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Chapter One: Iphigeneia at the Church of St Mary Magdalene

It might have been all of that poetry about demonic women and sado-masochistic desires, and the burning of incense and the profanation of altars, or maybe it was the atmosphere of fin de siècle ennui, but I decided to go to church that Sunday morning. I had been working all Saturday afternoon in the library and it was when I came out and saw the church that I decided to go the next morning. I am not especially religious, but religion interests me. I believe in something, though I’m not sure what it is, exactly. The church is opposite the library, and it is a beautiful Victorian gothic church. It is called the Church of St Mary Magdalene. I have always liked religious architecture.

So I went. It was a Sunday in mid October in 1999. The service lasted just over an hour. There were not many people there; twenty five at most I’d guess. I didn’t get so bored that I actually counted them. It had a few good moments, but there were some very dull quarter hours. The sermon bored me and I felt patronized by it, and I thought that I was not the only one. There was a woman a couple of rows in front of me who was clearly displeased by it all. I could tell by her body language. She seemed to be unable to sit still.

The best part was taking communion. I decided on a whim to do it. By coincidence the fidgeting woman was in front of me in the line for the bread and wine. When it was her turn, she knelt before the vicar and he placed the bread (it was really a piece of rice paper) on her tongue, and handed her a tiny cup of wine. She must have forgotten to swallow the rice paper before she tried to drink the wine, because she coughed just as she sipped at it and wine sprayed out of her mouth and went all over the vicar’s cassock. It was an awkward moment, but she did what she could to save it.

She got up quickly, and as she walked away she looked back sheepishly. We caught each other’s eye. There was a trickle of wine running down her chin. As she turned again she took a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped it away.

At one point a little later, she turned round and I happened to be looking at her when she did, so again our eyes briefly met. She looked interesting. Neither of us looked quickly away. It didn’t seem awkward. I would have smiled, and I thought that she would have smiled too, had we not been in a church. But her eyes smiled, and they did something more too, though I could not say exactly what it was.

When the service was over, people began to gather in small groups in the central aisle, exchange muffled greetings and slowly walk towards the door. I didn’t know anyone there of course, so I walked out alone. Outside on the street, I paused, wondering where to go next. Then I heard a voice behind me:

‘You were as bored with that as I was.’

It was the fidgety, wine spraying woman.

‘Some of it was quite good,’ I said, and I thought it best not to mention the wine.

‘That sermon;’ she said, ‘does that young man think we are seven years old? Once upon a time, sermons were intelligent. Does he think that I have never read the Bible? I wonder if he has.’

Her anger, which might really have been about the wine, and her forthrightness, which was certainly about her, made her more blustery than the October breeze that was blowing up.

She must have seen that I looked a bit perturbed, because she suddenly said

‘Sorry. I’m a little abrupt at times, but you see there is never anyone here who looks interesting.’

I liked the idea that I looked interesting.

‘May I introduce myself? My name is Iphigeneia Carrington.

The daughter of some self indulgent upper middle class fool from some academic backwater, I thought to myself.

She seemed to see my thought.

‘My father was a classicist, and thought it was the 1840s and not the 1940s, but actually it’s a good name. Iphigeneia was quite a woman. She was almost sacrificed by her father.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘Good, then you’re not a idiot. Most people are these days.’

‘I’m Sebastian Brotherton,’ I said.

‘That’s a good name; the Biblical…’ she paused a moment and then said, ‘and the proletarian.’ She was repaying me for my thought.

I smiled. I did have proletarian origins; or I would have had, had I been born in the 1940’s like her; but of course, ever since the 60’s we have all been middle class. But I did not think that I was epic enough to have anything Biblical about me.

‘Are you busy now? There’s a café down the road that isn’t too bad. I haven’t had a decent conversation in weeks.

‘No, I’m not busy,’ I said, ‘and I haven’t had an interesting conversation for a couple of weeks either.’

‘Only a couple? You’re lucky. Would you like to join me for coffee?’

I thought that a conversation with Iphigeneia Carrington would be an interesting one.

‘Yes, I will. Thank you.’

We walked the short distance down the road to the café and made small talk about the church service.

The bahis firmaları café looked nice. We went in. We found a table and sat down. A waitress quickly came and took our order.

Iphigeneia Carrington didn’t look quite like the typical old maid at church, but she didn’t look too far away from it either; a middle aged Archangel, slightly soiled, perhaps. There was a look in her eyes that was not the kind of look that I associate with old maids at church. They make me think of repression and frustration and a final drying up from lack of use. She did not suggest that to me at all. She looked alive. There was frankness and a spark in her eyes. It was the first thing that was attractive about her.

She was attractive. She had made no attempt to appear younger than she was. She was well preserved, for sure, and she dressed stylishly and she had chosen clothes that suited well not only a woman of her age, but her personally. They were understated. She wore light make up and I noticed that her fingernails were coloured with a soft red nail varnish. The tone was just right; a shade brighter and it would have looked like contrived glamour and it would not have suited her, a shade lighter, and it would barely have been noticeable.

She wanted to find out about me. She began by telling me that she liked a man who dressed well. Clothes are my weakness. I had dressed slightly more formally than usual. Even those who think that they are not very religious think that they shouldn’t go to church looking too scruffy. I had worn a pale brown suit, well cut, and a white polo shirt. A tie would have seemed a little too formal, for me anyway.

She asked me about myself and I explained that I am an academic at a university in the North of England and I’d been given a semester off to do research and I got lucky and was given an associate fellowship by one of the colleges, and so there I was. The scholarship meant that I could have a room in college free and eat in the dining room, three meals a day. I had three months there and I had been there for two weeks. I told her that besides studying all day long, I didn’t have much else to do in this small city, or anyone to do it with. So I decided to go to church. I hadn’t been for years, not even to a wedding.

‘And going to church was the best thing you could find to entertain yourself?’

‘Well, it is Sunday morning,’ I said.

‘I used to go every week,’ she said, ‘but that young idiot of a vicar. I can’t stand him. It’s all sentimental love thy neighbour nonsense. A sermon should make the congregation think.’

‘So why did you come today?’

‘It’s Sunday morning and I had nothing else to do either. But I’m going to Greece and Turkey next week for a month.’

‘Great,’ I said; ‘where in Turkey? I’ve been to Istanbul. It’s beautiful.’

‘Yes, it is,’ she said, ‘in a shabby and falling down sort of way, but no, I’m not going to Istanbul this time. I’m going to Corinth and Aphrodisias and Knidos and some other historical spots. And I’m going alone. I prefer to travel alone. More fun. You meet more interesting people that way. Like going to church.’

She grinned, and maybe there was a hint of suggestion in her eyes for a moment; but I might have imagined it.

She stirred at her coffee and said suddenly

‘This coffee is frightful. We can’t drink this swill.’

It hadn’t been great, but I had finished mine.

‘Let’s go for a walk,’ she said.

I was enjoying talking to her, and I was getting used to her abrupt way. And I hadn’t found out much about her yet. I seemed to be the one doing all the answering and she was the one doing the asking. She must be one of those rare people who don’t have to give some to get some.

We fell into step with each other and walked for a while without speaking. We came to a park and wandered in without really thinking about where we were going.

‘What’s your research about?’ she asked.

‘Walter Pater, the Victorian art critic, and the aesthetic movement.’

She smiled and looked pleased with herself. She had heard of him. She had read him too. She quoted the famous lines from the conclusion to ‘The Renaissance’:

‘to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’

I was impressed.

‘He is right,’ she went on, ‘that is the way to live. Otherwise, what’s the point?’

I was too much of an academic to have seen it that way, but I saw now that she was right.

‘Now it doesn’t seem so strange that you should have come to church today. And what are you going to tell the world about Walter Pater and the aesthetic movement in your book?’

‘I’m not sure yet. I’ve only just begun. Ask me again in a few months’ time.’

I had not thought of the implication of what I had said. She did:

‘Will I still know you in a few months’ time?’ she asked.

‘I will still be here,’ I said.

‘And I will be back from Greece and Turkey and the sacred whores. I’m trying to write a book too. kaçak iddaa That’s why I’m going. I will tell you about it.’

She started to talk about something else. I wanted to know what book she was trying to write, but I didn’t mind that she didn’t tell me, even though she had appeared to be about to. The longer we talked, the more I liked her, and the more I felt drawn to her. There was more to her than the abrupt and eccentric figure she had cut when she approached me outside the church. There was something beneath that exterior; an earthy feel that I liked a lot, and which, I had the feeling, not everyone was given the chance to see. It wasn’t in anything she said, but in the way she said it. There was something that I heard at times in her voice that was of a greater depth than the words she spoke. And it was in the way she moved. She moved with an agile grace, even in just strolling down the street.

‘I live quite close by. Why don’t you come and have lunch?’

I hesitated, but she said

‘We’re having a nice talk, and if we don’t have lunch together, we will both have a boring lunch alone, or not bother to have lunch at all.’

I agreed to go.

‘Good,’ she said and smiled. Again that flicker was there.

Her living room was as tastefully decorated as she was dressed, and it too had the low key conservativism of her style of dress; except for the painting above the fireplace. It was ‘Cymon and Iphigeneia’ by Sir John Everett Millais.

Lunch was excellent. She served wine with it. She poured us a glass each. It was a good red; French and expensive.

‘I had better not spill any more wine today,’ she said.

I laughed and almost spilled mine.

‘It was such cheap, foul stuff, I tried to drink it, but when I tried to swallow, I couldn’t and I coughed. And you saw what happened next. Poor boy. It was my revenge for his dreadful sermon.’

The wine was superb. I drank slowly and savoured it. It was robust and full bodied, and had hints of subtler flavours beneath the surface.

I asked her about her book, and she told me her life story. She had taken early retirement the year before. She had been a teacher of literature. Her last position had been as head of English at a school in the city. She had worked in a number of schools in many different places, including five years at an American school in Egypt.

She had decided to retire early because she had inherited some money, which would ensure that she could live well for as long as she lived, and she wanted the time to write the book that she had mentioned before. She had been wanting to write it for years, but she had never found the time. She wanted to travel some more, and she wanted to be able to do whatever else she wanted. She had studied Classics and English Literature at university, and she had stayed on for an extra year to do her master’s. She had written her thesis on nineteenth-century religious poetry. That accounted for her knowledge of Pater.

She was the daughter of a clergyman, who had finished his career as a minor bishop, and of a clergyman’s wife who was as all clergymen’s wives are. She believed in God and was an Anglican and very high church, and a regular churchgoer; although she added that she thought that some aspects of her beliefs were probably quite unorthodox, compared the rest of the congregation (especially the other ladies) at her church, though she did not think that any of her views were heretical.

Those were the outward facts. By now I was sure that the stories beneath them would have more complex tastes to them. Then I found the word for her; fascinating. That was it; that was what she was; fascinating.

Her book was to be about Aphrodisiac cults and sacred prostitution in the Ancient World. I asked her to tell me about it.

‘That comes later in the story,’ she said; ‘first I need to tell you where it all began. It was when I was doing my master’s that I came across other Victorian Poetry that was religious, but not in the conventional way. I discovered Swinburne.’

‘Swinburne’, I thought. She got more and more interesting. Before I could say anything, she began to recite the tenth verse of ‘Dolores’:

‘There are sins it may be to discover,

There are deeds it may be to delight.

What new work wilt thou find for thy lover,

What new passions for daytime or night?

What spells that they know not a word of

Whose lives are as leaves overblown?

What tortures undreamt of, unheard of,

Unwritten, unknown?’

The air in her living room seemed suddenly, heavier. She recited well and her voice was strong and she got every pulse and intonation right. She finished and things were almost restored to how they had been before she sprung that on me.

I thought about it, though. That verse should have sounded ridiculous coming from a woman like her, but it didn’t

‘You look shocked!’ she said.

I was, but I settled for saying I was surprised.

‘What would my father have said if he kaçak bahis had heard me reciting that?’

The air grew heavy again. I saw that there was going to be much more about her that it was as well her father didn’t know about.

The air stayed heavy and it felt like something was about to happen.

‘Would you mind if I was abrupt again?’

‘No, ‘I said.’

I was used to it by now.

‘Would you like to come to bed with me?’

I was staggered.

She saw my amazement and laughed.

‘That was very direct, wasn’t it? You probably didn’t expect me to come out with something so…unusual, and so out of the blue like that. But, is it so unusual a suggestion?

I had to say something, so I said

‘Yes, I would like to.’

She smiled and said

‘The bedroom is at the top of the stairs. Give me five minutes and then come up.’

I sat staring at the painting on the wall opposite me and a million thoughts swirled around my mind. I was not convinced that this was really happening. She recited a verse of Swinburne and she made a joke about her father and then suddenly asked me to go to bed with her. I thought about it, and I realised that the signs had been there almost from the beginning, but out of a mixture of naivety and disbelief, I had seen them but not paused to read them. I just hadn’t expected it from her. I hadn’t seen her as a sexual possibility. For her to have been so bold, though, she must have sensed some response to her in me.

The thought of desire for her, rather than desire itself, had been going through my mind every now and then as we had been talking, and I realised now that I had been attracted to her when I first saw her, and when she came and spoke to me outside the church. I didn’t think it could happen at any of those times though, so it was a vague and innocuous fantasy, one I would never have to fulfil. Now it was going to happen. Was I committed? I had said yes to her proposition. But she is probably close on sixty. I could run away. I would probably never see her again. No, I won’t runaway. I do want to have her, now that the opportunity is here.

The five minutes passed and I went upstairs. I entered her room and she was lying on her bed with the duvet thrown down, wearing nothing but a string of pearls.

‘Undress and join me,’ she said.

She watched me with great attention as I undressed. Once I was naked I went over to the bed. As I was getting in, she reached out and took my cock, already half erect, in her hand and stroked it a few times.

‘An erect cock is such a beautiful thing,’ she said.

I was about to climb into the bed, but before I could move, I saw her lean towards me and without preliminaries my cock was in her mouth and her lips were moving firmly down its shaft. She sucked my cock ardently, taking at least half of its length into her mouth, and she did it well, so very well. There was the minimum of contact between the inside of her mouth and my cock head and shaft. All I could feel was the slightest touch of the warm saliva wet flesh and the gentle breeze of her breath caressing me. Her elegant fingers held my balls. I thought that she was going to take me all the way, but slowly she stopped and gestured with her eyes for me to get into the bed.

A moment later I was lying beside her and we embraced and began to kiss. My hands explored her body and I could feel the soft dryness of the tiny wrinkles and the gentle undulations of the little rolls of fat as I ran my hand over her stomach and around her sides and her hips. Touching them made me tingle.

I had touched every part of her before my hand made its way to her pussy. I felt the bristle of the stubbly greyed pubic hair around it as my fingers felt their way towards her lips. She sighed as my fingers finally made contact with them. I brushed my fingers over her lips and she continued to sigh, and I leaned over and began to kiss and lick her stomach. My finger found its way between her lips and into her pussy and felt the wet, sticky warmth of her juices.

I realised as I was pushing my finger in and out of her that I was being gentler and taking more time with her than I do with women of my own age. She said suddenly

‘Lick my cunt.’

‘Cunt’, she had said. I was a little taken aback by it.

‘Yes, my cunt,’ she said again, ‘Lick it.’

I began to move down from her stomach towards it. Her breathing became louder and more urgent and the movements of her body less gentle and slow. When she called it her ‘cunt’, she meant for me to be more urgent and more aggressive with her.

Instead of licking around her pussy lips, I pushed my tongue straight into her. She gasped. I pushed it in as far as it would go, and with my finger I massaged her clitoris.

‘Yes, yes, my clit.’

I wanted to know what degree of abandon she would let herself reach. I wanted to know how dirty she would allow sex to be. I pushed my other hand under her and began to caress her sphincter with my fingertip. She murmured deeply, but I could not catch her words, if words they were. I felt her pushing her pussy against my face as my finger probed her anus. The bud slowly blossomed and it was as if her rectum softly sucked my finger into itself.

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