Two days later, Paul was still trying to work out what had happened.
The vigil had ended, the congregation drifting home to their private grief. Paul stayed, thinking perhaps someone would need whatever help he could still provide. Enough people came to justify his presence, but nowhere near enough to occupy his mind. Most of them just wanted to talk - even to rant - in front of someone who knew how to listen sympathetically. A couple of them asked, like the latecomer, why God would do such a thing; Paul still had no answer.
Towards midday on the second day, a vaguely familiar young man arrived. He had been at the back of the church with the others, but it took Paul a few moments to work out where else he'd seen him. He helped out every year with Christian Aid Week, but didn't often come to services. Paul had heard second-hand that his boyfriend had converted to some particularly nasty strain of Christianity, ranted at him about what a sinner he was, and cleared off. He didn't look as if he blamed Paul for this.
"I'm worried about a friend of mine," he said, without preamble. "She's on her own - she lost a little girl - a toddler."
Paul knew single mothers, knew how close they could be to their children. Sometimes the children were the one positive thing in their chaotic lives, and to lose them... What comfort could anyone offer to someone in that situation?
"She was taking it about as well as you'd expect," the young man went on. "I was sort of looking after her, making sure she didn't ... making sure she could cope. And she was coping - just about - until someone came round. I'd gone out to get some bread - they were leaving when I got back."
"I think they were some sort of religious nutcases - no offence. She didn't tell me who they were - she wasn't really up to talking. She went right downhill after they came round. It's almost as if ... as if whatever they said to her was worse than her daughter disappearing."
Worse than losing her daughter inexplicably and without a moment's warning? Paul shivered.
"Do you think you could go and speak to her? Tell her that whatever they said, God isn't really like that? They had Bibles - the only bit of the Bible I know is 1 Corinthians."
It wouldn't do any good to ask what he should do if God really was like that. Any arguments the Bible might make were a good deal less convincing than the spaces where children used to be. "I can speak to her," Paul said. "What's her name? Come to think of it, what's yours?"
"Oh! Sorry, didn't I say? I'm Patrick Coleman. She's called Kate Walton. I wrote her address down..."
As he searched through his jacket pockets for Kate's address, the door opened. "Sorry," said an all-too-familiar voice. "I didn't realise you were busy."
Patrick produced a slip of paper, mumbled something about getting going, and left Paul face-to-face with the latecomer.
"I came to say sorry," he said. "I don't know what came over me."
Paul's heartbeat began the return to normal. "It's OK. After what happened..."
"No, I know I wasn't thinking straight. I wanted to lash out anywhere. I just don't know what good I thought it would do."
"It's OK," Paul said again. "Grief does strange things to us. You scared the hell out of me, I won't deny that, but it's over now."
"Yes," said the other man. "It's all over." He fiddled with his belt buckle, looking as if he still had something to say. "I know it's a lot to ask, after what I did, but would you help me with Janice's funeral? I want to give her ... give her..." Sobs choked him again.
"I can do that," said Paul. A funeral would be almost a relief, a reminder of the days when suffering came a little at a time, and understandably. "If it'll help at all, I'll be glad to."
The sobs slowly subsided, but the man remained tense. Whatever he'd come to say, he hadn't finished saying it.
"You never told me your name," Paul said, when he thought the other man would be able to speak.
"Gary. Gary Sutton." Gary took a deep breath and burst into words. "I've been thinking about what you said, about sinking to God's level and me being all I've got. Was it just something you said to try to calm me down, or did you really mean it?"
Paul remembered that moment, but he couldn't recapture the answer that had been so close. "I don't know," he said. "Does it matter now?"
"I suppose not," said Gary. "I just thought if you meant it, maybe ... I don't know."
"I'm sorry," said Paul. "I wish I had some answers for you."
Gary sighed and got to his feet. "Well, thanks anyway, Reverend. I'll see you about the funeral ... when they finish the paperwork ... it's going to take a while before they release the..." Tears filled his eyes, and he wiped them away with his sleeve. "I'll let you know."
At the church door, he stopped and turned back towards Paul. "Reverend? Do you still ... you know? Believe in God?"
Paul shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know the answer to that either."
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