Just a reminder to readers that the continuing story of Rufus can be found in the blog, CONVERSATIONS WITH RUFUS AND OTHER CREATURES
Although I have not made a new blog, I have continued the story of Rufus the pig, two blogs back at “Conversations with Rufus and other creatures…”
Please find the continuing story of Rufus Pig at the previous blog site where I will add chapters several times a week:
Conversations with Rufus and other creatures.
Readers, if I still have any, are advised that the purpose of this blog is unchanged, namely to provide theological reflections inspired by the real Jesus, while the method is swerving into previously unexplored territory, of understanding human beings as animals who live alongside other animals.
I am fortunate to live in Monifieth, an urban village on the Tay estuary near the city of Dundee. Even under the lockdown rules imposed for Tier 3 areas by the Scottish Government I am allowed to exercise on the beach and the nearby hills of Angus County. Until recently I went running on the beach, but now find that walking interspersed with short sprints provides the right mix of physical exercise and environmental appreciation.
Access to the stretch of beach between Monifieth and Carnoustie is controlled by MOD Barry Buddon, a training facility for army troops and reservists, who make use of a number of shooting ranges, set next to the beach, in an area of mixed heath and woodland. Refusal of access to this area, and to the adjoining beaches, is signalled by the flying of large red flags at entry points and by sentry posts facing the sea. On average, access is possible one or two days a week, more occasionally for up to a week at a time.
Surprisingly – to me at least- this area has become a haven for wildlife, both flora and fauna that find it difficult to survive on the neighbouring farmland. Heathland flowers and shrubs prosper, as do birds, including the short- eared owl and the curlew, and mammals from the vole to the badger. These have adjusted to the frequent noise of shooting practice and to its attendant dangers, while relishing the absence of usual human activity.
As I was pausing in this territory last year, in the autumn, examining the variety of berries on the leafless trees, I became aware that the ground adjacent to the path on which I stood had been carefully turned over, as if deliberately, exposing some of the roots and tubers, and that this cleared swathe ran away from me in the direction of some large broom bushes, many of them still bearing their black seed pods. With a sudden jump of interest I realised that the cracking sound I had been hearing for a minute or two was that of some creature chewing the pods. Very quietly I moved towards it, circling around the left side of the bush. Peering downwards I could see nothing unusual.
Then someone said, from behind me to the right, “Noisy you were a bit!”
Turning sharply I saw a animal covered in thin red-gold hair, an elongated snout and pointed erect ears.
“From me is the speech,” it added without opening its mouth or making any sound.
I had to accept that the pig was speaking to me by some process of thought-transference. Flabbergasted, I walked past the bush and sat down on the sandy grass, where the pig joined me.
“Good morning,” I said, “Your communication skills are very unusual I think.”
“Fly,” it replied, “we can’t, but talk, yes, at least some of us. People speaking on the farm, I listened for years. Influence their behaviour I could by this without- noise speaking. Yes.”
“You were on a farm for years?” I questioned. “I thought pigs were kept for a short time, then…”
“Abattoir. Yes, “ it agreed.”But breeding boar, that was me. Bad job not, far from. But then one day. The Vet. General anaesthetic. Wake up, balls off.”
“Balls off?” I wondered.
“Both. Off. Breeding Boar no more.”
“You must miss them a lot,” I sympathised.
“A chore it got to be,” it said philosophically. “But, why?? I asked myself. Why bother with balls-off when penned by myself already? Remember then they saying balls- on boar meat has bad smell, won’t sell. Boar-taint they call it. So….
“Soon to become meat me, I concluded. Abattoir next stop for Rufus, poor old chap.”
“Rufus?” I asked
“Me! , my name! You do how?
“Pleased to meet you, my name is John. Are you a special kind of pig?.
It rolled its eyes at my ignorance.
“Tamworth. Best in the world. From neolithic wild boar descended.”
I looked at him openly. Yes, he was a fine pig. A large noble head, wet twin-barrelled snout, wide chest, sturdy loins, spruce tail, long legs for a pig. And rufous indeed.
“ You’re looking tip-top, Rufus,” I told him. “But how did you escape?”
“Jumped pen at night. Anytime could have, but content until then I was. Miles through woods and hedgerows I travelled by night. Ate and slept by day. Foxes told me about this place. Perfect really, except no company until you came. Glad me. Pleased to meet.”
“Foxes can talk too?”
“To me and each other.”
“Rufus,” I said, “I’m sure we’ve got a lot to tell each other. When the flags are down I’ll meet you here. About this time in the morning. If I can’t see you I’ll whistle a tune called “All things bright and beautiful…”
“All creatures great and small,” he responded. “The farmer’s missus, she sang hymns at the piano. Here I’ll be. Forget don’t please.”
So ended our first encounter.
A few days later the flags were again down, meaning that I could run on the beach and visit Rufus, which I was impatient to do, as ever since our first meeting I had wondered if perhaps I’d flipped and imagined the whole thing. Yes, and even when I set out on the beach I thought that searching for a pig with a hymn tune, was the most improbable thing I’d ever done.
When I arrived at the spot in the dunes where we had sat, there was no sign of Rufus, so after a few minutes I began whistling the hymn. Almost immediately I was answered with a squeal from the direction of the sea. It was a calm day, with just a gentle swell on the water, the tide almost high, and there trotting in from the waves, shaking water from his pelt, was my new friend.
“Next to godliness is cleanliness,” he chuckled in my head.
“Pigs can swim??”
“All animals can swim,” he said, spraying me with brine. “Enjoy swimming, just some of us. Pigs very much. Most never do. Fenced in fields or sheds all of life. Hot summer, sun burns pigs, so cool in water, roll in mud or sand.”
Suiting the action to his word, he rolled for some ecstatic moments in the sand dune. When he shook off the excess he was covered in a thin layer of sand.
“John, hello. Glad me,” he said.
“Good morning my friend, I hope all is well with you. When it rained the other night, I thought of you out here. Do you have shelter?”
“Installations and buildings everywhere here that give shelter. Stuck never me. How to keep warm expert.”
“How about food?”
“Autumn best time. Nuts, fruits berries from trees. Root I can also, nobody minds. A special beetle very tasty.”
“So tell me,” I said, “Is there really any evidence of pigs swimming or is it just you? I certainly never heard of it.”
“City kid you are,” Rufus replied scornfully. “Country kids would know. For me, TV programme once I saw. Story of pigs it was. I can tell you if you want.”
I decided that nothing would be more pleasant than being told a story by Rufus in his silent voice. “Please do,” I said.
“In the islands of Bahamas, few years back, peasant moving from his island to another, pay man with boat to take his twelve pigs to their new home. Pigs load on board. Nice boatman is roaring, “Come on, boys and girls and you grandpa, today you’re going a sail with old captain Bapu, that’s me!” And apples he’s brought for each one of them. Nice boat, nice man, nice day. Pigs watch the traffic on the river, islands sliding by, engine splutters quietly.
Then it stops. Bapu swears at it, fetches starter handle, turns it. Nothing. Swears more, turns more. Nothing. Hot sun. Sweating, grabs handle, turns, turns and suddenly gives bad shout, puts hand on chest, drops to ground. At first, pigs do nothing. Then the old sow goes to Bapu, gently nudges his body. He makes no movement. She rolls him on his back, sniffs his face, licks it. Squeals softly, so pigs gather round, lie beside him, giving their heat to Bapu. Time passes, she gives a long low squeal, that all pigs understand. This animal is dead. Spirit gone to Mother. Pigs show respect by moving quietly away.
Dark is coming soon, and the channel full of large fishing vessels. Animals feel uneasy, sensing danger. The boar sees an island not too far, less than a mile, with a sandy beach. His thought he tells the others. Scared, they are, but follow as he mounts the gunwale and drops into the water. Only he has done this before. He makes sure they all are comfortable, then begins to paddle towards the shore. Relaxed they are soon, like walking only easier. They keep together, looking after the piglets, who think it’s fun. Sun drops out of sky, darkness comes, but now it’s near, the island, they can smell it. Then sand is under their feet and they walk ashore.
No smell of human, but of birds, bats, snakes, lizards, turtles, rodents, and racoons. No pigs. Solid ground they feel under their feet, and without thinking they begin to root. Ah! Fresh tubers and roots! The sound of water ahead, a stream. They can live here. Yes. Boar leads them back to beach where any other animal will have to approach over open sand. Animals tired, all safe now, eyes close.
In the morning, pigs quickly know they are in paradise compared with the dusty compound they were used to. Island not big, one hour wide by maybe six hours long. Beaches all round, some rocky bays. Trees and shrubs everywhere. Three fresh springs, fruit and nuts on the ground, plenteous tubers, leaves and herbage. Wow! Nobody telling what to do. No pigs disappearing now and then, never to return. Blue skies, sunshine, cover also, for pigs burn easy. In a week pigs have made new diet, new activity, especially swimming, new acquaintance, especially racoon, new confidence, new home. Paradise indeed.”
“Now you’re going to introduce a serpent,” I said, “I can feel it coming.”
“Wait for it,” Rufus said.
“One day, pigs happily swimming and playing in the sea, a tourist boat approached, full of humans. Pigs being friendly, swam to boat, rewarded with gifts of chocolate, potato crisps and sandwiches. Well, omnivores we are, so very pleased to eat. Boat pull in at shore, people walk around, pigs pleased enough to talk to them. Boat went away. Worried, Boar was.
Next day, another boat. After a week or two, at least one boat everyday, sometimes more. Young pigs learned not to root much but wait for boat and food. Fat, they were, and bad tempered, not listening to boar and old sow. Mess of paper, plastic, cigarette butts, human clothes, all over island. Boats continue. Swim with pigs, people want. Make noise with phones, pads, sound systems.
Another day, boar tries to push boat away from island, boatman hits him with pole, boar catches pole in his mouth, pulls boatman into water and gives him a nip which sends him screaming back to boat. Next day boat comes back, boatman carrying pole with sharp metal on end, striking at pigs.
Some young sows are in pig, Young boar aggressive to old boar. The happiness, where has it gone? That’s my story.º
“It’s a story we know,” I told him, “Some call it The Garden of Eden, others The Fall, others again, Paradise Lost.”
Rufus and I walked silently along the tide line, which was marked with plastic bottles, paper packets, metal containers, condoms, sanitary products and tyres.
“I brought you a bit of chocolate,” I said, “But maybe you don’t want it.”
“Joking!” He replied, stopping and looking up at me with eyes full of desire. I shuddered a little as I fed him.
On the 5th of November I remembered mid-afternoon that it was Guy Fawkes’, and concerned that Rufus might be alarmed by it, set off to find him. Fortunately the flags were down. I found him dozing on the dunes in the late-afternoon sun.
“Welcome you, glad me,” he said, as I took my place beside him, looking across the Firth to Fife. When I explained my mission. He laughed,
“What it’s like here on training days, do you think? Guns and explosive devices everywhere. Imitate birds best, head down, shut beak and wait. Fireworks for farm children I remember: no problem except farm dogs into our pen came creeping to hide. But you do fireworks? “
Before I could answer we became aware of a rubber dingy packed with people approaching the shore. Rufus disappeared. The people were uniformed, I could see. A tall figure detached itself and strode towards me.
“What are you doing here? This is MOD territory.”
“The flags are down,” I answered.
This made him lunge at his phone, on which he exchanged some words.
“Very sorry, Sir,” he said, “Stupid bastards forgot we have an exercise just now. But you don’t need to go. Won’t take long. These young lads there have to assault this beach head, while the defenders are concealed in the grass beyond the dunes. A bit of noise, paint balls in the air, if you stand to the side, there”ll be no problem. Thank you.”
I moved to the Monifieth side, leaving a wide berth.
The officer shouted the troop to gather round with guns at the ready.
“ You might have covering fire but you have to ignore that. The enemy has invaded Scotland; you are trying to retake it. You need to be angry, you want to waste these people, who have taken over your towns, your house, your women. They’ve fucked your lassies. You going to let them off with that? Attention! Present arms!”
The young men stood ready.
“At the double, dispersed formation, attack!”
Fanning out rapidly, guns raised and firing, they ran up the beach towards the dunes, only to be met with what sounded like a ferocious bombardment from the unseen defenders. I could see many of the attackers hit in the face by paint balls, dropping to the ground. Shortly, most of them were on the ground, dripping with paint, as the defenders rose to their feet, and yomped over the dunes to finish them off.
The officer blew a whistle, and battle ceased.
“Well done,” he told the defenders, “off you go back and tell them to have our meals ready! Remind them there was a scheduled exercise. Now as for you attackers, let’s think, what went wrong?”
“We were angry, Sir, you got us angry and we didn’t think. Also you told us to attack.”
“So maybe you shouldn’t be angry?” The officer asked. He paused; there was silence.
“Of course you should be angry, you should hate these bastards, but you must learn to channel anger into cunning, so that you survive and they don’t. Talk about it after your meal, and be ready with something better tomorrow. Dismiss! Thanks for your cooperation, Sir, we’ll leave you in peace.”
A large reddish figure emerged from the sand.
“ Anger they put in the air, then “leave you in peace!” The pig said sarcastically. “What makes human beings so aggressive, so fond of killing? Animals don’t do it. Love we share, for all life.”
“Oh yeah,” I answer with some asperity, “This is a very noble love, as expressed in the buzzard’s swoop, the fox’s jump, the weasel’s bite, not to mention the pig’s affection for beetles!”
“Ah, ah,” Rufus answered, shaking his head, “so long-lived, so stupid! Kill, yes, we do, for food. No hate, never. Love all, animals, all life, plants, trees, grass, insects, sparrows, crows, bulls, even humans. For prey, no hate. Love beetles, me.”
“You mean you love eating them?” i countered.
He shook his head again. “Yes, love eating, also love when not eating, everything…” he paused looking into the twilight. “Look here comes Mrs. Owl, let’s watch.”
At first I could see nothing, but then was able to pick up the brown plumage, the lighter face, the scarcely moving wings of the bird silently floating over the grasslands, before dropping to the ground. As she rose, we could see the legs and tail of some small rodent dangling from her beak.
“So beautiful, “Rufus said, “so compassionate she is, for the neck she goes first. Knows nothing, the vole, one moment alive, then dead, the spirit gone to mother. No anger, no hatred, only love. Weasel, sometimes the rabbit runs from, there is fear, but at at last it gives itself to the killer. No hate, only love. No animal so stupid to wipe out prey.”
The owl, which had settled on a branch to enjoy its food, quietly rose into the air, to look for another course.
“Only humans hate,” the pig said, “How so wrong?”
As I wished my friend a good night, the first fireworks screamed into the evening sky.
I can’t remember now the name of the storm, it began with a J I think, James, Jacob, Jesus- it would be great if there was a storm Jesus- but no, I can’t get it. The weather forecasts were alarming enough, high winds, coastal flooding, continuous rain over four days, to set me hurrying to find Rufus, who after some delay appeared, it seemed to me, from nowhere, covered in sand.
“What have you been doing, my friend?” I asked.
“Making a nest.”
“So, setting up home, are we?”
“Sows do it before litter,” he grinned, “Before storm, me.”
“How did you hear about the storm? I came to tell you about it.”
“For days every creature here has known. Foxes and rabbits have been working their tunnels; Built a nest, me. Look!”
He wandered over to a high dune beyond the tideline, and disappeared. He poked his head out of a clump of gorse, inviting me to peer through it. There was a well- constructed sand cave rising from front to rear, where there was room for at least three pigs. I was impressed and said so.
“Way back, no weather forecasts, people used to watch animals and birds for signs of anything unusual. As you see, I’m well prepared.”
I left feeling reassured. As it turned out the winds were not as severe as predicted, but the rain was worse. For five days it rained more or less continually. Occasionally I remembered Rufus in his nest, wondering if it would remain dry at high tide. On the sixth day in the morning, the flags were down and I was able to get some sprints on the beach as I made my way to meet the pig. I could see that the pressure from existing water channels had scoured new routes in the sands, as they brought huge quantities of water roaring to the sea. The burn near Rufus’ den, usually a pleasant trickle was a maelstrom covering the shore with all manner of vegetation, and even a dead sheep.
Before I saw him, I heard Rufus speaking urgently.
“Don’t speak to me! Pretend you don’t know me!”
A bedraggled man of middle years, stumbled past me and ran off over the dunes. Beside Rufus stood a teenaged girl, wearing a waterproof which did not disguise the fact that she was pregnant, and behind him a fox and a pink-footed goose.
“Hello,” I said to the girl, “Are you OK? Did you get lost in the rain?”
“Yes, got lost, yesterday. Pig helped me.”
“What’s your name,” I asked gently, “And where are you from?”
“My name is Sarah Thomson, 21 Harbour Crescent, Carnoustie. I have brain damage.”
By this time I was on my phone, asking for the Police.
When I had given my name, address and location, I said, “I’ve just found Sarah Thomson, on the beach. Yes, she’s alive and well. I’ll meet you at the beach carpark at Monifieth.”
“If you come with me,” I said, “You’ll get a lift home. My name is John. You’ll be fine and your mum and dad will be so relieved.”
I offered her my hand and she took it. Five minutes later, we were with the two WPC’s, to whom I gave a brief report, mentioning only that she seemed to have found shelter with “some animals.” They thanked me, saying they would get back to me later.
“Thank you, John,” Sarah said.
Something told me I should mention the man who had gone off into the dunes. They noted my words and departed.
I returned to find Rufus sitting with the fox and the goose, in the sunshine which was drying out the countryside.
“John, thank you. The man I didn’t trust, that one, you saw him run off. He followed me when I guided the girl to my nest, came in later and tried to be beside her. Afraid she was, great fear, so I stopped him.”
“How did you do that?”
“I bit him, hard, on leg. The message he got, but stayed all night, maybe hoping she would leave in the morning, with him. But you arrive and he goes.”
“There may be questions from the police, I’ve not mentioned you, but Sarah may do so. There may be some evidence in your nest, so can you leave it and make another?”
“Problem none,” he told me. “Now meet my new friends, who have shared my nest for a few nights. Goose with bruised wings is Pinky, and fox that nearly drowned is Perky. Pinky, old lady almost old as me, Perky, young fox, just a cub. Speak with me they can, but not with you. That you are friend, they know.”
“Tell them I am pleased to meet them, and hope to hear more of their stories soon. But now I should go, because the Police may want to see me.”
I was not home long when the police were at my door, two young ones, a woman and a man. I brought them in and offered coffee, which they were glad to accept.
“First of all, we can tell you that Sarah Thomson is back home, none the worse for her night out. She had gone for a walk near the light-house, which she often has done, got caught in the rain, sheltered nearby, tried to find her way in the dark, got lost. She was crying and shouting for help, she says, when an animal that she describes as a pig, nudged her, until she followed and found herself in sand-cave, with some other animals, a fox maybe. Much later a man came in. She was scared of him, she says, but he didn’t come near her. In the morning, you appeared and took her to meet us. So, Mr Smith, you mentioned, “some animals” she was with. Can you be more exact?
“There was definitely a goose,” I answered, “ And I think a fox, and maybe something else in the background, size of a dog, possibly.”
“Could it have been a pig?
“I guess so, but that’s very unlikely, isn’t it.”
“Her whole story’s a bit unlikely,” the WPC said. “Getting lost when there was a road in front of her, being directed by a pig, and this man she didn’t know…Of course I should have asked if you’ve any more to say about the man. Middle-aged, you said, coat and suit. Colour of hair?
“Light, straw-coloured, quite a lot of it.”
“Anything else? Colour of the coat or suit? Shoes?”
I had a flash of memory. “Shoes! Yes, they were brown brogues. Very wet and dirty, but definitely brown brogues. And the sand cave is real enough, I saw them beside it.”
“Yes,” said the WPC “but aside from stuff about animals, what we have is a middle-aged man and a pregnant fifteen year old girl who spent a night in a sand cave. She’s never revealed how she got pregnant.”
“If it helps I can take you to the sand cave.”
“That would be helpful. We’ll need our technical staff, so I’ll be in touch tomorrow. I’m D.I. Robert McCartney,” said the man, “and this is WPC Sally Gardens. Thanks for your help.”
It seemed to me more and more likely that the existence of Rufus might have to be admitted, especially if the girl’s story was being doubted.
The Police phoned around midday asking if I was free to guide them to the sand cave. I agreed and suggested that they ask for access through the MOD camp, as I knew the site was not far from one of their shooting ranges, the one nearest Monifieth. They arrived in a Landrover, the two officers, plus two other women, whom they introduced as forensic scientists. The MOD sentry waved us through, giving us directions to the shooting range. Hoping that Rufus would stay out of the way, I talked loudly, directing the four others through the dunes to the sand cave. It was immediately clear that there were footprints everywhere, and in the back area, body prints. The police asked me to wait outside. Cameras were clicking as I left.
They must have taken an hour, exiting from time to time to collect equipment from their vehicle. Eventually they finished, expressing satisfaction.
“The prints especially bear out Sarah’s story, including the pig, whose footprints are unmistakeable. Ditto the other animals. But we also found some blood, where the man had been. We can check it against our DNA records,” reported WPC Sally Gardens.
I remembered that Rufus had bitten the man.
“Many thanks, Mr. Smith. At present there is no crime for us to investigate, although we would like to identify the unknown male, which may be possible through what we’ve found here. The animals are a bit of a mystery, but not the sort we deal with. We probably won’t have to bother you again,” the D.I. concluded.
I walked back to the car with the officers, but turned down a lift home, saying I would walk back. I thought it wise to walk in that direction in case they were suspicious of me. Sure enough, when I glanced back after five minutes walking, there was the WPC turning away sharply and walking towards the range. Then I could hear their car making its way to the sentry post. I walked slowly towards our usual meeting place, where Rufus and his two friends awaited me.
“Done well, done well John, glad me,” Rufus said.
I waited for him to tell me why the goose and the fox were still around.
“Pinky came here with geese from Norway, in the storm got lost, no sign of her flock, so here will stay until she meets another flock. Her wings meantime are healing. And a special job we have for her. Why? Perky has lost his mother, although he no longer needs a mother. No, but his mother is old and some help she may need. Daughters usually give help, but he saw them drowned in the flood, that drowned him almost.”
“So, we’re hunting a vixen that may be dea…..”
“No, not a good thing to say! Great spirit has Perky, help we must give.”
“We can’t wander over an army training camp looking for a fox.”
“No, but Pinky, when she can fly, she is used to looking, maybe she spots the mama. Then she tells us. All the time of course Perky is also looking, but no- firing days are full of dogs. So dangerous.”
I reckoned something I didn’t quite understand had caught Rufus’s imagination. Looking at the powerful pig, the graceful goose and the frisky fox I thought they looked a likely team.
“I’m happy to provide what support I can,” I found myself saying.
But when I had time to consider all that had happened, I was less sure about providing support. I had, I confess, seized on the accident of my meeting with Rufus, to pursue an acquaintance with him, in the hope of broadening my human with his animal experience, so as to increase my wisdom, but now it seemed that I had entered on a combination of Charlotte’s Web and the News of the World, with foxes, geese, pregnant girls and dubious middle-aged men. I decided to discuss this matter with Rufus, if the flags were down.
They were. It was one of these cold late autumn mornings where the sky is clear and pale blue, without enough intensity to colour the sea, which on this day remained a dull silver, the very colour attributed to the Tay by its Dundonian bard, William McGonagall. The heron standing poised by the water’s edge, gave a yelp of annoyance, as it saw me and launched itself with a slight wobble into the air. As I approached the dunes, Rufus trotted out to meet me,
“ Sunshine, clear sky, now you, glad me!”
It was impossible not to respond to his pleasure in life.
“Greetings, dear friend,” I said, quietly. “Are your other friends not around?”
“Pinky searches for grains, which she needs, and Perky for his mother, dogs permitting.”
“That’s good, because there something I want to discuss with you.”
“Puzzled you are, how you got into this adventure,” he stated.
“Damn it,” I said, “How do you know?”
“Good at watching and understanding, we are.”
“Yes, well I was looking for some enlightening conversations with you about this and that, and here I am as if I’m part of somebody else’s story!”
“Few of us so lucky as to direct our own story,” he said mildly. “But you want to discuss what?”
“Well, life,” I told him, “the meaning of life.”
“Ah, that little matter, and doubtless you think there is such a thing, and there is only one.”
“What are you saying?”
“One meaning of life: God, the Big Bang, Evolution, Ultimate Cause, Right and Wrong, Wealth, Wisdom, or maybe one other thing that contains all these, like a bag. All these mighty words that are pulled out of life, but are not alive.”
“But if there is no meaning, how can I know why I am here, or what I must do, or where I am going?”
“To meet with me, you’re here; speak and listen, you must do; back home, is where you’re going.”
“Just that, eh? That’s the meaning of life, so trivial?”
He grunted with pleasure:
“Trivial, he says! Meeting with Rufus, the famous talking pig! Trivial! A good talking to you should give yourself, if this is trivial.”
“OK, have fun, take the piss, but surely life has more meaning than what we’re doing now!
“Yes, yes, what we were doing last week, there’s that; what we will do tomorrow, there’s that; what you did when you were a child, there’s that; what Donald Trump will do to win the election, there’s that; but if you don’t take seriously what we’re doing now, you can throw away the rest. Life is a set of events.”
“Only if the events are real,” I suggested.
“An unreal event I’ve never come across , but maybe you have.”
“Is asking Pinky to look for Perky’s mother, real? You can train dogs to look for things or people, but a goose! Surely that’s just a story you want to tell.”
“Of course, it’s story I want to tell. Oh yeah, let me tell more of the story of Pinky. From an island called Svalbard she comes. Lots of snow, wind, ice, seals, polar bears, arctic foxes, there in Svalbard. Breeding grounds also for thousands of pink-footed geese. But here they come to escape the Arctic winter, get sun, food, build up strength for breeding. A long way it is. Maybe two thousand miles. How does she know how to get here? When she was young, she followed the others, now they follow her. The angle of the sun, is her compass. What is her map? Maybe it’s like watching a movie you’ve seen before: you can’t necessarily say what’s coming next, but when you see it you know it’s right, if they miss out a bit you know it’s wrong. But you do it together, with the strongest taking the front, each bird behind another assisted by being in its slipstream. These comrades are so precious to you. Then Pinky, she loses them in a storm, her strong wings bruised. Do you understand how she has done this? Do I? No. So how put a limit on what she can do? And certainly she knows foxes, for back home they might eat her chicks. If she was a dog trained by humans you would believe she could help, but because animals have taught each other some things, you doubt.”
“OK, that is a good story, but how do the good stories help us understand the meaning of life?”
“All together, they are the meaning, no, they are the meanings of life. Not one more than another. Not one more important than another. Not one able to lord it over another, not even if it’s God’s story. If God our mother loves, she shares all stories.”
“Even the stories of those who are taught to hate and learn to kill?”
“Even those. Without sharing, no caring. You know this, you Christian!
“So Christianity is right after all?”
“Only when you don’t think so, and allow your story to open you to all the others.”
At that moment we heard the sound of excited barking, coming nearer.
“Ah, Perky’s in trouble! Let’s go”
Rufus rushed in the direction of the noise, until we could see several dogs, running hard, foam- flecked and panting, in pursuit of something small and red.
Facing the dogs full on, Rufus gave vent to a violent howl and charged them, with me, to my own surprise, at his side. The lead dog squealed and ground almost to a halt, leading the pack off to the side, tails down. We remained in pursuit, as they retreated rapidly. I may have done some howling myself.
“Thank you, John, glad me,” said Rufus, “I think that’s one of the meanings of life.”
I had left Rufus and the rescued fox in good spirits, while I returned home in the early winter dusk. In the days that followed MOD Barry Buddon was in continuous use for weapons training, which provided a background chatter of rifle and automatic fire, punctuated by occasional thumps of heavier artillery, all of which reminded me that the nation to which I belong is still committed to defending its interests by murder, although I, its citizen, cannot imagine any interest I would want to defend by killing anyone.
Following Rufus’s teaching I spent some time considering the event of Autumn as it happened to the birch trees in my back garden. I had mistakenly imagined that the russet leaves were blown from the twigs by the wind, but was puzzled that some remained still attached after severe gales. I was startled to discover from Wikipedia that in fact the leaves are subject to a process called abscission, by which leaves are cut from their twigs by biochemical means, so that the tree does not have to support them in the cold season. This event with its precise processes led me to reconsider the many other events in which the event of my life was embedded; the event of my daughter’s life, for example, now as fragile as that of any autumn leaf. But just as the leaf had made its vital contribution to the life of the tree, so my daughter to my life. What am I trying to say?
I once saw a university extension class advertised as “How to think”; I wish I’d taken it.
It was after more than a week, therefore, that finding the flags down, I was able to try a few sprints on the sand in the direction of Rufus. As I approached I thought I could see him taking a dip in the sea, but realised that it was a human being, doubtless one of a growing number of exhibitionists who ostentatiously throw themselves into the cold waves of winter. Indeed, there was his/her pile of clothes neatly folded on the beach. A closer view changed my mind: to the side of the clothes were a pair of men’s shoes, brown brogues. I gave a startled glance towards the figure incompetently, as it seemed to me now, blundering further from the shore.
“Hello!” I bawled, “Hello!” The figure stopped and turned towards me. “Are you all right? Do you need help?” The figure made a gesture of rejection, turned into the waves, stumbled and vanished for a moment in the water, before turning and slowly labouring towards me. I watched, wondering if I should wade in to assist, but decided any approach, might spook him. Shortly his naked body stepped on to the sand. He was blue with cold. I gave him my cagoule, placing it round him and fastening it as his hands were useless. “Come on,” I ordered, “Quick march to warm you up!” Then for some minutes with his increasing cooperation I dragged him up and down the beach, until some normal colour was restored; at which point I handed him his clothes piece by piece to cover his body, including the final piece, an old fashioned heavy coat. Although his teeth were still chattering a little, it looked like he was going to live.
“I can phone an ambulance,” I said. He shook his head, his fair hair flopping from side to side. “I thought I could end it, but it was just too cold,” he said, in a well- educated accent. “Thanks for your help, but I can cope now.” “You need warmth and shelter soon,” I said, “Do you live nearby?” Did I see an expression of fear before he nodded, moving off towards the firing range and the path between Monifieth and Carnoustie.
I was wondering if I should inform the Police about this encounter, when Rufus signalled his presence. “You seemed to be doing all right, so I left you to it.” “Rufus! Did you recognise him?” “Yes, it’s him, the man I bit. That’s another reason I stayed hidden, he might have been scared.” “Should I tell the Police?” “He may be a completely innocent man.” “Completely innocent, in a pig’s eye..” I said, before catching myself…
“Ah right,” Rufus replied, “so a pig’s eye is not as good as a human eye, is that it? Of course, I have to admit human perfection, but as someone who has learned language from humans, I suspect that the phrase is both more polite and ruder than you think. It’s just a polite version of ‘in a pig’s arse,” – arses are quite often compared with eyes. The “Devil’s eye,” is not found in his head. Phrases about pigs are usually uncomplimentary,” he went on, “for example how about, “as happy as a pig in shit” which comes from the conditions imposed on pigs by farmers, on the one hand; and ignorance of the pig’s need to wallow to prevent sunburn on the other. Of course, most people are ‘pig ignorant’ on these matters, thinking that pigs are stupid when the reverse is true. Even your Jesus got in the act, telling people not to ‘cast their pearls before swine’ with the implication that pigs are unable to appreciate anything fine or lovely. Doubtless he was really talking about certain brutal people, and used a phrase proverbial among Jews who saw pigs as unclean. Being taken to task in this way may make you “sweat like a pig,” which shouldn’t cause you too much trouble because pigs don’t sweat at all. I wish we did, because it would prevent us overheating, which remains a problem for us. A good rant this is, but you could ‘save your bacon” by apologising.
“Yes, yes,” I said, “Mea culpa, I am guilty, very sorry, I apologise! You got a real feast of human ignorance there but you don’t need to ‘make a pig of yourself.’ “Heh-heh,” he said, “language does offer scope for fun. Forgiven you are. Meanwhile things have been happening: Pinky was off trying her wings in a short flight, when Perky she saw below and swooped down beside him, only to find not Perky but an older fox that wasn’t too happy to see her. She flew off, but Perky who had been following her, caught his mother’s scent and found her. Not at all well is that old lady, here she would be safe, Perky thinks. Soon they’ll arrive.”
Not long after, I saw the goose make a splendid circle in the air, coming in to land at my feet. She was a big bird, a bit ungainly on land but most elegant in the air. She seemed excited. A moment or two later two foxes arrived on the dunes, the larger ahead, almost shepherded by the smaller. Rufus gently moved towards them, obviously communicating with them. The wary mother fox slowly relaxed, allowing herself to sink to the ground. She was pitifully thin. Perky remained at her side.
I reckoned my moment had come, reaching for my backpack, and bringing from it two bags. “This bag,” I said to Rufus, “is meaty dog biscuits, which may be edible by foxes.” “Offer them some, I’ve told her you’re a friend.” Stepping towards her, I poured a quantity on the ground. She sniffed then attacked them savagely. As she and Perky were demolishing them, I poured from the other bag a stream of barley hoping that the goose would enjoy it. She ate with every sign of pleasure. I waited till the foxes had finished, then asked Rufus to explain to the vixen that she should let me see her left hind leg, which looked odd. Fearfully she permitted me. A piece of rusty barbed wire, in which she may have become entangled during the storm, was bent around the lower limb. I recollected that I always kept a small medical kit in my backpack. “Please reassure her that this will hurt a little but not much,” I asked Rufus.
Very gently I grasped the two ends of the wire, unwinding it from her leg. Some of it was crusted with blood where it had dug into flesh, and I could see her wincing as I worked. I put the metal in my bag pocket. Now I used the antiseptic wipes to rub into the wounds, which were already swollen. As I did so I moved and flexed the leg to check if it was broken. Deciding it was not, I continued cleaning, until all the wounds were exposed.
“There you are lady,” I said to her, trusting Rufus to translate, “Now you can lick it to death, and keep it clean. If it is clean and healing tomorrow, well and good. If not, we have to get you to a vet immediately.”
I poured out the remaining food from the bags, packed them and my medical kit away, said farewell and was off with Rufus’s thanks ringing in my mind:
“That’s a great job, you went the whole hog!”
The next day however, the flags were up and no access was possible. I was worried about the fox, but considered that the flags would be down the next day, Sunday, when often there was no army activity. I had just settled down to improve my sermon, when the doorbell chimed. When I opened it, there stood Sarah Thomson, evidently still pregnant.
“Sorry to disturb you Mr. Smith,” she said, “Can I speak with you?”
“Come in,” I replied, and ushered her into my study. She was an attractive lass, with very striking green eyes. “Do your parents know you are here?”
“Yes, I told them I was going to thank you for helping me.”
“But that wasn’t the real reason?”
“No, I wanted to tell you something, because I know you can’t tell anyone else.”
“How do you know that”
“I know you’re a minister. I saw you at Karen McDonald’s funeral.”
Karen had died of Cystic Fibrosis at the age of fifteen.
“You spoke so nicely about her, I thought you would listen to me.”
“Of course I’ll listen. Let me just turn off my phone. So yes?”
“Back in March,” she said, “I was at a party with my pal, Eva. I had arranged to go home with her and stay over. Her parents gave me their spare bedroom. In the middle of the night, Eva’s dad came into the room….”
“Take a deep breath,” I said.
“He came into the room and raped me. I struggled but he was too strong. Afterwards, he said that if I told on him, it would kill Eva, and anyway, I had encouraged him. That was a lie. So I said nothing to anyone. At first it was easy, but then I knew I was pregnant. I went to the Doctor and he said yes, I was. I had to tell my parents, but I refused to say what had happened. They knew I was hiding something from them, but they have not blamed me. They have been wonderful. The doctor recommended an abortion, but I wanted to protect it, so here I am with only weeks to go. But that night he must have followed me to the lighthouse, and asked to talk to me. I told him to leave me alone and go away. He did, but later when I got lost in the rain, he must have watched me. Then he followed me to the pig’s place. He frightened me, but the pig bit him. Mr. Smith, I have learning difficulties, my brain was damaged at birth, but I know all this is not right. I don’t know what I should do.”
“You are a very remarkable person,” I told her, “You have coped wonderfully well with something that most people would have struggled with. Now, it’s time for my morning coffee. Would you like coffee, tea, coke and a biscuit? Then we can work out a plan together.”
“Tea and a biscuit, thanks.”
While I was getting the drinks I wondered if I should tell her what I knew, but decided that I would not burden her with the story of her rapist’s failed suicide attempt.
“Right, Sarah, can you answer some questions?”
“Yes, can I call you John?”
“Of course. So, any adult would advise you to tell your story to the police. They will surely believe you. Will you do that?”
“No, and you must not tell either, John.
“I won’t tell if you don’t want me to. But your friend Eva, I don’t imagine you’ve been back to her house?”
“No, and she wants to know why and I can’t even think of a good lie. And she’s clever. She can count months. Maybe she suspects something.”
“So maybe she just has to face it.”
“She’s a daddy’s girl, she’d go crazy. And I love her.”
“Say he confesses his crime, what then?”
“She’ll still be hurt, but it won’t be my fault. I could comfort her.”
“Well, it’s important that he does confess. Abusers like him very rarely abuse only one person. So one way or another, while protecting you, we have to do something about him. Yes?”
” I’m scared,” she said, “but yes. So do you know how?”
“I think so. I’ll need his name and address, and your mobile number, so that I can keep in touch with you. Do you happen to know what his job is?”
“He’s a P.E teacher at the High School.”
“How old are you?”
“Sarah, I’d be very proud if you were my grand daughter. As it is, we’re friends. But if what I plan doesn’t work, and he doesn’t confess, the law says I have to go to the Police. I want you to promise that if he doesn’t confess, you’ll come to the Police with me.”
I could see her struggle with this. At last she said,”Yes, I promise, but you must do your best!”
I thanked her for her courage, took down the info I needed, hugged her, and said goodbye.
Then I found an old writing pad, and carefully wrote a letter:
Dear James Duncan,
I am the man whom you have seen twice near the beach, once when you were very cold. I know the truth about Sarah. Please come to see tomorrow morning at 10 o’ clock. My address is at the top of this letter. We will be going outside, so wear something warm. This will be best for you as well as Sarah.
I put it in an envelope, drove to his address and put it through his letter box.
He arrived on time, saying that he had taken the bus, which stops outside my house. I explained that we needed to walk to the beach where we had last met. He seemed surprised, but agreed to do so. As I had expected the flags were down. It was a beautiful winter morning, cold, still and sunny. I watched the kestrel fly along the line of the dunes, pausing to hover, then plunge.
As we walked I explained to him my relationship with the pig and the others, and why I had supplemented my medical kit before leaving the house. I sensed his disbelief, and told him he would be convinced when Rufus spoke to him. Arriving at the usual spot, I had to whistle Rufus from the sea. Firstly I asked about mama Fox. He squealed softly and the foxes appeared from cover, and with only brief hesitation, approached me. Mama’s wounds were utterly clean, less swollen and starting to heal. There was no need of any further treatment.
“This is Mr James Duncan,” I told Rufus, “whom you have seen before.”
“Good morning,” Rufus said, “I’m sorry I had to bite you.”
I could see the shock with which James Duncan registered this communication.
“We have to talk about Sarah Thomson,” I said.
“If we sit in the dry sand in that depression there,” Rufus said, “we’ll be out sight of walkers.”
Oddly, as we followed his suggestion we were joined by the foxes and the goose.
I began by describing my conversation with Sarah, during which James Duncan hung his head, making little groans of distress from time to time.
“Do you admit that she is telling the truth?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, but…”
I cut him off. “And that if there is an investigation, other girls who are or have been your pupils will come forward with accusations of abuse?”
“And that even your own daughter has not escaped your attentions?”
“But what, man, how can there be any excuse?”
“But they all wanted it,” said James Duncan.
I was so staggered by this statement, that I was silent.
Then I said,”How did you know that?”
“Of course, none of them actually asked. But you know women, and especially teenage girls, have ways of letting you know.”
Again I was silent.
Out of the silence, Rufus spoke:
“Do you think pigs ask to be made into bacon?”
James Duncan twitched as if shot, burying his face in his hands.
“Answer me,” Rufus demanded in anger, “Do you think pigs ask to be made into bacon?”
Duncan began to sob, writhing on the sand.
“Do you really think these girls asked to be the receptacles of your lust?”
After more loud sobs, Duncan curled up in a foetal position, and was silent.
I phoned the Police, explaining the situation and where we could be found.
When he continued to lie silently, Perky moved towards him, sniffed, and licked his face.
Startled he sat up. “Yes, ” he said, “It’s true, I’m a monster.”
“No,” Rufus said, “Now, monster you are not, for you see clearly what you’ve done, and are taking responsibility for it. The police, you will tell them. Then the first day of your new life will be today.”
Two Police cars screamed to the adjacent firing range, and a large posse of them moved towards us ready for trouble. I stepped forward and halted them.
“Mr Duncan is willing to go with you,” I said.
Duncan stood up and walked towards them, “I want to confess a number of sexual crimes,” he told them.
They took him to the car. One stayed and asked me, “But why here, Sir?”
I noticed the animals had disappeared.
“Because it had associations for him,” I replied, and told him briefly of the incident in the water the other day.
“Maybe you should have reported it,” he judged, “We’ll need a statement from you. At your house?”
“Yes, I’ll be back in an hour.”
Once they were gone the animals reconvened.
“Thank you all. I couldn’t have done that without you. I think Sarah will also be grateful. And his other victims. And maybe even James Duncan himself.”
“Bad story,” Rufus said, “but had to be told. Glad me, to help. Now, we have a food problem. Perky can’t hunt enough for self and mama.”
“I’ll bring more tomorrow if the flags stay down. I’ve even got more barley.”
I went home to meet the Police.
The Police, in the form of D I McCartney and WPC Sally Gardens arrived some hours later. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gone straight to them after Sarah Thomson had told me her story. I explained that the rules allowed me time to consider my duty. I had decided that forcing her to go to the Police immediately might be bad for her mental health; but that I had obtained her promise to do so, if my plan failed. They accepted my explanation, but warned me that the positive outcome did not justify my interference. I might have scared him into suicide, or given him scope to deny her allegation. I agreed that there had been risks in my course of action, and promised to think about them. This seemed to satisfy them, because they proceeded to take a signed statement from me.
I thought that would bring matters to a conclusion, but Sally Gardens then looked straight at me and said, “Of course that says nothing about the pig.”
“What pig?” I asked mildly.
“In his statement, Mr. Duncan says you frightened him with a pig. In fact he said, ‘a talking pig’ but we can disregard that bit. Still, we remember a pig that provided shelter for Sarah Thomson. So have you anything you want to tell us?”
“I do think there’s a pig resident in Barry Buddon, but the idea that I can control it, is completely wrong. I guess it comes and goes as it pleases, and does harm to nobody. If Mr. Duncan caught a glimpse of it and was frightened, that may have been caused by his guilty conscience.”
She nodded, as if she agreed, then told me, “It’s not really our business, but Duncan’s lawyer may see it as evidence that he was terrified into a false confession. Then we’d have to bring these lassies to court. In any case, we’ve passed the pig business on to the Animal Rescue people, who will investigate. I would advise you to stay out of the road, Mr. Smith.”
Well, I was glad when they left! I had been congratulating myself on what I’d done, but now I began to wonder. In any case, I needed to get back as soon as possible to warn Rufus. Maybe around sunset would be best, when anyone with the job of following me would probably have given up. I did so, using a very overgrown track through the dunes, rather than the beach.
Rufus greeted me as usual. I suggested he check for anyone following me, but he said he would have smelled them already. I explained the problem to him.
“Finding me, if I don’t want to be found, probably impossible.”
“Say they use tracker dogs?” I asked
“They can’t smell me in water, and anyway I ‘d talk to them.”
” They’re good people,” I teased him, “and they would keep you in a nice rescue farm.”
“You’re my friend,” he said seriously, “but most humans, I don’t trust. They always think they’re right.”
I remembered that I’d just been accused of this very fault
I mentioned that I had brought food for the foxes.
“Fox,” he said.
I had already thought the worst, when he put me right.
“Around this time of year, foxes pair off for mating which starts in January. A big dog-fox been hanging around mama, and now she’s off with him to look for a den. She seemed pleased. Still limping a little but strong.”
“And what about Perky, is he joining them?”
“Certainly not. when he tried to stay with his mama, he got bitten on the nose by her new partner. Quite right of course. It’s time for Perky to strike out on his own.”
“You’re not going to bite his nose as well, are you?”
” No, no, of his own choice he’ll go soon, I think.”
“Soon you’ll lose all your family,” I said as I saw the goose glide in from wherever she’d been feeding.”
“Yes,” he said, “Midwinter it is, but home is in her mind. In fact, when you take time to listen you see her mind is very remarkable. If you want, I’ll try to stream it to you.”
I didn’t fully understand, but nodded, as Pinky approached.
“Your homeland, tell us about it,” he encouraged her.
Suddenly I was in the air with her, flying high above an archipelago of islands, snow-covered, glittering in the sun. She was being drawn towards a town of bright-painted houses, on the verge of which were stubble-fields, offering her an immediate prospect of food. As we glided down, with thousands of other pink-foots, I could feel the desire which had guided her over hundreds of sea-miles, to her breeding grounds. It was the arctic spring with snow clearing from the meadows but remaining on the mountains. The land creaked, and cracked and stretched as it freed itself from the grip of winter. There was the smell of damp earth mixed with the scent of tiny flowers. She and her companions gulped the grains that had survived the cold, before again they rose, calling, calling to one another, into the crisp air, flying along the coastline, to the flatter western territories where they breed. They like to be able to see for some distance around them to ensure the safety of their broods. As we flew, I could watch a polar bear with two cubs far below, searching for food. Other flocks of geese were also in the air, barnacle geese I recognised, who also breed nearby. It is strange and wonderful to share the freedom of bird-flight.
“You see,” Rufus said, “She communicates in images, not words. It’s like watching TV only better. Tell us more,” he asked Pinky, “tell us about the eggs and the chicks.”
Now we were on a dusty flat near the sea, where countless birds have established rounded, shallow nests, which are carefully policed even before the eggs are laid. Reindeer graze nearby, solemn, gentle creatures who are careful to avoid the birds. Once she has laid her five eggs, she and her partner guard them fiercely. Soon the main threat arrives, an arctic blue fox, which takes eggs or chicks. Its fur glistens, its nose twitches, its eye gleams. I can feel its beauty and its evil. The geese remain on the nest, great wings flapping, voices honking, beaks thrust forward. The fox moves on, hoping for a careless moment when a nest is unguarded. There will be such moments as breeding geese still have to eat, usually in the nearby grasses. Our geese do so singly, always leaving one on the nest.
The moment when the first egg is cracked open is intensely observed by both birds, but the tiny ball of fluff makes for Pinky, who welcomes it under her wing. So the other chicks emerge and are protected. These tiny creatures are the reason for the annual life-cycle of the birds: the vast distances covered, the many risks taken and obstacles overcome, are all for this moment when new life breaks through into the world, and has to be cherished. Pinky and her partner are now even more active and agitated , because these fluff-balls are mobile, want to feed, and therefore are harder to protect. This is true of all the geese so the breeding ground becomes a stramash of honking geese trying to intercept any intruders. It is hard to believe that in a few months these chicks will be ready to fly a thousand miles to Scotland.
Rufus and I look at Pinky with amazement, understanding the extraordinary capacity of this small body and mind. Rufus tells me moreover that this is only her second visit to Scotland, since the group of which she is part used to winter in Belgium. I imagine that milder Scottish winters may have led to this change. Now she is waiting anxiously to meet some Svalbard geese, with whom she may fly home in Spring. I pour out for her the bag of barley I have brought, then take my leave, warning Rufus to be careful.
The flags remained up for almost a week, during which the local newspaper carried the story of a pig-hunt by the SSPCA in the MOD area at Barry, using specially trained dogs, all to no avail, other than the discovery of a “romping” couple in a disused guard hut. I breathed a sigh of relief that Rufus had evaded detection. I did wonder if detention in an animal sanctuary might not be the best future for Rufus, who, after all could have been someone’s bacon by now, but I realised that he had the right to his own preferences.
When I managed to see him however, he had news of a deliberate killing.
Prompted by the newspaper reports, a twenty year-old man, who “considers himself to be an urban hunter”, took a gun, a spade and his fighting dog, to discover the pig and bring it back, alive or dead. After a while his dog took off and vanished into a large sand hole. With a great deal of yapping and squealing it dragged to its owner’s feet the mangled remains of a dog-fox and a vixen, which he had carried off for “his home museum” Local agencies condemned his actions but the damage was done: mama fox and her new partner were dead.
“Others there will be,” Rufus said, “maybe he doesn’t come back, but others will, believing that the murder of creatures is a game which humans are entitled to play. Yes, Some other animals play with their prey – dolphins throw a seal in the air from one to another – but it is prey, they will eat it, and they will not do this if they are not hungry. Only humans like killing, only humans will destroy whole living spaces to get land for their own purposes. All this they do because they can, but they are too stupid to see the results of their violence; shitting in their own den they are, pissing in their own drink, eating their own flesh, so that the end of this savage contempt for life will be extinction. Decent humans are distressed by this prospect, and keep saying that there is still time for change. They are wrong, their time has run out. And even if time is given, why would any decent person desire the survival of the most filthy, ignorant, greedy, cowardly and destructive species ever to walk the earth? I like you, my friend, and I know there are other people who are good animals, but I believe that you are mutants, while humanity as a whole is too corrupt or too comfortable to see the truth.”
I was silent. Then I said, “Surely you’re ignoring all the good things about human beings?”
“Which human being should I think of? The one who cut my mother’s throat? Or the one who cut my father’s throat? Or maybe the ones who cut my childrens’ throats? Or Mr.Duncan who rapes his own child and the children of others? Or maybe your Jesus, who sent a whole herd of us into the sea to be drowned?
I noticed that Pinky and Perky were sitting near him in the dunes. The setting sun burned a gold swathe down the firth, picking out the reddish tints in each of them, the pink of the goose, red of the fox, the auburn of the pig, facing me on the deserted beach. I poured out my offerings of biscuits and barley, turned and made my way home.
So soon it was Christmas day, with church in the morning, then precious time before the meal in the late afternoon. It was an almost perfect day, clear, bright, no wind, and unseasonably mild. I was just thinking of a run on the beach, when I received a phone call.
“This is Sarah,” said the voice, “and I’m taking my ten -day old baby for a walk on the beach at Monifieth. I thought you might be going down there, and wondered if I could talk with you about baptism?”
“Oh work!” I thought ungenerously, then gave in, “At the car park in half an hour?”
She looked very well, wearing a bright red jacket and hat, carrying the baby, well wrapped up, in one of these modern walking slings, in front of her.
“She’s a girl,” she told me, “And I”m calling her Kirstin after her great gran.”
As we walked, we settled that Kirstin would be christened in the church at the beginning of February.
She asked, “It doesn’t matter there”s no father?”
“No, it doesn’t matter.”
Then she told me how Mr Duncan had confessed, and how she and Eva, his daughter, had been able to comfort one another, by sharing the painful truth.
“It was terrible,” she said, “But the baby is the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s like I was made for it.”
“Your mum and dad have been marvellous too, ” I suggested.
“Yes,” she agreed, “So life is good. I’m not clever, but I know how to do this.”
As we neared the dunes, she exclaimed, “Yes, life turned round when I bumped into that pig! Have you seen it at all?”
There was no sign of him. For the first time recently I whistled ‘All things bright and beautiful.’ After a few minutes Rufus appeared with the fox and the goose. They walked quietly towards Sarah, who took her baby gently from the sling , stooped and held her where the animals could see.
“She comes from the Mother,” Rufus said, and Sarah nodded, as if a speaking pig were no oddity.
“Thank you, Mr Pig, for protecting me when I was afraid,” she said.
“Happy please be,” he said.
“Happy Christmas! ” I ventured.
“Ah yes, birthday of the pig-killer!”
I explained the problem to Sarah.
“Don’t believe it,” she told him, “there’s always truth and lies in these old stories. Jesus never did that.”
“Thank you,” he answered. “Now, we have news. Pinky has found a flock from her own place and to Montrose basin she goes with them tomorrow, where they will winter before going home to Svalbard. And Perky has found two other teenage foxes near here and he’ll live with them. As for me, I’ll remain here, as it suits me. The human trade of killing protects old Rufus. But I’ll speak no more to humans, too dangerous it is.”
I stepped forward to touch the animals farewell, with a profound contradiction of feeling . Here I was on Christmas day with a madonna and child who offered such hope, and amongst animals, as was true to the story; but the animals were in no way optimistic about the human future.
“Thank you brothers and sister,” I said, “you have been true friends to me. And you especially, Rufus have shown me wisdom, courage, justice and kindness which I will never forget. I hope your prophecies about us human beings are wrong. May God make his face to shine upon you.”
“Ah, the day will come brother, when you think a speaking pig was merely a literary trick, a useful invention, but then remember, we loved and understood each other, as I will.”
The animals turned and walked away from us.
I returned to the car park with Sarah and her child, and gave them a lift home, as the shadows gathered.
The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles show a community that in the name of Jesus enjoyed and shared the good things, and carried the message that God’s goodness was accessible to all. Members shared wealth, food, healing and supportive relationships. Although the sharing of food in Jesus’ memory was central, its members continued temple and synagogue worship until they were expelled from these as unorthodox.
Church then did not mean a weekly service of worship, but membership of a dynamic community focused on receiving and sharing God’s goodness.
The church has often gone wrong by prioritising what it called spiritual goods over what it called material goods, and relegated its sharing of material goods to “charity,” which most of its members did not need: now members worship and some of them provide charity which outsiders receive. This is a far cry from Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.
The church often asks why so few come to worship. There are many reasons, but one may be that often nothing much happens; a ritual takes place but nothing wonderful happens. Some churches make up for this by charismatic ecstasies and dubious miracles. But where something does happen, for example where very poor and needy people find dignity and grace, the church is a vibrant gathering where something good is enjoyed.
The Sikh custom of “langar” that is, the community kitchen is a challenge to the church. There, at least once a week, Sikhs gather to eat a simple meal together, and anyone is made welcome. They have done this for 600 years as an expression of God’s goodness. Too often Christian “cafes” are not communal meals in which members participate but charitable ventures run by volunteers. The joyful equality of sharing food together is absent.
There are similar issues with the church’s traditional task of healing. Of course the church should not see itself as a substitute for the National Health Service nor as a remedy when scientific medicine can find no cure. But given that health is restored as much by spiritual as physical factors, there is a huge role to be played by a competent spiritual community. The church has not much sought this good, and is not competent to share it, leaving it again to churches that specialise in deception and abuse. Were the church to offer a skilled and honest healing ministry, people would come seeking this good, and church members would benefit from attention to their own ‘dis- ease’ of mind or body.
Yes, I’m saying that the church’s business is the discovery, enjoyment and sharing of God’s goodness, using Jesus’ ministry as a guide and challenge. Goodness is a basic currency; the church should learn to use it again.
If we think of God as the goodness which we begin to know in our parents’ love, then loving God means loving goodness.
1. If we love goodness we become skilled at recognising that loved one in any situation and in any disguise. Jesus could see the goodness in rain and sunshine, in the wild flowers and the common birds; in local fishermen, foreign centurions, Jewish collaborators, prostitutes, sinners and rich young men; in sick bodies and twisted minds; even in his own death on an execution stake. He was not born with this ability but developed it in response to the goodness he experienced from others and from the world. Love of goodness is responsive love.
2. To love goodness is to desire it for oneself and others. We know that Jesus eagerly seized the goodness he found in his own faith tradition, and became so familiar with it that he understood it in new ways. We know he used the custom of solitary prayer to express himself to God and to open himself to God’s goodness. He did not think of himself as doing good deeds, but as desiring the divine goodness he sensed lurking in every person and situation and being ready to reach out to grasp it.
3. To love goodness is to know its persuasive power; to trust that as people become aware of it, they will be charmed and persuaded by it, as long as they are not in league with evil. The lovers of good are not at all naive and they know the terrible power of evil, but are not cowed by it. Jesus knew that his job was to open people’s eyes to goodness in themselves, in others and in the creation, because goodness is the persuasive antidote to evil. Sure, there may always be those who are unpersuaded, but he didn’t think it was his job to worry about them. Goodness could be seen and done now, that was all that mattered. He spent no time going on about people’s sins. That was the old person; the new person was forgiven for past sins, and Jesus never made a meal of God’s forgiveness; it was announced, and behold, new life could begin.
4. To love goodness is to know it should never be postponed; it can be got and given now: your own sinfulness is no excuse, you can have it and show it now; the bad state of society or humanity is no excuse, all the more reason to act now; the opposition of powerful people is no excuse, goodness is your weapon now; your family responsibilities are no excuse, a greater family needs your goodness; your fear and weakness are no excuse, goodness will give you strength.
5. But love of goodness does not make you a moral fanatic, always driven and unable to enjoy life. Jesus knew that goodness was present, perhaps above all, in the shared pleasure of ordinary things like eating, drinking and conversation. He was scandalously appreciative of the company at table of men and women regarded by religious fanatics as beyond the pale. He knew that he and others could be nourished just as much by eating together as by religious ritual. Perhaps no other founder of faith has so appreciated the street and the market place as Jesus.
6. All this is to say that we can interpret Jesus’ language about God’s kingdom as referring to the available goodness that he received and gave.
God is here, but not a part of the world. That is a conviction of the Abrahamic faiths. The traditional placing of God at a distance from the world is a way of insisting on God’s separateness, or holiness: the physical distance is a metaphor of spiritual difference. Jesus taught that God is near in order to make a difference; specifically the difference that occurs when human beings turn their lives around and trust in God’s goodness.
But before I can trust in God’s goodness, I have to have some experience of good. Most, but not all human babies will have known the attention of their mother in providing food, comfort and love, as good; that is, it meets and sometimes surpasses their need. At the start of our lives we learn to demand good and are outraged if we don’t receive it speedily.
This sense of ourselves as entitled to goodness is a result of parental love, and is fundamental to our identity. Those who are deprived of that love may never develop the self-respect that demands to be treated well. Simone Weill, the French thinker on fundamental human matters, says that we have an expectation of good from others, which in turn constitutes an obligation to treat others well.
The medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote:
“Good is neither created nor made nor begotten, but it is generative and gives birth to a good person. Goodness reproduces itself and all that it is in a good person.”
That is to say, the experience of good from others is what enables us to respect ourselves and others. If we have not received this good as babies or young children, the experience is still necessary for our health. For example, the history of the special unit at Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow shows that the treatment of violent prisoners as valued human beings can be transformative.
We may hear the message of God’s goodness and we may even want it to be true, but if we have not experienced goodness in our lives, it will remain an idea. The idea is one of the the most important in the history of thought, but its credibility is affected by a person’s experience of goodness. The grandeur of the idea is shown by the fact that those who have experienced goodness and trust that the idea is true, are able to withstand great evils without losing that trust.
Even if we are firm believers in God, our experience of goodness will affect our imagination of God. If that experience is inextricably bound up with judgementalism or cruelty, we may imagine a God who is judgemental or cruel.
Jesus, out of his experience of good, was able to interpret the traditions of his people in such a way as to exclude any judgementalism or cruelty from the character of God. He insisted that God’s goodness included the sick, the insane, the poor, and the sinner. He directed people to the ‘kingdom’ as the true source of goodness in the world. He was impatient with anything or anyone that substituted itself for that source. He told a pious wealthy man who called him ‘ good teacher’ that only God was good. Then he advised him to get rid of his wealth which had become a substitute for the true source of goodness.
Meister Eckhart also says that goodness always ‘overflows’: God’s goodness overflows in his creation of the universe, so that he/she ‘sees that it is good’. This is one of the most intriguing statements in scripture. How can it be good with its hurricanes, famines, volcanoes and ice-ages? Eckhart suggests that what we call ‘not good’ in the natural world is only our inability to accept suffering. I say that this is the sort of nonsense that only a sheltered scholar could invent. The imperfections of the natural world are obvious enough; rebelling against them is a sign of our belief in goodness. So I take God’s attribution of goodness to the creation as a pointer to creative intent rather than fully – achieved reality: it is the ultimate aim for God’s creation as God continues to create.
Goodness, then is an ‘eschatological’ (referring to ultimate outcomes) term which points to the ‘not yet’ as well as the ‘already.’ Our experience of it in events, words and actions, allows us to have faith in the present time and hope for the future because it is the substance of God’s creative love.
When I speak or write the name Jesus, who or what do I mean?
Well, for a start, I can say what I don’t mean.
1. I don’t mean some kind of supernatural person who appears to me. I know from the Bible and some contemporary sources, that some people say they have experienced this, but I interpret these as sudden and dramatic realisations of truth, if they are sincere, and as duplicitous stories designed to gain credit with vulnerable people, if they are not. I do not think that Jesus manifests himself as a quasi physical presence. Luke, the author of Acts, wrote up Paul’s conversion as a dramatic incident in which he was thrown to the ground and heard Jesus speaking. But when Paul describes the same conversion, he uses the phrase, “ it pleased God to reveal his son in me.”
2. I don’t believe in a Jesus who hovers invisibly in churches or in the houses of believers. Most descriptions of him doing so are related to worship in which the language is picturesque and persuasive, designed to enhance the faith of the participants. St.Paul wrote of the assembly of believers as the “body of messiah” certainly as an image of how the assembly should function, each member honouring the abilities of the others, but also as an image of the presence of Jesus is each member and in the whole assembly. But all of that is a statement about an embodied Jesus.
3. I don’t believe in a Jesus who in his historical ministry, walked on the water and raised the dead. The gospel writers to greater or lesser degrees wanted to depict Jesus as the presence of God on earth, and miracles are a way of doing so. This is not to say, that Jesus was not a healer, but rather that he was not a person through whom God channelled supernatural power into the world.
4. I do not believe in a Jesus whose tomb was empty because his body had taken off like a rocket into another dimension. I mean that the bones of Jesus are in Palestine, as my late daughter’s ashes are in Scotland, while I believe that both of them are resurrected.
5. In other words, I do not believe that there is or was anything about Jesus that contradicts the scientific picture of the universe, although he adds to it. The great truth of Christian faith is that the definitive presence of God in the world is precisely in a human person, living in a specific time and place, subject to all the limitations of human beings including death.
There are reasons why the church has preserved the ways of thinking about Jesus which I have rejected:
2. The church wants to be seen as a dispenser of miracle or of miraculous truth.
3. The church wants to preserve a theology of God’s generosity in which the whole event of Jesus is seen, not as the life of a religious genius or communal superhero, but as a gift of God to the world. The language of Jesus being “sent by God” of his “coming down” into the world, describes spiritual rather than physical realities. Some clumsy elements in the Bible, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, or his ascension into heaven, encourage a physical interpretation, but we have stay true to our ordinary knowledge that God doesn’t get virgins pregnant, and bodies don’t zoom off into the stratosphere. But in this case, it seems to me that the conviction of God’s generosity is essential to our faith, and that the language of Jesus’ coming down from God cannot be ignored. It needs interpretation, but it should not be dismissed.
The only brief way of pointing to my interpretation of this language is the statement that we always live and move and have our being in God who is love. The great teachers and prophets of humanity, and supremely Jesus, knew this truth, that contrary to atheism God is real, that contrary to religion we do not have to seek God, for God is here, where we are, and God’s love is available to all. We need to “change our hearts”, “waken up” to the goodness that can be done to us and by us, now.
It’s not easy to believe that and to put our trust in it. The story of Jesus, ending as it does in torture, death and failure demonstrates that truth, but still offers the joyful news that Jesus is alive in God and that God is alive in him.
The preceding two paragraphs are compressed and need to be unpacked, which I hope to do in this series of blogs.
It’s six months since my daughter died, during which these blogs have often been about her. I felt that these meditations were not private, but belonged in the community of faithful and questioning people. Now I am editing them, with some additions into a form that might be suitable for publication.
So once again I’m making a new start with this blog. It was originally intended to show that Jesus was just as “extreme” towards British or American values as any jihadist, only more fruitfully.
I think that has stayed with me. Most of my certainties about God are under question, as I continue to mourn and struggle to find any acceptable way of thinking about God. I want to be faithful to this questioning, which for the moment will continue privately.
On the other hand, I am fairly sure what I know about Jesus.
1. Jesus is against Trump, Putin and Orban. Why these, rather than Boris, Xi, Bolsonaro, Modi and the rest? Because in their different ways they have tried – and partially succeeded – in co-opting “Jesus” to their cause. Putin via his nauseating patronage of the Orthodox Church, Orban by his explicit attempt to create a Christian Hungary, and Trump with his encouragement of right-wing Christianity as his key supporters in the USA. Their use of Jesus is public, as is their corruption of branches of the Christian Church. Jesus did not support any of the Jewish political groups of his time, but was public about the demands of The Messiah King, that nations would be judged by what they did or failed to do, for the hungry and thirsty, for the stranger, for the sick, for the prisoners, for the destitute. This is stated quite clearly, that what they do or fail to do for these least important of Jesus brothers and sisters will be taken personally by The King, so much so that those who fail this test, regardless of their faith, will have their asses fried along with Satan and his troops. Amen. So listen up, Donald, Vladimir and Viktor, get your fireproof boxers ready, the Lord is waiting. But at least you won’t be alone, in the company of the millions of “Christians” who have supported you.
2. Of course all applies to every nation and person and those who think they meet the meet the King’s requirement, like me, should look at it pretty carefully, and ask what what we have actually done as opposed to what we have said. Jesus offers no forgiveness for those who choose to remain in sin. For all his reputation as a merciful saviour, all the most terrible judgements on those who pretend to have faith, come from him: “Not those who say Lord, Lord, but those who do the will of my father.” Jesus was not very religious, and was utterly unimpressed by piety.
3. As I say, I am not very sure about God at present, and therefore not too sure about the meaning of Jesus’ threats: just who will tend those toasty fires is a mystery. Another mystery is exactly how such threats match up with Jesus’ command to love enemies, and indeed his own prayer for the forgiveness of his crucifiers. I guess it’s obvious: there cannot be forgiveness of those who don’t want it. “The Reign of God has arrived; change your hearts; and trust in the joyful message.” Those who recognise the King and change their hearts, are invited to trust the joyful message of forgiveness, love and transformation. But for those who are blind to King Jesus, and who refuse to change, how can their be any forgiveness? God’s love is offered but they have rejected it. The offer is for all, but the enjoyment of God’s love is for those who accept it, even if they have been enemies of God and his children. In a word, this is to say that Jesus offered only love. He did not use any kind of force to make people go his way, but only tried to persuade them by word and action. Love is terrible because it leaves the decision with the beloved person.
4. But clearly enough, Jesus would tell me that I have to love Donald and the rest. Probably this rules out any glee about Jesus’ judgement upon them. So if I want to applaud while their fat sizzles, I cannot claim to belong to Jesus. Now that’s a bit awkward. And it doesn’t just apply to my enemies’ ultimate fate; it has to start now. “Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors”. Could I get off with praying that their asses get fried? Probably not. The command also means that in a political area polluted with all forms of bad- mouthing, God’s people should speak peacefully but definitely in the name of the real Jesus.
5. All this sounds a bit extreme to me.
Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/ 2020
You turned to me from looking at the summit view:
In a cloudless sky the sun without mercy
Seized in its light the sharp mountains
The dusty plain and the far sea.
We set out serenaded by cowbells
Eased ourselves above the flowers and bushes
Struggled over bare rock ridges
With sheer slabs where I needed your shooshes
To let you make your own away to the top.
I was elated, but in your smile was knowledge
That this was as good as it would get, you were unwell
And wouldn’t recover no matter the courage
With which you’d face going down. You were asking
Me to recognise this truth and hold it
In my heart, and not to hurt you with false hope.
Suddenly I was aware how cold it
Gets up there and failed your honesty thinking,
“I want to keep you as you are.”
But now at last I come to say goodbye
Most near, most dear, most loved, and most far.