At the door to the loft, I watched him take a final look at what had been his home for almost two years. Correction: their home. His family’s home. First he and Jim, and then Sarah, then Jason, and finally Hank, the baby. Most likely, he would never see it again. And he knew that. He’d asked to do a final check, which all of us knew was unnecessary. Including him.
He turned to the Black Watch guardsman and the FBI agent by the doorway and nodded. The four of us moved to the elevator and then to the street, where the family waited in the four black SUVs. A crowd of onlookers stood watching, breaking into applause as he left the building. He smiled and waved. The crowd looked friendly, and included many of his neighbors in the loft building. But he didn’t know for certain. He’d likely never know for certain, with any crowd. Not anymore. Not since The Violence of October. Not since he almost died from gunshot wounds.
I’d spent seven weeks with this family, and most of those seven with him. My life would never be the same. Everything had changed; everything I believed, understood, and accepted no longer made any sense. And it was because of this 27-year-old man, this young man who had not yet recovered from his wounds, the injuries that had almost killed him.
Michael Kent-Hughes stepped into the waiting SUV, joining his wife Sarah and their son, six-week-old Henry, called Hank. I sat in the jump seat facing them. In the first vehicle ahead of us sat Jason and Jim Kent-Hughes, Michael and Sarah’s two adopted sons. Black Watch guardsmen and FBI agents were grouped in all four vehicles, but most of them in the third vehicle behind us, already trained to respond if something happened on the way to the airport. Our luggage was in the fourth.
Sarah helped him buckle his seat belt. His left arm remained in a sling, the pain dulled but not eliminated by the prescribed meds. He had begun physical therapy a few hours after awakening in the hospital. His most serious wound, near the heart, the wound he had almost died from on the operating table, was healing better than expected. The second and less serious wound, at the junction of his left shoulder and arm, was not. Therapy would resume in London. More surgery was possible.
“They say pain is really a blessing,” Michael had told me one morning, in the middle of a discussion on finances. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but it’s a blessing I’d gladly forego.” Then he apologized for complaining. “It just hurts sometimes, Joshua. Well, it hurts some times more than others.”
The four vehicles pulled away from the front of the loft building, across the plaza from St. Anselm’s Church near downtown San Francisco, Michael’s first assigned parish and now also his last. As we left the plaza, Michael saw Father John Stevens and the church secretary Eileen waving from the steps. Michael lowered the tinted window and waved back.
“Sir,” said the FBI agent sitting behind us, “I’m sorry, but I have to ask you to leave the window up.”
Michael nodded, “Sorry.” He raised the window.
Life had changed forever for Father Michael, former assistant pastor at St. Anselm’s.
Life would be radically different for King Michael I of Great Britain, his wife, Queen Sarah, the baby Hank, now Prince of Wales, and their two adopted sons.
How did I come to be sitting with Britain’s new royal family, in a car headed for the San Francisco airport and a flight to London?
My name is Josh Gittings. I am 41. I studied political science and then law at the University of Birmingham. I am special assistant to Prime Minister Peter Bolting. My duties are unspecified, but it’s generally known, especially by me, that I am the PM’s chief political operative, and have been since his first election to Parliament 17 years ago, on the Labour ticket.
When The Violence erupted in Britain, the PM had dispatched me with Ian and Iris McLaren, Michael’s parents, or guardians, to be legally precise, the couple who’d raised him, to San Francisco to help Sarah Kent-Hughes. Her husband was possibly dying on the operating table, and I had my instructions: what to do if Michael survived the surgery, and what to do if he didn’t.
This young woman, this young queen with a new baby sitting across from me in the SUV, had been the pivotal player. The PM knew that. I knew that. And I had had to insert myself into her fear, confusion and shock. I didn’t expect to be inserted into the middle of her faith. And her husband’s faith.
My friends call me the PM’s special assistant. The British news media call me Svengali. My enemies call me Rasputin. All three have been true.
Until this trip to San Francisco. Then I met Michael Kent-Hughes.
Before, I’d had no real friends. Then I met Michael Kent-Hughes.
Five days earlier, Michael had preached his last sermon as assistant pastor of St. Anselm’s, broadcast by the BBC and heard live by more than 250 million people in Britain and North America alone. Surprising everyone, and saying nothing about The Violence or his new position, Michael had preached a sermon that had touched more hearts than was imaginable.
I know; it had touched mine. But it was only part of what had been happening to me since I’d arrived in San Francisco seven weeks ago.
A lifetime ago.
Top photograph by Michael Spizak via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.