After a year or two at the Bistro she realised it was all she really wanted. She liked the human company and, once she had frozen the amorous Marco, she felt settled. She had been here six years now, the John Major years, working her way up from temporary waiter to catering manager.
Working at the Bistro offered busy hours, lots of friends, and some quiet times for reading. With its big carved sign above the front door – Primitive Methodist Chapel 1879 – it had become home.
Carole looked over and saw her customer had finished eating. He had gone back to reading. She cleared his table and then picked the biggest and freshest of the blueberry muffins and took it over to him.
‘Is it a good book?’ They said, simultaneously, laughing at the collision. There was a pause.
‘Oh please Carole, ladies first. Tell me about your guardian angels? How are the angels?’
‘Not too good really. I can’t understand any of the physics and the angels are all sentimental slop.’ She sat down.
‘Then why did you choose the book?’
‘Sal at Oxfam said it was brilliant. I bought it to please her, really. Sal’s the only angel I want.’
He smiled. Long ago she had revealed her preferences to him. He had been commiserating with her over Marco’s coarseness and told her ‘a pretty young girl like you will be sure to find a nice young gentleman soon. Someone who will treat you with the proper respect.’ She had chuckled and said she preferred women.
After a shocked pause, and a grave shake of his grey head, he had simply said: ‘Ah, I see. Well. So much has changed. So much has changed.’ She had shocked herself, too. She was usually evasive and had surprised herself, declaring her desires to a retired Methodist minister of whom she knew little, at that time, other than his taste in books. She didn’t even know his name.
Her candour had caused a rift between them, but only for a short while. He did slowly get used to the idea that she was, as he would say, ‘of another persuasion’ but even after five years of their regular weekly chats he would occasionally point out ‘smart young gentlemen’, especially the architects when they came down for coffee. (He never noticed there was a smart young lady architect too.)
Their contrasting book habits soon brought them back together.
The Methodist’s reading consisted of theology and commentaries on the Bible. He didn’t need to read the Bible, he knew much of the King James version by heart: all the New Testament, the Psalms, the major Prophets, and something he called ‘The Song’. The Song was his favourite and sometimes he would recite whole chapters of it for her.
‘The Song is,’ he said, ‘about a young gentleman’s love for a good young woman – such as yourself. But its real meaning is that it speaks of the love God has for us and which we should have for Him.’
She loved to hear him recite. He spoke quietly, gazing at the empty pews. His voice had a rhythm and gentleness which filled her head. It was the Good Book to him, but to her it was dreamy poetry about stars and kings, about lovers and country ways.
Carole’s reading was, like her degree course, hopelessly scattered. She read books about nature, thrillers, tales of love and horror, astrological guides, poetry and history, plus whatever Sal recommended, and some ideas of her own. (Oxfam supplied most of Carole’s clothes too. Books, clothes, ideas: all uncoordinated, all second hand.)
In their quiet chats she eventually learned a lot about the preacher’s life. He had attended this very chapel as a child and as a youth. Then he had spent a few years at a Bible College in Pennsylvania, where he was found to have a gift for languages. He had learned to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
As a minister he came back to this same chapel. He had married, but they had not had children and his wife died after only ten years of marriage. ‘She was a Harrison, you know. Yes, I married Abigail Harrison. We had ten wonderful years. Years full of song.’ He smiled wistfully whenever he spoke of Abigail.
He had loved his chapel, but the congregation dwindled. The older ones had died, but not before they had driven the younger ones away. He had tried to run a lively, interesting Sunday School, but the older ones insisted on being teachers. (He called them ‘the Prims’. That was what everyone had called the Primitive Methodists, including the Prims themselves.)
He told her sadly of the friction between his people and the main Methodist Church. The two churches had united in the 1930’s and he, as one of the youngest ministers, had greeted the merger with optimism. At first his congregation had tried to ignore the merger. Later they became bitter, blaming the merger for all their ills – even the leaky roof. This bitterness formed the main theme of their Sunday School lessons. It was not surprising the children left as soon as they became teens.