Dr Luther's Assistant
Second prizewinner in the Oxford Today 2012 Short Story Competition
Bettina told him he was not old, but she was wrong. Bismarck had fixed the retirement age at 70 to give men the opportunity to set their affairs in order, and spend time with their family, before finally losing interest in the world at the average age of 72. Thomas was not 70, but he could see it clearly from the high ground of his recent retirement from the university.
He shifted in the uncomfortable plastic seat, and stared at the bouquet of flowers resting on top of the buff envelope in his lap as if wondering why he had bought them.
He should have resigned from the church years ago, but he was always too busy, his work interrupted by a series of marriages, baptisms, confirmations, and the relentless tidying away of the older generation. All of these events had taken place in church, and he had never demurred. It seemed an appropriate way to behave, even for an atheist.
It was easy to acquiesce: his wife did not need to cover her hair, and he was not required to cut off his foreskin. There was little they could not eat or drink. It was true that god had been very concerned about what went on in their bedroom at first, but lately he seemed to have lost interest. It was a rare day Thomas encountered a curb that reminded him that his life was constrained by a faith he did not believe. Nevertheless, it seemed wrong to enter the closing phase of his life under false colours.
At first he found himself jotting down notes to remind him of the main branches of his reasoning. Soon, and without knowing quite how it had happened, he found himself writing a paper. The thesis, several sheets of hand written A4 neatly clipped together, was in the large envelope on his lap.
The young woman behind the desk motioned to the chair opposite her. There was nowhere for him to put the flowers except on the floor, and that seemed wrong, but not as wrong as sitting in front of her clutching the bouquet like a nervous suitor. He laid the bouquet on the edge of the desk, as far away from them both as possible.
“I want to resign from the church.” He sounded pompous, even to himself, but the woman merely nodded. He took a tax receipt from the brown envelope and handed it to her. On the right hand side of the paper near the words “church tax deduction” were the letters RK and a small amount.
The woman smiled. “It’s OK I don’t need that. Do you have your identity card? Passport?”
His hand went back into the envelope. “It seems so foolish to pay when I am not really a member of the church,” he said. “And, of course, I don’t believe...” He wondered when he had started confiding in total strangers? The process took a few minutes only, during which time Thomas spoke continuously and the woman gave no sign of having heard a word he said. At last she looked up.
“That will be 21 euros please.”
“I have to pay?”
The woman nodded.
“I have to pay not to believe in god.”
“The fee is to cover the administrative cost of amending the system,” the woman said with a smile. She gave him a piece of paper which he put into the envelope, and gathered up his things to leave.
“They are for my daughter. It’s her birthday.”
“That’s nice. How old is she?” He stared at the young woman.
“I don’t know.”
He placed the flowers carefully so that the huge, white bells formed a pleasing, but not too symmetrical, arrangement which he knew his wife would like. It was soon done but it seemed too curt and heartless to walk away immediately. He wondered what else he should do.
The woman was in her eighties and in firm health. He recognised her from the church – she was one of the devout who always volunteered to help any lost cause – but he could not remember her name. He had always unkindly suspected that she drew some validation from the fact that a professor of science shared at least the form of her faith, if not its substance.
She stood by his side, and they stared at the grave in front of them. Glancing sideways he watched the small expressions drift across her face like clouds. He had seen it before. She was torn between sympathy for him, and wanting to escape. Too late she had realised that it was impossible to tell lies, even kind lies, in such a place, and found that she had nothing to say.
“Did you hear about Father Michael?” she asked.
“He had a massive coronary last Friday.”
“He’s on the mend. So they say. We hope he will be able to come home soon.”
He let a beat of silence pass. “They can do miracles these days.” He had watched his own daughter die slowly, defeated by illness and deceived by fate.
“I don’t blame you for not believing,” she said. “It’s easier for you.”
Thomas turned to face the grave again. After a few minutes he looked up and saw the woman walk out of the churchyard. The flowers were starting to shine in the gathering night. A wind had picked up; it smelt of fresh cold from somewhere far away. The church door was dark with age and the wood had been weathered until it was as hard as iron. Thomas reached into the envelope and removed his letter. The pin he had bought with him looked puny compared to the massive door; he felt it bend as it sank into the unyielding wood. He left the letter hanging whitely from a corner, swinging gently in the gathering wind.