Thank you, and good night

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 romanceand, 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: 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: 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:

Keep fighting the good fight, and God bless you.

Morris E. Morrissey

Chapter Eleven

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:

Dear Gylfi,

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,

Entrusting loam

To ballast home,

Seeking decay

Despite Your hand.


I clipped Your dove

By prizing life –

No linen shroud,

Distrust avowed,

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,

Dear evergreen.


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,

Who satisfies

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.

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gosh, that does sound unhealthy.’

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

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

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

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

‘That sounds familiar…’

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

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

‘It takes two to tango, you goose.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ha, ha, always coming back to God.’

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

‘Ah, yes, that classic phase.’

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

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


‘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.

‘You’re serious?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tell me about it.’

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

Dear Jake, Aaron and Youri,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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…’


‘Yeah, reflecting.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What have you been saying?’

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

‘What’s he been saying, my love?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You do, don’t you?’

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

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

‘Because I-‘.

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

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

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

‘But that would make him an unjust God.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I didn’t say anything!’

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s not fair, I’ve just been…’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Uhh, this is torture.’

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

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


Dear Gylfi,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Old friends

            Memory brushes the same years

            Silently sharing the same fears.

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


P.S. We’ll miss your crazy keys.