Benny pressed both hands against the cold black wood of the church door and pushed. The door stayed firmly shut. “Not yet” said Benny to himself. He turned and walked away from the desolate old building and back up the lane to the housing estate where he lived.
Evening was falling and the house lights were brightly illuminated by strings of coloured lights and flashing reindeer and angels. It was that time of year. Benny’s parents were sitting by the TV as usual. “Hello Benny” said his mother. And, although she already knew the answer, she asked “Where have you been?”
“Church” said Benny.
“And was anyone there?”
Benny shook his head.
Benny’s mother and father exchanged a look behind their son’s head. Benny was special – to use the modern euphemism – but he could be trusted to be out by himself. All the more so as his daily routine never varied. Every day he would go to the Day Centre in the morning and then walk alone to the deserted church in the afternoon. He told them once – on Christmas Eve last year it was – that he had seen people there. Benny said that he had gone inside to listen to the people singing. Benny’s parents almost believed him and they had walked down there to see for themselves. But they discovered the crumbling old building to be as closed, dark and silent as it ever had been. Still, they didn’t begrudge their son his harmless fantasy and always asked him when he came back from his walk if the phantom congregation had returned. It never had.
And when Benny set off down the lane tomorrow exactly one year would have passed. Tomorrow’s dawn would herald in another Christmas Eve.
The Day Center was closed for the holidays, so Benny spent the morning at home, impatient for lunch to be over, so that he could head off out.
“Wrap up warm Benny” said his mother – “It’s been snowing in the night.”
Benny did as he was told and then set off. The snow in the lane was pristine – no feet had passed that way today. The boy was fascinated by the creaking of his boots crushing the snow as he walked. As he neared the church, he heard the singing. Looking up excitedly, Benny saw candlelight in the church windows. When he got there, the door was already half open and Benny passed inside, where a tall man in a black gown welcomed Benny and ushered him to a pew.
Every other seat was occupied and every voice was raised in song. The people around him seemed different to Benny. Their clothes, their hair – just different. The songs they sang were strange to him too, but the singing was beautiful. Then the man in the black gown spoke to the people and invited them to the front of the church where they each knelt for a moment before moving away. Benny too joined the queue and took his turn at the altar. The tall man pressed something into Benny’s hand and blessed him.
Then it was over. As he left the church many voices wished Benny a happy Adam and Eve Day. He felt wonderful. Five steps away from the door Benny turned to look back. The church door was closed, the building again shrouded in darkness and silence.
Back at home, Benny was asked the usual question, but this time he was happy to be able to tell them “Yes. I saw the people again. They were singing.”
“Well, that’s nice, Benny” said his mother. “Now it’s time for bed, because you know what day it is tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Christmas” said Benny.
“That’s right, Benjamin. And Father Christmas will bring you some presents, won’t he?”
So Benny went to bed.
He already had his first present. The present that the man in the church had given to him. He opened his tightly clenched fist to look at it. It was just a small piece of bread, but it was a present.