"Bigoted, right-wing, outmoded dinosaur.” Merlin was fuming. Stalking into the vicarage, he slammed the door and hurled his keys onto the table. Turning as he always did to the picture of Jesus that hung by the front door - and, by extension, the photo of Idris Elba that hung right next to it - he added, “What would you do, Jesus? I’ve tried using the virtue of patience, but it just doesn’t seem to work with him.”
As always, Jesus didn’t answer, but he felt a little better anyway when he turned to Idris.
“You’d probably just dismiss him with a manly glower, wouldn’t you, Idris?”
With a sigh, and a lingering caress on Idris’s chin, he turned away and walked into his living room, forgetting to duck, and thus bumping his head on a strategically placed oak beam.
“Ow.” Putting a hand to his sore forehead, he contemplated the mess strewn across his living room.
It was a tiny space, all ancient wood and inglenook fireplace, that would not have looked out of place on an episode of Midsomer Murders. A little-used exercise bike stood forlornly in one corner. Every conceivable surface was covered in parish paraphernalia. Uncollated pamphlets from the Church Restoration Fund were piled higgledy-piggledy across his sofa, while music from an earlier choir rehearsal still littered the top of the drinks cabinet.
It was a far cry from Soho, but he was content.
Content, that is, until he remembered his recent confrontation with Uther Pendragon, head of the Parish Council. Honestly, from the way he went on, anyone would think that Dibley was the first parish ever to have an openly gay vicar.
Taking care not to spoil the sort order, he manoeuvred a pile of flower-arranging rotas on top of the teetering stack of hymn books, and slumped onto his sofa.
Of course, this being Dibley, he was not allowed time for contemplation (not brooding, heavens no, Merlin didn’t brood). The doorbell went, and without further preamble in strode his endearingly air-headed verger, Gwen.
“Hi Vic-Sticks!” Gwen flashed him a dimple-strewn smile. “Guess who’s got news!”
“Hmm. Let me guess. Could it be Gwaine? Has he finally been caught by an angry husband of the parish?” Standing to greet her, Merlin smiled, despite himself. From her awkward stance he could tell that she was hiding something behind her back.
“Don’t be such a silly sausage. It’s me! Look! Ta-da!” She briefly flashed a piece of paper in front of him - as if he didn’t have enough of those in his living room already - and then snatched it back when he made to take it. “Ah--ah! Not so fast”
“Ah, come on, show me, you rotter!”
“Nope. not til you ditch that nasty frown and tell me how much you love me.” She was bouncing up and down with excitement, so much so that her curls and huge TARDIS pendant bounced up and down in sympathy.
“Of course I love you, Gwen.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Despite being certifiably insane, which seems to be some sort of prerequisite for living in this ridiculous village, you’re my favourite person in the whole world.”
“Even including Idris?”
“Apart from Idris. Now hand it over!”
“I’ll tickle you!”
“You wouldn’t!” Her eyes widened.
“I would.” And darn it all if it wasn’t while he was following through on his word, Gwen beating him off with ineffectual bats of her hand, that the doorbell rang again, and Morgana Pendragon thrust her way through the doorway.
“Merlin, have you seen my father?” she said, obviously deluded into thinking that he and Uther were on speaking terms.
At that moment, Morgause, Morgana’s German Pointer, exploded through the door in a flurry of barks and muddy paws. No longer a puppy, Morgause nevertheless still hadn’t got used to her full size. She bounded into the room, growled menacingly at a pile of hymn books, pounced on them, yelped, and then sat amid the debris, licking her paws and shooting Merlin dirty looks as if it was all his fault.
“Doesn’t anyone wait to be asked to come in around here?” Merlin gazed mournfully at the resulting chaos.
Abruptly, Morgana’s eyes widened.
Merlin was still straddling Gwen, hands poised to deliver the killer tickle to her ribs. Realising how it must have looked, Merlin, face aflame, jumped away from Gwen as if stung.
“Morgana! We were just...” Momentarily silenced, the normally voluble Gwen gulped and flailed her hands towards the fallen pile of papers on the sofa.
“...horsing around,” finished Merlin, for her.
But Morgana looked as if someone had kicked her puppy. Which, given Morgause’s already impressive size and menacing aspect, would have been a really really bad idea. Not that Merlin went around kicking puppies.
“Um, Morgana, you have remembered that I am gay and that actually when I say that Gwen and I were just horsing around, I really mean it,” he said, as he gathered the books back into a pile, and hastily grabbed an empty coffee cup, just in time to prevent it from being swept off the table by an over-enthusiastic tail-wag. “I was merely trying to persuade Gwen to relinquish her hold on that piece of paper there. And in answer to your question, no. I haven’t seen your father. Or, rather, I have, but it probably doesn’t help much, because he was storming out of the Parish Rooms in a massive strop at the time. Dear God, what in the name of heaven is that extraordinary smell?”
“Ah. Morgause!” admonished Morgana. “Sorry Merlin, it’s not her fault. German Pointers are renowned for it, I’m afraid.”
At least she looked a bit less aghast. Really, thought Merlin, everyone would be a lot more at ease in this parish if she and Gwen just declared their feelings for one another. But, Merlin supposed, with a father like Uther it wasn’t so easy to come out of the closet.
“What is it?” she said now, snatching the paper out of Gwen’s hand.
“Stop that,” Gwen squeaked. “Give it back!”
“Songs of Praise?” Morgana held the piece of paper away from Gwen. “Really? They’re going to film Songs of Praise here? That’s hard to believe, because...”
“What?” Merlin didn’t hear what she said next, because he was too busy running around the room flailing. “Seriously?” He whooped. “Mordred Jones will be coming here! Maybe he’ll come round for tea? I bet he likes scones. Gwen, how do you make scones? Where’s my Delia Smith, I need to start practicing now.”
”Do you think he’d do a solo? Or maybe do a duet with me? I can sing ‘Walking in the Air’ brilliantly, I was in the choir, you know. When I was at school. I did solos! At least, until the choirmaster told me all gay people would go to hell. So I told him where to go. And I think my mother was a bit unreasonable about that. Eleven is totally old enough to swear at homophobes. Do you think he’d prefer cheese scones or traditional plain with jam and cream?”
“Clotted cream. How do you make clotted cream? Can you get it from Waitrose? Has he ever worked with Idris? Maybe he could introduce us! Oh my God, Idris is coming to Dibley! Oops, I said Oh my God!” He bowed to the pictures by the door. “Sorry, Jesus. Sorry Idris!”
“MERLIN!” Both of them were shouting at once.
“You do realise that Mordred Jones doesn’t do all the episodes, don’t you?” Morgana’s eyes were sympathetic. “Sometimes it’s Sefa Young, or that smarmy bloke, whatsisname…?”
“Ed Muirden? Why would you even say that? Why?” Crushed, Merlin slumped to the sofa.
“But what I don’t understand is why they’re coming to Dibley in the first place. Normally they go to really big parishes, or there’s some underlying theme…” A puzzled frown-line appeared on Morgana’s otherwise flawless skin.
“Ah, that might have been me,” said Gwen, smugly. “I was being a Mrs Cleverclogs. I wrote to the BBC and told them about Dibley Pride, and they emailed me back like a shot. Do you think Mordred Jones has ever worked with Karen Gillen?”
“He might have!” Merlin clasped both Gwen’s hands.”Karen and Idris!”
“Maybe if we write, then he’ll bring Karen and Idris down to Dibley!” Gwen’s eyes shone with excitement as she and Merlin galloped around the room, chortling in glee. “Could we do a Doctor Who themed sermon? Merlin, with The Doctor going back in time to meet Jesus! Please please please?”
Merlin didn’t answer. He was too busy jumping up and down.
“The two of you are impossible.” Morgana eyed Gwen fondly. “Gwen, I just wondered if you er…” her voice faltered, and she sighed. “Oh, never mind. Come, Morgause. Let’s see if we can find Father at the Rising Sun.”
With a crestfallen expression on her face, Gwen watched the door close behind her.
“Why don’t you just ask her out, Gwen?” said Merlin, wishing he could do it for her, but knowing that he couldn’t.
“It’s all right for you. You… man, you.” Downcast, Gwen shook her head. “You’re expected to ask people out. We’re girls, we’re expected to. You know. Play hard to get.”
“Oh, Gwen. Since when have you been one to let convention destroy your happiness?”
“Since forever.” She pulled a face. “Let’s clear this mess up, shall we? Then you can tell me all about your plans for the Songs of Praise sermon. And how you will seduce the gorgeous Mordred Jones, and he’ll come and be the vicar’s wife, and Idris and Karen will drop in for tea every Sunday after Evensong!”
“Fine. And then you can show me how to make plain scones. I’m sure those are the ones Mordred will like the best.”
A sense of excitement hovered over the parish council meeting, one that even Uther Pendragon could not quell with his glowers.
Dibley Pride was the last item on the agenda, and based on past experience the usual preamble about the previous meeting’s minutes would take a good half an hour. He tuned it all out, imagining singing a duet of “Walking in the Air” with Mordred Jones instead.
“All right, let’s call the meeting to order. Are there any apologies this evening, vicar?” Uther frowned at Merlin.
“Erm - well, apart from Gwaine?”
“Sorry I’m late!” Bang on cue, Gwaine walked in, flicking his hair out of his eyes and ignoring the way that everyone else exchanged long-suffering looks. “I was putting down a sow who’d broken her leg. The sores were oozing pus, so…
“Spare us the revolting details, Gwaine,” growled Uther. “If we’d wanted to understand the sordid medical problems of the farming community, we would have all become vets ourselves. Now, vicar, if we could turn to the agenda? Ahem! Vicar? Do you mind? Much though I love the theme tune to ‘The Snowman’, I hardly think it takes precedence...”
“Sorry.” Suddenly realising that he’d been humming, quite loudly, Merlin felt his cheeks flare hot. “Right. Minutes from last week.”
Two hours later, it was finally his turn.
“Now. For the final agenda item. Dibley Pride,” he said.
“I’ve said all I have to say on this topic,” said Uther. “I have no objection to people choosing to pursue this… lifestyle. But I will not have it thrust down my throat.”
“Duly noted,” said Merlin, feeling his face heat once again, but this time with anger. “I assure you that I have no intention of thrusting anything down your throat, Uther.”
He tried to ignore the way Gwaine sniggered.
“You’ve made your opinion extremely well known, Uther,” Merlin continued. “And I don’t propose to rehash that whole debate. However, maybe this letter might help the Parish Council feel more positive about the proposal.” As he spoke, he felt his pulse rise with excitement again. “It’s from the BBC! They would like to come and film Dibley Pride for that week’s episode of Songs of Praise!
“Get in!” Gwaine leapt out of his chair.”Yes!”
“Ooh!” Grunnhilde, who had been counting knitting stitches, broke off. “Will that nice Mordred Jones be involved?”
“Yes,” Merlin beamed at her. “He is nice, isn’t he?”
“Ooh yes. Lovely arse.” Grunnhilde made a lurid gesture with her forearm. “If I was forty years younger!” Chuckling, she resumed her counting.
“Grunnhilde! I was thinking more about his cute smile, and his melodic voice,” said Merlin, feeling the heat rise on his cheeks again.
“I bet you were.” Morgana smirked at him.
“And his delicious lips,” said Gwaine. “And the bulge in his…”
“SO!,” said Merlin, hastily, trying to get the discussion back on track. “What do we think? Shall we accept the BBC’s kind offer? It would certainly put Dibley on the map!”
“I think it would be brilliant,” said Grunnhilde, thoughtfully.”I’ll make a cheesecake,”
“No!” chorussed the rest of them in unison.
“Absolutely not,” Uther added. “Not after the debacle of the chicken-and-blue-cheese cheesecake.”
“There’s nothing wrong with blue cheese!” she said.
“No, of course not, Grunnhilde, I mean, not as such,” Merlin said, “But normally they make it beforehand, rather than drawing it on with a biro. And they don’t often put it into cheesecake. Nor chicken.”
“And they don’t serve it with blackcurrant jam,” added Uther, frowning.
“Nor curry powder,” said Morgana.
“My Bert always loved a curry!” Grunnhilde looked terribly offended.
“With chocolate sauce?” said Merlin, trying to be as gentle as possible.
“I love curry with chocolate sauce!” said Gwaine.
Merlin sighed. It was already ten o’clock. At this rate, he’d miss Eight out of Ten Cats Do Countdown altogether, and he hated missing his secret weekly Jon Richardson fix.
“Can we take a vote on whether to accept this offer?” he said, not holding out much hope.
“Proposed,” said Gwaine, promptly.
“Seconded,” said Morgana.
“Thirded,” said Grunnhilde. “And fourthed. Oh, balls! I’ve lost count again.”
Looking round the table, Merlin could see that everyone’s hands were raised in agreement, with one notable exception.
“I object.” Standing, face like thunder, Uther banged his fist on the table. “I will not stand by and see this historic parish humiliated!”
“But Father, you could be famous!” said Morgana, with a tight smile. “Just think! Gay vicars kissing all over the place! It could be on international TV!”
If Merlin didn’t know better, he’d think she was deliberately goading him.
Uther’s face went a deep shade of purple at that, and he stood and actually wagged his finger at her. Merlin watched it, fascinated. Any minute now, Uther would start frothing at the mouth, he was so furious.
“I know what you’re doing,” he roared. “You and that good-for-nothing brother of yours. Well, I won’t stand for it, do you hear?” Abruptly, he slammed the jaws of his briefcase and stood. “This meeting is closed.”
The door slammed behind him so loudly it made Merlin jump. Puzzled, he turned to Morgana.
“What was that all about?”
“Uther doesn’t get on with my brother.” She shrugged, and stood up. “I’ll be off, then.” With an innocent sounding laugh, she put her hand on the doorknob. “See you next week!”
“Wait. Morgana?” Merlin shouted at her retreating ear. There was something about this whole exchange that he didn’t quite get. “Brother? What brother? And what’s he got to do with… Morgana?”
But the door closed again, quietly this time, and he was left with the rest of the parish council.
“Anyone else care to enlighten me?” He looked round the room.
“Well.” Sighing, Gaius shrugged. “It’s the usual story of a headstrong child and a stubborn father. Arthur works for the BBC. Anyway. Dearie me, is that the time? It’s time for me to call it a night.” He yawned, suspiciously loudly. “See you on Sunday, vicar!”
While Gaius and Grunnhilde shuffled out, Gwaine was drawing up his chair and tugging on his leather jacket.
“Gwaine! What aren’t you all telling me?” Merlin was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.
“Bats for your team, doesn’t he. The princess. Arthur, I mean.” Chuckling, Gwaine patted him on the shoulder. “Flounced out, after a massive row, moved up to London, Uther’s been a bit of a dragon, ever since. At least, he’s dragged on and on about it. Haha! Geddit? Fancy a pint?” Still laughing at his own joke, Gwaine walked across to the door of the Parish Rooms, his footsteps tap tapping on the ancient wooden floor. “I’ve got a powerful thirst. Hacking putrid limbs off pigs will do that for a man.”
“Yeah, why not.” Merlin would never get the hang of this crazy village. But he had to admit that the beer at the Rising Sun was top notch. Switching off the lights, he headed out to sample just one.
It was one of those foul days, when the rain, not content with merely falling, decided to bluster its way past the seams of even the sturdiest Gore Tex, trickling behind his dog collar and nestling in the fabric of his Marks and Spencer undershirt. Grimly, head down, Merlin strained at the pedals of his ancient bicycle, sending up a prayer with what he hoped was the required amount of stoicism and humility. Please let it stop. For just a second.
But perhaps Jesus’s attention was elsewhere, or focussing on some ineffable part of God’s plan, because the rain didn’t stop. Instead, it shifted gear, pelting the puddles like tiny, angry fists. The wheels made a horrible gurgling noise as he passed through a particularly deep one, more pond than puddle. Hoping that its surface didn’t obscure some possibly fatal pothole, he ploughed through it. And of course, that’s when some prat in a Jaguar decided to pass him, far too close.
Water sprayed up from the Jaguar’s wheels, cascading over Merlin in an inelegant, sludge-brown torrent, and finishing off the work that the rain had started. And what’s more, the Jag didn’t even stop to check he was all right. Probably too busy hurtling to the next property deal. Bloody property developers. Trying to ensure that no Dibley children could ever hope to afford to settle in the village of their ancestors.
Furious, Merlin shook his fist at its tail lights, and muttered words that no vicar should ever speak aloud. As he trudged the rest of the way back home, sodden and despondent, he nurtured a dark fantasy. A heady combination of hot soup for needy vicars, distributed by Idris Elba, and a special place in hell for Jaguar drivers.
But his temper didn’t improve when he got home. Because there, bold as brass, was the Jag, illegally parked on the double yellow line outside the vicarage. With some smirking, blond bastard, bum perched on the bonnet, carrying an expensive-looking golf umbrella, laughing at him.
Of all the cheek.
“You!” Shoving his bike against the wall, and not bothering to padlock it, Merlin strode up to this vision of mirth and prodded him hard, in the chest, with an indignant, if damp, forefinger. “You, my friend, are exactly the sort of arrogant, sneering bastard that has brought Britain to its knees, inflating property prices with greed. How dare you deliberately spray water over innocent road users?”
“Innocent? I doubt that.” The guy’s teasing expression made Merlin want to smack him, hard, on the chops. “Wait. Do I know you?”
“No! But I know your sort. Do anything for a profit, and damn the consequences or the little people that you damage on your way. You think that just because you’re rich and… and… good-looking you can trample on anyone and they’ll just roll over and let you do whatever you want. You’re the sort of low-life scum who is--”
“And yet, ” interrupted the guy, with a sardonic twist of his lips that made him look both snide and drop-dead gorgeous. The fiend. “You called me friend,”
“You’re no friend of mine.” Infuriated, Merlin bit his lip. “I would never have a friend who was such an absolute arse.”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” The guy was beginning to look annoyed. Good. “Don’t you know who I am?”
“Not as such, but I know enough. I know your type.” Fumbling with fingers so cold and wet that they felt like uncooked sausages, Merlin turned his back to the guy as he talked, clumsily tying the chain round his bicycle. “You’re an inconsiderate, egotistical, privileged idiot. You probably vote conservative and think that poor people should be herded up and shot. You’re exactly the kind of braying Tory hooray that--”
“Ah! Vicar!” Morgana’s voice cut through his rant. “I see you’ve met my brother, Arthur. Producer for Songs of Praise.”
“What?” Stunned, Merlin leapt to his feet.
“Oh yes!” She smiled sweetly at him, the picture of innocence. “Did Gwen forget to tell you? He’s come to talk to you about the arrangements for the big day.
“What?” Arthur’s face, aghast, mirrored his own. “This… this… person… is the new vicar? I’ve got to work with him? Does he always go in for abusing random people he’s never met before?”
“Well, do you always go in for showering vicars with rainwater when they’re pedalling home from visiting sick parishioners?” replied Merlin, indignant, and not a little hot beneath his dripping wet dog-collar. “I’m already having a bad day. It’s not every day one of my favourite members of the congregation gets diagnosed with cancer. And this,” he signalled to his drenched torso, “doesn’t make it all better.”
“What on earth are you blathering on about? I haven’t done anything of the sort!” Arthur looked increasingly irate at the slight. Which was a bit rich. He was very good looking, Merlin could see that now, but that didn’t excuse his behaviour.
“Yes, you have! You can’t possibly be denying it! You were just there, on Vicarage Lane. There was a big puddle, and you deliberately---”
“Wait a minute. There was a big puddle on Vicarage Lane, but you weren’t there.” Glowering, Arthur stood, hands on hip, facing him down.
“I was! Are you blind? Perhaps if you’re going to drive around in that glorified gas-guzzler, you should invest in a sight test! You could have killed me, you inattentive clotpoll.”
“Well, if you’re going to cycle around on that crumbling old rustbucket, perhaps you should invest in a high-visibility jacket, you dimwitted, blithering--.”
“Ahem.” The sound of Morgana clearing her throat was one that had always been particularly effective at stopping Uther mid-flight during council meetings, and it seemed that she had the same ability to silence his son. “I have to say, dear brother, that Merlin seems to have developed a fine understanding of your character despite your very brief acquaintance.” Tossing her head, she stalked towards the door of the vicarage, where she paused, shaking out her umbrella. “Well, vicar? Aren’t you going to invite us in?”
“I didn’t know you were there, you know,” said Arthur, as they stepped over the threshold. “You really should get lights. Or a reflective jacket or something.”
Sighing, Merlin slung his sodden coat over the radiator and toed off his dripping wet shoes. As a vicar, he could recognise an olive branch when he saw one. Albeit a slightly graceless one.
“I’m Merlin Emrys,” he said, holding out a cold, wet hand.
“Arthur Pendragon.” Arthur shook it with a surprisingly sweet smile. “You have a frog.”
“What?” Merlin frowned.
“On your collar. A frog.” Arthur leaned forward until Merlin could feel his warm breath gusting against his cheek, and something clammy was gently lifted from his neck. “Here. Got him! Open the door again, will you, Morgana?”
Arthur bent and lowered his hands to the wet floor outside.
Merlin couldn’t help noticing that Arthur’s trousers were well-fitted and snug against his buttocks. He was only human. Breathing through his nose, he closed his eyes and sent up a silent prayer for forgiveness, then looked down again, barely noticing the way that a tiny frog hopped off Arthur’s palm and lolloped away across the grass towards the pond.
“There,” said Arthur, straightening.
“Erm.” Looking, up, away, at anything, anything but the place where Arthur’s perfect arse had just been, Merlin cast around for something intelligent to say. “I see. Well. Haha! That might make it. A frog collar, rather than the customary dog collar. Haha.” Smooth, Merlin, really smooth. He bit his lip. “Erm. Anyway. Thanks, I’ll... “ he coughed, “Frog in my throat. Haha. Well. I’ll just go and change.” He gestured to his dripping wet clothes. “Erm. Kitchen’s that way. Pop the kettle on will you? Mine’s a peppermint tea. Black, no sugar.”
Turning to go up the stairs with as much wounded dignity as he could muster, Merlin promptly bashed his head on the oak beam.
But later on, after they’d finished discussing the production schedule, they munched their way through the last of the jammy dodgers and were busy suggesting innuendo-laden hymns, when the doorbell rang.
“So. Come Thou O Mighty King?” said Merlin with a chuckle. “No. Too obvious.”
“How about Come, Come Ye Saints?” said Arthur, grinning. “Followed by Rise Up O Men of God.”
“Brilliant!” Clapping, Morgana lifted her shoulders in a delighted shrug. But then she frowned. “But we need some for the lesbians in the congregation as well. And the transgender folks.”
“Make Me a Channel of your Peace?” said Merlin. “Oh, God, I’m going to hell for this.”
“This service, Merlin,” said Arthur, with a lopsided quirk of his lips. “There was me thinking it was going to be held in a church, but no, it’s taking place behind the bike sheds?”
“Stop it!” Merlin was giggling so loudly that he nearly spat out his tea.
The doorbell rang again.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” said Arthur.
“No point,” said Merlin through a mouthful of crumbs.
Sure enough, at that moment Gwen sprang through the front door.
“Vic-sticks! Have you seen Morgana? Morgause has got out, and she’s terrorising the parish. Oh! Morgana!” Gwen’s mouth dropped open and then she giggled, looking up at Morgana through her lashes.
Merlin sank heavily into the chair, hands curled round his mug, and smiled at his verger. This was his favourite part of Sunday: winding down after Evensong with a cup of tea and a biscuit, chatting to his verger about the events of the day.
“Another successful service, Vic-sticks!” Gwen took a slurp of her tea. “This tea is vic-a-licious as usual.”
“It did go well, didn’t it.” He beamed. “Even Uther Pendragon didn’t get up and walk out”
“Mmm. Mind you, he might have been a bit distracted by Katrina Evergreen’s hair-do!” With a knowing wink, Gwen dunked her jammy dodger in her tea.
“He was, wasn’t he? Do you think I could hire her to come every Sunday?” He laughed. “He looked all dreamy-eyed for the whole service. Even shook my hand afterwards.”
In recent weeks, Uther had showed signs of thawing out. In some services, he barely scowled at all.
“So,” she said, all dimple-cheeked. “Do you have a joke for me today?” It was a long-standing tradition of theirs. Merlin was desperately trying to educate the literal-minded Gwen into understanding his sense of humour.
“Of course. Erm. Let me see… I know! Knock knock!”
“Ooooh, I love these ones!” Gwen clapped her hands. “Who’s there?”
“The interrupting sheep.”
“Wait. You can’t have that. Sheep don’t knock at doors. Their hooves are not very dextrous.”
“Okay, okay. The interrupting...” Merlin cast about for a suitable alternative, one with fists.
“Vicar?” suggested Gwen. “Vicars can knock on doors.”
“Okay then. The interrupting vicar.”
“The interrupting vicar, who?”
“Wait.” Merlin held up a finger. “We have to start again. I’ve lost my rhythm. Knock knock.”
“The interrupting vicar.”
“The interrupting vic--”
“That’s just rude!” Her mouth dropped open. “So, what’s the punchline?”
“That was the punchline.” He sighed. “It’s much funnier with a sheep.”
“In the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.” Punctuating his words with the sign of the cross in the time honoured way, Merlin closed the service.
“Amen,” chorused the congregation.
Grunnhilde started playing the organ. Solemnly, Merlin, Gwaine and Gwen filed out, followed by the rest of them, while one of Bach’s preludes echoed around the ancient, brick-and-flint building.
As Merlin emerged into the dappled sunlight that filtered through the ivy-covered porch, he felt a sense of peace and wonder. Which was shattered moments later by the pealing bells. Dibley campanological society was a group known more for its enthusiasm than its skill. But Merlin wouldn’t have it any other way.
Uther Pendragon, as usual, was the last out of the church.
“Nice sermon, vicar,” he said, shaking Merlin’s hand.
Merlin always found it disconcerting when Uther praised him.
“Oh. Did you like it?” he replied, bracing himself for the catch.
“Yes, indeed. I don’t think any of our previous vicars has ever likened Jesus to Morrissey before!”
“Well, thank you! I’m so glad you agree with my premise. Because, I’ve always thought that the early work of The Smiths--”
“I didn’t say I agreed with it, vicar. However, and this is more important, it was mercifully short.” Turning away with a smirk, Uther strode off, leaving Merlin with his mouth agape.
“Don’t worry, Merlin,” said Morgana, smiling at his evident discomfort. “Father likes you really.”
“He’s got a funny way of showing it.” Sighing, Merlin plastered a fake smile to his face as he shook hands with the rest of his parishioners, including several small children, a toy poodle, and one of Gwaine’s sheep. His was a broad church, he liked to think.
As the stream of people slowed to a trickle, he found his mind drifting a little. He was looking forward to a nice cuppa and maybe a slice of home-made lemon drizzle cake when a figure draped in waxed jacket and hat, wearing sunglasses, approached him and made to shake his hand.
“Thank you vicar,” this mysterious personage said, pumping his hand enthusiastically. “I can safely say that that’s the most enjoyable sermon I’ve listened to for a long time. And I’ve heard a few, I can tell you!”
“Arthur!” Feeling his face heat, Merlin shook his hand back. “I didn’t recognise you! You must be boiling in all that clobber on a day like this!”
“Well, that’s kind of the idea.” Arthur chuckled, his voice muffled by his incongruously warm-looking scarf. “I didn’t want Father to see me. Although I regretted the sunglasses. I would have loved to have seen Father’s face when you said that ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’ was like a modern day Lamentations.”
“Yes, well, in a very profound sense Mr Shankly was a metaphor for God, while obviously the singer, which was Morrisey in this instance, was using the song as a vehicle for his declaration that he would continue to respect God, but had been terribly hard done by, but he wouldn’t lose faith, not even--”
“Merlin. It was brilliant, really, and I have a renewed desire to go and listen to 1980s emo music, for which I thank you. But in the meantime, the reason why I’m really here is to talk to you about our upcoming venture.”
“Got it. Sorry, I do go on sometimes.” Looking down, Merlin realised that they were still shaking hands. “Er… can I have my hand back, please?”
“Erm.” Arthur dropped his hand as if it was on fire. “Right. Well, let’s…?”
“I’ll be ready in a minute. Just got to pop into the vestry and get rid of this lot.” He gestured towards his robes.
“Yes. I did wonder if there was a reason why you had a daffodil sticking out of your hair.”
“It’s in homage to Morrissey. I don’t know if you remember, but he used to have a daffodil shoved in the back of his--.”
“I know.” Arthur’s voice was teasing, and Merlin could feel his blush rising past his collar and threatening to make inroads on his hairline.
“Oh. Right. Yes. Well. Anyway. Let yourself in, the door’s open.” Mortified, Merlin tried to think of something unembarrassing to help his colour return to normal.
“Yes, because like everyone else in this village, you haven’t yet heard of security, nor privacy.”
“I did try locking it once,” called Merlin over his shoulder as he headed back into the church. “But I just had to keep on opening it for people. It wasn’t worth it.”
One of the most difficult things that Merlin, as a vicar, was called upon to do, was to talk about someone who has departed this life. It was also a great privilege. He’d carried out funerals before, of course. But this one was different. Because Grunnhilde had been a personal friend.
“There is much in this life that makes me feel pessimistic about humanity,” he said into the ringing silence that followed Abide With Me. “Sometimes, when bloodshed, hatred and anger dominate the news headlines, it’s tempting to fall into despondency. But then you come across someone so kind, so full of generosity, that they make you feel like you have glimpsed the divine. Such people fill you with hope for the future. Grunnhilde was one of those people.”
He paused for a moment, in remembrance.
“I remember when I first came to Dibley. She was one of the first people to welcome me. She left me a loaf of home-baked bread. She’d been experimenting with a new recipe, and the thing was as dense as a brick. To be honest, I think I’ve still got it somewhere.”
A muted sigh of recognition arose from the congregation, and Gwen, the warmhearted soul, blew her nose. Morgana lay a protective arm along the back of the pew behind her.
It was hard, at moments like this, to maintain his composure, but he thought of Grunnhilde, knitting him a scarf to get him through the last winter. He recalled the expectant expression on her face when he had unwrapped it and twirled it thickly about his neck, for it was rather long. And then there was that time when she had brought him sweet peas that she had grown on her allotment, great handfuls of them cascading over her arms. Their delicate scent had filled the vicarage for days.
He forced himself to continue without letting his voice waver, despite the sudden blurring of his eyes.
But later on, when he sought the comfort of his couch and a solitary glass of whiskey, he privately admitted, first to Jesus and then to Idris, that it had been touch and go.
It was while he was still sitting, letting the peaty burn of his precious Bunnahabhain swill around his mouth, that he finally allowed himself to relax. His shoulders ached from the tension of the day, and his head was beginning to throb.
A flurry of imperious knocks at the door made his heart, already low, sink.
“Come in, whoever you are,” he said, loudly. “You will anyway,” he added under his breath.
Sure enough, the door burst open.
“Oh. Uther. What can I do for you?” His heart, if anything, jumped down another notch.
“Good evening, vicar.” Uther, ever the gentleman, hung his coat and hat on the hook, and ducked skillfully under the treacherous oak beam as he entered the living room. “I just wanted to drop in for a chat, if that’s all right.”
Merlin felt his eyebrows rise, a habit he’d begun to pick up from Gaius, but managed not to express his surprise out loud. Uther was not the sort of man who was prone to chats. Issuing orders was more his forte.
“Of course,” he managed to say instead, patting the sofa so that Uther would have somewhere to sit.
“I mean, I don’t wish to impose. But I just wanted to say thank you. Your service today… it was very moving and very fitting. Grunnhilde was a real character and we’ll all miss her.”
Taken aback, Merlin stuttered out his thanks, but Uther waved his hand as if he wanted to continue.
“Funerals are hard. I have seen too many.” Uther’s face was in shadow, but Merlin could see the pain etched in its lines. “And no matter how hard I try, they all remind me of my wife’s.” The words were bald and flat, but they clearly cost him dear.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Uther,” said Merlin. To his own surprise, he found himself reaching out to touch Uther’s arm. It felt warm under his hand.
“You don’t get to my age without having to live through loss, Merlin. I would love to say that it gets easier, but you probably know by now that it does not.”
“I know what you mean.” Swallowing, Merlin nodded. “Every funeral is an echo of what has gone before, and what will be. That’s why the words of the sacrament bring such comfort and such pain.”
“I see that you understand.” Uther sighed. “I have to admit, that I was initially sceptical about having someone… like you as a vicar. A homosexual person. But over the recent months, I have come to realise that you are an honourable man. A good man. A good vicar. And I thank you for that.”
“I… I don’t know what to say.” Merlin blinked. “Thank you?”
Uther nodded and rose to his feet.
“You have made me realise something,” Uther added, as he tugged his hat down from the peg and went to open the front door of the tiny cottage. “Just because you are unconventional, does not make you immoral. My son… my son is a homosexual. I am afraid that I didn’t give him a chance to show me what kind of man he is. Well, I have decided to put that behind me and try to mend bridges. It is about time that I tried to be a better father. Life is too short to waste it on petty squabbles.”
“That’s good.” Somewhat stunned at being entrusted with this confession, Merlin made to stand up. “It takes great courage to seek forgiveness from those whom we love.”
“Don’t get up, Merlin. I’ll see myself out.” And with a gentle click of the door, Uther was gone.
“That’s a lovely Jericho model, Freya, well done. I particularly like all the paper… people and… are they animals?” Merlin was on Sunday School duty, and the under-tens had been keeping him busy. Peering a little more closely at the structure, he frowned. “Skeletons. My, they are very realistic, aren’t they? What’s all the red? And the grey colouring?”
“It’s blood,” she said, matter-of-factly. “And squished brains. They’re dead people, Mr Emrys. And dead pigs and cows and horses. Flat ones. Cos the walls came tumbling down, and they would have squished them all. Squish, squish, squish.” She slapped her little hand against the table for emphasis.
“Thank you, Freya.” Merlin winced at each slap.
“Like bugs,” she added solemnly.
“That’s wrong, Freya, they di’nt have pigs in them times.” Young Leon was always keen to get details right. “They was Jewish, see. They di’nt eat pigs, yer Jews di’nt.”
“Well, technically speaking…” began Merlin, but at that moment, the doors burst open, and a stream of adoring parents trickled in. He had lost track of time, as usual.
Children flung themselves at their parents and carers as if they were magnets and the children were iron filings.
“All right.” Merlin cleared his throat and tried to raise his voice above the din. “Wait! Children! Please take your models of Jericho, and your paper trumpets, and put them to dry on the table. Then, carefully tidy up the… children!”
But it was too late. The parents were already tugging their children away, tapping their watches with apologetic shrugs. The room emptied amid clouds of coloured sand, paint, PVA glue and bits of glitter.
Merlin stood, scratching his head, and examined the chaos in the sudden silence. He grimaced as he stared down at his clothes, picking off a piece of tissue paper with a sigh.
“Would you like a hand with that?”
“What?” He whirled around, noticing too late that he was standing on a slippery piece of tissue paper, and ending up falling heavily into a pile of multicoloured feathers. “Whoops! Ow.”
“Ups-a-daisy!” An obliging arm reached down to tug him back to his feet.
“Arthur!” Merlin felt the heat rising to his cheeks as his gaze was met by amused blue eyes and a sardonic grin. “Do you deliberately look for me when I’m knee deep in something ridiculous?”
“No, Merlin, I am merely lucky.” Arthur chuckled. “You have glitter in your hair.” As usual, he was impeccably dressed. His fine blond hair looked like it had just been washed, and it framed his handsome film-star features perfectly. It certainly didn’t look like it could ever be a haven for glitter.
“Oh, hell’s bells. Thanks.” Blushing furiously, Merlin dabbed at his hair. Sure enough, his hands came away covered in rainbow sparkles. Silently he muttered a rude word to himself and prayed for patience.
“Suits you,” said Arthur, still smiling. “Come on, give me a cloth to get all this paint off the floor. It’s probably grade 3 listed. You’ll have Father on at you about restoration costs before you can say Church Hall Flooring Appeal.”
So, while Merlin salvaged as many craft materials as he could from the chaos, Arthur knelt on the floor, attacking the most stubborn paint stains with gusto.
“Hmm?” Arthur was turned away from him, arse in the air, and the no-doubt expensive, perfectly cut fabric of his trousers held snug to the contours of his buttocks. Merlin could see the way that they flexed as he worked.
Swallowing, Merlin closed his eyes and counted to ten, willing his breathing to slow.
“Merlin? Are you all right?” Thankfully, Arthur, with a concerned look in his eye, was back on his feet by the time Merlin thought it was safe to look.
“Feel.” He swallowed again, to hide the hoarseness of his voice. “You know. A bit. Ahem.” He bit his lip. Arthur’s eyes flicked down to watch the movement. “Dizzy.”
“I’m not surprised.” When Arthur reached out to put a reassuring hand to his arm, and steer him towards a chair, he felt like a complete fraud. “Those kids are too much for any sane person. Sit here, I’ll deal with this lot.”
Arthur’s hand was firm and strong. And afterwards, Merlin sat quietly, watching Arthur’s swaying arse and praying for forgiveness while Arthur made short work of the remaining jumble. And his arm still felt warm where Arthur had touched it.
“So. What. Erm. Brings you to. You know. Dibley?” Merlin tried to keep a normal tone in his voice.
“Actually, I came hoping to find you here with an incongruous object stuck to your dog collar again.” Arthur laughed.
“Glad to make you feel so happy.” Merlin looked at his feet with a frown,
“I’m sorry, Merlin.” Abruptly, Arthur stopped laughing and put a firm hand on his arm again. “I was only joking. I actually came to thank you.”
“Yes. Apparently, my father has finally discovered that just because someone has a non-heteronormative lifestyle, that doesn’t mean they’re not an actual person.”
“Nice of him.”
“Yes. Indeed. According to Morgana he’s quite the changed man, since you turned up in Dibley. He even tells jokes! And Morgana leads me to believe that I have you to thank for that. So I wanted to thank you in person before I brave the lion’s den, as it were. He’s invited me round to lunch.”
“Really?” An incredulous smile stole its way onto Merlin’s face. “He did? Oh, Arthur, I’m so pleased!” Before he could stop himself, he stepped forward and wrapped Arthur up in an enthusiastic hug. But Arthur pulled back, as if stung.
“Sorry,” added Merlin, with a shrug, his heart sinking. “I - erm. Gwen says I’m a bit too tactile someti--mmf.”
“Idiot.” This time, Arthur’s bear-hug more than matched his for enthusiasm. “I was surprised, that’s all. God. I mean, Jesus. I mean. Oh shit. Oops. Fuck. Oh no! Sorry.”
“Potty mouth!” Merlin couldn’t help bursting out laughing. Arthur sounded so awkward!
Arthur’s arms felt so strong around Merlin’s shoulders, and his body, still warm from the exertion of clearing up all the toys, was firm and yet relaxed, shoulders shaking with laughter. If Merlin concentrated, he thought that he could feel the steady thump, thump of Arthur’s heart through his clothes.
It probably wasn’t much longer than a second or two before they parted. They stood an arm’s length apart, still laughing at each other, for a moment longer.
Arthur’s eyes were so blue, and how had Merlin not noticed before how kind they were? It was as if he had a heavy layer of armour, constructed from his seriousness and sarcasm, but underneath was a man who was full of joy and playfulness. Merlin found himself wishing for something, but he couldn’t put a name to it until Arthur had shaken his hand one more time and then pulled on his heavy winter coat to leave.
“Oh, by the way.” Arthur stood in the doorway, holding his umbrella ready to put it up. “I managed to talk the production team round. Mordred’s coming. I know you like his work.”
“Wow!” Merlin beamed. “But you didn’t have to--”
“On the contrary. It was the least I could do.” With a nod, Arthur pulled the door closed behind him.
As Merlin stood in the now silent church hall, the echo of fond laughter played in his ears, and something deep inside him ached.
Several weeks later
“Morning, Vicar.” Gwaine strode into the crowded vicarage without knocking, ducking to avoid the oak beam, and waving at the room, with Percy, his enormous dog, trailing in behind him. “Heel, Perce. Can’t stop for long, Elena has just whelped. Afterbirth all over the kitchen floor. Took me a while to clean up. I can’t really leave Percy in there with Elena and the puppies. Bloody Nora, you’ve got a full house in here today! What’s the occasion?”
“Only getting together for a cup of tea before filming,” Merlin’s heart sank. Trust Gwaine to barge in. It was only eight o clock in the morning, and already he had an impending sense of doom.
“I hope you washed your hands,” said Morgana. “Down, Morgause!”
This last exclamation did nothing to stop Morgause from jumping up at Gwaine and licking his face and fingers ecstatically.
“Yeah, took me ages to get the gungy bits out from under my fingernails. So, what’s the fire drill?” There was a pause while Gwaine, still fondling Morgause’s ears, took in the other occupants of the room.
Sighing, Merlin waited for the penny to drop. Three, two, one...
“Jesus fucking H Christ on a unicycle! You must be that Mordred Jones bloke.” Gwaine strode over, grabbing Mordred’s hand between both of his. Mordred extracted his hands hastily, visibly shuddering at the contact.
“Language, Gwaine!” Frowning, Merlin pointed to the picture of Jesus on the wall.
“Oops, sorry. But it is you, isn’t it? Heard you on telly,” Gwaine added, oblivious to Mordred’s evident discomfort. “Love ‘The Snowman’! Banging tune, nice pipes, mate! Merlin was so excited when he heard you were coming. He was like a dog with two di--”
“Gwaine!” said Arthur, sharply.
“There’s a bear in the room!” Mordred extended a shaky finger towards Percy, who was running round and round Morgause in ecstatic circles.
“What? Nah, that’s no bear, that’s Percy. He’s a Bouvier des Flandres. We’ve got some Bouvier - Lab cross puppies if you’re interested?”
“Keep your mutt off my pointer, Gwaine,” frowned Morgana, tugging on Morgause’s collar and telling her to sit. “I don’t want any more little cross-breeds running around.”
It was the morning before Songs Of Praise would be filmed, and Mordred Jones, Arthur, Morgana, Merlin, and Gwen were all squeezed awkwardly together in the cramped vicarage living room. There really wasn’t room for anyone else on the sofa, but Gwaine managed to squeeze in anyway, pressed between Morgana and Mordred--who flinched, and shrank away from him.
That’s when Percy noticed the untouched plate of home-made scones on Mordred’s lap. Merlin had spent hours making them, not to mention the extremely expensive clotted cream. Unfortunately, it seemed that Percy was rather partial to strawberry jam. With an enthusiastic “woof”, he made a bee-line for the plate, dislodging the whole lot and making an unholy mess of Mordred’s lap.
“I’m so sorry, Mr Jones.” Merlin rushed to dab at Mordred’s trousers with a tea towel.
“Please, please, leave it!” Wild-eyed, Mordred snatched the tea-towel and frantically wiping down his trousers. “Please!”
“So, Mordred,” said Gwen, edging forward to the front of her seat, chin on her hands. “Do you think Karen will be here today?”
“What?” Mordred looked puzzled. Merlin could see him surreptitiously trying to nudge Percy off his foot. “Karen who?”
“Karen Gillen. I’ve got a couple of little things for her to autograph.” She gestured to a heavy-looking, thirty-litre rucksack. “It must be so nice to live in a flat with her and Idris, they’re so lovely--”
“More tea?” said Merlin, springing to his feet, trying to find a distraction before Gwen could reveal too many of his fantasies. He’d have to talk to her later about what the words “imagine”, “private” and “don’t tell anyone” actually mean.
“No thanks,” said Mordred, gloomily. “Tea plays havoc with my diverticulitis. Dear God, what in heaven’s name is that smell?” Hastily, he dragged an immaculately pressed handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his nose.
“Er. Morgause!” admonished Morgana. “She can’t help it. German pointers are notoriously gassy. She--”
“Coffee? Orange juice? Ribena?” Mentally rummaging in his cupboard and fridge, Merlin floundered for a minute. “Milk?”
“No, no,” Mordred frowned at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. Cheap coffee gives me an ectopic heart beat. I can only drink Kopi Luwak. Would someone please get rid of this ridiculous person and his bear?” He flapped a hand at Gwaine without looking at him. “I can smell dog afterbirth, mingled with clotted cream. I feel quite queasy. Please bring me some warm water. Just boiled. Fresh out of the kettle, mind. But not too hot.” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a bottle of rescue remedy.
“Of course,” Flustered, Merlin dashed into the kitchen and tried to work out how to cool down freshly-boiled water.
A warm hand on his shoulder made him jump.
“Arthur! What are you doing here? Do you think I can put a cup of hot water in the freezer? Or will it melt my frozen peas?
“Came in to give you a hand. Don’t worry about old fusspot in there,” he added in a low voice, jerking his head towards the lounge. “He really likes you, I can tell.”
“Thanks.” Merlin didn’t believe him, but he didn’t want to disappoint Arthur, not when he was smiling at him like that, his eyes so impossibly blue and full of hope that they might as well be sapphires. So, he swallowed his words and beamed back, instead.
“Yes. Well. I.” Arthur gulped and looked away. “Wanted to. You know. Help.”
“In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
As strains of “Amazing Grace” echoed around the church, Merlin beamed at the camera, the congregation, and Dibley brass band, full of bonhomie and fellow feeling.
The “Dibley Pride” service had been brilliant. Valdis, a trans woman from a neighbouring parish, who had helped with the Eucharist, joined him as they processed down the aisle. He tried to look suitably solemn, he really did, but it was just too joyful an occasion.
He was still on a high when he sat out in the sunshine to chat to Mordred, on camera, about his ministry. It was a rare, perfect day. They’d chosen a spot next to the church, where the brick and flint erupted into a riot of blushing, pale-pink climbing roses. The sun cast dizzying shadows onto the warm red brickwork to his left, but behind him stood a deep green, gnarly yew.
Merlin was just getting into his stride, explaining parallels between the exile of the Israelites in Egypt and Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy”, when Arthur came rushing in.
“Cut,” said Elyan, the director, in a resigned voice. “What is it, Arthur?”
“Sorry, El. Mordred, is that your Mercedes parked outside the churchyard? Because I saw a very triumphant looking traffic warden with a wheel-clamp…”
“What?” said Merlin. “But we don--”
“What?” Speaking at the same time, Mordred paled, visibly. “I’m going to have to go.”
“But--” said Merlin.
“Sorry, Merlin,” said Arthur.
Meanwhile, Mordred had flung down his microphone and was striding away from the set.
“Erm - Arthur, you carry on with the interview will you?” he called over his shoulder, feet blurring in his haste.
“Trust me,” said Arthur, in a warm voice, that sounded more like a purr, “It’ll be my pleasure.” His eyes raked Merlin’s carefully chosen casual post-service clothes appreciatively, until Merlin felt himself blushing under his gaze, and quite forgetting his earlier objections to Mordred’s hasty departure.
It was only at the conclusion of the interview, after all the production staff and cameramen had made their goodbyes and he’d exchanged his lemon drizzle cake recipe with Elyan, who was rather lovely, that Merlin remembered what had bothered him.
“Traffic warden, in Dibley?” Merlin frowned at Arthur as they walked together back to the vicarage for a well-deserved cup of tea. “Really? I happen to know we don’t have traffic wardens in Dibley.”
“Well,” Arthur laughed. “I didn’t see why Mordred should get to monopolise you. So I might have just invented a pretext to have you to myself.”
“What me? But why?”
“God only knows.” The sweet tilt to his lips and the soft fondness in his eyes gave the lie to his words. “Stop there a sec.”
They both stopped, and Arthur leaned forward, and gently plucked something out of his hair.
“You had. You know. A rose petal,” said Arthur, not moving away.The light made his hair shine gold and his eyes glow impossibly blue.
“What is it about you and things in my hair?” murmured Merlin, turning his head towards Arthur like a flower turning towards the sun.
“Not sure,” whispered Arthur, bending forward.
Merlin felt a sudden pang of something, something so strong that he thought he would melt from the force of it. Dazzled, he closed his eyes.
Vigorous woofing and loud cries jolted him out of his reverie. Arthur sprang away from him as if stung.
“Merlin? There you are!” Amid a cacophony of barks, Morgause came bounding up with Gwen and Morgana in her wake.
“Where’s the fire,” joked Merlin, trying not to let the disappointment and confusion show in his face. Had Arthur been about to kiss him? What would he have done if he did?
“Morgana has asked me out,” said Gwen, the excitement blazing from her face. “And I said yes!”
“Thank you so much, Vicar. Dibley Pride was so wonderful, I just felt I had to act straight away. We’re going to tell Father,” said Morgana. Grabbing Gwen’s hand, she kissed it, gently. “But we wanted you to be the first to know.”
“Woof!” said Morgause, tongue lolling out.
Overwhelmed, Merlin watched them run, hand in hand, down the lane amid the nodding trees. When he turned back, Arthur was walking on towards the vicarage.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” he said, over his shoulder.
The following Sunday, when he and Gwen shared their customary post-Evensong cuppa, he couldn’t rein in his curiosity for a moment longer.
“So, er.” He nudged her. “You and Morgana, then. Going well?” He winked.
“Vicar! That’s private! Don’t be naughty!” But he could see from the way that she bit her lip that she was dying to tell him more.
“Oh, Gwen. You have actual hearts in your actual eyes.”
“Don’t be silly.” She made a face but then slipped back into a sheepish grin. “Yes! And yesterday, we tried. You know.” She mouthed the word “Sex” at him.
“Yes!” She clapped her hands. “It’s amazing isn’t it?” She mouthed the word again. “Sex.”
“I have actually got no idea.”
“What?” Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you’re a....”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “It’s not straightforward, you know, uploading a picture to grindr when you’re a vicar. Hi, I’m Merlin. Looking for a committed relationship. By the way, I’m already married to the church.” Glaring at his tea as if it was responsible for all his woes, he dunked his chocolate hob-nob with a vicious twist of his hand.
“You’ll find your Prince Charming, Merlin, I know you will. There must be someone you like.”
“Yeah. Lots of people.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But I don’t know how to make a move.”
“Morgana and I took ages.” She smiled. “Maybe you just need a bit more time. Hey, do you have a joke for me today?”
“Of course.” Grateful, he smiled at her transparent attempt to change the subject and racked his brains.
“All right, all right! Here we go.”
She watched him, earnest-faced and solemn.
“A priest, a rabbi and an imam go into a bar. The barman says, ‘is this some kind of joke?’” Tipping his head back, Merlin gave into peals of laughter.
“No, that doesn’t work.” Forehead creasing, Gwen shook her head. “Because imams don’t go into pubs. Muslims don’t drink, you really should pay more attention at the Dibley multi-faith prayer meetings. Naughty vicar!” she wagged an admonishing finger at him.
“All right. Costa Coffee, then. No, Starbucks! A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into Starbucks and the coffee-making person - what are they called again?”
“Bar-something. Bar sisters?” said Gwen.
“The bar sister said…”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Gwen nodded. “Yes, you see Merlin, that would work. Okay, what’s the punchline?”
“That was the punchline. It’s a cliche, you see. Well, actually two cliches. So it’s funny. Classic.”
“Never mind, Vic-sticks.” Tilting her head on one side, she treated him to one of her pitying looks. “Keep practising, I’m sure you’ll think of a funny joke one day.”
“That one is funny!”
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Merlin waved at Gaius, who had taken over from Grunnhilde on the organ, to begin playing so that they could all file out.
But nothing happened. When Merlin looked more carefully, he could see that Gaius had fallen asleep. He exchanged a panicky look with Gwen.
“AMEN!” Gwen yelled, making several people in the congregation jump.
Waking up with a start, Gaius flicked through the music on the organ music for a tortuous few seconds and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
Merlin prayed for strength for a second, then pointed first at his watch, then the door of the church.
Nodding, Gaius put his fingers on the keyboard and started to play. It took Merlin a second to recognise Adele’s “Make you feel my love”. After a moment or two, the choir started to sing along.
As usual, Merlin stood outside the church greeting people as they left. And also as usual, Uther was the last to leave. But this week, he had a guest - Arthur, who was visiting from London. It gave Merlin such a warm feeling to know that father and son were becoming reconciled. That warmth must account for the deep blush that he could feel starting on his neck and threatening to bloom out across his cheeks.
Uther and Arthur were deep in conversation as they waited in the line outside the church for Merlin to finish greeting his other parishioners. Merlin imagined them having an earnest discussion about spiritual matters, but as they moved closer it was clear that he was mistaken.
Arthur was speaking.
“Interrupting sheep w--”
“BAAA!” yelled Uther, erupting into peals of giggles.
Merlin didn’t think he’d ever heard Uther laugh before. If he’d ever imagined such an extraordinary thing, which he hadn’t, it would have been some sort of deep, manly bellow or guffaw. But no. While one of his crustier parishioners droned on about the peculiar habits of incomers to the villagers, and how it hadn’t been like that in his day, Merlin watched, mesmerised, as Uther’s face creased up into happy lines, and tiny breaths squeezing out of him in helpless little squeaks. Arms flapping, Uther bent in two, as if all his muscles were suddenly weakened.
“So sorry, Mr Aredian.” Coming back to himself, Merlin grinned. “I was away with the fairies, there!”
“Common problem for your sort, I’d have thought.” Mr Aredian shuffled off before Merlin could think of a suitable witty retort.
“Ah, Vicar!” said Uther, pumping Merlin’s hand enthusiastically. “Lovely to see you. Lovely day!”
“Er, yes,” said Merlin, pointedly not looking at the heavy grey sky nor the spots of drizzle that were beginning to settle on his surplice. “Lovely. Um. Weather.”
“We were just saying, weren’t we Arthur? That we’d love to have you round for afternoon tea today. Gwen and Morgana are coming too. Four o’clock sharp. Don’t wear smart clothes. Morgana’s benighted dog is not to be trusted, haha.”
Merlin floundered for a second at this uncharacteristically jovial version of Uther.
But by the time Merlin had opened his mouth to protest, Uther had gone, leaving only Arthur behind, smiling softly and shaking Merlin’s hand.
“I’m sorry if you had plans,” said Arthur. “But it would be lovely if you could come.”
Despite the dismal weather, Arthur looked as if he was bathed in a golden light for a moment, and Merlin couldn’t breath.
“Of course,” he found himself saying. “I… I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Merlin had a horror of being late. Which is why he found himself standing in front of Idris, nervously fiddling with his civilian clothes, at 3.30pm, a good twenty minutes before he needed to leave the house.
“Well, Idris,” he said gazing into his hero’s beautiful eyes. “Wish me luck. I think I’ll go the long way round. I’m ridiculously nervous. I’m just going to tea with Uther, I’ve done it hundreds of times, right? Right. Thanks. You’ve been a great help.”
Sighing, he pulled on his shoes and took a deep breath before straightening, bashing his head on the beam, and heading out through the front door, still rubbing his hair.
The drizzle had turned into the sort of light rain that could lull the unwary into a false sense of security. Merlin’s elderly raincoat was drenched in seconds. But for some reason, despite the grim weather, Dibley’s citizens - or denizens, as he sometimes called them - were out in force.
First he was nearly bowled over by Percy. If his face hadn’t been wet before, the flurry of enthusiastic licks would have changed that.
“Ugh, Percy, get down!” he said, as Gwaine ran up and dragged apologetically on Percy’s lead.
“Sorry mate,” said Gwaine. “He’s getting a bit strong, isn’t he!”
“It’s all right.” Sighing, he ruffled Percy’s ears and gazed ruefully at the muddy pawprints on his coat. At least the rain would wash them off.
But Percy and Gwaine weren’t the end of it. He was just pushing open the gate to Dibley Manor when Gaius came put-putting around the corner on his moped, pulling a trailer containing a box of chickens. Gaius’s moped didn’t go much faster than he could walk, but he was inordinately proud of it.
“You’ve lost one of your chickens,” called Merlin, waving at Gaius to stop.
“What?” Stopping the moped, Gaius cupped his ear with his hand. “I can’t hear you!”
“Chicken! Escaped!” Behind the moped, Merlin could see a beautiful speckled-brown hen, vigorously trotting off the wrong way back down the lane. Without thinking, he started to sprint off after her, but evidently this made her panic and in her fright she darted into the hedge.
“Don’t worry, Gaius,” he called out, diving head-first into the hedge after her. “I’ve got her!”
By the time Merlin had coaxed her out with a tempting snack from Gaius’s pocket, he was soaked through to the skin and his wellies were covered in thick globs of mud from the ditch that ran along the lane.
With a quick glance at his watch, he realised he was twenty-three minutes late.
“Hells Bells,” he shouted. “I’ve got to go. Sorry Gaius!”
“Bye bye, my boy.” Gaius slowly inched his leg back over the seat of his moped and waved a cheery farewell.
Wiping his slightly muddy hands on his raincoat, Merlin stood on the porch of Dibley Manor, with a hopeful expression on his face that was rewarded by Arthur answering the door.
“Merlin!” When Arthur grinned lopsidedly at him like that, it made Merlin’s heart thump. “You’re drenched! Let me take your coat.”
“Sorry I’m late.” Merlin stepped over the threshold, trying not to drip onto the expensive, polished parquet as he shrugged off his coat. “Had a bit of an eventful trip.”
“I can see that.” Still smiling, Arthur plucked something from behind his ear. “Let me see. You’ve turned into a bird and flown off into the jungle.”
“Honestly, I swear you keep putting things there on purpose,” said Merlin. He frowned at the hen’s feather and sycamore leaf that Arthur was holding on tentative fingertips. “Oh. That was one of Gaius’s hens. They escaped, you see. And I was just…”
“Crawling through the hedge to help one of our ridiculous parishioners again. Honestly, Merlin, this village doesn’t deserve you.”
Trying to ignore the warmth that threatened to overwhelm him at this praise, Merlin followed Arthur through to Uther’s ornate drawing room, where everyone else was waiting.
“Merlin!” Gwen ran up to him and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re the coldest vicar I have ever met!” Her hands flew up to her cheeks as if in shock. “Oh! You’re a vicar! Merlin! You’re a vicar! Arthur, Merlin’s a vicar!”
“Well, yes. Do you mean to say you only just noticed?” Puzzled, he bent to greet Morgause, who was weaving ecstatic figure-of-eight patterns through his legs.
“Ah, Vicar, Nice of you to join us,” said Uther, stepping forward. “Do help yourself to cake, everyone. I’ll go and see here the tea has got to.”
The table was laden with delicious-looking snacks, and Merlin found his mouth watering as he ladled generous portions of scones onto his plate.
“So, what was that all about, Gwen?” he said. Shovelling a large forkful of scone into his mouth, he moaned through a mouthful of clotted cream. “Oh, heavens, this is gorgeous!”
“Manners Merlin,” she said, primly. “I just had the most brilliant idea. Arthur! Arthur?” She called out across the room. “You know that problem you asked me about?”
“No!” Arthur looked positively alarmed as he strode across. “That was in confidence, Gwen, you mustn’t--”
“Don’t be such a silly sausage,” she said, ignoring his protests. “This is our vicar, here, he hears confessions all the time! You can trust him! Merlin! Arthur asked me for advice, and I thought, I know, Merlin’s a vicar, so who better than Merlin to tell him?”
“Gwen!” Arthur’s expression darkened.
“Shh, Vic-Sticks will help you, Arthur, you’ll see. Because, who better than a vicar to give you advice on how to ask a vicar out?” She gazed at them both in triumph. “You see? It’s simple really, I don’t know why you didn’t think of it yourself.”
She patted Arthur pityingly on the arm, and then popped over to the other side of the room, to help herself to a large slice of chocolate Malteser dream cake.
Arthur’s face had acquired a most pleasing pink tinge which really accented the cut of his cheekbones and the line of his jaw.
“Um.” Standing, Merlin felt an echoing blush steal across his face, mirroring Arthur’s. “So. Um. Know a lot of vicars, do you, Arthur? I mean, ones that you’d like to um. Ask. Out.”
“Not that many.” With that familiar sweet-looking quirk of his lips, Arthur shook his head. “Just the one actually. That I’d like to ask out, I mean.”
“Hmm.” Merlin nodded and feeling greatly daring stepped across the carpet on socks that only squelched a minute amount. “Well, I reckon I’m right. I think I can help you there.”
“Really?” Arthur leaned in.
“Yeah.” Turning his head, he spoke so softly so that his voice was not much above a whisper. “My advice would be, just to ask. And see what happens.”
“Okay.” Arthur’s hand was warm, but he could feel it tremble on his harm. “Well, this may sound odd. But I’ve noticed you, vicar. Performing your errands for your ungrateful flock. Whispering words of wisdom and charm into the ears of my family so that they forget their damnable stubbornness and reach out to the people who love them.”
“Really? Me?” Merlin’s heart was pounding and his cheeks burned, but he couldn’t help the incredulous smile that stole across his features yet again.
“Yes. You. Reverend Emrys. And I’d really like it if you… if you would consider, if you would do me the honour, in fact, of coming out on a date. With me. I mean. Because I fancy you, with your crazy smiles and your impetuous habits, and your absurd hair that won’t lie still and attracts frogs and hens and feathers and glitter. It attracts me too. Merlin.”
“It does?” Merlin’s voice sounded funny, all breathless. It was probably because of the way that Arthur’s words tugged at something hot, deep in his belly, and made his knees feel like they’d turned to water.
“It does. So.” Arthur carefully laced their fingers together, his eyes all earnest but yet sparkling with humour. “Will you?”
“God, yes, of course.” Inching forward, just a tad, he pressed his lips to Arthurs, only intending for it to be a fleeting touch. But so delicious did it feel, that warm soft touch, that he couldn’t help pressing forward just a little further. And then when Arthur’s arms enfolded him and held him close, he melted into the place where their lips met, just a little, with his eyes closed.
Far away, he thought for a moment that he could hear angels sing, but then when the applause started he realised that it was only the choral music on Uther’s stereo.
When they broke apart, though, the applause didn’t stop.
“Oh, bravo Vicar,” said Uther. He was standing in the door, still clapping vigorously. “Very well done indeed.”
“Woof,” said Morgause.
That night, after Gwen had left the vestry, after Merlin had turned out the light and slipped out beneath the full moon to walk back to the vicarage, a hand clamped onto his shoulder.
He nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Arthur! I didn’t see you there!”
Arthur’s quiet laughter raised tiny puffs of fog that lit up in the pale light that streamed from the moon.
“Can I walk you home?” Arthur’s voice sounded uncertain, somehow.
Feeling his pulse race, Merlin nodded.
“It’s dark, Merlin, you’ll have to actually speak.”
“Oh! Sorry, I forgot! Yes, please. I’d like that.”
“Good.” A warm hand stole into his grip.
They chatted as they walked, their voices punctuated by the tap-tap of their steps on the quiet cobbles.
The journey was too short, Merlin thought.
When they reached the ancient stone threshold of the vicarage, Merlin turned to say farewell, but Arthur stood there, as if waiting for something.
“Fancy a cuppa?” Swallowing, Merlin gestured towards the door.
“I fancy a lot more than that,” purred Arthur.
“But I’m a vicar.” Merlin frowned. “I don’t put out on first dates.”
“Ah,” said Arthur, in a knowing voice, as his fingers traced maddening circles on Merlin’s palms. “But this wasn’t a date.”
Suddenly, Merlin found himself pressed up against the door, with succulent lips gentling his mouth, and strong hands gripping his hips. It was intoxicating and terrifying by turns, and when he parted his lips to let Arthur’s tongue slip in, he cast caution to the winds.
“Lucky, that,” he gasped into Arthur’s mouth. “You might as well come in,”
A few minutes later, it was a partly clad and wholly debauched-looking vicar who jumped off the sofa and turned Jesus’s face to the wall.
“Sorry Jesus,” he said. “I’m not sure I want you watching this.”
As an afterthought, he turned Idris’s face away as well. Just to make sure.