The Witness – a short story
But what sort of Christian? A Lenten tale
The spring sunshine was at its best. It had called him early that morning and had surprised him really, for it was usually the commuters who woke him on their way up to the station. Then he would roll onto his side, glare at them and try to get back to sleep. Usually the ache in his head would not allow him do this and anyway, the steps of the post office felt even harder after a few hours sleep.
But this morning had been different; there were no commuters and no trains running under the bridge; even the District Line remained in bed. The sun reached him half an hour before he awoke, warm and suffused with a sense of comfort and reassurance that had not been his for a long time. He folded the cardboard and the piece of old carpet and tucked them away round the side of the building then set off towards the cross roads, towards the baker’s shop, which was open. There was no traffic to menace him as he crossed the road and he could see people coming and going in the baker’s doorway.
Before he reached the baker’s, he paused at the newsagent’s. It was closed and the pile of the previous evening’s Standard was not there. He rattled the chains on the door twice and then again for good measure, but to no avail. He moved on.
“Good Friday. You know, Easter.” The words meant something to him, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Got an old loaf ‘ave yer?”
“Bit short this morning – just special orders.” Harry turned in the doorway.
“Hang about mate.” Harry paused and turned.
“Try these.” They were odd shapes, “casualties” they called them in the bakery. The baker put them in a bag and handed them over.
“See yer then.”
A young couple had parked outside and left their children in the car. They stopped suddenly in front of Harry.
“I’ll go in for the buns Andrew; you go back and sit with the children.”
The children continued to play in the back of the car while their father sat in driving seat. He watched the old man. Harmless old sod. Doesn’t look very special – probably one of those old boys who hang about in the park all day and leave all their mess there. Then they move on when the kids come home from the comp so they can take over. He looked again at the broken shoes and the mottled assemblage of grey clothing that was shuffling away from him. He remembered another member of the species trying to ransack the Sally Army clothing bin in the council car-park.
“Ugh, who’s that funny old man, Daddy?”
“Some old tramp I expect, one of the old men who hangs around in the park.”
“Bet he smells.” The father said nothing. The child was probably right.
Harry hardly noticed them as he fumbled with his paper bag.
He walked on towards the other shops. Opposite, on the other side of the road, behind the war memorial, was the parish church. Outside it a number of men were working, moving pieces of timber and loading them onto a trailer. Didn’t look like road works or anything of that sort. Pity, road-works were often useful if you wanted some gear for something.
The bun was fresh and, apart from the mark across the top where someone had spilt something on it, it was fine. He stood between the darkened shops and the empty strip of concrete road that led down towards the crematorium and let the sunshine warm him. There was a small café and another baker’s further down. He dropped the paper bag and the remaining bun into his plastic carrier and walked slowly on. He paused by the first of the litterbins, the yellow one fixed onto the bus stop. There was nothing there so he pressed on.
Later, he joined the others in the park. Some one had some cans and they drank and smoked and watched a few cars go by. One of them shared some Chinese food that he’d found behind the take-away – he had found far more than he could eat himself and couldn’t be bothered to carry it around any more. He traded some for cigarettes then watched Harry.
“Whatcha got there, ‘Arry boy?”
“Bun. Bit knocked about.”
“Lemme see.” The man leaned over. “Bleedin’ ‘ot cross bun innit?”
Another companion joined in.
“Course it is – Good Friday, innit?”
“Yeah. ‘Ot cross bun, that’s what it is.”
They chewed and swallowed and blew out their clouds of smoke and the time went by. The sun climbed no further in the sky but hung there, defying the gentle east wind that that chilled everyone beneath the blue sky. Scattered amongst the new green of the spring grass, the yellow heads of the daffodils nodded and swayed, unaffected by the cold wind, and danced in the sunshine.
Harry remembered again that he knew all about Good Friday and Easter, but the words just wouldn’t come back to him. Something about holiday time, that’s what the hot-cross buns were all about.
For a while they slept, then they heard the footsteps and the voices.
An eerie silence surrounded the marchers. Thin low cloud had shut out the sun and the spring colours had lost something of their brightness under a mean drizzle. It was if the marchers had formed themselves and their plastic macks and their umbrellas into an underground train, a train which had escaped the dark confines of the tunnels and found its way into the light, that was now winding its way down from the Methodist Church beyond the station, along by the old Congregational church, then down to the cross roads and past Harry’s section of the park. The sound of their footsteps, and the murmur of their voices escaped from the train and settled over the people standing on the pavement watching. They stood very still and watched. Harry sat up and leaned forward, elbows on his knees and chin cupped in his hands. He had drunk less than the others who continued to sleep. One of them heaved and shuddered from time to time with an enormous snore, a passable imitation of a walrus.
Harry watched the man at the head of the procession swing round with his plain wooden cross and came back up one of the broad paths inside the park to the shelter of the hall next to the parish church. The man turned and faced his followers who began to from a very large circle around him. Some of the spectators came across from the shops to join them. Between them Harry’s gaze could make out several men in dog-collars arranging themselves around the man with the cross. Harry had never seen so many vicars at once. Just behind them he noticed two women, also wearing dog-collars. He remembered the first women traffic wardens, not sure whether to take themselves seriously but determined to do their job well. He had hit one of them and that had earned him his first spell inside.
“Welcome. Welcome everybody to our annual service in the park.” With these words, one of the clergy re-imposed the silence. Somewhere beyond the station, a car backfired. The man waited then spoke again.
He spoke of the churches’ desire to get together, perhaps only symbolically on this occasion, to remind their friends and neighbours about the meaning of Good Friday and Easter. The crowd listened to this man. There was nothing physically imposing about him and he was a good age – should have been pensioned off years ago. He was the shortest of the clergy, no taller than the two ladies among them. His strong, grey hair reached to the side, close and straight from his parting. Above his weathered, lined, face two thick dark eyebrows formed hoods over bright, round eyes. His smile annoyed Harry; it was one of those smiles that would never go away.
Harry suddenly realized that he was listening, that the words were trying to make a bit of sense. He remembered the cross, the blemish on his breakfast. That’s right, the bloke had died to show that we didn’t have to be bad. That’s what all this was about.
The speaker finished and two of the other vicars said prayers. Harry found himself standing with the rest of the crowd – they had spread around and in front of him and like this he got a better view. The crowd thinned and he found himself standing in front of the clergy. To his side several of the men whom he had watched that morning were loading the cross back onto a trailer.
“Can I help you?”
“Er, I dunno really. Sort of found myself wondering what it was all about.”
“Our speaker was good, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah.” Harry paused and the young vicar looked quizzically for a moment. “D’yer know, it’s ages since I’ve bin in a church. Funny that.” The young clergyman waited still. “Nearly forgot what it’s like.” He remembered a time when churches were not locked and when the warmth and comfort of a service remained available for some time afterwards.
“Would you like to come back then?” Harry looked to one side, dropped his head then nodded slightly. Back on the benches his companions slept on.
“Do you remember which church it was?”
“Somewhere down Blackstead way. The village, now a small town, was two stops down the railway line.
“What sort of church?”
“Only a littl’un. All white walls, like, sort of a badge up over the door.
“No, I mean, which denomination?”
“What d’yer mean?”
“You know, Methodist, Catholic, C.of E.”
“Buggered if I know. Bit strict like. No hall outside, not like this one.” He nodded towards the parish church and its modest tower which poked out from among the chestnut trees. The young clergyman followed his gaze up and noticed the candles, the flowers breaking out.
Nearby the young curate from the Roman Catholic church was standing alone, wondering whether he would be able to fit in a round of golf the next day. He still had a sermon to finish for the Sunday.
“Charlie, can you help?” The golfer stepped across to his Anglican colleague.
“What’s that George? Got a problem?”
“I think my friend here would like to return to church going, but he’s not sure which of us he needs to return to. What’s your place like down at Blackstead?”
“Very modern; all spikes and Italianate metal work. Can’t miss it. Heard your people tried to take it over, they were so impressed.” Both men laughed. Harry turned to go, but they saw what he was about and stopped him.
“I’m sorry, didn’t even ask your name.”
“Well, Harry, it doesn’t look as if it’s our firms that you need to see. Let’s have a word with my friend Donald over here.” George beckoned across to the Baptist minister. The young catholic priest glanced up.
“Best be off – don’t want to queer your pitch. Bye, Harry. See you George.”
Harry remembered the Baptist minister. He had noticed him earlier, standing somewhat to one side during the service.
“Donald – hello again. This is Harry who wants to try church again. We think he might have been one of yours.”
“Hello Harry, I’m Donald. How are you?” Harry realised that he was being addressed.
“All right.” He was beginning to wonder why he had got involved. He belched loudly and felt better.
“Was it a Baptist church that you went to? Do you remember being baptised?”
“Don’t think so.” The Baptist minister caught the eye of the Anglican curate and spoke quietly.
“Not Irish is he? Thought he might have been one his papistical crowd. He nodded towards Charlie’s back. “Don’t think he’s going to be one of mine.” He looked at George and said nothing, but his expression said more than words.
“Look Harry, there are two more possibilities, but those folk aren’t here at the moment.” George looked around; the ministers from the Methodist and United Reform churches had gone into the parish hall with members of their flocks.
“Trouble is, there are six different churches around this town centre and we all have services on Sunday. I think the thing to do is to try one of them – see what it’s like, see if it’s your thing.” He could tell the old boy had had enough. He was looking over to his pals who were beginning to wake up as the wind got up and drove the light drizzle into their faces.
“I’ll just pop in and get you a leaflet.”
When George returned, Harry had wandered over to the bench and had retrieved his plastic bag.
“Here you are Harry.” George was conscious of the other bench people watching him. They said nothing. Harry took the leaflet, but let his hand hang down by his side. He managed two words, “Ta then,” then turned his back.
“What’s all that bollocks about then?” The speaker sat on the next bench, rolling a cigarette. “Been getting on at yer ‘ave they? Bleedin’ vicars – can’t mind their own bleedin’ business.” George heard the words as he moved away. They weren’t meant for him.
Harry let go of the leaflet which fluttered to the ground. The pavement was already wet and the paper soaked up water like blotting paper. It was still there the next day.
His pal Johnny noticed it as they gathered there late on the Saturday morning. It was a normal Saturday and the bins had been worth searching. Three of them sat there sharing a can.
“So what was that vicar on about then?”
“Dunno – somethin’ bout services.”
“You don’t want no bleedin’ services. Do bugger all for the likes of you – just take any money you got.”
“Somewhere warm.” Somewhere a memory stirred. The wind had swung back into the east with a vengeance and spring was somewhere else today. “All right, funny bleedin’ places, but you can sit at the back, nice and warm like.”
The third man stepped back from the bin; it was their special bin and coming over to the seat for the first time each day had something of an adventure about it. No one ever put things in it while they were there, but overnight, all sorts of treats could arrive.
The third man, Patrick returned with half a packet of sandwiches.
“Saw yer talking to yer man from St. Joseph’s. Thought perhaps he’d be after getting his hooks into you.” He sat and threw a sandwich at Johnny who took one look at it and threw it back.
“What’s that?” He stared at the battered package which his friend had allowed to drop onto the ground. “Can’t you do better than this then?” He laughed at his own joke but the other two ignored him.
“I tell you my friend, keep away from Holy Mother Church – she’ll suck you in and blow you our in bits.” He took a few steps over to the bin to ferret around there. Johnny lifted a solemn head and looked at Harry who moved on uneasy feet.
“Perhaps I’ll have a look tomorrow, just in case.” He picked up the scrap and shoved the damp paper unfolded into his pocket.
“You off then Harry?”
“Yep.” He set off towards the hockey pitch at the far end of the park. Something had caught his eye and he was not going to tell the others.
On the Sunday morning the sun woke him early. Across the road from the post office, men with their dogs collected newspapers. Although the steps were still a consideration, it was a sense of a clear head that helped him as he rose early and disposed of his bed around the side of the building.
Enough of what he had heard on Friday, when the talk had been of Sunday and of hope, had stayed with him. He shook his head as he made his way to the back of the take-away and the restaurant next door. For a few minutes he operated on instinct, a sort of human automatic pilot. As long as he had based himself in the area, he had know that this was the place to go on Sunday, the day that was different still. His confidence was that of a tame cat that goes home knowing that it is going to be fed.
He found what he wanted and leant against a low wall. With the weight of his plastic bag, he could feel confident about the day – something to eat, something to trade.
But this other Sunday business stayed with him, as if Sunday had not been resolved, as if the answer to this Sunday business was not the weight in the bag, but something else, something unresolved. He tried to remember the words the little man with the eyebrows had said but his words got lost with the words that Johnny and Patrick had spoken afterwards. From his pocket he took out the folded leaflet that the young vicar bloke had given him. It had almost dried in the depths of his overcoat and he was able to unfold it. He squinted and made some sense of the list on what had been its rear page.
He looked again, holding the end of a thick stained finger against the paper. He moved the finger down the page, folded the paper once and shoved it back into his pocket. He walked round the service road, back to the main street, then turned right at the cross roads. The road he had taken led towards London, but this morning it was quiet. He ignored the parish church, which was now on his left, and continued for another hundred yards. If there had been anyone to watch him, anyone who knew him, they would have noticed a spring in his step, a sort of purpose which did not match his appearance. Had he walked any faster he would have turned into a parody of himself, like a puppet which has escaped the strings or the glove, and has set off under its own direction. His speed added to his sense of purpose and his posture changed; his back visibly straightened as he looked ahead for the gate which he knew was somewhere along this hedge.
In the gateway he paused and looked up at the double iron hoop that supported the light above him. Someone had left it on. He went through, up to the doorway and into the modern porch. He felt the eyes on him and looked up to his left at a large statue which dominated the space. The figure held a sort of plane and had a piece of timber before him. The murmur of voices reached him and he took three cautious steps forwards towards the next door. For a moment he leant against the door frame, dazzled by the splendour that reached to the back of the church. They were all kneeling with their backs to him and were a long way from him, about twenty of them, up in the front pews. From beyond the kneeling group a man of about his own age, a man dressed in light-coloured robes, watched him over gold-rimmed spectacles. Harry saw him nod to one of the kneelers who glanced over his shoulder, levered himself up onto his feet and started down the aisle towards him. He had not seen either man before and the expression of the man who approached, a tall, fit-looking man, was that of a man who has questions to ask rather than answers to give.
Opposite the gate in the hedge was a short-cut into the park. Along this Harry skirted the parish church at his usual pace until he found himself back at their usual seat. He did not expect to find anyone there.
For a few moments he poked about in the bag. He could make nothing of his visit to Saint Joseph’s, like a pet that knows that something is wrong when something changes in its home. He avoided the matter, looking into his bag from where he extracted some crispy pancake rolls. He chewed on one for a minute or two, then shook his head. He held the half-eaten remnant in his hand, examined it briefly, then returned it to the bag. From another pocket he tugged out a crumpled cigarette packet. The cigarette was better and helped him think.
There had been no one by the door, that was the trouble. No one to reassure him about the gap, about the empty pews that he needed to pass to get up there with the others. It had been too far to go. If there had been a few of them back near the door, he could have slipped in and got himself settled, no bother. But he could not perform, could not stand out, not there anyway in such a private sort of a place.
Well, he’d had a look, had satisfied himself that that was not the place for him, though it had looked warm. The sun was gaining a little strength and he dozed.
When he awoke he was still alone. He blinked and looked around him. Then he sensed that people were parking their cars near him and were making their way to the parish church, over to his right, in the corner of the park. Two groups of children came along the pavement behind him, annoying him with their noise. He stood up, turned away from the church and its hall, from the cross roads and the baker’s, and set off in the direction of the crematorium. He knew where the road led; on weekdays they watched the road from their bench in the park. Sometimes they speculated about the long black cars and their passengers, both the living and the dead.
From the far corner of the park, he could look across the main road and down a side turning. He tried to remember going along that way, but could not. There was a large gap in the long line of thirties houses and, for a moment, he studied it.
A new bin caught his eye and held his gaze. When had they put that up – it was a bright red, and fixed to one of the lampposts. It was empty, as far as he was concerned. He turned over the newspaper and withdrew his hand. He looked round to his left at the small car park in front of the Baptist church. It formed the gap that he had observed from the main road. To one side of the building, in a sort of brick outgrowth, there was an open door, a black eye that beckoned. A human eye also watched him from the corner of the car park, its owner standing still in his dark suit. The owner removed his hat, threw it into the back of the car and locked the door. He stood back, to put the key into his trouser pocket, and continued to watch Harry. Harry reached the door first, reached a hand up to the rail alongside the steps and eased himself into the darkness.
It was a strange sort of darkness. By the light that poured in through the coloured glass of the small windows he could see perfectly well inside. There was a small notice board and some flowers in a vase. Through a double doorway, he could see the wood of the pews and the rows of people, sitting and waiting. In front of them, on a platform that was slightly raised, sat a small group of men around a table from where more flowers watched over them all.
Just inside the door a man in a dark suit turned towards Harry. In his left hand there was a hymn book and a small booklet. For a moment they remained down by his side.
“Can I help you sir?”
“D’yer start soon?”
“About five minutes my friend. Are you going to join us?” Harry found the hymn book level now with his stomach. Awkwardly, he took the book lest the man touch him with it. He followed the man to the third pew from the door, looked around, then moved himself into it. The warmth of the building was making itself felt. He paused before sitting down, bent his knees slightly and looked back at his escort. He watched the man slide his hand under a brass collection plate that had been left at the end of the pew. With his other hand he crushed the five and ten pound notes and took the plate with him to the other side of the church, to a woman lookout.
Harry leant forward and felt less conspicuous. The warmth of the church wafted over him again. He glanced down at the hymn book and turned over the pages. Some of the words came back from somewhere in the past. Some one coughed. Two or three members of the congregation were now aware of him and were looking in his direction. What did they want to look at him like that? He stared and they looked away for a moment. Then they were looking again, as if hoping he would not notice. He tried the hymn book again, but they would not leave him alone. He dropped the book down on the pew, stood up and shuffled out.
Quickly, he made his way back to the park. Over on the far side, Patrick was doing his bins. No point in going over there. He’d come over soon enough. It was still too early for the local kids and the bench was empty.
George, one of the young vicars walked past and waved. He was followed by a trail of small children, shouting and calling out.
“Can’t stop now – rather busy.” The children followed him into the hall.
He remembered the toilets in the hall – they had proved useful last time he had visited a jumble-sale. They were the best toilets he ever used, when he could get in there.
He swung his legs off the bench and made his way over to the hall. Inside the door he turned sharply to his right and vanished into the gents. It made a change to use such clean facilities – they even smelled agreeable. To return to the door he had to pass the hand basins. They were new and Harry stopped to admire the new arrangements – there was a sort of work-top where he could leave his bag if he wanted. Such was the good impression created by this place that he forgot himself and started to wash his hands. He was looking for the towel when two boys came in. They stopped as soon as they saw him and looked him straight in the eye. He had given up looking for the towel when a grim-looking, spare woman came in and glared at him.
“Can I help?”
“Gents – I can use the gents, can’t I? This is the gents, isn’t it?” Harry looked around slowly to see whether the ceramic urinals were still there. They stood four-square behind him. The woman continued to glare.
“Just washing me ‘ands.”
“Do you belong in here?”
“What d’yer mean?”
“This is not for the general public; it’s for people attending church. I didn’t notice you in this morning.”
He said nothing and she stepped aside while he left.
Johnny and Patrick were busy on the bench. They did not look up when he reached them.
“What yer got then?”
Chinese, couple of rolls. What you got then, Pat?”
“Fancy a lager?” Johnny had found an unlocked car earlier. The can hissed under his hand. He took a swig.
“Where you bin then, boy? Aint bin ter church ‘ave yer? Johnny laughed and Patrick looked up from a frayed-looking cigarette. “’Got more bleedin’ sense, aintcha ‘Arry?”
A police car cruised slowly down the road and was followed by the sound of a band. The sound grew stronger, reached the cross-roads and made its way towards them, strident now. Behind there followed the fainter sound of voices singing.
Harry said nothing and waited for his mates to react.
“Bloody ‘ell, it’s years since I seen this lot.” Patrick was sitting bolt upright and had turned right round to watch the Salvation Army marching past. Johnny too turned and waved his can of lager. Something of the words reached Harry; what was it he remembered? What a friend we have in Jesus, something like that.
“Christ, that was it.” He coughed and spat at the ground. “Sally Bleedin’ Army. That was it, Pat, Sally Bleedin’ Army. He paused. “’Ere, Johnny, give us that bleedin’ lager.”