Chapter Ten

Whenever he and Rosa argued, Ernest knew that they were made for each other. No-one could make him so passionate, so angry, so deeply upset; in his eyes, there was no greater sign of love. None of this tepid romance, with its brushed-over issues and half-hearted sorries. Ernest wanted to love a woman so deeply that her pain cut through him; the slightest altercation needed to bring his world crashing down.

And now he was wading through rubble. Ernest lifted fallen pillars, searching for a relic of his former self. But all he saw was the wreckage of last night; the wreckage of his disloyalty. With the love of his life crying for help, he’d left her outside the city gates; gates that only remained intact if they were opened.

All it would have taken was a quick intervention: ‘Bert, you know how much I respect your integrity, but I don’t think anything good will come of this.’ Then he’d have put his arm around Rosa and told her not to worry, she and Bert were allowed to have different views. But maybe that was naïve. Maybe they were destined to lock horns, and he had no choice but to pick a side. In that case, he would always stand by Rosa. Even when they disagreed, he would find a way to protect her. Not that Ernest would ever argue against his conscience – but he would combine his beliefs with compassion, managing the situation so that both he and Rosa retained their dignity. Surely that was possible? Surely he could combine a belief in love and a belief in truth, finding the middle ground when the two came into contention? He realised that Bert’s experience was becoming his own.

Ernest remembered the way she’d said it: ‘Oh my word, are you kidding me?’ Disbelief mingled with disgust. But that was the kind of passion he craved – far better to be admonished than ignored. He was learning this now, as they walked in silence; Ernest knew of no greater discord.

They reached the bottom of Zurich’s Lindenhof, a hill providing views of the city they were soon to leave. Their next port of call was Vienna, although they planned to stop off in central Austria for the lakes. Ernest hoped one of these destinations would inspire Rosa’s band. Their attempts at a comeback song were not going well; Jake seemed haunted by the idea of a Guns-N’-Roses-esque return.[1] And although none of them admitted it, they all knew that Gylfi’s riffs had been the starting point for some of their biggest numbers. Thus the sound of silence reigned.

Eventually, though, Rosa opened her mouth: ‘So, Ernest,’ and there it was, that strangely distancing use of his name, ‘I’ve been wondering something.’ He braced himself as they passed a bench dedicated to a loving father. ‘How’s your book going?’ Ernest looked at Rosa. Although her expression remained deadpan, he couldn’t help smiling. ‘Cause we haven’t talked about it in a while, so I was wondering how it’s coming along?’

‘Hmm, good question, Rosa.’ She forced herself not to smile back. ‘You see, I’ve realised I’m actually a total narcissist, and I always end up writing about myself.’

‘Gosh, that does sound unhealthy.’

‘It does, doesn’t it? But it’s where I get all my ideas.’ He remembered the words of his namesake, Ernest Hemingway: “Write about what you know and write truly.” Ernest decided not to give credit to his superior: ‘I want to write about things I know. And you’d hope I might know more about my own life than somebody else’s. Or, at least, I’m familiar with the events of my life, even if I can’t always interpret them. And I guess that’s part of the fun.’

‘That makes sense.’ Rosa’s stride was strong, whereas Ernest had always flicked his lower leg out from his knee. ‘Just be careful, though. You’re pretty good at getting lost in your head.’

The last eighteen hours were proof enough of this. ‘And I need to think about how I portray other people. Cause when my characters are based on friends or family, they’re obviously going to take extra interest in what I write, as if they can work out exactly how I feel by reading the book. And sometimes I am actually describing how I feel. And that’s pretty dangerous.’

‘Please don’t hurt anyone.’ She usually would have said ‘my love’ at the end of this sentence. ‘But I guess it depends on who you want to be as a writer. Does your vision come at the expense of everything else, or are you going to be more humane than that?’

‘That sounds familiar…’

‘Sadly so.’ They passed an older woman and smiled as if nothing was wrong. Their trainers seemed far too loud all of a sudden. And then, once they’d reached a quiet spot beneath two trees, Rosa turned. ‘Look, Ernest, I don’t want to talk about sin and hell and all that right now. I’m too upset. But I just want to say,’ and at these words tears started to form, ‘you really hurt me last night. I can’t tell you how painful it was to watch you sitting there whilst I… felt really vulnerable. You’ve never done that before, and I find that really scary. I’m worried you might be drifting away, leaning more towards Bert than me.’ Ernest tried to put his arm around Rosa, but she stopped him. ‘No, please let me finish.’ This took great strength, since Rosa wanted nothing more than Ernest’s arms. ‘I’m happy to give you time. I know it’s not easy exploring your faith, so I respect you for that. But I’ve always felt I could trust you more than anyone else… And now that’s been damaged because you just sat there next to Bert…’ Her nose was pink as it sucked in air. ‘I agree he has a right to his opinion – of course I do. But you should have come over and put your arm around me. That’s all I’m asking.’

Donning his literary cap, Ernest took this shift into the present tense as a sign of permission: he held Rosa. And once he was certain that she wanted him there, he translated his love by abandoning language. With his lips Ernest took Rosa back to that day in El Retiro park when they’d shared kisses beneath the shade of a tree.[2] She travelled in the slipstream of that summer in Madrid, remembering the tan of Ernest’s arms and the long-awaited taste of gluten-free croissants that didn’t sandpaper her tongue. Given the weather in Zurich and their cheese-and-salami breakfast, the effect of Ernest’s embrace was all the more striking. Rosa wished they could make love right then. Instead, they held this kiss, until Ernest pulled away. He noticed her surprised eyes. ‘I can’t just make it up to you with a kiss, my love. Although,’ and he chuckled, ‘that was quite the kiss, if I may so myself.’

‘It takes two to tango, you goose.’

Ernest felt the tension in his forehead dissipating. Little by little, he was winning Rosa back. And now came the easy part: telling her how awful he felt. Of course, her response might be more difficult. ‘My love, about last night…’ Their kiss faded as his voice lost all playfulness. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t support you. I’m sorry I left you stranded. It’s been eating away at me all morning.’ Ernest wished it would take him longer to feel like crying. He looked at Rosa’s lips. ‘I think when I’m discussing things with Bert,’ and she went tense at his name, ‘it all becomes so theoretical. I was thinking about all these lofty things like freedom of speech and integrity, but that’s useless because I lost sight of how real the consequences were. Last night wasn’t some debating match; it was bloody real.’ Rosa had always hated public debating. The thought of standing up in front of two hundred people to discuss whether the church ought to be involved in politics made her quiver. ‘Honestly, I’m still going over what happened, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I should have put you first, because I love you and I don’t ever want to lose you.’ He felt something damp along his cheek. ‘I’m really sorry for letting you down.’

That evening, Ernest remembered the time he’d lost his mind. It was after a night on the town – alcohol being the cause of all his darkest thoughts.

At the peak of dehydration, he spotted a hole in his jumper. It was the size of a one-pound coin, but Ernest cursed his impatience; there was simply no need to tug like that. Alas, the damage had been done, and, to misquote Neil Young, Ernest was a novice with the needle.

He tried to work out his next move. Should he ask his sister for help? Wear a different jumper? No, that would be admitting defeat. These hesitations added fuel to the fire, and Ernest was soon on intimate terms with his outfit’s imperfection. With his mind casting visions of a gaping abyss, he imagined the hole on both sides of the jumper; he only realised his mistake when his fingers touched intact wool. By the time he received the call from the hospital, he was hooked on anxiety.

But then he heard the words, ‘Ernest, you need to come to Chiswick Medical Centre. Rosa’s broken her leg.’

The thought of her agony made Ernest correct his course. He charged through the crowd, desperate to help his dame. It took him far too long to realise that he was heading in the wrong direction.[3] After consulting Google Maps, he found the station and a seat on the tube. But as the train gathered speed, he heard a tempting whisper: Come on, Ernest, just one little look. It’ll make things better, I promise. Realising that this voice could distract him from love, Ernest committed himself to its destruction. He needed to focus on the essential things of life. Otherwise he was in danger of having the experience but missing the meaning.

Twelve months later, Ernest was disappointed to find that he still lived on the theoretical plane. Perhaps it was the writer in him, but Rosa needed more. Luckily, she had no trouble forgiving him; she’d simply been waiting to see if he was sorry. And as he held her in a desperate embrace, Rosa knew that Ernest longed for another chance at last night. She kissed her love and reassured him: there was no-one else for her.

When he received this pardon, Ernest forgot about his abandonment of the theoretical plane and returned to thoughts of marriage. He pictured a wedding in Madrid or London or the Isle of Wight, where they’d spent their Easter camping. And as he watched Rosa walking down the aisle, Ernest felt an urge to drop to one knee. This was a new experience for him. Despite his determination to marry Miss Colbert, he’d never come close to proposing. But now, as they walked towards Lindenhof’s summit, with the wind flapping her coat and the leaves rustling underfoot, Ernest very nearly muddied his favourite pair of jeans (no holes in these bad boys; he thanked Carhartt for their durable denim). Yes, they were young, but why delay the inevitable? Granted, 38 Children’s uncertain future might tighten the purse strings, but Ernest had secured a contract for his novel and he’d be happy to tutor on the side, as ever public-school graduate must do at some point. And yet, he left his jeans untainted. Proposing seemed romantic now, but Ernest was a man of order. He wanted to ask Rosa’s father; he wanted to have the right ring (as opposed to no ring at all); and he wanted to prepare a beautiful speech, the sequel to Yellow and Brown.

Besides, however frightening it may be, he needed to work out what marriage meant to him. Did he really see it as an inviolable contract signed before God, or was that something he’d absorbed from his parents? And should he and Rosa be reserving sex for marriage? The thought made him feel so alone.

The more he considered such matters, the more Ernest wanted his relationship with Rosa to be like a clingstone fruit. He would be the left side of the apricot; Rosa would be the right. And in the middle would nestle God, the stone responsible for their love. But Ernest sensed the approach of that difficult yet necessary thing: nuance. If he was going to be a more biblical Christian, he would have to recognise God for what He was: the tree bearing fruit whose stone was love. For now, the young writer held Rosa’s hand and decided that there was no need to love her any differently: his faith remained the same, even if he was exploring the promised garden.

But he was in danger of falling into narcissism once more, seeing Rosa solely through his own eyes. He decided to take a risk: ‘How are you feeling about Bert?’

Rosa squeezed his hand a little tighter. ‘Oh, I’m so confused. I feel this anger bubbling up inside me whenever I think about it.’ Ernest could count the times he’d seen Rosa angry on a six-tiered abacus. And he meant that as a sign of distinction. ‘But I hate feeling like that. You know I can’t stand grudges… I guess I’ll need some time because he really touched a nerve. But I’ll try my best to work through that; I don’t want this hanging over us.’

‘I get that it’s an emotional subject.’

‘Like most things. And that’s what scares me: I’m worried Bert’s losing touch with how vulnerable people are.’

‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that. If anything, he’s way more aware now. But I think that’s counterbalanced by this incredible belief in the power of God. So sometimes it seems like he’s being inconsiderate, when really he just thinks we’re making life too complicated. You know, like there’d be no need for any of these arguments if we all just followed God.’

‘Ach, I just can’t understand such a narrow view of life. How can anyone decide they’ve found the truth, let alone a twenty-three-year-old who’s only ever worked at Credit Suisse?’ Rosa allowed herself to laugh with Ernest. ‘But don’t you think it’s pretty arrogant? And it wouldn’t be the first time Bert’s had too big a view of himself.’

‘True…’ Ernest took a moment to think. In that respect, it was a day like yesterday. ‘I guess Bert would say it’s the opposite of arrogance. He’s accepting that he can’t discover the truth on his own; only God can reveal it.’

‘But doesn’t that presuppose that the Christian God is the truth? So, even if God has to reveal the remaining details, it’s still Bert who’s making that overarching truth claim.’

‘Yep, you’re right. But I wouldn’t be so afraid of deciding that something is true. I guess we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to be postmodern about things -’ Rosa had been waiting for Ernest to use the ‘P’ word – ‘always seeing truth as subjective; non-existent, in other words. But I don’t think you have to be particularly arrogant to claim you’ve found the truth. Like, if I say that two plus two equals four, I’m hardly being arrogant.’ Before Rosa could say that there was a difference between maths and religion, Ernest continued: ‘So it all depends on your argument. In Bert’s case, he’d say that, based on the facts in front of him, Christianity makes the most sense out of life. It’s the best way of explaining the existence of evil, the Gospels, the spread of the Church, etc., etc. So I think it comes from a place of reason, which means Bert is trying to use universal principles rather than his own intelligence. And now that I think about it, sometimes he has to really humble himself when he’s reading the Bible. He was telling me this the other day: whenever he thinks a passage doesn’t make sense, he assumes the problem is with him. Because if the Bible has taught him so much already, who’s he to say it’s gone wrong somewhere?’

Rosa digested this as they approached the top of the hill. ‘Fair enough. I just think last night has made me kind of uncomfortable about Christianity. And I’m sorry if that’s difficult for you. It just seems so moralising.’

‘It would kill Bert to hear you say that.’ Ernest took his hands from his pockets. ‘Even though I get he was too intense, just remember he really does love your brother. He meant that.’

Rosa winced. Unlike Ernest, she’d been trying to remain on the theoretical plane. ‘You really think so?’

‘Definitely. I promise you, Bert is a changed man. He cares so much more about other people. I know that must be hard to believe after last night, but his heart was in the right place. He was trying to say that we can all be happier if we listen to God. He genuinely wants that.’

They arrived at the summit. ‘Okay, I get what you mean. He’s still learning the best way to spread the love.’

‘Exactly.’

Rosa dropped her shoulders with a sigh. ‘Okay, I’ll try be more open-minded about it.’

‘That would be great. And I know it seems like Bert’s being close-minded, and in a sense he is, but Christianity is actually about being open to everyone. It just has a very specific way of going about that, but maybe you need a narrow approach to reach the widest truth.’

‘What a philosopher you are, Ernest.’ Rosa looked out across Zurich. ‘Not a bad view, is it?’ The River Limmat stretched before them; it was a shade lighter than Munich’s Eisbach. Around the water stood lime trees. This city was unexciting, but Ernest and Rosa could imagine being comfortable here.

‘Very nice, indeed.’ They stood in silence for a time, watching three children pose for a selfie. A bell tolled the hour. ‘I wonder how Sophie and Bert are getting on at church.’

‘I was thinking the same thing.’

Ernest used one of their refrains: ‘In sync.’

As she watched a sculler sliding across the surface, Rosa smiled. ‘What do you think Bert’s going to do next?’

‘Ha, ha, good question. Honestly, that man is so ambitious. He told me the only thing he’s afraid of is God. He says that’s the key to happiness…’

‘Gosh, he really has gone whole hog, hasn’t he?’ It felt good to laugh in the face of eternity. ‘But I get where he’s coming from. There’s nothing to worry about with God on your side. You just need to make sure He is on your side.’

‘That’s pretty much exactly how he put it. Anyway, he wants to be a Christian innovator like Kanye.’

‘Of course he does.’ Ernest couldn’t have been happier to have Rosa back. ‘I can see the resemblance.’

‘Yeah, he’s definitely got that Yeezy self-belief. He says he’s going to build things for God. I don’t think he knows where that will take him, but first he wants to study the Word. He’s actually thinking about going to a Christian school near here.’

‘I thought he was coming to Vienna with us?’

‘Oh, he is. And hopefully Budapest, too. But then he thinks he’ll go to L’Abri. It’s this house in the Alps where everyone spends their days exploring the big questions of life. They have this amazing library, and it’s free to stay: you just have to help around the house, cook, clean, that kind of thing.’

‘Sounds right up Bert’s street.’

‘I think it will be good for him. Expose him to different walks of life.’ The wind was picking up now. ‘Right, enough of this. I’m hungry.’

‘Whatever you say, my liege.’

Ernest thought of Bert and Sophie. ‘Do you feel up to seeing them?’

However tempting a date with her love might seem, Rosa needed to say yes. She attempted a smile. ‘Sure, let’s do it. I’m thinking cheese fondue.’

‘Ho, ho, she’s a keeper.’

‘You better believe it.’

***

Like Rosa and Ernest half an hour earlier, Bert and Sophie were walking in silence. Unlike Rosa and Ernest, they were very much friends.

Bert wanted to talk about faith. He was so excited by Sophie’s experience in church; “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” But his earlier faux-pas made him hesitate: there was nothing less romantic than being called ‘a fellow soldier of Christ’. Of course, such fellowship was cause for joy, but Sophie was still experiencing an immediate pain. Bert knew this from his own heartbreak. However much he loved Christ, the thought of Hannah still bruised him.

In reality, Sophie was trying to avoid such wounds. She listened to her mother’s voice: this was an infatuation disguised as love. Maybe she was right; maybe this passion would fade. Sure, Bert was bold and witty and gorgeous, but he would also be a difficult husband. Sophie imagined him kneeling every night in prayer, unaware of how she longed to be held.

But Sophie couldn’t believe this lie. Bert was exactly what she wanted: a man who combined conviction with humour; a man who would cherish his wife. Which meant the next few weeks might be painful, especially as rejection brought her teeth to mind. But Sophie had a higher calling now, and that would give her strength. Indeed, she already felt Christ’s healing touch; her cell became an upper room whenever He was there. And with this came the ability to see: her obsession was something wicked. God wanted her to be a light in the world, serving others at her own expense.

As they followed signs to the city centre, Bert and Sophie rested in God’s arms. They were far closer to each other than they realised. Before they could share this communion, Bert’s phone rang. Seeing Ernest’s name on the screen, he hoped his friend had made peace with Rosa. ‘Hi, brother, what’s up?’

‘Howdy, brother,’ and Bert knew that Rosa had flipped her ink eradicator and returned Ernest’s name to her good books, ‘we were wondering if you and Sophie wanted to grab some lunch?’

Bert looked at his watch and saw that one o’clock had passed. Food had been the furthest thing from his mind, but perhaps a gathering of their group would heal the remaining rifts. ‘Sounds great. We’re just walking around not too far from the-.’

‘Oh, wait, I see you!’

‘Really? Where are you?’

Ernest cracked up as he watched Bert spinning on the spot. His neck craned in search of two dashing young Brits. ‘Right behind you, brother.’ Bert made a final turn and found them giggling. He’d never been so pleased to be the butt of Rosa’s mockery.

‘Shalom,’ he said, filled by their love.

‘Hello, friends.’ Ernest looked like he’d just walked out of the courtroom with the word ‘innocent’ ringing in his ears.

His judge looked over Bert’s shoulder. ‘Sophie, are you okay? You look like a rabbit in the headlights.’

Everyone turned to Sophie, and the lights became brighter. She blinked five times – halfway to a rabbit’s hourly ration. Perhaps concerned by the idea of spreading her remaining blinks across fifty-nine minutes, she hopped into the car and turned off the ignition: ‘Well, I committed my life to Jesus about half an hour ago, and then I told Bert I loved him.’

‘You love Bert?!’ Rosa punched Ernest’s forearm. She could tell Sophie was hurting.

‘D’you really have to focus on that part?’ After a moment’s reflection, they realised Bert had a point.

‘Yep, I love him. For my sins.’ Although she’d meant this figuratively, Sophie’s brain was busy making new connections, and the expression struck a nerve. ‘But Bert doesn’t feel the same way.’

The traffic grew louder as their silence spread. One second became two seconds became ten. Bert felt that the onus was on him. So he tried to diffuse the tension: ‘I’m proving a bit of a nuisance on this trip, aren’t I?’

To Bert’s surprise, Rosa was the first to laugh. Accepting him for his ridiculous but loveable self, she allowed her heart to open. The bounce of her shoulders was so familiar that delight soon came pouring out of Ernest and Bert. They felt their bodies relax; unlike Joy Division, love could not tear them apart. And before too long, as she saw that God was on their side, Sophie became the fourth member of this laughing band. The clock struck one fifteen.

***

‘Look, all I’m saying is Disney has encouraged Darwinian thought.’

‘Bert, what are you on about?’ Rosa sipped white wine, amazed that an ice bucket could make her feel so warm.

‘Just hear me out. Let’s take… Robin Hood. You’ve all seen the cartoon, right?’ Mutters and nods all round. ‘That’s a relief, cause it’s actually a great film.’ Sophie remembered Maid Marian; what an inspirational vixen she was. ‘Wait, no, I’m supposed to be slating it. Okay, this is what I think: let’s say you’re eight years old and you watch this fox playing Robin Hood – you know, standing on two legs, shooting a bow and arrow, wearing human clothes – and then you go to biology class and the teacher tells you that Darwinian evolution is a fact… Don’t you think your brain has been hard-wired to accept that? Cause, let’s be serious: about six months after you were born, your parents plopped you in front of the T.V. for the first time, and you’ve spent your whole life watching dogs eating spaghetti or… cats playing the piano!’

‘Ooh, good reference, Aristocrats is so underrated.’ Rosa was trying to ignore the fact that Bert was linking this back to Christianity. To her surprise, it was working: the glow of their laughter remained, revealing the gaiety of Bert’s analysis.

‘Thank you, Rosa, I couldn’t agree more. It’s bloody annoying these films are so good because that’s what makes them dangerous.’

‘Do you actually think they’re dangerous?’ Ernest’s eyes remained fixed on his lamb. As it gave way under the pressure of his knife, he remembered Churchill the Car Insurance Dog: ‘Ooooh, yes.’ He failed to make the connection with Bert’s point.

‘Okay, maybe dangerous is a little strong, but you know I like to exaggerate.’ This, however, did distract Rosa from her melted Gruyère. Bert was in dangerous territory when he referred to his own bravado; it made her think he enjoyed being controversial. ‘But it’s insidious. Yeah, that’s the word. Children in the West grow up being told there’s only one way of looking at the world.’ He adopted the tone of a snarky teacher: ‘Sure, you can believe in those myths like Adam and Eve, and church can be really nice for building a community, but we all know deep down that it’s basically just wishful thinking. Science is the way forward! Human progress!’ A few Swiss gentlemen looked at Bert with a reproving eye. Ernest couldn’t blame them: this food deserved maximum attention. ‘And I’m not trying to say evolution is a complete hoax. Micro-evolution is a fact, no doubt about that. But I have, quite literally, a bone or two to pick with macro-evolution.’ Sophie wondered how long he’d been waiting to use that line. ‘Yeah, all I’m saying is, there needs to be more scope for discussion.’ There was a moment of cutlery-and-plate percussion. ‘Sorry, bad timing. I’ll shut up.’

Perhaps it was the fennel she was chewing that made Rosa respond with kindness. ‘Look, Bert, we can’t avoid this forever.’ He put down his napkin. ‘To be honest, I like how you approach life: if there’s a problem you want to solve, you’ll consider it from different angles. I think that’s what I missed last night. You aren’t leaping headfirst into some dogmatic approach; you’re actually trying to weigh up the pros and cons.’ Sophie loved when Rosa spoke like this; she was tough yet sympathetic, like a mother in waiting. ‘And I don’t mind you talking about evolution. I may not agree with you on the science, but you’re right that the attack on religion can be pretty systematic. But you need to be more understanding of where people are coming from. All I’m asking is for you to meet me where I’m at.’ She paused. ‘You’re allowed to think a certain way about homosexuality. It’s hard for me to say that, but you are. But please don’t forget that what seems like obvious, objective truth to you is tied up with so many difficult emotions for other people.’

Bert needed no time to chew her words. ‘I’m sorry for last night, Rosa. I was thinking the exact same thing about meeting people where they’re at – otherwise I’ll push them away from God, and that’s the last thing I want. And thank you for respecting my opinion; I guess that’s where I was going with the whole Disney-Darwin spiel. I just don’t want people to think opinions are invalid if they come from faith. You know, like my stance on creation is just some personal truth and I can’t take it into the public sphere, cause us religious folk should keep to ourselves, truth can’t be based on religion…’ Ernest sensed that Rosa might be losing her patience; he gave his friend a wide-eyed look. ‘Sorry, going one step too far, as per.’ Rosa saw that Bert was trying. He simply struggled to keep the floodgates closed. But she could forgive him that; his passion for God was like Ernest’s for writing or hers for 38 Children. She wished it didn’t have to be so polemical, but perhaps that reflected her own fear. She’d never been one for politics or organised religion.

‘But that means I should respect your position too and see if we can have some constructive discourse, rather than just seeing it as ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’.’ Bert pictured Danny Devitto in Matilda, but he sensed that the time for children’s film references had passed. ‘Cause someone intelligent like you can always teach me something, even if we disagree on the fundamentals. So, I’m sorry for hurting you. You’re not my opposition.’

Rosa nodded. ‘I really hope we’re not on different sides.’

‘Definitely not. At the end of the day, I’m trying to help people. But sometimes I forget they can’t see things from my perspective.’

It had taken Bert some time to appreciate Rosa on her own terms. Whilst he’d always seen what an amazing impact she had on Ernest, she’d seemed a little young at first. Eventually, though, he saw the truth: Rosa was far less tainted by the world. In that respect, her spirit was particularly Christian. She never swore, never gossiped, never compared herself to others; Bert had never heard her expressing envy. She did not drink to wash away anxiety; she drank to celebrate her enjoyment of life. Nor did she dress out of narcissism; she took delight in the colours and fabrics that skilful hands had woven. If you wanted to light up a room, Rosa was your best bet. People relaxed in her presence. Ah, good, finally someone who’s got their head together, their smiles seemed to say. Rosa’s usual composure made her reaction last night all the more telling. Now more than ever, Bert saw that Christianity was not a weapon to be wielded lightly.

‘Apology accepted, Bert. And I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. Deep down, I must have known what I was getting myself into.’

‘That’s alright. It was helpful for me to be confronted like that.’

Rosa put out her hand. ‘So let’s move on from this?’

‘Nothing would make me happier.’ Bert grasped her palm, and they shook. ‘Except maybe some mayonnaise for these chips.’

Sophie laughed the hardest of them all. Throughout lunch, she’d felt Christ’s spirit growing stronger within her. The knot in her chest was disappearing, and her thoughts no longer moved in circles. For better or worse, this peace made Bert all the more attractive. Whilst this wasn’t the traditional interpretation of the Gospel, it was no longer lust Sophie felt. Her desire was to learn with Bert; to witness his service to God, in all its trial and error. He might lack shrewdness, but it was his bravery that shone through.

She saw him standing on a rooftop some fifty metres high. Having once been too afraid to peer over the edge, he’d realised how to conquer his fear: by removing the railing that was keeping him from death. His friends might call him crazy, his mother might worry sick, but Bert would always reassure them: people only fell because they were afraid. And although she lacked the courage to join Bert on the precipice, Sophie felt closer to trusting God with every passing moment. So long as she welcomed love into her heart, she didn’t notice the food between her teeth. That marked a step towards the rooftop’s edge. Emboldened by this progress, Sophie forged ahead. Bert might never love her the way she wanted, but perhaps that was God’s plan. Besides, she would rather conquer death with a friend than be a fearful lover.

‘Who wants to hear a joke?’ Rosa, Ernest and Bert interrupted their eating to look at Sophie.

‘I’d love to.’ Bert’s smile made her foot tingle; at this rate, she’d be doing handstands alongside him.

‘So this guy called Michael Jones is speaking to his friend Dave. Now, Michael’s boss has been giving him stick at work, so he’s telling Dave about how rough his day’s been. He natters on for a while, explaining how unprofessional his boss is, and then he says, “He completely took the Mickey out of me.”

‘And Dave turns to Michael, looking deadly serious, and he says, “What, so now you’re just Jones?”’

The faces of the Swiss gentlemen softened when they saw Sophie and her friends curling up with laughter. About fifteen seconds into their camaraderie, Ernest attempted to finish his sparkling water, but he only managed to spit all over Rosa. None of them could tell whether the joke was actually funny, but it signalled the final breakdown of tension. Thirty-six hours of anxiety turned into thirty-six seconds of joy (the Swiss gentlemen decided that this was sixteen seconds too long, but what could you do about tourists).

‘I think that calls for a bottle of Champagne,’ Ernest declared.

Rosa sat up straight. ‘D’you know my favourite thing about Christianity?’ This was even more unexpected than Sophie’s joke. Seeing the look on Bert’s face, Rosa clarified: ‘Sorry, Bert, don’t get your hopes up.’

But Ernest was the most intrigued of all. ‘What is it?’

‘The fact that Champagne bottles are named after Old Testament kings.’

‘Really!’

‘You didn’t know that, brother?’ Bert remembered his university days. He always felt sad at the thought of heavy drinking.

‘No, hence why I said “Really!”’ Ernest’s voice cracked when he said this, and their laughter continued.

‘Yeah, so each size is named after a king,’ Rosa explained. ‘The smallest is a Jeroboam, then double that is a Methuselah, and it goes all the way up to Melchizedek, which is thirty litres.’

Sophie remembered Melchizedek from the Letter to the Hebrews. Somehow she doubted that the High Priest had a proclivity for sparkling wine.

‘That’s crazy.’ Ernest couldn’t believe he’d never heard this. ‘Well, I think it’s time for a Jeroboam.’ And he asked the waiter, in faltering French, if they could have a small bottle of Champagne. The waiter replied in English.

A few minutes later, they were toasting their reunion. Even Bert had a glass. They drank to good health and loving hearts.

 

[1] Having never been a fan of hard rock, Ernest had required an explanation from 38 Children’s lead singer. ‘Oh, man, you’re not into GNR?’ Jake broke into a quick rendition of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. Incidentally, Ernest found ‘GNR’s’ use of apostrophes extremely irritating. ‘Well, basically, they made a comeback in 2008 with this album called Chinese Democracy, which was a total flop,’ at which point Ernest said that Chinese democracy was always doomed to fail. Sadly, Jake’s enthusiasm for politics was even more subdued than Ernest’s for hard rock; he wouldn’t have understood this joke even if he’d been standing on his tip-toes. He laughed to avoid an Ernestine monologue. ‘Yeah, so GNR kept quiet for fifteen years and then they spent thirteen million dollars on this album and it was pure shit. And I’m worried that might happen to us, cause every time I try to write about Gylfi, it sounds so clichéd.’ Whilst he sympathised with Jake, Ernest wondered if he wasn’t being slightly melodramatic. For a start, 38 Children Called Stone weren’t exactly pushing for entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (little did he know that the band had once literally pushed its way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum to hide from a group of teenage girls who’d recognised Jake). And, unless Rosa wasn’t telling him something, Ernest suspected their budget might be closer to thirteen thousand than thirteen million.

[2] Incidentally, one of Ernest’s life ambitions was to write a book about the parks of Europe. His father told him he needed to set his sights a little higher.

[3] Ernest blamed ten years of boarding school for his poor knowledge of London.

Chapter Nine

Ever since her discussion with Johannes, Sophie had been reconsidering faith. She realised now that the great outdoors could not provide the peace she craved. True, life on the farm settled her mind more than a day in the office, but the possibility of unease still lingered.

And she couldn’t spend her life fighting such a threat; it would break her down eventually. Motivated by this fear, she spent her final day at ECOKAMP in pursuit of God. She sought His presence in the hay she gathered, in the bark she snapped, in the children she tried to understand. And it was easy to find him once she started looking, even if her A-Level German proved no help at all. Indeed, there were moments that day when a flutter of hope touched Sophie. If she could keep her mind on the Creator, perhaps His creation would reveal its purpose. Of course, this would be no easy task: her brain needed rewiring after its recent short circuit, but the laughter of these children inspired her to find the master technician. She wondered if God had ever been described in such terms.

But then Rosa and Bert’s argument had come along to confuse her. On the one hand, Sophie felt certain that God lamented Bert’s stubbornness, just as she did. On the other, she couldn’t help desiring Bert. Yes, despite his total lack of emotional intelligence, her chest pounded for the young Christian. She remembered how her fourteen-year-old stomach used to butterfly when the Cambridge lads strutted past (with hindsight, she realised that there was no such thing as a Cambridge lad, however much their shoulders sashayed). The only difference between then and now, besides the fact that Bert didn’t have blackheads and chin fluff, was that romance inevitably made Sophie think of marriage, and marriage inevitably made her think of having children, and oh boy she was really getting ahead of herself. The point was, Sophie’s desire was hindering her communion with God. She wanted to be compassionate, as the Creator surely was, but her body told her to forget all that and listen to its needs.

Of course, Sophie could not see that belief had tied Bert’s hands, even as it freed his soul. Avoiding the question of sin would have meant rupturing his very being, with the fear of man conquering his faith. Bert did not want to cause Rosa pain, but he believed that truth came before emotions. If that were not the case, then who was to stop humankind living according to its will?

He wished he hadn’t said all people deserved to go to Hell. This was where he’d gone wrong in the past, not least on social media: he was too quick to condemn. Whilst such criticism was necessary at times, the promise of grace had to be his starting point. He would begin with the good in people, declaring that God made them for a purpose; that they were made in His image. Once this was established, perhaps they would understand his dedication to God’s plan. And, lest he forget, that dedication did not absolve him from the weight of sin.

And so, as he and Sophie approached the heart of Zurich, Bert started his mission afresh. Discernment was the key: knowing when to be gentle, and when to wield the sword of the Spirit. Of course, the two could go hand in hand. This was, in fact, what made Christianity so beautiful in his eyes: believers were called to be strong yet humble, firm but loving.

Bert knew that Sophie was a beacon of joy when her teeth were silent. She was a lacrosse-stick-wielding, Norse-verb-conjugating, pale-ale-drinking Sacagawea. Then again, she didn’t exactly look like a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, a.k.a the “Eaters of Salmon” (Bert couldn’t get enough of this sobriquet). Regardless of her oily-fish-consumption tendencies, Bert wanted nothing more than to help Sophie see the joy of God. Which was a relief, since they were on their way to a church service on their first day in Switzerland. Their route took them through a university park, and Bert, who was oblivious to Sophie’s meditations on God, hoped she might finally broach the subject of faith.

‘So, Bert, I was wondering if we could just not talk about last night?’ was what she actually said. ‘I need to relax.’

He breathed a sigh of relief. Now was the time to be gentle. ‘You’ve got yourself a deal, Ms Shaw.’

They walked in silence for a minute, listening to the birdsong. It was a little Swiss for Bert’s liking: pretty but unmemorable. And then Sophie asked, ‘What’s your biggest fear?’

‘I thought you wanted to relax!’ Bert’s grin made Sophie ache. She watched his lips slide back into place, scarcely believing how quickly she had fallen for him. Unlike Ernest, she’d never been the head over heels type; she was more head over pages of Anglo-Saxon poetry. She wondered if her fragility was partly to blame; if her mind saw respite in romance. But was blame the right word? Was this yearning not sweeter than it was bitter? A few miles away, after a silent flight alongside her love, Rosa reminded herself that she was the nectarine to Ernest’s kiwi. But the days of Yellow and Brown seemed long ago.

‘Oh, right, sorry. I thought it might take our minds off yesterday.’

‘Do it like there’s no yesterday, Sophie. That’s what I like to say.’ Given that he’d never said this before, Bert had to think about this. ‘After you’ve repented, of course.’

‘Ha, ha, always coming back to God.’

‘You know me. I’m in that phase where it all seems so exciting and impenetrable.’

‘Ah, yes, that classic phase.’

They laughed their way through a tree-lined avenue. The park was more modest than the Englischer Garten, and the weather milder. It felt a long time since Sophie had read her poem to Rosa. She’d managed a few shorter pieces in the nine days since, but she still hadn’t mentioned them to Bert – mostly because they were starting to resemble Shakespeare’s love sonnets, at least in theme if not in quality. 

‘Come on, then, what’s your biggest fear? And don’t worry if you have to get all religious. I’ve actually been exploring that line of enquiry…’

‘Really!’

‘Gosh, Bert, I’ve never seen you look so excited. But, yes, I may occasionally have pondered the meaning of life since your baptism.’

‘That’s awesome.’ He gave her another stomach-tightening smile. ‘I’m really glad.’

In this second exploration of Christianity, Sophie had tried a different approach, having reached the conclusion that Genesis was, paradoxically, not the place to begin. Scholars offered such varied interpretations that there was no use worrying about its precise meaning; all she needed to understand was the Christian notion of sin. Sin. The word brought to mind Rosa’s torment last night. Determined not to dwell, Sophie watched a swallow through the air. Its wings quivered, narrowly avoiding a telephone line.

The place to begin was surely Jesus’ resurrection. Sophie couldn’t picture the scene without hearing her father: the disciples stole the body, Jesus wasn’t dead but unconscious, the ‘witnesses’ suffered mass hallucination. For a naturalist like him, the latter seemed a strange suggestion. Besides, all three of these couldn’t be true; her father’s uncertainty made Sophie doubt his position. Still, she had no reason to believe in this miracle – unless her monomania could be called a reason. But human weakness couldn’t be the foundation for a worldview. It had to come from a position of strength; even if that strength was a man dying on a cross.

‘Sometimes it’s awesome,’ she said. ‘But there are moments where I feel like I’m going insane.’ Pedalos bobbed across the lake. Sophie had never understood pedalos; they were so unwieldy.  

‘I had that, too. But you’ve got to keep searching.’

‘No pain, no gain, as they say.’

‘Aren’t many truer words than that.’

‘Besides the Bible, of course?’ Sophie grinned, and Bert was surprised to find his body asking for attention. It was nothing more than a flash of lust, and so proved unable to break through his defences, but controlling his libido was still a struggle for Bert. He felt no craving so long as he maintained a safe distance from attractive women, but, funnily enough, he didn’t want to spend the next few years running away from the likes of Sophie. He’d been reading the other day about the 1918 flu pandemic, and how social distancing measures had been introduced to stop the spread of the virus. Bert smiled darkly: from a lust perspective, life must have been a whole lot easier for young Christians that year.  

But he was prepared to wait for the future Mrs Eynsham. In the meantime, he would pick Sophie’s brain: ‘So what have you been reading?’

‘Afraid I’ll have to get back to you on that one, cause I think we’re here.’ Turning to his right, Bert saw a fortress-like church breaking through the clouds. In its symmetry he saw divine perfection; Sophie looked first to its aesthetic value, but she was learning to see beauty through a spiritual lens. They spent time admiring the door, which, although brown, managed to glow. Above it, on grey stone, hung an anchor. Only two windows were visible, each in the shape of a three-leaf clover.

‘I can’t wait to hear more. And, who knows, maybe church will shed some light.’

‘That’s the idea. Anyway, I’m always up for some cultural immersion.’

Which was a shame, given that they’d come to Zurich’s International Protestant Church. Indeed, most of the congregation was formed of UK ex-pats, and Bert and Sophie were soon introducing themselves to men and women even more British than they were. But this helped their conversation, and, after five minutes, Sophie noticed something: it didn’t matter that she and Bert were unlikely to return; these people valued their company no matter the length of their stay.

The service opened with a prayer for soft hearts and keen minds. Sophie settled into her seat, echoing this request. She was determined to respond using her own life experience, rather than her parents’. And unlike at Bert’s baptism, where the intensity of faith had unsettled her, she would avoid mocking Christian piety. How easy it was to stare blankly at a screen and only say ‘amen’; how hard to confess the supremacy of Christ.

And whether it was her recent reflection on Jesus or the joy of today’s community, Sophie felt moved by their upraised arms, their clapping hands, their prayerful heads. She watched a young man stomping his foot as the crowd sang ‘Hallelujah’; a woman dropping to her knees at the simplicity of the Creed; a Bert Eynsham beating his chest because nothing could separate them from the love of God. Sophie had to marvel at this. Even if her teeth turned black, the creator of the universe would still love her. Even if Bert just wanted to be friends, the creator of the universe would still love her. She tried to believe this claim. In fact, she did believe it. But, for some reason, it could not take hold of her. She felt the same pressure in the depth of her neck, where her anxious thoughts dwelt. There was no fear in Bert’s smile. He had found his purpose, and that purpose lay beyond himself.

Halfway through the service, the members of the congregation offered each other a sign of peace. Although unsure that she, lacking peace, had anything to give, Sophie drew fellowship from the exchange of handshakes and ‘Peace be with yous’. There followed a few minutes in which the congregation were invited to talk amongst themselves; Bert, it seemed, had something on his mind.

‘You know how you asked what my biggest fear was?’

‘Mmhmm.’

‘Well, I know what it is.’ Why were his dramatic pauses so appealing? ‘It would be getting to the gates of Heaven and hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you.” I’d beg and I’d grovel, but He’d simply say that I never surrendered.’

These were the times when Sophie felt distant from God and Bert. ‘You know, I was actually enjoying this service quite a lot. You really need to choose your moments better.’  

‘Sorry, you’re right.’ Bert remembered Rosa. ‘But I wanted to make a positive point out of it. When I’m in here worshipping, I know what I have to do: I just need to live like this all the time.’

‘“Just”? That sounds pretty exhausting to me.’

‘Oh, we can’t do it alone, Sophie. But we’ve got God on our side.’ And just like that, with a cheeky grin, God and Bert returned to Sophie. She wished she was better at separating faith from romance, but they’d grown so tangled in her mind that, a few minutes later, she caught herself imagining Bert’s touch whilst praying for faith. The wrongness of this discord struck Sophie. And yet, she could find no solution: Christianity meant Bert, and Bert meant romantic love. Sadly, Christianity did not mean romantic love, at least not the way she experienced it. Her love was too self-seeking, too carnal. She knew this from the tightness in her stomach –  a tightness she felt whenever Bert was near. And given that he was sitting right next to her, Sophie’s stomach felt really rather tight.

As if in answer to her confusion, the minister returned to the microphone. ‘I’d like to pray about a matter very dear to all of us here at IPC-Zurich.’ His South African accent rang through the church. He wore a suit and tie. ‘As some of you may have heard, our youth leader Gabriel went into hospital a week ago after he found that he was having difficulty walking. Unfortunately, the scans showed that he had a tumour on his spine, and the doctors decided that they needed to operate immediately. The first half of the operation took place on Thursday, and it went well, with Gabriel showing signs of improvement. But on Friday Gabriel suffered a severe stroke, seemingly as a result of the operation, and he went into a coma not long later. As of yet, he’s not responding, and the doctors fear that the damage to his brain means he won’t be able to see again. Gabriel’s wife, Nicole, has been sitting alongside him for the past thirty-six hours, and their three children, Mathis, Jacques, and Léa visited last night.’ The minister paused. ‘This has come as a huge shock to their family, and to all of us at the church; we know how difficult this has been for Nicole especially. But we’ve already had such an incredible response from members of our church, and Nicole told me yesterday how much it meant to have all of you praying for Gabriel.’

Sophie was no longer thinking about her longing for Bert. She was looking at the photo on the screen in front of her: it showed Gabriel and his family smiling in front of the Eiffel Tower. The sky was impossibly blue, and Gabriel could not have looked healthier. His hair was dark and thick, his forehead clear. His daughter Léa was giving a thumbs-up, and one of the boys was wearing the sweetest pair of sunglasses, with purple lenses. As for Nicole, she looked so calm. She was the glue keeping this happy bunch together; the one deciding whether the children could have a flake with their ice cream; the one checking whether Gabriel had packed a toothbrush; the one making sure that Mathis did his holiday work. Sophie imagined Nicole sitting by her husband’s bed, as his eyes gave a silent warning. She imagined all the years she would spend alone. And what about the children? What about piggy-backs from papa? What about the sweets he used to sneak them when maman wasn’t looking? Or the way he sang God Only Knows in the car? Sophie stared at the photo.

‘As followers of Christ,’ the minister went on, ‘we believe that God can heal Gabriel. We believe that he will heal Gabriel. Jesus died on the cross and rose again so that we could enjoy new life with him.’ He turned to his notes. ‘One of my favourite scriptures comes from the Book of Lamentations. I’m sure many of you know it: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” So let us take up our calling and bring new life to Gabriel. Let us move mountains, like Jesus said we would.’ The minister shut his eyes. Without hesitation, Sophie followed suit. ‘Heavenly Father, we ask that you would restore Gabriel’s health. We ask that you would heal him from his affliction; we trust that you will do this for your glory. Fill Gabriel with your Holy Spirit, Father; pour out Christ’s spirit upon your servant. And may you provide peace to Nicole, Mathis, Jacques and Léa in this time. May you provide peace to Gabriel’s family and friends. And may you help us to trust you, Father; to trust that you will work things for your glory, so long as our faith remains strong. And so we ask you to strengthen our faith, Father; we ask you to remove our unbelief. We are truly sorry for the times we have doubted you, but we trust in your awesome power; we trust that you will make Gabriel whole. Raise him back to life, Father. For your glory. We ask this in the name of your only begotten son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen.’

And Sophie said ‘amen’.

She looked at the eyes of those around her and saw how their hearts wept for Gabriel. Their tears were not born of despair, but of belief: it was God’s love kindling their compassion. Studying the dust on their knees, Sophie did not doubt their sincerity. These people truly believed that God could heal Gabriel. And as she watched two women in prayer, Sophie understood that this belief was the most reasonable thing in the world. How could a coma be too much for God? How could the creator of the human eye lack the means to heal it? Bert recognised Sophie’s smile. It was the smile of faith.

But the Bible said that Jesus alone could lead her to God. And so, Sophie did her utmost to comprehend his life. Perhaps she was unusual in this respect, but she had no qualms about the idea of God assuming human form. What better way to reveal the path to Heaven than to be the paragon of those who sought it? And if Jesus was divine, then of course he could rise from the dead.

What Sophie had never understood was how there could be any uncertainty on this point. If God had really lived among us, then why wasn’t everyone a Christian? The ability to walk on water and defeat the grave seemed like pretty damning evidence – or saving evidence, perhaps.

But then Sophie looked around her. She was surrounded by men and women from Britain, France, Australia, Malaysia. There ought to be nothing connecting them. And yet, they had all put their trust in a man who’d lived in a small region of the Middle East over two thousand years ago, when history was recorded through word of mouth and papyrus. And not only them: over two billion people believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, although they lived in the age of evolution, psychology and 8K T.V. screens. Surely there was something in that? Surely this was more than humanity’s longing for hope?

Sophie reconsidered why more people did not believe. For whatever reason, God had chosen to partially conceal His son’s divinity. She drummed her fingers, picturing the alternative: Jesus could have revealed himself to the entire human race. But what would the point be? Sophie’s main takeaway from this service was that God wanted to have a loving relationship with His people. But if God made His existence plain, how could we be anything but obliged to love him? If Jesus rose from the dead, cured cancer, and wrote ‘Made By God’ on every atom in the world, then any honest person would drop to their knees in worship. But how could that be called love? How could love be mere common sense?

Sophie realised that love required some kind of risk. She tried to work out where this risk might lie in the Christian life. In the case of those who had never seen Jesus, the danger was that they were wrong. But how much more powerful to love someone you couldn’t see than to revere a visible God. Sophie flicked through the Bible in front of her and, after a great deal of searching, found those words for Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” According to this, God had offered Sophie a chance at true love.

But what about those who’d seen Jesus? Did Sophie really think that the twelve disciples were excluded from such love? She turned the pages, desperate for help. Her fingers stopped at Acts, where she found one answer: there was still great risk in their relationship with Jesus since they faced persecution. And then, as if awakened by this realisation, her mind returned to Doubting Thomas. Part of the point of that cautionary tale was that, throughout the Gospel, people trusted Jesus before they’d witnessed his full power. And so Sophie understood: whilst Thomas could still love Jesus because he faced the risk of persecution, or simply the risk of being laughed at, those who believed without seeing were the happiest of all. Which put the members of this congregation in a rather privileged position.

As Sophie’s heartbeat shot through her neck, she wondered about life beyond the grave. Surely there was no risk in Heaven? And yet, Heaven had to be a place of love. However she approached this final hurdle, Sophie couldn’t surmount it. With Bert looking on in fascination, she pored through the Bible, searching for an answer. Her page-leafing grew louder, and heads turned to see this young woman begging God for clarity. She scanned the pages like a student cramming for a history exam. But Sophie was not trying to memorise dates. She was trying to work out if those dates had any meaning; if God had created her for a purpose; if her love for Bert was more than a spike of dopamine. Eventually, she reached the Letter to the Hebrews – unfamiliar territory. She grew confused at the references to Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood. On the verge of seeking guidance from James, Sophie glimpsed the word that had inspired her search in the first place: joy.

“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

And it was here that Sophie found relief. Yes, relief above all else. She knew that Heaven was the reward for a life of love in the face of fear. Heaven could be enjoyed because each believer had overcome the risk of faith. God’s people could love Him even whilst standing in His presence because they had once loved Him without seeing. Sophie thought about the word perfecter. She rattled through the pages, remembering something she’d read in another letter. Was it Romans? No, one of the longer names. Yes, Thessalonians! Oblivious to the fact that the minister was preaching on the exact verse she needed, she found it just as her faith was wavering: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sophie realised that love could in fact be experienced without risk, but it was necessary for the lover to be pure. With her mind reeling, she made the connection between God and the pure believer refined by Jesus. Such beings could love fearlessly, but only through divine perfection. Sophie closed the Bible. Her body and mind begged to collapse, but her spirit soared in a way she had never known. An external force had steered her through that labyrinth, first warning of dead-ends, then providing a bird’s-eye view. Like Ariadne, it had guided out of love. Sophie, having felt this presence, could not fathom a Thesean betrayal.

Bert turned to her as the congregation stood. ‘Everything okay?’

‘Oh, more than okay.’ Sophie beamed like a proud schoolgirl. Bert was slightly concerned by how much she was sweating. But then she said, ‘I think I believe,’ and he had to stop himself from shouting.

‘You’re serious?’

Sophie burst into laughter, and more heads turned. ‘Yes, I’m serious. I believe in Jesus.’ Her lips became unbound as acoustic guitar filled the church. On the screen were the words: “What A Beautiful Name”.

Bert could not remember seeing such a happy face in all his years. Sophie’s grin revealed her beautiful, crooked incisor. He raised his wings, pleasing God with their shadow. “What a wonderful name it is,” he sang.

Sophie tested the lyrics on her tongue: “The name of Jesus Christ, my king.” She couldn’t say it felt natural, but it certainly felt right. She tried lifting her arms in praise. Oh, wow, if her dad could see her now… With her hands beside her chest, she felt vulnerable on her own terms. But she welcomed this vulnerability because it revealed the depth of her need.

They left the church ten minutes later to find that the clouds had burst. Sophie tasted the drops with childlike glee. ‘Oh, Bert, this is so wonderful. I can finally feel happy again.’

‘Isn’t it the greatest feeling in the world?’

‘I can’t imagine anything greater.’ With complete seriousness, Sophie jumped up and down for joy. ‘Aaah, I just want to go smile at people.’

Bert laughed without holding back. ‘I know how you feel! Don’t worry, there are plenty of people who need you.’

Those two words – need you – made Sophie’s love for Bert jump within her. Suddenly it felt possible to be romantic yet devout. Loving Bert would be the first act in her Christian journey. She would love him with body, mind and spirit. She would encourage him to be humble. She would support him in his faith. ‘Bert, I love you.’

Bert chuckled. ‘I love you too, Sophie. A fellow soldier of Christ!’

The rain didn’t taste so sweet anymore. With these words, Sophie remembered that committing her life to Jesus would not solve all her problems. There would still be pain along the way. Perhaps there would be more pain, in fact; more joy, certainly, but also a greater burden. She remembered her teeth, and the tension in her chest returned. She looked at Bert, who understood.

‘Oh, no, Sophie.’ His voice crackled. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s just-.’

‘You don’t see me in that way. I know how it goes.’

Bert continued to meet her gaze. ‘I’m sorry.’ Neither of them spoke as members of the congregation hurried to their cars. Sophie could have done with an umbrella right then. ‘When did this start?’

‘Oh, well, you know… At your baptism.’

A few eyes were watching them. ‘That really wasn’t what I was going for.’

They managed to smile. ‘It was your darned goat-like hair, Bert. You were annoyingly attractive that day.’

‘What do you mean, that day!’ Oh, why did he have to make her laugh? Why couldn’t he just be dull?

Bert sighed. For whatever reason, he would never love Sophie like that. He just hoped she was more confused than she realised. ‘I thought you were being awkward because you wanted to talk about faith.’ He chuckled at himself. ‘Classic me, always thinking about Jesus…’

‘No, that was part of it. I’ve been having a weird time trying to juggle faith and romance.’ Their clothes were heavy from the downpour. Sophie shivered. ‘It’s a messy combination.’

‘Tell me about it.’

She hesitated. No, she could say it: ‘Well, at least Jesus loves me.’ However foreign they sounded to her, these words had a calming effect.

‘You don’t know how happy it makes me to hear you say that.’

The door continued to glow in all its beige glory. Sophie wiped the water from her cheeks. She tried to bring back the liberation of her newfound faith. She remembered the line – “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” – and her rejection seemed manageable. Yes, it hurt far more than her recent anxiety, for the simple fact that there was a basis to this pain. But she was able to see the bigger picture: thanks to the promise of joy, misery would never be all-consuming. She loved Bert. She loved the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. She loved his sense of humour and his courage. But, eventually, this pain would subside. And even as it lingered, Sophie knew a steadfast peace.

Chapter Eight

Dear Jake, Aaron and Youri,

I couldn’t decide how to begin this letter, since there was so much pressure to make you read on.

Maybe that’s done the trick? I guess I’ll only find out if you reply. I won’t blame you if you don’t, but it would be nice not to hear the sound of silence. Hello, darkness, my old friend…

How are you guys? I was really sorry to hear about the tour. No, come on, Gylfi, you can do better than that. I’m really sorry I ruined the tour. Maybe you don’t believe me – maybe you think I’m too crooked for remorse – but I hope you know me better. I could never do what I did without regretting it.

I guess you’re asking why I carried on in that case. I wish I knew the answer. An emptiness in my heart is probably the closest I can get. I’m sure most addicts know deep down that what they’re doing is wrong. We try our best to resist, but the harder we try, the greater the temptation becomes. I wonder if it’s a really twisted form of OCD. Maybe I just let a compulsion grow too big until the only way to get rid of it was by giving in. But it always came back with a vengeance.

That’s the main reason I’m relieved I got caught: I was worried the compulsion had even more room to grow. I could never turn myself in – I’m too proud for that. But I was relieved when the police put those handcuffs on me. I felt strangely at peace. No more lies, no more violence.

Unsurprisingly, none of the women have agreed to speak to me. I’d like to write them letters too, but I guess I’ll have to give it time. Maybe if even one of them replied with some kind of forgiveness, I could begin my life again. My lawyer tells me I’m looking at ten years, but I can’t tell the difference between five, ten, fifteen, twenty… I’ve done what I’ve done, and I can never change that. I can never wipe their memories clean. Those women will carry my guilt forever – I only hope they won’t carry their pain. That is my one real hope in life.   

I spend most of my time singing. Some of the inmates love my music, others threaten to kill me. No-one dare disturb the sound of silence. They tell me I’ll be sent back to Iceland soon. I wonder if it’s better to be in prison at home or overseas. The thought of being locked away ten miles from my family makes me want to start this life all over again. But maybe I’d only make the same mistakes. How sad that the sweet little piano boy turned into this monster. Silence like a cancer grows.

Thank you, Aaron, for taking Melanie to the police. Thank you for turning me in. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be feeling this constant guilt, and that’s exactly what I deserve to feel. The compulsion left as soon as they locked me away.  

The real reason I’m writing is to ask for your forgiveness. I know that must seem like a crazy thing to expect, but maybe you can prove yourselves better than me through one impossibly simple act. They let me go to the library here the other day, and I read something beautiful: forgiveness breaks the circle of human weakness. A counterattack may seem courageous, but the really revolutionary thing to do is accept the punch. Turn the other cheek, I guess. Oh man, I could do with a god right now. (And the people bowed and prayed / To the neon god they made.) I’ll never believe I’m the product of a loving creator, but maybe you guys could be. I’m not trying to guilt-trip you into forgiving me – that would hardly be forgiveness. Honestly, I don’t want it for my sake, I don’t deserve that. I just don’t want to create a domino effect by making your hearts bitter and angry. So maybe something good can flow from this instead.

Whatever you decide about me, I hope you guys stick together. Keep writing songs. Keep recording. Keep performing. My second biggest regret is screwing up the chance to play music with you three. We had something really good going on and I destroyed that. I’m sorry. It would kill me if you broke up. Hopefully that doesn’t convince you to pack it in – an act of revenge against your traitor. Please just make a new album. That would be like forgiveness.

Like I said, I’ll understand if you don’t reply. And I’ll understand if you just want to insult me. But forgiveness is the one thing I wouldn’t understand, and that’s why I hope you choose it.

Good luck to you, my old friends. I’m sorry for what I’ve done.

Gylfi.

***

Anna, Peter and Johannes had collapsed into bed. A week spent saving the planet took its toll, after all. As for Ernest, Rosa, Sophie and Bert, they were sitting in their living space with the remaining members of 38 Children Called Stone. Two bottles of wine were in circulation, along with a surprisingly unpopular jug of water.

Everyone felt calmer after seven days at ECOCAMP. Everyone besides Bert, that is, who’d recently received a message from an Oxford pal called Archie Clarke. Ever since his conversion, Bert had been feeling distant from the likes of Archie. The old spark wasn’t quite there at their reunions, and Bert knew it would never reignite – barring the unlikely possibility of Archie, Buster, Becca et al. undergoing a similar transformation. This distance was less acute when Bert spent time with schoolmates. Their bond had deeper foundations: house sport, endless ‘banter’ (mild abuse), the drudgery of maths and chemistry. His university friendships, on the other hand, were founded upon booze and games of ‘never have I ever’. Bert realised how obsessed he and his peers had been with social standing, with public image. They would go to the bathroom at a restaurant and come out looking completely different. Buster was just like that. He practically had a haircut every time he went to the gents.

And now, to further complicate Bert’s feelings towards his Oxford cohort, Archie had sent an alarming text:

Hey Bert mate, how’s life? I hear you’ve jetted off to Germany – hope that’s treating you well. This might seem a bit out the blue, but I just wanted to chat about your Twitter. Some of the stuff you’ve been liking and posting is kind of offensive, so as your friend I wanted to let you know to be careful – cause obviously this stuff is up there forever, and you should be aware you might upset some people. I don’t want to attack you or anything, but this is what friends are for, right? I’ve got your back. Just thought you should know people have been saying things, so I’d recommend toning it down. But I hope everything else is great, looking forward to catching you soon x

As the feeling took hold, Bert realised he’d never experienced paranoia before. Questions began to hound him. Were his friends watching his every move? Did they think he’d finally lost it? And who were these ‘people’ who’d been ‘saying things’?

Now, Bert was not a stranger to trouble. He’d been called out for political incorrectness a few times at Oxford, and he was familiar with the wrath of womankind. But this was an attack on his beliefs. His tweets had been placed under the microscope, and the agenda-driven scientists were going to find the results they wanted. He appreciated the irony: after years spent tweeting pearls of wisdom into the abyss, he was finally getting engagement for all the wrong reasons.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” Bert reflected on these verses. This was the first time he’d encountered a challenge to his faith, and he was sorry to admit that he did not feel blessed. He felt uncertain and alone. He felt unable to trust his friends. Indeed, a part of him no longer wanted to trust them; he would turn his back on Oxford and tread the path of the disciple. Bert tried to douse the anger flickering in his heart.  

And yet, he also wondered whether Archie was right. Maybe he had gone too far. Maybe his tweets weren’t Christlike. It was hard to judge, not least since Jesus would never have joined Twitter.

Bert scrolled through his feed and saw how strange it must have seemed. He was posting about the need for repentance, about Jesus being the only route to Heaven; he was liking tweets about Trump’s importance in defending Christian principles, about the need for people to stop feeling sorry for themselves and start contributing to society; he had retweeted a woman whose bio claimed she was ‘recovering from atheism, liberalism and feminism’. He realised the intensity of his approach. But did he feel sorry?

Soon losing any clarity of mind, Bert turned to Ernest. There was something about having a rake in hand that encouraged debate, and, thanks to Johannes’ obstinacy, they came to know those weapons of mass collection rather well.

‘Oh dear,’ was Ernest’s immediate response. ‘What are you going to say?’

‘I don’t know, brother. I can’t tell if I’m sorry or not. I mean, obviously I’m not backtracking on the Christian stuff.’

‘But you’re not so sure about the… social commentary?’ Ernest managed a particularly deft leaf-sweep.

‘Yeah, exactly. The issue is, I didn’t give it much thought in the first place. A like here, a retweet there, it’s hardly life and death – whatever they say about being responsible online… And it’s not as if clicking a little love heart means I wholeheartedly endorse something.’

‘Yeah, I get that. I often like tweets just because they’re bold.’

‘I’m glad you get me.’ Bert managed to extricate a root from the ground, which added to his reassurance. ‘And don’t you think it’s pretty weird they’re trawling through my Twitter?’

‘It’s kind of scary, to be honest. I can just about deal with big companies collecting my data, but when friends start doing it?’

‘It honestly never crossed my mind anyone would care what I think. Why are they so offended by what Bert Eynsham has to say? Ooh, nice leaf pile.’

‘Thanks, brother.’ Right on cue, the leaves scattered in the wind. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ Ernest leapt to the floor to protect his remaining crop. ‘Can you get the wheelbarrow?’ In a vain attempt to save as many leaves as possible, he pressed his forehead into the mud. Bert could always count on Ernest for a medley of light relief and serious debate.

Once they’d stuffed the leaves into a bin bag (ready for the children’s’ arts and crafts session), Bert continued his diatribe. ‘I just can’t stand how conservatism has become this taboo. Like, as if they’d be calling me out for tweeting hardcore left-wing content.’

‘The intolerance of the so-called tolerant.’

‘You said it, brother.’

‘And it’s just the fact Archie presents himself as some kind of authority on this: like what you did was unambiguously wrong.’ Ernest pocketed a stray plastic bottle – best not to let Johannes know. ‘I guess the cultural relativists can believe in moral absolutes when it’s convenient for them.’

‘So true.’ Bert tore up the earth. ‘And don’t they get that my opinions will change? I’ll put my hands up: some of the stuff I liked was harmful, and I’m really sorry if I hurt anyone. But can’t I make a few missteps along the way?’  

‘They don’t exactly leave room for nuance.’

Unfortunately for Bert, he received a second text before he could reply to Archie. Another Oxford friend, Kai, said that a mate had noticed something on his Twitter – a retweet condemning pre-marital sex. It seemed that the floodgates had opened, and Bert succumbed to the deluge: he was more apologetic in his response than in his heart. He admitted to Archie and Kai that he needed to be more careful online, that he’d forgotten about the real-world implications; and although he still agreed with a lot of what he’d posted, he promised to be more aware of how people might feel. And Bert did recognise the importance of compassion – how could he call himself a Christian otherwise? But spreading the Gospel was ultimately the most compassionate response in his eyes, since it had the power to set people free. There were different ways of going about that mission, of course, but the truth was going to hurt at times. And yet, Bert was still too eager to be liked. After clicking send, he felt distant not only from his friends but also from himself.

And now he was sitting with 38 Children and his three compadres. By sheer coincidence, the band had replaced the thirty-eight young Germans now tucked up in bed. This was enough to make Bert smile, and he tried to spread God’s love anew.

He noticed how Sophie scraped her tongue along her teeth, desperate to remove the remains of dinner; all those bread rolls must have been a nightmare, crumbly as they were. To Bert’s surprise, Sophie had hardly mentioned his conversion since they’d left England. Rosa, by contrast, had proved eager to learn about the upheaval in his life, having always been blessed with empathy. Bert suspected that her more modest upbringing was responsible for this quality, although he wasn’t going to express this view on Twitter. He hoped she would believe in the Holy Trinity one day. For now, Rosa held to a monotheistic God whom all the major religions had glimpsed in part. As for Ernest, he was exploring the questions that their raking had provoked.

And then there was Sophie… Bert was worried about adding to her anxiety, but surely he could offer the hope of Jesus without mentioning her teeth? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became: saving Sophie was his God-ordained calling. He wondered if Ernest or Rosa knew how broken she was.

‘Are you okay, Bert?’

Bert turned to Rosa. He realised he’d been staring into his glass for the past two minutes. As much as he liked water these days, his appreciation didn’t extend that far. ‘Huh? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking.’

Her eyes showed understanding. ‘I could tell. Something bothering you?’ Rosa said this quietly enough that only Bert and Ernest could hear. Sophie, meanwhile, was chatting to Youri about how difficult he found being away from his daughters. And his wife, of course.

‘No, not really. Just…’

‘Reflecting?’

‘Yeah, reflecting.’

They smiled. And then, as Bert reached for the unpopular jug, Ernest led the lamb to the slaughter. ‘Any word from Archie?’

Bert wondered if someone had turned up the heating. ‘Uhh…’

Ernest cottoned on to his friend’s discomfort. Unfortunately, so did Rosa. ‘What’s happened with Archie?’

Can we get a window open in here? Bert finished pouring his drink, but he wished he had something stronger. Where was Jesus when you needed him? ‘Well…’

‘Come on, Bert, we’re all friends here.’

As Bert’s social media presence testified, he was not very good at holding back. So whilst he recognised that telling a white lie would be the sensible move, he’d also just reached certain conclusions about truth and compassion. ‘Archie had a problem with some things on my Twitter.’

Rosa tried to give Bert the benefit of the doubt, but her protruding cheekbones revealed her unease. ‘Like what?’

‘He didn’t make it explicit, but I think it was mostly my Christian posts.’

‘What have you been saying?’

‘Well…’ Bert looked at Ernest. His friend was helpless.

‘What’s he been saying, my love?’

‘Oh, you know, just some fairly orthodox views. Old-school, I guess you could say.’

‘Don’t be facetious, Ernest.’ Rosa switched gears. ‘Let me guess, you’ve been talking about Hell and sin and all that jazz?’ Her tone suggested she didn’t actually associate Hell with John Coltrane.

‘Well, not exactly. I just liked a few tweets.’

Rosa finished her wine ever so slowly. She swished the alcohol around her mouth, causing Sophie serious anxiety about the tannins staining her teeth. Rosa swallowed. ‘What are your views on homosexuality, Bert?’

It was at this point that the rest of the room turned their way. Jake sighed, Youri looked like he didn’t want to be asked the same question, and Aaron pretended to munch on popcorn. As for Sophie, she worried about the man with the goat-like hair.

‘Oh, well, you know…’ Bert tried adding a soft touch to his eyes, but this seemed to annoy Rosa. Ernest was staring at the ground.

‘No, I don’t know actually.’ Rosa’s voice grew punchy. ‘Do you think it’s a sin that my brother’s gay?’

Bert blew air from his mouth. ‘I mean…’

‘You do, don’t you?’

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Bert steeled himself. Whilst human nature told him to keep his mouth shut, his conviction lay elsewhere: ‘Yes, I do. But I still love him.’

‘No, you don’t, Bert, stop pretending you’re such a saint. How can you love him if-?’

‘Because I-‘.

‘Please, just stop talking. You’re not going to convince me, so don’t even bother.’

‘That seems a little unfair, but okay.’ Bert looked at Rosa. Her eyes were wet. He wondered if this was the future awaiting him. ‘Can I just say one thing?’ She remained silent, and Bert looked to his Father. ‘I don’t get why people only ever focus on the uncomfortable parts of Christianity. Sure, some teachings don’t sit well with our modern, Western way of thinking, but that’s because they’re actually true. And can’t you see how amazing the overall picture is? That God loves you forever and He’s offered all of us a chance to get right with Him? To join Him in Heaven?’

‘As much as it might pain you to hear this, Bert, I don’t believe in Jesus. I think God will let all of us into Heaven whatever happens.’

‘But that would make him an unjust God.’

‘Are you saying my brother deserves to go to Hell?’

‘I’m saying we all deserve to go to Hell.’ Ernest buried his face in his hands. ‘But God has given us this gift of gra-’.

‘You know what, Bert, I was worried this would happen. It was so great when you found your faith and felt like a new man. I may not have agreed with you, but it was awesome seeing your trust in God.’ Rosa’s voice started to crack. ‘But now you’re this fundamentalist and I…’

‘Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentalist.’

Rosa was doing her best not to cry. ‘Ernest, are you going to back me up here?’

To be quite honest, Ernest had been hoping to metamorphose into a woodlouse. He would roll into a ball and avoid life’s biggest questions. Alas, his recent Bible study told him that God didn’t grant such miracles.

Woodlouse or not, Rosa was going to crush him anyway: ‘Oh my word, are you kidding me?’

‘I didn’t say anything!’

‘Exactly, Ernest! You should have been jumping up to defend me. But clearly your best bud has convinced you-.’

‘No, no, Rosa, that’s not true. I just think Bert is entitled to his opinion.’

‘Okay, fine. But can’t he see how offensive his opinion is?’

‘Dare I say it, my love, but your opinion is probably pretty offensive to him.’ Aaron choked on his imaginary popcorn.

‘This isn’t one of those moments where you say ‘my love’, Ernest.’ Ernest had never known Rosa to use his name so many times in quick succession. And were the italics really necessary? ‘You’ve been acting weird all week.’

‘That’s not fair, I’ve just been…’

‘Reflecting?’

He realised what was going on here: Rosa was turning him into Bert 2.0. Truth be told, Ernest had been a little anxious since his chat with Bert about God and sex. Although he and Rosa had shared some wonderful moments over the past week, the initial meeting of their lips now shone a light on the seed that Bert had planted. Luckily, Ernest’s love was still winning out, but he worried that the seed might grow into a tree whose fruit he dared not pick. And yet, amidst his confusion, he maintained his more liberal stance. ‘Come on, Rosa, I’m not in the same boat as Bert. I have so much respect for his faith and, yeah, for his conviction, but you can’t be suggesting I side with him on everything? I’m just questioning a lot of things right now, but that doesn’t make me an evangelical Christian.’ Ernest begged Rosa’s face to relax. ‘Look, I understand how much he’s hurt you, but you’ve got to remember that’s the last thing Bert wants to do. But you asked him a question point-blank, and he had to say what he thinks.’

Rosa looked at Ernest. He didn’t feel like her life’s comfort right then. She wiped a tear from her cheek, put her cup to one side, and walked out of the room.

Ernest might have felt better if she’d given him a clichéd ‘Fuck you’; that would have been less frightening than her stare. He returned his head to his hands. His chest heaved up and down as he tried to ignore the silence. And then he felt a palm on his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Ernest. I didn’t mean for that to happen.’

Ernest looked up. His best friend’s eyes were bloodshot. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, Bert.’ Anticipating his next sentence, he managed to smile. ‘Sure, you could have kept your mouth shut for once, but I get why you didn’t.’ He sighed. They were growing up too fast. ‘It had to come out eventually.’

‘I guess so.’ Bert tried to stay his mind on the cross; Christ’s suffering grew sharper. He could endure losing Rosa; yes, he could bear that pain, however fierce it might be. But if he ever jeopardised her relationship with Ernest, his cry for God’s mercy would travel to Earth’s four corners. ‘Thanks for sticking up for me. That meant a lot.’  

‘Of course, brother. Freedom of speech and all that…’ Ernest imagined Rosa crying in their room, her sobs muffled by a pillow. ‘Do you think I should go talk to her?’

‘I’d give it five minutes. She’ll need some space.’

‘Uhh, this is torture.’

‘It’ll all be fine, brother. Between you two, at least.’ Ernest nodded, unsure how to respond to the anguish in Bert’s voice. So he embraced the hope alongside it.

Bert looked towards Sophie, whose eyes turned his way. They pursed their lips, acknowledging the situation in all its mess. Then Sophie smiled – not to tell Bert that he’d done the right thing, but simply to say that she understood.

***

Dear Gylfi,

It’s Jake here. I’ve got Youri next to me, making sure I don’t mess this up. We were actually thinking about sending you a letter. I’m not sure what we were going to say, so I guess you’ve made half that decision for us.

There was a bit of an argument within the camp last night. To fill you in, the three of us are driving around Europe with Rosa, Ernest and two of their friends called Sophie and Bert – they’re good people. Anyway, it came out last night that Bert had written a few choice words on Twitter, which some of his friends were questioning him about. When Rosa asked him what he’d posted, he bumbled away like a complete mug, then eventually he said he was expressing his faith. He’s a Christian, you see – like a proper Deep South kind of Christian. That probably wouldn’t have been too bad, but then Rosa asked him what he thought about her brother being gay. I’m sure you can see where this is going… She got furious at Bert, then Ernest didn’t back her up, so she stormed off and it was all a total shit-show. Eventually Ernest went to comfort her, but we hit the hay without any peace. Breakfast was pretty awful this morning.

And that sucks, man. Three great friends divided over this. You’ve seen how much Rosa and Ernest love each other – watching them fight was honestly heart-breaking. And then your letter arrived this morning and I couldn’t help joining the dots. You know, like, will Rosa forgive Bert? I’m sure she will eventually because she’s such an understanding person, but it’ll take some healing. And it’s just really hard to watch because they’re so close. And then there’s Ernest. Man, that dude should have just stood up for his woman, no matter what he thought. They’ll be okay, no doubt about that, but they’ll still need time.

So when I read your letter I just thought, heck, life would be so much better if Rosa just forgave them. Should Bert apologise for what he said? I guess that’s up to him. Who knows what he’ll do, he seems like a complicated guy. But wouldn’t it be amazing if Rosa just dropped it all anyway? If Bert stuck to his guns and she still turned to him and said, ‘Bert, my friend, I think you said some really cruel things. You were insensitive and a bad Christian. But we’ve been through a lot together. You helped keep Ernest happy when I was away. You’re always there to crack a joke and make me laugh.’ (Sorry, I should stick to writing lyrics, but you get what I mean.) And then she’d say, ‘So even though we don’t agree, and even though I think you’ve behaved like a twat, I love you all the same. I may not like you as much, but I still love you.’ And that’s when Ernest barges in and puffs up his scrawny little chest, and he’s all like, ‘What did you just say? You love him?’, and then he marches towards Bert and lands a properly feeble punch on his nose, and we get two private school prissies howling out with pain. But I’m getting carried away here…

The main thing is, I could see how great it would be if Rosa forgave them both, no matter what they said. And when I saw that, I realised I had to live up to that standard. Look, Gylf, I think you’re one of the most disgusting people I’ve ever met. Actually, no, you are the most disgusting person I’ve ever met, no doubt about it. I wish I could go back in time and stop you being such a pig. I’d do anything to have that second chance. I can’t understand how you behaved like that, but I guess you’re just really sick. You need a lot of help, Gylf. I don’t care if you say the compulsion’s disappeared – it must have left a lot of scars.

But I forgive you. It feels good to write that. I forgive you, Gylf, because you’re right: that’s the only way to end the circle of pain. The world is that little bit better now. And Youri forgives you too. He started talking about how Yahweh is merciful and I got properly confused, but the main thing is he forgives you. Aaron hasn’t come round yet, but we’ll keep talking to him. And hey, two out of three isn’t so bad, is it?

We hope you get the help you need. Youri and I still think you’re an evil, evil guy, but I guess that’s the point: we can only forgive broken people. So I guess we have to forgive everyone in that case.

Keep singing from your cell. As your mates Simon and Garfunkel would say:

            Old friends

            Memory brushes the same years

            Silently sharing the same fears.

Good luck to you, Gylf. You’re gonna need it.

Jake.

P.S. We’ll miss your crazy keys.

Chapter Seven

If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of those that love us.

If only I could see myself through the eyes of those who love me.

 

If only we could see ourselves

Through the eyes of those

Who love us.

 

Oh what I’d give to see myself

Through all your loving eyes.

 

I wish that I could see myself

Through all your loving eyes.

 

‘If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of those that love us.’

‘What’s that?’

Sophie realised she’d been muttering to herself. ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.’

‘No, it sounded great. Is it a Sophie original?’

If Sophie had been a hairy woman, she would have pulled her beard in two like Snow White’s Bashful. Instead, she nodded.

‘It’s a powerful idea.’ Rosa avoided a puddle. ‘And I can sympathise. If I remembered how much Ernest loves me, I’d never worry about how I look. And yet…’

‘The old noggin’ likes to play games.’

‘Ha, ha, you can say that again.’

They weaved their way through Munich’s Englischer Garten. It was prettier than any actual English garden either of them had seen. They braved a hill, convincing their tired legs that the view would be worth it.

‘I was going to keep it a secret,’ said a thigh-pumping Sophie, ‘but I’ve started writing some poetry.’

‘No way!’ Rosa’s voice rose with her foot. ‘That’s awesome. So is that one of your lines?’

‘I’m constantly tweaking it, but the idea’s there.’ Sophie thought of the notebook in her rucksack. She hesitated… But her excitement overcame her nerves. ‘I’ve actually finished one poem. Do you want to hear it?’

‘Oh, I’d love to. So long as you don’t mind?’

‘Of course not,’ sliding the rucksack from her shoulder. ‘I can’t hide from feedback forever.’ Sophie found the right page. ‘It’s called “Wand’ring Feet”.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Ready?’

‘Ready and waiting.’

‘Okay, here goes:

 

“She pours herself

A crimson glass,

Forgetting how

The time should pass,

 

How words should form,

How thoughts should flow,

How she might find

The seeds to sow.

 

No voice can fill

This silent day,

As Dylan sings,

Lay, lady, lay,

 

And adults scorn

A life too mild,

But truly mourn

The fallen child,

 

Who did not die,

But was replaced,

By woman lost

And man defaced.

 

An empty ache

Behind the eyes,

The spirit wanders,

The soul, she cries:

 

O endless day!

What must I do

To fill your hours,

To change your hue?

 

What song can soothe

My weary mind,

What joy is left

For me to find?

 

She drifts away,

She drowns the hours,

With morning tears

And gentle showers.

 

The mirror spots

Her stifled yawn

– O to leave

The shoes now worn.

 

And on croons Dylan,

Across his bed –

Its frame is brass,

Her body lead.

 

But deepest dark

Prepares the light,

The root of pain,

The clearest sight.

 

With eyes made new

She sees the smile

Of future self

Beyond the trial,

 

She sees the fruit,

How it was planned,

She sees the glass

Returned to sand.

 

How good to thank

The cause of pain,

To find relief

Within the strain.

 

The table laughs,

As friends return,

What do they feel,

How do they yearn?

 

The same as she,

Or even deeper,

Or has she been

The lonely weeper?

 

She rounds the bend,

With end in sight,

For surely day

Will follow night,

 

And looking up,

She is surprised,

To find a girl

With darling eyes,

 

Whose golden green

Did turn to woe,

For it is she

From long ago.

 

And so she asks,

Why do we roam

If wand’ring feet

Will take us home?

 

At last the source,

Where Joy is crowned,

A face restored,

A woman found.”’

 

Sophie closed her notebook and felt at peace. She could not say “I have had my vision”, but the underlying anxiety of the past two months withdrew under the weight of her satisfaction; she was pleased with her first effort, even if certain lines needed tweaking. More important than the quality of her work, though, was the act of creation itself: she had waged war on her demons. And although she had struggled to enjoy the writing process, her pain had never stayed her pen, and the serenity of the final verses inspired her now.

‘That was amazing.’ Sophie finally understood why Ernest liked to call Rosa ‘Cartoon Eyes’; she was the Happy to Sophie’s Bashful.  

‘Really?’

‘I loved it. Trust me, I’m surprisingly honest when it comes to things like this – just ask Ernest. But that was great. You’ve got talent.’

‘Thanks, Rosa. That definitely makes me want to keep writing.’

‘Oh, you so should – especially right now. You could try publishing some poems online.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that. Sounds… a little bit scary, but exciting too.’

‘You’ve got nothing to lose. I’m sure Ernest would love to chat about it.’

‘I’m a bit embarrassed to mention it to him.’

‘Don’t be silly. Haven’t you spent enough time with him to realise he’s not some kind of otherworldly genius?’

‘Ha, ha, I see what you mean about the honesty.’

Rosa’s shoulders bounced in Scooby-Doo fashion. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I think Ernest is an incredible writer. I find his words so beautiful. But, let’s be serious, he’s still a fairly normal guy. Most writers aren’t these mysterious prophets revealing hidden truths to us poor, poor philistines. So just because you’re not deeply philosophical doesn’t mean you can’t be a really good poet.’ Sophie had been missing an intimate female relationship since leaving home, but her mother’s voice seemed less distant when Rosa was around. Everyone praised her lust for life, which was certainly admirable, but it was Rosa’s strength that impressed Sophie most: 38 Children were not going to fail under her watch.

‘Thanks for the pep talk. I’ll look into the publishing when we’re back.’

This project had come at the perfect moment. After realising that BetterMe was just another self-help app doing more harm than good, Sophie had allowed her mind to explore parts of her mouth best left unnoticed. But now she had a simple goal: to post a few poems online. The importance of this goal was accentuated by her difficulties with God. On the back of Bert’s transformation, Sophie had decided to start at the beginning, with Genesis. But a host of podcasts and YouTube videos had left her mind reeling with conflicting views on the origins of life, Ancient Near Eastern literature, and the meaning of ‘day’ in the Judeo-Christian creation narrative. Poetry presented Sophie with a means of distraction. It would also give her something to talk about with Bert, after some slow conversations of late. Sophie was reluctant to disclose her interest in Christianity; she was afraid of getting Bert’s hopes up. Besides, his gorgeous eyes didn’t exactly put her in the mood for a discussion of Canaanite paganism.

But now was the time to bask in the autumn sunshine. The light fell through the trees, revealing a group of men and women surfing on the Eisbach. The wave was created by a step beneath the surface, and Sophie and Rosa later discovered that this was a well-known feature of the park. The surfers glided back and forth, engrossed in their pursuit. A teenage boy leapt onto his board, biting his bottom lip as he turned full circle, then carved across the wake before disappearing underwater.

The gardens loosened the knot in Sophie’s chest. Instead of dental aesthetics, she analysed the passers-by: whether they smiled or worried or lived without expression. She watched an elderly man reading Kafka. His eyes peered from behind tortoise-shell glasses, as November flapped his overcoat. Mud streaked the edges of his shoes, but he had lived far too long to bother brushing it away. Sophie wondered if he was married: whether his wife was shopping in town, or whether she had died before either of them were ready. The thirty-somethings, meanwhile, all seemed to be jogging. Sophie hoped they were chasing a goal rather than fleeing a spectre in their lives. Perhaps she was projecting her own anxieties, but she sensed they were moving for their minds rather than their bodies. Then again, she of all people knew that working on the body was a way of working on the mind; a twisted, futile way. The late-morning sun dampened their foreheads, and Sophie’s thoughts evaded her teeth. She noticed an outdoor café where a young man sat eating sausage and sauerkraut, with a pad of paper by his plate. He did not look German, but the smile on his face suggested a great appreciation for fermented cabbage. From time to time, he forgot his food and watched swans beating violent wings against sun-kissed water. The ducks swam away in fear as their colleagues took flight.

Sophie and Rosa heard the cry two minutes later. It was a brief, strained cry. Neither of them saw what happened, but they were the first to the scene. A man lay sprawled across the path; his bike sat collapsed to one side. Drawing closer, they saw that his knees were grazed, but otherwise he looked unscathed. And yet, his heavy breathing reminded Rosa of her reaction to Gylfi’s arrest. Fifty-five years on Earth had not left this man invulnerable to panic.

‘Are you alright?’ She bent forwards ever so slightly. The casualty continued to wheeze, not even searching for words. Rosa looked at Sophie, who dropped to her haunches and laid her hand on the man’s shoulder. Little by little, his breathing stabilised beneath Sophie’s touch. ‘Don’t worry, you’ve just got a few scratches. We’ll help you.’ His breath shuddered in the abandonment of panic; there was something of the soothed child about him as his nose whistled.

The man turned to Sophie, revealing bags under surprisingly spirited eyes. His hair was more salt than pepper, but his beard held onto better days. His cheeks were ruddy, his nose large. Sophie wondered why all this made him look so German. ‘Thank you,’ he said, with the slightest accent.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes, sorry. I became a little panicked, but I’m alright.’

‘Can we help you up?’ asked Rosa.

‘Sure, thank you. I won’t pretend to be tough.’ He smiled, baring his wonky, discoloured teeth. Sophie tried to focus on the sentiment behind the smile.

Rosa moved to his right arm, Sophie to his left. ‘Okay, here we go,’ she said. ‘One, two, three,’ and they hauled the man, who was somewhat heavier than they’d have liked, back to his feet. He brushed the dirt off his shorts and patted his pockets.

‘Let me grab your bike.’ Rosa returned the Trek to its wheels, collecting the stranger’s helmet whilst she was there.

‘Thank you, you’re both very kind.’ He was softly spoken but not shy. His voice reminded Rosa of Nick Drake.

‘Don’t mention it.’

‘No, I’m very grateful.’ He was in the middle of smoothing his hair when his eyes lit up. ‘In fact, I want to repay you.’ The stranger’s excitement confirmed rather than concealed his age, as his forehead wrinkled and his teeth suggested years of indulgence. ‘My wife is cooking a lovely lunch. Please join us at our home.’

‘Oh, no, you really don’t have to.’

‘Please, I insist.’

Sophie looked at Rosa. Unaccustomed to invitations for lunch from strange German men, they’d have preferred a pretzel or two in town. Rosa’s eyes were trying to make this clear.

‘Don’t worry,’ he added, ‘there’s nothing wrong with me. I just believe in gratitude.’

‘Umm…’ The man’s face was alive with expectation. Sophie saw how much it would mean to him. She turned to Rosa, who cocked her head and flicked her hands as if to say: ‘Looks like we’re doing this.’ Sophie decided to love her neighbour. ‘Thank you, that’s very generous. We’d love to come.’

‘Excellent! Anna will be delighted.’ Whilst they were too nervous to melt at his smile, it provided a thawing reassurance.

‘Is that your wife?’

‘Yes, my darling Anna. And my name is Peter. Peter Kahn.’

‘Great to meet you, Peter. I’m Sophie.’

‘Rosa. Very nice to meet you.’

‘And you too, both of you. We’ll have a delicious lunch. Are you hungry?’ Sophie and Rosa admitted that they’d skipped breakfast. ‘What a travesty!’ The confidence of the native had replaced his fear. Sophie could tell that this was Peter’s usual self, but they had seen a different side of him: the man afraid of death. ‘Don’t worry, Anna always makes extra. She’s worried I’m getting thin.’ He patted his not inconsiderable midriff.

They laughed with a trace of first-meeting awkwardness. ‘That sounds great. We’ve been looking forward to some local cuisine.’

‘Super, super. Actually, what time is it? Ach, Gott, half one already?’

‘Really? I thought it was much earlier.’ Sophie checked her phone. ‘Yes, it’s only half twelve.’ She noticed that she spoke more formally with foreigners.

‘Ach, silly me. I was using the German system. We say it’s halfway to the next hour. It makes sense if you think about it.’

‘Oh, of course, I remember learning that at school.’

‘You studied German?’ Even Anna hadn’t prompted such enthusiasm as this.

‘Yes, for A-Levels.’

Sophie dreaded the prospect of being quizzed on her adjective endings over lunch, but Peter chuckled, seeing her worried eyes. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t make you recite the alphabet; Anna and I like to practice our English. But come on, let’s go! We don’t want to keep the lady waiting.’

They found her making preparations for eventual guests. Although she didn’t know it, Anna always made too much food because she longed for a visit from a friend or family member. She wasn’t especially lonely, indeed she loved Peter with all her heart, but she missed the days when she and her husband would host dinner parties and barbecues and Easter lunches. They had grown closer in their fifties, but that came with a certain distance from friends. Their children, meanwhile, were too busy consulting, banking and child-rearing. Anna hoped they might stay for Christmas.

Peter hadn’t warned her about Sophie and Rosa. She was stewing red cabbage when she heard the jingle of her husband’s keys, followed by the sound of two young female voices. Were they speaking… Yes, they were. Anna stirred her cabbage, awaiting Peter’s explanation.

‘Meine Süße!’ He hadn’t called her ‘sweetie’ since Max had left home. Silly Peter, always trying too hard – and what a waste in front of guests who wouldn’t understand. She waited for him to reach the kitchen, then turned with a bemused grin.

‘What do we have here, mein Schatz?’ She never called him ‘treasure’ either, but now was the time for a little repartee.

‘Well, I had a fall in the park-’.

‘Oh, Petie,’ and his real nickname was revealed, ‘you silly boy. What did you do?’

‘It was very ironic actually.’

Anna looked at Peter with raised eyebrows. ‘Yes, these cuts are so ironic.’ Noticing two smirks in the corner of the room, she gave her guests a wink.

‘No, you see, I was cycling through the gardens as usual, but my helmet was a little loose, so I unclipped it to tighten the strap. But as I was fiddling with the stupid little buckle’ – of course it was the buckle’s fault, as she examined his knees – ‘I lost control, and then I…’

‘Fell on your little tummy. You might have had a softer landing if you ate your food.’

Peter turned to his guests. ‘What did I tell you?’ They laughed, although not enough to give him the upper hand in this badinage.

‘Oh, telling fibs about me already? Honestly, Peter, you must be more careful.’

‘I was being careful. That’s exactly why I fell.’ Rosa suppressed a laugh: Peter’s crash couldn’t have been more German. ‘Anyway, I’m fine – you shouldn’t worry. What’s for lunch?’

‘Grilled pork with potato puree and red cabbage.’

Peter looked to his guests for help. ‘What do you call potato puree? Smashed potatoes?’

Rosa smiled. ‘Mashed potatoes.’

‘Ach, silly me.’

‘You were very close.’

‘I was very close to clipping my helmet properly.’ Rosa wondered if Peter was a teacher.

‘But I’m not sure we’ll have enough, Peter. I didn’t know there’d be guests.’

‘Nonsense, Anna, I’m sure you’ve got six pigs in the oven.’

‘Well, maybe we’ll manage…’ She brushed her apron. ‘Forgive me, I haven’t asked your names?’

Once they’d completed the introductions, Anna asked what they were doing in Munich: Rosa explained that her band’s tour had been cancelled due to family reasons; Peter said that none of the remaining cities would have been half as nice anyway. This brought a scowl from Anna, who then loaded the dining table with an inordinate amount of food. The red cabbage was hot and tangy, the pork salty and tender, and the potatoes could not have been more beautifully pureed. Over the past five years, Anna had dedicated much of her time to cooking. It was when she felt at her most creative, and she loved sharing her enjoyment with others – even if ‘others’ usually meant Peter.

‘Do you still work, Anna?’ Rosa asked.

‘Yes, I teach part time at one of the local schools. English and Maths.’

‘Anna is a wonderful teacher. Very tough, of course, but the children love her.’

‘My approach has worked in marriage, and it works in the classroom.’

Once Sophie had regained control of herself, she asked Peter what line of work he was in.

‘I’m an environmentalist. I’m with LMU, the University of Munich. But I also have a T.V. show and I do lots of talks between my research.’

‘Peter is known as the German David Attenborough.’ She pronounced it Atten-burrow.

‘Ach, Anna, don’t be daft. One person called me that.’

‘I think you should be more proud of your work, Peter.’

‘Pride is a dangerous thing, Annie.’

Anna rolled her eyes, then speared her pork. ‘So you girls don’t have a plan right now? Or are you taking your band back to England?’

‘We’re not sure at the moment.’ Rosa wiped her mouth. ‘The trouble is, we’ve paid for our tour bus and a couple of hotels along the way, plus our flight home is from Lisbon.’

‘Hmm, that is tricky.’ Anna wagged her potato-covered fork at Peter. ‘Hey, Petie, why don’t they come with us?’

‘What’s that?’ Red cabbage spilt from his mouth.

‘Uch, you’re disgusting. I said they should come with us.’

‘Where?’

‘To the camp, Dummkopf.’

‘Oh, to the camp. Yes, you must come!’ Peter seemed to expect a decision right there and then. Unfortunately, Sophie and Rosa had no idea what their hosts were talking about.

‘Umm, what camp?’

Anna took it upon herself to explain. ‘We run a camp outside Munich over the half-term. It’s an eco-camp.’ Forgetting his earlier wisdom, Peter nodded with pride. ‘Every morning, we teach the children about looking after the land. Then we do lots of nature exploring, sports, fun and games, making pizzas on the fire.’

‘That sounds amazing.’ Rosa had visions of trekking through the woods, roasting marshmallows, playing the German equivalent of Simon Says (Friedrich sagt? she wondered). Although wary of such a sudden change of plan, especially given how little they knew these people, she could not help feeling that Peter’s crash had happened for a reason. And the Kahns’ willingness to invite strangers into their life was inspiring. Rosa imagined that this was how life had once been. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to an eco-camp.’ She had written her name in Peter’s good books.

‘So you’ll come?’ he asked. ‘You and your friends?’

‘Well, what are the details?’

‘Very minor. Hardly any details.’

Rosa laughed. After recent events, the fewer details the better.

***

For some of the children, this was their second or third time at ECOCAMP. They were used to meeting camp leaders with thick Bavarian accents, thicker cargo trousers, and even thicker beards. Whilst a few of these hipsters remained, they were joined this year by a writer from Notting Hill, a Christian from Kensington, a teeth fanatic from Cambridge, a band manager from Norfolk, and three rock musicians from Croydon, Manchester and Tel Aviv.

‘Now this is more like it, lads.’ Jake hadn’t worn Wellington boots in eighteen years. ‘A bit of muck, a bit of rough and tumble.’

‘I can’t believe you dragged us into this.’ Whilst Aaron claimed he wanted to work on new material, he actually had a secret fear of geese. His bandmates were yet to notice his paranoid glances to left and right.

‘Just think of the album we’re going to write. Pet Sounds meets…’ Jake pictured the sixth woman coming forward to the police last night. ‘Well, you know what I mean. This will bring a lighter touch.’

Ernest, meanwhile, had always had a misplaced notion of himself as an outdoorsy, Bear Grylls kind of guy. He seemed to think his aggression on the football pitch qualified him to build log cabins, hunt rabbits, and roast pigs on a spit. When a goat knocked him to the ground on his first afternoon at ECOCAMP, he realised that farm animals were slightly more imposing than five foot six strikers educated at Charterhouse. He was good at raking leaves, though – so good, in fact, that Peter didn’t let him try his hand elsewhere. Bert joined Ernest for these raking marathons.

Rosa and Sophie suspected that the division of labour was based on traditional gender roles: Peter asked them to help two arm-tattooed women supervise a group of children. The youngsters proved eager to learn; they were enthused by the replacement of T.V. sets and mobile phones with peacocks and ducks.

Sophie had pointed out over lunch that the language barrier might complicate matters. Peter had remained unfazed: ‘Not a problem – you can leave most of the talking to my guys. Just pick the children up when they fall over, lead some silent games. Job’s a good one, as you would say.’

And so, for the second time in three days, Sophie and Rosa found themselves lifting an overweight German to his feet. On this occasion, the victim was a twelve-year-old lump called Bruno, who wore a hideous yellow raincoat all week even though it didn’t rain once, and who ate marshmallows like his life depended on it (Ernest sometimes wondered if it actually did). Despite these idiosyncrasies, Sophie developed a soft spot for Bruno. Indeed, the children were all wonderful, and she and Rosa had a great time setting up tight ropes, making dough, and giving piggy-backs to the smaller ones. They also became experts at wink murder, if only because it was a wordless game and thus, strangely, comprehensible.

The most intriguing element of ECOCAMP, however, was its caretaker, a fifty-seven-year-old man called Johannes. Although Peter and Anna ran the clubs, Johannes was the camp’s owner and heartbeat. He had been farming there since the age of four, and the animals still marvelled at his unfailing energy. When he wasn’t tilling the soil or feeding the goats, Johannes was sitting in his hut, which he had built alone. The furnishings were simple: a hot plate for frying eggs, a bed where he slept when the weather was fine, and a table big enough for three. The one element of luxury was the radio and speaker system: ‘every man cave needs music,’ he liked to say.

After five days at ECOCAMP, Sophie entered the hut to wash chicken poo from her hands. She found Johannes tinkering with the radio. ‘Ah, Sophie, how are you?’

‘Oh, hi, Johannes. I’m really well, thanks.’ The physical nature of the work had soothed Sophie’s mind. Although she still felt an urge to worry about her appearance, this was no longer a compulsion but a perverted desire. And whenever the knot in her chest did return, she forced herself to embrace God’s existence with childlike faith. No more Evolution vs Creationism videos for this gal. ‘How are you?’

‘Yes, fine, fine.’ Johannes rarely spoke about himself. ‘Would you like a lemon and ginger shot?’

Visions of weak enamel forced their way through Sophie’s defences. ‘I’m okay, thanks, but maybe a glass of water?’

‘Coming right up.’ Having poured their drinks, Johannes switched to a classical station. Sophie recognised Debussy’s piano. ‘You like classical music?’

She became aware of the smile on her face. ‘Yes, very much. It’s been too long since I’ve listened to any.’

‘It’s very calming, isn’t it?’ Johannes placed his mug on the table. ‘Please, take a seat. You and your friends have been working hard. You deserve a rest.’

‘Thank you.’ Truth be told, Sophie struggled to relax these days. But this was a necessary sacrifice, since maintaining a sharp mind was the best defence against her demons; she couldn’t allow herself idle thoughts. She looked at Johannes. The scent of lemons tried to wear her down. She embraced their freshness and returned her gaze to the caretaker. Given his reluctance to share personal details, Sophie had mostly learnt about Johannes’ life from second-hand sources. She had assembled an intriguing story:

After a happy childhood divided between farm and school, Johannes attended the Technical University of Munich, where he changed tack and developed a passion for finance. He then spent ten years working for a bank in Frankfurt, which, although stimulating at first, eventually plunged him into a deep depression. After quitting his job, he moved back to the family farm and returned to his former way of life.

Like many before him, Johannes found that physical work freed his mind. In fact, his depression lifted to such an extent that his father put him in charge of the goats; he rediscovered joy on those fields. This encouraged him to explore the connection between mind and body, as he sought an explanation for his recovery. Within a few weeks, he had foresworn sugar, caffeine and alcohol, adopted a low-carb, high-fat diet, studied techniques for maximising sleep, and developed a weights programme to complement his work on the farm. If he had ever left the camp and ventured into Munich, he might have become known as the ‘German Hulk’ or ‘Johannes Schwarzenegger’ (Johannes was fully aware that his countrymen lacked an aptitude for humour), but, instead, he built the hut where he and Sophie were now sitting, and began writing a book later translated into English as The Hyperborean Paradise: How to Fulfil Your Human Potential. Johannes envisaged a society in which men and women spent their mornings reading Marcus Aurelius, their afternoons exercising toplessly in the sun, and their evenings eating salmon and elk (hunted that day, of course). There would be meditation instead of prayer, kefir instead of alcohol, wrestling arenas instead of cinemas.

The book achieved cult status; his fans believed they had found a modern-day saviour. Unfortunately, periods of depression continued to plague Johannes to this day, and it was for this reason that his Hyperborean project had become limited to a second, less successful book and the ECOKAMP – his shelter from the world. Shelter was the key term, for Johannes lived an increasingly hermetic lifestyle. It seemed he no longer possessed the drive to spread his mission beyond the farm.

‘Are you having a good time with us?’ he asked Sophie, as the hut protected them from the wind. He sipped his lemon and ginger concoction.

‘I’m loving it. I feel a lot happier and healthier here.’

‘Of course you do. That’s the beauty of this lifestyle. You’ve escaped London, congratulations.’

Sophie smiled. ‘I’ll have to go back sometime soon.’

‘But why? If you feel happier here, why don’t you find a job at a place like ours? You don’t have to listen to your parents, your friends, that little voice inside your head…’

‘To be honest, I like listening to my parents and friends. The little voice is probably less helpful…’ Sophie wondered if a lemon and ginger shot would make her feel happier too. She pulled the brakes on this train of thought. ‘I’ve been wondering something: how do you know Anna and Peter?’

‘Aah. Now that is an interesting one.’ Johannes checked his watch. ‘Yes, we’ve got time.’ And then, as if he’d been waiting for this very moment, he began his tale:

‘I’m sure the others have told you about my vision for a better world.’ Johannes didn’t need to check Sophie’s response. ‘Well, Peter was one of my earliest followers. You see, about twenty years ago, Peter was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer was only in its early stages, but it hit him very hard mentally. Especially because he was a Christian; he couldn’t understand why his god –’ Johannes didn’t hide his disdain – ‘had failed to protect him.’

‘I didn’t know Peter was a Christian? I’ve seen the cross on Anna’s necklace, but Peter doesn’t strike me as the religious type.’

‘He’s not anymore, thankfully. Anna is still obsessed with all that Jesus mumbo jumbo, but Peter woke up many years ago.’ Sophie suspected that Johannes’ disdain for religion was part of why his project had failed; his narrow-mindedness made him scorn all other approaches to life. ‘So, as I was saying, Peter felt abandoned by his god. He would spend hours praying every day, asking for forgiveness, begging the Lord to take away his cancer. But nothing changed. In four long months, he received no answer from his god. Naturally, Peter’s faith was shaken. He didn’t give up on God just yet, but he started to explore alternatives.

‘A few weeks later, he came across my book in a wonderful little library in Munich. I’ll note down its name; you really must check it out. Anyway, he bought my book and read it in one sitting. He later told me that he’d never felt so much hope as when he was reading The Hyperborean Paradise.’ Johannes finished his shot, showing no sign of discomfort at the heat of the ginger or the sharpness of the lemon juice. ‘In the back of the book I’d written my email address so that readers could contact me. Peter got in touch, told me about his case, and asked if I could help. So I invited him down here.

‘He arrived in March, when the sun was shining. My immediate impression was that he was the type of man who watched his feet as he walked upstairs.’ Sophie wondered if this was a Johannes idiom. The camp leader rolled his cup in his hand. ‘The cancer wasn’t too severe, so the doctors had prescribed him pills. I told him to ditch them. He threw them away in that bin right there.’ Johannes pointed to a rusty bucket in the corner of the room. ‘Instead, I drew up two initial phases for Peter’s recovery process. Firstly, he had to transform his diet: no more sugar, no more carbs, lots of meat from the farm, and no drinks besides water and my special shots.’ Johannes said this with a grin. ‘Secondly, I prescribed him laughter.’

‘Laughter?’

‘Yes, you heard right. I was reading about a man called Norman Cousins at the time. Do you know him?’ Sophie shook her head. ‘You should look him up; he’s fascinating. To give you an idea of his story, Mr Cousins was diagnosed with a rare form of arthritis in 1964; the doctors told him he had a one in five hundred chance of surviving. But instead of submitting to their prediction, he drew up a two-step plan a bit like the one I gave Peter. First of all, he started injecting himself with huge doses of Vitamin C. Secondly, he watched Candid Camera and lots of comedy films. The idea was that laughter would have an anaesthetic effect, which would allow him to get the sleep he needed. Bear in mind he was in near-constant pain; even morphine wasn’t strong enough to let him sleep, and he could hardly move. But his therapy worked. He started sleeping again, and, bit by bit, he recovered. Only two years after his diagnosis, he returned to work, and he died in 1990 when he was seventy-five.

‘After reading Cousins’ book, I believed Peter could get better. Clearly his cancer was stress- and diet-induced, so I made it my mission to make him less stressed and more disciplined with what he ate. Even though I generally don’t approve of television, I installed a TV in the main house and let Peter choose his comedy shows. The aim was to make him really laugh; Cousins called it ‘genuine belly laughter’. I encouraged Peter to laugh even when he didn’t find the shows particularly funny. I know that sounds crazy, but laughter sets up a positive thought loop in the brain: by convincing yourself you’re happy, you become happier, and that makes it easier to laugh, which makes you happier, and so on.

‘We did this program for about a month, and Peter’s condition improved dramatically. He was now fit enough to exercise, so I gave him a weights program. I can still picture him doing squats in the sun.’ There was a beautiful smile on Johannes’ face. His skin looked young, and his eyes were bright. ‘After three months on my farm, Peter was a different person. He was stronger, happier, and visibly much healthier. But the question was: had it worked? I sent him back to his doctor in Munich, and they did more tests.’ Johannes stared at Sophie. ‘Can you guess what they found?’

‘What?’

Nothing. Peter’s cancer had completely disappeared.’

‘That’s amazing!’ Sophie hadn’t used an exclamation mark in weeks.

‘Yes, it is amazing. And it’s amazing because it’s true. Peter continued on my program, and he’s had a remarkable career ever since. He’s become a little less disciplined over the past few years, and I think that’s why he was so shaken by his fall the other day. Hopefully it’ll be a wake-up call.’

Sophie imagined Peter running home after he’d been given the all-clear. Was true suffering necessary in order to feel that kind of joy? He unlocked the door and leapt into his wife’s arms. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what did Anna make of all this?’

‘Ach, Anna. She’s a fascinating woman. Obviously she was so grateful for what I did for Peter. She came to the farm quite a few times during his stay, and she could see that we were doing great work: we were fighting the cancer rather than simply accepting it as a death sentence. But she believed that her god was working through us; he was inspiring the recovery process. When I asked why this god had refused to heal Peter, she said that Peter lacked faith – she was very sad when she said that. They had a tricky time for a while, but I think Peter was too happy for things to get really difficult. They learnt to live with their different worldviews. It was much harder for Anna than Peter, but she still prays that he’ll return to Jesus.’ Again there was that disdain. Did Johannes somehow know that Sophie was looking towards God? Was he trying to dissuade her? ‘Peter has only found true happiness in Stoicism, not Christianity. But their love was so deep that Anna found a way to live with his betrayal.’

Sophie imagined how difficult that must have been for Anna. The man she loved most in the world was still a lost soul, even if he’d made a remarkable recovery. That must break a woman’s heart. Peter, on the other hand, could accept his wife’s faith so long as ‘the quality of her thoughts was noble’. The Stoic way of life was not grounded in such strong beliefs that it could tear two lovers apart.

Sophie watched Johannes as he scrubbed his dishes. He continued to speak, but she was only half-listening; her eyes followed the movement of his hands.

There was no doubting this man’s success. He had civilised his mind and added happiness to the world; he had entered the ballpark of truth. But Sophie pitied Johannes. Not once in his story had he expressed any tenderness. Instead of love, Sophie sensed frustration at a world that did not square with his view of mankind. He seemed to view the average person as an ailing creature needing to be fixed. In other words, Johannes was still waiting to grasp truth in his mitt.

The previous night, Sophie had overheard Bert talking to Ernest about love. They were discussing Paul’s letters, and one verse in particular: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Sophie looked at the lemon and ginger on the counter. She thought of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the former, she saw discipline; in the latter, love. Her eyes returned to Johannes and his precise hand movements; her mind returned to Bert and the levity of his voice.

For some reason, love and eternal life seemed more appealing than discipline and a healthy gut.

Chapter Six

‘Even if we want to play, who’ll listen?’

‘And we won’t be on any line-ups. It’d be suicide to promote us.’

‘Face it, Jake, the tour’s finished. I know it hurts, but we’ve got to be realistic about this.’

Jake heard thousands of fans singing along to “The Square of Tolerance”. He saw Youri’s smile as he pummelled his tom-toms on “Jupiter, Jupiter”. He remembered crowd surfing in Paris. Was all that over? Was the band set to be remembered for Gylfi’s crimes rather than its glorious fusion of late-Beatles psychedelia and early-Genesis prog rock? No, that would be too obvious. Jake had always liked the idea of comebacks, even if he’d been naïve about the pain that inspires them. ‘I guess you’re right,’ he said, ‘but the dream isn’t over.’

‘No way, lads.’ Aaron snapped a twig. ‘I’m itching to get back in the studio.’

‘It’s just like what The Pet Shops Boys said: when you’re recording an album, all you want to do is go on tour; and when you’re on tour, all you want to do is record an album.’

‘Ha, ha, what joy awaits us.’ Youri took his hands from his pockets. ‘This is exciting, though. We’ll work out how we feel about all this, then write a beautiful album – maybe with some less arcane lyrics…’

Jake smiled. ‘I like the sound of that.’ He had no family besides 38 Children Called Stone. ‘The question is, how do we feel about it?’

‘Oh, man.’ Youri ruffled his curly locks. ‘I don’t want to think about it, but I feel like I have to.’ Jake and Aaron nodded in agreement. ‘I guess I’m really disgusted. Yeah, it all just makes me feel physically sick.’ Youri pictured his wife and their two daughters, and he experienced an angry love. ‘I can’t imagine how those women are feeling. I hope we can help them somehow, but I doubt they’ll want to speak to us of all people.’ They heard a thud as an apple fell from its tree. ‘And I guess I feel guilty too. Like I could have stopped it.’

‘I was wondering if you guys felt like that,’ Jake said.

Aaron remembered Gylfi’s riff on “Cholera in the Time of Love”. How could someone love music so much and yet be so depraved? It didn’t take Aaron long to retract this question, as he ran through the lives of rock stars past and present. He wondered if those troubled souls had seemed as harmless as Gylfi. ‘Let’s not be too hard on ourselves, lads. There were never any signs Gylfi was a bastard. We loved the guy.’

‘I still love him, in a way,’ Youri admitted.

‘I think we all do. I mean, how couldn’t we? You can’t lose six years of love just like that.’ Aaron wondered if he should carry on. ‘Maybe I can’t say this, but I feel really sorry for Gylfi. I mean, how fucked up has he gotta be to… do what he did?’

‘I was thinking that last night. He must be so lost.’

‘But how did we never notice?’ Jake’s voice had often been compared to Eric Clapton’s; its current despair reminded Aaron of Tears in Heaven.

‘He was always a weird dude. The quirky, quiet type. A bit like George Harrison, maybe.’ Jake had to smile at Aaron’s determination to mention The Beatles whenever he could. It wasn’t as bad as the time he’d compared Ringo’s drumming to a good shepherd’s pie. ‘I just thought he was stuck in his head, coming up with barmy solos or thinking about John Paul Sartre, y’know?’ Youri had never heard a more English sentence in his life.

‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m just worried it says something about us.’

‘We’re good guys, Jake. We made a poor judgement, but I think we’re all pretty fuckin’ sorry about it.’ Aaron remembered her face: those bruises around her nose, the cuts along-. He pushed them away. ‘Rosa said she’d be here this afternoon. Think they’re getting their bearings in town first.’

‘All four of them?’

‘Yep.’

‘Remind me who these other two are? Bert and Sarah?’

‘Sophie. Honestly, I know nothing about them, except they both quit their jobs when they heard about this.’

‘Sorry, what?’

‘I’m exaggerating, ha, ha. The Bert dude was already quitting, so he handed in his notice when Rosa told him. And apparently Sophie hated her job, so she decided to join them on the road, make a fresh start.’

‘I’m not sure how I feel about two strangers rocking up like this. I mean, what’s it got to do with them?’

‘Yeah, that was my gut instinct. But then I figured we could all do with some distracting, so maybe a few extra bodies won’t hurt. And Rosa says they’re keen to help out.’

Youri broke his silence: ‘I’m glad Ernest is coming.’

‘Ha, ha, me too. He’s a fuckin’ weird dude.’

Jake laughed and felt more at ease. ‘Honestly, some of the stuff in that notebook he gave me is bloody strange.’

‘What’s it actually about?’

‘It’s mostly just sketches – I guess he’d call them ‘vignettes’ – but it all kind of fits together as the story of his life.’ Jake leafed through the pages in his head. ‘A lot of it’s about his parents, actually.’ He laughed to himself and said, ‘Guess where they met?’

‘Where?’

Jake put on as pompous a voice as he could manage. ‘At the East London Hemingway Appreciation Society.’

‘Ha, ha, fuck, why didn’t we call ourselves that?’

‘Come on, Aaron,’ Youri chuckled, ‘38 Children Called Stone is pretentious enough.’

It turned out that self-deprecation was just what the band members needed, as they relaxed into their revised brotherhood. And then, having rounded the bend of a beaten track, Aaron said, ‘By the way, lads, where the fuck are we?’, which drew more laughter to ease their pain.

They had been walking in the Bavarian Forest for two hours, sometimes in silence, sometimes discussing the latest developments of Gylfi’s case. In the day and a half since his first recognised victim had come forward, three more women had accused Gylfi of assault. He’d confessed his crimes without any need for coercion. It soon became apparent that there were other women, although, for obvious reasons, Gylfi was unable to contact them. The Munich police were set to make a statement in a few hours’ time, inviting further victims to report to their local authorities. The band hadn’t spoken to Gylfi since Aaron had left the police station the previous morning. They were currently claiming that Jake was too sick to perform, but they knew they would have to write an announcement by the end of the day. And at seven p.m., after considerable analysis from Rosa and Ernest whilst Bert and Sophie explored the local terrain, 38 Children Called Stone released the following press statement:

We would like to announce the departure of Gylfi Bjorgsson from the group. Over the past twenty-four hours, three allegations of sexual assault have been made against Gylfi. The police are now beginning their investigations, and we will continue to monitor the situation as closely as possible. We have chosen not to comment on Gylfi’s behaviour until further details arise, but we would like to make clear that we wholeheartedly condemn all forms of abuse, and we will do our very best to educate ourselves and ensure that we can make fans feel safe in the future. As a result of the allegations, we are having to cancel the rest of our European tour. We would like to say sorry to all our fans who have been looking forward to the shows; you will, of course, receive a full refund. This is not the end of the band, although we will need time to reflect on the current situation. We ask you to stick by us in this difficult time, however hard that might seem. We will release a second statement when we know more. Until then, we remain,

38 Children Called Stone.”

As much as they tried to resist, Jake, Aaron and Youri couldn’t help following the online response. One fan posted on Reddit:

Guys, I can’t believe the news about 38 Children. They’ve been my favourite band for a while now – I couldn’t get enough of their upbeat but chilled vibe (i.e. facade), their poetic lyrics, Jake’s voice. They even wrote me a happy birthday note after a gig… But I can’t listen to them anymore. Even if the allegations end up being false, I’ll always have that doubt at the back of my mind. But I feel like the statement is pretty damning anyway.

I just wanted to know how everyone else is feeling about this? Do you think you can listen to them still?

P.S. I just took the note off my wall. I’m honestly so devastated.

‘We’re fucked.’

‘Come on, Aaron, it’s early days.’ Youri believed that one of his callings in life was to drum for 38 Children Called Stone, and he wasn’t going to let Gylfi end that. ‘You know that band Summer Salt?’ Music buffs that they were, Jake and Aaron nodded. ‘Well, they took a break after the allegations against them, then they came back with that new album and donated all the profits to charities supporting vulnerable women.’

‘That’s a great idea.’ Jake chose not to say that some of his friends had stopped listening to Summer Salt because of the accusations. ‘We’ll definitely do that. Still, it’s going to be hard. We’ll be one of those taboo bands.’

‘Yeah, for sure – life won’t be easy. But we’ve always loved a challenge.’

‘Two Brits and an Israeli: of course we love a challenge.’ Jake was relieved he’d never let Aaron manage the group’s Twitter account.

‘There’s no way I’m giving up on this. You guys are the people I love most in the world.’

‘Alright, steady on, Jake.’ Aaron said this with a smile.

‘Sorry, I’ve been reading too much of Ernest’s ‘prose’. But, still, I can’t imagine how shit life would be without this band.’ Jake stared at the ground as they wandered further from home. ‘I hate what Gylfi did. It makes me so fucking sad. Sad for the women, sad for him, sad for us… Sad for anyone who’s gone through something like that. I know I probably sound fucking cheesy, but I want to sing out against this. Make things better.’ Gravel dotted the path. There was no-one else in sight. ‘We’re three of the most positive guys I know – even if Aaron pretends to be a miserable git sometimes.’ They hadn’t laughed this much since the beginning of the tour. Their first show was lost in a smoke-machine fog of alcohol and insomnia. ‘I know I’m pretty fucked up, but we’re happy dudes at the end of the day; we’ve got to bounce back from this.’ Aaron could tell that their next album was destined to appear on Spotify’s Summer BBQ playlist (assuming they weren’t pariahs of the music industry by then). To his surprise, he welcomed the idea of uplifting art. ‘Man, I wish we didn’t have to cancel the gigs. I wish we could go out there right now and play the best fucking show of our lives.’

‘Why don’t we sing for Rosa and the rest of them?’

At this rate, they were going to make it onto the dreaded Summer Indie. Aaron drew the line at Summer Vibes. Still, he admired Youri’s enthusiasm. ‘A mini-concert? Sounds like old times.’

Jake laughed as he said, ‘Here we go, boys. Take two.’

After a pause to reflect on this next stage in their lives, Aaron broke the silence. ‘How much d’you reckon we can charge them?’

‘To be fair,’ and Jake continued to chuckle whilst Youri rolled his eyes, ‘we’ll need every penny we can get.’

***

Ernest had been planning to wait a few days before having his heart-to-heart with Bert. They didn’t need any distractions whilst Gylfi’s case was still so raw, and, being a writer, he wanted to reflect far too deeply on his friend’s conversion before he picked his brain.   

Ernest remembered an evening they’d spent at the pub the previous summer. After one pint too many, Bert began discussing his sex life a little too loudly – a ‘faux pas’ he often made. On this occasion, however, a woman at the next-door table looked across with a somewhat embarrassed, somewhat titillated smile. As the evening progressed, Ernest occasionally caught her eye, feeling embarrassed himself but also laughing inside about Bert’s unashamed monologue.

But it seemed this woman misinterpreted Ernest’s glances, especially his final look and smile before leaving, which he’d meant as a kind of tacit acknowledgement of their mutual embarrassment-stroke-amusement. Several minutes later, as they ambled towards Tesco for Bert’s Cheerios and whole milk, Messrs Eynsham and Krandle heard an intrepid ‘Excuse me!’. They turned to find their blonde neighbour jogging after them with a smile on her face. ‘Do you guys live around here?’

This was the first time Ernest had been so openly approached by a woman (he assumed his relationship status was obvious to outsiders). He felt a mixture of pride, disbelief, and embarrassment. ‘Um, I live fairly close, and Bert lives around the corner.’

‘How come?’ asked Bert, making no bones about it.

‘Well, I just thought you looked like two nice guys. I live by The Drayton Arms, d’you know it?’ This was addressed at Bert, the local lad.

‘No, can’t say I do,’ in a tone that expressed some confusion as to why this woman was telling him where she lived. ‘We just know The Kings Arms.’

‘Oh, you don’t know it? Ah, well, I just thought I’d come say hi cause you seemed like two good guys, but I’m probably making a fool of myself,’ still with her kind, somewhat childlike grin. She was at least five years older than them.

‘No, no, not at all,’ said Ernest. He both admired and pitied this woman, even though pity was the last thing she wanted. ‘You seem very nice too,’ which sounded less genuine than he’d have liked.

‘Yeah, good for you,’ said Bert, impressed by her Eynsham-esque confidence. Of course, he would have been more successful had he approached a stranger in this way, but that’s by the by.

‘Well, nice meeting you guys, and hopefully see you back at The Kings Arms sometime.’

‘Yes, for sure,’ said Ernest. He could never understand where these occasional for sures came from – he wasn’t a European skiing instructor. ‘Have a nice evening.’

‘Thanks, you too, guys.’

‘Bye,’ said Bert. The woman smiled before jogging away in the other direction. ‘And good for you,’ which Ernest agreed with but hoped didn’t sound too patronising.

‘Man, that was kind of odd.’ Ernest smiled at Bert.

‘Pretty strange indeed, my man. I admire her balls though.’

‘Yeah, I didn’t think anyone actually did that. Seems like more of a film thing.’

‘To be fair, we could be taken for Hollywood actors.’

‘Yeah, nothing says movie star like pasty British skin.’ Ernest noticed that Bert was staggering slightly. ‘Quite odd that she approached us together. And I swear she heard what you said about Alice.’

‘Shit, you’re right.’ Bert’s eyes lit up with a fever Ernest had never suffered from. ‘She must have been up for that.’

‘Control yourself, brother.’ They continued in silence for a moment. ‘I feel kind of bad, though. She’s probably a bit crushed. Not to big us up or anything…’

‘Ernest, we are catches.’ Bert’s voice went raw with conviction. ‘But, yeah, running out like that, getting all sweaty, then going back empty-handed… Bit of a blow to the ego.’

‘I was about to say I had a girlfriend, but I didn’t want to be that guy always banging on about his girlfriend-’

‘Too late for that, mate.’

‘Ha, ha, but you know what I mean. And obviously you’re seeing Alice. But she doesn’t know that. Maybe we should have told her – soften the blow, you know?’

‘Should we go back?’

‘Oof, I think that’s a bit much. Might embarrass her.’

‘Maybe… But it could be the gentlemanly thing to do. Sadly I don’t feel like a gentleman right now, so I really don’t know what’s the right move.’

‘Ha, ha, let’s just leave it. Something to laugh about tomorrow.’

‘Or we could call the pub.’

‘Come again?’

‘We could call the pub and ask them to speak to her.’

‘Bert, that’s a ridiculous idea. Who does that?’

‘Ernest, those three pints have really gone to my head. I think we should call.’ He was already searching for the number.

‘Oh my word, you’re insane. I can’t tell if this is a terrible idea or a great one.’ The next day, there was no doubt in Ernest’s sober mind.

‘Hi, is this The Kings Arms?’ Bert was on speakerphone.

‘Yes, it is,’ said a woman hailing from what sounded like Slovakia to Ernest’s relatively inexperienced ear, ‘how can I help?’

‘Hi, I was wondering if you could do me a favour. You see, my mate and I,’ with that strange, sarcastic-sounding emphasis on mate that he often did, ‘we were just at your pub, and there was a woman at the table next to ours.’ Bert gave an affected sigh. His voice grew gentle. ‘Can you help in a matter of the heart?’ Ernest had to laugh at his friend’s brazenness-stroke-twatishness.

‘Um, I’m a little confused.’

‘Well, this woman just came up to us outside your lovely pub, and, you know, she was asking if we lived round here; chatting us up, essentially. But my mate and I sort of froze, and we didn’t tell her we’re in relationships, and we feel kind of bad because she’s probably just had a bit of a knock to her ego. We were by the water fountain; she was on the table behind us. Would you mind checking if she’s still there? She has blonde hair, and she’s with two friends.’

‘Um, sure,’ with increasing bafflement, ‘just give me a second. Yep, she’s still there. In the white top, right?’

‘Yep, great, that’s the one. So my mate and I were wondering if you wouldn’t mind going up to her and explaining the situation?’ Ernest had not been wondering this. ‘We just wanted her to know that we were really flattered but unfortunately we’re taken men.’

‘Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it would create a scene and embarrass her, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that.’ The waitress sounded very Eastern European as she said this.

‘Okay, could I speak to her?’

‘Umm… Okay, sure. Just give me a second.’ They heard a patter of footsteps on pub wood, followed by a soft ‘Um, excuse me, sorry, two guys who were at that table would like to speak to you. One of them’s on the phone here.’

And then, as Ernest continued to laugh in embarrassed disbelief, the blonde woman said, ‘Hello?’

‘Oh, hi, it’s the two lads you spoke to outside The King Arms. We just wanted to say we feel bad for not properly engaging with you, it’s just we’re both in relationships. Well, my friend, Ernest, he’s been madly in love for about two and a half years, and I’m seeing someone at the minute, so it was just bad timing essentially. But clearly you’re a really top girl,’ and Ernest cursed Bert, who had been doing quite well up to that point, ‘and even though we weren’t the right blokes, the right one is definitely out there for you, so we just wanted to say it was really cool that you came out and spoke to us, not a lot of people would do that, so you should keep doing that and I’m sure you’ll find the perfect guy.’

‘Aw, thanks, that’s really sweet.’ She did sound grateful, but there was a sadness to her gratitude. ‘Thank you, I appreciate that.’

‘No problem, have a fun night.’

‘Thank you, thanks for calling. Have a good one.’

‘Cheers, bye.’

‘Take care!’ called Ernest, over Bert’s shoulder.

‘Bye.’

And that was that.

And now they were sitting around a campfire after 38 Children’s impromptu concert. Ernest remembered Bert’s cheekiness, his love of ale, his outrageous confidence. Had those traits simply disappeared? Perhaps faded would be the right word, but Ernest feared it was only a matter of time before the transformation was complete. And where did that leave them? If Bert no longer wanted to hear the details of Ernest’s love life, if he no longer wanted to cut loose on a Friday evening, and if he’d rather go to church on Sunday than play a game of village cricket, were they not destined to drift apart?

Ernest realised, with growing embarrassment, that he’d never read The Bible in any detail. And this was a man who prided himself on his hunger for books – a hunger inherited from his parents.[1] Such negligence had allowed Ernest to drift through his Catholicism. He recognised that faith was the one area of his life that had avoided scrutiny, and the reason for this was clear: he had always been happy on his own terms. Why jeopardise this happiness by entering the quagmire of religion? Ernest liked to think he would embark on a serious study of Christianity one day, but, until then, he would skate the surface of Heaven.

Bert’s conversion had struck a nerve, though, and it only took a few beers for Ernest to begin his inquest, whilst the others tried to sleep. ‘I’ve been thinking quite a lot about your testimony.’ He tried to sound casual, but Bert gave a knowing grin.

‘I could tell something was on your mind.’

Ernest returned the smile. ‘I know you’d mentioned you were heading down that route, but it still seems really sudden.’

‘Yeah, I know. Sorry I didn’t say much; I wanted to wait till I’d found some kind of certainty.’

‘No, I totally get that.’ Ernest stared at the campfire, noticing how the wood tumbled as it burned. ‘Sorry to interrogate you, but do you ever feel scared? By all the changes, I mean.’

‘Yeah, of course.’ Bert had been looking forward to this conversation. He enjoyed ‘chewing the cud’ even more than Ernest did. ‘It’s weird: this journey I’m on feels like the most natural thing in the world, but it’s also pretty terrifying sometimes. I feel so loved in an existential sense, cause I have this god who’ll love me forever, but sometimes I feel really lonely on a… on a human level. It’s actually worse when I’m with friends, cause I realise things will never be the same.’

‘I wanted to ask you about that. How does this affect us? Cause I guess you don’t agree with parts of my lifestyle… Like having sex with Rosa, being pretty self-absorbed…’

‘I mean, there’ll always be parts of our friends’ lifestyles we don’t agree with. But that doesn’t affect my loyalty towards you.’ Bert sipped his water. ‘And I don’t think I’m better than you, just in case you were worried about that. We all fall short.’

‘Yeah, but you’re trying to improve. You’re trying to lead a more godly lifestyle.’

‘Sure, but I was like you a few weeks ago. Sorry, that came out wrong.’ Bert hated the idea of pushing Ernest away; he wanted to take him on this walk. ‘What I mean is, I wasn’t carrying my cross a month ago, so how can I expect everyone else to? I’d love it if you wanted to explore these questions together, but I know we’re still brothers whatever happens. We’ll always have each other’s backs, right?’

‘Of course, Bert. I’m always here for you.’ Ernest had forgotten that Bert was not suddenly invulnerable. He needed this friendship too.

‘I just hope you don’t think I’m some kind of alien. Like we have nothing in common.’

‘Of course not, brother, I’d never think that.’

‘Cause even though so much of my life has changed, and I may have some fairly radical views now, I’m still the same guy in lots of respects.’

‘I definitely see that. You’ll never stop being your confident, loyal self.’

‘Thanks, Ernest. I knew you’d get it.’

Ernest pictured Rosa asleep in the bus. He recalled the greatest moment in his life, when he’d told her he loved her. ‘It’s really strange to think that making love to Rosa could be immoral. Is immoral, from a Christian point of view. And I’m supposed to be a Christian…’

Bert sighed. He’d been hoping to avoid this subject, but he saw the trouble in Ernest’s eyes. ‘I struggled with that one too for a while. Cause the one time I made love, with Hannah,’ and Ernest nodded, remembering how she had broken Bert’s heart, ‘I definitely thought I was closer to God. But those were just my feelings. And feelings are a dangerous thing in the spiritual life.’ Ernest realised that feeling closer to God was at the heart of his religion. ‘When I think about all the other times I’ve had sex, I know in my conscience that it was wrong. I guess maybe that’s still a feeling, but it’s far more ingrained.’

‘Your moral compass.’

‘Exactly. God has written those laws on my heart.’

‘But do you have that sense of wrongdoing when you think about making love?’

‘No, not at the moment. But just because I can’t tell that something’s immoral doesn’t mean it’s good. That’s the whole point: we gradually learn what God wants, and often it’s not what we’d expect.’

‘So why do you think sex before marriage isn’t part of God’s plan? I get why he condemns sleeping around, but what about in a committed relationship?’

‘I mean, I’m no expert, especially not on the committed relationship front, but I think it’s because sex makes a man and a woman one flesh. Which is a really serious deal. Just think about that: in a sense, you’re no longer two people; you’re joined together. So surely that has to be preserved for the woman you marry? Otherwise you’ll leave a part of yourself with different women. I find that really scary: it’s like I’ve left all these little Horcruxes about the place, breaking up my identity…’

‘But what if you know you’re going to marry someone? Cause I’m totally convinced Rosa and I will get married.’

‘I think so too, but, as much as I hate to say it, you can never be sure. The thing is, if two people are convinced they’ll get married, why don’t they just do it? Assuming it’s financially possible, etc.’

‘Are you saying I should propose to Rosa?’

Bert chuckled. ‘That’s not for me to say. What I mean is, don’t you think that with a sexual relationship before marriage, even if you feel so in love and you’re certain you’ll get married, there’s still that part of you that knows you’re not married, so either one of you could end up having sex with someone else. So it’s an imperfect experience because you haven’t made the ultimate commitment. Whereas sex within marriage is perfect because you’ve made that vow – and that’s symbolised by the act of making love.’

‘That makes sense. But does that mean imperfect experiences are inherently immoral?’

‘Oh boy, big question there. I guess I wouldn’t say immoral so much as falling short of a godly lifestyle. Actually, maybe they’re the same thing. If God wants us to do everything in a Christlike manner, surely that means being perfect?’ Bert paused. An owl hooted from its perch. ‘I guess you have to distinguish between perfect intent and perfect… performance, shall we say. As in, I don’t think you could call me immoral if I played badly in a football game.’

‘You’d be the greatest sinner of us all if that were the case.’

‘Ha, ha, coming from you, Krandle. But you get what I mean. The immoral thing would be to play without integrity: not putting in a shift, shouting at the ref…’

‘Yeah, so it’s the difference between your character and your abilities.’

‘That’s a better way of putting it. So I wouldn’t say imperfect experiences are inherently immoral, but imperfect character is.’

‘Blimey.’

‘It’s a tall order, isn’t it? When you see how messed up we are.’

Ernest thought of Gylfi. ‘God’s will be done.’

‘Exactly, brother. We have nothing to fear, so long as we keep the faith.’ Ernest had faith in God, and he believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but he did not feel ready to take up his cross. Rosa was not a Christian: how would their relationship survive if he decided to follow Bert’s example? Besides, was loving her with body, soul and mind not the most loving thing to do, no matter what Bert said? If God was love, why would He disapprove of an act that brought two people together? Why would He want to deprive Rosa of affection? But perhaps that was Ernest’s arrogance speaking: he liked to think that for an Old Etonian and recent Oxford graduate, he knew a thing or two about love.

Ernest returned his mind to the cross. If he really believed that Jesus endured such agony for the sake of mankind, how could he ignore the Christian calling? Surely he ought to convince Rosa to join him on the narrow road? But Ernest felt so young. He was not ready to make this existential decision, and the prospect of losing Rosa terrified him.

Bert seemed to understand the expression on his face: ‘It’s definitely not easy,’ he continued. ‘Even though I feel so strong in my faith, that also means there’s this constant pressure to fight the good fight; to share the gospel instead of idling away the hours. I guess I’m pretty hard on myself, and it’s pretty darn exhausting,’ which he said with a self-aware grin. ‘But I just have this vision of what will happen when it’s all over. I can see myself rising up to Heaven, and there’s this glorious light all around me. The clouds are straight out of a children’s story – all fluffy and white – and there are angels on either side of these huge, golden gates which eke open ever so slowly, and I float through them on this wave of joy. And I know this wave will never pass. I get through the gates, and Jesus is sitting there with a smile on his face, right by the heavenly throne. And even though I can’t see the Father, His presence is everywhere, and it is just so good – like when you first told Rosa you loved her, and this joy poured through you, but it’s infinitely stronger than that and it never fades. So it’s slowly dawning on me that I’ve made it after all these years, that this is my beautiful reward, and then I hear His voice from above: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’’ Bert’s voice grew rich and deep. ‘Can you imagine how amazing that would feel? To spend your life trusting in Him, working for Him, and even though He’s given you so much joy on Earth, sometimes it’s really hard, sometimes you want to just live your life… But you keep the faith, you keep on fighting, and now it’s so, so worth it because the one who created all of this,’ and Bert swept his hands towards the sky, whose stars shone far brighter than in London, ‘the one responsible for every moment of joy – that welcome-home smile from your parents, your first kiss, your first novel, or just watching two strangers swimming in the sea as the sun rises – the one who made all that possible says to you, ‘Well done’. Just think about that. The greatest being imaginable is grateful for your efforts; He deems you worthy of praise. And now he wants you to spend all eternity basking in his presence. I imagine myself dropping into His arms, weary but content after the battle, but actually that’s the wrong way round. I won’t ever be weary in Heaven; it’s down here that he’s holding me in His arms. So who am I to complain about the fight when I’m being helped all the way by God Himself? When he’s promising me eternal joy? It’s so ridiculous, when you think about it. I know that Christianity is the truth. That might sound crazy, like how can anyone know these things for certain, but, trust me, I know. And that makes the fight seem so easy in the grand scheme of things. Nothing on Earth can outweigh God’s promise of Heaven; the promise of hearing those words: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant’.’ Not for the first time, Bert chuckled at himself. ‘Crikey, that was a long one.’

Ernest watched sparks spitting from the fire. ‘I’m starting to get it now. I think in the church I was just so swept up by your joy, I didn’t think about what it meant. But then I started questioning everything.’

‘Understandably.’

‘But now I think I get how you of all people could change like this. Cause I used to think the only people who had dramatic conversions were drug addicts or alcoholics or… depressives; really unhappy people, basically. So I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why someone as happy as you would embrace this way of life. I could understand why it would seem so appealing if you actually stopped and thought about it, but I didn’t think anyone could properly commit their life to God unless there were desperate; unless they really felt the need to. But I get it now. You did feel the need to, but not because you were unhappy. You simply realised how pitiful your idea of happiness was.’

Exactly, Ernest.’ Bert went into performance mode: ‘“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”’

‘C.S. Lewis?’

‘Of course, my man.’

Ernest smiled. Even if he couldn’t comprehend the changes Bert was going through, at least he understood why his friend had made this commitment. Seeing an echo of God’s work in Bert’s smile, Ernest resolved to explore his faith. He was still afraid, but he sensed that there was nothing more cowardly than the avoidance of strong beliefs. And whilst God was the source of this fear, He was also its potential cure.

Bert’s vision of Heaven had shown Ernest that faith must be personal; this was not the realm of vicarious experiences. Pouring the last of his beer on the fire, he wondered if Rosa was awake.

 

[1] Tobias Krandle was famous for reading the entirety of Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre in a mere three weeks. Whilst dubious sources claim that he ate, slept and reluctantly relieved himself in between books, Tobias was adamant that he went on a twenty-one-day hiatus from such base bodily functions.

His family grew a little worried, but they tried not to dwell; ‘Tobias has always been a voracious reader’, or so they’d tell friends visiting for dinner, friends confused by this young man who spent barely five seconds introducing himself, and the strange thing was, he was so charming and affable in those five seconds that it was as if he wanted to imbue his every act with the affecting efficiency of Hemingway’s prose. And then he’d return to his dark brown leather sofa, with his head on one armrest and his feet on the other, for it was a small sofa, suitable for two really, or three if you could accept a little discomfort, or if the three people were children or dwarves, and there he’d read whichever Hemingway paperback was currently being subjected to his indefatigable fingers.

As for Ernest’s mother, Jacqueline Granger discovered Hemingway in 1980, when she was a twenty-six-year-old waitress at one of Hemingway’s favourite Parisian bars, Le Select. Unfamiliar with the writer’s time in Paris, she soon noticed that the majority of customers came because of him. ‘Emingway’, they would mutter, ‘ça, c’était sa place préférée’, pointing to a table tucked away in the corner, as far from the front door as it was possible to be. A month or two into her job, Jackie grew sick of these ‘Emingway’ enthusiasts, decided that H was her favourite letter, and resolved never to read the American’s prose.

At her farewell drinks some months later, Jackie’s colleagues presented her with a brown paper parcel. Nausea filled the pit of her stomach when she realised it was a book. Untying the string, she let the paper settle in her hand. As much as she wanted to drop the present and run, Jackie was nursing a calf injury, which meant she had to face her fate. And there it was, printed in glossy gold, that dreaded name: Ernest Hemingway. The book was A Moveable Feast; the fact that it was in English added salt to the wound (which was ironic, since the food at Le Select was devoid of seasoning). Jackie did manage to find one source of consolation: the novel was by Ernest Hemingway rather than his French quasi-namesake, Ernest Emingway.

Two days later, she took her window seat for the flight home and searched her rucksack for reading material. She had two options: a Mike Tyson biography (Jackie had gone to Paris on a boxing scholarship; standing at five foot ten, she had biceps to make a Greek statue weep marble tears) and, of course, A Moveable Feast. All she could say was ‘Fuck it’ – out loud, in fact, although her neighbours were too intimated to even consider an admonishing look. 

It was inevitable, really: she soon fell under Hemingway’s spell. It was his strength that Jackie found most appealing, for she was reading about the young Hemingway: the man who loved fishing, boxing and bullfights, and whose words were sharp enough to cut the mind that read them. Two months after returning to London, she joined the East London Hemingway Appreciation Society, where she met the scrawny but intelligent Tobias, an art curator who longed to be a poet.

 

Chapter Five

Sophie imagined having a corpse tied to her back. Now, she was not one of those women who are constantly engaging in fantasies of the corpse-on-your-back variety. She was simply remembering an illustration used by the theologian Charles Spurgeon. According to Spurgeon, the Christian is in a constant battle to overcome his former, sinful self, even after Jesus has transformed him. He must carry around a dead body whose weight can only be lessened by God’s grace.  

Sophie looked at Bert. His grin was larger than ever, but it had lost its self-awareness. He was smiling for his mother’s sake. His eyes glowed with enthusiasm. There was no sign of the Spurgeon corpse clinging to this believer: he sang, he loved, he found joy in others. When Ernest waxed lyrical about his performance in church, Bert was modest: ‘I couldn’t have done it alone,’ he said, reminding Sophie of Dora the Explorer’s famous phrase, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” He asked his parents for their choice of wine. He praised his sisters for their beauty. This man, Sophie knew, was no longer the same.

Listening to his testimony had been a strange experience for her. At first she’d struggled to stomach the idea of spiritual regeneration. After all, how could anyone accept it without faith? But a single sentence had changed that: “And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.” Sophie marvelled at this confident humility; she longed for someone who would always be there.

And perhaps that was why she now sensed two forces competing within her: a desire for Bert and a desire for God. She had never been tempted by Bert’s cunning, by his winning smile and self-belief. She had never needed to remind herself that she could do better; she simply knew it. But this man was not the cheeky chappy of ten days ago. He moved with ease, his spirit was generous, his hair was goat-like. Sophie had never fallen in love before, and she had not expected it to feel like this: a crisis of identity. Yes, it was love she felt. She knew this as she watched Bert speaking to Ernest, as she heard his chuckle, as she watched his hands unfolding a napkin. She wanted to give herself to this man, since he was prepared to give himself to others.

And yet, with that desire came greater anxiety. Her teeth cried for attention, hurting Sophie with their persistence. She tried to silence them, but surely Bert could only love a beautiful woman. Yes, his focus was on the heavenly rather than the earthly realm, but he still believed that the Song of Songs was Scripture. In woman’s splendour he could see the hand of God.

Whilst the cry of her teeth may have been louder than ever before, so too was the cry of love, and thus a kind of equilibrium was achieved. But this balance was born of division; Sophie was torn between a desire to be loving and lovable. The former provided joy, the latter pain, but she could not find one without the other.

The possibility of peace only emerged when she thought of God. Such an idea could not have been more alien to Sophie, but how could she witness Bert’s fusion of the carefree and the careful and not long to share in such divine serenity, especially after the torment of recent weeks? She longed, like Bert, to know a being whose capacity for love was infinitely greater than hers; to lose herself in a limitless presence and there find joy.

The figure of Jesus still caused problems. Sophie’s upbringing made her reject his divinity, and the idea of one man being the only way to Heaven frightened her. But here too Sophie noticed the beginnings of change. She felt closer to appreciating the beauty of his existence on a theoretical level. In the months to come, she would recognise this for the paradox it was, but the core of the sentiment was there. To love others with such a fervour that you assumed their pitiful nature, endured their slander and their temptations, experienced the highest form of anguish on the cross, all so that they might rise with you one day… Sophie could not comprehend that kind of love, and that was why it held a glimmer of appeal. But for now she clung onto a less concrete idea of God: an all-knowing, all-powerful figure who could remove her pain. She was not sure that she believed in this idea, but she wanted to, and so decided to believe.

As Sophie contemplated this god, she managed to see beyond herself. She would write to her brother; she grew excited about Rosa’s tour. It only took a minute for her teeth to redirect her course, but now she was driving between two lanes, right on the cusp between self and other, teeth and laughter. She was making progress. Buoyed by the prospect of hope, she tried once more to fit Bert into this divine picture. And yet, her love for him was too impure; her existence too prominent in her visions of this man. She sensed that romantic love could either impede or encourage her spiritual growth. If she could focus on another’s joy, then she would achieve a self-transcending love. As things stood, Sophie was too anxious to love in that way, but this realisation increased her resolve. She may not have been a Christian, but her teeth were her version of the Spurgeon corpse; she had to remove this death from her life.

Her eyes returned to Bert. He was listening to his father with such intensity. His hands did not drift phoneward, nor did he check how his other guests were getting on. For all intents and purposes, Henry Eynsham was the only other person in that room. Sophie could not stop loving Bert simply because her love was impure; that was a reflection of her own debasement, rather than any fault with him. In fact, the more she viewed her love as unworthy, the more she saw Bert as an ideal.

‘So what do you do for a living, Sophie?’

Sophie turned to Bert’s brother John. His right bicep bulged as he drank mineral water. She remembered that she was at a lunch party. ‘I work for a lifestyle app called BetterMe.’ She smoothed her hair, abandoned her reverie with effort.

‘No way! I love BetterMe.’ In his excitement, John looked five years younger. ‘I use it every day.’

‘Small circles, am I right? I’m glad you’re enjoying it.’

‘Honestly, the Clear Mind feature has been life-changing.’ Sophie was as surprised as she was thrilled. Even if the company had been a major disappointment to her, she was glad to meet a happy customer. ‘I used to worry so much, all these thoughts bouncing around in my head, but the meditation has been so good for me. I do half an hour as soon as I get up.’

‘Oh, I’m really pleased. It’s great to know we’ve brought a smile to someone’s face.’

‘Definitely!’ Sophie liked John. He seemed more innocent than Bert 1.0, which made his enormous upper body surprising. ‘So what do you do for BetterMe?’ he asked.

‘I’m in marketing.’

‘Gotcha. D’you enjoy that?’

‘To be honest, not so much. It’s too repetitive.’

Sophie decided not to say that she’d also lost faith in lifestyle apps, as she’d explained to Bert a few weeks earlier. Having argued that the app was a breeding ground for narcissists, she’d been met by Bert’s feeble parry: ‘I’m not sure how I feel about all this self-absorption spiel. Ernest’s always banging on about how narcissism’s the plague of our era. I don’t buy it.’ Speaking of buying, Bert had felt emasculated by Sophie’s decision to pay for the first round – inexplicable behaviour. To make matters worse, she now attempted a playful lunge: ‘That’s because you’re a narcissist.’ After an irritated touché, Bert managed to laugh into his London Pride. ‘You really don’t beat around the bush, Shaw.’

Back in the restaurant, Sophie studied Bert. How had he overcome his narcissism in the space of three weeks? Surely it took more than human willpower to achieve that level of change? He passed his mother a menu, and, even here, Sophie saw charity. But a voice told her to be wary of worshipping the young believer. After all, Mrs Eynsham would be the one paying for lunch.  

***

Kanye West was tweeting again. Announcements about Jesus Is King were flooding Jake’s timeline. Although not religious himself, 38 Children’s frontman was a sucker for a redemption story, and it was great to see Yeezy back on song after his recent troubles with porn, politics and pills.

Whenever he thought of Kanye, Jake remembered the time Ernest had given him a notebook. ‘I thought this could keep you company on the road,’ he’d said, handing Jake a battered leather journal. ‘No doubt it’s a load of drivel, but maybe you’ll find a few diamonds in the rough.’ Besides the usual short stories and poems, there was one piece in there dedicated to Kanye.

Jake removed the book from his rucksack. He was trying to take his mind off Gylfi, who’d gone AWOL once again. It was two a.m., and the bus was motionless. Youri and Aaron were asleep. He hoped Ernest might provide some comfort:

Ernest Krandle’s Eight Principal Role Models/Inspirations

  1. His mother, Jackie Krandle née Granger
  2. His father, Tobias Krandle
  3. David Foster Wallace
  4. Kanye West
  5. Ingrid Bergman
  6. Virginia Woolf
  7. Miles Davis
  8. Jesus Christ

– – –

‘Kanye West?!’

‘What?’

‘One of your eight principal role models slash inspirations is Kanye West?’

‘Yes. Although he prefers the name ‘Ye’ these days.’

‘Oh, shush. How can you like him as a man? I understand as an artist, though I can’t say I’ve listened to a whole album,’ and Ernest awarded himself one point to Susanna’s nil, ‘but as a person? He supports Trump.’

‘So? I’m sick of all this Trump-bashing.’

‘Oh, Ernest, stop trying to be contrarian. Trump is a disgusting man.’

‘I can’t be bothered to talk about Trump. Let’s focus on Kanye.’

‘Too afraid of me?’

‘In all honesty, yes.’ Ernest realised that the scores were level. ‘Have you watched his David Letterman interview?’

‘No, I hate David Letterman.’

‘He’s awful, I know, but Kanye is great in that interview. What I like most about him is he’s a strong individual: I’ve never seen someone with that much self-belief, and he’s not afraid to defend his opinions. But he also has serious mental health issues, which he’s super honest about with Letterman. And I really admire that. Trust me, you need to watch it.’

‘Only if you convince me Kanye deserves to be one of your top eight role models slash inspirations.’

Principal role models,’ corrected Rosa. She was allowed to mock Ernest. He smiled, before launching into one of his monologues:

‘I’ve always been fascinated by conflicted figures – men like Miles Davis, John Lennon. Lennon had half a million people singing Give Peace a Chance during Vietnam, but he was an angry man. He cheated on his first wife, abandoned their son, and, for all his love for Yoko, he couldn’t stop sleeping around. But I think that’s what makes him such a compelling character. He couldn’t practise what he preached because he was a deeply flawed man, and yet he was a genius who inspired others towards peace.

‘And I think Kanye has a similar thing going on. He believes in God, but he openly admits he’s been unfaithful to Kim. He’s always singing about the fact he wants to know God but he’s not sure if he can give up the women. I love that. It’s not that I find it relatable as such, but I understand that tension, that feeling of conflict. I understand having two diametrically opposed views that just can’t be reconciled.’ Rosa wondered what Ernest had in mind.

‘I also think Kanye has learnt a lot about life with all he’s done. At least, that’s the impression I get from the interview. He says there are two principal forces in the world – love and fear – and love is the antidote to fear. So he’s like Lennon: he sees the answer, but he’s too human to act on it.’

Jake closed the book. Even though he loved Gylfi, he also felt very afraid. The previous night, he’d unearthed a clue about the Scandi’s nocturnal movements: he always returned to the bus smelling of sex.

It made sense that lust, not drugs, would be Gylfi’s downfall. Jake had seen enough lives ruined by the latter to know that Gylfi would stay clear of that path. On the other hand, he’d never made any secret of his ‘respect’ for the groupie tradition.  

Jake thought about Kanye’s struggles with women: was Gylfi following in the rapper’s footsteps (besides his Icelandic heritage, his failure to convert to Christianity, and his lack of outrageous talent)? Was he, like many artists on the road, simply a slave to testosterone? It was possible, but Jake felt unsettled by Gylfi’s silence. Why would a self-proclaimed alpha male existentialist hide his sexual exploits? It just didn’t add up. Jake switched off the light and tried to fall asleep.

The slam of the door woke him. Jake checked his phone: six a.m. He sat up to see Gylfi mounting the RV steps; his eyes drilled holes into the floor. Looking closer, Jake saw a scarlet bruise on his cheek.

‘Gylfi, mate, what happened? Where’ve you been?’

‘Not the time, Jake. Rough night.’

‘I can see that. But you can’t come back here all bashed up and not say anything.’

‘Actually, I can. I don’t want to talk about it.’

‘No, Gylf, I’m not taking no for an answer.’ Jake heard Youri stirring in his seat. ‘You’ve got to tell us where you’ve been every night. The vibe in the group just isn’t the same.’

‘Let me give you some advice, Jake: when you’re trying to act all tough and serious, try not to say ‘vibe’, for once in your life.’

‘Stop being such a smart-arse, Gylf, you’re not half as clever as you think. But I love you all the same, and I want to help.’

‘What makes you think I need help?’

‘Hmm, how about your swollen face?’ Aaron, who had joined Youri on the right side of consciousness, tried not to laugh.

‘Well played, sir.’

‘So are you going to tell me or not?’

Gylfi sighed. ‘I was seeing a woman, Jake. Calm the fuck down.’

‘A different woman every night?’

‘Sometimes the same, sometimes different. Is that okay with you, or have you gone all soppy like Rosa?’

‘And you had a fight with this girl?’

‘That would explain the black eye, wouldn’t it?’

‘I mean, it would, but that’s not-’. There was a knock at the door. Gylfi turned too quickly to be innocent. Jake looked at his friend: he no longer seemed so cocksure. The silence extended as they stared at each other. ‘Shall I get that, Gylf, or d’you want to?’

But Aaron was already lumbering towards them. ‘Screw that, I’m getting it.’ Before he could reach the door, though, Gylfi stepped across the aisle and placed a hand on his chest.

‘Leave it, Aaron, this one’s for me.’

‘No, Gylf, I’m sick of this shit. Get out the way.’

Gylfi clenched his lips, trying to work out his next move. But he knew the game was up. Dropping his hand, he stepped to one side and let Aaron past.

The bass player’s stride possessed a confidence he did not feel. He had won a few fights during his Manchester clubbing days, but the intensity of Gylfi’s stare suggested he might be on the losing side tonight. Puffing up his chest, he opened the door.

Before him stood a woman in her early twenties. She had long, frizzy hair, her eyes were hazel, and she was wearing jeans and a sleeveless top. But Aaron was unaware of these details; all he saw was her swollen, bloodied face. The bruises on her cheeks were turning from red to blue, like damsons ripening in the summer. Her forehead was streaked with scratches; a graze marred her chin. She tried to calm her lips, but they could only waver. Seeing the pain in those dark green eyes, Aaron’s fear gave way to fury. ‘What happened to you?’

‘It was…’ The woman looked behind Aaron’s shoulder, but no-one was there. ‘It was Gylfi.’

‘Gylfi did this?’

She nodded.

‘Who is it?’ Jake’s voice sounded hollow.

‘Don’t worry, lads, I’ll be back in a minute.’

Locking the door behind him, Aaron looked at the young woman and exhaled. He was not known for his compassion, but her skin was like a canvas, and Gylfi was her twisted Kandinsky. ‘It’s okay, I’m going to make this better.’ Aaron was surprised to find trust in the corners of her eyes. ‘Can you tell me what happened? Don’t worry if you need time.’ He remembered his mam’s comfort after he’d stolen sweets from the local store. ‘We can go for a walk, get away from here.’

The woman glanced at the bus, and resolve replaced the pain in her eyes. With this look, Aaron sensed that the days of 38 Children Called Stone were over. And then, placing her left hand on the hammer and her right hand on the nail, the stranger uttered six simple words: ‘So long as we come back.’

***

Bert watched Sophie from across the table. He remembered when they’d met, just before one of Ernest and Rosa’s dinner parties.

He was walking across Albert Bridge with a spring in his step, having finally earned the approval of his boss at Credit Suisse. The Thames was less brown than usual, the exhaust fumes less noxious, and the tourists were actually waiting at the pedestrian crossing: Could this day get any better? he asked himself, humming a jaunty tune. As if in answer to this question, the most gorgeous pair of legs suddenly appeared on the other side of the bridge. Bert’s beloved God was looking kindly upon him – and quite right too.

The colour of these legs suggested an expensive holiday to the Maldives or Cyprus, which was a sure way to Bert’s heart (although it wouldn’t take a doctor to work out which organ was really in business here). And there was such athleticism in those calves. Bert pictured this dirty-blonde beauty charging through a herd of hockey-stick-wielding Paulines: down went Salomé, ready to beg Monsieur Eynsham for a second chance. Pas aujourd’hui, mademoiselle. When he realised that this Anglo-Saxon goddess was on her way to Ernest and Rosa’s, Bert privately thanked his friends and, of course, the Big Man Upstairs, not to mention the woman in question. Last but not least, he gave himself a pat on the back for being in the right place at the right time and for being so bloody good-looking.

Sophie didn’t notice Bert until he stepped onto Ernest and Rosa’s two-by-two feet ‘patio’. She heard his right foot land and turned with the abruptness of a wing attack who’s taken far too long to notice her opposite woman. But instead of coming face to face with a snarling, mouthguard-wearing brunette, she saw a young man decked out in a dark blue blazer, pink chinos (yes, pink), and gorgeous dark brown loafers. He was smiling with the smugness of his namesake Bertram Wooster; thankfully, Sophie was no Madeline Bassett. ‘Good timing,’ he said, his voice deep and smooth. It was at this moment that Sophie saw right through Bert: he could handle his drink, he put the ‘con’ in ‘congenial’, and he was going to flirt with her as soon as possible – had already started, no doubt.

Over the weeks that followed, Bert couldn’t quite understand why Sophie continued to reject his advances. Every time they went to the pub, he was tormented by the fact that a girl who drank ale didn’t want to sleep with him.

And then, much to everyone’s surprise, God had intervened in his life, calling him away from lust and towards piety. It was only when he looked back that Bert appreciated the extent of his transformation. So long as he focused on the here and now, it seemed perfectly natural to him that he should be a devout Christian who started each day with a thirty-minute prayer session, who had renounced sex before marriage, and who was going to quit his job at Credit Suisse. How could it be otherwise? But then he would consider his forgotten desire for Sophie or his former weakness for Gucci loafers. This life was very new to him; he imagined how his friends and family must feel.

Bert looked at Sophie and knew that she would never be his bride. But perhaps he could bring her towards God and thus save her from herself. Why had he chosen her out of all his non-believing friends? He sensed that the choice was not really his. All he could say for certain was that neither of them wanted anything more than friendship, and he smiled at this thought. 

If it hadn’t been for the buzz of Rosa’s phone, Sophie would have turned towards Bert at this moment. Their eyes would have met, and he would have learnt the truth: Sophie loved him. But, for better or worse, Rosa’s phone did go off, and she excused herself from the table. Ernest watched her leave, noticing the slight tension in her face. He tried to return to his conversation with Bert, but the image of Rosa drifting from the room was fixed in place.

‘Everything okay?’ Bert had spotted his friend’s unease.

‘Yeah, I hope so. Rosa looked anxious, that’s all.’

‘Probably miffed to have her lunch interrupted.’

‘Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.’ As much as Rosa loved melanzane alla parmigiana, Ernest was far from sure.

‘How are the shows going?’

‘Really well, apparently. They’ve sold out most of them, and the crowds-’

Rosa pushed open the door and crept back inside. Her face was downcast; her phone threatened to fall from her hand. Forgetting Bert, Ernest clattered from his seat, crossed the room, and put an arm around his love. She refused to look up, and her legs were unsteady. ‘Honey, what’s the matter?’

‘We should go outside.’ Tears seeped into her words.

‘Sure, sure,’ as he gave her a squeeze. Ernest looked at Sophie. ‘We’ll be back in a moment.’ Sophie nodded. She sensed that this was more serious than a crooked incisor.

Ernest led the way to the exit. The sun was in a tantalising mood, having threatened to break through the clouds all day. Rosa’s arms were close to her chest, in a position of vulnerability that only Ernest and her mother knew. He gave her a real hug now, with enough pressure to make her feel protected, but not so much that her femininity became weakness. Before Ernest could ask what was wrong, Rosa managed to say, ‘Gylfi’s been accused of sexual assault.’

Ernest’s instinct was to let go of Rosa, to shut his eyes and grab his head in anguish. But instead he held onto her, if only because he felt the world spinning. ‘Who told you?’ His body seemed to be swaying from side to side. Bile approached the back of his throat.

‘Aaron. A woman came to the bus this morning… Cuts and bruises all over her face.’ Rosa was breathing too heavily. She was pregnant with fear. ‘She told him how she and Gylfi had got drunk together, gone back to her place, and then he… started forcing her. And she tried to push him off, and…’. Rosa collapsed into Ernest’s chest, bounced against his frame.

‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to explain,’ as he stroked her hair. He shut his eyes now. ‘I’ll fly with you tonight. We’ll find out what happened, work out our next move.’ Ernest’s shirt was soaking; he wondered if Rosa could hear him above her tears. He wanted to surrender but steeled himself instead. ‘I’m assuming she’s pressed charges?’

Rosa nodded. ‘Aaron took her to the police station. They’ve arrested Gylfi – tonight’s show is off. Maybe they’ll do tomorrow night without him, but it seems so meaningless now.’

‘No, don’t say that. You’ve got to fight back, otherwise Gylfi wins.’ Ernest kissed Rosa’s forehead. ‘This is terrible, my love, and I’m so, so sorry. But we’ll pull through.’

Rosa’s entire body heaved. ‘I’m just worried there are other women. All those nights he was out of the bus…’

‘I know, it’s really scary. But we’ll find out. The police will handle it.’

Rosa held her breath for one, two, three seconds, then let out a sigh that was both distraught and determined. ‘Thanks, my love.’ Her voice shook, but she was trying.

‘Don’t even mention it.’ Ernest felt the wind against his cheeks. Where next? ‘The flight’s at eight, right?’

‘Eight oh five. Lots of seats left.’

‘Well, let’s get through lunch and then head home.’

‘As long as I can sit next to you.’

Ernest smiled. ‘I’ll switch with Sophie.’

‘I’d like Bert’s advice too.’ Removing her head from its human pillow, Rosa chuckled and sniffled: ‘Once I’ve eaten the biggest bloody tiramisu you’ve ever seen.’

As they pictured lady fingers covered in mascarpone, Ernest and Rosa’s fragile laughter slowly dried their tears. The sun remained behind the clouds, and a robin hopped towards the restaurant door.