When he was fifty, and six months after his last girlfriend had finally left him, Michael decided that everything would change. This understanding had been coming towards him for a while now. It might even have been a large part of the reason why Ruth had left him. He’d felt grief at the time of course, but it had seemed inevitable. Something he couldn’t stop, nor did he want to. On the other hand, the need for a different way of life and his own acknowledgement of it was something he had never wanted to alter. It was a choice that had in effect been made for him, but one he yielded to, gladly.
was less concrete was where the change might lead him. He knew only one thing:
that he had to walk away from what was familiar in order to discover the truth.
Which was why he found himself, late that Wednesday afternoon with the wintery
sun already vanishing into dusk, in his boss’s office, preparing to talk.
He’d always admired Douglas who was a tall man in his late thirties, willowy and dark-haired, someone who exuded normality. He had the kind of family life that had passed Michael by. He was also decisive in a way Michael was not, which explained his position as director in the small insurance company where Michael himself had only progressed to the heights of financial administrator. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d got there, although the job he did appeared to be good enough for them to keep him on.
It was up to him then to end it.
He waited for Douglas to sit down and take the first sip of his freshly-made coffee. Michael himself had refused the offer. He didn’t see the need to adorn the encounter with any frippery. The conversation would, after all, be what it was and no more, and he didn’t need coffee for that. While he waited, he gazed around Douglas’ work domain.
grey walls, adorned here and there with pictures drawn by Douglas’ children.
From memory, Michael thought they were round about seven and ten years old,
both boys, but he couldn’t bring their names to mind. He should really pay
attention more – perhaps that was part of his problem. He was too used to being
Douglas’ two shelves were filled with an assortment of insurance magazines, management books, clean mugs and family photos. The difference between the two of them was encapsulated in that alone. Michael kept only spare printer cartridges and his calculator on the one shelf he was allocated. His boss’s desk however paid tribute to the minimalist ethic as nothing was allowed on it for long without being dealt with or destroyed. So he only had his hard-backed A4 notebook, his computer, two reports and the newly-made coffee. Michael smiled.
Douglas smiled back. “So what is it, Michael? What can I do for you?”
Michael took a breath and made another small decision.
“I want to leave,” he said.
At this announcement, Douglas leaned forward, coffee mug still clutched in his hands. He stared at Michael and repeated his words. “You want to leave?”
Michael nodded. “Yes.”
He paused, wondering if he should tell the usual lies. Something about it being time to move on, time to take a break, perhaps even face the open spaces of semi-retirement. There was enough money for that since he’d inherited his mother’s estate. His father had died when Michael was thirteen, and his mother when he was thirty-four, and even though she’d married again just before he went to university he wasn’t close to his stepfather. They saw each other at Christmas and Easter, and that was all. Then understanding came to him unexpectedly, as clearly as if a window had opened and a fresh spring breeze was flowing over his skin. It felt new, untried but solid. He decided to keep to the truth instead.
“I’m handing in my notice because I want to learn how to pray again,” he said.
He thought Douglas might laugh at this, perhaps say something witty, but to his credit his boss did neither of those things. Instead he sat back in his chair and took a deep breath, letting it go steadily and placing both hands on the desk.
“That’s quite serious,” he said at last. “Is it something you’ve been thinking about for a long time?”
Michael didn’t know the answer to that. He supposed it must have been, and that was the change he’d been searching for during the last few months. Why had he not understood it before? Only in the letting one thing go had there been space enough for something more important to take its place. Underneath him were indeed the incarnadine seas and he had no compass and no chart to guide him.
“I believe I might have been thinking about it,” he replied as Douglas was still waiting patiently. “I just didn’t realise that until this moment. I only knew it was time to leave.”
“I hadn’t realised you were a churchgoer.”
“I’m not. Not seriously, not anymore, but I used to be, when I was young. I don’t mean as a child. I was very irreligious as a child, but as a young man. My early twenties. It meant a lot to me then and I think I want it back.”
Michael hadn’t allowed himself to recall that time in his life for nearly thirty years. He didn’t know if this moment was the right time to think about it, though he knew he’d have to ponder it later in private, both the good and the bad. Indeed now that he’d expressed a desire to revisit his prayer life, those memories would have to be accessed again. Of course he’d known all along it would one day come to this. Douglas’s question brought him back to reality.
“Wouldn’t it be better if you thought about this decision for longer?” his boss asked him. “You’re a good worker and we’d be sorry to lose you. You have a lot of experience and you fit in with the team very well.”
Michael wasn’t sure if any of that was correct, but there was a tremor in Douglas’ voice that spoke of honesty. Perhaps he’d covered up his lack of connection in his role well enough over the years? Strange how it all seemed to be falling softly away from him now.
“It’s not enough,” he replied. “I’m sorry but I need more.”
“What about learning to pray outside work? I’m sure that would be a possibility. Or are you saying you want to be a monk or something like that?”
Douglas’ expression at his last question couldn’t help but make Michael smile. His boss knew the main points of his relationship history: married for a while, divorced ten years ago, no children, and then with a girlfriend or two, ending finally with Ruth. And before and alongside that, there’d been one or two close men friends too, nothing more than that. Michael had never thought deeply about his sexuality, which he imagined had always been fluid, as for a variety of reasons he hadn’t wanted to. Besides it hadn’t seemed important, and it certainly wasn’t something he discussed with anyone else.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not considering it either. I’m thinking more of a time for retreat, if you know what that is?”
An image of himself kneeling in a darkened room, praying, hands clasped around a small wooden cross flashed across his mind and he shivered. It was almost as if something in his gut reached out beyond his skin, crying out for what he couldn’t fully understand, perhaps had never understood. Then the sensation was gone. He shook his head and resolving to ponder it later when he could be quiet and alone. In the meantime, Douglas was nodding a response to his tentative question.
“Yes, a retreat – isn’t that when someone goes away to pray, or find themselves? My wife’s cousin went away for a month to somewhere in Bristol some years back. I’m not sure it really worked out for her though.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael said. “Everyone is different, but I’m sorry to hear she didn’t enjoy it. However I don’t want to go away anywhere; I want to stay where I am. I simply want to change the things around me, to make the difference there. I want to see how things will be if I let them.”
that was the simple truth. He should have been pleased at this small step
towards whatever he was searching for, but instead Michael found himself
feeling suddenly empty at the knowledge that everything was about to change,
even though it was he who had instigated it. For one moment after he’d spoken
to Douglas, he wanted to get up, laugh it off and take back the notice he’d
given. He wanted to stay in the life he’d known for years and not dream of
anything else. But he didn’t get the opportunity as Douglas brought their
meeting to a close and, before he knew it, Michael was outside in the corridor,
returning to his desk and taking great gulps of air as if he’d just leapt off a
high rock into the watery depths below. He had no idea if he would be able to
drown or swim. Only God, if He was out there somewhere, would know that.
Chapter Two: The first steps
The month of working out his notice vanished more swiftly than Michael had expected. It was astonishing how thirty years of a working life could be laid aside so easily and, in some ways, he wondered if he’d ever been truly there at all. What was the word Douglas had used? Engaged. Yes, that was it. But no, Michael didn’t think he’d ever been fully engaged with his job, not at the heart or in the gut, where it mattered.
During that month, he spoke to colleagues he worked with regularly and those whom he’d never paid much heed to before. He spoke to his clients too. With his colleagues, he’d hoped his news would be downplayed, the reasons for it remaining private. But instead he found that when the first person to express regret at his decision – Mandy from Claims, as it happened – asked him what he was intending to do when he left, he simply told her just as he’d told Douglas. The fact that he was honest about his uncertainties and didn’t try to cover them up with words or possibilities that would keep people at bay surprised him most. He’d spent his life keeping people away from his inmost thoughts so he wasn’t sure what this change might mean.
Mandy’s reaction surprised him, though it worried him just as much. She looked impressed, as if he was telling her that he was giving up his job in order to go and do good works, which wasn’t what it was at all. If anything, it might be the most selfish decision he’d ever made. It still didn’t feel wrong, however. So he was almost glad when the reactions of other colleagues proved less positive, though no-one mocked him, something he was glad to discover. At the end of his month – the end of his working life, perhaps – he could categorise the reactions of his fellow employees into three distinct groups: those who were impressed, like Mandy; those who were gloriously indifferent, whom he rather envied; and those who were baffled, and who perhaps even thought he was a little mad. Of them all, he thought the third group might be the closest to the truth.
Clients of course were more practical. They expressed regret, mild interest in his plans and an overwhelming desire to know who would be taking over from him. Primed by Douglas for the latter circumstances, Michael was well able to put their minds at rest.
And that, in effect, was that.
Other matters also arose during that month, which for Michael were far more important. He thought a lot, for one, about his faith, or lack of it, and whether that would be significant. Because his current religious life, if he could even lay claim to one any more, was this:
He went to church perhaps five or six times a year, on those occasions slipping in at the back where nobody could bother him. Yes, he understood the tensions in his own behaviour here, as he no longer spoke to or acknowledged his God in any other way, but he could not help it. The pull was there, whether he liked it or not. St Mary’s was situated in a village three or four miles away from where he lived and the necessity of having to drive there pleased him. It gave him time to leave behind his current life and pick up the shadows of another he’d once had. It positioned him outside the immediate local church circle, a place of distance that he was glad to dwell in. After all, look where too much commitment to a local church had brought him before. He couldn’t ever be that particular young man again, he couldn’t go through those kinds of experiences a second time. He wanted something very different. So, when the vicar of St Mary’s had asked him, about two years ago, he’d gently refused the offer to join the electoral role or come to church more often, and had maintained that stance ever since. He wondered what his twenty-year old self would have thought of this, and what he might have said. He could imagine his younger words would have been scathing, leaving no room for doubt or indecision.
Neither did he get involved with the prayer rota – something in his previous long ago Christian life that he’d always done – or any other rotas the church had, as all churches did. Although now and then, if the rather terrifying church warden asked him directly, he would consent to be one of those who served coffees after church, on a date that was convenient to him. He gave them no other inroads, and had no wish to, although he would smile when serving coffees, and the odd tea, to the gaggle of nameless faces after a service. Post-church coffee had always been something he hated, and probably always would. An Anglican way, he told himself with a smile, of showing the people what purgatory might be like, if they acknowledged such a place. The conversations were always the same: the weather; the service, village life – though that of course he had no real concept of. Douglas, he supposed, would accuse him of disengaging, and he might well be right. Michael only stayed for as long as he had to, usually avoiding the coffee crowd and disappearing through the side door to the safety of the car immediately after the final blessing. Those times were the best. It was a sad fact that the routine of offering coffee destroyed for him any fragments of God’s presence that he might have been lucky enough to snatch from the air while he slouched in his pew, trying to be quiet. Not that there had been many of those fragments, not for a long while. Though now, as he thought of it, he could remember a time, years ago, when God had seemed so near that Michael could have reached out and touched him, at his side, just in front of him, or even within. He could even remember a point in his life when God had seemed exciting, and he’d wanted to hold the concept of Him close enough so that nothing should ever tear the two of them apart. He’d thought once that his faith would last forever. He’d been wrong.
His reading of the bible had dwindled away since the early years too. He could recall a time when he’d read it desperately, like a man seeking water, finding it too, letting it sustain him. How had it all slipped from him so quickly? Now, he read the bible briefly, a couple of minutes in the morning before he went to work. A section from the Old Testament and a section from the New. He grimaced at his own regimented approach, the logic of which stemmed from being an accountant by trade, he supposed. The moment the bible was closed, the details grew hazy and he could almost never recall anything that he’d read during the day. Sometimes he even thought the passages he read were dull, meaningless. Where had the bible’s importance gone for him, and why did it no longer relate, in any sense, to the God he’d thought he’d known? It was a mystery worthy of the solving, but he was unsure whether he had the gifts to solve it. He was no detective, least of all in spiritual matters.
Which was where his desire to learn to pray came in, or where he imagined it did. During that month of working out his notice, prayer felt like something he was saving up to start when the time was right. He couldn’t pray until he had the space to do so, both in terms of his outer life and his inner one. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it might entail until he had the opportunity to consider his past – really consider it – and relate it to his present. He knew he would have to do both, and this thought both terrified him and exhilarated him. It felt like planning for a big event – a wedding perhaps, or a significant birthday – when someone else, someone he couldn’t see or even speak to, possessed the answers to all the puzzles. So he had no real notion how he should prepare.
Michael’s last day at work was the calmest he’d ever known. It seemed to him to be a bridge he was crossing from one life to the next. And as he stepped onto the bridge that morning, the other end was shrouded in mist and darkness. He still wanted to go there however, as something in the mist and darkness was calling to him and he had no choice but to respond. But no, that wasn’t true. He’d always had a choice, he knew it. What mattered now was that for the first time in years he wanted to respond to that choice from the gut. He wanted to find his own kind of truth again.
So Michael said his goodbyes to the office, and accepted the farewells and good wishes his colleagues offered him. He smiled to see the gift they’d bought for him – The Oblate Life, edited by Gervase Holdaway. A hardbound book in blue with gold lettering, which felt solid and reliable in his hand. This kind of regularised commitment to prayer wasn’t a route he necessarily saw himself taking, but he was grateful for the thought. In any case, it might be an interesting read. He accepted it with thanks that resonated in his blood.
That evening, when he sat in his car for the final drive home, Michael laughed. His mind felt clear and his body poised. For what? Adventure? Something deeper? He hoped so. He hoped for all of that, and so much more.
At home, he poured himself a whisky. He wasn’t a monk after all then, nor likely to be one either, no matter what Douglas thought. It tasted golden and deep on his tongue as he gazed round the front room of the small flat he owned. He saw shelves lined with books he’d gathered over the years, the comfortable cream leather sofa and matching chairs, the antique coffee table with what he imagined was its cigar-stub blemish made by gentlemen from a grander age. He gazed too at the simple wooden table where he took his meals, the pictures on his walls: one of the town he lived in and another of an outside set of white stairs leading to a garden. He focused on it for a few moments, drank it in along with the whisky.
It felt important. Perhaps that was where he was now: at the bottom of a set of white steps leading upwards to a garden and the promise of light. The stairs were plain, unadorned except for a strand or two of deep pink clematis trailing over the edges. He hoped his journey, wherever it took him, might be like that: simple and strong, with now and again an encounter with colour. But he couldn’t tell, no he couldn’t tell at all.
He took another sip of the whisky and afterwards rested the glass on the table in front of him. Then, slowly and with a distinct quiver of personal embarrassment he could do nothing to quell, he moved to one side and got down on his knees. There he waited, but no divine revelation struck him and no still small voice whispered in his ear. So, after a while, he laced the air with words himself.
“There, I’ve done it,” he whispered. “I’m finally alone, though I don’t know what to do. Not really. So, tell me, what happens now?”
Of course there was no answer, or at least not that evening. And, after a while, he’d risen from his knees and gone about his usual evening routine. Cooking a simple supper, reading – he was currently enjoying Antonia Fraser’s biography of Cromwell – and trying to complete the odd crossword puzzle or two. He knew he was no intellectual and he certainly didn’t attempt the high-class crosswords, but he enjoyed the challenge nonetheless. After that, he’d gone to bed.
Today, he was facing the first morning of his new seeking existence but so far it wasn’t proving easy. In terms of last night, Michael didn’t know what he’d expected or if he’d expected anything at all. He used to be more confident about receiving answers to prayer as in his youth, prayer had had a value and a purpose. But over the years, without his even noticing its absence that much, the sense of purpose and connection had withered away. He wondered if that was to do with his poor recent record of church-going, but knew this was too simplistic an answer. Now he could take what to him felt like a momentous step in his life and also smile wryly at his own sense of embarrassment and being out of place.
After all, he might have made the decision to search for his prayer life and somehow go back to where he’d last seen it, but that didn’t guarantee that God would be quite so willing to be found. Indeed, if suddenly everything he’d once known and experienced came easily flooding back, how would that change his life? He’d made one significant alteration and he wasn’t sure how he would deal with another. That was the trouble with God, he thought – not the seeking after Him, but the finding. That, as they say, was the rub.
Michael sighed and shook such thoughts out of his head as there was little point in worrying about the future too much. The present had enough worries of its own. Instead he showered, dressed and began making himself breakfast, all the time trying to leave his mind as clear as possible.
The kitchen seemed different today. Though more likely it was he who was different and nothing about his flat had changed. A small space, really room for one only, to his mind. During the time that Ruth, his last girlfriend, had lived here it had always felt crowded. Michael liked to be in the kitchen alone when he prepared food or cooked. Not that he was any kind of expert, his culinary repertoire being narrow by any measure, but it had always been a chance to step out of the demands of the day, or whatever else was going on in his life, and to do something nominally creative and also controlled. Creative in the sense that he could take disparate ingredients and blend them together into something else entirely, like an artist with a pallet of paints; controlled because if he followed each step logically then satisfaction would result. Ruth would have laughed at him at that description and told him it was his accountancy background. Still, perhaps in the way he’d just thought of it, it was a kind of meditation in itself.
So on the first day of his prayer seeking life, Michael took oats and blended them with just the right amount of milk, water and sugar. He set the kettle to boil and poured himself a fruit juice that he drank whilst the porridge was heating up. He didn’t turn on any music – he kept no radio in the kitchen in any case, which was another habit Ruth had teased him about. His only radio was kept in the living room, but now she’d departed he rarely turned it on. He preferred to go through his days in silence as it made him feel more real, even whilst alone.
The porridge began to bubble and pop in the pan, and he turned the heat down to a simmer. Reaching for his supply of teas, he hesitated for a moment before choosing the Dragonfly Redbush Cape Malay. The smell of it always made him smile: cinnamon, ginger, cardamon, cloves. Just the right amount of additional spices to enhance and not overpower the taste, it was one of those rare teas that were as good to drink as to smell. Most others, even though he enjoyed them, hid their hearts in the aroma alone. Now he unwrapped the teabag and dropped it into his dark green breakfast cup, a present from friends he no longer saw. He added the water and left it to seep.
He ate breakfast slowly, as he had nowhere to rush to. The weekend was free and the following week stretched out like a long cool expanse of water. As he ate, the fragile winter light glittered through the trees opposite his window. Was that a prayer too, he wondered? Some kind of connection with a world beyond himself and the chance to respond to a physical stimulus: light, warmth, the pleasure of the food in his mouth. It was a possibility but he didn’t think he was ready yet to explore it further. Best take things one stage at a time, if he wanted to do this properly.
When he’d finished his meal, he cleared up, deciding to wash the few pieces of crockery by hand as usual and leave them to dry. Over the years, he’d often been asked about getting a dishwasher, but he’d always thought there was little point when it came to the needs of one person. He’d even thought that during the years he’d been married, and later lived with Ruth. Was it also too much for a couple, or was he simply more selfish, from instinct, than he’d imagined? Perhaps Ruth would have liked one – she’d never said and, in any case, they had usually divided the chores between them.
Today, however, the necessary routine seemed no chore. Michael plunged his hands into the warm soapy bubbles and smiled at the sensation of the heat on the skin. Even this simple action felt measured and real.
He’d finished the task and was rinsing out the sink when the telephone rang. After four rings, it dropped to his answering machine as he always liked to screen his calls, but when he heard who it was, he ran to pick it up. He took the phone into the dining room and sat down. The edge of the table dug its pattern into his elbows.
“Hello, Ruth,” he said. “I’m here.”
Michael had met Ruth Trevelyan eighteen months ago at a works event. He hadn’t wanted to go, but Douglas had been sick so he’d needed someone to represent the company. The lot had fallen to Michael. Reluctantly, he’d dressed in smart trousers, a light green shirt and had even found a blazer in the back of his wardrobe, though he had no clear memory of ever having purchased such an item. The greatest discomfort had been the lack of a tie as Michael had always associated work with the need to wear ties, and felt almost naked going without. Suitably attired, he’d made his way, that bright June morning, to Ascot and had entered the company box, his heart thudding fast and his throat dry. He never counted himself as a natural with people.
The first person he’d seen had been Ruth. She’d been leaning against the private bar, sipping a cocktail he couldn’t have even begun to describe, and talking to an older, grey-haired man who looked as if he knew how to give orders. She was laughing, throwing her head back with the pure pleasure of it, as if she had no other care in the world and as if right here and right now was simply the best place to be. Somehow he’d been lost at once. It wasn’t until shortly after that he noted her petite, slim figure, her curly black hair and her deep brown eyes because it was her laughter that hooked him first.
He was astonished she bothered with him. But she was happy to talk, and it wasn’t long before he discovered, as easily as if he’d been talking with her all his life, that she was a loss adjuster for one of their client firms, that she was forty-four, she’d been widowed for three years, and she had two grown-up sons. She was happy to guide him, subtly, through the mysteries of the Tote and all its range of betting, although he never put more than two pounds on each race all that day, and won nothing for his pains. She was happy too to chat with him, perhaps more than with his fellow-guests, but he couldn’t be certain of that, and in truth it had seemed unlikely, when surely she could have spent time with whoever she wanted to. More than anything, however, she was happy at the end of that day to smile upon his hesitant suggestion of a drink later in the week and even to exchange telephone numbers.
He went home that evening with her laughter still echoing in his head. A week later, they were going out together, four months after that she’d moved in and eight months beyond that she left him. He wondered at the fact that it had happened in the first place. What had she seen in him?
“Hello, Michael,” Ruth said, her voice on the line bringing a stab of warmth, regret also, to his gut. “You’re still screening calls then?”
“Yes, I’m still screening calls.”
A pause followed, as if she didn’t quite know what to say, even though it had been she who had left him and she who had called. It was the first time he’d spoken to her since the day she’d walked out.
“Are you all right?” she asked him.
He considered the matter. Bearing in mind his recent decisions, who could say? He was unsure whether he could even begin to answer that question, reasonable though it was. In terms of how he’d been accustomed to live his life, whilst she knew him, he imagined he couldn’t be “all right” at all. But how he thought of the matter now, with this new and different self that appeared to be preparing to unfurl within him – well, that was a different issue altogether.
“I’m fine,” he said. Then, wanting to emphasise the fact. “Really fine. It’s nice of you to call.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m surprised you answered, when you heard it was me. I wasn’t sure you would.”
He sighed, recalling the unexpectedly bitter words they’d used as weapons against each other when she’d left him. Before that night, Michael had never known he could be so angry so quickly. Ruth had always managed to surprise him though there’d been no laugher on that occasion. There had only been tears.
“Of course I answered you,” he said, not wanting to remember the past in full when the woman he’d last been in a relationship with was right there, at the other end of a phone line. “Why wouldn’t I?”
This time he heard her laughter and it warmed him. “I can think of several reasons, actually. Some my fault …”
“… and some mine,” he finished her sentence, joining in with her laughter. It seemed to melt away the residual tension between them. Odd how he hadn’t been aware of it until that moment.
“How have you been?” he asked her when the silence drifted in again, finding he wanted to know, more than he thought he would.
He listened as she told him about the recent promotion she’d been offered, and taken up, about how her sons were doing and about her search for a new house. She’d seen two or three that she liked the look of, but had made no definite decisions yet. She was taking her time.
Whilst Ruth was talking, Michael leant back on the dining-room chair, feeling the carved pattern push against his spine. Somehow it centred him, which wasn’t a phrase he’d thought much about before, but it seemed the best description for the sensation, both external and within.
“That sounds positive,” he said when she’d finished playing catch-up. “Good for you, I’m pleased.”
“Thank you,” she replied, and once more he could sense the smile in her voice, and feel it too. “But how about you? I’d heard … well, I heard …”
“Ah, let me guess. You’d heard that I’ve given up my job, cut all ties to my former life and have every intention of going into a religious order as soon as I can find one to accept me?”
A small silence and then she snorted, but it was with more of her laughter, not scorn. “Is it true?”
“I suppose yes, apart from my last remark about the religious order. And I’m not sure I want to cut all ties to my former life either. In fact, completely the opposite. I want to take time to explore it further, try to find the faith, and the concept of prayer I suppose, that I left behind when I was young and see whether any of it is something I should in fact have carried with me through to today. That’s what I want to do, Ruth, most of all.”
This was possibly more than he’d ever spoken to her before, at least on one occasion. But the truth of it flooded through Michael even as he was talking and he had to catch his breath, close his eyes for a moment at the sheer audacity of it. What right did he of all people have to tackle prayer, or to reach for God in this way? He felt as if he were preparing to take up arms, even to march into battle in order to discover the kind of man he’d once been. Against an opponent who was, if anything, supposed to be on his side, but who might not even be willing to be found.
“Michael? Are you still there?”
Ruth’s voice cut in on his musings and he shook himself into reality again. “Yes, I’m here. I’m just thinking.”
“It’s allowed,” she said. Then, “It sounds like something of a challenge. But you always did have a hankering for the church, when I knew you.”
“Did I?” Michael hadn’t thought that was the case. While he was with Ruth, he’d attended the local church no more than usual and he hadn’t thought she’d noticed anyway.
“Oh yes,” she replied with enthusiasm. “I know you didn’t go often, but when you came back, there was always something different about you. You’d be calmer for a while too. Not that you were ever not calm, not really. But you know what I mean. Happier. As if you knew yourself better and were rather surprised by what you saw.”
“I miss you, Ruth.”
The words startled him. He’d felt them crowding the back of his throat all this time and now there they were. Out in the open and exposed. He swallowed hard, gripped the table edge once more.
She said his name. Just once, gently. Nothing more. No further words, nothing to echo the meaning of what he’d admitted to her. It told him all he needed to know, but nothing he wanted to understand.
“Forgive me,” he stuttered. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s true.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Please don’t … I’m sorry, Michael, but …”
“No, don’t worry,” he took a breath, tried to gather together the strange swirl of his thoughts. “I enjoyed being with you, that’s all, and I was sorry when it ended. More sorry than I’d realised, evidently.”
“I liked being with you too,” she whispered, “but …”
“… it’s over. Yes, I know.”
They were silent together for a while. All Michael could hear was the soft pulse of her breathing and the faint echo of birdsong from outside. There were other words he thought he should say too, and perhaps she gave him space for those, but they did not come and he could not say them.
“What will you do?” she asked him at last.
He considered this. She, more than anyone, deserved an honest answer. “I’ll do what it was I left work to do. What I told people, if they asked me. I’ll try to learn how to pray again.”
“Yes,” she said. Almost as if it was what she’d been expecting to hear, even though he did not see how that could possibly be true, in spite of what they’d just talked about. Because this time what was passing between them felt deeper in a way he couldn’t fully explain. “I didn’t think you’d tell me that because you’ve always been such a private man, but yes, it makes sense. I mean, as I said, there was always something else, something outside what we knew, that you were searching for, wasn’t there? Even if whatever it was might be a thousand miles away. In some ways, I knew early on that I’d never be enough and, in the end, it was one of the reasons I left.”
Michael closed his eyes, ran one slow hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Perhaps you were right. Perhaps you were wise to go.”
Later, when the conversation was over, he walked around his flat. The dining room, the S-shaped hallway with its two antique mirrors, the spare room where he kept his computer and most of his books, the bathroom, the tiny kitchen. He walked around it all, laying his hand across the angles and shapes that made up its structure: the frame of a picture; the corner of a shelf; a door handle.
He finally came to rest in his bedroom. He sat on the bed, gazed around at the deep green walls, the pale wooden wardrobe, and leaned back onto the pillow. He closed his eyes.
Perhaps he ought to pray. It was what he wanted and what he longed to do, or rather discover again. But he had set off on this journey with no provisions, no map and no compass, and with no companion either. So be it. He would have to make do with what he could glean along the way.
Still, he had no idea how to begin and that knowledge terrified him.
He tried to think logically and tell himself how simple it was, if he only allowed himself to believe, but the room stayed empty of anyone but himself and he could not bring a single prayer to mind. At last it was Ruth that came to his thoughts, though she had been there all along. Another part of his past, though more recently, that he needed to consider. He thought of her. He could almost see her face right there in front of him, the slight crease at the curve of her mouth, her gloriously dark hair, even the scent of her, as fresh as apples and as clear as sunlight. The warmth of her voice and her laughter filled him and, for the first time in six months, he let the memory take him up, knowing now that it was indeed memory, not hope.
As thoughts of her drifted through his mind, he found himself anchored by his breath, the soft ebb and flow guiding him into whatever needed to happen. He arranged himself into the most comfortable position on the bed and waited. Then it was as if he was laying in front of himself every aspect of his life with Ruth as it had taken place. Laying it there and waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to take it, store it away. Days he’d spent with her, experiences they’d shared. The weekend they’d been together in Brighton and walked along the beach hand in hand, the times they’d gone to the theatre, the meals out. How easy she was to be with, and how exciting. Because, oh yes, the night-times too, he couldn’t forget those. It had all been good, until near the end, when something inside him had shifted its focus, and all that she’d offered had somehow no longer been enough. He’d known it as clearly as if it had been written across the sky in flame but could have done nothing to change it. She was right to have left him. But even so, even so.
“Do You know,” he whispered suddenly and fiercely to no-one and to everyone, clenching his fists in front of him, “do You know how the things You decide can burn other people too? People who do not deserve the burning …”
He no longer knew if he was talking to himself or to God, nor even if it mattered. The air around him shimmered with what could have been his anger, the slight breeze through the open window, or something else again.
He thought of Ruth once more and his fists relaxed.
The words came to him when he needed them most: “May she be blessed, good Lord, may she be blessed.”
Perhaps not the phrase he would have chosen, but it seemed to fit with her and also, now, with him. He said it quietly for a while.
When he finished, he looked at the bedside clock. Fifteen minutes had passed since he sat down on the bed. Remembering his former prayer life, the wild swoop and fall of it, the time he had gladly given it, he couldn’t help but smile. Still, this was no competition; it was a pathway. And, whatever had just taken place, it had been a prayer, of sorts. It was a start then, a small one.