An Unshakeable Belief

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
A recent widow questions her late husbands beliefs

Submitted: July 24, 2017

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Submitted: July 24, 2017

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An Unshakeable Belief

 

 

I’ve lived in Hull all my life and yet never been to this particular place. Spurn Point that is. I nearly came here a long time ago when I was at junior school, but a severe case of Chicken Pox prevented me joining my classmates on a much anticipated field trip. But as I say that was an awful long time ago.

I had driven from my home in Bilton, a suburb of the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull which lies some twenty five miles from my intended destination. Today’s journey of just under forty minutes by car had taken me through perhaps some of the most understated countryside in Britain. As you leave the crowded city behind, the landscape very quickly gives way to an almost perfect flat vista of tidy farmland, a patchwork quilt of light and dark green vegetation interspersed here and there with plots of bright yellow rapeseed. Along this route I passed through a handful of rural villages with strange sounding names; Thorngumald, Ottringham and Skeffing, each one standing testament to the stark natural elements which the nearby North Sea continuously brings forth. Wind, rain and the continual erosion of the nearby cliff tops was an enemy just as pernicious as those Viking raiders of centuries past. For despite man’s best efforts a battle is being bravely fought against the loss of both geography, stone buildings and those local inhabitants still brave enough to toughen life out, here in this seemingly forgotten stretch of East Yorkshire coastline.

Driving through the tiny village of Easington the road curves to the right and passes a large caravan park, which clings to the cliffs and faces the grey foam flecked expanse of the indomitable ocean with a type of stoic tenacity. Heading further south you approach the few houses which comprise Kilnsea, and the land to either side begins to narrow appreciatively. Here, like a tapering funnel of wetland, one is never more than two hundred and fifty metres from the sea; to the west lies the mouth of the River Humber and to the east the unforgiving North Sea.

Eventually following the narrow Spurn Road one arrives at a gate and a crude almost makeshift visitor centre just beyond. At this point the land has narrowed to barely fifty meters across, windswept sand dunes and clumps of marram grass apparently holding the constantly eroding terrain together with the greatest of difficulty. As I lifted my rucksack onto my shoulders and locked the car door an all pervading smell of ozone filled my nostrils. This was a harsh yet intriguing coastline.

Leaving from the visitor centre roughly once every two hours, a huge ex-military Unimog vehicle works its way across the crumbling road and uneven stretches of hard sand, taking tourists in a sort of mobile hide. From this mobile vantage point a local guide will inform everyone on board about the flora and fauna of this unusual nature reserve. This guide will tell them about the patterns of continual erosion which shapes the point, for sand and shingle moves down the Yorkshire coast from as far away as Flamborough and contributes to the process of continually lengthening the tip of this three mile sandy spit. For those interested their guide will undoubtedly point out that the North Sea, which washes over this spit of land, actually transports the sand and redeposits it on the landward side, thus pushing this fifty metre wide little kingdom ever westward at a rate of two meters a year.

But today I hadn’t come to be lectured. I didn’t wish to join the day trippers, those inquisitive souls who wanted to broaden their knowledge regarding the geography of Spurn Point. That could wait for another day. I had far more personal business to attend to.

Andy, my late husband, had often cycled out here, sometimes on his own and often with his friends from the cycling club. Having walked for about half an hour I could see the black and white column of Spurn lighthouse emerging from around the bend in the road just ahead of me. Banks of prickly sea-buckthorn lay to either side, their tiny orange berries providing food for the local bird life while the pale silvery-green leaves help nourish the larva of various species of the humble moth.

With a certain sense of relief I dropped the rucksack I’d been carrying to the ground, rummaging inside for Andy’s sketchbook. I found it and began leafing through the pages until I came to one showing the lighthouse itself. I was standing in the exact spot my husband must have stood when he had roughed out his original drawing. There were the telegraph poles stretching away into the distance and some tiny figures peering from the very top of the lighthouse. The sky in my husband’s sketch showed itself as a deep cobalt with just a fluffy white cloud or two drifting inland, whereas if I looked up today the contrast was particularly noticeable. My own visit was being marred by low cloud formations, dirty grey pillows above a struggling bar of cornflower which hinted at rain sometime soon.

I carried on walking and found myself nearly at the tip of the point. Here a few old concrete buildings stood, relics from the Great War. Moving past these boarded up huts I found myself gazing across the mighty River Humber where a container ship moved with all the grace of a giant slug, the distant contours of Lincolnshire forming a hazy backdrop to its almost leisurely departure. Once again I reached for Andy’s sketchbook and drew favourable comparisons with my own view of these particular surroundings.

It was then that I detected the first drops of rain, and quickly closing the book returned it to the confines of my rucksack. I then turned left and made for a path which skirted a low brick wall and brought me to a spot where I could climb down to the beach and the eventual site of today’s destination.

The tide was out. The drab coffee coloured waters surrounding Spurn Point lay some thirty metres away. The beach was superb and on a perfect day one could have sat and admired the view for hours. But this wasn’t a day for sunbathing or taking a paddle. I was here to perform a solemn act of respect for my loved one.

I knelt where the sand dunes formed a bank of some protection against a steadily increasing breeze. Once again I put the rucksack down, but this time instead of extracting Andy’s sketchbook I produced a small metal urn. I unscrewed the top and with great care began walking towards the sea, leaving behind me a very fine trail of human ash; my late husband Andrew William Hall.

 

 

*

 

 

I suppose the correct place to begin my story is the day I was working in York and got a phone call from one of my husband’s closest friends and long term work colleague.

‘Tina it’s Phil,’ I heard a voice at the other end of my mobile say.

I stopped what I was doing. ‘Is everything okay?’ I asked him, but instinctively knew that it wasn’t. Perhaps it was some inflexion I detected in the callers voice. That and the phenomenon known as premonition.

My husband’s friend didn’t prevaricate. ‘Andy’s had an accident,’ he stated firmly.

I pressed the little device closer to my ear and forced myself to concentrate. ‘Was he riding his bike?’ I whispered.

There was an audible sigh at the other end. ‘The doctor thinks he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage while cycling home from work.’ There was the shortest of pauses. ‘He didn’t suffer at all Tina.  But he’s gone,’ and I could tell that he was having difficulty choking back tears.

I think I must have quickly mumbled my thanks, and broke off the call, almost with the same curtness as if a tradesman had just informed me that he had finished fitting a new lock to our front door.

And then a form of numbness enveloped me, a paralysis of my very being which moved my setting into a form of automatic pilot. I can dimly recall picking up my belongings and leaving York city behind, seeing but not really observing the rush hour traffic, like a partially intoxicated motorist who somehow finds their way home after a heavy drinking session.

Or rather I didn’t go straight home, but drove instead to the Hull Royal Infirmary, certain in the knowledge that my husband of twenty two years would have been admitted there. Or perhaps it was all a vast mistake and even now he was undergoing some medical procedure in a bid to save his life. I clung to a lifebelt of floundering optimism like a woman drowning in relentless waves of pure grief.

Over the next few days I attempted to come to terms with what had caused Andy’s sudden death. I was informed by the medical team at Hull Royal that his particular form of brain haemorrhage was unusual only in the fact that it resulted in a quick end to his life. They also went on to add, perhaps in a kind attempt to ease the burden of my search for answers; that forty four percent of all patients admitted with this illness died within two days. A sobering thought, and one that brought scant comfort.

However, I don’t want this story of mine, or rather this story of ours, to be one of gloomy anecdotes or cheerless reminiscences. Rather I wish it to be a celebration of one gorgeous man’s life; my late husband and best friend Andy.

His funeral, a fortnight later, was very well attended. Work colleagues from Hull council rent office, including the Head of Housing services, turned up to pay their respects to a hard-working and diligent employee who had started his career with them straight from leaving school. A smattering of relatives both close and those living further afield travelled to attend. And of course the Bilton Cycling Club, of which my husband had been Chairman, arranged a huge floral tribute in the shape of a racing bike and draped in Andy’s favourite colours, black and amber.

The funeral went without a hitch, and then it was back to the British Legion for a buffet and a few drinks. All very civilised and in many ways perfectly ordinary as memorials go. I mean to say there was no excessive drinking or overflowing of emotions during or after the service, for I think we were all of us still very much in shock regarding the suddenness of our beloved Andy’s unexpected demise at the age of forty-seven.

‘If you ever need anything,’ Phil said as he drew to my side, ‘anything at all, me and Carol are only a phone call away,’ he reminded me.

I raised a weak smile and clutched my glass of very ordinary slim line tonic water to my chest. I so wanted a proper drink, but felt compelled to show some kind of restraint while playing the proper hostess to those offering touching and sincere condolences. I must have mumbled my appreciation to Phil, perhaps a forlorn reply in retrospect, but I was to grow slightly weary of the need to oblige everyone with an answer that was fast becoming a variation on a theme.

Another voice joined in. ‘Andy would have loved our flowers,’ and I turned to look at another member of the cycling fraternity. Tom Chambers was a stick insect of a man. Forty years of age going on sixteen. He wore the permanent air of an incredulous and over enthusiastic teenager. He still lived with his parents.

‘He would have,’ I agreed and took a sip of my drink.

‘And playing that song Caravan of Love was inspired,’ he continued excitedly. ‘Your idea was it Tina?’

I nodded my head, and staring at the floor thought how absurd everything was. Life. Death. The memories we all carry around with us of people we have known throughout our lives but which fade over time like Polaroid snaps taken long ago. Suddenly I wanted to be at home. Our home, or rather my home now, a fact which sounded somehow cruel and distasteful. No, it would always remain our home, however many years might separate this precise moment from the precipice of my own eventual extinction.

I composed myself and turned towards Tom who wore a look of consternation across his sharp features. His mouth turned down slightly as if he was on the verge of tears.

‘When we first met that’s all Andy played; The Housemartins,’ I informed him. ‘London nil Hull four was the name of the album. It must have drove his landlady wild. Turn it down I was always telling him,’ and laughed at the memory. ‘A tiny room he used to rent from her. Twenty five pounds a week as well. Bloody extortionate I used to moan at him. It would be cheaper to get a mortgage. Nagged him to death I did,’ and paused to think how insensitive the last sentiment would have sounded if it had been uttered by someone else on this particular occasion. I coughed and look away. ‘Anyhow it did the trick. You know I sometimes think Andy only proposed to me to shut me up. I mean I couldn’t very well nag him about his rent when we had our own mortgage payments to keep up could I?’

Phil and Tom laughed with an over indulgent politeness. Funerals can be awkward situations at the best of times, ever fraught with the danger of a ludicrous

nostalgia. 

‘We’re all cycling out to Spurn point next Sunday,’ Phil suddenly announced. ‘A kind of tribute I suppose,’ he said and shrugged his broad shoulders before running a set of thick fingers through his sparse grey hair. He had been a good friend over the years. ‘Why don’t you join us Tina?’

Tom, ever the enthusiast joined in. ‘Great idea. I mean it’s just got to be done.’

I held up one hand to restrain their eagerness. ‘Oh come on guys. I haven’t been on a bike for donkeys’ years,’ I was quick to inform them. ‘I mean it’s ironic when you think of it,’ I found myself saying, ‘ because I’ve been married to a man who owns five bikes and is,’ I faltered before going on, ‘sorry was mad about cycling, but I never really felt the need to share his passion.’ I could feel tears welling up and searched for an elusive tissue.

Phil produced the necessary article and put an arm about my shoulder. ‘It’s okay Tina,’ he whispered. ‘But of course the offer’s there if you change your mind. Actually it’s not too far from Bilton to the Point. And if we take it easy it’s only a little over two hours.’ He hugged me tighter. ‘Who knows, you might develop muscles you never knew you had,’ and we both laughed together.

I lifted my glass of tonic water and pulled a face of utter disgust. ‘Phil be a dear and get me a real drink would you.’

He removed his arm and looked over at the bar. ‘Gin or scotch?’ he enquired.

I pushed my tongue to the side of my mouth while trying to decide. ‘I’ll avoid mother’s ruin,’ I told him. ‘A nice large Glenfiddich might do the trick I think.’

He moved away and said over his shoulder, ‘your wish is my command.’

 

 

*

 

 

And that was over six weeks ago. I spent most of that period going through all the usual paperwork associated with the passing of a loved one, although perhaps the procedures associated with probate were made a little easier because of the fact that Andy and I had not been able to have children. What was his was now mine, but I would willingly have sacrificed the lot just to have him back with me for even one precious hour.

Sometimes, sitting indoors surrounded by all that our marriage had accumulated, I would simply breathe in all that had been my ex-husband. Career wise he hadn’t been an ambitious sort of chap, quite happy just to paddle along in his own back water with Hull Councils housing department. The job paid the bills and helped maintain his passion for cycling. Going into his office day after day and year after year simply provided the platform to pursue his outside interests. I on the other hand lived for my job as a self-employed window dresser. But somewhere in the middle we achieved a counterpart.

You might wonder if my inability to conceive, due to a congenital abnormality on my part, had affected our marriage in any degree. Well I like to think not. In fact I am sure it hadn’t. We used to joke that our friends and relatives had a family but we had each other. And it was true. Apart from my husband’s enthusiasm for two wheels and my own love of needlework we were possibly as close as a couple could get. We had been fortunate to see a lot of the world and indulge our shared interests of Oriental cuisine and the cinematic genius of Martin Scorcese movies. To those who knew us well our marriage was a perfect one, a union based on trust, the flexibility of one’s own space, and the amalgamation of shared values. If I had believed in any sort of deity I would have summed our relationship up as truly heaven sent.

And then one day it suddenly came to an end. No reason given. No explanations forthcoming. One had to accept one’s lot in life and just get on with it. Pure and simple. Or so I thought at the time.

 

 

*

 

Once lost to the River Humber, the present church of Saint Andrew has been standing proudly above the village of Paull since the mid-fourteenth century. Looking west, the broad expanse of the Humber lapped the muddy foreshore which lay some two hundred metres from where I stood on a track which bordered the church yard. By some trick of perspective the Lincolnshire coastline of New Holland appeared to be just over the horizon and as a slight breeze gathered strength I came to the conclusion that this was a strange, brooding type of place. Probably perfect for when Andy had fallen into one of his melancholic moods.

I approached the church door with a feeling of slight circumspection, for anything connected with religion held very little appeal to me. I pushed the heavy wooden door and it creaked on its large metal hinges. And cautiously I entered the old building.

This place of worship felt deserted. Nearby a stone font stood, its octagonal design having probably been witness to hundreds of local christenings over the years. I picked up a leaflet from a small trestle table and with an unaccustomed interest in anything remotely connected to religion began reading the cheaply printed text. I wandered down the nave towards what I took to be the altar. The scent of fresh flowers cascading from large glass vases near the altar made me pause for a moment, the better to determine what had attracted my own husband to this very place. And then I looked up and saw the three large stained glass windows; the figure of Jesus Christ in the centre flanked either side by Saint Andrew and Saint Paul. Sunlight streamed through the panes and fell in disjointed patterns before me. I felt suitably impressed.

‘Good morning,’ a voice beside me suddenly called out, ‘can I be helping you in any way?’

I moved back a pace or two and rested one hand on the back of a wooden pew, the polished grain smooth against my fingertips. ‘I was just admiring your church,’ I stammered and looked around the cool interior of this building before looking at the person who had spoken.

He was obviously the Vicar of Saint Andrew’s, for the dog collar and faded chocolate brown corduroy sports jacket gave his status away instantly. His age I would have determined as in the mid-sixties, and his entire persona could almost be summed up as Pickwickian. Gold framed spectacles hung half way down his nose, bushy grey eyebrows roofed a pair of merry twinkling blue eyes, and those wisps of sandy coloured hair which remained on his almost bald head were plastered across his skull in a deferential attempt of a comb-over.

‘My late husband used to cycle out here on occasion,’ I found myself saying, and at the same time unclasped my bag. I extracted Andy’s sketchpad and leafed through the pages until I found one containing a view of this particular church we were standing in.

The Vicar came closer and looked at the page I was holding open. He produced a rather curious expression, quickly followed up with an affable smile. ‘Why you must be Andy’s wife,’ he exclaimed. ‘Tina isn’t it?’ and held his right hand towards me.

I shook what turned out to be the Reverend John Davies hand with all the dexterity of the totally confused. But obviously I wasn’t the only one.

‘I’m sorry my dear, but did you say your late husband?’ he enquired with a certain timidity in his voice.

I was scrutinising Andy’s drawing. Like most artists he had his own unique style. His mainly pen and ink sketches comprised just the briefest touches of colour to add a degree of depth to the image.

‘Andy died almost three months ago,’ I told him. ‘He had a massive brain haemorrhage while cycling home from work.’

My companion was visibly shaken and just for a moment a tenuous cobweb of some unforeseen connection hung between us. He seated himself on the edge of a row of pews and drummed a copy of the Book of Psalms before looking up at me. He seemed to deliberate within himself before speaking. ‘We could pray if you wish,’ he stammered. ‘For Andy’s soul,’ he added pensively.

I think my unresponsive gaze reflected my response better than any fraudulent words ever could have.

He looked up at me and raised the half smile of the defeated opportunist. ‘Perhaps another time then,’ he whispered.

I took another look about me; at the thick stone columns supporting the roof and the pulpit just to my left. It was quiet and totally peaceful within this old building, and the real world felt far, far away.

‘I’m afraid neither of us were believers,’ I found myself stating. ‘In fact if I’m not being disrespectful both my husband and I prided ourselves on being committed atheists,’ I told him.

The Reverend Davies ran a hand across his forehead. ‘Oh I see,’ he mumbled. ‘Well you do surprise me,’ he added slightly hesitatingly. ‘From what I could gather during the many conversations we shared I obviously assumed that Andy had,’ and he paused to choose his next words very carefully, ‘well had found God shall I say. Or at least he had returned to the fold so to speak after many years of contemplation.’

After this revelation, which to my ears sounded absolutely ridiculous, I too felt like sitting down, and did so on the edge of the opposite pew. My husband Andy a born again Christian? Utter nonsense. I knew my beloved better than anyone. Nevertheless, an uneasy sense of disbelieve pulled at my senses, but just as quickly I dismissed them. We both had been taught the theory of evolution at school. None of our friends attended any religious place of worship. We shared jokes about those religious cranks who believed in ridiculous fairy tales parading under the banner of religion, the misguided who followed those dogmatic scriptures which had been laid down over two thousand years ago. Science had proved that gods of any type don’t exist. The universe was a random maelstrom of swirling gases and molecular compounds not some divine plan as designed by a bearded man sitting on a white fluffy cloud.

There was an awkward silence and I felt the need for fresh air and the opportunity to be alone again. I rose and offered my hand which he took and shook with warm profusion.

‘He was nice chap your Andy,’ he assured me. ‘A kind man I always imagined. Dependable even.’

Nodding in agreement I picked up my bag I made for the door without once looking back.

 

 

*

 

 

I had difficulty sleeping that night. Waking up around 2 am I pulled myself out of bed and walked downstairs to the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of water and stared through the window at the moon outside playing hide and seek with a slowly drifting cloud formation.

‘Oh Andy,’ I found myself saying out loud before returning to bed.

Sometimes in the middle of the night I would roll over and reach out for my late husband, unconsciously imaging that I could wrap an arm about his middle, the gentle sound of his snoring and the peculiar way he had of pursing his lips during sleep, now just an abstract memory to keep me company.

Yet tonight I just lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking of all that the Reverend Davies had mentioned regarding Andy’s supposed religious beliefs. What had he said to me? Something about my husband returning to the fold. What on earth had he meant by that? Was there something I was missing perhaps? Some vital piece in a puzzle that needed to be sought and slotted into place to complete the whole picture relating to Andy Hall’s abruptly curtailed life.

And then I must have dozed off. But my dreams that night were a fractured mosaic of seemingly interconnected incidences involving lonely windswept beaches, people from my past randomly appearing from behind lichen encrusted headstones, and the bespectacled John Davies himself giving a bible thumping sermon about the virtues of puncture repairs, high up on that weather beaten lighthouse at Spurn point.

 

 

*

 

 

I was due in Leeds the next day. Perhaps I haven’t mentioned that I am a professional freelance window dresser and a week long contract to decorate the main windows of two large well known department stores, ready for their forthcoming autumn collection, lay ahead of me. This was a financially rewarding job I couldn’t possibly turn down. However, I vowed to myself that upon my return I would revisit the little village of Paull and seek out the vicar of Saint Andrew’s parish church. I needed proper answers to questions which would continually pop into my head at random intervals.

Indeed my next visit involved visiting the vicarage itself. I had rang beforehand to ask the Reverend Davies for a suitable slot in which to have another brief chat with him. I had the distinct impression from his tone that he was expecting such a call.

The vicarage was a detached dwelling with a substantial garden both front and back and as I opened the latch on the creaky gate I saw the net curtains move a degree.

John Davies wore a cheery smile as he opened the front door and invited me into the hallway. The place reminded me of something out of the fifties; a hat and umbrella stand, chintzy flowered curtains and a wooden barometer attached to the wall beside the living room door.

‘I’m afraid my wife is in prison at the moment,’ he confessed as he led me into the other room.

‘Oh I see,’ I stammered and felt at a loss for words.

He indicated a comfortable armchair.

A mischievous twinkle shone in his eyes as he took a place on the end of a chesterfield sofa. ‘The dear thing visits Hull prison every Wednesday,’ he informed me proudly. ‘She works mainly with young offenders. She likes to do the Lord’s work with those who have usually had a bad start in life.’

For some unaccountable reason I couldn’t help thinking of the little yob who had broken into my brand new Ford Focus last year, just to steal my handbag which I had inadvertently left on the passenger seat while running into a shop to pay my lottery ticket. The incident had caused me unnecessary financial hardship and most of the next morning on the phone to banks, garages and a very unhelpful insurance company.

The vicar must have been able to read my mind. ‘Tina the inmates are not all junkies and joy riders. Perhaps if you heard some of the stories of abuse that these young men endured in their individual childhoods it might make you realise how lucky some of us are.’

I raised a weak smile, but the effect obviously wasn’t convincing.

Davies raised a finger and switched to sermon mode. ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly father will also forgive you. Matthew 6 verse 14.’

I remained silent. Quotes and parables and anything connected with religious texts left me cold.

‘Anyway Tina, perhaps you might like to tell me what it is you drove out here for today.’ He raised both arms to emphasis his next point. ‘Not that you’re not welcome. Of course you are. But I have a feeling that during our last little chat you were surprised at what I told you.’

I leaned forward. ‘Well just a bit,’ I assured him and bit my lip in consternation before continuing. ‘You see I’ve known Andy for over twenty five years, and in all that time he never once mentioned any religious beliefs he might harbour. We were what you might term a very modern married couple. Atheists to the core.’

‘He never attended church I take it?’ he asked.

I laughed. ‘Ha! Four weddings and a funeral during the last ten years I should think.’

‘What about Palma cathedral?’ he asked me.

I must have looked confused. ‘Palma cathedral?’ And then I remembered something. Andy had purchased a ceramic crucifix from the cathedral’s extensive gift shop, something of which I really didn’t approve. I could tolerate him wandering off on his own to admire the architecture of these great bastions of religious faith, but bringing mementos of them home and then having the temerity to hang them on our living room wall was something which had caused a minor row at the time.

To change the subject the Reverend Davies suggested we have a cup of tea. He pulled his portly frame from off the sofa and waddled over to the kitchen, calling over his shoulder to enquire how I liked my beverage taken.

I decided to get up and join him. The kitchen was warm and homely in a farmhouse type way; units and cupboards of dark oak, a large Belfast sink, and a Welsh dresser bearing many plates and cups of various designs pushed against the end wall.

‘Did you meet my husband on many occasions?’ I asked my companion as he carefully dropped a teabag into my mug. The vicar in contrast took coffee. Black and very strong. No sugar.

He spoke over his shoulder. ‘Oh I should think he cycled over here twice a week during last summer,’ he replied and reached for a carton of milk from the fridge.

‘Oh I see,’ I stammered. Although I couldn’t really see a thing. It was all such a bloody mystery.

‘To visit his mother of course,’ he stated matter-of-factly.

‘His mother?’ I shouted.

He turned and handed me my mug of tea. ‘In the hospice before she passed away,’ he added. ‘Oh we have an excellent centre here in Paull for the terminally ill. I think it’s the sea air and the lovely views of the estuary which help give some comfort.’

‘Are you really talking about Andy’s mother?’ I asked him. ‘Andy’s mother as in my mother-in-law?’

He took a sip of his steaming brew and leaned against the granite worktop. ‘Well of course,’ he answered and raised a pair of sandy eyebrows. ‘You seem surprised. Almost shocked in fact. I fear I’ve let another cat out of the bag,’ and he sighed expansively. ‘Oh dear what have I said?’

I found a kitchen stool and plonked myself down, peering morosely into my mug. ‘I haven’t seen the old witch in nearly twenty years,’ I told him. ‘I mean I always guessed that Andy might have kept in touch, but to be perfectly honest I didn’t want to ask. You see she did something unforgivable many years ago which very nearly split us up.’ I shrugged. ‘But I didn’t know she had actually kicked the bucket.’

The vicar visibly winced at my last remark. ‘I gather Mrs Hall was a difficult lady.’

I laughed. ‘Now that’s putting it mildly,’ I replied and brought the tea to my lips. ‘An ex-prostitute, alcoholic, a woman with a somewhat unpredictable and violent nature. Most of it directed either at one of her four children or those numerous boyfriends Andy was forced to call uncle’. I turned to look at him. ‘Oh yes, she was a difficult woman for sure.’

There was a brief pause while we both sipped our respective drinks. The believer and the atheist sharing a platform of unshakeable disparity.

I was the first to break the silence. ‘I can’t believe he never told me. Andy I mean. About visiting his mother. I probably wouldn’t have been happy about it, but he was a grown man and could make his own decisions.’ I paused to shake my head. ‘It just seems like such a betrayal.’

The Reverend looked at me and said quietly: ‘Look, I’m not in a position to judge. But in my experience some relationships work better on a need-to-know basis.’

I instantly turned on him. ‘Well I must say I find that a rather insulting appraisal of my own marriage.’

He looked crestfallen. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he muttered under his breath.

To be honest I wasn’t sure if my visit today was really paying dividends. I had set out on a quest for answers relating to the astonishing revelation that my late husband may have actually believed in God. Or a god. Or some deity which in my opinion belonged in the realms of fantasy. For to me the Almighty was just as real as Bilbo Baggins. I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

‘Forgive me for asking,’ I began, ‘but is there a connection which I’m missing between Andy’s supposed beliefs and the death of his own mother?’

The Reverend Davies raised an ironic smile and massaged his clean shaven cheeks with one free man. ‘I think there is,’ he answered. ‘Or at least it’s part of the equation. I spoke to your husband many times last year in the hospice. In fact we became quite good friends,’ he added. ‘You see from what I was led to understand during those conversations we enjoyed those visits to see his dying mother brought a sense of closure, a kind of healing of old wounds.’

‘Oh Andy you silly, silly man,’ I found myself muttering and drained my mug.

‘I think you misunderstand me Tina. Those bedside chats, as Mrs Hall lay in bed getting weaker and weaker, weren’t solely based on a son’s need to comfort his own mother but more a process of finding himself through the act of forgiveness.’

I wasn’t in the mood for platitudes. ‘Now don’t start canonising him,’ I shouted.

He raised his hands in an act of surrender. ‘I’m not. But you wanted my opinion on why Andy may have found his faith.’

‘I still feel betrayed.’

‘Or maybe you’re jealous,’ he shot at me.

I laughed. ‘Jealous? Jealous because I’ve not joined the feeble minded brigade.’

‘Is that what you think we are? Poor deluded fools hoping beyond hope that there’s a place in heaven waiting for us?’ he asked me. He wasn’t annoyed, just inquisitive. Interested perhaps in how an atheist would deal with a god who had played the role of secret mistress to an otherwise faithful husband.

I felt a little guilty for abusing this gentle man’s hospitality with a string of disparaging remarks. But the vicar was made of sterner stuff.

‘Tina, I have been fortunate enough that my vocation has taken me all over the world. During this time I’ve met many different types of people, of all faiths I might add. And although we each worshipped a different god I do like to think that we had more in common than that which divided us.’ He leaned towards me and touched my hand with his own. ‘Respect towards others, charitable acts however small and humble that nevertheless relieved suffering. Often one’s sense of faith transcends those barriers of language and culture.’

I squeezed his hand in return for it gave me a very welcome amount of unexpected strength. ‘I’m not sure I understand what this has to do with Andy,’ I told him

John Davies looked up and held my gaze. ‘Well, you see I have always believed that every one of us carries a seed deep in our soul. This I call the seed of conviction, and it just needs the chance to germinate.’ He shrugged before elucidating his theory further. ‘This I think is what dear Mrs Davies is doing at this very moment. Trying to find and nurture deeply buried seeds of conviction among those poor boys.’

I looked up. ‘Conviction for the convicted,’ and we both chuckled.

‘Without conviction we are all wanderers looking for a purpose,’ he seemed to caution me. ‘In your late husband’s case I am sure it was the death of his mother which began the germination. The closing of her life awakened something in his own.’

A period of silence ensued, just the ticking of a large grandfather clock somewhere in the house and the sound of birdsong outside.

After a few moments the vicar broke the stillness. ‘I’m not selling my product very well am I?’ he joked.

I smiled back. ‘If you mean am I going to buy all that God stuff, well the answer is no sale.’

He took off his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘Don’t tarnish Andy’s memory Tina. He was a good man. But if he was beginning to develop ideas that ran contrary to your own at least they weren’t bad ideas. You may not agree with them but sometimes life is full of strange unforeseen contradictions.’

I looked at my wristwatch, the one my atheist husband had bought for me in Bruges many years ago. Or was he even then being promoted to the next division we shall call the agnostic league? Why who knows, perhaps by the time we eventually visited Majorca he had become a fully-fledged premier league Christian.

With all the composure of the self-righteous I stood up. ‘I have to be going,’ I told my companion. I needed to be alone for an incoming tide of briny misgivings was washing over me again.

We shook hands on his doorstep and he wished me well, hoped that armed with the answers I had sought it had laid a measure of peace against the memorial of my recent bereavement.

 I lied shamefacedly and said it had, before turning my back on him and following the contours of his garden path.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Oh Phil,’ I said wearily, ‘I really don’t know where to begin,’ and waved one arm about to indicate the abundance of bicycle parts which adorned my late husband’s man cave.

Phil looked about him and drew in his breath. ‘What a place,’ he said enthusiastically while peering at a tin poster depicting the Tour de France. ‘We used to have some great times in here Tina. Playing a bit of The Smiths or U2 we’d spend hours preparing for our next ride.’

He moved over to a workbench and touched the vast array of tools with an almost reverent affection. ‘This photo here was taken in Northern Ireland when we cycled along the Antrim coast road back in . . .’ he frantically searched in his mind for the exact year. ‘2001,’ he said triumphantly, almost as if forgetting the date would have been an insult to their long term friendship.

I sat on a black leather chair and picked up an old magazine. My husband’s retreat was where he came not only to work on his own bikes but also to service and repair those two wheel modes of transport owned by family, friends and the odd neighbour or two. The going price for such work usually paid for in the currency of real ale, of which Andy was something of a connoisseur.

‘I don’t want to get rid of everything Phil, but you and the boys at the club might want to help yourselves to some of the stuff. After all, I’d like to see it go to a good home.’

My husband’s friend wiped away a tear but made the excuse of blowing his nose on a handkerchief drawn from one pocket of his jeans. ‘God I miss him,’ he muttered and sat himself on one of Andy’s mountain bikes. ‘He used this when we tackled the Black Mountains route in Wales. That was a bastard. Some epic climbs, tough as hell. Fantastic views. Mind you they should have been after climbing and then descending over 2000 metres.’ He pulled the brakes and twisted the handlebars slightly to look at me. ‘Pissed down just as we were within site of the camp site. Good excuse to spend the evening in the pub and give the local ale a good hiding though.’

I opened a can of cider and raised it to my lips. ‘Doesn’t seem real does it,’ I stammered. ‘Andy not being around,’ and crossed my legs in front of me.

Phil continued sitting on the bike and reached for his own can. ‘Of course you know we started work together on the same day. Two nervous seventeen year olds; hair brushed, ties askance, probably clutching a one pound note each for dinner money. And then it was a quick talk from old Harry Church the Personnel officer about our pension rights and where the fire exits were located and we were away, the boundless career opportunities of Hull City Council housing department lay before us.’ He laughed and took another mouthful. ‘Thirty sodding years ago,’ he added and crumpled the empty receptacle in his right hand.

‘Is this what it’s all about?’ I asked my husband’s best friend.

‘What d’you mean Tina?’

‘All this. All these possessions and treasured memories we hold dear through life, and then when we die it stacks up to jack shit.’

Phil got off the bike and went over to examine another model. The differences in design and make meant very little to me. For one not versed in the art of real cycling they were just bikes. ‘I guess so,’ he said over his shoulder as he examined the cogs and then looked for a piece of rag to wipe his hands. ‘I try not to think about it myself.’ He indicated this particular bike. ‘Nice. It’s a hybrid. Good one though. It’s not really made for a lady but hey-ho it would do you just fine.’ He smiled. ‘That is if you want to get back in the saddle so to speak.’

I slowly nodded by way of reply. ‘Don’t you ever think about life and death Phil?’ I asked him.

He was looking for a spanner on the workbench. ‘I’ve got my council pension which provides pretty good cover for Carol,’ and turned my way. ‘That’s if the worst happens. And of course the house will get paid off.’

I took another sip of cider. ‘I’m not talking about the mundane things in life. I mean about why we exist. Is there an afterlife? All that kind of thing.’

Phil adjusted a brake cable and shook his head. ‘There is no afterlife Tina. No heaven or hell either. We expire and then just don’t exist anymore.’ His kind face puckered in effort as he turned the spanner. ‘What’s brought all this about anyway? Is it to do with Andy?’ and he gave a grunt of satisfaction as the nut came free.

I blew out my cheeks and stared and stared into space. ‘I thought Andy didn’t believe in all that God stuff as well, but I think I might have been wrong.’

‘Had a humanist funeral didn’t he?’ Phil reminded me. ‘I can’t remember any priest or Victorian hymns being sung. If I’m not being rude Tina I can only give you the same advice Carol will when she gets back from doing the weekly shop. Move on.’

‘Thanks,’ I replied somewhat testily.

He played with the spanner in his large hands. ‘You know what I mean. Don’t torture yourself over what might and might not have been going on in Andy’s head during the last twelve months of his life.’ He shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘Hey, you could have found a stash of the wrong type of pornography in the attic. Or discovered he was a secret gambler and owed one of those on-line sites fifty grand.’

I raised a smile. ‘I know you’re right Phil. If his beliefs were a betrayal it was a tiny one,’ although I didn’t feel convinced.

Phil was checking out an old bike which had stood in the corner of this converted garage for as long as I could remember. ‘I’ll take this one Tina. It’s seen better days. Only got five gears. But I can clean her up and give her to a good home.’

‘Do your kids want it?’ I asked him.

He shook his head. ‘No way. Everything Dan and Chloe get is brand new. Carols fault. Spoils them rotten.’ He fitted a pump to the front tyre and began pushing air into it. ‘I know a lady who helps young offenders. Lovely person who sits on one of our council committees. A Mrs Davies. I think her husbands involved with the church somewhere along the line.’ He removed the valve and felt the rim of the tyre prodding it to his satisfaction. ‘There’s one young lad who she has convinced me will benefit from a ride with our club.’ He looked at me. ‘Bit sceptical of course. But hey-ho, one does ones bit for the community I suppose. Maybe I’ll organise a little run out to Spurn Point. That’ll blow the cobwebs away after a year in the nick,’ and he laughed to himself.

Well would you believe it. Of all the coincidences. Maybe there is something called divine providence running through the universe after all.

‘Do you think Andy knew he was going to die?’ I found myself blurting out.

Phil drew up a stool. ‘Why, because you think he turned to God?’

‘Could be. I mean you don’t go all religious after forty odd years of being a non-believer unless you’re clinging to some hope.’

‘Hope of what?’ my friend asked.

I shook my head. ‘I don’t really know. The hope of redemption perhaps.’

‘Maybe some of us as we get older want to cover our options,’ he said.

I smiled. ‘There’s a saying, that if you don’t want to vote left wing by the time you’re twenty one then you have no heart and if you are voting the same way at fifty you have no brains.’ I looked at him. ‘Maybe it’s the same with religion. I mean we all leave school full of ideas about how the universe supposedly works because we have it all drummed into us. But what if it isn’t like that Phil. What if there’s some kind of intelligent design behind the whole thing.’

There was an embarrassing pause, but my friend broke the silence with a piece of his own advice. ‘I wouldn’t go down that route Tina. It’ll only lead to disappointment. My theory regarding all that church stuff is that if you begin changing your mind because you’re getting older then you are simply subscribing to what Boris Johnson terms an inverted pyramid of complete piffle.’

‘With God at the bottom I take it?’

Phil twisted awkwardly on his perch and scratched his head as if summing up the courage to expound on some other topic. ‘A few years ago I read a report. Oh, it was in some magazine I probably picked up while waiting in the dentists. It was written by some American doctor who had made a study of certain birth defects in young children. You know the kind of thing, autism, hyperactivity disorders, Asperger’s syndrome. You name it he looked into it. He was a very controversial figure in the academic world. Shunned by most of his contemporaries. But he had a wild notion that nature and God where one and the same.’

I leaned forward in my chair. ‘What? That doesn’t make sense.’

Phil shrugged. ‘Well it does and it doesn’t. A lot of his research had been conducted in what the Yanks call the housing projects. This doctor asked himself why it was that so many single mothers or those from the bottom strata of society were coming to his surgery with children prone to those types of illnesses I’ve just mentioned.’

I bridled at the use of the word bottom strata. It sounded snobbish. ‘But surely there were numerous reasons for the skewering of data. Let’s face it people on lower incomes don’t eat as healthily as those with money. Some are probably more prone to drink, drugs, cigarettes because of their situation or a lack of decent role models. I would imagine that single mums as you term them probably haven’t the resources to look after themselves properly.’

Phil reached for his can and took a long mouthful before continuing. ‘Maybe. I mean there was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand in his survey, but what he finished up by concluding was that nature was somehow fighting back. Or at least it was sending out warning signals to those people who were both promiscuous and in very unstable and often violent relationships. In a nutshell; perhaps these types shouldn’t really be giving birth to lots of children.’ He shrugged and pulled a feeble smile. ‘It wasn’t good for the overall gene pool I suppose.’

I wrinkled my nose and tried to take this in. ‘Are you saying that this doctor’s research had led him to the conclusion that nature could dictate morality.’

Phil laughed. ‘Hang about I’m only telling you what I read. But yes, taken to its natural conclusion the study hinted at the fact that nature prefers its animals to have a proper mate that can provide for its offspring and build a nest that’s properly feathered.’

I bridled at these comments. ‘We’re humans’ not bloody penguins,’ I retorted.

‘And you and I believe all that evolution stuff,’ he retorted. ‘Charles Darwin and the survival of the fittest. There is no Almighty to lecture us and keep us on the straight and narrow, just good old Mother Nature making sure as a species we go on to replicate ourselves in the fittest possible mould.’

I bit my lip in consternation. ‘Shit that’s some scientific theory,’ I said.

Phil placed his can on the concrete floor. ‘Only a theory Tina,’ he told me softly. ‘But it does open up a whole can of worms doesn’t it.’

I was intrigued. ‘So where does Andy and his beliefs come into all this?’ I enquired.

‘Well for one thing the brain is a pretty complex bit of kit. It’s made up of twenty or thirty billion neurons all moving around and sending signals to every part of your body.’

I was starting to see something way ahead. ‘And I take it these signals could include warnings as well as the ability to interfere with the physical make-up of a person if that was the most effective way of ensuring healthy continuity of the species.’

Phil snapped the fingers of one hand. ‘Exactly. That was the doctor’s theory. Almost hounded out his profession because of it though.’

‘Oh?’

‘Well think about. What he’s saying in that paper he wrote is that nature is in the driving seat, and just like some invisible deity it’s there to make sure we adhere to its rules and regulations.’

‘Omnipotent and caring. God is love don’t they say?’ I whispered to myself. ‘Or we are all part of some intelligent design,’ I added rather foolishly.

Phil stood up and stretched. He reached for his mobile phone. ‘It’s Carol. She’ll be here to pick me up in ten minutes,’ he informed me. ‘Apparently she can’t stop as we have to pick our precocious daughter up from dance class.’

I stood up too. ‘Do you think that Andy’s brain sent him a warning last year? Perhaps some subconscious message?’

‘What do you mean?’

I stared at the floor and felt foolish. ‘Was Andy warned that he only had a certain amount of time left? Did his brain give him the opportunity to come to terms with an impending termination?’ I raised my arms in a kind of appeal. ‘I know it sounds ridiculous Phil but perhaps God in the form of nature resides in us all. You can’t see Him you can’t touch Him, but he’s there all the same. And that’s why Andy came back into the fold. Somehow, he knew that he was shortly to return home.’

 

 

I did get back on a bike. Eventually I joined the Bilton Cycling club and gradually those muscles which I didn’t know I had helped me to keep up with my colleagues moving along the open road. Nowadays I often get out to Spurn Point, sometimes alone, with just the natural elements and my late husband’s sketch book for company. And more often than not I make a slight detour and call in at Saint Andrew church in Paull, just to say a little prayer before popping next door for a cup of tea and a slice of homemade walnut cake with Mister and Mrs John Davies.

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Hilary Bray. All rights reserved.

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