13 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven

‘Rejoice Always’ are very pleased to serialise an abridged version of Noel Davidson’s much-loved classic, ‘Some Party In Heaven.’ This series began with our first issue and we now conclude with the final episode.

SOME PARTY IN HEAVEN

Their sacred singing session was soon to be interrupted.

Mourners started to arrive at the house. Hertford and Phyllis just couldn’t seem to believe it. It was so unreal.

Here they were, nine days on from the shock of the death of Thomas seeing the same kind-hearted people coming to say the same tender-hearted things to sympathise with them at the death of Wendsley.

At nine o’clock the undertaker arrived with the tiny white coffin. “In all my years in this job,” he told the grieving parents, “I have never had an experience like this before.”

He was so genuinely upset that he just asked for Wendsley’s full name and age. He thought he could cope with nearly every challenge his work presented but this was proving extremely difficult. Nine days before he had looked down to see a little boy tugging at his trouser leg. Now he was compiling his death notice for the paper.

He was almost overcome.

“He was Wendsley John Arnold and he was just three years and two months old,” Hertford told him. “He was born on the 29th September 1986.”

With that information quickly noted, the undertaker left, only to return two days later for the funeral.

Saturday, 25th November began with the same choking fog that had merged day into night for weeks on end.

By mid-morning, however, the fog had lifted and the sun came out. The mourners walked from the bungalow to the church in Donacloney in the first sunshine they had seen for days.

The lane was lined with men waiting to join the funeral. Many of them stood in the same positions as they had done nine days before. It was uncanny.

The whole day seemed to be an action replay of the day Thomas was buried just over a week before.

There was one important difference, though, and it had taken place in lives of the two chief mourners. Since that day Hertford had been saved and Phyllis had been restored to the Lord.

What a change it made!

Now, as they followed Wendsley’s little coffin to the church they realised what it was all about.

Thomas had gone and he hadn’t come back. That was in spite of his parents’ vain hope that one day he would just reappear somehow.

They knew now that Wendsley had gone too. This was for real. He wouldn’t sit in his high chair or roll on the floor again, either.

Their profound sorrow and many tears of that second funeral in less than a fortnight were accompanied by a deep sense of inner peace.

They knew that where Thomas was, Wendsley was, and that was where they were both going as well. What a consolation.

As they sat together in the back of the funeral car on the way home from the cemetery in Dromore, dusk was falling. The sky was swallowing up the red ball of sun. Everywhere appeared momentarily aflame.

The heavens were declaring the glory of God.

It seemed as though their Heavenly Father was putting his seal to the end of a chapter in their lives.

The parents held hands. They were acutely aware of the presence of God, the Mighty Creator and their Saviour.

Phyllis looked across at Hertford, tears glinting golden on her cheeks in the afterglow from the sunset sky. “There must be some party in heaven right now,” she remarked.

BLACK CHRISTMAS

The darkest days of winter followed immediately after the funerals.

Ford, who had been at home from school for a week, went back.

Hertford had arranged for his father and brothers to look after the chicken house for him for a few days. Then he went back to his work down the yard.

With her husband and son out of the house Phyllis decided to do some cleaning. It would keep her mind occupied. As she worked her way along the hall with the vacuum cleaner she stopped at the door of the boys’ bedroom and looked in.

The toys and teddy bears were still there. They stood, sat and lay respectfully around, as though awaiting the return of their owners.

The room was spic and span. The room was clean and tidy. The room was empty.

Phyllis switched off the cleaner. She felt so guilty.

Thomas had gone, never to come back. Wendsley had gone, never to come back.

Yet everything in the household appeared to have returned to normal. Ford had gone back to school. Hertford was down in the chicken house again, and she was cleaning the house as she had always done.

Phyllis stood in the hall and prayed. “Lord, if You are really here, please reveal Yourself to me.”

Too unsettled to continue with the vacuuming she went into the kitchen and sat down at the end of the table. She felt ashamed of herself, lonely and all mixed up.

Reaching up to a nearby shelf she lifted down her Bible. She had never been in the habit of looking for verses at random, but on this particular occasion she felt it was the thing to do. Flicking slowly through the precious book in front of her she prayed, “Lord give me a verse.”

As the pages rustled over, her eyes rested on words which seemed to bounce off the page to meet her. The Lord had answered her request. He had given her ‘a verse.’

It was Ecclesiastes chapter 11, verse 5.

Phyllis read the words over and over again. She hadn’t known until that moment they were in the Bible.

‘As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: e’en so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.’

That was her verse, her direct revelation from God.

Over the previous six years Phyllis had often been tempted to question the ways and works of God. This verse told her she could never attempt to know or understand His design for her life. She could, though, accept it as best, and this was a tremendous consolation.

The works of God who had made everything were away beyond her comprehension, yet He knew about her, and cared for her as well. Someday she would find out the reason for it all, but not right now, not in the meantime and probably not even on earth.

Some of the most trying times for Hertford and Phyllis in those early December days were when Ford, aged four-and-a half, told them how much he missed his brothers. One evening, after they had eaten their meal but before they left the table, he said, completely out of the blue, “I miss Thomas and Wendsley, but I know they are away to heaven.”

After a short pause, which created a silence that could almost be touched, he went on to ask about something which he had obviously been contemplating for some time. “Will they be fixed when they come back?” he enquired.

In his childish mind he had imagined heaven to be some kind of celestial service centre where less than perfect humans were repaired and then returned to their families It proved difficult for his loving, grieving parents to explain to him tenderly that Thomas and Wendsley were already ‘fixed.’ They were with Jesus in heaven and had been changed. But no. They wouldn’t be coming back.

Hertford and Phyllis proceeded to explain to him how they expected to see their other two boys again in heaven, but this could only happen after they themselves had also died.

There were up days and down days for all three of them as time went on. For many people the bleak mid-winter is brightened by the onset of Christmas. Hertford and Phyllis used to love the buzz of the season, planning presents and surprises for the boys, decorating the house and purchasing and preparing festive food.

That year they dreaded those once exciting weeks approaching. During the third week of December both parents decided that Ford would have as enjoyable a Christmas as possible, despite all that had happened. They would buy him a good present. He had told them both what he wanted. It was a racing car set.

Although they found themselves unable to summon up any enthusiasm for Christmas shopping, Hertford and Phyllis drove into Portadown and stopped outside a department store. The stillheartbroken mother went in and up the stairs. She knew exactly what she wanted.

Jingly Christmas music was playing, and the store was crowded with happy but somewhat harassed parents being lobbied by happy but nonetheless insistent children.

Observing what must have been a look of bewilderment on the prospective customer’s face, an assistant stepped across to her and asked if he could be of any help.

Phyllis enquired if they sold racing car sets.

“Oh yes, we have a whole selection of them,” the assistant replied. He was both friendly and eager to please. “Have you any idea what model it is you want?”

Phyllis couldn’t stay there a moment longer. Seeing all those children with their parents was just too much for her. Muttering something about having “to see” she made for the stairs. Hertford was waiting in the car outside. “Have they not got them?” he asked, when his wife collapsed into the passenger seat beside him, empty-handed.

“They have them OK in the place upstairs,” Phyllis replied. “But I couldn’t stick it in there. I had to come out. You may go in and buy it.”

Hertford did just that. He went into the shop and up the stairs two steps at a time. After a hasty look around he bought what he considered the most suitable racing track for his surviving son, in double quick time.

Returning to the car in less than ten minutes, much to his wife’s surprise for she knew how busy the shop was, Hertford opened the boot and tossed in a black bin bag.

That was Christmas 1989 all wrapped up for Ford.

Significantly, it was wrapped up in black.

The grief-stricken parents couldn’t possibly ignore the memory of Thomas and Wendsley at Christmas either. Happy recollections of their faces, which seemed to glow unusually brightly when presents appeared, haunted sleepless nights. They wanted to buy something for them also.

To fulfil this anguished desire they drove to Lisburn on Christmas Eve and purchased two plain holly wreaths, draped with red ribbons.

On their way home they placed them on the simple double grave in Dromore.

That was Christmas 1989 all wrapped up for Thomas and Wendsley.

Sadly, it was wrapped up with wreaths.

DEAD LEAVES – NEW LIFE

The new year, 1990, began just as gloomily as the old one had ended.

Times were hard. Days were short, and cold. Nights were long.

Things were tough.

5th January would have been Thomas’s sixth birthday.

That afternoon, his heavy-hearted parents removed the holly wreaths and placed six red roses on the grave in Dromore.

How could they ever forget? When would they ever accept?

In mid-January Phyllis took a walk out around the bungalow one morning. She was upset and unsettled and felt she must be on the move. Ford had just gone off to school. Hertford had been down at the chicken house for some time. It was still only nine-thirty.

The previous night had been bitterly cold and the ground was covered with hoar frost which lay like an off-white sheet in the morning light. Phyllis didn’t notice the extreme cold. She was preoccupied, totally absorbed in thought.

As she rounded the corner of the bungalow she looked across at the flower bed. Her eye was drawn to what had once been a clump of carnations. What had been a succession of glorious colour the previous summer had become a mound of drab and drooping vegetation.

The grey-white spikes of the carnation leaves hung limp and lifeless, covered by frosty rime. Even the stalks seemed to have flopped out, given up. They lay black and brittle on the rock-hard soil.

Whether it was the pattern of the frost on the carnation leaves, or the effect of the frost on the carnation plant, something compelled Phyllis to walk over, bend down and take a closer look.

She noticed a solitary stalk, lying at an angle to the main clump and looking singularly sorry for itself. Reaching forward, she tried to lift it up, but it broke off in her hand.

All of a sudden Thomas and Wendsley came before her in a vivid recollection. She could picture clearly in her mind the little faces she used to put cream on. She could feel the delicate strands of the wispy hair she used to comb, time and time again.

Standing there in the winter garden, clutching a broken, lifeless, carnation stalk, Phyllis was transfixed.

Lapsing into reverie, she felt she could almost smell her sons’ fresh skin after they had been bathed. Their hearty laughter rang in her ears. What she would have given at that moment to have seen them again in the flesh… to have touched them… to have looked into their happy faces… to…

Glancing down at the flower bed again returned her abruptly to reality. Different thoughts, infinitely less pleasant ones, swamped the troubled mother’s mind.

“They are dead. In the soil. Brittle and decaying, just like those plants. Once in bloom, now dead and gone. They will turn to dust.

Don’t kid yourself. You will never see them again.”

Having blitzed her fragile emotions with such disturbing thoughts, her mind then proceeded to recreate some graphic images.

She recalled two dreadful days in November.

She went back to Dromore, back to a cemetery.

She heard the hollow thump of the soil on one little coffin. Then on another.

Warm tears overflowed on to cold cheeks. Then the questioning began for yet another time.

“Why did all this have to happen to us? Why did we have to lose both of them?”

Phyllis was overwhelmed with a mixture of anger and depression.

“Now we are in our bungalow. Now, at last, we can cope financially. When we were just coming to the position where we could really enjoy our two dear little boys they have been taken away from us.”

Thus ran her thoughts.

Eventually realising that she was becoming stiff with cold she dropped her limp carnation and retraced her steps round to the back door. Walking up the gentle ramp especially designed for the boys’ wheelchairs, she cried out in agony.

“Lord, please, please, don’t let me think like this,” she pleaded. “I don’t want to think like this. Help me, Lord, to trust in you.”

Despite her impassioned prayer, and despite her deliberate efforts to resign herself to what she knew to be the will of the Lord, Phyllis continued to be bombarded by unsettling thoughts for days and months to come.

So too did Hertford. He tried to cope in a more silent, manly fashion, but it was hard. Very, very hard.

On a number of occasions during that lonely winter he appeared up into the house, having abandoned his work on the farm. A profound emptiness had created an extreme restlessness in his spirit.

“Come on,” he said to Phyllis on many such occasions, “We will go over to Dromore.”

Having stopped somewhere to buy flowers on the way, they placed two little bunches tenderly on the grave with the two little coffins in it. They then sat there, wrapped up against the winter weather, silently weeping for half an hour. Sometimes it was longer than that, up to and occasionally more than, an hour.

Visitors decreased in numbers as the days progressed. Hertford and Phyllis kept up bravely while they were in, chatting to them.

After all it was more than two months now since the boys had passed away. They didn’t want people to consider them weak, or even worse, sickly sentimental.

Put your trust in God. Look ahead, not back. Face up to it fair and square. Wasn’t that what they were supposed to do?

It was what they appeared to do while the well-wishers sat and talked. The visitors hadn’t reached the end of the lane on their way home, however, until Hertford and Phyllis exploded into floods of tears.

They even went shopping away from their local stores. The weekend groceries were bought in the more distant towns of Lisburn or Banbridge. It didn’t matter to them where they went as long as the other people with the trolleys and the check-out operators were all strangers.

It was hard to retain composure, they found, when selecting breakfast cereals, if some very thoughtful and genuinely sympathetic person would approach them and say, “Hertford and Phyllis,” or it could be, “Mr. and Mrs. Arnold. I was awfully sorry to hear about your two wee boys…”

Apart from their trips to the graveyard in Dromore and short shopping ventures to local venues, most of their time was spent in and around the house. Socialising of any sort had become a problem, well-nigh an impossibility.

Hertford and Phyllis were finding the loss, the loneliness, the awful emptiness, the utter sense of futility, desperately painful.

It was in April when Phyllis decided to take a walk around the bungalow again one morning. It was spring. The daffodils had reappeared and their yellow trumpets surrounded by green spears were brightening up the lane.

It was almost lunch time, but still cool. As the despairing mother wandered slowly along, her eyes rested on the bunch of carnations whose frosted lifelessness had arrested her during the winter. What a transformation! Life had returned! The grey spiky leaves were stiff and straight. On looking more closely she noticed that a few buds were beginning to swell at the ends of the lengthening stalks.

Phyllis felt elated. Desperation disappeared for an instant.

Closing her hands and raising her arms to God she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! That’s it!”

The sudden recollection of the realisation that Thomas and Wendsley would not just decay in the cold earth forever put a different complexion on things. God, who could restore frosted, blackened carnation stalks to life would restore Thomas and Wendsley’s bodies and change them too. It would not present Him with a serious problem to “fix them” for Ford.

Then when resurrected bodies were reunited with happy souls she and Hertford would rejoin them. They would be forever with the Lord, and each other, in perfection and bliss.

With all that to look forward to, why should she feel so depressed?

Thomas and Wendsley had never appeared depressed. They had never once looked unhappy. They had just laughed and played and smiled for most of their short lives.

Their parents could never have been any help to them while they were alive if they had been down in the dumps all the time. They certainly weren’t going to be any good to each other or anyone else either, now, if they were determined to spend the remainder of their days simply moping around.

There was the promise, and the prospect, of new life. They must be positive about the future, whatever it held.

When Hertford came into the kitchen, almost an hour later, for his lunch, Phyllis was bursting to tell him about her discovery.

“You remember back in January, Hertford,” she began, “I told you about an experience I had out in the garden, when I saw the dead plants with the frost all over them. How I was shocked and sickened when I thought that Thomas and Wendsley were just like those plants. I imagined them dead and gone, disintegrating into dust in the soil.”

“Yes, I remember that,” her husband replied. He remembered it well in fact, for neither of them had slept a wink for two nights after it.

“Well, I was out there again just before you came up,” she continued, “and you will never believe it! The plant that was then just a big dead clump has now all perked up. In fact there are wee buds coming out on it again!

“Yes, but is that not the way plants go? They die off in the winter and perk up again in the spring,” Hertford replied. Obviously he hadn’t grasped the deeper meaning of the illustration.

“That’s true. It is,” Phyllis agreed. “But can you not see what I am getting at? I believe that God used it to teach us, well me anyway, a lesson, and here’s what it is…

God can bring new life. He can make dead things live. Thomas and Wendsley aren’t dead. Their souls are alive and one day He will give new life to their bodies and they will be recreated in heaven. Our two little boys will be perfect!”

Phyllis paused to gauge her husband’s reaction to this revelation.

He sat gazing at her thoughtfully, idly tapping a spoon on the table.

She hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know, and which she should have already known also.

It was the freshness with which it came that he warmed to, however.

Phyllis had spoken with more fire than he had seen her display for anything for six months. This seemed to indicate a return of the enthusiastic wife he had once known.

She wasn’t finished yet either. There was more to come. ”I also believe God has shown me we ought to be more positive about things,” she went on. “We shouldn’t be depressed and moody all the time. God doesn’t expect it. The boys would never have wanted it. So why don’t we face the future? We must do our best for God, for each other, for Ford and for everybody else we can, trusting Him to help us.”

Hertford continued pensive. He still hadn’t spoken on the matter.

It was right, he knew. It was sensible, but it would be tough. “OK,” he declared, a trifle hesitantly. “We will do our best, as you say.”

They smiled bravely at each other.

God had spoken to them again, this time through His creation.

COTTAGE CATERING

Not long after her two garden encounters with the ways and works of God, the creator and sustainer of new life, Phyllis remarked to her husband one day, “You know, Hertford, I am bored in the house. I can have all my housework done before you come up for your lunch and then I have far too much time on my hands. That gives me time to think. I want to be positive about our situation, but I really need something to keep me busy all the time. It would help if I could be occupied every hour of the day.”

Phyllis had come to realise that unless she could focus on a wider range of activity, memories of Thomas and Wendsley were set to dominate the thoughts of all her waking moments. She was trying ever so hard to be forward-looking, but so far it wasn’t working.

“Why don’t we start making the trifles again?” Hertford suggested, almost immediately. He was all for doing his best to be more constructive in his outlook, but he could see his wife was finding it tough.

There were a number of times in the previous few months when he had considered getting back to the trifle-making, even if only in a small way. It would give them both, but particularly Phyllis, something definite to do. Rewarding, positive thinking for her at that particular time was bound to prove an uphill journey, all the way. She needed help.

Hertford had the broken heart of a father but with the chicken house to occupy his mind and energy. Phyllis had the broken heart of a mother but with nothing to do other than housework, which she did mechanically. To her it was required, rather than rewarding work.

So now that she had expressed her problem so concisely, he seized the opportunity to express what he considered the ideal solution. “I was wondering about that too, Hertford,” came the response, after a moment or two of reflection. “But maybe it’s a bit soon yet. We will think about it for a wee while.”

The “wee while” they decided to leave to allow them to “think about it” turned out to be exactly that. It was a very short time, no more than a couple of days.

One evening the phone rang. It was a distributor to whom they had been selling trifles the previous summer. His request was simple. “Could you start supplying me again with the trifles we were selling last year?” he enquired. “I am constantly being asked for them.” It was arranged that he should call at their home the following Thursday evening to discuss the matter further. Could this be a Heavenly confirmation of a Hertford suggestion?

When the distributor called that evening and told them of the constant enquiries he had been receiving about the trifles, Hertford and Phyllis agreed to start making them again.

Here was something they could do. This was something they KNEW they could do. It was something to keep both hands and minds occupied.

They agreed that the first order would be delivered early the next week. This commitment led to instant activity. It meant back to the planning, back to the buying and back to the Aga.

The Aga was the hard bit, and the first night was the worst.

The smell of melting jelly in the kitchen seemed to emphasise an emptiness in the house. There was nobody waiting for the leftover jelly. There would be nobody to get excited about a few spoonfuls of extra cream.

As they stood stirring, then pouring jelly, on the first evening back, tears flowed freely.

Happy memories flooded into busy minds.

Herford summarised how he felt to Phyllis at one stage. “I know this is good for us. It is probably the best thing for us. My problem is that I just feel somehow as if I am walking over the boys’ grave,” was how he put it.

They were both experiencing a similar sensation.

It was as though the body was galloping ahead, proclaiming, “This is great! I’m glad to be doing something for a change. Keep it up!”

All the time, however, the mind was holding each one of them back with the reins which had ’Guilt’ stamped all over them. These reins of guilt transmitted messages like “Think about the boys. How can you be so thoughtless, and appear so normal? You are letting them down, neglecting their memory.”

As they retired to bed after all the jelly and custard and cream involvement of that first evening back trifle making, Herford and Phyllis felt sad, yet strangely satisfied. Their hearts were still sore, but their minds and hands had been restored to a former degree of usefulness.

How would the trifles take off this time?

It would be well, if their friend had gauged the situation correctly. If what he had been telling them was true there was an obvious niche in the market eagerly awaiting the reintroduction of their kitchenproduced delicacies.

They would see. Time would tell.

Again they didn’t have long to wait.

The distributor had been right. There was a demand. Orders began to roll in, and increase, daily.

Soon a previous and familiar work pattern was re-established.

Phyllis saw Ford off to school and started to set up the trifles for the orders to be delivered that day. Hertford then came up from the chicken house, had a shower, donned the whites, and did his bit, the packaging and delivery.

In a week’s time they were on the phone with Heather, asking her to come over and help them once more. She readily agreed, and that made three of them.

All hands were needed as the orders continued to pour in. The word had spread like wildfire. “Those wee trifles are back in the shops.”

As they became busier day by day, Hertford and Phyllis came to realise that God had devised His own programme of occupational therapy for them. They had become proficient in making and marketing trifles five months before the boys died. God knew He would be calling their little ones home to Himself and had, in His wisdom, arranged something for them to do.

The grieving parents began gradually to appreciate that they weren’t “walking over the boys’ graves” as they had first imagined. On the contrary, they were in fact implementing God’s plan for their lives.

As time went on and the summer progressed the busy couple were getting very little sleep. Long hours at work and short nights in bed became the order of each day.

They employed more staff. Soon there were eight of them coming and going throughout the day. Hundreds of trifles were being turned out daily in the bungalow kitchen and ‘the work place’ became very cramped.

Throughout the increased activity of those summer days there were times when Hertford and Phyllis would suddenly remember the boys. Something would grab their attention unexpectedly. It could be something simple that stopped them dead in their tracks.

It may have been the smell of melting jelly. It could have been a spoon, lying tilted at a crazy angle in a stainless steel bowl containing the remnants of some unscraped-out cream. It could have been the empty doorway where Wendsley used to sit, propped up, watching, waiting and anticipating.

A seemingly inconsequential word, or action, or smell, or situation, could bring the tide of nostalgia flooding back. They used to stop, as individuals, at such moments and thank God for the boys, and for their memory, before proceeding with the job in hand.

What a job it had become, too. The demand just seemed to keep on growing. During the summer it became evident that in order to supply all the shops and supermarkets expressing an interest in stocking their product they would have to expand their operation.

A purpose-built factory unit was the only solution.

This meant sitting down with architects and advisors and drawing up plans for a 1,000 square foot facility.

Hertford and Phyllis consoled themselves with the thought that when the new unit was complete life would become a little easier for them.

That’s not what happened, though.

Their new trifle-producing mini-factory was fully operational in four months, but in that period the market had increased apace. Life now, even with increased staff and automated machinery, became more and more frenetic.

In a short time the new unit proved to be too small to cope with the volume of business they were doing. Demand for new lines meant that not only were the original lines being produced in ever increasing quantities, but they added cheesecakes and puddings to their product range as well.

The unit was doubled in size.

The staff was doubled in size.

Very soon there were 20 full-time members of the production team. Outlets all over Ireland were being supplied. Plans were drawn up for a much larger modern factory in Dromore, Co. Down. Hertford and Phyllis were amazed at the rapid expansion of their business interests. God had been so good to them.

One of their main concerns in the earlier days was attending business meetings with high-powered executives from supermarket chains in shiny offices somewhere. They reckoned themselves to be just ordinary country people who lived down at the end of a big long lane in the absolute heart of nowhere. What would they say? They were by no means posh, and they couldn’t put it on. Would the bossman understand them even?

They needn’t have worried. Time and time again they proved the wonderful grace of God.

The country couple were given words which they had never used before to say, and they were given an understanding of business principles they never before knew existed.

Unexpected doors opened without the slightest push.

When they placed their future in God’s hands, they realised that the One who had taken their two little lambs to Himself, was still their loving Shepherd.

It was also exciting, but humbling, to prove practically the truth of the Saviour’s own words from the Sermon on the Mount…

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness: and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6: 33.

‘THIS IS MY STORY’

‘This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Saviour all the day long.’ (Frances van Alstyne.)

One day early in1991 a Christian neighbour came into the factory where Hertford and Phyllis were working away. He had a proposal to put to them.

“I was wondering if either of you, or if both of you, would consider telling your story, ‘giving your testimony’ if you like to call it that, in the wee Mission Hall up the road?” he asked.

The young couple looked at each other in silence. Here was something else they could do. It would be something more for God than themselves. They could ‘praise their Saviour’ if they accepted this invitation.

When he had received an assuring nod from his wife, Hertford replied, “OK. We will give it a go. Mind you we have never done it before, but I suppose everybody has to start somewhere.” Their first meeting in that local Mission Hall with a very small congregation proved to be a nervous, stumbling start. There was warmth in the meeting, though. There was feeling. There was God. The encouraging comments from their friends and neighbours on the way out helped them appreciate how worthwhile it had been.

Hertford and Phyllis went home happy that evening. They felt on fire for the Lord. They had been able to stand up and witness to His saving, guiding and keeping power, in their own townland. It was wonderful.

News travels fast in country parts. It wasn’t long until they had received their second invitation. Their first meeting had been on Hertford’s home ground in Donacloney. Their second one was to be held in a hall in Dollingstown, the village where Phyllis had been brought up.

This second meeting differed from the first only in the fact that the crowd was much bigger. The hall was packed to capacity. In the end, a few latecomers ended up standing around the walls. From the very moment they began to speak Hertford and Phyllis felt an amazing sense of the presence of God. As they related the step-by-step dealings of God through the traumas and triumphs of their lives, people were moved to tears. Soon there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall.

God was at work.

Again, after the meeting, people told them how the story had touched their hearts. And again they felt that glow of satisfaction.

It was a renewed sense of gratitude at having been able to return praise to God for His gracious guidance in their lives.

Very soon the lives of Hertford and Phyllis had taken on a second pattern.

This time, however, it wasn’t a work pattern. It wasn’t an earlyrising, jelly-melting, cream-spreading, tub-filling, van-driving pattern.

It was a witness pattern. It was a meeting-going, heart-searching, Christ-exalting, tear-producing pattern.

Hertford and Phyllis were soon being asked to tell ‘their story’ in many places all over Northern Ireland. Usually someone would ring up and speak to either of them. The caller would most likely, but not always, be from a church group.

“We have heard about you from Mrs. Blank in Ballymacsomething and we were wondering if you would be free to come and speak to our group? We feel your story could be a great help to some of the friends in our fellowship. They have been going through a rough time this last while. We meet on a Tuesday night. You could have your pick of a couple of dates – either the 14th of March or the 11th of April…” was the essence of a typical request.

Hertford and Phyllis never refused an invitation if at all possible. They were afraid to. If God, who meant so much to them, had led somebody to ask them to the Backwoods Bible Church, they would go. Perhaps there would be someone there whom He had planned to encourage through them.

They spoke to very large audiences, and to rather small ones. They spoke in city churches and country halls.

It was nearly always their experience that there was at least one grieving soul in the congregation to whom their testimony proved an inspiration, or a hesitant heart to whom it came as a challenge. Different, heartbroken people stood, silently weeping, holding tightly on to the hand of either of the speakers. “That was great,” they would say, sobbing, “That was a marvellous help to me. You see I lost a son, or a daughter, when he was three, or six, or nine. I am still struggling to come to terms with it.”

Others wrote letters, phoned, or even stopped Hertford or Phyllis on the street. Every time anything like this happened they gave all the praise to God.

This was, and is, their story – praising their Saviour, all the day, every day, long.

Though many people have declared themselves inspired by the testimony, the greatest help, and challenge of any evening is to the speakers themselves, Hertford and Phyllis.

It makes them feel so close to God, and to each other, and to Thomas and Wendsley.

Every testimony meeting still brings the two boys back to life for a brief, but precious, period, in their hearts. They often drive to a meeting in tears, considering and discussing who is going to say what.

Occasionally their route to a meeting takes them past the cemetery in Dromore.

They slow down and look over. “Boys, we are on our way to talk about you both tonight,” one of them says. They then accelerate, wipe away a tear, and continue to that evening’s engagement.

That family bond, though severed for a while, is very evident when Hertford and Phyllis speak. This is what has drawn so many suffering souls to identify with them.

Hertford often quotes verse 21 from Philippians chapter 1. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

“For me, to live is Christ, is why we are here tonight,” he proceeds to explain. “We want to tell you more about Him. And to die is gain.

That is what we are looking forward to. It is the gain that can only come to us after death. That will be to meet the Lord, then Thomas and Wendsley again. They are now with the Lord and we are going to join them there. Isn’t it marvellous to think that the first words that either of them ever spoke were to the Saviour? And the first steps they ever took were when they went to walk with Him.” Phyllis has never forgotten those who encouraged her through the most difficult days and the most trying experiences. She will always be grateful to them for the gracious way in which they pointed her back to God.

Thus when she speaks she often embraces the opportunity to succour those who are passing through testing times. She empathises naturally with those who are coping daily with the increased demands of a child or children with special educational needs.

“If there is anyone here who is the father or mother, sister or brother, granny or granda, uncle or aunt, to a child with special needs, count that a privilege,” she tells audiences tenderly. “He or she is extremely special, for he or she is a gift from God.”

Herford and Phyllis both continue to live the message. They convey with such feeling the wealth of love their two ‘gifts from God’ brought to them in their short lives. They often refer to Thomas and Wendsley as their ‘two little angels,’ because after the boys’ death someone gave them a book by Helen Steiner Rice. Their favourite poem from that collection, and one which seemed to describe their life and experience so accurately was this:

BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE ARE DIFFICULT TO RECOGNISE.

God sends His ‘little angels’ in many forms and guises.

They come as lovely miracles that God alone devises.

For He does nothing without purpose, everything’s a perfect plan

To fulfil in bounteous measure all He ever promised man – And every ‘little angel’ with a body bent and broken

Or a little mind retarded or little words unspoken,

Is just God’s way of trying to reach and touch the hand

Of all who do not know Him and cannot understand

That often through an angel whose wings will never fly

The Lord is pointing out the way to His eternal sky

Where there will be no handicaps of body, soul or mind,

And where all limitations will be dropped and left behind –

So accept these ‘little angels’ as gifts from God above,

And thank Him for this lesson in FAITH and HOPE and LOVE. THE BEST NEWS!

“I have no mummy or daddy but I am not worried about that. The Lord looks after me.” Such was the testimony of an eleven-yearold African boy.

In May 1994 Hertford and Phyllis took Ford along to hear the African Children’s Choir in Ballynahinch, Co. Down. One by one some of those young children told of their faith in God. Their faith vibrated and radiated as they spoke and sang.

It touched Ford’s heart.

On the way home in the car he was very quiet. When they stopped at the front of the bungalow, Phyllis jumped out of the car. She ran round to the back of it in time to speak to her husband before Ford got out.

“Say nothing, but Ford is crying in there!” she whispered. Just before bedtime Ford sat, legs tucked under him, on the rockingchair in front of the Aga. There was an occasional squeak from the chair as he rocked to and fro, obviously deep in thought. “Could we not bring some of those wee children here?” he asked at length.

“They have no mummies or daddies and we have plenty of room.” Hertford and Phyllis didn’t reply at once.

They couldn’t. They were struck dumb, rendered speechless. Ford, who was by then their one and only son, was clearly upset. His parents were soon to discover there was something more, something further, something deeper, on his mind.

“Mummy, I would love a wee brother,” he blurted out finally, with a sob and a sigh.

His mummy knew how he felt. She couldn’t hold back a tear.

He must be desperately lonely. What could she say, though? How could she explain?

“Only God knows if He is going to give us any more children,” she told him gently. “He alone knows whether you will have another brother or not.”

Later, after Ford had gone to bed, his mum and dad sat up talking, far into the night. “Isn’t it an awful pity of Ford on his own?” Phyllis asked repeatedly. She didn’t need Hertford, or anybody else for that matter, to provide her with the answer to her question.

Yes. Of course it was ‘an awful pity of Ford on his own’ but what were the implications of anything else? What would they do if they had another child and he or she turned out to be handicapped?

And then died?

It had happened with two-thirds of their family so far. Could they cope with all that again?

That night before she went to bed, Phyllis prayed.

That night as she tossed and turned sleeplessly in bed, Phyllis prayed.

For many days and nights to come, Phyllis prayed.

“Lord, if You want us to have another baby, please reveal it to us.

Only you can give us another child, and we want Your will for our lives,” was her simple request.

The summer passed quickly. It was very busy. Cottage Catering had become a household name and for five days every week Hertford and Phyllis rose early and retired late, just to keep abreast of demand.

Days became shorter. The warm days of summer made way for the crisp days of autumn. Winter was on its way.

It was November, 1994.

Late one evening as the ever-active couple tidied up around the kitchen, Phyllis shared a growing suspicion with her husband. “I think I should tell you Hertford,” she announced rather bluntly, “I am nearly sure I am pregnant again.”

Hertford stopped what he was doing abruptly. He turned, rested against the bench, and folded his arms. No words came for a moment.

Then he retorted, apparently incredulously, and unusually gruffly too, “Catch yourself on, ma, you couldn’t be!”

“Maybe you think I couldn’t be, Hertford,” his wife replied. She knew him only too well, and had anticipated this kind of kneejerk reaction.

“Maybe you think I couldn’t be,” she went on, echoing her opening statement for emphasis. “But I am almost certain that I am!”

Hertford was stunned. He started to walk about, taking short steps from here to there, and back. An agitated mind in motion set agitated feet in motion. The reluctant prospective father-to-be ended up like a fairground roundabout. He went endlessly up and down and round and round without ever getting anywhere.

He picked up things that didn’t need to be picked up and set them down again where they didn’t need to go.

“What are we going to do?” he kept asking. It was now his turn to repeat what he had said, not though for emphasis, but through nervous excitement.

“What are we doing to do?” “What ARE we going to do?”

The “what if?” doubts had begun to sneak in already, before the pregnancy had even been confirmed. The becoming increasingly hassled husband then decided that if Phyllis wasn’t one hundred per cent convinced she was right, it was certainly time they both knew for sure.

“Is there any way you can be really certain? Can you find out for definite, I mean?” he enquired.

Hertford was a man of the soil, of the chicken house, and latterly of a factory full of trifles, but he wasn’t well up in matters gynaecological.

“Yes, I suppose there is,” Phyllis volunteered. “I could have a scan.”

“Well arrange for a scan as soon as you can,” her husband instructed, his poetic turn of phrase occurring more by chance than choice. “Then we will know.”

Phyllis did as he requested and when the results of the scan were revealed, they were positive. It was true, having now been medically confirmed. She was expecting another baby.

Hertford had by that time recovered from the initial shock and his attitude to the situation had become more controlled. He was glad for them, and for Ford. This must be, it just had to be, the will of God, he reckoned.

Hertford and Phyllis hugged each other after they heard the result.

It was great. Another baby would provide a much longed-for brother or sister for Ford.

But what if?

They would have to tell Ford when a suitable opportunity presented itself. He would have to be the first to know, when the time was right.

It was late one night, shortly before Christmas, that Hertford and Phyllis were sitting in bed, chatting. They knew that Ford, in his bedroom across the hall, wasn’t asleep. It seemed to be the ideal time to let him into the secret.

“Ford, are you still awake?” his mum called.

“Yes. Why?” came the almost guilty-sounding response.

“Come in here a minute then, we have something to tell you,” Phyllis continued.

In two seconds their son was standing at the end of their bed. His hair was sticking out all over the place and his eyes were bright.

Obviously sleep had still been very far away.

“What is it?” he enquired breathlessly. All he could think of was his Christmas present list.

“Sit down on the end of the bed there, son,” Hertford suggested.

“Your mummy has good news for you.”

“Good news. What is it, mummy? Please tell me!” Ford begged.

There could be no mistaking the sense of eager anticipation in his voice.

“What? Guess what. Go on, have a guess. What do you think it could be?” Phyllis thought she would play the ‘Guess what?’ game with him. This had been a standard, just for fun practice when opening presents, both at Christmas and his birthday, for the previous few years.

“Ach mummy, stop keeping me going. I haven’t a clue.

What is it?” Ford was excited now, but becoming impatient.

“Do you remember the night we went to hear the African Children’s Choir, away back in May?” Phyllis became serious as she began to explain. “Can you remember what you told us that night?”

“Yes, I do,” Ford replied after only a moment’s hesitation. “I said I would like a wee brother.”

“That’s right,” his mum went on. His dad and she were both amused at the quizzical look which had come over his face. “And I told you that only God knew if we were going to have another baby or not. Well, we ARE going to have another baby next year. You are going to have a little brother or sister!”

Ford sat motionless for a few seconds until the full impact of the message sank in. Then he jumped off the end of the bed and hugged his mummy, much to her surprise, for he had never, up until that minute, been an emotionally demonstrative sort of child.

He was crying again, but it was for joy this time.

On releasing Phyllis from the bear hug, he took to running up and down the hall. He darted into his own bedroom, then his parents’ room, and on an occasional lap the bathroom, all the while proclaiming at the top of his voice, “Oh mummy and daddy, that’s the best news! The best news I ever heard! I am going to have a wee brother!”

It never seemed to dawn on him that there was a 50:50 chance the promised addition to the Arnold family could be “a wee sister.” That possibility didn’t even merit a thought!

When he had worked off the first phase of euphoria and was visibly beginning to ‘run out of steam’ his mum spoke to him again. What we have told you tonight is still a secret, son. So don’t tell anybody in the meantime. What you can do, though, is pray to God that He will give us a healthy baby. Will you do that?”

“Yes, I will indeed,” he promised before returning, reluctantly, to his bedroom.

That time he stayed in it, As the months ticked by, Hertford and Phyllis thought and talked and prayed much about the baby to come.

The idea took some getting used to. After nine years they had become convinced they weren’t going to be privileged to share their home and lives with any more children, and now this. They were going to have another one, a fourth.

Would he or she prove to be another blessing from the Lord, or a further test of their faith?

What if?

MATTHEW

It was February, the very dead of winter, and cold and raw outside. Inside, though, in my study, it was warm and cosy, a comfortable atmosphere in which to share confidences.

Hertford and Phyllis had come to see me to do some further research into this book.

As we started to talk I noticed that they seemed rather on edge.

They appeared restless. It came across as though they had something to say but weren’t quite sure if, or how, to say it. This was unusual. Normally we had an open, friendly, trusting relationship. Eventually Phyllis ‘broke the ice.’

“Do you remember, Noel, you told us a while ago to think of a last chapter for the book?” she began, appearing to measure every word carefully. “You said you would like it to end on a high. ‘With a bang, and not with a whimper,’ was how you put it to us.”

“Yes, I do. I remember,” I replied. Deciding exactly where to end a biography is like deciding where to start it. It can be a problem sometimes.

“Well, we believe we have that last chapter for you now,” she continued rather sheepishly.

“That’s good. Where do you think we should end?” I enquired.

“Didn’t you say you would like to have it finished by June?” Phyllis parried my question by asking one of her own.

“That’s right,” I had to agree. “I did say that.”

My affirmation provided Phyllis with the cue she needed to continue, “We have news then that should give you an exciting last chapter to the book, no problem. You see we are expecting another baby in June.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment.

This would take some thinking about, but I didn’t have a lot of time to think. My two friends were sitting directly opposite me. The tension was gone, they had opened their hearts, and were now awaiting my reaction.

“That is some news!” I began, not very sure of just how to respond.

“I must admit I am a bit shocked.”

“‘A bit shocked are you?” Hertford countered. “I will tell you this, you’re not as shocked as I was!”

Then he smiled. Looking over to where I was sitting, pen poised, he quipped, “Noel, can you spell ‘numb’?”

An animated conversation ensued, when Hertford and Phyllis, relieved that I now knew their ‘secret’, shared with me how they felt about the prospect of having a fourth child.

“We believe that this is the hand of God,” Phyllis stated. “This is God’s way of showing His approval for this book project. His timing is, as always, spot on.”

“Yes,” Hertford added. “Whatever happens, you will definitely have an end for the book.”

‘Whatever happens’ had replaced the ‘what if?’ of earlier days.

Spring, with its daffodils in the lane, and lambs in the field, seemed to fly past, largely unnoticed, in flashes of yellow and bouncing bundles of white. Hertford and Phyllis were still very busy and every spare moment was spent in thinking about, and planning for, the new baby.

It wasn’t long until their ‘secret’ could be ‘kept a secret’ no longer.

Mums and dads were the first to be told the good news. Then other close relatives were informed. When the news was released to their wider circle of acquaintances the whole countryside was abuzz with it.

Friends speaking to Hertford and Phyllis congratulated them outwardly and told them they were ‘so happy’ for them and that it was ‘great’. Inwardly, though, they just hoped and prayed the young couple wouldn’t be heartbroken again.

The parents to-be prayed much themselves too during those days, and found it difficult. “Lord, we want Your will to be done in our lives,” they would begin. “We know this new baby is from Yourself.”

Then there was always the temptation to add, “And please God, let him or her be normal.”

June came. All would be revealed in a matter of days. ‘What if?’ was soon to become ‘What now?’

On the thirteenth of the month at 10.20am the new baby arrived.

It was a boy. He weighed six pounds and half-an-ounce and had red hair, just like his dad.

What a relief! At least he had arrived safely!

Following the birth there was an anxious wait while tests were carried out.

It didn’t take long and the results were marvellous. The hospital doctors were pleased to assure Hertford and Phyllis that their fourth son was a perfectly normal and healthy baby boy!

What excitement! What praise! What a wonderful caring God they had!

Phyllis was absolutely drained, and unbelievably delighted.

Ford was absolutely ecstatic and unbelievably excited.

Hertford was just a wonderful mixture of every pleasant emotion known to man.

Soon the flowers, presents and cards began to arrive at the hospital.

Soon family and friends began to arrive at the hospital. The delighted grandparents were among the first to appear, followed closely by the new baby’s aunts, uncles and cousins galore. Then interested friends from near and far showed up to meet this latest addition to the Arnold family.

“And what are you going to call him?” seemed one of the most obvious questions to ask, so most of the visitors asked it, as they admired the miniature perfection of his little hands and feet, his tiny fingers and toes.

The baby yawned and stretched and slept and ignored everybody! “We are calling him Matthew,” his happy parents were delighted to inform all enquirers. “We have chosen this name because Matthew means ‘a gift from God’, and that is what he is to us, our gift from God.”

On Sunday 18th June 1995, Hertford and Ford arrived at the hospital to bring Phyllis and Matthew home. They made several return journeys between car and ward until they had all the flowers and presents safely packed into the car.

Then came the big moment. The four of them were united as a happy family, driving home.

On arrival at their bungalow Phyllis sat in the car with baby Matthew. Dad and big brother carried the presents, flowers and cards into the house and left them in what had once been Thomas and Wendsley’s room.

Then Phyllis gently carried their new baby, their fourth son, into the bungalow and laid him in a pram in that room.

The rainbows and clouds, balloons and teddies which had once delighted earlier occupants, surrounded him.

It had been Thomas and Wendsley’s room once, but God, in His grace and wisdom had other plans for it.

It is Matthew’s room now.

He is their latest ‘gift from God.’

THE END