Busy, busy

It’s been a busy week this week.  That is to say, I have been stuck in a hotel with nothing to do from about 5 pm each evening, so I’ve been busy on the book front.

Unawares is now free in its Kindle edition for five days.  This is the novel I’ve entered for this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  Last year The Young Demon Keeper got through to the semi-finals.  Personally, I think this novel is stronger, but we shall have to see.

And I’ve finally got round to compiling some of my short stories into a compendium, The 07:24 to Cannon Street.  Download it now on Kindle, or wait for the paperback on Amazon any hour now.

Happy reading.

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Capitalist Caring

“Goodbye,” said the Reverend Appleton, standing by the church turnstiles as the congregation filed out.  “Goodbye.”  His face was fixed in a  rictus grin.  “Lovely to see you.”  The reason vicars’ handshakes were weak was because they had to shake so many hands.  A strong grip would cramp before Sunday lunch.  “Oh, Mrs. Wilson.  This is your fourth time, isn’t it?  You know, it’s cheaper to buy a season ticket, and you can claim it back on your tax.  Think about it.”  He grinned and nodded and shook hands until the last of them had left.  Then he hit the total on the turnstile display.  He sighed.

His wife came up to him, slipping her hand in his and rubbing his arm with her other hand.  “The joy of the Lord in short supply today?” she asked.

“Twenty-eight, Anne.  At five pound entrance fee that’s a hundred and forty pounds.  Hardly worth opening up for, after rent, heating and lighting.”

“But where would they go if you didn’t open up?  They love your sermons.  A couple of the old biddies love more than that, too.  I shall have to watch myself.”

“St. Biddulph’s, that’s where they’d go,” he said, patting her hand.  “Bloody Father Brian.  You know what he’s done?  Installed a media system.  A huge great screen with surround sound.  They watch films after the service.  And I mean proper Hollywood films, not cartoons of Jesus and the fishermen.”

“Well, he’s franchised to the Lord’s Mission.  Are you sure you still want to be independent?”

“Of course.  You know what these franchises are like.  They expect you to spout the sermons they supply.  Besides, I can’t now.  Not now Father bloody Brian has joined.  They guarantee a five mile exclusive catchment area.”

She leant her head on his shoulder.  “But you’re a good man, Mike, and a good priest too.”

He smiled and rested his cheek on her head.  “Yeah.  Lousy business man, though.  Thank goodness for funerals.  You know what we could do with?  An epidemic.  Something juicy and potentially fatal that would keep us both busy.”

“Michael!”

“Oh, I don’t mean it,” he said, though with little conviction.  “Come on, let’s lock up.”

They locked the small church up.  As he set the burglar alarm he thought briefly whether it might be better to leave the place unlocked and claim on the insurance, but it was the briefest of thoughts.  He was, after all, a good man.

“Morning, Vicar,” said a policeman, strolling past as they left the church car park.  He touched the peak of his hat in a gentle salute.

“Morning, officer.”  The Reverend Appleton couldn’t help but notice the large badge on his lapel, which read, ‘Ask me the time’.  In smaller text it read, ‘sponsored by Timex’.  “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks, though being down the Feathers would make me happier.”

“Ha!  Yes, both of us working on a Sunday.  Bully for us, eh?”

“Indeed.  Though, I’m not one of your lot, sorry.  Jewish, see?”

“Oh, well, not to worry.  I’m not subscribed to your force either.  Sorry.”

“You having your crime needs supplied by Sentinel?  Bunch of cowboys they are.  When do you see any of them on patrol?  No proactive policing, that’s their problem.  Here.”  The officer fished into his pocket and produced a card.  “We’re expanding into paramedical and fire too.  Have all your emergency needs supplied in one easy-to-manage package.  We can do a special rate for the caring professions too.”

“Well, thanks, I’ll think about it,” said the Reverend, taking the card.

“Are we with Sentinel?” said Anne as they walked away.

“We’re not with anyone, love.  Let’s face it, a mugger would have to loan us money in order to rob us.  It was that or insurance, and I’d rather have compensation than see some poor sod jailed.”

“Hmm,” said Anne, which Mike interpreted as meaning, ‘we’re going to talk about this at length later on.’  “Well, lunch is in the oven.  You just need to put on some peas.  I’ll see you tonight.”

They stopped on the street corner and hugged.  Mike kissed her lightly on the nose.

“Do you have to go to work on a Sunday?” he said.

“Do you?” she replied.  “Come on, we both work in the caring professions, which means low pay and unsocial hours.  We need the money, Mike, you know we do.”

“Yeah, I know.  I just thought, maybe I could show you some extra caring, you know.”  He grinned and tugged at her waist.  She laughed and pushed him away.

“After evensong,” she said.  “Now I’ve got to go, or they’ll fine me for being late.”

They parted, Mike to the vicarage and Anne to the hospital.  There she changed into her uniform, then read the duty roster.  Men’s ward.  Oh well, it was better than Accident and Emergency at least.  She reported to the ward supervisor.

“Mr. Henderson,” the supervisor said.  “Bed three.  He needs a bed bath.  Then the drug rounds.  Try and push the Pfizer brand today, we’re below our target.”

Anne nodded and made her way to bed three.  Mr. Henderson was in his fifties, with the look of someone that had enjoyed the good life just a little too much.  His leg was held high in traction.

“Hello. Mr. Henderson,” she said, faking a sunny smile as she pulled the curtain around the bed.  “My name’s Anne Appleton.  Here, here’s my card.”  She placed it on his bedside table with practiced ease.  “Please feel free to contact me for any aftercare needs you may have.  So, bath time.”  She positioned the trolley next to the bed and tested the temperature of the water.

“Um…” said Mr. Henderson.

“Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Henderson, I’m a nurse, and married as well.  There’s no need to be shy.”

“No, it’s not that,” said Mr. Henderson.  “I was just wondering, could I have the gold service bath?”

Anne walked to the foot of his bed and examined the chart.  “You’ve not prepaid, Mr. Henderson.”

“No.  My card is in the locker, in my wallet.”

Damn!  She hated gold service, but they really needed the money.  Mike’s congregation was spending less, and most of the corporate sick went into the private wing.  She switched on her fake smile again and pulled out her card reader.  “Fine,” she said, rifling his locker and locating his credit card.  “A gold service bath.”  She swiped the card and handed him the reader for authorisation.  She wagged her finger at him and said, “But any inappropriate behaviour and I’ll break your other leg, okay?”  She said it in a voice that was mock-stern, but with an underlying edge that said, she meant it really.

“No, no, I understand.”  Mr. Henderson held up his hands in innocence.

“Okay, let’s get you bathed then,” said Anne.  At least she wouldn’t get her uniform wet, she thought as she removed her blouse.

The Writer

“Hi.”

The girl at the table looked up from her book at the stranger. He was middle-aged, well-dressed and wore a watch that could pay off the national debt of a small country. She gave a smile, just enough to be polite, but not warm enough to encourage any further conversation, then returned to her book.

“I hate these soulless hotel bars. Do you mind if I sit here? Just so I’m not sitting on my own.”

She hesitated, but couldn’t think of a reason to deny him. “Sure,” she said, then rested her head on her hand, concentrating on the page before her.

“I’m Alastair.”

“Helen.”

“Are you here on business?”

She nodded, not looking up from her book. It was hardly an inspired guess. It wasn’t the sort of hotel you spent a vacation in.

“What sort of business?”

She placed her finger on the page, marking her spot, then looked up.

“What?”

“What sort of business are you in?”

“Sales.”

“Cool. I’m a buyer. Maybe we should get together. Sorry, sorry, that sounded funny in my head. It just sounded creepy when I said it out loud though, didn’t it. Sorry.”

She shrugged and returned to her book.

“Look, sorry, I must come across as an awful creep. I just over-compensate, that’s all. I’m sorry. Look, Helen was it? Helen, let me make it up to you. Let me buy you a drink, and I promise I’ll leave you alone.”

“I don’t drink.”

“What, never?”

“Never.”

“Oh, okay. A salesperson that doesn’t drink. That’s a first. Is it a good book?”

Helen sighed, looked up from her book and sat back.

“Sorry, what was your name again?”

“Alastair.”

“Alastair, you’re probably a really nice guy, but here’s the deal. I have a boyfriend, I’m not lonely, I’m not drunk, I’m twenty years younger than you and I don’t do one night stands. I’m stuck in this hotel because I have to meet a customer tomorrow first thing. I don’t know if this is a good book or not, because you keep talking to me. I don’t want to be rude or anything. If you want to sit there, please, feel free. Just let me read my book in peace, okay?”

“Sure, sure. Sorry.”

She nodded her acceptance of the apology and returned to her book. Alastair looked at her for a few moments, sighed, then closed his eyes. A few seconds later, he opened them again.

“Your boyfriend, he’s a lucky guy.”

She nodded.

“You must miss him.”

She nodded again. “God yes,” she muttered.

“What do you miss most?”

“Just the physical contact, you know? Just being able to touch someone.”

Alastair reached across the table. Helen absently took his hand and started to stroke his palm with her thumb.

“What sort of men do you find attractive, Helen?”

Helen looked up from her book.

“Older men.”

“Yeah?” How much older?”

She smiled.

“Oh, about twenty years.”

“Really? About my age then.”

“Yes, exactly your age.”

“Are you here for just the one night?”

“Yes. I’m going back home after the meeting.”

“Do you want to spend the night with me?”

Helen looked around in case someone overheard, then leant forward. “Yes,” she whispered.

“Okay. Let’s have a drink first, though. I bet I know what you like. Vodka and tonic.”

She giggled. “That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Are you a mind reader?”

“A mind reader? No, I don’t read minds.”

Showing Respect

He sat on the tombstone, feet on the grave itself, casually smoking a cigarette. It was early and he wore a windcheater with the collar turned up against the cold. As I approached he nodded to me, as though he were merely leaning against a bus shelter.

“Show some respect,” I said.

He didn’t move. Instead he shrugged and said, “Why? What respect did he get when he was alive?”

“Look, he was a friend. Have the decency not to stand on his grave, will you?”

“Fine, fine.” He slouched off the headstone and stepped onto the grass. He stared down at the gravel that covered the fresh earth. “Not a good friend, though,” he said after a while.

“What?”

“You said he was a friend, but not that good a friend, apparently.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you weren’t here at his funeral.”

“No. We didn’t think it was… appropriate, I guess.”

“We?”

“Me. I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

“I guess. People missed you though. Said you should have been there.”

“You were there?”

“Yes. Well, I had to be.”

“Are you his brother?”

“Me? No. Why?”

“You sound like him. Look like him too, a bit.”

“No. His brother was here, but he’s gone back up north.” He dragged hard on the cigarette, took the dog end out of his mouth and flicked it across the lawn. He reached into his windcheater and pulled out a battered packet.

“Want one?” he asked, offering me the pack.

“No, thanks.”

He shrugged and looked at the packet. He gave a little snort. ” ‘Smoking Kills’. Why’d they put that there? No one takes any notice. Smoking hasn’t killed me. A fistful of pills, now that really will kill you. A knife through the heart, too.”

“Look, do you have something to say?”

“Me?” He took a cigarette in his mouth, produced a disposable lighter and sucked the cigarette into life. “No, I don’t have anything to say. Just thought it ironic, that’s all. Him a smoker, but the pills getting him in the end. You know why he did it?”

“Of course I do.”

“Broken heart, his mum said. Unable to live without the love of his life.” He looked down at the grave and shook his head. “Complete bollocks.”

“What?”

“Well, you know he was a bit of a player, right? Sure, he loved her, but he could have got another. There were other girls before, there could have been others after. I’m not saying he played away while they were together, far from it. Loyal as a puppy, he was. But he could have bounced back. He wasn’t going to kill himself over a bit of skirt.”

I bunched my fists. “Shut up!”

“What?”

“Just shut up about Liz, you hear?”

“I’m just saying, she couldn’t have been all that to him, not her, not any woman. Not enough to kill himself over. Or are you saying it was her fault?”

“Of course not.”

“There you go then. We agree. It wasn’t Liz’s fault. He didn’t kill himself over her. That wouldn’t make sense to anybody. I mean, if she didn’t love him, why would he do that?”

“She loved him.”

“Really? She had a funny way of showing it.”

“Who are you?”

He smiled, took the cigarette from his mouth and blew a long stream of smoke into the air.

“Still, I expect he knew, deep down. I mean, if someone’s not happy, you know, if you’re close. He must have suspected. Maybe denied it to himself, but you can’t be engaged to someone and not pick up a hint.”

“She tore herself up over it.”

“No, I expect you’re right. Didn’t throw herself on the pyre though, did she.”

“It wasn’t her fault!”

“I know, I know. That’s what I’m saying. These things happen. You fall in love, you fall out of it again. No blame here, Tony. No blame at all. A woman’s needs are manifold and mysterious, I know that. I don’t blame her, not a bit. Not her.”

“Are you saying it’s my fault?”

He shrugged. “Why would I say that?”

“How do you know my name? Who are you?”

“You religious, Tony?”

“What? No.”

“No, me neither. Load of bollocks. Did used to go to Sunday School, though. Mum used to insist, on account of how, as a nipper, no-one needed his soul saving more than me. This guy there, used to tell the stories like they were movies. The only part I liked. You realise how much sex and violence there is in the Bible? Anyway, Jesus, he’s dead, and his friend, Mary, she’s giving it the waterworks. Suddenly there he is, bold as brass, right in front of her. And you know what? She didn’t recognise him. It was only after they’d chatted that the penny drops. Then there was his disciples. He chats with them on the road, and they don’t twig at first. Years together on the road, and they don’t know who he is. Spooky or what. Like the Twilight Zone.”

“Who the hell are you?”

He nodded at the grave. “What do you think he’d feel, if he came back, I mean? You think he’d cry about losing Liz? You think he would be distraught about losing a girlfriend? No, not him. Not the Barry I knew. Jack the lad. He’d be down the club, necking a few beers with his mates, swearing off women until the next skirt with a decent rack walked by. Except he didn’t have many mates, did he? Colleagues, a few acquaintances, but not any real mates. Well, maybe one.”

“Shut up.” I bunched my fists and stepped forward. “Just shut up.”

“How do you think he felt, eh? He meets a girl, one that finally he can see settling down with, a really first-class girl. He’s going to Ikea with her, and they’re making plans for the summer, and he’s happy, and of course, his friends are happy for him too, because that’s what friends do.”

“I mean it, just shut up and leave.”

“And then his best mate in the whole world turns round and tells him for weeks, all the time they’ve been down the pub together, sharing laughs, all that time, and his very best mate in the world has been screwing his girlfriend.”

“It wasn’t like that!” I screamed, tears blurring my vision. “You think we meant it to happen? You think we could help it?”

“Of course you could help it. We’re human beings. We got intelligence and self will and most of us have some sort of moral code. Most of us have some sort of respect for our friends. You want to know the truth? It wasn’t her betrayal, it was yours, that’s why he did it.”

“No!” I swung a fist, blinded by tears, and missed. I staggered, unbalanced and sat heavily on the ground.

“You all right, dear?” An old woman looked down at me from the path, concern on her face. I looked around. The place was deserted except for me and her.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.”

“A friend?” she said, nodding at the grave. I nodded. “Yes, it’s a wrench. They say time heals, but – Oh, just look at that.” She bent down with effort and picked up a dog end. “Some people have no respect.”

Socialist Hayfever

“”The natural compass for Americans is republicanism,” said Ruth. “Sure, over here in Europe you have stable democrat governments, to the point you can say socialism and not wince, but not in the States. We were forged by the pioneer spirit, where you stood on your own two feet, where central government was a distant threat and capitalism was the new religion, after religion, of course. We may get the occasional Democrat in office, but it always swings back to a Republican administration. You want to know why? Because the States is a republic, not a democracy. Excuse me.” Her face contorted into a horror mask, then she sneezed violently.

“Bless you,” said John. “I apologise on behalf of all my fellow commies for affronting you with our national health service and our subsidised universities.”

“I accept,” said Ruth, magnanimously. “Still, I’ll give you Brits this. It sure is a pretty place.”

They sat at the picnic table in the beer garden of the Man Of Kent. Below them lay the Weald, miles of rolling farm and woodland stretching to the horizon.

“I guess,” said John. “I think there are prettier places in England, though.”

“You think? I’m an Arizona girl. Trust me, this is as close to heaven as it gets.” She sneezed again. “And it’s so warm, too. I was expecting fog and rain.”

“Gesundheit. And Cockney chimney sweeps dancing down the cobblestones?”

Ruth laughed. “Something like that.”

“Look, if the hayfever is bothering you, we can go back inside.”

“What, and waste a lovely day like this? Besides, I don’t have hayfever.” She searched in her purse and retrieved a handkerchief. “Maybe it’s a summer cold. I’m used to a dry heat.” She blew her nose. “Rats. I think another one’s coming.” She took a series of jerky breaths in, her head bobbing back. Then she paused. “No, false alarm, I guess.”

“Of course, you know it’s all your own fault, your hayfever,” said John. “If you hadn’t elected Reagan, you’d not be sneezing now. That sneeze is we socialists striking back.”

Ruth laughed. “Excuse me? How on Earth do you make that out?”

“See the field? How many of them are yellow, do you think? Two-thirds?”

“I was going to ask you about that. What is that? Tulips?”

“Rape.”

“Excuse me?”

“The yellow plants. They’re called rape.”

“Seriously? Why on Earth would you call it a name like that?”

“I don’t know. Everything’s got to be called something.”

“Yeah, but rape? Why not something less offensive. What, was ‘genocide’ too long a word?”

“Anyway, that’s what’s causing your hayfever. Excuse me, your ‘summer cold’. It’s insidious. Its pollen floats for miles, I mean miles and miles. It’s one of the principle causes of the increase of hayfever in the UK. And it’s all President Reagan’s fault.”

“Why’s that?”

“Back when I was a lad – God, that makes me sound old, doesn’t it? – anyway, back then, we’d never heard of it. All these fields would have been green, or maybe straw-coloured as the autumn came in. Everything in Europe was rosy. The European Union was growing, with the friendly internal squabbles a sign of how well we were all getting along. Even the iron curtain countries were beginning to wonder if Lenin and Marx were quite the heroes they’d been led to think. Trade was unfettered between Union countries, European citizens had the right to move and work anywhere within its boundaries. It was a socialist dream.”

“The United States of Europe, huh?”

“Did you know it was Churchill coined that phrase? And it was something he wanted, too. Isn’t it funny how political sides change? So anyway, as things grew and progressed, so we needed more energy and resources. West Germany needed more fuel, more gas, and just a little way away there was a neighbour who had more than he could use. Step forward the Russian bear. So Germany decided to build a gas pipeline through East Germany and on into Russia.

” ‘Half a mo!,’ said President Reagan.”

“Half a mo?” said Ruth, laughing. “Who says that? What does it even mean? He might not have had a full deck towards the end, but President Reagan would never have said that.”

“Well, okay, but he said whatever the Hollywood equivalent was. ‘Get off your horse and drink your milk’, or whatever. ‘You can’t just engage in free trade. You can’t just build an energy infrastructure that meets your needs, not without asking me.’ Although, I admit, he might have said it with an American accent. And probably with that winning little chuckle of his. ‘That’s the evil empire you’re trading with, and America won’t allow it. We refuse you permission to build that pipeline.’ Or words to that effect, anyway.”

“Really?”

“Really. Well, if it was down to us plucky Brits, we may have come to some sort of arrangement, what with our special relationship and everything, but not Johnny Foreigner. Oh no. ‘Ve vill build our pipeline, und nuts to you.’ said Hans. So Mr Reagan embargoed certain goods going to Germany, just to show them who was the real dictator of the free world.”

Ruth sneezed again. “And that’s why I have hayfever?”

“Well, no, not yet. The trouble is, that would be like the UK embargoing oh, let’s say, the sale of British umbrellas to Arizona. You’d just go buy them from, um, North Dakota, or whatever state is next door.”

“No, we wouldn’t care. Not much call for umbrellas in Arizona.”

“Anyway, the States, they couldn’t just impose a trade embargo on Germany, because it’s part of the European community. Free passage of goods and all that. So they slapped a trade embargo on the whole of Europe, including us, your oldest and dearest friends.” John looked hurt, his bottom lip protruding and quivering.

Ruth shrugged her shoulders. “You have to be cruel to be kind sometimes. Tough Love. What’s that got to do with my hayfever?”

“Well, one of the goods that was banned by the states was corn oil.”

“Corn oil?”

“Yes. Oh the horror, the humanity. You know how much we Brits like our fish and chips, and then there’s the Germans and their sausages, the French and their… well okay, their pretty much anything. The thought that we might not have enough vegetable oil to fry our dinner caused panic. There were riots in the streets.”

“Riots?”

“Well, okay, in England I think someone wrote a letter to the Times, but that’s a street riot in any other country. So the European Commissioners leapt into action. Meetings were minuted,, memos written, and eventually edicts issued. Europe had to be self-reliant on vegetable oil. Unfortunately for the more northern climes, growing sunflowers and olives just wasn’t feasible. But there was an alternative: rape seed oil.”

“It’s really called that?”

“Really, as true as I’m riding this elephant. So the European Parliament authorised a subsidy for farmers who would switch their arable land to the growing of rape. Well, you show me a farmer that will give up a chance of making a bob or two, especially if it’s government money. So overnight our green and pleasant land became a yellow and nasal one. Our rural idyll ruined forever. Our farmland made to look like Ronald McDonald’s trousers. The birdsong drowned out by sniffles and sneezes. That’s what your republicanism did for us. You, my dear Ruth, are merely reaping the backlash.” He offered her a tissue as her nose wrinkled in preparation of another sneeze. “You’re suffering from socialist hayfever.”

The language student

“Boa tarde,” said the man on the train.

“I’m sorry?” said Jeanette. The man took an earpiece from his ear.

“I’m sorry?” he said.

“I thought you were talking to me,” said Jeanette. “I thought you said something.”

“Oh, no, sorry, I was just, um.” He lifted an MP3 player into view. “I was listening to this. Sorry, I didn’t realise I was talking out loud. I’m trying to learn Portuguese.”

“Oh, right. Portuguese, eh? Is it hard?”

“It’s okay, I suppose. It’s a latin-based language, so I guess it’s no more difficult than Spanish or French. Not like Finnish. They say that’s one of the most difficult languages to learn. Lots of verb tenses, apparently.”

“Really?”

“So they say.”

“Do you speak Finnish?”

A look of panic crossed the man’s face. “Dear me, no. Gosh, I hope I never have to learn that. Portuguese is bad enough.”

“So are you going there on holiday?”

“Does anybody go to Finland for a holiday?”

Jeanette laughed. “No, I mean Portugal. Are you going to Portugal on holiday?”

“Oh, I see. No. We thought the South of France this year, maybe. We tend to leave it till the last moment to plan our holidays.”

“So, business then?”

“No. Oh, I travel with work, sure enough, but I rarely go further than Birmingham.”

“So, what? Is learning Portuguese just an academic exercise? A hobby?”

“Well, no.” The man looked embarrassed. “It was my birthday last month. I travel quite a bit. Usually it’s by car. So anyway, I’m not very good with maps, so my wife bought me a GPS navigator for in the car. It’s very good. You just type in the post code and it tells you how to get there. You can program it with your preferences like whether you like back roads or not, and it plots a route. It will even warn you of road works or traffic snarl-ups.”

“O – kay,” said Jeanette carefully. “And the Portuguese?”

“Well, I’m not very good with technology either. If it has batteries and buttons, I’m going to have trouble with it. I’m convinced machines have it in for me. But this one, it’s very simple to use. The salesman assured her that anyone could use it, and for the first couple of weeks it was. Birthday gifts are always a difficult thing, even if you know the person well, and she was so pleased she thought of this one. A couple of times a week she’ll ask me how I’m getting on with it, so I have to tell her it’s great.”

“But you broke it?”

“Well, no, not exactly. It still works. I put the post code in, and it knows exactly where I am and where to go.”

“So…?”

“So, last weekend I must have pressed a button. Probably more than one. Anyway I must have gone into a menu somewhere or something. The thing is, the damn thing will only work in Portuguese now. I can’t work out how to switch it back, because the settings menu is all in Portuguese. I’m not even sure it is the settings menu. So I’ve told her I’m learning Portuguese, and this weekend, when she gets in the car, I’ll tell her I’ve switched over to Portuguese mode to help me learn.”

“Can’t you just try pressing every combination of buttons?”

The man looked aghast. “What? And risk putting it into Danish? Or even Finnish? No, this is the easiest solution.” He looked out of the window. “Excuse me, this is my stop.”

He screwed the earpiece into his ear and nodded at Jeanette.

“Muito prazer a conece-la. Adius.”

Author Notes
Loosely based on an encounter I had. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and now I don’t know how to change them back again

What would God want me to do?

“Now, cherubs, before we hear about Moses and the Egyptians, do any of you have any questions about what we spoke about last Sunday?”
“No, Miss Thompson,” chorused the class. At least, most of the class. A young boy raised his hand. He was new. It was only his second week in Sunday School. What was his name? Tom? Tim?

“Tristan? Do you have a question?”

“Yes,” he said, dropping his hand. “I’ve been thinking about what you said last time.”

“Really? Wonderful.” And Miss Thompson really did think it wonderful. What a delightful change for one of her class to ask a question. What a wonderful validation of all those Sundays she happily sacrificed for these innocent ones. “What is your question, Tristan?”

“You said that God wanted us to do what we’re told, right?”

“What He tells us to do, yes.”

“And so that’s why Abraham was going to stab his son.”

“Well, God was never going to actually let him do that, but yes.”

“And what’s-his-name, his son, he let his dad tie him up and stuff, because God wants us to do what Mum and Dad tell us, right?”

“Yes. Isaac was a very obedient and dutiful son.”

“Okay, so I have a question. What if your Dad told you not to do what God said? I mean, if you’re meant to do what Mum and Dad says, and you’re meant to do what God says, and they’re two different things?”

“I’m sure your parents don’t do that, Tristan, do they?” Miss Thompson frowned. Was this some clue to something dark and hidden in the poor child’s home life?

“No, but if they did. I mean, if your dad was a serial killer or something, and he ordered you to chop someone’s head off? I mean, God said don’t kill, right? So if God tells you to do something and your Dad tells you to do something else, like chop someone’s head off, and God says you have to do what your Dad says, what do you do?”

“I hardly think that’s likely, Tristan.”

“But what if he’s turned into a zombie, and you have to kill someone or he’ll eat your brains?”

“Now you’re just being silly, Tristan. There are no such things as zombies.”

“Okay, but what if he’s a serial killer? There are serial killers, Miss, and if they’re dads, they might want to train you up to take over when the police gun them down, Miss.”

“I’m sure your parents never ask you to disobey God, Tristan.”

“No, but what if they did?”

“Well, in that case, if they did, and I’m sure they never will, but if they did, then God’s law is always the final authority. So if your parents said something like, oh, I don’t know, something like, ‘Go steal something from the supermarket,’ then the right thing to do would be to say no. Sometimes we have to make a stand for what is right. And do you know who else made a stand for what is right?” she added, trying to steer the conversation back on topic. Tristan’s hand shot up.

“Tristan?”

“But what if your dad’s got a knife, and he says, ‘Chop off that person’s head, or I’ll kill you,’ what then, Miss? I mean, if he’s going to kill you if you don’t do what he says. What then?”

“You should always do the right thing, Tristan, no matter what the cost. Sometimes you have to be brave, just like Moses was in the story I’m going to tell you.”

“So,” said Tristan, frowning, “if the bible says do one thing, and people say do another, you should do what the bible says?”

Miss Thompson smiled. “Exactly, Tristan. If ever you are in doubt, look to the bible and it will tell you what to do.”

“Like when it says don’t work on Sunday, Miss, even though the supermarket is open?”

“Exactly like that,” said Miss Thompson, who had campaigned hard when the local supermarket announced plans to open on the Sabbath. It had been fruitless, but they had lost her custom, and served them right.

“So if the bible says don’t work on Sundays, but your dad says you have to tidy your room on Sunday afternoons, even if it’s nice out and your friends want you to go out and play, you’ve got to take a stand for what is right and tell him you’re not going to tidy your room?”

“Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly what God had in mind when he wrote the Ten Commandments.”

“But tidying your room is work, Miss. Mum says it’s ten times the work tidying my room as anyone else’s.”

“Yes, but I think what God actually meant was paid employment, Tristan.”

“But it is, Miss. Dad says I won’t get my allowance if I don’t tidy my room, but I can’t do it if it’s Sunday, not if God says not to.”

“I’m sure God did not mean for you not to tidy your room, Tristan. I’m sure that’s not what He meant when he said to keep the Sabbath holy.”

“But it doesn’t say, ‘Don’t do any work on Sunday, unless your dad tells you to clean your room,’ though, Miss.”

“Be that as it may, we’re going to have to move on now, because we’ve got a wonderful story all about a brave man called Moses who stood up to a king. Not now, Tristan. Everyone wants to hear the story of Moses.” Miss Thompson pressed on, despite the hand waving from the back of the class. “Now, Moses was born a slave, but a princess found him and adopted him. Do you know what ‘adopted’ means?” At the back of the class Tristan’s hand shot up again. Miss Thompson tried to ignore it. “Anyone know?”

“Miss, Miss, I know,” said Tristan, raising his hand so high it was almost pulling him off his seat.

Miss Thompson fixed a smile onto her face.

“Tristan?”

“It’s when your parents give you away to someone else.”

“That’s right,” said Miss Thompson, relieved.

“My dad says he’s going to get me adopted, if he can find anyone who’ll take me.”

“Really?” There was a manic edge to Miss Thompson’s smile now. “Has he considered Egypt?”