Return to old haunts
Andrew Stolemaker strolled, with slight gimpiness, the streets of his childhood village, stopping now and then to chat with anyone who recognized him, even if they recognized him only faintly. There weren’t as many of those as a person might imagine. Of his classmates, roughly half were dead, and the rest had, like himself, relocated, except for Sarah Jergin, who was upholding the spinster daughter tradition of over-tending an ailing, aging father, and pretending it was a sacrifice that she’d never married, despite the fact that she had run screaming from the prospect of marriage, or even the hint of interest from any male. The classes before him had even fewer survivors and nearly as high a relocation rate. The classes after him had stayed put a bit better, but he didn’t know many of them. On top of that, it had become a village that drew telecommuters with no family ties to the place. All in all, it was only proving familiar in a misty, feeble way that made him feel increasingly out of place.
“You haven’t stayed much in touch,” Paul Stuart said, but indulgently, from his doorway. “If that be Andy I’m a-seeing, come for a gander at old haunts?”
“Aye, it’s Andy himself, sick of the city, and fool enough to quit a job in these days and at my age,” Stolemaker said.
“For all the years between, I know you well enough to guess you’d be no more fool than the average fellow, and likely less. Come in and greet Mother. She’ll be sad if you pass along without a cup of coffee and a bit of bread. You know it.”
“I do know it, Pastor. And if it’s no imposition, I’d like to come in.”
“Shhh, now. If it were a bad time, would not I tell you?”
“That’s doubtful, you know.”
“Ah, when you were a boy you never thought that.”
“Come in, come in, and no more about it.”
The elderly pastor deftly swept his visitor inside, in a move Stolemaker remembered from his troublesome youth, when there had been numerous chats with the pastor, some wanted, some not.
“Isabella, my love, look who has come for a visit, but Andrew Stolemaker himself, who’s been off in London all these years,” Paul said, as he led Andrew into a simply furnished kitchen and pointed him to a chair at the table.
“Oh, I am glad to see you,” Isabella said, wiping her hands on an apron and veering for mugs. “Hot coffee, or tea, or something else?”
“Coffee, thanks, if it’s no trouble.”
“It’s been a long time, now hasn’t it?” Isabella said.
“I hate to admit it, but it’s the first time I’ve been back since we buried Aggie,” Andrew said.
“How are your children?” she asked.
“Well enough. I’ve three grandchildren, too, if you haven’t heard, and one cooking. It’s hard to get used to, your babes having babes of their own.”
“I’ll bet you manage,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Well… It should be better, now I’m away from the job I had…” Without meaning to, he rubbed his legs, feeling the scars beneath them.
“Tell me you’ll stay to eat,” Isabella said.
“Oh, no. I’ve come with no warning. I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“I’ll just pop to the market for a few things, if you’ll excuse me,” she said. She hung her apron on a hook, and left before Andrew could get further protests together.
Paul settled more deeply into his chair and grinned. “There’s no arguing with Mother when she wants to feed somebody, you know.”
“If you have an appointment and need to go let me know. But otherwise perhaps you’d like to tell me what’s wrong. I don’t preach anymore, but there’s no retiring from the ministry, in my book.”
“I can’t say anything’s wrong.”
“Have it your way, if you’d like. But Mother wouldn’t have left us like that if she hadn’t seen a need for a man-to-man talk. There’s plenty in the pantry. And that’s bread in the oven you’re smelling, and she doesn’t often trust me to know when to take it out, despite that I can hear a timer ring well enough yet, and even though I know how to tap loaves to see if they sound hollow. A man does pick up a few tricks with age, after all. What’s with your legs? Arthritis?”
“Bullet wounds. Somebody tried to kill me, and came close to succeeding. But that’s not for broadcast.”
“And so you had to avoid the grandchildren for a while, for their safety?”
“I’m not sure I had to, but I did.”
“Do your children know why you kept your distance?”
“Not a bit of it.”
“Life has its interesting problems, doesn’t it?”
Paul sat quietly.
“I quit my job because I thought I was being asked to do something unethical, and I thought it was going to get people killed.”
Paul grinned. “But you can’t say anything’s wrong, eh?”
Andrew grinned. “In better news, I’m courting a fine widow.”
“It would be better if she hadn’t been my secretary all this time I was at the job I just quit.”
“No doubt. Does she still work there?”
“No. The ‘something unethical’ was actually several things unethical, a campaign if you will, and the main thrust of part of it was booting everyone who had been with the company over a certain number of years. I was obliged to send her out along with the rest.”
“Does she know about the legs?”
“The attempted murder, you mean?”
“Aye. Just that.”
“Oh, yes. Helped solve the case…”
Andrew fell silent again.
“Getting too close to state secrets, are we?” Paul asked.
Andrew looked at him.
“Barry Flanagan, rest his soul, was in his cups one day and bragged about how he was working for a secret agency, with none other than former fellow choir boy Andy Stolemaker for a chief. I didn’t know whether to believe him, but now I wonder.”
“Who else heard?”
“No one. Not even Mother. I haven’t told her, if you’re wondering. Didn’t seem the sort of rumor to pass along.”
“Thanks. And it’s true. Barry was there when I got there. I had to sack him, when he couldn’t stay sober or keep his mouth shut. I’ve wondered what he said afterward.”
“Couldn’t tell you about afterward, except that there turned out to be precious little afterward. When he prattled on to me, he said he was working for you. Shortly after that he jumped off the cliff over at Havington’s farm. I can't say anyone seemed inclined to speculate on particulars. No sense building mysteries over drunks flinging themselves from one sort of ruin to another. Now I'm guessing it must have been right after he got let go.”
“I had to let him go. He was endangering others.”
“I’m not blaming you. He had his choices to make, and choosing to be a slave to drink was bound to cause him grief.”
“Some people say it’s a disease.”
“I’ve no doubt that drinking too much pickles the brain and messes up body chemistry, but it’s still a moral choice to start, and then it’s another moral choice on whether to keep it up or beg God’s help in breaking free of it. We all have our share of good turnings and bad ones, but from what I heard Barry got to where he thumbed his nose at repentance and wallowed in the muck as much as he could. It’s a shame, but there it is. Some people run away from God, even after they’ve tasted His mercy, and God’s too much a gentleman to hold someone by force.”
“We’re a sorry lot sometimes, us humans.”
“Sometimes? What church have you been going to, that pretends we’re not fallen creatures, in need of grace every day of our half-blinded, temptation-twisted lives?”
“I should probably dive for cover when I say this, but I’ve become a church hopper. When I go at all.”
“Ah, well. Let’s discuss this over dinner, if you don’t mind. Mother has developed a fascination with church hopping. She has her theories on why this is sometimes a good thing, I should warn you. Where are you staying, and for how long?”
“The Waverly. I’m paid up through Tuesday next.”
“It’s the same day as Isabella’s.”
“Why should you remember?”
The oven timer rang. Paul got up to assume his duties as assistant baker.
Andrew fought with his face, trying to hide his emotions. It had been too long since he'd talked with a man like Paul. It was a blessed relief, and at the same time almost more than he could stand.
“Needs another five minutes, I’d say,” Paul announced of the bread, after he’d tapped it. “We’ll see if I can get it in and out before Bella catches me not putting it back into the loaf pan. Works better without, and sometimes she does it that way, but it frets her when I try it, since I don’t always think to watch the time.” With deliberate care, he positioned the three loaves of bread directly on the rack, closed the oven door, and set a timer.
Andrew smiled, in part because he felt nervous.
“I’ll translate that worried half-hidden grin for you, and you tell me if I’m correct,” Paul said. “Your agile mind has just realized that I’m bound to burn grill marks on the loaves this way, not to mention that the bread will brown differently out of the pan than in, and so there’s no way I’ll escape my bride knowing that I’ve chosen to do the finishing outside of the pan. Correct so far?”
Andrew shrugged and smiled, this time more naturally.
“And you are right, my lad. But not to worry. Isabella is a gem, and forgives me for it, always, even when I get distracted and ruin her loaves. The wanting to be done before she gets home is that it always frets her to find me experimenting with it. Once it’s done, she’s not one to bother about it. Does your lady friend like to cook?”
“Probably more than she likes eating out, but I’ve not liked the idea of not treating her at this stage of things,” Andrew said.
“And it is so awkward to buy a woman food to cook and hope that’s a good compromise, isn’t it?” Paul said, his eyes twinkling. “By the by, if you haven’t tried that yet, I’d advise against it. I tried that with Isabella, and the only thing it solved was any doubts I might have had about her sense of humor, and her endless capacity to forgive me for my awkwardness.”
“Of course, you two were very young.”
“Aye. There is that,” Paul said, “But if you’re finding courtship easy because of your age, you’re the first man I’ve met that’s found it so.”
“It is, and it isn’t,” Andrew said.
“Years of friendship behind it, then?”
“Aye. And she’s a devoted Christian.”
“More devoted than I am.”
“I’m working on it, though.”
“That’s probably good, depending on how you’re going about it. And who you’re letting help you.”
Andrew settled more comfortably into his chair. “I canna tell you how long it’s been since I’ve had someone knock iron against me like this,” he said.
Paul grinned. “It seems to be doing you good. That’s good. We’ll get you sharpened up yet, Lord willing.” He winked and got up to check on the bread. He pulled out a loaf and thumped on it. “Oh, much better,” he said. He pulled the other two loaves out. They also passed thumping inspection. He pulled out cooling racks and set the bread on to cool. “Isabella always manages to get the racks out before she takes the bread out of the oven. I almost never do. It makes sense to do it, but somehow my mind doesn’t think of having to cool the loaves until after I have them out. Sorry to tell you that about your old pastor, but there it is. I’m generally out of order in the kitchen.”
“There are worse things, I suppose,” Andrew said, settling into a feeling of being at home.
“Oh, aye,” Paul said. “If you ever want to set your hair on end, get a job as a pastor. We get our share of the worse things.” He took stock of his visitor before going on. “Not that I’m complaining. I’m happy enough to have better perspective than most men. And I’m happy enough to hear a man out, should he have even dreadful things he needs to haul before the Lord, and wants a bit of help with it.”
Andrew fought with himself.
“Ah, well then, let’s change the subject for now,” Paul said. “After dinner, I need to go see Mary Scott. You’re welcome to come along. She’s not got long to live, and she’d love to see you.”
“You don’t mean Mary Scott who used to teach piano lessons? Is she still alive? She must be a hundred by now.”
“One hundred and three, and doesn’t look a day over ninety,” Paul joked.
Andrew rubbed his knuckles as memories flooded over him.
Paul laughed. “Rapped your hands, too, did she? I never saw such a tartar for correct technique in all my days. But she’s mellowed considerably. Still sharp and sees moderately well, but she’s outgrown whipping people for being sloppy. Try to muster your courage and come along, why don’t you? It would mean a great deal to the old dear.” He cast his eyes over to the cooling bread. “I don’t suppose Isabella mentioned in your presence whether that bread was for home use or for gifts, now did she?” he asked.
“Not that I recall,” Andrew said.
“I guess that means I need to guess whether I’ll be in trouble if I offer you some while it’s warm, instead of waiting to see if it’s already spoken for.” He pondered a few seconds, then stood decisively. “On the other hand, she never likes it when I’m stingy with guests,” he said. He cut them both generous slices, and drenched them in butter.
Isabella got home before they were done eating. She smiled happily on her husband, congratulating him wordlessly on taking proper care of a guest in her absence. She admired the bread that was left. “Oh, Paul, you always are so good at watching the bread when I’m called out on errands. It’s perfect. I doubt I could have done better myself.”
Paul shot Andrew a look that Andrew correctly translated as a wink, even though the eyelids didn’t move.