Excerpt from Death In Holy Orders by P.D. James, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Death In Holy Orders

by P.D. James

Death In Holy Orders by P.D. James
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2001, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2002, 416 pages

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After he was killed, the Army sent me back all his belongings and there was the bundle of letters among them. Not every one I'd written, he couldn't have kept them all, but he did keep some of the longest. I took them onto the headland and made a bonfire. It was a windy day, as it often is on the East Coast, and the flames roared and spat and changed direction with the wind. The charred pieces of paper rose and whirled about my face like black moths and the smoke stung my nose. It was odd, because it was only a little fire. But what I'm trying to say is that I know why Father Martin suggested I should write this account. He thought that writing something--anything--might help to bring me back to life. He's a good man, perhaps he's even a holy man, but there's so much he doesn't understand.

It seems strange to be writing this account without knowing who, if anyone, will ever see it. And I'm not sure whether I'm writing for myself or for some imaginary reader to whom everything about St. Anselm's will be new and strange. So perhaps I ought to write something about the college, to set the scene, as it were. It was founded in 1861 by a pious lady called Miss Agnes Arbuthnot, who wanted to ensure that there would always be "devout and learned young men ordained to the Catholic priesthood in the Church of England." I've put in the inverted commas because those are her words. There's a booklet about her in the church and that's how I know. She gave the buildings, the land and nearly all her furniture, and enough money--so she thought--to keep the college going for ever. But there never is enough money, and now St. Anselm's has to be mainly financed by the Church. I know that Father Sebastian and Father Martin are afraid that the Church is planning to close it down. This fear is never openly discussed, and certainly not with the staff, though we all know. In a small and isolated community like St. Anselm's, news and gossip seem to be carried, unspoken, on the wind.

Apart from giving the house, Miss Arbuthnot built the north and south cloisters at the back to provide rooms for the students, and a set of guest-rooms linking the south cloister to the church. She also built four cottages for staff, arranged in a semicircle on the headland about a hundred yards from the college. She named them after the four evangelists. I am in St. Matthew, the most southerly. Ruby Pilbeam, who is the cook-housekeeper, and her husband, the general handyman, are in St. Mark. Mr. Gregory is in St. Luke, and in the northern cottage, St. John, is Eric Surtees, who helps Mr. Pilbeam. Eric keeps pigs, but more as a hobby than to provide pork for the college. There are just the four of us, with part-time cleaning women from Reydon and Lowestoft to help out, but there are never more than twenty ordinands and four resident priests, and we manage. None of us would be easy to replace. This windswept desolate headland with no village, no pub, no shop, is too remote for most people. I like it here but even I can find it frightening and a little sinister. The sea is eating away the sandy cliffs year by year, and sometimes I stand on the edge looking out to sea and can imagine a great tidal wave rearing up, white and glistening, racing towards the shore to crash over the turrets and towers, the church and the cottages, and wash us all away. The old village of Ballard's Mere has been under the sea for centuries, and sometimes on windy nights folks say it's possible to hear the faint ringing of church bells from the buried towers. And what the sea didn't take was destroyed in a great fire in 1695. Nothing of the old village now remains except the medieval church, which Miss Arbuthnot restored and made part of the college, and the two crumbling red brick pillars fronting the house, which are all that are left of the Elizabethan manor house that stood on the site.

I'd better try to explain something about Ronald Treeves, the boy who died. After all, his death is what this is supposed to be about. Before the inquest the police questioned me, asking how well I had known him. I suppose I knew him better than most of the staff here, but I didn't say much. There wasn't much I could tell. I didn't think it was my place to gossip about the students. I knew that he wasn't popular but I didn't tell them that. The trouble was that he didn't really fit in, and I think he knew that he didn't. For one thing, his father was Sir Alred Treeves, who runs an important armaments company, and Ronald liked us to know that he was the son of a very rich man. The things he owned showed it too. He had a Porsche while the other students make do with cheaper cars--if they have a car at all. And he talked about his holidays in expensive and remote places that other students wouldn't be able to travel to, at least not in vacations.

Excerpted from Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James Copyright 2001 by P. D. James chapter 1. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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