Dean knew it was time. He wiped his mouth with his serviette and stood up. He followed Simon’s example and tapped his fork against his glass. The hum of conversation died as people turned to look at him.
“I don’t know quite what to say to you all. This has been the most outstanding weekend. You have spoilt me, wined and dined me, and have given me two days I will always remember.”
He looked around the room. Some of these people he had not had the chance to get to know, other than a casual greeting now and again. Others he had managed to spend some time with, and he had, in fact, grown quite fond of one or two.
“The birthday celebration this morning was a complete surprise. No one has done anything so wonderful for me for many, many years. The cake was delicious and the gift – well, the gift will have a special place in my home where I can look at it often.”
“I think it’s time I shared a little about myself, as you have shared your own stories this weekend.” He didn’t want to do this, but he felt he owed it to them. They had been so kind and considerate, so generous, he thought it was the least he could do.
“The last time I came to the Lake District was twenty five years ago, the summer I left Ranburne High …” He told them what had happened that summer’s morning and how it had changed his life. Once again there were one or two who were fighting back tears.
“It was as if my life hit a brick wall. My dreams of walking the length of Britain were crushed; my sporting hopes were shattered.
“For many months the doctors didn’t think I would even walk again … But I was determined I would not be tied to a wheelchair. So I persevered.
“It was hard. I have to admit I didn’t cope with it very well. It’s made me bitter and angry at the world. And yes, perhaps, if I had believed in him, with God as well.
“As the years have passed, the pain has increased. Some days now, especially when it’s damp or cold, it’s difficult to walk very far. But I’m still determined to keep as mobile as I can.”
“Are you in pain now, Dean?” Mary asked, her eyes full of tears.
He looked down at her and smiled gently.
“Yes, my dear, the pain never leaves me. Weather affects it, as well as too much walking, or sitting in one position for too long. I’ve lived with it for so long it’s part of who I am.
“It has made me grumpy.” He looked around the room at the attentive faces and smiled at them. “I’m sorry for the times I’ve been grumpy this weekend.
“But there is something else I think you should know about me.” He was reluctant to tell them this too. He felt like picking up his stick and walking out. But that wouldn’t be fair. So, taking a deep breath to calm him and give him courage, he pressed on.
“From the very first dream, way back in 1990, I feel as if I have been pursued. I’ve been restless, and have felt as if someone or something is watching me. I’ve run away from the feeling and from the watcher.” Dean looked at Rob.
“Rob, our conversation yesterday summed up exactly how I have felt. Running, hiding, ignoring. It’s been uncomfortable at times.
“The restlessness has grown stronger this weekend. Yesterday afternoon I had another dream. The strangest of all of them, I think. But I, like some of you, need time to process it and see how it unfolds in my life. If it does. Perhaps I’ll go home this afternoon and forget all about it, like many other dreams I’ve dreamt in my lifetime. Perhaps. So please excuse me if I don’t share it with you all. It’s too soon for me to know what it means yet.
“But all this talk of God has disturbed me. Oh, it’s not your fault. I can see he means a great deal to each one of you. But I can’t connect with him. It’s too great a step to take at my age, for me to change. There are things in my life he can’t possibly forgive. There are people I have hurt who have died. I can’t apologise to them now. I don’t think anyone can love me the way you speak of Jesus loving you. I hope you understand. It’s too late for me. I won’t discuss this with anyone. It’s just the way I feel. Please respect my feelings. But I thought you should know, in case you think everything is fine and I am reconciled to God. I can’t reconcile to someone I don’t believe in.
“That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you, everyone, for this weekend. It’s been a special time and I am grateful to you all. It’s been wonderful to see what you’ve done with your lives. I’m pleased for you all that your faith has helped you.”
He turned to Simon.
“I’ll go and sort my luggage out. I believe you said the taxi will be here at three to fetch me.”
Simon nodded, his face sad.
“Dean, can I just say …”
Dean put up his hand to stop him.
“No Simon. No reasoning, no arguments. I am too tired for a heavy discussion now. Please, just let me go home. I will never forget you all. Thank you.”
He shuffled to the door, leaning heavily on his stick, leaving a stunned audience behind him. After a minute or so, Jonathan stood up.
“Guys, I think we should pray. Are you okay to pray at your tables for Dean?”
There was a general consent. People took one another’s hands and prayed for their old teacher who was so lost and lonely. They prayed for almost half an hour, their voices low, their prayers heartfelt.
At last Jonathan stood again.
“It’s ten to three. Dean’s taxi will be coming any moment. I think we need to go to reception to wave him off when he leaves. Sandra, have we got a cake box for him so he can take some of his cake home?”
“Yes, I have it here with me. I’ll put it in the taxi for him.”
The taxi arrived at three, as the company had promised. Simon went to Dean’s room to tell him it was there, and to carry his suitcase. It was as if the other man had closed himself off. But it didn’t stop Simon from having one last go at talking to him.
“Dean, I just want to ask you one question. May I?”
Dean grunted and nodded, his scowl and his clenched fist around his stick both shouting it would probably not help to pursue the matter. But Simon asked his question anyway.
“I want to ask you what makes you so unique that you are the only one in this world whom God cannot love and does not forgive? Please think about this.”
Dean grunted again, but his startled look gave Simon a fragment of hope.
Everyone was crowded into the reception area as the two men arrived. Mary rushed up and gave Dean a hug and a kiss, but no one else dared to breach the armour he had built between himself and them.
Simon helped him into the car.
“Be safe, Dean. May God bless you and shower you with his love.”
He closed the car door as Dean said goodbye. For a moment Simon thought the man was in tears, but Dean turned his face away and did not look back as the taxi drove out of the drive, even though Mary waved until it was out of sight.
Mary broke down in tears.
“Oh, Simon, we failed,” she sobbed.
“No. I don’t think we did. Dean may think it’s too late, but God’s timing is perfect. I believe he still has a chance to turn to God. After all, even though he insists he doesn’t believe in God, God made him and believes in him.”
“Oh, yes. I hadn’t thought of that. Thank you, Simon. That helps.” She smiled up at him through her tears.
“Come, we need to settle the bill and go our own ways too.”
Mary gave a little laugh.
“You know something, Simon?”
“God’s got this. I really believe God’s got this.”
“I think you might be right.”
NB Note from author:
Don’t miss the Epilogue to Forerunners next week!