Last week was February half-term. We had planned to spend it with dear friends down south. January and February had been relentless, and we needed this healing break. Then, two days before we were meant to be together, we got the call. Unexpectedly, M was going to have to begin another round of chemotherapy. We would not be able to stay with them after all.
Quickly, efficiently, and with the grace of God, Jo found us a Plan B. A holiday-let owned by the sister of a friend, in a quiet seaside village just along the coast from a seaside town, overlooking what, until the First World War, we commonly called the German Sea. And then we grieved, for our own loss as well as for our dear friends, for life is not a zero-sum game, nor grief competitive, but to be human is to weep—and to be comforted.
On the last evening of our break, we sat in the dark of a small seaside town cinema, having been sown to our seats by an usher, having admired the sashed curtain and the cinema organ in front of the screen. Thirty-seven people huddled together in the back third of the room—we need one another, more than simply needing some distance from the big screen; if we want to watch a film in the privacy of our own home, there is more choice than you can imagine—while every so often we heard distant rumbles from one of the other three screens. As I sat there, I thought of others, huddled with neighbours and strangers beneath the streets of Kyiv assailed by the pounding of distant shells, and prayed for peace.
And then the film began, the latest adaptation of Death on the Nile. Opening on the devastation of a Belgian landscape in the First World War. Providing a backstory for (Kenneth Branagh’s) Hercule Poirot, a farmer caught up in the great conflict, a man who hoped to be a farmer again, beyond this waking nightmare, and the husband of a farmer’s wife, and yet who possessed a rare mind and a great deal of youthful certainty. I was reminded of another retelling, not so long ago but on the small screen, in which (John Malkovich’s) Poirot was a Catholic priest, whose neighbours ran to the church for shelter as the Germans advanced on them, only to be trapped inside and massacred, Poirot alone surviving, left to carry the burden of faith in God and in humanity burnt to the ground, yet life carrying on. Agatha Christie herself takes little interest in her creation’s backstory: canonically, it is implied that he was a police officer in Belgium, but as Poirot is a notoriously and intentionally unreliable narrator of his personal history, this can not be taken at face value. He is undoubtedly a refugee who has made a new life. Why not a farmer, or a priest?
Sometimes life gets in the way of our plans. Derails them and then blows up the wreckage. It is not taking the road less travelled that makes all the difference, nor even making the path by walking it, so much as, what? So much as picking up the pieces and piecing them together, in such a way that life can carry on, not as it was before but as it can be now. There are no guarantees that this will be better than the life we planned or hoped for—life is not a benign benefactor, nudging us into something good we had missed at first glance, but the chronicle of all that happens, for better or worse—but it has the advantage of being where we find ourselves. And where we may be found. Where our wounds, visible and invisible, may be dressed by love.
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