Great new book – Righteous Release by Richard Gardner.
Wikipeebia tip: Replace ‘Eternal Fellowship’ with Exclusive Brethren or PBCC.
David Chambers is a member of the religious group ‘the Eternal Fellowship’.
Their beliefs forbid any involvement with the outside world, and any temptation
to embark upon a life with the ‘wordlies’ is considered a betrayal of the Lord.
David’s loyalty to the Eternal Fellowship is discovered when marriage looms ever
closer; a realisation that he is not destined to wed a woman who was chosen for
him and, with thoughts of exploring the big wide world, he makes a decision that
will ultimately turn his entire family and friends against him. Righteous
Release will capture the mind of the reader with an engrossing tale of a young
man’s convictions as he enters a world that is far from the life that he has
been accustomed to. Outside of the Eternal Fellowship awaits the world of
politics, and one that will open the door to the future he has chosen.
Excerpt from the actual book – Righteous Release by Richard Gardner:
“Pass the cakes, David,” smiled Hilary Chambers, as ever the perfect hostess.
Two sets of eyes lit up as daughter and mother surveyed the plateful of creamy delicacies thrust in their direction.
“Ooh I shouldn’t but I will,” giggled Ruth, girlishly claiming a chocolate éclair.
“They look so fresh,” beamed Joan Kennedy, launching an even podgier mitt towards a vanilla slice.
With all mouths fully engaged silence momentarily reigned supreme.
For followers of the Eternal Fellowship, cream cakes were a delight to be savoured. In this very strict evangelical sect eating was one of the few pleasures in life tolerated by its spiritual leadership. An inventory of the goods and chattels in the Chambers home would have revealed an absence of just a few of those forbidden fruits, which bring a little cheer and gaiety to the rest of us. There was no TV, radio, computer and a book selection limited to Bibles, dictionaries and the odd gardening manual. Fun activities to be avoided were Christmas and Birthday celebrations, eating in restaurants and trips to the pub.
However, there is something else which distinguishes the Fellowship from other Christians. In the early 1960s, followers were instructed to be separate from the rest of the world and its wickedness. This meant that they were not permitted to be friends with non-believers, enter their homes or even sit down to eat with them. Understandably this new rule met with a great deal of resentment and many left as a result. Only a hardcore remained.
In six week’s time David and Ruth were to be married. Joan Kennedy had driven her daughter down from Birmingham that morning to the husband-to-be’s home in the Kent town of Brockleby. She was keen to sit down with Hilary, David’s mother, to discuss certain details relating to the wedding.
The betrothed couple had not known each other for long. Premarital sex was strictly forbidden by the Fellowship so most followers are encouraged to have short engagements. In this way the temptation to give into lustful behaviour before the knot is tied is kept to a minimum.
The vast majority of followers are born into Fellowship families. Converts are rare as few outsiders would relish the prospect of entering such a strange world. Therefore young people are expected to marry early and have plenty of children in order to swell the numbers.
David was twenty-three and Ruth had just had her twenty-second birthday. Both were considered to be slightly past their ideal marrying age and pressure had been put on the pair to find a spouse. Five months earlier they had met at a prayer meeting during a visit that David and his family had made to relatives in Birmingham. After that events had moved on very rapidly.
Joan Kennedy was mainly responsible for bringing the two together. Having noticed the good looking young stranger at the Gospel Hall she decided to invite the Chambers’ family for a meal at her home the following evening. It might have seemed pushy, but she was determined to see her youngest daughter married off one way or another.
Now of the worldly pleasures permitted to the Eternal Fellowship, perhaps the consumption of alcohol is one of the most surprising. So although David had not been particularly enamoured with Ruth, he had taken a liking to her father’s whisky which was being generously distributed. One glass led to another until his mind became so numb he would have been unable to distinguish between a catwalk queen and Whistler’s mother. Sitting in a blissfully intoxicated silence he was totally oblivious to the conversation going on around him.
Suddenly he became vaguely aware that his father was addressing him in a hushed whisper.
David tried hard to focus his mind.
“What did you say?”
John Chambers gave a sigh of exasperation.
“I said, do you agree with me?”
“Absolutely,” answered David without any idea as to why his opinion was being sort after. Anyway, as he wasn’t in any fit state to argue, it seemed a wise course of action just to go along with his father.
John gave his son a fixed stare.
“Are you certain about that?”
“Totally,” came the immediate reply.
There followed a great flurry of activity. Telephone calls were made to all parts of the globe and women chatted excitedly between themselves while David watched on with an imbecilic grin.
Soon he and Ruth became the centre of attention as strangers began to arrive at the house. Hands were enthusiastically shook and kisses rained down on the pair as Bob Kennedy busied himself with opening spirit bottles. John Chambers then took it upon himself to read a passage from the Bible and the Lord was thanked by others for his great mercy.
It wasn’t until the following morning that David fully appreciated the enormity of his predicament. Quite bizarrely he had agreed to become betrothed to the monster from the Black Lagoon and there seemed to be no escape. Once a commitment to marry has been made, Fellowship followers are expected to take the matter seriously.
“Have you painted the kitchen yet?” asked Ruth who had just finished her éclair and was hopeful of being offered another in the not too distant future.
David shook his head.
“I’ll get started on it next week.”
Ruth gave him a long hard stare.
“But the last owners moved out over a fortnight ago. What have you been doing all this time?”
“I’ve been very busy at work recently.”
Ruth looked up at the ceiling as though seeking divine guidance.
“But we are getting married in just over six week’s time, and there is so much that needs doing to that house. I live too far away to be able to do anything. It has to be up to you.”
“He has been working hard in the last few weeks,” chimed in Hilary, feeling the need to support her son.
In an attempt to divert the conversation, David decided it was time to pass the cakes around once more. He was beginning to learn how easy it was to distract the attention of his fiancée with a vanilla slice or a chocolate éclair.
David gave his future wife a sly glance as she scoffed a lemon concoction with a glace cherry perched on top. Like all Fellowship sisters her dark straight hair was uncut and hung freely to the waist, while her drab and sensible skirt fell modestly below the knees. The shoes too were hardly fashionable and looked as though they could withstand the rigours of a long hike.
However, although a little overweight Ruth was not unattractive. Her facial features were small and regular while her clear blue eyes could be very alluring when she smiled. The few inches of leg that were on display on the other hand, looked shapely beneath the light brown tights.
“How do you manage to keep such a big house so spotlessly clean?” enquired Joan Kennedy between mouthfuls of cream bun.
“With great difficulty,” laughed Hilary. “Although it is much easier now that the family have grown up.”
“Housework can be such hard work,” sighed Joan wearily. “Particularly if you suffer from rheumatism like I do.”
Hilary offered a sympathetic smile.
“It must be difficult for you.”
Joan nodded sadly.
“I just have to pray to the Lord to give me strength.”
The Fellowship believe that married women shouldn’t go out to earn a living. This is just as well given that followers are expected to have large families and as a consequence, require sizeable properties which require a great deal of housework. What is interesting, is that their homes must be detached as devotees of the faith are not permitted to live in the same building as non-believers. Stranger still, they are even required to have separate driveways and drainage facilities from their next door neighbours.
“It’s a lovely day,” remarked Hilary brightly as she glanced out of the window. “Why don’t you take Ruth for a walk in the garden David?”
“Good idea,” said Ruth hauling herself up from the settee with some considerable effort. “There are a number of things we need to discuss.”
It was with reluctance that David guided his fiancée through the sliding patio doors of the sitting room and on to the back lawn. There was no need to remind him of the endless jobs which needed to be done to the new house. All that he required was the time and motivation to get started.
The Chambers’ garden was enclosed at the sides by wooden fences. Any visual trace of the non-believing neighbours was further blocked out by several large trees. At the bottom was a privet hedge beyond which was the rolling Kent countryside. Varieties of flowers in bloom added a rich array of colours to the scenery presenting itself to the engaged couple.
Most of the gardening was done by Hilary. Pruning the bushes and weeding the flower beds was a labour of love for the lady of the house. She would often praise God for sending some well needed rain on her tomato plants. Although why the Almighty should see fit to douse scores of children on their way to school, or spoil a day on the beach for holidaymakers just for the sake of one family’s salad bowl is a complete mystery.
“How old is your car?” asked Ruth who appeared oblivious to the aesthetic delights that nature had to offer.
“About three years,” replied David, casually watching a squirrel darting about on the lawn.
“It’s about time you asked your boss for a new one,” said Ruth firmly. “We need a reliable car if we are to serve the Lord properly.”
David looked at her in astonishment.
“It’s extremely reliable. In any case, I have break-down cover should there ever be a problem.”
“Listen,” said Ruth irritably. “I don’t want to arrive at a Fellowship meeting in the knowledge that our car is the oldest one parked outside.”
“I should have thought that we have more important things to think about right now,” replied David grumpily.
The comment was ignored. Deep in thought, Ruth was trying hard to remember all the jobs needed doing in their new home.
“Now about the garden,” she said finally. “You will need to cut the grass before we move in. It is getting very long and…”
David stopped listening as his attention turned to the pursuits of the squirrel. It was now perched on top of the fence clutching an acorn between the front paws. Finally it ran a few steps before disappearing into the garden next door.
“Did you hear what I said?” asked Ruth in a raised voice.
David turned to her blankly.
“Sorry I was just…”
“You were daydreaming,” said Ruth, changing to her long suffering voice. “I suppose I had better go through it all again.”
This time the husband-to-be tried to be more attentive. However, as he stared straight into Ruth’s eyes as she addressed him, his thoughts began to stray once more. Suddenly he felt himself being taken over by an uncontrollable urge.
“I want to show you something,” he said when his fiancée had finally stopped talking.
“What is it?” replied Ruth without any great enthusiasm.
“Come and see,” answered David as he started to head towards the bottom of the garden.
In the corner at the far end was a shed where John Chambers kept his tools. Between this wooden structure and the privet hedge behind it was a ten foot gap, which was the most secluded part of the garden. Away from prying eyes, David in his mid-teens had used this space to experiment with cigarettes.
Walking about twenty paces behind, Ruth finally joined David in his secret hideout. Standing perfectly still he was staring into a blackberry bush with an intense expression on his face.
“If you look closely you can see a robin’s nest,” he whispered.
Ruth came forward and peered amongst the thorny branches. With her mind suddenly focused on studying wildlife she didn’t notice that David was now standing directly behind her. As a consequence, she was unprepared for the two arms that closed around her waist or the passionate kiss on the neck.
“No you mustn’t,” she exclaimed while trying to pull herself away.
“There is nothing to worry about,” answered David as he tightened his grip on her. “Nobody can see us from here.”
“God is watching us,” replied Ruth anxiously. “We must wait until we are married or he will be cross with us.”
More concerned with his own desires than upsetting the Almighty, David refused to stop. Excited at the feel of Ruth’s body pressed against his own, he continued to kiss her neck with increasing passion. His heart was pounding so fast it felt as though it would burst at any second.
“Please don’t,” wailed Ruth who was no longer struggling. “You are hurting me.”
Reluctantly removing his arms, David stood giving the ground a sulky glare.
“I was just trying to bring a little romance into our relationship,” he muttered.
“But God expects us to be patient and…” began Ruth before suddenly being interrupted.
“David,” called out Hilary from the patio door. “Telephone for you.”
Without another word to Ruth, David immediately set off for the house. Relieved that he had been spared a lecture on the virtue of patience, he felt indebted to the caller. Therefore there was an exaggerated warmth in his voice when he picked up the receiver and announced his name.
“Good afternoon Mr Chambers, my name is Dean,” said a cheery voice. “You recently answered a travel survey I understand.”
David vaguely remembered being stopped by somebody with a clipboard but, couldn’t remember exactly what had been discussed.
“Yes I think that is correct,” he answered hesitantly.
“And you are a homeowner I see,” continued Dean.
“Yes I am,” replied David proudly.
“Well I am delighted to say that you have won a holiday for two in one of a number of exotic locations,” announced Dean happily.
David smiled to himself.
“Sorry Dean but I don’t have the time for holidays. My fiancée has given me a list of jobs to do that will occupy my time well into old age.”
Dean was taken aback.
“But I have two tickets here just waiting for you to collect.”
“Sorry Dean,” said David sympathetically. “But I am forbidden by my faith to gamble or be part of a prize draw.”
“So what do I do about the holiday?” enquired Dean sounding somewhat less cheerful now.
David stood deep in thought for a moment.
“Tell you what,” he said having received a flash of inspiration. “Why don’t you go in my place. Get yourself a tan in one of those exotic places.”
No sooner had he put down the phone on a surprisingly ungrateful young man, before his father and youngest sister Martha came in through the front door.
John Chambers was an electrician and spent much of his time doing ‘the Lord’s Work’. He had just driven back from Essex where the Fellowship were building their own church. Of the group of followers who had agreed to apply their skills, his role had been to lay wiring under the floorboards. Martha on the other hand had been selected for the tidy team, which meant clearing up after everyone else.
Helping out on projects like this was not compulsory. However, those who frequently refused an appeal for assistance could be made to feel very guilty
John and Martha greeted the visitors warmly as they sat down for a cup of tea and a cream cake.
“Don’t rush,” said Hilary checking her watch. “The Bible reading meeting doesn’t start for another hour.”
“I can’t wait to see your church,” smiled Ruth, now back from the garden and tucking into her third cake. She seemed to have regained her composure now after the little incident behind the shed.
“It will be your church once you are married and living down here in Kent,” replied John.
“A lot of our friends are very excited about meeting you,” said Hilary, as she finished pouring out the tea.
“There are lots of people about our age,” joined in Martha. “I will introduce you to some of them this evening.”
Hilary smiled sympathetically at Joan as she placed a cup of tea into her hands.
“I am sorry that your daughter will be moving so far away from you.”
Joan gazed sadly at Ruth.
“Wives must always follow their husbands I suppose.”
All heads gave a sagely nod.
“But you must come down at the weekends Mum,” said Ruth, licking cream from her stubby fingers.
Joan glanced hopefully at her son-in-law to be.
“Well if David doesn’t mind.”
“Of course he doesn’t,” answered Ruth without hesitation. “And you must bring the family as well.”
David suddenly began to panic as he visualised a horde of Kennedys descending on him week after week. Lots of rotund people scoffing cream cakes and trying to bully him into doing jobs around the house. It was rather like a foretaste of Hell without the fire.
After Hilary had washed up the cups and plates it was time to start getting ready. The women all took turns in front of the hall mirror tying their headscarves. In colours of white and blue, this attire is expected to be worn by Fellowship sisters whenever they leave the house.
The Eternal Fellowship hold church meetings once a day except Sundays when there are four or five. Worship is quite simple with no ritual or liturgy and participation is encouraged from male members. Fellowship Sisters are supposed to remain silent in accordance with the teachings from the first book of Corinthians.
There is an absence of the type of paraphernalia associated with certain other Christian denominations. There are no pews, pulpits, religious icons or stained glass windows. In fact, as far as the latter is concerned, there are no windows at all. The only requirements are a plain square table serving as an altar and rows of wooden stackable chairs.
One feature that Fellowship churches are permitted is air-conditioning. However, with no windows to open, and the size of congregation that many mainstream churches could only dream about, a cooling device of some sort is essential. The six hundred or more worshippers that regularly attended Brockleby Gospel Hall might pass out in the hot weather without it.
It was Friday which meant that the evening’s meeting was devoted to Bible reading. As always a Brother stood and read a passage from the sacred book after which other men would rise and provide their comments on what they had just heard. Several hymns were sung but not to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. The Fellowship believe that voices alone were all that was required to praise the Lord.
Women had a very subordinate part to play in proceedings. They were allowed to choose hymns but, their greatest contribution seemed to come from keeping the children amused. Those with younger ones often sat at the back in order that they could take their offspring outside should they become fractious.
The evening meeting was short and sweet. Once it had been brought to a close after the final prayer, followers gathered in groups to exchange a few words before going on their way. A number of people, however, wanted to take the opportunity of introducing themselves to Ruth. It was a rare occurrence to have a new addition to their tightly-knit circle.
Ruth enjoyed being the centre of attention. She had that ability to beguile people with her charm when they first met her. David’s older brothers, Joseph and Peter, were soon cast under the spell as they recounted their memories of Birmingham with their sister-in-law to be. The wives too warmed to her when she made complimentary remarks about their children.
Ruth and David were on the point of leaving when Ian Porter stopped them in their tracks. He could best be described as an un-ordained priest who acted as one of the spiritual leaders of the Brockleby Fellowship. He was only in his thirties but had a friendly authority, which was respected by everybody.
“I believe that a good Christian marriage provides a fortress against the Devil and his wickedness,” he smiled.
Ruth gave him an enthusiastic nod of approval.
“My father always says that faith is our armour against sin.”
“And the Bible is our sword and shield,” chimed in Joan Kennedy.
The casual observer might have wondered why they were embroiled in a medieval battle against the forces of evil at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Surely old Satan would have equipped himself with nuclear or biological weapons by now.
“I would like to sit down with you both for a chat before the wedding,” said Ian. “Perhaps you could suggest a suitable time.”
“My mother and I are coming down again next weekend,” said Ruth thoughtfully. “Could I suggest that we meet up on Saturday afternoon?”
“Splendid,” beamed the priest. “Would three o’clock suit everyone?”
There were nods of agreement and Ian promptly scribbled something in his diary. Being a Fellowship priest was a busy life and he needed to keep track of all his appointments.
Soon Ruth waved her final farewell at everyone before setting off in the direction of the car alongside her mother.
“I’m pleased that you are marrying into such a good Christian family,” whispered Ian into David’s ear just as the young man was about to follow half-heartedly in the footsteps of his betrothed.
Ruth became transformed once she was out of earshot of her newfound friends. All the warmth and conviviality on display moments earlier had mysteriously vanished once she had reached the car.
“I intend to take a good look over the house next Saturday,” she said forcibly. “Please would you make a start on the painting and do something about the garden too.”
David simply nodded as he had no wish to delay her departure any more than was really necessary.
“And another thing,” said Ruth, as she was about to slide into the passenger seat beside her mother, “Get a haircut before I see you next week. You are beginning to look quite scruffy.”
David heaved a sigh of relief as he watched the Kennedy car disappear into the distance.
“Don’t drive too carefully,” he muttered bitterly under his breath.
David had many fond childhood memories of Broadstairs. Warm magical summer days building sandcastles, searching rock pools for crabs and splashing merrily amongst the waves. Then there was always the ice cream cornet and perhaps a second for extra good behaviour. Today though, more serious thoughts were occupying his mind.
The day after Ruth’s visit he had made an urgent telephone call to Simon, his closest friend. He needed to unburden himself of a problem which was threatening to make a complete misery of his life. It was therefore imperative that a meeting was set up without delay.
After some consideration it was decided that Broadstairs should be the venue. They would go and visit Rebecca, Simon’s twin sister, who had moved to the coastal town at the time of her marriage two years earlier. She would also lend a listening ear and provide an intelligent woman’s opinion.
In fact there had been many discussions between them in the past. As the only Eternal Fellowship children in their class at school they had been faced with the inevitable problems when dealing with their non-believing peers. It had been a case of clinging to each other for support when confronting opposition.
Fellowship children can suffer a hard time at a state school. As human beings they have an innate desire to form good relations with others, yet parents are instructing them to keep their distance from worldly classmates. Therefore like the adults they are not permitted to visit the homes of non-believers or sit down to eat with them in the lunch break. Even accepting a simple Christmas card from the so-called ‘Worldlies’ is forbidden and has to be promptly returned.
It was about midday when the threesome finally took their place on the beach. Complete with deckchairs, suntan lotion and a picnic basket they discovered a deserted bay enclosed on both sides by white chalky cliffs. Only the cries of seagulls hovering overhead disturbed the peace and tranquillity of a warm late August summer day.
“I’m not getting married,” announced David when they were all finally seated.
“Why ever not?” asked Simon, quite taken aback by this sudden revelation.
For a moment David was silent as he tried to gather his thoughts. Then resting back in his deckchair and staring blankly into the distance, he recounted the events which had taken place on that fateful evening in Birmingham. It was the first time that he had revealed to anyone that a ghastly misunderstanding had taken place.
When he had finished, Simon shook his head in disbelief.
“Fancy sobering up next morning and discovering you had become engaged to Dracula’s daughter.”
Rebecca looked puzzled.
“I don’t know why you didn’t say something at the time. It’s a bit late now to back out.”
David gave out a gloomy sigh.
“Things were happening so quickly. At times it felt as though I was being carried along on a tidal wave. Arrangements were being made, all my friends were quickly told about the engagement and finally I allowed myself to be talked into buying a house with that dreadful woman.”
“And have you said anything to Ruth yet?” enquired Rebecca, while making a slight adjustment to her headscarf.
“Not as yet,” answered David.
At that point Rebecca began unpacking the picnic basket. It had been a long time since breakfast and the sea air was assisting in creating hunger pangs.
“What will you do with the house?” asked Simon, still trying to come to terms with what he had just been told.
David was silent for a moment as he helped himself to a sandwich out of the basket.
“I shall talk it over with Ruth,” he said finally. “We will probably decide to put it on the market.”
Rebecca produced a thermos flask and began to pour tea into plastic cups.
“Have you mentioned all this to your parents yet?” she asked.
David shook his head.
“You two are the first to know.”
“The Fellowship won’t be very pleased with you,” remarked Simon as he applied suntan lotion to his face. “They expect married couples to stay together and probably engaged ones are required to do the same.”
“Unity is very important,” joined in Rebecca.
The sun was now getting very strong and David put on some dark glasses to shield his eyes. Then like his friends, although still wrestling with the problem, he sat quietly eating his picnic lunch for a while.
It was Simon who finally broke the silence.
“Why don’t you speak with Ian Porter?” he suggested. “As a priest he should be able to advise you on your position.”
David shook his head firmly.
“He’ll just try to persuade me to change my mind.”
Rebecca gave her friend a look of concern.
“I hope the Fellowship don’t withdraw from you.”
David stared out to sea. He was only too well aware of the control the church had over its followers. The life of anyone withdrawn from, which meant to be excluded, could be thrown into turmoil. Everyone within the sect would be forbidden to associate any further with the unfortunate transgressor. Families might drive them out of a comfortable home and those like himself, employed by a Fellowship company, would most likely lose their job and all the perks attached to it.
The exiled Fellowship follower is like a caged bird who is set free. Having always known the security attached to being part of a large benevolent network of people he is suddenly alone and being forced to confront a strange and terrifying world. For those who have had normal lives it is impossible to imagine what it must feel like.
“I should hate to lose contact with all my friends and family,” said David sadly.
“Of course it is possible that you may just be asked to stand up in a meeting and apologise,” suggested Simon.
Rebecca began to giggle.
“Like that time when I was seen in a café with that red-haired boy from our class.”
“Did you fancy him?” laughed David, struggling hard to remember the boy’s name.
Rebecca blushed as she shook her head.
“Actually I was trying to make you jealous but it didn’t work.”
“I didn’t know that,” answered David, rather taken aback.
Rebecca gave David a sly look.
“Of course you didn’t. You were too infatuated by Alison Johnson with the long blonde hair.”
David was shocked at the accusation.
“No I wasn’t.”
“Yes you were,” laughed Rebecca. “It was blatantly obvious.”
David’s thoughts were suddenly transported back to the classroom. He was sitting across the aisle and two desks behind the most sublime being in the whole universe. His eyes staring dreamily at the long flaxen coloured hair and delicate side features of an angel and following every little move that she made. The sound of her voice was like heavenly music and even the name ‘Alison’ made him feel weak at the knees.
For weeks David remained desperately in love and spent sleepless nights just thinking about the object of his desire. He would lie in bed and imagine conversations between them or things they were doing together. Of course there was never any chance of a relationship developing. Not only was Alison non-Fellowship, but David was too shy to even speak to her.
“I saw her the other day,” remarked Simon, before taking a bite from a pork pie.
“Who are you talking about?” asked Rebecca, waving away a large fly that had settled on her arm.
“Alison Johnson of course,” answered Simon. “She works at the central library in Brockleby.”
“Is she married yet?” asked Rebecca, offering David another sandwich from a silver foil wrapping.
Simon shook his head.
“Apparently not. She has a small child but the boyfriend and her have split up.”
David received this news in silence. He watched as a family of four made their way down a stone path which lead onto the beach. The children were no more than toddlers and were clutching buckets and spades. Behind them strolled the parents hand in hand and looking as though they hadn’t a care in the world.
“Did Alison say whether she had heard from any of the crowd from school?” enquired Rebecca, peeling a banana.
“I didn’t ask,” replied Simon. “We didn’t have much time to talk. It was her lunch hour and she was in a hurry to get back to work.”
Curiosity was getting the better of David although he was trying hard not to show it. Without knowing why, he suddenly felt a compulsion to see Alison again. He wanted to know whether Aphrodite would still hold some mystery power over him or had she turned into just another member of the human race.
“Which days does she work in the library?” he enquired.
Simon looked thoughtful.
“I think Alison said that she works full-time but I can’t be absolutely certain.”
Rebecca gave David a sly look.
“Not thinking of borrowing a book are you?”
David smiled as he shook his head. Secretly though he was impressed at how well she had managed to read his thoughts. Visiting the library later in the week was already at the planning stage.
The conversation dried up for a while as the threesome shut their eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. They listened to the screams of the two toddlers who had abandoned their buckets and spades and were splashing around in the sea. The parents watched on from nearby, sitting on a bright red bath towel stretched out over the sand.
“Shall we go home and have a cup of tea?” suggested Rebecca at last.
Everyone began to gather up their possessions before heading off in the direction of Simon’s car. Their progress was slow as they stepped through heaps of soft sand while carrying deck-chairs and an assortment of bags at the same time. Two elderly ladies who had recently arrived on the beach smiled at Rebecca as she passed by.
Finally they reached the car and Simon began to fumble for his keys.
“Are you absolutely certain you want to break off your engagement?” asked Rebecca, making a slight adjustment to her headscarf.
“Definitely,” answered David firmly.
“Make it soon,” said Simon as he began to pack the boot. “There are only six weeks to go before you get married.”
“You must have a back-up plan in place,” warned Rebecca. “Just in case the Fellowship strip you of your job and home.”
“And friends,” muttered Simon.
David gave him a concerned look.
Simon smiled and slapped his lifelong companion warmly on the back.
“Well almost all your friends,” he corrected himself.
They drove along the coastal path and passed a brick building with a turret known as Bleak House. It was where Charles Dickens had written his masterpiece of the same name. The great Victorian writer must have been inspired by the view as he sat, pen in hand, staring out over the sea. He was fond of Broadstairs and would most probably have approved were he to be miraculously transported to the present day.
The town is largely unspoilt. Quiet and picturesque, it is a magnet to those wishing to avoid the commercialisation so common to many resorts. Although often crowded in summer, it is untainted by theme parks, loud music or noisy bingo callers filling the air with expressions such as ‘legs eleven’ or ‘two fat ladies’.
Further on they looked down upon Viking Bay where most holidaymakers do their bathing. It was August Bank Holiday Monday and many from the great Metropolis and beyond were enjoying a day at the seaside. While the more energetic were swimming or playing beach games, most were spread out on the yellow sand, allowing the sun a rare glimpse of their pale skins.
Rebecca lived in a small detached bungalow. At the back was a long narrow garden and it was here that the threesome choose to sit and drink their tea. The deck-chairs which had earlier been assembled on the beach were now being used as seats on the lawn.
“It’s very peaceful here,” commented David, who was sat with his eyes closed.
“It’s too quiet,” replied Rebecca sadly. “The place needs some children to liven it up.”
“Any plans to start a family?” asked David, who had suddenly opened his eyes in order to take a sip of tea.
“There are plans but at present the laws of nature seem to be conspiring against Malcolm and me.”
Simon gave his sister a worried look.
“How are things between the two of you these days?”
Rebecca leaned over the arm of her deckchair and irritably pulled a weed up from the lawn.
“Just as bad as ever,” she answered with a scowl. “It’s impossible living with somebody as pompous as that. He is one of those people who is always right, or so he seems to think.”
Simon smiled sadly.
“The problem is that Malcolm is always so certain of everything and you are full of doubts.”
“My husband never questions anything,” said Rebecca in disgust. “If the Fellowship told him to put his head in the fire he would do it.”
“Are you disappointed with marriage?” asked David.
“Totally,” answered Rebecca firmly. “The only thing that would make my life more bearable is having children.”
“I expect being a father could help Malcolm to become more human,” suggested Simon.
Soon the conversation switched to other matters. Deep down, however, David felt depressed that his friend had become trapped in such an unhappy situation. It also occurred to him that in order to avoid ending up in a similar position he was going to have to act very soon.
Later that afternoon Malcolm arrived home. He had just attended a meeting in which the local Fellowship had been discussing the possibility of building their own school in the area. Although nothing had been decided there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the idea.
The sect had built a number of schools for children between the ages of eleven and seventeen, both in the UK and in several other countries. The standard of education was generally regarded very highly, however, they had been criticised by some for not using modern technology such as computers. Although not Fellowship themselves, teachers were selected for their perceived ability in promoting good moral values.
“Where do you think the school is likely to be built?” asked David, as Malcolm was assembling a deckchair which he had just taken from the garden shed.
“The location has yet to be decided. We need to find a site which is central to everyone.”
“A lot of people are going to be quite busy once the project gets underway,” smiled Simon, cheerfully.
“All the effort will be worth it in the end,” answered Malcolm, knowingly. “People will be able to have an alternative to condemning their children to state education. It breeds nothing but hooliganism and bad manners with pregnant young girls standing around in the playground.”
The others nodded politely even though none of them shared such bigoted views.
“I suppose most of the teachers do their best,” said Simon as he helped himself to a biscuit from a plate that Rebecca was passing around.
Malcolm looked scornful.
“The majority of them are either trendy liberals or homosexuals.”
“We had a gay teacher who took us for History,” said Simon with a broad grin. “You two must remember Mr Chapman.”
Both David and Rebecca gave a wry smile.
“We need to keep perverts like that out of our classrooms,” snapped Malcolm, angrily.
“Actually Mr Chapman was a very kind man,” replied Rebecca, indignantly. “The problem was that most of the class took advantage of his good nature.”
“He was just a bloody poof,” retorted Malcolm in a raised voice.
Rebecca glared at her husband for a few moments. Then standing up abruptly she retreated towards the bungalow without a word.
“How is the new car?” enquired Simon, deciding it was time to change the subject.
Malcolm’s mood suddenly changed.
“Follow me to the garage and you can see for yourself.”
Both he and Simon eagerly set off like two small boys heading towards a sweetshop carrying a ten pound note.
The Eternal Fellowship never stint themselves when it comes to buying cars. They generally choose the latest top of the range models possessing every conceivable feature with the notable exception of one. The radio must be removed before a follower will drive it out of the showroom. They don’t want to listen to Satan’s broadcasting disciples as they promote all their filth and wickedness over the airwaves.
David decided to skip the car worshipping ceremony and instead went in search of Rebecca. While appreciating the convenience of motoring he felt no inclination to go into raptures over large metallic objects. However, he was happy to show tolerance to those that did.
David found Rebecca at work in the kitchen. She had begun to make preparations for the evening meal, which would be eaten once everyone had returned from the Monday prayer meeting. As usual, food cooking in the oven would be left unattended while she was at church.
Fellowship followers need to have a very good reason for missing a religious meeting. Being on holiday is rarely an acceptable excuse as they are expected to go to the nearest venue where the sect are known to worship. Therefore the devotee faces a serious problem if there isn’t a gathering of the faithful nearby.
“Need a hand?” asked David cheerfully.
“Not at the moment,” replied Rebecca as she began to peel potatoes at the sink. “You can stay and keep me company though.”
David pulled out a chair from beneath the kitchen table and sat down.
“I was concerned that you didn’t look happy when you came in from the garden,” he remarked.
Rebecca didn’t reply for several moments.
“Why does Malcolm always have to be so self-righteous?” she said at last.
“Ignorance perhaps,” suggested David.
Rebecca stopped peeling and turned to face her former classmate.
“How can someone be so narrow minded?” she said, looking mystified. “Malcolm always condemns anything he doesn’t understand.”
“Perhaps he was never encouraged to be receptive to new ideas like we were by our teachers at school,” said David with a shrug of the shoulders.
“You are probably right,” answered Rebecca, thoughtfully. “At times I get so frustrated with him. He will go on about how the Fellowship are the only ones who preach the truth and yet he knows nothing about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or any other Christian denomination for that matter.”
“I wish I knew more about other faiths,” said David, sadly. “At school our parents never allowed us to attend Religious Instruction lessons. So because we were exempt, twice a week you, Simon and I would sit in an empty classroom in silence and revise other subjects. The only theology we ever learnt was what the Fellowship chose to teach us.”
Rebecca smiled to herself as she gazed out of the window. Unknown to any of her friends or family she was a member of the public library and had recently borrowed a hard covered green book. Having taken it from the theology section, it explained the history and beliefs of all the great world religions. Of course the fact that she was reading such material would always have to remain a secret.
“Never mind,” she sighed. “I suppose they will never change.”
Rebecca was smaller than her brother and possessed a slender waist and shapely legs. Her face had a sweet innocent appeal and was attractive even without the benefit of make-up, which the Fellowship sisterhood are forbidden to wear. With eyes that sparkled when she smiled and a soft gentle voice, it was impossible not to be captivated by her. Dressed in bright fashionable clothes she would have been quite stunning.
“I think at the route of Malcolm’s problem is fear,” she said suddenly. “He is terrified of being left behind after the Rapture.”
Like all Fellowship followers, David needed no introduction to the term. It is the time when God’s chosen people are supposed to vanish from the face of the Earth and are whisked off to Paradise. Those that remain are to suffer all the agonies that are predicted in the Book of Revelations.
“I suppose we are all taught to be afraid,” answered David, addressing the back of Rebecca’s slim waist.
At that moment they heard the sound of a car engine starting up. Quite obviously the metallic idol worshipping ceremony in the garage was now in full swing.
“There is something else though,” said Rebecca, who had finished potato peeling and had now bent down to gather a handful of carrots from the vegetable rack. “Malcolm believes that the reason we have been unsuccessful in having children is because God’s punishing me.”
David stood up and moving across the room, used his extra height to pass down a dish from the shelf, which Rebecca had been struggling to reach.
“But what exactly have you done wrong?” he asked in amazement.
“It’s just that at times I tend to question some of the Fellowship teachings.”
David gave out a sigh of exasperation.
“What a load of rubbish. The pair of you just need to go and get some medical advice and try to establish what the problem is.”
Rebecca shook her head.
“Malcolm won’t hear of it. He says that it is up to the Lord to decide whether we are to have children or not.”
David would have liked to have pursued the subject further, but, at that moment Rebecca stopped her meal preparations and hurried into the hall to answer the telephone. It turned out to be one of those protracted female to female conversations and long before the final scrap of gossip had been exchanged the three men were drinking whisky together in the lounge.
The prayer meeting that evening was as predictable as ever. One after the other the men and older boys stood and said a prayer out loud. The women as usual listened with a respectful silence and those that were mothers tried to ensure that their children did the same.
Dutifully David stood up and said his bit. His thoughts, however, kept going back several years to that familiar classroom with its rows of pine desks, pupils in red school blazers and blackboard with words scrawled in chalk all over it. Everything else though faded into the background as his mind’s eye focused on Alison Johnson and her flaxen hair. Just the possibility of seeing her again in the next couple of days filled him with excitement. Suddenly Brockleby public library seemed to be the most fascinating place in the universe.
It was always the same pattern. Nobody was permitted to eat until John Chambers had said a prayer of thanks out loud. Only when this little ritual had finished could the family relax and enjoy their meal.
“I understand the Government has called a General Election,” said John while removing the lid off a large tureen and helping himself to roast potatoes.
“When will it be held?” enquired David who took no more than a casual interest in such matters.
There were a few moments of hesitation as John searched his memory.
“Four weeks on Thursday,” he answered, finally.
“Who is likely to win?” asked Hilary, passing her husband the gravy boat.
“Everyone is predicting a close result,” replied John. “Some say it could end in a hung parliament.”
“Martha, David’s youngest sister looked puzzled.
“I thought that General Elections took place every four to five years.”
“That’s usually the case,” answered her father, as he lifted up a bottle of white wine and poured a generous quantity of the contents into Hilary’s glass.
“It’s just that it doesn’t seem so long ago when Britain had the last one,” said Martha, thoughtfully.
The rest of the family felt that she might be right but nobody could be absolutely certain. If there had have been an election of course, none of those sitting around the table would have gone to the polling station to vote. Fellowship followers are not permitted to do so.
The leadership also forbid watching TV and reading the newspapers. It is mainly for this reason that the Chambers were totally unaware of why the Prime Minister had been forced to call an early election. Unable to keep up with current affairs, the family had little appreciation of the dramatic events which had been taking place.
From the very start, the Labour Government’s decision not to support the invasion of Iraq had been highly contentious. Bruce Shaw, the Prime Minister had been demonised by the Conservatives and the right wing press whereas, the left had revered him as a hero. For several months the arguments had raged on and now suddenly the people were being asked to pass their verdict.
Two years earlier in 2001, Labour had been returned to power with a ten seat overall majority. However, this wafer thin advantage had been wiped out at the end of July when a group of back benchers unexpectedly defected to the Tories over Iraq. It had been a savage blow to Bruce Shaw, but he and his cabinet colleagues decided to act quickly. Without waiting to be defeated in ‘a vote of no confidence’ in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister announced that he was about to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. This was to spoil the summer holidays of many MPs.
“By the way,” said Martha, returning her mind to everyday matters. “Ruth rang up last night.”
“What did she want?” enquired David, half-heartedly.
Hilary gave her son a surprised look.
“I expect she called to find out how you were. After all, it is quite usual for engaged couples to be concerned about each other.”
“Partly that,” said Martha, slightly hesitantly. “I think the real reason she rang though, was to find out how you were progressing with the decorating.”
“She is quite right to be worried,” joined in John. “You have done nothing to that house since you bought it. Instead of going to the seaside yesterday, you could have used the time to paint that kitchen.”
“But I had arranged to go down to Broadstairs with Simon,” protested David.
“Surely you should have given Ruth priority,” said Hilary, taking a sip of wine.
David decided to make a concession.
“I intend to do some painting tomorrow.” He said wearily.
The announcement was met with general approval and soon the conversation moved on to other matters. The fact that only a couple of hours would be devoted to decorating wasn’t mentioned. The morning had been set aside for a visit to Brockleby Public Library and nothing was going to stand in the way of that.
That night David slept badly. The following day he awoke feeling tired and washed out, which prompted him to consider postponing the venture until some other time. However, after performing some deep breathing exercises, he began to feel a little more confident.
It was just after ten o’clock when David turned the corner and caught sight of the library. Tucked away in a road off the High Street, it was an old two-storeyed building with two large bay windows and a flight of steps leading up to the entrance. Although slightly austere from the outside, recent decorations had made the interior more welcoming to those that frequented it.
As David approached he suddenly felt his heart pounding fast. Without hesitating he hurried past the entrance steps and stopped outside the nearest shop to take a few breaths. In order to make the very best impression on Alison, he was aware how important it was to stay calm and in control.
While waiting to compose himself he checked his reflection in the window. He had never looked so smart with every little detail of his appearance having been taken care of. Brand new suit, hair well-groomed, shoes shining and a perfectly knotted tie with a shirt that agreeably matched. He could have walked off the pages of a fashion magazine.
However, when the time seemed right to make a move, David found that his feet were rooted to the spot. His courage had suddenly evaporated leaving him confused as to what he should do next. To make matters worse two young female assistants in the shop were staring out at him.
David couldn’t believe what was happening. Although no longer in uniform and looking somewhat older he had become the shy and embarrassed schoolboy once again. The adolescent who had worshipped Aphrodite but had done so at a distance for fear of rejection. The one who had loved and lost without ever competing.
Angry with himself for being so feckless he began to trace his steps back towards the High Street. He decided to go for a short walk and then return, hopefully in a more positive frame of mind. However, he hadn’t got that far before a young woman with a carrier bag emerged from a shop just ahead of him. Their eyes met for a brief second and instantly David’s heart leapt with excitement.
“Excuse me, aren’t you Alison?” he heard himself blurt out.
The young woman stopped and stared hard at him. Then her face broke into a smile as she began to recognise the smartly dressed man.
David beamed broadly.
“How nice to see you again after all this time.”
There was a short pause as both of them searched around in their heads for something appropriate to say.
“I saw your friend Simon Broadbent the other day and he told me you were engaged,” said Alison, suddenly recalling the conversation.
David was rather taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to him that his impending marriage might have been discussed. His reaction was so instantaneous that he even shocked himself.
“Not anymore,” he said with a shake of his head. “We decided to break it off.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Alison with a sympathetic smile.
Alison had lost that schoolgirl shyness but none of her beauty. The flaxen hair had been cut to shoulder length and the figure was slightly fuller, but the facial features had hardly changed. She had the same clear complexion and shapely lips, while her dark blue eyes still sparkled tantalisingly.
“I hear that you are a mum now,” said David, stepping aside to allow an elderly gentleman to pass him on the pavement.
“That’s right. I have a three-year-old daughter named Amanda,” answered Alison, before quickly glancing at her watch.
“I hope I’m not holding you up,” said David, concerned that he might soon be falling out of favour.
“I really should be at work by now,” said Alison, anxiously. “It’s been really nice seeing you again.”
David turned around and spotted a restaurant opposite the library.
“What time is your lunch break?”
“One o’clock,” she answered after a few seconds.
“And do you like Chinese food?” asked David, hopefully.
“I love it but that place is expensive.”
“Don’t worry. I’m treating you.”
Alison gave him an enthusiastic nod as she hurried off down the road.
“See you at one then,” she called.
David was jubilant as he headed off towards the parking meter where he had left his car. After checking his watch he noted that there were over two and a half hours to kill before the meal. Ample time to drive home, grab a coffee and reflect on his success.
Hilary Chambers was vacuuming the hall as David opened the front door.
“Joan Kennedy has just been on the phone,” she shouted.
David nodded and wandered off to the kitchen to make his coffee. Although feeling ecstatically happy something deep down kept reminding him that there was little prospect of any meaningful relationship with Alison. There were just too many obstacles in the way. Perhaps it was a case of merely enjoying the moment.
Taking his drink into the lounge, David sat on the sofa and shut his eyes. Eager to create a favourable impression he tried to think of things to say in the restaurant, which would avoid any embarrassing silences. In fact he was so deep in thought that he was barely aware of the droning sound of the vacuum cleaner until it was suddenly switched off.
Soon Hilary breezed into the room and flopped down in the armchair facing her son.
“Joan Kennedy and I have been talking furniture,” she announced with a smile.
“Why was that?” enquired David, taking a sip of coffee.
“For your new home of course,” laughed Hilary. “You can’t live in an unfurnished house.”
“That’s true,” answered David, unable to think of an argument against such sound reasoning.
Hilary looked thoughtful.
“Perhaps I will go into the town today and pick up some brochures.”
“Good idea,” replied David as he loosened his tie. It suddenly felt stiff around the neck and like other Fellowship brothers, it was a garment he wore only for business reasons.
Wetting her fingers Hilary tried to rub a speck of dirt off the arm of her chair. Only when the offending stain had been completely removed did she contribute again to the conversation.
“We will all have to sit down on Saturday and decide what to buy.”
David nodded even though deep down he was rejecting the idea. If in the event of him actually finding the courage to break off the engagement, selling the furniture would be yet another headache.
“Why are you wearing your best clothes?” said Hilary, suddenly giving her son a strange look. “I understood you were taking the day off to do some decorating.”
“There has been a change of plan,” explained David. “I need to call on a client at one o’clock but after that I shall get to work on the house.”
“You really need to get stuck in to it,” answered Hilary as she stood up and headed briskly towards the door. “Anyway I must be getting on with my chores.”
David arrived early at the restaurant. Entering through the swing door he found himself in a long narrow room, which for the moment had no other customers. Bright and cheerful, there was a thick red carpet on the floor, which seemed to match perfectly with the wallpaper. The soft oriental music which greeted him created a soothing background effect.
The tables, which were positioned into three rows were covered in white cloths. Spoilt for choice David selected one by the window with seating for two. Ordering a lager from the smiling waitress he sat studying the menu while mentally preparing himself for Alison’s arrival.
As the Eternal Fellowship are strictly forbidden to eat with non-believers, David had never been in a restaurant before. Apart from sandwiches at lunchtime in the canteen at work, most of his meals comprised of home cooked food and partaken in the company of his family and other followers in the sect. Conversation would often centre around everyday matters although religion was always likely to surface in one form or another.
Suddenly he raised his eyes from the wine list to glance out of the window. His pulse began to race as he saw that Alison was about to cross the road. Dressed in a white skirt and jacket with a pale blue blouse, an attire which had been mostly covered by a coat when they had met earlier in the street, she looked exquisite as the sun shone on her hair.
“Just don’t mess up,” David muttered to himself.
In a few minutes Alison had slipped through the swing door and was advancing towards the chair that had been reserved for her.
“Sorry I’m late,” she smiled.
David shook his head.
“Don’t apologise,” he said politely. “I just happened to arrive early.”
Being inexperienced in matters relating to Chinese restaurants David allowed Alison to order first. It turned out to be a good tactical move as he discovered that it wasn’t necessary to read out the meal one had chosen. All that was required was to quote the number listed against each selected dish.
Alison looked enquiringly at David.
“Are you still a member of that strange religious group?”
David helped himself to a prawn cracker from the wicker basket which the waitress had brought.
“I’m in the process of breaking away.”
Alison smiled as she filled a glass from the large jug of water on the table.
“So that is why you are prepared to sit down and eat with a wicked non-believer.”
David laughed a little self-consciously.
“You remember our schooldays then?”
“It was incredible. You and the Broadbent twins were dropped off at the school gates just as the bell was ringing and whisked away the minute classes were finished. It was the same every morning, lunchtime and evening. Your parents seemed to take every measure in order to keep the three of you away from the rest of us.”
David stared sadly at the table.
“The Fellowship are concerned that their children will be corrupted by worldly influences.”
Alison took a sip of water.
“Won’t your parents be upset if you leave their church?”
“Much worse than that,” answered David with a wry smile. “They will cut me off completely and prevent me from ever entering their house again.”
Alison looked stunned.
“But that is a dreadful way of treating your children.”
“It’s the same with a married couple,” explained David. “If one party decides to leave the Fellowship the other one must either go too or separate from their spouse. The followers say that they are obeying the teachings of St Paul in the Bible when he wrote ‘Remove the wicked person from amongst you’.”
Doesn’t sound very Christian to me,” replied Alison indignantly. “Would you also lose contact with everyone else in the church?”
“Apart from Simon and Rebecca,” answered David, taking another prawn cracker. “I’m sure they would remain friends with me.”
At that moment the waitress returned with the starters. Smiling cheerfully she placed a large plate of barbequed spare ribs on the table before turning and rapidly heading back to the kitchen. As the needs of the stomach were attended to it meant that the conversation was temporarily put on hold.
“Would you be interested in coming to a school reunion?” enquired Alison, finally breaking the silence.
“When is it?” asked David.
“Eight thirty on Friday evening,” replied Alison, helping herself to the last spare rib. “We have arranged to meet in the Horse and Groom. It’s the pub in the High Street opposite the Post Office.”
“Sounds good,” said David, enthusiastically.
In fact the prospect of a get together with ‘the old crowd’ was not one that he relished. His strict religious upbringing had made him into an outsider and on occasions, a target for hostility. However, he was willing to tolerate just about anything for the woman who was sitting opposite him.
“We tend to meet up about once every three months,” explained Alison, wiping the corners of her mouth with a tissue. “Do you happen to remember Mr Chapman the gay History teacher?”
“I was talking about him the other day with Simon and Rebecca.”
“Well he always comes along,” laughed Alison. “Everybody is kept up to date with the things he and his partner have been doing.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the waitress. Still smiling cheerfully she arrived with a tray and began to clear away the dirty plates. While she was at hand it gave David an opportunity to order two more glasses of wine.
“Who looks after your daughter when you are at work?” asked David once the waitress was gone.
“Amanda goes to playschool until twelve o’clock then my mum takes her for the afternoon,” explained Alison.
Suddenly David became aware of two businessmen several tables away. As one was busily studying the wine list the other was gazing intently at Alison with a faint smile. Aphrodite it seemed, had cast her spell over another poor hapless mortal.
David began to experience a strange feeling of pride. It was as though the attention being paid to Alison was rather flattering to him, being the man sitting with her. On the other hand, it also provided a reminder of the competition he was likely to face.
“Does Amanda’s father see much of her?” asked David as he tried to ignore the staring eyes.
“Mark comes every Sunday without fail to take her out,” answered Alison with a sad smile. “He is devoted to his daughter.”
David looked down thoughtfully at the table.
“Why did you and Mark split up?”
“Mark doesn’t seem to want a permanent commitment. Every night he is either out at parties or drinking with friends. The thought of taking out a mortgage and settling down to family life appears to frighten him.”
“Is it likely that the two of you will ever get back together again?” asked David as the smiling waitress arrived with the wine and several dishes for the main course.
“Probably not,” answered Alison, eagerly inspecting the food. “He may have another woman for all that I know.”
During the meal they began to reminisce about their school days. It had been a much happier experience for Alison who talked fondly of teachers and classmates. She had kept in contact with many and therefore had much to update David with.
Finally she glanced at her watch.
“I must be getting back to work in a few minutes. Thank you so much for a lovely meal.”
“Thank you for spending your lunch break with me,” replied David, saddened by the thought that they were soon to go their separate ways.
He settled the bill at the cash desk and then prepared to leave. Inexperienced in the art of tipping, he squeezed a ten pound note into the hand of the smiling waitress and suddenly her face lit up with delight. Several tables away the staring eyes of the businessman watched sadly as Alison disappeared through the swing door of the restaurant.
David toyed with the idea of inviting Alison out. However, as they were to meet up at the reunion in two days, he decided to postpone it until then. There was a lingering fear in his head that the proposal would be rejected and spoil a perfect day.
David watched as Alison hurried across the road and up the library steps. Turning his thoughts from romance to more mundane matters he decided to drive to Timpson and Duffy to buy paint. He knew there would be no peace until he did something about that wretched kitchen.
The afternoon passed pleasantly enough. David had always found painting to be a monotonous business but today he had happy memories to relieve the boredom. His progress was slow but he was feeling so relaxed it was difficult to get out of first gear. In fact it hardly seemed to matter whether the job ever got done or not.
That evening Hilary had invited the Hendersons for a meal after the Bible reading service. Well into their seventies, they were an odd couple and made an amusing double act. Jim had a rather uneasy manner and was forever quoting from Scriptures, then Vera would follow by repeating the tail end of husband’s sentence.
“How are your children?” asked Hilary as soon as John Chambers had thanked the Lord for the food they were about to eat.
“They are all keeping well thank you,” smiled Vera. “Ken has just started up his own company and Stephanie is expecting her fifth child any day now.”
“What about Eric?” asked John. “I understand that his car was stolen recently.”
“The police haven’t managed to trace it so far.”
“There is so much wickedness in the world,” lamented John, shaking his head.
Jim who had been sitting with a distant gaze in his eyes suddenly came to life.
“For the wages of sin is death,” he chimed in, quoting from Chapter Six of Romans.
“Is death,” repeated Vera playing her familiar echoing role.
Martha sniggered before receiving a stern look from her father.
“Was the car new?” enquired David, keen to return to the original subject.
“Eric had only just bought it,” replied Vera, gloomily.
“Some people don’t seem to have any respect for the property of others,” joined in Hilary with a look of sympathy.
After the meal the men adjourned to the lounge for a drop of whisky. The women on the other hand were left to fulfil their usual subservient role in clearing away the dishes. It is a familiar pattern in Fellowship households.
As the two older men talked about nothing of any great significance, David allowed his mind to wander. He wondered what Alison was doing at that precise moment and whether she had given any thought to him since their meal at lunch time. More importantly, was there the remotest possibility that he could defy all the odds and claim Aphrodite for himself.
Suddenly the telephone rang and Martha could be heard scurrying down the hall to answer it.
David,” she called out after a while. “Ruth would like to speak with you.”
David raised his eyes to the ceiling as he reluctantly lifted himself from his armchair. Then after taking a large gulp of whisky to befuddle his brain he slowly set off to face the ordeal ahead. As he picked up the receiver, however, he paused for a few seconds to take a deep breath.
“How are you?” he enquired, attempting to sound cheerful.
“I’m fine thank you,” replied Ruth, pleasantly. “Martha tells me that you were working on the house today.”
“I’ve managed to paint about half the kitchen,” replied David slightly wary of the affable tone in the voice of the woman he was betrothed to.
He was right to be suspicious. For what seemed an eternity Ruth provided him with a verbal list of other jobs that were waiting to be attended to. Her voice just droned on like some epic monologue being broadcasted over the radio.
Sitting on the floor with his back to the wall and eyes closed, David decided to do some memory exercises. With the telephone receiver well away from his ear so that Ruth’s voice was only faintly audible, he tried to recall all the books of the Bible followed by the Ten Commandments. During his childhood he had used this technique in order to get through some of those long incomprehensible Fellowship meetings.
Having reached ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in his head, David suddenly became aware that the voice on the end of the line had become a few decibels louder.
“Are you listening to me?” Ruth was asking as David quickly returned the receiver to his ear.
“Every word,” replied David with a wry smile.
“You must try to have the house looking nice before we are married,” pleaded Ruth in a softer voice.
“I’ll do what I can,” answered David who had no wish to prolong the conversation by arguing.
“Are you ready for another Scotch?” asked John as soon as his son reappeared in the lounge a few moments later.
David nodded. “Make it a large one.”
David was desperate to get away. It was a warm humid evening and after the Friday meeting many of the Fellowship had gathered around in groups outside the Gospel Hall door. It was one of those occasions when nobody wanted to be seen to be the first to go home.
“I am popping down to the house to do a few jobs,” muttered David to his father who was standing next to him.
John Chamber gave his son a look of approval.
“I’m glad you are finally starting to take an interest in your new home,” he smiled.
“What about your meal?” asked Hilary who was always fussy about regular eating.
David gave a casual shrug.
“Don’t bother about me. I’ll make something for myself when I get home.”
No sooner had David moved a few paces before he was called back by Mrs Harris. A single lady, well known for her ceaseless talking, she was one of those few followers who relied on others for transport.
“Could you give me a lift dear?” she requested with a smile. “I really should be getting home to feed my cat.”
David’s heart sank. He was already late for the school reunion and having to drop Mrs Harris off was bound to delay him much further. The problem was that because of her endless talking she would never get out of the car when it stopped outside her house.
As he drove off David sat impassively at the wheel. His brain was hard at work trying to decide how to deal with this thorny problem without being downright offensive. Short of making sexual advances, however, no obvious plan of action sprang to mind.
In fact it wasn’t easy to think straight. Mrs Harris had an annoying habit of sitting in the passenger seat and providing a running commentary on just about anything that caught her attention. Most of her remarks were so inane though, it was surprising that she bothered to waste her breath.
“See those curtains,” she said as they drove along. “I have a dress that colour.”
“Very nice,” replied David without bothering to establish which curtains that she was actually referring to.
Then it was “That hedge over there needs trimming” and “the man in that garden reminds me of my neighbour”, and so on and so on.
Finally they pulled up outside Mrs Harris’s front gate. Glancing down at the digital car clock David noticed that it was now ten to nine and had mentally resigned himself to a long and dreary wait. So switching off his engine he turned to face his tormentor. However, on this occasion luck was on his side.
“Sorry but I can’t stop to talk,” said the passenger in rather an agitated voice. “I have probably been drinking too much tea today.”
With a broad grin and an immense feeling of relief David watched as Mrs Harris made rapid progress towards her front door. However, not wishing to waste any more time he quickly set off home to freshen up and change into some smart casual clothes.
The Horse and Groom was packed when David arrived. However, amongst a sea of people he was unable to recognise a single face. Fortunately one of the bar staff sensed his unease and came to the rescue.
“There is a private function going on upstairs,” he called out. “Go up to the landing and it’s the first on your right.”
It was now after nine thirty but David decided to delay his entrance just a bit longer. Before making his way to the first floor he decided to buy a pint of beer at the bar. Feeling a little apprehensive about how his old classmates might receive him, he needed a drink to settle his nerves.
There were more people at the reunion than he had expected. Former pupils from different classes were gathered in groups around a room almost double the size of a tennis court. Many had brought partners or friends which had helped to swell the numbers. Although a little older and no longer in those drab red uniforms, people that he had known so well had barely changed.
On the far side of the room several people beckoned to him. He was about to set off to join them when his path was blocked by a plump man with a shock of dark hair.
“David Chambers,” he beamed while throwing out a chubby hand.
“Hello Mr Chapman, how nice to see you again,” replied David, instantly recognising his old History teacher.
“Nice to see you looking so well my boy,” said Mr Chapman, cheerfully. “What are you doing for a living?”
“I’m a sales rep,” answered David as he waved back at somebody he had once sat next to in class.
Mr Chapman looked thoughtful for a few seconds.
“Weren’t you from an Eternal Fellowship family?”
“You have a very good memory.”
“It’s all coming back to me now,” said Mr Chapman with his eyes fixed firmly on his former pupil. “You wanted to teach but your parents wouldn’t let you stay on at school.”
David looked sadly at the floor.
“Like other Fellowship children I had to give up my education before sitting ‘A’ levels.”
Mr Chapman shook his head sadly.
“Are you still a follower?”
“I’m actually on the point of leaving but it’s merely a case of making that final leap to freedom,” replied David with a smile.
Mr Chapman stroked his chin in the way that had become familiar to his History students over the years.
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty-three,” answered David.
Mr Chapman placed his hand on David’s shoulder in a kindly avuncular manner.
“Follow your dreams and become a teacher.”
“But I don’t have any qualifications to begin my training,” protested David, as he took a sip from his beer mug.
“It’s never too late to get them,” smiled Mr Chapman. “Why not study through the Open University and then you can continue working at the same time.”
David considered the situation for a few moments.
“Where do I find all the details?”
Mr Chapman produced a scrap of paper from his inside pocket and began to scribble something down.
“This is my address and telephone number. Just get in touch with me should you need my assistance.”
“I might take you up on that,” smiled David, carefully tucking the piece of paper into his wallet.
Mr Chapman gave his former pupil a stern look.
“Now I shall be expecting your call.”
“It may come a lot earlier than you expect.”
“Excellent,” replied Mr Chapman with a booming laugh. “Now if you will excuse me, I must go and circulate.”
David watched as the History teacher launched himself upon a large ring of people about ten yards away. In the classroom he had been totally inept at keeping control. Now in different circumstances, a few of those people who had treated his authority with such contempt were listening politely to everything that he had to say.
Background music was being played somewhere in the room. David recognised a ballad with a haunting tune, but struggled to remember where he had heard it before. It certainly wouldn’t have been in any place owned by the Fellowship. Followers were forbidden to listen to popular songs, believing their lyrics to be undesirable.
On the far side of the room there was a buffet with food spread out over several tables. People were regularly picking up plates at one end and helping themselves to an assortment of sandwiches and other refreshments. Having missed his evening meal, David decided to investigate the situation before everything had been eaten.
Halfway across the floor, however, he stopped in his tracks. Several people who were standing in a particularly large circle waved and called out to him. Against his better judgement, which was to go forward and collect sustenance, he went over to join them. Some of the faces were all too familiar, but the one that stood out was the beautiful Alison.
Meeting some of his classmates again was not as traumatic as he had imagined. People that he had never been on the best of terms with were suddenly shaking him warmly by the hand. They were no longer addressing him by his surname but now he had become David. It was as though the outsider had gained acceptance into the club.
The conversation was polite and friendly. They talked about their jobs before going on to recall funny instances which had taken place at school. Then when these subjects had been exhausted someone happened to mention the General Election.
“I can’t see Labour winning in this constituency,” remarked Brian Meadows who had always been regarded as one of the brightest pupils in the class. “We’ve always had a Tory MP here and that is the way it will stay.”
“But there have been boundary changes since the last election,” replied Alison. “Brockleby has absorbed a large council estate which used to be in the Musselworth constituency and might just swing the vote in Labour’s favour.”
There was a sudden break in the conversation as a man with a tray of drinks had to disturb a section of the circle to negotiate his way past.
“Labour won’t win with Jacqui Dunn as their candidate,” stated Wayne Little, a tall thin young man who had once had a fierce fight with David in the playground. “She is only interested in unemployed lesbian asylum seekers.”
“There can’t be too many of them,” joined in a young woman who was standing next to Alison.