A New Song

I’ve been very busy editing my novel, so I thought I would give this old story another airing. It’s a little under 6,000 words. I hope you enjoy it!

A New Song

It was a Friday evening in January, and the voices of the choir resounded in the shadows of the fan vaulting of St Michael’s Parish Church. Thomas Sibson, the Director of Music, winced as the sopranos sang their semiquaver passage too slowly. It was untidy and unnecessary; he was, after all, conducting them. Rapping his baton on the music stand, he stopped the singing.

“Sopranos, you were behind the beat.” He scanned the rows of faces, making sure he had everybody’s attention. “How many Musical Directors does it take to change a light bulb?”

The choir knew the answer, and chorused it. “Nobody knows, because nobody was watching.”

He nodded. “Geoff, from the top again if you don’t mind.” The assistant organist obliged, and the choir tried again. Tom looked at each of them as he conducted.

Gill was staring earnestly at him as always. Fay didn’t seem to be watching, but she was exactly in tempo; he didn’t know how she managed that. He could hear her voice, which was beautiful and true despite her three score and ten years. The basses were, at last, concentrating. They were the weakest part musically; only Ralph and Jeremy had any formal musical training. Tom didn’t know how he’d manage if either of them left. And John, in the tenors, seemed to be worried about something. He must talk to him later.

This time the music met Tom’s exacting standards, and he was satisfied.

“Well done everybody. That’ll do for tonight. If you sing like that on Sunday we’ll wow them.” He drifted in John’s direction, gently delaying him so they could talk privately.

“Thank you for your contribution tonight, John. I could hear you inspiring the tenors – as usual.”

“You’re too kind, Tom. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about my voice. I’m eighty, you know, and I’m losing it. The top notes have almost gone; I can’t go above G, and even that’s a struggle, and as for stamina…” He shook his head. “Still, I mustn’t grumble. I’ve sung here since I was eight years old.”

“As long as that? Well done! Look, I don’t want bully you into singing once it stops being a pleasure, but at present you’re an asset to the choir.”

“Well, I’m not sure about my voice, but if you say it’s good enough…”

“Shall we agree that I’ll audition you when you’re eighty five?”

John grinned. “Sounds fair enough to me. Thanks, Tom.”

They walked together down the chancel steps, through the darkened church towards the vestry.

“Good evening, Tom. I hope you don’t mind; I eavesdropped the last fifteen minutes of your rehearsal.”

Peter Wright, the new vicar, left the place in the pews where he had been sitting and approached Tom with a friendly expression. He offered his hand to shake.

“I know you’re a busy man, Tom, but could you spare me a little time now? I’d like to hear your thoughts about the parish’s musical life.”

Tom glanced at his watch. It was already eight forty. There was a television programme he wanted to watch at nine o’clock. Never mind. The music must come first.

“Of course, Vicar. I am at your disposal. I’ll just disrobe.”

“Oh, please! Call me Peter; everybody else does.”

Peter followed Tom into the vestry. Most of the choristers had left. Gill was chivvying a couple of the youngsters about putting away their robes properly. “Watch how Mr Sibson hangs up his robes,” she instructed.

Tom kept a straight face, and tidied away his cassock with particular care.

“I thought we’d have our chat in the vicarage. That way we can have a coffee and stay warm.”

The diocese had sold the old vicarage some years earlier, replacing it with a smaller, modern house that occupied a part of the original large garden. It was easier to heat, more convenient, and had raised much-needed cash. A few of the oldest parishioners regretted the change, but even they agreed that it made sense. The vicar’s study, where Peter and Tom sat with their coffee, was comfortably warm and pleasantly furnished.

“You have a fine choir, Tom. You must have worked very hard with them.”

“Thank you. The choir will be pleased to hear that you appreciate their efforts.”

“I expect you have something special planned for Holy Week?” Peter smiled. “Or do I presume too much?”

Tom returned the smile. “We usually sing a Bach chorale between each of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. We always sing a substantial anthem on Easter Sunday, of course. It’s not chosen yet. Do you have a favourite that you would like?”

“Thank you. I’ll leave it to you, though; I’m sure your choice will be better than mine.”

Tom bowed his head in acknowledgement. Of course his choice would be better; how could it not be? He knew the repertoire, the choir and the tastes of the congregation.

“Actually, what I wanted to talk to you about was more general than the Easter services. I wondered what your view was on contemporary liturgical music?”

Tom was silent for a minute or two. “I take it that you mean guitars and noise rather than Lauridsen and Whitacre?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not a fan.”

The vicar stayed silent, and eventually Tom spoke again.

“This congregation is…pretty traditional. I think guitars would drive many of them away. And, if you want my personal opinion, I think almost all such stuff is entirely devoid of musical merit.”

“I won’t debate the musical merit; I’m not qualified to argue with you over that, Tom. But, you know, it is the musical language of today. It forms the backdrop to peoples’ lives. They understand it, and respond to it.”

“I’m inclined to think that we should offer our best and most beautiful music to God. People will listen to that and respond to it, whatever their daily experience. We have an opportunity of lifting their souls above the mundane towards the transcendent.”

Peter contradicted him gently. “I’ve seen popular music used very effectively to draw in young people, and we badly need to do that in this parish. You’re the Director of Music, Tom. Will you help me do that? No, don’t answer now; take it away and think about it, please.

Perhaps read a little about it, too. Here, borrow this; it’s quite a good description of how contemporary music can inspire a congregation. If you have time, I’d like to discuss it again with you before the next PCC meeting; we’ll be focussing on evangelism, and music will be an important part of that.”

February’s PCC meeting was well attended, despite wintry weather and an FA cup replay live on the television. The members of the PCC wanted to see their new vicar in action. He seemed a nice chap on Sundays, but Tom had muttered about guitars in church, and Nigel, the Treasurer, had spoken darkly of ‘unacceptable changes to church furnishing’.

Tom and Nigel sat next to each other, Tom flanked by Ralph, and Nigel by Peggy Latimer, the formidably organised lady who arranged distribution of Bible reading notes, and who ruled the flower arrangers with a rod of iron. All four had arrived early. Sue Smart, the Vicar’s Churchwarden, looked pained by the way Tom and Nigel seemed to be ganging up. Her friend, Cheryl Unwin, the PCC Secretary, was too busy making sure that everybody had copies of the minutes of the previous meeting to notice the seating.

Just before 7:30 p.m. the vicar entered.

“Ah, Nigel! You’re Treasurer. I need you up here at the front, please, with me, Sue and Cheryl.”

Nigel raised one eyebrow but complied.

After the routine business, the Vicar stood up and said, “I don’t want to keep you for too long, but I want to share with you the vision that I have for St Michael’s Parish Church.” His manner was open and friendly.

“I’d like to start by saying how impressed I’ve been with the expertise of the church’s officers, and the commitment of the volunteers whose efforts enable our work and our worship to proceed so smoothly. In my first month here, I’ve noted particularly the spotless building and polished furniture, the wonderful music, the beautiful flowers, the timely delivery of bible study notes, the fact that we’re solvent and pay our Parochial Share, the weekly prayer meeting and the crèche for the Sunday Sung Eucharist.”

He smiled again. “It’s usually a mistake to mention groups by name, because you always leave someone out. If you feel you’ve been missed out, please accept my apologies. I’m sure I haven’t been comprehensive.” He glanced down at the notes in his hand.

“I want us to build on your achievements. You see, we’re none of us growing any younger – even I am forty-eight, and I’m younger than most of the congregation. We cannot escape the conclusion that if this church is to survive, we need to bring in more young people. We have a crèche. Wonderful. But we could have a Sunday School covering all ages from toddlers to teenagers. They are the future of the church.

More than that, on the new housing estates that have sprung up around us during the last eight or nine years, there are people who are suffering spiritually. We have the answer to their needs; we have Jesus; we need to go out and tell people about Him.”

He spoke fluently. He spoke briefly, fifteen minutes in all, and concluded, “I don’t want any response now. I would like all of you, please – all of you – to think and pray earnestly about this. I’ve spoken about flexibility in how we use our facilities. We will need flexibility from our congregation too, especially from you, the members of the PCC. Over the next week or so, I shall speak to each of you again. It would be lovely to think that you will be full of bright ideas as to how, without compromising what we already have, we can reach out to all those people who need our message of hope.”

There was silence, broken by Nigel.

“Thank you, Vicar, for addressing us so eloquently. I’m sure that we’ll all be praying hard about your vision for our church.” He paused for emphasis. “I take your point about not making an instant response, however I think I must say that those of us who are officers of the PCC must make sure that our responses are practical. We won’t be able to let our hearts rule our heads.”

“Well, is there any other business?” exclaimed Cheryl, brightly. “No? Then let’s close with the Grace.”

*       *       *

A few weeks later, the vicar started a House Group. It would be agreeable but mistaken to imagine that all those who attended the first meeting were solely motivated by a desire to study and pray together. Nigel and Peggy were there, and Fay, Sue Smart and a new young couple, Martin and Linda Grant, and Ralph; with the Vicar leading them. Ralph had offered to host the meeting, and the vicar had asked him whether he had a piano.

“Yes, Peter. I’ve got quite a decent upright.”

“I wonder, Ralph, if you would be willing to play a few choruses for the meeting?”

Ralph hesitated. “I’m afraid my playing isn’t very good, and I’m not used to the idiom. I’ll give it a go if you like, but don’t expect miracles.”

Peter clapped him on the back.

“Good man!” he said.

Martin and Linda were the first to arrive.

“I’m so glad you could come this evening,” said Ralph. “I’ve noticed you in church for a couple of weeks now. Which church did you attend before you came to us?” Martin beamed at him, “It was another St Michael’s, in Stockwell.” His West Indian accent was pronounced. “It was a lovely congregation but not such a beautiful church as this one.”

Ralph had set out twelve chairs. When everybody had arrived he served coffee and biscuits, and then sat himself next to Martin. The seat beside Linda was vacant too.

Linda leaned across her husband. “We just adore the choir! You sing with them, don’t you?”

Ralph felt pleased. “Yes, I do. We’re very lucky in our Director of Music, Tom Sibson.”

“Those high voices! I’d sure like to hear you all sing some gospel!”

Ralph grinned sheepishly. Gospel! Tom would have a fit!

Peter brought them to order, and started the meeting.

“Welcome, everybody!” I’ve prepared a study on Micah, chapter 6 verse 8.”

There was a quiet ‘A-men!’ from Martin, and everybody jumped and looked at him.

“Oops, sorry people! I guess you’re not used to that here!” He grinned.

“That was lovely, Martin,” said Fay. The others stared at her. She wriggled and hunched her shoulders. “Well, it was!” she exclaimed.

“Martin, do you know that verse?” enquired Peter.

“Sure. It’s one of my favourites. ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’”

“A-men,” said Fay, quite loudly, looking with shining eyes at Martin.

“A-men, sister!”

“Good,” said Peter. “This week, we’ll be looking at ‘to do justice’; next week we’ll consider ‘to love kindness’; week three we’ll think about ‘walking humbly’; and in week four we’ll discuss how the three actions fit together.”

The study went well. Peter was assiduous in encouraging everyone to speak, and Nigel and Peggy found they had plenty to say about ‘doing justice’. And then Fay spoke up.

“I don’t want to be argumentative. That’s not me at all. But doesn’t Christian justice include quite a lot of mercy? There’s that story in – John, isn’t it, Vicar?” She turned towards Peter.

“Do you mean the story of the woman taken in adultery? ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’? Yes, that’s John, chapter 8.”

After the study came the choruses. Martin and Linda gave a strong lead, and Ralph discovered that the music in front of him was slightly different from what they were singing. By the end of the third chorus, he was red-faced and perspiring with embarrassment.

At the end of the meeting, Peter lingered to talk to Ralph.

“Thank you ever so much for your hospitality.”

“My pleasure,” murmured Ralph.

“I really appreciated your playing the piano for the choruses tonight. I think next week, if you don’t mind, we could try practising them together for a few minutes at the start. Would you mind doing that?”

“Well, vicar, I…”

“That’s settled then. Thank you, Ralph. Music is so important in worship, isn’t it? I’m deeply grateful to you for your efforts.”

Tom’s phone rang at 10:30.

“It was a long meeting then, Nigel?”

“I’m only just home.”

“Was it as bad as we feared?”

“A mixed bag. Quite a good Bible study; Peter knows what he’s doing there. Some rather odd moments, too. Fay exclaimed ‘A-men’ out loud during the study!”

“Fay?” Thomas’s tone was incredulous.

“Yes, indeed. And I suppose Ralph told you that he was going to play the piano for some choruses?”

“No, he didn’t, but of course he’s under no obligation to tell me, Nigel. Nothing says that the choir has exclusive rights to his talent!”

“It’s the thin end of the wedge, Tom. Before you know it, we’ll have guitars in the Eucharist. Electric guitars!”

“Over my dead body.”

“On the other matter, I managed to have a word with Peggy about the pews. She’s solidly with us on opposing their replacement, and she’s going to make sure that Cheryl toes the line on that one. There’s nothing we can do about Sue, though. She’s right behind Peter.”

“To be fair, Nigel, she is the Vicar’s Warden.”

“Oh, I don’t blame her, Tom; I just wish she would see reason. It would cost a fortune to replace the pews with decent chairs – at least twenty thousand pounds – and what would we gain?”

As Tom replaced the handset, he stroked his chin. He was disappointed that Ralph had played this evening; he felt betrayed. He knew it was irrational. The vicar had asked him whether he would play, and he had declined. He should have realised that the vicar would simply find someone else. ‘On the other hand,’ he thought, ‘I am the Director of Music, and the vicar has no business changing the whole direction of our music without my agreement. We’ve a choral tradition that dates back four hundred years, for goodness sake!’

Tom dropped by Ralph’s house the following evening.

“Do you fancy a beer?”

Ralph glanced at his watch. “Okay, as long as it’s a quick one. I want to be back for ‘Masterchef’”

The White Horse was only fifty yards away, and tonight, as it was early, they were the only occupants of the lounge bar. Tom bought the beer.

“How was the House Group meeting last night?”

“Pretty good actually. Peter led it very well. That new couple, the Grants, were there.”

“I don’t think I’ve met them; what are they like?”

“Very pleasant. They seem to know their bible. They weren’t afraid to join in, either, despite being new. I think they’ll be a tremendous asset to the church, provided they stay.”

“Is there some doubt about that?”

“I think they’re used to a rather more informal style of worship than we offer. Although Linda did say how much she enjoyed the choir’s singing.”

“And how did the choruses go? I hear you played the piano for them.”

“Ah, yes.” Ralph took a swallow of beer and looked appraisingly at his glass. “Do you think they’ve flushed the line properly after cleaning? I think this beer tastes slightly off.” He looked again at the glass, and shrugged. “Yes, I played the piano for the choruses.”

“What do you suppose people see in them, Ralph? I don’t see their attraction at all myself, but plenty of people do. I read an article about them the other day. It seemed very…emotional. Did you enjoy them last night?”

Ralph shook his head “Not really my cup of tea, Tom. Besides, I played them abominably! Even Peter noticed!”

“I have a problem with them beyond my personal taste. If we’re realistic, most of our congregation don’t properly appreciate the music we provide. They don’t understand the value of what we’re preserving here. I mean, think about it. We have records of a four-part choir here in Henry the Eighth’s time. We were still singing when Henry Purcell was composing. Charles Villiers Stanford came here and performed with the choir. I can go to the church archives and read handwritten notes by my predecessors of one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. If we let guitars into the Eucharist, that will all go. It’s happened in other places.”

“I wouldn’t want to lose that, Tom, any more than you would, but it’s early days. I think there’s probably a place for them in House Groups, and perhaps in less formal services – maybe in the church hall.

Anyway, I think these House Groups are a great idea. They could invigorate us. I want to support Peter with them; I think he’s working on the right lines.”

“Fair enough, Ralph. By the way, if you would like any help with sorting out the rhythm of those choruses, I’d be happy to run through them with you after choir practice. If our church is going to use this music, we might as well make sure it’s right.”

“Tom! Come and play for the meeting! It would be so much better than my efforts, and I really think you’d enjoy the study and fellowship.”

Ralph shook his head and glanced at his watch. “Masterchef in five minutes, Ralph.”

*       *       *

The evening of the June PCC meeting was glorious, the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows. Peter had taken to holding the meetings in the Lady Chapel, a reminder to all the participants, especially himself, that their work was for the glory of God.

“You’ve probably all noticed; attendance is up again this month. Thank you, Peggy, for organising the delivery of over two thousand laminated sheets carrying a map of where we are, the service times, and the contact details of the pastoral team. Every household in the parish has had one. We hope that most of these sheets will be pinned on corkboards or held on the fridge with magnets!

Possibly the best news of all is that twenty children are interested in taking part in Sunday School, which will be launched with an ‘Adventure Week’ at the start of the school holidays. Martin and Linda will be running this. There are still opportunities to help, if you’re keen. Please see Linda to make sure that your safeguarding training is up to date.”

He paused and mentally said a very quick prayer.

“There is another thing we could do to make our church more welcoming towards newcomers and that is replace the pews with chairs. The big advantage that they have is that they can be used flexibly. For a formal sung Eucharist, we put them in rows and they emulate pews. For a family service we could place them in concentric circles, so that people could see each other better.

For a smaller service, perhaps a monthly meditative prayer service, we would put away most of the chairs. For the Stations of the Cross, they would all be put away. I have it strongly in mind that we will need to have services for recent Christians, where they can feel relaxed. I don’t feel we can achieve that at the moment. A dozen people scattered yards apart in the pews is not relaxed!”

Peggy raised her hand. “Vicar, is it true that it would cost twenty thousand pounds?

“Yes, it is, Peggy. We would need a major fund-raising effort. But it should be possible. I’m told we raised £30,000 to refurbish the organ only three years ago.”

“We did, Vicar, but that was essential. The tuner told us that without the work our organ would deteriorate rapidly. We’re very proud of our musical tradition.”

Sue was looking agitated. “These chairs are essential, too. It’s not our tradition that matters; it’s our outreach to others. I organise the Greeters, and they all think that the pews put off people who aren’t used to coming to church.”

“Greeters!” muttered Nigel under his breath. Until recently they had been called sidesmen; he wished they still were.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” persisted Peggy. “I don’t think you’d find people had the same appetite for fund-raising that would replace the pews with chairs. We grew up with pews; we like them. What’s wrong with them?”

“I think we should look at this from the positive side,” said Peter. “It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with pews, it’s just that chairs would improve the way we use our church. I am personally convinced that they would help our missionary effort.”

“We must consider the practicalities as well, Peter,” said Nigel. “Removing the pews and installing chairs instead would require a faculty from the diocese. I had a word with my contact in the Diocesan Advisory Committee. He was not sanguine that a faculty would be forthcoming.”

Peter’s face paled and his lips set thin and narrow, but he responded mildly, “We won’t know if we don’t try. My discussions with the Archdeacon,” – and he emphasised the word – “were altogether more positive.”

Cheryl, the Secretary spoke out. “We seem to be divided on this issue. I propose that we postpone further discussion until the July meeting, by which time we’ll have had chance to think more about how we move forward.”

“Thank you, Cheryl, but I would like the PCC to vote on the matter at this meeting. It is my strong and positive recommendation as your vicar that we should seek to replace the pews with chairs. A show of hands in favour, please.” The vicar and Sue raised their hands, and, after a slight hesitation, so did Cheryl. There were nine contrary. Motion defeated.

“Thank you, everybody. We’ll close with the Grace, please.”

As the members were picking up their things ready to go home, Peter said quietly to Nigel, “A word, if you please. In my vestry.”

The vicar sat himself behind his desk. “Please sit down, Nigel.”

Nigel sat.

“You are, of course, entitled to talk to whom you please, when you please, about what you please. But if that discussion is designed to deliberately undercut my position as your vicar, that is, in my opinion, an abuse of your right, and damnably rude into the bargain.”

“I’m sorry you see it that way, Peter. It seemed useful to me to have the opinion of the Advisory Committee.”

“But you didn’t have their opinion, did you, Nigel? I found that the Archdeacon is in favour. In future I would ask you, as a matter of courtesy, to discuss with me beforehand any contacts you intend to have with the diocese.”

“I’ll leave you to deal with the Diocesan Treasurer, shall I?”

“You’ll do your job and you’ll do it properly and courteously, or you can resign. Right at this moment I would prefer the latter, but it’s up to you.”

Without a word Nigel rose and left the vestry.

“Shit!” exclaimed the vicar, sotto voce, after the door closed. “I made a right mess of that!”

*       *       *

The church hall was full. Children climbed over parents, ran around, and shouted with excitement. Some of the parents knew each other and tried to chat, shouting to make themselves heard above the din. Ralph nervously checked his musical forces; one guitarist, one bassist, a drummer with a set of drum pads, and the keyboard that he himself would play. It was five to six on the Sunday evening at the end of the Adventure Week.

“Okay,” he mouthed, “On four. One, two three, four!”

The chorus ‘Praise Him on the trumpet’ began. The enthusiasm of the musicians exceeded their competence; there were wrong notes in handfuls; but the liveliness gradually penetrated to the congregation. One by one they stopped speaking; some joined in and sang.

As they finished, Peter stood up. He was beaming.

“Have you all enjoyed yourselves?”

“Yes!” chorused the children.

“Shall I tell you a story?”

“Yes!”

He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, which had been the theme of the Adventure Week. As the story unfolded, children came forward in small groups to show their artwork, to act out a short scene, or to sing.

The service was short, only forty minutes, and was followed by coffee and cakes. People were laughing and chatting merrily. One young man, a small boy hanging on his arm, approached Ralph.

“Hi. I’m Sam. I enjoyed the music! Is there any room for another performer? I play trumpet.”

“Excellent!  There’s always room for a willing volunteer! We’re going to be having an informal evening service here in the hall once a fortnight, but we’ll be practising every week, Thursday at half past seven. As you could probably tell, we badly need as much practice as we can manage!”

*       *       *

“Tom, could I come and have a chat with you tomorrow evening about the Harvest Festival?”

“Yes, of course, Vicar. Is eight o’clock satisfactory for you?”

“That will do nicely, Tom. See you then.”

Tom replaced the receiver, and pursed his lips. He had ambitious plans for the Harvest Festival music. It would be of such excellence that thereafter there could be no question of allowing guitars into the Sung Eucharist.

Peter, for his part, sighed and picked up the things he needed for the House Group meeting. Why were people so resistant to change? Thank goodness for Ralph!

The House Group went particularly well that evening. There weren’t enough seats for the eighteen people who attended, and Ralph distributed cushions so those sitting on the floor could be comfortable. They were soon going to need to start a second group.

Although Ralph was the host, it was Nigel making the coffee for them that evening, and Peter joined him in the kitchen.

“The music was lively tonight, I thought,” he said.

“Yes, I enjoyed it. You gave a good Bible study, too, Peter.”

“It always goes well when people are prepared to join in.”

“Can you put some biscuits on a plate, please, Peter?”

The vicar obliged, and said, “Have you seen the attendance figures for the Sunday evening informal service, Nigel?”

“I have. They’re impressive. I went to the last service, as you know, and there was a real buzz. And most of the people there were people I didn’t recognize! The difference shows up in the offering, too. Our finances are looking better than they have done for some time.”

“Nigel, I would really like to get some of that ‘buzz’ into the Sung Eucharist. Do you think we’ll ever win Tom round to that?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I, personally, would be in favour, and you’re welcome to tell Tom that if it would help. Now, we’d better take coffee through to thirsty people. Would you mind bringing in that other tray please, Peter?”

Although Nigel was often the last to leave, tonight he excused himself as early as possible. He wanted to phone Tom and it was already late in the evening.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Tom. It’s Nigel. I’m sorry to call you so late.”

“Nothing wrong, I hope?”

“No, nothing drastic, it’s just that the vicar spoke to me about having choruses in the Sung Eucharist. I have a feeling he plans to talk to you about them.”

“Ah!”

“Tom, would it really be so bad to have some of this modern stuff in the Eucharist? It’s not as though Peter wants to do away with our traditional style of worship. He wants to keep mostly classical music but have some choruses as well. The informal services are drawing people in. It would be great if we could do the same for the Eucharist!”

“Nigel, you may be keen to dilute our heritage, but I am not.”

“Tom, what are you going to do if the PCC expresses a view in favour of modern music in the service?”

“Are you threatening me, Nigel? Is that what the Vicar told you to say?”

“No, Tom, of course not! You and I have been friends for decades; you know I wouldn’t do that. But I think the vicar might ask the PCC’s opinion, and I’m just forewarning you.”

“And where will you stand, if this opinion is sought?”

“Well, I have to say, Tom, that I can see benefits from doing it, and very few downsides. I’d have to speak in favour.”

“Traitor!”

Tom slammed down the receiver and stood shaking with rage. How dare they? How dare they? All his work. All the work of generations of musicians, going for nothing!

Needless to say, his meeting with the vicar did not go well.

*       *       *

The weather was cloudy on the evening of the August PCC meeting.

The committee quickly completed the routine business and then the vicar rose to his feet. He was pale and tense. He knew what he was about to do and he hated it.

“Over the past few weeks, you’ve all attended at least one of the informal evening services. You’ve seen how the style of worship there is accepted and welcomed. You’ve seen that we have gained many new members and that they are actively participating in our outreach.

I’ve proposed to our Musical Director that we should experiment with a less formal style of worship in the church, not abandoning traditional music but augmenting it with some in a more modern idiom. He does not believe that this would be a good idea.

I ask him now to put his point of view to the PCC, and when he has done so I am going to ask the PCC for their decision as to how we proceed. There will be no further discussion – this issue has already done enough damage – there will simply be a vote. The choice will be do we retain purely classical music? Or do we introduce some chorus-style worship with appropriate instruments? I will abide by the result of the vote without complaint whichever way it goes. I hope that everybody else will do likewise.

Tom.”

Tom stood. He spoke of tradition. He spoke of beauty. He spoke of how the very best music could inspire the soul to look beyond the finite to the mystery of the spiritual. He was not eloquent, and yet his clumsy words were probably more powerful than eloquence. Nevertheless, it was not enough. He could see on the faces of the PCC that it was not enough.

The vote was thirteen to two against him; only Peggy had backed him. He held his face stiff and struggled not to weep.

“Then I must tender my resignation with immediate effect,” he said. From his leather music case he pulled out a smart cream envelope containing a hand-written letter. Its calligraphy was immaculate. His self-control wavered, and nearly cracked. “I cannot work in a place where my professional expertise is disregarded. I’ve spoken to Geoff. He will hold the fort until the PCC is in a position to make a permanent appointment. If you want my final recommendation, you should appoint him; he’s a fine organist and musician.”

He turned, handed the envelope to Cheryl, and walked out. As he passed her, Linda Grant stood up and went with him. “I am so sorry you feel like this,” she said, taking his hand. Gently, Tom detached her hand from his. He took out a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

“Thank you,” he said, and left.

*       *       *

That year, the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was packed; people were standing at the back. The choir’s ensemble was a little less good than hitherto, but only Geoff noticed; he made a mental note to be quite sure that he recruited a deputy as soon as possible so that he could conduct whenever necessary. The music group were noisy and lively; the congregation joined in with enthusiasm.

It was the end of the service, and time for ‘O come all ye faithful’. The musical forces combined. The choir sang a descant for verse five, and, during the chorus, the flute from the music group played an obbligato. The last verse started a little more quietly. High over the melody, two trumpets sent their silver tones into the fan vaulting. Then, for the last line, Geoff used full organ, and Ralph turned up the amplification.

“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord”.

The building shook!

Friday Fictioneers – The craftsman

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - The craftsman 180912

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

The craftsman

Hansel loved wood. His foot pumped the treadle and his fingers deftly guided the workpiece against the blade of the fretsaw, measuring it against the half-built clock until it was good and true.

At lunchtime he sat in the town square eating a sandwich and gazing at the church. He liked the neatness and order of its carved stone.

“Hey, stupid!” A youth strutted up, and snatched Hansel’s sandwich. “Halfwits like you don’t deserve food,” he sneered.

“Lay off him!” Hansel’s boss emerged from the workshop. The youth bolted.

“Don’t take any notice of him, lad. You’re my best craftsman.”

Friday Fictioneers – Fulfilment

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Fulfilment 180613

PHOTO PROMPT © Jean L. Hays

Fulfilment

A peacock screeched.

Inside its pupa, a damselfly larva stirred.

Alice dabbled her hand in the pond, gazing through a haze of reflections at the coloured pebbles on the bottom.

“You look thoughtful. Not worrying about tomorrow, I hope?”

Alice smiled.

“Just nervous, Frances, that’s all.”

Frances hugged her sister.

“Silly girl! Everything will be fine.”

The damselfly’s pupa began to split.

Next day the church was full. Alice stood beside Matthew and wondered whether it was possible to feel any happier.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Beside the pond the damselfly’s wings flashed. The peacock screeched exultantly.

Short Story – First Meeting

Not flash fiction this time, but a short story. It’s about 600 words long, so it won’t take long to read! I welcome constructive criticism, so if you have suggestions as to how I could improve it I would be very grateful if you would comment.

carousel-horses-180309

First Meeting

The cobbles were wet and slippery.

Susan skirted the edge of the market and paused at the butcher’s stall. She wondered whether she could afford their bargain offer of two rump steaks for £8. She shook her head. No. Too much Christmas shopping still to do and not enough money.

She was completely unprepared for the sudden shove and went flying, arms flailing, scattering packages all around.

“Oh, gosh! I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”

He was tall, about thirty, slim and dark-haired.

Susan sat on the cobbles and rubbed her right arm, wincing.

“Can you move it? I mean, is it broken?”

Susan flexed it gingerly, and grimaced.

“Just bruised, I think.” She glared at him and started to pick up her packages, ramming them into her bags. She stood up and tried, unsuccessfully, to carry all the bags with her left hand.

“Do you live close?”

“About a mile.”

He hailed a taxi, talked briefly to the driver, handed over cash.

“Give the driver the address. Once again, I’m really sorry.”

All she wanted now was a cup of tea.

It wasn’t until she was at home waiting for the kettle to boil that she realised her pendant was missing.

Sunday came. Jonathan wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but he woke early, the weather was fine, and it was, after all, nearly Christmas.

The sun brightened the east window and cast patches of light on the stonework above the choir stalls. Jonathan thought of how the light had gleamed from the corn-gold hair of the woman he had so unfortunately barged into on Friday. She had worn it in braids wrapped around her head. The colour was that of a schoolgirl; the style that of an elegant woman; but she was neither.

And he had her pendant, which was a lovely piece. How could he return it? He’d found the taxi that had taken her home, but the driver ‘couldn’t remember’ the address. Jonathan had the unpleasant feeling that the man had thought he was a stalker.

He’d probably never see her again.

He sighed, stood up – and there she was, right arm in a sling, hair covered by a headscarf. Her eyes opened wide. Jonathan suddenly realised how very much he wanted to know her better.

“Oh. You.” she said.

Jonathan looked at the sling.

“I’m so sorry. Was it broken after all?”

“Yes.” She looked hostile.

Jonathan fished in his pocket.

“I found this under the market stall. Is it yours?”

She reached out and grasped it. She pressed it to her cheek.

“I suppose I should say thank you,” she rasped.

“My pleasure,” murmured Jonathan.

He hesitated – and walked away.

Even though it was Sunday, the Christmas market was open. As he left the church, Jonathan could hear the mechanical organ of the carousel. He mooched, hands in pockets, towards it.

What on earth had possessed him last Friday? The raucous music had stirred him, lured him onto the ride, set his feet dancing as he dismounted – and sent him spinning into a young woman with golden hair and grey-blue eyes, knocking her headlong.

And now he knew that the accident had broken her arm. It was hardly surprising that she didn’t want to see him again.

He watched as the brightly painted horses, with their gilded manes, raced in endless, futile pursuit. There was no exhilaration left in the day. The sun had disappeared and a fine drizzle was slowly soaking him.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

She stood, looking apologetic.

“I’m sorry I snubbed you in the church. You took me by surprise – not that that’s an excuse! I’m Susan, by the way.”

“I’m Jonathan”. He smiled. “Shall we have coffee together?”

Susan smiled back. “I’d like that. Thank you!”

 

 

 

What Pegman Saw – A resourceful rogue

A Resourceful Rogue

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the 360 degree view of the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location, St Petersburg, Russia, on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code.

WPS - St Petersburg 170916

“So many tourists, and not an ounce of piety among them,” thought the babushka, as she pushed her way into the gorgeously decorated interior of the church. Sergei, the beggar, didn’t bother to call to her. He knew she would give him nothing; she was probably nearly as poor as he was.

Ah! Americans! Sergei checked the police weren’t watching. He noticed a young woman’s eyes flick over him. “I’ll try the ‘Sick child’,” he thought.

“Please! My child is sick.”

“Oh, how awful!”

Stella pressed a ten-dollar bill into Sergei’s hands, smiled at him, and entered the church.

“Which icon is Jesus?” she asked. The babushka sniffed at the woman’s ignorance.

Jesus gazed down compassionately on them, the old woman remembering hunger from the long-distant past and the young one hungry for culture and the future. He grinned as he looked at Sergei. He’d always loved a resourceful rogue!

For those who are interested in Jesus’ love for a resourceful rogue, the biblical reference is Luke 16 vv 1 – 13

The circle of life

I’ve posted predominantly flash fiction for a number of weeks recently. However, I haven’t given up on longer forms, and I’ve been working at incorporating the lessons I’ve learned from flash fiction into a full-length short story. ‘The circle of life’ is a little over 2000 words, and will take about 10-15 minutes to read. I hope you enjoy it!

The circle of life - Lamb 170906

The circle of life

The blades of the plough sliced smoothly through the soil, peeling the ground into ribbons of compacted earth that rolled aside in long straight rows. Rooks followed the plough, feasting on the earthworms it turned up. Fluttering around telephone wires, the swallows were restless. It was nearly time to migrate.

Robert, as he walked alone, studied the pattern of the furrows, which the sun, low in the clear autumn sky, made stark. He strode down the gentle gradient from his cottage in Hillfold, lingered briefly at the Withy Brook to enjoy the chuckle of its tumbling water, and then on to Midham.

There is a post office and general store in the village of Midham which stocks everything you would reasonably expect and some things you wouldn’t. There are tins of Irish stew, tins of cling peaches, tins of sardines. There are sweets, tobacco products and booze. There is angling equipment, because the owner, Tom, is an angler. And, of course, there are newspapers.

Robert went in and bought ‘The Times’, as he did every day. The shop would have delivered for a modest charge – Robert could easily have afforded it – but he enjoyed his walk, and, more to the point, he enjoyed meeting people there. For Robert was a widower; he was retired, and he lived on his own.

As he chatted to Tom about the village quiz, a woman, a stranger, came in.

“Have you got anything for cleaning a ceramic hob?” she asked Tom. She had a noticeable accent; Yorkshire, thought Robert. Tom shook his head.

“Sorry. You’ll need to go into town for that.”

“When do the buses run? I suppose there is a bus?”

“Eight o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon, but there’s no bus back in the afternoon.”

“So I’ve missed it, then.”

“If you like, you can use some of mine.”

“That’s very kind,” said the woman, doubtfully.

“No problem,” and Tom vanished through the curtained opening at the back of the shop.

“New here?” asked Robert.

“Moved in two days ago. Still living out of cardboard boxes.” Her hair was dark, streaked with grey.

“Here we are.” Tom handed her the cleaner.

“Thank you, I’ll bring it back in ten minutes, if that’s okay?”

“No rush.”

Tom watched her with a smile on his face until she’d left the shop, then he went to the window and watched her walk down the street.

“Number 11,” he told Robert. “Good-looking woman, eh?”

“Very pleasant,” agreed Robert, although truth to tell he’d hardly noticed her appearance.

Paper bought and conversation finished, he walked on through the village. Out of curiosity he glanced at the front window of number 11.

“Of course, she’ll be in the kitchen at the back,” he murmured to himself.

*       *       *       *

December came. The frosts were early and hard that year. Robert’s breath steamed as he walked. He watched diligently for patches of ice. “Have I reached the age when I would ‘have a fall,’ rather than ‘fall over’?” he wondered. The grasses beside the Withy Brook were rimed and white.

He noticed her as soon as he entered the shop.

“Good morning. Settling in now?”

She smiled. The skin beside her eyes crinkled attractively. “Yes. Only a few cardboard boxes of books left now. Why do they never build houses with enough bookshelves?” Her accent was definitely Yorkshire; her laugh was gentle.

“I have a spare bookcase in my garage doing nothing. It won’t fit in my cottage, but I could never bring myself to dispose of it. Would you like it?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. If it’s a treasure that you’ve kept, I mean.”

“Book cases are meant for books. I’d be delighted if it fulfilled its true function.” He looked at her, and then, surprising himself, said, “I’m Robert, by the way. Would you fancy having dinner with me in the Jester’s Motley some time?”

“A man who values books. A bookish man. Dinner in the Motley? I’d like that very much indeed, thank you, Robert. My name’s Helen. Just in case you didn’t already know.”

“Helen. Lovely name. I’ll bring the bookcase round this afternoon – Helen.”

*       *       *       *

March departed with a shout. April crept in, with gentle sun and balmy air, and Robert and Helen walked side by side past the Withy Brook. Water, turbid and brown, pooled upstream of the bridge. There were large puddles on the road.

“Two days ago this was under six inches of water,” observed Robert.

“You told me. You had to go the other way to visit me.”

“Oh dear! Repeating myself. A boring old man!”

“Never that, Robert. Not old, and certainly not boring.” She squeezed his hand. “I was amazed to see you in the stormy weather. You could have been squashed by that tree that came down! And the rain – I’ve never seen rain like it!”

They strolled on, comfortable, relaxed.

“Oh, look, Robert! That lamb must be new-born. Look how wobbly his little legs are. I must take a photo!”

Robert smiled as Helen pulled out her phone, and crouched on the verge to take the picture. She was sixty-one years old, medium height, with square shoulders. She gave an impression of brisk competence, energy and enjoyment of life. Robert realised suddenly that she was beautiful.

“Mind the ditch,” he called as she edged forward.

“Oh, you. Mr Cautious,” she grumbled, but cheerfully.

They ambled back to Midham. “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve baked a cake. Carrot cake!”

“Sounds delicious.”

And it was.

“Why don’t you stay for dinner?”

Robert hesitated.

“Don’t you like my cooking?”

“I love your cooking. It’s just…” Robert paused. He couldn’t think of how to say what he felt he should.

“You’re afraid I shall drag you into my bed? Well, the idea’s tempting but I think I can probably just about control the urge.” She was grinning, but Robert was not.

“Don’t joke about it,” he pleaded.

Helen’s face softened. “I’m sorry, Robert. You’re right; it’s too important to joke about. But do you mind if I say something?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Well. We’re not old, Robert, but we’re definitely nearer our end than our beginning. We don’t know how long we’ve got. For my part, I’d like to spend as many as possible of my remaining years with you. And, yes, I mean in my bed as well as every other part of my life.” She scanned his face anxiously.

Robert had shrunk back into the far corner of the settee they jointly occupied. His hands were clasped over his knees.

“What’s the matter, my dear?”

Robert just shook his head. “I don’t know,” he answered eventually. “I’ve been on my own such a long time, and everything had settled down, and now it’s…I don’t know.”

“You must have loved Margaret very much.”

“How do you know about Margaret?”

“Oh, Robert, this is a village. Everybody knows everything about everyone.”

He was shaking.

“I loved her so much, and she suffered, Helen, she suffered, and I couldn’t help her. And now, I’m starting… I’m starting…”

He stood up. “I must go. Thank you for the invitation. I must go.”

She helped him put on his coat. “You’ll need that; it’s getting cold,” and then she kissed him firmly, on the lips. He gasped, turned aside, gripped her arms. They stood still, cheeks touching. Helen could hear his uneven breath, feel the tickle of it on her face. His hands became gentle on her, neither seeking to control nor to cling on. Then he kissed her, briefly, softly, once, on the cheek, and departed.

Helen closed the front door quietly and took a deep breath.

*       *       *       *

Nearly a week passed and Helen heard nothing from Robert. He would normally have phoned her on Thursday so they could go together in his car to the supermarket; but this week he didn’t.

Instead, Helen caught the bus into town. She was cross with the check-out girl, and then felt she should go back and apologise. Which made her late for the return bus. Which meant a taxi ride home, fifteen pounds that she could ill afford. And when she arrived home mid-afternoon, she realised that she’d forgotten to buy potatoes.

“Damn and blast,” she said, and stomped out of the house to the village store.

“Sorry, Helen, I sold the last of the fresh ‘taters ten minutes ago. I’ve got tinned ones.”

Helen took the can off the shelf, banged it down by the till.

Tom looked sidelong at her.

“Your friend alright? He’s normally in here every day for his newspaper. He hasn’t been in for the last three days. Looked a bit peaky, you know, coughing a lot. That’s two pounds seventy, please.”

“Oh, I think I’d better have a tin of soup as well.” She took down a tin of chicken broth.

“That’s four pounds forty altogether.”

“Tom, you’re a highwayman.”

Back home, Helen packed the soup, a loaf, butter and some fruit into a backpack, and set off for Hillfold. The Withy Brook swirled and gurgled as she passed, its dark waters sinister under the indigo sky.

There were no lights on in Robert’s cottage. Helen pounded on the knocker. There was no reply. Heart thumping, she went to the garage and lifted the door. Yes, Robert’s car was there.

The rear garden was full of shadow. She could hardly see where she was going. She felt her way to the back door, turned the handle and pushed. The door stayed fast shut. What now?

She went back to the front of the cottage and stood irresolute by the door. Should she try knocking again?

She took hold of the handle and turned it. The door opened. There was a moment’s satisfaction, and then her concern redoubled. Robert would never have gone out leaving the door unlocked. As she entered, her feet kicked envelopes aside.

“Robert?”

Her voice quavered.

“Robert!”

She reached out her right hand and turned on the light in the hall. There was a handful of post under her feet.

She looked into the sitting room. Nobody there, but she left the light on; it gave her courage. She glanced into the little kitchen. There were some dirty dishes on the table. Her heart sank. Robert never left things dirty.

“Robert!”

Helen, full of trepidation, climbed the stairs. This was the first time she’d been upstairs in his cottage. She listened. Was that the noise of somebody breathing? She pushed open the bedroom door.

The room stank. Robert lay on the bed, eyes closed.

“Robert?”

He didn’t move.

Helen placed her hand on his forehead. He was burning hot.

The ambulance arrived quickly, in less than fifteen minutes. Less than five minutes after that, Robert was in the vehicle, a saline drip in his arm and an oxygen mask over his face.

“Will he be alright?” Helen begged.

The paramedic gave her a look, full of compassion. “We’ll do our best for him, but he’s a very sick man. If you hadn’t found him, I don’t think he would have made it through the night.”

After the ambulance had left for the hospital, Helen sank down on the settee in the sitting room. How could she have been so self-centred as to assume that Robert’s absence was because he hadn’t wanted to see her again? Why hadn’t she called him? She shuddered with the dread that he might die.

Eventually she rose, extinguished the lights and set off home. She locked Robert’s door after her, and tucked the key into her purse. Tomorrow, she would come and clean everything, in the hope that Robert would pull through.

*       *       *       *

The summer sun was hot on Robert’s shoulders as he walked hand-in-hand with Helen. He wore a carnation in his buttonhole, and she a broad-brimmed straw hat on her grey-streaked hair. The Withy Brook was back within its banks, which were green and flower-speckled.

“Robert, look! That’s the lamb I photographed in April, all grown up – I swear it is! Have I got two minutes?”

“Go on, then!”

The bells of Midham church sang across the fields.

Robert and Helen looked at each other, kissed and strolled on.

Tom, resplendent in a college blazer that must have been thirty years old, emerged from the Post Office and Village Store and turned over the sign to read ‘Closed’, before joining Robert and Helen. Friends greeted them, and then followed them to the church. And there Robert and Helen exchanged their vows; for richer, for poorer (I couldn’t be richer, thought Helen); in sickness and in health (I must try not to be a burden on her, thought Robert); till death us do part (to which we can all say ‘Amen’, and hope that the parting is long delayed!)

 

The Stranger

This story is not set in any well-defined location. It probably most closely resembles the USA in the 1950s, but I’ve made no attempt to make it realistic. It’s a story about community. While a community is often very supportive to its members, it’s not necessarily welcoming to outsiders, and it can place obstacles in the way of those who dream of a wider horizon…

The stranger - church - winter 170325

The young man staggered down the hill and into the village.

It was Sunday morning. The night had been cold, and people were dressed in their warmest overcoats as they walked to church.

The young man was in shirtsleeves, and tattered ones at that. His hair was unkempt, and his eyes were wild.

“He must be frozen,” murmured Hannah, the pastor’s eldest daughter.

“He’s been drinking,” responded her aunt, tartly.

Although it was snowy underfoot, the stranger was wearing light shoes rather than boots; they looked as inadequate as the rest of his outfit.

He seemed glad of the support of the church porch, and clung there for a moment. A small queue started to form. The woman greeting people at the door caught the eye of the pastor, Charles Montez, who hurried over.

“Come in, sir, come in. Welcome!”

Charles Montez looked around the small building. He expected a full house this morning; he was baptising Jenny Holmes’s child. There was a stove halfway down one side, with a space beside it to allow coal to be shovelled in. He fetched a chair, and put it in the space. The stranger stared at him.

“Sit there, sir, sit there. And welcome once again.”

The stranger spoke.

“Da!”

He sat down. Gradually his shaking subsided. His eyes closed. Charles noticed. He fetched some old, heavy curtains from the back of the vestry, and covered the stranger, tucking the fabric close around him.

The church filled. The mayor, Jenny’s uncle, arrived in his civic robes and chain, and paraded to the front. His wife, Gloria, caught sight of the tramp, huddled under the blankets asleep. She frowned, and compressed her lips. She squeezed her husband’s elbow and pointed at the pile of curtains.

“David,” she hissed, “you just have a word with the pastor after the service. This is supposed to be a special day for us!”

Charles was patient. “What would you have me do, Dave? Throw the man out into the snow?”

“You know how it is, Charley.” Dave tilted his head in the direction of Gloria, who was holding court at the back of the church. Charles nodded. He knew.

“He turned up here just before the service. Come a long way by the look of him. Doesn’t seem to speak English either. I’m not quite sure what we can do with him. I’ll leave him to sleep for now, but he’ll need somewhere to stay tonight.”

The two men looked at the congregation drinking coffee at the back of the church.

“I’ll phone the police when I’m home. See if anybody’s missed him. I’ll let you know, shall I?”

“If you would, Dave. I wouldn’t want to park a convict on any of my flock. On the other hand, I can’t turn him away.”

Charles collected a coffee. Half a dozen people wanted to compliment him on the sermon. Three people wanted to discuss church business. As always, he deflected them gently. He didn’t believe in settling matters by the whisperings of two or three people; he insisted that if a decision was needed, the whole church should have a chance to speak. He drifted in the direction of Joe and Val.

Val was apologetic but firm. “Normally, as you know, Pastor, we would love to take in the stranger, but we’ve a houseful of guests, three people in every bedroom and two in the study. The family has come over for the New Year…”

In the end, Charles took him to the manse. Julieta rolled her eyes at him. Their house was almost as full as Joe and Val’s. What was she: a miracle worker?

“You’re my miracle worker anyway,” he said, kissing her.

“Oh, you! Go and peel the potatoes. I’ll see if any of your old clothes will fit him.”

First, though, he would need a bath; and a shave and haircut, too. She called her eldest son, Matthew.

“Just take our new friend – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?” She looked at their guest. He looked back mutely, frowning. “Anyway, run him a bath, and lend him a razor. See if he’d like your sister to give him a haircut.”

Matthew grinned. He gestured at himself. “Matt!” he said to the guest, “Matt!” Then he pointed to his mom. “Julieta!”

The man’s face cleared. He pointed to himself. “Eevan!”

Matt pointed at him. “Eevan?” he said.

“Da! Eevan!”

Matt put his arm around Eevan. “Come on! We’ll soon have you sorted out!”

Half an hour later Eevan looked a great deal more comfortable, clean and in clothes the pastor had last worn some twenty years ago. Julieta blessed her habit of never throwing away anything that was still useable. Matt touched Eevan’s wet hair and pantomimed snipping with scissors.

“Da. Spasseebo.”

“Wait here. I’ll fetch Hannah.”

Hannah shuffled a university prospectus out of sight as Matt came into the room she shared with her sisters. She would love to study, but what would her family think? She coloured a little as Matt asked her to cut Eevan’s hair.

“Will you stay with me while I do it? He frightens me a little.”

“Course I will, Sis. But he’s a lot nicer now. Doesn’t smell so bad, either!” He wrinkled his nose.

Hannah laughed.

“You shouldn’t be so rude about a guest!”

Eevan sitting in a chair, clean and in old but serviceable clothes, was indeed a much less formidable proposal. As she spread a towel round his shoulders, Hannah noticed how the bones protruded. She was surprised by his hair. It had been cut in ragged tufts, and some parts seemed to have been pulled out altogether. But she just clipped away, keeping up a soothing flow of conversation, and every now and again catching Eevan’s eye and smiling shyly.

By the time Hannah had finished – it didn’t take her long – Eevan was quite presentable. Julieta put all his old clothes into the washing machine, and what remained of his shoes into the scullery. She clicked her teeth and wondered how they were to help their new friend. Never mind; sufficient unto the day.

Later that evening, Matt took his dad on one side.

“There’s an odd thing about Eevan,” he said. “On his left forearm, about halfway up on the inside, there’s a number tattooed. 576A, it is.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Interesting. Well, we can’t do other than take him at face value tonight, but I’ll tell Dave in the morning. He was going to check with the police, to see if anybody had gone missing hereabouts.”

But Dave’s enquiries yielded no answers.

Eevan picked up a few words of English. He helped about the house, and then in some of the heavier outdoor tasks. Charles began to wonder how he might be employed; it wasn’t good for a man to have no regular work. He wondered, too, whether Hannah might not be feeling intrigued by Eevan; he’d seen her glancing at him and blushing when she realised he’d noticed.

That would be awkward; Hannah and Stephen, Dave’s son, had been walking out for a couple of years. Anybody could see how attractive they found each other. The whole town assumed that they were going to marry.

“That’s a strange guest you’ve had since Christmas.” Stephen was scornful. “I reckon your dad should kick him out. Doesn’t speak English, doesn’t work. A freeloader.”

“He’s not been here that long, only a few months. He helps a lot about the house.” Hannah was gentle in her contradiction.

“Helps about the house? Well I should just think he does. Does he wear a pinny and do the baking?”

Hannah went pink.

“Eevan is a good man, Stephen. He’s gentle and thoughtful, and a friend.”

“Well, he’d better not get ideas, that’s all, or this town will be too hot for him.”

A couple of days later, Eevan asked Matthew if he could help himself to some wire from the shed.

“Sure. What are you going to do? Do you want a hand?”

Eevan shook his head. “You will like,” he promised.

He returned late that evening, carrying three young rabbits, and sporting a large bruise on his left cheek. He presented the rabbits to Julieta with a bow and a smile.

“Why, thank you! I wondered what we were going to eat tomorrow, and now I know. Coney stew! Eevan – Spasseebo!”

Eevan bowed again, and beamed with delight

Stephen took Hannah to the cinema that evening, picking her up in his car. Hannah wondered how it was that he could afford a new car, when her dad could only manage a ten-year-old Ford.

As soon as the feature started, Stephen started to kiss her. She normally enjoyed that – who doesn’t? – but tonight she wasn’t in the mood. She put her finger on her lips.

“I want to watch the movie,” she said, even though she didn’t.

When his hand started to reach under her skirt, she elbowed him hard in the ribs.

“Get off,” she hissed.

Stephen scowled.

When they were back in the car, Hannah let him kiss her. She couldn’t think of a way of stopping him without causing a quarrel. But when he tried again to pet her, she hitched herself away from him.

“I’m sorry, Stephen, I’m not in the mood. If you must know, I’m on my period.” Even though she wasn’t.

Stephen gripped the steering wheel and groaned. “Bloody women!”

Then a smirk slithered across his face.

“That precious lodger of yours won’t forget today, though.”

Hannah stared at him.

“Knocked him right out.” The smirk was accompanied by a wriggling in the seat.

“You knocked him out?”

“Sure. Well, me and Ken together. I don’t reckon he’ll want to hang around too much longer, now he knows the townsfolk don’t want him.”

“You beast! That was a horrible thing to do. I hate you!” Hannah jerked the car door open.

“Hey, where’re you going?”

“Away from you. I’m finished with you. I hate you!”

“Whoah! Do you have feelings for that lowlife? What does that make you then? I don’t know why I’ve been wasting my time on you!”

He hit her. She fell to the ground, weeping, and he drove away.

She was just in time to catch the cinema manager as he locked up. “No Stephen?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

“No. We’ve just split up. He hit me.”

“I’ll ring your dad.”  They went back into the cinema, and he rang from the ticket office and stayed with her. It was only ten minutes before there was a screech of tyres from outside, and Charles came panting in. He wrapped both big arms around his daughter and held her tight.

Her sobs stilled as they drove home, and she said “Can I talk to you about something serious, Dad?”

“Of course, love. Will it wait until we’re home?”

“Mom’ll be all over us. You know how she fusses. Anyway, it’s quite quick to say, although it’s quite slow to think about. I’d like to go to university, Dad. I couldn’t think how to ask when it seemed I was going to marry Stephen, but even then it was what I really wanted to do.”

Charles pulled up at the side of the road.

“You’ll have to live a long way from home,” he said. “Your mom and I will miss you. I don’t know whether we can afford the money, either. But we’ll see what can be done. I’ll back you if mom feels too concerned. Is that good enough?”

“Thank you, Dad.” The smile on Hannah’s face told Charles all he needed to know.

A fortnight later, Eevan disappeared.

Charles spoke to David. He spoke to the police. They took the details and made some cursory enquiries. But nobody in the town ever saw Eevan again.

 

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