How was she to know if she’d really seen God? She couldn’t ask the vicar because they didn’t let her attend Sunday service any more. Just because she got muddled that once and went to the 11 o’clock with knit-lock knickers over her frock.
They’d be sorry, she told them. She was the only one who knew the words to the hymns and definitely the only one to applaud the sermon. So when God appeared to her in the bookies, she was sceptical. Reg had been the gambler in their family. He’d say that God was on his side when he made a bit of a killing, but she knew he didn’t really believe.
She had started going to the bookies after he died. He was taken sudden, just before his horse crossed the line at Aintree. She liked the overhead telly and the company of Doreen, who took the betting slips and gave her a cuppa sometimes. That day though, nobody was paying her any attention, although she’d worn her pink water wings especially.
But there He was, in a corner. Kind eyes and a full head of hair despite His age. He wasn’t performing miracles or anything like that, He was just stood there. Looking out the window. Nonetheless, she knew Him straightaway. Well, you couldn’t not, could you? She’d have liked to speak to Him really, have a bit of a chat, but the Carmen rollers that Rosemary had given her for Christmas were starting to dig in so it was probably time to head home.
Where was home nowadays? Reg would have known. Come to think of it, where was Reg? He’d only gone out for a pound of sausages and some dripping, he should have been back by now.
She went out the door and waved to God as she passed the window. He looked right at her and smiled. So that was all right.
DOREEN FROM THE BOOKIES
I don’t mind. It’s sad really. Her old man was one of my regulars – evil old sod he was. Nearly always half-cut when he come in – I had to show him the door more than once. A bookies isn’t a ladies tea shop but you’ve got to have some standards, haven’t you?
He hadn’t been dead that long when she started coming. He’d keeled over at Aintree, she said. Before the finish and all. His horse didn’t win anyway – I checked. At least she got to keep the housekeeping that week. I think she came out of curiosity – told me she’d never been inside a bookies in her life. Different times, I said. I suppose she wanted to see where Reg spent his time. Back then of course, she was all there. Sharp as a tack.
I never call her Ethel – she’s always Mrs Jenkins to me. And she calls me Mrs Thompson even though I said call me Doreen but she wasn’t having any. To be honest, she’s a bit of light relief. What with Mr Jack-The-Lad swanning off to meet his bit of stuff most lunchtimes and young Tracy with her head stuck in Hello magazine, it can get a bit lonely in here. I see her coming, usually with the shopping trolley trailing behind, and I put on the kettle. She never refuses a cuppa. Sometimes she brings biscuits with her, though I tell her she needn’t. What are they called – those biscuits – I had them as a kid – shortbread with jam in the middle – Jammie something or other.
She likes watching the big screen. I know she’s got a telly at home, because she told me, but I think it’s one of those little ones and her eyesight isn’t what it was. I help her up onto one of the stools in the corner and make sure she’s settled before I go back to work. If it’s quiet, we have a bit of a chat. I’ve told her about my Claire, how worried we are, and she talks about Eric, her son. He’s a soldier, she says, looks lovely in his uniform. My husband told me that Eric was killed in the ’70s, on one of those training exercises they have on Dartmoor. He says I shouldn’t encourage her, but I don’t see why not. He’s alive in her mind, isn’t he – what’s so wrong with that?
She’s started to dress a bit funny recently. We’re not quite at the knickers on the head stage but I can see it’s not far off. One day she was limping and I asked her what was wrong. She said she hadn’t been able to find the other shoe – and when I looked down, she was wearing one high heeled court and one slipper with a pink cat on it.
The other day, she was all excited. Asked me if I’d seen Him. “Him?” I said. “Who?” “Him” she said. “God”. I was taken aback, I don’t mind telling you. I knew she’d been a church-goer, but she never talked about that side of things. Then she said that He’d been here – in the bookies. I said “How did you know it was God?” She looked at me pityingly and said “You just know, don’t you?” Not a lot you can say to that. She said He smiled at her and that she gave Him a bit of a wave.
I hope it’s not going to be a pattern. This God thing. We had a punter, years ago, who thought he was Jesus Christ. Knew all the dead certs. Said that when his big win came up, he’d share it with us. Seeing as how he never won more than a fiver, I couldn’t see how that would work. Like the loaves and the fishes, he said. He came to a sticky end, that one. The pretend Jesus Christ.
THE REVEREND CLIVE
He rather missed Ethel and her lusty rendition of the old hymns. And was it prideful of him to admit that her spontaneous applause for his humdrum sermons gave him not only great pleasure but the courage to persist with his ministry in this city backwater?
When he arrived here sixteen years ago, she was among the first to welcome him with a chocolate cake of her own making, he remembered. He was a young curate then, too green to know that the consumption of parishioners’ baked goods was to be undertaken with caution. He was ill for three days and three nights. Although hardly on a scale with the tribulations of St John, he emerged from the experience feeling righteously purged.
Ethel had her troubles. That indolent husband of hers who ranged only as far as the pub or the bookies. And a soldier son killed in a tragic accident on Dartmoor. But she remained a lively and buoyant character. The ladies on the Church Flowers rota were however not fond of her and neither was his own dear wife, a rather unforgiving woman. He smiled as he remembered Ethel’s controversial Harvest Thanksgiving – Weeds Are Flowers Too.
When his conscience pricked him, he would pay a pastoral visit to the small terraced house she’d lived in for over fifty years. He made a point of wearing his clerical collar on these occasions since the time when Ethel mistook him for Reg, her deceased husband, and became disconcertingly flirtatious over a plate of Jammie Dodgers. He rather regretted that the collar was now considered unfashionable by most of his congregation.
He hoped that when her time came, as come it must to all souls, they would ask him to conduct the service, even if it took place at the council crematorium rather than in the arched Victorian splendour of St Michael’s. He would instruct the young organist engaged for these occasions to play two of Ethel’s favourites; ‘Fight The Good Fight’ and ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’.
ERIC – THE SON
Hello Mum. I wish I could pick up the phone and talk to you like I used to – I miss that more than anything. I think you do too. But this’ll have to do. I see you’ve put that photo of me in Christmas Tree order up on the mantelpiece. That was taken in Aldershot, wasn’t it?
Bloody photographer took forever – I was sweating my guts out under those lights. It was like being on parade on a hot summer’s day. No wonder blokes pass out – it’s like a sauna out there in the ranks.
I’ve had a bit of time to think here, Mum. Not that they don’t keep you busy, but there’s still a lot of quiet – y’know. It’s good though. It’s like that quiet that we had, you and me and sometimes Dad, after you’d fed us your best Sunday dinner. A kind of full up quiet, content. You’d try to get me to have a second helping of pudding and I’d say “No Mum, just a cup of tea maybe?” If I’d eaten everything you wanted me to, I’d have been too fat to make it into the Army, wouldn’t I?
Oh sorry. Sore point eh? I know you blamed Dad for me joining up. Well, you were always mad at him for something or other, weren’t you? But the truth is, it was just as much my idea as it was his. I wasn’t going to get any sort of decent job on civvy street with no O-levels. The Army seemed like a good deal. And honestly Mum, I had a good time. I loved all that square-bashing, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it to my mates. Made you feel proud, belonging to something. And they taught me to drive – I wouldn’t have been able to afford lessons otherwise. The driving was a mixed blessing, mind you. If I hadn’t been driving, I wouldn’t have been upside down in that bloody tank, dead as a doornail.
Remember that first Christmas when I’d just finished basic and I came home in uniform for the first time?
Auntie Winnie and Uncle George came round and I got our David drunk on that sherry you kept at the back of the cupboard. That was a laugh, though Dad didn’t think so. He would have thumped me if he’d had the nerve. You got all the neighbours in, gave them some guff about Christmas cards, but truth was you wanted to show me off. “Eric’s learning to drive tanks, aren’t you, love?” I was a bit embarrassed to be honest, but as it was you, Mum…
I know you hoped I’d get together with Susie from Number 88, maybe even get married. We did have a bit of a fling (I kept that quiet, didn’t I?) but it wasn’t anything serious. She married my mate Dave in the end, remember him that came for tea once? Tall skinny bloke, you force fed him your fruitcake. I’m sorry you never got any grandkids though. I would have liked kids really, but it doesn’t matter to me now. I see Rosemary’s kids visiting you sometimes. She’s turned out all right, Rosemary, hasn’t she? Even if she’s a bit of a nag. First you have Dad on at you all the time then there’s Rosemary – poor old Mum!
I like sitting with you some nights, just you and me in the old house. That big tabby cat sat on your lap – he doesn’t like me much, does he? But Mum, you want to watch it. Talking about me to folk like I’m still – well – alive.
WINNIE – THE SISTER
I had set out the blue china for afternoon tea and my dollies were dressed in their best frocks when she ruined it all. She’d been playing with the dog in the garden and they came tearing into the lounge. The table went flying of course – the teapot and the slices of Battenburg with it.
Mother had warned her if there was one more incident with that dog, it would have to go. I for one was glad to see the back of it – smelly, noisy thing.
I was always careful with my belongings, especially my collection of books. Ethel would tell you she’s always loved books, but ask her how many of them she defaced when she was a child and that would be a different story. I opened my Grimms Fairy Tales one day to find things scribbled in the margin by ‘Miss Ethel Fletcher, age 10’. And between the last page and the back cover, there was a rosebud, half-pressed.
She wasn’t any better when she grew up. Her going-away outfit lacked a nice handbag, so I loaned her my best, as any good sister would. It was tan crocodile skin with a gold clasp and it had taken me months to save for. I should have known better. I got it back I don’t know how much later with the clasp broken and a scratch along the side. There was only the sketchiest of apologies from Madam.
Reg Jenkins was a common little man. Mother could scarcely credit that Ethel was intent on marrying him, but marry him she did. And, as the saying goes, repented at leisure.
Oh she pretended they were happy, but everyone knew how far from the truth that was. I was so lucky to have my George. He never caused me a day’s worry in all his life and he gave me two lovely children. But Reg? Died at a racecourse after gambling away everything they had. I only attended the funeral out of consideration for poor Ethel.
It’s been difficult this past year. With Ethel going a bit – funny. There’s never been a history of that in the family, I told them, Mother and Father were both sharp as tacks till the day they died. Rosemary’s been a great help – in her line of work, she comes across things like this all the time, she tells me.
Sometimes though, and I know as a Christian I shouldn’t say this, for Jesus was very keen on helping the unfortunates of this world wasn’t he, but sometimes, I wonder if she isn’t just making it all up, just to get the attention.
Her petticoats rustled and she felt as light as gossamer as they waltzed around the dancefloor. He was stoneyfaced, which was off-putting, but she put it down to his dance shoes being a bit on the snug side.
“Reg, d’you want to sit the next one out?” she asked. “Yes all right. Why don’t I get us some drinks from the bar?” he said. Half an hour later, he hadn’t returned. He’d probably found a new friend at the bar to talk to. He was always finding new friends, people she was never introduced to. She smoothed the red crepe-de-chine of her frock with gloved hands and waited.
When she opened her eyes, the red balloon was gone and Mother and Winnie with it. She scanned the beach and saw them in the distance, heading towards the promenade. She jumped to her feet and ran after them. Why had they left without her? And where was the red balloon?
She’d made a fuss earlier about getting that balloon and Mother had told her to stop drawing attention to herself, that there were to be no balloons until they got to the beach. She’d sulked then, something she was good at. Winnie never sulked. Ethel hated her sometimes.
“Are you all right, Ethel?” she heard a voice say. What did they mean, all right? She was here, wasn’t she? It seemed a long way to come just to get a balloon but she supposed they knew best. She was getting thirsty – Reg had been gone such a long time. “Can I have a drink of water?” she asked. Somebody made an impatient gesture and she saw that the tea in front of her had hardly been touched. She wished she’d stayed at home now.