He was the last person you’d suspect of having itchy fingers.  Having led a blameless life, a yellow skip outside the pub, a mile or so from the vicarage, unexpectedly unsettled him.

The Reverend William Stenning, affectionately nicknamed Father Bill by his flock, was a large, rotund man, bald, in his late fifties, with a kindly face and twinkling eyes.  At a recent jumble sale, a couple of parishioners running the second-hand bookstall had showed him a picture of Friar Tuck claiming it looked just like him.  Grudgingly he had to admit that there was a remarkable likeness.   

He had first spotted the skip when passing it in his Volvo estate on his way to administer the last rites to a parishioner who was fading away at home, his wife holding his limp hand.  Despite looking steadfastly at the road ahead, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the skip in his peripheral vision.  He saw what he thought were chair legs pointed skywards, like synchronised swimmers.  He resolved to take a more careful look on his return journey.

He was familiar with the Red Lion, sometimes calling in to get a bottle of gin for his wife.  But, as a non drinker himself, he always felt uncomfortable in the pub.  He worried that people might think he was the gin drinker, not his wife, and he was aware of cheerful banter petering out as soon as he stepped over the threshold.  He’d leave as quickly as he could, clutching a gin bottle wrapped in a twist of blue paper, and hear the hubbub resume as soon as he closed the front door.  He imagined jokes being made at his expense.

Everyone in the village had been taken by surprise when, in his early 50s, Father Bill had married the churchwarden’s widow, a slight, bird-like woman five years his senior.  Her late husband had fallen on hard times having lost all his money in a Lloyd’s syndicate.  People assumed that Father Bill, up until then a confirmed bachelor, had felt sorry for her.  She loved a tipple (or two or three) after a tedious day of secretarial work at the Oxfam offices in the nearby town, reasoning that she deserved a drink − indeed had earned a drink − by going out to work to supplement Father Bill’s meagre stipend.  On her return, she’d kick off her shoes and don a thick dressing gown and fluffy slippers.  The Victorian vicarage, even on balmy summer days, was chilly and in the winter the central heating was only ever fired up on special occasions when, for example, the Deacon came to lunch.

On his return journey, Father Bill slowed right down as he passed the Red Lion.  The skip occupied one of the parking bays in a corner of the pub’s small car park.  The chair legs still protruded and he calculated they must be attached to at least four chairs, with more possibly lingering unseen in the bowels of the skip.  He was still wearing his dog collar and cassock and resisted the temptation to stop and conduct a closer inspection.  He considered it would be undignified for him to be caught loitering near a skip, particularly loitering with what could be construed as intent. Steve, the publican, might spot him or, worse still, Mavis, his buxom, chatterbox wife. 

He returned to the vicarage, made himself a cup of instant coffee and retired to his study to compose next Sunday’s sermon.  He had acquired a well earned reputation as a popular preacher, mainly because  of his self-imposed rule that no sermon should last more than ten minutes. Having been a priest for nearly 35 years, he had become accustomed to recycling previous sermons.  He had kept them, written in his own hand on Basildon Bond note paper, in the bottom drawer of his roll top desk.  However, a couple of years ago, on his return from an exchange holiday (he had swapped parishes for a month with a vicar in the Lake District) he had opened the drawer to discover a family of mice nesting cosily in a confetti of shredded  sermons.  He assumed this was a sign that the good Lord was admonishing his laziness and urging him to produce new material.

But he couldn’t concentrate, the discarded chairs lingering stubbornly in his mind’s eye, distracting him from more pressing tasks such as composing Sunday’s sermon on the theme of ‘thou shalt not steal’ (he hoped it would strengthen his resolve!), writing an overdue cheque for the butcher and changing the light bulb in his wife’s bedside lamp.  Anyway, he told himself, he didn’t even need more chairs − except perhaps to add to the motley collection in the village hall.   It just seemed wrong to let them go to a landfill when, if not too rickety, they could be put to good use. 

He decided, as he so often did when wracked with indecision, to procrastinate.  He would postpone doing anything about the skip for two whole days giving time, he reasoned, for fate to intervene: if the skip was still there, it would be a sign (presumably from above) that the chairs were Meant To Be.

Avoiding the pub for two days proved tricky.  His wife suddenly announced that she needed more gin but, without telling her, he used the small end of the measure to eke out the supply.  Furthermore, reaching the church and the western half of his parish without passing the pub meant he had to take a circuitous route.   Inconvenient though this was, he convinced himself it would be cheating to check up on the skip during its allotted time in purdah.  

Two long days passed. 

On the third day he rose, conscious that the pub car park beckoned.  He shaved slowly, feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement.  As he gazed in the mirror, he urged himself to keep calm.  After breakfast his wife left for work and the vicarage fell silent.  He deliberately dallied, washing up the breakfast dishes, making the bed, vacuuming the sitting room, winding up the wall clock in his study − a leaving present from the grateful congregation of his last parish. 

The day was fine and he decided to forgo the Volvo and walk to the Red Lion hoping, indeed praying, that he’d find an empty space where the skip had been.  He turned the final bend and, as he drew level with the car park, closed his eyes, counted slowly to ten, then suddenly opened them.  His heart sank: the cursed thing, its yellow sides glistening mockingly in the morning sunshine, was still there.  In an instant he was plunged back into a state of dissonance.    

That evening, having long maintained that a problem shared was a problem halved, he told his wife about his quandary over the chairs.

‘But why do you want them, dear?’ she asked, sipping her G&T. ‘We don’t need any more chairs.’

‘It’s not a question of wanting them,’ he replied, somewhat exasperated. ‘More a question of saving them.’

‘Saving them?  They’re chairs, they don’t have souls,’ she chuckled.

‘Saving them from landfill,’ snorted Father Bill, irritated by his wife’s lack of empathy.

The next day, after a restless night dreaming about approaching a skip that suddenly snarled and snapped shut, he returned to the car park sporting a pair of binoculars.  He had dressed casually hoping, if challenged, that claiming he was bird watching would seem a plausible explanation for his presence.  His aim, if he could remember how to focus the binoculars, was to ascertain how many chairs the skip contained.  He climbed a low stile over the wall opposite the pub and huffed and puffed up an incline in the field beyond.  The top of the field provided an admirable vantage point and, having caught his breath, he trained the binoculars on the skip and counted the chair legs.  There were six chairs, possibly eight, not just four as he had previously reckoned.

He returned to the vicarage and the sanctity of his study to ponder his options.  Never one to make hasty decisions, he was well practised in pondering.  His decision to marry late in life had not been taken lightly.  Far from it.  He had compiled a list of pros and cons, adding to it over the course of many days.  On balance, he thought it a good idea to marry for companionship as he grew older, but for a few days the cons equalled the pros and the decision hung in the balance.  Thankfully the impasse was broken when, on his knees in his church asking for guidance, the leading contender (his parish was awash with eligible widows) miraculously appeared cradling lilies in her arms.  She apologised for disturbing him and explained that it was her turn to do the flowers in the chancel.  Confident that his payers had been answered, Father Bill, still on his knees, proposed on the spot.

So, what should he do about the chairs?  He made a list − he loved lists, a harmless displacement activity postponing action and giving him the illusion of being purposeful: 

  1. Forget the chairs.
  2. Ask Steve if he could have them.
  3. Fold down the back seat in the Volvo estate and go and get them.

He paused.  Number 1 had thus far proved elusive.  Number 2 would be demeaning.  He didn’t warm to Steve, the publican.  He’d have to swallow his pride.  Number 3 was perilous.  What if he, a man of the cloth, was caught red-handed, trespassing and stealing from a skip?  The indignity of it.  Steve’s wife, Mavis, the chatterbox, would make sure he never lived it down.  Perhaps the answer was to do the deed at the dead of night, maybe wearing a disguise.  But to be exposed in the unforgiving glare of security lights would be doubly embarrassing.  No, surely it would be better to delegate, to get someone with less to lose to take the risk.  He added:

        4.   Ask the gravedigger and/or the young man with a van who cuts the cemetery grass        to get the chairs. 

A quandary.   He tried to convince himself that number 1 was the best option.  His wife would certainly approve.  Anyway, the chairs were almost certainly damaged.  Why else would the publican put them in a skip? 

But, tantalisingly, the skip remained in the car park and, despite his best efforts to concentrate on higher things, if anything his preoccupation with the discarded chairs grew.  Whenever he passed the pub he did his best to avert his gaze, but invariably he’d see a flash of yellow out of the corner of his eye.  

Then, at last, the skip wasn’t there anymore!  The relief, like steam escaping from a pressure cooker, was palpable.  He could get on with the rest of his life, no longer haunted by chairs in a skip. 

That evening, sipping a G&T and snug in her dressing gown and slippers, his wife enquired about his day.

‘Thank you, my dear.  As it happens it’s been an exceptionally good day.  Yes, a very good day indeed.  The skip I told you about, the one outside the pub, has gone.’

 His wife smiled. ‘Ah, I wondered if you’d noticed.’

‘I know it sounds foolish,’ Father Bill continued, ‘indeed it is foolish, but it has come as a great relief.  I no longer have to fret about whether or not to rescue those chairs.’

The next day Father Bill had occasion to visit the village hall and was astonished to find eight chairs arranged in a neat row with a handwritten note on one of the seats:

Dear Father Bill

Your wife told us you’d had your eye on these chairs.  Please accept them with our compliments .

Steve and Mavis from the Red Lion.

PS  We’ve had them cleaned up.

Once again, divine intervention had come to Father Bill’s rescue.

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