The man closest to Ernest was the devious, loyal, and controversial Bert Eynsham. Every university has a Bert Eynsham. In fact, every social circle has a Bert Eynsham, from the Colombian drugs cartel to the top table at Goldman Sachs. We’re talking brushstrokes here,...
After eleven weeks, The Shadow of Your Wings is complete. Coming in at around 190 pages, it’s a short novel, but I’ll cut myself some slack for not producing the next War and Peace. I hope you’ve enjoyed following my progress, and remember that you can read all 56,900 words for free right now (how enticing does that sound?).
I started writing the book with a general sense of where it was heading, but I never like to lay out a fully-fledged plan – which made things interesting at times. I miss cycling around Oxford trying to work out how the story should unfold. And yet, I experienced far less writer’s block than in the past, for the simple reason that The Shadow of Your Wings is a very personal novel. Having recently become a Christian, I had plenty of ideas that I wanted to explore, such as the joys and struggles of faith, the relationship between Christianity and romance, and, most importantly, the life-changing experience of conversion.
I often forget quite how much faith has transformed me since I became a Christian earlier this year (unlike Paul on the Road to Damascus, I encountered Jesus more gradually, so I can’t put a precise date on these things). But if there ever comes a day when someone subjects my work to literary criticism (what a waste of time that would be), I’m sure they’ll notice the shift from Say Cheese, in which I present an interfaith religion as edifying for society, to The Shadow of Your Wings, in which I discuss the love of God, the supremacy of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit… As I suggest in the book, I don’t think you can fully comprehend Christian conversion unless you experience it yourself. Having said that, I hope I’ve provided some idea of the joy that comes with following Jesus. In fact, one of my main aims with this project has been to encourage people to consider the Christian faith. If you’d like any suggestions for reading or listening materials, I’d love to help. It would make me very happy to know that God has used this book as part of His plan. And at the time of writing, the website has received 1582 views, which I think is pretty cool. That’s certainly a lot more engagement than I’ve had with my previous two books…
My second, related aim has been to raise money for The Salvation Army. The story of this church is fascinating, and I’d recommend reading about its founders, William and Catherine Booth: https://britishheritage.com/history/story-of-the-salvation-army. So far, the project has raised £634. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far – it means a lot to me, and I’m sure it means far more to all those who’ve benefited from your generosity. I wish I could see the impact of these donations, but I trust that The Salvation Army is supporting our marginalised brothers and sisters around the world. If now is a difficult time for those who have families, food, and shelter, I can only imagine what it is like for those who are used to feeling helpless. But there is a way to help, and I encourage you to give whatever you can: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/shadowofyourwings. My target remains £1000, and I’ll be keeping my fundraiser open until the 24th December in a bid to meet (and pass) this goal. As Paul says in Acts, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Writing The Shadow of Your Wings was a fantastic experience. Having a weekly deadline encouraged me to let go of perfectionism and trust in my abilities. Thank you to my girlfriend Tilly for reading every chapter and providing much-needed advice; you already hear enough of my voice, so an extra 60,000 words can’t have been fun. And thank you to all those who’ve given me such kind feedback, especially James Askey-Wood. James and I hadn’t spoken for some time before this writing marathon, but he gave me regular updates on how much he was enjoying The Shadow of Your Wings. It meant a lot, so I thank you, old pal.
With that in mind, I’d highly recommend using lockdown to create something, whether it’s a song, a go-kart, or a Sunday roast. I’m sure you’ll make life more interesting for yourself and for others.
Follow me on Twitter for updates on my next project, which is already in the pipeline: https://twitter.com/tuppymorrissey.
Keep fighting the good fight, and God bless you.
Morris E. Morrissey
It was Ernest’s idea to visit the lake. Few things made him happier than swimming in cold water, especially when Rosa was there. Part of the fun was the challenge: it took willpower to step into the Irish Sea at six in the morning, and such effort inspired his surest moments. Then came the beauty. Whether clear or murky, open waters reflected God; how could his faith waver when sunlight was refracting into webs on the sand? And finally, Ernest loved how his mind and body were united in exhilaration; even The Beach Boys never achieved such harmony.
He’d first heard about Lunzer See from Dan at his swimming club:
‘Oh, man, you’ve got to go. The water quality is something else – it tastes unbelievable, ha, ha. And you’re surrounded by these beautiful mountains, with, like, trees running up and down.’ Dan was famous at Parliament Hill Lido for finding the most obscure swimming locations: to date, he’d unleashed his crawl in fifty nation-states. ‘I went last October, and the water was fucking freezing. Honestly, man, I could hardly breathe. And this is coming from me.’ Dan prided himself on starting each day with an ice bath, having installed one at home a few years back.
A quick Google proved that Dan wasn’t lying: in 1932, the Lunz region had recorded the lowest ever temperature in Central Europe (-52.6˚C). So when Ernest realised that 38 Children’s tour would be taking them through this arctic haven, he began to rally the troops. Bert enjoyed a spot of open-water swimming, and it turned out that Youri had spent part of his youth in Montenegro, which was ‘famous’ for its fjords. Aaron couldn’t think of anything worse than ‘freezing his nuts off’ after another long coach journey, but he loved a good mountain. Jake and Sophie were ambivalent. And so, Ernest got his way: ‘Alea iacta est,’ he said. Rosa told him to stop showing off.
They hired two boats on the morning of 23rd November. In one sat Bert, Sophie, Ernest and Rosa; in the other, Aaron, Youri and Jake.
Lunzer See was just as beautiful as Ernest had imagined. The ripples glistened like rocks on the beach, and the tree-covered mountains created a sanctuary. It was impossible to think about Gylfi’s sentence or the Hong Kong protests when they saw that sylvan escalator rising into the distance.
But it sure was cold. The local in charge of boat hire said there would usually be ice at this time of year; he strongly advised against swimming without a wetsuit. When Youri heard this, he decided not to don his trunks. His wife would kill him if he died from frostbite, even if that meant accepting Jesus as the Messiah so that she could raise him from his original death. Sophie and Jake followed Youri’s lead, although not because they feared Sheol.
Which left Bert, Rosa and Ernest. They were in no rush, however. First they wanted to enjoy the mountain air, which cleared their minds as much as it made their hair stand on end. Bert took the oars, rolling back the years to his stint in Balliol’s ‘Beer Boat’: a men’s eight that began each race with a pint of lager. Of course, Bert was a quasi-teetotal evangelical Christian these days, so the comparison didn’t extend too far. Sophie sat towards the front of the boat, whilst Ernest and Rosa nestled at its rear.
Without a word, they reached the lake’s centre. And then, in between two strokes, Bert called Sophie’s name over his shoulder.
‘What do you think you’ll do after this?’
Sophie turned to face Bert’s back. Her nose was running in the breeze. ‘I’m gonna go home for a while. I’ve hardly spoken to my mum and dad the past few weeks. I miss them a lot. And my brother too.’
‘Sounds like a great idea: take a break, appreciate family life.’ Bert realised he’d chosen the wrong conversation partner; it was strange speaking to Sophie whilst looking at Ernest and Rosa.
‘That’s what I was thinking. The future feels less uncertain when I’m at home.’
‘Yeah, it’s very grounding.’ He pulled the oars, wondering how Sophie’s rebirth would affect her return. ‘Have you told your parents about the old conversion?’
‘Ha, ha, no, not yet. I’m not sure how they’ll take it.’
Rosa’s interest was piqued. ‘Are they religious?’
‘Dad? Definitely not. He’s a proper left-wing academic type.’ Bert and Ernest decided not to comment. ‘Mum? Hmm, she’s more of your classic church-at-Christmas-and-Easter type. She says she prays when she’s feeling really lost. But I don’t think that happens all that often.’
‘Well, I’m glad about that.’ Bert tried to picture Sophie’s parents, but nothing came to mind. Ernest was imagining them as small and attractive but a little tired. Rosa felt cosy when she thought of Sophie’s mum, and she imagined her dad as serious but surprisingly funny; the kind of teacher who was unrecognisable outside the classroom, especially after a few glasses of wine. Yes, he was definitely a wine man.
‘Thanks, me too.’ A cormorant filled the pause. ‘It’ll come as a surprise, that’s for sure. But, at the end of the day, they just want me to be happy, so hopefully they’ll be pleased.’
‘I’m sure they will.’ Bert continued to row.
At the thought of loving parents, everyone had an urge to ring home and see how their families were getting on. Ernest wished his dad could be there; nobody would appreciate Lunzer See as much as him. But he would be happy whatever he was doing – probably reading Yeats before teaching the piano to his neighbour’s daughter.
Rosa, meanwhile, was admiring how her parents drew wisdom from all religions. They were particularly into Buddhism these days, having recently added vegetarianism to their daily meditation, but they also took inspiration from the Bahá’í Faith and Hindu pluralism. She imagined how shocked they would be if she returned home a Christian. No doubt they would see it as Ernest’s influence, and perhaps that would make them warm to the idea of a Catholic Rosa: her bond with her future husband would be complete. Of course, the reality was that Ernest’s faith was the only source of tension in their relationship. Rosa stopped herself – now was not the time. She moved closer to her love, and he squeezed her arm.
When Sophie asked Bert how his family had taken it, he stopped rowing and turned around. She noticed a slight sadness in his eyes. ‘I haven’t spent much time at home, unfortunately. So I’m not sure they’ve got the full picture yet.’
‘Surely the baptism was pretty… striking?’ Ernest remembered how Bert had discussed his renunciation of sex; that can’t have been fun for his younger siblings.
‘Yeah, of course. I just mean I’d like them to witness more; I want to share this with them. But I’m really close to my parents, so they can appreciate how seismic it’s been. And they’ve become more serious about their faith over the past few years, so they love discussing it.’
‘Do you think that’s had an impact on you?’ Sophie hadn’t thought too much about the influences in Bert’s life. She’d always seen him as such a free spirit. ‘Their commitment to their faith, I mean.’
‘Yeah, I think it has, although it took me a while to realise that. I mean, if your parents start playing worship music instead of Billy Joel… and they’re reading the Epistle of James instead of Henry James, it’s obviously going to have an effect.’ Bert went silent for a moment, as they heard someone whistling. The song was ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ by The Hollies, and it was coming from a fisherman on the side of the lake. He gave them a nod, which Ernest read as ‘nothing can faze me’. But there was very little to faze a man here. Bert returned the boat to privacy before continuing: ‘It’s always hard to tell what’s behind a conversion – besides the Holy Spirit, of course.’ Ah, there was nothing like a bit of Christian humour. ‘Cause even though my parents rubbed off on me, I still went on my own journey. I’m sure it would have happened without them, but maybe only a few years down the line.’ He touched a buoy. Its orange reminded him of Calippos. ‘I’m really looking forward to Christmas.’ No-one had expected that. ‘I’m hoping I can help my family with their own faith. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, cause it’s God doing the work. But when they see the Holy Spirit cleansing me, they’ll have this visible proof that Jesus changes lives. And hopefully they’ll want to feel the same way.’
This, in fact, was the main reason for Ernest’s increased interest in the spiritual life. He knew full well that Bert’s was no ordinary transformation. It would have taken Joe Rogan-esque levels of discipline for his friend to give up sex and drunkenness just like that. He remembered the time Bert had gone clubbing with the express intention of avoiding Maddie, Jade and Tess. Ernest was unsurprised when he received a call the next morning.
‘Ernest, I’m in trouble.’
‘Come on, brother, it can’t be that bad.’
‘No, trust me, it is. You know how I said I couldn’t kiss Maddie or Jade or Tess?’
‘Well, I kissed Maddie and Jade and Tess.’
Ernest didn’t believe Bert was strong enough to conquer this weakness on his own – especially not in such a short timeframe. He was convinced his friend had received guidance from above, and he wanted to be part of that. And it wasn’t just Bert. Sophie, who had struggled to smile in recent weeks, was now an embodiment of joy. No-one had mentioned her love for Bert, but Ernest would not have guessed that she was heartbroken. But perhaps that was because she was in love with someone else. From her heart flowed rivers of living water.
In truth, Sophie was feeling increasingly at ease about Mr Eynsham. She hoped her path might include him one day, but, for now, God did not want them to be together – otherwise He would have made it so. She and Bert had finally managed to chat in private the previous evening. Sophie never would have thought that discussing prayer and righteousness would kindle a fire within her, but she found the troubles of her life suffocating beneath the weight of God’s Spirit. With every sentence, she grew into His presence. And by the time she went back to her room, Sophie’s hunger for God was so great that she spent the next hour studying His Word. The Parable of the Sower left her in no doubt: this was not the time for romance. She and Bert needed to work on their faith, since the seeds had not been planted long. Sophie knew that where her friend had stood fast in the face of persecution, she might struggle to do the same. She had always been popular and uncontroversial – but that was not the Christian life. And yet, she trusted God to show her the way. He had revealed it already, in fact.
As Ernest drew peace from his friends, he thanked God for this day. And then Bert ruined the moment. ‘Alright then, brother, time to prove yourself. The water’s calling your name.’ Bert leaned his ear towards the surface. ‘Can’t you hear it?’ He whisper-shouted: ‘Ernest! Ernest! Ernest!’
‘Not so fast, my man, you’re coming too.’
‘Sure, sure. I’ll let you lead the way, though. Unless Rosa wants to.’
‘Kind of you to offer, but Ernest can go first. He’s the open-water swimmer, after all.’ They laughed in memory of when Ernest had given himself this title.
‘I’m never going to live that down, am I?’
‘In that case, here goes.’ Ernest tore off his shirt, prompting a wolf whistle from Jake across the water. ‘Crikey, I can feel the cold from here.’
‘You haven’t got much meat on you, brother.’ Ernest’s ribs protruded from his flesh.
‘And this is the one time I regret it.’ He puffed out sharply. ‘Okay, how about a countdown?’
Rising to the occasion, Sophie tannoyed her voice. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a real treat today. Our very own Ernest Krandle is about to make an extremely stupid decision, as he prepares to plunge into the infamous Lunzer See. My man on the inside tells me the water is a refreshing two degrees this morning, but I’m pretty sure I can see a few chunks of ice bobbing around in there. Anyhoo, enough from me, let’s start the countdown…’ Rosa and Bert were giggling away; Ernest was wishing he hadn’t suggested this. Once 38 Children’s boat had drawn nearer, the chant began: ‘3…2…1…!’
Ernest crossed himself and leapt off the boat. He tucked into a cannonball – the proper way to dive (except for the fact that it almost capsized the dinghy). The crowd watched as his hair unfurled towards the sky in Van de Graaff fashion. They felt cold with him when his feet struck the lake. And then they truly felt cold with him – Ernest’s splash left none of them best pleased.
He stayed underwater for a time, revelling in the sharpness of his senses. Ernest loved the way his body burned. Less appealing was the ache in his skull. Once it became unbearable, he flew to the surface and gasped for air. ‘Oh my word, it’s freezing!’
‘Ha, ha, you’re going blue already.’
‘Get in here, Bert! You’re not chickening out.’
‘Who said I was?’ Bert removed his shirt, and Sophie tried not to look. ‘You coming, Rosa?’
‘Of course, Bertram. Otherwise Ernest will bang on about how tough he is.’
‘We wouldn’t want that. But easy on the Bertram business. You sound like my mum when she’s angry.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind.’
Ernest’s jaw was bouncing. ‘Enough chchit-chat, you two. I won’t be in for much longer.’
Bert smiled at Sophie. ‘You’re sure you don’t want to join us?’
‘’Fraid not. Someone needs to look after the boat.’ This was utter nonsense – the lake could not have been calmer – but there was no way she was subjecting herself to such torture.
‘I really envy you right now, Shaw.’ Sophie was pleased Bert still used her last name. He wasn’t going to let a confession of love tarnish their friendship.
Once he and Rosa were in position, Bert said ‘Uno, dos, tres, arriba!’, and they jumped overboard. Their howls of pain confirmed Ernest’s appraisal: the water was rather cold.
‘Right,’ and the two men realised, with great fear, that Rosa was about to suggest something, ‘shall we swim to those rocks?’ She pointed to a cove about thirty metres away.
Ernest needed to live up to his reputation. ‘Oh, girl, if you insist.’ His toes were starting to burn, but he had another five minutes in him. Besides, every stroke would make the shower afterwards that much sweeter – or that much more painful if he turned the hot tap first.
They set off towards the rocks, and Sophie realised that she needed to take the oars. She rowed alongside her friends, shouting words of encouragement whenever a grimace grew too fierce. Ernest and Rosa kept their faces on the surface; the lake was so clear that they didn’t even need to shut their eyes. Bert, meanwhile, swam with his head in the air. He gave Sophie the occasional frown to add a lighter touch.
A few days later, Jake was flicking through Ernest’s journal. There were so many intimate stories in there that he had to admire the guy for being so open. But he also wondered why Ernest had let him see these parts of his life. Was it really just to keep Jake entertained on the road? Or did he hope that 38 Children’s frontman might learn something from these pages?
And why he did write in the first place? Perhaps it was just a case of being good at it. But the journal was so inward-looking that Jake saw another possibility: Ernest hoped to unlock something for himself and for his readers; some part of his life that didn’t reveal its meaning in the moment. Or maybe Ernest needed a pen like Jake needed a microphone; each man had a weapon to thwart the chaos of life.
But Jake couldn’t say for certain; he wondered if Ernest even knew why he wrote. He turned to one of his favourite parts of the diary. The ink was black and fine.
Do you remember our afternoon in Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, when the Gilets Jaunes were at their peak? Of course you do, it was such a happy afternoon. We’d just had steak tartare at a restaurant with colourful chairs and smiling waiters, where they played Tame Impala on repeat. How surreal that a café in the 19th arrondissement played my favourite band on the one day we were there. Besides the threat of gluten in your meal, that lunch was perfect. But the park. Few moments stick with me like our kiss in that gargantuan, surprising cave. It was dark yet warm in there, and I took you in my arms as we hid from prying eyes; your lips were warm and soft on mine. Oh, how I wish I could kiss them now!
I increasingly feel that life is hard without you. Is it good to be so dependent? Maybe not, but it is certainly a blessing to love you. I am willing to trade peace of mind if it makes us happy.
But the park. After a classic Rosa-and-Ernest walk, with your route march proving too much for me, we found a bench to read our books. I was reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood End, a very good novel with a beautiful cover (a red-and-yellow Venn diagram on a purple background). It saddens me that I can’t remember what you were reading. I’m so close to bringing it to mind – I’m sure it was a moving tale, I want to say a wartime novel – but that purple cover is all I see.
And then there came a bang. We were fully aware of the protests’ reality, hence our retreat to the suburbs, but it seemed strange that such violence could exist only a few miles from the serenity of Buttes-Chaumont. We were shocked by the noise, but stronger than this was my determination to protect you, to look after you, to be, as you would later say, your life’s comfort.
Maybe Ernest wrote because he was in love. Or maybe it was because he wanted to love more deeply. Jake wasn’t sure, but reading made him want to emulate Ernest. He found a sheet of paper:
I’m glad you can find peace in forgiveness. Hold up, that could be a song title right there: Peace in Forgiveness. Nah, too wordy. Sorry, we’re struggling for ideas at the minute. Turns out we had something special when the four of us were together, whereas now I’m starting to feel like Paul without John. Then again, Macca had some great solo tunes, as Aaron likes to remind us. “Ram On” is so beautiful. So maybe there’s hope.
I was feeling pretty uneasy last week. I kept saying to myself, maybe we’ll only be able to write again once Aaron has forgiven Gylfi – as if there was too much pain in the group for any creativity to flow. But luckily that feeling has passed. I know we’ve still got some great songs in us. I’m learning to be patient. I think the issue is I’m trying to write songs that actually mean something. Cause let’s be honest, some of our earlier lyrics were just there to support the music. I’m not the most profound of guys, but I want to write about what happened. And I want to make people smile.
Sadly Aaron isn’t ready to forgive you just yet. I think he’s struggled the most with all this. I guess meeting one of your victims was really tough. I tried to get him to talk about it, but he kept stumbling whenever he thought of the pain in her eyes. So I also want to bring some peace to Aaron. He doesn’t deserve to feel like this. The guy is going to be a music legend one day – his fret skills are getting scary.
But there’s something else I wanted to tell you. I’m sure I’ll completely butcher the story, but hopefully you’ll get the idea. Oh, man, I get tingles just thinking about it. It was a beautiful thing, Gylfi. It really was.
The swim was coming to an end. Legs were long numb, arms were refusing to paddle, and Rosa’s mother would have been horrified by the colour of her face – or, more precisely, its whiter shade of pale. But none of them regretted it. After the turbulence of recent weeks, they’d needed a childlike experience. And what a chance to bask in the beauty of life; the sun crested the mountains.
Ernest and Rosa hoisted themselves onto the boat, accepting two towels without hesitation. As much as their bodies wanted to stay still, they knew that getting dry was the only option. Sophie had never seen a man attack his hair with the fervour that Ernest showed; she wondered how his scalp felt about this. No doubt the shiver in the rest of his body kept it from noticing. The lovers wiggled their fingers, flexed their toes, and admonished each other at the slightest sign of relaxation – hypothermia would be the bitter icing on the messy cake that was this tour.
Bert, meanwhile, remained in the water, facing the sun. He was unaware of his friends, and they were unaware of him as he reckoned with himself. Or, rather, God seemed to be guiding him towards a well-worn truth: he had been relying too much on his own strength lately, trying to uphold a Christian way of life through the efforts of his will. Although the Holy Spirit had guided his walk, Bert had failed to dwell in the shelter of the Most High. He was only a visitor to that secret place; a visitor seeking to combine spirit and flesh. And that could never please God, who wanted a total renewal of the mind; who wanted Jesus to become an overwhelming reality in the lives of His believers. It was time for Bert to surrender. Losing his life, he would gain it.
Opening his eyes, he noticed that the lake continued beyond the rocks. The water seemed warmer now, and he started to swim, delighting in God’s creation; if only their communion could remain so intimate. He rounded the bend and stopped. The lake was empty on this side, and muddier too. Bert transitioned to breaststroke; he loved the snap in his groin when it closed. Wading away from the rocks, he let his legs sink towards the floor.
His friends were out of earshot now – drinking tea and coffee on the boat, no doubt. Bert settled, using his arms to keep upright. He thought of his sisters and his brother; few people could make his heart so delicate. As he dwelt in God’s shadow, Bert wanted nothing more than to give. “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the need of others,” he remembered. And yet, there was a bitter-sweetness to this love. Bert longed to be in Heaven and know the fulness of God. The longing was the sweetest thing, but it also showed that life on Earth could never provide total satisfaction. Still, love came close, coming from the Father as it did.
With this in mind, Bert didn’t want to spend his time alone. He decided to head back to the boat, where he could share the Holy Spirit with his friends. He kicked below the surface – and nothing happened. Having taken a few moments to breathe, he tried to move his feet from side to side. No, there was no doubt about it: they were stuck. The weeds may not have been particularly strong, but Bert’s legs had lost all life in the past few minutes. He’d left them to dangle, and they’d fallen asleep.
He tried not to panic, but his arms felt weaker with every push to stay afloat. The cold had seeped into his body; limb by limb, paralysis was weaving its spell. Bert shut his eyes and asked God to see him through this trial. And then he called for help: ‘Ernest! Brother Ernest!’ He waited. No reply. ‘Rosa! Sophie!’
He heard Rosa’s voice: ‘Bert! Where are you?’
‘Round the corner. I’m stuck. I can’t move my legs.’
Bert’s arms were giving way. He flapped them with all his might, but he could feel himself sinking.
‘Hold on!’ Rosa was trying to sound calm. Unfortunately, fear had long since gripped their friend. His neck was now submerged. ‘We’re coming!’
After one last look at the mountains, Bert drifted underwater, unable to curb the descent. He could just about move his head from side to side, but that was the extent of his movements. His mind was awake whilst his body slept. And so, trying not to think of death, he prayed at the lake’s bed.
Which meant he didn’t see Sophie busting a gut to find him. As soon as she heard that her man was in distress, Sophie grabbed the oars and rowed. She rowed with more power than she had ever displayed; even her Boudiccan performances on the lacrosse pitch paled in comparison to this. She tore through the water, desperate to save her love. Whilst Rosa and Ernest scanned the lake for signs of life, Sophie steered with expertise, oblivious to their presence. The boat passed the rocks, and she dropped the oars.
‘What are you-?’ Sophie was in the water before Rosa could finish her sentence. She stayed close to the bottom, weaving between the weeds. Not a goat-like hair in sight. A quarter of a minute later, she rose to fill her lungs.
‘Any sign of him?’
But Sophie had no time for Ernest’s questions. She plunged into the depths, resisting the urge to swim too quickly – eleven seasons of Baywatch had taught her not to rush.
Back on the boat, Ernest was removing his towel. ‘Wait here, my love, I’m going to help.’
‘I’ll come too.’
‘No, please, one of us needs to stay.’ His lips were closer to purple than pink. ‘Just trust me.’
Rosa realised that Ernest wasn’t going to budge. ‘Okay, my love. You’ve got this.’ He nodded and jumped into the water – no time even for a kiss.
The moment Ernest hit the surface, Sophie saw Bert. He was kneeling on the bottom of the lake, with his hands wilting on either side. His back was turned, so she couldn’t see if he was still conscious. The cold was starting to slow her movements. Silt stung her eyes. Although Bert was so near, Sophie had to come up for air. She settled herself, breathing through her nose. In, out. In, out. Ernest’s splashing was lost on her. With a gasp, she returned for the final dive.
Bert’s eyes looked up at her. He tried to smile, but the numbness defaced his relief. Sophie wrestled the weeds from his ankles, then gripped Bert by the armpits. Pushing off from the ground, she hauled him as best she could, kicking for dear life. The limpness of Bert’s body added to his weight, and life seemed further away than two and a half metres. The word heavy began to pinball around her brain. Just as it threatened to break her resolve, the ball struck the right bell, and she remembered the fisherman’s song: ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother.’ As much as Sophie enjoyed the first verse, she went straight to the chorus: ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,’ she sang. ‘He ain’t heavyyy, he’s my brotheeeeer.’ Sophie repeated this line until she believed it. And as her brother extended to eighteen letters, her head broke the surface, and Bert was able to breathe.
He still couldn’t move, though, so Sophie placed her arm beneath his chin and swam towards the rocks. With her own body starting to fail, she grabbed the edge and dragged Bert to safety – he could live with a few scratches. Sophie collapsed alongside him, and they listened to the sound of their panting. They didn’t notice Ernest returning to the boat, where he and Rosa smiled somewhat fearfully whilst fumbling with the oars.
Once she’d caught her breath, Sophie sat up and looked at Bert. His eyelids were drooping; he might not stay awake for much longer. But he managed to smile with a beatific gratitude. ‘You really outdid yourself, Shaw.’ His throat croaked. ‘Thank you.’ When he tried to move, his arms melted. ‘Boy, looks like I’m spent.’
Sophie’s smile was even brighter. Exhausted she may have been, but God had the power to restore. She put her hand on Bert’s chest. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a woman lay down her life for her friends.’
They were going to have to get used to smiling. ‘Crikey, that’s good.’ Despite his frantic breathing and shaking frame, he was scared no more. ‘And on the plus side, you’re still with us.’
‘Just about, Bert. You could do with shedding a few pounds.’
‘Insulation, Sophie. How do you think I survived?’
‘Umm, I thought we’d already covered that? You know, the whole laying down my life for you…’
‘Ah, yes, that’s probably it.’ Bert managed to sit up now. The rocks dug into his hands until he hugged Sophie. Somehow, she felt warm. They remained there for quite some time, whilst Ernest and Rosa came ashore.
Jake turned the page, shaking his pen for its final drops.
I haven’t stopped thinking about Sophie and Bert the past few days. I wish I could have seen the looks on their faces when they realised they were safe. Man, I wish I could have seen the whole thing. I wonder if Youri or Aaron would have done the same for me… No doubt the water would still have been too cold for Aaron. For a tough northerner, he’s actually pretty pathetic.
Funnily enough (or not that funnily, but you know what I mean), Rosa and Ernest were definitely the most shaken by the whole episode. It was as if Sophie had been waiting for a chance like that. And I guess Bert is just grateful to be alive. He’s been grinning for three days straight. The whole atmosphere is so much gentler now. Which is classic because we’re flying home tomorrow. The three of us are going to bunker down at mine to try write the next album. I wonder if I can turn the rescue mission into a song.
Speaking of which, Sophie showed me a poem she wrote yesterday. She said I could show it to you if I thought it would help. I hope it does, Gylf. I’m no believer, but I think her words are pretty darn powerful. It’s that combination of sadness and happiness I love. And, as you know, I’m a sucker for a redemption story.
I’ll let her have the last word.
Take care of yourself.
The Shadow of Your Wings
In sacred land
I went astray,
To ballast home,
Despite Your hand.
I clipped Your dove
By prizing life –
No linen shroud,
The source of strife,
The end of love.
In fruitful time
My heart did rot.
A breast of stone,
Where seed was sown,
Forget me not,
Against my crime.
But stiffened neck
Refused to yield,
These weary eyes,
This soul unwise.
Whilst others kneeled,
I searched the wreck
For proof of God.
Yet Heaven stirred
This blessed desire
To leave the briar
And know Your Word,
From snake to rod.
You called me out
From death’s approach;
You taught me peace,
Made joy increase,
Through good reproach
From conquered doubt.
With body clean,
I loved again;
A sorry slave
Whom You forgave,
To sing amen,
What joy to find
The Prince of pardon,
Who wept at night,
As well we might,
In olived garden,
With love so kind.
O jaded sheep,
How can we rest,
Unless we turn
From all concern
To wounded chest,
With scars so deep?
How can we mend
A stubborn heart
Except through Him,
Torn limb from limb,
One set apart,
Our faithful friend;
The King of kings,
The gate narrow,
All those who rise
In sweet shadow
Of holy wings.
Gylfi placed the letter under his pillow. He heard the jingle of keys; a light flickered in a nearby cell. What time was it? The guard told him it was half past midnight. But Gylfi didn’t want to sleep. Washing his hands, he wondered if forgiveness could really be that simple.
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. 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. 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. 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.’
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.’
‘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.
 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.
 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.
 Ernest blamed ten years of boarding school for his poor knowledge of London.
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…’
‘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?’
‘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.
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.
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.
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…’
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-?’
‘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…’
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.
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:
Memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fears.
Good luck to you, Gylf. You’re gonna need it.
P.S. We’ll miss your crazy keys.
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.’
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,
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.”
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘Take care!’ called Ernest, over Bert’s shoulder.
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. 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.’
‘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.’
‘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.”’
‘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.
 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.
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
- His mother, Jackie Krandle née Granger
- His father, Tobias Krandle
- David Foster Wallace
- Kanye West
- Ingrid Bergman
- Virginia Woolf
- Miles Davis
- Jesus Christ
– – –
‘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?’
‘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.
There he was, the goofball. A weight left Rosa; Ernest’s floppy hair was visible once more.
Oh dear, he was holding a sign. She squinted, having forgotten her contacts: “Rosa ‘(Please be) On-Time Show’ Colbert”. Rosa assumed this was a bizarre reference to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
‘I think this may be your worst sign yet.’ She gave Ernest a kiss.
‘I’m inclined to agree.’
They planned to be as antisocial as possible that weekend, at least until Bert’s baptism on Sunday. As far as Rosa was concerned, no-one deserved to speak to Ernest besides her, and, once again, he was inclined to agree. The only stumbling block was Gylfi.
Ernest had done his best to reassure Rosa: although Gylfi’s behaviour was suspicious, she could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was abusing substances. Or maybe he was sick of spending each night on the bus and went to 24-hour cafés to unwind. He was a night owl, after all.
No good could come from worrying now, and Ernest was determined to craft a cocoon against the outside world, spinning silk with a verve rarely seen amongst holometabolous insect larvae. Tomorrow morning he would outstrip the Buff-tip moth caterpillar: he was going to let Rosa read “Yellow and Brown”.
The tale of the young couple’s courtship is a long and chequered one. Indeed, it became so chequered that Ernest once wrote a short story about his failed attempts to woo Rosa. No-one had gained access to this story, although Rosa and Bert knew that it was called “Yellow and Brown”. The young writer had tried to compose a sequel detailing his eventual romantic breakthrough, but, like many finer artists, he found it easier to write about sorrow than joy. Although he’d intended to keep its contents under wraps, Ernest now felt compelled to unveil his infamous story. Their first evening together was an unsuitable occasion: why would Rosa want to read his long-winded prose when she could hear him rambling in person? But as they lounged in bed on Saturday morning, an opportunity presented itself.
‘We should probably think about getting up soon,’ she said.
‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a daunting prospect.’ Ernest was torn between kissing Rosa’s lips and watching them smile. He gave them another moment of respite before leaning over.
‘What do we have planned this morning?’
‘Well, now that you mention it, I did have one idea.’
‘Should I be worried?’
Rosa was used to Ernest’s games. ‘What is it?’
‘Well, I was wondering if you’d like to read “Yellow and Brown”.’
Rosa’s eyes threatened the confines of their sockets. ‘You’re serious?’
‘Thank you. So d’you want to read it?’
‘I’d love to. But isn’t it a bit of a tome? I don’t want you to be waiting around all morning.’
‘I wouldn’t call it a tome. I’ll go for a walk. I couldn’t cope with you reading it next to me.’
‘Gosh, how ominous.’
‘I thought you might like this plan.’
Half an hour later, Ernest left home listening to a podcast about Dolly Parton. Rosa, meanwhile, had decided to shower and change for the event; this was not a story to be read in bed. Having found an appropriate skirt, she opened the curtains and fluffed her armchair pillow. Ernest had been quick to point out that the story was five years old, so naturally his style had developed since then, etc., etc. Having prepared herself with a sip of tea, Rosa picked up the fourteen sheets of A4:
Yellow and Brown
It made no difference whether he looked at her or not. He would sit there in his usual spot, awaiting her return; and then she would glide into that quiet haven, brown hair bobbing, head up with innocent confidence, eyes wide like always. They were beautiful bright blue eyes, thrown into relief by her clear complexion and swoonworthy cheekbones. When he lifted his gaze they would share a smile; for a moment, everything would fall into place. Her smile formed so easily (mouth open, eyes aglow, head tilted slightly back) that others might have thought it feigned; but, seeing Mary then, he knew that her joy was not artificial but effortless. And he too felt happy for a moment. It was difficult not to revere this passing joy; this wave carrying him towards the safety of land. But then she would walk on by, taking one of her three favoured seats in the neighbouring room, and the wave would break too early, forcing him underwater, depriving his lungs of air, until he thought that this was it, his time had come. And although he always reached the surface, his vision laboured against drops of obstinate water.
Then there were the times he didn’t look up; the times he resisted the urge to swim. By now he could recognise her approach through intuition – or perhaps it was just the swish of her puffer coat. Either way, he would decide not to brave the waters, since lifting his gaze and saying ‘good morning’ would prove her mastery of these depths; Mary would pass his stack of books unnoticed. But rather than providing some much-needed distance, these times reminded Giles of the connection he was not allowed to cultivate, like a wave surfed only in his dreams.
The first time he saw her, Giles wondered if she was insane. They were listening to his friend Elisabeth playing love songs in the college bar. Mary had recently joined Oxford, whereas Giles was an aloof second-year enjoying the set with a drink in hand.
Although Elisabeth was an outstanding singer, you’d have thought she was Whitney Houston reincarnate from the expression on Mary’s face. She sat there transfixed, staring at Elisabeth with wide-eyed glee. It wasn’t so much the expression itself that unnerved Giles but its duration. Had Elisabeth hit a high C or put that distinctive trill in her voice, then a glimpse of Mary’s broad grin and manic eyes would have been understandable. But her euphoria refused to wane. Giles pointed her out to one of his friends: ‘See that girl? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look so happy.’ Torn between admiration and disdain, he felt compelled to watch this strange naiad revelling in her newfound freedom. When he overheard her talking, Giles drifted closer to contempt: Mary’s voice was whiny and loud.
She walked towards him, cartooned her eyes, swayed as if to fall over. This was how they met, at the end of an uncivilised dinner. An assumption flirted with Giles: here was a first-year who couldn’t handle her booze whereas he was a calm and collected second-year. But something told him she was putting on a show; he later discovered that Mary liked to act. The moment was too surreal to elicit more than a chuckle, but their first encounter proved easy, helped by the wine no doubt, and Giles realised that her voice, rather than annoying, was full of life, just like the eyes he had seen at Elizabeth’s concert; the eyes staring at him now. And yet, when he and Mary parted ways en route to the nightclub, he still wasn’t sure whether she was insane.
He soon had a chance to make up his mind, as they spent close to an hour talking in the smoking area. Looking back on this conversation, Giles could not help smiling at its subject matter: their lack of experience with the opposite sex.
It had taken until university for Giles to manage his first kiss, and Mary was now in the same boat. Half a year later, Giles wished he had stopped talking and given her an average-at-best first experience, but he was infatuated with someone else at the time and thus failed to appreciate Mary’s joie de vivre. Besides, when it came to women, he had the confidence of a suppressed public-school boy (which is exactly what he was). And so they were united by their lack of experience. He wanted to say that this unity was an indictment of modern society, but he couldn’t work out how to phrase it without sounding like a pretentious arse.
‘If I were a fruit,’ she said several months later, ‘what would I be?’
‘I was thinking about that the other day, actually.’ He knew which of her laughs would come next: the one where she leaned forward with a slight bend at the waist, played a low, staccato song whilst looking at the ground, then lifted her gaze with an expression that said: ‘Are you weirder than you are funny?’ When this look arrived, Giles reminded himself that she was the one asking about her spirit fruit. ‘I’d have to say a plum.’
‘Wait, no, I jumped the gun. A nectarine.’
‘Why a nectarine rather than a plum?’
‘Well, my initial thought was something sweet and quintessentially English.’ Somehow this didn’t seem like the weirdest sentence he’d ever said, and she smiled, not looking the least bit fazed. He liked to think that rather than being a product of the wine they were drinking, this proved the snugness of their world; they existed in that single corner of the room. ‘But there’s a bit of tang to you that often goes unnoticed. And a good nectarine has some tang, whereas a plum is only tangy if it’s unripe.’ Ach, he had to admit it, the wine had something to do with this. ‘Besides, a plum is too understated.’ Before she could provoke the embarrassment that he was surprised not to be feeling already, he said, ‘What about me?’ She hesitated, took a sip of their cheap white wine, pursed her lips.
‘I’m actually writing a play.’
‘Ooh, what’s it about?’
‘It follows this guy who’s obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. He ends up thinking that Jimi Hendrix tribute bands are tainting the singer’s name, so he decides to kill all their members.’
As expected, there were the wide eyes. ‘So sinister!’
‘You’re probably thinking, ‘Christ, I’m with an absolute weirdo’.’ No comment from Mary, only laughter on both sides as they walked through Oxford’s Botanic Gardens on their first date. It was, in hindsight, not the best time of year to visit a garden – the end of January – but he’d always been more romantic than practical. Given the sorry state of the gardens, their eyes were drawn to the lemons in the greenhouse; they glowed a deep yellow.
‘Yellow’s my favourite colour,’ said Mary. ‘It’s so bright and cheery. How could you look at those lemons and not be happy?’
‘Life-affirming,’ with a nod. ‘My favourite colour’s brown.’
‘Yep, it’s just so solid and understated and surprisingly stylish.’ He pointed through the glass. ‘Like that bench outside,’ letting her follow his gaze. ‘It’s subtle and smooth.’
‘I actually get what you mean.’
‘I remember this one team we used to play at school, they wore a yellow and brown football kit. It was awful.’
‘Oh no, that sounds horrible. Who on Earth would try to mix those colours?’
A few minutes later, one of the gardeners smiled when she saw them laughing, and he knew that others sensed it. Yes, his happiness tended to be reserved whilst hers was spread across her face. Yes, he was cynical whereas she was busy expressing her delight in the lemons and daffodils. And whilst it mattered that they shared a love of music, books and family, that he wrote novels and she was in plays, that they were both studious, sporty, and contented people, these were all just adjectives and labels and hobbies. What mattered to him was that their first one-on-one conversation had lasted three-quarters of an hour, that the woman in the garden had smiled as they laughed, that he knew she was a nectarine and she knew he was a kiwi.
It happened two mornings after the date; the date whose end she had wanted to avoid, as they moved from the gardens to a coffee shop, where they shared a peanut brownie and discussed her passion for dance. So it was on a Friday morning that she opened the door for him and asked if he was busy.
‘Yep, I’ve got a class. What’s up?’
‘Giles, last night someone asked me if we were dating.’ Her tone did not suggest enthusiasm.
‘Why does this always happen?’ It had never happened to Giles. ‘I wanted it to be like how you and Elisabeth hang out.’
Loneliness, he realised on that Friday morning, is not a question of being by yourself. He had spent the previous evening reading in his room, thinking of their date between pages, listening to Mellow Yellow because it reminded him of her. Nobody else in sight, and yet he could hardly have felt less alone. Whereas now, as he stood right next to the woman he wanted to love, he understood that loneliness was a question of being too broken to look beyond oneself.
‘I’m going to be late for my class,’ which was true, ‘but I’ll have a think and we can chat later?’ Quite what he needed to think about, he wasn’t sure. All he wanted was to escape the sickness in his stomach.
They met for lunch an hour later. As he waited in line at Prêt, they passed the time with idle comments that neither would remember; they had never struggled for words before. And then they went outside and the bubble burst.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘we should probably have our chat.’
‘Oh, I wish we didn’t have to.’
‘Tell me about it.’ He nodded to a passing friend. ‘So someone asked if we were dating and you didn’t like that?’
‘It made me scared. ‘Cause I thought you just wanted to hang out, but then people have been saying we went on a date.’
Her earlier comment about Elisabeth had been the bullet wound: she wanted to be friends and nothing more. And now, with these last few sentences, she had extracted the bullet, reminding him of the gunshot and aggravating the pain, before handing him the metal slug as a memento of his courage on the battlefield. ‘I meant it to be a date,’ was all he could say.
‘Oh, Giles, I’m so sorry.’
He tried to look at her but only reached her left cheek. ‘Maybe I should have made it more obvious. I kind of thought you’d realise friends don’t go for a walk in the Botanic Gardens.’
‘No, you’re right, I was being naïve. It’s my fault. I just thought that after the other week…’
Ah, the other week. Given their tendency to find any excuse to drink, the students marked the start of Easter Term with a party. Giles arrived with his head and his heels battling for ascendancy: having always thought of Mary as a friend, something had changed two nights earlier.
They bumped into each other outside the library. Her hair was wet from water polo training, and she clasped a bike helmet in her right hand. She was wearing a sports fleece. As they chatted about the holiday, which Mary had spent dancing and visiting grandparents, Giles found himself captivated by her dripping hair and goggle-marked eyes. They talked for some time, as they always did, until Mary declared that she really had to go to bed; her spick-and-span room awaited. Giles, meanwhile, cycled home faster than ever, having awoken to his true feelings; or perhaps it was on that night that those feelings began to take shape. Maybe there wasn’t much of a difference between the two.
Even if he hadn’t quite struck the ground, he was now rapidly falling for her, after a term of denying such allegations. He and Mary had laughed about this one November night, since she too had been a victim of the rumour mill and all its insubstantial corn.
He arrived at the party to the sound of Mary crying ‘Giles!’; this squeal of excitement infected him with joy. Yes, that was it: he found his joy in hers. He gave her a warm grin and said, ‘Hey, Mary. I just need to pop to the loo, but I’ll see you in a second.’ In hindsight, there are better ways of wooing a girl. He returned a minute later to find her bounding across the dance floor with a smile too theatrical to be false. From there, they spent most of the night together: dancing, chatting, drinking, saying things they would remember, things they would forget; things he would try to forget but always remember.
He wished it had been more romantic. Sure, the sentiment was refined, but he had slurred words he wasn’t yet sure he meant, something along the lines of ‘I think you’re amazing, Mary, not just as a friend, it’s more than that, you’re so pretty and I have a crush on you.’ Not words to remember a man by, but words that meant far more in the months to come.
He woke up to the taste of rejection-steeped beer. He remembered what she’d said, that his friendship was all she wanted, that she genuinely loved that friendship, that he was wonderful but confused, and then she’d begged him to stop saying how much he liked her, assuring him that he really just wanted to be friends, all the talk had got to him and he was drunk. He admitted that he was confused, he wasn’t sure how much he liked her, but the important thing was that he did like her, enough to stay in her room for forty minutes eating her gluten-free rice cakes and rambling on about how great she was, before borrowing her coat for the walk home. He returned it the next morning with an ovine smile.
And that was why she said: ‘I just thought that after the other week…’
‘I get that, but I had to try again. Even though I remember the gist of that night, it’s all a bit of a blur. So I didn’t want to over-interpret it. Also I was confused back then, but I’m not anymore.’ She looked up, stopping herself from going completely wide-eyed. ‘Which is probably not what you want to hear.’
As the conversation progressed, he laughed from time to time – a defence mechanism fired in short, sharp bursts. When she mentioned this, he said it was to hide the pain.
‘Oh, please don’t say that.’ Her eyes were blinking rapidly behind her glasses. ‘This all makes me so sad.’ He nodded. ‘At least I have an audition this afternoon to take my mind off things.’
‘Well, onwards and upwards, hey?’ He smiled at her, but even she must have seen how unlikely that was, as she let out an unexpected chuckle of her own.
‘Onwards and upwards,’ she said, trying to believe it.
A few weeks after The Chat, he went on a date with a girl called Olivia. As ever, he and Elisabeth discussed how it had gone, and it was not long before his thoughts returned to Mary.
‘So I bumped into Mary on my way back.’
‘Oh, Giles, come-’
‘No, let me indulge myself.’ She had to smile at that. ‘It just made the difference so clear. Obviously when you know someone better the conversation is more likely to flow, so it’s not a totally fair comparison, but what I mean is, the conversation with Olivia was nice and pretty interesting, we had some things in common, but then I spoke to Mary and we just couldn’t stop talking.’ He prepared his next sentence, not wanting to break the flow mid-sentence. ‘Pretty much every conversation we have only ends because one of us has to head off. Sure, it’s usually her, but she always says she’s going to be late now, not to make me feel bad, but more as an acknowledgement of how we lose track of time when we chat.’ He looked at Elisabeth, checking that she was still listening. ‘You know how with lots of conversations, it’s pretty clear when things are coming to an end? Well, with Mary, one thing just leads to another. We’ll bump into each other outside the library loos, hardly the place for a catch-up, and we’ll still be there ten minutes later, when all I’d been planning to do was fill my water bottle. What I’m saying is, it’s almost like we have to bring the conversation to an end, rather than us wanting to. Or, at least, I don’t want to.’
Elisabeth advised him to keep some distance from Mary. And whilst it pained him to agree, he knew that she was right.
The setting for their next encounter was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nightclub. Her eyeshadow flashed amber, and he could not resist joining her for a dance. He tried to strike up a conversation over the sound of The Killers, but fifty students screaming ‘Cause I’m Mr Brightside’ rarely makes for an easy tête-à-tête. When he realised that Mary was more carefree with others than with him, he managed to walk away, although he stole frequent glances whilst sipping at a gin & tonic and half-listening to a friend.
After that night, the waves began to settle. Mary was working on a play; he paddled in the shallows. With the distance growing bit by bit, he went on another date with Olivia; he liked to see this as his bodyboarding phase.
It was hard to say what triggered the relapse. It may have been the time they smiled at each other through the library window, sharing a moment that was lost on others. Or perhaps it was the honey she made. Having discarded this delicacy to the back of a cupboard, he lost his nerve, spread it on toast, and thought of her, muttering a few lines of ABBA between each mouthful. Whatever the cause, he soon recovered his earlier sadness. He had little desire to see Olivia, who paled in comparison to Mary’s yellow. A friend suggested that the one who got away will always be glorified, but there was more to it than that. The first time he met Mary, they spoke for close to an hour. The first time he met Olivia, they spoke for ten minutes; he wouldn’t have given it much thought if he’d never seen her again. He soon realised that this wasn’t a question of distance. At times, absence made his heart grow fonder; at others, it made it grow numb. Seeing Mary could wash away the pain, but it could also stir the waves into a frenzy.
With the end of term approaching, he had fewer commitments and more opportunities to see her. The first such occasion took place on Broad Street. Having spent the past few days creating an entire World of Mary in his mind, reliving their conversations, placing her on a pedestal that perhaps only his image of her deserved (he refused to believe this; he could not betray Mary like that), it was almost surreal to see her in the flesh; he wondered whether he had become more comfortable in his world of dreams and regrets than in the waking, living world. But then she smiled and he forgot their saga, feeling warm because she had crossed the road for him.
‘Giles!’ A soft exclamation. ‘How are you?’
‘Hi, Mary, all good, thanks. It’s been a while! How’s life? How was the play?’ After watching her first performance at Oxford, Giles had created a Spotify playlist called “She is (a) wonderful (actress)”. The playlist was yet to receive its first follower, although that said more about Giles’s music taste than Mary’s acting ability. She was far too good an actress not to sow seeds of infatuation in her audience, which was why Giles had bought a ticket for her second play, only to sell it after heeding Elisabeth’s advice. ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it, life’s been pretty hectic.’
Two friends walked past, smiling because he was with her; at least, that was how he saw it. Mary explained that he hadn’t missed much. ‘I only had a small part. Anyway, I’ve finished all my assignments for the term, so I think I deserve to cut loose tonight.’
They laughed together, anticipating her drunkenness. ‘Well, I can’t wait to see your moves.’ Keeping his shoulders very still, he pouted his lips and moved his head from side to side. Mary was a much better dancer than Giles, which may have been why his caricature made her laugh so much.
‘And you’ll be doing your usual…’ She imagined herself as an Old Etonian: giving her chin a haughty tilt, she made her lips go serious, clenched her fists, and moved her arms in feigned effortlessness. She couldn’t keep the pretence going for long, as they ascended into laughter.
It was a cold, dry night, and he was beginning to understand something about nightclubs. Whenever he was feeling low they grinned at him, promising a chance to hide from it all: the pressures of work, England’s icy winds, his lonely thoughts. Each club provided a number of escape routes, although these often became intertwined: drinking and dancing were his usual fare. Sometimes he did feel that a door had been unlocked, with Elisabeth tending to provide the key. Whereas now, as he stood in a crowded room where Mary danced and Olivia lingered, he recognised the fine line between liberation and imprisonment. He spoke to Mary, and a cocktail of chemistry and awkwardness was poured down his throat, making him feel sick rather than drunk. He sensed the presence of the guards until after she’d left, whereupon he had visions of the clichéd days they might spend together: punting, visiting galleries, hiking the Yorkshire Dales. But here he was in a dark, congested room with a floor made sticky by vodka lemonades, as reggae remixes blared from immodest speakers. The songs, which were wonderfully relaxed at first, soon blurred into a hellish concoction of slow beats, muddy bass-lines and high-pitched vocals, until, at long last, he made his way outside and found a form of respite.
‘Gi-yals… Gi-yals.’ Mary was saying his name in a sleepy, smiley drawl. He hesitated – not even the dreaded jägerbomb could put his heart in this much danger – then perched next to her on the bench. To make matters worse, she was soon resting her head on his chest. He placed a hand on her arm, wanting to keep her close but aware that it meant something different to each of them. Sometimes he felt particularly bold, particularly drunk, and stroked her coat or hair. At one point she held his earlobes and said, ‘You’ve got wonderfully cold ears.’ He did not expect to forget that moment.
‘I wish we could hang out more often,’ he said.
‘Why can’t we?’ Oh, she just didn’t get it. Part of him wished she would gain some perspective, understand the depth of his obsession, but her obliviousness was also part of her charm, her youthful abandon, her ability to find joy and simplicity where he experienced this combination of profound harmony and profound longing.
All he could say was a suggestive ‘Well…’, which he repeated once or twice, hoping she would fill in the gap. Either she was too drunk to do so or she wanted to avoid the subject, because he received no direct response. Instead she asked him what he thought of her black dress, which was beautiful and told of an under-appreciated maturity beneath her innocence, and he was acutely aware of her failure to grasp the complexities of their friendship; complexities that existed largely in his mind. But these were occasional skips on the record, mere distractions from the fact that she was resting on him, telling him how wonderful he was.
And whether it was the result of her praise or his second tequila shot, the hours they spent on the dance floor were some of his happiest at Oxford until then. Sometimes it was just the two of them, sometimes friends appeared, and sometimes, in her seemingly unflinching happiness, she included total strangers. He remembered a group of Turkish men whose gleeful smiles revealed the effect she had on others.
When he and Mary danced alone, they displayed the full array of basic turns: with one hand held, he spun her; with arms aloft, they spun each other, twisting as one. There came moments when their faces drew so close that he almost tried his luck, but he knew she was far from sober. And yet, it was his fear of a third rejection that truly made him hesitate.
And so they danced together. She repeated how great he was, whilst he let slip the words ‘I love you, Mary’. It was unclear whether they were said in romance or solidarity. The truth lay somewhere in between, and she did not respond.
There was a roundabout. It was yellow, of course. For a short while, he believed they were riding it together, with mutual affection providing the required spin. In reality, he sat alone, smiling as she pushed him round. She was not toying with him; this simply made her happy. But as soon as he realised the truth, she left to find a swing-set nearby; she giggled as she flew. And still the roundabout turned, propelled by his thoughts, by his tendency to create an entire world of past and future. He sat there watching Mary, delighted by her laughter but wishing it was he who made her feel that way. It was not anyone. It was just her sweet, life-loving self and the rhythm of the swings.
They moved whilst going nowhere. She found joy in this tension, whereas he sought the courage to leave the roundabout and return to solid ground. The summer breeze blew the hair from her eyes.
There danced through his mind a series of memories – her cold hands, her head on his chest, her body swaying backwards – and at last he understood: he could not experience it whenever he wanted, that feeling of laughing with her, talking to her, focusing only and entirely on her. He had to wait his turn and find joy elsewhere.
He tried to keep Mary in view, but the roundabout was going too fast and all he managed were glimpses: she reached the apex; she flicked her feet; she extended her legs, preparing to plummet. He clung to the yellow railing, willing the roundabout to slow down. Just as he felt ready to collapse in a dizzy heap, the ride settled. For once he felt no need to work out why; he was simply grateful for the respite, relieved that he could see Mary’s grin rather than a brief flash of the sun on her teeth. She continued to swing, moving her legs without a trace of adulthood. Even when she dragged her heels to bring this game to an end, there was no fatigue in her bearing. She rose to her feet, patted her shorts, and, much to his surprise, walked towards him. He suppressed his confusion and focused on her confident strides, the glint in her open gaze.
She stopped by the roundabout and grabbed the railing. Without a word, she pumped her legs. What was happening? What bitter-sweetness lay ahead? As if to reassure him, she smiled. Her fingers tightened their grip, her thighs bulged with effort, and he realised that she was running. She was running, she was laughing, she was pushing the roundabout! He forgot the past as she galloped with speed and grace, forgot his sorry self, forgot even who she was, this girl with shoulder-stroking hair, swoonworthy cheekbones and beautiful, bright blue eyes that seemed destined never to close (did this girl even blink!). He was meeting her for the first time, but they met in silence, speaking not with words but with running feet and laughter. They moved together, and he understood that he could not move alone.
But what was this? What bold step was she preparing? Her legs became less frantic; she held fast to the metal. And as he sensed the dwindling power of their spin, something told him he could trust this nameless woman. With an intake of breath, she leapt from the ground and landed on the roundabout. She did not take a seat – no, she had no time for leisure – but began instead to dance! She was dancing on a roundabout! dancing on the roundabout, keeping her shoulders very still, pouting her lips and moving her head from side to side. He felt that he had seen this dance before, lived this moment before, and he watched her, mesmerised, as they turned again and again. And even had he known that this strange and wonderful experience would be over soon, that this girl whom he knew and yet did not know would return to the swing-set, he would have been grateful to have had the experience at all. For perhaps that was enough, perhaps that would be enough, to know this joy just once or twice, or, if he was lucky, a dozen times or so, not whenever he wanted, but whenever she wanted, and perhaps he would rise to dance with her one day, or she would sit alongside him and stay there forever, or he would never see her again, perhaps this one experience would make the perpetual motion of the roundabout bearable, this cycle, this ride without end, as he went on spinning and thinking of the girl he knew and yet did not know, the girl who was taking something from her pocket, a daffodil which she tucked into her hair, a yellow flower amidst brown locks, yellow on brown, yellow and brown, and he hoped that this moment would be enough.
 Incidentally, Giles later discovered that the UK was not even in the top ten for national plum production.
 After searching online for pithy statements about loneliness, Giles gathered that this was not an original thought.
The man closest to Ernest was the devious, loyal, and controversial Bert Eynsham. Every university has a Bert Eynsham. In fact, every social circle has a Bert Eynsham, from the Colombian drugs cartel to the top table at Goldman Sachs. We’re talking brushstrokes here, and it’s worth remembering the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.
And so, as much as Bert Eynsham was another remarkably confident yet surprisingly sensitive womaniser, he was also a downright queer fish.
Whilst Ernest told Rosa that he’d call back in half an hour, Sophie’s mind turned to the teeth of this brazen barracuda. Such inexplicably perfect teeth. With every moment that she dwelt upon this endorsement of the Kensington dentist industry, the ache between Sophie’s eyebrows grew stronger. She forced herself to move beyond Bert’s dental hygiene, to recall what she knew about his friendship with Ernest.
Bert and Ernest met at a techno club. Not being fans of techno clubs, they soon found themselves in a damp smoking area, where Bert offered Ernest a public school handshake to go with his prep school grin. Ernest knew that he was in the presence of trouble.
Where the young writer was also a young romantic, Bert was like Casanova on steroids. Which is to say that he got into rather a lot of trouble with women during his three years at Oxford. He had four girlfriends in that time; he blamed this on the lack of equilibrium between his levels of libido and his levels of commitment. Having said that, he remained faithful to Juliette, Ellie, Daphne and Salomé (Bert liked to joke that this acute accent was evidence of a certain maturity in his final year, as he managed to expand his horizons beyond the darlings of Surrey (Ernest resisted the temptation to point out that Salomé’s father had moved to London at twenty-three, whereupon he married the unofficial Miss Devon 1985, made his millions at JPMorgan, and sent his only daughter, who did admittedly speak excellent French, to St. Paul’s Girls’ School between the ages of eleven and eighteen)).
Ernest and Bert’s friendship grew at a steady pace. They attended the same parties, held the same political views, and, crucially, were key players for the college football team that year (Ernest was a skilful, committed and surprisingly strong centre back, whilst Bert was a quick, tricky and surprisingly selfless inverted winger, which is to say he was a left-footer playing out on the right, a very common tactic of the era, which Ernest liked to see as a metaphor for the fact that here was an actually quite unconventional young man who had chosen a conventional social position because it was inevitable, privilege-bearing and -derived, as well as fundamentally fun). So it was on the football pitch, and in the pub afterwards, that these two young men tested the murky waters of an inter-year friendship.
At the same time as all this, Sophie was embarking upon her own freshman year at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a student of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She, too, was a reasonably talented sportswoman – not as gifted as Ernest but a more useful athlete than Bert, if only because it was on the sports pitch that Monsieur Eynsham (as some referred to him during his courtship of young Salomé) experienced the occasional loss of confidence. Sophie, on the other hand, was uncompromising in her will to win: if Boudicca had chosen to play lacrosse instead of leading a revolt against the Romans, it would have been hard to tell the difference between the two women.
And so, rather than true talent, it was determination that propelled Sophie’s Cambridge career. There would always be someone more adept at conjugating medieval Welsh verbs or discussing the treatment of Norse mythology in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (there was, of course, a specific someone: Gujureet Singh, whom Sophie came to love and hate in equal measures. In her more drunken moments, Sophie would ask herself what on Earth an Indian Sikh was doing studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, although once she’d sobered up and regained her usual English propriety, she would ask herself what on Earth anyone was doing studying these languages. In reality, Gurjureet was a kind boy who hailed from an understated, overweight family based in Croydon. He was a ridiculously good linguist, a perceptive literary critic, a dab historian and an incorrigible swot. And he was the first man that Sophie truly fancied, a word she had not used since her graduation, with his strong nose and endearing monobrow, but Sophie knew that she was too jealous of Gujureet to ever make a move).
‘Hey, Sophie, sorry about that.’ She had almost forgotten about Ernest. ‘Where was I?’
‘You were telling me to commit to improving my life.’ What Sophie wanted to do was continue daydreaming. ‘But, actually, can we talk about something else? You’ve been a massive help, but I’d like to take my mind off things.’
‘Sure, sure, good idea.’ Ernest wondered whether he was supposed to take the initiative here. Before he could think too deeply on the subject, Sophie said,
‘You know, I was wondering: how come you and Bert are such good friends?’
Ernest chuckled. ‘I always used to get asked that. ‘Cause I was pretty darn innocent and Bert was one of Oxford’s biggest womanisers.’ He paused, side-tracked.
‘I was just thinking about the word ‘womanise’. As in, who’s being womanised? Did Bert supposedly turn Oxford girls into women by sleeping with them, or is ‘to womanise’ intransitive? As in, does it mean you’re just having lots of sex?’
‘I tend to think of sex as pretty transitive. But enough showing off, tell me about you and Bert.’
‘Right. Bert. Well, like I said, most people saw us as very different guys, and we definitely are in some respects, as I’m sure you can tell. But we also have a lot in common. First, the unavoidable: our background.’ Sophie gave a futile nod. ‘I’d also like to think we’re both loyal to our friends. That’s important to us. And we’re both Christians.’
Sophie was glad she didn’t have any water in her mouth. ‘Sorry? Bert, a Christian!’
‘He may not always act like one, but Bert’s a Protestant. Yes, he struggles to control his carnal instincts, but he believes that God is love, believes in the resurrection. Honestly, the fact he’s so conflicted is part of why I find him so interesting, regardless of whether I think he’s a good guy or not. And obviously I do think he’s a good guy; he’s just made some mistakes. Which hardly makes him unique…’
Now was not the time for Ernestian social commentary. ‘Do you think he regrets playing the field? Repents, even?’
‘I asked him that once. Essentially he said that even if he was a bit wild in the past, those experiences have shaped him as a person and he wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, Bert would never try to hurt anyone; he would never even think about cheating. And as for repentance, he and I have a liberal interpretation of scripture.’
‘Speaking of which, I should let you speak to Rosa. She must be missing you.’
‘How could she not?’ Sophie felt lighter now; she could hear the cars again. ‘It’s not easy,’ Ernest continued, ‘but it’ll make seeing her all the more special.’
‘She’s coming home soon, right?’
‘Yep, in five days. Not that I’m counting.’
‘Ah, Ernest, this has been great, thank you. And I’m really excited for you and Rosa.’
‘Don’t mention it, Sophie; call whenever. And thanks, I’m pretty darn excited myself.’
Determined to forget herself, Sophie thought about Ernest and Bert’s Christianity. It seemed so… contradictory. She didn’t want to challenge them, especially not when they’d both been so good to her, but their faith came across as the cherry on top of their lives. She imagined it as a source of comfort when their careers became stressful; a pick-me-up when they had no Sunday plans; a reassurance when existential questions threatened their equilibrium. Even Ernest, who was the more introspective of the two, failed to push beyond the surface level of religion. Sophie had gathered this from his writing, where spiritual questions added nuance to the characters but failed to strike a deeper chord. And although she’d only just found out about Bert’s faith, surely that suggested a lack of religious fervour? Sophie didn’t think there was anything wrong with that; she just couldn’t understand half-hearted Christians. She remembered hearing a verse along those lines, and her phone found it in the Book of Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Sophie’s father had left a great mark on her spiritual outlook. A semi-retired history teacher, he was also an amateur biblical scholar of the postmodern variety, and thus encouraged his daughter to view the Testaments as fascinating cultural documents but nothing more; the miracles they recorded were the delusions of a pre-scientific era. Sophie had never been particularly moved by the Gospels, feeling a distance between herself and the figure of Jesus; his words did not stir her, his signs failed to move her. She bore the pronouncements of her father: “The Gospels are a mess of contradictions; we know for a fact that Jesus didn’t say many of the things he’s reported to have said, at least not in the form we read them.” Only a handful of lionhearted verses had managed to touch the Boudicca within her; she remembered the armour of light and the exhortations in Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Scoffing at the humility demanded by Christ, Sophie could see the appeal in a sentiment such as this.
But Ernest and Bert didn’t live the Christian life; Sophie had read enough of the New Testament to know as much. Even if she disregarded the Bible’s claims at truth, she saw the contradiction in professing one’s allegiance to Christ whilst being absorbed in worldly pleasures. Ernest may well have been one of the most romantic men Sophie had met, and of course he had been such a help just now, but his writing made it clear that he tended to see the lives of others through the prism of his own self rather than through a sacrificial Christian light. And as much as Sophie was fond of Bert, he would readily admit that he had shades of Don Juan. She did not hold these flaws against her friends since she knew she was no better, but Sophie wondered if they understood the tepid nature of their faith.
Further muddying these waters was an email Ernest sent the following day:
“Hey Sophie, was skimming through Jordan Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life last night and decided to write my own list. Thought it might help you (and me!). Here’s what I came up with:
Ernest Krandle’s Thirteen Rules for Life
- Never give up on life.
- Love your family, love your friends; heck, try to love the lost and the evil.
- Stay hydrated whenever possible.
- Don’t think too much about what you eat.
- Don’t watch porn. Ever.
- Listen to music every day.
- Read every day.
- Cook at least once a day, even if it’s only a fried egg.
- Exercise every day.
- Be kind to at least one stranger every day.
- Nip harmful thoughts in the bud. Once they’ve blossomed, they’re mighty hard to prune.
- Don’t entertain existential thoughts when your mental health is precarious. It’s unlikely to end well.
- Have faith in God.
Would be interested to hear what you think.
Have a great morning,
For a few days, Sophie felt buoyed by these rules; they provided structure to a life fast spinning out of control. She made an effort to smile at the employees in her local bookshop, she went to the gym after work, and she didn’t allow her depression to morph into existential angst. But all it took was one lonely evening for this hard work to come undone, and then it was back to wallowing in thoughts of weak enamel and wonky canines.
It was the lethargy above all else; the feeling that every good act was too much to bear; every thought for another, every challenge at work, every home-cooked meal. Sophie recognised the value in these pursuits – to lift the weight was to strengthen herself and thus make the weight feel lighter. So why, she asked herself, did she rarely lift the weight? Because it was easier to wallow, easier to skim through a book or listen to a podcast whilst her attention drifted towards her mother’s dental hygiene. Had she always been the jealous type and never known it, constantly comparing herself to friend and foe alike? Or was she the helpless victim of the fragile human mind? No, she had ceased to believe in her own victimhood. This thought loop was no longer an external threat bombarding her defences; she and the thought loop were one.
The Sunday after her chat with Ernest, Sophie’s alarm went off at 08:30. She leapt out of bed and opened the curtains, trying to convince herself that she was raring to go, that this would be the day, yet again, that she got back on the horse. She watched the street below, where a branch swayed like a drunkard at an empty taxi rank, and a father held his daughter’s hand, his eyes smiling at the prospect of a quiet Sunday, hers at the sensation of being alive. And just when Sophie sensed the approach of childhood’s dawn, the return of blissful innocence, her mind attacked with plaque and acid. Letting go of the windowsill, she shut her eyes, tried to calm her angry breath, but the debris between her teeth continued to stain her mind. She tried to remember the irony, the obvious irony that she had outstanding teeth; a number of friends had told her so. Why couldn’t she accept their compliments rather than deciding that they simply didn’t know, that if they examined her mouth through a magnifying glass they would be appalled? And as her breathing failed to settle and her chest began to pound, Sophie collapsed under the shocking burden of her tears.
The phone rang. Her head struggled away from the pillow. Sophie wiped her eyes, scanned her apartment, and followed the noise to its source: her beloved fridge. She was both relieved by the prospect of company and annoyed at the thought of putting on a brave face. Then again, her face would not be visible. Resisting the urge to analyse the contents of her fridge, she saw Bert’s name on the screen. She felt no flutter at the thought of Bert; theirs was not the type of friendship destined for romance. She smiled nonetheless: today might not be a lonely one.
‘Sophie, hey. What are you up to?’
‘Very, very little.’
‘Good. I’m extremely bored.’
If not perfect, at least this was better. ‘You’re such a sympathetic soul, aren’t you?’
‘Far better for two people to be bored than one alone.’
‘Did you just make that up?’
‘I can tell.’
‘Right, I like this rapport we’ve got going so I’ll extend you an invitation: I was thinking we could go to church.’
‘Church?’ The timing was typical. ‘Well, I’m not a Christian.’
‘Nor was I until recently, and now I am.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘My point is you should come to church instead of staying home all day.’
Sophie looked at her apartment. ‘I didn’t think those would be my options on a Sunday when I arrived in London.’
‘Yeah, the whole brunch with your gal-pals thing is a hoax.’ Sophie remembered the smoked salmon in her fridge. ‘I tend to think people are even more boring than usual on the weekend. Not that brunch is interesting…’
Sophie resented giving Bert another laugh, but his ego was already too big to be inflated any further. ‘Alright, I’ll join. What time’s the service?’
‘10:30 at the Westminster Baptist Church. But meet me there at twenty past. I’ll be wearing a blue blazer.’
‘I know what you look like, Bert.’
‘Well, you’d think so, but I actually woke up this morning looking dangerously attractive. I’m not sure you’ll recognise me.’
‘Gosh, this could be an interesting service.’
‘None of that, Shaw.’ Bert really did scream public school. ‘See you in an hour or so.’
‘Yes, sir. Until then.’
Sophie left early. She pounded the pavement on her way to the station, willing herself onwards, fixing her mind upon her graceful but strong march through the pedestrian traffic. Today would be her day; she was resolved to ensure that.
Bert was wearing a tweed jacket.
‘What happened to the blue blazer?’
‘Damn, you recognised me.’
‘You look exactly the same.’
‘No, I don’t. Trust me, I’m looking dangerously attractive. God has blessed me.’
‘Somehow I doubt that’ll be the message of today’s sermon.’
‘Oh, bit of an expert, are we? You should read the Song of Solomon.’ Bert cleared his throat. Oh no, he’s going to perform. He spoke with music in his voice: ‘“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.”’ Bert stopped looking into the distance. ‘Don’t you think there’s something particularly goat-like about my hair today?’
‘The word you’re looking for is caprine. Much nicer than ‘goat-like’.’
‘No, Shaw, my hair is goat-like. It takes a deep understanding of scripture to see that.’ His tone became ominous: ‘You’ll understand one day – God willing. Speaking of which, let’s find our seats.’
Sophie was surprised by the church. She’d expected Bert to be more of a Holy Trinity Brompton man: opulence and renown, dyed hair and sparkly tee-. She stared intently at the baptism pool, the wooden benches and bare altar, above which was written: “Make his praise glorious.” On reading these words, Sophie realised that this was not a question of goat-like locks. But before she could change her mind about today’s activity, Bert found two seats towards the front. He gave his neighbours a warm greeting, and Sophie did her best to follow suit, but she was now aware of her entire self, not just her teeth. She focused on Bert, who seemed transformed in this sacred space; his cheek and arrogance had dissipated, replaced by an eagerness to listen, as a sister reviewed her week or a brother lamented Chelsea’s recent form. It struck Sophie that she had only met Bert a few weeks earlier; she couldn’t bring to mind the verse about not judging others.
The first twenty minutes made her uncomfortable. She could handle, perhaps even enjoy, a traditional Church of England service: a spot of Jerusalem here, a dash of frankincense there, and, to round things off, a nice sermon about home being where the heart is at. Good English stuff. Whereas the first song at the Westminster Baptist Church had people closing their eyes, stretching forth their hands, biting back the tears. This continued for the next three hymns, and then the happiest man in the world discussed the church’s Christmas baking group. After his fourth pun in five minutes, Sophie groaned; the child within her had died.
But then the church pastor, David, returned to the pulpit. ‘Thank you Michael for giving us a taste’ – would it ever stop? – ‘of what to expect this Christmas. I hope lots of you will join us for some baking this year; it’s always a real highlight.’ David was thin. His shirt was tucked into dark blue jeans. ‘Now, today we have something a little different. You can probably guess what it is, given the large baptism pool to my right.’ A ripple of laughter spread through the audience. ‘We feel so blessed to have two candidates getting baptised this morning. Honestly, these are some of my favourite events of the year; I just love the total surrender to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It really is a beautiful thing, I’m sure you’ll all agree. I still remember getting baptised when I was a student, all those years ago.’ David had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday. ‘It remains one of my happiest memories, and I hope Bert and Melissa will be able to say the same when they’re my age.’ All of a sudden, Sophie forgot that she even had teeth. ‘But enough from me, let’s welcome them up here. Please, Bert and Melissa, where are you?’
Bert gave Sophie an eyebrows-raised grin. She hadn’t suspected a thing. He stood up and walked to the front, where he was joined by a young black woman wearing a t-shirt and trousers.
‘True to form,’ David continued, ‘Bert has come somewhat over-dressed for the occasion.’ The congregation laughed. Sophie couldn’t tell if this was all a ruse. ‘I’ve never baptised someone wearing tweed before.’
Bert leaned into the microphone. ‘What can I say, I like to look smart for God.’ More laughter. ‘But I actually need to get changed. Can I slip backstage for a minute?’
‘Again, I’ve never called it ‘backstage’,’ and David said this kindly, ‘but this is quickly becoming quite theatrical. Just be quick, we have plenty to get through.’ Bert slipped out of view. Melissa, meanwhile, was smiling somewhat awkwardly. ‘While Bert gets ready, let us all pray.’ David asked his heavenly Father to support the Christians facing persecution in Algeria, Iran and Sri Lanka, and then thanked the Lord for saving Natalie from cancer. Sophie bowed her head, trying to picture this unknown woman, and she felt her heart soften. As soon as the ‘Amen’ had sounded, Bert reappeared in a grey t-shirt and a pair of tennis shorts. ‘Quite the transformation, Bert! I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer for my first tweed baptism.’ Sophie realised that Ernest and Rosa were both in London; why weren’t they here? ‘We’ll begin with Bert’s testimony, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of baptism, before we move onto our prayers for Bert. Melissa, you can take my seat; I’m sure Bert will keep you waiting. And, on that note: take it away, Bert.’
Bert removed two sheets of paper from his pocket. He unfolded them on the pulpit and cleared his throat. Sophie realised that he was nervous. ‘Good morning. As you may have gathered, my name is Bert. Bert Eynsham. I’ve lived in London my whole life, and I’m lucky to have two loving parents, a loving brother, and two annoying younger sisters, who are all here today.’ He looked up, and heads turned to the Eynsham family at the back of the congregation. Sophie wondered when they had arrived. As she cast her eyes back to the altar, she spotted two familiar faces on the right-hand side of the church: Ernest and Rosa had shown up after all. They waved to her with excitement. Sophie smiled without understanding.
‘I don’t think my testimony is like many of the ones I’ve heard. I don’t say that out of pride, but out of gratitude. You see, most people who stand up here will tell you that Jesus saved them from rock bottom. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, they were struck by a glorious light, filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding. But I can’t relate to that. I’d be lying if I said I was on the verge of giving up when I heard the call of Jesus. The truth is, God has blessed me with a very happy life. Like I said, I have a wonderful family. I also have amazing friends, I had great church experiences growing up, and I’ve been offered pretty much every opportunity anyone could ask for.’ Bert paused. Sophie watched his eyes taking in the audience. ‘But I was also a spoiled brat.’ Those who knew Bert well laughed the loudest. ‘I needed things to go my way: getting into the top sports teams, having the prettiest girlfriends,’ and Sophie noted his use of the plural, ‘going on expensive holidays with my family. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I felt that the world was unjust, that God had let me down. I believed I deserved the best.
‘But then a friend sent me a line by the writer G.K. Chesterton.’ Sophie suspected that this friend was Ernest. ‘Chesterton writes: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” When I read that line, I felt strangely conflicted. A part of me was lifted up by the truth of these words; I saw hope in the angels. But I also felt a thorn in my side; a niggling pain that was trying to tell me something. And eventually I heard these damning words: “Bert Eynsham, you are a proud, proud man.” And, just like that, I knew I was not a true Christian. Sure, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but where was the fruit of that belief? Was my behaviour different from that of any other decent but proud young man? I looked back over my short life, and the answer was clear: no, it wasn’t. And I hated this answer. I knew that I was the worst of all men: someone who brings shame to the name of Jesus, since anyone who claims to be a Christian but lives only for himself does God a disservice. I was effectively saying to God: ‘Thanks for sending your son down to us, that was really kind of you, but I’m going to tread my own path; I’m going to make sure Bert Eynsham comes out on top.’
Bert turned the page. ‘You see, I have lived a charmed life. I’ve indulged myself in drink, in money, in the pleasures of the body.’ Bert’s voice was louder now; it contained a self-disgust Sophie had never heard. ‘And God has been patient with me; he has shown me mercy. But eventually he sent that thorn into my side. It was only a small thorn, far less than I deserved, but it made me realise that if I kept to the same path, God would turn that thorn into a dagger. He would show me how foolish all my pride really was. But he spared me the pain, and I think that’s because he saw how weak I was; how much I depended on the so-called good things of this world.
‘Having felt even that slight pain, I decided to commit to my faith. I chose to take up my cross.’ Bert gripped the pulpit. He was both younger and older than ever before. ‘No more sleeping around, no more heavy nights, no more living for pleasure. From now on, I will do my very best to live according to God’s plan. And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.’ Sophie realised there was something goat-like about Bert’s hair. ‘My life used to be guided by one big question: what will make me happy? But now I’m guided by a different question: what would Jesus do? I’ve realised that I never really saw people for what they were; I never really cared about them. I didn’t listen as much as I should have, I didn’t go out of my way to help anyone. Or, if I did, I was still putting my desires before theirs.’ Bert looked at the congregation. His eyes were steely as his lips smiled. ‘That’s been the biggest change for me: trying to focus on the happiness of others rather than my own. But the funny thing is, I’ve felt so much happier ever since. God has given me a hunger I didn’t have before. I want to be awake at every moment, I want to see my family more often, I want to share this joy with as many people as I can. If I can help save even one soul, that would be a great thing.’
Bert turned away from his notes. ‘Faith is an incredibly difficult thing to explain. I don’t think it makes much sense until you’ve experienced it yourself, which seems like a flaw in the system.’ Sophie joined the congregation as she laughed. ‘I never thought I’d be one of these people. I never expected to say that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, and I don’t think my family or friends would have expected it either. But Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Wow, what’s happened to me.’ People laughed the kind of laughter that is streaked by tears. ‘It makes me very happy to share this day with you all. I may not have been a drug addict or a murderer, but I’ve hurt people by being selfish and proud, by not loving enough. But as Jesus said: “You must be born again.” And I do feel like a completely different person.’ Bert looked straight at Sophie. ‘I hope that every one of you makes more space for God. I can guarantee that doing so will change your life.’ He paused once more, swallowing in the absence of water. ‘I’d like to finish by quoting my favourite passage from Isaiah, since I’ve already used far too many words of my own.’ Bert picked up his notes, and he spoke with a boom in his voice:
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.’
Bert stepped away from the pulpit and heaved a sigh of relief. Then he patted himself on the back.
As applause resounded through that unassuming church and David stepped towards the pool, Bert smiled with schoolboy innocence rather than schoolboy cheek. And as Ernest and Rosa hugged each other out of joy for their friend, Sophie looked at him upon his stage, saw a man transformed by love, a man prepared to sacrifice his life for what he could not see, and, in so looking, she began to cry for the second time that day.