As Vincent approached a tiny church, a man stood at the sign raised to proclaim the words of someone’s god to all that passed. Vincent looked to the placard for its spiritual inspiration. But the sign was blank. It was a blackboard drying quickly in the sun. This god had nothing. Nothing for a passing soul like Vincent. If he even had one.
The man took the bucket that had been at his feet and tipped the water in it over a bed of roses struggling in the sandy earth. Then he rolled up his checked sleeves and with chalk from his pocket, the man began to write.
Vincent dropped to tie the laces on his boots. But first to untie them. Once in a while, he could peer up to see what was unfolding.
He had passed hundred of churches and missions and retreats throughout the years but he had never considered the moment that their signs outside were written. It seemed mundane that they could be created in the same way that teachers had written homework tasks on a blackboard. Vincent had never really thought about it, but he must have assumed that the proclamations just appeared … although he knew they didn’t. But these days he was seeing the struts behind the scenery he had ignored and Vincent hoped that was because it would be there that he would find his answers.
He changed his posture to tackle his other boot and cautiously looked up again. Instead of “Read Chapter 3 and finish subtraction problems”, the man had chalked the words “The Truth …”. Vincent could see no more than that. He had to wait. He had to stay until the message man had disappeared because that was what he – Vincent – had been looking for. The Truth. He looked down to his lace and pulled it from the eyeholes of his boot. Then he slowly relaced it, carefully ensuring that the loose strands were the same length. Then he tied a bow, a double bow. And then he tucked the loops and ends under the lacing to keep the bows from slipping undone or dragging on the ground. Just as he finished, he heard the clatter of the bucket. The man had stepped off his perch and picked it up. Vincent stayed crouched as the message man walked back towards the church and disappeared inside to leave his words – the words Vincent presumed had been communicated by his god – to lift hearts and minds (and probably bodies into the church). When the door had closed behind the man, Vincent stood and took a few steps along the road. Then he could see the message.
‘The Truth – Jesus – will set you free.’
Vincent needed to free. From his history. His guilt.
And he had hunted for the truth.
Perhaps this was the answer. Jesus had been the cause and Jesus could release him.
The church door rattled closed. Vincent looked up. The message man pulled on a patterned cardigan and scuffed along the side path to the road. He tugged distractedly at his hair, laid carefully across his balding scalp, and licked his fingers before smoothing the stray lock into place. Vincent watched him for a moment as he scuttled down the street.
The message man but perhaps not The Messenger.
“I’ll stack the chairs against the wall, then I’ll give the cups a quick rinse. Oh … Vincent! That’s good timing.” Rhea was looking over to where he was standing in the doorway. The meeting seemed to have just wrapped up. Three women and a man were packing boxes with ceramic plates, decorated boxes and wrought iron frames. Beatrice was making some notes at a trestle table.
“Would you mind finishing up the chairs while I wash up? Then I’ll give you the tour,” Rhea said casually in Vincent’s direction while she began to collect teacups. So Vincent folded the chairs as the others continued about their business. When he finished stacking them where Rhea had indicated, he stood with his back to the wall and tugged at his cuffs.
“Right then, come with me.” Rhea led him around – showing him where the stalls were set up for the arts and crafts market, where people could get cups of tea when they had a break between customers, where the old piano had sat before it had been moved to the school assembly hall. She explained that Mrs Flaherty made plates and that her sister painted them, that Beatrice’s stall was usually under the window, that Jim’s picture frames would sell very well in the city but were really a bit too expensive for the locals and that every second Saturday, they had stalls with cakes and slices as well the usual arts and crafts.
“Most of us work at home but Bea’s got a little place out the back here so she can be close to the kiln. She’s here every hour of the day and night.”
They walked into a room at the end of the hall. Rhea looked conspiratorially over her shoulder. “Sometimes she acts as if she owns the place, but it’s understandable. She practically lives here. She’s a good soul.”
Vincent looked back into the main room of the hall. Beatrice was still writing. He wondered if he would ever hear her speak.
“That’s her wheel – she brought that in a couple of years back. And those are ready to glaze.” Rhea pointed at some plain bowls that were stacked on a table by the doorway. “Oh dear, I’ve just realised that I said I’d make a list of bits we need for next week for Jim to bring in – you know, coffee, change, wrapping paper and bags. You don’t mind waiting a bit while I just do that, do you?”
“No, no, that’s fine. … You do what you need to.”
Rhea had already scurried into the next room.
Vincent walked to the side of the workroom so that he was out of view of the artisans in the hall. People worked best without distraction and he preferred to stay out of the way anyway. He stood quietly in the corner for a while, relieved to be away from faces turned towards him, questions tossed in his direction. He missed the anonymity of the train. Of being a passenger of no consequence in someone else’s journey. Now there were queries about food and time and plans and they all required answers. And Vincent had too many questions of his own lurking just below the surface to contend with others’ enquiries. He traced the counter beside him with his finger as he paced its length. At the end, underneath a veil of dust, there was an old radio. The only clean switch was the on/off button. Vincent pressed it. He waited for the music. He thought of Clenville and wondered how this moment would be changed by the addition of a voice, some strings, the distant blare of horns. But there was nothing.
Vincent reached back down and wiped the dust from the knob that tuned the radio. He twisted it and suddenly, the hiss of static crept across the room. He turned it until he could find a voice or a tune of some kind. He moved the indicator along the scale through noise, then voices, noise, then music, noise, then …
“All done.” Rhea burst through the doorway.
Vincent stopped tuning the radio and looked up.
“Oh, you’d better leave that where it was,” Rhea urged. “Bea’s got it set where she likes it.”
“But there wasn’t anything playing when I first turned it on.” Vincent thought there must be some mistake.
“Mm, that’s right. She likes that. There’s one place on the dial where you get silence. No static or anything. Bea likes music once in a while but most often she chooses the silence. She says it’s quieter than normal silence. Helps her to concentrate on work.” Rhea jerked her head towards the door. “You ready? Jim says he’ll drop us home if we’re heading off now. “
Vincent was tuning the radio to find Beatrice’s silence. “Mm, yeah. I’ll be out in a second.” He heard Rhea’s footsteps through the jumble of music, then static, chatter, static, song. And then suddenly there was peace. The kind of peace that can almost vacuum out your ears. Vincent stood for a moment. Then he clicked the power switch to off. And as he turned towards the main room, the burble of noise began to inflate around him.
“I WANT A PINK ONE!”
“NO, I DO!”
The room was suddenly invaded by small shouting children. Vincent had taken some steps towards the door, but now he found himself backed up against the bench, flattened by surprise and the abrupt shattering of the easy surroundings.
“Now, then, you all know that there are three pink ones and we can take it in turns …”. A more reasonable tone approached the doorway as the children thundered through the room towards the cupboard at the back like a marauding herd.
“Oh sorry, we didn’t know anyone was in here.” A young woman stood in the doorway looking apologetic.
“Oh … uh, I’m not … really … in here, that is,” Vincent managed to stammer.
The children – who had stampeded into the brick wall that was the locked cupboard door and completed the “Keystone Cops” type domino effect all turned to look at him. Simultaneously. Their eyes were like hundreds of torches converging on a cornered escapee. None of the polite enquiry of an older gaze, no veil of graciousness could dim their stares.
The young woman – just a teenager who had gained maturity from comparision with her charges – had raised her eyebrows and was waiting expectantly for some kind of clarification from Vincent.
“Well,” he ventured, “I’m here, of course but … just not for long. … Just about to go. Just …”
“What’s your name? – my name’s Pansy and I’m …”, a rosy-cheeked child with a determined gaze held up four fingers with authority and the rubbery joints of infancy, “… this many.”
“Oh,” Vincent managed.
“I like pink. It’s my best one. What’s your best one? What’s your name?”
The torches lit up Vincent’s face.
“It’s … uh, Vincent.”
“I had a rat called Vincent,” said a boy. “He’s dead.”
“Oh,” said Vincent, who was almost wishing that he was too.
“But he’s an angel now,” said Pansy with the same conviction that she had shown about her age. “My Daddy says.”
The boy turned from Vincent and looked at Pansy with disdain. “He is not, Pansy Helmutter, he’s just dead. We threw him in a hole.”
The young woman by the door looked at Vincent with raised eyebrows of a different kind. The See-what-I-have-to-put-up-with? kind. “Now, David, that’s enough. Let me through, everyone, so I can unlock the cupboard and we can get our hoops out.”
“BUT,” said Pansy, who would not let the issue die, “he is still an angel. After you put him in the hole, he was magicked and he grew wings and he flew up to Baby Jesus and he lives on a cloud and watches us all day long like Baby Jesus does!”
Vincent shuffled a little. The part-time instructor was ignoring the oration and was passing plastic hoola hoops out to waiting hands from the cupboard.
“HE IS NOT AN ANGEL, Pansy Helmutter, HE IS A RAT. HE IS A DEAD RAT!” David stamped his foot and stared at Pansy. She didn’t break from his angry stare but looked back with at least equal amounts of determination and venom. Then she swung around to Vincent.
“That’s not true, is it, Winsin? Everything that dies becomes angels, that’s right, isn’t it?
“Uh, ‘Vincent’,” he corrected, “and I don’t really know.”
All the eyes fired at him suddenly. Pansy looked aghast. “Yes, you do. You’re a grown up.”
“Well …,” Vincent had never thought he’d be one to explode the myths of life to a child, so his words came more falteringly than usual. “Grown ups … don’t … know … everything.”
There was a silence. Almost as deep and empty as Bea’s radio selection.
Then Pansy squared her shoulders and reset her face with resolve. “Well! My Daddy does. And he says that everything becomes angels and goes to heaven when they’re dead.”
“Hmph!” A stocky boy sneered. “Well, my Dad says you just flush dead things – just throw ‘em in the …
“Alright now, everyone …” the teenaged hoop mistress tried, futilely.
“Not grandmas,” came a wavering voice. “You don’t flush grandmas.”
“No, of course you don’t, of course you don’t,” the young woman repeated nervously. “Now, let’s …”
“So, Wimsen,” Pansy continued with the determination of a military interrogator, “that’s right, isn’t it, about angels? You remember now. You know that.”
“I … really … don’t ….” Vincent could have just nodded. Agreed. But he hadn’t.
And he had some regrets about that as the silence hovered once again.
Pansy snorted and shot him a look that women had sent in Vincent’s direction before. Then she swung around to the ex rat owner. “David Morstrand, you are bad. You are a bad boy and you will be punished. Baby Jesus will punish you because you said there aren’t angels!”
“I did not! I just said my rat wasn’t an angel. And I am not bad.”
“I’m bad all the time,” came the voice of the Flusher proudly, “and Baby Jesus doesn’t punch me.”
Pansy turned on her new victim. “Well he will, he will punish you because all badness gets punished.” She stared for a moment and then turned her back on the Bad Flusher. “And being good gets all nice things. So I’ll get all nice things. And bad ones won’t!” She looked up at Vincent. “That’s true, isn’t it, VimSim, you know that, don’t you?”
“I, uh, I’m … not sure. Sometimes …”
“Alright now,” the teenager’s voice quavered with decreasing faith in her ability to control her charges, “everyone got a hoop? Out we go then!” Her thin jolliness slid away. And not just because of her retreating presence. The children stood their ground. They looked at Vincent with scorn and for some, a little pity.
Then, seeming to finally be bored of the confrontation and aware of the inevitability of hoop class, they began to shuffle out of the room into the main hall.
When they had all gone, Vincent breathed out. His breath came in staccato bursts. He held his hand out in front of him – he was shaking.
Then suddenly, there she was again. Pansy, holding a pink hoop and looking directly at him. “You aren’t a proper grown-up are you?” she said. She stared accusingly but with genuine curiosity. “What are you then?”
Vincent couldn’t answer. He just stood and couldn’t break his gaze from hers. After a long silence, the four-year-old let out a decidedly mature “Peugh” of derision and left the room.
Vincent leant against the bench and breathed. He told himself he had been startled. Surprised. That was why he was shaking. He told himself he wasn’t used to children – the days of selling fairy floss and carousel rides seemed more than another life away now. Vincent controlled his breathing, clenched his hands tightly behind his back, walked through the doorway and out into the world – all the while thinking about Bea’s silence station and yearning to have one of his own.