by John Ravenscroft
One-fifteen a.m. on a damp Monday in August and Michael Mc'Lerie, vicar of Blackwater, drunk enough not to notice the drizzle, is out walking his bleak, inner-city patch. The slick, grey streets look a little less grey at night, and sometimes walking helps clear his head.
Ten minutes earlier he was standing in the doorway of his bedroom watching his wife finally drift off to sleep, wondering once again how many more nights he'll have that privilege. If she carries on losing weight as fast as she's lost it this past week, the answer is very few. Faith is vanishing at a terrifying rate, and the simple truth is that soon she'll be gone completely. The doctors warned them that this was how it would be, and anyway Mc'Lerie has seen similar endings far too often. He knows the facts, knows the score, understands the pattern of what is after all just another small-scale tragedy.
But this time it's different. This time it's Faith. And as his Faith disappears, shrinking a little more day by day, so does his faith. Drop by drop it's been leaking away for years, but his wife's diagnosis has turned that leak into a trickle, and that trickle into a stream - and Mc'Lerie is scared. When both Faith and faith have gone, what will he have left worth living for?
As he walks he slips a quarter bottle of Johnny Walker out of his pocket, uncaps it, takes a swig, recaps it, re-pockets it. His head is full of pointless questions, the kind God never answers.
God, you bastard, you're supposed to be good. How many times have I said that over the years? God is good. So why do you yank us out of our lives like this? Why do you spin us around until we puke, turn us inside out? Why do you fill the world with broken bits of people, ruined scraps of humanity? The junkies, the prostitutes, the messed-up, joy-riding kids? And what about Faith? And what about me, God? When they told me at the hospital, why did you do what you did? What exactly was your point?
The hospital. Just the thought of that agonising moment three months ago in the Relative's Room is enough to send him back to the bottle. Twelve long weeks, yet still the details come back to haunt him time and time again. The orange plastic chairs, the vase of flowers, the swish and bustle in the corridor, the pretty nurse, the doctor in his white coat delivering the news that nobody wants to hear.
'When the big stuff happens,' Mc'Lerie later said to Faith, 'it's never quite like you imagine it will be. God makes sure of that. He's a child, a petulant child. He plays puerile games with us. He amuses himself at our expense.'
'You don't mean that,' Faith replied.
As he walks the streets Mc'Lerie once again hears the red-eyed surgeon telling him that his wife is going to die. God was bored that day. He arranged a little entertainment for himself, a trinity of jokes. First, the surgeon's unlikely name: Dr Carver. Ho, ho, ho. Second, that heavy, Saddam Hussein moustache the good doctor sported on his top lip. Third, Dr Carver's, thick, juicy cold.
'I'm very sorry, Mr Mc'Lerie,' he said, pulling a tissue out of his pocket. 'Other than pain relief, there's really nothing more we can do.'
Mc'Lerie watched him blow his nose. It was a large nose, and it took some blowing. He wiped, once, twice, put the tissue back in his pocket, and left a thin string of snot hanging in his moustache. It was shaped like a letter z twisted slightly to the right.
He started talking again, outlining the likely course of Faith's illness - how she'd lose weight, how she'd be reasonably mobile until the very end - but all Mc'Lerie could think about was the snot in Dr Carver's moustache and how it had no right to be there, not then, not during the worst experience of his life. The snot turned everything into a farce. He felt like a character in a second-rate film - like Ryan bloody O'Neil in Love Story. His wife was going to die, and the man giving him such news ought not to have the mark of Zorro zipped in mucus along his top lip. What kind of a sick joke was that?
The Blackwater drizzle is becoming rain. Mc'Lerie takes another sip of Johnny Walker and decides it's time to get back to the vicarage, back to Faith. He turns around - and twenty feet ahead of him there's a derelict pissing in a shop doorway. A woman. He blinks, unable to understand how he could have missed her when he passed the doorway the first time, just seconds earlier.
The woman has her face turned away so he can't see her features, but in the streetlight's glare he can see that her hair - a wild tangle tumbling half-way down her back - is dyed every colour of the rainbow and most of those in between. She wears a dirty-green tent of a dress, currently gathered up and knotted in her fists so that the hem just brushes the ground and pools around her feet like the skirt of a hovercraft. Steam escapes from beneath and rises in the damp air. Give her a gentle push, Mc'Lerie thinks, and she'd be off, floating out of the doorway, hovercrafting down the street.
She turns her head and looks at him. Mc'Lerie is taken aback. Her face is covered in blood and her nose looks broken, but it's her eyes that draw you. They're unforgettable. The left one is bruised and swollen, but even so he can see they are a vivid green, crackling with life, the most remarkable eyes he's ever seen.
She rises to her feet. If she's wearing knickers she doesn't bother to pull them up. She stares at him until he reaches her doorway. As he gets closer he can smell her piss.
He feels an urge to keep on walking, to get home, to slip into bed next to Faith and stay there. The world will have to manage as best it can for a while. He's done enough over the years - more than his fair share. He and Faith have earned the right to spend whatever time they have left together without distractions. Besides, he's tired. He's sick. He's drunk.
But he can't ignore the woman in the doorway.
He walks on a few paces then stops, turns around, comes back. He reaches out, puts a hand on the woman's shoulder. 'You're bleeding,' he says. 'Has someone attacked you? Can I help?'
The woman stares at him. She doesn't speak.
Mc'Lerie sighs. 'Are you hungry?'
The woman nods.
'My name's Mc'Lerie,' he says. 'I'm a vicar. Will you come with me? Back to the vicarage? It's not far. We'll get you cleaned up, get some food inside you.'
She nods again. There are two carrier bags behind her. She turns to pick them up and loses her balance. Mc'Lerie shoots out a hand, grabs her arm and steadies her.
The woman looks up at him, her green eyes flashing. 'Thank you,' she says. She has a surprisingly pleasant voice.
'You're welcome,' says Mc'Lerie, reaching around her and picking up her bags. 'Take my arm,' he says. 'It's not far.'
* * *
He unlocks the front door and motions the woman inside. Other than thanking him for his steadying hand back in the doorway she hasn't uttered a word since he met her. He shows her to the bathroom and leaves her with soap, a flannel and a towel. He goes to the kitchen, opens a tin of soup and pours it into a bowl. He puts the bowl in the microwave. He cuts bread and butters it. He runs a comb through his wet hair, then goes upstairs to check on Faith. She's still sleeping. He tiptoes out of the bedroom and returns to the kitchen.
The woman is sitting at the kitchen table eating the food he's prepared for her. She's cleaned the blood off her face and looks a little less derelict. While she eats he makes coffee. Two mugs, a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar. He puts everything on a tray and carries it over to the table. He sits down opposite her and sips his coffee.
'Are you feeling better?'
She looks up at him. 'Yes,' she says. 'Thank you for your kindness.' She goes back to her soup.
'I think your nose is broken,' says Mc'Lerie. 'You really ought to see a doctor.'
She takes bread and dips it into her bowl. 'I don't need a doctor. Tell me, is there illness in this house?'
For the second time he's taken aback. Her eyes fix on him. He's never seen anything like them.
'My wife,' he says. 'She has cancer.'
The woman nods. 'I thought so. I can smell it.'
He stares at her. He doesn't know what to say.
She finishes her soup and her bread and starts on her coffee. 'You're very kind, Mr Mc'Lerie,' she says, her eyes boring into him. 'May I spend the night here? I'm tired.'
It suddenly strikes him that he's tired too. In fact, he's exhausted.
'Of course,' he says. 'We have a spare bed. You're welcome to it.'
She finishes her coffee and he shows her to her room.
'Perhaps in the morning we can talk?' he says.
'Perhaps,' says the woman. 'Goodnight, Mr Mc'Lerie.'
'Goodnight,' he says.
He goes to his own room, undresses, and slips into bed beside his wife, careful not to wake her. He listens to her shallow breathing. Two minutes later he's asleep.
* * *
He dreams. He dreams about the woman. She's in their bedroom, standing beside their bed, her dirty green dress billowing out, her eyes glowing, her hands hovering over the empty spaces where Faith's breasts used to be.
'What are you doing?' he says in his dream.
'Hush,' she says. 'Go back to sleep.'
There's an odd light in the room, a peculiar humming in the air.
'I am asleep,' he says. 'I'm dreaming.'
'That's right, Mr Mc'Lerie,' says the woman, moving her hands over Faith's body with a slow, hypnotic elegance. 'You're dreaming.'
Faith begins to make noises, but they're not alarming. They sound almost sexual. He hasn't heard her make noises like that in a long time.
'Who are you?' he asks the woman.
'My name is Faith,' says the woman, her hands still performing their elegant dance. 'Just like your wife.'
'In the morning we'll talk,' he says, feeling himself drifting away.
'Yes,' she says. 'In the morning.'
The light fades. The hum becomes a whisper.
* * *
In the morning the woman is gone. Mc'Lerie searches everywhere, but he knows she's gone. He sits for a while at the kitchen table staring at the bowl she used. Then he makes tea and takes it up to his wife. Faith is awake. She has colour in her cheeks. She smiles up at him.
'Hello, my love,' she says.
He returns her smile. She takes hold of his hand and her touch is warm.
'Do we have marmalade?'
'Yes,' he says. 'I think so.'
Marmalade? His heart is in his mouth.
'Good! I'm famished! Would you be a love and make me some toast and marmalade?'
It's been weeks since she's wanted breakfast. Mc'Lerie feels his eyes filling up. He kisses her on the forehead and swallows.
'I think that can be arranged,' he says.
'Marvellous,' says Faith. 'I could eat a horse.'
Downstairs, waiting for the bread to pop out of the toaster, Mc'Lerie closes his eyes and listens. He's not sure but he thinks he can almost hear something. A low voice. A soft humming.
After a while his lips begin to move.
©2003 John Ravenscroft
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