Next Episode

After sharing with you the favourite passage so far of my 12 year old son I thought you might like another instalment of “Ashes to Ashes”. 

If you remember Janko has made it across The Channel and is on his way to Swanhill to confront Fr. James…..

James sat in his study. He was supposed to be writing the sermon for the Sunday coming but his mind kept wandering. It was the church and schools Harvest Festival this week so the main service was all sorted. Miss Strong had been kind enough to share with him some resources for assemblies on Harvest and he had easily adapted that for his sermon when the church would be packed with children and adults. It was the early morning 8am service that was giving him a bit of trouble. He didn’t think they would appreciate volunteering to come up and help him with the visual aids. 

 He leaned back in his chair, interlocking his fingers behind his head and looked out of the window. The trees at the end of the vicarage garden were heavy with leaf, just waiting for the time to send them spinning to the ground in that wonderful carpet of crunch and colour that James could never resist kicking his way through before becoming an adult again and raking them together and collecting them.

The sound of children in the playground next door shook him from his reverie and he smiled lazily to himself as he straightened up, stretched his arms before picking up his pen to begin sketching out his ideas. All of us are children at heart and just as children find joy in the smallest of things – the kicking around of dead leaves, so we should remain thankful for all of God’s gifts given to us. Harvest gives us that opportunity to be thankful for the food we eat that sustains us every day.

Not a bad outline. He began to work through these ideas, teasing and shaping his thoughts and the words in front of him into some sort of coherent thought that those who were awake at 8am could follow, and take home with them to think about in the week ahead.

The alarm on his phone distracted him. He looked down to see that the Deanery Chapter Meeting was due to start in twenty minutes. He really shouldn’t miss another one so James quickly scribbled a note to himself outlining where his thoughts were going for the sermon. He grabbed his phone and car keys and headed out of the vicarage to drive to his neighbouring parish to meet with the other local clergy to pray and share together. As he got into the car he hoped that the coffee would be served at the beginning of the meeting; in a centrally heated room with about fifteen people all sat together it could get rather sleep inducing, especially if Canon Giles the Area Dean started praying. His prayers were wonderful, eloquent and meaningful but without the stimulation of caffeine they were often a little long too. James smiled at the memory of the Deanery Chapter last year when an enthusiastic member of the chapter found that old Revd. Jones was asleep during the prayer and shook him awake. Philip had woken with a start, sat bolt upright in his chair and almost shouted; “Amen, amen. Good, good, good.” Completely cutting off the Canon in mid flow. The meeting had descended into laughter at that point with even Canon Giles saying he’d never heard a clearer word from God that the prayers were over. 

This Deanery Chapter wasn’t as memorable as that meeting had been, and coffee had been distributed at the start of their time together. As he left James felt his usual gladness at belonging to a church that was bigger than his own congregation. Is was an organisation that, despite its many shortcomings, was where the expression of his faith called home. Today they had discussed the bishop’s plan for a diocesan year of prayer the following year. As he left the meeting James was already thinking about people he would ask to help organise prayer mornings and as soon as he got home started researching material for Lent courses and home group meetings around the topic of prayer. 

James made notes about all this, notes that he would share with his churchwardens and then, together, they would draw more people into the ideas and implement them as a church. First he had to collect the paperwork he had printed off days before for the school governors meeting he was due to chair, making sure he could read the notes he’d annotated the various reports with. He then walked the short distance to the school, and into the staff room, to be offered a cup of tea as the other governors and staff members gathered. 

It was when he returned to his study later in the afternoon, just as his stomach started telling him dinner should be round the corner, that he noticed the scribbled notes he’d left himself that morning. It looked like dinner would be pasta and sauce again once the sermon was finished. He sighed slightly as he returned to the task he had started four hours earlier but it couldn’t wait as Wednesday evenings was quiz night in The King’s Arms and although James’ team didn’t often place in the top three it was an expected, and relaxing, part of his vicaring duties. 

As James was drinking his second pint of the night Janko was unpacking his sleeping bag from his rucksack. He had been dropped by Nikola with a handshake and farewell grunt at one of the services around the M25. The task for tomorrow was to get into London, change his Euros and start to plan how to get to Swanhill. Janko presumed that train for part of the way and then walking to his final destination but it had been during the day, sat alone in this foreign country that he realised he’d given no though at all to how he would actually undertake his mission. He rebuked himself for not doing more planning in the weeks he had waited for Nikola when he found himself thinking about how he would return home after dealing with Jim Pooley. Up until today he hadn’t seen any further than his act of justice, now he began thinking about whether he wanted to live after the death of that man. He knew he was willing to die trying to kill him but; when he had, what then? How to get away? Where to run to first and why hadn’t he made any sort of arrangement with Nikola to return him across the sea? 

 There was nothing that could be done about his past stupidity but Janko was determined that he would succeed, and do such planning as would make that possible. He was slightly surprised to discover that he did want to escape and live a life somewhere with an untarnished memory of his lost family so he wouldn’t rush this. He would take time to plan properly, to organise and equip himself. With a smile he thought about the long handled axe that had been the tool of his trade in Gostilj. He would obtain one somewhere and feel the pleasure of swinging it again. 

As evening drew in Janko collected his belongings and walked to the edge of the parking area. It was around the fringe that he found an electrical sub station. Looking behind it there was just enough room for him to crawl under the bushes that grew against the metal fence. They would give some shelter and the sub station should protect him from any wind or any nocturnal surveillance that ought to mean he would remain undetected until the morning. 

Looking around to make sure he wasn’t being watched now he unpacked his sleeping bag, threw the rucksack before him under the bushes and crawled into the makeshift nest. 


Patience is a virtue.

Since my last post there has passed much time. Life in the parish has returned to normal and yet is still coloured by my sabbatical time. This ‘normal’ isn’t the old ‘normal’ which I guess is the whole idea of a sabbatical.

I’ve also had very limited time to continue the story of Ashes to Ashes yet Fr. James, Janko and Sarah have never been far from my mind. Below is the continuation of where I left off in retelling you the story. There is still more I’ve written that I am not sharing with you just yet – you’ll have to wait for the next portion.

But for now, here we go……

September started for Fr. James with start of term assemblies, the continuing wedding season and the beginning to organise Harvest Celebrations, Remembrance Day, Advent and the initial inquires regarding group, school and organisations Carol Services. The two week holiday down in Cornwall at the start of August already seemed a long way off. 
He also kept his eye on Sarah. He made a habit of talking to her after church, of having a cup of tea with her at least once a fortnight. He also talked to her other friends, those offering her support, trying to make sure that Sarah wouldn’t feel overwhelmed but also letting her know that he, and her other friends, hadn’t forgotten her to cope with her loss alone.

She seemed to be doing well, but you could never tell. Sarah had told James that she was attending grief counselling for which he was immensely grateful – and neither of them had talked about that coffee after the press statement. James put it down to Sarah reaching out in her grief. He was still aware of his personal feelings towards her but exploring them would have to wait until she was sure where her feelings were. Until then his time was full with the usual run of parish life. Never a dull moment.
It was in the third week of September that James decided to check the tunnel on his day off. After his morning run and shower he sat down to a light breakfast and cup of coffee before starting the short ritual of checking out his secret.
St. Joseph’s had been originally built as the servants chapel to the Manor House of Swanhill in the mid fifteenth century. Crafted as a show of wealth rather than out of any religious observance it had been large but plainly decorated. It was something that James liked about the church, the plain walls and exposed timbers of the oldest part of the church, now the vestry.
As the town had grown so had the church, with an extended chancel first and then the side aisles added in the nineteenth century but it was the first alterations that really intrigued James.
In 1558 the owners of Swanhill Manor were Catholic and with the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne their way of religious observance was threatened. The chapel in the Manor House itself was closed down by royal decree but Lord and Lady Kemble had started worshipping at the small chapel, and had employed Nicholas Owen to design and build a priest hole behind the altar. This hole had become a tunnel soon afterwards, hidden behind panels in the East wall of the chapel and travelling underground into what was now the cleaning cupboard in James’ downstairs bathroom.
When James had arrived in Swanhill there had been talk of a Nicholas Owen priest hole but no-one involved with the church knew where it was or how to access it. And no-one at all spoke of a tunnel leading from the church
It had been on his second day in the vicarage when James had walked into the frankly oversized cupboard he had in the downstairs toilet. Who needed a full height, five foot deep, cupboard there? As he stood in the empty cupboard he had absent-mindedly kicked the skirting board around the inside of the cupboard. The wall nearest the toilet door sounded different from the others. Hollow perhaps. It was then that James did some measuring. The edge of the cupboard was about three feet before the toilet door and the wall of the toilet between the cupboard and the rest of the house sounded strange when he rapped his knuckles on it too. There appeared to be a three foot square ‘hole’ in his house, one that he couldn’t understand why it was there.
After grabbing a candle and seeing the flicker of its flame as he held it near the inside of the cupboard he felt determined that there was a mystery in his new home. That was how, instead of putting his study books on the shelves and unpacking his belongings into his new house he had spent time on his hands and knees prying open a small door and looking into a black hole, the beginning of a tunnel that led… Well he had to find out. With a torch he could see the remains of a steep wooden staircase, leading down. It only took one trip to the local D.I.Y. store to buy a small ladder which James put down into the darkness. Once at the bottom of the hole he had found the tunnel. Just over five foot in height he crouched as he made his way along. He loved a good adventure and there was something of a childhood excitement about exploring that tunnel. It ended in another wooden staircase, leading upwards this time, and in slightly better condition than the one he had first found. Standing straight and carefully climbing the first couple of rungs he was able to see a wooden panel off to his right. Knocking on it had proven that there was an empty space here too. Not trusting the other steps of the staircase James climbed using the walls instead onto a small ledge, a space behind the wooden panel. Using his torch he could see a mechanism, one that had long jammed. But through a small hole in the panel before him he could see the outline of the vestment closet in the vestry of St. Joseph’s. He had found the priest hole.
It took Fr. James a few days off to re-establish the stairs on either end of the tunnel. He hadn’t known why he was doing it, maybe an old army adage of always having a back-up plan. He thought it was mainly to keep himself busy. He couldn’t think of why he’d need an escape route out of church. Maybe an over excited meeting of the Mothers’ Union or a particularly boring sermon by a visiting preacher. He could nip out through the tunnel, watch a bit of TV and then get back into church without anyone knowing he’d been gone. The thought made him smile but he’d worked hard at the tunnel. Working out how the release mechanism had worked had taken some time too but in the end James had figured it out and with some new oil on old hinges the panel in the vestry would swing silently just as it had several centuries before. All he needed to do was to twist the corner section of the moulding above the panel and the secret door would swing silently into the vestry. Once inside, and crouched on the ledge, James could swing the panel back and it clicked into place. With a torch and batteries that he regularly replaced he could make his way down the tunnel and up, into the now full cleaning cupboard at the vicarage. As long as no-one was using the downstairs facilities there was no way of anyone else knowing about this four hundred year old secret passageway.
It was about once a month that James checked on everything to do with the priest hole. It didn’t take much to lock the toilet door and then quickly enter the tunnel, walking crouched the one hundred meters or so to the bottom of the church staircase, climbing the seven steps up and pulling the mechanism down to unlock the panel. He usually just swung it open a little, closed it again and then retraced his steps back to the vicarage to then continue his day. 

On the same day that Fr. James checked on his tunnel Janko and his driver got to the port of Calais. None to quickly either. It had been a difficult journey, not least because Nikola insisted on stopping at almost every truck stop for a small bite to eat or to relieve himself at the roadside at regular intervals. The nights had been worse. Janko was made to sleep in his seat, which wasn’t too uncomfortable in itself but the noises coming from the crib at the back of the cab, a veritable cacophony of noises, and smell, that sleep was impossible for anything more than a few snatched minutes. Janko had taken to staying in the cab during the refuelling stops Nikola made in order to catch half an hour of sleep before the roar of the truck starting and the lurch of movement brought him back to the reality of the never speaking, scrunch-eyed, eyebrow laden face of Nikola that Janko had come to dispise.
Now they were nearly there. Stopping some fifteen miles outside Calais Nikola instructed Janko into the crib; moving the bedding off to the side Nikola slid open a compartment which was half filled with his laundry and ordered Janko inside. There were a few moments of hesitation as Janko realised what the next stage of the trip would be like. Cocooned in sweaty socks and underwear and in a small, dark compartment – airless and pungent, beneath the mattress from which direction all the night-time noises had emanated. Unable to sense the passing of time or distance and then there was the added joy that the majority of this section of the journey would also be done in the rolling belly of a ferry ship. Yet this was the only way to get to Jim Pooley. The only way his hatred could be unleashed and so, taking a deep breath of good air and promising himself that this would all be worth it he crawled into the pit of sweat, cotton and stains.
Nikola replaced the lid of the compartment after covering Janko with more foul clothing, putting the bedding on top and closing the curtain separating the crib from the rest of the cab. Janko’s world lurched suddenly and a sock, he hoped, rolled across his mouth. Struggling to work his right arm up from beside his body he managed to brush the offending material away from his face and then used his hand to push more of a space near his head. In doing all of this he couldn’t see his hand – he knew it was just centimetres in front of his face but the darkness was complete.
It wasn’t long before his mind started to play tricks on him. The temperature in his hell hole was rising and before long Janko own sweat mingled with that on the clothing around him. The stench assaulted his nostrils as his eyes and ears fought to claim some sensory input but the darkness was total and all sounds muffled. The only thing Janko could hear was the vibration of the engine of the truck. Everything else was the touch of another man’s dirty clothes and the smell they produced.
On arrival at the ferry port the rear of the truck was thoroughly searched for anyone that might have tried the risky task of jumping aboard, or beneath, the trailer and it’s cargo. Nikola said that the customs officials had climbed into the passenger side of the cab and made a quick inspection of the crib but the mess of well slept in bedding and their lack of enthusiasm meant that the search for potential illegals concentrated towards the rear of their transport.
Of course Janko knew nothing of this at the time. All he knew was that the engine finally stopped which cut off any auditory stimulation; making his sense of smell even more acute, and unwanted, whilst he sweated and waited. Imagining, almost wanting to see, a glimmer of light as the bedding and compartment cover were removed and strong hands reached down into the rot and darkness to grab him. But that didn’t happen. The time simply stretched in darkness, and smell. Occasionally Janko heard metallic noises as the rear doors of the trailer were firmly slammed shut or as custom officers crawled beneath the trailer and tapped areas with their batons but none of the noises came close to the fetid womb in which he hid and finally, with another stomach turning lurch, Nikola was given permission to move the vehicle forward and prepare for embarkation.
Janko heard the sound change as the wheels of the truck hit the metal floor of the ferry, he knew then that he was almost there, and yet the bit of the journey he feared most was before him. He hoped that the crossing would be smooth yet The Channel in September is not known as a millpond. He waited for the slam of a door that indicated Nikola was off to another deck, probably to find the cafe and chow down some more grease and indeterminate meat product. More fuel for the inevitable slumber land serenade that Janko hoped would be his last tonight.
Once he knew he was alone Janko began to wriggle. Trying inch by inch to turn over. He wasn’t convinced that during the channel crossing in the environment he found himself in he would be able to convince the contents of his stomach to remain where they were and the last thing he wanted was to be covered in his own vomit as well as what he was currently surrounded by. As a close second he also wasn’t looking forward to confronting Nikola with the news that he had added his own awful ingredient to the concoction of the compartment beneath his bed. This was going to be a tough fight but one Janko was going to give his all, and still prepare for the worse.
 In the end if wasn’t the rolling of the ferry that caused Janko trouble. In fact he’d found the movement soporific and for at least part of the crossing he had drifted between wakefulness and light sleep. It was once the ferry was docked that he had major nausea problems. Nikola returned from wherever he had spent the hour or so and, as soon as he was back in the cab, started the trucks engine. The diesel fumes of this, and every other waiting truck on the deck, seeped into Janko’s hiding place and this was almost the last straw. His head swam with half sleep and his working sense of smell was almost overwhelmed. He fought his inner reflexes and willed time to move faster, to move so that the deck could be cleared and something like fresh air return to his lungs. When the familiar lurch forward told him of movement he knew the fight was almost over; he only had to wait now until Nikola found a spot far enough from the port to not arouse suspicion. An age later the truck stopped, Janko waited, still face down, until he was punched in the back by Nikola. Then he moved, emerging like an Egyptian pharaoh from his mummification of damp wrappings. Trailing socks, t-shirts and underwear he spilled from the passenger side of the truck; almost into the centre of the road. Realising that Britain drives on the opposite side of the road to the rest of Europe Janko stumbled around the front of the truck to find the verge of the road. It was there that he knelt and gave up the battle he had fought for over two hours. Inhaling large lung fulls of clean air whilst depositing his last meal on the roadside.
A few minutes later Janko was feeling better but Nikola insisted on waiting for ten more minutes until some colour returned to his face and a little water had been drunk to make sure that Janko wouldn’t be ill in the cab of his truck. He was too weak to argue and besides, the hardest part of the journey was over. He was in England, closer to his enemy than he had been for nearly two decades. He could wait another ten minutes to clear his head. Revenge was coming, it was getting closer – he had waited until now, he could wait a little longer.

Back home and away again.

It has been two weeks since the end of my sabbatical and life is pretty much back to normal. The lessons learnt and the experiences I had are still very much with me but it is good to be back at work, good to be back in Horsham and good to be back among my family,  friends and community of Holy Trinity.

All that said,  early this morning I found myself walking through a familiar door. 

The pace of the day immediately slowed and after a flurry of “Welcome back” and one “someone told me the vicar had returned!” I have slipped into the routine that was so part of my life back in September. 

This, hopefully, will be a chance to reflect on the total experience of my time away and to bring into closer focus those things that I need and want to do differently from before – with maybe the beginning of thoughts on how they might be done differently. 

I preached last Sunday on the need to be prepared; not just for Christmas in a few short weeks, but also for that which Christians throughout history have looked ahead for – the coming of Jesus again. As I write this blog post, sitting in front of a warming log fire,  I am reminded of something I learnt in this room when I was last here. 

When asked what he would do if he knew that Jesus would return tomorrow Martin Luther said; “I’d plant a tree.” 

As we look to the future is is important that we realise the gift and blessings of today. That we prepare for what is to come but we live in the present. 

And for me the blessings of today are a beautiful view of a sunny yet frosty countryside, a log fire burning, the conversations with friends and a cup of tea calling my name right now. 

With every blessing, 

Fr.  David

Almost home, not nearly finished

My time in the caravan near Winchester will be cut short. The autumn weather has turned colder now and I’m wearing far too many layers of clothes whilst sleeping – even the dog has extra blankets at night.

It’s only one week short of my due leaving date and I’ll use the time at home to make some phone calls, reconnect and start to arrange my transition back to parish life. In the meantime I have continued to write when my hands are warm enough to type (where do you get hold of those fingerless gloves?) and below is the next section of draft one of the book. It continues from where a previous blog post left off and I have more already written but I’m holding that back for now. I hope you enjoy reading it and I really would appreciate any comments you may have about the story so far.

It was only twenty seconds of follow up news coverage but they were showing it again! Janko was fuming. For two days in a row the author of all his pain was staring down at him from that small television. Comforting a childless mother whilst turning the knife in this heart of a childless father. Why was he the only one that seemed able to see the evil in the eyes of Father James the Parish Priest? It was nearly the end of his shift, the washing up was slowing down so he made an excuse about a parole appointment and left early. Walking the short distance to the bar he knew quite well.

Sitting on the end of the bar, far from anyone who might want to engage him in conversation, Janko nursed his beer as he nursed his internal wounds. He sat silently and drank, slipping lower and lower into his own despair. Retelling the story of the raid that took his lovely Katerina and their teenaged daughter. Why had he gone into the woods that day? He knew why – they needed fuel, wood for a fire on which to cook and to keep warm around. He’d taken Stefan with him, not that Stefan was really old enough or strong enough to be of any actual help but he adored his father and his father adored him too. He loved the time spent walking in the woods, searching for branches that had broken off, trees that had fallen. Stefan loved to sit and watch his father work the axe, always asking for his go and never being able to split the log – but he was getting better. Had been getting better Janko corrected himself.

Walking back home that day with arms full of wood they hadn’t heard the screams that must have accompanied the destruction they did see. Smoke rising from buildings, a heap of rags lying by the roadside. Janko pushed Stefan aside so he wouldn’t see the face of their neighbour. Over sixty she had been but her skirts were pushed up around her waist and Janko was sure he could see the impression of a boot on her crushed cheek and nose. He put down his pile of wood and adjusted the old woman’s clothing. Too late to do any real good but still, dignity shouldn’t be taken away like that.
He hadn’t been too concerned about his wife and daughter. They had the cellar that Janko had strengthened and the marauding soldiers always looked for easy targets, no time to batter down well build doors when there were other prizes to be won. He’d always told Katerina to stay quiet, just to grab Dusa, lock the cellar door and stay there. “Just look after Dusa and yourself” he had told her; “that’s all we can do, save ourselves.”
It was when he entered the house and saw the cellar door open that his heart broke. Not just open but hanging on one hinge. His legs crumpled beneath him and the guilt arose afresh as he remembered sinking to the floor, Stefan running past him and down the steps to the horror below.
Janko ordered another beer. He wanted a dreamless sleep tonight and alcohol would help him achieve that.
It had been Stefan that had also emerged from the cellar, tear stained but determined. He’d found a rifle propped up against the wall, a soldier had taken it down there but not needed it to perpetrate the crimes they’d been involved with and then just left it. They might be back for it but it would be too late. Janko now had it and when the owner of that rifle did return with a friend late into that night Stefan and Janko were waiting. The soldiers deaths had been much quicker than they deserved but afterwards their bodies were cut into pieces and left for the wild dogs to devour. The day had taken his wife and daughter but now Janko and his son had a weapon each and a small stash of bullets to protect themselves and to hit back at those who had hurt them.
Where had the blue berets being? Why did NATO not protect them from these raids? Peacekeepers my arse! One day those pigs who did this would get their reward, and Janko would laugh when they did. And if those incompetent NATO idle goats got some too, well so much the better.
Another beer turned Janko away from the past and he looked at the other patrons of the bar. All of them were smiling. What had they to smile about? Life was shit on top of shit, couldn’t they see it? He looked at the bartender who happened to be looking his way, they made eye contact and the bartender took this as an invitation to wander over to talk.
“How you doing? I’ve seen you here before haven’t I?”

Janko looked at the young man before him, bright eyed, smiling, a strange floppy hair cut that fell over one eye – how could someone cope with only being able to see out of one eye all the time?

“Get your hair cut!” 

The venom in his voice, as well as the words, stopped the bartender in his tracks.

“I don’t know what your problem is mate but if I were you I’d sort it out rather than taking it out on other people. By the way, you may as well leave now as I’m not going to serve you any more tonight.”
Still growling and grumbling under his breath Janko walked slowly to the door, careful not to weave too much. The cold air hit him and the words of the bartender came back to him; “I’d sort it out…” That’s what he was going to do. Janko did have a problem, one called Jim Pooley, and he was going to sort it out once and for all. All the pain that man had caused, all that had been taken from Janko. Now he knew that the cost of that pain would be paid by the one who had caused it. He would find Jim Pooley, Father James of St. Joseph’s Church Swanhill, and he would kill him.

Janko did some research over the next few days. He found out that he would need a visa to enter England. This picked at his anger again – they had walked into his country as part of the ‘peacekeepers’, they had done precious little to keep any peace. During their time in his country with all their guns and armament his wife, daughter and son had been brutally taken from him. Now they insisted that he get a piece of paper in order to cross their border. No way!
He let it be known around the truck stop that he was looking for transport across Europe and after nearly two weeks of asking and waiting he was called from the wash basin to have a quick chat with one of the drivers.
“I hear you want to go West?” the gravel voiced man before Janko asked.

Janko looked at him across the chipped formica table. A man about his age he guessed; eyebrows almost hooding his dark eyes completely. A nose that spoke of at least one breakage and a scar deep across the unshaven chin.

Janko smiled, here was a man who knew the world; “Yes, West.” He replied.
“How far?”
“As far as you can take me, I want to go over the channel.”
The eyebrows lifted a little; “With papers?”
Janko tried not to look downhearted; “Only Marks, or Euros if you’d prefer.”
A slow nod from the man opposite; “I understand. I could help, how much?”
“Five thousand Marks, 2,500 Euro”
“Euros will do.” The weathered face lifted and looked straight at Janko; “One more question. Why?”

Janko hesitated, then gambled a little on the history that the man had to have gone through for his face to be so beaten as it searched out his soul with an iron glare.

“Revenge.” He stated quietly, matching the intensity of glare with one of his own. Allowing the hatred inside to writhe just a little; “My son, my daughter, my wife. All taken from me and I know the man who did it all – through his actions and his inaction. I’m going to make him pay.”
Janko’s potential driver continued to look through him for a while then sighed a little, nodded and said; “The war. Most of us stopped fighting it some time ago.”
“And some of us,” Janko responded with steel in his voice; “have one more battle to go.”
“Okay, you have a deal. Give me your number and I’ll call when I next get a job that way. I’ll want all the money before we set off – this is a one way trip.”
Janko stood; “Thank you.” He quietly said and held out his right hand.
The two shook hands and parted soon after. Janko went back to work with a small smile on his face. Things were beginning to move. He felt his anger and hatred settle a little. Just die down to rest for a while. They would be needed soon, they would be set free soon to consume another, but for now they could rest. Janko set back to the pile of dirty dishes with an unusual gusto. It was only later in the shift that he realised he didn’t know the name of the man who had agreed to transport him two thousand Kilometres.

Janko had begun to lose hope that his conversation would draw fruit. It had been six weeks since he’d met the gruff stranger. The weather was starting to change in Zenica, autumn was coming fast. Then, one day as he walked home his phone rang. “Hello?”
“Washer man, you still want transport?” The voice was unmistakable, Janko’s heart leapt and a warmth began to stir within him.
“Yes, yes. When?” he asked with growing excitement.
“Four days from now, Saturday. Meet me at your truck stop. Eleven thirty at night. Have the money!”
“Of course, okay, 11.30 Thursday night at the truck stop. Great.”
Janko suddenly remembered; “Oh, before you go. I’m Janko. What’s your name?”
“Nikola.” The line went dead.

Nikola, Janko thought to himself, named after St. Nicholas, the bearer of gifts. And by December this year I’ll have the best gift ever. The death of Pooley and release for Stefan. The warmth grew within him as his undying hatred found the smallest chance that it could be released. The next step had been taken.
Janko rushed home to gather some clothes in a small rucksack. His old hunting knife would be handy. Photos of Katerina, Dusa and Stefan would help him remain resolute to the very end. Some rope which he knew was around his small apartment somewhere. He wanted to take his woodsman axe, remembering the grim pleasure of that day long ago when his axe had separated limb from limb, had splintered bone and teeth of those that had desecrated his wife and daughter. That would have to be left behind now, but what else? What was the packing procedure to hunt and kill an enemy in a foreign country?

Over the next three days Janko packed and repacked that small rucksack several times. Late on Thursday morning he went into the local bank to withdraw the vast majority of his life savings. It left him with just five hundred Marks. But that was a price worth paying.
He left the bank with an envelope containing 3,200 Euros and a small rucksack containing all he hoped would help him achieve the goal he set before himself. One last shift at the truck stop, he had to do something to pass the time until eleven thirty and this was as good a way as any. He didn’t want any suspicion to fall on him just yet.
At around nine he went to see the boss. “I’ve just got a message that my uncle is very sick. He and his wife have no-one to help them out. I need to go and be with them for a while. I’m sorry I don’t know how long I’ll be gone for. I need to hand in my notice now.”
There was some doubt in the eyes of Nidal the manager; “And you have to leave tonight?” he asked.
“Yes, I promised I’d be there tomorrow. Uncle is very ill.”
“Then finish tonight, I hope your uncle gets better.” And that was that, Janko was now free to fulfil his greatest desire. Now he just needed to wait until eleven thirty. 

At quarter past eleven Janko wiped his hands, went to his locker to collect the small rucksack, the envelope and his jacket. Taking 700 Euros from the envelope and splitting them between his rucksack and his pocket he went outside and waited for Nikola.
It was nearly midnight when Nikola swung the truck into the parking area, flashed the headlights at Janko standing alone and parked the vehicle with the engine idling.
Running up to the passenger door Janko hauled himself up into the cab; “I thought you’d forgotten me.” He half joked. 

The eyebrows and crooked nose turned towards him, there was the slightest notion of a smile; “Money?”
Janko handed over the envelope with the remaining 2,500 Euros in. Fidgeting whilst Nikola counted the money Janko couldn’t wait to get the journey started. Eventually Nikola looked up again; “Good. Three days, you sleep in the seat – I have the bunk. Okay?”
“Yep, fine, I just need to get to England.”

With a hiss of air brakes being released the huge truck and its trailer crunched across the gravel parking area and turned towards the E73, heading North through the night before swinging left and heading West, ever West towards Calais and finally England. Janko stared straight ahead, into the darkness and the patch of tarmac illuminated by the trucks headlights, wishing the Kilometres away faster than they travelled. Wanting only to be at the end of the journey, actually looking forward to seeing the face that haunted his dreams and had invaded his life again.

What lies behind lies before.

This week has been a week of moving back and forth. I’ve had a doctor’s appointment and then a hospital appointment regarding my right knee. I’ve been back to Horsham for both (and hopefully the result of the MRI scan in hospital will be a definitive plan to solve the knee problem). Whilst been back home I’ve tried to ‘hide’ but bumped into a couple of people. It was wonderful to meet with them, to talk briefly about what has been going on and for me to catch up just a little with the news from home.

I’m not sure how glad or otherwise the congregation and people of home will be to know that I’ve truly missed them all and am beginning to really look forward to coming back. I’ve missed worshipping with them, I’ve missed the governors meetings at Trafalgar School, I’ve missed my family, I’ve missed officiating at the Eucharistic and I’ve missed my own bed (those weren’t in any particular order!)

When I finally do get back to work and the normality that is Holy Trinity it will have been over 3 months since I last celebrated the sacred mysteries of Holy Communion. For me, missing this aspect of my role as a priest is a demonstration that I am called to be a priest. There might have been concern that my time away might have led me to think differently about my vocation; time to move on or time to move out. This has not been the case, it has deepened my sense of vocation and I feel it is such a shame that more of us cannot take the time that I have been given to confirm this part of life.

I can’t find it now but there is somewhere in the Bible that talks about different vocations given to people and there are the ones we might normally think of; Preacher, Teacher, Prophet… But the list I’m thinking of also lists administration as a gift, a vocation to be followed.

And why would God want everyone to be priests? Not everyone can be a teacher without engineers to design classrooms, builders to erect schools, electricians and plumbers to enable warmth and light to be in those classrooms, tailors to clothe, cooks to feed and cobblers to save the soles of everyone.

God gives to each one of us different gifts so that, as a whole commuity, we can work together. Each of us playing our own part.

If I were ever to be made a Bishop (Good Lord preserve us all) that would not be a promotion or an opportunity for me to be a better Christian. It would simply be a different calling. No better than being called to be a priest, called to be an engineer, called to be a shop worker, a scientist, a lawyer, an accountant or any of the myriad of other jobs and roles we undertake. God calls us to be individuals and He gives us an individual calling.

Colossians 3:17

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Ashes to Ashes. 

Whilst enjoying the local walks here with the dog I’ve been doing some writing. Below the image you’ll see what I’ve written to go after the opening that I posted earlier. 

Please remember this is the first draft and no editing has been done on the section below. 

The next morning James rolled out of bed bright and early. As he dressed for his morning run he thought about how much of his life the army had had influence over.  It was almost impossible for him to stay in bed now beyond 6:30am, he smiled as he tied his laces and collected his phone from the dressing table. 
Ten minutes later he was at the front door making his final preparations. Ear buds in, choosing the ‘Pray As You Go’ podcast for the day and pocketing his phone he closed the door behind himself as the podcast began: The sound of a tolling bell filled his head as he started to jog,  turning right out of his front door and away from the small church school that neighboured his home, he ran past the church of St. Joseph’s, his church, and down the lane as the choir of the podcast began to sing and a voice intoned; “The choir sing; ‘Christ, light of the world, whoever follows you will have the light of life.’” James let his mind focus on the introduction to the meditation as his body covered the familiar route of his run. 

As the podcast finished James was on his second lap of the park. The old gardens of the long extinct Manor House were now a haven for college students to practice their football or frisbee skills, a chance for young families to feed the ducks around the pond in the corner or play on the play equipment whilst dog owners threw balls for their pets to fetch or simple let the dogs introduce themselves and race around together. James loved this park. It was a true community space, including the small skate park tucked off to one side, and around all of it was a tarmac path along which he now ran. 

He finished the second lap without further acoustic accompaniment, allowing himself time to think further about what had been the thought for the day then he paused for a while, turning to the music player on his phone to start his running play list. This time running hard round the 1.5km circuit, with Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones powering him round. 
He arrived back at the vicarage satisfied and sweaty as the first parents arrived to drop off their children at St. Joseph’s School. Nodding a greeting he unlocked the front door and entered, heading upstairs to undress and enter the shower. 

He breakfasted in the kitchen, watching the parents gather and waving to a few who looked through the window to see him. It was as the children were let into school that James’ phone rang. 
“Hello, can I help you?” 

“Good morning Father, it’s Sarah here.”

“Morning Sarah, did you get any sleep last night? How were things after the funeral?”

“Yes, some sleep – there feels like an ending of sorts, not that I want an ending but I know Daniel is at peace. Thank you for you kind words. I’ve rung to ask a favour of you.”

“If I can, of course I’ll help”

James could hear a deep breath being taken;

“The police have asked me to do another plea for information. They think they are closing in and another statement would really help.”

“Wow, are you feeling up to it?”

“That’s why I rang. Would you stand with me for support?”

“Of course! There’s no favour there. I’ll support you in whatever way I can.”

“Thank you, they want to do it this afternoon. I thought we could do it in front of the church and the school if that’s okay with you?”

“No problem at all,” James softly said; “just, not at school pick-up time. Two would be best if they can agree to that.”

With audible relief Sarah said; “I’ll check with the liaison officer and get back to you. Thank you Father.”

“No need to thank me Sarah, God bless you, speak to you later.”

James replaced the phone and shook his head. What an amazingly strong woman, he thought. God give her strength today. How hard it must be to look into the soulless lens of a camera and talk about the death of her son. Such a tragic waste of life, who would do such an act. They had to be caught, brought to justice and hopefully enable some healing to be brought to that strong yet delicate soul.
James’ thoughts throughout the morning were with Sarah. He made a short visit to the school next door to go through assembly dates with the head teacher and to inform her of the planned TV camera in the church later that day. Yet all the time he was on the premises he was thinking back the few short years since Daniel walked these corridors, sat in the classrooms and played with the other children in the playground. Whooping and screaming with the abandonment of youth – those sounds that often drifted into James’ study as he caught up on administration or wrote sermons.

Janko Delić almost growled at the young waitress as she set down another load of dirty dishes, plates and cutlery. Sadly, the look he gave her was enough for her to scurry away out of his reach and back to serve in the truckers stop he worked in just North of Zenika. It wasn’t the girls fault that he was in such a mood. It was the past haunting him. 

It was only three months since his release from prison. Yes he’d shot those diplomats and soldiers but only in self defence. If they hadn’t been coming to scope out his village then he would just have left them. Maybe if they had done something about the monsters of the Bosnik army who had ravaged Gostilj and killed almost everyone then he might have been more open to see what they wanted. That had been nearly twenty years ago but the loss of his wife and daughter in those raids and then the shooting of his son had left deep, deep wounds within Janko. Wounds that festered during his incarceration and had darkened his heart against almost all of the human race. Even innocent waitresses that were only doing their job in collecting plates for him to wash.

But today the wounds hurt more, today the hatred was almost overflowing. It was the fault of the manager of the truck stop. He insisted on having rolling news on the small TV that sat on a bracket just to the side of where Janko washed dishes. It could have played the nausea of modern music, at least he could ignore that, but no. It had to be the rolling news and four times in the last hour he’d seen the face of the man who had taken away eighteen years of his life and his only son. 

The devil was wearing another uniform now. No longer a soldier but a so called priest. Piously walking ahead of a small coffin the news had tried to show him as wholesome and upstanding yet Janko knew the truth. He’d recognised the eyes, less sunken than the first time he’d seen them, the face more coloured than that fateful day. Janko didn’t need the text across the bottom of the screen to name this man. It was a name that had scratched at his wounds, a name that had been poison to his soul. Jim Pooley. “Govna!” he muttered with feeling and scrubbed another plate, almost breaking it as he slammed it onto the draining board next to him. He would see revenge for his son, Stefan would be avenged. He scrubbed harder as a solitary tear mixed with the soapy water in front of him.

It was 1:30pm. They were gathered in the large living room of the Vicarage: James, Sarah, Rachel – the Police Family Liaison Officer, a senior police officer – Superintendent James thought, and then the TV cameraman, Paul. They were finishing their cups of tea and deciding how the appeal would be organised.
“I’ll start by outlining ongoing investigations before handing over to Sarah to read the prepared statement,” the senior officer said. 

“I am right” thought James; “a diamond below a crown on the shoulder is a Superintendent isn’t it?”

He looked across at Sarah, at the way she was cradling the cup in her hands, the tea untouched. She felt his gaze upon her and looked across. James gave her a slight nod of his head, keeping his eyes locked on hers. She understood the unspoken question and smiled briefly at him before lowering her head and seemingly studying the unmoving surface of the tea before her.
James couldn’t begin to imagine how hard today would be for her, on top of yesterday. What a twenty four hours it will have been for her and how strong she had appeared – that didn’t really fool James, he knew her heart was broken into pieces but the strength with which she continued to simply stand upright was outstanding.

His thoughts were pierced when Sarah spoke; “Could I have a few minutes please?” with her head still bowed no-one heard her properly and Paul continued talking about the sun being behind him or something.

“Sorry Sarah, did you say something?” James’ voice broke across the technical details.

This time she looked up; “Could I have a few minutes please? I’d like us to pray.”

If the situation hadn’t been so serious James would have laughed at the look of panic that broke across the faces of the Superintendent and Paul . The Liaison Officer just smiled.
“I think that would be a good idea for us Sarah. Of course, not everyone may be comfortable with praying,” James looked around, giving them a way out; “if anyone would like to go into the dining room and wait there then I’ll be happy to pray with you.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll go – I need to check one or two things anyway.” Paul removed himself; “and I’ll just make sure we have all the details sorted.” The Superintendent also stood and left the room.
“A quick exit by our Superintendent there.” James remarked.

“Chief Superintendent.” Rachel corrected him with a smile.

“Oh, that could have been embarrassing”

“I won’t tell.” She said; “anyways, that Chief Super is known for his thoughts on religion in the Police Service. It’s quite nice for me to be able to pray in uniform, and I have a good reason as a PLO to be with Sarah here if he does decide to make an issue of it.”

“Let’s not go out of our way to offend him;” James suggested, “but in a vicarage I think you might expect people to pray occasionally.” The three of them smiled weakly together and bowed their heads.
James took a deep breath, slowly breathed out and confidently said; “In Psalm 23 we read ‘although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will not be afraid because you are with me.’ Let us remember God’s own presence with us now as we pray for Sarah and the Chief Superintendent during their statements and let us ask that Sarah would know God’s presence as she walks through her particular valley of the shadow of death. May she also accept the support of others who wish to uphold her and walk with her. Let’s spend some time in pray, either aloud or silent, and then we’ll end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”
After they had said the Lord’s Prayer James stood up and moved across the lounge to stand in front of Sarah. As she looked up at him he placed his hands gently on her head; “May the Lord be gracious to you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and may he give you His peace. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen” as his hand traced a cross in the air above her Sarah made that sign of the cross on her own body. Looking up, into his eye, she breathed deeply; “Thank you Father.” Then quieter; “Thank you James.” As he took a step back she stood determinedly; “okay Rachel, let’s go shall we?”

Reunited, the five of them left the vicarage and walked across the church car park. “Where exactly do you want us Paul?” the Chief Superintendent asked.

“Erm, with your back to the church noticeboard I think, we can then have the church in the far background. That should balance the shot I think.”

James bristled. Balance the shot, he thought, it’s not a Hollywood production. This is about a woman who buried her young son yesterday. A boy whose killer is still loose and needs to be caught. He put his arm protectively around Sarah and whispered into her ear; “You’ll be fine, I’m right behind you. Remember, you only have to read the statement – you don’t have to look at the camera.” She nodded, silent and composed.

They took their places, with the church noticeboard displaying “St. Joseph’s Church, Swanhill” in an arc behind them. The light above the camera on Paul’s shoulder lit their faces and Paul gave a small nod.
“I am Chief Superintendent Bentham, leading the investigation into the death of Daniel Watkin…” James didn’t listen anymore. He knew the details. Standing just to the left of Sarah and behind her, mirroring Rachel on her right hand side, he lifted his right hand a little and placed it gently on Sarah’s back. He felt her lean slightly into his hand, acknowledging the support he offered her, and she started to read the statement before her.

Immediately after Paul had said it was all done James had offered to walk with Sarah. Handshakes all round then they set off. James wasn’t sure where they were going to go, he just knew that watching parents gather to chat before they collected their children at the end of the school day wasn’t going to do anything beneficial for Sarah. He had to take her away. And so they walked together, heading absent-minded towards the town centre. Sarah obviously didn’t want to go home and be alone right now and James found he was more than happy to give some more time to be with her.

As they walked side by side he felt her fingers brush his hand and his mind skipped back to earlier. Something in the way she had said; “Thank you James.” After he had blessed her now preyed on his mind. True Sarah was beautiful, and single. He’d always found her attractive and loved to see her quick smile, a smile that had understandably being missing for a few months now, but now was not the time and these were not the circumstances to consider making their relationship more personal. Her fingers touched his again and he placed both hands into his jacket pockets as they carried on walking.

Walking into Swanhill James offered a coffee. Sarah hadn’t drunk her earlier cup of tea and he, as a vicar, was use to drinking tea or coffee at most visits he made. They headed for one of the many coffee shops that littered the high street and found a small table against the wall to drink their coffee of choice.
As they talked James was aware of Sarah reaching across the table occasionally to touch his hand as he held his cup. She only did it to reinforce a point she was making, normally about how supportive he was being or how she didn’t think she’d have managed without him helping her. He smiled and nodded in response but his mind was warning him to be very careful. This had to be handled properly or Sarah would end up very hurt indeed. Him too probably but that wasn’t his first concern.

Making an excuse James headed for the toilet, giving himself time to think – and to empty his bladder. Returning shortly afterwards he sat again at the table. Sarah looked at him; “As a thank you would you let me cook you dinner tonight?” she asked.

“That would be wonderful, but not needed.” He responded; “and I’m afraid tonight just isn’t possible.”

“Well then, maybe sometime later this week?” Sarah pushed.

“Like I said Sarah, you really don’t have to. I’m your priest and I’m honoured to serve you, and all my parishioners. I think that you should give yourself a few weeks before entertaining. I’ll be glad to come round for dinner some time, just not this week.”

“Entertaining? No. It would be just one friend saying thank you to another friend for their support.”

James smiled openly; “That’s a lovely gesture Sarah. One I will take you up on, just not right now. Okay?”

“Okay.” Her smile didn’t match his but she didn’t push the idea any further. They spent another ten minutes or so in conversation then, with their coffee cups empty, headed for the door.

Standing on the high street James offered to walk Sarah home. “No thanks Father, I think I’ll enjoy a little time on my own right now.” James nodded, conflicted inside that he might have hurt Sarah in turning down her offer but he was convinced that she had made a play for him and that, in the long run, he’d done the right thing – however much he would have wanted to take their relationship further he didn’t want to her to be as vulnerable as she was right now.

“God bless you.” He said, “Take care.” And turned to start the walk back to St. Joseph’s. Purposely not turning round he pushed his personal feelings for Sarah down low. Hopefully there might be a time in the future when they could explore those feelings but then if ifs and buts were pennies we’d all be millionaires.

When he got ordained he hadn’t been aware how much that white bit of plastic around his neck would make him desirable. He wasn’t ‘back of a bus’ ugly but he knew he wasn’t an oil painting either. In his first parish there had been too many older ladies who had a ‘lovely niece or neighbour or once even a grand daughter who would be just right for a young man like you.’ It had been embarrassing as they squeezed his biceps or patted his chest but he had just smiled and thanked them for their offer. It was different when his own feelings were drawing him towards a woman but the relationship had to be with him, not with that white strip of plastic.

Part 3 of 3

After spending a couple of days hiding in Horsham I’ve now started the final section of my sabbatical.
During my time at L’abri I was able to finish writing some material on “Mental Health and the Ministry” that Chichester Diocese had asked me to work on. Hopefully this material will be used as part of the training programme for newly ordained curates within the diocese. It was hard work, and rewarding, to focus on this topic and write down some of the darkest times in my life along with some strategies to overcome depression and anxiety. I’ll be forever grateful to the people of L’abri and the friendships I’ve made there.

Now I am in our caravan just 2miles from a village called Crawley!!

What you will read below has been written for over 10 years now and I am excited to be given time and space to work on the story and see where it takes me.
The following may not be suitable for children under the age of 14

    “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
    Father James knew the words, but that didn’t make them any easier to say as he stood at the head of the grave; the small white coffin being lowered into the earth. As he looked up he saw Sarah, Daniel’s mother. Her eyes gazed at nothing, her skin pale against the immaculate black suit she wore. She stood defiantly and watched the coffin of her 12 year old son as it disappeared into the hole. Fr. James knew there was nothing to be said to her, nothing that could bring comfort. He knew that over time the pain would lessen, but the scar of Daniel’s death would always be visible.
    After the blessing which ended the service James stepped forward, taking a small handful of the dirt from the pot offered him by the undertaker. A silent prayer said as he tossed the earth into the grave; he heard the soil land on the spotless white coffin top and knew that it was about to start. He had always known that today would be one of the days. He excused himself as quickly as he could and made his way back to the vicarage to prepare himself.
   “Sarge, he’s on the South side of the village, just come out of a side door, last house down.” The intercom crackled. The squad had taken cover after the attack. Bosnia was suppose to be getting under control but Sergeant Jim Pooley understood that getting under control and being under control were two completely different things. And it was his job to help move from one to the other. Right now his job was to secure this area and wait for evacuation. 
      It didn’t matter how or why they had been attacked as they travelled on the road at the edge of this nameless hamlet. It only mattered now that the bastards who’d done this didn’t take any more members of the squad with them. Andy had made the mistake of thinking that the machine gunner was alone, now his body lay unmoving with the UN delegates who had been caught in the first attack.
Jim heard a shout, coming from the house the gunman had just left from. He quickly instructed Joss, Mark and Glyn to skirt around to the North, ready to storm the house. He and Simon had the gunman in the field covered between them.
    He kept coming towards them, Jim couldn’t work it out – perhaps he’s suicidal, he had to be. Keeping low and working in a straight line towards them, definitely no pro. It was sad that he was going to have to kill this amateur, but this amateur had shot dead a member of the squad. A bullet doesn’t mind if a professional or an amateur pulls the trigger. “In position!” spat the intercom. “On my signal.” He replied. “Next time,” he mumbled to himself; “ next time you stick your head up – just like you’ve done all the way from the house. The next time will be your last time you worthless piece of shit.” 
    A deep breath in, slowly let it out, the head lifted slowly – and then jerked upwards. The force of the bullet almost lifted the enemy onto his feet and flung him backwards into the grass and mud.
   The house was taken with ease. In it they found one man, his weapon thrown across the room. He was sitting on his haunches, rocking backward and forwards, weeping openly. 
    Once the support team had arrived and the three houses of the hamlet secured Jim walked over to the gunman in the field. Just as he approached he saw the horror of what had happened here. Before him, with only half a face now, lay the body of a child – no more than eleven years old. The truth began to register! His nephew was as tall as this kid here and John played at being soldiers with his mates; just like uncle Jim. Well, this boy laying in the grass had played a dangerous game, and now stared at oblivion. It had been his finger on the trigger that had done this damage. The truth of the situation slammed into Jim, he felt the contents of his stomach rise and turning away from the body he let himself retch, trying to remove from himself all that had happened in this field.
    After composing himself again Jim walked back to the Armoured Personnel Carrier, the prisoner sat, still shaking and with tears rolling down his face. “Sir,” he spat; “Sir, what is your name.” “Sergeant Jim Pooley. Why?” “I wanted to know the name of the man who killed my son!”

… the name of the man who killed my son!” Fr. James stood by the kitchen window, his hands clenched around the sink. As these now familiar words receded into his subconscious he heard the kettle whistle on the stove. Slowly he turned, returning to this reality. Although fifteen years separated their deaths he knew that Daniel and the Bosnian boy Stefan would always belong together in his memory, in these flashbacks, in these living nightmares.