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Chapter 13: Luke Walker and the Harvest Festival
“And then what happened? Luke?”
“Weren’t you listening? What happened in the end?”
“Oh, um, in the end she saved ’em all, and then they saw she was a girl, coz they thought she was a man before, but they didn’t kill ‘er because she’d saved China.”
Eric, the Sunday School teacher, looked at Luke blankly, as if he wasn’t there.
“Mulan? Are you talking about Mulan?” he asked after a long pause.
Luke wondered, not for the first time, why his mum insisted he came to Sunday School to listen to a man who seemed unable to remember, from one minute to the next, what he was supposed to be teaching them.
“Yeah. Mulan. Who saved China from invaders. Remember? Who you’ve bin tellin’ us about.”
“Okay Luke, well, you are clearly capable of paying attention – to Disney films anyway – but you’ve obviously not heard a word I’ve said today. I’ve actually been talking about Miriam, Moses’s sister, who hid him in the bulrushes as a baby, and later helped her brother lead the Jews out of Egypt.”
Luke frowned in deep thought.
“Oh,” he responded at last.
Eric turned to the other seven children in his charge and continued. Luke resented the ‘I give up’ look that Eric’s features expressed before they withdrew. He’d seen it many times. It was uncalled for.
“Mulan. Miriam. They’re both ancient. They’re both women. They both saved a whole country. They’re both heroes. They both start with an M. Anyone could easily get them mixed up,” he thought as he leafed through the parish magazine.
At last he heard the final hymn being sung by the grown-ups in the room next door and he unhooked his jacket from its peg.
“Hold your horses Luke,” Eric recalled him to the group. “You can go when your parents come for you but remember that next week is Harvest Festival so I’d like all of you to be here at ten o’clock on Saturday to help me decorate the Sunday School room. The church secretary told me that the committee has decided to do things differently this year… blah blah blah …”
“Saturday? Not likely!” thought Luke. He could hear the scraping back of chairs and the hubbub of grown-ups talking, getting gradually louder. Any minute now the blue door would swing open and Mum would effect his release. Any minute now.
Eric finished whatever he was saying, Luke slipped his arms into his jacket sleeves, the door opened, and he hurried towards it.
“Bye Luke,” Eric called after him, “See you Saturday.”
“Bye,” he replied without looking back.
At school on Monday Luke noticed a familiar theme. Mr Beardsley had written on the board:
He concluded that either Mr Beardsley had copied his project idea from Eric or Eric got it from him. This was no bad thing. He could get two for one. Score points with the same work twice.
Mr Beardsley explained that they should all bring in donations of food this week to make a Harvest Festival display in the school hall. Then they would have a special afternoon assembly on Friday to thank God for the harvest. As the food would later be donated to the homeless shelter in town he requested no perishables, only tins and packeted dry goods please.
So Luke went home that afternoon and explained to Mum what he needed for the Harvest Festivals.
“Looks like I won’t be able to do it once and hand it in twice though, coz they’re givin’ all the school festival food to the homeless shelter so I’ll need another lot for Sunday School. Tins and dry stuff he said. Have we got any of that?”
Mum looked in the pantry. “Yes, we’ve got some dried lentils and pasta, and some tinned beans you can have. I’ll get something for the church harvest when I go shopping. Tins again I think, otherwise it’ll smell.”
“Whaddaya mean fish? Why are you gettin’ fish?”
“Didn’t Eric tell you? The chapel committee want to do a different kind of Harvest Festival this year. Instead of the usual fruits, vegetables, grains and bread etcetera etcetera, they want to do a display of the harvest of the sea.”
“What?!” Luke could hardly believe it. “They’re proud of killin’ sea animals are they? They want to show off about killin’ God’s creatures do they? That’s very Christian – I don’t think!”
“Well, Luke,” Mum tried to calm him down, “I know you don’t like it sweetheart but Jesus ate fish didn’t he? Some of his disciples were fishermen.”
Luke was unconvinced.
“How do we know that? Just coz someone wrote it in a book thousands of years ago in a diff’rent language. P’rhaps they din’t translate it right. P’rhaps they din’t tell the truth. Prob’ly whoever wrote it wasn’t even there at the time so they wouldn’t even know!” He was gaining momentum. “And, Jesus was perfect,” he went on, “so he wun’t ‘ave done somethin’ that hurt someone else on purpose. And he told them disciples to stop bein’ fishermen din’t he? And he wun’t ‘ave done that if he thought they were doin’ a good thing. And Jesus said God cares about every sparrow so if he cares about every sparrow then he definitely cares about every fish and he said ‘thou shalt not kill’ so he couldn’t be clearer than that!”
Red in the face from talking so fast without taking a breath and satisfied he’d settled the point, Luke stomped out of the room. Mrs Walker winced as the hall door slammed and Luke’s heavy footsteps pounded the stairs. She held her breath until all was quiet and then, just as she relaxed back into scrubbing potatoes, her son’s face re-appeared around the door.
“Oh!” she gasped, “you made me jump.”
“Don’t get any fish,” he entreated, “please.”
The following morning at breakfast Luke was distracted. He made no argument when Jared consumed the last of the frosted flakes; he didn’t defend himself when Dad told him off for knocking over the sugar bowl even though it was actually Jared who’d done it in his haste to grab the frosted flakes. The rest of the family were too busy to notice, but Luke was not himself. Eventually, when Jared and Dad had left for the day and Luke was left alone with Mum he told her,
“I’ve decided I don’t want to go to Sunday School any more.”
“Well I know you don’t want to go Luke, but you’re going. It’s good for you. I want you to learn good values, to be a good boy,” she responded firmly.
“I’ve got good values!” said Luke, indignant. “What do you mean values?” he added.
“Oh Luke, being a Christian means being good and kind and respecting your father and mother and not stealing and not lying, things like that,” she explained, “doing as you’re told,” she added.
“And not killin’,” said Luke.
“Of course not killing Luke, that goes without saying,”
“But they’re killin’! They’re celebratin’ killin’ fish and if that’s Christian I don’t want to be it!”
“Oh Luke why do you have to get so angry over these things? You might not want them to eat fish but they do. People do. People always have. And so do bears and cats and birds, and even other fish Luke. It’s the way of the world and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I don’t want to go! I’m not going!” he insisted. Mum inhaled deeply and counted to ten.
“Fine. But you are not going to just disappear like a coward without telling them why. You’ve got to be grown up about it and make it clear to Eric why this sea harvest upsets you.”
Luke sulked. He was not a coward. He wasn’t afraid of anything. They walked to school in silence, Luke was deep in thought. When they entered the school gates they were almost run over by Simon Butler racing across their path on his new bike and then, when he knew he’d got their attention, he pulled a wheelie.
“He’s a bit of a show-off that one,” said Mum, amused.
“A bit?!” he scoffed, “more like a lot! He’s a lot of a show-off. He’s pretty much all show-off! There’s nothing else to ‘im. ‘cept idiot. And creep. He’s a idiot creep show-off!” Luke concluded decisively.
“Boys will be boys,” she said, “he’s just making a point. He’s just making it clear to everyone watching that he’s good at that.”
All morning, while Mr Beardsley was talking about the ancient Greeks, Luke was thinking about what Mum had told him to do. He considered very carefully exactly what she’d said and by the time Dionysus had whisked Ariadne away from Theseus he was satisfied that he could do as he was told without compromising his prince pauls. He’d need Joe’s help.
At 3.47pm Luke and Joe stood in Curly and Squirt’s shed. There was a big old wooden ottoman at the back. Joe had never noticed it before because ordinarily Luke kept a bale of hay on top of it and the whole lot was usually covered with a tatty blue tarpaulin. Luke started to lift the lid and then hesitated, looking over his shoulder to make sure the shed door was shut. It was.
“This is where I keep the stuff I’ve constigated on holiday,” he told his trusted friend, confidentially.
Joe looked puzzled. Luke put him in the picture.
“Remember me Nan and Grandad’s got a caravan at the seaside where there’s fishing boats on the beach? Remember I told you?”
“Well,” Luke went on, “whenever we go there I look out for things on the beach wot need takin’ outer circle-ation. Dangerous things.”
“And you constigate them?” Joe asked with the appearance of comprehension.
“Mm. Well, some I jus’ find, abandoned. Some I constigate from people wot are doin’ horrible things with ’em.”
Joe peered inside the trunk but wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking at. It was a miscellaneous jumble of what looked like rubbish – bits of plastic, rope, cord, wood, wire. All very unpleasant and dirty. It stank.
“And now you want to move it somewhere else?” Joe tried hard to make sense of the little Luke had told him so far.
“Yeah. On’y it’s too much stuff for one trip with just me. Your mum’s got one o’ them shopping trolley-bag things, and mine’s got two, an old one and a new one – I reckon we could fit all this stuff into them and move it without anyone bein’ able to see what we’ve got. They’ll just think we’ve done the shoppin’ for our mums.”
“And,” Luke went on, “can you get any left over paint off your dad? Somethin’ he wun’t miss? Somethin’ he’s finished with and wun’t mind you havin’. Somethin’ he would rather you dint bother ‘im by askin’ for. Somethin’ he’d be pleased you took off ‘is hands without botherin’ ‘im. Somethin’ reddish.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Saturday was the day that Luke always helped Dad on the allotment and today, more than ever before, he was very glad of it. It gave him the perfect excuse not to help decorate the Sunday school room for the Harvest Festival. He remembered they were meeting at 10 o’clock and imagined that it wouldn’t take them more than an hour or two so they’d be done by lunch time. Then the ladies on the cleaning and flowers rota were going to decorate the chapel. Mum was one of those ladies and she got home at twenty past four.
“Put the kettle on love,” she called to her husband, “and if you look in the pantry I’ve a feeling you might find a packet of chocolate hobnobs behind the teabags.”
“Well, half a packet anyway,” Luke’s dad grinned as he nodded towards the dining table where six or seven of them adorned a small plate. Mrs Walker dropped exhausted into a chair.
“I knew there was a reason I married you,” she smiled as he handed her a hot cup of tea and sat down with one himself. “Thank you love,” she said, “that whole afternoon was an uphill struggle. Mrs Kirby was complaining the whole time that she thought we should be doing the traditional Harvest Festival display of fruits and breads and stuff, and Mabel was arguing that change was good and we should embrace change and move with the times. What’s modern about fishing I do not know! And then every time they stopped arguing Gordon would get them going again with ‘I suppose we have to do what the committee decides, never mind what the rest of the congregation wants!’ I don’t know what was more exhausting – scrubbing the kitchen floor or listening to ….”
“Shhh,” Mr Walker interrupted, “forget about all that now, it’s done. Drink your tea.”
“Don’t shush me!” Mum snapped. She hated it when he did that.
“I was just saying don’t worry about it, calm down ….” He never learned.
“I am calm! I’m not worried, I was just telling you what happened! I don’t like being shushed!”
“I’m with Mrs Kirby,” thought Luke as he took advantage of his parents bickering and swiped the chapel keys from Mum’s bag before heading for the front door.
“Jus’ goin’ to check on Curly and Squirt,” he called.
“Home by six!” Mum called after him.
“Six?!” he thought, grabbing the shoppers from the hall cupboard and hurrying out.
It was just after five when Joe and Luke arrived at the chapel gate. Luckily no one was around to hear its metal hinges squeal. They slunk across the lawn past the large wooden crucifix with the spikes on top to stop pigeons landing on it, and Luke unlocked the heavy door.
In the Sunday School room Luke was unsurprised to find quaint and colourful cardboard fishing boats stuck to a massive collage that covered a whole wall. The boats were manned by friendly fishermen pulling up nets by hand. The water beneath them was gleaming turquoise and filled with colourful fish who looked only too eager to swim into the welcoming nets. A golden beach was pictured behind with market stalls where smiling fishmongers sold fish to happy villagers under a soft blue sky. A red and white striped lighthouse kindly warned the fishermen to stay away from the rocks. And across the sky large paper letters spelled out the words:
“Typical!” said Luke with contempt and uncharacteristic brevity. There was no time for lengthy verbal condemnations. They just got on with it.
Forty-six minutes later Joe was on his way home with gratitude as Luke dropped the last armful of tinned fish into the wheelie bin behind the building. Tomorrow there’d be no Joe. Tomorrow Luke would be on his own. Which wasn’t a problem, because he wasn’t a coward.
Luke was quiet at breakfast on Sunday and Mum sympathised.
“You’re very preoccupied this morning Luke, are you worried about talking to Eric?”
“Er, kind of,” Luke admitted.
“Mm, it’s never easy to tell someone something they don’t want to hear but it’s better to be honest.”
“Yeah,” said Luke, enlivened by a slight resurgence in confidence, “it’s better if they know the truth.”
At ten to ten, Luke and his mum approached the chapel gate. Mrs Walker wondered what was going on. People were standing around on the lawn outside and the village bobby was there, talking to the minister.
“What’s going on?” she asked Gordon.
“Vandalism,” he said, flatly, “a horrible mess.”
“Oh no! How awful!” she said and rushed in. Luke followed at a cautious distance. Mabel, standing in the doorway, advised Mum not to enter.
“All our work yesterday – ruined!” she mourned, “it’s a horror show in there!”
When Mrs Walker stepped forward the first thing to strike her was the awful smell. She shielded her nose with her hand. Draped over the pulpit was a huge, orange, fishing net, tangled, filthy and stinking with rotten seaweed and the small fish and crustacean victims who’d been trapped and strangled by it long after the fleet had left it to drift untethered. The communion table and the floor around it exhibited a collection of old lobster pots and traps, a mess of wire and barbed hooks, a couple of rusty knives and a matching set of hooks, pliers and other fishmonger blades that looked hardly used.
These were set off to best advantage by numerous anchovy and sardine corpses variously strewn and interwoven throughout. The whole ensemble was liberally splattered with what looked like blood.
Eric emerged from the Sunday School room.
“There’s more in here,” he told her.
Mrs Walker had a bad feeling.
Apprehensively she followed Eric into the Sunday School room and discovered the picturesque fishing village scene was no more. There were no fish, no happy villagers and no fishmongers; the lighthouse had fallen into the sea and the colourful fishing boats had crashed into the rocks. Some of the paper letters had been rearranged across the sky to spell
“I told you we should have done the normal fruit and vegetable display!” Mrs Kirby chimed in authoritatively, “I said to the minister last week – people want a traditional harvest festival with fruits and vegetables and golden sheaves of wheat. Genesis 1, verse 29: I have provided all kinds of grain and fruit for you to eat,” she quoted, “This is a message from God!”
Mabel was irritated.
“God didn’t do this!”
“Whoever did it was sent by Him!” retorted Mrs Kirby, and no one dared disagree.
Mrs Walker kept her anger buttoned down. She didn’t say anything until they were well out of earshot of the other church-goers. It would be too shameful if anyone else knew what she suspected. Not to mention Luke might get a criminal record. Eventually, when they were almost home, she asked coldly,
“Who do you think did it Luke?”
“I’m with Mrs Kirby,” he answered honestly, “whoever did it was sent by God.”
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