Wedding feast

She came looking for her, thirty years after the event. She tracked her down to the city where she lived a quiet anonymous life. Once a week she walked the journey from the governor’s palace up the hill to the site of executions, there to give succour to those who would be suffering. She knew they would not want to die alone. They wanted someone to tell them they are loved and they would be forgiven. She caught sight of the old lady, now hunched plodding her way from where the soldiers were taking down the bodies for disposal. She called her and the old lady stopped and looked at her. She paused and then seemed to recognise her.

“The young Cohen girl,” she said, “On my husband’s side?”

The women embraced and as they walked back to the old lady’s lodgings, the Cohen girl told her all about her family, her children and her grandchildren as well as her husband and his trade which prospered much these days. When they stepped inside, an older man came forward to greet the old lady and help her to a seat.

“Thank you, John,” she said and then introduced the Cohen girl to her.

‘It was my wedding day all those years ago,” the Cohen girl told John. “I remember you pouring freshly drawn water into the vast vats. I did not know he was a preacher then, but I met some people who showed me your account of his life and I wanted to see Mary again. Mary appears twice in your writings, at the, well my wedding and you claimed it as a miracle and then that day up the hill at the place of executions, where I saw her today so I knew it must be her.”

“Do you believe?” John asked.

“I only talk to living rabbis,” the Cohen girl said. “Is that wrong?”

“No,” said Mary. “Leave us John.”

The man left the room, and the two women brought their chairs together as Mary’s hearing was poor these days.

“Tell me about that day from your point of view,” Mary asked her.

The Cohen girl’s eyes lit up. She began: “You know how important a good wedding feast is. Joseph built us a wonderful long table so we could lay out the foods and the jugs of wine and the goblets to fill, and refill. He was not just a good carpenter but a lovely man. He stepped in to be like a father to me on that day, as you know, my father was away. He was there, fussing, making sure everything looked fine. We were the poor members of the family but he did not want us to look like that. Everything had to look as if we were a comfortable family. And you fussed about the food and drink.”

“Oh yes,” said Mary. “We had to put on a good show.”

“Was your son meant to be there?” the Cohen girl asked.

“He had from an early age been able to recite the Torah in its entirety and talk to the elders in the temple and he wanted to start his own ministry,” said Mary. “But for a week, he put aside his other father, the god of our religion and helped out. His followers came. Twelve of them, cleaning the place, making everything look just right. Jesus showed us he was an equal carpenter to Joseph. It was a wonderful wedding. We had to impress a lot of distant family. Your husband was going to make a great carrier, he needed investors and the family had a few well off members. We had to put on a show. You tell me what you remember.”

“The food was good, and a good supply of it but the whole affair hinged on the wine, as it always does,” the Cohen girl recalled. “The tricks we have to play! The best wine out first, then a batch of it diluted and then whatever we could afford, almost always borderline drinkable.”

“The trick is that the last wines should linger on the palette, and everyone would know you were a family with good prospects,” said Mary.

“You worked the room a lot that day,” said the Cohen girl. “The twelve of them were a cohort of waiters, looking out for everyone, always on hand with jugs of wine to replenish the empty goblets. The eldest, Peter, was a bit of a charmer. He worked the room.”

“I would go around,” said Mary, “telling the guests what a good prospering family you were marrying into and how Joseph had been like a father to you.”

“But about two hours into the celebrations, there was a commotion and guests began to look at the wine with horror,” said the Cohen girl.

“I saved the day,” said Mary and gave a short laugh. “I told them my son was the best wedding planner in the town and that the best quality wine would be opened shortly. But Jesus was unmoved and Peter and I had to take him to one side and reason with him. He said he was a preacher not a magician. Peter said that a preacher had a line to the God of heaven and he would understand, but Jesus didn’t like that,” Mary continued. “He stormed out of the house and I followed him. I found him under a tree. I told him family was everything. We Jews are one family and we live and die together. He was unmoved. His skill was to teach and forgive not to offer cheap fair-ground tricks which played with people’s minds.”

“So who’se idea was the large vats of water?” asked the Cohen girl. “I remember Peter getting his twelve together and bringing freshly drawn water into the area behind the kitchens. And I remember you saying that the best of times were yet to come and everyone should hold their breath and wait a few minutes.”

“Except it was a little longer,” said Mary. “Peter managed to get that Judas to stand up and tell a few jokes while I worked on my son.”

“What did you tell him?” asked the Cohen girl.

“Preachers have to surprise their followers. We’ve heard all the stories of our history before. We always need to be surprised. The best rabbis are the ones who touch and forgive us and cure us of our troubles.”

“And that did it?” asked the Cohen girl.

“Jesus called me to that tree. He was passionate. I don’t do conjuring acts, he explained. I want people to believe me. I told him only he could save the good name of your family and by extension, Joseph’s link to your family. If he was to become the rabbi he believed himself to be, then he would have to save a great many people who were family. Then he said something that chilled my heart. My father will exact a payment for this day. He will set me on a path and I will be like a play thing in his hands and my life will no longer be my own.”

“You told him our family was worth the risk?”

“The twelve felt they would need to have good stories to tell about him as he made his journey as a rabbi. In the end he relented and blessed the water, and you know the rest.”

“I remember the wine,” said the Cohen girl,” and how you glowed later in the day. Everyone said what a great family Joseph had and what a business manager was his son who had kept the best for the end of the day. You were clucking around said “That’s my son, the best son God could have created.”

“Later that day,” Mary said, “he said he would leave and start his life as a rabbi and he hoped the story of the wine would not be remembered. He wanted the people to see him as the rabbi who brought them to God, not a charlatan. But that miracle would come to cast doubt in many minds that he really was not the rabbi he claimed. Many said it was a cheap trick and he ended his days up that hill on an awful day all those years ago.”

“John still looks after you?” said the Cohen girl, and the old lady nodded. “The gentiles like his teachings. And then again, the wine was good and you can’t make something out of nothing, can you? He was someone special, I can see that.”

“John says he is the true rabbi and all will come to see that one day,” said Mary. “But I remember his words up there on the hill, in pain, father why have you forsaken me, and I felt, and I still do that he should have not have saved family honour that day. It was a cheap trick and as a mother, I would pay for it.”

It’s a Pixie in a box

“It’s a Pixie in a box”, he heard the man say as he washed his hands. He looked up quickly. To one side, there were two men drying their hands, side by side. One was tall and very bald. The other much shorter wearing a baseball cap with a football club logo on it. He listened hard.

“It may be that, but..” the tall one said. “I think it’s overpriced.”

“Don’t think so,” said the shorter one. “It’s pure gold. They always are.”

“Who’se interested in a Pixie?” the tall one insisted.

“That’s the movie industry for you,” said the shorter one knowingly.

“What is the movie?”

“Hush hush. It’s at the concept stage,” the short one seemed to know everything

“Time for a coffee?”

The two men had dried the hands by now. He had been queuing behind them his hands dripping, but he decided to follow them. He rubbed his hands on his trousers and followed them out of the gents and followed them to the food area. He queued behind them.

“It’s a cartoon then?” asked the tall one who did not seem to be in the know.

“I think so,” said the short one.

“What actor would want to be dressed up as a Pixie?”

“Depends on the money. You’d make a good Pixie,” said the short one.

“No, I’d be too tall!” the tall one protested.

“But that would be the joke, don’t you see.”

“What no one expects a tall Pixie?” the tall one pressed.

“No, you’re right,” said the short one. “And we would need a bigger box.”

“Why am I in the box?” asked the tall one.

“Who knows. Mystery of movie making,” said the short one, “But would you be happy to play the Pixie then?”

“As you say, depends on the money,” said the tall one.

By now the two had their coffees and moved away to a table. He asked for a coffee, the quickest one they could make. The girl at the bar said they had to make the coffee in a particular way.

“Can you make it quick?” he suggested.

“No, we have brand values. Every coffee has to made in the same way. Quality control, you see. We are not allowed to cut corners. More than my job’s worth.”

He stood there looking at the two men. They had carried on their conversation. He wished he could lip read. A moment later, he had his coffee and managed to sit next to them. He had a newspaper with him and began reading it to give the impression he was not overhearing their conversation.

“I’m not sure what the Chinese factory will make of it,” said the tall one. “If they know what they are making, we find their quality goes up.”

“How do we motivate them?”

“They are knowledgeable about films,” said the tall one. “I mean the major studios are very happy with them making the licensed goods. They’ve done all the major tie in products. Star Wars. Now there are some strange looking characters in that.”

“So, a pixie in a box would be a piece of cake?” said the short one.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“Do you think the Pixie speaks in the film?” asked the small one

“I would think so.”

“Would the voice be a famous star?” asked the small one.

“Bound to be, but is the Pixie male or female? We only have a model of the Pixie. No clothes, no indication of sex.”

“Does it matter?” the small one looked at his coffee. “Mind you, the model is really good. These digital printers are really amazing.”

“I hope it’s female. Girls are more likely to want to have a Pixie.”

“He may be a macho hero Pixie.” The small one said knowingly.

“Why have we got only one Pixie? I mean there’s usually a number of characters.”

“Perhaps the script hasn’t been finalised,” said the short one. He’d been here, before.

“Subject to rewrites, you think?” the tall suggested.

“Should we be running with this yet?” the small one was also a stickler for detail.

“We are just asking for a costing,” the tall one said.

“Max says we should wait,” said the small one. “We haven’t signed the contract yet.”

“Okay,” the tall one said. “Let’s enjoy the coffee and then drive back to the office.”

There was a pause. The small one looked at a donut he had bought and bit into it. His mobile phone rang. He answered it and listened, interjecting with a ‘yea’ at intervals. When the call ended, he looked up at his colleagues.

“There’s been a rewrite,” he said.

“And?” the tall one asked.

“It’s not a Pixie anymore?”

“What is it now?” the tall one asked.

“A dragon.”

“Chinese will be happy with that then.”

“There’ll be another re-write! Lots of them! There always are. Dragons are so passé!” said the small one

“Max says we should do nothing in case the next rewrite turns him back into a Pixie or worse.”

“What’s worse?” the small one asked

“Could be human!” 

“They are never human,” the small one said knowingly. “Are you done? Shall we go?”

He watched them get up and go. He finished his coffee and then made a call. “Is the boss and the professor free?” he asked. There was a pause. “I know how to do it now.”

This was the only clue the police had. They had bugged the phone, but they had not heard the overheard conversation. The lead detective looked at the transcript. “We know now he had a coffee and said that? What was in the coffee, for Christ sake!” he looked at his team. “What do we know about what he did in that motorway service station?”

A young woman detective looked at her notes. “He stopped, had a comfort break, then a coffee and went back to his car. No record of him meeting anyone,” she said.

“So, what gave him the idea?” the detective mused. “Did he see something?”

“That’s all the information we have, chief,” she said.

“Where did he go then?”

“He met two of the gang.”

“How are they bringing the stuff into the country now?” the chief asked and looked at his team.

“Mules?” suggested one.

“No,” said another. “We know how they do that and so do they. They will need a new way of bringing the stuff in.”

“Well, we have to crack this one,” said the Chief. “Do we have someone on the inside still?”

“Interpol aren’t saying.”

“Well, we need to stay sharp!”

The police were surprised that the gang seemed to have gone on a sabbatical. They checked for mules and yachts coming in from across the ocean but there were no signs of activity and yet, the stuff came in and was there in plain sight on the streets. There was no sign of any supply disruptions. All the police surveillance yielded nothing. The gang was working hard and making money, and the police could not stop the supply. One day, the team got a call from Heathrow from their colleagues in Customs. The chief and the woman policeman followed it up. They drove to the airport and went to the Customs area. There was a sweet old lady held there.

“There’s your courier,” said the Customs man.

“Really?’ said the Chief. “How?”

“Look in the box!” the Customs officer said pointing to a box on the desk nearby.

The two of them opened the box.

“It’s a Pixie in a box,” said the chief. “Some licensed character from a film?”

“That’s what I thought so I asked her what film the character came from?” said the Customs officer.

“And?” said the chief detective

“Well, there’s no Pixie in the film,” the Customs officer explained. “I’d seen the film the day before. Half term treat for my daughter.”

“Where’s the stuff?”

“False bottom to the box. Lift up the Pixie!”

They two police picked up the multi-coloured Pixie and saw the goods below. The Chief shook his head. “A Pixie in a box!” he exclaimed.

“It would have made a better film if it had been the Pixie!” said the Customs officer.

The Box

“I like your room,” Rachel said to Paula. “How come?”

“Grandad is in hospital,” replied Paula. ”Mum said I could move in.”

“Like permanent?”

“Yes,” said Paula. “He is dying. He won’t be coming back.”

“I am sorry.”

“He’s….you know, very old. Coming to the end.”

“Do you visit?”

“Yes. I go with mum. I’m the only one who can comfort her, well she gets really, really upset.”

“She had a close relationship with her dad?”

“Oh yes,” she Paula. “Mind you, granny was very tricky. She and her dad had to hold the whole thing together.”

“The whole thing?”

“You know, the house, their relationship. Make sure it did not blow up.”

“Did it?”

“Well they all stayed together until granny died.”

“Can you come tonight?”

“No,” said Paula. “We’re seeing grandad tonight. I promised Mum. He drifts in and out of consciousness. We never know if we will be able to visit him again.”

“Okay,” said Rachel, a little disappointed. “So, the room is nice. All you own stuff.”

“Yes, “ said Paula and then paused. “Well apart from the box.”

“This one, on the bookshelf.”


“What’s so special about it?”

“It’s grandad’s and he said it was special,” Paula explained. “Every woman should have one. That’s what he said, exact words.”

“Can I get close?”


Rachel walked over to the bookshelf. The box stood on the top shelf and was about twice as tall as a World Atlas. It was covered with a blue star pattern on a white background with a large lid which fitted snuggly over the top. There was a posted note on it and written in capital letters. DO NOT PUT ANYTHING IN AS IT IS FULL. Rachel was intrigued and she looked at Paula as if to ask permission to open it.

“Go on, Rachel. Open it if you want. Nothing nasty in there, I assure you.”

She opened the box nervously and stopped, looking baffled. There was nothing in the box but an envelope which was still sealed and written on it. FOR YOU.

“I don’t get it, Paula.”

“Well, nor do I. Nor my mum. But grandad was always adamant. Nothing was to be put in the box.”

“And the note?”

“We are not allowed to open it.”

“So what is this?”

“I don’t know.”

“No idea at all?”

“Something to do with granny, we think,” said Paula.


“Mum and I only really noticed it after he’d been taken into hospital.”

“Have you asked him?”

“It’s not been possible,” Paula explained. “Maybe tonight, if he is awake and alert.”

“And if you never find out?”

“Well, we will open the envelope and then decide what to do.”

“It’s a nice box,” said Rachel. “You could use it yourself, afterwards….you know.”

“But it’s full.”

The girls looked at one another and burst out laughing and then Paula said. “It’s a magic box obviously.”

A week later after grandad died, Paula and her mother opened the letter and there written in pen was the message. “You need nothing else. This is filled with my love.”

The following evening, Rachel came to see her. They embraced and hugged each other. “I’m sorry about your grandad,” she said.

“He died peacefully,” Paula explained. “We are all right. He had his turn, as he said.”

The girls went to Paula’s room with a tray with two cups of tea and sat down. Rachel on the bed and Paula at the chair by the desk. They looked at one another.

“Really all right?” Rachel asked.

“Yea,” she replied. “Mum and I had a long weep and a long embrace, but we are fine now, honest.”

“Did he say anything? The last time you visited.”

“Yea, he did. He struggled as if he knew it would probably his last words with us.”


“He told us about the box,” said Paula.

“This one that is filled to the brim with something?”

“Yes, that one.”


“Granny was a materialistic sort of woman,” Paula explained. “Liked the fine things of life. She always had the latest gadgets or fashions before any of her acquaintances. Grandad had his own business. Engineering business. So, he would indulge her, always. Birthdays, anniversary dates. And on many occasions whenever she dropped her subtle hints.”

“How long were they married?”

“A long time but after this incident…”

“The box,” Rachel suggested.

“Yes, then granny moved out and lived with her mother as she fell ill and eventually died.”

“Go on,” said Rachel. “Let’s have the saga.”

“Well when my grandad got to sixty five, he sold the business and on her birthday which was a month later, he wrapped up the box, and that envelope was attached to the lid. Granny was very surprised. She usually told him what she wanted for her presents and he duly obliged, but not this time. And of course, she did not like surprises but now she had no choice. So she opened the lid and a balloon lifted up and sailed up past her face and she read the message as the balloon sailed up to the ceiling. This box is filled with my love.”

“That’s romantic!” said Rachel.

“My granny was not a romantic,” said Paula.

“Oh, I see,” said Rachel. “She was expecting something…”

“Material. A garment, perfume perhaps but not…” said Paula and smiled.

“Not fresh air?” suggested Rachel.

“Well it was not fresh air. It was all his love, packaged in one box.”

“So I expect you are going to tell me that she did not smile at him and hug him and tell him he was an impossible romantic.”

“She was angry. She said she did not want an empty box and the message was just silly. Birthdays are an occasion for real presents, not some whimsy.”

“Oh dear,” said Rachel.

“She told her friends thinking they would agree with her but they were charmed by the gesture. Her best friend told her she had everything and the gesture was perfect.”

“But she couldn’t think outside the box, so-to-speak,” said Rachel.

“Very droll, Rachel. No, Granny was not charmed at all. She was very frosty and he said she moved into the spare room and then days later, her mother was taken really bad and she moved out.”

“And when her mother passed, what happened?”

“Grandad wanted her back and so he sent her a box with a cheque for five hundred pounds and told her he missed her and did not know what to get her as she had not dropped any hints.”

“And that did the trick?”

“Yes,” said Paula. “She had won. She told him to get rid of this box. He didn’t. He hid it in the attic and retrieved it from there after her funeral. And it always stayed with him.”

“And now it’s yours.”

“If I could find someone who would give me a box filled with his love, I’d be very happy indeed.”

“And so would l,” said Rachel and then added. “But only when I had got everything I needed.”

They looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Izzy Hemlock is not dead

“Izzy Hemlock is not dead,” Sally said to her husband as they drove back from the vaccination centre.

“Is that a name?” Jack asked.

“You remember her, Jack. During second lock-down, you delivered her groceries for a while.”

“Oh, Izzy,” he said. “I thought she was Isabel.”

“No, she has always been Izzy,” she insisted.


“She became a bit of a recluse, as I recall,” Sally continued. “Her husband died from Covid. Angela told me the details as we sat there for fifteen minutes after our jabs to check if either of us was going to keel over.”


“It was the eat out to help out campaign,” she began to explain. “She didn’t want to help out at all. Said she thought the Chancellor foolish in the least. Anyway, her husband, you played golf with him occasionally.”

“I remember Ashley,” said Jack. “I shall miss him terribly. One of the few people I could actually beat.”

“Anyway,” she carried on. “He wanted to visit his brother in Bath. And he loved going out. She was not too sure, but she agreed in the end. They had a lovely time. Ate out every day. Had a great time. And then of course, the inevitable happened. He started with a cough. She remained asymptomatic. Then he found it hard to breathe. Then he collapsed. The rushed phone call. The ambulance. She thought she’d see him the following day. But the hospital told her it was the most desperate case they had seen to date. He died that night. She wasn’t there to hold his hand. Awful. She withdrew into herself. Cut herself off. We wondered if she was still alive. Well, she is which is good news.”

“Well, that’s good,” he said as he parked up in front of their house. “I didn’t deliver her stuff for long. She rang me and said that she would be all right. Someone else delivered her medications and she told me he would deliver anything she might need.”

“I’d like to know more,” she said. “To know she is okay.”

“I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.”

Jack was the dog walker and he meet a wide circle of friends everyday sometimes twice daily, although he did not know their names, only their dogs’ names but he knew where they lived and one or two lived near Izzy Hemlock. Within a week, he was able to relay some more news to his wife. “There’s a woman with a lovely husky cross, adopted from Romania, who told me some news. She talked to Izzy over the fence last autumn, a while after her husband died. She was bereft, and she had had a crisis of faith. Ashley and she were regular churchgoers, as I think you know. She said that she was not giving the Almighty any more time. She was going rogue. Have time on her own. Sort herself out. She sounded desperate. She complained that Ashley had robbed her of her future.”

“A bit harsh,” said Sally. “I am sure Ashley did not die on purpose. If I were to die, would you blame me for robbing you of your future?”

“I wouldn’t say it but inside, I might think that.”

“So, when was that?”

“Well, that would have been early autumn,” he said carefully. “And then nothing. She didn’t see her at Christmas, although she said that a lone candle was lit every evening on the windowsill at the front of the house during the twelve days of Christmas. But she was not seen.”

“I am worried about her mental health,” she said. “I feel I ought to ring her doorbell.”

“We are not supposed to meet people outside our bubble.”

“But how is she?”

“Good question. What with missing Ashley and shunning God, it must be a taxing time.”

“I want to know how she is coping. I don’t believe they had any children.”

“There’s a daughter,” he said. “Ashley told me while golfing how proud he was of her. A GP in the North somewhere.”

Jack could vary his walks with the dog, and he decided to walk past her house. The coastal path ran along the back gardens of the houses where Izzy lived. You could see into the gardens and if lucky, you might see someone on the back balcony or in the windows. He started walking occasionally that way. The house looked lived in. That he was sure of. One late afternoon walk, as the light was fading he saw a strange sight. There she was on the back patio. The outside light was on, and she was moving this way and that. Jack stopped and looked at her. He knew that she could not see him. He was among the trees beyond the path in front of the seashore. He realised that there was a pattern to her movements. It was not some exercising moves. She was practising a dance move. He recognised the pivot in her steps. He recognised the move. Sally was an addict to Strictly Come Dancing and the move was from a foxtrot! Izzy Hemlock was practising a dance move. He silently put the lead on his dog and stood still. If she was practising a dance move, he guessed that she was practising to be with someone else, dancing as a couple.

He watched her raise her arms and glide through the moves. She was remarkably elegant. She was a bit overweight and in her mid-seventies and yet she moved with a certain grace. Now he could hear her hum the music. Cole Porter he thought. Then she stopped, looked around as if to check no one was watching, and then went back inside. He heard the back door being locked and then the outside light was turned off. Jack let the dog off the lead and carried on with the walk. He did not know whether she should tell his wife. She would not believe it and he was beginning to doubt himself. But one thing was certain: Izzy Hemlock was alive, very much alive. Whether she had forgiven God, that was a question for another day.

Another day, he met the man who had first offered to collect Izzy’s medications. He had a pug which was anti-social and barked at his own dog. So, they did not converse much because of the yapping. But today, he was alone. He asked him about the dog. The news was not good. The pug had died suddenly. Jack knew he needed to know his name. Up to then he had known him as Mr Pug.

“I’m Brian,” he said. He asked Brian if he still delivered medications for Izzy, and the truth came out.

“I met Izzy at school, you know,” he said. “Back then, we both went to dancing lessons. We were considered to be a good couple, dance wise. But then the lessons changed to a Sunday and she was a church goer and I played football, so we drifted apart. She married and so did I but whenever we met socially, we always felt close. My wife died many years ago, and then when Covid devastated her and saw off Ashley, I started to help. Medications, groceries. We talk on the phone. We have even mastered Zoom.”

“So Izzy is fine, physically and mentally.”

“Yes, but I had to work hard on her.”

Then Jack told Brian about Izzy dancing as dusk appeared. “Look,” Brian said. “I feel like a young buck. I’ll send you a link. We practise on Zoom. My son who is tech savvy has taken our moves and merged them together. We look as if we are dancing. I mean we aren’t as we are in lock-down.”

That evening, Jack showed Sally the link. First, there was footage of both of them practising outside. She was humming as he danced, and he was silent although there was a huge grin on his face. Next, they had both dressed up. She wore a red dress, and he had a tuxedo on. Now they were dancing alone and then suddenly they were dancing together.

“Well I never!” exclaimed Sally.

“Rule of six comes into force next week and we have been invited to watch them on Friday evening,” said Jack. “They have told the local TV station and there will be a crew there to report it and there will be a piece on the TV.”

That Friday night, the report began. “A childhood couple who danced as teenagers but then led separate lives have been re-united by the pandemic. They have practised their dance moves for months alone due to Covid restrictions. Tonight after an interval of sixty years, they are dancing again, in the open air. Izzy and Brian, take it away!”

The Four Archangels

They had been named after the four archangels – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel – and they were considered to be the best altar boys, always well turned out and dutiful to boot. The Abbott had chosen them for the Archbishop’s visit and the Te Deum mass to celebrate the final completion of the Abbey and the hundredth anniversary of the school. There was another reason, a rather impish one on the Abbott’s part as he felt he could spot false piety when he saw it. He knew the Archbishop considered himself to be one of the holiest and closest to God in the church and he felt he would appreciate being served by boys named after the four archangels. The Archbishop could not feel closer to God!

At the end of the service, the Archbishop blessed the boys in the sacristy.

“Oh to be served by the archangels,” he said with satisfaction. “Your parents picked the best names possible. Now, Michael, what do you want to be?”

“I want to be Prime Minister,” came the reply. “My father is an MP.”

“And you Gabriel?”

“I want to leave the church.”

“Why, pray?”

“Gabriel was forever visiting folk who broke away from the Jews and we’ve had nothing but trouble ever since.”

“An interesting notion,” said the Archbishop with sadness. “And you Raphael?”

“I want to play cricket for England and score a century at Lords.”

“And you Uriel?”

“I prefer to be called Lionel, your grace,” he replied. “My mother was the Catholic. I’m from a mixed marriage. My father thought a son should have his name and l am with him on the name.”

“And which of you will come into the service of the Church?” the Archbishop asked.

There was silence among the boys. They were nearing eighteen and preparing for their A levels and had other ideas for their future.

“Well,” said the Archbishop. “Holy retreat starts next week and the Jesuit fathers will be visiting. I am sure one of you will be persuaded.”

“Why the Jesuits?” asked Gabriel. “Why must we fear God and not love him?”

“Ah, of course we should all love God but we should also fear him too.” The Archbishop equivocated.

“And the Jesuits are good at that?” continued Gabriel in a petulant voice.

“Gabriel, let God’s grace come to you next week,” said the Archbishop wrapping up the audience. “All of you.”

The boys were a close group on account of their names and the years serving at altars. They had served all the monks in their time and they had seen the human as well as the religious side of them. They all hated retreat and now as the sixties were in full swing they had been fighting authority and tradition. They each had a way of coping with retreat. Michael retreated to his room whenever he could and lay on his bed. He wondered if God would come to him as he dozed but usually it was a series of Hollywood actresses in states of undress and that seemed to him that the Holy Spirit wanted him to go out and procreate. Gabriel had doctored the exterior of a hardback Bible and placed within it completely different reading matter and this year he was looking forward to reading something vaguely pornographic, possibly Henry Miller. Raphael was the least scholastic of the four and he was worrying about the impending A levels and used the time to revise extensively. Lionel just went to his special place and snoozed and dozed awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit who never seemed to come.

On the first morning of the retreat the boys were hanging about the radiators as there was a chill in the air. Gabriel was the first to speak; the others joked that God was always sending him out with messages, and they would listen to what he had to say.

“Are we still of one mind about Hellfire Blake?” he said. The others nodded and he continued, “so we take him down?”

“Yep,” said Lionel. ”Lets see if God is really on his side.”

Father Blake was an imposing man. Very tall, quite stocky, very bald with a booming baritone voice which really should have remained in the Opera House and not the House of God. His age would be around the sixty mark and he was a bully. He had been terrifying the boys at the school with his sermons of hell fire and damnation for over thirty years. His strong Ulster accent made the end of the world seem very close at hand.

“Looking forward to it,” said Raphael now indulging his passion for cricket analogies. “I’ve faced some demon bowling in my time and l never flinch. I want to hit the old tyrant for six and move him on his way.”

There was always a school assembly before the retreat began in earnest where the Abbott would explain the rules of the retreat and outline all the events.

“A religious retreat is a time for contemplation,” he began, pausing a moment before continuing, “A time to reflect on life and our place in God’s love. As you will recall, talking is forbidden during most of the day. We may talk and relax only at meal times and between lunch and tea in the afternoon. We trust you to use the time well. The abbey will be open at all times and you may go to your rooms if you have them to contemplate, but no distractions, no playing music and talking. The Jesuit fathers will address you twice a day, once in the morning after breakfast and then after tea. You may talk to the Jesuit fathers if they ask for questions. I would ask you to be respectful of the Jesuit fathers. They have much to offer you all and our souls will be nourished by their words and actions.”

The oldest boys were instructed to go into the large hall which was the main area for mass assemblies and which also served as an examinations room. The desks had been rearranged to resemble the House of Commons with a podium in what would be the Speakers chair from where the Jesuit father would start the assembly and talk. He would be able to roam down the middle of the room and address each side of desks.

The archangels divided themselves in two and sat opposite each other across the aisle. They had a plan and it was them versus the Jesuits now. They would soon find out if God would vanquish them or as they suspected He would be indifferent to the spectacle about to commence.

At nine o’clock, Father Blake entered and walked up to the podium. He looked at the boys almost individually in total silence. The room fell silent. Father Blake now walked down the aisle and glared at those on his left. He turned smartly at the end and marched back glaring at the other boys. He stopped at the podium and looked left and then right. The boys held their breath. A lot of time had lapsed since he entered. And then that booming Operatic voice uttered loudly.

“All those on my left, boys, will be damned.”

On previous occasions this utterance had led to a sudden intake of breath but no, the two archangels on that side booed and egged on the other boys. And then suddenly there was silence. Father Blake looked confused as this had never happened before. For thirty years this opening remark had worked its magic. It quelled one side and then his next line would quell the other side and then he had the boys in his grasp. He decided to carry on sure that order would be restored and he could deal with the unruly side in his own time and way.

“And all the boys on my right, they will be saved and live in God’s grace.” The other two archangels cheered and egged on those on their side. Father Blake had to nip this outrage in the bud and bellowed, “And on which side will each of you be?” Now this seemed guaranteed to upset all the boys and the four archangels jeered and cheered together and the hall descended into chaos and Father Blake stood there his mouth open unable to say or do anything. He was saved by the door opening as the Abbot entered to see what an earth was going on.

The retreat had never started this way in his time here. Father Blake fled the room almost knocking the Abbot off his feet in his haste to leave. The Abbot looked at the four archangels and permitted himself a silent smile. He preferred God’s love to the fear of God. He called the boys to order and told them all to go to the Abbey and pray for Father Blake who was never seen again.

The Tree that Saved the World

The camera crew, the three of them – camera, sound and reporter – arrived at the mission late one afternoon. It had taken them three days to get into the heart of the Amazon. Jack, the reporter asked for the Monsignor who was the brother of the news editor and the reason for the visit.

“I’m sorry,” the priest said. “We heard about a twelve year old girl from one of the native tribes here, they have a small reservation and we thought she was having visions of the Virgin Mary. Quite unheard of out here so l sent one of my lay fathers and she is..” he paused,” a pagan l suppose. She does not believe in God as we know Him. Yes, she is said to be having visions about a tree talking to her. It has members of her tribe very animated, but it is not the Virgin, so l am sorry the news arrived after you left.”

“That’s a shame,” said Jack and he returned to his crew.

“Now what?” asked Billy the camera man.

“I bet the sounds from the rain forest are something,” said Mike, the soundman.

“I’ll email for instructions,” Billy decided

Two days later they were travelling further into the interior on a canoe with a translator. The editor and the Monsignor had talked and it had been decided that the three of them would check out the story anyway and to help things along the Monsignor volunteered one of his team as a translator as he spoke Portuguese, some English and the native dialect.

“The tribe,” explained Lucas, “is a small one. They have a good sized reservation but there are loggers on the edge and there have been incursions. They do not believe in God as we understand it. They live in the present. A simple life. Maybe the loggers’ activities have upset the girl. We call her Maria.”

They arrived at the village just before sunset and were cordially greeted. They were offered the main community hut to sleep in. “There are less snakes around here,” said Lucas. The crew were grateful if not a little unnerved. Lucas introduced them to the elders of the village and there was a lot of shaking of hands and nodding of heads. The crew muttered the only Portuguese they knew which was obrigado or thank you. Lucas left them for about an hour so they could settle in.

“It’s a bit like the stone age,” said Mike. “But l like the sounds, guys. The sounds of the jungle. Very David Attenborough.”

“I hope Lucas will get them to let me use the camera,” said Billy.

“I wonder where this Maria is?” Jack mused.

Lucas came back full of news. “You can film but first you offer the thumbs up or down and wait for their response. No filming, whatever the temptation, when there is a thumbs down. Maria will see us tomorrow but no filming or recording. They do not want to alarm the Tree.”

The next morning, the crew divided. The camera and sound went around the village and river bank nearby, getting background footage. Jack went with Lucas into the jungle. “The tribe has been here forever but now they are threatened,” said Lucas. “They want a stop to the cutting down of trees. Maria is the key to stop this.”

They walked alone for about twenty minutes. The jungle became denser and soon they saw a young woman sitting down on the ground. She seemed to be in a trance, quite oblivious to their arrival. Lucas greeted her in her own language and she looked up startled. She bade them to sit down on the ground by her. She began to talk and Lucas translated. “There is an old Tree here which speaks to her. It is very old but always remember they live in the present so anything their grandparents recall is to them like ancient history so this old Tree is not necessarily very old, well at least seventy five old. The Tree talks to her as the sun sets and only her, so maybe we could say she is disturbed.”

“What does the Tree say?”

“Man and tree need each other. Man exhales and the Tree inhales and the Tree exhales and man inhales. If there are no trees, man will not inhale. This is not good for the earth.” He broke off and let Maria speak further before translating, “Tomorrow, you must come with the camera and sound. Your arrival has been foretold. You will not be alone.”

The following late afternoon the four of them set off to see Maria and see what message the Tree had for all of them. As they set up, more and more people came into that part of the forest, men, women and many children. “Which is the right Tree?” asked Billy keen to point the camera in the right direction. None of them could tell him anything. Time passed and the light started to fail.

“Is it a trick so we can’t see which tree talks?” Jack asked Billy.

“Concentrate on the girl,” Lucas said. “I will do my best to translate.”

Two elders with torches came out into a makeshift assembly area and stuck them into the ground. Maria walked into the flickering light, dressed in white and there was a hush and then there was clapping. Lucas started translating.

“Before Man, there were Trees and all the animals and the humans who came had shelter, medicines and wood as building material. The Tree was happy to be harvested as long as it had a good life and could replenish itself. The Tree which has guarded this land now speaks to all men everywhere on behalf of Trees everywhere.”

Maria fell silent and suddenly the temperature dropped and the wind rushed through the trees there and around them extinguishing the torches. Jack and Billy turned on their electric torches and Mike picked up sounds which he later said sounded like voices in the distance, indistinct but clearly there. Maria raised her arms and shouted and Lucas translated. “Work with the Trees, plant us in mighty numbers and we will sustain you and the world will be richer.”

The following day Jack’s report was filed and sent to the editor for broadcast and later that day it was seen on Youtube. Social media picked up on Maria and there were pledges from young people from all around the world and government ministers started to allocate budgets for tree planting.

Jack became something of a celebrity on his return and was sought out by all the networks. An American billionaire sought him out. “I have to repay nature for what l have taken,” he said. “Bring the girl over. I will pay. Everyone must listen to her. I mean the damn Tree is so right. We have the technology to counter climate change and it is called the tree and it is cheap technology. We just have to plant trees. I’ll spend my millions to help spread the message.”

And so began a simple campaign which went viral and around the earth. Maria addressed the UN in New York, toured the main countries and even had an audience with the Pope. Kids everywhere began planting trees and implored their parents to look to the future. In some countries political parties in favour of the conservation of the planet began to form governments. There were reactionaries everywhere who thought Maria was a hoax or mentally ill but they were easily discarded. The girl comported herself with simple grace. She wanted nothing the developed world could give her. The young held her in high esteem and she was even offered the Nobel Peace Prize which she rejected. She wanted to grow up in a world which had a future and that was the only foreign language sentence she ever learnt.

Mike became obsessed with his sound recording and no matter how much work he and others did on it they could not work out what the noise was. Maria said it was the sound of Trees speaking that taught her ancestors to talk and that is what she heard that night. Trees telling her what was needed and Billy had turned on his camera right on cue. It was the only time he recorded her in the jungle. Her tree had convinced the others that this time they would be listened to. Other scientists were sure it was just the way the wind blew about the trees that night. In his old age, Mike would be asked to play the recording whenever there was a major tree planting and when new forests were opened up. That recording became the soundtrack of a changing world which would become more peaceful and sustaining.

1493 words

© George Zacal

29 The Old Wharf




T: 01752405051

Mob: 07815600274

June 2019

Living Inside a Tom & Jerry Cartoon

Grandad, did you really have a dormouse as a flat mate when you lived in Italy?”

“You’ve been talking to your grandmother!”

What was his name?”

“We never found out what sex it was so we called him ’ghiro’ which is the Italian for dormouse. The two cats had names. Alice and Julius Caesar.”

Do you think it was wise to introduce a dormouse to a house with two cats?”

“You have to realize that l was not in charge. I was the lodger in many ways. When l got to Milan, l needed digs and l could not afford the rent for a place of mine own. My language tutor introduced me to some of the radical chic of Milan and they thought l would be a useful curiosity. Their friends would be impressed. There was little movement of people in those early days of the Common Market.”

Radical chic, grandad. Explanation please but the short version.”

“Radical chic means simply rich kids playing at being bohemian, dressing badly, eating badly and looking like they have no money when in fact their backgrounds are minted. Nicoletta and Franco were the children of two different famous journalists that married young and their parents thought it would be nice if they did not live with them. So Nicoletta’s parents moved out and left Nicoletta’s brother and the two cats with the young marrieds. Their friend, Alberto lived there weekdays as he was a student studying to become a vet. The house was a scene of parties. It became a tip really. Radical chic didn’t believe in tidying and cleanliness. There were occasional illegal substances etcetera. The parents had to employ their cleaner to come and make the place look less like a squat. ”

Surely, grandad the vet student would know that a dormouse should not live in the city.”

“He was like me, a lodger. Neither of us was consulted.”

So how did you get the dormouse?”

“Well, the two young marrieds had a weekend retreat in the mountains above Lake Lugano which the parents let them use for their own pleasure and most weekends they would go up there to get away from the city. And it was there that Franco or Nicoletta or both of them came upon an orphan dormouse and felt they ought to do something for it.”

Like bringing it to the city? Really, grandad?”

“I wasn’t there. I would have said something as would have the vet student.”

And the cats?”

“I would have thought that they would have sounded a warning note. The problem with the radical chic is that they think everyone and everything should be able to get on. You know, make love not war. They were very young and idealistic and felt they could not abandon the tiny creature. And autumn was coming.”

So, granddad, the dormouse came to the centre of Milan?”

“Sixth floor flat opposite the central station. In fairness, it had a patio up there.”

Did he have a cage then?”

‘The radical chic don’t do the mundane and in the centre of Milan opposite the station there were no pet supply shops. So they shrugged their shoulders and put him in the vestibule.”

In the dark, among the coats?”

“The vestibule was between the hall and the living room and had glass frosted doors so it was not dark.”

Odd place, granddad.”

“Not really as Alberto, our vet had a camp bed in there and he dossed down there Monday to Friday.”

So they thought the dormouse would be all right with a vet student?”

“Alberto looked after him. The dormouse lived in the pocket of an old coat that hung in the vestibule. Alberto would feed him grapes and things.”

And the cats, grandad?”

“At first, everything was okay. After all, the vestibule had doors and they were closed after Alberto went off to the university. We took turns to take grapes into the dormouse. People at work didn’t believe me when l told them we had a dormouse. They assumed l’d mistranslated some other domestic animal name. I had to take a picture of him to prove l was not mad.”

Well, l’m not surprised, grandad. I mean. Why would anyone have a dormouse in the middle of Milan. Didn’t they have the equivalent of the RSPCA in Milan?”

“I was young and in a foreign country. Anyway, we even had dormouse evenings. Friends would come to see him or her. They didn’t believe us when we said we had a dormouse. Ghiro put on weight. Nicoletta insisted no one smoke in the vestibule.”

Decent of her.”

“She did care for him in her own way.”

So how long did this go on, grandad?”

“Well the cats found out that actually the doors to the vestibule were far from secure. A cat could lean on one of the doors and it would open.”

Oh my god!”

“Life soon became like a Tom and Jerry cartoon and the door in dormouse became redundant so to speak.”

Did you call him Jerry then? At least he would have had a name?”

“We should have, I suppose. We felt more than a UN peace-keeping army. The cats always gave the game away. If you watched the cats, then you knew where ghiro was.”

So what did you do to protect Jerry. I shall call him that, grandad.”

‘Both Franco and Nicoletta realized that ghiro needed protection. The cats were not allowed in their bedroom so they decided that he should live with him there.”

So did they buy a cage for him?”

“They didn’t need to. They had real hessian as wallpaper and an old mandolin hung on the wall. It was stringless and ghiro made it into his home. We would go in there and knock on the mandolin. A little whiskery face would appear at the opening and we would offer him a grape and he would disappear back into the instrument.”

Did you not think Jerry should be returned to the wild?”

“There was some discussion, but he’d been brought into the city in early autumn and they felt he would not survive on his own.”

Don’t dormice hibernate? He couldn’t have got any sleep in a house with two cats?”

“Look, we all tried to protect him as best as we could. Even the cleaning lady, a short largish lady from the south called Rosa did her best. She would keep an eye on the cats as she cleaned. If they came near the vestibule or the couple’s room she would smack them with a brush. Even your grandmother and Rosa rescued ghiro one day.”

Granny said that one morning she went into the family bathroom to put some dirty linen in the laundry basket, she heard an animal sneeze and she found it in the toilet bowl. She said she called Rosa and they both feared it was a sewer rat but they both realized it was ghiro. Rosa got a ladle and fished him out and your grandmother dried him with a hair dryer.”

“Yes that’s true.”

Poor creature.”

“Your grandmother and I tried our best to keep him alive.”

Did you love him?”

“Love is difficult. Your grandmother likes to cuddle animals but ghiro was scared of everyone by then, but we were impressed by him. He seemed like a survivor. He nearly made it to the spring when we were going to return him to the mountains.”

The next chapter doesn’t sound hopeful, grandad?”

“No. Your grandmother and l couldn’t be there all the time and one weekend we went away and we assumed the others would be around but they weren’t. We returned home to a crime scene.”

Did you give him a decent burial?”

“Too much concrete, brick and asphalt in the city centre.”

So you put him out with the rubbish?”

“He would have been a health hazard. So yes.”

Not your finest hour, grandad?”

“I did my best with the hand l was dealt. The radical chic often reject common sense as being too bourgeois.”

Whatever, grandad!”


He stood in front of an old armchair covered in a bright red fabric, a favourite chair of the old lady. Now her two children, twin women in their seventies, were squabbling over it. The old lady’s will was a simple affair. Divide everything equally between the two of them. The solicitor assisting with it was at her wit’s end. The two women argued about every non-cash item – rugs, pillows, furniture. It was her bad luck that the non-cash items were an odd number and the last outstanding item was the chair. Eventually they agreed on a third party, Larry, who as a teenager had dated each of them and he had been the first boy each girl had kissed. He had been fond of the old lady and felt that he owed it to her memory. He spent a day walking round the flat the old lady had bought in a retirement home. He felt he should try and understand the choices these two women had made but there appeared to be no rhyme or reason to them. They just seemed to goad each other. If one got the China, the other got the glasses. If one chose the duvet, the other chose the pillowcases. It was like the Berlin syndrome; the city would be divided whatever anyone else wanted. After an hour he made himself a coffee from a jar which was going to Winifred and drank it out of a cup going to Diane and stirred the milk from the milk jug which was going to Winifred with a teaspoon going to Diane. He drank the coffee slowly and thought about the two women. He first met them when they were all ten, after he moved into the area. He did not realise how competitive they were until he asked one out on a date. After three outings, she, he thought it was Winifred, said they ‘clicked’ and became very possessive. When she went to university, he asked Diane out and she too said they ‘clicked’ and that alarmed him so much he stopped asking them out. His mother thought them odd and nicknamed them “Win or Die” and neither managed to find a life partner. Larry looked through the photo album, now up to date with many recent photos. And then, he saw how he could make a judgment. They met the following day. Winnie called him their Solomon, the wisest of men. Diane said if he did not give a good reason, she wanted ‘Solomon’ to have the armchair cut in half. Larry said that would not be necessary. His choice would be much simpler. “I’ve looked at all the photos and I reckon the chair belongs to the one who used it most.” The women looked baffled. “Which of you is taking Jimmy on?” he asked. Diane smiled; she had promised her mother that the old cat would be hers. Winifred pulled a face and left the room without a word.

The White Lady

He cursed as he took shelter under a large oak tree. He looked at his phone and checked the weather app. He cursed again. The storm arrived an hour earlier than forecast. He called the dog to him and put her on a lead. “Yesterday was lovely, Bear,” he said to the dog. “We are going to be a while now.” He pulled an apple out of his pocket and shared it with the dog. The storm seemed very angry and the flashes of lightning seemed very close. He looked out at the view. He was in that part of the old hall’s arboretum, a mix of lawns and trees which fell away to the artificial lake which had been designed in the gothic style with a ruined cloister, a boat house and a hermitage which still retained its roof. By the shoreline, he saw a man sitting on the fence, his collar turned up and a cap on his head. He sat there unmoved by the storm and the flashes of lightning. Surely, he thought the man would move for his own safety. He picked up his phone and sent a message to his mother, asking her to go and pick up his daughter.

He was the only person out here, apart from the fence sitter. He looked at his watch. He had been here twenty minutes. The man was still there sitting patiently. Was he waiting for someone? If he were, he was sure that the other party would have stayed indoors. He waved at the man, who did not seem to be aware of him at all. Perhaps in the gloom under that old oak tree he did not stand out. He looked down at the dog and stroked her head and told her ‘hush’. The dog seemed agitated as if she had seen something. He looked up. There was another figure there down by the boat house, a woman in white with a blue bonnet. She waved at the man who acknowledged her, and he got off the fence and began to move towards the boat house.

Suddenly there was a loud crash. A lightning strike hit his tree and a branch crashed to the ground immediately in front of him. He jumped back and the dog barked and shot behind him, pushing herself up against his legs. He looked out at the view at the couple, but he could see no one. Where had they gone? And then the sky cleared and the storm which arrived suddenly, disappeared just as quickly. He left the cover of the tree and walked home with the dog. As he came up the drive, his mother opened the door.

“It was that kind of storm,” she said. “Did you see them? A man by the fence and a woman in white. They eloped in a storm and were drowned. I saw them once, in a storm like this. Tell me you saw them!”

He nodded.

Saving Bullets

Queue of women cowering, weeping, screaming. He could see them in the distance. He ran when the soldiers came. He was fourteen years old, and his mother told him to ‘just go, save yourself’. He ran along the back lots of the village. The soldiers were rounding up everyone. The front door had been smashed in as he leapt out of the back window. As he reached the copse behind, he collided with another boy his age.

“Lev,” he said, “Drop down, quick.”

The soldiers were busy elsewhere. They were not looking for them.

“What was the last thing your mother said to you,” he asked Lev.

“Bengy, she shouted be lucky! What do we do?”

“We follow.”

“Should we not join the runaway soldiers. They will look after us.”


They got up. Bengy saw that Lev had a rucksack. “What have you got there?” he asked Lev.

“Supplies, water. I will share! Promise!”

They found a spot where they felt the soldiers would not see them. The lines of women were being divided up, into small queues of three or four and told to bunch together, each told to hug the one in front. The soldiers then slowly pushed them back, so these small clusters were lined up on the edge of the ravine. There were dogs barking and officers blowing whistles.

“My god,” said Lev. “They are going to kill us all.”

A shot rang out and one small cluster was thrown back and dropped down into the ravine.

“They are saving bullets,” said Bengy. “God judge them!”

“I can’t watch,” said Lev.

“Let’s go find what’s left of our soldiers.”

“Wait!” said Lev. He opened his rucksack and pulled out a school exercise book and a pencil.

“What are you doing?” whispered Bengy.

“I need to draw a map.”


“There will be a day of judgment. Our soldiers will need to know where to find our families and get them justice.”

Bengy watched Lev draw his map. There was the village. The crossroads. The paths across the fields and small squiggly lines depicting the ravine there. And there he put a cross.

“I can finish that later,” he said as he closed the book and returned it and the pencil to the rucksack.

“I know the best way,” said Bengy. “Do as I say! OK? When I say run, we run. If I say drop, we lie down. OK.”

“I trust you,” said Lev. “I am lucky. My mother assured me of that. We will be fine. And we will return.”

Four years later, the officer told them to stay back. He took Lev’s map and walked off with his men. The two boys were now soldiers, young men now. They drank some tea. An hour later, the officer returned.

“They should have had your map,” he said. “The terrible evidence is still there. They have been digging in the wrong place!”