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PART OF THE Feeling Festive ISSUE

‘An at that moment a muckle great waw cam crashin oan tae the rocks an the waater hit against the preeson wa’ an the spray cam through yon wee windae an waashed ower me. An ah kent. Richt there an then ah kent that ah had been foon.’

Quality fiction is always a great gift for Christmas, and this new novel from Stewart Ennis fits that bill. A touching coming-of-age tale, Blessed Assurance introduces us to the god-fearing Joseph Kirkland, his devout family and the community around him, as he tries to make sense of life in a small Scottish town as the Cold War steps up a gear. In this extract, he has an encounter with a travelling preacher. . .

 

Extract taken from Blessed Assurance
By Stewart Ennis
Published by Vagabond Voices

 

Benjamin Mutch walked straight out of the Old Testament. From the moment he appeared and began his slow ascent onto the platform, Joseph Kirkland was bewitched. He was all that Joseph had imagined. All he’d hoped for. More. Much more. He was Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, all of them, all the prophets. He was even carrying a shepherd’s crook for goodness sake, the kind they’d have used in the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’, the kind Moses himself might have used to part the Red Sea. If anyone was to be the Saving of Joseph Kirkland it must surely be this man. Joseph felt the cold lead dread subside, a little, enough, and sighed the sigh of a drowning man who’d just seen a ship on the horizon. SOS indeed.

Oh, this hollow-cheeked old man was just perfect. He was as tall, thin and craggy as a sea stack, with a long beard and wild mane of hair as white as foam on a breaking wave. He was magnificent, magnetic.

He wore the uniform of the North East evangelist; tweed suit, Fair Isle v-neck jumper, grey flannel shirt, green knitted tie, brown brogues. All of it, all of him, had seen better days, but it was in his milky opal eyes, filmed with cataract clouds, that his splendid decrepitude was most apparent. His long life of long walks and Saving Souls had clearly taken its toll.

He stopped directly on top of the trapdoor and raised himself up to his full considerable height: ‘Ah’ve been stravaigin up an doon the kintra frae Muckle Roe tae Melrose an back again, an noo here ah am in Kilhaugh aince mair.’

Joseph had cousins in the North East but Benjamin Mutch didn’t sound like any of them. Like anyone Joseph had ever met. And neither was this the boom or bellow of those itinerant fire and brimstone preachers Joseph had witnessed at the Templeton Hall. This was a high hoarse whisper that everyone heard because everyone wanted to hear. Benjamin Mutch looked around and quietly chuckled. Chuckling. In the Hall.

‘Ah’ve no been here fur lang an weary. Mmm. Ah wunner why the Guid Lord in His wisdom has led me here…’

For me. You’ve come for me.

 ‘Weil noo. Ah’ve some muckle guid news an ah’ve some muckle bad news, as they say. Ah’ll gie yese a’ the bad news feerst eh? It has been written that the fearfu’ an unbelieving an the abominable an the murderers, an the whoormongers, an warlocks, an idolaters an a’ the liars shall hae their pairt in the loch which burneth wi fire an brunstane: which is the saicant deith.’ Benjamin Mutch considered this, let it sink in, for his own benefit as much as anyone else’s. The heat in the Hall played its part. ‘This is the wey it is. This is the wey it will be. But! There is guid news.’ He chuckled again and shook his big, bearded, lion-maned head as though not quite believing it himself, ‘An it’s gey guid. Gey guid. The guid news is that God sae luved the warld that he gie’d His ainly begotten son – His ain son – think aboot that noo, eh – that whosoe’r believeth in Him shouldna perish, but hae e’er-lastin’ life.

Joseph was shocked. Not at the descriptions of Damnation and Salvation, which he’d heard often enough, but at Benjamin Mutch quoting scripture in Scottish words. Nobody used Scottish words in the Hall, not like this, and certainly not when quoting Scripture. Gran had little time for Scottish words, which she considered uncivilised and common: It makes good words and profanities sound the same.

 ‘Gentle Jesus, meek an mild, leuk upon this little child. Hou mony o ye chant that in yer bed at nicht afore ye gang aff tae sleep eh?’ Nobody answered. ‘Noo listen, yase’ll need tae say somethin or ah’ll no ken yer there. Wi ma eyesicht it’s foggier in here than it is oot there.’ Was Benjamin Mutch making a joke? Nobody laughed, and he chuckled again, then a few hands went up. ‘An there’s nae point pittin yer hauns up neither. Ah canna see them. Bawl it oot! Wha chants their Gentle Jesus?’

There was a muted chorus of Me. I do. I say it. Benjamin Mutch nodded sagely. Everything he did he did sagely.

‘Weil mind add Benjamin Mutch tae yer list o them ye askit the Lord tae Bless.’

He scratched his beard, licked his lips, closed his eyes and muttered to himself. Some folk looked at each other like he’d gone doolally. But when he opened his eyes they were clearer, his voice stronger, ‘Ah wis in the jyle at the time, at the tap end o a vera lang preeson sentence. Oh whit a dork an drearisome place it wis tae. Ah wis that lost in there. Och dinna misunnerstaun me, ah wis lost lang afore ah went tae the jyle. Ah wis as far awa’ frae the Lord as it’s possible fur a maun tae be. Ah kent the Deil but. Oh aye we were weil acquaintit, masel an the Deil. Ah didna ken Jesus Christ oor Lord though. But ah soon fund oot that he kent me. It wis a chaplain frae ain o the Halls up North wha telt me whit ah needit tae hear. Ah usually avoidit these fowk like the plague, but this yin – oh a richt dour man so he wis, wad hae given Haly Wullie a run fur his money – he saw this tattoo o a blue fish oan the back o ma haun.’ He held out a pale liver-spotted left hand. ‘A bit faded wi salt waater and years o wandrin hither an thither, back an forrit, but yese can still see it eh? Onywey, this chaplain, he kent ah’d been a fisherman an he says tae me, Benjamin, ye ken the vera feerst follyers o Christ had picturs o a fish drawn oan their hauns? An ah says Oh, is that richt? Because tae be perfectly honest wi ye, ah couldna be bathered wi a’ this releegious clishmaclaver. Weil he gie’d me a Bible, the feerst ah’d e’er held. The same auld tattered Bible ah’m haudin in ma haun noo in fact. Read this Benjamin, says he, an he merked it at Mathew’s Gospel chaipter fowr. The Lord’s waitin fur ye Benjamin, says he. Weil that wis me. Oh ah cursed the maun an his God, yasin words ah couldna repeat here in Kilhaugh.’

Disappointment registered in the eyes of the Sangster twins who’d loved to have heard him repeat the words he couldn’t repeat in Kilhaugh.

‘Och ah wis a thrawn crittur back then. Ragin’ at the warld so ah wis, worse wi a drink in me but wickit wi’oot it. Weil ah took his Bible because ye ken in the jyle ye tak onythin that’s gaun free. But ah wis that determint no tae read it. That nicht tho, ah wis in ma peter – ye ken a peter is whit preesoners ca’ their cell – an ah wis sharin it wi anither puir sowl. Auld Joe wis his name. Been in an oot the jyle a’ his days. Auld Joe couldna read nor write an we had nae books in oor peter, so Joe, he says tae me, Whit ye got ther Benjamin? A Bible, says I, an he says, Will ye read me a wee bit o it? An ah thocht, ach whit fur no, ah’ve naethin else tae dae. So ah opened the Guid Beuk for the vera feerst time, at the place yon dour man frae the Hall had merked, an this is whit ah read,’ Benjamin Mutch again closed his eyes. He knew the scripture off by heart and recited it as if he was remembering his own life story, ‘Then wis Jesus led up o the Spirit intae the wilderness tae be temptit o the Deil. An when he’d fastit forty day an forty nicht….’ as if he was there right now in that wilderness and was simply reporting on events. ‘Frae that time Jesus began tae preach, an tae say, Repent: fur the kingdom o heaven is at haun. An Jesus, walkin bi the sea o Galilee, saw twa brethren, Simon cried Peter, an Andra his brither, castin a net intae the sea: fur they were fishers. An he saith untae them, “Folla me, an ah will mak yese fishers o men.” An they straightawey left their nets, an follaed him.’ His eyes sprung open. ‘Weil, ah nearly slammed the Guid Book shut there an then because ah didna want tae be remindit o the fishin days. But auld Joe, he insistit ah cerrit oan. An when ah got tae the end, ah dinna ken why but ah leuked at auld Joe, an ah leuked at the fish tattoo oan ma haun an ah got up oan a chair an keeked through the wee barred windae high up oan the cell wa’ that leuked oot ower the North sea, the vera sea that fur mony years ah yased tae fish an which had been the source o a’ ma troubles. An there wis a storm blawin that nicht. My, whit a tempest it wis tae, the likes o whit Jonah himsel micht hae witnessed. Weil, the wind blew the salt waater in through the wee windae but ye ken ah couldna say whether it wis the salt waater ah wis tastin’ or ma ain teardraps. Fur ah wis greetin like ah’d ne’er gret afore. No greetin’ like a bairn mind. Mair, howlin, like a woundit beast, screichin oot that wee windae intae the nicht, Oh Lord if yer ther, please hear me. Ah couldna haurdly speak fur greetin. Ah ken ah’m a filthy rotten sinner, there’s nae gettin awa’ frae it. But Lord if ye see fit, then ah’m askin ye, please come intae ma hert. An at that moment a muckle great waw cam crashin oan tae the rocks an the waater hit against the preeson wa’ an the spray cam through yon wee windae an waashed ower me. An ah kent. Richt there an then ah kent that ah had been foon. Efter that… efter that…’ He was speaking in a whisper now, ‘…ah wis calm. Ah went tae sleep an ah slept like a babby. An when ah waukent… ah heard things different, ah saw things different, ah felt things different. Ah wis different… a different maun.

A different man? Different, how? Invasion of the Body Snatchers different?

 ‘Ah had been SAVED. Weil the follaein Sunday ah wis baptised, in a tin tub in the jyle, bi yon maun frae the Hall, an whit a glorious day that wis. But that wisna the end o ma journey. In fact, ah wid say it wis ainly the beginnins o it. Ah read scripture evra oor o evra day in ma peter, or daunderin roon the yaird, readin tae masel or tae onynody wha’d listen. The Guid Beuk wis ayeways in ma haun. Bible Benjamin! That’s whit they ca’d me. An whit fur no? At nicht ah cerrit oan readin auld Joe scripture an evra bit o scripture ah read tae him it wis that fittin ye micht hae thocht it had been scrieved jist fur me an him. Weil, efter mibbe twa weeks o this, auld Joe wauks me up in the middle o the nicht. Oh his een were fu o bodement, pished wi’ dreid so he wis. In the jyle ye ken the nicht is the time ye feel it maist, the desolation an despair. An he says tae me, quiet as a moose, Benjamin, ther’s somethin ah need tae say an ah waant you tae hear it, an ah says, Joe ahm a’ ears an he gets doon oan his knees an he closes his een an he says, Lord, it’s Joseph here. Ah’ve ne’er spak wi ye afore but here ah am noo, a sinner, an aboot as coorse as they come. But ahm askin ye tae come into ma hert like ye did wi ma guid pal Benjamin here. Weil, see when he opened his een, maun there wis a licht in them ah hidna seen afore an his sowl wis mair lichtsome tae an ah kent that this wisna the same maun, that the auld sinner Joe had died a deith.’

‘Weil boys an girls ah served ma time an eventually ah wis liberatit. An ah thocht tae masel whit’ll ah dae noo? Weil, as an auld lag, ma options were gey limited eh? There wis aye the fishin boats. But ah wis that feart. Feart that goin back oan the boats wad mean goin back oan the drink. Feart ah wid turn back intae the maun ah had aince been. Weil ah thocht aboot it richt enough. An then ah remembert auld Joe an the scripture yon chaplain had merked oot fur me a’ those years afore an ah realised in a flash that aye ah wid tak up the fishin again. But no fishin fur the cod or the herrin. Na, ah had mair muckle fish tae catch. Ah’d be a fisher o men. An the mair ah thocht aboot it the mair ah realised that ah already wis a fisher o men, fur had auld Joe no been ma vera feerst catch?’

Leaning heavily on his stick, Benjamin sat down. ‘Onybody ony questions?’ Silence. ‘Naebody? Weil, ah’ll tell yese the feerst question ah’d be askin if ah wis a bairn sittin doon there listenin tae some bletherin auld lag up here. Ah’d be askin, whit were ye in the jyle fur Mister Mutch? Eh? Dinna tell me that’s no whit yer thinkin! Weil ah’ll tell yese. Ah wis in the jyle because ah murdert a fella fisherman in a drunken rage. An no wi a knife or a gun or a rope but like a beast, wi ma bare hauns, these same hauns that haud the Guid Beuk.’

He held up those murdering hands and Joseph’s mouth fell open. All the children’s mouths fell open. It had of course been spoken of, but to hear this confession out loud, to see those killer hands!

‘Oh ah wis drunk a lot in them days.’ His eyes were wet. ‘Aye, tak a leuk evrabody, tak a guid leuk. Whit ye hiv afore ye is a convicted murderer. Oh ah’ve repentit. Ah’m still repentin. Ah’ve served ma time but ah’ll be repentin till the end o ma days. The panel that pit me awa is naethin compared tae the panel ah’ll staun afore oan judgement day. But here’s whit ah hiv tae say tae yese a’. The Guid Lord wis crucified tae deith oan yon cross so that sinners sic as me, aye even sic as me, wad no perish but wad hae e’er lastin life! Weil, whate’er sins ye micht think ye’ve committed ah’m shair they’re naethin compared tae mine. An like me ye can be Saved, but ainly – an ah’m talkin tae the aulder bairns amang yese – if ye repent an gie up yer life tae Him. There, ah’ve said whit ah cam tae say. Noo, pick up yer chorus beuks…’

They’d sung this chorus many times, but never in the presence of a real fisherman turned murderer turned missionary:

I will make you fishers of men, / Fishers of men, fishers of men,
I will make you fishers of men, / If you follow Me.

 Benjamin Mutch answered questions about life as a missionary, about his eternal wanderings from village to village, town to town, labouring for the Lord. Most of them had read Heroes of the Cross and Benjamin Mutch sensed their disappointment when it became clear that his missionary work had not taken him far beyond the Scottish borders.

‘Ah suppose yese are askin yerselves whit fur did he no gang ower tae dorkest Africa or dorkest India or dorkest Papua New Guinea or dorkest some ither place ower the sea? Eh? Places whaur they’ll eat yese as soon as leuk at yese! Places whaur the real heathens live eh? Weil ah’ll tell yese!’ He rose to his feet again. His evangelical armoury was extensive. He could do avuncular warmth and wit, child-friendly H.A.P.P.Y., but he had the Old Testament big guns too:

‘Because in the een o the Lord yin unsaved sowl is like ony ither! Because dorkest Africa is nae dorker than darkest Glesga or dorkest Aiberdeen! Nae dorker than darkest Barra or dorkest South Uist. Nae dorker even than darkest Kilhaugh. Evrawhaur has a dork interior.’ He swept the Hall with his shepherds crook, ‘An dae yese ken whaur’s the dorkest interior o a’?’ He punched his heart, ‘In here,’ and tapped his skull, ‘an in here. This is whaur ye’ll fund the Deil an a’ his works. This is whaur ye’ll fund murderin drunkards like me!’ He was stabbing at the air now, ‘This is whaur ye’ll fund puir lost sowls… like Joseph.’

His shepherd’s crook was pointing directly at Joseph Kirkland.

 

Blessed Assurance by Stewart Ennis is published by Vagabond Voices, priced £9.95

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