25 December 2006

The Road to Bethany

Who sweeps a room as for thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.
George Herbert

Cynthia and Tom met in Birmingham. She slipped on the newly washed marble floor of the entrance hall in the hospital where they had both recently started work and fell literally into his arms. Three months later they married and when Cynthia presented Tom with the first of their two children she retired to become a full time wife and mother.

Tom, an ambitious but lowly laboratory assistant, studied biochemistry part time and got a first class honours degree. By one of those unlikely but happy coincidences, he presented himself at the University Careers office just as the Professor of Biochemistry phoned to say she had to have a new research assistant in a hurry - the previous assistant having yesterday been inconveniently run over by the Vice-Chancellor’s Deux-Cheveaux. Tom proved to be the perfect man for the job. Devoted to his master, Science, he drank deep at the well of Academe, published a couple of well received monographs and eventually was appointed to head a department of his own.

Through the lean years Cynthia economised and, although the children had everything they needed, she herself made do and mended. Tom bought all the books he wanted, went to all the conferences that interested him and dallied with female post-graduate students. Whenever he found one he particularly fancied, rather like an excited schoolboy taking home his first girlfriend to meet his mother, he would take her home for lunch “to meet Cynthia.” Cynthia would smile, say not a lot and serve the lunch while Tom and the lady indulged in riotous conversation on arcane biochemical matters. Cynthia was widely regarded in the University as awfully nice and very worthy, but just a bit dull and dowdy and boring.

When aged 52 Cynthia died from an aggressive breast cancer all the neighbours came to her funeral, but few of the University wives. Left alone after the wake, an inconsolable Tom hunted through Cynthia’s cupboards and boxes trying to find there something of her to ameliorate his pain. Already half out of his mind with grief, he found only old clothes painstakingly repaired, meticulously kept housekeeping accounts, the few postcards he had sent her. Guilt descended on him, an all enveloping blanket of self disgust and absolute despair. He surveyed the ashes of his important achievments and the spent glory of his important thoughts and he wept.

Cynthia had not looked for martyrdom, Tom was not a monster, but now he rapidly descended into a melancholic alcoholism - a deserted and disillusioned wailing Mary. His quiet Martha who had loved both God and her neighbour lay cold in her grave, but warm and vital in the hearts of her children and everyone whose life she had touched and served. Whose was the good or the better part? Not Tom’s, that’s for sure. Long ago Jesus had nominated Mary, but I always did suspect that on that occasion he got it wrong.


10 December 2006