I know some of you are not fiction aficionados, but please, I plead… Read this through. It is so much more than just a short story book review. An unexpected Advent gem I want to place in your hands today. 🙂 (Spoiler alert: I pretty much give away the entire piece, but I don’t think this is one story you’ll likely read on your own…) A joyful reminder and snapshot of our Emmanuel, God with us… this post has been on my heart for over a week now…
So, I used to think a deep fog was romantic – in that Wuthering Heights on the moors, lovely Gershwin, foggy day in London town sort of way.
Or — even deliciously mysterious, as in Sherlock Holmes’ favorite out tracking hidden clues kind of day.
But, so many days upon days of barely-see-through, mist-dampened, dripping skies round here have been like a recalcitrant gnat in my face all week. Swat and push away as I might, lack of light is wringing me out and leaving me sopping in the melancholy of it. The world is so wearingly dark as early as three in the afternoon, that it fools me into thinking all time is slipping away…
Till, sitting here by my porch window this morning, I actually see blue rimming the cottony grey puffs! Sun dappling! That tad of color is a beach flag soaring in winter. A gift!
And quite suddenly, I understand Mrs. Hargreaves and the gift she found in a fresh and heart-opening way. But I am getting ahead of myself. You haven’t met her yet, have you? 🙂
On one such gloomy recent afternoon good for little else than sitting entrenched under artificial light, my eyes and heart hunting for God’s carefully hidden advent treasure waiting for me (and, I think, for you too) behind the calendar door so to speak, I scanned the index of a lovely new-to-me, but used copy of A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems. A hardcover book that called to me from store shelves the other day and made its way into my shopping bag for really a few pennies (mmm, relatively speaking). This was as good a time as any to steal thirty minutes leisure reading in a small story… And to hopefully banish the glums!
Perusing the content list, my finger landed on a seemingly incongruously placed author’s name, Agatha Christie. To say the least, her title did not grab me. “The Water Bus.” What did that mean? And in what way was it – Christmasey? But I’d just been thinking how I’ve never read anything at all by Agatha Christie and had wondered if she might not have had a cosy style belying the films that – perhaps – pigeonhole her works.
And here she was, so unexpected, in this seasonal tome!
Did she write more than murder and mayhem we’ve tagged her for? Finding her here now, amongst light and joyful stories, I felt a bit of that foggy day romanticism stealing back over me.
And so, I dipped into her story where she plunges me immediately into the mind and heart of… her Mrs. Hargreaves and her unusual (but perhaps identifiable with each of us in other ways?) dilemma.
“Mrs. Hargreaves didn’t like people.
She tried to, because she was a woman of high principle and a religious woman, and she knew very well that one ought to love one’s fellow creatures. But she didn’t find it easy – and sometimes she found it downright impossible…
Her largest subscriptions were to communities of nuns in Africa, because they and the people to whom they ministered were so far away she would never have to come in contact with them, and also because she admired and envied the nuns who actually seemed to enjoy the work they did, and because she wished with all her heart she were like them.
She was willing to be just, kind, fair and charitable to people, so long as she did not have to see, hear or touch them. But she knew very well, that was not enough…
Throughout the pages, we find Mrs. Hargreaves challenged by people and just wanting to escape them.
First there is her housekeeper, sobbing about her daughter’s fate. Mrs. Hargreaves longs for words of consolation but can only find herself trapped and rigid within herself – so that when she sends the woman to half day off, volunteers to do the household shopping in her place, she immediately berates herself for recognizing too late that the woman’s greater joy would have been to keep working and talking herself out, to chum around with her cronies at the stores. Because of course, she reasons sadly, Mrs. Chubb liked people.
Instead, “Mrs. Hargreaves stood there wanting to be kind, but not really knowing how, because she couldn’t really feel the right kind of feeling…” Again and again, she muses how more than anything, she wished she had this gift.
At the butchers, she is pushed and pulled first by one woman who shoves her way to the front, then berated and steamrolled by others who command her to stand up for herself and tell the so and so off. She finds herself embroiled in their snipping and snapping at each other until her head is splitting. At another store, the owner is so ingratiatingly happy, dripping her “luv” and “ducks” like treacle, causing Mrs. Hargreaves’ nerves to jangle like keys. Returning home for solitude, the window man follows after her around her home like a barking puppy, disrupting her peace. “O, for the desert island,” she thinks! But then… she’d have to see people to get tickets and travel… Wherever could she go to be alone?
She considers first taking the bus across town, but that would mean standing shoulder to shoulder with teems of others. She simply could not bear it. The water bus is a sudden inspiration. a sort of ferry across the river… and on this brisk day, not likely to have many others out for a pleasure trip. Entering the boat, she immediately spots a party of noisy children up front, and makes her way to the back. Good! Only one solitary figure there. Slipping in to a seat, she looks gratefully around her.
“The boat drew away from the pier out into the Thames. It was peaceful here on the water. Mrs. Hargreaves felt soothed and serene for the first time today.
(Ah, like I am with the fog lifting! 🙂 )
She had got away from – from what exactly? Away from it all – that was the phrase, but she didn’t know what it meant….
Blessed, blessed water – so insulating. Boats plied their way up and down the stream, but they had nothing to do with her. People on land were busy with their own affairs. Let them be – she hoped they enjoyed themselves. Here she was in a boat, being carried down the river towards the sea…”
As the boats passed through the docks, Mrs. Hargreaves’ “feeling of happiness and serenity grows stronger… For the first time, she pays a little more attention to her fellow traveler in the bow… He was wearing a long cape-like coat of woolen material. “An Arab, perhaps?” she ponders vaguely… “What beautiful material the cloth of his coat was. It seemed to be woven all in one piece. So finely woven, too. She obeyed an almost irresistible impulse to touch it…”
In that moment, the feel of that coat’s warmth still tingling on her fingers, Mrs. Hargreaves is embraced by freshness wafting light across her spirit…
“She could never recapture the feeling that the touch of the coat brought her. It was quite indescribable. It was like what happens when you shake a kaleidoscope. The parts of it are the same parts, but they are arranged differently; they are arranged in a new pattern. She had wanted when she got on the water bus to escape from herself and the pattern of the morning. But she had not escaped in the way she had meant to escape. She was still herself… but it was a different pattern because she was different…”
In her mind, she is suddenly standing beside Mrs. Chubb again. Only this time she understands her poor housekeeper’s heart as though it were her own.
“In fancy, Mrs. Hargreaves arm went round Mrs. Chubb’s shoulder…” Others came back to her thoughts too. The women enjoying their fight at the butchers. ‘Characters, all of them. Fun, really!…’ And, why on earth, Mrs. Hargreaves wondered, had she minded the woman at the greengrocer’s calling her ‘Luv?’ It was a kindly term…”
Now, transformed from within like a light turning on, she realizes… she was no longer just part of the kaleidoscope. She was “inside it, part of it…”
“In a brief space of time, she was one with her fellow beings. She liked people. Almost – she loved them! She knew now what the thing she had coveted was like. She knew the warmth of it, and the happiness — knew it not from intelligent observation from without, but from within. From feeling it. And perhaps, knowing now just what it was, she could learn the beginning of the road to it…?
She thought of the coat woven in the harmony of one piece. She had not been able to see the man’s face. But she thought she knew who He was…
Already the warmth and the vision were fading. But she would not forget – she would never forget!
‘Thank you,’ said Mrs. Hargreaves, speaking from the depth of a grateful heart. She said it aloud in the empty railway carriage.”
And here at the end of the story, Ms. Agatha Christie has shown me the superb deftness of her art of unfolding mystery. For I can’t believe that I did not see the clues that seem so blatant to me now!
That coat… the reaching out and touching… His transforming, miracle- holding, hem!
My mouth is agape with an “O” as I read the last lines of this ordinary story shining with such wonder.
“The mate of the water bus was staring at the tickets in his hand.
‘Where’s t’other one?” he asked.
‘Whatchermean?’ said the Captain who was preparing to go ashore for lunch.
‘Must be someone on board still. Eight passengers there was. I counted them. And I’ve only got seven tickets here.’
‘Nobody left on board. Look for yourself. One of ‘em must have got off without your noticing ‘im – either that or he walked on water!’
And the Captain laughed heartily at his own joke.”
Mmm… walked on water.
An unassuming little story… not Christmas in the usual way. But, oh, Advent treasure, certainly a “divine appointment” put here for this foggy day, a warming, transforming reminder to reach out and touch His Hem where miracles await.
Are you recognizing a touch of Mrs. Hargreaves in you today, too?
A fog wrapped around you?
Father, make the retelling of this jewel from Agatha’s pen sparkle like the colors and shimmer of a Christmas ornament to each of us! Inspire us to look expectantly for You in the midst of our day. To dare to reach out and touch You, Our Lord, in the moments of gnat-like hubbub that so easily steals our Christmas wonder! And like the woman with the issue of blood, to know You as the One who longs to renew our energy and heart in more ways than one.
A silver and gold Advent Truth: He is waiting, often unobtrusively, beside us! 🙂
© Pam Depoyan
* Quotes excerpted from Agatha Christie’s The Water Bus, as found in A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems