Chapter Seven

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

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


If only we could see ourselves

Through the eyes of those

Who love us.


Oh what I’d give to see myself

Through all your loving eyes.


I wish that I could see myself

Through all your loving eyes.


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

‘What’s that?’

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

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

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

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

‘The old noggin’ likes to play games.’

‘Ha, ha, you can say that again.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ready and waiting.’

‘Okay, here goes:


“She pours herself

A crimson glass,

Forgetting how

The time should pass,


How words should form,

How thoughts should flow,

How she might find

The seeds to sow.


No voice can fill

This silent day,

As Dylan sings,

Lay, lady, lay,


And adults scorn

A life too mild,

But truly mourn

The fallen child,


Who did not die,

But was replaced,

By woman lost

And man defaced.


An empty ache

Behind the eyes,

The spirit wanders,

The soul, she cries:


O endless day!

What must I do

To fill your hours,

To change your hue?


What song can soothe

My weary mind,

What joy is left

For me to find?


She drifts away,

She drowns the hours,

With morning tears

And gentle showers.


The mirror spots

Her stifled yawn

– O to leave

The shoes now worn.


And on croons Dylan,

Across his bed –

Its frame is brass,

Her body lead.


But deepest dark

Prepares the light,

The root of pain,

The clearest sight.


With eyes made new

She sees the smile

Of future self

Beyond the trial,


She sees the fruit,

How it was planned,

She sees the glass

Returned to sand.


How good to thank

The cause of pain,

To find relief

Within the strain.


The table laughs,

As friends return,

What do they feel,

How do they yearn?


The same as she,

Or even deeper,

Or has she been

The lonely weeper?


She rounds the bend,

With end in sight,

For surely day

Will follow night,


And looking up,

She is surprised,

To find a girl

With darling eyes,


Whose golden green

Did turn to woe,

For it is she

From long ago.


And so she asks,

Why do we roam

If wand’ring feet

Will take us home?


At last the source,

Where Joy is crowned,

A face restored,

A woman found.”’


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you okay?’

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

‘Can we help you up?’ asked Rosa.

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t mention it.’

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

‘Oh, no, you really don’t have to.’

‘Please, I insist.’

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

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

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

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

‘Is that your wife?’

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

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

‘Rosa. Very nice to meet you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, for A-Levels.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, I had a fall in the park-’.

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

‘It was very ironic actually.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Grilled pork with potato puree and red cabbage.’

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

Rosa smiled. ‘Mashed potatoes.’

‘Ach, silly me.’

‘You were very close.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pride is a dangerous thing, Annie.’

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

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

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

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

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


‘To the camp, Dummkopf.’

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

‘Umm, what camp?’

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

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

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

‘Well, what are the details?’

‘Very minor. Hardly any details.’

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Nothing. Peter’s cancer had completely disappeared.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘All four of them?’


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

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

‘Sorry, what?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s it actually about?’

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

38 Children Called Stone.”

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

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

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

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

‘We’re fucked.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks, you too, guys.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Too late for that, mate.’

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

‘Should we go back?’

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

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

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

‘Or we could call the pub.’

‘Come again?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Um, I’m a little confused.’

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

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

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

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

‘Okay, could I speak to her?’

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

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

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

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

‘No problem, have a fun night.’

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

‘Cheers, bye.’

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


And that was that.

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

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

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

‘I could tell something was on your mind.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Your moral compass.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you saying I should propose to Rosa?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

‘C.S. Lewis?’

‘Of course, my man.’

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m in marketing.’

‘Gotcha. D’you enjoy that?’

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ernest Krandle’s Eight Principal Role Models/Inspirations

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

– – –

‘Kanye West?!’


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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Too afraid of me?’

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

‘No, I hate David Letterman.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not the time, Jake. Rough night.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What makes you think I need help?’

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

‘Well played, sir.’

‘So are you going to tell me or not?’

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

‘A different woman every night?’

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

‘And you had a fight with this girl?’

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

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

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

‘Leave it, Aaron, this one’s for me.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gylfi did this?’

She nodded.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Probably miffed to have her lunch interrupted.’

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

‘How are the shows going?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Eight oh five. Lots of seats left.’

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

‘As long as I can sit next to you.’

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

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

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

Chapter Four

There he was, the goofball. A weight left Rosa; Ernest’s floppy hair was visible once more.

Oh dear, he was holding a sign. She squinted, having forgotten her contacts: “Rosa ‘(Please be) On-Time Show’ Colbert”. Rosa assumed this was a bizarre reference to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

‘I think this may be your worst sign yet.’ She gave Ernest a kiss.

‘I’m inclined to agree.’

They planned to be as antisocial as possible that weekend, at least until Bert’s baptism on Sunday. As far as Rosa was concerned, no-one deserved to speak to Ernest besides her, and, once again, he was inclined to agree. The only stumbling block was Gylfi.

Ernest had done his best to reassure Rosa: although Gylfi’s behaviour was suspicious, she could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was abusing substances. Or maybe he was sick of spending each night on the bus and went to 24-hour cafés to unwind. He was a night owl, after all.

No good could come from worrying now, and Ernest was determined to craft a cocoon against the outside world, spinning silk with a verve rarely seen amongst holometabolous insect larvae. Tomorrow morning he would outstrip the Buff-tip moth caterpillar: he was going to let Rosa read “Yellow and Brown”.

The tale of the young couple’s courtship is a long and chequered one. Indeed, it became so chequered that Ernest once wrote a short story about his failed attempts to woo Rosa. No-one had gained access to this story, although Rosa and Bert knew that it was called “Yellow and Brown”. The young writer had tried to compose a sequel detailing his eventual romantic breakthrough, but, like many finer artists, he found it easier to write about sorrow than joy. Although he’d intended to keep its contents under wraps, Ernest now felt compelled to unveil his infamous story. Their first evening together was an unsuitable occasion: why would Rosa want to read his long-winded prose when she could hear him rambling in person? But as they lounged in bed on Saturday morning, an opportunity presented itself.

‘We should probably think about getting up soon,’ she said.

‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a daunting prospect.’ Ernest was torn between kissing Rosa’s lips and watching them smile. He gave them another moment of respite before leaning over.

‘What do we have planned this morning?’

‘Well, now that you mention it, I did have one idea.’

‘Should I be worried?’

‘Uhh, potentially.’

Rosa was used to Ernest’s games. ‘What is it?’

‘Well, I was wondering if you’d like to read “Yellow and Brown”.’

Rosa’s eyes threatened the confines of their sockets. ‘You’re serious?’



‘I apologise.’

‘Apology accepted.’

‘Thank you. So d’you want to read it?’

‘I’d love to. But isn’t it a bit of a tome? I don’t want you to be waiting around all morning.’

‘I wouldn’t call it a tome. I’ll go for a walk. I couldn’t cope with you reading it next to me.’

‘Gosh, how ominous.’

‘I thought you might like this plan.’

Half an hour later, Ernest left home listening to a podcast about Dolly Parton. Rosa, meanwhile, had decided to shower and change for the event; this was not a story to be read in bed. Having found an appropriate skirt, she opened the curtains and fluffed her armchair pillow. Ernest had been quick to point out that the story was five years old, so naturally his style had developed since then, etc., etc. Having prepared herself with a sip of tea, Rosa picked up the fourteen sheets of A4: 

Yellow and Brown 

It made no difference whether he looked at her or not. He would sit there in his usual spot, awaiting her return; and then she would glide into that quiet haven, brown hair bobbing, head up with innocent confidence, eyes wide like always. They were beautiful bright blue eyes, thrown into relief by her clear complexion and swoonworthy cheekbones. When he lifted his gaze they would share a smile; for a moment, everything would fall into place. Her smile formed so easily (mouth open, eyes aglow, head tilted slightly back) that others might have thought it feigned; but, seeing Mary then, he knew that her joy was not artificial but effortless. And he too felt happy for a moment. It was difficult not to revere this passing joy; this wave carrying him towards the safety of land. But then she would walk on by, taking one of her three favoured seats in the neighbouring room, and the wave would break too early, forcing him underwater, depriving his lungs of air, until he thought that this was it, his time had come. And although he always reached the surface, his vision laboured against drops of obstinate water.

Then there were the times he didn’t look up; the times he resisted the urge to swim. By now he could recognise her approach through intuition – or perhaps it was just the swish of her puffer coat. Either way, he would decide not to brave the waters, since lifting his gaze and saying ‘good morning’ would prove her mastery of these depths; Mary would pass his stack of books unnoticed. But rather than providing some much-needed distance, these times reminded Giles of the connection he was not allowed to cultivate, like a wave surfed only in his dreams.


The first time he saw her, Giles wondered if she was insane. They were listening to his friend Elisabeth playing love songs in the college bar. Mary had recently joined Oxford, whereas Giles was an aloof second-year enjoying the set with a drink in hand.

Although Elisabeth was an outstanding singer, you’d have thought she was Whitney Houston reincarnate from the expression on Mary’s face. She sat there transfixed, staring at Elisabeth with wide-eyed glee. It wasn’t so much the expression itself that unnerved Giles but its duration. Had Elisabeth hit a high C or put that distinctive trill in her voice, then a glimpse of Mary’s broad grin and manic eyes would have been understandable. But her euphoria refused to wane. Giles pointed her out to one of his friends: ‘See that girl? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look so happy.’ Torn between admiration and disdain, he felt compelled to watch this strange naiad revelling in her newfound freedom. When he overheard her talking, Giles drifted closer to contempt: Mary’s voice was whiny and loud.


She walked towards him, cartooned her eyes, swayed as if to fall over. This was how they met, at the end of an uncivilised dinner. An assumption flirted with Giles: here was a first-year who couldn’t handle her booze whereas he was a calm and collected second-year. But something told him she was putting on a show; he later discovered that Mary liked to act. The moment was too surreal to elicit more than a chuckle, but their first encounter proved easy, helped by the wine no doubt, and Giles realised that her voice, rather than annoying, was full of life, just like the eyes he had seen at Elizabeth’s concert; the eyes staring at him now. And yet, when he and Mary parted ways en route to the nightclub, he still wasn’t sure whether she was insane.

He soon had a chance to make up his mind, as they spent close to an hour talking in the smoking area. Looking back on this conversation, Giles could not help smiling at its subject matter: their lack of experience with the opposite sex.

It had taken until university for Giles to manage his first kiss, and Mary was now in the same boat. Half a year later, Giles wished he had stopped talking and given her an average-at-best first experience, but he was infatuated with someone else at the time and thus failed to appreciate Mary’s joie de vivre. Besides, when it came to women, he had the confidence of a suppressed public-school boy (which is exactly what he was). And so they were united by their lack of experience. He wanted to say that this unity was an indictment of modern society, but he couldn’t work out how to phrase it without sounding like a pretentious arse.


‘If I were a fruit,’ she said several months later, ‘what would I be?’

‘I was thinking about that the other day, actually.’ He knew which of her laughs would come next: the one where she leaned forward with a slight bend at the waist, played a low, staccato song whilst looking at the ground, then lifted her gaze with an expression that said: ‘Are you weirder than you are funny?’ When this look arrived, Giles reminded himself that she was the one asking about her spirit fruit. ‘I’d have to say a plum.’


‘Wait, no, I jumped the gun. A nectarine.’

‘Why a nectarine rather than a plum?’

‘Well, my initial thought was something sweet and quintessentially English.’ Somehow this didn’t seem like the weirdest sentence he’d ever said, and she smiled, not looking the least bit fazed. He liked to think that rather than being a product of the wine they were drinking, this proved the snugness of their world; they existed in that single corner of the room.[1] ‘But there’s a bit of tang to you that often goes unnoticed. And a good nectarine has some tang, whereas a plum is only tangy if it’s unripe.’ Ach, he had to admit it, the wine had something to do with this. ‘Besides, a plum is too understated.’ Before she could provoke the embarrassment that he was surprised not to be feeling already, he said, ‘What about me?’ She hesitated, took a sip of their cheap white wine, pursed her lips.

‘A kiwi.’


‘I’m actually writing a play.’

‘Ooh, what’s it about?’

‘It follows this guy who’s obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. He ends up thinking that Jimi Hendrix tribute bands are tainting the singer’s name, so he decides to kill all their members.’

As expected, there were the wide eyes. ‘So sinister!’

‘You’re probably thinking, ‘Christ, I’m with an absolute weirdo’.’ No comment from Mary, only laughter on both sides as they walked through Oxford’s Botanic Gardens on their first date. It was, in hindsight, not the best time of year to visit a garden – the end of January –  but he’d always been more romantic than practical. Given the sorry state of the gardens, their eyes were drawn to the lemons in the greenhouse; they glowed a deep yellow.

‘Yellow’s my favourite colour,’ said Mary. ‘It’s so bright and cheery. How could you look at those lemons and not be happy?’

‘Life-affirming,’ with a nod. ‘My favourite colour’s brown.’


‘Yep, it’s just so solid and understated and surprisingly stylish.’ He pointed through the glass. ‘Like that bench outside,’ letting her follow his gaze. ‘It’s subtle and smooth.’

‘I actually get what you mean.’

‘I remember this one team we used to play at school, they wore a yellow and brown football kit. It was awful.’

‘Oh no, that sounds horrible. Who on Earth would try to mix those colours?’

A few minutes later, one of the gardeners smiled when she saw them laughing, and he knew that others sensed it. Yes, his happiness tended to be reserved whilst hers was spread across her face. Yes, he was cynical whereas she was busy expressing her delight in the lemons and daffodils. And whilst it mattered that they shared a love of music, books and family, that he wrote novels and she was in plays, that they were both studious, sporty, and contented people, these were all just adjectives and labels and hobbies. What mattered to him was that their first one-on-one conversation had lasted three-quarters of an hour, that the woman in the garden had smiled as they laughed, that he knew she was a nectarine and she knew he was a kiwi.


It happened two mornings after the date; the date whose end she had wanted to avoid, as they moved from the gardens to a coffee shop, where they shared a peanut brownie and discussed her passion for dance. So it was on a Friday morning that she opened the door for him and asked if he was busy.

‘Yep, I’ve got a class. What’s up?’

‘Giles, last night someone asked me if we were dating.’ Her tone did not suggest enthusiasm.


‘Why does this always happen?’ It had never happened to Giles. ‘I wanted it to be like how you and Elisabeth hang out.’

Loneliness, he realised on that Friday morning, is not a question of being by yourself.[2] He had spent the previous evening reading in his room, thinking of their date between pages, listening to Mellow Yellow because it reminded him of her. Nobody else in sight, and yet he could hardly have felt less alone. Whereas now, as he stood right next to the woman he wanted to love, he understood that loneliness was a question of being too broken to look beyond oneself.

‘I’m going to be late for my class,’ which was true, ‘but I’ll have a think and we can chat later?’ Quite what he needed to think about, he wasn’t sure. All he wanted was to escape the sickness in his stomach.

They met for lunch an hour later. As he waited in line at Prêt, they passed the time with idle comments that neither would remember; they had never struggled for words before. And then they went outside and the bubble burst.

‘Well,’ he began, ‘we should probably have our chat.’

‘Oh, I wish we didn’t have to.’

‘Tell me about it.’ He nodded to a passing friend. ‘So someone asked if we were dating and you didn’t like that?’

‘It made me scared. ‘Cause I thought you just wanted to hang out, but then people have been saying we went on a date.’

Her earlier comment about Elisabeth had been the bullet wound: she wanted to be friends and nothing more. And now, with these last few sentences, she had extracted the bullet, reminding him of the gunshot and aggravating the pain, before handing him the metal slug as a memento of his courage on the battlefield. ‘I meant it to be a date,’ was all he could say.

‘Oh, Giles, I’m so sorry.’

He tried to look at her but only reached her left cheek. ‘Maybe I should have made it more obvious. I kind of thought you’d realise friends don’t go for a walk in the Botanic Gardens.’

‘No, you’re right, I was being naïve. It’s my fault. I just thought that after the other week…’

Ah, the other week. Given their tendency to find any excuse to drink, the students marked the start of Easter Term with a party. Giles arrived with his head and his heels battling for ascendancy: having always thought of Mary as a friend, something had changed two nights earlier.

They bumped into each other outside the library. Her hair was wet from water polo training, and she clasped a bike helmet in her right hand. She was wearing a sports fleece. As they chatted about the holiday, which Mary had spent dancing and visiting grandparents, Giles found himself captivated by her dripping hair and goggle-marked eyes. They talked for some time, as they always did, until Mary declared that she really had to go to bed; her spick-and-span room awaited. Giles, meanwhile, cycled home faster than ever, having awoken to his true feelings; or perhaps it was on that night that those feelings began to take shape. Maybe there wasn’t much of a difference between the two.

Even if he hadn’t quite struck the ground, he was now rapidly falling for her, after a term of denying such allegations. He and Mary had laughed about this one November night, since she too had been a victim of the rumour mill and all its insubstantial corn.

He arrived at the party to the sound of Mary crying ‘Giles!’; this squeal of excitement infected him with joy. Yes, that was it: he found his joy in hers. He gave her a warm grin and said, ‘Hey, Mary. I just need to pop to the loo, but I’ll see you in a second.’ In hindsight, there are better ways of wooing a girl. He returned a minute later to find her bounding across the dance floor with a smile too theatrical to be false. From there, they spent most of the night together: dancing, chatting, drinking, saying things they would remember, things they would forget; things he would try to forget but always remember.

He wished it had been more romantic. Sure, the sentiment was refined, but he had slurred words he wasn’t yet sure he meant, something along the lines of ‘I think you’re amazing, Mary, not just as a friend, it’s more than that, you’re so pretty and I have a crush on you.’ Not words to remember a man by, but words that meant far more in the months to come.

He woke up to the taste of rejection-steeped beer. He remembered what she’d said, that his friendship was all she wanted, that she genuinely loved that friendship, that he was wonderful but confused, and then she’d begged him to stop saying how much he liked her, assuring him that he really just wanted to be friends, all the talk had got to him and he was drunk. He admitted that he was confused, he wasn’t sure how much he liked her, but the important thing was that he did like her, enough to stay in her room for forty minutes eating her gluten-free rice cakes and rambling on about how great she was, before borrowing her coat for the walk home. He returned it the next morning with an ovine smile.

And that was why she said: ‘I just thought that after the other week…’

‘I get that, but I had to try again. Even though I remember the gist of that night, it’s all a bit of a blur. So I didn’t want to over-interpret it. Also I was confused back then, but I’m not anymore.’ She looked up, stopping herself from going completely wide-eyed. ‘Which is probably not what you want to hear.’

As the conversation progressed, he laughed from time to time – a defence mechanism fired in short, sharp bursts. When she mentioned this, he said it was to hide the pain.

‘Oh, please don’t say that.’ Her eyes were blinking rapidly behind her glasses. ‘This all makes me so sad.’ He nodded. ‘At least I have an audition this afternoon to take my mind off things.’

‘Well, onwards and upwards, hey?’ He smiled at her, but even she must have seen how unlikely that was, as she let out an unexpected chuckle of her own.

‘Onwards and upwards,’ she said, trying to believe it.


A few weeks after The Chat, he went on a date with a girl called Olivia. As ever, he and Elisabeth discussed how it had gone, and it was not long before his thoughts returned to Mary.

‘So I bumped into Mary on my way back.’

‘Oh, Giles, come-’

‘No, let me indulge myself.’ She had to smile at that. ‘It just made the difference so clear. Obviously when you know someone better the conversation is more likely to flow, so it’s not a totally fair comparison, but what I mean is, the conversation with Olivia was nice and pretty interesting, we had some things in common, but then I spoke to Mary and we just couldn’t stop talking.’ He prepared his next sentence, not wanting to break the flow mid-sentence. ‘Pretty much every conversation we have only ends because one of us has to head off. Sure, it’s usually her, but she always says she’s going to be late now, not to make me feel bad, but more as an acknowledgement of how we lose track of time when we chat.’ He looked at Elisabeth, checking that she was still listening. ‘You know how with lots of conversations, it’s pretty clear when things are coming to an end? Well, with Mary, one thing just leads to another. We’ll bump into each other outside the library loos, hardly the place for a catch-up, and we’ll still be there ten minutes later, when all I’d been planning to do was fill my water bottle. What I’m saying is, it’s almost like we have to bring the conversation to an end, rather than us wanting to. Or, at least, I don’t want to.’

Elisabeth advised him to keep some distance from Mary. And whilst it pained him to agree, he knew that she was right.


The setting for their next encounter was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nightclub. Her eyeshadow flashed amber, and he could not resist joining her for a dance. He tried to strike up a conversation over the sound of The Killers, but fifty students screaming ‘Cause I’m Mr Brightside’ rarely makes for an easy tête-à-tête. When he realised that Mary was more carefree with others than with him, he managed to walk away, although he stole frequent glances whilst sipping at a gin & tonic and half-listening to a friend.

After that night, the waves began to settle. Mary was working on a play; he paddled in the shallows. With the distance growing bit by bit, he went on another date with Olivia; he liked to see this as his bodyboarding phase.

It was hard to say what triggered the relapse. It may have been the time they smiled at each other through the library window, sharing a moment that was lost on others. Or perhaps it was the honey she made. Having discarded this delicacy to the back of a cupboard, he lost his nerve, spread it on toast, and thought of her, muttering a few lines of ABBA between each mouthful. Whatever the cause, he soon recovered his earlier sadness. He had little desire to see Olivia, who paled in comparison to Mary’s yellow. A friend suggested that the one who got away will always be glorified, but there was more to it than that. The first time he met Mary, they spoke for close to an hour. The first time he met Olivia, they spoke for ten minutes; he wouldn’t have given it much thought if he’d never seen her again. He soon realised that this wasn’t a question of distance. At times, absence made his heart grow fonder; at others, it made it grow numb. Seeing Mary could wash away the pain, but it could also stir the waves into a frenzy.

With the end of term approaching, he had fewer commitments and more opportunities to see her. The first such occasion took place on Broad Street. Having spent the past few days creating an entire World of Mary in his mind, reliving their conversations, placing her on a pedestal that perhaps only his image of her deserved (he refused to believe this; he could not betray Mary like that), it was almost surreal to see her in the flesh; he wondered whether he had become more comfortable in his world of dreams and regrets than in the waking, living world. But then she smiled and he forgot their saga, feeling warm because she had crossed the road for him.

‘Giles!’ A soft exclamation. ‘How are you?’

‘Hi, Mary, all good, thanks. It’s been a while! How’s life? How was the play?’ After watching her first performance at Oxford, Giles had created a Spotify playlist called “She is (a) wonderful (actress)”. The playlist was yet to receive its first follower, although that said more about Giles’s music taste than Mary’s acting ability. She was far too good an actress not to sow seeds of infatuation in her audience, which was why Giles had bought a ticket for her second play, only to sell it after heeding Elisabeth’s advice. ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it, life’s been pretty hectic.’

Two friends walked past, smiling because he was with her; at least, that was how he saw it. Mary explained that he hadn’t missed much. ‘I only had a small part. Anyway, I’ve finished all my assignments for the term, so I think I deserve to cut loose tonight.’

They laughed together, anticipating her drunkenness. ‘Well, I can’t wait to see your moves.’ Keeping his shoulders very still, he pouted his lips and moved his head from side to side. Mary was a much better dancer than Giles, which may have been why his caricature made her laugh so much.  

‘And you’ll be doing your usual…’ She imagined herself as an Old Etonian: giving her chin a haughty tilt, she made her lips go serious, clenched her fists, and moved her arms in feigned effortlessness. She couldn’t keep the pretence going for long, as they ascended into laughter.


It was a cold, dry night, and he was beginning to understand something about nightclubs. Whenever he was feeling low they grinned at him, promising a chance to hide from it all: the pressures of work, England’s icy winds, his lonely thoughts. Each club provided a number of escape routes, although these often became intertwined: drinking and dancing were his usual fare. Sometimes he did feel that a door had been unlocked, with Elisabeth tending to provide the key. Whereas now, as he stood in a crowded room where Mary danced and Olivia lingered, he recognised the fine line between liberation and imprisonment. He spoke to Mary, and a cocktail of chemistry and awkwardness was poured down his throat, making him feel sick rather than drunk. He sensed the presence of the guards until after she’d left, whereupon he had visions of the clichéd days they might spend together: punting, visiting galleries, hiking the Yorkshire Dales. But here he was in a dark, congested room with a floor made sticky by vodka lemonades, as reggae remixes blared from immodest speakers. The songs, which were wonderfully relaxed at first, soon blurred into a hellish concoction of slow beats, muddy bass-lines and high-pitched vocals, until, at long last, he made his way outside and found a form of respite.

‘Gi-yals… Gi-yals.’ Mary was saying his name in a sleepy, smiley drawl. He hesitated – not even the dreaded jägerbomb could put his heart in this much danger – then perched next to her on the bench. To make matters worse, she was soon resting her head on his chest. He placed a hand on her arm, wanting to keep her close but aware that it meant something different to each of them. Sometimes he felt particularly bold, particularly drunk, and stroked her coat or hair. At one point she held his earlobes and said, ‘You’ve got wonderfully cold ears.’ He did not expect to forget that moment.

‘I wish we could hang out more often,’ he said.

‘Why can’t we?’ Oh, she just didn’t get it. Part of him wished she would gain some perspective, understand the depth of his obsession, but her obliviousness was also part of her charm, her youthful abandon, her ability to find joy and simplicity where he experienced this combination of profound harmony and profound longing.

All he could say was a suggestive ‘Well…’, which he repeated once or twice, hoping she would fill in the gap. Either she was too drunk to do so or she wanted to avoid the subject, because he received no direct response. Instead she asked him what he thought of her black dress, which was beautiful and told of an under-appreciated maturity beneath her innocence, and he was acutely aware of her failure to grasp the complexities of their friendship; complexities that existed largely in his mind. But these were occasional skips on the record, mere distractions from the fact that she was resting on him, telling him how wonderful he was.

And whether it was the result of her praise or his second tequila shot, the hours they spent on the dance floor were some of his happiest at Oxford until then. Sometimes it was just the two of them, sometimes friends appeared, and sometimes, in her seemingly unflinching happiness, she included total strangers. He remembered a group of Turkish men whose gleeful smiles revealed the effect she had on others.

When he and Mary danced alone, they displayed the full array of basic turns: with one hand held, he spun her; with arms aloft, they spun each other, twisting as one. There came moments when their faces drew so close that he almost tried his luck, but he knew she was far from sober. And yet, it was his fear of a third rejection that truly made him hesitate.

And so they danced together. She repeated how great he was, whilst he let slip the words ‘I love you, Mary’. It was unclear whether they were said in romance or solidarity. The truth lay somewhere in between, and she did not respond.


There was a roundabout. It was yellow, of course. For a short while, he believed they were riding it together, with mutual affection providing the required spin. In reality, he sat alone, smiling as she pushed him round. She was not toying with him; this simply made her happy. But as soon as he realised the truth, she left to find a swing-set nearby; she giggled as she flew. And still the roundabout turned, propelled by his thoughts, by his tendency to create an entire world of past and future. He sat there watching Mary, delighted by her laughter but wishing it was he who made her feel that way. It was not anyone. It was just her sweet, life-loving self and the rhythm of the swings.

They moved whilst going nowhere. She found joy in this tension, whereas he sought the courage to leave the roundabout and return to solid ground. The summer breeze blew the hair from her eyes.

There danced through his mind a series of memories – her cold hands, her head on his chest, her body swaying backwards – and at last he understood: he could not experience it whenever he wanted, that feeling of laughing with her, talking to her, focusing only and entirely on her. He had to wait his turn and find joy elsewhere.

He tried to keep Mary in view, but the roundabout was going too fast and all he managed were glimpses: she reached the apex; she flicked her feet; she extended her legs, preparing to plummet. He clung to the yellow railing, willing the roundabout to slow down. Just as he felt ready to collapse in a dizzy heap, the ride settled. For once he felt no need to work out why; he was simply grateful for the respite, relieved that he could see Mary’s grin rather than a brief flash of the sun on her teeth. She continued to swing, moving her legs without a trace of adulthood. Even when she dragged her heels to bring this game to an end, there was no fatigue in her bearing. She rose to her feet, patted her shorts, and, much to his surprise, walked towards him. He suppressed his confusion and focused on her confident strides, the glint in her open gaze.

She stopped by the roundabout and grabbed the railing. Without a word, she pumped her legs. What was happening? What bitter-sweetness lay ahead? As if to reassure him, she smiled. Her fingers tightened their grip, her thighs bulged with effort, and he realised that she was running. She was running, she was laughing, she was pushing the roundabout! He forgot the past as she galloped with speed and grace, forgot his sorry self, forgot even who she was, this girl with shoulder-stroking hair, swoonworthy cheekbones and beautiful, bright blue eyes that seemed destined never to close (did this girl even blink!). He was meeting her for the first time, but they met in silence, speaking not with words but with running feet and laughter. They moved together, and he understood that he could not move alone.

But what was this? What bold step was she preparing? Her legs became less frantic; she held fast to the metal. And as he sensed the dwindling power of their spin, something told him he could trust this nameless woman. With an intake of breath, she leapt from the ground and landed on the roundabout. She did not take a seat – no, she had no time for leisure – but began instead to dance! She was dancing on a roundabout! dancing on the roundabout, keeping her shoulders very still, pouting her lips and moving her head from side to side. He felt that he had seen this dance before, lived this moment before, and he watched her, mesmerised, as they turned again and again. And even had he known that this strange and wonderful experience would be over soon, that this girl whom he knew and yet did not know would return to the swing-set, he would have been grateful to have had the experience at all. For perhaps that was enough, perhaps that would be enough, to know this joy just once or twice, or, if he was lucky, a dozen times or so, not whenever he wanted, but whenever she wanted, and perhaps he would rise to dance with her one day, or she would sit alongside him and stay there forever, or he would never see her again, perhaps this one experience would make the perpetual motion of the roundabout bearable, this cycle, this ride without end, as he went on spinning and thinking of the girl he knew and yet did not know, the girl who was taking something from her pocket, a daffodil which she tucked into her hair, a yellow flower amidst brown locks, yellow on brown, yellow and brown, and he hoped that this moment would be enough.

[1] Incidentally, Giles later discovered that the UK was not even in the top ten for national plum production.

[2] After searching online for pithy statements about loneliness, Giles gathered that this was not an original thought. 

Chapter Three

The man closest to Ernest was the devious, loyal, and controversial Bert Eynsham. Every university has a Bert Eynsham. In fact, every social circle has a Bert Eynsham, from the Colombian drugs cartel to the top table at Goldman Sachs. We’re talking brushstrokes here, and it’s worth remembering the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.

And so, as much as Bert Eynsham was another remarkably confident yet surprisingly sensitive womaniser, he was also a downright queer fish.

Whilst Ernest told Rosa that he’d call back in half an hour, Sophie’s mind turned to the teeth of this brazen barracuda. Such inexplicably perfect teeth. With every moment that she dwelt upon this endorsement of the Kensington dentist industry, the ache between Sophie’s eyebrows grew stronger. She forced herself to move beyond Bert’s dental hygiene, to recall what she knew about his friendship with Ernest.

Bert and Ernest met at a techno club. Not being fans of techno clubs, they soon found themselves in a damp smoking area, where Bert offered Ernest a public school handshake to go with his prep school grin. Ernest knew that he was in the presence of trouble.

Where the young writer was also a young romantic, Bert was like Casanova on steroids. Which is to say that he got into rather a lot of trouble with women during his three years at Oxford. He had four girlfriends in that time; he blamed this on the lack of equilibrium between his levels of libido and his levels of commitment. Having said that, he remained faithful to Juliette, Ellie, Daphne and Salomé (Bert liked to joke that this acute accent was evidence of a certain maturity in his final year, as he managed to expand his horizons beyond the darlings of Surrey (Ernest resisted the temptation to point out that Salomé’s father had moved to London at twenty-three, whereupon he married the unofficial Miss Devon 1985, made his millions at JPMorgan, and sent his only daughter, who did admittedly speak excellent French, to St. Paul’s Girls’ School between the ages of eleven and eighteen)).

Ernest and Bert’s friendship grew at a steady pace. They attended the same parties, held the same political views, and, crucially, were key players for the college football team that year (Ernest was a skilful, committed and surprisingly strong centre back, whilst Bert was a quick, tricky and surprisingly selfless inverted winger, which is to say he was a left-footer playing out on the right, a very common tactic of the era, which Ernest liked to see as a metaphor for the fact that here was an actually quite unconventional young man who had chosen a conventional social position because it was inevitable, privilege-bearing and -derived, as well as fundamentally fun). So it was on the football pitch, and in the pub afterwards, that these two young men tested the murky waters of an inter-year friendship.

At the same time as all this, Sophie was embarking upon her own freshman year at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a student of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She, too, was a reasonably talented sportswoman – not as gifted as Ernest but a more useful athlete than Bert, if only because it was on the sports pitch that Monsieur Eynsham (as some referred to him during his courtship of young Salomé) experienced the occasional loss of confidence. Sophie, on the other hand, was uncompromising in her will to win: if Boudicca had chosen to play lacrosse instead of leading a revolt against the Romans, it would have been hard to tell the difference between the two women.

And so, rather than true talent, it was determination that propelled Sophie’s Cambridge career. There would always be someone more adept at conjugating medieval Welsh verbs or discussing the treatment of Norse mythology in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (there was, of course, a specific someone: Gujureet Singh, whom Sophie came to love and hate in equal measures. In her more drunken moments, Sophie would ask herself what on Earth an Indian Sikh was doing studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, although once she’d sobered up and regained her usual English propriety, she would ask herself what on Earth anyone was doing studying these languages. In reality, Gurjureet was a kind boy who hailed from an understated, overweight family based in Croydon. He was a ridiculously good linguist, a perceptive literary critic, a dab historian and an incorrigible swot. And he was the first man that Sophie truly fancied, a word she had not used since her graduation, with his strong nose and endearing monobrow, but Sophie knew that she was too jealous of Gujureet to ever make a move).

‘Hey, Sophie, sorry about that.’ She had almost forgotten about Ernest. ‘Where was I?’

‘You were telling me to commit to improving my life.’ What Sophie wanted to do was continue daydreaming. ‘But, actually, can we talk about something else? You’ve been a massive help, but I’d like to take my mind off things.’

‘Sure, sure, good idea.’ Ernest wondered whether he was supposed to take the initiative here. Before he could think too deeply on the subject, Sophie said,

‘You know, I was wondering: how come you and Bert are such good friends?’

Ernest chuckled. ‘I always used to get asked that. ‘Cause I was pretty darn innocent and Bert was one of Oxford’s biggest womanisers.’ He paused, side-tracked.


‘I was just thinking about the word ‘womanise’. As in, who’s being womanised? Did Bert supposedly turn Oxford girls into women by sleeping with them, or is ‘to womanise’ intransitive? As in, does it mean you’re just having lots of sex?’

‘I tend to think of sex as pretty transitive. But enough showing off, tell me about you and Bert.’

‘Right. Bert. Well, like I said, most people saw us as very different guys, and we definitely are in some respects, as I’m sure you can tell. But we also have a lot in common. First, the unavoidable: our background.’ Sophie gave a futile nod. ‘I’d also like to think we’re both loyal to our friends. That’s important to us. And we’re both Christians.’

Sophie was glad she didn’t have any water in her mouth. ‘Sorry? Bert, a Christian!’

‘He may not always act like one, but Bert’s a Protestant. Yes, he struggles to control his carnal instincts, but he believes that God is love, believes in the resurrection. Honestly, the fact he’s so conflicted is part of why I find him so interesting, regardless of whether I think he’s a good guy or not. And obviously I do think he’s a good guy; he’s just made some mistakes. Which hardly makes him unique…’

Now was not the time for Ernestian social commentary. ‘Do you think he regrets playing the field? Repents, even?’

‘I asked him that once. Essentially he said that even if he was a bit wild in the past, those experiences have shaped him as a person and he wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, Bert would never try to hurt anyone; he would never even think about cheating. And as for repentance, he and I have a liberal interpretation of scripture.’

‘Speaking of which, I should let you speak to Rosa. She must be missing you.’

‘How could she not?’ Sophie felt lighter now; she could hear the cars again. ‘It’s not easy,’ Ernest continued, ‘but it’ll make seeing her all the more special.’

‘She’s coming home soon, right?’

‘Yep, in five days. Not that I’m counting.’

‘Ah, Ernest, this has been great, thank you. And I’m really excited for you and Rosa.’

‘Don’t mention it, Sophie; call whenever. And thanks, I’m pretty darn excited myself.’

Determined to forget herself, Sophie thought about Ernest and Bert’s Christianity. It seemed so… contradictory. She didn’t want to challenge them, especially not when they’d both been so good to her, but their faith came across as the cherry on top of their lives. She imagined it as a source of comfort when their careers became stressful; a pick-me-up when they had no Sunday plans; a reassurance when existential questions threatened their equilibrium. Even Ernest, who was the more introspective of the two, failed to push beyond the surface level of religion. Sophie had gathered this from his writing, where spiritual questions added nuance to the characters but failed to strike a deeper chord. And although she’d only just found out about Bert’s faith, surely that suggested a lack of religious fervour? Sophie didn’t think there was anything wrong with that; she just couldn’t understand half-hearted Christians. She remembered hearing a verse along those lines, and her phone found it in the Book of Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Sophie’s father had left a great mark on her spiritual outlook. A semi-retired history teacher, he was also an amateur biblical scholar of the postmodern variety, and thus encouraged his daughter to view the Testaments as fascinating cultural documents but nothing more; the miracles they recorded were the delusions of a pre-scientific era. Sophie had never been particularly moved by the Gospels, feeling a distance between herself and the figure of Jesus; his words did not stir her, his signs failed to move her. She bore the pronouncements of her father: “The Gospels are a mess of contradictions; we know for a fact that Jesus didn’t say many of the things he’s reported to have said, at least not in the form we read them.” Only a handful of lionhearted verses had managed to touch the Boudicca within her; she remembered the armour of light and the exhortations in Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Scoffing at the humility demanded by Christ, Sophie could see the appeal in a sentiment such as this.

But Ernest and Bert didn’t live the Christian life; Sophie had read enough of the New Testament to know as much. Even if she disregarded the Bible’s claims at truth, she saw the contradiction in professing one’s allegiance to Christ whilst being absorbed in worldly pleasures. Ernest may well have been one of the most romantic men Sophie had met, and of course he had been such a help just now, but his writing made it clear that he tended to see the lives of others through the prism of his own self rather than through a sacrificial Christian light. And as much as Sophie was fond of Bert, he would readily admit that he had shades of Don Juan. She did not hold these flaws against her friends since she knew she was no better, but Sophie wondered if they understood the tepid nature of their faith.

Further muddying these waters was an email Ernest sent the following day:

“Hey Sophie, was skimming through Jordan Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life last night and decided to write my own list. Thought it might help you (and me!). Here’s what I came up with:

Ernest Krandle’s Thirteen Rules for Life

  1. Never give up on life.
  2. Love your family, love your friends; heck, try to love the lost and the evil.
  3. Stay hydrated whenever possible.
  4. Don’t think too much about what you eat.
  5. Don’t watch porn. Ever.
  6. Listen to music every day.
  7. Read every day.
  8. Cook at least once a day, even if it’s only a fried egg.
  9. Exercise every day.
  10. Be kind to at least one stranger every day.
  11. Nip harmful thoughts in the bud. Once they’ve blossomed, they’re mighty hard to prune.
  12. Don’t entertain existential thoughts when your mental health is precarious. It’s unlikely to end well.
  13. Have faith in God.

Would be interested to hear what you think.

Have a great morning,


For a few days, Sophie felt buoyed by these rules; they provided structure to a life fast spinning out of control. She made an effort to smile at the employees in her local bookshop, she went to the gym after work, and she didn’t allow her depression to morph into existential angst. But all it took was one lonely evening for this hard work to come undone, and then it was back to wallowing in thoughts of weak enamel and wonky canines.

It was the lethargy above all else; the feeling that every good act was too much to bear; every thought for another, every challenge at work, every home-cooked meal. Sophie recognised the value in these pursuits – to lift the weight was to strengthen herself and thus make the weight feel lighter. So why, she asked herself, did she rarely lift the weight? Because it was easier to wallow, easier to skim through a book or listen to a podcast whilst her attention drifted towards her mother’s dental hygiene. Had she always been the jealous type and never known it, constantly comparing herself to friend and foe alike? Or was she the helpless victim of the fragile human mind? No, she had ceased to believe in her own victimhood. This thought loop was no longer an external threat bombarding her defences; she and the thought loop were one.

The Sunday after her chat with Ernest, Sophie’s alarm went off at 08:30. She leapt out of bed and opened the curtains, trying to convince herself that she was raring to go, that this would be the day, yet again, that she got back on the horse. She watched the street below, where a branch swayed like a drunkard at an empty taxi rank, and a father held his daughter’s hand, his eyes smiling at the prospect of a quiet Sunday, hers at the sensation of being alive. And just when Sophie sensed the approach of childhood’s dawn, the return of blissful innocence, her mind attacked with plaque and acid. Letting go of the windowsill, she shut her eyes, tried to calm her angry breath, but the debris between her teeth continued to stain her mind. She tried to remember the irony, the obvious irony that she had outstanding teeth; a number of friends had told her so. Why couldn’t she accept their compliments rather than deciding that they simply didn’t know, that if they examined her mouth through a magnifying glass they would be appalled? And as her breathing failed to settle and her chest began to pound, Sophie collapsed under the shocking burden of her tears.


The phone rang. Her head struggled away from the pillow. Sophie wiped her eyes, scanned her apartment, and followed the noise to its source: her beloved fridge. She was both relieved by the prospect of company and annoyed at the thought of putting on a brave face. Then again, her face would not be visible. Resisting the urge to analyse the contents of her fridge, she saw Bert’s name on the screen. She felt no flutter at the thought of Bert; theirs was not the type of friendship destined for romance. She smiled nonetheless: today might not be a lonely one.


‘Sophie, hey. What are you up to?’

‘Very, very little.’

‘Good. I’m extremely bored.’

‘Same here.’


If not perfect, at least this was better. ‘You’re such a sympathetic soul, aren’t you?’

‘Far better for two people to be bored than one alone.’

‘Did you just make that up?’


‘I can tell.’

‘Right, I like this rapport we’ve got going so I’ll extend you an invitation: I was thinking we could go to church.’

‘Church?’ The timing was typical. ‘Well, I’m not a Christian.’

‘Nor was I until recently, and now I am.’

‘What’s your point?’

‘My point is you should come to church instead of staying home all day.’

Sophie looked at her apartment. ‘I didn’t think those would be my options on a Sunday when I arrived in London.’

‘Yeah, the whole brunch with your gal-pals thing is a hoax.’ Sophie remembered the smoked salmon in her fridge. ‘I tend to think people are even more boring than usual on the weekend. Not that brunch is interesting…’

Sophie resented giving Bert another laugh, but his ego was already too big to be inflated any further. ‘Alright, I’ll join. What time’s the service?’

‘10:30 at the Westminster Baptist Church. But meet me there at twenty past. I’ll be wearing a blue blazer.’

‘I know what you look like, Bert.’

‘Well, you’d think so, but I actually woke up this morning looking dangerously attractive. I’m not sure you’ll recognise me.’

‘Gosh, this could be an interesting service.’

‘None of that, Shaw.’ Bert really did scream public school. ‘See you in an hour or so.’

‘Yes, sir. Until then.’


Sophie left early. She pounded the pavement on her way to the station, willing herself onwards, fixing her mind upon her graceful but strong march through the pedestrian traffic. Today would be her day; she was resolved to ensure that.

Bert was wearing a tweed jacket.

‘What happened to the blue blazer?’

‘Damn, you recognised me.’

‘You look exactly the same.’

‘No, I don’t. Trust me, I’m looking dangerously attractive. God has blessed me.’

‘Somehow I doubt that’ll be the message of today’s sermon.’

‘Oh, bit of an expert, are we? You should read the Song of Solomon.’ Bert cleared his throat. Oh no, he’s going to perform. He spoke with music in his voice: ‘“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.”’ Bert stopped looking into the distance. ‘Don’t you think there’s something particularly goat-like about my hair today?’

‘The word you’re looking for is caprine. Much nicer than ‘goat-like’.’

‘No, Shaw, my hair is goat-like. It takes a deep understanding of scripture to see that.’ His tone became ominous: ‘You’ll understand one day – God willing. Speaking of which, let’s find our seats.’

Sophie was surprised by the church. She’d expected Bert to be more of a Holy Trinity Brompton man: opulence and renown, dyed hair and sparkly tee-. She stared intently at the baptism pool, the wooden benches and bare altar, above which was written: “Make his praise glorious.” On reading these words, Sophie realised that this was not a question of goat-like locks. But before she could change her mind about today’s activity, Bert found two seats towards the front. He gave his neighbours a warm greeting, and Sophie did her best to follow suit, but she was now aware of her entire self, not just her teeth. She focused on Bert, who seemed transformed in this sacred space; his cheek and arrogance had dissipated, replaced by an eagerness to listen, as a sister reviewed her week or a brother lamented Chelsea’s recent form. It struck Sophie that she had only met Bert a few weeks earlier; she couldn’t bring to mind the verse about not judging others.

The first twenty minutes made her uncomfortable. She could handle, perhaps even enjoy, a traditional Church of England service: a spot of Jerusalem here, a dash of frankincense there, and, to round things off, a nice sermon about home being where the heart is at. Good English stuff. Whereas the first song at the Westminster Baptist Church had people closing their eyes, stretching forth their hands, biting back the tears. This continued for the next three hymns, and then the happiest man in the world discussed the church’s Christmas baking group. After his fourth pun in five minutes, Sophie groaned; the child within her had died.

But then the church pastor, David, returned to the pulpit. ‘Thank you Michael for giving us a taste’ – would it ever stop? – ‘of what to expect this Christmas. I hope lots of you will join us for some baking this year; it’s always a real highlight.’ David was thin. His shirt was tucked into dark blue jeans. ‘Now, today we have something a little different. You can probably guess what it is, given the large baptism pool to my right.’ A ripple of laughter spread through the audience. ‘We feel so blessed to have two candidates getting baptised this morning. Honestly, these are some of my favourite events of the year; I just love the total surrender to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It really is a beautiful thing, I’m sure you’ll all agree. I still remember getting baptised when I was a student, all those years ago.’ David had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday. ‘It remains one of my happiest memories, and I hope Bert and Melissa will be able to say the same when they’re my age.’ All of a sudden, Sophie forgot that she even had teeth. ‘But enough from me, let’s welcome them up here. Please, Bert and Melissa, where are you?’

Bert gave Sophie an eyebrows-raised grin. She hadn’t suspected a thing. He stood up and walked to the front, where he was joined by a young black woman wearing a t-shirt and trousers.

‘True to form,’ David continued, ‘Bert has come somewhat over-dressed for the occasion.’ The congregation laughed. Sophie couldn’t tell if this was all a ruse. ‘I’ve never baptised someone wearing tweed before.’

Bert leaned into the microphone. ‘What can I say, I like to look smart for God.’ More laughter. ‘But I actually need to get changed. Can I slip backstage for a minute?’

‘Again, I’ve never called it ‘backstage’,’ and David said this kindly, ‘but this is quickly becoming quite theatrical. Just be quick, we have plenty to get through.’ Bert slipped out of view. Melissa, meanwhile, was smiling somewhat awkwardly. ‘While Bert gets ready, let us all pray.’ David asked his heavenly Father to support the Christians facing persecution in Algeria, Iran and Sri Lanka, and then thanked the Lord for saving Natalie from cancer. Sophie bowed her head, trying to picture this unknown woman, and she felt her heart soften. As soon as the ‘Amen’ had sounded, Bert reappeared in a grey t-shirt and a pair of tennis shorts. ‘Quite the transformation, Bert! I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer for my first tweed baptism.’ Sophie realised that Ernest and Rosa were both in London; why weren’t they here? ‘We’ll begin with Bert’s testimony, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of baptism, before we move onto our prayers for Bert. Melissa, you can take my seat; I’m sure Bert will keep you waiting. And, on that note: take it away, Bert.’

Bert removed two sheets of paper from his pocket. He unfolded them on the pulpit and cleared his throat. Sophie realised that he was nervous. ‘Good morning. As you may have gathered, my name is Bert. Bert Eynsham. I’ve lived in London my whole life, and I’m lucky to have two loving parents, a loving brother, and two annoying younger sisters, who are all here today.’ He looked up, and heads turned to the Eynsham family at the back of the congregation. Sophie wondered when they had arrived. As she cast her eyes back to the altar, she spotted two familiar faces on the right-hand side of the church: Ernest and Rosa had shown up after all. They waved to her with excitement. Sophie smiled without understanding.

‘I don’t think my testimony is like many of the ones I’ve heard. I don’t say that out of pride, but out of gratitude. You see, most people who stand up here will tell you that Jesus saved them from rock bottom. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, they were struck by a glorious light, filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding. But I can’t relate to that. I’d be lying if I said I was on the verge of giving up when I heard the call of Jesus. The truth is, God has blessed me with a very happy life. Like I said, I have a wonderful family. I also have amazing friends, I had great church experiences growing up, and I’ve been offered pretty much every opportunity anyone could ask for.’ Bert paused. Sophie watched his eyes taking in the audience. ‘But I was also a spoiled brat.’ Those who knew Bert well laughed the loudest. ‘I needed things to go my way: getting into the top sports teams, having the prettiest girlfriends,’ and Sophie noted his use of the plural, ‘going on expensive holidays with my family. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I felt that the world was unjust, that God had let me down. I believed I deserved the best.

‘But then a friend sent me a line by the writer G.K. Chesterton.’ Sophie suspected that this friend was Ernest. ‘Chesterton writes: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” When I read that line, I felt strangely conflicted. A part of me was lifted up by the truth of these words; I saw hope in the angels. But I also felt a thorn in my side; a niggling pain that was trying to tell me something. And eventually I heard these damning words: “Bert Eynsham, you are a proud, proud man.” And, just like that, I knew I was not a true Christian. Sure, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but where was the fruit of that belief? Was my behaviour different from that of any other decent but proud young man? I looked back over my short life, and the answer was clear: no, it wasn’t. And I hated this answer. I knew that I was the worst of all men: someone who brings shame to the name of Jesus, since anyone who claims to be a Christian but lives only for himself does God a disservice. I was effectively saying to God: ‘Thanks for sending your son down to us, that was really kind of you, but I’m going to tread my own path; I’m going to make sure Bert Eynsham comes out on top.’

Bert turned the page. ‘You see, I have lived a charmed life. I’ve indulged myself in drink, in money, in the pleasures of the body.’ Bert’s voice was louder now; it contained a self-disgust Sophie had never heard. ‘And God has been patient with me; he has shown me mercy. But eventually he sent that thorn into my side. It was only a small thorn, far less than I deserved, but it made me realise that if I kept to the same path, God would turn that thorn into a dagger. He would show me how foolish all my pride really was. But he spared me the pain, and I think that’s because he saw how weak I was; how much I depended on the so-called good things of this world.

‘Having felt even that slight pain, I decided to commit to my faith. I chose to take up my cross.’ Bert gripped the pulpit. He was both younger and older than ever before. ‘No more sleeping around, no more heavy nights, no more living for pleasure. From now on, I will do my very best to live according to God’s plan. And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.’ Sophie realised there was something goat-like about Bert’s hair. ‘My life used to be guided by one big question: what will make me happy? But now I’m guided by a different question: what would Jesus do? I’ve realised that I never really saw people for what they were; I never really cared about them. I didn’t listen as much as I should have, I didn’t go out of my way to help anyone. Or, if I did, I was still putting my desires before theirs.’ Bert looked at the congregation. His eyes were steely as his lips smiled. ‘That’s been the biggest change for me: trying to focus on the happiness of others rather than my own. But the funny thing is, I’ve felt so much happier ever since. God has given me a hunger I didn’t have before. I want to be awake at every moment, I want to see my family more often, I want to share this joy with as many people as I can. If I can help save even one soul, that would be a great thing.’  

Bert turned away from his notes. ‘Faith is an incredibly difficult thing to explain. I don’t think it makes much sense until you’ve experienced it yourself, which seems like a flaw in the system.’ Sophie joined the congregation as she laughed. ‘I never thought I’d be one of these people. I never expected to say that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, and I don’t think my family or friends would have expected it either. But Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Wow, what’s happened to me.’ People laughed the kind of laughter that is streaked by tears. ‘It makes me very happy to share this day with you all. I may not have been a drug addict or a murderer, but I’ve hurt people by being selfish and proud, by not loving enough. But as Jesus said: “You must be born again.” And I do feel like a completely different person.’ Bert looked straight at Sophie. ‘I hope that every one of you makes more space for God. I can guarantee that doing so will change your life.’ He paused once more, swallowing in the absence of water. ‘I’d like to finish by quoting my favourite passage from Isaiah, since I’ve already used far too many words of my own.’ Bert picked up his notes, and he spoke with a boom in his voice:

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.’

Bert stepped away from the pulpit and heaved a sigh of relief. Then he patted himself on the back.

As applause resounded through that unassuming church and David stepped towards the pool, Bert smiled with schoolboy innocence rather than schoolboy cheek. And as Ernest and Rosa hugged each other out of joy for their friend, Sophie looked at him upon his stage, saw a man transformed by love, a man prepared to sacrifice his life for what he could not see, and, in so looking, she began to cry for the second time that day.