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Violet Speedwell frowned. She did not need shushing; she had not said anything.
The shusher, an officious woman sporting a helmet of grey hair, had planted herself squarely in the archway that led into the choir, Violet’s favourite part of Winchester Cathedral. The choir was right in the centre of the building – the nave extending one way, the presbytery and retrochoir the other, the north and south transepts’ short arms fanning out on either side to complete the cross of the whole structure. The other parts of the Cathedral had their drawbacks: the nave was enormous, the aisles draughty, the transepts dark, the chapels too reverential, the retrochoir lonely. But the choir had a lower ceiling and carved wood stalls that made the space feel on a more human scale. It was luxurious but not too grand.
Violet peeked over the usher’s shoulder. She had only wanted to step in for a moment to look. The choir stalls of seats and benches and the adjacent presbytery seats seemed to be filled mostly with women – far more than she would expect on a Thursday afternoon. There must be a special service for something. It was the 19th of May 1932; St Dunstan’s Day, Dunstan being the patron saint of goldsmiths, known for famously fending off the Devil with a pair of tongs. But that was unlikely to draw so many Winchester women.
She studied the congregants she could see. Women always studied other women, and did so far more critically than men ever did. Men didn’t notice the run in their stocking, the lipstick on their teeth, the dated, outgrown haircut, the skirt that pulled unflatteringly across the hips, the paste earrings that were a touch too gaudy. Violet registered every flaw, and knew every flaw that was being noted about her. She could provide a list herself: hair too flat and neither one colour nor another; sloping shoulders fashionable back in Victorian times; eyes so deep-set you could barely see their blue; nose tending to red if she was too hot or had even a sip of sherry. She did not need anyone, male or female, to point out her shortcomings.
Like the usher guarding them, the women in the choir and presbytery were mostly older than Violet. All wore hats, and most had coats draped over their shoulders. Though it was a reasonable day outside, inside the Cathedral it was still chilly, as churches and cathedrals always seemed to be, even in high summer. All that stone did not absorb warmth, and kept worshippers alert and a little uncomfortable, as if it did not do to relax too much during the important business of worshipping God. If God were an architect, she wondered, would He be an Old Testament architect of flagstone or a New Testament one of soft furnishings?