Charity’s Child

Circaidy Gregory Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1906451073

FIRST CHAPTER

Joanne – I can’t be.”

I barely caught Charity’s words before the wind whipped them away. We were standing outside the public toilets on Castlehaven High Street, the east wind off the sea hurling hailstones the size of gravel into our faces.

Charity had a blue cardboard packet in her hands. She clutched it as though it was something precious, while the fear on her face suggested it might explode any second.

I’d begun to shiver and couldn’t stop. My voice came out weak and shaky. “It says you are.”
  
Charity’s long, bright gold hair had been dragged and twisted into knots and tangles by the wind. Red strands caught the light from somewhere, God knows where – certainly not the sky. She raised a hand to wipe her face. As usual, she had no jacket and her arms were bare, purple like bruises. She claimed she never felt the cold.

I wanted to be somewhere I could study the result again, somewhere quiet where I could make sure, without having every sensible thought torn out of my head by the force eight gale. I tried to push Charity towards the entrance to the public library but she stood still on the pavement, like a boulder parting the stream of shoppers.

 “Can they sometimes be wrong, these tests?” she asked, her voice a little stronger – hoping.

“I don’t know.”

“Shall I buy another one and try again?”

Boots the chemist was halfway back along the High Street. The assistant who’d served us, the elder sister of one of my classmates, had given us a funny look the first time. I didn’t want to go back.

We dug out our purses: mine from the inner pocket of my fleece-lined jacket, Charity’s from her beaten-up khaki shoulder bag. We counted up just under three pounds between us. Not enough for another kit.

Charity was just sixteen and I was almost exactly a year younger. We’d been friends for just under five months.

 It wasn’t possible, I told myself. Perhaps the freak result had something to do with the cold? It had been icy in the toilet block.

Neither of us had been with a boy – that’s what I’d thought. Neither of us wanted to. We had each other. I’d believed that until this morning, when we met outside WH Smith’s and I saw right away that something was wrong. Charity had lost her usual bounce and her features were frozen up in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.

I’d taken off my woollen mittens to scrabble in my purse and my hands were numb. I didn’t know what I’d done with the mittens but it didn’t seem right to look for them.

Charity was staring out to sea.

“Perhaps you should make a doctor’s appointment,” I said. “They’ll be able to give you a proper test, to make sure. Make sure you’re not, I mean.”

 I wanted to comfort her, but I had what felt like a gunshot wound in my chest, throbbing harder with each heartbeat. I could believe my blood was running out of me onto the pavement, that I would collapse any second. It was a different pain to the one when my dad died, and it shocked me to realise that this felt even worse.

Charity didn’t reply but she turned her eyes to me. They were brown with glimmers of green. They’d held such warmth for me, so often, that it was impossible to believe she’d betrayed me, been with someone else.

Her pale pink t-shirt was soaked.

The sky was still darkening. The hail was thicker and faster than ever, bouncing up several inches when it hit the road. I thought of how excited I’d been by hailstones as a small child. Now I found them downright nasty.

“Come on, let’s get some hot chocolate in Brown’s.” I gave Charity’s arm a tug. She was unresisting now and I began to steer. “You look awful.”

She didn’t, as a matter of fact, look awful or anything like it. I have only seen Charity look awful on a couple of occasions, and they came later. Most of the time she looked wonderful, even soaking wet and in circumstances like these. Her hair was sodden now and stuck to her face and neck, but it still found a way to gleam. While my cheeks were no doubt blotched red by the stinging hail, hers had a healthy pink glow. Her eyes had the emerald glint of the sea around the rocks in summer. Her nose was a little too long, perhaps – though who decides these things? Her upper lip dipped in the middle in what my mother called a Cupid’s bow.

She was tall – a good three inches above me. Built on the heavy side, rounded but not plump, or not in a wobbly way. Her skin retained a suggestion of the tan she’d arrived with in September. I’d assumed it was the result of some overseas holiday with her father. She’d told me he travelled a lot.

But her colour hadn’t faded. The Castlehaven wind had so far failed to scour it off her skin and I was beginning to think it must be permanent.

She had no trace of the acne that colonised my chin. Her hair displayed no grease, ever, as far as I could see.

She let me manoeuvre her along the street, the hail now coming at us from the side and easing off a bit. We turned into Brown’s Tea and Coffee Stop. When the new owners took over and the sign went up we’d assumed it was a mistake; before that it had been The Little Tea Shop. But they never changed it and the name, whether it had been deliberate or not, began to make sense.

It was shabby inside, like most of Castlehaven, but comfortingly hot and steamy. We found a table in the window and I wriggled my toes, beginning to think that the horror of the situation might just be a result of the cruel weather. Perhaps things would be better now we were in the warm.

Charity remained silent but her face had relaxed. I got up and joined the queue, then remembered that I had less than a pound on me. Not enough for two Brown’s special hot chocolates with whipped cream. I settled for two mugs of tea, remembering to put one-and-a-half sugars in Charity’s. My change was just enough for a chocolate éclair, which I would let Charity have. Perhaps the nourishment would bring on her period.

Or maybe I’d take just a bite.

As I put the red plastic tray down on the table she pushed a tissue into her bag and gave me a hint of a smile. “Thanks.”

She picked up the éclair and bit off more than half. Her face took on a glazed look as she tasted the soft fudgy chocolate and the sweetened cream. Brown’s did a good éclair. Forgetting my good intentions, I took a big bite from what was left.

For a moment or two, while she was eating, you could almost believe this was the same Charity who regularly jumped onto a chair at our Crabbie meetings, waving her arms, squealing with joy and begging the Spirit to descend on us.

Then she swallowed, the delight left her face, and we were back to reality.

Someone had left the door open a crack and a piercing draught blew into our faces and around our legs.

 My piece of éclair, once swallowed, seemed to wedge in my gullet. I thought, for the second time that morning, of the day we got the news my dad was dead. I’d forgotten the throat-ache, how it was impossible to swallow.

I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. “Char, you can be honest with me.” Where had I got that line from – some book or film? It sounded stupid. “Is it one of the lads from school?”

Her mouth fell open, revealing a piece of yellow choux pastry on her tongue.

“Joanne, you know it isn’t.”
 
“How do I know? If you’re pregnant, it has to be someone.”

“I’m not pregnant. Like I said, I can’t be.”

“But the test says you are. I don’t think they can be wrong, not if you do it properly.”  I knew she had done it properly – I’d helped.

“It must be wrong.”

“Will you go to the doctor’s, then? Do you want me to come with you?”

“There’s no need.” Her voice had risen several tones. “My period will come any day. It has to.”

We both knew it wouldn’t.

As we sat drinking our tea in silence, swallow after swallow, Alan’s face, his big white gleaming teeth, came into my mind and I couldn’t banish it.

Alan was our assistant pastor, in his mid-twenties, married with two small children. Alice and David.

I’d seen the way his eyes followed Charity in our meetings. I’d tried not to think about it, not to mind. I’d reminded myself, over and over again, that Charity belonged to me. Didn’t she?

She had stayed for a few nights in Alan and Louise’s home, just after Christmas, when her father went on a business trip and the heating failed. I did a bit of mental arithmetic.

The timing could so easily be right.

Surely not Alan? He was always speaking out against immorality. He saw it everywhere, even on children’s TV. Even on Coronation Street. You could believe, from what he said at meetings, that he didn’t approve of sex at all, not even in marriage. In spite of the fact that he had two kids.

I’d been scared of him for years. He looked at me as though he could see what was in my head. As though he knew about the nail varnish I’d shoplifted from Woolworth’s and never dared to take back. And, in recent days, as though my love for Charity was something bad.

Surely it couldn’t be Alan? A creamy burp rose in my throat and I tasted sick.



Charity had been in Castlehaven since mid-September. She’d turned up at one of our Thursday evening prayer meetings, held in a couple of rented rooms above Peter Nevis Accountants on Harbour Crescent. That evening, as usual, there were only seven or eight of us. I was the youngest by over ten years. Everyone except Alan looked either bored or sleepy or both, and even Alan lacked his usual energy and bluster.

“Welcome, everyone,” said Tom, our pastor, catching each of our eyes in turn and submitting us to a checking-over. He did this every time but I never minded.

Tom had proved his worth on his arrival in Castlehaven a couple of years earlier. He’d been the only person to understand that, although I didn’t show it, I was missing my father like hell. Mum, Aunt Daisy and the other Crabbies all assumed that because I never cried (I couldn’t) and went on exactly as I’d been before (good little swotty girl, coming top in all my school tests), I didn’t really care. Or, as I heard someone say, I’d ‘emerged unscathed’ – whatever that was supposed to mean.

Mum told me I was her comfort and support and she didn’t know what she’d do without me. After that, I was stuck with my role.

Tom, the second time we met, asked me about my father and the things we’d done together. After a few minutes of this I was able to have my first proper cry. I met up with Tom once a week after that, for what he called counselling. I was only eleven and had never heard of it. I still don’t understand what he did, but I will always love him for it.

So he was more than welcome to scrutinise me. I was fine, of course, just wondering, as always, why I was there. Why I continued to go to Crabbie meetings when there were no other young people except, once in a blue moon, the Bond twins, Ray and Tony. At one time I’d been in love with both of them and the thought of seeing them had been enough to get me to a Thursday meeting. But that was last year and my tastes had changed.

“Any special requests for prayer?” asked Tom.

No-one spoke up and I considered mentioning my geography test next day, for which I should have been revising. But it would be just my luck if, after I’d mentioned it, someone remembered about a sick baby or a famine.

“Okay then.” Tom, his hay-bale of hair uncombed and wild as always, gave his big grin. He was not a good-looking man; that was part of his appeal for me.  “Let’s bow our heads and ask the Lord to prompt us. Don’t be afraid to pray short prayers. Just mention someone’s name, if you like.”

Before I shut my eyes (I never kept them shut for long) I glanced at Alan, sitting across from me. He was, I decided, angry – and trying very hard to keep a lid on it. His face was set in grim lines and I hadn’t seen a glimpse of those fearsome teeth. He had a bent nose from a fight he’d been in years before, in the days before he joined the Crabbies, when he’d been involved with motorbike gangs and minor crime.

My mother said Alan had spent some time in prison. She didn’t like him at all, not even when he spoke about how God had blotted out his sins and made him a new man. Especially when he spoke like that. She didn’t quite believe him, I suppose. Or perhaps she spotted a kind of boasting when he spoke about his former life. She had been a school dinner lady in the distant past and remembered Alan as a sullen eleven-year-old.

Maybe I caught my mother’s distrust of Alan, although I disagreed with her on most things. Or perhaps it was because of Louise that I didn’t like him. She’d been my friend for years, in spite of the twelve-year age gap. Before she married Alan she was studying physics at Newcastle University. When they got married she gave it up. She insisted it was her own choice, or rather that “the Lord had led them both together to the decision” – but I never really believed it. She’d been crazy about physics and loved astronomy, too.

It was because I’d plucked up the courage, aged ten, to ask to look through Louise’s telescope that I’d first got to know her. Then she shocked me by leaving university, suddenly, in the middle of her second year, after getting a brilliant result at the end of year one. Nowadays, she was rarely to be seen without her children. She and Alan no longer held hands and she often looked stressed or sad.

Anyway I was glad, that evening, that Alan was subdued and not giving us the benefit of his enormous grin while telling us the latest thing that the Lord was doing with him. God seemed to pay a lot of attention to Alan. I was a little piqued, but in the main relieved, that He didn’t take the same interest in me.

None of the other Crabbies spoke about God in the way Alan did – a sort of over-familiar greasiness. If they had, I’d have stopped going long before.

Perhaps Alan’s anger was the result of a row with Louise. I hoped not, for her sake. I’d never seen him lose his temper but I could imagine it.

A few late rays of sun slanted in through the grimy, sand-streaked window. There was a smell of something starting to go off (food in the kitchen? Only biscuits were ever kept there. Perhaps someone’s socks). The air was dusty, giving the atmosphere a sultry weight that would have been unpleasant if it hadn’t been so familiar.

I’d shut my eyes and was trying to focus my thoughts on prayer, when Charity burst in.

It was customary to keep our eyes closed, or at least half-closed, when latecomers arrived, and pretend not to notice them. But, since Charity was new, that wouldn’t have been right. No-one could have ignored her, anyway, since she tripped over Mrs Pinderfield’s outstretched bandaged leg and nearly fell on top of Tom and old Mr Streatfield. Tom held out his arm and managed to save her.

Charity apologised in an accent that wasn’t quite Castlehaven, but wasn’t so far off. Still Yorkshire, but perhaps inland or further south. I’d ask her later.

Her most noticeable feature was her hair. The weak sun seemed to make a special effort to light it up, and it gleamed like a torch.

“Hello, everyone. I’m Charity Baker.”

I marvelled at her lack of shyness, imagining how paralysed I’d have felt in a group of strangers.

 Tom shook her hand as she sat down in the chair he’d pulled out for her, next to him. “Good to meet you, Charity. I’m Tom. You’re very welcome to our meeting.”

 “Sorry – I didn’t realise you’d started or I wouldn’t have barged in,” she said. ‘You were so quiet. I didn’t think you could be praying.”

Charity’s comment struck me as odd. Wasn’t quietness what you expected in a prayer meeting?

“No problem at all,” said Tom. “I’ll introduce you to the others when we’ve finished, if that’s okay.”

My stomach began to churn. I couldn’t wait for the hour to be over and to have the chance to speak to her. If I dared. And if I got the chance – newcomers were so rare in Crabbie meetings that there was a tendency to mob them.

The room was quiet for about five minutes, apart from Mrs Pinderfield’s asthmatic breathing, the occasional cough from Mr Streatfield and a few sighs from Alan. He gave a series of long, slow breathings-in, followed by a short, sharp expulsion of air from his nose, as though trying to clear a blockage.

I studied Charity. She sat like the rest of us, head bent slightly forward. One hand was on her lap, the other fiddling with the ties of her cheesecloth top. I’d noticed when she first came in that it was thin, see-through enough to suggest a red bra underneath. Her trousers matched the top and were rather grubby, especially the knees. She wore un-trendy, non-label trainers not unlike mine. Her feet, I noticed, were large, possibly size eight or nine. Perhaps they’d suddenly grown and that was why she tripped over things.

I guessed she was a year or two above me at school.

Could she possibly be a new friend? A girl close to my own age, in the Crabbies, was something I’d given up hope of years before.

I dug my fingernails into my thumbs, willing the other Crabbies to behave themselves, not to say anything stupid that would put her off coming again.

A crooning sound started, quiet at first but increasing in pitch and volume to a kind of controlled wail. A bit like a child pretending to be a ghost. At least, I need no longer fear that one of the Crabbies would do something embarrassing. Charity, it seemed, could hold her own in that respect.

The spooky sounds continued for a minute or so. Then Charity was singing – a familiar chorus that began, “Send, Lord your Spirit now, upon your waiting flock.”

Alan’s eyes were open. He was watching Charity and starting to sing along. He had a strong, tuneful voice and they harmonised well. Before long, Tom’s off-key Geordie croak could be heard, together with Mrs Pinderfield’s whine and some squeaks and snuffles from the rest. I mouthed the words, in case anyone was watching me. Though that was unlikely – Charity had got everyone’s attention.

When the chorus finished there was silence for a few seconds. Then Charity’s voice rang out. “Oh, loving Heavenly Father, please hear us and send Your Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and make us overflow with praise. Fill us from Your everlasting fountain of joy. Lift us up into the heights of adoration. Make us vessels of Your holy love.”

 I’d never heard words like this from someone my own age. It should have been incongruous, but somehow, coming from Charity, it sounded natural and sincere. I could tell she wasn’t trying to impress anyone. In fact, she seemed to have forgotten the rest of us were there. Her eyes were shut and she held her hands in front of her, palms up as though ready to catch the Spirit falling from above.

Tom had a slight frown – the bemused look he got sometimes when Alan was ranting on. Alan gazed at Charity with his eyes glazed and unblinking, eyebrows raised, a slight shake of the head as though he could not quite believe this apparition.

Mrs Pinderfield was less affected. She was deaf and had probably not caught Charity’s words. She fiddled with her bandage. Perhaps her leg was sore where Charity had fallen over it.

I could so easily have been irritated by this girl, seen her as some kind of religious crank. But I didn’t. I suppose her looks helped. My main feeling was one of admiration – how dare she? There was curiosity too – I’d never met anyone like this. And a desire to protect. She looked so vulnerable in her cheesecloth outfit, which I noticed had a couple of holes in the side-seam.

Charity stopped, and everyone except me and possibly Mrs Pinderfield expressed their agreement with a loud “Amen”.

I saw Alan draw breath, no doubt ready to launch into an echoing prayer of his own. But he was beaten to it by Mr Streatfield, who had suddenly remembered his sister’s neighbour’s hip operation. Mr Streatfield liked to supply a lot of detail. We heard the diagnosis, the likely outcome, the location of the hospital and the name of the surgeon. Then he added the number of the ward and the fact it was the left hip. Finally, he remembered that the woman in question was seventy-three years old and had a birthday coming up in two weeks’ time.

All this came out in a slow, monotonous rhythm, with long gaps between sentences so you thought he had finished, and smaller pauses while he looked for exactly the right word.

I heard Alan do his abrupt breath expulsion at least twice during Mr Streatfield’s prayer. Mrs Pinderfield’s breathing became even heavier and I suspected she had gone to sleep.

Alan tried to jump in during one of the pauses. But Mr Streatfield ignored his “Lord, we praise you” and resumed his medical dossier. Alan’s face went purple and I felt sorry for Louise again. What must Alan be like to live with?

I knew Mr Streatfield was drawing to a close when he gave a short summary of his request. It was kind of him, I supposed, to remind God of the salient points.

After the final “Amen”, Alan wasted no time. “Dear Lord, I can only echo the prayer of this – of our beautiful sister here – this angelic stranger You have sent to remind us of our need of Your Spirit.” He continued in this vein, alternately praising God and Charity, for at least ten minutes. Halfway through, he stood up and raised his hands above his head. No-one had ever, to my knowledge, got to their feet in the middle of a Crabbies prayer meeting, other than to visit the loo.

Charity stood up, too, and she and Alan locked eyes for a few seconds.

Tom was watching them, still bemused but now with a more pronounced frown, almost like my mother’s look of exasperation when I refused to make up a guest’s bed.

Then Charity started to pray in tongues. I only found out afterwards that that was what it was. She began with a deep hum, interrupted every three or four seconds by a splutter like a car engine failing to start. Alan fell silent. He remained standing and stared. Charity, oblivious to everyone, eyes still shut, continued with the humming and spluttering for a few minutes. Then she started to say a word which sounded like “ardoo”, or perhaps “armoo”, over and over, with varying intonation.

Tom’s head was down, his shoulders hunched.

I felt as though I was watching a good film. This was by far the most excitement I’d ever seen at a Crabbies meeting.

Mr Streatfield kept giving his head a little shake, as though he thought he was imagining it all and wanted to dispel the picture.

Mrs Pinderfield slept on.

 

Tom closed the prayer time with his usual blessing, jumped straight to his feet and shook Charity’s hand again.

“Charity – let me welcome you properly now. Let’s all introduce ourselves.” He was doing his pastoral bit but I could see he wasn’t happy. Tom has one of those transparent faces that reveal his every thought.

We told Charity our names. Alan, of course, added an extra bit about how delighted he was to meet someone who, like himself, was “thirsty for a massive outpouring of God’s Spirit.”

Charity smiled at him but turned quickly back to me and said, “Joanne – you go to my school, don’t you?”

“Castlehaven High?”

“Yep. Thought I’d seen you there. Whose class are you in – Mrs Morris’s?”

I was pleased – Mrs Morris’s class was the year above mine. Charity thought I was older than I was.

“Miss Carter’s.”

“Ah. Fourth year.”

The other Crabbies, bored by this interchange, had started to drift towards the adjoining kitchen, where Mrs Pinderfield was boiling the kettle to make tea.

“I was so relieved to see you,” Charity said. “I thought at first I was the youngest here. How do you stand it?”

“What, being the youngest? I don’t like it much.”

“Well, no. But I meant, how do you stand it, being in such a…” she lowered her voice, probably not quite enough, “… such a dull group?”

I felt miffed. She was right, of course, but it was a cheeky remark for a first meeting. I wanted to defend my Crabbie companions.

I must have shown my feelings. Perhaps I was as transparent as Tom.

“Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just a bit quiet, compared with what I’m used to.”

Alan, mug of tea in hand, was now listening in. “May I ask what you’re used to?” He showed his teeth in a smile that gave me the shivers.

“At my old church in Barnsley we had a manifestation of the gifts at every meeting,” she said. “It was very exciting, though it could be a bit too much at times. And it led to some terrible arguments. That’s one reason Dad and I left Barnsley to come here.”

“The gifts?” repeated Alan.

“The gifts of the Spirit.” She looked surprised. ‘Haven’t you heard of them?”

Alan hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

I said, “I haven’t. What are they?”
 
Tom had joined our little group now. I couldn’t see his face but I could feel vibes of discomfort coming off him.

“They’re what you get when the Spirit comes upon you – when you have the Special Blessing,” she said. “It’s God’s free gift to all believers. But you have to ask for it.”

“I’ve heard of that,” said Alan. “But I’ve never quite understood it.”

It was unlike Alan not to know something.

“Oh, it’s easy,” Charity said. “Like I said, all you have to do is ask. It’s such a shame that lots of Christians don’t know about it. It’s a whole new dimension of worship. Puts things on a higher plane, my dad says. A whole new level of relationship with God.”

“So, what are these gifts?” I asked.

Her expression became more normal when she looked at me. A girl again, not some super-spiritual being. “Tongues, prophecy, interpretation, healing… those and a few more. You can look them up in the Book of Acts.”

“May I ask which church in Barnsley you went to?” asked Tom.

She reeled off a long name I didn’t catch.

Tom nodded.

“Have you heard of it?”

“Just in passing.”

“It’s a wonderful place. At least it was, before the split. Things haven’t been the same since.”

“The split?” asked Alan.

“Yes, the big argument we had. Some of our members didn’t agree with the Special Blessing.” She looked round. Everyone was listening now. “Can you believe it – people not wanting to receive the Holy Spirit? Rejecting God’s precious gifts?”

“I’ve heard of it happening,” said Tom. “It’s a question, sometimes, of how you interpret the Bible. Some people think that God gives His Spirit to all believers, as soon as they believe. That it’s not an add-on extra you have to ask for later.”

“But that’s so wrong!” cried Charity. “Isn’t it sad when people just refuse to accept the truth? My dad used to practically tear his hair out after some of the meetings. People putting up so much resistance to God’s will. He used to wonder if some of their doubts were inspired by the devil.”

“Hey, steady on,” said Tom. “That’s a bit strong. I happen to believe, myself, that there’s no Special Blessing. Not as such.”

Charity was looking at him in alarm, her eyes huge. “Really?”

“Yes. Really.”  His voice was gentle but had a touch of firmness.

Charity’s eyes darted among us as though she was looking for a gap in the group around her, keen to escape. I feared suddenly that she would dash out of the room and we’d never see her again.

I tried to smooth things over. “Surely it doesn’t matter if we don’t agree on everything? That’s what you always say, isn’t it, Tom? That the most important things in a fellowship are love and support?”

Tom grinned at me. “That’s it, Joanne.”

I was pleased to have got things right for once.

“Well, of course, that’s true in a way,” said Charity. Her voice was flat, but at least she hadn’t made a run for it. “But our pastor in Barnsley used to tell us that Christian love can only flow once the Spirit has released it.”

“I wouldn’t argue with that –” began Tom.

Before he could continue, Alan jumped in. “Charity, I’m beginning to think God has sent you as the answer to my prayers. You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve been asking Him – imploring Him – to send an outpouring of the Spirit, to wake us all up. I’ve sat in these meetings, feeling the deadness all around me. I’ve –”

I looked at Tom’s face, to see how he was taking this. He was biting his lip like a three-year-old and I didn’t blame him. He was the pastor, after all, and someone was attacking his flock.

I wanted to help him out but couldn’t think what to say.

Tom put a hand on Alan’s arm. “Let’s not overstate things,” he said. “We can end up devaluing ourselves too much. There’s a lot of good in our fellowship, as well as a lot of things we need to work on. Charity – let me get you some tea and a biscuit.”

 
“I like Tom,” Charity told me as we left the meeting hall together, twenty minutes later.

“Me too.” 

I’d discovered she lived over a mile away, towards the town centre.

“There’s a bus every half hour into town,” I told her, looking at my watch. “It goes from near my house. I’ll show you. There’s one due in seven minutes.”

It was dark now, with a chilly breeze blowing off the sea. Charity hugged her arms to her chest as though cold, though she insisted she wasn’t.

“Do you like Castlehaven?” I asked.

“Haven’t made my mind up yet. It’s very quiet. I’m used to a lot of stuff going on, especially in our church. We had meetings nearly every night. Is it right what Tom said, that you only meet up on Thursdays and Sundays?”

Wasn’t twice a week enough?  “There aren’t enough of us for any more meetings.”

“That’ll change, too, when the Spirit comes,” she assured me.

After a pause, I asked, “What got you into it all? Did your parents – your dad – take you to the church from when you were small?”

“No, not at all. My dad was converted when I was ten. Before that he was just a businessman, involved in lots of shady deals. Lost in sin. Then someone dragged him along to hear an evangelist and he heard the Good News for the first time, about salvation in Jesus. He gave his life to the Lord and it all went on from there. He joined the church and started taking me along.”

“What about your mother?”

“She’s in France.”

We were almost at Sea View, the guest house run by my mother and Aunt Daisy which was also our home.

“You mean with her work or something?” I knew from the way Charity’s cheeks reddened that it wasn’t that.

“No. All the time. She lives there now.”

“You mean she and your dad are divorced?”

“Well. Not quite. Separated. For a long time. They might as well get divorced.”

“That’s sad.”

“I’m used to it.”

“This is where I live.” I pointed to Sea View, which didn’t look particularly welcoming – a grey looming shape with only one light visible. All our summer guests had gone. There might be a few more at October half-term but after that we would be on our own until Easter. I couldn’t wait.

“It’s huge!”

I explained that we lived in only a small part of it and that the rest was used for guests.

“Does your bedroom look out over the sea?”

“No, I’ve got a view of next door’s dustbins. We save the good rooms for the guests. Do you want to come in for a few minutes?” Mum wouldn’t be pleased, I knew – it was after ten and I hadn’t finished my homework. But she would have to be polite to Charity and I could deal with her recriminations later.

“No, I’d better get home. My dad doesn’t like me staying out too late.”

We stopped at the bus stop, a few yards further on. I wanted to tell her about my father and the accident that killed him. Partly, I suppose, to show I understood about losing a parent – so she would be able to tell me about her mother. But also because I wanted her to know me.

There was the worry, however, that the bus might arrive any time, and I didn’t want to tell her only half the story. So we talked about school, comparing notes on the various teachers.

As the bus appeared, she said, “Joanne, I think you and I are going to be very good friends.”

“I hope so. I’d like to be.”

“And I believe that God is going to do great things among the Crabbies.”

“Do you?”

“You’ve only got to look at Alan to see how much he wants the Spirit. Where there’s longing like that, God always answers.”

I wanted to warn her about Alan, tell her I didn’t trust him. But it was too late – the bus had stopped and Charity was climbing aboard.

 
I waited until it had disappeared around the corner, veering inland from the cliff top, before I went inside.