We closed the last page of a gruesome, thrilling picture book called The Day Louis Got Eaten and said our prayers. Our prayers are always the same. We ask Jesus to bless as many people known to us as we can remember, taking it in turns to name them. We aren’t sure what the range of consequences might be for someone if we ask Jesus to bless them, but we do it anyway, and the word has a pleasant, incantatory feel to it when repeated.
It has been at least a fortnight since we last asked Jesus to bless our list because Grandad has been away. And as we went through the regulars, it occurred to us that a lot had happened to some of these names since we last asked Jesus to bless them, some of it, on the face of it, not so good. We can only conclude that when he decides to bless people, Jesus sometimes has to play a long game, and in some cases a very long game indeed.
Take his grandma — my boy’s mother — as an example. For as long as we can remember we have asked Jesus to bless her, but with no observable results. For about 20 years she has lived according to the dictates of a cluster of strange neuroses, chief among which is agoraphobia, and in all that time she has ventured no further from home than the garden gate. I tell a lie. Twice, a social worker has coaxed her out through the garden gate and along the road as far as the pillar box at the end of the street, raising hopes that she might then be coaxed by painstaking increments as far as the shops, or even be cured. But those two state-sponsored visits to the pillar box at the end of the street remain the farthest extent of her travels since Julie Goodyear left Coronation Street. About five years ago she was married in the back garden. That apart, the only things of note to have happened to her in 20 years are that she has changed her brand of cigarettes a couple of times, and about three years ago she went online. Which is fine. We all of us prefer to live within our comfort zones. The only problem has been her teeth. Her not seeing a dentist for at least two decades has been disastrous for them. Elizabeth l in old age had more comely teeth than she has now.
While I was away, however, dramatic news came in of her change of heart. She has rung up the county hospital, we hear, and made an appointment with the gob specialist to have her teeth fixed, or, more likely, removed. This will involve an hour-long journey there and back under sedation. If she is still conscious enough to look out of the car window, she will hardly recognise the place. In our little universe, this decision of hers to leave the house and go to hospital is as unlikely and surprising as Birnam Wood going to Dunsinane. Not one to do anything by halves, she has also told her saintly husband that she doesn’t love him any more and that he must sling his hook. Conscious of this new efficacy in our prayers, we gave the embers another poke by asking Jesus to bless her again.
Then we came to Michael, let’s call him. My grandson was his mother’s fourth child. His elder siblings were fathered by Michael, who, though no longer his mother’s preferred partner, was a constant presence at the family home. Michael was a gentle, peaceful, hoodie-wearing guy in his forties who always seemed slightly out of it. Whenever he spoke to me, it was as though he had migrated to another world, but hadn’t altogether lost touch with this one and liked to maintain a polite interest in the lives of earthbound individuals such as myself. Michael hadn’t worked for years and spent a lot of time staring out of the window. He loved his children humbly, treating them as his superiors, and they loved him as one of their own. Asking Jesus, about two thirds of the way down our list, to bless Michael, was always the highlight of our prayers, because our mental image of him, round-shouldered, hood up, staring out of the window, the gentlest man in the world, always made us laugh.
While I was away, Michael was beaten and kicked to death. He was found unconscious at the foot of stone stairs outside a church. The police have arrested a former friend of his. So this time when we said, ‘And please bless Michael,’ neither of us laughed. Nor could we conceive of how Jesus might possibly go about it.