I was strolling home late one dreary autumn evening when a mournful wail cut through the gathering mist. The cry chilled me far deeper than the dank air causing me to freezing me in mid stride. I must have lost my way, being startled to find myself beside the fundraising thermometer for the All Saints Church roof appeal that stood amidst a file of sentinel headstones. A faded red line, barely rising above the mocking bulb, was more a testimony to the parlous health of the church than to generosity.
The piteous, agony wracked cry rose once more, drawing me inexorably from my intended course towards the dark husk of the building. The snagging scrub parted to reveal where ply-board had been forced from a gothic arch to allow passage by destitute addicts… or worse. Yet curiosity took possession of me, so I slid through the resisting portal.
At first I thought the shell an empty void. But there, kneeling where the altar ought to stand was a man lit by the failing light that filtered through the skeletal remains of the once proud ceiling. He turned towards me, his swarthy lank hair drooping unkempt, shoulder length, upon vagrant attire. A repugnant angular face, flecked with blood where the brambles must have torn his scalp, transfixed me.
“Gone. All gone” was the grief laden statement as of one returned from afar to find things not as when they departed.
I gathered my frayed wits enough to realise this was a divine appointment, unwelcome though it may be. Many courses had primed me for such an encounter as this. I made the proclamation of the five point salvation plan to this poor stranger and that my church is the one for authentic bible based instruction where anointed leaders shepherded a prayer dedicated flock to raise voices in vibrant praise to the Lord. I advised of the programme we ran for down and outs just like him, how he should abandon the moribund liberal formality that characterised this blighted place, to come to my church, to come to be saved.
The man turned upon me in a trice. He clasped my shoulder in a wooden grip and conducted me through a guided tour of the abandoned church.
“See here?” the man pointed to stained patch of tile. “That was where the lectern stood from which scripture was read.
“There” he rasped shoving me towards a faint groove in the sanctuary step, “The faithful priest said vespers daily for and lead the parish through the prayer book.
“This,” he sobbed, pausing beneath a pale oblong that hung beneath a redundant hook “is where the numbers of the psalms and hymns were displayed that rang out in praise through hundreds of seasons. For all their lack of programmes I never wanted for their love.”
The man released his grasp and I sank to floor relieved that he spared me from harm. A gust of wind caused dry leaves to swirl in a skittering dance around me as I caught enough breath to rise and reason with him once more, to persuade him to desert this dead place.
“I was at every service even though there were so few and the roof began to buckle” he retorted, stooping to gaze at me with his deep brown eyes, “Christopher, I have only ever had the one church.”
“Have we met?” I asked unable to recall having encountered the man before.
He cracked a smile, amused at my discomfort and reached down to help me to my feet. When I clasped the offered hand I could not help but notice how calloused and torn his hand felt torn against my smooth flesh.
Suddenly, there came a violent clattering of wings that boomed and echoed off the naked walls dislodging clouds of detritus from the remaining rafters. I glanced upwards to glimpse white beating wings departing into the dark night sky. I was relieved to realise that it was nothing more threatening than a dove that sent my heart racing.
My question remained unanswered, for when I turned back the man had vanished. Only the rain, which had begun to fall like heavy tears, disturbed the emptiness. Concern for my self-preservation replaced any I felt for the man. So I fled towards the refuge of the loose board tripping as I went.
Strange, now I recount this tale, I could swear that the crucifix was not there when I went in.
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