`I don`t feel comfortable with this, Richard,` the older man eventually said, after careful consideration. He looked at Richard from above his blue-framed spectacles, leaning forward, his elbows resting on the solid oak desk.
`He will draw interest to the evening, sir. He is the most talked about person in the whole of Cornwall at the moment,` Richard enthused.
`Well, that may be so, Richard, but this `man with the cards`, as you call him, is a religious oddity. Don`t you see that?`
`Depends on what you mean. If you think he is someone who is different from the norm – yes, I can understand why he could be called an oddity. But, I believe he is a passionate man who knows exactly what he`s doing. And people speak so highly of him.`
Claude thought for a moment, scratching his grey, receding hair as if searching for inspiration; a wrong decision now would be a disaster. Unlike Richard, he carried the ultimate responsibility for organising the parliamentary election meeting ahead
`Mm. I`m not sure. You put up a good case for him, young man, but I wonder what he can offer us on the political platform. What has he to say about the different candidates? What has he to offer us in making a decision on who to vote for? Does he have a voice in all this?`
`Yes, I believe he does, sir,` Richard responded, enthusiastically. `I`m sure, his will be a completely independent viewpoint. Can you imagine the media interest this will create? And Claude Robinson-Newell, the Chairman of the meeting, will be seen as the architect of all this; not me.`
`That sounds good, Richard,` the big man reclined in his black leather chair and thought about all the publicity; he may even get his photograph in the Western Morning News, if not one of the nationals`. `Mm, it really is a tantalising thought …`
`So, Claude, what is your answer? Can I approach him or not?` Richard pressed him.
`You`re like a little boy with your Christmas wants list. You`ll not give up on this until I say “yes”. So, go and speak with this `man with the cards` and invite him to share in the debate. But, don`t blame me if he says “no”.`
Richard stood up, relieved. He gave a triumphant smile. `He`s already agreed. I asked him yesterday lunchtime and he said he`d be delighted to attend.`
The following Friday
The pre-election meeting
The place was packed – standing room only at the back of the village hall. On centre stage were three trestle tables; two political party candidates sat behind each table. To the right, without a table, sat Claude Robinson-Newell, holding a clipboard and looking very important. On the far left, almost hidden behind the redundant curtains, sat the Cardman, wearing a white, open necked, cheesecloth shirt, blue cord trousers and sandals. No socks. He looked slightly amused with life.
After opening the proceedings, Claude invited each of the six candidates to introduce themselves in turn – in alphabetical order, so not to show the slightest hint of bias. Each candidate then presented a maximum of three significant items from their party`s manifesto. This caused ripples in the audience and some more vociferous would-be voters made their opinions known. As a consequence, Claude stood up, exerted his obvious authority, and brought order. It was not entirely successful; mutterings within the audience continued.
The Cardman looked on, a nonchalant expression hiding his amusement.
Eventually, and with a reluctance that Claude tried to hide, the `man with the cards` was introduced to the audience as a guest speaker for the evening, being an `interesting member of the city`s society`.
The Cardman was asked if he would like to question any of the candidates, and he said the same to each of them, one by one.
`How much do you love,` he asked them, in no politically correct order. The audience, at first, was silent in total disbelief; then, almost everyone present, erupted with a roar of laughter. But not everybody. There were a few people who could understand what lay behind the question.
The Chairman asked for quiet – then he stamped his feet on the echoing boards of the stage and demanded order. He looked at the Cardman with contempt. I knew I shouldn`t have let young Richard persuade me into this. Now what do I do? he thought as perspiration poured from his brow and stung as it entered his left eye.
Undaunted by the mocking crowd, the Cardman asked the question again, this time in a more general manner. `Can any of you honestly tell me and the good people here, how much you love?` There was only a titter from the audience and silence from the candidates, who looked incalculably embarrassed. The Chairman had, by now, lowered his head, and wished that either he – or the `man with the cards` – would suddenly disappear through the stage trap door, like Aladdin`s genie. No such luck. With a scowl he looked down at the front row and found Richard`s smiling face. What have you to be so pleased about? Just wait until this farce is over! But, to Claude`s dismay, the Cardman had not finished. He had more he wanted to say. Claude slumped further into his chair and hoped this nightmare would soon end.
The Cardman moved to the centre of the stage. He could see the pain on Claude`s face. He began to speak into the microphone, passionately. `Mr Chairman, I have respectfully asked this question of the candidates because it should be the most important subject in anyone`s manifesto. In my experience, I see political parties attempting to win points from each other over some alleged affair or corrupt dealing. I hear politicians from opposing parties continually arguing over this policy or that. The media hones in on a private conversation that was inadvertently broadcast because a microphone was still switched on.` The audience chuckled. `I sense the glee that is felt by the other parties when someone is caught out for being human. So, I ask the question again. How much do you love?` All was quiet in the hall. It seemed that the `man with the cards` was now being taken more seriously. Surprisingly, even Claude had begun to listen.
The Cardman asked the audience a rhetorical question. `Who do you think you should vote for? Consider why you feel that way. Why vote for `a` instead of `b or d`?`, he pressed them. There were murmurings, but no obvious sounds of dissent.
`Do you know who I will vote for?` There was silence as everyone in the hall waited for his affirmation of one party over the rest. After a pause, he announced, `I will vote for the candidate who loves the most.` The audience again erupted in laughter and jeers, beneath which he heard someone call out, `What is this love you keep on about?` Once more there was the need for Claude to call for order.
Ridicule. Mocking. The Cardman felt it punishing him. `Why is it, when I mention the word `love`, everybody laughs?` the Cardman bellowed, defensively, throughout the hall. Again, there was a hushed silence. `The first commandment is this: “The Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these. The love I speak of is no wishy-washy, sentimental thing. It is fundamental – the foundation of life, itself. If I were to ask how many of you have ever given money to the needy, or to starving children overseas; or those suffering from having no clean water or sanitation, I guess most of you would raise an arm. This is because you love and you want to help those, less fortunate souls, through your love. But, for whatever reason, it embarrasses you to even think in terms of love.`
`So, once again, I ask my question to the candidates – how much do you love?` No response apart from one fidgeting in her seat, another scratching his beard; another, adjusting his tie, nervously.
`Well, I will tell you the answer. The answer is `not enough`. You are too concerned with your own image, and you are facing a competition. That is what the election is – it`s a competition. First past the post wins. But I ask the question, is that winner the best choice? No, not necessarily. Indeed, he or she will have won most votes, but that doesn`t mean he or she is the most suitable to represent us in parliament. The one who comes last with, say, 10,000 votes less, could be the most suitable.` The audience erupted again, with jeers of `rubbish!`, and someone shouted out, `get him off, he`s a nutter!` Words hurt. The Cardman felt a spear pierce his side. He was alone again. All eyes were on him; eyes that wanted him punished; eyes that needed him as their scapegoat; mocking eyes. Father, why have you abandoned me?
`No, I am not a nutter, as you call me,` the Cardman raised his voice in order to be heard – for the second time showing signs that his composure was being affected. Then he calmly explained, `the person who gains only a small percentage of the votes may have been voted for by the most passionate people, as opposed to those who just put a cross against the name they like the look of. Or maybe they like blue rather than red; or green rather than orange. So I say to you, our candidates – one of you will be a winner and find yourself in the House of Commons for the next five years. But the others are not losers. You have all put yourselves forward to be criticised, argued at, ridiculed, and hounded by the press. What I say to you is, be who you are, not necessarily what people expect you to be. Love God and your neighbour, and that love will show itself in how you deal with the tasks that will face you. Love is not an option. It is essential for peace and stability.`
The Cardman returned to his seat. For a moment all eyes were upon him. There was silence until someone from the back shouted out, `that`s the most sense I`ve heard all evening.` This was followed by cheers and spontaneous applause that seemed to continue for ever. The audience stood up, the candidates followed, and Claude, now beaming with pride – after all, it was my idea that the `man with the cards` should be invited – joined the standing ovation.
When all was quiet again, Claude patronisingly thanked the Cardman for his thought-provoking contribution to the evening and asked if anyone had any questions for him.
An elderly lady, seated two rows back, got to her feet and asked, nervously, `How can we tell how much they love? Only God can do that.`
Claude looked towards the Cardman and, with a nod of his head, urged him to respond to the question.
The Cardman returned to the microphone. `I want to answer this question with an illustration. There was a desperately thirsty man in a far-eastern country. He reached a river. He wasn`t interested in where the source of the river was, he just drank. That`s not surprising, though, is it? If I were in the same position I would do just the same – I`m sure we are all in agreement with that.` He noticed a sea of nodding heads before him. `But this is the blinkered view of most people today; they do not acknowledge the source of life and, as the lady so rightly put it, of love. Like the thirsty man, society, generally, just takes what it can get without any thought of where or how or why.`
`The question was,` he continued, calmly, knowing he had won over the attention of all present in the hall, `how can we tell how much the candidates love? The lady who asked this is seeking the “where or how or why?” But – unlike political evasion – I`m not avoiding the question. The answer simply is to trust one`s own intuition, because, so very often, our intuition is inspired by God. Now, I want to give you all a challenge. Not just for the candidates – although they are in a perfect position to help – but I speak to all of you.` The audience were totally quiet, poised to hear his challenge. Claude looked worried. What next? What will this `man with the cards` say now?
`I know a young man. He comes to see me almost every day. We talk in depth about life. In his view, no-one else seems to care about him. I say `seems` because I`m sure that others do care. You see, he is homeless. He is also struggling against drug abuse. And he is black.` The Cardman could hear a sharp intake of breath from many in the audience. `Do you have a prejudice? I will answer that for you. Yes. Of course you do. Is it a prejudice against the young? Or the homeless? Or for the abused? Or a prejudice of those who do not share the same colour skin?`
A smartly dressed gentleman, at the back of the hall, stood up and called out, `How dare you talk to us like this! We are here to listen to the candidates, not to the preaching of a religious crank!`
The Cardman smiled, covering the intense pain as these words struck him. `Thank you, sir. You have actually helped me in putting my point over. The challenge is to help this young man to have a roof over his head. Will you please help him? So far, he has been pushed from one place to another; no-one wants him. He is a good lad. He wants to be well, but he needs a permanent place to rest his head. He needs stability. It is something we all need. Please help. You know where to find me – in the square outside the Cathedral.`
An eminent clergyman, dressed in his purple shirt, raised his hand and stood up. `Can I make a comment, please?` he called to the chairman. He then turned to the `man with the cards`. `I am surprised, and saddened, to hear what you have said. There are organisations within Cornwall especially set up to help those affected by drug abuse and homelessness. I cannot understand why this young man has not been directed to us. I will come and speak with you tomorrow morning.`
The Cardman smiled. `Thank you. Your help will be much appreciated.` He walked back to his seat, his shoes squeaking on the stage in the absolute quiet. And then one person applauded him; then another, and another, until the hall was filled with the atmosphere of acceptance … and love.
It was not quite so dark outside as the Cardman imagined when he had looked out through the windows of the hall. As dusk approaches, fluorescent lighting has the effect of blacking out the true reality of daylight outside. The Cardman collected his bicycle. He was tired; it had been a stressful evening. So many words. So much conflict. He heard a voice behind him.
`Thank you, sir,` Richard called, breathlessly, as he ran to the Cardman`s side.
`Do you think it went well enough?`
`I do,` Richard enthused. `I think you rattled a lot of folks tonight …`
`But do you think they will take on what I said about love?`
`Yes, sir,` Richard replied, `Already, I`ve been told how much people were impressed by what you said.`
`Being impressed is not enough, Richard. It needs to be translated into action. Why is it so many people cannot talk about love?`
Richard reflected upon the jeering. `I`m sorry they gave you a hard time.`
The Cardman shrugged his shoulders. `That`s nothing new, Richard.` And he remembered times past. The indifference of the crowds; the insults of the soldiers; the patronising reproaches of the so-called religious leaders; the desertion of friends. Compared to all that, the evening just gone had been easy. But, even now, people did not understand. After all that had been borne for them, they continued to mock him. He felt the sharpness of regret; not that he would do anything any different, now. Suddenly, he felt acutely vulnerable. He was helpless, looking down upon mocking faces; they wanted him to die. Why did they want me to die? A lamb to the slaughter. I never said a word. He felt so alone. Father, forgive them.
`Richard, they made fun of me,` he said, sadly, in a whisper of disbelief.
`Yes, some did. I`m really sorry about that. But there were many who listened to you. Think of the positive response at the end. Everyone stood up and applauded you.` Richard was amazed that this great man was seeking reassurance; affirmation.
`But, will they remember about love? Or will my words just fade away to nothing?`
`I`m sure some will remember every word you said,` Richard consoled him. `I know I will.`
`Thank you, Richard. I`m feeling a little wobbly at the moment. I can`t hide behind my cards,` he chuckled, `although we all need masks, whatever guises they come in.`
`You don`t need a mask,` Richard replied, kindly. `It is you who are always giving so much to others.`
`You have caught me off stage,` the Cardman sighed. `Much of the response this evening took me back to a time when I was equally misunderstood. What hurts is they still fail to see. Still fail to see.` And he mounted his bicycle and began to ride home. `Thank you, Richard. Goodnight,` he called back.
`Goodnight, sir. And thank you.`
Richard watched until the tiny red light merged into the darkness and could be seen no longer. He mused upon the conversation he had just had. He felt pleased that, in some small way, he may have helped the `man with the cards`.
“Even he is human,` he whispered to himself. `And I thought he would have been unaffected.` It was a lesson Richard would never forget. No matter how influential or confident people may seem, there are times when they need to be affirmed, just like everybody else.
Who is this `man with the cards?`, Richard wondered as he prepared for sleep that night. He didn`t even know his name; and yet, he had already been such an inspiration to Richard. Love. Not some `wishy-washy` thing, the man had said. And Richard considered this as his tired head nestled upon his soft pillows.
As he began to drift into a sweet oblivion, he thought how much better the world would be if love was taken more seriously. Love is not an option, it is essential, the man had said.
Love is essential; essential …
Things to think about
Two more new characters enter the story – an experienced entrepreneur and his young assistant. They negotiate the inclusion of the Cardman in a public political debate. The older man is not convinced that this man – unknown to him – could offer anything useful to the meeting. The younger man disagrees.
Clearly there is a good rapport between the two men, and the persistence of the younger man succeeds.
There is plenty of use of hyberbole in this chapter to emphasise the importance of love in human relationships.
Do we shy away from the word `love`? Does society in general look upon love as a kind of weakness? The Cardman was far from weak as he stuck firmly to his belief that love is the foundation of life.
I`m sure we never forget the presence of God in our daily lives – and, as St John tells us, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him/her.” (1 John 4:16,17 NIV)