‘This may just have saved my life…’ The hurried scribble in the dusty church visitors’ book catches Gwen’s eye. Just like that, she is drawn into a mystery at the heart of the pretty village of Hopley, but nothing is what is seems… When tragedy strikes, twenty-six-year-old Gwen Stanley finds herself suddenly jobless and heartbroken. With nowhere to turn, she retreats to Hopley, a crumbling little village deep in the heart of the English countryside. Wandering the winding lanes and daydreaming about what could have been, Gwen feels lost for the first time in her life. Until one day she pushes through the creaking doors of a tiny stone church at the edge of the village, empty and forgotten by nearly everyone. There she stumbles on a book full of local secrets and is instantly drawn into the mystery of who could have left them there, and why. When she’s unexpectedly joined by handsome local artist Jarvis, Gwen is caught off-guard. He seems just as fascinated by what’s in the book as she is… but why? Can she trust Jarvis’s motives really are what he says they are? And are the butterfly flutters she feels whenever they’re together because she’s one step closer to learning the book’s secrets… or might the little village church actually hold the key to healing Gwen’s poor, trampled heart? An utterly unputdownable story – pure joy from the first page to the last. Perfect for fans of Jenny Colgan, Lucy Diamond and Heidi Swain, and anybody longing for the ultimate feel-good escapist read! What readers are saying about Hidden Secrets at the Little Village Church : ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Utterly charming... The two main characters were completely believable and I was rooting for them both to find the happiness they needed and deserved… such a fabulous read. I’m not ashamed to say that I had a little tear in my eye when I finished!’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Wow. I absolutely loved this book. Read it in one sitting, could not put it down. Didn't imagine for a second that I'd be captivated by a village church visitor book but yes I was… Gwen and Jarvis, two unlikely volunteers to support the local church, both with their own weird and wonderful motivations that amuse, delight and warm your heart… Tracy Rees’s finest book yet.’ Bobs and Books ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Unputdownable – read in one sitting.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ I LOVED this book! It is such a feel-good read with lots of heart and a little bit of edge. I finished the book this morning with a little tear in my eye… this book just serves as another reminder to be kind to all - you never know what battle they are fighting! Thanks so much to Tracy Rees – this book was pure joy!’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Such a heart-warming story. This is a captivating, feel-good read full of community spirit, friendship and hope. I was engrossed from the first page and couldn’t put it down.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘One amazing story. Can't praise this book enough and highly recommend.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Simply magical and marvellous and let me escape as I devoured it in one day. A warm and heartfelt book. Thank you, Tracy Rees, this book was a pure tonic of a read… A little book of pure joy.’ The Book Jotter
Release date: May 7, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Little Book of Secrets
She can hear Aunt Mary clunking around downstairs. There’s no tiptoeing for her aunt, no boiling the kettle with bated breath, hoping the noise won’t disturb Gwen. If Mary’s up, Gwen should be up.
And actually, Gwen realises, opening the other eye and seeing the time, she should be up. Church is at ten, and although she’s not, strictly speaking, religious, it’s a regular outing, one of the very few anchors in her week. It’s not a commitment – no one would actually notice if she was there or not – but without it, Sunday would be just another grey, formless day.
It takes her a while to move. Bed is comfortable and warm and everything’s such an effort these days: getting dressed, making food, conversation. Both eyes open now, her gaze rests on her bookcase. Amongst her many novels, old and new, are the others: How to Find Your Happy; Coming Back from Calamity; Good Planning, Great Results; How Is This My Life? Really, how is this her life?
She actually felt quite excited when she bought them (from the lovely little local bookstore that went out of business last year), and reading them was comforting but didn’t actually change anything. She also went to two or three workshops run by a lady called Mahira Halo (Gwen suspects Halo is not her real surname) and they were comforting too. Lots of candles and angelic visualisations, lots of deep breathing and positive intentions, the sense that she wasn’t alone, that other people struggled too. But Mahira, who ran a little esoteric shop just off the high street, also went out of business and moved away. It seems to be the way of things in Hopley. Anything quirky or cultural fails to thrive and quickly disappears. These days, the plethora of strictly functional, fluorescent-lit shops selling mundane things at knock-down prices has a dampening effect on Gwen’s already low spirits.
Gwen doesn’t shower because there isn’t enough time to dry her hair, which is long, thick and unruly. It’s not ‘crowning glory’ type hair. It’s light brown and dull, an inconvenience more than anything. Aunt Mary says she looks like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family but Gwen can’t bring herself to cut it because it’s so good for hiding behind, and because her mother always thought it was pretty.
She throws on a long skirt with an elasticated waistband, ankle boots, a T-shirt, blouse, cardigan and scarf, forces a brush through her hair, tucks it behind her ears – from where it immediately escapes – and braces herself for breakfast. In the kitchen, she’s greeted by the smell of burned toast.
‘You’re late. I made you something,’ says Aunt Mary, holding out a plate bearing two thick slices of black toast smeared with margarine.
‘Thank you,’ says Gwen, even though she doesn’t like white bread, especially white bread that is black. She prefers nice, soft granary bread, with seeds through it, but her aunt says it’s not worth getting two different kinds just for the two of them. They wouldn’t get through their respective loaves before they went hard or mouldy, and Aunt Mary won’t throw anything out; she hates waste.
‘I put the washing on the line and when I came back, it had caught,’ says her aunt. ‘But you’ll have to eat it; I hate waste.’
Gwen has learned that there’s no point suggesting they alternate – one week white, one week brown – so that each of them has what she likes half of the time. It’s Aunt Mary’s house, so there’s no earthly reason why she shouldn’t have what she likes all the time. Besides, white is cheaper than that posh grainy stuff.
‘You can wipe that look off your face,’ says her aunt. ‘I know you like that posh grainy stuff, but it’s shockingly dear. I don’t know why you can’t get up in time to fix your own breakfast. Basic timekeeping shouldn’t be a problem for someone with a fancy “degree”.’ She makes quotation marks with her fingers, as if there’s some doubt whether Gwen did actually get a degree.
Gwen chews slowly, hating every mouthful. This is classic Aunt Mary: she’ll do something that on the face of it is kind, like making you breakfast when you’re running late. And Gwen really does believe that her aunt’s impulses are kind, deep down. But it’ll be something you hate, delivered with such a litany of complaints and insults that you end up having to thank her for something you’d far rather she hadn’t done. Left to her own devices, Gwen would have grabbed a banana on her way out and eaten it on the way. That and the emergency chocolate bar in her coat pocket would have made a much nicer breakfast. In fact…
Halfway through the first awful slice, Gwen looks at her watch and feigns shock. ‘Look at the time,’ she exclaims. ‘I’d better go; I’ll eat on the way. Thanks again, Aunt Mary. Have a lovely morning.’ She bolts, clutching the toast, out through the kitchen door. Her aunt’s peevish voice follows her.
‘A lovely morning. Chance would be a fine thing. I don’t know why you bother with church. Waste of an hour every bloody week. You could help out with the housework a bit, but I suppose that’s beneath you. Well, I know my place—’
Gwen hurries to the end of the housing estate and round the corner onto the lane before resuming her normal ambling pace with a huge sigh of relief. The lane is quiet and she tosses the toast into the hedge, then fumbles for the Snickers in her pocket. This is why elasticated waistbands are becoming increasingly necessary. With very few edible meals coming her way, she’s existing more and more on chocolate. It’s a twenty-minute walk to St Dom’s, a long walk by Gwen’s standards, but it’s a quiet route, and it’s always good to be out of that house.
It’s early April. The hedges are full of hawthorn, and birdsong fills the air. The way underfoot is dappled with sunlight and shade. It’s a day for singing hearts, lifting spirits, bubbling gratitude. But all Gwen really feels is tired. She used to love this sort of thing. Occasionally she wonders if she’s depressed, but she can’t quite muster the curiosity to look into it.
When she arrives at the church, her heart lifts, just half a millimetre. It’s a sluggish effort, but it’s the only not-nothing she ever feels these days. And that’s why she comes every week, despite Aunt Mary’s disparaging comments.
St Domneva’s is a beautiful old twelfth-century church built of soft grey stone, with a square turret and a trinity of lavish stained-glass windows along the front aspect. A path curves through the graveyard from a creaking lychgate beneath a pitched wooden roof. A giant yew tree sweeps a dark green fringe across the left side of the building. Gravestones and angels peep between the boughs. It’s enchanting. This church embodies everything Gwen used to love: history, atmosphere, family, stories…
Back when Gwen was new to Hopley, she came here a lot, when it was empty and no one else was around. Inside the church is a visitors’ book, a great tome with a navy, white and gold fleur-de-lys design, raspberry-red endpapers, a sighing spine and yellowing pages filled with hundreds of different handwritings. Not so much now, but once upon a time, St Domneva’s really pulled in the visitors. En route south from London to the coast, or across Kent to the Downs, people would stop off to enjoy the few shops that Hopley had to offer, the pubs and cafés, the ancient church. But as the soul leached out of Hopley, all that changed. It’s apparent from the entries in the visitors’ book, entries that grow scarcer as you turn the pages.
Still, Gwen loves to leaf through, reading all the names and the comments. Real-life, here-and-now people are difficult to deal with, but names on pages can’t disappoint. Gwen has spent hours weaving stories about the people within those pages, elusive as pressed flowers. What brought them here? What happened to them afterwards? What was it about St Dom’s that touched them?
As the last chime of ten rings out from the bell tower and dies away, Gwen hurries up the path. The good thing about being late is that she doesn’t get caught up in the crowds on the way in. The bad thing is that she has to squeeze in at the back, feeling desperately self-conscious.
But the congregation of St Dom’s are not, on the whole, an observant bunch. Gwen manages to slide into a pew without a single head turning in her direction. The church is never full, and most of the regulars are very short-sighted and hard of hearing.
Today, Reverend Fairfield talks about hope, connection and fullness of spirit. Gwen listens carefully, because she’s polite, but his words are like dust motes, dancing in a sunbeam some distance away. She feasts her eyes on the stained glass and abundant flower displays, and draws her usual comfort from an hour away from Aunt Mary’s soulless two-bed semi on the estate, but she doesn’t feel connected, and her spirit isn’t very full. When it’s time for the hymns, she stands and sits with everyone else, but she doesn’t sing.
The time passes all too quickly. Where is there for Gwen to go after this but home, to the place that isn’t a home at all?
Reverend Fairfield makes his concluding remarks, then starts talking about the roof appeal, the urgent need for funds. Gwen feels desperately sorry for the rector, whose appeals have been falling on deaf ears, literally and figuratively, for some time now. But what can Gwen do? She’s never been one to get involved. She’s given several small donations, but they’ve been a drop in the ocean. The thought that St Dom’s might be broken beyond repair is dispiriting. But if this, the only gentle spot in her life, were to disappear along with everything else, it wouldn’t surprise her.
But Reverend Fairfield looks surprisingly upbeat today. His eyes are sparkling and he’s talking about a brilliant new idea he’s had to find the money. He’s pleading for volunteers with more determination than he’s shown in ages. Usually Gwen slumps in her pew when he calls for help, like a shy child at a pantomime. But today, when she hears his brilliant new idea, she sits bolt upright. Has she got this right? Fortunately, Reverend David Fairfield is a great one for summarising things. He’s probably figured out that people don’t listen a lot and he has to say things two or three times to be heard. He explains his plan once again. Yes, she has understood.
Gwen is paralysed and electrified at the same time – as though she’s been struck by lightning.
Sunday morning. Jarvis doesn’t have an alarm clock – not that he needs one when his mum comes in at nine on the dot to wake him, every Sunday without fail.
‘Wakey-wakey,’ she coos, shaking his shoulder then opening his curtains. Sunshine floods in, and Jarvis ducks under the duvet, shrinking from the light like a maggot. ‘Time to get up, darling. Church in an hour. It’s Sunday.’
‘Exactly!’ he cries in muffled outrage. ‘Sunday. A day of rest.’
‘Rest from what?’ asks his mum rhetorically and starts shaking out his jeans and sweatshirts, which are strewn on the floor. ‘Jarvis, these clothes reek. I’m taking them and putting them in the wash. I wish you’d stop smoking.’
‘And why do I have to get up now?’ asks Jarvis to avoid the smoking conversation. He emerges from the cocoon and squints at her. ‘Church isn’t for another hour. And it’s only a five-minute walk away.’ It was the one good thing to be said for it.
‘Because you need every minute of that time to shower – you smell as bad as your clothes. Jarvis, I’ve told you before. I come in here and I can smell beer as soon as I walk through the door. Rising off your skin. And after your shower, you need to sit down and have a decent breakfast to soak up some of that Saturday night out.’
Jarvis growls and sinks back under the covers. His mother has often told him how the smell of alcohol wafts off him through his pores. But Jarvis isn’t convinced. It’s probably one of those things mums make up to make you do what they want, like, ‘Don’t bite your nails because it’ll give you a bad gall bladder.’ He fell for that one until he was seven.
The duvet is brutally ripped from him, exposing his body to the air. That can’t be right, surely? He’s only wearing his boxers. ‘Muuuum,’ he wails.
‘Jarvis,’ she retorts in a crisp voice. ‘Shower.’ He hears the door click as she leaves.
He lifts a head, a painful experience. The duvet is way across the room. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed and sits until the room stops spinning. Resignedly, he then plunges into the shower where the hot water pummels him to wakefulness. He leans, resentful, under the steaming stream until his father comes to bang on the door of his en suite. ‘Jarvis. Get out of that shower. Breakfast is ready.’
Jarvis scowls, turns the water off. Get in the shower. Get out of the shower. Honestly. They treat him like a teenager. Surely a man should be able to come and go as he pleases. Although, perhaps a man shouldn’t be living with his parents at the age of twenty-seven and working part-time in the supermarket when he has a perfectly good degree and is supposed to be quite intelligent really. That little gremlin thought does occasionally occur to him. He can do without that at 9.20 a.m. And after a night on the tiles with Andy and Royston and the prospect of church ahead of him, FFS.
His parents don’t insist on much, to be fair. He doesn’t pay rent, he lives in luxury, he works part-time and they don’t hassle him about his friends or anything like that. Yes, lately, there’ve been an increasing number of comments about the amount he drinks. And the cigarettes have always been a bone of contention. But for the most part, they’re pretty good, his oldies. The only time his mum ever uses the phrase ‘while you’re under this roof’ is in connection with church. Jarvis could rebel of course, and point-blank refuse to go, but it means so much to her that he drags himself along. He usually dozes when he gets there.
Back in his room, after the sharp-scented shower gel, he must admit there’s a bit of a fug. Stale smoke, stale booze, stale sweat. He grimaces. But hey, it’s Sunday. Sunday comes after Saturday night. Nothing wrong with letting off a bit of steam on a Saturday night.
While he was in the shower, his mum opened the window. She’s also made the bed and laid out clothes for him. Jarvis looks at them as if they’re a dead bird the cat brought in. They’re his brother George’s clothes. His parents always wish he was more like his older brother or sister. George is thirty-four and an accountant in Bristol. Eulalie – nicknamed Lalie – is thirty-two and a partner in a London law firm. They go running at 6 a.m. and drink smoothies for breakfast. The clothes on Jarvis’s bed are some of George’s ‘weekend casuals’, left behind ‘for when I visit’. Not that he ever does. Beige chinos and a check shirt with some wanky logo on the breast pocket. Jarvis takes them out of his room and slings them over the bannister. He dresses instead in his usual slouchy black jeans, cool hand-printed (by his own fair hand) T-shirt and black hoodie.
After what his mum terms ‘a sustaining breakfast’ (scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, granary toast with butter, a pot of tea for all) they set off en famille to church.
At the lychgate, Jarvis pauses. It’s a beautiful spot; he painted it once – another lifetime ago. He slouches after his parents, conspicuous in his black hoodie and shades among the neatly put-together elderlies who are creeping up the path even more slowly than Jarvis. A few nod gamely at him; a few frown disapproval. There’s one comment about ‘young people today’ that might be an attempt at a mutter from someone too deaf to gauge their volume properly, or might just be rudeness. Like Jarvis cares.
He lopes down the grey flagged nave and slides into the pew his family always take, four from the front because his mum always wants to sit up front, but she never wants to come across like she thinks she’s really important. She’s a good woman, his mum, if a bit overzealous with the laundry. Jarvis slithers into a semi-supine position and closes his eyes. His mum bats his arm for him to take off his sunglasses. Vicar Dave starts up about something or other. He seems like a good bloke. But Jarvis can’t be doing with well-meant advice and higher wisdom.
Once, a couple of years ago, his mum ‘had a word’ with Vicar Dave about him. Jarvis was cornered after the service one Sunday and Vicar Dave edged the subject round to drinking, managing to deliver a piece of philosophy that was advice in disguise, without a trace of judgement, all in two minutes. Jarvis admired the ingenuity of it, but that was as far as it went.
‘You know,’ Vicar Dave said, ‘there’s a school of psychotherapy that believes the use of mind-altering substances is actually a quest for transcendence. You know, God, enlightenment, higher self, whatever you want to call it?’ He waved his hand airily as if it was all the same to him, as if he didn’t have a vested interest in the God thing. ‘That’s why things like vodka, whiskey and so on are called spirits. A way of reaching something higher. Interesting really,’ he concluded, as if they were just two mates musing.
Jarvis extricated himself sharpish. He quite liked the suggestion that there was more to his constant partying than simply being a bum. If you could legitimately be termed a bum when you lived in a nice big house and your mum did your laundry. That idea – spirits, a quest for transcendence – did make him think. That was the problem once Vicar Dave got hold of you – earworm. But in the end, he concluded that it was obvious really. Of course he parties to transcend. To transcend the boredom and mediocrity of daily life. To transcend the jittery, uncomfortable feelings that plague him when he doesn’t – the suspicion that he isn’t good enough, that he’s a waste of space. That’s why everyone drinks – because it’s better than when you don’t.
The sermon drags on forever, making him itch for a nice cold pint. He obviously nods off deeper than he meant to because he emits a gentle snore, earning a vicious poke in the ribs from his mum.
‘I have never been so mortified,’ she whispers, looking death rays at him. Well then, why drag him out after a Saturday night with the boys? He wishes his mum would just bow to the inevitable.
The poke in his ribs means he’s wide awake when Vicar Dave starts on again about fundraising and the eternal quest to fix the roof and save St Dom’s.
The problem is that he keeps appealing to their community spirit, but most of this lot don’t have any and naturally Jarvis includes himself in this assessment. Plus, most of them are also half-dead, so not the likeliest bunch to bring about a miracle really. His mum is fidgeting at his side. ‘Oh, I wish we could do something,’ she mutters, as she does every week.
His parents have already given sizeable donations. They’ve organised summer fetes and Christmas fetes two years in a row. They are, in short, exactly the sort of people Vicar Dave relies on. But two people isn’t enough. Jarvis feels bad for them really. They’re all so earnest. Vicar Dave is looking surprisingly chirpy today though, as if he has real hope that this time will be different. His naivete is endearing. What’s that thing they say in therapy? Jarvis tries to remember the substance abuse group his mum blackmailed him to go to a while back. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Someone should tell Vicar Dave that; he’s getting precisely nowhere.
But then he announces his new fundraising plan. Like most things, it takes a while to filter down through the layers of fog in Jarvis’s brain. He spends his time in a bit of a haze, which he rather likes. In fact, they’re all down the nave and chatting to Vicar Dave before the cogs start turning. Vicar Dave asked for anyone willing to volunteer to help with his new plan to see him after the service, but so far no one has said any more than, ‘Lovely service, Vicar; regards to your wife,’ and the poor guy’s looking really dejected. The family have said their goodbyes and are walking down the path before the penny finally drops.
Jarvis stops. ‘I need to talk to Vicar Dave; I’ll catch you up,’ he announces, noticing his dad’s jaw drop in astonishment. Then Jarvis turns and races back into the church.
Sunday morning. The interior view of St Domneva’s from the pulpit is absolutely beautiful. As he preaches, Reverend David Fairfield looks down the ancient flagged nave and easily imagines its early days, when struggling serfs would have limped along it to find solace in God, and the lords and ladies would have swept to the front in their fine tunics and wimples, proud, landed and keen to be seen.
The columns rise to graceful arches in the (eternally problematical) roof, and the stained-glass windows glitter in the sun. The flowers are frothy cascades. The only thing that isn’t pleasing to the eye is the dearth of people. The pews are boxlike and deep, made of old, old wood, with stories to tell, polished to a deep shine. But they aren’t very full.
David can’t help feeling that he’s failed. It’s a judgement of ego, not spirit. God hasn’t set him the task of making this church popular and full to overflowing. The Parochial Church Council, or PCC, might have wanted that when they appointed him; the bishop might have wanted it; David himself might have wanted it. But God asks only that he is here, ministering to the slightly motley crew that is his parish and, if St Dom’s can’t flourish, to bear witness to its dying days.
David isn’t stupid. He knows all the reasons why people don’t go to church as much anymore. And Hopley is no longer a community where people come to be married, where they christen their babies, where they know they’ll be buried. So many people have moved away, businesses closing, the allure of bigger towns too great to resist. As the town suffers and dies, so does St Dom’s. It’s happening all over the country, and one man can’t stop it. But he finds it sad.
The pesky roof seems determined to hasten the church’s demise. The last four years have been a wearying succe. . .
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