Thanks to Big Blogger I read this story at Alpha Guest Supper last night. Absolutely no reaction or comment received:
It was a Monday afternoon when I wandered into the church. I had passed it many times but had never previously entered. Today, unusually it seemed to me, the door was open so I crossed the threshold.
Inside it was clean, spacious and very light. I had not expected this from its exterior. The outside of the church was dirty and imposing. I would imagine it was built in Victorian times.
Some people were fussing about doing things that were clearly important but of which I had no knowledge. I walked to the front and sat down. The sunlight through a window of coloured glass was very beautiful. The glass told a story of sorts but I did not understand it. I wondered what it was people did in this building. I sat and tried to imagine.
As I reflected, a woman walked in holding a small child by the hand. The child was eating a biscuit and dropping crumbs everywhere but the woman didn’t seem to notice. When they left I tried to find a broom to sweep up the crumbs but there was no evident place for brooms to be kept.
I asked two of the busy people, both ladies in their seventies I would imagine, if they knew where I might find a broom. They started to talk to each other:
‘There’s a broom in the vestry isn’t there?’
‘No I think it’s in the chancel cupboard behind the pulpit.’
‘That one broke; the other one is in the memorial hall.’
I had no idea what they meant and anyway they both looked at me menacingly as if, needing a broom, I must have made a mess somewhere.
‘Is there someone else who might know?’ I asked.
‘You could try the caretaker.’
‘OK. Where will I find him, or her?’
‘Him,’ they responded in unison.
Realising they had no intention of telling me more, and not wanting to disturb their important work a moment longer, I decided it couldn’t be too difficult to find the caretaker myself and set off to search. I wished I’d asked the man’s name as I ended up peering into rooms and asking various people if they were the caretaker and receiving harsh stares in response as if it were obvious that they couldn’t be. Finally a man in a tweed jacket, who was sorting out books, pointed towards a door by the church entrance. I approached it and discovered the small sign saying ‘Caretaker’s flat.’ There were two bells, one marked ‘Family’ and the other ‘Caretaker’. I rang the one for the caretaker.
When the caretaker came to the door I explained the predicament and asked if I could borrow a broom. He told me not to worry as it was his job to sweep the church and he did it every Sunday after the evening service had finished. I explained that it would be a shame if the biscuit crumbs lay on the floor until then and were trodden into the carpet by the normal comings and goings during the week. He looked at me as if trying to understand the concept of ‘comings and goings’. He remained insistent that I needn’t worry about the crumbs.
I was leaving the building a few moments later when I noticed a dustpan and brush lying by some notice boards. Looking around I saw nobody obviously using them so I took them and cleaned up the crumbs, brushing them onto a lawn outside for the birds to eat.
Over the next few weeks I developed a routine. The church door was open on a Monday afternoon and I was always able to enter the church to sit and ponder the use of the building. I was intrigued by the place. There were usually a few people around doing unfamiliar tasks. Others might be sorting out books, arranging flowers or changing coloured hangings and banners. Sometimes a man played tunes on the organ but I couldn’t tell if he was a good player or not, being unfamiliar with the music. I didn’t really care for it very much.
The lady and her biscuit-eating child also visited regularly and, since the dustpan and brush could be found in the same place, I cleared up after them, feeding the crumbs to the birds.
One week I must have been a little later than usual and although I didn’t see the lady and child, the evidence of their visit lay in the centre aisle of the church. I cleaned the crumbs up and fed them to the birds.
But the next week I was certainly there at the regular time and they were not. Noticing the women from whom I had requested the broom, with some hesitation I approached and asked if they knew anything about the lady and her little boy. Again they talked to each other:
‘He can’t have heard.’
‘Such a shame.’
‘Lovely little mite.’
‘She prayed for him so faithfully.’
Realising that something serious had happened which upset them I returned to my seat at the front of church and spent some more time trying to work out the story in the coloured glass window. There was a hillside and a man talking to a crowd. He seemed to have helpers who were giving out food to the people. In the sky tiny, yet chubby, babies dressed in white flew around. There were some words at the bottom of the window but I couldn’t read them and there was a set of railings to stop people from getting too close. What could it all mean?
On a previous occasion I had asked the man in the tweed jacket if he could tell me about the window. He told me it was the feeding of the 5,000 and walked off, seeming to think that should satisfy my curiosity.
When I stood to leave I was delighted to see biscuit crumbs lying on the floor. Whatever had happened to the lady and her child to upset the ladies it was clear they had been in church earlier. With a smile on my face I found the dustpan and brush and cleared up.
The following week I was sitting looking up at the window when I became aware of a man sitting behind me. He tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Can I have a word?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ I said and waited for him to speak again.
‘Not here,’ he said, ‘in the vestry’.
I didn’t know where the vestry was, or indeed what it was so I was happy to follow him.
He went right up to the top of the church and, just before he reached the railings at the end, turned left and pushed a piece of panelling. I paused to look at the window. I had not been this close to it before and could almost make out the words now. I resolved to come up this close next time I visited as it was clearly allowed. Before I could complete my study the man beckoned me into the room now revealed through the panelling. The door opened into a small office containing many cupboards, a single desk and two hard chairs. He gestured to me to sit on one of them.
‘Bit awkward,’ he started, ‘but there have been complaints so I need to say something.’
‘Is it not OK for me to sit in church and look at the window,’ I said, ‘I’m still trying to work out the story. It’s taking me longer than I anticipated.’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘Most welcome, most welcome, it’s just that, well we don’t think it’s appropriate for you to eat your biscuits here while you pray.’
I was confused where this idea of praying came from since I had never tried to do that. I didn’t know how to.
He continued. ‘We’re very grateful that you always clear up the mess - hasn’t gone unnoticed, but can we suggest that you eat your biscuits outside first and then come and pray.’
He was talking about praying again. Maybe that would help me understand the picture. I didn’t want to be too defensive, and especially not to get the lady and her child into trouble given all the difficulties the older women had alluded to, but false accusation is never easy simply to dismiss.
‘There’s been some misunderstanding,’ I said. ‘I have indeed been clearing up biscuit crumbs, every week for some months now, but that is because a lady and her small child come to church at about the same time as I do every week and the child always drops biscuit crumbs.’
The man appeared angry now. ‘Look’ he said, ‘I can understand that you’re a bit embarrassed because you don’t know how to behave in a church. I’m happy to help with that, but you must take responsibility. There are no children in our church. Haven’t been for a long time. The only person you can possibly mean is Virginia and she stopped coming when her little boy died a few weeks ago. I know he used to make a bit of a mess sometimes but we sort of turned a blind eye as he was so very poorly. Anyway the Caretaker always makes sure the church is swept.’
I jumped up and ran back into church with the man trailing after me.
‘Look’ I said, indicating the crumbs in the centre aisle
‘My very point’ he replied, ‘Do you still deny it was you?’
The crumbs were clearly there on the floor but of course they proved nothing.
‘Maybe I’d better leave,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to cause trouble.’
‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’ said the man.
I went to get the dustpan and brush. As I turned I looked at the window again. For the first time ever I noticed that some objects I had not identified before, at the bottom of the window and round the sides, were baskets of bread. They were overflowing and bits of bread, were falling to the floor.
‘Tell me more about the window before I go,’ I asked the man.
He said he didn’t have time but gave me a huge book and told me I could find the story in it. ‘It’s in the Gospels’, he said. ‘Bring it back next time you come.’ I got the dustpan and swept up the crumbs, feeding them to the birds as before. A small dog came over and picked up one of the larger pieces of biscuit and ran off with it before I could stop it.
The book was huge - over 1,000 pages long. I had no idea where to find the account of the feeding of the 5,000 and the contents list didn’t have a chapter called ‘Gospels’. When I got home I started reading at the beginning. I vaguely recognised the first few stories about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and then Noah and his ark. Pretty soon after that I began to lose interest. There was nothing about the man on the hillside or the babies in the sky or the crumbs. A knock at the door irritated me immensely in the middle of my search for the truth about the window. I ignored it but the person wouldn’t go away. After the third knock I answered.
It was the lady and the boy.
‘Virginia?’ I asked.
‘I know someone who can look at your ears’, she said, ‘We’ve been knocking for ages.’
‘And your little boy?’ I asked without really knowing precisely the question I was asking.
‘We need to talk,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come and have some food with us? There’s a new fish restaurant in town and we’ve heard they do huge portions.’