All The Lonely People

This was inspired by my daughter, Choo Choo, after she misunderstood one of the lyrics in The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby.

There was a little village in the East Midlands, near where the A1 and the A16 crossed. To get there from London without a car took four trains and you had to know when to tell the Guard to stop, as Little Humbly Halt was barely a platform out in the middle of a field, over 20 minutes’ walk from its eponymous village.

Little Humbly had, since its recording in the Domesday, little more than 250 people living there at any one time. This was just enough to have a small market or store, a tiny pub that was only open four days a week (and the days frequently changed), and its parish church, St. Olwich’s. No-one was really sure who St. Olwich was, but a church with that name (and changing denominations several times) had been standing there so long that whomever Olwich had been, they must have been important.

Agriculture was Little Humbly’s bread and butter, with the area surrounding it home to grains, sheep, cabbages, and courgettes. In that respect, it wasn’t much different than any other village or town for a hundred miles in any direction. But what Little Humbly had more than anywhere else in the area, and it was debated in the whole of the British Isles, was quaintness.

Most of the village’s buildings, especially in the centre, were stone, the odd brick building laid in for contrast; there was one Tudor-style, two houses down the lane branching to the northwest. The roads were cobbled down the unnamed main road, the villagers having resisted asphalt for years. The oaks, older than the buildings they shaded, created huge areas that were hidden from the sun from spring to fall. The villagers hung flowers from every window, filling gardens built by the Victorians in a square opposite St. Olwich’s, and in pots by the two storefronts.

In the decades to come, Little Humbly would become a mecca for photographers, influencers, and tourists, all seeing that “perfect” view of a “perfect” little village.

Little Humbly’s appeal attracted a number of weddings, held in the little church, and often recepting in one of the adjacent fields under large tents. Nearly all the weddings were for outsiders, having discovered the beauty of the little town. The villagers initially disliked having their church shared with non-parishioners, but the outsiders tended to come with money, so the dislikes were soon overlooked. A small business soon formed, supporting the receptions, selling local flowers and small gifts, keeping the village very busy during the warm months of the year. They had talked for years about building a new hall to house the winter weddings, though it had never quite settled on where.

The applause and laughter and tears of the previous wedding still hung in the air of St. Olwich’s as a lone woman hummed “Bridal Chorus” to herself, sweeping the floor from the confetti and rice that had been meant to be scattered outside, but as was so often the case, premature celebration left things to be cleaned.

Ellie was in her late 30s; her exact age was known only to her mother and her government files. She wore a short-sleeved dress coloured a blue halfway between an unclouded sky and the distant sea, the corsage of ping rosettes identifying her as an usher still pinned to her front. Her mousey brown hair, several months past needing a trim, flowed down her back in a loose plait.

So focused up in her self-appointed task, caught up in the imagination of her own imminent ceremony, that she failed to hear a figure appear from behind.

“Ellie, go and join the festivities,” urged Liam. She leapt involuntarily forward from the fright, dropping the broom with a snap-clatter that echoed about the small narthex. Liam reached down and picked up the broom, handing it to her. “My apologies, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s quite alright, Father,” said Ellie, holding her hand to her chest, her heart beating dizzyingly quickly. After a moment, she took the handle from Liam.

Father Liam was about the same age as Ellie, though like her, his age was known only to a few. His black hair was well-kept, matching the black rims of his glasses that held back bright blue eyes. He still wore the chasuble, cincture, and stole of the ceremony, which lent to the visible sweat on his brow.

“You’ve been sweeping for nearly an hour. This does not need to be done now. You could come join us…?”

“I enjoy the solitude after a wedding. It’s … peaceful,” she said, as if convincing herself.

Liam grimaced slightly and nodded. It was the same every wedding. “Very well. I’m going to change and return to the reception.” He headed towards his chambers, a room just off the narthex that doubled as his bedroom. “I understand they’re going to going to do a morris later. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one.”

“That’s alright, thank you, Father,” Ellie said monotonically as she picked up a dustpan and finished her task.

As she stepped out into the early evening, the trees above the entrance rustled in the late summer breeze, the branches alive with sparrows that had done away with the rice scattered outside. She walked down the path to the cobbled road, hearing the boisterous music ricochet about the town buildings from the reception tent set up in the field behind St. Olwich’s. She walked away from it all, heading across the road, down to the next lane, and disappeared from sight.

Her second-floor room was in a sixteenth-century building that had seen better centuries. The lower floor was unoccupied, but far too expensive for the meager stipends she earned from working at St. Olwich’s. Her space was formerly an attic that had barely been renovated enough for habitation, though she had gone to great strides to make it comfortable. It was really only the deepest winter when it was unbearably cold.

Carefully removing her white patent shoes, which had long since lost their sheen, she returned her blue dress to its place in the open closet as she donned a modest gown that would carry her through her evening. She took care to clean her face.

Her supper was a sandwich she had purloined from the lunch table earlier in the day, tucked away in a fold of her dress, with some of the cucumber she had purchased the day before. A small radio was permanently tuned to BBC, which was there largely to fill in the echoing emptiness of her room.

She read a few chapters from the book she borrowed from the church, the name she didn’t bother to read, a story of a young woman in Cornwall who was being swept off her feet by the Count of Desoir, a place in southern France that Ellie vaguely thought she’d heard of. She could only read so many pages before she had to close the book, her eyes too teared to be able to read further.

With a sob-sigh, she turned out her light for sleep. Her curtainless window allowed the night to pour through into her empty room, across her otherwise empty bed, her regular empty partner. She could still hear the music from the reception.

Liam looked out from the pulpit, the Bible opened to Psalm 25. He recited the words, not looking at the page, his voice echoing from the stone walls, off the peaked wooden ceiling. The only other sound – the only other breathing being – was a pigeon whose sleep he disturbed, it loudly fluttered out the door.

Such were most days at St. Olwich’s outside of weddings, funerals, Christenings, Sabbaths, and Easter and Christmas. Liam had come, with time, to memorize a pair of sermons he could use without having to invest time writing things no-one except the odd bird, and of course, The Lord, would hear. He had never discussed his habits with Bishop Warren, who had shown little interest in St. Olwich’s, beyond its healthy summer coffers.

He sang Hymn #209 as he moved between the pulpit and the lectern, #36 as he broke bread, sipping from a thimble-size cup, and finished with #120 as he closed the Bible and removed it from its stand. The view had not changed, save for a single person who had stood briefly at the door, a tourist who swiftly departed, embarrassed that they might have interrupted a service.

He lit eleven remembrance candles in the rack in the north transept and mumbled a few words of comfort. Still alone, he let them burn for a few moments before quietly blowing them out. The heels of his finest shoes clicked on the stone floor as he crossed the nave towards his chambers. He spied the previously-embarrassed tourist returning, his head barely poking through the door, clearly disappointed at the plain interior. He left before Liam could utter a greeting.

Most priests and vicars lived in housing provided by the Church. In Liam’s case, the definition was more literal – a three room space built onto the north side of St. Olwich’s some centuries earlier that was indistinguishable from the rest of the church’s construction.

His chambers, such as they were, had a small desk for his paperwork, three bookshelves for his references, a closet for ceremonial robes and other items that needed locking away. Three paces further in was a small kitchen with a hotplate that sat on a short counter, under which was a chest that, with regularly-delivered ice, could keep things cool. There were no drawers, only a pair of shelves to hold dishes for one, and tea cups for four. A single bed hid behind a drawn curtain. He had to use Olwich’s single lavatory, for which he rarely had to wait.

He continued to hum his hymns as he put the vestments in the closet, changing his shoes for regular ones he would wear about the church. He returned to the nave a few minutes later, looking more the part of the everyday priest, closing the door marked “Private”. He returned only once during the day for a short break to eat his lunch, some leftovers gifted to him from the previous day’s reception. He ate in silence, the only sounds being his knife and fork upon the plate, some birds in the tree outside, and the muffled sounds of tourists in the church yard, who almost never came into St. Olwich’s.

Most days, the church was empty save for Liam. He took the time to make sure the pews were properly stocked with Bibles, donation forms and pencils (which were hardly used), that the memorials were dusted and polished, that the grounds were kept by two local boys, and replacing light bulbs as they went dark. Woven into the hummed hymns, he composed the following day’s sermon, knowing that few, if any, would ever hear it.

The days ended much as they began, with vespers (or evensong, whichever appealed to the audience, if there was one), his evening meal, writing down the sermon, filing it with the other unused items, organized by topic for when they were needed. After dark, when the outside sounds drew to little more than the rare passing vehicle, he would read, or fix tears in his clothing.

“Good morning, Father,” said Ellie quietly as she walked up the side of the road. Little Humbly had no pavements at the sides of the road, but with so little traffic during the week, walking in the cobbles was rarely an issue.

“Hello, Ellie, God be with you,” said Liam, standing up from one of his eleven large flowerbeds in the churchyard. He wiped the dirt from his hands and walked over to a flower planter hung on the church’s fence. “How are you today?” he beamed.

“Oh, fine,” she smiled awkwardly. “Another beautiful day!”

“Indeed! And what will occupy you this fine morning?”

“Oh, I, uh, need to return a book.” She held up the plastic-wrapped hardcover she had finished the night before.

“Ah, a trip into Gruntham?” He was answered with a single nod. He leaned in and asked quietly: “Do you need assistance with the fare?”

Ellie shook her head quickly. “I still have tickets, thank you,” she said quietly, then paused, anxious a moment, and asked: “Um, do you need … anything, while I’m in town?”

“I don’t think so, Ellie. The Lord provides,” he smiled. He looked around, perhaps unnecessarily as there was, typically, no-one within eyesight, let alone listening distance. “Perhaps while you’re in town, you should look into some new shoes?” He looked to her feet. Ellie had two pairs of shoes, one she wore at church and when she helped at weddings, and a pair of brown flats that had seen more miles than the shoemaker could have ever conceived. “You know the train service is ending soon. If it’s too much, maybe St. Olwich’s can help–”

“I know, thank you, Father, but I’m fine. My … I’ll be married soon, I won’t have to worry.” She smiled curtly, then leaned in. “And neither will you,” she winked.

Father Liam paused. He knew what Ellie had meant, they had spoken about it before, and she had never really taken his advice. All he could do was smile. “Be careful crossing the field, I hear Mr. Johnston’s bull is loose.”

“Thank you, Father, I will watch for him!”

Ellie walked quickly towards the well-worn path that led to the Halt. No animals held her way, nor were even visible across the hedge-defined space. The Halt was, as always, empty. She took the flag from its holder and waited.

She admonished herself for lying to Father Liam, she had no tickets. She had barely enough to get her to Gruntham; she hadn’t worked out how she would return. But she had to go, time was running short. If something didn’t happen soon…

A distant toot announced the arrival of the train, a self-propelled two-car unit that had shuttled its way down the little line two times a day in both directions for nearly a decade, the same two cars, the same driver. The driver, train, tracks, halt, and the smattering of passengers all looked forgotten and tired, much as the region had been from the rest of England. The guard, Manfred, another long-time sight on the route, appeared and asked for Ellie’s ticket. She produced four shillings, he returned three pence, utterly failing to recognize her in the process, before disappearing into the other carriage.

The train trundled on, barely exceeding a swift walking pace. The entire line was due to be abandoned in a month, so maintenance had been largely absent, and the train moved only as fast as the driver dared on the century-old line.

Gruntham was the terminus for the little train, which wheezed into its slot, the under-maintained diesel engine shuddering dramatically as it came to a stop. A town of a little over 20,000, Gruntham was the nearest urban centre to Little Humbly, where most of the villagers (who had cars) shopped, where one could carry on towards Wolsford, and eventually to London, on the hourly trains.

Ellie hurried under the wooden platform roof towards the Victorian brick station house, through the lobby, and out to Station Road, and towards High Street. Although very much out of her way – the library was only a few blocks east of the station – High Street was always a destination.

Gruntham’s High Street was four blocks of two-storey, white plaster and stone buildings with large glass windows. Two bakeries, a butcher, and possibly the only costermonger still left in Britain were the mainstays, with a variety of other storefronts changing with the economic tides. One of them was women’s fashion, which changed stores like starlings on the wing. Ellie would stare through the glass at the newest designs hanging in the window. A particularly pale green dress caught her eye and she imagined, briefly, what she would look like if it were hers. It was short, only coming just to the knee, which was the risque trend.

She immediately became very aware of her decade-old dark floral print that descended most of the way to her ankles. She glanced furtively about, briefly thankful that it was not a weekend, so the streets were not flush with the better-dressed.

Ellie looked at her shoes. The hole at the side near the ball of her left foot, thrice sewn back on to the sole by hand, had yet again split open. Yes, she needed new shoes, but even a simple pair was more than her stipend could allow. She looked at her reflection in the store window for a moment, then furtively looking up and down the street, quickly smoothed her frizzled hair, tucking it carefully under a dark cloth hat with a crocheted flower in muted pink.

The library had opened an hour earlier. A Victorian building, it was larger than it needed to be for a town the size of Gruntham, but had been well-funded by a local landowner-turned-lord whose name had graced the portico over the doors. Not that many could remember the name, the building was just “the library”.

Tara, a young woman who had been at the library for several years, sat at the combination front desk and checkout, waved quietly as Ellie entered, casting a nearly-inaudible “hello”, for fear of raising the ire of the librarian, an severely antiquated man by the name of “Richard” whom was simultaneously deaf to any question asked of him, but could tell quite plainly when a page was being turned too quickly. Everyone preferred the diminutive version of his name, preferably when he not present.

Ellie briskly waved back to Tara, but didn’t cease her eagerness into the building and into the aisles. She passed through Foreign Languages, Detective Stories, Chinese Art, the extensive Military section, before finding her quarry in the Geography shelves.

“Hello, David,” Ellie breathed as she approached a young, strong man, in a white, long-sleeved shirt with a blue bowtie – another of Richard’s requirements – that nearly matched the colour of his medium blue trousers. His hair was the same bright brown of his eyes, which had so far escaped the need for spectacles. He was three steps up the ladder, looking into a fifth-level shelf. She clutched at her heart gently, as if to calm its pulse.

David was the Assistant Librarian, the only other permanent employee at the Library, and regularly tasked with reshelving. Richard could scarcely climb a footstool, never mind a ladder while carrying a book, and he didn’t trust Tara to do anything but smile at the library’s patrons. Not that Richard much trusted David, and regularly moved books that he felt David had misplaced.

Trained to pick up even the most faint sound, David whipped around to see Ellie’s smile uncomfortably close. “Oh, hello, Eleanor,” he nodded grimly. There was no question in David’s mind that Richard would now know Ellie was in the building.

“H-how are you today?” she asked, her smile altogether too demanding.

“Oh, just determining whether A Climbing History of the Matterhorn has greater or lesser prominence over Geography and Morphology of the Swiss Alps.” He held both books in his hands. It was futile, of course, Richard would just move them later with a loudly protracted discourse on geology, which Richard knew nothing about.

“That’s wonderful,” Ellie breathed. “You… you’ve been well?”

“Yes,” he replied with a lightly annoyed sigh. He turned to Ellie, as if to say something else, paused, and motioned to his cheek. “You’ve got …something, on your face.”

Ellie froze, quickly turned and rushed to a nearby window. A small dab of her cold cream lay in a smear just under her right eye. She quickly smoothed it out. “How … embarrassing,” she muttered quietly, returning to David. “I must have missed that spot.”

A protracted pause where one would normally have inserted a polite comment instead produced a vacuum of silence. David finally deposited both books next to each other on the shelf with resignation.

“Are you busy, today?” Ellie finally asked, her voice a bit too loud. A firm “ahem” echoed from elsewhere in the library; Richard was on the prowl.

“I’m working,” David said with a clear obviousness, his eyes spotlighting the book cart nearby. “Is there something I can help you with, madam?”

“Yes,” she replied brightly. “I was, um, well, I hoped you might have some time for a spot of lunch?”

David sighed and composed himself. He descended the ladder with two years’ of practiced excuses and polite deferrals, all avoiding his next statement. “Eleanor, it would not be appropriate.”

“W-why not?” For all the rehearsals in her mind, she had never comprehended a refusal.

“Tara and I are engaged. We marry next month.”

The cry was likely heard outside. It was certainly heard amongst the shelves, and prompted Richard’s immediate appearance. “Miss Rigby! This is a place of solitude and literature, please keep yourself composed!”

Not that it mattered, Ellie heard nothing but the muffled shattering within her; she seemed to slump she she realized her memory of Tara waving at her hadn’t been about a welcome, Tara had been waving her ring finger.

“Miss Rigby!” Richard grunted firmly over Ellie’s aching moan. “Miss Rigby, if you cannot contain yourself, please leave!”

Everyone watched, but no-one assisted Ellie as she trudged to the door and exited into the midday sun. Even with the cloudless brightness about, she felt the spotlights from every person on the street and in passing cars, all of whom knew what just happened. Ellie bolted from her humiliation, first at a brisk pace, then into a full sprint, unwiped tears blurring her vision.

Down the shortest route to the station, she quickly realized that the train would not depart for three-quarters of an hour. She looked about the four platforms, everyone looked at her. Everywhere she went, they knew. They watched her. She could hear their titters of amusement: there’s the silly girl who was rejected. Ellie ran from the platform, down to the railbed and along the tracks, back towards Little Humbly.

Halfway back from Gruntham, the mounting grief finally overwhelmed Ellie and she collapsed in the late afternoon light onto the railway, the sharp ballast stones cutting into her knee. She let out a tremendous sob, the stopper that held back nearly ten minutes of uncontrollable sorrow. David was gone, her only hope of ending her solitude, the only man she had ever met that she adored. It was over.

She only barely perceived the toot of the oncoming train as it rumbled up behind her. Just a quick moment of pain, she thought, and this will be all over. She was disappointed when she felt Manfred’s hand on her shoulder, jostling her rather urgently.

“Miss, you’re on the tracks and we have a schedule to keep,” he said unconcernedly. At first Ellie didn’t even acknowledge the movement, but when Manfred took her gently by the arm and pulled to her standing, she didn’t resist. “Come, miss, let’s get you home.” He led her to the front car and helped her aboard. The train was blissfully empty. Manfred didn’t ask for the fare, he let her sit sullenly until they got to Little Humbly Halt. When he asked if she needed assistance getting him, she didn’t reply.

Father McKenzie heard the sound and first thought it might be the wind. Night had descended quickly, the sky clouding over, the moon’s light blocked, the gaps in the centuries-old building had a habit of sighing when the breeze was just right. But it wasn’t the wind he heard.

Putting his sock repair down on the table, he walked out into the nave and spied Ellie up towards the front. He felt that peculiar tingle of need as he walked near. “Ellie? Are you alright?”

In a rare moment for Ellie, who was normally of few words, she unveiled her years-long infatuation with Gruntham’s assistant librarian, and its rather sudden end. Father McKenzie proffered three handkerchiefs as she recounted her day.

“I am so sorry, Ellie,” Liam said sympathetically. “Pain is one of the most defining elements of humanity, and it is something we try so urgently to avoid.”

“What am I to do?” Ellie’s cry echoed in the stone building. “David was to be my husband. I don’t have anyone else. I have no money, I live in an attic, I … I barely have shoes,” she lamented. She grew abruptly silent. “I wanted the train to hit me.”

“What?” Liam blurted. The tingle was pronounced.

“I wanted the train to hit me. I wanted to die.”

Liam spoke automatically, his training and service speaking for him. “But, Ellie, you’re young and beautiful, you have so much life–”

“Would you marry me?” she asked.

Liam allowed a curt smile. “Were that possible, Ellie. My vows take precedence.”

“I don’t even have a friend…,” she whispered.

The tingle nearly screamed. It seemed too soon, but the opportunity was too perfect. “Come, Ellie, let’s get you some tea. Something warm to help.”

Ellie again offered no resistance as Liam led her to his chambers and sat her at the table.

As the kettle started to roar to a boil, Father McKenzie reached up to a tin he kept high on a cabinet over his sink and poured out a small measure into a tea ball. When the whistle blew, he poured out the hot water, and dipped the ball a half-dozen times before placing the cup in front of Ellie.

“Sugar?” he asked, knowing Ellie’s usual pattern. She didn’t reply as he put in two teaspoons and gave the tea three stirs.

Ellie picked up the cup and held it to her lips. She looked curiously at the cup for a moment, then at Liam. “It’s not your usual breakfast tea, what is this?”

“A special blend I keep for when people need to … forget their cares,” he said, trying to suppress his excitement.

Whether or not Eleanor Rigby recognized the meaning or the danger, she drank the tea in one complete motion. A few moments later, she collapsed onto the table.

“Good morning, Father!” said Jack Newby, who coordinated most of Little Humbly’s wedding events.

“Hello, Jack, God be with you,” said Liam, standing up from a fresh patch of dirt in the churchyard. He wiped the dirt from his hands and walked over to a flower planter hung on the church’s fence. “How are you today?” he beamed.

“I see you’ve added another flower bed! You have quite the penchant for them.”

“Yes,” Liam looked over his shoulder to the dozen beds. “I just find I have to keep adding them.” He looked back to Jack.

“I just thought I’d check in to make sure we’re prepared for Saturday’s event?”

“According to the instructions you delivered, I believe so!”

“Wonderful! We’ve got a few hundred coming for this one, so we’ll need ever spare pew you have.”

“I might need a hand or two moving them about, but we’ll get everyone in.”

“Alright, then, I just need to talk with Gerald and make sure the cake will be done on time.” Jack started down the road again, heading towards the bakery. “Have a good day, Father!”

“God be with you!” Liam returned. He paused a moment, then returned to the fresh patch of dirt. “Rest well, Ellie. No more cares or sorrows.” He looked to the other eleven patches nearby, all covered in lush flowers. “At least we are all together.”