Rainbows in the Spray

There were rainbows in the spray behind the boat, and crystals shimmered in the folds of the waves….

She had wanted to come, insisted really. He had let her – a silent nod, a look of resigned understanding. So now she stood beside him, as he navigated the route, cutting the motor when they reached the spot. The exact spot. Or so they said.

When the anchor was dropped, the four men stood. Black clad aliens, elongated feet, masked faces. They dropped, backwards. A ripple, a cloud of bubbles, then gone. Down to the other world. Below the velvet canopy so keen to cover them, to hide them from view. Unseen, they searched, while she stood on the little deck, waited, did not talk.

She watched the gulls, intent on their own search. Saw fish, glisten silver as they flashed away. Watched planes overhead drawing white zippers across blue sky. Saw yachts, lined like white sandwich triangles along the horizon. Listened to the water lapping against the boat.

Eventually, they returned, rising like black seals that morphed into men as they climbed aboard. Shaken heads, quiet voices, no more time. The boat turned back to shore, laying the white lace carpet behind them, showing where they had been. Where they were leaving. They would return again tomorrow, and for as many tomorrows as it took. Until they found him. But it would not be today.

She stood, held against the horizon, a figurehead of stone. Tears, soft and salty, mingled with the spray on her cheeks. And she noticed, saw the despair and the beauty, in it all. Beauty in a sad world – or was it, she wondered, sadness in a beautiful one? They were entangled, mingled, fused by weariness.

But there were rainbows in the spray behind the boat. And crystals shimmered, in the folds of the waves…..

xxx

anneethompson.com

Re-posted for Easter: A Sword Pierced Heart

I watched my son die today. My beautiful boy, beaten, battered and left to die. And my heart broke. I held my cloak close and I remembered the weight of him as a babe, like a boulder on my hip, wriggling to be free, to run and jump and climb. Those legs will run no more. Those limbs – I was so proud when they grew. I remember when he grew as tall as me, then taller even than Joseph. I remember watching him, stretched out as he ate, those long limbs seemed to go on forever. “I grew him,” I used to think with pride. Those limbs will not sprawl relaxed in my home ever again.

I watched his hands, the hands that used to pat me cheekily on the head when he’d grown tall. Those strong hands which laboured with wood, which helped me carry heavy loads, which lifted young children playfully. They are no longer strong. I saw them bang nails through the flesh, felt that I heard the sound of bone shattering over the thump of the hammer, heard his ragged breath as they forced the cross upright. And I wondered if I too might die. But I watched. I am his mother and I would not leave him alone.

When they tried to take me home, when they told me to shield my eyes, avert my gaze, I did not. For he was my son. I would never leave him alone, not at such an anguished hour of need. Others watched. Some women were there, terrified and hanging back. Not me, I am his mother. I stood with John, where he could see me. What could they do to me that was worse than this?

Others watched who hated him. They mocked and spat and called abuse. It could not hurt him now, I thought, let them shout. “He trusts in God,” they called, “Let God save him now,” and they laughed, even as he died they laughed. Yet even God deserted him by the end and that was hardest to bear. He called out with a loud shout, asking why God had turned from him.
“My God,” he called in anguish, “why have you forsaken me?”
But I was there. I did not leave. I saw them crucify him, naked upon a cross. No mother wants to see her grown son naked, but still I did not look away. I was there at the beginning, I would stay with him until the end.

The soldiers took his clothes, for fabric is costly and even that of a criminal should not go to waste. Most they tore and shared between them, but not his tunic. They cast lots for that, not wanting to spoil something precious. Yet my son was precious and they destroyed him.

It began last night. They woke me from my sleep and warned me there was trouble. He had been arrested, taken from a meal with his friends and questioned by the temple authorities. They feared the invaders, so he was then referred to a court of Godless law, a place that feared no God. They told me that he was scourged, beaten with whips that removed chunks of flesh as they struck. He was mocked and abused, then brought to this place.

I came, stumbling through streets full of people, full of noise and smells and fear and hatred. I came to this place, this Godforsaken hill beyond the city wall and I saw my son, my boy, diminished, shrunken somehow. I saw that what they had told me was true, smelt the repugnant stink of excrement mingle with the metallic stench of blood. I heard the shouts of abuse, the curses of the guards, the screams from the prisoners, the wails from friends. And him, like an oasis of calm amidst the turmoil, suffering but at peace.
And he saw me. Those dark eyes that as a baby had watched me intently when he fed. Those eyes that twinkled merrily when he teased me and became serious when he wanted to explain something important. Those eyes, red rimmed with exhaustion now, turned to me. Even hanging there, with parched mouth and dried lips, he spoke to me. His voice was hoarse, for he had refused the wine they offered, but I heard him well. A mother knows her child’s voice. I stood with John and my son told me that this was to be my son now and he was to care for me as a mother. Even in his torment he cared for me, fulfilled his duty as my son. Still I would not leave.

Then it ended. The sky had turned as black as my world and he drew his last breath. It was finished.
Those who had mocked became silent, some cried, some beat their breasts in despair. The blackness of the sky frightened them and many fled, wondering at what they had done.
Then I left, I let them lead me away. My soul was broken and my heart beat even though I bid it stop. My boy was gone, my firstborn, special baby, was no more. I carried that knowledge like a rock within me, I would have rather died in his place. How can I live, continue with my life knowing he is gone? There would be no more sunshine or laughter, nothing matters now. The core of me was gone. I could not even cry.

Afterwards, I could not rest and I heard strange stories. They said the soldiers pierced his side, to check there was no life in him. His blood had separated so they took him down, a solid corpse that had no life.
A man came and took the body, they said they followed and knew where he lay, in a tomb that was guarded. They told me of strange things, of the temple curtain torn in two, of dead men walking and boulders breaking open. I do not know. I only know my boy is gone. That is all that matters.
It should not have been like this. It was so recently that people praised his name, sang and danced before him, treated him like a king. It should not have ended like this.

And yet, I recall a song, it comes persistently to mind, sung often in the synagogue. It speaks of one forsaken by God in his time of need, scorned by many. He belonged to God from before he was born, then suffered at the hands of many. They sung of bones poured out like water, a heart of melted wax, that is how my boy would have felt. They sung of hands and feet pierced like his and enemies gloating over him. They sang of lots being cast for clothing and of God’s ultimate victory. They sung of remembering him for ever, not just now but families of every nation, even those presently unborn. For he has done it.
Is this my son’s song? Were the words written for him? He spoke of his death often, he tried to warn me that he would die. But not like this, not before my own time has come. No mother should bury her child, it goes against what is natural and right. Though, he showed no fear, he knew what his end would be. And he told me there was more.

As I turn now to sleep, I wonder at his words. Will he truly return somehow and will I know?

Has he finished what he was sent to do?

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If Mary was a young teenager when she learned she was pregnant (which would fit with the age girl’s became betrothed in those days) then when Jesus died aged thirty-three, she would have been about forty-seven. How does a woman of that age cope with the things she was forced to witness and how much would she have understood at the time? I am about her age, I have sons, contemplating their dying is too horrible for words. I am sure she loved her boy as much as we love ours.

Crucifixion was a ghastly way to die. We learn in the Bible that Jesus, who never sinned, who never did anything wrong, died to save the world. What does that mean? You can learn more at:https://anneethompson.com/how-to/378-2/

However, many people were crucified, some probably unjustly accused. So is it the death that was important or was it that God became separate? I think that this is the key issue here, the part of Jesus that was God left him. That was more terrible than crucifixion. That is what each of us deserves and what we do not have to suffer if we choose to come to God.
If we want to know God, we can, even if that means changing our minds. You may not believe in God but God believes in you.

The song which Mary recalled in the story was Psalm 22. It has some striking similarities to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was written about one thousand years before the event. (wow)
It begins: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It finishes: “…..future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn- for he has done it.”

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Thank you for reading.

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anneethompson.com

One of those days…..

The alarm screamed in her ear and she reached out a tired hand to bang the top. Silence. One eye opened. 7:30am. Eye shut. Two minutes of pure warm comfort, then heave back the covers, legs swung out, slippers on, day started.

Jayne didn’t like mornings. Nor did she like people who spoke during them. She wasn’t quite sure how she had managed to be married to someone who woke up cheerful and noisy. Sometimes, she wondered if she wanted to remain married, and how long the prison sentence would be for murder with intent. Steve was already getting dressed, having leaped from the bed with enthusiasm.

“Morning, my sleepy-headed vision of desire. How was your night?”

Jayne did not see the need to discuss the night. Nights were all the same. At least, they were now the children were old enough to realise she was scarier than any monster that might have crawled under their beds. Nights were for sleeping. And they were too short. They did not need discussing first thing every morning. She grunted.

“That good huh?” said Steve, undeterred. “So, what do you have planned for today?”

He always asked this. Much as Jayne hated waking up, she hated planning even more. Every morning, without fail, he asked what she planned to do. She didn’t want to think about what she planned to do. She wanted to drink tea and wake up slowly and then, when her body had adjusted to being awake, then she might let her mind think about what had to be done. She might look in the diary. She might, a little, plan. But not now. Never now. So why did he ask? She scowled at him and locked the bathroom door. On the other side, she could hear him whistling. The radio was turned on, and there were sounds of a child arriving. Happy conversation drifted through the door, until she blocked them out with the shower.

8am. Jayne emerged from the bathroom in time to kiss Steve goodbye. He was warm and smelt of toothpaste and deodorant. She smiled at him. She loved him more when he was leaving. She checked both children were dressing, and went downstairs to let Max into the garden and to pull boxes of cereal onto the table.

8.10am. Christopher arrived in the kitchen.
“You can’t wear red socks to school,” she told him.
“Can I have cocoa pops?” he said.
“Did you hear me?” said Jayne, pouring cereal. “You can’t wear red socks to school.”
Abigail arrived and slid next to Christopher. She reached for the cocoa pops and poured the last dregs into her bowl.
“Did you know the cat’s been sick?” she said.
Jayne didn’t know. Nor did she especially want to know. Now that she did know, she needed to do something about it. She left the table and found a cloth and spray and went to clean up the mess, just as the phone rang. She stood for two seconds, hoping it would stop ringing. It didn’t, so she put the cloth and spray on the floor and went to answer the telephone. It was Steve.
“Hello, Love of my life.”
“I’m late. What’s the matter?”
“Could you do me a huge favour? Sorry to be a pain.”
“If you tell me quickly. The cat’s been sick and we’re going to be late for school.”
“Right, sorry about that. Well, I left the passport application on the hall table, and it needs to be posted today or they might not be back in time for the holiday, what with the Christmas break and everything. Could you post them after you’ve done the school run? I’d like them to catch the first post if possible.”
Jayne glanced at the clock. 8.25 already. She wasn’t sure they would catch the first post anyway, but she agreed to try, and rang off. Christopher had spilt milk all over his jumper. Abigail had disappeared.
“Abigail, five minutes, then in the car,” she shouted towards the doorway. No answer, of course, though that did not mean Abigail hadn’t heard. Twelve year old girls took their power where they could get it.

She grabbed a cloth and began to wipe Christopher’s jumper. He wriggled, knocked her arm, which caught the box of Shreddies and sent them cascading across the floor towards where the abandoned cat sick cleaning equipment was waiting.
“Chris! I do not have time for this,” said Jayne, tension rising.
Christopher wriggled free and made for the stairs while she rummaged under the sink for the dustpan and brush. She was on her hands and knees when Abigail came back into the kitchen.
“I thought you said five minutes?” said Abigail, “And the cat sick is still there.”
“Yes, thanks for that,” said Jayne. “Perhaps you could start to get your brother into the car?”

8.35am. The cat sick had been cleaned up, the Shreddies swept into the bin, the children were belted in the car. Jayne grabbed her handbag, checked for her house keys and – stopped. Her house keys were missing. She glanced at the clock, 8.36. A slow tide of despair started to wash over her. They were never going to make it on time to school. Which meant she would for sure miss the post with the passports. And her whole day would be messed up.

She began to try to remember where her keys could be. They were always in her bag, she never moved them. Her brow creased as she tried to remember. Yesterday, what had she done yesterday? They had come home from school, she had opened the front door, put her keys back in her bag. In the evening, she had popped next door with a wrongly delivered letter for Mrs Cartwright. Had she taken her keys? Perhaps she had. She had worn her blue jacket.

Racing up the stairs, two at a time, she rushed to her room, flung open the wardrobe, rummaged through the clothes. Some fell from their hangers in protest but she left them where they lay, grabbed the blue jacket. One pocket was empty, the second one was heavy. Her keys. She pulled them out, nearly tripped on the clothes that now littered the floor, charged out the room, down the stairs, scooped up her bag and the passport letter, slammed the door shut behind her. It was very cold, and her breath came in smokey puffs as she hurried to the car. Both children were huddled in the back, their cheeks pink in the cold.

She caught a glimpse of red socks in the back as she got into the car. Too late now. Jayne put the key in the ignition, started the engine, then thumped the steering wheel. A van was reversing into the drive, the bright slogan of Parcelforce cheerfully emblazoned on the side. It was reversing very slowly. This happened sometimes, when Steve needed some papers delivered from work. Usually he warned her, but sometimes he forgot. Jayne sighed. They would need signing for. There was no way she could drive past the van in the driveway, and a conversation explaining she was late would probably take longer than just signing.
The driver was sorting through the paperwork as Jayne approached. He looked up and smiled through his window.

“Hello, do you have a delivery for me?” she asked, knowing the answer was obvious.
“Yes. I’m just finding the paperwork….”
“I’m in bit of a hurry, if I could just sign quickly?”
“Sure, no problem.” He oozed his belly passed the steering wheel and slid from his cab at the speed of a sloth. He walked to the back of the cab as if someone had pressed the slow motion button on a film recording. Jayne found she was tapping. Soon she would start to twitch.
“Ooops, need the keys,” he said with a smile.
Jayne didn’t slap him.
The driver sauntered back to the cab, reached inside, removed his keys from the ignition, returned to the back.
Jayne unclenched her teeth.
There was then a thorough sort through the contents of the back of the van. Parcels were moved, over-sized letters carefully placed back in crates, boxes pushed from one side to the other. At last he straightened, white package in hand.
“Here’s the one,” he said with a grin. He picked up his scanner and zapped the barcode. He tapped in some details, then asked Jayne her name. She signed an unrecognisable squiggle on the handheld device, and moved back towards her car.
Throwing the package on the seat next to her, Jayne started the engine once more.
“What was it?” asked Abigail.
“I don’t know, something for your father,” said Jayne. “Is this man going to move now? What’s he doing? Oh, I don’t believe it, he’s sorting out his delivery for the next place. Come on man, hurry up.”

She decided using the horn was too rude, and watched in agony as he closed the rear doors. Checked them. Adjusted his trousers over his belly. Walked, slowly, back to his cab. Used both hands to heave his bulk into the driver’s seat. Closed the door, but not properly. Opened the door, and closed it with a slam. Fiddled with the keys. Started the engine. At last, with a sigh of despair, the van began to inch down the driveway with Jayne close on its tail. She felt close to screaming.

They turned out of the driveway and drove at speed towards the junction. The road was white with frost, so she adjusted her speed, just in case. She didn’t want to skid.

Christopher was telling her about their class assembly. He was a frog and needed to wear a green jumper. Did he own a green jumper? Could they buy one? He began to sing the songs, slightly out of tune and with substituted words when he couldn’t remember the correct ones. Abigail sighed loudly and looked out the window. Jayne avoided the old lady crossing at the junction and drove as fast as she dared towards the roundabout. They were so late. Not that this meant the traffic had eased at all, they were now meeting all the cars leaving the schools.

At 9.20, both children were safely in school and Jayne was driving towards town. The car park nearest the post office filled up quickly in the mornings, but if she was quick, she might be lucky. She wasn’t, of course, it was that sort of day. As she drove along the High Street a lorry reversed from a turning, blocking the road. Its lights flashed and an automatic voice droned a warning while Jayne watched in frustration. There was no room to pass and she sat there, in an ever-growing queue of traffic, while the lorry manoeuvred onto the main street, turned, and chugged up the road.

She arrived at the car park just behind a white Ford Fiesta. Jayne could see curly grey hair behind the wheel, and knew this was going to be slow. She followed the car around the car park. It braked heavily at every corner, before indicating first one way, then the other, when it spotted a vacant space. The driver reversed slightly, turned towards the space, stopped, reversed again, made another approach. Jayne considered offering to help. Eventually it was safely in the space and she could continue to circle the now full car park. By the time she had driven to park in a side road, Jayne knew there was no way she was going to make the first post. She walked to the post office and stood in line, waiting to buy a stamp.

While she was waiting, Jayne pulled out her phone and scrolled through her diary. Tuesday, 9.30am, Me = dentist. She stared. How could she have forgotten? She checked the date on the calendar on the post office wall. Yep, today, half an hour ago. No way she would make that now. She found their number and phoned to apologise. Which meant she was still talking on the phone when she reached the front of the queue. Which meant she was juggling phone and bag and letter and purse as she bought the stamp. Which meant she didn’t notice the £20 that floated from her purse and into a corner of her bag.

As Jayne left the post office, she caught sight of Nicola. She hadn’t seen her for ages. She wasn’t feeling particularly sociable, but Nicola was already raising her arm and hurrying over.
“Hello Jayne, how are you? Haven’t seen you in ages!”

They stood for a moment and smiled, gave brief snippets of news, asked how the other was feeling. They didn’t really exchange any meaningful information, but they were friendly and cheerful and agreed to meet ‘another day’ for coffee. It was unlikely they ever would, which both women were aware of, but that’s what people said to each other. That was what was expected.

As soon as Jayne felt she could look at her watch without being rude, she exclaimed at the time and said she had “better be getting on.” The two women smiled, said their goodbyes and separated. As she hurried towards the supermarket, pulling out her shopping list, Jayne failed to notice the twenty pound note, which drifted from her bag and blew into a corner, underneath the bench next to the bus-stop.

The rest of Jayne’s day was taken up with shopping, cleaning, walking the dog. She collected the children from school and fed them solid fish fingers and baked beans, then bathed Christopher and helped Abigail with her homework.

By the time Steve came home, she was tired. He pushed his dinner around his plate and drank beer and told her about his day. Then they sat, side by side on the sofa. Steve put his arm around her, and she could feel the warmth of him through her sweater. She leant in close, glad her day was over, happy to have someone to tell. She told him her day had been awful, everything had gone wrong. Now she came to tell him about it, actually, only a few things in the morning had not gone to plan. But it had put the whole day off kilter. She felt as if the whole day had been a disaster. And she was tired. She didn’t mention the lost £20. He didn’t need to know about that, and she didn’t need the lecture.

After watching a boring documentary about animals, with Steve saying, “Wow, look at that Jayne,” every few minutes so she didn’t feel she could suggest they could turn to a different channel, Jayne decided she had had enough of the day.

She leant over and kissed his cheek, rough now with new stubble, and said she was having a bath and an early night.
As she poured pink liquid into the running water, watching bubbles foam beneath the tap, Jayne thought some more about her day. It hadn’t been too bad, she decided, peeling off her clothes and balancing them on the stool next to the heater. She slid under the water, her muscles relaxing as the hot water lapped over her. No, after the morning, it hadn’t been too bad. Mainly just boring, with too many jobs.

She rubbed herself with the towel. The morning had been tough though, all those things going wrong, one after the other. It was weird how some days were like that. She pulled on her pyjamas and went to bed. She could, she decided, understand how some people believed in their horoscopes, could understand why it seemed that life was fated, predestined by the position of the planets or something.

Jayne didn’t believe that. She believed in God, and that life was controlled by him, but she could, after a morning like today, definitely see other people’s point of view.

She leant back on the pillows and reached for her Bible. She read her Bible every night, a pre-going-to-sleep ritual left over from her childhood. She wasn’t sure what it achieved really, but it was what she did. She prayed too, and she wasn’t entirely sure, if she was honest, what that achieved either. But she liked to do it. She liked thinking that she was part of something bigger than herself, that perhaps in some way, God might decide to use her, that her life counted for more than just cat sick cleaning and school runs.
She thought about her day as she prayed, about all the things that had gone wrong during the morning.

“I’m not sure what all that was about God,” she said, “perhaps tomorrow could be a bit better please.”
Then she prayed. She told God all about the things she was worried about, asked him to keep her family safe and well, asked him to show her how she should be living, asked for a bit more leisure time with Steve. Then she finished, as she always did, “But not my will, but yours. Amen.” Because that was what she had been taught to pray. And because, if she thought about it (which she never did) she really did want God to be in charge. She really did believe he knew best. Even if this morning had been one disaster after the other…

Jayne turned off the light and snuggled into the pillows. She knew she had about half an hour before Steve came crashing into the room, rattling the change in his pocket, stomping across the carpet and asking if she was awake. Men were noisy. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.

Nicola was going to sleep too. She had enjoyed seeing Jayne, it had cheered her up. Nicola was struggling a bit at the moment, her life seemed a bit bleak and pointless. She thought back over their brief conversation, about how nice it had been, being with someone her own age for a moment. She had first met Jayne at church, but Nicola hadn’t attended the Sunday service for months now. The weeks just seemed too busy. Perhaps she should give it another try, she thought. Perhaps it was time to get sorted out, and hearing about God might help with that. It would give her something other than the family to think about anyway. For the first time in weeks, she was smiling when she went to sleep.

A woman called Lisa was not asleep however. She was on a bus, heading home. Lisa lived alone. One day, she would be a care worker and help to ease the last moments for many old people. But she didn’t know that yet. At the moment, she worked in a pub. She had left work late, only to find her purse had been stolen. She had no way to get home, there was no one to phone and ask for a lift, no way to pay for a taxi. She had started to walk home, back to her bedsit on the other side of town.

Another thing that Lisa didn’t know was that approaching her from the other side of town was Tony. Tony was an addict, in dire need of a fix and had no way to pay for it. His eyes were bouncing erratically from shop to road to tree. He was looking for a person who might have some money, someone who might provide a means to stop his discomfort. In his pocket was a knife, and he was feeling desperate enough to use it. As Lisa walked towards the post office from one direction, Tony was approaching from the other. As yet, they were a distance apart, they couldn’t even see each other. But in ten minutes, they would meet. It was unlikely that Lisa would survive the encounter.

However, they didn’t meet. As Lisa passed the post office, she noticed something flapping under the bench next to the post office. It was a twenty pound note. She picked it up and looked around. No one was around, and there were no nearby houses. She decided it was now hers. As she stood there, deciding, the bus swung round the corner. The yellow lights shone through the night, and Lisa thought about how tired she was and how much she wanted to be home. She stuck out her hand, climbed aboard, and used the £20 to pay for her fare. By the time Tony arrived at the post office, Lisa was safely gone.

Someone else who was not asleep was Mike. Mike couldn’t sleep because his face hurt. He had slipped that morning on the ice, and fallen, smack, right on his face. It was a hard fall, and had bruised his nose and blackened one eye and knocked out his front teeth. His tongue was feeling those teeth now, sore in his swollen gums, but replaced. They had been replaced by the local dentist. Mike had been driven there by his Mum, and luckily, there had been a cancellation and Mike had been ushered straight in to see the dentist. The dentist had put his teeth back, told him that they might survive the knock, that Mike was very lucky. He didn’t feel lucky. He felt bruised and sore. But he did hope he could keep his teeth.

One person who was neither asleep nor awake was Judith. Judith had died at 11am that morning. It was very unexpected, she had hardly felt ill, just a trace of indigestion after breakfast, a bit off-colour. In fact, she had even gone out that morning, driving herself into town. She had left home later than she’d planned, which meant she had not managed to reach the town car park before all the mothers arrived after the school drop off. As she had turned her white Fiesta into the car park, she had been sure, in fact, that there would be no spaces left.

But she had been very fortunate, and had taken what might have been the last vacant spot that morning. This meant she only had a very short walk to the shops, and had bought her milk and returned to the car in less than ten minutes. She then drove home again, arriving in her driveway at soon after 10am.

At which point, just as she swivelled around to position her car outside her front door, she had a massive heart attack. The car shot back, crashing into her front door. A neighbour heard the noise and rushed over. They saw what had happened and phoned for an ambulance, which arrived in good time but too late for Judith. It was time for Judith to die.

However, had she not found that parking space, she would have been forced to park in the road and then walk to the shop. This would have tired her. Not enough to start the heart attack while she was shopping, but enough for it to happen while she was driving. With the delay due to street parking and walking, Judith would have been passing the infant school at 10am. Which is exactly the time that Miss Mott was leaving the school, to walk her class to the church to practise for the carol concert. Had Judith been passing at that time, the time when her poor heart caused massive pain and her arm to lock in agony, she would have mounted the path where the children were walking.

Tommy and Clara and Samantha were currently asleep in their beds at home. Had Judith not found that last parking space, they would be lying in the morgue, while six of their friends would be lying injured in the hospital. But they weren’t. They were safe.

Of course, Jayne, as she lay sleeping in her own bed, did not know this. Nor did she know that had her morning gone completely to plan, her own children would also be in hospital.

At 8.55 that morning, Miles Brown had driven down his steep driveway rather too quickly. As he arrived at the junction with the main road, his heavy 4×4 skidded on the ice, causing him to lurch into the road without looking. But no one was there, because Jayne was delayed by the fat delivery man. So no one was hurt, and when Jayne did pass that spot, exactly 7 minutes later, Miles Brown was well on his way to work. So she delivered her children to school and then waited behind the reversing lorry, which delayed the car immediately behind her, which meant that Judith found a vacant parking space.

However, no one knew anything about anyone else. Everyone lived their own lives.

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The following morning, when Jayne woke to the alarm and hurried to the bathroom to avoid her cheerful husband, she sorely hoped her day would be better than yesterday. She also remembered her prayer. She didn’t know why she prayed every night really, though she liked to try to include God, just a little bit, in her daily life. And you never knew, did you? Perhaps one day she would be part of his plan, part of something bigger than herself. Even if, she thought, as she stepped into the shower, even if, it had never happened yet.

The End.

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anneethompson.com

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An Extract From ‘Hidden Faces’ (because it’s Christmas….)

The parents were all seated on blue plastic seats, which had been designed for infants. They were much too small to be comfortable, and had been squashed together in an attempt to fit as many parents as possible into the school hall. Now they sat, perched uncomfortably, touching shoulders with people on either side. Some of them looked rather red faced and sweaty as they wore winter coats and the hall was hot.

‘They were told,’ thought Cynthia Mott, ‘to kindly leave their coats in their cars.’ She sighed, they never listened.

Andrew Smyth and Cherry Class had not yet arrived. This was intensely irritating. There was a lot about Mr Smyth that Cynthia found irritating. He was the newly qualified teacher and she was his mentor. It was not a role she enjoyed. He didn’t seem to value neatness or record keeping. Nor did he seem capable of keeping his classes calm and disciplined, which surely was the most important role for a teacher.

Cynthia had known it was going to be difficult when he first showed her his plans for his history lessons. He had decided they were going to focus on the burnings of martyrs during the reign of Henry VIII. He had enthusiastic plans for a large wall display, with tissue paper flames, and showers of gold stars, showing how packets of gun powder, tied to the martyr’s necks, had exploded their heads. It would have been a visual feast, and would no doubt have scarred Cherry Class for life.

Now he was late for the nativity performance. It had been agreed that her class would arrive last, so that the youngest children would have less time to sit before the play began. Mr Smyth taught Year One, so he should have been waiting. Cynthia heard a noise at the door and turned.

Cherry Class stumbled into the hall. Some were not properly dressed and had their costumes draped across their shoulders where they had neglected to fasten the back. Behind them was Mr Smyth. He entered the hall smiling widely, with his shirt untucked at the back. He led his shambolic class to their assigned seating area, tripping over a mother’s legs on his way to his own chair.

Esther Pritchard raised both her hands and eyebrows, then began to play the opening notes on the piano while the children scrambled to their feet. They were mostly all standing in time for the first word. The nativity play had begun.

Miss Mott faced the children, mouthing the words with an exaggerated smile in the hope they would copy her expression. Most of them were looking at the floor of course, or scouring the audience for their parents. Nigel Stott stopped singing to nudge the child next to him, pointing out his mother, who waved back at him.

‘Silly woman,’ thought Miss Mott. She glared at Nigel, who turned red under her gaze, straightened his back and tried to sing with the rest of his class. He joined in loudly but singing the wrong verse. The boy next to him giggled until he too caught Miss Mott’s eye. She looked at the children.

Angel Gabriel was being glared at by Mary, who had a red mark on one arm. Cynthia guessed there had been an argument. It looked as if Mary had been crying and she kept rubbing her arm as though to make a point. Angel Gabriel was grinning triumphantly.

Joseph’s headdress was too large and kept slipping over his eyes. Rather than push it back, he was tilting his head backwards and peering at the audience from under its rim.

One of the shepherds had a cold and no handkerchief. Every time his nose ran, he surreptitiously picked up the fluffy toy lamb, wiped his nose on it, lowered it again. The fluff tickled his nose and nearly made him sneeze. Miss Mott frowned her disapproval and he slowly, slowly, inch by inch, placed the lamb back on the floor.

One of the kings had been ill all week but had returned to school so he didn’t miss the play. He looked decidedly green. Cynthia wondered at the logic behind sending an obviously ill child into school. He appeared sadly uncomfortable. Her only hope was that all the other children would catch it during the holidays and not have to miss school. It was always tiresome to have children absent when you were attempting to teach.

A small girl crawled towards Cynthia and tugged her skirt.
‘I need to go to the toilet,’ she whispered loudly.

‘Can you wait? We did all go to the toilet before we came in,’ she reminded her. The child nodded uncertainly and crawled back to her place, stepping on fingers as she went, receiving scowls and dark sighs. The children glanced at Miss Mott to ensure that she had noticed.
Cynthia  forced herself to focus on the play. She looked around the hall.

Esther Pritchard was avidly following the script from her piano seat. Everything about Esther Pritchard was avid. Her fair hair refused to sit neatly and sprung around her face like a wiry bird’s nest. Her eyes bulged slightly and her mouth was always smiling. She was one of those nice people who Miss Mott found thoroughly irritating. She never swore, never gossiped and always spoke softly. She was married to the minister of the local chapel and this also irritated Cynthia. She should not be earning money and having a separate career. Cynthia was well qualified in this area as her own father had been a vicar.

Next she looked at Jane Lancaster. She was the head teacher and had worn a suit for the occasion. She had not introduced the play, such a shame. Cynthia hoped she would give a short speech at the end. Standards needed to be upheld. Jane Lancaster was a naturally shy person and whilst she was competent when making policy decisions and organising the curriculum, she did tend to avoid confrontation and disliked public speaking. Cynthia considered this to be a failing.

The children were again struggling to stand as the piano played the introduction to the donkey song. They were sitting in much too small a space and it was almost impossible for them to avoid stepping on each other. The donkey set off for his walk around the audience, followed by Mary and Joseph. Mary had thankfully stopped rubbing her arm and was now concentrating on not stepping on her long blue gown.The chairs for the parents had been arranged with small aisles along each side and along the back, so the children could walk around the entire audience. This was a new idea, introduced for the first time this year. Cynthia was not at all sure that it was a good one. She noticed that the donkey was walking much too fast, the threesome were meant to walk for the entirety of the song, they would be finished before the end of the first verse. Parents sitting next to the aisle shuffled even closer together to make room for them, their chairs scraping on the wooden floor.

Without warning, Mary stopped. She had seen her mother. Triumphantly she rolled up her sleeve to reveal red fingermarks.
‘Timmy Beal slapped me,’ she stated in a loud voice. ‘It’s because I told him that angels are really girls. They are, aren’t they?’

The piano continued playing but very few children were singing. They were straining to see what would happen next. This was interesting, not something they had rehearsed in their daily practice. Parents sitting at the front of the hall turned around to watch, some of the children stood on tip toe to try and see what was happening.

Miss Mott rose from her seat and turned towards the indignant Mary.
‘Carry on, Belinda,’ she said, in a voice that expected to be obeyed, ‘we can discuss this later.’

The child obediently continued walking, Joseph trailing behind, the donkey giggling uncontrollably in the lead. The rest of the school continued singing, some of them giggling to copy the donkey, some looking upset because they knew their play had been spoilt. Jane Lancaster looked ready to burst with anger; Esther Pritchard continued to look calmly peaceful. Andrew Smyth was clearly having trouble containing his own laughter and was pretending to blow his nose. There was some whispering when the children sat again and Miss Mott raised her eyebrows in warning. They settled down and the play continued.

Joseph knocked on brightly coloured doors which wobbled alarmingly. They had been made from large cardboard boxes which had been flattened and painted. No one knew what doors looked like in the New Testament era, so they closely resembled the children’s own front doors, complete with numbers and letter boxes.

Excited innkeepers informed them there was no room, prompted by their wives, who knew the script and wanted to share the lines. The last one obligingly offered the couple his stable and they followed him to a different corner of the hall where a manger stood waiting. The school shuffled round to see.

All the angels clustered around the couple, hiding them from view and singing the angel song. It was meant to be sung by only the angels but some of the school forgot and joined in. There was then lots of nudging and loud shushing as they were reminded to be quiet. As the angels moved away, the parents glimpsed Joseph throwing a doll, head first, into the manger. Some of them sniggered, which Cynthia thought was rather rude of them. Then the angels walked across to the area that was meant to be a hillside. They walked slowly in their unfamiliar clothing, keeping their heads upright so their halos remained steady.

As Gabriel approached, Mary saw her chance for revenge. Waiting until he was level with her, she stuck out a black plimsolled foot. It caught his leg and he tripped, sprawling on the floor, pink legs sticking out from his tunic. He banged his head on the manger, a loud crack. Everyone heard it. Blood gushed from his forehead. He lay very still.

‘You’ve killed him,’ stated Joseph, impressed.

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Thank you for reading.

I thought I would include an extract from Hidden Faces, especially as the beginning is so appropriate for Christmas.

Hidden Faces final cover 6 July 2016

 

Who could you give a copy to for Christmas?

Available from most bookshops, and Amazon

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Faces-Anne-E-Thompson/dp/0995463204/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480434350&sr=1-1&keywords=hidden+faces

 

 

 

 

 

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Mary’s Story : Reposted, because it’s Christmas..

Mary’s Story

by Anne E Thompson

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I travelled to Bethlehem in a small cart. Every bump (and there were many) was agony. As I was jolted along, I was racked with pain. The baby’s time was near, you see and the pain was almost unbearable. Later, they would sing songs about a cute donkey carrying me. Nice thought! I don’t think there’s any way you could have got me on a donkey. As each contraction cramped every muscle in my torso, I huddled up like an animal and prayed for it to be over.

I could see Joseph, watching me as he walked alongside. He really didn’t have the first idea what to do. Oh, how I wanted my mother. I yearned for her to be there, holding my hand, telling me everything was alright and would be over soon.

When we arrived at Joseph’s uncle’s house, the women folk came and helped me inside. The room was crowded. All Joseph’s male relatives from miles around had come to the house for shelter and food. The women were busy cooking supper and the men were drinking wine and comparing stories. They all told Joseph how much he resembled his grandfather Matthan and laughed at old stories from years ago.The smell of fish and fresh bread was nauseating. I was so tired and so uncomfortable.
Joseph knew I was suffering and asked if there was somewhere quiet that I could go. There was no chance that we would get a place in the inn, they had filled up days ago. Somewhere quiet, in a little house packed with relatives? There were some fraught discussions and then his aunt suggested that the animal cave might be best. It wasn’t terribly clean, but it would be quiet and private and at least it wouldn’t smell of fish!

Joseph helped me go down, and a couple of the women came too. One of them examined me and told me the baby was a long way off yet, first babies always take their time in coming. This was not great news but I felt better having her there. I felt that she knew what was happening, had seen this before and it took some of the fear away.
I was frightened you see. I was horribly afraid that somehow I would damage my baby. My baby and God’s. I knew he was going to be special, I knew I had a great task ahead of me but it all seemed to be going horribly wrong. I trusted that God was still in control but He felt so far away. Could the baby not have been born in a palace, surrounded by comfort? Would these poor beginnings really be part of a plan? Could they really make this king accessible to the people? I had no idea. I was a mere girl, I had no education and my memory of scriptures was often fuzzy. To be honest, at this present moment, I didn’t even care. I just wanted this baby OUT! Special or not, my body was tired of carrying him, tired of being stretched and pushed, of fitting something inside that was now too big to be there. I needed this baby to be born and I was too exhausted to wait much longer. How I longed for sleep.

The pain in my back was terrible. Great waves of cramp that seared through my body, making me oblivious to everything else. I was vaguely aware that someone was sweeping the floor and moving the animals to a far corner. They had laid out a mattress and blankets for me to rest on but I couldn’t lie still for long. I felt better standing, rocking in time with the pain, trying to remember to breathe, in out, in out. Some one offered me water but I couldn’t drink. I wasn’t thirsty, I just wanted this baby to be born.

I could see Joseph with his big anxious eyes watching me. He didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested he should go into the house to eat and I nodded in agreement. There was nothing he could do and the poor man must have been tired too. He had endured such an emotional time lately. First there was his fear and anger when he first heard about the baby (now that was a difficult conversation!) Then he had to endure the smirks of his friends when the pregnancy became public knowledge. He never complained, but I know he felt embarrassed, wished that God could have chosen a different girl.

We had been travelling for five days, with hardly any rest and the last couple of days had been more chilly. I know he felt the burden of caring for me, watching for bandits on the roads and wondering if we would make it to Bethlehem in time. If the baby had come early I don’t know what he’d have done – left me with strangers on the road somewhere I guess and come to register on his own. One didn’t mess with a Roman decree…..

The pain eventually became almost constant. Joseph had eaten and rested but I continued to sway in discomfort in the little cave of animals. Every so often one of them would poop and although the women with me cleaned it up quickly the smell pervaded the atmosphere. I could hear the musicians gathering outside, someone must have told them the birth would be soon. That gave me hope, maybe soon the baby would arrive.

Then at last, in a final searing pain, the baby was born. I looked down at his blue waxy body as he wriggled on the blanket and I knew that he was mine. One of the women wiped him down with oil and salt and I held him in my arms while they looked for the swaddling bands in our luggage. How beautiful he was. His indigo eyes would soon turn brown and they gazed at me trustingly. I loved him with my whole being.
Outside, there was the sound of music and singing as the musicians heralded the arrival of a boy.

Joseph came and took him from me. He held the tiny baby in his giant carpenter’s hands, hands that spoke of hard work and safety. Then the baby started to mouth for food and Joseph passed him back. The women showed me how to feed him, but he was soon asleep. Then we gently wrapped him in the swaddling bands, securing his tiny limbs so he would feel snug and secure and his bones would grow straight and true. He was so beautiful. It was hard to remember what the angel had told me, that this was God’s son too. I began to wonder if I had imagined it, if it were all a dream. This baby did not look like God, he was a baby. My baby.
“If it’s true God,” I thought, “Let there be another sign. He is so little and I love him so much. Remind me again…”
I too needed to sleep. Joseph fetched fresh hay and put it in the animal’s manger, covering it with a soft blanket. I didn’t want him to put the baby there, I wanted to keep him on the bed next to me, but Joseph was worried I might roll on him in my sleep. Then he laid the baby down and told me to sleep. He looked deep into my eyes and brushed my collar bone lightly with his fingers.
“Soon you’ll be truly mine,” he whispered. I knew what he meant and felt myself blush.
I was so tired, I thought I would sleep for a week.

I actually slept for about two hours! I was abruptly woken by loud voices and a draft of cold air as the door was flung open. There, standing uncertainly in the doorway was a group of youths. Their clothes were dirty and exuded the strong smell of sheep. Joseph was with them.

“Mary? Are you awake?” he asked.
It would be hard not to be with all the noise from outside.

“These shepherds want to see the baby. They were told by angels where they could find him and they have come to look at him.”

I nodded and they trouped into the room. They seemed so big and clumsy in such a small space, I was worried they might hurt the baby. But they didn’t try to touch him, they just stared for a while and then one of them knelt and they all followed suit, kneeling before the manger, staring at the baby.

Then they told me their story, how they had been in the fields and an angel had appeared. They had thought they were going to die, to be struck down right where they were. The angel had reassured them, told them that a saviour had been born, the Christ who we’ve all been waiting for. They would find him lying in a manger. Then suddenly there were lots of angels, all praising God and saying he was pleased with people on earth. After the angels had gone, finding they were still alive after all, the shepherds decided to come at once and see for themselves. It was as though they couldn’t quite believe what they had seen and heard, they needed to actually see the baby with their own eyes.

I felt so humbled and so cared for. God had heard my thoughts, He was reassuring me. It was all His plan, not some terrible mistake. We were meant to be here. He even knew about the manger! I listened and smiled and treasured my thoughts.
The shepherds left as noisily as they came. I could hear them in the streets, shouting their news, telling everyone what had happened. They were so excited.
They had of course woken the baby who was now crying with a thin wail that jarred my nerves and was impossible to ignore. So I fed him some more and then we both slept. A tired, contented sleep borne from exhaustion and wonder.

After eight days, Joseph came and circumcised the baby. How he wailed! It felt cruel, though I knew it was the right thing to do, even in this strange place we must obey the Jewish laws. We also formally gave him the name Yeshua, the name we had been told to give him by the angel all those months ago. I wondered if Joseph minded, people would know it wasn’t a family name. I also had no one called Yeshua in my own family, though I did know a boy from my childhood with the name.

After forty days, we had to travel to Jerusalem, to pay for redemption at the temple. As Joseph was from the tribe of Judah, we had to pay five shekels of silver. We couldn’t afford a lamb, so bought two pigeons to sacrifice. It was nice to leave Bethlehem and to have some exercise at last, to see people and to take my baby into the world. I felt quite excited as I approached the temple, our holy place. I didn’t recognise anyone, but everyone could see we had a new baby and lots of the women came over to see him. I felt so happy!
We walked through the Beautiful Gate and up to the Gate of Nicanor.

Then something strange happened. As Joseph and I walked through the temple, a man approached us. He came to look at Yeshua and indicated that he wanted to hold him. That was a little unusual but there was something about him, something that made you sure he was a good man, someone you could trust. When he looked at the baby, he got all emotional and prayed, thanking God and saying that now he could die in peace. He blessed me and Joseph too and then he leant towards me and said something which was very strange. He said Yeshua would cause “the fall and rising of many in Israel” and would be “a sign that would be opposed so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

What does that mean? I know that he is God’s own son and that he is part of the plan to establish God’s reign on earth. Will he be opposed? Surely everyone will accept God’s annointed one, we have waited so long for him.

Then he said something that made me afraid. His face was very near, I could smell his breath. He said that a sword would pierce my soul. It made me very frightened, I practically snatched Yeshua away from him! I want my son to grow strong and be happy, will I suffer for this?

I knew I was tired, not getting enough sleep and it was hard to care for a new baby in a strange place without my mother to help me. I felt that I did not want to hear the man’s words, even if they were true.

The man left us and almost at once an old lady approached. She was ancient, her white hair showed under her mitpahath and she leant heavily on a stick. What I noticed most were her eyes. They almost sparkled! You could tell at once that she was a holy woman and also one who loved to laugh. As soon as she saw Yeshua she started to pray loudly, thanking God and telling people nearby that if they wanted Jerusalem to be redeemed, they should look to the baby. I was glad that no Romans were allowed in the temple, we would have been in trouble!

We finished making the offerings and then went back to Bethlehem. I didn’t know whether to tell Joseph what the old man told me. I kept thinking about his words, worrying about what they might mean. I was so tired, I decided I would wait and maybe tell him later.

The months passed and we settled into life in Bethlehem. We moved into a little house and Joseph worked on the many building projects that the Romans have introduced. Yeshua continued to thrive. He grew into a sturdy toddler and would walk around the room holding onto the stools and baskets. I loved to feel his solid weight when I carried him on my hip. He started to sleep much better at night and Joseph and I were thinking about having another child. Then everything changed.

It was one evening, still quite early but we had filled the lamp with olive oil and lit the linen wick. Joseph put it on a bushel basket, so the room was well lit and we could talk about the day. Suddenly, there was a banging at the door.
Joseph went at once and there, in the road, was a group of Persian travellers. They had dismounted from their horses and were peering intently into the house. They told Joseph they had seen a star and had come to worship the king.I was so glad I hadn’t gone to bed yet! We let them into the house and I went to get Yeshua. He was damp from sleep and his tired eyes looked blearily around him. I wondered if he would cry but he seemed fascinated by our strange visitors. They wore their hair in long curls and one had a band of gold on his head. It glinted in the lamp light and I could see Yeshua watching it intently. Their clothes were patterned with birds and flowers. We offered them wine, it was clear they were tired from their journey. I was embarrassed that we only had two stools to offer them, but they didn’t seem to mind and in fact insisted that I should sit on one with Yeshua and they were happy to sit on the rush mat. They didn’t really sit anyway, they wanted to kneel before Yeshua.

Then they gave him gifts. They were beautiful to look at. They gave him gold, signifying that he is a king. They gave him frankincense. The strong aroma filled the house and I wondered if Yeshua was to be a priest, even though he is not descended from Levi. They also gave him myrrh. Myrrh is costly but is for embalming a body. It was a strange gift for a baby and I wondered what it meant.

They told us their story before they left. In their Persian home, they were magi, watching the stars and foretelling the future. Many months ago, at the time of Yeshua’s birth, they had seen a special star which they knew meant a powerful new king had been born and they determined they would find him and worship him. Unfortunately, following the star caused them to go to Jerusalem first (I always knew that star gazing was a misleading activity!) They went to Herod’s palace and asked where the new king was. This was scary, Herod had shown he was not a king to be trusted and his cruelty was well known. I would not have wanted to visit his palace.

However, it sounded as though he had decided to be helpful. He asked the scribes to research the early scriptures and they discovered that the promised king was to be born in Bethlehem. The king told the Easterners and asked them to find the king and then return and tell him the exact location, so that he too could worship.

I wondered what would happen next. Would Herod himself come to visit my precious baby or would we be summoned to the palace? This was not a comfortable thought. I also wondered why the palace scribes had not come to visit us. Did they not believe the scriptures that they studied so diligently? Surely if they were truly expecting a redeemer they would also have come?
The men left. They planned to sleep in an inn and return to Jerusalem the next day. We could not offer them lodging in our tiny house and they seemed content to leave now they had seen Yeshua.

I returned Yeshua to bed and soon after Joseph and I also went to sleep.

I had not been asleep for long when Joseph woke me. He shook me awake, then went to light the lamp. I could see his face was tense and instantly turned to check Yeshua was well. He was sleeping soundly. Joseph told me I needed to get up at once, we needed to leave. He said that he had had a dream, like the dream when the angel told him that the baby inside me was God’s son. It was so intense and real that he could not ignore it. He said he had been told we must leave Israel, Yeshua was in danger, Herod planned to kill him.

I wondered why I too had not be warned and then I realised – God had told Joseph to take care of me and Yeshua. That was a hard task for a man, to care for a son that was not his own. So God was now telling Joseph alone what we needed to do, underlining his role, establishing him as head of our family. It was a kind act.

I began to pack our things but Joseph was hurrying me, telling me to only take what was essential.
We were to go to Egypt. Egypt! Could this be right? Was Yeshua not to be king of the Jews? I packed hurriedly and we left that very night.

What would the future hold? Would we ever return to our home town? The future was uncertain but I knew that something bigger than us was happening. Whatever happened, God had a plan and no one could alter the course of that.

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This account necessarily involves some imagination but I believe it is also as historically correct as possible (and a lot more correct than some of our Christmas carols!)
If you are aware of any historical errors, please tell me and I will modify it.
I used a variety of sources including:
The gospels of Matthew and Luke
Geoffrey Bromily (1995)
William Hendriksen
William Barclay
Joseph P Amar (university of Notre Dame)
Michael Marlowe
Tessa Afshar

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy Hidden Faces by Anne E Thompson. An amusing novel, set in an infant school which explores the different faces that teachers wear. They have a public face, worn for the school. This is very different to the face they wear at home or with their friends, but which one is the real face?

Available from bookshops and Amazon:

hidden-faces-final-cover-6-july-2016

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Faces-Anne-E-Thompson/dp/0995463204/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480505876&sr=8-1&keywords=hidden+faces

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The Story of Old Pafos

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They came on a Saturday, the sun baked stones giving as much heat as the low sun. There were five of them, their car old white and large, more a van than a car, as it clunked its way up the hill. They drove through the new town first, carefully, avoiding stray pedestrians and independent dogs, winding their way through narrow streets of flashing lights and the colourful tat that waited for inebriated tourists to buy.

The young man held the map. More of a boy than a man, only his willowy height and deep voice giving clues to his age. He swore loudly as they met yet another unmarked one way street, another road they couldn’t drive along. Finding the old town was difficult, more elusive than even the spelling, which changed from Paphos to Pafos on nearly every signpost. He directed them through ever narrow streets, almost touching the tiny painted houses on either side, heading first towards the sea, then doubling back, playing an elusive game of hide and seek, determined to win.

The other man bent towards the map, offering advice, pitching his own wits against the traitor roads and the misleading map. This man was older, though not significantly so. He was thicker set, with tanned skin and eyes that gave witness to Japanese ancestry. Together they solved problem after problem, directing the driver around taverns and shops and historic monuments, until at last the road, in defeat, allowed them to climb the hill, to leave the modern sea front, to approach the old town.

They climbed steadily higher, the buildings became less well loved, in need of paint and repair. The man-boy announced they had arrived, the driver, his father, began to search for somewhere to park. There was a sign, a large arrow, announcing the entrance to the municipal carpark. The father swung the car-van round, ready to angle through the narrow gap, realised in time that beyond the side of the building, in the dark shade, the sign pointed not to a slip road but to steps, steep and sheer. Steps that plummeted to who knows where. They laughed, the family, laughed. The wife praised her husband for stopping in time, looking into his face, noticing he had caught the sun and his eyes were very green. The girl leant into her tanned lover, she looked younger then her years, of fragile build, with a waterfall of brown hair. They thought it a joke, an oddity of a foreign town. They drove on, unperturbed.

The carpark lay below the town, curved roads leading to tree shaded spaces. Theirs was the only vehicle, which they considered to be lucky. The husband selected his space, the man-boy searched the map for where to walk, the mother pulled on her hat, the girl flicked her hair. They left the car, followed the winding path that led into town. They were alone.

It was still hot, the air muggy despite the low sun. An old car passed them, its engine loud in the silent street. A bald man was driving, a tiny headscarfed woman beside him. The family stepped onto narrow paths to allow them to pass, the father checking the map before leading them on. There were no signs, but they found the church easily enough. Before they reached it, they could hear singing, deep, male, chanting. The church sounded full, must contain the whole town they reasoned, wondering if today was special, a festival they didn’t know about, not one listed in their guide book. The road to the church was in need of repair, great pot holes caused them to watch their feet, to tread carefully. Which is why they didn’t see the eyes watching. And is how they saw the gun.

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It was lying in the road, right in front of the church, dust covered, old. The man-boy bent as though to retrieve it, cautioned by his father to not touch it, it was obviously a toy, probably germ-ridden, better left in the dust. The tanned man recognised the model, gave it a name, thought no more about it. They walked on. The gun lay, photographed but useless.

The father checked his map. Bored, the young couple and the boy wandered around the church. There was a wall lined street, covered in graffiti, the pictures clever, artistic, enticing. The girl posed in front of them. Became part of them.

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The father, following the map, had wandered down another street. His wife hastened to follow, warning him that the younger party had gone in the other direction, suggesting he should stop, let her go back for them. She was cross, irritated at his marching off, worried by their wandering, fearing the air was too hot for unnecessary walking. He stopped while she went back to the church, stood still, wondering which path to choose. She couldn’t shout, the worshippers in church would hear her. Instead she whistled, long and shrill, hoping the boy would recognise the sound from frequent dog walks. There was silence. Then, at last, a series of answering whistles, short and responsive, coming nearer.

The two young men rounded the corner. They were laughing, whistling, making too much noise for people outside an occupied church. She frowned at them, waved towards her husband, hurried back. They followed. It wasn’t until they had all arrived back, were peering at the map over the father’s shoulder, that she noticed the girl wasn’t with them, asked where she was. The boy shrugged, muttered about her not keeping up, being too interested by the graffiti, she knew where the car was, would find them later. The mother refused to move, said they should go back, her daughter would be cross, had wanted to see the market. She insisted they retrace their steps.

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Back they walked, over the broken road, past the gun. They still left it lying there, didn’t even notice it now. The singing inside the church continued, the sky heated the stones still hotter, they walked back down the painting lined street. The girl was gone.

A man cycled past, whistling between his teeth, a black cap pulled low over his face, the bike wheels rattling over the uneven street. The family paused. The boy was all for going on, repeating that his sister knew where the car was, she had probably found the market, it was too hot to keep walking. He checked his phone, tried to send a text, but there was no signal. The boyfriend offered to continue looking, checking the map, choosing a route that would join with the market place. He would find her, join the family there. If he failed, they would all meet at the car, drive around until they found her. A motorbike zoomed past. When it was quiet again, the father agreed. He took his son and wife, headed towards the market. The boyfriend rounded the corner behind them, was quickly out of sight.

The boy followed his parents. They were arguing, his mother unhappy at going ahead without her daughter, the father cross and hot. It was terribly hot. The road had deteriorated, was barely a road now. There were fences set up at odd angles to stop the cars. A great digger must have come in the night and removed all the tarmac. Drains stood up, waiting to trip them, stray bricks lay in the dust. The shops they passed were all shut, some with shutters closed, others with goods piled against the doors. As they moved further from the church the air became silent, only their footsteps could be heard as they picked their way along the dusty road.

They rounded a corner and the father lifted his hand, wanting to point to the restaurant he had selected for their dinner. Trip Advisor rating five stars. Hundreds of reviews. The restaurant was there. Empty chairs stacked on tables. Sunshades as closed as the door and windows. An old woman passed them, hurrying in the other direction, tiny, her headscarf pulled tight, face to the ground. They paused. No one would be eating in that restaurant. Not today. They walked on.

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The lack of people was beginning to bother them, but not badly. Not until they reached the market. The closed, shuttered, signs hanging limply, market. No people. No bustle. No local crafts spilling onto walkways. Empty. That was when they started to wonder. When irritation turned to unease. Not fear, it was too soon for that. But the weirdness could no longer be denied.

They waited for the girl and her boyfriend to meet them. Long minutes while the sun sent long rays into their eyes and their heads began to ache. The mother crossed the road, peered into a dark shop. Mannequins stared back. Their clothes were ancient, of the kind her own mother might have worn, their painted faces stared back at her. She turned, called to her son, told him to come and see. He arrived reluctantly, laughed when he saw where she was pointing. Lifted his phone for a photograph, turned to call his father. His father was gone.

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They walked together, mother and son. A taxi passed them, the driver an old man with his cap pulled low over his face, but they didn’t notice. They were scanning the streets, calling for the man, for the girl, for the boyfriend. An old woman in an orange dress appeared on a balcony, screamed back at them in an unknown language, was ushered back inside by a man, probably her son. Then nothing. No answering calls, no whistles, no footsteps.

They had no map but they decided they could find the car park, because that is where they all must be waiting. The mother tried to feel angry, to be cross that her husband had again wandered away, that her daughter hadn’t bothered to find them, that the boyfriend hadn’t kept to the plan. But some part of her stopped the anger, whispered that this wasn’t what had happened, gave her heart a faster beat, made something flutter within her.

They headed towards the cliff edge, looked down over the new town below them, the bay, the coast. They knew they needed to turn left, past the grounded boat way out at sea, past the map on the large wooden board, down the slope to the carpark. They passed a family, sitting in the evening heat. An old woman with her headscarf pulled low, sat on a wooden chair, a bald man sat next to her, his cap on his knee. They walked on, eyes watched their backs as they reached the end of the lane, turned left, towards the car park.

The car sat in its space. The carpark was still empty. No other cars. No other people. There was a low stone building, public toilets. The mother said she needed to use them, would just be a minute, the boy could wait outside, then they would decide what to do. He watched his mother disappear into the gloom, pulled out his phone. Still no signal. He waited. He was patient for longer than necessary, then began to call, to ask if she was alright, if she would be much longer. She never answered. Panic began to rise and he pushed open the door, peered into the gloom. No cubicle doors met his gaze, no sinks, no smell of human waste. Just a room. An empty room. No mother.

He gave a cry, leapt back. His mind was a flurry of snowflakes, a blizzard of ideas whirling round, uncatchable. No phone signal, no car keys, no weapon. The gun. They had seen a gun, dismissed it as a toy. Perhaps it wasn’t, perhaps it would save him.

Back up the winding pathway, back along the narrow street, back towards the chanting church, watching his footing, careful over the uneven surface. The gun was gone. Of course it was. Only the imprint of it remained, scarring the dust. All was still, all was silent except for the singing, those chanting voices within the stone church walls. Voices meant people. People who could help, who could explain, who would tell him it was alright, he was imagining things, his family was in a cafe somewhere, sipping cocktails and laughing at his lateness.

He climbed the steps, passed the iron bench, stood for a moment outside the great wooden doors. He didn’t see the mannequins that had walked, stiff legged after him, their old fashioned clothes fluttering in the breeze. He did not see their painted eyes watching him. Their silly painted mouths curve into smiles.

He pressed into the door, leant his weight against it. The door creaked open. Cold air seeped out. The pews were empty. The sound of many voices singing swelled towards him from speakers hung from chains on the ancient beams. The church was empty. Another sound came to him, a noise from behind. He slowly turned…….
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It was a Wednesday when the family came. Two young children with their barely old enough parents, taking a break from the beach, searching for the market in the old town. The children, a girl and a boy, skipped beside their mother, oblivious to the heat. They found a space in the crowded carpark and followed the narrow path that wound up to the town. The pavement was old, patterned pebbles worn smooth by many feet over time. They strolled past the old church, as it gave silent shade to the pretty street. Passed shops beckoning them inside with air conditioning and cold drinks. Jostling with other tourists as they entered the market. Lace and leather goods hung from racks and were stacked on shelves. Bright cotton clothing swayed in the breeze of fans, cheerful shopkeepers smiled as they passed. There was turkish delight, and jars of olives and purses studded with beads. They wandered around, telling the children not to touch, the mother buying trinkets, the father checking his watch, suggesting they found a cafe before they drove back to the new town.

They left the market and the crowds, found a narrow street, saw the awning of a cafe, people sitting in the shade. They walked towards it, passing shops that the man ignored but the woman peered in. She was surprised by the mannequins. Some were very old fashioned, wore the sort of clothes her granny might have worn. Others were more modern. There were a couple of female models, one painted to look older than the other,which was very slim with long brown hair. There were also three men. They modelled casual summer clothing and were different sizes. She noticed that one had been painted to look vaguely foreign, a slightly Asian slant to his eyes. Another seemed almost to watch her with his green painted eyes. Then her husband called, and her daughter tugged at her to hurry, and she walked on to the cafe. Her drink was wonderfully cold.

The Ghosts of La Recoleta

She came to us after Mass.

We had watched the people leaving the church, the men pulling on gloves, the women buttoning coats against the chill June air. Older women, dressed in black, tightening their headscarves. Always a good opportunity for some money, using all that guilt, that longing for a better world, that recognition that there might be a God. So we pulled the thin blanket tighter, sat upright on the newspaper, stared into their faces, held out our hands.

Most people looked away, embarrassed by our youth, repulsed by our smell perhaps. Wishing we were invisible. But some looked, even if only to shake their heads. Perhaps to wonder why we were there, who our parents were and where they might be. A few gave money, coins we grasped in our dirty chipped-nailed fingers, slid into pockets, saved for later. Then the woman came.

She stood for a moment, deciding. Searched our faces, considered walking away, dismissing the thought, the belief, the commitment. But she had already decided really. The choice had been made, while she stood before the icon, while she lit the candle, while she allowed herself, for one brief second, to truly seek her God’s face. So she leaned towards me, worried that she might be seen, asked if I was the eldest. Did we sleep here at night? Did we have no shelter now it was winter?

I indicated that I was in charge, suspicious of her motives, nodded slowly, not wanting to commit, ready to deny it in a whisper. For shelter, I glanced upwards, at the high concrete overhang. Not that it was much shelter. When it rained, the water would find a way through, run in rivulets along the broken paving slabs, often soaking the newspaper we lay on for warmth.

Sometimes we used one of the abandoned theatres opposite a faded villa, the weathered gargoyles scowling at us as we pushed through a gap in the boarded up door. But it was always full of empty bottles. It was safer on the street. The cold was less of a threat than the drunken adults who lurked in the shadows of forgotten buildings.

When she told me to come, it was so faint, I barely heard her. The muttered address, the specific time, all whispered in a hurry. Hopeful perhaps that I would mishear, arrive too late or in the wrong place. That she could absolve her conscience by having tried whilst failing to deliver.

I thought about it all day. We sorted through the litter bins in Plaza San Martin, hopeful a wasteful tourist may have thrown away food. Or a bereaved relative, come to find a name on the wall of names, losing their appetite, throwing away their lunch. We watched the fat birds perched on the statues and wished we were them, could fly over the city, up to the sun.

When I told the others, sitting on the steps, looking back at the old clock tower, they wanted to go, to try our luck. What did we have to lose? There might be some food involved. So we went.

It wasn’t far. We left our blankets folded in their place, pushed back against the shop front. So we could come back later, our shelter would be reserved. If it rained, dry space would be hard to find.

We stayed on the main road, away from the broken roofed station, past the memorials and the park. It wasn’t an area we frequented, too full of tourists for the police to turn a blind eye. Too many rich people with carefully made up faces and stomachs full from the parilla. We followed the road, the black and yellow taxis speeding past, the occasional lorry slogging through the city from the pampas, stacked high with produce to sell.

We waited outside, loitering under the giant gum tree, its branches spread as wide as its height. We were early, not wanting to miss something that might be good. Or might not. But we could run if we needed to, back to the anonymity of the disused tracks.

We watched customers leaving the French cafe, the taxis waiting for fares in the little square, the stall holders packing up their wares. When the square was empty, only the pigeons left to find stray crumbs, she came. Hurrying across the faded grass, anxiety in every limb, every glance. She stood at a distance, checked we were unobserved, beckoned us over, turned and hastened back inside. We followed.

Afterwards, we could never be sure why we had. Why had we trusted her, risked walking through the arched entrance, let her pull the gates closed behind us, turn the key in the lock? Let her lead us past the map that guided visitors, through the wide doorway, onto the pathway beyond. Hidden by high stone walls, unseen.

We stood there. Five of us. Ragged and hungry and alone. No one to miss us. No one to care. No one to even notice.

We stood amongst the dead. On every side, the stone booths of the rich and famous protected their remains. Pointed roofed cathedrals, statues of angels, marble shelters. I knew this place. I knew the bereaved visited and the curious. People came to see the statues, the monuments, the plaques. They sought dead relatives, famous writers, the final resting place of Evita.

Beyond the perimeter, reaching towards the sky were the windows of tall buildings, like many eyes watching. An old man approached, as ancient as the tombs, stared at us, smiled a toothless smile, nodded at the woman. She turned to me, all business. Confident now we were unwatched, no possible witnesses.

“You came. Good. I wasn’t sure if you would. I must leave soon, I cannot be late home. But this is Juan. He works here, cleaning the graves. You can stay, it will be sheltered. There are blankets – and food, I can bring more each day, I will leave it somewhere in the evenings, when I lock up to go home. You can use the public washrooms, for water, but you must leave them clean. There must be no sign of you. You must be invisible,” she spoke in a rush, a rehearsed speech.

She paused. Not wanting to say it but knowing that she must.

“You can stay, but… in the daytime, when the cemetery is open, you must be hidden. Juan will show you, there is a place, below ground, where one of the coffins was stored. You can sleep, in the day, when there are people.

“At night,” she continued,”when the gates are locked, you will be free. You can run and play and be safe.”

She stopped, unsure now. Her eyes on my face, seeking reassurance, needing to know that this was better. That to have shelter and food and safety was better than the streets. But I didn’t know.

True, it would be easier to care for the little ones, good to escape the weather, the hunger, the predators. And it wasn’t the dark that scared me. Or the restricted movement in the day.

I looked into her eyes, saw kindness and concern. Knew she wanted to help.

“But,” I whispered, “but, what about the ghosts?”

She knelt then, placed two warm hands on my shoulders, peered straight into my eyes.

“You don’t need to worry about them,” she said. “You are the ghosts now.”

And so it was.

Juan led us to some rusted iron gates, unlocked the chain and they creaked open. He told us that this was a good shelter to choose, there was a cat who slept there, who would keep the mice away. We filed inside, over dead leaves that had blown inside, down steep stone steps to the tiny cavern below. There was a shelf – cleaned now, stacked with blankets, and I wondered briefly where Juan had moved the remains to, which coffin was now in the wrong vault.

Then I busied myself with blankets, helping to settle the little ones, to stop them eating all the food we had been left. Juan showed us how to loop the chain back through the gates, so they would look secure, so none of the visitors would attempt to disturb us.

We lived in the cemetery. We ate the food she left for us each evening, we slept on dry blankets in the safe shelter below the ground. Sometimes we would hear Juan, he often swept near our vault when there were tourists, a careful guard, covering any noise we might make, ever watchful.

But best of all, when it was dark, we would run and laugh and play. The high buildings outside added their lights to the stars, watched as we pretended to dance the tango in the city of the dead. We learned how to be children again.

Sometimes, when it is very dark, people walking past La Recoleta, fancy that they hear voices from within the high walls. The sound of laughter carries on the wind, and they hurry away, telling themselves they are imagining things, that the dead don’t giggle. Which is right. Dead people do not laugh nor dance nor play. But we do. We are the ghosts of La Recoleta.

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Thank you for reading.

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