to stifle it, a yearning for death and heaven. More than once she wished that the True English Church approved of suicide. But no, taking such a short cut to her reward would be cheating. Since her diet was healthily sparse, and she had none of what more human humans call bad habits, Enid was never ill. By now, she had outlived most of the brethren; there had not been a single new adherent for years. She began to contemplate the prospect of going on and on, even to her century. Outsiders would relish the attainment of such a landmark, above all the arrival of royal congratulations in a fine crested envelope with a water-colour of Windsor Castle.

Enid did indeed attain the eve of her one hundreth birthday, a day haunted by the fear that the next day would see the advent of this message and its being sinfully opened and read, thus risking her being eventually consigned to everlasting flames rather than it to the ephemeral ones in her grate. Yet that evening brought salvation. Rembering how she had been instructed by her parents and fortified by recollection of their fated end, after a pilgrimage to the nearest telephone kiosk, the operation of which took some time, thanks to her unfamilarity with such a thing, Enid Fisher returned home. shortly thereafter to receive a visitor who achieved her rescue by courtesy of an old-fashioned, freshly stropped, open razor loving applied to and across her throat.

Though this visitant was not, could not, be the same who had both uttered and fulfilled that same promise to her progenitors, his answer to her telephonic appeal conduced to the same blessed end: If you need us,we will come.

© 2009 by Barry Baldwin



About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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