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Tea With The Pope
Author's note: I read the story "chivalry" from Neil Gaiman's "Smoke and Mirrors" short story collection and enjoyed it so much that I chose to take the concept and recreate the story line. Even if you don't enjoy my version, I would recommend Neil Gaiman's story instead and it would be worth reading his book if you haven't already. :)
His name was Monty Creek, he was about 84, and collected picture frames which coated the interior of the mobile home he shared with his dog John. On the 1st of March 2001, he pulled up in the small seaside town of Aldeburgh and sold the fish he caught to pay for the rent of his spot in the caravan park adjacent to the beach.
One Monday afternoon in 2012, Monty ambled along the seafront to town; he was going to collect his post and check the charity shop for any picture frames which caught his eye – to add to his huge collection. John trotted obediently by his heel without a lead and Monty chatted to his old pal about the strong sea wind, the cloudy sky, and other subjects which he thought appropriate to share with his dog. For John wasn’t any old mongrel – he was a proud wolfhound who considered himself quite the intellectual for not only could he fetch a ball, he could return it too!
As the pair came to town, Monty ushered John across the road and told him to “stay” as he went into the post office. The shop could do with a lick of paint and an overall makeover to bring it into the 21st century, but Monty thought that it fit in with Aldeburgh’s old and rusty feeling which attracted so many tourists in summer. As the room was empty, Monty walked straight up to the counter and enquired about his post. The spotty teenager at the desk didn’t have a clue as to what to do and went to the back room for guidance. A few minutes later he returned with a single envelope. Monty thanked him for his help, and left the shop. When he saw John, he took a humbug from his pocket and shoved it into the dog’s mouth. Once the hulk of an animal had chomped it down, Monty let him hold the letter.
“Shall we go to the charity shop now, John?” He asked his old pal as they set off in the direction of the local cancer research branch.
The interior was very shabby indeed and the peeling wall paper with mould creeping from the top of it to the ceiling was a sign that, like the post office, it could do with an update. But the appearances didn’t deceive Monty, and as John patiently waited outside, the old man edged his way through the stacks of books, toys, and other items previously rejected by their owners. Monty knew where the picture frames were but as he made his way through the shop, a glint of red caught his eye. Like a magpie, his path changed and his pace increased so that he could get a closer look at this flash of red through the thick glasses he used to aid his fading vision. He was about to pick up the small round object when a hand reached out in front of him and snatched it.
“I saw it first!” A woman’s voice screeched. Monty looked up at the woman in her designer suit and didn’t think that she looked the type to be in a charity shop. All the same, he didn’t let the unpleasantness put him off his weekly trip and so he continued to his favourite shelf which he could see had a few frames laid out.
Of course, the frames were never meant to be sold as frames. For the pictures inside were what usually persuaded people to buy the item. But Monty was the sort of chap who enjoyed being different to others. He surveyed the frames on display. He already had many decorative frames so he immediately ruled out half of them. The only others were very plain and one was broken. Monty sighed in disappointment but felt like he couldn’t leave empty handed. So he picked up the largest plain frame which had a price tag of just fifty pence. Before he continued to browse the shop, he raised an eyebrow at the scruffy piece of cloth which was clasped beneath the glass of the frame.
As he moved into the very back of the charity shop, Monty picked up a book on snails which he planned on reading before the news at five thirty that evening and carried it to the end of the shop. The shelves along the back wall were hardly visible as there were so many toys jammed onto them. A sparkly rubber ball bounced onto the floor in front of Monty and the old man picked it up knowing that John would enjoy playing with it. His items came to a total of £3.50 and knowing that he didn’t have much more in change, he took them to the old lady at the counter. She was very thin and so small that she could have been a child if her long gray hair hadn’t given her away. Around her neck were many beaded necklaces and Monty could see that she wasn’t wearing any shoes – probably to hide the fact that she was just trying some on in the back room. She peered closely at the price tag of each item and then charged Monty £1.50 for the lot. He made up the extra in the charity box.
“Would you like a bag?” She asked, smiling up at Monty showing her crooked teeth.
He did want a bag and so nodded assertively.
“Oh,” She smiled, “Suit yourself.”
And with that, she perched herself on the stool and hummed “It’s a long way to Tipperary” tunefully. Monty thanked her – kindly ignoring the old lady’s dimness – and left the shop without his bag.
John looked up at his master, wagging his huge tail in greeting. Monty took the letter from John’s mouth and handed him the ball he had just bought. All the way home, John walked tall and proud – showing off his new toy to everyone who passed.
Back at the mobile home, Monty placed his purchases on the table and sank down in his arm chair. Recently his back had been giving him agony and this was because, as his doctor had warned him, he was on his way out. But Monty knew that there was no point in sitting around all day waiting for his time to come, so just chose to spend longer relaxing in his chair.
When he had caught his breath, the old man took up his letter and opened the envelope with a knife which had been in the family for years. Inside was a crisp white piece of printer paper with a neatly typed message. He was just leaning forward to read it when his alarm clock went off – it was six o’clock! Time for the news!
“John, turn on the television will you?” He muttered. John obediently unfolded from his bed and nudged the on button with his nose.
The next day, Monty found that his back hadn’t improved despite the rest he had had. He got up to let John outside and then sank back into his beloved arm chair to wait for his friend’s return instead of straining his aching muscles. On the table beside him were the items he had brought back from the shops including the letter. He picked it up and finally began reading,
“ Dear Mr Creek,
It has come to our understanding that you have got the real Turin Shroud in your possession and would like to make you an offer of three million pounds for it.
This item means a lot to our church and we are certain that a reasonable man such as yourself would be happy to take us up on our offer. We will visit you tomorrow evening to collect it.
Sir Graham Forrest, a friend of the church”
Monty laughed at the inventive money making scam; he’d seen television shows exposing these “too good to be true” deals and he certainly wasn’t going to fall for this one. He threw the letter away without much further thought.
However, later that day when Monty was tidying his frames the scrap of cloth inside his newest addition did look a lot like the Turin Shroud... He prized the clasps off the back of the frame and removed the panel. Then he let the cloth slide onto his table. As he unfolded it, it became very obvious that this fifty pence piece of fabric was indeed the Turin Shroud. It was too big to fit on the table and so he spread it out across the floor of his home. The more Monty gazed at the figure on the cloth, the more it looked like Jesus Christ. The old man scratched his head and gathered up the sacred sheet of linen. He felt like he should wash it or something but then considered that not to be the best idea. John sniffed it and shrank away as a result. Not being a religous man, Monty decided to put it on the top shelf in his bedroom and then continued to arrange his picture frames. But the new frame had lost its charm when it was empty so Monty fetched the shroud and returned it to the state he’d bought it in.
In the evening, after watching the news, Monty finished his book on snails and settled down to have a nap before bed. However, just as he’d found a comfortable position in his chair there was a startling knock on the door. The old man heaved himself to his feet and unlocked the the paper-thin entrance. Standing outside was a tall man wearing a pinstripe suit and holding a large briefcase.
“Mr Creek? I’m here about the shroud.” He asked, his voice clear and well-spoken. Monty stopped to consider what he meant and suddenly it hit him.
“Are you Graham Forrest?” Monty croaked – his elderly vocal chords letting him down.
“I am indeed. I trust you recieved my letter?” Graham replied, straightening his jacket.
“Yes. I suppose you’d better come in.” The old man said, stepping aside to pull up an extra chair for his guest.
Once inside, Graham explained that the shroud meant a lot to his employer – a high up member of the Catholic church – and that Monty should recieve three million pounds in exchange for it. Monty said nothing and gazed at the cloth. Actually, he quite liked the shroud and the way it looked on his wall and he told Graham so.
“I see,” The tall man said politely, “Do you mind if I make a few calls and I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
Monty nodded as Graham left and continued to stare at the cloth. It sent a shiver down his spine which soothed his muscles. He didn’t take his eyes off it and it wasn’t long before his back was no longer aching. When Monty realised what he was doing, he considered the healing powers of the shroud and thought that it could be a very nice object for an old man to have until his dieing day.
“I’m on the phone to my employer now and he would be willing to let you name your price for the shroud!” Graham said, poking his head through the door frame.
“No thank you, Graham. It was very nice to meet you but I’m an old man – I have no intrest in money.” Monty said proudly, shutting the door and bolting it easily without pain.
For the rest of evening, it was obvious that Sir Graham Forrest wasn’t prepared to return to his boss empty handed and shouted offers repeatedly through the thin walls of Monty’s mobile home. But there was nothing that he could say which would change the old man’s mind and Monty went to bed at the usual time, ignoring Graham almost blissfully.
Wednesday morning came and Monty woke up fresh and bright. When he let John outside, he was pleased to see that Graham was gone and so he walked to town with his four-legged friend with a spring in his step. The pair went straight to the post office where there was a good handful of letters waiting for collection. And when Monty went to the charity shop and bought a book on Sea shells, the old lady at the counter even gave him a bag.
But when he came home, not only was Graham waiting for him, but he had brought along a few friends. Monty didn’t have to be religious to tell that the group of people outside his little mobile home were bishops and the pope – robes and all.
“He insisted on being flown over immiediatly to talk with you.” Graham started. However, John was not impressed by the invasion of territory – Pope or not - this was his land. The huge mutt put himself between the Pope and Monty and growled, curling his lip and glaring through his glassy eyes at the important man.
“It’s alright, John,” Monty said, patting the dog on his head, “I won’t be selling the shroud and so these men won’t be bothering us today. Or any other day for I won’t change my mind.”
Now John was a very obedient dog but he didn’t like the look of the Pope one little bit so he continued to growl at him. It was hard to tell who was more astonished; Monty and Graham stared at John aghast. The Pope, however, seemed quite touched that the animal payed him so much attention. He reached out and scratched John’s nose and the dog softened, his growl turning into a moan.
“What a beautiful dog!” The Pope exclaimed, now using both hands to stroke and pat John.
Monty smiled down at his friend and looked at the Pope sadly.
“I’m afraid that I’ve become very attached to shroud.” Monty said, disappointed at letting down the nice man.
“I understand that.” He replied kindly, “It can make quite an impression on people.”
“But it made me feel so young again. I’m an old man – I’ve got just weeks left. Feeling good means so much. And giving John his walks without having to sit down for hours to recover is too important to sell.” Monty said weakly, avoiding the Pope’s eye out of embarressment.
“Of course. Mr Creek, the shroud is yours to enjoy. Have a lovely evening – I’ve heard about the most beautiful sunsets around this area.” The robed gentleman said, patting John the sort of pat considered as a farewell.
Monty watched the party walk away but knew that they had come a long way...
“Please, stay for the sunsets – they are indeed very beautiful. I could make us tea to take to the beach.” He said, smiling at the first human in years.
And although the Bishops had mass to attend and Graham had a flight to catch, the Pope stayed with Monty and John for the whole evening. It turned out that they had a lot in common; they both loved snails and shells and dogs. Monty felt alive again as he chatted about things that didn’t even matter.
When the Pope eventually left, Monty returned home with John. As he stepped inside, the stillness hit him like a cold wind yet he still had a smile on his face. Before bed, he decided to read through his post. All but one of them were junk. He opened the one to find a familiar piece of printer paper with a typed message.
“Dear Mr Creek,
Apoligies for my early departure; I would have loved to stay for tea on the beach. But actually the nature of my letter is to inform you that the cloth on your wall has gone. I didn’t take it; it just travels to wherever it’s needed.
I’m sorry for your loss. I understand that it meant a lot to you – it must have done! Maybe you should have accepted the money for it when you could. But as you said, money wasn’t what you wanted.
I hope you have got something out of it and God bless,
Sir Graham Forrest, a friend”
And sure enough, when Monty looked up, it was gone.