Whenever he and Rosa argued, Ernest knew that they were made for each other. No-one could make him so passionate, so angry, so deeply upset; in his eyes, there was no greater sign of love. None of this tepid romance, with its brushed-over issues and half-hearted sorries. Ernest wanted to love a woman so deeply that her pain cut through him; the slightest altercation needed to bring his world crashing down.
And now he was wading through rubble. Ernest lifted fallen pillars, searching for a relic of his former self. But all he saw was the wreckage of last night; the wreckage of his disloyalty. With the love of his life crying for help, he’d left her outside the city gates; gates that only remained intact if they were opened.
All it would have taken was a quick intervention: ‘Bert, you know how much I respect your integrity, but I don’t think anything good will come of this.’ Then he’d have put his arm around Rosa and told her not to worry, she and Bert were allowed to have different views. But maybe that was naïve. Maybe they were destined to lock horns, and he had no choice but to pick a side. In that case, he would always stand by Rosa. Even when they disagreed, he would find a way to protect her. Not that Ernest would ever argue against his conscience – but he would combine his beliefs with compassion, managing the situation so that both he and Rosa retained their dignity. Surely that was possible? Surely he could combine a belief in love and a belief in truth, finding the middle ground when the two came into contention? He realised that Bert’s experience was becoming his own.
Ernest remembered the way she’d said it: ‘Oh my word, are you kidding me?’ Disbelief mingled with disgust. But that was the kind of passion he craved – far better to be admonished than ignored. He was learning this now, as they walked in silence; Ernest knew of no greater discord.
They reached the bottom of Zurich’s Lindenhof, a hill providing views of the city they were soon to leave. Their next port of call was Vienna, although they planned to stop off in central Austria for the lakes. Ernest hoped one of these destinations would inspire Rosa’s band. Their attempts at a comeback song were not going well; Jake seemed haunted by the idea of a Guns-N’-Roses-esque return. And although none of them admitted it, they all knew that Gylfi’s riffs had been the starting point for some of their biggest numbers. Thus the sound of silence reigned.
Eventually, though, Rosa opened her mouth: ‘So, Ernest,’ and there it was, that strangely distancing use of his name, ‘I’ve been wondering something.’ He braced himself as they passed a bench dedicated to a loving father. ‘How’s your book going?’ Ernest looked at Rosa. Although her expression remained deadpan, he couldn’t help smiling. ‘Cause we haven’t talked about it in a while, so I was wondering how it’s coming along?’
‘Hmm, good question, Rosa.’ She forced herself not to smile back. ‘You see, I’ve realised I’m actually a total narcissist, and I always end up writing about myself.’
‘Gosh, that does sound unhealthy.’
‘It does, doesn’t it? But it’s where I get all my ideas.’ He remembered the words of his namesake, Ernest Hemingway: “Write about what you know and write truly.” Ernest decided not to give credit to his superior: ‘I want to write about things I know. And you’d hope I might know more about my own life than somebody else’s. Or, at least, I’m familiar with the events of my life, even if I can’t always interpret them. And I guess that’s part of the fun.’
‘That makes sense.’ Rosa’s stride was strong, whereas Ernest had always flicked his lower leg out from his knee. ‘Just be careful, though. You’re pretty good at getting lost in your head.’
The last eighteen hours were proof enough of this. ‘And I need to think about how I portray other people. Cause when my characters are based on friends or family, they’re obviously going to take extra interest in what I write, as if they can work out exactly how I feel by reading the book. And sometimes I am actually describing how I feel. And that’s pretty dangerous.’
‘Please don’t hurt anyone.’ She usually would have said ‘my love’ at the end of this sentence. ‘But I guess it depends on who you want to be as a writer. Does your vision come at the expense of everything else, or are you going to be more humane than that?’
‘That sounds familiar…’
‘Sadly so.’ They passed an older woman and smiled as if nothing was wrong. Their trainers seemed far too loud all of a sudden. And then, once they’d reached a quiet spot beneath two trees, Rosa turned. ‘Look, Ernest, I don’t want to talk about sin and hell and all that right now. I’m too upset. But I just want to say,’ and at these words tears started to form, ‘you really hurt me last night. I can’t tell you how painful it was to watch you sitting there whilst I… felt really vulnerable. You’ve never done that before, and I find that really scary. I’m worried you might be drifting away, leaning more towards Bert than me.’ Ernest tried to put his arm around Rosa, but she stopped him. ‘No, please let me finish.’ This took great strength, since Rosa wanted nothing more than Ernest’s arms. ‘I’m happy to give you time. I know it’s not easy exploring your faith, so I respect you for that. But I’ve always felt I could trust you more than anyone else… And now that’s been damaged because you just sat there next to Bert…’ Her nose was pink as it sucked in air. ‘I agree he has a right to his opinion – of course I do. But you should have come over and put your arm around me. That’s all I’m asking.’
Donning his literary cap, Ernest took this shift into the present tense as a sign of permission: he held Rosa. And once he was certain that she wanted him there, he translated his love by abandoning language. With his lips Ernest took Rosa back to that day in El Retiro park when they’d shared kisses beneath the shade of a tree. She travelled in the slipstream of that summer in Madrid, remembering the tan of Ernest’s arms and the long-awaited taste of gluten-free croissants that didn’t sandpaper her tongue. Given the weather in Zurich and their cheese-and-salami breakfast, the effect of Ernest’s embrace was all the more striking. Rosa wished they could make love right then. Instead, they held this kiss, until Ernest pulled away. He noticed her surprised eyes. ‘I can’t just make it up to you with a kiss, my love. Although,’ and he chuckled, ‘that was quite the kiss, if I may so myself.’
‘It takes two to tango, you goose.’
Ernest felt the tension in his forehead dissipating. Little by little, he was winning Rosa back. And now came the easy part: telling her how awful he felt. Of course, her response might be more difficult. ‘My love, about last night…’ Their kiss faded as his voice lost all playfulness. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t support you. I’m sorry I left you stranded. It’s been eating away at me all morning.’ Ernest wished it would take him longer to feel like crying. He looked at Rosa’s lips. ‘I think when I’m discussing things with Bert,’ and she went tense at his name, ‘it all becomes so theoretical. I was thinking about all these lofty things like freedom of speech and integrity, but that’s useless because I lost sight of how real the consequences were. Last night wasn’t some debating match; it was bloody real.’ Rosa had always hated public debating. The thought of standing up in front of two hundred people to discuss whether the church ought to be involved in politics made her quiver. ‘Honestly, I’m still going over what happened, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I should have put you first, because I love you and I don’t ever want to lose you.’ He felt something damp along his cheek. ‘I’m really sorry for letting you down.’
That evening, Ernest remembered the time he’d lost his mind. It was after a night on the town – alcohol being the cause of all his darkest thoughts.
At the peak of dehydration, he spotted a hole in his jumper. It was the size of a one-pound coin, but Ernest cursed his impatience; there was simply no need to tug like that. Alas, the damage had been done, and, to misquote Neil Young, Ernest was a novice with the needle.
He tried to work out his next move. Should he ask his sister for help? Wear a different jumper? No, that would be admitting defeat. These hesitations added fuel to the fire, and Ernest was soon on intimate terms with his outfit’s imperfection. With his mind casting visions of a gaping abyss, he imagined the hole on both sides of the jumper; he only realised his mistake when his fingers touched intact wool. By the time he received the call from the hospital, he was hooked on anxiety.
But then he heard the words, ‘Ernest, you need to come to Chiswick Medical Centre. Rosa’s broken her leg.’
The thought of her agony made Ernest correct his course. He charged through the crowd, desperate to help his dame. It took him far too long to realise that he was heading in the wrong direction. After consulting Google Maps, he found the station and a seat on the tube. But as the train gathered speed, he heard a tempting whisper: Come on, Ernest, just one little look. It’ll make things better, I promise. Realising that this voice could distract him from love, Ernest committed himself to its destruction. He needed to focus on the essential things of life. Otherwise he was in danger of having the experience but missing the meaning.
Twelve months later, Ernest was disappointed to find that he still lived on the theoretical plane. Perhaps it was the writer in him, but Rosa needed more. Luckily, she had no trouble forgiving him; she’d simply been waiting to see if he was sorry. And as he held her in a desperate embrace, Rosa knew that Ernest longed for another chance at last night. She kissed her love and reassured him: there was no-one else for her.
When he received this pardon, Ernest forgot about his abandonment of the theoretical plane and returned to thoughts of marriage. He pictured a wedding in Madrid or London or the Isle of Wight, where they’d spent their Easter camping. And as he watched Rosa walking down the aisle, Ernest felt an urge to drop to one knee. This was a new experience for him. Despite his determination to marry Miss Colbert, he’d never come close to proposing. But now, as they walked towards Lindenhof’s summit, with the wind flapping her coat and the leaves rustling underfoot, Ernest very nearly muddied his favourite pair of jeans (no holes in these bad boys; he thanked Carhartt for their durable denim). Yes, they were young, but why delay the inevitable? Granted, 38 Children’s uncertain future might tighten the purse strings, but Ernest had secured a contract for his novel and he’d be happy to tutor on the side, as ever public-school graduate must do at some point. And yet, he left his jeans untainted. Proposing seemed romantic now, but Ernest was a man of order. He wanted to ask Rosa’s father; he wanted to have the right ring (as opposed to no ring at all); and he wanted to prepare a beautiful speech, the sequel to Yellow and Brown.
Besides, however frightening it may be, he needed to work out what marriage meant to him. Did he really see it as an inviolable contract signed before God, or was that something he’d absorbed from his parents? And should he and Rosa be reserving sex for marriage? The thought made him feel so alone.
The more he considered such matters, the more Ernest wanted his relationship with Rosa to be like a clingstone fruit. He would be the left side of the apricot; Rosa would be the right. And in the middle would nestle God, the stone responsible for their love. But Ernest sensed the approach of that difficult yet necessary thing: nuance. If he was going to be a more biblical Christian, he would have to recognise God for what He was: the tree bearing fruit whose stone was love. For now, the young writer held Rosa’s hand and decided that there was no need to love her any differently: his faith remained the same, even if he was exploring the promised garden.
But he was in danger of falling into narcissism once more, seeing Rosa solely through his own eyes. He decided to take a risk: ‘How are you feeling about Bert?’
Rosa squeezed his hand a little tighter. ‘Oh, I’m so confused. I feel this anger bubbling up inside me whenever I think about it.’ Ernest could count the times he’d seen Rosa angry on a six-tiered abacus. And he meant that as a sign of distinction. ‘But I hate feeling like that. You know I can’t stand grudges… I guess I’ll need some time because he really touched a nerve. But I’ll try my best to work through that; I don’t want this hanging over us.’
‘I get that it’s an emotional subject.’
‘Like most things. And that’s what scares me: I’m worried Bert’s losing touch with how vulnerable people are.’
‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that. If anything, he’s way more aware now. But I think that’s counterbalanced by this incredible belief in the power of God. So sometimes it seems like he’s being inconsiderate, when really he just thinks we’re making life too complicated. You know, like there’d be no need for any of these arguments if we all just followed God.’
‘Ach, I just can’t understand such a narrow view of life. How can anyone decide they’ve found the truth, let alone a twenty-three-year-old who’s only ever worked at Credit Suisse?’ Rosa allowed herself to laugh with Ernest. ‘But don’t you think it’s pretty arrogant? And it wouldn’t be the first time Bert’s had too big a view of himself.’
‘True…’ Ernest took a moment to think. In that respect, it was a day like yesterday. ‘I guess Bert would say it’s the opposite of arrogance. He’s accepting that he can’t discover the truth on his own; only God can reveal it.’
‘But doesn’t that presuppose that the Christian God is the truth? So, even if God has to reveal the remaining details, it’s still Bert who’s making that overarching truth claim.’
‘Yep, you’re right. But I wouldn’t be so afraid of deciding that something is true. I guess we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to be postmodern about things -’ Rosa had been waiting for Ernest to use the ‘P’ word – ‘always seeing truth as subjective; non-existent, in other words. But I don’t think you have to be particularly arrogant to claim you’ve found the truth. Like, if I say that two plus two equals four, I’m hardly being arrogant.’ Before Rosa could say that there was a difference between maths and religion, Ernest continued: ‘So it all depends on your argument. In Bert’s case, he’d say that, based on the facts in front of him, Christianity makes the most sense out of life. It’s the best way of explaining the existence of evil, the Gospels, the spread of the Church, etc., etc. So I think it comes from a place of reason, which means Bert is trying to use universal principles rather than his own intelligence. And now that I think about it, sometimes he has to really humble himself when he’s reading the Bible. He was telling me this the other day: whenever he thinks a passage doesn’t make sense, he assumes the problem is with him. Because if the Bible has taught him so much already, who’s he to say it’s gone wrong somewhere?’
Rosa digested this as they approached the top of the hill. ‘Fair enough. I just think last night has made me kind of uncomfortable about Christianity. And I’m sorry if that’s difficult for you. It just seems so moralising.’
‘It would kill Bert to hear you say that.’ Ernest took his hands from his pockets. ‘Even though I get he was too intense, just remember he really does love your brother. He meant that.’
Rosa winced. Unlike Ernest, she’d been trying to remain on the theoretical plane. ‘You really think so?’
‘Definitely. I promise you, Bert is a changed man. He cares so much more about other people. I know that must be hard to believe after last night, but his heart was in the right place. He was trying to say that we can all be happier if we listen to God. He genuinely wants that.’
They arrived at the summit. ‘Okay, I get what you mean. He’s still learning the best way to spread the love.’
Rosa dropped her shoulders with a sigh. ‘Okay, I’ll try be more open-minded about it.’
‘That would be great. And I know it seems like Bert’s being close-minded, and in a sense he is, but Christianity is actually about being open to everyone. It just has a very specific way of going about that, but maybe you need a narrow approach to reach the widest truth.’
‘What a philosopher you are, Ernest.’ Rosa looked out across Zurich. ‘Not a bad view, is it?’ The River Limmat stretched before them; it was a shade lighter than Munich’s Eisbach. Around the water stood lime trees. This city was unexciting, but Ernest and Rosa could imagine being comfortable here.
‘Very nice, indeed.’ They stood in silence for a time, watching three children pose for a selfie. A bell tolled the hour. ‘I wonder how Sophie and Bert are getting on at church.’
‘I was thinking the same thing.’
Ernest used one of their refrains: ‘In sync.’
As she watched a sculler sliding across the surface, Rosa smiled. ‘What do you think Bert’s going to do next?’
‘Ha, ha, good question. Honestly, that man is so ambitious. He told me the only thing he’s afraid of is God. He says that’s the key to happiness…’
‘Gosh, he really has gone whole hog, hasn’t he?’ It felt good to laugh in the face of eternity. ‘But I get where he’s coming from. There’s nothing to worry about with God on your side. You just need to make sure He is on your side.’
‘That’s pretty much exactly how he put it. Anyway, he wants to be a Christian innovator like Kanye.’
‘Of course he does.’ Ernest couldn’t have been happier to have Rosa back. ‘I can see the resemblance.’
‘Yeah, he’s definitely got that Yeezy self-belief. He says he’s going to build things for God. I don’t think he knows where that will take him, but first he wants to study the Word. He’s actually thinking about going to a Christian school near here.’
‘I thought he was coming to Vienna with us?’
‘Oh, he is. And hopefully Budapest, too. But then he thinks he’ll go to L’Abri. It’s this house in the Alps where everyone spends their days exploring the big questions of life. They have this amazing library, and it’s free to stay: you just have to help around the house, cook, clean, that kind of thing.’
‘Sounds right up Bert’s street.’
‘I think it will be good for him. Expose him to different walks of life.’ The wind was picking up now. ‘Right, enough of this. I’m hungry.’
‘Whatever you say, my liege.’
Ernest thought of Bert and Sophie. ‘Do you feel up to seeing them?’
However tempting a date with her love might seem, Rosa needed to say yes. She attempted a smile. ‘Sure, let’s do it. I’m thinking cheese fondue.’
‘Ho, ho, she’s a keeper.’
‘You better believe it.’
Like Rosa and Ernest half an hour earlier, Bert and Sophie were walking in silence. Unlike Rosa and Ernest, they were very much friends.
Bert wanted to talk about faith. He was so excited by Sophie’s experience in church; “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” But his earlier faux-pas made him hesitate: there was nothing less romantic than being called ‘a fellow soldier of Christ’. Of course, such fellowship was cause for joy, but Sophie was still experiencing an immediate pain. Bert knew this from his own heartbreak. However much he loved Christ, the thought of Hannah still bruised him.
In reality, Sophie was trying to avoid such wounds. She listened to her mother’s voice: this was an infatuation disguised as love. Maybe she was right; maybe this passion would fade. Sure, Bert was bold and witty and gorgeous, but he would also be a difficult husband. Sophie imagined him kneeling every night in prayer, unaware of how she longed to be held.
But Sophie couldn’t believe this lie. Bert was exactly what she wanted: a man who combined conviction with humour; a man who would cherish his wife. Which meant the next few weeks might be painful, especially as rejection brought her teeth to mind. But Sophie had a higher calling now, and that would give her strength. Indeed, she already felt Christ’s healing touch; her cell became an upper room whenever He was there. And with this came the ability to see: her obsession was something wicked. God wanted her to be a light in the world, serving others at her own expense.
As they followed signs to the city centre, Bert and Sophie rested in God’s arms. They were far closer to each other than they realised. Before they could share this communion, Bert’s phone rang. Seeing Ernest’s name on the screen, he hoped his friend had made peace with Rosa. ‘Hi, brother, what’s up?’
‘Howdy, brother,’ and Bert knew that Rosa had flipped her ink eradicator and returned Ernest’s name to her good books, ‘we were wondering if you and Sophie wanted to grab some lunch?’
Bert looked at his watch and saw that one o’clock had passed. Food had been the furthest thing from his mind, but perhaps a gathering of their group would heal the remaining rifts. ‘Sounds great. We’re just walking around not too far from the-.’
‘Oh, wait, I see you!’
‘Really? Where are you?’
Ernest cracked up as he watched Bert spinning on the spot. His neck craned in search of two dashing young Brits. ‘Right behind you, brother.’ Bert made a final turn and found them giggling. He’d never been so pleased to be the butt of Rosa’s mockery.
‘Shalom,’ he said, filled by their love.
‘Hello, friends.’ Ernest looked like he’d just walked out of the courtroom with the word ‘innocent’ ringing in his ears.
His judge looked over Bert’s shoulder. ‘Sophie, are you okay? You look like a rabbit in the headlights.’
Everyone turned to Sophie, and the lights became brighter. She blinked five times – halfway to a rabbit’s hourly ration. Perhaps concerned by the idea of spreading her remaining blinks across fifty-nine minutes, she hopped into the car and turned off the ignition: ‘Well, I committed my life to Jesus about half an hour ago, and then I told Bert I loved him.’
‘You love Bert?!’ Rosa punched Ernest’s forearm. She could tell Sophie was hurting.
‘D’you really have to focus on that part?’ After a moment’s reflection, they realised Bert had a point.
‘Yep, I love him. For my sins.’ Although she’d meant this figuratively, Sophie’s brain was busy making new connections, and the expression struck a nerve. ‘But Bert doesn’t feel the same way.’
The traffic grew louder as their silence spread. One second became two seconds became ten. Bert felt that the onus was on him. So he tried to diffuse the tension: ‘I’m proving a bit of a nuisance on this trip, aren’t I?’
To Bert’s surprise, Rosa was the first to laugh. Accepting him for his ridiculous but loveable self, she allowed her heart to open. The bounce of her shoulders was so familiar that delight soon came pouring out of Ernest and Bert. They felt their bodies relax; unlike Joy Division, love could not tear them apart. And before too long, as she saw that God was on their side, Sophie became the fourth member of this laughing band. The clock struck one fifteen.
‘Look, all I’m saying is Disney has encouraged Darwinian thought.’
‘Bert, what are you on about?’ Rosa sipped white wine, amazed that an ice bucket could make her feel so warm.
‘Just hear me out. Let’s take… Robin Hood. You’ve all seen the cartoon, right?’ Mutters and nods all round. ‘That’s a relief, cause it’s actually a great film.’ Sophie remembered Maid Marian; what an inspirational vixen she was. ‘Wait, no, I’m supposed to be slating it. Okay, this is what I think: let’s say you’re eight years old and you watch this fox playing Robin Hood – you know, standing on two legs, shooting a bow and arrow, wearing human clothes – and then you go to biology class and the teacher tells you that Darwinian evolution is a fact… Don’t you think your brain has been hard-wired to accept that? Cause, let’s be serious: about six months after you were born, your parents plopped you in front of the T.V. for the first time, and you’ve spent your whole life watching dogs eating spaghetti or… cats playing the piano!’
‘Ooh, good reference, Aristocrats is so underrated.’ Rosa was trying to ignore the fact that Bert was linking this back to Christianity. To her surprise, it was working: the glow of their laughter remained, revealing the gaiety of Bert’s analysis.
‘Thank you, Rosa, I couldn’t agree more. It’s bloody annoying these films are so good because that’s what makes them dangerous.’
‘Do you actually think they’re dangerous?’ Ernest’s eyes remained fixed on his lamb. As it gave way under the pressure of his knife, he remembered Churchill the Car Insurance Dog: ‘Ooooh, yes.’ He failed to make the connection with Bert’s point.
‘Okay, maybe dangerous is a little strong, but you know I like to exaggerate.’ This, however, did distract Rosa from her melted Gruyère. Bert was in dangerous territory when he referred to his own bravado; it made her think he enjoyed being controversial. ‘But it’s insidious. Yeah, that’s the word. Children in the West grow up being told there’s only one way of looking at the world.’ He adopted the tone of a snarky teacher: ‘Sure, you can believe in those myths like Adam and Eve, and church can be really nice for building a community, but we all know deep down that it’s basically just wishful thinking. Science is the way forward! Human progress!’ A few Swiss gentlemen looked at Bert with a reproving eye. Ernest couldn’t blame them: this food deserved maximum attention. ‘And I’m not trying to say evolution is a complete hoax. Micro-evolution is a fact, no doubt about that. But I have, quite literally, a bone or two to pick with macro-evolution.’ Sophie wondered how long he’d been waiting to use that line. ‘Yeah, all I’m saying is, there needs to be more scope for discussion.’ There was a moment of cutlery-and-plate percussion. ‘Sorry, bad timing. I’ll shut up.’
Perhaps it was the fennel she was chewing that made Rosa respond with kindness. ‘Look, Bert, we can’t avoid this forever.’ He put down his napkin. ‘To be honest, I like how you approach life: if there’s a problem you want to solve, you’ll consider it from different angles. I think that’s what I missed last night. You aren’t leaping headfirst into some dogmatic approach; you’re actually trying to weigh up the pros and cons.’ Sophie loved when Rosa spoke like this; she was tough yet sympathetic, like a mother in waiting. ‘And I don’t mind you talking about evolution. I may not agree with you on the science, but you’re right that the attack on religion can be pretty systematic. But you need to be more understanding of where people are coming from. All I’m asking is for you to meet me where I’m at.’ She paused. ‘You’re allowed to think a certain way about homosexuality. It’s hard for me to say that, but you are. But please don’t forget that what seems like obvious, objective truth to you is tied up with so many difficult emotions for other people.’
Bert needed no time to chew her words. ‘I’m sorry for last night, Rosa. I was thinking the exact same thing about meeting people where they’re at – otherwise I’ll push them away from God, and that’s the last thing I want. And thank you for respecting my opinion; I guess that’s where I was going with the whole Disney-Darwin spiel. I just don’t want people to think opinions are invalid if they come from faith. You know, like my stance on creation is just some personal truth and I can’t take it into the public sphere, cause us religious folk should keep to ourselves, truth can’t be based on religion…’ Ernest sensed that Rosa might be losing her patience; he gave his friend a wide-eyed look. ‘Sorry, going one step too far, as per.’ Rosa saw that Bert was trying. He simply struggled to keep the floodgates closed. But she could forgive him that; his passion for God was like Ernest’s for writing or hers for 38 Children. She wished it didn’t have to be so polemical, but perhaps that reflected her own fear. She’d never been one for politics or organised religion.
‘But that means I should respect your position too and see if we can have some constructive discourse, rather than just seeing it as ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’.’ Bert pictured Danny Devitto in Matilda, but he sensed that the time for children’s film references had passed. ‘Cause someone intelligent like you can always teach me something, even if we disagree on the fundamentals. So, I’m sorry for hurting you. You’re not my opposition.’
Rosa nodded. ‘I really hope we’re not on different sides.’
‘Definitely not. At the end of the day, I’m trying to help people. But sometimes I forget they can’t see things from my perspective.’
It had taken Bert some time to appreciate Rosa on her own terms. Whilst he’d always seen what an amazing impact she had on Ernest, she’d seemed a little young at first. Eventually, though, he saw the truth: Rosa was far less tainted by the world. In that respect, her spirit was particularly Christian. She never swore, never gossiped, never compared herself to others; Bert had never heard her expressing envy. She did not drink to wash away anxiety; she drank to celebrate her enjoyment of life. Nor did she dress out of narcissism; she took delight in the colours and fabrics that skilful hands had woven. If you wanted to light up a room, Rosa was your best bet. People relaxed in her presence. Ah, good, finally someone who’s got their head together, their smiles seemed to say. Rosa’s usual composure made her reaction last night all the more telling. Now more than ever, Bert saw that Christianity was not a weapon to be wielded lightly.
‘Apology accepted, Bert. And I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. Deep down, I must have known what I was getting myself into.’
‘That’s alright. It was helpful for me to be confronted like that.’
Rosa put out her hand. ‘So let’s move on from this?’
‘Nothing would make me happier.’ Bert grasped her palm, and they shook. ‘Except maybe some mayonnaise for these chips.’
Sophie laughed the hardest of them all. Throughout lunch, she’d felt Christ’s spirit growing stronger within her. The knot in her chest was disappearing, and her thoughts no longer moved in circles. For better or worse, this peace made Bert all the more attractive. Whilst this wasn’t the traditional interpretation of the Gospel, it was no longer lust Sophie felt. Her desire was to learn with Bert; to witness his service to God, in all its trial and error. He might lack shrewdness, but it was his bravery that shone through.
She saw him standing on a rooftop some fifty metres high. Having once been too afraid to peer over the edge, he’d realised how to conquer his fear: by removing the railing that was keeping him from death. His friends might call him crazy, his mother might worry sick, but Bert would always reassure them: people only fell because they were afraid. And although she lacked the courage to join Bert on the precipice, Sophie felt closer to trusting God with every passing moment. So long as she welcomed love into her heart, she didn’t notice the food between her teeth. That marked a step towards the rooftop’s edge. Emboldened by this progress, Sophie forged ahead. Bert might never love her the way she wanted, but perhaps that was God’s plan. Besides, she would rather conquer death with a friend than be a fearful lover.
‘Who wants to hear a joke?’ Rosa, Ernest and Bert interrupted their eating to look at Sophie.
‘I’d love to.’ Bert’s smile made her foot tingle; at this rate, she’d be doing handstands alongside him.
‘So this guy called Michael Jones is speaking to his friend Dave. Now, Michael’s boss has been giving him stick at work, so he’s telling Dave about how rough his day’s been. He natters on for a while, explaining how unprofessional his boss is, and then he says, “He completely took the Mickey out of me.”
‘And Dave turns to Michael, looking deadly serious, and he says, “What, so now you’re just Jones?”’
The faces of the Swiss gentlemen softened when they saw Sophie and her friends curling up with laughter. About fifteen seconds into their camaraderie, Ernest attempted to finish his sparkling water, but he only managed to spit all over Rosa. None of them could tell whether the joke was actually funny, but it signalled the final breakdown of tension. Thirty-six hours of anxiety turned into thirty-six seconds of joy (the Swiss gentlemen decided that this was sixteen seconds too long, but what could you do about tourists).
‘I think that calls for a bottle of Champagne,’ Ernest declared.
Rosa sat up straight. ‘D’you know my favourite thing about Christianity?’ This was even more unexpected than Sophie’s joke. Seeing the look on Bert’s face, Rosa clarified: ‘Sorry, Bert, don’t get your hopes up.’
But Ernest was the most intrigued of all. ‘What is it?’
‘The fact that Champagne bottles are named after Old Testament kings.’
‘You didn’t know that, brother?’ Bert remembered his university days. He always felt sad at the thought of heavy drinking.
‘No, hence why I said “Really!”’ Ernest’s voice cracked when he said this, and their laughter continued.
‘Yeah, so each size is named after a king,’ Rosa explained. ‘The smallest is a Jeroboam, then double that is a Methuselah, and it goes all the way up to Melchizedek, which is thirty litres.’
Sophie remembered Melchizedek from the Letter to the Hebrews. Somehow she doubted that the High Priest had a proclivity for sparkling wine.
‘That’s crazy.’ Ernest couldn’t believe he’d never heard this. ‘Well, I think it’s time for a Jeroboam.’ And he asked the waiter, in faltering French, if they could have a small bottle of Champagne. The waiter replied in English.
A few minutes later, they were toasting their reunion. Even Bert had a glass. They drank to good health and loving hearts.
 Having never been a fan of hard rock, Ernest had required an explanation from 38 Children’s lead singer. ‘Oh, man, you’re not into GNR?’ Jake broke into a quick rendition of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. Incidentally, Ernest found ‘GNR’s’ use of apostrophes extremely irritating. ‘Well, basically, they made a comeback in 2008 with this album called Chinese Democracy, which was a total flop,’ at which point Ernest said that Chinese democracy was always doomed to fail. Sadly, Jake’s enthusiasm for politics was even more subdued than Ernest’s for hard rock; he wouldn’t have understood this joke even if he’d been standing on his tip-toes. He laughed to avoid an Ernestine monologue. ‘Yeah, so GNR kept quiet for fifteen years and then they spent thirteen million dollars on this album and it was pure shit. And I’m worried that might happen to us, cause every time I try to write about Gylfi, it sounds so clichéd.’ Whilst he sympathised with Jake, Ernest wondered if he wasn’t being slightly melodramatic. For a start, 38 Children Called Stone weren’t exactly pushing for entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (little did he know that the band had once literally pushed its way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum to hide from a group of teenage girls who’d recognised Jake). And, unless Rosa wasn’t telling him something, Ernest suspected their budget might be closer to thirteen thousand than thirteen million.
 Incidentally, one of Ernest’s life ambitions was to write a book about the parks of Europe. His father told him he needed to set his sights a little higher.
 Ernest blamed ten years of boarding school for his poor knowledge of London.