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Babes and Sucklings
Who's watching over the children? Rumors are flying about the new reverend in town, Vernon Skelly. He is very odd, but can he really be a pedophile.
Babes and Sucklings will hook you from the very first page. Word is that the Reverend Skelly has been sacked from his previous posts for due cause. His seemingly innocent contact with students now takes on ominous overtones. When a little girl goes missing, the village is up in arms, as the reverend becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. When the man fails to show up at a meeting to discuss the matter, his guilt seems obvious.
But is someone out to get the accused or is the reverend really guilty?
The Reverend Vernon Skelly felt relaxed and moderately happy for the first time since arriving at
Thorpemunden rectory over a week earlier. The strain of the move had tested severely Vernon’s
reserves of patience (never high at the best of times) but now, happily ensconced in the routine of
winding the clocks, he felt almost content. So much so, in fact, that he was hardly aware of the
insistent ringing of the doorbell.
Eventually the shrill peal penetrated even Vernon’s concentration, and with a flicker of annoyance
he opened the front door. Barely registering his visitor, Vernon left the door open and returned to
his task, which had assumed even greater importance since the interruption.
The Reverend Polly Hewitt’s mouth dropped open as her outstretched hand returned to her side of
its own volition. So much for the meeting with her new boss, which had been engaging her
thoughts and anxieties for some time. How rude was that? She wondered what she was supposed
to do. Did he even realise she was there? Did he know who she was? Had he noticed her dog
collar? Come to that, had he noticed the huge effort she had made to appear reasonably smart,
tugging at her unruly blond curls with the hairbrush until her hair nearly tore out, and tarting up
in smart, tan trousers teamed with the green clergy shirt?
Wish I’d worn the scarlet one after all. Might have been noticed then. What do I do now? Go or
When Vernon failed to return, Polly stepped over the threshold and into the rectory. Darned if she
was going to leave without meeting him, after making a space in her very busy day to call and
welcome him to the benefice.
As she had been curate to Canon Henry Winstone for the last three years until his retirement six
months ago, Polly knew her way around the rectory. She wandered into the study, glanced with
interest to see the changes which the new incumbent had made, and dropped into a chair. She
noticed with approval that the four armchairs were comfortable and of good quality, better than
Henry’s worn out, second-hand rubbish. A large laptop computer adorned the desk, precisely in
the centre, with three roller ball pens on the left-hand side placed exactly at right angles to the
edge of the desk. On the right-hand side, also exactly at ninety degrees, were a pencil and a
rubber. Behind the laptop and aligned parallel to it, was a set of felt-tips.
At least he’s neat, Polly thought.
“Oh! Who are you?” Suddenly appearing in the doorway, Vernon seemed mildly surprised to see
Polly half rose from her chair to greet him, but already he had passed her as though she didn’t
exist and was winding one of the three clocks placed at measured intervals on the middle three
“Um, I’m Polly Hewitt, your curate,” Polly said to his back.
Polly tried again. “I was passing and just thought I’d drop in to welcome you and see if there’s
anything I can do. I have the order of service for Thursday with me, if you’d like to see it. And
maybe I can fill you in with details of the benefice, that sort of thing.” She hesitated, then added,
“If this isn’t a good time...”
“No, it isn’t a good time. As you see, I’m winding my clocks. Then I have to feed the cats—I
have four, you know—and after that I prepare and eat my own supper. Sometimes I buy a readyprepared
meal from the supermarket, but that’s usually if I’m going out in the evening to a
meeting. On other days, when I’m not due to go out, I buy meat and vegetables, perhaps chicken
and carrots and peas and of course, potatoes, and I cook for myself. I may roast the potatoes
along with the chicken, or sometimes I bake them. Potatoes in their jackets. I like that.”
Polly blinked. “I see! How remarkably interesting. Um, why do you need three clocks?”
“I have twenty-eight clocks. That’s four in each of the bedrooms, four in the two reception rooms,
three in here and only one in the kitchen. I need four more, so that I have four in each room. I like
to be symmetrical. They’re all different, you know. Some chime on the hour, some on the halfhour
and some on the quarter-hour. I have three that don’t chime at all. My oldest clock was made
in 1856. Sometimes it is a little slow and I have to correct it. I bought that one in an antiques shop
in Devon. I was down there for a week’s holiday. I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast and the shop
was exactly two hundred metres from that residence, so I was able to walk...”
Polly drifted off. Was he always like this? How weird was that? As he continued to expound upon
his clocks in tedious detail, Polly took the opportunity to study her new boss. The Reverend
Vernon Skelly was tall, well over six feet to Polly’s reasonably experienced eye (she compared all
men to Tom, who was five ten), skinny to the point of emaciation, and with limbs that appeared
gangly and out of control like an overgrown teenager. He had straggling ginger hair of uneven
length which looked as though it had never seen a barber and was thin on top. He had barely
glanced at Polly since he entered the room, but she had already noted that his blue eyes seemed
anxious. Polly remembered the description offered by Bishop Percy, that Vernon Skelly was an
English eccentric. At the moment, Polly thought that was overly generous. The Reverend Vernon
Skelly was downright odd.
As Vernon paused for breath, Polly seized her opportunity. “I’m sure you want a glimpse of the
order of service for your installation. I have it here. The bishop has already approved it, and we
have printed a hundred and fifty copies. I expect the church to be full, but I doubt we’ll have
more than that since this village only has a population of eight hundred and fifty. Of course, the
other five villages in the benefice have been invited, but they’re even smaller. On a normal
Sunday we generally have a total congregation across all six churches of around a hundred and
twenty, but since a lot of them are really old, they don’t like coming out at night. A hundred and
fifty copies should do it okay. Here, you need to have some idea of what will be happening.”
She thrust the papers towards Vernon. With a small frown of irritation, he took the proffered
booklet. “I’ll look at it later. I must ask you not to call on me between the hours of five-thirty and
seven. As I have already explained, I need to wind my clocks and feed my cats prior to feeding
myself. I have to finish my tasks.”
“Can’t you change the order of your tasks? Wind the clocks later? Surely a couple of hours can’t
make any difference?”
“You don’t understand. My routine is very important. I can’t allow anything to disrupt it.”
“What happens if a parishioner calls with some dire need?”
He shrugged. “If they call between the hours of five-thirty and seven they will have to contact
you, obviously. I’ll look this over after supper. You may return then.”
Feeling like a schoolgirl dismissed by the head, Polly inclined her head ironically and said,
“Thank you so much.”
But he was busy with his clocks. “That’s all right.”
What has happened to Melanie?
"Babes and Sucklings" is the sequel to Janice Scott's earlier novel, "Heaven Spent". The context is the same, the six fictitious parishes around Thorpemunden in the English county of Norfolk. What is different is that the Rector, Henry Winstone, is replaced by the Rev Vernon Skelly and Owen Branscombe, a wealthy computer business man, has moved into the Manor vacated by James Mansfield. The mix of gossiping villagers is the same though the story brings some into prominence who were previously unmentioned. The bishop, otherwise known as Humpty Dumpty, emerges as a wise and sympathetic man, discreetly in control where his concerns arise.
Vernon is very high church, intellectual, obsessional and rigid about religious practices, his 4 cats and his 16 clocks. He suffers from Aspergers syndrome high on the autistic spectrum. This makes him socially inept and lacking in empathy where his job requires greatest sensitivity, not least regarding recent conventions concerning physical contact with children. Conflicts and misunderstandings with villagers and Polly, his curate, are inevitable. Polly's sympathies are wholly with the villagers. Her initiatives are undermined; yet her duty is to support him.
Unlike his predecessor, Owen Branscombe is presented as a youngish persuasive, charming computer businessman who has made his money and returned from the American Silicon Valley. Though with no previous religious inclinations, he soon enters into the life of the church and the village primary school.
Eventually the main story focuses on the disappearance of Melanie, one of the older and more mischievous school girls. Fuelled by anger and anxiety, gossip propounds various theories on what has happened to her and who is responsible. The story is told very much from Polly's point of view. Indeed it could almost have been told in the first person. Does this mean the inward thoughts of others are poorly expressed? Not a bit of it. Since Janice Scott has spent many years in Norfolk, first as a curate and later as a rector in the Church of England, her perspective is wholly realistic. She is a retired priest and honorary canon emeritus of Norwich Cathedral,
Indeed realism of detail is one of her great strengths. The characteristics of autism are always instanced with accuracy. The procedures adopted by other Church dignitaries, the police, the head teacher and hospital are meticulously correct. The mix of characters and reactions amongst villagers is what you might expect. Overall "Babes and Sucklings" is another good read; and if you read it twice, you will appreciate clues that previously passed you by.
A village mystery
Janice Scott has again managed to combine an intriguing mystery with a snapshot of village life in Norfolk. Her characters are so well drawn that you feel you know them and can empathise with their feelings. Her knowledge of the Church of England comes through in a both factual and humourous way and there is a depth of spiritual guidance.
This is the sort of book you appreciate for its realism with both laughter and sadness taking their place within its context. I found myself completely immersed in the story and thoroughly recommend it as a "good read"
Babes and Sucklings
This is an engrossing story that holds attention to the end. As well as being a well written mystery story the author also tells us something about who God is and how we as humans relate to God. Strongly recommended.
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