Mr Beaumont: Emptiness on Christmas Afternoon
"Christmas Day," Mr Beaumont wrote in his diary, and underlined it thoughtfully. "Attendance poor because of snow. Preached on the coming of hope in the midst of darkness. Choir in good form. Afterwards found tramp collapsed in the snow. Alice Stanton took him in – a true Christian. And so to lunch."
He closed the diary, a gift from one of the choristers some Christmases past. Lunch had been bacon, fried to a crisp, with eggs and sausages and moist mushrooms from the garden. The Christmas dinner would come later, when Mrs Briggs from next door brought round slices of goose, and he made stuffing out of a packet, and roasted some potatoes in oil. He hoped there would be Christmas pudding this year, too, and perhaps a little brandy butter, for it was Christmas, after all.
It was still snowing outside, falling white on the little patch of garden outside his window. Earlier, he had scattered suet and nuts out for the birds, and struggled out into the snow to fill the bird feeders. Blue tits and great tits clung to the feeders, and chaffinches and greenfinches fought for their turn. He thought they looked very cold. Perhaps there was a sermon in this, he thought, or perhaps he had already preached that one. It was hard to be original after ten years in the same parish. Perhaps it was time to move on.
He still did not know precisely what had made him come to Huntercombe. He had been educated not far away, at Eton, but he had never been free to wander this way by bike, and he had never been a rower, to explore these reaches of the Thames by boat. His family was wealthy, distantly related to nobility and very proud of the fact, and he had disappointed his father greatly when he had emerged from Eton determined to go into the Church. Oxford had not changed his resolve, and here he was.
What had the world come to, he often thought, when a father could disown his son for choosing to devote his life to God.
"If you choose this path," his father had thundered, "you will be on your own. I've wasted enough money on your education. I refuse to support you in this folly."
Penniless for the first time in his life, he had scrimped and saved his way through his training, and taken up his first position, as curate in a city parish. He had seen poverty there, and real need, and yet here he was, not so many years later, ministering to a congregation of polite old ladies, retired businessmen and farmers.
He had scandalised quite a few of them when he had arrived, he knew that. The previous incumbent had been a white-haired gentleman of the old school, and had been rector in Huntercombe for as long as anyone could remember. So when his replacement came roaring in on a motorbike… He smiled wryly at the thought of that arrival. The motorbike had become a vanity, perhaps, but it had started as a necessity. At rector of Huntercombe, he had to serve half a dozen tiny parishes, and a bike was cheaper than a car, and that was that.
He walked to the kettle. There was just time for a cup of tea before he had to venture out into the cold to begin his round of afternoon services at his other churches, and then an early evensong, and then dinner.
His cat wandered in, her coming heralded by a peal of bells. "Oh no you don't, Missy," he told her, as she looked longingly at the boarded-up cat flap. "The birds need to eat undisturbed." With five bells on her collar, she never managed to catch birds, and she was outraged by snow, but it was better to be safe than sorry. "Have my left-overs." He offered her his bacon rind, and she chirped grudgingly, as if to say that he was not yet forgiven, but was tolerated, at least.
As the kettle came to the boil, he found himself staring out of the window again. His mood was strange, he realised, with none of the joy he normally felt at Christmas. Perhaps it was the poor attendance at the morning service, although that was entirely due to the snow, and didn't mean that his flock was beginning to turn away from the path of the Lord. Perhaps it was finding the poor man in the snow, abandoned and half frozen. Or perhaps he really had been here for too long, cut off from his family, and alone at Christmas.
"But we should be grateful for the blessings in our life, shouldn't we, Missy?" He addressed the cat, who was licking her paws, and ignored him utterly.
He thought back to the service. Attendance had been poor, yes, but wasn't that a blessing in disguise? At Christmas, like Easter, he normally got people coming to church who never came on a normal Sunday. They drove in in their expensive cars, sat there looking stiff and uncomfortable, and drove away, untouched by holiness. Today had been a day for the regulars, for the true spiritual family of Huntercombe. The snow separated the wheat from the chaff indeed, and what was left was glorious.
He thought of the ringers, giving voice to their remarkable bells. Those bells had been one of the things that had drawn him to Huntercombe. He had always been fascinated with old churches, and part of the fabric of the church of St James the Less dated back to Saxon times, and its six-bell peal was famous and rare. He fell in love with the place as soon as he saw it. Standing within its walls felt like coming home. And when he heard the bells calling the faithful to his first ever service… He still shivered at the memory.
The choir, too, was something remarkable. When their beautiful harmonies were soaring up to the roof, he defied any man to listen to them and not see the hand of God at work. But its glory days were passing, he feared. James and Will Stanton, the best trebles, would not sing treble for long, and this time there were no younger brothers waiting in the wings. Even Paul was bound to leave soon, for his prodiguous musical talent would take him far from Huntercombe. The congregration was ageing. In ten years, the number of children regularly attending church had halved. In ten years more, he feared, it would be a church only of the old.
"But that is many years away," he said out loud. "Things will turn out the way God wills it." It was just as worthy to preach God's word to the old as to the young, and God could be worshipped in many places, without music or bells or any other trappings. Christmas was a time of hope, not a time of regret. Jesus Christ had been born into the world to save sinners, and here, at the very darkest part of winter, was born the purest light.
"Dear Lord," he prayed. "Dear Lord…" But even prayer was interruped by the nagging feeling of discontent that had plagued him since the service. Abandoning the idea of tea, he walked back to his diary, and read his entry again. It said nothing. Nothing in his diary ever said anything that really mattered.
Sick at heart, he closed it, and leant against the window, forehead against the cold glass. Outside, the birds scattered in alarm, leaving the garden white and empty, devoid of life.
Attendance was poor, but that was because of the snow. The choir had been in excellent form, and that contained its own regrets, for such things could not last, but that had not been in his mind while writing it. His sermon had been one of his best, and had appeared to go down well, although admittedly he was preaching to the converted.
After the service, then… What of that? He had talked music with Paul Stanton, as they came out of the church. He loved music, and had loved it since school – which was another thing that his father had disapproved of. He lived frugally now, but much of the spare money that he had, he spent on recordings. In the evenings, he lost himself in music, and in contemplation of God. He wrote heart-felt sermons to Brahms, and contemplative ones to Bach. He wrote playful ones to Mozart, and lachrymose ones to Mahler. Paul Stanton was one of the few people he could talk about music with, for Paul loved it just as passionately as he did, if not more so, for Paul could create it, too.
But that was nothing out of the ordinary. He and Paul often talked about music. This time, Paul's brother, Will, had lingered, apparently interested in what they were saying. The party from Dawson's Farm had been nearby, he remembered, but that was it. Nothing untoward had happened. When everyone had left, he had turned to lock the church up…
It had felt different, though. As he had pulled the door to, there had been just the faintest touch, just the tiniest whisper of feeling. The church had changed. The church was emptier. Something indefinable had gone from it, and it was no longer home.
"Foolishness," he told himself. He thought quickly through the events that had followed the service. There had been birds outside, dark against the snow, and bolder than normal, but starvation made even shy animals bold. He had been off collecting his bike when Paul and Will had found the tramp in the snow. That had been a shocking thing, and no mistake, but nothing he had not encountered before, in his city parish. He had carried the man to Alice Stanton at the Old Vicarage, and waited until he was settled in.
"I'll call Dr Armstrong," Mrs Stanton had assured him. "There's no need for you to wait, Mr Beaumont. You've got to get on to your other churches, I know. We'll see that he gets the care he needs."
Will had been outside the room, listening. He remembered that. The poor boy had looked unhappy and wary. It must have disturbed him, finding the poor man in the snow like that. It was easy to forget how sheltered children were from the evils of the world. Perhaps that could be a sermon… But, no. It was not a sermon for children's ears.
Sighing, he moved away from the window. It was almost time to venture out into the snow again, and ride to the tiniest of his churches, to preach to a congregation of seven. Perhaps there he would find again the joy and hope that was supposed to come with Christmas.
"After all, we all have funny moods sometimes, don't we, Missy?" He ruffled the fur on the cat's back. "Even vicars."
Outside, the snow stretched as far as he could see, pristine and beautiful. He did not live in Huntercombe itself, but in a tiny cottage on a farm, nearly a mile outside the village. Once, long ago, his predecessors had lived in the Stanton's house next to the church, but that was in the days when vicars had money, and large families to support. Not far away, the Thames flowed, a ribbon of silver in the snow. Windsor was only a few miles away, as was the school where there had been good times, as well as bad. His churches were some of the oldest in the country, in the Thames valley, where people had been living as long as there were men.
And the people were good people. There were few in the city who would take in a tramp with the kindness that Mrs Stanton had shown, and few teenage boys who would devote their time so passionately to music as Paul did. The snow kept some people away, but most of them still came, gathering together in fellowship, just as the villagers of Huntercombe had always gathered together against the dangers of the night.
As he walked towards his bike, the birds returned, darting from feeder to feeder, undaunted by his proximity.
He smiled. "Foolishness," he said out loud. "I said all along it was foolishness."
After all, nothing had happened. The church was unchanged; the village was as it always would be. The Thames would flow forever, and the snow would melt to reveal the spring. He lived alone, but Mrs Briggs would bring him dinner, and perhaps even invite him to share in their family evening together.
And God was there, eternal and everlasting, infallible and ever-wise. God made the snow, and the birds that sang. God caused man to make music, and God was present in every stone in every church. It was Christmas, and God's son was born, to vanquish evil forever. In the face of a truth like that, what possible reason could he have to feel sad?
He started to sing. "Oh ye frost and song, bless ye the Lord, praise him and maginfy Him forever."
The snow was God's work, and all that came from it. It was Christmas Day, and nothing evil could exist, and there could be nothing in his heart that was not joy.