by Debbie Hewson
The cold air made his breath puff out in clouds. His scarf caught in the wind, and wrapped around his face, his hands deep in his pockets. The tops of his ears were cold, he could feel them tingling with every step he took. The key was wrapped tightly in his hand. He was looking forward to a cup of tea and maybe a biscuit. His hands felt the soft roundness of his paunch, and he reconsidered.
The door opened easily, and he stepped into the warm, still air. The mail was on the mat, three envelopes. He carried them through to the office via the kitchen. His desk was covered, but he found a gap, and put down the hot cup. The first two were clearly bills, so he put them on the pile and moved onto the other. The one in a plain envelope, a handwritten address on the front. It said, ‘To God.’ He took a sip of his tea and wondered what he was supposed to do with it. It wasn’t addressed to him, but he was the Vicar, and so he worked for, perhaps even, represented God in the neighbourhood. Propping the envelope up on his desk, he chewed his lip. He needed to take advice on this one. He had no right to interfere between a parishioner and the big fella. On the other hand, someone out there had reached out, maybe looking for help or reassurance, and that was definitely his job.
He ran his hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up. Unlocking the inter-communicating door to the church, the hush of the sacred space reached out to him. His footsteps whispered across the wide old flag stones. The smell of wood polish from years of loving cleaning filled his senses. He knelt at the altar, his head bowed, chatting in his headspace, to an old friend, a loving father. He placed the envelope on the rail between his elbows.
“What should I do with this?” he asked. His eyes flickered. He considered the possibilities, hoping for some inspiration. Slowly, he turned it over and ran his finger under the flap. There was still time to change his mind.
Inside was a letter, written in a wide looping style, over two pages. He stood, took two steps back from the altar, and bowed his head. Tucking the letter into his jacket pocket, he went to find some biscuits.
At his desk, he pushed the creases out of the pages and sipped his fresh cup of tea. He started to read.
I know we haven’t spoken for a while, I’m sorry, that’s down to me. Funny how I’ve spoken to you, when things are really scary, like when I thought the kids were really ill, or when I needed, really needed, to find the money for the gas bill. I’ve kept you for emergencies.
I suppose this feels like it’s urgent, and I don’t know how to fix it. I need some help. I hope, really hope, that you’re there.
I know I’m lucky. I know I have two great kids. I have had years of great times with them, and they are wonderful people, but they are both at university now. I see them during the holidays; they have their own lives, and they should, but I don’t. I go to work; I pay the bills; I sit. I’m embarrassed, shamed by my loneliness. I look at people, with their friends laughing, and I resent them. I’m paralysed by my solitude.
I watched my marriage fall apart. I saw how it dented my children. I did that to them. I accept responsibility for it. It was my decision, to be with him, to have kids with him, to give them to him as a father. I knew he was irresponsible, but I thought I could be sensible enough for both of us, then for all of us. I thought I could build a family and keep them safe.
They’re wonderful, I’m so proud of them, and I’m trying to step back, let them be free, without their overprotective mum standing over them. That leaves me standing on my own in the shadows. It’s dark, and I can’t find a way out, or a way on from here. Can you help me turn the light on?
I wondered about maybe meeting someone, a man, I mean, someone who might care about me, for me, not because they’re hungry, or they need to collect something from somewhere. Just for me. Someone who might want to wrap themselves around me, to keep me warm and safe. Cliché, I know. ‘Empty nester seeks love.’ Hardly headline news. It feels disloyal, like I’m replacing them. Am I? Do I just need someone? It doesn’t matter who they are.
I need help, and I’ve read all the self-help stuff and tried to learn how to meditate, which, by the way, was not a success. Joined the gym, which was good, but to be honest, being lonely on a treadmill, or a bike, is the same as being lonely at home, and tiring too.
I looked after my mum, when she was ill, and now, she’s gone too. I used to run all the time, from one job to the next, fitting in everyone, and tired all the time, but now I sit, and have all the time I wanted so badly then, but I have nothing to do with it, and nobody to share it with.
I think this has helped, writing down how I have been feeling. So, whatever happens next, that has to be a positive thing.
I don’t expect a miracle, like someone will knock on my door and want to be in my life, just, can you show me a sign, that you’re there, that I’m not completely alone in the universe tonight, because that’s how I feel.
I really hope you’re there.
He read it through twice, wiping his eyes and sniffing. It was a cry for help, and he would gladly give it, but there was no clue how to find this woman. His thoughts ran over the things she had said, perhaps she had been brought up believing, but had lost her faith along the way. It sounded as though she had been battered through life. He wanted so much to find her. He was going to have to think about this some more. Give her a sign, she had said. How on earth could he do that? He folded her letter and tucked it into his jacket pocket to read it again later, and to keep it private.
His ‘to do’ list was long that morning, he hadn’t started writing his sermon, and there were letters to reply to, apart from the one which had touched him this morning. He had two hospital visits to make, and a few hours to spend at the hospice. He checked his watch and gathered himself. He needed to get out of the building before the toddler group arrived.
His phone rang just as he was reversing out of his parking space, so he drove back in and turned off the engine before answering.
“James? Hello, it’s Simon, have you got a minute?” The Bishop’s assistant always started conversations like this, as though James had a choice.
“Yes, of course. How can I help?” James caught sight of his hair in the rear-view mirror and smoothed it down.
“I’m phoning around to ask if any of our churches would like some signs.”
“Yes, you know the sort of thing, encouraging people to pop into the church, friendly, jolly sort of things to hang outside. We have banners, which might work best for you, with your railings. What do you think?” He was waiting. James could hear him tapping the phone.
“Yes please, I would very much like all the signs you can let me have.” It’s a sign. James shook his head. Could it be that simple? She had asked for a sign.
“Oh, really? Well, good, I’ll drop them over for you this afternoon at the vicarage. Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” James bit his fingernail, a habit he was trying to break, and smiled at the mirror. “A sign,” he told himself.
The hospital and the hospice visits were done, and he was on his way home, excited to see what had been left for him.
The vicarage was, in fact, a very small terraced house, which was always a bit on the chilly side in the winter. He kept his jumper on, and pulled the banners and signs out, laying them on the floor so he could have a look.
‘Come on in and wish me a Happy Birthday’. The first one read, obviously for Christmas. ‘Sunday services. Everyone welcome’, ‘Step inside for peace and cake’, ‘Love is the only thing that is important’, ‘God is Love’, ‘Friendship and Fellowship evening every Tuesday. Everyone welcome’, ‘Bring me your burdens and I will carry them for you’. They were all good, but not what he needed. There were two left, one big banner and one small one. He unrolled the big banner, and there it was. James rocked back on his heels, amazed and delighted, and a little emotional. ‘Thanks for the letters, come on in for a chat.’ Reaching for the small one, he spread it out and laughed from the heart. ‘Jumble sale this Saturday.’ Perfect.
It couldn’t wait until the morning; he carried the banners down to the church and tied them to the railings. He was delighted with it. He picked up another, and tied that one too, then another, so that the railings were almost invisible behind the messages. He smiled widely. He was a little warmer inside his jumper and his coat than was comfortable, but he felt good. He hoped she would see them and understand.
What had she been thinking? What possessed her to write all those embarrassing things about herself and then deliver them through a door, where a perfect stranger could read them. It was toe curling in the extreme. She had even walked past two other churches, deciding they didn’t look like God would live there. She was losing the plot, that was for sure.
The dog was trying to dance about, wanting to look excited, but it was hard with his legs stiff with old age. She knelt to rub his hips and shoulders before she pulled her coat on, and clipped on his lead. He trotted after her, through the dark streets, stopping to sniff and pee.
The wind had picked up and her head was down, burrowed deep into the hood of her coat. A swirl of leaves lifted by a gust twisted through the air past her. Nearly home, she slowed her pace. The dog was slower now. Coming level with the church, the site of her ridiculous behaviour, she felt almost angry with herself. She looked down at the little wiry-haired animal who was her best friend and smiled.
The dog stopped, turned around, and barked. He had seen movement, even though his eyes were not as sharp as they had been in his younger days, a flapping sign still caught his attention. She turned with him.
There it was. ‘Thanks for the letters, come on in for a chat.’ She stood absolutely still, she had asked for a sign, and here it was. It was crazy. She laughed out aloud in the silence. Tomorrow, she had a day off from work, she would pop into the church then. She set off again, through the cold, back to her house, which was warm and waiting for her, not feeling so stupid now.
In the morning, she stepped out, with a purpose in her stride. She had missed that, for how long? Too long. The church door was open, for a moment, maybe a bit longer. She stared at the coir matting where her letter must have landed. The smell reminded her of younger days, with her mum, holding hands and sitting quietly. The inner doors were panelled with glass, and she pushed one open and went through, finding a polished wooden seat, smoothed by hundreds of bottoms over centuries of prayer and hope, and buffed by caring dusters. Her eyes scanned the vaulted ceiling, and the detailing picked out in gold against the soft cream of the plasterwork.
A man walked in, from a side door, walking almost silently on the worn stones of the floor. He knelt at the altar, his head bowed, his hands resting open on the rail, his body still. He wore a jumper that had seen better days, or maybe had been washed too much. His hair was spiky, as though he had forgotten to brush it that morning. She watched his peaceful prayers and wished she felt that certain. She breathed slowly, feeling her heart slow and her body lose some of its tension. A single tear slipped over the edge of her eyelid, finding a path across her cheek, towards her jawline.
He stood up, bowing to the altar, and turned towards her. His smile was wide and welcoming. She considered the word she would use to describe him. Wholesome?
“Hello.” He covered the ground between them with quick, easy strides. “Would you like to talk, or did you come in looking for some peace?”
“Um, the sign said, ‘Come in for a chat?’” Had she misunderstood?
“Would you like a cup of tea? Chatting’s always better with tea.” His voice was gentle, but not cloying. She felt safe.
“Thank you, that’s kind.”
“Come on through. I’ll put the kettle on. I’m James, by the way, James Renton. I’m the Vicar here.” He walked back through the side door and led her into a kitchen, where he busied himself with tea.
“Naomi,” she said, “I’m Naomi.” She leant against the door frame, watching him putting out cups and saucers, shaking her head at the offer of sugar, nodding at the milk.
“So, you liked my sign? I’m glad, the Bishop only sent them through to me yesterday. Have a seat.” They sat at the table, a clean lump of plastic-coated wood.
“Yes, I do like your sign. It’s very welcoming. I haven’t been in a church for a long time. I used to go with my mum when I was a kid, but then life got busy and it was all a bit hectic.” She shrugged.
“I know. So does the big fella.” He nodded towards the ceiling. “He doesn’t get offended that we don’t talk to Him every day, but every now and then, He likes to hear from us, just to let Him know, if we’re okay, or if we need any help, you know, normal stuff.”
“Is that what you tell Him? Normal stuff?” She was curious now.
“Yes, I tell Him my worries and my fears. I told Him about the people I visited in hospital yesterday who were scared and ill, and maybe in need of a bit of support. This morning, I told Him I had forgotten to buy peanut butter too, because I was angry with myself about it. Just chatting really.” He sipped his tea.
“You’re absolutely sure He’s there?” She shrugged her coat off onto the back of her chair.
“Oh, yes. It’s me I’m not sure about.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. She noticed that there were dimples in his cheeks, and that he had missed a tiny patch when he shaved this morning. She laughed, and it surprised her.
“Tell me about yourself, Naomi.”
“Nothing much to tell. My kids, a boy and a girl, are grown up, moved out, I have a job in town, and a small, slightly smelly dog called Doughnut.” She smiled too. “I’m really glad I came in today.”
“Me too. Will you come back another time? What do you think?”
“Good. We’re here for services on Sundays, and there are things going on all week, evenings, afternoons, and if you want a chat, I’m here most mornings.”
“Thank you. I’ll pop back in.” She pushed her chair back.
“Um. If you’re free, probably not, but if you are free, and feel like it, I was planning to go to the cinema tonight, and I’d much prefer to go with you, than on my own.” He held her gaze with his.
“I, err, well.”
“No, it’s fine. I just thought.” He studied his hands intensely.
“I’d love to. What time?” She smiled across the table, surprising herself by accepting his offer.
“Really? Wonderful, okay. It starts at seven-thirty. So, shall I pick you up at seven?” He beamed at her. “You asked me what I talked to Him about earlier? I asked Him to find a lovely girl that might like to go to the cinema with me. Don’t you tell me He’s not real!” His clear blue eyes sparkled at her, and she found she was smiling too.
Debbie Hewson lives near the sea, in Dorset, where she is trying to renovate a 300-year-old house which is fighting her every step of the way. She loves to write, walk on the beach, and dance badly.