“I feel completely useless.”
“Right. Can’t stop you feeling what you wanna feel.”
Helen laughed and winced.
“Laughing does. Sneezing does. Coughing does. Moving does. Breathing does. If I keep off those it’s fine.”
“Well, you can’t have any more painkillers until half past five so you’ll have to practise mental diversion.”
“I didn’t realise I’d brought you up to be so hard.”
“Yup, you did. Tea?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Helen was propped up on the sofa with the French windows open onto the garden. It had been a beautiful day to come out of hospital, she thought, a beautiful day to be thankful that you were alive when you could so easily have been …
“Lizzie, how many people have died now?”
“No. I want to know. I was incredibly lucky—how lucky was I?”
“Nine people, and four with serious injuries. But out of danger. So yeah, lucky. Too true.”
A squirrel leapt into the ash tree at the bottom of the garden, scrambled down the trunk and bounded across the grass. Beautiful, Helen thought. That is the most beautiful squirrel I have ever seen and the tree is the most beautiful and the sun is shining more beautifully than it has ever shone. I have done nothing to deserve life just as the others did not deserve death. But I am going to revel in it and every moment I am awake I am going to be grateful for it. Her ribs hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her neck was excruciatingly painful if she tried to turn it so much as a millimetre and none of it mattered, it could be borne. It was the pain of getting better and how different that must be from any other pain—the pain of getting worse.
She remembered very little of the accident. It was like a film flickering through her mind from time to time, in which parts had been removed and parts elided with others so that the time was muddled and the scenes made no sense. She remembered the noise of screaming. The lurch as they tipped or fell. She remembered the feel of the man’s strong grip on her wrist as he found her and then his face. “OK, love,” he kept saying, “you’re OK.”
How Phil had simply crawled out and walked away virtually unscathed was another matter for wonder, though she had not known about that until she was at the hospital and he had turned up with Lizzie. He had not taken a day off but been in school as usual first thing the next morning.
She shifted to try and get comfortable. The squirrel was back, nibbling at a conker among the fallen leaves which Tom had promised but failed to sweep up. It didn’t matter. Nothing so small could possibly matter ever again.
She closed her eyes and dozed and was wakened by the sound of the doors being closed. Phil looked round. “Good to sleep,” he said. “Lizzie’s in charge next door. How do you feel?”
“Stiff. Sore. Very happy.”
He came over and sat beside her. “Are you going to be able to get upstairs all right later?”
“Oh yes. I can’t sleep on a sofa, that’s what invalids do. How was your day?”
“Busy. I had a bit of running round to do.”
“They should be keeping you on light duties—I said you should have a week off.”
“Why running round?”
“I had to go into town. Shopping. Bought you this.”
The door opened on Lizzie bearing a tray so she put the package to one side while they set up a table and cloth and helped her to sit up. Moving to an upright position was painful enough to make her catch her breath. Four cushions at her back. Her left arm was in a sling.
Eating was slow but the fish was the best food she had ever eaten, the vegetables perfectly cooked, the bread and butter manna. She wondered if the painkillers were making her high but knew that it was relief, the high of having cheated death. She had said prayers of thanks in her head several times. Phil would laugh. “No such things as miracles,” he had said.
Perhaps it didn’t matter.
She had thought she was hungry and Lizzie had given her only a small piece of fish but she couldn’t manage it all. Some reflex made her throat close as she tried to swallow, though she knew there was nothing wrong. She drank tea, ate some bread and butter, expressed great thanks, refused a date slice. Felt faint with exhaustion.
And then Phil handed her the package again. It was the size of a box of chocolates. She hoped it was not. Chocolate was not what she needed.
But inside an empty chocolate box was another box and, inside that, another and another and then the smallest box.
“Will you marry me?” Phil said.
Helen began to cry.
An hour later she was still crying but upstairs in bed. Phil had gone home. Lizzie was lying on top of the duvet beside her.
“I can’t stop grinning,” she said.
“So I see.”
“If it hadn’t been for me pushing you onto the Internet …”
“True. You’ll have to wear pink satin, you know.”
The front door slammed.
“He won’t,” Lizzie said.
“God, don’t make me laugh please, it’s so painful.”
“We’re here, talking about pink satin. Where have you been?”
“Giving out leaflets.”
Lizzie groaned and pulled a pillow over her head. She steered clear of what she called Tom’s religious mania but when he went into bars and cafés or shops handing out Jesus leaflets she wanted to curl up with embarrassment.
“Shut up. You OK, Mum? Sure they ought to have let you out?”
“Quite sure. Very sure. And I’m fine, thanks, love, never better. Sleepy and sore and never better.”
Tom looked at Lizzie.
“It’s OK, it’s not the drugs, she’s just going to get married. Isn’t it great? He brought a ring all hidden inside lots of boxes, I think it was the most romantic thing in the world, I’m really jealous.”
Tom stood half in the room. He did not look at either of them. He looked straight ahead. He seemed hardly to breathe.
“Great news, Tom,” Lizzie said.
“Tom? Don’t stand like that, come here.”
“Oh God, if you’re going to be childish …” Lizzie got off the bed and started towards him. “If you are, then bugger off before you upset her. You make me really angry, Tom.”
But as she neared him he turned away. He went across the landing, back down the stairs.
“Lizzie, don’t, leave him, it’s fine, he’ll be fine.”
“Tosser!” Lizzie yelled.
But the front door banged shut over the sound of her voice.
“Tell out, my soul, the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure.
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
To children’s children and for evermore!”
“Praise Jesus’ name!”
“Praise the name of Christ Jesus!”
The band struck up, two guitars, two flutes, the electronic keyboard, and Combo on the drums. Tom had backed out. He usually took part playing something but tonight he couldn’t face it. He stood towards the back.
The pastor raised his arms. Tom closed his eyes as they began to sing again, sing and wave their arms and sway, row after row. He could feel the woman next to him swaying against him.
“Jesus, sweet Lord,” she moaned.
He opened his eyes. There was a woman with two young boys in the row in front but where the backs of the boys were, one with a blue fleece, one with a red, he saw only his mother’s face, lit up with happiness, hers and Lizzie’s. Lizzie was grinning at him.
He had walked for an hour around the roads, in and out of cul-de-sacs, down avenues full of houses. Car in the drive, lights in the windows. Car in the drive. Lights in the windows. On and on. He had come out near the Hill and thought he might climb up there but it was pitch black and he had no torch. He had walked back, veered off, not wanting to go home, walked halfway into the town but changed his mind and walked back again. He didn’t want to meet anyone, couldn’t talk. What he wanted to do was cry. He wasn’t angry with his mother, though he didn’t understand her, but maybe it was the shock of the accident, maybe she didn’t know what she was doing. Maybe? He was sad and upset. Phil Russell. OK, so he, Tom, was off to the States, leaving home, and would have little to do with him, but the knowledge that Phil Russell was his stepfather, had married his mother and was filling her mind and heart full of atheistic poison, sneering at the Bible, turning her against it with clever intellectual talk, making her feel a fool, probably stopping her going to the cathedral singers … He knew in his heart that God was asking him to stop this thing, that Jesus was relying on him to bring his mother to salvation and Tom wanted to, but on his own it seemed impossible.
“You are not on your own, Tom,” a voice said in his heart. “Behold, I am with you always, even to the ending of the world.”
He smiled. The fleeces of the two small boys glowed.
“For my sake,” the voice said, “is there not more rejoicing over one lamb which was lost and is now found …”
“Yea, Lord,” he said, “bless your name. I know it’s down to me, I know what you’re asking me to do. It’s just …”
“Nothing is too difficult for God. Ask and ye shall receive. Knock and it shall be opened to you.”
The woman next to him clutched his arm and the room was filled with the babble of people speaking in tongues. She spoke in tongues. Her eyes were rolling. Tom tried to move her hand gently from his arm but her grip was too strong.
“Amma jambagrisalamoralamma fornamo jammay jammay canfalabedei.”
Tom opened his own mouth, trying to remember what he had been taught by the pastor after his baptism.
Relax, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and focus your mind on the God and the Lord who love you immeasurably. Thank them for having filled you with the Holy Spirit, take another breath, and let it rip—speak forth words of praise, thanksgiving, and worship. And that is exactly what you will be speaking. And be BOLD—the words you are hearing are the proof that Jesus is alive and well—and that so will you be—forever! It cost him his life for you to be able to praise and worship God in this wonderful way, so get into it!
He closed his eyes again but by now the pastor was back on his feet, waving his Bible and calling out to them to hear the words of Jesus.
“‘Come to me, all ye that labour and are carrying a heavy burden. I will give you rest.’”
“Which of you here works hard to pay the rent, to fuel the mortgage, to feed the little ones, to buy the clothes, to run the car? Which of you gets up before light and trudges off to a job they don’t much care for and stays at it all day and trudges back home in the evening, tired out? Which of you here? I guess all of you here, those of you of an age to be in work. And those too young, well, I guess you go to school, don’t you, you sit through your classes and do your homework, day after day. You carry a heavy burden. Now what does the Lord Jesus say? Does he say I will give you a load of riches so you can stop work and fly to Florida and lie by a pool all day? Does he say, OK, I’ll see to it that you quit school and have fun all day and never have to learn a spelling or a chemistry formula ever again, Ay-men? No, he does NOT. What he says is, “I will give you rest,” but does this mean idleness. It does NOT! Was Jesus idle? Were the disciples idle? No, they were NOT. The words of Jesus need to be thought through. Rest. I will give you rest …”
Feet shuffled. Someone sneezed violently. The boy in the blue fleece pinched the boy in the red one. The woman next to him leaned against Tom. He moved away and she leaned further. She smelled of fish.
He hung about the chapel after they had all left, until the pastor came out from the side room to tidy up.
“Tom? Sorry not to have you up there playing for us tonight—everything all right?”
He came nearer, looked closely. Sat down beside him.
“You don’t look good. You hear the words of God just now? ‘Come to me all ye that are burdened’? Whatever’s wrong, boy, take the words to heart.”
“I’m trying. It’s just—difficult.”
“I’m here for you if you want to talk, but if not, try Jesus. He’s always there for you.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“So … I’ll just get on with the clearing up, you do what you decide to do, Tom. We’re both of us right next to you.”
He bent his head. The floorboards were scuffed and dirt-stained. Thousands of feet, he thought, thousands of feet.
He didn’t know if he wanted to talk to the pastor or not but he couldn’t talk to God, and in any case, why should he need to, he knew his innermost heart, he knew what was wrong. He ought to do something to sort it, that was all, he ought to stop it happening. He couldn’t want this marriage, Helen Creedy to a militant, arrogant, atheist who sneered at Jesus and had once drawn a pair of spectacles on his image on one of Tom’s leaflets. His mother wasn’t reborn yet but she was a good person, he knew it was only a matter of time before she saw the light and welcomed Jesus into her life, but there wasn’t any hope for Phil Russell and if she married him …
No, you couldn’t say there wasn’t any hope. There was hope for everyone to turn to Jesus before it was too late. Only just now Tom couldn’t see how it would ever happen to Phil. Proud and stiff-necked, he thought. That was him. The Bible always had the right phrase somewhere.
The pastor banged shut the wooden box full of hymn books and paused.
“Tom, I have to go in ten.”
Tom got to his feet.
“You need to talk through something, give me a call. I’m back in later, you ring me, now? No fretting, OK?”
“You on your motorbike? Frighten the pants off me those things.”
Tom laughed and followed him out. The bike was parked up in the schoolyard next door and when he had trundled it to the gate and buckled his helmet he sat for a moment looking down the street. He couldn’t have told the pastor but while he had been there on his own in the chapel, he had prayed for the last time to be told what to do and it had come into his head at once, shocking him, taking his breath away. But the voice had been clear. The words had been unmistakable. He didn’t under stand why this was what he should do because it was so off the wall, he’d never expected anything like it. But the more he thought about it now, sitting astride the machine in the evening dark, the more it seemed the right thing and clear. If nothing else, it would wake her, make her understand, show her the right way, this would. That was why he had to do it. It wasn’t for himself, it was for her. The sacrifice was for her. She might not see it straight away but she would see it pretty soon because that was what his answer had been and God’s answer could never be wrong.