As I stood stock still in the icy silence of the remembrance ceremony at the village War Memorial, very little seemed to make sense. 'This is as close as it gets to believing in ghosts,' I thought, as ghoulish images of dismembered bodies from Flanders fields to Baghdad and Afghanistan passed through my mind, only dispersing when the bugle sounded Reveille
and a couple of cars that had stopped in respect, revved up and moved on. The minister pronounced the benediction then invited everyone to join him in the community hall for soup and sandwiches.
We made our way down Main Street through the gathering mist into the welcoming warmth of the hall and the inviting aroma of lentil soup. The chit-chat was pleasant enough, but I felt myself drawn to a solitary figure seated in the farthest corner, cradling his cup of soup in both hands and staring at something or nothing right across the room. 'How do you do. My name is Hugh Jessop. I've just moved into the village. Are you a long time resident yourself?'
'Well, yes, or at least I used to be. Alexander Cunningham is the name. I'm rarely back now – only on special occasions like today. I lived here for over 20 years but no-one here would remember me, and if they did they wouldn't want me here today.'
'Surely not,' I said, trying to appear non-plussed by the stark tone of the conversation.
He leaned in towards me and confided: 'I used to be the minister here but I'm afraid I rather blotted my copy book'.
Before I could ask Alexander to expand, I was interrupted by a jovial couple bearing more plates of sandwiches.
'Lovely to have you join us today. John and Rita Thomson – we're on the Congregational Board. Are you new to the village?' I introduced myself extending my hand.
'This is my first time in the community hall but you may know this man here. He tells me he used to be the minister.'
I turned to where Alexander and I had been sitting. Somehow he had slipped away in the few moments I had been chatting to John and Rita.
'Sorry. My phantom friend seems to have gone. Never mind. I should probably make tracks too. Lovely to speak to you both.'
I had been out the house for less than an hour yet enough had happened to pray on my mind for the rest of the day. On Monday morning, I decided to visit the library to do a bit of digging. I asked if they had anything on the history of local parish churches. The librarian found what I was looking for in the reference section and I had to sign for it. I looked for the pages on the village church to see what it said about a Rev Alexander Cunningham. Alexander's aura had been difficult to read. He had a strange pallor beneath that copper skin making it difficult to judge his age. I thought I should start looking about 30 years ago.
I tried the 1990s and worked back from there. There were no 'Cunninghams' to be found. The short sketches of each minister were fascinating and I soon forgot the task in hand, caught up in the history of the parish church. Then suddenly I came across what I had been looking for: 'Rev Alexander Cunningham, appointed in 1761, in succession to his father Richard Cunningham'. In 1763, the local elders complained that he had been absent from his charge for nearly a year. Reports talked of him being the worse for drink
. There were witnesses who testified that at a gathering in Glasgow he had proposed a toast to 'Adam and Eve, who had forfeited paradise that we might enjoy the pleasures of the flesh'. The verdict was to suspend him from office as parish minister.
My memories of that Remembrance Sunday were of a chilly cold morning giving way to a misty gloom. The library on the other hand was stifling hot and I felt the need to get out into the cool air. What did my rational mind make of all this? When something didn't make sense, my motto was eliminate the impossible and search for the possible. Perhaps my strange encounter had been with some weird eccentric with the time on his hands to go researching parish records in the reference section of the library. That could be it. I turned on my heels, went back inside and asked the librarian to check who else had signed out the book.
'I can't tell you names – data protection and all that – but let's see how many have signed it out,' she said. The librarian carefully scanned the records, running her finger slowly down the page, then repeated her search.
'No-one before you,' she said.
As I made my way out, I noticed a sudden chill in the air, as cold as Remembrance Sunday morning, and I whispered under my icy breath: 'If something doesn’t make sense, eliminate the impossible and search for the possible'.