27th May 2017
A satisfied smile suffused Tom Hodson’s face. His eyes alighted on St Finnan’s noticeboard, which welcomed him to the Scottish Episcopal Church. He took a moment to absorb its details before walking purposefully to the main door. He must have entered rather brusquely because a man in clerical garb turned his head with a start, before resuming his daily routine.
‘Might I see the rector?’ the visitor asked.
The cleric again lifted his head, this time paying more attention. Tom detected an expression of dawning realisation.
‘You mean my wife, Penny. I’m just the lay reader. Can I help you?’
Tom wasn’t familiar with the niceties of Episcopal officialdom. Indeed, the reply confirmed his preconceptions and prejudices about Byzantine Church hierarchies. But by now he harboured a grudging admiration for the clergy of St Finnan’s; he remained gracious.
‘Tom Hodson,’ he said, holding his hand out towards the cleric.
‘Sam Waite,’ the lay reader reciprocated. ‘Are you a visitor?’
‘Just up from Cheshire for a couple of nights. I’ve never been north of the border before.’ Tom steadied his nerves. ‘Might I see inside the vestry?’
Sam seemed unable to suppress a nervous chuckle. Tom felt reassured and began to relax. The phlegmatic cleric, however, had suddenly become animated. ‘Of course! Come this way,’ he spluttered.
They walked towards the transept and Sam opened a door into a modest room, bathed in rays of late-afternoon sun. Tom was surprised at the tranquil beauty of the space. He looked at what he had come to see; it was even simpler to spot the answer than he had imagined.
‘Then I suppose it must be Mungo?’ he ventured. ‘Can I claim my prize?’
‘With the greatest pleasure. Very well done! Let’s go over to the rectory. Penny will be delighted to meet you.’
Sam again led the way and the visitor noted that he left the church unlocked. ‘What a pleasant surprise; there are some parts of the country where you can still trust people,’ he mused, with a touch of envy.
They breezed into the adjacent rectory, a mellow Edwardian building set in a well-stocked garden. It exuded contentment.
‘Penny!’ called Sam. ‘There’s a gentleman who was very keen to see our vestry.’
A muffled whoop echoed from above them and an elegant woman, grey-haired but curiously youthful, galloped down the stairs.
She beamed as her eyes met the similarly grey, but tall and distinguished, visitor. ‘You’ve solved …?’
Before she could finish the question both men were nodding their heads like excited schoolboys.
Penny introduced herself and invited the guest to take a seat.
‘Well then, let’s have a look,’ Sam announced as he went to a cabinet in the lounge. From a drawer, he produced a small box which he proudly brought through for Tom to see. Three pairs of eyes shone at its restrained elegance.
‘I’m very touched,’ said Tom. ‘It’s quite beautiful. Small but perfectly formed.’ There was an unaccustomed lump in his throat.
‘We should toast your success. Do you care for wine?’ Penny asked.
‘Red, if you have it.’
Penny returned in a minute with three glasses which were clinked in celebration. The initial nervousness quickly dissipated as they relaxed together.
Penny’s curiosity seemed greater than Sam’s. ‘Is there a Mrs Hodson, might I ask? I imagine it might be fitting for a woman.’
Tom smiled inscrutably and lifted the prize towards his chest. ‘Actually, I think it would look rather fetching in a tiepin. But, since you ask, there is shortly to be a second Mrs Hodson. I’m a widower who has unexpectedly found love late in life. You’re right. I think Ruth will claim first dibs.’
‘And is she in Kilfinan with you now?’ enquired Sam.
‘Oh no. She doesn’t even know I’m here. I’m just staying at a guest house for a couple of nights.’
‘Then you must join us for dinner,’ announced Penny, emphatically.
After his efforts over the past twenty-four hours, Tom had an appetite for both food and company.
‘We’ll be ready by seven,’ Sam continued. ‘You can make yourself at home in the rectory until then.’
Tom declined the offer of an armchair in favour of returning to the church. He was happy to pass time studying the architectural details and browsing the notices. It was a beautifully calming place, especially in the douce light of early summer. He valued the time to pause and reflect.
Tom had come to realise that the vigour of a church could be deduced from its display of posters and pamphlets. You could work out the history of the building from its design and fitments, but it was the ephemera on the tables and walls which betrayed the pulse of the congregation. St Finnan’s acquitted itself well, in his eyes: the notices on the wall were about poverty and injustice, about practical action. There was information about shared activities and outings. There was plenty of news. He discerned a skew to the elderly, but not as much as in many churches; youth activities were certainly in evidence. There were pamphlets and magazines to take away and a well-tended bookstall.
‘Good for you,’ he thought, as he sat down in a pew. He couldn’t pray, but he could contemplate.
Sam had wondered if this moment would ever occur. He had feared his whimsical little escapade would either go unnoticed or else prove too abstruse and insoluble. Or alternatively that some member of St Finnan’s might have an unfair advantage and spot the solution immediately. Evidently he need not have worried; Penny’s well-judged assurances to the contrary had, as usual, proved accurate.
Still, he was curious to know how difficult it had proved and how much interest it had generated. And whether it had reached beyond the limited confines of people who read the local church notices. Penny shared his impatience but refrained from taking the initiative. She knew it was only fair to let Sam broach the matter with their guest: it should be his moment of satisfaction.
Sam’s long background in industry had left him with good social skills and a sensitivity to the protocols of table talk. His affable and sometimes bumbling demeanour cloaked a perceptive and diplomatic mind, especially when it came to raising matters of faith with non-church folk.
Dinner was not long underway when Sam risked turning the conversation to matters of religion. He was well experienced in judging the appropriate moment to do so, and adept in backing off at any hint of offence.
‘Might I ask,’ he ventured, ‘whether you would consider yourself a person of faith?’
Tom shook his head. ‘No, I’m a man of reason.’
The response didn’t surprise Sam, who had instantly noted an air of the humanist about him.
‘The two aren’t incompatible,’ Sam observed with an amiable smile.
‘I was put off religion a long time ago. I find that the natural and social sciences offer me all the explanations I need.’ And then, in a slightly mischievous tone, Tom added, ‘I hope that doesn’t mean you want the prize back?’
‘No, you’re OK,’ Penny assured him. ‘Some things are unconditional.’
Tom smiled. Apparently, he recognised the allusion. Sam was not surprised when Tom continued to express his views more openly.
‘I was educated at a Jesuit school. You know, the full-on Catholic bit. For a while I was tempted by the priesthood. There were some wonderful teachers, people of great integrity. And there were a few ghastly ones. The recent revelations about abuse don’t surprise me in the slightest. Overall, though, they were a good bunch who left me with a strong moral compass. And,’ he added, almost as an afterthought, ‘with a decent knowledge of the Bible. Which has just come in surprisingly handy!’
They laughed at the irony. Sam could tell from Penny’s body language that curiosity was getting the better of her.
‘How long had it been since you dipped into your Bible?’ she enquired.
‘Not as long as you might think,’ Tom replied. ‘Ruth, my fiancée, has a faith, which I find rather touching in a quaint sort of way. I sometimes have to check up on a verse so I can tease her accurately.’
‘And now we’ve made you read it even more. How beastly!’ Penny joshed. ‘Be honest; how did you find it?’
‘Well, I’ll agree you picked the best bits,’ Tom conceded. ‘If the Church was all about forgiveness and love and neighbourliness, I’d have a good deal more time for it. Jesus was basically a good guy. I just have difficulty in believing all the supernatural stuff.’
Sam and Penny exchanged a glance which said ‘leave well alone’, although Tom unexpectedly prolonged the discussion a little further.
‘I’m intrigued about these Celtic saints that keep popping up around here. They’re quite fashionable now, I understand. Ruth seems quite taken with them.’
Sam noted an expression of pleasant surprise in Penny, whose knowledge of the topic was quite extensive, borne of a genuine fascination.
‘Well, to say that there’s a single Celtic Christianity would be misleading,’ she interjected. Sam held her gaze, concerned that she might go into lecture mode, but she added simply: ‘There were many saints in this neck of the woods from the fourth century onwards and there are plenty of stories and legends associated with them. Some of the stories are pretty wacky but they contain a little truth and some good sentiments.’
Sam detected a wry smile on Tom’s face, as if he was about to say the same about the Bible, so he added, pre-emptively: ‘I think some of the interest is simply that people like the romance of the old. But that’s no bad thing. Opening up the old paths can often be more rewarding than trying to invent new ones. The old saints seem to have emphasised simplicity and encounter. That often appeals to people these days; they feel that the Church is too bound up with hierarchy, administration and rules.’
‘I’m not wedded to any particular tradition,’ Penny admitted, ‘but different traditions seem to meet different needs at different times. I think the less strident and patriarchal tone of the Celtic tradition may strike a chord with a younger generation.’
‘I think you may be right,’ Tom agreed. ‘Can you tell me anything about St Finnan?’
‘Not a lot,’ Sam admitted. ‘The historians can only glean bits here and there. We don’t even know whether his name should be spelt with one N or two. It could even be an alternative for Winning.’
‘Ah, yes. I saw a sign to Kilwinning on my way here. Possibly the same person?’
Sam raised his eyebrows. ‘Maybe. Though we’re pretty sure it relates to an Irish monk of the seventh century. He trained at Iona Abbey and then became Bishop of Lindisfarne.’
‘So not much later than Aidan,’ Tom observed.
Penny and Sam shared their surprise at Tom’s knowledge. ‘Yes indeed, directly after,’ Penny replied.
‘The knowledge is still there. It’s surprising what sticks from your schooldays. And comes in handy in pub quizzes.’ After a few moments’ silence, Tom added: ‘And I have admiration for those early saints too. I might not share their religious conviction but I do admire their courage, sailing across the oceans by the stars in primitive boats. And then facing up to the restive pagan natives.’
‘I think you’d have liked Finnan,’ Penny said. ‘He built a cathedral on Lindisfarne, but it was a typically Irish one. Hewn oak and a thatched roof; nice and simple. Led a very virtuous and saintly life by all accounts, devoting himself to good works.’
‘And he must have been a courageous chap as well as a compelling preacher,’ Sam continued. ‘Converted a couple of tribal kings before travelling along the west of Scotland establishing church cells. Far too risky for my liking.’
‘Now that’s the sort of Christianity I can relate to,’ Tom conceded. ‘However did the Church lose its way so badly?’
‘Because we’re pilgrims and pilgrims often lose the way,’ Penny suggested. ‘I hope we’re getting back on track now. But you know what people are like. When we’re faced with secularism and decline we feel a need to take control of the situation. We want to plan and organise, take things into our own hands. Many of the early saints relinquished control, took risks and believed that God would provide encounters and opportunities. Maybe we can rediscover that.’
Tom grinned sympathetically. Penny’s comment had given him food for thought, which he seemed to spend some moments digesting.
‘I think Ruth would be very interested to meet you,’ he observed, and then added: ‘She would find you a kindred spirit. The ministry would have appealed to her, but of course it’s far too late now.’
‘Oh, never say never!’ Sam chuckled after a brief hiatus. ‘We were both well into middle age before we took the plunge. I trained part-time to be a reader and then Penny got envious!’
‘Oh, don’t exaggerate!’ exclaimed Penny. ‘My calling was entirely independent.’
Tom seemed amused at the sharpness of the exchange.
Sam retreated. ‘Ah, all right then. Quite separate. I was an old-school engineer and a very traditional Anglican. I gradually found myself taking an interest in the spiritual welfare of my colleagues and friends. Ordinary folk who rarely or never went to church. I think they saw me as a “steady Eddie” sort of figure – someone who could lull them into a sense of security on personal matters.’
‘Now then, Sam Waite, don’t be unfair on yourself,’ Penny giggled. ‘It was only occasionally they called you “Old Makeweight”.’
‘To my face, at least,’ Sam muttered.
‘So did I hear you say Anglican?’ Tom interjected. ‘That doesn’t sound very Scottish.’
‘No, indeed,’ Sam replied, detecting a safe line of conversation. ‘We spent most of our life in Lincolnshire, working in business.’
‘Lincoln has the most wonderful cathedral,’ Tom sighed. ‘I once attended a carol service there. Yes, even non-believers can enjoy that, you know.’
‘Ah. We loved the place,’ Penny concurred. ‘And then, just as he qualified as a reader, Sam got posted up here with his work.’
Sam was pleased to hear her express it in those terms. At the time, she had accused him of selfishly accepting a promotion to a place where she had no desire to live.
‘We didn’t know what to expect up here,’ Sam continued. ‘But we were surprised at the opportunities.’
Penny nodded. ‘Surprised by God, you might say. I persevered with my business interests while Sam discovered all manner of unexpected ways to minister to people.’
‘And after Penny had finally accepted she was being called to “full-time” ministry, I was offered early retirement. It’s been quite a ride.’
Sam noticed an expression of scepticism in Tom’s face at the suggestion of divine guidance. Anticipating the possibility of a lengthy digression, he deflected the conversation.
‘Now, what I’m really interested to know is … how did you find my little game? Was it fun? Was it too easy? Was there much interest? How did you even find out about it? I don’t imagine they sell many copies of the Kilfinan Gazette in Cheshire.’
Penny couldn’t resist interjecting: ‘I’m sure we could have trawled the internet to see if the puzzle was being followed, but Sam’s far too self-conscious to do that. He’d be very upset if there was no evidence of interest and equally embarrassed if there was.’
Tom chuckled, as if wondering where to start.
At length, he explained how one of his fiancée’s church friends was an inveterate social media networker. One day she posted a link to a blog which was trending from someone called Kilfie. This Kilfie, whoever they were, had copied a poem along with a few comments of their own. ‘As soon as I saw it,’ he concluded, ‘I realised the poem was an acrostic. Well, I like word puzzles and sneaked back on to the site surreptitiously after she had gone out for the day.’
‘And then what?’ Penny prompted.
‘So, I decided to follow Kilfie’s blog and watched it gradually burgeon. Evidently it was attracting a great deal of attention. There was some sort of treasure hunt underway. Frankly, I couldn’t resist it. I even took out a subscription to the online Kilfinan Gazette.’
‘Even though the poems were clearly religious?’ asked Sam.
‘Well, it was the kind of religion I can handle. Not preachy. Just reflecting on some universal themes. And obviously written by someone with an impish sense of humour.’
‘So, did you get the impression that there was a lot of interest?’ Penny enquired.
‘Oodles. Masses. You can infer all sorts of things from social media and internet traffic. Even the fact that the Gazette was giving space to the acrostics on the home page of its website.’
‘I wonder if it made anyone blow the dust off their Bibles,’ Sam pondered, more in hope than expectation.
‘Well, if I’m anything to go by, plenty,’ admitted Tom. ‘I don’t see what else you could do. I’ll tell you something – if you wanted to get people reading …’ He paused and raised his eyebrows. Sam and Penny completed the sentence with knowing smiles.
It was a thoroughly amicable evening and they chatted on into the night about life in Kilfinan, the busyness of retirement and, inevitably, about Tom’s forthcoming wedding plans. Naturally it was a civil ceremony but Tom didn’t entirely baulk at Sam’s mischievous suggestion of the possibility of a church blessing.
Tom headed back to his guest house, happy not to have spent the evening alone and, indeed, to have enjoyed good-natured company. His visit had been entirely satisfactory and he would sleep well before returning to Cheshire.
Sam stacked the dishes after the meal and reflected on the outcome of the past few weeks. There would need to be an announcement in the Gazette. Perhaps an article. Best not to let it go to his head. He felt that something bigger had been at work here than just some modest local talent. Something much bigger.
12th April 2017
Helen Finlay rarely bought the Kilfinan Gazette. She failed to understand why a weekly newspaper could drum up so little news in such a lively little town. Such was her reputation as a fount of local knowledge she could have easily filled the Gazette’s pages several times over with far more interesting stories. But it was Easter week. She felt it important to purchase a copy to peruse the church notices and consult the services being offered by the town’s various denominations.
Her Sunday attendance was no longer as assiduous as it had been prior to widowhood, something for which she made excuses without ever accepting her culpability in upsetting several former friends at Kilfinan’s Church of Scotland. Her late husband regularly used to check her quick tongue before it resulted in discord but, unrestrained and without malice aforethought, she had managed to fall out with numerous acquaintances in the congregation.
Her last visit to the kirk had included a spat with Wendy McAlister about the lack of crockery for post-service refreshments. The use of recyclable cardboard cups, she snapped, might be convenient for the catering team but she deemed it common and inhospitable. Wendy had retorted with a comment about volunteers having better things to do than spend half an hour washing up after everyone else had gone home.
In truth, the spat had been nothing like as public and acrimonious as Helen had imagined, and few had given it a second thought or could now even recollect it. But in Helen’s memory it remained vivid. It was the last in a series of unpleasantries which had led to her continued absence for several months.
Easter, though, was a different matter and she could not let it pass without attending a traditional service. Further, she would press her daughter Naomi to accompany her to whichever service she decided upon. She doubted if Naomi had set foot inside a church since moving in with her feckless partner, and it troubled her that their out-of-wedlock baby had never been baptised. But it was high time that Naomi was reminded that at Easter even she could be expected to occupy a pew.
Helen scanned the articles in the Gazette’s pages contemptuously. The only report which told her anything she did not know already was an update on the proposed new wind farm, including the date for a forthcoming public meeting. She muttered to herself about the proposal being a foregone conclusion and then muttered further about the dismal standard of reporting. She eventually found the information for which she had bought the paper squeezed in between the second-hand–car adverts and the football reports.
For such a modestly sized town, there were a surprising number of church notices. Clearly several of the congregations were making a special effort for Easter, with meditations, walks of witness and enterprising family events. But as for an Easter morning service, there was nothing that succeeded in tempting her away from the Church of Scotland and Reverend Gilmour’s sound preaching. She had once considered moving to the Episcopal church but was none too keen after it appointed a female priest.
Alongside the church notices, at the bottom right, was the customary Thought for the Week, which she enjoyed, except on the occasions when it was too liberal and woolly. In her view, it almost justified purchasing the paper. She was particularly pleased to see that this week it was by none other than the Reverend Gilmour himself. Despite its restriction to six column inches, it was a remarkably concise and complete defence of the reality of the resurrection and the defeat of infernal principalities. She could almost hear him declaiming it from the pulpit, which redoubled her resolve to attend his forthcoming service.
Adjacent to this column was something most curious. As an irregular purchaser of the newspaper she could not be sure that it was unprecedented, but it was certainly highly unusual. She wasn’t even sure that it should be among the church notices at all. A poem of sorts had been posted without any acknowledgement or title or explanation. It read:
Humility will be
Are what you’ll need;
Like Solomon in his
Temple, asking heaven’s
Hosts to intercede,
Entreating God to heal the
Land and heal the people’s pain.
And hereby Treasure you may gain:
Note the verse, and you may succeed –
Do it in hope, not from greed.
It immediately rang a bell: the reference to Solomon gave it away. Surely it was an allusion to his dedication prayer after he had finished building the temple in Jerusalem? She felt smug at recognising the connection so quickly. But why had it been posted and by whom? And what was she meant to make of the last three lines?
Curiosity made her return to the poem that evening. She enjoyed puzzles. An avid reader of detective novels, she fancied her skills as an armchair sleuth.
The starting point must surely be to visit the relevant Bible passage. Confidently, she went to First Kings to locate Solomon’s prayer. She experienced a pang of self-reproach: it must have been years since she had read that section of the Old Testament. While her husband was alive she had conscientiously observed a quiet time each morning, a discipline which had often helped her to maintain an equilibrium throughout the day. Her day would never feel right if it had not included an early–morning Bible reading.
She had never understood why some folk found the Old Testament dull: to Helen, its great sweep of historical events and people had always been vivid and captivating. She recalled the first time she read the account of Solomon’s temple: how she had been enthralled and swept up in its romance and scale and beauty and majesty. She could visualise all the wonderful craftsmanship. She could almost see Solomon bedecked in his finery and hear the thunderous phalanx of skilled musicians. It was a passage she had once known well.
But despite a careful search, the desired verse eluded her. After fruitlessly wading through a mass of details about construction and decorative artwork it began to dawn on her that she was looking in the wrong place. Of course, the account of the temple and Solomon’s prayer was repeated in Chronicles. Helen reproached herself. Half an hour later, after starting at chapter 1 of First Chronicles and ploughing through interminable historical and genealogical records, she eventually located what she was looking for. It must have been the longest chunk of the Old Testament she had ever read in one sitting, but there in the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Chronicles she found what she was after – the memorable reply when God responds to Solomon’s dedication prayer:
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
She was certain that this was what the newspaper entry had referred to. But why had the poet not simply quoted Second Chronicles 7:14? And what on earth was she to make of the last three lines of the poem which seemed to have little connection to the verse? They seemed to allude to some sort of treasure. Perhaps it was allegorical. Easter was, after all, the time to remember the greatest Treasure of all, as well as a time when children went on treasure hunts for hidden eggs. These days, more of them seemed to believe in the Easter bunny than Jesus.
‘At least,’ she pondered, ‘it will get people thinking. It would be no bad thing if people hereabouts did show a bit more humility and listen to the voice of God.’ Helen often harboured such opinions.
Easter Sunday started with azure skies and a sharp, low–angle sunshine backlighting the eastern hills. Helen checked herself in the mirror before setting off for church in good time, as she expected the car park to fill up quickly. It was too bad that Naomi had dreamed up a feeble excuse not to attend: Helen was perhaps less concerned about her daughter’s spiritual welfare than about not getting a lift, even though she was perfectly capable of driving herself. She spent the journey harbouring uncharitable thoughts towards Naomi, and it was an effort to nod politely at the lady on door duty as she received a copy of the week’s notices.
The church was half full and, while affording Helen an opportunity to judge silently people who didn’t bother to attend on this most important day of the year, this also allowed her to select an anonymous seat. She scanned those present with impassive interest, noting the sprinkling she might still count as friends. She nodded a polite greeting to a pair of unknown worshippers who arrived alongside her.
As the Reverend Archie Gilmour rose to his feet she noticed how elderly he looked. The wiry, indefatigable hillwalker now appeared aquiline and grey. But when the time came for the sermon, his voice was as strong as ever and age seemed to have bestowed an even more impassioned reverence.
It was Easter. He spoke of sacrifice. He spoke of suffering as well as resurrection. Helen knew it would not be a service for faint–hearts who wanted easy answers and fuzzy imagery. Archie was uncompromising. Perhaps it was as well that Naomi wasn’t there.
But then he changed tack. Instead of continuing his exposition about the empty tomb, he suddenly challenged his congregation to examine themselves. ‘What do you need to sacrifice?’ he thundered at them, shaking a bony fist. ‘What would be the costliest thing that you could surrender today? Might it be your pride?’
Then to her surprise, he paraphrased the passage in Second Chronicles: ‘If you will humble yourselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from your wicked ways, then God will hear from heaven and will forgive your sin. Even the great King Solomon was willing to do that. Are you? Permit me an anecdote …’
Helen knew this signalled an allusion to the mountains.
‘I’ve learned to treat the hills with humility. Even when starting to tackle a rock face I’ve climbed a score of times I have to consciously banish my pride and self-confidence. The deceptive beauty of the Highlands always needs to be treated with respect.’ And so he went on to expound how an overhang in the Arrochar Alps had once humbled him and left him fearing for his life.
Helen wondered if it was Archie who had written the poem. But perhaps not. The tenor of his voice didn’t sound like someone playing games.
‘Isn’t it sad,’ he continued in his measured but penetrating voice, ‘that some of us still harbour grudges and feuds with each other? Even some in this congregation will not sit next to each other. Some people in front of me now are hardly on speaking terms with members of their own family. I challenge you this Easter to humble yourselves. To search yourselves for any root of bitterness and lay it at the cross.’
Was he looking at Helen? How could he have been? He must have prepared his sermon days before and could not have known she would attend. The knowledge that she was just one sinner among many did not make her feel any more comfortable.
If the Reverend Gilmour had directed any of his words specifically at Helen, it did not show after the service as he greeted the faithful in the refreshments room.
‘Happy Easter, Mrs Finlay. How delightful to see you. I’d missed you lately. I do hope you’ve been well.’
She nodded, before venturing: ‘I was delighted to see your column in the Gazette, Archie. Very telling. And, by the way, did you write the poem beside it?’
The Reverend Gilmour raised his eyebrows. ‘No. Nothing to do with me. I haven’t a clue. Perhaps whoever it was will reveal themselves next week.’ Then he added, ‘Mrs McAlister was mentioning you to me. There she is by the bookstall. Why don’t you go and join her?’
Helen could hardly refuse, for she could see the growing queue waiting for their moment with the minister.
Wendy McAlister’s face lit up as she saw Helen, and it was clear that she had let bygones be bygones. Her comments were entirely gracious and complimentary. She was a cheerful and good-natured soul and, after chatting for ten minutes over coffee, they agreed to meet on Tuesday at the Harbour Lights café.
On returning home, Helen checked over the entry in the paper again in case there were any hidden clues that she hadn’t spotted first time around, but to no avail. Her confidence in her sleuthing skills was dented. She sat down and returned to the relevant passage in Second Chronicles. The more closely she read it the more deeply she was struck by the sheer humility of Solomon, at least at that stage of his life. Here he was, the most splendidly rich and wise man in the world, who surrendered himself completely to God.
She turned a forensic eye to the account in case it contained pertinent hints. She noted in chapter 6 how Solomon had ‘stood on the platform and then knelt down before the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands towards heaven’. She pondered his wisdom in realising that even the most fabulous temple could not contain God. She reflected that all this was done to create a space where God might give attention to the people’s prayers. Solomon must have realised that, kingly though he was, he was no more than a humble servant in the eyes of God.
It was as if the poem and the Bible passage spoke to her directly, in the same way as Archie’s sermon. It was a passage she thought she knew well and yet which she now read as if for the first time. It was personal.
‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face …’ the passage had said. ‘Humility will be Essential …’ the poem had begun. And that prayer would be needed. Helen thought about her forthcoming meeting with Wendy. She wondered about extending an olive branch to Naomi, something which would not come easily. With the words almost choking in her throat she forced herself to pray about the situation. She even promised God she would try to be less vain. Her words felt rather vapid and contrived, but at least it was a start.
Tuesday morning saw her at the Harbour Lights with Wendy, having made an effort to look her best and actually appear as if she was looking forward to renewing their acquaintance. They were blessed with another of Kilfinan’s cloudless spring skies and a bustle of activity across the sea loch. Helen talked about her holidays and the books she was reading, hoping to deflect Wendy from more contentious and painful topics. She was still resentful of certain things that had been said between them, and deeply sensitive to the possibility that various wagging tongues at the church remained judgemental about her daughter’s unwedded relationship with an unsuitable man. The topic was one which she preferred to withhold from the public domain, and she trusted that people now regarded it as being off-limits.
But Helen had not bargained for Wendy’s memory, razor–sharp for a seventy-eight–year-old. ‘And how is Naomi doing, and that charming young man of hers? Kenneth, isn’t it?’
It was too sudden a question for Helen, who responded with an ill-considered comment about her disappointment with Naomi. It was not the conversation she was hoping for; nor was it the answer she would have given if she had applied a little more forethought. Wendy must have noticed her bristle but continued nonetheless.
‘Don’t judge her too harshly, dear,’ Wendy responded in tones as sanguine as Solomon’s. ‘Young people are under a lot of pressure these days. She probably needs encouragement rather than criticism. And don’t, whatever you do, lose contact with your new grandson. Naomi and Kenneth are ambitious and could leave the village for pastures new at any time. Don’t waste precious moments lecturing them about morality, however much you might care for your daughter’s soul.’
Helen nodded. It was the start of a long and entertaining discussion which ended with them agreeing to make Tuesday mornings a regular fixture.
And that evening Helen phoned her daughter with an offer of a coffee–and–walnut cake and some babysitting.