Late autumn 2008
There was one advantage to Shaun’s being signed off work. For the first time since our move to Oxford at the beginning of 2005, he had time to apply for other jobs.
When we had moved into a six-bedroom Victorian vicarage in Parson’s Green, in the early ’90s, we had offered my parents a home with us. We would have loved it if they’d moved in straight away – my father could have run the church music; my mother taught maths – but only in their 70s, they were still far too independent to give up their own home.
They knew the invitation stood, though, for as long as we could honour it.
By the time we moved to Oxford fifteen years on, the balance was beginning to tip in favour of being near family, rather than where they had lived and worked for half a century, in Cambridge, where my mother still had several dozen private pupils. If the church had bought us a house similar in size to the one we were leaving (as we had initially been given to believe, when Shaun had accepted the post) the arrangement would have been perfect. My brother lives in Oxford, so they would have been near both of us.
Alas, as you will know if you have read this far, the church did not do this. On the contrary, for a while it provided nothing for us at all. So instead of our being able to house my parents, they had to house the few of us who could fit into their three-bedroom house, while the rest scattered elsewhere. (And Serena’s poor Great Dane had to live in the boot of a car...)
When we were eventually housed it was in a cottage so small we could barely breathe. Miles from Oxford.
It was also becoming heartrendingly evident that my parents, now nudging ninety, could no longer care for themselves. Several times, we’d had panic runs over to Cambridge to cook them meals; or rung a friend nearby to rush over and get my mother into hospital. The last time, my only income (my weekly column on the Express) also hung in the balance as well as my mother’s life: I couldn’t attend to all of it.
It was bad enough being torn in several pieces trying to care for our various children...
Shaun and I even had a conversation about moving onto the sofa in the tiny sitting room so we could give them our bedroom. But we were barely surviving as it was.
Three of our children were at Cambridge University: two had disabilities and needed our support. My parents lived there. It made sense to move to the city we both loved. The other city… now Oxford had become unbearable to us.
Clergy jobs do not lie thick on the ground. A tiny smattering of Cambridge posts had been advertised in the four years since Shaun had been working in Oxford. He had applied for all. Not been short-listed for any.
Slightly surprising, perhaps...
Now a job had come up in a village just outside Cambridge, tailor-made. Every quality they were looking for, he had in bucketloads, and more besides. Even down to the “child of primary school age if possible”, so he could have links with the C of E school. And it still had its original vicarage, so we’d all be able to fit in.
The difficulty, Shaun objected, was that it was completely unpaid. We would have nothing to live on.
“Shaun,” I said, “we’re desperate. We’ve just got to leave. Somehow. Anyhow. We’d have somewhere to live. You can drive a taxi… anything.” I rang a Cambridge tutorial company who said they could use him for fifteen hours a week.
He posted his application on Friday. Just to be sure it arrived in time, I rang the Archdeacon’s office on Monday.
“Don’t you remember me?” his PA said. “We were in the same class at school!”
She asked me to resend his form, and I asked her about the job. It transpired that no one else had applied. I wasn’t surprised: completely unpaid. Shaun was many times over-qualified. She thought it just possible that one other person might, unofficially…
Bound to be short-listed, then.
This was so bizarre we asked our Bishop to look into it. He wrote to his counterpart in Ely.
A week later he had a letter. The Archdeacon of Cambridge didn’t like me. Me, not Shaun. Take, for example, the way I’d interfered over this job, ringing to see if Shaun’s application had arrived. (Because Shaun was in the middle of an effing breakdown! And his PA and I were at school together…)
For three and a half years, Shaun hadn’t applied for jobs anywhere else. For three and a half years, only Cambridge. For three and a half desperate and inadequately-housed years, we hadn’t had a hope. The Archdeacon had black-balled him every time. And not even had the Christian charity to tell him.
Now, what do you suppose happened at this point?
1. Shaun sued the C of E for millions, for appalling and inappropriate discrimination?
Or 2. Our Bishop said to his counterpart Bishop, “Come on, mate. This is outrageous. Call your Archdeacon to order, before this gets into the Daily Mail! Or indeed the law courts.”
Or 3. Our Bishop said to Shaun, “You’d better forget jobs in Cambridge then, hadn’t you?”
And yet none of this even compared to what was to happen next...