The Cup Bearer
"Keep him in your sights, young man." Edward had warned when saying goodbye the day after Rita's funeral. "You're a bit young for such a responsibility but you are closest to him at school. I've spoken to your father and he's willing to back you up so you won't be on your own." Well, Sandy had done his best, and his affable efforts of persuasion had paid off. Gypsy had agreed to come to the rehearsal, "Only because they're your songs." Gypsy had warned. Now, because of Stanford, his plan was down the chute. Trotting across the third side road, he did a double take and saw a familiar figure turning into Trentham Municipal Park about fifty yards away. Dodging other pedestrians with an agility that would have had Sweetnam cheering, Sandy sprinted towards the park gates. Going too fast to stop, he caught hold of the left hand gate and let the momentum of his body swing him round it. Off to his left were the toilets where Gypsy had given a pervert a lesson he wouldn't forget in a hurry. Ahead, the walkway ran round the edge of the green and Gypsy sat on the second bench from the gate with his guitar case standing between his knees, his head down and shoulders slumped forward. When Gypsy glanced up and spotted him, he shot to his feet and turned away, ready to run.
"Just 'old your 'orses a minute, Gomez"
That stopped Gypsy in his tracks. He whipped round. "The name is Diaz and don't you forget it."
"Well, at least it got your attention. Why don't we sit down and have a chat, like."
"About what; being called someone from Sodom?"
"Stanford was out of line and 'e'll 'ave 'is knuckles rapped for that."
"Why don't I believe you? I didn't hear anyone tell him so. Seems to me your church is no different to any others I've been to; cold, lifeless and full of old people who live in the Victorian age where kids are concerned. I could see they didn't approve of me last time I was there."
"If you feel that way, why did you come at all?"
"I came last time because my dad wanted me to and I wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. I came today because I didn't want anyone else messing up your songs. All my life I've had to do what other people wanted. Not anymore. From now on I do things for me and no one else, and you can stick your church."
"But didn't the words of my songs mean anythin' to you? They were about Jesus and our salvation."
Gypsy laughed coldly. "You don't get, it do you? A song is just a song, a piece of music with words. If I wanted to I could sing Humpty Dumpty and I'd feel no different; it's just an act, nothing more. Your friends wanted to see a guy singing a song to the Lord, that's what they got. That rostrum was just another stage and I was performing on stage, get it? Now you go back to your cosy little church and tell them to get lost, and you can get lost too."
"I don't believe this; you can be really nasty when you get goin'. Now I'll tell you somethin'. If you'd stayed just a bit longer you would 'ave 'eard me give Stanford a right roastin', and I'll most likely get one off my dad for my trouble. I wish I 'adn't bothered now."
"Suit yourself." Gypsy turned to walk away and Sandy stood watching him with a feeling of emptiness; rejection was a sharp sword all right. On his way back to the church, he stepped into the first phone box he came to and rang his dad, then wondered what he should do about Gypsy. Suddenly he smiled and began trotting back to church, hoping he would have time to put his new plan into action.
The tramp had listened to it all while sitting on a bench beneath an open window; the lovely music, the hurried arrival of the little white haired man and the commotion that followed. He made his way round to the front of the church and into the tiny foyer and was almost sent flying backwards by someone as tall as himself but a lot younger and with a good deal less weight to move around. Regaining his balance, he watched the lad storm up the high street, and then stepped into the dimness of the hall. The dapper little man with white hair was giving a subdued group of youngsters a lecture on the folly of allowing an abomination to enter the church, especially one who dared to turn wonderful old hymns into products of Satan.
Some of the group spotted the tramp and nudged the others but the little man was so enwrapped in his spontaneous oration he failed to notice him until the tramp coughed politely in his right ear. Startled, the little man spun round, probably thinking the tall youth had returned. His mouth clamped shut when he saw the size of the man behind him then took a step back as an expression of distaste crossed his face. "Deacon Stanford; what can I do for you?"
The tramp smiled over rimless spectacles. "Sounds like you have a little problem, sir. Elijah Theophilus Stone, at your service; perhaps you've heard of me." Elijah stuck out his hand and was not surprised when Stanford took another step back rather than shake it. Elijah was used to that reaction but his conscience was clear. His clothes, although a hotchpotch of cast off clothing, were clean if somewhat worn. He'd had a bath that morning, and his shoes needed mending but did not smell. And there were certainly no holes in his socks. His steel grey hair was mid length and needed a good combing, and his grey and white beard needed a trim. The only thing needing to be thrown away was his tatty fishing hat with its floppy, moth eaten brim, but it meant too much to him to part with. It was the best part of his disguise. Elijah eyed the piano and strolled across to it. "I heard what you said to that young man. I take it you don't like the modern stuff. "
"Indeed I don't, sir." Stanford edged over to the piano to protect it from possible contamination. "Good, solid old hymns from The Redemption Hymnal are the only worship necessary."
"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth." The tramp quoted as he leaned round Stanford to try a few notes. "Burst into jubilant song with music. Psalm ninety eight, verse four."
"I'd rather you didn't touch the piano, sir." Stanford protested as the stranger gently eased him to one side. "And I'll thank you not to quote God's word to me."
The tramp smiled down at him. "Same psalm, verse one. Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvellous things." Sitting at the piano at last, Elijah massaged his hands for a moment then placed them on the keys. Raising his face to the ceiling he said, "Thank you. Lord, for giving me the ability to raise the roof in your name." Suddenly he went boogying all over the keys, leaving Stanford and the group speechless. "This is called Hors D'Oeuvres. Like it? The Lord does." Elijah continued to enjoy himself. "Sid Phillips and his band recorded it in nineteen forty nine. The album was called 'Goody Goody'. You ought to listen to it sometime; it'll help you let your hair down." Suddenly he changed the tune to one that, although played boogie style, could be recognised as 'I serve a Living Saviour' which had the youngsters grinning.
Not so Stanford. Deciding he had heard enough he marched to the church door. "The pastor will here of this."
"Before you go, Mr. Stanford," one of the boys called out, "was it really your nephew Dave who told you Sandy's friend was here."
Elijah stopped playing to watch the confrontation and Stanford couldn't resist returning the jibe. "It does not matter who told me, now get your things cleared away. This rehearsal is over."
"It matters to us," the boy who had spoken said. "Jesus doesn't like people telling tales, and neither do we. I saw him sneak out of here when he thought no one was looking."
Elijah began to play 'Be thou My Vision' and whatever wrath Stanford had boiling up inside him he turned it on Elijah. Striding to the piano he slammed the lid shut; Elijah having just enough time to whip his fingers out of danger. "Now, that was not a Christian thing to do, is it Mr. Stanford." Elijah said with great patience.
"Indeed it wasn't." A voice, from the back of the church, made Elijah look round. He saw four men standing in the doorway with the tall lad who'd almost knocked him down. Pastor Hooson, he already knew and he rose from the piano stool to greet him.
"Hello. Eric." He walked towards the men and held out his hand to Hooson, knowing that this time it would not be declined.
Pastor Hooson stared at his old friend with eyes popping wide. "Elijah? Elijah Stone! Good Heavens above, what a lovely surprise." Grabbing Elijah's hand, he pumped it madly then turned the greeting into a hug. "Goodness! After all these years, I never expected you to turn up here. How did you find me?"
"Well, you moved about so much in the last fifteen years I lost track of you, but my nose led me to Cheshire and I just wandered around till I found someone who knew which church you were preaching at. I thought if I found your church, I'd find you."
Pastor Hooson beamed at him. "I'm so glad you did and at a most opportune time it seems." Looking him up and down he added, "Back to your wandering days again I see?"
"Well, you know me. Eric; I go where God sends me. He obviously brought me here for a good reason. I don't know who I'm to see or what I'm to do but God will tell me when he's ready."
Hooson turned to a bewildered Stanford. "Geoff, meet a friend from my younger days. Reverend Elijah T. Stone. Elijah, this is Geoff, my wife's brother, and these gentlemen behind me are the three elders of this church. This is Evan Roberts, whom you might already know, John Seaman and Robert Westwood. Friends, meet one of the finest itinerant preachers on the British roads." Then he faced the bemused youngsters. "You might as well be told now rather than tonight, the church council had an extraordinary meeting over lunch. They've decided that if you do well this evening we'll consider using a few more modern hymns in our services, certain pressure being brought to bear on the council from various quarters. I suggest that while we have a little chat with Mr. Stanford, you do your best to finish your rehearsals to our satisfaction. We'll come and listen to you in a few minutes; this way, Geoff." He led the way towards the tiny room that served as vestry and office; the way Eric Hooson's eyebrows drew together should have warned Stanford he was not going to find the meeting a pleasant one. Before stepping into the vestry, Evan Roberts said to Elijah, "Good to see you, Lije; we'll 'ave a chat in a few minutes. Just see these young people get some serious practice done; especially that 'hulkin' son of mine over there." He pointed to Sandy.
"Glad to help, Evan." Elijah winked at the lad.
Once the vestry door was shut, Sandy approached Elijah. "You're the preacher my Aunty Jenny keeps on about, aren't you?" With a broad grin he stuck out his hand and gripped the one offered by Elijah.
"Wonderful cook, your Aunty Jenny. Does she still make chicken and leek pie like she used to?"
"She did the last time I was in Cardiff; so why the old clothes?"
"Well, you don't wear you best suit to go hiking, do you?"
"You walked all the way from Cardiff?"
"No, I hitched some of the way."
"Pull the other one."
"Well, not exactly true. I hitched from Scotland."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]