The Missing Iota

In the sacristy, Father John Wilson bent to remove the green brocade robe. He laid the chasuble – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – on the vestment table, followed by the girdle, which he laid in an ‘S’ on top of the green. He then lifted the stole from his shoulders and kissed the embroidered cross at its centre. His courtly hands, out of long habit, now folded the cloth strip in to the Epsilon or ‘H’ shape. He knew that older priests had worn a maniple until the nineteen seventies, and without the symbolism of the Iota, the ‘I’, made by the maniple and superimposed over the second and third letters of the sacred name, these ritual foldings were meaningless. Without the iota, with only the rope girdle and stole he had written nothing more than the second and third Greek letters of the name of Jesus.

The concentrated attention Fr John seemed to be paying to his disrobing was deceptive. He was conscious more of the heat: outside the sacristy door, the grass in the church yard had long since turned brown, and the river was an intermittent creek.  Somewhere a crow cawed, and flies buzzed on the warm church wall.  He was cooler with the removal of each layer of robe; the heavy chasuble, the stole and girdle and then the alb.

Under his alb today, he wore light slacks, sandals and a blue polo shirt. His parishioners had seen him recess three minutes earlier from the sanctuary as a priest in robes. Now the only thing that distinguished John as a priest was the tiny cross on his shirt collar. He thought about taking that off as well, but left it there where it glinted self-consciously.

He looked up for a moment into the mirror and checked his brown hair. He pushed an errant lock up from his forehead and pulled the sacristy door closed behind him. He walked away from the stone church without a further glance, and jumped eagerly into the seat of the restored MG-A coupé waiting in the rectory driveway.

The 1.5-litre motor purred proudly as John Wilson pointed his cherished MG along the main street of Kannarup away from its landmark jetty and out onto the main highway. About 15 minutes later, Fr Wilson slowed the sports car and turned it gingerly onto a gravel track that led into thick karri trees.  It was cooler here in the shade.  He frowned as a tree limb brushed the MG’s paintwork, and a light cloud of dust rose from the tyres. But the place where he was headed had to remain hard to find. Eventually he arrived at the shed. Peppermint trees camouflaged the size and shape of the steel structure. If you knew what you were looking for, you could see the outline of a large satellite dish on the roof.

The priest pressed a remote. The shed door slid smoothly aside, and he nosed the MG inside. Bright LED lights revealed a roomy interior. Three large locked gun cabinets were at the end furthest from the MG. On one wall was a long desk and chairs. Opposite was a sound-proof booth with state of the art recording equipment. A special cupboard housed the computer server. Fr John leaned under the MG’s glove-box and unlocked a flat drawer under the dashboard and drew out a large laptop computer. He got out of the car and sat at one of the desks and looked up at the large Arabic words calligraphied on the flat wall. ‘Allahu akhbar,’ he breathed.

The laptop connected to the server through the wireless modem. Within minutes, Wilson was absorbed in uploading a detailed map of the Perth CBD to the website he had been working on in the three months following the great feast of Idu’l-Adha. In this secluded place, he could concentrate entirely on his work for Allah.

His digital watch beeped. It was midday. Time for Salat was 12.03. He saved his work, powered down the laptop and, as Rollinson had instructed, he locked the laptop under the long desk.

He spread a prayer rug on the concrete floor. ‘God is great,’ he intoned, ‘I bear witness that there is no divinity but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is Allah’s messenger. Hasten to the prayer. Hasten to the prayer.’ In his mind’s eye, he saw Rachid in his barber’s shop in the main street of Kannarup hastening to prayer. Rachid would not kneel in that public place, but would stand still and recite the prayers. The image of Amir and Ida in the back of their stall in the food hall also came to his mind as they hastened to their prayer rug unrolled in the cramped space between the kitchen benches.

As Fr John salaamed in the shed in the forest, his tiny cross tinkled against the floor. There was a line somewhere between taqqiyah and betrayal, and he could not be honestly sure whether he had crossed from necessary strategic deceit into betrayal. He did know that he could not keep up this life for much longer. Each day began and ended for Christ with the Eucharist and Evening Prayer, and the Dhuhr midday prayer and sometimes Asr at around 3.30 kept the middle of the day for Allah.

He rolled up the prayer mat and glanced upwards at the security camera over the entry door. He knew that Rollinson checked the images every day, and that if he failed to keep his appointments with Allah that he would receive a visit from Rollinson late at night, with the usual threats to take away the MG-A and to expose him to the congregation. He clenched his fists briefly before sliding into the MG and backing out into the forest.

As the white sports car headed slowly back to the highway, two men approached the shed. They looked around carefully before the small man unlocked a narrow side door. These men were not local. No-one in Kannarup except Rollinson knew of their existence, but their presence was already beginning to have a strong effect. They were federal agents and their powers under Canberra’s anti-terrorism legislation were extensive.

But they were beginning to doubt their power to control the priest Wilson.

The small man was compact and fit. He kept watch while the larger man retrieved the laptop and searched its contents. Wilson hadn’t even used a password. His Google map of the Cabinet Room in Havelock Street annotated with points and times was cached in Firefox’s history and it took the larger man less than a minute to find, and then download it onto a thumb drive. Rollinson had briefed him well. With this evidence and with Rollinson out of the way in Majorca or Peru, they would be able to prove the existence of a plot emanating from the Muslims of Kannarup to assassinate the Premier.

The bosses in Canberra calculated that this would give the Premier’s party enough bounce to guarantee the Federal branch’s re-election at the House of Reps election in December. But it all depended on Rollinson’s ability to persuade the priest that he really had been recruited to an Islamic terror cell. They thought that the classic MG had clinched the deal, but they hadn’t counted on his sincerity. Now they feared that the contradictions of being both a good Muslim and a devout priest couldn’t last.

Meanwhile the priest took a different turn onto a minor road. ‘Always go back to Kannarup a different way,’ Rollinson had commanded. With the roof of the coupé down and the wind in his hair, Fr John pushed the MG up to 140 km/h on the narrow bitumen. He laid out in his mind the contours of the plan: driving to Perth in the MG with the bomb hidden in the false bottom of his large travelling communion set. This, too, with its exquisite engraving of the Passion of Christ on the silver cup, had been a gift from Rollinson. He would take this past security at the Premier’s office to the meeting on rural issues. Security would let him through: he was a priest and the bomb was well hidden, and his confidence would carry it off. Inside the meeting, he would rest his briefcase on the communion case, release the false bottom and fasten the small bomb to the underside of the Premier’s Jah-Roc Cabinet table. In all the movement at the conclusion of the meeting, Fr John would set the digital timer to 20 minutes and leave with the other visitors.

Rollinson had hacked the Premier’s diary, and established that the Premier had meetings for the rest of the afternoon in the building, most in the Cabinet room.

As Father John rolled through the farmland south of Kannarup, he smiled at the similarities between his plot and that of Bonhoeffer trying to assassinate Hitler – only this time the plot would succeed.

His attention was caught by a field filled with the Easter lily weed; as cut flowers in church they were eye-catching, but growing wild in farm-land they were a menace. This was the Johnsons’ farm. Fences were down. A few scrawny cattle sheltered under trees from which large branches had fallen, probably during winter storms, and no-one had cleared them away.

He had taken Ross Johnson’s funeral only 18 months before. He remembered the church packed for the popular 55-year-old, who had still been playing hockey and was a luminary in the tennis club. Ross had been killed in a car crash on a gravel road near where Fr John was driving today.  He’d lost control in slippery conditions, and rolled and hit the only tree on the road reserve for several kilometres.

The teenaged children had almost had to carry Wendy, Ross’s wife, into the front pew of the church on the day of the funeral. She was disheveled and distraught, sobbing and hugging each of the boys. She and Fr John had decided to have the committal from the church, and when Fr John approached the casket with the proclamation, ‘We here commit the body of our dear brother Ross to be cremated, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ the woman had rushed forward to the casket knocking over a large vase of Easter lilies under the lectern in her haste. Wet white and green organic stuff was scattered over the casket and the floor, while Wendy put her body between the casket and Fr John and wrapped her arms around the end of the casket.

Fr John had paused, then summoned the two sons to hold their mother while she wept over the casket. He remembered the surge of irritation inside himself as he decided to abandon the rest of the prayer of committal and instead recite the old prayer of commendation: ‘Go forth on your journey from this world, Christian soul, in the name of God the Father who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you; in communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels and all the heavenly host. May your portion this day be in peace.’

Then he recalled the moment his brain snapped on the word ‘peace’. He had carried on praying, ‘O Lord forgive him, have mercy on him, pardon him and grant him prosperity and be a good host to him. Broaden his grave and wash him with water and with snow and with hail. Cleanse him of his sins just as a white piece of cloth is cleansed from dirt.’ Then he blanched, like a white piece of cloth, realizing that he had switched to the Islamic funeral service – in public, in his church.

In that moment, he thought of his newly acquired MG-A outside in the driveway. He thought of the shame he would experience if his then new double life were exposed to his congregation. He thought of the Panel of Triers and the de-frocking by the Bishop. The scandal would be immense.

He looked around the congregation, panicking. But there was no flicker of recognition. If people thought anything, he realized, they thought he had just added some prayers because Wendy was so upset.

Taking some deep breaths, he had walked to the front of the casket taking Wendy and the boys with him, he had signalled to the organist, and they had processed out to the hearse.

After the day of the funeral, Wendy and the boys continued to take Ross’s death very hard. The younger boy, Barry, headed off to Perth and buried himself in study. The older boy, Cliff, stayed on the farm. But his behaviour became erratic and six months after his father’s funeral, Wendy had discovered his body hanging in a shed, a large quantity of ice in his trouser pocket.

This time, Wendy refused to have a church funeral. She chose a private service at the crematorium, with only a close friend and Barry with her, and the crematorium staff as the celebrant.

Fr John had driven out to the farm, but Wendy had shut the door in his face. On the rare occasions he had seen her in town, she quickly crossed the street to avoid contact. Fr John heard that she had dismissed most of her friends, and that she and Barry were not talking. As he drove along their boundary fence now, he could see that they weren’t working the farm either.

Rollinson had insisted that he should always go straight back into town after his sessions in the shed. But for some reason, the Johnson farm-house was now calling to him across the field. Fr John had a strong feeling that he should make a pastoral visit to Wendy and her son Barry. It had been years since he had experienced such a strong feeling. As a young priest, he had several times responded to a strong inclination to visit and discovered on arrival that he was in fact needed.

He pulled the car to the side of the road, turned off the motor, and gazed towards the old farm-house. On a sudden impulse, he looked around in case Rollinson was watching. ‘Damn that,’ he thought. ‘Rollinson could be watching and I’d have no idea, so I may as well do what I’m going to do.’ But he wasn’t actually sure what he was going to do.


The attack on the Office of the Premier and the Cabinet Room in West Perth was now only days off. The meeting on social capital in the regions was scheduled for the coming Wednesday, and he knew that Amir and Ida would head off to the city immediately their food-stall closed after serving takeaway Halal dinners in the food hall on Monday. Rachid would head off on Tuesday morning, leaving his brother to cut people’s hair on Tuesday and Wednesday. Rollinson hadn’t explained to John Wilson exactly what role the Kannarup Muslims were to play in the bombing; he seemed to have the lead role himself.

As Rollinson had explained it, the priest would be killing the Premier not so much as a political stratagem, but because it was important for Muslims, especially white-faced brothers in the faith like him, to de-stabilize the country as much as possible. The siege in the Lindt café in Sydney was a good example of how Muslims could attack at the edge, rather than the center. So many questions swirled about Man Horus Monis, beginning with the shahadah flag he had placed in the window, that kept the story alive and journalists questioning his motivations for weeks. As Rollinson explained, in the Lindt siege, the propagandists at ISIL weren’t making a play for power, they were just knocking things out of kilter so that people could see the corruption of this consumer society, this weak, chocolate-addicted people.

The West Australian Premier and people close to him equally made an ideal target. Killing the Premier wouldn’t put an end to the godless government in Canberra, but it would grab  people’s attention right around Australia – and beyond – and have them talking at barbecues and water-coolers about the greed and militarism of the government. When the Caliphate comes, then its logic and grace will already be established in the minds of Australians. The priest saw a deadly explosion at Hale House as a small thing, a helpful step on the way to a better society.

He looked again at the Johnsons’ farm-house, turned the key in the MG’s ignition, gunned the engine and drove back to Kannarup in time for Evening Prayer in the church and Parish Council in the Rectory living room.

The heat rose early with the sun the next morning, beating down and drying everything in its glow. By 7 o’clock, a brief walk was hard, sweaty work, and Fr John was finding it hard to keep his temper in check. He quickly served himself some muesli – breakfast before Mass these days – and headed to the church for Morning Prayer and Eucharist. The pages of the Prayer Book and lectionary stuck together with sweat. The alb and stole were soaked. John decided to leave off the chasuble, which made him feel more uncomfortable and improper. Even with delicate handling, some of the communion wafers became soggy, and the Body of Christ was administered into the mouth of every one of the ten Friday communicants to reduce the sweaty handling.

On this day, Fr John went to the door after the service to greet his people with a hot sweaty hand-shake. Everyone made obvious observations about the heat, and the priest found this repetitive commentary irritating.

‘Yes, it’s hot,’ he snapped. As he walked back along the side wall of the church, there was Wendy Johnson. Fr John noticed that her face was moist, maybe sweat running down the sides of her forehead.

‘John, stop,’ she put her hand on his arm. ‘I need you…’

Maybe it wasn’t sweat.

‘I nearly stopped yesterday,’ John said hesitantly.

‘I know, I saw the car. The MG.’


‘You’d better come to my study where it’s cool,’ he said. “I’m hanging out for a cool drink.’ They walked to the air-conditioned house, and John invited Wendy to sit in a comfortable chair in his study while he went to the kitchen to pour some fruit juices. Turning around from the bench, he was surprised to find Wendy standing silently behind him. He nearly dropped the glasses of juice.

‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean… I didn’t want to be on my own.’

It was quite clear now to John that Wendy’s face was wet not from sweat but tears. He put the glasses down on the central work-bench. Wendy again touched his arm. John realized that the touch on his arm was hot, or nipping, like the charge from a battery. He warily picked up the juices again and carried them back to the study. He was acutely aware of Wendy following him through the house. They sat down in the comfortable chairs.

‘Well,’ the priest started. ‘It’s been a difficult time.’

Wendy ignored the pastoral opening.

‘It’s about you,’ she stuttered.

‘Me? What about me?’ The priest pushed at his errant lock of hair in embarrassment.

‘I’m not sure where we stand,’ Wendy pushed on.

The priest looked in astonishment at the woman in front of him: she was roughly 15 years his senior, her accent placed her the alumna of an elite boarding school, her long blond hair was tied back on this hot day in an untidy pony tail, her brown eyes were glinting, and there was a mark on her left cheek which he had never noticed. He was suddenly aware of a strong old-fashioned perfume. All of a sudden he thought of his Aunt Joan, who had been part of family Christmases on the farm until she had died when he was about twelve.

He found himself staring at Wendy Johnson as if for the first time. And with a feeling of clarity, the irritation that had stirred him along all morning drained out of him leaving him with a new feeling he couldn’t quite identify. This woman… this woman… he didn’t want her to die too. He felt overwhelmingly protective towards her. He would move heaven and earth to prevent happening to her what had happened to Ross and Cliff.

‘No more deaths. No more death and dying,’ he said softly. ‘Please, Wendy.’

It was Wendy’s turn to look with astonishment at her priest.

‘No. I know,’ she said, and began to weep quietly, ‘You can help me see…’

‘You can choose to live,’ he replied, ‘yes, I’ll do everything in my power to….’ He stopped then started again. ‘For my sake, no, for Barry’s sake, for your sake. But really I think it’s for heaven’s sake, for God’s sake.’ Even though he had been a priest for nearly 20 years, the words felt strange as they escaped from his mouth.

Wendy stood up and spoke in her patrician voice. ‘The word you’re looking for, John, is compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Then, for the first time in their conversation, a warm smile creased her face, making the lines crinkle.

On her way out through the study door, she touched his bare arm again, leaving John’s skin tingling. ‘The word is compassion,’ he thought. On the corner shelf of his study stood a small Buddha, a Ganesh, a Bahá’í calendar and a star and crescent flag. He looked at the flag and recited silently, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate, in the name of Allah, the merciful’; the Basmala, the invocation before each sura of the Qur’an.

Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Wendy’s words had set off a great confusion inside Fr John Wilson. Surely the messy tragedy and petty grieving of a farmer’s widow in Kannarup carried no weight in the great scheme of things.

A message popped up on his mobile. ‘Where are you?’ The number was blocked. Rollinson.

‘Oh, shit!’ The priest scrambled for his car. He headed out of town to the secret shed. As he drove he pressed the button that brought the roof of the coupé over to keep some cool in. Today before Friday prayers he was supposed to record a message in case something happened on the day. A martyrdom video. Rollinson thought he might die. Another death.

With his hands slippery with sweat on the steering wheel and sweat running down his temples, it was hard to think, but something was wrong. Something did not add up for Fr John Wilson. He tried to put his mind to the words of his martyrdom video, but could not concentrate. Each time he started with the Basmala, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate,’ he would stop and his brain would respond, ‘Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’

He thought his response was selfish and that he was afraid to die. ‘No more death’ was his own death. But he wasn’t going to die. He was going to leave an explosive device under a table and be 20 minutes away when Hale House exploded.

He tried again, ‘In the name of Allah. I, John Wilson, a Christian priest and new Muslim convert wish to express my contempt for the corruption of Western society and my opposition to the greed mentality which pervades every level of it. In the name of Allah, the compassionate.’ But would a compassionate God express his contempt and opposition by more deaths? ‘Didn’t I say to Wendy Johnson that I would move heaven and earth to prevent more deaths and dying?’

He thought of Rollinson waiting for him at the secret shed. ‘Toughen up, you idiot. Your actions will bring in the glorious Caliphate!’ But the words felt empty in his mind. This feeling of compassion felt real, much more real than the enthusiasm for the cause Rollinson had recruited him for.

He thought of the people he had shared communion with that morning; people he had known and encouraged for the five years he had been parish priest in Kannarup. Some he had married. For others he had buried their spouses, or heard their secret problems with their children. For others he had discussed Christian faith and hopefully helped to deepen and strengthen their relationship with God. John Wilson decided he would not want these people dead. He had vowed to keep Wendy Johnson alive at all costs.

There was no-one at the secret shed. John Wilson drove the MG-A inside. He found the laptop in its hiding place, and fiddled with its underside. He walked out of the building, closed the garage door with the remote and flung the device as far into the forest as he could.  Then he walked as briskly as the heat allowed him along the forest track towards the highway. 20 minutes later there was an enormous explosion behind him. Without turning to look, he took out his mobile, dialled 000 and reported the fire and location. The operator repeatedly asked him for his name and address, but he refused politely, saying he was only a bystander.

When the sirens of the trucks and appliances screamed along the road towards him, John Wilson turned off onto a smaller farm track that led across country to the Johnsons’ farm-house. He was fairly confident that Rollinson wouldn’t know this short-cut, and, besides, why would Rollinson think that he would head for the Johnson farm, of all places?

Wendy saw the priest limping up from her back fields in his city slacks and sandals, head bare to the sun. She snatched a jug of iced water from the fridge and ran towards him.

‘John, it’s 43 degrees, for goodness sake! What are you doing here?’ She held out the jug and he swigged it down, as she pulled him into the cool of a patio. ‘Sit down. I’ll get some more from the fridge.’ She ran back into the kitchen while the priest collapsed at an outdoor table.

‘Did you come from the fire over there?’ Like all country folk, Wendy was on edge on fire warning days, and she had seen the smoke and heard the sirens in the distance.

John nodded. ‘I think I started it,’ he smiled wearily at Wendy, whose eyebrows shot up. John held his head in his hands, brown curls glimpsed between sweaty fingers. ‘And, you know, it wouldn’t have made an iota of difference.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Wendy demanded.

‘The shed I just blew up. I thought it was a matter of principle. I thought I could do something to stop the world, to help it get off the roundabout of consumerism and greed and corruption. I thought if I got the world’s attention, then people would want to live, would want to be better human beings, but…’

‘But how, John? What were you going to do? I mean, you were doing that, you are doing that. You’re our priest. You…’

Wendy noticed that John had torn the once-tan slacks, probably when he climbed the barbed-wire fence. She saw the sweat and dirt on his blue polo-necked shirt. She saw that his fingers and the hair poking through them were trembling.

‘But you told me,’ John continued, and Wendy could hear that he was almost crying, ‘that religion is about compassion. About no more dying. No more deaths. I had it so wrong.’ He paused. ‘That killing the Premier wouldn’t make an iota of difference.’

He looked up at Wendy through tear-filled eyes.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ he continued, his voice under control again. ‘They’ll take me away.’  He gave a rueful little chuckle. ‘The MG is in that fire. That was my reward. They’ll tell the congregation that I was a secret Muslim. That was their hold on me. I’ll end up in some secret lock-up in Canberra, no doubt, for the plot I worked on to kill the Premier. I’m glad that you showed up in time to remind me that faith’s about more than reciting the prayers, folding the robes.’

At this point, Wendy looked confused, and she heard the engine of a car approaching along her driveway.

‘I’m not sure what it is you’ve done,’ she said, ‘but do you need to hide? Or run away?’

‘No. I’ve put you at enough risk coming here. I’ve got to give myself up, so that there are no more deaths, no more dying. Look on the bright side, Wendy, it’s Australia. It won’t be Abu Graib where I’m going.’

Neither of them laughed at that.

‘You know my Grandad was a priest?’ Wendy asked suddenly. ‘I’ve got something of his. I’ve often thought to give it to you. Thought you might be interested, but with Ross and Cliff and all that… Before they come, quick.’ She led John into the lounge room, which had the appearance of not having been used for decades: everything was clean, but the fat armchairs dated from the nineteen-fifties, and an old-fashioned glass display cabinet dominated one wall. Wendy hunted through drawers at the bottom of the cabinet.

‘Ah, here it is,’ she said and offered John a short piece of brocade wrapped in white tissue paper.

‘A maniple. Extraordinary.’ He looped it – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – over his left arm. ‘A maniple for compassion and service. Purple for penitence.’ He removed it and laid it flat on a coffee table. ‘An “I”. An “Iota”.’

Two men showing Federal Police badges knocked at the front door of the farm-house.

John smiled at Wendy. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘for the missing Iota.’


3 responses

  1. Fabulous stuff Ted, so enjoyed this, kept me glued till the end. Thank you.

    1. Thought I’d interrupt your sermon prep, Paul!!

      1. You did, but gladly so! 🙂

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