Swords, torches and submission
Johnny Bray sat down on one of the benches at the perimeter edge of the Cathedral square. He was a dark skinned English lad, strikingly good looking with his honest, open smile radiating joy. He wore a creased, white, short-sleeved tee shirt and black jeans, with one holey knee. He was of slight build and was the kind of young man that a motherly soul would wish to take home and feed. And give a bed to, because he was homeless. Despite this, he was happy. He carried all his worldly possessions in one, modest, battered and torn rucksack. That was it; that was all Johnny owned. And he contented himself by reclining in the late afternoon sunshine, absorbed in watching his friend – the `man with the cards` – as he busied himself in the middle of the square.
Johnny was about to rise and walk over to him when he heard the sound of a loud air horn and riotous laughter, singing and cheering coming from the adjacent precinct. Soon he saw a group of young men dancing in the street, waving flags – bearing the St George`s cross – high in the air. He was intrigued and watched as four of the men marched purposefully into High Cross and the centre of the square. Seeing the cans of lager in their swaying hands, he sensed trouble and was ready to come to the aid of the `man with the cards` should there be any sign of harassment.
In the distant past, when he lived in his beloved London, Johnny had often joined the crowds at Loftus Road and supported his local side, Queens Park Rangers. But, he had forgotten all about the World Cup in South Africa; and that evening was the first of England`s fixtures. Somehow, football had become a triviality; far more important were the bare essentials of life, like where to get food and where he could safely rest his head at the end of the day.
He watched as the four boisterous men seemed to be intimidating the `man with the cards`. Clearly, they were already intoxicated.
The Cardman sensed their overshadowing presence. In his thoughts, they descended upon him as if with swords and torches. He studied their faces, poised for confrontation; looking for a scapegoat. He felt his mouth become dry; the muscles in his neck, tighten. `Who is it you are looking for?` slipped off his tongue without warning. No reply. They just stared at him as if he were a criminal.
`I`ve been here for weeks, but none of you has ever spoken to me. Am I some dangerous criminal that you have to come armed with swords and clubs? You come in anger, looking for a fight. Take me. You will draw no resistance from me.`
His words had little effect upon them. With the exception of one, they had no idea what he was talking about.
`What do you know about football?` a gruff voice eventually asked him, contemptuously. The words translated the Cardman to the present.
`Not as much as you, I guess,` he replied with a weak smile. `You look ready to take on the might of the United States. Am I right?`
They did not expect him to know or care anything about the big match. It was disappointing; they wanted to taunt him.
`Do you want a drink?` asked one of them, holding a can close to the Cardman`s face. To him it was a sword. He returned again to the Garden.
He stepped back. `No thanks. Put away your sword.` Then he looked into the vague eyes of the mere boy before him. He felt pity. Sadness. What was society doing to this young man? Then he added, gently, `No, lad, you enjoy it.`
`Hey, religious man, we could teach you something about drinking …` another yelled at him. Johnny stood up, ready to come to the Cardman`s assistance.
`Maybe you could – or maybe not,` the Cardman replied, sternly. And he immediately thought about the cup of sorrow and wondered if, like James and John, these young men would also say they were prepared to drink it. He thought not.
He knew he had to defuse the arrogance of the four men, and decided to play a game with them; it was a risk but, hopefully, he could get them to laugh at themselves.
`Now,` he said with authority, brushing aside their aggression, `I want to guess your names.` To the one who looked particularly masculine and strong, he said, `I think your name`s Wilma.`
`What? Hold on, that`s a girl`s name!`
`Indeed it is. Now who are you?` he said to another, ignoring Wilma`s protestations.
`No. You`re Freda,` the Cardman instructed. The others laughed. Even Wilma joined in. Johnny sat down on the bench again, more confident that the moment of confrontation had passed.
`What`s your name?` the Cardman asked another.
`He`s Chris,` one of them shouted back, excitedly.
`Good. Then you`ll be Christina.` They all laughed, except Christina.
`And, finally,` he told the last lad, `you`re Karenza, Nice name that,` he added. `So … Wilma, Freda, Christina and Karenza … where are you off to this evening?`
`We`re going to watch the match at the pub,` Wilma told him.
`Great. I hope it`s good; you can never tell with the world cup – all those nerves,` the Cardman mused. Karenza drew out a card from `her` trouser pocket and gave it to the Cardman, mockingly.
The Cardman studied the picture; it was of a scantily clad lady. They expected a shocked response, but he just looked at it and then flipped it over, and chuckled.
`Hey,` he said, feigning disappointment, `where`s the message? My cards always have a message on the back.` The lads did not expect his reaction. They wanted him to be angry; embarrassed. He was neither of these things.
`So …` he continued, ` we had better put that right, although there is a message in this picture,` and he turned the card over and showed them.
`What`s the message, then?` Karenza asked, insolently.
The Cardman thought briefly about it, then, covering up most of the picture with the palm of his left hand, he said, `look at this lady`s face. Is it not beautiful?`
`Yes, I suppose so,` Freda remarked, embarrassed.
`Her name is Katrina – that`s her English name, because she is actually Polish.` The lads were all astonished that he knew who she was.
`Her parents live in Poland. Her mother is ill and her father is unemployed. They have no money. So, Katrina came to England to work and send money back home. She got a job as a waitress. It was at the restaurant, where she worked, that a customer noticed her potential and offered her extra money to pose for him. You see, he`s a photographer. He was happy because he could sell the pictures to a magazine. And she thought she was happy because she made some easy money.`
`So, what are you saying ?` Christina asked, impatiently.
`But soon after having those photographs taken of her,` the Cardman continued, `Katrina was not happy. Although she had, indeed, earned – what was to her – a great sum from this man …` the Cardman paused, `she had lost her dignity.` One of the four scoffed, `so what?` he said.
`You look at this picture as a bit of fun. You even used it to try and undermine what I do, to elicit some response and shock me. You could not do that. But, treating it as nothing more than a plaything is what the photographer and magazine editor wanted. Some people may be pleased with it; others will find it abhorrent. It`s wrong, whatever you feel about it. Remember, this young lady is special,` the Cardman looked intently at the girl`s face. `She is unique and loved by her parents; and she loves them. She is loved for who she is, not for what she does.`
`So … what`s that to us,` Karenza interjected, `it`s just a picture.`
`Just a picture? Have you ever had your picture in the `paper?` the Cardman responded, swiftly.
`Well, how would you feel if you had scored the winning goal for Truro City that brought them promotion to the Football League? How would you feel when you saw your picture in the newspaper? Now, don`t tell me you`d not be proud of it. In fact you would cut out the picture and stick it in a scrapbook, or something like it. The point is, it wouldn`t be `just a picture`. It would be you – your precious moment when you were a hero. You see, pictures are more than just pictures. They tell stories.` The Cardman stopped for a moment and noticed that the lads were actually listening to him; had submitted to his words.
`So it is with this one,` he continued, holding the photograph before them. `This is not an inanimate object, but a person. This is someone who is special, like you are all special. She is loved by God, as you are also loved by Him; not because of what you do, but simply because of who you are.` He noticed one of the four looking away; clearly, this was not an easy conversation for him.
`Anyway,` the Cardman chuckled, `you had better have this back, just in case I hand it to someone else by mistake,` and he returned the card to Karenza.
They all laughed at the absurdity of it all, and, without realising it, they had warmed to him for he was actually teasing himself.
`Now you`d better go and watch the football. If you don`t hurry, you might miss a goal!`
`Who do you think`s going to win?` Karenza asked him.
`If it`s a good match, we will all win,` he replied. `You`ll soon find out!` And, with that, the four young men, having reclaimed their proper names, walked back to the precinct and were reunited with the others in the noisy crowd, ready to inflict themselves upon an unsuspecting pub, whichever one they decided to frequent that evening. The Cardman looked at his watch; the match would have already started. They did not seem to be overly concerned about missing the start of it, which led him to wonder which was more important to them – to see the football or try to harass him? They were like sheep without a Shepherd. But, any sense of this would have been completely lost on them, given their high spirits and the effects of the lager.
The Cardman shrugged his shoulders, secretly pleased that the confrontation was safely over, and he walked to where Karenza`s card had been dropped on the ground, just a yard away from a litter bin. He picked it up and reverently tore it in two, knowing that such a picture could offend. Katrina was very precious. A lost soul, but not completely lost. Abused and used. In his thoughts he compared this action to breaking the Eucharistic host. Though we are many we are one body; whether we are young or, like him, now in his senior years; whether we are white or dark-skinned; whether we speak the same language; whether we agree or have opposing views; whether we like it, or not, we are all part of the same earthly body. But do we all share that same bread of brokenness? No, he thought, sadly. For many it is all such an irrelevance. He looked in the direction where the four young men had gone, oblivious of the torture they had brought upon him. It really is so sad, he thought.
Johnny walked up to him and immediately noticed the tears filling the Cardman`s eyes; not the appropriate time for frivolous conversation. The Cardman looked at the torn photograph in his hands and deeply felt the pain of the majority who do not know, or do not care. He gently placed the pieces of card into the bin, and turned to see Johnny watching him.
`So many do not understand,` he said sadly, `people have always exploited the vulnerable, and they continue to do so. You know, Johnny,` he said, putting his left arm around the young man`s shoulders, `we are all naked beneath these masks we wear. Those young men have masks so thick they even believe themselves to be what they are not. Beneath it all they are good lads; but society has forced them to hide their true selves. Admitting to feelings can be particularly embarrassing for young men; especially when they are with their friends. It`s not cool, is it?` And then he stopped and thought about the young man who was now with him, whom he had met on many earlier occasions.
`You are not like them, Johnny. By your own admission you have nothing; but, actually, you have everything. Not that they would understand that – this materialistic world sees things so differently.`
`I was worried for you, boss` Johnny told him. `At first, I thought they was gonna duff you up. That was a stroke of genius, giving them girls` names …`
`They needed to laugh at themselves, Johnny. Intuition told me they could handle it … and they did very well.`
`Intuition?,` Johnny laughed, `it was more than that!`
The Cardman smiled. `Yes, you`re right, Johnny. More than that,` he agreed.
Johnny walked with the Cardman to where his bicycle was parked.
`I wanna say thank you, boss,` he said as the Cardman started to push his cycle towards the precinct.
Johnny was surprised. `For … for `elping me. Most people just pass me by as if I`ve some infectious disease. But you`ve reached out to me and `elped me to see that life is good.`
`It is good. You`re right, Johnny.`
`I was ready to throw my life away, you know that …`
`If you had carried on as you were, it would have happened by itself,` the Cardman agreed, soberly acknowledging the depths to which Johnny had crawled.
`I know. Thank you, boss. It came `ome to me when I watched `ow you dealt with those football lads. You were kind to them, as you `ave been to me. They didn`t deserve it. Nor do I.`
`Sometimes kindness has to show in actions rather than just words, Johnny.`
`And you`ve done that for me; finding me shelter and food … and much more. You`ve restored my confidence and, through those people you sent me to, I really think I can begin to fight my addiction.`
`That`s because you want to, Johnny. Unless you want to, it isn`t going to happen.`
`I want to. You`ve shown me a new way … a meaning to life. For the first time in five years, I really want to live.`
The Cardman put his hands out to receive Johnny`s, and he held them with growing affection for the young man. `You are doing well, Johnny. Will I see you tomorrow?`
`Of course, boss,` Johnny replied with a laugh. `I can`t go anywhere without my daily fix from you.`
The Cardman looked at him seriously. `Then come as often as you need to. You know where I`ll be.`
Johnny walked off, smiling, almost dancing along the now quiet precinct. And the Cardman watched him, knowing that there was a long way to go before the young man would be safely and completely healed of his addiction. He wanted to help him, and there were others – trained for the specific task – who were eager to support him. But that was like scratching the surface; the real problem affecting Johnny went much deeper. It was the dark experiences of his early life that led him to desperation, homelessness and drug addiction. And the real threat of suicide.
Would Johnny be willing, or even able, to confront those experiences? Not until he could allow himself to trust another with his deepest hurts, if ever he could do so. The Cardman felt a responsibility towards him for he had already broken into the myriad layers of protection that Johnny had unconsciously created for himself. But it was a dangerous business and only a tenuous thread separated progress from that of backsliding along the slippery paths of self-destruction.
A week later
It was a worried Johnny Bray who came looking for the Cardman on the Monday morning in the third week of June. Showing none of his youthful exuberance, he shuffled into the Cathedral square. The Cardman immediately walked towards him. `What`s wrong, Johnny?` he asked with concern.
`Boss, I`ve got very little, you know that. I `ad a few pounds to pay my way, but nothing much …`
`So, what`s happened?`
`It`s all been stolen – from my room, stolen.`
`Your rucksack?` the Cardman asked, noticing it was not on his back.
`Yeah. Gone. I `ad it when I went to sleep, but this morning when I woke, it was gone.`
`Have you reported this?`
`Yeah. The bossman says `e`ll have a look for it for me. I don`t think `e believes me. You believe me, don`t you, boss?`
The Cardman looked into Johnny`s tearful eyes and considered his answer.
`Why should I not believe you, Johnny?`
`Because I`m useless; no one takes me seriously … except for you, that is.`
`I`ll have a word with him for you,` the Cardman offered. `But, in the meantime,` he said, sorting out some change from his pocket, `you had better find yourself a pasty, or something, to keep you going,` and he passed Johnny three pound coins.
`Thank you, boss,` and Johnny`s whole demeanour changed; transformed back to the young, lively man the Cardman knew so well. He walked off towards the city centre in search of some lunch; the Cardman knew Johnny was being truthful and was not in the least surprised when he returned eating a pasty.
“ere`s your change,` Johnny held out his hand to the Cardman. `Why don`t people believe me?` It was said, almost pleadingly, `and what is it about you, boss? I`ve never `ad a friend like you.`
The following day
God loves you more than you realise
Johnny sat on a bench engrossed in the book in his hands. It was mid-morning and the city was buzzing with new life. He looked up and watched the Cardman talking to a young girl. They seemed relaxed together, and Johnny was pleased that others also found this `man with the cards` approachable and friendly.
When the girl had moved away from the square, Johnny walked up to him.
`You look happier than the last time I saw you, Johnny,` the Cardman observed.
`Yeah, the bossman found the rucksack. It was thrown in the `edge of the back garden.`
`Empty, I suspect?`
`No. Everything was there.`
`So … any idea why it was taken from your room?`
`The usual reason, I guess. People don`t want me around. Just took it to frighten me off.`
`And, has it worked?`
`Never!,` Johnny responded with a determination that momentarily startled the Cardman.
`That`s good, Johnny. You wouldn`t have said that a few months ago.`
Johnny thought about it. `You`re right. That`s `ow much good you`ve done for me, boss.`
The Cardman smiled. `What were you reading on the bench?`
`Ah! So you`re using that Bible I gave you …` The Cardman was delighted.
`Can`t put it down,` Johnny interrupted, enthusiastically. `Got to chapter 16, already.`
`Caesarea Philippi?` the Cardman guessed.
`Yeah. It`s good.`
`Stay with it awhile, Johnny. Don`t rush it too much. Read it from Peter`s perspective, then … imagine you are Peter. And ask yourself, how do I feel? Then read it again as if you`re one of the other disciples. How does it feel? There`s so much in it.`
The Cardman looked around the square. Quieter on this day – a lull before the onset of the holiday season. `I`ve got to go to the shops. Would you like to come along with me?`
Johnny nodded, placed his precious rucksack on his back, and they strolled from the square. They stopped outside a bank at a busy junction and watched the people bustling around Boscawen Street in all directions, rather like a disturbed nest of ants.
`Look at the crowds, Johnny,` the Cardman said, enthusiastically, `each person has a story to tell. But they are so autonomous. They pass by each other without noticing, blinkered by their own needs and agendas.`
`They notice me,` Johnny replied. `They think I`m like one of those lepers I`ve read about.`
`Not all do,` the Cardman disagreed with him. `Some of what you think is actually your own projection. Sadly, you expect people to think like that. Most, I`m sure, are pleased to see your smiling face. You don`t realise the pleasure it gives.`
Johnny was not expecting such a compliment. `Do you think so?`
`I know so, Johnny. You have as much right to be here as everyone else does. But that`s something you find difficult to accept. Am I right?`
`Yeah. I don`t just find it difficult, boss, it`s impossible.` The Cardman was showing so much kindness towards Johnny; almost too much for him to cope with. Never in his life had anyone been interested enough to care how Johnny felt. So, how do I feel? Johnny asked himself. I feel as if I matter! And he remembered how the `man with the cards` appeared late one night when Johnny was settling down to sleep in the subway by the pleasure boat in Lemon Quay. He had brought with him a blanket and a large portion of chips, wrapped in paper to keep them hot. Johnny thought he was just going to leave them there and go home. But, no. He was carrying a second blanket and just snuggled down with it and was asleep before Johnny had finished his chips. At dawn, Johnny looked for him but he had already risen from his uncomfortable bed. Expecting not to find him, Johnny peered out from the subway. He was surprised to see him sitting on a bench in the shoppers` precinct, nearby. He was awake, but very still, looking as if he was in a trance. Johnny shuffled over to him. `Are you alright, boss?` he asked in a whisper. The Cardman looked up at him, a smile emerging through the shadows of early morning.
`Thank you. Yes, apart from the discomfort of the concrete mattress, I`m very well. I thought I would come over here to pray. I always get up this early. Sometimes, I stay up all night in prayer.` And, then, seeing Johnny`s puzzled expression, he added, conclusively, `It`s what I do.`
`Well, as long as you`re okay, boss,` Johnny replied, `I was worried about you.`
`Thank you, Johnny.`
`No, it`s me who should be grateful. When you arrived last night I had no idea you was goin` to stay. I thought …`
`You thought I was going to go home and pretend this sort of thing doesn`t go on. I can`t do that, Johnny. And tonight I`m coming back again.`
And so he did; each night bringing food, sharing it with other homeless souls who soon heard about this man who genuinely cared about their plight. He continued to do so until Johnny had secured some proper accommodation. It was quite amazing how many folk from the pre-election meeting generously responded to the Cardman`s plea. It did not take long before Johnny was settled in a small bed-sit, with more than he actually needed for his minimalist way of living. There are kind people out there, he thought with gratitude. Some people just need to be pointed in the direction where poverty and need are crying out for help. And they respond.
Whilst they stood and watched the people passing, as if reading Johnny`s thoughts, the Cardman said, `look at them, Johnny. They all need to be loved, like you are loved. And so many will say – like you – that they do not deserve to be loved. God`s love is not earned, Johnny. It`s freely given. But you, and everyone else, are also asked to give it as well. It`s not easy – I know. But you must try and love all people irrespective of their unbearable habits or unreasonable demands. Or, indeed, if they don`t like you … that`s no reason not to love them.` A sharp pain shot through his hands. `They may insult you or even persecute you. They may be prejudiced against you, because of the colour of your skin. You must try, Johnny, to love unconditionally. Do you understand what I mean?`
`Yes, boss, I think so. Like the man who comes up to Jesus and asks him what`s the most important commandment. And Jesus replies to love God with all your heart. And then he says, the second is to love your neighbour.`
The Cardman smiled. `You are learning well, my friend. And you have also looked at Mark`s gospel.`
`I did what you told me, boss. I started with Mark, `cause you said it would be easier to understand.`
`So, Johnny, what does that particular passage end with? Can you remember?`
Johnny thought hard. `No. Sorry, boss, I`ve forgotten.`
`Don`t worry. It ends with Jesus saying to the Scribe that he was “not far from the kingdom of God”. That might seem a little odd because this man had done so well. But, in effect, he was told that he was not quite there. Any ideas why that would be?`
`I remember the passage now. But … no … I don`t know why Jesus said that.`
`Well, Johnny, we have been talking about it. Unconditional love. It means loving without expecting anything in return. It means loving those that do not love you. It`s like taking that final step to living in the Kingdom of God.`
`That`s not easy, boss,` Johnny responded.
`Indeed, you`re right. But that`s how God loves you, and He wants you and everybody else to do the same. Can you imagine how different this world would be if it happened?`
`There`d be no-one without a bed to sleep on, for one thing.`
`That`s right, Johnny. And no poverty or hunger. No wars. There would be no selfishness or greed in the world; if everyone loved unconditionally.`
Bruised and battered; progress shattered
Johnny Bray`s visits to High Cross became less frequent. At first, this did not worry the Cardman because he knew Johnny was finding his independence again, and it was a natural progression. He became more concerned, however, when he had not seen Johnny for over a month.
Cooled by the light summer breeze, as the city working day closed up around him, he wheeled his bicycle to where Johnny was living. A modest bedsit within an imposing town house, in a quiet, respectable road near the railway station.
He rang the front door bell. No reply. He rang it again, and was just about to put a card through the letter box when the door was unlocked and timidly opened. It was Johnny. His eyes were not as clear and bright as normal. There was no warm greeting when he saw who his visitor was.
`Can I come in?` the Cardman asked with concern.
`Yeah. `Scuse the mess …` Johnny replied in a matter of fact manner.
The Cardman followed him up a flight of worn, carpeted stairs. He limped as he led the way. When they reached another door, Johnny entered first. His room was tiny; barely enough space for a single bed. The few clothes he possessed were strewn over the floor and draped upon the solitary upright chair. Dirty mugs augmented the scene of chaos. A single bulb, without its lampshade, hung from the ceiling, illuminating the room. And there, unhidden on the floor by the bed was a syringe. Johnny saw it as he entered and quickly slid it out of sight with his right foot, but not before the Cardman had also noticed it.
`Why are you limping?` he asked with concern.
`It`s nothin`. Do you want a cup of tea?` Johnny replied, attempting to change the subject.
`No thank you. But I do want to know what has happened to you.`
Johnny removed the clothes from the chair, revealing a slit in the leather from top to bottom. He invited his visitor to sit down; then he sat on the bed and looked vaguely at the Cardman, appearing not to be fully aware of his friend`s presence.
`What`s happened, Johnny?` No reply. Johnny just looked into the Cardman`s face, with no apparent emotion.
`Johnny, my friend, what has happened?` the Cardman repeated, firmly.
`I`ve bin duffed up, boss,` came a mumbled reply.
`Who has done this to you?` the Cardman demanded, standing up and looking at Johnny`s swollen face.
`They don`t want me `ere. So they pushed their way in and started kicking me. They said I wasn`t welcome `ere. One of `em slashed that chair,` he said pointing to it, `e `ad a blade! `e said the next time it would be me `e`d slash. I `ad been so `appy, boss, you know that,` he pleaded.
`Yes, Johnny, I do know that. But who are they?`
`I don`t know all their names, but they used to taunt me when I was sleeping rough.`
`You never told me about this. Why did you keep it to yourself?`
`Didn`t want to worry you, boss. You`d bin so good to me.`
`I could have helped you, Johnny …`
`Too late now, boss. When I`ve got enough money, I`m going back `ome.`
`I`m so sorry to hear all this,` the Cardman said, now sitting next to Johnny on the bed. `Have you told the police? No, that`s a silly question.`
`What would they do? They wouldn`t believe me. I`m just nothing. A waste of space.` Johnny wept. The Cardman stood up and walked to the tiny window and looked out at the evening sun, now lower in the sky. All those weeks of progress. Gone.
He whispered a prayer. Father, help me to serve this young man as you would have me do. He then turned back towards Johnny and declared, `get your things together, lad. You`re coming back with me tonight.`
`But … you `aven`t room for me,` Johnny protested.
`You can have the bed. I`ll sleep on the sofa. Now come on, Johnny, let`s get your things.` Johnny was in no condition to argue. He watched as the Cardman collected his clothes together.
`Is there anything else you need, Johnny?`
`My book. I want my book.`
`Which book, Johnny?`
`The one you gave me, boss. I want to take it with me.`
Sharing the burden
It was full early as the Cardman awoke, stiff from his makeshift bed on the sofa. Not a comfortable piece of furniture at the best of times. And yet, he had rested a little. In and out of sleep he had journeyed, planning, in his mind, the best way to help Johnny through this new assault upon his young life. Prejudice was such a malignant aggressor.
The long mid-summer days were well past. Like the drawn curtains on a stage, he knew his time was nearing its close. Soon the music would fade into silence. The main characters of the past few months would exit from the spotlights of their encounters with him. The walk-on-parts would remain in the shadows, off stage. The end was fast approaching.
And yet, his work was incomplete. Whilst challenges had turned to victories, and small steps had become strides, there was still a huge need out there that he had only just begun to confront. Homelessness. Hunger. Deprivation. Poverty. Unemployment. Loss. Prejudice. The ever-increasing malady of disinterest. Fear. The list was endless. He had only wiped the surface, let alone scratched it. And yet, the end was in sight. He knew. The tree of torment faced him daily, but now it loomed closer; ever closer.
What would become of Johnny? Sleeping peacefully at that moment, freed from the world`s pressures for a short season of rest. What will he awake to? Realisation of his uselessness – his own analysis of himself, imposed upon him by a cruel, discriminating society. His face does not fit, so they tell him. In contrast, there had been so many encouraging words spoken; words to help him see that he is loved. Words now destroyed by a senseless act that looked likely to frighten him back to London. Then what? A return to the gutters? Another to add to the statistics. Possibly another life lost in youth. It was all so unnecessary. So cruel. If only … if only the Cardman could have longer. There is enough love to warm the stony hearts of prejudice. There is enough love to mend the broken-hearted. To feed the hungry. To clothe the naked. To set people, like Johnny, free from self abuse. For lasting peace. It is out there. Love abounds. Somewhere, in everybody, love abounds. If only there was more time …
What about Johnny? He cannot be left in such a delicate state of mind. Bullied. Literally, kicked senselessly into touch. And, after Johnny? Who would be next?
The perpetrators needed to be sought and brought to justice. Johnny would not agree, of course. But, that evil had far greater ramifications. If not cleansed, it would spread its deadly grip; subtly; under the cloak of darkness; unseen by the privileged who sleep in soft beds under warm duvets. Unnoticed by those who never question when they will eat their next meal. The plight of people like Johnny only reaches the newspapers when it is too late. And, how many actually read about it when they sit in the comfort of their homes? It is too undignified. And who cares about the Johnnys of this world, anyway? Too few.
The Cardman knew what he had to do. A `phone call to make. It was early. Not even seven o`clock, but he had been given the number to use. `Ring me, anytime. I owe you, sir,` the man had said. `Don`t forget – anytime, day or night. I mean it.`
He tapped in the six digits. The sound of ringing. Would he be there? Please answer.
A tired voice said, `Hello.`
`It`s me – the `man with the cards`. You told me I could ring you anytime.`
`Yes, I did. I meant it. What`s up?`
`It`s Johnny. The dark-skinned lad. You`ve seen him in High Cross.`
`Yes, yes. I know Johnny. He`s a good lad.`
`He was assaulted a couple of nights ago. Three of them, apparently. They came to where he`s staying. Almost kicked the life out of him.`
`Where is he now?`
`At home with me. He`s safe for the time being.`
`Have you been to the police?`
`I`m doing that now.`
`I see …`
`He doesn`t want the police involved because he`s scared of the consequences. If there`s a next time, I think, they`ll go even further.`
`Do you know who `they` are?` the man asked.
`I have a pretty good idea. And so will you when you go and look at the state of his room.`
`Where does he live?`
`22 Sidney Terrace, near the railway station,` the Cardman told him.
`Yes, I know where you mean.`
`The key will be with the owner who lives at number 20.`
`What will I find that`ll tell me who did this to him?`
`Under the bed is a syringe. It should be covered in finger prints.`
`How do you know it`s not Johnny`s?` the man asked through a sudden need to yawn.
`He promised me he had stopped. I believe him.`
`Okay. Seems a long shot. I`ll go this morning. Will you be in your usual place later?`
`Well, I`ll see you then. In the meantime I suggest you ensure that Johnny stays where he is.`
`He`s not going anywhere. Bye.` The Cardman replaced the receiver.
Johnny stumbled out of bed, made for the bathroom and, eventually, appeared through the doorway to the kitchen/diner. The Cardman stood up from the table.
`Come and sit down, Johnny,` he welcomed him, pointing to a chair at the table where a place had been prepared for him.
`Thanks,` Johnny yawned and stretched his arms.
`Yeah. Don`t remember nothing about it.`
The Cardman chuckled. `That`s the best sort.`
After breakfast, the Cardman told Johnny that he was going into Truro, as he did everyday.
`But I want you to stay here. Don`t go out. Keep inside. Do you understand?`
`I mean it, Johnny,` the Cardman emphasised the point, `you must stay here. And do not answer the door or telephone.`
`But there is one other thing I want you to do today.`
`What`s that, boss?`
`I want you to read that book I gave you. Finish reading through Matthew`s gospel. But, take your time; there`s no hurry.`
`I will, boss,` Johnny replied, enthusiastically, his eyes much brighter.
`I thought you`d like that idea. Make yourself at home. There`s plenty of bread and milk. Make yourself as many coffees as you want. I have prepared you a cheese sandwich for lunch. It`s in the `fridge.`
`You`re so kind to me, boss. I don`t know what to say …`
`You don`t need to, Johnny. Just keep inside and stay safe. That`s all the thanks I want.`
The Cardman left for the Cathedral square, leaving Johnny reclined on the sofa, reading from where he had reached before his assault. Jesus had begun to speak plainly to his disciples about going to Jerusalem, and what would happen to him there. Making preparations.
An odd thought flashed through Johnny`s mind. Is this what the `man with the cards` is doing? An odd thought that disappeared almost as soon as it had arrived.
High Cross was almost empty when the Cardman approached it. He had not stood there long before a familiar figure appeared from the precinct. He looked austere and official, dressed in his policeman`s uniform.
`You`re earlier than I expected,` the Cardman greeted him.
`Everything was as you said,` PC Nicholas told him.
`You found the syringe?`
`Yes. I`ll get it checked over.`
`Discreetly, Nick. Have you a contact that will not ask questions?`
`Yes, but this has got to be reported. It`s a police matter,` Nick stated, indignantly.
`I think Johnny needs to be given the option whether he wants this to go any further, or not. After all, there was no damage to property, as far as I can tell.` The Cardman had conveniently forgotten about the slashed chair.
PC Nicholas thought for a moment. `No, I was not aware of any. So are you telling me that you want these thugs to go free?`
`No, not at all. I`m concerned about repercussions …`
`Yes. I understand. Well, then, let`s take one step at a time. I`ll get these finger prints sorted and come back to you. But, don`t think for a moment that I`ll let you do anything stupid when we know who they belong to.`
`Thank you, Nick. I knew you would understand. One step at a time, sounds good to me.` And, with that, Nick was gone.
At the end of his day, ready to return home, the Cardman wheeled his bicycle along the precinct. His progress was interrupted by the appearance of the tall, austere-looking policeman, standing before him, grim faced.
`You were right,` he said as he walked beside the Cardman. `The finger prints belong to some other guy.`
PC Nicholas looked around him, cautiously. `I shouldn`t tell you this,` he said in a whisper, `but I will. There`s a lad they call `the Blade`. Sleeps rough. He`s considered to be dangerous although, as yet, we`ve been unable to pin anything on him.`
`So that`s what Johnny was saying to me,` the Cardman pondered. `I thought he was talking about a blade, not someone called that.`
`Well, at least you know that syringe wasn`t Johnny`s,` PC Nicholas said before a worrying thought crossed his mind. `You`re not going to do anything silly with this information I`ve given you?`
`What me?` the Cardman replied, smiling.
`Now, look here, you`ve put me in a difficult position,` PC Nicholas became serious. `What do I say at the inquest?`
`Inquest for whom?`
`For you! When this Blade fellow`s killed you.`
`Don`t worry,` the Cardman looked seriously at the policeman. `That`s already happened once.`
Sharing a meal
Light rain fell during Friday evening but, by the early hours of Saturday, the clouds had moved eastwards leaving a star-filled night.
The Cardman left his bicycle propped against the railings by the river. He walked down the steps that led to the subway. Even in the dead of night, traffic flowed along the ring road. Never would it be totally quiet for long, he imagined.
Down in their concrete retreat were six resting figures, wrapped in blankets to keep out the cool of the night. As soon as he stepped down into the subway, one of the men leapt up in front of him.
`Just passing through?` he said menacingly with a rich, west country accent.
`No. Stopping to speak.` the Cardman replied, untroubled by the aggressive manner of the man. In the dim, artificial light that entered, he could make out a scar upon the man`s left cheek.
`My friend, Johnny.`
`Oh. You mean that black guy?`
`So … what`s it to you?`
`I just want to speak to you, that`s all,` the Cardman replied, calmly.
Suddenly, a knife was thrust into the Cardman`s side, just firm enough for him to feel it through his coat. He stood rigid. One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out. `You must be Blade,` he said in a whisper.
`That`s how I`m known, yeah.`
`You can put that away. Someone might get hurt,` the Cardman protested.
`That`s the idea, pal.`
`Please put it away. I come as a friend …`
`So you`re a friend, are you?` Blade laughed. `Look, lads, we`ve got a friend here, who`s come to visit,` he mocked him. `Perhaps we should make him at home.`
`Why did you hurt Johnny?` the Cardman asked, ignoring the sarcasm.
`We told him to go, but he didn`t.`
`Why did you tell him to go?`
`He didn`t fit in here …`
`You didn`t tell me to go. I`ve slept down here. You didn`t tell me to go.`
`But, you`re not …` Blade stopped.
`Not black?` the Cardman asked, with widening eyes.
`Yeah. That`s right.`
`So, what`s wrong with being black?` He felt the knife at his side, once more.
`Get out,` Blade said, not wanting to hear anymore from this stranger.
`I don`t think so,` the Cardman insisted. `Take that knife from my side.`
Blade was not used to his aggression being ignored. This man beside him seemed different. He was not frightened. Normally people would run away when Blade waved his knife in their direction. But, this man was not like them.
`Are you not going to invite me to sit down and talk with you?` the Cardman asked.
`What? A friend of Johnny`s? What have you to say that might be of interest to us?`
`You`re an intelligent man – I can tell – I`ve a lot to say. But, will you listen?` was the Cardman`s challenge.
Blade thought for a moment, then removed the knife from the Cardman`s side. `Come and sit down and talk, then.`
The Cardman told Blade how he learned of Johnny`s assault, and emphasised that he had not been offered the information but had sought it, himself..
`So, how do you know it was me who did it?` Blade asked.
`I put two and two together. It wasn`t difficult.`
`What you going to do about it?`
`Nothing, apart from what I`m doing now, talking to you. It`s more about what you are going to do.`
Blade laughed. `You think you can change me, uh?`
`You said it, not me.`
`Just by talking to me?`
`Talking can be very powerful, Blade.`
`Then, talk on, mister. I`m listening.`
`First, I want to meet the others, here,` the Cardman declared. `I`ve brought along some bread to share,` he said, lifting the plastic bag he had carried with him.
Blade called out to the others. `Wake up, you lot. This man, here, has come to visit us. He wants to meet you,` he said, sarcastically. `He says he`s got some bread for us.` Each, in turn, came to life and stared at the stranger in their midst. The Cardman walked to the man furthest away.
`What`s your name?` he asked, bending down to him.
`Mark,` he replied with a yawn and stretch of his arms. He seemed mellow.
`Can I give you some bread?`
`Put your hands out like this,` the Cardman told him, showing him with the palms of his own hands. Then he broke a chunk from the white loaf and placed into Mark`s hands, saying, `blessed are the poor in spirit … for their`s is the kingdom of God. Mark, may the Father bless you and keep you. Amen.`
Mark looked at the Cardman in astonishment. Then he ate the bread.
The Cardman moved to the next person, and knelt before him. `What is your name?` he asked.
`Patrick, sir,` was his reply, in a strong Irish accent.
The Cardman broke some more bread and placed it in Patrick`s hands. `Blessed are they that mourn … for they shall be comforted,` he said, softly. `Patrick, may the Father bless you and keep you. Amen.`
`Thank you, sir,` Patrick said, looking into the Cardman`s eyes, in disbelief that this was happening.
The Cardman stopped and looked at the next man`s face, almost entirely hidden beneath a thick woollen hood, but just visible in the half light. It was a young face. Soft, pale skin with no evidence of beard or stubble. The Cardman stood silent, looking at the sad figure before him.
`What is your name, sweetheart?` he eventually asked the girl. Instantly, Blade was by his side.
`Paul, sir,` she replied, not attempting to hide who she was.
`She`s one of us,` Blade offered, like a fortress surrounding her.
`How old are you, child?` the Cardman asked with concern.
`Eighteen? I don`t think so. How old are you, really?` he insisted. There was no reply. `How old are you?` he repeated himself softly, now kneeling beside her.
`Thirteen, sir.` She looked down at the concrete carpet.
Blade spoke, defensively. `No-one`s touched her. I tell you, mister, no-one would dare to touch her!`
`Good. So you`re her minder are you?`
`Yeah. I make sure nothing harms her.`
`You`re not from around here are you?` the Cardman asked the girl.
`No, sir. I`m from up north.`
`How long have you been here?`
`Since May. About three months, I think.`
`You`re a lucky girl to have this man watching over you,` the Cardman said, still kneeling before her. `But I want to give you something.` He took from his coat pocket two small blue cards and gave one to Paul and the other to Blade. `This telephone number is an agency which works especially for young girls like yourself. You can ring them, for free, and they will not ask you any questions or try and find out where you are. All they want to do is help you. Perhaps you would like to tell your family, or a friend back home, that you`re safe. They will do that for you, if that`s ever what you want.`
`Thank you, sir,` she said in a whisper.
`Open your hands, child.` The Cardman broke off a piece of bread and gave it to her, saying, `blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Paul, may the Father keep you in His tender love, this day and always. Amen.`
Graham was the next in line. A grim-faced lad. And yet, he willingly held out his hands. As he did, the Cardman noticed he made the sign of the Cross. `Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,` he said, sensing that this man fully understood what was happening.
`Graham, may the Father`s love fill you to overflowing. Amen.`
Then the Cardman reached Stanley, an older man. He looked up at the visitor with pleading eyes. No way is this man filled with the hatred inflicted upon Johnny, the Cardman thought as he knelt down. He placed some bread into the man`s hands and said, `blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Stanley, may the Father bless you and keep you and watch over you, now and always. Amen.`
And, finally, the Cardman reached Blade. `What is you real name?` he asked him.
Blade hesitated. `Michael,` he eventually told him, reluctantly.
`Ah. Michael with the sword, the protector of the faith.`
`I haven`t got a sword,` he muttered.
`But you do have a knife, Michael. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. And that also applies to knives.`
`So?` Michael was becoming defensive, again.
`Give it up, Michael,` was a risky thing to say, but needed to be said.
`What? Why should I do that?`
`Has this knife ever killed?` the Cardman stepped further into the lion`s cage.
`No. I`ve not killed anyone.`
`You`re wrong, Michael. You`ve killed Johnny. Not physically, but mentally. He was doing so well, taking one day at a time, just beginning to get some self-esteem. Then you came along. And, in one slice of your knife, you have destroyed all the good that had been done.` The Cardman just looked into Michael`s eyes, even closer to the lion. `So why do you have it?`
`Protection? No, Michael, you use it to threaten.` The lion roared and eyed the Cardman with hatred.
`Yes, Michael. Like the bombs of terrorists, they don`t actually need to be used. The mere threat is enough.`
Suddenly a loud scream echoed throughout the subway. Michael got up, instantly, and ran to Patrick. The Cardman followed. Patrick was shaking; his whole body, shaking; out of control.
`What is it?` the Cardman asked Michael. Suddenly, there was a strange atmosphere of urgency.
`He`s having one of his panic attacks. He has them from time to time. I think it was your mention of terrorists. He was in Ireland in the 80s.` Michael stopped and looked at the poor man. `He lost his whole family …` he added, with genuine concern.
The Cardman knelt down and placed his hand upon Patrick`s long, black head of hair. He prayed, softly. `Father, rescue this poor soul from the pain of his memory. Patrick, may the lasting peace of Almighty God be upon you, and within you.`
Michael looked down upon the two men; all aggression and the impulse to hurt the stranger had left him. `Thank you,` he said as the Cardman stood up beside him; Patrick now calm, again.
`You have not had any bread,` the Cardman said as he rubbed Michael`s left arm in friendship and led him back to his place. Michael opened his hands to receive his portion, given with unconditional love from the stranger. `Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Michael, may the Father bless you, and help you to find His love and peace. Amen.`
He noticed Michael`s eyes. Moist. Yes, he knew, there was a peacemaker there within.
`Take your knife to the police, my friend,` he said quietly. `Ask for amnesty. They will respect you for it.`
The Cardman rose and left the subway. He was not in the least concerned that he had turned his back on Michael. There was no chance that the Blade would strike. The aggression was over. Once again, the victory of heaven was assured. In his head he could hear the angels singing. When heaven and earth meet, especially in the depths of deprivation and need, their words echo in perfect harmony – Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Re-visiting the lion`s den
It was three days since the Cardman had spent most of the night with Michael and his homeless companions. They never left his thoughts; they were broken, in both body and mind, living on the margins of society. No self esteem. Feeling rejected; forgotten. Without condoning their actions, he could understand how they had been drawn to the downward spiral of anarchy, and were driven to evil pursuits, like terrorising and assaulting Johnny. But he could see through Michael`s tough veneer; his power was drained from him when forced to jettison the assumed name of Blade. Beneath it all, there was a caring soul, suffocating under layers of subterfuge. The Cardman recognised it when Michael stood firmly beside Paul – protecting her – and then rushed to Patrick`s aid. This was not a man without love.
And there was Paul, of course. She could not be left as she was. But, he knew, the best way would be to respond to her plea for help when she made it, herself. The Cardman knew, within another two or three days, she would be needing his support. And he would be there for her. Totally.
He watched as Michael shuffled across the square towards him on that warm summer afternoon. He looked nervous and, when he spoke, was reticent.
`I`ve been thinking about what you said the other night. I wrote this note in the library this morning. Could you give it to Johnny when you see him?`
`Certainly. Of course I will,` the Cardman responded.
`Good.` Michael turned to walk away then looked back at the Cardman and returned to him. `I want to thank you. Some brave you are. I`m really glad you came, and so are the others.` And then he was gone, back into the shadows, away from the public eye, returning to the sub-culture where he felt safe.
The Cardman folded the letter and put it in his pocket. He replayed the conversation over and again in his thoughts, and wondered …
Later that day, Johnny looked suspiciously at the note in his hand, almost fearful of unfolding it, as if it would explode in his face.
`He came to see me this afternoon, Johnny,` the Cardman explained. `It was totally unexpected; it was his choice. He made a huge step in seeking me out in such a public place.`
Johnny was unconvinced.
`Read it, Johnny,` the Cardman urged him.
He unfolded the note and read it. The Cardman watched for any giveaway expressions, but Johnny just re-folded the note and slipped it into a back pocket of his jeans. “ow do I know `e`s speaking the truth?` he eventually said. And, when he realised the Cardman had no idea what the note said, he added, “e says `e`s sorry for what `e did and said to me the other day. `e wants to meet me in the subway tonight.`
`Will you go?`
`I dunno. Would you come as well?` Johnny asked.
`Yes, Johnny. Of course I`ll come with you.`
The summer night was mild and dry; moonlit and festooned with stars. Johnny was nervous; it was like willingly returning to a place of persecution. In his mind, he could clearly see how Blade had oppressed him. And yet, with the Cardman walking by his side, he felt safe.
When the two entered the subway they were greeted by an ominous silence. Then Michael got up from his patch and walked towards them. `I see you`ve brought the Church with you,` he said with an attitude of derision that disappointed the Cardman.
`Yeah, `e`s my friend,` Johnny replied, defensively.
Michael looked at the Cardman as if analysing him. Then he smiled and said, `he`s my friend, too. Come and sit down, I want to talk.`
`This man came to see me the other night,` Michael began, pointing to the Cardman. `I didn`t like all you said, mister, but you got me thinking … thinking about the things I`ve done. One of them was meant to send this black guy away. But it hasn`t worked. You came here and talked about peace. And, somehow, you got us to see things your way. I don`t like to admit it but, I was impressed by what you said. You weren`t scared of me, even when I poked my knife into your side. So, all this God-talk`s got me thinking.` Michael looked down at the ground and mumbled the rest of his speech, as if it was spoken reluctantly. `I was wrong to do what I did to you, Johnny. I`m sorry.` It was said. Michael then looked up and met their eyes. He offered his hand to Johnny, who shook it.
Michael then turned to the Cardman. `I`ve changed,` he said, `because of you. At first, I thought you were coming for a fight. But I soon realised you weren`t. I owe you so much, mister.`
The Cardman smiled. `You owe me nothing, Michael. I came here to serve, not to be served. But, you can do something for me.` Michael looked intrigued. `Come outside, because I want to talk with you alone,` the Cardman gestured towards the steps.
Michael immediately rose and walked with the Cardman to the river.
They stood together watching the moon`s reflection on the rippling water. It was so peaceful. `Looking at this is such a therapy, Michael.`
`Yeah, I like it, too.`
`So, what`s happened to you?` the Cardman asked. `I thought it best if no-one else heard what we are saying. But … it`s all happened so quickly.`
`It`s you, mister. Everything about you seems genuine. That`s rare. And then, when you gave us the bread … well, I was convinced that you had something I wanted.`
`What`s that?` the Cardman asked, in a whisper.
`It`s difficult to put into words, really. I suppose it`s to do with peace. There was no confrontation. And you didn`t judge me. Just accepted me, I suppose.`
`Did you expect something different?`
`Of course I did,` Michael turned on him. `I`ve never known any other way. From being a small kid, kicked about by my dad, I`ve never known what acceptance was. You made me feel wanted … and not just because you felt threatened by me.`
`Michael, you are talking about the way God loves. His is unlike anything you would have known. He loves you so much that He was even prepared to send His son to die for you.`
`I want you to have this,` the Cardman continued, passing Michael a card. He studied it closely, using the light from a nearby street lamp. It read, `Jesus said, I AM the way, the truth and the life.` Then Michael admitted, `I don`t know about this Jesus, but I can see that you are the way, the truth and the life – and that`s good enough for me.`
They returned to the subway; there was an unspoken bond between them. And Paul glanced up at the Cardman as he passed by. He noticed her, stopped and knelt before her. No words were spoken. There was no need; he could see she was ready to ask for help, and she instinctively knew he would respond. He then held her right hand in his and whispered words of assurance to her, `I will weep with you when you weep. And I will laugh with you when you feel like laughing.` That is all he said, but it was enough. Even at her tender age, she understood. It was an invitation, but not like any she had ever received before. Not sordid. Not for self-gratification. It was like Blade had said to them earlier in the day, this man is genuine; he can be trusted. She felt the power of his words, but had never before experienced, and was unacquainted with, unconditional love.