Martin pulled the crucifix from around his neck and flung it into the sea. Inhaling a deep lungful of the Thai air as it disappeared into the clear water, he massaged his collar bones appreciating the weight that had been lifted. Feeling a buzz of satisfaction he sank his bare feet into the wet sand and absorbed the tranquil postcard view: turquoise sky, fluffy white clouds, bowing palm trees, as though seeing them for the first time. Martin could feel that familiar curveball life was throwing him, just as it had three years ago.
Before the accident, Martin had a wild streak nothing could tame, not even his sedate hometown in Yorkshire from which he longed to escape. When he wasn’t working on one odd job or another his days were spent on his motorbike, his nights playing guitar with his band. His decision to become a missionary didn’t come as much of a shock to those who knew him well.
‘Typical Martin’, some said, ‘I wonder what it’ll be next week?’
But they didn’t realise how serious he was.
When Jenny first kissed him it had felt like being kissed by himself, only he could have found that a turn on. But it was deeper than that. Her soul was entwined with his, and their wild expressions of passion often spilled out into the world, such as on that awful night.
At the hospital Martin tried to explain why they had been riding without helmets, how he had only a few scratches while she was lifeless in a neck brace. Her chestnut curls haunted her bruised face as she lay dependent on a machine keeping her alive. He sank, numb, into a meditative state and prayed day after day by her bedside.
‘God, if she wakes, I promise I’ll stop drinking. I’ll get a proper job. I’ll start making a difference in the world. Just let her wake up, God, please’.
When the doctor told him she would be severely brain damaged he stopped asking for her to saved. Resting his tear-stained face on her torso, he closed his eyes, and around him the room became filled with light. A man whose face was kind in a way he’d never seen before appeared and was somehow both there in the room and not there at all, but Martin felt the warmth of his touch as he reached out his hand and said:
‘Come to me’.
Four weeks ago Martin arrived in Bangkok. His heavily tattooed arms and gold earring set him apart from his fellow missionaries, but he had cut off his long hair, and was now clean shaven and sporting a neat crew cut. From a distance he blended in fine.
His mission leader Tony was a man with a past of his own, who Martin felt he could talk with openly. The locals here were Buddhists, hesitant to receive Christ, and as they strolled through the hectic, vibrant milieu he spoke his thoughts aloud:
‘They seem so certain in their beliefs and ways of doing things. Who are we to be telling them to believe differently to something that is already making them happy?’
‘Are you doubting your decision to come here?’ Tony asked. He sounded surprised. Martin always seemed so sure of everything.
‘No, I just… I hadn’t been prepared for quite how… content people seem’, he shrugged, ‘I don’t know what I was expecting’.
They were outside one of the beautiful ornate temples he had been warned to steer clear of out of respect for the indigenous traditions. Laughing children ran past weaving threads of joy, and women with shaved heads bowed to him with wide smiles. His intention had been to pass on a message he thought was essential. He hadn’t expected this sense of unease, as though he were encroaching on something sacred.
‘You became a missionary because you accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour of all mankind. How can Jesus save these people if they don’t accept him? We are granted free will, and so must to come to Christ willingly.’
‘Being happy in life will not guarantee their salvation in Heaven’.
‘No’, Martin uttered, the truth stinging a little. His own happiness had not guaranteed him protection from horror, so why would theirs?
‘Come here, I will show you some people who truly need saving,’ said Tony.
They entered a room that was dimly lit by a single bulb swinging low from the ceiling, weak fans whirring bleakly giving sparse relief from the oppressive heat. The stifling wall of air hit Martin as he entered, sweat pooling on his forehead. As his eyes adjusted his heart revolted at what he saw. Children, some of whom looked as young as five, were working at machines making the kind of colourful, fashionable bags he might have seen in high street shops in the UK.
‘This is the other part of what we do here,’ explained Tony. ‘Trying to affect real change’.
Martin’s head whirled. His meeting with Christ had torn away the veil of suffering he had felt he couldn’t bear. He thought the light and love he had been exposed to was the glorious truth, the answer to life and the evil it contains. But here in the fly-infested workroom, as real human hearts beat the rhythm of their life away as they sweated and toiled; children who would know no life, no play or education; he was plunged back into reality with a jolt.
‘It is God’s will that you are here, Martin’, Tony was saying, but Martin could barely hear him. He stumbled outside back into the relative cool of the scorching Thai afternoon.
Martin took a swig of his ice cold beer. It had been three years since he’d last tasted alcohol. In the light of the dark realities he had seen today, his abstinence seemed absurd. He spat in the sand with contempt at the world, the pointless suffering, and questions with no easy answers.