For her part Carole, often without knowing it, told her minister much about herself. He always asked about her books: what she liked in them, what she didn’t. And he asked about her childhood, her schooling, her plans and dreams. (She had lots of dreams, but no plans.) She told him of her alcoholic father and the mother she had not seen or heard of for ten years.
Carole and her Methodist had both been only children. They were likely to be without children themselves. For her, children were a nuisance she could do without. For him, children would have been ‘glorious but, sadly, it was not His will.’ They were two orphans with little in common other than a lonely love of books.
He briefly shared her succession of brief interests. He worked hard to understand such themes as aromatherapy, rune stones, Wicca and pyramids. Occasionally he would comment that ‘such things would be frowned upon by my Church’, but mostly he asked her quick, thoughtful questions. ‘Always seek the substance,’ he would say. He was puzzled that she looked on the I Ching as an authority, and yet she said science ‘is a load of boring old rubbish.’
He liked the bistro best when it was quiet. He had always liked the quiet. When the chapel had still been a chapel, Wednesday mornings had been a short Bible study, with periods of prayer for the elderly in his flock. He came here now to remember them.
Always, after staying an hour and a half, he would leave ‘so as not take up one of your valuable tables.’
The chapel had closed when he retired in the early seventies. The building stood empty for a few years and then became a cheap carpet shop. The architects had taken it over in the early eighties, cleaning the blackened outside and revealing the stone inscription above the door. By adding a floor they made the upper gallery into a well lit studio. The now gloomy lower rooms they leased out as a bar.
Sometimes the preacher would miss a Wednesday, and Carole would miss him. He always told her in advance. He would be ‘off to visit old friends around the country. Old camp friends. Prims. Old relics, much like myself.’
‘Oh yes, we always had an annual camp. Until the war. The war changed a lot of things. The camps were wonderful events. Living and eating in common. Hymn singing, testimonies, Bible studies. The younger ones could meet up and play games. There were barn dances in the evenings. In the stricter families it was the only way for boys and girls to meet.’ His eyes twinkled with memories.
When he didn’t come for a couple of weeks Carole didn’t worry at first. This time he must have forgotten to tell her, but he would be visiting his camp friends. (How glad she was that Marco had never heard that aspect of his reminiscences!)
But then two weeks became two months and she became concerned. She wondered where he had got to but, not knowing his name, she didn’t know where to start. And two months became four.
‘What are you moping about?’ asked Marco, one Wednesday morning.
‘I’m wondering where my book man has got to.’
‘Probably popped his clogs. He looked ready for it.’ Marco launched into Python territory: ‘He’s kicked the bucket, ceased to be, expired and gorn to meet ‘is maker, bereft of life …’
And there he stopped. Tears were streaming quietly down Carole’s cheeks. Even Marco could not be so crude as to parrot any more of the sketch. He edged towards her and put a tentative hand on her arm. She shrugged him off.
‘Piss off Marco. Leave me alone. He was my friend. You were always rotten about him.’ She dabbed at her face with serviettes. Marco slunk back to his murky kitchen.
A few weeks later the Bistro’s owner decided on a makeover. The grubby barstools were replaced with chrome stools. The old wooden tables and pews were sold. (Apparently carved pews were valuable.) New, plastic tables arrived in garish colours. A new sign went up over the front door. It shouted ‘Beggar’s Bistro’ in vile-green lights. The lights were mounted on a pale blue board which completely covered the primitive inscription.
The customers didn’t change, so Carole still liked the place.
Over a year passed and, on a grey wintry day, a letter came to Carole’s flat, from a solicitor in Sheffield. She had to read it a couple of times –‘seeking the substance’ – before she worked out what it meant. ‘Following the death of the Rev. Jared Cawfield it is our duty, as executors, to send you the enclosed cheque.’
£2,000 was to be sent to Miss Carole Dobbie ‘as thanks for so many enjoyable conversations about the Good Book.’ It was his only personal bequest. The rest of his modest estate had gone to a Methodist charity. She hadn’t known his name, and yet he had known her name and the address of her little bedsit.
‘Well,’ she thought, ‘it’s enough for me to ask Sal on a beach holiday.’
Jared. A name she had never seen before. If only Jared was here now. He could tell her what language his name came from, and what it meant.
But that was behind her now. Sal would be the name for the future.