Last year I finished reading more books than the previous year, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and a few recommendations.
Mornings include escape time to centre and regroup before work. This means reading a chapter of something positive and a devotional thought to challenge me. I was encouraged to learn of some black authors I had not already read and these two stood out for me:
More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton is encouraging, thoughtful and relatable. It was written to empower women – most women in my experience – who face barriers which prevent them achieving their God-given potential.
Still Standing by Tola Doll Fisher, editor of Woman Alive magazine, is a series of 100 ‘thoughts for the day’ on matters as wide-ranging as ‘How to spend a pre-payday weekend’ to ‘Imposter syndrome’ and ‘Why I’m not here for religion’. Tola has a fascinating life-story and uses her experiences, both good and bad, to connect honestly and powerfully.
Other morning books that connected well with me were:
Cathy Madavan’s Irrepressible, which champions resilience and lays out some excellent and timely principles to grow in it and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which speaks truth and kindness to readers of all ages and is already a classic in its own right.
Afternoons for me are for working on teaching tasks. As well as writing, I teach Biblical Studies so I try to read a chapter of the Bible in an original language during the day if I can fit it in. I’m working through Old Testament narratives now and finding things I haven’t seen in the English versions. I have found biblehub.com to be a valuable resource here; using an interlinear version is much faster than parsing and remembering every word (especially now that my memory is not what it used to be). It still gives my brain a workout though and I can click on the words for more information on pronunciation, roots, meanings and cross-references.
Evenings are for fiction, beginning with reading to my son when I put him to bed. One of the highlights of last year reading to a 10-year-old was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.
This story pulls you in to an absurd journey of twists and adventures centred on the wonderful main character, Sally Jones. Gorillas may not always have fared well in fiction, but Sally Jones is a highly intelligent and gentle ship’s engineer and out to prove the innocence of Captain Koskela. Will she succeed? Written originally in Swedish but translated with real fluency and pace, this page-turner leaves the reader curious to explore Portuguese fada music, Indian palaces and even how ships work. Great for adventurers aged 7 and up.
Other books I would recommend to children from my own reading last year:
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s fantastical The Girl of Ink and Stars has a female protagonist mapmaker searching for answers and evocative writing. The dystopian world comes alive a piece at a time, like a map being unfolded. You never know quite where the adventure will go next.
I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh for its wit and warmth. The photo is of the 1931 copy I inherited from my grandpa. A.A. Milne’s writing stands the test of time and the characters are so familiar you miss them when you finish the books. I think I am most like Rabbit myself. Milne has written other great stuff too, but Pooh is timeless and works for all ages. A great mood-lifter: innocent and silly but intelligent with it.
For young adults:
If you have not read anything by Stephen Davies, you are missing out. He has a knack for stories no one else is telling but which are gripping and gutsy. Chessboxer convinced me that a book about chess really could be interesting, with a flawed and feisty main character Leah Baxter, imaginative style and original plot.
Kwame Alexander’s Solo is told in free verse and engages the mind, heart and soul. The story of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star, takes you in all kinds of directions and riffs on musical themes and ideas. Look out for other books by these authors too; you won’t be disappointed.
For older readers:
These all suit a slightly older readership for different reasons. Fran Hill’s Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? connected with me on various levels but I especially recommend it to anyone who’s taught at secondary level. Built on her own life experiences, this fictional diary contains astute observations on life, literature and loss, told with practised humour and intrigue. I lent out my copy and might need to replace it!
Annie Try’s Red Cabbage Blue tells the story of Adelle Merchant, a girl who only eats blue food and who has an overprotective mother. Her psychologist Mike Lewis is trying to solve the puzzles this raises, but he is also dealing with his own issues and relationships. Annie’s background in clinical psychology means this reads very convincingly – there are other books which feature Mike Lewis but I found this one the most engaging so far. A great story with a satisfying ending.
Manacle by Chris Aslan is arresting and provocative. This is the second of three books of his which tell stories from the Bible from a very different angle. Unlike many biblical retellings, I found this well-researched and well-written and without sugar-coating or preaching. I am eagerly looking forward to his next publication and highly recommend both this and Alabaster which overlaps a few of the characters: the content may be tragic and bittersweet in places but the settings are powerful and create a compelling view of people’s lives in the times they are set.
There are other books I read which don’t fit into any of these categories. They might fit into any time of day and they are generally curious, theological or both, so I might read them whenever I get a moment.
Women’s Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling is an academic book (around £20 at the moment), but it is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to understand more about domestic life in the Old Testament – it is a perfect cross-over for me of my writing and teaching work. Jennie invents a character, Orah, who lives in ancient Israel in the Iron Age and describes her life using narrative, in addition to the non-fictional archaeological and biblical data she presents to make her case.
How Not to Write a Novel (the version by Newman and Mittelmark, not any others of the same title) is a superb read if you aspire to publish a book. By giving many examples of what not to send in to publishers, the authors hope to encourage people to give up their writing, or – failing that – to do a much better job at it. Very funny, frequently rude and full of brilliant parodies, this is one of the better works on how to write, quite possibly because it attacks the topic from an entirely different angle. No recommendations on what to do; just what not to do.
Beard Theology by The Church Mouse is the book you didn’t realise you needed. If you thought that the history of the church had no connection with facial hair, you have much to learn in this clever and very silly book. If there is one thing I’d add, it would be a chapter on the biblical stories on hairiness; but this would actually make an excellent sequel (think Absalom, Esau, Elisha, Samson, etc). Not having one’s own beard is no barrier to enjoying this and the illustrations by Dave Walker are hilarious.
Theology of Home, however, was a book I did not need. At least, not if I wanted a systematic and careful investigation of how faith and decorating a home intersect. I was curious about the concept and ordered a copy from America. The book is filled with large photos of happy and tidy rooms filled with beautiful things but not a lot of reasoning on the questions I actually had, which are along the lines of ‘how can we use our resources most wisely, and how much disposable income should we spend on our homes?’ – I still haven’t found good answers to these questions so am working it out as I go instead. This might lead to more thinking on this another time for me, so not an entirely wasted exercise.
One final book deserves a mention from those I completed last year. Another inherited title, Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern by the Cornwall WI (1930).
Many of the recipes are not safe, several suggestions for cures are downright dangerous and the ingredients lists (where they exist) are as confusing as they are amusing: why give precise quantities? Written when powdered ammonia was still considered a rising agent and all parts of animals and plants seemed to have a domestic purpose, every page of this collection of concoctions made me smile. It may not be practical today, but it got me thinking and provided several jokes to share, so that counts as a great success.
Where will I escape in 2021? My To Be Read pile grows as fast as it shrinks and this year I am looking forward to some great releases as well as revisiting some classics. I’ve completed five so far, but have a number more on the go and this year I’m also recording when I finish books to see whether they always run in groups. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, amusing and well-written works so let me know in the comments if you have any good recommendations.
I was privileged to lead a reflection on Saturday, for a group of Christian writers who would have spent the weekend at Scargill House in Yorkshire. Although our weekend had been cancelled, a number of us wanted to use the opportunity to meet virtually, so we did some writing challenges together and encouraged each other with reflections. Philip Davies gave a great reflection on calling as a writer. I decided to do something on character, and this is a summary of the reflection I gave.
What is your character?
Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses?
Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted aspects of your personality?
Has it revealed areas for growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?
If you were a character in a story, how would the author write about you?
I’ve certainly become aware of parts of my own personality through the past three months or so. Areas where I need more patience, or action, or humility, or wisdom, or grace. Areas where I’ve been improving, and areas which still need a lot of work doing. I want to grow and learn and be the best character I can be. Lock-down is certainly showing up my true character.
I got to thinking about Bible verses and some of the stories that are told within the Bible which use vivid metaphors for characters. Take one of my favourite verses, Daniel 8:21, for example. A verse many people should know by heart, I believe:
A super verse to take out of context, and a bizarre one in any event. It forms part of an explanation for a vision, where the character of a person is described in terms of a violent animal. The animal metaphor is a punchy and descriptive.
It is not the only time metaphors are used in the Old Testament to describe people’s characters. There is a lovely fable in Judges 9:8-15 where the people of Shechem want to appoint a particular king, but are strongly advised not to. Jotham tells them a story to get his point across, and compares their situation to a group of trees trying to choose a king. The obvious candidates (olive, fig, vine) decline, and a wholly unsuitable thorn-bush is offered the position instead. Jotham uses the idea of a thorn-bush: unfruitful, undesirable for protection and unsafe, to make his point about his political opponent.
Fables concerning trees representing people may well have been a thing in the ancient Near East. There is a tiny story tucked into 2 Kings 14:9 along similar lines. The kings of Israel and Judah are squaring up to each other and the good king – Jehoash of Israel – sends a story to Amaziah that his intentions compare to a thistle wanting to marry the daughter of a cedar of Lebanon; a thistle which immediately gets trodden underfoot by a wild beast. Ouch.
Plants, Planets and Patroni
Being compared to a plant is one thing. Apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testaments compare people to animals (real and imaginary) to make their points. Jesus uses the idea of wheat and weeds growing together in the same field in his parable in Matthew 13 and explains that the weeds are metaphors for those who belong to the evil one. To be compared to weeds is a grim indictment: these people are nuisances, sucking nourishment from the growing ‘wheat’ and holding no value in making bread (future blessing). However, though they try to prevent the good purposes from becoming established and succeeding, they will not win in the end. It is a great metaphor and the parable inspires hope.
Others have also used natural phenomena to enrich their stories and characters. I was thrilled when I learned about C.S. Lewis’ planet-based inspiration for each of the seven Narnia stories and how he extended and wove the characteristics through clever metaphors through each book. It is so subtle that the themes were not discovered until 2003 (see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling applies the characteristics of each patronus to the characters in her Harry Potter series:
There are subtle cross-references and hints about the motives, qualities and strengths of each character in what Rowling writes.
I humorously queried the correct form of the plural of patronus with ACW friends and am very grateful to Susan Sanderson, who pointed out that ‘patroni’ should be the Latin plural. She looked it up in the Oxford Latin mini dictionary, where she found this definition: ‘protector, patron; pleader, advocate’. Amazingly, there seems to be a link with The Holy Spirit as our Patronus.
Metaphors for people in terms of an animal, plant, planet or other phenomenon have come and gone throughout human history and literature. What about writers though? Can we identify characteristics from a plant, for example, to apply to one of our own characters?
You could describe a satsuma as:
Soft and sweet
Just a little tangy
Popular with children
Imagine a person who inhabited all these characteristics. Doing this gives me the image of a lovely nursery nurse, covered in paint and giggling with the children.
What characteristics would you associate with a potato?An olive? A banana?
It can be a useful exercise to start with a natural object to build up a character. To find commonalities and to extend the metaphor where that helps. Almost anything can be a muse, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.
God as Author
As a Christian, I believe God is the Creator of everything (Isaiah 40:28) and Author of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). Along with everything else in creation, I am merely a player in it; a created being with a role to play and a set of characteristics I didn’t get to choose. I have giftings and I have limits.
God writes the setting of creation, chooses my character identity and places me in the story. Along the way, my character is worked on and refined. Sometimes the Author is involved, sometimes not. I become who I become, either through my own giftings and limits, or my responses to them in the circumstances which arise. God does not write the fine detail – that is for me to create and edit myself, but he does assist with my character building when I ask. And sometimes, as in lock-down, external events mean that a lot of work is done on my character in a short space of time, a bit like living in a pressure cooker.
So, how has God written your character?
Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of God’s giftings and limits on your life?
Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted who God has created you to be?
Has this time revealed areas for spiritual growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?
Has it revealed and evidenced God’s purposes being worked out in your life? Confirmed a calling? Challenged you?
How is God writing about you?
What metaphor(s) might God choose to identify who you are?
Lord God, I recognise that I have unique strengths and weaknesses, passions, abilities and limits, each of which you have given me.
I thank you for all of them. I thank you for making me who I am.
There are parts of my personality I am especially grateful for. There are other parts which sadden me. Sometimes I see myself as a minor, insignificant character and I forget you are my author. You create me, form me, inspire and celebrate me.
Reveal today where you want to develop my character next, and how you want to use me in my situation. Enable me to bless others in their own callings.
May my life and character reflect you, Lord Jesus, to all I interact with.
If you were to look closely – and I mean really closely – with a scanning electron microscope, you’d see a shape like this:
The virus is a bundle of proteins and RNA, held together with fats which dissolve when you wash with soap. It is called a coronavirus because some of the proteins stick out like the points of a crown.
Here’s the curious thing: crown is essentially the same word as corona. I hadn’t made that linguistic connection before last month. I knew that corona was a shape made around the sun in a total eclipse, and that the beer of the same name has a logo with a crown on it. But I do love learning, and I especially love words, so I investigated.
The root words
The word corona goes back a long way, and has cognates in many languages. This is becausecorona is Latin for ‘crown’,
which sounds like the ancient Greekκορώνη (korṓnē)for ‘curved’,
but meansmore like the ancient Greek κορυφή (koruphḗ): ‘garland, wreath or crown’.
The two Greek words look and sound a bit similar, but are not identical.
κορώνη sounds like corona and actually means all kinds of things which are not crowns but which have hooked or curved features. For example: crows, door handles, the tip of a bow on which the string is hooked, the curved stern of a ship, but also variousother examples.
κορυφή, which is nearer inmeaning, also indicates the top of a head or a mountain, the vertex of a triangle or a most excellent thing.
You could see how both words could combine in people’s minds to mean a physical crown. A curved reward for excellence, placed on the top of someone’s head.
I couldn’t stop there though.
As a biblical scholar, I wondered whether these Greek words appear in the New Testament at all. After all, crowns certainly do.
It turns out, they don’t.Not properly.If you want more on this, see ‘a diversion for etymologists’ below.
Perhaps the root of the word is not the way to look at this. Perhaps we should look at the word ‘crown’ itself in the Bible if we want to learn something interesting.
This is, in fact, where the studying becomes more relevant and helpful.
The Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT are full of examples of crowns and references to crowning. Overwhelmingly, these crowns have positive connotations.
Kings are crowned.
Esther receives a royal crown.
Mankind is crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8), with love and compassion (Psalm 103), with everlasting joy (Isaiah 51) and with beauty instead of ashes (Isaiah 61).
Paul and James and Peter talk of crowns of reward for those who persevere (1 Corinthians 9, 2 Timothy 2, James 1, 1 Peter 5).
The most startling crown though was the crown which Jesus wore in the gospels.
It was not an athlete’s garland or a royal circlet. It was a cruel crown.
A crown of thorns. A crown which mocked him and humbled him.
A crown I would never want to wear.
A crown, however, which arrests the attention of all who look at it. What is that doing there? A reverse crown. An anti-glory moment. Pure humiliation.
We’ve just experienced the most unusual Easter of our lifetimes. A crowned virus threatens us and mocks our normal routines. Those in power are shown to be as weak as the rest of us, and the new heroes are the small people in society. The ones who keep us alive, fed and resourced.
Coronavirus has turned society upside down and shown us where crowns truly belong.
Not with the strong, but the weak, the humble and the ones who love at all costs. Where we once wanted to celebrate the biggest and bravest, we find common respect for and applaud those who give everything for others.
A crown of thorns is not a sign of humiliation when you consider it properly. It is a sign that God comes alongside those who offer everything and does exactly the same.
A diversion for etymologists
The koine Greek of the New Testament uses two other words for ‘crown’. Most of the time στέφανος (stéphanos) indicating a reward, and a few times in Revelation διάδημα (diádēma), a royal crown.
In Luke 12 ravens feature as a topic for consideration: even without sowing or reaping they are fed. The word used in the Greek in Luke isκόρᾰξ (kórax), cognate withκορώνη– the nearest you’ll find to corona in the New Testament.
I did find that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – which predates the New Testament writings, our two Greek corona terms are used a handful of times.
κορώνη is used in Jeremiah 3:2 where the word actually refers to a kind of highwayman. Not particularly helpful, you’d suppose. It is possible that a highwayman is being compared to a crow or raven, of course, reaping where it did not sow.
κορυφή is found six times in the Septuagint, each time used to translate the Hebrew lemma rootרֹאשׁ(rosh) demonstrating some variations in meaning found across both words:
the summit or peak of a mountain (Exodus 17: 9,10; 19:20)
top of the head (Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:16)
the head itself (Proverbs 1:9).
Lovely. What does all this prove though?
It tells me that the roots of the word ‘corona’ do not have a helpful biblical background if you want to prove anything. There is not even a clear connection withרֹאשׁas this lemma is used 599 times in the OT, and only translated toκορυφή on six occasions.
Last year I was published twice in anthologies produced by the Association of Christian Writers, which was a great big step for a fledgling writer like me. It helped my writing esteem enormously and gave me a feel for some of the other elements involved in producing a book; behind the scenes several friends worked long hours proofing, editing and typesetting. When I got my copies I learned about marketing and selling dozens of copies of each.
Click on the links below for the Kindle versions. Print copies are available too, and I have one remaining copy for anyone local to me who asks quickly enough on the Christmas book.
As I was researching and writing about frankincense for Merry Christmas Everyone, I considered also writing about the other two gifts the Magi presented to Jesus in Matthew 2. Getting under the skin of a biblical passage is a real passion of mine, and presenting information in original ways. I had written a poem about frankincense, which is a dried resin used for lots of purposes, but principally known as a fragrant material for burning in religious ceremonies. If there was intended meaning behind the gift, as many believe there was, the symbolism may well have concerned priesthood.
The symbolism of gold is far easier to connect to, as we recognise its potent regal connotations across many cultures and times. Gold represents majesty, honour and treasure.
Myrrh is a more strange material; it is also a gum from a tree, and produced for medicinal and religious purposes, but it has a strong association with ancient embalming, and has traditionally been held to represent the importance of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice.
Strange gifts for a young child, and certainly things to give Mary reason to ponder. Each of these elements were present in prophecies about the coming Messiah in the Jewish scriptures, and each featured in the way Jesus lived his life on earth. A king. A priest. A sacrifice.
You’ll need to get hold of a copy of Merry Christmas Everybody to read my poem in there about frankincense, but here to complete the set are the other two poems.
May you have a blessed and joyful Epiphany!
The soldiers showed no mercy when they came
and murdered David’s sons inside our town;
the orders of an angry king to blame –
despising any who could take his crown.
The merchants saw them first, as daylight broke:
on horseback, wearing armour, wielding swords;
the little boys were sleeping. We awoke
to screams and murmured prayers and broken cords.
The mothers who had fed these sons from birth
(their hopes and futures, joys, inheritance),
traded their blessings and exchanged young mirth
for myrtle baths, and wept at the expense.
My God, my God, do not forsake these ones,
whose myrrh and tears embrace their precious sons.
We were given gold
and told to leave the land of Egypt,
so we ran from slavery
bravely, fearfully, tearfully,
carrying our treasures close to our hearts.
And journeyed into furnaces of sand.
We learned in pain that gods of gold
had not received us, saved us.
in our shame,
we learned the Name alone
– not gold –
bright, heavy, sure,
carrying His treasure close to His heart.
We built a tent and used our gold
to show our gratitude.
We covered all the wood –
made ornaments and bells,
to show our worship for our King.
He took us from the furnace to the land.
The tent came too. But,
so confused by gods of other clans
we looked to gold for answers,
carrying our hearts close to our treasures.
Measuring ourselves with others.
We want a king!
You have a King.
No – a king like all the others.
Give us a king.
With a crown.
A crown of gold.
We’ll build him a gilded palace.
We cannot see our King.
How can he save us?
I will give them a king. A boy from Bethlehem
who carries me close to his heart.
Our kings had golden crowns
and splendid rooms
and saved us sometimes.
And sometimes broke us.
There was a golden temple too
(our King was there).
But other temples grew
and who knew what was true?
Until armies came from the East.
They took our gold,
gold from our temple,
carried it close to their hearts,
back to their temples where they worshipped the stars.
We want a king!
A king who will save us.
I will give them a king. A boy from Bethlehem
who carries me close to his heart.
We journeyed from our land, as slaves again.
Our captured hearts sang songs of times of gold,
and how our King had saved us once before.
And when our hearts, refined, were moved to Him,
He took us home.
And we were given gold,
restored to us,
and told to build our land again.
Bravely, fearfully, tearfully, we went,
carrying our Treasure close to our hearts.
Humbled and tested, and tested again, and humbled.
More kings, and battles, and languages and rules
and every king so hungry
for power, wealth
Our humble heads hung low –
we didn’t see the star
that told of Treasure coming to our hearts.
And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.
Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.
Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.
I like that.
A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.
Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.
For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.
In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.
So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.
I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
I want to finish getting the garage in order.
I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.
I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.
What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!
I felt compelled today to edit and republish a poem I first put out three years ago on my personal blog jamandgiraffes, in honour of International Poetry Day and because Easter is coming. Spring is now here and while flowers smell of hope and joy, Easter tells a more humbling story and I had been looking back at the gospels and wondering what it all smelt like. Feel free to use this, although if you do, please do credit me.
It all started when the jar of nard parted
Jarred, barred, open-hearted, broken-hearted,
What a strange smell, filling the house from roof to foot,
Smell of treasure, smell of death (tarted up).
Then branches waving in the king, palms up, palms down
Crunching under simple hooves, hay, swaying fresh and fuzzy.
Smelly feet, incomplete, bread and the vineyard and olives and torches –
Feast or final meal, more blood, more fire and the plaintive crow crow crowing.
Unknowing. Smell of fear, of sweat, of thorns and wood,
Smell of your trade, made rough, tough nails rusty, musty dust.
Smell of pain, again, again, again, sweat, blood, vinegar and hyssop.
Hyssop? Cleanse me too – blood rolling like tears, metallic, organic to the ground.
Bound, in myrrh, in aloe, from head to toe, so so dead. No!
And then you said ‘why are you crying?’
And my world of tears and mud and blood split open and I breathed a different air. It smelt of life.
Today I was really excited to see my name in print in the Association of Christian Writers’ magazine, with my winning story from a competition last year. Now that it is in print, here it is in full for readers who won’t have accessed it through the ACW magazine.
“Fish!” muttered Mrs Zebedee, wiping her hands on her apron. “Don’t talk to me about fish!” she hissed, shaking her head and slopping the big white box on to a table. She grabbed her knife and glared at her boys. “It’s practically mid-morning; how am I supposed to sell these now?”
She sliced her anger through the fish-heads. Chop, slide, chop.
“John, get that other knife, I can’t do all this,” she ordered, “it’s full and you’ve not put enough ice on. Have you forgotten how to fish, boys?”
Her sons looked at each other. Big men in their late twenties, broad and bronzed, their tiny mother could silence them with a face like a burnt thundercloud. She got stuck in to the gutting, wincing as she cut.
“The chefs have been round. The early customers have gone elsewhere. Even the cats have given up waiting. Why didn’t you call?”
“I’m sorry mother. We didn’t mean to be this late,” John said, strapping on his own apron.
“It was an awful night,” added James. “Not a thing before dawn. I’m getting back to the van. You tell her.”
Mrs Zebedee looked up. Her eyes were red with fatigue and confusion. She had returned reluctantly to her old job, summoning her sons back from the capital to work on the night fishing boats when no one else would. John and James had arrived in town the previous night and got straight on the trawler with Thomas and Pete and a few of the others. John could see her frustrations. He smiled.
“Come here, mother,” said the big man, opening his wide arms and ignoring the fish guts and eyes as he pulled her close. “We had to stop. We’d had an exhausting night. And – well, have you eaten? I saved you a bit of breakfast-”
She pulled away, tightened her eyes and glared at him again.
“Jonathan Theodore Zebedee – are you telling me that you deliberately delayed getting here with my catch?”
“Mother, listen,” he replied, his eyes still grinning, digging in his pocket for a crusty roll with a barbecued fillet inside. “It was him.”
Mrs Zebedee stared at the roll in John’s weathered hand and remembered another one just like it. On a grassy hill. In a large crowd. Not too far away, a year or two before; everyone had had one. They’d said the same thing that day too: ‘It was him!’
James swung round the corner with another large case of fish and plonked it next to the first. John slapped his back.
“I told you we saw him last week in the city. And the week before. We’re not making this up. Ask James. Even ask Tom – he wouldn’t joke about this.”
Mrs Zebedee took a cautious bite. The bread was soft inside, and something in her wanted to harden, but she kept listening and James headed back to the van again.
“I didn’t believe you the first time John, because I was there. I saw him when he…” and she turned her head away and wiped her face with her sleeve.
“I was there too,” said John gently. “I was there – I saw him die. I saw the blood and the water come from his body.” He picked up a cloth and wiped the table. “But I also saw him since then. You have to believe me. Who else makes breakfast like this? And where do you think all these fish came from?”
“Three? No, more than that! Come and see!” he said, and led her round to the van. She blinked. It was absolutely full of large, white boxes. For once, Mrs Zebedee was lost for words.
“We’ve never caught that much before in one night,” John said, leaning against the wall and rubbing his hands. “And all at the last minute too; it was bizarre. We were on the boat, the sky was glowing red, we were cold, tired and hungry. We’d caught nothing. Mother, I felt I’d forgotten the one thing I know how to do well.”
He straightened up.
“Then there was this voice from the shore, and we saw a man crouching, then standing up, waving over to us. He shouted to keep going and to try fishing from the wrong side of the boat. In the shallows. You know what Pete’s like, he got straight on it. When the nets hit the water – wow – the boat just rocked with the weight of fish; I thought we’d tip over! Some of us jumped out and we gripped the ropes and pulled so hard. It was crazy, there was no way we could lift the nets up into the boat, they were so full.”
John grinned and his mother softened. He touched her arm as James carried another box past them.
“I looked at the man on the shore and he started laughing at us! That’s when I realised it was him. That laugh…you know what I mean.”
Mrs Zebedee knew that laugh. She took another bite of the flaky, charred fish.
“Pete didn’t hang around. He just jumped out and waded over there. He forgot the rest of us still had to tow the boat and the net. The fish were wriggling and jumping and kicking about. Took forever; look, my hands are raw! But they did wade in and help after they’d finished laughing at us. And even though we’d got such a large catch, he’d already caught a few himself and prepared us breakfast. Best breakfast ever. It’s good, isn’t it?”
Mrs Zebedee wiped her mouth.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It is good. But boys, what are we going to do with all these fish? We’ll be giving these away at this rate.”
Deep in the house, members of the fraternity gathered around a large table and Nico handed round drinks. The room stank of testosterone, yeast and sweat, several members having run directly from late lectures or driven straight over from collegiate matches. No one had wanted to miss this meeting and the younger pledges were standing against the walls, leaning back on brightly coloured pennants and flexing their necks.
Cai called everyone to attention.
“We’ve got a problem,” he began. “This new tutor, this jumped up teacher. He’s stirring up trouble, telling lies about our fraternity. You know who I mean.” There were grunts of assent around the room.
“Since the start of semester, he seems to have had it in for us. He doesn’t appreciate the system and he is not interested in Greek life. We don’t think he has any fraternity affiliations, but we are getting concerned about the impact he’s having. People are ignoring us because of him and we’re getting a bad name across campus. What do we know so far? Anyone got anything on him? What’s with all his tricks?”
“He’s pretty scathing about us, that’s for sure,” a sophomore answered, “and he won’t answer us straight, especially when there’s a crowd around.”
“There’s always a crowd around,” another voice jumped in, “you can’t get him alone.”
“That’s not true; Simon had him round last week,” said another.
“Simon?” asked Cai, and thirty heads turned and looked in his direction.
“Well, a bit of a party in our hall for some of the new staff actually. I asked him along so I could find out more about his views – trying to understand what his issue with us is. He hardly spoke to me, except to accuse me in front of other people. Spent more time talking with a hooker – no idea who invited her. Pointless exercise.”
“But what’s the problem with him?” asked Joe, a clean cut rich boy from upstate. “He’s popular, he doesn’t like frats – not everyone does. What’s the deal?”
“The problem is he’s insulting us and telling people we’re not clever or a big deal. His popularity makes us look small. We can’t just whitewash over it – teachers usually realise they shouldn’t interfere with the status quo. He won’t do anything for us when we’re around, and he ridicules us behind our backs, to large groups – lots of students are signing up to his classes now and we don’t get it. Doesn’t he understand our traditions and heritage?” Cai was clearly getting rather irritated.
“So let him have his own views and his own following and see what happens.”
“No one will respect us Joe. No one will come to our barbecues, pizza nights, luaus; they think we’re pathetic!”
“We can’t exactly haze him – he’s not one of us,” a senior said, carefully. “For now, I suggest we intimidate or avoid him.”
Nico looked down at his drink.
“OK, we avoid him,” Cai stated. “Got it? We don’t want trouble. Not yet.”