|A Teenage John Coulter|
While I have always maintained that I stumbled into journalism by accident rather than by design, perhaps my natural nosiness as a person was an early indicator that a career as a reporter lay ahead in life.
Throughout my dad’s ministry, the Presbyterian Manse was always a place of safety and sanctuary, not just for me as a preacher’s kid, but for the many people who came to the Manse seeking pastoral care or spiritual counselling.
If ever there was a place of secrets in the north east Ulster Bible Belt where people could unburden their souls and consciences to my dad, it was in the confines of his study in that grand old Victorian building in the cold north Antrim hills.
While that super building in which I spent many happy years has now been replaced with a modern, new millennium-style Manse, the building in which I spent my childhood and teenage years had great character.
It was a Utopian childhood paradise, complete with an apple orchard where I could build a camp and a delightfully large back garden, big enough to host a football pitch.
When myself and my parents first came to the Presbyterian Manse in the early Sixties, there was no central heating or double-glazed windows. Each room in that grand building - including the bedrooms - was heated with an open fire.
Whilst the Manse was always inviting and warm in terms of family life, it could become icy cold in winter when the winds blew and the windows rattled like an ancient castle from a traditional Hammer Horror movie.
Eventually the powers-that-be decided the open hearth fires and single glazing windows should be replaced with oil-fired central heating and double-glazing with only a couple of the downstairs living rooms still retaining their traditional open fires.
My spacious bedroom was directly above dad’s study in the Manse and while the centrally-heated radiators were installed, the chimney flues were not sealed up. Put bluntly, if I stuck my head in the disused open fire place in my bedroom, I could hear any conversation taking place in dad’s study.
Dad’s study was used for three main functions; time alone for him to prepare sermons and Bible studies, his private spiritual devotional time - and pastoral or spiritual counselling.
Generally speaking, I resisted the temptation to listen in on the latter. But on one fateful afternoon as a schoolboy, that temptation got the better of me.
A very well-dressed, tall gentleman arrived at the Manse with a clearly worried expression on his face. In spite of his dapper appearance, this was clearly a man with an exceptionally heavy burden on his conscience.
This Christian man obviously had a position of importance within the north east Ulster Bible Belt community as it was clear, whilst he was wearing a suit, it was simply not his ‘Sunday best’ he was wearing because he was visiting the minister.
Dad’s counselling session followed the tried and tested routine. He would show this Christian man into the Manse study; moments later, mum would arrive with the tea and traybakes, and the study door would be firmly shut to guarantee privacy.
But given the very worried look on this Christian man’s face, there was clearly something particularly serious ‘going down’. Once mum had shut the study door, I sprinted up the large man Victorian staircase, up the mini stairs outside my bedroom, and dived under my desk.
Slowly, but steadily, I edged under the desk until I squeezed my head into the fireplace with only inches to spare between my head and the metal bar at the bottom of my desk.
Below in the study, I could hear my dad begin his counselling session with a prayer and a reading from the Bible. After what seemed endless small talk, during which the Christian man ‘hmmmed’ and ‘haaed’ about what he really wanted to talk about.
Eventually, in a calm, encouraging voice, my dad said: “Look, just take a deep breath and tell what is troubling you.”
The Christian man did, and as he exhaled, he said: “I’ve been having an affair with my sister-in-law and I’ve made her pregnant!”
While dad remained diplomatically silent as he had an extensive track record of listening to people’s woes, challenges and trials, the shock of hearing this confession provoked a less than diplomatic response from me listening from my bedroom fireplace.
“Oh shit!” Was my response! Unfortunately this rude reaction sound-wise made its way down the flue. “Did you hear that, your Reverence?” Was the Christian man’s reaction.
My dad clearly knew that the outburst of ‘oh shit!’ Coming from the fireplace in the study was certainly not our Lord’s reaction to the Christian man’s confession.
Worse was to follow for me. On hearing the stark confession, I actually jumped up, whacked my head off the iron bar on the desk, giving myself an instant splitting headache.
And even worse followed - I could hear the study door opening and my dad coming up the creaky Victorian staircase. Dad had clearly realised that the confidentiality of his counselling session had been compromised; I was certainly the chief suspect, and a dressing down would soon follow.
In spite of the thumping sore head, I managed to crawl out from below and desk and onto my seat, and opened one of my school books in time for dad to come into my bedroom.
Thankfully, the whack on the head was merely now only a large bump, but no blood. There was no fooling my dad with the schoolbook routine. My very rosy red cheeks gave the game away that I had been listening to the counselling session.
Dad simply said: “I’ll speak to you later!” He did with a severe dressing down and I promised never to repeat what I’d heard. Lesson learned.
I never again butted my nose into dad’s counselling sessions.
As for that Christian man; well, if by chance he is reading this column; your secret sexual activity tale of ‘playing away from home’ is safe with me!
I’ve genuinely no idea what you did. Did you end the affair? Did your sister-in-law have the baby? Did you confess to your wife? Are you still married to your wife? Are you even still alive?
If you are dead, then you can rest assured that you passed into eternity with your identity and your ‘secret’ affair with your sister-in-law unpublished.
I’ll make a calculated guess. In that era in the north east Ulster Bible Belt, abortion was not an option.
The pro-life lobby dominated the religious scene, so I’ll guess the baby was born. So I wonder if this Christian man eventually confessed to the child that he was the biological father.
I can still see your worried expression on your face from that day in the Presbyterian Manse. If, by chance, I bump into you - maybe you could answer these questions!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com