The Elder

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
An old man tells of an event that occurred in his youth and that he still can't quite reconcile.

Submitted: November 10, 2012

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Submitted: November 10, 2012





Following the morning service, Pastor Howells invited himself to our house for Sunday lunch.  His wife was still in America visiting her sister and we guessed that he must be feeling lonely.  At the time, we didn't consider the possibility that he may have wanted to acquaint himself better with these Londoners, recently relocated to South Wales.  Whatever his reasons, the self-invite was well received, my parents no doubt flattered that the pastor of the church they wanted to join had felt comfortable enough to ask if he could share their Sunday roast.

After the meal we all went into the lounge for coffee.  Pastor Howells made straight for the soft, lean-back armchair normally occupied by my father, who, pleased that we had the pastor as a guest, gladly sat on the settee with me.  The pastor was a stout man with a moon-shaped face, thin lips and dark eyes.  His breathing was laboured and his lungs made a rattling noise when he inhaled.  Slowly, he eased himself into the chair, sighing contentedly.  He declined the coffee my mother offered him and, to our surprise, reached into his trouser pocket and brought out a small hip flask.  For a few intriguing moments I thought he had whiskey in it.

'I'll have an empty cup, though, Hazel,' he said to my mother, his face breaking into a smile.  My mother gave him a cup and he poured a light brown liquid into it from the flask, grinning to himself as if at a private joke.

'Comfrey tea,' he said, raising his cup.  'It helps me keep on the right side of my emphysema.'

He winked at my mother.  I remembered seeing an old photograph of him in the foyer of the church and it struck me that despite his short stature and round face he used to be a handsome man.  I wondered if he still regarded himself as such.

'My wife grows the Comfrey plant in our garden and makes it into tea,' he explained.  'It's good for my chest.'

Despite his breathing difficulties, he'd eaten copiously and fast at lunch and had held forth on subjects ranging from cricket to the alleged corruption of local councillors.  So far, to my relief, he hadn't mentioned anything to do with Christianity, but now that the business of eating was over I felt sure he was going to talk at length about his faith, especially now that my father had started to move the conversation in that direction.  Having no interest in this, I was about to excuse myself when I was arrested by a sudden change in the tone of Pastor Howell's voice.  He had a knack of speaking in a particular way which made his listeners feel he ought to be heard.  He may have sensed that I was about to leave the room and, for one reason or another, didn't want this to happen.  So I resigned myself to stay and settled my cup of coffee on the armrest of the settee.

My father had made an appreciative comment about Pastor Howell's sermon, a powerfully-delivered word on the ultimate test of Abraham's love for God.  Pastor Howells suddenly leant forward in the chair, his left hand resting on his knee, and surveyed us.  His face had become dark and forbidding and I got the impression that he was offended, although I couldn't imagine why.  The atmosphere in the room became slightly strained.  I felt envious of my mother who'd disappeared into the kitchen a few minutes earlier.

'I wrote that sermon many years ago,' he said after a short silence, 'and there's a parallel story behind it that still fills me with a worldly-longing for answers.'  He put down his cup of tea and sat back in the armchair.  'If you'll bear with me, I'd like to tell it to you.

'When I was a younger man,' he said, addressing my father, 'not much older, Peter, than your boy here, about thirteen or fourteen, I belonged to a chapel in Llafotfereb, by The Rhonda.  I was a young Christian and fiery with it.  I was on fire for the Lord and had a young man's angry dreams and I didn't speak English unless I had to.

'It was during the Depression and South Wales was hit hard.  My father died that year, my mother having passed on when I was only three, and after the funeral it was decided that I should go and live with my father's brother, Dafydd, and his wife Sian, and find work there.  I didn't have brothers or sisters, or any other relatives, so I went to live with them.  My father hadn't been a religious man, God bless him, but my Uncle Dafydd was pastor at Bethel, the local Chapel, and I started going along to the Sunday night meetings.  It was in that little place that I became a Christian.  I had a wonderful conversion, Peter, beautiful it was.  There was singing like I never heard before and never heard since.  There were tears in my uncle's eyes as he came to shake my hand - it was the first time I'd seen a man cry - and then I let the flood-gates go myself.  I had no money and only possessed the clothes I stood up in, but I was walking on air that night, Peter, walking on air.  It was a bitter cold January evening, but I didn't feel it, I was glowing inside.

'My Uncle Dafydd and Aunty Sian gave me a Welsh Bible, one they'd been given when they'd got married and, because they were childless, I think they saw me as the son they never had.  I've still got that book and I've read it every day since then.  You ought to learn Welsh, Peter, it's a language that'll come easy to a Christian.  I've always felt that English is so poor when talking of spiritual things.  That old book of mine is a bit dog-eared now, but the Lord likes to see a well-used Bible, Peter.'  He took a sip of his Comfrey tea.

'You know,' he said, tapping the side of the cup with his forefinger, 'the Lord provides us with a remedy for every ailment and all we have to do is look for it.'  He sipped the tea again and put the cup back on the coffee table.

'As I was saying, there wasn't much work and most of us were living hand to mouth.  People had a lot of health problems, children and old folk being the hardest hit.  Charity had its own hands tied with the very evil it was trying to fight and it seemed there was no hope of improvement.  Bethel had a small soup kitchen going and everybody gave a helping hand, but it was never enough, never enough.

'We used to hold nightly prayer meetings and we didn't even have enough coal for the fire.  It was so cold, but do you know, Peter, that little place was full every night.  That spoke volumes to me, that did, volumes.  People were living between the very teeth of the lion's mouth and yet they praised the Lord for what they had; and do you know what they had, Peter?  They had the love of God and a tremendous, unshakeable bond between each other and I've never known the like since.

'Sometimes I think, like when I'm here now with a full belly and money in my pocket, I think to myself, I think, there's not the same sense of love that there was.  I'd give up all I have, Peter, all I have, just to touch again the love we all shared, even if only for a minute.  Despite the poverty the people were proud, proud to be Christian and proud to be Welsh, too,' he added with a smile. 

'But pride is a double-edged sword, Peter, a double-edged sword.  It has a good side and it has a bad side and sometimes folk can't tell the difference.  Do you know, there was an elder in our chapel, a man by the name of Ianto Jones and one of the loveliest Christians I've ever known.  There he was, in the midst of his own poverty, working day and night for other people.  Always had a friendly word and a tower of strength he was in times of trouble; but things started happening to change all that.

'His wife, who was quite young and once very pretty, so I was told, became ill with a wasting disease.  They had two children, a boy and a girl, about three and four years old they were, but always taking on bad and too small they were for their ages.  Ianto's wife stopped coming to Chapel on account of her illness and gradually Ianto came less and less and then not at all.  We used to pray for them every night, but I don't think any of us realised the full extent of that family's misery.  Uncle Dafydd went to visit them a lot, but Ianto always refused help, saying the Lord would provide.

'One evening, Uncle Dafydd went to where they lived and Ianto opened the door, red-eyed and sickly-looking, and the children could be heard crying somewhere in the house.  Ianto said that his wife had taken a turn for the worse and he'd had to make the children sleep in another room and that's why they were crying, them wanting their Mammy, see?  Uncle Dafydd offered to send Aunty Sian to nurse the sick woman, but Ianto refused, insisting he could cope; but the strain could be seen on the man's face.  His cheeks were sunken-in and his lips were cracked and even his hair seemed thinner.  He hadn't shaved for a few days and the whites of his eyes seemed to be stained with yellow.  Uncle Dafydd said there was a smell of decay about him, as if he was rotting from the inside.

'Uncle Dafydd felt he could only push Ianto so far and if the man continued to refuse all assistance, what else could be done?  There were many other people in the congregation who needed help of one kind or another and he was determined to make himself available to them.  If truth be known, Peter, he missed Ianto's support and prayed that he would allow himself to be helped so that he, in turn, would be in a better position to help others, like he used to.

'About two nights later, at around one O'clock, we were woken by someone banging on the door.  It was snowing outside and bitter cold and when Uncle Dafydd opened up, Ianto was standing there and without a coat, too.  Shivering from head to foot he was and staring in an awful way.  Uncle Dafydd put a hand out to help him in, but Ianto only took one step and collapsed in the doorway.  Uncle called to Aunty Sian and me and altogether we carried the sick man into the parlour.  We saw he was wet-through and his boots were split, with the toes of his right foot exposed.  We put a blanket over his shoulders and a mug of hot tea to his lips, but still he shook.

'"What happened to you, man?" Uncle Dafydd asked, patting Ianto's hand.  He couldn't get much sense out of him, though, and Uncle told me to go and fetch Dr. Williams.  This doctor was an old man, in his seventies, see, and he didn't practice much any more, but he only lived down the road and the next doctor was miles away.  Anyway, I persuaded him to come and we returned about half an hour later and he had a look at Ianto, who sat glaring at the far corner of the room, rocking back and forth.  Doctor Williams said he was in shock and suffering from the cold and advised us to keep him warm.  The doctor had brought some brandy, but Ianto wouldn't touch it.

'Dr. Williams said could he take me with him to Ianto's house, to see the wife and babies, and for Uncle and Aunty to stay with the patient, but Ianto suddenly said that he wanted to go home and quite aggressive he was about it, too.  So the doctor, Uncle Dafydd and me went with Ianto to his house, just to make certain everything was all right.

'Oh, Peter, when I think about it, I can easily weep, even now, years later.  We all went into the house, Ianto first, then us.  The house was silent and dark and almost as cold as it was outside.  We all stopped at the bottom of the stairs and Ianto stared at the floor, not moving, not even seeming to breathe.  Then suddenly he turned on Uncle Davies and clutched his sleeve.  There was a look of horror on his face, anguish in his eyes.  He drew himself up to his full height - he was a big man, well over six foot - as if he was going to say something important, but all he did was begin to cry.  Uncle said later he was put in mind of a lost and motherless child.  Dr. Williams lit a candle from his black bag and went up the stairs, and I followed.  Ianto stayed at the bottom, still clutching Uncle's sleeve, but I could feel him watching us as we went up.'

Pastor Howells paused.  He held a hand up to indicate that he needed to rest a moment before continuing.  He sat forward in the armchair for a minute or so, breathing hard, then sat back again and resumed speaking, but at a much slower pace.

'There were the three of them in the bed they all shared before the wife got worse, the boy and girl either side of their mother and her arms around them both.  Ianto's black overcoat was lying in a crumpled heap at the foot of the bed, as if thrown.  I thought they were asleep.  Dr. Williams examined them one by one then turned to me and said they were dead.  As he said this, we heard Ianto coming up the stairs, shouting his wife's name.  When he came into the room he stopped his noise and stared at the figures in the bed. Then he sank to his knees with his head in his hands and, slowly, he began to speak.

'What he'd done, see, Peter, was, he was desperate, man.  He couldn't see a way out of the situation.  He couldn't bear to see his family suffer, but neither could he accept help - not that much practical help could have been given.  He was caught between pride and shame.  Slowly, his wife and children were starving and all he could do was watch.  They'd had to live in the one room and go to bed, sometimes in the afternoon, with the children between them, so they could sleep through the hunger and the cold.  It was awful days, Peter, awful. 

'But that night, he'd put the children in the other room and waited till they were asleep, see, then he put his coat ... then he put his coat over their faces.  He went in to his wife, who was also sleeping, kissed her lips and put the coat ... he'd intended taking his own life as well, but do you know, his mind went blank, he couldn't remember a thing from then ... from then until he came round in Uncle and Aunty's house.  He couldn't even remember putting the children with their mother.

'Uncle Dafydd quietly told me to go and fetch Selwyn, the police.  Ianto was oblivious to everything but his grief and continued kneeling on the floor, rocking back and forth.  Uncle and Dr. Williams thought it best to leave him alone for a while and stepped into the back room.  They noticed that the cot where the children used to sleep was turned on its side and the little blanket was in a heap in the far corner of the room.

'I came back with two policemen, Selwyn and another man.  Uncle Dafydd, Dr. Williams, me and Selwyn struggled with Ianto, who was by now raging and cursing God, back to Uncle and Aunty's house and the other policeman stayed at Ianto's house.  Ianto didn't sleep that night, just kept pacing around our house, crying "can God forgive a murderer?" and wringing his hands till they were raw.  In the morning, he was exhausted and much quieter when more police came to take him away.' 

Pastor Howells stopped speaking, but continued to gaze at us and I noticed that his eyes seemed even darker than before.  I wanted the silence to end.

'What happened to him?'  I asked and immediately regretted speaking.  It was the first time I'd said anything and I didn't want to appear too eager for more information.  Pastor Howells looked out of the lounge window and for a long while seemed to contemplate the quiet street.  I felt embarrassed that my question was going unanswered, just left to hang in the air like an insult.  At great length, he turned his face toward us and nodded at me.

'Unlike Abraham, no angel came to stay Ianto's hand,' he replied, 'and no angel came when that same hand was turned against himself.'  He looked away and I thought he seemed angry.

'You know,' he said, glaring out of the window, 'God can forgive a murderer, but it's a measure of human weakness that we can never forgive ourselves.'

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