Carly had never been to a church service, except with her high school at the end of term, but she still liked to go into the building if there was nothing going on. They kept it locked most of the time now, but if she went past and the door was open she would look through, and maybe have a walk round if there was nobody about. She had decided that she didn’t believe in God a long time ago, when her guinea pig died and remained defiantly dead in spite of her prayers, but it was peaceful in there and she liked the musty smell and the light from the windows making coloured shadows on the pale grey stone. There was a green dragon in one of the windows that she always made sure to look at. It was just about to be speared by St George and if she had seen that look in its eyes she wouldn’t have had the heart to do it.
Today was different. She wasn’t there for an idle wander round. She was desperate. St Mark’s was the only place she could think of to go where she wouldn’t see anybody that she knew, and if she was going to sort her head out she had to be on her own. She might have put her school sweatshirt on, but there was no way she was going into school. She walked around the back of the church, taking in the musty smell and the cold air. It was comforting to be somewhere still and quiet, somewhere solid. People had probably been coming here for a long time and asking for help. She wasn’t really sure how to do that, but it was a good hiding place, and there was a lot that Carly needed to hide from. Her stomach was churning and the list of people she really didn’t want to talk to any more was getting longer and longer. Right at the top of it, of course, was her dad. She wandered round to the back of the church where there were a few posters pinned up on a board. “Get in touch with God, try knee mail,” was probably the most embarrassing. If only there was an address for somebody up there that you could email when things got bad, firstname.lastname@example.org, or something like that. It wouldn’t take long to write the message. Presumably if he was God he’d know the details.
“Hi Jesus. Everything has gone totally tits up. Sort it out please, I’m gutted. Thanks. Carly.”
Of course the people who came and sat in here on Sunday’s believed that they could do exactly that inside their own heads. That would be pretty amazing, if you could manage it. She wandered on. There was a bit of a mess on the floor at the back. Leaves and stalks all over the grey stone floor, next to a large vase on a metal stand, and some branches. She stood and looked at the mess, wondering idly whether she should clear it up. Finally she wandered up to the front of the church, slumped down into one of the choir stalls, curled up in a ball and tried to lose herself.
Half an hour later Margaret Harrison, stalwart of the Parochial Church Council, the church roof appeal and the Christian aid committee and all round church treasure, lifted the heavy sneck on the church door and bustled into the church. She put down her fresh flowers, big bunches of white spray chrysanthemums and coloured carnations, tied her West Highland White terrier Bruce up near the door, and set to work. She didn’t see Carly, but Carly heard her and stirred in her hiding place, realising, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, that there was no way she was going to get out of the church without being seen. She got up and walked silently down the fading red carpet covering the tiles along the aisle.
Margaret jumped, almost dropping her secateurs. She was not best pleased when she turned round and saw that she had company. She usually had quite a lot to say about young people at the Parochial Church Council meetings and almost all of it was bad. Little six years olds were quite capable of trying to put you in your place when you tried to get them interested in the children’s groups, and if you spoke to the mothers about it afterwards they never seemed bothered. You would have expected them to show a bit more support really. Teenagers like this one were even worse. She always kept a careful distance if she saw a crowd of them late at night in the bus shelter or down at the arcade. The sooner they got CCTV set up in that shelter the better. There was all sorts going on in there. Margaret had heard rumours. The latest incident had happened only last week, and it had involved a young girl wearing hardly any clothes knocking on her front door and claiming that Bruce had bitten her. Several words had been used that Margaret wasn’t used to hearing on her front doorstep, and nobody had apologised. It had all been quite nasty. She really didn’t want to have any of them in the church causing trouble. They might light a fire or anything. They did that kind of thing sometimes.
“What are you doing in here?”
“You haven’t been touching things I hope?”
Carly shook her head. How old did this woman think she was? Six?
“I like it in here.”
Margaret gave her a wintry smile.
“I’m glad to hear it. You should come to one of our all age worship services. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be getting on.”
She turned back to her flower arranging. Carly stood behind her and watched a big triangle of leaves and flowers rise up above a frame of wire mesh and green soggy stuff. After ten minutes Margaret realised that she was still there, and turned round.
“Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“Got my sweatshirt on haven’t I?”
“So I see. Why aren’t you there then?”
“Didn’t feel like it.”
Carly started to tidy up the bits of stalk and leaf from the floor. Margaret wondered whether to ask her to go away, but thought better of it. You never knew how they might react. For once the girl was trying to be helpful, and she didn’t want a fuss in church.
“The bins are through there.”
For the next hour Carly pottered around with Margaret, clearing up behind her as she did the flowers around the church. Neither of them said anything. Finally all the vases were in position, and the job was finished. Margaret smiled at Carly.
“Well, that’s about it I think. Time to lock up.”
The thought of having to go outside was suddenly too much for Carly. She shook her head.
“What do you mean, no? I have to get on I’m afraid.”
“I just want to stay here, that’s all.”
A single tear made its way down Carly’s cheek. Margaret was astonished.
“Are you all right love?”
Carly shook her head. Several more angry tears followed the first.
“Come and sit down here for a minute.”
They sat down in one of the back pews. Margaret put her hands on her knees and turned herself towards Carly.
“Now then, what’s the matter? You’re not crying over nothing, are you now?”
“I’m not crying.” Carly said, untruthfully.
Margaret just sat and waited. She was so used to getting information out of people that it didn’t occur to her that Carly might not tell her anything. Finally Carly did.
“My mum and dad are going to split up.”
Mrs Wilson sighed. What was the matter with people nowadays? They seemed to think that they could just up sticks and move on the minute that things got difficult. No idea of loyalty or commitment. They just did exactly as they liked leaving a trail of destruction behind them. No wonder the children turned out the way they did.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s brought this on?”
“Have they told you this?”
Carly shook her head.
“No, but they will. I know they will. When my mum finds out.”
“Finds out what love?”
There was no answer, but Margaret could guess what kind of thing there might be to find out, so she said nothing. She wasn’t surprised to hear that it was the father causing the trouble. It often was. They had no shame these days, the young ones.
“Well, whatever it is I daresay it’s not as bad as you think.”
Mrs Wilson smiled at Carly. She was glad that she had done the evening class in psychology. She wouldn’t have known what to say otherwise.
Carly rolled her eyes.
There was a long silence. Then Carly spoke.
“Imagining him in bed with my mum is bad enough, but knowing that he’s been having sex with my best friend’s mum is way too much information. God knows what my mum must be feeling like. We don’t talk about that kind of stuff (why would you?) so I suppose I might not ever find out.”
This was beyond anything that Margaret had expected when she walked through the church door with her bunches of chrysanthemums and carnations.
Carly looked at her angrily, challenging her to say something.
“You better not tell anyone. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Margaret was shocked at the thought. She had principles.
“Of course not. I’m very sorry.”
“No you’re not. Why would you be sorry? It’s nothing to do with you is it?”
Margaret watched sadly as Carly picked up a hymn book and flipped the pages angrily. She was going to rip a page out if she wasn’t careful but it was probably best not to tell her so.
“It’s not something you can do anything about, dear, is it? They’ll have to sort it out for themselves.”
“As if. Right pair of muppets they are.”
Margaret tried to work out whether this was a word she should be offended by.
“Well, just see what happens. You should get on your way to school you know.”
Carly banged the hymn book down onto the shallow wooden ledge on the back of the pew in front and looked at Margaret pityingly. She really was a miserable old bint. Her mother was always telling her that old women like this meant well, but it wasn’t always true. Mostly they were just snooty old farts with too much time on their hands, who thought that they knew everything and couldn’t keep their noses out of other people’s business. This one needed to sort her dog out as well. It had been sitting there growling. She wasn’t so clever if she couldn’t do that. Dangerous little rat.
“Leave me alone will you? You’re not my mother and it’s none of your business.”
“Could you talk to one of your teachers?”
Carly’s eyes widened sarcastically.
“You needn’t take that tone with me young lady. I’m only trying to help.”
Carly stared at her. Help? What was she on about? What made her think she could stand there giving out orders?
“Stop patronising me you nosey old cow. I’m not stupid and I know a lot more about what’s going on in my own house than you do. Chill out will you?”
Margaret wasn’t putting up with that sort of talk.
“I told you, I think it’s time you went to school. I have to lock up.”
Carly got up and stalked out of the church without looking back. Margaret looked round to see that everything was tidy, collected Bruce, and went on her way. At least she could comfort herself with the fact that she had managed to say the right things. It was terribly sad, but there were some young people you just couldn’t help.