Shrove, Ash and Fat.

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Paczki from Poland

Lent. The Christian equivalent of Ramadan, when we’re all supposed to give something up, like beer, in recognition of the forty days Jesus allegedly spent in a decidedly beer-free wilderness and the opening curtain before Easter, or Eostre, to give it its old pagan name; Christians being shameless plagiarisers.

To the Jews, the number forty is significant. It is a number that, when used in terms of time, represents a period of probation or trial and chastisement.  It isn’t generally used to signify a specific number, but rather more as a general term for a large figure.  When used in terms of time, it simply means a “long time”.  Thus, the phrase “40 days and 40 nights” is just another way to say a “really, really long time”. Which is encouraging, really, since forty days without a spot of nutriment to keep the metabolism ticking over is a pretty extreme way to shed a few kilos.

So, back to the last three days. Working backwards, we are now in Fat Thursday,  Not to be confused with Maundy Thursday where HMQ totters round to poorer districts handing out little coins. Or, she did once; now it’s a bit more formal. Washing of feet is also involved, but we don’t need to go there, since all this happens at the end of Lent, not at the beginning. Traditionally Fat T is a day dedicated to eating when people meet  with their friends and relatives and shovel down large quantities of sweets, cakes and other delicacies usually not partaken of during Lent. Among the most popular all-national dishes served on that day are paczki in Poland or berliner which are fist-sized doughnuts filled with rose hip jam.  Stoking up on sugar before the penitent season.

Wednesday. Only in California. A drive-thru (sorry, that is how they spell it) where commuters wind down their car windows, where a priest stands ready, a fast confession, absolution, administration of ashes, then off to work, cleansed and forgiven. Marvellous. I did wonder if a particularly penitent commuter, having a good deal to confess, might cause the traffic to back up as far as San Diego, but, no details were given.

Oh, and before any Canadian friends have a hissy fit, they did it in Vancouver as well. I imagine it was a good deal chillier in the Great White Up ad the priest wore his thermal vest.

Forty eight hours ago was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, or Mardi Gras, depending on where you live. The idea once was that one “makes a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs one need to repent of, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth one especially needs to ask God’s help in dealing with”, before getting shriven on Wednesday. Alternatively, you get to dress up in silly costumes and have a party, with or without pancakes. In New Orleans, they make rather a big deal of it all, festivities beginning two weeks earlier, the final parade being on Tuesday. Cross-dressing is positively encouraged, if this is your particular glass of milk.

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Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana

Why did I post this?  Because it illustrates that we take what we need to take from festivals, high holy days, or holidays, and remake them in our own image, sometimes refreshing the old, sometimes discarding the apparently arcane and reconfiguring them to be culturally relevant and possibly a bit more fun.  Is this ‘sinful’? I don’t think so – there are very few Catholics who adhere to the Tridentine (Latin) Rite – most people realise that they get more out of it if they can actually understand what’s going on.

So, pig out, people. It’s gonna be a long Lent.

The Necessity of Food

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I did this…

Living with a world class chef had its disadvantages. All the skills I ever learned evaporated, the pitying looks became too much and most of the time I just stood and watched like a guppy fish as the hands moved at lightning speed, performing what looked like three or four culinary miracles at the same time. One wonders what she might have done with the loaves and fishes. But, autres temps, autres mœurs and one finds oneself between the Scylla of the restaurant, which even here, on a daily basis can work out expensive, or the Charybdis of ankling down to the supermarché to purchase whatever one can immediately recognise from its well-stocked shelves, labelled with an impenetrable language and taking pot luck to see whether I can make something, at least  if not altogether edible, will not give me salmonella. Cheeses are a problem – they all seem to look alike and taste like pencil eraser. Bacon in the proper British form, fat-laden and thinly sliced is, it seems, not on the Bulgarian menu, so after a couple of false starts involving unspecified cuts of pork, if I want bacon, I just overcook a pork chop instead.

Fortunately, I know an onion when I see one, together with the  familiar white florets of what look like quite good quality cauliflower which will form the basis of this evening’s plat. A disastrous attempt to cook stroganoff the other night left me with half a tub of crème fraiche which I felt I ought to try to find a use for, lest my refrigerator turn into a seething biohazard.

My apartment did not appear to be equipped with appropriate armamentaria – pots and pans – for advanced culinary enterprise, but the shop down the road has a few bits and pieces and since I am unlikely to metamorphose overnight into Paul Bocuse, I have been slowly equipping myself with a survivalist guide to cooking – or at least, staying alive –  chez moi. A proper Bain-Marie would be nice, but I’ll have to get by with a saucepan and strainer. My cooker is brand new – I turned it on somewhat experimentally  the other day for the first time, navigating the little dials that tell you whether you’re using the fan or not. When heated it actually smelled new, a virgin grill exuded a newer-been-touched kind of odour and the oven compartment was as clean as a well-scrubbed face, which I now intend to dirty up.

To whom should one turn for advice?  There are a multitude of possibilities and the Internet is stuffed to the gills with expert opinion. Given that simple is best, who else should I turn to but dear old Auntie Delia, who taught me how not to burn chicken à la King to a cindered frazzle over twenty years ago. Apart from a slight tendency to exotica, she is the thinking man’s culinary crumpet and what is more if instructions are followed more or less precisely, the result is frequently quite edible. Liberal interpretation is de rigueur, on the grounds that if Gruyère cheese is demanded, one just has to find an appropriate substitute. I am going with Emmental, since it is the only other cheese I know with holes in it. Failing that there’s some blue, crumbly stuff resembling Roquefort which might be worth a tumble.

By now, you have so cleverly divined that I’m gonna make cauliflower cheese. I suppose I ought to try to find a bay leaf or two – I wonder if I could pinch one from somebody’s garden – together with freshly ground nutmeg. That looks like being dead in the water, since I have no mechanism for grating the stuff apart from rubbing it on a paving stone,  and besides which, I don’t like it much. The same goes for cayenne pepper.

At only 4pm, this is all dangerously theoretical. By dinner time, I may have produced something fit for the servants’ hall if not for High Table. Should you not hear from me, assume the worst.

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Stirred not Shaken

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The perfect Martini

I do confess to having a taste for the good stuff. Montrachet was recognised as AOC Grand Cru in 1937 and a bottle of 2001 Hannibal sells for a whisker under $7800 or, about $110 per millilitre or five hundred bucks a swallow. Heroin is cheaper. Perhaps I need to lower my sights a little bit.

Both tequila and absinthe are made from the most unlikely of ingredients; agave, which looks like a cactus, but isn’t and wormwood, a herb. Absinthe was banned in France until comparatively recently because it caused blindness, hence ‘blind drunk’. These, together with Jamaican rum and Jägermeister are the four most unpalatable drinks on the planet and even I have only ever tried them once.

Ernest Hemingway once drank, improbably, fifty-one, or perhaps fifty- three straight Martinis in the Ritz Hotel in Paris; losing count was almost inevitable. Whether or not this is true is a matter of conjecture but he was sufficiently well-known there that they named a bar after him. Cole Porter would spend up to nine hours a day in the Hemingway Bar; legend has it that he composed “Begin the Beguine” there. F. Scott Fitzgerald had his favourite seat; Hemingway and Gary Cooper made it their go-to watering hole, talking for hours and, in all probability, sliding gently off their bar stools.

Making a good Martini isn’t easy and the Ritz is coy about its prices. Just imagine eye-popping, then double it. A simple enough recipe, really. James Bond had it all wrong – vodka is far too harsh; good gin, redolent with juniper, is much preferred. In a metal cocktail shaker, Lillet or Noilly Prat first, then high proof Tanqueray gin (or Bombay Sapphire if you must) in a 4 to 1 ratio, stirred briskly for no more than ten seconds over cracked ice – never shaken, it dilutes it too much – poured into a chilled cocktail glass with either an olive, or better, a twist of Provençal lemon.

Let’s just say that mixing with the well-heeled and often famous comes at a premium. It’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists. Having visited both, my preference is for the Crillon,  overlooking Place de la Concorde where I was once charged 20€ for a rather small portion of päté en croute. The wine list had nothing for under three figures and sometimes four, so I declined a drink there. Two of the high end suites were designed by the recently deceased Karl Lagerfeld.

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Crillon courtyard

Beer. American beer is appalling, bland and watery-looking and tasting like yesterday’s urine, chilled beyond endurance. Belgian Trappist beer is ridiculously strong, and since the abbot allowed them to drink eight pints of homebrew a day, the monks made the most of them, drinking as they did in silent contemplation. There are, of course all manner of brews in the middle in various states of alcoholic content and taste. If Foster’s is Australian for beer, then Crown Ambassador Reserve must be Australian for expensive beer, although not the most expensive in the world – that is reserved for a brew copied from an ancient Egyptian recipe and named Nefertiti. The Aussies are close behind, however. Aged in French oak barrels for a year and packaged in what looks like a champagne bottle, Crown pitches Ambassador as an alternative to wine, which speaks volumes for the Australian palate. The brewer has produced four iterations since 2008, each batch limited to 8,000 bottles with an ABV of 10.2 (this is high, people – be advised) and a price tag of close to $75 a bottle. Even this is modest compared to beers so rare that only eight bottles exist. You can buy one of them for $800 but it comes in a bottle made from a stuffed animal. There really is no accounting for taste. The Schorschbock 57, can claim to be the strongest beer in the world, with an insane ABV of 57, about the same as schnapps. The stuff probably tastes like cough medicine.

Why all this discussion about rare and exotic beverages which get you a tad squiffy and sometimes just a wee bit dysfunctional? The reason is, I have decided to treat my long-suffering liver to a well-earned vacation.  Poor old girl, she was beginning to show signs of the metabolic equivalent of metal fatigue. For too long she has had to put in a lot of overtime on a zero-hours contract and she will not be troubled to have to process indecently large quantities of Uncle Johnnie Walker or Cousin Jack Daniels for some time. Instead I shall be squeezing fat blood grapefruit with Devin mineral water, very slightly pétillant, unlike Perrier which gives people indecently rapid flatulence. Stirred, not shaken.

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About Eve

 

Screenshot 2019-02-21 at 13.03.04.jpgIn recent times, there’s been a lot of chatter about women. Women who have been taken advantage of, abused, groped and otherwise interfered with by powerful men. Harvey Weinstein is discredited as a blackmailer and serial abuser and even POTUS has been accused. The tip of a very ugly black iceberg. But, women are standing up for themselves, dragging their accusers out of the shadows. 

Bravo and more power to them all.

Let’s suspend disbelief for just a moment and imagine that the Biblical story in Genesis chapter 1 was rooted in fact. Let’s review the scenario. Adam is lonely, so God takes pity on his isolation and makes a help – meet – or suitable for him. Anaesthetised, a rib is taken from him; the result is Eve – they are co-equal in Eden. Then in slithers the snake, breathing out his lies and Eve takes a bite from the apple, subsequently offering it to Adam as a rather roundabout way of suggesting they have sex. Oh, dear. God realises that something has gone wrong, so he goes and finds Adam who, totally missing the irony, instantly points the finger and without a shred of remorse throws his new-found companion under a bus. You can almost hear him saying “it wasn’t me, it was her.” He treated her as subservient (who gave him permission to do that?),  less than himself, omitting to take the opportunity to stand up for her, signally failing to recognise their equality as ‘one flesh’ thus losing the ability to grasp the inherent unity – the original idea – putting her down to raise himself up.  God knew it was a risk, since He had given His creation the authority to determine and influence the fate of the world. The punishment meted out was in consequence severe and thus men gave themselves permission to objectify women, to treat them howsoever they wished and make them subservient, absolving themselves of all responsibility and duty of care. And so it has been. Glass ceilings, underrepresentation in positions of power, domestic violence, discrimination; the list goes on. More obviously, inequality under the medieval nonsense that is Islamic law,  female testimony being worth half that of a man. To add insult to injury, men force their women to wear absurd coverings. The burqa is a massive statement of male supremacy and nothing else.

But, autres temps, autres mœurs. More men are speaking out, as well as more women with indignation, even rage, also with support and compassion for millennia of neglect and domination, all the way back to Eve as the original sin, slowly but surely, is brought into full daylight where it can be seen and dealt with.

Finally, eleven people so far have resigned their respective whips in the British Parliament over causes ranging from leftist domination to right wing power, Brexit and Labour’s rotten antisemitism.  Seven of them are women.

The Independents

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Tombstones in the Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery, north of Strasbourg CNN

Since I have a pathological aversion to joining anything, I have never belonged to a political party, never expressed publicly views which might be open to either rage, ridicule or challenge and I think that people’s politics, much like their religion, is often best kept in the shadows. However, I do admire people who put themselves out there, stand on platforms and argue with passion and conviction for what they believe, presumably in the hope that others will be swayed by persuasive rhetoric and be coaxed round to their way of thinking.

I admire the Independents.

Jeremy Corbyn no longer leads a political party, he is the magister imperator of a cult. Clever and devious manipulation by those around him have hoisted this obscure little man on mightier petards than his, with a view to persuading the young specifically, and the less well-educated perhaps, into a cheering raggletag army, waving a red, red flag, swept on by its own careless momentum, fuelled by online ridicule, intimidation and threats and thirsting for battle at the ballot box.

But, there is something rotten and festering at its heart.

In the same way as Karl Marx was accused of antisemitism, the more the onion layers are peeled back, the clearer the accusations become. At the heart of the cronyism that is the hallmark of the Opposition leadership, there is Jew-hating, variously defined as a rather vague, poorly informed antisemitism – in its extreme form, the belief that Jews are the financial and media Illuminati – thus to be brought low at any cost, or, the real flamethrower of anti-Zionism, the opposition to the right of the Jewish people to exist.

Hitler had similar views and it didn’t turn out well for the Jews.

Place de la République, Tuesday

France has a broad thread of antisemitic thought, to the extent that many Jews I know dare not wear a kippa in public. Antisemitic attacks in recent weeks culminated last Tuesday with vandals daubing swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery near Strasbourg.  Marine le Pen on the right and a collection of smaller fry on the left have been conspicuously silent as the outrage has accelerated and debate has raged. Yesterday, however, fourteen political parties called for an end to antisemitism and protests were loud and vociferous, in particular in the Place de la République, which is entirely consistent with the way the French do politics, but without action, such flag-waving is no more than froth and bubble, thus incapable of addressing the real problem of eradication, for which, I have to confess, I think there is no simple answer. More French made aliya last year than at any other time; Jews don’t feel safe there any more.

Neither do British Jews feel safe, including their Jewish politicians. Luciana Berger MP has been subject to a tidal wave of online vilification, including death threats. I am surprised the poor lady gets to sleep at night.  Yesterday, she joined six more, resigning the Labour whip which I think was highly principled. Of the seven (now eight) MPs who quit the party yesterday and today, several said quite simply that the tipping point for their departure was the result of institutionalised antisemitism in the Labour party. If the opposition – such as it is – cannot be trusted to uphold the interests of a people group which has contributed so much to British life, they should hang their collective heads in shame, walk out of the chamber and hand in their swastikas on the way out. Or, if they have some backbone, walk away, join the Independents and take their chances.

Scylla and Charybdis

Detail Times Newspapers

Three teenage runaways. No big deal, happens every day. One of them stole her sister’s passport to evade apprehension, being only fifteen. But, she knew what she was doing. Clever, resourceful and enterprising, the three of them made it to Turkey unchallenged and unmolested.
Over the border into Syria. Married after three weeks to a Daesh fighter. Two dead babies. Two dead friends and a jailed Dutch husband. Squeezed tighter and tighter by invading forces, fleeing finally to a refugee camp in Syria along with tens of thousands of others. About to give birth again. Remorse? None. Regrets? The failure of the ‘caliphate’ and the self-blame that she was too weak to stay behind with the stricken rump of the once-mighty army that threatened the Mesopotamian region with its stranglehold of fear.

She wants to come ‘home’ to the UK, so that, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, her newborn will receive NHS care. Not a scintilla of moral compass, the black tentacles of the propaganda from which she was recruited woven permanently into her soul. A psychological and spiritual basket case.

It is as if all she felt she had to do was pick up the phone and Daddy would come pick her up from the prom.

Which presents the UK with a series of near-insurmountable problems. Retribution teeters on a steep ridge where on the one hand, an underage teen was caught up in something for which she was emotionally ill-equipped and on the other, a hardened jihadist with a visceral hatred of the land of her birth, poisoned from the well of undiluted evil that was Daesh and at the very least, a passive accomplice to murder.

Online opinion and the Home Office is overwhelmingly in favour of refused entry, with possible loss of citizenship, in which case she will simply disappear into the abyss of lost souls and the UK will turn its back.

Some, however, favour tempering justice with mercy. Reintroducing her into society will cost millions, however. Bespoke deprogramming with scant expectation of success. A new identity to protect her from the vengeance of right-wing extremists and prevention of her becoming a standard-bearer for new recruits into whatever leviathan Daesh metamorphoses into, as it assuredly will. Extensive surveillance and stringent curtailment of her civil liberties, the list goes on and the bill goes up.

Do I want to offer an opinion? No, I don’t; the problem is way above my pay grade and the moral implications are a minefield in both directions. Either way, trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, the UK will be held responsible for creating the morality of which she is plainly incapable. Whatever the outcome, the country will be pilloried, criticised, scrutinised, weighed in the balance and, in all probability shall, like King Belshazzar, be found wanting.

Emergence

At the risk of sounding saccharine and poetic, this short post is a determinant of current status. It is as if I have been Gollum, a cave-dwelling creature of the dark, feeling its way with tarsier like paws, looking for…something I can’t even name. February here is normally snowy, which I usually find quite cheering, but this winter has been unusually mild and the metaphor of trees putting forth their buds is testament to how my thoughts have begun to clarify, and things once twilight-blurred are beginning, just beginning to come into sharper focus. I have begun to go places, to do things, perhaps even write a little bit again, self-indulgent as it may seem to anyone curious enough to stumble across this. The larva is starting to wriggle and spit, to escape from the darkness, the chrysalis is metamorphosing and on his way out. Apologies to Kafka.

And yet, I have no clear idea of how this came about. Perhaps it is a natural transformation in a reconfiguration process, we get sick and tired of being sick and tired and inner resources conspire to assemble the chaotic jigsaw of the mind in order to do something about it. This may be partly true, but, being a secret, heretical admirer of Jungian collective consciousness, there may be a little more to it. Friends have somehow seemed closer, the warmth and tenderness of some have been almost palpable. By this, I do not mean the jolly, beery bonhomie that drags one unwillingly into the conversation but a much more subtle enfolding by those who, for want of a better word, care. The cushioning against falling headlong into the abyssal has been remarkable. You know who you are, and you have my gratitude as well as my thanks. As someone wrote ‘chaque moment se construit sur le précédent.’

Alternatives…

I don’t often write stream of consciousness stuff these days, it is, after all, supremely self-indulgent, but today, as Father Time departs and the breath of the New Year,  a bright, fair child rising like a phoenix, I think I’m allowed.

A few concatenations caught my attention in recent times. It began with a conversation in Athens a few days ago. A trampoline is a metaphor for spacetime, the universal balloon that expands and is so very old.  When uninhabited, a basketball moves in a straight line when rolled from one diagonal to another. I then imagined myself, standing on the middle cross, and asked my companion ‘ how would the ball have to be rolled to get to the other side?’ He replied, quite correctly, that the ball would be pulled toward me, and it would follow a curved path to reach the other side. Time crawls, lengths are squeezed…

Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose did the mathematics for black holes – as if I weighed so much that the trampoline bed extended deep into the earth and the basketball never ever made it to the other side, instead just disappearing, contracting into a microdot….Or so we might suppose, the wormhole narrative is exotically believable, if fanciful.

All this grew from a movie – randomly watched – even the title escapes me –  about what might happen if time horizons could be changed, lives rewritten, game-changing events solidify into new realities and we could, conceivably go back, change the trajectory, rewrite history….

How things might have turned out – Hosea’s door of hope, the valley of Achor, Makor Ha-Tikvah…What is strange about such thoughts is the idea that the possibility of better outweighs the probability of worse. Perhaps our own parabola of destiny is, after all, for the best.

Brooks Brothers

You almost had to make an appointment these days to see the old man. He had amassed a fortune from real estate, had a penthouse on the Upper West Side, a chalet in Aspen and a retreat in Martha’s Vineyard. Six cars, one a Bentley…

His older brother, Ben, had progressed quickly through Wharton Business School and was well placed to head up the dynasty. All charm, John Lobb, Brooks Brothers.  James, on the other hand had been something of a disappointment, flunked out of Princeton but holding down a lowly position in the company in spite of a couple of DUIs and arrests for possession.

“Good to see you, son”, said his father. “what can I do for you?” James took a deep breath. “Dad, I want out. I want my inheritance, or whatever it is that’s coming to me and I want it now. I want to make a name for myself, not under your shadow.” Father and son looked at each other for a long, long moment.

His father looked down, pondering. Then he reached into the drawer of his large rosewood desk, pulled out a checkbook, slowly unscrewed the top of his Montblanc Meisterstück and filled out a check. He took a deep breath, tore it off and held it out.

TWO MILLION DOLLARS.

James was on the next plane for Vegas. First stop, a car dealer. Twenty minutes later, he had the keys to a shiny red Corvette Stingray, 6.2 litres and fast as hell. Only sixty thousand…ha!

He set himself up in Caesar’s Palace – big suite, bathtub big enough for four – and headed for the craps tables. He soon gained the reputation as a big winner, an even bigger loser, but, hey, it’s only money. Night after night he was hanging out in lapdancing clubs, snorting coke between the girls’ breasts and enjoying the exceptional services provided by four thousand dollar a night hookers.

The fairground ride ended when the management ‘regretfully’ had to decline, he had overspent his credit limit by a considerable sum. He’d crashed the Corvette, only just escaping prosecution, after a drunken encounter with a fire hydrant. James found himself on the street, with just enough in his pocket for a trip back to New York City. Remorse was a tough pill to get down his throat.

The doorman didn’t recognise him. Bedraggled, unshaven, he looked like he’d slept in the same clothes for a week. He caught the elevator to the twenty third floor, standing sheepishly in the outer office. Secretaries looked at him, aghast, wondering whether to call security. Someone had called ahead. His father was in the boardroom closing an important deal. The door was flung open, his father almost ran toward him, closely followed by his elder brother, scowling. “Dad….” James managed, before the tears began to flow.  Ben just looked. “What the hell, Dad?” “Shut up, Ben” said his father.

James and his father embraced for a long time, both of their shoulders shaking.

Finally, his father spoke.

“Everybody! James is home! And we’re gonna throw the biggest party this town has ever seen! Now, will somebody go out and buy my son some clothes? Brooks Brothers.And a decent pair of shoes!”

 

 

A Parable Retold

Jim sat up at the bar in the King’s Arms, morosely sucking down his third pint of Stella. Why us? he thought. Why our kid? Sarah had been such a bright, vivacious child, good at school, popular, lots of friends. Then, nine months ago came the diagnosis. Terminal leukaemia. Months of radio, chemo and God knows what else. Endless trotting back and forth to bloody clinics all with solemn-faced, well-meaning doctors. Last week, they just said ‘take her home; let her pass away there’. We tucked her in, with her favourite toy – a pink elephant.
Mary was the religious one. She went to this happy-flappy outfit that met in a school hall. Jim wanted nothing to do with it – he thought it was all medieval nonsense. Mary had resigned herself not to talk about what went on, it only antagonised him.
Jim’s mobile rang. ‘She’s gone, love’. Mary’s voice was trembling. Jim heaved himself off the barstool and headed home on foot.
As he fumbled with his keys, Mary opened the door. Behind her was a tall man whom Jim had never seen before.
‘I’m from the church’, he said. ‘Please come with me’. Bewildered, Jim did as he was told, neglectful of the fact that who the hell was this bloke to order him about in his own house. The three of them mounted the stairs, Mary weeping softly, to Sarah’s room. She lay, quite peacefully, still in death.
The strange man walked over to the bedside, took the dead girl’s hand and said ’Time to get up now, lovey’. Jim’s jaw dropped as Sarah sat bolt upright, turned and smiled and said ‘Hello, Daddy’. It’s all fine now’. She cuddled her pink elephant and said: ‘What’s for tea? I’m really hungry’.
The tall man smiled, his piercing blue eyes seemed to illuminate the little room. ‘I’ll be off, then’ he said, a soft, mellow tone. ‘Don’t worry, I can see myself out’.
The following night at the King’s Arms, Jim bought the whole pub a drink, endlessly telling and retelling the whole story.
The church had a first time visitor the following Sunday.

With apologies for bad theology.