Sample Chapters: The Perfect Companion

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Go Forth

Sharp pinnacles of slate grey stood fast against the driving rain. The falcon pair, lifelong companions, shuffled together, closer still inside their ornamental alcove. It was not good weather for hunting. Ancient stone cathedral spires adorned by clusters of budding crockets, which for the most part had remained unsullied by the elements, now found themselves blackened by a century of pollution. A grime-ridden atmosphere, formerly from the spew of factory pollutants, and more lately from the constant chug of city traffic billowing up from below, had left its mark.

For the most part the spires had had little to do with the worries of the world beneath them. They required nothing more than the sun when it shone like a forever friend; and the wind as it hurried back and forth like a mother rushing to gather her clan for a journey; and sometimes the occasional novelty of a shower of hail or snow. Any sporadic interruption by a storm or strike of lightning had been survived. Birds and wildlife were few but faithful, passing through as visitors or residing as tenants. Over the centuries, human contact had been as rare as any blue moon.

Though the spires had been painstakingly birthed by hammer and chisel, rope and pulley, by those referred to as craftsmen, only on the odd occasion since had the spires been touched by such ministering skill. Perhaps one day their soiled stonework would be encased in a temporary cage once again. If so, then this time it would be a scaffold of bold steel as opposed to a precarious wooden one. Another generation of brave craftsmen would conquer their peaks. Equipped with appropriate tools, brushes and chemical substances they would work, determined to reveal a fresh layer of gleaming stone which promised to blaze through.

But this was not that day and, try as it might, the efforts of the incessant rain achieved nothing; it could not even scratch the surface of the spires’ tainted shrouds. Instead, this was a day for the cathedral pinnacles to study the journeying train of cloud, which, in its desperate hurry to be elsewhere, never seemed to come to an end. The concentration of human activity in the wet streets below held no interest for the falcon pair. Busy people beetled around, shielded by a host of colourful umbrellas; criss-crossing between road, traffic and lesser buildings. For them the rain was something to be dodged and avoided and hurried through because, unlike the stone spires, it threatened to pierce their fragile armour.

Unknown and unheeded by anything above, one such human figure hesitated under the Norman arch that framed the open door of the cathedral, shaking out their dark-blue umbrella from within the folds of their grey, woollen cape. Here was a woman: diminutive, and currently a member of that vast collective known as middle-aged. Behind spectacles, her eyes flicked up and down, back and forth; from the recalcitrant umbrella at the end of her fingers to the steady rain; and then across to the lively puddles, as if she were not at all sure who or what would come out on top. She muttered in anxious tones and tutted at her own incompetence against such a day.

It had been a short service with few attendees and she was not alone in her anxiety to leave the cold, cavernous building and head for home. The Canon who had read the early morning lesson, guiding the small gathering through the Christian words, had already left the building through another door; a door only accessible to those who held office there, whose affiliation to the stonework was more than just passing. But he too would at some point or other have to face the weather.

The woman had finally managed to raise her standard against the pounding elements and, with a mixture of trepidation and resolve, she sallied forth. Her footwear was not best suited to the ever-deepening puddles, but right now there was little she could do to counter the problem. After all, on waking that morning she had heard the forecast on her radio, so she should have been better prepared. From the doorway, her tiny figure in the grey cape – a canvas shopping bag swinging in one hand and the navy umbrella raised in the other – could be seen scurrying across the cobbled square with unbroken focus; like an insect clutching its hoard, following a well-worn trail to reach its own particular hole in the ground.

The words from the benediction were still fresh in her ears: ‘Go forth…’

They were words that had not been spoken lightly or softly like the rest of the regular Tuesday morning service beforehand, which to her ears at least had been barely audible. The Canon had, as with a sudden passion and as if a light had all at once dawned in his unconscious mind, rallied and cried a battle command; as if the sparse congregation in the pews were instead an assembly of stalwart troops ready for war. She recalled the preceding moments when she had been mulling over the passage of Scripture they had just read, and on which the Canon had spoken. Nothing he had said had been particularly memorable; nevertheless, she had read the words and absorbed their meaning and thought about how they might fit into her day. However, when the service was reaching its conclusion and he had begun to speak the words of the all-too-familiar prayer, she had looked up and seen a light blazing from his eyes. It had even seemed to surprise the Canon himself because he had faltered for just a moment before repeating the words:

‘Go forth…’

Had he lifted his arm at this point? She couldn’t quite remember, but in her mind’s eye he certainly appeared to do so. She had felt herself lifted as the words radiated like blasts of sunlight, out across the gathered few.

Here she was, she thought, a small, sort of nothing person; a flimsy, weak creature, with little to show for her years thus far. Furthermore, the very fact that such a description did not bother her too much was perhaps a woeful addition to the picture. And yet here she was, going forth.

The cobbles shone with rain and therefore in her hurrying she still took care. Lifting the brim of her umbrella every so often, she checked for obstacles and for other pedestrians who might be crossing in front of her, or be driven by the rain towards her. She intended to catch a bus straight home, as this was her day off. In her intention she would not be thwarted, despite the lure of a coffee shop with steamed-up, whorled windowpanes and a wafting, warm aroma. This was not enough to drag her off course. The temptation was only slight, as she was not accustomed to entering coffee shops alone for the sole reason of enjoying a cup of coffee, in and of itself. She might arrange to meet a friend once in a while, but it was not something she was in the habit of doing.

There was an air about her which belonged to another age. Maybe it was the cape, or her understated style of dress where bold intrusions of colour were rarely a feature. But it was also more than her appearance. On first impression she seemed mousy, perhaps even a little twitchy and nervous. Nevertheless, in character she was quiet and steady; resolved in her daily patterns, thoughts and beliefs.

The main road running down from a central crossing point which had always marked the centre of town was now before her. Water gushed along the gutters, urgently seeking the slots of a leaf-free drain. In actual fact it was no longer a main road, more of a diverted back road, as the four main streets that crossed in the centre had long since been pedestrianised. The original straight road now curved around a newly refurbished block of flats, instead of carrying on up into the town as it used to do. Turning back on itself to circumnavigate the centre and bear away the constant flow of traffic, like rainwater in the gutter, the road veered south of the town where it split, breaking into smaller tributaries.

It was just a short walk for her to turn left, up towards the main shopping area, then, at the curve of the road, where it was halted by a rank of bollards, she could follow it round. Where once she would have had to cross through city traffic, she could now cut through, between a row of taller buildings, to the main bus station.

The route was more than familiar and her usual wait of just a few minutes remained unchanged. At least here in the station there was shelter, and standing in line as the number twenty-four pulled into its bay she could fiddle with her umbrella, shake it dry and arrange the fabric back into folds. It was almost imperceptible; the small number of passengers shuffling forward, each one covertly eyeing the next at their shoulder as they ensured that the unwritten rules of British queuing were adhered to. There was a far greater number of passengers alighting from the bus than there was waiting to get on. It was the time of day to be embarking on errands and shopping and business rather than leaving the town centre to be going home. The woman wondered if she was the only one who had just attended a church service.

Rainwater from both above and below had already seeped through her sturdy lace-up shoes. She felt it beginning to squish into her socks, between her toes, as she stepped up into the bus and scanned her monthly pass. It was strange, she thought, that you didn’t really sense the infiltration of water while walking through the rain; it was usually only when you stopped or got out of the weather that it began to draw your attention.

She moved to the middle of the bus and sat down in an empty two-seater, next to a misted window, where someone on an earlier trip had casually drawn a love heart with a question mark tucked inside. She didn’t usually sit at the front of the bus, as those seats – the information on the printed notices stated – should be left for the elderly, wheelchair users or parents with prams and buggies, and she rarely sat at the back of the bus (unless space was limited) because once or twice she had got into difficulties with some less socially inhibited passengers: either that was just their nature or they had been aided in their lack of inhibitions by rowdy peers or intoxicating substances.

She heard herself sigh as the bus began its laborious, beeping, reversing manoeuvre out of the bay and then as it lurched forward to head out of the station. ‘Go forth…’

She thought that the bus was perhaps rather like herself in its effort to go forth: it was cumbersome and unenthusiastic but, nevertheless, focused and resigned to the task ahead. Though perhaps these were not quite the right words she should use to describe herself: cumbersome implied bulkiness and awkwardness, and from a physical point of view she displayed neither of these traits. However, this was sometimes how she felt inside. She was all too aware of her ineptitude and clumsiness when it came to communicating with others, and she so often seemed to get it wrong in social situations, as if she were dressed in ill-fitting clothing. Unenthusiastic: yes, she had to admit that when it came to going forth, she was not bubbling over with excitement, ready and alert to relish any given opportunity to speak about who she was and what she believed. She was so much like the bus. On the other hand, when it came to being focused and, at the same time, resigned, she had to conclude that she was both, though definitely one more than the other. Her faith was true and solid. Although at times she felt the onslaught of doubt, pouring down upon her like the pelting rain, attempting to seep into her soul, she understood the commitment involved. Inevitably, assuredly, she was resigned.

‘Go forth…’


After twenty minutes of stop-start city travel, the bus turned a corner like a pachyderm spinning tightly on a coin. Then, as if catching a fresh wind, it gathered a little more speed. Perhaps it could make it to the end of the street without having the bother of halting for passengers. Unfortunately, the stop halfway up the street was where the woman needed to get off. She pressed the bell to alert the driver, almost feeling an odd though momentary pang of guilt at having to disturb the flow. Pulling up sharply, the bus stopped and the woman, murmuring her thanks to the driver, stepped down onto the pavement. There was another drawn-out battle with the umbrella.

Glancing along the street, she walked back a few paces and turned down an alleyway which was well hidden by overgrown shrubbery and a broken fence panel. There were no familiar cats to greet her today as they had better things to do than venture outside in such dismal weather. The passage led her to the back of a terraced housing block, past a row of garages, until she finally found her own back gate. It was a tall wooden gate that had once been painted light blue but now looked as if it had been stripped of all colour, dismissed from service while begging for reinstatement. Because the paint was peeling and old, and the gate was swollen and bloated, it was difficult to open. The woman heaved it with her shoulder as she had done hundreds of times before, and with just the right amount of pressure it sprang open. Pushing it to with her back, until it was forced into position within the frame of two delinquent posts, she sighed, staring up at the brick, mid-terraced, Edwardian building that was her home.

It was too wet to stop for any length of time and examine the tiled roof and the crumbling chimney block, which she shared with next door, or at the past-their-best double-glazed windows and the small kitchen extension, which had once been the outhouse or perhaps the coal hole. The curtains, both upstairs and downstairs, were open, so that meant that the carer had arrived on time and was either still here or had already finished getting her mother washed, dressed and breakfasted. Maybe they could both sit together, the woman and her mother, and have a cup of tea and talk about… what would they talk about? The weather? The bus journey? The neighbouring cats? The terrible long hours of wakefulness during the previous night? There was so much to talk about.

The woman took the few steps up to the back door, resolute against the falling rain, and shook out her umbrella one last time under the overhanging mantel that shielded the step into the kitchen. Taking a deep breath, she roused herself to shout a bright and breezy, ‘Hello! I’m home.’

She reopened the umbrella, which she hadn’t quite closed, and set it to dry on the kitchen floor in front of the sink. It was not the best place to put it, as the kitchen was narrow; however, she would be the only member of the household requiring a clear passage to the sink. If she needed to reach the taps, she would just have to lean over the umbrella.

Littered across the open worktop were the tell-tale signs of a recently prepared breakfast: a pan and a wooden spoon, thickly coated with warm, sticky porridge, which smelt sweeter than it should have. There was also a still-open box of porridge oats, a plastic-squeezy bottle of golden syrup (cap off completely) and a quarter-full container of semi-skimmed milk. There was no sign of the dried fruit portion that was supposed to go with the porridge. The woman hoped that the carer had not yet left and would at any moment appear through the doorway into the kitchen from the open dining-through-living room beyond, with the intention of putting all these items back in their place. Of course, she could do that herself, but as she had already on numerous occasions tried to explain in an email to the care company, that was not the point. Tightening the top on the milk, replacing the cap on the syrup bottle and tucking down the lid of the porridge oats box, she put everything away and then reached across, over the umbrella, to run some water into the pan and set it to soak in the sink.

Hearing voices all at once from the room beyond, she felt annoyed with herself for not checking first to see if the carer was still there, and now there was the awkwardness of having dealt with the objects on the counter before the carer had had the chance to come back and finish off the task. She could of course brush it off as if she had just been helping out – at least she didn’t have to face sending another email – but she still felt the niggle that she had crossed some sort of line into no-man’s-land between client and service provider, where one felt obliged and indebted despite having paid.

It was all part of the whole picture in which she now found herself. Her elderly mother needed looking after, so she had come back home to live with her. She could not cope with the full requirement of care on a day-in-day-out, week-in-week-out basis (they called it 24/7), therefore, when she had to go to work, or when certain commitments called on her time, or when she needed to just get out of the house, a care contract had been organised and a routine established. It was not ideal, but then, why on earth should she ever expect the ideal? Life just wasn’t like that. Maybe for some people it was; maybe for others life was perfect and joyous, a never-ending celebration. Maybe that’s how certain people behaved, as if by living that way they could convince themselves it truly was the case. However, she was not aggrieved at this because she just knew it wasn’t. No matter how hard you worked, or how much money you had, or how many people loved and thought about you, things still went wrong. So the not-so-ideal was the working norm and, to a degree, it did just that – it worked.

‘Good morning, Alana.’ The woman greeted the carer who was pouring out a cup of tea for her mother after successfully seating her at the small dining table just inside the doorway from the kitchen.

‘Good morning, Maggie.’ The carer smiled back at her. ‘Is it still raining out there?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid so. It doesn’t look like changing either.’

‘And, “Good morning, Mother.” Yes, I’m still here. Still eating my porridge. No fruit today…’ The old lady was sitting at the table, spoon midway towards her mouth, shaking her head at the whole sorry affair. ‘You’re always out these days and I get lumbered with this foreign one here, and there was no fruit today, again.’

The woman and Alana exchanged glances.

Maggie whispered to Alana, the carer, ‘I’m sorry.’ An apology sprang more readily from her lips than anything else.

‘You should be…’ muttered the old lady between a mouthful of fruitless porridge. The elderly lady’s hearing was extraordinarily keen at times.

The carer smiled and rolled her eyes a little. They both retreated into the safety of the kitchen and Maggie hoped Alana wouldn’t notice that she had already put everything away.

‘I’m sorry about the fruit, but I could not find the usual container,’ the carer began, her slight Eastern European accent flavouring her speech.

Now it dawned on Maggie. ‘Oh, it was me.’ She put a hand to her forehead. ‘I’m sorry. I just remembered. I bought some new packets of apricots and raisins yesterday and I completely forgot to put them in the container ready for today. I washed it out but forgot to fill it.’

‘No matter. She will be fine.’ Alana flicked her hand as if motioning the concern away. ‘If everything’s OK then I will just write notes in the book and I will be on to my next call.’

‘Yes, of course. Everything’s fine,’ replied Maggie; she could see that the carer was confident she had done nothing amiss and was keen to stick to her schedule. Perhaps, Maggie wondered, the carers found that sometimes it was more than just the elderly person or client who needed placating and reassuring.

Maggie realised that she still had her cape on so unwrapped herself and began to settle back into the home. She reached for the kettle and, finding that it was already full enough for one cup, flicked the switch. She heard the carer’s singsong voice call out a final goodbye to the old lady, who was beginning to fall asleep over her bowl of porridge, and then the front door shut behind her. The daughter was now alone with her mother, and from the kitchen window she watched the rain streak the windows while she waited for the kettle to boil and wondered when the garden would produce any further signs of spring.

‘Go forth…’

There it was, just for a split second. She saw the light, or rather she sensed the light, the same light that had suddenly graced the expression of the Canon at the end of the service that morning. Stepping off the bus and walking up the steps to her back door it had felt like a whole other world away. But now, was it really just that, another world, where she went for a bit of spiritual comfort? She knew there was more to it. That was what she truly believed but, if she was honest, for the most part she found that sometimes that belief was only hanging on by a thread. Today? Today it had been different: today she was the same person as yesterday, yet today she felt herself believing a little bit more.

The kettle had boiled, so she made herself a cup of tea and took it through to sit with her mother.


Into the World

Her mother took slow, ponderous mouthfuls of the syrupy porridge which clung to the bowl, and the spoon, and her chin, with positive determination. She would not submit to any attempt at cleaning up until she was quite finished. Her daughter knew that and so resisted the urge to pick up the paper napkin and wipe away the persistent globules of porridge.

The television had been left on at the other end of the long room that stretched towards the front of the house, away from the table where mother and daughter were both sitting. Maggie could see the screen, although the sound was indistinct. It seemed that switching the television on was like a gasp of relief in an awkward, tense situation: the relief of the normal and the ordinary, restoring a sense of the everyday. It didn’t have to be closely observed or listened to; however, without its constant presence, chatter and comforting noise, a house was in danger of thinking for itself, and then who knew what might happen.

To her knowledge, it wasn’t that her mother had requested it to be switched on (that wasn’t in the care plan), and it certainly wasn’t Maggie who had asked it to happen, as it did without fail on the mornings when the carers came. She wondered if it was in fact similar to the phenomenon of queuing: another unwritten rule, a social expectation. Nevertheless, neither of them minded that much and it was certainly nothing to send an instructive email about; after all, they could easily switch it off themselves. Maggie knew that her mother was not shy in coming forward when it came to complaining about something amiss. However, when she thought about it as she did now, it was a strange intrusion into their lives. She herself liked to watch television when there was something worth watching, but she couldn’t bear it to be forever droning on, like an uninvited guest who sat on the sofa, immovable; conversing, spouting – partying raucously, sometimes – with anybody and everybody, whether they paid attention or not.

The more serious early morning news-style programme was drawing to a close with the subtle blending of several far less noteworthy items. Of course, Maggie thought, who was she to judge whether one thing was more important than another? She noticed that the atmosphere in the studio, the snappy presenters and the expert commentators and guests were becoming increasingly jocular and frivolous. Also, she noticed, everyone appeared to be in on a conspiracy to wear bright red – dresses, ties, lipstick, shoes – all matching, and she wondered whether this was normally the case or just a visually happy coincidence. Along the bottom of the screen ran a ticker-tape, informing each and every household of the most arresting events of the day, just in case you got too carried away with all the fun they appeared to be having on the studio sofas and forgot the real news happening in the world.

All at once the words she had heard so eloquently and so passionately proclaimed from the medieval pulpit in the early morning service came back to her. As she watched the glossy red lips smile and natter across the television screen in their living room, she heard the Canon declare once more:

‘Go forth into the world…’

What was real – or rather, what was more real than the other: the soft, sugary drama played out on the modest flat screen, tucked into the corner where the bay window curved round to meet the adjoining wall? Or the words that had been thrown towards her as a lifeline when she had sat silently in the pew?

It didn’t end with going forth; that was only the beginning.

‘Into the world…’

She thought about the world, her world, and how it unfolded each day, bringing news, challenges, monotony, confrontation, comfort and battle. The particular Bible passage that the Canon had read out to them earlier on in the service was from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16 to 20, right at the end of the book. It was commonly titled ‘The Great Commission’ where Jesus, just before His ascension to heaven, spoke His final words to His disciples as the Son of God here on earth. Contained in those words, explained the Canon, were command, truth and promise, all of equal importance and, in fact, so he had strongly implied, those three things were inseparable.

The command to all who choose to believe in Jesus was to – yes, she knew it – go forth. The truth was in what Jesus said about Himself: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ The promise was that those who follow would never be left alone. Yet for the daughter, sitting there with her aged mother, who was quietly embalming herself with porridge, the world, both serious and superficial, flitting before her on the screen, was not a picture that seemed to fit with the Lord’s Great Commission. That world was not her world. Although she was a follower of Jesus, she did not feel like a disciple. The two spheres jarred, clashing and flinching if she attempted to bring them together. So how could she go forth into the world if she felt lost, straddled between the two?

‘There,’ declared her mother as she pushed the slimy bowl away from her. She reached for the napkin to dab at the corners of her mouth with little realisation that a face flannel and some warm water were more in order. Maggie let her begin the process with the inadequate piece of paper while she fetched a soapy, wet facecloth from the sink in the downstairs toilet, which was situated off the kitchen. She came back to the table just as the scale of the problem was dawning on her mother who, with an utterly defeated piece of tissue, had found herself unequal to the task.

‘Here, let me help you, Mum.’ The daughter gently attacked the sticky remains on both her mother’s chin and hands.

‘You don’t need to fuss so much. I can manage perfectly well!’ her mother remonstrated, as was her wont; nevertheless, she allowed the ministrations to continue: the spirit was feisty but the flesh was ill-equipped. ‘Now, then, I want to watch some television. Will you switch it on, please?’

The daughter opened her mouth to reply that it was already on – hadn’t she heard it? – when thankfully the possible confrontational consequence of such an answer was quickly recalled, halting her. Instead, she helped her mother to stand, positioning her walking frame to the left of the chair where the old lady had been sitting. With one hand at her back while the other edged the chair away, she waited as her mother steadied herself and then turned, reaching forward to grab the top of the frame.

‘My bones aren’t what they used to be,’ her mother said, as if announcing the sudden dawning of a truth previously unknown. She puffed and shook her head as she began the treacherous voyage across open seas, between the back and the front of the house; away from the table that looked out onto the very small back garden, towards the larger bay window that looked out onto the unassuming street beyond their front gate. From time to time she stopped, leaning down through the frame, the strain in her shoulders ever present. Maggie hovered between the double assignment of clearing the table and watching her mother’s progress towards her destination: the high-backed, adjustable chair in the living room. Only when she knew her mother was sitting once again would she turn her full attention to other household tasks.

‘I see you put the box on already. Keep her quiet in front of the telly, I know…’ Such habitual, muttered untruths were not worth acknowledgement.

The daughter returned to her mother’s side as she began to embark upon the tricky manoeuvre of turning and reversing into the chair, like a fully laden ferryboat reaching harbour and preparing to dock.

‘I can manage, stop fussing.’ Her mother tried to lift her hand to dismiss her daughter’s attentions but thought better of it. The daughter took a small step away in response but left one hand at the ready behind her mother, the process nearly complete. Her mother landed with a gust of triumph, though it would be a minute before she could finish a sentence.

Without waiting for any such sentence to be uttered, Maggie began her own: ‘Now, then. I’ll bring you some water and your glasses. There’s the remote control,’ she pointed to the device on the table next to the chair, ‘and I’ll just be in the kitchen, washing up.’

As she turned to leave, her mother caught her arm. ‘I don’t like that one who came this morning. I don’t trust her, not a bit. She’s sly.’

‘Oh, Mum, Alana’s lovely. She’s really kind. I think it’s just going to take a bit of time to get used to her as she’s new, but she’s very experienced.’

‘Huh, experienced, I should think so…’

‘Now, what on earth do you mean by that? Actually, don’t tell me. As I said, I’ll be in the kitchen.’

Sometimes she felt it was impossible to keep her temper and not rise to every little quip or barb. And why, she so often thought, did her mother do it? What did she gain from such sniping, from such deliberately blinkered vision? Was it that her mother had always been like it and she hadn’t really noticed? Were personality traits just exaggerated with age and infirmity? Was it an unconscious response to the fear of a shrinking world and the looming shadow of inescapable, unknowable death?

The umbrella had dried for the most part and Maggie moved it into the downstairs cloakroom. She ran the hot tap into the plastic bowl in the sink with a generous squeeze of detergent and plunged her hands into the steaming, foamy water. It was a particularly good moment, she thought, to shut your eyes and feel some other sensation rather than rain on your skin, or gloopy porridge on your fingers, or sharp words in your ear. Opening her eyes, she found herself praying, ‘Oh, Lord, this is my world and You have asked me to go forth into it, but I really don’t know… I do not understand how I can. Please, please show me how…’

The Canon – he was a Canon in residence – had just returned from an extra-long walk in the rain. As soon as the morning service had ended, he had made himself unavailable for any sort of communication. He had de-vested in the vestry, the small back room especially designated for the purpose, and had, as swiftly as possible and with a great sense of urgency, hurried away from the vastness of the ecclesiastical walls. He had never felt like this before, not even in his fledgling Christian days, as far as he could remember, at least. He had never been overwhelmed by such fearful doubts and anxieties, such glories and exaltations, which pummelled his mind as if it were a ripe melon, vulnerable and completely unprotected from a well-aimed blow.

On reaching home he was glad that his wife was out. It wasn’t that he couldn’t talk to her – he had always felt that there were good lines of communication between them – rather, it was more that he wasn’t quite ready to talk about what he had experienced that morning in the service.

It dawned on him that he hadn’t actually had any breakfast and had only drunk a glass of water, so he suddenly made an effort to attend to the physical. Perhaps his blood sugar was low; this was something that could soon be remedied.

With a plate of toasted raisin bread and a cup of strong coffee balanced on a tray with one hand, he opened the door to his study with the other. His shabby but comfortable office chair welcomed him with appreciation, the knowledge of all things restored.

Having now satisfied his stomach, the Canon wiped the crumbs from his fingers with a tissue from the nearby box on the desk and picked up a pen, ready to scribble in his dog-eared notepad, which was ready and waiting to be used. It meant, of course, that he had to stop and think and run the unexpected – to him, quite unsettling – scene over again in his mind. He reached for his Bible; it was an instinctive reaction, one that you might think perfectly normal for a man of the cloth, but it was something he had always done since becoming a believer, even before he had chosen this particular pathway. Opening it up to the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew once more, he started to read aloud the words of ‘The Great Commission’. The result was not the same, though it was similar enough, and this time, instead of letting any fear or loss of control overtake him, he shut his eyes. He recalled and then studied the scene before him.

He was in the pulpit, just as he had been earlier that morning. The familiar features before him were insignificant: the immense stone structure of the building; the vast, smooth Norman pillars like the trunks of mighty oaks; the intricate pattern of vaults criss-crossing up in the ceiling above his head, the dark pews lined like ruts in a frozen winter field below him; all of this was just a vague and murky nothingness. What shone out across the scene, what blazed across his vision, was the light from the souls sitting before him. There were many, many souls – countless, in fact – and he knew that that had been completely wrong for a wet and windy weekday early morning service. Where had they come from and who were they? Instead of cold stone, the huge space was warm and filled with light, as if the stars had ventured down and were now pouring their radiance in through the stained-glass windows with far greater colour and vibrancy than their humanly crafted lenses could possibly produce. As he opened his mouth, speaking the words of the final prayer, ‘Go forth!’, his voice was all at once inexplicably powerful and ran like water over the people gathered before him. It had not been his voice at all, and then it dawned on him that that was why he had been so afraid.

The Canon’s eyes flickered open and he stretched the lids, screwing them up and then opening them wide several times to dispel the image. It was not that he didn’t want to see that picture ever again, as he was now aware of a growing understanding; rather, he wanted to make sure that he was still himself, that he wasn’t sickening for something and that he had not lost any perception or clarity. In actual fact, there had been only the usual few in attendance that morning. It was just an ordinary rainy day with no sign of any change or of the clouds lifting, and he had merely spoken the words that he had spoken many, many times before at a service, and yet… and yet something heavenly had happened. Believers – many, many believers – had been caught up together in that moment, shining with the true life and goodness of God. It was as if his eyes had been opened for the very first time to see things as they really were.

An Old Testament passage from the second book of Kings came to the forefront of his mind, where in fear for his and his master’s life, a great prophet’s servant found his vision suddenly filled with the true picture of the heavenly armies of God, ranged for battle. Then another thought struck him: why on earth had he been surprised? Admittedly, it was not something he had specifically prayed for, that he was aware of; it was not the usual sort of thing that happens to priests or church ministers – again, that he was aware of – but why shouldn’t it be? They were servants of God, the true and living God (a fact that nowadays often seemed to be at odds with the world in which they lived), so why shouldn’t it be?

‘Go forth into the world…’

To have been overwhelmed with fear was something he was now all at once ashamed of. Then, a further thought, a verse from the New Testament book of Hebrews 10 popped into his mind as if to rescue him from needless guilt: ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ Moses had seen God and lived, but that was a rare occurrence. Jesus had walked on earth and had been seen by many, but that was God taking on human form ‘… the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness … being found in appearance as a man …’ so that He could take all our faults upon Himself and know what it was to be burdened by humanity; so that we would no longer need to be scared. And, he reminded himself, he knew that God was with him right there in that moment, and that He walked with him every day. Nevertheless, he was assured that it was understandable, appropriate even, to be frightened by the sudden and unforeseen revelation of a heavenly reality.

The Canon tipped his head back to finish his coffee. Throughout the preceding moments he had hung on like a shipwrecked survivor clinging to driftwood, amid the crashing waves of many thoughts; thoughts that had finally brought him back to make sense of what he had experienced that morning. The next thing to do, and naturally for him the only thing to do, was to talk to God about it all and offer himself once again as a surrendered, faithful, expectant follower of Christ. Yes, he thought, expectant.

  • Jo Sheringham

    Jo Sheringham has been writing for several years. She enjoys retelling old tales, as well as finding treasure in the...

  • The Perfect Companion

    Jo Sheringham

    Maggie has always tried to be her mother’s perfect companion. But isolated by her care, a weekly service at the local cathedral has become her sole escape – though its lofty spires, and the God they point to, have often seemed to soar far above her simple concerns. But when one morning...