In his palm
The pebble was hard and angular in the palm of his hand. Simon weighed it carefully, slipped it down to his fingers, and drew back his arm. A moment later the old Coke-can, balanced on a stone at the other side of the car-park, fell off with a defeated rattle.
The words startled Simon. He swung around to see a stranger propping up the wall behind him. His hands in his jean pockets, an expression of relaxed enjoyment on his olive-skinned face, he looked as if he owned the place.
‘You made me jump.’ Simon felt truculent. He’d planned an hour’s peace.
‘Sorry.’ The man was unruffled. ‘Good aim, though.’
‘I get a lot of practice. One hour every Sunday morning.’ Simon was somewhat mollified by the compliment.
‘You’re not going in, then?’ The stranger jerked his head towards the small church, chocolate-box twee, tidily contained by its white picket fence.
‘Not me. Waste of time. My folks make me get in the car every Sunday, but they won’t force me to go inside. You?’
‘Nah, not really my scene.’ The man’s eyes clouded briefly.
‘Bunch of hypocrites, they are.’ Simon felt encouraged. ‘Half-dead people singing to a dead god.’
‘Only half right.’ The man frowned a little. ‘God’s very much alive and well.’
‘And living just round the corner, I suppose?’ Simon lobbed a scornful stone at the Coke can. It missed.
‘Well, among other places, yes.’
‘So why aren’t you in there, if you know God so well?’
‘Well, I don’t feel very welcome in there.’ He paused for a moment, and then changed the subject. ‘Do you know where Jesus used to spend most of his time?’
‘Never thought about it,’ Simon grunted.
‘Not in a place like that, that’s for sure. He used to hang out with the dregs of society. Thieves, collaborators, prostitutes.’
Simon glanced at the sky. You couldn’t say a word like ‘prostitute’ on church property and expect to get away with it. Only when he was sure that no thunderbolt was coming did he reply.
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Oh yes, he was very anti-establishment. Said they were like white-washed tombs – full of filth on the inside.’
‘Hmmm. Bet they weren’t too keen on that.’ Simon tried to imagine the expression on Pastor Williams’ face if someone said that to him.
‘No, they weren’t. Plotted to murder him, in fact.’ The stranger looked at Simon. ‘You should find out more, you know. You might be surprised.’
‘Would he really hang out with the likes of me?’ Simon’s shoplifting spree last summer was a guilty family secret, never spoken but always there, like a huge birth mark on his face. He still smarted at the recollection of Pastor William’s scorn the Sunday after Simon’s court appearance.
‘Well, that depends.’ The man squinted at Simon in appraisal. ‘He was only interested in spending time with people who were willing to listen. Rich or poor. Good or bad. Are you?’
As he spoke, the stranger took one hand out of his pocket to brush the hair from his face. Simon gasped. What did the man have in his hand? A star? No, of course not, it was just the sun shining… shining through his hand. In the centre of his palm a small hole had been punched with a torturer’s precision.
‘You!’ he whispered.
The visitor nodded. ‘Me,’ he agreed. ‘Now, Simon, I have to go.’
‘But, sir… how do I find out more about you?’ Simon grasped his arm desperately. ‘I never thought… What do I…’
‘Simon!’ The voice held compassionate amusement. ‘The answer’s closer than you think. Look.’
The congregation had started spilling out of the church on to its neat apron of lawn. The pair turned to watch them.
‘But… you said…’
‘Yes. My scrappy, messed-up people. Limping along in aimless discipleship. Missing the point and driving me out, as often as not. Chucking pebbles at Coke cans in their hearts. Sound like anyone you know?’
‘So… how will I learn from them?’
On the lawn, someone had said something funny. Pastor Williams threw back his head and brayed with laughter.
‘You’ll learn from each other, together,’ said the man with the holes in his hands, peeling himself off the wall. ‘Read the story of Balaam. I’ve even been known to speak through an ass.’
And he was gone.
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