Saturday, 7 January 2017

Roots- a story that isn't about what you think it is...



‘Mister Thomas, there’s someone in the chapel!’

Reverend Edward Thomas looked up from his sermon notes, and smiled.

‘There often is, Molly. That’s why we leave the doors unlocked. We want people to come in.’

She was a befuddled mix of irritation and alarm. ‘I know that, Reverend, but this one’s a bit odd. A large black car pulled up, and then this man just got out, and stepped straight into the chapel. I’ve never seen him before in my life. And he’s wearing such strange clothes!’
‘What’s he doing in there?’

‘Nothing, Reverend – he’s just sitting. But I thought you ought to know.’ She paused. ‘You do hear stories...’  

Stories of what? Edward sighed, and went to get his coat. Probably just some townie stepping into church for a quiet five minutes. He could do with some himself, he thought. Two years ago when he was offered the post, they said that country life in the Welsh valleys was peaceful.

‘Strange clothes, you said?’

‘Black, all black, head to toe.’

‘You mean, like what I’m wearing?’

She winced, staring his clerical garb up and down as he unlatched the door. ‘No... different.’

How different? There was no sign of any large black car as he strode up the high street towards the the Ebenezer Chapel. Did she even say it was a large black car? Possibly an outsider, then. Not many people in the village had cars. It was usually tractors around here, and they only appeared in the high street on special occasions, like market day. A few of the outlying farmers had cars, of course, but they could afford them.

He quickly arrived at the grey nonconformist chapel with its sloping slate roof, high windows and large porch door that was now slightly ajar. A local would never do that, he thought. Not with the weather they had here. Taking a deep breath, Reverend Edward Thomas stepped in.

As usual, it took a moment for the eyes to adjust to the stained-glass light streaming in through the windows. Inside, all was as it should be, with the polished pews smelling of Mrs Hughes’ beeswax, the Women’s Institute-embroidered kneelers all hanging ready and dusted at their backs, and the high stepped wooden balconies radiating the best glow that a well-loved village chapel can offer. And there was the stranger up ahead, sitting in the front pew on the right, like a groom waiting nervously for the bride. But he was staring ahead, up at the simple brass cross that stood between two vases of fresh flowers on a high table. That’s all the stranger was doing. Sitting and staring with some concentration, like someone contemplating a rich sunset.

Quietly, Edward sat down to wait in one of the back pews. Perhaps the man just wanted some time with his Maker. Now and then the stranger looked down, muttering something inaudible, probably a prayer, but the rise and falls in the inflection felt different, not of this place. Was he actually talking to himself or to God? Best to wait. Edward hoped that Molly or someone else wouldn’t come bursting in, spoiling the stranger’s special moment. After a few minutes, he turned, saw Edward, and stood up, looking embarrassed.

‘I’m.. sorry, sir. Please excuse me...’ An unfamiliar accent and manner. American. The face...familiar from somewhere…

‘No, not at all’ Edward replied, stepping forward to offer a firm handshake. ‘That’s what the place is here for. Stay as long as you like.’

The stranger was middle-aged, running to fat, with cheeks verging on the plump, sagging jowls, and eyes that looked lost. ‘I really appreciate that, this is a fine place’ he said, gazing around. His clothes were, as Molly said, black – but made of some finely hemmed shiny material – the sort you’d see in a dance hall.  He shook hands with Edward, and they sat down together in the front pew.

‘So, are you on holiday?’ asked Edward. ‘The tourists normally miss our village.’

‘No, I’m working with a friend. He suggested I stop here for a while as he went to get some gas.’ 

Gas? Oh, petrol. ‘You’re a long way from home,’ said Thomas.

The stranger’s eyes seemed to fill for a moment, then he looked away. ‘I guess so. A long way. Haven’t been home for a long time.’ The slow drawl spoke of long summers in a place warmer than these Welsh hills.

‘Do you go to church back home?’

The stranger smiled. ‘Everybody does. I’ve been Assemblies of God most of my life. Doesn’t matter who you are, everybody goes – except a few. Guess I haven’t been for a while, though. I’m always someplace else, or having to rehearse or just be on the road. America’s a big place. Sometimes it’s too big. You forget what home is like.’

‘If you don’t mind my asking, do you have a home?’

‘Well, there’s a place where I was born and grew up, but I’ve got my own place somewhere else now. But it’s so busy there, people always coming and going, and it’s never quiet.’ He smiled, sadly. ‘Maybe your Queen has that. There’s always somebody around every corner who wants a piece of you.’ 

That sounded rather bitter, Edward thought. ‘Our Royal Family have quiet places where they go to get their peace. Do you?’

The visitor gave a shrug. ‘No. You don’t get much peace in a hotel.’

‘So why did your friend drop you off here?’

‘He said this place was special. He’s from round here, but he hasn’t been back for a long time either. But he remembers this place and this chapel, we were talking, and he said that it probably hadn’t changed much, and he’s right. It feels familiar, like the churches we have back home. They’re white clapboard, all built out of wood, but they’re simple, like this place....’ The stranger gazed around wistfully. ’I like simple. Where I come from, they don’t do simple. Have you ever been to Vegas?’

 ‘I’m afraid not.’

‘Don’t be,’ he smiled. ‘You’d probably hate it. Sometimes I love it, with all the hotels and the slots and the showgirls and the cars and the neon... and sometimes I just wish the whole place could be swallowed up by the desert so I didn’t have to go there.’

Have to go there?’

‘It’s my work. I sing. I do shows. If it’s not Vegas, it’s somewhere else like it.’

Edward didn’t have a television, or listen to much music on the radio, but he sensed that this stranger was a bit surprised not to be recognised. But it didn’t matter. ‘Well, if you’re a singer’, he asked, ‘would you like to try out the acoustics of this place? We normally have a choir, of course.’

‘What? Here?’

‘If you like. Would you like me to play piano? I can’t promise to be your sort of standard, but you might enjoy it.’

The stranger was puzzled. ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’

‘No. Is that a problem?’

The stranger smiled and relaxed. The anonymity was giving him a freedom he’d been missing. Heck, why not?’ Suddenly, it was the smile of a younger man, a boy with hope. ‘What shall we do?’

‘I’m afraid I only do the Welsh hymnal, but there’s bound to be something you know in there.’ Edward  found a hymn book by the piano, went to hand it over- then remembered, and instead dug out another with English words that used the same tunes. ‘Have a look.’

The stranger leafed through a few pages, then stopped. ‘That one. Are you OK with that?’

He was. Edward sat down at the upright piano, raised the lid, then tried a few notes. Yes, he could do it. An opening chord echoed around the plain walls. ‘Is that the right key for you?’

The stranger nodded. He now stood at the middle of the chapel, facing the empty pews. Edward nodded, showing he was ready. So they began.

‘O Lord my God...when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all, the works thy hand has made...’

The voice had a vibration to it, something unschooled and untrained, but rich and warm.

‘I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout, the universe displayed...’

It could fill a concert hall, this sort of voice. Young girls would tremble and weep.
The chorus came out like a roar.

‘Then sings my soul, my Saviour, God to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art...’

His face was tense, the whole body swaying to the beat inside his head.

‘Then sings my soul, my Saviour, God to thee....’ Then the voice died, and the singer froze.

Edward looked up. ‘What’s wrong?’

The stranger turned, distraught. ‘I JUST CAN’T SING IT!’ he shouted. ‘I BELIEVE IT, AND I DON’T BELIEVE IT!’ He began to pace up and down. ‘I love these words! I LOVE THEM! I SING them! I SING THEM ALL THE TIME! But it’s like when Hank Williams sang ‘I saw the light’. He wrote the words, but then one day he said that there wasn’t any light now, not for him. That’s what he said! ‘There ain’t no light.’ Hank Williams said that, he did! And look what happened to him!’
He pointed at the book in his hands. ‘I’m singing these words, but my soul isn’t singing them anymore! They’re just words! I know the words, but it’s like I don’t know them too.’ He stared at Edward. ‘Do you understand?’

Edward nodded. The stranger opened his jacket, fiddled in a side pocket and brought out a small container. ‘These pills, you see. I have to take some to go to sleep, and some to make me feel good, and do you know the crazy thing? THEY WORK! But I have to take more than I used to. The Colonel said that all his boys take them and that’s part of show business, but..’ He was trying to find a new thought. ‘It’s like I’m sick, but I don’t know what the disease is!’ He held up the bottle, shaking it a little. ‘And these things keep the sickness back, but they don’t treat it!’ He put them back in his jacket pocket, then stood up to leave. ‘I’m sorry for wasting your time, Reverend. I’ll go. Nice chapel, by the way.’

‘Young man, you can stop right there!’ Edward leapt up from behind the piano to block the way out. ‘There’s something I need to know!’
‘What?’

‘Please’, implored Edward, ‘Hear me out.’ The stranger stood, waiting.

‘People like you, people in show business, if you’re not careful, then you start doing something that people like me do – clergy, do you understand? In a village like this, there’s always somebody watching. Listening. You know you’re here to do a job, but it becomes more than a job. You’re never off duty. So you start to perform. All day, every day. Not just on stage. It’s as if your whole life becomes a performance. You learn to speak a certain way and look as if you’re feeling good, when really, you’re feeling awful. But you don’t want to let people down. So you keep on performing. You do what you think people want. And you’re frightened of them seeing you as you really are. You don’t want them to see the truth about how it really is.... forgive me, am I making sense?’

The stranger nodded, so Edward continued. ‘But I just want you to hear the words of Jesus. The truth can set you free! Don’t be frightened of the truth! I don’t know you, I don’t know your story, but I think you’ve been performing for more years than you care to remember. And I think God wants that kind of performance to stop!’

‘How?’

‘By working out what drove you to become a performer in the first place. Because performing might have utilised your talents, but it hid something else that you didn’t want to see or face.’ He held up the hymn book. ‘That song you did just now was a performance, and I think you’ve done enough performing. It was meant to be sung as a prayer. Do you understand me?’

‘Well.... yes.’

‘So will you try it again with me, just one more time? Only this time, sing it as a prayer? A real prayer? Will you try it?’

Silence. ’OK.’

They resumed their places, but Edward spoke again. ‘Please, this time, sing it facing the cross, not the congregation.’

‘OK.’

They began the song again. This time, Edward played it slower, allowing more space for the song to breathe, and the stranger sang it more quietly. Sometimes, he was almost whispering. There were gaps when Edward would just play. But when it came to the chorus, always at the chorus, there was more inflection, less power than before, but more passion.

Finally, they finished. For a few moments, there was silence.

 ‘Thank you’ said Edward.

‘And thank you very much, sir.’

The door at the back of the chapel opened, and someone else stepped in. ‘Hallo?’ The new man was dressed in black too, but speaking unmistakably with a Welsh accent. ‘Is everybody all right here?’ He sounded concerned.

‘Yes, Tom,’ replied the stranger, ‘You were right. This place does feel like home.’

‘I thought it would.’ He turned to Edward. ‘Thank you, Reverend.’ He turned to his friend. ‘Ready to go?’ 

They shook hands, said their goodbyes, and left, just as Molly was coming in. Startled, she just stood there gasping, then rushed over to Edward. ‘Do you know who that was? The man who just came in? It’s....him! And the other one! I’ve seen them both before! That last one, he’s the one who sings that song about Going Home!’

‘Going home?’

‘No, Reverend! It’s the condemned man! He’s looking forward to touching the Green, Green, Grass of Home! He’s the man who sings it! That one! The one who just came to collect his friend!’

‘Oh I see.’ Edward didn’t see, of course. A few weeks later, Molly showed him some newspaper cuttings about ‘The King’, who’d been over for a visit with his Welsh friend who also sang in Vegas. They’d performed at a few selected venues, but had spent more time just travelling around and relaxing.  Thinking back, Edward wondered whether he should have said anything more, but then thought better of it. Perhaps after all these years, the King was finally finding a way home.
------------------- 

This never happened- but in an interview, that Welsh singer once said he wished he could have brought his friend to over visit Wales, and give him a little time and space to come back to himself. Perhaps it would have helped.

Happy birthday Elvis, wherever you are.


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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.