Chapter 1

 Rodrigo

The nightmare came again; the deafening sound of hammering on the car roof, the screech of the little windscreen wipers as they tried in vain to stem the tide of water that was pouring over the windscreen. Then came the thump that hit the side door where he sat, punching the little Fiat Punto off the small, rutted farm road and over the edge into the ravine. Over and over he tumbled, disoriented and bruised until with a lurch he was ejected from the warmth and protection of the car and out into the raging night. Screaming, he awoke, soaked with sweat, in as big a panic as he’d been in when the original incident occurred; the accident that had taken the life of his parents as they’d been carried by the force of the storm down to the bottom of the ravine where ton after ton of rubble and water had buried them and the car and drowned them as they struggled vainly to escape. No matter how often the nightmare came its ferocity and intensity remained the same. Gut wrenchingly terrifying!

Rodrigo been knocked unconscious by his ejection and so had known nothing of the accident until early the next morning when a neighbour saw the carnage in the bottom of the gorge. The front bumper of the small car had been the only thing that projected from the debris and it had been the sun reflecting off the bumper that had alerted his neighbour to the crash. Seeing the signs of the avalanche on the scoured out road and the bumper sticking out of the debris at the bottom of the gorge, the neighbour had stopped, scrambled slowly down into the ravine and discovered the remains of the Fiat Uno. A search and rescue party had been hastily put together from the neighbouring smallholders and it was one of them who’d found Rodrigo lying quite still, halfway down the slope where he’d been ejected. Because of the remoteness of the farm, the emergency services had taken a further 90 minutes to arrive on the scene by which time Rodrigo had begun to regain his consciousness and his agony had begun.

He’d been severely injured both from being squeezed out through the rear windscreen and from being pounded out of the way by the torrent of water and soil. Despite the agony of his injuries the only thing he’d wanted to know on regaining his consciousness was what had happened to his parents. At first the neighbours, who’d hastily gathered for the rescue, had no news to tell him: neither good nor bad. They could only say that they were ‘missing’ and that they were still searching for them. By mid-morning however, when the rescue services arrived with their heavy lifting gear, and the rest of the pulped car with its gruesome, unrecognisable contents had been freed from the debris, the news broke that they were both dead. Rodrigo’s wail of intense agony, which had echoed through the hospital wards would haunt many a lonesome night for quite a few of the staff for some time to come.

Having sustained both internal and external injuries, Rodrigo spent the next months in hospital in Malaga, many kilometres away from his home. His convalescence was long and arduous and, on many nights, he would waken suddenly screaming as he relived the memories of the crash. His nightly agonies so disturbed the rest of the patients in his ward that the staff had moved him to a private room, a move which had only increased his loneliness and prolonged his eventual recovery. It was quite some time before he was sufficiently recovered to leave hospital but even then, returning home was out of the question for, even by the time of his discharge, Rodrigo was unable to walk without the aid of crutches and so, try though he might, he could not look after himself. His nearest neighbours and friends, the Salvogan family had attempted to manage his land throughout his convalescence and, for the first few months out of hospital it was them who’d taken him in and gently nursed him back to some degree of health and fitness.

Rodrigo had been left two main legacies of that terrible night. First were the often blinding, migraine headaches which left him incapable of movement and frightened of any strong light. Second were the scars across his face and chest. Rodrigo had learned to manage the migraines by carrying some, aeroplane style, sleeping pads for his eyes and when an attack seemed imminent, he would simply lie down whenever he was, put them on and wait for the pain to pass. The pads, which he’d thickened with felt, kept out the painful light and, sitting quietly, helped him cope with the pain. The scars were much harder to manage.

Before the crash Rodrigo had been considered a handsome lad and had been sought after at high school by many of the local girls. But in one fell swoop the crash had robbed him of his good looks and Rodrigo’s main pain now came from the glances of those same people as he saw them look and then, when they saw his scars, quickly look away. Whenever he could Rodrigo now avoided people, particularly women. He’d also removed all but one of the mirrors in his home. It was sufficient pain to see his reflection in shop windows without being further reminded of his face through mirrors in the house. Now, apart from his occasional visit to the town bar on a Saturday night to hang out with his long-standing buddies and watch the football on the big screen TV, he kept himself to himself. In one terrible night he’d gone from the being one of the area’s most eligible young bachelors to one of its ugliest inhabitants. As a young man, who’d had all his hopes and dreams before him, this pain was the hardest to bear.

Rodrigo Guittierez’ family had farmed their land for centuries though perhaps ‘farming’ was too grand a word for what they did because their farmland in the Andalucian hills of southern Spain was dry and dusty for much of the year and living on the land had always been hard graft. Their income had come from their few crops, from the olives and walnuts that they harvested from their ancient trees and from Rodrigo’s pride and joy; his goat herd. Rodrigo’s life was now one of hard but honest toil attempting to manage the land in such a way that it continued to give him an income on which to live. For the past two centuries his family had managed to scrape a living from it but it was no easy task, not easy at all. It would have been a hard enough life for a family but for Rodrigo, now on his own, it was harder still for he’d been alone now for several years since his mother and father had died.

These days his life was spent looking after his goats. They didn’t mind his disfigurement. All they wanted from him was food, to be milked and sheltered from the savage downpours of the kind that had killed Rodrigo’s parents and which were now increasingly common in his area, especially in the heat of summer days. As the burden of running a farm alone had begun to impact his life, Rodrigo had been forced to make some big decisions. His first had been to ask his neighbours, the Salvogans, if they would be tenant farmers of much of his olive and walnut crops and he’d made a mutually satisfactory arrangement with them. They would manage and harvest his crops in return for a percentage of the profits they made on the harvest. Rodrigo’s sole task now was to tend his goats and sell their produce. The one good thing in his life in the years since the crash had been that he’d established a reputation for making and marketing some excellent cheeses from his goat’s milk. At the encouragement of Maria Salvogan, who’d developed a liking for his cheese, he’d allowed Maria to enter one of his cheeses in a local market competition. It had not only won the competition, but the judge that day, a delicatessen owner in Malaga, had been so impressed by it that he’d arranged to sell Rodrigo’s cheese in his exclusive, up-market,shop. As Maria Salvogan had predicted, the cheeses had grown to be a big success, especially with gourmet restaurants in the area, and they were now marketed under license to Rodrigo. Some people, especially on a Saturday night when Rodrigo had drunk a few more beers than was wise, had tried to pry the secret of his cheese from him, but with no success for the greatest strength of his secret was that even he did not know what gave the cheese its special flavour, and so he could not let it slip even when he’d had one drink too many. The success of his cheese was his one solace in the years that passed after the crash yet mostly his days passed in an unrelenting ‘sameness’, rising each day with the sun, milking his goats, and then taking them out to pasture.

To his surprise Rodrigo had found an unexpected peace in the routine and, at least to his friends, he appeared to be reasonably content. Apart from his occasional salvos into the village tavern Rodrigo’s only other joy was hunting. He’d sometimes waken in the night to the sound of the wild pigs rooting around on his land and the sound of their snorting and squeaking would bring him instantly awake. He’d jump out of bed and quietly and, without putting on any lights, creep downstairs and slip on some clothes. The narrow shape of the valley where his farm was situated was such that sound carried far along it, especially at night so that, even though the pigs could sometimes be more than a few kilometres away, they could sound very close indeed. With some of the proceeds from his cheese Rodrigo had bought himself special piece of equipment. It was a second hand, but immaculately maintained, Remington hunting rifle with night sights. After he’d located the animals using his night sights he’d head outside and track them. Rather cannily, so that they didn’t learn to fear being around his own farm, he would often wait until they’d moved far up the valley and then he’d target just one of the group and shoot. Equipped with such a weapon and a steady hand, he seldom missed. In that part of Spain it’s still not unusual to hear the sound of a rifle late into the night so his hunting didn’t overly disturb his neighbours who even became used to hearing the sound of his Remington.

Throughout his childhood years his parents had taught him the value of community, and the virtue of sharing with that community. Accordingly, in honour of their memory, each time he made a kill he would only ever keep half an animal for himself: the other half would be delivered to one of the local family larders. Through such generosity Rodrigo found his way into the affections of many families in the area, and most especially into the affections of senora’s with expanding families. Sometimes, when the hunting was plentiful, he would use his Malaga market connections to sell some of his wild boar there, a course of action that only increased his status with the city merchants. Partly through his generosity and, in a strange way, partly due to his reclusiveness, his skill with his weapon had become well known in the area.

What few people knew was that his skill was as much a result of the accident as of his weaponry. One of the few positive by-products of his accident had been that his senses of hearing and sight had become most acute. He could hear and see things approach long before others were aware of them and so was able to hear the night noises made by the boars even before some of the farm dogs were aware of them. A downside of his acute hearing was that he’d sometimes overhear a whispered comment being made about him by someone in the bar on a Saturday night, and not all comments were quite as positive or kindly as he would have liked.

 

Chapter 2

 Rodrigo’s Vision.

It was his acute hearing that led to his first experience. As he lay on the couch one evening watching TV he heard a distant rumble. Bored with the programme he was watching, he got up and walked through to the kitchen to the back door and, slipping off his moccasins, stepped outside. What he saw left him breathless. There on his back doorstep was not the scene he expected to see; not the steep sided, dry valley of his farmland stretching out before him, with goats resting in the fenced off corral. Instead he saw water, lots of water, like a huge lake. There were fishing boats on the water and small villages dotted around it. On the side of the lake where he was standing the ground was covered with grapefruit laden trees. Where the hills rose to his left he saw the most familiar plants of his own world growing there: olive trees. On the far side of the lake the hills rose to become cliffs which dropped sharply down to the shoreline. These hills seemed barren at first until his vision sharpened, becoming focussed like a zoom lens on a camera, and he began to notice sheep and goats grazing on them. He was tempted to look further at the goats and see what kind they were, but a flash of light to his right drew his gaze away towards the sun, to the south he presumed because of the height of the sun in the sky, where he saw a river departing from the lake. What made the scene before him so frightening was the fact he not only could see it but he could hear what was going on too. He heard the wind in the trees, the bleating of the animals, and the sound of their bells. He could hear the sound of the river as it exited the lake and the traffic as it moved, ribbon-like, along the near shoreline road. He even heard the sound of a grapefruit dropping from a tree near where he was standing.

But where was he standing? Was he even standing at all? It felt as if he was seeing these things from two separate heights; first as if he was watching from above then next from standing on the ground. Each time he blinked his position subtly changed. It was like watching a split screen television. Then, just as suddenly as the scene had appeared, it disappeared, and he was standing on his doorstep in the quiet of the evening.

The whispered words ‘Madre Dios’ escaped his lips as he slumped against the doorframe and then slowly slid down the doorframe to the ground. Even although he lay crumpled against the bottom of the doorframe his entire body felt relaxed; at peace. How long he lay there he didn’t know but gradually he felt power return to his legs and the desire to stand on his feet became strong enough for him to try and get up. He managed it though not without some considerable effort. He believed that having experienced what he’d experienced he should be scared, but he wasn’t. Not at all! It wasn’t at all like the aftermath of his nightmares. There was no fear, just a deep sense of calm.

Walking through the kitchen he slumped into his old padded armchair in the lounge and lay there trying to slow his erratic breathing, trying again and again either to convince himself that he hadn’t seen what he had, or trying to explain what he knew he’d seen. It had been like stepping out of a house on to a film set but not an artificial one; an on-location one. He could still smell the grapefruit and hear the echoes of the traffic. Then a third thought assaulted him: he was going mad! That must be it! Maybe it was a long-delayed reaction from the car crash. Maybe his brain had been more damaged than imagined by being thrown out of the car and now his brain had just flipped. But if he was mad why was he trying to make sense of the scene. Wouldn’t a mad person just have thought it all ‘normal’? He went over the possible explanations again and again but no matter how long he spent thinking, nothing made any sense at all. Around 10pm, exhausted by his experience and the efforts to find any sort of reasonable explanation for it, he fell asleep in the armchair, only waking when the bleating of the goats heralded the dawn of another day.

Having fallen asleep in the chair his back was stiff when he awoke and he was also reluctant to get up for he was afraid that if he went outside he’d discover that the bleating he could hear was not that of his own goats but those of the others on the far hill in his ‘vision’, for that is how he now thought about his experience of last night: a vision! Calling it a ‘vision’ allowed him some sense of sanity and placed the responsibility or blame for his experience not with him but with someone else: God he supposed. Afraid of what he might see if he stepped out the kitchen door, he first looked out through the window and to his great relief saw the familiar sights of his own valley. Slowly he reached for the door handle and eased the door open. More relief! All was normal again! Rubbing his stubbled jaw brought him back to some degree of normality as he reminded himself that today was Sunday and since he was due at Mass later that morning, he’d better get moving. By nine o’ clock he had completed his chores and half an hour later he emerged from the bathroom feeling clean, fresh and a little more human, ready for the day. Now dressed in his Sunday best he walked up the track from his home to that of his neighbours, the Salvogans, where he would share a ride into mass at the local village.

If he thought his troubles over though, he was wrong. As luck would have it the lectionary readings for that particular Sunday both had a similar theme; the Old Testament reading was from the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah which recounted Isaiah’s vision and then the New Testament reading was from the seventeenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the transfiguration of Jesus. To make matters worse, his priest’s homily actually began with the words “Imagine you had a vision? I wonder how you’d cope with it? Would you understand it? Would you think that God had given you a message for the world or would you think that you’d gone mad?” Thankfully the priest had commented “I don’t think I’d know what to think or say or do. Would you?” Rodrigo didn’t hear any more of the homily. His mind was now racing at such a speed that he felt as if it would crash at any moment. He began to sweat so profusely that Diego Salvogan noticed and whisperingly asked “Are you OK Rodrigo? You seem unwell.” Rodrigo’s brain was so overloaded with the impact of the vision and then the sermon that he barely acknowledged his friend’s words, just managing a grunt of assent instead of a sentence or word. But then, as the congregation stood to go forward for communion, his legs failed him altogether and, still sweating, he slid to the floor. Some congregants farther away assumed that his prostrate figure was adorational or devotional and they genuflected. Others closer to, knew that something was wrong. The Salvogans gently made space on the crowded pew and Maria knelt to attend to him. She noticed that his breathing was normal but one touch of his brow told her that he was running a temperature and so, rather than move him, she simply stayed with him mopping his brow with a tissue she kept a supply of in her handbag. She carried on mopping his brow until the end of mass and when the crowds had thinned sufficiently for her, she organised for him to be taken out of the church and seated on the low church wall where he could benefit from the morning breeze. She sent her husband Diego to find Dr Hierro, the village GP, who usually sat on the far side of the church and Diego soon returned with him.

Seeing Rodrigo’s unfocussed eyes the doctor could tell that something was not right and he arranged for him to be taken to the nearby surgery where he ran some tests on his, still semi-conscious, patient. Finding all the vital signs now close to normal, and having no ready explanation of Rodrigo’s condition, he pronounced that most ubiquitous and common of diagnoses: a virus. Giving him some generic paracetamol, he sent Rodrigo home with the Salvogans with orders for him to take it easy and get as much sleep as possible. Maria Salvogan however was having none of the doctor’s prognosis. She was convinced that something was not at all right and that the doctor’s ‘virus’ opinion was a neat medical sidestep, so she would not let Rodrigo go home. Instead she arranged for her eldest son Fernando to vacate his room and go to Rodrigo’s house for the next few days to tend the goats and look after the house, whilst she settled Rodrigo into Fernando’s room and tended to his needs. She was convinced that the remedy he needed most was ‘mothering’ and she took to the task with fervour, making his favourite soup and pampering him as best she could. After a few days however she began to change her mind about her own diagnosis because no matter how much care she showered on him, Rodrigo still looked pale.

One evening as she took him his supper out on the patio, she sat down next to him, put her arms around him and whispered ‘What’s really wrong?’ He turned to look at her and must have seen something that spoke of her trust and care in her eyes for he replied. “I think that I’m going mad”. Tempted though she was to reply “Of course you’re not mad” she changed her tack and simply asked “Why? What makes you think that?” and then it all burst out of Rodrigo like a dam breaking and he told her of his ‘vision’ and of his fears. Whatever Rodrigo expected it wasn’t what happened. He watched Maria’s eyes open, first in astonishment and then in wonder yet not once did she give the impression that he was anything but completely sane. Not once did she question the validity of his ‘vision’. Not once did she seem to doubt the veracity of his words or experience. Instead she remained silent; not with the silence of disbelief but rather the silence of contemplation. After what seemed an eternity she spoke. “Rodrigo I want to tell you a secret. One I’ve told no-one else yet. But I will keep your secret if you will keep mine; at least until I’m ready to tell others. Will you keep my secret?” “Certainly!” he replied. Encouraged by his agreement she looked own at the ground and began to talk.

“About five months ago I began reading a book I’d had in my possession for many years but never actually read. I was given it at my first communion and although I’ve carried it to mass almost every week I’ve never taken the time to read it. It is my New Testament. Father Franciso has been talking recently about how few who attend mass, even those who do so religiously, have actually read it and how it was beginning to transform the church again. He also told of the Holy Father’s wish that all should read it and discover Jesus for themselves. I decided that I wouldn’t remain ignorant any longer and I began to read. Once I’d started reading it I couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating. I’d not even registered that Jesus was a Jew until I started reading it. Anyway that’s not what I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to say was that I’ve noticed my life changing these past months. Since the morning I knelt down in the church and quietly prayed that Jesus might become real to me in the way that he was to the early Christians, my life has changed. It’s as if I’ve been sleepwalking those past years. I can see now that I’d been religious without ever being spiritually alive. I’d had the form of the Christian faith, but not the substance. It’s as if I’ve been following a shadow rather than the reality. Anyway in my reading I couldn’t help notice how active God was in the lives of the ordinary Christians. They had dreams and visions and they weren’t just occasional events or even strange events. The early Christians accepted them as quite normal, almost commonplace, ways that God used to communicate to His people, or through them to others.” And then Maria stopped and drew a deep breath before asking somewhat fearfully; “Does any of what I’ve said make any sense to you Rodrigo?” As she glanced in his direction she saw that his eyes were now alight and that he was looking at her with a strange joy on his face.

“Maria. Do you remember that old couple from Holland, Ruud and Hanna Bergkamp, who came many years ago, bought the old barn near our farm and converted it into a house? He made beautiful carvings and she painted. “Certainly!” Maria replied. “I have one of her paintings hanging in our bedroom; the one called ‘The sunset and the morning’. “Well, when I was a boy I used to go up to their barn to deliver their milk and I got to know them quite well. I used to stand and watch her paint and then go and watch him carve. As he worked he would tell me stories; I don’t know what fascinated me most, the carvings, the paintings or the stories, but I loved that old couple. I was quite heartbroken when they had to go back to Holland to care for her mother and never returned. Well, one day, he asked me “Rodrigo do you like the stories?” “Yes, yes I said”. “Good“ he said. “Maybe someday something wonderful will happen to you!” After that when I’d go up to the Bergkamp’s house we’d talk more and he’d tell me more stories, but then they left and went back to Holland. I wished so hard, and prayed so often, that they would come back to live at the barn but when they didn’t, the stories began to fade and it all seemed like a dream. I loved them almost as much as my own parents you know. Ruud taught me to carve a bit on his lathe and Hanna taught me to paint but when they left I stopped doing either. Does any of this make any sense Maria?” I asked.

Her smile said it all. It was the same kind of smile that Menheer Ruud used to have. Tears were forming in her eyes as she sighed a gentle “Yes. It makes sense all right. I feel the same way every time I look at her painting in my bedroom. We miss them too.”

“Rodrigo, I can’t help but wondering if these olden days will ever return; the days when dreams and visions were common, when strange but wonderful events happened like when St Paul sent a handkerchief to someone so that they could be made well. Do you ever wonder that?” Much to Maria’s disappointment Rodrigo shook his head but then he replied. “No I never wondered about handkerchiefs but I used to wonder what would happen if paintings could do the same. If, when people saw a painting like one of Hanna’s they would be touched like I was, with a longing and a peace, as if the creator had reached out and touched them. That’s what I used to wonder. Even long after the Berkamp’s departure, and until I was well into my teens, I used to daydream about being a painter like that whose paintings touched the people of the world.”

“Then maybe you should paint Rodrigo. Maybe you should try it and see. It might be just the therapy you need. Then, as if some brilliant new idea had come to her, she suddenly straightened and announced: “Rodrigo I know what we’re going to do; we’re going to see if this is what your malaise is all about. Tomorrow you and I are going into the city, not the village but the city, and I’m going to buy you some materials and you’re going to paint and then we will see.” “No Maria” said Rodrigo gently but firmly. “Tomorrow we are going into town and I’m going to buy some art materials and then I’ll paint and see if the dream makes any sense then. My cheeses have given me enough money to buy all the materials I want and I’m going to splash out.”

 

Chapter 3

 The Artist.

The next morning a transformed and re-invigorated Rodrigo rose before the dawn, washed, dressed and made his way downstairs only to find that Maria was already up and in the kitchen. There was an air of excitement all around. Once they’d eaten their simple breakfast of bread and coffee they set off in the Salvogan’s old battered Opel and headed down the valley, through the village where the market stalls were being set out for the day, and down to the autoroute towards the bustling city of Malaga. Having looked in the phone book the night before, Rodrigo knew where he wanted to go: to the same shop that Hanna had used for her materials; the one in the old city on the way up to the castle. Though he hadn’t been home since he’d taken ill in church he still had his bank card in his trouser pocket and he was eager to spend some of his savings. An hour later they re-emerged from the somewhat dusty looking shop carrying armfuls of purchases and slowly made their way back to the parked car, trying hard not to drop anything. Having deposited Rodrigo’s new canvasses, easel, paints and accessories in the back of the car they looked for somewhere to stop for a lunch.

By mid-afternoon they were edging slowly back down the steep dusty track towards Rodrigo’s home at the end of the track. They could see Maria’s son Fernando deep down in the valley tending to Rodrigo’s goats and beeped the horn to him.

As Maria drove down to Rodrigo’s house she couldn’t help but wonder if Rodrigo’s new eagerness was not just a bit too desperate, almost a reaction to his earlier torpor but, whatever she thought, she kept these things to herself. She helped Rodrigo unpack both his new art supplies and some of the groceries they’d bought at the Carrefour on the way out of the city. As they finished putting things away in the kitchen and on the covered patio, Fernando arrived at the door smiling amidst a clattering of goat bells, happy to see such a change in Rodrigo; happy too at the prospect of being home again eating his mother’s cooking. With a smile and a wave and a ‘call me if you need me’ Maria and Fernando disappeared back up the track, the old Opel’s exhaust smoking away.

Though he badly wanted to start painting straight away Rodrigo was aware that there were other things that would be requiring more immediate consideration because his cheeses needed some attention if they weren’t to spoil. It had been quite some time since he’d even given a thought to them but now he set to work with a vengeance.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of activity both within and without the house and by sundown he was feeling much more like his old self again, and the house and small holding had been restored to the way he liked it. Contented though he was with his day’s work he knew that the restless feeling he had inside would not be easily placated if he didn’t put in some work on his art. At school Rodrigo’s art teacher had confirmed what Hanna had already told him; that he had talent and that one day he just might become a good painter. Though he was eager to try again he was also nervous because of the long lay off. Since his parent’s death he’d not done anything even remotely artistic, unless one counted cheese-making as art.

Just as these thoughts entered his mind, the phone rang. It was Diego asking him if he was coming over to watch the match. The match! How could I have forgotten it, he thought? My brain really must be scrambled. Saying “I’ll be right there; put some San Miguel on ice and I’ll bring some more” he replaced the phone and ran upstairs to get one of his most prized possessions; a Malaga FC football scarf. He’d been given it on his seventh birthday by his parents and it had been almost worn out through its usage down through the years. Tonight Malaga were at home to Real Madrid, not their most fierce opponents; that honour fell to the local derby game with Seville. Yet this was still the most prestigious game because Real Madrid were still arguably the most famous football side in the world, and so any game against Real was always special. Everybody wanted to beat Real, and Malaga, currently third in the Spanish League and just one point behind Real, were no exceptions. A win tonight had the potential to bring them level with Barcelona at the top. It was Malaga’s biggest game of the season by far and Rodrigo had no intention of missing watching it with his friends. Though they couldn’t afford tickets for the actual game, his family and the Salvogan’s had always watched the games on TV together, sharing the hopes and joys and up’s and down’s of the season passionately, as only fervent fans can. As he ran back down the stairs he reached for his bike helmet, grabbed the plastic bag with the beer in it and then, not bothering to lock the door, ran out to the shed and liberated his trusty Vespa moped for the short journey up to the Salvogans. He arrived just as the game had kicked off, his regular, football watching, seat ready and a cold San Miguel sitting on the table ready to greet him.

For the next couple of hours he kicked every ball, tackled every opponent, headed every cross and saved every shot that his team did. It was never his style to sit quietly watching. He acted as if he was on the pitch himself. As a boy he remembered watching the famous Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson in the dugout doing the same thing; acting as if he were playing every ball. Since then it had been Rodrigo’s way of watching matches too; not that anyone else noticed his antics for they all seemed to be doing much the same. The last few minutes were agony for them all. Malaga had a slim, one goal lead and Real Madrid, in true form, were applying all the late pressure on the Malaga defence but, when the whistle finally blew, the house erupted. Even Maria joined in. Malaga 3 Real Madrid 2. Since Barcelona had only managed a draw in their game, Malaga were now joint top of the league for the first time in seven years and were now firmly in the hunt for La Liga title. Their joy was unconfined. It was very late when Rodrigo started his return journey home. He had celebrated the victory with so much San Miguel that he’d had to leave his Vespa at the Salvogans and trudge his weary way home down the hill. Fortunately, as the valley was now shrouded in night, the moon was bright enough for him to see along the track as he staggered home. His steps were happy, though weary, as he relived every move of the game; especially Malaga’s goals. Even as he climbed into bed that night he was still smiling at the thought that his team were now being mentioned as potential champions. His smile lasted till morning.

When morning came however, he was not so happy. Every move made his head ache and, to add to that misery, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The sound of the heavy rain pouring down on the rooftop matched the constant drumming inside his head which only compounded his misery. The bleating of his goats only added to the terrible symphony of sound. Slipping on a broad-rimmed hat he donned his raincoat, and stepped outside. Deciding that for once he’d leave the goats untended to roam on to the hillside he untied the gate of their large pen and let them out hoping that they’d stay close enough for him to be able to round them up later. Having done so, he slipped back indoors, took off his raingear, made some strong coffee, slumped down in his favourite armchair and drifted back off to sleep. It was midday when he awoke again but his hopes that his headache would improve through coffee and sleep were dashed. As he attempted to rise from the chair the pain returned with a vengeance. Holding the phone as far away from his ear as he could so that the ringing would not exacerbate his pain, he called Maria to ask her what he should so to alleviate it. It had been many years since he’d had a hangover and he was now beginning to regret the excesses of the night before.

As he explained his predicament Maria began to laugh telling him that she already had two others who were also suffering from the same malady. She told Rodrigo her patented remedy and, thanking her profusely, he went off to make it. Ten minutes later however, when he began to drink the concoction he was not so sure that Maria’s remedy was not something more like a punishment. It smelled bad and tasted worse, yet it did the trick and by late afternoon he was feeling better; not good, just better, and at least well enough to go out on to the now steaming patio and check on his goats. He was both surprised and delighted to discover that they too had all decided that the rain wasn’t to their taste and had gone back into the covered pen and lain down. All that is, except for one. One was missing. Little Bilbo!

He went to the small parapet wall that surrounded the patio and began to scour the landscape around the house. He walked all around the house looking up the hillside and down into the valley. He called and he whistled but still saw nothing. As he reached each corner of the house, he first listened and then looked out for any sign of movement but despite waiting for several minutes at each corner nothing caught his ear or eye. Going 200 metres up the track he checked his other small barn but there was still no sign of the missing goat. Bilbo was one of the yearlings. Rodrigo had named him Bilbo because, like his namesake hobbit, he was so keen to stay at home. Of all the goats in the flock Bilbo was the least likely to wander off on his own. The way he was feeling right now Rodrigo felt like he agreed with Bilbo’s sentiments because he too was very reluctant to go away from his home. All he wanted was to do was to go and lie down again in his favourite chair and sleep, yet he knew that this wasn’t possible. Every goat was valuable and he couldn’t just ignore that fact that Bilbo had gone missing. Very reluctantly, he put on his hat and work boots, the ones he used every day to move with the flock and, making sure to secure the latch on the pen, he went off in search of Bilbo.

Slowly and painstakingly he moved west up the valley quartering his olive groves, searching amongst his almond groves, yet there was no sign of Bilbo. At this point he knew that things could become difficult because at the far western end of the valley was Julio’s farm and Julio had his own flock of goats. It would now be much more difficult to listen out of the sound of Bilbo’s goat bell so, instead of moving closer to Julio’s, he began to move south down into the valley floor and then head east back towards his own farm. The sun was beginning to burn off the recent rain and, as it did, the day grew hotter causing Rodrigo’s head, despite his hat’s protection, to thump like a hammer drill. He sat down wearily on a small boulder to rest for a while and as he did he noticed movement higher up the valley side. There, resting in the shade of a large oak tree, was Bilbo chewing contentedly on some coarse grass that had grown around the tree’s base.

It was little wonder that Rodrigo hadn’t heard or seen him because the shade offered by the tree made Bilbo well-nigh invisible. Calling gently to him, Rodrigo managed to persuade Bilbo to follow him back home, though every step of the way Rodrigo dearly wished that his next step would find him in the shade of his own home. Re-penning Bilbo, Rodrigo went back inside, collapsed in the chair and promptly fell fast asleep. Atoning for his alcoholic lapse, Rodrigo spent the next few days in a constant blur of activity. He rose earlier and toiled through the mornings labour so that he could spend the afternoons and early evening’s painting. His first efforts only succeeded in frustrating him. Each brush stroke felt as if he was painting with lead weighted appendages. His hand was heavy and his old light ‘touch’ seemed to have abandoned him altogether but part in desperation to do well and part in punishment for giving up on his talent, he persevered. His first scenes were of the hillside around him and all seemed shoddy. It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that he completed something that made him feel that some kind of gifting had returned and yet, as he lay in bed that night thinking through his feelings, he began to realise that this drive that he had to paint was as much connected with his vision as with anything else. He thought back to his conversation with Maria about inspirational art and the peso dropped. He must change the scene. He must paint the vision; the landscape now indelibly imprinted on his visual memory. Only when he’d begun to paint the vision would he feel as if he was really painting.

The following Thursday afternoon he started the painting and from the moment he began to prepare the canvas everything felt different. Each preparation, each mix of colour, each brush stroke felt as if it was meant to be done that way. Something seminal began to stir within him; something new and full of light, something he later described as ‘serenity’, something creative that he’d not felt before, save in the kind of dreams he had about flying around the world on wings he did not have. Nor did he feel driven. He was happy to leave the work, to eat, to work, to sleep, even to go up to the Salvogans and watch another Sunday game, yet each time he came back to the canvas he was ready for the next stage.

May.

It took Rodrigo two weeks to finish the painting but when he did, he felt sure enough about what he saw to call Maria to come and see it. From the moment she stepped around the front of the easel on the patio and saw it, she was smitten. She felt her knees buckle at the sight of it. She wanted to touch it, even just the frame but, out of respect for Rodrigo, she resisted the urge to do so. The scene itself meant little to her. She did not recognise the scene any more than Rodrigo did but it had a powerful effect on her. It made her want to dance and sing with abandon. It made her want to run for joy. It made her want to cry the kind of tears people cry when, after a long time away, they’d ‘come home at last’. Rodrigo watched her stand, transfixed, in front of the painting and he knew, as he’d hoped in his most fervent prayers, that it was having the same effect on Maria that it had on him.

By a force of will she tore her eyes away from the painting to the painter. In his eyes she saw the very essence of the painting and she stepped towards him and hugged him so hard he thought his ribs would crack. “Rodrigo” she said “I can even smell the grapefruit on the trees.” And from that moment on Rodrigo knew that the power of the painting was as powerful as the vision itself. “This is special” said Maria, “but what will you do with it? This you will surely not want to sell, nor will you want to keep it for yourself, will you?” “No” he replied. “I don’t want to sell it, but I do want it to be seen. This is know in my heart. But how Maria? I do not want anyone to know that I painted this. I feel that such knowledge must be kept secret for as long as possible. I have a feeling that I have more to do than this and I know that I will need the space and time to do whatever more needs doing. But how can people see it without others knowing who painted it and maybe wanting to buy it? This part I do not understand.”

“My son, a way will be provided” she said using the text that Father Francisco had used the previous Sunday in church. The phrase escaped her lips before she consciously registered it. Yet even as she said it, she knew it to be true. Why, she could not explain, but truth is sometimes that way. “What will you do with it for now?” she asked. “I’ll put in my parent’s old bedroom and cover it with a sheet until we know what to do next. I don’t feel any need to show it yet, not until that ‘way’ is provided.” So saying he asked Maria’s help in transporting it up to what had been his parent’s room, and covering it with a bed sheet together they carried it up the stairs and placed it on the bed.

“It doesn’t matter that I can’t see it any longer” said Maria, “I can still feel it here inside of me. The peace it made me feel is still there. The joy too! I can’t help but wonder if it will affect others the same way”. “After all”, she said “you and I have been so close to it that we should feel something special, but I suppose the test will come when strangers come across it unawares.” Rodrigo nodded. Yes, he thought, that will be the ultimate test! The test of the stranger! Another week went by and each day Rodrigo and Maria phoned one another to ask the same question “Any ideas yet?” and every day the response was the same. “No. nothing yet.”

 

Chapter 4

Tobermory; The Island of Mull; Scotland

Jamie was feeling fine. The study group had finished an hour ago and yet people were still talking animatedly, laughing and drinking tea. As he stood at the cottage’s kitchen sink, washing up the dishes, listening to the gentle laughter drift in through from the front room, his heart was full. The group had been together now for just two years but it felt as if they’d known each other all their lives yet he knew that he couldn’t take any credit either for the group itself or for its success. This particular group had been formed not long after he and Kate had arrived in Tobermory to become the new Kirk minister. One evening as he’d been preaching, he’d been part way through explaining something from the front when Bill Forsyth, one of the congregation, forgetting where he was, said ‘rubbish’ out loud. Initially there had been a very awkward silence and Bill had hung his head in his hands, shaking it with embarrassment. But to his credit, instead of being offended, Jamie had gently enquired what was it that he’d said that Bill had disagreed with. When Bill had somewhat reluctantly given his response, the sermon had turned first into a gentle dialogue then into a discussion as others also joined in. In the weeks that followed Jamie had quite deliberately turned what had been planned as a rather typical sermon series into a new and conversational style of talk; a style which the church members began to increasingly enjoy as their questions were welcomed and their queries investigated.

From that humble and honest beginning a whole series of studies had begun with topics suggested by the congregation themselves. As the subjects under discussion soon grew broad and wide-ranging this led to a series of further, mid-week, studies. The discussions were mainly based in various people’s homes, and gradually these home-based groups had grown in numbers as word got round the town that here was a place where questions could be raised, explanations investigated and possible answers tried out; a place too where people could be honest about their doubts. The church’s congregation had steadily grown throughout the following year and had now more than trebled in size and, from a small and almost exclusively post 50’s congregation, it was now cross generational with many younger people joining in and then joining up.

In order to accommodate the congregational growth they’d altered the old Kirk considerably. It was now a two storey affair with a huge carpeted open plan area upstairs with comfortable chairs and sofas for folks to sit in, and a large kitchen and toilet area. Downstairs it was again open plan but had been made into a multi-purpose area that could be used for church services, community gatherings, ceilidh’s or concerts. There was even talk of having to move out of their building into something bigger that could house their continuing growth. But for discussions there was nothing better than being in people’s homes. As Jamie had told them, it was either outdoors or in homes that many of the first Christians had met, so this midweek style of home-based meeting was like reverting to origins. As Jamie stood there in the kitchen, his hands deep in suds, he heard Kate’s familiar tones cry “OK everyone, that’s enough for tonight, it’s already past 10 and we all have work tomorrow, so we’d better call a halt for tonight”. A little groan of disappointment arose from the group, but one by one they came into the kitchen, deposited their cups and plates on the scrubbed pine table, gave Jamie a hug or handshake, and then left by the kitchen door. Some continued discussing as they walked off down the garden path, through the door in the high hedge, towards the street.

Last into the kitchen was Kate, dark haired, slim as a poker and lithe as a cat. Her smile alone was enough to light up his life. Jamie still couldn’t figure out how he’d been so lucky as to end up married to someone as lovely as Kate. Her green eyes were freckled with gold and her impish smile and feline grace were enough to turn heads in any room. Her eyes seemed to reflect the light in her soul which, Jamie thought, was where her looks came from. She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, leaned into his back, kissed the back of his shirt and stood there motionless, content just to hold him.

Since the day that this ‘great galloot’ had wandered into her life she’d been smiling within and without. She loved her gentle giant with a passion that sometimes took her breath away; the solid way his body felt in her arms, the easy way he had with people, his huge hands and the way he managed to make her feel like the only woman in the world, all combined to melt her. Even though they’d moved away from her home area when they’d wed, their first year of marriage had made her feel as if she was at home and on holiday at the same time. The work on their three bedroomed cottage, now Manse, converted from a stable block of an old hotel halfway up the hill from the harbour, was only just finished. It was small and homely, yet for all that anyone could tell from her smile, they would have thought she lived in a palace. Not that life was all smiles and cuddles; they both had demanding jobs which took up far too much of their ‘together’ time but somehow they’d managed to make it more than work.

“That was another great evening” she murmured to his backbone feeling the vibration of his reply resonate through his back to her lips. “Yep, it sure was. I so love it when they’ve got so many questions, and good ones too! It makes all the preparation so rewarding. As soon as it’s over I can’t wait for the next one to come around.” “Well you’ll have to wait because there’s something else you urgently need to attend to” she said. “And what would that be” he asked, turning as he spoke. Taking a step backwards, and with a mischievous grin on her face she simply said ‘Me’! Turning, he lifted her easily off the ground and, dropping his head to kiss her he strode from the kitchen, carrying her along the hall and into the small lounge where they laid down in front of the log fire, their laughter filling the room. The dishes could wait until morning.

The Dream

It was two nights later that he had the dream for the first time. He came suddenly awake in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright in bed crying out something unintelligible. Kate, still drowsy, rolled over in bed and stretched out her arm reaching for him, but finding only space, she came awake. “What Jamie? What is it?”   “Sorry darlin’’” he mumbled, “It was just a dream. It’s OK. Go back to sleep” and she did, as if she’d never woken in the first place.

 

Chapter 5

Rodrigo finds the place.

On the fourth Sunday after the painting had been finished the Salvogan’s phoned Rodrigo to invite him to go with them into Nerja for the rest of the day. He was told to bring his swimming gear because they’d probably spend the day on the beach and then go out to eat somewhere in Malaga in the evening. He readily agreed and went to find his swimming trunks and long unused snorkelling gear. It had been a long time now since he’d used either and he wasn’t even sure where to find them. For some reason he was now no longer so concerned about his scars or what people’s reaction to them might be or what his own response would be to their reaction. After Mass he went over to his Vespa, pulled his gear from its small storage compartment and went to join the Salvogans in their car.

It was another beautiful Andalucian day and, knowing that Maria had probably packed enough picnic food for them to eat continuously all day, they set off on the drive down from the hillsides for one of the many coves in the area around Nerja. The day did not disappoint. The Mediterranean Sea which, this close to the Atlantic, could be fickle in temperature, was warmer than they’d expected and Rodrigo and Fernando spent almost the entire afternoon snorkelling from cove to cove, whilst Maria and Diego contented themselves with the occasional dip and a long siesta under a large beach umbrella. When the time came to set off back towards Malaga they were all well content.

Throughout the day Rodrigo had been thinking about how he could express his gratitude to the Salvogans for all their recent care for him. He knew that they were a proud family and would not accept payment but he longed to find some simple way of saying ‘thanks’. The roads were relatively clear as they made their way along the coast back towards Malaga but when they reached the old town it was a different matter. The traffic there came almost to a standstill mainly due to the number of horse-drawn carriages which cruised the town centre taking tourists around the Old Town. Seeing the pleasure on the faces of the tourists as they sat in the carriages it was hard to feel angry at them for holding up the traffic.

“You know,” said Diego out loud as he sat in the back of the car, “I’ve lived in the Malaga area all my life but have never taken one of these carriage rides. I’ve always thought it might be nice to do but have never actually done it, not even when Maria and I were courting.”

“Well tonight I’m going to change all that!” announced Rodrigo deciding that the opportunity to say thank you had just presented itself to him. “It’s time we all did it and I’m going to hire a carriage as soon as we park. Anyone who wants to join me is welcome to do so. I’ve got money from the goat’s cheese that’s just burning a hole in my pocket. I’ve had such a great day today and I think that it would a marvellous way to continue having a great day. What do you say? Fernando nodded enthusiastically, and Diego was just about to say something thrifty when he looked over at Maria to see the slight glaze in her eyes that had that ‘how romantic’ look and he relented. “Sure, if it’s OK with you, it’s OK with us, but are you sure you want to pay?” “Positive” Rodrigo replied “Your money’s no good tonight. Just sit back and enjoy.” And that was it. After just two circuits of the old town they found a parking place and then made their way down to the foot of the castle mound where the carriages started their journey. Their horse drawn carriage trip only lasted 40 minutes but it was full of smiles and laughter. The coachman, discovering how local they were, gave up trying his usual historical patter and regaled them with a host of anecdotes about passengers that had travelled with him. If he was to be believed, half of Hollywood and most of the world’s great football players had travelled in his carriage, but they took his stories in good humour and thoroughly enjoyed their time in the carriage. Surprisingly they’d really enjoyed playing tourists in their own city and vowed to try it again sometime. The coachman’s parting comment was to tell them of a good new restaurant that had recently opened in the old quarter and so they set off in search of it.

He wasn’t wrong. The food was delicious and not extortionately priced either and so, just after 10.30 having eaten very well, they began wending their way back through the old quarter towards the car. As they came around towards the harbour they noticed that a well-lit area around a small park which was now taken over by local artists and, like some copy of Montmartre in Paris, the railings around the park were festooned with paintings for sale. Some were pretty good too; some, mainly the neo-Picasso ones that were plying their trade there because the Picasso Museum was just around the corner, were not so good. As they were walking past them an idea struck. Rodrigo looked over at Maria to find her looking straight back at him. As if understanding his thoughts completely she nodded. This would be the test. Despite the number of artists around the park there was still ample railing space for one more painting. Yes; this was it; the testing place. Rodrigo could hardly contain his excitement and when Diego and Fernando noticed the smile on his face and asked “What’s with the smile? Seen some special senorita?” he simply said “I’m having such a wonderful day out. It’s only natural to smile”; a statement that they found hard to refute.

Jamie’s Dream

The following Saturday morning after his first dream, as they sat listening to the radio in the kitchen, Jamie told Kate about it again. “It was as if I was watching it on the telly” he began. “I’ve never really been into dreams and all that stuff but this dream was as if I was like a kestrel that kept landing and taking off again, or a smaller bird perching then flitting elsewhere. The reason I thought it so real was I could hear the sounds. Dreams don’t usually have sounds do they?” he asked. “Not mine” Kate replied. “Mine fade away as soon as I want to remember them. It’s only the bad ones I remember with any clarity”.

“Can you remember what it was all about?” Kate asked, her head resting on her hands as she looked into his crinkled eyes. “Well it was if the ground was convulsing, rippling, spasming. It was some sort of earth tremor I think. At first the ground heaved and heaved. Then there was this silence followed by a tremendous deep rumble, like thunder, and then a cracking noise that shattered the air and forced me to put my hands over my ears, except I couldn’t see my hands or feel my face. I woke up then, scared because I couldn’t feel my face. But it was so real, so real.”

“Any idea where it was all happening?” Kate inquired. Jamie was thoughtful for a moment as he considered Kate’s question. It wasn’t something he’d even thought about until now. “Nowhere I’ve been” he replied. “The land didn’t look familiar, not like here. The colours and the light were all wrong for here. It was sunnier and the ground was drier too. I don’t know, why? What do you think? Might it actually mean something?

“If my mother’s wisdom is to be believed, it probably means that you’d been eating something that disagreed with you before you went to bed! They do say that eating certain foods before you sleep affects your sleep patterns and some foods seem to give people bad dreams; probably the brain reacting to night-time indigestion. What did you eat last night; anything that I didn’t?”

“No, that’s just it, we both had the same without you getting indigestion or strange dreams. I did have a couple of June’s famous homemade biscuits during our discussion, but you know what happened after that; eating was not exactly on my mind then. You had others plans for my lips!”

“I still have” she said, smirking at him, but when he reached for her across the table, she slipped from the table and fled into the shower shouting ‘Later, much later, my highland laddie!’ and then she locked the bathroom door before he could rise and follow her.

As much as possible Jamie and Kate tried to keep Saturday’s as ‘together time’, avoiding making arrangements that drew them apart or which meant that they had to spend it doing things that were more like work than rest. The remainder of the morning was spent wandering down to the harbour area for some weekend groceries, and where Kate was showered with little ‘extras’ from some of the parents of her pupils who worked in the popular shorefront delis and shops. Whilst Kate was shopping for vegetables Jamie spent some time hanging around the harbour area, chatting to some of the local fishermen whose boats lay in the harbour area and who were taking advantage of the seasonally good weather to do some much needed repairs to their boats and nets. It had been a wonderful summer so far, better even than 2003, and it had come as a welcome change from what had been one of the worst and wettest winters in living memory. After a local boat from Oban had been lost when she left The Sound in early March even the hardened west coast fishermen had been cowed by the storms that had swept in from the Atlantic, some not going to sea for weeks at a time. But today, and on many other lovely summer’s days since the disaster and that dreary winter weather, all that seemed to have faded into a distant memory. The fishermen were now making up for lost time, both for lost winter fishing time and for some lean years due to EU fishing quota changes. Fish had returned to The Minch in some numbers in the Spring and many of the islanders were rejoicing as crews enjoyed many a bumper catch. The scientists from the marine laboratory up on the north coast, were quietly hoping that the fishermen wouldn’t overdo it and so deplete the fragile local fish stocks, but they were also aware that it was not the local fishermen who were to blame for the over fishing but the huge multi-national purse-seiners that patrolled all around the Scottish coastline vacuuming up fish stocks at an enormous rate. Such greed had all but wiped out local fish stocks some years before the locals hoped that the spectre of over-fishing would not return to blight the already hard pressed local industry.

Laden with goodies and ready to return home for lunch, Kate went in search of Jamie and saw him sitting on the harbour wall chatting down to one of the crew on the Harbour Queen. She’d almost reached him and was only a few steps away when she saw his whole body slacken. Stifling a scream that might have launched him over the side down on to a boat deck, she dropped her shopping bags and stepped forward to grasp him. As her arms went round him, his body fell backwards towards her and, struggling with his dead weight, she lowered his body to the ground. As she lay his head on her lap she noticed that his eyes had a faraway look, like someone who had fainted. The whole event passed so quickly and his eyes re-focused on her so keenly that she could almost have believed she’d imagined it. He smiled up at her with that lazy smile of his, looked deep into her eyes and softly said “Oh Kate, Kate McBride what did I do to deserve the likes of you?”

“I thought you were going to fall in” she said with a worried tone in her voice” “And why would I be wanting to do something like that” he inquired, “The water may be warmer than normal but it’s not the Med as of yet.” As he rose on his size twelve feet he noticed her groceries all over the ground and glanced concernedly into her eyes. “You really did think that I was going to fall in didn’t you?” he said, helping her to gather the runaway vegetables back into their plastic bags. She nodded, but rather than make a scene there and then, she stored the event away in her heart for another time and place. Bags refilled, they walked back up the hill arm in arm looking, for all the world to see, like a couple in love, which is exactly what they were.

As they sat on the sofa after lunch watching ‘Football Focus’ Jamie quietly said ‘I saw it again Kate, when sitting on the harbour wall this morning’. “What did you see love?” she asked, holding her breath held in anticipation of his reply. “The same scene that I saw in my dream. I even heard the same sounds as before too. It’s weird. I’ve never been able to recall my dreams and now I can remember them all over again. It’s like replaying a film.”

“How did you feel when you ‘saw the dream’ Jamie?” she asked.

“Feel? Funny you should ask that, but I felt strangely calm; at peace; almost as if I was sleeping again. Why? Why did you ask?”

Kate felt anxious now. Should she tell him how she’d seen his body respond, or should she keep quiet until she knew more about all this. She suddenly felt as if this was a key point in their marriage, a new place, where she could keep something from him if she wanted to but, although it might be for his protection, she worried about that. Secrets were not something they kept from one another. They talked about everything; at least they had so far. Throwing caution to the wind, and trusting in the honest love they shared, she told him. “Well just before you fell into my arms on the harbour wall I saw your body go slack, and that’s why I thought you were going to fall in the harbour, so I reached out to stop you. Instead of pitching forward you leaned back, right into my arms. Did you know any of this?” “Yes! Yes I did, but in a way I can’t explain right now. You see while I was having the dream, and yet feeling ‘safe’ I could also ‘sense’ you behind me and I sort of relaxed back towards you, back into your arms. It all happened in a split second, yet as if it were happening in slow motion. It’s weird isn’t it?” Relieved that she’d made the right choice in telling him what she’d seen, she agreed that it was indeed peculiar. In a rather wonderful way she noticed how close she now felt to Jamie. Not just physically close but ‘bonded’ to him and in a new, deeper way. Was this another type of love she thought; something so far unknown and unexplored?

“Oh did you see that?” he suddenly said, exploding from the sofa. “That was such a great goal. I remember being there when it was scored. You were there too; remember, it was the first match I took you to see and you saw one of the best goals I’ve ever seen. We lost the match but it was as if every fan went home happy.” And that was all they mentioned about the dream for many weeks. Football Focus, and in particular that fabulous goal, had wiped the dream from the conversation list. It wasn’t until many weeks later that the dream made its way back into their world.

 

Chapter 6

The Trial

The week that followed their excursion dragged by. Rodrigo had arranged to borrow the Salvogan’s car for the following Sunday evening and had been subjected to much teasing from Diego because of it. Diego’s guesses varied from some new secret love, to Rodrigo having managed to get a ticket for the Malaga vs Seville derby match that night, but Rodrigo just smiled enigmatically and suffered the teasing with good humour. His only explanation was to say that he had something to deliver and that he needed to do it that evening.

When Sunday eventually came, everything crawled by; Mass seemed to take forever. Father Francisco was twice distracted by a loudly crying child and the baptism that was due to take place that morning made the service even longer than usual. Having dropped the Salvogans back at their home he cautiously drove their little car along the bumpy track to his house only to find that the rest of the day dragged on interminably. He hadn’t wanted to go into town too early but had wanted to wait until it was darker when, under cover of the night, he could then mount the painting on what he now thought of as ‘the Montmartre railings’, under one of the strategically placed street lights that illuminated the paintings. At six thirty he could wait no longer and went upstairs to get the painting. He carried it as a father might carry his first child, with infinite care and no little pride, and placed it carefully in the back of the old car. Never, since the day of his driving test, had he driven so circumspectly along the roads that led into Malaga. Even on the main road he was so careful to drive below the speed limit that he got some irate honks from passing motorists for going so slowly. Eventually he found his way into the old city which was mobbed with fans going to the match. Finding a parking place took him half an hour and even then he was more than ¾ of a mile away from the town square where he wanted to be. Carrying the painting to the square was a nightmare. Every time some fans came past him he took up a protective pose, holding the painting against the flat of the wall and himself between the fans and the painting yet, in each case, the fans gave him ample room. It took him nearly an hour to negotiate the crush of fans, all of whom were going in the opposite direction, and get to the park.

He needn’t have worried about space. Most of the artists must either have been football fans, or afraid of the damage that some fans might do to the paintings, for the railings were almost bare. He’d carefully thought through what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Choosing the best location that he could find, he attached the frame securely to the railings and then moved away to a place where he could observe the reactions of those who saw it. He found the small gate into the park, moved inside and sat down on a nearby bench that gave him a clear view of anyone looking at the painting. Taking out the rather expensive video camera that he’d bought with his first payment for the cheeses, he set it before him on a small but sturdy tripod. It was a top-of-the-range Panasonic camera, capable of giving clear pictures even in poor light and his trial recordings, done in the preceding evenings on the farm, had worked out well.

For half an hour no one came by at all. The evening was either still too young or everyone was inside watching the derby game on TV. Those who did come near moved along the other side of the tree-lined area and so did not see the painting at all. About half an hour later he heard the distant sound of the word ‘Goal’ being shouted from the 40,000 fans at the game, followed by the hooting of car horns from around the town centre as car drivers listening in on their car radios celebrated the news. He too rose from his bench and punched the air at the prospect of another victory, this time over the local rivals Seville. As he regained his seat he noticed a lady in front of the painting. She was about 30 years old he thought, and she was crying. No, she was sobbing. But not, it seemed, with tears of sorrow but more like tears of joy. Her face was transfixed with a huge smile yet the sobs came, and kept coming, as if some huge weight was being lifted from her shoulders and the relief was just so good to feel. After what seemed like an age she turned and moved away almost skipping along the pavement. It was another forty minutes before the next person came past, a young man, but he didn’t even glance at the painting being far more concerned with listening to what was on his headphones.

Ten minutes after an elderly priest began to make his way past the painting. He was bent over as he walked leaning on a walking stick. As he passed the painting a strange thing happened to him. He glanced at it, and stopped. Then he crossed himself saying something that Rodrigo didn’t hear. He moved up to the painting and touched the frame and, as he did, a sort of shudder ran right through his body. As the shudder passed he dropped the stick and gradually stood up, straighter than he had been before. He looked around, glancing up and down the street, probably looking to see if anyone else was around. He didn’t notice Rodrigo or the camera watching from inside the park. Then he bent to touch the frame again, and once again another shudder ran through his body and a look of incredulity passed over his face. When he stood up again he was almost erect. Gone was his stooped posture. His stick lay forgotten on the pavement. Again crossing himself, he moved away but this time walking back in the direction he’d come from and Rodrigo couldn’t help but notice that he walked, neither bent over, nor needing a stick but almost striding, needing no help from anything save his legs.

The young couple who came next were arguing. The accusations flew from one to the other. Their body language spoke of tension and anger. As they came nearer Rodrigo could hear their words as they were shouted back and forth to each other

“If you really loved me you wouldn’t even look at her.” “I do love you” “No you don’t, you just love anything in a skirt” “If that was true would I have been faithful to you these past 10 months?”

“Have you been faithful; how do I know that you’ve not been sleeping around with others?” “I have been faithful and you’ll just have to take my word on that” “Then what about that new secretary I saw in your office the other day?” the girl said in accusation

“She was allocated to me” he retorted “I have no choice in who replaced old Gloria. The bosses did the interviews and appointed her, I just work with her. I can’t do anything about the fact that she’s attractive but she means nothing to me and I’ve never done more than smile at her, nor will I” he said, his voice increasing in volume as his frustration mounted.

“Then swear to me that you don’t want to sleep with her” she yelled “Swear on something important, swear on….” and then her voice trailed away as she caught sight of the painting. She stopped dead in her tracks. “What’s the matter now?” he yelled as she fell silent “What is it?” and he caught the direction of her eye. He turned and he too stopped shouting. As they stood and looked at the painting they grew still. Instead of their previously adversarial poses, they drew side by side; a few seconds passed and they stood close, then one hand reached for another and touched. Without their gaze moving from the painting, her angry expression seemed to melt; his brow lifted from its glower and his face broke into a knowing smile as if he’d rediscovered something that he’d lost sometime ago. He smiled and slipped his arm around her waist; her head came into his shoulder and he said “Marry me”. She gave no reply but turned her head into his chest, put her arms around his body and pulled him to her tightly. Though she only whispered it Rodrigo heard her reply clearly: “That’s what I needed to hear. I just needed to know that you really wanted me” “So will you marry me?” he enquired softly? “I think I just might” she responded and turned her face up towards his to give him a long languorous kiss and wrap her body even tighter around him. “I think I just might” she said again and then she laughed. Not a giggle but a laugh of pure contentment. They turned away from the painting; it now seemed forgotten as they strolled arm in arm, sucked into one another, with no room for any space between them. Like some Caribbean morning, whatever dark clouds had been brooding in their lives seemed to have passed and the sun had come out in style.

The young couple had hardly gone when Rodrigo heard a familiar sound. Joe. Everybody knew Joe. He was one of Malaga’s not so welcome figures. Almost perpetually drunk or high or both, almost always feisty and ready to pick a fight with anyone who even so much as glanced his way. He spent more time in the local jails than anywhere else. He’d even been banned from even the most understanding of Catholic churches whose services he’d been known to continually disrupt with his ravings. His name, he insisted was ‘Joe’, not ‘Hose’, nothing Spanish. Despite being born in Malaga of Spanish parents, he insisted that he was American. Joe was arguing with himself again. Raving and shouting, kicking the nearest wall in frustration. For an awful second Rodrigo feared for the painting. What if Joe took a disliking to it the way he seemed to take a dislike to almost everything else? He was tempted to run out of the park and take the painting down but he already knew that he was too late for that because ranting, raving Joe had almost reached the railing where the painting was hung, so Rodrigo could only remain where he was and pray that nothing bad would happen. Joe was halfway through mouthing some obscenity when he looked over at the painting. As he saw it his mouth opened in a primal scream fell to the ground writhing in what appeared to be agony. Rodrigo had seen Joe fall about before but never had he seen anything like this. Joe’s body seemed to be strung as taught as a bowstring His back arched as once again he screamed in mortal terror. Then suddenly his whole body relaxed, as if he’d fallen unconscious. After a few moments the body on the ground rolled over and for a second Rodrigo lost sight of him as the bush that was to the right of the painting obscured his line of sight.

Then Joe stood up. But it wasn’t Joe. Or was it? The person who stood in front of Rodrigo now was still wearing Joe’s old, worn, smelly clothes, but the person inside of them didn’t seem to be Joe anymore, at least not the Joe he knew. It was as if all the tension, that had kept Joe so stretched all these years, had gone. He looked taller, relaxed, almost tranquil. Then something very strange happened, Joe turned slightly, looked passed the painting over the railings and straight at Rodrigo; he gave a slight bow of the kind that an old-fashioned gentleman might give and then he smiled. It was an easy smile, one that a friend might give to a friend, then he raised his hand in a farewell gesture, turned and walked away. As he walked towards the harbour area his nose turned towards his shoulder and he sniffed. Obviously finding what he was smelling not to his liking he shrugged off his old coat and stuffed it into a wayside dustbin. Halting there he then felt inside his jacket and came up with an old knife. With this he hacked off the bottom of his trousers and also removed his jacket and shoes and added them to the bin’s contents also. Shaking his shaggy hair and ruffling it as a bird might preen its feathers, he walked down towards the harbour area, wearing just a pair of cut off trousers and a T shirt, whistling to himself, looking like an extra from the film set of Robinson Crusoe.

Watching Joe as he was, Rodrigo didn’t notice the next people arrive. He didn’t recognise the taller person at first; it was the old priest who’d visited earlier and this time he was accompanied by two others: another even older priest and a much younger woman. In profile the woman looked quite beautiful, certainly good enough looking to have been a model. The tall priest was talking animatedly to both of them as they all approached the painting but he fell silent when they reached it. As before he crossed himself but instead of reaching out to touch the painting, as he’d done before, he stood his distance allowing the other two to interact with it. The older, smaller priest just stood there. He didn’t cross himself, he didn’t move towards it. It was as if he was holding his breath, afraid to exhale in case something dreadful happened. Then he stumbled forward. It was as if he was attempting to kiss the edge of the frame but as he stumbled the young girl caught him and prevented him from falling. In her haste to prevent his falling she bumped into the frame and a gasp escaped her lips. Watching from his vantage point in the park Rodrigo saw her turn towards him and he saw it. Whilst one side of her face was beautiful the other was covered with horrible scars of the kind one might sustain in some terrible fire. The beauty and the beast in one face. As she turned to make sure that the elderly man was unhurt her hand flew to the disfigured side of her face and she let out a sort of wail, as if something awful was happening and she didn’t know what it was, or how to handle it. Then her other hand moved up so that she was holding both sides of her face in her hands. Still gently wailing she swayed on her feet unsteadily rocking from side to side, like some pilgrim supplicant in Lourdes. The taller man had gently taken his elderly companion to a nearby bench and, having settled him there, now returned to comfort the young woman whose distress was evident. He placed his hands over hers to comfort her and as he did she took her hands away and looked into his eyes, as if pleading with him to tell her what had gone wrong. This time it was Rodrigo’s turn to gasp. As she turned he saw that there was now no difference! Both sides of her face were now the same; not disfigured but whole, fresh, young, restored. In an involuntary motion, Rodrigo’s hand rose to the side of his own face. He knew what it was like to have been disfigured. He saw it every day. He felt it each time he tried to shave. Just as his hand touched his face, the taller priest fell on his knees, a look of wonder on his face as he looked up at the young woman.

Mistaking what she thought the priest was seeing she began to wail again but he stopped her with a word. It was “Beautiful”. He said it again and again until she took her hands and again placed them on her face, this time touching, feeling, noticing that it felt the same on both sides. She shook her head, not understanding, too shocked to comprehend what had happened to her; a simple disfigured girl from the city of Malaga. Taking her by the hand the tall priest, for that is now how Rodrigo thought of this once stooped man, led her across the road to a large clean shop-front window and there she looked at what had become of her. Disbelief was written large all over that now beautiful face; disbelief was written on her features too, as was joy, sheer unadulterated joy. In all her life to come she probably never looked as beautiful as she did on that moment on the front at Malaga. Turning she ran back across the almost empty street, back to the painting where she knelt in silent adoration and kissed its frame.

At that exact moment a huge wall of sound broke around the streets of Malaga. Rodrigo looked at his watch and realised that the derby game must just have ended and, judging by the volume of noise, Malaga had won. The girl had returned to where the smaller priest had been sitting. While they were distracted Rodrigo saw his moment and, staying within the park, he moved towards the painting, reached over the railings, cut the ties that secured it there and gently lifted it back into the park. Returning to his bench he re-wrapped it, dismantled his camera and headed out back towards his car. He managed to get there and store the painting in the trunk of the car before the rejoicing fans returned to the old city.

Father Augustin, the tall priest, gasped. “It’s gone”. The older man, Father Javier, and the young woman, Isabella, swung round to look at the place where the painting had been hanging. Isabella ran back to see what could have happened to it, but found nothing at all. Had she taken the time to look deep into the shadows of the park she might have noticed Rodrigo packing away his camera but instead she ran back to the fathers to confirm its disappearance. “It’s true, it has gone.” “But where could it have gone to?” said Father Javier. “Perhaps back to where it came from” replied Augustin and they all looked skyward and crossed themselves again. “We must go and tell the others” said Father Javier. “They will want to see these things that have happened. Since all three of us have been affected, no one can say that it was our imagination or just a co-incidence. I mean look, look at my hands. I can move them and stretch them. See how firm my grip is” he said, grasping his friend’s hand. “My arthritis is gone. And you Isabella! It’s amazing. No one will be able to comprehend what has happened here but I’d stake my reputation that some will want to take advantage of it. We must be careful what we say. Say only what happened, no more. No speculation, no conjecture, no reading things into this, we don’t want to be turned into some kind of entertainment for others. Such amazing events have happened in past times and I’m certain that there are people even now who would wish to see that kind of religion restored. Please, I plead of you, say only what you have seen and experienced”.

Father Augustin nodded his agreement, as did Isabella, who held them both in high esteem. She’d had quite enough of people looking at her face in the past and knew what it was like to have the nickname ‘freak’. Girls, even at the convent school she had left some years ago, could be cruel; some even seemed to take delight in suggesting that she’d been punished by God for some unconfessed sin. Looking at the smaller of the two priests she said “I will let you speak for me Father. I have no wish to say anything more than what I saw and experienced. If anything needs explaining I will let you do this, for I do not know enough to comment on the works and wonders of God”. They turned back along the street towards the old city centre church where they’d come from, and where Fathers’ Javier and Augustin had their lodgings.

 

Chapter 7

Breaking News

Having stowed the painting in the car as gently as he could, Rodrigo had also kept an eye on the retreating priests and, having relocked the car, he followed them at a distance to see where they went. When they turned into the house beside the Church of the Annunciation, he stopped and then retraced his steps to his car. On the drive home Rodrigo could not help but touch the scars on the side of his face, scars that so disfigured him and which ran from brow to chin. Again and again his mind questioned as to how it could be that the painting could have transformed someone else’s disfigurement yet leave him: the painter, disfigured? If this was of God, was God mocking him? Was God punishing him for something he’d done? None of it made sense! The closer he got to home, the more he fretted over this until it almost overshadowed the joy and amazement that he’d felt each time something unusual had occurred in the park that night. Part of him couldn’t wait to get home, couldn’t wait to show Maria the video the next day, but another part was also conscious of the need for caution. No-one must know about his painting just yet. They had to be sure what the next step would be.

Back at the Church of the Annunciation, where the elderly Father’s resided, the priest’s house was in uproar. News of the remarkable things that had happened to their fellow priests and to Isabella had spread like wildfire throughout the lodgings and all wanted to see for themselves; to touch, to confirm that this was not trickery, not some kind of late version of an April Fool. Yet the more they wanted convincing the more they found proof that something unheard of, something unprecedented, had happened. One by one the community moved through from the residence into the church to kneel at the altar and give thanks to the Virgin and to God for this most amazing miracle, for that is how they had begun to talk of it. It was a miracle! After all, only God could do such things! As Father Javier had predicted there were some who saw only profit in this, not profit for themselves but for the church, and for God. One such priest quietly slipped way to the lodgings where he phoned the local Malaga paper and asked to speak to the most senior man still on the premises at this time of night.

Twenty five minutes later a young reporter, fresh from watching the football game was assigned the call and made his way, camera in hand into the back of the church where the priests were now talking animatedly. When he heard what they were talking about, he spent the next half an hour asking questions and seeking confirmation of every detail of the night’s events. He knew that as soon as his boss heard about what had happened he would dismiss it as yet another desperate move by the Catholic Church to tempt people back to church. Despite being an Andalusian, brought up in a family steeped in church traditions, his boss was now an avowed atheist and sceptic and would never print any claim from the church that had not been substantiated several times over from independent witnesses. Accordingly, and as politely as he could, the young reporter moved to the front of the church and asked to speak to those he thought of as ‘the prime suspects’: Fathers Javier and Augustin and, to a lesser degree, Isabella. At that moment Isabella’s mother arrived on the scene. She it was who looked after cleaning of the priest’s lodgings, situated at the back of the church. She also spent some time each day pushing Father Javier’s wheelchair so that he could get outside for fresh air. Isabella only helped out on evenings when her mother asked time off to go and visit her own mother who was sick. When she saw the commotion she hurried to the front where, glancing over to her daughter for an explanation of what was astir, she let out a scream of awe and astonishment. As she saw her daughter’s face, she fell on her knees clutching at Isabella skirt. Then, with an expression of joy spreading across her face she clutched her daughter to heart, genuflecting continuously whilst also touching Isabella’s face, as her joyous yet tear stained daughter asked her over and over, “It is a miracle is it not mama, a miracle?” And the two of them cried tears of joy, tears of relief, for this mysterious event, for the new hopes of the future, for the sheer wonder of it all.

Slowly, carefully, the reporter began to make some kind of sense of the events and as he did he realised that he not only had a story, but a story that could be a national front-page scoop. In the selfish part of his being he knew that this could be the making of him and so believing he took a deep breath and began to make a list of the things he’d need to do, to get. The facts. Facts from each person. The pictures. Before and after if that was possible. Then he could take the facts and make them into a story, the kind of story that would cause a sensation not just in Malaga but across Spain, and maybe even further abroad. But he also had to be careful, cautious. He didn’t want the TV and radio networks to get a scoop on this just yet, not until he’d made his by-line, not until tomorrow when his paper, his exclusive, had caused a sensation. As an independent, first-hand witness he might even become a celebrity!

For the next hour he interviewed all three reluctant witnesses. He asked his questions sensitively. He assured them that he would not let the other media know and they only agreed to talk to him if he would print exactly what they told him, with no embellishment and if they could have a look at the final piece before he took it to the paper. Though he was reluctant to agree to their demands at first he realised that he could allow nothing to destroy his chance of the biggest story of the year, of many years in this area, and that if he did handle this sensitively, there would probably be other follow-on material that he could use his fledgling talents on. Before leaving he thought carefully about how he could ingratiate himself to these unworldly people and win their trust. An idea came to him which was both worthy and unworthy; worthy, because he might just be able to help these naïve folks; unworthy, because he might just get continued exclusives by having earned the priest’s trust.

Taking his courage in his young hands and standing up on a church pew, in a loud voice he asked for a moment of the assembled priest’s time. “Fathers” he said “You must know that when this story breaks tomorrow as it undoubtedly will, there will be a great deal of interest in all that has happened here tonight. The television and radio people will probably descend upon you like a flood and you must be prepared for this. My advice to you is that you select one of your own to be a spokesperson, and that they, and they alone, should speak to the media, otherwise you could be overrun and your work here be disrupted and spoiled. I will be happy to help you in anyway I can, but I must ask you to be prepared for tomorrow. A wonderful thing has happened here and many people will want to see, to know, to come. How you handle this is your own affair but I would caution you to be careful.”

Amazingly it seemed as if they were hanging on his every word. Father Javier nodded appreciatively at him throughout and kept glancing over to Father Augustin and Isabella with that sort of ‘I told you so look’. Having said his piece and shown what he had written to the witnesses, the young reporter casually made his way out of the church, but as soon as he’d gone out of sight he sprinted for his Vespa and, forgetting that he’d not taken a picture of Isabella, headed off at breakneck speed through the city to the paper’s offices where he did what he’d always wanted to do and launched himself into the press room where the editorial team sat and loudly announced ‘Hold the presses we’ve got an exclusive’. For the next 15 minutes he proceeded to tell the editor and the rest of the team the incredible story of what had occurred in their very city that evening. He spent twenty minutes assuring the disbelieving, humanist, editorial team that it was no hoax and that ‘Yes, these things really had occurred and he had the sworn word of long-term priests, who seemed as bemused as anyone else, to back it up.’

Reluctantly, his editor agreed that even Malaga’s victory over Seville would have to share the front page with this new story. He secretly thought that it would do so even if it did prove to be a clever hoax, for that alone would lead to another story. Giving the young man the go-ahead for his scoop he insisted on just one thing: that the headline would be in the form of a question not a statement and then he swore the rest of the team to silence until the paper hit the shops and stands tomorrow morning. “If a single person from this office lets this news be known before the papers hit the stands tomorrow morning, they will be out of a job by lunchtime and furthermore no references wll be forthcoing should they apply for a job elsewhere. So keep it within the office. Tell no-one, not even your wives, lovers or husbands; especially not them!”

 

Chapter 8

Tobermory Revelations.

Jamie’s church was now an altogether unusual affair. Because of their growing numbers they usually met in the Kirk on Sunday mornings, but they still did things in a very non-traditional way. New music, home grown or on CD, was in abundance these days and so instead of old fashioned hymns and an organ they either used the talents of the local musicians or, even at times, used CD’s that they would sing along to. In his ‘sermons’ Jamie wouldn’t just talk, he’d use clips from DVD’s or video to illustrate his talks. Each talk lasted no more than 15 minutes and was always followed by a coffee break and then discussion in small groups. The combination of great music, innovative presentations, and interesting discussion had proved a real breakthrough and more new people were filtering in each week; and staying. For the last month they had been going through a series of studies about what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. All sorts of wonderful ideas had come up which they’d been keen to explore. Jamie had a simple ideology for almost everything: when people asked about trying something new, he’d more often than not reply, ‘Let’s try it and see’ and in this way he’d encouraged his congregation to see faith as an adventure rather than a set of programmes or edicts to be followed.

One of the new traditions that had been introduced in the ‘Old Kirk’ as it was commonly known, was for newcomers or visitors to be personally welcomed by Jamie and then given a chance to tell the rest of the congregation something about themselves. Being based in Tobermory, one of the most visited places in the Scottish Highlands, the church often had many visitors, and hospitality had become a trademark of the church’s life. After each Sunday morning service they held a simple but healthy buffet lunch for everyone and, even in the winter time, always made extra food for any visitors to join in with them. This morning there were only five new people: a family who now lived on the other side of the town who’d recently moved to the island, and an American couple who introduced themselves as Allan and Mary Jacobson. They were a retired couple who, although they’d spent most of their lives in the city of Boston, had recently retired and moved to live in eastern California, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They described their new home, a log cabin style home built from trees felled from their own land, and also the views they had from it. In the relaxed way of many Americans, they even passed around a few photographs of their home which, judging from the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ that arose, obviously met with some approval, especially from the children. This week Jamie had been starting a new series of ‘sermons’ on the subject of the early church and, it being nice weather, they’d decided to hold the gathering down on the beach. Jamie had spent some considerable time preparing for the series and was quietly excited about setting the scene for the discussions to follow.

Allan and Mary

In such circumstances, down on a corner of the beach and under a cloudless sky, it was easy to praise God and they did so with gusto. If they needed space for group work or a quiet space for personal prayer, it was all to hand. The beach provided an abundance of space. For Jamie it was also such fun to speak in the outdoors. There he felt free, unconstrained by the confines of a building and his talks seemed to flow even more easily. Of course media was absent but this didn’t seem to matter much to those who came. He could quite understand why Jesus chose the hillside over the synagogue, the outdoors for the indoors, for his preferred preaching place. On most of the sunny Sundays so far they’d been meeting up on the long strand of beach adjacent to the golf course where it was also possible after the worship time to play football, frisbee, even some target golf, or just sit and watch the beautiful views south across the harbour or north along the beaches towards the Highlands. It made for a brilliant way to spend the sunny summer Sundays and also allowed families and friends to be together at the same time.

For their topic of study that summer they’d decided to look back at some of the adventures of the early followers of Jesus and on this particular Sunday, as the children played in the water and beach under their parent’s watchful eyes, the young people and adults were discussing some of the extraordinary powers that many of the early Christians seemed to have almost ‘naturally’. Allan and Mary were somewhat fascinated that many members of the congregation didn’t seem to know that these ‘extraordinary powers’ were still alive and well in Christian circles.

When Jamie began this series about the early church, the questions came thick and fast and some Jamie didn’t know how to answer some since they were outside of his own experience. It was then that Alland and Mary came to his rescue. They mentioned that such ‘gifts’, for that is what these extraordinary powers were called, were regularly used in their fellowship back home. Had the congregation been a ‘normal’ one i.e. one that just listened without asking questions, it might have been possible for them to explain reasonably quickly what they were talking about. But this was no ordinary congregation and they interrupted Mary and Allan’s input with question upon question to such an extent that Jamie soon realised that this particular topic was going to need more time than they could give even on a relaxed beach on a Sunday. After thanking Allan and Mary for struggling with the sheer volume of questions, he asked if it might be possible for them to come back later that week and talk more about these ‘gifts’ and their use in Christian circles. Knowing that they had planned to stay in Tobermory for a while they readily agreed to meet again on the coming Wednesday and such was the fascination of the people who’d listened and asked questions that the church was agreed as the venue. In the intervening days Jamie and Kate read and re-read the passages in the Bible that mentioned such ‘gifts’, the main one of which was to be found in Paul’s letter to the young church at Corinth in Greece.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of languages, and to still another the interpretation of languages. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”

Kate and Jamie marvelled at the way that Paul mentioned these gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment between spirits and then both speaking in, and interpreting, languages in such a ‘matter of fact’ way, as if somehow these extraordinary powers were normal and commonplace. The apostle Paul referred to them as ‘spiritual gifts’ and as ‘manifestations of God’; a kind of way of people discovering that God really wanted to care for mankind in very practical ways. Up until this point in his life, the word ‘spiritual’ tended to mean ethereal or nebulous but these gifts, though supernatural in kind, all seemed to be highly practical, down to earth and ‘for the common good’ rather than for aggrandisement or individual stature.

They were also true ‘gifts’: something given rather than learned, and received rather than earned. As he and Kate talked they imagined what their world would be like if such gifts were as commonplace in the church today as they had been in the early days. They could only imagine how such abilities would transform their world. And yet where were such gifts? Had they really ever existed and, if they had, how had such magnificent tools been ‘lost’ to the Christian church? Were they, as they’d been led to believe, only gifts that were around for the early Christians? Were they only in use whilst the apostles were around? So many questions and so few answers!

As Jamie and Kate read and re-read their New Testaments, their excitement mounted and Wednesday couldn’t come fast enough. They’d both been astounded at some of the things that Allan and Mary talked about. At first Jamie had thought their claims about these ‘gifts’ being alive and well were perhaps American hyperbole, but it was the quiet dignified, and almost matter of fact, way that both had chatted about the gifts that had eventually won Jamie over. Now, like the rest of the congregation, he was longing to hear more.

Shortly before the start of the gathering Jamie and Kate met with Allan and Mary to discuss how they wanted to run the evening. Jamie was only too aware that the style of service that had developed on the island could be a little intimidating to those who were unfamiliar with it and he wanted to find out if there was anything he could do to help them with the gathering. Their pre-meeting proved to be a good idea for in the intervening days Allan and Mary had decided that, rather than start with another theoretical explanation of the gifts, they’d use a different tack. In the fifteen or so minutes that they chatted, Kate, Mary Lou, Arnie and Jamie managed to work out a scenario that they thought was workable. Kate and Jamie also exchanged email addresses with them so that they could keep in touch after their return home to the USA. When they all moved from the cottage to the Kirk, they were impressed to see so many people gathered in the church and to feel the electric atmosphere in the building. It was as if everyone was holding their collective breath.

After Jamie’s quick introductions and welcome Mary stood up and as Jamie sat down to listen she quietly said: “There’s someone here who has for the past summer has been suffering from sharp unexplained headaches isn’t there?” A hush spread across the assembled audience and most looked up expectantly, but Jamie hung his head. Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t this. Once, whilst at the house of a friend who had cable TV, he’d watched a truly dreadful TV programme from the USA where a so-called TV evangelist had seemingly wowed the crowds with ‘healings’. The programme had been like some lavish Las Vegas show with the ‘evangelist’ acting as if he were some kind of Elvis-style demigod. He’d been so full of himself that it had made Jamie cringe that such fakery could have been associated with the quiet man of Galilee who’d so obviously shunned the limelight and had treated people with the kind of respect that was so visibly lacking in the TV programme. As Mary had quietly asked her question Jamie could not help but feel that he was going to see another demonstration of TV evangelism. But the moments and events that followed began to assuage his fears and kindle some of his deepest and most secret longings.

“How can you know that?” asked Andy MacDonald one of the local fisherman. “I don’t know how” replied Mary “I just know. Perhaps you would you like to tell me about the headaches?” she quietly enquired. Andy was usually the most reticent of people to speak up in public. In fact his nickname in the town was ‘The Quiet Man’, a nickname he’d been given at school when he was a boy and which had stuck down through the years. His wife was often heard saying, but with considerable affection, that she’d be as well married to a stone wall for all the conversation they had. Yet ‘Quiet Man’ or not Andy told of how just a few months ago, whilst out in the Minch he’d had a series of headaches that had forced him to go and lie down. So severe and common had the headaches become now that, unknown even to his wife so as not to worry her, he’d gone to the doctors for some tests.

Having explained all to the astonished congregation, Mary asked Andy if he’d mind if she prayed for him. Too polite to say ‘No’ Andy shyly nodded his agreement, and she moved to stand beside him. Placing her hands above his head she simply said ‘In the name of Jesus, be made well’. Nothing dramatic happened. Andy did not sag and fall to the ground nor did he cry out or writhe on the floor as Jamie had seen on the American TV ‘evangelists’ show. He just let out a deep, quiet sigh and, looking up at Mary, simply said ‘Thanks’. It was a huge anti-climax. Sensing this, she explained that they simply wouldn’t know if the prayer had worked unless Andy stopped having the headaches. If he didn’t have them again then they’d know that something unusual had occurred. She went on to explain that though she’d been praying for people like this for some years now, there still seemed to be some occasions when the person wasn’t healed, but most were.

At this point Allan interrupted and asked if he might be allowed to give a quick 25 minute synopsis about these gifts, what they were, what they did and how people came to have them. He also requested that folks should reserve their questions till after he’d finished. “Just write it down and save it till later” was his request. Smiling at this request the congregation settled down to listen but many took out pens and paper to write down the questions they would undoubtedly have. Allan explained that the gifts, listed in the New Testament, had not disappeared and were so well known these days that even charlatans, like many a TV evangelist, were using them. He got the congregation to turn in the bibles to the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth and together they read chapters 12 to 14, with Allan focussing in particular on the list of spiritual gifts in chapter 12. He went through each of the gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, languages, and finally interpretation of the languages. He mentioned that the bible taught that the gifts were distributed according to God’s wishes not our desire and that the use of such gifts should always be wrapped in love. He read and then re- read aloud chapter 13’s treatise on ‘love’ and what real love was like and how real love was supposed to act and explained that this was the way that the gifts were intended to be used; not for our desire, not out of a need to ‘be someone’ and never for one’s own personal glory. He was also very clear in stating that the gifts could not be used for the use of their ‘owner’, only for the benefit of others; so a healer could not heal herself and a prophet could not benefit from his own prophecy. Allan also told them that, although much was known about these gifts, much about them still remained an intriguing mystery. It seemed that all attempts to quantify them, use them wrongly or even restrict their use had failed, and the mystery continued to baffle even the most learned and erudite of theologians.

 

Chapter 9

Questions and Answers

Having finished his introduction Arne invited questions and the rest of the evening took off as Arne and Mary Ann shared their thoughts and insights. So that they could answer as many questions as possible they split the congregation into two sections; Arne talked with one half whilst Mary Ann took the other half. Jamie and Kate also split their forces so that they could compare notes later on. As the evening drew to a, later than expected but excited, conclusion there were two questions which had dominated both groups and which neither Arne nor Mary Ann had yet answered: ‘How could Christians get such gifts?’ and ‘What gift would you get if you got one?’

Knowing that they would be leaving the next day to return home to the USA, Arne and Mary Ann explained that the only way they knew to receive such gifts was to simply ask God for them; to pray that God would give them to his people. So, at the very conclusion of the evening, they invited those who would be interested in receiving and investigating these gifts to simply kneel and ask God for them.

As he and Kate knelt to pray Jamie’s noticed, to his utter astonishment and disbelief that everyone else was also on their knees. There was a general hubbub as people all over the church prayed, quietly but audibly, and asked that they might know something of the adventure that having such gifts would bring to their Christian lives and to the building of God’s kingdom. Once the sound of people praying had ended, Arne and Mary Ann thanked the congregation for their interest, wished them well in their new adventures and, before walking back to their hotel in the town, promised to keep in touch via email with Jamie and Kate.

It took some time for the church to empty that evening as Jamie and Kate were kept busy chatting to those who didn’t have to rush home. There were still more questions buzzing around but both of them had been pre-warned of this by Arne and Mary Ann and their response to such questions was the same each time: ‘We’ll just have to wait and see how this works out; that’s the adventure of faith isn’t it?’ If anything, such a reply only heightened people’s sense of anticipation and left them both wondering what the content of their international emails would be in the months that lay ahead. As they sat in the cottage later that night, wrapped together on the sofa, sharing the news from either group, Jamie had a sense both of dread and of excitement about the future. He dreaded it in case nothing happened, yet was excited that something might. They talked well into the night grateful that, this being a school mid-term break, they wouldn’t have to rise too early the next day. That wish was not fulfilled.

By eight o clock the phone had rung three times. The first call had been from Arne and Mary Ann themselves. They were ringing on their mobile from the ferry terminal anxious to know how things had gone after they left. The second was from Andy MacDonald’s wife who wanted to ask about what Andy had ‘let himself in for’ the night before. Seemingly Andy, in completely untypical form, had come home from the meeting and ‘gushed’. His wife had never known him talk so much before and, although she was actually experiencing the kind of husband-wife communication she’d longed for all those years, it had so taken her by surprise she that was worried about it. Kate tried to allay her fears and encouraged her to wait and see what transpired. The third call had come from the local newspaper, one of whose correspondents had got hold of the scent of a story through overhearing a late night pub conversation between several of the congregation who’d retired to the pub to chat more about the evening. Jamie fielded the question with a laugh and had asked the reporter, a young man whom he knew well, to read the chapters that the congregation had been considering and then get back to him. He never did.

Later that week when they were once again wrapped in each other’s arms, walking on the beachfront, Jamie murmured in to Kate’s ear “Bit of a co-incidence don’t you think; Arne and Mary-Lou being here just at the right time” said Jamie as they strolled along. “I thought so too” said Kate “I mean how often do we get people visiting who are so well versed on a new subject like this and who are willing to spend some of their holiday time helping us out. It’s a first for me.” “And for me” said Jamie. “Jackie, one of my fellow students at university used to call such co-incidences, ‘divine appointments’ and she was always on the lookout for them.” “Acquaintance, or ex?” asked Kate, a frown clouding her face. “What?” asked Jamie with a puzzled look. “Was Jackie an acquaintance or an ex-girlfriend?” asked Kate again but more quietly this time. “Jealous?” enquired Jamie. “Of course” relied Kate almost in a whisper, with a tone of regret in her voice that she’d sunk so low as to ask such a question. Seeing her distress Jamie hugged her close and laughed out loud. “Well she was about twenty years older than me, married with three kids at the time. Does that answer your question?”

Suddenly Jamie picked her up and swung her around as if the very action would spin her blues out on to the bay. Squealing, at first in protest and then in delight, she felt a powerful surge of love wash through her. When Jamie eventually put her back down dizzy from the spin she sagged into his chest and hugged him as hard as she could. “I just don’t want to share you with anyone” she mouthed into his chest.

When discussion evening came around on the following Wednesday, it was another fascinating evening. It seemed that each person had their own interests and so their own questions. For Jamie it was an eye opener! He knew some of the theory and had even studied these passages at seminary but there the discussion was more of a historical one about the how the early church had used such gifts. The evening, exciting without being really very productive, concluded in the most simple of ways; with prayer. As they sat at the kitchen table later that evening Jamie recalled the comment that Arne had made about asking for the gifts himself. Arne had said

“When I first asked for a gift, I wanted the gift of healing. I had visions of me travelling around the globe healing thousands of people of all sorts of illnesses and diseases just by touching them. Of course it was my ego that wanted that particular gift, and ego usually makes fools of us in terms of what is good and what is not. I learned that the gifts are given for the benefit of others and not to soothe our own egos; that we can’t use them for ourselves, only for others. It was not until many years later, when I saw the John Travolta movie ‘Phenomenon’ that I realised what a disaster I would have been if such a gift had been given to someone with an ego as large as mine.”

“Amen brother” had responded Mary Ann mockingly but with a smile of love on her face. “God gave me Mary Ann here to provide me with a sense of proportion” retorted Arne with a broad grin but had then gone on to say “But seriously, churches have been split apart from the rivalry of people’s egos and the first part of Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth was to address that very issue. There were more power factions in that church that there are in our United States Congress and that’s saying something. In Corinth their egos seemed to have run amok, with one group after another claiming how much more mature and spiritual they were than the others. Paul had to point out very strongly that such factions only demonstrated how immature they all were and how lacking in real love: the true test of Christian spirituality. So be glad that such things did not happen in Tobermory tonight. It may have saved you a whole lot of bother in the long run. By next week, when both groups have listened to the each other’s input, the whole group will have had the content and the context, and may hopefully have a more balanced perspective.”

At this point Jamie had interjected saying “I have another question and it’s this. If these gifts have started re-appearing, why is that so few people know about them? After all you’d think they’d be headline news.”

“That’s a very good question” Mary Ann had replied. “I often asked myself that in the days when we first heard about the gifts. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that they aren’t known or acknowledged because they are mostly displayed inside churches. Many people in the churches that believe in the gifts see the gifts as ‘normal’ and those who don’t go to church, yet still hear about them, see them as just another manifestation of how crazy these church people are. They’re thinking goes like this ‘If they’re stupid enough to believe all that religious nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead, they’re probably crazy enough to convince themselves that they have special powers’. I think that if the gifts became used outside the church, in the community, as Jesus used them, it would cause uproar, as it did in His own day, but then again maybe not. Scepticism is a powerful force in today’s world and people are very sceptical about matters of faith. That film Phenomenon, shows that up well.”

Kate had then asked “So, should we use these gifts in the community rather than in the church?” “Depends” Arne had replied. “Depends where they are needed and where it’s most appropriate to use them. Remember the lessons of ‘Phenomenon’. Sometimes publicity can be our worst enemy. I think it was because of the bad effects of publicity that Jesus used to heal people and then ask them not to go and tell others how it had happened. He was afraid that he’d be even more swamped by the ensuing mayhem than he wanted. In his day the ‘press’ were the Pharisees, the religious leaders, and they seldom made his life easy. In this day and age the press, secular or religious, are just as vicious and twice as populous.

It was then that Arne had given Jamie and Kate a piece of wise advice, “I’d advise you to do several things. First and foremost speak again on the 13th chapter of that first letter to the Corinthian church. It’s the pivotal section in the letter, and for your folks to be reminded again that ‘love’ is the most important and central aspect of all Christian living, would be a timely reminder to all. After all, Jesus only gave his followers five ‘commands’ to follow and four of them begin with the word ‘Love’. The fifth told them to go and spread that message of the God of love across the globe and so, I suppose, all five are about love. Second let everyone know that the gifts only appear when they are needed, or when God deems them necessary. They don’t all appear at once. That’s why some people may even feel that they didn’t get a gift; because it hasn’t shown up yet. People get impatient to know what gift they have and are keen to know that they’ve not been left out. It took some time for my gift to show up and all that time I felt left out, as if God had forgotten me or thought me not worth giving a gift to. I was wrong of course, but the waiting time seemed so long at the time.

Jamie had one last and very important question. “What can we say to those who either missed out on this evening or who feel that they didn’t get a gift?” “The only wisdom I have here”, Arne had said, “is firstly to pray with those who feel missed out and yet who’d like a gift, ask God to give them one and then ask those who are impatient, to be patient, to wait on God’s timing. Love’s first listed quality is patience and much patience is needed. ‘Love is patient and kind’ says the bible. If we are patient with God and with others, and if we put kindness before more selfish attitudes, put other’s needs before our own, then much pain and heartache can be avoided, and that’s always a good thing.

As she and Jamie stood by the sink washing up their cups and plates they recalled that conversation as if it had just happened remarking “that was quite an evening wasn’t it? I wanted it to go on and on and on, for time to suspend itself so that I could hear and understand more. I wish that they’d had another day to spend here instead of having to go back. They were so relaxed talking about all these wonderful things; as if they’ve become almost accustomed to them”

“I’m glad they told us not to worry though. At one point I thought that the whole evening was going to be just an information evening but with no real outcome, like some of the lectures I’ve sat through down through the years; all theory and no substance. Now I’m just as excited as I was on that evening because, despite my scepticism, I can’t help but believe that we are just at the start of some real adventures. What kind of adventures I don’t know, but then adventures are all about not knowing what’s going to happen.”

“Jamie” Kate’s voice had that tone which told him that a leading question was coming up “You know when Arne said that when he first discovered the gifts and was prayed for, he was hoping for a particular gift; did you have a particular gift in mind for yourself?”

“I assume you’re asking because you did and now you wonder if you’re going to get it;” Jamie riposted. “You’ve got it in one” she said. “I can’t help but wonder if I’m going to be sort of disappointed if I get a gift that I didn’t want, or ask for.” “Well Arne got one that he didn’t ask for and it doesn’t seem to have dented his enthusiasm, does it?” She put down her drying cloth hugged him. “I know, but, well I just wanted to let you know that if I do get a gift and I am disappointed, that I’ll try not to let it show too much. Maybe others will suffer the same disappointment and we can commiserate with each other.” “My wife, the eternal optimist!” announced Jamie in a theatrical voice “Always looking on the bright side of life!” and he began to sing the Monty Python song to her as he rocked back and forward in front of the sink.

Despite their larking around singing Monty Python songs for a good 15 minutes, they were both a little quieter than usual when they went to bed that night, preoccupied with their own hopes and doubts. As Kate lay in Jamie’s arms he broke the silence. “What interested me was that Arne didn’t answer the other half of my question at all. Remember I asked him if everybody got gifts or just some people. He didn’t respond to that. Just think of what would happen if some people got gifts and others didn’t. It would be like having Christmas in a house where some kids got presents and others didn’t. The joy of the occasion would be spoiled by the lack of something to give to those who were left out. That worries me Kate. We have been so fortunate in having a group of people here that have developed a love, affection and respect for one another and I’d hate it if the same kinds of divisions and factions happened among us now as happened in the early church in Corinth. I read through the letter to Corinth again this week and it seemed to me that the church there was almost rent asunder. We both know the history of the Christian church and of denominations and churches and we seem to be pretty good at splitting apart from one another and starting new churches but pretty poor at hanging in there with one another and just loving each other through the bad or hard times.”

“Just like many a marriage these days” said Kate thoughtfully. “The skills that are needed to hold a marriage together through the hard times are often not exemplified anymore and so, it seems to me that, when it comes to the harder times it just seems easier for younger couples to split up than to struggle through.”

“Thank you Professor Spock” taunted Jamie but he was to regret his cheek a moment later when Kate found his ticklish spot and worked on it until he begged for mercy.

 

Chapter 10

Vatican Intervention

By eight o’clock the next morning the press inundation in Malaga, that the young reporter had predicted, was in full swing. A long queue of people was forming outside the Church of the Annunciation. Next to that were several press vans from the local TV stations which were covering the story for themselves and also syndicating it to their national and international networks. Whether the story was true or not was not the issue, the incident was a story in itself. Most unusually however the doors of the church remained closed and a notice was pinned to the door announcing that there would be no services that day ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’.

Because of some building work that was not quite finished the only way in and out of the priest’s residence was currently through the church itself and, since the church was presently locked up, the press were unable to find any way in. Instead they tried to ring the residence only to find that the phone was off the hook. The reason for the locked church doors was down to a 2am phone call which the residence had received earlier that morning.

Late the previous night one of the more senior resident priests had phoned the Cardinal, rousing him from his bed to tell him the joyous news. The Cardinal in turn had phoned the Vatican and at 2am that morning the phone in the residence had rung and rung until one of the Father’s had got up to answer it. The message he was given was simple and straight to the point: until a team from the Vatican had arrived later that day to verify the facts for themselves, no-one was to go out of the house, no one was to speak to anyone outside of the house and no services were to be performed until official permission had been granted.

The young priest who took the call had in turn roused all the 23 others who called this residence their home, most of whom were semi-retired or retired priests. The house was also home to a few young acolytes as well as to the local priests whose ministry it was to look after the dwindling congregation of the Church of the Annunciation. The Vatican’s message was relayed to them all. They’d also been told that Fathers Augustin and Javier were to remain in their rooms and talk to no-one and were further informed that someone had been sent to the home of Isabella and that she’d been taken to ‘a safe place’, out of harm’s way, until the Vatican could interview her too.

Isabella’s mother, Carmela, had been phoned at 2.30am. After she’d controlled her irritation at being woken at that hour, and had discovered who was on the phone, her knees had all but given way once more. ‘Yes’, she knew of somewhere she could send Isabella where she would be out of the limelight. Her best friend from school days had a farm up in the mountains where she could stay out of sight and ‘Yes’ she would take Isabella there straight away.

Waking Isabella was not difficult, for the ringing of the phone and the lightness of her sleep that night meant that she too had been roused by the phone. After hearing what her mother had been asked to do, and agreeing that it was sensible move, she dressed quietly and packed a suitcase for their journey, while her mother made the phone call to her friend. Fifteen minutes later, their cases packed and ready, they crept out of the small apartment near to the church where they lived, loaded the cases into the tiny boot of their ancient Fiat 600 and slipped away as quietly as it was possible for such an old machine at that time of night.

The drive to Carmela’s friend’s home took longer than expected, the last part of the journey being very difficult given the candle like power of the little Fiat’s headlamps and the state of the country roads which they had to navigate. They reached the farm about 4.30 to find ‘aunt’ Maria, for that is what Isabella had grown up calling her, on the doorstep and the smell of coffee wafting out from the kitchen.

Maria was so centred on making sure that they were safe and well that, for the first few moments she didn’t notice anything unusual about Isabella but when she did, a short scream escaped her lips, her pupils sped from side to side in her eyes as she scanned both sides of Isabella’s face, and she almost fainted. The joy on Isabella’s face said it all. A shortened version of the previous night’s adventure was given and a strange light came into Maria’s eyes. “Where did this happen?” Maria asked; a strange question Isabella thought, but they told her nonetheless. When she was told she did the strangest of things; she began to laugh, a sort of enigmatic, knowing laugh as if she knew some secret that even they did not know. “God certainly does move in strange ways” was all she said and then, knowing how tiring the night journey must have been for them, she pressured her friend to stay and sleep off her night’s exertions before returning home. Her grateful friend acquiesced. “Explanations can wait till the morning” she said. The beds were already made up and ready and a very grateful mother and daughter were asleep in the blink of an eye.

When Rodrigo arrived at the Salvogan’s the next morning to return their car, Maria was waiting at the top of the driveway ready to intercept him, her fingers to her lips in a gesture of silence. Seeing her gesture and slipping the car into neutral, he let the car coast to a halt, next to the battered old Fiat 600 which was already parked there. As he got out she quietly told of him of the arrival of her friends in the middle of the night and of the need for her to be there that day and so that they could have as much sleep as was possible. Rodrigo nodded in understanding and thrusting the camcorder into her hands saying in hushed but urgent excited tones

“Take a look at that”, he said “but in private, you must do it in private”, then he hugged her and walked, almost skipped, back down the driveway to the track towards his home. Strangely, by the time that he reached his house his shoulders were slouched almost in disappointment. He’d been so excited on the way up to Maria’s, eager to share his joy and excitement over what had happened, but now she’d see the images on her own without him there to share in the excitement. His disappointment, a strange reaction to the previous day’s events, affected him all day long. Even that evening when the local TV station broadcast a live Champions League Cup tie between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Rodrigo just couldn’t concentrate long enough on any part of the game, without sighing and fidgeting constantly. He hadn’t even listened to the news that day on either radio or TV and so knew little of what consternation was afoot due to the morning newspapers revelations.

Maria’s day was altogether the opposite. With Fernando at school, Diego at work, and her friend’s asleep upstairs Maria had the time to watch the recording on Rodrigo’s camcorder. After watching the first two scenes she had to take a chair cushion and press it to her mouth to suppress the screams of joy that she emitted for she didn’t want anyone to come in and wonder why she was making such noises. However when she saw the final episode, the one which featured Isabella and the priests, and where her expectations were finally grounded in reality, the pillow was not enough to suppress the squeal that escaped her lips. Recovering from her shock and surprise she began to sing in an attempt to mask the noises. In reality, she needn’t have worried about anything because her guests, both utterly exhausted from their adventures of the day before, slept soundly until around 11, when hunger and the need for the toilet, eventually drove them from their eiderdown world.

It took all of Maria’s wits and control not to say anything to Isabella or Carmela about what she’d seen. She decided that she’d have to feign the same inquisitive nature as anyone else would. Then, having received her information firsthand from Isabella she’d be free to talk in wonder and awe at what had happened. Over coffee that morning Maria plied Isabella with questions and by lunchtime she knew a great deal about the events of the night before. Whilst Isabella’s mother was just as eager to hear the story again her questions were more about the future than the past. Her concerns were about how this could be kept secret, indeed if it should be kept secret or if it should it be shouted from the rooftops? As a devout Catholic she was also concerned about what the Church would make of all this. In the midst of it all she had the very ordinary questions, the ones most people would have; ones about the strange painting and its power. Maria wanted to know if anyone else had been affected by it; a question that neither Isabella nor her mother had even thought about.

At 12.30 Maria’s mother’s mobile phone rang again. She recognised the number before answering and so was better prepared to talk to the Cardinal than she’d been the night before. “Yes” she assured him they were safe and ‘No’. No-one had had contacted them apart from him. “I have a request” he said gently but firmly. “I would like the team from the Vatican, who have already interviewed Father’s Augustin and Javier, to be able to come and talk with Isabella too. We are keen to get the fullest and most accurate picture of what happened and Isabella’s story could help a great deal in our search for accuracy. Would you mind if they came up to talk with you as soon as possible, preferably where you are now?”

Carmela relayed the request to both Isabella and Maria, for they would need Maria’s permission for the interview to be conducted in her home. Both readily agreed, but Maria asked that the interview be either very soon or tomorrow at a time when her son and husband were out and so that fewer people knew about Isabella’s whereabouts. Hearing Maria’s reservation the Cardinal chuckled, explaining that, in the hope of their consent, the team were already on their way and should be in the area soon. From casual information given by the priests they’d already known that Maria’s friend lived in the Antequerra region and so they’d despatched the team as soon as possible. At Carmela’s request Maria took the phone and gave detailed directions from her village church to her home and the Cardinal said that he’d relay their instructions to the team straightaway.

Just twenty minutes later a newish but plain looking hire car made its way down the driveway and a rather formidable looking man jumped out of the car to open the rear passenger door. The man who emerged from the rear door could not have looked more different from his driver. He was almost diminutive, barely five feet tall, yet with a sparkle in his eyes and an almost mischievous smile on his lips; one that that made Maria smile when she saw him. She welcomed them to her home and asked if they wanted something to drink. When that was politely declined she took them into the sitting room to join a rather nervous Isabella and Carmela and left the two groups to talk. For the next hour the Vatican’s diminutive smiling detective, for that is how Maria now thought of him, plied Isabella with question upon question. At first, they were simple questions, just about the facts of the night’s events. It was when they began to become questions of interpretation and faith “What do you think this means? Do you think the painting was from God? Why do you think you were chosen?” that Isabella began to sweat. The night before both the priests had insisted that they all agree to leave such answers or opinions to those better qualified to answer them but it was hard not to answer when she wanted to shout “Of course I think this is of God; who else could do such things as this?” Nevertheless, she simply sidestepped his gentle probing by saying that although she was glad that this wonderful thing, she was very careful not to use the word ‘miracle’, had happened, she truly did not know why it had or why it had happened to her. Realising that he was not going to draw her out on this issue the diminutive Monsignor gently sighed, asked a few closing questions, and politely took his leave.

Just before he left he made two requests. Firstly that they keep the new mobile phone that he had given to them so that they could be in touch without using their normal phones. He also gave them a code word that he’d use when introducing himself. Secondly he asked that those present would say nothing of the events to anyone until the Vatican had made some kind of pronouncement about it. “Such issues” he said “are most sensitive, and can both promote faith in those who believe and who have found healing, but can also cause great upset to those deserving others who miss out. Before this announcement is made, should anyone discover what has happened to Isabella I’d ask you to say that an unknown sponsor had kindly arranged for Isabella’s face to be restored. In this way we can temporarily disassociate you from last night’s events and allow you some normality of life before the damn breaks and this all becomes too public to be hidden any longer. From then on, I’m afraid my dear, your life may never be quite the same”. They readily agreed to both requests and with these words of caution and concern delivered the diminutive Monsignor departed the way he had come; in the ‘Hertzmobile’.

The scene outside the Church of the Annunciation in downtown Malaga that morning had morphed several times during the day. At first it had mainly been crowds of locals and a few local media who had thronged into the area; some already believers coming to re-affirm their belief; some simply to say ‘I was there’, and some to genuinely enquire. But as the day went on, more and the local media were beginning to be supplemented, then swamped, by other national and international media, all searching for that ‘new story’ or that ‘seminal quote’ to rule the airwaves with for the next 24 hours. At 11am, when a spokesperson had come through the church doors to make a brief statement he’d been all but crushed against the church doors. By the time the tumult had eventually died down and the crowd had been pushed back the spokesman had managed to regain some sense of composure. He stood to make his pronouncement, his hair now dishevelled and his garments smudged and grimy, but he spoke with a clarity and authority that belied his unkempt appearance. “Ladies and gentlemen” he began “we regret that until we have done some investigating into the incident reported in this morning’s newspaper and until we have been able to independently verify these events to our own satisfaction, we have asked and been granted the permission of those involved, not to say anything to the press. We feel that to fuel speculation and rumour at this stage would be detrimental to the facts which have yet to be fully established. Until we know all these facts, the church will remain closed and the clergy have agreed to remain cloistered.”

A barrage of shouted questions were then aimed at him but his response was simply “That’s all I’m prepared to say”. The church door reopened and he was pulled back inside. Some tried to keep the momentarily opened door ajar but a giant of a man appeared from inside the door and simply pushed them back, closing the door with a degree of finality that crushed any further attempts. When the spokesman saw the interview afterwards on the TV, he remarked that he looked less like a Vatican presenter and more like a local tramp.

After the throng had eventually pulled back to re-strategise, a lone voice was heard shouting:

“If you want to know what happened last night I can tell you ‘cos I was there but it’ll cost you.”

At first most simply jeered but when he told them that he’d seen the priests arrive and described their companion, others began to take an interest. After he’d negotiated, what seemed like a huge amount to him, but had in TV terms been a paltry sum, with the CNN people in the scrum of press, he was whisked into the back of their van to have his story recorded on tape. That done his story was then checked and rechecked against the evidence already known.

‘Hose’ was certainly in command of all his faculties by now. He’d read and heard about the ‘miracles’ experienced by the priests the night before and had known that there was money in this if he played it right. So, using the cunning he’d inherited through his lucid moments whilst living on the streets, he meted out his information piece by piece. As each part was substantiated he renegotiated his fee, eventually insisting that a lawyer be brought in to make sure that his negotiations were not simply discarded when more of the whole story came out. He asked for and got the use of a phone, and from the Yellow Pages found the name of Malaga’s best known law firm and asked them if they would send one of their team down, to the CNN van in the plaza where it was now situated, to help in a very important negotiation. Only when the lawyer had arrived and a new, and much more lucrative deal, had been worked out, a deal far in advance of anything Hose’ would even have asked for, and one that had on-going ramifications regarding the future of any ‘book rights’, he began to tell of all that he experienced and witnessed the night before.

It was when he began to describe the painting that the CNN people’s antennae began to twitch. Now they knew that they had that ‘something new, something special’, maybe even a worldwide scoop. When Joe/Hose’ described seeing a young man with a camcorder who’d been filming from inside the park, whom he took to be the owner of the painting, they knew that they’d hit pay dirt. This was a sensational discovery. Question upon question began to be fired at Joe/Hose’ both from the staff in the van and from the CNN news hierarchy back in the USA who’d been monitoring the recording from their stateside HQ. By four in the afternoon Hose’ had been whisked away in the CNN van to a secluded, prestigious, hotel on the outskirts of Marbella where, having been wined and dined and dressed in finery that he was manifestly becoming comfortable with, they re-shot the questions in the better light of the room and in the more comfortable surroundings. They’d already found the services of an artist who had been sequestered to do a drawing of the young man in the park and another whose task was to painstakingly reconstruct the details of the painting that Joe could remember.

Such had been the affect of Hose’s encounter with the painting that he appeared to remember it in some detail. Over the next while the artist and Joe remained sequestered in the palatial surroundings of the hotel suite, answering more questions and completing the photo sketch, only occasionally going out on to the large balcony for some fresh air. Hose was caught up in the excitement of the reconstruction as if he was drawing it himself. His creative juices were helped by the fact that, in law, according to the details of his newly constructed agreement with CNN, he actually was the official owner of this new drawing that was being created.

 

Chapter 11

The Finnish Connection.

For those who attended the ‘old Kirk’ the weeks that followed Arne and Mary Ann’s departure from Tobermory were full of speculation and questions. The days were tense, as if everyone was holding their breath, waiting for something spectacular to happen. As it turned out, when the first gift was used most were unaware of it.

Joe McDonald, a Kirk elder of advanced years, had been leading the prayers in church when he began to speak in a different language. For those not born in the highlands this was not unusual, for Joe’s native tongue was Gaelic and sometimes, when he got nervous or excited, he’d often slip into his home language without noticing that he’d done so. So, because many in the congregation, including Jamie and Kate, spoke little or no Gaelic at all they just assumed that he’d got nervous or excited again. When the prayer ended however a visiting young couple in the congregation, who’d previously introduced themselves as Jari and Anna Lena, suddenly stood up and addressed Joe.

“How did you know?” they asked of Joe. “How could you know? We told no-one.” Joe looked sheepish; even more nervous than usual. Looking toward Jamie he shrugged his shoulders and said “I don’t know what came over me. I just used words that I don’t know the meaning of”. Jamie gently addressed the young couple and asked “perhaps you could explain to us what you mean.”

In the ten minutes that followed, the young couple explained that the hailed from Finland and last week they had run away from home. They weren’t really man and wife as they’d led folks to believe but sister and brother. The previous week they’d had a terrible argument with their father. He’d lost his temper and told them to ‘leave his house immediately’. That night they’d done just that. They’d caught a ferry to Helsinki and from there, via trains to Stockholm and Bergen, made their way to Britain. All had seemed to have been going reasonably well until just a few moments ago when, in the middle of his prayer Joe had suddenly started speaking in Finnish and had said “Your father is sorry and is looking for you. It would be good if you got back in touch with him and let him know that you are well, for he loves you both very much.”

At this revelation a buzz of noise travelled around the congregation. Joe still looked as dumbfounded as before and stood on the platform, from where he’d led the prayers, still looking somewhat stricken. “It’s a gift” said Jeanie Bell suddenly. “Don’t you remember Mary Ann told us that in the early days of the church that people heard the apostles speak in their own languages; languages they’d not learned? It’s a gift! The gifts have come among us.” A rumble of conversational noise ensued as some members of the congregation nodded in agreement, beginning to wonder aloud what all this meant. Some were obviously overjoyed that something had happened at last, others were apprehensive because they still hadn’t taken in what had happened. Jamie asked for quiet and the conversation died down. “Rather than blunder on as if nothing had happened” he announced “I think that we should adjourn early. This will allow us all the chance to chat amongst ourselves, to read again what we were taught, and to give some time to help Jari and Anna Lena.” Then, with a short benediction, he brought their gathering to a close.

What happened next was totally spontaneous. Some began to gather and pray. Others gathered some chairs together and sat down to read the passages in their bibles that talked of such events, in order to see what they could learn.

Once again they opened their Bibles both at Acts chapter 2 and at St Pauls letter to the church at Corinth where they read the section in Chapter 12.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of languages, and to still another the interpretation of languages. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”

Whilst this biblical investigation was going on a couple of the leaders of the children’s and youth groups brought the children and young people together to explain to them what had happened. Others made drinks and distributed them around the groups whist some of the lunch group leaders made an early start on setting out the buffet for lunch. Jamie meanwhile asked Kate and Joe to join him as he chatted with Jari and Anna Lena.

By two o clock, lunch was over and the church had eventually emptied. Prayers had been prayed. Bibles had been read, lunch had been eaten, and the children and young people informed of the ‘going’s on’. Best of all a tearful Anna Lena and a somewhat bemused Jari had been taken across the road to Joe McDonald’s home where they’d made a phone call home on Joe’s speakerphone.

Their father, who’d been beside himself with worry and grief at the ‘loss’ of his children, was overjoyed to hear from them. Although they were now young adults, apart from weekends and holidays, he’d never been separated from them since his wife had passed away some years ago and he’d spent the last few days doing two things that he was completely unaccustomed to doing: weeping and asking for help. He’d phoned their friend’s homes, searched the streets of his home town, and pestered the police to find his missing children. His joy at hearing Anna Lena’s voice had been unconfined and he’d made it painfully clear to Jari and Anna-Lena how sorry he was for having said the cruel words he’d uttered, and also that he would welcome them home again anytime and had gladly offered to pay their airfares home.

Jari had told him where they were and about what had happened in the church that morning. He’d been so awestruck at the news that for a while he simply couldn’t speak; all that Jari and Anna Lena could hear was the sound of his radio in the background. When he eventually regained the use of his vocal chords he asked them to recount what had happened again and they did so, leaving him speechless once more. Assuring him that they were safe and well, they made an excuse about being in someone’s home and the cost of the international call and, promising to phone again later that day, they’d rung off. Joe had taken them back across the road to the Kirk where Jamie had only asked one question “Is everything OK now?” to which they’d nodded and he’d smiled in return. “Kate and I would like to invite you back to our home if that’s OK with you.” They’d politely accepted.

Jari and Anna Lena, now freed of the burden of their flight and subterfuge, proved entertaining house guests. They were a study in contrasts. Though both about the same height, Anna Lena seemed taller. Under his blond hair, Jari gave the impression of stockiness while Anna, as dark as Jari was blond, was as slender as a winter birch. Having been taught it at school since they were five years old, both spoke English fluently, so conversation flowed.

The couples compared experiences of growing up in Finland and Scotland, and discovered quite a few things in common, like surviving hard weather and long dark winter nights, experiences common to all northerners. They also talked of faith, specifically of their own faith; of how it came to be and how it had survived the blast of modern scepticism and materialism. Jari had taken some time to make a couple of phone calls to arrange transport back to Finland for the next day and then, later in the afternoon, they’d all piled into Kate’s small Toyota and made their way out of the town to one of the many lovely beach and cliff walks where they’d spotted puffins, sea otters playing amidst the kelp and a couple of white tailed eagles perched on a cliff outcrop, their mournful cries echoing off the surrounding rocks.

Throughout the walk Kate and Jamie were plied with questions by Jari and Anna Lena about this morning’s ‘goings on’ and they tried their best to give some background to the event whilst admitting their own sense of wonder at what had happened. To the young Finns the whole subject of ‘spiritual gifts’ was one of mystery. Like Jamie and Kate, they’d never even been taught anything about such things as spiritual gifts nor had they known that the adventures of the early Christians were still going on. Perhaps, because it was all so new to them too, Jamie and Kate’s own adventures managed to instil a sense of awe in the siblings. When they eventually parted later that evening, and Jari and Anna Lena had headed off back to the Harbour Guest House down on Main St, they’d first exchanged email and phone details and Kate had promised to keep in touch, especially to tell them about any new things which occurred in their lovely, small highland town. As it turned out, such events were about to overtake them, fast.

 

Chapter 12

Dougie’s Adventures Begin

Dougie Balfour loved books. His favourite place in the whole town was the local library and because of the sheer volume of books he read each year, he was known as their best customer. His other regular haunt was the small charity shop where he’d regularly purchase some of the new stock that he hadn’t already read. Dougie was the head green keeper at the local golf course but almost all his spare time was taken up with reading. Tuesdays were normally his day off and so were his main days for seeking out something new. So regular were his visits that, were a Tuesday to pass without Dougie showing up either at the shop or the library, concerned questions would probably have been asked. Dougie was used to rising early, even on his day off, and so some days would often be waiting at the library before it had opened. Today was such a day. But today was also to be a disappointing day for Dougie’s library visit because he could find little that interested him on the shelves. He particularly loved biographies: the lives of the great and famous or even infamous. Often his reading came in handy such as when a celebrity came and played on the course. Being as famous as it now was, Tobermory’s Golf Course now had quite a few celebrities who came just to check it out and when they discovered the lovely golf course with its spectacular views, they often came back. On many such occasions Dougie acted as a caddy and the celeb’s egos were usually massaged both by Dougie’s gentle way and his knowledge of their accomplishments. His home was festooned with photographs of him, shaking hands with stars. This morning however, finding nothing on the library shelves, he made his apologies for not taking anything out that day and then made his way to the little charity shop along the harbour front.

Mary Mungo, the shop’s main volunteer, was in the process of unloading a box full of books when Dougie stepped through the door. “Morning Mary how are things today?” he asked. Though Mary was well past retirement age her sense of community spirit and energy was still a palpable force in the town, so it was most unusual for her to reply as she did “Not very good today Dougie, I’m afraid. Holding held them out for him to see, she continued: “It’s my hands you see, they’re giving me some awful gyp”. Dougie could see straight away that the tips of her fingers were covered in what looked like small cuts, some of which looked very tender. “This normally only happens in the winter if my hands get cold and chapped” she said, “but for some reason, age most likely, they started playing up last night. I hardly slept a wink.”

Before he’d even thought about what he was doing a sense of compassion overtook him and he reached out and took Mary’s small hands in his great weathered paws. As he touched her hands a frisson of electric current seemed to run through them. “Oh! That’s lovely” said Mary “Your hands are so warm”. “Aye, but then maybe that means I’ve got a cold heart!” he replied. “Dougie Balfour” she said, “in all my years of living I’ve never heard anyone say that of you; quite the opposite in fact; you’ve a heart of gold. Anyway, chapped hands or not I must get on” she said and, detaching her hands from his gentle grasp, she once again bent to her task of unloading the box and Dougie began to help her, hopeful that he might spot something of interest. “You ought to put some lotion on these hands of yours Mary Mungo” he said. “Yes” she replied “later on I’ll go to the chemist and get some new stuff. I’ve run out of my old supply”.

Just a few seconds later she stopped, and stiffened. Dougie saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over in her direction. She was standing quite still, her hands stretched out in front of her, looking stricken. “What is it Mary? Are you all right?” he asked. “Look Dougie; look!” she exclaimed and once more held her hands out to him. Gone were the lines, gone the cuts. Her hands were smooth and unblemished as if they’d never been sore in the first place. “How?” was all that he managed to say before Mary fainted. Seldom comfortable in the sole company of women, Dougie felt unsure what to do and at that time in the morning there was still no one else in the shop that he could ask to help. So, checking that Mary was not in any harm or had hurt herself in her slow glide to the floor, he exited the shop and went next door to the hairdressers where he managed to get one of the female staff to come and help. He was slightly panicked himself. Looming large in his mind was the thought that that the frisson of electricity he’d experienced and the change in Mary’s hands might be connected in some way. His mind went back to the sections of his Bible he’d been reading since Arne and Mary Ann had given their seminar. The thought alarmed him; it alarmed him greatly! Other people had now arrived in the shop and were actively helping as best they could. Having told Juliette, the hairdresser, about Mary’s faint and then, at Juliette’s suggestion, having made a phone call to the local surgery, Dougie quietly slipped away, heading for the only place he knew that might provide some sanctuary and help: Jamie’s house.

Though Jamie was out and Kate was working at school their cottage door was open, as was quite normal in Tobermory, and so Dougie went inside and sat down at the kitchen table to wait. He sat there at first just sweating and worrying. Then, spotting a bible on the kitchen table, he’d opened it and begun to read some of the passages that he’d been considering these past few weeks. The passages did little to alleviate his sense of panic; if anything they made him worse, for they seemed to confirm his worst fears. When Jamie eventually strolled through the door some time later it was to find Dougie pouring over the bible with a very worried look on his face. “Are you OK?” Jamie asked, concernedly. “I’m not sure” Dougie replied and began to recount the morning’s events.

Jamie didn’t know what to say or do. Not having seen the event with his own eyes he was inclined to be a little sceptical. What tempered his scepticism however was Dougie himself. He was the least likely person that Jamie knew who’d be likely to engage in fantasy, gossip or conjecture. He was the kind of person people often described as ‘the salt of the earth”: solid, dependable, and trustworthy!’ Perhaps it was just a co-incidence” Jamie said, trying to reassure Dougie. “Perhaps” said Dougie “but what about that electric feeling. Where did that come from?”

“Maybe it was just what happens when someone’s cold hands come into contact with another person’s warm hands” Jamie suggested. “Maybe,” said Dougie, sounding quite unconvinced. He’d done his share of handshaking in his time as a caddy, and even on the coldest days he’d not come across anything quite like this feeling before, even when he’d shaken the hands of someone famous. “Why has it shaken you so much?” asked Jamie.   “I’m afraid that it’s one of those gifts we’ve been discussing”, replied Dougie exasperated. “What if it is? How am I supposed to handle something like that?”

“I don’t know Dougie. It’s all new to me too, don’t forget. What I do know is that if it is God’s gift, it will do a lot of good. It may already have done that for Mary. If I were you I’d just keep a low profile for a bit. If it is a gift, Mary may not connect your touch with what happened. She goes to the Chapel not to our Kirk and so she’s not been thinking about the things we’ve been thinking about. She may not even connect the two. After all, it is a bit far-fetched isn’t it?”. “You’re right” said Dougie, suddenly feeling more confident “Mary’s unlikely to say anything strange. It would be out of character for her to make a claim like that, especially about someone like me that she’s known all her life. After all we must have shaken hands on lots of occasions, even danced together at quite a few ceilidhs and nothing happened before. So why should she suspect anything now?” “Exactly!” exclaimed Jamie, catching Dougie sudden burst of enthusiasm. “So now do you want some tea and toast?” And they’d indulged in a mid-morning cuppa.

Mary’s Questions.

When Mary came to just a few moments after Dougie had left the shop she was, quite naturally, disoriented. Her first sight was of worried friends gathered above her and of one of the local GP’s Dr Henderson bending over her. “What”, she said in a small voice, “What happened?” “That’s what we are here to find out” said her GP. He didn’t know Mary well. She wasn’t a regular at his clinic and so he only knew her from his occasional visits to the shop to drop something off. “It seems that you fainted and Dougie went and got some help for you” he said. “Do you feel well enough to sit up?”

“I feel more than well” she said enthusiastically. “I can’t figure out why I should have fainted”, but then she remembered and looked again at her hands. Other people probably would have blurted out the reason for their distress and told all, but Mary was not ‘other people’ and neither was she a ‘blurter’ and she certainly didn’t want to say anything until she’d recovered her senses. “I think that we should take you back to the surgery for a check-up” said the doctor in a tone of voice that brokered no argument and, to avoid any fuss, Mary simply went along with what the doctor had ordered.

An hour later Mary made her way back through town having been told by the doctor that he could find nothing amiss; her blood pressure was fine, her temperature normal and her heart rate level at 72. In fact, for a pensioner she was in very fine fettle indeed. She’d considered going back to work even though the doctor has asked her to rest up and make sure that all remained well for the rest of the day. Mary however, was not someone who’d spent her life ‘taking time off’ and so she made her way back to the shop to carry on as if nothing had happened. When she got there she discovered that her part time volunteer assistant Chloe, who normally didn’t work on a Tuesday, had arrived to take over at the shop and she kindly told Mary to ‘take it easy and take the rest of the day off’ and ‘not worry’ and that ‘she could manage’. Mary relented and agreed, not because she was eager for a day off but because she had other plans in mind. She walked in a purposeful fashion; a woman determined to get some answers. For the last hour she’d sat patiently waiting for the doctor’s tests to finish while her mind ran over and over again the events of the morning and now she wanted to do some investigating of her own. She was a fan of the Hetty Winthrop detective series and now formed herself in the mould of that indomitable lady as she made her way to the house of her chief suspect.

 

Chapter 13

Doubts Dispelled

Mary used the door knocker to bang several times on the solid wooden door of Dougie’s cottage until she heard a call of ‘coming’ from inside and the door opened. “Ah” said Dougie as he saw Mary standing in the doorway, as if he’d guessed who it was that was trying to beat his neatly painted front door to a pulp, “I thought it might be you Mary. Come on in”. She entered slowly, apprehensively. It was not that she had never been in his house. She’d played in it as a girl when it had belonged to Dougie’s parents and so she knew the layout fairly well. Her apprehension was more to do with the thought that she’d already been surprised once today by the unexpected and now she was not quite so sure of herself in his presence. After all, she thought, when you think that you know someone well and then think that you’ve discovered a previously unknown and almost unbelievable facet to that person, it fazes you a little. “Come on in and sit yourself down. I’ll make a pot of tea and we can chat. I’m sure that’s what you’ve come for isn’t it?” he asked. Given Dougie’s welcome Mary’s, ‘Hetty Winthrop’ style, self-confidence and determination suddenly evaporated and she could only nod in reply. As Dougie went into the kitchen, she sat down on the old, worn, but well preserved, living room sofa and tried to make herself feel calm, though inside she could tell that her blood pressure and her heart rate were, by now, anything but normal.

Dougie returned a couple of minutes later with a tray laden with a teapot, two cups, saucers, side plates, milk, sugar and a bowl of chocolate biscuits which he placed on the small wooden coffee table, before sitting down himself. “Questions first or tea first? He enquired. “Tea I think “said Mary suddenly conscious that she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since breakfast. Besides, she felt that she needed something to hold in her hands, something to steady her, to bring a sense of the familiar before she entered the foreign territory of ‘questions’. “One sugar please” she said in response to the anticipated question. “I don’t normally indulge, but today I feel the need of some sugar in my system”. Dougie obliged, handed her a full cup and saucer and then placed a side plate with a couple of biscuits on it on the small side table by the sofa. Pouring himself something similar he sat down in his favourite armchair beside the open, empty fireplace and said “OK Mary, ask away, though I’m not sure that you’ll be very happy with my replies.”

Getting straight to the point she haltingly enquired “It was you who made my hands better wasn’t it?” “Yes and No” he replied. “Yes, I believe that your hands got better when I touched them; no doubt you felt the frisson as I did, though I didn’t know what it meant at the time. But strictly speaking, No!: I didn’t do anything.” “Now what you mean by that” said Mary slightly indignantly. “Don’t be getting all enigmatic on me Dougie Balfour, not after all these years of me thinking that I know you well.” Over the next half an hour Dougie talked about all that had led up to the moment in the shop when her hands had been made better, and to her credit, Mary managed to just sit and listen though she was bristling with questions.

“I don’t believe you” she said when he eventually finished his detailed explanation. “I don’t blame you” he replied. “It’s hard for me to understand too. I mean, I know me. You know me! We both know I’m not the kind of person who does or says this sort of thing. I’m a Kirk elder after all. I don’t go in for nonsense, but I can tell you Mary, it has me puzzled. I’ve spent the last two weeks reading up on it all in my bible and it’s all right there in black and white as you probably know from your chapel. I’m quite prepared to believe that such things have happened in the past and that’s just fine because there’s no real consequence in believing that. But then, in this day and age, out of the blue, this happens; and to me of all people. Not to Jamie or Father Brady, people that might understand this better and who are trained to understand; but to me, a green keeper at a golf course. I’ve just spent the last hour or so with Jamie and he’s as bamboozled as me”.

“Well I’m a Catholic and I don’t hold with all this kind of stuff” said Mary suddenly full of bluster “I wonder what Father Brady will make of it. I wonder if I should even tell him about it?”   “Well that’s your choice Mary but if it was me, I wouldn’t” said Dougie. “at least not until we know something more about this. After all it could be just a one-off event: a co-incidence, and nothing more than that. I’m not looking for anything to come of it, that’s for sure. To be honest Mary, I’m scared. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m thrilled to bits that your hands are better. I mean just look at them, they’re so smooth and unlined; not like mine,” and he held out his own, weathered, gnarled, hands for her inspection. “Perhaps we should just keep this to ourselves for now. Have you told anyone else yet? The doctor perhaps?”

“Do you think I’m daft? She asked indignantly. “What would folks be saying about me if I claimed something strange like this? They’d put me down for the next patient at the mental hospital on the mainland”. Mary was not PC! “OK, OK” said Dougie. “I get your drift but aren’t you just the least bit curious about how all this happened? I mean what’s your explanation?” “I don’t have one” she replied suddenly deflated again. “That’s why I’m here, to get an explanation from you. I thought that maybe you’d known what you’d done” Then, realising that she was almost blaming Dougie, as if he’d done something bad instead of something good, she said in an almost contrite voice “but of course I’m glad Dougie. It’s just that it’s shaken me as well as delighted me and I’m not sure what I think anymore. It’s going to take some time for me to get my head around this” and so saying she rose from the sofa and got ready to leave. “I’ll not say a thing until I’ve talked this over with you again. I promise. It must be just as spooky for you too I suppose”.

“You said it Mary. Spooky is the word” said Dougie as he opened the door and let Mary out to continue on her way home, a bemused look still firmly on her face.

With Kate still at school and needing to process his thoughts, Jamie spent the afternoon out walking on the cliffs. He often did this when he had something to think through. Somehow, he felt much closer to God outside than inside. Despite being a minister, churches or religious places just didn’t do it for him, or for most people he knew. As he walked, his thoughts turned over and over the events of the past week. First there had been the incident with Joe, Jari and Anna Lena, and now the incident with Dougie and Mary. If just one of these had taken place in isolation he might well have relegated them to the realm of co-incidence, but with two of them, and both coming so close after the series of seminars on the Christian gifts, it would have been foolish of him not to at least consider that something unusual was happening in their small highland, island town. But what did it mean? Jamie always looked for meaning in any series of events because randomness was not a concept he was comfortable with. It all sounded too much like ‘chaos theory’ and that always left him with an empty feeling, like someone tied into fatalism.

As he walked his thoughts ran back again to what he knew of the early days of the Christian church, of the adventures of Jesus’ disciples, and it occurred to him that even they couldn’t always make sense of what was happening then. Wasn’t that why, after Jesus’ ascension, they’d had so many councils and meetings of the leaders: to try and understand what was happening and to try and explain to others the significance of what was happening around them? He had to admit to himself that, even then, there was a certain randomness to what occurred.

Some of the disciples had been put in prison and some even ended up being executed; others had been imprisoned and then freed through, what could only be described as, miraculous events. So maybe he didn’t have to be able to explain everything. Maybe the whole idea of adventure was that, until a pattern emerged in these events, it wasn’t possible for them to make ‘sense’. Maybe adventures didn’t have patterns! Indeed was ‘sense’ the right thing to be looking for? Was that too linear, too modern, a concept to be considering? Was his search for sense in things simply a by-product of the age of reason? He asked himself; ‘Does ‘love’ make sense? Does forgiveness make sense?’ and answered himself; NO! Maybe he should just be happy that good things, wonderful things, were happening in his town and simply take joy in that.

Although her school was only a couple of hundred yards up the hill from their home, and school ended at 3.10 Kate seldom got home before 5 o’ clock. There was always a parent that wanted to chat or something that needed marking or preparing for the next day or week or event, and Kate preferred to do that prep at school rather than bring it all home with her. As much as they could, they liked to keep their evenings free for others and for one another, especially since much of the weekend was often taken up with church events. Today however, Jamie couldn’t wait for Kate to come home and when Kate got home that day he’d blurted it all out, even before she’d managed to sit down. For once Kate was as bamboozled as he was, but she was also very excited; the logical side of things, the ‘why’, the need to understand the event, didn’t seem to bother her half as much as it bothered Jamie. She was much more content to live in the wonder of the events themselves and in their positive effects, but she also realised that if these events became public, Jamie would probably be asked, and even expected, to answer the ‘why’ questions because he was the minister. One thing that they both seemed to share however was a quiet sense of expectation, because neither thought that this was the end of such episodes. Quietly both believed it was probably just the beginning. They were right.

 

Chapter 14

Bill Murray’s Golf

All the next day Dougie Balfour kept his golf gloves on. Despite the fact that it was a gorgeous summer day and he was outside on the course doing some work on the bunkers, getting them ready for the upcoming weekend tournament, he didn’t take them off all day. He had really been shaken by the events at the charity shop and he was not at all sure that he wanted a re-occurrence. Explaining the inexplicable was not one of his favourite occupations. He preferred the regular, the known. He’d thought to himself the night before that perhaps that was why he liked reading biographies, because they were about what had already happened, what was known and in the past. Adventure was all very well and good but it left him not knowing what was to come. Wearing his gloves was a way of trying to protect himself against any further ‘adventures’ and his thinking was that if he wore them he couldn’t be skin on skin with anyone else and so such adventures wouldn’t happen.

“Hi there Dougie” said Bill Murray, the club president, as he made his way slowly up to the fourth green where Dougie was raking one of the deeper pot bunkers that surrounded it. “How are things shaping up for the weekend then?” “So far so good Bill. This fine spell of weather certainly has its benefits, one of which is that the bunkers are in great shape, dry as a bone and easier to navigate. It should make for some interesting golf this weekend. Are you playing this year?” Bill laughed. It was more of a resigned laugh than a happy one. “No Dougie. I’m afraid that my playing days are all but gone now. This lower back injury has reduced me to just a nine-hole game, and even that is sometimes painful.”

“It’s such a shame” said Dougie “You were quite the player in your day. Not many people have ever won a major and I still recall with enormous pride seeing you with that Claret Jug. And then there was that marvellous Ryder Cup victory over the USA that you were so central a part of. In some ways you’ve single-handedly put this course and the club on the national map.”

“Aye these were great days Dougie. Great days indeed! And I do like to think that in some small way I’ve helped to move the club into a more prominent position in Scottish golf. Judging by the bookings this summer, especially the overseas bookings, we seem to have a continuing place in people’s minds and hearts. Still, all this reminiscing won’t help me get my ball out of that bunker over there, so you’d better hand me that rake of yours and I’ll tidy up after I’ve messed it up hacking around in it.” Dougie reached down into the bunker he’d just finished raking and, picking up the long rake, he handed it over.

As Bill reached out and took the other end of the rake Dougie felt it again. That frisson! Bill dropped the other end of the rake. “You must have built up quite a static change in that bunker Dougie” Bill Murray exclaimed, “That rake gave me quite a shock.” Grateful for such a simple explanation, Dougie relied “Aye. It can happen sometimes!” and he turned away to move on, thankful that his little lie had some semblance of truth in it. Though neither man was prepared to admit it, it was the first time either man had ever known such a thing to happen but, having happened once, meant that it must happen ‘sometimes’.

As he shaped up to try and extricate his ball from the pot bunker Bill Murray felt more like his old self again. He couldn’t explain it, but he definitely felt different. It was only when he swung through the shot and watched the ball rise high in the air to drop down just a few feet from the pin that he knew what that different feel was.

“Lovely Shot Bill, just like old times!” shouted his playing partner and Bill smiled broadly as he climbed out of the bunker with an ease he’d not known in many a year. The rest of his round astonished him for he played the final 5 holes in four under par. Once again his swing felt effortless, his drives were straight and true and his approach shots, which he’d been rightly famous for, deadly in their accuracy. Even his putting had regained some of the touch that had made him a household name in Scotland a couple of decades ago. He felt like a new man. “You know Sandy” he said to his partner. “I think I must just play in the tournament this weekend after all. If there’s still space and I can recapture just a part of the form I had in these last holes, I might just make the top ten.”

That night Bill felt so good about his exploits that he did something he’d not done in many years: he got out the DVD recording of his Open Championship win and watched it from beginning to end. That night he slept like a baby and, waking the next morning, determined to find out something very important. By 2pm that afternoon and 18 holes later he’d discovered what he wanted to know: yesterday had been no fluke. With his wife Gloria as a witness he’d gone around eighteen holes and in five under par. Gloria had only reluctantly agreed to partner him. She’d known other times since the glory days when he’d thought his form had returned only to discover that it was a pipe dream and she had no desire to watch him make a fool of himself or, because she truly loved this man, to see him fail again. Yet by two pm even Gloria was becoming convinced. He was moving like the old, or young, Bill Murray again; like a man twenty years younger. Though he was certainly tired at the end, he was also jubilant.

 

Chapter 15

Identity Sought.

As Hose’s story was being garnered for the evening headlines on the following Monday evening, the young couple who’d experienced the emotional healing power of the painting came in to a local TV studio and began to tell their own tale. At first it was not particularly believed. After all hundreds of hoax calls had come in all throughout that day claiming some great miracle for themselves and asking for money. Perhaps it was the fact that they said straight away that they didn’t want money, but just wanted to substantiate the power of the painting so that they could thank the painter, that they were finally interviewed. It was true that the couple’s story was a much more humble story but, as the interviewers pursued more details, they became convinced that his young couple, now so obviously at one with one another, had a story worth telling. “After all” their news anchorman stated that evening as he opened their News at 7, “if more relationship problems could be solved like this, wouldn’t the world be a much better place; would conflicts not decrease; would marriages not last longer? Would this not be a social revolution?”

It was this newscast that Rodrigo saw as he sat with his evening meal on his lap watching TV. He was so intent on what was being said that he let his microwaved ‘Pasta Carbonara Suprema’ go cold. The news station led with the story of the young couple because it was the latest revelation but then they fed in Hose’s syndicated story and Rodrigo’s meal slipped off of his lap to lie un-noticed on the stone flagged floor.

Seeing that the story was being taken from CNN Rodrigo tuned in to their feed to see what it was showing and saying. He sat and listened to Hose’s version of his transformation under the influence of the painting. Considering how little time Joe had actually spent in front of it, Rodrigo was astonished that he remembered so much about it and in such great detail. When Joe went on to talk about seeing the young man in the park behind the painting Rodrigo felt as if all the air had been squeezed out of his lungs. He had difficulty taking a breath, any breath, as he listened to Hose’s description of him and then, when the photo-fit picture appeared on the screen, Rodrigo at first thought he’d faint. It was a likeness but from Rodrigo’s point of view it had two saving graces. Firstly, Hose must only have seen him in profile and so, believing quite naturally that the other side of Rodrigo’s face would resemble the other he’d constructed his picture accordingly. Secondly Rodrigo had been in the shadow of the bushes and so these shadows had affected the planes on his face. He looked much older in the photo fit and he also lacked the scars he’d received in the accident. That perspective was to be Rodrigo’s salvation. Surely very few people would connect the face on the TV with the goatherd from Torres? And so it proved. Despite the hundreds of calls that came into the various media and police stations stating that the caller knew exactly who the man in the picture was, no-one connected the face to Rodrigo. No-one, that is, except Maria and she was not about to tell anyone.

When Diego and Fernando had arrived home on the day that Isabella had arrived and had seen her restored face for the first time, they had been dumbstruck. Both had known Carmela and Isabella for many years for they’d been like extended family to the Salvogans. They had therefore known of, and seen, Isabella’s disfigurement first-hand. It would have been obvious to anyone observing them, what they were thinking: ‘Could she be the girl in the newspaper whose face had been restored’? Given the fact that the men both knew that Carmela and Isabella had lived near the Church of the Annunciation in Malaga and that Carmela worked for the priests there, it would have been pointless trying to conceal the fact of Isabella’s miracle from them, and so Carmela and Maria asked them, at the Vatican’s request, to swear to secrecy: to vow that they would say nothing to anyone about Isabella’s presence.

Had either man been a less devout Catholic that particular request and vow might have meant little, but since both were, it was a sacred oath that they swore; one which they would not ,and did not, break. The story of course had to be told again, and its impact on them was no less than it had been on Maria or the Monsignor who’d come from the Vatican. In truth, because they knew Isabella and the trauma she’d been through since the fire, the impact was even greater on them. To mark the miracle they broke open some of Diego’s most precious wine and celebrated in style, laughing, toasting and questioning in equal measures the mysteries of life and God.

Later that evening, and shortly after Rodrigo had finished listening once again to the CNN report, Maria picked up her phone and dialled his number. Rodrigo was delighted to hear her voice and they fixed a time to meet up the next day. The next morning, having packed her men off to work and school, and reminding them sternly of their solemn oath, Maria finished breakfasting with Isabella and Carmela, and set off on foot down the track to Rodrigo’s house on the pretext of going for some cheese. By the time she got there and knocked on his door Rodrigo was beside himself with excitement and some small degree of worry. Maria had brought his camcorder back, wrapped up in a linen cloth in her small basket and together they sat down and watched the events unfold again, but this time with Rodrigo’s commentary filling in so many of the background details. When they’d watched it for the third time, Rodrigo needed to ask some important questions. His first was ‘How long do you think it will be before they discover who I am? His second was ‘If the painting had such power how would it be possible to do this again in such a way that allowed more people to interact with the painting?’ The third question then became: ‘How could they make the painting available without being found out?’

“First of all I don’t think that people will discover the connection between you and the photo-fit” said Maria. “This might be the one and only time that your scars will be of use. If no-one has connected you already, and if you keep out of the limelight for the present, why would anyone connect you?”

“What if someone has a photo of me from before the accident? Do you have any around?” Rodrigo asked. “We do have some” replied Maria “but after the accident we put them away. We couldn’t bear to have you come over and be reminded of all that you’d lost. It was bad enough losing your parents but to have you constantly reminded of your injuries through our photographs was more than we could bear, more than we thought anyone should have to bear, so all our photographs of you are now in a box in a cupboard in our bedroom.”

“OK then” responded Rodrigo, “let’s say that I’m not going to be recognised from that first outing, how are we going to get the painting seen again? We obviously can’t go back to the park. It will be watched by everyone. The media are probably still camped out there as much as at the church.” “Maybe patience is our best weapon for now” suggested Maria. “After all, there was no deadline for the painting’s first sighting. Maybe we should just wait until the fuss dies down and try again. Are there any other places where paintings get hung up, any tourist areas that attract artists in other towns?” “Not that I know of” he answered, “but then I didn’t know of the park railings either. So, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we should just wait until our next course of action is made plain in the same way that the first one was. Perhaps then we will also find how to put the painting in place without being found out. “

Despite talking this idea over for the next half an hour they couldn’t come up with a better plan or one that left their hearts feeling at peace. With her coffee drunk and business transacted, Maria made her way back home with a roundel of Rodrigo’s goat’s cheese safely wrapped in her linen cloth. All the way back up the track she hummed quietly to herself, and occasionally she would break into a girl-like skip, as she revelled in the sheer joy of being part of something unheard of, something mysterious; something wonderful.

Carmela noticed her sister’s good spirits, but merely attributed them to the fact that Isabella’s miracle was putting everyone in such a good mood. It wasn’t such a good day for either Diego or Fernando though. At both work and in the school the talk was all about the, so called, ‘Malaga Miracles’. Some openly mocked the very idea of miracles as child’s tales; others thought that whatever the truth behind the events, science would come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation. A third, smaller and less vociferous, group asked those with already closed minds to be open to the possibility of an explanation that might be neither cynical nor rational. It was so hard for Fernando to curb his youthful exuberance and not shout out loud “I’ve seen the miracle for myself” and for Diego not to just invite those cynics to ‘come home and see for themselves’. Yet somehow a stronger bond kept them from saying anything and when asked what they thought they simply replied “Don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. These answers sufficed and allowed the more vocal participants to carry on having their say. But it was still a tough day for them both and they couldn’t wait to get back home, if for nothing else, just to reassure themselves of the truth surrounding all this conjecture. It was as if they’d joined a small band of conspirators sworn to secrecy.

That morning Carmela’s special mobile phone rang, and Isabella, answered it. The voice on the other end identified himself with the agreed code word and then told them that, later that day the Vatican would be making an announcement. Basically, it would state that the Vatican had investigated the events reported in the newspaper and found that, in their opinion, something special had happened which could not readily be explained in either a scientific or rational way. They believed that some kind of ‘modern miracle ‘ had occurred but would offer no theological explanation for the events of that Sunday evening. They also invited anyone who might know more to contact a special number which had been set up for that particular use. They were particularly interested in contacting the young man who was reported to have been in the area and were asking him to get in touch if he thought it wise. With the Vatican’s message passed on, the Monsignor they simply knew as Ernesto asked if all was well and on hearing that it was, went on to say that at sometime it was probably going to be inevitable that Isabella would have to give some sort of public statement and come out of hiding. Ernesto hoped that he could help in that process but for now he asked her to remain hidden.

Putting down the phone Isabella relayed Ernesto’s message to the Carmela and then, on her return from Rodrigo’s, to Maria. Over coffee they gathered around the kitchen table and a squabble of conversation ensued much of which centred around what would happen when this announcement or pronouncement was made and how soon it would be before Isabella had to ‘face the music’. As soon as she could Maria slipped away into the lounge to make a quick call to Rodrigo telling him to listen out today for a special Vatican message. “Yes I know”, said Rodrigo “The local news station is already pre-warning people to listen in for it. By now I reckon that message is on almost every radio and TV station in Spain.”

When it came, the announcement was almost word for word what Ernesto had said to Isabella on the phone that morning and again it was delivered from the steps of the Church of the Annunciation by the same priest who’d been so battered about trying to give out the first announcement. The noise when he finished speaking was every bit as deafening as on the first occasion but this time because he was delivering it from on top of a sturdy 3’ high box, it gave him a better speaking position than before. His small platform was also guarded by a giant of a man that few people felt able or willing to try and move aside. So that the press could ask their questions and be given some kind of audible response they were invited into the sanctuary of the church, group by group with the ‘bodyguard’ standing at the door allowing them access and egress. When all the press had finally been accommodated, their questions addressed and the premises vacated again, the bodyguard priest made a thorough search of the premises to make sure that no unauthorised person was still in the church. The careful search discovered two people hidden under pews, four small microphones taped in various locations around the church and yet another person who’d disguised himself as a fake priest.

 

Chapter 16

Interviews

Later that day Maria’s phone rang again and this time Ernesto asked if he could again come and see them as he had something new that he wanted to talk to them about. Several hours later, again in his ‘Hertz mobile’, again accompanied by his giant assistant, he entered the Salvogan’s farmhouse. What he proposed was that Father’s Augustin and Javier, along with Isabella, should agree to be interviewed on Hola Espana, Spain’s most popular daytime television show and tell their own stories there. The Vatican thought that this approach would provide the immediacy of television, along with the authenticity provided by the hosts, and would make the whole affair both more public and more diffused. With the whole story out there the Vatican thought that they would be less likely to be pressurised by other media into giving their own ‘repeated’ stories. A long discussion ensued about how Isabella’s, and Carmela’s, life would change and how they’d manage to handle to pressures that would undoubtedly follow such an interview. Two hours later, the details sorted, Isabella was the extra passenger in the car that left Maria’s house heading for the safety of a Carmelite nunnery in the city to stay there for the evening before appearing on the TV show the next day. They decided that rather than rehearse all the questions and answers, the best and simplest approach to take, was to be honest and unrehearsed. In this way as each person demonstrated to the camera the changes that had occurred to them and then told their story, the public would be able to get the best possible picture of what had occurred.

Subterfuge

Across the other side of town another quest was being undertaken. Though the editor of the main local paper was an atheist, the local police chief was quite the opposite. Having followed the news closely he’d phoned the Vatican and offered to make any discreet inquiries that they required and to relay any information he discovered to Rome. Though no crime had been committed he was nonetheless cautious and interested about how events were being reported and what the effect might be on his city. The Vatican had responded positively to his enquiry and had readily agreed to any help he could give. Accordingly Chief Figaro had set up a small team of devout policemen to follow the event’s progress and to do a little digging of their own. Having heard the Vatican’s announcement the police team prioritised a search to be made for the man in the sketch. Until then, under an agreement between the chief of police and the Vatican, they’d held back, but now the gloves were off. A court order was requested and granted and the police became sole owners of the tapes from every surveillance camera in the city.

Detectives Luis Garcia and Ramon Morientes spent the entire day going over and over the street tapes of that night trying in vain to follow the movements of the man in the raincoat and hat who’d gone into the park that evening. Every time he’d been close to a camera something had occurred to shelter him from view. At first it was the rowdy crowds that he’d turned away from in order to protect his bundle, then it had been a car that had almost clipped him in the road and he’d turned away again. On each camera they’d only ever seen one side of his face and most of it in shadow, so by the next morning they were no further forward in getting any better an image than Joe had provided from his original photo-fit. They’d no real idea of his age or of anything new to add to the photo-fit.

The Prime Time breakfast time show that morning had proved to be a sensation. Even the Coronation of King Carlos had not attracted such audience figures and the station had syndicated their programme worldwide. Across the globe live audiences listened and watched. Some, on the other side of the planet, having heard of this exclusive had stayed up all night to listen in and watch the programme, many of them’ listening’ via simultaneous translation or subtitles. But the Vatican had hopelessly underestimated the reaction to their stories. The interviews caused a media feeding frenzy. By the end of the day each of the three had received more than 50 offers, many of whom came from the fast-growing religious radio and TV stations from across the globe. Isabella had more than 150 offers, some legitimately wanting her story or to appear on a variety of Satellite television shows. Other offers, from more nefarious sources who were more interested in her looks and celebrity status than her story, offered her huge sums to pose for their magazines, some even requested that she pose naked. She also received two offers from prestigious, internationally recognised, agencies for modelling contracts. Overnight she’d become a media sensation. Other more interesting, and yet sinister, offers came from medical sources who were offering enormous sums of money either for a sample of DNA or blood from any of the interviewees, in the hope that whatever had occurred to them and in them had caused some kind of knock-on effect in their bloodstreams that could be bottled and sold, probably for astronomical sums.

Later that day, and intending to profit from the worldwide coverage given to the interviewees, CNN announced that it was going to show a copy of the painting. In his palatial seclusion, sequestered with a quality painter, Joe had spent the last 24 hours describing the painting in some detail and over the past 24 hours they’d carefully put together a facsimile of the finished article. Rodrigo heard of CNN’s plans after being out on the hillside all day and immediately phoned Maria to tell her. She already knew. He was sweating profusely when the programme came on that night and was absolutely astonished at how accurate the copy was. Great beads of perspiration dripped down his forehead as he watched the programme’s art critic go over the painting in minute detail attempting to read into the scenery explanations as to why this painting had the power it did. Yet the more he tried, the more futile his explanations became. At first Rodrigo spluttered, then guffawed, then spluttered again and then he began to laugh and laugh and laugh. Though the painting was anatomically very good, Rodrigo could tell that, like a heavyweight champion who’d forgotten how to box, it carried no punch, and was left with only a shuffle and a weave. Across the world Amy Weinstock, confined to her bed in the Mount Zion cancer hospital in New York did what so many thousands across the world also did. In equal measures of hope, belief and desperation she reached out to touch the TV screen hoping that by some miracle the same cure might be given to her that had been given to Father’s Javier and Augustin. She touched with hope. She slumped back on to her bed in tears, tears of disillusionment, of frustration and despair. No such miracle had been given to her.

Thursday passed almost uneventfully with most of the news being given over to different angles on old footage and some spectacular claims for the miraculous, mainly from some of the extreme cults in the USA whose adherents professed to having visions about imminent apocalyptic events. Few reporters, either of the visual media or the written word, picked up on some comments made in one of the Jewish press journals that the scene depicted on the copied paintings seemed remarkably similar to an aerial photograph of northern Galilee on the Israel-Jordan border.

When the Friday evening news came on however it was almost entirely dedicated to a strange phenomenon occurring across the globe. Copies of the painting had begun to appear on railings around the world. In Paris, Montmartre was flooded with them. In the Scottish capital of Edinburgh the railings along the entire length of Princess Street Gardens were festooned with them. Most of the fakes had someone sitting beside them offering the copies for sale and some had been sold for astounding sums. As kind of desperation gripped the more Roman Catholic and Orthodox nations, where icons and religious relics were still a source of interest, cashed in.

The BBC world news was also reporting that many good reproductions were being bought as soon as they were offered, such was the desperation that surrounded the events in Malaga.

In a room in Malaga at the police HQ detectives Garcia and Morientes were feeling the weight of expectation lie heavily on their shoulders. Hardly an hour passed without the Chief asking for an update on their progress but despite continuing to trawl through the footage from the surveillance cameras, and reviewing old footage again and again, their ‘progress’ was nil, and that made the Chief a very unhappy man. Though he was putting unrelenting pressure on his small team to come up with a break neither he nor they could come up with any new ideas as to how to get more information about the much sought after man. He couldn’t ask for an interview since no-one, least of all the elderly fathers, had committed any crime, and so they had to rely upon the information coming in from the press. Despite some heavy hints about what might happen if the local press did not co-operate with their enquiries, nothing of any note had risen to prominence. The few local leads that they’d followed up on were invariably found to be time wasters who wanted their 15 ‘Warhol’ minutes of fame. Neither Garcia nor Morientes were particularly gracious to these ‘witnesses’ and left none of them uncertain about what would happen to them if they continued to ‘waste police time’.

The next morning the news shows all led with the fake painting phenomena and this time the news was peppered with news that had filtered in about northern Israel being the likely scene of the painting. Aware of the furore being caused by the painting, some members of the Israeli parliament were already bracing themselves. Having watched the goings-on in the rest of the world with interest. and even some amusement, they were nonetheless very aware of the way that religious fervour could cause chaos in a country.

As the scene was confirmed as being of the Galilee area of northern Israel, their interest had sharpened for they knew that they could be in for a torrid time if thousands and thousands of extra pilgrims came looking for the actual scene of the painting. Some Israelis were already wondering how they could exploit this fervour and make a sound profit from it. Others, especially those whose land was featured on the paintings, were fretting at the implications for themselves and their land if mass pilgrimage became a reality: they would be over-run! Having had to cope with the Israeli-Palestinian unrest on the disputed lands for many years, such disruption was no happy prospect. Though it was Shabbat some senior members of the Knesset decided to meet and form an impromptu advisory group to propose some contingency plans just in case their fears should become reality. They were wise to do so.

As was his privilege as the Honorary Club Captain, Bill Murray did enter the annual ‘open’ tournament at the Golf Club that coming weekend. Not only did he make the top ten, he almost equalled his own course record and won by three shots, beating into second place a young amateur guest player, hotly tipped to win a Walker Cup place in the coming year. In his winner’s speech he attributed his recovery of form down to his recent renewal of health. In an interview with the local paper later on that week Bill went so far as to attribute this recovery of health to the strange static electric charge that he felt when he’d touched the rake on the fourth green the previous Wednesday. “I know it sounds strange” he told the local reporter, “and that Doc Henderson will probably call me an old fool for saying this, but I’m convinced it was the static electricity shock from that rake which cured my back problems. I even went to see if I could find that rake. I did and I took it home with me for luck. I‘ve ordered a replacement rake for the fourth hole and paid for it myself just so I can keep the lucky one. Anyway, whatever the reason for my recovery, I’m just glad to have my health back again and to be able to play the game I love so much.” The story of Bill’s rediscovered form was syndicated in the national newspapers the next day as well as in some Monthly Golf magazines. Though it raised more than few eyebrows around Scotland, Bill’s score and his win also brought him many congratulations. The evening after the tournament, when all the speeches had been made and the equipment put away, Dougie went around to see Jamie and Kate.

When he saw the hangdog look on Dougie’s face, Jamie knew that something was up. “What’s happened now; something has happened hasn’t it?” Jamie asked. Dougie nodded and crossed the threshold into the house. For the next 15 minutes he told Kate and Jamie what had happened and how Bill had attributed his return to health to the static from the rake, but Dougie knew better. “It was the same kind of feeling that I had when I touched Mary’s hands; exactly the same. I know it was and I was even wearing gloves when it happened! What should I do?”

“Well the first thing we should do is give thanks to God” said Kate. “We’re spending far too much time fretting about things that we should be rejoicing about ! Dougie, can’t you see how wonderful these things have been to Mary and to Bill. Imagine what it must be like to be well again after all these years. We should be happy, Dougie. You should be happy Dougie.”

“Aye. Yer right lass!” He said, suddenly sitting up. “I should stop worrying and treating this gift as if it were a problem to be endured or a puzzle to be solved and just enjoy seeing what God might do in and through it. I’m sorry that I’ve been worrying so, but it’s all so new and yet so wonderful at the same time and it’s taking quite a bit of adjusting to. Up until now my life has been so normal I could have yawned and now inexplicable things are happening through me. So let’s do it! Let’s give thanks.” And they did. The three of them knelt on the carpet in front of the fireplace and said some simple prayers together giving thanks for the gifts that God had given and asking for wisdom in how best to handle all this newness. They also agreed not to draw any attention to this new event which was, so far, not linked to Dougie in any noticeable way.

 

Chapter 17

Dilemmas.

By Sunday lunchtime every flight to Israel from areas other than from Muslim countries, had been so heavily booked that travel agents and airline booking clerks could have taken 10 times the numbers of bookings than they’d been allowed to take. Both Budget and National Airlines were petitioning for more and more flights to be allowed. In somewhat typical style, the Knesset advisory group’s recommendations were swiftly put into practice. No extra flights either by scheduled or charter airlines were to be allowed, nor would there be any extra ferries allowed to dock other than the normal ones. The guards on the border posts on the roads in and out of Israel were to be tripled as were the patrols on the border areas. Such was the swiftness and strength of the impromptu Knesset group’s response that it was as if Israel had been put on a war footing. On the land depicted in the foreground of the painting small detachments of soldiers were ordered to be barracked so that there would be no over-running of the agricultural land by pilgrims eager to get themselves ‘in the picture’, however one clever and important concession was made for the impending ‘pilgrim invasion’. The Knesset group had decided that it would be better to placate rather than annoy those who had made it through and so they arranged to build walkways from, quickly enlarged, major roadway lay-by’s to newly constructed impromptu platforms serving as ‘lookout points’ for those who would want to take their own pictures of the depicted scene, and to allow the landowners on whose land these lookouts were built to charge each person for the privilege of standing on them. Though the task would take several weeks to bring to some degree of completion, as would the construction of the platforms to go on top of the lookout points, and the ramps to again access to the platforms, work went ahead immediately.

Never slow to exploit an opportunity, the advisory group recommended that the construction work be undertaken mainly by the military. They had the equipment and the know how and, given the opportunity to choose the placing of the lookouts, they could ensure that they would not be built in any sensitive areas but also that they could double as ideal ‘observation posts’ in times of conflict. Finally they made sure that each completed outlook would both have a small team of soldiers in civilian garb as ‘curators’ of each site, and some discreet surveillance was put up so that they could keep tabs on who was using the outlook points and for what.

Because of the furore and in particular to try and protect Isabella form hounding and harassment, Carmela had asked Diego and Maria if it would be possible for them to stay with them for a longer while. With Diego and Maria’s small holding being off the beaten track and near the end of a dead-end road, with only Rodrigo’s farm beyond it, it would be highly unlikely that anyone would just happen across Isabella and so Diego and Maria had readily agreed. If Maria was being honest with herself, to have some company was a bonus, but for that company to be friends of such long standing such as Carmela, was an additional bonus. Living out in the country had its many benefits but ‘company’ was not usually one of them.

Diego brought up a problem: what to do about and say to Rodrigo. “After all”, he stated “if Rodrigo no longer received any invitations to come and join them for Sunday after church, invitations that had been as regular as clockwork since his parents were killed, and if he was no longer invited to watch the football, he would wonder why he’d been ostracised.” Maria’s solution was a simple one and her reasoning to the others was simple; she also stated it with a force that brooked no argument. She was certain that they could trust Rodrigo with this secret. “I’d swear this certainty on my life” she said to Isabella and Carmela. Listening to Maria’s passionate testimony about this young man, they acquiesced, though not without retaining a few doubts. So it was that after Mass, as usual, Rodrigo received his usual invitation to come to their home but only after Maria had chatted to him quietly, informing him of the situation and receiving his vow that he would tell no one, no one at all of this arrangement. Rodrigo was inwardly delighted to go along with this arrangement.

When he arrived for lunch Maria brought him inside and rather ceremoniously introduced him to Carmela and then to Isabella as if he was unaware of their presence among them. He was introduced as someone who was a very long standing and trusted friend and whose discretion could be guaranteed. Both Carmela and Isabella already knew of Rodrigo, having been told at the time of his terrible car crash and the loss of his family. Both newcomers immediately felt at ease with him. The day flew by amidst much laughter on the patio, a joy that was further enhanced when, later that evening, Diego, Rodrigo and Fernando watched Malaga win again, this time winning 4-1. With Real Madrid and Barcelona having drawn their respective games Malaga were now several points clear at the top of the league. It was a happy young man who made his way back down the track to his home that evening. It had been a great day in more ways than one.

Under the pretence of getting some more cheese Maria had driven down to Rodrigo’s farm the following morning where they had talked incessantly about what they might do next. They were worried. Having seen the uproar caused by the painting’s first outing they were even unsure if the painting should be shown again but that concern had to be balanced by the fact that the painting had power; power to heal and to restore and people needed that power: they craved the deliverance it could bring them. As they drove back up and talked about Isabella’s miracle, Maria could not help but reach out and touch the scars on Rodrigo’s marred face. “You must have wondered why Isabella was healed and not you” she said quietly to him as her fingers traced the scar tissue. “I have” he replied in a tone of voice as soft as she’d used. “I don’t understand, but then there’s so much I don’t understand. The only sense I can make of it came from a reading that I did this week in my New Testament, where it mentions the special powers that some of the early Christians had. If my reading of the passages in the letter to the church at Corinth is right, it suggests that these powers were given not for their own benefit but for the help and health of others. In other words they can’t be used selfishly. That’s the only thing I’ve thought or read that makes any sense.”

“Of course!” said Maria as revelation dawned in her. “I’ve been reading these passages too and that makes sense doesn’t it. But it still must be hard for you to see Isabella and the change that it’s made in her and not feel kind of envious.” “No, strangely it doesn’t. Each time I look at her I could jump for joy. I can only feel lifted by what has happened. She was so disfigured in that fire and now is so beautiful, so luminous, that her joy is infectious. It’s as if the painting touched her inside as well as outside.”

“You’ve noticed that too have you? When she was on the television programme it was as if an inner light was shining through her. That was true of the priest’s too. They seemed half their natural ages and so full of life. It was infectious. I suppose that’s why these pharmaceutical companies want their DNA, to check it over and see if there really is a difference after the event. I’m also glad that they all said ‘NO’ and so firmly. Can you imagine what a fuss would be caused if they tried to ‘bottle’ it like some kind of miracle cosmetic.”  

“Maria” said Rodrigo, suddenly very serious. “One way to help Isabella and the Fathers, and even Joe and that young couple, would be to make them just one of the crowd. You see if we could place the painting somewhere it could be seen and touched by thousands, and these thousands became touched by the painting, Isabella and the Fathers would just be one of many. They’d be yesterday’s news. They would cease to be celebrities. I’ve been thinking that we should put the painting back out into the open but this time it needs to be somewhere it could be seen by many, and for free. “It’s a brilliant idea Rodrigo! Absolutely brilliant!” she enthused “but the problem still remains as to how to make it happen.”.

Early next morning, while he was milking the goats in the barn, a shadow appeared in the doorway making him jump. Then the shadow laughed and Rodrigo relaxed. “What are you doing here at this time of the morning?” Rodrigo enquired. “Just visiting” Isabella replied. “Mum and Maria stayed up so late talking last night that they’re still asleep and now that Diego’s taken Fernando to school I felt bored with my own company and so thought I’d venture out and see where you live. I know we can see your house from Maria’s but I’ve never been here. Do you mind?” “Depends” said Rodrigo hiding a smile form her. “Depends on what? She asked quizzically.

“On whether you make a good cup of coffee or not” he replied with a wry grin. Isabella smiled and with a “Let’s see shall we” smile she moved off into the house to test her skills.

By the time Rodrigo had finished his milking a very fine latte was awaiting him on the kitchen table accompanied by two hot rolls. Having bitten into the delicious roll, and then laughed out loud he exclaimed “This’ll do for starters”, clearly happy to both eat the rolls and have her company. Having made a quick phone call to Maria’s to assure them that Isabella hadn’t been abducted by aliens, they spent the rest of the morning together wandering across the hillside with the goats and talking about everything and nothing at the same time. To his complete astonishment he discovered that she even knew about football and could name the entire Malaga team; that quite took his breath away. “How come you know all this?” he asked? “Well the priests are fervent about their football” she replied. “It’s impossible to be in the house with them and not pick up their infectious enthusiasm for the game. They watch almost every game they can on TV, even videoing games when they’re out working. I just caught the bug from being around them. They even took me to a game recently; that one where we beat Real.”  

“You got tickets to that game. How come?” “Well, the residence has been given three season tickets for the priests and they share them around on a rota basis, and that week it was my birthday, and so Father Leon said that I should go and see what the fuss was about for myself. I was almost deafened by the noise but the atmosphere was fantastic. I should love to go again someday. Maybe next year on my birthday?”

“I’d have given my teeth to see that game live. We watched it at Diego’s and I got a bit too merry afterwards and paid for it with a bad hangover. The goats had no mercy on me the next day either. They seemed to bleat twice as loud and twice as often. I hope I learned my lesson. We watch all the games together up at Maria’s. It’s my sort of outing of the week and I love it.”

It wasn’t until later after he’d walked her back to Maria’s that he realised that since he’d been introduced to Carmela and Isabella he hadn’t once done what he would normally have done and put his hand up to the side of his face which was most badly scarred. Usually he was so self conscious of his scars that he didn’t seek out the company of anyone save the Salvogans, yet with them he wasn’t self-conscious at all. If he admitted it to himself, he had loved his morning with Isabella and she’d seemed quite at home with him, despite the way he looked. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ he thought later as he headed up to the barn to work his magic with a new batch of cheese. For the first time in recent days when he headed for bed that night, sleep came easily.

To say that the news about the painting and the painter, the priests, and Isabella, had died down a bit by the following Tuesday was just to say that only half of the news programmes were about the miracles. As researcher after researcher tried to find some explanation for the events of Sunday last, theologians and clergy had never been in such great demand. No matter who had said what; no matter their theological background, no matter what denomination or persuasion they represented, it was clear that the events had caught every one by surprise and whilst many had particular, and even some logical, biblical views, no one opinion seemed to rise above the rest. The rhyme and reason still remained a mystery, as did the identity of the missing young man, now thought by many to have been ‘an angel’. Rodrigo was quite happy to have that particular explanation as the main one, for it certainly took the pressure off him.

 

Chapter 18

Invasion Israel.

As anticipated, the pilgrims had begun to arrive in Israel in their droves. The Israeli border patrols had turned back hundreds and sadly several more adventurous travellers, who’d thought to cross the Negev and brave the well signposted minefields, had fallen foul of some landmines seeded throughout the area during various conflicts. When pictures of the fate of these travellers were shown on national and international television news on Monday evening, the flow through the Negev mercifully dropped to a trickle. But that only increased the pressure on the other areas such as the sea patrols as chartered vessel after chartered vessel was turned back; one even had to be holed and sunk live on TV to show the stern resolve of the Israeli forces at stemming the illegal tide. Though lifeboats had been launched to prevent a loss of life, this event was shown over and over again, to the protest of government after government, on news around the world.

But the Israeli’s showed no sign of listening to pleas for clemency or restraint. The Israeli forces stated that legal pilgrims were more than welcome but that any illegal intrusion would be treated as an ‘act of war’ and dealt with summarily. They were resolute. For the majority of the pilgrims who had made it through legally to the makeshift platforms and had taken their pictures, a sense of anti-climax was experienced. No pilgrim was healed, not one; some even fell sick from exposure to the heat, but nothing unusual occurred at all. When their reports of such disappointments began to filter back through the press, the demands for access began to lessen noticeably.

On the afternoon of the first influx into Israel Rodrigo made a call to Maria. He’d had another idea and one which he thought he should run by Maria as quickly as possible. She was sceptical. It had some consequences to it that made her uneasy but she agreed at least to go along with the preparations. “OK I’ll go along with the idea but I want some time to think it all through. I’ll go into Malaga and buy two of these ‘pay as you go mobile phones’ from a superstore and we can use them to send our calls by. If I pay cash they’ll have no financial record of its purchaser. That way we can do our negotiations and stay anonymous. I have a feeling that the longer we do that, the better things will be.”

Early that morning Father Augustin had made a call to his doctor, Dr Ortega, asking him if he would be so kind as to make a home visit to see him and Father Javier. The doctor agreed a time to do so but in the interim he began to wonder why the priests wanted to see him. Had they had a relapse? Had their, much vaunted healing begun to wear off? His curiosity grew as the day lengthened. By the time he arrived at the door of the, still heavily guarded, church and was allowed to enter, he was positively quivering with repressed excitement. After he’d been shown into the priest’s residence and the initial pleasantries had been followed, he asked “ So gentlemen, what can I do for you?”

Father Augustin led off. “The thing is doctor, both of us feel a bit of a fraud” ‘Aha’ thought the doctor, so it was all a scam, but then his thoughts were interrupted by the next statement from the father. “You see both of us retired some years ago on the grounds of diminished health and now, well now since the miracle, we are so well that we feel that it’s fraudulent of us to remain out of service when we are probably needed somewhere in the churches. Could you arrange for us to undergo a medical examination? We feel that if we were found to be healthy and you were to give us a clean bill of health that we could make an application to be returned to our duties. I understand that for us to have a full hospital examination would entail us being a little too exposed to public scrutiny, something the Vatican is most unwilling for us to be, but if you could take the time to give us as extensive an exam as you can, perhaps that would go some way to persuading our superiors of our renewed fitness. As you can see Father Javier’s arthritis appears to be a thing of the past and I am standing as straight now as when I was a young man, and my back problems seemed to have disappeared. Feeling as fit as we do at present we can’ help but wonder if we should be in active service again.”

The doctor thought for a moment but could also see for himself the obvious change in the two, formerly crippled, priests so he agreed to their request. “Very well, if that’s what you’d like, let’s get on with it right now” he said with a force that surprised himself, and he applied himself to as full an examination as he could undertake within the confines of the residence. He certainly put them through their paces: bending, stretching, touching toes, blood pressure and heart rate, even a short running on the spot exercise; all were tested more than once. When he left that evening he had with him several samples of blood and urine to test at the lab, being mindful not to identify the priests by name because he knew that any, less than well meaning, lab technician could probably make a fortune from the blood samples by selling them to the pharmaceutical companies who’d first made an offer for them. If he were a less moral man, he could even have done that himself. However the time he’d spent with the priests had been seminal. The changes in them were medically startling. They had, quite literally, shed years and appeared to be as healthy as it was possible for either of them to be at their ages and with their past infirmities.

Father Augustin had not only been able to stand straight but to touch his toes and jump up and down like an athlete. Father Javier who’d been almost crippled with arthritis now sat straight, walked with ease, could hold and use any utensil that the doctor had given him. Furthermore his grip was firm and flexibility had returned to every area of his body that the arthritis had affected, and a few that it hadn’t. He couldn’t help but be impressed. He knew that if he, as a doctor, could bring about even part of such a transformation, he’d be an overnight millionaire with a fully booked clinic for years ahead. The changes were truly remarkable and very thought provoking, even for an avowed cynic like himself. He would be very interested to see what the blood samples showed and so put a priority note on each, simply identifying them as sample A and sample B.

On the Wednesday morning Maria made her usual weekly trip to the Carrefour hypermarket on the outskirts of Malaga where she bought her groceries. But this journey was no usual one; she was a woman on a mission; to buy ‘pay-as-you-go’ mobile phones. Whilst she’d used her debit card for her groceries, she’d then gone and put them in the car. Returning, and choosing an alternative cashier, she bought the phones separately, with cash. If she’d been worried that a cashier might think it strange to buy a phone by cash, she need not have. The cashier didn’t even look up at her. If she had she wouldn’t have seen much because Maria had adopted widow’s ‘uniform’ with her black clothes and headscarf, the latter draped loosely round her head much like a monk’s cowl. She walked out of the hypermarket unrecognised and unnoticed. Having changed out of her widow’s ‘uniform’ in one of the centre’s toilet facilities she activated the new mobiles, and made her way home.

On that drive home she gave some time to think about Rodrigo’s new suggestion. His idea had been to place the painting in the Church of the Annunciation where the Fathers worked and to ask them to be curators of the painting: to look after its welfare. Originally he’d wanted to use Carmela to deliver a message to find out if the Fathers would help in his plan. His problem was how to get a message to them without Carmela knowing his identity. He’d thought that a good way would be to have simply slipped a somewhat crumpled letter addressed to them into Carmela’s coat pocket. When she discovered it there she would probably just assume that she’d forgotten to pass it on to them at an earlier occasion, and then hand it to them. What remained a problem was how they could reply. He could hardly just identify himself in the letter and give a return address. That might have disastrous consequences. So he’d concocted a better plan. All he needed was the phone number of the priest’s residence and then they could be in touch personally with the Fathers.

However, Isabella had let it slip that, because of the volume of calls that came day and night to the residence, the phone number for the priest themselves had been changed and become unlisted so that the priests could get some peace. According to what the Fathers had said in the conversations they’d had on their way to the TV station, the normal residence phone that dealt with parish enquiries was now permanently staffed by a new young resident priest. Rodrigo and Maria both knew that Carmela phoned the priest’s regularly, to stay in touch with them, and it had been Rodrigo’s idea to let Carmela use his new mobile phone to call them and then, because the phone stored the numbers, he’d also have the new unlisted number. All it needed was for Maria to suggest that Carmela ‘try out his new phone’ and they’d have the number.

Carmela, not being someone who understood modern technology well, would be unaware of what was going on. But Maria and Rodrigo knew that this was deception; for a good cause, but still deception, and both were uneasy. They knew in her hearts that ‘the end did not justify the means’ but rather the means defined the character of those who wanted particular ends.

Whilst Maria through the overall plan a great idea, it was the deception part of the plan that caused her to ask again and again, ‘Was it right to use her friend in this way? Would that not drive a wedge into their friendship, a big wedge?’ In the end they had decided that it would not be right to use Carmela or Isabella. If Carmela and Isabella knew of Maria and Rodrigo’s involvement and then volunteered to help, that was a different matter altogether. But as things stood it would be wrong to use them in a deceitful way. Yet having made that decision, another thought came into Maria’s head: what if they brought Isabella and Carmela into their confidence; what if they told them who was behind the painting? If they brought them into their confidence, they too would become co-conspirators. It seemed like a sound idea. After all, Carmela and Isabella were the least likely people in the world to betray the confidence of the person who’d been responsible for enabling Isabella’s miraculous healing.

When she arrived back from the supermarket, with her guest’s help, she unloaded and stored all the shopping, then Maria made an excuse about having run out of goat’s cheese in order to make a quick visit to Rodrigo’s. When she got there she showed him the phones and they discussed her modification. He liked it far better than his own original idea but once again they decided to think about it for a day before doing something. Such caution was now becoming a regular part of their planning process and again it proved to be a wise move. While he was out shepherding the goats that afternoon and sitting on a rock, a further modification occurred to him that made the plan even better. He’d tell Maria when he got back. It was as he thought this that he noticed a now familiar figure making her way across the hillside towards him: Isabella. She was wearing her old blue jeans and a bright red T shirt and she made a splash of colour on the otherwise dull brown hillside.

 

Chapter 19

Cheese and Goats

“So this is what you do when you’re not making cheese is it?” she asked as she got in range, a smile spreading across her face. “Absolutely” he replied making her chuckle. He loved her laugh. A sort of half giggle, half chuckle that made her whole face light up. “So tell me what you’ve been thinking all the time that you’ve been doing this”. “I was hoping that a beautiful young woman in a red T shirt might come and spend some time with me, but since that won’t ever happen I’ll just have to settle for my goats” he replied. Isabella blushed from her chin to her hairline and rather shyly lowered her eyes, but said nothing else in response. “I’m also thinking of getting back” he said, diffusing the situation, and then calling the goats with a sort of “Yup” sound, he began to move back up towards the track that led around the valley side and back to his home.

Isabella fell into step alongside him and all the way back plied him with questions about his cheeses. ‘What made them so special?’ ‘How had he discovered how to make such excellent cheese?’ Was he thinking of expanding beyond the local markets?’ and ‘Was the income enough to live on?’ and finally ‘What hopes did he have for the future?’ The last question almost floored him. It wasn’t something he’d thought about a great deal. Before the accident he’d wanted so many things. Afterwards, he was just glad to have something that brought in some money. The future? He hadn’t really given it much thought, especially since the vision and the adventure with the painting had begun. “I’m not sure about the future. I haven’t really thought much about it. I just sort of live from day to day. I know that there’s quite a bit of money in the bank from the cheeses and the farm is mine outright so I don’t have a great many overheads. I suppose I’m sort of content with the way things are.”

“Is there a young lady in your life? she enquired quietly. At this question his hand rose self consciously to the side of his face, as he lowered his gaze to the track and gently shook his head. Seeing his gesture she immediately realised that it has been an embarrassing, and possibly hurtful, question and she inwardly chided herself thinking ‘Of all the people who should have known better than to ask that question, of all people I should have known how hurtful that could be’. She was about to blurt out her thoughts but instead, and almost instinctively, her hand rose from her side to touch his hand. She placed her other hand on his shoulder and turned him to face her. The she gently let go of his hand and tenderly placed her own hands on his face and traced the scars. To his embarrassment he saw tears streaming down her face. Yet she wasn’t crying but smiling, as if what she saw and felt under her gentle fingertips didn’t bother her at all. Slowly she reached up and kissed him on the lips. It was a melting kiss; a grown-up kiss. Not like the hurried pressing, fumbling ones of his adolescence nor the ones where each tried to show the other how they learned the right French kissing technique. It was slow and easy and melting. It made him feel as if she was part if him, and he part of her.

He stood there dumbstruck. How could this radiant, beautiful young woman be kissing him out in the open as if she were not ashamed to be seen with someone as ugly as he? Slowly the kiss ended and she dropped her hands down to her side and then, again taking his hand in hers, they turned to walk on towards the farm, neither speaking as if speaking would break the spell that had been cast.

Carmela was washing up the coffee cups and looking out the window when she saw them coming up the track towards the Salvogans small holding. “Maria”, she yelled, “Come quick. Come and see this” and together they watched the young couple approach. Carmela was beaming. “He’s such a nice young man isn’t he? she said, making a statement rather than asking a question. “Better than anyone knows” replied Maria. ‘Another unusual reply’ thought Carmela as she glanced over her shoulder at Maria whose face was alight with pleasure at the sight. “What do you mean” asked Carmela suddenly concerned. “What more is there about him?” but as she was asking the question Maria was moving towards the door. Catching his eye she whispered knowingly, “Rodrigo, now would be a good time I think.”   “I was just wondering about that,” he replied. “but let’s do it at my place shall we? “OK!

Maria turned to Carmela and Isabella and said “Were going for a little adventure, and we’d like you to join us but we have to go right now” Intrigued, Isabella and Carmela nodded agreement and walked round with Maria to the side of the house where the old Opel lay. She ushered both of them into the back seats whilst she and Rodrigo took the front. It took just a few minutes to coast back down the lane to Rodrigo’s house and when the car stopped in the drive Rodrigo jumped out of the car saying to Maria: “Take them into the kitchen and I’ll be down in a minute” and he ran indoors and upstairs to his parent’s room.

As he began the slow decent back down his stairs he called out “Everybody shut your eyes. I’ve got a secret but I want it to be a surprise too, so make sure you’re sitting down and have shut your eyes”. Intrigued, they did as he asked and then, when he was sure that all was well, he moved from the bottom of the stairs into the front room and stood before them. They heard a rustling sound like a present being unwrapped and then his somewhat hoarse sounding voice said “Ok you can look now!”

Isabella let out a long gasp, not loud but audible to all, and her hands flew to her face in astonishment. Carmela crossed herself. Though her first thought was that Rodrigo had bought one of the many copies available in the city, something indefinable made Isabella discount that thought almost immediately. Her eyes went from the now unwrapped painting to Rodrigo and then back again. Tentatively, almost reverently, she reached out to touch the frame and a gasp escaped her lips, just as it had done the first time and she felt a familiar frisson of electricity course though her body and she gasped again. “How?” said Isabella “How did you get hold of it? Were you there that night? Did you steal the painting and bring it home with you?”

“Nothing like that” said Maria quickly, in explanation. “It’s his. He painted it. He is the mysterious painter that they’ve been looking for all over Malaga. I know this because I watched him paint it. I’ve known about this all along but we were so scared of publicity that we’ve kept the secret to ourselves. Even my son and husband don’t know yet. No one else knows! No one but us!”

“Rodrigo” said Isabella “Rodrigo”. It was all she could say as she stared at him with love and tenderness. “You did this” and she lifted her hands to touch her face. “No !” He exclaimed. “No”. I did not do any miracles. All I did was paint the painting” and he told Isabella and Carmela the story from the vision until now, leaving out nothing, pulling them into his story, his fears, and into his dilemma of what to do next.

After a short silence, which seemed to stretch on forever but which allowed Isabella and Carmela time to digest all that he’d told them, he went on to share his idea of what to do next and, perhaps if they were willing, the way that they could help. He told them of his recent idea: to find a way to pass his second pay-as-you-go mobile to the priests to use. In this way they could use the phones to ring one another and only one another. No one else need know that they had the phones and, provided that only they used them to communicate with the Fathers, and the Fathers with them, they could still remain relatively hidden. It would save using the phone in the residence, for Rodrigo thought that it was probably tapped in some way; either by the police or by the Vatican; or both.

He was breathless by the time he’d told his story and just sat down next to Isabella and laid his head down on the table. She leaned over to rest her head on his shoulders and take his arm in her hands. By the time Rodrigo had finished Carmela had begun to come out of her daze. She turned to Maria saying “Now I understand all the cryptic comments of these past few days. I see now what you meant when you said that there was more to this young man than meets the eye”, and then she asked a myriad of questions of her own and crossed herself more than once at his answers. Both Carmela and Isabella agreed that it was essential for Rodrigo’s identity to remain as secret as possible for as long as possible and neither had any objections to being part of the next phase of the painting’s life. Quite the opposite!

Neither Isabella nor Carmela had thought it at all improper that Rodrigo and Maria had kept the painting, its creator, or its whereabouts, a secret from them. They also gave glowing references about both priests’ characters and thought them most suitable guardians for the painting; that is if they’d agree to doing that. All were now filled with enthusiasm for the next stage of the plan and began to talk all at once about what wonders might occur one more people gained access to it. As they sat and talked none of them could help continuously glancing at the painting. When Rodrigo asked each of them ‘What is it about the painting that makes it so special?’ No-one knew. Each compared it to something good saying things like “It’s the way it makes me feel” or “It’s like looking at lit candle when you’re in darkness” or “It makes me feel like waking up at the break of a beautiful day” or “It feels like ‘home’” And that was about as close as they could come to describing its mysterious attraction. Where its power came from they had little doubt. “Only God can do miracles like this” they all agreed. Re-wrapping the painting carefully back into temporary covering he took it back up stairs and placed it once again in his parents bedroom.

Dr Ortega had placed a ‘priority’ on the blood samples that he had submitted two days before and in unusually efficient fashion they’d been returned to him speedily. Both were to give him problems for they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that some incredible change had occurred in the health of Father’s Javier and Augustin. Of the previous health problems, which had plagued both priests, there was no trace at all. As a cultural catholic rather than a Christian believer he had little patience with all this new charismatic Christian theology that had begun to surface in Catholicism for he could only see such enthusiasms ending up being converted into the kind of religious bigotry that past centuries had been plagued with. Being an Andalucian and having grown up knowing the history of this region and its Moslem-Christian wars he wanted nothing like the re-emergence of religious passion to bring about the return to such bigotry and carnage. Yet here he was, a modern medical practitioner, faced with something that he simply could not explain. It did indeed seem to be the case that Father’s Javier and Augustin had been, and he hated even to think the word never mind speak it, ‘healed’ by some mysterious force. But he was a doctor, used to dealing with medical facts, and the medical facts told him that his patients, who’d previously been plagued with diseases that medical science still had no answers to, were now free from their past illnesses.

Knowing, and caring, that his first obligation was to his patients he phoned the residence and asked to speak with the priests. Having been told by the young priest receptionist that they were in the church, he was asked to wait until someone fetched them. After some delay Father Javier came to the phone. “Sorry to keep you” he said “but I’m afraid that due to our better health we are kept rather busier these days than before.” “It’s about that change of life that I’ve called” replied the doctor “and I have some good news. It seems that you really have undergone significant change because your blood tests have come back negative. There is no sign of your previous problems. Your tests were clear.” “Well thank the Lord for that” said Father Javier. “It only goes to prove what we’ve been saying all along: that we really did get better just by touching that painting. If only others could have the same opportunity. Now that really would be good news wouldn’t it?”

The doctor, still smarting from the tests proving that his scepticism was unfounded, made some non-committal remark and then, tendering his respects to the Fathers, he rang off. Though it was hardly a breakthrough in the case, Detective Morientes, who’d been listening in on the tapped line sighed in relief. At least he had another thing to report to his ever increasingly frustrated chief. Though it didn’t bring them one step closer to the painter, at least it was news that the painter didn’t seem to have been a hoaxer. However, he thought to himself, if he’s not a hoaxer than he’s genuine and that will make the chief even more determined to find out who that person is, and that will probably make my life twice as difficult as before. It was therefore with some trepidation that he phoned the news through to the chief who, for once, seemed buoyed by the breakthrough. Later that morning the chief phoned his contact at the Vatican with the news, only to discover that they knew already, because Father Augustin, keen to show how well he really was, had phoned the results of the medicals through to Ernesto as soon as he’d heard the news of the results.

The following morning saw Maria drive Carmela down to the bus stop at the top of the farm track to take the bus into the village where she took a bus into Malaga. In her bag was the new phone which she was taking to the Fathers. By using her own mobile and phoning from the Malaga bus station to the new residence number she managed to arrange for the guard to let her in. Arriving she spent the rest of the morning catching up on all the news from the church and the residence, expressing delight that the doctor had given both Father’s a clean bill of health. There was still no news as to when the Vatican was going to re-open the church but they all hoped that the day would come soon as even the most patient and least claustrophobic of the fathers were beginning to feel that the walls were closing in on them. While lunch was being served Carmela excused herself and slipped up to Father Augustin’s room. She deposited the new mobile phone into his bedside cabinet and then slipped out again, pleased as punch that her escapade had gone so smoothly. Shortly after lunch, and explaining that she and Isabella were very content where they were for the present, she was quietly slipped out a side door that she previously had no knowledge of and which had admitted the Monsignor and his giant bodyguard, and had then been escorted through a series of passages out through a door into what appeared to be the dead end of an alleyway, into the hubbub of the city centre of Malaga. At first astonished that she could have worked in the residence without knowing of this secret entrance she wasted no time making her way back to the bus station and then, having made a quick call to Maria to say when her bus would arrive, she boarded the local bus and headed back towards Maria’s.

The journey back into the hills took longer than the journey down as the ancient bus toiled up the slopes into the foothills. Just as the bus rolled into the foothills there was an almighty thunderclap of noise, which shook both bus and passengers, and the heavens opened. In what seemed like just a few minutes the rain began to pour off the hills scouring the rough tracks into small rivers. The driver, being relatively used to these sudden changes of weather, pulled over into a raised lay-by under the shelter of a large overhang, and switched off the engine. Shrugging his shoulders and shouting to overcome the noise of the rain on the roof of the bus he announced that they’d be sitting out the downpour until it was safe to venture forth again. They sat there for a full twenty minutes after the rain had stopped because the road was still inundated by a torrent of water pouring down the hillside. Once the torrent had abated somewhat, and he’d decided that it was safe, he calmly restarted the engine, pulled out into the abating torrent and resumed the bus’s laborious climb.

When Carmela eventually disembarked Maria was sitting in the café opposite the bus stop with a broad grin on her face. “Amazing wasn’t it” she enthused. “What?” enquired Carmela. “The downpour of course” said Maria. “I was sitting here waiting for you when it started. The rain was bouncing off the streets so high that the rebounds were reaching the table tops under the café awning. The rain poured off the awning so fast that it was like sitting under my own private waterfall. The streets turned into little rivers and the roads were so hot that it seemed as it the village square had turned into some kind of giant’s steam bath. It was fantastic. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be in the village when these downpours happen. I usually only see it when I’m at home. I’d all but forgotten that it’s why the café’s and the other shops are built several feet up off the roads so that the rain doesn’t flood into their premises”.

“How often does this happen and how come in all these years of visiting you I’ve never come across a downpour like this before?” enquired Carmela. “Oh it only occurs about twice a year” replied Maria “and you’ve probably just not been here when it has I suppose. I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned it before though because it’s quite spectacular when it happens. It’s also why our own house sits up on a large concrete slab and the track passes below our house, so that if the water does get diverted down our track, it doesn’t end up inside our home. When the water barrels it’s way down the hillsides it makes a fantastic torrent at the bottom. It’s why there are no houses in the bottom of any valley around here.“

“Even though I was on the bus, I was really scared when it happened” commented Carmela. “I could see the water pouring past us when we were stopped in the lay-by halfway up the valley but since no-one else seemed bothered, especially the driver who was sitting reading a paper, I kept my fears to myself. They probably thought that I was just a city person over-reacting. But I was genuinely scared.” “You were right to be scared. I was glad that I made it to the village before it started. Cars have been known to be washed off the tracks before now. In fact, that’s how Rodrigo’s parents died and how he got those scars from having their car washed off the road. Most of the locals know when it’s about to begin and they stay off the tracks until it’s over. Shrugging she stood up and said “But it’s over now and we can head home.” Then, changing the subject completely, Maria quietly asked “Did everything go to plan?”

“I think so. I suppose that we’ll only know when the first call is made. Let’s go and talk it over with the young lovers” said Carmela as they walked over to Maria’s car and carefully made their way back to her home down the newly scoured out tracks.

 

Chapter 20

An Announcement!

When Carmela had rung to say that she was on her way back, Isabella had gone off down to Rodrigo’s to tell him and ask him to come up so that they could discuss what to do next. She could have phoned and saved herself the journey but that would have meant that she couldn’t have walked back up the track with her hand in his and that simple act was something that was giving her a great deal of pleasure these days. As she stepped out of the house and headed down the track she noticed the darkening clouds coming down from the mountains to the north but nothing prepared her for the deluge that ensued. It started just as she reached Rodrigo’s driveway but, even running at flat out from there to his house, she was soaked to the skin by the time she made the shelter of his patio and banged on his door. He opened the door and grinned as she stood there, her clothes plastered to her. Pulling her inside he said “Let’s get you out of these clothes and dried off” he said. “Didn’t you see the clouds coming?”

“Yes, of course I saw them but I didn’t expect them to come as quickly as that or for the rain to be so hard. It really hurt when it bounced off my head. I feel bruised all over.” She had to shout to make herself heard over the hammering of the rain on the tiled roof of the house and the sound of it smashing on the driveway. To her consternation Rodrigo just stood there looking at her, grinning. “You look great when wet” he said and she blushed at the thought. “Come on, let me get you some dry clothes and a towel and he took her upstairs. You get out of these clothes and I’ll try and find you something to wear. She stepped into the bathroom and shed off her clothes feeling like an orange being peeled and then grabbed a towel to dry herself off. Rodrigo went into his bedroom and rummaged around in his clothes drawers for a T shirt, some jeans and a belt. With the difference in size between Isabella and himself she’d look lost in them but at least she’d be dry. “I’ve got some stuff here” he called as he walked back along to the bathroom.

A few minutes later Isabella came down the stairs humming softly to herself. She’d rolled up the trousers of his jeans and tucked the, now oversized, T shirt into its waist and secured everything with the belt which seemed enormous around her slender waist. Despite being dressed in such an al fresco fashion she seemed impossibly beautiful. He realised for the first time that she could wear rags and still look stunning. She was still smiling as she moved across to him, melted into him and then kissed him slowly.

“Why me?” he asked when her lips left his. “Because” she replied “Just because” and kissed him again. The tenderness of the kiss left him in no doubt that she wasn’t saying ‘I’ve no idea’. Rather she was saying ‘For so many reasons that you’d never understand’ and his heart was so full he thought it would burst. Coming alive suddenly he crushed her lips to his.

When the kissing eventually came to an end, leaving them both breathless, she took him by the hand, and hearing that the rain had now stopped, she reluctantly led him outside saying: “We’re expected back up at the house. I was supposed to be coming down to tell you that Carmela is on her way back but I seem to have been rather distracted from my task. But unless we get back up there soon, tongues will wag even more than they’re already doing. My mother is already planning the wedding and I’d like some say in what I’m going to wear.”

Rodrigo heard the words as if from far away, as if he was a distant observer. “Did you just say ‘wedding? Is it that obvious already?” he enquired. “It is with them” replied Isabella “though no doubt we might be given a say sometime soon. Does it bother you?”

Shaking his head in disbelief and wonder he said “I’ve never been less bothered about anything in my whole life” and then, realising that his words could be taken the wrong way he said “I mean, No I’m not bothered, I’m delighted,” he stammered, and then, stammering further he blutred “I mean, do you want to? Really want to? With me?” It was her turn to nod. It was just one nod but her eyes never left his as she did it. In these eyes he read all that he needed to know. Absolute conviction!

“Well it looks as if I’ve just proposed then doesn’t it, and in possibly the least romantic way I’ve ever thought of. Before the accident, when I was handsome I used to imagine proposing to some beautiful young woman in some romantic way, and now here I am, impossibly ugly, having proposed to the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, in the least romantic way I could conceive of, and she’s agreed. Where’s the sense in that? I mean I can hardly retell this to my children can I? They’d laugh me out of the house”.

“How many?” she enquired breathlessly? “What?” he asked. “How many of our children do you imagine having to speak to about this?” she asked, smirking this time. “All of them” he laughed. “All of them”. “Well then that’s settled everything we need to know” she giggled. “Marriage and lots of children here we come!” and with that pronouncement she grabbed him by the arm and they set off back up the track towards Maria’s house. All the way up the track she was moulded to his side; her arm now around his waist and her head tucked under his arm, humming quietly.

They arrived, still moulded to one another shortly after Maria and a delayed Carmela had returned, to find a light meal prepared and on the kitchen table with Maria and Carmela already tucking in. It was only as Rodrigo crossed the threshold that he realised how much Maria had come to mean to him. Though not his mother, she’d become like a mother to him these past few years, and he understood that this bond was reciprocated and he knew that she should be the first to know about the momentous event that had just occurred less than an hour ago. “Good! Food! I’m ravenous!” announced Isabella. And then when she saw the looks Carmela was giving her attire she explained, “I got caught in that downpour on the way down to Rodrigo’s and he had to lend me some spare clothes because I was soaked through. What do you think? Next years fashion statement or what?” and she slowly spun around as if on some Milanese cat walk in a Gucci dress, awaiting the applause. Carmela picked up a small piece of bread and threw it at her “It will never replace the small black dress” she scorned but laughing.

“It’s not a black dress I’ll be needing” said Isabella pointedly, catching her mother’s eyes. Maria and Carmela looked quickly at each other and then exploded with screams of delight, rising from the table to begin hugging and congratulating both of them both at once. When the commotion eventually died down and the smiles of delight could be abated, the four of them settled down to eat and listen to Carmela’s news and plan for the next move; the next move about the painting, not the wedding. That discussion would have to wait until after dinner when Diego and Fernando had also heard the wedding news.

“Do you know what you want to say to the Fathers?” Maria asked Rodrigo. “I think so, I’ve rehearsed it often enough. But I’d rather not be the one who rings them. Couldn’t you do it? he asked, his eyes fixed on Carmela. “They know you and they’d recognise your voice.” “But surely that would ruin the anonymity, wouldn’t it. If you ring them, Carmela said, “they’d still not know who you were or that we were connected and, for the time being, that may still be the best way. And now would be a good time to call. The Fathers usually take an afternoon siesta about now if they can so Father Augustin would probably be on his own right now.”

There was a long silence as Rodrigo again tried to think through the ramifications of their plan. He knew that eventually they’d have to come clean and that somehow, someone would tie them together, but he also agreed with Carmela that he should try and remain anonymous for as long as possible. “OK. Enough planning. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s ask God to protect us for as long as he wishes it and then let’s act.” Saying that, Rodrigo recited a short prayer of petition, remembered from the prayer book of his youth, and asked God for his blessing on their endeavours. Then he picked up the phone and dialled the number of the phone that Carmela had planted in Father Augustin’s pocket. He let it ring.

 

Chapter 21

Discoveries.

In Tobermory the following Sunday passed uneventfully though, after the adventure with Jari and Anna Lena, there was an air of expectation in church. Jamie took the opportunity to speak of the need to follow Jesus’ command to ‘love one another’ and used the passage in Corinthians to show what real love was like. When Mary Mungo had read of Bill Murray’s exploits when the local daily paper was delivered, she’d read it with a different perspective because she knew that Dougie worked at the course and she’d guessed that he was involved again. So, on her next free afternoon, when she’d closed the shop up, she determined to put her suspicions to the test.

“Was it you?” she asked as Dougie came to answer the knocking at his front door and opening it to find Mary on the doorstep again. “Yes” said Dougie but this time with no reservations or shyness. “Yes it was, and I’m glad of it too. Right glad, and if you could see the skip in that man’s step this past week, you’d be glad too.” Whatever Mary had been expecting it certainly wasn’t a man who was glad. She expected Dougie to be his usual shy self or maybe even to deny it but not to be so positive and happy. “Come on in and I’ll tell you all about it for I’m sure that you’re here for just that,” he said and ushered her inside. It was almost eight o clock when Mary eventually left Dougie’s. They had spent all of their time together chatting about these wonderful new events and Dougie had filled in Mary on the story of Jari and Anna Lena too. Like her famous predecessor Mary ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ as she made her way home.

Angus McFarlane was one of the local young people who had started attending the Kirk. He’d first crossed the threshold about fourteen months ago when he’d gone to the Kirk’s weekly youth club with his friend Alasdair. Though he’d been worried that he’d be preached at, or pounced on, or asked to come to Kirk on Sunday, none of these things had happened. Instead he’d enjoyed a great evening playing pool and hadn’t discovered that Jamie was the ‘minister’ until he’d been soundly trounced by him at the pool table. In the way that developing young adults often do to prove that they are children no longer, Angus had sworn loudly several times during the game when he’d missed easy chances, but no one had even raised an eyebrow. Jamie seemed quite at ease with Angus’ adolescent language and manners and over the weeks and months Angus had developed a quiet respect for Jamie and had even confessed to Alasdair that he thought Jamie’s wife Kate to be ‘a complete dish’. “I wish she’d been at the primary school when I was there. I’d have stayed on!” he confessed.

One evening the previous summer, during that wettest of wet summers, he’d accepted an invitation from Jamie and the youth volunteers to come for an overnight camp out across on the western side of the island where some of the best beaches in western Scotland were. For once during that summer the sun had shone and he’d had a fantastic time swimming, and body surfing, in the waves. He’d even done some snorkelling in a couple of the more sheltered coves around the point with Jamie and Alasdair and a few of the other young people. When they eventually got around to making the campfire and cooking the sausages and burgers the light was beginning to fade a little. Someone brought out a guitar and they began to sing some old Beatles songs, then some old Stones, Queen and then, to Angus’ astonishment some really heavy rock songs. When they’d all gone hoarse and after all the food had been wolfed down, they just sat around the fire chatting, listing to the sounds of the surf and waves and watching the light in the northern sky. It was then that Angus first heard why his friend Alasdair went to church. He was sitting chatting to Jamie explaining his reasons for starting to come to church and Angus, perched on a nearby rock, had listened in. Alasdair’s story had fascinated him and from then on Angus had, to his parent’s complete astonishment, started coming to the Kirk on Sundays too. Angus’ own adventures in faith had started so simply. One evening, after youth club as he’d been helping clear away he’d asked Jamie the ‘proof’ question. “Jamie, how can we know that there really is a God?” “There’s only one way I know of to prove that Angus.” “What’s that?” Angus queried. “Well that’s to ask God to reveal Himself to us; perhaps not in a scientific, legal, or logical way but in a personal way. If God really exists and, as Jesus told us, if He loves us and wants to know us, then we have to ask Him to be real to us. If He’s real and if He really does want us to know him, then the rest is up to Him.”

Angus was silent for quite a while. He’d not really expected such a straight answer. He’d expected some kind of religious waffle and had thought Jamie would try and explain things logically or get out his old, well thumbed, bible and talk theology, but he’d done neither. “Well, how do you ask?” enquired Angus. “You just ask, like you ask anyone else about anything. You just speak and ask! There’s no secret codes; no special postures; no special words. It’s just asking in a perfectly ordinary language.” And with that, Jamie had ushered all the young people towards the door of the Scout Hall which they hired out once a week, and said goodnight to them all.

All that next day Angus couldn’t get Jamie’s simple words out of his mind. He’d been reprimanded by his dad several times that day for daydreaming and by his mum for forgetting some of the shopping he’d been sent for but his mind had been on other things. To get some headspace, he’d made some excuse after dinner about going for a walk and done just that. Walking wasn’t exactly high on Angus’ list of ‘things to do on a free evening’ at that stage in his life but right at that moment he felt that he really did need some space. He headed out along the fringes of the Golf Course, being careful to stay on the shore side and away from the fairways where, even in inclement weather, the long summer evenings attracted a goodly number of evening golfers. Finding his way through the gorse he found a large rock by the shoreline and scrambled up on to it. For a while he just sat there, thinking. He watched the evening steamer making its way back along The Sound from the Inner Hebrides towards Oban; watched some sea otters playing in the kelp, and then in a burst of energy he suddenly spoke, out loud. “If Jamie is right, and you really do exist, it would be cool to know you God” he said.

Whatever he’d been expecting he certainly hadn’t been expecting an immediate response, but at the end of the ‘prayer’ he suddenly felt as if he’d won the cup. He was overwhelmed with the most marvellous feeling of wonder and what he later came to know as ‘joy’. He didn’t move. He didn’t jump up and down. He simply sat there and let it wash over him like a surf wave that had caught him by surprise and had propelled him beachwards. And that was Angus’ beginning.

When the joy had begun to fade a little he jumped down off the rock and started running back towards the town, where he fairly battered on Jamie’s door, anxious to tell him the news. Kate and Jamie laughed out loud when he told them his story. “Is it like that for everyone?” He asked “No” said Kate “not for everyone, but for some. It seems that each person’s adventure begins in a different way and for a variety of reasons. Some can’t even tell you when it began, just that it has. And so saying she went to the shelf and brought down a well-worn small booklet. These are a few stories of how people’s journey with God started. I got this at the when I was a student in Glasgow and I’ve passed it around ever since. When you’ve finished with it though, I’d like it back for there may be others who will need it in the weeks and months ahead.

In the months since his adventures in God had begun Angus had become a regular at Kirk gatherings. He’d thoroughly enjoyed Arne and Mary Ann’s talks but he also couldn’t help but wonder if such gifts were ever given to people as young as 16, like himself. He very much doubted it. This subject might well have consumed much of Angus’ thoughts had there not been one other subject that was competing: Ellie. Ellie was his daydream girl. Though they’d practically grown up together, attending the same schools, Angus had barely spoken more than half a dozen words to her in all his life. Since he’d been a small boy, and even though she was a year younger than him, whenever she’d approached him or even looked in his direction, Angus had become completely tongue tied.

Her family had been the first Sri Lankan family to come and live on the island. At first people had thought them a novelty, as many Asian families still were in some rural parts of Scotland. However, as time passed and the local community got to know them, the novelty wore off and they were accepted for being who they really were: a wonderful addition to the community. Ellie’s dad, Sanjiv Visvanathan, was a pharmacist and her mother, Rani, was a dentist and both soon became an integral part of the community’s life. Yet it was not her colour or race that made Angus sweat; it was her smile. Ellie’s smile could take Angus’ breath away. He thought about it when he couldn’t see it and when he could see it he tried so hard not to stare for, to Angus, Ellie was unattainable. He could no more have talked to her than he could have made a public speech, or sung a song at the Mod. But Angus was as smitten with Ellie as any teenager in the first flush of love can be. Ellie consumed most of his thoughts, day and night.

He was thinking of her when wandering up from the harbour where he’d been helping his uncle Sandi who, until recently, had been one of the local fishermen. In the past two years since the establishment of the new Whale Museum in the town, Sandi had abandoned his traditional role of fisherman and now ran whale watching trips for the many tourists that came to the area and who were eager to try and spot a live whale for themselves. Each summer’s day Sandi would take his boat out through the Sound of Mull and into the Minch, an area renowned as one of the best in Europe for seeing a variety of whales and dolphins.

‘The Minch’ was also a major mating area for Basking Sharks and these huge gentle creatures were regularly spotted by the tourists. During the main tourist times: the school holidays and at weekends, while his uncle navigated and piloted the boat, Angus’ job was to be an extra pair of hands around the boat: making the drinks and chatting to the passengers as they enjoyed their day trip around the Inner Hebrides,. It had been a good day that day. They’d spotted a school of porpoise even before they’d left The Sound; and a white tailed eagle had snatched a decent sized fish from about 50 yards off the starboard bow. They’d also seen a good whale breach just off the western coast of Tiree where the whales were more common. Though there were regular tales of them coming inshore down The Sound of Mull, many such tales were discounted as being ‘only for the tourists’ rather like the Loch Ness Monster tales from farther north.

 

Chapter 22

Young Angus

Although Angus was daydreaming, thinking of Ellie once again, it didn’t stop him noticing the way that the minibus came around the bend at the top of the hill. Even from a distance he could see that the driver has a panicked look on her face and as it began to move down the steep hill towards the harbour he watched it gather speed. As it neared him Angus could see the look of growing terror on the driver’s face. She appeared to be trying to stand on the brakes but without any result. She leaned hard on the horn as if to warn anyone to get out of the way, and in the confines of the steep incline of Harbour Hill, the noise reverberated around strongly. Angus could see that if the brakes weren’t working the minibus would crash into, and probably go through, the harbour wall at the bottom of the hill. He didn’t think; he just reacted. How he knew, he could not have explained, but he knew what to do. As the bus passed him, he could clearly see the faces of the stricken passengers on the bus, and he stretched out his hand towards the minibus and then pulled his hand slowly back towards him. It was as if the brakes had suddenly been reconnected and, as his hand pulled back towards him, the driver was thrown forward into her seatbelt and the other passengers jolted out of their seats as the bus ground slowly to a halt. Though it was going down a 10% slope, and the brakes had failed, it had simply stopped at the roadside. Until each of the panicked passengers and driver were off the bus, Angus kept his hand close to his chest as if holding the bus in place. Some passengers, having disembarked, slumped on to the pavement and just sat there. Others moved away from the bus as if scared it would start up again all by itself. One crossed herself. The driver, Morag McDonald, looked as if she was having some kind of asthma attack and couldn’t catch her breath. Her face was as white as if she’d seen a ghost.

As Angus slowly opened his fist the now empty bus began to roll slowly down the hill, yet without gathering speed, until it gently came to rest against the harbour wall at the bottom. Local people, having heard the sound of the horn, began to emerge from their houses to see what the commotion was and then to help in whatever way they could. On the other hand, Angus began to move up the hill away from the commotion. At the top of the hill and on the opposite side of the road, but just 70 yards away from where Angus had been standing, Kate had watched the entire drama. To her it was as if she’d seen everything in slow motion, as if she’d been filming the scene for one of these popular highland TV series. She’d seen the terror on the driver’s face as the minibus had passed her, heard the noise of the horn, and then observed Angus reach out and then draw back his hand as if he was pulling the bus backwards on some kind of invisible rope. The bus had stopped in its tracks. It was preposterous of course; a ridiculous idea to think that this is actually what had happened; like something out of an X Men movie but that surely could not have been what really happened. Yet that is how her mind registered it. Pulled out of her daydream-like state by the sobbing of one of the passengers, she reacted to the commotion and ran down the hill to help the traumatised passengers in whatever way she could.

Morag McDonald the minibus driver was still fighting for breath when Kate arrived on the scene. Seeing someone’s groceries in a paper bag, Kate reached out for it, emptied the contents on to the pavement and then made Morag put the bag loosely over her mouth getting her to breathe gently into it. Slowly Morag’s oxygen and carbon dioxide levels began to normalise but, even when she’d stopped fighting for breath, she seemed quite delirious repeating just one word over and over again ‘How?’ ‘How?’

When Kate thought that Morag was safe from hyperventilating she quietly asked ‘How what, Morag?’. A panicked set of eyes stared hard into Kate’s “How did the bus stop?’ We had no brakes! No brakes!” she wailed and then burst into tears which soon turned sobs. As Kate comforted Morag, and her own mind again began thinking about the impossibility of what she had seen, the paramedics arrived. A sensible neighbour had had the presence of mind to call for help, and soon the professionals had begun to take over the care of the passengers. Seeing that some sense of order was now resuming Kate relinquished her charge and retraced her steps up the hill to her home. Her mind was racing. What should she say to Jamie? Should she tell him what she thought she’d seen? Would he think that she’d lost her sanity? Did it really happen the way she saw it? Should she go and talk it over with Angus?   “Hi love” said Jamie as she opened the garden gate. “What was all that commotion up the hill? Did something happen in the harbour? Did you see anything?” As she approached the house, Jamie’s words cut right across her thoughts. He was standing on the front doorstep looking beyond her to where the noise had been coming from,

Before she’d even thought about her reply she’d shaken her head and said “Not sure! It was something to do with one of the local minibuses. I think that maybe the bus had a problem or maybe it was the driver who had the problem, but it’s all OK now. No one was hurt and the lads from the ambulance station are now on the scene.”

Though he listened to her benign words, Jamie also noticed her body language. He was good at reading these signs. Something was not as it should be but he knew better than to press Kate for an immediate explanation. She would tell him when she was ready, he was sure of that. “Supper’s ready” he said, and led her inside. The smell of Spaghetti Bolognaise wafted from the kitchen. It was one of the staple suppers that Jamie cooked on his days in the kitchen. Over the years he’d become quite proficient at ‘spag bol’ to the point where Kate preferred his recipe to any other she tasted in any restaurant. Just the smell of it was wonderful. He usually forgot to heat some garlic bread as an accompaniment but, as she saw him bend over the oven, she found that today was one of his ‘remembering’ days. The table was set with a red chequered tablecloth and even a rose from the garden was set in a vase, with a couple of candles for ambience.

“What’s the special occasion?” she enquired. Ah! Well ! It’s an ‘I love you’ day today you see, so I thought I’d spice things up a bit” he said. With a twinkle in his eye he took her coat and hung it up, laid aside her bag and, taking her by the hand, pulled back her dining chair to allow her to sit down, and then served what turned out to be a simple but lovely meal. She was quiet throughout it all, as if enjoying the meal from an inner distance but he respected her silence and wasn’t put out by it. She was still distant when, much later that evening, they headed for bed, snuggling up to him in a way that suggested that she had some need of comfort. Even the next morning, after she’d slept badly and risen late, she was oddly quiet, so quiet that he thought to draw her out of herself with a suggestion.

“Let’s do something special this weekend; something off our wish list” he suggested. Over the years they’d kept an ever-changing list of ‘things to do’; sort of mini adventures. “OK” she said “But what?” “Well I was thinking about the offer Sandi made to us last month; to take us out on his boat whale watching. Despite having lived here for some years now we’ve never really done some of the normal touristy things and I’d be quite keen to take him up on his offer. How about it?” “Yes” she said immediately, sounding as if she’d regained some of her natural zest “Yes. I’d like that. I’d like that very much indeed! It would give me a chance to try out that new digital camera that you bought me for my birthday and I’ve always wanted to take a photo of a whale; even of a small one. OK, let’s do it!”

Making this decision appeared to have snapped Kate out of her reverie and the rest of her day slipped by at some speed, her class children’s needs and education consuming most of her thoughts and energy. These were the final days of the primary school’s term and there was still much to do but, as the day passed, some interesting news began to filter through to the school. First of all there was the news from the bus garage about the minibus that was involved in ‘the incident’ as it was now being called. The investigating mechanic had discovered that even before the minibus reached the top of the hill, all the brake fluid had already drained from the system. Having found a cracked brake fluid pipe he’d gone back to the site of the incident and, with his investigator’s hat on, had found large stains of brake fluid on the road about 40 yards before the top of the hill After that there was no trace of fluid at all and none had been found in the drained container in the engine compartment nor was there any trace of it where the bus had stopped on the hill or where it had eventually come to rest at the harbour wall. The mechanic had therefore surmised that even by the time the minibus got to the junction at the top of the hill there was no brake fluid left and that was why the brakes initially failed.

However he also knew that if this was the case, he had a mystery on his hands because there was no way that the brakes could have worked with such a break in the pipe and with no fluid left in the system. So how had the bus stopped? What puzzled him even more was the fact that Morag, now recovered from her ordeal, swore on a whole stack of bibles that she had given up standing on the brake when the bus stopped. Having become too preoccupied with trying to move down the gears whilst yelling to the passengers to ‘hold on to something’ she’d momentarily stopped braking so certain was she by then that they were about to crash, and crash badly.

As the story of the mystery began to emerge from the bus depot, people throughout the town, especially those with relatives on the bus at that time, began to construct their own theories. By early evening the story, well embellished, was now all over town. Jamie heard it while shopping and he wondered if this mysterious story had anything to do with Kate’s strange mood from yesterday? Had she seen what had happened and been traumatised by being so close to a near disaster? As he walked back from the shop he wondered if he should broach the subject over dinner. When he arrived back however, he sensed that her mood hadn’t altered that much since yesterday and decided to say nothing, at least, nothing yet.

Because of having just finished his Standard Grade exams Angus was not currently at school and so had been helping his uncle Sandi on the boat that day but by the time that he’d walked along the harbour front later that afternoon Angus had heard the stories too. He first overheard Mrs McIntyre telling one version outside the grocers and then heard another from Joe McBride outside the paper shop. Somehow he felt that yesterday’s incident had left him feeling more like an adult and less like a teenager but just a few moments later his new found confidence was tested to its limits because there, walking down the brae towards him and on the same side of the road, was Ellie. For the very first time in his young life he didn’t start sweating nor did he get tongue tied. Instead he greeted her as she approached and then seeing her ready smile of acknowledgement he completely astonished himself, by asking Ellie a question and not just any question but the one he’d been dreaming about asking her for so long.

“Ellie. I was wondering. Would you like to come out whale watching on the boat with me one day?” Her smile, which would have made the sun come out at midnight, again spread slowly across her face as she replied. “I thought you’d never ask” “Really? He said. “Really!” she replied. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask for so long, I’d almost given up waiting.” His heart now pounding in his chest cavity like the demented drummer from the Muppet Show, and he was grinning like an idiot. “What day would you like to come?” he then asked. “How about Saturday? She enquired. “Great” he said “I’ll reserve you the best seat on the boat. We cast off about 10 and the weather looks to be staying fair, so we should have a good day. “I’ll look forward to it then,” she replied and then with another beaming smile she moved off, but not before glancing back over her shoulder and giving him a little wave. Angus glided home. Such was his sense of euphoria that it was as if his feet weren’t even touching the ground. Not only had he spoken to her, but in one fell swoop of confidence he’d asked her out, and she’d said ‘Yes’ and she’d even been wanting him to ask her out! Could life possibly get any better, he thought? Yes it could, because Saturday was coming and they’d spend the whole day together. Their first date. Already he couldn’t wait.