Tonight, Kwame would clean the altar. He walked to the front of the chapel. He methodically clicked each in a row of switches and light soaked the altar. Standing next to the altar in the bright lights, Kwame couldn’t make out the first row of pews. His breathing slowed there in the warmth. He stood next to the altar and allowed his arms to hang by his sides.
The very end of his middle fingertip brushed on the cotton tablecloth. He stood six feet and half an inch tall. Each time he measured himself he hoped that the downward force of age had compressed his spine a little to round him out to six foot – a more perfect stature. So far, the half inch had stubbornly withstood time. For a month he walked heavy-footed in the hopes that the force of each footfall would shorten him an invisible fraction of a inch until he had moulded his body successfully. He imagined a moustached architect measuring his proportions with his thumb held sideways and one eye squeezed shut, tutting and walking away.
A bead of sweat ran down his temple. Leaping from his jaw it landed on the lapel of his suit. He turned his face away from the lights and towards the altar. It was a folding trestle table, six feet wide and two feet deep, draped with a brilliant white sheet. In the centre, an unadorned cross stood two feet high. Its gilded surface was polished so as to become a tinted mirror. Either side of the cross were two candles in candlestick holders. Each of the candles nearest the cross stood higher; the wicks burned a foot from the tablecloth. The candlestick holders too, were unadorned but well polished gold.
Kwame plucked the four candles from the candlestick holders, first the small – then the tall. He held the small in his left hand and the tall in his right and carried them into the dark. He walked to the back of the aisle and laid them on the leather top of a small side table to the right of the doors to the chapel. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he opened the top drawer of the table and pulled out a large pair of scissors. He opened the scissors and ran a blade around the circumference near the top of each candle. Then, twisting and pulling at the wax, he slid a disc of wax from the top of the candle - leaving the wick hanging long from the remaining wax. Then, he clipped the blackened part of the wick from the candle. He threw the clippings into a small paper bin next to the table.
The refreshed and shortened candles were then placed in the bottom drawer of the side table, ready for Sunday afternoon when they would be given to the children. They would each light their candle, place it in a tall cup, and kneel before the altar, and pray. They would shoot dutiful looks up to Kwame as he stood behind the altar, no doubt.
He walked back into the light and picked up the cross. He held it under his arm as he picked up the candlestick holders. Back in the dark he opened the top drawer again, picking out a new cotton handkerchief from a plastic packet. He eyed the new handkerchief carefully for grit. Finding none, he began to rub down each of the gold items one by one. First the candlestick holders, and then the cross. Each article ended up a little freer of specks of moisture and dust than it had begun. Finally, Kwame whipped the cotton sheet from the table, whipped it to a snap in the air, then turning it over gently as it floated down toward the table – he laid it down as the exact inverse of its original position.
With new candles placed in each of the candlestick holders and each of the candlestick holders back in their original position, Kwame straightened up the cross in the centre of the table. He walked halfway down the aisle and turned back to look at the altar. He took in the altar at once, halved its width with his eyes and verified that the cross lay at the halfway line. He split each of those halves into three and verified that each of the candles lay on one of the invisible dividing lines.
The chapel around him was simple and easy to divide into these symmetrical portions. Kwame was stood in the exact centre of the square room. In front of him there were three rows of pews, then a step up, then the altar. Behind the altar, a tall window with a rounded top - framed in dark wood. The glass was frosted rather than stained, and in the daytime it permitted a flat, diffuse light. To the right of the altar, on the wall, six light switches and a fire alarm. The room’s ceiling was flat and white, and hung only as high as that of a Victorian living room. Behind Kwame, there were five rows of pews, then the back wall. In the middle of the back wall, aligned with the central aisle, the door out to the atrium. To the left and right of the door, the two identical side tables. At even intervals on the back and side walls were simple gold brackets holding bare Edison lightbulbs. All these bulbs sat dark.
It gave him a temporary sense that the world had a sort of logic when he divided geometries up this way. To see the room around him as a series of intersecting lines that had consistent geometric relationships with one another assured him of the existence of perfection in the mundane. In his school days, Kwame had plotted the sine wave of a circle meticulously by hand, onto graph paper. He saw how the relationship of a circle and triangles generated a perfect undulating form. It evoked to him both the waves at sea and the rising and falling of a sleeping person’s chest. He had thought about the division of the universe into three during Creation, of the division of Noah’s Ark into three at the Lord’s instruction. He had thought of the great gopher wood vessel divided by cubits, units of the human forearm. In the scheme of all of this, he saw God as William Blake had, looking down from heaven with a pair of compasses.
An eruption of wheezing make Kwame jerk. It echoed as if it had been directed into the vaults of a great cathedral. Turning around laboriously in the front pew, the old man fixed his gaze at Kwame. Against the glow of the altar, the man appeared to Kwame as a silhouette, his hunched posture a crumpled black oval. His head was another oval set on top, fringed around the top with thin hair. The preacher could discern the angle of the old man’s gaze by the prominence of his two large ears, visible on either side of his head.
Kwame tore his gaze from the man and fixed it on the cross as he began to walk to the front of the chapel. The old man’s gaze felt as if two fingers were pushing into the side of Kwame’s face. As he passed the front row of pews his skin pricked with a fresh crop of cold sweat. He walked around the altar to the row of light switches. With his hand resting on the switches he turned to look over his outstretched arm at the pews. Finding them all empty, and himself alone in the room, he snapped each light off one by one. He walked through the dark, crossing himself before removing a set of keys from his jacket pocket.
The chapel was unimposing from the street. Between a closed launderette on the right hand side and a three storey house on the left, its simple green door and single frosted window to the atrium did not mark the building out. Locking the front door of the chapel and turning away to walk down the road, Kwame felt two fingers pressing into the back of his neck. Glancing back he saw the old man gliding down the pavement behind him.
Moving smoothly through the air, the old man had the calm demeanour of a person floating in a dream. His feet hung slack below him, the tip of his boots scuffing the pavement as they passed over uneven slabs. His outline was black this time against the sodium orange of the streetlights. The shape of his silhouette was still indistinct to Kwame at this distance; he looked as if he was wrapped in a shawl that muddled his form until it was a suggestion of a man. There was some oblique reference to shoulders, a torso tapering off to thinner legs hanging together and then those boots scraping on the floor.
The old man glided along a few yards behind the preacher. Kwame made no efforts to increase distance between himself and the figure. He had some notion that it wouldn’t be possible if he tried. Instead he went along the street, past terraced houses whose doors faced right onto the pavement, until a small park where he cut along the footpath. At the other side of the footpath he passed through an open gate and rounded the park wall before arriving at his own front door. He slipped a key into the lock and swooped inside. As Kwame shut his front door behind him, he saw the figure stood on the other side of the frosted glass. He watched the figure fade away into the darkness of the street.
First there was the cheekbone against the concrete. The cold that seemed to be stored in the ground was being conducted through a thin, grazed layer of skin and right into the core of the cheekbone. Once there it seemed to dig into the bone marrow. Then there was the granular wetness of the hard-frozen snowfall against the skin of the cheek. Mixed in with the road salt and grit, the snowflakes pressed under the cheek were sturdy enough to press a millimetre or so into the skin without melting away immediately. Slowly the man became aware of his right eye socket. A flicker of his eyelid moved his eyelashes across the ground, brushing a tiny amount of ice crystals along the concrete. Through the crack in his eyelid he could see the dark made darker by a harsh light raking across the floor. An unnatural blue-white light was being cast low across the concrete’s subtly pitted surface so as to create an endless mountain range with the peaks in brilliant white and the valleys in deep black.
His mind was slowly rising as if from a low hanging fog. He wrestled up a little further clear and the sounds in his ears became more distinct. Almost right above his head, the quick and steady rattle of a car’s engine fighting the cold as it ticked over, idling. Far away, a plane passed overhead. He became aware of his right arm, crushed under his body. He searched for sensation in any part of his hand, his forearm, his elbow – and found none. He tried to move the arm out towards the periphery of his body to begin to free it. His hand twitched to life, and as a gasp of blood reached its nerve endings - it burned back to life. Dragging his arm up along the ground like a fallen snow angel, he spread his fingers out over the ground an inch or so from his right eye. Readying himself to push against the ground he noted the mottled purple of the complexion on his hand.
As he pushed against the floor the blood moving through him roared in his ears. His face rolled away from the concrete but the snow and grit mostly stuck to the minuscule pits they had made in his cheek. Each inch from the floor poured more blue-white light into his eyes until he could resolve the cat-eye form of a car’s headlights a couple of feet away. His right eye winked shut for a moment and the headlights remained burned in. With his face away from the floor he could now smell coolant and oil. He was looking into the car’s radiator from below. As his mind resolved the grilled shape in front of him the world twisted violently down.
A hand had grabbed the hair at the back his head pulled his face up and away from the floor. The tautness of his scalp pulled his eyelids open. His body curled backwards; his shins were flat against the ground but his front could now feel the cold air blowing against his shirt. As his eyes pulled focus he could make out a red crane against the night sky. Behind the crane, loud clouds were moving quickly from left to right - illuminated orange.
He felt the body holding him up draw back for a moment. The hand holding his hair was whipped away and for a moment he was falling back toward the ground. Then, the world splashed against the back of his head. A deadness spread from that centre and fanned out around him. He felt the light collapsing in him. Layers of him began to collapse under their own, suddenly unbearable weight: a building collapsing on itself as each floor smashed through the one below it. He was arcing towards the concrete but before his face met once again with the floor, the floor melted into stars.
“Good morning everyone. Today I would like to speak to you about the presence of God’s spirit moving among us in our day-today lives. In particular, there are moments when the spirit can be felt to be in the very same room as us. For many of us who can say that we have felt this presence, we would say that it has been felt at times of great stress. I spoke with one of you some weeks ago about your father’s passing. You told me that when your father’s breaths went to laboured to rattling, you felt as if someone else had entered the room – even though there was nobody in the hospice room but you and your father. So often behaves the holy spirit.
“God gave us his son to bring us salvation, and some day his son will return to save us from evil once more. However, only heretics would today claim that Jesus of Nazareth walks among us. I for one have not seen the Nazarite walking the streets of East London. I’m sure nobody in this congregation would claim to have seen anyone matching his description of late. Despite this, an aspect of God is amongst us often. Though we all pray for salvation each day, I would not go so far as to claim that God’s spirit keeps us company at all hours. Like I have said, the spirit joins us at times of great moral exercise.
“The greatest trials for true believers are in God’s conspicuous absences from our lives. Job’s greatest trials did not come in the form of that which was taken from him here on Earth. Job lived much of his life with many riches, a wall of protection that Satan derides in his jealousy. When in one terrible day Satan takes away Job’s riches, his servants, and his children, Job turned to God. He praised the Lord. When Job is covered in boils and rues the day he was born, he still does not curse the Lord who has not come to him. His friend Eliphaz offers the counsel, ‘The Lord does great things too marvellous to understand’, bidding Job to have faith in the Lord’s grander plan.
“However, many who hear of this story ask how the Lord can be so dismissive of Job’s wellbeing. The Lord says to Satan how he admires Job’s faith and love, and yet he allows Satan to destroy Job’s life. Why? To prove a point to Satan that the Lord’s followers truly are loyal? And who is Satan to the Lord if not a weasel? Who is Satan to the Kingdom of God if not a banished villain back at court, unbidden? How does the Lord… I digress.” Kwame resettled his hand on the pulpit. He looked down at the empty sheets of paper on the stand and squared them into a neat pile.
Sister had told him that he should make notes to refer to when he strayed from his train of thought during a sermon. Dutifully, each night before a sermon he would sit with texts and a ream of paper. Each night an indistinct wall would slide down the front of his mind, stopping him from producing anything. It would not relent until the very moment he stepped up to the pulpit. He had little will to wrestle with it. Dutifully, each morning, he would take his empty note paper with him anyway. He would fiddle with it when he began to feel a breach in the world. He flattened a barely perceptible fold in the corner of the sheet, the very beginning of a dog ear. He took a moment’s breath and continued.
“Job knows nothing of the circumstances that led the Lord to forsake him so. All that Job feels he knows is that the Lord will not help him. No matter the devotion, no matter the praise. God was not in the room when a powerful wind blew down the dining hall, crushing Job’s children to death, but Satan was there. This is Job’s true trial. The hardest trial that any of us can encounter is the realisation that God is not among us when we need him most. How do we endure, knowing that the spirit can choose to be stood at our side, a vanguard against agony, but knowing that he has chosen to remain absent?”
As he said this, he looked beseechingly at the first row of his congregation. They looked suitably afraid. They played their role, Kwame played his.
“Upon your first reading of Job, you thought that perhaps the Lord hadn’t truly taken away all this from his faithful servant. Perhaps if Job’s faith endured, the Lord would return to him his children, his servants, his health, his riches. Perhaps the power of Job’s devotion would be sword wielded by the Lord to finally strike the serpent’s head from Satan’s shoulders. Perhaps the sword that the Archangel Michael wields in his fight with Satan is in some way made from or moved by the faith of servants like Job?
“No. The Lord gives to Job many riches and fortunes, material and not. However, much of what the Lord has taken away can never be returned. Those children of Job’s are still taken from him. Though we can reasonably expect they are in the Kingdom of Heaven, and though the Lord gave to Job more sons and daughters, he never again saw those children who were first taken. Job lives to one hundred and forty. He sees his line continue for four generations. I often wonder if he still thought of those children, who were traded away in a wager.
“In the same way that Job’s greatest trial was enduring agonies without God there to console him, his greatest gift was to have the opportunity to reckon with the Lord, and to be set straight. How many of us have had had God appear out of a whirlwind to justify the trials that he has loosed upon our faith? I wager that none would claim to have had God appear to us in this way. Instead, we must relish the times we feel his spirit in us and the times we feel his spirit around us. This is what I ask of you today. I ask that when the Lord offers you no solace in trials, have patience. I ask that when the Lord comes to you in such a time, let the warmth of his spirit endure in you for as long as you may muster. Let us pray.”
Standing at the doorway, Kwame nodded vague benedictions at each member of his congregation as they passed by him on their way out of the chapel. They number around fifty on a typical Sunday. It was a respectable gathering, and even more respectable was the fact that that number had grown by two or three families since he began his ministry there. One of those additions was a white family. The first time they appeared at the chapel, a cold February morning, they had come all as one. They came in a whole family group not with a manner that suggested the children came along because the money for childcare could not be arranged (as was the case with most families who visited Kwame with a few too many infants). Instead, they seemed to have the impression that to do things as one smiling postcard was charming to others.
Kwame did not find himself charmed by them that morning as they clucked enthusiastically about their new neighbourhood. They called it a neighbourhood. They’d moved from Kent. The little boy wore little yellow rubber boots and a raincoat. The little girl wore a floral dress and a pink parka with a fur trimmed hood. They were both blonde. They were all four of them blonde. Every Sunday they appeared as this tableau, as if always at the end of a spontaneous autumn walk. Kwame thought they seemed a little deflated when they seemed to realise there wouldn’t be any gospel singing, any speaking in tongues.
He nodded at the mother, Ms. Jane Bennett, as she zipped up her little boy’s coat and pointed him out the door. She smiled up at Kwame on her way past and mouthed something along the lines of “Thank you thanks”. As he closed the door of the chapel to, he mused over the extent to which today’s sermon was a success. He felt in some way that the terror he felt in regarding the Lord was something important to convey to his flock. He found it difficult verging on impossible to resist seizing each of his congregation by the shoulders and screaming in primal fear to get them to understand the power of the Lord, to understand that everything we know is only allowed to exist by his grace. Everything could be extinguished instantaneously in the jaws of the Almighty if His patience with our constant failures was somehow depleted.
Kwame wondered why Ms. Jane Bennett signed her name so, when she seemed so decorous and happy with Mr. Bennett. He thought back to his infant school teacher, Ms. Baker, who seemed to be a Ms. with many more bones to pick with the male species. He snapped off the light switches one by one.