The man closest to Ernest was the devious, loyal, and controversial Bert Eynsham. Every university has a Bert Eynsham. In fact, every social circle has a Bert Eynsham, from the Colombian drugs cartel to the top table at Goldman Sachs. We’re talking brushstrokes here, and it’s worth remembering the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.
And so, as much as Bert Eynsham was another remarkably confident yet surprisingly sensitive womaniser, he was also a downright queer fish.
Whilst Ernest told Rosa that he’d call back in half an hour, Sophie’s mind turned to the teeth of this brazen barracuda. Such inexplicably perfect teeth. With every moment that she dwelt upon this endorsement of the Kensington dentist industry, the ache between Sophie’s eyebrows grew stronger. She forced herself to move beyond Bert’s dental hygiene, to recall what she knew about his friendship with Ernest.
Bert and Ernest met at a techno club. Not being fans of techno clubs, they soon found themselves in a damp smoking area, where Bert offered Ernest a public school handshake to go with his prep school grin. Ernest knew that he was in the presence of trouble.
Where the young writer was also a young romantic, Bert was like Casanova on steroids. Which is to say that he got into rather a lot of trouble with women during his three years at Oxford. He had four girlfriends in that time; he blamed this on the lack of equilibrium between his levels of libido and his levels of commitment. Having said that, he remained faithful to Juliette, Ellie, Daphne and Salomé (Bert liked to joke that this acute accent was evidence of a certain maturity in his final year, as he managed to expand his horizons beyond the darlings of Surrey (Ernest resisted the temptation to point out that Salomé’s father had moved to London at twenty-three, whereupon he married the unofficial Miss Devon 1985, made his millions at JPMorgan, and sent his only daughter, who did admittedly speak excellent French, to St. Paul’s Girls’ School between the ages of eleven and eighteen)).
Ernest and Bert’s friendship grew at a steady pace. They attended the same parties, held the same political views, and, crucially, were key players for the college football team that year (Ernest was a skilful, committed and surprisingly strong centre back, whilst Bert was a quick, tricky and surprisingly selfless inverted winger, which is to say he was a left-footer playing out on the right, a very common tactic of the era, which Ernest liked to see as a metaphor for the fact that here was an actually quite unconventional young man who had chosen a conventional social position because it was inevitable, privilege-bearing and -derived, as well as fundamentally fun). So it was on the football pitch, and in the pub afterwards, that these two young men tested the murky waters of an inter-year friendship.
At the same time as all this, Sophie was embarking upon her own freshman year at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a student of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She, too, was a reasonably talented sportswoman – not as gifted as Ernest but a more useful athlete than Bert, if only because it was on the sports pitch that Monsieur Eynsham (as some referred to him during his courtship of young Salomé) experienced the occasional loss of confidence. Sophie, on the other hand, was uncompromising in her will to win: if Boudicca had chosen to play lacrosse instead of leading a revolt against the Romans, it would have been hard to tell the difference between the two women.
And so, rather than true talent, it was determination that propelled Sophie’s Cambridge career. There would always be someone more adept at conjugating medieval Welsh verbs or discussing the treatment of Norse mythology in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (there was, of course, a specific someone: Gujureet Singh, whom Sophie came to love and hate in equal measures. In her more drunken moments, Sophie would ask herself what on Earth an Indian Sikh was doing studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, although once she’d sobered up and regained her usual English propriety, she would ask herself what on Earth anyone was doing studying these languages. In reality, Gurjureet was a kind boy who hailed from an understated, overweight family based in Croydon. He was a ridiculously good linguist, a perceptive literary critic, a dab historian and an incorrigible swot. And he was the first man that Sophie truly fancied, a word she had not used since her graduation, with his strong nose and endearing monobrow, but Sophie knew that she was too jealous of Gujureet to ever make a move).
‘Hey, Sophie, sorry about that.’ She had almost forgotten about Ernest. ‘Where was I?’
‘You were telling me to commit to improving my life.’ What Sophie wanted to do was continue daydreaming. ‘But, actually, can we talk about something else? You’ve been a massive help, but I’d like to take my mind off things.’
‘Sure, sure, good idea.’ Ernest wondered whether he was supposed to take the initiative here. Before he could think too deeply on the subject, Sophie said,
‘You know, I was wondering: how come you and Bert are such good friends?’
Ernest chuckled. ‘I always used to get asked that. ‘Cause I was pretty darn innocent and Bert was one of Oxford’s biggest womanisers.’ He paused, side-tracked.
‘I was just thinking about the word ‘womanise’. As in, who’s being womanised? Did Bert supposedly turn Oxford girls into women by sleeping with them, or is ‘to womanise’ intransitive? As in, does it mean you’re just having lots of sex?’
‘I tend to think of sex as pretty transitive. But enough showing off, tell me about you and Bert.’
‘Right. Bert. Well, like I said, most people saw us as very different guys, and we definitely are in some respects, as I’m sure you can tell. But we also have a lot in common. First, the unavoidable: our background.’ Sophie gave a futile nod. ‘I’d also like to think we’re both loyal to our friends. That’s important to us. And we’re both Christians.’
Sophie was glad she didn’t have any water in her mouth. ‘Sorry? Bert, a Christian!’
‘He may not always act like one, but Bert’s a Protestant. Yes, he struggles to control his carnal instincts, but he believes that God is love, believes in the resurrection. Honestly, the fact he’s so conflicted is part of why I find him so interesting, regardless of whether I think he’s a good guy or not. And obviously I do think he’s a good guy; he’s just made some mistakes. Which hardly makes him unique…’
Now was not the time for Ernestian social commentary. ‘Do you think he regrets playing the field? Repents, even?’
‘I asked him that once. Essentially he said that even if he was a bit wild in the past, those experiences have shaped him as a person and he wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, Bert would never try to hurt anyone; he would never even think about cheating. And as for repentance, he and I have a liberal interpretation of scripture.’
‘Speaking of which, I should let you speak to Rosa. She must be missing you.’
‘How could she not?’ Sophie felt lighter now; she could hear the cars again. ‘It’s not easy,’ Ernest continued, ‘but it’ll make seeing her all the more special.’
‘She’s coming home soon, right?’
‘Yep, in five days. Not that I’m counting.’
‘Ah, Ernest, this has been great, thank you. And I’m really excited for you and Rosa.’
‘Don’t mention it, Sophie; call whenever. And thanks, I’m pretty darn excited myself.’
Determined to forget herself, Sophie thought about Ernest and Bert’s Christianity. It seemed so… contradictory. She didn’t want to challenge them, especially not when they’d both been so good to her, but their faith came across as the cherry on top of their lives. She imagined it as a source of comfort when their careers became stressful; a pick-me-up when they had no Sunday plans; a reassurance when existential questions threatened their equilibrium. Even Ernest, who was the more introspective of the two, failed to push beyond the surface level of religion. Sophie had gathered this from his writing, where spiritual questions added nuance to the characters but failed to strike a deeper chord. And although she’d only just found out about Bert’s faith, surely that suggested a lack of religious fervour? Sophie didn’t think there was anything wrong with that; she just couldn’t understand half-hearted Christians. She remembered hearing a verse along those lines, and her phone found it in the Book of Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Sophie’s father had left a great mark on her spiritual outlook. A semi-retired history teacher, he was also an amateur biblical scholar of the postmodern variety, and thus encouraged his daughter to view the Testaments as fascinating cultural documents but nothing more; the miracles they recorded were the delusions of a pre-scientific era. Sophie had never been particularly moved by the Gospels, feeling a distance between herself and the figure of Jesus; his words did not stir her, his signs failed to move her. She bore the pronouncements of her father: “The Gospels are a mess of contradictions; we know for a fact that Jesus didn’t say many of the things he’s reported to have said, at least not in the form we read them.” Only a handful of lionhearted verses had managed to touch the Boudicca within her; she remembered the armour of light and the exhortations in Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Scoffing at the humility demanded by Christ, Sophie could see the appeal in a sentiment such as this.
But Ernest and Bert didn’t live the Christian life; Sophie had read enough of the New Testament to know as much. Even if she disregarded the Bible’s claims at truth, she saw the contradiction in professing one’s allegiance to Christ whilst being absorbed in worldly pleasures. Ernest may well have been one of the most romantic men Sophie had met, and of course he had been such a help just now, but his writing made it clear that he tended to see the lives of others through the prism of his own self rather than through a sacrificial Christian light. And as much as Sophie was fond of Bert, he would readily admit that he had shades of Don Juan. She did not hold these flaws against her friends since she knew she was no better, but Sophie wondered if they understood the tepid nature of their faith.
Further muddying these waters was an email Ernest sent the following day:
“Hey Sophie, was skimming through Jordan Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life last night and decided to write my own list. Thought it might help you (and me!). Here’s what I came up with:
Ernest Krandle’s Thirteen Rules for Life
- Never give up on life.
- Love your family, love your friends; heck, try to love the lost and the evil.
- Stay hydrated whenever possible.
- Don’t think too much about what you eat.
- Don’t watch porn. Ever.
- Listen to music every day.
- Read every day.
- Cook at least once a day, even if it’s only a fried egg.
- Exercise every day.
- Be kind to at least one stranger every day.
- Nip harmful thoughts in the bud. Once they’ve blossomed, they’re mighty hard to prune.
- Don’t entertain existential thoughts when your mental health is precarious. It’s unlikely to end well.
- Have faith in God.
Would be interested to hear what you think.
Have a great morning,
For a few days, Sophie felt buoyed by these rules; they provided structure to a life fast spinning out of control. She made an effort to smile at the employees in her local bookshop, she went to the gym after work, and she didn’t allow her depression to morph into existential angst. But all it took was one lonely evening for this hard work to come undone, and then it was back to wallowing in thoughts of weak enamel and wonky canines.
It was the lethargy above all else; the feeling that every good act was too much to bear; every thought for another, every challenge at work, every home-cooked meal. Sophie recognised the value in these pursuits – to lift the weight was to strengthen herself and thus make the weight feel lighter. So why, she asked herself, did she rarely lift the weight? Because it was easier to wallow, easier to skim through a book or listen to a podcast whilst her attention drifted towards her mother’s dental hygiene. Had she always been the jealous type and never known it, constantly comparing herself to friend and foe alike? Or was she the helpless victim of the fragile human mind? No, she had ceased to believe in her own victimhood. This thought loop was no longer an external threat bombarding her defences; she and the thought loop were one.
The Sunday after her chat with Ernest, Sophie’s alarm went off at 08:30. She leapt out of bed and opened the curtains, trying to convince herself that she was raring to go, that this would be the day, yet again, that she got back on the horse. She watched the street below, where a branch swayed like a drunkard at an empty taxi rank, and a father held his daughter’s hand, his eyes smiling at the prospect of a quiet Sunday, hers at the sensation of being alive. And just when Sophie sensed the approach of childhood’s dawn, the return of blissful innocence, her mind attacked with plaque and acid. Letting go of the windowsill, she shut her eyes, tried to calm her angry breath, but the debris between her teeth continued to stain her mind. She tried to remember the irony, the obvious irony that she had outstanding teeth; a number of friends had told her so. Why couldn’t she accept their compliments rather than deciding that they simply didn’t know, that if they examined her mouth through a magnifying glass they would be appalled? And as her breathing failed to settle and her chest began to pound, Sophie collapsed under the shocking burden of her tears.
The phone rang. Her head struggled away from the pillow. Sophie wiped her eyes, scanned her apartment, and followed the noise to its source: her beloved fridge. She was both relieved by the prospect of company and annoyed at the thought of putting on a brave face. Then again, her face would not be visible. Resisting the urge to analyse the contents of her fridge, she saw Bert’s name on the screen. She felt no flutter at the thought of Bert; theirs was not the type of friendship destined for romance. She smiled nonetheless: today might not be a lonely one.
‘Sophie, hey. What are you up to?’
‘Very, very little.’
‘Good. I’m extremely bored.’
If not perfect, at least this was better. ‘You’re such a sympathetic soul, aren’t you?’
‘Far better for two people to be bored than one alone.’
‘Did you just make that up?’
‘I can tell.’
‘Right, I like this rapport we’ve got going so I’ll extend you an invitation: I was thinking we could go to church.’
‘Church?’ The timing was typical. ‘Well, I’m not a Christian.’
‘Nor was I until recently, and now I am.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘My point is you should come to church instead of staying home all day.’
Sophie looked at her apartment. ‘I didn’t think those would be my options on a Sunday when I arrived in London.’
‘Yeah, the whole brunch with your gal-pals thing is a hoax.’ Sophie remembered the smoked salmon in her fridge. ‘I tend to think people are even more boring than usual on the weekend. Not that brunch is interesting…’
Sophie resented giving Bert another laugh, but his ego was already too big to be inflated any further. ‘Alright, I’ll join. What time’s the service?’
‘10:30 at the Westminster Baptist Church. But meet me there at twenty past. I’ll be wearing a blue blazer.’
‘I know what you look like, Bert.’
‘Well, you’d think so, but I actually woke up this morning looking dangerously attractive. I’m not sure you’ll recognise me.’
‘Gosh, this could be an interesting service.’
‘None of that, Shaw.’ Bert really did scream public school. ‘See you in an hour or so.’
‘Yes, sir. Until then.’
Sophie left early. She pounded the pavement on her way to the station, willing herself onwards, fixing her mind upon her graceful but strong march through the pedestrian traffic. Today would be her day; she was resolved to ensure that.
Bert was wearing a tweed jacket.
‘What happened to the blue blazer?’
‘Damn, you recognised me.’
‘You look exactly the same.’
‘No, I don’t. Trust me, I’m looking dangerously attractive. God has blessed me.’
‘Somehow I doubt that’ll be the message of today’s sermon.’
‘Oh, bit of an expert, are we? You should read the Song of Solomon.’ Bert cleared his throat. Oh no, he’s going to perform. He spoke with music in his voice: ‘“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.”’ Bert stopped looking into the distance. ‘Don’t you think there’s something particularly goat-like about my hair today?’
‘The word you’re looking for is caprine. Much nicer than ‘goat-like’.’
‘No, Shaw, my hair is goat-like. It takes a deep understanding of scripture to see that.’ His tone became ominous: ‘You’ll understand one day – God willing. Speaking of which, let’s find our seats.’
Sophie was surprised by the church. She’d expected Bert to be more of a Holy Trinity Brompton man: opulence and renown, dyed hair and sparkly tee-. She stared intently at the baptism pool, the wooden benches and bare altar, above which was written: “Make his praise glorious.” On reading these words, Sophie realised that this was not a question of goat-like locks. But before she could change her mind about today’s activity, Bert found two seats towards the front. He gave his neighbours a warm greeting, and Sophie did her best to follow suit, but she was now aware of her entire self, not just her teeth. She focused on Bert, who seemed transformed in this sacred space; his cheek and arrogance had dissipated, replaced by an eagerness to listen, as a sister reviewed her week or a brother lamented Chelsea’s recent form. It struck Sophie that she had only met Bert a few weeks earlier; she couldn’t bring to mind the verse about not judging others.
The first twenty minutes made her uncomfortable. She could handle, perhaps even enjoy, a traditional Church of England service: a spot of Jerusalem here, a dash of frankincense there, and, to round things off, a nice sermon about home being where the heart is at. Good English stuff. Whereas the first song at the Westminster Baptist Church had people closing their eyes, stretching forth their hands, biting back the tears. This continued for the next three hymns, and then the happiest man in the world discussed the church’s Christmas baking group. After his fourth pun in five minutes, Sophie groaned; the child within her had died.
But then the church pastor, David, returned to the pulpit. ‘Thank you Michael for giving us a taste’ – would it ever stop? – ‘of what to expect this Christmas. I hope lots of you will join us for some baking this year; it’s always a real highlight.’ David was thin. His shirt was tucked into dark blue jeans. ‘Now, today we have something a little different. You can probably guess what it is, given the large baptism pool to my right.’ A ripple of laughter spread through the audience. ‘We feel so blessed to have two candidates getting baptised this morning. Honestly, these are some of my favourite events of the year; I just love the total surrender to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It really is a beautiful thing, I’m sure you’ll all agree. I still remember getting baptised when I was a student, all those years ago.’ David had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday. ‘It remains one of my happiest memories, and I hope Bert and Melissa will be able to say the same when they’re my age.’ All of a sudden, Sophie forgot that she even had teeth. ‘But enough from me, let’s welcome them up here. Please, Bert and Melissa, where are you?’
Bert gave Sophie an eyebrows-raised grin. She hadn’t suspected a thing. He stood up and walked to the front, where he was joined by a young black woman wearing a t-shirt and trousers.
‘True to form,’ David continued, ‘Bert has come somewhat over-dressed for the occasion.’ The congregation laughed. Sophie couldn’t tell if this was all a ruse. ‘I’ve never baptised someone wearing tweed before.’
Bert leaned into the microphone. ‘What can I say, I like to look smart for God.’ More laughter. ‘But I actually need to get changed. Can I slip backstage for a minute?’
‘Again, I’ve never called it ‘backstage’,’ and David said this kindly, ‘but this is quickly becoming quite theatrical. Just be quick, we have plenty to get through.’ Bert slipped out of view. Melissa, meanwhile, was smiling somewhat awkwardly. ‘While Bert gets ready, let us all pray.’ David asked his heavenly Father to support the Christians facing persecution in Algeria, Iran and Sri Lanka, and then thanked the Lord for saving Natalie from cancer. Sophie bowed her head, trying to picture this unknown woman, and she felt her heart soften. As soon as the ‘Amen’ had sounded, Bert reappeared in a grey t-shirt and a pair of tennis shorts. ‘Quite the transformation, Bert! I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer for my first tweed baptism.’ Sophie realised that Ernest and Rosa were both in London; why weren’t they here? ‘We’ll begin with Bert’s testimony, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of baptism, before we move onto our prayers for Bert. Melissa, you can take my seat; I’m sure Bert will keep you waiting. And, on that note: take it away, Bert.’
Bert removed two sheets of paper from his pocket. He unfolded them on the pulpit and cleared his throat. Sophie realised that he was nervous. ‘Good morning. As you may have gathered, my name is Bert. Bert Eynsham. I’ve lived in London my whole life, and I’m lucky to have two loving parents, a loving brother, and two annoying younger sisters, who are all here today.’ He looked up, and heads turned to the Eynsham family at the back of the congregation. Sophie wondered when they had arrived. As she cast her eyes back to the altar, she spotted two familiar faces on the right-hand side of the church: Ernest and Rosa had shown up after all. They waved to her with excitement. Sophie smiled without understanding.
‘I don’t think my testimony is like many of the ones I’ve heard. I don’t say that out of pride, but out of gratitude. You see, most people who stand up here will tell you that Jesus saved them from rock bottom. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, they were struck by a glorious light, filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding. But I can’t relate to that. I’d be lying if I said I was on the verge of giving up when I heard the call of Jesus. The truth is, God has blessed me with a very happy life. Like I said, I have a wonderful family. I also have amazing friends, I had great church experiences growing up, and I’ve been offered pretty much every opportunity anyone could ask for.’ Bert paused. Sophie watched his eyes taking in the audience. ‘But I was also a spoiled brat.’ Those who knew Bert well laughed the loudest. ‘I needed things to go my way: getting into the top sports teams, having the prettiest girlfriends,’ and Sophie noted his use of the plural, ‘going on expensive holidays with my family. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I felt that the world was unjust, that God had let me down. I believed I deserved the best.
‘But then a friend sent me a line by the writer G.K. Chesterton.’ Sophie suspected that this friend was Ernest. ‘Chesterton writes: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” When I read that line, I felt strangely conflicted. A part of me was lifted up by the truth of these words; I saw hope in the angels. But I also felt a thorn in my side; a niggling pain that was trying to tell me something. And eventually I heard these damning words: “Bert Eynsham, you are a proud, proud man.” And, just like that, I knew I was not a true Christian. Sure, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but where was the fruit of that belief? Was my behaviour different from that of any other decent but proud young man? I looked back over my short life, and the answer was clear: no, it wasn’t. And I hated this answer. I knew that I was the worst of all men: someone who brings shame to the name of Jesus, since anyone who claims to be a Christian but lives only for himself does God a disservice. I was effectively saying to God: ‘Thanks for sending your son down to us, that was really kind of you, but I’m going to tread my own path; I’m going to make sure Bert Eynsham comes out on top.’
Bert turned the page. ‘You see, I have lived a charmed life. I’ve indulged myself in drink, in money, in the pleasures of the body.’ Bert’s voice was louder now; it contained a self-disgust Sophie had never heard. ‘And God has been patient with me; he has shown me mercy. But eventually he sent that thorn into my side. It was only a small thorn, far less than I deserved, but it made me realise that if I kept to the same path, God would turn that thorn into a dagger. He would show me how foolish all my pride really was. But he spared me the pain, and I think that’s because he saw how weak I was; how much I depended on the so-called good things of this world.
‘Having felt even that slight pain, I decided to commit to my faith. I chose to take up my cross.’ Bert gripped the pulpit. He was both younger and older than ever before. ‘No more sleeping around, no more heavy nights, no more living for pleasure. From now on, I will do my very best to live according to God’s plan. And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.’ Sophie realised there was something goat-like about Bert’s hair. ‘My life used to be guided by one big question: what will make me happy? But now I’m guided by a different question: what would Jesus do? I’ve realised that I never really saw people for what they were; I never really cared about them. I didn’t listen as much as I should have, I didn’t go out of my way to help anyone. Or, if I did, I was still putting my desires before theirs.’ Bert looked at the congregation. His eyes were steely as his lips smiled. ‘That’s been the biggest change for me: trying to focus on the happiness of others rather than my own. But the funny thing is, I’ve felt so much happier ever since. God has given me a hunger I didn’t have before. I want to be awake at every moment, I want to see my family more often, I want to share this joy with as many people as I can. If I can help save even one soul, that would be a great thing.’
Bert turned away from his notes. ‘Faith is an incredibly difficult thing to explain. I don’t think it makes much sense until you’ve experienced it yourself, which seems like a flaw in the system.’ Sophie joined the congregation as she laughed. ‘I never thought I’d be one of these people. I never expected to say that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, and I don’t think my family or friends would have expected it either. But Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Wow, what’s happened to me.’ People laughed the kind of laughter that is streaked by tears. ‘It makes me very happy to share this day with you all. I may not have been a drug addict or a murderer, but I’ve hurt people by being selfish and proud, by not loving enough. But as Jesus said: “You must be born again.” And I do feel like a completely different person.’ Bert looked straight at Sophie. ‘I hope that every one of you makes more space for God. I can guarantee that doing so will change your life.’ He paused once more, swallowing in the absence of water. ‘I’d like to finish by quoting my favourite passage from Isaiah, since I’ve already used far too many words of my own.’ Bert picked up his notes, and he spoke with a boom in his voice:
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.’
Bert stepped away from the pulpit and heaved a sigh of relief. Then he patted himself on the back.
As applause resounded through that unassuming church and David stepped towards the pool, Bert smiled with schoolboy innocence rather than schoolboy cheek. And as Ernest and Rosa hugged each other out of joy for their friend, Sophie looked at him upon his stage, saw a man transformed by love, a man prepared to sacrifice his life for what he could not see, and, in so looking, she began to cry for the second time that day.