I am sometimes wary of Road trips, hours sat in the car followed by the frustration of not finding what you are looking for. Or worse, finding it only to discover that everyone is doing the same thing and we spend the rest of the day in a line of traffic. This one however was of a different ilk. That said, it didn’t start well. I had printed off the information regarding all the recommended places of interest and had them in order in a folder which Steve promptly dropped, scattering the contents all over the car. They were no longer in any order reducing our chances of finding them at all. My lack of any sense of direction combined with Galicia’s reluctance to use signposts has led to more than one argument on a day out.
We arrived close enough to the first place to fire up google maps on my phone and sure enough after half an hour of wondering around unmarked back roads we came to a closed road. No way to proceed, and the lane too narrow to turn safely. So after some judicious reversing and a scarey three-point turn, we reviewed the situation.
“You must have got us lost again,” said Steve somewhat wearily.
The first place should have been some petroglyphs in a farmer’s field. I considered finding another route only to be asked why we were looking at a rock in a field, and decided to to try the second destination, an abandoned watermill situation in the Miño Biosphere Area of ecological interest. Something that we would both be interested in.
This time it all went smoothly, and we happily clambered around speculating how they had used the mechanism to cut marble. My only disappointment was that access to the river involved a metal ladder still damp from the morning dew. Another day, perhaps.
By this time there was no stopping us. All but one of our destinations would have been impossible to find, no signpost or even place name. So a huge thankyou to the people at Galicia Maxica. You are stars. There was no time to do the full route, there was so much to see and do. That and the coffee stops and a bit of tapas, and a picnic and other essentials. Well, you get the drift…
Podcasting find the podcast here
I have been trying my hand a podcasting, which is not as easy as it sounds. You can tell if you listen. It might be awhile before I call myself a Podcaster (Is that a word). But I am hoping to get better. My intention was to have audio files of my books so that you could listen and then buy the book on special offer. I tried a few times, but my voice won’t hold out for an entire chapter. It goes croaky then fades away so until I find a solution, I will offer some of the podcast in the artificial machine voice. I will keep you updated with my progress.
The Silver Chalice
This month’s Special Offer Is The Silver Chalice ebook, which for the next five days is available on Amazon UK for just 99p.
John walked into the big commercial kitchen and switched on the kettle, shivering as the steam spiralled into the air. The kitchen faced north, and the sun had not yet reached its small window. The cloth in his hand was for checking the stainless steel for marks. He sometimes wished they still had the tatty, friendly, domestic kitchen the environmental health people had deemed unfit for the purpose.
Now he was nervous of making finger marks, spilling crumbs, using the wrong colour cloth, or adding to a long list of sins he had already committed here. The church had to install a commercial kitchen in order to continue their midweek activities and lunches, and he had to admit the array of stainless steel looked very professional. The manager they appointed to ensure they met the regulations was a formidable woman who terrified him even more than his administrator, another formidable woman. Sylvie, his wife, teased him about him being afraid of his staff, something he tried to pretend wasn’t true, but he was a dreamer, a kind man who hated confrontation and preferred theology and prayer to administration. Everyone knew he was a visionary who sometimes lost sight of real life.
However, his mind today was not on scary staff or kitchen design, it was on Mike, his curate. He had arrived at church early to pray for him and spent an hour pacing back and forth in the church’s long central isle, a habit that helped him to pray and meditate before the church got busy. Besides, there was a spot halfway down the central isle which had an amazing echo, and John always gave in to a childish desire to hear his prayer repeated as it bounced off the walls.
Still focused on how to help Mike, he jumped at his phone alarm. It had been set to remind him to phone Alex before starting on the coffee. Without alarms, he lost track of time, so he set them for everything.
Having spoken to Alex, he hummed a tune to himself, relieved that she could join them for a few hours this morning. Mike had taken the illness of young Jamie Broadbent to heart, and Alex possessed a knack of putting pastoral issues into context.
He locked the sanctuary doors and made his way to the kitchen, moving automatically, pottering about, muttering as he knocked over the tub of sugar, while reaching to switch on the kettle.
He wondered if he should ask Alex to talk with Mike and help him through this. With her positive way of breaking news and explaining of the grief process, Mike might deal with his emotional turmoil.
“Yes, I’ll do just that,” he said, speaking to the boiling kettle, which whistled in reply.
Now Alex had removed the burden of pastoral work and he had gained a new vision for the church’s future. His enthusiasm had returned.
Humming quietly, he wandered around collecting trays, biscuits, and the odd assortment of mugs that the staff preferred to the church cups and saucers. The smell of coffee now mingled reassuringly with the lemon cleaning fluid he had used to mop up the spilt sugar. He breathed it in as he screwed on the lid of the big flask that would keep the coffee warm until the staff arrived.
There was an odd squeaking sound and a thump and he stopped, glanced at his watch and listened. How odd the building should be empty. Perhaps it was Joe the youth worker, in early to organise the youth room. The flask of coffee safely on the table, he walked through the hall to greet him.
“Hello is that you, Joe?”
As John arrived at the entrance, he noticed someone had broken the window and the lights were on. Something flashed in the sanctuary and realising that the glass doors were now open, he ran toward the altar.
“Hoy.” The word echoed.
As soon as he entered, he realised that there was someone moving around at the front; he moved closer to look, still unsure if it was one of the staff. No, something was wrong. The alter table was empty. The silverware wasn’t worth stealing; it was modern and not even silver, but it was was shiny, so maybe a thief wouldn’t know. All of this crossed his mind as he rushed to the front. It was probably kids. But as he got to the altar steps, a noise behind him caused him to jump, too late to see the pole before it cracked his skull. However, he watched it clatter to the ground before his vision blurred and he fell. Then he tried to shout, perhaps he did, maybe he didn’t, he wasn’t sure. He was still wondering when something bitter filled his mouth and he lost consciousness altogether.
Alex dropped her bag with a thud on the tiled floor of her hall. She needed sleep after an exhausting night, but there were things she needed to do first. Her mind was too active and disturbed to go straight to bed, anyway.
She wanted to talk to someone about the night’s events. Early mornings were busy for her friends and her boss. Either would understand her need to talk, her friend Jenny maybe? Jenny would be in the middle of getting her children dressed, breakfasted and to school. She imagined the chaos as they all piled into the car with their kit.
“Where did I put the coffee?” Her kitchen was tiny and well organised, but she was tired and couldn’t remember where she put the new pack after she had been shopping. Her heart sank again as she remembered James, the child who had died that morning. He would never attend school or take part in a family’s morning routine.
‘One disadvantage of singleness,’ she thought, ‘is being removed from someone to share.’ She sighed and giving up on coffee, made a cup of tea and took it to the front room. She lit the gas fire to temper the early morning chill, then curled up on the sofa to think through the events.
Pastoral work was the most fulfilling and the most troublesome part of her job. She was quiet and listened when caring for people, and hearing their stories gave her enough satisfaction to know she was in the right place. Although all clergy had to tackle anything, the church threw at them; they paid her to do the lion’s share of the pastoral work in her role as associate vicar.
Last night had been terrible, much more traumatic than the things she normally dealt with. Three-year-old James had contracted meningitis a month ago. The extended battle to save his life had been an emotional one. He had lost that battle at five this morning; Alex had held the hands of his parents until he passed away, well aware of the privilege of being with people in their private moments. She knew supporting them in their grief fulfilled her calling more than any of the other jobs she did. Although certain of God she felt inadequate, never had the right words, but still her presence was important. She held their hands, took the brunt of their anger, shouldered their sorrow, and prayed their prayers, then came away knowing she carried a small part of their grief and knew she was in the right place. Just as often, she shared the best moments of people’s lives, their joy, and celebration, and to see their prayers answered.
‘It’s the public parts of church ministry that are difficult,’ she thought, returning to the kitchen for some biscuits.
That was why running her own parish, doing everything they needed herself proved too much. The congregation expected her to meet, using magic if necessary, all of their various wants and needs.
She still struggled with some things, preaching for example. Mike, the curate at Saint Stephen’s, who seemed to do everything well, said he “tuned into the holy spirit” and didn’t need to prepare at all. Whereas Alex was often sick before she led a service; her hands shook as she distributed the Eucharist. PCC meetings gave her hives, and she found Deanery Synod meetings as dry as the Atacama Desert, but with less life. Many of her colleagues loved the showmanship of the upfront parts of church ministry. Alex an introvert wondered if she was a fraud, a misfit who should do something else, and it spoilt her enjoyment.
An hour later, a half-full mug of lukewarm tea still in her hand, the ringing phone woke her with a start. It was John, her boss, and rector of Saint Stephen’s.
“Was it a terrible night? I heard the news about James from the hospital.”
“The worst,” she replied, already fighting tears.
“I’m going to the hospital myself once they have done the official paperwork, they are expecting me at about eleven. Do you want to talk, or sleep?”
“I’m coming to the staff meeting.” Alex decided as she spoke. “I’d rather the staff heard the story firsthand before the rumour mill gets going.” The church, like any other community, thrived on gossip.
“It’s true, it’s bound to be rough.” The hesitation in John’s voice suggested he wanted to spare her the staff meeting. But he knew her reasons for going were sound.
“I’m already here, so I’ll get Giles to pick you up in ten minutes. That will give me a chance to make coffee for everyone. I’ll drop you back home on my way to the hospital, that way no one can button-hole you after the meeting.”
“Thank you so much, John.” Alex knew she was lucky to have such a thoughtful boss.
Ten minutes wasn’t enough time for a shower or to get changed, but she washed her face and cleaned her teeth. Her cropped hair needed very little attention. She was still wearing her clericals, which made her uncomfortable. She was a Jeans and t-shirt person given a choice, uncomfortable in formal clothes. Even though she chose pretty coloured shirts to go with her dog collar, they still felt starchy. The few minutes sleep she managed would suffice for a couple of hours, soon she would be home in bed.
Alex dreaded staff meetings. They were always a bit testosterone-fuelled and competitive. Big evangelical churches attract big personalities, type A people who love being in charge. Often staff who had held management jobs in a previous life kept a corporate attitude to church life. They transferred their skills and expectations to managing the congregation and staff.
Alex was the newest member, having been in this job since Christmas. Before her ordination as a freelance travel writer, she didn’t go to business meetings. All her management and ministry experience came from her previous churches; both smaller; and neither with a staff team.
She liked everyone, but the challenge was holding her own as part of the group. The meetings discouraged her, however determined she was to enjoy them. Sometimes she failed to get her point across, sometimes she lost out jostling for a position in the pecking order.
The staff at Saint Stephen’s was big because the congregation was big and growing. Youth workers and children’s workers enabled the church to keep its family-friendly atmosphere. Admin staff meant the clergy were better able to deal with more spiritual matters. The building was a hub of community activity.
In charge of everything was the reverend John Jeffrey. An experienced priest who had served Saint Stephen’s for twenty years. One reason Alex took this job was because she admired John’s wisdom and gentle leadership style.
In control of the office was Judy Fulshaw. The administrator. An older single lady, encased in tweed and an excellent administrator. She had rebuffed Alex’s attempts at friendship so far, and that too had dented her confidence.
They held the staff meetings on a Monday morning, but today her tiredness outweighed her fears. ‘I’ll tell everyone the sad news that little James has died, persuade Judy to cancel my appointments, and come home to bed,’ she thought, as she put on her jacket.
The meeting didn’t happen. Judy was waiting for them on the church steps, walking backwards and forwards and peering into the car park.
“Someone has broken in,” Judy pointed at the broken window.
The town and the diocese built the church in the 1970s to replace the one that was now under the ring road. It had glass doors leading to a spacious lobby before you reached the sanctuary itself. Very modern at the time and too showy to be practical.
“Are the doors open, Judy?” asked Alex.
The sanctuary was also typical of the era. It was almost circular with a small chapel, choir vestry, and vicars vestry cutting into one side. A row of modern-art-style stained glass windows, set at different angles on the other.
“The sanctuary doors are open, Judy, have you been in’?” asked Alex, looking toward the altar.
The front had a raised altar area, the organ, and space for a music group. They had partitioned part of the back for a sound desk, modern lighting, and electrical equipment. There was seating for six hundred people with stacked folding chairs for another hundred.
“Nn…no, I’ve done nothing,” Judy said, far from her normal brisk self.
“Has anyone phoned the police?” asked Giles, striding forward. “We had better check the damage and see what’s missing.”
Giles was the building manager. He was an aerospace engineer, who had held a senior management position for a well-known company until he retired. He now worked part time for Saint Stephen’s, overseeing the church building itself, the staff housing, and much of the financial accounting.
“I haven’t called the police yet, I was waiting for you.” replied Judy.
Giles took command and was already heading for the front of the church. “I’ll do it,” he said, phone in hand.
Judy followed him in to check the sound desk and then the altar area. Giles went to check the vestry and band area, where they kept the safe and any other valuables. Alex stayed in the lobby to prevent anyone else from entering before the police arrived.
Gazing around the lobby, something seemed wrong. She had no experience of break-ins and didn’t know what was normal, so she wasn’t sure what bothered her. She looked at the lobby and the broken window again. There was loose glass on all four sides of the frame.
‘A thief would knock it out, either first, to prevent cuts, or in climbing through,’ she thought to herself. She took a quick photo on her phone. She also took photos of the glass on the lobby floor and on the step outside. Something about that also disturbed her. The pattern didn’t seem right.
A piercing scream interrupted her. She rushed down the central isle to the front of the altar area where Judy was standing. There on the floor, sprawled halfway up the altar steps, was John. Blood covered the polished wood around his head and dripped from the top step. There was no movement. The sight had frozen Judy on the spot. Alex pushed past to check for a pulse and found none. John’s body felt warm to the touch, but it was cooling and the blood was clotting. She placed her fingers on his neck to be sure, but there was nothing. She collapsed backwards away from the body, overwhelmed with emotion.
Giles re-emerged from the vestry, separated from the church itself by a bathroom and a set of cupboards. The cupboards were full of unused vestments and church linen, which had deadened the sound from the church, and Judy’s scream.
“The police will be an hour, we need to close the building.” he said, stopping short when he saw the women.
Alex looked up. “Ring them and for an ask ambulance, no hurry. I’m certain it’s too late.” She sat on the steps next to John, not wanting to leave him alone.
‘No one should die alone,’ she thought.
“Yes, I’ll do that.” Giles, white faced and hands shaking, dialled 999. This time, the operator told him that the squad car and ambulance were coming. They needed to clear the area and ensure that no one else could get close. He took Alex’s arm.
“Come on. Let’s return to the lobby,” he said, moving her.
“I don’t think he wants to be alone,”
“I don’t think he is alone anymore, Alex. He’s gone somewhere better, don’t you think?”
She nodded and stood up.
Judy hadn’t moved or spoken and her expression was unreadable, but she followed them to the lobby when Giles told her to.
They arrived at the door in time to admit police and the ambulance crew, who arrived shortly after.
Alex had recovered her composure by the time they reached the door. Other staff, the caretaker, and a member of the congregation were arriving.
“I’ll tell them to go home,” said Giles.
“No,” said Alex. “The next few days will be tough enough, let’s ask for help.”
Judy was shaking. Alex put a hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t know about John,” she said.
“Of course not, how could you?”
Alex turned to Giles.
“If we can, we’ll gather everyone in the church hall and give them a job to do. We must prepare ourselves for when people hear the news.” Turning to Judy, “Please can you check the office and the church hall, use the side door, not the lobby. There might be evidence, so be careful not to touch.” Alex smiled and nodded.
Judy returned with the news that the church hall and the office appeared to be OK.
Alex turned to the police officers and held out her hand.
“Alex Whittaker,” The officer took her hand.
“Officers Dickens and Wright, Reverend Whittaker. Inspector Portman is on his way.” He showed which of them was which.
“Would it be OK for the staff to wait in the church hall? It’s separate. The thieves didn’t break into the hall, the door is locked. They can use the side door to keep the lobby clear.”
The two police constables shared a glance.
“I’ll go with them,” said Constable Wright. “The inspector will want us to keep everyone together. Who has the keys?” She asked, holding out her hand, her tone brooking no argument. Judy produced the keys and handed them over.
In the meantime, Giles had directed the ambulance staff to where John lay. They had confirmed his death and were waiting for the police inspector and surgeon.
Alex was alone again.