Friday, February 20, 2009

Conversions 3

"Kate? Kate Walton?"

"Who is this?" Even through the intercom, Paul couldn't miss the fear in her voice.

"My name's Paul Webb, from St And-"

"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't talk now." The intercom went dead.

Should he leave her alone with her pain? He imagined her cowering inside the flat, thinking he was another of the "religious nutcases" come to deliver even more devastating news. Could he at least ease that fear, or would his best efforts only shake her further?

He stabbed the buzzer again. "Your friend Patrick asked me to speak to you."

After a long silence, she said, "You're not one of them, are you? You wouldn't say Patrick's name like that."

"I don't know who you mean by 'them'," said Paul, although he had his suspicions. "But Patrick seems like a decent person, and he's definitely worried about you."

"I suppose you can come in," she said. The worst of the panic was gone from her voice, but the deadness that remained did little to reassure Paul as she buzzed him in.

The flat stank. It wasn't hard to spot the cause: the bathroom and the child's bedroom both held little piles of disposable nappies, bundled up and left to lie. Kate followed his gaze and said, "I know. But they're all that's left of her. I can't just throw them away."

"No, of course not. If it helps you to hold onto them for now..."

"Nothing helps," she said, in the flat tone of someone stating an unpleasant but indisputable truth. "I just can't bring myself to throw away anything she touched."

"Patrick's worried about you," he said. "He told me you had some visitors and they ... made things worse for you."

"They told me the truth," she said, still in the same flat tone. "They told me where Demi went."

Paul had seen people who thought they knew what had happened to the vanished children - everything from aliens to mad scientists to wormholes - but all of them had drawn some kind of hope from their theories and worked with feverish energy to reverse what they thought had taken place. For Kate, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. "Where did she go?"

"It was the Rapture," she said. "Jesus came for the faithful and the innocents."

"You can't know that's what happened," he said. "The Rapture is a crazy fringe theory, based on-"

"So was relativity a crazy fringe theory, until they got proof." She sparked into a kind of life for a moment, went over to the table and picked up a leaflet. "Read this. They've been predicting this for years, and it's happened just the way they said."

Paul took the leaflet from her trembling hand and opened it. One side held a photocopy of what looked like a much older article, explaining that the End Times would begin with Jesus transporting the faithful and the innocents bodily to Heaven. The other side held a set of hurriedly-typed notes pointing out that the Event fitted the prediction perfectly.

"You understand now?" she said.

"It could be a hoax." A very thorough and incredibly sick hoax, but Paul had seen the worst of humanity often enough not to rule it out.

"They showed me the article that was taken from," she said. "They showed me a book that was published in 1978 or something. They showed me a clip of someone saying this was going to happen, and there were children playing in the background. It's the truth."

"Well, maybe." They had completely convinced her: that much was certain. "But if it is true, shouldn't it be a comfort to you that Demi's safe with Jesus?"

"How much did Patrick tell you about me and Demi?"

Paul shrugged. "Only that you were on your own with her and taking her disappearance hard."

"When she was about a year old, we had some really bad times. This place was a mess - worse than it is now. She was crying all night, and I got stressed out with losing sleep."

"Yes?" It was a common enough story, but he didn't understand why it mattered now.

"Well, I don't really remember what I said, but it was something about how it might be better for us both if I stuck a pillow over her face. I didn't mean it, but social services heard about it and they thought I did. They did an investigation, and I thought they would end up taking her away."

"Are you saying you blame yourself?"

She shook her head. "If they had taken her, do you think it would have been a comfort that she was safe with them?"

"When you put it like that, I don't suppose it would."

"Well, what's the difference? Jesus decided I didn't measure up to His standards, so He took her away without even doing an investigation first. And I don't get a right of appeal."

The Jesus Paul had directed so many prayers to would never have caused her this much pain. But since the Event, it seemed more and more as though that Jesus was just so much wishful thinking.

"They said they'd be back," she said. "They wanted me to say a prayer. 'Dear God, I'm really sorry for making You do this to me. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again.'"

That summed it up: the Rapture cult's idea of God was just an abusive partner made bigger and scarier. Kate's fear made perfect sense now. "But you don't want to say the prayer?"

"I don't know," she said. "Sometimes I think it's my only chance of ever seeing Demi again, and I have to take it. But then I think I'm not good enough at pretending, and He'll know I'm not sincere. Then maybe He'll do something even worse."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Conversions 2

Two days later, Paul was still trying to work out what had happened.

The vigil had ended, the congregation drifting home to their private grief. Paul stayed, thinking perhaps someone would need whatever help he could still provide. Enough people came to justify his presence, but nowhere near enough to occupy his mind. Most of them just wanted to talk - even to rant - in front of someone who knew how to listen sympathetically. A couple of them asked, like the latecomer, why God would do such a thing; Paul still had no answer.

Towards midday on the second day, a vaguely familiar young man arrived. He had been at the back of the church with the others, but it took Paul a few moments to work out where else he'd seen him. He helped out every year with Christian Aid Week, but didn't often come to services. Paul had heard second-hand that his boyfriend had converted to some particularly nasty strain of Christianity, ranted at him about what a sinner he was, and cleared off. He didn't look as if he blamed Paul for this.

"I'm worried about a friend of mine," he said, without preamble. "She's on her own - she lost a little girl - a toddler."

Paul knew single mothers, knew how close they could be to their children. Sometimes the children were the one positive thing in their chaotic lives, and to lose them... What comfort could anyone offer to someone in that situation?

"She was taking it about as well as you'd expect," the young man went on. "I was sort of looking after her, making sure she didn't ... making sure she could cope. And she was coping - just about - until someone came round. I'd gone out to get some bread - they were leaving when I got back."


"I think they were some sort of religious nutcases - no offence. She didn't tell me who they were - she wasn't really up to talking. She went right downhill after they came round. It's almost as if ... as if whatever they said to her was worse than her daughter disappearing."

Worse than losing her daughter inexplicably and without a moment's warning? Paul shivered.

"Do you think you could go and speak to her? Tell her that whatever they said, God isn't really like that? They had Bibles - the only bit of the Bible I know is 1 Corinthians."

It wouldn't do any good to ask what he should do if God really was like that. Any arguments the Bible might make were a good deal less convincing than the spaces where children used to be. "I can speak to her," Paul said. "What's her name? Come to think of it, what's yours?"

"Oh! Sorry, didn't I say? I'm Patrick Coleman. She's called Kate Walton. I wrote her address down..."

As he searched through his jacket pockets for Kate's address, the door opened. "Sorry," said an all-too-familiar voice. "I didn't realise you were busy."

Patrick produced a slip of paper, mumbled something about getting going, and left Paul face-to-face with the latecomer.

"I came to say sorry," he said. "I don't know what came over me."

Paul's heartbeat began the return to normal. "It's OK. After what happened..."

"No, I know I wasn't thinking straight. I wanted to lash out anywhere. I just don't know what good I thought it would do."

"It's OK," Paul said again. "Grief does strange things to us. You scared the hell out of me, I won't deny that, but it's over now."

"Yes," said the other man. "It's all over." He fiddled with his belt buckle, looking as if he still had something to say. "I know it's a lot to ask, after what I did, but would you help me with Janice's funeral? I want to give her ... give her..." Sobs choked him again.

"I can do that," said Paul. A funeral would be almost a relief, a reminder of the days when suffering came a little at a time, and understandably. "If it'll help at all, I'll be glad to."

The sobs slowly subsided, but the man remained tense. Whatever he'd come to say, he hadn't finished saying it.

"You never told me your name," Paul said, when he thought the other man would be able to speak.

"Gary. Gary Sutton." Gary took a deep breath and burst into words. "I've been thinking about what you said, about sinking to God's level and me being all I've got. Was it just something you said to try to calm me down, or did you really mean it?"

Paul remembered that moment, but he couldn't recapture the answer that had been so close. "I don't know," he said. "Does it matter now?"

"I suppose not," said Gary. "I just thought if you meant it, maybe ... I don't know."

"I'm sorry," said Paul. "I wish I had some answers for you."

Gary sighed and got to his feet. "Well, thanks anyway, Reverend. I'll see you about the funeral ... when they finish the paperwork ... it's going to take a while before they release the..." Tears filled his eyes, and he wiped them away with his sleeve. "I'll let you know."

At the church door, he stopped and turned back towards Paul. "Reverend? Do you still ... you know? Believe in God?"

Paul shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know the answer to that either."

Monday, February 2, 2009


Paul had never seen the church so full. A sea of faces looked up at him, faces he saw every day in the shop or the post office, but never in church until now. Waiting for him to give some words of comfort from a God he wasn't sure he still believed in.

He concentrated on the unfamiliar faces: it was easier than thinking about the familiar ones that were missing. The Hooper boys weren't giggling over their hangman game, and little Mary Ellis wasn't wriggling beside her mother. A handful of older villagers were gone too; Paul didn't know whether they were vanished like the children or more explicably dead in the chaos. He didn't think he wanted to know.

He opened his prayer book and read every prayer that seemed even slightly appropriate. O Lord, comfort us in our hour of great need. Let it not be as bad as it seems. Bring our children safely back to us. As he prayed, he couldn't shake the thought that a god who would allow something like this to happen was either impotent or sadistic.

When he got to the end of the book, he started again from the beginning. Halfway through the first prayer, a commotion at the back of the church caught his attention. He trailed off in mid-sentence as the latecomer shoved his way roughly through the crowd.

"There's room for everyone in God's house," said Paul. "Please, find a space as best you can, but don't-"

"I haven't come to pray," said the latecomer. He was close enough now that Paul could see him, although he didn't recognise him. Someone from one of the farms, most likely, not often in the village. In his right hand, he gripped a shotgun.

"What have you come for?" Paul asked.

"This is God's house, is it?" said the latecomer. "Well, I'd like to speak to God." He stood right beside Paul now, close enough for Paul to notice that there was no smell of alcohol about him. This terrible mood owed nothing to the bottle - which made it all the more terrible.

"Prayer is the only way I know of speaking to God," Paul said. "Everyone here is in the same situation, and perhaps if you pray with us you'll start to feel-"

"I don't want to pray. I want to speak to God, and I want the bastard to answer me."

Several people in the congregation gasped. Paul wondered irrelevantly whether it was simply because of the profanity, or because someone had put into words what they had thought but dared not say. "It doesn't work that way," he said. "If you pray, and make yourself very calm, you might hear the voice of God within you."

"Not good enough," said the latecomer. He raised the shotgun and put it against Paul's head. "You tell God that I want some answers."

"He knows." Visions of what a shotgun would do at that range tormented Paul. He probably wouldn't suffer, but the congregation would. "He sees everything, and He understands what you're feeling now. If you put the gun down and pray with us-"

"Let me tell you something, Reverend. Yesterday, I was painting the nursery. Getting ready for the baby coming. I've not done so well for myself, but he wasn't to know that, was he? It was going to be a fresh start for me."

Paul swallowed. "What about your wife?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be comforting her?"

"There's no comforting her now. When the baby disappeared, she started to haemorrhage. I called an ambulance, but it was such a mess they couldn't get there in time. At least I got to hold her as she died, though. More than I can say for the baby."

"You don't know the baby's dead," said Paul, painfully aware of how inadequate that was.

"So what I want your God to tell me," the latecomer went on, as if Paul hadn't said anything, "is what possible justification He could have for doing that to me? And none of that crap about God's plan not making sense to us. If He's going to hurt us like this, He can damn well explain himself."

It was a good question, and Paul had no answer. Either you had faith in a divine plan that would make sense in the end, or you didn't. Paul suspected he no longer had that faith, but he had to pretend, for his congregation's sake.

"Well, God?" The shotgun tapped again Paul's temple. "Answers, or I blow your man's head off."

"Listen," said Paul desperately. "Suppose you're right. Suppose God is just a ... suppose He doesn't have any justification for this, and you shoot me. What have you achieved?"

"Shown Him I won't put up with His bullshit any more." Was the pressure of the shotgun less firm now, or was that just wishful thinking?

"But I didn't take your baby. I didn't let your wife die. If you shoot me to send a message to God, how do you justify that?"

The shotgun definitely wavered this time, but his voice was still defiant. "He started it."

"So you're going to sink to His level?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

In one moment of terrified clarity, it all made sense. Paul groped for the words that could express it. "If God is as bad as you say, then you're all you've got. Don't you think you owe it to yourself to be better than that?"

The shotgun thumped on the carpeted floor. The latecomer slid to the floor and curled up by the base of the lectern, sobbing like a child.