Part #1: It was early December, the sun had set about half an hour ago, and the dust-laden clock on the church vestry mantelpiece gave a ‘thud’ rather than a chime, as it registered 4.30pm. Had it ever chimed?
And, had it ever been dusted? Indeed, the whole room smelled musty.
Through the three plain, thick, translucent windows, dappled and scored with age, there was just the faintest dark blue hue as night fell. Night comes early in London in December.
Earlier, I had been invited to a full dress rehearsal at St Michael’s Church for one of the Christmas services that I was to lead. Sebastian, who was designated as a crucifer, cross bearer at the front of the procession, had just left, and I was to meet him in the local café. It was interesting that he had been chosen as the crucifer. He did have a very mischievous streak, and I wondered if seeing the word crucifer under his name, on the order of service sheet, in his case, had been a misprint? Could he be a fallen angel, and the chief one at that?
And now everyone, except for me, had left. I think I’m part of the furniture, the number of times I’m asked to assist. But, I love it.
The smell of incense from last evening’s service hung in the air. Confession time: There is part of me that loves tradition, the planned outcomes, and part of me that enjoys working towards making a major church service really resonate with deep spiritual ‘hooks’ for those that attend. Yes, I do like ‘smells and bells’. But, there’s more. There is part of me that likes spontaneity and the ‘fun’ of not knowing what is coming next. Unnerving, really, for a formal service. But, yes, I do like tradition when it comes to liminality – those ‘doors’ to between Here and the Other, where things happen in mysterious and surprising ways. Altogether, other-worldly.
There was silence in the vestry. Just me here.
Having locked the external door, it was time to disrobe. The white (for Adventide) stole went on a hanger in the wardrobe. I say wardrobe, but it was really a horizontal pole with a curtain that could be pulled across. The doors to the wardrobe had dropped off years ago. The white cincture (the rope around the waist) I put on a hanger to its right. Then off came the white, hooded alb, and I put on a hanger to the right of the cincture. Then, I untied the amice and put that on its own hangar. And, there I stood, in a white tee-shirt, jeans and my favourite brown Sketchers (shoes), shivering. It’s interesting that the more formal the service, the less formal my ‘under-all-that-attire’ my clothes can be.
Was it me, or had the temperature dropped?
A fleeting thought went through my mind, that with all that white clerical clothing, I probably look like Hopkirk, in that old tv program ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). The latter was the deceased partner of a private detective who would aid his partner in solving crimes. Hopkirk who could disappear and reappear at will, being the ghost, wore an all-white suit.
Did I look like a ghost?
It was the season for odd happenings – ghost-stories like scrooge, flying snowmen, angels etc. If anywhere would have a ghost, it would be this old church building, and this vestry especially, and if ever there was a good time for a’visitation’ it was this time of year – the season, the temperature, the early nights.
You know, there was a definite chill in the room, now.
Pulling on my coat, and turning to exit, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, just the merest slight ruffling of all that clerical garb hanging up. A definite ruffling, infact, and yet no breeze. The windows in the room don’t open. And, there it was again as I looked on. Ruffling.
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and a cold shudder went down my spine.
‘Mae mwy’, said someone behind me.
I turned to see who spoke. No one! Now I was scared. Were those words in my head and pure imagination, or were they said out loud? I wasn’t sure. But, it was a distinct voice, a quiet voice and yet confident, and with the most exquisite Welsh accent, and a ‘valley’ accent at that.
‘Who’s there?’, I bellowed in panic.
I have never locked up so fast. Rushing towards the old, thick wooden door, and closing it behind me, I slammed it hard and double-locked it. The light illuminating the 50 foot path to the main road came on, and I quickly shuffled along the gravel path.
Those words, ‘Mae mwy,’ echoed in my mind. ‘Mae mwy,’ [pronounced ‘may moy-oh’] roughly translate as, ‘There is more.’
I relaxed a little when I came to a busy main road, and my racing heartbeats slowed, as cars passed me by and the occasional pedestrian came towards me.
Suddenly, out of the shadows, from the recessed and unlit shop doorways to my right someone appeared. About six-feet tall, medium build,male, and wearing a raincoat and hat, and smoking – I smiled, as he came near, expecting him to pass me by.
He looked like something out of one those old, black and white, detective movies from the 1950’s.
It all seemed surreal.
He changed direction, and his pace quickened to match mine – he walked beside me. Uncomfortable at that prospect, I decided to do the only sociable thing. I struck up a conversation. Yes, I talked about the weather, and how much rain there was, to this man from the shadows. It was pouring!
He looked at me, took a deep breath, and quietly said, ‘There is more’. In Welsh! He used the words, ‘Mae mwy’. And with a ‘valley’ accent. A cold chill run up and down my spine. Somehow, I knew he wasn’t talking about the weather.
‘Now, just who the heck are you?’ I said in an annoyed manner, somewhat taken aback, and to be honest, more than a little scared.
Did I have a stalker?
He smiled, and even broader grin, and took his time. ‘You pray a lot, yes? Well, consider me a good angel, a guardian angel, executing your prayers’.
Now I smiled. The man from the shadows didn’t seem a threat any more, more like a poor, deluded, simpleton, to be pitied as a fantasist. He looked back as if I had offended him.
‘What?’, I said.
‘You see this person coming toward us, the one about twenty feet away? Pray for them. They are in real need,’ the man professing to be my guardian angel challenged me.
I did. Inwardly, I prayed that whatever this person’s plight was, that God would take care of them.
‘Well done,’ he said. His demeanour changed and he now looked determined, maybe even overly-determined, and that worried me.
The person, an elderly lady was walking slowly toward us. She was now only a few feet in front of us, and she moved toward the kerb to skirt around me and the man. The man also moved nearer the kerb as if to get closer to her. She passed me by, looked at me, and…
Without warning the man gave her a right hook. And a fairly hefty and powerful punch it was too, that landed on her jaw. She half-turned, tripped, and fell awkwardly in the road, and sitting there, she cried out in agony, ‘Oh help me, please….Oh shit,’ she said, ‘I think my ankle is broken.’
I ensured that no traffic was coming, crouched down beside her and offered to ‘phone for an ambulance.
‘Why on earth did you do that? You hit an elderly lady. That’s hardly the actions of a good angel’, I shouted to the ‘shadow’ man, that idiot.
I was full of rage, my fists were clenched , and yet I knew my first duty was to this poor lady. I would sort out this thug, shortly.
Calmly, in a matter-of-fact-way, looking, almost piteously at me and the lady, the man said, ‘You really need to see that good is subjective. Just help the lady, and wait three minutes’.
The emergency centre operator, as I phoned on my mobile phone, said an ambulance was on its way and it would arrive in about five minutes, and for me to stay there with the patient. I did.
I looked at my watch, and then about three minutes later looked again.
Suddenly, there was a deafening noise as though a bomb had gone off around the corner, and the ground trembled, and other passers-by and the few that had stopped to observe the elderly lady’s plight yelped in surprise and fear. Alarm bells rang. Lights flashed, sirens from the distance were getting louder. Was it a bomb?
‘What in God’s name was that?’ I exclaimed at the top of my voice, little expecting an answer.
‘This whole episode, my dear praying-friend,’ the man of mystery said a bit sarcastically, ‘is the answer to your prayer. The lady has a broken ankle and is in some minor pain, but will be taken to hospital by ambulance, and will be back on her feet soon, however…’
Shouts interrupted the man, as people ran from around the corner where the noise had originated, and ran towards us, shouting.
‘Is it a bomb?’, I asked.
‘No! It was an explosion in the candle factory, and it took out the whole of one side of the old building. Probably a gas mains exploding. It’s a miracle that no one was passing it. They would surely have either been blown to smithereens by the explosion or crushed by the falling wall. A bloody miracle no one was killed or injured’, an excited young man said.
Now, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, for the second time that evening. I realised that had that elderly lady proceeded unimpeded, she would have been dead by now.
I looked toward the ‘shadow’ man, or at least where he had stood. He had gone! He was nowhere to be seen. In the noise and chaos that followed, and as I waited for the ambulance, a phrase echoed in my mind.
Mae mwy. There is more.