6th May 1996
The man slid back the covers, swung his legs out of bed and slowly drew himself into a standing position. Slipping his feet into his slippers, he turned to glance at the clock on his bedside table. It registered a fraction past 7.30am.
Having showered and shaved, he went downstairs and switched on the machine and prepared the first coffee of the day – inwardly warming to the sound of the grinding of the beans followed by the welcoming sight of the stream of dark brown liquid that made its way into the long glass he had placed in front of it.
He was just about to reach for the cupboard to retrieve the bottle of hazelnut flavouring that he always added, when the telephone rang. Moving across to retrieve the handset from its vertical cradle on the kitchen wall, he addressed the mouthpiece with, ‘Hello, Albert here.’
He instantly recognised the voice at the other end as his godson, Phillip.
‘Hi, Uncle! I’m just phoning to check if it’s still OK to drop in at around eleven.’
Albert’s wife had died just over a year before. They had not had children, and the number of people that had called him ‘Uncle’ over the years had grown – though none of them were biologically related to him. He thought the world of them all, but Phillip and his wife, Penny, were particularly special. He had lost count of the times he had asked them to just call him Albert, but it made no difference. People always smiled when he gave the reason that it ‘made him sound old’; he was, after all, seventy-four. He assumed it was a respect thing.
Annexed to Phillip and Penny’s property in a village five miles from Cumbernauld was a small flat. They knew their favourite ‘uncle’ was incredibly fit for his age, but had noticed that not only was he struggling with maintaining the house and garden where he currently lived, but was also becoming increasingly forgetful.
Albert’s doctor had said that there was nothing much to worry about, as there were no signs of any debilitating disease such as dementia.
‘When people walk into a room,’ he had said, ‘and wonder why they have come in, that’s nothing to worry about. When folk forget where they put their car keys, they need not be overly concerned about that either. However,’ the doctor had continued, ‘when people leave their keys in the fridge and then try to open their car door with a frozen yoghurt …’
Everybody had laughed in unison and the GP had ended the conversation by saying, ‘And I can assure you, Mr Porter, you are nowhere near anything like that condition, believe me.’
Phillip and Penny had asked Albert and his wife on several occasions to move up and live in the flat, but they had always politely declined. However, now that Annie had passed away, Albert had taken their offer more seriously. So his house had been put on the market and a sale had been agreed. The new people were moving in in just ten days’ time.
‘If eleven is still OK,’ continued Phillip, ‘we can get stuck into the packing. I know the removers will box most of your stuff but, knowing you, there will be some things that you will want to handle yourself.’
‘Eleven will be great. I can’t believe you have come 300 miles just to help me sort out my things.’
‘It’s not a problem, Uncle Albert, I assure you. I have a business appointment in Oxford tomorrow, and spending some time with you today means I will really only have about fifty miles or so to travel after we have finished.’
Phillip was right. All the heavy lifting, and most of the packing, was taken out of Albert’s hands, but the issue was not what would be going with him; it was sorting out all the things that he had decided not to take.
Annie had been a hoarder – not in the obsessive sense of those people you see on TV who can’t throw anything away – but to the point that she would keep birthday cards and letters going back years. Albert was totally the opposite but, even so, there would be clothes and other odds and ends that would need to go to the charity shop. Some of the furniture that he would not be taking had been given to a young couple he knew, and the rest had been passed on to a family of asylum seekers who he had bumped into recently when he had been out shopping. The biggest problem that he and Phillip would have to sort out was all the books he had accumulated throughout his long ministry. People didn’t buy books like they used to. They simply downloaded them. He wished he could have done that kind of thing when he was young. It would certainly have saved a lot of space.
Albert normally read the morning paper as soon as the breakfast dishes had been cleared away. He was a creature of habit, though today he was a little behind schedule. But there was still an hour or so before his visitor was due to arrive.
He read right through until he got to the sports pages and learned that the FA had announced that Glenn Hoddle, the current Chelsea manager, was going to succeed Terry Venables as manager of England after next month’s European Championships, which England would be hosting for the very first time.
Phillip always arrived on time. You could set your watch by him and, true to form, the bell rang just a minute or so after eleven.
‘Hello, Uncle Albert,’ Phillip said, as he gave him a hug and followed him down the hall.
‘I’ve got the kettle on ready, Phil. Just go through to the kitchen and we’ll have a cup of tea and a couple of your favourite biscuits before we get going.’
Phillip sat down as Albert poured the tea into the pot via a tea strainer. ‘Could never get used to those teabags. Annie and I never liked them,’ he said, as he pushed a plate of dark chocolate digestives towards his guest.
‘How have you been, Uncle?’ asked Phillip, as he accepted the proffered cup.
‘Right as rain, though I don’t know what I would have done without you coming today. It’s not just the sorting out down here. The biggest problem will be the loft. Obviously that will have to be cleared before the new people move in.’
By four in the afternoon the lion’s share of the work had been finished. Phillip had ensured that Albert’s contribution had been limited to standing next to him as he had pulled the books from the shelves, indicating which should be kept, given away or discarded.
At about one o’clock Phillip had encouraged his uncle to sort out a light lunch while he set about moving everything from the loft into the garage. Most of the things he had brought down were of no monetary value, and he thought that some of the stuff must even have been there since the days of the previous owner.
‘Is it alright if I have a quick shower before I get on my way, Uncle? Oh, and by the way, I phoned one of my friends while I was sorting things out. He lives just a few miles away and has assured me that he will be more than happy to drop round in a couple of days and empty what’s left in the garage and take it to the skip if you want him to. He promises to phone well in advance to let you know when he’s coming. That’s of course if you decide to contact him.’
‘That’s very thoughtful of you, Phil. Of course you can have a shower. You’ll find a clean towel in the airing cupboard.’
‘Oh, Uncle, there is just one thing. I found something that you need to look at and decide what you want to do with it. Just hang on a minute. I’ve left it at the bottom of the stairs.’
A couple of moments later Phillip returned with a small cardboard box and, removing the lid, revealed four heavily worn leather books.
Phillip noticed Albert’s eyes slightly moisten as he glanced over the contents.
‘You know, I haven’t seen these for ages. I really didn’t know where they had got to. Annie must have put them in there nearly ten years ago, knowing how important they were to me. She never mentioned that she had kept them or, if she did, I must have forgotten. They are the Bibles, Phil, that have been with me throughout my entire ministry.’
Reaching for the most worn of them, and slowly lifting it from the box as something precious and of great value, he added, ‘I got this one for my birthday. My parents gave it to me when I was just a boy. This next one …’ he continued, laying the first aside and selecting another, ‘was given to me by a youth group in the church on the occasion of my going off to theological college. The rest were bought as each of the previous ones wore out.’ Albert paused reflectively for a moment and then, sweeping his hand over them as if to include them all collectively in his next comment, said, ‘It’s hard to believe, but I suppose they must cover a period of nearly seventy years between the lot of them. My current one is getting a bit worn too, but I have no doubt it will see me out.’
Albert stood at the front door and waved as Phillip set off for Oxford.
The first thing he did on returning to his favourite chair was to put the box on his knee and slowly examine each of the Bibles again in turn. Selecting one of them, he caressed the leather lovingly and, lifting another, riffled with his thumb along the Bible’s edge, as if by doing so he was releasing a myriad of memories from their almost translucent pages.
But what was he going to do with them? They were not in any condition to be passed on as an heirloom and, if he offered them to a charity shop, they would be unlikely to be even taken into stock. The thought of disposing of them in one of his wheelie bins was unthinkable. It would, he thought, be like burying old friends in bin liners. Putting the lid back on the box, he resolved to think about it over the next day or two. Even though Phillip had done all the physical work, the day had left him feeling tired and he decided that once he had watched the news he would probably get an early night.
Over the years Albert had come to the conclusion that some of the best solutions to things that he had been thinking about on the previous day came in those few brief early morning moments between exiting sleep and becoming fully awake. As he awoke, he knew precisely what he would do with the Bibles.
When he had finished his breakfast, and had washed and dried the few dishes that he had used, Albert lifted the Bibles from the box and placed them in a shopping bag. Closing the front door, he opened the door of his dark blue Renault Clio and placed them on the passenger seat before going around to the other side, climbing in and setting off for town.
Half an hour later he pulled into Kingsditch trading estate on the outskirts of Cheltenham. He pulled the shopping bag towards him, exited the car and set off in the direction of a department store that he knew had a coffee shop on the first floor. He used the escalator, turned left into the coffee shop and secured a seat by placing his bag on it, as he knew he would not be able to carry both the bag and a tray at the same time. He returned to his seat with a pot of tea and a toasted teacake. Fifteen minutes later he placed the cup, teapot and plate back on the tray. Whenever a friend had asked him why he did that, his answer was always the same, ‘To save the waitress.’
The next thing he did was to reach down into the bag for one of the Bibles. Albert gently laid it on the seat he had just vacated and, as the escalator only ascended, took the stairs down to the ground floor. Albert repeated the exercise in two other locations around Cheltenham until he had just one Bible left.
As it was such a nice day, he decided to take a run out to one of his favourite villages before returning home. True, it was the best part of twenty-five miles away, but it was there he had decided that the final item would be left.
There were two car parks: one at each end of Broadway High Street. Finding the first full, Albert parked at the second. He then made his way to his last location. Though the bag was a lot lighter than it had been when he had set out, all the walking had made him weary, so he was happy to select one of the two benches that faced the simple memorial that the locals called the Broadway cross. There was something appropriate, he thought, about bringing a Bible to a cross. He reached into the bag for the last time and, as his hand wrapped around it, paused momentarily before lifting it out. The thought had crossed his mind that he might be committing some minor public offence by leaving – or some might even say discarding – his property in a public place. He smiled at the very idea. He was hardly dropping litter, and one book on a bench fell some way short of fly-tipping. He placed the final Bible on the seat at his side, folded the carrier bag into a neat square and, putting it in his pocket, set off in the direction of his car.
As Albert retraced his steps along the High Street he cast his mind back to two things he had done that morning before he had set out. The first was to pray over the small bundle, asking God to direct the right people to each Bible. The second was to write something in the blank page at the back of each of the books. It would seem incongruous at first, even cryptic, but he was quite sure, he thought with a smile, that it would not take whoever found these Bibles too long to decipher it.
19th May 2002
Celia thumbed down the index of her guidebook until she got to ‘St Olaf’s Church’.
She had been in Estonia for almost a year now. Her time at university was over and she had promised herself that before she embarked on a career, she would spend some time travelling. Convincing her parents about it had been less than easy – especially her mother – given that Celia had said she wanted to travel alone. Initially her best friend had said that she would join her, but a relationship that Lucy had recently entered into had put an abrupt end to that idea.
Her parents had only agreed when their daughter had promised regular phone calls and, when that was not possible, at least a regular email or text.
Tallinn was without doubt her favourite place, with its labyrinth of medieval cobbled streets and open squares around which old men would sit on stone seats and pass the time with their friends in the shade of the tall buildings. That was in the summer, and summer was great, but at that time of year the town had to be shared with the droves of tourists, many of whom were regularly disgorged from the cruise ships that docked alongside one another in the port.
She knew that it was silly to resent the tourists, as she was one herself – though deep down she considered herself in a different category to those who dropped by just for the day or perhaps even a week. She was surprised by how proprietorial she had become about this place, as if in some way it was ‘hers’. She really had become captivated by it.
The weather was unpredictable at this time of year but it was certainly warm enough to sit at one of the tables that were always to be found outside the cafés and restaurants, and this one, in what the locals called Raekoja Plats, was among her favourites. She ordered a cappuccino and a pastry. It was 11am and she had had hardly any breakfast, so this mid-morning indulgence created not the slightest crisis of conscience for her.
She moved her guide book to one side to make space as the waiter delivered her drink, and continued to read:
St Olaf’s church, dedicated to the eponymous St Olaf (995–1030), was built in the twelfth century and then rebuilt in the fourteenth. Before Denmark conquered Tallinn in 1219, it is believed to have been the centre for Tallinn’s Scandinavian community …
‘It’s got an amazing tower, you know …’
Startled, Celia looked across to the next table, where a man she guessed to be around her own age, twenty-three, was sitting.
‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ Celia asked.
‘I just said it has got an amazing tower.’
‘The church – you were reading out loud.’
‘I was what?’
Celia knew that she sometimes did read out loud, and had done so since she was a child, especially if she was concentrating. She was embarrassed to the point of mortification.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,’ the man offered, though it was clear from the twinkle in his brown eyes that he was not sorry at all.
‘My name is Jack, Jack Tr …’
‘I’m not the least bit interested in who you are,’ Celia retorted. ‘Do you mind just leaving me alone?’
She was about to flounce off – her coffee and croissant untouched – when he took hold of her elbow in an attempt to apologise further.
‘Do you mind? Please take your hands …’ she began.
Then Celia stopped as quickly as she had started, took a deep breath, and after a pause said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. It really was silly of me. The thing is that when I’m concentrating on something I sometimes do that – read out loud, I mean – I’ve done so since I was little. I really shouldn’t have reacted like that. Sorry … what was your name again?’
‘It’s Jack, Jack Troughton, and it’s my fault entirely. It was wrong of me to have been so intrusive. It’s just that I know a bit about the building that you are interested in and …’
‘It’s OK, Jack. Oh, and my name’s Celia,’ she said, as she extended her hand. ‘Do you live here or are you just visiting, like me?’
‘Yes and no. My father is an importer of shipping-related equipment and I work for him. We are based here at the moment but the family moves around quite a lot. He’s got contacts in various parts of the world but mostly they are in Europe. How about you?’
‘I’m on a gap year, but it’s turning out to be a little longer than that, I’m afraid.’
‘Well, when I finished uni I naïvely thought I would just walk into a job – at least a job that paralleled with what I had studied – but it didn’t turn out like that. I did bits and pieces for a few months, and right now I am taking some time out, getting to know the country better. I love it out here.’
Unbeknown to Celia, Jack sensed an opportunity. He realised he was becoming quite attracted to this beautiful fair-haired woman with her feisty personality. The past few months had been hectic as he and his father had been involved in the restructuring of the business. There had been very little time to relax, let alone to develop relationships. Something told him he did not want to lose either the initiative or the momentum in this conversation.
‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t you let me show you around the church? The view from the top of the tower is amazing. You certainly don’t want to miss it while you are here.’
‘But it’s Sunday, won’t there be a service on?’ asked Celia.
‘Actually, there are two services on during the morning. The first is traditional in style and attracts mainly older people. Then, after that, there is a short break and they have a second, far larger service. The style is far more contemporary and attracts mostly younger people.’
‘So why would we want to go now if the place is full?’
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ said Jack. ‘You’ll understand when you get there.’
Celia agreed and they began to wend their way through the picturesque town. Vendors capitalised on the long history of Tallinn by selling street food that the tourists were assured was based on medieval recipes – even going so far as to dress in the clothes that matched their wares. It created a great atmosphere.
‘You seem to know quite a lot about the church,’ said Celia. ‘What can you tell me that might not be in the guidebook?’
‘Well, originally it was Catholic in tradition, but after the Reformation became Lutheran and it remained that way for hundreds of years. Eventually, in 1950, it became a Baptist church. That might be in your guidebook, though. However, one thing that I am pretty sure will not be is that the Soviet KGB used the spire as a radio mast and surveillance point between 1944 and 1991.’
‘You’re joking,’ said Celia. ‘Why on earth would the church put up with that?’
‘They wouldn’t have had a choice, I suppose. There would be nothing that they could do about it. Remember, the Soviet regime was atheist. They would be looking for any excuse that was offered to them to shut the place down and expel the congregation.’
By the time they reached St Olaf’s, the second service had already ended and they watched as the congregation spilled out into the streets to go home for lunch or stop by the street cafés and blend in with the tourists.
When Celia climbed the few steps from the road into the entrance, she quickly realised why, even if a service had been going on, they could not have interrupted it. To their immediate left inside the sparse interior of the hall were steps to the tower, which were entirely separate to the sanctuary area where the congregation would have been.
Jack paid their entrance fee to the tower and, ushering Celia in front of him, they began the slow climb up the stone spiral staircase.
‘I perhaps should have mentioned a couple of things,’ said Jack as they began their ascent. ‘It’s not only a long way up but it’s also single file – well, in theory, anyway. It obviously wasn’t built for the tourist trade but for individuals making their way up and down. These days it’s not just a continuous line of people climbing, but it’s also the only route out for people coming back down, so it can be a bit of a crush. I hope you’re not claustrophobic.’
Celia was about to say that she was OK when a nun three steps in front of her on the spiral staircase caught her shoe in the hem of her habit as she tried to negotiate a tight turn, and stumbled back onto the person immediately behind her. Everyone quickly regained their equilibrium, but not before Celia had tottered backwards towards Jack who, more sure-footed than the rest, halted the domino effect by catching her in his arms.
‘Are you OK?’ Jack asked, with genuine concern written all over his face.
‘Yes, I’m absolutely fine,’ Celia reassured him. ‘It’s all good.’
‘But did you see that nun?’ Jack said. ‘She never even turned to apologise. Well, I suppose that’s Christians for you.’
The minor collision was all over within a matter of seconds, and everyone in the line meandered upwards as before. Except for two people who, though no words had been exchanged, both knew that the smallest of sparks had just been ignited between them.
When they eventually reached the top, Celia came quickly to the conclusion that the climb had been worth every step. They stood side by side and surveyed the landscape that reached out beyond the striking ochre-red rooftops of the town.
After a few minutes of taking in the beauty of the surrounding area, they decided to commence the much easier descent towards the vestibule of the church.
Stepping out into the street, Jack suggested that as it was now lunchtime they should get something to eat. He wasn’t particularly hungry but didn’t want a reason to have to say goodbye to Celia any time soon.
Being ‘spoilt for choice’ for somewhere to eat in Tallinn was an understatement but, passing along the street, they took in the smell of fresh baking and simultaneously turned towards the café from which the inviting aroma had arisen.
‘OK, so tell me a little more about yourself,’ said Jack as they took two seats by the window.
‘Well, I was born and brought up in a small Cotswold village a few miles outside Tewkesbury. I have a younger sister, and an older brother. What about you? Do you have any brothers or sisters, or are you an only child?’
‘My parents had just me, I’m afraid,’ responded Jack. ‘I grew up in a loving home but I never really saw my dad as much as I would have liked to. He started the business from scratch and threw his whole life into it. My parents obviously love one another very much, but I think both my mother and I felt that the business always seemed to come first with him. It’s not that he was materialistic. It was probably because his parents really struggled financially during their lives, and he just wanted to make sure that we were all well provided for and never had to have those kinds of worries.’
‘Well, now that you work for him, is he still as driven a person as he was when you were small?’
‘He is, but somehow in a different way. The business has gone well and we certainly don’t have any money worries – though I wouldn’t say that we are wealthy. I suppose you might say we’re “comfortable”. While I’ve worked alongside him I’ve got to know the operation inside out. I think I’m good at what I do, and I suppose I will carry on the business when he feels he is ready to retire. The problem is that I’m not sure that I really want to.’
‘Has he got any inkling about how you feel about the future?’ asked Celia.
‘Absolutely not. I think he would be devastated if he knew. He’s had a few heart scares in the last couple of years that his doctor has told him are not serious in themselves but should certainly be seen as warning signs. The thing is that he just won’t slow down. He says that when he starts to do that it will be the beginning of the end for him. He’s always going on about people his own age who, once they retire, are dead within a few years. The problem is that if he doesn’t listen to the medical advice he’s been given, he could become a casualty himself. More than once when I’ve expressed my concern, all he says is how much a consolation it is to him that I’ll be there to take the company on when he feels ready.’
‘I see,’ said Celia. ‘So you are worried that if you opened up, it would cause him increased stress and add to the pressure he already appears to be under?’
‘Absolutely. It’s about the worst thing I could possibly do, and I wouldn’t entertain it for a moment. I’m just going to have to carry on as normal.’
‘Excuse me, sir and madam …’
They had both been so engrossed in conversation that they had not noticed the waiter standing there with a pen hovering over a white pad upon which no order had yet been placed.
‘I’m sorry,’ offered Jack. ‘Could you give us a couple more minutes, please?’
‘Of course, sir, no problem at all. I’ll come back shortly.’
Jack and Celia could not believe that, when the bill was called for, they had been in the café for almost three hours. Over the next few weeks they spent time together at every available opportunity. Jack was in no doubt that he was falling in love, for even when they were not together, Celia was rarely far from his thoughts. For Celia’s part, she could not believe how far her feelings for Jack had grown.
Yet one thing made her anxious and, although part of her wanted more than anything for their relationship to flourish further, the issue would never completely leave her thoughts.